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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
01/09/04 -- Vol. 22, No. 28
Table of Contents
New Heinlein Novel (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
In case you missed it, there is a new Heinlein novel out this year, FOR US, THE LIVING: A COMEDY OF CUSTOMS. Well, it's new in the sense of this being its first publication, but it was apparently written in 1938. That was shortly after Heinlein worked for Upton Sinclair's political campaign in California, and about the time he was running himself on a social reform platform, and reflects his support of that and the Social Credit movement in Canada. Caveat: according to friends who have read it, it is probably only for Heinlein completists--it has a lot of political lectures even less disguised than those in his later works. A full review will follow in a little while. [-ecl]
Spiders on a Bridge (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was crossing from Amherst to Northampton, Massachusetts, on the Coolidge Bridge and I saw something interesting. I looked at the railings on the side of the bridge and I happened to notice that every single space, every hole through the railing, had a spider web. This seems to be fairly common on bridges. I remember I was on a fairly long bridge in Budapest, the famous Chain Bridge, and I saw the same thing. The railing had been totally colonized by spiders and webs. Some of the spiders looked fairly ugly. From the distance the bridge looks magnificent, but when you walk across it, every opening in the railing has a spider web. It has been totally colonized by spiders.
Now you might just see that and note it. Most people would. I start thinking about it. Well, in Budapest I didn't give it a second thought, but in Massachusetts it suddenly occurred to me that I was not sure how a spider gets to the center of a bridge to build a web there. In my house I see spider webs all the time but they are always within a few feet of places where you might not be so surprised if you saw a spider. But how does a spider get to the middle of a fairly long bridge? Do they crawl on all eights that whole distance looking for a good place to build a web? That seems unlikely, but nothing I could think of seemed more likely.
Immediately I had visions of the Great MacArthur Bridge Rush. The day the bridge is completed tens of thousands of spiders from dozens of yards around are collecting. They wait at noon on one side of the new bridge. Sparrows have been invited in to go after any spiders who cross the line too soon. The tension mounts. Suddenly the starter's pistol is fired and the spiders go running across the bridge rushing to find a parcel of unclaimed railing. Big spiders, little spiders, spiders with sails of webbing letting the wind carry them. Spider mites grab a space on a passing human pedestrian. Spiders hitching a ride on passing bicycles. All rushing out to find that little piece of bottom railing that they have dreamed of. A place to build a web in the good clean air of the river. A place to lay an egg sack and raise a family, right there in the majestic shadow of the high railing. Some decide to risk death to cross the roadbed to the other side of the bridge for railings over there. But, of course, that means dodging car tires. But that is a fool's hope because there are spiders over there having a similar rush. Soon the good railing is all gone (soon here meaning a week or so because the bridge is pretty long when you are running on little tiny spider legs.) The spiders register their claims by building a little piece of web on their little piece of railing. Yes, it must be an amazing event.
But I decided that probably wasn't how it was done. That was pretty silly, the more I thought about it.
So if that isn't it, just how do the spiders get to the middle sections of the bridge? I don't really know. They could walk all the way from the edges of the bridge. And spiders have been known to fly, letting wind carry spider web. My guess is that it is a generation thing. Little spiders have to try their new legs looking for lebensraum. It may be that at first it was just the interstices of the railing at the ends of the bridge. As there are new generations of spiders they spread out toward the center of the bridge. They drive a golden spike where... No, forget that. Four different colonies of spiders start in the four corners of the bridge, each moving toward the center. At the center the spiders are new to the frontier. At the two ends of the bridge, each on both sides, are the old family spiders. They probably think of themselves as members of the DAR--the Daughters of the Arachnid Rail-claiming.
That doesn't sound right either. I guess we will never know. [-mrl]
PAYCHECK (film review by Dale L. Skran):
(We have a guest film review this week.)
At this point Philip K. Dick seems to be working from the grave on a record for stories made into okay to excellent films. We can now list (Movie/Story):
BLADE RUNNER is one of my all-time favorite SF films. MINORITY REPORT is good, but the movie is overly gruesome and suffers from a lack of editing. TOTAL RECALL is a decent adventure, but not at the same level as MINORITY REPORT or BLADE RUNNER. SCREAMERS appears to be a low-budget horror film which I haven't seen, so I reserve comment.
Starring Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman, PAYCHECK seems to be better than TOTAL RECALL, and far more watchable than MINORITY REPORT. Some may complain about the classic John Woo structure (big car chase in the middle followed by blow-out mega-fight near the end) but the actual story is great. The only thing I can compare this to is BRAINSTORM, my all-time "Engineer as Hero" movie along with THE TIME MACHINE.
Affleck plays an engineer named Jennings who specializes in illegal reverse engineering jobs, after which his memory is wiped and he is paid off. Think of it as the ultimate non-disclosure agreement. The wonderful opening sequence (which is not in the short story) introduces the character and the nature of his work. Then Jennings is offered a really big paycheck in return for two or three years of his life. He accepts, and before you know it he is walking out of the building holding an option statement worth $90 million. He soon finds, however, that just before his memory was wiped, he refused the stock options and sent himself a package of odd junk, including hairspray, a coin, a paperclip, etc.
The rest of the mystery unfolds fairly closely with the plot of the short story, although the ending is quite different, and the Jennings of the movie a more moral figure than in the short story.
This is the best real SF movie I've seen in a long time. It suffers a bit from being a John Woo action epic, but in truth the action fits well with the plot, with the possible exception of the long car chase screen. Jennings's engineering and fighting skills are established in a credible and interesting introduction. The backstory, the character, and the plot are excellent. Affleck does a great job as a really smart guy struggling to figure out an impossible puzzle. The bad guys are decent actors, and they make for good opponents, never falling into a kind of "idiot bad guy" approach. The story seemed to hold together well on one viewing, although the plot is extremely complex, and on a second viewing I might find some inconsistencies. Little details, like the existence of two kinds of memory wiping technologies were very well handled in how they operated and affected the plot. PAYCHECK also operates well on a moral level, as a tale of a man who lives basically as a rich playboy, trading his life for money, but who comes to realize that there are things that no paycheck can buy, including, in this telling, both love and survival.
This move is rated PG-13 for a number of intense action sequences, fights, and car chases. There is one very brief and not especially explicit love scene. I think the main issue with taking a kid under 13 might be that some would find the plot too complex and fast moving to understand. This is a much easier movie to watch than, say, DAREDEVIL from a violence perspective.
Rating: +2 on the -4 to +4 scale; must-see for any serious SF fan. After I see it again I may end up raising the rating to a +3. [-dls]
Click here for spoilers.
[Note: Other films based on the writings of Philip K. Dick include CONFESSIONS D'UN BARJO based on CONFESSIONS OF A CRAP ARTIST; DRUG-TAKING AND THE ARTS from A SCANNER DARKLY; and IMPOSTER, based on the story of the same name. -mrl]
HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: What is probably the best-written film of the year functions as a thriller and as a human drama. Two people from different backgrounds struggle for ownership of the same house. This is a gripping film that works both as a thriller and as a human drama, not an easy combination. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
I knew immediately from the trailer that I wanted to see this film. That is because I got through the trailer and was not sure who the good guy was, or even if there was a good guy in this story. Both characters seemed to have some right on their side. That is very unusual in films. In the film A FEW GOOD MEN you have two characters conflicting and either one could be right. But Tom Cruise is young and earnest and Jack Nicholson is older, smokes cigars, and is sexist. None of these faults are germane to the conflict, but it is clear the filmmaker is telling you with whom to sympathize. HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG is about a conflict between two people, each of whom is arguably in the right. Each desperately needs to own the same house.
Kathy Nicolo (played by Jennifer Connelly)--sober for three years, well, sort of--is the kind of person who just wants to wallow in her depression and to avoid the complexities of life. Professionally she is a housecleaner, but she makes very little effort to maintain her own house, which is much in need of a good cleaning. She lies to her family so they don't find out her husband has left her. She just ignores her mail letting it accumulate unopened on the floor of her house much like the pile of dirty dishes collects in her sink. A misunderstanding over taxes that she has ignored for months comes back to bite her in a big way. The county seizes her house and puts it up for auction. This house was left to her and her brother by her father and she desperately needs to get it back as the last part of her life that she has not screwed up. If she loses the house she has lost everything. One has a natural sympathy for Kathy and her situation, but one also feels that her problems are really in large part of her own making. If anything our sympathy for her is a guilty emotion.
The house has been purchased at auction at a bargain price, a quarter of its market value, by Massoud Amir Behrani (Ben Kingsley). Behrani was once a colonel in the Shah of Iran's army. When the Shah fell he had to flee his country and his whole family will be murdered if he ever returns. In the US he was never successful. Unknown to his family the best he could do for a career is work on a road crew during the day and work at a clerk at a convenience store at night. His wife, Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo), stingingly upbraids him for not providing the kind of luxury they had in Iran. But finally Providence has smiled on him. He has bought a house at auction and he can parlay the difference between its cost and its market value into a comfortable life for Nadi and an education for his beloved son, Esmail (Jonathan Ahdout).
The two principal characters seem to be opposites. One is a young, attractive female and the other is a wizened old military man. Nicolo is sloppy and casual. Behrani meticulous and is wound as tight as a spring, covering his desperation with a painful formality. Yet they have a lot in common. Each is trying desperately to keep up appearances so that his/her family does not learn what their situation really is. Each urgently needs ownership of the house to recapture a piece of a better past that is now forever beyond reach. The self-respect of each is tied up in the same house. Upsetting the balance is a Lester Burdon (Ron Eldard), a policeman who takes an interest in Nicolo that begins benignly, but which will not remain so. Burdon wants Nicolo to be dependent on him and slyly tempts her into a position where she will be. Nicolo is happy to comply. The writing by Russian-born writer/director Vadim Perelman is compelling. There are at least three very well developed characters with powerful performances by Connelly, Kingsley, and particularly Aghdashloo. The latter does say much in the film, some minimal English and some Farsi, but she is a strong dramatic presence.
It is a rare film that functions well both as a moving personal drama and as a crime thriller. It has a finely crafted screenplay of with genuine complexity and many ideas inherent. In the end it is a film about conflict among people we come to like. We want them all to work their problems out, yet from the very first scene we know they will not.
What perhaps appeared at first to be a mundane thriller is a strong dramatic film. I rate HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10. [-mrl]
THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A French grandmother following her kidnapped grandson comes to America and enlists the aid of a famous but eccentric jazz-singing trio. Together the four pit themselves against the French Mafia to try to rescue the boy. This French-Canadian-Belgian production created by Sylvan Chomet is very much a 1960s-style cartoon, but extended to feature film length. Much of the humor is reminiscent of silent film comedy. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Most animated films you see these days are intended to not just tell a story but to show off what new capabilities are possible with the animated film now that the computer is helping generate images. And some pretty impressive things are possible. This animation is a lot more interesting to look at than the plain two-dimensional artwork that the majority of cartoons had back in the 1950s and 1960s. THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE is something of a throwback to those cartoons of forty and fifty years ago. Had this film been made forty years earlier, maybe contemporary with the Mr. Magoo films, it probably would not seem particularly remarkable. It would have been funny, but not really a radical departure. But the animation style is not the point. Writer and director Sylvan Chomet is not showing off the latest animation technique. This is just a cartoon written at feature length. Oh, the film has a lot of fun images, but they are not three-dimensional and they are not realistic. This is not to say that it is not a pretty good animated film, but that is all this little French delicacy is. And that is enough.
In a cartoon with a minimum of dialog we have our story unfold first in France and later in a sort of United States, but not quite. When the story opens a little grandmother with Coke bottle glasses, Madam Souza, is raising her apparently orphaned grandson and his puppy. The grandson's interest is in bicycles and bicycle racing. Madam Souza is going to coach grandson to compete in the Tour de France. She follows him around wheezing through a whistle to pace him. There is a lot more to see than this plot line. There is humor with the dog and his habit of barking at the train that passes the grandmother's house at the same time each day. The years pass and finally the boy is ready to race in the great Tour de France. But in the middle of the race, thugs from the French Mafia kidnap the boy and take him to America where he is to be part of a strange plot involving gambling. Madam Souza comes in hot pursuit with the now elderly dog, but she cannot find her grandson alone. Luckily she does not have to. She runs into the title characters, a singing act that Madam Souza has seen on TV for many years. Now they are old crones, but they are willing to pitch in and help find the grandson, a more dangerous enterprise than any of them expected.
The story progresses slowly, even in a short film. Where it takes an interest is in the strange details of life. There are jokes of how the grandmother trains her grandson using props like Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin would. We see their quirky ways the three old women make meals (and catch the meat that will go in the pot). Little jokes catch the viewer off-balance and some are quite witty.
The cartoon is full of some funny bits that seem to be out of an old Jacques Tati film. And the film does acknowledge a debt to the genius of Tati. This is being touted as a film of great originality when, in fact, it is just a return to a much earlier style of animated story telling. The jazz score is a good deal of the effect and probably could stand on its own as a separate CD.
Don't avoid this film because it is French. There are only two lines of dialog and they are dubbed into English in for the American release. This is a film that for the most part speaks a universal language of funny images and unexpected surprises. It should be okay for all but very young children and just about everybody will enjoy it. I rate THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. [-mrl]
COLD MOUNTAIN (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Nicole Kidman and Jude Law play two lovers separated by the Civil War and struggling to be reunited. Kidman is a woman not unlike Scarlett O'Hara who must go from being a useless peacetime ornament to become a strong and self-sufficient survivor. This could have been a powerful war story, but under the surface it is contrived and unconvincing and the performances are uninvolving. Most of the compelling storytelling is in the first reel. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
COLD MOUNTAIN is written and directed by Anthony Minghella (THE ENGLISH PATIENT, THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY) based on the novel by Charles Frazier. This is a story about cruelty and compassion in the South during the last year of the American Civil War. All of the cruelty seems to come from men and all of the compassion seems to be from women. The main character, played by Jude Law, is an exception, but the men around him from clergy to military seem a worthless group of people. Minghella shows us a world full of evil men and the women who are their innocent victims but who try to help each other. Nichole Kidman plays Ada, the daughter of a slave-holding minister in North Carolina. She was one of the rare Southern women who had been reticent to see the war come. With the war she loses Inman (Law) to the Confederate Army. Inman is the man she loves and would have married if the war had not interrupted.
The film opens with The Battle of the Crater, a particularly horrendous clash which took place at Petersburg, Virginia. The battle, I am told, was not in the original novel, but it is a highly dramatic event and nobody else had filmed it. Inman is injured in the fighting and is hospitalized. He deserts and begins a long and perilous odyssey to return home to Cold Mountain, North Carolina. But the story really centers on Ada, who loses her father and for a while has to run her farm by herself. This is a task for which she has no training, and she makes a proper mess of it. A neighbor knows of a certain unrefined but intelligent woman who needs a place to work. The woman is Ruby (Renee Zellweger). Ada and Ruby set about making the farm work. Ruby is coarse but she understands what is necessary to do to get food from a farm. Everything she says is rough but pure common sense. However, it will take more than common sense and hard work to keep two women alive in these dangerous last months of the Civil War. The focus moves back and forth from Inman's adventures to Ada's. Not very originally, Ada's main problems come from a lecherous Home Guard commander, for whom it would be both a duty and a pleasure to kill Inman, his rival for Ada. Inman meanwhile faces Confederate troops who want to hang him and various dangers on the road.
It is a long haul to bring these two people back together, and the audience is likely not to invest too much emotion in their reunion. Neither Kidman nor Law seems to have much screen presence beyond good looks to make us really care if they get back together or not. In flashbacks we see that Ada could manipulate Inman to clear a field, but her power over him does not appear to get much ardor from him on-screen. One has cause to wonder if Ada is in poverty so close to starvation, why is it that her clothes are so well tailored and fit her so well? Civil War fashions were apparently far more attractive that we had been led to believe. Brendan Gleeson does a nice turn as Ruby's rascal of a father. Donald Sutherland plays Ada's father who is as good a man as one finds in the South, but it is still left to Ada to free his slaves. Philip Seymour Hoffman is another type of scoundrel, but is only passably believable as a man of the Civil War period. Also present is Natalie Portman, as one more woman who suffers for what the men are doing. That is a fairly impressive cast, but the film has trouble really clicking.
To capture the unspoiled feel of the forests of the South during the Civil War, and also as an economy measure, the film was shot in the woods of Transylvania, Romania (the area erroneously thought to be a particular center of vampire legends). I had high hopes for this film, but it really is a well-made B-film and not a great epic of Civil War times. I rate COLD MOUNTAIN a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Helene Hanff is best known as the author of 84 CHARING CROSS ROAD, but she has written some other books as well. One, APPLE OF MY EYE, is a guidebook (of sorts) to Manhattan, written as a series of descriptions of the trips Hanff took researching Manhattan to write a book about it for tourists. (Whether this is the intended book, or just a side effect is not clear.) Of course, being twenty-five years old, it is quite out of date, and not just for its descriptions of the World Trade Center. I know the suggested admission to the Metropolitan is not $1.75, and many of the other sights she described are gone or changed. For New Yorkers, though, it is a great nostalgic look at the city.
Another book by Helene Hanff (and her first) is UNDERFOOT IN SHOW BUSINESS, an autobiography of her life as a playwright and TV writer up until 1961. (For readers of 84 CHARING CROSS ROAD, the only familiar part will be her tooth work.) While a fairly lightweight book, it does have some amusing anecdotes, such as the one about the winners of the fellowships from the Bureau of New Plays the year she won--and those of the previous year. Or the one which truly illustrates the claim from SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE that in the theater everything works out, but no one knows how ("It's a miracle."). But one I will recount here from her experiences as an outside reader for a film studio. A reader is someone who is given a book and is supposed to summarize it for the benefit of those who needed to decide whether to option it. The dread of a reader was to be given "a seven-hundred-page, three-generation family saga that always had more subplots than a soap opera and more characters than Dickens." Well, as she writes, "On the blackest Friday I ever want to see, I was summoned to Monograph and handed three outsized paperback volumes of an English book which was about to be published here. I was to read all three volumes over the weekend, and since each volume was double the length of the usual novel I was invited to charge double money for each. I hurried home with the three volumes and after dinner began to read Volume I. And if Monograph's office had been open at that hour, I'd have phoned and quit my job. What I had to read, during that nightmare weekend--taking notes on all place names, characters' names and events therein--was fifteen hundred stupefying pages of the sticky mythology of J. R. R. Tolkien. (I hope I'm spelling his name wrong.) I remember opening one volume to a first line which read, 'Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his elevnty-first birthday....' and phoning several friends to say good-bye because suicide seemed so obviously preferable to five hundred more pages of that." I guess she concluded that you couldn't make a very good movie from THE LORD OF THE RINGS.
And I'll briefly mention Jack Repcheck's THE MAN WHO FOUND TIME: JAMES HUTTON AND THE ANTIQUITY OF THE EARTH as being of interest to those interested in the history of science, and in particular in its interaction with religion. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Nay, fly to altars; there they'll talk you dead; For fools rush in where angels fear to tread. -- Alexander Pope, "An Essay on Criticism"
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