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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
01/04/02 -- Vol. 20, No. 27
Table of Contents
This issue of the MT VOID is brought to you in part by THE HOMECOMING.
Coming in February: Homer's THE HOMECOMING. For the many avid fans of Homer, the wait is over. Homer has finally completed the third book in the Odysseus Saga. Odysseus has fought, he has wandered, but sometimes greatest challenges can be found at home. Read Homer's THE HOMECOMING from Penguin Classics.
"It's like nothing Homer ever wrote before. THE HOMECOMING is a real departure." --Rosetta Stone, Harvard Department of Classics
What Went Wrong with the Film GREEN MANSIONS? (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
The other day I watched a film I had not seen since I saw it from the back seat of my parents' car in a drive-in movie in what must have been 1959. The movie was director Mel Ferrer's adaptation of William Henry Hudson's GREEN MANSIONS. The film was a surprising failure at the time since it was based on a book that is well-liked and it starred Audrey Hepburn, who in 1959 had made a success of every film she had been in. (Also she was chosen because at this point she was Mrs. Mel Ferrer. This was probably the reason Ferrer wanted to do the film in the first place.)
The novel is about an explorer in the rain forests of Guyana (the film changes his background a little) who is enchanted by the magic of the forest. Perhaps no less enchanting is an apparently mystical girl of great beauty who lives in the forest and is feared and revered by the local Indians. Though she is not a feral human, like Tarzan, it is easy to believe that Tarzan is based at least in part on Hudson's Rima, the bird girl. (And perhaps both are in part based on Kipling's Mowgli.)
The peculiar thing about the film is the odd way it seems just a little out of joint. It does not seem to work. This got me to wonder why the book would work and the film would not. What was ill-fated about the project and should Ferrer have been able to tell it in advance? I decided to read the book. (One nice thing about owning a big library is that I can put my hands on books almost as soon as I get interested in them.)
Reading GREEN MANSIONS goes quickly. In fact, this is the book that a girl once accidentally dropped in the mud as she was reading it. When the book dried the girl went through page-by-page dusting the grit out of the book. As she dusted she skimmed the words under her hand and was surprised that she picked up a great deal of the story. This was probably the most important event in her life. As you have probably guessed, her name was Evelyn Wood and she parlayed her experience of reading the novel GREEN MANSIONS into a career of and a well-paying business promoting speed reading.
What made the book a particularly apt choice for Evelyn Wood is probably the same thing that made Mel Ferrer think it would make a good movie. The plot is relatively sparse and the book is filled with prose description of the natural wonder of the rain forest. Hudson will go on for pages describing a spider and her web. Wood probably got the feel of the forest scenes skimming over the descriptions, many of which are really dispensable once the reader gets the idea. To adapt the book into a screenplay it also had to be much cut down. Certainly the film could not have long verbal descriptions of the forest. Instead, the art director or the production designer (I am never sure which does what) just created a rain forest. Now, visually much of the film is quite striking. I was surprised that I remembered since 1959 that the film opens with a chase down a hill done in silhouette. But the image remained in my memory and there it was exactly as I had remembered it. But to match Hudson's rich descriptions the film just shows us scenery that looks like romantic essence of rain forest. This left Ferrer free to concentrate on the story of the explorer and of the mysterious Rima. No doubt he wanted to emphasize the role of his wife.
I think what he underrated is that in this novel it is not true that the descriptions support the plot, giving it richness. Instead the plot supports the description. The real center of attention is the setting. The story is just only mediocre and a skeleton to hang the descriptions of the background on. The problem with the film is that the background is relegated to the art direction where it just seemed exaggerated. The story, which was not Hudson's main concern became, a rather silly allegory without much point. Unfortunately, probably more people got their impressions of the story from the film than from the book. [-mrl]
KATE & LEOPOLD (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Heavy on romance but light and error-ridden on its logic and science fiction concept, this is the story of a romance across 125 years. An 1876 man falls both into 2001 and in love. Director James Mangold leans a bit too heavily on the insufficient charm of Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman. Dissatisfying in many regards. Rating: 4 (0 to 10), 0 (-4 to +4)
I am told there is a sub-category or romance novel in which one of the lovers comes from another age. The fans of these novels will probably get more pleasure from KATE & LEOPOLD than people watching the film for its science fiction content. The problem is that writer-director James Mangold and co-writer Steven Rogers did not think out the logic of his script and did very little history fact-checking. For example, they should have checked if Duke Leopold (Hugh Jackman) really would be knowledgeable about Puccini's "La Boheme." ("La Boheme" was first performed in 1896; Leopold is from two decades earlier.)
The film opens on April 28, 1876, as someone (it can't be John Roebling, as he died in 1869, or Washington Roebling, as he never visted the site after 1872) is making a speech at the partially completed Brooklyn Bridge. (You know it is the past because everything looks a little sepia-toned. That's the way things looked back then, didn't they?) Admiring in the audience is English Duke Leopold, an amateur inventor himself, who is in America looking for a wife. His parents want a woman with a large inheritance to marry to his title. Watching the speaker, photographers with their big box cameras and trays of flash powder are photographing the event, but the duke's eye is attracted to someone in the crowd who rudely chuckles at the speaker's reference to "his erection" and who seems to be photographing the scene with a tiny palm-sized camera. Curiosity drives the Duke to question the stranger who turns and runs.
That same day the duke sees the stranger, Stuart (played by Liev Schreiber), again and chases him through a tear in space-time and into our present. Now it is Leopold who is out of step with the world and he has only Stuart to guide him through the present world. Matters get even worse when elevators fail all over Manhattan. (How does that happen? Don't look for logic.) Stuart is injured and taken to the hospital. This gives Leopold a reason to better get to know Stuart's upstairs neighbor Kate (Meg Ryan). She is a public opinion expert for an advertising firm. Kate is soon going to find that there are three men interested in her. There is her boss, there is ex-beau Stuart, and there is this strangely dressed visitor in Stuart's apartment. Kate does not really believe Leopold is a time traveler and the audience should have an even harder time. Leopold adapts incredibly quickly to a world that must be a great deal different from his own. It is never really clear where he is learning a good deal of what he seems to pick up about the 21st century.
Meg Ryan is an actress who does try to take some roles beyond her standard "youthful charm" persona, but it may be getting to be too little too late. She is getting a little old for the role. In fact much more the focus of the film and a little more interesting character is Hugh Jackman's suave Leopold. However, they are not nearly as interesting as the similar couple in TIME AFTER TIME. In that film, the time traveler hunting for Jack the Ripper and winning the girl is much more engaging than the time traveler in this film, who wins the girl and appears in a television commercial. But then this is not a science fiction adventure but a leisurely play of manners. Given the choice, I think I would have preferred the science fiction adventure.
James Mangold is best known for more serious films like COP LAND. That film gave the viewer something reasonable to chew on a little. This one is best swallowed in one gulp. I rate KATE AND LEOPOLD a 4 on the 0 to 10 scale and a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale.
(I have three comments. Are TV commercials really shot on Sundays? That seemed unlikely, but I am not certain so I give the film the benefit of the doubt. As the credits at least acknowledge, it was no Duke Leopold who invented the elevator. And it is not really true that dogs are colorblind either, though their color perception is much weaker than that of humans. At least they have something. Imagine the enormous nasty trick nature played on them, making their most acute sense be that super sense of smell. Thanks to Evelyn Leeper for doing some of the historical research.) [-mrl]
A BEAUTIFUL MIND: (film review by Mark R. Leeper)
CAPSULE: Inspired by a true story, but taking very large liberties, this is the story of John Nash, a mathematical genius but a social misfit. His career goes down unexpected paths when he agrees to help the OSS fight the Communist threat. Russell Crowe does surprisingly well in a taxing role and Jennifer Connelly equals his feat. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4)
The film is aptly titled A BEAUTIFUL MIND. John Nash's mind and the bargain it made with the world are exactly what this film is about. While it tells a fictionalized version of the life of a mathematician who won the Nobel Prize in economics, central to the story is John Nash's mind, what is happening in the world around it, and in what unique ways it perceives that world. Ron Howard very effectively showed the world what goes on in an Apollo spacecraft in APOLLO 13. Even that is a simple task compared to that of showing workings the mind of a human, both functioning and malfunctioning. And Nash's mind does both, as if it had made some sort of Faustian bargain with the world to see things enough differently to give him great insights, but in the process to be unable to see the world normally. That is frequently the price that genius pays. "Eccentric" is the term we apply to people either rich or brilliant like Isaac Newton and Nikola Tesla who would have been total social misfits but for the brilliance of their output.
The film begins with Nash's days at Princeton. Russell Crowe plays Nash, who was described by his former teachers as having a double helping of brains but only half a helping of heart, is frank beyond the point of rudeness and seems totally to lack social graces. He has won a prestigious scholarship, but he decides to use the faculty as a counsel to discuss his ideas rather than as teachers in the usual sense. Lectures are something he has completely dispensed with. His mind is a beehive of ideas, but he chastises himself that all are small ideas. None is worthy of a thesis. When he gets his idea, a cooperative "everybody-wins" strategy in game theory, it is the idea that will eventually win him a Nobel Prize. He also somewhat refines his social graces enough to earn the love of a woman, Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), who would become his wife.
Nash knows that as one lecturer puts it, "mathematics won the war." It was public knowledge at this point that heavily dependent on mathematicians was the Manhattan Project as well as the project to break the Japanese codes. (In fact, the lecturer understates the case since then it was still considered top secret that British mathematicians had broken the German Enigma code and also unknown was just how important breaking that code had been to the British war effort.) It is at this point that that Nash begins to see the shady-looking government men hanging around Princeton. They seem to be taking an interest in Nash's work and wish to tempt him to apply his mind to a huge new problem of breaking Soviet codes and finding infiltrators. "McCarthy is an idiot but that doesn't make him wrong," the shifty OSS man William Parcher (played by Ed Harris) tells him. Nash makes the decision to let himself become embroiled in the cloak and dagger nether- world of counter-espionage. The pressure of balancing the two lives begins to show on his mental condition.
Akiva Goldsmith used the life of the real John Nash as a springboard in writing the screenplay, but fictionalized many details and introduced some anachronisms along the way. Alicia, in fact, divorced Nash early on. 1948 is a little early for pizza to be a favorite with college students. Some of the devices Nash sees at the OSS were not invented until years later. Other times the screenplay impishly plays tricks on the viewer.
Where the film attempts to visualize Nash's thought, it is not perfect but does a very interesting job. Nash sees complex mathematical structure is even the most prosaic things around him. That is not easy to convey on the screen. He looks for patterns in printed text, a difficult activity to show in a film, but the film manages to make it visual. Mathematics written on blackboards looks to have been written by someone who knew mathematics. The makeup effects used to show John and Alicia aging is not perfect, but is quite good. Connelly is known so well for juvenile roles it is almost hard to see her as the same woman here. As she ages in the film it becomes even harder. Crowe is good as a man who still has the body language of a child, but it is Connelly who rivets the viewer's focus when she is on the screen. Crowe, however, just does not physically resemble photographs of John Nash. An actor who to me does resemble the real Nash, Austin Pendleton, has a small and a different role in this film. For just a flash we see veteran actor Roy Thinnes of the TV series "The Invaders." Surprisingly, director Ron Howard did not place his brother Clint in the film anywhere. The name Howard does appear in the cast a few places, but not Clint Howard. That had become almost a Ron Howard trademark.
The task of showing an audience what is going on in a human mind is not easy in film. While Howard is not entirely successful doing it here, occasionally he uses cliches, but it is a valiant attempt. I rate this film a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
THE BUSINESS OF STRANGERS: (film review by Mark R. Leeper)
CAPSULE: Two business women spend an evening of playing mind games on each other while traveling for business. This is a modest film with the feel of a stage play. Writer and director Patrick Stettner keeps a feeling of unease and tension going between the two main characters for the film's spare 84 minutes. Unfortunately, much of what does happen is predictable. This may be a good film only for those who have not seen similar stories before. Stockard Channing gives one of her best performances. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), +1 (-4 to +4)
THE BUSINESS OF STRANGERS has a script ideally suited for an independent film. There are only three characters who have more than two or three spoken lines and just a few sets. The entire film was shot in only 23 days. Perhaps the story would have been even better done as a stage play. The major problem is that if one has seen a story of two people playing with each other's minds before, one has a good of an idea where this film is going. Much too good.
Julie (played by Stockard Channing) has fought her way up to being a high executive in a software company. She has something of a negative attitude after all she has had to do to get to her professional position. Lately there are signs that she is being eased out with meetings being held behind her back. The last straw falls is when at a meeting with a potential customer her new assistant, later to be identified as Paula (Julia Stiles), fails to arrive until the end of the meeting. As soon as they are alone Julie fires Paula. Julie later discovers that the secret meetings were deciding to make her the company's new CEO. In a better mood Julie runs into Paula and decides to make it up to her. What follows is an evening that starts with conversation and quickly moves into mind games with more than a hint of lesbian flirtation.
Julie and Paula each shows a different sort of anger. Julie drinks men's drinks and wields power like a stereotyped male executive. Paula is a young in-your-face rebel. She sports angry tattoos and flaunts her bisexuality, daring Julie either to be shocked or to indulge. The third player is Nick (Fred Weller) a slick and slightly oily headhunter who has worked with Julie before. Julie pays a price for working in the system; Paula pays a price for playing outside of it. At least there is no feminist message here. There is no gratuitous statement that the way would have been any easier for either woman has she been a man.
Patrick Stettner wrote and directed this film developed at the Sundance Institute Lab. He creates a real feeling of unease between two women who each for her own reason wants to control and use the other, but has to keep up her guard in the other's presence. This is not a very restful film to watch. In its taut 84 minutes there is not one moment of ease. THE BUSINESS OF STRANGERS is a competently made story, but I think it is not as sly as Stettner had hoped. This game of gambit and parry works like a clock. Everything functions, but nothing is very unexpected. I give it a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Cynicism is an unpleasant way of saying the truth. --Lillian Hellman
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