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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society 02/12/21 -- Vol. 39, No. 33, Whole Number 2158
Table of Contents
Mini Reviews, Part 7 (NEWS OF THE WORLD, TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG) (film reviews by Mark R. Leeper):
Here is the seventh batch of mini-reviews, two "Westerns" (okay, one takes place in Australia, but it has all the tropes of a Western; see the article following).
NEWS OF THE WORLD: Tom Hanks is working his way through all the genres, and this is his first Western (playing a cowboy in the "Toy Story" series doesn't count). One thing noted immediately is that the clothing wardrobe is very different from what one usually sees in Westerns. We see the chaos of a Southern (Texan) town getting "civilized," but without the usual saloon fights. Hanks as a traveling news reader serving those who have no time to read the news, or are illiterate, is an occupation rarely or never seen in Western films. (It is reminiscent of that of lector in Cuban cigar factories.) The stories are less the major world or national events, but more human interest or entertainment stories of the sort in David Mamet's "The Water Machine". Hanks's character finds ten-year-old Johanna (played by Helena Zengel), who had been kidnapped by Kiowas six years earlier. After the Kiowas were killed, she is on her own and Hanks agrees to take her to her German relatives several hundred miles away. There are echoes of THE SEARCHERS, TRUE GRIT, OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, and even MATEWAN in this film, which is not necessarily a bad thing. (Note: Texas was re-admitted to the Union in March 1870, so this must take place in January or February.) Released 12/25/20. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4)
TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG: This has slow pacing and a photo-realistic style, but it is not terribly entertaining. This is the story of Ned Kelly--bush ranger, gang leader, outlaw, criminal, and Australian folk hero who used a boiler tank as fighting armor. (This is the nineteenth on-screen telling (including seven feature films.) It is marred by anachronistic rock music. Released 04/24/20; available on Amazon Prime and on Bluray. Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4)
What Is a Western? (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
[There will be some spoilers.]
A few years ago we went to the Autry Museum of Western Heritage. Not surprisingly, we spent a lot of time in the hall devoted to film and popular culture. One exhibit towards the end asked the very intriguing question: "What is a Western?"
For example, they gave the description: "Two misunderstood and alienated outlaw buddies cross the American West trying to elude a posse and escape the border. The chase ends abruptly, and the leading characters choose violent but honorable death over capture." Is this a Western?
If you say yes, and I tell you that the movie is THELMA AND LOUISE, does that change your mind? If I tell you that, no, it is really BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, what does that do?
Just as it is impossible to define science fiction, it may be impossible to define the western. Just as there is a list of books that one puts forward to test definitions of science fiction (and to test the "line" between fantasy and science fiction), so is there a list of films that test the boundaries of a definition of the Western, and I would propose the following:
Let's go through the list one by one.
BRONCO BILLY takes place in the West, and involves a Wild West show, but the setting is modern, and the story is more about the interface between what Bronco Billy sees as the code of the Old West, and that (if any) of the modern world. (GREY OWL is a similar movie.)
Now, I would think that DANCES WITH WOLVES is clearly a Western, but I have heard people claim it is not. I suppose the idea is that it has too modern a sensibility, or too many Indians, or something--don't ask me.
THE GRAPES OF WRATH (and OF MICE AND MEN) also takes place in the West. The latter even has two buddies traveling together. But both are set well into the 20th century. Also, the people in both are traveling ranch help, but they are working with crops rather than cattle.
KINGS OF THE SUN deals with settlers encountering hostile Indians, but the settlers are Mayans, they have traveled to the western coast of Mexico, and the hostile Indians are Toltecs.
The book THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS was displayed in one of the other exhibits at the Museum. It has a lot of the basic elements we expect in a Western: the frontier, settlers, a fort, hostile Indians, and so on. The only problem is that it takes place in upstate New York. I suppose one can argue that at the time of the story, that *was* the West.
MARK OF ZORRO (and all the other Zorro movies) takes place in the West (Los Angeles is about as far west as one can get in the continental United States), but the whole dynamic seems wrong for a Western. (Later sequels had a more Western feel.)
QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER would appear be the quintessential Western. It has all the tropes, except that it is a little too far west--Australia to be precise.
RED SUN takes place in the West--our West, the Old West. The fact that one of the two main characters is a samurai makes it a bit iffy, though.
THE SEVEN FACES OF DR. LAO has a Chinese main character, but that is not the problem (there were lots of Chinese in the West). The problem is that there seems to be too much emphasis on the fantasy elements and not much Western flavor.
WHITE FANG is a representative of a particular sub-branch of Western, the Northwestern. Yes, there really is such a concept, and apparently audiobooks marketed to truckers find this a very popular category.
(I have not seen KINGS OF THE SUN, so cannot comment further on it.)
So where does this leave us? Location is obviously not sufficient, since a "save-the-ranch" film set in Nebraska in 1870 would almost definitely qualify, while the same film set in 1970 would not. But it is necessary either, because QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER and THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS would seem to qualify.
Time period is not sufficient--MARK OF ZORRO seems a bit iffy even though the era is right. (Or is it? Maybe it is too early to be a Western?) The older time period may not even be necessary--what about THELMA AND LOUISE and BRONCO BILLY?
It is tempting to say that it is a combination--there needs to be a "frontier" and that is a combination of both time and place. THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS takes place on a frontier, as does QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER, as does DANCES WITH WOLVES. RED SUN, in spite of its unusual main character, qualifies on this basis. And WHITE FANG is certainly on a frontier. One can even argue that some of the movies take place on frontiers between cultures (for example, BRONCO BILLY). But MARK OF ZORRO does not take place on a frontier--Los Angeles is settled, has a stable government, and displays none of the characteristics of a frontier. The same is true of THE GRAPES OF WRATH, OF MICE AND MEN, and THE SEVEN FACES OF DR. LAO. For all their similarities with the Western, I would say that they lack the basic trope of the frontier.
Now I am sure that other people can pick holes in this--they may be willing to extend the genre to cover some of what I have excluded, or exclude some of what I have covered. Even I am not entirely satisfied--THE NEW WORLD and POCAHONTAS just do not seem to be Westerns, frontier or no. It could be that this is an exercise in futility, and that Westerns, like science fiction, are what we point to when we say it. [-ecl]
A GHOST WAITS (film review by Mark R. Leeper and Evelyn C. Leeper):
A GHOST WAITS is a new take on an old idea. Muriel is fairly successfully haunting a house: all the renters break their lease and run away, in a set of shots of household pandemonium under the titles. (The last one even leaves a bookcase full of books!)
Then Jack shows up to prep the house for the next renters and he isn't scared off so easily. In fact, for a long time we don't hear anything other than background music Jack is playing or see anything besides Jack talking to himself. Eventually more ghostly things start happening. It still seems like a feature-length skit, but this is a movie of slow reveals. We find out that there is more to the haunting than just a ghost who cannot rest, and it is not revealing anything the advertising doesn't when I say that it is more a rom-com than a horror film.
Filmed in black and white, with the ghost lit from under her chin, A GHOST WAITS was definitely influenced by classic ghost stories such as TOPPER and THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR. Nevertheless, it blazes its own trail. It surpasses expectations, and while it is ultimately more promising than accomplished, its use of an interesting concept makes it worth seeing.
Opened 11/20/20; available on Apple TV. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4)
"Across the Green Grass Fields" by Seanan McGuire (copyright 2021, Macmillan Audio, 4 hours and 3 minutes, ASIN: B087V7BT2B, narrated by Annamarie Carlson) (audiobook review by Joe Karpierz):
"Across the Green Grass Fields" is the sixth installment in Seanan McGuire's "Wayward Children" series. "Every Heart a Doorway", the first entry, won the Hugo Award for Best Novella in 2017, and all but one of them have been Hugo finalists since then. Like the other six novellas, "Across the Green Grass Fields" follows the adventures of a child who stumbles through a magical doorway into a land that is not their own, but is a land in which they are accepted. The children are usually different from "normal", and one way or another find themselves in Eleanor West's School for Wayward Children. This latest novella is a standalone within the series. We never do get to the school here, and it's not clear that the setting is the same world as the other novellas, but since the doors appear when they are needed, we can assume it is.
Regan is different, but for the longest time she doesn't know why. All she knows is that she isn't maturing like the other girls. When she gets to be ten years old, she confronts her parents, asking what is wrong with her. Her parents assure her that there is nothing wrong with her, and in fact she is exactly who she is supposed to be. The difference is that she's intersex. Now that she has an explanation for the situation, on that she can live with, she goes on with her life. She confides in her best friend Laurel of the situation, who turns against Regan when she hears the story. Regan runs away from school, runs away from--just for a while, of course--and run through a magical door. She finds herself in the Hooflands, where centaurs herd unicorns (As an aside, the concept of unicorns being herd animals is something I've never heard of. I've never actually thought of unicorns having to be, uh, "cleaned up after", but the image was funny to me.), and there are all sorts of fantastical hooved creatures, as one would expect. Regan is taken in to band of unicorns and is treated as a family member. She does the work that is expected of her, and she befriends one of the centaur girls, Chicory. And while things get rough for the Centaurs because of Regan--a human--they treat her as one of their own.
But it's that fact of being human that is the crux of the matter. Every time a human appears, something momentous happens. Usually that humans save the residents of the Hooflands from something evil. In this case, it turns out to be the Queen. The Queen wants Regan for herself so that she can keep a close eye on her. Regan doesn't want to go to the Queen until she has to. The confrontation, which takes a turn that the reader doesn't see coming--well, *I* didn't, anyway--is the crux of the story, and the event which eventually sends Regan home, many years after she ran away.
The themes of the novella are the usual ones in the "Wayward Children" series: children who are shunned by society because they are different from others, the opposing sides of children who are cruel to each other and those who love their friends despite their differences, and children finding their own way no matter who or what they are.
I'm finding more and more that unless a narrator either a) is so good that I'd listen to anything they read--think Jefferson Mays, narrator for the Expanse novels, or b) is so bad I'd never listen to anything read by them again--I haven't come across one yet--as long as the narrator doesn't get in the way, I'm happy. Such is the case with Annamarie Carlson.
"Across the Green Grass Fields" is a solid, serviceable entry in the Wayward Children series. It is by no means my favorite in the series, that place being held by "Down Among the Sticks and Bones", nor is it my least favorite. It has both strong and weak points, as most books do. Fans of the series will like it, and as a standalone it is a nice entry point for readers coming in to the series for the first time. [-jak]
SWORD AND SCIMITAR by Raymond Ibrahim (book review by Gregory Frederick):
This is a riveting military history book. It offers blow-by-blow concise accounts of eight battles, and interprets them in the context of the times. The author also advances larger cultural and religious issues. It starts with the first major Islamic attack on Christian land at the Battle of Yarmuk in A.D. 636 and goes up to the European colonization of the Muslin world in the 1800s. Therefore battles at Yarmuk, Tours, Manzikert, Constantinople and Vienna are discussed as well as the crusades in Syria and Spain.
The author brings out these following points. First, Islamic armies saw themselves as expansionary and driven in a messianic way. Second, while there were localized and internal political and tribal rivalries, Muslim armies went to war against the West often as religious rather than as national or ethnic forces. Third, the author sees continuity between the past and into the present. This continuity includes the concept that Muslim religious leaders and jihadists have characteristically seen Christianity as both antithetical to the Islamic world and a target for conquest or conversion. This is a well-written book that can explain much about the conflict between the Islamic world and the West. [-gf]
NASA Mars Perseverance Project (comments by Gregory Frederick):
A really cool thing happened recently. Last night I was talking to one of the chief scientists on the NASA Mars Perseverance rover project. This mobile robot will land next month on Mars. It is similar to the Curiosity rover on Mars now but has a different set of mission goals. It is to search for clues of ancient microbial life that possibly was on Mars. It will do more geology research too. It will collect samples drilled from the surface of Mars and deploy these samples in sealed containers on the surface for latter missions to eventually send back to Earth. It carries the first vehicle to fly (without rockets) on Mars. It has a small helicopter that will fly ahead of the robot and send it info about what is ahead for it to avoid or to study. This meeting was part of a Zoom conference with my Astronomy club. This scientist designed the Supercam which is a device that sits on top of the central mast and shoots a laser at rocks to energize and vaporize the material. The robot can then determine the elements and minerals in the rock. [-gf]
Heroes (letter of comment by Peter Rubinstein):
In response to Jim Susky's comments on heroes in the 02/05/21 issue of the MT VOID, Peter Rubinstein writes:
Anybody from New England can tell you that a "hero" is a sandwich. [-pir]
No, the sandwich is a grinder. [-ecl]
OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY and Archive.org (letter of comment by Kip Williams):
In response to Jim Susky's comments on his temporary lack of access to the OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY in the 02/05/21 issue of the MT VOID, Kip Williams writes:
Archive.org has OEDs for one-hour checkout, a volume at a time. I suppose they have an entire edition of it there. My eye lit upon "volume 17" in a field of preview pictures that mostly didn't say which identical-looking black cover was which, so it's plausible, at least.
/If you haven't been following it, Archive was stung by authors who, for some reason, resented their still-in-print books being handed out for free, and as a result has pulled way back on two-week loans (with the possibility of DRM-packing PDFs for offline reading). The present system of short-short lending periods--though two weeks is still a possibility with titles that they know they have multiple iterations of--seems to work well enough if you can stand to read books on your computer./ [-kw]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
The SF book and film group discussed THE PRESTIGE by Christopher Priest (Tor, 978-0-312-85886-5) and the film THE PRESTIGE by Christopher Nolan. That both are named Christopher is ... appropriate.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
I read the book when it came out, and saw the film when it came out, and the two were far enough apart that I didn't note how different the two were.
Both have the same secret for Borden (and for the Chinese magician), and both have Tesla building a transporter (though they vary in process).
In the book, there is a present-time sequence; in the film, it takes place entirely in the early 20th Century.
In the book Angier buys Borden's diary and vice versa; in the film it is only the latter.
In the book, Angier and his wife are spiritualists and when Borden exposes them, the wife is injured and suffers a miscarriage; in the film, Borden and Angier work together at the beginning Borden and Angier's wife agree on an unsafe knot, which kills her. That makes the stakes in the rivalry much higher.
In the book, there are many hints at Borden's secret from the start of his diary; in the film, the first real hint of Borden's secret is at Angier's wife's funeral. In addition, the use of the diary allows for a lot of "playfulness" with the English language that is quite mystifying the first time one reads it. The second time it is quite impressive.
In the book, there is no bullet catch; in the film, the bullet catch injures Borden.
in the book, there is no bird cage trick; in the film, the bird cage trick injures Angier's audience member, and various children can tell what has happened.
In the book, Angier does not bury Fallon alive; in the film, he does.
In the book, Sarah does not hang herself; in the film, she does.
In the book, Angier's original is turned to some sort of rubbery sculpture; in the film, he has to drown the original, who is basically a clone (or rather, he is the clone).
In the book, at the end of the sabotaged trick there are two Angiers, described as one the body and one the soul; in the film, there are not.
In the book, Borden does not shoot Angier; in the film, he does.
And of course, in the film there are a lot of visual "tricks"--for example, we see glimpses of Fallon much earlier than we are introduced to him (much as in THE GREAT GATSBY, we see glimpses of Leonardo DiCaprio at the party before we see him fully). But it isn't until at least the second viewing that we recognize Fallon.
In spite of all these differences, I won't say that one is better than the other, but that I recommend both. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Opinions have vested interests just as men have. --Samuel ButlerTweet
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