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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 4, 2011

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


Cowboys & Aliens, Sullivan's Travels, OBX

Jon Favreau is that strangest of all creatures in Hollywood -- an actor turned writer turned mega-director. When I saw his picture I knew I recognized him -- from roles like the thuggish-looking Daniel Bateman on The Replacements (one of my wife's and my guilty-secret favorite movies).

He's still acting -- he played Barry in I Love You, Man and wrote and starred in Couples Retreat. Of course, I hated his character in that movie, but the point is, he's a working actor who became a writer who ...

... directed Iron Man. And that was a terrific movie.

He also directed Iron Man 2 and Elf, two movies of surpassing loathsomeness.

(I hasten to add that this is my opinion, because when I say things like that, somebody always writes to tell me that it was the "greatest movie ever" or "better than you think." It's not better than I think, and it sucks, in my opinion, and just because you have a different one doesn't mean I'm going to change mine.)

Favreau also directed the delightful kidflick Zathura, and to his credit I must say that the movies of his that I hated were never badly directed -- they just had terrible scripts or Will Ferrell.

All of this is by way of introduction to Cowboys & Aliens, which managed the astonishing feat of nearly getting whipped on its opening weekend by Smurfs, which is not better than I think, because no matter what virtues it might possess, it has Smurfs in it.

Cowboys & Aliens has a premise so wonderful that I am deeply angry that I never thought of it myself. The idea is: What if aliens came to Earth in cowboy days?

How obvious and how wonderful! Wasn't Star Trek originally pitched as Wagon Train in space? The main reason it never occurred to me was that I knew I could never write a western, because I would never be willing to do the research required to get all the historical details right.

But that's only necessary when you write fiction; in the movies, you can screw up details all over the place and no one ever seems to care. (I would give you a full list of examples, most of them dealing with the ignorant misportrayal of computers in movies, but it would take up this entire issue of the Rhino.)

The only trouble with Cowboys & Aliens, as a premise, is that to succeed, the movie needs to be a good western and good sci-fi.

Fortunately, the standards of movie sci-fi are so incredibly low, and westerns are so long out of vogue, that you merely have to get a C- to be "good enough."

Instead, the committee of writers managed to create a B- script, which means that with Favreau's competent direction, this is a surprisingly good movie.

In the western portion of the evening's entertainment, we have the enigmatic hero who comes into town, faces down the obnoxious bad guy, gets thrown in jail, escapes, rejoins the gang of outlaws he left for love of a woman, beats their new leader, and leads them to victory in a righteous cause. It's got the evil cattleman who once fought in the Civil War, and it's got Indians. It even has a touch of realism: people sometimes run out of bullets.

In the sci-fi portion, it's got a super-weapon attached to the hero's wrist, along with a case of amnesia so he can't remember what it is till it starts working. It's got a spaceship half-buried in the desert with cool machines that do cruel or absurd things and an incredibly space-wasting "core" where baby aliens are apparently spawned under a bright light, like an incubator.

It's got an alien from a different species who is allied with humans in order to help save us from the dire fate of her home world. It's got incredible resurrections and cool abductions and the aliens move really really fast, not just when we first see them, but all the way through, which is the sci-fi touch of realism. (By contrast, note how in Alien, the aliens are quick at first but turn slow when we need horror-movie suspense.)

On the stupid side, however, during the big battle the aliens kill so many cowboys, outlaws, and Indians that by actual count the original total was killed twice each, and at the end they still seem to have as many people left as they started with.

This is standard script-writing idiocy. In order to make us feel jeopardy, we see the aliens as irresistible and invulnerable at first. Then, when we think all is lost, the good guys make a mighty effort and using the same weapons against the same guys, now they win. This works in movies only if they keep things moving so fast that the audience doesn't have a second to think. Unfortunately, we had that second.

But forget the quibbles. It's great fun. The dialogue is way better than, say, Independence Day or Titanic, two huge-hit movies whose dialogue cannot be listened to by an adult without inducing embarrassed laughter.

Harrison Ford is surprisingly good as a brutal villain with a heart that can eventually be touched (though in my opinion the character's first act of unjustified brutality is not redeemed by any of his actions later).

Daniel Craig makes a good craggy-faced Gary Cooper-ish hero; Sam Rockwell is wonderful as the bumbling civilian, Adam Beach and Paul Dano are great in a good son/bad son pairing, and Olivia Wilde is effective as a strange stalker-woman.

The fact is that none of the writers has a clue how to create a character (proven by their previous film work), but the actors do a surprisingly good job of concealing this inadequacy by simply being human beings who keep looking sincere while doing completely unjustified things, and so the whole thing works.

Writers can have whole careers in Hollywood without ever learning what a character is because they have actors, who continue to look like the same person no matter how absurdly unrelated, unjustified, and inconsistent their actions are.

As long as there's a lot of action, the audience usually doesn't notice. I notice, but that's because it's my profession; it doesn't hurt this movie much. It's only on rewatching it later at home that some audience members will think, "How could somebody who did this also do that?"

Most audience members will never be bothered at all, because characterization only matters in a few kinds of movies. Unfortunately, any movie made of any book of mine will absolutely require well-written characters, and writers who don't know how to create them are the only kind ever hired to do space flicks, so I'm doomed.

But that's my own little cross to bear; in Cowboys & Aliens, it's not even a useful observation. Nobody comes to a movie like this to see characters; icons and stereotypes are good enough, and this script shuffles and manipulates them reasonably well.

Is this a great movie? Aw, come off it. It's great fun.

*

Speaking of fun, one of the joys of being at the beach -- which is where I am right now (well, technically I'm in a beach house, but you can see the ocean from here) -- is watching old movies that you've never seen before.

The other night we gathered to watch Sullivan's Travels, a Preston Sturges flick that is the absolute favorite movie of the brother of a good friend, which is reason enough to give it a try.

It's a black-and-white screwball comedy from 1941. The premise is that a movie-director wunderkind, John Lloyd Sullivan, wants to stop making comedies and instead create a social-conscience movie about the suffering of the underprivileged. The trouble is, he's never known a speck of suffering in his whole life.

So he takes on the challenge of setting aside his identity as a rich movie guy and going out among the poor without a dime. Hilariously enough, no matter what he does, he keeps ending up in Hollywood, in his own mansion and with the support of his staff.

Until the movie takes a serious turn and he actually gets into a situation the studio can't get him out of, whereupon he learns a valuable and obvious lesson.

In fact, this movie is functionally identical to Stephen King's Misery -- it's about a writer of nonserious stories coming to learn that he shouldn't be ashamed of creating popular entertainment, because it's so much more socially valuable than heavy, serious, arty stuff.

Sadly, even as King wrote a book about a writer learning this lesson, he failed to learn it himself and has pulled a Woody Allen, creating arty, pretentious work -- which he's bad at. But Sullivan's Travels is sincere in its self-congratulation and we quite enjoyed it.

It's not a great movie -- how can a great movie have Veronica Lake in it? (Then again, Groundhog Day is a great movie, and it has Andie MacDowell in it, so I suppose flat-affect acting isn't completely fatal.) Joel McCrea (not to be confused with musical comedy star Gordon MacRae) is charming in the lead, and the normal array of studio character actors fills out the cast admirably, with special affection for Jimmy Conlin as the trusty who befriends Sullivan in prison.

*

A friend sent me an email with a bunch of pictures of Liu Bolin, an artist who paints himself (or has assistants paint him) so that he exactly matches the background he's standing in front of. The idea is not to disappear completely, but rather to make the eye go back and forth between seeing the original image without the man, and then noticing the man.

The pretentious theory that makes this art is that this shows the way people become anonymous and disappear in our evil/hectic/capitalist/postmodern/whatever world.

But really it's just a lot of fun to see pictures of, and if a grownup can figure out a way to make money and have a career doing this, I'm happy to see the very entertaining results.

You can see a gallery of his work (which, not coincidentally, stars himself -- which is the real message, if you want to find one), at http://www.moillusions.com .

And if you doubt that this is real, and think it's a photoshop job, check it out again at hoax-slayer.com, under "invisible man."

*

We didn't go to the beach last year, and in the meantime the country's had a serious economic downturn, which really hurts tourist-based businesses. I half-expected to see that a lot of my favorite places at the Outer Banks were gone, but to my happy surprise, most of them are still around.

A friend in the OBX real estate and house rental trade tells me that times have been tough, but this year seems to be pretty much back to normal.

So Duck Doughnuts is still making great fresh cake doughnuts just a couple of doors away from Try My Nuts, which is still selling terrific nuts, chocolates, and fudge, all in the same strip center, two Sunsations stores north of Staples.

Yeah, that's how I find my way around in Nag's Head and Kill Devil Hills. I know I'm supposed to use milepost markers, but instead I just drive until I see stuff I recognize.

We still found wonderful, original jewelry at Jewelry by Gail and fun gimcrack at Sally Huss Gallery, both on Driftwood Street.

Blue Point Bar and Grill in Duck is still the best restaurant in the Outer Banks (and one of the best in North Carolina), and Ocean Boulevard Bistro in Kitty Hawk is a close second.

My hair stylist recommended, of all things, a hot dog stand called Captain Frank's, and it turns out that it's located in one of our favorite little shopping centers on the Croatan Highway (US 158). And guess what -- it has really brilliant hot dogs and unforgettably good French fries.

And Kitty Hawk Kites -- with a couple of locations, but best known for its huge main store on the Croatan Highway -- remains the best beachabilia store, far better than the big tourist-trap chains.

There are also wonderful, unique shops in the same complex as Blue Point in Duck, and we also were happy to see some worthwhile shopping remains at the bottom end of Hatteras Island, in the last shopping center before you get on the Okracoke ferry -- Hatteras Landing.

In that shopping center, there was once a great restaurant called Austin Creek. But Hurricane Alex took it out -- not directly, but by isolating it so nobody could get there for a long while -- and when a Dirty Dick's took its place, we figured we'd never bother going down there again. (Dirty Dick's specializes in inedible swill; apparently they make their money from selling t-shirts, since I can't imagine anyone eating there twice.)

To our joy, our friends who live and work in the Outer Banks informed us that a good new restaurant, Island Perks, is in the Austin Creek location at Hatteras Landing. And while it isn't a world-class restaurant, the food is good enough to be worth the drive, and the service and location are delightful.

If it sounds as if I spend my entire time at the Outer Banks eating and shopping, then you've been paying attention. But it's also important to me that I not interrupt my physical regimen of diet and exercise. Since the diet is dead, I have to redouble the exercise, and for that I use Spa Koru, an ideal gym and health resort in Avon.

We've been going to Spa Koru for years, on the theory that it's way smarter to do my running on a treadmill in an air-conditioned room, where I can also lift weights and have access to a drinking fountain and a restroom, than to go running along a highway with the sun burning me, 90-degree heat depleting me, and cars zipping along trying to kill me.

Instead, we take sun and exercise separately.

My wife and daughters and friends all attest that Spa Koru also does an excellent job of yoga and Zumba classes, hot rock massages, manicures, and pedicures.

Best of all, Spa Koru has the most enlightened payment method I've ever seen. If you plan to come back again and again during your week or two at the beach, you can buy a punch card. They don't actually give you a card -- it's a metaphor. But you buy one card for your entire group.

Each time you come in, for a workout or for a class, you identify yourselves as belonging to that card, and they charge you as many punches as you have people. We ended up using three cards during a couple of weeks, since almost all of us went there many times.

But if you don't use all your punches, you haven't lost anything, because they keep you in their computer forever. Come back three years later, identify yourself, and you can still claim your unused punches!

Spa Koru is that rare thing: a gym that maintains its equipment. Every exercise machine is in excellent working order all the time. The restrooms are spotless. The message is clear: somebody cares.

Spa Koru also has luxury cabins you can rent by the day. Not cheap, but good for a getaway at the beach during the off-season, too, if you feel the need to visit the OBX and get pampered in the meantime.

Because of Spa Koru, we come home from the beach feeling fitter and more relaxed than we ever did from beach activities alone.

But it's still wonderful to walk along the beach, duck into the bathtub-warm water and the gentle waves, watch the sandpipers scooting along and the young whippersnappers do their waveskimming and kiteboarding, while little kids dig in the sand and make castles and old coots like me just soak it all in.

If you sometimes feel as if you work all year just to earn enough time and money to get that week or weeks at the beach, my answer is, What's wrong with that? You got any better ideas?


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