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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
12/03/04 -- Vol. 23, No. 23 (Whole Number 1259)
Table of Contents
The Lessons of KILL BILL 2 (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I just saw KILL BILL 2. It is, as you might know, a big international action film in which many people get killed, some in bizarre and horrible ways. I don't want to spoil it, but let us say that what started this bloodbath is a very cliched situation that probably is happening for real in thirty different instances in your home town, if you come from a small enough town. So how did this one little instance become an international incident? Well, it is because everybody involved is really, really good at martial arts. Can you think of a better reason not to teach your kid martial arts?
The Year of the Biopic (film comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I don't know if you have noticed, but as far as the film industry is concerned this seems to be the year of the biographical film. Through much of the year we have been getting film biographies. I think we have gotten more than any year I can think of. Biographies we have gotten this year include (in alphabetical order): ALEXANDER: Colin Farell in the story of one of the great conquerors of human history, Alexander the Great. The director is Oliver Stone. THE AVIATOR: Martin Scorcese's film about Howard Hughes starring Leonardo DiCaprio. BEYOND THE SEA: Kevin Spacey directs the film and plays lounge singer Bobby Darin. FINDING NEVERLAND: Playwright J. M. Barrie is played by Johnny Depp. Barrie is the man who wrote PETER PAN. It comes not long after last year's under-appreciated version of PETER PAN. KINSEY: Liam Neeson plays the rather plain man who in the 1950s who broke the taboo of talking about sex. THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS: This film has Geoffrey Rush in the title role of a film made for HBO. MODIGLIANI: Decadent artist Amedeo Modigliani (Andy Garcia) in post-WWI Paris feuds with Pablo Picasso, loves, faces bigotry and drinks himself to death. THE OVERTURE: Okay, you have probably not heard of it. It is a Thai film about the life of Luang Pradit Phairoao, the great classical composer for the Thai ra-nad ek (wooden xylophone). It has been playing at film festivals. RAY: Jamie Foxx portrays Ray Charles (who just died this year) in this film by director Taylor Hackford who also directed LA BAMBA and IDOLMAKER. RENE LEVESQUE: This is a miniseries being made for television in Canada about Levesque the founder of the Parti Quebecois political party and the Prime Minister of Quebec. I should make clear what I am counting as a biographical film. It has to be a dramatization of a real person's life. This leaves out GOING UPRIVER: THE LONG WAR OF JOHN KERRY, which is more a documentary. Also I would not count THE MOTERCYCLE DIARIES, which dramatizes a period in the life of Che Guevara, but does not cover a long enough span of years to be really considered a biography. A "biopic" has to be a docu-drama that covers a significant span of the main character's life to show us how the character changes over a period of years. The question is why are there so many biographical films that are coming out at one time? The filmmakers in interviews, at least three or four I have seen, say that it is purely coincidence. Some of these films have been in the works for several years. Each just happens to be coming out within months of all the others. Such a statistical anomaly is quite possible, but it probably is not a complete explanation of what is happening. I think it is related to the same phenomenon that we saw a few years ago when there were so many remakes of films and especially TV shows that were popular in the 1950s and 1960s. It uses an established name and that promises some sort of quality. Many people remember that I SPY and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE were quality television programs with good stories. Promising the same quality sells admission tickets. The filmmaker is implying that the film will be of that mold. Neither film make much effort to capture the spirit of its original. Too many of these promises are broken and that formula no longer seems to work with most audiences. If you take somebody who is well known and tell the story of his life, people will be interested. (Note I used the male pronoun. We do not get many biopics about women these days. There is the occasional WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT or EVITA or FRIDA, but those are rarities. None were made this year as far as I am aware.) But when you tell a biography it generally is mostly true. The film feels like it has substance. MGM makes a point in DE-LOVELY that MGM's previous biography of Cole Porter was highly inaccurate and did not even mention that Porter was gay. That is both good and bad. When you tell a true story is it hard to structure it like a dramatic film with a grabber opening and a big finish. Lives are generally not structured that way and biopics often try very artificial mechanisms to achieve a pleasing story structure. Speaking of structure musical biopics are frequently done in very much the same style that goes back to A SONG TO REMEMBER. Have subject's music every ten minutes or so and tell a story in three acts: Act I is "Talented Newcomer gets Attention." Act II is "Subject finds Love." Act III is "Celebrity Juggles Love Life and Career while Becoming an Immortal." The story may not be thrilling, but the film is pre-sold by the main character's music. With minor variations, that is DE-LOVELY, that is RAY, that is BEYOND THE SEA. For that matter most art biopics follow the formula "genius creates great art but does not have self-discipline and ruins his personal life." That is LUST FOR LIFE, that is POLLAK, that is MODIGLIANI. Notice that with a lot of biographies the audience need not know the subject. It is testimonial enough that someone is making a film about this person. People who have never heard of Luang Pradit Phairoao will be interested to see THE OVERTURE because it is the biography of a person who was great enough that someone wanted to make a film about him. People who do not think of themselves as Bobby Darin fans will see BEYOND THE SEA. I did. But these days audiences will probably want more accuracy than was required when Cary Grant played a straight Cole Porter in NIGHT AND DAY. Perhaps the attraction is also the same that keeps people reading PEOPLE magazine. People want to know about the private lives of famous people. [-mrl]
ALEXANDER (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: ALEXANDER is a little long and at times slow, but not unrewarding as a movie for history buffs. Much of the film just does not work, but parts are very impressive. A good cinematic biography of this great conqueror is nearly impossible. I would rather be bored learning about the history of Alexander the Great than enthralled by the exploits of Spider Man. Your mileage may vary. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
As soon as I saw the trailer I cringed a little. Colin Ferrall with his hair dyed blond just looks too modern to be Alexander the Great. When I look at Ferrall I see a 21st Century man. Now admittedly Plutarch says that Alexander was "fair and of a light color," but who is to say what would have been considered fair back in the time of Plutarch? On the other hand it is hard for me to build up much resolve to avoid any film set in a historical era. Set a film in Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, or wherever and I am there. [If you don't feel the same way about history films you should take a couple of points off of my ratings. I believe I was one of the few reviewers who enjoyed GODS AND GENERALS, which had many of the same virtues and flaws as ALEXANDER.] From the start it was clear that getting the proper period feel with a hunk like Ferrall in the lead was going to be a tough job. But, hey, could Ferrall really be less like Alexander than Richard Burton was in ALEXANDER THE GREAT? And as for making characters look like they belong in the period, a surprisingly good job is done with that unlikely Macedonian, Val Kilmer.
The next problem is that there is no good length for a feature film of the story of Alexander. If you make it more than a hundred minutes you will start the audience squirming in their seats. Make it only three hundred minutes and you have to leave out important historical material. The story has elements in common with THE LORD OF THE RINGS; it could be told like THE LORD OF THE RINGS was in three theatrical installments. It could be a mini-series on TV. It might even be a four-hour film with an intermission like GETTYSBURG was. Oliver Stone gave us his version in a little under three hours of feature film. That is a little terse. One way to save screen time is to stick to the Plutarch history. That leaves out some of the popular stories but it saves time. In Stone's film Alexander does not cry because there are no more worlds to conquer. He cries for other reasons, but not for that one. Nor does Alexander tackle the Gordian knot. But Plutarch is probably the most reliable author about Alexander. Stone's film seems to take the story almost exclusively from Plutarch and filling in the gaps with drama and speculation.
Another way to save time is to just not dramatize all the important battles. We are told about some of them, but there is neither time nor money to show several battles. We see Gaugamela, in which Alexander beats Darius and inherits his empire. To show us a battle of very different character, we also see the battle of the Hydaspes River (currently in Pakistan) where Porus marshaled elephants against Alexander. Porus lost the battle but broke the spirit of Alexander's army. Between the two extremes we see a wide variety of geography. For most of the rest of Alexander's campaign, Stone breaks a cardinal rule of film-making and does a lot of telling rather than showing. Even Anthony Hopkins as Old Ptolemy doing most of the telling cannot prevent expository lumps with an overlong prologue and epilogue.
But this is getting ahead of ourselves. Stone tells the story of Alexander, taking us to see Alexander as a boy who inherits his father Philip's (played by Val Kilmer) dream to build a world- spanning empire. Alexander is caught as a pawn in the conflicts between his father and his mother, jarringly played by Angelina Jolie. Over thirty-some years she changes no more than Sophia Loren does in EL CID. The script plays up Alexander's respect for other cultures, for women, and other modern-seeming attitudes. All of these Plutarch mentions, though they may not have been as pronounced as the film makes them out to be. Alexander's love for his general and best friend Hephaistion (Jared Leto), though the film falls short of showing the two actually having sex. We see Alexander having sex that is pretty kinky, but it is heterosexual. On screen Alexander is affectionate but not gay. He also remains mother-dominated his entire life, in part for reasons we get in an awkward flashback within a flashback.
While the two battle scenes are spectacular, the film is not always as visually rewarding. In some scenes Alexander is in an area cold enough for frost to form on his brow, but for his breath to freeze. Frequently throughout the film there is poor matte work. I am not expert enough in ancient art to know if some of the art on the walls of the sets was as inaccurate as it seemed, but it looked too contemporary. The repeated heavy use of eye shadow is jarring, but not necessarily untrue. More jarring is the frequent use of American, Irish, and British (especially Scottish) accents. Just why they have Val Kilmer affecting an Irish accent to play an ancient Macedonian is beyond me to know.
Oliver Stone, Christopher Kyle, Laeta Kalogridis wrote the script which takes full advantage of the recent release of the film TROY. Alexander admired Homer's ILIAD and a copy was never far from him. The film makes repeated references to the Homer. Stone returns repeatedly to imagery of eagles and serpents. Both have some mention in the original texts. Plutarch makes one quick reference to an eagle flying over Alexander. The musical score by Vangelis is uninspiring. Early in the film we some welcome familiar character actors, but they disappear quickly. People like Brian Blessed and Christopher Plummer fall into this category. I cannot whole-heartedly recommend ALEXANDER, but for its good points I rate it +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
For those who want to take a look at the Plutarch, one site is http://tinyurl.com/6sekz.
[Postscript: I finished this review and then put on "Ebert and Roeper at the Movies". Ebert says what he did not like about this film is that the film takes no stand on Alexander, positive or negative. To me that is actually one of the film's virtues. We have come to expect that films will tell us who the good guy is and who the bad guy is. No, this film just gives us a character who is Alexander the Great. He has virtues and he has flaws. Oliver Stone then trusts me to decide overall about the historical figure. That may be one reason I like the film.] [-mrl]
HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Beautiful to look at, Zhang Yimou's most recent film from China has a cliched plot and a little too much overripe melodrama. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Zhang Yimou made his reputation with serious historical films shot with a beautiful visual sense and creative use of color. His films include RED SORGHUM and RAISE THE RED LANTERN. With the success of Ang Lee's CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, Zhang Yimou's style turned more to action and entertainment blending with art with his film HERO. That film was an international success, though slow to come to the United States, and he has made a second action film, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS. Sadly his hand is not as sure with this film. It comes off as a satire and even on occasion had the audience laughing at, not with, some of the outrageous melodramatic excesses. For example, at one point a spy gets a dagger in the back. His master tells him to leave the dagger in his back because it makes his cover seem more believable. So the character goes on with life in spite of the dagger sticking in his back. It would be hard to take such an idea seriously in a James Bond film. Here it seems even more outrageous. HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS will probably be one of Zhang Yimou's lesser films.
The film tells how in A. D. 859 the government of China is less than popular with the people. Among the groups resisting the government is a secret society calling itself the House of the Flying Daggers. The plot mostly deals with the journey of a young warrior of mysterious motives escorting the blind warrior who may be a member of the secret society. They go on a journey while both are being chased by the government's police. The plot of the corrupt government and the people fighting back is a very familiar one. The blind woman is herself a sort of female Zatoichi and her companion seems to have ninja-like skills. Who are these people and are they good or bad? Are they even on the same side?
Where HERO had a more approachable plot than previous Yimou films, the story of this film goes further to being familiar and almost cliched. That may work better in the director's homeland where people have had less access to film. It feels like Yimou is reaching for a broader audience with more entertainment and less edification. One thing that does remain the same is Yimou's color sense. Though it is not as obvious in this film as in HERO the use of color is very controlled. This HOUSE OF THE FLYING DAGGERS has some beautiful scenes of seasonal foliage.
When I watch a martial arts film I distinguish between three kinds of feats. Those actually performed as filmed. Those that would be possible with sufficient skill but are enhanced for the screen, and those that could never be possible with the current laws of physics. This film has a little too much wirework that falls into the third category. For once Zhang Yimou has given us a turn-your-mind-off sort of film.
It will be interesting to see how the international film market takes to Zhang Yimou's HOUSE OF THE FLYING DAGGERS. [-mrl]
NOTRE MUSIQUE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Jean-Luc Godard's look at the state of Mankind and its relation to war is both elliptical and hyperbolic. This is an intentionally obscure film from a past master of cinema. Moments are good, but there is less here than meets the eye. Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10
"If you understand what I'm saying I'm making myself too clear." One of the characters in NOTRE MUSIQUE says this to another and it seems to reflect Godard's personal philosophy. NOTRE MUSIC is Jean-Luc Godard's somewhat opaque meditation on war and the possibility of peace. The film is divided in three sections: Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Really it is one long section representing Purgatory with a short prolog and a shorter afterward.
The Hell Prolog is a montage of war scenes from familiar war films (and a few that just show misery). Films represented include classics like BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, ALEXANDER NEVSKY, and ZULU.
Next we go to a conference of writers in Bosnia, though the director of the film; Jean-Luc Godard also attends and gives a short discourse on his theory of film. There is some discussion of the Israel-Palestinian conflict without taking sides. A Palestinian makes the moot point that the world knows and is interested in Jews and not particularly knowledgeable or interested in Palestinians. Interest in Jews focuses the world's attention on the conflict, a fact that is both a blessing and a curse to the Palestinian cause. The dialog delivered is intellectual and profound but not realistic, as if from some sort of play of rhetoric.
Finally Godard finishes the film with his impression of heaven which aside from a subtle joke involving a well-known song is just as "angelically dull" as George Bernard Shaw said it would be.
The subtitling was poor, with subtitles hard to read and sometimes omitted. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
"Books are where things are explained to you. Life is where things are not." --Julian Barnes
THE SHADOWS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES edited by David Stuart Davies (ISBN 1-85326-744-9) is a perfect example of Barnes's quote--but then, that's true of most mystery stories. One of the major differences between science fiction and mysteries, in fact, has been described as science fiction being an "open" form (lots of questions remain at the end about what comes next, and so on), and mysteries as a "closed" form (all the loose ends are wrapped up and explained). Davies here has collected a wonderful anthology of mystery stories from roughly the same era as Doyle's "Sherlock Holmes" (well, Poe's "The Purloined Letter" is a little bit earlier). They all have that wonderful "gaslight" feel, even if some occur after the advent of electricity, yet are a varied collection, with some serious, some humorous, some written from the point of view of the detective, some from that of the perpetrator, and so on. There is Bret Harte’s "The Stolen Cigar Case", one of Ernest Bramah’s stories about blind detective Max Carrados, one of E. W. Hornung's Raffles story, a Jacques Futrelle "Thinking Machine" story, and a Sexton Blake. Alas, it seems to have been published only in Britain (though I bought my copy here). It is, however, still in print in its home country. [While reading this, I discovered that Hornung was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's brother-in-law!]
Lyndon W. Joslin's COUNT DRACULA GOES TO THE MOVIES: STOKER'S NOVEL ADAPTED, 1922-1995 (ISBN 0-786-40698-4) is a fine book from McFarland, who publish many fine books. Anyone interested in how Bram Stoker's novel (and the Count) has been portrayed in films should get this book. Joslin does a very thorough job comparing the films with Stoker's book, and with each other, and with traditional folklore. (Montague Summers is often cited.) He does cover only the films based on the book--with the addition of the other films in the Universal and Hammer series--rather than all vampire films. However, this serves to focus the comparisons, and was (I think) a wise decision on Joslin's part. Highly recommended, but be warned--you're going to want to go back and watch these films again after reading about them.
I do not normally read graphic novels, but James Lewis Sturm's THE GOLEM'S MIGHTY SWING (ISBN 1-896-59771-8) sounded as though it might have some Jewish fantasy connection. It doesn't. It is about a Jewish barn-storming baseball team in the 1920s, and the "golem" of the title is the name given to one of the players who wears a golem costume as a publicity gimmick. It probably is of interest to fans of baseball history or Jewish history, since it covers the difficulties faced by the Jewish players (and by other minorities as well). But don't read it expecting a real golem. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: Steinhardt's Law: Good science creates two challenging puzzles for each puzzle it resolves.
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