MT VOID 02/06/98 (Vol. 16, Number 32)

MT VOID 02/06/98 (Vol. 16, Number 32)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 02/06/98 -- Vol. 16, No. 32

Table of Contents

Outside events: The Science Fiction Association of Bergen County meets on the second Saturday of every month in Upper Saddle River; call 201-933-2724 for details. The New Jersey Science Fiction Society meets on the third Saturday of every month in Belleville; call 201-432-5965 for details.

MT Chair/Librarian:
       Mark Leeper   MT 3E-433  732-957-5619
HO Chair:     John Jetzt    MT 2E-530  732-957-5087
HO Librarian: Nick Sauer    HO 4F-427  732-949-7076
Distinguished Heinlein Apologist:
       Rob Mitchell  MT 2D-536  732-957-6330
Factotum:     Evelyn Leeper MT 3E-433  732-957-2070
Back issues at
All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.

URL of the week: Bernard Werber's home page. [Warning: it's in French.] [-ecl]

Film Fest: Let's get this over with. Our next Leeperhouse film festival is going to feature a Shakespeare film.

Okay, I know I just lost a bunch of you. Now at least we have a smaller and more intimate group. Truth is I knew they were going to leave. Or they would have when they heard that our next film festival will not even be one of Shakespeare's light-hearted comedies. We will be showing RICHARD III.

Oops, we just lost a whole bunch more. Well, now that we are down to the serious few people I will say that this production of RICHARD III is done in modern dress.

Uh-oh, now we have lost just about everybody left. Hey, thanks for sticking around, Charlie and you two or three others. In any case, what we are going to show is the 1995 version of RICHARD III starring Ian McKellan. This is the alternate history Richard III set in a very stylish 1930s Britain. It is the one with tanks and planes and a fascist takeover of Britain, all to Shakespeare's words. This is Shakespeare as it has never been done. Your mileage may vary, but I think this transcends the academic experience to be an actual fun film. We will show it February 12 at 7:30pm at the Leeperhouse. My original review follows.

RICHARD III (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: This is nothing less than the most enjoyable performance of Shakespeare I can remember seeing. By staging RICHARD III sumptuously in 1930s England, Richard Eyre's stage production, the basis of this film, has created a fascinating parallel history in which the dynastic rivalries of the War of the Roses occurred in the 20th Century. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4)

I generally do not like to see historical dramatic works done in modern dress. I was excited when the Bayreuth production of Wagner's RING OF THE NIBELUNGS was to be broadcast in this country, but when all of the fantasy was sucked out by staging it in late 19th Century dress, I decided that I was not really so anxious to see it after all. It seemed an attempt to replace the magic with social comment. But in this film, based on a popular London stage production, the modern context is as much the show as the story. We have a Britain in an age to which we can relate brought under the control of a Fascist King. Suddenly it is clear why modern dress (relatively speaking) can open up and even transform the meaning of a story. RICHARD III is told with visual imagination and panache unusual for a 1930s film or a Shakespeare play. There are huge sets out of THE TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, while other scenes have almost the flair of a Terry Gilliam. The view of 1930s England has a nicely accurate and detailed view even if this is politically a very different 1930s England than the one we know from history.

Ian McKellen gives us a more immediate and riveting Richard than the one we are used to from Laurence Olivier. A bit more soft- spoken than we usually think of for Richard, he nonetheless makes a chilling and wonderfully vicious Fascist dictator. Americans Annette Benning and Robert Downey, Jr., at first may seem odd choices for Elizabeth and her brother the Earl Rivers, but a 1930s King of England might well have married an American and for once it might be perfectly reasonable to cast Americans in Richard III. The major roles are nearly all played by familiar and respected British actors. If Downey plays his fey playboy a little too broadly there is the marvelous casting of Adrian Dunbar, formerly cast as sweet and callow in HEAR MY SONG, here as the amoral assassin Tyrell.

Stylistically the film has some terrific moments, oozing period feel. Richard's political rally seems to come from somewhere between Nazi Germany and Ruritania with its boar's head party symbol. Great art deco buildings, stylish royal residences and sterile hospital hallways form the setting. The battle scenes are unexpectedly violent but also unrealistically brief. Richard's army seems much too easily beaten at the end of the film. The final minute of the film is perhaps the worst stylistic misstep of the film leaving the viewer with a slightly bad taste in his mouth. The only other real problem with the style is that the invented setting is so compelling and has such a powerful effect on the thrust of the film that the staging threatens to overshadow even Shakespeare's writing. Considering the wit of the writing, that says a great deal.

While I enjoyed the warm Tuscan feel of Kenneth Branagh's MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, it just never was as riveting this amazing production of RICHARD III. It may end a minority opinion but this exciting adaptation was for me the better of the two films and I rate this film a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

Seaside Town: The chic seaside town depended on street artists to draw tourists, but it was the wishing well that attracted the greatest number of well-wishers. [-mrl]

PHANTOMS: (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: An evil older than life on Earth takes possession of a Colorado town in a horror film featuring Peter O'Toole. The popular horror novelist Dean R. Koontz adapts one of his most enjoyable novels, but it loses a great deal on its way to the screen. All of the gunfire is here, but the intriguing possibilities are sadly toned down. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4) A Heavy Duty Spoiler follows the review, but I really want to discuss the ideas.
New York Critics: 1 positive, 5 negative, 0 mixed

If you are going to take a long novel and adapt it for the screen, you are essentially cutting it to the length of a novelette. Something has to go. It must have been a painful task for Dean Koontz to cut down the scope of his novel. He had to make a lot of choices as to what would play to a horror film audience. I remember consciously thinking when I read the novel PHANTOMS that I would have been willing to go through everything in the novel up to this point, all the horror, if I could just be in on this one conversation between a human and... well... something that was definitely a long way beyond human. That moment--chapters long in the book--either did not make it to the film or passes by so quickly that it is hardly noticeable. The moments when something violent or repulsive is happening seem to go on forever, but my little moment with its sense of wonder seems to have been pushed aside. Shame on you, Mr. Koontz, for not recognizing what was really unique powerful about your own novel. Instead we have one more horror film with grisly gore and in-your-face special effects. On the other hand, at least it is played seriously. This is all material that could have been played for laughs and perhaps the film's greatest strength is that it was not If anyone is going to treat Koontz's ideas seriously, it is going to be Koontz.

Dr. Jennifer Pailey (played by Joanna Going) lives in the high Colorado town of Snowfield. She brings her sister Lisa (Rose McGowan) to the town for a visit and to get her away from the corrupting influence of life in Los Angeles. She does not imagine that what she is bringing Lisa to is far worse than what she is leaving. Their first discovery on arriving is that Jenny's landlady is lying dead on the floor of her home, her skin having turned strange colors. It is quite a shock, and it is only the first. When they go to report it to the police, the officer on duty is dead with identical symptoms. Most of the town is empty and those that are still there are dead. This explains why the streets seem so quiet. As in ANDROMEDA STRAIN they find that whenever it happened, whatever "it" was, some people died immediately and some went slowly insane. Finally after wandering the museum of horror that had been Snowfield, they find three living people, the sheriff (played by Ben Affleck) and his two deputies, also returning from out of town. As they investigate they find the telephones will connect them only with a mumbling presence, but whatever killed the town is still present and still a danger. More exploration turns up no new survivors, but a cryptic message "Timothy Flyte the Ancient Enemy." It is on this clue that the whole understanding of the nature of the menace will hinge. Eventually the military is informed of what has happened and they enter the town to find out what has happened. The Army brings in a scientist (Peter O'Toole) with an oddball theory as to what happened to Snowfield, tying it into previously unexplained historical incidents.

The cast is of lesser-known actors, all but Ben Affleck and, of course, Peter O'Toole. Frankly, great actors are not really needed here, though the script calls for some, the doctor and the sheriff, perhaps to be a little older than the very young actors featured in this film. Under the direction Joe Chappelle the principles give their lines but add little to the film beyond acting menaced. There is only one actor who has to go beyond that. Peter O'Toole has to act the role of a latter-day Dr. Van Helsing, a joke in the scientific community but with the spark of an idea that might explain a lot of history. He has to walk a gentle tightrope between being wise and being a little unstrung. That is the same tightrope that O'Toole had to walk in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, and in spite of my initial skepticism on seeing him in the role, perhaps he was just what it needed.

PHANTOMS runs its good ideas past the viewer much too fast, but at least they are there. It feels like a very much scaled down version of the novel. I give it a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.

Spoiler...Spoiler...Spoiler...Spoiler.. .

What is nicely done in the film but far better in the book is how the theories of the nature of the enemy change in the course of the book. It starts seeming like some sort of disease, a la THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN. Then it appears more malevolent and seems like some sort of shape-changer. Then the characters realize they are in contact with, and talking to, the force of evil going back to the beginning of time. They are essentially in conversation with the Devil and it is affably talking to them. Think of what an opportunity that would be. The film sort of flashes over it, but what if you really could discuss history with the force behind all evil. Suppose you could discuss history with a being that has been here since the beginnings of time, marshaling the most powerful side in the battle between good and evil. What would you ask first? I mean this would be better than getting Saddam Hussein on MEET THE PRESS. Finally the concept transforms again to come up with a science fictional explanation for the Devil through the ages and even that concept is intriguing. It is much muted in this adaptation, but even in the film some intriguing possibilities come through. [-mrl]

EMPIRE OF THE ANTS by Bernard Werber (translated by Margaret Rocques) (Bantam, ISBN 0-553-09613-3, 1998 (1991), 256pp, US$23.95) (a book review by Evelyn C. Leeper):

Almost everyone who describes this says it's like WATERSHIP DOWN, except with ants instead of rabbits. Yes, it starts out that way (though with far more central and developed human characters as well), but it goes somewhere that WATERSHIP DOWN doesn't.

In the near future, Jonathan Edwards inherits his uncle's apartment, with the instruction, "Above all, never go down into the cellar." It doesn't take a rocket scientist (or even an entomologist) to figure out that going down into the basement is precisely what the human characters will do.

The book's strength is in its depiction of an alien lifeform: ants. One can argue that Werber's ants have more consciousness and intelligence that is possible given their brain mass, but then the same could be said of the rabbits in WATERSHIP DOWN. If one is willing to suspend disbelief, the mental processes and motivations of the various ants--and there are several different varieties--are fascinating. Werber apparently spent years researching ants, and it has paid off in his description of ant life. He has the external appearance (actions, etc.) of the ant colonies down pat. His extrapolation of the motivations is, as I have said, unlikely, but as a theory they have the advantage of fitting and explaining all the facts.

The human characters are not as interesting or believable. Like the characters in so many horror movies, they are all attracted by the forbidden cellar, and head down there, with very few precautions or even (apparently) concerns.

This was a best-seller in Europe, and while it almost definitely won't achieve that status here, it is worth reading if you are interested in reading works from an alien point of view. [-ecl]

DECEIVER: (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: A prostitute has been murdered and a self-admitted liar is the chief suspect, in spite of little evidence. This is a complex story about the nature of truth in which things are rarely what they seem. The problem is that the clues are not conclusive and are left contradictory. This is a USUAL SUSPECTS wannabe but is not nearly so well-written. Rating: 5 (0 to 10), low +1 (-4 to +4)

Jonas and Josh Pate co-wrote and co-directed this enigmatic crime film. Two pieces that together make up one dead prostitute, Elizabeth (played by Renee Zellweger in flashbacks), have been found. The police investigation has turned up a most unusual suspect, Wayland (Tim Roth). Wayland is the misfit heir to a textile fortune. The evidence tying Wayland to the prostitute is very weak: she simply died with his phone number in her pocket. But Wayland acts guilty and a two-man team of policemen administer a series of polygraph lie detector tests to Wayland. In little flashbacks we get to know the policemen. There is Kennesaw (Michael Rooker) and Braxton (Chris Penn). Each has complications in his life at the moment. Kennesaw has a beautiful but wayward wife (Rosanne Arquette) that he does not want to lose, but he has fits of rage about the situation. Braxton is a younger man, a security guard turned cop. We are explicitly his IQ is a lowly 101 and he certainly is not one of the more promising policemen on the force. He also has gotten into trouble with a flamboyant bookie (played by--are your ready for this?--Ellen Burstyn) and he desperately needs money that he hopes to borrow from Kennesaw. Braxton and Kennesaw work as a team to try to break down Wayland, but it is not clear that even his answers on the polygraph are dependable. Even on the polygraph Wayland may be playing a deadly game of deception.

Tim Roth is, of course, second only to Steve Buscemi as the king of bizarre roles in arthouse films. His smooth strange manner is just about right for this film. He maintains a wall around himself inside which he remains aloof even from the audience. Most of the rest of the casting is prosaic. By far the most interesting choice is to have Ellen Burstyn as the bookie and kingpin Mook, complete with glitter eye-shadow. It is, of course, in stark contrast to the matronly roles we expect of her, and while we see her in only two scenes, her face is the one image of the film that sticks in my memory. Photography by Bill Butler is dark and moody.

DECEIVER is clearly an attempt to make another puzzle crime film in the tradition of THE USUAL SUSPECTS. It is the sort of story that does not really begin until the film is over and the audience has all the clues and then can start trying to piece them together. Generally that is a very good touch, but there has to be at least one real solution and way to get to it. It goes wrong, however, in DECEIVER because the clues do not seem to lead in a coherent way to a solution. It is an art in a puzzle story to leave enough clues about what is going on so that the viewer can piece together one or more possible satisfying explanations but at the same time make the explanation complex enough that piecing together the clues is a challenge. One had the feeling that on a second watching of THE USUAL SUSPECTS the viewer could make all of the clues fit. (And in fact it was not difficult on the second viewing.) A second viewing of DECEIVER on the other hand seems much less promising because there will still be too many holes to piece together the story. At the same time what we have already seen seems contradictory. There seem to be no explanations for what we have seen that are both coherent and interesting.

The Pates are trying a little too hard to surprise the us at the expense of logic in the script. Still while the illusion of the puzzle film lasts this film is intriguing. I rate it a 5 on the 0 to 10 scale and low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

                                   Mark Leeper
                                   MT 3E-433 732-957-5619