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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 13, 2004

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Garfield, 223 Elm, Spelling, and Country Music

I remember when the daily comic strip Garfield first came to the local paper. And in the era before Bloom County, The Far Side, or Dilbert, and after Peanuts had lost all connection with reality, Garfield was pretty funny.

Trouble is, the formula ran thin, kind of the way the comic strip Cathy did: It was always about the same thing.

And since I was no longer in the target demographic -- single guys who stay home with a fat lazy cat and a really stupid dog because they can't get a date -- the amusement value wore off pretty soon.

Garfield: The Movie actually does a good job of recreating the feel of the comic strip, right down to the repetitiveness of the gags.

They made some changes, but I doubt there will be millions of outraged fans. The biggest change is that the human pet owner, Jon, is not a complete loser, he's just shy.

So shy that when Jennifer Love Hewitt comes on to him, he thinks she's just devoted to his new dog, Odie. Well, OK. There are people that shy. And Breckin Meyer does a terrific job of trying not to look like Noah Wyle, while playing straight man to an imaginary cat.

You see, Garfield is the only computer-generated animal in the movie. All the other animals, including Odie, are real dogs and cats who are trained to do the usual number of tricks. Garfield, though, has to dance and look like a comic-strip cat, while also looking realistic enough to seem like he belongs in the real world.

I give them full marks for their achievement. Garfield goes through cat doors, climbs steps, jumps, and falls in a very catlike way.

In fact, the only failure was when somebody had to pick up Garfield and hold him.

This is a hard thing to do, because the actors were holding nothing but air. The computer guys stuck the cat in later.

So the actors had to hold their arms a set distance from their body. And because it was too hard to deal with the intersection between fingers and fur, they had to hold the cat with their fingers tucked into a fist.

Nobody has ever held a cat like this.

And just to make things harder, the actors had to move the rest of their body as if they weren't in a body cast. Only the arm was rigid. Very awkward.

But that's trivial.

The real problem is that I'm reviewing a comedy and all I can talk about is the achievement of the computer graphics team.

It's not a bad movie. I laughed out loud several times, and so did the ten-year-old with me.

But the film suffers from the fact that the main character is lazy and selfish and not real. It's hard to care. And even in a comedy -- no, especially in a comedy -- you have to care about the main character.

That's why Dabney Coleman's and Harvey Korman's TV series kept failing. Those are funny guys. But only in other people's movies and TV shows. When they have to carry the story themselves, no dice. Because we don't actually want their characters to succeed.

Here's how Garfield would have been terrific: Make it Jon's movie. Let him already own Odie. It's Garfield who comes into his life. Changes him. But we see everything through Jon's eyes.

Remember, Babe wasn't the funniest character in Babe. He was the sweet one that we cared about. Everybody else was funny, but Babe was earnest.

Isn't it great that I know how they should have made this movie? Why oh why don't the studios just check with me before they spend all that money on a mistake?

Still, it's an amiable mistake, and Bill Murray does a delightful job of voicing Garfield. In fact, I've finally realized that the only thing I don't like about Bill Murray movies is looking at Bill Murray. That was an important thing to learn.

Look, you won't hate this movie. Watching the preview of the Spongebob Squarepants movie, I felt like a suffocating rat, eager to claw my way through solid cinderblock just to get out of the theater. Garfield won't provoke any such reaction. And there are moments of cleverness that are almost worth the price of admission.

And it's nice to look at Jennifer Love Hewitt now that she's old enough that I don't feel like I'm breaking some law for noticing her.

*

There's something vaguely cool about a restaurant whose only name is its address -- and Greensboro has one, so that makes the whole city vaguely cool.

In fact, 223 South Elm is, all by itself, a good reason to go downtown. Amid all the signs of city-death that abound in Greensboro -- huge empty parking garages; vast swathes of public buildings, banks, and offices; and newspapers blowing like tumbleweeds down the empty streets, like the opening scenes of a post-apocalypse sci-fi movie -- there is a sign of life.

It's a restaurant whose decor is understated and genuinely classy, whose service is warm without being chummy, and whose food is, quite simply, superb.

The menu changes so you're not going to get the same things I ate. But my wife and I sampled a lot of different things -- especially the absolutely perfect salads -- so that I could tell you about all of them. And here's the thing -- every single salad was perfect. And so were the entrees. And so was ... everything.

Quality like this ain't cheap. But it isn't shockingly expensive, either.

Greensboro spent a lot of years without any restaurants that were both excellent and creative. Now we have a lot of them, for a city our size.

So if you want the luxury of having so many dining choices, you have to do your part. Eat out often. And make sure 223 South Elm is on your regular rotation. It's not a shameless extravagance. No, it's your duty.

Now you can feel downright noble about it.

*

I had high hopes for Marilyn Vos Savant's new book, The Art of Spelling: The Madness and the Method.

I like her column in Parade magazine. She's not just smart, she's also got common sense and a take-no-prisoners attitude toward debunking the ridiculous.

The trouble is, I can't figure out whom this book is for. The information in it is interesting, except I already knew it, because I'm a professional in this field -- I was a copy editor before I started writing fiction and, within the normal range of human error, I'm a good speller. I know the rules, and I know the important exceptions.

So the book isn't really for people like me.

But Vos Savant has written it in such elevated language, using so many five-dollar words, that it's for darn sure she didn't write it for people who actually have serious problems with spelling.

In short, the book is too abstruse and arcane to appeal to many ordinary civilians. But the people who have the training and experience to know what she's talking about at every moment don't need the book.

And yet ... she writes with such flair that it's fun to read it.

And her method might actually work for problem spellers -- if they can keep reading long enough to get to it.

*

Colin Escott's Lost Highway: The True Story of Country Music is a pretty good, though shallow, overview of country music. I bought it because the cover had a quote from Lyle Lovett: "This is the true story."

Well, sure, it is, yes ... but it's short. You don't get into anything. Just a glimpse. The big movements.

And there's not a single lyric, nor any serious discussion of the changes in the sound. If you don't already know the songs, you aren't going to get a feel for any of the generations of country music from reading this book. You get a lot of pictures, though. And certainly everything in the book seems to be true. As Lyle Lovett said.

A search on Amazon doesn't turn up any alternatives. Oh, there are lots of books about country stars, or how to get into the business, or how to sing or play this or that set of songs. There are encyclopedias and trivia collections and memoirs and collections of anecdotes.

But nary a serious book about country music for the general audience.

Why is that? Do publishers think that people who care about country music can't read books that don't have lots of pitchers? (I spelled it that way for those of you who are studying Marilyn Vos Savant's book.)

Not every country music fan grew up listening to Gene Autry or Ernest Tubb or the Carter Family. Some of us came to country music late -- like when we moved to a part of the U.S. that actually had country music on the radio.

We need a book to help us catch up. For now, Lost Highway will have to do. But please, can't somebody do it better?

*

Good news! Leblon is open again, now as a churrascaria. Go check it out! I'll be there Wednesday, which to me right now is tomorrow, but by the time this newspaper hits the stands will be yesterday. I've already heard from others that it's everything I was hoping for.

And just in case anybody is nostalgic for the old Leblon menu, drive a couple of hours to Roanoke. High on a hill overlooking Staples and Barnes & Noble, just off 220, is a restaurant called Carlos, and I couldn't think of a single dish from Leblon that wasn't on their menu. Not only that, but they all tasted the same, right down to the feijoada and the farofa.

And the restaurant was packed -- on Wednesday and Thursday nights, which are usually kind of slow.

It's like a time warp. Greensboro has Leblon of today, and Roanoke has Leblon of five years ago.

So if I go farther up into the Appalachians, does the time warp keep happening? Will I find a reborn Equinox restaurant? Will I be able once again to taste the exquisite parmentier from the old Rendezvous restaurant?

Will I find a version of Greensboro before Billy Yow was on the county commission?

No, I won't be so greedy. It's enough to have two fine Brazilian restaurants within a hundred miles of each other.


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