MT VOID 08/11/00 (Vol. 19, Number 6)

MT VOID 08/11/00 (Vol. 19, Number 6)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 08/11/00 -- Vol. 19, No. 6

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.

Digital Economy (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

They were talking on the radio again about the transition to a "digital economy." What do they think we have now? Have you ever heard of a non-digital economy? I mean since the days of Olduvi Gorge. When was the last time you went to buy a loaf of bread and they asked for a medium-sized handful of coins? [-mrl]

Restaurants (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

It is getting to be time to tie up this discussion, but I should make some mention about the homogenization of our culture as far as restaurant chains go. The success of the restaurant franchise system has been great news for rejecters and terrible news for people who are looking for culinary adventure. I know of one child who refused to visit Florida until he was assured that the Sunshine State had plenty of Burger Kings. More recently having driven through the South I can say he had nothing to worry about. It is extremely easy to find Burger Kings all over that region and probably all over America. Driving through my native New Jersey I see the same restaurants from one town to the next. Every town has a McDonalds, a Burger King, a Taco Bell, and a KFC. There are some other more limited chains like Denny's, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, etc. It must be very comforting for some people to know they are never more than five miles from a Burger King Whopper. All over the country you find the same restaurants like they were cut with a cookie cutter. Oh, you can find less franchised restaurants, but the easiest to find are always the national chains.

It is interesting that even as popular as Chinese food is in this country there seem to be very few chains of Chinese restaurants. Sure I have seen successful restaurants open a second branch or perhaps even a third, but that is about the extent of it, at least for menu restaurants. Of late a new kind of Chinese restaurant has opened, the steam-table buffet. There really does seem to be a small chain of steam-table buffet Chinese restaurants. Rejecters seem to feel more comfortable with the added variety a buffet gives coupled with the opportunity to preview. Generally Chinese buffets have a stock of comfort food that so people do not have to fear they will only have dishes made from things with tentacles. Enough people are comfortable with Chinese food that chains of Chinese food. Even more strange, while they are not chains per se, a bunch of nearly identical Chinese take-out restaurants have sprung up so that there is one in nearly every shopping center.

Asian Indian food is another study. There are some authentic Indian restaurants in this country, but as with Mexican you fairly much have to go to an ethnic neighborhood to find it. In our neck of the woods that means Edison, New Jersey. Most Indians I have met tell me that Indian restaurant food in this country is expensive and generally only mediocre. But the roles of Indian and Chinese food are in Britain the reverse of what they are in this country. Chinese restaurants are expensive and frequently mediocre in Britain, but Indian restaurants are plentiful and fairly good. I have just heard that in Britain fish and chips is no longer as popular as are Indian curries. A British invention called a Balti, really an imitation of Indian food much like chop suey is imitation Chinese, is available all over Britain and is becoming available in India. So is Chicken Tikka Masala, a British sauced version of India's previously dry spicy chicken dish.

In fact my experience was that the best Indian food I ever had was in Edinburgh, Scotland. The Scots for the most part have given up on even their own people wanting to eat their cuisine when they go out. You can get authentic Scottish food in some pubs, but search for Scottish food in a restaurant in Scotland and you can be looking for a long time. On the other hand their Indian food is really superb. The popular restaurants in Scotland seem to be pizza places, hamburger places, and Indian restaurants. The Scots seem to be the only people who are not really comfortable with their own food. That is carrying rejection too far. But there something rather strange has taken place. They seem to have adopted a foreign cuisine as their main comfort food.

There is probably a lot more to say about the emerging field of restaurantology, but perhaps fours weeks on the subject is a bit much. I knew I had some things to say when I got started, but I did not intend to make such a meal of it. Next week I promise I will not be talking about food.

Let me correct something I said wrong in a previous article. The nickname of a fish and chips shop in Britain is not a "chipper" but a "chippy." Of course we have a different meaning for "chippy" in the US. Funny how we use the same slang words for different meanings. Whether you are in the US or Britain, if you have a "chippy" just west of you and "tart" just east of you, you are probably about to feed a prostitute who is facing the Atlantic. [-mrl]

SPACE COWBOYS (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: In a something-for-everyone adventure-comedy, four Air Force pilots, would-be astronauts from the Sixties, now in their seventies, get a chance to fly in space on what turns out to be an important space mission. This is a warm family comedy with more emphasis on characters' personalities than on special effects that transcends its Over- the-Hill-Gang-in-Space high concept. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), low +2 (-4 to +4)

THE RIGHT STUFF told how U.S. Air Force test pilots who had the so-called "right stuff" were nevertheless washed out of the space program by the government bureaucracy. That film was almost certainly the inspiration for SPACE COWBOYS in which four of those pilots, now in their seventies fly an important shuttle mission for NASA. The film opens with the four young test pilots, guys with the smarts and the guts it takes to save themselves in an emergency, being frustrated in their dreams to fly in space. Locked out are Frank Corvin, Tank Sullivan, Jerry O'Neil, and Hawk Hawkins, all commanded by the marginally competent Bob Gerson.

Flash forward to the present. The Russian communications satellite Ikon, dating back to the cold war era, is in a decaying orbit. For reasons not being clearly explained by anyone it is very important that the satellite be placed back into a healthy orbit. High people in both the American and Russian governments are anxious that it not be allowed to simply re-enter the atmosphere as its current course will take it. A NASA mission is being headed by Sara Holland (Marcia Gay Harden) under the management of program veteran Bob Gerson (James Cromwell) to repair the guidance system and put the satellite back in orbit. Retired pilot Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood), previously washed out of the space program, designed a guidance system in the Sixties and it is the one that was used aboard the Ikon. He is asked to come out of retirement and help repair the Ikon's guidance system. Frank asks the obvious question: what is his guidance system doing aboard a Soviet satellite sent up during the Cold War? He does not get an answer. Corvin's deal for NASA: They can have his help only if his 1960s team of four pilots get to fly the mission. Gerson's response: they can go if they can get through training.

Corvin collects the other three members. There is Tank Sullivan (James Garner), now a Baptist minister. Jerry O'Neil (Donald Sutherland) now engineers roller-coasters, and Hawk Hawkins (Tommy Lee Jones) flies biplanes. Corvin reassembles the somewhat startled and bemused team and they begin their training. When it is clear that they cannot possibly get through the training through fair means, they resort to foul. Somewhat irksome is the unlikely device that the nearly blind Jerry O'Neil is able to bluff his way so that nobody suspects. The training is a major part of the movie. The actual mission does not begin until about ninety minutes into the film. All the while the mystery of this enigmatic Soviet satellite deepens as the questions begin to pile up.

At the center of the story is Eastwood, not the world's most emotive actor, and Tommy Lee Jones. Donald Sutherland as an aging Lothario who bluffs his way around his near-blindness. Garner's trademark is his low-key quietly amused performances. Here he it works against him as he frequently melts into the scenery in the presence of the other major actors. Marsha Gay Harden is a good choice for the mission planner. Many actresses would look a little too glamorous in the role and she gives the impression of being more an intelligent, no-nonsense sort of person. William Devane, who in other films frequently shows little more characterization than a funny way of talking, for once has a role that he can sink his teeth into as the gum-chewing Mission Control.

Nicely handled is the prologue set in the 1960s. It would be impossible to make the cast look so many decades younger. The characters are played by look-alike actors with the real actors voices processed to sound younger. The sequence does not entirely work to convince the audience these are the same people, but it is close enough for the viewer to go with it. The younger version of Eastwood (Toby Stephens) looks close enough to Eastwood that there may have been some digital processing going on. In general the space special effects are kept conservative and inexpensive. Stock footage seems to be used where possible. But this film is not an effects extravaganza. You probably do not go to a film like this dazzling effect, for excitement, or even believability in the adventure. You want to see the interplay of four elder stars, each with proven comic flair from earlier films. As expected they deliver.

SPACE COWBOYS will probably be classified by most people as a science fiction film, though there is not much in it to make it science fiction any more. But it is a well-crafted film with an accent on characters. I rate it a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

HOLLOW MAN (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Capsule: Really disappointing is this films complete failure of originality and imagination. Now that filmmakers have visual special effects sufficient to do an invisible man story on the screen, they no longer have writers who can think of intriguing things to do with the idea. Some incredible special effects cannot save a pedestrian and overly familiar plot. Rating: 3 (0 to 10), -1 (-4 to +4)

If Hollywood's makers of summer films can be said to show any creativity and imagination--admittedly a difficult point of view to defend--it is in how they manage to takes such a variety of film premises and turn them into standard borrowed endings. It is truly remarkable how many different films build to cliches like the sympathetic underdogs winning the big game. The other standard ending, which if you think about it is only a variation on the first one, is the sympathetic heroes in a confined space facing and defeating something that wants to kill, perhaps already has, but cannot itself be killed. We saw it in IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE, ALIEN, ALIENS, HALLOWEEN, and who knows how many more films. Of the eight films playing currently at my local multiplex three have unkillable killer endings. One of them is HOLLOW MAN which begins as a revisiting of concepts from H. G. Wells's THE INVISIBLE MAN but in the end is just two people being chased by a perfectly visible monster and killing him several times only to have him keep on coming. The once-respectable Paul Verhoeven should have rejected the script as inferior, but instead let it be just another step in his decline. Besides its striking lack of originality HOLLOW MAN wastes some of the most interesting convention of the Invisible Man.

Most invisible man films are all based on H. G. Wells's novel THE INVISIBLE MAN. That novel is itself a reframing of the story of Gyges, which today we remember best through its reference in Plato's REPUBLIC. Gyges, a shepherd who comes into possession of a ring of invisibility, uses it unscrupulously to make himself king. In the dialog of THE REPUBLIC Glaucon suggests that god-like power, like that of Gyges, of necessity corrupts. These stories look at the power an invisible man has and frequently examine whether that power really does necessarily corrupt the person who has that power. One important aspect is that he can be virtually anywhere unseen, using his power in clever ways. But since this film places the invisible man in an inescapable deep lab complex (with the exception of one short sequence) most of the imaginative power of the concept is thrown away. There is just too much haste to get to the secure territory of cliches and ultra-familiar plotting.

Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon) heads up a super secret government project. With his ingenious process he already can make animals invisible. Ironically his most difficult problem is making them visible again. (Perhaps this is also an idea borrowed from Wells. As the novel begins Griffin has already made himself invisible and struggles to find the way back to visibility. The old Universal Invisible Man series stretches this quest over multiple films.) For Sebastian's discoveries he expects to win a Nobel Prize. (Why does every cinematic mad scientist who can grow a three-foot-long blood-sucking garden slug think that is what they give Nobel prizes for?) The military is ready to cut his funding for lack of usable results so Sebastian decides to experiment on himself. He already is a bit of a jerk, will the power that invisibility gives him exaggerate his character flaws into madness? Was this plot built from a kit or what?

This is a film that could have risen to the level of mediocre, but blows it in the cliched final reel. Sure, there is a tradition in films that the hero and the villain survive hazards and situations that really should have killed them. The final sequences of this film go beyond any reasonable suspension of disbelief. The writers confuse the concepts of "invisible" and "invincible." Sebastian goes through a gauntlet that should have reduced him to the consistency of tapioca pudding, made even worse by him running around without the protection of clothing, but he keeps on fighting. The heroes themselves survive treatment only a little gentler.

The script by Andrew W. Marlowe seems oblivious to the most basic technical issues about invisibility. H. G. Wells gave more thought to the technical questions of invisibility than went into this film. This film uses Star-Trek-style double-talk physics to explain the invisibility in the first place, something like a "quantum phase shift," but then apparently is going to use chemical and biological means to bring the guy back. At one point Sebastian eats a Twinkie and it is immediately invisible. Wells knew better. Sebastian is totally invisible and yet his eyes are apparently still focusing. Again Wells knew better. Even the opportunities for prurient voyeurism, while absent from Wells, have been handled considerably better elsewhere. Jerry Goldsmith probably saw little effort on the part of the filmmakers to exercise much imagination and followed suit with what is one of his least memorable scores.

Not to be totally negative and to give the film its due, the special effects are uniformly dazzling. The original series used a few simple effects that were not entirely convincing. Most notably I believe they filmed in a black room an actor with clothing over a black velvet suit that totally covered him. Only the clothing shows and it gives them an image they could lay on top of another shot. The computer has changed a very great deal. The visuals here are flawless and delightful. Also as is ironically if frequently the case, even a very bad horror film can have a very good first scene. (MARS ATTACKS is a prime example. Most of what is good in that film is in the pre-credit sequence.) The horror potential of concept of an invisible predator has never been captured on film so well as in the first scene of HOLLOW MAN. That makes it all the more disappointing how the filmmakers so badly blew the rest of the film.

For the same budget this film could have brought the invisible man film into the modern age. Instead if will hopefully quickly sink from sight. I rate this a 3 on the 0 to 10 scale and a -1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]

Quote of the Week:

     Ninety percent of politicians give the other ten
     percent a bad name.
                                   -- Henry Kissinger