Zathura

Zathura is, essentially, a space version of Jumanji. Both films are about a magical game whose every turn throws its players into a series of fantastical events or challenges based around a certain theme. (With Jumanji it was jungles. Both films are adaptations of books by US childrens’ author Chris Van Allsburg.) In Zathura, once young Danny has wound up the clockwork game and pressed the battered “GO” button, their father’s house is transported into space and subjected to, amongst other things, a robot rampage, attack by Zorgons, and a visit from a passing astronaut.

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It’s plenty of fun. I liked the banter between bickering brothers Danny and Walter (“That’s your robot?” “At least I’ve got a robot”), and the whole thing came close to conjuring that special excitement you feel at a certain age when you see films and totally get lost in some zany little world of pure adventure. (Which happened for me with The Goonies in 1985.)

But it doesn’t really have much substance. Once the game gets going, for a while it just feels like a bunch of disconnected episodes. It only starts to develop a more emotionally meaningful strand with the appearance of the astronaut, whose identity eventually provides a somewhat mind-boggling twist. Also, despite being set in space, the film has a more closed-in feel than Jumanji, because although you get the occasional awe-inspiring shot of an enormous planet or sun, the action is basically limited to the house. There’s quite a funny suspense moment when the older brother, Walter, gets a wish, just after arguing with his brother for the n-th time, but aside from that, once its hour and a half is over — and unless you’re a kid — Zathura doesn’t really linger, aside from a distinct feeling of having just had some fun.

Capote, The Libertine, Munich

capoteCapote — not a full biopic, but a film covering the events surrounding the writing of Capote’s most famous book, the “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood — I thought was a bit hypocritical. It’s a well-made film, and Philip Seymour Hoffman does an excellent job of pulling off the role of the diminutive, camp-voiced writer with a lot of self-possession. But the film’s attitude to its main character is to say, “Look at the terrible lengths a man will go to in order to achieve his artistic ends, and think of the human cost” — because he won the trust of the murderers Bill Hickock and Perry Smith, and arranged for new lawyers to get them a second hearing and so on, but as soon as he got what he wanted (their side of the story of the murders they’d committed), he pretty much dropped them and waited for them to be executed so he could have an end to his book. And I’m not saying that this is at all excusable behaviour! But, rather than seeing Capote as a driven man, and thus making his descent into selfishness and isolation a tragedy, the film doesn’t really try to get under his skin at all (except in one scene), and so turns itself into a somewhat censorious morality tale, which is never the most satisfying of approaches. A better one is suggested by that scene where we do get some insight into Capote’s character. He’s talking to the murderer Perry Smith and points out how their childhoods were similar, in that both went through periods of abandonment, and so on, thus pointing out the parallel between the murderers (who mercilessly killed their victims for a small amount of money, then were punished by the death sentence) and Capote (who selfishly used his “victims”, the killers, till he’d got his artistic material, then punished himself with a descent into death by alcoholism.)

Another film about a writer is The Libertine, this time starring Johnny Depp as the notorious seventeenth century writer, the Earl of Rochester. The film starts with an in-your-face monologue from Depp, as Rochester, telling you that soon enough you’ll hate him, which I took to be a film-maker’s gambit that we would, of course, love him as the rogue he is. But as the film went on, I felt increasingly indifferent. Perhaps this was partly because the film wasn’t sure whether it was a tragedy (Rochester’s supposed literary genius, of which I wasn’t convinced, never achieving any sort of fulfilment), romance (with the actress Elizabeth Barry, played by Samantha Morton, who doesn’t really fit the role of ultra-ambitious actress), or straight biopic (Rochester’s horrific decline through syphilis). The real core of the character of Rochester, as presented in the film, is that he was too intelligent not to be cynical about everything, but this wasn’t brought out enough till too near the end (and was too easily conflicted in the scenes where he’s coaching Elizabeth Barry), which is a pity as it would have made much more sense of the earlier parts of the film.

Munich, the third of my recent Amazon DVD rentals, was much more of a success. It’s difficult to discuss such a contentious story — the terroristic revenge-killings that followed the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics — particularly in the current climate, and anyway I don’t want to give the plot away, but the film handles the moral questions in a very human way, bringing out the universal, apolitical side of the situation, and pointing out how responding to violence with violence can only ever result in a spiral into paranoia and yet more violence. A little too long, with the early parts riffing too much on the suspense involved in the Israeli’s determination not to harm anyone but their intended victims, it certainly grew on me by the end.

William Gibson’s Burning Chrome

The narrator of William Gibson’s story “The Gernsback Continuum” is a photographer who, commissioned to snap examples of the sort of futuristic architecture America produced in the thirties and forties, finds himself slipping into a reality where that future actually happened, as he sees an enormous propeller-driven, boomerang-shaped aircraft gliding impossibly against a cityscape of “zeppelin docks and mad neon spires” (something similar to the one brought to life in 2004’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, perhaps).

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It’s fitting Gibson should touch on that thirties/forties dream, because it was the only even vaguely optimistic future the 20th Century produced — till Gibson’s came along in the eighties, that is. By that time we’d long since ceased to believe in the sort of technological utopia promised by those hover-cars and jetpacks of the early SF pulps, but Gibson’s future had the advantage of not being limited by the possibilities of the real world. His idea, cyberspace (which he also referred to as the Matrix), was another reality altogether, a world we could jack ourselves directly into, a landscape of computer data turned into geometric shapes in “Bright primaries, impossibly bright in that transparent void”. A world curiously reminiscent of Disney’s wonderful 1982 film Tron, in fact.

It’s now more than twenty years since Gibson’s cyberspace made its first appearance (in “Burning Chrome”, 1982), and we don’t look much closer to achieving it. Excel might be able to produce nice looking pie-charts of your expense accounts, but it comes nowhere near the “electronic consensus hallucination” of Gibson’s computer reality where we’d exist as bodiless intelligences in a world of pure data.

Gibson’s fiction still feels relevant, though. Not because cyberspace is a possible future (I’m sure jacking your brain directly into a computer is as far off today as it was when Neuromancer first came out). Cyberspace wasn’t really a re-imagining of the future, it was a re-imagining of the imagination itself. It is once-upon-a-time land updated in neon colours, with data instead of gold and computer programs instead of magic spells. It’s just as full of angels, demons, ghosts, animal helpers and monsters as the world of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales.

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One image that has really stuck in my head from my (very) early reading was a double-page spread in The Usborne Book of the Future. It had two views presenting two possible futures. One was all dark skies and people in gas-masks, the other was bright sunshine and people with wristwatch TVs. I remember staring at those two images for hours, hoping with all my might that the future I’d live in would be, if not the wristwatch TV one, at least not the dark skies and gas-masks one. Outside of cyberspace, Gibson’s rundown, citified future is much more reminiscent of the darker of those two alternatives, though in this he’s generally acknowledged to have borrowed from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, another powerful exploration of how the future might be, partly inspired by Philip K Dick, but more derived from Scott’s encounters with massive industrial processing plants in contemporary England.

I know this seems to be reducing Gibson’s future to the influence of two films — Blade Runner and Tron — but I love his work too much to leave it at that. His real strength lies not in prediction, but in writing about how people deal with a changing technological culture. In a potentially de-personalising world of mega-corporations (a dystopian nightmare prevalent in late seventies and early-eighties SF films like Rollerball, Alien and Blade Runner), Gibson’s characters use technology to emphasise, not erode, their individuality. He’s often at his best when writing about people whose (usually artistic) talents are only really released by technology, as in, from his story “The Winter Market”: “…you wonder how many thousands, maybe millions, of phenomenal artists have died mute, down the centuries, people who could never have been poets or painters or saxophone players, but who had this stuff inside, these psychic waveforms waiting for the circuitry required to tap in…” His future is a digital bohemia our iPod-equipped world is coming more and more to resemble, even if we don’t get to actually jack into it via cyberspace. (Do white earplugs count?)

DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore

dc_universeThis volume collects Moore’s miscellaneous work for DC, from April 1985’s Green Arrow two-parter Night Olympics to 1988’s Killing Joke, along with a few thoughts from his collaborators such as Dave Gibbons and Brian Bolland. (And of course there’s a distinct lack of comment from Moore himself — understandable, considering his current relations, or lack of them, with DC.)

You get a real feel of Moore the jobbing writer from this book. The strongest of the short tales are those whose format most resembles the Future Shocks and Time Twisters of his early days with 2000A.D. — these being the Tales of the Green Lantern Corps, and the two Vegatales. But even Moore struggles to come up with something interesting to do with such nobodies as the Vigilante and Green Arrow. Both of these stories seem to be teetering on the edge of Moore going into a debate about the point of superheroes themselves, with the Green Arrow Night Olympics putting this most explicitly: “I don’t know… There’s something about crooks these days. They’re kinda pathetic…” (Which of course reflects on the heroes who fight them.) Whereas the Vigilante story never quite manages to get into the debate about authoritarianism versus liberalism that’s hovering on its sidelines. Perhaps Moore just knew he’d done all this, and far better, in Miracleman and V for Vendetta. (Watchmen was still in the future at this point.)

The Superman tales are much more successful, as Moore tries to find new directions in which to push the Man of Tomorrow to keep this, potentially the most bland (because so perfect) of heroes, interesting. In all three of the Superman tales collected here — For the Man Who Has EverythingThe Jungle Line (also featuring Swamp Thing), and the two-part Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? — Superman’s real enemy is himself. In the first two, this is because Superman is locked in either a dream or a hallucination, and so is only battling himself. In the last, the tale in which we get to find out just how the career of the greatest of all superheroes comes to an end, it is Superman himself who lands the final blow.

The real standout of the book, though, is of course The Killing Joke, not only because of its stunning Brian Bolland artwork. Moore’s take on the Joker’s origins seems to have become a bit of an albatross around the great man’s neck, as he speaks elsewhere of how its success came to infect the whole comic book industry with a rather superficial echoing of its nihilistic darkness, leading him to feel everybody had somehow missed the point. But the story’s ending is really almost upbeat, as Batman and the Joker manage to communicate, sanely, for just a moment. The joke told at the end, about two loonies trying to escape an asylum, comes as a rather affecting commentary on Batman and the Joker’s relationship. In the joke, one madman escapes the asylum by jumping to a nearby roof. The other madman can’t make the jump, so the first turns on his torch and says he should walk along its beam. The first says, “What do you think I am, crazy? You’ll turn it off halfway!” Batman is the loony who escaped the insanity of his parents’ death and who is now offering to help the Joker escape, too. But the Joker can’t trust anyone — even someone as like him as Batman — not to take away the helping hand when it’s needed the most. He’s beyond help.

The Sun

The Sun (or Solntse, 2005) is the third in a series of films by Aleksandr Sokurov, each of which focuses on a 20th century political leader from the darker end of the spectrum: Moloch was about Hitler, Taurus was about Lenin (neither of which I’ve seen), while The Sun is about the Japanese Emperor Hirohito in the days up to and immediately after the country’s capitulation to the US in World War II.

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In his production notes on the DVD, Sokurov says that Hirohito is a far more human figure than either Hitler or Lenin, thus making The Sun a more optimistic film than his others about the evils of totalitarianism.

I didn’t read the production notes till after I’d watched the film, but turned to them in the hope of finding out what the film was trying to say. If it is just that Hirohito was a far more human figure than the dictators Hitler and Lenin, then Sokurov’s hardly making much of a point. As the film presents him, Hirohito was a much more human figure simply because he wasn’t really in charge or even connected with what was going on in the war at all. (The Wikipedia article on Hirohito has a brief discussion of the Emperor’s actual involvement). In fact, for a large part of the film, I was wondering if The Sun wasn’t meant as a comedy. Hirohito’s peculiar facial tics and his childlike manner as he distracts himself with dictating notes about the Hermit Crab, and loses himself in a dead end of the war-bunker, made me wonder if there was some mental illness I was supposed to know about. When Hirohito sits down to talk to the incredibly-foreheaded General MacArthur, we get ridiculously inconsequential dialogue which only at one point actually touches on the war — and when it does, it shows Hirohito to be perceptive enough to understand what went wrong, thus raising the question of why he didn’t do anything to stop the war. There’s then a sequence in which Hirohito tries to light a cigar, ending in a peculiar shot of the Emperor lighting the cigar from MacArthur’s. At first it’s as if the two men are kissing, then it’s as if MacArthur was prolonging the event simply to humiliate the Emperor by puffing smoke in his face. But neither of these interpretations has any relevance to the two men’s relationship in later scenes. The film is full of such moments that seem to be saying something, but which don’t build on anything that occurred before, leaving me wondering what it was all leading up to. The Emperor finally animates and starts to talk about his one enthusiasm in life — marine biology — but MacArthur immediately interrupts him to say, bizarrely, he has to leave on an important errand. He goes out of the room and watches Hirohito, who, alone, proceeds to perform a little dance before playfully extinguishing all the candles on the table. MacArthur looks on, smiling as at a child’s antics. Earlier on, US war photographers had called the Emperor “Charlie”, likening him to Charlie Chaplin, underlining this air of childlike innocence.

The only dark moment in the film comes right at the end, when Hirohito has recorded a speech renouncing his divine status. He asks what happened to the engineer present at the recording, and is told the man committed hara-kiri. The Emperor pauses, surprised and upset. Then we get an outside view of a city — perhaps Hiroshima — that is totally devastated and still smoking, a place where thousands have died. It seems to indicate, to me, that an Emperor who can feel the loss of one man he met only briefly obviously didn’t understand the reality of what was happening around him during the war, where such tragedies were occurring every second.

(The film’s best moment is also its funniest, when the Emperor receives a gift from General MacArthur of Hershey bars. Everyone seems slightly awed by the presence of real, cocoa-made chocolate. The Emperor’s butler warns they might be poisoned. The Emperor tells him to try some. The butler nibbles a bit, then says with a shrug, “I prefer rice candy.”)

Pulse

Pulse (2001, Japan) is the first addition to my Rough Guide to Asian Horror, and it’s a strange one. For the first hour or so, you might think it’s a standard J-horror about a ghostly menace lurking inside The Forbidden Room, a website that causes people to become depressed, then either commit suicide or fade away into nothing but a dark stain on the nearest wall. But as the meandering storyline follows its various characters’ growing awareness of the threat, you start to realise this film isn’t going to resolve itself like your standard horror. The depression-plague spreads and begins to depopulate the world. One character asks what if there was only limited space available for the ghosts of the dead, and what if that space was now full? In an echo of the “Crevices” episode of Dark Tales of Japan, rooms sealed with red tape act as incubators in which ghosts of the dead can re-form and return to our world. It’s their touch that spreads the depression-curse.

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Pulse has its share of scary moments, including that Japanese standard, the spook stalking its victim in slow, surreal, jerky steps. In one Birds-like moment, while the camera focuses on one character making a phone call, in the background a young woman casually throws herself off a tower. But in the main, Pulse is not about the sort of scary thrill-fears you expect from Asian horror. It’s a more pervasive, less focused, but far more real, fear of isolation. The graduate student who speculates on there being limited space for the souls of the dead has developed a computer program. The movement of a series of blobs on a screen are controlled by two rules: they cannot get too far apart, and they cannot get too close together. This sums up the film’s rather bleak view of its characters’ attempts to overcome their feelings of isolation in a world where, as one character says, “Words said in friendship with the best of intentions always wind up hurting your friends deeply.”

As a film, Pulse is let down by its opening, creepy J-horror gambits, because they led me to expect something quite different. (The title, of course, doesn’t help. Having watched the film, I still have no idea why it’s called Pulse.) Although marketed in a similar way, this film is less along the lines of Ringu‘s pass-it-on-before-it-gets-you curse or the haunted house scenario of The Grudge and closer, by the end, to something like Day of the Triffids as the horror reaches worldwide-disaster proportions, and a truly bleak feeling at the end which even the most nihilistic of horrors (Audition, for instance) don’t manage. Not entirely successful, but certainly original.

Sophie Scholl

sophie_schollSophie Scholl is the dramatisation of a true story set in the latter days of World War II Germany. Sophie, her brother, and a few friends, distribute pamphlets criticising Hitler’s government and pleading for the war’s inevitable end to be brought about sooner rather than later, if nothing else for the sake of soldiers’ lives. Unfortunately, in Hitler’s Germany publicising such political beliefs was punishable by death.

Sophie Scholl is typical of a sort of film that Hollywood just can’t do but Europe excells in — slow-paced, intense, the drama of human beings rather than epic spectacle. I wouldn’t be surprised if the film was based on a stage play, as it is mostly static and takes place in a small number of locations, the primary one being the room in which the initial interviews occur between Sophie (Julia Jentsch) and the police officer trying to determine her guilt. That officer is played by a wonderfully Donald Pleasance-looking Gerald Alexander Held, who manages to make the role sympathetic, as he obviously wants to find Sophie innocent, and is a stark contrast to the prosecutor in the later court scene, who dresses in bright, Spanish Inquisition red and screams like a Hitlerian madman.

The film is about the heroism of conscience, of having the bravery to express your beliefs no matter what the consequences. “What can we rely on if not the law?” says the investigating officer. “On your conscience,” Sophie says. The officer replies: “What would happen if everyone separately decided what is right and wrong?” And thus sums up the nightmare of dictators everywhere.

Germany, as a nation, is still labouring under the guilt of having been the birthplace of the greatest evil of the 20th Century. It’s amazing to think that the recent film Downfall was the first German film to represent Hitler (I think I’ve got that right). If so, Sophie Scholl is a timely reminder that many people within that country were horrified by what happened, and tried to prevent it or speak against it despite dangers not faced by those deploring Hitler’s regime from the outside.