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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 18, 2005

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


King Kong, Braces, Mice, Christmas in NYC

First things first. When I deplore something in this column, and the powers that be do something about it, they deserve to have it trumpeted at the head of the column -- even if it had nothing to do with my kvetching.

So hats off to the folks at Harris-Teeter for getting rid of those finger-smashing, inconvenient plastic shopping carts and replacing them with good solid metal ones. It's nice when management recognizes they made a mistake and fixes it.

Even if that means accidentally making me happy in the process.

*

Parents, read this to your kids who are just getting their braces off.

Wear your retainers.

I started out well. I got my braces in my early twenties, repairing a truly awful mouthful of teeth sticking out every which way, and I intended to wear my retainer all the time. I even did it.

Till I was on a trip to Michigan, interviewing people for the magazine I worked for, in the midst of a bitter cold snap. I popped my lower retainer up just as I inhaled some of that icy air, and "snap" is just what my retainer did. It broke in half.

No problem, right? Replacements are possible. Except my orthodontist had died in a plane accident, and ... I kept putting off finding a new one and getting the casts made, and besides, my teeth were fine, they weren't going anywhere.

Yes they were. Very slowly, but they moved. Never so that I couldn't chew, never so that they looked as awful as they had, but my bite became bad enough that it was risking my ability to keep my teeth as long as I wanted to.

How long do I want to keep my teeth? I want them still attached to my jaws when I die. I have enough crowns, bridges, and even a false tooth attached to a metal post.

So here I am at 54, with braces on my teeth again. Much had improved in the intervening decades -- the brackets are glued onto my teeth with only two bands; they don't look so obvious and shiny anymore.

But they still tear up the inside of your mouth and change the shape of your mouth and as your teeth start to move it still hurts. And it costs just as much as the original set of braces did.

My wife, however, still wears her retainer once a month. That's all. It slides on and off very nicely. She isn't going to have to have her bite adjusted again. She's the smart one.

Don't stop wearing that retainer. Find where you left it, put it on. Even if it hurts or is a tight fit, if you can get it on at all, start wearing it again. Save yourself the trouble I'm going through.

*

I was never a fan of the original King Kong. In fact, I'm on record as hating it. To wit:

I hated the never-plausible animation. Clay animation, with its trembly jerky look, can be entertaining when it's Gumby you're working with, but when you're pretending that it's something real, like giant apes and dinosaurs, it's just silly. (I know this will outrage Claymation fans, but too bad. I'm right, they're blind.)

I hated the ridiculous ape-loves-girl story. Even before I knew the facts of life, I could figure out that if animals fell in love with creatures not of their species and one-eighth their size, their species would soon cease to exist.

And I hated the way people sentimentalized a junky horror movie as if it said something significant. Those are the same people who thought that Marilyn Monroe was an important icon of our culture, though, or that Elvis was actually great, so I recognize that in this case, it's probably my own cultural blindness. But that doesn't mean I'm not irritated by it.

So here's a remake of a movie I hated, but it's by the guy who did Lord of the Rings, but I hated some of the things he did to the story of LotR, but then how could he change the story of King Kong and make it worse? And the promos looked great. Did you think I was going to sit this one out?

Here's my review:

Wow.

Every story change was an improvement. That's not just my opinion, that's the opinion of people I know, whose judgment I normally respect, but who happened to love the original.

There were, of course, many little nods to the original; the ones I caught were fun, and they never interfered with the flow of the story.

I've heard people complain that the movie was too long. Which ten seconds? I can't think of a moment that I was not enthralled; there wasn't a single shot that I wished had been shorter.

The casting was perfect. I usually detest watching Jack Black on screen, not because he's not talented (quite the contrary) but because he's so very good at playing repulsive characters that I loathe every moment spent watching them. As the movie producer, though, he was great. His fervor and intensity have not been so well-employed since High Fidelity.

We're not supposed to like him, but we're not supposed to hate him, either. He's a person, of a recognizable type -- and as the grandson of a movie producer from the 1930s, I recognize and even salute the unstoppable drive and focus that makes guys like this hard to put up with -- and essential to getting anything risky done.

But the good casting doesn't stop with Black -- doesn't even start with him, really. Naomi Watts, who has been in 31 movies without ever appearing in one I saw till now, was brilliant. I chose that word carefully: The girl that the ape loves is a role that has traditionally been a screamer, but Jessica Lange's career survived it, and it made Fay Wray a household name. Watts does indeed scream from time to time, but she does far more.

She is filmed to have an ethereal beauty at times, but behind the makeup and lighting there is something deeper than glamor. Her face becomes a well of emotion -- of yearning, or fear, or dread, or strength, or love. Whether we project those emotions onto her or she is really feeling them is not even an interesting question -- an actor who can make us think we see those emotions is, in fact, brilliant.

Adrien Brody seemed like miscasting, but that is not so. In a role that is rather like Indiana Jones without the bravado, it took an actor with his ineffable soulfulness to bring it off believably.

The rest of the cast -- Thomas Kretschmann as the ship's captain, Colin Hanks (yes, the son of that Hanks) as Jack Black's assistant, Evan Parke as the fatherly-yet-heroic Hayes, Jamie Bell (who played the title role in Billy Elliot back in 2000) as the wild kid, Kyle Chandler as the sometimes ridiculous but perfectly real leading actor in the film Jack Black is shooting -- is outstanding.

Because it's not just the ape that they made realistic in this movie -- they made the people believable as well. And who's to say which was the harder task?

Special mention has to be made of Andy Serkis, though. This is the hands-down obvious choice for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Gollum in LotR -- but he wasn't even nominated, because instead of makeup and costume, he was clothed in computer-generated visuals. Eventually the Academy will recognize this -- as well as voice-acting in animated films -- as the real thing, as The Art of Acting; but for now they don't.

But who cares about the Academy? Andy Serkis's body and face are on that screen in every movement that Kong makes, and he is astonishing -- always apelike, yet deeply expressive.

Not only that, but this time Peter Jackson let him play a human character as well. So when you look at the cook, Lumpy, you're seeing the face behind Kong. You're also seeing one of the finest actors working today.

But the actors couldn't have done this without writers and a director who cared about characterization, about the human relationships in the film. In essence, they made an action-adventure chick-flick, rather like Titanic, only with writing and acting that will not make you cringe when you see it again later on cable.

Was the movie perfect? No. At the beginning, probably to signal us that this was meant to be taken as a '30s movie, there are a few deliberately hokey lines, delivered in a really obvious way.

These are not typical of the rest of the movie. I regard them as Peter Jackson's apology, his way of telling people in the industry, I know I'm making an old-fashioned movie, and I want to make sure you know that I know it, and therefore it's an hommage; it's not what I really do.

This was as unnecessary as the weird colors in The Aviator that were meant to refer back to the bad color films of the 1930s. We don't need film history, we need good movies. Let the critics discuss how '30s your movie was, and if they don't like it, send them "bite me" telegrams. Don't damage your own movie in order to evade criticisms from pinheads. Those scenes should have been written and played as straight as the rest of the movie.

Good as it was, the CGI was not perfect. There were shots where the background and foreground did not mix well; there were shots where movements -- particularly the ever-troublesome footfalls -- simply were not real enough yet.

The most annoying bad shots, though, were where it was obviously a static mannequin (or the CGI equivalent) in Kong's hands. Even though the transition to the real Naomi Watts was smoothly handled, it didn't change the fact that on the big screen, we could tell that there was nothing alive in Kong's big paw.

Better than clay, though.

There were some believability problems that rose to the level of being bothersome. When human beings are really jerked around with the sudden stops and starts that the Naomi Watts character was shown to endure when she is first in Kong's possession, they die. The brain can't take it. And even if she didn't die, she would most certainly faint.

Nor will we ask what a vegetarian gorilla wants with these sacrifices. Maybe this isn't just a really big gorilla. Maybe it's an omnivore, as humans and chimps and baboons are. We primates are full of surprises.

But the biggest howler in the whole movie is Adrien Brody's dash through the cordon of troops surrounding the Empire State Building and his escape from his pursuers by dodging onto an elevator.

I'm sorry, but no elevator on earth has doors that close quickly enough to stop determined pursuers. The actors playing the soldiers did the best they could, but they had to behave like idiots in order to let Brody get away.

Never mind. Those and other flaws are fodder for film-buff conversations after the fact. What matters is that this movie is a huge hit and deserves to be. Even for people like me, who have no interest in giant-ape movies or remakes or, above all, the original King Kong, this is a terrific piece of entertainment.

And a fine work of art.

*

I started using a tiny mouse with my laptop when I needed to work on airplanes. There's simply not enough room on the tray to hold the computer and a fullsize mouse.

I've tried several tiny mice, and my favorite is the Targus optical travel mouse with the retractable cord.

The trouble is, once I got used to the pleasure of having a mouse that I could use deftly with only the slightest movements of my fingers, regular-size mice seemed impossibly heavy and clunky.

So now I use only travel-sized mice. However, at my desk I'm using the Kensington cordless optical travel mouse. I don't love the difficulty of opening it up to replace the batteries; I don't love that the batteries don't last all that long. But it's nice not to have anything to get tangled up.

I can't use the Kensington when I'm actually traveling, though. The broadcast unit sticking out of the USB port constantly gets in the way when I'm in a cramped space. And I don't like having to carry spare batteries with me in case the mouse batteries run out. So the Targus is what I travel with; the Kensington what I use at home.

And I feel sorry for the rest of you still using mice so huge they really ought to be called rats.

*

By the way, when you use an optical mouse, it is often a problem finding a surface that works well with the laser. Glass is horrible -- it reflects in the wrong direction to be useful -- but smooth, shiny, monochromatic, or thickly varnished surfaces are hardly better. At times I've been reduced to using the cardboard back of a hotel notepad as a mousepad.

But most mousepads are far too large to be useful when traveling. The solution? Mouserugs from www.mouserugs.com (though I've also found them at Staples and Office Depot). They have larger ones for use on a desk, and tiny ones that are absolutely perfect for small travel mice. They're flexible, and you can always fit them into the computer bag.

*

This year we decided it had been way too long since we were last in New York City for the Christmas season.

I decided we had to make the trip this year when I found myself looking at the pathetic Christmas lights on the ranch houses and apartment buildings of Los Angeles. I realize that angeleños can get the Christmas spirit just like anybody else, but ... I needed it to be cold. I needed sidewalks, city sidewalks, dressed in holiday style. I needed shop windows that didn't all say "Gap" on them. I needed weather and crowds of people and Macy's and Rockefeller Center and Times Square.

And so we did it. In a mad rush, leaving Greensboro at the onset of last week's ice storm. In fact, the weather here worried us enough that we got to the Greensboro airport way too early. And we'd be arriving in NY way after the normal dinner hour.

So we actually ate in the little airport restaurant near the Delta gates in the Greensboro airport, and ... guess what? Good stuff!

I had the premade tuna-on-croissant sandwich, and it was delicious. My wife had a salad. Iceberg lettuce, but that doesn't bother her the way it does me, and she found that everything was fresh and good. Our daughter had a slice of pepperoni pizza, and enjoyed it.

No, you don't want to buy a plane ticket and go through security just so you can eat there. But if you're stuck and hungry, it's better than I ever expected.

Too bad the frozen yogurt is only Colombo instead of one of the good ones. And you have to stand near the smoking area in order to pay. But you can't have everything.

*

While we were in New York City, we had some wonderful experiences. I know, it's way too late for you to go there this year -- but you might plan on going there during the holidays another year.

We skated on the ice rink at Rockefeller Center. Well, our two daughters skated (the older daughter joined us from LA for the trip); I rented skates and walked out to the ice and discovered that my ankles just aren't strong enough with loose-fitting shoes. It wasn't worth the risk of a strain or sprain. So I went right back inside.

But they had a great time. Just so you know, they do have skates to rent, and the girls' skates fit them fine. They let skaters in for hour-and-a-half sessions, one batch at a time, and it's good to arrive a little early for the start time that you want. There are lots of absolute beginners -- remember, this isn't just for tourists, New Yorkers take their kids there to skate, too -- and nobody's mean to the bad skaters.

*

A new feature of New York City since I last was there is the sudden profusion of pedicabs. You know, bicycles with a rickshaw attached.

I don't like the word "pedicab." There's an ugly word that starts the same way. So here's a replacement: cabcycle. But don't pronounce it to rhyme with "cycle." Make it rhyme with bicycle and tricycle and icicle. Isn't that more fun to say?

Or if you don't like that, how about pedalhack? "Pedal" doesn't sound like the start of that other words, and pedalhack is simply a cool word. Of course, if you don't know that taxis used to be called "hacks" it won't make any sense to you. But we writers must invent new words from time to time ...

For the cold weather they had plastic screens to keep out the worst of the cold, and blankets inside. Each cabcycle could hold two passengers. And during rush hour, they made much better time than cars -- and better than pedestrians, too.

They cluster outside department stores and theaters, ready to take people back to their hotels. But they're not cheap. Fifteen bucks for a ride of any distance is what I kept hearing during the day. And at night, after we got out of a play, I couldn't believe that they were actually asking $35. I laughed at them and mentioned that I liked the daytime cost of $20 (what I actually paid, including tip) much better. Whereupon one of them volunteered to accept that price. The others were hostile, but it's not like there's a union or a regulatory body overseeing the pedalhack business.

I probably wouldn't have paid for so many of these rides if my wife weren't hobbling on a sprained ankle. But it was so much better than waiting for a cab -- they tend to disappear whenever I want them. And since there are lots of sharp turns and sudden stops, it's got some of the thrills of a carnival ride.

*

Our hotel was a block south of Bryant Park, and as we walked northward we discovered that in the holiday season, the city gives the park over to a fair -- dozens of little shops in booths or tents. The weather is cold, but the shops were doing lively business, and we saw items that we couldn't have found anywhere else.

This was New York City, after all, so the shopkeepers represented just about every nation on earth. We had our favorites, but I'll review some of them in later columns where I can do them justice. It's simply the existence of the fair at all that I appreciated. They've done it for the past three years, and if the volume of business they were doing this year is any indication, they'll be continuing the tradition in the future. That is, until Abercrombie and Fitch and Victoria's Secret snap up the booths ...

And with Fedex/Kinko's located across the streets to the north and south, you can ship whatever you buy home right away.

*

Speaking of shopping, have you seen the newish chain of H&M stores? Our L.A.-based daughter knew about them from a friend (there isn't one in L.A. yet, though it's coming). The clothes are wonderfully stylish and unbelievably cheap.

So cheap that the thought of slave or child labor crossed my mind. But I figured that the media will tell us if that turns out to be the way they keep their prices so low, and then I will righteously stop shopping there.

Till then, it's a great place for bargains. Both our daughters came out with bundles of cool new clothes for which we paid so little I almost felt guilty about it.

*

Our favorite experience on this trip, however, had to be the musical comedy Spelling Bee -- or, to be strictly correct, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

It's structured rather like A Chorus Line about gawky middle schoolers, but where I expected nothing but mockery and silliness, we actually get some poignant, truthful stories, and the humor is not cruel.

In fact, they are quite tender with kids who in many ways are misfits. No Revenge of the Nerds here -- they keep them genuinely young (though the actors are, of course, adult), and though there is exaggeration for comedy, it is never at the expense of the humanity of the characters. We are meant to identify with them, not reject them, and by the end we actually loved them.

The show is not, strictly speaking, for children. There are some jokes that, while well within the truthful-and-poignant category, are nevertheless crude enough that some people will be made quite uncomfortable by them, and some children would then demand explanations their parents might not want to give.

In other words, even when it comes available, I probably won't be putting this one on in our church building.

But frankly, I wouldn't want to change most of the potentially offensive bits. When puberty first stirs, these are exactly the things that kids are thinking and worrying about.

If you do get a chance to see it on Broadway, you'll be well-rewarded by truly astonishing performances. Especially Dan Fogler, as the obese-but-graceful William Barfee (that's pronounced bar-FAY). I can't imagine anyone else playing the role to such perfection. The actor loves this character and makes us love him too, as he uses his "magic toe" to help him remember spellings ... and finds his heart and his ambition in painful conflict at the climax of the show.

Jesse Tyler Ferguson as the semi-autistic Leaf Coneybear is amazing, and Celia Keenan-Bolger will win your heart as Olive Ostrovsky. The rest of the cast is equally good.

There was one truly awkward moment in the show, when one of the characters delivered a "joke" at the expense of President Bush. It was interesting that even in New York, while half the audience laughed, the other half sat stony-faced. The politicizing of entertainment shows (which has polluted so many TV series like the embarrassingly silly and false anti-Bush stories that appear with some regularity on Law and Order) must make the entertainers feel so very brave -- but it just brands them as mindless conformists who will damage their own art to get a smarmy little moment of self-righteousness.

But it was, after all, only a moment, and since it was one of the "new" bits in a show that is perpetually updated, it may well be gone by the time you get a chance to see it.

Because Spelling Bee is never the same twice. Partly that's because every night they have four volunteers from the audience -- chosen only twenty minutes in advance -- and jokes are added referring to the audience members' appearance during that brief interval. Again, the jokes are never cruel (in fact, the Bush joke was the only cruel one in the show) and the audience participants are integrated into the show beautifully and kindly. They also get a juice box and a pin afterward.

They do have a little coaching: They are told to ask for a definition of their spelling words and for the words to be used in a sentence, regardless of what the word is. We know about this because our youngest daughter was chosen to be one of the contestants, and some of the funniest moments in the show came from her asking those questions. (More I will not say; jokes should not be spoiled by reviews.)

So not only did we see a great show, but our youngest daughter had her Broadway debut and was even asked, afterward, for her autograph by several other audience members -- some of whom asked her if she was a hired actress. Oh, such skepticism! But we assured them that she had come as an audience member -- we hadn't even known before we got there that there was audience participation.

And our older daughter, an actress herself, was not even the tiniest bit jealous that her 11-year-old sibling got the first Broadway debut in the family.

*

Because New York is crowded with tourists and celebrating New Yorkers during the holiday season, our favorite restaurants were booked, even at the 5:30 opening time when you can usually get a table anywhere.

But that's not a problem in New York, because there are so many other restaurants to choose from. One in particular has just joined our list of Favorite Restaurants in the World: Joseph's Citarella.

This four-story restaurant is rated only 23 in Zagat, but I find that puzzling. I think it may be because the prices were not obscenely high (though they weren't low, either!), and so some people can't bring themselves to rate as perfect something that ordinary people might be able to afford.

Because perfect is precisely what the food was. The best crab cakes I've had anywhere, the inventive appetizers and salads, the main courses -- we ate everything with pleasure.

And the portions were perfect, as well. We are all perfectly satisfied, not bloated but not hungry, either. The desserts were smallish, but that meant they were exactly the size we wanted them after such a perfect meal.

My dessert, "chocolate world," was actually entertaining. A hollow ball of chocolate, filled with chocolate pudding and other delectables, is set on a plate beside a small scoop of vanilla ice cream. Then the waiter pours a small amount of hot chocolate sauce over the globe, and after a moment it melts the top, opening the interior up for inspection.

It was also delicious. I don't like overly intense chocolate, and usually don't finish chocolate desserts -- I ate every bit of this one.

Everybody was nice; the service was excellent and yet unpretentious; and they fit us in at the last moment on a crowded night. Count on it -- we'll be back.

*

We stayed at the new Marriott Residence Inn on Sixth Avenue at 39th. It was a perfect location for us. Five short blocks from Macy's, so we could easily carry our purchases back to the hotel; ten short blocks from Rockefeller Center; a few long blocks from most Broadway shows.

It's a brand-new hotel -- not even open two weeks -- so they were still working out some bugs. We won't hold that against them. Though it was a challenge trying to work with a door whose mechanical latch would only let us in one out of five or six times -- and then only at risk of personal injury. Give the staff credit, though: They fixed it before we left.

Because there was a large fridge and freezer and a microwave in every room, we were able to stock up on food and didn't have to eat every meal at restaurant prices. The room rates were high (though not by New York City standards), but the rooms were far larger than normal in the city, the bed comfortable, the shower generous, and there was room to sit around and talk and even visit and play games. From now on it will be our first choice of hotel in New York.

*

Now there's nothing left but this: Have a merry Christmas and a happy New Year!


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