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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 03, 2003

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


Dark Blue, Biographies, and Movies I Won't Review

Kurt Russell is almost exactly my age, which means that when he was a teenage actor, he was playing characters a couple of years younger than me. That was almost a guarantee that I wasn't interested in his early work.

And for a long time, as he made that horrible transition from child to adult roles, he didn't get many parts that persuaded me to regard him as anything more than a likeable, fairly competent actor.

His movies tended to get stolen out from under him. He did a good job in Stargate, for instance, but James Spader walked away with the movie.

Well, that ain't gonna happen with Dark Blue. This may be the best cop movie ever -- sort of an answer to Dirty Harry by way of Bad Lieutenant -- and, indeed, Kurt Russell had to create a character who sometimes had to be Clint Eastwood and other times Harvey Keitel.

I have no idea whether the LAPD prior to the Rodney King riots was this corrupt, but we know that as a culture it was corrupt, racially bigoted, and arrogantly detached from the public it was supposed to serve. Certainly this film captures that.

But the real triumph of the movie is that not one character is a cartoon. The people who hold high offices act like the kind of people who might get such jobs (which is rarely the case in movies); the relationships with wives and lovers look and feel like real ones; and the process by which a young cop is deliberately corrupted is unbearably believable.

Still, the young cop, played unforgettably by Scott Speedman, cannot steal this one from Kurt Russell, because for once Russell was cast in a part that let him show what he can do.

Watching him move from the cocky, macho cop to the cowering lapdog of his corrupt "controller" is astonishing to see; his anguish and helplessness as he realizes just how much he has paid for being "one of the boys" are perfect. He doesn't show what he's feeling; rather he tries to conceal it.

I don't know how much of the brilliance of this film comes from the original James Ellroy story and how much from David Ayer's screenplay, but the result feels truthful without ever giving us a moment to breathe.

This is one of the great movies. Like Silverado and Patton, it comes long after its genre seemed to have exhausted itself, but manages to be a corrective, even a satire, while still being a perfect example of the genre.

If you care about great performances, great writing, or just seeing a truly excellent film, don't miss Dark Blue.

*

On the other hand, you can miss Jungle Book 2 if you want to. Sure, it's good-natured and harmless, and way more entertaining than, say, Jimmy Neutron, but in a world that already includes the original Disney Jungle Book, it's hard to find a reason for this one to exist at all.

And I found my mind wandering enough to wonder where in India they would have found rivers of lava. In fact, the mix of animals -- not to mention the overwhelmingly African music -- suggests that the people making this movie thought that all jungles are the same.

Here's a clue: India has as long and great a musical tradition as Africa. So why does a musical set in India have not a whiff of Indian influence?

Never mind. If you have a kid and have to go see it, you don't need to bring a book and a flashlight.

*

Review It Yourself. Here's a list of currently playing movies that I would happily stand in line for half an hour not to see.

Perhaps I'm too judgmental, but I think movie marketing people usually do a pretty good job of letting you know what kind of movie they're selling. And as often as not, the promo makes me decide, emphatically, that this is a movie I am not going to see.

For instance, I'm not going to see The Pianist. It looks like it's brilliantly acted and may be well written. My problem is that ever since I read Rise and Fall of the Third Reich as a child, films that take place within the Nazi holocaust are so emotionally draining for me that I pay too high a price for watching them.

I went to Schindler's List and wept, even though I knew Spielberg's version was full of lies and distortions and cynical audience manipulation (little red coat, indeed!)

I also went to Life Is Beautiful and laughed and cried on cue.

But I'm done.

No more coming out of the theater red-eyed and emotionally spent. So even though The Pianist is nominated for best picture and best actor, I won't be there. Maybe I'll catch glimpses of it on cable.

When it comes to Old School, on the other hand, I'm not going to the movie because I spent years switching away from Will Farrell whenever he showed up on Saturday Night Live.

I didn't do it on purpose. I switched away whenever SNL was gratingly unfunny -- it just happened to coincide one-for-one with Farrell's appearances.

So I'm going to pay money to watch his brand of humor for an hour and a half in a theater? Ha ha.

I'm not going to see The Life of David Gale, either. I oppose the death penalty for practical, not theoretical, reasons, but that doesn't mean I want to sit through a couple of hours of a "thriller" that promises to be a politically correct diatribe on executions.

Nor am I ever going to see Frida. I know enough about the artist to know that I am interested in neither her life nor her art. Plus, I start with the bias that films about "geniuses" are usually ghastly, dishonest, pretentious, and boring. The promos gave no hope that Frida would be an exception.

Shanghai Knights may be wonderful. But it is clearly designed for an audience consisting of people who don't fall asleep when they watch martial arts. I am not in that category.

Final Destination 2? If I want to be scared, I don't go to a horror movie, I tune to CBS and watch the Dan Rather mannequin recite the news.

So if you want trustworthy reviews of these movies, you'll have to read some other review column.

*

Biographies. I do love the tv show Biography on A&E. These one-hour overviews of celebrity lives (and, now and then, the lives of genuinely important people) do a pretty good job of presenting the most interesting points; and the interviews often add perceptive insights.

It's way better than most bio-pics. (A few have been brilliant movies -- Gandhi, Lawrence of Arabia -- but that doesn't mean they're good biographies.)

Still, good as it is, Biography is not the same thing as an actual biography.

Biography has serious research in it, just like a book. It tries to tell you not only what people did and what was done to them, but also why. Of course, the why is always guesswork, but it can be informed speculation, and Biography does a good job of that, too.

What it can't give you is enough detail for you to form your own judgments. It can't include the peripheral stories. It can't digress into the lives of friends and family members. It can't cite and evaluate the sources in any detail.

That's why we still need the books.

But how do you judge a biography?

Let me talk a bit about three biographies I am now reading or just finished. Peter Krass's biography of Andrew Carnegie, called, simply, Carnegie, is well written -- while it meets scholarly standards, it doesn't sound scholarly. Instead, Krass does a good job of keeping us interested in Carnegie even though we may not approve of the things that Carnegie does.

Carnegie has been demonized for many years as one of the "robber barons" of the great age of capitalism before all those nasty rules that hem in the "free market." (Enron and other companies have shown us that we still have businessmen with the same morals -- it's just that now when they get caught, they go to jail.)

But you can't help admiring him for his boldness and determination, and for his occasional efforts to salvage something like a personal life and admirable character.

So much detail is presented, however, that it's easy for readers who don't love biography to become impatient. Get on with it! (I do love biography. However, I wouldn't want to read this one aloud to a teenager.)

A biography I just finished was George Q. Cannon: A Biography, by Davis Bitton, published for the Mormon reading audience.

I must confess I picked this one up more because of the author's name than the subject -- I know and admire Bitton's work. But such is Bitton's ability that I soon became fascinated by Cannon's life.

For those who don't know, Cannon was the public face of Mormonism during the last half of the 19th century. During the era when Congress was trying to stamp out the Mormon practice of polygamy in Utah Territory, Cannon was Utah's non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives.

He was such an effective lobbyist (without ever paying a bribe) that he was able to postpone or ameliorate anti-polygamy legislation for many years. In the process, he became such a lightning rod for anti-Mormons that they finally concluded that the only way to pass a law with teeth in it was to remove Cannon from Congress first.

The story of how he "worked" Congress is fascinating, but so is every other part of his life, and Bitton's book was one of the most satisfying biographies I've ever read.

But where Krass was writing about a figure public opinion already disapproved of, Bitton was writing for the Mormon audience about a Mormon leader. His burden, therefore, was to explain to Mormon readers why Cannon was the most hated man in America for several decades.

Mormon readers would have accepted hagiography -- in fact, they tend to prefer it. But instead of creating a "perfect" man, Bitton created a fully balanced biography that could be trusted by non-Mormons and even anti-Mormons to present every legitimate viewpoint that the evidence would support.

Krass wrote about a "bad guy"; Bitton wrote about a "good guy." But imagine how hard it would be to write a biography about your own father-in-law -- who is still alive, and whose wife and children (including your spouse) are extremely opinionated and outspoken and brilliant and prone to criticize.

To me, that sounds like as good a description of one of the circles of hell as you can find this side of Dante.

But that's what Boyd Jay Petersen set out to do with his book Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life. Hugh Nibley is an extraordinarily brilliant man, fluent in dozens of languages, ancient and modern, and his scholarship has been published and admired in peer-reviewed journals.

However, what made him famous -- and beloved -- was his apologetics of Mormonism. Able to go straight to original materials as the equal of any other scholar, he has been able to bring powerful insights to the public defense of his (and my) religion.

At the same time, he has also been an outspoken critic of Mormon culture, pointing out with sometimes painful candor just where and how Mormons don't live up to their own supposed beliefs. He takes on all comers, not in a belligerent way, but rather by simply telling the truth, take it or leave it.

Still, by no measure can Nibley's life be considered normal. His brilliance was recognized early on, and even though his siblings were also brilliantly talented and encouraged, Hugh had the advantage -- and burden -- of being singled out.

What Petersen achieves in this book is to let us see that brilliance does not make one whit of difference in a man's struggle for religious faith and for personal happiness.

One of the choices Petersen made was to separate Nibley's life from consideration of his ideas and works. The chapters usually alternate -- one of biography, one of overview-and-analysis. This sometimes results in weird stumbles -- a whole chapter on the Hopis? -- and in repetition, as information in an analysis chapter shows up again in the biography chapter.

And the worst limitation Petersen faced was that, unlike Bitton and Krass, who wrote about people who were strangers, and safely dead, Petersen had to write about his wife and her brothers and sisters. Count on it -- there's a lot of stuff he could have written about that he simply skipped over.

And that's just fine. This is not the last biography of this great and fascinating man -- it's the first. And as a first step, it's a good one. It will be an excellent resource for biographers to come.

The best proof of a good biography is that it is fascinating and informative even to readers who didn't care about the subject prior to reading it. I daresay that most readers of this column couldn't care less about Carnegie, Cannon, or Nibley. But if you love delving into someone else's life the way I do, I can promise you -- as a gourmand, if not connoisseur, of biographies -- that different as they are, any of these three will be fascinating.


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