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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society 08/19/16 -- Vol. 35, No. 8, Whole Number 1924
Table of Contents
Chamber Music (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I went to a classical chamber music concert, but as soon as I sat down they slammed the door of the classical chamber and piped in Classical Gas. [-mrl]
What Was I Thinking??? (Watching STAR TREK BEYOND) (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Normally I would review a major film like STAR TREK BEYOND as near as possible to the date of release. It occurs to me that there is no shortage of reviews at that time and for some people my review would be down several places on the list of reviews they would read. I will put in only minor spoilers.
Warning: This column has minor spoilers.
There, I said it. This column will run a few weeks after the film as been out, so anyone who cares will have probably heard about the film. Justin Lin directs the film. That was a new name to me. This is the third episode of the rebooted Star Trek film series. J.J. Abrams directed the first two. I prefer more ideas and fewer action sequences than Abrams favors. Under the hand of Justin Lin there seem to be even fewer ideas and more action.
The original series did all they could to have the episodes playable in any order. Only the later series provided an actual arc to the story. It makes a better story with characters and situations that develop. People who noticed the interchangeable property of episodes referred to the "reset button," which undid any major changes in the episode. But in STAR TREK BEYOND they go back to the resetting, and never has it been so obvious. There is what appears to be an irrevocable change to the series. Don't you believe it. The change is being blithely undone at the end of the film. Except for the death of Leonard Nimoy, I see little reason why STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS could not follow STAR TREK BEYOND.
The plot of the new "Star Trek" film gives the impression of being fairly complex, but it falls apart under scrutiny. It might well have been titled STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR MACGUFFIN. Okay, well it is STAR TREK III of the episodes set in the current universe. It has a MacGuffin plot. We are supposed to wonder what this artifact is all about, but it is extremely hard for even a sensitive New Age Guy like myself to commit and really care about the fate of another MacGuffin (after I worried through three long films about the fate of The One True Ring--but that is another story).
We are introduced to the MacGuffin in the opening sequence and it hangs over most of film as the reason everybody is doing what they are doing, whether they realize it or not. That is just what a MacGuffin does. When we do find out what the MacGuffin it is some part of a weapon that has mystical properties. But you have to expect that because, hey, this is space, and who knows what is out there? The script is reasonably well written but perhaps better suited to an hour-long episode. Director Justin Lin fills time with action scenes to bridge the plot developments. That would be more or less expected of Lin who is know for directing the "Fast & Furious" films short on plot but long on action.
Screenplay is written by Simon Pegg (who plays Scotty) and by Doug Jung (a new name to me, though I am intrigued that he is working on a science fiction thriller to be called THE GOD PARTICLE). One good touch is that there is less humor than in previous films. In this case less is more. When "Trek" writers try to get funny they have Scotty walking into bulkheads or getting stuck in the plumbing. One good touch is that they point out that the Enterprise has a particularly vulnerable spot to be a target for an attack. The neck that connects the saucer to the warp engines is an obvious target for a physical attack. This is the first time an enemy seems to have noticed the vulnerable spot and it makes up for lost time.
The script does provide a plot point to explain why Ambassador Spock (the late and lamented Leonard Nimoy) is exiting the series. The series owes a lot to Nimoy and now it will have to go on without him. On the other hand there is what will almost certainly be a continuing character, Jaylah (played by Sofia Boutella) whose character looks like she was inspired by Darth Maul. One very good touch is that the villain at the end of it all turns out not to be evil. He believes what he is doing is good.
Also not really explained is what is the gigantic urban space station, the Yorktown, doing in space. It has a population in the millions. That raises the question of what are all these people are doing on it. I am sure some people with Starfleet doing business with it might want a place like this. But who are the people on the Yorktown, how did they get there, and why are they there? It is like building a complex of luxury condos in Lapland, only on a much bigger scale. This is one of multiple spacecraft that have been given the name Yorktown.
One scene dropped in our lap is never fully explained. Either flying though a nebula or perhaps flying at hyper-warp speed give us a nifty looking image of the enterprise cutting through streams of something. We see it only once and I do not think we are told what it represents. If it looks nifty, don't ask. Speaking of a nebula, the Enterprise is directed to go to a planet in such-and- such nebula. This is not a very exact directive. Nebulae are hundreds of light years across.
It may be a function of the theater where I saw STAR TREK BEYOND, but two people I discussed the film with and I all had trouble making out the dialog. It was the same problem we had with INTERSTELLAR. It may be just a case of "in space nobody can hear what you're saying." Much too often dialog melted into the sound effects which were many and densely packed. The visual effects are also many, complex, and intricate. In this case that may be more of a virtue. The views we get of alien geology and even a little entomology, to pick an instance, are detailed and many do not look to me like terrestrial formations. They are delightfully alien. Scenes inside of spacecraft are similarly detailed and if they have any drawback, it is that they do not stay on the screen long enough to be appreciated. Not surprisingly there are ever more aliens with rubbery faces. But of course they are all humanoid. After all, how could anything intelligent not be humanoid?
Going from this film to watching some of the original series, the older sets look fairly threadbare. There is really too much detail to appreciate in part because most of the scenes are in a dark visual style. One would almost not believe that the old series and the current film take place in the same universe (which I guess they don't. Over the series the there is less talk and more action. I might have preferred the talk, which is where all the ideas could be found. There were good ideas in STAR TREK BEYOND, but you had to listen for them. In fact, the villain's motive for all he is doing is arguably the right thing to do and we know he is wrong primarily because he is opposing the good people of the Federation. [-mrl]
"Nearby" Earth-Like Planet (comments by Gregory Frederick):
Astronomers believe they have discovered an Earth-like planet around Proxima Centauri which is the closest star system to our own solar system. Though it is 4.25 light years from us, the proposed Project Starshot project wants to sent a very small sensor filled probe propelled by a very high-powered laser in that direction in the next ten years. This probe could travel at 20% of the speed of light and reach that star system in twenty years. So within the lifetime of many people living today we could see another Earth- like planet up close. Link is below:
SUICIDE SQUAD (film review by Dale L. Skran):
SUICIDE SQUAD has achieved an unusual distinction among superhero movies. According to a recent analysis, it has the greatest discrepancy between critic views on Rottentomatoes and fan views on the same site--about a 50% gap. This goes a long way to explaining why SQUAD is breaking August box office records while the critics carp about this and that. As of August 12th, SQUAD has hit $383M worldwide, with $175M production costs, so it appears on its way to financial success. By August 14th SQUAD reached $465M worldwide. In the latest episode of critical inanity on rottentomatoes, the tepid STAR TREK BEYOND is rated 74% fresh compared to 27% for SUICIDE SQUAD.
However, the big shocker here is that I disagree with Dan Kimmel on this movie. It is often the case the Dan and I will like a "fun" movie, while Mark Leeper will, shall we say, look askance at it. I'm not even sure Dan saw the same movie I did, as he was confused about whom the villain was, and why the SQUAD was fighting them.
Contrary to what you might think after reading the critic reviews, SQUAD is not "confusing" or "muddled." It makes more sense with regard to plot than most superhero movies, including most Marvel movies. The Joker is NOT the villain and plays a minor, almost comical role in SQUAD, rushing about to rescue Harley Quinn, who does not really need that much rescuing.
Margot Robbie is absolutely outstanding as the crazed love-sick Harley Quinn. At once dangerous and pathetic, sexy and skin- crawling, she owns the screen. Again, not sure what movie Dan Kimmel was watching here either. Viola Davis stands out as Amanda Waller, the spook who puts together the SQUAD, and is as much or more a monster as anyone on the Squad. Will Smith is decent as Deadshot, an assassin who never misses. Jay Hernandez convinces as a gang-banger with the power to control fire, or, who perhaps is fire, and a fear of what will happen if he releases that power. Cara Delevingne is okay as the possessed June Moon, but outstanding as the creepy Enchantress, especially early in the film before she re-gains her heart and starts to look more human.
SQUAD is not the R-rated foul-joke-fest of DEADPOOL, but is creepier than most of the superhero movies to date. Part of the creepiness is that DC is treading a lot closer to reality with the plots of BATMAN V SUPERMAN and SQUAD, and I am convinced that on some level a lot of folks, including movie critics, have a hard time dealing with this. SQUAD is a much more believable and realistic government reaction to the reality of meta-humans than the straight arrows of Marvel's SHIELD.
A particular thread of complaint is that SQUAD is racist and sexist, despite having possibly the most diverse cast and the strongest female characters of any of the superhero movies. SPOILER: the villain of SQUAD is female, the SQUAD member who beats the villain is female, and the person who creates the SQUAD is female. These characters are literally strong. They are all extremely dangerous, not very nice people. They are not mature females who are in touch with their feelings and preach a kind of homogenized feminism. It would be more accurate to describe them all as some combination of plain old crazy with a side dish of psychopathic tendencies and megalomania, but this might also describe a lot of great generals and political leaders we revere. One thing for sure, when they have conversations, it is not about men. At one point one of them refers to another as a "bitch." In context, it was a perfectly reasonable thing to be said. I read one critic who believed that this line was presented as being "liberating" (where this notion comes from is unclear at best!) but felt that in reality it was misogynistic. Again, not sure what movie this critic was watching, but I ask the viewer to consider alternative language that real a person might use in this circumstance. Perhaps we need to go back to things like "I spit at thee, foul villainess!"
Other critics think that SQUAD plays to ethnic stereotypes. In this telling, Waller is reduced to being "an angry black woman," Katana an Asian woman with "no identity," "El Diablo" is just a "gang banger," and Killer Croc continues the racist tradition of putting blacks in heavy makeup and giving them "animalistic" roles. This characterization is particularly unfair with regard to Amanda Waller, who is about as calm as you can get throughout the movie, and does not display, to my eyes anyway, "angry black" stereotypes. "El Diablo" is far from being a stereotyped "Hispanic gang banger," and is portrayed as a man who is both remorseful and heroic. Katana is one of many characters who are sketched in for SQUAD, but that one assumes would get more screen time in future movies. I found it particularly odd that the same critic who weighed in on Katana being an "Asian stereotype" complained that calling her Katana would be like calling her "Throwing Star." By this twisted logic, no superhero can be named after their favored weapon, so the "Green Arrow" must be called "Justice Crusader" and so on.
Of course, SQUAD has a lot of sketched in characters, and sketches of necessity of rely on stereotypes. Captain Boomerang is an awful caricature of an Australian. The Suicide Squad comics always had a large roster which can lead to superficial character development, and the movie is more of the same. What is most annoying is that a double standard seems to be applied to DC movies. Yes, Killer Croc is played by a black actor in heavy makeup who is portrayed as having animalistic characteristics. In STAR TREK BEYOND the "alien" villain turns out to be--drum roll--an angry black man in heavy make-up, who wants to kill mostly white members of the Federation for vague motives of revenge. Why isn't BEYOND assailed for racist usage of a black actor? Why don't the critics notice the lazy writing and superficial plot of BEYOND, which makes less sense than that of SQUAD?
Having said all this, SUICIDE SQUAD is not for kids. The heroes are all, at best, anti-heroes, and perverse sexuality is on display. I would take seriously the PG-13 rating, and reserve this one for older teens and up. SQUAD is not a great movie. I'm rating it in the +1 range on the -4 to +4 scale. One thing I did not like about it was that in the final fight scene for no particular reason Enchantress decides to fight the Squad using swords rather than her vast magical powers. The Joker could have been cut out completely, and the time saved used to better develop characters like Katana. Another problem with SQUAD is that some of the visual ideas appear to have been borrowed from GHOSTBUSTERS. SQUAD is not a perfect movie, but it is not a bad movie either, and it deserves better than the savaging it is getting from the critics. It is certainly tons more fun than BATMAN V SUPERMAN. [-dls]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I finally got around to reading the four-volume A HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH-SPEAKING PEOPLES (THE BIRTH OF BRITAIN, THE NEW WORLD, THE AGE OF REVOLUTION, THE NEW DEMOCRACIES) by Winston S. Churchill ISBN 978-0-880-29427-0).
Churchill begins back in the Neolithic Period (well, he starts with Caesar's invasion and then jumps back to the Neolithic), of which he writes, "At that point we can plainly recognise across the vanished milleniums a fellow-being. A biped capable of slaying another with iron is evidently to modern eyes a man and a brother."
At times he waxes poetic, perhaps even to the point of excess:
"From outside the uncouth barbarians smote upon the barriers. Here on the mainland were savage, fighting animals, joined together in a comradeship of arms, with the best fighting men and their progeny as leaders. In the rough-and-tumble of these communities, with all their crimes and bestialities, there was a more active principle of life than in the majestic achievements of the Roman Empire. We see these forces swelling like a flood against all the threatened dykes of the Roman world, not only brimming at the lip of the dam, but percolating insidiously, now by a breach, now in a mere ooze, while all the time men become conscious of the frailty of the structure itself. Floods of new untamed life burst ceaselessly from Asia, driving westward in a succession of waves. Against these there was no easy superiority of weapons. Cold steel and discipline and the slight capital surplus necessary to move and organise armies constituted the sole defences. If the superior virtue of the legion failed all fell. Certainly from the middle of the second century all these disruptive forces were plainly manifest. However, in Roman Britain men thought for many generations that they had answered the riddle of the Sphinx. They misconceived the meaning of her smile."
Churchill fills his work with small details that bring it alive. For example, in the fourth century, the Britons developed an invisibility cloak for their ships. Well, not really, but they painted them sea-green--"the vessels, the hulls, sails, the men's clothes, and even faces"--which made them, if not truly invisible against the sea, at least incredibly difficult to see at a distance.
He tells of Offa, who took over the Canterbury mint and had his name inscribed on their coins. One of them was "a gold dinar, copied from an Arabic die, and is stamped with the superscription 'rex Offa'. The Canterbury evidently regarded the Arabic as mere ornamentation, and all men would have been shocked had they known that it declared 'There is no God but one and Mahomet is his Prophet.'"
Churchill is a master of the understatement; speaking of the size of a Viking ship found in Norway in 1880, he writes, "It was remeasured with precision in 1944 in spite of other distractions."
Or, "It was Twelfth Night, and the Saxons, who in these days of torment refreshed and fortified themselves by celebrating the feasts of the Church, were off their guard, engaged in pious exercises, or perhaps even drunk."
Occasionally, it is the final aside that almost seems to be the point: "They were, in fact, the most audacious and treacherous type of pirate and shark that had ever yet appeared, and, owing to the very defective organisation of the Saxons and the conditions of the period, they achieved a fuller realisation of their desires than any of those who have emulated their proficiency--and there have been many."
When he writes, "This sublime power to rise above the whole force of circumstances, to remain unbiased by the extremes of victory or defeat, to persevere in the teeth of disaster, to greet returning fortune with a cool eye, to have faith in men after repeated betrayals, raises Alfred far above the turmoil of barbaric wars to his pinnacle of deathless glory," one hears echoes of Rudyard Kipling's "If".
Churchill claims, "The tailed comet or 'hairy star' which appeared at the time of Harold's coronation is now identified by astronomers as Halley's Comet, which had previously heralded the Nativity of Our Lord; and it is evident that this example of divine economy in the movements for mundane purposes of celestial bodies might have been turned by deft interpretation to Harold's advantage." Actually, the consensus is that the "Star of Bethlehem" was *not* Halley's comet, which would have been visible in 11 B.C.E., too early by any accepted dating of the Nativity.
Not surprisingly, Churchill weighs in on the Richard III controversy: saint or devil? Churchill begins by admitting that Sir Thomas More's account was completely biased against Richard and for the Tudors (who were, after all, usurpers by any reasonable standard):
"Sir Thomas More late in the next reign wrote his celebrated history. His book was based of course on information given him under the new and strongly established regime. His object seems to have been less to compose a factual narrative than a moralistic drama. In it Richard is evil incarnate, and Henry Tudor, the deliverer of the kingdom, all sweetness and light. The opposite view would have been treason. Not only is every possible crime attributed by More to Richard, and some impossible ones, but he is presented as a physical monster, crookbacked and withered of arm. No one in his lifetime seems to have remarked these deformities, but they are now very familiar to us through Shakespeare's play."
And of course Shakespeare also wrote under the Tudors. So Churchill admits More is untrustworthy, and that the physical characteristics attributed to Richard were at best overstated, if not entirely fictitious. (The recent discovery of Richard's skeleton indicates that there was at least some deformity, but the X-rays they show of Richard's spine look a lot like those of mine with its scoliosis, and I am not quite the deformed monster Richard is described as.)
But after acknowledging all this, Churchill goes on to say, "Needless to say, as soon as the Tudor dynasty was laid to rest defenders of Richard fell to work, and they have been increasingly busy ever since. More's tale however has priority." In order words, we know we cannot trust More, but we have no other account, so we will accept his. Churchill then recounts the June 13 Tower scene as told by More as if it is fact.
Churchill claims that after the second Prince was moved to the Tower, "neither he nor his brother was ever to leave [it] again." It is not clear what his source is for this.
He also admits (as far as I can tell) that Edward IV does seem to have been married to someone (either Elizabeth Lucy or Eleanor Butler) before his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, which means that if Richard III did claim Edward IV's children by Elizabeth Woodville were bastards, he was right.
"It is contended by the defenders of King Richard that the Tudor version of these events has prevailed. But the English people who lived at the time and learned of the events day by day formed their convictions two years before the Tudors gained power, or were indeed a prominent factor. Richard III held the authority of government. He told his own story with what facilities were available, and he was spontaneously and almost universally disbelieved. Indeed, no fact stands forth more unchallengeable than that the overwhelming majority of the nation was convinced that Richard had used his power as Protector to usurp the crown and that the princes had disappeared in the Tower. It will take many ingenious books to raise this issue to the dignity of a historical controversy."
Of course, he does not provide specific citations for his claims. THE BIRTH OF BRITAIN was published a few years after Josephine Tey's THE DAUGHTER OF TIME, so all this is probably somewhat in response to this. (That Churchill had not read THE DAUGHTER OF TIME, which discussed at length his role in the Tonypandy riots, does not bear consideration.)
Churchill also writes:
"It is certain that the helpless children in the Tower were not seen again after the month of July 1483. Yet we are invited by some to believe that they languished in captivity, unnoticed and unrecorded, for another two years, only to be done to death by Henry Tudor. According to Sir Thomas More's story, Richard resolved in July to extirpate the menace to his peace and sovereignty presented by the princes."
Back to the unreliable More again.
He then writes:
"In the reign of Charles II, when in 1674 the staircase leading to the chapel in the White Tower was altered, the skeletons of two young lads, whose apparent ages fitted the two princes, were found buried under a mass of rubble. They were examined by the royal surgeon, and the antiquaries reported that they were undoubtedly the remains of Edward V and the Duke of York. Charles accepted this view, and the skeletons were reburied in Henry VII's Chapel at Westminster with a Latin inscription laying all blame upon their perfidious uncle, "the usurper of the realm". This has not prevented various writers, among whom Horace Walpole is notable, from endeavouring to clear Richard of the crime, or from attempting to cast it, without any evidence beyond conjecture, upon Henry VII. However, in our own time an exhumation has confirmed the view of the disinterested authorities of King Charles's reign."
Actually, all an exhumation could confirm is the approximate age of the two skeletons, and the approximate year they died. The margin of error in these cannot allow a "confirmation" that they were killed during Richard's reign, and as far as they might guess the cause of death, it could apply to either Richard or Henry VII. But Churchill tries a quick hand-waving (I am sure there is a name for this logical fallacy) to convince the reader it has been proved that Richard is the villain.
The irony is that while Churchill cites as support for Richard's villainy that the people supposedly feared him, etc., in THE NEW WORLD he says that in spite of the murders, burnings, persecutions, tortures, "severe penalties," and oppression by Henry VIII, "yet his subjects did not turn from Henry in loathing." This certainly would seem to indicate that the villainy or lack thereof in a monarch is not necessarily reflected in the people's feelings towards him (or her).
[Oddly, this series does not seem to have been issued unabridged in a single-volume, though it might be possible, as it totals 1760 pages, while the unabridged LES MISERABLES is 1488 in mass-market paperback. Also, I will not that it ends with the Boer War, probably because after that point, Churchill had become involved in politics and so, when writing this work, felt either that he could not be objective or that he would not appear objective.]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: That's my only goal. Surround myself with funny people, and make sure everyone has a good time and works hard. --Joe RoganTweet
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