The Skies of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

Skies of Pern Les EdwardsIn this final book in the 9th Pass saga of The Dragonriders of Pern, the story turns to the aftermath of events in All the Weyrs of Pern.  At the end of that book, the dragonriders, led by Jaxom and under the guidance of the computer AIVAS move the engines of the three space ships that brought the original colony from Earth into Red Star, exploding to force it into an orbit from which it can no longer drop Thread onto Pern.  Following this heroic exploit, AIVAS turned itself off and Master Robinton expired.

The following review contains plot spoilers.

The Skies of Pern brings forward the character of F’lessan, son of F’lar and Lessa, who appeared much earlier in the saga as a boy and a young man.  Now, the mature rider of bronze dragon Golanth, with sons of his own, F’lessan looks toward the end of the Pass, contemplating what he will do After.  In the previous novel, he discovered the ruins of Honshu Hold deep in the Southern Continent.  He has been restoring it.  Coming to Landing for the Turnover festivities at the beginning of the 31st Turn of the Pass, he goes to the AIVAS library to do some research and runs into a female green dragon rider, Tai, whose dragon is Zaranth.  Making friends with her, they attend the festival, but she disappears when Mirrim and T’gellan show up, she disappears, only to discover Abominators breaking glass at the Healer’s Hall.

The same dumb Abominators from All the Weyrs of Pern are back, wreaking havoc by destroying products that AIVAS showed the Pernese how to create and use.  They are working on a large, concerted level.  F’lessan finds Tai swimming and shows unusual concern for her welfare, just as Golanth seems to care about Zaranth.

Before their relationship can proceed further, however, a comet fragment bursts through the atmosphere and plunges into the eastern sea, causing massive tidal waves that inundate both the north and south, completely submerging Monaco Weyr.

After a great deal of timing, once again the dragons of Pern and their courageous riders rescue holders and move people to higher ground, exhausting themselves in the process.  F’lessan manages to work with Tai and gets her and the other Monaco riders to go to Honshu for rest.  After the others have made new weyrs, Tai and Zaranth stay on.  When Zaranth rises to mate, Golanth flies her and F’lessan discovers that Tai has never had a good experience with the almost compulsory sex that goes along with a mating flight of dragons.  She has been raped over and over by other dragonriders.  Showing a great deal of care and concern, F’lessan makes love to her and brings her to love him.

Having served as an assistant to Starsmith Wansor, Tai is well versed in studying the heavens, so F’lessan retrieves what he needs from Landing in order to get the Honshu telescope working again.  After a night of stargazing, they swim in the river and then fall asleep on one of the ledges above the pool, with their dragons sleeping just below them.  Zaranth wakes up to a feeling of danger just as a large pack of the wild felines attack them.  Golanth is closest to them and they do considerable damage to him and to F’lessan, while Zaranth uses her newfound power of telekinesis to throw the felines off.  Ruth, Ramoth and Mnementh all respond to Zaranth’s distress call and she shows them how to use telekinesis to destroy the felines.

As F’lessan and Golanth go through a long and difficult recovery, the holders of the planet plan to press the dragonriders into finding a way to prevent future meteorites and comets from attacking Pern.  The answer lies in mapping the skies, a concept that F’lessan had previously given to the weyrleaders.  With a future in astronomy, F’lar and the others make plans to build more observatories to map the skies and watch for future incursions.  With the dragons having telekinesis, they will find a way to deflect future meteorites.

F’lessan and Tai become weyr mates and will be in charge of the Honshu observatory.

Along the way, the Abominators are defeated.

There are a great many delightful things in this novel, but the villains are such minor characters that they really don’t get much in the way of the story, as McCaffrey’s villains do in some of the other books.  All of the familiar characters are back, of course, excluding Master Robinton.  F’lar and Lessa are considering retirement, but F’lar wants to continue to lead Benden Weyr through the end of the Pass.  They are much larger characters in this novel than in some of the other later novels in the series.

F’lessan and Tai are both delightful characters and the attack of the felines is one of McCaffrey’s best written action sequences in any of her books.  There is much to love in this novel for the dedicated Pern reader, but I must confess that I felt very sad when it was finished, almost as if I were putting away Pern again for a while.

But the wonderful thing about The Dragonriders of Pern is that it can be started all over at any time and the reader will delight in following through all the books to get to The Skies of Pern.  It’s such a wonderful series that it can be read over and over again.  You can look forward to the beginning, even as you read through the end.

To Catch A Thief

To Catch a Thief 01This is Alfred Hitchcock’s most visually beautiful movie.  Filmed on the French Riviera, the gorgeous hills, dotted with old mansions overlooking the Mediterranean Sea vie with the stark beauty of Grace Kelly and chiseled features of Cary Grant to provide enough eye candy to last a lifetime.  The following review contains plot spoilers.

The story is simply an excuse for the beauty.  American ex-patriot John Robie (Cary Grant) is a former jewel thief who was known as “the Cat” before World War II.  He paid his dues by fighting in the French Resistance, killing over 70 Nazis proving his loyalty to France.  After the war, he put aside his thieving ways and lives respectably and very well, thank you, in a villa on a ridge overlooking the Mediterranean.  This idyllic life is disturbed when a copycat burglar begins stealing the most expensive jewels on the Riviera.  When the Police come calling, thinking he has renewed his life of crime, he evades them in a breathtaking car chase through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.  Turning his car over to a woman on the street, he hops a bus and sits next to Alfred Hitchcock.

He goes to see his old friend from the Resistance, Monsieur Bertani (Charles Vanel), who runs a restaurant that is manned by head waiter Foussard (Jean Martinelli) and more of their old Resistance buddies, who are all suspicious that the Police are right about Robie.  Bertani helps him escape with the aid of Foussard’s daughter, teenager Danielle (Brigitte Auber) who has a crush on him.  She takes him across the water to the Hotel Carlton, where beautiful American tourist Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly) sees him.  He makes contact with a British insurance company representative, H. H. Hughson (John Williams), and pleads his case, that he is innocent and only wants to catch the thief to clear his name.  Caught by the Police, Robie is released due a lack of evidence and convinces Hughson to give him the names of his clients who have the most expensive jewels waiting to be stolen.  Abashed at having already had to pay out huge sums, Hughson agrees, also sharing the list with the Police to hedge his bets.

To Catch a Thief 02He begins by meeting rich American tourist Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis), mother of Frances, and posing as a rich Oregon timber man.  After a stimulating evening, he escorts the two ladies back to their rooms, but before he can depart, Frances gives him a passionate kiss and arranges to meet him the next day.  While swimming, he runs into Danielle and Frances becomes jealous.  She and Robie take a drive to look at villas and are followed by the Police.  When he asks her to drive a little faster, she speeds up considerably, taking a kind of devilish delight in tempting fate.  They safely evade the Police and find a nice spot overlooking the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean and she tells him that she’s figured out that he’s actually John Robie.  He denies it, but after lunch the end up kissing again.  She tells him to meet her in her room to watch the fireworks or she will reveal who he really is.

That night, she seduces him again, proposing that they go into business together as burglars.  He continues the façade of being a tourist, but when she goes to sleep, he keeps watch in her bedroom.  During the night, however, the burglar robs Jessie of all her expensive jewels and finally Robie reveals himself to them.  Frances calls the Police on him and he departs over the rooftops as they arrive to search for him.

Hiding out, he stakes out what he thinks is the next target, alerting Hughson and putting the Police on notice.  As he waits in the dark, he is attacked by a man dressed in black.  Struggling, he throws the man over the cliff.  The Police find the body of Foussard in the Sea and announce that he was the burglar, clearing Robie of charges.

At her father’s funeral, Danielle becomes distraught and calls Robie a murder.  Chagrined, Frances again hooks up with Robie and he tells her of his plans to capture the real burglar by attending a fancy costume ball.  The Police follow and also stake out the ball, which Bertani is catering, with Danielle’s help.  After changing disguises with Hughson, Robie waits on the roof for the burglar to show up, but when he does, it turns out to be Danielle.

To Catch a Thief 03On Robie’s hillside villa, Frances kisses Robie again, remarking that her mother is going to love the house.

From beginning to end, the cinematography is stunning, so much so that the film won Robert Burks, Hitchcock’s longtime associate an Academy Award.  Although nominated for her incredible costuming, especially of Grace Kelly, Edith Head did not win.

This film has a different feel than most of Hitchcock’s work.  Although it contains a lot of humor, the film is not a comedy.  There is certainly some mystery as to who the real burglar is, but the film lacks the tension and suspense that mark most of Hitchcock’s movies.  In truth, this is a feel-good romance, concentrating, as it does, so intensely on beauty.  This was the last film he made with Grace Kelly before she married Prince Ranier of Monaco and gave up acting and it is appropriate that she shows so well.  Stunning in an array of dazzling Edith Head costumes, the three gowns she wears are all breathtaking.

It moves at a really good clip, coming in at under two hours, and you never notice the time passing because there is always so much beauty for your eye.  It is a fun movie, something you can’t really say about too many Hitchcock films and it transports you to a time and place full of such charm that it can honestly be said to elevate one beyond the every day.

A stunning film!  I highly recommend this movie for all audiences.

Katharine Hepburn by Barbara Holland

Katharine Hepburn 01This brief look into the life of one of our greatest actresses was written in association with the Biography television program and it has the feel of that breezy show as it reduces a great life into a few cogent points, concentrating instead on the mention of her films and stage appearances.

Hepburn was certainly an enigmatic personality.

Although her birth date remains in doubt to this day, it is reckoned that she was born in either May or November of 1907 in Hartford, Connecticut to Dr. Tom Hepburn and Katharine Houghton (of the Houghton-Mifflin publishing firm and Corning Glass Works).  Her father was a very strong conservative figure, who encouraged his children to take risks, but it was almost impossible to gain his good graces.  Her mother was rather liberal and was involved in the women’s rights movement in America from the earliest stages.  Kate grew up torn in two directions.

Her family had a history of suicides and biographer Holland hints that it may have been due to heredity, although the rigid, emotionless aspects of her father certainly hints at rebellion against convention.

Her older brother Tommy committed suicide while on a trip to New York with Kate, but the whole family glossed over it, almost as if it didn’t happen.  Kate’s family believed that you should never dwell on the past, but always look ahead to the future.  Planning and working were the things that you got you through life and that partly accounts for her optimistic views, healthy lifestyle, and prodigious work right up until her death in 1996.

Katharine Hepburn 02Much is made of her relationships, specifically with director John Ford and actor Spencer Tracy.  Likening each of these men to father figures, the book ponders whether her lifelong obsession with pleasing her father didn’t spill over into her love life.  Both men were married and yet each carried on a 30 year love affair with Kate.  Tracy, it is stated, was the love of her life, but he would not divorce his wife because of his strict Catholic background.  He comes off very badly in this biography, as a bully who ruined Katharine’s career by insisting that she be at his beck and call.  When he went on drinking binges for days at a time, she would wait outside his door and tend to his needs.  Apparently, he did not live with his wife, but spent many years living in a Los Angeles hotel before retiring to guest house on George Cukor’s estate.

Many people may not realize that Katharine Hepburn had an extensive state career and was a failure at stage acting for many years because she always appeared to be so manic.  In middle and late years, she began to act Shakespeare, touring and playing a variety of roles, relaxing in her celebrity and doing very well.  She was a big hit in the Broadway musical Coco, even though she couldn’t sing.

During her career, she won four Academy Awards for Best Actress, even though critics constantly complained that she only played herself.  That is not unusual at all, even now, when most film actors don’t really act.  Since the early days of silent film, audiences have flocked to the theater to see the personalities, not to see them disappear into their characters.  Spencer Tracy did not even want to have any make-up applied at all.  But even though these celebrity actors play themselves, they are still able to carve out excellent performances from the force of their character and Hepburn did that in a great many of her films.

Katharine Hepburn 03She remained a health nut, swimming in icy Long Island Channel into her 80’s, cooking her own food, and staying true to herself.

Her films will certainly remain as classics long into the future.

Friends with Kids

Friends with KidsThis 2011 movie written, produced and directed by Jennifer Westfeldt is about a group of shallow, sex-obsessed Manhattan Yuppies who start having children.  I’m going to discuss the full plot in some detail, so if you don’t want the ending spoiled, you probably shouldn’t read this review.  On the other hand, the story is quite predictable and if you haven’t figured out the entire plot in the first five minutes, then all cylinders aren’t firing anyway.

Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Westfeldt), are both well-paid professionals in their mid-30s.  Best friends for many years, they live in the same building in Manhattan and have long telephone conversations usually involving a choice between grisly ways to die.  Julie asks Ben if he’d rather die a long, painful death by cancer or to see a loved one die the same way.  Ben chooses to watch the loved one die because he would still be alive.

They gather regularly with married friends Alex (Chris O’Dowd) and Missy (Kristen Wiig), who are obsessed with having sex, and Ben (Jon Hamm) and Leslie (Maya Rudolph).  Not interested in each other Jason and Julie continually seek their own romantic relationships, the success measured in sexual happiness.  Their friends have children, but they continue to seek permanent mates themselves until one evening they decide to have a child of their own.  Seeing the misery that their friends have experienced, they decide that they can raise a child and still search for their own soul-mates.

While Ben and Leslie manage to make their marriage work, Alex and Missy’s relationship falls apart, further evidence that they’ve made the right decision.  As time passes, Jason becomes involved with a dancer, Mary Jane (Megan Fox), while Julie finds Mr. Right in the form of Kurt (Edward Burns).  When Alex gets drunk at a New Years skiing getaway for the eight of them, he comes down hard on Jason and Julie for not thinking through the effect their decision will have on their child.  Jason strongly defends the decision, declaring how much they love each other and how much they love their little boy.

Taking this to heart, Julie realizes that she really does love Jason more than Kurt.  When they get together to celebrate her birthday, she tells him how she feels, but Jason recoils, explaining that he loves her as a friend and is already in a deep relationship with Mary Jane.  Julie decides to move to Brooklyn to get away from him.  Both of their relationships end and Jason then realizes that he actually loves Julie, too.  It ends with him telling her that he’s changed his mind: he’d rather die himself than to watch her die of cancer.  She is reluctant at first to accept this change of heart, but when he promises great sex, she changes her mind.

There are moments in this movie that ring true and come close to being genuinely touching, but the predictability of the plot makes it very hard to become attached to story.  The characters are genuinely shallow.  Self-obsessed relationship-junkies who have probably never had an original thought in their lives, their elevation of sex to the be-all and end-all of human love comes across as pathetic and self-serving.

Maybe this is the present or the future of American ideals, but I sure hope not.  One can admire Westfeldt for her hard work in doing the project, but I really wish she had taken the time to put some thought into it.  I can’t really recommend this movie to anyone.

The Graduate

Graduate 01“Hello, darkness, my old friend… I’ve come to talk with you again…”

Packed like a factory assembled doll among a throng of passengers, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) sits anonymously on an airplane about to land in Los Angeles.  As “The Sound of Silence” plays, he steps up onto a conveyor belt, his figure black against a white wall, as if he were on an assembly line about to be delivered for final packaging.

A recent graduate of a prestigious east coast college, Ben has no idea what to do with himself, no idea what he wants to do with himself.  He feels lost, adrift.  His parents (William Daniels and Elizabeth Wilson) hold a party to celebrate his graduation, but it is attended only by their wealthy friends, not one person his own age.  Lying in bed, in front of his fish tank, he stares blankly out into the world.  Forced to attend the party, he searches for some escape, but is cornered by a man who has only one word for him: plastics.

Retreating to his room, his privacy is broken by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of his father’s law partner (Murray Hamilton), who nearly forces him to give her a ride home.  Getting him inside on the pretense that she needs the lights on, she fixes him a drink.  Ben figures out that she’s trying to seduce him and attempts to escape, but can’t seem to get away.  Mrs. Robinson then invites him up into the bedroom of her daughter Elaine (Katherine Ross) to see the girl’s portrait.  She is currently away at school attending the University of California-Berkeley.  Mrs. Robinson begins to undress in spite of Ben’s obvious nervousness, but is interrupted by the return of Mr. Robinson.  Ben quickly runs downstairs and sits with his drink when the man comes in the front door.  Mr. Robinson encourages him to date Elaine when she returns to L.A. on a school break.

Graduate 02At her request, Ben calls up Mrs. Robinson and she agrees to meet him at a hotel.  Overcome with nervousness, Ben goes through with his tryst and begins a summer of laziness, lying around in the pool during the day and meeting Mrs. Robinson for sex at night.  Gradually, he begins to want more from their relationship and forces Mrs. Robinson to begin talking about herself.  When the conversation comes around to Elaine, she forbids him to date her.  Ben rebels and they each say hurtful things, but when Mrs. Robinson begins to dress to leave, he apologizes and they continue their sexual meetings.

After Elaine has returned, Ben’s parents force him into dating her, over Mrs. Robinson’s objections.  In order to make it a horrible date, Ben takes Elaine to a strip joint and the stripper on stage twirls her pasties directly over Elaine’s head as silent tears fall from her eyes.  Humiliated, Elaine runs out and Ben follows her, feeling horrible about what he’s done.  He catches her, apologizes profusely, and they go out for burgers.  Whether through guilt or genuine attraction, Ben falls for Elaine and she seems to be falling for him.  He makes another date with her, but when he pulls up at the house, in a rainy downpour, Mrs. Robinson gets into his car instead, once again forbidding him to see Elaine, this time with the threat that she will tell Elaine about their affair.

Graduate 03Ben runs back to the house and reveals to Elaine that he has been having an affair with her mother.  Appalled, she throws him out and tells him she never wants to see him again.  Ben watches from a distance as she returns to Berkeley, then he follows her there and finally gets her to admit that she loves him, too.  Mr. Robinson shows up at Ben’s apartment and forbids the relationship, leading Elaine to leave school and marry her boyfriend.  Frantically driving back and forth, Ben finds the church, but he can’t get in.  Running up to the second story, he looks down as the wedding vows are concluded and begins to scream her name.  Seeing the vicious faces of those around her, Elaine screams back Ben’s name.  Using a cross to fight off the angry wedding party, Ben and Elaine escape, getting into the back of a bus and riding away.

The Graduate, released in 1967, still stands today as one of the best films ever made.  The screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry is based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Charles Webb.  Produced by Lawrence Turman and directed by Mike Nichols, the movie was delayed for several years because they simply could not find the right cast.  Almost every big name in Hollywood was considered for every major role, but no one seemed to fit.

Actresses considered for the role of Elaine included Patty Duke, Faye Dunaway, Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Raquel Welch, Joan Collins, Carroll Baker, Candice Bergen, Goldie Hawn, Jane Fonda, Ann-Margret, Elizabeth Ashley, Carol Lynley, Sue Lyon, Yvette Mimieux, Suzanne Pleshette, Lee Remick, Pamela Tiffin, Julie Christie, and Tuesday Weld. 

Robert Osborne of TCM said, “Mike Nichols wanted Doris Day for Mrs. Robinson, Robert Redford for Benjamin Braddock, and Gene Hackman for Mr. Robinson.”

Other actresses considered for Mrs. Robinson included Jeanne Moreau, Joan Crawford, Lauren Bacall, Audrey Hepburn, Patricia Neal, Geraldine Page, Claire Bloom, Angie Dickinson, Sophia Loren, Judy Garland, Rita Hayworth, Susan Hayward, Anouk Aimee, Jennifer Jones, Deborah Kerr, Eva Marie Saint, Rosalind Russell, Simone Signoret, Jean Simmons, Lana Turner, Eleanor Parker, Anne Baxter, Shelley Winters, Angela Lansbury, Natalie Wood, and Ava Gardner.  All were either turned down, refused to appear nude, or were unimpressed with the part.  Anne Bancroft, an accomplished stage and screen actress, wife of director Mel Brooks, took the part even though she was only seven years older than Dustin Hoffman

Graduate 05Hoffman and Ross were both chosen as Ben and Elaine when they tested together.  He was a 29 year old New York actor who was virtually unknown outside the live theater, but Turman brought him to Los Angeles to test.  Even though he was very much against the type they wanted for Ben, Nichols liked him very much and gave him the role.

The Graduate was also Nichols’ first film, although he was very well known from his Broadway successes.  It is surprising that a stage director should create one of the best films ever made in his first effort.  Maybe the long wait while they searched for the right cast gave him the extra time to craft the film into the beauty that it became.  Every single shot is lovingly assembled and extraordinarily powerful.  Hitchcock had mastered the art of framing long before this film was made, but Nichols uses camera angles in an even more powerful way.  The most iconic shot in the film is, of course, the one that shows Ben framed behind Mrs. Robinson’s leg, sheathed in a black stocking, but it is only one of hundreds of nearly perfect shots.

The creative use of dark and light in a color film was nearly unprecedented at the time.  For example, there is a scene early in the seduction when Mrs. Robinson is sitting at the bar in her home and Ben nervously paces back and forth in front of her.  It is shot from behind Ben who appears only as a black silhouette moving with a kind of nervy relentlessness back and forth, revealing Mrs. Robinson sitting with one leg propped on a bar stool, allowing Ben a tantalizing view.

Mirror shots are used to extreme advantage, the most obvious one when Mrs. Robinson takes Ben to Elaine’s room to seduce him.  As he looks at the portrait of Elaine, Mrs. Robinson appears nude in the reflection off of the glass.  Brilliant!  Not only is it a visually stunning image, but it also points up the terrible situation that Ben will be in later when he has to choose between the mother and daughter.

The use of music and sound is also brilliant.  “The Sound of Silence” is such a perfect representation of Ben’s state of mind at the beginning of the movie that the simple image of Ben’s head framed against the aquarium as it plays tells a whole story without any dialogue whatsoever.  The other Paul Simon songs, performed by Simon and Garfunkel, are super appropriate and set the mood wherever they are used.  The song “Mrs. Robinson” was adapted by Paul Simon especially for the film and it went on to become a huge hit.  Quite often Nichols uses silence itself to punctuate that deep, dark mood that Ben brings into the movie, relieving it with the beautiful Paul Simon melodies.

The acting is all superb.  Dustin Hoffman is wonderful as Ben, creating all kinds of great little mannerisms that make him a complete person, not the least of which is the short falsetto “Humpf” that comes out when he is particularly nervous.  Anne Bancroft gives a great performance as Mrs. Robinson, terribly restrained, yet allowing the viewer to see how great her own boredom is and how much her affair with Ben means to her, despite the fact that it is exclusively sexual.  Although Katherine Ross’s part is not huge, she does a great deal with it, especially in the scene where Ben reveals he’s been having an affair with her mother.

In addition, the supporting roles are extremely well done, most especially William Daniels as Mr. Robinson.  The cast list isn’t dense, but there are also a large number of cameo appearances, including Buck Henry, Alice Ghostley, Elaine May, Mike Farrell, and Richard Dreyfuss.

In spite of Ben’s heavy attitude coming into the film, it is really a first rate comedy and also a feel-good movie.  Although it was made in 1967, the comedy isn’t dated at all.  In fact, it could have been made last year and still hold up to scrutiny.  The only real reference to the time it was made was when Ben gets a room in Berkeley, his landlord tells him that he won’t tolerate any “agitators.”  In places, the costumes or hairstyles may give away the time, but they are nearly invisible, unlike many other period movies where they are obvious.  It comes in at under two hours and it doesn’t feel long at all.  In fact, it moves really fast.

The only “error” I found in the movie is that when Ben is driving north to see Elaine in Berkeley, he crosses the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, which he wouldn’t have done without a specific purpose.  It doesn’t really make sense in an otherwise perfectly crafted movie.

All of the parts of this film work so harmoniously that it should stand the test of time going forward in the future.  Many other good films may be made, but I believe that The Graduate will remain one of the best films ever made.  It certainly makes my Top Ten.  Because of the adult situations, I will recommend it for mature viewers.

A brilliant, long-lasting movie with great comedy, great angst, and a feel-good ending!

Graduate 04

All the Weyrs of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

All the Weyrs of PernIn what many thought might be the last of the Pern 9th Pass novels, the computer AIVAS (Artificial Intelligence Voice Address System) serves as a major character in the fight to end Thread forever.  At the end of the previous novel, The Renegades of Pern, AIVAS came to life in the old Landing Administration Building after Piemer, Jancis, Jaxom, and his white dragon, Ruth, had unearthed the solar panels that had been intermittently covered by ash and dust over the last 2,500 years since the explosion of the volcano that sent the original colonists scurrying north to take Hold there.

The following review is written with the understanding that readers are already familiar with the novel, so if you haven’t read it yet, beware of plot spoilers!

With technology long lost to the people of Pern, AIVAS recites the history of the founding of the colony as told in Dragonsdawn, complete with movies and stills showing Admiral Paul Benden, Governor Emily Boll, and all of the other colorful figures, including the exploits of Sallah Telgar in thwarting the evil intentions of Avril Bitra.  In a sonorous male voice, AIVAS explains that his last assignment was to find a way to permanently remove Thread from the skies of Pern.  Now–with the help of darned near the whole planet–he’s found a way to do it.  This delights F’lar no end and they set about reconstructing Landing, teaching Jaxom, Piemer, Jancis, and anyone else who is interested how to assemble and use a computer.  Teaching remedial math, physics, medicine, and so on, he gradually elevates the level of education to the point where they can understand sophisticated concepts and manage complicated machinery, bringing them back to the level they were at when the original colonial ships arrived in orbit some 2,500 Turns ago.

This effort is not without the pernicious attempts of villains to thwart it.  Chief among them are Master Norist, head of the Glass Smith Crafthall and Lords Sigomal of Bitra and Begamon of Nerat.  Norist gives AIVAS the nickname of “The Abomination” and blames it for destroying the traditions of Pern.  He refuses to have anything to do with AIVAS and thus one of his subordinates, Master Morilton takes over working with Landing, his work benefiting from a greater knowledge that Norist.  In addition, Toric’s brother, Hamian, who had been sent to receive his Mastery from Fandarel in the Smithcrafthall, decides to take up the production of plastic, leaving Toric to commit himself to Landing.

AIVAS takes on the education of Master Oldive, Sharra, Mirrim, and others to not only study medicine more deeply, but to take apart frozen Thread ovoids and find ways to change parasitical bacteria into predators.  As time passes, Sharra gradually becomes aware that AIVAS has selected Jaxom to lead the dangerous mission.  Gradually, the craftsmen and dragonriders take each step along the road to prepare them for AIVAS’s Master plan, which he will not actually discuss with them: there are trips between to the Yokahama to prepare the ship for human occupation (and to remove Sallah Telgar’s body from the bridge), repairs and maintenance on the old ship, and extra-vehicular activity to familiarize dragons and riders with space.  Hamian is trying to develop enough space suits for the dragonriders.  Eventually, Jaxom, F’lar and Lessa take a trip to the Red Star to familiarize themselves with the landmarks so they can have reference points for the other dragons.

In spite of the best efforts of D’ram, Lytol, Jaxom, and the others, the Abominators hire devious people to drug and kidnap Master Robinton with the notion that they can force the dragonriders to destroy AIVAS to get him back.  They take this action boldly at the Ruatha Gather with Lord Jaxom and Lady Sharra presiding.  Of course, the dragonriders, with the help of fire lizards, locate Robinton and round up all the villains, who are condemned to exile for all their days.

Using a massive number of bronze dragons, the engines of the three space ships that were used to bring the original colonists to Pern are shifted between to the Red Star, where HNO3 canisters administer leaks that will eat through the metal surrounding the antimatter engines and eventually cause an explosion that will move the Red Star enough out of orbit that it will no longer drop Thread on Pern.  In addition, a number of green riders seed the bacteria that will eventually kill all Thread where it exists in the Oort Cloud, thus eliminating the threat of Thread forever.  What the other dragonriders don’t know is that Jaxom and Ruth lead two of the three groups far back in time to create explosions that nudge the Red Star toward its eventual orbit change–thus the two periods of long Intervals.

The book ends with Master Robinton expiring in the AIVAS chamber as the computer himself, his job done, shuts down to leave the Pernese to solve their future problems themselves.  “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven” is his final message to everyone.

Dragonsdawn and All the Weyrs of Pern are the only genuinely science fiction novels in the Pern series.  Of course, the entire premise is based on a science fiction concept, but that is difficult to tell early in the series.  Indeed, just hearing the title “Dragonriders of Pern” makes most people automatically assume that the series is Fantasy.  Not so and these two books provide the groundwork.  And they are both very fun reads.

This book moves along quickly and it invests serious time in all of the major characters that readers have come to know and love: F’lar and Lessa, Jaxom and Sharra, Piemer and Jancis, Sebell and Menolly.  There is Robinton, D’ram, and Lytol, as well as the sympathetic Lord Holders, most notably Groghe, Larad, and Asgenar.  As the book takes place over four years–and the entire chronicle takes place over thirty Turns–we see the characters aging.  The Weyrleaders are over fifty years old now and we are seeing the decline and eventual surrender of Robinton, moved along by the actions of their enemies.

The villains are, as usual, shallow and one dimensional, while the major, positive characters are much more well-rounded.  And again, I can make the arguments that the villains are nearly unnecessary, given the difficulty of the overall problems to be overcome.  One thing that struck me in the last reading is the great depth of stupidity of McCaffrey’s bad people.  It is almost as if she’s making a point that there will always be shallow, stupid people.  On one level, that seems painfully obvious, but on another level, it seems to run counter to her ideal that most people are good and strive to improve themselves.  Humans are basically generous, fun-loving, inquisitive souls that strive to improve the world around them and also to enjoy the wonders of sexual fulfillment and of having and raising children.  These things are basic to Anne McCaffrey’s view of humanity, yet nearly every book contains a few people that are just stupid and shallow, with no inkling of what living is all about.  I guess the good thing here is that these characters are minor, as opposed Thella in The Renegades of Pern or Avril Bitra in Dragonsdawn.

Overall, this is one of the best books in the series.  If you are a fan of Pern and read the books in order, this is one of the most fun and quick to read.  If there is some sadness that the series is coming to an end, there is also much to delight in here: all of your favorites characters, plus the addition of AIVAS, the great, heroic deeds to be accomplished, the funeral of Sallah Telgar, which is something really special, and, of course, the moving of the Red Star.

It is truly a fun and well-written Dragonriders of Pern novel!

Jane Eyre 2011

Jane Eyre 2011This adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel Jane Eyre was produced in 2011.  Directed by Cary Fukunaga from a script by Moira Buffini, this is clearly the best of the recent movie versions of the novel.  Ms. Buffini’s script is faithful to the novel, yet innovative in the way it tells the story, bringing a passion lacking in the other attempts.

For a detailed plot synopsis, please see my review of the novel at the link below.

The movie begins between the second and third sections of the book, when Jane  (Mia Wasikowska) runs away from Thornfield Hall and becomes lost on the moors.  This is a dramatic departure from the other adaptations, which tell the story in a straightforward manner.  To bring the single most iconic scene to passionate life at the very beginning is both clever and stirring.  After she is found at the doorstep of St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell), the first two parts of the story are told in flashback as Jane regains herself and settles into life with St. John and his two sisters, Mary and Diana.  The other two adaptations give the final third of the novel short shrift, but this version, by making it the “present day” of the movie, allows us to experience Jane’s new life and the relationship with St. John to the fullest.

The second innovation is that the script makes the deepest cuts in the first section, Jane’s childhood.  There are good and bad repercussions of this, but in this movie they are mostly good.  The abuse within Mrs. Reed’s (Sally Hawkins) household by both her aunt and her cousins is shown much more dramatically.  The child actress playing Jane at ten, Amelia Clarkson, does a terrific job.  The cruelty of the school is brought out more boldly in this version, as we actually see Jane’s friend, Helen Burns (Freya Parks) being caned by the headmistress.  So, even though this section is shorter, it is much more powerful in setting up Jane’s character.

After leaving Lowood as a 17 year old girl, Jane takes her position at Thornfield Hall.  In this version, it seems much older, more rustic and authentic, dark and brooding, becoming more the character that Brontë created in the novel.  The housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench) guides her through narrow hallways, dimly lit by candles.  Her pupil, Adele (Romy Settbon Moore), speaks mostly French and is very charming.  Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender) is offensive, brooding and Gothic.  The entire creation of Thornfield Hall is much spookier than the other versions.  This film also shows the process of Jane and Rochester falling in love, which makes it much more believable.  The script actually brings over some of the dialogue from the book where Jane and Rochester speak during the evening.  The viewer can see Jane challenging him intellectually.

The acting is superb.  Mia Wasikowska gives an extraordinary performance as Jane Eyre, even if she is quite a bit more beautiful than the character in the book.  They try to make her look plain, but Wasikowska’s eyes alone give her away as a beautiful woman.  Likewise, Michael Fassbender is terrific as Rochester, but he’s just a little too handsome.  Nonetheless, these two actors have an extraordinary chemistry that brings a great deal of emotion to the story.  The supporting characters are also very well drawn, again bringing a felicity to the book that is rare in film adaptations.  Jamie Bell is especially good as St. Johns.

Cary Fukunaga’s expert direction brings this wonderful script to life, from creating the rustic Gothic texture of the environment to the beautiful use of light and shadows throughout Thornfield Hall.  The film is full of a kind of shimmering beauty that makes it a wonderful viewing experience.

From almost every point of view, this is a delightful adaptation of a great classic novel.


Jane EyreRead my review of the novel Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte!

This 1847 classic novel both delights and confounds a modern reader.

Told mostly in first person past (with brief lapses into first person present) by the heroine, Jane Eyre, the book was originally subtitled An Autobiography.  It begins with Jane as a young girl of ten years as an orphan living with her Aunt Reed at Gateshead Hall.


Jane Eyre 1996Read my review of the 1996 Franco Zeffirelli movie of Jane Eyre.

Adapting a classic novel to the big screen is always a dicey proposition.  The screen writer and director have a limited amount of time, yet there is so much in a classic novel that readers depend on for a satisfying experience.  Indeed, there is so much that is germane to the internal logic of a novel of depth that the story itself is resistant to adaptation within a two hour format.


 

Samantha Morton2_Jane EyreRead my review of the 1997 ITV movie of Jane Eyre.

This film adaptation of the classic novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë was originally aired on Great Britain’s ITV in March of 1997 runs approximately one hour and 45 minutes.  Obviously, a great deal had to be cut from the story in order to fit it into that kind of time parameter, but Kay Mellor’s script concentrates rightly on the romance between Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester and the Gothic suspense of Thornfield.

Jane Eyre 1996

Jane Eyre 1996Adapting a classic novel to the big screen is always a dicey proposition.  The screen writer and director have a limited amount of time, yet there is so much in a classic novel that readers depend on for a satisfying experience.  Indeed, there is so much that is germane to the internal logic of a novel of depth that the story itself is resistant to adaptation within a two hour format.  That was proven conclusively with the BBC film Pride and Prejudice, presented as a television mini-series five hours long.

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre presents particular problems because each of the three distinct elements of the story warrants telling, yet the third section is difficult to fit into a film.  Adapted for the screen by Hugh Whitemore and legendary director Franco Zeffirelli, this 1996 script, like others before it, concentrates on Jane’s childhood and her relationship with the master of Thornfield Hall, but compresses the third part of the book into a few hasty minutes.

For a full synopsis of the story, I refer readers to my review of the novel Jane Eyre.  In short, it is the story of a girl, Jane Eyre (Anna Paquin), in the middle years of 19th Century in England, orphaned and mistreated by her aunt, then sent to an impoverished school for girls.  She grows up to become a teacher (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and is employed at Thornfield Hall by the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Joan Plowright) as governess for a little French, ward of the master of the hall, Mr. Edward Rochester (William Hurt).  She falls in love with him, but he is married to a madwoman, so Jane runs away and is taken in by a clergyman, St. John (Samuel West) and his sisters.  The clergyman employs her as a school teacher, but asks her to become his wife and travel with him as a missionary.  She refuses and instead goes back to Thornfield Hall, only to find that it has been destroyed in a fire.  Discovering that Rochester’s mad wife died in the blaze, she reunites with the man she loves.

Director Franco Zeffirelli is a master at camera composition, use of landscape, and color and this film certainly reflects that.  It is beautiful in every respect and can be enjoyed simply for that aspect.  Both Anna Paquin and Charlotte Gainsbourg are wonderful as Jane Eyre at ten and seventeen.  They look so much alike that they are certainly believable as the same person.  That Gainsbourg is made to look plain is a step above most adaptations of the novel and it makes her extra believable in the role.  She also infuses the character with the simplicity and independence that make Jane Eyre such a memorable character.  The creation of Jane Eyre in this film is really terrific!  William Hurt is fine as Rochester, though he is plainly a little too good looking for the part.  There are also a few times when I didn’t believe him as an Englishman, although there is nothing glaring about the performance.  It is solid, but not overly impressive.  The supporting cast is really terrific, especially Joan Plowright as Mrs. Fairfax, Leanne Rowe as Helen Burns, John Wood as Mr. Brocklehurst, Fiona Shaw as Mrs. Reed, Geraldine Chaplin as Miss Scatcherd, Amanda Root as Miss Temple, Billie Whitelaw as Grace Poole, and Maria Schneider as Rochester’s mad wife Bertha.  Elle McPherson, the model, also makes a cameo as Blanche Ingram, the society woman set on marrying Rochester for his money.

Zeffirelli spends adequate time on Jane’s childhood, especially in framing the friendship between her and Helen Burns.  The middle section that concentrates on the evolving relationship between Jane and Rochester is extremely well done.  The affection between them is difficult to achieve, partly because they are such different people, but Gainsbourg and Hurt work very well together and Zeffirelli helps the viewers to see it happening without using words.  It is masterfully done.

Whitemore and Zeffirelli take a big chance, however, by introducing the characters of St. John and his sister Mary as go-betweens when Jane’s aunt Mrs. Reed becomes ill before dying.  Although it tightens up the plot in a creative way, it also puts in place the means of Jane ending up with them later on and leads the screenwriters to completely eliminate what might be the best scene in the entire work: Jane’s wandering the moors alone after she leaves Rochester.  In the novel and in other screen adaptations the scene is extremely powerful.  Jane, without caring for her own life, wanders aimlessly, sleeps in a ditch and is at death’s doorstep when she stumbles onto St. John’s home.  By cutting out that scene, the screen writers have her go directly to St. John based on his prior association with her and her illness is skirted over very quickly.  Likewise, Jane’s enormous confusion over St. John’s proposal is also missing.  In the novel, her thoughts on the proposal provide the entire basis for her return to seek out Rochester and that inner logic hurts the entire last part of the movie.

On the other hand, Zeffirelli brings the film in at slightly under two hours.  It is a beautiful movie, with many positive aspects to it, not the least of which is the most believable Jane I’ve yet seen.  Paquin and Gainsbourg are absolutely marvelous and that means a lot in a story that absolutely depends on the believability of the title character.  I find it a little annoying that William Hurt has top billing because his character is truly ancillary to Jane.

It is a good film and should be seen by all fans of Jane Eyre.


Jane EyreRead my review of the novel Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte!

This 1847 classic novel both delights and confounds a modern reader.

Told mostly in first person past (with brief lapses into first person present) by the heroine, Jane Eyre, the book was originally subtitled An Autobiography.  It begins with Jane as a young girl of ten years as an orphan living with her Aunt Reed at Gateshead Hall.


Samantha Morton2_Jane EyreRead my review of the 1997 ITV movie of Jane Eyre.

This film adaptation of the classic novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë was originally aired on Great Britain’s ITV in March of 1997 runs approximately one hour and 45 minutes.  Obviously, a great deal had to be cut from the story in order to fit it into that kind of time parameter, but Kay Mellor’s script concentrates rightly on the romance between Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester and the Gothic suspense of Thornfield.


Jane Eyre 2011Read my review of the 2011 Cary Fukunaga movie of Jane Eyre.

This adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel Jane Eyre was produced in 2011.  Directed by Cary Fukunaga from a script by Moira Buffini, this is clearly the best of the recent movie versions of the novel.  Ms. Buffini’s script is faithful to the novel, yet innovative in the way it tells the story, bringing a passion lacking in the other attempts.

Words and Pictures

Words and Pictures Clive-Owen Which is more important: words or pictures?

This is at the core of this powerful 2013 film about education and artistic expression.  The script by Gerald DiPego is extremely well written and the direction by Fred Schepisi is outstanding, but the real reason for this movie’s success is in the two great performances by Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche as the two teachers who inspire their students to understand and to achieve more than mere talent can produce.

Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) teaches writing at Croyden, a high end  preparatory school in Maine.  A professional writer himself, Jack is flirting with losing his job because of functional alcoholism and a lapse of productivity, having failed to publish in quite a few years.  In addition, the school literary magazine which he edits has gone downhill, producing flat, uninspired writing and nothing original from him.  His principal, Rashid (Navid Negahban), confers with head of the governing board, Elspeth (Amy Brenneman) about Jack’s conduct and they give him a warning that his status will be reviewed at the next meeting.

Words and Pictures Juliette BinocheThe new Honors Art teacher, well-known painter Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche), who suffers from severe rheumatoid arthritis and walks with the aid of a cane, challenges her students to go beyond themselves to create better art.  Using the old phrase “a picture is worth a thousands words” she tells her students that words are cheap and useless, thus fueling the “war” between the two arts at the school and inspiring the students to achieve more.

Drinking heavily and fighting to keep his job, Jack tries to write something new and inspiring, but all he can create is insipid, so he steals a poem that his son wrote and publishes it in the literary magazine as his own.  It is so good that Dina uses it to inspire her students to make drawings and painting based on it.  Three students figure prominently in this battle of the arts: Emily (Valerie Tian) an Asian painter, Cole (Josh Ssettuba) an African-American graphic artist, and Swint (Adam DiMarco), a writer and would-be cartoonist.  Swint, a show-off has a crush on shy Emily and he begins to harass her, eventually going so far as to distribute an obscene cartoon of her throughout the school.  Jack has defended Swint, but when he discovers the cartoon in Swint’s sketchbook, he turns the boy in and Swint is expelled.

When Dina gives terrific testimony of Jack’s behalf at the board meeting, his job is saved.  He brings her flowers and they consummate their simmering love, but Jack gets up in the night, finds a bottle of vodka in her refrigerator and proceeds to get drunk.  He tells her about plagiarizing the poem from his son and then, losing his balance, he falls into Dina’s most important painting, smearing it.  She throws him out and Jack must begin to confront his own problems for the first time, facing his alcoholism and trying to redeem his own spirit.

Obviously, in a movie like this, the writing is paramount and I give extremely high marks to Gerald DiPego for his literate and organic script.  Director Fred Schepisi thought his words were important enough that he was kept on the set during the filming in order to make changes himself, rather than bringing in any other writers.  But even though writing is important, this film also stands or falls based on its art and Juliette Binoche, doing her own painting, brought a sense of legitimacy by creating terrific paintings and drawings all her own.

Of course, there is no real battle between art and literature.  They are two completely different and equally valid arts.  On the surface, they would appear to be complete opposites, but, as with all creation, the goal should be the same: to touch the human heart.  This movie does that, in part, due to the organic nature of the writing and the painting that fills it.  When I say that a work of art is organic, I mean that it grows naturally out of its components.  The story in Words and Pictures has more to do with Jack’s own frailty and his dependence on alcohol.  It is that dependence that brings his life into complete disarray, despite his other endearing qualities, and it is his control of that weakness that allows him to become a complete person again.  The same is true of Delsanto’s art.  Like, Jack, she has floundered for many years, not because of a lack of inspiration, but because her own degenerating body has had her full attention.  She needed something to wake her up and Jack’s challenge is what brings her back to life creatively.  Her art grows beyond her own injured body to become something beyond what she had been capable of.

Writing an organic script that is completely natural is not an easy process, but DiPego has created a real beauty here.

Clive Owen drives the film with his performance.  The center of the film, he is realistic in every way as an American teacher.  His control of the language, his phrasing, and his maniacal love of good writing is infectious and he seems to be a terrific teacher.  Likewise, Juliette Binoche gives a wonderful performance as Delsanto, nuanced, layered, and impressive.

This film has a strange, emotional power that elevates in the same way that Stand and Deliver moves one to aspire.  Immensely satisfying! I highly recommend this movie!