Friday, 7 December 2007

Lem-Sip; spreading disease in your workplace

Dotted all over town these days are posters for Lem-Sip. For those of you who don't know what Lem-Sip is, congratulations on not living in a country where everyone has a cold from October to May. Lem-Sip is a sublime rip-off; synthetic lemon flavour and a gram of paracetamol which you can put in a mug, add boiling water to, and sip while you feel sorry for yourself for a) having a cold b) not having enough sense to take two paracetamol tablets and a mug of real hot lemon juice instead. It's important to keep in mind that Lem-Sip doesn't cure your cold; it just damps down the symptoms enough that you can do something other than feel sorry for yourself.

Anyhow, for a couple of years now, Lem-Sip has been advertising itself with campaigns which make out that Lem-Sip will turn you into a real man instead of a whinging crybaby who lies in bed when he's sick; up until now, the advertising hasn't been too clear on whether Lem Sip will turn even women into real men. Possibly someone noticed this, and their current round of marketing is non-gender specific. The posters say "When staying in bed isn't an option." The message, I think, is that Lem-Sip will give you the fortitude to be up and at 'em whatever way you feel, though in my view the only time staying in bed isn't an option is when the bed is actually on fire.

Anyhow, it's an annoying campaign, but I bring it up because its cunning goes further than making people who don't buy Lem-Sip feel like whimpering inadequates. The beauty is that if you buy the message, you drink the Kool-Aid and then you get up and walk amongst the healthy population. Spreading germs wherever you go, and infecting the people you meet with the very illness that had you thinking of staying in bed. And those people will now buy Lem-Sip so that they too can go to work and infect everyone around them, and so it goes, and so it goes.

Pure brilliance, as long as you don't think that wittingly spreading illness to improve sales might be immoral. Or maybe it's just that cold viruses are now so highly evolved that they've co-opted big pharma. You decide.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Eastern Promises; the trick is not to see the obvious twist

Read no further if you're the kind of person who doesn't want to know what happens in a movie before you see it. I'm that kind of person myself, in principle, so I will understand completely. But every now and then you get a movie where everything else works so well that you can't help wondering why they bothered with a twist and why they didn't do more to mask it once they did. Eastern Promises is that movie.

It's a powerhouse cast. Viggo Mortenson may or may not be a good actor, but he's got charisma and a physical presence which the role really needs. Naomi Watts IS a good actor and if anything, she's not really given enough to do. And Armin Mueller-Stahl is like the white Morgan Freeman these days. So there you are with a good cast and a name director. What could possibly go wrong?

Nothing really does. Viggo is a commanding presence, effortlessly dominating his scenes - though it helps that most of them are with an actor playing a useless drunk bag of nerves with delusions of grandeur. Mueller-Stahl is his usual marvellous self. And it's worth saying something about what Naomi Watts gets done because I've seen some grumbling in the real reviews of this movie. The plot calls for Watt's character to start looking into the background of a woman who dies in childbirth in her ward. And some of the reviews I've read have been all grumpy and negative about the likelihood of this really happening or of her getting the free time. I don't see the basis for this, having sat through the movie. Firstly, it's unusual in this day and age for a mother to die giving birth in Western Europe. We're not living in Victorian times any more. Even a busy midwife is only going to see it happen once a year, and it doesn't stretch my credulity that it would hit a person hard and leave them flailing around a bit. And there's a neat bit of backstory about Watts losing a child in the recent past which further fleshes out her motivation. Above all and everything else, there's Naomi Watts herself, once again doing tough vulnerability as though born to it. So to me, her character, Anna, works fine.

What doesn't work is the twist which I think is supposed to make us go "Aha.", and which just made me go "Well, it took you long enough to reveal that." Viggo plays a henchman on the make in Armin Mueller-Stahl's larger criminal empire, which runs on forced prostitution and drugs. Which is where Anna comes in - the dead mother seems to have been a prisoner of that empire. Anna finds her way to the edge of that with her first tentative enquiries, and thus runs into both the big boss and the henchman. Which is one of the places where Viggo is good casting; you can see both the menace and the charm in that craggy face. However, from pretty much the moment he gets to say anything, it was obvious to me that Viggo was a mole. This is revealed as a big surprise at the beginning of the third act of the film, but it seemed to me to be completely unmissable from the get go. A lot of it was down to the pacing and presentation of the character's actions. He's curiously distant and unengaged a lot of the time, which I think is supposed to make him seem mysterious - but in the criminal milieu he inhabits, it must have made him seem aloof and detached from a society where personal connections are paramount (a point hammered out again and again as the film unfolds). But Viggo is always hanging back from overt violence or any kind of wholehearted engagement with the people around him. It just screamed plant at me.

The weird thing is that the entire plot could have worked out just as well without him being a mole at all. Everything we see his character do is directed at him climbing the hierarchy of russian crime to break it. But he could equally well have done everything he does in order to overthrow the boss from simple greed. And in some ways that would have been both a more realistic and more interesting film. So I find myself asking - why the twist, and if you had to do it, why not mask it better or place the reveal earlier, before it became obvious to the dogs in the street?

And one grumble, which just niggled me. It's the Russian mob. So everyone speaks Russian. Except when they don't. And when they don't, it doesn't make a button of sense. People are having conversations in Russian, and switch for no apparent reason to English and then back again. All it needed was someone saying, Elvis-like "Speak English; show you have the command of two proud tongues!" I appreciate that there's an underlying concern to ensure that people don't have to READ all the dialogue, but for goodness sake - it's a film by David Cronenberg, set in London, with no guns and no explosions. How many non-readers were they expecting to come to the movie?

Still, that's a niggle. It's a good film for all those faults, largely down to some good performances. The best of the supporting cast is the guy who plays Anna's Uncle Stepan, who does a wonderfully credible unreconstructed Russian. I don't imagine that Russians anywhere will be happy with the depiction of Russian culture in this movie, but I have to say the casual bigotry and racism were right on the nose from my own experience. Sometimes my Russian friends could take my breath away. I don't know that Russians are any more bigoted than anyone else, but they're curiously unabashed about saying it out loud.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

The Kingdom; when you suddenly realise that you've got hundreds of bullets to use up

With a title like The Kingdom, I'm fighting to avoid openings like "It's good to be the King" and with the credit sequence I had the terrible temptation to say "Oil be back."

The Kingdom wants to be a much more serious film than that. Which is probably why it's a bit all over the place. The one real pleasure is Chris Cooper. A while back I watched Chris playing the worst traitor in FBI history. I thought he deserved an Oscar for playing a role which didn't make any sense and at least making me buy it while it was happening. He doesn't have anything like as much to do in this movie, but Chris Cooper is always value for money. There's a moment near the end when our battered heroes are heading home and the camera moves from one face to the next, close in to the eyes. Jamie Foxx looks like he always does - as if just before they took the shot, Michael Mann had to tell him his profit points were going to be cut. Jason Bateman - well, to be honest, he's not that interesting to look at in the first place and going in close doesn't help that any. Jennifer Garner - well, she's been criminally under used up to now, so I wasn't expecting much. Then the camera moves to Cooper and without even blinking, Chris' face tells the audience that it's been a bad day and there wasn't even that much point to it. I wish I knew how a good character actor can do that, but it's worth watching even when you don't know.

The Kingdom opens with a didactic credit sequence which explains recent Saudi history for the under fives. Michael Moore would probably have said "MMMM. I don't want to go quite that far over the top this early." Michael Moore, mind you, wouldn't have stumped up for all the fancy transition effects, but I also don't think he would have been quite so unsubtle in trying to hammer home the link between religious nutjobs in Saudia and planes flying into New York landmarks. Hey ho, there you go, the audience is primed. So we cut to the premise. Terrorists attack a random Western housing compound. With way too much bait and switch and organisation. First two terrorists go in shooting, then another one dressed as a cop blows himself up while telling panicked Americans to come towards him for safety. Then we see the first responders getting blown to bits with a third bomb set up for hours later.

In real life, no working terrorist group is remotely that well set up, but this is the movies. Except that it's going to so much trouble to try to make us believe that this is a gritty realistic depiction of the realities of the Kingdom. And this problem keeps running through the film - on the one hand, it's trying to be downbeat and realistic, and then it salts in ridiculous action scenes and coincidences.

Speed up, then slow down. Having blown everything up, the film slows to a crawl as the FBI try to get a team into Saudia to investigate the crime. Jamie Foxx essentially blackmails the Saudis into it. Of course we've been shown why they need the help; we're shown the head of the Saudi National Guard having one of the surviving Saudi police tortured to get a confession. Plainly, what they need is good old American know how.

And in come our heroes. But there's only four of them, and they're given so little access to the crime scene that they couldn't possibly find out anything unless it was so obvious that even the dumb Saudi plods would have to trip over it. And for an hour or so they stumble over clues and connections too glaring for anyone to miss, before getting sent back out of the country by a panicked State Department. And they get to respect their Saudi opposite number, who is one of the few three dimensional characters in the movie. I don't mean he's particularly convincing, but at least it all hangs together. He's a fundamentally sound product of his culture and he makes sense as a person. What he does at the end of the movie is completely consistent with what he did at the beginning. He's recognisably the same guy, albeit too good to be true. Anyhow, they find one cell and the Embassy rushes them out before they can find anything else.

This is where the title of this post comes in. On their way to the airport, they get attacked by the terrorists (duh? This NEVER happens in real life). And it's great fun, in a random bang bang sort of way. One of them gets snatched by the bad guys and the three others and their two Saudi minders go after the snatchers amid a magnificent expenditure of ammunition. I didn't even try to count how many Saudi extremists got killed. The good guys get their hair mussed a little, hardly surprising given that they have four or five RPGs fired at them and bunch of hand grenades and, oh yes, they're out in the open hiding behind cars while people firing from inside cement buildings hose them down with AKs. Saudi extremists, however, seem to get their training in the same place that Imperial stormtroopers do, and they're handily outshot by four forensics specialists using borrowed guns. Not that the FBI seems to be too hot on fire discipline. It's indiscriminate automatic weapons fire on all sides. Well, most sides. Chris Cooper's character has been the one grown up in the piece from the get go, and he's also the one who uses single aimed shots. Somehow that makes perfect sense.

It's a very Bad BoysPoint Break Hot Fuzz kind of shoot out and it completely undercuts the tone of the rest of the movie. The rest of the movie is trying to be about political and moral ambiguity and accountability. But it can't establish much traction against this noise level. And to be brutal about it, it can't do much with the actors it's got.

I don't quite understand what it is that Jamie Foxx thinks he's doing these days, but in this film he's like the non-acting body double for Denzel Washington. You don't see it as much these days as you did in the old times, but there used to be a hollywood job called "stand in". You got a guy about the height and build and complexion of your star and when you were putting together a shot in the hot sunshine or the hot lights, that guy would stand there and fill in the right amount of space until you got the lighting right. If there was a need for actual performance, you got the actor out of his trailer. I'm beginning to think that Foxx is Washington's stand in, except they keep forgetting to get Washington out of the trailer. Jason Bateman; if he was trying to play an annoying person who you'd actually want to see having his head cut off; perfect casting. Otherwise, I don't know what he was there for except to further diffuse the focus of the film. Jennifer Garner; I don't know if she's a good actress, but I do know that she's got charisma to burn and can carry a scene when you ask her to. In this, it's like someone said, "Oh, and we'll need a chick. Send out for someone." She's just not given enough to do. Or, really, anything to do. The one American actor who gets in some good work is Cooper - and I suspect it's because he's used to having to get a lot done with a bit part.

The Arabs come out of it better. The two most sympathetic Arab characters are well played, and the bit parts are picked up by the Arab "that guys" we've seen a hundred times before. They phone it in, but they phone it in well enough for what's going on around them and they give you a sense of a Saudia which isn't quite a cartoon.

I was curious as all hell as to where it was all filmed. It couldn't have been Saudia, because cinema isn't even legal there. Turned out to be a mixture of Kuwait and Arizona. I'm betting the second unit did all the work in Kuwait as exteriors and car chases and establishing shots and the principal cast stayed in Arizona. But that's not why the whole film rings false.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Daywatch; because if you can make one mad horror film set in Moscow, there's no reason to stop there

If you've never seen Nightwatch, look away now. What follows isn't going to make a button of sense. But if you've never seen Nightwatch, maybe you shouldn't be reading this blog anyhow.

Of course, the title of this post is completely misleading. Nightwatch and Daywatch aren't even horror films in any modern sense. No-one gets eviscerated with a scythe or has a foetus torn out of them or any of those cool things you see in hip modern American horror films. I am reminded of a wonderful deadpan Tom Lehrer line (again, if the reference means nothing to you, you're in the wrong place. Nothing to see here. Move on. Go play in Facebook) "My friends in the DJ business, of which I have none...." Thus me and modern horror; I accept, rather numbly, that American horror exists, but I'm waiting for it to go away.

Nothing horrible happens at all in Daywatch. You could argue that a couple of horrible things did happen in Nightwatch, but that's outside my remit this evening; I'm just here to waffle briefly to the effect that Daywatch is rather cool, and to make a case for the notion that what's coolest about both movies is that they're from a different planet.

The set-up is simple; good and evil aren't just real, but a pair of going concerns who long ago reached a modus vivendi rather than risk breaking the whole world by having fight to the finish. Each side polices the other to ensure that it doesn't interfere too much with the mundane world or try to get the drop on the other side. The Nightwatch are the good policemen keeping any eye on the forces of Evil and the Daywatch are the bad guys keeping an eye on the forces of good. You can imagine how Hollywood would do it - just think of everything you've ever seen from the first James Bond movies to Men in Black.

The team behind Nightwatch and Daywatch have a slightly different take on it. The forces of good hang out at the Moscow Light and Power company and they're visibly broke. Everyone is wearing hand-me-downs. All their kit looks like it was recovered after a not quite disastrous fire. It looks like it ought to be held together with duct tape, except that in Russia, apparently there is no duct tape. The forces of evil seem to have more resources, but they have no taste. Everything is tacky. Their headquarters seems to be one of Russia's phone companies, and they have lots of good technology which they mostly use to play computer games (throughout Nightwatch, the leader of the forces of evil, Zavulon spends a huge amount of time practicing on a Playstation for his show down with the forces of good). So good and evil are clearly differentiated. Good dress like impoverished charity workers. Evil dress like chavs with lots of money but no access to anything made outside the Soviet Union. Wonderful notion.

The thing is, they're not doing this to be awkward, but because there's a coherent vision underpinning the whole enterprise. This is what happens when you adapt a series of books with a fanatical fanbase. Not because of the fans telling you what to do, I think, but because the books are so popular in the Russian market that the films could be made without worrying too much about how they'd play anywhere else. You can't please everyone. But if you know who you want to please and what might make them happy, you've got a pretty good shot at getting it right.

They get it right. I suspect that only Russians can completely get what's going on. The actors - particularly the supporting cast - are so good at underplaying their roles that I assume they're the Russian versions of John Heard and William Fichtner and all the other "that guys" who prop up movies in the US. But I suspect that it's even savvier than that - I'm willing to bet that the actor who plays Zavulon was deliberately chosen because it's not the kind of role he usually plays. There's no way for outsiders to know how that kind of thing hangs together. It has to be enough to know from all the other little things that that's what's going on.

Anyhow, it's all huge fun. There isn't anything horrifying at all, but there's plenty of stuff which is scary - because they've made the characters so earthy and grounded and fun that they seem real despite the preposterous background that when they're put into jeopardy it matters to you. And this doesn't stop them from playing a lot of the film for laughs; in a desperate ploy to save the main character, he swaps bodies with a woman - only to find that he's stuck in a car with the woman he's in love with who wants to talk all about what's wrong with him.

There are so many little things which are fun. It's in Russian, with subtitles. And the subtitles change colour and move around and reverberate in counterpoint to the action (this was done wonderfully in the first film, where vampires coax a small child out of a pool; their thoughts are shown as red subtitles, dissolving in the water). The closing credits are done on illuminated bill boards around Moscow as some of the supporting cast drive around at night. And the stunts are weirdly out of synch with the plot. In a conventional Hollywood movie, the big stunts build up the star and bolster the climax. In Daywatch, the biggest stunt is a Mazda RX-8 being driven up and around the facade of a vast hotel before popping through the window and revving down the corridor and through about nine doors into an office. The only reason for any of it is so that one supporting character can step out of the car and deliver some news to Zavulon; news he already knows. It's a great, completely unnecessary scene. God knows what it cost, even as CGI. And it doesn't do a damn thing to drive the plot or anything else. It does give a great scene closing gag, but that's it. At the end of the movie, when everything is coming to climax and the whole world - we suddenly realise - is on the line - there's way less in the line of eye candy.

It's a fun mad movie. It's already made all its money back in Russia, so it's not like anyone needs the money if you go - but you need the fun.

Michael Clayton

Michael Clayton is the kind of film about which I usually stay silent, because it's a high quality understated thriller with good performances and nothing that I can point a finger at and mock. Where's the fun in these unsolicited - and pretty much unread - reviews if the project's all high quality and worthy? So generally, even when I go to something which will improve my mind and morals, I'm considerate enough of my non-existent audience that I keep quiet about it.

For this, I will make an exception, because it's not so very often that a film leaves me reflecting on my own personal situation. This is no doubt because - so far as I know - no-one's put any money into making a movie about a sarcastic bureaucrat with a bad leg who leads a humdrum life with no real challenges. And if they did, I wouldn't go to that movie, because I go to the movies to get away from my humdrum life, not revisit it at vast personal expense. Generally, I expect Hollywood to blow stuff up for me so that I can hoot and chuckle. Nothing like that happens in my day to day life any more.

Why single Michael Clayton out? Well, it's got one scene stealing performance from Tom Wilkinson, who gets to play the only character in the film with any morality. Gosh, it must have been hard to get an actor willing to play a character with bipolar disorder who has an epiphany, becomes a crusader for good and is then martyred for his troubles. Anyhow, the casting directors were equal to the challenge, and Wilkinson, all snarkiness aside, is more than equal to the role. What interested me more was Clooney, playing the eponymous Michael Clayton (I should say that I do not plan to use the word eponymous in every single post I make from now on, it's just working out that way). Michael Clayton is a fixer for a large law firm. When something has gone wrong which can't be litigated away, Clayton's sent in to find a way to make it go away by other means. So when one of the firm's star litigators goes mad, of course it's Clayton they call to make the problem go away. And from the outset, we're given to understand that Clayton is a mysterious miracle worker who inspires awe all around him. As the film goes on, we see he's a very flawed man whose personal integrity is a distant memory and who inspires unease rather than awe in most of the people he works with.

The film is shown mostly as a flashback - it starts near the end of the story, then shoots back in time to show what happened, and then ends by showing what happened next. And it does occur to me that as I'm typing this that there's probably a first draft screenplay out there where George doesn't get out alive - where the bomb that blows up his car ten minutes into the movie goes off while he's still in it, rather than fortuitously when he gets out. Everything which happens in the last ten minutes of the movie is somehow out of tone with what's gone before; a bit too pat, a bit too brightly lit. I find myself wondering if they reshot at the end to cheer things up after focus groups told them the ending was too downbeat.

So for, so what. The neat bit is watching George Clooney, who underplays everything and really underplays this, show a man gradually and believably waking up to his own worthlessness. This is no small thing to do - it's the stuff of the great tragic dramas, and it's arguably a bit of a stretch for someone like Clooney, who's got so much sheer charisma he doesn't really need to act if it doesn't fit in with his schedule of endorsements for Nescafe and Fiat and Armani and starving people in Darfur. But act he does. And it's the kind of performance which underlines the difference between acting for the stage and acting for cinema. In cinema, the camera can get in so close and stay on you for so long that the tiniest movements of the face can tell the audience everything they want to know. In Ocean's 13, you can watch Clooney stealing scene after scene with a shrug and a grimace at whatever piece of idiocy has just unfolded. In Michael Clayton, you can see him do even more with even less. It's wonderful stuff.

We see him for the first time doing his stuff for a drunken driver - and he seems disinterested, almost contemptuous. But we've been told he's a miracle worker; why is he so off hand, so disdainful of his customer? Maybe it's just a bad day. Then we go back to four days in the past, and by the time we see that "first" encounter again we've seen the thousand tiny winces of regret and self disgust flit across Clooney's face as he confronts the reality of what he does and what he's become in the course of doing it. And everything falls into place.

Which is where Hollywood coincides with reality. Because for a while now I've been asking myself why it should be that I seem to be happier - and more the sort of person I always wanted to be - in this job than I ever was in my last job. The work I do now is intellectually undemanding, humdrum and unglamorous. The work I did before was demanding, high profile, and glamorous. I knew exactly what I was doing and how do it well and I was taken seriously by people who arguably should have known much better. People in my old line of work show up with speaking parts in movies all the time. For God's sake, Ralph Fiennes has played someone with my old job title. So why am I happier now than I was before?

Because these days, I don't have to sell out anything just to get through the working day. I don't have to accept each day that the cost of getting even a little of what's right is to give up most of it and pretend it was never right to begin with. I don't have to pretend to like people who ought, in a just world, to be chased out of town by large and hungry dogs. And I don't have to spend any of my time trying to cook up justifications for things which should never have been done. Things for which the only truthful excuse was, "We had to do it because we were scared of what would happen if we did the right thing." No more of that. And no-one even had to blow up the Mercedes I've never owned.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

310 to WTF?

There you go. What could possibly go wrong? It's an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard short story. Christian Bale is in it. Peter Fonda is in it. Russell Crowe is in it. It's directed by tasteful safe pair of hands James Mangold, who just made a perfectly good and somewhat Oscar winning biopic of Johnny Cash. That's a pretty sold assembly of people to bring together when you want to revive the Western and make it all bleak and modern. Short of ringing up Al Swearengen and Seth Bullock, neither of who seem to be busy just at present, I don't know what more you could do. What, I ask again, could possibly go wrong?

For absolutely ages, nothing does go wrong. Christian Bale is perfectly convincing as a rancher at the end of his tether. As always with Christian, you worry a little about him. His character has only one leg. Did Christian take out the hacksaw, or just content himself with saying, "Hell, just this once I'll try acting."? Russell Crowe, appearing in the role of Russell Crowe, is as compulsive as ever. I'm not always sure if Russell is acting, and I'm pretty confident I'd rather not be stuck in a lift with him, but he's got star quality in insane quantities. If you're looking for someone to play a very violent and oddly charming man, you can pretty much stop looking round about the time he picks up the phone and says he's not busy. So there's Russell, playing Ben Wade, a very bad man. And Christian Bale playing Dan Evans, a very tense rancher. it's a western, so they have these conveniently short and easy to remember names. Just in case they get bothered with the whole name thing, they also have contrasting hats. And through a series of chances and coincidences which are honestly a lot less implausible that almost anything which happened in Gladiator, Dan decides his best shot at saving his farm is to take $200 to help escort Ben to the 3:10 to Yuma.

I have to admit that I had a bit of a problem round about this point. The Southern Pacific railroad is presented as a kind of overarching villain of the piece. Ben Wade has been whiling away the time robbing them of hundreds of thousands of dollars (not to mention, as he points out himself, all the lives he took in the process) and the SP are accordingly peeved. So they want to take him to Yuma prison, where he will be hanged. (Giving the SP the full benefit of the doubt, I'm going to assume that the prison has a judge hanging around so that they can have a trial of sorts). So far, so slightly better than gunning him down like a dog in the street. But wonderfully, although SP is still hammering together its railway network, it's somehow had the resources to have a regular service to Yuma prison, the 3:10 no less. Daily train service to a jail? Where's the money in that?

Back in the manly world of people with short names (honestly, the less we're supposed to identify with the characters, the longer their names get), the posse get underway. And from the outset they're pursued by Wade's gang. Wade's gang are presented to us as some sort of ne plus ultra of outlawry, but it's hard to get away from the notion that they're just plain stupid. We first meet them when they hold up a payroll stagecoach. Four of the gang get shot dead in the course of the holdup, which is more like a running battle with an early and badly thought out tank, and then Wade shoots one of his own men when he's dumb enough to get taken hostage by one of the stagecoach guards. Leaving Wade and seven sidekicks out of the gang. If I'd been one of the survivors of that particular piece of free enterprise, I'd have been thinking about a career change. A one-third chance of getting killed, and no apparent promotion track? Got to be easier ways to make money, even in the old west. And their supposed criminal mastermind leader, despite knowing the ground and having been told how the stage is armed has so little in the line of a plan for the hold up that he's forced to improvise his way out by triggering a cattle stampede in front of the stage - using Dan's cattle, of course.

I think most halfway sensible bad men, on hearing that this genius had fallen into the hands of John Law while slaking his manly lusts on a bar-girl, would have shrugged, fallen to squabbling over who was now in charge and never given their erstwhile leader another thought. These clowns, egged on by the second in command, Charlie Prince, set out on a crusade to kill everyone in the Old West until they get their boss back. I just don't get it. Hell, if they wanted violent, stupid, manly leadership, Charlie's way better at it than Ben ever was. Charlie's an idiot's idiot. His principal motivation seems to be unfocused hatred for everything he comes across, all of which he shoots. If it weren't for the age of the source material, I'd swear he was based on the sinister bald guy in Diva, who hates everything and shoots as much of it as he can hit.

So a small band of people have to convoy Ben to Contention (Imagine the city fathers' meeting that came up with that as name to encourage investment) so that he can catch the 3:10 to Yuma. The band has no sooner assembled than we think "You're all SO dead." I especially liked the attachment to the party of the local vet. His inevitable death comes inevitably just as he celebrates his new found toughness in whacking out someone with a shovel in an effort to save Wade from being lynched. The last thing I saw where a group of people had been so painstakingly assembled to get picked off one by one was Saving Private Ryan. Tragically, Dan Evans' little party doesn't feature a company typist.

Much adventure ensues as the band is whittled down to Wade, Evans, Evans' son (inevitably drawn into the chase so that he can dither between the two male leads and their influence) and the railroad company lackey Butterfield (see what I mean about the names). And in the end they get to Contention, with an hour to go before the train arrives, just as Charlie Prince and the boys finish killing off everything larger than their collective brain between Bisby and Contention, and show up on the horizon. And it's down to Dan Evans to drag Ben Wade the last hundred yards to the train through a hail of lead.

And this is where it all falls apart. Because the odds are stacked against Dan to an impossible degree. The Marshall and his men have surrendered, only to be gunned down in the streets by Prince. The townsfolk have been offered $200 to help Prince shoot anyone who tries to move Wade to the train. Realistically, with seven of the deadliest idiots in the Old West and every moron in town with a gun pitted against him, Dan is going to make it about two feet before doubling in weight from all the lead that's somehow gotten into his system. Because this is a western, and for no other reason that I can think of, Dan tries it anyway.

So far, so stupid. But up until now, you could buy the whole thing in terms of the Code of the West. And all along the way, it's been drummed into us. Wade is a bad bad man, and Evans is a well-meaning gimp with nearly as much sense as one of his own cattle. And these are good actors, so the essential badness of Wade is now beyond dispute. But in the final fifteen minutes of the movie, Wade first of all helps Evans get him to the train, apparently because he feels sorry for him, and then guns down his entire gang in an apparent fit of pique when they shoot Evans at the last minute. At this point, Wade is pretty much the last man in Contention with a) a gun b) cojones and c) a pulse, so he's got any number of options, and he is, as we know, the baddest man alive. So he gets into the prison train and lets himself be taken off to get hanged. Because that way Evans' wife and kids will get paid and won't lose their farm.

Believe me, I've gone out of my way to explain this in a way that makes sense. The movie doesn't really bother so much with that. it doesn't even really establish the kind of connection between the actors which would let you buy the final scene as one of redemption. It's just plain mad. In the face of everything which has gone before, it's actually slightly more off the wall than the characters waking up and seeing that it was all a dream.

There is, however, one saving piece of realism during this shark-jumping travesty of a final act. The titular, eponymous, long-awaited 3:10 to Yuma is, wonderfully and appropriately, late.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

The juxtaposition of the pitiful

Walking the none-too-mean streets of my none-too-mean city today, I was jolted by two things ten feet from each other.

To my left, a man drinking a cup of coffee from a cardboard cup with one hand while juggling his crutches with the other; my double take was when I saw that his left leg was missing from mid thigh. There was a time when you didn't see people with missing limbs in Ireland. Medical care was good enough that hacking off limbs wasn't something doctors had to do all that often, and we could afford to fit people with prostheses when it came up. The first time I ever saw someone with a leg just gone and not even a peg in its place was in Jerusalem in 1990. Threw me then, still throws me now. Where are Ireland's new amputees coming from?

And to my right, a prosperous man in his thirties watching over his child's push chair. Which is one of those oversized overspecified all terrain vehicles which seem to have evolved in the same way as the owners' taste in SUVs. I've become accustomed to stepping out of the way of these ludicrous mobile shrines to the God of Personal Satiety - like their bigger SUV brothers, they don't corner too well, and their drivers take the view that it's up to other people to figure out how to get clear rather than for them to pay attention to what they're doing - and I don't for the most part pay them too much mind. Life's too short, I'm mad about enough things already, and hey, think of the children!

Well I do. Specifically I think of how many children could get access to clean water if these bozos had instead bought the kind of push chair that they themselves had spent their childhoods in and given the change to Concern. But let that pass, because bozosity in push chairs may have peaked once and for all.

This push chair had disc brakes. As God will judge me in this life or the next, I am not making this up. Disc brakes. I am trying, without success, to imagine a scenario in which disc brakes on a push chair would perform a useful role. In what hilarious combination of circumstances could you conceivably get a push chair up to a speed where the only way to stop it was to use the kind of stopping technology usually relevant only to high performance cars? And if you stop it that hard, given how top heavy these things are, wouldn't it just flip immediately like an original Mercedes A class taking a corner? Other than giving me fresh reason to despair at the self indulgence of the people I share this island with, is there any point at all to disc brakes on a push chair?

And is there any point at all to pretending that this is a community any longer when you can see on one side of you a man who cannot afford and apparently has no-one who will give him an artificial leg, and on the other side a man who has so much spare cash and so little sense of what it is to be a man that he can lavish it on buying a baby-SUV, disc brakes and all that cost more than an artificial leg would cost in real money and does a job so much less useful?

Sometimes you just have to talk about something fundamental

A friend of mine in steady employment forwarded me this story Fallen angels of the US plaintiffs' bar this morning. Executive summary; the US legal firm of Milberg Weiss is under investigation because of claims that they paid - in fact cultivated - potential class action litigants against major US companies. If the claims prove out, what the firm did was to encourage people to buy shareholdings in different US corporations specifically so that they'd be pre-positioned as lead plaintiffs in class action law suits against the corporations if their earnings weren't as expected. Apparently, this is against a number of specific rules governing the behaviour of lawyers in the US; in other news, there are apparently rules governing the behaviour of lawyers in the US.

Since there is no conceivable news about lawyers which would actually shock me, this didn't exactly rock me in the aisles when I read it. What did annoy me enough to take up the cudgels is the editorial coda of the piece, which I reproduce below for your reading pleasure.

After all, the temptation to pay a lead plaintiff would only arise in a situation where there was competition from other lawsuits: Messrs Lerach and Weiss wanted to be first at the courthouse because others were right behind them. If they had not sued corporate America, it would have made little difference: someone else would have done (and did).

It is "absolutely unjustified" to suggest that the indictment proves the lawsuits brought by Milberg Weiss were fraudulent, says John Coffee of Columbia University law school, a securities law expert. The main victims were other law firms, possibly other plaintiffs, and the US legal system, which suffers whenever anyone commits perjury. He does not think corporate defendants "were hurt in any way that the law would recognise as injurious" since other law firms had already sued them and would have controlled the cases if Milberg Weiss had not done so.

Indeed, other legal experts argue that paying lead plaintiffs is good for everyone in the plaintiff class: it gives them a bigger incentive to fight hard for a win or settlement. And their kickback, after all, is alleged to have come from Milberg Weiss's own fees. So where is the harm?

This is market-based justice: let the one with the strongest self-interest win. It is not pretty, but it is our system. Get over it.

First paragraph; there's nothing wrong with this because if they hadn't done it, someone else would have. If that's a valid response to the issue, then there's no such thing as a crime at all. And if it's not intended to make that point, what the hell point IS it making?

Second paragraph; the main victims are other law firms, possibly other plaintiffs and the US legal system, none of whom apparently matter.

This paragraph, and the two "Screw You, Greed is GOOD" paras which follow are what really gets my motor running. They seem to proceed from the idea that there is no social cost to predatory behaviour. This is arrant nonsense, and I expected better of the FT. There is no such thing as a free lunch. If someone makes a predatory profit, someone else, somewhere else is taking it in the neck. In a monetised world, that's the only way these things work.

So if Milberg Weiss and their clients make out like gangbusters on the back of their scheme and everyone else loses, those losses are real. And because they're real, either the people suffering the losses will have a less pleasant time than they otherwise would have had, or they will recoup their losses from someone else in turn. These things trickle on down. Reagan was wrong about benefits trickling down, but by god the bad stuff is always going to keep moving downwards until it hits an immoveable obstacle. So when the law firms lose out, they up their bills to compensate, and the people paying their bills have to shoulder the increased costs.

And let's not lose track of where all the windfall money is coming from; the corporations which got targeted. They pay out, and that's money they don't have to do other things with. So people get fired, or the price of what the corporation does goes up. Either way, the larger social grouping gets hit with the true price of the windfall to one group of lawyers.

Now take that a step further, as other corporations look at what happened to Milberg Weiss' targets and cut their costs to make sure that they don't get hit the same way. And the community as a whole gets to pay the price of those cost cuts, whether it's outsourcing of jobs, punching up the price of the product or skimping on environmental protection. All so that Milberg Weiss and the other legal firms it was competing with can make money from something completely unproductive.

Last, but not least, the airy dismissal of the US legal system as a victim with any real interest to hurt. People don't give it very much thought, but the legal system in any country is essentially the thing which stops us from settling our disputes with machetes and living in armed camps. The knowledge that there's a system in place to vindicate our claims and protect our safety is what gives us the confidence to trade with strangers and walk around in public without feeling the need to carry a weapon. Erode that confidence and you're on the beginning of the trail that leads to anarchy. Which looks pretty cool in Mad Max, but in real life it's more like Black Hawk Down.

I don't mind too much when some fool in a bar can't figure this kind of thing out, but people actually read the Financial Times expecting it to have some relevance to their decision making.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Shoot Em Up; possibly even dumber than it sets out to be

You know how it is with the movies. You go to see something, and before you see that, the trailers spur you to reconsider the decision. You look in bemusement at the ads for coming attractions, knowing that they've chosen to show only ads for movies which they figure the audience for this particular movie are going to like, and all you can think is some variation of "Dear God, don't let this movie suck as much as those ones look like doing." Except when you're thinking "Dear God, can I possibly be as big a retard as these ads assume I am?"

Worse than that, sometimes the trailers are better than the movie you're seeing; I've lost track of the number of times I've come home and spent more time talking about the trailers than I did about the movie I'd notionally paid to see.

Of course, the trailer is almost invariably better than the movie it's for. It has to be. It's all the best bits, crammed into a couple of minutes. Frenetic, dazzling, jump cut, exciting, you name it. The actual film is going to be a slow paced character driven affair in comparison, even if Michael Bay directed it under orders from Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer.

This must have started to get to Michael Davis even more than it's got to me, because he's just unleashed a film which is essentially the world's first ninety minute trailer. Despite what you may have heard, the action does occasionally let up. There must be as much as ten or fifteen minutes when no-one's getting shot. I think this is so that the audience can have the occasional chance to stop laughing and get its breath back.

Notice I say laughing. The film is like an extended take of that scene in Hot Shots Part Deux where Charlie Sheen hoses down the jungle with an M60 while a counter at the bottom of the screen logs the number of people he's killed so far, with helpful hints flashing up from time to time to remind you which Schwarzenegger and Stallone movies he's just passed out. Hundreds of people are dead, but it's funny right? That must have been more or less the pitch.

The body count did start to get to me after a while. At a conservative estimate 150 people get killed in the course of the movie, in situations of growing ludicrousness. The idiocy is supposed to undercut the killings, I guess, but there were moments when I wished for the film to do an Austin Powers and break from the action to show us the families at home wondering if thug number 1 was going to be back in time for dinner.

Except that you rapidly realise that everything is deliberate. The film is too clever, too inventive, too sharply written for the team not to have been aware of the unsettling effect of playing so many killings as a joke. Everything is just that little bit off; the wisecracks which Clive Owen's character tops his killings with are actually stupider than the rest of his dialogue. When his character's talking to people, he's sharp and clever and opinionated; when he delivers a coup de grace and its obligatory one liner, the gag is obvious, perfunctory and delivered with the same off hand distaste you realise you've always kind of felt for the Schwarzenegger one-liners. "Oh god", his tone seems to imply, "Now I have to say something apposite and witty."

The physical set-ups are ingenious, without making a bit of sense. Why does Mr Smith live in an abandoned warehouse with a conveyer belt in the middle of the living room? No reason, other than the fun they're about to have doing the shoot-out. For as sure as anything, if Mr Smith stands still for more than a few minutes, gun play will once again break out. In a weirdly post modern way the characters are quite aware of the idiocy of the continuity - at one point Paul Giamatti's cackling Mr Hertz finds Smith's hideout without even the pretence of explanation, and while he's breaking into it, his henchman ask "How does he know where it is?" "He just knows things about people." When Mr Smith has to jump out of a moving aeroplane, there's a parachute to hand. We've seen that time and again in the movies, though never anywhere else. The point at which we appreciate, once again, that the director is taking the piss, is when Mr Smith is followed into the air by hordes of armed skydivers in full rig firing machine guns at him. As Butch said to Sundance "Who are these guys?" Where did they get all this kit from when they can't possibly have been expecting to need it? The midair gunfight which follows is as hilarious and imaginative as all the fights which have gone before, but by now even the slow learners ought to be starting to realise that this is satire. Just in case they haven't, when Smith finally comes to earth, it's amid a field littered with unfortunate skydivers for as far as the eye can see.

The whole movie keeps picking up the time honoured shorthand of action movies and saying "See, this is stupid." The one-liners are deliberately lame even as the rest of the dialogue demonstrates that the lameness must be deliberate. The continuity and logic are so contrary as to hammer home the point that continuity in most action movies is a joke (for a glaring example, check out the time line in Die Hard 4.0). And all the best bits are done with simple imagination; there's a scene involving a hand dryer which is wonderfully lateral, and almost the only piece of non-violent ingenuity in the film is also the single cleverest set up; the lock to Mr Smith's fortress of solitude is a wonderfully heath robinson contrivance involving a live rat.

And yet, even while pointing out that the whole action movie cliche is as dumb as a bag of hammers, the film is delivering some of the most satisfying action scenes I've ever seen; clever, thrilling and expertly economical; yes, they're over the top, but the beauty is that Mr Smith never has a wasted motion no matter how extravagant the set-up might be.

Which is where it might all go horribly wrong. I think a lot of people are not going to get the joke. They're going to skate past the vicious attack on the American gun industry which lies at the heart of the movie, and just read it as yet another action movie, more fun than most. And it would be hard to blame them. The gun industry is the villain of the whole movie, but in something as deliberately jangled and messy as this is, it would be easy to lose track of it, or just assume that the message is yet another thing which isn't intended to be taken seriously.

Still for me the most satisfying thing about the film is that Mr Smith is the first action hero I can remember in a long time who is angry about the same things that normal people get angry about; inconsiderate driving, low level rudeness, all the bits of avoidable stupidity and personal meanness that make this a less than ideal world. It's nice to see the hero of a movie finally say just why it is that Mercedes drivers are such jerks; because to get enough money to buy a Mercedes required them to be selfish and inconsiderate and so they can't help driving the same way. And it's nice, in a bad way, to see the hero then run a completely random Mercedes off the road just for annoying him. We've all felt like doing that. In a BMW we've specifically decided to steal because its owner left it in a handicapped parking space.

As a final thought, this makes a useful parallel text for Smokin Aces, another over the top violence fest which sets out to say something about the culture of violence through hyperbole. Except that Smokin Aces pretty much skunked the job up, never knowing when to stop with the bad bits or keep going with the things which were actually clever. Whatever else you can say about Shoot Em Up, it never loses track of what it's trying to do. And that makes it a much better film and a much more satisfying one to watch. I didn't come out of it thinking "if only they'd done more of that or less of this." In this day and age, serving up just enough is a rare skill.

Saturday, 12 May 2007

Shooting fish in a barrel

For the millionth time in a row, the stars of the Eurovision song contest are the stage set and the BBC voiceover from Terry Wogan. The only reason I ever watch the Eurovision is to listen to Terry gently rip the whole thing to shreds. I think I've managed to watch it every year since 2002, at least for the voting section, which is priceless for Terry's barely controlled sense of outrage over the way the phone voting is more like a map of how the next war in Europe will line up than any kind of musical judgment. That's some countries - with the richer ones the voting doesn't tell you who their friends are, it tells you who's cleaning their toilets.

He's not wrong, of course. If I was sitting down trying to draw the maps of a future Europe, I'd probably start with Eurovision voting patterns. Just for badness. It's not that I really think that Croatia and Serbia should be united with Greece, it's just it would serve them right.

The other thing is that I swear to God that the show is getting more decadent every year. It was always supposed to be some kind of lowest common denominator show, putting up kind of crap music which wouldn't bother anyone too much. The lowest common denominator is getting pretty damned low these days. The songs are lame as ever, but way too much of the costumes and the choreography seem to have been cooked up in the back room of one of those strip clubs which were an obligatory part of every American cop movie of the 1980s. And there have been way too many acts which left me wondering were they self hating gays, or taking the piss out of something I'm too straight to understand. That's Ukraine, for starters.

Luckily this year they've all been kind of overshadowed by the set. I imagine Finland could have put a man on the moon for what it cost to surround the the acts with enormous projection screens which could show anything at all that struck their fancy. Since the bands couldn't really have known just how much over the top ness would be at their disposal (there may not even be that many flat panels in all of Moldova for all I know), I found myself wondering, at a purely practical level, how they worked out what the backdrops ought to be. But they were good - generally better than the song.

Someone needs to tell me what the Germans are on. Last year, they sent a country and western band - this year it was the big band sound. Germany seems not to be very good at either of these things. You'd think sixty years of US occupation would have let some of it rub off, but apparently not.

As I write this we're at the voting stage and so we're running back through the songs - my word, they're as bad as I remember them from the first time. The up side is that showing the songs means we're spared having to listen to the Finnish presenters, who seem to have been hastily cloned from the couple of muppets they used last year. Maybe they ARE clones; perhaps the EBU keeps a blond idiot of each gender in an ice-box someplace and thaws them out every May to yell at the audience in something which is almost, but not quite colloquial English.

Which leads me to wonder half-heartedly why it is that everyone in show biz feels the need to pretend they're working in a call centre. The presenters always have a head set with with thumb sized boom mike. Why don't lapel mikes work any more? Did the man who had the recipe die? It wouldn't bother me except that they insist on making the spit shield flesh toned (in the same way that band-aids are flesh toned - the Eurovision's never had a black presenter so I've never seen whether they'd tailor the spit shield for one). So as the muppets bob their heads around, it's hard to shake the feeling that they each have curiously regular and quite enormous warts on their cheeks.

The Ukrainians just showed up again. I can't rule out the possibility that their lead singer is Kim Jong Il.

The interval act; well, not like the other children. A guy just shoved a lit fluorescent tube down his throat. I'm simultaneously impressed and disturbed. Though Lordi should have put us all on notice last year that Finland has a rich geek tradition. Flipside, I've just watched with my heart in my mouth as a trapeze artist working without a net jumped in and out of her trapeze in a series of moves which were sinuous, beautiful and absolutely terrifying. I was impressed as all hell, but would have been so much happier if I hadn't been thinking she was risking her spine at the very least. Mind you, maybe it's not as impressive unless there's a risk of maiming.

They've just introduced the EBU's executive supervisor, prompting me to wonder what he does the rest of the year. It's just too dispiriting to think that he might spend the other eleven months getting ready for this. There has to be something more important he does.

I got distracted from voting there by other stuff, but it's the same old same old, except less fun because they're trying to save time by letting the Hello Helsinki people call out only the top three results. So it's harder to get the sense of the patterns - and of course Terry hasn't had the chance to pick it apart much either which takes the fun out of things. However, all the Balkans are voting for each other; what WAS that war about? Obviously not music. Of course, it's not like the Eurovision is about music either.

In other shock news, the UK is stuffed again. No-one's voted for them yet, which seems just mean. It was a stupid song, but it was sort of fun and bouncy and plenty of votes have stuck to much worse songs. Ireland's only done a little better, but our song was lame beyond belief and didn't deserve to get much. Ah, late breaking news. For some reason, our colonial overlords just got seven votes from us. Why? Malta just gave them 12, but then who else were they going to give them to? Libya's not in and the Italians stopped playing years ago. I must look into why, one of these days when I've got literally nothing else to do.

And Serbia has won. Possibly because of bloc voting, possibly because it was sung in Serbo Croat and no-one knew what it was about. So this time next year, Belgrade. My word.

Of course, you can sing a soppy song and still be a Serb. As she made her way to the front to do her encore, the lead singer marked her joy by shaking her fist as though she'd just won the all-Balkan celebrity atrocity competition.

Ireland was completely stuffed. Serve us right.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

Maybe blogging is something that you do when you're bored

It's one theory.

I've been completely preoccupied recently by the need to prepare a Powerpoint presentation (Executive summary; if you've got a room full of bosses, why use bullet points when real bullets would be so much more efficient?) for what a younger man would still be able to call his career. It's not that it's consuming my every waking hour, more that when I found myself in front of a computer I felt I should be honing my presentation. That has now been honed to the point that it's invisible from edge-on and I have tasked the computer to scanning in old negatives.

Which is, my word, tedious. Set up the neg, check in preview that it's worth the trouble, hit scan. Scanning at optimum resolution takes about three minutes. So you can't really get up and go and do something else, and you can't really get it done very quickly either. Worthwhile, like all of these exercises, but boring and time consuming. It will probably take the rest of today. And then I will have a fairly complete set of my baby pictures scanned in, because from the look of it what I have is the negatives from my parents' old camera. Which are old black and white 6 by 6s, ridiculously rich in data. In principle, because the huge negatives of the 1950s and 1960s were behind unsophisticated fixed focus lenses and the pictures aren't as sharp as you'd expect with that big an image. Still fascinating to watch them spring into life on my computer screen.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Coincidence? I don't think so

Sunday, 20 April 2007; our beloved leader calls a general election at 10 in the morning
By lunch time the streets are festooned with plastic posters of even more plastic candidates, all tied up to lamp-posts with plastic cable ties.
I'd be the first to admit that I've dreamed of seeing some of these people hanging from lamp-posts but not like this.

Sunday, 20 April 2007; Aldi has special offers on branch loppers with extendable handles. For cutting through those hard to reach things overhead


That's for you to judge

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Point of Impact Made Into Movie: Not Many Hurt

Get the lies in the title, as Goldwyn probably said. Shooter, starring Marky Mark, was made from Stephen Hunter's Point of Impact, in much the way that egg cartons are made from tall majestic piles of higher quality paper and cardboard that someone threw out. And by some standards, loads of people got hurt. In the real world, it would have been on the news. In movie world, it's barely a ruckus, especially as so many of the people killed didn't even have speaking roles.

But I carp, when I came to reflect on how the world changes. When Hunter wrote Point of Impact more than a decade ago (full disclosure; precision would require me to check and I can't be bothered) his protagonist Bob Lee Swagger was a Viet Nam vet, and the guy that gets assassinated is the bishop of some Latin American country. The Viet Nam vet thing was then a) necessary (because the US hadn't been doing much of the war stuff at the point) and b) plausible (because the Viet Nam war was recent enough that Swagger could still credibly move without a zimmer frame). And the Latin American bishop was quite relevant - it was a time when the US was trying to come to terms with its Latin America policy, if that's the word I'm looking for.

Time moves on. In the time it's taken for this film to be brought to the screen, the US hasn't been at all short of wars, and no-one cares any more about Latin America. So Swagger is no longer a Vietnam vet, and the bishop is from Ethiopia. (Big news flash - in Hollywood's Africa, Ethiopia has jungles and oil fields. I have a terrible feeling that it was originally Nigeria and the suits changed it at the last minute for some shallow political reason. Cue Rob Lowe's wonderful line in Thank You For Smoking "It's just a line of dialogue.")

Funnily, taking the Viet Nam experience off Swagger doesn't do a damn thing to the movie, because the movie doesn't really have enough depth that a loss of resonance would matter. But it ought to matter, because the Viet Nam war was, in some ways, a perfect writer's war - the war the US shouldn't have fought, didn't win and didn't really lose either. The veterans of that war made for wonderful anti-heroes; no matter how good they were, as soldiers or as men, they were permanently undermined from within by their consciousness that the war had been wrong and that worse than that, they hadn't won. The US has not, since then, taken the chance of fighting another such war. All the wars are focus grouped, and all the opponents are picked on the basis of being easy to beat. Well, until 2003. And even then, they THOUGHT it was going to be a cakewalk....

But somehow it must have seemed just a little too early to inject that experience into the spring blockbuster crowd's consciousness. The concept that Iraq is the new century's Viet Nam is not yet quite ready for prime time....

There I go digressing into politics when I was originally making a point about how an apparently trivial change in the background of a character can take away far more than you think at first.

Worse things have been done to the book than that, but somehow they were inevitable. Books let you do a lot of back story in a small compass and you can throw as many people into the scene as you like. Movies, somehow, do not manage this. So whenever you go to see a movie that's been made out of a book, the first thing you brace yourself for is the loss of major characters, and the second is the telescoping of narrative. My, do these things happen in Shooter. Nick Memphis loses his whole back story. The most interesting of the bad guys, the psychologist of the team, disappears completely. This is such a shame, since he's the novel's equivalent of the company typist in Saving Private Ryan; the lone intellectual and coward in a sea of testosterone. I know we're all supposed to imagine ourselves as manly men like Swagger, but in real life the people who read books like this are not manly men. Manly men don't have time to read. They're shooting the enemies of democracy, or driving Nascar or at the very least building log cabins with a buck knife and a felling axe (No, manly men almost certainly don't use Leatherman tools or Swiss Army knives. Anything small enough to need those little weensie fold out bits is beneath the notice of a truly manly man. Damn, I digressed again).

Narrative wise, the move does its level best to stick to the bones of the plot. While still blowing things up and cutting down the number of characters (I think it's the same problem as focus grouping wars; the suits really don't think the average cinema goer could keep track of more than half a dozen people). It's just that they have to telescope them (because it's an action movie, and as Jack Bauer would say, "Dammit, George, there isn't time"). Which means that the two best scenes in the book, the long slow trek to the final rendezvous and the trial of Bob Lee Swagger, are cut down to the point of not really existing any more. Kind of a shame, particularly as it seems to have been done to make room for a completely pointless final shoot out. I guess that was because you always have to end on something exploding, instead of the novel's flatter and more realistic ending.

Mind you, if you haven't read the book, it's a perfectly acceptable action movie. And it's not as though Point of Impact is Shakespeare. It's just that it is a curiously good thriller, well paced and with a bit of characterisation. It seems a shame that they couldn't just get it right. And up until now I'd always wanted to see films made of at least Hunter's first book, The Master Sniper, and his last pre-making-it-big book, The Day Before Midnight. Now I'm not so sure.

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Another month of silence

I find myself wondering; am I serious about this nonsense? It's something I began to do in the thought of getting back into the habit of discursive writing after twenty years of writing only in the context of work or in replies to letters and emails. But I've hardly been diligent about it. There has to be something you want to write about, and for most days, that hasn't been true. Thus, nothing gets writ.

There have, it's true, been distractions, but one of the unstated rules of this particular blog is that I never intended to write about anything of real importance, and the distractions have been far too real to just meander about here. Suffice it that there have been things more important than this, but now it's time to have another think about what the heck I think I'm doing with this and whether it's going anywhere.

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

the threatened reflections on walking sticks

Not that I want to take a lot of your time up on this, but walking sticks are funny beasts. For reasons too simple, and yet too tedious, to go into here, I have a smashed up knee of great vintage. So for a while I was on crutches and then I graduated to a cane, and after a while I graduated to limping a bit when the weather was bad. Over the years, I moved to walking with a stick if I had to go any distance. I suppose it's been about a dozen years since I first had to buy a stick, when I was going to Africa from time to time and I needed something I could lean on when I worked my way through the undergrowth. Before that I'd occasionally used a stick at cocktail parties.

People, I discovered, don't really take in much about the people around them. I would go to cocktail parties, which are a straightforward hell of standing up talking to people who you wouldn't normally talk to, and the standing up would get tired pretty quick. So I learned to bring the stick. And I learned that people - the same people each time, as a rule - would ask me again and again what "I had done to myself?". Always that formula, as though any harm which had befallen me had been the result of some masochistic impulse. And no matter how many times I would cheerfully brush it aside with a comment about the source of the injury - or a joke, when talking to Britz, about how a lot of people had these injuries where I grew up - I would have some version of the same conversation with the same people a few weeks later at the next party.

It has become, over time, one of the things by which I judge other people. I don't always need the stick, so it's an intermittent presence in my life, depending on weather, other accidents intervening and how much I've pushed myself. And pretty much, I have divided the world into the people who remember that this is the case, and the people who don't. I don't tell myself that one group is good, and the other is bad, because life is neither so simple nor so built around my whims. But I do conclude that whether or not they're good people, the ones who remember are at least interested enough in me as a person to remember that I am an occasional gimp. They might be good, they might be bad, they might have my interests at heart or just their own, but they were sufficiently interested in me to recall from one meeting to the next something which is, after all, rather obvious. These are, for my purposes, serious people. I will treat them seriously. I will listen to what they say, for they are paying attention to me. The others - well I daresay it never occurs to them that I'm not returning their calls, let alone to wonder why it might be so.

I've been with stick more than without the last few weeks and I have to say that the people I find myself among are more serious people than I've been used to meeting. They notice, and they care. And I notice that, and conduct myself accordingly, but what is striking me these days is how very nice people are to you in Ireland when they sense that things are hard for you. I get a lot of smiles as I hobble my way around, and people hold doors open for me. It gives me some hope for when I'm old. Or are they just scared I will hit them with the stick?

There are two other reflections. I still have an ebonite stick which I bought precisely because it was black and shiny and looked nice. I will never forget the reaction it once got from a small child in a village in Ethiopia. She couldn't take her eyes off it, and it slowly sank in on me that she knew what it was for, but had never seen one so black and polished. There are very few things in Africa in which a child can see a reflection. It was one of a thousand sobering moments, but since I still have the stick, it's one which stays with me even now.

The other is funnier. Since the Africa times my preferred stick is a metal folding one, since it's easier to manage in a vehicle. The unintended corollary is that everyone, but particularly men, is fascinated to watch it unfold. They're a commonplace for old people and I think that people would be embarassed even to mention them to someone older, but someone my age with a stick is an oddity, and people feel permitted to ask. Inevitably it reminds everyone of that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark with the apparent torture implement which turns out to be a coat hanger. It's nice to give people a laugh. I wonder what we would say about it if that scene had never been filmed.

Monday, 12 February 2007

The Lies of Locke Lamora

Lord knows it's not a promising title, but it's the first book I've read in a while which made me feel like saying something about it in semi-public.

I have a problem with fantasy writing. With a few exceptions, it leaves me cold. Generally, it all seems to me to be variations on a single gag; draw a world which will fit conveniently into a two page map, and then drag your characters through it from one end to the other so that you can show it all off along the way. Always the man of destiny shows up with no clue, so that everything has to be explained to him, and no friends or allies, so that all the other characters can explain themselves to him, and above all, at the wrong end of the planet, so that he has to trudge through many adventures to get to the climax three books later and do the needful.

I blame Tolkien, or rather I blame the people who read Tolkien and like it so much that they want to do it all over again themselves, But just once it would be nice to read a fantasy novel where the man of destiny is already in charge, and right on the spot, on familiar ground and ready to do something immediately.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is not that novel. But it's good enough that it doesn't need to be.

Locke Lamora is a crook. So is practically everyone else in the book. He earns his dishonest livelihood in a city which resembles a Venice gone bonkers, and he is completely in control of his affairs and smarter than most of the people around him. The action does not really leave the city, and no-one goes to some place where things are unfamilar and where the quaint natives will have to explain what's going on. In other words, in terms of structure and logistics, this book couldn't possibly be more unlike the usual let's all go on a quest hernia inducing seven hundred page monster. For that alone, even if it was dreadful, it would deserve some kind of applause.

However, it's also quite well written. I'm not claiming that it's Dostoevsky (I'm not even claiming that I've read Dostoevsky), but the characters are sketched in at least as well as they would have been in a good detective story and the dialogue reads well - it's more clever than the way people talk, but not unbearably so. And the city is well imagined; nothing's too far over the top, there's never a moment when you find yourself thinking "But hang on, how would that really work out in practice?" and it's laid out for you cleverly - there are little flashbacks to give you back story on the main characters, and the explanations of the various parts of the city are handled straightforwardly by the narrator as he sketches in the mise en scene, rather than hammered down your neck for you by the characters explaining things to you. It's a sly narratorial voice, a simple idea which I wish more people would experiment with. After all, a book is a story, and it must have a teller. When there's a ton of background - and in an invented world there always will be - sometimes it's best, let alone easiest, to let the author's voice come to the fore and deal with things rather than cook up situations which will allow exposition to do the same job in three times the space.

But this is by the by. The important thing is that Locke Lamora works very well as a book. You care what happens, the characters are real enough for the job, and the author is neither too sentimental to shy away from moments of real unpleasantness nor so sadistic as to revel in him. He is telling a story of rough tough people doing rough tough things. People get hurt - often people get hurt who the usual laws of narrative would protect. There are a number of moments when you go hang on, that character's been built up way too much for that to happen to him out of the blue. But so it goes, and when the remaining cast respond their cruelty makes perfect sense without being any more comfortable to watch.

It's the first of a "sequence", which suggests an author with things on his mind but perhaps not a clear idea of what comes next. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens.

New cameras

With much smuggling and other insidious plotting, I finally have the camera I was talking about last year. It has come all the way from America, but I am such an incredibly stupid person that it did not occur to me to buy any memory to put into it, so I have an extremely high quality paperweight for the present. This is mostly because I am away in Galway and didn't get a chance in the brief return to Dublin to go and buy camera memory or UV filters. Still, in principle I am now in a position to return to the photography of old.

It's not really that worth commenting on, except that nostalgia or something had me dig out one of my old 35mm photography books and I was looking through the darkroom techniques it was laying out. I never had the capacity to do dark room stuff in the days when I carried a real camera, and so I had never really got any experience to echo back against when I first saw what Photoshop filters would do. Solarisation and posterisation seemed well, just part of the general purpose wonderfulness of computing - sure, of course the programme can systematically change the hue values for each pixel to create that effect.

Well, it genuinely is that "simple" for Photoshop, but as I read through the accounts of darkroom technique it sank in on me how very far from simple it was to do it in the pre-digital age. Solarisation - which is pretty much a single menu choice in Photoshop - involved a lot of very tedious intermediate steps in a darkroom. The same is true of a lot of the other filters. And the masking techniques and contrast improvement stunts you can do in Photoshop also have their analogues in the real world, and very laborious they were too.

All of somewhat academic interest for me. I'm a bear of little brain and my interest in photo software reaches as far as, "can this clean up this image?" and "how does cropping work?" It's not that I'm some disciple of the purity of the original moment, more that I don't have enough imagination to reach beyond it. I either get it right when I catch the shot, or I try to retrieve what I thought I saw - I don't seem to have whatever it takes to look beyond that. Which is perhaps all to the good. In the end, it's not the camera, it's the eye. You have to see the composition and the moment which make the shot worthwhile. And you should know enough about the basic physics of what you're doing to use the controls properly, so as to tweak the light a little bit when the simple mindedness of the camera insists on shooting what's there instead of what you see. I tell myself that I've spent a ton of money in an effort to get a tool which will let me do that without getting in my way. Time will tell if I was fooling myself.

Arms and the man I sing

The leg begins to mend. This is a violation of the karmic inevitability of my life, so on Thursday I slipped on the steps of the temporary command bunker and came down with an amazing crash. Although my back, my skull and an expensive latop computer were all available to take the hit, my weight all seems to have landed on my left arm - fortuitous, since I need my right arm to work my walking stick. One day of really quite distracting pain and then a weekend of mild pain and distraction in the shape of a streaming cold. Monday has dawned and the nagging suspicion that I may have done some damage to my elbow joint. It will be a while before I can really check. And perhaps it's just nerves.

Tuesday, 6 February 2007

A month of silence

Surely I must have been off putting all my ideas on war and destruction into action? What other explanation could there be for the break in the unending tedious posts about painting models of things which don't exist? No, wait, the almost complete absence of unexplained regime change suggests that I've just been sitting on my ass doing a whole bunch of nothing at all.

Not much of a good explanation. I went back to work was a big chunk of it. Suddenly, less time needed to be filled with self-important meandering on things which attracted my gadfly interest. I was back at work. The day was full. Admittedly, the day was full of pointless typing and even more pointless efforts to keep a straight face as people with better educations than me said things which you'd just HOPE they were smart enough to regret later. But that can be tiring in its own silly way - and it doesn't leave a whole bunch of energy over for footling things like this blog.

Still even work palls after a while, and just as I was getting back into my stride and generally kicking ass and taking names, or at least avoiding the dreaded backlog, my new shiny career pulled an unexpected switcheroo.

In my previous line of work, there weren't many days when I felt I'd got ahead of the pack of wolves on my tail, but reliably, when those days dawned, bear appeared on the flanks.

Der neue arbeit, not so much. I came back to an ugly backlog thanks to the great knee crumbling incident, and it took about two weeks to beat it into submission. There then followed two weeks of perfect harmony as I maintained an almost zen like balance of work. In my old life, this would have been the signal for someone to drop dead, either there or in some sandpit someplace, triggering off a scramble to get on top of the new situation and well, work.

Here, it was the signal for me to sent to the colonies to bring modern high specification services to the undeserving natives. So here I sit in a hotel bar in Galway, having been more or less driven out of my hotel room by the cold. Forster Court Hotel, what is your insane heating policy? Enquiring minds want to know. Maybe I should ask at the desk instead of complaining here. No, wait, that would be counter to my national ethos. I should grumble and blame the Britz.

Although I haven't figured out yet how the Britz would be to blame for this, they have somehow rendered the quaint natives of this charming town curiously resistant to our improved and cutting edge service. With the result that eight people have come up to this burg, set up our tents in the local office and been greeted by a stubborn refusal actually to make us perform. I get paid the same way either way and it's not like my intellectual contribution to anything is a dealbreaker, but the guys I sit in front of are heavy hitters and bringing them all this way to sit in the inner office waiting for a call to action which is not going to come seems, well, a waste of resources. It also leaves me with time hanging heavy on my hands. And so to this.

The bike accident - well, it continues to have its wicked way with me. While ironically enough it's easy enough to ride a bike, walking is still the very devil. Watch this space for a wry reflection on the odd responses a folding walking stick can trigger off when people aren't used to seeing you with one and don't know you very well to begin with.