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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
09/28/07 -- Vol. 26, No. 13, Whole Number 1460
Table of Contents
Famous Last Word (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
French mime Marcel Marceau died September 22. His last words apparently were for Mel Brooks to whom he said, "No!" [-mrl]
Top Ten Westerns (Part 1) (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Last issue I reviewed the remake of 3:10 TO YUMA and referred to the original as a classic. A friend took exception and said (I am doing some paraphrasing) that he reserved the world "classic" for superbly good films. He said that the 1957 version of 3:10 TO YUMA is not nearly a classic. Actually our argument comes down to what is meant by the word classic. Is it a film of great quality or is it a film that has been remembered and frequently referenced? This led Evelyn to ask me what I considered to be the really great Westerns. Might it not be interesting to make a list of my ten best Westerns? (These are listed in chronological order.)
HIGH NOON (1952) This is the classic film of tension and confrontation. The film runs fairly close to real time. In an hour the killer Frank Miller sill arrive in town so his gang can kill Marshall Will Kane. The Marshall finds nobody willing to commit to help him save the town. Finally he finds he can only rely on himself. Because the basic situation paralleled the position of people called before the House Un-American Committee it has been adopted as a film of liberal politics, but the message of self-reliance and the unworthiness of the general public could almost have been taken from Ayn Rand.
THE BIG COUNTRY (1958) Of all the big, brash Westerns, this one may be the biggest and brashest. It is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the novel by Donald Hamilton, writer of the Matt Helm series. Gregory Peck plays an ex-sea captain who comes out west to marry the woman he loves, not realizing that this will put him in the middle of a land war between his fiancee's cattle baron father (Charles Bickford) and a crusty neighbor (Burl Ives in an Oscar-winning performance). Charleton Heston wanted to turn down the non-lead part as Bickford's ranch foreman but was convinced by others that it was crazy to turn down a chance to work with director William Wyler. Wyler's next film had Heston as the title character of BEN HUR. The musical score by Jerome Moross is one of the greatest of any Western film.
THE JAYHAWKERS (1959) All of the above are acknowledged classics of the Western genre. I would also like to choose a Western that is little remembered. In pre-Civil War Kansas a man breaks out of prison to investigate the death of his wife. He is recaptured but instead of going back to prison he is offered a pardon by the governor if he will just kill the man responsible for his wife's death. It seems the man in question is Luke Darcy, a very charismatic and cultured demagogue, a sort of prairie Napoleon who wants to carve his own country out of Kansas. The would-be killer finds himself caught up in Darcy's dream. The musical score by Jerome Moross became familiar when it was reused for the television program "Wagon Train."
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) The remake of SEVEN SAMURAI--itself inspired by Westerns--as a western may well be an improvement on a great film. This is another film with suspense, but it is also a film with characters. It is the characters that make this film work, though in my opinion, like GONE WITH THE WIND, the first half is much better than the second half. When the shooting starts this film loses a lot of what it had going for it. Bu the sequences of gathering the near-volunteer team to fight an idealistic battle and the varying motives of each member make this a film to watch repeatedly.
THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962) The combination of director John Ford and actor John Wayne is one of the most respected in Western movies. However, here John Wayne is second to Jimmy Stewart. Stewart plays a bookish Easterner come out west and finds himself in a deadly struggle with the title desperado. Stewart gives the film more heart than Wayne does in Ford's other films. (I am convinced that Ford found that the script as it was intended was not filmable. A close viewing of the film changes the meaning of the title from what everyone thinks it means.)
[I will finish the list next week. -mrl]
Pluto (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
If scientists want people to use scientifically correct language, then they should not go around changing the language so that what had been correct usage becomes incorrect, e.g., deciding that Pluto is no longer a planet. It could be that they had no idea how strong public opinion would be against the change, but there are a lot of people who will keep calling Pluto a planet. It's like New York City deciding that it should be "the Avenue of the Americas"--everyone still calls it Sixth Avenue. [-ecl]
[Not me. I still call it Pluto. -mrl]
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS by J.K. Rowling (copyright 2007, Scholastic, 759pp, $34.99, ISBN 0-545-01022-5) (book review by Joe Karpierz):
It's over. It's really over. We're done. No more late night book release parties, no more anticipation of the next book in the series, no more leaks to the Internet, no more speculation on book titles. It's done.
And you know what? Rowling finally did it right. While not a flawless book--what book is?--this book is right on target most of the time.
I think this book works for several different reasons. It's different in tone from the other books; my daughter said that it was like it was a completely different series. It's dark. It has to be, since it's dealing with a subject matter that by definition is dark--after all, it's basically a war between good and evil, where the evil guy does not shy away from killing the good guys. Had Rowling chickened out and softened it up, I would have felt cheated. The protagonist has tough decisions to make, decisions that will not be popular with his friends and allies. Characters we've come love have proven to have flaws, and characters we intensely dislike turn out surprising us in pleasant ways. It's good stuff.
The series started to get good, if I remember (wait, let me check the review)--yep, with a couple of hundred pages left in Goblet of Fire. At that point, it seems, it turned from a children's story to something more adult. This makes sense, as Harry and the rest of the gang at Hogwarts are indeed getting older, going through through their teen years, and generally gaining a much more grown up view of the world. DEATHLY HALLOWS is the ultimate in this transformation, as Harry has to make life or death decisions that will alter society, both Wizarding and Muggle, as we know it. This is a grown up book, with grown-up themes and a grown-up story--not to mention a wee bit of grown up language (see if you drop the book like I almost did when Mrs. Weasley let out with an impolite name for Bellatrix during the climactic battle).
So, I guess I ought to actually talk about the book for a bit, eh? Okay, you convinced me.
The one thing to notice is that the majority of this story does not take place at Hogwarts. Oh, it took place during the school year, but the thing is, Harry, Hermione, and Ron quit school to run off on a fool's errand at the command of the late lamented Albus Dumbledore--go off and destroy all of Voldemort's Horcruxes. You remember those from HALF BLOOD PRINCE, I would imagine--those magical items that contained pieces of Voldemort's soul. They're all over the place, our heroes don't know where they are, and Voldemort and his followers have taken over the Ministry of Magic, Hogwarts, and all the rest of the British wizarding world (you know all those schools that participated in the Triwizard Tournament? I wonder if they had the equivalent of a Voldemort running around, and if not, why couldn't they help out with this mess in Britain?). Our heroes are also on the run, looking for those pesky Horcruxes. Then, when visiting Xenophilius Lovegood--Luna's father--they hear the story of The Tale of the Three Brothers and the Deathly Hallows. It seems that if you have possession of all three Hallows--a souped up Invisibility Cloak, a super wand called the Elder Wand, and the Resurrection Stone, you become the Master of Death. Well, by gosh and by golly, guess Who's going after the Hallows?
So now Harry has a dilemma--does he go after the Horcruxes, or does he go after the Hallows? And he'd better make his mind up quick. If he decides to go after the Hallows too late, then Voldemort will get them any *and* Harry won't have destroyed the Horcruxes either. Harry eventually does make his decision to go after the Horcruxes, but he needs the Sword of Gryffindor to help destroy the darned things. And he doesn't have it. He does, however, get help from the most unlikely person, the identity of whom he doesn't find out until much later.
Oh, there's more, there's much, much more to talk about, but then this review would be as long as the novel. Suffice it to say that we eventually get to the aforementioned climactic battle between good and evil, with Harry and Voldemort taking center stage, just as we knew they would. And here I'd better stop for a spoiler alert, since what I need to talk about is spoiler material.
For those 2.5 people in the world who haven't yet read the book but intend to and don't want to know what happens, leave now. As we know, good triumphs over evil in stories like this one-- always. So yes, Harry defeats Voldemort, as we always knew he would, and Harry survives, as we weren't sure he would. I think the whole wrap-up to this leaves a little to be desired. We learn earlier in the novel that the Wand chooses the Wizard, and wands can pass from one wizard to the next when, for instance, one wizard bests another in combat. The Elder Wand is no exception. The fact that the Elder Wand is currently in the possession of Voldemort but is not *controlled* by Voldemort because Harry actually disarmed it's previous owner of *a different wand*, thus causing the Elder Wand to choose Harry, doesn't work for me. And Harry not actually providing the killing blow was a bit of a cop out as well, in my opinion. Voldemort would have no trouble landing the killing blow on Harry, so why not the other way around? There was no point in Rowling trying to keep Harry innocent--he'd already been the direct or indirect cause of a few other deaths in the book anyway.
And speaking of those deaths, I wanted to see Rowling have the guts to kill off one of the Big Three. A real war spares no one, and even though people close to Harry, Ron, and Hermione died, one of those three dying would have had a much greater dramatic impact on the story.
Okay, you 2.5 people--you can come back now.
BIG SPOILER OVER, MINOR SPOILER AHEAD
I really enjoyed the ending epilogue, although I gather from things that I've read that some people out there didn't care for it. Yeah, it was a little too sweet and sugar coated, but big stories of good versus evil need to have a "happily ever after" ending, especially this overarching story spanning seven books. After all that's said and done, the time honored happily ever after is appropriate here.
MINOR SPOILER OVER
The novel is a fine and fitting end to the "Harry Potter" series. As one of my co-workers put it the other day, the ending was saying "I'm done, I'm not writing any more, don't ask me to". And that's the way it should be. It's time to move on.
Okay, from one end of series novel to the next. When next we meet, I'll review SANDWORMS of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, the final novel in the series originally started by the late Frank Herbert with the classic novel Dune. Until then.... [-jak]
EASTERN PROMISES (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: A London midwife is threatened by the actions of the Russian Mafia in this new thriller from David Cronenberg. Cronenberg brings back Viggo Mortensen from his last film into another violent action part. Double-crosses, violent fights, and secret plans make the film feel like a good episode of the Sopranovs. This could well be Cronenberg's best film of this decade, atmospheric and exciting. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
When an unidentified 14-year-old drug addict dies giving birth, her midwife Anna (played by Naomi Watts) is left holding the baby. Anna needs to identify the dead girl and to find the baby's family. But she has only what was in the dead girl's pockets to help her. The effects include a handwritten book, probably a diary, which had been kept in Russian and a business card from a local Russian restaurant. Anna's is half-Russian, but she herself does not know the language so she needs help. Her uncle reads Russian but is not willing to do the translation when he finds the sort of terrible story that the diary tells. Instead Anna goes to the restaurant on the card. There the owner Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is only reluctantly willing to translate the diary. But going to the restaurant brings Anna in contact with Semyon's violent gangster son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and his very efficient lieutenant Nicolai (Viggo Mortensen). The story spans the days between Christmas Eve and New Years Eve.
David Cronenberg's last film with Viggo Mortensen, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, was actually a redux of a plot from a 1950s Western (by way of a graphic novel). This time he has made a first-class thriller. Before that he did SPIDER, a downbeat character study of an acute schizophrenic. One film was too heavy, the other a bit too light. This time he balances action and atmosphere and gets it just about right. Fans of "The Sopranos" will find the sort of intra-family machinations and politics of a crime family. Certainly part of the appeal of Sopranos, the education of how the Mafia works, is here also with the revelations of the Russian Mafia and specifically the baroque language of tattoos. The tattoos on a Russian Mafioso tell you more about his past than the medals on a five-star general tell you about his.
Armin Mueller-Stahl plays the Russian patriarch in whose restaurant much of the story takes place. Ordinarily he is a very good actor, but it was genuinely distracting to hear him speak with a Germanic rather than Slavic accent. ("If she hahd verked here...") I wondered was there some plot detail that I missed that explained this anomaly? Mortensen did sound sufficiently Russian, at least to me. But then he had spent weeks travelling in Russia preparing for the role. He has the raw-boned face that is magnetic.
After A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, viewers will expect that we will see Viggo Mortensen in violent action scenes. Cronenberg has gone from the bizarre graphic visuals of his early films to simply extreme violence in his later films. While there appears to be little gunplay in the Russian Mafia, there is a lot of knife- play. There is a saying that being unprepared is bringing a knife to a gunfight. In this film Mortensen's character takes it a step further by bringing almost less than nothing to a knife fight. (Okay, he wasn't expecting it.) But it was a scene that somehow is much more exciting than a gunfight or martial arts fight.
This is a suspenseful and brutal London crime drama to rank with some of the better British-made London crime dramas like LAYER CAKE. It is not the kind of thing we are used to from David Cronenberg, but he comes off in fine style I rate it a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0765443/
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
When I retired in 2001, my "to-read" backlog was about a year. I managed to get it down to three or four months by last year, but it seems to be stuck there. True, I occasionally add books to the list based on reviews and such, but that is not at that great a rate. But I have finally figured out why the list does not decrease. The reason is three-fold: I get a large number of books to read for the Sidewise Award, I find entirely too many books when I go to the library and look at the new books, and whenever the stack diminishes, I find myself adding another half dozen Agatha Christies to it to re-read.
Our book discussion this month was about RICHARD III by William Shakespeare (ISBN-13 978-0-743-48284-4, ISBN-10 0-743-48284-0). One problem I have with this play is that parts of it are just unbelievable--in particular, Richard's (successful) wooing of Lady Anne. I don't care how charming someone is, it is just not credible that they could kill a woman's husband and father-in- law, and then get her to fall in love with him at the funeral. (Unless, of course, she is not in love with the husband--but that is not the case here.)
[First, the husband and father were not murdered but fell in battle, which is a little bit different. Also the fact that Anne Neville was only 16 and was probably left unprotected might have had something to do with it. (Thank you, answers.com.) By the way, she does not fall in love with him in the play. In one scene she goes from detesting him to merely disliking him. -mrl]
Of course, a lot of RICHARD III is not to be believed, not because it is just unlikely, but because it is actually false. Shakespeare based his characters on the histories written by Thomas More and other Tudor supporters, and these histories were written more to blacken Richard's name than to convey the truth. For example, Clarence was actually disloyal to Edward, and was killed because of that, in spite of Richard's attempts to save him. One of the best expositions of the misrepresentations is Josephine Tey's THE DAUGHTER OF TIME, which is our discussion book *next* month.
However, parts of the play are spot-on even today, such as this description from Act III, Scene 7:
Buckingham: The mayor is here at hand: intend some fear; Be not you spoke with, but by mighty suit: And look you get a prayer-book in your hand, And stand betwixt two churchmen, good my lord; For on that ground I'll build a holy descant: And be not easily won to our request: Play the maid's part, still answer nay, and take it. ... Lord Mayor: See, where he stands between two clergymen! Buckingham: Two props of virtue for a Christian prince, To stay him from the fall of vanity: And, see, a book of prayer in his hand, True ornaments to know a holy man. Famous Plantagenet, most gracious prince, Lend favourable ears to our request; And pardon us the interruption Of thy devotion and right Christian zeal.
Doesn't this sound like some of today's politicians?
GHOSTS IN BAKER STREET edited by Martin Harry Greenberg, Jon Lellenberg, and Daniel Stashower (ISBN-13 978-0-786-71400-1, ISBN-10 0-7867-1400-X) is the third in the "New Tales of Sherlock Holmes" series. The first two are MURDER IN BAKER STREET and MURDER, MY DEAR WATSON; this one is considerably shorter than either of those, containing only ten stories and three essays. The introduction by John H. Watson, M.D. says that of Holmes's cases "a few ... seemed to defy rational explanation." Because of Holmes's insistence that they must have had a rational explanation, however, he says of the notes for these, "I locked them away in my old dispatch box that I kept in the vaults of a bank at Charing Cross." Overlooking that Watson writing this must now be upwards of 150 years old--itself a fairly supernatural situation--I figure that if one tallied up all the notes for all the stories which claim to have been stored for years in this dispatch box, one can only conclude that the dispatch box itself has the supernatural property of being considerably larger on the inside than on the outside (unless there is a scientific explanation, such as that it is a mini- TARDIS). But in any case, the real problem with the introduction is that in fact, almost all the stories in this volume *do* have a rational explanation at the end of them, with no hint that there is anything more. Only two of the ten are clearly supernatural, and two others have rational explanations with only a hint of possible supernatural elements at the end. I suspect when it came down to it, most of the authors respected Holmes enough to feel it necessary to ground their stories firmly in reality rather than the spirit world. (The SHADOWS OVER BAKER STREET anthology combined Holmes with Lovecraftian themes, but even these are really more science fictional than supernatural.)
(In passing, I have to wonder how theologically sound is the notion that person A can grant or wager person B's soul to the Devil. If the Devil could get souls that way, he would only have to tempt one person in selling him everyone else's souls.)
DEATH BY BLACK HOLE: AND OTHER COSMIC QUANDRIES by Neil deGrasse Tyson (ISBN-13 978-0-393-33016-8, ISBN-10 0-393-33016-8) is a collection of "Universe" essays from the magazine NATURAL HISTORY. (Tyson has recently been seen on the History Channel series "Universe".) The essays vary in interest, but I do have to take exception to a couple of Tyson's conclusions in "Fear of Numbers". Tyson claims that people are afraid of negative numbers, and gives some supposed examples of this. For example, he says that "a mild case of this syndrome exists among car dealers, where instead of saying they will subtract $1,000 from the price of your car, they say you will receive $1,000 'cash back.'" This is more psychological than mathematical: people like getting cash back. Why else would people prefer to overpay their taxes and then get a refund, than pay less throughout the year? (And if they are getting a car loan, they really do end up with more money in their pocket right away.)
Tyson also claims that this fear of the minus sign is why accounting reports enclose negative amounts in parentheses rather than use the minus sign. I think it is more likely that this is done because it is easy to overlook a minus sign--it is fairly small, after all--or to confuse it with a dash or just an ink streak.
There is also an article, "Hollywood Nights", about how Hollywood manages to get the night sky wrong so often. For example, James Cameron spent a lot of time and money making sure that the dish patterns were correct on the Titanic, but did not seem to care that the stars in the night sky were all wrong. Directors also have the moon waxing and waning in the wrong direction, or make other astronomical mistakes.
Some of the astronomy complaints are a little unfair, though. Tyson complains that one sees a full moon much more frequently than the law of averages would indicate. But of course you do, and for the same reason that people always find parking spaces right where they need them--it serves the purpose of the film. In films, you also never have a situation where two important characters have the same first name, unless it is a plot point, and you also never see anyone doing anything (such as going to the dentist).that is not connected to the plot. As long as the full moon is not actually impossible (such as lasting two weeks), complaining about it on the basis of frequency hardly seems fair.
And some comments on a film rather than a book: We saw IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON recently, and a few things are worth mentioning:
The decision to change Apollo 8 from an earth orbital to a lunar orbital mission was a last-minute one, made because it was believed that the Russians were planning a lunar orbital mission. As Jim Lovell said, "It was a bold move. It had some risky aspects to it. But it was a time when we made bold moves."
Regarding Kennedy's famous speech. one of the astronauts said that there was a clear and simple mission statement: "Where? The moon. When? By the end of this decade." It would be nice if all corporate mission statements could be this clear.
Today's miracle is tomorrow's commonplace.
Charles Duke said, "My father was born shortly after the Wright brothers. He could barely believe that I went to the moon. But my son Tom was 5--and he didn't think it was any big deal." It sounds as though the astronauts' parents were amazed that twelve men went to the moon; the astronauts' children, that *only* twelve went.
As ABC News pointed out, of the 12 who walked on the moon's surface, only nine are alive today, and the youngest is 71. The astronauts who took part in this documentary were Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Eugene Cernan, Michael Collins (who circled the moon but did not walk on it), Jim Lovell (who was on the Apollo 13 flight and hence did not walk on the moon either), Edgar D. Mitchell, Harrison Schmitt, Dave Scott, and John Young. Noticeably missing form the documentary was Neil Armstrong. Three "moon-walkers"--Pete Conrad, James Irwin, and Alan Shepard- -died before the film was made. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: Customer: "How much is a large order of Fibonaccos?" Cashier: "It's the price of a small order plus the price of a medium order." -- Henry G. Baker
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