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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 16, 2005

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


Sidewalk Safety, Games, Coach Carter, TV, Firefly

It's bad enough that on most Greensboro roads, "sidewalk" and "gutter" are synonyms.

But why does our city government permit utility companies and construction crews to wage war on pedestrians?

The phone company is about the worst. Time after time I find them completely blocking the sidewalk (if there is one) and the curb, and the gutter, making it completely impossible to pass on foot without going out into traffic.

When they lay their cones, they could lay them far enough out into the driving lane to provide some measure of visual protection for a pedestrian lane, but they don't.

And construction crews can be actively hostile to pedestrians. For instance, take the Walgreen's that's under construction at Elm and Pisgah Church. They have a sloppy, makeshift "gate" in their chain-link fence on Pisgah Church Road. They constantly leave it sort-of closed, which means leaving a gate section partly on the ground, hanging by one wire from the fence. The result is that the sidewalk is almost completely blocked.

In addition, though, they've left ragged remnants of mailboxes that were in front of houses they demolished, and have scattered chunks of concrete along the sidewalk, making it difficult and hazardous for people pushing strollers and kids riding bikes.

Ditto with the mess made of the sidewalk a little ways east on Pisgah Church, where the crews building the new shopping-and-townhouse complex there have left a section of sidewalk completely chewed up.

Not only that, but they've cut into the slope just beside the sidewalk so close that it poses a real hazard for children on bikes, who might easily take a nasty, potentially fatal tumble down a slope so steep that it should have a guard rail.

Then there's the greatest irony of all. A block before the site of utility or construction work, the crew will place a men working sign -- completely blocking the sidewalk.

Thus, in order to protect the workmen, pedestrians are forced to step into the street in order to get by.

Do we have to make walking in Greensboro a life-threatening activity? Is it just because most pedestrians are either poor people or joggers, two groups that apparently are regarded as expendable?

In doing construction and utility work, crews have to pass inspections to make sure the work was properly done. If they block a road, they have to lay cones and put up signs. But they can block up or destroy pedestrian passageways without making the slightest effort to provide pedestrians with safe alternative passageways.

What, exactly, is government for if it won't even try to protect people on foot?

Sidewalks deserve as much protection as traffic lanes. More, really, since pedestrians are far more easily broken than cars.

As for laborers who think nothing of ruining a sidewalk and forcing children to walk in traffic on busy roads -- would you appreciate it if somebody made a mess like that in your neighborhood? Have a little decency and keep the sidewalk passable.

*

Computer games can be wonderful -- great graphics, lots of tension, a real sense of achievement when you win.

But they're a lonely activity.

Which isn't bad. Reading a book is lonely -- just you and the author, who might even be dead, plus a lot of imaginary or remembered people.

Games, though -- aren't they meant to be played with somebody?

Look at golf. It's just like a computer game, really. It's you, a stick, a ball, and a course that somebody laid out long before. It's you against the course, just like computer games are you against the gamewrights.

Like golf course designers, they've laid little traps for you, and you have to discover the course the first time you play, then get better and better at it as you match your strengths and limitations against the challenge of the course.

But most golfers prefer to go with somebody. Because what's the point of playing a game if the experience isn't shared?

Some terrific computer games are now played online, where real people control the other characters. It's social, right? Even if you don't ever see the other players' faces.

It's just not the same thing as being in the same room, at the same table, with other players who are helping shape your experience as you shape theirs.

I have a bias, of course. I come from a game-playing family.

Not a sports-playing family. Our idea of athletics was weeding the front lawn by hand or climbing the back fence to go hiking in the dry creekbed behind the house. (This was in California, where everything is dry if it isn't getting rained on at that very moment.)

Because regular playing cards were evil, we played with Rook cards and the Authors deck. We played stand-up games like charades and hot-and-cold. Outdoors there was a lot of Mother May I, Red Light Green Light, Tag, Hide and Seek.

But best of all, I think, were the great table games.

Monopoly.

Scrabble was a favorite in a word-oriented family like ours, though now we're more likely to play UpWords.

Life -- we could only dream of something as complex as The Sims back in those days.

Careers.

A discontinued game called Square Mile, where you subdivided and improved properties.

American Heritage made a Civil War game that I loved.

We never owned Stratego, but we played it at our cousins' house.

Risk -- that one dominated my brother's and my lives for quite a while as we revised the rules and played it on different maps and homemade game boards.

The thing about games is, they keep coming up with new ones. Like the series of four games that Parker Brothers brought out in 1973: Razzle, Boggle, Grapple, and Fluster. Only Boggle really caught on, but we enjoyed the others, too, especially Grapple, even though my brother-in-law was way better at it than anyone. (However, I creamed everybody at Boggle.)

Some games take a long time to catch on. For instance, Jotto first came out in the late 1950s, but it didn't really catch on till the MasterMind craze of the early 1970s -- because Jotto is simply MasterMind with words.

Trivial Pursuit, the greatest thing ever invented in Canada, didn't appear until 1979. The regular editions remain the absolute best of the trivia games -- by a wide margin.

Some of the best games are those where you don't sit around waiting for your turn. The classic is, of course, the card game Pit, which has been around forever, and leads to shouting, screaming, moaning, and howling with laughter. This can only be played with people who really like each other so it won't turn mean -- the adrenalin levels get very high.

A newer no-turn-taking game is Outburst, which first appeared in the mid-80s. Players divide into two teams and the teams take turns guessing ten items in a category. Sometimes the challenge is to come up with ten items; other times, it's to figure out which of the hundreds of possibilities is actually on the card.

The trouble with games like Outburst (and Trivial Pursuit, for that matter) is that once you've played them enough, the cards become familiar and the game is no longer fair. Fortunately, Trivial Pursuit comes out with frequent new editions, and this year so did Outburst.

Outburst Remix has new equipment that is much improved over either of the previous two designs, and the categories are intriguing and new.

Like Minds (Pressman) is a matching game like The Newlywed Game, only -- like Boggle or Outburst -- you get to come up with as long a list of answers -- and therefore possible matches -- as possible. This is a great game for couples, very fast-moving and you don't actually have to know each other well at all. It's really just another way to play the old Categories game, but all the innovations are well-conceived.

Take It Easy (Ravensburger) and Blokus (Educational Insights) are two games that depend on placing pieces strategically on a board -- rather like Go, only more fun, in my opinion.

Take It Easy looks like you're playing Bingo with geometric figures, but the goal is to place tiles, chosen according a dice roll, on a game board in front of you, trying to complete as many diagonal lines across the board as possible. Simpler than it sounds in the instructions and quite engaging.

Blokus uses plastic pieces that look like they escaped from a Tetris game. Four players -- and it really is best with exactly four -- take turns laying down tetrisoids that can only touch at the corners, which leaves gaps through which other players can sneak their pieces. It's about as quick as a strategy game can be; cleverness is rewarded but not required.

Our favorite new game this Christmas was Carcassonne, along with two expansion packs, Inns & Cathedrals and Traders & Builders.

This is a tile-laying game, where players take turns creating the game board by laying down randomly drawn tiles that represent medieval cities, farmland, roads, cloisters, and inns. Players can also position pieces representing knights, farmers, thieves, and monks.

As each city or road or cloister is completed, the score is added to a running total and the player gets his piece back, ready to play again. Only farmers, once placed, can't be retrieved until the end of the game -- and it's often the farmers that are massively decisive in winning a game.

But for us, half the fun is in the tile-laying, trying to cooperate in filling in as complete a landscape as possible. This is especially encouraged when you add the Traders & Builders expansion, when you can get points for completing someone else's city.

You can play a good, complete game of Carcassonne in an hour and a half or less, and set-up (after the first time) is very quick. Our ten-year-old enjoys it as much (and plays as well) as the adults.

*

In Good Company is a good movie and, I think, an important one. So important that I wrote a really long review of it that there's simply no room for here. For the full review, go to the Rhino website (http://www.Rhinotimes. Com) or to my own (http://www.hatrack.com).

For now, though, let me summarize by saying this is more than just a high-concept comedy (middle-aged man is demoted and his new boss is young enough to date his daughter). It is funny, but it's also smart, and most important, it says something important and true about fathers and sons.

My only quibble was that it says nothing at all about fathers and daughters, leaving the character played by Scarlett Johansson as a cipher.

But Dennis Quaid and Topher Grace give superb performances in service of an almost-perfect movie.

*

Coach Carter was the hit of this past weekend, earning $23 million in what is usually one of the slower movie-attending weeks.

It deserves to be.

On the surface, it's just another teacher-saves-doomed-lower-class-kids feel-good movie, beginning with the Sidney Poitier film To Sir with Love. Or you can take it as another loser-team-is-brought-to-the-championship-by-a-great-coach tradition that includes Hard Ball, The Bad News Bears, and 2004's excellent Miracle.

Even if you've seen every one of those, Coach Carter is well worth seeing.

Like Miracle, Coach Carter is based on a true story -- this time of a sporting-goods store owner in a depressed LA suburb (Richmond) who takes on the job of coaching the local high school basketball team as a part-time job.

But Carter (played powerfully by Samuel L. Jackson) doesn't see basketball as a means of "building self-esteem." He sees it as a lever he can use to get these boys to save their own lives by getting enough education to get out of the dead-end life most of them are headed for.

So even though his team is winning, when they fail to keep their contract with him by keeping up their grades, he locks the gym, forfeits games, and makes them work together in the library -- with selfless teachers -- till they bring their grades up.

What sets this movie apart is the sheer artistry of it. It is very well written (by Mark Schwahn and John Gatins). Their dialogue is perfectly tuned without oppressing us with too much harsh street language, and while plenty of teaching goes on, we never feel like we're reading epigrams carved in granite.

This isn't a movie about turning losers into winners. This is a movie about helping people get the right perspective about what matters in life.

Director Thomas Carter has an unerring feel for the dramatic scene and the perfect shot, without ever distracting us from the forward rush of the story. He doesn't hoke things up the way Chris Columbus or Stephen Spielberg always do.

And between the writers and the director, they've created a platform to display the talents of an astonishing ensemble. Of course Samuel L. Jackson is brilliant -- he's so strong on screen that he could almost make Morgan Freeman look a little wimpy.

But the kids in this movie give dead-on believable and moving performances that are rarely even attempted by actors playing teenagers. They aren't just cast by type -- they also have the skills to make their characters deep and real.

Antwon Tanner (as "Worm"), Rick Gonzalez (as Timo Cruz), Robert Ri'chard (as the coach's son Damien), and Rob Brown (as Kenyon Stone) were magnetic in their roles, and I'd name more of these young actors if I could remember their characters' names. (The anglo kid and the tall kid were also wonderful actors, but there were no pictures of them on IMDB, and I couldn't tell from names alone which one played which role.)

In fact, there's not a weak link in the whole cast -- and how often does that happen in movies?

What it looks like is a director who knows how to get the best out of his actors, instead of the more usual technique of pointing the camera at them and hoping they do okay.

Or maybe working on the same set with Jackson simply rubbed off on everybody else. An actor who has the fire inside can ignite others, too.

If you're looking for movies that impress you with their artistry, it's all here -- unless you only notice artistry that's annoyingly obvious, as so many film critics do.

If you're looking for a film that's about something real, this one is.

And if you just want a movie that will make you a little happier and more hopeful about life: Coach Carter.

*

Are you watching TV this January? I hope so, because that means you have a chance to catch this year's 24, whose first four hours were thriller-making at its best; the deeply moving stories that are making Judging Amy a masterpiece of writing and acting; the hugely entertaining entry of Candice Bergen into the madhouse of Boston Legal; the deft and intelligent winding-up of NYPD Blue; and of course the continuing excellence of Lost.

Or maybe you're just waiting to tune in again when American Idol starts up ...

Yes, I know that prime-time television is thick with miserable, embarrassing "reality" programming that can make your skin crawl.

But those who are doing good television are doing the best television ever.

This is the golden age of TV, folks, even if you do have to sieve through a lot of mud to get to the nuggets.

*

It only lasted one year on Fox, but Firefly was, in my opinion, the best space-opera sci-fi series ever on television, and you can get the whole season now on DVD.

I was stunned by the stupidity of the bad reviews this series got. I suppose if you think television should be Desperate Housewives or Felicity or some other thing that passes for "edgy," Firefly won't look good to you.

But the writing is witty, just a little tongue-in-cheek, and keenly aware of what good science fiction is supposed to be.

Though I could make a good case for Firefly being the best western on television since Maverick.

It's fun even as it's tense, and it's smart all the time. So smart that some reviewers have no clue what they're seeing.

The actors are wonderful, though a couple of characters can be annoying, especially at first (couldn't Jewel Staite have occasionally stopped smiling idiotically during the early episodes?).

Adam Baldwin, whose career began in the great high school movie My Bodyguard back in 1980, finally has the role of his career.

Gina Torres, a survivor of the Matrix sequels, is boldly credible as soldier-of-fortune Zoe; Morena Baccarin is luminous as the "companion" (i.e., really expensive prostitute) Inara Serra; and Alan Tudyk, a hit in A Knight's Tale, is equally charming as the pilot, Wash.

Delightful as Ron Glass was on Barney Miller and The New Odd Couple, I think he's got his best role here as the enigmatic preacher. While Sean Maher has recovered from the debacle of the remake of Brian's Song to play a truly complicated (and really cute, my wife tells me) character.

And Nathan Fillion rises out of nowhere -- small forgettable parts where he was little more than a pretty face -- to show that he has the strength to carry a tv series.

They're making a movie called Serenity, to be released next September, and the whole cast will appear in it. Count on it getting bad reviews; go anyway. And prepare for it by buying or renting the Firefly DVDs.


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