Saturday, October 31, 2009

Movie: Moon (2009)

There is something spooky about silent, empty space and the sterile corridors of space stations. It is a place where people or, occasionally, robots, loose their mind. Stanley Kubrick knew this, so did Stanislaw Lem, the author of Solaris. Moon is the latest movie that stands besides 2001: A Space Odyssee and Solaris as a quiet, chilly space tale that for all its sterileness is more human than action-packed, explosion-filled science fiction.

Sam Rockwell, better known perhaps from his other science fiction role as the loon Zaphod Beeblebrox, carries this film alone. He is an expressive actor and has no trouble to keep the film going as the plot moves from creepy to weird. Along the way we see echoes of older movies as Sam talks to his robot caretaker Gertie and sees occasional hallucinations. Things begin to go wrong, but when you are up there among computers in a bunker on the Moon you are not going anywhere.

There is a very telling image in the movie of Sam, sitting in his moonmobile in a grey expanse of rocky moondesert, sobbing that he just wants to go home, and the Earth hangs in beautiful blue and green in the black sky. Moon might not be as original and groundbreaking as its predecessors, but is it still a beautiful and thoughtful movie and definately one to remember.

IMDB: Moon

Monday, October 19, 2009

Movie: Burn After Reading (2008)

The Coen Brothers (Fargo, The Big Lebowsky, No Country For Old Men) are on a killing spree these last years. Burn After Reading is the Coen Brother’s take on special agent CIA Bourne Identity like thriller movies, but then, you know, the Coen way. The lazy way to summarize this movie is to say it is a story of morons with weird hairdos who do moronic stuff and the CIA is trying to figure out just what the hell is going on.

This movie takes some very charismatic actors, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and makes them look like suburban dorks. There is no a political dimension to this movie and there isn’t really a hero to this story. There is a sort of tragic character, played by John Malkovich who is so terrific at getting totally mad. He starts as a member of the CIA with a nice suit, the enlightened bunch that tries to make sense of everything, but falls from grace and becomes one of the morons, even as he doesn’t see it that way (but look how his clothing changes towards the end).

What is quite unique about this movie is that all the main characters are unimportant, middle-aged people. They are all suffering from a personal crisis, whether it is unhappiness about their marriage or their aging bodies. All these crises describe their actions, which sort of collide at odd moments with disastrous results. The anguish and problems of the characters are very familiar and human and so there is a tragic undertone to the story, but at the same time it is a “light” tale and very humoristic.

IMDB: Burn After Reading

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Book: Susanna Clarke - Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004)

Not many authors present as their first publication such a big book as Susanna Clarke did. Big in wordcount and ambition, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell enters the field of literature as an immediate classic after Clarke had been working on it for a decade. At times, her book is alternate history in which England once had magical fairy-infused past, or an historical novel set at the time of the Napoleonic Wars.

Mr. Norrell, a grumpy, boring, serious man who reminds me of the actor that plays Mr Beckett in the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and his pupil Jonathan Strange, the typical English gentleman given by flights of fancy, are two talented magicians who, as the only real magicians of England, work to rediscover the workings of magic. In the process they become each others adversaries and in the ensuing battle for recognision the boundary between sanity and madness begins to shatter. Meanwhile, a gentleman with thistledown hair, brought into the world as the result of amoral use of magic by Mr. Norrell, begins to haunt their steps and the English societal landscape.

All this is an smashing counterpoint to proper English decency. Here is one of the main points of Clarke’s novel. The exploration of Victorian Englishness as a sort of comedy of manners. In this, and the elaborateness of her work, like the shimmering of a compendium of magical scholarship, her book has evoked many comparisons with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, but Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is quite something else. It is a flowing patchwork of a wide variety of styles and moods, ranging from pure fantasy to military literature to gothic horror. Very entertaining and impressive.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Movie: District 9 (2009)

Science fiction has always been a problem child, both in movies and books. The special effects always seem to take the upper hand in science fiction movies as an irresistable force that in the end deprives the vitality of the story, much like candy in real life. Science fiction books are systematically ignored by critics who still carry an image in their mind of the pulp space opera of the 30s. But science fiction can be good (in books more often than in cinema) and on these occasions it can function as a mirror in which our image and our values of the world get transformed in the stirring threads of the possible future.

District 9 is such a film. Its power comes from the original ideas it presents and the gritty, down-to-earth (inside joke), realism of the way it is executed. So here we have a UFO that got stranded not above New York but above Johannesburg, South Africa. The humans break into the UFO and find lots of malnourished prawn-like aliens. This all happened 20 years ago. The aliens were unable to adapt to a human city and people just want to see them leave. They are living in a slum (district 9) at the edge of the city. The star of the movie is Wikus van de Merwe, who is in charge of relocating the aliens, but he finds out there are lots of secrets kept in District 9.

The movie starts out as a documentary. We see people commenting on the events that we are about to see unfolding. It slowly gathers momentum and in the final half an hour District 9 transforms itself into an exciting action movie in which special effects are used sparingly but very effectively. The special effects are generally used in a masterful way. The aliens are very realistic (think Gollum-like realism) and the UFO hangs ominously as a sword of Damocles above the scenes. It is the big unknown.

District 9 is a masterclass in storytelling and I can see this develop as a franchise and a future classic.

IMDB: District 9

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Book: Tom Holland - Millennium (2008)

One way of storytelling that has become more and more popular is narrative history. It is not the dry educational highschool book that sums up the important parts and it is not historic fiction. Instead it is history told as a story. Tom Holland is one of the best selling authors in this field after his brilliant book Rubicon hit the scene, where he relates the final 100 years of the Roman Republic as a nailbiting story. His next book, Persian Fire, told us about the wars between the Persians and Sparta. Now his third book, Millennium, is in store.

Millennium tells about a fateful part of the Middle Ages. Around the 10th century, Europe is chaos. Holland shows us how, from the rubble and the vacuum left of the Roman Empire, modern Europe gradually shapes itself. It is an age of Franks, Saxons and Vikings. Of monks, knights and castles. It is a story of bitter yearning for the past, for the glory of the Roman Empire, by the desintegrating Byzantium and the western upstarts as Charlemagne who all see themselves as the heirs of the Romans and the last bullwark of young Christianity. Tom Holland has a brilliant flair for the dramatic and his tale is a gritty one.

Holland also wanted to suffuse his book with a statement for which is questionable proof. It is the idea that important revolutions in the order of the world came to pass partly because the year 1,000 was approaching fast, and many people therefore believed the End of the World was near and the Antichrist would arise. Bloodlusty pagans and the glorious expansion of Islam were to be omens of this. I think Holland occasionally tries to force the information we have too hard into this framework, but it does tie together this diverse and fascinating part of history.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Movie: Gake no ue no Ponyo (2008)

(Ponyo on the Cliff)

When the best days of Disney were over, the Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki suddenly became a lot more famous in the Western world. But Miyazaki’s studio Ghibli had been cracking out full length cartoon films for years. With his modern animation classics, Miyazaki revolutionized the Anime genre in the West. On forums people often note that they are going to show their future kids Ghibli films instead of the Disney classics because they are so much more magical. And indeed, everything Miyazaki touches becomes gold, culminating in an Oscar for Best Animated Feature for Spirited Away in 2002.

Miyazaki makes hand drawn art look impressive; never shying away from the enormous work of drawing oodles of the same stuff. At the start of Ponyo on the Cliff, for example, there is a scene with hundreds of jellyfish, all drawn separately. And I should also mention the numerous painted backgrounds. He is an artist and a teller of fairytales.

That is what Studio Ghibli is doing. It is creating a resume of new fairytales for the world. The stories of Miyazaki have the power of making adults feel like children. To let us remember that time of magic, awesome discoveries and the surreal logic of a childhood world. The boundary between fantasy and reality is paperthin in Ponyo on the Cliff, and that makes the storyline a bit puzzling now and then, but that is a Miyazaki trademark.

Despite a rushed ending, Ponyo on the Cliff is a work of creative brilliance and a lovely cartoon for children and adults alike.

IMDB: Ponyo on the Cliff

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Movie: The Fifth Element (1997)

I know it hasn’t won any oscars, and it would have been a weird day if it had, but The Fifth Element has guilty pleasure written all over it. Fun is the magic word. It is not meant to be the best movie of all times, it is meant to give people a fun evening and I think it gloriously succeeds. At the other hand, it has the kind of style that easily divides people into groups of lovers and haters. It has the humor that you “get” or you don’t. The dividing line is often the scenes with Chris Tucker’s (detestable or funny) Ruby Rhod. A friend of mine once asked if he should take this film seriously after viewing these scenes. In that case, you didn’t get the humor of the whole hour previous.

The Fifth Element
moves at a good pace and it consistently funny and inventive. It has a great cast of characters, Willis plays as he should play, the way we like him, Oldman clearly enjoys his amoral Jean-Babtiste Emmanuel Zorg and Jovovich’s Leeloo is an adorable creation with a few funny quotes. The aliens are awesome, from the big-bellied Mondoshawans to the stupidlooking Mangalores. And this must be the only movie that features an opera singing alien.

The plot is ridiculously simple and there is never any doubt that the heroes will save the day, it is all tongue-in-cheek, but the locations have been given great care, from Willis’ little room to the office of the president. The Fifth Element is a movie that is very conscious of its pulpy play but sneaks in a few scenes here and there that can easily stand repeated viewings and even get better with age. Such was always the style of director Luc Besson and it proved a happy marriage with science fiction. We need more like this!

IMDB: The Fifth Element

Friday, October 2, 2009

Book: John Gardner - Grendel (1971)

Grendel is the mysterious monster from the old English epic Beowulf from the 10th century. Grendel has never gotten a very clear description and writers and filmmakers have given us many interpretations of the beast to choose from. John Gardner’s Grendel is the best by far, for in his little novel Grendel, he is the main character. We see his part of the Beowulf story through his eyes as he narrates his feelings and actions.

Grendel is a pathetic little monster, filled with loneliness and doubt. He hates the world, but the world does not even care. “ “Ah, sad one, poor old freak!” I cry, and hug myself, and laugh, letting out salt tears, he, he! till I fall down gasping and sobbing. (It’s mostly fake.)” Grendel points out to us that he doesn’t think that he is more noble than the deers that go at it again at springtime. He knows he is a monster, and fails to see any reason in it. Grendel asks the dragon for help but realized that the old one is not his friend. “My advice to you, my violent friend, is to seek out gold and sit on it.” Eventually he keeps attacking the humans, inspired by the human storyteller (“the shaper”) who names him the big adversary of the Danes. Only this way Grendel could make a purpose for himself in the big cosmic show.

Grendel is a bittersweet tale, at once humoristic and sad. He pesters the humans with glee but is convinced in the back of his head that nothing has any meaning. He revels in psychotic mindgames, talks to himself and has an unhealthy love/hate relationship with his mother. “(whispering, whispering. Grendel, has it occured to you my dear that you are crazy?)”

And when finally the big hero arrives, Beowulf, John Gardner describes him as utterly insane. For only a complete inner obsession with heroism can end Grendel’s nihilism. So what is there to live for, as Grendel asks himself? His road at least seems a dead end. “Poor Grendel’s had an accident,” I whisper. “So may you all.”

Movie: Ed Wood (1994)

I'm sure every one is familiar with the Tim Burton & Johnny Depp duo. They have done lots of succesful movies together, often with composer Danny Elfman thrown in as a third man. Yet in 1994 Tim and Johnny made a movie together that may be their oddest, their least-known but perhaps the one they will be remembered for the most. (Instead of Danny Elfman, Howard Shore did the music this time.)

Ed Wood is about a little Hollywood history, about the real director named Ed Wood. It is a story about a man that does everything right, but nothing works. He had the passion, the enthousiasm, the spirit! Ed Wood believed in himself and made the movies he wanted to make, and was absolutely convinced of himself and of the greatness of his work. But they were bad. His movies were oh so terribly bad and after his death he was called the Worst Director of All Time. Depp plays him with a naive innocence.

It is not a wonder that Ed Wood (the movie) flopped in the US because nobody wants to believe that an enthousiastic passionate worker cannot succede. It is a movie that speaks to everyone who has tried to make something artistic and asks himself: "Am I good enough?". Tim Burton shot the movie in black and white to make it look as if it was produced in Ed Wood's time.

Now all I have to do is watch Wood's "masterpiece" of bad SF, Plan 9 From Outer Space, and see if it is really that terribly, excruciatingly bad...

Book: Gene Wolfe - The Book of the New Sun

Consisting of:
The Shadow of the Torturer (1980)
The Claw of the Conciliator (1981)
The Sword of the Lictor (1982)
The Citadel of the Autarch (1983)

“It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future. The locked and rusted gate that stood before us, with wisps of river fog threading its spikes like the mountain paths, remains in my mind now as the symbol of my exile. That is why I have begun this account of it with the aftermath of our swim, in which I, the torturer’s apprentice Severian, had so nearly drowned.”

So much has been said and written about these books. I feel I cannot do then justice in this little review. After finishing these books, I felt I was living in a hypnotized state, with Severian’s (or Gene’s) eloquent manner of speaking resounding in my head. It felt like my life was a continuation of Severian’s story and in a way it was so, because the Book of the New Sun’s impact on my mental life was very great for quite a long time.

When I look back on other epics, such as Tolkien’s The Silmarillion or Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, I fail to completely recall all the scenes, but I am left with a vague remembering of great happenings of the size of Wagnerian mythology. The Book of the New Sun awakens this feeling during the reading of the text, because it is up to the reader to tie up the loose ends. Severian, the main character, narrates what has happened to him but he is an unreliable narrator. He, like all of us, interprets and lies to himself. Gene Wolfe plays a sneaky game of words and I didn’t know until halfway through the first novel that I was trapped in it. The rule of the game is to pay attention and to find the grand story behind the story. The plot behind the plot. Thinking back on it, months after finishing the book, I keep on reinterpreting his words and finding clues.

As Wolfe makes Severian say at the end: “Before you assume that I have cheated you, read again”. And so I did, and indeed all the answers are there in casual revelations, only now I read more carefully, new questions arise. This book is meant to be reread multiple times, and every reread feels like a personal resurrection because it makes you feel more intelligent.

So far I haven’t even discussed Gene Wolfe’s mastery over the English language. Severian is one of the most extraordinary characters ever brought to life and he speaks in beautiful sentences. His world is set in the so far distant future that the stars are visible during the day and incomprehensible technology from the past manifests itself as magic. The books are wildly inventive and original but at the same time very sober. I will go further and say that The Book of the New Sun is so much more than speculative fiction. It is a profound meditation upon history, symbolism, religion, philosophy and mythology and perhaps the best thing I have ever read.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Movie: The Fountain (2006)

A movie about love, life and death, molded into a search for eternal life. Director Darren Aronofsky (better known from Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler) has outdone himself in making such an intimate film.

The Fountain has three different stories running that span a thousand years, but only figuratively. One story is set in 13th century Spanish America, one in modern times and one in a proposedly far future. The three overlap and are linked not only storywise but by similar scenes and words uttered, which get symbolic meanings near the end of the movie.

The story of the 13th century conquistador story is adventurous, romantic, told as an historic novel should be told. The modern day story is realistic, passionate and sad. The future is a symbolic place, a landscape of the mind filled with symbolism. The modern day story is the true heart of the movie, while the other stories comment upon it. Approaching the end of the movie, the three intertwine into a three part climax.

The Fountain is a unique piece of filmmaking unlike anything I have seen (although scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssee and Donnie Darko come to mind). Aronofsky gives only little information about what is actually going on in his movie but it is not hard to figure out for those with a philosophical disposition. The scenes are awe-inspiring and its mood is intense and often serene. The soundtrack by Clint Mansell (also known from Requiem for a Dream) has become just as much a culthit as the movie itself. The whole package is a beautiful poem about life and death, intelligent and evocative.

IMDB: The Fountain

Book: Ursula K. LeGuin - The Earthsea Quartet

Consisting of:

A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)
The Tombs of Atuan (1971)
The Farthest Shore (1972)

The Earthsea novels are considered milestones in the fantasy genre and have never gotten out of print. Nowadays they are presented as the Earthsea Quartet, as the book Tehanu (1990) is added as a fourth, which is written almost 20 years after the third. Tehanu feels disconnected from the original trilogy in style and substance and I will say some more of it at the end of my story.

The three Earthsea novels have gathered a lot of critical acclaim thanks to LeGuin’s knowledge of anthropology and psychology. The Archipelago she sets up harbours an immense diversity in cultures and every book expands upon another psychological theme. Most impressive of all are the subtle differences in style that LeGuin used between books to get to her themes.

The first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, reads as a travel memoir. It follows the adventures of the young wizard Ged while he travels from island to island and grows up. The wizardschool he end up in is a very clear progenitor of the later Harry Potter novels. The ending comes straight from psychoanalyst Carl Jung. LeGuin’s style is very descriptive and a bit detached.

The second book, The Tombs of Atuan, might be her best and provides a perfect balance with the first. While Ged travels around the world, the girl Tenar stays her whole life on one single place. LeGuin takes her time to describe this place so that it really comes alive. There are only a few locations in the fantasy genre so fully realized (perhaps only Gormenghast). If the theme of the first book is growing up, the theme of the second is love and trust. Tenar is a richly developed character and LeGuin’s style is personal and involving. The third book, The Farthest Shore, is again a travel story but not as detached as the first. Its theme is death and the circle of life. The adventures of Ged end, but overlap with those of the young prince Arren, who grows up.

By highlighting the psychology I do not want to convey that these are boring books. Not at all. For those who like to read about dragons, dark shadows, old forces and the open sea Earthsea is a must read.

Then a word about Tehanu. The reactions to this book are almost solely negative. It is, let me say this, a very well written book. But the magic seems lost and almost nothing happens. The hero of the trilogy is described as a shimmer of what he once was and is involved in little backyard adventures. It may have a lot to do with the fact that LeGuin had become a passionate feministe. I don’t want to scoff at feminism but she gave Tehanu a didactic aspect that severly hurts the magic.