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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
12/20/02 -- Vol. 21, No. 25
Table of Contents
Toronto International Film Festival:
While you're waiting for the rest of Mark's full-length reviews which continue to run here, Evelyn has finally finished her much shorter comments, along with general festival comments, and they are available at http://www.geocities.com/evelynleeper/tiff2002.htm [-ecl]
Alphabetic Anguish (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
This country is built on a number of attitudes, beliefs, and out and out myths. Some of these we have been completely unsuccessful in convincing the people for whom they were intended. Sometimes, however, it is possible sell a myth only too well. There is at least one myth, one of the more specious, that we have been not just completely successful and ultimately overly successful in convincing its intended audience. Because that audience is nearly completely naive, this myth which is really a lie, has been fully and uncritically accepted as the truth. This myth, which we have convinced every small child is true, is the assertion that every adult just loves hearing any child sing the A-B-C song. Young children are convinced that every adult is totally astonished to the point of stunned incredulity that the child should have memorized the entire alphabet of the his or her own language. In fact, the song is a mnemonic device of questionable value.
The fact (of which the child is generally well aware) that pretty much every peer of the performing child can duplicate the feat of singing this song is a matter of complete indifference to the diminutive braggart. Young children seem to be convinced that the entire adult population of this country believes that there is a lost art to reciting the alphabet, albeit off-key and to a perversion of Mozart's melody of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star". Each child behaves as if he or she alone is keeping the nearly lost art alive. The adult is expected to appear enormously relieved to find that there is one child in the world who can be the torchbearer for the cause of continuing literacy, bringing knowledge of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet into the brave new world of the future. Actually, the vast majority of these young performers are probably ignorant of just how many of these letters there actually are or for what purpose they are used. This myth that the child is performing some vital societal function is apparently constantly renewed as smiling parents hover and beam with pride as children perform this overly-familiar recitation in airplanes, restaurants, post office lines, and other public places where the recitation is particularly annoying. What is more, every doting parent expects every other adult to not only welcome the experience, lacking as it is in novelty or any entertainment value, and to patronize their Lilliputian offspring and play along with the joke. They are expected to pretend that little Fred or little Matilda has performed a task of prodigious acumen.
Making matters worse, whoever initially wrote the song found that the entire English alphabet could be spoken in a scant twenty-eight syllables. (P.S. "w" is the letter you are trying to think of.) This was too short to fill even four of the six lines of the melody "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." Following the "s" and the "w" the songwriter arbitrarily inserted the conjunction "and" to fit the meter. This still left him with only four lines filled to the proper number of syllables. Two lines remained completely empty. He could not invent new letters of the alphabet. Faced with those two empty lines he apparently panicked and committed what many have considered an unpardonable and certainly inconvenient act. He finished the song with the lines "Now I know my ABCs, tell me what you think of me." I would contend that if the child's parents are present this is an unreasonable and onerous demand. Of course, the proper answer would be to tell the child that he or she has simply demonstrated a very prosaic and unexceptional talent. But some misplaced chivalric instinct, not to mention social convention, does not allow an adult answer the question with the total frankness that the child deserves but would inevitably find disheartening. Instead the adult is expected to affect an insincere adulation. The child is given one night a year, October 31, to come around to your house and solicit unearned sweet things. But the child is given 365 nights and as many days to solicit unwilling and insincere flattery.
This tyranny of the newly-barely-literate must end.
Of course, when my new niece learns her ABCs and starts reciting them, none of this applies to her. But she is a very special case. She is a prodigious genius and exceptions must be made for genius. And on top of this she just wuvs her uncle all to pieces. [-mrl]
THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The middle third of the adaptation of the great epic fantasy comes surprisingly close to being a satisfying adaptation. What may be just about the best fantasy film ever made continues the story of J. R. R. Tolkien's THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Intelligent and visually beautiful, Peter Jackson's THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy is an instant classic. Rating: 10 (0 to 10), +4 (-4 to +4) (Note: This is not a rating of LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS. Peter Jackson is making a nine-hour film and releasing it in three parts. I am not sure that rating the second part makes sense any more than rating the middle third of NORTH BY NORTHWEST. THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS is not by itself a story with a satisfying beginning, middle, and ending. It does not stand by itself. Instead, I will update my review of THE LORD OF THE RINGS to discuss the two released sections.)
In a year with several sequels and series films being released, the one for which the public has the greatest expectation is Peter Jackson's adaptation of the middle book of the LORD OF THE RINGS, and with good reason. One reservation on the recommendation of the film: it is not recommended that anyone see the second section of this film who has not first seen the first section and is not familiar with the story. Peter Jackson has no time to bring newcomers up to speed even in a three-hour chapter. Instead, opportunities abound to see the first section via cable, home video, and convention showings. All this is perhaps a recognition that seeing the second section without knowledge of the content of the first section is not a good idea.
In the second section of the film as the story continues, the Fellowship has split into three groups. Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin) are continuing to Mount Doom in their effort to destroy the ring. Frodo is troubled by dreams of the death of Gandalf (Ian McKellen). The man Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) search for their captured friends, Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan). Pippin and Merry in the meantime are attempting to free themselves and return to the Shire. These quests will involve the group in a coming war between the kingdom of Rohan, ruled by Theoden (Bernard Hill) and the Fellowship's archenemy, the wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee). Saruman wants to destroy all the kingdoms of men in Middle Earth. The centerpiece of this film is the intricately detailed dramatization of the Battle of Helm's Deep, the climax of this section.
The story line, like the Fellowship itself, has split into three pieces and in sort of the ultimate road picture, follows the travels and experiences of the three groups. A major new character has been added, though we did see him from a distance in the previous film. This is the dangerous figure Gollum (almost fully digital but with a voice by Andy Serkis). Gollum is rumored to have been a hobbit once, but had acquired and then lost the Ring. Gollum's temporary possession of the Ring has left him shriveled, emaciated, and schizophrenic. His face now looks like something out of a Japanese ghost story, which may well be an intentional resemblance. But above all the possession of the Ring has left Gollum with an unquenchable desire to once again possess the Ring.
The script has some variations from the book that do not completely make sense. Grima Wormtongue (Brad Dourif) seems to have been planted in Helm's Deep to be a false adviser to Theoden, but in the film version that seems totally redundant since Theoden is already possessed by Saruman. If time is moving uniformly in the multiple story lines, Pippin and Merry spend what must be a very long time, most of the film, in a tree. Some of the writing is just bad ideas. "The battle for Helm's Deep is over. The battle for Middle Earth is about to begin!" is a near-direct borrowing from Winston Churchill. Legolas sledding down stone stairs on a shield is a bit of unnecessary silliness. But the nice touches seem to outnumber the bad ones.
The visualizations have some problems, but generally are quite good. There are moments when it is obvious the viewer is seeing CGI animation. Somehow it looks 95% natural, but there is some nuance of natural movement that the animators are not getting. Some scenes the animation looks a little jerky. While the animation in scenes of battle is as breathtaking as the New Zealand scenery, there are moments when it tips its hand. The animation of Gollum is wonderful and one almost accepts him as a real character. But somehow I was bothered by the voice. It did not quite fit the lips. It felt more like foreign film dubbing than like a live actor speaking. But there is a real character in Gollum and I doubt people will find him as grating as Jar-Jar Binks. Speaking of the scenery, it becomes a real character of the film. Howard Shore's music, while it does not strike me as creative as in the first film, still creates the mood with little reuse of music from the first film.
The cast remains excellent, though I cannot say that Elijah Wood does a lot for me as Frodo. Perhaps he does not convey enough emotion. Bernard Hill is a good solid addition to the story. He may be best remembered as the Captain in TITANIC. There is something of a distraction having John Rhys-Davis's voice come from two different characters, Gimli and the new Treebeard. Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett appear almost exclusively as wispy and exaggerated visions the ideal of elegance and beauty. They are made to seem too mythic while Brad Dourif (of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST and RAGTIME) does not seem mythic enough. Ian McKellen, always welcome, is back in a slightly different role.
Rarely has film been used so effectively to make a fantasy live on the screen. I will not rate the middle third of THE LORD OF THE RINGS but I rate the first two parts of THE LORD OF THE RINGS a full score of 10 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +4 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
STAR TREK: NEMESIS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: As the "Star Trek" series seems slowly to lose steam, here is one late uncharacteristic burst of life and energy, a science-fictional examination of the nature-nurture question. Picard and Data each meet physically identical copies of their former selves and each must deal with the similarities and differences. The question faced is, what makes a person who he is? Also there are the usual battles in space including one showstopper of a scene. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), low +2 (-4 to +4)
Over the last few years there has been less excitement in things labeled "Star Trek." The series, perhaps like many of its original fans, seems closer to the end than the beginning. The excitement seems to have disappeared. For both the films and the television show the danger has gone out of their universe as the crews in each series comes out on top week after week after week. Diverse new alien races introduced are more and more a fashion show of rubber appliques. Major characters are killed for dramatic effect, then brought back from the dead or replaced with nearly identical copies. The old fun and jeopardy are just not there any more. Bones and Scotty and Kirk and Spock used to be as interesting for their personal interplay as for their parts in the science fiction story. Now in the films the personal moments are an embarrassment that the audience hopes end quickly. It would be smart for the Trek writers to give up on having their characters try to sing or play Shakespeare. But as the series cools, STAR TREK: NEMESIS may be one late bright flash.
The title STAR TREK: NEMESIS does not really fit this film. Or rather it fits any other "Star Trek" film with a villain just about as well as it fits this one. A much better name might have been STAR TREK: DOPPLEGANGER since the story is really about both Picard and Data meeting and dealing identical copies of themselves. Picard meets a commander who was cloned from his own cells. Data meets a prototype of his model of robot. How does one relate to an identical equal? How does one compete? That is what this episode is all about and the intelligence of that science fictional question is what sets this above other episodes of the series. Of course, more than interesting concepts are needed for a "Star Trek" film. The ideas alone will not carry the rest of the film. (The "Star Trek" film with the most intelligent premise, no less than in inquiry into what distinguishes a valid religion from a false one, was STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER. The ideas were really engaging, but the rest of that film was way out of kilter, and it became the most unpopular entry in the series.) NEMESIS does offer more. The action has a slow start, but in the second half it takes off. About the best the script offers for action in the first half is a silly dune buggy chase. The second half, however, serves up a show stopping visual image that is worth the wait.
I will not go into detail about the plot. Suffice it to say that the twin planets of Romulus and Remus (those *must* be the Earth names for them) are undergoing political upheavals. Their new leader is the Reman Praetor Shinzon (Tom Hardy), literally a clone of Picard. Shinzon offers much-desired peace to the Federation. Unfortunately he is not played by a heart-throb, there are harsh phonics in his name, and there are sinister chords in the musical score when we see him, so Picard is rightly suspicious of him. Meanwhile Data (Brent Spiner) is fascinated with a new robot found in pieces on a desert planet and reassembled. It is B4, a prototype of the robots that became Data and it looks just like him (also played by Brent Spiner, of course). The plot is one of the better ones for the film series, and it is not immediately obvious where the story is going except it is a good bet that it will involve space battles.
The old crew is around and good to see. Patrick Stewart, is, of course, a fine actor always, even if the "Star Trek" people do not give him enough new to do. At one point he does get a chance to wax poetic and say that like other commanders he awaits the dawn. Ironically, the piece is edited right into a look at the exterior of the ship which is in space and clearly has a long wait before what one would call a dawn comes. Brent Spiner is getting a little old to play the never-aging robot Data. Old Data may be unreliable. Jonathan Frakes seems to take little part in this story other than to get Will Riker married. That is fine by most of the fans. It is not clear how he has survived so many years of Picard giving the order to "Fire at Will." Ron Perlman is hard to recognize under his makeup, but I imagine he is used to that. Tom Hardy does not look or sound enough like Picard, in spite of trying to affect the accent (as if that part were genetic). I would bet that at some point in production Shinzon was supposed to be played by Patrick Stewart. They pose together in one scene as if the viewer is supposed to be surprised seeing two copies of the same person, but they are not enough alike to make that scene work. Another less likely possibility is that Shinzon was supposed to be played by Ben Kingsley. Kingsley and Stewart are reputedly close friends who are often mistaken for one another.
Overall the special effects are done competently, though certain scenes look cartoonish. The "Big Scene" is executed very well with a lot of information on the screen in exquisite detail. When the DVD comes out I am sure the fans will play the scene over and over. Jerry Goldsmith has provided a fine score re-using some of his familiar but welcome "Star Trek" themes. I rate STAR TREK: NEMESIS a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. One thing I will say that the filmmakers got right that most sci-fi films get wrong. Data is absolutely right that an identical clone is not another version of the same person. Identical twins can be quite different in many ways, particularly if they have different backgrounds. Films like THE SIXTH DAY frequently get that concept wrong. [-mrl]
NEVER GET OUTTA OF THE BOAT (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: There is a lot of loud music in the spaces between all the loud yelling in this look into the lives of men who come together in a drug rehabilitation house. Nick Gillie wrote and stars in the film and Paul Quinn directs. Somehow the film misses being deeply moving and does not pack enough cinematic reward to compensate for the 96 minutes the viewer has to spend with these people. Rating: 5 (0 to 10), low +1 (-4 to +4)
Paul Quinn has directed one previous film, THIS IS MY FATHER. That film had its faults, but it was in just about every way a more enjoyable cinematic experience than NEVER GET OUTTA THE BOAT. This film is about a halfway house for drug rehabilitation. Several men's lives intersect in the house in two basic kinds of stories. One story is "the guy who succeeded at rehab." The other story is "the guy who did not succeed." Whichever story we are watching, and the film give us little reason to care, the guy will hear a lot of yelling along the way and probably will generate some of his own. This sort of thing has been done before. We see people partying, messing up their lives, patching their lives, and doing more partying. This is a painful film to watch with a lot of loud music and a lot of loud shouting and screaming and people doing painful things to themselves and to people they know. The feel is very realistic, but this sort of film has been around since SYNANON in 1965.
There is a small education in how a sober living facility is run and the rules enforced. There is a look into the lives of recovering addicts and alcoholics. The realism keeps the film a step above being a collection of cautionary tales. But the centerpiece is a sermon artificially delivered at the end as an expository lump that spells out the moral of all we have seen before and was already obvious. I rate the film a 5 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. The title comes from a piece of advice that Martin Sheen gets in APOCALYPSE NOW. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Let's see. There was FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON for the local library book discussion group. (It's not a science fiction group, but in fact there will be a science fiction group starting in January, which should be interesting.) I also re-read THE TWO TOWERS before seeing the movie Wednesday. (I didn't re-read THE FELLOWSHIP of the RING because we watched the film--the extended version--Sunday on DVD with some friends.)
I also read Alberto Manguel's collection of essays, INTO THE LOOKING-GLASS WORLD. (He is the editor of the *really* excellent anthology of magical realism, BLACK WATER.) On one of the section title pages, he quotes Chapter V of Lewis Carroll's THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS:
"There's the King's Messenger. He's in prison now, being punished: and the trial doesn't even begin till next Wednesday: and of course the crime comes last of all."
"Suppose he never commits the crime?" said Alice.
"That would be all the better, wouldn't it?" the Queen said.
Is this where Philip K. Dick got his idea for "Minority Report"?
I also started Avram Davidson's collection THE OTHER NINETEENTH CENTURY, about which I will probably say more later. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: Self-sacrifice enables us to sacrifice other people without blushing. -- George Bernard Shaw
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