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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 11, 2007

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


Amazing Grace, Watchman, Idol, Cruciverbalism

It's not going to be the best movie you see this year, but it might be the most important.

Amazing Grace is the story of William Wilberforce, the man who was most responsible (though he certainly did not work alone) for abolishing the slave trade and, ultimately, slavery itself, beginning with the British Empire, but ultimately around the world.

The trouble with a story like this is that while Wilberforce's effort was heroic, fighting in what seemed to be a losing cause -- yet one that could not, morally, be abandoned -- the great moments consisted of speeches and votes, votes and speeches.

How much of this is a movie audience going to enjoy?

Writer Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Gypsy Woman, and, incredibly enough, various questions on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire) had a nearly impossible task. How do you take a man whose life was one long but deeply boring crusade and turn it into a thrilling, moving film?

In the long run, it has to be a movie about slavery itself. Yet in another sense, the slaves were, by definition, nearly powerless to change their situation. The story is primarily about Europeans with a conscience -- they are talking about the suffering of African slaves and trying to end it, but the slaves themselves are barely present.

The one African character who plays an important role in the struggle, Oloudaqh Equiano, is powerfully portrayed by Youssou N'Dour (best known as a composer). Otherwise, Africans are represented only by a few glimpses, in vision, of slave children.

This was absolutely the right choice. We needed to see only what most Englishmen of the time would have seen -- the chains, the slave ships, and whatever they might imagine from the accounts they were given.

The relationships that mattered were among the influential people of London -- people with money, people of faith, men in Parliament. The script jumps around a little in time, but does a good job of developing the key relationships in Wilberforce's life.

First is his political friendship with William Pitt the Younger, played well by Benedict Cumberbatch (whose name is almost as silly as Wilberforce's).

Second is the romance with his wife, Barbara, played with strength, wit, and grace by the remarkable Romola Garai, whom I remembered from her luminous performance as Kate Nickleby in the 2002 film of Nicholas Nickleby.

Third, but perhaps most moving, is Wilberforce's friendship with his old teacher, John Newton. Albert Finney reminds us of his greatness as an actor, giving us a deeply convincing portrayal of the former slaveship captain who, stricken with remorse, lives a life of service to God, writing one of the greatest of all hymns, "Amazing Grace," and then confessing his sins in a book that helped sway public opinion.

There are also powerful performances by the always-ambiguous and never-boring Rufus Sewell (Knight's Tale, Tristan and Isolde) as abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, Toby Jones as the diminutive and slightly slimy Duke of Clarence, the bleakly powerful Ciaran Hinds (whom you may remember as Herod in The Nativity Story and Finn McGovern in Road to Perdition) as Lord Tarleton, and Michael Gambon (the replacement for Richard Harris as Dumbledore) as a great wreck of a man as Lord Charles Fox, and the enigmatically sexy Georgie Glen as abolitionist Hannah More.

And don't overlook the slightly goofy-faced Jeremy Swift, who was absolutely charming as Wilberforce's butler. You may remember Swift from great small roles in Gosford Park (2001) and Oliver Twist (2005).

So strong are these performances that a lesser actor than Ioan Gruffudd (YO-un GRIFF-ith) would have been overwhelmed. Instead, Gruffudd proves once again that he has far more than his good looks to take with him into a role. His turns as Horatio Hornblower first caught the world's attention, and it would be hard to imagine any other actor except, perhaps, a young Peter O'Toole, who embodies a similar mix of sensitivity and strength, vulnerability and force of will, along with a personal beauty that transcends mere attractiveness.

Please, let him never play James Bond. I only wait for him to get the role that is worthy of his talent -- the role that will do for him what Lawrence of Arabia did for Peter O'Toole and Dr. Zhivago did for Omar Sharif.

This role is not it, alas -- despite an excellent script, well directed by Michael Apted (Firstborn [1984], Nell [1994], Enough [2002]), Amazing Grace tells a great story well, but it is not a great movie.

It doesn't have to be. In an era when people so easily forget their own history, it is enough to have a merely good movie about a great life and a great achievement.

And when I compare Amazing Grace with Steven Spielberg's wretched Amistad, this movie wins hands down. For Spielberg, as usual, could not tell the truth. He let political correctness deform the story: In Amistad, Spielberg relentlessly ridiculed and slandered the Christian abolitionists whose protests and vigilance were the only things keeping the mutinous slaves alive and free.

Amazing Grace, on the other hand, does not hate Christians -- this movie recognizes that it was Christianity alone that provided the foundation of virtue that ultimately allowed conscience to prevail over profit and long custom.

Not only that, but Knight and Apted realized that Christianity is still very much alive, and a people that actually tries to live up to its precepts will become the best of societies. When Ioann Gruffudd embarrasses a club full of worldly men by interrupting their drinking song to give a fervent rendition of "Amazing Grace," the audience for the film is moved, as we are moved again by Wilberforce's, Newton's -- indeed, everyone's profession of faith.

It is worth keeping in mind that the abolition of slavery, worldwide, began with Christianity; sometimes we get our history so deeply screwed up that people blame Christians for slavery.

In fact, slavery was a nearly universal practice of human beings, taken for granted as the natural order of things, and while there were those, here and there, who tried to stanch the flow, it was only in Christian nations that people found the will to fight -- by legislation where possible, by bloodshed where necessary -- to end the ownership of one human being by another everywhere.

And it took the great "post-Christian" atheistic empires of Nazism and Communism to reinvent slavery. I don't blame all atheists for that -- but neither should we blame Christians for slavery when it was only Christians who succeeded in abolishing it.

You want your family to learn about the slave trade and how it really ended? Watch the first fifteen minutes of Amistad, until the slaves get to Boston, and then put it away and spend the rest of your time watching the far more honest, accurate, and fair Amazing Grace.

Not the Amazing Grace is perfect. While it is true to the life of Wilberforce, who was a pacifist, a communitarian, and a protector of animals, the movie does neglect to tell us what made England's abolition of the slave trade so significant: Once it had stopped its own ships from trading in human flesh, England declared, unilaterally, that it would tolerate no slave ships upon the seas anywhere in the world.

Think about that. A nation dared to say that slavery was not only wrong for Christians, it was wrong for everybody, everywhere. And then, because it had the greatest navy in the world, the British declared war on all slave ships and then spent their own treasure and risked their own lives capturing any slave ship they found and bringing those who operated them to justice.

How could a British film tell that part of the story, in an age when the power elites are committed to hating America for behaving in exactly the same manner, and in a cause every bit as noble?

Despite the filmmakers' best efforts, I could not help but think, as I watched this movie, that all those complacent people who argued against abolishing the slave trade were just as complacent, just as politically smart and morally dumb, as those today who abuse and ridicule President Bush and the American military for trying to offer the Muslim world the gift of democracy in place of suicide bombers, oppressive dictatorships, and endless poverty.

But you may be assured that you can watch this movie without having any contemporary message rammed down your throat. The filmmakers recognized that the story of William Wilberforce is one that should be vivid in everyone's memory, no matter how you might personally apply the lessons of history to our present time.

*

The producers of the soundtrack album for the movie Amazing Grace made a remarkable choice. While the music that plays under the scenes in this movie was excellent, and I really would like to have a recording of Ioann Gruffudd's a capella performance of the title song, I think they made the right decision.

The album consists of modern renditions of the great Christian hymns of that period. Not just "Amazing Grace," but such classic hymns as "All Creatures of Our God and King," "Holy, Holy, Holy," "Fairest Lord Jesus," "I Need Thee Every Hour," "Were You There?" "Rock of Ages," "Nearer My God to Thee," and "How Great Thou Art" -- all of them rendered, not by church choirs, but by pop and folk singers who take the songs seriously.

Steven Curtis Chapman, Jars of Clay, David Crowder, Chris Tomlin, Natalie Grant, Martina McBride, and many others, bring strength and vigor to hymns that for some of us might be so familiar that we have stopped hearing them.

It's good to remember that at one time these hymns were new, speaking from and to the hearts of living men and women. With this cd, they're new again. I have listened to them over and over. While not everyone will love every arrangement, I certainly did.

*

The old hard-boiled mystery heroes worked alone. Oh, they might have friends they called on from time to time, but when it came time to get their hands dirty, they plunged on ahead alone.

Contemporary mystery novelists, however, have made another choice -- for good reason. Gone are the days when readers will believe that a lone private eye can take on gangsters and drug dealers with their bare fists or even a .38 -- and come out alive.

So writers like Robert B. Parker, Walter Mosley, and Robert Crais have equipped their heroes with a Dangerous Friend: Spenser has Hawk, Easy Rawlins has Mouse, and Elvis Cole has Joe Pike. (I could have made a much longer list, but these will do.)

Notice how each of them has an animal name. Two of them are nicknames, with "Hawk" chosen because it's apt and "Mouse" because it's ironic. Joe Pike's name is the one he got from his (abusive) father -- one can think of it as the medieval weapon of war, or as the dangerous predatory fish.

In each of these cases, when the hero has to go into battle, he is still limited by his own moral sense -- he's going to try to capture the bad guys alive and turn them over to law enforcement. But his friend has no such qualms -- and the bad guys know it.

Where Spenser would have been killed without hesitation, the bad guys leave him alone because they know that Hawk is backing him; when Easy Rawlins faces someone truly evil, it's Mouse who saves time and worry by simply eliminating the threat instead of trusting the system to work things out.

Hawk and Mouse are both black (so is hero Easy Rawlins); Joe Pike is white. He's a Vietnam vet (which means he's getting a little old now, like the rest of us of that generation), and after a stint in the police force, he became a mercenary soldier. In all of Robert Crais's Elvis Cole mysteries, Pike has been every bit as taciturn and enigmatic as Hawk or Mouse. And almost as dangerous and violent. (Nobody's as dangerous and violent as Mouse.)

Part of their effectiveness in these mystery novels comes from how little we know about them. They're violent -- but they're also offstage. This is a necessity, because whenever they're in the scene, they threaten to steal it from the ostensible hero. After all, if it's Hawk, Mouse, or Pike who is going to do the really hard things, what's the "hero" for? OK, he's the sensitive smart guy who figures everything out. But when the bullets fly, the readers are absolutely counting on the Good Bad Guy to get the job done and make everything turn out OK.

Well, Robert Crais finally decided to stop pushing Joe Pike into the background and gave him a book of his own, The Watchman. And he did it without compromising the character. Pike is exactly as taciturn as he ever was.

Pike is called in for a job by a man to whom he owes a serious favor. The job? A spoiled-brat rich girl, Larkin Barkley, witnessed -- well, caused -- a traffic accident that involved a criminal. Now her testimony is needed to prove that this criminal was in the same car as a couple of other people who supposedly weren't criminals.

Somebody wants her dead -- and means it.

Not only that, but that somebody has an inside guy -- because no matter where the FBI puts her to protect her, within an hour or two, there are hit men ready to blow her away. Pike is barely on the job before he and Larkin are on the run.

I can promise you unending tension; a smart mystery; lots of humor (because this is a Robert Crais novel); and answers to all your questions about Joe Pike.

OK, not all of them, but enough that instead of just being a dangerous sidekick, he's now a full-fledged character.

In this book, Elvis Cole -- the usual hero -- is somewhat diminished. He is called in as Joe Pike's backup, and his normal wisecracking style completely turns Larkin off. It's Joe Pike she decides she wants -- and she's used to getting whatever she wants. Only she can't have Pike, not with her usual bag of tricks, anyway.

It's dangerous to diminish your series hero the way Cole is diminished in this novel. But I suspect he'll come back strong in the next book that's about him. I just hope Crais keeps Pike alive as a series hero in his own right. This book may well be Crais's best novel to date -- not a thing to be lightly said.

*

It was kind of fun (and also kind of sad) to see Randy, Paula, and Simon look completely dazed by the audience decisions on American Idol last week.

The sad part was that Sundance Head, Jared Cotter, and Sabrina Sloan got booted, when they are all better performers than, say, Sanjaya Malakar, Haley Scarnato, and Brandon Rogers.

My first thought was: Maybe this was partly the judges' fault. When Simon tells Sanjaya, "That was a mess," or tells Haley, "That was awful," isn't it possible that some of the audience says, "Hey, don't treat that nice boy/sweet girl like that!

Sure, Sanjaya looked like an absolute fool doing the hula. (Some secrets are better kept, Sanjaya, or at least told rather than shown.) And he was only on pitch a couple of times in his latest performance. But he does have that great bashful smile.

And despite the fact that Simon keeps reminding us that it's a singing competition, that's only mostly true. It's also about likeability. Sanjaya's got it. Like "Red" and that short boy from Idaho, sometimes they linger on and on because, doggone it, people like them, even if they aren't good enough.

Of course, that's also true of Carrie Underwood and she won, but that's another issue. (It wasn't all that strong a year.)

This year is unbelievably strong -- I would buy albums from Melinda Doolittle, Lakisha Jones, Stephanie Edwards, and Chris Sligh right now.

But as we look at those people who were "wrongly" booted out just before the top 12, let's keep a few things in mind.

First, it's actually kind of a blessing. It means that Sundance, Sabrina, and Jared won't have to be in that long national tour, won't be doing a bunch of group numbers, etc. That's actually one of the weirdest things about American Idol. The person who is the first one out of the top 12 to be booted still has to do the whole national tour with the others. Talk about being low man on the totem pole!

So Sanjaya and Haley will have to do the tour, and Sundance, Sabrina, and Jared won't. They also won't get paid for it, but ... there are benefits to getting cut before the top 12.

Second, there was zero chance that Sabrina and Jared would have made it even into the top half. They're both very good performers, but let's be realistic.

Third, even if Sundance Head might have made it higher, let's keep in mind that he made a very stupid song choice for his last week on the show, and performed it badly. There is an audience for the kind of loud, tuneless song he sang, and for the screamish, unpleasant way he sang it. And maybe it felt really cool to sing it like that.

But it wasn't pleasant to hear or to watch. He was off pitch -- a lot -- and even when he was on, and even when I could understand the words, I didn't like the song.

You don't stay on American Idol very long if you sing songs that are unpleasant to hear.

You can't help the face you were born with, but ... look at Sabrina Sloan. When we saw videos of her in high school, we saw the real girl she used to be. That girl, but singing the way Sabrina does now, probably would have stayed on the show. The young woman we saw perform, however, looked manufactured.

She was simply too glamorous. On Idol, we like to have just a touch of the amateur feeling with our performers. (Which is why it was so sad to see what has become of Pickler when she sang a few weeks ago ...)

The main interest right now is to see whom America loves most: Melinda Doolittle, Lakisha Jones, Chris Sligh, or Stephanie Edwards.

Without question, Melinda Doolittle is far and away the best singer and the best performer and the most lovable human being (at least from the distance we see them at).

But we also adore the other three because they are also likeable. Chris Sligh is funny and smart. Lakisha Jones has a voice that can only be compared to Mahalia Jackson (and nobody can be compared to Mahalia Jackson!) Stephanie Edwards is charming. In an ordinary year, any one of them could have won; all three are better than some of the past winners.

So we'll be watching to see if Melinda Doolittle is maybe just a little too good to win. She is so obviously the front-runner that the partisans of some of the others might be more motivated to dial again and again.

That's why I'm happy that Daughtry, Pickler, Aiken, and others who didn't win have still gone on to have very successful cds. I know that even if Doolittle is deprived of the victory she deserves (while Randy, Simon, and Paula look shocked!), I will still get to buy her cds and listen to her over and over.

And unlike Fantasia, there's a decent chance that she will record the kind of song I like to listen to.

*

I bet you don't spend a lot of time thinking about crossword puzzles. Even if you do crossword puzzles, what's to think about? There they are, in the newspaper, in the magazine, and you just sit there and puzzle out the clues.

But there's a story behind every single puzzle you solve (or fail to solve): Somebody composed that puzzle. There's a real art to it, both in creating a grid of interesting words and in developing the clues that will be challenging but not impossible.

In the old days, the makers of these puzzles would search for obscure words -- you couldn't solve the puzzles without a dictionary. But there's little joy, for most puzzle-solvers, in wrestling with words that are not really part of the English language -- not the language spoken by most of us.

There was a revolution in the crossword-puzzle world back in the 1980s. A new generation of puzzlemakers and editors revolted against the obscurantist tradition and began to create truly dazzling puzzles.

Even though I didn't know it was a revolution at the time, I definitely was aware of -- and delighted at -- the new style of crossword puzzle. I subscribed to Games Magazine the moment it first appeared, and we've kept up our subscription ever since (except for a sad interlude when it wasn't published at all, due to the collapse of the former publisher).

Games Magazine embraced the new style of puzzle at once, and became a leader in the field. Eventually, the new generation of puzzlemakers was able to get the New York Times editorship into the hands of one of their own, and their victory was complete.

I think I can safely say that not since crosswords were invented a century ago have we had better -- and more accessible -- puzzles than today.

Which brings me to the book Cruciverbalism: A Crossword Fanatic's Guide to Life in the Grid. Author Stanley Newman claims -- and probably deserves -- credit for being the leader of the new movement. This slim book (co-authored by Mark Lasswell) is a fascinating, if self-serving, story of how a scornful gaming newsletter was able to awaken a generation of puzzlemakers and editors, converting them to a new and better way of doing their art.

There's more than a little mean-spiritedness in this book, as well as a soupçon of vanity. Newman shows us more about himself than I think he intended. I'm not sure I'd enjoy being trapped in a conversation with this man.

Yet the book is highly entertaining and, while it's puzzle-solving and puzzle-making tips were already well known to me (as to anyone who regularly works puzzles today), it was still fun to see them spelled out.

As with recent books about Scrabble and Trivia fanatics, this book absolutely convinced me that I will never go to a convention or try to compete -- the true fanatics work too hard. It isn't a game for them anymore, and competing with them wouldn't be fun.

But for a stay-at-home crossworder like me, this book is a delight.

And even if there is a vast multitude of players who sneer at American crosswords because they prefer the cryptic British system of writing clues, I have no such bias: I like American and British crosswords. There's an art to both kinds, and I enjoy solving them.

Especially when the words and phrases are actually part of the language I speak and the culture I belong to. The fact that contemporary crosswords are almost always the way I like them is owed in large measure to Newman and the others who took part with him in the crossword revolution.


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