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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 19, 2003

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


Runaway Jury, Luther, Eva Cassidy, and Elysian Fields

I was surprised that the Saturday night turnout at Runaway Jury was so light. There were long lines -- but it turns out they were mostly for a vicious little horror film about chainsaws and the second week of Quentin Tarantino's pretentious remake of everybody else's martial arts revenge movies.

What can I say? If you're a grownup who thinks dismemberment is not entertaining, and if you are among those who have noticed that Emperor Tarantino is naked and don't wish to appall yourself with further displays of his "talent," Runaway Jury is a good movie.

This story of John Cusack subverting a jury in order to extort money from either side of a wrongful-death lawsuit against a gun company is based on one of John Grisham's better stories -- meaning that character matters and interesting stuff happens.

I was afraid that with old friends Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman squaring off as the opposing attorneys, it would become a slopfest of overacting -- but Hoffman is not Al Pacino, and no scenery is chewed.

In fact, the only really ineffective moment in the movie is the lavatory scene that the writers cobbled together just so Hoffman and Hackman could have a face-to-face confrontation. It was so weak a scene that I checked the credits to see if they had brought in Tarantino to wreck the dialogue the way he did with Crimson Tide.

But apart from that scene -- which was always doomed, since nothing that happened in it could have any effect on the story -- the movie really belongs to Cusack. He's the little guy we care about even when he's doing bad stuff -- and nobody does that kind of part better than John Cusack. Teamed with Rachel Weisz -- who is more dangerous than warm -- he draws this movie along through its suspense and its moral quandaries. And because Cusack doesn't have to steal a scene to control it, and the smaller parts were very well cast, his scenes of manipulating the other jury members show the best kind of ensemble acting.

*

Joseph Fiennes does an extraordinary job of portraying Martin Luther as a tortured saint in the movie Luther, which has been making its way across the country in limited release.

Hagiography isn't usually effective on film, unless the saint dies -- as Gary Cooper's Lou Gehrig did in The Pride of the Yankees, or James Stewart in The Glenn Miller Story, and even Gandhi. Maybe you need a noble death to bring the whole thing to closure.

Martin Luther is, of course, dead -- but he wasn't a martyr, and the latter part of his life was marked with political maneuvering, warfare, and anti-semitism -- not the stuff of which heros are made these days. The result is that the ending of the film is irresolute. You can't help but think, You're stopping here? Only if you know Luther's biography do you understand why.

Still, his was a fascinating life, and he showed great courage; he was also supported by German rulers who, violating the stereotype of the aristocracy, really did behave with nobility and sacrifice. And the script, while it leaves out a great many negatives of the sort that Gandhi would have left in (but with an explanation), is still fascinating, dramatic, and sometimes moving and disturbing.

One little irony: There's no way to tell the story of Luther, from Luther's side, without being more than a little anti-Catholic. This film handles it with restraint, but the fact is, there's probably as much basis for Catholics to complain about this movie as for Jews to complain about anti-semitism in Mel Gibson's upcoming The Passion.

But it would be unreasonable for the same reason: While it's true that all the bad guys in Luther are Catholic, so are all the good guys. That is, when Luther started, he didn't think of himself as the founder of a new religion, he thought of himself as a reformer of the Catholic Church.

Likewise, with The Passion, the story will show that the driving force behind Jesus' execution was an outraged Jewish leadership, because that's what the only existing sources for the story show; but all the good guys are Jews, too.

The fact is that diversity of ideas and stories is a good thing, and it's OK for Protestants to have their hagiographic movies about Luther and for Christians in general to have theirs about Jesus. If not, then will we go back to the Ten Commandments and remove all that hateful anti-idolater propaganda?

*

I didn't hear Eva Cassidy -- or even hear of her -- until she had been dead for nearly seven years. In fact, because she still has new albums coming out, I didn't even realize she was dead until I noticed a book at Barnes & Noble called Eva Cassidy: Songbird: Her Story by Those Who Knew Her. The past tense in the title hit me like a hammerblow -- I had come this close to writing a rave review of her music without any idea that cancer had already carried her away.

With roots in screaming rock-and-roll -- which exacted its toll on her voice in some of the recordings -- Eva Cassidy turned back to her childhood and out to a wider world of music in the recordings that make her one of the memorable singers.

But that very eclecticism was what kept the American music industry from giving her a decent shot at finding an audience. Because she didn't fit within any of the established categories.

How do you market a singer who thinks that "Bridge Over Troubled Water" belongs on the same live album as "What a Wonderful World," and -- of all things -- "Autumn Leaves"? Or that a mellow guitar rendition of "Over the Rainbow" should be programmed with "Fields of Gold" and "Oh, Had I a Golden Thread" and "Wayfaring Stranger" on her Songbird album?

Folk, spiritual, pop, swing, country, rock -- she found ways to bring them to new life with her marvelous sense of the beating heart of the song.

The albums to start with are Live at Blues Alley and Songbird. If you don't find something to love, drawing you on to the others -- like the Imagine that melds the John Lennon song with "Tennessee Waltz" and "Fever" and "Danny Boy" -- then there's just no hope for you.

Meanwhile, posthumous success is better than never having a great singer heard at all. It was in England that her family and friends were able to get just a bit of airplay, and the result was a snowball leading to an avalanche. Her music finally came home to America, not with the same chart-busting speed, but still, steadily enough that now, at last, she has a recording contract and good distribution.

It's sad that at some point the family will run out of unheard recordings. But at least we have the songs we have.

*

I love Bette Midler's singing, even though her voice has always been a bit ragged and uncertain on pitch, just because she throws herself so exuberantly into the most impossible songs.

But her new album, Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook, is a bit of a mistake.

Because in many ways, Midler is the opposite of Clooney. Clooney always put her songs over with exactly placement and phrasing; Midler flails about with a meataxe. Both methods work -- but Clooney would have been ridiculous wielding Midler's toolkit, and Midler, deprived of her self-mocking, ironic style, seems too ... respectful.

Yeah. Bette Midler, respectful.

I can imagine Midler singing every one of these songs in her own style and doing them brilliantly.

And yet here I am, listening to the whole album once again as I write this column. (And it is a delight to hear Midler teamed with Linda Ronstadt on "Sisters.")

*

I don't want to say that with Last Car to Elysian Fields, James Lee Burke has gone off the deep end. But perhaps he's dancing a bit too close to the edge.

Don't misunderstand me -- this is a terrific mystery thriller, full of Burke's heady mix of tortured consciences and bursts of violence that never quite manage to achieve justice.

But with hero Dave Robicheaux struggling to deal with the death of his wife and his own helplessness to make the world a better place, Burke leads us to a climax that has more in common with Gotterdammerung than with anything that seems plausible in the real world -- especially when the most devastating blow is struck by a stray bullet guided, at best guess, by the malevolent hand of Loki.

Compared to Burke's more recent Texas books, the Robicheaux series seems almost out of control. Gone is the reflective magical penumbra that had grown around the books immediately preceding this one.

But this approach to chaos may simply be where the story and the characters led Burke.

The most irritating thing in the book definitely cannot claim that excuse.

For Burke, perhaps steeped in Robicheaux's rage and helplessness, or perhaps indulging his own, has chosen to drop in completely egregious and irrelevant attacks on George W. Bush and the war against terrorism as if they were the opinions of Robicheaux himself.

Never mind that Robicheaux's own life seems to exemplify views opposite to the political opinions Burke puts in his mouth (though perhaps that's why they're there, lest someone think Burke actually believes punishing international bad guys is a good idea).

The real sin here is literary. Burke is free to do anything he wants with his books, but not without cost. And the cost he will pay here is that he has frozen this story in the autumn of 2003, and tied it irrevocably to the mouth-frothing vitriol of the Left's current attacks on George W. Bush.

Certainly Burke's credentials as a politically correct member of the American Left are now secure; but at the cost of the integrity of this volume as a story about characters in their own time, and in their own world. Having built up a good amount of moral coin in the character of Dave Robicheaux, he has gone to the political carnival and spent it on a kewpie doll and some cotton candy.

There's nothing wrong with novelists having their political opinions and spouting them as they will, though I at least thought Burke would show some signs of independent moral reasoning above the level of slogan and slander. It merely seems short-sighted to me for him to mingle the two, for the power of fiction is its ability to stand outside time, and when you insert your political essay-of-the-moment into your fiction, you rob it of that power.

And yet ... I read it straight through on a night when I could ill afford the lack of sleep. Because, in the world of mysteries, nobody does it better than James Lee Burke.


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