MT VOID 05/21/99 (Vol. 17, Number 47)

MT VOID 05/21/99 (Vol. 17, Number 47)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 05/21/99 -- Vol. 17, No. 47

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 201-447-3652 for details.

Chair/Librarian: Mark Leeper, 732-817-5619,
Factotum: Evelyn Leeper, 732-332-6218,
Distinguished Heinlein Apologist: Rob Mitchell,
HO Chair Emeritus: John Jetzt,
HO Librarian Emeritus: Nick Sauer,
Back issues at
All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.


Our Glorious Editor has been achieved further honors this week. Roger Ebert's column citing Mark Leeper's comments on STARS WARS was republished at (ninth paragraph). And Mark's dialogue with "LawnMedic" has been featured by the "Cruel Site of the Day" at (May 18). The "Cruel Site of the Day" claims to be a "link to the world of the perturbed, peeved, pensive, and postal." It doesn't say which category this particular article falls into. [-ecl]


This issue of THE MT VOID is brought to you in part by Potent-8 for a richer and fuller life. Ask your physician if Potent-8 is right for you. (In a small number of cases usage of Potent-8 has been linked to increased risk of a particular kind of birth defect which in some parts of Puerto Rico has given rise to legends and rumors of a goat-sucking vampire.) [-mrl]


A few years back there was a popular theme in movies suggesting that the world is growing too dependent on computers. I seem to remember plots like computer controlled systems claiming that we were under attack from the Soviets. One lone human has his doubts and refuses fire a missile to retaliate. And of course it turns out that the human was right. Nuclear war is averted and the audience is reassured that humans are better, more reliable, and in general superior to machines. At least that is true in the movies. I am concerned that that may be a misimpression that could lead to some dangerous decisions.

The actual history of computer-involved disasters is more a mixed bag. There is at least in folklore--but I do not know of any real confirmation--cases where a flock of migrating geese or the rising sun was misinterpreted by defense computers as incoming missiles and the computers suggested returning fire. Now what is more important to know is in what phase of testing were the programs. I have no doubt that a complex decision-making computer program will at some phase of its testing make some obviously wrong decisions. That is the point of testing a system. The system is refined during testing until it is more and more dependable. A computer system is a lot like a human in this regard. Someone not very well trained for a decision making job should not be given a lot of responsibility and autonomy initially. Once the person has experience and his results carefully checked one gets a feeling for whether it is dependable. Apparently the computer program was still in a phase where it could be over-ridden by human intervention. To date I know of no major disaster that was ever caused by relying too heavily on a computer program. Yes, there have been some small disasters, small by comparison to nuclear war. There are cases of people killed by software errors. Certainly there was one case of a bad interface for error correction on the mechanism to set the dosage on an X-ray machine. The X-ray technician made an error in setting the dosage, thought she had reset it, and administered a fatal dose of x-rays to a patient. That is bad enough, but so far there have been no major incidents where multiple people were killed by a software problem. In general computer systems have not been so trusted that they have been given positions of real trust where the stakes are what we would consider to be really high. About the worst was an AT&T telephone outage.

On the other hand we really have had some major disasters because humans have decided that computers were wrong and have over-ridden them. The Northeast power blackout of the late 1960s would have been limited to one small power grid when a human intervened to try to save that grid. The operator tried to save the grid by diverting power from another grid. It was too much power and that grid started to go down. An attempt was made to save that one and one grid after another went down in a domino effect. Instead of one power grid going down, the whole northeast part of the United States was plunged into darkness because a human did not trust a computer decision.

There is a major example of where a program not being trusted almost caused what would have been the biggest disaster in United States history. I will discuss that next week. [-mrl]

Gun Control:

Let me add another quick editorial. There was just another school shooting yesterday and people are up in arms to keep weapons out of schools. That is fitting and proper. HOWEVER, put yourself in the position of a high school student, perhaps not a really brilliant one either. You have access to a gun. And you will need to defend yourself today. There is a kid who has been threatening you. And the kid has studied martial arts for a couple of years and IN SPITE of the philosophy of martial arts NEVER being used in an evil cause, this kid is really scaring you and you have good reason to believe he can hurt you. About the only way to defend yourself is with the gun. Do you take it or do you go to school unprotected and take your lumps?

If you think that gun control is the whole answer to violence in schools in a culture where every strip mall has a marital arts school to which doting parents bring their children, think again. [-mrl]


Capsule: The eagerly awaited summer release of Shakespeare's light fantasy tale of fairies and dukes is surprisingly mundane. In spite of some good acting by Stanley Tucci and Kevin Kline, director Michael Hoffman brings little innovative or interesting to the telling besides star power. But the contribution of having familiar actors instead of good unknowns in a Shakespeare play is minimal. Rating: 5 (0 to 10), low +1 (-4 to +4)

There was a time when seeing a particular Shakespeare play might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. People would rarely have a chance to see two different companies performing the same play. Then it was sufficient to be simply providing Shakespeare. That is not so any more. Turner Classic Movies frequently plays the 1935 film version. It is not so long since PBS broadcast a BBC version. In fact, the Internet Movie Database lists nine TV versions and it does not list the comic version featuring the Flying Karamazov Brothers. If a filmmaker wants to do a new version of a Shakespeare play, it should be at least in some way very original. It should have something that the previous versions do not offer. Certainly two films that I thought did that were Kenneth Branagh's MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING and Ian McKellan's RICHARD III. The former managed to use diction that made following the dialog easy and a pleasure to follow. That and its pleasant Tuscan setting made the film a real joy. And McKellan's reframing of RICHARD III as an alternate history with a Fascist takeover of Britain in the 1930s stands as the single most exciting and inventive performance of Shakespeare I have ever seen. The new WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM was presenting a very familiar story, so with a fixed plot it should have been greatly creative in some other way. It should have been as innovative as those films. It was not.

Michael Hoffman adapted the Shakespeare play and directed. Hoffman did a beautiful job creating a sumptuous look and feel for the 1995 film RESTORATION, but his ideas were far less rich or original for WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. As the film starts we are immediately plunged into cliche with Felix Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream." It is a rather obvious choice and hardly one that is inspiring. The first original touch is to move the setting from ancient Athens to late 19th Century Monte Athene in Tuscany. But there is something of a problem there almost immediately. The play has many references to its setting, and there is an immediate dissonance to see Italy and hear it called Athens. It is also jarring to have characters whose names are Theseus, Demetrius, Lysander, Helena, and Hermia. The move of location is probably an attempt to repeat the effect that Branagh achieved with his Tuscan setting, but it really does not work the same sort of magic.

For those who do not know the story, I will say just briefly that Duke Theseus (David Strathairn) is preparing to wed Hippolyta (Sophie Marceau) when he is asked to settle a dispute between a father and daughter. Egeus (Bernard Hill, recently seen as the captain going down with the ship in TITANIC) has arranged a marriage for his daughter Hermia (Anna Friel) to Demetrius (Christian Bale). But the rebellious daughter instead loves Lysander (Dominic West). Another woman, Helena (Calista Flockhart), loves Demetrius. Getting involved into the action is also a traveling theater company preparing to put on a bad play about Pyramus (Bottom (Kevin Kline)). And as if that were not enough in another part of the forest is Oberon, King of Fairies (Rupert Everett) is having his problems with his queen Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer).

The stars of the film are really Stanley Tucci and Kevin Kline. Kline has a somewhat expanded role from the Shakespeare involving Bottom's wife who never appeared in the original play. These sequences have to be done without dialog since it is easier to do it that way than to get Shakespeare back to write lines for their interaction. Stanley Tucci is almost always a pleasure to watch on the screen. Here he does his rubber-faced thing a little too much and amazingly he overstays his welcome. But Calista Flockhart (TV's Ally McBeal) manages to out-rubber-face even Tucci and to almost achieve the level of a Macaulay Culkin (not appearing in this film, thankfully).

Sadly, the film is never as enchanting as it is supposed to be or even as it needs to be. Many of the intended magical elements turn leaden. Having Puck ride a bicycle again and again is just not all that whimsical. Having him ride a silly-looking plastic turtle intended to be real is even less so. Hoffman even has a mud- wrestling scene with Helena and Hermia. Really. The sequence of the play of "Pyramus and Thisbe" may be where some of the humor works the best in a sort of imitation Monty Python way. Still, this sequence comes off as gratuitous filler, but then it always did in the original play also, so that is not Hoffman's fault. Once one accepts the Italian setting, the use of Italian opera melodies is pleasant and does add to the mood, though when the same melodies are repeated one starts to wonder if there were not more to choose from.

In spite of the cast, this is a competent but unexceptional version of one of Shakespeare's more popular plays. I rate it 5 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

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

Capsule: An on-target satire and dark comedy about politics set around a high school student council election. An award-winning teacher tries to make sure the school's most successful student does not run unopposed for council president. The result is disaster for several people. Don't be put off by the fact the film is about a high school election. This film has some of the best writing of any film so far this year. This is an intelligent, irritating and in its own way delightful comedy about politics in America. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4)

The time is coming for student council elections at Carver High School. Unopposed for president is Tracy Flick (played by Reese Witherspoon) the school's smug and snotty over-achiever. This is the girl who seems to be in every school club, on every school committee. Everyone knows that she is the best and nobody tries to compete with her. What few people know is that she also was instrumental in the firing of a teacher for a sexual misconduct in which she was considerably more than a willing victim. Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) is the star teacher of the school, having won the Teacher of the Year Award a record three years in a row. He also was a friend of the fired teacher. Partially because he knows that the indiscretion was not all the teacher's fault, and partially as a lesson in democratic principles to his students, Mr. McAllister decides to try to see if he can whip up some competition for Tracy. The idealistic civics teacher convinces Paul Metzler, a likeable jock sidelined by a broken leg, to run against Tracy. He is the exact opposite of Tracy. Less than bright in his studies he is nevertheless a nice person with lots of friends. Soon there is a surprise third counter-culture candidate running for reasons of her own and collecting the vote of all the disaffected of the school. This small beginning leads to chaos that engulfs several people's lives, not the least of which is Mr. McAllister's.

ELECTION is a film that looks like it was shot in 16 millimeter and blown up for the full sized screen. The production values overall seem to have been designed for economy. About the only place it excels is that it has a really good script. I call that a pretty good tradeoff. In spite of the modest production budget co-writer and director Alexander Payne has managed to do some things extraordinarily well. The lower-middle class is rarely shown in other films. Character's homes shown in films tend to be wither upscale or on the level of trailer parks. Yet the housing developments with their sparse vegetation strike a really believable note. In fact the whole set of inexpensive production values tend to make this film seem all the more realistic. Payne's only previous feature film was CITIZEN RUTH, itself not a bad social satire. But ELECTION shows a considerable improvement.

With the exception of the two leads, most of the cast has little film experience, yet the acting in the film seems perfectly professional. Matthew Broderick seems a little young for the role of the teacher, but that could be just because he himself seems boyish. Reese Witherspoon may well find that this is a defining role in her early career. While she did not seem to bring any special talents to her role in PLEASANTVILLE she is just perfect as the smug and totally self-absorbed, over-achieving, Monica- Lewinsky-in-training. ELECTION is a satire of the caliber of Michael Ritchie's SMILE. That puts it miles ahead of recent entries like WAG THE DOG. SMILE and ELECTION would, in fact, make an excellent double feature. I give ELECTION an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

THREE SEASONS (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: This is an American film shot in Ho Chi Minh City with a nearly all Vietnamese cast looks at various aspects of love, self-image, and life in modern Vietnam. The images are beautifully filmed but the story telling is slow and somewhat enigmatic at times. The stories are reminiscent of other films. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), +1 (-4 to +4)

THREE SEASONS is an odd melding of Asian film styling with the story telling of Robert Altman. Like Altman's SHORT CUTS the film involves multiple (in this case four) short stories, each developing in parallel and in close geographical proximity but otherwise mostly unrelated. Four plot lines are set in Ho Chi Minh City and begin and end about the same time. In one story a cyclo- driver becomes obsessed with a beautiful prostitute and decides to do whatever it takes to win her. (A cyclo is a bicycle modified with a wide passenger seat in front to be used like a taxi. One sees them frequently in Southeast Asia.) In another plotline a woman comes to the city for a job picking flowers in a lotus pond and selling them in the city. She becomes involved with the recluse who owns the lotus pond. The third story involves a street boy who makes his living selling small items like cigarette lighters from a box. When his box is stolen he must get it back again or go hungry. The fourth plotline involves an American Vietnam veteran who returns to Ho Chi Minh City driven by conscience to find his daughter whose mother he abandoned during the war.

It is very difficult to tell stories of any real plot complexity in a film that is going to tell four stories in as little as 110 minutes. If one adds to it that the pacing of this or many Asian films. Each of the four stories could probably be told in three or four sentences. What is important is not the plot but the texture of the telling and the feeling for what has become of Saigon after it became Ho Chi Minh City. We see a daily life that in some ways is not that different from what we have in the United States. The story of the cyclo-driver and that of the street boy could take place in just about any big city with few modifications. The man looking for his daughter, the least developed of the four stories, might also, but would be much more likely to occur in Vietnam, with its particular problem of abandoned mothers. The story of the lotus pond probably would not work any place but Asia.

THREE SEASONS was written and directed by Tony Bui, based on his own stories. Bui was born in Vietnam, but raised in the US and this constitutes a return to his parents' land. It is the first American independent film shot in Vietnam since the war. The film stays away from politics, however, no doubt in part because it had to be passed by Communist censors and had to play in the United States. Curiously they do not seem to object to the film calling the city Saigon rather than its more politically correct name in Vietnam. The film plays double duty as a fiction film and as a documentary look at what Bui saw when he returned to his country. Bui has the eye of an artist with much of the Asian sense of color. We see this in the cyclo-race that is the centerpiece of one of the stories and in the sensuous pleasure the camera takes in the bright red blossoms of a country scene.

THREE SEASONS--where the title comes from us unclear since it seemed to me to take place over a much shorter period of time--is what used to be called a feast for the eyes but remains a simple quiet little film and not one that says very much. I rate it a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]


I frequently have trouble meeting all the commitments I make for myself. Some I miss more than others. With STAR WARS EPISODE 1: THE PHANTOM MENACE fresh in theaters I would like to have a review in this issue. However, I just saw it on Wednesday night, the night of its opening. I have commitments for my Thursday evening that imply I cannot meet a Friday deadline for publishing. But I have had many people already ask me what I thought of the film. A review next week will be of much less value. So I am going to do something I have never done before. I will publish my review in progress. My rating of the film is already in place, I know what I am going to say about the film. That is in my notes. I will publish a barely started review and my notes so people can get a feel for my impressions of the film. Those who are interested can also get some insight as to how I write a review. Here, without comment, is my current review and the notes with which I will create the finished review.


Capsule: What George Lucas does well, nobody else does any better. Simply put this film probably shows the greatest visual imagination of any film ever made. (The only non-STAR WARS contender that comes to mind is the otherwise painful WHAT DREAMS MAY COME). It even as a few interesting science fiction ideas. George Lucas returns to many of the values of Chapter 4, missing in the later episodes. EPISODE I has a host of new species, another mythic story, a few embarrassments, but overall a lot of fun. Rating: 9 (0 to 10), 3 (-4 to +4)

When KING KONG was released the trailers said "this was what the films were made for." It may be a bit of an overstatement, but they were implying that the films are made to show visual imagination, to translate from somebody's mind's eye to a movie screen. And KING KONG did just that. Willis O'Brien's stop-motion animation was a giant leap forward in translating images from the mind's eye to the movie screen. Things then stagnated for 44 years. Ray Harryhausen refined stop-motion and made some marvelous films, but there were no major leaps until 1977 and STAR WARS. This was really a big jump. It was also the starting gun on a race to create new kinds of images on film. Since then the field of special effects has been rapidly developing. In 1999 George Lucas can no longer hope to create a film so far ahead of the competition. He can create a film that blends new effects with the best existing effects sufficiently to trump any other film that has ever been made. For the most part he is competing only with his own previous films. The only non-Lucasfilm to really compete is the otherwise excruciating WHAT DREAMS MAY COME.




9 on the  0  to  10  scale  and  a  +3  on  the  -4  to  +4  scale.

   why does beheading kill droid
   in sw robots don't know obiwan, and vice versa
   character flies on non-aerodynamic wings
   much score from earlier films
   more politics than one thinks of many mythic elements
   twists in expected plot but not contradiction:
	       uncle did not know father
   religious symbolism tied in knot
   more advanced technology loses to more primative one
   little details in background, this is not all happening
	       in these worlds
   larger context for other films including what is force
   know where characters are going, makes more interesting
   fights more interesting than in matrix
   back to polygot universe
   jar jar has pidgin chinese
   two headed creature as two commentators
   tell doesn't show--not like lucas overly comic jar jar binks
   little boy heroics fights too long
   feel, don't think
   accents make hard to understand
   sensibility of samurai film, distant hero,
	       more distant princess
   opening fox banner and star wars
   taxation starts it all, like american revolution
   mystical birth
   federation vs republic
   must stop at tatooine, picks up anakin
   queen sends handmaid to coruscade
   jedi and blockade, fired on
   binks descended from hadrosaurs
   will change fantasy, scenes will show up many places
   what lucas does he does better than anybody else
   reviewers i liked like this film
   more imaginationation, visual and plot than any other
	       film in history
   wheelies fro oz
   water city from abyss
   sr71 blackbird deathstar, trench death of jedi from star wsrs
   ben hur chariot race
   the professional, ann frank
   stiff as queen chinese imperial robes
   distant, but much an obiwan figure
   trainspotting, does not leave much impression
   a lot of personality for a young actor
   Jackson nominal role--wasted
   Stamp nominal role


                                   Mark Leeper
                                   HO 1J-621 732-817-5619

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