Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Movie: Shutter Island (2010)

I love how this movie starts. A ship appears out of the mist at sea. It blows its deep horn, and the horn gets taken up by the music score, creating a theme of danger. The captain says there is a storm coming. By now every viewer knows that this is not going to be a comedy. The ship takes two FBI agents to a mental hospital on an island, and those who are familiar with thrillers know that mental hospitals are no places where people get happy, or keep their sanity.

The halls and rooms and people are just dripping with foreboding and danger. The staff of the hospital does not cooperate with them. Agent Daniels gets nightmares and the patients give signs that strange things take place on this island. From then on this movie develops into an extremely tense and unnerving experience, so much so that we, the viewers, lose the sense of what is truth, and what is fiction.

If you don’t like being messed around with, the movie might well rub you the wrong way, but at least you get to know the feeling of paranoia and isolation that the main character is going through. Shutter Island is the work of a master filmmaker who does not rely on cheap thrills or tricks, but takes lessons from old suspense-masters like Alfred Hitchcock, but then again I expect nothing less from Scorsese, who is perhaps the finest director working today. Everything about this movie is top quality, from the locations to the acting.

It wasn’t so succesful at the box office, but it is a must-see. If you feel like seeing a movie about fear, don’t see a typical slasher movie, see this one.

IMDB: Shutter Island

Monday, April 19, 2010

The New Post-Apocalypse: The Book of Eli (2010) and The Road (2009)

Eli (Denzel Washington), from The Book of Eli, acts like an action hero. The post-apocalyptic world seems to be created by the director and screenwriters just to show the audience what a hero this Eli is. He is silent and distant and has a big knife, and is the protector of the last Bible in the world. God told him to go west and so he slashes his way forward through the ranks of evil Gary Oldman, who wants to have this book so he can control the masses around him.

The movie is a bit of a moral jumble, where the Bible is simultaneously good and bad and it is somehow acceptable that this violent and distant Eli is there to protect it. Now and then it rubbed me the wrong way. The story is replete with cliches and the ending is overwrought. Still this movie has a lot going for it. It has style and a bit of dark humor and it is always a pleasure to see Oldman playing a maniac.

The Road is the bleakest and most depressing post-apocalyptic movie I have seen so far. The movie has so little colors that it is almost black and white. The story isn’t about some post-apocalyptic hero who is untouchable in this new world, like Eli from The Book of Eli, or Mad Max or some Kevin Costner hero. It is about a regular man and his son, who he tries to protect. The boy grew up in this ravaged world and has no memories of the world before, when everything was good. His father reads him stories of how it was before the bombs fell.

Their daily lives revolve around food. Food and cold and a grey world of snow, ash and dead trees. In tense moments when they are in danger from gangs of armed men, the thought of suicide is never far away. If The Book of Eli is an action/dark comedy version of the post-apocalyptic story, then The Road is the harsh, real and philosophical variant. Flashbacks to the past, to the time when his wife was still there, have a warmer tone.

It is a kind of desperation the viewer can wallow in. Both movies give us pictures of a destroyed landscape that are perfectly horrifying and fantastically miserable. It is the destruction of the world as a form of art. The Road succeeds in this even more than The Book of Eli does. Like its characters and story, The Book of Eli overdoes the bleakness by pumping up the contrast, making shadows darker and the land a dry surface with bright orange colors. The Road is grey and cold, with more impressive views of dead forests and empty roads.

Overall, The Road is the better movie. It has little plot, but at the heart lies the relationship between the father and his son and therefore it is intense and personal, but also a bit slow. If you go for action and less depressing eye-candy, The Book of Eli is very satisfying.

IMDB: The Book of Eli, The Road

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Book: Clifford D. Simak - Way Station (1963)

Have you ever heard of the term space opera? To those familiar with the science fiction genre it has a history of meaning and nowadays it is broadly used to designate a dramatic, large-scale epic involving aliens, space battles and heroic adventures on other planets. Like Star Wars. Way Station is none of that. It is about an old veteran of the American civil war, living like a hermit in an old wooden house with his rifle in a country of small-minded hillbillies.

Yet it is sometimes called a space opera. It is the most unique, heartwarming, one-of-a-kind novel. Enoch Wallace lives by himself in a valley in the middle of nowhere and he is 124 years old, but doesn’t look a day older than 30. By day he recieves the mail, sometimes interacts with his redneck neighbors and their deaf daughter, and disappears again into his wooden house. Unknown to others, the back room of his house is also an intergalactic way station, that recieves alien visitors and sents them on their way again. But the CIA takes notice and begins to spy…

There is hardly any action in this book. No space battles and otherworldly adventures. Instead it is soft and quiet and Wallace is a low-key, warm character. But I could not put this book down for a second. It is a small and fast-moving story and at the same time a bit philosophical and even mystical. It is filled with alien artifacts that forever remain a mystery and now and then an alien drops by for a cup of coffee. Simak hardly explains anything, but gives us small glimpses of the wonders out there in space. He lifts the curtains only a second to show what is waiting for us when we are ready to join the rest of the universe.

If the down-to-earth Enoch Wallace can open his mind to the wonders of the universe in his own back room, then so can we all. 40 years after publication, no writer has yet published something remotely similar to this little novel, and its small number of pages is a small price to pay for such a rich and timeless story.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Movie: Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Not too bad, not too bad. I happen to have read Lewis Carrol’s Alice's Adventures in Wonderland two years ago and I remember that it is a book without much plot. Of all the books in the world, this is probably the book that is most like a dream, and dreams are not very coherent most of the time. The charm of the Alice story lies in subtle word jokes (that often require an explanation nowadays, 145 years later) and fancies in imagination. But modern Hollywood requires movies with a plot, a clear storyline.

I can imagine Tim Burton’s headaches as he tries to force the well-known Alice elements into a coherent story. I guess he took another look at the Disney adaptation and then made up a lot of new characters and places to glue the Alice elements together. This will make Alice purists groan, but I can forgive Burton for using his artistic licence. At least he tried to stay true to the dreamlike spirit, although the battle at the end is really stretching it. Burton also tries to get away with it by making his movie a sort of sequel to the first, and Alice is a young adult instead of a little girl (like Steven Spielberg’s Hook was a sequel to Peter Pan). The intro with adult Alice is nice, but the ending in the real world is rushed and awkward (curiously Hook’s ending was too stretched out and overly sentimental).

Burton has also sweetened the story a bit. If we compare this Alice in Wonderland with the book and the Disney version, then the latter two are much more darker and brooding and somehow better suited for adults than children. By removing the darkness, Burton’s Alice in Wonderland has become childish and falls a bit flat. In the end, if you like Burton and if you like odd characters jumping through inventive CG landscapes, you can enjoy it at face value. I love the cat.

IMDB: Alice in Wonderland

Friday, April 9, 2010

Movie: (500) Days of Summer (2009)

Why am I posting a romantic comedy on this blog? That isn’t my style! It isn’t really a romantic comedy though; even the voice-over says it is not a boy-meets-girl movie, its more of a dark humor drama and a refreshing look on relationsh... blablabla. Hell, who am I kidding. It is a comedy, and it is about relationships. It is about a guy that has listened to too many British popsongs and therefore thinks “the One” is waiting out there, and about a girl who doesn’t believe in love. Then we flip through 500 days of their relationship, not in chronological sequence however.

I didn’t lie; it is a very refreshing movie with great witty editing, funny dialogue and believable characters that could live next door and even a gripping story. Expecially if you’re repulsed by regular Sandra Bullock romcoms, you should check this out. It reminds me of the more truthful episodes of the How I Met Your Mother series, but in a darker, black comedy vein.

So the voice-over says it is not a love story, but there are only a few movies about love that capture it so touchingly and charmingly as this one. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind comes to mind; it also feels similar with the nonchronological setup of the story. It is a beautiful and funny movie and feels like summer, the time of warmth and energy. It’s the kind of movie that stays in the back of your mind for the rest of the day.

IMDB: (500) Days of Summer

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Book: Robert Holdstock - Mythago Wood (1984)

Let me share with you a real discovery: Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood! This book came to my attention because simply everybody seems to like it; critics and readers alike. And so did I.

The central premise of this book is utterly weird and original. I am hesitant of telling you about it because if I do, you will not be able to discover it for yourself. Let me just tell you this: it is set in 1944, in England. A small piece of forest in Herefordshire, unknown to the people at large, is still primal forest, unchanged since the end of the Ice Age. You can run around it in an hour, but enter it, and there seems to be no end to it after walking a day, a week. The Wood seems to generate mythical figures from our past. But how? And what is there to be found in the deep of the wood? Stephen Huxley has already lost his father and brother to that mystery.

There is much more to it. Holdstock delves into the deep of human history, from the stories of Robin Hood and King Arthur down to the shamans of the Neolithic and the end of the last Ice Age. Mythago Wood is an exploration of myth and the primal forces of our subconscious, but set in an adventure of fantasy and horror.

Holdstock presents his story as real and rational, as a mystery that should be investigated, and when elements of fantasy suddenly strike it is scary, and should be scary. His story is a lot of things: it starts as a supernatural mystery with a 19th century feel, completely with semi-scientific diary entries, evoking Bram Stoker’s Dracula or the stories of Sherlock Holmes. Then it morphs into a horror story, and a highly emotional love story, and finally a quest of discovery, revenge and redemption.

Holdstock delivers it in elegant, neat and clear British prose. I can see this turn into a movie someday. Not often have I read such a rich and gripping novel. I recommend it to everyone.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Book: Ray Bradbury - Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

In the world of Guy Montag, the firemen’s hose does not spray water, but kerosene. It is a world were everything is backward, twisted, yet eerily familiar. People are discouraged to think, only talk about empty things and live like zombies, continuously entranced by empty popmusic and empty reality series on TV-walls. Books are illegal, and burned. It is the job of the firemen. Incidentally, fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which book-paper catches fire and burns.

Just read some of the famous opening lines:

“It was a pleasure to burn.

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black.”

As you can see already, Bradbury has a very visual style of writing, with great care of imagery and the rhythm of the words. Bradbury loves words. His poetic style is still unperfected and not as controlled as in his later works. Fahrenheit 451 was one of his earliest books, written at a young age. But it makes his novel fast, short and explosive, like a fire itself. It is also a bit quirky and over-the-top in its descriptions and metaphors, but its flaws make the novel actually more lovable. And more than 50 years after publication its messages are still glowing embers. This book refuses to be put out.

It is kind of distressing that some of Bradbury’s predictions have become recognisable in our modern times. This twisted world that he describes wasn’t the result of a twisted government, but it was the general tendency of the times. It was the overcrowded world, high on mass production and fast living. Fahrenheit 451 is about the loss of thinking, leading to the loss of books. But, predictably, Guy Montag the fireman sees the errors of his trade and starts an adventure of rebellion.

Like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World, this is a real dystopia classic and really worth reading. It has also spawned a reasonably good movie (1966), but that of course misses Bradbury’s virtuoso writing style.