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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
08/24/07 -- Vol. 26, No. 8, Whole Number 1455
Table of Contents
High Mountain Exchange (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
We are watching David Attenborough's documenary "Planet Earth". They had an exchange like this as the tried to film at a distance:
"That's snow leopard."
"That's snow leopard?"
"That's snow leopard!"
"That snow leopard?"
"That snow leopard."
"That's no leopard."
Recommended for All Audiences (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
My local Blockbuster used to have a shelf that said, "If you don't like this film, you will get a refund." I wish I could remember what films they had on that shelf. The only one that sticks out in my mind is OCTOBER SKY.
People, many of whom I do not know very well, frequently find out that I like and review films. They will ask me, what is good? What movies do I recommend? This makes two assumptions. One is that I have seen a lot of current films and the other is that if I think a film is good they might like it.
First of all, I do not see a lot of current films. I probably should, but I don't. I know many people who are more up on current films than I am. I write film reviews because I like writing about film. I like discussing film. I know several people who see a lot more films--at least a lot more current films--than I do. This dovetails nicely with my recent article in which I talked about the declining theater experience. If I were to keep up with current films I would have to go to the theater a lot and would have to spend what is getting to be an absurd admission price for what is getting to be a less and less enjoyable experience. I would also have to see a lot of films that I really am not all that anxious to see. For example, after really not liking SPIDER-MAN 2 I would have to spend at least two or three dollars more than I did then to see SPIDER-MAN 3. I suspect I will eventually rent the film from Netflix and see it on my small screen 34-inch, low-definition screen. That already is a nicer picture than I got before DVDs and I am satisfied. And seeing SPIDER-MAN 3 that way will be sufficient for me.
Also there is the problematical question about what is a good film. I would probably claim that the best film I have seen this year is AWAY FROM HER. What is that about? It is about how a husband and wife's relationship is altered when the wife is afflicted with Alzheimer's Disease. I recommended it to a friend who is a science fiction fan, and I could see in his expression that he was reacting in much the same way as if I was recommending a dish of horse kidneys. He is a science fiction fan and his idea of a good film is SPIDER-MAN 3. Never mind that AWAY FROM HER explores how the personality works, how it is dependent on memory, and how it reacts to the loss of memory. That is a very science fictional subject, or could be. If the memory loss was not caused by a common disease, but was caused by something like climate change it could be the same sort of story examining the same sort of issues and could be a very good piece of science fiction.
In addition, I have to admit that there are very good films delving into psychology that give me the dish-of-horse-kidneys reaction. I am told that the film WILD STRAWBERRIES by the recently deceased Ingmar Bergman is a great film. It really does nothing at all for me. The only Bergman film I can claim to actually like--and I am not sure if "like" is the proper word--is THE SEVENTH SEAL. And that film I like more for what it has in common with horror films. WILD STRAWBERRIES may be a good film, but I do not consider it recommendable and I would not like to have it recommended to me. And what I say about Bergman goes double for Michelangelo Antonioni, also recently deceased.
So without knowing a person's taste it is very hard to recommend a film. But I mentioned recently that there was a set of films that I would go ahead and recommend to Joe Average. This is not really the same thing as saying these film will be universally liked, but I guess that I would recommend these films to nearly anybody and would expect a reasonably good chance that the films will be enjoyed.
So with more preamble than content here is my current list:
THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING OCTOBER SKY MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS TWO FAMILY HOUSE 12 ANGRY MEN
Only slightly more dodgy would be:
THE GODFATHER LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
I have known people who were not wild about THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, TWO FAMILY HOUSE, and THE GODFATHER, but in each case it was more than set off by other people who were quite enthusiastic.
My guess is that of these films all but two will be familiar to most film fans. The least familiar ones might be MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS and TWO FAMILY HOUSE.
MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS is a fictionalized true story of a wealthy widow who buys herself a London theater and makes it into a musical review venue featuring nude female tableaux. The theater balanced its notoriety with the pride that during all of World War II with its air raids on London, it never closed and after much resistance it became something of a proud institution. The film stars Dame Judy Dench and Bob Hoskins. And if that doesn't sell it let me add that it is probably the best film either actor has made.
I have my own campaign to get people to see the almost unknown TWO FAMILY HOUSE. Kelly Macdonald is usually a good actress, but the film is features a knock-out performance by Michael Rispoli as a man with a long list of failures. He buys a house intent on turning it into a bar and finds he has squatters living in the house. The film follows a predictable route, but the acting is terrific and really tears at your heart. Well my heart anyway.
I would be interested to know what films other people would add. I want not what people think are good films, but what films would they recommend to the unseen man they never met who is standing behind the curtain. [-mrl]
THE INVASION (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This is a film that is pretty good until it turns bad. The fourth adaptation of THE BODY SNATCHERS has some thoughtful and intelligent additions to the telling. Sadly, in the last twenty minutes the film goes terribly sour as it metamorphoses into another mindless action film with a much too Hollywood ending. Nichole Kidman stars as the psychiatrist whose patients start reporting that the people around them are turning strange. And they are right. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
THE INVASION is an adaptation of Jack Finney's 1955 novel THE BODY SNATCHERS. Aliens in the form of seedpods can replicate humans almost precisely, but they cannot mimic emotions. Once they replicate a human he mysteriously disappears and the alien takes his place as a sort of changeling.
It is a little hard to know what to say about the fourth time around on adapting THE BODY SNATCHERS to film. This is one of the rare films I went into with low expectations and came out with mixed opinions. While this could be considered the third remake of the 1956 version of the film, it is really the first remake of the 1978 version. When Philip Kaufman directed that film he had a really fresh take on Don Siegel's 1956 version, THE INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. First let me say that the 1956 version was itself a fresh take on the horror genre. Throughout the first half of the 20th century most film monsters were the victims of runaway emotions. The Wolf Man did not want the moon to rise because it would free he urges to kill. The Frankenstein monster vented his rage on a world that was unfair and cruel to him. Hyde was man without inhibitions. Only the monsters that were agents of evil controllers had no emotions of their own. Cesare, Kharis, and zombies were pretty much automata. But people who controlled them and were in turn controlled by their passions were the source of the evil.
Jack Finney's novel THE BODY SNATCHERS (once intended to be titled SLEEP NO MORE) suggested that the threat from outer space was going to bleach out our emotions and leave us like machines. The basic idea was that if you fall asleep you would lose everything that makes you human, a scary one. The 1956 film adaptation told that story very well. But Philip Kaufman understood better perhaps how the background of scenes and almost subsonic sounds on the soundtrack could be brought into play and really enhance the mood of claustrophobia and paranoia. His 1978 version was one of the rare examples of a remake of a good film that is arguably even better. Now THE INVASION certainly has some of the Siegel version's plot, but it has a lot more of the feel of Kaufman's paranoiac approach. And as with the Kaufman version, much of what is interesting or terrifying happens subtly in the background.
Unfortunately, the large store of intelligence that is in this film is itself bleached out in the final twenty minutes. There the film turns into a mindless action romp with violence and crashing cars and an ending that will have fans of the original story cringing. The last twenty minutes are the worst twenty minutes of any of the four film versions. But before that twenty minutes there appears to have been some interesting thinking about the plot. The film dispenses with the novel's whole "second body" device, which was nothing but a distraction raising more questions than it answered. One character's observation that "civilization seems to crumble just when it is needed most" is painfully accurate and deserves to be remembered. I have always thought it would be interesting to redo the story form the point of view that the metamorphosis is actually a blessing. That is not how the idea is handled here, but there is a wistful nod to the fact that in some ways the world would be better off with the change. Those who have changed seem to be violent only to protect their new ideology. Of course that may be an old story in human history.
The 1978 version had a small part for Kevin McCarthy, the star of the 1956 version. This version has a somewhat larger role for Veronica Cartwright, who played a major character in 1978. Nicole Kidman is a better actress than her roles generally demand. But she is getting a little old to play the attractive blond lead and hopefully some better character roles will soon come her way. Jeremy Northam is good as a straight actor, but a little over the top when he has to play it strange (as he did in the under-appreciated film CYPHER). We see him here as vacant and spacey as a metamorphosed character, and like the other spore-people he plays the role too completely flat. There would be no question in anybody's minds that this guy has gone bizarre in some way. That is just not how the role should be played. If all the possessed acted so weirdly, it would tip the aliens' hand. This performance is right out of INVADERS FROM MARS. Daniel Craig is a good actor and had some very good roles earlier in his career. He now has box-office appeal for people who want to see this James Bond on the screen again. But I kept waiting for him to do something interesting in THE INVASION and it never happens. With his fame as Bond he should be in more interesting roles, not less. One of the genuine pleasures of the film is seeing characters actors who feel like old friends. Here we have Josef Sommer and also Roger Rees who for me will forever be Nicholas Nickleby.
This is openly rumored to have been in large part reshot to add more action. I suspect the film would have been much better left alone. I rate THE INVASION +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0427392/
FLATLAND: THE MOVIE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: This is a film about life in a world of two dimensions and the discovery of a higher dimension. The second adaptation this year of Edwin Abbott's FLATLAND is visually impressive, but somewhat simplifies the satirical concepts of the original story and shortens it as well. Mathematical concepts are clearly and plainly explained. The educational edition includes the text of the book and an interview with a professor of mathematics discussing the concepts. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
It is a feast or a famine. The first film adaptation of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS was in 1953. It took 52 years for another film adaptation to come along, and then there were three in one year. It went much the same way with FLATLAND, with two film adaptations being released this year. As a fan of both mathematics and science fiction one of my favorite books has been Edwin Abbott Abbott's FLATLAND: A ROMANCE OF MANY DIMENSIONS, which has been adapted into both FLATLAND: THE FILM and FLATLAND: THE MOVIE. (Technically there were two other minor film versions prior to this year, but I have never run into them and would have liked to see them.) A few months ago I reviewed Ladd Ehlinger Jr.'s adaptation, known as FLATLAND or FLATLAND: THE FILM. Now a second and fairly different version has been released directed by Jeffrey Travis. From still shots you might almost think they were the same movies (and when one web site published my review of FLATLAND: THE FILM they used a still from FLATLAND: THE MOVIE). Now I am pleased to have had the opportunity to see both films.
A. Square, who is, well, a square lives in a two-dimensional world whose inhabitants are all polygons. The book cleverly details how they live and a little of the politics, satirizing English politics of the time. The main character A. Square then discovers that there are one-dimensional and even zero- dimensional worlds. As a two-dimensional person he can understand one and two-dimensional worlds. But then a sphere visits him from a third spatial dimension. To him it is mind- boggling that a three-dimensional world could even exist. He visits the world and brings back word of its existence.
FLATLAND: THE MOVIE is aimed much more at a teenage audience, possibly to be used in mathematics classes, while FLATLAND: THE FILM is more a family film. FLATLAND: THE MOVIE is shorter, about 34 minutes long, while FLATLAND: THE FILM is actually a short feature length at 95 minutes. (Just to help keep it straight MOVIE is the shorter version and FILM is the longer version I reviewed previously.) The shorter film has familiar actors voicing roles with Martin Sheen and his brother Joe Estevez, voicing A. Square and his brother. Spherius, the sphere from another universe, is voiced by Michael York. Film, Broadway, and TV veteran Kristen Bell pays A. Square's foster daughter Hex.
Immediately the purist fans of the book will ask if the daughter's name is Hex, doesn't that imply she is a hexagon? (Yes.) In the book females of Flatland were not really polygons but just very, very narrow triangles. If she is a hexagon does that mean that women in this versions are more than narrow triangles? (Yes, again.) Some liberties have indeed been taken with the Abbott text. Women are full polygons and do not have shrill voices. FLATLAND: THE FILM was more accurate to the book. Both versions deviate from the original story, though FLATLAND: THE MOVIE takes greater liberties and also somewhat simplifies the story to fit in its shorter runtime. On the other hand and perhaps more importantly the script takes pains to describe the mathematics in simple terms. That makes this version more appropriate for classroom presentation. The intent of this version is clearly to make the film mathematically informative while the other version is more an entertainment with political satire updated from Abbott's time.
The script co-authored by Seth Caplan, Dano Johnson, and director Jeffrey Travis has several witty touches. The politics of the satire may be better geared to Galileo's time than our own with A. Square persecuted for his new advanced knowledge. Visually also, FLATLAND: THE MOVIE takes a few liberties with the book. Polygons get colors and are decorated in fractal patterns, not explained. In the book, colors were specifically forbidden to polygons, though there are some advocates of "chromatism." This film has a great deal of complex dimensional animation in the three-dimensional world. There are, in fact, a lot of nice mathematical touches that are not explained at all or are explained by a mathematician specializing in geometry, Professor Thomas Banchoff of Brown University, in the interviews of the educational edition.
The Educational Edition of the DVD comes complete with interviews with the major actors and with Dr. Banchoff. It also includes the complete text of Abbott's book. I was a weird kid in school, loving both science fiction and mathematics, and I would have loved seeing this film then. It still is enjoyable. This version seems more pointedly educational than the FLATLAND: THE FILM, but is perhaps less of an entertainment experience. I believe that the two are not really competitive with each other since they are aimed at different audiences. And I greatly enjoyed both films. FLATLAND: THE MOVIE I rate a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0814106/combined
The novel on-line (illustrated) is at http://www.geom.uiuc.edu/~banchoff/Flatland/ or plain text at http://tinyurl.com/245roq. My review of FLATLAND: THE FILM is at http://www.geocities.com/markleeper/flatland.htm. [-mrl]
ZEBRAMAN (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
[Note: this review has run previously, but the film is finally getting a release in this country. -mrl)]
CAPSULE: An elementary school teacher sews for himself a suit of a 1960s superhero and through a weird chain of events accidentally elects himself to become that superhero. This is a dark and yet playful look at the superhero genre. ZEBRAMAN is a kick. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
The year is 2010. Shinichi (played by Sho Aikawa) is a second- rate third-grade teacher who gets no respect from his family and little from his students. It is not a pleasant life and he escapes it with his hobby, a sort of media fandom. It seems that in 1978 there was a TV superhero named Zebraman on a show that was cancelled after only seven episodes. But unlike most of the rest of the world, the young Shinichi became fascinated by the hero. The show was set in 2010 so Shinichi is particularly fascinated this particular year. He sews himself a makeshift Zebraman costume. All this is intended to be just a little harmless escapism allowing him to dress up like a superhero. But he did not know that the stories of Zebraman and his strange alien enemies were actually prophecy and that by making his Zebraman suit he elected himself the fulfillment of those prophecies. Now he must be the super-hero of his fantasies or let the Earth fall to cute little green aliens bent on conquering our green world. In a way the plot is reminiscent of GALAXY QUEST. Somehow his story ties in with a series of crimes perpetrated by an evil man in a crab mask. The two connect with a secret government investigation into little green alien men who are just head, arms and legs and who can melt into a sea of protoplasm. What can it all mean? In some ways the film's surreal style evokes a sort of BUCKAROO BANZAI feel.
This is a film that takes a psychologically dark yet whimsical (and sometimes very funny) aim at Japanese superhero films and comics with a well-placed zebra hind-kick. The world it is set in straddles the gap between a realistic one and the world of Japanese superhero TV, a gap similar but much bigger than the one our Spider Man bridges. Watch for some little film references for films like THE RING.
Takashi Miike directs from a screenplay by Kankuro Kudo. Miike has directed a multitude of films in many styles, but most recently bizarre and tongue-in-cheek films that are popular in Japan. Until now his best know film from the United States has probably been the really bizarre satire THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS though several of his (yakuza) crime films are also popular, including ICHI THE KILLER. Most of his films seem to go in for graphic violence. Here the violence is more comical and never graphic enough to be more disturbing than what is in a Roadrunner cartoon. Toward the end of the film the words stop coming and the story is told mostly by images. My recommendation is not to expect too much logic. Just take the ride for the fun of it.
After over two years, ZEBRAMAN has finally gotten a release in the United States. It is a lot of fun and deserves to be seen. I rate it a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. [-mrl]
INTO THE UNKNOWN: THE FANTASTIC LIFE OF NIGEL KNEALE by Andy Murray (Critical Vision/Headpress, 1-900486-50-4, $19.95) (book review by Mark R. Leeper):
I have something of a reputation in science fiction fandom for my special respect for two writers. They are Richard Matheson and Nigel Kneale. Matheson has gotten at least a moderate amount of attention, though I think he is still underrated. Nigel Kneale (who died October 29, 2006) has never gotten much attention in the United States. In fact, when I was reading this biography of Kneale I mentioned it to a film critic, science fiction fan, and friend that I was reading it, and he had to look up the name Nigel Kneale to find out who he was. Such is not the case in Britain where Kneale has been and perhaps still is a household name. If I were asked what is my single favorite film of all time, I would say and have said without hesitation QUATERMASS AND THE PIT written by Nigel Kneale, based upon a television play by Nigel Kneale. This was a science fiction film that was so good and so unknown in the United States, even under the horrible American title FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH that for years I made it almost a crusade to tell people to look for this film. The crusade ended when I attended a science fiction convention panel on obscure science fiction films. When I mentioned QUATERMASS AND THE PIT the audience applauded. Okay, so the film is coming to be known here.
Bernard Quatermass is probably Kneale's best-known creation. The beleaguered British rocket scientist was the hero of four television plays that became a broadcast phenomenon in Britain. He influenced British science fiction ever after, as documented by Andy Murray in his biography of Kneale. Quatermass himself is something of a British archetype. He just keeps soldiering on getting no recognition or thanks from his superiors because he knows the science is important. It makes what the viewer knows are marvelous achievements for Britain and in each story it saves the Earth from some devious attack by aliens. (Admittedly one of those attacks he inadvertently triggered himself.) If anything he is unrealistically unsung as a hero in Kneale's fictional Britain.
Kneale was a Manxman who wrote for British television and film. He wrote in multiple genres but most notably in science fiction, horror, and fantasy. And Kneale was at his best when what he was writing was a mixture of all three, as indeed was QUATERMASS AND THE PIT. It is hard to overstate Kneale's importance to British science fiction, though biographer Andy Murray actually comes close.
Murray's biography seems to show evidence of extensive interviews with Kneale. This is a very detailed account of Kneale's career, very complete on every small project. Liking Kneale, I am very interested when I see his name in credits of a film or on a title page of a book, so I know this book is complete--even to a minor BBC radio program that was a retrospective of the Quatermass stories.
Murray also covers Kneale's influence on other science fiction. An obvious example is "Doctor Who", a program that Kneale detested and refused to write for because he thought it was too frightening for its intended child audience. Nevertheless his vision of scientist as hero from the Quatermass stories was the inspiration Doctor Who. In later years virtually every idea from the Quatermass stories was plundered for "Doctor Who" scripts. Kneale claimed he could even hear his dialog copied for the Dr Who programs. The central idea of QUATERMASS AND THE PIT was "borrowed" by Stephen King for TOMMYKNOCKERS. Those attributions are obvious. Attributions Murray claims for the film ALIEN are more questionable in my mind.
Murray's adulation sometimes goes overboard, but he also accepts Kneale's faults. Kneale was all his life the straight-laced Manxman with little tolerance for the youth culture that was growing in Britain contemporary with his career. It showed up early in his career in a story called THE BIG, BIG GIGGLE and later in his fourth Quatermass story in which alien forces use it to manipulate an entire generation. Kneale was at the World Science Fiction Convention in Brighton (the one time I myself met him and talked to him). In INTO THE UNKNOWN and elsewhere are reports of how revolted Kneale was with the science fiction fan culture and even fans of his work.
Kneale did not suffer fools quietly in general and particularly not ones who did not treat his writing well. He absolutely detested Brian Donlevy, who played Quatermass in two films and not all that badly. Yet when Kneale adapted Bernard Cornwell's SHARPE'S GOLD for television he himself admits that he adapted the first ten pages then invented the rest, much to Cornwell's irritation. Much of what he wrote had strong horror overtones, but he detested the horror-writer appellation and had no respect for the writers of horror.
Murray includes a long catalog of famous people who claim they were fans of or influenced strongly by Kneale's writing.
INTO THE UNKNOWN is a small press publication from a company called Headpress. (It is also published in the United States by Critical Vision.) The proofreading could be better. Charles Schneer is referred to by name but later is repeatedly called "Scheer." This is a somewhat amateurish biography, but I cannot imagine Kneale ever getting one more complete or more scholarly.
I was amused somewhat while reading the book to realize that the cover art design was a tribute to the design of the covers of the classic Penguin Books publication of the Kneale Quatermass scripts.
For those who know Kneale this is certainly a good read and a tribute that was long overdue. I hope that Kneale had a chance to read the book before his death. [-mrl]
EIFELHEIM by Michael Flynn (copyright 2006, TOR, $25.95, 316pp, ISBN 0-765-30096-6) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
Our next entry in the Hugo-nominated novel category is EIFELHEIM, by Michael Flynn. I will admit that by the time I started this novel I was beginning to despair of finding anything worth the title of "Hugo-winning novel in 2007". With EIFELHEIM we may have found it--at least in my opinion. And we all know how my well my opinion actually matches that of the rest of the crowd that votes for these things.
EIFELHEIM is expanded from Michael Flynn's novella of the same name that was nominated eons ago  for the Hugo. Flynn expands the tale so that it is told on two fronts--the present (or at least "modern times"), and a small town in Germany back in 1348/1349 when the Black Plague was descending upon Europe. The town's name is Oberhochwald, later to be known as Eifelheim.
In the present, Tom Schwoerin is an historian, and something is really bothering him about this town called Eifelheim. It was abandoned during the Black Plague, but never resettled. What bothers him about this is that current scientific and historical theory claims that it should have been resettled--but to this day, the site of the town remains abandoned.
Tom's live-in girlfriend is Sharon Nagy, a theoretical physicist who is doing work with some exotic theory that is taking up all her time and energy. As you might guess, this mix doesn't work well, considering that both of them like to talk to the other about what's going on with their work--which interrupts the other person and annoys them to know end. Needless to say, what they're both working turns out to be related to each other and the mysterious goings-on at Eifelheim.
Oh yeah, Eifelheim. So, Father Dietrich is the village priest at Oberhochwald. Dietrich has a past that is only hinted at in the novel, but more on my reaction to that in a bit. Part of his background is in science and philosophy, so I suppose he is the perfect person to make First Contact with aliens that crash land in the woods not far from town--with the Black Plague closing in from all sides.
So, the story proceeds along nicely--in the present, where Sharon and Tom come to some startling conclusions regarding their work and its relevance to Eifelheim; and the past, where Dietrich must come to grip with some demons from his past as well as try to integrate the aliens into the life of the town while not having them blamed for the coming of the "pest", as the Black Plague is referred to in the book.
I really don't want to say anything more here, as it will give away where the story goes. It is a tremendously well-written book; the characters back in 1348 have depth, and you do care about them, while the folks in the present are as driven as you'd expect two folks in their field to be. The novel has a very, very satisfying conclusion that fits and makes sense; I haven't been this happy with the ending of a novel in a long time.
I do have a few nits to pick, however. Dietrich obviously has a dark past, one that is worth exploring a little more, I think. We get hints here and there that something is night quite right, and we can make some intelligent guesses, but I'd like to have seen more exploration of his background. Back in the present, Tom enlists the aid of a female assistant that is obviously interested in him and his work, and obviously wants to take the relationship a little further than just helping him as a research assistant. The triangle between Tom, Judy, and Sharon should have been explored a little more--or maybe, the fact that Tom and Sharon are both obsessed with their work that it would never occur to them that Judy was an interloper could be completely in character.
Other than those two nits, I thought this was a terrific book. Next I'll review HIS MAJESTY'S DRAGON, the final nominated work in the novel category. [-jak]
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS--THE MUSICAL (theater review by Evelyn C. Leeper):
This is a direct-to-DVD taping of a performance at Hollywood's Kodak Theater, starring Val Kilmer. (Apparently billboards all over Hollywood announced "Val Kilmer *is* Moses!" which is a heavy burden for him to carry.)
To quote Mark (who may be quoting someone else), "I saw this so you don't have to." Where can I start? Well, the first really annoying thing is that everyone is wearing headset microphones-- very visible headset microphones. There is nothing that so destroys the carefully crafted ancient Egyptian feel as a microphone sticking out from under a headdress. Though the costumes are fairly anachronistic in any case--almost all the Hebrew men are wearing trousers instead of robes, and most of the women's skirts are too short or slit too high.
There are other mistakes as well. There is a song in which after Moses shows up, the Hebrews sing about how the "horns of Jericho" are announcing the arrival of a deliverer. Uh, at this time Jericho was full of Canaanites, not Hebrews; Moses was bad news for them, not a deliverer.
The special effects cannot be done very well on the stage, so they are shown as films projected at the back of the stage--but they are not very well done either. The songs are not very good, either, nor is the acting, though some of that is the fault of today's audiences and how they respond to musicals. If an audience are watching a stage production of HAMLET, they do not break into applause at the end of the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. The actor finishes, and then proceeds directly to what follows. But with a musical, the audience tends to break into applause after each big number. (In fact, if they don't, I'm sure the cast thinks something has gone dreadfully wrong.) But this means that everyone on stage must do one of three things. 1) Ignore the applause and proceed. This is not workable; the next lines won't be heard. 2) Acknowledge the applause, usually by smiling. This is fine if it's a happy song, but a real disaster if you have just finished singing about the ten plagues or something. 3) Freeze like statues and wait. This may be the best solution, but it still completely destroys any atmosphere the song has created.
You can skip this one.
(The headset microphones seem to have become ubiquitous--I first saw them in BEHIND THE IRON MASK in London, and they were massively annoying there as well.) [-ecl]
HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX and THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM (letter of comment by David Goldfarb):
In Mark's review of HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX in the 08/10/07 issue of the MT VOID, he had written "there is an interesting allusion to Doctor Who." David Goldfarb writes, "I've seen the film, but don't recall any such allusions. Can you specify?" [-dg]
Mark answers, "At one point there is a wooden phone booth that goes (spinning?) through the air in a TARDIS-like manner." [-mrl]
David also responds to Mark's assertion that "for once there is not even a mention of Quidditch" by noting, "There's quite a bit of Quidditch in the book, but (this being the longest of the books) it got squeezed out. I rather expect the same to happen with the next one." [-dg]
In response to Mark's review of THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM in the same issue, David responds to Mark's comments on the title by observinb, "'Ultimatum' is Latin for 'the last thing'. Thus, an ultimatum is the last set of diplomatic demands before diplomacy is discarded in favor of violence. Perhaps the title was chosen because this is the last Bourne movie. Admittedly, that supposes a rather higher degree of education than we usually see in Hollywood." [-dg]
Unexpected Emergencies, Old-Time Radio, and CRAFTING THE VERY SHORT STORY (letter of comment by John Purcell):
In response to the 08/17/07 issue of the MT VOID, John Purcell writes:
Mark, you asked a rather straightforward question: "What unexpected emergency may happen any moment?" Well, dying leaps immediately to mind. That would definitely be a big surprise, as would the sun going nova or the Cubs winning the World Series. Of course, if this last thing ever came true, then that would the End Of Everything As We Know It. But mankind has once again been spared this apocalyptic vision because the Chicago Cubs have been on a losing streak, and one of their key players, Alphonso Soriano, is out for the next 3 to 4 weeks with an injury. The world has been saved once again! I wonder if Soriano has any idea what his sacrifice has done for humanity...
You know, I have always enjoyed old radio dramas, and the comedies, too. But the dramas are so much fun to listen to for the pacing, sound effects, and everything else that came into play to make the listener's imagination take wing. My favorites were always the Shadow and Dick Tracy, while Fibber McGee, Burns & Allen, and Jack Benny were likewise a lot of fun. It has been a long time since I've really listened to any of these, so I will have to bookmark some of these URLs and check them out some day. Thank you for listing these.
Evelyn's review of CRAFTING THE VERY SHORT STORY sounds like a fun book to get for my classes--that is, if I ever teach a creative writing course. Interestingly enough, the stories Evelyn listed here--"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," "Half a Day" and Luke's "Parable of the Prodigal Son" are all included in the current literature survey book my college uses in its English 1302 course. "Harrison Bergeron" and a nice selection of spooky stories and poems by Poe, Hawthorne, Bierce, London, and a handful of other writers are included. This is why I always enjoy teaching a Gothic Unit as part of my 1302 classes; it is a lot of fun and students seem to enjoy it. Some don't, but that's to be expected, so it's only a two-week unit. Still, it's best to place that unit around Halloween. Makes sense to me.
That oughta do it for now. Thanks for posting this, and I look forward to your next issue. [-jp]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I want to add something to my comments in the 08/10/07 issue of the MT VOID about J. Rufus Fears's analysis of Abraham Lincoln in Books That Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life". Fears spends a lot of time analyzing the words of the Gettysburg Address, and in particular how certain phrases--"four score and seven", "brought forth", "conceived in liberty", and so on--were purposely phrased to echo the King James Bible's language and to give a religious meaning to his words. But in "Angels and Ages: Lincoln's Language and Its Legacy" (New Yorker, May 28, 2007), Adam Gopnik notes that we are not really sure what Lincoln said. "The Cincinnati Daily Gazette, a Republican paper, made the famous first sentence end 'that all mankind are created free and equal by a good God,' though it's hard to know whether its reporter had deliberately italicized the point or was simply hearing it with his heart. Also in the first sentence, Lincoln's remark that the nation was 'conceived in liberty' was reported in some newspapers as 'consecrated to liberty,' a more religious reading of the intended message, and there are those who believe that Lincoln made an impromptu alteration." Given this, attempting to find deep significance in very specific words and phrases is an interesting exercise, but perhaps not entirely reliable as a way of pinning Lincoln down. Gopnick does agree, however, that Lincoln's speeches tended toward a Biblical basis and style rather than the Classical basis and style favored by some others of that era, notably Edward Everett, who gave the main speech at Gettysburg.
Our discussion book this month was RAGTIME by E. L. Doctorow (ISBN-13 978-0-812-97818-6, ISBN-10 978-0-812-97818-8). Re- reading it, I am struck by how little of the book made it into the movie: Houdini got only a few newsreel scenes, Emma Goldman was dropped altogether, and Younger Brother's role so trimmed as to make a lot of his actions seem far more arbitrary. And the plot has been simplified (e.g., the modification of Walker's demands and how that plays out is much changed in the movie). This is not to say that the movie is bad, but it simply does not capture the whole panorama of the book. (This is similar to my feeling about John Steinbeck's book THE GRAPES OF WRATH and the film made from in, as I wrote in the 04/13/07 issue of the MT VOID.)
[The film is 155 minutes as is. The DVD has scenes with the Emma Goldman plot that were deleted, undoubtedly for length. -mrl]
One technique Doctorow uses is that of the fictional characters, the only ones with names are Coalhouse Walker (and his son), Sarah, and Willie Conklin. Everyone else with a name is a real historical personage. (This is not maintained in the film, when a few additional minor characters are given names.) The effect of this is that almost all the principal characters--Mother, Father, Younger Brother, Tateh, and so on--seem to represent not just a single character, but an entire type, an entire group of people. Tateh is *all* immigrants, Mother is *all* repressed women, and so on. (There are other theories on this, of course.)
Doctorow makes at least one error, though: the incident of Leo Frank and Mary Phagan was in 1915, yet in the book, that event precedes Diaz's overthrow in 1911 and Wilson's inauguration in 1913 (among other events). However, Doctorow may have wanted to mention the Frank incident in spite of its anachronism because of its parallels with Walker. (The movie also has problems with chronology, with events of 1914 seemingly happening only a few weeks or months after events of 1908.)
I recently read yet another complaint about the decline of bookstores, brought on (according to the author) by competition of other types of stores selling books cheaper, the tendency of bookstores to concentrate on the latest best-sellers to the neglect of the classics, and the decline of reading, brought about in turn by "having to compete with the many forms of amusement unknown fifty years ago. Oh, and also the problem of clerks unfamiliar with the books. Sound familiar? It was written by A. Edward Newton, sometime before 1921.
I have written before about the experience of getting books through inter-library loan that have not been checked out in decades, and show clear signs of having been catalogued in the 1920s (e.g., hand-written call numbers on octagonal paper labels). The latest for me is A MAGNIFICENT FARCE, A. Edward Newton's second book. (His first was THE AMENITIES OF BOOK- COLLECTING AND KINDRED AFFECTIONS, which I earlier reviewed.) The Plainfield Library, that great repository of old books, had at some point since 1921 rebound this volume, and it has the author's name, title, and *call number* stamped in gold on the spine! (ISBN-13 978-1-432-68840-0, ISBN-10 1-432-68840-5, for the edition just published in June of this year)
One interesting piece of information I got from A MAGNIFICENT FARCE was that "in the first edition, only about half of the [Pepys's] Diary was published, and this was edited and expurgated by Lord Braybrooke to an extent which became apparent by degrees. ... Finally, and not until 1893, there appeared an edition, edited by H. B. Wheatley, which gave the Diary complete, with the exception of a few passages, amounting in all to about one page of text, which, he says, cannot possibly be printed."
Why is this interesting? Well, because in 84 CHARING CROSS ROAD, Hanff writes (on October 15, 1951), "WHAT KIND OF A PEPYS'S DIARY DO YOU CALL THIS? this is not a pepys' diary, this is some busybody editor's miserable collection of EXCERPTS from pepys' diary may he rot. I could just spit. where is jan 12, 1668, where his wife chased him out of bed and round the bedroom with a red-hot poker?" [all sic] And Doel replies, "First of all, let me apologize for the Pepys. I was honestly under the impression what it was the complete Braybrooke edition...." Well, Doel was almost definitely right in this, because this episode with the poker is not in the (much abridged) Braybrooke edition, at least according to the version I have found on line (archived independently in two different places, so they is a bit of validation there). It is in the Wheatley edition.
(Checking this is a bit tricky, since Pepys's DIARY was written before January 1 became unequivocally the first day of the year. As noted in my review of Mary Gentle's 1610: A SUNDIAL IN A GRAVE [in the 02/20/04 issue of the MT VOID], the first day of the year moved from March 1 to January 1 in the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, which did not happen in England until 1752. So one has to look *after" the December 1668 entries to find the January 1668 ones.)
Newton also quotes a delightful poem by Ralph Bergengren:
My Pop is always buying books: So that Mom says his study looks Just like an old bookstore. the bookshelves are so full and tall, They hide the paper on the wall, And there are books just everywhere, On table, window-seat, and chair, And books right on the floor
And every little while he buys More books, and brings them home and tries To find a place where they will fit, And has an awful time of it.
Once, when I asked him why he got So many books, he said, "Why not?" I've puzzled over that a lot.
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: A hero is someone who can keep his mouth shut when he is right. -- Yiddish Proverb
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