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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
01/24/03 -- Vol. 21, No. 30
Table of Contents
THE LORD OF THE RINGS Satires:
If you want to see lots of samples of "The Lord of the Rings" as it would have been written by other famous authors, see http://tinyurl.com/4ahm. (The actual URL is buried deep in http://boards.straightdope.com.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper's Top Ten Films of 2002 (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Well, it is time again to list my top ten films of the previous year. I am sorry that my list comes out after so many others have been published. Some reviewers announce their top ten lists in the middle of December. As for me, I am lucky if I have seen all the major films of the previous year by the end of January. I have decided not to include films that I have seen over the year that have not yet been released in this country. Too many of my readers will have forgotten I rated some of these highly by the time they finally do get released. In fact, the best film on this year's list falls into that category. I saw THE GREY ZONE at a film festival something like September 13, 2001. Harvey Keitel was there to introduce the film but instead just asked for a moment of silence for those killed two days earlier. I was hoping that the reviews it got bore out my high regard for the film. I was pleasantly surprised (if I can say that in conjunction with this very bleak films) that the critics did see the same power and quality in the film that I did.
So what films have I seen but did not listed for this technicality? TOGETHER is a delightful film about a Chinese child prodigy violinist whose father takes him to Beijing so that he can develop his talent. It has just beautiful music, surprising and interesting characters, and is a real pleasure. I understand it has been scheduled for release in this country so hopefully it will be on next year's list. I might suggest that you write down this next title. I saw it in a theater packed with Russian-speaking people who knew better than I what to expect. Apparently the film is known in Russia (under the title OLIGARKH), and I hope it becomes known in this country. The English title is TYCOON. I think it probably occupies the same place in Russian society that THE GODFATHER has here. A wealthy and unpopular businessman, a little dishonest, is murdered. We then see the events after the murder and flashbacks telling how he got to his position as one of Russia's wealthiest businessmen. At the same time, it tells of what happened to Russian business under Communism and after its fall. TOGETHER and TYCOON are both well worth remembering.
There will be some who will note the conspicuous absence of THE TWO TOWERS. Have I become disenchanted with the LORD OF THE RINGS? No. I just refuse to give three +4s to each of the thirds of what I consider to be a single film. I probably will not put THE RETURN OF THE KING on my top ten list next year. Suffice it to say, I am impressed by the film THE LORD OF THE RINGS and still consider it to be only one film that I have already given a +4 to last year. I will list them in increasing order. (Oh, each film below is rated on a scale of -4 to +4).
10. ABOUT SCHMIDT (high +2): This is an adult film in the best meaning of the term. It is the kind of motion picture where the viewer repeatedly sees people he knows. Jack Nicholson's repressed rage and his pitiable side have never been shown to better advantage. Though the story could have been better this film has a great character study from Alexander Payne, the director of CITIZEN RUTH and ELECTION.
9. THE ROAD TO PERDITION (high +2): In 1931, circumstances make a father and son fugitives from the Capone organization. The moving story about two different father-son relationships follows a once-loyal hit man forced to take actions that will make him a legend. The film has a simple plot of a Western set in the East, but acting and beautiful photography turn this into an emotionally charged and memorable film. A curiously low-key performance by Hanks meets an interesting killer played by Jude Law. Paul Newman plays a powerful local gangster.
8. GANGS OF NEW YORK (high +2): Martin Scorsese recreates slum and gang life in Civil War Era New York City. It is a cutthroat world where virtually everyone is a criminal and everyone is a victim to some degree. The historic background alone is worth the price of admission, even if the foreground story is a little hackneyed at times. This is an always-fascinating historical film with a lot of factual detail. Bill "the Butcher" Cutter is a unique character, based on the real Bill "the Butcher" Poole.
7. ADAPTATION (low +3): This is Spike Jonze's and Charlie Kaufman's follow-up film to BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. I think that Charlie Kaufman has in one stroke made his the most recognizable screenwriter's name in the country. His new film is a meditation on the forces that make films successful; it is also a philosopher's chestnut and a marvelous mental toy. This is the kind of film that viewers can discuss for hours.
6. THE QUIET AMERICAN (low +3): Michael Caine gives one of his best performances as Thomas Fowler, in this story of a worldly English journalist and his relationship to a naive American who has strong ideas how to shape Vietnam. Graham Greene wrote the novel set in 1952 Vietnam. The story is powerful and only became more so as the United States became more involved in Southeast Asia. This is a riveting film.
5. MIYAZAKI'S SPIRITED AWAY (low +3): Hayao Miyazaki, creator of MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, KIKI'S DLIVERY SERVICE, and PRINCESS MONONOKE gives us a masterpiece of fantasy in the anime that is as timeless as Lewis Carroll's Alice stories and enjoyable for just as wide an audience. This film may even beat THE LORD OF THE RINGS for most imaginative film of the year. Watch for the *real* Spiderman.
4. MINORITY REPORT (+3): Steven Spielberg adapts a story by Philip K. Dick. He mauls the intent of the original story but creates a marvelously faceted and incredibly dark vision of the future with its own virtues. MINORITY REPORT is fast-paced, yet still full of ideas. It is probably a better science fiction film in a more complex society than was BLADERUNNER (also non-faithfully based on a story by Philip K. Dick).
3. WE WERE SOLDIERS (+3): Mel Gibson stars in a chronicle of the bloodiest three days of the battle of Ia Drang in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. It is probably the best account of the Vietnam War experience I have seen, for once told with respect for the soldiers on both sides. Gibson plays the commander of the American Seventh Cavalry in Vietnam. The scene of his leaving his family and going off to war is as moving and poignant as the scene of Frederic March returning from war to his family in THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES.
2. THE PIANIST (+3): This is the violent and harrowing true story of brilliant Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman who survived two uprisings against the Nazis in Warsaw. This must have been a very personal film for Roman Polanski who survived the Krakow Ghetto. The story has some real depth and moral complexity.
1. THE GREY ZONE (high +3): A good cast in a stark and grim drama of the Sonderkommandos in Auschwitz who preserved their lives by doing terrible work for the Nazis murdering their people. The continuation of their very lives was a figurative moral gray zone. An example of what can be done with writing. This is a haunting film.
Farewell to The Stars Our Destination (comments by Bill Higgins):
[The science fiction specialty shop The Stars Our Destination, a long-time staple of the Chicago area, is closing its doors the end of February, though owner Alice Bentley will continue it as a mail-order business. Bill Higgins wrote this "obituary" on hearing the announcement.] I'm sorry it has to end, but I'm really glad I was there at the beginning. I remember Alice resigning from atom-smashing at Fermilab to open a bookstore. Endless discussions in quest of the perfect name. Cleaning and painting the first store on Clark Street in the spring of 1988. The blowout Grand Opening party. The glorious neon rocket in the window. Signings, readings, fannish gatherings and Magic games. The little section of cool science books that Alice always maintained. Shelves teeming with used SF paperbacks. All the eccentric, but fascinating, characters who worked behind the cash register over the years-- not least Alice's mom, Sheila. Alice, smart as a Mentat and cute as a smeerp, brimming over with enthusiasm as she recommended books. (For a time, she owned every remaining hardcover volume of BRIDGE OF BIRDS. Copy by copy, she sold 'em all. Then she became a publisher and put all three Master Li novels into an omnibus.) Many TSOD anniversary celebrations. I hope the books I bought compensated for all the snacks I ate over the years. Smoffing in the aisles. The party where, for no good reason, a bunch of us alphabetized a huge disorganized stack of R. Lionel Fanthorpe novels. Alice called me one day when the TV show "Wild Chicago" was turning its fisheye lens on TSOD, to come down and liven up the place with some ukulele filking. Every few months some acquaintance would tell me "Hey! I saw you on TV!" and I would know that "Wild Chicago" had repeated that episode again. It's been a truly grand place. I've had fun every time I walked into TSOD. And I'm grateful to Alice (and to Mike and Greg K. and all the others) for bringing it into existence, and for keeping it going so long. Soon it'll be history. [-wh]
CHICAGO (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The big, brash Broadway musical comes to the screen with a film that gives the impression of what made it popular on the stage but does not really recreate it. Sadly, the play was written as a showcase for choreography and Bob Fosse's fancy footwork has been largely supplanted by fancy editing. Queen Latifah belting out "When You're Good to Mama" is the musical high-point of the film. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), low +2 (-4 to +4)
My first few days of this year were spent in friendly debate with a friend over the merits and failings of the musical MOULIN ROUGE! and the supposed superiority, as he saw it, of the film of CHICAGO. My friend complained about Baz Luhrmann's technique of showing the dancing in short, choppy cuts. If I wanted to see how to film a musical I should see CHICAGO. I am grateful to my friend for sensitizing me to this issue, but I conclude from watching the dance sequences that much the same editing style was used in both films. Watching CHICAGO one is very hard-put to find any takes of duration greater than two seconds, maybe ffity frames. And the editing style may be used for the same reason. Each gives a rapid-fire montage to create a sense of excitement about each film's particular setting and time period.
The impression one gets is that one is looking at the actions from one angle and then another, much like live television going from one camera to another. In fact, pieces are juxtaposed that could have been filmed hours or even months apart. Much more of the meter and flow are created by the editor than by the dancer. Big-name stars can do their own dancing by learning two steps at a time, having them filmed, and then forgetting about them and learning the next two steps. Those short clips can then be edited together to make them seem like one long routine. While CHICAGO features Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger, and Richard Gere all apparently dancing skillfully, only Zeta-Jones had formal training as a dancer prior to this film and it shows. Bob Fosse specifically wrote CHICAGO to be a showcase for his style of dancing and we do not really see it in this film.
The story of the Roxie Hart's sensational killing of Fred Casely in Chicago made headlines in the 1920s and the incident was adapted into a play. In 1927, the play was the basis for the film CHICAGO. William Wellman remade CHICAGO in 1942, calling it ROXIE HART. Bob Fosse took the story and made it into the lush Broadway musical. Seventy-five years after the first film version of the story, Bob Fosse's play has been made into a movie one more time.
The story is fairly simple. Showgirl Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) kills her lover and convinces her husband Amos (John C. Reilly) to say he did it. She is found out and put in prison under corrupt matron 'Mama' Morton (Queen Latifah). Historically, having a black prison matron in the 1920s is questionable, but when audiences see the performance, I don't think they will mind a bit. In prison Roxie finds herself competing with another murderess, Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Richard Gere plays Billy Flynn, Roxie's defense attorney. He knows that she is guilty, but as the tagline says, "Anywhere else it would be a crime, but this is Chicago."
Renee Zellweger shakes her shy-girl image but is just not very absorbing playing Roxie as a not-too-bright blonde. Catherine Zeta-Jones can dance but the 1920s fashions do not suit her personality well. Gere is about the right combination of smooth, vain, and a little slimy. Frequently, pop music stars are cast in films because their has marquee value. They then fade quickly from sight. Queen Latifah seems to get better and better as an actress. In CHICAGO she is captivating in ways that the three nominal leads cannot touch. Latifah is a real scene-stealer and her "When You're Good to Mama" is probably the most memorable song in the film. The film is directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall who also directed ANNIE for television. While the movements are not so sinuous as we would have with Bob Fosse, the idea is there. John Myhre's production design gives a very 1920s atmosphere to the entire proceedings. Danny Elfman did the composing for the new music.
CHICAGO is a vigorous and creative musical made all the more notable by the current dearth of cinematic musicals being produced. It is a reminder that the genre of the movie musical is not dead, but merely sleeping. I give it a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Most of this week's reading was "magazine catch-up"--issues of ASIMOV'S, F&SF, LOCUS, etc., that have piled up. I also read more short fiction in the anthology PAST IMPERFECT (edited by Martin H. Greenberg--of course--and Larry Segriff). It's yet another argument against themed anthologies with a lot of just average stories about time travel, with the only memorable story being "The Gift of a Dream" by Dean Wesley Smith--and it seemed to include time travel merely as an afterthought, something needed to place it in this anthology. It would have been every bit as good without it, or indeed without any fantastical element whatsoever.
I also finished the third book of the new "Foundation" trilogy, which comprises FOUNDATION'S FEAR by Gregory Benford, FOUNDATION AND CHAOS by Greg Bear, and FOUNDATION'S TRIUMPH by David Brin. Of the three, Bear's book captures the feel of the original trilogy the best, and hence was the one I liked the most. I had some problems/complaints with the structure of the Benford, and while it could be that Brin's was more accomplished than Bear's, my feeling is that the goal should be to "mimic" Asimov more closely. (Which is not to say I didn't like Donald Kingsbury's PSYCHOHISTORIC CRISIS, but that was doing something else. Insert obligatory Walt Whitman quote here.)
I also read DEAD SOULS. No, this is not a new horror novel, but the Nikolai Gogol classic. I had put it on my list of books to read because Robert Silverberg recommended it in a column in ASIMOV'S about a year ago, and on the basis of this and of his recommendation of H. D. F. Kitto's GREEK TRAGEDY at some point before that, I have concluded that I should definitely pay attention to what he recommends. Warning: If you are reading the Signet/NAL edition of DEAD SOULS, do not read the introduction, which somewhat spoils the revelation of Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov's motivation. Gogol writes (at least in that translation) in a very conversational style, talking directly to the reader, and also manages to have a level beneath that of Gogol implicitly commenting on the narrator's prejudices and biases. And before someone complains about "long Russian novels," I'll note that it is under three hundred pages. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact than a drunken man is happier than a sober one. -- George Bernard Shaw
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