MT VOID 04/29/11 -- Vol. 29, No. 44, Whole Number 1647

MT VOID 04/29/11 -- Vol. 29, No. 44, Whole Number 1647

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
04/29/11 -- Vol. 29, No. 44, Whole Number 1647

Table of Contents

      Frick: Mark Leeper, Frack: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at All material is copyrighted by author unless otherwise noted. All comments sent will be assumed authorized for inclusion unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to To unsubscribe, send mail to

Walpurgis Night (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

Be warned that we are coming to Walpurgis Night, the traditional night of Evil and the Witches' Sabbath. It is just about half a year away from Halloween at the other end of the calendar. It is the night of April 30. (You may remember that the 1930 film DRACULA begins as Walpurgis Night is approaching.) I intend to film myself a good horror film to celebrate. See [-mrl]

An Inconvenient Truth (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

It is very sad to realize just how actually ineffective both logic and evidence are in convincing people to change their points of view. These have been touted as the appropriate tools. I am sure that the President producing his birth certificate will actually do very little to change anyone's minds about any issue. The best it will do is showing a little support for the people who support the President. [-mrl]

Books Are Like Families (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I was telling Evelyn that two books were unrelated.

Evelyn: Did you say "related" or "unrelated"?

Me: I obviously said "unrelated". If they were "related" I would have gone on to say how they were related. Books that are related are related in many different ways. All books that are unrelated are unrelated in just about the same way. [-mrl]

My Picks for Turner Classic Movies for May (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

Most of what Turner is showing in May is films that have run previous months. THE ROCKING HORSE WINNER has been recommended here before. It is a supernatural story by D. H. Lawrence about a disturbed boy who rides a rocking horse in a frenzy to allow himself to see into the future and find out what horses will win races. The movie is beautifully filmed. That is playing Tuesday, May 10, 9:45 PM. If you have not seen NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (Saturday, May 21, 6:15 PM) and/or THE BICYCLE THIEF (Saturday, May 7, 8:00 PM), you really owe it to yourself to experience them. But the really interesting film of the month and a very rare opportunity is a Japanese vision of Hell from 1960.

In Peru I visited a church that had two large murals on your two sides as you enter. One is a depiction of the glories of Heaven; the other showed just how unpleasant it would be to be in Hell. I don't really remember the two images, but I do remember the reaction of the tourists. Nobody was looking to see what Heaven is like. That looked like a total bore. The people were mobbed around the Hell mural. We are all a little fascinated to seem images of Hell. Far more people read Dante's INFERNO than ever read his PURGATORIO and PARADISO. And Hell is the subject of TCM's most interesting movie of May.

Take it from me, you have never seen another film quite like the Japanese cult horror film JIGOKU (1960). Or at least I can tell you I have never seen a film like it. The title is the Japanese word for Hell, though for whatever release it got in the West it was called THE SINNERS OF HELL. The film is about Hell and who ends up getting sent there, according to the film's writers Nobuo Nakagawa, who also directed and Ichirô Miyagawa. But even more it is about the tortures of Hell.

The film is in two parts. The first part shows the main character, a theology student Shiro, a sinner accumulating sins against his soul. I might question whether what Shiro is doing is all that much real sinning. People around Shiro keep having nasty things happen to them, but it is not entirely clear that they are all Shiro's fault. He is in a car that hits and kills someone, but he is not the driver. His sin is not reporting it to the police, and not giving in to his guilty conscience. Later other deaths happen around him, but he does not seem to be the one at fault. This part of the story is telling us why he will go to Hell, and it makes a less than convincing case. But perhaps that is the intention. Perhaps even the innocent go to Hell.

Then the film and Shiro move to Hell were we see all the tortures of the damned. This is strong stuff, at least for a film from this time period. Nobody has ever seen Hell and returned so the filmmakers are free to give vent to their sado-masochistic imaginations. This is one sick film. At this time Japanese films shied away from graphic horror. However, Hammer Films of Britain was just getting into their Frankenstein and Dracula series that used then unprecedented amounts of blood. It was modest by today's standards, but it was shocking at the time. And Nakagawa apparently decided he wanted to shock in the same way--or at least with no less gore. Shiro travels through a particularly Japanese or perhaps Buddhist vision of Hell. Hell is ruled over by some sort of painted overlord who sees people torn apart and flayed only to somehow heal and go on to more torments. In one scene one of the damned has to stand atop what looks like a flaming mill wheel turning under her. There is some very bizarre stuff taken from the Buddhist conception of Hell.

Rather than mixing in a lot of special effects the production design is kept simple, but effective. There are places the dead relive their sins of the past and others where they hang upside- down and are pierced by pieces of metal. The whole film is decorated black, white, turquoise, and red to give a feel for the cold of death and the pain of death and the pain of perdition. The film is beautifully designed and photographed. The background and sky to each scene is a rich pitch black. The torments are either emotional or physical. This film is very rare and it is good that Turner has gotten a copy. It will run Saturday, early morning May 21, at 2:15 AM. It is followed by another famous but rare Japanese horror film, TOKAIDO YOTSUYA KAIDAN (1959), or THE GHOST OF YOTSUYA. This is a famous story, but the film is a little slow building to really only one horrific scene at the end. That scene is a classic, particularly in Japan, but I am not sure the entire film is worth watching for that one very odd sequence. (Saturday, May 21, at 4:00 AM) [-mrl]

HANNA (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Hanna has been raised and trained by her father to be a perfect assassin, preparing for the battle he will have with his former employer, the CIA. Director Joe Wright takes a somewhat simple story and makes it complex in the editing and camera work. The action is strong and well filmed, but there really is not much in new ideas or ideas at all. Complex puzzle pieces fit together to make an overly simple and familiar picture. It only seems complex because Wright does not play fairly with the viewer. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

Hanna (played by Saoirse Ronan) is a lot like a female Jason Bourne. She did not just wake up one day like he did, but she knows nothing of her origins. She just knows that her father Erik (Eric Bana) has raised and trained her. To the viewer she seems to have a huge stock of knowledge and a high level of fighting and killing skills. Certainly she has levels one would not expect from her sixteen-year-old appearance. She does not know why she needs these skills but she does know that she will have to fight Marisa Vigler (Cate Blanchett), a CIA operative who wants to kill her father. She is trained for the fight in a forest in Northern Finland. When she is ready she must go out into the world alone and fight for her father and herself. This is a mission that will take her to Morocco and Germany. Much of the time she travels with an English family (parented by Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng). The script adds a bunch of bizarre characters, particularly villains, to add entertainment, but their eccentricities and sexual proclivities are rather gratuitous. Their peculiarity is just window dressing and a cheap form of characterization.

Rather than have a complex story, Wright takes a simple plot and uses his style to surprise the viewer and at times to intentionally obfuscate the action. Sequences start with the viewer not really sure what he is seeing. That frustration when relieved gives the viewer a feeling of accomplishment much as if he had understood a complex point in the plot. A sequence might open showing Ms. Blanchett cleaning her teeth. At times we see this in extreme close-up and clinical detail. Are we to believe she has some sort of a dental fetish? Or does it just prove that she is fastidious? It never seems to tie in to anything. What sense does it make? In another sequence Hanna has been carrying an arrow. She has no way to launch the arrow, but fire it she does. The camera is looking at something else, and the viewer never sees how the arrow is launched. The viewer is left to puzzle over this for only a beat and then something else is happening. At another point Hanna has killed an elk and it fell in the middle of a large snowy open space, five minutes' walk to the nearest visual obstruction. She stands over it, and Wright focuses the camera on her, and in from the side comes her father who has apparently invisibly snuck up on her. He is either the Invisible Man or she is not such a great assassin after all. Remove all this cruft and what is left is basically the three Bourne stories boiled down to one 111-minute film.

Wright's star Saoirse Ronan (as well as his art director Niall Moroney) is a veteran of Wright's ATONEMENT. In that film Ronan played a precocious young girl who discovered that she actually could do some real damage. Here she is a little older and can do a lot more damage. Blanchett is always good, but Bana could be a little more forceful. I have liked Olivia Williams since THE POSTMAN and "Dollhouse", but here she is not given much of interest to do.

In the end HANNA is more about its cinematic style than it is about its core plot. That story has been done before and better. Take away the look of the film and it is just an unimaginative and mindless action film. I rate HANNA a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.

Film Credits:

What others are saying:


THE PALACE OF LOVE by Jack Vance (book review by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):

Jack Vance is a writer who seems to have grown in the estimation of the literary community over time (see, for example THE GENRE ARTIST by Carlo Rotella in "The New York Times Magazine", July 15, 2009). Best known among science fiction fans for Hugo winners such as THE DRAGON MASTERS and THE LAST CASTLE, he is not one of my childhood favorites. However, at some point in my exploration of dark fantasy I discovered Vance's THE DYING EARTH series and found it strange but interesting. Vance speaks with a voice unlike the plain prose of a Heinlein or the talky writing of Asimov--a lyrical turn of the phrase setting him apart from the more beloved and better known of the great SF writers.

However, there was one series I did read as a youth--"The Star Kings"--five short novels telling the tale of one Kirth Gersen as he systematically hunts down five bizarre evil-doers who murdered his entire family (other than his grandfather, who trained him up as an assassin). Skilled in the arts of death and trickery, and focused on the single goal of revenge, he hunts five artists of sadism across the galaxy. Alas, I was never able to find the third book in the series, but thanks to the wonders of Amazon and the Internet, I recently acquired and read it--THE PALACE OF LOVE.

I wondered if I would still find it readable; it wore the years quite well. The general formula of each book is that Gersen, rather like James Bond, travels to a number of exotic places and/or cultures following a trail of clues toward one of the Demon Princes. The target of this novel is one Viole Falushe, whose main obsession turns out to be revenge on a young woman who spurned his affections when he was a youth. This revenge turns out to be a bit more subtle than you might expect from this sort of tale, and Falushe proves ruthless and clever as well. However, eventually Gersen gets an invite to the fabulous Palace of Love, and engineers a final confrontation with the elusive Falushe, who up to this point has concealed his true appearance, allowing him to hide in plain sight.

Gersen stories turn more on exotic travels, impassioned yet literate conversations, and colorful characters than violence, but occasionally deliver brief sequences of hard-core action showing Gersen as an ice-cold killer, for example at one point casually dumping a henchman out the door of an aircar to his death. Gersen's loneliness and necessary detachment from women is a recurring theme of the series, also echoing in some part the Bond stories. Finally, I expected the Palace of Love to be little more than a brothel, but it turns out to be something quite different, at least in part.

The technology projection wears surprisingly well, with a detailed picture of humanity spread across a vast, alien galaxy, mutated by cultural evolution into a thousand forms, yet all still familiar to the reader. This is a decadent future, full of odd and forbidden pleasures, but it still seems a possible future. The full list of the "Star Kings" novels includes THE STAR KING, THE KILLING MACHING, THE PALACE OF LOVE, THE FACE and THE BOOK OF DREAMS. Recommended to those who like this sort of thing, or to fans of Jack Vance in general. It does not seem to be available in a kindle version, but it was printed fully twice, once by Berkeley Medallion and once by DAW, and seems to also be available in a two-volume reprint series from Orb in 1997, so you should not have too much trouble finding it on Amazon. [-dls]

LA FEMME NIKITA Redux (mega-compendium review by Dale L. Skran, Jr.)

LA FEMME NIKITA (1990) [French]
LA FEMME NIKKITA (1997 TV Series on USA Network--4.5 seasons)
ALIAS (2001 TV series on ABC--5 seasons)
NIKITA (2010 TV Series on CW--currently in first season)

In a previous review in the MT VOID I covered one of my favorite SF TV shows--ALIAS. I have also, to the best of my recollection, previously reviewed the original 1990 French LA FEMME NIKITA, in the Leepercon fanzine, or possibly in the MT VOID. It is not my intention to recapitulate these reviews, but to put them in the broader context of what has become a cottage industry of Nikita spin-offs and derivatives. To facilitate this discussion, I will refer to the original film as LFN1, the American remake as PONR, the first TV series as LFN-TV1, and the second TV series as NIKITA- TV2.

These days it is easily possible to quickly read up on a movie or TV show in Wikipedia, and I assume you are capable of doing so, so I will avoid repeating basic facts, actors names, etc. and focus the general story. Setting LFN1 as our starting point, we should recall that this original Nikita was, prior to her transformation into a well-mannered assassin, a drugged-addled junkie and stone- cold killer. Early in her training she is shown a large array of guns, picks one up, and neatly blows dozens of holes in a distant bull's-eye. Asked if she has even shot a gun before, she replies, "Never at a paper target." This Nikita does not need to be trained to be dangerous--she IS dangerous!

LFN1 tells the dark fairy tale of the transformation of this frightening yet pitiful girl into a tastefully dressed yet ruthless assassin by an unnamed French intelligence agency. The movie recalls Shaw's PYGMALIION, in which Professor Henry Higgins trains a Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, to pass as a duchess, with the added twist that behind the girl's improved diction is a license to kill. I have always considered this film the best European action movie I have ever seen, and one of the best and most realistic spy movies ever made. Nikita is a cog in a big machine, sometimes asked to simply deliver a bomb to a room while posing as a hotel housekeeper but at other times actually pulling the trigger, killing an anonymous target.

Nikita does well in her assignments, and begins to enjoy her new life, even falling in love. Alas, she does so well that she eventually becomes responsible for planning her own operations, one of which goes horribly awry, necessitating the involvement of a psychotic "cleaner," an encounter in which she barely survives. The film ends on a downbeat note, with Nikita on the run, her boyfriend knowing she is lost to him forever, and her handler knowing that he will never know her true feelings for him.

This perfectly excellent film was then remade with an American actress (Bridget Fonda), sadly lacking much of the charm of the original while still hewing closely to the overall structure of the first movie. This might well have been the graveyard of Nikita, but it turns out that it was then made into a TV series starring Peta Wilson as Nikita. Al Gopin long ago recommended this series to me, but it was only recently that I acquired the first two seasons for a cheap price and started watching it. Although this series is quite different from the films, it has a charm all of its own.

LFN-TV1 transforms the original concept in numerous ways, resulting in an interesting but morally divergent tale. However, we should first place these films in the context of reality. One of the really old problems of power is how to get other people to kill your enemies, especially when they are put at great risk personally in doing so. There have been many solutions to this problem over the ages. In the time of the Assassins the "Old Man of the Mountain" relied on a combination of training, religious fanaticism, and hashish to motivate young men as killers. Murder for money is a long-time staple, but the results are decidedly mixed. To my best understanding, the Russian KGB relied on psychotics carefully guided by sane men to do their "wetwork." Of course, such tools are even more unreliable than paid assassins are. Of the ham-fisted methods of the CIA, the less said the better. Most recently, Al Qaeda returned to religious fanaticism to motivate the 9/11 terrorists. In film fiction, brainwashing produces loyal but professional assassins as in THE BOURNE IDENTITY, but such methods appear completely imaginary. The truth of all this is that the most reliable approach is that taken by the Old Man of the Mountain and Bin Laden--recruit young but weak- minded men, inculcate them in religious fanaticism and an ideology of grievance, make sure they know only a closed life of training, and apply them to a target before they think too much.

The notion put forward in LFN1 is that this problem might be solved by taking condemned murderers and putting them through a suitable training program that features both carrots (money, possibility of a well paid job, freedom from prosecution, etc.) and sticks (brutal punishment, death) as motivations. Whether any actual intelligence agency has taken this approach I have no idea, but in Hollywood it seems to be preferred. Certainly this is only a modest enhancement over how the French Foreign Legion operated.

In LFN-TV1 it is used by an American intelligence agency called simply "Section 1." Section 1 appears to be associated with the United States government, but it operates outside of all those pesky Congressional oversight hearings, and unlike the real CIA seems in the main quite competent. It is called on not only to "cancel" a variety of terrorist threats, but also to act as judge, jury, and executioner for CIA agents that stray. Run ruthlessly by an older, white-haired Vietnam veteran known only as "Operations" and "Madeline," his profiler, strategist, and chief torturer, Section 1 frames Nikita for murder and then offers her a new life as one of their agents. The running theme is that Nikita is really an innocent forced into a new and brutal life, albeit one that she rapidly adapts too, although she constantly comes into conflict with her bosses with her attempts to protect other innocents.

Still, Section 1 is not all bad, and it does have its own moral compass. In one episode Nikita is assigned to review the performance of a new recruit that is ready to graduate to being a field operative, and it is made quite clear that a thumbs down will lead directly to the "cancellation" of the recruit. Reluctantly Nikita recommends cancellation after finding the recruit is a blood-crazed psycho, only to discover that Operations/Madeline have *already* decided on cancellation, and the real test was of Nikita- -did she both have what it takes to recommend cancellation, and also the moral clarity to realize that it was the best course of action.

Nikita is assisted by two technical support people: Birkoff, who does communications and computer work, and Walter (costumed as a gray-haired hippie!) who provides weapons. She is often supported by her original trainer, Michael, with whom there are some romantic sparks. Nikita is quite competent, but not, at least in the first season, anything other than a competent agent. Section 1 has some advanced technology, like virtual screens that float in the air, but for the most part the technology seems ordinary for this type of story. The most jarring thing about the show is that all the villains seem to be white folks, mostly of Russian origin. This may have something to do with the actors available in Canada, or with a kind of blindness we all suffered from prior to 9/11. It should also be noted that although the computer technology in the show was probably beyond state of the art for 1997, by 2011 standards it seems quite dated.

I am given to understand that a lot happens in the later seasons, and that more advanced technology is introduced, but it does not appear that this technology is a major theme of the LFN-TV1. A bit into LFN-TV1 production of ALIAS must have started, as broadcasts of ALIAS began in 2001. As a long time ALIAS fan, I was surprised to see how much J. J. Abrams borrowed from LFN-TV1 in making ALIAS. It is relatively easy to map the structure of LFN-TV1 into ALIAS. Operations becomes Arvin Sloan, and Madeline the elder Bristow. The two LFN-TV1 technical support characters are merged into Marshall Finkman, and Michael becomes Michael Vaughn and Marcus Dixon, Sidney's partner. Finally, Nikita has a neighbor and friend who greatly resembles Sidney's best friend and roommate, Francie Calfo. The ruthlessness of Section 1 is fully matched by that of SD6. Of course, there are many differences as well. ALIAS is greatly concerned about family, questions of identity, speculative technology, questions of loyalty, and destiny while LFN-TV1 is revolves more around ethical dilemmas.

Perhaps the most important difference is that Sidney is not just a very good operative, but someone who has been subject to "Project Christmas," her father's secret program for training children to be super-agents. Sidney is an intuitive genius, with higher scores than almost anyone, a mastery of languages to rival Scrooge McDuck, a near-eidetic memory, and a prowess with weapons that would make James Bond envious. Much of this can be attributed to her parentage. Her father, Jack Bristow, is a top CIA field agent and strategic expert, virtually impervious to torture, and possessing a cold self-control that is almost superhuman. Her mother, Irina, is a top KGB agent distinguished by that fact that she tricked Jack Bristow into marrying her, with miscellaneous skills including the ability to use yoga techniques to maintain muscle tone while trapped in a tiny cell. As if this was not enough, it is strongly implied that Sidney is either a direct descendant or a creation of a long-ago genius and prophet named Milo Rambaldi, who has an unknown plan for her destiny. If she is related to Rambaldi, she would be a direct descendant of someone who is most probably an ancient super-genius who either traveled backward in time from the future or had the ability to foretell accurately the future. The net of all this is that Sidney Bristow is no ordinary girl-spy!

At this point we are well over the edge of reality as girl spies go, but ALIAS has led to further entries in this general theme of super-girl spies, notably Joss Whedon's DOLLHOUSE and J. J. Abrams's FRINGE. In DOLLHOUSE, Echo is a post-human with dozens of personalities possessing a vast range of abilities "printed" over her original personality. In FRINGE Olivia has been treated with Cortexiphan as child, giving her the ability, when in the correct mental state, to move between dimensions. I have reviewed both programs previously in the MTVOID, and I refer you to my previous articles.

To complete our recap of the Nikita industry, just recently a new show, Nikita, has started running on the CW. In this reboot, Nikita has left her agency, which is, unlike Section 1, an actual rogue operation along the lines of SD6 but now simply called "Division," although with a management team similar to that of Section 1. She hits upon the scheme of finding another drug-addled waif, Alex, training her as an agent herself, and then using Alex to infiltrate the agency that trained Nikita, with the intention of bring it to justice.

Nikita is played by the Asian-American action star Maggie Q, while Alex resembles Nikita in the original movie. In the general theme of a double-agent trying to bring down a rogue spy group, it derives more from ALIAS than from previous Nikita efforts. For example, as in ALIAS, Division has murdered Nikita's fiancé. I've watched a few episodes, but it does not seem to have the allure of the initial movie, the Petra Kelly TV show, or ALIAS. It is, however, a competent and well-directed action TV show that many will find entertaining.

So, to recap: