Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 16, 2008
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Quantum, Bees, Vikings, Facebook Hamlet
I was done with Bond movies after the last Pierce Brosnan one. The ones I
liked best kept making the least money. So they kept returning to the aspects
of the Bond franchise that I found boring or annoying.
What I liked were the more realistic movies -- Never Say Never Again, Sean
Connery's last Bond, and the two Timothy Dalton films, The Living Daylights
and Licence to Kill.
What other people seemed to like were the comic book movies, with truly
stupid villains and utterly unbelievable stunts.
So I never saw the first Daniel Craig performance as Bond, Casino Royale. I
assumed it was more of the same old formula.
But this fall has been such a wasteland for movies that we really had no
choice. Several friends had told us that the Daniel Craig Bond was remaking
the franchise. Besides, Quantum of Solace was the only thing playing that
sounded entertaining to all of us.
And it was. Sort of.
The things I hated about the franchise were mostly missing. The villains were
pretty credible. There weren't so many women being thrown away as pointless
sex objects. And the writers seemed to care about characters and
So yes, as Bond movies go, this one was surprisingly good.
Unfortunately, it got good only because the filmmakers had seen the Bourne
movies and decided that Bond should be reborn as Bourne, only British.
That was actually a pretty good idea. The spy whose own agency has turned
against him is a decent gimmick and it allowed Craig to share the screen with
Judy Dench, which always brightens my day.
The trouble is that while stealing from the Bourne plotlines, the filmmakers
also thought they should make Quantum of Solace look like the Bourne movies,
Quick cuts and rapid pans during chases. Intense close-ups on fight scenes.
They got the visual signature, all right. What they missed was how it was
In Bourne Identity we often didn't get why things were happening because our
viewpoint character, an amnesiac, also didn't know. But we could always
follow what was happening. The close-ups weren't so close that we couldn't tell
what we were seeing. The rapid pans weren't so fast that we lost track of where
we were. The quick cuts let us watch each bit long enough to recognize what
In Quantum of Solace, these directorial fillips became so self-indulgent the
movie was incoherent. We didn't get to see a face long enough to recognize it
when we saw it again. So we were lost -- is this the guy Bond is chasing or a
Worse yet, the movie began with so many action sequences and so little
explanation of what was going on that we never quite got to the point of caring
how the action bits came out. Bond getting chased ... yawn. Bond getting
chased again ... wake me when it's over.
One of us did fall asleep. She needed the nap, so it was almost worth the ticket
money. The rest of us kept watching, and about halfway through it started
getting coherent enough that I was interested.
I really liked the actors -- all of them, but especially the really sweet-looking
villain, Mathieu Amalric. The storyline was quite good. There was an honesty
in the movie that surpassed any of the previous Bonds -- this one never
seemed to be smirky.
Too bad the director nearly killed it, by showing off at the expense of telling the
Here's the movie we should have seen instead of Quantum ... but better late
My wife had read Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees and loved it so much
she talked her book club into reading it. But I walked into the theater having
no idea about the story -- or even the cast.
My first impression was: Here's another evil-father movie. It was going to be an
above-average evil-father movie, because Paul Bettany was playing the evil
father -- but if you watched American movies lately you'd think that all fathers
beat and torture their wives and children, except the ones who are ludicrous
buffoons played by Eddie Murphy or Steve Martin or Jim Carrey.
Then it became clear that it was also a dutiful pro-civil rights movie in which
all white people except for the hero and one token liberal were savage racists.
Well, that's not an unfair picture of the life of blacks in the South in the fifties
and on into the sixties. The slightest misstep could lead to a beating. And any
kind of defiance could be fatal.
I guess I feel about movies set in the segregation or civil rights eras the way I
feel about holocaust movies: The events were important, the suffering was real,
we should never forget -- but at 57 years of age, I've now seen my quota of
them. I've learned the lessons. I want to see stories about other subjects now,
So within the first fifteen minutes, I had built up a wall of resentment. Only
the quality of the acting kept me watching. Dakota Fanning is growing up to
be an astonishingly good actress -- I think she's going to make it all the way
through adolescence and into adult roles without a hiccup. And Jennifer
Hudson's deceptively low-key performance smolders with emotion.
Then we got away from cruel-father and evil-white-people scenes and on to the
house of beekeeper August Boatwright. Aha, thought I, we have now come to
the obvious metaphor that seems to be required of all second-rate literary
novels today. We'd already been slapped around with bee images, and now we
were going to have our noses rubbed in literariness.
All my negative expectations were fulfilled. Novelist Sue Monk Kidd wields the
formulas of literary fiction like a good English Department hack, but she brings
little else to the story.
But here's the surprise: It doesn't matter. This film leapt right over those walls,
grabbed me, and held me by the heart right to the end. The cliches felt fresh
It has much to do with the brilliant casting. Bettany, Fanning, and Hudson
were already strong enough to keep me watching through the cliches and the
depressing issues. But when we got to August Boatwright (Queen Latifah) and
her two sisters, June (Alicia Keys) and May (Sophie Okonedo), I was completely
Okonedo had a particularly difficult role -- a young women who seems
mentally strange but is not retarded, merely saddened to the point of
desperation. She played May, not as a mere victim, but as someone who
aggressively takes on burdens that should never have been hers. She makes
all of Kidd's literary gimmicks seem real.
Keys, as the proud -- no, arrogant -- June is not just a beauty, but also a
charmer. You can understand why her boyfriend sticks around no matter how
many times she refuses to marry him.
But the soul of this movie comes from Queen Latifah as August Boatwright. At
times she seems like the benevolent queen of the universe, Mother Nature
herself; at other times, she's a perfectly delightful woman that you'd love to sit
and chat with. She radiates love when she wants to. Above all, she is
beautiful. Whatever type of beauty she has, other beauties simply can't
compare with it.
The movie is filled with religion. Because Kidd is a victim of post-religious
intellectual culture, she can't actually use the existing religion -- the
hypocritical "Christianity" of the racist whites or the "slave religion"
Christianity of the blacks. Instead, she invents her own half-Christian idolatry
built around a statue of a black woman that was once the figurehead of a ship.
But it works. The actresses involved in the cult of this statue are so real and
fervent that they confer on the statue a kind of holiness.
There were so many things that should have been wrong with this movie. But
because of the script, the actors, and the director and cinematographer, the
movie becomes a moving portrayal of good people doing good. We don't get
slapped around by political correctness after all. There is grace and
redemption in spite of moments of sadness and loss. There's even a bit of
charity for the evil father, by the end.
The Secret Life of Bees has earned a place on my very short list of memorably
good movies this year. (My list never has much to do with the Oscar list, of
course, since those voters are almost always taken in by arty cliches and grand
pretensions these days.)
It's still in the theaters. You still have a chance to go and see a film of quiet
beauty and perfect craftsmanship.
Some books are so badly misplaced in the bookstore that you have to wonder:
What were they thinking?
But I've been in the publishing industry long enough that I can tell you exactly
what they were thinking when Judson Roberts's Strongbow Saga was published
as a Young Adult novel, even though it's a serious adult historical.
The problem is that there's no historical-novel category anymore. You won't
walk through the bookstore and find a section labeled "historicals."
Instead, historical novels are evenly divided among other departments. Some
historicals show up in the Romance section; usually, they're anachronistic
bodice-rippers, though some of them are seriously trying to be true to a
Then you have the trashy-bestseller pseudo-historicals, full of conspiracy
theories and exposes and politically correct protagonists struggling against the
ignorant prejudices of their time.
These show up in Fiction and Literature, along with a few holdover classics like
Mary Renault's Greek novels, Robert Graves's I, Claudius and Claudius the God,
and a handful of others that refuse to go away.
Visit the Mystery section for some of the best historicals. Often historical
accuracy is strained in order to make room for a sleuth -- most eras had no
detectives -- but once you get past that hurdle, many writers do a first-rate job
of carrying on the nearly-abandoned historical novel tradition.
And then there's the Young Adult section, a ghetto walled off from the adult
customers. How does a serious historical novel get dropped there?
When Viking Warrior, the first volume of Strongbow, crossed the desks of the
editors, I can guess exactly what the editor thought: This is a terrific writer
and a very good novel. But it's a historical novel. There's no sleuth, so I can't
push it to Mystery. The hero is 15 years old and the only women are mother
figures -- definitely not Romance. No trashy gimmicks and anachronisms --
not a potential bestseller.
So it's unpublishable, thinks the editor. But that really sticks in her craw,
because she knows it's a very good book that deserves to exist in print and find
a grateful audience.
Wait, the editor thinks. The protagonist is fifteen! That means this book could
be published as Young Adult! True, the book is actually aimed at adult
readers; the writer makes no concessions toward the official Interests of
Contemporary Teens. But at least in the YA section it can be published at all.
So the writer gets steered to YA editors and the book comes out in a section of
the bookstore where adult devotees of serious historical fiction will never find
Worse yet, in the effort to convince girls to try a novel that by plot description
would seem to be a boys-only book (though it's not), they decide to put
photographs of a sultry male stud in Viking drag and modern sexy-guy hairdo
on the cover.
What they don't realize is that by trying to create sex appeal for teenage girls,
they make it look like a girls' book! And while girls will read boys' books, most
boys will not pick up books that seem to be targeting girls.
That's why author Judson Roberts finds his serious historical novels shunted
off into YA fiction. I'm sure he was grateful when his books were contracted by
a publisher, but I'm quite certain that this book has not reached anything like
the audience that it deserves.
I can give you a plot summary: Halfdan is a slave in a great Danish household.
His father is the lord of the house; his mother is an Irish princess who was
captured and enslaved when all the relatives who might have ransomed her
were killed in battle.
On his deathbed, his father agrees to free Halfdan and declare him to be his
son. Suddenly Halfdan shifts from the nothingness of slavery to being a
warrior prince. The trouble is, no one has trained him for war. So his half-brother, Harald, takes on his training and discovers he has a natural talent
with a bow, along with the strength and cleverness and craft to be a good
But within the family there is a viper, who betrays everyone and throws the
blame for his treachery on Halfdan.
That's the plot -- leaving out a lot, you can be sure, including the intricate
family politics that prompted the publisher to reach for the girl audience.
What I can't tell you is the depth and care taken in the research of this book.
It's an alien society, and yet it's a significant part of the historical roots of our
own England-based culture. I quickly become impatient with "historical"
novels whose authors have done only cursory research. Judson Roberts has
not just done his research, but has also discovered a plausible version of the
mind and heart of people from another time.
Viking Warrior, despite its generic-sounding title, is the real thing: A well-written, well-researched, exciting, moving historical novel that is definitely for
So walk into the YA section of Barnes & Noble (Borders doesn't even carry the
books, alas!) or go online with Amazon.com and order Viking Warrior, Dragons
from the Sea, and The Road to Vengeance. (Be warned -- the second and third
volumes are really a single long book that was cut in half because YA novels
can only be a certain length.)
If some kid decides to borrow your books and read them, well, that's all right,
It's not often that we get a really good new parody of Shakespeare, so you have
got to read Sarah Schmelling's sharp take on Hamlet -- the "FaceBook News
That's right -- the whole story of Hamlet told in FaceBook entries.
If you don't know FaceBook, here's how it works: Every member gets a "wall"
on which people can post notices. The default "news feed" window begins with
your name and the word "is": For instance, on my FaceBook wall I just posted
"Orson is ... writing his review column for the week." You can delete or replace
the "is" but you can't delete your tag from the beginning.
So here's how Schmelling's "FaceBook Hamlet" begins:
Horatio thinks he saw a ghost.
Hamlet thinks it's annoying when your uncle marries your mother right after
your dad dies.
And so on. Other aspects of FaceBook show up, like "poking" or "becoming a
fan of," to really funny effect.
Check it out at http://www.mcsweeneys.net/2008/7/30schmelling.html