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
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
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.
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,
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:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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