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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
11/23/01 -- Vol. 20, No. 21
Table of Contents
The issue is going out early for three reasons, in increasing order of importance.
Firstly people wanted to get the review of HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE. Secondly, people who were going away for the weekend would not be able to get the issue on Friday. Thirdly, *we* were going away for the weekend and would not be around to send the issue out on Friday. In the near future we may move the publication date from Friday to Tuesday to better mesh with the fact that films are released on Friday and we want to get you the reviews as soon as possible. [-mrl]
Some thoughts on Robert Wise (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
On the radio they were interviewing Robert Wise on the occasion of the release of a directors' cut of his film STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. I like Robert Wise, but I am not really happy that he is getting involved with this whole new gambit in films, the releasing of special editions and directors' cuts. When I go to see a film I expect to see the definitive version of that film. I don't want to be told later that if I really want to know the film, the version I saw will not do it for me. If the producers want to give me a free upgrade on a film, let me see it again so I can see what the filmmakers think is the revised correct version, that is one thing. But saying that they disavow the version I saw and paid for and I have to pay another ticket admission to see the REAL version is an absurdity. Filmmakers like Lucas, Spielberg, and Ridley Scott have been milking their films this way. I think it is breaking faith with the audience. Now Robert Wise is joining the act.
I have always considered Wise one of the good guys in Hollywood. But I have only recently come to realize that he is not very well liked. Part of the problem is his dispute with Orson Welles. Welles had a long history of differences with the company bosses at RKO Studios. He had made things clear from early on in his relation to RKO that he would be sure they would exercise no control over him. If the producers visited the set to see Welles working, he would stop work and have the crew throw a baseball around until the producers left the set. Welles's first film, CITIZEN KANE, embroiled RKO in a conflict that became the feud between Welles and the powerful William Randolph Hearst. The Hearst papers refused to carry ads for RKO films. So RKO ended up getting burnt for their faith in Welles. Later Welles had filmed THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS for RKO and in the middle of editing went to South America at what he said was the suggestion of the government to look at the possibility of making a documentary there. RKO, who needed to release the film for financial reasons, got fed up and ordered Robert Wise to finish the editing and give them a film they could release. Wise followed orders, doing his best to make it a film that Welles would have wanted. But, of course, Welles was furious. He never forgave Wise and neither did a large piece of the film industry who sided with Welles. The truth is that Orson Welles was an extremely talented man, but, as he really admitted in interviews late in his life, he had also been something of a jerk who ended up hurting other people nearly as badly as he destroyed his own career. But to this day there are still a lot of people who will claim that Robert Wise is just a hack director in spite of his really impressive portfolio of films. With a very wide variety of films, his filmography includes DESTINATION GOBI, TRIBUTE TO A BAD MAN, RUN SILENT RUN DEEP, I WANT TO LIVE!, ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW, WEST SIDE STORY, THE HAUNTING, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, SAND PEBBLES, and THE ANDROMEDIA STRAIN.
Wise has made respected war films, science fiction, musicals, and crime films. Included among the films he has directed is THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, which a lot of fans still consider the finest science fiction film ever made. I like the film, but I think that is badly overrating it. Visually it is a really good film. Gort is probably the most impressive-looking screen robot of any film. Who would have expected putting a man in a rubber suit would look this impressive and futuristic? But I believe all of the trappings of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL are impressive. I object only to the basic idea of the film. That strikes me as fairly hypocritical. The alien Klaatu comes to earth like an angry parent saying "if this fighting doesn't stop we're gonna knock some heads together." It isn't his fault. They give the job over peacekeeping over to robots like Gort and now it is out of their hands. He tells us essentially, "You can keep fighting. The choice is yours. But if you do this big Bozo of a robot is going to bust up your world into pieces so small that you could put them in spaghetti sauce." I guess there are a lot of fans who respond well to that sort of logic. [-mrl]
HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A child persecuted by his foster parents discovers he is a great and powerful wizard. J. K. Rowling's fantasy (not just) for children comes to the screen in a very faithful 150-minute (not just for children) version. This is a family film that usually manages to be more intelligent than most adult films this year. It is proof that a film adaptation can be faithful and still be entertaining. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4)
Let me get out of the way a couple of objections I went to the film fully knowing I would have. First, I hate this title, dumbed down as it is for American audiences. The original title of the book was "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" not "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." "The Philosophers' Stone" was an object sought in medieval alchemy. It was a hypothetical substance with mystical properties like changing base metals into gold. When the book was brought to America there was the assumption that Americans would find the title too esoteric so with one word change they could turn it into something from Dungeons and Dragons. The film has the original title in Britain. Since said stone is only what Hitchcock would call "a McGuffin," I suppose this is only a minor complaint, but I wanted to get it out. I also lightly lament the filming of this book that has gotten so many children to read and use their imaginations. It will now no longer be read by children (or adults). Instead children will for the most part hold the book in their hands and use the words to replay the film in their minds. That is not their fault, but it is inevitable. Of course being fair it may also get them to read the other Potter book and that will still require imagination and reading skills. And it is probably a plus for the film that it is so accurate an adaptation. The film really is, for the most part, the book made visible.
The story, as every kid in my neck of the woods knows, is about a maltreated child. He is sort of a male Cinderella or Cosette. When he was a baby he was given to his aunt and uncle to raise. In this family he is used like a labor-saving device, but with not as much concern for his welfare. On or about his 11th birthday, a mysterious letter arrives for him, in spite of the best efforts of his foster parents to keep it from him. It tells him it is time for him to learn wizardry at Hogwart's, a magical school of sorcery. He also discovers in the dark world of magic he is already something of a hero. And so begins his first year at Hogwart's. Hogwart's is an education to the viewer not just in what wizardry school is like, but also in the English boarding school tradition that once was and some places continues to be. Students are put into competing "houses" that try to outdo each other in behavior and excellence. As these things seem to go in stories, Harry's two best friends are people he meets on the train on the way to Hogwart's.
Screenwriter Steve Kloves (who also wrote last year's WONDER BOYS) adapted Rowling's book accurately and with pretty much the right feel. This is one film that shows magical sights on the screen but still lets the book drive the story instead of letting the special effects do it. There are lots of ideas, some expanded, and many only hinted at, some that children will understand and others they will grow into. The wide screen holds a magnifying glass to the book, showing flaws as well as wonders. For example, Harry has only just arrived at the school and he is given a position on his house's sports team. It would be severely understating matters to say his position is the most important on the team. The rules are contrived by Rowling to make Harry a hero and the other players almost superfluous. It is as if the rules of basketball were altered so that there was also a side game of thumb-wrestling for a hundred bonus points. Toward the end of the film there is another such contrivance with a different competition. Of course, Harry and his friends being heroes is much of the point. Rowling and actor Daniel Radcliffe conspire to give Harry very little real personality so that any reader or viewer can easily project himself or herself into the space. Hence the viewer becomes the hero. Where Harry does have personality, it is much more that of an adult than a child. Harry is always polite to his elders and absolutely fair and loyal to his friends in just exactly the way that most children his age are not. While the style of the book is flawless, and impressively well translated to the screen, the storyline is a little haggard. As mentioned, events are contrived to make Harry the hero. As he tries to solve the school's mystery, clues seem to just drop into his lap. As a running gag, many clues are simply told to him by the hugely indiscreet gamekeeper Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane looking like The Ghost of Christmas Past). Meanwhile Harry and friends have to hold off an extremely nasty student who takes an early dislike to Harry. Most of these plot elements are cliche.
Visually the film is just about all you could hope for. There are only a few obvious fluffs. We have some gnomes with long spindly fingers, but when they grasp objects in their fingers they always use the next-to-last joint on the fingers. There are some places where the CGI effects are little obvious. A boy falling from a building looks like a computer image. There is a "Christmas Carol" feel to the look of the hidden magic shops. This is mostly a matter of interpretation by production designer Stuart Craig, but it fits the book. Hogwart's is fantabulous as the anti- sinister sinister boarding school with its huge vaulted ceilings, its drifting staircases, and its fog-shrouded forest. And flying in everywhere are not the hackneyed bats, but owls who lend the place atmosphere and double as the wizardry world's messenger service.
Many of the support roles went to well-established actors. Of these definitely the most fun are Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman. Rickman does not have a whole lot of breadth in the roles he takes, but he plays his one petulant personality to the hilt. Ian Hart from LIAM has a small role as a stuttering don. Surprisingly high billing for surprisingly little work goes to John Cleese. John Hurt has a small throwaway role.
People tend to ask me if films I review will be appropriate for their children. I must report that toward the end when the magic gets fast, furious, and a little sinister the four-year-old near me was frightened to tears. She was also a bit frightened of Fluffy, a near relation to Cerberus. Some of even the older children were squirming at the some point in the two and a half hours. But I suspect most of the audience will be back next year for HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (which begins shooting November 19, rushed so as not to let Daniel Radcliffe get too old for the role). I'll give this one an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
AMELIE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who made the fascinating DELICATESSEN and THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN, tells a somewhat more down-to-earth story in much the same whimsical style. Amelie is a lonely woman with very funny fantasies who decides one day to work behind the scenes to make the world better for the people around her in the Montmartre section of Paris. While the film is undeniably a light-hearted souffle of fun, it benefits greatly from the actual timing of its release in a somewhat somber moment of history. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), low +2 (-4 to +4)
There are some tremendous comic moments in AMELIE but the basic plot is a spiritual cousin to films like HOME ALONE. Indeed one can easily see this film as it would be made in the US, but it would have a ten-year-old in the lead working these same wonders. Amelie works out intricate plots that never backfire to help people, to make love matches between people she knows, and to punish the nasty people she sees every day. After a very strange upbringing Amelie lives by herself, working at a local cafe. (She is the beauty in the bistro.) One day a very strange chain of events starting with her hearing of Princess Diana's death leads her to do an incognito good deed that makes one person very happy. She is so pleased that she decides to make anonymous and needlessly complex good deeds her secret life's work. She makes various elaborate and strange plans to help the strange people she sees in her day-to-day life. In spite of the intricacy, they plans mostly seem to work exactly as she expects. In the script, co-authored by Jeunet, the plans have nothing to do with the strange style of story-telling but the satisfaction of seeing her social engineering successes combined with the quirky fantasy sequences does seem to be an audience-pleaser. In any event this film has won viewer awards at the Edinburgh and Toronto International Film Festivals. If the storyline is a little bland and makes heroic a woman who is something of a meddler and a manipulator, at least the style is a lot of fun along the way.
In the role of Amelie, Audrey Tautou runs a short gamut from charming to unctuous. Dominique Pinon, the short actor with Jean- Paul Belmondo looks, has become almost a Jean-Pierre Jeunet trademark and is present in a subsidiary role as a lonely man who is pulled into Amelie's machinations.
Jeunet's style is sudden and frequently very funny fantasy and humorously knotted plotlines. This is the first time he has applied that approach to a story that is not intrinsically a fantasy. The result is certainly not as great as some critics are finding it, but it is a film that does what it does about as well as it could be done. Jeunet seems to be saying that we each can improve the world if we only will take an interest, but it makes an interesting pairing with a story like Jane Austen's EMMA (or its updating, CLUELESS) where the same sort of activity is put in a much less favorable light. AMELIE is, however, perfectly timed for the unexpectedly somber mood of the public at the time of its release in this country. I rate it a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale.
I am not sure I would have liked this film dubbed rather than subtitled, but it does show up some drawbacks subtitling films. While it has the standard problem that white subtitles become unreadable on a white background, it has a much more important problem. This is a film that frequently uses short staccato editing, often with pieces that require reading. One needs to watch the main part of the picture to catch what is happening and the bottom of the screen to read the words. The subtitles are, of course, intentionally placed at the bottom of the picture to be away from where the main action is. One frequently finds that he has missed to action reading the subtitle or missed the subtitle watching the action.
John Landis fans take note. In what may or may not be a tribute, this film works into the dialog the one-time Landis signature phrase, "See you next Wednesday." [-mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Psychoanalysis makes quite simple people feel they're complex. --S. N. Behrman
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