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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
12/24/10 -- Vol. 29, No. 26, Whole Number 1629
Table of Contents
Superheroes and the Law:
There's a new blog about superheroes and the law at http://lawandthemultiverse.com/. Sample topic: "Gadget" Superheroes and Federal Arms Control Laws. The "New York Times" has an article about the blog at http://tinyurl.com/void-superhero-law.
It Ain't Necessarily So (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I would say that before we start requiring United States citizens to carry proof of citizenship, we should require anyone singing that it is "oh what fun" to ride in a one-horse, open sleigh to present proof that they have experienced such a ride. Let me tell you, particularly if it is snowing and the wind is blowing, it is darn cold. And it is not too great on the horse either. [-mrl]
Year End Mini-Reviews (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I am a member of the On-line Film Critic Society which each year has its own awards, not unlike the Academy Awards, with Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and so forth. That means in late November and early December we have to watch a lot of what are likely films to receive awards. Particularly with a slow writer like myself, that means I will spend a lot of time writing about the new films I have seen. I just do not have sufficient time to write about as many films as I would like to review. So there are a lot of interesting films which I let get by me and I do not review. This year I hope to remedy that situation by at least giving short reviews of major films I have seen.
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 1: One major fantasy film of the year is HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 1. Normally I review the major fantasy films each year, but this one I am going to skip. I have an excuse. I have seen every Harry Potter film, once each. And I read the first book. Generally that has been sufficient for me to follow what was going on. However, this year's entry is really full of Potter jargon and assumes that you have seen and remember the previous films. I more of less thing that a film should be self-explanatory or the patron should be handed an explanation card to explaining all the previous information the patron might have missed. Or at least the film should start with a quick summary montage with a narrator saying "Previously in the Harry Potter Series..." There was none of that. I had the feeling that others around me knew what was going on. For me the film was a nice light show. There were a lot of magical visual images. I was not bored. But I like in a film to know what I am seeing. People round me seemed to be enjoying it and understanding it, so I decided the problem was with me. It was too much like being back in Sophomore French (which did not do much good for my Grade Point Average). So that is my review of a film that I am not going to review. Am I going to review any of the films that I Am going to review? Sure. Rating: 1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10
THE TOWN: Ben Affleck directs a screenplay that he coauthored with Aaron Stockard. The same could be said of the 2007 film GONE, BABY, GONE. Both films are set in Boston. The previous film might have somewhat have been inspired by Clint Eastwood's MYSTIC RIVER (2003). I have to say that those are three very good crime films. They have some action, but they are strong on character too. THE TOWN is not quite up to the other two. Those two hung really on interesting moral dilemmas. I did not see this film taking the same sort of chances challenging the viewer, but it is a good story, nonetheless. Affleck plays in the film. He is one of a group of four friends who rob banks together. Affleck's character befriends a young bank manager who does not recognize him as the robber who in mask was threatening her just a few days earlier. Much of the film hangs on will the manager recognize Affleck as the robber, or will an inquisitive FBI agent get him first. Affleck gives the film an authentic feeling for the texture of his setting. Rating: 2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10
HEREAFTER: Speaking of Clint Eastwood, he is one film director who can generally be relied upon to turn over a good piece of work. This year he tries a film very much unlike what he has done in the past, but he is outside his zone of expertise. In the first place this is a fantasy, a field he has visited as director only rarely in the past. I suppose there is some fantasy to SPACE COWBOYS and arguably with HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER and PALE RIDER. None of them has as strong a fantasy element as HEREAFTER. There are three threads apparently disconnected except that each has something to do with life after death. Like Robert Altman he has the three threads come together at the end of the film, but unlike Altman would do it, they do not come together in a particularly interesting way. The film's centerpiece is a filming of the life after death experience complete with going into the light. However, a much better fantasy film, RESURRECTION (1980), got there first and had a much better story to boot. I suspect what attracted Eastwood to this material is he is feeling his age and thinking about death. Rating: 1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10
DOWN TERRACE: This is actually a comedy, though it takes a long time for the initiated to realize that it is supposed to be funny. A crime family seems to be just regular blokes talking to each other about now very much at all. But it turns out that they have fallen on hard times and the police seem to be catching on to them. Someone in their midst is singing to the police, and different people have different ideas who it is. Very subtly they decide that they have to eliminate the bad apple and so they start knocking each other off. It sounds like it could be the basis for a very exaggerated sort of farce, but the humor of the situation is so understated that one never gets much of a clue when to laugh. Rating: 1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10
Hey, this is fun. I will do a few more next week. [-mrl]
TRUE GRIT (2010) (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The Coen Brothers remake one of the classic Western films--a John Wayne Western yet. Their work was cut out for them, remaking a well-liked film, but they manage to make the characters more real and even to give the story a little more edge. Jeff Bridges gives one of his best performances and Hailee Steinfeld more than holds her own against the other leads. Matt Damon sort of fades into the background. It is not clear we needed another adaptation of the Charles Portis novel, but the production is first rate. It has more texture and more edge. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
Far more remakes are made in the film industry than the public needs. Though filmmakers like to re-film stories that were popular, it is rare that a remake that stands up well to comparison to the original. A filmmaker is obliged to make a film that is still worth seeing even if one remembers the earlier version well. Even Martin Scorsese tried making his own version of someone else's film. The Hong Kong film INFERNAL AFFAIRS (2004) he remade as THE DEPARTED (2006), and at least to my mind failed to improve on the original material. But Joel and Ethan Coen fared even worse when they tried to remake the classic Ealing comedy THE LADYKILLERS (1955) with their own 2004 version, a lamentable misfire. So it was surprising when they returned to the remake game with their version of the 1969 TRUE GRIT directed by Henry Hathaway. That film starred John Wayne and Kim Darby as "Rooster" Cogburn and Mattie Ross. The new version stars Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld in the same roles.
Though you would not know it from the billing on either version of the film, the main character is the fourteen-year-old Mattie. To say she had pluck would almost be an insult. She has the mind and will and sense of an educated adult and is less a character than a force of nature. She apparently never got used to losing an argument and never has to. You do not argue with her, you get out of her way. We learn that her father was killed by an acquaintance, Tom Chaney (played by Josh Brolin). Chaney then fled to Indian Territory where the law was afraid to follow. Mattie is not satisfied with the legal process so she hires the meanest marshal she can find, Rooster Cogburn. Rooster has a bad reputation for turning fugitives into corpses and that suits Mattie right down to the ground. A Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) is also looking for Chaney and joins them. The three go off into dangerous country to track down the killer. The Coen Brothers know how to develop characters through dialog and here they do an excellent job. Perhaps the bickering becomes a little tiresome, but that is part of the point. Charles Portis's novel does not give them a lot to choose from. Both versions are close to the novel, so they are not really two different from each other. The new film's approach is less sentimental and more realistic.
In the 1969 version John Wayne was basically John Wayne with an eye patch. In the new version Jeff Bridges is Rooster Cogburn-- original and unique (thank goodness, you would not want more than one). Bridges is not playing any character he has ever been before and even here he is barely recognizable as Bridges. I suspect that if the audience did not come in knowing it was Jeff Bridges on the screen, they might not even recognize him. He just falls into the character the first time we see him and all that is left showing is Rooster Cogburn. It is just an old marshal who is grizzled, crusty, and very mean. You know where you stand with John Wayne from his other westerns. You are less sure with this bad-tempered stranger. As far as I am concerned that is a win for the Coen Brothers. This film has more of an atmosphere of realism. It has a good feel for the period. If you want to know which film trusts its audience more, compare how each film ends. The first TRUE GRIT is still a very good film, but the Coen Brothers have aced it.
In most years this film would have been a well-above-average entry. This year its competition is mostly fairly weak so that makes this one of the best films of the year. I rate it a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10. If the hymn that Carter Burwell's score is built around sounds familiar, it was the same hymn that the venomous Robert Mitchum sings to lull people off their guard in THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1403865/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/true-grit-2010/
THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (letter of comment by Dan Kimmel):
In response to Mark's comment on THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI in the 12/17/10 issue of the MT VOID, Dan Kimmel writes:
It's a film I've seen many times because I use it in my film history class "From Silents to Kane". Last spring I got a most enthusiastic response to it. One girl ended up doing her term paper on German expressionism. And then on the midterm when I ask them to discuss techniques from the early films and to give a modern (in their own lifetimes) example of that same technique being used, several students discussed Caligari in the context of "Shutter Island."
I would explain why, but I know how you feel about spoilers. :-) [-dk]
I also noticed a connection to THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI in SHUTTER ISLAND and mentioned CALIGARI in my review of SHUTTER ISLAND. I will explain in rot13 below. It can be decoded easily at http://www.rot13.com/index.php.
Obgu svyzf gnxr cynpr va gur zvaq bs n zragny cngvrag. Gur ranpvat qbpgbe vf ernyyl abg zranpvat ng nyy ohg vf gelvat gb uryc gur cngvrag. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
When you read the first page of THE RESTORATION GAME by Ken MacLeod (ISBN 978-1-841-49647-4), you think you know exactly what this book will be. "FIRST-PERSON SHOOTER: MARS, 2248 A.U.C." Ah, you say, it's an alternate history, with Rome never falling and now, in what would be the late 15th Century on our calendar, it has arrived on Mars.
Then on page 3, you discover there is a computer simulation running: "Millions--billions!--of fully conscious simulated humans living a history where .... I don't know. Something didn't happen. Something changes everything. The history's still far in the past, thank heavens--a millennium, perhaps. But almost unrecognizable. The City's in ruins, the population tilling the soil and ruled by warrior chiefs, their minds dimmed by some death cult." Okay, you say, that simulation must be our world.
And sure enough, in a few pages we are in our world. Oh, there do seem to be a few anomalies, but they are just the sorts of things one would find in a normal novel--a street name that doesn't exist and such. Or are they?
Luckily, this sort of whipsawing does not continue (though one wonders what a book would be like if every two pages the world in it was completely re-written). Most of the rest of the book is a straightforward story set in our world (although the McGuffin is based on the underlying premise). The problem is that there is no real pay-off to the premise, and the story just kind of ... ends. A pity, since up to that point it was pretty good. (In fairness, I should say that others have found the end satisfying, but it did not work for me.)
There is also a ten-page diary extract that has all the abbreviations and vague allusions that a real diary would have. It is realistic, but it is also very hard to read.
I also have an annotation and a mathematical quibble. The annotation is that the Borges story referenced on page 150 is "The Sect of the Phoenix". The quibble is that MacLeod writes, "There is no such place as Krassnia. If you were to draw it on a map, right where the borders of Russia, Abkhazia and Georgia meet, and then fill it in, you'd need a fifth colour." On a basic level, if one describes an area as where the borders of three countries meet, it is implied that there are no other countries that meet as well, so choosing a color different from that of Russia, Abkhazia, or Georgia would be sufficient. On a more philosophical level, though, saying that adding a country would require a fifth color implies that it will make the world topologically different than it is. Even China Mieville's Beszel and Ul Qoma don't do that. It is a striking image that MacLeod creates, but it also seems typical of the sort of statement made by an author in a field with which he is unfamiliar.
In "The Nest" (SCIENCE FICTION ADVENTURES, July 1953), Poul Anderson somehow managed to put one over on the editor. The story is set in a time in the Oligicene (I think) where people from all different times have been picked up and plopped down.. So you have Neanderthals, conquistadors, Romans, etc. And at one point one of the conquistadors cries out, "Chinga los heréticos!" For those of you who don't know Spanish, let's just say that "chingar" is not a verb one would see used in a 1950s magazine--or even most magazines today. But somehow the editor did not seem to know this. (Or maybe he did and just figured that no one who recognized the word back then would care.)
TYPEWRITER IN THE SKY by L. Ron Hubbard (ISBN 0-88404-933-7) is one of those classics that nobody has read. Well, okay, not *nobody*; Tim Powers is quoted on the jacket as saying, "I don't think Philip K. Dick would have written his novels if he had not read TYPEWRITER IN THE SKY." However, since its original publication in UNKNOWN FANTASY FICTION in 1940, it has been reprinted only three times: Gnome Press (1951), Popular Library (1977, in an omnibus with FEAR), and this edition from Bridge Publications (1995). Ironically, its closing lines are among the best known in science fiction:
In a dirty bathrobe?
But in spite of its influence on Dick and others, and in spite of the interesting (and Dickian) ideas behind it, the story itself is not that good. Part of the problem is that because of the premise, the story *cannot* be very good. (Actually, the premise of the story was not original with Hubbard either. One could claim that Chuang Tzu was the first to express it, thousands of years ago, in his dream of being a butterfly.) Still, as long as you can read the book keeping this in mind, it works reasonably well, though it does drag at times, and might have been better told at a shorter length. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: An apology for the Devil: it must be remembered that we have heard one side of the case. God has written all the books. -- Samuel Butler
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