MT VOID 12/26/03 (Vol. 22, Number 26)

MT VOID 12/26/03 (Vol. 22, Number 26)

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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
12/26/03 -- Vol. 22, No. 26

Table of Contents

El Presidente: Mark Leeper, The Power Behind El Pres: Evelyn Leeper, Back issues at All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted. All comments sent will be assumed authorized for inclusion unless otherwise noted. To subscribe, send mail to To unsubscribe, send mail to

Book Title (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I saw a book with a title that was one of those combinations of words that seems stranger the more you think about it. The title is LIVE LONGER NOW. I'm alive right now. Now is just an instant of time. Can I add five years to that instant of time? Or if I live longer is it living longer later? If I am going to live forty more years and I extend it to forty-five by what I do now am I really living longer now and just pushing those forty years forward in time. Three little words and I have an afternoon's worth of ideas to think about. [-mrl]

Modern Writing (comments by Mark R. Leeper):

I downloaded to my PC an episode of the new animation anthology called THE ANIMATRIX, a collection of anime pieces based in the universe of THE MATRIX. The animation--I think it was called "Program"--shows a woman warrior in a world based on historic Japan. She is in a battle and, aha, she is victorious. It turns out to be a layer of artificial reality, part of a test for the woman in the modern world. As she gets up she punches the instructor. He says she has done very well, except for the last part when she punched him. The images are very colorful and engaging. (The animation is not really good but it is up to anime standards. Few people seem to notice but anime animation is really not very good.)

This short film is a nice, polished piece of animated film, except for the plot--or really the lack of a plot. The story is an assembly of cliches and old ideas I have seen not once but dozens of times. The main character is a woman who is superbly powerful, attractive, but who has attitude. Like Ripley in ALIEN. Like Lara Croft in TOMB RAIDER. Like Elektra in DAREDEVIL. Like Sarah Connor in TERMINATOR 2. Like Buffy. Like Xena. In fact, you see that combination in various forms several times a week these days and it is used here as if it is original. That's it. That is the whole story. She is a good fighter and has attitude. The production is polished, but it left me mystified as to why anyone wanted to tell me this story. I got through it telling myself that it was just so many minutes of my life wasted. The truth is, the filmmakers had no story to tell. They just pulled cliches off the shelf to use to show off their style. They are showing how good a job that they could do telling a story if they had a story to tell. But they didn't.

It seems that the most under-valued talent in today's media is the ability to tell a good story. Stories may be written to hang special effects on or to allow action scenes, but like the producers of this short film did, the people who are making the stories for the media underestimate the importance of actually having an interesting story to tell. You can hire good special effects crews; you can hire good stunt people; you can even hire decent cinematographers. These are called crafts people and ones who are at least competent are in no small supply. (The really good ones may be as rare as good writers are.) Good writers are artists and the ones who tell good stories are in really short supply. There are no formulae to teach people to write good stories (though there is a guy named Robert McKee who claims to have some useful approaches he can teach). But if filmmakers do not value the few people who can tell good stories, you end up with some really lousy films. This year we seem to have a lot of them. This may be why the third Matrix film did so poorly. I say it may be because I did not see the third film. The second film was enough for me.

This problem pervades other media also. Back when I was in college comic books were considered by many people I knew to be a real art form. Reading Spiderman was suggested. Here was a superhero with real human problems. Sure he did. There was about the level of human drama one found in a character in the average children's film. There were no stirring emotions in Spiderman. You just have a guy with superpowers who by the way occasionally had small personal problems to take care of. If the stories were really well written, I was missing what was so good. If they were writing really interesting characters, even as interesting as Richard Blaine in CASABLANCA, it was not obvious to me. The writer who was supposedly the great master in the field of comics at that time was Stan Lee. Stan Lee's writing does nothing for me. Lee would brag in the comic books about how good the stories he wrote were. But they weren't.

Later there was the European invasion of the comic medium. In 1977 when the comic book HEAVY METAL came out, with translations of European comic stories, I was interested to see the various international comic styles that were represented. But I was quick to see that what passed for a good idea was an image of a Cadillac in orbit around a planet. Lots of nude women with big breasts. Lots of robots. Lots of robot women with big breasts. The cover of the premier issue showed a big-breasted woman robot with a monkey wrench smashing another robot. That pretty much sums up what passed for writing in HEAVY METAL. I think I subscribed for two years and did not find one character I cared about.

THE MATRIX is an entire series of films that does little to characterize its people. You have placeholders getting into fights and being digitized in special effects. There were ideas in the series, but they were never really examined in any depth. The writing imitated writing that was mystical and profound, but which was really meaningless. Lots of current films seem that way.

I think that is why Reality TV appeals so much to the media moguls. If a character is real he will act real. It does not take writing talent to make him seem real. Reality TV is to TV- writing what rotoscoping is to animation.

More than at any time in the last hundred years we have come to accept our entertainment without demanding that it have good writing. More so than in the days when the studios turned out a film a week, entertainment is a factory product. We have to learn to demand better writing before the media moguls decide that writing is not important at all. [-mrl]

Barbara at the Drive-In (letter of comment by Barbara Cormack)::

[ got many readers reminiscing about drive-in movies. Barbara Cormack sent this one. If you have memories you would like to share, send them in and we will tell the world. -mrl]

"I also enjoyed Mark's piece on the drive-in movies. My little story about drive-ins concerns my early attempts at business. I used to go to the drive-in with my best friend Sherry's family. Her mom and the two little brothers, in pajamas, got the back seat. All would soon fall asleep. Sherry and I would arm ourselves with rolls of paper towels and bottles of Windex, then work our way through the cars awaiting the movie and offer to clean peoples' car windshields for $0.25. It is amazing how many people neglect to clean their windshields before going to the drive-in. Most people were good-natured about it, some admired our enterprise, and some gave us the quarter just to get us to go away so they could return to making out. I once made $14.00 this way, which was a huge amount of money for a 13-year-old in 1968.... Anyway, Sherry and I would return to the car, tired out and ready for the movie. We sat in the front seat with her dad, handed him cans of beers, ate everything in sight, and felt very grown up." [-bc]

THE COOLER (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

CAPSULE: Bernie Lootz is a loser living in Las Vegas making a living with his contagious bad luck. A casino uses him to spread his luck to winning high-rollers. But then he meets an attractive cocktail waitress who likes him and his luck starts to change, causing problems for the casino. William H. Macy and Alec Baldwin star in a story that mixes comedy, drama, and a touch of fantasy. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

Casino movies are almost as popular as restaurant movies. People like to see what goes on behind the scenes. Whether the viewer is attracted to gaming or not, just watching gamblers is absorbing. Probably all films are about the human drama of taking risks. In most films someone loses. But films about gambling make that sort of risk-taking very concrete and in casinos usually the results of the gamble take just seconds to determine. Maybe that is the reason, maybe not, but films like CASINO and HARD EIGHT are fascinating to most viewers. Las Vegas is particularly interesting because of the bright colors and lights. People are interested in systems gamblers use. People are interested in the superstitions of gambling. THE COOLER is about Las Vegas and about luck. The main character is one Bernie Lootz (played by William H. Macy). Bernie doesn't gamble with his own money. He did at one time and he lost in a big way when he could not cover his bets. Bernie should have known because Bernie always loses. His luck in life as well as on the gaming table as in the bedroom is uniformly terrible.

Bernie's life is totally cocked up because of his bad luck. His wife left him. His son, whom he rarely sees, hates him. But his luck is so bad that it's good enough to make him a living as a "cooler." He only has to stand next to a gambler, perhaps touch his hand, and the gambler loses. That sounds like really bad luck, but it is music to a casino-owner's ears. Turning gamblers' winning streaks into losing streaks is a talent that a casino owner can exploit. Bernie is employed by the Shangri-La, an old- style casino from the days that the mob ran Vegas. He is the best luck cooler in the business. That seems to reward him just enough to live in a sleazy motel and survive.

Bernie's friend and the manager of the casino is Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin). Shelly is an enigma. He loves his friends and can be utterly charming. Cross him and he can loose the brutality of a tiger. Shelly has to deal with the casino owners who want to modernize the look, feel, and operation of the Shangri-La and for once Shelly is on the defensive. He also has to deal with Bernie's announcement that he is leaving the Shangri-La at the end of the week. But Bernie is having second thoughts about leaving now that an attractive cocktail Natalie Belisario (Maria Bello) waitress is showing some romantic interest in Bernie.

THE COOLER is directed by Wayne Kramer, who co-wrote the film with Frank Hannah. Like Bernie, the script is likable but not really much of a winner. Plot twists intended to surprise the audience are predictable. As with a Capra film, we have a pretty good idea where the film is going, but it still may be enjoyable to see it get there. Alec Baldwin turns in a dynamic performance with a combination of sentiment and viciousness. Perhaps Macy's performance is as good, but if so it is subtler. He starts the film exuding a sort of limp apathy to his job and slowly injects energy into this role. Maria Bello somehow reminds one of a shelf-worn Sharon Stone. Her sex scenes with the clumsy Macy have a charm all their own. Paul Sorvino is along as a once-popular lounge singer who is past his prime.

This is an engaging enough story and it has a really magnetic performance from Alec Baldwin. It won't win any Oscars, but it delivers its lightweight story with aplomb. I rate it a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.

[Note: This would make an interesting double feature with Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's film INTACTO.] [-mrl]

CYPHER (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Rating: +3 (-4 to +4)

Many science fiction films of the last few years are based on the writings of Philip K. Dick. Somehow his paranoid view of the nature of reality, and how it can be completely different than it is perceived is an idea that appeals to filmgoers. CYPHER is not a film that is based on any Dick story, but Brian King's script captures the Dick feel perhaps better than any other film. Morgan Sullivan (played by Jeremy Northam) is a nerdish sort dominated by his overbearing wife. But the job he is taking is anything but nerdish. DigiCorp and Sunways are among the two most powerful corporations in the world. They are vicious rivals. DigiCorp has hired him to spy on Sunways. His job is to not be very noticeable. He is to attend conferences under the false name Jack Thursby and during the conference to turn on a recorder disguised as a pen. Sullivan is fascinated by his new world of codes and skullduggery and allows himself to be pulled into the strange labyrinth of industrial espionage and the cold war of the two giant corporations. Almost immediately the boring conferences get more interesting when he starts seeing an Asian woman (Lucy Liu) who may also be playing the same game.

Though films with a similar plot have been made, I found this one genuinely exciting, and to me it has the feel of a science fiction novel. While some of the ideas now familiar, standard paranoiac fantasies, I think the execution is great, creating genuine excitement. This is a lot for a seven-million-dollar production to do. The film has little homages to films like NORTH BY NORTHWEST, SECONDS, and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.

There are some interesting visual tricks. The film begins almost black and white as Sullivan is unsure of himself in the shadowy world of industrial espionage. As his character develops and becomes more sure of himself the colors fill in more and more vivid. Sullivan's very world has changed. Jeremy Northam traverses the path from nerdish to superman with impressive grace. Director Vincenzo Natali (CUBE, NOTHING) has a sure hand and could be a major talent. [-mrl]

NOTHING (film review by Mark R. Leeper):

Rating: +2 (-4 to +4)

Vincenzo Natali could well be a major talent of Canadian cinema and perhaps even international cinema. Previously he made CUBE and CYPHER. NOTHING starts as a comedy but soon becomes an original fantasy. And few films we see really are so original. Andrew and David have been the picked on by others since they were boys. They have formed a strong friendship and an alliance based on self-defense. They share a really ugly house (uh, half a house), apparently right under a freeway. Life is not great but at least they have each other.

But the time has come to break their partnership and each to go his own way. David has a girl and is going to move in with her. Or so he thinks. In one day each has his world fall apart. David loses his job, and discovers he never had a girl to lose. David returns home. Meanwhile Andrew is wrongly accused of child molestation, David of embezzlement, and the city has determined to demolish David and Andrew's house. The locals are besieging the house throwing rocks through the windows. The two are left cowering on the floor. When suddenly . . . .

There is a white flash and after it Andrew and David hear nothing. Cautiously they step outside the door and find the reason they are hearing nothing is that that is what now surrounds their house. Nothing. Beyond the property line there is a great white expanse of nothing. Alex and David have been given the ability to wish things out of existence and everything outside the foundations of their house is gone. It seems that Andrew and David have the power to erase things from reality. This is a premise that rates about a B+. But Natali is quite clever in his search for implications of this strange power.

Natali's script is constantly inventive in finding implications of this power. NOTHING has the dimensions of allegory in among other things being a story that dissects human behavior and the nature of aggression. The premise is reminiscent of the Jerome Bixby story "It's a Good Life," best known for being adapted as one of the best-known of the TWILIGHT ZONE television series. The special effects used are not expensive, but the plot allows them to be used very effectively.

Note: This is a very inconvenient title for a film. "What did you see last night?" "NOTHING." "Then where DID you go?" [-mrl]

This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):

The library mystery discussion group covered Harry Kemelman's FRIDAY THE RABBI SLEPT LATE, the first of his long series. I thought the "expository lumps" about Judaism where a bit un- subtle, but most of the people (particularly the non-Jews) thought them well done. At first I thought the portrayal of a conservative rabbi who cooks, drives, and turns on lights on Shabbos was questionable, but thinking about it, I suspect one found this more then, with the move back to a more observant position being a relatively recent phenomenon. I found the book interesting for its portrayal of a different world: an upper-class community with maids where people don't even lock their cars. (It reminded me of the setting of FAR FROM HEAVEN, the recent film set in the 1950s with Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid.) In any case, everyone agreed it was an easy-to-read and enjoyable book.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's THE ADVENTURES OF BRIGADIER GERARD is a humorous picaresque novel of a French soldier of the Napoleanic Wars, who is a first-person narrator who doesn't realize he's a rascal and a bit inept, but manages to let us know. Doyle is, of course, better known for creating Sherlock Holmes. Though he said he expected to be remembered for his historical novels, I'm not sure this was one of the ones he was thinking of.

Somewhere I had read that Joseph Addison's CATO was a favorite of John Adams, and one can see why. While Shakespeare's JULIUS CAESAR concentrates on the treachery and in-fighting of the conspirators against Caesar, Addison looks at the situation from the point of view of those who genuinely feel that Caesar is becoming a dictator and destroying Roman freedom, but who don't necessarily want to assassinate him. That someone like Adams, concerned about American liberty, would like this play is not surprising. (It's a bit hard to find; I got it in an anthology edited by Richard Quintana titled 18TH CENTURY PLAYS.) [-ecl]

                                          Mark Leeper

Quote of the Week:

           Speak when you are angry and you will 
           make the best speech you will ever regret.
                                         -- Ambrose Bierce

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