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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 10, 2008

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

Roscoe Jenkins, Idol, Riley, Roumania, Shopdropping

If you're reading this on the day that this issue of the Rhinoceros Times came out, then it's Valentine's Day, and there's still time to get over to Loco for Coco Chocolates on Westover Terrace and get something really nice for the one you love.

If it's already after Valentine's Day, then chocolates are great for apologies, too.

Especially the creme brulee truffles. Oh, man -- the crunchiness of the sugary crust of a creme brulee, a perfect filling, and then that lush chocolate on the outside.

Please, someone, stop me before I have to buy a whole new wardrobe ...


Some movies are so deeply, wrong-headedly bad that it's a pleasure to have paid for tickets just so you can walk out of the theater.

I'm not ashamed of having hoped that Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins might be pretty good.

I mean, look at the cast: James Earl Jones as the dad, Margaret Avery as the mom, Cedric the Entertainer as cousin Clyde, Michael Clarke Duncan as big brother Otis -- and, above all, Martin Lawrence as Roscoe Jenkins, the L.A. daytime talk-show host who comes home to Georgia for his parents fiftieth wedding anniversary.

And the cast does not let us down. They say their lines, they play their parts as well as could be expected under the circumstances.

The circumstances are this: The script is so loathsome that anybody who ever touched it is probably still trying to get rid of the rash.

Everybody in this family is repulsive. They have been openly cruel to Roscoe Jenkins from childhood on (except the mom, who was simply negligent). And not one of them has grown up or learned anything in the years since Roscoe was a persecuted kid there.

The script makes a few feeble stabs at being about something -- I guess we're supposed to hope that Roscoe will find a good stepmom for his semi-abandoned son, and that he'll find true love instead of the hyper-competitive Survivor winner he's engaged to.

But Roscoe himself is such a nothing that we can't even care about that. He's all victim, no spine; but not even a worthy victim, since he doesn't even try to have any of the virtues the others lack. Instead, he merely seems to aspire to their vices.

When the script wants Roscoe's son to be an athlete, he kicks butt; when humiliation is the goal, the kid's a klutz like his father. Everybody can say truly vicious, horrible things to Roscoe (or about the mother, which is just as appalling), but if he answers in kind, he gets beaten up. And we're supposed to laugh.

Well, it is funny, but only because Martin Lawrence is such a good comic.

The trouble is, he's also a decent actor, but he doesn't get even a moment in which to show it.

At least he hadn't up to the point where we walked out, which was after the big male dog rutting with tiny lapdog sequence.

OK, I can see how it seemed really funny to the filmmakers to glue a stuffed dog to the groin of a big ol' hound to simulate size-inappropriate doggy-humping. But it's only funny if you know it's a stuffed dog.

Otherwise it's just another do-I-really-need-to-see-this moment.

Oh, right, what did I expect? The movie is PG-13. It's about a family reunion. So of course it opens with a scene of bondage sex that's supposed to be funny but is merely sickening. And then everybody says anything dirty they can think of. And people run around the house at a family reunion dressed for their sexual fantasies.

Um, not in my family they don't. Not in any believable family.

The endless, pounding, tedious, unfunny sexual activity and meaningless violence among family members is the reason the script didn't give anybody time to actually develop a character or a relationship.

This is why I just can't understand people who think they are seeing only "good" movies by refusing to see R-rated films.

Some films get their R because they would really be disturbing to children -- but for adults, they are excellent, deep, important films.

And some films don't have an R because they kept the F-words down to one (and, by the way, since when did one F-word in a movie become OK? What happened to zero?), and they don't actually show inappropriate body parts -- but they're still filthy and low and debasing to any human who sees them?

I think bawdy humor can be really funny -- and not just in Shakespeare. Tyler Perry's Madea films and plays are full of over-kids'-heads sexual humor -- but it's never acted out on the screen. Tying people up to have sex is never depicted as normal in Tyler Perry films because it isn't depicted.

So sad. Tyler Perry, working mostly with unknown actors, makes marvelous comedies for adults and mature youngsters. But this film, with a cast that includes some deservedly well-known actors, achieves complete worthlessness, combined with excruciating unfunniness and appallingly bad taste.

So here's the true rating for this film. FUI: Filthy, Unfunny, Infantile. There is no civilized audience of any age for which this film is appropriate.

Just one saving grace: Mo'Nique is very, very good in this movie. Her character is every bit as repulsive as anybody else's -- and yet she alone managed to make me like her and make me laugh.


Wait a minute. Did I actually use the word youngster in that review? I thought that didn't enter your vocabulary till you hit sixty.


You know what? It think it's barely possible that the producers of American Idol have actually acquired some taste between last year and this.

AI has always been three shows in one.

The first is the Freak Show, where we see a few good auditions but spend most of our time watching needy, delusional, or insane people and/or clowns embarrass themselves on national television with their strange, screaming, moaning, tuneless, bizarre, and above all talentless auditions.

Then there's Hollywood Week, which is sort of like Fame on steroids -- the contestants are put through hellish paces and 24 survivors go on to be voted on by viewers.

Finally, there's the national Countdown as popular votes weed out the also-rans -- though, ironically, the also-rans often become much more successful as recording artists than the winners.

Not surprising, since voting is skewed by fans voting multiple times for their favorites. When the albums come out, they don't buy as many copies of the winner's album as the number of votes they cast for him or her.

We always knew Taylor Hicks would be a minority taste -- but we loved him for his performance as much as his music, and I, for one, love his album and listen to it often. Fantasia, unfortunately, has not yet released an album that shows the gorgeous voice singing the soulful songs that won our votes and our hearts.

And we're still waiting for albums from some of the singers who didn't make the final two but still had great talent. While some of the weakest ones have become niche hits. Good for them!

I enjoy the show. I don't even feel guilty about it. It's fascinating to watch people reveal to themselves and the whole world who they really are. I'm talking about Hollywood Week and the countdown here, where not just the talent and skill but also the character of each contestant eventually shows up -- or falls apart.

But the opening weeks, the Freak Show -- that's the part that has been excruciating in years past.

And that's the part that changed this year.

The change was subtle. It's what they didn't show, or only rarely showed, that made the show better.

It's fine to give us talentless people who are so arrogant that we're happy to have Simon be a little nasty as he pricks their bubble of pretension. Like the girl who thought she was a star because she did well on the long-forgotten American Juniors version of the show several years ago. Her obvious sense of entitlement was so repulsive we laughed and cheered when she was stunned not to get the golden ticket to Hollywood.

Then there were the twin guys and the babe they brought with them -- it was fun watching them stab her in the back in the other room while her pathetic audition was going on in front of the judges. We knew two guys who weren't getting back rubs that night. Unless they gave one to each other.

But we far, far preferred the story of the young guy who was living in his car as he tried to make it as a singer. When he got his ticket, we cheered.

We want people to root for or root against. We don't want to watch people who make us cringe and yet well up with pity. We don't want people who actually scare us with their madness.

In fact, it was reassuring this year to actually see the bouncers escort a couple of contestants from the room.

And in some ways Idol is like a class in social adjustment. "Do you see students? It does not work to mock the judges; it does not make them more likely to choose you.

"And notice how taking no for an answer works far better than trying to argue and argue? Remember that when somebody breaks up with you -- you aren't going to persuade them by argument, you'll merely convince them they were right to dump you."

In short, Idol selected its victims/stars a lot better this year. Very little cringing; almost entirely pleasure.

Either that or I've become so jaded that I've lost all compassion and therefore all capacity to cringe.


Here's a children's picture book that really is pretty much wasted on little kids, though they might just enjoy it if an adult reads it aloud to them really sarcastically.

I'm speaking of the Australian kiddie-lit phenomenon The Short and Incredibly Happy Life of Riley, by Colin Thompson (author) and Amy Lissiat (illustrator).

The title character is Riley, a rat who is quite happy indeed in his mousy life. But the humor comes from the constant comparison with the hapless but unnamed human who represents "people."

Both the clever text and the delightful art show why rats are content and humans are not.

Of course it's completely skewed. A rat's real life is nowhere near as idyllic as Riley's (for instance, we don't get much about the adult male rats that like to kill and eat baby rats). And people are not all, or even mostly, as miserable as the book asserts.

But it's funny. It's satire, not sociology.

Ok, it's a little bit sociology. But it's funny. It's a parable. I consider it highly likely you will love this book, mostly because you won't take any of the criticisms personally, you'll merely think of other people who are exactly as foolish as the "people" in the book and laugh.

Don't buy it for kids. Buy it for yourself, and take it out every now and then to read. A reminder of why it's good to simplify your expectations in order to be happy.


Is there any point in reviewing any more Robert B. Parker novels? They all have his spare, witty prose; they all bear witness to the religion of talk therapy; they all have Parker's unique mix of moral quandary and strangely satisfying violence.

Stranger in Paradise brings a professional assassin back to the bailiwick of Sheriff Jesse Stone, and because of the offbeat but very strict morals of both men, they find themselves working together, each doing what the other cannot.

Both of them have a similar compulsion to help certain people, and destroy certain others. Where Parker pulls his semi-cynical surprises is in his assessment of the efficacy of soul-saving.

In fact, in Stranger in Paradise, the most intriguing storyline is of Stone's discovery of the true motive of a petty villain, a rich woman obsessed with keeping low-class hispanic kids out of her very rich neighborhood.

I suppose one lesson is that there are some problems money can solve ...

Look, Parker's novels are what they are. If you love them, as I do, you overlook Parker's preaching about talk therapy and you enjoy the depth of thought, the elegance of writing, the adventure and mystery. For those not in that category, I can only say: I'm sorry for you. You're missing something truly fine.


Years ago, I read and reviewed some of the early work of fantasist Paul Park. I commented then that he was enormously talented but had a literary elitist's disdain for communicating with ordinary readers.

Over the years, Park has become a clearer writer and has found deeper places to go with his storytelling.

Anyone looking for pure adventure stories is probably going to feel bogged down and confused here and there.

But those who look for depth of characterization and smart-but-extravagant fantastical invention will be well rewarded by A Princess of Roumania.

The premise is an odd one. In a small town in the Berkshires of New York state, a teenage girl discovers that her childhood memories of being a princess in another land might actually be true.

She has no idea of the powerful people who are trying to make use of her by bringing her back to the magical version of Romania she came from.

The surprise comes from what happens when she returns. Her friends from high school turn out to be more than she supposed -- powerful magical figures in their own right. And the landscape of magical Roumania is identical to the part of America she came from.

It seems at least possible that all of America -- its landscape and history -- are just a construct in the mind of an ambitious minor functionary in a Wilhelmian German government.

Park handles the moves from place to place with clarity and ease. Unfortunately, he does not jump back and forth in time with equal grace. We're somewhat on our own, floundering about until we realize that we're in the past, this is a flashback.

Too bad he has kept just that much of his literary pretension -- just a little bit of treating the reader as a toy to be played with rather than a collaborator to be guided.

But it's only an annoyance, not a real barrier, and the story is fresh and intriguing. I entirely enjoyed it, and recommend it to readers who like their fantasy novels thick and dark. Don't be put off by the knowledge that there's at least one sequel -- the first novel is self-contained and quite satisfying.

It's nice when a novelist becomes more open and accessible as he gains skill, instead of becoming more obscure and arrogant. Most important, though, is the fact that Park actually has something to say and powerful experiences to share with us.


We all know about shoplifting. How it's a terrible crime that drives up the cost of everything because the honest customers end up paying for what the shoplifters steal.

Well, I think we ought to have similar penalties for a similar, though opposite, crime: Shopdropping.

If it happened in retail stores, it would consist of store employees dropping merchandise into your purse or pocket and then charging you for it automatically as you left the store.

You didn't want it, you didn't ask for it, you may not even realize you've got it -- but by golly you're going to pay for it!

Isn't that theft? Yes, you have the merchandise; you've received value for your money. Only it isn't value to you, because you didn't want it.

Here's the shopdropping scam we just got landed with -- by Verizon Wireless.

We get a Fedex package from Verizon -- one we had to sign for. So it must be Very Very Important.

When I open it up, it's a phone. But we already have all the cellphones we need. Who ordered this? In what fit of madness did I check some box on some online form and end up getting a phone?

The answer is: I never ordered it. Neither did anyone else.

A little backstory: We first got cellphones back when they were carphones. As we've disposed of the cars in which those phones were installed, we've simply cancelled the old numbers.

But one phone remained, in the ancient Ford Ranger that my kids used to drive to and from high school. And now Verizon is phasing out the last of the old analog phones. There will no longer be any signal that carphone can receive.

No problem. Simple. Everybody who drives the truck now has a cellphone anyway.

Yes, I actually believe in still keeping permanently installed carphones and I'd do it if they still made carphones at all. But they don't, so I'm resigned to it.

However, since we have all the teensy portable cellphones we need, we opted to cancel that analog phone number entirely.

Only ... you can't do it.

You check that box. You mail in the paper. What happens? You just get a phone call, asking you what you want to do with that old analog phone.

We want to cancel it, we say.

Then in the mail, we get another letter: You only have 60 days to decide what to do with your analog service! We write back. We phone. Cancel it, we say, getting a bit testy now. Don't you have a record that we have already canceled it? Effective immediately? Why are we still being bothered?

No problem, sir or madam. Consider it cancelled.

Five separate requests for cancellation.

Then we get this phone from Verizon. And when we study the fine print on the shipping form, we discover that this new phone is intended as a replacement for our old analog carphone. It's already activated (for our convenience, I'm sure). All we have to do is start using it, and our service will continue without interruption.

Except we'll be billed $139 for the phone itself.

A phone we didn't ask for, ever, not once.

Continuing service on a phone number we have tried to cancel, and have been told was cancelled, multiple times.

Folks, this is not a misunderstanding. This is a corporate strategy of shopdropping. They are stealing $139 from us by ignoring our repeated requests to cancel that particular phone number, and then sending us a phone that we don't want, and billing us for it without our even having to authorize it.

Does it attach to our truck and remain there for hands-free operation, with a roof antenna that makes reception far better than any handheld cellphone ever gets? No?

Then it is not a replacement for our carphone! It is a new handheld and every living human for whose telephone use we are responsible already has a handheld cellphone. We would have to have another child and wait for it to grow up and learn to talk before we'd have a use for this phone.

It is not worth $139 to us. It is not worth whatever monthly charge it would entail. It is worthless to us.

And yet here it is in our home, delivered by Federal Express, and we have to take the time to repackage it and ship it back in order not to have to pay for it.

That's shoplifting in reverse, and it oughta be a crime.

I only wish I believed that by sending the phone back, we will have convinced Verizon to take no for an answer.

I think that instead of cancelling that one telephone number for our old analog carphone, they'll cancel a different account, or all our Verizon accounts. Or send us another new phone. Or maybe two this time.

Because one thing is certain. Verizon Wireless is not listening.

But our next move is simple. If Verizon doesn't stop this shopdropping and start doing what we tell them to do with our account, then we will become Sprint customers.

Can you hear me now?

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