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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
06/13/14 -- Vol. 32, No. 50, Whole Number 1810
Table of Contents
The New Old-Time Movies (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
In the book I AM LEGEND, the main character is one of the last humans in a world full of vampires. What must that feel like that the people like you were once everybody and what you thought was normal is now only a tiny minority. Somehow I was reminded of that when a film critic I listen to said that his daughter did not like black-and-white films. I realized that being interested in black- and-white films (let alone silent films) makes me an oddball. Black-and-white films are this generation's "old-time movies." [-mrl]
Let's Hear It for the Good Guys (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
This is an unsolicited testimonial.
A friend of mine had a complaint a few years back. It seems that a movie theater that my friend and I had attended frequently was being shut down. It had been faltering for years and I had never really been impressed with it for anything but its convenient location. But it was bought out for the land it stood on. It seems that Costco was moving in and needed land. My friend was most unhappy. She did not like Costco and here they were displacing a useful if not well-run theater.
My friend was a little surprised when I said that I could not wait for the new Costco to open. What follows represents just my impressions. To me it was not like a Wal-Mart or even a Target moving in. To me Costco were the "good guys." I guess I subconsciously rate corporations on a scale from "bad guy" to "good guy." At times I have thought of Google as being better on this scale than Microsoft. An example of a generally bad guy corporation by my assessment was Blockbuster Entertainment. They were powerful and at one point their corporate decision to rent out only full-screen versions of films had the video industry planning to eliminate letter-boxed video. They changed their mind, but the fact they had that much power worried me. Also the local branch had a return slot that they frequently did not empty very fast. Several times I was charged overdue fines on videos I knew I had returned on time to their return slot, but had no proof. Okay, to me Blockbuster was a bad guy.
People may disagree, but I think Netflix is generally a good guy. Other than occasionally raising prices (and I think they just did that), just about all their business decisions are in the customer interest. A while back Blockbuster went from a five-day to a six- day business. That automatically increased by twenty percent the number films I could rent over a year. They didn't have to do that and nobody would have complained. But I appreciated them doing it. I frequently order obscure films that have to come from some remote place. That can take days. Netflix might have said that long delivery times are just the customer's risk. Instead Netflix increases the number of our rental slots by one. If you order a film that they have a hard time delivering it does not count against your rental quota. You actually get more rental films, not fewer.
But Costco is the first corporation I think of as an example of corporate good guys. Where should I start? Costco is a warehouse store and they make their money selling membership cards. They are not trying to make much money on actually selling goods. That keeps prices down. If they find that they have made a profit at the end of the year they return the extra as dividends to the members.
On days we shop at Costco we will usually have lunch their snackbar/lunchbar. Evelyn and I get a slice of fairly good pizza and a hot dog and we share them. It is not a bad lunch and we both have eaten for under $5 total.
I could say quite a bit about Costco's store brand, Kirkland. A legion of goods comes out under the Kirkland brand. I have heard it was Kirkland's policy not to put its name on a product if there is a competitor with a better product. I can think of only one or two instances out of many when I thought that the Kirkland product was not as good as their competition. Double-A batteries are an example of why I like Kirkland. My palmtop tells me how many hours I get out of the batteries I use in it. Two Energizer batteries will go about 56 hours and two Kirkland will last closer to 60 hours. It is not a big difference, but when I get to 57 hours on my current pair of Kirkland batteries I am grateful for the extra hours. And they are cheaper.
I mentioned that you get a membership card and you need it to enter the store and to make purchases. When Hurricane Sandy hit and a lot of local people needed someplace to be warm during the day, and perhaps something to fight boredom, the store was open to all and non-members could use it just like members. I think they even had free Wi-Fi.
Huffington Post reports that Costco is very good to their employees: http://tinyurl.com/huff-costco
One disadvantage in the store policy is that they are not really helpful in finding a given product. If you ask where to find something they frequently cannot tell. They can send you to a vague area of the store, but you have to do a lot of hunting. One more questionable touch is that they frequently offer free samples of their food products. That, of course, sounds like a good thing. It was only after I shopped there for a year or two that I realized they had trained me to shop there like they would a lab animal. Each time I visit I picture myself returning to the store waiting for my food pellet to fall. [-mrl]
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The scientific complexities of this story may be of more interest than the plot itself. Wolverine is sent back in time to inhabit his old body and try to prevent an anti-mutant from being assassinated. Under Bryan Singer's direction we have the most complex X-Men film yet, but it does not stand on its own. I cannot recommend the film to anyone not firmly grounded in X-MEN lore, and I am not, but I can see the story is complex and intricate. Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10
First off, let me tell you that you are not dealing with some X-MEN newbie here. I have actually seen a couple of the X-MEN films. Yep. And I think I may have read a comic or two at the barbershop back when I was a teen. In between times I probably have focused my mind on the story all of about seven minutes, I would guess. If you have more background than that, you may want to read the review of someone who actually understands what the heck is going on. Well, I understand some, and I apologize in advance for the inevitable errors.
The film starts in the future. There are robots hunting and killing mutants and also killing people who might have mutant offspring...
Whoa! Hold it right there. Mutation happens as a matter of random chance. Hunting for parents-to-be of mutants-to-be is like trying to save the economy by killing off anyone who has a child who might win the lottery. But the film is right that there really are mutants all around us. You bet there are. You want to see one? Look in a mirror. Look at your spouse. Look at your kids. You will not see any of these people who have fewer than about fifty mutant genes. Generally parents give their children about sixty gene mutations, and environment adds more. It does not take much effort to find mutants. Every man, woman, dog, cat, or armadillo is with a very high probability a mutant. So finding a mutant is really easy work.
The highest probability is that a mutant gene will have not noticeable effect on the host. We have a lot of redundant DNA that is used in error checking. If a mutant gene has any observable effect at all, almost certainly it will be a negative effect. Once in a while a mutant gene has a positive effect, and it gives the host some survival and mating advantage. And those mutations are the ones that contribute to evolution. The X-MEN movies are no paragons of scientific understanding and accuracy.
... So as I was saying there are these robots programmed to kill mutants and which are going too far. Mystique (the mutant formerly known as Raven, here played by Jennifer Lawrence) is trying to stop the robots by murdering their inventor Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage--the producers want as many recognizable actors as possible). What she does not seem to realize is that this would be a very bad move. Trask does not loose the robots; it is the anti- mutant backlash after the murder that sets the robots off. So the mutants from the dystopian future have to prevent Trask's death, odious as that task is to them. Ah, but how can the X-Men (including X-Women) possibly stop a murder that happened back in 1973? But of course. Kitty Pryde (the mutant always known as Kitty Pryde, played by Ellen Page) has had her genes so scrambled that she now has the power to send people's consciousness back in time to inhabit their younger 1973 bodies and use them to get around even with their future consciousness. (No, really!) Sort of in the fashion of "Quantum Leap", the older person retains the memories of the future while possessing the younger body.
The X-Men decide to use this genetic skill to send back in time Wolverine (the mutant formerly known as Logan, played by Hugh Jackman) to protect the anti-mutant Trask so that Mystique does not kill him and create a backlash that will end up killing machine- detectable mutants and the parents of what will be machine- detectable mutants. Things get even more complicated. While Wolverine inhabits Logan he goes through this adventure in Logan's body. But Wolverine used to be this Logan so why does Wolverine not have old memories of this whole adventure that he dragged Logan through?
This all is not an uninteresting idea for a plot. It has some complexity, and this is only where the story starts. Here I am kidding not the plot itself but the complexity of relating it and also the difficulty of making the story work for the uninitiated such as myself. I am also kidding the absolutely ridiculous attempts after the fact to rationalize this pure fantasy story as science fiction. The worst snag is that this story does not stand well on its own. There is too much back referencing forward and backward through time with characters the writers expected to be familiar for the viewer.
Bryan Singer directed the film based on a screenplay by Simon Kinberg from a story in the comic. He goes a little overboard trying to create the feel of the period by shaking the viewers face in lava lamps and playing 1970s music. There are some notable casting problems. James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart play the same person at different ages and are seen in the film in close proximity. They just do not look very much alike. Michael Fassbender really does not look much like Ian McKellen, though they also both play Erik Lehnsherr but at different ages. Yet these failures to resemble pale next to that of Richard Nixon and Mark Camacho playing Richard Nixon. Camacho looks a little like Nixon from the side, but there is no resemblance from the front.
I cannot recommend this film for anyone who is not really conversant in X-MEN folklore, which I am not. That being true I can respect the multi-faceted story even if it did not do a lot for me. Your mileage may vary by your experience but for myself I would say this film rates a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1877832/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/x_men_days_of_future_past/
LULLABY (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A family all together for the last time gathers in a hospital where the father has requested to be taken off of life support. Writer and director Andrew Levitas examines death and life. The film has a powerhouse cast, perhaps more than was needed to make the drama work. But the drama is engaging. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
Garrett Hedlund leads the cast as Jonathan Lowenstein who left home to make a career as a singer and to put space between him and his family. Jonathan rubs people the wrong way. He asserts himself by dressing scruffily and insisting on smoking anywhere where it is not allowed. He once had a good relationship with his father, but more recently they do not see eye to eye, especially over Jonathan's secular interpretation of his Jewishness. Jonathan's financier father Robert (Richard Jenkins) is a fighter in business, and for twelve years he has been fighting cancer. But the battle is just about over, and Robert has chosen to be taken off life support. It is his decision to surrender to the disease, but Jonathan, his sister, and his mother have come together to change his mind and also to participate in Robert's last wish. That wish is to participate one last time in the Passover Seder ceremony, a celebration of freedom. Robert is setting himself free to die in peace. In the last few hours before the scheduled life termination the family of four must work out the kinks in their relationships or leave them forever as unfinished business.
The greatest pathos, however, is not from the family. Jonathan meets in a stairwell Meredith (Jessica Barden) a young woman with bone cancer and a shaved head. She is barely into her teens with her life just starting, yet having to prepare herself to leave that life incomplete. She is already filled with the fire of living and is desperate to know about what life could have been if she had not been fated to lose it so soon. We see her reaction to a medical death sentence compared with Robert's.
Andrew Levitas' film LULLABY is a powerful and affecting film about dying and about living. There are no bigger issues. Levitas is not just a filmmaker. He is renown as a painter, a sculptor, a writer, and a photographer. For his film he got a real string of good actors including Garrett Hedlund of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, Richard Jenkins of THE VISITOR, Amy Adams of AMERICAN HUSTLE, Jessica Brown Findlay of "Downton Abbey", Anne Archer of FATAL ATTRACTION, Terrence Howard of IRON MAN, and Jennifer Hudson of DREAMGIRLS. I question the importance of Amy Adams, whose story seems very tangential to the central story.
The viewer should be prepared for a moving experience that never feels like it is trying for tears. The story reaches for the real issues of life and it never offers pat answers to those issues. I rate LULLABY a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2210781/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/lullaby_2013/
RIDE REPORT (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Two young men keep a video journal of their motorcycle trip on the road from Las Vegas to the Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. Along the way we get a close-up view of the sights and people of Central and South America. Though their goal is ambitious, their trip seems to have only minor problems and inconveniences, and the documentary they made from it is pleasant, but falls short of exciting. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
The appeal of the open road is every bit as strong as it was in the days of EASY RIDER. These days bikers who want to can see more variety than Route 66.
The two young filmmakers apparently in their early twenties make an audacious and naive plan to take Suzuki motorcycles from Las Vegas down to Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, filming with hand-held camera as they go. Tiernan Turner and Matt Kendall, filmmakers generally found in the sound department, decide they will film their trip and make a documentary. These are not really serious documentarians. As one describes his reason for going, "there are dark-skinned women with green eyes and big busts." This is perhaps not the highest of journalistic motives for such a trip.
From the beginning the plan sounds daring. The trip will cover some 10,000 miles. Neither man has much motorcycle experience and each has even less mechanical repair knowledge. Tiernan's cycle needs repair from the first time he tries to ride it. And the places where they are going have the reputation of being crime- ridden and with little modern convenience. Nor do the two seem to understand the basics of the governments and politics. They believe they are ready so set out without even considering they need visas. Perhaps their plans are overly optimistic.
One thing in their favor is the use of new(ish) electronic technology. Most places go they have Internet access. When they get lost they have GPS. When they need a place to stay they use couchsurfing.com.
In the end what the film shows is that even though travelers are incompetent, with sufficient electronics, an occasional airplane, and a lot of help from new friends, even a trip like this, some 10,000 miles, is possible.
Though some people are not well-met, e.g. corrupt officials and passport thieves, most people Tiernan and Matt met were friendly and anxious to offer help. They implicitly trusted the traveling duo. (Perhaps because they reasoned why would rich Americans steal from the poor.) At times they were incredibly lucky. In one adventure a lost wallet was retrieved (it is implied intact) after many hours.
The two clearly could not have completed their trip with a generous portion of the kindness of strangers. And perhaps equally valuable if not more so was the presence of the Internet. The film is very affirming but should come with a label that says the viewer should not try repeating the experience. I rate RIDE REPORT a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. The film was released on DVD on June 10 and one month later will be streaming on Hulu, Amazon, Cinema Libre on Demand.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2070793/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/ride_report/
Library Skills (letter of comment by Kathy Robinson):
In response to Mark's comments on library skills in the 06/06/14 issue of the MT VOID ("Our library just invested in a 3D printer. I told the head librarian that at one time a well-educated librarian needed to know the novels of Somerset Maugham. These days they are more valuable if they know how to fix a clogged plastic extruder."), Kathy Robinson writes:
As a librarian nearing the end of her career--what Mark says is not a joke ... technology expertise is an essential part of today's librarian's arsenal ... it was just beginning to be that way when I started some mumblemumble years ago. I'll never forget how excited we were when our second computer had 20KB of storage... [-kr]
It was intended to be ironic, but also was quite true. I was talking to the head librarian at our local public library and he commented that his day was being spent trying to figure out how to get the plastic extruder to work on the library's 3D printer. While in much of the world white-collar jobs are replacing blue- collar jobs, in libraries the trend seems to be in the opposite direction. [-mrl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Last week I finished up the nominees for the Retro Hugo for Best Novel of 1938; this week I will cover the novellas.
Best Novella (125 nominating ballots)
ANTHEM by Ayn Rand (ISBN 978-1-434-44089-1): Though of novella length, this is always published as a stand-alone book. The edition I have is the version re-edited in 1946 for its first American publication, and the foreword says, "This story was written in 1937. I have edited it for this publication, but have confined the editing to its style; I have reworded some passages and cut out some excessive language." Once again, the difficulty of fairly voting the Retro Hugos, when so many of the works seem to have been re-edited in the interim, is demonstrated. (People are complaining that this year's regular Hugos are a problem because Orbit is allowing only excerpts of their three novels to be included in the Hugo packet, but even with complete works, one has the question, "Complete as of when?"
Ayn Rand talks about "collectivism" in her foreword. I am not clear whether she means what we would call "socialism", or what we would call "Communism" (or whether she would recognize a difference). (For that matter, it is curious that those on the right these days no longer attack "Communism" but rather "socialism".)
Rand's book pre-dates George Orwell's 1984, but this does not mean she invented the concept: Yevgeny Zamiatin's WE, written in 1924, is generally considered to have strongly influenced the many dystopias that came after it.
Is "We are one in all and all in one" supposed to be an only slightly modified version of "E pluribus unum"?
Rand (or her narrator) says, "It is a sin to give men names which distinguish them from other men." But that is what "Equality 7- 2521" and "Liberty 5-3000" do, just as much as "The Golden One" and "The Unconquered". And later, he says, "There were men whose famous names we knew," which is surely evidence that there were names which distinguished people.
Rand's use of a modified grammar is interesting, although it does at times make understanding the book a bit tricky. I suppose the dystopia might have seemed new to readers unfamiliar with Zamiatin. And the whole House of Scholars sub-plot may have inspired a similar sub-plot in PLANET OF THE APES. But it is hard to judge this with 1938 eyes, and influential though it might have been, as a science fiction story it does not hold up, particularly with its descent into exhortation at the end. It could be that the problem is that ANTHEM carries its dystopian premises to extremes, undercutting its believability while 1984, for example, maintains a more realistic/believable level and so still holds up as a novel.
"A Matter of Form", H. L. Gold (Astounding Science-Fiction, December 1938; Frederik Pohl's ASSIGNMENT IN TOMORROW): This is a fairly good "mind-transference" story which even today could be made into a relatively low-budget family science fiction film. The idea has become more familiar with time, but Gold was probably one of the earlier authors to use it, and writes a quite readable story.
"Sleepers of Mars", John Beynon [John Wyndham] (Tales of Wonder, March 1938): I had forgotten how good a writer John Wyndham was; this reminded me. This needs to be read with not only a 1938 frame of mind, but also a British one. The fact is that in 1938 the idea that the first two rockets to Mars would be Soviet and British was not such a ridiculous idea. Wyndham operates against expectations by making the Soviets his main characters, not the British. Wyndham does an excellent job of conveying the emotions and feelings of the situation, and although one might dispute the hand- waving of the "hypnotic translator" to solve the communication problem, he does have a believable scenario.
The entire novella is infused with that resignation, lack of high expectation, and yes, downright pessimism that seemed to characterize English fiction for decades after World War I. One sees a bit of this sort of attitude in "Who Goes There?", but in general American science fiction was full of amazing inventions, far-flung explorations, and success after success. This can be attributed to the fact that England had suffered the entire four years of World War I (including being bombed), while the United States had come in for only the last eighteen months. (England lost 908,000 men, or about 2% of her population to the war; the United States lost 116,000, or 0.13%.) Works such as J. R. R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" were a response to the technological, industrialized means of war in the twentieth century. "Sleepers of Mars" also looks with a critical eye on the belief of intelligent beings in technology, and the failure of that technology to improve life.
"The Time Trap", Henry Kuttner (Marvel Science Stories, November 1938: Brian Aldiss's EVIL EARTHS): As with THE LEGION OF TIME, this is more a pulp adventure story with barbarian princesses et al than a scientific time travel story. And not just barbarian princesses, but *nude* barbarian princesses. The heroine gets her clothes ripped off and ends up nude *six* times, including one time with a reference to her "utter nudity" and another to her being "utterly nude." (And this is only a novella!) One thinks of a modification of THE WIZARD OF OZ lyric, "She's not only merely nude, she's really most sincerely nude." The villainess also takes off all her clothes at two different times.
The hero speaks the ancient root Semite tongue, a pre-Columbian South American dialect, and Chinese. And just to emphasize all this, Kuttner uses traditional pulp punctuation: lots of sentences ending in dashes, and lots of exclamation marks.
What was it in 1938 with sleepers in suspended animation in glass tubes? Two of the five novellas have them.
"Who Goes There?" by Don A. Stuart [John W. Campbell] (Astounding Science-Fiction, August 1938; Ben Bova's SCIENCE FICTION HALL OF FAME 2A): This is consistently voted among the best, if not *the* best, science fiction novella of all time, so unless the logical positivists mount a really strong campaign, I cannot see anything beating it, and I would not be surprised to see it win on the first round.
However, I will say that because this has been adapted into three movies (THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951), THE THING (1982), and THE THING (2011), it is important to judge this story on its own, and not based on recollections of the films. The story has no love interest, no reporter, no misguided scientist subplot, and no humor. The characters are all hard-boiled types, without the snappy banter of the 1951 film. It does have a fairly unenlightened view of aliens--pretty much all the humans decide this one is evil because it is ugly.
My ranking: "Sleepers of Mars", "Who Goes There?", "A Matter of Form", no award, "The Time Trap", ANTHEM
Next week, the novelettes and the short stories. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Yeats is becoming so aristocratic, he's evicting imaginary tenants. --Oliver St John GogartyTweet
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