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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 24, 2006

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


Charlotte's Web, Hicks & Pickler, Delicious, Elderflower, and Resolutions

The holiday season can be stressful, but there are also people whose thoughtfulness and generosity make the season a joy.

For instance, on the last garbage pick-up day before Christmas, our refuse containers were jammed full and we still had another can's worth of garbage.

(The exceptional quantity was the result of several parties' worth of used plastic plates and food packaging, as well as a cubic acre of styrofoam peanuts that were used for shipping items we bought over the internet.)

So when I say our garbage cans were full, I mean the lids were standing straight up. The cans looked like depictions of Santa's bulging and overflowing bag of toys (if Santa wrapped the toys in green and white plastic).

Since we were going to have a houseful of guests at Christmas, there would be many bags of Christmas wrapping paper the following week. We didn't need to start out with our refuse space already half used up from the week before.

When the garbage truck came by on Thursday, we were all prepared to go out and beg them to take more. But we didn't have to. Because the guys with the truck turned the corner, emptied our garbage cans, and went to lunch.

While they were gone, we refilled one of the cans, and when they came back, they emptied it again.

They didn't have to. Maybe it's even against the rules for them to do it. We believe they were deliberately being kind, and we appreciate it.

(And if you're the supervisor in charge, and you're already thinking of figuring out which team broke the rules, so you can punish them somehow for their act of kindness, shame on you as a scrooge; but if you're planning to commend them for good public relations, then let's commend all the guys on garbage trucks who allow us the convenience of disposing of our rubbish at the curb, without complaining about all the wacky and thoughtless things the customers do.)

Our friends at The Framin' Place worked a miracle and got some major framing jobs done just in time for Christmas, even though I had only received the art itself a couple of weeks before. Sure, they were paid -- but they weren't paid to do the extra work to meet an unreasonable deadline.

The delivery people at the U.S. Postal Service went the extra mile and delivered packages on Christmas Eve -- a Sunday, no less! -- and on Christmas Day.

I felt really bad about that Christmas Day delivery, because it wasn't a Christmas gift, it was just a re-supply of something I use all the time. But they had no way of knowing it didn't need to arrive on Christmas, and to the tired-looking man who came to our door on that rainy Christmas afternoon and still managed to give me a smile and a "Merry Christmas" along with my package, I say thank you.

No matter what time of day I went to the UPS Store at North Elm and Pisgah Church, and no matter how long the line, everybody working the counter was at least businesslike, and most were downright cheerful. They also got everything out the door on time and packaged well enough that nothing broke and everything got where it was supposed to be. Thank you!

The holidays are hard work -- not just for people working in shops and providing services, but for the customers as well. When we decide to put on Christmas for each other, we plan, we schedule, we shop and wrap and sneak around to bring off surprises. We stay up way too late at night getting everything done because of that deadline that won't wait. And when it's finally Christmas Day, we're exhausted.

So congratulations all of you on a job well done.

And if you do as I do most years, and sometime in February find a hidden Christmas present that you overlooked and failed to wrap and give away, remember that St. Patrick's Day is a fine occasion for bestowing leftover Christmas gifts. People are really  surprised to get them then.

*

In previous years, I've been vaguely aware that some people actually go to movies on Christmas day. Since I rarely set foot outside on Christmas, except maybe to clean up the luminaries around the curb of our corner lot (that's a whole bunch of bags full of sand, by the way), it doesn't even come up.

But it happened last year that I was driving around for some reason -- a late gift delivery? -- and we drove past the Carousel and saw the parking lot full of cars. And I said to my wife, "Can you believe that so many people are so lonely or have so little imagination that the best thing they can think of to do on Christmas day is to go to the movies?"

Whenever I say catty, nasty things like that, fate works out a way to punish me. This year, it was the fact that I hadn't had a moment to see most of the new Christmas movies, and I had a Tuesday deadline for this column, and I wanted to have at least one movie review.

So there I was on Christmas day at 8:20 p.m., with my wife and daughters and my wife's parents -- all of us so lonely and pathetically unimaginative that we were watching Charlotte's Web instead of having a scintillating conversation or singing Christmas carols or doing good deeds for the poor or whatever it is we were supposed to be doing to prove we didn't have to go to the movies on Christmas.

In other words, I apologize to all of you who always go to movies on Christmas day. Because after all the exhausting work of putting on Christmas, sitting there in the theater watching something was wonderfully relaxing.

Especially because Charlotte's Web is a pretty darn good movie. Which is far better than I expected.

That's because the old animated Charlotte's Web (1973) was such a family favorite. My older children grew up playing that videotape over and over again, so that all of us could sing along with Paul Lynde as Templeton the Rat ("A fair is a ver-itable smorgasbord -orgasbord -orgasbord"). Charlotte the spider absolutely had Debbie Reynolds's voice, Henry Gibson (of Laugh-In fame) was Wilbur the pig, and nobody could do the voice of the Goose like Agnes Moorehead. (Nobody could do anything like Agnes Moorehead.)

So this semi-live-action remake was filling a need we didn't feel. When a book has been well filmified once, why do it over? You have so little chance of doing it better. Not much chance, really, of doing it as well.

And when you add to that the fact that E.B. White's original book Charlotte's Web was the first book that ever made me cry in public (our teacher read it to us in third grade), we had too many emotional connections to the story for a new film version to have a chance.

Thus we were pleasantly surprised by how good this remake is.

Where the 1973 animation was (of course) flat and a little cheap-looking, the computer-animated animals in the new version were quite convincing (except for Wilbur's one backflip, which was embarrassingly fake).

The long shots of the farm consistently looked like paintings -- but that might be because the previews for the horrible-looking butchery of Bridge to Terabithia were so wretchedly false-looking that it made us hypersensitive to painted scenery.

But Charlotte herself was brilliantly animated. They didn't put a nice human-style mouth on her -- she has mandibles. They created glorious sequences showing what it might feel like to be a spider spinning a web. And as the film progresses, we can see Charlotte age so that we are not surprised when she begins to "languish."

The live-action actors were quite good, though it's hard for anyone to hold the screen with Dakota Fanning. Starting with I Am Sam, and going on through Sweet Home Alabama, Uptown Girls, and War of the Worlds, this kid actor has stolen so many movies from big-name stars that she really ought to be sentenced to community service for the rest of her life.

One difficulty with adapting Charlotte's Web is that the human characters are really quite incidental to the real story, which is about Wilbur, Charlotte, Templeton, and the other animals. Mostly, the humans are there to maintain the constant threat that Wilbur will be turned to suckling pork before the snow flies.

But the script does a good job of creating more of a story for the human characters than E.B. White bothered to create. Yet it takes very little screen time to do it -- it doesn't detract from the main story. Good job.

Another good addition was the pair of crows (voiced wonderfully by Thomas Haden Church and André Benjamin) who are desperate to eat corn, but can't overcome their fear of the scarecrows in every field. Their delicious dumbness added much to the movie.

And if the sheep seemed to be borrowed from Babe, they're genuinely funny now and then.

Having said that, let me now point out that the dialogue was almost entirely awful.

It's as if the actors had been handed scripts with lines like this:

MR. ARABLE

Generic sappy sweet father-type line.

BROOKS THE CROW

Whatever dumb joke an eager third-grader would come up with at this moment.

(No -- I take that back. It's so unfair to third-graders.)

Time after time, I thought, Surely that was merely place-holder dialogue, waiting for them to hire the real dialogue writer, who would come up with something either funny or real -- or, preferably, both.

Fortunately, E.B. White's original novel is good enough that good actors can overcome the bad screenwriter dialogue and deliver a beautiful story. The voice actors play their parts in a low-key way, which is boring at first but soon becomes part of the reality. We actually start thinking that it's completely natural for animals to talk.

(Though someday I want a film to show animals not speaking the same language. Surely sheep would need an interpreter in order to converse with pigs -- not to mention spiders.)

Julia Roberts doesn't have as warm a voice as Debbie Reynolds, but she makes a good Charlotte all the same. Steve Buscemi is well-cast as Templeton, though anybody who isn't Paul Lynde (which is all of us) is bound to leave us wishing for the master of snideness.

I couldn't help but wonder what Oprah Winfrey, Cedric the Entertainer, Kathy Bates, Reba McEntire, John Cleese, and Robert Redford might have done with good dialogue. As it is, the best I can say is that none of them gave a mannered performance -- it's hard to tell, if you don't already know, which famous actor is playing each part.

At the end, I cried again. And here's the remarkable thing: I cried more, I cared more, than I did with the 1973 animated movie. More than I did with the original book. By that standard, at least, this movie works and is well worth seeing.

Especially for the almost unsentimental treatment of Charlotte's demise and the glorious moment when her babies rise into the air on the ends of spiderweb threads and float away, crying out, with tiny voices, "whee!" What might have been maudlin or absurd is instead real and beautiful.

Charlotte's Web is rated G and marketed toward families with young children. But I think it's also worth seeing for people who only remember having (or being) children.

*

I've already reviewed the Chris Daughtry cd. Now I've got the Taylor Hicks and Kellie Pickler cds, and I can tell you that this most recent year of American Idol had more depth than any of the previous years.

On Small Town Girl, Kellie Pickler proves herself to be a better country singer than Carrie Underwood. Where Underwood strains and oversings constantly (I have to switch away when she comes on the radio, because it almost hurts to hear her try to fake having a bigger voice than she actually has), Kellie Pickler is the real thing.

Pickler understands her own voice and never oversings -- she knows she isn't Gretchen Wilson, so she doesn't have to try to outshout her. Instead, she allows herself to sing in a heartfelt, beautiful voice that is a pleasure to listen to on every track of her cd.

I hope people have sense enough to realize what Pickler is -- because she deserves to be around for the next thirty years or so, performing and recording her wonderful songs.

I had my doubts about Taylor Hicks. I loved him on camera -- his caperings and cavortings were wonderful, like a sane version of Joe Cocker. But how much of what we loved was what was saw, and how much was what we heard? I just didn't know if anything would carry over into the recordings.

And the first track on his self-titled album wasn't encouraging. "The Runaround" isn't much of a song, and Hicks doesn't do much with it. Fortunately, it's the worst cut on the album. Most songs are very good, and while I do miss seeing him perform, I think he brings something new and strong to the songs he sings.

Hicks knows how to get inside a song and bring the words to life. He knows how to mean a song -- often more than I think the songwriter did. So he's at his best when he's working with songs that have something interesting to say in the lyrics.

In other words, the better the words, the stronger Hicks's vocal performance. I'll buy more of his albums, though I'll always miss watching him sing.

Of the three whose albums I've heard --Daughtry, Pickler, and Hicks -- all are worth buying and hearing. And all of them are a refreshing change from the sounds that dominate the airwaves these days. They actually sing songs with melodies -- and with words that are worth understanding.

They actually have talent. And yet all three of them are different from each other and from anybody else.

American Idol is beginning to do a better job of finding listenable talent than most record labels ever do.

*

Jan Burke's newest Irene Kelly novel, Kidnapped, isn't much of a mystery -- mostly because she tells us practically everything right from the beginning by showing significant portions of the plot from the bad guys' point of view.

What the novel becomes, in the absence of mystery, is a powerful story about what it means to be a family -- and how the kind of people who would steal children in order to have a family are invariably the most awful kind of parents children could have.

At the same time, one of the storylines is about the loyalty of a young man who refuses to believe that his brother committed the murders he was convicted of -- and that's where we see a family holding together against all odds, until justice is done and the good guy gets out of jail.

Jan Burke is one of the good ones -- one of the "mystery" writers who are actually writing most of the finest novels of contemporary American life (since "literary" writers rarely write about anything other than themselves and how talented and tortured they are). And because it can stand alone, Kidnapped is as good a place to begin reading her work as any.

*

I was doing my last round of shopping at Smith's Beautiful Living when they opened up a tray of pastries from a bakery I had never heard of, called, appropriately enough, Delicious.

The folks at Smith's were stunned that I hadn't heard of the place. But nobody was surprised that I hadn't seen it, because this bakery is one that has to thrive by word of mouth alone.

It's located on Battleground Avenue -- prominent enough, except that on a highway like that, it's not as if you can drive slowly enough to browse for tiny signs.

Besides, with its location at 3114 Battleground, Suite B, you would not expect to see a bakery. It's quite a strip of automotive shops there, and a shop selling delicate pastries is not at all what you'd expect to see.

Don't be put off by the location, however, because this is the real thing. We ordered their mini-eclairs for one of our Christmas gatherings and they were the hit of the night. Their key lime and apple tartlettes disappeared almost as fast.

Our only complaint about their brownies is that they're so rich that most of our friends have to cut the pieces into quarters -- otherwise, it's just too much dessert all at once!

We also saw the specialty cakes that people were picking up, and they were gorgeous. Works of art. Go in and check it out. You'll want to develop a long-term relationship. Anybody who makes pastries like that is worth having as a friend.

*

It's hard to believe I'm actually recommending a British food product -- how can anything good emerge from a national cuisine that includes items called "spotted dick" and "toad in the hole"?

But at Earth Fare in Greensboro (or online at www.britishdelights.com or www.curiouskumquat.com) you can get the lightly carbonated bottled soft drinks from Belvoir Fruit Farms, including their organic lemonade and the unique "Elderflower Pressé."

The only reason I picked up a bottle was because of my fond memories of the elderberry wine featured in Arsenic and Old Lace. Now, the Elderflower Pressé is not a wine, so there's no alcohol, and it's made from the flowers, not the berries. Therefore I probably am no closer than I ever was to knowing just how the beverage that Cary Grant's crazy old aunts put the arsenic in tasted.

But I don't care. Because the flavor of Elderflower Pressé is so good that it doesn't have to ride on the coattails of a great old play and movie. Give it a try out of curiosity, and I bet you'll want more out of pure lust.

*

I don't believe in New Year's resolutions. Oh, I know people make them. Or at least they claim they're making them. But just because they happen at New Year's doesn't mean they're resolutions.

Here's Uncle Orson's Unfriendly Guide to New Year's resolutions:

1. If you didn't write it down, it's a passing thought, not a resolution.

2. If you don't have a specific plan for achieving a goal, it is not a resolution.

3. If you have not made an open covenant with the people whose respect you most care about, it is not a resolution.

In other words: "I'm going to lose weight!" is an idle boast, not a resolution. "I'm going to lose twenty pounds!" is a wish, not a resolution. "I'm swearing off carbs!" is just stupid, not a resolution.

"I'm going to follow this explicit diet plan and do these exact exercises on this precise schedule until I have lost twenty pounds" -- and you've written it down and shown it to spouse and children and co-workers, asking for their cooperation in helping you achieve your goal -- now that's a resolution.

"I'm going to get out of debt" is a dream, not a resolution. "I'm going to cut up my credit cards" is not a resolution, it's a cry of despair.

"Here is where our money went last year; these are the things we are no longer going to do, so we can apply that money to our credit card debt. We will not use credit cards for anything except the following categories of purchases. If we do not have at least $X surplus out of every paycheck, we will cut back further."

Real resolutions are rare. But I've seen them. I've seen the family that decided to sell their expensive house and move to a more modest neighborhood, so they could pay off the (cheaper) house early and live without debt.

I've seen similar radical changes made so that one spouse could stay home with the children and the family could live comfortably on one income.

If you're serious about change, you will be realistic about what it takes to achieve the goal, and you will immediately start to do what it takes. Nothing will stop you.

That's what a resolution looks like. Only grownups know how to make and keep them. And they don't have to wait till New Year's.


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