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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 09, 2002

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


Halle Berry, Two Towers, and Christmas Albums

So there's another James Bond film. So what? I'm getting old, I guess. All the fake breasts look silly to me. A grown man whose raison d'etre is to take foolish risks and deposit fluids in stylish receptacles just makes me sad.

And yet I still go to Bond movies. Timothy Dalton was the most believable Bond, and Sean Connery was unforgettable -- but Pierce Brosnan is probably the best of the Bonds, and Die Another Day is a worthy entry. The "risque" dialogue is childishly heavy-handed, but the stunts are fun, and as my wife said afterward, "It's nice to go to an exciting movie where I don't have to cover my eyes."

That is a nice thing -- to know that there'll be plenty of thrills without a single scene designed to make you throw up or have nightmares.

Halle Berry is certainly the first "Bond girl" to hold her own in the movie. In fact, if the producers have any brains at all, they'll offer her an amazing amount of money to develop her character as a franchise. She and Pierce Brosnan can do cameos in each other's movies, but Berry can easily make this character work in film after film. She'd be a 20-million-dollar actress who could still make movies that show her genuine acting chops in between spy thrillers.

*

Before you go to the theater to see The Two Towers, it's worth it to buy or rent the new extended-edition DVD of Fellowship of the Ring.

The extended edition contains footage that wasn't in the original. And even though none of it is vital in order to follow the story, it does help to flesh out the characters.

And for those of us who think Lord of the Rings is the single greatest work of literature written in the twentieth century (the pretentious, elitist, careerist, and reader-hostile Ulysses isn't even on that map as far as I'm concerned), it's wonderful to see more of the book included in the film.

In fact, the first film made so much money that the studio is allowing the theatrical release versions of the later films to be longer. Not only have they been able to keep in footage that would otherwise have been cut, they've gone back to New Zealand and filmed more footage.

This is what the collaboration between the audience and the artists can do -- when you have artists whose goal is to communicate with the audience. Working within already-generous funding restrictions, writer and director were able to make a wonderful film. But the response of the audience freed them -- nay, encouraged them -- to make it better.

I wish they had done a two-week theatrical release of the extended version. But I suppose that will come later.

Only one serious quibble, and it's personal. In the extended version we were shown the gifts that Galadriel gave to the Fellowship as they left her forest.

But, to my deep, deep disappointment, they changed the story and made elven rope her gift to Sam Gamgee.

This is almost unbearable, because for me the greatest redemptive act in the story is Sam's planting of the seed and scattering of the soil Galadriel gave him. Because the film doesn't show him receiving the gift, the ending will be marred for me.

Of course, I admit my reading of the novel is eccentric -- to me, Sam is the hero, the one who actually succeeds in bearing the ring and voluntarily parting with it.

And I will undoubtedly love all three films. Certainly I don't mind -- even appreciate -- the other changes. I think beefing up the role of Arwen was essential. Tolkien's closest friendships were a boys' club -- the Inklings -- and he wasn't comfortable writing about women.

As a result, the only developed female character in the book was Eowyn, and if that had remained true of the movie it would have made it quite dissatisfying when Aragorn married the mysterious -- and absent -- Arwen.

By giving Arwen a much stronger role in the story, that flaw in the original will be repaired.

And the creation of Gollum looks like a true masterpiece of CGI. Just remember that when you see the computer-generated Gollum splashing around and doing hideously difficult stunts, most of them were actually done by a real actor. The computer made him look different, but all the movements were done by a living man ... who nearly froze to death in the icy stream where he had to dive, slither, and catch a fish ...

Oh, one other thing about the Extended Version of Fellowship -- included in each package is a free adult ticket to see The Two Towers. I mean, how can you lose?

*

Christmas music -- it's everywhere, and unless you are so passionate about it that you are perfectly happy owning two hundred Christmas cds, it's hard to know which albums are worth buying.

So here is Orson's very personal list of Favorite Christmas Albums.

The sweet simplicity of her voice and the perfect choice of songs makes Emmy Lou Harris's A Light in the Stable the best country-music Christmas album, period. Our kids grew up hearing it, and none of us are tired of it yet.

Of course, the album I grew up loving best isn't even available. John Gary was a syrupy-voiced crooner whose career began just after John Davidson's. In other words, too late. Crooners were over for twenty years, and when the comeback began, John Gary had never achieved enough prominence to be among those who returned to public view.

And even as a kid, I knew it was silly to love an album that included, of all things, "Suzy Snowflake." But Christmas is about nostalgia and sentimentality, and there are plenty of singers I never listen to otherwise who are nevertheless a legitimate part of our culture at Christmastime.

When else am I ever going to listen to Perry Como without embarrassment? Nor am I ashamed of remembering John Gary with nostalgia. These singers -- and others like them -- are no longer -- were they ever? -- hip or cool. But their voices can become part of your heart through association with a season of closeness with family and friends.

But just because I proudly enjoy some of the sappiest Christmas music (though even I have limits) doesn't mean I don't know the difference between good and bad stuff.

For instance, I know perfectly well that the finest choral Christmas albums have come to us from two conductors, John Rutter and Robert Shaw. Rutter is also a glorious composer, and on each of his Christmas albums the two or three best songs will invariably turn out to be his own. Rutter has recorded with the Cambridge Singers and the Clare College Choir. Any Rutter album will be one of the best you own. Look especially for the song "The Shepherd's Carol."

Robert Shaw passed away three years ago, so there will be no more new disks from him. Still, there is no shortage of great work from this "Dean of American choral conductors." Not only are all of his Christmas albums (usually with the Atlanta Symphony) excellent, he also conducted what I think is the best overall recording of Handel's Messiah.

Except for the quirky Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration. An amazing ensemble of musicians uses Handel's great work as a starting point, but interprets it using the full toolset of African-American music. I've heard some people claim that it "desecrates" Handel's sacred work -- but the existence of this cd doesn't erase any of the other great recordings. It simply adds another way of hearing the music, and my wife and I look forward to rehearing this album several times each year.

Another choral group worth hearing is Chanticleer, an all-male choir whose album Our Heart's Joy contains the best recording I've heard of Franz Biebl's haunting "Ave Maria." Listen to it in a quiet room. The first time I heard it, it moved me like no piece of music since Barber's Adagio for Strings.

But the recording of Biebl's "Ave" by Greensboro's own Bel Canto Company is also very good -- and I highly recommend every one of Bel Canto's Christmas albums. For those who think having a minor league baseball team will put Greensboro on the map, let me point out that in the Bel Canto Company we already have a major league team.

Alfred Burt was a jazz musician who died in 1954 at the age of 33. Before he died, however, he left us with an astonishing group of Christmas carols that have become classics, not of jazz, but rather classical and choral music.

The only complete recording of all the songs that I know of is Caroling, Caroling: The Alfred Burt Christmas Collection, orchestrated and arranged by Lex de Azevedo. But you can also hear many wonderful versions from choral to jazz to pop. "Some Children See Him" and "The Star Carol" to "Caroling, Caroling" and "All on a Christmas Morning."

Bruce Cockburn's Christmas album, titled simply Christmas, is the folk-rock-alternative answer to Light in the Stable. This is the first Christmas I've listened to it, but it is one of the great ones.

I have saved for last the best Christmas album of all. Composer-lyricist Robert Stoddard began writing a Christmas song for his friends every year. One of those friends, a southern California tenor named John Huntington, began performing them at concerts every Christmas. Quite a following has grown up over the years, and at last the result was an unforgettable Christmas album, December Tales.

Because I am also one of Stoddard's friends and we have collaborated on musical comedies, he generously used a lyric of mine on the title track of the cd. But that is not why I love this album.

December Tales is eclectic -- the songs are about everything from a child urging an adult to tell the stories of Christmas to a celebration of the ornaments on a Christmas tree. There's a romantic ballad ("One Gift") and a fanfare ("Spell of Noel") and a children's song ("The Tiniest Star").

The overwhelming message that fills the whole album, though, is a deep love for the Savior. The songs speak of a personal search for redemption, of a Christlike love for friends and family -- children especially. "Angels on Christmas" will make you see everyone around you differently. "Looking Across the Manger" expresses the love of friends who share one's faith.

It was this deeply Christian message that made this album so important to me at a time when my family was struggling with grief. It was not Christmastime, but I played this music over and over again because hearing it was to hear a whisper in my ear of the love of God for his children, the assurance that he can be trusted at all times.

The album is still hard to find, and only a few copies remain. It's probably too late to buy one. But you can hear the title song at http://www.gladsong.com.

*

If you picked up this paper on the day it came out -- Thursday the 12th of December -- you still have time to come hear the Oratorio Society's annual performance of Handel's Messiah at War Memorial Auditorium on Lee Street at seven p.m. Many dedicated singers from the community join the Oratorio regulars to give a marvelous live performance. And no matter how good a recording can be, it doesn't compare to being in the same room with the people who are creating the music in the moment.

There's no charge, but donations to help cover expenses are gratefully accepted. The singers already paid more for the privilege of performing than you would think of donating! It is truly a labor of love, and well worth being a part of.


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