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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
03/28/03 -- Vol. 21, No. 39
Table of Contents
Hindi Music in Central New Jersey (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
On a subject related to this week's article: if you get interested in Hindi music a radio station that plays it 24x7 is WCNJ, 89.3 FM, from Hazlet, New Jersey. That is very near the population center of this club. [-mrl]
Bollywood 101B (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Last week I was talking about Bollywood films.
Readers of this notice will have some interest in fantasy films. Bollywood filmmakers tend to shun science fiction and horror for melodramas. While Indians love science fiction, they have to import most of the science fiction films they get. In large part this is because Indian filmmakers cannot really match Western counterparts for providing special effects. Occasionally an enterprising filmmaker will go into those fields, but not a lot do. I have on tape THE JUNGLE, a 1952 Hindi science fiction film that required little in the way of effects. The idea is that animal disturbances are being caused by something strange in the Indian jungle. In the final reel we discover that it is prehistoric mammoths living deep in the Indian jungle. More recently I am told that there is an Indian film patterned on THE MATRIX. While horror has been rare in India, an article I have just read indicates that it is going through a vogue right now and many Hindi supernatural horror films are being made.
That brings us to one of the negative aspects of Bollywood films. Several borrow rather shamelessly from already-popular Western films. KHAL-NAAIKAA, the film we saw at the Raj Mandhir is almost a scene-for-scene remake of THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE (with music and comedy added). As I understand it, there was no permission given to reuse the story. Other films certainly show a strong influence of Western plots. CHINA GATE has a strong influence of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. Several other films are also strongly influenced by Westerns, notably SHOLAY. Another negative aspect, by the way, is that India's organized crime syndicates do a great deal of the funding of some Hindi films.
Budgets in India are very much smaller than those in the United States, but a little money goes a very long way in that country. DEVDAS cost about $15,000,000. But that makes it the most expensive Bollywood film of all time. And you see that money on the screen. Lavish does not begin to cover the sets. Much of the film takes place in extravagant mansions that are virtual palaces and more than look it. Budget money goes a very long way in India. The story, on the other hand, may be a little melodramatic for newcomers to the genre. The title character returns to India from a decade of studying in Britain. He falls in love with his neighbor, a childhood sweetheart but a woman of lesser caste played by Aishwarya Rai, a former Miss World. Of course there are pressures on the couple not to be a couple and this leads to problems and eventually to tragedy.
Another thing about Bollywood films is their wholesomeness. Indian censors are extremely strict. Nudity is non-existent and even kissing is rare for fear of the censors' ire. Lovers rarely get beyond the handholding stage on-screen. On the other hand, water scenes are quite popular. The female lead will remain fully clothed, but with her clothing all wet a certain amount of human anatomy is discernable.
Just at the moment there is a large market for Bollywood films outside of India, particularly in places like Britain. Curiously it was cricket that brought India and Britain together in 2002. They faced off in an important tournament. It happened there was a Bollywood film at the same time, LAGAAN, on the subject of British facing Indians in a cricket match. With these two influences many Britons got interested in Indian culture and especially these strange films the Indians make. And wherever there are non-resident Indians (called NRIs) there will be a market for films from home. Whether this current international interest is a trend or just a bubble that will burst nobody knows, of course. But Bollywood films are a good deal of fun and well worth the film buff's attention. [-mrl]
MIYAZAKI'S SPIRITED AWAY (film review by Mark R. Leeper)
[This review originally ran in the 09/27/02 MT VOID, but since the film is being re-released this week because of its Oscar as Best Animated Film, we're running it again.]
CAPSULE: Hayao Miyazaki gives us a masterpiece of fantasy in the anime that is as timeless as Carroll's Alice stories and enjoyable for just as wide an audience. This film may even trump THE LORD OF THE RINGS for imagination. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), low +3 (-4 to +4)
Hayao Miyazaki, Japan's premier anime director, created magical worlds (mostly) of his own in children's fantasies like MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE, and PRINCESS MONONOKE. SPIRITED AWAY is an uninspired title for a long but terrifically imaginative fantasy. SPIRITED incorporates elements of Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, Japanese folklore, and Miyazaki's own strange imagination, all whipped together in an enchanting souffle.
Chihiro is moving to a new house and school with her parents. She has some natural worries about what it and her school will be like. But on the way her parents get lost on a drive through nearby woods and find some odd buildings of strange architecture. Exploring them they find a gateway to a strange empty set of strange buildings, perhaps a theme park. Soon Chihiro's parents have gotten themselves into trouble that even they do not realize and Chihiro is on her own to explore this strange and wondrous new world that they have inadvertently passed into. From this point the story gets stranger and more complex. It involves Japanese spirits, strange food, a guide frog, a real spider-man, and a castle full of wonders in a sort of Disneyland of the spirits. This world is as mystifying and with its own strange logic as Alice's Wonderland. Miyazaki seems to have an inexhaustible supply of ideas to fill the screen and to fill screen time. To get everything in he has made this a longish film for children, but one where they will not be bored. There is always something new and strange being introduced.
SPIRITED AWAY is a complex fantasy that should appeal to adults in much the same way Carroll's Alice stories do. For its creativity I rate it an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
RIVERWORLD (made-for-TV movie review by Mark R. Leeper)
CAPSULE: Philip Jose Farmer's interesting premise of adventures set on a strange life-after-death-world is squandered on a fairly commonplace barbarian-world story that appears to be the pilot for a most uninteresting and humdrum TV series. Rating: 4 (0 to 10), 0 (-4 to +4)
I never read the Riverworld series from Philip Jose Farmer. I have heard people liked it very much and I admit that I have had some curiosity about it. This is in part because I knew that one of the major characters was Richard Francis Burton, one of the most fascinating people in all of history. This is a figure that very interesting fiction and non-fiction could be written about.
So it was with mixed anticipation that I looked forward to RIVERWORLD, a film adaptation that was being made for the Sci-Fi Channel, based on the Farmer books. The material was certainly promising, but I do not associate the aptly named Sci-Fi Channel with really high-quality science fiction. Nevertheless I wanted to give RIVERWORLD a try.
The premise of the novels is that all our ideas of life after death are wrong. They have come from people speculating who have never bothered actually to die. Once people do die they seem disinclined to share their post mortem experiences. So the whole semi-Biblical structure of life and death may be entirely wrong. Philip Jose Farmer threw out the conventional afterlife cosmology and created his own. His premise is that the afterlife is sort of like an undiscovered country. A river runs through it. In and around the river dead souls gather and have adventures very similar to ones that living people might have. The chief difference is that the souls are really those of people who have lived at many points of history and several--too many really for credibility--are famous people of history.
In Farmer's books among the dead souls having an after life are Mark Twain, Alice Liddell (of Wonderland fame), Richard Francis Burton, Herman Goering, etc. Sadly, there is no Burton in the film version. Alice Liddell is present, but not identified. The main characters are a dead shuttle astronaut from our near future and Mark Twain. The villain is the reincarnated Roman Emperor Nero. Jonathan Cake, who plays the part is tall, fair-skinned, thin, and is just about the complete physical opposite of how one would picture Nero. Contemporary coins and statues show him as looking rather bloated and chubby. This also does not seem to be the Nero that fancied himself a great artist. Just like in our world so many or the people who think they are reincarnated think they were famous people in past lives, a disproportionate number of people reincarnated in Farmer's series are also the famous.
The most intriguing scenes are just after the credits as the dead awake in womb-like bubbles or spheres under the water from which they are reborn actually in the river. Each is given clothing including a tee-shirt. Nero seems to adapt to tee-shirts very quickly. They are given food which all immediately accept. After that they could be in China or someplace else non-supernatural. The good guys are captured by barbarians, but Nero has other plans, though no less nefarious.
Two things are most remarkable about RIVERWORLD. The first is the unusual premise of a life-after-death-world. This is even more interesting in that Farmer created his own after-death cosmology and one not taken from the Bible or Dante or Milton. The second remarkable thing is how little that premise matters after the first ten minutes. But for the presence of celebrity characters from history, Mark Twain, etc., the film quickly devolves into a fairly prosaic post-holocaust world adventure, albeit one with good guys on a riverboat. Twain builds the boat with an unlikely amount of decorative woodwork, by the way. The real Twain might have wanted to but would have been more practical.
The story is left open-ended in the hopes that it will sell as a TV series. If this is going to become a TV series it can do it without me. I rate RIVERWORLD a 4 on the 0 to 10 scale and a 0 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
THE SPEED OF DARK by Elizabeth Moon (Ballantine, 2003, ISBN 0-345-44755-7, 340pp) (book review by Evelyn C. Leeper)
Everyone is comparing this to FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON, and in a way that seems to miss the whole point. In FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON, the memorable parts are those in which Charley is less intelligent, and in reading how he interprets what is going on around him while we realize that he is wrong. But the whole point of THE SPEED OF DARK is that our autistic main character is *not* mentally slow but "differently abled." That phrase usually means "less abled," but Lou Arrendale is indeed differently abled, in that while he has difficulty with new situations and changes to his routine, he can also see patterns where others cannot and (we eventually discover) can learn as much neurology in a week as most medical students take a semester or more to do.
Of course, one similarity to FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON is that its science is entirely medical and psychological, which will lead some people to ask, "But what makes it science fiction?" It is, of course, science fiction in that the medical techniques which have allowed the curing of autism in all those who were born after Arrendale--and even the early training which has allowed him to function in society--do not exist at the present time.
Now, a book that just followed Arrendale around and saw the world from his point of view would be interesting enough. But because such an internal, interior sort of novel is not what science fiction publishers want (or perhaps what Moon wanted to write, of course). So there is a complication: Arrendale and his fellow autistic co-workers are given a choice by their new boss of "choosing" to take part in a medical experiment that will (probably) cure their autism. Of course, it has only been tested on chimpanzees and even that not observed very long.
This plot does raise some more interesting questions about identity, and so I would agree that this enhances and develops the character.
But then Moon adds yet another subplot involving a series of attacks which so far as I could tell does not add to the story. Yes, it provides another situations for Arrendale to assimilate and understand, but it seems like just a bit much.
Still, the book survives this addition because Moon does such a good job of putting us inside Arrendale's head. Part of this may be because Moon has an autistic son, and so is familiar with the manifestations in a way that most authors are not. She also has a degree in biology and considered going to medical school, so her background here is quite substantial.
But background is not enough, and Moon does the main job--writing an engaging and involving story--with real skill. I was unimpressed with her Hugo-nominated REMNANT POPULATION, but THE SPEED OF DARK is definitely Hugo-worthy material. [-ecl]
NIRGENDWO IN AFRIKA (American title: NOWHERE IN AFRICA) (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: German Caroline Link writes and directs NOWHERE IN AFRICA, this year's Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film. It is a likable film, an account of German Jews who fled their country in 1938 and went to live on a farm in Kenya, a country that became like a second home to them. The film does run a predictable course, but it is pleasant enough view of the "fish out of water" learning to love a strange and foreign place. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4)
The Jewish Redlich Family is in Germany in 1938 when they see the writing on the wall. With their friends and neighbors bewilderingly turning against them is it becoming very clear that Germany is no longer a safe place for Jews. Walter (played by Merab Ninidze) was once a promising lawyer, but now he goes to Kenya to find a place for his family perhaps in farming. He arranges for his wife Jettel (Juliane Kohler) and his daughter Regina (played first by Lea Kurka and later by Karoline Eckertz) to join him on a farm they will manage. The major focus of the film is on Jettel, who at first cannot face the reality of her situation. She wants to form her life in Africa into the Frankfort lifestyle she is accustomed to. She hurts those around her in her frustration of moving to a land where she will be many miles from her nearest neighbor and she must lead a pioneer existence. She foolishly brings fine china and buys an expensive dress along the way, not fully realizing how really worthless these things will be in the rough and gritty new life she is beginning. She fights the tide. Walter will do what is needed to be done to keep his family alive and adapts without complaint. Young Regina, only five years old when she comes to Africa, has few memories of Germany. To her the new land is home and she embraces it making her best friend Owuor (Sidede Onyulo), a Masai hired to cook for the family. Jettel sees Owuor as nothing more than the hired help, insisting he speak German and causing initial problems.
When Britain declares war on Germany the Jews in Kenya are rounded up and put into internment camps as possible German agents in one of the bitterest ironies of the war. (German Jews in England were transported to camps in Australia as seen in the film DUNERA BOYS.) This leads to a second irony in that the women and children are interned in the only facilities available, a posh hunting club where the internees are pampered in comfort that only irritates the military who ordered the internment. The arc of the plot is predictable but warm and likable. The film covers almost a decade and Redlichs get to know the local tribal people and to consider them as friends.
Gernot Roll's photography is good enough to make a case that Kenya is beautiful, but is not quite enough to make the film beautiful. Caroline Link wrote and directed the screen adaptation of the fictional novel written by Stephanie Zweig, based on her own family's experiences. The film is in German, English, and Swahili, in current release with white subtitles almost always readable but for some instances of white backgrounds. I rate NOWHERE IN AFRICA a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
ASSASSINATION TANGO (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: An aging Mafia hit man is sent to Argentina for a job. There he becomes attracted to a beautiful tango dancer. He must choose between a dishonorable responsibility and the woman who attracts him. The movie is a pleasure to watch but does not really amount to a satisfying story. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4)
An elderly American hit man sent to Buenos Aires to kill a retired general. While there he meets and is fascinated by the local style of tango and especially by an exquisite tango dancer. Robert Duvall wrote, directed, and starred in the American Zoetrope production. While it represents another fine characterization, the story lacks punch in its third act. A personal note: Robert Duvall is for me the first name that comes to mind when I list great American actors. For me he is the American equivalent of Lawrence Olivier, but a better character actor. More than most films this was one I wanted to like. While I like the style and texture of the film, I wanted more from the understated plot.
Robert Duvall plays John J. Anderson, a Latin hired killer. John J. used to be the best, but he is getting older and a little hard to deal with. He now has a mean temper and expects that all must be done his way. He is, nevertheless, still very good at what he does, particularly when he works by himself. His two passions in life seem to be Latin dance and a platonic relation with a woman friend and her young daughter. He takes the daughter places and has a grandfatherly interest in her. John J. is assigned to Argentina to kill a retired General who had committed unnamed atrocities in the past. John J. gets to Argentina, and checks out his room like a real life James Bond, preparing for the hit. However there is a snag. The General is hospitalized and it will be months before John J. can complete the job. Instead to pass time the killer looks into the local dance scene. There he sees a beautiful woman who dances a version tango he has never seen before. Manuela (Luciana Pedraza) flirts with John J. and strikes up a friendship. Under Manuela's influence he controls his temper and slowly and professionally works toward the planned assassination. We never really know what her interest in the American is.
The feel of ASSASSINATION TANGO is of two very different films being loosely tied together. One is a love story set in the sensuous Buenos Aires world of the Tango. One is an action story. The first story is slow, textured, and seductive. Duvall compares the languorous editing of his dance scenes with the rapid-fire staccato editing of CHICAGO dance numbers, which he describes as "Chop. Chop. Chop." For the action parts of the film he compares his reserve to that of GANGS OF NEW YORK. "[Scorsese] used 147 gallons of stage blood. I used six thimblefuls." The problem is that neither of the stories has a particularly engaging resolution. The viewer feels like asking, "Is that all?"
Duvall plays a character who plays a character who must be a convincing Argentine and blend into Argentine society. In that way John J. is not so different from Duvall himself. I rate ASSASSINATION TANGO a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I'm in the process of reading GREETINGS, CARBON-BASED BIPEDS!, Sir Arthur C. Clarke's collected essays from 1934 through 1998. It is a bit confusing to read: at the start of each essay is an introductory paragraph, printed in centered italics and presumably written by editor Ian T. Macauley. This followed not by the essay itself, but *another* introductory few paragraphs by Clarke, written in the same typeface as the article. There is then a two- line break, followed by the article itself. Unfortunately, one finds similar breaks within the introductory paragraphs (which sometimes go on for a couple of pages), so one isn't always sure when one has actually started the essay. And to make it worse, sometimes there is no introductory paragraph at all! Better editing or different typeface choice or even different font size would have made it easier going.
Anyway, I was struck by one thing he said in his review of Chesley Bonestell and Willy Ley's "The Conquest of Space". In reference to Bonestell's color plates, he says, "We have known cases of people who mistook them for actual color photos taken on the spot and were mildly surprised that they had read nothing about the matter in the papers!"
We picked up Max Allan Collins and Richard Rayner's ROAD TO PERDITION since I was curious to see what graphic novels were like these days. What I discovered, at least in this case, was that the graphics were not very informative or useful to me in understanding the story. I found this strange, because in the film the visuals are very important. Maybe an appreciation of graphic novels is something that requires a lot more background, or practice, or something.
Since I had mentioned recently really liking Christopher Priest's THE PRESTIGE, a friend recommended Glen David Gold's CARTER BEATS THE DEVIL. For some reason, I found this more confusing and less interesting--the whole subplot of Philo T. Farnsworth and television seemed one plot too many, and rather drove the President Harding plot into the background at times. I would recommend the Priest over this, but if you are interested in novels about magicians (which seems to be a specific genre), this isn't bad.
And there was H. G. Wells's THE TIME MACHINE, read for my library's science fiction reading group. I can't recall if I had noted before that it appears that Wells originated the idea that the elite would live on the surface and the workers underground, and then Fritz Lang may this visual in METROPOLIS. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: What do you expect of a country whose greatest military hero in the 20th century was Asterix? --Mark Leeper
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