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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 4, 2010

Every Day Is Special

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


Taste, Titans, and a Wimpy Kid

We eat out rather often, and still we manage to miss out on many a restaurant. We keep meaning to try them, but they simply don't come to mind the way old favorites do when we're deciding where to have dinner.

Here's a way to get a sample of many restaurants, all on the same evening -- and support local arts education at the same time. Weaver Center is sponsoring "Taste of the Town Downtown" on Monday, April 12th, from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. at the Cultural Arts Center at 200 North Davie Street.

After paying a $5.00 entry fee (think of it as a cover charge), you buy "taste tickets" for $1.00 each (children under six can snack for free), enabling you to sample the signature dishes and appetizers from many of Greensboro's best restaurants, including:

Basil's & Co.

Brixx Wood Fired Pizza

Cafe Pasta

Five Guys Burgers

Kiosco Mexican Grill

Let's Dish

Opa! Taverno

P.F. Chang's

Phoenix Asian Cusine

Riva's Trattoria

Ruth's Chris Steakhouse

Table 16

Taste of Thai

Total Wine

Some of them are already favorites of ours; others I've never even heard of, so I'm looking forward to making their acquaintance. There will also be live entertainment all evening.

You can pay at the door, or order you entry tickets online at www.fundthefringeforweaver.com. The restaurants are all donating their food and their service to help benefit the theatre department at Weaver Education Center, Guilford County's performing arts high school.

I, for one, hope this turns into an annual event.

*

If ever there was a movie that epitomized cheesy entertainment, it was the 1981 myth-mucker Clash of the Titans, starring Harry Hamlin, who went on to fame as the good-looking L.A. Lawyer who provided a love interest for Susan Dey.

So when I heard that Clash of the Titans was being remade -- in 3D -- I naturally leapt to the conclusion that this was pure money-making cynicism.

Well, of course it is. But that doesn't mean it has to be bad. After all, Twister, a cynical project if there ever was one, turned out to be so well written and well acted that it's now one of my favorite movies -- the epitome of a vivid ensemble piece.

Clash does not achieve the same status -- it won't be among my top hundred or even two hundred movies. But my fifteen-year-old and I discovered the other night that it was great fun to watch.

We shunned the 3D showings, however, and opted for normal 2D. For me, the special effects work better when my attention isn't being called to the technology. Instead, we simply experienced the computer-generated monsters and remained focused on the characters' peril.

Since I never saw Avatar or Terminator Salvation, I was unfamiliar with the work of actor Sam Worthington, who plays Perseus. His absolutely wooden acting made me wish for somebody as expressive as Jean-Claude Van Damme.

I wondered briefly if Worthington existed at all, thinking that perhaps he was a creation of the CGI masters who made Avatar, and now they were jobbing him around Hollywood as a puppet-like replacement for those pesky human actors, with their expensive trailers and drug habits and opinions.

But no, he's actually human, and later in the movie he actually had three different expressions.

Apart from Worthington's severe limitations as an actor, and Liam Neeson's humiliatingly overblown (and badly written) Zeus, the rest of the cast members were superb. Ralph Fiennes as Hades, the god of the underworld, was great fun to watch as he chewed the scenery and made faces for the camera, while a collection of character actors gave the script a believability and entertainment value it did not deserve.

I would give individual praise to several of these actors, if only I had any idea what their character names were, or if more of them had pictures in the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB.com) so I could recognize them.

The plot makes hash of the mythology, and at times it might be taken as an anti-religious screed, a sort of "take the gods out of heaven, they're not doing a good job" sort of atheism. But serious meanings are simply not to be found; rather, the scriptwriters simply bent the mythological sources to fit utterly unoriginal Hollywood cliches and film-school "rules."

The resulting film had no business being so much fun to watch. If you have no higher goal than to "go to the movies," then Clash of the Titans will not waste your ticket money. It's sad that this achievement puts a movie into the top half of Hollywood releases, but it's true.

*

Diary of a Wimpy Kid is making good money at the box office, because it's a good movie. Yes, it's set in middle school -- but that's actually kind of unusual. Most school-centered kid flicks are set in high school, and deal with cliques, sex, and social wrangling. The best of them -- mostly by the late John Hughes -- can be very good, but the rest are pretty much twaddle.

This is a middle-school movie, which deals with the most hellish experience of many kids' lives. It's the time when the pressure to conform is at its most intense, while puberty's varying arrival times scatter pre-puberty dwarfs among the hairy booby giants.

The "wimpy kid" of the title, Greg Heffley (played by the luminous Zachary Gordon), is just such a dwarf. He arrives in sixth grade full of ambition to be the coolest kid in the school, though without height, excellence at anything, personal integrity, courage, or a brain in his head, it's hard to imagine how he can achieve anything.

Even when he's given real opportunities -- an invitation to take part in the school paper; a chance to show off his genuine singing talent in a school play -- he blows them off or blows them up.

Mostly, though, the story is about friendship -- and what a lousy friend Greg Heffley is. He and pudgy-kid Rowley Jefferson (the exuberant Robert Capron) are longtime friends, but because Rowley is always himself, oblivious to what will make a good impression on the "cool" kids, blurting out whatever comes to mind, Greg is constantly humiliated to be associated with him.

The result is that Rowley actually becomes accepted and popular, while Greg quickly descends to true pariah status. And here's where this story differs from most school comedies: We completely agree with the kids who come to regard Greg Heffley as the scum of the earth.

This movie brings off the same amazing story effect that I've hitherto seen achieved by only two movies: My Best Friend's Wedding and the 2009 BBC miniseries Emma (not the Gwyneth Paltrow disaster). The hero of the movie is completely in the wrong, deserves to lose, does lose, but we like him or her anyway.

The director and many writers of this film did a decent (and therefore way-above-average) job of preserving some elements of the original book without weakening the movie. We get lots of drawings from the titular diary, and plenty of the main character's fantasies. At the same time -- always a danger with literary adaptations -- many of the weaknesses of the book are exposed.

But the excellent casting lets us sail over such flaws. Not only are Zachary Gordon and Robert Capron wonderful young actors, but the cast has depth. Longtime child actress Chloë Grace Moretz is wonderfully wise and enigmatic as the newspaper editor who serves as the observer and judge of all people in middle school.

And Devon Bostick, as Greg's older brother Rodrick, is simply brilliant. He steals every scene he's in (which is hard to do, given Zachary Gordon's charisma). He is quickly established as Greg's tormentor-in-chief -- but he also gives him useful and truthful advice for how to survive in middle school: Say nothing, do nothing to call attention to yourself, sign up for nothing, and whoever you sit with at lunch on the first day, you'll be stuck with for the rest of middle school.

My fifteen-year-old, having come (alive) out of middle school only a couple of years ago, affirmed the wisdom of this advice -- and the truthfulness of the film.

Meanwhile, however, Devon Bostick's character is not just a set of cliches, like the older brother (Bill Paxton) in Weird Science, who exists only to get his comeuppance. Rodrick's comeuppance does take place, engineered by his little brother -- but in the scene where their mother confronts Rodrick with a semi-porn magazine in front of his awful garage band in mid-practice, Bostick gives a nuanced, dead-on performance of fake contrition and genuine humiliation.

I want to see Bostick in leading roles for the next thirty or forty years. (Since this would have me nearing 100 years of age, I dare not wish for more.)

Even Greg's baby brother Manny, played by the twins Connor and Owen Fielding, is wonderful. It's hard to get good performances out of babies, but these twins are miraculously good.

Don't think of this as a kids' movie. There are plenty of those -- and too many of them are the kind of film that if you are over twelve -- in age or I.Q. -- you will seriously think about killing yourself before the thing is over.

When we watched it (on Tuesday night, the 7:20 showing at the Grande in Friendly Center), the audience consisted of my fifteen-year-old and me, plus a good-natured college student who -- from what we saw as we waited behind him while he bought his ticket -- didn't much care what he saw that night.

Ten minutes into the movie, a group of elderly people came in. Not one middle schooler in the audience. Nobody walked out. And my daughter and I had a great time.

I guess what I'm saying is that this movie aspires to, and largely achieves, what John Hughes brought off with most of his high school movies -- it's truthful enough that you don't have to be the same age as the characters in order to enjoy the film.

I remember going to see John Hughes's The Breakfast Club when I was 33 years old. My memories of high school were more vivid than I recalled, and even though none of the characters in the movie reflected my experience, I had known people who had some of their attitudes. It rang true. It resonated.

Wimpy Kid is not as iconic as Breakfast Club, but it has the same ring of truth, and transcends age. It's worth seeing.

If only for the cheese. (Literally -- a slice of cheese left out on the playground.)


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