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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
03/01/02 -- Vol. 20, No. 35
Table of Contents
Leeperhouse Film Festival (announcement by Mark R. Leeper):
GATTACA (1997) written and directed by Andrew Niccol
The Leeperhouse Film Festival will show GATTACA at 7:30 PM, March 7.
I don't remember exactly what the trailer was like when I saw it at the 1996 Worldcon in Los Angeles. But GATTACA just did not sound like it was going to be very good. I guess it is difficult for a film trailer to convey the intelligence of a film. I guessed low. I was wrong.
GATTACA is an extrapolation into a future in which the human genome has been analyzed to the point that one little bit of DNA can tell so much about a person that careers can be chosen for the baby at birth. This is the story of someone who is low-rated on the basis of his DNA and aspires for something higher. In lessor hands this could have been Sci-fi Channel stuff. But this film was written and directed by Andrew Niccol who had also written THE TRUMAN SHOW. Both films are extremely imaginative and intelligent. I was on a panel with three other people to choose the best science fiction films of the 1990s and also the best single film. Without comparing notes three of the four, myself included, came in saying that the best science fiction film of the 1990s was GATTACA. This is not a film that simply plays off of the public's fears of change, but is an intelligent look at the issues with well developed characters. Andrew Niccol has given the film more depth than most science fiction novels. Whether you see it with us or not, if you missed this one, it is worth catching.
Roger Ebert said of it, "This is one of the smartest and most provocative of science fiction films, a thriller with ideas."
Please RSVP. Directions available if you need them. [-mrl]
QUEEN OF THE DAMNED (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The production design is stronger than the writing in this short version of multiple Anne Rice novels. What was probably impressive in the books looks overwrought on the screen. And the funny Eastern European accents for people not from that part of the world seem a little off-putting. Rating: 4 (0 to 10), 0 (-4 to +4)
There are not a whole lot of accolades to be apportioned for QUEEN OF THE DAMNED. I will say at the front that Graham Walker's production design with Tom Nursey's art direction is the high point of this film. Most sets seem to be about as impressive as could be hoped for. This is a film that looks a lot better than it plays. This is true even in spite of some overly familiar camera tricks by cinematographer Ian Baker. Disorienting the viewer by pulling back the camera and zooming forward with the lens dates back to VERTIGO and JAWS. It feels like an artificial trick in Baker's hands. So does filming action scenes at fewer than 24 frames per second and holding each frame longer. Frequently when a film looks better than it plays it is a sign that the target audience is music video fans. And there are other such signs in the film.
The best I can say for Scott Abbott's and Michael Petroni's screenplay is that an attempt to adapt multiple thick novels into a single film is ambitious. That they failed to do justice to adapting at least two longish novels to a screenplay of about 100 pages is hardly surprising. But even given the ambitiousness of the project they might have done a better job.
Up front the chief problem with this film is that it fails to produce a sense of awe. Part of the problem I suppose is that Anne Rice's novels are about characters and events of mythic proportions, but they have to be portrayed on the screen with real people. For additional identification from the young audience QUEEN OF THE DAMNED has most of the Rice characters played by young actors who do no have the talent yet to appear as commanding presences on the screen. When you have the great Ancient Egyptian sorceress--the founder of vampirism and monarch of all vampires-- look like a college co-ed dressed for a Halloween frat party, audiences are going to have a hard time taking your film seriously. Read the book and your mind's eye creates Queen Akasha in all her majesty. The screen realization has to compete with that. Epic battles of vampires look great in the imagination, but rather silly on the wide screen.
QUEEN OF THE DAMNED tells us more about the life (or un-life) of the Vampire Lestat (Stuart Townsend in the role previously played with unexpected flair by Tom Cruise). Lestat has retreated from the world for a long hibernation in his coffin, but is roused and seduced by the sound of rock music. Within months Lestat is a rock star. Now his tastes were formed on 18th century French music but rock apparently appeal to him and he quickly is a master. While this may initially strike the viewer at "tripe," on reflection a far better word is "balderdash." Lestat hide his vampiric nature by posing as a human posing as a vampire and hiding his identity by renaming his band "The Vampire Lestat." This enrages other vampires because he is giving away vampire secrets in song lyrics. He arouses the curiosity of a Jesse Reeves (Marguerite Moreau), a minor functionary of a centuries old society of vampire hunters, the Talamasca. Complicating matters is that Marius (Vincent Perez), the vampire who first bit Lestat is still around and harboring the remains of the first vampire, Queen Akasha (played by the late Aaliyah), a sorceress going back to Ancient Egypt. This is a film with no shortage of plot lines.
Under Michael Rymer's direction one of the small virtues is that even though there are battles, the are visualized with little or no martial arts. These are not Buffy-style demons who can be dispatched with anything so trivial as a well-placed kung fu kick. Different mystical, and perhaps silly, rules determine the vulnerabilities of these supernatural creatures. The script assumes you can pick up the rules of vampires from context or already know them from reading the Rice novels. Little effort is spent in dialog explanations. Time is spent in a little over the top romance between Lestat and Reeves including a romantic flight much like the one in SUPERMAN: THE MOTION PICTURE. There are large logic holes as when vampires angry that Lestat may be revealing the secret that vampires exist, physically attack him with vampire powers in the most indiscreet venue the film can manage.
Several scenes just needed logic checks. At one point Lestat is playing the violin and loses his grip on the bow, accidentally shooting it across the room. No decent violin player could play if he held the bow that loosely. The vampires come from different parts of the world. Lestat is a French noble, the title character is an Egyptian princess. Yet all vampires seem to talk with vaguely Eastern European accents. There is no explanation offered for this. Acting seems over the top in an apparent attempt to add weight and drama to the proceedings.
This is the kind of film that perhaps should be watched with the sound off. It may just indicate that INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE is the only book in Anne Rice's "Vampire Chronicles" conservative enough to translate well to the screen. I rate QUEEN OF THE DAMNED a 4 on the 0 to 10 scale and a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
MONSTER'S BALL (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: In a small rural Georgia town a white racist and a black woman form a tender and tenuous relationship after each suffers an unexpected loss. The story does not avoid cliches, but the characterizations haunt the viewer long after the film is over. Rating: 9 (0 to 10), +3 (-4 to +4)
Hank Grotowski (played by Billy Bob Thornton) leads a life that seems like a catalog of pain received and pain given. His bullying father Buck (Peter Boyle) is a first-class racist and has raised his son to be as much like him as possible. Hank is an executioner in the Georgia Department of Corrections. His father lovingly keeps a scrapbook of the people his son has executed. Hank has his own son, Sonny (Heath Ledger), working right with him in the penitentiary, marching convicts to the electric chair. But Sonny does not have what it takes to be a Grotowski in good standing. Hank does not like Sonny making friends with some local blacks and warns them off his property firing a shotgun. Giving pain is natural to Hank and almost a way of life. Currently Hank is preparing for the upcoming execution of Lawrence Musgrove (Sean "Puffy" Combs). Lawrence's wife Leticia (Halle Berry) visits him in prison bringing their overweight son Tyrell.
The film goes back and forth between the daily lives of Hank and Leticia. Each is a hard parent on his/her child. Neither knows the other very well, though Leticia waits tables in a restaurant Hank visits. When Leticia's son is hit by a car, Hank happens onto the scene and reluctantly agrees to take the boy to the hospital. Something about Leticia strikes a hidden chord of decency in Hank's personality. Perhaps he is attracted by her looks, perhaps by her vulnerability. In spite of his upbringing, he wants to help Leticia. When each suffers a serious personal loss, his decency becomes a need to get and give comfort. Helping Leticia, perhaps in spite of herself, becomes his fixation.
Certainly there is nothing very original about the plot of the man who has been so unfeeling seeing the pain he has caused and finding joy in reforming and being nourished by some of the very people he hurt. Not to demean the plot, but it is even a little reminiscent of Dickens's A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Where the script has its greatest interest is in the situations it creates and the reactions that the characters have. Right up to the end we wonder exactly what are the characters thinking and how are they reacting to what they are seeing. Milo Addica and Will Rokos have written a script rich in irony and bittersweet humor. The pacing is deliberate, but that allows it to create and linger over situations that might be over in a single scene in other writers' hands. We see ironic parallels in the two main characters who are in some ways analogs of each other. Hank lives with a father who cheats by sneaking cigarettes when he should not be smoking. Leticia lives with a son who cheats by sneaking candy. Hank and Leticia go overboard in disciplining their sons. Hank does not trust blacks, Leticia does not trust whites. They each use sex not for lust but as an escape and a way of comforting each other.
Halle Berry is excellent as Leticia, showing an acting talent we probably have not seen from her before. But, perhaps unfortunately, Leticia has the attractive looks of a Halle Berry. I am not sure the story is precisely right with her in the lead. Certainly the film shows that Hank has a core of decency, but I found myself wondering if he could have been as decent if Leticia was a black woman with the looks of an Agnes Moorhead.
Like the film LIMBO, MONSTER'S BALL builds to an ambiguous ending. Much of the film hinges on what happens next and on what people are thinking in the last of the film. And, of course, we are left with that ambiguity. MONSTER'S BALL is a haunting film with well- defined characters and a strong emotional impact. I rate it a 9 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: The greatest political opportunist of all time has to be God. Somehow He always manages to say just exactly what His audience is predisposed to believe. - Mark Leeper
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