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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
01/16/04 -- Vol. 22, No. 29
Table of Contents
Discussion of AMERICAN GODS (announcement by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Reminder for people in the central New Jersey area: There will be a discussion of Neil Gaiman's Hugo-winning AMERICAN GODS at 7PM on Thursday, January 22, at the Old Bridge Public Library (Route 516 just east of Route 9). Please come join us--you don't have to be an Old Bridge resident. (There is a useful page of annotations at http://www.frowl.org/gods/gods.html) [-ecl]
Dictionaries (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Odd fact: While most bi-lingual dictionaries have the slight problem that to use one of the directions, you have to start in the middle of the book, English-Hebrew and English-Yiddish dictionaries can actually be produced with both halves going in the right direction. [-ecl]
My Top Ten Films of 2003 (film comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I always resist a little the task of making up a top ten list of the best films I have seen over the year. I tell myself that I have a preference for entertainment films over artistic independent films. To me that makes my list seem a less than serious. This year I stood back and looked at the list and found somewhat to my surprise that there are really only three or so studio films and even those have a sort of independent film feel. In any case these are the films that I most enjoyed over the past year.
In addition I would like to call attention to the following films that would be on my top ten list except for technicalities.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING perhaps deserves to be on this list. Bringing THE LORD OF THE RINGS to the screen is an impressive feat in this nine or ten hour film released in three parts. It deserves to be the best of a year. It does not deserve to be the best of the year for three consecutive years. I gave THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS my best of the year for 2001 with instructions that it should share that honor with its two siblings.
I would also like to call attention to three other films that are appearing at film festivals, but not getting general releases. These were films I would have put on my top ten list (probably) had they become available to the general public. I say "probably" because I would add them to the top ten list and then would have to take three films off. I am not sure which films would come off. In any case the films are:
No, it is not about THAT Osama. It is about a young woman in Afghanistan in the days of the Taliban. Extreme Islamic religious restrictions prevent her mother and herself from any legal way to earn a living so she masquerades as a boy to get a job. This leads to tragic consequences.
While nominally not based on the writings of Phillip K. Dick, this is one of the best science fiction adaptations of Dick's ideas. Director Vincenzo Natali (CUBE, and the upcoming NOTHING) has a sure hand and could be a major talent. Jeremy Northam plays a nerd who becomes an industrial spy and the key player in a world war between two mega-corporations.
This is the true story of highborn gentile women in Nazi Germany who had married Jewish husbands. The husbands are arrested and imprisoned preparatory to sending them to death camps. The wives organize and demonstrate for the release of their husbands, attempting to make themselves a serious embarrassment for the Third Reich. [-mrl]
PETER PAN (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: P. J. Hogan brings to the screen a reasonably accurate version of the classic J. M. Barrie children's story, but one with more depth and a look at the emotions of the maturing process. This is a feast for the eyes that I can recommend with more conviction for parents than I can for the children who might see it. The film creates charming illustrations for the famous story and does it in all in what looks like live action. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
What a delightful surprise it was to discover that I like J. M. Barrie's story Peter Pan more than I thought that I did. I almost skipped seeing this film. The story in good hands is more intelligent and stronger in ideas than I was expecting. PETER PAN is a children's film for adults. Bring children to it and it might be a fantasy that may not really engage them. It is not like Pokemon or Lord of the Rings. Parts will possibly seem slow. Some children I know may not find it to their liking. That is some children. Adults, on the other hand, will probably remember seeing the Disney animated adaptation. And perhaps they will have seen even the musical stage play with Mary Martin swinging around the stage on the wire and with Boris Karloff mugging as Captain Hook. They may well be entranced by what is the most beautiful and intricate visualization of the familiar story. On the stage and even in the animation Never Land was simplified for economy and for stagecraft. But Roger Ford's production design for the film makes it look like some marvelous old Victorian toy come to life.
The script by Hogan and Michael Goldenberg from the play and books of J. M. Barrie generally follows the original story, but then adds some sequences not in the original play, notably Mr. Darling's attempts to look good for the management of his firm. It broadens and expands the original theme of the gain and loss of growing up. Much more than in previous version the dialog seems to concert adult emotions and even desires. At times it almost becomes sensuous.
The story, for those who have not seen some version, is of the playful spirit who is Pan (Jeremy Sumpter). He comes visiting the children of the Darling household from the mystical place called Never Land. After Pan loses his shadow, Wendy Darling (Rachel Hurd-Wood) helps him get it back and Pan ends up bringing all three children flying with him back to his Never Land. Never Land seems to be comprised of smaller regions, one with Indians, one with pirates, one with the foundling Lost Boys. (It may well have been the original inspiration for Disneyland.) And what a luxurious Never Land this film shows us.
Pan is in a constant war with Captain Hook (Jason Isaacs, who also plays Mr. Darling). He fights Hook while trying to play father to the Lost Boys who need a mother. Pan wants Wendy to be a mother to the lost boys. And trapped in eternal youth, he is puzzled that he also wants something else from her, but he is unsure what it is. It has something to do with the pleasure he gets from kissing her. He may not know what he wants, but one gets the feeling that Tinkerbell does know. Tink (Ludivine Sagnier of THE SWIMMING POOL), though incompatible with Peter, is jealous of female competition for Peter's attentions. This Tinkerbell worries about more than if children will clap for her. Her rubber-faced antics hide a personality with more depth than one might expect. Much the same is true of Hook who is a villain, but in this version he also has some humanity. He makes sense as a character. When he dies, the Lost Boys jeer him saying not that he was not a good fighter or is ugly as might be expected but with the taunt "Old. Unwanted. Alone." Now that is fighting dirty in a way unexpectedly insightful for a children's film.
Sumpter and Hurd-Wood have surprising stage presence at the ages of fourteen and thirteen respectively. There even is a certain romantic chemistry between them. James Newton Howard has created a heroic fairy tale musical score for the film that fits it very nicely. For a generation whose only contacts with this story are the dreadful film HOOK and re-releases of the Disney version, this film will be a fine rediscovery. This is the vision of Peter Pan that I would want in my head when I read the story. I rate it a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. [-mrl]
FOR US, THE LIVING (book review by Robert L. Mitchell):
Robert Anson Heinlein, love him or hate him, has been one of the most influential and best-selling (not necessarily well-correlated adjectives) SF authors of all time. Probably no one who considers himself or herself an SF fan has not read at least one of his novels or short story collections, and most people have at least a vague idea of his career – writing short fiction for John W. Campbell in ASTOUNDING, expanding into juvenile novels in the 1950s, and then into adult novels (in all senses of that term) in the late 1950s through to his death in 1988. Most people who have read a reasonable amount of his work come away from it feeling they have a good understanding of the author – his values, interests, etc. That may or may not be true, but even completists like me don’t know everything, and Heinlein’s “latest” novel, FOR US, THE LIVING (A COMEDY OF CUSTOMS) is proof.
Much of the surprise of this book is in the background explaining why he wrote it. Readers who conclude (erroneously, in my opinion) that Heinlein was a right-wing zealot may be surprised to learn that in the 1930s, after being released from Naval service due to tuberculosis, Heinlein was an active and influential left-wing Democrat, and was closely involved with Upton Sinclair’s radical EPIC (End Poverty in California) party. Heinlein campaigned for a seat in the California State Assembly (and lost) and advocated, among other things, revolutionary approaches to personal privacy, sexual mores, banking policy, and capital redistribution. For example, he was quite comfortable with the idea of the government distributing a minimum income to anyone who asked for it, without requiring work in return – but (and this is a large “but”) on the condition that his other ideas were also embraced.
Heinlein lost the election, but apparently felt he needed to elaborate on his views of a Utopian society. He wrote FOR US, THE LIVING in 1938-39 as a novel, although it’s truly a thinly veiled lecture on what he felt needed to be done. When he finished it, it was rejected by several publishers, and Heinlein abandoned it, later taking up the short fiction that started him down the road to being a titan of SF.
FOR US, THE LIVING tells the story of Perry Nelson, who has an automobile accident in 1939 and wakes up in 2086. He has lots of trouble adjusting to the radically different American society, and engages in many discussions with experts in history, economics, etc. to help him catch up. These "discussions" are the major vehicle Heinlein uses to explain how the United States evolved from the 1939 we know, to a culture where everyone respects each other’s right to privacy, where the citizenry have grown out of jealousy, and where the government prints money on an as-needed basis for Social Credit. There is certainly a plot, albeit a tenuous one, and the characters are fleshed out to varying degrees (though none are really three-dimensional, and most are uni-dimensional).
Not that this is a problem. After all, Utopian novels (and Dystopian novels, for that matter) have a long and honorable history in literature of being more essay than fiction, and Heinlein was clearly following the model of Bellamy’s LOOKING BACKWARD. In such stories, the ideas are supposed to take center stage, and plot, characterization, etc. are sugar-coating to make the didactic medicine more palatable.
FOR US, THE LIVING is not a good novel, and probably should not be read by anyone who has not read a lot of Heinlein, especially his Future History works. For those who are broadly familiar with Heinlein, though, the book is a fascinating archeological look into proto-Heinlein. The themes and issues he would become known for – liberty, personal responsibility, time travel, sex, trying to fly to the moon, the religious monster Nehemiah Scudder, etc. are all here, and it’s clear Heinlein’s later works developed from a solid core of themes and issues he held from the beginning of his writing career. Much as Christopher Tolkien’s HISTORY OF MIDDLE EARTH series has provided academic insight into what became J. R. R. Tolkien’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS, FOR US THE LIVING provides an intimate look into an author who has a unique position in SF history. [-rlm]
MONSTER (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Charlize Theron proves herself capable of Oscar-worthy performances in the story of a real-life serial killer and prostitute who has a lesbian relationship with a runaway. The plot familiar, the direction is only mediocre, and the photography is flat, but the acting is top notch. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
When Sylvester Stallone's career seemed to be foundering he put together a film to show off what he could do. That film was ROCKY and it got a best picture Oscar and a newly renewed career for Stallone. Charlize Theron is a South African actress with a pretty face who did a reasonable job in some physical roles, including the recent THE ITALIAN JOB. She has received some critical attention, but she has been in real danger of being lost in a multitude of pretty actresses regardless of any real acting talent. Certainly if she has ability films like her MIGHTY JOE YOUNG are not going to show it off. She needs to demonstrate an acting genius at this point in her career. That may be the reason she co-produced and starred in MONSTER. MONSTER is the perhaps-fictionalized story of Aileen Wuornos as researched and later directed by Patty Jenkins.
If Theron wanted to prove that she has serious dramatic talent, her point is proven. As seven-time serial killer Aileen Wuornos she is ugly, abrasive, and totally convincing. When the film begins she is a hooker who spends her nights in bars. We will be told the rough background that caused her to fall into the profession. In a Florida bar one night Aileen, or Lee as she is called, meets Selby Wall (played by Christina Ricci), a runaway from Ohio. Selby is attracted to Lee and though Lee is not a lesbian she encourages Selby. Not long after that one of Lee's Johns takes Lee to a remote spot and beats her intending to rape her. Lee kills the man in self-defense, then steals his car and his money. Lee and Selby run away together.
Lee becomes a serial killer, angrily murdering the men who proposition her with progressively less and less justification. Lee tells herself that these murders are justified and the victims do not deserve to live. The film makes the descent into multiple murder seem to be logical if not acceptable. The killing make sense rather than being the result of a deranged mind. That may not be accurate since the public judgement seems to be that Wuornos really was insane. But her death judgements are quickly reached and with guns readily available they can be carried out before there is time to reconsider them. She is steeped in self-hate and can turn on others quickly. In one case Lee tries to get her intended victim to say something that will anger her enough to kill him, but changes her mind when she is not sure he deserves death. The plot follows the same basic outline as films like GUN CRAZY. It may be that usually in these films the lovers on the run have not traditionally been lesbians, but this is the 21st century. The end titles claim that all characters but the killer are fictional, but that may be just a legal formality.
The film allows a lot of room for both Theron and Ricci to act and show what they can do. Certainly Theron demonstrates ability far beyond expectation. And she is almost unrecognizable in a makeup job that really distorts her looks but never appears unnatural. One or twice I saw a little of the familiar face behind the eyes of this Aileen Wuornos, but not enough to tell who it was. Theron more importantly seems to have completely become the character in a way few actors ever do. I don't know enough about Wuornos to know whether Theron really became that character, but I could tell that she was no longer Theron.
This is not an enjoyable film, but it is a film to be admired for the fine performance. I would rate MONSTER a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I read Robert A. Heinlein's FOR US, THE LIVING, and I can report that my initial comments still hold. To recap, it was apparently written in 1938, at the time of Heinlein's involvement with social reform campaigns in California. And, yes, it is probably only for Heinlein completists. As I commented to one, "If I wanted a course in economics, I'd sign up for one at Brookdale."
The book is written in the tradition of Edward Bellamy and other Utopian writers. As with many of those, the protagonist falls asleep/is overcome by gas/passes through a time warp/has a curse put on him--oh, sorry, I got carried away there. Anyway, the protagonist is in a car crash in 1938 and through some hand-waving ends up in a body in 2086. (The explanation is even less convincing than that of being overcome by gas.) Naturally he gets found by a beautiful woman, who decides to take him in and provide various teachers who explain at great length how the country's economic and political system has evolved since 1938. As with much of Heinlein's work, everything works because he stacks the deck so that it works. For example, everyone is given enough money to live on, but people continue to work because they want to. This is made at least slightly plausible only because he postulates that all the tedious jobs are done by machine. After all, why would someone take a job cleaning bathrooms if they didn't have to? Heinlein also sets up a situation in which the United States can effectively ignore the rest of the world.
One can certainly see the beginnings of many of Heinlein's ideas here, and for followers of Utopian fiction it has its place, but there is nothing compelling enough to warrant reading this if all you are looking for is a good science fiction novel.
And elsewhere in this issue is a review by one of those Heinlein completists, Rob Mitchell.
I also read Donald Westlake's science fiction, five short stories published in "Playboy" between 1981 and 1988. These are about the voyages of the Starship Hopeful, which sets out in 11,406 after the Master Imperial Computer discovered that 500 years earlier, a clerical error had erased from the computer's memory more than 1000 colonies. Its mission is to find these lost colonies. Each one has apparently become an exaggeration of its initial settlers, so one is given over to gamblers, another to an acting company, and so on. These are available at http://www.donaldwestlake.com/wks_ss6_intro.html [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated to the unfinished work ... that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom. --Abraham Lincoln
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