Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Movies: Good SF!

This has been a good winter for quality films, and SF fans can count themselves lucky that two recent releases are among the best films of the year. Neither could be called a fun movie, but intelligent and provocative, they're good for a thoughtful date. Coincidentally, both are from Mexican directors, though one is set in England and the other is a Spanish language film set in Spain.

The first is Children of Men, from director Alfonso Cuaron, whose credits include Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban, Y Tu Mama Tambien and A Little Princess. Obviously the man has range as well as the ability to adapt English novels to the screen. Children is an adaptation from P.D. James, best known for her Dalgleish mystery novels.

But this is social science fiction par excellence, in the best tradition of H.G. Wells. "What if...?" is the premise for this kind of story, and the what if in this case is that people stop having babies. It portrays a world disintegrating in despair after nearly two decades of childlessness. Without hope for the future, what are we? What do children mean to us as individuals, as neighbors, as a society, as people who grub for power and advantage?

The film asks all these and many more, in the compelling story of a writer who has given up, his ex-wife who has taken refuge in revolution, and their quest to help a young woman who is miraculously pregnant. Poignant and breathtaking, though often violent, with terrific performances by a cast including Clive Owen, Julianne Moore and Michael Caine.

The next film is just as good, though painted on a smaller canvas. Following the Spanish Civil War, a brutal fascist capitan leads a detachment of soldiers against loyalist guerillas in the hills. He brings his pregnant wife and step-daughter to join him. The alienated girl, with only a sympathetic maid to count as a friend, finds a labyrinth and is soon immersed in a fantastic world.

This is Pan's Labyrinth from writer-director Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy, Blade II), who shows style, confidence and originality. In the world where the faun dwells below the garden labyrinth and fairies visit her room, the girl Ofelia undertakes the Hero's Quest. She braves difficulties, makes serious mistakes and displays immense courage as her quest becomes more desparate. Simultaneously, the real world situation of the family and the small military outpost grows more desparate, and the capitan grows more brutal. The movie is occasionally unpleasant to the point of horrific, but compelling in the excellence of its execution, bringing myth to life.

Movies: Bad SF!

Lifeforce (1985)

Soul power! Naked vampires! Flaming zombies! Yep, a beautiful naked space vampire wreaks havoc as flaming zombies run amok in London, while the starship sucks up human souls, seemingly for use as fuel.

I don't recall if I noticed a kitchen sink, but there should've been one, as there's everything else in the plot.

Oddly enough, this is less of a muddle than it sounds like, though every bit as over the top. Decent actors like Patrick Stewart and Frank Finlay play supporting roles.

The DVD contains no extras. This is a marginal purchase for libraries -- particularly for extensive nudity that serves no other point but to establish that naked vampires can seem quite appealing -- but diehard B-movie SF fans will be able to sit through it. Would've been perfect for MST3K!

Saturday, January 27, 2007


** spoiler warning **
The nature of this posting contains plot spoilers which may detract from first-time viewers' appreciation of films. Proceed at own risk.

Three recent film which I've enjoyed greatly all add to their appeal by serious ambiguity. They play with or disguise either thematic elements or even the fundamental nature of the story. In one case, a film is revealed about halfway through to actually be a science fiction story, with the revelation taking viewers by surprise. In another case, what appears to be a ghost story is revealed to have logical explanations. In the third case, the film leaves the viewer with lingering doubts about its ambiguities. In all cases, the tension generated by not knowing what is going on, or even what the rules are, adds to the strength of the film.


Of course, the ghost story which is resolved and revealed through logic, is such a staple as to nearly qualify as a sub-genre of detective or suspense movies. But in the case of Volver, the movie is a character-driven family comic drama which strongly suggests itself to the viewer as magic realism. The revelation that there is no ghost comes slowly and gently, with plenty of clues for the viewer, and the entire plot thread is only one of several in Pedro Almodovar's marvelously realized story.

The Prestige

In The Prestige, the revelation goes in the other direction, as strong science fiction elements are introduced mid-film with only the most cryptic foreshadowing. In this case, the science fictional plot device becomes a major lynch-pin of the film's resolution. But it's really just a means of further escalating the tension between two rival magicians that is the axis of the film. Ultimately, the science fictional element provides a fine demonstration of Clarke's Third Law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Pan's Labyrinth

The final example is the most problematic: Guillermo Del Toro's fantastic Pan's Labyrinth. It's the most problematic because it's the most ambiguous. Did Ofelia really enter a magical world or was it an illusory retreat? The film argues it both ways, but any film is, of course, an illusory retreat.

Still, the power of the fantasy sequences is compelling, and the question of the "secondary reality" of Ofelia's experiences is ultimately moot at film's end when we emerge from the labyrinth back into the real world, as we believe it to be.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Movies to change the world

Recently, I've watched three films from the library collection which unashamedly advocate for social change on a global scale. Two were documentaries and one an affecting pointed story. One was also a library program and another one was almost a program last year, but we couldn't arrange rights.

Nobelity is a personal reflection by film-maker Turk Pipkin, who interviews nine Nobel Prize laureates about problems affecting our world. While far from objective, as one could probably cherry-pick living Nobel laureates to support a wide variety of views, it is moving and ultimately surprisingly cohesive. Loosely divided into segments entitled: Decision, Challenges, Disparities, Change, Knowledge, Persistence, Peace, Reason, and Love. Each section features an interview with a Nobel laureate, juxtaposed with contextual scenes of areas of the world and montage sequence illustrating issues. The final montage, leading up to the interview with Bishop Tutu, is breathtakingly fast and emotional.

Showing this film would make a great public library program, as it lends itself well to discussion. Unfortunately last year, it was in limited release and the distributors did not really want to see it shown for free in public libraries, but were interested in university venues and non-profit groups that would share admission revenues. Now that the DVD is widely available, public performance rights may be easier to come by.

Girl in the Cafe has a screenplay by Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral). It features the wonderful Bill Nighy playing the sort of uncertain bloke that Curtis has so often created as a Hugh Grant character. Grant is till too young to play this role, as Nighy portrays an aging civil servant who may have just found love but has a part to play at the G8 summit in Reykjavik. The film asks good questions about doing the right thing and being willing to sacrifice for the greater good, as Nighy's personal and professional dilemmas run tangled parallel courses. A terrific, sweet and moving story. Unsurprisingly, an extra on the DVD is the video for one.org ("the campaign to make poverty history") that aired on TV last year.

An Inconvenient Truth is the film we showed at the library last week, and needs little introduction or explanation, since Al Gore's campaign on global warming has been high profile. We had about sixty people attend, and the film was followed by a lively discussion, moderated wonderfully by Joanne Kleussendorf of the Weis Earth Science Museum at University of Wisconsin - Fox.

This is the sort of program I would like to see our library do more often, combining education, community development, library media and a social issue.

Monday, January 8, 2007

DK Eyewitness Travel Guides

I have become a big fan of the DK Eyewitness Travel Guides; Marsha and I have used them for Italy, Greece, Ireland, and Great Britain. They're generally well organized, well-indexed, easy to use, and fun to look at and chockful of information both helpful and interesting. This last factor makes them useful for travel planning, time on the ground at the destination and for reminiscing. They're so good for reminiscing that we bought the Denmark book years after being there.

The only drawbacks are the cost -- you're buying for high quality paper and high quality color photography, the weight, and the fact that they're not available for more countries. After you've been walking for hours, you can feel the weight of heavy books, but I was disappointed that they don't publish one for Romania, where I'm headed in a couple months.

When we were talking yesterday with friends planning an Italian vacation, we recommended the books. Unsurprisingly, they were already familiar with the series and didn't need to borrow our Italy volume, as they're already intending to pick up their own copy.

Padua / Padova

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

You mean I don't know Dick?

One of my dream library programs would be a Philip K. Dick film/book festival. I think we've now reached critical mass of worthwhile Dick films. Were I to plan a Dick film series, I would include:

  • A Scanner Darkly
  • Blade Runner
  • Minority Report
...and if I wanted to get into "guilty pleasure" territory:
  • Total Recall
I'd most likely take a pass on:
  • Paycheck
  • Impostor
And films I haven't seen include:
  • Confessions d'un Barjo
  • Screamers
  • The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick [documentary]
The thing that prompts me is seeing the recent video release of A Scanner Darkly, which was both well done and appropriately disturbing. Director Richard Linklater's approach of rotoscoping live actors and producing a photorealistic animated film is uniquely appropriate to Dick's surrealistic story-telling. Linklater smoothly layers multiple realities, leaving the viewer to question the differences between reality and perception. Characteristic themes of drugs and paranoia get worthwhile and serious treatment from start to finish. A difficult but worthwhile film, and Robert Downey Jr. is a standout in an excellent cast.
There's also the forthcoming major release of Next, based on "The Golden Man" story. Now if somebody would just film The Man in the High Castle, and if I could just figure out how to get enough of a decent audience to a Dick film series at the library...

Monday, January 1, 2007

Tezuka strikes again -- Ode to Kirihito

Just finished reading Ode to Kirihito, the big Osamu Tezuka novel I got for Christmas. At almost 900 pages, its a substantial piece of work and a good read, though not among his best. Though fairly long for a manga, the total reading time was probably only four or five hours.

The story describes the stuggle against a disfiguring disease, complicated by a corrupt medical establishment. The plot is a fairly standard medical potboiler, though a bit on the dark side and with the interesting addition of many explicit Christian elements. One of the characters is a nun struggling with disfigurement and disgrace. There are a couple of disturbing rape scenes and occasional nudity, so the book is not one for kids, though older teens should have no problems handling the subject matter. Beyond that, much of the book reads like an extended episode of Black Jack, Tezuka's medical genius character. As usual in Tezuka, most of the drawing is clear if workmanlike, while landscapes are often lovingly detailed.

While the book is dark in tone and makes good points about the effects of pollution, the indifference of some in the medical community to societal problems, and the dangers of scentists' politics interfering with scientific practice, the overall impression is melodramatic. Still, this is a good addition to any library collection serious about manga or where Tezuka's other serious works have found readers.