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.