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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
01/19/07 -- Vol. 25, No. 29, Whole Number 1424
Table of Contents
Science Fiction Lists:
Another country heard from (in this case Australia):
http://tinyurl.com/awncy [which is .../lists_books_rank1.html]
Here are two short films on Youtube that may be of some interest to readers.
The first is a fantasy cartoon from Japan made in 1933, the same year as KING KONG. It is reminiscent of some of our Max Fleischer cartoons and has at least similar imagination.
In a very different vein, this is a music video with scenes from Godzilla films.
Fibonacci Gallery (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I was in the Scottsdale area and was intrigued by an art gallery called the Fibonacci Gallery. Great name and there is a lot of mathematical art they could use. However, while the art they display on the Internet has some feel for abstract mathematical forms, still I think that the name really just implies they will sell only the kind of art that was popular last year and the year before.
[It's a mathematics joke. Don't worry if you don't get it.]
Ocean of Humanity Descends on Prayag, India (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
When I went to the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland I was told that it was the largest cultural event in the world. In fact, it attracts about 2.5 million people from all over the world. That is Huge! But it falls short by many magnitudes compared to what really *is* the biggest cultural event in the world. A form of it is going on right now in Allahabad, India, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. It is called Kumbha Mela, and I was introduced to this event by a film called SHORTCUT TO NIRVANA: KUMBHA MELA. As I said in my review of the film:
"The story is told that thousands of years ago there was a truce between the gods and demons so that both could cooperate to make Amritha Manthanam, a nectar that would give both the gods and the demons immortality. But gods and demons do not cooperate for long. They fought in Heaven each wanting the urn of Amritha. And fighting over the urn it spilled four drops on the ground below. The drops fell on four places in India: Prayag, Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nashik. If humans go to these sites and bathe in the waters they can partake of some of the magic of the Amritha. So pilgrimages are made to these places, first one, then another in a cycle. The pilgrimage this time is to Allahabad (a.k.a. Prayag) at the convergence of the Ganges and the Jamuna rivers. Legend has it that the river Saraswati also converges here. It is referred to in literature and myth, but nobody has ever seen it. Even for a country with a billion people an event that attracts a minimum of 20 million people would be a major affair, yet it is one that we hear of very little in the West. For comparison the Pope's funeral brought one million people in Rome. And this convergence of people is pure confusion. Pilgrimages like the Haj of Islam are much more coordinated. Kumbh Mela is more like an immense street fair. [Note: The current Kumbh Mela is at Allahabad, which was also the site of the Kumbha Mela in the documentary.] The event occurs four times in 12 years, but not necessarily once every three years."
"Perhaps one reason that this event is so unknown in the West is that it obviously would be nearly impossible to explain to Americans in one or a million sound bytes. You have the chaos of people chanting, mystics sermonizing, and theatrical plays in the street and in theater. Fakirs lie of beds of spear points. One man wraps his genitals around a horizontal bar and invites people to balance and stand on it. It is claimed that he can pull cars with it. One man offers to put his free medicine in people's eyes to stop tearing and to cure cataracts. India is apparently not a land that is rich in skepticism. Dozens take him up on it and go away rubbing their smarting eyes. One man has held his arm up in the air for twenty years. The arm has become withered and thin. He says, 'God has given me a degree in willpower.' Elsewhere in the crowd kids type on computer keyboards. One person says that of course they have Yahoo and Hotmail. It is as if not just centuries but millennia have come crashing together. Everywhere there are sights, noise, music, and smells."
This year's Kumbh Mela is estimated to attract somewhere in the range of 40 to 70 million people. Think of what that means. The population of California is only about 35 million people. At the Kumbh Mela they have deployed 20,000 policemen to control the crowds. That sounds like a lot, but that is just one policeman for two or three thousand people. Good luck! The festival goes on for about 45 days.
The point of the pilgrimage is to bathe in the Sangam, which is the point where the three rivers (only two of which can be seen) come together. As many as forty million people will bathe there in a single day. The celebration goes on from January 3 to February 26 this year. It must be impressive. [-mrl]
PAN'S LABYRINTH (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Guillermo del Toro gives us one of the masterpieces of the fantasy film. A child's fairy tale fantasies help to shape events in a military outpost after the Spanish Civil War. This is a film that works as a fantasy film and even better as a war film. Del Toro is one of the finest fantasy filmmakers in the world and this is his finest film. Rating: high +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
Back in the 1960s Mexican science fiction, horror, and fantasy films started showing up on television and to a lesser extent in theaters. Many would feature as stars professional wrestlers such as Santo and/or homegrown monsters such as the Aztec Mummy or Nostradamus the Vampire. The main attraction of these films was probably the humorously low budgets. Occasionally the lack of money would be obviously reining back some Mexican art director who obviously had a creative visual imagination. The production design was gaudy but usually better than the script. It is easy to see these films as the progenitors of the visually exquisite films of Guillermo del Toro.
To get a feel for these films see http://www.horror-wood.com/murray.htm and http://www.horror-wood.com/meximon.htm
Del Toro grew up in Mexico with programs like "The Outer Limits" and "The Twilight Zone", and he combined those with Mexican style to create his first horror film, CRONOS. It was so beautiful it was released as to the art film circuit in this country rather than to the multiplexes. To date del Toro has released four horror films as well as two films based on graphic novels. I personally am not fond of the graphic novel films, but each horror film is a visual feast. Those films are CRONOS, MIMIC, THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE, and now PAN'S LABYRINTH. The latter is not just his masterpiece; it is perhaps one of the great fantasy films.
A story is told to us of a princess in an underground kingdom who wanted to escape to the human world but sadly who died trying. Now her spirit possesses others. Ofelia (played by Ivana Baquero) is reading this story. These fairy tales are her escape from an unpleasant real world of 1944 post-civil-war Spain. This is a very bad time for Ofelia. Her mother is having a problem pregnancy. Both are mistreated by Ofelia's stepfather, Capitán Vidal, an officer in Francisco Franco's army who rules his outpost as a sadistic tyrant. The fairy tale world and the real world seemingly could not be more different or more widely separated, but they come together at Vidal's outpost. The post is in a forest and nearby there is a great stone labyrinth. Ofelia has been haunted by a flying insect, a walking stick. (Del Toro seems to have a fondness for images of insects and for clockwork. Both appear frequently in his horror films and both are seen in this film.) And now the insect turns into a fairy-- Ofelia recognizes it from her fairy book. The fairy beckons Ofelia come outside and into the labyrinth. At the center of the labyrinth Ofelia finds a passage to a world below and in the passage is a faun. The faun (Doug Jones) tells Ofelia that she is really a princess and that if she can prove her nobility with three tasks she can take her rightful position in the world below. The story wanders back and forth between the story of Ofelia's three tasks and the tyranny of Vidal who is determined to destroy the resistance fighters hiding in the forest.
The structure of the story is much like del Toro's THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE. That story was set in the Spanish civil war. It was a ghost story inset into a story of a killer preying on a boys' school and orphanage. In that film the ghost story was the more inventive, the story of the killer more mundane. Though both stories were handled in fine style. Here, though the main story line is violent and painful to watch, it is as compelling as the fantasy story. The captain (played by Sergi López) is trying to cement the locals' loyalty to the Franco regime and at the same time to mercilessly crush the resistance fighters in the nearby forest.
One virtue that makes writer/director Guillermo del Toro a great filmmaker is that his stories seem fresh and new. Too many horror films seem to be retelling of stories that other filmmakers (or even the same filmmaker) has made. Del Toro chooses a chapter of history rarely scene in films. And he does not have some over-used theme like having the dead of the civil war or demons come for vengeance. Too many films are like that. Transfusing this period with a fairy tale is totally unexpected and he makes a very new film. He may borrow a little piece of a source such as Fritz Leiber's CONJURE WIFE, but so much else in the film is fresh and new that one does not mind. Del Toro's use of vibrant color makes the film feel surreal and his startling visual images are as creative and original as Jean Cocteau's. The faun is a beautiful artistic rendering of a faun. It is hard to believe this is supposed to be the same creature as the much less imaginatively rendered Mr. Tumnus in THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE. (The is no indication other than the American title that this is intended to be the faun Pan. The Spanish title would be THE LABYRINTH OF THE FAUN.)
I consider this one of the great fantasy films. For me it compares favorably with THE WIZARD OF OZ and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN matching their creativity. I would give it a high +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10. Warning: Just because it is a fantasy film does not mean I recommend it as a family film. This is most definitely not a film for children. Most of the horrific scenes are in the non-fantasy story line. There is painful, nightmarish carnage onscreen and implied. This film is suggestive enough of painful images that members of my audience were seen to wince and leave the room. [-mrl]
HIS MAJESTY'S DRAGON (letter of comment by Mike Glyer):
In response to Evelyn's comments on HIS MAJESTY'S DRAGON in the 01/12/07 issue of the MT VOID, Mike Glyer writes, "I have no quarrel with calling the Novik books "Hornblower with dragons" although some of the insights to the thought processes of the captain and doctor at the very very beginning of the series seemed as much a homage to the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brien." [-mg]
Ridley Scott, WATER, THE PRESTIGE, CASINO ROYALE, CHILDREN OF MEN, TRANSCENDENT, and THE WIZARD OF OZ (letter of comment by Chris Garcia):
In response to Mark's comments on Ridley Scott in the 01/12/07 issue of the MT VOID, Chris Garcia writes, "Scott's at it again! Frankly, there's not a bad version of BLADE RUNNER. I've watched the three known versions recently and they're all good, though I like the voice-over one best. It just feels the truest to noir. I'm interested to see what the full cut will have on it. I'm guessing a twenty-minute dance number." [-cg]
Mark replies, "Lots of little things always bothered me. Pris is on Deckard's shoulders and twists his head round. Then you see it twisted her around and his head never moved. That convinced me that Deckard could not be a replicant. He had to me from the Planet Krypton." [-mrl]
In response to Mark's "top ten films" list in the same issue, Chris writes, "Good top ten list for films. I saw WATER at Cinequest and wasn't blown away, but it was a well-made film of substance no question. It won a couple of festival awards, as I recall." [-cg]
Mark responds, "I had just seen EARTH two days before and found them quite powerful together. An Indian friend had a similar reaction to yours. Good but not great. I might almost agree. I did not think even the best films were that good last year. The previous year was much better." [-mrl]
Chris continues, "I thought THE PRESTIGE was fantastic. It can be watched as a parable for the wrestling wars of the 1980s. I've never read the book, but I may just do so soon . . . or buy the audiobook that's on sale for five books at Borders. I thought NOTES ON A SCANDAL was awesome. There wasn't a single moment of weak acting in the entire thing. I guess that's what happens when you put Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett together. I'd replace THE NEW WORLD with V FOR VENDETTA on my own list. I thought THE NEW WORLD was sumptuous, but it lacked a bit of the fire that I found in V [FOR VENDETTA]. And on my list of favourite films, there are at least five Bond films (GOLDFINGER, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, VIEW TO A KILL) and I think CASINO ROYALE might be my favourite of them now. It was just so awesome! The best chase scene in history and that gorgeous title sequence." [-cg]
Mark answers, "I agree. I made it my best Bond film. I have wanted to have a mean Bond for a long time rather than a silly superhero. Did you get the feeling that VIEW TO A KILL recycled a lot the plot of GOLDFINGER?" [-mrl]
In response to Mark's review of CHILDREN OF MEN in the same issue, Chris writes, "I've heard nothing but good things about CHILDREN OF MEN. It's a great story and the single eight-minute scene is supposed to be incredible. I am really hoping to get a chance to see it soon." [-cg]
Mark replies, "It did not do that much for me. I thought there were strong lapses in logic and more action than intelligence. That is just one person's take." [-mrl]
In response to Joe Karpierz's review of TRANSCENDENT in the same issue, Chris writes, "I liked Stephen Baxter's ANTI-ICE. Haven't been able to read too much of his later stuff. It just doesn't fit my speed I guess." [-cg]
Evelyn responds, "Try THE TIME SHIPS, possibly his best book." [-ecl]
And in response to Evelyn's comments on THE WIZARD OF OZ in the same issue, Chris writes, "I've only seen THE SCARECROW OF OZ (I think that's what it was called). a silent that I thought was pretty good. I've seen THE WIZ a dozen times though." [-cg]
Mark replies, "I don't think that could have been what we saw. There is yet to be a good adaptation of the Baum books (not that I am any expert on the subject)." And Evelyn adds, " THE SCARECROW OF OZ isn't either of the two I mentioned. HIS MAJESTY, THE SCARECROW OF OZ (to give it its full title, though it is also known as THE SCARECROW OF OZ), was a 1914 film. Baum himself was a producer and the writer for that one, as well as for THE MAGIC CLOAK OF OZ and THE PATCHWORK GIRL OF OZ that same year, so I would imagine they must be at least somewhat accurate to his vision of Oz. However, I don't believe any were based on the first book." [-mrl/-ecl]
THE QUEEN, Helen Mirren, and Jay Leno (letter of comment by Pete Brady):
In response to Mark's "top ten films" list in the 01/12/07 issue of the MT VOID, Pete Brady writes:
I read with interest your "top ten" list, and I regret having seen none of those films. We just don't get to the movies very often. But, we did see THE QUEEN and enjoyed it. I have always enjoyed Helen Mirren in her "Prime Suspect" series.
Jay Leno interviewed Helen last night. Jay has the extremely irritating habit of trivializing many of his guests, and he did that last night with Helen. Jay led the entire conversation (if you can call it that, it was practically a Leno monologue), and came up with stupid questions for Helen. He asked her about underwear (a reference to Brittany Spears), her cleavage in the dress she was wearing, how she felt about award ceremonies, and other such banal topics. I couldn't watch the whole interview, so turned off I was by it. Helen came across as an empty-headed bimbo. The moment she looked as if she was about to say anything intelligent, Jay interrupted her and asked another stupid question.
Jay doesn't do that with some guests. He is most respectful of Jimmy Carter, and he had John Edwards on last week and treated him well, too, except that Edwards had almost nothing to say; he spoke in bland generalities with a big smile on his face. Perhaps that's what you need to do to get elected President.
Keep up the good work. (How's that for a bland generality?)" [-ptb]
BLADE RUNNER, CHILDREN OF MEN, Temeraire Trilogy, and Racism (letter of comment by Taras Wolansky):
In response to various items in the 01/12/07 issue of the MT VOID, Taras Wolansky writes:
[In response to Mark's comments on BLADE RUNNER]
On BLADE RUNNER, I'd rather have screenwriter Hampton Fancher's version than director Ridley Scott's. In the summer of 1982, I came to love that movie because I went back a week later to see it a second time. (It was a hot weekend, and I didn't have a/c then!) The first time, I had merely seen what most people saw, a visual spectacle with a muddled story. The second time, I suddenly realized the story made sense. And as I went back to see it again and again, more of the story fell into place.
And there's the rub: the story makes sense only if Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is *not* a replicant. Scott's so-called director's cut implies he is. (Though the actors say there was no hint of this during the filming.) Which also destroys the film's main theme: it's as if we discovered Romeo is really a Capulet, so there's no conflict.
[In response to Mark's comments on CHILDREN OF MEN]
One of the things that first raised doubts in my mind about CHILDREN OF MEN was a fatuous blurb in a TV ad, calling it "the Blade Runner of the 21st century"--superimposed on a scene that looked like Yugoslavia in the Nineties.
For a second there, your table of contents made me think you put CHILDREN OF MEN in your Top Ten; but then I was relieved to find you were also under-whelmed.
When mainstream authors dabble in SF, they often make a mess of it, because they don't know what they're doing. Fortunately for them, mainstream critics also don't know what a writer of SF should be doing, so a book of this kind will often get good reviews. (One of the reasons for the movie's good reviews as well.)
Science fiction is supposed to be about how people react to change. I haven't read the book, so I don't know how much of this is P. D. James' fault, but: the movie based on her book gets this wrong in every case, both in its overall themes and in its individual scenes.
Consider that at the time the movie opens, with the youngest people at 18, the labor force is just beginning to decline. Under those circumstances, countries would import young people, not kick them out! (Something like this is really happening in Western Europe today, because birth rates are so low.) The currently middle-aged want there to be somebody to look after them in their declining years, and to keep the economy going.
There would be a huge scientific research effort in human reproduction and, failing that, in cloning. No trace of it in the film. And, certainly, a big religious revival: dismissed offhandedly in the film.
The near collapse of civilization the film depicts makes no sense, especially given the glossing over of religion as a source of conflict.
For one thing, the older people get, the less violent they become. (Much evidence from criminology.) For another, people normally fight over who will control the future of some territory; e.g., Iraq, Israel, Yugoslavia, Somalia. But, in the movie, if there is apparently not going to be a future, what are they fighting about?
That's some of the film's faulty premises. Then there are the film's many faulty scenes.
I find the consensus here is that the silliest scene is the same one you single out. Having reacted with religious awe at the sight of the first baby born in eighteen years, the soldiers then completely forget about it and return to their skirmish, without even reporting it! Obviously, soldiers would have been immediately detailed to get the mother and baby under cover, and inform higher authorities. (It occurs to me, people sufficiently steeped in anti-military propaganda may not comprehend just how absurd the scene is.)
Then there's the Keystone Kops chase in which our hero, pushing a car that won't start, is able to outrun several men who are not pushing cars. There was some discussion here that the director's use of extremely long takes made it impossible to fix things in the editing room.
Then there's when Michael Caine's Heroic Aging Hippie sacrifices his life to delay the bad terrorists: instead of using the time to get the pregnant girl as far away as possible, our hero parks up the hill, and watches the drama unfold. Fortunately, the script doesn't allow the bad guys to look up!
Too many scenes in which the girl and her baby are absurdly put in jeopardy. But I want to comment about other things in #1423.
[In response to Evelyn's comments on HIS MAJESTY'S DRAGON]
Naomi Novik's "Temeraire" trilogy is wildly entertaining, especially the second book, oddly enough. The third book suffers because it turns out to be a cliffhanger; that is, this is not really a trilogy, after all.
Novik is guilty of anachronism in at least one thing: female captains. If certain dragons will bond only with a women, then the Royal Navy would be forced to employ women pilots or sailing masters (so to speak), but commanded by a male captain, like the rest of the crew. A gradual movement toward permitting women commanders might have been an interesting theme for the series to explore.
Hornblower and Aubrey have given us the impression that a great captain must necessarily be a great technical sailor as well, but my understanding is they often hired sailing masters to do that job.
[In response to Evelyn's comments on THE WIZARD OZ]
Curiously, blatant racism seems to be more common in silent films that later on. The only time I ever saw the phrase, "that's white of you", used without irony was in a Harry Carey Western from the 1920s. Also "free, white, and 21", I think.
Then again, in Owen Wister's The Virginian, or the sequel, there's a trail cook who introduces himself as "Frenchy LeSeur -- but my family's been white for a hundred years." "White" was not a purely racial term, it seems. [-tw]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Well, watching, actually.
Most years, I review the fiction Hugo nominees in May and June, when I read them to vote on them. But since I am not going to Japan this year for the Worldcon and so am not qualified to vote for this year's Hugos, I may not read all the nominees. However, because I was a member of last year's Worldcon, I am qualified to nominate for this year's Hugos.
So I will talk about some of my recommendations for nominees--but in the Dramatic Presentation categories. That is in part because 2006 was a pretty bad year for Dramatic Presentations, at least in the Long Form. There were the usual set of comic-book hero movie, none of which did anything for me. THE LAKE HOUSE was a mediocre remake of a much better Korean film, LA MER. PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN'S CHEST should have been called PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 2A: DEAD MAN'S CHEST, since it was just the first half of a story. There was THE DESCENT, in which the non-fantastic elements were more horrific than the fantastic ones. A SCANNER DARKLY had some good qualities, but not enough. And Darren Aronofsky's THE FOUNTAIN was even less coherent than his first film, PI. (Frankly, I was hoping for the trend to go in the other direction.)
But there were some bright points, though barely enough to fill the five ballot slots. STRANGER THAN FICTION is definitely a fantasy. Unfortunately, while the first half is crammed with ideas, it loses steam about halfway through. Still, it is considerably more thought-provoking than most of what passes for fantasy these days.
THE PRESTIGE made many changes from the novel, yet the basic structure and underpinnings are kept intact, and what changes were made to the script were made to tighten up the story, or to make it more visually understandable, or to add additional twists. I loved the book and I love the movie.
PAN'S LABYRINTH is another brilliant film from Mexican director Guillermo del Toro. As with THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE, it is a fantasy story with the Spanish Civil War as the setting. In this case, de Toro skillfully combines with horrors of the war with the horrors of the fantasy world to create a visual masterpiece. I do have a bit of a problem with the ending, but perhaps if I think about it some more, it will clarify itself. I will note that the subtitles are fairly accurate--I noticed only a couple of translations I would have done differently.
My other two choices are much less known, their distribution being primarily by DVD. THE GREAT YOKAI WAR is a terrifically imaginative Japanese film, full of traditional Japanese demons and fantasy creatures. Its Japanese release was a couple of years ago, but a work is also eligible the first year it appears in English, so I believe this makes it eligible as a 2006 entry.
Until I saw PAN'S LABYRINTH, however, the clear winner--even over THE PRESTIGE--is C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA. (In part, I think this is because the maker of C.S.A. started from scratch and developed the film entirely from their own imaginations, and with next to no budget, while THE PRESTIGE started with a dynamite book and a large budget.) C.S.A. is a "mockumentary", or rather an alternate history documentary. Done in the style of a Ken Burns documentary, it tells the story of the origins and history of the Confederate States of America, from around 1860 to the present day. In addition to filmed interviews with "experts," it also has silent films, archival photographs, and archival film footage (including a speech by an exiled Lincoln in 1905)--all created just for this film. It also used existing photographs, footage, etc., but puts them in a new context. (For example, the painting of the surrender at Appomattox is described as Grant surrendering to Lee.) Interspersed are commercials for products, services, television shows, and so forth, all true to the alternate history described. I noted only one possible mistake: assuming one says that Jefferson Davis's term started in 1861, there would not have been a Presidential election in the CSA in 1880, because the Preidential term specified in the CSA Constitution was six years. However, it is not clear whether that clause was intended to be implemented from the beginning or only after the "War of Northern Aggression" was over.
C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA, PAN'S LABYRINTH, and THE PRESTIGE are the clear leaders in the Long Form category to me. But I do not expect to see C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA (or THE GREAT YOKAI WAR, or STRANGER THAN FICTION) on the ballot.
For short form, I was quite taken with "Skull Island: A Natural History" (on the SciFi Channel), but I realize that the chances of something like this beating out episodes from all the various science fiction, horror, and fantasy shows are pretty slim. On the other hand, it is quite possible that if people do not agree on *which* episodes of a specific show to nominate, none will get enough nominations to make the ballot. And THREE ... EXTREMES is a Korean horror anthology film consisting of "Dumplings", "Cut", and "Box". (Released in Korea in 2004, the segments are eligible for the year of their first English translation as well. The "New York Times" claims it had a 2005 release, but that seems to have been only to film festivals.) Because the segments are really three stand-alone films merely packaged together for distribution purposes, I would claim they are actually three candidates in the "Short Form" category rather than a single "Long Form" candidate. There are a lot of good films coming out of Korea, China, and other East Asian countries which do not seem to get as much attention as those coming from Japan. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain, and most fools do. -- Benjamin Franklin
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