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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 07/11/97 -- Vol. 16, No. 2
Table of Contents
MT Chair/Librarian: Mark Leeper MT 3E-433 732-957-5619 firstname.lastname@example.org HO Chair: John Jetzt MT 2E-530 732-957-5087 email@example.com HO Librarian: Nick Sauer HO 4F-427 732-949-7076 firstname.lastname@example.org Distinguished Heinlein Apologist: Rob Mitchell MT 2D-536 732-957-6330 email@example.com Factotum: Evelyn Leeper MT 3E-433 732-957-2070 firstname.lastname@example.org Back issues at http://www.geocities.com/~ecl. All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.
URL of the week:
http://www.teleport.com/~arden/. Eby's CyberScroll--lots of interesting links. [-ecl]
Wings of Death:
Now why would I get involved with anything so dangerous as The Wings of Death? I tend to be kind of a cautious guy. That may have something to do with it. Maybe everybody flirts with danger someplace. Some people skydive. Some bungee jump. With me it was being willing to be brushed by the Wings of Death. Maybe I felt I had to face the wings. It just is sort of a Man Thing. Once the gauntlet has been thrown down, it must be picked up.
It all started on my last trip to Manhattan. In the Strand Bookstore, Evelyn found a book that was a guide to where to find really spicy food in restaurants. This is something of a find. Americans are getting better, but in general they are a people who like their food pallid. It is a vicious wimp cycle. How often in Chinese restaurants have I heard some patron making a big fuss because he ate one of the little red peppers. Big deal. But it looks very bad to have a customer making a big fuss in a restaurant. Most restaurant owners assume that other patrons always side with any patron who complains. I will not say I never side with the patron, but I doubt I would often in a Chinese restaurant. In any case, most owners figure it looks very bad to have people loudly criticizing the food. Traditional American bad manners lead to traditional pallid food in restaurants. Pallid food drives out the spicy, I think that must be the law. In Europe it is very different. In my experience Europeans would channel their bad manners into bad manners in queues--I won't go into that story just now--but Europeans probably would not take a restaurant owner loudly to task because the food was too spicy. As a result in Scotland we got better Indian food than I ever had in the United States. It was probably better than any we got in India. In general Indian food is great in Britain. In the US it is more expensive and not as good. It must be because more customers are willing to tell off the restaurants in the US. So the owners try to make the food appeal to the lowest common denominator. That means bland and inoffensive.
So it is generally hard to find restaurants with hot and spicy food in the US, and even there the highest concentration is in the Southwest, I would suspect. So Evelyn found this book and was intrigued by one listing that was near us. There was a restaurant called Gimpi's in Highlands, 231 Bay Avenue, that featured "The Wings of Death," chicken wings so spicy that if you finished the order, it was free. Evelyn saw this and took it as a challenge-- for me. Well sure, I thought, how bad could it be? I am not sure how I got to be this macho with hot food. I think my father likes spicy food, but we rarely had it in the house when I was growing up. My mother thought that it was actually dangerous. I suppose at that time it was thought that hot food caused ulcers. I guess it was a logical conclusion to make since hot food certainly told you when you did have and ulcer, it even would seek them out. And once I got into hot food I was always afraid that some day it would give me an ulcer. Never mind that in places like Korea and Thailand people seem to be healthy with food generally a lot spicier than it is here. But here the assumption was that hot food is unhealthy. That has been reversed, of course. These days if you read in health magazines and food magazines they are positive on spiciness. It works against heart disease, it works against cancer, it even helps to PREVENT ulcers. If you are used to hot food, there are no health risks associated with it that I can find. Purely the hotness of a dish will not hurt you. Of course The Wings of Death probably also comes with a dose of fat, but if balanced by mostly low-fat foods the rest of the day, that probably is not too bad.
So on a Saturday afternoon we popped the address into Lucent's web site "Maps on Us" and got instructions on how to find the place. We drove to where the place should have been and there was an Elk's Lodge there now. Must have been an old listing. Maybe the wings were so hot they burned the place down, I thought. I frankly had mixed emotions about not finding the place. Well, it was not a complete loss. Atlantic Highlands is known for its seafood restaurants. So we headed off on Bay Avenue in the direction that was not a dead end. We drove a way on the street. And what do I see but a restaurant and bar called Gimpi's. I don't know if there are two different places where Bay Avenue hits the 230s, or if Maps on Us is confused, but there it was, big as life. And the sign showed a man on crutches, apparently Gimp. Not really sensitive in the politically correct sense. Is this really the place where I wanted to leave myself at the mercy of the hot food? If truth be known, no. But the die had been cast and there was no turning back. I walked into the restaurant ready for my meeting with Destiny.
I will continue this adventure next week. [-mrl]
(a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: The first contact with an alien race has a huge impact on society. We see that impact through the eyes of one woman who devoted her life to the search for extraterrestrial life. The film adaptation of Carl Sagan's CONTACT is in some ways a betrayal of Sagan's philosophy and has some hefty revisions to the book. Knowing that I would like to down-rate CONTACT, but I have to admit what remains is a substantial and intelligent film. CONTACT was produced by Sagan and his wife, Ann Druyan, and that may be why so much of the film was on-track. While not perfect, it is the best science fiction film we have gotten in a good long time. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) 8 (0 to 10) Spoiler warning: there are minor spoilers in the main body and larger ones in the afterward.
Jodi Foster has obviously gotten a little more sanguine on science for gifted children since she directed and starred in LITTLE MAN TATE. That was the film in which she had a budding scientific prodigy saying "I am working on an experiment involving sulfuric acid, lasers, and butterflies." In CONTACT she plays one of those prodigies grown up in a film considerably more positive on science. This is the story of the career of the fictional Dr. Eleanor Arroway (Foster) who at an early age was bitten by the astronomy bug. Her mother died giving birth to her and her father, Ted (David Morse of THE CROSSING GUARD) instilled in her the love of science to devote her career to SETI, the search for extra- terrestrial life. The SETI project turns out to be professional suicide in the field of astronomy. But she feels compelled to listen to the sky and to search for signs of intelligent life. The career choice earns her no respect from her colleagues, and it makes life a constant set of battles for even minimal funding. Her chief nemesis and occasional boss David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), National Science Advisor to the President, who one way or another betrays her at every opportunity. A one-time lover and sometimes adversary is Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a failed priest who becomes a sort of Billy Graham figure. When funding has run out and Drumlin is forcing her off the Very Large Array, the huge radio telescope made of twenty-three dish antennae, in the desert of New Mexico, suddenly she hears a signal that can mean only an intelligent alien broadcast. This is a scene we have seen recently in INDEPENDENCE DAY and THE ARRIVAL, but never with the scientific verisimilitude that we have here. Arroway announces to the world that contact has been made and nothing is ever the same again.
And now the film takes off and continues as a high pace until the end. We start with a very believable picture of just what would happen if such an announcement were made. The National Security Advisor Michael Kitz (James Woods) struggles to take control of any information received from the aliens, so does Drumlin, each trying to get the ear of the President. (My credits list has Sidney Portier playing the President, but apparently in a last minute substitution they have William Clinton in the role. The film is, after all, directed by Robert Zemeckis who had several Presidents appearing in FORREST GUMP. It is sure to be a controversial piece of casting, but I think Clinton does a fine job as the President.) CONTACT is not just a political drama about the after-effects of contacting alien life in space. This is a long film that keeps going and going--almost three hours long--and if you have seen the trailer you will find that the science fiction content is certainly there if you wait for it. If you have read the book, you may be a bit disappointed, since there is far more science fiction content in the original story, but the film does not exactly remain earthbound either.
The opening sequence demonstrating for us how far into the galaxy our radio broadcasts have reached is both breath-taking and scientifically informative. The film is almost worth seeing just for that sequence. Other scenes are technically impressive, but a little nonsensical. In one tracking shot the camera leads Arroway running up a flight of stairs and into a bathroom and in the end we see we are seeing her in the medicine cabinet mirror and have been through the scene. There is enough good in CONTACT to make a film I would give very high marks to, and enough that is irritating for me to really down-rate it. Generally when that happens I try to excuse the faults. So while I thought there was much that was dishonest about CONTACT, overall I would have to give it a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale.
Visually you could not ask for a lot more from the film, with one major exception. While it is not chock full of special effects and the mattes of the Transporter seen from a distance are not convincing, the design of the Transporter is just about as believable as an interstellar transporter could be. The scenes of the Transporter running were stunning, and the journey was terrific though perhaps a little derivative of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Then she plops down at the far end and it is the "Oh, shoot!" experience. What a failure of imagination! It was like watching THE BLACK HOLE II.
There is so much that is right with this film and so much that is wrong, it is hard to know where to begin to evaluate the ideas. The film I would have liked to see is the one this would have been if Carl Sagan had not died during the production. I cannot be positive it would be different, but aspects of this film seem to run very counter to what I understand as Sagan's philosophy. Places where the book took chances and had some engaging thoughts about religion and faith have been reframed to change their meaning. Certainly false information would never have been added to the arguments in the film. (The film claims that 95% of the world's population believes in a Supreme Being. Actually about 21% of the world is atheist or non- religious and while there may be some who believe in a Supreme Being among the non-religious, there are certainly also atheists and agnostics who at least nominally belong to religions. This also makes the dubious assumption that Confucians and Shintoists believe in a Supreme Being. The 95% figure used in the film is wildly inaccurate.)
What I did find surprising was people in the audience getting angry because the "hero" of the film implied that she was either an atheist or an agnostic. She never tries to convince anyone to agree with her, she simply explains why she believes what she does. Other people punish her for her belief and nobody in the audience got (audibly) upset about that. Apparently with everything else this film does, it gets people agitated at its ideas. The novel actually had a nice piece looking at what could be a proof of the existence of God, while the film turns into an affirmation of religious faith in its final scenes. And Arroway complains that Drumlin tells the people what they want to hear about his views on religion! [-mrl]
MEN IN BLACK:
(a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: MEN IN BLACK is a smart, funny tabloid-paranoia comedy about the hard-boiled G-men who keep a lid the government's biggest secret. That is the "fact" that not just one but many alien races visit the Earth--mostly New York City--and use it as an interstellar border-town and duty-free shop. Humor and (impressive) special effects rarely mix this well on the screen. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4), 7 (0 to 10)
Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment has turned a dubious premise into a delightful science fiction comedy. Taking much the same premise as TV's DARK SKIES, but handling it very differently, MEN IN BLACK tells the story of special, super-secret government agents charged with the responsibility for keeping the secret that at any given time there are about 1500 space aliens running around on Earth, natives of hundreds of different inhabited worlds. Most are friendly, but of course wherever there are lots of aliens there will always be a few rotten apples who want to vaporize the planet Earth for the greater glory of someone with a name like Zordalg. New York cop James Edwards (played by Will Smith) knows nothing of this, of course. He just knows that something is strange when he runs down a felon with funny eyes. This feat earns him a candidacy for some unspecified government job that turns out to be joining the Men in Black. Once chosen he is re-dubbed Agent J working with the experienced and cagey Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones).
Ed Solomon's script, based on the comic book by Lowell Cunningham, is a barrage of funny lines and scenes of just how strange things can be dealing with aliens. But all that is about the background for the real plot. The actual story gets very little screentime comparatively. The film is short as it is at 98 minutes and most of that time is taken up with the background. The actual story deals with two alien races fighting over the fate of a galaxy. One race is represented by an old Jewish man controlled by good-guy aliens. The other is an evil giant bug who possesses the body of the redneck Edgar. Vincent D'Onofrio plays the possessed Edgar, but like most people would be the first time behind the wheel of an 18-wheel truck, the creature just cannot get the hang of the controls. D'Onofrio is usually a serious actor, as he was in THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD, but here he shows a real genius for physical comedy. He manages to walk his human body around, but not one body part moves naturally. Because so much of the film is taken up with introduction to the premise this feels like the first film of series or perhaps a pilot for a film series. And if public enthusiasm remains high, sequels of some form seem inevitable. Director Barry Sonnenfeld is best known for directing the two Addams Family films and GET SHORTY. His Addams Family series was cut short by the death of Raoul Julia, but he now has another chance in much the same vein with MEN IN BLACK.
A manic film deserves a manic musical score, and manic scores are a specialty of Danny Elfman. It combines with good special effects and Rick Baker makeup and effects. In sum, MEN IN BLACK may well be one of the best films of this summer's fly-weight class. I give it a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
(a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: Nicholas Cage and John Travolta have to exchange personalities as well as bodies while trying to kill each other. Two tired plot elements show surprising new life in a thriller that combines the hunt for a brilliant sociopath with a body switch. The result is a thriller with at least a little intelligence behind it. Director John Woo could improve the film by toning down the action scenes, and he does not always show the best of taste in his stylistic choices. But for once his film has more going for it than action. Certainly FACE/OFF is a step in the right direction for Woo. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4), 7 (0 to 10)
When I grew up noodle soup was a lot of broth and only a little bit of noodles. Then on the market from East Asia came ramen which was mostly noodles. The marketers of this product acknowledged that many people bought noodle soup for the noodles so they made that most of the soup. When I grew up an action film was something like THE GUNS OF NAVARONE. It had a good story and some action sequences. Unhappily much of the audience really was watching the film for the action sequences and the plot just bound them together, but at least it was there for those who wanted it. The Hong Kong action film formula delivers action the way ramen delivers noodles. It gives you more action than plot. Part of the formula is to turn the drama to melodrama. Melodrama allows for more dramatic moments in a shorter space of time, leaving more time to devote to action sequences. Then the action sequences go off like a strings of firecrackers on Chinese New Year. Turning the story to melodrama and increasing the pace of the fireworks destroys much of the credibility of a film, but it gives the audience what it wants. That is the Hong Kong action film formula and one of its leading proponents is John Woo. But Woo has been lured to Hollywood and he has had to compromise his style a bit. He has toned down the melodrama making for a longer story to tell. He has cut down the proportion of action scenes while lengthening the film. FACE/OFF is a long film at 138 minutes, it spends less time with action sequences than his earlier films, but he uses the extra time to tell a more dramatically satisfying story with a more engaging premise.
In action films we have had more than our share of films of law agents stalking psychopathic killers. And a few seasons back we also had in a short time a lot of films with people switching bodies and having to live as the other person. Combining the two ideas does not sound like a promising idea, but it makes for a much more interesting piece dramatically than most of Woo's films. Castor and Pollux Troy (played respectively by Nicholas Cage and Alessandro Nivola) are brother sociopaths who have little in common with their namesakes, the Dioscuri who accompanied Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece. Castor is a super- extrovert (and obnoxious) criminal genius. Six years earlier he nearly killed FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) and did kill Archer's young son. The ruthless and narcissistic killer has been pitted against stiff and introverted FBI agent for several years, and finally Archer manages to kill Castor Troy. However, the government knows that Castor and Pollux have set a bomb to destroy Los Angeles and Pollux refuses to talk. Then Archer finds out that Castor is still alive, albeit comatose, and that a new process can transform Archer to look like Castor. It is suggested that Archer become Castor and perhaps trick information from Pollux Troy. Of course Castor wakes from his coma, finds out what has happened and forces the doctors to transform him to look like Archer. The logic (or lack of logic) in this scene is one of the low-points of the film. But to fool people Castor and Archer each has to take on the other's mannerisms. The introvert must force himself to be an extrovert, the extrovert ... well that would be telling. Each must get involved with the family or friends of the other, and gets a better understanding of the enemy. Loyalties become confused. Many things are happening at different levels in this film and Woo manages to keep things together.
John Woo's anything goes Hong Kong style just does not really work all the time. There is a somewhat questionable sequence in with a child's home is shot up and a child is very nearly killed all done to the tune of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." The scene may well have been inspired by the brilliant "Danny Boy" sequence in MILLER'S CROSSING, but here it is too easy to construe it as making light of child endangerment. It indicates that Woo, like some of his characters, is not always in full control of his talents. And in this scene, like most of Woo's action scenes, the violence is turned up to a degree far beyond any realism and all subtlety is lost. When Woo is finished with a set for one of his action scenes it is pretty well shredded. Other places he has more control such as well-choreographed sequence in which FBI agents try to stop a plane from taking off. The opening sequence is a nightmarish flashback showing a good deal of atmosphere.
Woo goes neither for drama nor his usual melodrama, but something somewhere in between. He has good actors in Travolta and Cage and more than his other films he needs them as each goes through layers of the others personality. Joan Allen plays Archer's wife, for once an intelligently drawn character. Allen is a two-time Oscar nominee for her roles in THE CRUCIBLE and as Pat Nixon in NIXON. In a role that other filmmakers might have minimized, she holds her own. Gina Gershon also plays well in a sympathetic role as a close friend of Castor.
John Woo is showing signs of maturing as a filmmaker. While he still is a fan a large scale destruction scenes, he has shown he can make a film with a little more to it. I rate this film a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
(a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: A Florida beekeeper foils two petty hoods while he saves his family. This same plot could have been a simple--even a bad--crime film. What makes this better than simple cable fare are the deep emotional resonance, the textured filmmaking, and the fine performances. This is a moving story of what a single man can accomplish. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) 7 (0 to 10)
New York Critics: 18 positive, 0 negative, 4 mixed
Ulysses "Ulee" Jackson (played by Peter Fonda) is a beekeeper from a small, sweaty town in the Florida panhandle. He lives with his two granddaughters (Vanessa Zima and Jessica Biel) in what in a nicer neighborhood would be called a "dysfunctional" family. The older granddaughter is a little wild and does not have a lot of respect for her grandfather. Ulee's son-in-law Jimmy (Tom Wood) is in the penitentiary for robbing an armored car. And his daughter- in-law Helen has run off to have a good time, leaving her two daughters to Ulee. Hurt by the most of the people he loved, Ulee has withdrawn into himself emotionally. He relies on nobody and nobody can let him down. He has trained his family to never ask the help of outsiders. Above all he maintains his integrity and his dignity, even at the expense of a backache or two or not meeting his honey production goals.
Then Jimmy gets word from his two partners in the robbery, still free, that they have Helen in Orlando, high on drugs, and they want someone to take her off their hands. When Ulee comes to pick her up, they make clear how they have used her and at the same time tell Ulee that they want the $100,000 of bank money from the robbery that they just found out that Jimmy had and hid from them and the police. Ulee brings home Helen, but finds that she is too much to handle in drug withdrawal and he is forced to ask help of the nurse who rents from Ulee a house across the street from his house. Ulee wants as little help as he can manage, but it is the time of year he needs to give a lot of attention to his business of producing honey.
Peter Fonda has never been the most expressive of actors, but here it works to his advantage playing a man who has retreated into his shell and divorced himself from his emotions. This is being called the best role of Fonda's career, but it may be just a matter of calling for the type of non-emotive acting that Fonda is best at. The entire cast does well with Steven Flynn and Dewey Weber genuinely detestable as Jimmy's two slimy partners.
The film DEAD CALM would have been a standard stalker if it had not included some fascinating scenes of how Sam Neill, as a nautical man, saves a foundering yacht. Just seeing the processes used by an expert makes for some good filmmaking. Though ULEE'S GOLD does not take full advantage some of the most interesting scenes of the film show how Ulee maintains the hives and the discussions of rotating the hives and the various grades of honey. In addition these scenes characterize Ulee as a careful and contentious man who does things a step at a time. His care to repair the hives and to return the bees that have strayed makes a metaphor for Ulee's care for his home. Later his behavior around the bees is his guide for how to handle the two hoodlums who threaten his family. Unfortunately only in certain scenes is it clear what Fonda is doing with the hives. This is not a documentary on beekeeping, but it would not have taken a lot of effort to make the task a little more comprehensible. Though even as it is it does engage the viewer.
Victor Nunez tells a simple powerful story of emotional depth. I rate it a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
(a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: This film is by turns a comedy, a serious drama, and an anti-Tory political tract. But Mark Herman who wrote and directed certainly knows how to create characters in whom the audience can place an emotional investment. This film about a century-old brass band in a dying Yorkshire mining town is predictable but has a lot of affecting human drama. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) 7 (0 to 10)
New York Critics: 5 positive, 4 negative, 4 mixed
Since the 1950s the British have certainly known how to make modest but affecting films in ways that American filmmakers rarely attempt. Some simple comedies from the post-war era gave us eloquent and loving pictures of British village life still memorable today. That tradition is strong in BRASSED OFF, but mostly in the first half of the film. Director/writer Mark Herman hooks the audience with a light comic view of the mining village of Grimely, but increasingly the replaces the comedy with serious drama. We see the village having its most difficult times with the pit closings of the Margaret Thatcher administration. Finally, with the viewer hooked and caring about the characters, the film gets in its angry speech about the policy of pit closings of Thatcher's Tory party. Not that it is a total surprise with the opening of the film making some angry remarks about closing mines to replace with nuclear power plants.
The heart of the Yorkshire town of Grimely is its colliery. ('Ere. of Grimely--well, most of it anyway--is the Grimely Colliery Brass Band. The band has been around for a hundred years. But these are hard times for Grimely. The company looks like it might close the colliery and if there really is a pit closing, the whole town might just as well dry up and blow away. Already there are those in the band who are so depressed about what is happening to the town that they are ready to quit the band. Band leader Danny (Pete Postlethwaite, the currently best thing about THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK) cannot believe that people in the town will let the band die, even if the mine goes under. Just as the band is starting to founder, new life is breathed into it by a new member. Gloria (the radiant Tara Fitzgerald), granddaughter of a former great band member, returns to the town of her birth with her grandfather's flugelhorn. The first woman ever in the Grimely Colliery Brass Band plays the flugelhorn as well as her grandfather did. Suddenly the band starts looking and sounding better to the band members. While the future of the town is souring, the men are distracted for a few hours a week by music and a little flirting. And of course some of the wives are jealous. But things grow grimmer in Grimely as the company offers a job buyout. While some band members are sacrificing food for music, most of the town is looking at whether they want to mortgage the future of the town in the buyout or hope the mines are not closed. Mark Herman has a feel for the humanity of the people, no doubt based on his youth in Yorkshire.
Pete Postlethwaite is one of the British actors who does a great job and nobody seems to make much of a fuss about. He had major roles in films such as IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, or bit parts in films such as THE USUAL SUSPECTS. His bicycle-riding band leader in denial about how serious the town's problems are is entirely different from roles he has done before. Tara Fitzgerald is a decent actress, and though I have not seen her in any really demanding roles, she is certainly a joy to watch. Ewan McGregor, like Postlethwaite, is also in two current films, this and THE PILLOW BOOK. And with his Scottish name it goes without saying that he was in TRAINSPOTTING. Veteran character actor Jim Carter (THE ADVOCATE, BLACK BEAUTY, and RICHARD III), looking like a heavy-set Leonard Rossiter, usually can be counted on for a bit a color.
Americans will be at a slight disadvantage in seeing BRASSED OFF. They will be informed at the outset what a colliery is, but the Yorkshire accent takes a little getting used to. What very likely were some funny lines will go past viewers not quick enough to pick up what is said. Curiously the anti-Tory sentiments may hit home from similarities in policy between the Conservative Tories and the Republican Party. But the political arguments will lose a little impact since coal-mining is shown to be a dangerous profession which shortens lives. The viewer may decide that it is just as well that the next generation is saved from going into the pits and instead is forced to find other work.
Not surprisingly, the score by Trevor Jones is big and brassy with some nice brass renditions of popular light classical themes. The score is played by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band who also supplied extras for the story's band. No doubt Grimely is based in no small part on Grimethorpe. This is a film that has more than a few moving moments and it worth looking for. There is more to this film than the trailers would lead one to think. I rate it a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper MT 3E-433 732-957-5619 email@example.com
Quote of the Week:
The allurement that women hold out to men is precisely the allurement that Cape Hatteras holds out to sailors; they are enormously dangerous and hence enormously fascinating. -- H. L. Mencken