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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 12, 2003

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


Daddy Day Care, Spirited Away, X2, and OBX

Daddy Day Care looked like it just might be that most horrible of monstrosities -- an Eddie Murphy comedy for kids. Those of us who remember the pain of watching the appalling sexual innuendos of his last kiddie outing, Dr. Dolittle 2, did not watch the previews of Daddy Day Care with any enthusiasm.

The happy surprise is that DDC isn't a kiddie flick. A lot of kids will enjoy it, but it's a parenting comedy, it's for adults, and it's funny.

Believe it or not, the studio marketing department actually put out a trailer that did not show every single funny moment in the picture. Instead, there were surprises in the movie, gags that had me laughing out loud a dozen times -- which is a lot, for me.

It's no masterpiece. Because all studio movies have to follow the formulas of the moronic screenwriting classes, there is a villain in a movie that didn't really need one, and while Anjelica Huston does her best, the part really amounts to nothing. Her sabotage during the fund-raising picnic has no noticeable effect; the final confrontation is a completely impossible scene; and her obligatory "come-uppance" with a bunch of bees goes on only a few seconds short of forever.

But apart from those wasted minutes, what we get is four gifted male comedians -- Eddie Murphy, Jeff Garlin as "the fat friend," Steve Zahn as "the Star Trek geek," and Jonathan Katz in an uncredited turn as the inspector -- who play brilliantly off each other and the most amazing group of preschool charmers.

Steve Zahn is a master of well-meaning confusion, and this script really gave him a chance to shine. Hey, he even gets the babe!

The women are, naturally, icons rather than characters, since the whole point of this movie is a bunch of guys doing "women's work" in the absence of women. But Hailey Noelle Johnson is warm and lovely as Eddie Murphy's wife, while Susan Santiago, the aforementioned babe, is in fact a believable human being.

There were a lot of deft touches that helped this movie survive the procrustean formulas and battle-of-the-sexes cliches. It won't be on anybody's best-of-the-year list, or even best-of-the-month, but for an evening of fun at the movies, it was no dumber than X2, and had a lot more connection to human life.

Speaking of X2, the X-Men sequel, what is there to say? It never lost my attention, but it also never won my heart. At the end, when one of the good guys died -- an absolutely unnecessary and meaningless death, too -- several scenelets were devoted to getting all mournful about this character's "sacrifice." I kept waiting for somebody to say, "If (unnamed character) could part a flood and lift a ship from outside, why not lift it from inside and not die?"

But the only place where that question got asked was in the audience.

The truth is, if you're a fan of this kind of thing, you've already seen it by now, and if you're not particularly fond of comic-books-made-into-huge-budget-special-effects-extravaganzas, then there's no reason to think this one will spark any unexpected interest. I'm glad these actors all got paid, but somewhere along the line, isn't somebody in charge of connecting these films to reality, at least now and then?

If you want a truly surprising, original, lovely story, then get the DVD or tape of the Oscar-winning Spirited Away. I hadn't seen it before it won the Oscar -- hadn't even heard of it. But at our nine-year-old's insistence, my wife and I watched it on Mother's Day afternoon and were entranced.

The director of the film, Hayao Miyazaki, also created the lovely jewel Kiki's Delivery Service, which has been a family favorite for several years. Miyazaki creates films that transcend cultural boundaries -- but he is not touched in any way by Hollywood formulas, and his Japanese cultural roots enhance the fantasy for American audiences. We really don't know what's going to happen next.

I once worked briefly with a Disney-trained animation director, and he was full of a lot of ironclad laws that must be followed, no matter how much they might wreck the story. One, for instance, is that you must have a "cute sidekick," an animal or creature of some kind who must accompany the hero and provide wisecracking commentary or "hilarious" complications.

No such trite nonsense in Spirited Away. Instead, the story grows out of Japanese spirit lore and a vibrant imagination. A family is moving to a new house, and their one child, a girl named Chihiro, is dreading it. But they get lost and the parents wander into exploring an abandoned railway station, over the loud objections of their daughter. When they get caught at sundown they are trapped inside a magical world from which Chihiro can only rescue them with the help of others.

The most surprising thing about the story is the way that good vs. evil is handled. There is no particular effort to "punish" the wicked. The wicked witch must be circumvented, not killed; meanwhile, though, other seemingly bad or dangerous characters often turn out to be merely irritable or confused, not evil at all. And yet it makes perfect sense by the end.

If the Disney formula still works on you every time, this movie might just be too challenging for you. But if you're getting a little tired of animation by the numbers, this might well be the refreshing change you're looking for.

*

So this past week I had an invitation I couldn't refuse. I had the chance to do some presentations for the Dare County school system -- in exchange for a free week in a lovely beach house. I won't bore you with an account of my school presentations, except to say that I was delighted with creativity of the students and teachers I met.

Instead, as we head into summer, let's talk about the Outer Banks....

First, there's a reason why you pay less for beach houses in May. When we got there, it was downright cold. And even when it warmed up, you never knew when a thunderstorm might come through and blow everything sideways.

Of course, none of the storms was a hurricane, and they were having a lot worse weather in Hurricane Alley -- and heck, we were at the beach. Even bad weather at the beach is better than good weather at home.

A couple of years ago we stayed in Corolla, and found that north of Nag's Head, the Outer Banks (OBX, as the local abbreviation has it) are a wonderful place. Lots to do on the ocean side and the sound side of the islands, plus good restaurants, plenty of fun little shops, and, of course, lighthouses for those whose day is not complete unless they have climbed up to the top of endless spiral staircases so they can look out and see the same sights they saw from the tops of all the other lighthouses.

This time, though, we turned right at Nag's Head, and found that Hatteras Island is very different. Same beaches, same still-water sound (and still plenty of lighthouses) -- but it feels a bit more laid-back, not so intensely overdeveloped, and you get the sense that fishing is still important to the local economy, not just tourism.

Plus, you pass through miles and miles of wildlife refuges, where you get a glimpse of what these islands were before people started putting up all those mansions they call, without a trace of irony, "cottages."

Of course, there's the same drawback you always get on the OBX -- these are incredibly long, skinny islands, and no matter where you're going, anybody else who is going somewhere is going to be on the same road. But on Hatteras Island, at least in the off season, there seem to be a lot fewer people, and I'm told that this holds true during the season, too. Of course, there are fewer lanes on the road, too, so it all evens out.

We had our favorite restaurants in the north. In Duck, The Blue Point Bar and Grill was my favorite, expensive and crowded but food so wonderful I kept going back. And it's located in the Waterfront Shops, my favorite tourist-shopping spot in the north end.

At Nag's Head, we loved Penguin Isle, which is just as expensive at Blue Point, but with a menu that is a bit more accessible to unadventurous diners (i.e., nine-year-olds).

Of course, if you want to eat cheaply at the beach, you just buy hot dogs and chili and slaw, or tuna fish and bread, or the makings of guacamole or spaghetti. I'd rather eat easy home-fixed stuff all week and eat out at one really good restaurant than eat out all the time at places like Subway or McDonald's or any restaurant with the word "Dirty" in the name.

Yes, there's a chain called "Dirty Dick's," but if you want a review of it, you'll have to get it from somebody who was willing to park their car in front of a place with a name like that.

Not that I'm a complete snob about names. For instance, Try My Nuts is a small chain of candy-and-nut stores that have horribly addictive peanuts -- spicy or double-dipped -- and chocolate-covered cashews.

This past week on Hatteras Island, though, we found out that the southern beaches have good restaurants, too.

Though the first restaurant we tried was in Nag's Head, virtually across the street from Penguin Isle. Owens' Restaurant is a local tradition, with good food, charming service, and a gift shop with wonderful things you truly have not seen in any of the Wings stores in Myrtle Beach.

We also recommend a delightful but tiny place called The Pickled Steamer. At regular mealtimes, the dining room gets so crowded you'll want to just order takeout. This is not an expensive restaurant, but the menu is quite ambitious, and if sometimes I quarrel with some of the choices -- bruschetta served hot? Well, I ate it all, didn't I? -- I have to say that the cooking measured up to the ambition.

But the jewel of the OBX is at the southern tip of Hatteras Island, literally the last place you can turn off on the sound side before boarding the Okrocoke ferry. Austin Creek Grill -- with the accompanying Austin Creek Bakery just across the boardwalk -- is a world class restaurant hiding in about as remote a location as you can get.

From Nag's Head it's more than an hour's drive even in the off season -- but let me tell you, if you value inventive and perfectly prepared food in a lovely setting (you look out the windows at charter fishing boats and as idyllic a neighborhood as you could imagine), it's worth the drive.

In fact, we loved the food so much the night friends took us to dinner there, we came back the next evening just for soup and salad -- and left the place utterly delighted. The soups! They are worth the trip. But I won't bother telling you items from the menu -- it changes too often. All I can say is, this is a restaurant you can trust. If it sounds good, it will be good.

Heck, even if it doesn't sound good, it'll probably be delicious.

*

My achievement of the week, though, was when I found out just how far my wife had drifted away from mainstream American culture. Imagine my shock when I realized that she had never seen Twister, Speed, or Matrix!

Naturally, I had to rectify this embarrassing lack of cultural patriotism as quickly as possible. If you haven't seen Speed, how can you possibly make sense of the careers of Keanu Reeves or Sandra Bullock?

And without seeing Twister, you just don't know how a wonderful ensemble and good writing can turn formula into great filmmaking. Plus, once you've seen it, you understand what people mean when they make cryptic remarks like, "We've got cows."

As for Matrix, I mean, puh-leeze. The sequel is going to open up this week and shatter all known attendance records, and how can you possibly hope to understand what's going on if you haven't seen the first movie?

The fun thing about watching Matrix again was to see how much of it consists of long conversations in which Laurence Fishburne desperately tries to explain to Keanu Reeves -- and the audience -- just what in the world is going on. All without losing a moment of coolness.

And by the end, it was clear that Matrix is probably the most obviously religious movie ever made, that was pretending not to be one.

And, unlike the religion in Star Wars, you don't actually have to get your IQ under 100 in order to take it seriously. At least while the movie is actually running.

Oh, and ... eat your heart out, folks. I actually got invited to an advance screening of Matrix Reloaded in LA on Wednesday. I will have seen this movie a full twelve hours before anybody in Greensboro.

Does this make me, at long last, cool?

Or do I also have to wear the clothes from the movie poster to achieve that?


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