Monday, January 11, 2010

Imagine there's no heaven -- at least we've got Terry Gilliam

We saw The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus last night, and there's no doubt it's a Terry Gilliam film: shattering landscapes, floating hands, and nods to Bodicelli's venus are sure signs that something from that particular mind has made its way to your eyeballs.

It's certainly the most visually stunning film Gilliam's done: the fantasies from Brazil and the storytelling of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen merely hint at what's behind the good doctor's mirror here. And not only is the scenery fabulous, but we've got a stellar cast to chew on it: Christopher Plummer as the doctor, Lily Cole as Valentina (who bears more than a little resemblence to the 9-year-old Sarah Polley of Munchausen), Verne Troyer in a role that should help people think of him as more than just Mini-Me, and especially Tom Waits as Mr. Nick: a devil not so much interested in turning people to evil as the game itself. Did I forget somebody? Heath Ledger you say? It's nice to have a last performance, but it's no Joker. His character is something of a cypher through much of the movie: how much does he remember, how much does he want to forget? Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell do a good job as Fake Shemps, but I would have really liked to have seen what happens when Ledger himself steps behind the mirror.

The core of the movie is all about the wagers between Parnassus and Mr. Nick -- I've never seen Waits having so much fun on screen, even as Renfield in Coppola's Dracula. But it's also the weakest part. What exactly is the bet, the choice that each soul must make? It's really not clear. It's not really good versus evil, it's something more like imagination versus base instincts. There was one mumbled line about it early on, and I'd really like another go at the movie to hear it again. But the choices people make behind the mirror, especially Ledger/Farrell's Tony, are kind of vague.

There's also an interesting twist: the typical "Devil Take Your Soul" plot is a putting off of a eternal torment for a little pleasure now. The Doctor's mirror seems to give that immediate pleasure to those who choose "good" while the sinners get their hell instantly.

Trying to figure out the morals of a filmmaker from his visions is probably a fruitless task anyway. The movie isn't about the choices of good and evil -- it's the playing of games, the quest for immortality and the eternal chance to return from dereliction. It's a fantastic ride, don't miss it.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

A pair of punks -- cyber, that is

Over a recent business trip, I read two books that fit the post-cyberpunk model well, and perhaps even good ol' cyberpunk:

It's interesting to see how many themes crop up in both books -- I'll try not to give too much away, but definitely put both of these on your short list to read.

Radio Freefall is a first (and only) novel, and it's quite well polished for a first outing. It falls squarely post-cyberpunk if only because it's not a dystopian society, but it carries some important CP items: emergent AI and world-spanning AI, and the ethics of AI ownership, and hackers of computers, societies, brains and bodies... plus good ol' rock 'n' roll! Following the band "Snake Vendor," the book features excerpts of lyrics from that band, plus "Sex Lethal" and a couple others. Jarpe gets rock music and lyrics, the way few bands seem to today. I want to hear some of those songs. There's an interesting McGuffin: A virus so prevalent in every computer (cough) that the world economy depends on its side effects.

Implied Spaces is a bit less groundbreaking, more of an SF comfy old shoe. It opens reading like a heroic fantasy, except the protag is aware he's in a fantasy, making me think perhaps it's a Dream Park-like setting, and it is and it isn't. Where Radio Freefall was more of a Neuromancer-like near future, this is more of a far-future superscience story. Again, we've got AI rights, violation of mind, self and computer, but at a different scale. Worlds held in the balance kind of thing... and a talking cat and a magic sword. Could be trite but ends up far from it. Probably more nods to folks like Lieber than I'm picking up on.

Bottom line? Good to see old-fashioned Cyberpunk still being written. With folks like Bear (Quantico), Sterling (Zenith Angle), and Gibson (Pattern Recognition) getting out of the future and into maybe next week, there's a new guard picking up where the old left off a while ago.

And that applies to music too: Airborne Toxic Event sounds like Psychadelic Furs (if the Furs had clearer singing voices); MGMT's Electric Feel sounds a bit like The Clash's Hitsville UK.

Is everything old new again? Or am I just getting old?