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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
07/11/03 -- Vol. 22, No. 2
Table of Contents
The Importance of Good Grammar (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
True story. I was talking to a friend of my father-in-law. He works in some sort of executive capacity in a prison. He basically determines the punishment that prisoners get. When a convict gets eight to twenty years, he determines if it is eight or twenty or something in between. He was describing how he get reports on the prisoner and he determines punishment from those. How does he determine? He says he takes several things into account. Behavior is one. Sentence structure is another. I did a triple take on that one. Okay, sentence structure. Wait, grammar is that important? Then I realized he wasn't talking about grammar. [-mrl]
Xenophobia (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I think that I have always had a taste for the weird and for the obscure. That was part of why I was so drawn to science fiction. I remember as a teen hearing the visionary music of German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. Listening to his music I get visual images of purely alien landscapes. His "Kontakte" has almost visible alien machinery moving back and forth. "Gesang der Junglinge" seems to have a nearly as alien background with a chorus of children approaching and receding in the distance. Actually, I call this music, but there is some question of whether that term even applies. It is music made up purely of electrical noises and is music in the same sense that Ford and Beebe Barron's electrical tonalities for the film FORBIDDEN PLANET. In fact, it would be interesting to see what influence the Barrons had on Stockhausen.
I first heard Stockhausen's music when I was a teenager, and I think I had a great capacity for the weird and strange. At this time the weird suggested to me the alien, and anything so unfamiliar was full of possibilities. I think of myself as still having tendencies to love the unusual, but it may well be that time is taking its toll. I just watched NO MAPS FOR THESE TERRITORIES, a documentary about William Gibson in which he is interviewed in the back seat of a car and he talks for about an hour and a half about how technology is changing all that we know. Even the title of the film suggests technological terra incognito.
This film, though, is mostly just a Gibson interview. We have him talking about his life and expounding on his theories and about how fast change is coming. The narrator tells us multiple times that he is a prophet, a visionary.
When a film is mostly just talking heads, as this film is, there is always a question of what the director will do for the visuals. One of the better of such recent films, THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE, has a melange of images from interviewee Robert Evans's past. They are made three-dimensional, in more ways than one. It shows a lot of creativity missing in the film NO MAPS FOR THESE TERRITORIES. Much of this film just shows Gibson in the back seat of a moving limousine talking. This is, I think, a film that would lose very little being played on the radio. Occasionally we notice that the scene out the window beside Gibson does not match the scene out the other windows of the car. Frequently it will run backwards as if the car were in reverse, but only out that window. It is a computer effect once difficult but now easy to do with digital graphics. Out this one window we see the scenery going backwards or being speeded up or stopping dead with a freeze-frame.
Watching the visuals I found myself wondering if they were doing anything for the presentation besides distracting from the dialog. It seems to be freakiness just for the sake of being freaky. I decided they did add something, but what they were adding was just a sense of strangeness. And I found myself asking if this was just weird images for the sake of the effect. There seems to be the assumption that high tech goes hand and hand with heavy use of style. Look at "Wired" magazine, for an example. This is supposed to be the journal for the computer generation. But in my opinion the style, dedicated to the weird, just gets in the way of reading the material. It is all sort of techno-punk to no good purpose.
It struck me watching the film that I have gotten to the point where strange and bizarre are no longer as pleasant for me as they once were. Fans of William Gibson revel in the incomprehensibility of the new cyber-society. Gibson fans are attracted to the weird as I was in the 1960s. But then I heard what Gibson was saying. He was saying that society was changing so fast that, like me, he was being left behind. His message is that the world is getting too weird for him. And he is the guru of techno-punk. It looks like the way things are changing today everybody is going to get to that state eventually. It will get beyond us all. My father-in-law got to that state years ago. He says the only machines he likes are his typewriter and his car. At one time I felt that attitude was a little silly. Now I realize that he just has a different technology bewilderment threshold than I do. I have a higher tolerance for a broader set of machines, but it also has its limits. When I go to Costco, I realize that the hot new electronic entertainment item selling there is something that hadn't been invented three years ago and that I still am not exactly sure what it does. The world is getting past me.
So now I know myself. I tell myself I like the strange, the weird, the alien, but when not only confronted with it, but when it becomes the norm, I want to stand aside and let the world go on without me. I am still finding tongue studs disquieting. I have become at some level a xenophobe and a technophobe. Can being a Luddite be far behind? [-mrl]
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This is almost certainly the most exciting pirate film ever made. This fast-paced confection of an adventure has wit, a good story, and imaginative visuals. Johnny Depp gives what is probably his best performance as a grubby yet stylish pirate captain. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), low +3 (-4 to +4)
I had some cognitive dissonance over this film. I first saw this film announced somewhere. Is this what we are getting these days? A movie based on a theme park ride? I filed it in my "must miss" list. Then I saw a trailer that looked really good. "That's PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN? Maybe I am interested after all." And it turned out to be tremendous fun. I don't think anybody has ever done a full-blown pirate fantasy on film. I mean one with stolen treasure hidden in caves and ghosts and curses and sword fights and parrots on the shoulder and walking the plank and marooned men and the British Navy with its cannons blazing. Everything is here but peg legs, hooks, and eye patches. (How did they miss those?) It takes more than putting a sword in Errol Flynn's hand to do all that a pirate film can be. Now there is one, and it's a hoot, regardless of the title.
The film opens with Elizabeth Swann, the young daughter of the Governor of Port Royal, rescuing William Turner, a boy about her own age, from pirate-infested waters. The medallion around his neck seems to label him as a pirate, so she takes it for safekeeping before other people can see it. Eight years later Elizabeth (now played by Keira Knightley of BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM) has grown to be a young woman who is in love with William Turner (Orlando Bloom), now a swordsmith. Her father has his own ideas for her future, wanting her to marry a young commodore. Complicating matters is the arrival in Port Royal of grungy rogue Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), thief and pirate. Sparrow saves Elizabeth's life, but is promptly arrested by her father's men. As he rots in prison a legendary pirate ship, the Black Pearl, sails into harbor and attacks Port Royal. Raiding pirates kidnap Elizabeth. Turner and Sparrow form an uneasy alliance to pursue raiders and rescue her.
The writing of PIRATES is genuinely funny and certainly literate. Nearly everything about the film is exaggerated about ten percent, which is right about what it should be. The real pirates were amazingly flamboyant figures, in some cases literally. Blackbeard used to put lighted tapers in his hair and beard to look more demonic to his enemies. Real pirates were bizarre and scary people, and Depp is just about as grotesque playing Sparrow as the audience would accept. He may be the first pirate on the screen who really accurately looks the part. Depp is deliciously hammy, but just about matching him is Geoffrey Rush as the evil pirate Barbossa. The two have a terrific time chewing up the scenery together and the audience has just as much fun. A little subdued and under-used is Jonathan Pryce as the Governor of Port Royal. A host of slimy and depraved looking actors play the pirates.
I am not generally fond of films produced by Jerry Bruckheimer--films like GONE IN 60 SECONDS and ARMAGEDDON. But of late he seems to have discovered how to mix some quality in with the noise and the action. This film has noise and action and explosions, but it also has good characters and it beautifully visualizes the early 19th century Caribbean or at least the imagination's view of that time and place. Gore Verblinksi, who directed MOUSE HUNT and THE RING, directs here and gets a lot of movie on that screen. Some of the look is reminiscent of pirate paintings by classic illustrator N. C. Wyeth. The score it by Klaus Bedelt, but the score is "produced" by Hans Zimmer. I don't know what that means, but the music sounds a lot like GLADIATOR. Zimmer scored GLADIATOR with additional music by Bedelt.
This film with so commercial a title may well turn out to be the best action film of a summer filled with an excess of action films. I rate it an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale. Yo-ho. [-mrl]
TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The new TERMINATOR film has fewer ideas to slow the action. The film is in more ways than one just a machine demolition derby. The future sends back what is supposed to be the most advanced Terminator robot of the series but budget constraints and poor writing make it less intelligent and less capable than its predecessor was. Compared to the previous films there is more action, fewer ideas, and less attention to character. Rating: 5 (0 to 10), high 0 (-4 to +4). Following the review there is a spoiler section that will discuss problems I see with the script.
There is a new Terminator film and once again the machines of the future are jockeying for a better position in their present by sending back in time a robotic agent. It is T-X (played by impassive blond Kristanna Loken), with a mission to eliminate the chief thorn in their side, John Connor (played this time by Nick Stahl). And once again future humanity is trying to check them by sending their own Terminator robot back to defend Connor. The Terminator is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who surprisingly does not look too old in the part. He seems to be keeping his youthful good (?) looks.
John Connor, his life torn apart by the need to hide from Skynet and by the events of the previous film, has become a drug addict. While he is robbing an animal hospital, chance brings him together with veterinarian Kate Brewster (Claire Danes). The machines from the future know these humans' fates are linked, but the two do not. One machine wants to protect them, one to destroy them. And in the traditions of the series, that is what each tries to do in one action scene after another. There are no new ideas in this film; there just isn't time for them in the pacing. Instead there are only revelations about the old ideas.
The centerpiece of the film is a chase early on using unusual vehicles and calculated to do the greatest possible collateral damage without killing any bystanders. John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris, who wrote the script, and director Jonathan Mostow of BREAKDOWN and U-571 seem to go out of their way to make sure the good guys are not responsible for any deaths, in spite of all the action. Our heroes do, however, steal a lot of motor vehicles. That seems to be more acceptable.
The filmmakers feel the need to rub our noses in at least one product placement. Mostow manages to get the ad painted on the side of a truck across most of the screen for several seconds. The product, incidentally, is a diet drug. I would guess it couldn't be a very effective one if it has to be shipped in such huge quantities. This large and annoying product placement--the largest I remember seeing in any film--is some producer's statement that he is willing to mortgage the artistic quality of his film and distract the audience in return for cold hard cash.
TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES reminds me of sequels like REVENGE OF THE CREATURE and RETURN OF THE FLY. It uses a previous film, extends the story, but adds nothing new of value. I rate it a 5 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high 0 on the -4 to +4 scale.
Spoiler... Spoiler... Spoiler... Spoiler...
I should note what I thought were problems with the script.
TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY was not a favorite with me, but the writing was more intelligent than in this film. In this film the technology is inconsistent. I notice that both future factions know how to send back in time whatever sort of ticky-tacky these robots are made of, but they cannot get the hang of sending back cloth so both robots arrive looking just like naked humans. At least guys get equal time since this is the first time a female robot is sent.
We are told that the T-X is more advanced technically and much smarter than the previous model, but we are expected to take it on faith. Words are cheap. The problem is that the T-X appears to be a giant step backward from the shape-shifting robot of the previous film. Where the last robot could morph into a silent sword, this one unimaginatively pulls out a gun and starts blasting. She can morph to look like another human, but just when it is about to do her some good, she stupidly morphs back to give herself away. This is just poor writing. By the way, who is doing all the computer science so that there are more advanced Terminators coming off the assembly line?
Late in the film good guys suddenly turn up inside a highly secure military area. How did they get past the security? A shape-shifter might, but none of the others could.
The film cannot make up its mind what is fated and what isn't. Supposedly August 29, 1997, was to be the nuclear war and it was inescapable. Now the war is still inevitable but it just will be a later date. This film has the feel of a quick knockoff intended to do little more than capitalize on the Terminator franchise. [-mrl]
WHALE RIDER (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Though this story of New Zealand's Maori people is set in the present and told with some realism, it is still enchanting. WHALE RIDER is the mythic story of a girl chosen by the gods to lead her village. Pai seems to have a mystic destiny, but the story is told as if it happened to people with real 21st century problems. Though some of the material is familiar and cliched, it is still an affecting story. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4)
WHALE RIDER has the plot of what could be a children's story, but it is told on an adult level. The overall plot is a leader-origin myth, more or less like the King Arthur legend. It is the story of Pai (played by Keisha Castle-Hughes), whom we know should be leader of her Maori village in spite of the tradition that that title must go to a boy. But this tale is not told in a distant land and time. It is set in current day New Zealand and the story is told with characters who have realistic problems and talk about them with believable dialog. We get a good look at the lifestyles of the contemporary Maori peoples. These are people who believe in the stories of their ancestors and for whom the age of magic is not over.
Pai's life is trouble and pain from the very beginning. Her mother and twin brother died giving her birth. Her father Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) could not stay around and goes off to Europe to forget the family he has lost. In his place Pai's grandparents raise her. Her grandmother is sympathetic, but her grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) blames her for more than the death of her mother. That would be bad enough. But Koro believes she had destroyed the future of the village by robbing it of their future leader. Koro is the current leader of the village and custom says that he should pass that title on to his son or grandson. With the twin tragedies at Pai's birth and the loss of Porourangi there was no grandson born and there will not be one. Koro must train the boys in the village in the ways of their people in the hopes that one will prove himself worthy to replace Koro as the leader. Girls are not eligible for this training that is partially academic, partially ritual, and partially martial arts.
While Pai has no particular ambition to be leader, she does have a thirst for knowledge and she resents not being able to learn like the boys do. She decides to study and get the same education for herself. The film in some ways seems like a South Pacific version of YENTL. Koro loves his granddaughter, but he loves the traditions of his people more. That is where his loyalties must lay. He cannot accept that his granddaughter is worthy to learn, much less be a chief and he refuses to acknowledge her accomplishments. Pai desperately wants to win the approval of her grandfather and the more she tries for it, the more his rebuffs hurt her.
The drama is written at a level not usually present in myth telling, but there is a mythic quality to the story. Koro's household is moderately dysfunctional with a son who runs away rather than facing what Koro believes is his responsibility. There are village problems and tensions between Koro and Pai. And there are disagreements between Koro and his wife. The film is written and directed by Niki Caro and based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera. While the photography frequently has a murky look, that only adds to the atmosphere. The film shows a people devoted to their public life. Most of the houses of the people show their simple lifestyle, but their public buildings show impressive ornate woodcarving. In many ways the film is in style also reminiscent of THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH.
Though some of the language may be briefly a little rough for young children, this is a film that certainly has something to offer a range of viewers from 10 to adult. I rate WHALE RIDER an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
Letter of Comment on Hugo-Nominated Material (by David Thayer):
After looking at the authors of the Hugo-nominated novels this year, I too anticipated some good reads. I too was disappointed in Michael Swanwick's "Bones of the Earth." Time travel into prehistoric times has been done before and better. Brian Aldiss's "Cryptozoic" and Clifford D. Simak's "Mastodonia" both had more coherent plots. As for the sex so graphically portrayed, David Gerrold's "The Man Who Folded Himself" made it a more integral part of the story.
I also read Kim Stanley Robinson's "The Years of Rice and Salt" (too much about enlightenment without ever enlightening either the characters or the reader) and Robert Sawyer's "Hominids" (entertaining but not very complex or surprising). I am holding off until last reading China Mieville's "The Scar" (the remades from "Perdido Street Station" were a little too grotesque for me to have any sympathy for them as main characters). I have started David Brin's "Kiln People" (I could never get into his other novels but this one has captured my interest and imagination; it is complex, with numerous unexpected but believable twists). [-dt]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Our recent trip went through some of the South that I associate with Tennessee Williams--like Tennessee (although I suspect he wrote more about New Orleans, which we didn't get to). So I decided to read some of his better-known plays.
Now, "Suddenly Last Summer" is probably his most genre-related play, but I hadn't picked up a copy of that at the various book sales this year. And while his first published story was published in "Weird Tales", I didn't have that either. What I did have were "Night of the Iguana", "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof", "A Streetcar Named Desire", and "The Fugitive Kind". Of course, so far I've managed only one, but I will get to others eventually.
At LoneStarCon II (Worldcon 1998), there was a panel titled "It's All SF: Science Fiction/Southern Fiction" whose description ran: "Why are so many Southern writers drawn to SF and fantasy? Are there distinctly Southern themes that appear in their works? What is the tradition of Southern SF that they draw upon (Wellman, Wagner, Leinster, etc.)? In what ways are SF and Southern literature not only compatible but natural allies?" Southern fiction was considered to be based on a set of tropes including the legacy of the Civil War, segregation, integration, civil rights, family, history, land, climate, and eccentricity. And the latter was considered to be best shown in Southern Gothic--Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams.
One person quoted Eudora Welty as saying that she heard family stories as a child which she didn't understand, but she knew there was passion, importance, and power in them. And when Faulkner won the Nobel Prize in 1950, he said, "The only subject matter worth the agony of creation is the human heart in conflict with itself." These certainly apply to Williams. And someone said that the South had a commonality in "Gothic and guilt," a phrase that certainly covers Williams's work.
"Night of the Iguana", for example, is set in a sleazy Mexican hotel run by a woman of (seemingly) low character. But she has hidden depths that become apparent as a priest with a weakness for young women brings his busload of tourists to the hotel just as everything in his life is completely falling apart. Also there is an old man with his spinster granddaughter, who provides aid and comfort in a way that Faulkner could appreciate.
As I said, I got to only one Williams play before I got sidetracked into the autobiography of Buffalo Bill Cody. One might say that Cody's attitude towards Indians was less than currently politically correct, but he was after all a man of his times, and interesting times they were. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: Instead of giving a politician the keys to the city, it might be better to change the locks. --Doug Larson
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