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
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
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
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
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
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
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