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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 23, 2006

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


Monster House, Barberito's, Blue Screen, Shaker hymns

I hate horror movies. And the promos for Monster House made it look as though the filmmakers were trying to do an animated scare picture.

But the movie itself is far closer to Indiana Jones or Harry Potter than to Nightmare on Elm Street. And real attention is paid to having interesting, believable characters with human stories -- rather more like The Iron Giant than Toy Story.

Anything I tell you about the plot that isn't summed up in the title will spoil a surprise -- but I can assure you that almost all the surprises are good ones, in the sense that they are there to entertain rather than shock you.

The voice acting was superb; the surprise is that without trying to resemble any stars, the face work was the best I've seen in computer animation.

Where Polar Express became rather disturbing with its dead-looking faces, this movie never does. (I have lately learned that the deadness of the faces in Polar Express came from the fact that they did not use the full range of motion-capture points for more than a handful of the characters.)

In Monster House, I don't know whether the facial expressions were captured or designed -- it doesn't matter to me as an audience member. What I care about is the fact that the faces had the ability to express subtle smotions -- well, subtle for animation, anyway. The chubby sidekick has a great face; we can see the snootiness in the preppie girl gradually give way to genuine warmth and trust; and the face of the old man who tends the monster house is superb -- he has all the exaggeration that animation can offer, without losing the ability to show humanity as well.

The script was full of good satire -- in fact, in some ways we see that the house the hero lives in is a kind of monster house for him, even though nobody in it means to make his life hellish. Well, the babysitter does, just a little ...

I enjoyed every minute of this movie; my wife, who hates horror films even more than I do (or so she says; I'm not really sure it's possible) had no qualms with this one. And the movie definitely passed the twelve-year-old-audience-member test.

You don't have to have kids to enjoy this movie. In fact, very young kids might find this movie a bit of a nightmare-maker. What older kids see as funny, little kids see as scary.

*

In my unending search for great Mexican food, this has not been a good week. I learned that one of the best, the Café Pierpont in Salt Lake City, is closing its doors. After years of being packed at every meal because they served, among other things, the best carnitas and a wonderful, verifiably fresh table-side guacamole, for some reason the people of Salt Lake City have stupidly let this great restaurant die.

Fortunately, I've had a couple of recent meals at Uncle Julio's Rio Grande Café in Reston Town Center in northern Virginia, most recently with former Texans who assure me that those thin, delicious chips, that great salsa, the perfect guacamole, and terrific tamales, enchiladas, and fajitas would hold their own in Dallas as well as the DC area.

I have long mourned the death of Baja Fresh in Greensboro, but I'm relieved to know that it wasn't because it didn't do well -- it's because the chain closed down all its North Carolina operations. So they weren't just singling me out.

It just feels that way.

Since construction began on the new town-center style development just east of the Harris-Teeter at Elm and Pisgah Church, we've been using our thrice-weekly three-mile walks to check out the stores. The smoothie shop is finally showing progress ... but the best news is that Barberito's Mexican Grill and Cantina just opened.

The concept is made-while-you-wait-in-a-line fast food along the lines of Subway and Qdoba, but fortunately Barberito's is proud of out-freshing Subway. While the tortillas suffer from being heated by steaming, at least they're not the RubberMaid tortillas that Qdoba and Moe's both use.

The meat is delicious; you get your choice of iceberg or real lettuce; in fact, I was delighted at the variety of fixin's you can add to your burritos and tacos. You can have black beans or pinto, chicken or beef. With tacos, you also get your choice of crisp corn tortillas, or soft tortillas in corn flour or white flour.

The guacamole is quite good, though my wife found it a bit too spicy for her taste -- her point was that with guacamole she wants the taste of avocado to dominate, not spiciness. (I simply liked it; but then, I usually add salsa to my guacamole anyway.)

Their salsa bar is a bit limited -- a mild tomatillo salsa, a mild pico-de-gallo mix, and a hot salsa roja. If you want the other two spicier, you just add some salsa roja to them.

No, it's not Baja Fresh or Poquito Mas, but those were much more kitchen-centered restaurants. For its limited menu, Barberito's does a great job. It's our new quick-Mexican-meal choice in Greensboro.

*

Robert B. Parker's new novel, Blue Screen, is touted on the cover as "A Sunny Randall Novel." Parker has added two more Boston-area detectives to his long-running Spenser series, one of them being Sunny Randall and the other Jesse Stone, the police chief in small-town Paradise, Massachusetts.

With this novel, Parker puts them together -- about as close as two literary sleuths can be without having us discover that one is the secret identity of the other.

The book is short -- by using thick paper and a tricks with fonts and leading, they make it look like a regular sized book at 306 pages, but the fact that the unabridged volume takes only five cds tells you that it's quite short. But you never mind -- it's a full novel's worth of story, with not a word wasted.

Well, a few words. When I read Parker's novels on paper, I kind of glide over the f-words and the sex scenes; it's a different experience hearing it read aloud in a car that contains my twelve-year-old. It became rather oppressive; the f-word was used more for rhythm than for emphasis when it was part of routine cursing; and when it was the actual word-of-choice for discussions of sex, my hands got a little clammy on the steering wheel.

Yet within the context of modern sexual mores, Parker actually creates a very clear differentiation between committed love, sexual attraction, and exploitation. In fact, this is a highly moral, almost old-fashioned book in a perverse kind of way.

The story centers around Erin Flint, an astonishingly beautiful and talentless movie star who is being groomed by her mega-wealthy boyfriend to also become the first woman to play for a major league baseball team -- his. Sunny Randall is hired to be her bodyguard, ostensibly because they fear somebody will try to hurt her in order to prevent her from breaking the gender barrier in major-league ball.

When Erin's longtime assistant, Misty, who vaguely resembles her, is murdered inside the boyfriend's mansion, police chief Jesse Stone enters the picture, and he and Sunny not only solve the case together, they also fall in love. Oh, and sleep together along the way, of course, this being the year zip-six.

The mystery takes us back and forth between Boston and its old-time mobsters and LA and its newfangled pimps and high-class prostitutes. We see many kinds of sexual relationships depicted, some of which qualify as love, others merely as fun, and some as a means of exploitation -- both men exploiting women and women exploiting men to get what they want. It's a complicated world.

By the time we get to the genuinely surprising finale (after several not-so-surprising revelations about how the murder took place), we're fully prepared for how Parker, through Sunny and Jesse, set things to rights. By now Parker may be able to do morally complicated stories in his sleep -- but nobody in my car was sleeping.

Oh, wait. Somebody was. But that's because moving cars put her to sleep. She still had to know how it all came out. And we had some good discussions about the moral issues raised by and within the book.

Kate Burton's reading was very good, except for one tiny but constantly annoying habit. When there's a sentence with dialogue in it, like:

"Not me," she said.

She reads it as if it were two separate paragraphs:

"Not me."

She said.

Often it sounds as if the "she said" tag goes with the next paragraph's dialogue, which is said by somebody else. Ms. Burton, please stop leaving such absurdly long pauses between the speech and the tag. We need them much more closely linked -- especially in Parker's work, where the "she said" is often longer than the dialogue.

*

We've all seen Shaker furniture (and no, I don't mean furniture in any house near the San Andreas fault), but we often forget that the Shakers also had a powerful tradition of hymn-singing. Of course, there's the one Shaker hymn that Aaron Copland immortalized in his "Appalachian Spring," but he changed it quite a bit to make it fit his musical needs.

The original Shaker hymns were meant to be unadorned -- no musical instruments, no fancy vocal tricks. So when the Enfield Shaker Singers set out to perform a 39-hymn collection entitled I Am Filled with Heavenly Treasures, they performed with absolute simplicity.

Hardly a shred of vibrato. No decorations. Totally word-centered. This is as opposite to gospel singing as you can get.

And yet in its very purity, it reminds me a great deal of gospel singing. Though with opposite musical approaches, both traditions arrive at a similar place: music that is for a congregation truly talking to God, or talking to each other about God.

(That, by the way, is why I so resented Whitney Houston's version of gospel singing in The Preacher's Wife -- it was all about her, never about the gospel. That's what happens when the star system meets religious music -- Hollywood trumps faith.)

Unfortunately, the downside is that the very plainness of the singing means that perfection of pitch is an absolute necessity for the music to be pleasurable to listen to. Most of the singers are close enough to perfect; but there is one male singer in particular who is sometimes an eighth-of a tone or more off pitch, and it grates on the ear in a way it wouldn't if there were an accompaniment to hold the harmonies.

Still, I'm glad I have the collection and listened to it, and while I can't use it for background music, I can enjoy it when I want to listen to the words and relive in my own mind a nearly-vanished tradition in religious music.


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