Movie Reviews

by Mark Leeper

We still don't know much about Mark Leeper, but he writes a damn good review!

L5: First City in Space -- Marvin's Room
Blood and Wine -- Waiting For Guffman

L5: First City in Space

The first science fiction film in
IMAX 3-D is the curiously subdued story of a rather
prosaic mission to help maintain the L5 colony.
The process may be more interesting than the rather
sterile and idealized view of life on the nearly
self-sustaining space colony. But besides the size
of the screen there is little in the process that
was not present in 3-D films of the 1950s.
Rating: low 0 (-4 to +4)

Back in the 1950s and 60s the film industry wanted to give the public something they could not get on TV. They invented a wide-screen process using three strips of film and a screen that wrapped around the audience. The process was called "Cinerama." And the films made in this process were mostly just demonstration films to show what could be done. The films had names like THIS IS CINERAMA, CINERAMA HOLIDAY, WINDJAMMER, and THE SEVEN WONDERS OF THE WORLD. Eventually the public got bored with just picturesque documentaries and the filmmakers had to start putting plots into the films, but they kept them simple and episodic with big action sequences. After all audiences did not need Cinerama for MACBETH. They wanted exciting action sequences. So they made films like HOW THE WEST WAS WON which was really more a set of short stories which featured thrill scenes like runaway stage coaches. THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM actually had a story that went the length of the film, but it also had sequences of fairy tales. The films were intentionally kept big and kind of stupid to make the best use of the process. The final film I remember being made in the process was supposed to take the viewer on a scenic ride into space. I suspect it was originally intended to be that and to have only the faintest whisper of a plot. It was given a kind of vacuous name to imply that it was a sort of WINDJAMMER in space. It was to be called 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. By the time this film was finally made some of the people behind it had sort of meddled with the concept a little. For one thing it was not really an odyssey any more, but it was still a sort of futuristic, science-fictional demonstration of the new medium. And it proved to be the most popular of the Cinerama films.

For the new IMAX 3-D process they did not wait so long to try science fiction. One of their first films is a voyage into space. And not to mix my analogies, but just as the film THE CONQUEST OF SPACE was heavily based on a speculative non-fiction book, THE CONQUEST OF SPACE by Willy Ley, L5: FIRST CITY IN SPACE is based heavily based on Gerard K. O'Neill's THE HIGH FRONTIER, in which the author describes in detail a mammoth space station that will be placed at the L5 point. L5 is a point first described by the mathematician and astronomer Comte Joseph Louis Lagrange which will hold onto matter in a stable equilibrium. As soon as the matter starts to move away from the point gravitational forces from the Earth and the Moon will pull it back. A space colony placed at the L5 point will need to expend no energy to remain at the that point. O'Neill described a sort of perfect world, nearly self- sufficient, hanging in space at the L5 point. L5: FIRST CITY IN SPACE is a story set in this future world.

Director Toni Myers seems to share Stanley Kubrick's belief that in space the furniture will not be wooden but all the people will be. The story seems to be performed by catatonics. There is not a lot to the story here, since the entire film is only 34 minutes long (and sports a hefty ticket price of $9). The film starts with a sort of tour of the interior of the L5 station, much as it was described in THE HIGH FRONTIER. Interiors are short live-action but the exteriors are done in 3-D animation, but using art very much the style of O'Neill's illustrations. We meet Chieko, a little girl living in the L5 colony with freshets of water feeding long rows of perfect palm trees, hydroponically grown to produce perfect fruit of exotic types. But her parents and grandfather are worried (note the worried expressions on their faces). The L5 colony has a problem, just about the most prosaic problem imaginable. It is not the same problem that plagued the runaway forest in SILENT RUNNING, but it is just as basic and it is just as amazing that it takes the characters by surprise. But it is a serious problem, enough so that the actors can look worried. Fixing the problem involves travel to a comet that happens to be hurtling by. But the story is told with little dramatic tension in explaining threat so there is not much excitement. There is just quiet worry that is eventually alleviated.

Among the things that bothered me about the film was that in the exteriors the stars seemed to be in 3-D with some appearing closer than others. In a word we got parallax on stars. This is a total absurdity added to use the 3-D effect. The film shares the book's optimism that everything on the L5 colony would be just about ideal. The fruit grown from hydroponics is just perfect looking. And even the view of Earth from the colony is perfect and beautiful. On the dark side the cities show up as perfect little jewels of bright light. I could believe some pinpoints, but not as big as the film shows them to be. The final unlikely element is the presence of a Holodeck sequence--I know of nothing else to call it--whose technology is unexplained.

Some comments should be made about the IMAX 3-D process itself. First the screen in New York seems smaller than other IMAX screens I have seen, at least as I remember them. Even sitting close to the screen, due to arriving late, I could see both edges at the same time. The fact that we are seeing a 3-D process makes the screen look even smaller. I do not know exactly why that is, but 3-D processes I have seen seem to make the screen look smaller than it looks without the goggles or glasses. This 3-D process is actually quite primitive, in spite of the supposedly advanced presentation. The goggles use simple polarized lenses and if one tips ones head only the slightest, a ghost image comes into view. The ghost image often would show up even without tipping. The 3-D process, in short, presented little technology that was not present for DIAL M FOR MURDER in 1954.

It is not clear that you can rate a little demonstration film like it was a feature film in a more standard theater, but this one satisfied like a film that would have gotten a low 0 on the -4 to +4 scale.

More info at the Internet Movie Database

Marvin's Room

Two sisters are reunited after many
years when one needs the help of the other. They
discover that ironically the sister with the richer
life is the one who has sacrificed more for her
family. The story telling is uneven, but the
message will certainly be deeply felt by some
segments of the audience. In the end this is a sad
and gentle story even if its message is a little trite.
Rating: +1 (-4 to +4)
New York Critics: 17 positive, 4 negative, 6 mixed

MARVIN'S ROOM was originally a play produced first in Chicago and then in New York. Scott McPherson adapted his own play into a screenplay before dying of AIDS at thirty-three. He died five years ago and now Jerry Zaks has directed a film version of the play. The film version is a comedy drama that is getting some positive attention and an Academy Award nomination for Diane Keaton, though I have to say it is not my sort of film and so I may not be the best person to judge it. Lee and Bessie (played by Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton respectively) are two sisters who have been separated for two decades. Lee has gone off to find herself and has since raised two children, the disturbed Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his studious younger brother Charlie (Hal Scardino) whose spare time, at least for the course of the film, seems to be taken up reading 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. Lee is so self-centered, colorful, and tough it is surprising the role did not go to Cher. Bessie is more a warm and loving person who has spent the year unfulfilled, taking care of her soap-opera-loving Aunt Ruth (Gwen Verdon) and her senile, long-dying father Marvin (Hume Cronyn). As Bessie tells her doctor, "My father has been dying for twenty years, slowly, so I won't miss anything." Each sister has problems as Hank burned down Lee's house and has been committed to a mental institution. Bessie has recently been diagnosed with leukemia. Bessie needs a bone marrow transplant from someone with the right kind of marrow so Lee has arranged a leave for Hank and the two of them and Charlie have driven down from Ohio to Bessie's home in Florida to test if they have the right marrow type. Hank, who never realized that he had an aunt is first alienated from Bessie, then discovers that in many ways she is a kindred spirit.

It is remarkable that Keaton would allow herself to take such an unglamorous role. Bessie is starting to show the signs of aging and her disease. Her teeth look bad and her hands look like those of an elderly woman. Streep is abrasive and usually at odds with her sons, particularly Hank. Robert DeNiro, who produced the film along with Scott Rudin and Jane Rosenthal, plays a role as Bessie's doctor and his role seems to be one of the most ill-considered touches of the film. He seems less than totally competent and something of a buffoon. It is surprising that Keaton would choose such a misfit to treat her for something like leukemia, placing her life in his hands, The combination of his distressing diagnosis and his comic behavior just does not seem to work in the film. The same unevenness comes later in the film as Bessie is telling a very humorous story to Lee only to have us realize that the story is one of the great tragedies of her life and is one she would be unlikely to be laughing about.

MARVIN'S ROOM is one of a spate of female bonding films we have seen of late, and not really one of the best. Like Bessie's life, the film really goes nowhere in specific, but it picks up texture along the way. It is not the kind of film I feel I can judge really well. The theme of fulfillment through service to others and forgiveness is one that could have been taken directly from the Boy Scout Handbook. Certainly what is deep and meaningful to one person will be trite to another. For me this film leaned heavily to the hackneyed, but admittedly there were those in the audience who were touched by the film's message.

For the right audience this was probably a moving film but I was not that audience and I can give it only a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.

More info at the Internet Movie Database

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