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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
10/19/01 -- Vol. 20, No. 16
Table of Contents
When we (Mark and Evelyn) left Avaya/Lucent, we had to find new homes for the books in the science fiction club library. The fiction books (about a thousand) were donated to the Holmdel Public Library and the Monmouth County library system. The reference books were donated to the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) Medical Fund Auction. At Worldcon, the Contento index to anthologies brought $65. The two-volume Tuck encyclopedia was held over for a future auction.
The fund is used to help pay medical expenses for authors who have no medical insurance. [-ecl]
Parallel Footprints (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I want to talk today about footprints. In specific I want to talk about dinosaur footprints. When it comes to fossils of dinosaurs, footprints definitely have in most people's minds a secondary status. What people like to see is fossilized bone. That at least looks like it was a part of the dinosaur (even if it really was not). They want to see some piece of the dinosaur itself to spark their imagination. Just knowing a dinosaur walked here and the shape of its foot seems less exciting than finding some big bone that will allow us to marvel at the size.
The fact remains that some very interesting information can be gleaned from dinosaur footprints. You can judge how fast a dinosaur ran by looking at the length of his stride. Once you know that you can also judge how much energy the beast had. Once you have that knowledge you have a much better idea whether is was a slow-moving, cold-blooded creature or a fast-moving, warm- blooded animal. But the single most amazing thing I remember ever hearing about dinosaurs has recently come from dinosaur footprints.
The following is quoted from the article "Social Behavior in Dinosaurs" by Lynne M. Clos. "The Triassic rocks on Mt. Tom, near Holyoke, Massachusetts preserve 28 parallel trackways made by tridactyl bipeds. The likelihood of this many parallel trails occurring randomly is minuscule, and the rare trails which do not follow the trend preclude the possibility of a restricted corridor."
Think about what that is saying. They found 28 sets of parallel tracks. That seems to mean the tracks were all made at the same time by 28 of a species walking in a line, shoulder to shoulder. At a panel at the recent World Science Fiction Convention a paleontologist said they even wheeled around a turn. The ones toward the outside walking further and faster to maintain the line. One place one of them missed his footing and fell out of line knocking two others out of line. They got back in line. This is pretty amazing behavior.
Why would they do that? Why would dinosaurs walk abreast? Well they probably were something like hadrosaurs. Those were duckbilled dinosaurs. Individually they did not have a whole lot of defense mechanisms. They did not have sharp horns or sharp teeth or spikes. They could probably scratch a little, but that was about all. One hadrosaur was pretty much meat on the hoof for any passing predator.
On the other hand a predator would have to think twice about attacking a line of 28 hadrosaurs. It is a really good defensive strategy. They could put the weak and the young toward the center where they were the best protected. There are some really good reasons why they would walk abreast. There is only one reason why they would not. To walk abreast like that requires organization and intelligence. We are talking about a bunch of reptiles here. When do humans walk 28 abreast? Prehistoric man did not do that that we know of. The ancient Egyptians may have walked 28 abreast under certain circumstances. The adjective that comes to mind is "military." Humans did it only when they thought about it and realized it had tactical advantages. Perhaps that is over- anthropomorphizing them. But it is a posture that demonstrates organization and intelligence. Clos calls it herding, but it sounds to me to be too organized for simple herding. Cows herd but they don't do it in formation. Birds, the descendants of dinosaurs, may fly in formation but for each bird it is only to take advantage of the air currents that the bird ahead is making. There is nothing like that in the case of walking dinosaur. No contemporary animal I know (except humans) walks in formation. The finding of parallel footprints raises the intelligence level of prehistoric reptile above the level of any current animals and, in fact, above prehistoric man. If they had the reasoning power to walk in formation for defensive purposes, or for whatever purposes occurred to them, what other pieces of reasoning were they capable of that did not make it into the fossil record? [-mrl]
IRON MONKEY (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: IRON MONKEY is a movie that is easier to like than to respect. It has a plot that could easily have been a Zorro episode but is reframed as Chinese martial arts. There is lots of action but if you are old enough to read the subtitles, you have probably seen much of the plot before. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), +1 (-4 to +4)
CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON was the most successful foreign- language film ever released in the United States. It combined a story of some sophistication with some historical spectacle and more than a little martial arts action including some incredibly graceful wirework. While the market for martial arts films is still hot other distributors want to cash in. Action films like THE MUSKETEER are throwing in wirework in places where it does not belong. One previously released film featuring martial arts on and off a wire has gotten a new lease on life. The film is IRON MONKEY. It is a nice polished production from Tsui Hark, who produced the CHINESE GHOST STORY films and WICKED CITY. Superficially it looks like it is in the same class as CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. It has the acrobatics and the elegant photography. But it lacks the plot subtlety. In fact, the plotting bears no small resemblance to an episode from the adventures of that American hero from old California, El Zorro.
In IRON MONKEY, a corrupt governor rules a village and oppresses the innocent peasants forcing high taxes on them. The governor needs to tax the peasants mercilessly to support his expensive and selfish life style including gourmet food for himself and his nine beautiful wives. The one thorn in the governor's side, beside his comically inept captain of the guards, is a masked bandit who, in classic tradition, steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Wherever there is injustice, Iron Monkey seems to know it and is there to flip into action and clobber evildoers with ultra-perfect kung fu style. Nobody knows that Iron Monkey is in reality the timid-seeming village doctor and the Monkey's sidekick is the doctor's beautiful assistant. Iron Monkey is put into danger when another medical man comes to the village with a son. In addition to the healing arts, they are also secretly expert in the martial arts. They can cure or clobber. They seem to be good, but their loyalties give the impression of being with the evil governor.
The screenplay, a product of four credited writers, has more than a few plot holes and contrivances. A character only has to claim to be oppressed, truthfully or not, and immediately the Iron Monkey comes to her aid. In one case a woman only utters the words and the Monkey is there. To give the film a one-up on other martial arts films even the Shao-Lin monks whose heroic virtue is lauded in so many martial arts films have been turned to the dark side by this evil governor.
Visually the film has a few problems. The virtuosity of the martial artists is clearly excellent, but too often they rely rather obviously on wires to create an impressive appearance. Another frequent but too obvious effect is to run the film backwards. Both of these effects are extremely detectable. Wooden poles and pillars when struck like with a karate kick seem to break in perfectly smooth saw cuts. One more visual problem in a different vein: Orchid, the Iron Monkey's assistant, can dress as a man and even wear a fake mustache, but it still is hard to believe the evil governor is fooled.
Director Woo-ping Yuen loses no opportunity to show off Chinese dishes. The governor is fond of shark fin soup. The guards like Dim Sum. (Is this an anachronism?) And Orchid likes to make piquant meat dishes. They seem to have people as adept in the kitchen arts as others are in the martial arts.
If distributors are looking for a way to capture the fire of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, they will probably have to make new film. IRON MONKEY just is not in the same class. It is, however, just about right for a Saturday matinee. I rate it a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. FYI: A credit at the end says "Remembering Kevin Bartnof." Who is that? Kevin Bartnof died June 30, 2001, at the age of 43. He had been a foley artist (meaning he provided basic sound effects like footsteps, doors closing, etc.) on major films like THE ABYSS, SCHINDLER'S LIST, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, and THE PERFECT STORM. [-mrl]
More Films from the Toronto International Film Festival (film comments by Mark R. Leeper):
As you may have noticed from previous weeks the films I am writing about are all on a single theme. I have broken the films I saw at the TIFF into categories. After I grouped films into categories there were three films left over and I could not find a whole lot to group them. So I just had a grab-bag sort of collection. I am trying to publish the reviews before any of the films in that category is released. The first of the collection of three miscellaneous films to be released is WAKING LIFE. I think that is being released this weekend. So, here then are the films that did not fit in with any other group. [-mrl]
WAKING LIFE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The first digital video animated film is an account of a man going through his dreams listening to people talk about dreams, dream states, and the nature of time and reality. Some of the speakers are philosophical, some highly speculative, and some incoherent. The undulating animation is at times irritating, worse than hand-held cameras, but few films so revel in ideas. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4)
Not only is it rare to find a feature film like WAKING LIFE itself, it is rare to find a feature film that is even plays in stylistic fields this far from the norm. First what is the film about? An unnamed character played by Wiley Wiggins talks to people about the relationship and duality of dreams and waking life. Richard Linklater filmed with a hand-held camera Wiggins and some people who talked to him and gave their views of reality. The visual images were transferred to computer where animators superimposed animation over Linklater's filmed images in a technique like rotoscoping. So we just have animated films of Wiggins talking to many and various people about the nature of dreams. The film is little more than that. Wiggins does little of the talking. He just listens with a "Wow! Cosmic, Man!" expression on his animated face.
The film is a symphony of ideas the viewer may not be able to hum later. The point is not assimilating all the ideas on one viewing; it is to immerse the viewer in the flood of ideas. I do not believe that any of the people shown in the film are in any way considered expert, but each has philosophy of sorts. The ideas are concepts of life, death, and time. They are views of dream and reality. The ideas just interplay as we as an audience in Wiggins's dream go from one person to the next. We hear some old chestnuts like that time is an illusion. And probably no matter who you are you hear some ideas that are new to you.
At some point one must discuss the artistic decision to animate this film and to use the style of animation that was used. I think that the style that is used is near right, but on some level it sabotages the effort. It certainly gives the film the right dreamlike quality. Linklater himself says that he is going for the feeling of being on drugs and made the film for people on drugs. If so I think he is also showing us a little of the downside. The images give motion where it is not needed. At time the scenery seems to undulate on dry land as if it were on an ocean. There it distracts rather than enhances. Other places the animation comments on the discussion, illustrating an idea here or there or playfully turning the speakers into billows of clouds. Linklater had the animation assignments broken down by character and not by scene, an approach the better animation studios use now. That way stylistic differences become part of the character rather than errors and inconsistencies. It eliminates the need for the director to police the style to maintain consistency. Rather than the new very realistic animation styles this film falls back on an easier impressionist approach. But the people are still recognizably the same people with the essence of their expression still there in simplified form.
To tell too much of the ideas discussed would be a little like revealing the jokes in a comedy. One moment the person speaking will be talking about the philosophy of Kierkegaard, the next the subject will have gone to out of body experiences. One person will be talking about different concepts of life and the physical universe; the next will be as concrete as giving ways to recognize dreams.
The film was written as well as directed by Linklater though it would be interesting to find how much of what he wrote was transcription of conversation and how much was contributed by the speakers. One would be tempted to believe these are all interviews with real people presented verbatim but for a scene of actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, possibly playing their characters from Linklater's BEFORE SUNRISE, also entering into the discussion. It is not at all obvious what it means to say the screenplay is by Richard Linklater. I would rate the film a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
WHO IS CLETIS TOUT? (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This is (intended to be) a romantic comedy of an escaped convict mistaken for a man wanted dead by gangsters. Chris Ver Wiel has several good ideas, but overall the film is very slight and never really involves the viewer. The characters are thin and the writing is generally weak. A few chuckles do not make WHO IS CLETIS TOUT? worth seeing. Rating: 5 (0 to 10), high 0 (-4 to +4)
This is the second film by Chris Ver Wiel and the fourth he has written. It seems to have gotten a quality production including actors like Christian Slater, Richard Dreyfus, and Tim Allen, but it still feels like a student production. The opening credits make this look like they expect it to be a madcap comedy, but somehow the timing is off. Instead of being offbeat it might better be described as out of kilter.
A mob kill named Critical Jim (played by a miscast Tim Allen) is holding the man he thinks is Cletis Tout. He does not know that Tout is actually dead and the man he is holding is actually Trevor Finch (Christian Slater). Finch is an escaped convict and a forger who has taken the name of a dead man in the hope it would keep him out of trouble. It did not work. Critical Jim likes old movies (excessively) so Finch tells his story to Jim as if it were an old movie. I will not go into detail into the plot, but it involves a botched robbery, an escape from a chain gang, a chase after stolen diamonds, and a plan to break into prison.
Chris Ver Wiel wrote and directed and while the Toronto Film Festival program book calls him a first time director, this is actually the second film he has directed. The film has the feel of being pieces of ideas fitted together. There is a little too much violence for a light comedy. You have actors each doing his own thing and their performances not really working together. Richard Dreyfus is mellow playing an older con with an interest in stage magic, but when his magic comes into the plot it is in unbelievable ways. Portia de Rossi plays a sort of hardened woman and love interest, but she has no chemistry with Slater. The characters are thin and not well developed. RuPaul is thrown in as a drag queen, but then not really used. People do things that they never would do in real life and the film does nothing to help us suspend our disbelief. The whole film seems more like an exercise in seeing if the writer has enough ideas tumbled together to total to a feature length film. They fall just a bit short.
The music by Randy Edelman is sufficiently bouncy. But Slater does not carry the film and Portia de Rossi is not very interesting as either a crook or a love interest. This film aimed at being a FOUL PLAY sort of film, but it never finds its pacing. I give it a 5 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high 0 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
LAST ORDERS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Four close friends travel a day-long odyssey to scatter the ashes of a recently deceased fifth friend. As they travel they think about the past and their relationship to the their friend. An excellent cast bring Graham Swift's novel to the screen written and directed by Fred Schepisi. This is a moving look at the meaning of death. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4)
In some ways film is more real than reality. After seeing an imaginary person on the screen for two hours one frequently can have more of a feeling for that person than someone you met in real life two hours before. Perhaps it is because a good director can show you more sides of a person and more of that person's personality that you could see in that person's presence in a much longer interval.
Early in LAST ORDERS you meet Ray, Vic, and Lenny (played by Bob Hoskins, Tom Courtney, and David Hemmings). They are three old blokes hanging around a pub and drinking and remembering their recently dead friend Jack (played by Michael Caine and J. J. Field depending on how far back is the flashback). As we soon find out Jack has been cremated and his ashes are in the container the three are toasting. Jack's last trip will be that day. He will go to Margate, the resort area where he and his wife Amy honeymooned. There his friends will scatter his ashes into the sea.
The three men and Jacks son set out in a car for Margate, each talking about and thinking about the past. Amy is not joining them because she is visiting her mentally retarded daughter whom Jack had rejected and who is in a home. Amy is played by Helen Mirren who previously has played so many glamorous roles. This is a remarkably unglamorous role for her. So the men drive, talk, and argue. Through flashbacks we see their memories. Some are about the recent past and Jack's financial worries with a failing butcher shop. More often they go back to World War II. Younger actors are used for those much earlier times and do reasonable impressions of the older versions of themselves. These are people who remember well because they have not much to show for those times but memories. This is a film about relationships and endings. The writing by Schepisi, based on the novel by Graham Swift, is both delicate and sad. Underscoring it is Paul Grabowsky's melancholy score.
I rate it an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [A personal note: As we were sitting at the Toronto International Film Festival waiting for this film to start at 9:30 AM someone in the row ahead of us told us that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I remembered that it had happened during World War II with the Empire State Building, I thought trying to picture the WTC with a hole in its side. It was a disaster, but it seemed also a bit of a novelty. I would be curious to see the films. It did not enter my mind that the incident could have been intentional. When the film was over it was announced that Schepisi would had canceled the question and answer session due to "the events of the morning." This must have been a serious plane crash. As I exited I heard that a second plane had also hit the WTC. That was when I knew the world had changed. I suspect each person in that audience that day will think of the incidents of that day whenever they think of this film.] [-mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Democracy is a process by which the people are free to choose the man who will get the blame. -- Laurence J. Peter
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