Friday, October 31, 2008

Review - Pan's Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth
2007 Hugo Winner for Best Long Form Dramatic Presentation

My run on NaNoWriMo starts in a few hours but there's time enough to get in one more dramatic presentation review.

If the run away success of The Lord of the Rings wasn't enough to convince you that the fantasy genre has taken deep root in popular culture there's always Pan's Labyrinth as an example. You might dismiss The Lord of the Rings as popular fair but a foreign language film featuring an overlap of fairy tales and the Spanish Civil War? It was wildly popular with film critics and was heavily favored to win multiple academy awards (it did win for cinematography) and no one blinked. No one said, "Hang on, we can't like this; there's strange creatures in it!"

After her father's death a young girl's mother marries a powerful and brutal captain of Spain's fascist army. Her mother is pregnant with his child and will give birth soon so the captain has them both come to a remote mill where he is rounding up rebels. There the girl finds the ruins of an old maze and at its center is a satyr who thinks she is a lost princess. Before she can leave, though, the girl must pass three tests...

The fairy tale elements that are infused with the story didn't thrill me. There was nothing particularly wrong with them, they were just fairly traditional and well worn. What really captivated me was the interaction between the cast. Sergi López in particular was great as the Spanish captain who is obsessed with continuing his lineage. He is convincingly cruel; possibly the most vile screen villain I've seen in a while. Ivana Baquero as the young girl does a respectable job there it seems more typical of the decent child actor who simply succeeds in not being annoying rather than a genuinely great performance.

The cast wouldn't have been able to do a thing without the wonderful script which flips back and forth between surreal fairy tale and terrifying war. There's monsters on both sides of the line but even the most disturbing of the fantastic ones somehow don't seem as threatening as human beings.

Then there's the art design and cinematography. I have to confess that I find Guillermo del Toro's films to be very theatrical; that is to say they look like they were designed to be performed on a stage rather than put on a movie screen. His love of polystyrene sets, for example, makes everything feel staged. This is not a bad thing, in fact I'd say it was very effective in Pan's Labyrinth with the divide between the fantastic and the mundane is part of the point. On the other hand I'm not sure how well it will play out in del Toro's upcoming The Hobbit.

One thing that threw me was how violent the film was. I'm not squeemish about violence (hey, just look at the other movies I've covered without mentioning it) but Pan's Labyrinth is so close to being an exceptional movie that an entire family could enjoy that it's a shame that there are several extremely violence sequences. The violence wasn't even really necessary for the film since the same concepts could have been conveyed more subtly.

I get the impression that del Toro wanted to leave the reality of the mystical occurrences in doubt but there's too many times that someone other than the girl sees the results of something that could not occur without the fantasy being true. Since this is the case I was left wondering why he chose to present it as ambiguous at other points in the film. The ending in particular is problematic there since a confirmation of the magical divide theme could have fit in nicely but it goes back to pretending there is ambiguity.

Even with those minor complaints, however, I have to say I greatly enjoyed Pan's Labyrinth. I wouldn't call it ground breaking for fantasy fans but it is an exceptionally well done version of some classic themes.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Dinotopia and Dinotopia: The World Beneath

by James Gurney
1993 Hugo Winner for Best Original Artwork

I wavered a bit on how to do this but I'm going to stand by my position of not reviewing the artwork which is what these two picture books won for. I didn't care for the text itself but, like the Harry Potter series, I'm well aware that I am not the target audience for them. If I had read them when I was ten I would have been thrilled. Still, the art is interesting and here are three samples from each winner.

Dinotopia: The World Beneath
by James Gurney
1996 Hugo Winner for Best Original Artwork

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Review - "The Winds of Marble Arch", "10^16 to 1", and "Scherzo with Tyrannosaur"

Michael Whelan
2000 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

I'm gearing up for a run at NaNoWriMo so my updates are going to get even slower in November. After that's over I should be ready to launch into the World Fantasy Award winners, though. So right now I'm clearing some back stock of short fiction, original art, and dramatic presentation reviews.

There's a lot of time travel this year. Perhaps the calendar roll over drove brought them out of the wood work.

"The Winds of Marble Arch"
by Connie Willis
2000 Hugo Winner for Best Novella

Willis who is no stranger to time travel is the only one to not explicitly use time travel of the winners this year but "The Winds of the Marble Arch" carries many of the same themes common in time travel stories and uses a lot of information she wrote about in other time travel stories. This is also one of Willis's serious stories and while I don't think the whole thing was as well integrated as it could have been it is still worth checking out.

A couple approaching middle age are on a trip to London where they spent some time in their youth. Catching up with old friends they find that things have changed; their friends are no longer adventurous free spirits and one of them is having an affair. The husband chooses to use the subway to travel everywhere and while underground he is struck by a wind that carries a smell of terror and death. He becomes obsessed with determining the causes of these winds and it may be that they carry with them all the horrors of the past.

Willis's story is about those passages and transitions of life. The main characters are well drawn and carry the story well. They're both undergoing the transitions to middle age while being confronted by those who have already felt its impact. My only problem is that the moral toward the end of the story doesn't really match well with the rest and doesn't really dovetale the two plots of the budding mid-life crisis and the winds well. Still the very end is touching without being too sappy and I strongly recommend this story.

"10^16 to 1"
by James Patrick Kelly
2000 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette

If this story was published in 1969 it would have fit in perfectly. Published in 1999, however, it seems archaic building on themes that went out of fashion decades before.

A young boy in October of 1962 encounters a time traveller. He shelters him but the time traveller is there to change the future. When the mission is disrupted the time traveller charges the boy with completing the mission even though the odds are 10,000,000,000,000,000 to 1 against him being successful.

I'd like to think this is a gag story because then it would make more sense but if it is then it isn't a clever or funny one. It seems to me that this is intended to be taken at face value even though it is a story about the possibility of a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the fact that the Earth would be doomed to be reduced to a charred cinder by ten years after the story was written if our timeline wasn't changed, and that the odds of the mission success. Even in 1990 just after the Cold War ended I wouldn't be able to believe a story that claimed an all consuming war would destroy the Earth by 2000. It makes less sense after disarmament treaties and ten years of one superpower.

In addition to being conceptually flawed it was poorly written. I couldn't tell you a thing about the characters except the one characteristic that was assigned to them. He's an SF fan (note for would be SF authors; SF fans love being told how they're the heroes). She's an alchoholic. He's an absent father. He's a time traveller who talks funny. What else are they? I have no idea.

"10^16 to 1" is a mass of time travel cliches without a single thing to recommend it. The only thing I could find notable in it is the metatextual context of the boy recognizing the time travel elements due to reading Galaxy. That's not a reason for reading it, though.

"Scherzo with Tyrannosaur"
by Michael Swanwick
2000 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

"Scherzo with Tyrannosaur" is also a mass of time travel cliches. Unlike "10^16 to 1", however, they're cliches placed in the context of interesting characters which makes it a bit more tolerable than the complete cyphers in the novelette.

Once time travel is developed it is carefully controled to avoid creating paradoxes. In spite of that paleontologists maintain a base in the late Jurrasic. At a fund raising dinner several overlapping time lines coincide and the director of the project has to make sure that it all occurs just as it has to.

If you've read a time travel story with paradoxes then you'll be able to predict what happens. That doesn't mean, however, that Swanwick doesn't make it an enjoyable trip. He manages to avoid most of the blocks of exposition trusting that just mentioning the real connection between events would be suffcient for SF fans. I'd still read "All You Zombies" before "Scherzo with Tyrannosaur", but there's no shame in being second to Heinlein.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Review - "Behold the Man" and "Aye, and Gomorrah"

It has occurred to me that I have not posted the cover to the Nebula Award Story collections that I've been collecting. The first several years of the collections have identical covers except the number after the title and the color of the background on those state of the art 1965 computer graphics. These stories are actually from Nebula Award Stories Three but my copy of that has a roughed up cover.

The third winner in 1967 was Fritz Leiber's "Gonna Roll the Bones" which also won the Hugo.

"Behold the Man"
by Michael Moorcock
1967 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

The "shaggy god" story is one of the more common themes in science fiction; an SF explanation is provided for some biblical event. The version that everyone complains about is the story where everyone dies except a man and a woman who are coincidentally named "Adam" and "Eve". These stories tend to not be very good mainly because they're usually platforms for the author's own belief and who wants to read a sermon?

I said that because I went into "Behold the Man" with really low expectations. 1967 was the year of Dangerous Visions, after all, and the height of the new wave. I fully expected Moorcock's story of a time traveler finding the real Jesus Christ to be little more than a rant which impressed people forty years ago for being "daring". I was completely wrong; this was a brilliant story.

A man who has replaced religious belief in his life with an unwavering faith in Jungian psychology is in love with a woman with no faith. When the opportunity arises he chooses to travel back in time to first century Palestine and seek out Jesus. He wants to confirm his belief that Jesus was a great man who fell into the archetype role but when he arrives he finds something very different.

Part of what makes this story work for me is that Moorcock is upfront with the character's beliefs. He's dealing with the history of Christianity rather than with the supernatural aspects. It doesn't come across as either trying to build up Christianity or tear it down (unless you count a lack of belief in it in general to be an attack on the religion). In addition all of the characters are very interesting. You might be able to get the plot twist immediately but it's still a clever story.

"Aye, and Gomorrah"
by Samuel R. Delany
1967 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

The last story in the Dangerous Visions anthology was also one of the best in it. Those who travel regularly into space are rendered sexless due to the radiation. When they return to earth on occasion they find that there are those who are sexually attracted to them despite that change. Some of the space travellers take advantage of this and sell their body for extra cash. One of these travellers has a brief encounter with a woman as they try to work out their own feelings on this.

Delany does a wonderful job presenting the sexual ambiguity of the situation. Both of the main characters are fascinating and the complications of a new outsider sexuality are well presented (feel free to read a metaphor for homosexuality in it). There isn't a lot to this story but what is there is philisophically interesting. It's well worth checking out.