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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
10/18/02 -- Vol. 21, No. 16
Table of Contents
ConJose Report Available:
Evelyn Leeper's ConJose report is available at http://www.geocities.com/evelynleeper/conjose.htm
Studies in Horror (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
The last two weeks I have been writing about the horror genre. I have to say that the American horror film is not is very good condition. Certainly the directors who specialize in the field of horror are not very good in my estimation. The good horror films that are being made usually come from people who do not already have a name for horror films. Like the shocks in the films themselves, the good horror films come from unexpected places.
Most of the directors who specialize in horror tend to rely on formula films. George Romero started his career in horror with a film that had real edge, THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. By the time he made CREEPSHOW he had switched to soft TV-standard story- telling. Formula horror has taken over. We have Michael and Jason and Freddie, who film after film go after interchangeable teenagers. Based on a trailer I saw, now they are doing it in space. I cannot think of any high concept more desperate. Horror films are aimed at a teenage audience and the film makers seem to have decided that boobs are bigger than goosebumps.
So if the common horror directors are not very good, who are the good horror film makers? They are generally people who work hard to create atmosphere. It isn't the jumps that make horror effective, it is the atmosphere. The United States has not produced many good horror directors in a while. These days special effects seem to have eaten the horror genre.
Canadian David Cronenberg is certainly good. His films are about the best that get wide release in the United States. But two of the best are only very rarely seen in the United States. There are certainly a lot of people who like Dario Argento, though he depends very heavily on stalkers. I can accept that his films like SUSPIRIA are good, but he is not to my taste. And most of his films seem to depend heavily on stalkers that reduce his films to the level of FRIDAY THE 13TH and HALLOWEEN films.
But the people who are my choices for the two best horror directors are nearly unknown. Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a Japanese filmmaker who has crept up on greatness without getting a lot of international attention. SEANCE is a remake of SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON with supernatural elements added. Better yet are CURE and PULSE. The former is about a man who can with a passing glance influence others to commit seemingly senseless murders. There is no way for me to explain in a sentence or two what PULSE is about. It involves the Internet and suicide and strange spots on walls. This is about as weird a horror film as you will ever see. People who like PULSE and want to see something else like it are pretty much out of luck.
But in my opinion the most talented horror film director today is Mexican-born Guillermo del Toro. Sadly, he is best known for BLADE II which was far from his best work. I assume that he was under studio pressure to conform to certain expectations. MIMIC also got a decent release, and while not del Toro's best work either it is beautifully visualized and is quite atmospheric. His best work is seen in the films CRONOS and THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE. CRONOS is a new take on the vampire story involving alchemy and a strange clockwork mechanism. THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE is set at a boy's school during the Spanish Civil War. The story involves a ghost and a murderer. All of Guillermo del Toro's films have a beautiful visual sense and do not seem like films you have seen before.
Each of these directors has made at least three horror films. I consider three to be a minimum for someone to be considered to be a horror director. I think it is very likely that I will shortly be adding the name of M. Night Shyamalan to this list. THE SIXTH SENSE and SIGNS qualify as horror films; UNBREAKABLE I consider to be a decent fantasy film, but I would not characterize it as horror. But if there are going to be more good horror, I would look not to George Romero, Wes Craven, and John Carpenter but to the lesser-known del Toro, Kurosawa, and Shyamalan. [-mrl]
THE LOST WORLD (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: The BBC version of THE LOST WORLD is the best of a not-very-good lot of adaptations of Doyle's great adventure novel of a forgotten plateau with prehistoric man and dinosaurs. The dinosaur re-creations are effective, but there are major discrepancies from the novel. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), high +1 (-4 to +4)
It is not like the last decade did not have several adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle's THE LOST WORLD. There were at least three, having John Rhys-Davies, Patrick Bergan, and Peter McCauley play the burley Professor George Edward Challenger. But after the BBC finished their "Walking with Dinosaurs" with very realistic dinosaurs, I suspected that the next natural thing to do with this technology for creating lifelike dinosaurs was to juxtapose them with humans. No respectable non-fiction presentation could do that. One would have to do a classic story in which humans interface with dinosaurs. There is only one, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's THE LOST WORLD. (Note, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH does have humans in viewing distance of an ichthyosaur fighting a plesiosaur seen from a distance, but these are not really dinosaurs and it is only one sequence.) So once again the Doyle has been adapted.
BBC ,in cooperation with the A&E cable network, has brought us a new version about 165 minutes long. The special effects combine CGI and full-scale models to give us state of the art visuals and dinosaur images that look realistic and fit our current paleontological knowledge. This is the best version of the story we are likely to get for a while. Willis O'Brien who created the effects for the 1925 THE LOST WORLD and then was heartbroken when lizards were used in the 1960 version of the film would have been very pleased to see this version. Doyle might have been a little less pleased with the liberties taken with the plot.
Bob Hoskins plays Challenger, a scientist with the reputation for being a crackpot. He outdoes himself when he claims that on his last expedition to South America he found a remote place where dinosaurs still live. The Royal Society is skeptical but fits out an expedition of four led by Challenger and the bland intellectual Summerlee (Edward Fox), a skeptic who has no patience for Challenger's claims or eccentricities. There is also game hunter Lord Roxton and news reporter Edward Malone. The expedition finds the plateau where Challenger saw the dinosaurs all right, but their means of exit is destroyed and they have to face the now all too real dinosaurs that Challenger reported seeing.
None of the cinematic versions of the novel have been really faithful. The new version only roughly follows the Doyle and creates two new major characters. Agnes Clooney, raised in the jungle near the site of the plateau has lived in the jungle all her life and will act as a guide at the plateau. Theo Kerr (Peter Falk) is her uncle, a Bible-thumping missionary at odds with Summerlee over the issue of Creationism and Evolution. While the triangle of Challenger, Summerlee, and Kerr contest science, a romantic triangle of Clooney, Roxton, and Malone sprouts. The novel is "revised" throughout. In the novel Challenger is the most irascible character with a reputation for violence against newspaper reporters like Malone. Hoskins loses this dimension and seems to be the most pleasant and amiable of the expedition members. The story stars as great fun, though in the last hour the writing is disappointingly pedestrian.
Among the modifications from the Doyle is the effort to humanize the sub-human ape men on the plateau. In the book they were cruel killers who entertained themselves dropping their enemies over cliffs. That aspect was considerably toned down for this TV version. This is the longest version yet made so there is more emphasis on South American color than there was even in the novel. The special effects are certainly what set this version apart from previous cinematic adaptations of the novel. Still, the dinosaurs are not quite integrated with the people. When we see an entire dinosaur, requiring CGI, it cannot quite interact with the people superimposed in the scene. It was much like early Ray Harryhausen rarely had the creatures he created interacting directly with people. When need be, he could have cowboys lasso a dinosaur, but such effects were used sparingly and it showed. In this LOST WORLD we see even less such interaction. People will be chased by a dinosaur that looks realistic, but in a different plane from the people. Admittedly, in the 1950s it was very easy to describe what was wrong with the special effects of a film. In the 21st century complaints with the special effects are more abstract and harder to explain. But some limitations are still obvious to the eye.
This is probably the best version of THE LOST WORLD since the 1925 version. It will probably be a while until a better version is made. I rate it a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
AUTO FOCUS (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Robert Crane of HOGAN'S HEROES was a popular and good- looking TV actor who got pulled into a whirlpool of sex, lies, and videotape. This is the true story of his fall. The film is partially enjoyable for its nostalgic 1960s feel and partially for its cautionary biography. Be warned, this is a film with a great deal of nudity. Rating: 6 (0 to 10), +1 (-4 to +4)
Bob Crane was one of the more familiar and amiable stars of 1960s situation comedies, starting as the friendly next-door neighbor on "The Donna Reed Show" and at his high point playing the title role on "Hogan's Heroes." His handsome looks and his mild likable style opened doors for him. He was a devout Catholic who balanced a career, his family life, and his initially well-covered sex life. He had a life of success and self-indulgence. "Likability is 90% of the battle," he says in AUTO FOCUS. That same style destroyed his private life. He let his looks and his fame open the wrong doors until he became a sex addict. His behavior ruined two marriages and destroyed his professional career. Eventually in 1978 he was murdered under circumstances that were never officially determined.
AUTO FOCUS is the story of his rise, his corruption, and his very hard fall. Crane becomes friends with John Carpenter (played by Willem Dafoe). (This Carpenter was no relation to the director of that same name.) Carpenter had two passions, sex and the then- emerging field of consumer video recording. Both of these hobbies he shares with Crane. The sex parties become orgies which the two videotape and to watch over and over.
A big problem with AUTO FOCUS is that few people remember Bob Crane and mores have changed so the story is no longer really relevant as an object lesson. The moral attitudes represented, like the recreated segments of "Hogan's Heroes," have what is almost a nostalgic feel. The problem is that there is not a lot of dramatic tension in this film. We see what is happening and know where it is going with no real surprises. The film comes off as a "True Confessions" expose, but really loses its shock value in the age of the story. Its value may be more voyeuristic than anything else.
Paul Schrader usually directs very dark films. Here he balances that with a credit sequence with a mod Sixties situation comedy look, unusual territory for Schrader. Greg Kinnear plays Crane with much the same basic affability though perhaps not the same good looks. Dafoe is always enjoyable to watch on the screen. He has the same griminess as James Woods but plays a little more real. Ron Liebman has a minor role as Crane's good-hearted agent. Angelo Badalamenti scores.
I rate AUTO FOCUS a 6 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale. This film has a great deal of explicit nudity. [-mrl]
TAKE CARE OF MY CAT (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Near Seoul several women near age twenty have romantic and social adventures. The culture in Korea is surprisingly like that in Europe or the United States and the story could have been set nearly anywhere. However, the production values are high, but the print that has been made has been so poorly subtitled I want to disqualify myself from rating this film.
When I write a letter, before I send it I read it over to make sure I did not make typographic errors. In general, it is always a good policy to look over one's work before it is read by others. I hope this does not come as news to anyone reading this. It apparently does come as news to people entrusted to subtitle foreign language films. I am not talking here about spelling errors, though they are not uncommon in subtitling. I am speaking of visibility. Subtitles have to have enough contrast the background behind them to not fade into that background. A surprisingly large proportion of subtitled films are subtitled with indifference to whether all the subtitles will always be readable. TAKE CARE OF MY CAT is filmed with bright white being the most common color in the pallette. It is then subtitled in white. This makes much too many of the subtitles illegible.
The problems I had with the subtitles I will blame on the releasing company. I will take some blame for not being able to sufficiently tell apart the major characters, all Korean women in their early twenties. In any case, I cannot be sure of my value judgments about TAKE CARE OF MY CAT and I will not rate this film.
The film follows the lives of several women, all friends, as they interact socially and romantically as they move toward what they will do with their lives. We see their lives unfold over the course of some months in modern day Seoul and Inchon, Korea. Heejou works in a modern office building. Though her work touches many of the workers, she is basically a functionary. Jiang is not so lucky. She lives in a ramshackle room and she cares for a grandfather who lives in an apartment made partially of old newspaper. These and several of their friends interact. Tae-hee goes from one job to the next trying to find the right career.
Most Americans have seen films of this sort since at the latest the 1950s. However, the film also gives a picture of modern day Korea in the consumer electronics era. Korea surprisingly looks at least as wired and wireless as the United States. First time director Jeong Jae-eun points us to a Korea of cell phones and microwaves and PCs we will not see in the National Geographic. At least one scene seems to be an homage to the film BREATHLESS. [-mrl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: The wonderful thing about solipsists is that you can insult them as much as you want and they can only blame it on themselves. -- Ian Stewart
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