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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 relationships.

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, too.

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 used.

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 was happening.

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 different guy?

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 story clearly.

*

Here's the movie we should have seen instead of Quantum ... but better late than never.

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, thanks.

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 again.

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 won over.

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 historical period.

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 it.

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 warrior.

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 adults.

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, too.

*

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 Feed Edition."

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


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