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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
11/15/02 -- Vol. 21, No. 20
Table of Contents
Goodbye, Old Friend (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
(Am I the only one who thinks about these things?) I was discussing the film THE WIZARD OF OZ with a correspondent. These days it is Toto I think about. It has been observed that throughout the film Dorothy lucks into her good fortune and Toto is the real hero. Dorothy kills the two evil witches each unintentionally. Her house falls on one and the other one just gets into the way. The real hero of the film is Toto. Toto is the one who figures how to escape from the witch's castle. He jumps from the closing drawbridge to the rocks below. "Run, Toto, Run!" Toto returns to the dangerous Haunted Forest to get the Scarecrow, the Tinman, and the Cowardly Lion. The Scarecrow says "He's come to take us to Dorothy!" That is just what Toto does. It is Toto who gets suspicious of the wizard and unveils what is really going on. The truth is that there are five characters in the heroic party, but four of them just let events happen to them. They get out of difficulties by chance. They are all indebted, unstated, to Toto. At the end Dorothy is going to be fine with all she has learned. Toto on the other hand is still living under a death sentence for supposedly biting Elvira Gulch and Dorothy no longer seems to be concerned the dog whose heart, whose courage, and whose brains came in so handy. If such indifference and gross ingratitude is what Oz taught Dorothy was it really worth the trip? [-mrl]
More on Tuber Intelligence (letter of comment by Tom Russell):
I enjoyed your "Tuber Intelligence" (11/1/02 MT VOID).
Have you read the little book "A Guide for the Perplexed" by E. F. Schumacher? He categorizes "levels of being:"
M = minerals; M+x = plants, where x ~ "life;" M+x+y = animals, where y ~ "consciousness;" M+x+y+z = humans, where z ~ "self awareness."(I'm condensing his ideas a lot.) What's interesting is
So perhaps potatoes are not just inert globs waiting to be fried or covered with gravy. After all, they have eyes, don't they?
It is interesting to ponder why Schumacher used x/y/z instead of a/b/c. Using "z" for the defining attribute of humans implies humans are the ultimate level of life. But "Beast Master," ESP and God are all, perhaps, some possible higher levels of life, to say nothing of all those ETs, brain implants, Frankenstein monsters, robots, and John Malkovich beings. These ideas notwithstanding, there is no more way for us to contemplate truly higher life forms than there is for a potato to conceive of us.
The cosmos is very, very big. Somewhere in a galaxy not too far away there is a race of higher-order spuds. They have mounted their own SETI program (search for extra-tubular intelligence) and have been horrified at Earth's couch-potato fare (especially "Ranch" potato chips). They are on their way here to make amends. We are in for an Attack of the Killer Potatoes. That is, once they are victorious in their defense against Darth Turnip. But to be safe I would stay away from Maine and Idaho. [-tr]
bmwfilms.com (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Some really interesting car ads are showing up, but I am afraid these short films may be a very bad symptom for cinema. I hope they are not too much of a harbinger of things that are coming.
You wouldn't think it to look at it, but the story starts with rationing in Britain in World War II. Things were very short in Britain and the Brits learned to do without some very common things. It was things like meat, eggs, butter, sugar, petrol, jelly, and I don't know what all else. The United States had the same problem, but we were an industrial giant and at least when the war was over things became available much more quickly. Housing took a while since the demand did not really increase until the war was over and all those men who previously had been housed by Uncle Sammy started looking for new places to live and start a baby boom. Britain was not as resilient and it took a fair chunk of time before life got comfortable again.
As one tiny facet of this situation, British novelist Ian Fleming characterized his main character, James Bond, as someone who had a cultured taste for opulent living and the finer things in life. These were things the public dreamed about but could not get. Fleming used recognizable brand names to characterize his secret agent. That characterization carried over to the films made from his books. At some point not long after, somebody noticed that these tastes of Bond's amounted to testimonials that were really valuable for advertising purposes. The Bond films got into exploiting product placements, and of course they were not alone in this. Many films had product placements as a form of advertising. This was sort of a win- win-lose situation. The people with products to advertise found an effective medium. Unscrupulous film producers found a new line of revenue to increase profits. Audiences lost because they were buying a film and instead getting an advertisement. Product placements were bad in many films not in the Bond series, but still the Bond films led the way. MOONRAKER, one of the worst of the Bond films in many ways, was very blatant about the placements. In MOONRAKER each of four products somehow fit into the script and *in addition*, during one scene Bond is traveling down the road and passes one billboard for each of the four products. There was very little subtlety.
Advertising directors started making TV ads that mimicked action films. They might give you a minute-long scene that looked like it came from an action film featuring a product like a car. BMW, the car manufacturer, has gone a step further, as I have just recently discovered. They are now making films indistinguishable from Hollywood action films. They basically are Hollywood action films and they are giving them away free on their web site. These are action films with plots that have a beginning, middle, and an end. Some seem to even have director's commentaries. The only difference is that they are six to nine minutes long including credit sequences. And they have credits to advertise. They have directors like Ang Lee, John Woo, and John Frankenheimer. The cast frequently has familiar character actors in supporting roles: actors like Don Cheadle, Maury Chaykin, Gary Oldman, and F. Murray Abraham.
The films all fit into a single series. They each have a chase sequence in which a BMW car gets pretty badly beaten up and apparently repaired or replaced before the next film. And the same goes for the main character, known only as "The Driver." The Driver is a Bond-like action hero played by English actor Clive Owen. The downside is the Owen constantly looks like he is auditioning to be picked for the role of James Bond. The upside is that he probably would make a better Bond than Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan, or George Lazenby. He has an air of confidence but with no sign of a smirk. Everything I think would be good in a James Bond I think Owen could do. Owen has been in a long list of films, but he is probably best known as the lead in CROUPIER.
I learned about BMW films from a TV ad and did not expect much. After all, they are basically just ads. Well, that is not true. They are fairly entertaining films. As works of art, I suppose that I am a little bothered that they camerawork is clearly designed to show off the BMW in the car chase that is predictably in each film. But I pay full theatrical admission to films that do that. And many of those do not deliver appreciably more of value than this film does. If BMW films are being made on BMW's nickel I can easily overlook a product placement. This is the tail wagging the dog. It is the product placement that is the whole reason these films exist.
In the 1950s TV comedies would often have the commercial worked into the format of the program. Character would stand around commenting on the action of the program and somehow the conversation would invariably get around to the brand of cigarette they were smoking and why it was so popular. That was made illegal at that time. Now filmmakers are getting around that law. BMW Films are good ads that may set bad precedent.
Those interested in seeing these short action films may do so at http://usa.bmwfilms.com. [-mrl]
THE RING (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Investigating a strange urban legend that seems to have come true enough to bring about a death, a news reporter finds a strange path of sinister clues involving a bizarre surrealistic videotape. This is a remake of a very strange Japanese horror film. This is a somber and cold piece of eerie horror that has more edge than most American horror the public gets these days. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4)
It is said that in technology that the new ideas come from the United States, but that Japan is more clever about marketing them. An example is the VCR, which was developed in the United States. The Japanese, however, took over the market and made it their own far more effectively than the Americans did. In the field of films, and particularly horror films, the sides soon may well be reversed. The American and even the European horror film tends to fall into ruts doing many of the same plots over and over with variations mostly in style. How many films have a vampire resurrected, he threatens people, and then he is killed by some trick? How many films have a stalker, human or supernatural, killing people in sequence? There are certainly some variations in style, but the same basic stories get repeated all too frequently. These days if you want bizarre and fresh ideas in horror films, not always ones that work, but at least they are new, my recommendation would be to look at the Japanese horror film. Japanese horror filmmakers--once content to make endless versions of THE GHOST OF YOTSUYA--now seem to be making the most original horror films. American filmmakers may well in the future find themselves borrowing ideas from Japanese horror film.
In THE RING there is a popular story, apparently an urban legend. The legend says that if you watch a particular videotape with strange surreal visual images, then as soon as you finish it you get a phone call telling you that you have just seven days to live. Sure enough, just seven days later you really do die. A teenager who sees the tape is skeptical, but in fact dies just 168 hours later. This brings newspaper reporter Rachel Keller (played by Naomi Watts) in to investigate the strange tape and clear up the mystery of the tape's origin. Rather than clearing things up, she finds herself in a deeper and deeper mystery involving the images on the tape.
We go along with the investigation with the sometime too-convenient clues fitting together in ways that seem not to make sense. For once we have a story that works with the weird and unexpected rather than with gore. This is a horror film with ideas but with little gore beyond nosebleeds. As Keller's investigation continues, we find a lot of what is on the tape making more sense, but there is a lot that is not explained in the film. Perhaps we understand the images on the tape, but there is a lot that still does not make sense about the very existence of the tape and why it has its powers. We are given enough to believe everything is explicable, but there is still a lot that never gets explained. It is expecting too much that all will be clear in the end. Odd details are added too quickly and with too much abandon for that to be true. Easy answers do not fit into this strange spirit world of the ring.
Gore Verbinski directs THE RING with a cold but effective style. Somewhat like SIGNS of earlier this year, tension is created over the unknown and the unexpected. The fear is not so much of physical danger, but of just the impenetrability of the mystery. Every outdoor scene seems to take place in mist or rain. The viewer feels a palpable and tangible physical chill. The quick eye catches Verbinski throwing in subliminal images, particularly of the ring itself.
In supporting roles are Jane Alexander of TESTAMENT and the creepy Scotish actor Brian Cox, the screen's first Hannibal Lector (curiously spelled "Lecktor" in RED DRAGON). THE RING is a real departure from the usual fare of American horror films. While I personally find it very difficult to really be frightened by any horror film, this film certainly caught me with an air of tension. I rate it a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
ALIVE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This is a live-action Japanese science fiction film heavily influenced by manga comic books. A prisoner survives his electric-chair execution only to be used in a weird experimental test involving aliens and witchcraft. This should have been intriguing material but the characters are one- dimensional and the style over-dramatic. This is a film with a lot of sound and fury on a very small stage. Rating: 4 (0 to 10), low 0 (-4 to +4)
Last year Ryuhei Kitamura brought his premier film, VERSUS, to the Toronto Festival. He had co-written and directed it. This year he brings his second film, ALIVE. This film, like that one, is based on a Japanese manga comic book. ALIVE is a film for an action audience shot on a minimal budget, an unusual combination. The film takes place mostly on three small claustrophobic sets. A man survives electric-chair execution. Though the State and all who knew him think he is dead, he actually has been moved to a strange hyper-tech cell and is taking part in a weird experiment. The prisoners can ask for whatever they want as long as they stay is the cell, which is forever apparently. The experiment has something to do with a strange alien organism that attacks a body like a disease and slowly takes over so that it is in control. Once in control the victim becomes an ideal killing machine for all those pesky government administrative tasks that really need ideal killing machines. This film has ideas. Probably it has too many ideas for its own good. Witchcraft enters into the story and aliens. That is a combination that I do not remember ever seeing before. But the characters are flat and never developed beyond the point of being icons. Without characters the plot becomes dry and uninteresting in spite of the ideas explosive if confined action. For an action film the plot progresses at a snail's pace. That is because the action scenes are handled in the slow operatic and hyper-dramatic manner pioneered by Sergio Leone. Many of the visuals are now almost cliche. We have the big back-lit fans that cast constantly moving beams of light. Sets are decorated with unfathomable electronic gizmos on the wall.
The film is just a tangle of video game-style fights without much reason for the viewer to care who will win. I rate ALIVE a 4 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low 0 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
ARARAT (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Atom Egoyan tries to make a film that is both one of his puzzle films and at the same time is about the Armenian holocaust. The film simply doesn't work. It is incoherent, confusing, and in places absurd. This is a real disappointment from a good filmmaker. Rating: 4 (0 to 10), 0 (-4 to +4)
Atom Egoyan's ARARAT is a film aimed at reminding the world of atrocities against Armenians in pre-Ataturk Turkey. Let me say at the outset that I am not knowledgeable enough to meaningfully endorse either side's point of view on this chapter of history. I like both peoples and will not take sides. I will not consider the degree of truth of the political statement this film makes in my review. I will say however that somewhere buried in ARARAT is a heartfelt statement, but it does not do much good for either side of the conflict. I very much liked Egoyan's EXOTICA, THE SWEET HEREAFTER, and FELICIA'S JOURNEY and am much surprised to find Egoyan's film on a subject so near to his heart so jumbled and confused.
In ARARAT, a film is being shot about the Turkish offensive in an Armenian province in 1915. Meanwhile one man, Raffi, goes to Turkey to shoot some footage for the film. He is in love with his unrelated stepsister. The stepsister has serious issues with their mutual mother, who is a historical advisor on the film. A customs officer (Christopher Plummer) stops Raffi on the way back to Toronto. The customs officer has his own problems with his son and his son's male lover. Raffi tells the customs officer the story of the movie, which we see recreated as both the original incidents and scenes in the movie being shot. A half-Turk in the film playing a Turkish officer has doubts about the film's lean toward the Armenian side. By an odd coincidence, he is the lover of the customs officer's son. The customs officer also had previously hassled the film's director. This is just too much coincidence interconnecting characters lives.
This is easily the most convoluted and complex plot I have seen in a film for many years. One can only speculate why Egoyan would embed his story of the Armenian resistance so deeply in this plate of story-line spaghetti. If the individual plot lines added substantially to the tale of the holocaust it would be more understandable, but beyond saying that the past still hangs over present-day Armenians, this part of the story is more distraction.
The telling is muddled and makes it far to difficult to piece together what is happening. This story is pulling in so many directions that Egoyan blunts his real point. Most of this plot is just a distraction from what Egoyan wanted most to say. He would have done far better to make the internal story rather than simply claiming some other fictional director is making it. That just contradicts his (false) statement that the Armenian Holocaust is forgotten. There is no explanation why a Canadian customs officer would interrogate a man entering the country about the Armenian Holocaust, nor why he would argue for the Turkish side. It is just about the most artificial and least believable way to present the history and to present much of it as arguments by "talking heads."
Simply put, ARARAT is a film that does not succeed where a less talented filmmaker could have easily made a film that worked far better. In an introduction Egoyan said that this film was inspired by Istvan Szabo's recent SUNSHINE. That film, however, much more effectively made its points. I think Egoyan experimented with a different style, but the experiment failed. This is a rare instance of a film about the making of a film, where the interior film looks better than the outer one. I rate this ARARAT a 4 on the 0 to 10 scale and a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
CAPSULE: Based on a true story, a Japanese prize-fighter becomes a paraplegic in a traffic accident. With no reason to live, he plumbs the depths of despair and strikes out at the world. Then he discovers Aikido martial arts, finds reasons to live, and once again becomes a champion. This is sort of an Aikido BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), low +2 (-4 to +4)
Haruhiko Kato, who starred in the supremely weird horror film PULSE, plays Taichi. As the film opens Taichi is a boxer, and fighting is the one thing that gives his life some meaning. After a successful match he gives his girlfriend a ride on his motor scooter when a careless driver hits him. Taichi awakes to find that he will never walk again. The uninsured driver who hit him commits suicide rather than face the consequences of his own irresponsibility. We see some harrowing operation scenes of just what must be done to Taichi's body to simply to keep him alive. This leaves Taichi with no prospects and very little to live for. His world gets very small, as just getting to the next room is a nearly impossible feat. Just getting through the day unassisted even without leaving his apartment is more than he can hope for. He learns to use a wheelchair, but it does him little good as he bitterly withdraws from the world. He verbally abuses his sister, the only person willing to care for him.
After many months he improves to the point where he can go out on the street with his wheelchair. A small time criminal befriends Taichi. Then he makes a second friend, an enigmatic temple maiden with a somewhat secret past. She introduces him to another friend, a master of the martial art of Aiki. This man is willing to take even a man in a wheelchair on as a student. Even from a wheelchair, Taichi learns the art of Aikido.
Daisuke Tengan, who also directed, based his script on the true story of a paraplegic, once a boxer, who became a champion of Aikido. In a lot of ways this story is quite similar to BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY. In case of that film it is the anti-war movement that gives an embittered paraplegic back his life, in the other it is martial arts. Aikido emphasizes a tranquil and affirmative mind-set and the accepting of one's opponent. In this case, of course, the opponent takes many forms, though the same attitude and philosophy applies.
The story follows a rather obvious arch from the beginning. The production is generally good and the acting seems reasonably well done. (It generally is harder to judge acting in a language the viewer does not understand). The subtitles are occasionally hard to read in the print I saw. I would rate AIKI a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: Jews don't go camping. Life is hard enough as it is. --Carol Siskind
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