Saturday, September 29, 2007

Some old posts

The posts below are old reviews that I'm carrying over into my new blog.

Review: Children of Men (film)

Originally posted on Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The film "Children of Men" is set in a near future when people are no longer able to have children. The story takes place in a gloomy England which maintains a veneer of civilization while the rest of the world collapses. To make the point of what is at stake, the story opens with the killing by a mob of the world's youngest person, an eighteen-year-old, for failing to give someone his autograph. Despair and senseless violence are presented as the reaction of both individuals and governments as humanity faces a slow extinction.

The British government rounds up and jails any refugees, and deports them to brutal concentration camps (in busses with "Homeland Security" painted on the sides.) The story's protagonist is a dispirited bureaucrat, traveling to and from work on the train, coffee cup in hand, ignoring cages full of pleading refugees in the train stations.

He has a cousin high up in the government and an ex-wife who is leading a violent radical group protesting the mistreatment of refugees by setting off bombs. The ex persuades him to help obtain documents to get a young refugee woman to the coast, so he visits his cousin to ask for the papers. The wealthy cousin is collecting the world's art in his penthouse, from Michelangelo's "David" to Pink Floyd's pig balloon. Picasso's "Guernica" hangs on the dining room wall, where the cousin's teenage son, one of the last generation, plays some sort of video game during dinner, utterly oblivious to everything going on around him.

Having obtained the papers, the bureaucrat finds he must travel with the refugee to get her safely through; with his ex-wife, her lieutenant, an older woman, and the refugee girl, they set off by car to catch a boat somewhere along the coast. En route they are attacked by a roving band of bandits. The police arrive and in the general shootout the police are killed and the group are caught by police surveillance cameras. Now a wanted criminal, the bureaucrat finds that the radical group plans to do away with him; he also discovers that the refugee girl is the first pregnant woman in eighteen years, and that the group plans to use her to further their cause rather than allowing her to escape to safety. The older woman, who is a midwife, the refugee, and the bureaucrat all escape from the radical group, and the film becomes a first rate chase movie, as the small party tries to escape both the government forces and the frustrated radicals, and deliver the refugee girl to her boat.

Overwhelming the action-movie chase and the science-fiction movie futuristic gloom, though, is the fundamental message of the story, a Christian message of sacrifice and redemption. Many willingly sacrifice their lives for the refugee girl, who symbolizes hope, on her way to the mysterious boat, symbolizing redemption. The point is made that most people are unredeemable; when people first see the baby, during a firefight between the police, radicals, and refugees, they stop fighting and many fall to their knees in awe. But a few moments later they turn their backs and begin killing each other again.

There is another, more disturbing disturbing message in the film, one that is part of many people's understanding of Christianity; one that doesn't think much of women. Except, of course, when they are young, passive, and pregnant. The refugee girl has little to say about what is happening to her, and is more or less just carried along. Mysteriously, all involved seem to have little interest in locating the man that got her pregnant; you would think that would be of major interest when considering the future of the human race (especially since the title of the work is "Children of MEN".) The implication, then, is that the men are all OK and it's just the women who are defective. The carriers of Original Sin.

The rest of the women in the film are not held in high esteem by the storyteller. The only powerful woman in the movie, the ex, is "suitably" punished by pointlessly dying while playing a silly game. The midwife is nutty ("Did he really see flying saucers?"), although she gets to sacrifice herself for the cause, which also allows the man to deliver the baby. The bureaucrat's mother is catatonic. An Armenian refugee woman helps them escape, but chooses not to come with them to the redeeming ship. Oh, and when the ship comes, the sailors are all men.

The "radicals" are presented as being as great an evil as the government; incoherent in their goals, they seem to only crave power and meaningless violence. The basic view of "older generation" has of any opposition. Or maybe it's a little side message from the storytellers: "We are smarter than you because we know it's not the sixties anymore."

It's very well made film, with lots of interesting visual details that carry the mood. Motorized rickshaws belch smog in the resource-poor and no longer environmentally conscious city streets; abandoned farmland is piled high with the burning bodies of dead cattle; wild deer feed on plants growing in an empty and collapsing grade school. Clive Owen plays the bureaucrat perfectly. The supporting actors are all very good, especially Michael Caine as the bureaucrat's ex-hippie father, hiding out in the woods, the British TV actress Pam Ferris as the midwife, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as the radical lieutenant. Claire-Hope Ashitey doesn't get to do much except have an animatronic baby on-screen.

On the whole, though, the "message" factors in this movie cancelled out most of my enjoyment.

"Eifelheim" by Michael Flynn: visiting the Middle Ages

Originally posted on January 15, 2007

I enjoyed "Eifelheim" by Michael Flynn (Tor Books 2006) more than any sf I've read in a while. The novel involves a statistician-historian in the very near future trying to track down why a German village wiped out by the plague in the 1300s was never resettled, though all of his models show that it should have been. The story then turns from the historian to the village that he is trying to study; most of the novel is set in the years 1348 and 1349. The author gives the reader a vibrant sense of life in an isolated village in the Middle Ages, with detailed description of the town and its complicated individuals, as well as the milieu they live in.

The 'sf' part of the plot includes both theoretical physics as well as "bug-eyed monsters" - who are also unique and carefully drawn individuals. The rest involves discussions of religion and politics in the middle ages; tragic misunderstandings (that reminded me of Mary Doria Russell's "The Sparrow"); philosophic discussions of good and evil and what it means to be human; and a lot of multilingual wordplay. Not to mention that William of Ockham comes to visit.

This novel doesn't "move" like the usual run of sf that is intended for fifteen-year-old boys; but it is not a slow-paced story or overlong. The fascination really is in the detailed portraits of the lives of the individuals in the mill and fields, homes and castle and church, and the way they think about the world. And on top of that, it's nice to join in with an an author having fun with words! (It did occur to me that it must have been "Teufelheim"... and what is "cliology", anyway?)

In the middle of reading the book I decided to look up "Eifel" and found this web page on someone's genealogy site: It seems that the Eifel Mountains (in the general area covered by the novel) had in the past a spooky reputation. It is that kind of book, encouraging you to take your own digressions.

Review: Scanner Darkly

Originally posted on October 21, 2006

"Scanner Darkly", the latest film by Richard Linklater, based on a Philip K. Dick story, finally appeared in our backwater last night. It's more graphic novel (filmed, then drawn over) than animated feature (think "Sin City".) The audience was a mix of very young college students and old hippies; and it's definitely not a date movie.

There is a plot of sorts, having to do with an undercover narcotics officer, Bob Arctor, who becomes addicted to the drug he is supposed to be eliminating; but the story is about the disintegration of a personality through mental illness, whether organic or simulated by drugs. Most of the movie is taken up with a long sequence in and around the house inhabited by three addicts, forcing us to spend enough time with them to be able to see past their amusing and idiotic buffoonery and to begin to recognize, and care about them, as real people. And it stops being funny.

At the beginning the officer has a nice bourgeoise life in a middle class suburb. A pretty house, a pretty wife, and two pretty little daughters; everything according to the "American Dream". One day he hits his head, and suddenly decides that his life is utterly predictable and will never change. And what he craves is a life that cannot be planned and that contains the possibility of the utterly unexpected. The path from the one life to the other is not shown, but he remains in the house, now filthy, strewn with trash, and inhabited by barely functional addicts that he has taken in. He reflects, in a lucid moment, on how awful it is; but it does hold that promise of the unexpected.

Despite the updated setting, the mental attitude seems very sixties to me. There was a romanticizing, starting with the "Beats" of the fifties, of drugs as paths out of the ordinary. In the sixties, with the legal presence of LSD, there was a feeling that the mind could be reordered into something quite new and very exciting; that we were about to witness an evolutionary surge, a new kind of human. At the same time, at the leading edge of the baby boom, a large number of somewhat sheltered middle class young people were moving out of their bourgeoise parents' houses into a world of seemingly limitless possibilities. The combination led to a kind of idealization of drug-taking and of the mentally ill that Bob Dylan mocked in "Like A Rolling Stone"; an utter un-awareness of what the mentally ill were suffering, and what the physical and mental consequences were of long-term drug use.

Perhaps there is a remnant of that romanticizing today among the young and arty set; I don't really know. I do know that Dick himself used amphetamines and suffered mental illness, possibly schizophrenia, and many of his stories concern mental illness, as seen from the inside. And in that way the story is timeless.

Due to the disguise that the undercover agents wear, Bob (called "Agent Fred") does not know his immediate superior's identity, and who also does not know his. He winds up being assigned to scan the video bugging of his own house, suspected of being a drug dealing center.

Police doctors discover his condition, but he is allowed to continue to work. They warn him that there will be "cross chatter" between the hemispheres of his brain -- he will hear voices -- and of other effects of the drug, called "D", that he is taking. No longer sure what is real and what is not, or whether he is the addict or the officer, and spending his days monitoring himself, he wonders who else is monitoring and what is it that they -- or he -- is seeing.

At the end the plot kicks back in, about Bad Corporations Doing Badness, and also about betrayal and the cruelty of doing things "for the greater good"; but it's not all that interesting (except that the final scenes were clearly filmed in the desert area near the location of Manzanar!) The real reason for the movie is the story of a man loosing himself, "a punishment too great for the crime." The film ends with a list from the book of PKD's friends dead or horribly damaged by drug use.

The title comes from Corinthians --"For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. ... " Agent Fred has a soliloquy thinking about himself watching himself watch himself on the scanner -- "Through a mirror, a darkened mirror, a darkened scanner." In his drugged mind, everything is backward, and reality is either undiscernible or irrelevant.

Trying (again) to read Stephen King

Originally posted March 25, 2006

I didn't do myself a favor and tried again to read a Stephen King novel. He's wildly popular, his books are best sellers, and even my own brother likes his writing. What am I missing? King's latest, "Cell", seemed like something I could take on, described as sf of the technology-runs-amok, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it-so-we-have-to-hike-to-the-countryside genre. So I checked it out of the library, despite the unpromising red blood on a white ground decorating the dust cover.

First, it's not science fiction. The plot is kludged together from a dozen better books; the technology that fails through some improbable terrorist botched plot is incoherently described and is apparently only there to highlight King's loathing of cell phones, or probably technology in general. And he feels the same about dogs.

Secondly, the writing is sloppy, repetitive, clumsy and -- distracting. To notice this, of course, brands me as an elitist snob.

As I pressed on through the book I discovered what must be part of King's appeal. So much of each chapter was either repetitive or did so little to advance the story that it was quite possible to put the book down and pick it up later, starting again on some random page, and not miss anything. Ideal for the reader who has no time, reads in five minute spurts, and doesn't want to have to pay too close attention.

Oh and he doesn't like ex-wives any better than he likes technology, or dogs. Or subtlety.

He does like gore, but that's not a valid criticism, it's just part of the gross-out horror genre he writes in. The cardboard characters and borrowed, tired plot are more annoying.

After the book lurched to it's idiotic ending, I put it down feeling like I needed to have my brain scrubbed out with soap.

Suggestion: Avoid. For a well written read in the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it genre, try Richard Matheson's "My Name is Legend", or John Christopher's "No Blade of Grass", or Octavia Butler's "Parable of the Sower", or Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash", among others. If none of those appeal, try the latest edition of "Martha Stuart Living" magazine. Anything other than "Cell".

Four books: "The March", "General Dann and Mara's daughter", "Bridge of the Separator", "The Penelopiad"

Originally posted March 25, 2006

I took "Cell" back to the library the same day and checked out a random stack of books for brain scrubbing.

First, I read E.L. Doctorow's Civil War novel, "The March" (2005.) Sherman marches to the sea, but with a close look at the people in his path. The many characters feel real, despite his deliberate anachronisms in speech and possibly in attitudes. Details are beautifully brought in and even the smallest event is beautifully written and pulls the story along. He seems to have a firmer grasp of what the white southerners are thinking than what the liberated bondsmen are thinking, but the character of Pearl, the girl whose father is her slaveowner, is memorable.

It's easy to repeat the cliche "the horrors of war" but much harder to look at an individual living through that horror. The war itself is made to seem like something unending, the pillage and looting and strategizing and suffering and survival going back through all human history.

Suggestion: Read it. Much better than the overrated "Cold Mountain."

I still was feeling the "ick" from "Cell" though, so launched into reading the rest of the pile, one after another. Wasn't I supposed to be doing something else? Probably.

I read Doris Lessing's "The Story of General Dann and Mara's daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog" (2005.) This is a sort of sequel to "Mara and Dann" but not very similar. As in that book, the next ice age changes the world, with the center now in Africa. Europe is buried under ice, but the ice is melting, and the Mediterranean sea is beginning to refill with water. Survivors of various wars have gathered at a building complex that was intended as a repository of ancient knowledge, but the building is settling into the thawing mud with its knowledge unlearned. Dann is expected to lead them, but cannot reliably handle his own suffering and is constantly tormented by the knowing how much of what had been previously known has been lost, and that learning it again will only lead to its being lost again. Griot (who isn't) holds things together with unfounded optimism and unreturned love. The snow dog is oddly emblematic, but I'm not sure why he is there.

There is a photo of Lessing on the back flyleaf, looking off into the distance, old as time, a great-great-grandmother on the prairie or just come in from the steppes. Something comes through about Lessing's old age in this book that is not exactly despairing, but rather a way of looking clearly at human nature that is disturbing and haunting. Lessing doesn't hold out much more hope for humanity advancing than Doctorow does.

On the whole though "The Story of General Dann..." is not nearly as good as "Mara and Dann"; the characters are not as appealing and the story seems more like an epilogue.

Next I was lured off the literary path by Harry Turtledove. His latest is "Bridge of the Separator" (2005); winged thingys and a guy with a sword in Roman armor on a rearing horse on the dust jacket alerted me to the fact that this was not one of Turtledove's historic "what if" novels. The history is there though, a tour through what seems to be the Byzantine Empire and its religion, in a fantasy setting (and with a fantasy religion, but a pretty real archbishop.) In a few jolting plot twists he takes a glancing look at the nature of good and the pervasive pull of evil. His main character and the descriptions of the city on civilization's frontier are detailed and fascinating. Unfortunately, the book is a series book, with the end of the story put off for another novel and the characters let off the hook.

If you already like Harry Turtledove's fantasy history and plan to read the next one, go ahead and read it. Otherwise, I'm not responsible for any disappointment.

The last book in this pile is Margaret Atwood's "The Penelopiad." A small short book that tells Odysseus' story from his wife's point of view, with the twelve hanged maids providing the Greek Chorus. Very entertaining, amusing, disturbing, and beautifully written, as one would expect of Atwood. She has, to the best of my knowlege, never written a book on writing, unlike Stephen King.

Read "The Penelopiad", you will be pleased. And don't read "Cell". The characters and plot are forgotten; only the "ick" remains.

Review: The Constant Gardner

Originally posted on Monday, October 10, 2005

We have heard lots about the movie "The Constant Gardner", so we went to see it. I've had plenty of training for long, talky stories in barely comprehensible accents through having been a fan of "Mystery" on PBS, so no complaints there. The movie unfolds in gorgeous visuals. The quality of colors and the scenery are manipulated to direct the story. Gray in England, dull and closed in when focusing on the main character until he "wakes up", then brilliantly lit, with broad vistas of landscapes in Kenya and the Sudan.

But the movie's focus and plot make it just another "tragic white people in Africa" story with an "exotic" National Geographic-esque gorgeously filmed backdrop of bright sunshine and shantytowns and colorfully dressed indistinguishable people, oh so picturesque despite their poverty and illness and suffering. There's a weird, offhand attitude toward babies and children in the movie, too. Going back through the newspaper reviews, I don't find anyone else disturbed by how entrenched is the whole idea of people in non-white areas of the world as the "exotic setting" for white people doing good, expiating their guilt, having tragedies, etc. Or that the beautiful cinematography seems to lessen, rather than reinforce, the terrors of life in the shantytowns and the Sudan.

After hurricane Katerina it is surprising that anyone would be interested in this retro bit of offhand racism. Suffering and poverty are not a picturesque backdrop in an exotic locale. If Africa is too remote, think of people waving for help from the roofs of drowned buildings in exotic and beautiful New Orleans. People stuck in the storm because of their poverty.

There was a disclaimer at the end of the titles (I always watch the titles) from the novel's author John LeCarre, something like this--"Nobody in this story, and no outfit or corporation, thank God, is based upon an actual person or outfit in the real world. But I can tell you this; as my journeys around the world progressed, I came to realize that, by comparison with reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard."

So I guess the point was to alert those who haven't noticed that corporations are out there doing Bad Things. But I also get the feeling that most people who liked the movie didn't know what Africa looks like and were more interested in the gorgeous pictures (and the old fashioned non-electric music on the sound track) than in the political machinations. Those who recommended it also probably appreciated the "adult" quality of a movie that "dares" to have a tragic ending.