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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
01/13/06 -- Vol. 24, No. 29, Whole Number 1317
Table of Contents
The Issue (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
There has been discussion as to whether it is important to rebuild New Orleans just where it was before. This is planned even if the location is on land that is so low that it becomes a basin of water when a storm comes. But I think there is something in the American spirit to rebuild what has been lost. If there is any change in location, if it is not built in that basin, that would be veyr bad. The hurricanes must not be allowed to believe they have won. [-mrl]
Internet and Real Estate (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
In the 12/02/05 issue of the MT VOID, I suggested that entrepreneurs like Google will be getting into the real estate business, because realty is a business that makes a lot of money and currently lives off of barriers to communications. In fact it would appear that some people are already getting into that market as is pointed out by an alert reader (well, Evelyn) some people are already getting into this business. See http://tinyurl.com/dh82r. These people are already getting into aiding the for-sale-by-owner market in realty. It is not Google (yet?) but it is more or less what I predicted. [-mrl]
My Top Ten Films of 2005 (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
This was an unusually good year for films. I rate films on a scale of -4 to +4 and almost every year there are one or two films good enough to get a +3. Maybe three more get a low +3. About half will be in the +2 range. This year, any film that was not good enough to be in the +3 range was an automatic "also ran." For whatever reason, this year had a bumper crop of really solid films. These were the ten I thought were the best.
1) THE CONSTANT GARDENER
This is a love story, an education about the chicanery of the drug industry's testing in the Third World, and above all a good political thriller. And it works as all three. Ralph Fiennes plays a minor British government functionary who marries a leftist activist (Rachel Weisz). When she is murdered he realizes he did not know her very well. This film packs a wallop right up to the final scene.
The final days of the leaders of the Third Reich have been portrayed in several dramatic films, but never so well. Much of the same territory was covered in the documentary HITLER'S SECRETARY. This account, without apologizing for the man, puts a human face on the bunker in those last days. It is a particularly good war film. This film could have been depressing but at least the adults do not deserve much sympathy.
3) GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK
Cinema finally gives a long overdue tribute to a great journalist Edward R. Morrow. David Strathairn plays Morrow and George Clooney, who wrote and directed, plays Fred W. Friendly. This docu-drama tells of how Morrow risked his career to face off against Red Scare congressman Joseph McCarthy. This is a short but potent film account of their struggle. The only obvious flaws are the interruptions for jazz songs, which are only superficially relevant to the compelling storyline.
4) BEE SEASON
A family's dysfunction and its members' inability to connect with each other on an emotional level are the subjects of this strange drama. At the same time it is a film studded with ideas. Based on a best selling book it is a film about psychological problems, about religious mysticism, and about intellect in various forms. Scott McGehee's and David Siegel's adaptation of the novel by Myla Goldberg has a sort of austere beauty of ideas.
5) EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED
This is a film that starts dryly and slowly, then moves into comedy, and then serious drama. An American Jew travels to Ukraine to find information about lost members of his family. Forgotten secrets of past are unearthed. The story elicits a wide range of emotions. It is a film with some laughter and some very affecting moments. It is a flawed film, but parts are really excellent.
6) MRS HENDERSON PRESENTS
Dame Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins shine in this 1930s and 1940s story of a widow who turns a cinema into a theater for live entertainment, founding an institution that becomes a symbol of the British spirit of resistance during the Blitz. This film is recommended to anyone not offended by some tasteful nudity on the screen. This is a warm comedy-drama--a confection of a film loosely based on the true story of the famous Windmill Theater in London.
Films about race relations and bigotry go back at least to D. W. Griffith's INTOLERANCE (1916) and his BROKEN BLOSSOMS (1919), both made in part to atone for his racist bad taste in BIRTH OF A NATION (1915). One would think that in 90 years everything that could be said on the subject has already been said. Not so. Several interlocking stories show--even overstates--the undercurrent of private bigotry in our country. Then the stories take unpredicted turns and the film finds something positive to say about the human condition.
8) KING KONG (2005)
If you love a film you don't want to see it remade. I love KING KONG (1933) and for years after seeing the terrible 1976 remake I hoped nobody would ever try again. Peter Jackson showed how to remake a great film. Jackson's film fills out the characters of Ann Darrow and Carl Denham. I still prefer the original but for many of the aspects this is a better adventure film. It certainly has enough visual spectacle for most filmgoers. And it manages to make a tender statement in the relationship between Darrow and Kong. It also has action without becoming a large video game.
9) THE GREAT WATER
In Macedonia, Yugoslavia, after WWII a boy whose parents opposed the Communists is sent to a camp/school intended to indoctrinate him in the new Socialist ideology. This is another film of unexpected turns and irony. THE GREAT WATER tells a great deal about totalitarianism and human nature. It is a timeless story about power. At times, however, this is a painful film to watch. In the last fifteen minutes it turns out to be a complex, ironic, and ultimately very powerful story.
A film portrait of Truman Capote that in its own way is both admiring and damning. Capote investigates the murders that he was to chronicle in his docu-novel IN COLD BLOOD. To make the story better he also manipulates events and people. He can be incisive, ironically charismatic, and treacherous. Philip Seymour Hoffman has his best role to date--perhaps the best he can ever hope to get.
Of special note: These two films came very close to being among the top ten. Unfortunately only ten films can be there. DEAR FRANKIE is a story about a boy who has never met his father, but keeps up a correspondence with him thinking he is at sea. In fact, his real father is neither sea nor very fatherly. It is his mother who had been writing back to Frankie. The day comes when Frankie needs to see a father in the flesh and his mother hires a stranger to pretend to be Frankie's father.
LORD OF WAR, written and directed by the very fine Andrew Niccol is along the lines of THE CONSTANT GARDNER in that it is really an expose about an amoral industry, in this case arms dealing. The story is good, but not quite as powerful as THE CONSTANT GARDNER is.
My taste seems to be going toward art house films. Only two films here played in the "neighborhood" theaters. I think all the rest are what we call "art house" films. The independent studios are making the best films. [-mrl]
SPIN by Robert Charles Wilson (copyright 2005, TOR, ISBN 0-765-3098-6, 364pp) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
In my review for BLIND LAKE, Wilson's previous novel, I wrote the following:
While the best SF deals with the effects of technology and science on its characters, it can fall short if it doesn't do enough with that science and technology.
Well, by golly, Wilson did enough this time. Long time readers of my feeble attempts at book reviews will recall that I've been disappointed with Wilson's previous two efforts, the aforementioned BLIND LAKE as well as the CHRONOLITHS.
Not this time.
Wilson has taken some pretty Cosmic Stuff (see my review for DARWINIA) and let us in on the affect it has not only on our three main characters, but humanity in general. Then, he lets us in on the Cosmic Stuff, tells us about it, makes it fit with the story. This is his best novel since DARWINIA.
The story starts off with three friends, Jason and Diane Lawton, and Tyler Dupree. The Lawtons are the children of E. D. and Carol Lawton. E. D. is a rich and powerful businessman with contacts in high places. The Lawtons live in a large house on an estate in the eastern part of the country. Tyler is the son of the widowed Belinda Dupree, whose late husband was a dear friend of E. D. The Duprees live in a little house on the same estate, with Belinda being the housekeeper for the Lawtons. One October evening, while escaping a party in the Lawton house (the Big House, as it were), the friends look up and discover that the stars have gone out. The sky is completely black and dark. In the coming hours, satellites fall to earth, looking older than they should. The sun is nothing more than a heat source. The moon is invisible, but the tidal effects of the moon are still there. It is eventually discovered that the stars, sun, and moon are still there--they are behind an artificial barrier, placed there by alien artifacts. To top it all off, time outside the barrier is moving significantly faster than planetside. So fast, in fact, that the earth has roughly fifty years of existence left before the sun expands and envelopes the planet.
Fast forward. Jason is now a young scientist, bent on discovering just what the barrier is all about, and why it is about, so to speak; Diane has joined one of the many religious cults that have sprung up around the event now known as the Spin; and Tyler has become a respected physician. And, as with any Wilson novel, their stories are intertwined. Jason, helped by his father, has become the head of Perihelion, an organization that studies the Spin and tries to learn more about it, as well as helping humanity deal with it. Through Jason and Perihelion, Mars is terraformed almost overnight, after which we send colonists. Later, one comes back, with some interesting stories and theories about just what is going on Out There. He brings technology, medicine, and a plan to find out what is really going on. It is that plan that leads to the final revelation about the Hypotheticals, the entities that placed the barrier around earth.
As usual, Wilson is masterful in his characterization. He is not so overly detailed so as to bore the reader to tears, but at the same time he gives us just enough of what we need to make the story and characters completely believable. His insights as to how this kind of occurrence would affect those of us here on Earth (and Mars as well) are delightful, probing, and believable. And the revelation about the nature of the Spin, the barrier, the Hypotheticals, and our place in the universe, is truly wonderous and awe inspiring. Great stuff.
Next, I continue with my "Dune" reviews by presenting CHILDREN OF DUNE. [-jak]
Capsule Film Reviews (film reviews by Mark R. Leeper):
Most critics agree that this has been a very good year for cinema. I have seen several very fine films and those are the ones I have chosen to write about. Other films I have seen deserve some mention, though I will not write full reviews. Since four of these films are warm and endearing, or at least want to be, I will start with a film that is cold.
I have not really fully liked any Woody Allen film since his CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS. Since that film Allen has been adventuresome but not really successful. In CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS I thought the Martin Landau sub-story in that film was powerful and thoughtful. My feeling on seeing MATCH POINT was that Allen was really just telling the Landau story again, but with younger people. The story has been expanded and there is more background to the story. It tells how the main character (here he is Jonathan Rhys-Meyers playing Chris Wilton) gets into the same sort of situation that the Landau faced in the earlier film. Now Allen certainly takes his time to expand on the story and develop the characters more. His style is slow and operatic, appropriately enough to his musical motif, but I am not sure he used the extra time well. Ironically, the only really likeable character is played by perennial film villain Brian Cox, the screen's first Hannibal Lector. Allen probably regretted not doing more with the story in CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS and here he does much more with it, but the previous telling was better. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
AN UNFINISHED LIFE
This is a film about forgiveness. We have people who can and cannot forgive. Sometimes it is others they cannot forgive, sometimes it is they themselves. Almost every character has lost something and almost every character has a reason to feel guilty. Jennifer Lopez plays an abused wife who takes her daughter and reluctantly goes to stay with her father-in-law, a rancher. Robert Redford plays the grizzled father-in-law who blames Lopez for his son's death. He lives there with a crippled ranch hand maimed by a bear. Morgan Freeman plays a ranch hand who, as is all too usual for Freeman roles, is wiser than everybody else put together. Everyone knows where the plot and its relationships are going, but we need a few warm and soft-focussed films. This is not a great film, but it is a nice one with several touching moments. Robert Redford gives what is an unusual performance for him, and quite a good one. Morgan Freeman is, well . . . Morgan Freeman. Lasse Hallström directs. He makes films you can take your mother to. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
THE FAMILY STONE
This is almost becoming a subgenre, the stranger comes to visit a friend's, fiancée's, fiancé's, or relation's family and discovers that they are strange people. They don't know if they can accept the stranger and the stranger does not know if he or she can accept them. Think MEET THE PARENTS but a little more laid back. We know where the film is going and family and stranger will end up loving each other, but there is a little rockiness to get over first. Sarah Jessica Parker played a convincing snoot who has come for Christmas but is not sure she likes her boyfriend's family and they give and each other a hard time. Hanging over it all is the sad knowledge that for an important family member this will be the last Christmas. Thomas Bezucha who wrote and directed wanted it to build up to a romantic and madcap third act, perhaps a bit like MOONSTRUCK, but somehow it seems forced. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
THE THING ABOUT MY FOLKS
I had to see this film. I owed it to director by Raymond De Felitta whose last film, TWO FAMILY HOUSE, is one I repeatedly share with others. I was hoping to find the same quality in this film written by and starring Paul Reiser. Reiser affectionately based the film on his relationship with his own weird father. Peter Falk who is a wonderful actor plays the father. Here, however, the story just fails to ignite. The father is weird but not really endearing enough. Reiser is writing about a father whom he loves (and is frustrated by) so much that he cannot imagine the viewer will not feel the same way. I didn't. The problem that the Reiser character's parents are having is too predictably resolved. The film is a little saccharine and never as moving as Reiser expected. I know Reiser loves his father, but I didn't need to pay to be told it. Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10
IN HER SHOES
Cameron Diaz plays Maggie Feller who lives for the moment, every moment. Her sister Rose (Toni Collette) is more serious and is finding she hates Maggie. Indeed there is much not to like about Maggie in the first third of this film. When Maggie is thrown out of his stepmother's house she moves in with her sister. Once she befouls that nest, she moves south to prey on a grandmother whom she only recently realized existed. The grandmother (Shirley MacLaine) lives in a nice retirement community, not unlike the one in COCOON. Maggie and her grandmother hit it off like fudge and mustard, but grandma says she will bankroll Maggie's next fling if Maggie will earn an equal amount of money caring for the elderly in the community. You know where this is going, but it is done well. Curtis Hanson who directed L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and WONDER BOYS manages to make this one work. The great actor Norman Lloyd has a brief but memorable role. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10 [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I discovered THE COMIC STORIES by Anton Chekhov (translated by Harvey Pitcher, ISBN 1-56663-242-0) from listening to "Cutting a Dash", a BBC show based on Lynne Truss's writings about punctuation. (She later wrote a book on the subject, EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES, which I reviewed in the 12/03/04 issue of the MT VOID.) In her discussion of the exclamation mark on the show, Truss quotes from the Chekhov story "The Exclamation Mark". When I went to find this story, I discovered that the various web sites that claim to have all of Chekhov's stories did not have this one, and indeed, this collection is this story's first appearance in English. These stories are not comic in the same way that P. G. Wodehouse or Damon Runyon or even Nikolai Gogol is comic, but they are amusing. My problem is that because I borrowed this from a distant library, I have to read the thirty stories too close together (even with a three-week loan period). Reading too many comic stories too close together is like eating a pound of chocolate at one sitting. So if you have a taste for Chekhov's humor, this book might be better purchased than borrowed.
BAD PRESS by Laura Ward (ISBN 0-7641-5539-3) is a collection of quotes from bad reviews--that is, reviews that are negative about their subjects, not reviews that are badly written. It is similar to Bill Henderson's ROTTEN REVIEWS and Andre Bernard's ROTTEN REJECTIONS, though much longer, and includes not only books, but also media, music, and food and drink. (However, art is not covered. Maybe Ward decided that there are far too many negative reviews of art--especially modern art--to choose just a few.) I have come to two conclusions.
The first conclusion is that people wrote much better negative reviews in the past. Compare, for example, one review from early last century to one late last century. Katherine Mansfield said in 1917, "E. M. Forester never gets any further than warming the teapot. He's a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain't going to be no tea." Now compare that with this quip by Anne K. Mellor from 1990: "[FRANKENSTEIN] is a book about what happens when a man tries to have a baby without a woman." (I realize that one could claim I had selected these quotes specifically to prove my point, but I really do find the vast majority of the older entries to be far better constructed and more eloquent than the newer ones.)
My second conclusion is that Dorothy Parker is the master (mistress?) of this form. Indeed, of all of the quotations in this book, the only ones familiar to most people will be hers, Oscar Wilde's, and Mark Twain's. (Actually, for Twain, Ward includes Twain's own introduction to THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, which could hardly be considered a bad review.) I think there was a desire to make a longer book with more reviews, some of them reviews of works with which the average modern reader might be familiar. He has reviews of recent movies rather than older books, for example. As a result the overall quality of the reviews is lower than it might otherwise have been. But there are still enough good bad reviews to make it worthwhile.
On the other hand, the book does omit several of my favorites. It does not include Newton Minow's 1961 comment on television in general: "But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit and loss sheet or rating book to distract you-- and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland."
Nor does it quote Rod Serling on television: "It is difficult to produce a television documentary that is both incisive and probing when every twelve minutes one is interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits singing about toilet paper."
(Since the book does include David Frost's statement, "Television is an invention that permits you the be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn't have in your home," Ward seems to have decided to include reviews of an entire medium, not just individual works.)
And it omits that most famous review of a review by Max Reger: "I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review in front of me. Soon it will be behind me." (This insult is so famous that it has been used by others and attributed to still more, but I think Reger gets the credit for originating it.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Books give not wisdome where none was before, But where some is, there reading makes it more. -- Sir John Harington
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