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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 07/12/96 -- Vol. 15, No. 2
Table of Contents
Unless otherwise stated, all meetings are in the Middletown cafeteria Wednesdays at noon.
DATE TOPIC 07/31 Hugo Ballots due Outside events: The Science Fiction Association of Bergen County meets on the second Saturday of every month in Upper Saddle River; call 201-933-2724 for details. The New Jersey Science Fiction Society meets on the third Saturday of every month in Belleville; call 201-432-5965 for details.
MT Chair: Mark Leeper MT 3F-434 908-957-5619 firstname.lastname@example.org HO Chair: John Jetzt MT 2E-530 908-957-5087 email@example.com HO Librarian: Nick Sauer HO 4F-427 908-949-7076 firstname.lastname@example.org MT Librarian: Mark Leeper MT 3F-434 908-957-5619 email@example.com Distinguished Heinlein Apologist: Rob Mitchell MT 2D-536 908-957-6330 firstname.lastname@example.org Factotum: Evelyn Leeper MT 1F-337 908-957-2070 email@example.com Backissues available at http://www-gbcs.mt.lucent.com/~ecl/MTVOID/backissues.html or http://sf.www.lysator.liu.se/sf_archive/sf-texts/MT_Void/. All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.
URL of the week:
URL of the week: http://www.tor.com/. The home page for Tor Books and one of the best of the various publishers' home pages. [-ecl]
Well, the time has come to discuss breakfast cereals. It rarely comes along, but in fact, this is one of those rare times. Breakfast cereals are making national news. Now, this rarely happens, since breakfast cereals are not among the most dynamic elements of our culture. We are definitely not living in the age of Power Porridge, and Captain Crunch will likely never be Time Magazine's Man of the Year. Breakfast cereal is just not something you think of being on the cutting edge. But then I have not kept up with the breakfast cereal market. I know that they have marshmallow whizbangs or are made to taste like pancakes or are named for famous monsters. But all the breakfast cereals I have ever eaten or could even name date back to my childhood. Most were around when we thought "digital sound" was my father cracking his knuckles.
But things actually are happening with breakfast cereal. Over the last few years the prices of breakfast cereals have gone through the roof. Corn flake futures have out performed pork bellies in a three-to-one ratio. This could be attributed to the fact that the average investor knows what he would do with a corn flake, should he actually come into physical possession of one. You and I both know that nobody would ever invest in pork bellies if there was any chance that they might actually have to take possession. How many of us would know what to do if a truck pulled up our driveway and dropped off a four-foot high stack of the product in question?
At any rate, the sad fact is that over the last few years the price of your morning cereal has doubled and redoubled almost as fast as Bob Allen's salary. And with just as little justification. A box of cereal can cost as much as $5. A bowl of cereal for breakfast costs more than steak and eggs. Why has simple cereal become so expensive? Well, obviously the price of cereal is tied to the price of grain. The price of grain must have gone up. Right? Wrong. Grain prices have been down. So why the high prices? Well there are all sorts of nifty explanations from the cereal companies ("The skyrocketing cost of BHT added to the packaging material to preserve product freshness is to blame. Have you ever tried Crispy Nuggets from packages without sufficient BHT? They are not a pretty sight!"). But the excuses basically come down to greed and charging what the public will bear. And our little marshmallow bits are so much a part of the American breakfast that we will pay whatever it takes. Americans are stupid. Of course, you would expect Adam Smith's Invisible Hand to take over at some point and restore low prices. But for the last three years Adam Smith's Invisible Hand was busy having one of Adam Smith's Invisible Manicures. Last year, however, Adam Smith was told that it was actually dishwashing liquid that Adam Smith's invisible hand was soaking in and it has not been in much of a condition to affect prices since. This year it recovered sufficiently and the price of cereal is starting to move back down to the obscenely high range. But according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, production breakfast cereal is the third highest profit usage of grain products. (The second highest is the big bucket of popcorn at your local movie theater. The highest profit is something a Ms. Trixie Budofski does with oatmeal for her choice gentlemen clients.)
I guess what actually happened was that one brand of cold cereal got colder feet and started cutting prices and some of the other cereal companies did the same. It is a funny business. For the last several years cereal companies have been taking the sugar out of their names and putting it onto the cereal itself. I mean you used to have your sugary sweetened cereals and your healthy cereals. You had things like Sugar Corn Pops of the former category and suddenly they are called "Corn Pops." Cereals with words like "sugar" and "honey" in their names have dropped them. On the other hand, cereals that have a reputation for being healthy, like Cheerios and Shredded Wheat, figure they can ride on that reputation and started making sweetened versions of themselves. If this country can make a such a dog-eat-dog business out of your morning corn flakes, what are we going to do with something like the Internet? [-mrl]
(a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: This is a huge production that starts with the plot of the film THE WAR OF THE WORLDS and hangs on it bits and even scenes from a lot of other films. We have a no-holds-barred alien invasion film that is willing to kill off whole cities for the camera. This big spectacular special effects film may be the most visually impressive so far in the 1990s. Much of the audience will get pulled into the action and will not care that the writing borrows so much from many other films. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4). A discussion of some of the ideas of the film follows the main review in a spoiler section.
In retrospect there was something positively refreshing about George Pal's 1953 film THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. Over the years we have seen many alien invasion films in which the aliens come as seed-pods to replace us, or they have an advance guard take over our minds, or they seed our planet with alien vampires. Sometimes they really are friendly; sometimes they only pretend to be friendly; sometimes they are nasty and hide out in swamps; sometimes they steal our scientists. There are only a very small handful of films in which the aliens try straight-ahead overwhelming us with sheer military power. In most of them the aliens equivocate by negotiating at some point as they do in THE MYSTERIANS or EARTH VERSUS THE FLYING SAUCERS. Unique among these films, until now, has been THE WAR OF THE WORLDS in which the implacable aliens arrive with incredible power and start to pound humanity flat--no negotiation, no communication, no quarter given. That is perhaps a very believable scenario for an alien invasion, but since THE WAR OF THE WORLDS nobody has really wanted to tackle it in a movie. One reason it has not been done more often is that it would be really expensive in terms of special effects to do it right, showing scenes of mass destruction rather than telling the view about them. And it would require a script that would have the courage to depict whole population centers destroyed, showing thousands of people being killed. George Pal made a reasonable stab at that with his film, but nobody has really tried it since. Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin apparently observed that film industry's visual technology has caught up with that concept. They also realized that the way was paved for film like this by the success of the television program, "The X-Files." Whatever convinced them that the time was right they now have a super-hit of a film.
A huge artificial object appears near the moon and start moving toward Earth. Without warning the skies over major cities go dark as they are covered by mysterious cloud-banks. From the cloud- banks emerge city-sized flying disks, fifteen miles in diameter. For six hours they float in ominous silence. Perhaps the best moments of the script are the tension before the initial attack. The script takes its time, slowly revealing more and more about the alien ships. The script, which was co-authored by Dean Devlin who produced and Roland Emmerich who directed, consciously mimics disaster film writing introducing a large number of characters, most played by solid but second string actors. Bill Pullman plays a rather youthful President of the United States is worried about his strong-willed but nice First Lady Marilyn (Mary McDonnell). He is aided by Constance (Margaret Colin) whose ex-husband David (Jeff Goldblum) is a whiz with computers but he is still working out his relationship with his cute but kvetchy Jewish father Julius (Judd Hirsch). Davis will soon find his fate entwined with hotshot Air Force pilot Captain Hiller (Will Smith). Most of the characters are developed only on the most superficial level with the most touching relationship being that between David and his father.
Emmerich and Devlin freely admit that there is much in INDEPENDENCE DAY that was inspired by other films. They cite 1940s war films and 1970s disaster films, but whole scenes seem to be lifted from films like ALIEN and THE RIGHT STUFF. In spite of the safe route of borrowing from established films, the script does take some chances. It is not many, but some characters the audience cares about get killed. While the script is heavy on coincidence and melodrama it never fails to be fun.
If this is not an intelligent film, it is not a really dumb one either. It is a big spectacular, almost two and a half hours, with its share of script problems. Much the same can be said of films like THE TEN COMMANDMENTS or THE TOWERING INFERNO. It is not intelligent, but it is fun. There is enough good to compensate for the negative points. I rate it a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale.
There are a few of the ideas of the film that needed to be better explained. The aliens were here to steal out precious natural resources, supposedly. Our resources are valuable to us, but Earth is no richer in resources than any other planet in the solar system. It is not at all clear to me why they wasted so much energy and resource subduing a hostile native population. It might have been better adding a few words saying that they needed an atmosphere of oxygen to mine the resources or that they as a policy first subdue any populations that might be a threat before mining a solar system. On the other hand, perhaps it is better to leave them a little mysterious.
Part of the problem is that the aliens are a bit too much like us. They share our eyes, nose, mouth configuration, our five-fingered hands. This in spite of the fact that a daisy is a closer relative to us than they are. Not only are they too similar, their technology is way, way too similar. Humans can figure out how to fly craft instrumented for their anatomy and designed by their psychology. We are able to write and run programs on their computers. Isaac Newton was much closer to us than they are in terms of mental processes and I doubt that if he stumbled somehow on a modern PC it would be able to do much with it without instructions. [-mrl]
(a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: John Travolta undergoes a brain-boost connected to a strange light he sees in the sky. As his intelligence increases he and his world each see the other in different ways. This is a film that draws heavily on Daniel Keyes's FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON. It is a gentle and often compelling film but it becomes muddled just when it should be getting to the point. To some extent it is a vanity piece for John Travolta. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4)
George Malley (played by John Travolta) is someone who just gets by in life. He is a good auto mechanic and a decent gardener, but not a whole lot more and he has few friends. He would like to win the favor of a single mother of two children, Lace Pennamin (Kyra Sedgewick), but she is just as determined not to become involved with him. On the night of his 37th birthday he is looking at the sky and sees a bright flash of light that knocks him over. Suddenly the relationships of things become much more clear to him. He is able to play a winning game of chess for the first time. He finds that the Spanish he was trying to learn is suddenly very easy for him, he can read two or three books a day--whatever he tries is easy for him. Soon he discovers he has the power to feel the waves that foretell the coming of earthquakes and can even will objects to move. The one thing that he cannot do is win over Lace, the woman he loves. The more he tries to win her over the more stubborn and bewildered she becomes. George has two constant friends. Nate Pope (Forest Whitaker) is a similarly lonely friend whose lot, George tries to improve. The other is a local physician (Robert Duvall) who is like a foster father for George. With some of the strange new abilities and his innocent genius he has he is able to win over friends. He makes himself a hero, at least temporarily, but soon he finds that his new powers also breed a certain suspicion. To make matters worse he decodes a cryptic signal he hears on short-wave and responds with his own messages in the same code. This only brings him to the attention of the government who take him into custody to study his strange skills. In spite of his best efforts he finds himself becoming more and more of a freak in his own town.
John Travolta carries out his role sufficient charm, though not as much as the script really calls for him to have. But for some minor descents into frustration and neurosis, he remains a simple, pleasant and likable genius. He is getting a little old for boyish, winning roles. Kyra Sedgewick is also likable but brings even less of an edge to her role than does Travolta. Travolta's unflagging devotion to this woman should presumably be endearing, but apart from a minor physical attractiveness there is little in her role that makes her seem so worth the effort. Robert Duvall is along playing a physician who is almost like a father to the Travolta character. He seems to be there often as only a sounding board and a script device. Duvall is too good of an actor not to give a good performance but there is little new for him to do.
What carries PHENOMENON is the subject of human intelligence and writer Gerald DiPego's idea of what a big increase in IQ brings to a small man in a small town. George's ingenuity and his ideas of small projects and experiments are enjoyable, but toward the end of the film the point of what is going on becomes muddled. George seems to pop in and out of adjustment in ways that are not nearly as interesting as the well-developed Charly Gordon in Daniel Keyes's FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON. That novel set the standard to measure stories of intelligence increase by and this story comes a poor second. (Of course, the film version CHARLY also misses the potential of the story badly and tries too hard to be a 1960s mod film. A faithful adaptation of the novel might be a much bigger service to the viewer than this film had even the potential to be.)
This is a story not without its interesting moments, but it needed less of a fuzzy edge and less of an admiration for good sweet old George Malley. I would give this film a flat +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
(a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: The evidence of a decades-old murder of a legendary town sheriff is discovered in a Texas border town and the current sheriff suspects his own father, another legendary sheriff of the crime. This is a film about strained ethnic relations, strained father-son relations and a lot more packed into one solid and intelligently written script. This one will probably be on my top ten of the year. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4)
It is not easy to pigeon-hole what John Sayles's new film LONE STAR is about. At least superficially it is a murder mystery, but there is a lot more to this film. Sayles has written a complex and textured look at life in a border town wracked with ethnic tension from the volatile combination of Whites, Blacks, Mexican immigrants (both legal and illegal), and even some Indians. This is a story of corruption and of strained parent/offspring relationships. There are three father/son pairs and one mother/daughter pair and in each case the parent has caused his offspring to resent him by some behavior or action.
The story takes place in the generally peaceful border town of Frontera, Texas. The plot is set in motion when the remains of a man killed in the early 1970s are found. A sheriff's badge is found among the bones, and so current sheriff Sam Deeds (played by Chris Cooper) assumes that the dead body belongs to a former sheriff of Frontera, Charlie Wade (played in flashbacks by Kris Kristofferson). Murdering Wade was almost a public service since he was a corrupt sheriff and vicious bully who had been seen murdering suspects. Sam immediately starts to suspect his own father Buddy (played in flashbacks by Matthew McConaughey). Buddy is something of a local hero for having kicked out Charlie Wade and becoming sheriff himself. The town remembers Buddy as ending corruption and bringing integrity to the office of sheriff, but this hero-worship does not quite square with Sam's remembrances of his father. Sam remembers his father as being a bad sheriff, only appearing good by contrast to his predecessor. The young sheriff has unfinished business with his dead father and whom he remembers with no little hatred. Sam has to dig into his father's reputation and the incidents of more than two decades ago to try to understand this new case. At the same time he is courting Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Pena), the daughter of Mexican immigrants, whom he loved at the age of fourteen but from whom he was separated by his father and Pilar's mother. Cruz is a local history teacher who finds herself embroiled in ethnic tension at her school, a new romance with Sam Deeds, and a touchy relationship with her mother (Miriam Colon). There is also a subplot with the Black community.
Sayles wrote, directed, and even edited the film. He does a reasonable job of weaving together several complex threads of plot into a single story that very much give a three-dimensional view of life in Frontera. One weakness of the script is that the is an almost completely disjoint plot of an Army base in the town and a Black bar that George Wade would shake down for protection money. This forms a second whole line of plot sewn to the main line in only one or two superficial stitches. Some of the same themes appear in each story, but neither story really depends on the other. Together they do give a better view of this small Texas town. In each story the view includes life not just at it is now, but also how it was when it was controlled by sadistic Charlie Wade. In the main story Sam needs to reconstruct this past to find the facts behind the old killing. In the other the basis for the current trouble is also in the past of about the same time.
Chris Cooper is probably best remembered for his film debut as the young union organizer from MATEWAN. While the script calls for him to make some of the hardest decisions of his life, he does not convey very deep emotion beyond a sort of sad wisdom. It is much more interesting to watch Elizabeth Pena whose eyes seem to convey more of the sorrow and pain of her life. The role that will get noticed, though it is much smaller, is that of Kris Kristofferson as the malignant corrupt sheriff. Kristofferson is not known for tough-guy roles, but here he can be easily believed as the evil that hangs over the whole town, even after his removal from the scene. Good character performances come from Joe Morton, Ron Canada, and Miriam Colon.
Sayles has managed to turn a not-too-promising ethnic-tension plot into a film that may well rank with MATEWAN as the best enjoyed of his films. The film is intelligent and at the same time clever. I rate it a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME
(comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Apparently one of my more controversial film reviews was of the new Disney animated version of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. Certain films end up as being test cases for various issues about film and this one is certainly a test case for the question of whether it is important for a film to be faithful to its original matter. As I said in my review, by any objective standard this is probably the best animated film that Disney has ever made, certainly one of the best. And it really is not much further from its source material than many other Disney productions. ALADDIN really was an adaptation of THE THIEF OF BAGDAD much more than of the original Arabian Nights tale.
One is never really sure how important being faithful to the original source is. I have seen examples of films that really suffered when they remained faithful to the novel. Contrary to what nearly everybody-- everybody but me--was saying when MARY SHELLEY'S FRANKENSTEIN came out, there has been an extremely faithful version of the novel on film, known variously as VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN or THE TERROR OF FRANKENSTEIN. It is an Irish-Swedish co-production directed by Calvin Floyd and starred Leon Vitali and Per Oscarsson. It is also the only adaptation of the Shelley novel that I would say was really tough to sit through. There are lots of ways to adapt the book FRANKENSTEIN, but it is clear from this film that being faithful to the novel is not one of them.
When a film changes the original story, it is very much a subjective call on how much the viewer valued the original. Nobody was very much tied to the originals of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST or, say, THE NATURAL because a really good film was made. And I suspect that very few people have read the fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast" or the novel "The Natural" by Bernard Malamud. On the other hand THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST took a famous story and changed the ending and a lot of people were not happy. For most aspects of the film you have to make two judgments 1) how well done was this aspect and 2) how important is this aspect. Certainly there are a lot of people who do not like to see revisionism in tales of the New Testament. I hope it does not come as a surprise that there are many people who take that book as gospel.
Luckily I don't have to try too hard to make a judgment call on how important it really is in a film to be faithful to its source material. My out is that I usually say "I rate this film such- and-such..." What I am telling you is not is this a good film or a bad film. I am too much of a coward to do that. I am telling you a related piece of information, what was MY REACTION to the film. And it genuinely is my reaction, I should know. I don't consider myself a real expert on film, but I am probably the world's leading expert on what I think about a film.
In this case, my reaction is to downgrade the new Disney film because I have a strong attachment to the original source material. I have surprised myself by really liking the writings of Victor Hugo. The longest book I ever read was the unabridged version of his LES MISERABLES and it also is probably the best novel I have ever read. NOTRE DAME DE PARIS was right up there also. My attachment is really much stronger than to the canonical version of the fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast." But my feelings on this film were really mixed. This one I had to think long and hard before deciding what I thought. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper MT 3F-434 908-957-5619 firstname.lastname@example.org
Quote of the Week:
All progress is based upon a universal innate desire on the part of every organism to live beyond its income. --Samuel Butler