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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 01/12/01 -- Vol. 19, No. 28
Table of Contents
Chair/Librarian: Mark Leeper, 732-817-5619, email@example.com Factotum: Evelyn Leeper, 732-332-6218, firstname.lastname@example.org Distinguished Heinlein Apologist: Rob Mitchell, email@example.com HO Chair Emeritus: John Jetzt, firstname.lastname@example.org HO Librarian Emeritus: Nick Sauer, email@example.com Back issues at http://www.geocities.com/evelynleeper. All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.
The Ten Best Films I Saw in 2000 (film comment by Mark R. Leeper):
I am using different procedures for my top ten list this year. Most years for my "Top Ten" list I just take the capsules and the article is written already. This year maybe I am feeling more gregarious, but I will want to give my opinions of these films as they have stuck with me. These are my impressions of these films at this moment.
I have couched my title to cover myself a little. Living as I do in the wilds of New Jersey, I do not have easy access to a lot of the films I would have liked to see. Rather than delaying this article in the hopes that a few of the films that have premiered in Los Angeles in December will trickle down to my neighborhood, I will just go with what I have seen. Some I will admit, I did not see in the wilds. Four of my top ten films I saw at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. But I did have a chance to see them later in New Jersey. Three films that have not come to New Jersey yet have been disqualified. I list them at the end of the article.
Any list of favorites is going to be very subjective. Usually when I put a list together there are one or two films that will surprise people that ANYBODY would put on a top ten list. This year is no exception. What can I say? First, I have not seen all the great films out there and my tastes are very subjective. I will tell you why I liked what I liked and hope nobody thinks I have misled them. When I make a list I also generally find a surprise for me. That there would be two films in Chinese is at least a bit unusual. But that I have a Hindi film made for Indian domestic release is for me a real surprise. Most Indians who talk to me about film deprecate Hindi films. There are however other Indians who get very angry if they hear the same sentiment coming from a non-Indian. With the exception of a few serious films for export, most Hindi films are more interesting for their cultural differences than for the high quality of their content. I found this film one of surprising complexity and intelligence. But I am getting ahead of myself. Ordered roughly best first:
THE CONTENDER -- I am told that the impact of this film is considerably less for people who watch "The West Wing" and for political conservatives. I really enjoyed the writing and the story. This is a political thriller about a Vice Presidential confirmation hearing. The viewer gets a believable behind-the- scenes look at how the game of politics is played and how pressure is put on people to do the wrong and to do the right thing. This is a film about people with principles and about people who only pretend to have principles. The film is also very timely having a great deal to say about the Clinton administration. Rod Lurie, who wrote and directed, has given me one of the most intelligent films I have seen in years. And there is a standout performance by Joan Allen.
TITUS -- I like Shakespeare. I have seen a lot of Shakespeare. While the stories are different, the experience of seeing one is usually much the same. That is why I liked Branagh's MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, and why I chose the 1995 RICHARD III as the best film of its year. TITUS is a Shakespeare experience like none other I have ever had. It is a brash and gruesome horror/revenge tale with visual design by Julie Taymor, best known for the Broadway staging of "The Lion King." For once just the Shakespeare plot is a jaw-dropper and the staging shows you things that would be impossible on the stage. The whole film is beautiful ugliness. Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange make for very formidable opponents.
SUNSHINE -- There is no proper medium for this story. The film was three hours long and should have been five. That made is a little superficial. But nobody wants to release a five-hour movie. This is a film that covers 140 years of a Jewish family in Hungary with Ralph Fiennes playing as three very distinct men: father, son, and grandson. One generation faces the anti-Jewish bigotry of the Hungarian aristocracy; the next faces the Nazis with their racial laws; the third generation faces the Soviets and their hatred of the Jews. In each generation of the family there are members who want to assimilate and those who want to maintain their Jewishness. William Hurt has a nice subdued role as a moderate Soviet.
THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN and CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON -- I left CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON thinking that it had bested THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN. Certainly the two of them are the most enjoyable Chinese films I ever remember seeing and I probably would up my rating of the latter to match CROUCHING TIGER's +3. But right at this moment I would give THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN the edge. I am going to give it the edge because I really think that it has the better story of the two. THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN has genuine historical sweep and deals with real historical figures. CROUCHING TIGER is a light, or perhaps at times heavy, fantasy. Also I happen to be a fan of the laws of physics and I do not like to see the heroes of a film breaking them with the abandon. The dancing at the ends of wires which are then removed by CGI is beautifully done, but I still prefer the historical film with its feet on the ground. However, both are very good.
GLADIATOR -- An English-language historical epic is GLADIATOR, a fictional story of the conflict between the Roman Emperor Commodus and Maximus the former general of his father's army in Germania, through injustice turned into a gladiator. The visuals are very nice in most cases though some of the computer effects mar the realism. There are a number of heavy ironies in the script. Commodus is a villain because he murdered the wife and son of Maximus and took the throne that Marcus Aurelius wanted to give Maximus. Yet Maximus killed in the hundreds or thousands at the behest of the peace-loving Marcus Aurelius. Somehow Spartacus seems the more worthy hero. Still, how often do we get a spectacle film about Ancient Rome?
TITAN A.E. -- Okay, let's get it over with. I know I am one of the few admirerers of this film. For years one of my axes to grind has been that animation is a tremendous medium for science fiction and science fantasy. But to save a little money we have been given a lot of lousy, unimaginative animation and nobody has been really serious about using the medium well. I had a great deal of hope for Japanese Anime. Occasionally the Japanese do a reasonable job with a story, but mostly they do stories that allow them to showcase fights and explosions, guns and fights. TITAN A.E. has some fights, but they are not really what the film is all about. It is not great science fiction, but it is on the level of Alan Dean Foster. That's fine by me. And the film has some really imaginative spacescapes. This is a film that has been needed for a long time. I am just sorry that it did not get much attention and that most the attention it did get was negative.
SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE -- This is a one-joke comedy-horror film, but it is a great pleasure to watch, especially the first half. As most people know, the first film version of Bram Stoker's DRACULA was F. W. Murnau's 1922 film NOSFERATU featuring a really weird performance by Max Schreck as Count Orlock the vampire. This film suggests that the actor Schreck might actually have been a vampire slowly dining at the expense of the film crew while NOSFERATU is shot. In about fifty different ways this contradicts known film history, but it is a nice lavish recreation of the period. I would say that the first third is great, the middle third very good, and the last reel is just okay. But it is certainly worth seeing.
HEY! RAM -- In the days after the British leave India in spite of Mahatma Gandhi's policy of non-violence, India seems to be breaking apart in the chaos that followed India's independence. When rioting Muslims rape and kill his wife, Saketh Ram blames and is determined to kill Mahatma Gandhi. There is nothing left in the heart of the formerly peaceful man but hatred and a need for vengeance. We follow Ram through his training by a covert group intending to use his anger to change the course of Indian history and politics. Some really engaging surreal sequences are extremely effective.
O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? -- This year's Coen Brothers film is a picaresque of three convicts escaped from a chain gang and trying to find a treasure before a dam inundates it. The setting is 1937 Mississippi and the period feel is just about everything in this film. As a whole it is not that great a story, but the individual episodes are a lot of fun and the script comments on everything Southern from politics to music to cooking. George Clooney and John Turturro star with several Coen Brother films veterans including Holly Hunter, John Goodman and Charles Durning. While it seems to have little to do with the Preston-Sturges-inspired title, it does humorously adapt sequences from Homer's ODYSSEY.
I saw the following at the Toronto International Film Festival and they would have made this list if released here: SHADOW MAGIC, LIAM, and THE DISH. SHADOW MAGIC and THE DISH will probably have 2001 releases in the United States. [-mrl]
TRAFFIC (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: This film is lot like SHORT CUTS, but the individual stories woven together have a common thread. Each thread involves the illegal traffic in drugs coming from Mexico into the United States. As such the film is something of an education about the War on Drugs. TRAFFIC has the sort of all-star cast an occasional film can get when the statement the film is making is to the actors more important than the salary they will be paid. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4)
In TRAFFIC the audience is given three story lines. In Mexico a local policeman (Benicio Del Toro) finds himself caught between two drug families and at the same time between the United States and Mexico. In San Diego a woman (Catherine Zeta-Jones) discovers that her arrested husband whom she thought to be a successful businessman is really more a successful drug runner. His job is now affecting his family. In Ohio, a newly appointed government drug czar finds his own family more heavily involved with the drug traffic than he could have imagined. TRAFFIC uses the style of storytelling now familiar from films like SHORT CUTS and MAGNOLIA. The three stories involving drug traffic from Mexico to the United States give the viewer a holographic view of many aspects of the problem and why the two countries are losing the war. This is one of the best possible uses of cinema, educating while it entertains.
The story in Mexico seems to have a distinctly different style from the rest of the film. Visually California and Ohio scenes are filmed with somewhat subtly different hues, and both are filmed in softer colors. Ohio is filmed in blues and California in earth tones. The scenes in Mexico, on the other hand, are filmed in harsh reds and yellows in what looks like a cruder and grainer film stock. This gives the impression of heat and tackiness, perhaps something of a cheap shot. On the other hand the subtitles somewhat tone down the story. There are a lot of "chinga"s in the dialog that go un-translated in the subtitles. A few make it through, but roughness of the language does not entirely make it to the subtitles. In addition, the story in Mexico seems a different breed from the other two, with more complexity making it a little harder to follow. It also has some torture scenes that the viewer should be prepared for.
TRAFFIC has the kind of cast that speaks of major actors willing to work for less to be in a project that inspires them. Certainly with the toll that drugs have taken on the film industry it is quite possible. The cast includes Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, Luis Guzman, Dennis Quaid, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Steven Bauer, Miguel Ferrer, Amy Irving and Peter Riegart. Several of these people are in roles somewhat below their stature.
TRAFFIC is a powerful film that suggests our illegal drug problem results from our own demand for and tolerance of drug usage. Americans use illegal drugs like cocaine and, as the film implies, abuse drugs that are legal like alcohol and nicotine. The government has few new ideas left for fighting the problem and too often its blundering does more harm than good.
Where TRAFFIC does a good job is not in leaving the viewer with a deep understanding of the drug problem but more with a panoramic view showing the path from supply to demand. And it is that continuity from supplier to user that causes the value of the film to rise above that of the sum of its parts. I rate TRAFFIC an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
Quote of the Week:
America: The only country in the world where failing to promote yourself is regarded as being arrogant. -- Garry Trudeau