MT VOID 01/11/02 (Vol. 20, Number 28)

MT VOID 01/11/02 (Vol. 20, Number 28)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
01/11/02 -- Vol. 20, No. 28

Table of Contents

El Presidente: Mark Leeper, The Power Behind El Pres: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to To unsubscribe, send mail to

+4 Film Ratings (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I got comments from two or three people who were surprised that I had given a rating of a +4 to the new LORD OF THE RINGS. The comment that I heard was they thought that even though I called my rating scale a -4 to +4 scale, I never actually used the -4 or the +4 rating. In fact that is not the case, but I can see how people might get that idea. I use the +4 rating only two or three times a decade.

The truth is that my scale is not a -4 to +4 scale, it is a minus infinity to plus infinity scale. The quality of films is a statistical entity that is distributed in a bell-shaped curve. The further you get from the center, the rarer films that good or bad get.

There is a mean quality of all films made. There is also a mean and somewhat higher quality of released theatrical films. Some films are made only for videocasette or DVD or cable release. Some films are so bad that once completed, it does not seem worthwhile to release them at all. When I rate a file, I roughly guess where it would go in the bell-shaped curve of all films. A rating of zero is just about in the center of this curve. That is a median film. Pick a film at random and you have about a 50% chance of it being a better film, and a 50% chance of it being a worse film. That is the meaning of a zero film on my scale. A +1 film is one that is just about average for films released to theaters. Remember we are cutting out the films that never get a theatrical release. These are usually lower quality films but some are actually very good films.

Why would a really good film not get a release? Richard Rush's 1980 THE STUNT MAN was a really good film that almost did not get a release because the executives at 20th Century Fox did not think had moneymaking potential. It sat on the shelf for years before it was finally released and got some great critical reviews. So Rush was vindicated. He had made a great film. Want to know who else was vindicated? My understanding is that the release of the film was a total financial flop. Had the film not been released, which the Fox execs wished had been the case, it would have been a very good film that did not get a theatrical release.

So just because a film does not get a theatrical release does not mean that it is bad. The best film I saw this year showed at a film festival but very likely will not get a theatrical release or if it does it will be small. That film is THE GREY ZONE. It had a cast including Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, and Mira Sorvino. I found the story very powerful. It was about the sonderkommandos who bought themselves a few more months of life in Auschwitz by doing some of the dirty work for the Germans, surviving but living in a moral gray zone. Want a chance to see it? Don't hold your breath. Making this film must have been a labor of love because it is not going to get much of an audience, even in art houses. I would give THE GREY ZONE a +4 rating if I had to put a number to it. More likely I would just refuse to rate it. It feels wrong to compare a film like this to THE LORD OF THE RINGS to decide which is better. SCHINDLER'S LIST is the only film I have refused to rate when I reviewed it, but if I review THE GREY ZONE I will have the same dilemma.

So what films do I give a +4 to? Well, I admit that I am somewhat biased toward fantasy films. I usually break those out separately. And of non-fantasy films I have a preference for historical films:


If I am to include fantasy films I would add:

THE WAR GAME (Peter Watkins'film)
BRAINSTORM (first 2/3 only)


SERIES 7: THE CONTENDERS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Six people hunt and kill each other in an exaggerated satire of today's "reality TV." Shot on video on an ultra-low- budget and with melodramatic sub-plotting, the result is still surprisingly entertaining considering its modest origins. The film is a sort of latter-day EL MARIACHI, entertaining like a film that cost many times more in production costs. Still, it comes off a little phony, exploiting the violence it appears to condemn. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), +1 (-4 to +4)

Curiously for so cynical a film as this, my first thoughts were of the film's naivete. I remember as a young teenager sitting in friend Lester Meyers's basement playing with his new tape recorder. One of the first things we thought to do was to create a little science fiction drama. It was a satire of violence on TV taken to an extreme, supposedly a public broadcast of an execution complete with commercials. I guess it was a sort of obvious comment on the bad taste and sensationalism of television. It lacked polish but was not very different for its day from pieces I have actually seen produced since. For example, Peter Watkins did THE GLADIATORS, a film in which war was replaced by teams from different countries trying to kill each other off with the action covered on TV sponsored by a brand of pasta.

The idea of sensationalism and public voyeurism, watching something real and bloody seems to be one that comes naturally to young minds and to television executives apparently. It is the young in mind who crave seeing violence but also seem to blame their elders for its extremity. SERIES 7: THE CONTENDERS does not actually have a public execution at its center. Instead it borrows idea ideas from reality TV together with a concept I first saw presented by Robert Sheckley in his short story "The Seventh Victim," later adapted into the film THE TENTH VICTIM. The story's idea is that at some point in the future life is cheap and people hunt and kill each other on television, turning life and death struggles into public entertainment. Though the idea for the story has been well-trodden before SERIES 7: THE CONTENDERS, the current popularity of "reality TV" gives filmmaker Daniel Minahan topicality and a set of publicly familiar stylistic conventions to imitate.

The story is very straightforward. We are in a world that looks like ours but has one major difference. At birth people are registered for the game, much like they might be for the draft. And like the draft if randomly chosen a person must participate regardless of his current circumstance. In fact the main character Dawn (played by Brooke Smith) is nearing term on her pregnancy. The government supplies the players chosen with guns, and then it is up to them. There is some mention of cash prizes for winners, though the main inducement to play seems to be that once chosen it is "kill or be killed."

Daniel Minahan, who wrote as well as directed, wanted to give a reality TV effect which I have heard he did very well (though I cannot claim to have ever watched an episode of a reality program, so cannot judge for myself). The production was shot in a short twenty-one days on videotape. Minahan claims that to this end he chose actors in part for their unfamiliarity to the public. That should make the story seem more real. But Brooke Smith played Sonya, a major character in VANYA ON 42ND STREET and I was familiar with that particular unreality film.

The game has a diverse, if melodramatic, selection of characters playing the life and death competition. There is a pregnant woman, a devout Catholic Nurse, a man dying of cancer, an elderly man, a teenager, and a middle-aged father. We get to see a little about these people's families, but they are developed only superficially. The writing is a bit over-the-top. The dying man was Dawn's high school sweetheart before they went their separate ways. Oh boy.

In the early days of film Cecil B. DeMille was told that he could no longer make the sexy films he had been making. Instead he turned to Biblical films where he could be staging the sexy scenes and at the same time appear to be condemning them. Minahan is using a similar approach here to show violence and at the same time appear to be condemning it. His film is moderately successful as entertainment until the ironies get a little thick toward the end. I rate SERIES 7: THE CONTENDERS a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           Pray, n. To ask the laws of the universe be annulled 
           on behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy. 
                                          --Ambrose Bierce

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