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Science fiction/fantasy film recommendations

Posted: Thu Jan 25, 2007 11:56 am
by Windwalker
Children of Men

This film is that rarity of rarities: good, strong science fiction without gadgetry, a parable and action film rolled into one. It is neither perfect nor pleasant, but it is a must-see for the thinking it provokes and for the audacity of its director's vision.

The film has bravura cinematography and is shot like a war documentary -- which in a way, it is. It has nuanced, restrained performances by both its primaries and its secondaries. It has an interesting premise but no long explanations. It drops us in the middle of the story, and leaves us there as well. And at the end there is only a flicker of hope, faint but indomitable, like the campfire flicker against the darkness that opens and closes Quest for Fire.

I won't say more, but once more of you see the film we can discuss it.

Couldn't agree more...

Posted: Thu Jan 25, 2007 11:17 pm
by sanscardinality
A fantastic movie, and one that portrays violence graphically, but doesn't glorify it at all. It really shows the imbecility of hate and warfare, while at the same time making a broader point about the value of human life - what we say we value and what we actually do...


Children of Men

Posted: Sat Jan 27, 2007 12:02 pm
by Windwalker
I think one of the interesting things they achieved was the convincing "near-future" feel. The graffiti, the aging once-goths and punks. That is very hard to do well. It made me, at least, willing to disregard a couple of plot holes.

Film review/discussion: The Prestige

Posted: Sun Feb 25, 2007 2:20 pm
by Windwalker
On my way back from London, I watched The Prestige, which shares much with The Illusionist: both films deal with stage magic, involve revenge, are lavish turn of the century period pieces and boast magnetic male leads (and engaging secondary male roles). There the similarities end. The Illusionist is a story of reclaiming forbidden love, whereas The Prestige is a tale of doppelgängers. In my opinion at least, The Illusionist is by far the better of the two.

The Illusionist was elegant and concise, whereas Prestige has too many twists, most of them immediately obvious. The nested doublings eventually become labored and, worse yet, at the end the story resorts to active cheating. There is something relentless about the film: it wants to impress you so much with its cleverness that it doesn't even let you enjoy the elaborate atmospherics.

All that would be forgiven if the dueling protagonists were appealing and/or compelling. But they are neither -- astounding, given that they are played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale. The two are essentially ciphers and unpleasant ones at that. The parts that would make them interesting have been sacrificed to "wow" moments. The truncations include all interactions with their women, who become additional props (in contrast to The Illusionist, where the female protagonist becomes an active partner).

Christopher Nolan has directed interesting works focusing on obsession and mirror twins (Insomnia, Batman Begins). In those films, we cared about the characters, or at least understood the underpinnings of their disorder. The Prestige is essentially an ego match to the death that turns oddly passionless... dare I say it, boring. A neat premise underlies the film, but it fell far short of its promise.

Posted: Fri Mar 02, 2007 10:49 am
by rocketscientist
I saw both of those films as well, and while I agree with you on some counts, I disagree on others.

The Illutionist was without doubt the more beautiful film. The art direction was superb and some of the scenes were simply transporting. Unfortunately I was able to see through the plot after the first ten minutes. This is often a problem for me with both film and liturature. More so with film.

It's true I loved the performances of Edward Norton and Jessica Biel although I think Paul Giamatti came a scene or two close to stealing the show. The story was in truth as much about the conflict within his character, the honest but beleaguered inspector, as it was about the love affair of Eisenheim and Princess Sophie, which was a bit of a stumbling point for me. Biel was not convincing me of her love for the character of Eisenheim, not to mention that the idea of an Edwardian princess running off with a common performer was ludicrous.

The concepts behind The Prestige were more human and therefore more honest, imo. As we neared the end I knew what what was going to happen, but the particulars did keep me guessing.

I agree that the female roles were glorified bit parts. When you have actresses that give their roles such clarity as Johansson and Hall, it seems a shame to have cut them so short as they were. I wonder if there isn't a fuller director's cut somewhere.

But what really pulled me in about The Perstige was the obsession. Jackman and Bale both captured the essence of barely civil hatred and obsessive competition beautifully. I found myself despising both characters, yet determined to discover the eventual outcome. Plus the proformance of Micheal Cain cinched The Prestige as my preferred movie.

That said, I have no desire to watch it again, whereas I purchased The Illusionist. :lol:

Posted: Fri Mar 02, 2007 11:56 am
by Windwalker
I agree with you that the plot of the Illusionist was immediately obvious and had fairytale-like improbabilities. Also, like you, I enjoyed the humane voice of the person of perspective in both films (Giamatti's inspector in The Illusionist, Caine's ingenieur in The Prestige).

But I suspect there may be another reason why I preferred The Illusionist over The Prestige. The latter has no context beyond the two magicians' locked dance of death. The Illusionist has a social and political subtext. The inspector is part of the very powerful state secret police. When he arrests Eisenheim, it is not for having designs on Princess Sophie, but for inciting riots. And a major point against Eisenheim is his Jewishness. All these are subtle, but definitely there -- and for me they created a deeper world than the claustrophobic reflecting mirrors of The Prestige.

Posted: Fri Mar 02, 2007 12:20 pm
by rocketscientist
The inspector is part of the very powerful state secret police. When he arrests Eisenheim, it is not for having designs on Princess Sophie, but for inciting riots. And a major point against Eisenheim is his Jewishness. All these are subtle, but definitely there -- and for me they created a deeper world than the claustrophobic reflecting mirrors of The Prestige.
These are excellent points and I had hoped we would get more into the character of Instector Uhl. Ultimately the entire plot pivoted around his decisions and although the scope of the movie wasn't able to fully encompass this issue, it was the most riveting aspect of the plot for me. For all of the reasons you mentioned.

The banality of evil

Posted: Sun Mar 04, 2007 1:57 pm
by Windwalker
As people and writers, we constantly consider the question of evil. Recently, we discussed science fiction novels by John Harrison, Jay Lake and Iain Banks that prominently feature serial killers and/or torturers,.

The decision to showcase such characters is partly the wish of contemporary writers to grab the attention of sated, savvy readers. However, in the end I think that the most chilllng evil is low-key: the casual betrayal, the pardon left unsigned, the failure to speak before a crowd turns into a lynch mob, the passive obedience to rules that trample dignity and spirit.

In connection with this, here's an article that compares three figures of evil, one being Captain Vidal in Pan's Labyrinth, a fantasy film that also explores evil. I found the analysis interesting.

The mystique (?) of depthless evil

The Curse of Sparrowhawk

Posted: Tue Sep 04, 2007 11:53 pm
by Windwalker
Ursula LeGuin has had abysmal luck with the filming of her wonderful books. I'll limit myself to the best-known, the Earthsea sextet. The film made for the Sci-Fi Channel was terrible -- leaden acting, preachy dialogue, all the fine nuances of the story and the characters dissolved in black versus white platitudes.

Hayao Miyazaki (of Princess Mononoke and Howl's Castle deserved fame) wanted to do an animated version of the books. LeGuin admired his work, so she agreed. But somehow directing got shifted to Miyazaki's son who, apparently to his father's ire and chagrin, did not do the material justice -- although the drawing style is said to be up to the high standards of the Ghibli studio.

I read the plot synopsis, which is as faithful to the books as that of the Sci-Fi version. Both are barely recognizable as originating from the Earthsea books. Worse yet, because Sci-Fi owns the rights to Earthsea till 2009, the film has been released everywhere else except in the US.

In short, very annoying -- both the almost certain disappointment and the enforced wait. I wish Peter Jackson had done Earthsea instead of his abysmal King Kong. If he put as much talent and love into it as he put into LOTR, we would have another triumph. But perhaps expecting a repetition of a miracle might be too much to ask.

The Tin Compass

Posted: Mon Jan 21, 2008 2:39 pm
by Windwalker
I read Phillip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials and found it interesting, though uneven -- imaginative, subversive concepts mingled with pedestrian ones and the prose was at best serviceable. The ideas were provocative enough to irk Christian orthodox of both the Catholic and Protestant persuasion, so I was very curious to see what would happen in the film version which contains most of the first book of the trilogy, The Golden Compass.

Visually alternating between lush and gleaming (not surprisingly, given its steampunk sensibility and the natures of the conflicting antagonists), the film is awash in special effects but flat and devoid of resonance and nuances. Despite the talented cast, the characters barely register, and although there is a lot of action it actually feels tedious. There is no sense of urgency, of why all this is so vital and the storyline barely makes sense. The complexities have been leached out, leaving behind an instantly forgettable bauble. Not gold, but tin.

Posted: Mon Jan 21, 2008 10:08 pm
by caliban
I agree the film was a disappointment -- far from Jackson's LotR films and from Cuaron's and Newell's Potter films, which brought at least a spark to the viewing process. We really loved the books, but the film is such a wet blanket that I doubt we'll even get the DVD.

And to nuance the response to Pullman -- even though Pullman makes direct slaps at Christianity and religion in general, and arguably Catholicism in particular, most mainstream response was to either *shrug* or spin it as a story against authoritarianism. (Not really accurate, but a smart response, rather than to get into a spitting contest.) The film raised the ire not so much of the orthodox as the rabid rightmost wings of Catholicism and Protestantism (and yes there is a difference) -- which in many cases is just an angry guy with a website.

The film did poorly in the US but well elsewhere, so the campaigns by lone angry guys with website may have had an effect. The weakness of the film did not help. Still, it shows how the mainstream media tends to portray the most conservative, most angry, and most stupid factions of Christianity as being representative of the whole...and they seem to succeed in convincing everyone.

Curiously, despite protestations to the contrary, I thought the film version pumped *up* the menace of the Magisterium, which in in the first book is in the background and does not become clearer until the second and third books.

Posted: Wed Feb 27, 2008 10:00 pm
by Windwalker
In my peregrinations, I found an interesting essay on the influence of Norse mythology on Pullman's trilogy: His Norse Materials. The sections on Odin and Lucifer/Loki are particularly intriguing. Considering the detailed mappings of even secondary characters, I found one surprising omission -- there is no discussion of Marisa Coulter.

Postscript: This site, the Internet Review of Science Fiction, has a lot of interesting work in its archives. Worth a browse!

YouTube to the rescue of the impatient!

Posted: Sun May 18, 2008 4:21 pm
by Windwalker
In an earlier post, I complained about the unavailability of Miyazaki's studio Ghibli version of Earthsea in the US, due to intellectual property issues. Well, emboldened by the availability of every anime episode on YouTube, I typed the Japanese title of the film (Gedo Senki, loose translation: Ged's War Chronicles) and voilà! YouTube has the whole thing in 23 installments.

Le Guin commented on the animé at her site. The animation is of the quality you'd expect from Ghibli and the settings and music give it an elegiac Celtic aura, much of it (I suspect) influenced from Jackson's vision of Gondor. As Le Guin states, the story is an odd mishmash of the third and fourth Earthsea novels, The Farthest Shore and Tehanu. the violence has been ratcheted up to the usual animé levels, the moralizing is heavy-handed and doesn't feel integral to the story, and evil has been externalized and made conventionally binary (as have gender dynamics).

There were some interesting Japanese-specific items: The antagonist as an ambiguous bishōnen (pretty boy, with the implication of bisexuality), the summoning of an ensorcelled hero by a woman's tears, like the golem Majin. The film is strongest when it shows small-scale, nuanced emotions and actions -- as when Tenar rests her cheek on Ged's scar in the dungeon. Overall it's far from the wonder it would probably be if made by Hayao Miyazaki himself. But it's much better than the SciFi version.

Hobbits and Dwarves

Posted: Sun Jul 13, 2008 5:24 pm
by Windwalker
I saw Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy II this weekend. The film is cartoony, its plot is silly (to put it mildly) and del Toro, like Peter Jackson when he's self-indulgent, let his liking for macabre grotesquerie run away with him.

The other thing that I became very aware of while I was watching this film is how today's directors neither create original stories nor borrow from original myths. Instead, they borrow from each other's renderings of myths. George Lucas plundered Disney and Hollywood productions of the thirties and forties for Star Wars and Willow.

In Hellboy II, most critics noticed the borrowings from Star Wars and LOTR -- the latter a nod to both del Toro's natural inclinations (Christianity, underground kingdoms, vanishing races) and to the fact that he is directing The Hobbit with Jackson's approval and support. But there were at least two other direct borrowings in Hellboy II. One was from Miyazaki's Mononoke Hime: Shishigami, the forest spirit that both gives and takes life. Another was from Henson/Froud's Dark Crystal: the complete physical and mental bond between two sundered halves that operates upon the separated urRu and Skeksis.

The homage is touching... but it severely decreases the impact of del Toro's own vision. Then again, he may have thought that he can concentrate on his own vision in some films (Pan's Labyrinth) and slacken off in crowdpleaser films that have a built-in audience.

Posted: Mon Jul 14, 2008 4:56 pm
by caliban
We saw Hellboy II last night as well. Great visuals and quirky, intriguing characters. And yet it still devolved into an orgy of violence. I know that's the point of comic-book movies (or at least what Hollywood thinks is the point of them), but still. It's not so much a problem with violence in storytelling, as violence is part of the human condition, but the idea that violence is entertaining.

One of Del Toro's early movies, Chronos, a re-invention of vampires, was a terrific, imaginative film. I wish Hellboy had been more like that.

It will be interesting to see what happens when Del Toro takes over the Tolkien franchise. Even though the LotR movies had violence galore, there were two mitigating factors. First, Jackson choreographed the battle scenes in such a way as they made more sense than typical. (Not true of the climatic fight in Hellboy II, which was, despite a few touches of cleverness, still mostly incoherent.) Even my wife, who really really hates violence in movies, and who was very disappointed in the celebration of violence in Hellboy, followed and enjoyed those scenes. Second, Tolkien wrote in response to WWI and a tremendous sense of grief and loss; even though his characters mouth words about dying in glorious battle, there is a part of Tolkien, maybe unconscious, that realizes the story of war is the story of loss, and Jackson mostly manages to convey that feeling.

Interestingly, much of Hellboy is about making choices -- a demon who chooses to fight on the side of humans, and so on. It is not about victory through smashing. So Hellboy really didn't need to glorify violence so much. Of course Hollywood thinks the key 14-28 year-old-male demographic needs to see lots and lots of smashing, and so it has to go in the movie. What Hollywood fails to see is that movies with strong characterization (cf. Ironman, cf Hellboy, both of which had rather muddled fight sequences but terrific character scenes) perform much strong than those with just smashing (cf. Incredible Hulk). Of course, they point to Ang Lee's Hulk, which was stuffed full with anguished character development, but frankly, despite Ang Lee's talents, I didn't think those parts were that strong; they tended to drag and be muddled themselves.

Which brings me back to Hellboy. The best parts were the character development -- which were sharply and swiftly done. I found myself disappointed he had to fall back onto gladiatorial excess so much; it weakened an otherwise interesting movie for me.

Well, enough rambling...