Tuesday, 28 December 2010

If the Dead Rise Not; Philip Kerr

In the early 1990s, Philip Kerr wrote three books about Bernie Gunther, a detective in pre-war and immediately post-war Berlin. The first two, March Violets and The Pale Criminal, were quite straightforward private eye noir; the third one, Berlin Requiem, was a much more complicated and depressing piece of work. Then Kerr stopped writing about Bernie Gunther and went off and wrote a bunch of thrillers which could fairly be described as high-concept books that don't quite pay off. The ideas were interesting, but the characters weren't and the writing was too pedestrian to read for enjoyment. I bought most of those books and discarded them all as soon as I'd read them. Generally with a mild feeling of annoyance that I had bothered to finish them.

A few years ago, Kerr decided to go back to his first break and revive Bernie Gunther, and If The Dead Rise Not is the third of the new sequence of books. It leaves me scratching my head a bit.

Raymond Chandler, who's not only the pope of the detective noir, but one of the few detective story writers living or dead who can be read again and again for just the pleasure of the prose, defined the template of the noir detective:

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

In the first two books, Gunther is the epitome of this trope, albeit not as well written as anything by Chandler; very little in this world is as well written as Chandler. The books have twisty plots which are in their essence straightforward; a bad deed has been done, the detective takes chances to find the truth of it, but at the end true justice will elude him. The clever twist in the books is in the setting; pre-war Hitler's Germany; streets don't get much meaner than the wide boulevards of the pre-war Reich. No matter how triumphant a moral victory your detective achieves, the vast moral defeat underway will overshadow it.

Because Kerr is an ambitious writer and not content to recycle the same plot with unchanging characters, he took a big chance with the third book, Berlin Requiem, and showed us Gunther after a second experience of war had chewed him up and spat him out into post-war Berlin. Very few cities have ever been worked over as thoroughly and with as little regret as Berlin was in the fall of the Reich, and I doubt that it's possible to write a book set in that milieu without creating a thoroughly depressing experience for the reader. Even allowing for that, Berlin Requiem is grim going. I think when Kerr wrote it, he intended it to be the last word on the character, and to some extent on what Germany did to itself between 1932 and 1945.

But writers get older and come back to things with second thoughts, and over the past few years, Kerr has come back to the character and started filling in the blanks. It must be quite interesting for someone who's only discovering the books now all in one lump, because it's not just Bernie's backstory which is getting filled in; all sorts of other side characters are being given deeper histories, and if you'd just read the first two books in the past couple of years and then read the more recent ones, you'd probably be having all kinds of ah-ha moments as Bernie encounters characters who were passing presences in the earlier books. Since I haven't read the earlier books in more than a decade and gave them away a while ago to my sister, I just had the feeling that various intros should have had more resonance for me.

I've bought each of the newer books as they've become available, but finished each with the realisation that my curiousity about what Bernie's been getting up to wasn't the same as a real interest in the character; once I knew roughly what he'd been at, I wasn't going to feel any real need to come back and look at it again later. It was as I read this book that I realised that I'd be perfectly fine with some kind of wikipedia article which just set out the life and times of Bernie Gunther in summary form. It's partly that Bernie isn't much fun to be with, and it's partly that it's getting harder and harder to buy into his story as Kerr unfolds more and more layers to it.

There's a fundamental clash between two things that Kerr is trying to do with Bernie. On the one hand, he's trying to depict the gradual collapse of his character as misfortunes and compromises accumulate, and on the other hand he's sketching in the byways of the less remembered parts of the 20th century as Bernie Zeligs his way into various setpieces. Unfortunately, the second hand requires the kind of contrivance and coincidence which looks preposterous  against the background of a realistically drawn character. In the first couple of new books, Kerr's more or less gotten away with it, because through clever plotting and the nature of his milieu, he could create plausible scenarios where the vibration of history would tend to shake all the pebbles into one corner of the box; it didn't strain credulity too much that Bernie would, for example, run into Eichmann by chance before the war, and then run into him again when both are on the run as wanted Nazis. In If the Dead Rise Not, there isn't the same credibility to the way he runs into the same group of people in both pre-Olympics Berlin and pre-Castro Cuba.

Niels Bohr once recorded his doubts about a hypothesis by saying that it wasn't crazy enough to be true, and in a way that's Kerr's problem; he wants to pull off something bold and impressive and yet truthful, and the impulse to keep it real and down to earth is blowing it all apart for him. Bernie Gunther is like Zelig or Flashman, a spectator at all the big stuff. And Zelig and Flashman work because the writer knows that the idea is ridiculous and piles on at top speed anyway. The very idea CAN'T be realistic, and there's no point in trying to make it so. And the more you try to make everything else realistic, the more you undercut your central premise.

And it's hard to get away from my nagging feeling that it would have been so much easier to keep it simple, and just not bother with the Cuban bit at all. Kerr's always struck me as a guy who writes to a plan, rather than letting things unfold in his mind and write them down as they occur to him, and in the Gunther renaissance, the common thread has been that the books have parts set in pre-war Berlin (where not only Bernie, but Kerr the successful writer, began) and parts set in the 40s and 50s, after the war has destroyed everything that Bernie thought he knew about himself and left him struggling to stay ahead of the consequences of his mistakes. So If the Dead Rise Not had to have that structure, but it's skewed and unbalanced, and doesn't have the symmetry (however forced) of the other two recent books. There's not enough in the Cuban episode to balance the Berlin episode, and the links between them don't feel strong enough or believable enough. Simply put, the book would have been better if Kerr had rounded off the Berlin segment properly and abandoned the grand design.



Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Strip: Thomas Perry writes an Elmore Leonard book by mistake

Thomas Perry is one of the secret treasures of modern American crime writing, a guy who no-one has heard of and who enjoys periodic revivals at unpredictable intervals. At any given time, most of his stuff is out of print, with one or two books at most showing up when you go looking for them. He's been writing since the early eighties and scattered around my house are copies of all 17 of his books, including the crazily hard to find Island. He got on a good run in the mid nineties with a series of books featuring Jane Whitefield, but the ones I keep coming back to are his first five books, which have a fresh distinctive voice and lightheartedness to them that his later work doesn't always show.

Perry's defining characteristic as a writer is that he's got an eye for the details that other writers don't think of. His characters tend to be smart and unconventional, and they're the kind of people who try to solve problems in unexpected ways. Most of his books have one strong character working on the edge of the law, and another strong character trying to catch that strong character from much further over the line. His first book, the Butcher's Boy, was a clever story of a contract killer being hunted by both the FBI and the mob, and deftly playing one side against the other until the FBI had caught enough of the mob guys after him that he could flee the country. The killer was well drawn as a guy just trying to get by without a name or any sense of right and wrong, and his FBI nemesis was a very nicely written character who was smart and yet alway one step behind. The various mobsters were sketched in with just the right level of detail for their - invariably short - appearances. The charm all the way through came from watching the world from the point of view of a character who saw opportunity or threat in small signals which ordinary people would never notice, and Perry's been using that angle ever since, with greater or lesser success.

The Whitefield books were as close as he's come in his career to mainstream success, and when he'd worked that seam out by 1999, he's faltered a bit. Some of the books's he's written in this decade have been good, some have been flat and not quite up to his best work. Probably the best of them was Pursuit; it's about the only apart from Death Benefits that I've re-read more than once.

Strip is not anything like Perry's best, and it took me a while to work out why. Part of the problem is that the jacket copy completely misleads you about who the real focus of the book is going to be. But that's a detail. The real problem is that Perry hasn't quite made his own mind up who the protagonist is. Now, Elmore Leonard has been doing great work for decades with books where it's not obvious right to the end who the main character is, but it's never been Perry's approach. He sets up one protagonist and between one and three antagonists for the protagonist to worry about and eventually outsmart, and then he creates a conflict between them. And it works fine. Strip has too many protagonists. There's Joe Carver, who the jacket copy and the opening chapter would leave you believing was the protagonist. There Mancu Kapak, who looks like the main antagonist. There's Jeff something, who looks like the wild card. There's Spence, Kapak's efficient deputy. And there's Slosser, the detective trying to catch Kapak. And it's too many people. It's actually too many good characters. He's got about two books worth of them when he only needs one book's worth. And they don't really interact with each other enough, or in the right ways. And they're not really given enough time or room to develop properly.

The thing is, Leonard would have carried this off, sort of. Perry doesn't. In part it's because for all that the characters are recognisably different and have strong identities, they don't really have individual voices. They all talk too much alike, and it jars after a while. With fewer characters and more room to build them up, Perry would have had a more satisfying book. And some characters left over for the next one.

It's a shame really. The book opens with a very clever sequence that it never really lives up to afterward. Joe Carver gets stuck in a building crane and surrounded by armed thugs. He sees them off with the crane. It's a clever and typically Perry sequence, in which the use of the crane is a logical outworking of the more important question of why Carver's sleeping in a crane in the first place. It makes Carver interesting and smart, but after that first chapter, we never really see that aspect of Carver again.

I think I see what he was trying to do here; he wanted to write a book in which a lot of characters would collide with each other precisely because no-one really knew what was going on. The problem was that with so many characters in play, it became hard to care what happened to any of them, and accordingly I lost interest in what was going on. There's an amazing amount of symmetrical wrapping up in the final chapters but the ground work hasn't been laid to make it satisfying. One of the jacket blurbs cries out for a sequel; I'd rather see the book broken up into the two good books which got crushed into each other. Maybe I ought to introduce Perry to Connie Willis.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

The Tourist: Waistcoats are the next big thing

That's honestly my big takeaway from Florian Henckel von Donnersmark's new movie; if you don't have a waistcoat, you should go out right now and stock up. Every male character in the movie has a waistcoat. They may not have dialogue, plausible motivation, accents you can believe in, or even actual character, but they do have waistcoats. I'm replanning my wardrobe as we speak.

Now, when any film I've been looking forward to goes all meh on arrival, there has to be a formal casting of the blame, and the Tourist is no exception. First off, we have to acquit Paul Bettany, Rufus Sewell, and Timothy Dalton. And even Steven Berkoff . Blessed with roles that make little sense and dialogue which appears to have been put together in much the same way that Bettany's character obsessively assembles a burnt up letter from scraps, they nonetheless carry off their jobs with such consummate professionalism that you don't even see the regret they must have been feeling. But then, that's why you hire brits for these things. They'll work for cash and since they're actors, they'll throw in at no extra cost a convincing impersonation of a man who'd never so much as think of strangling his agent.

Then we have Johnny Depp, a reliable source of entertainment no matter what. It's actually difficult to weigh up what Depp is doing without blowing up the plot, but his character makes perfect sense as Frank, a maths teacher and widower from Wisconsin, and almost no sense as anything else. He's actually very convincing as a guy who's buried his wife and can't quite get a start on shifting the sadness of that loss. The problem is that he's so convincing as that, and he's shown in so many situations where he responds to problems exactly as that kind of person would, that the big reveal at the end of the movie doesn't make a button of sense. Still, he's lots of fun. Somehow I suspect the running gag that he thinks Spanish is interchangeable with Italian was entirely Depp's own idea, but it never wears out its welcome.

Which leaves Angelina Jolie, who I've rarely seen put to less use. Donnersmark and John Seale (of all people) even find ways to make her look middle-aged and frumpy, but what's startling is how much of the time they just put their faith in having the camera follow her along as she strides around languidly with a mysterious half smile. This is not acting. It isn't even action. Jolie isn't strictly speaking an actress, but she's got a wonderful poise and athleticism which makes her a very good action star. Deprive her of action, and the lack of acting ability starts to show. Her English accent isn't all that bad, oddly enough, but it does sound as though she's been watching the collected works of Liz Hurley and learning all the wrong things from them.

The blame, however, belongs with McQuarrie and Donnersmark. Donnersmark is a very good dramatic director by all accounts, but hiring him to direct stars, as opposed to actors, in a modern caper movie, turns out to be a pretty bad idea. A caper movie has to pop and fizzle and crackle. In between the moments of action and high adventure, the stars have to spark off each other and entertain us. The director's job is to pace the caper so that we're consistently entertained. The writer's job is to write the caper so that the director will have something to pace.

How has McQuarrie come to this? This is the guy who wrote The Usual Suspects. And then wrote Way of the Gun and Valkyrie. Now that I come to think of it, maybe I should stop sounding surprised. It's just very disappointing that the sparkling talent that gave us the Usual Suspects has come to this. The twists and reveals and sudden shifts are there; as is the sense of more than one deep plot colliding. What's not there is the sense of urgency and involvement that the better film had.

All in all, The Tourist is a bunch of talented people doing things that they're not actually that good at. I wish I could believe anyone's going to learn from it.

In other news, I saw the trailer for Reese Witherspoon's new movie, which somehow cost more than Iron Man even though apparently Reese only has one outfit for the whole movie. I have no idea what they spent the money on.


Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Cold. Damn.

I haven't been to the movies in two weeks, because it's just too damn cold here. Air from Siberia has been capriciously mixed with air from the Arctic, and we're living in a winter wonderland here, by which we mean, it's winter, I wonder if this crap is ever going to stop. The most hilarious aspect of it is watching the weather people troop on each evening and tell us that tonight it will be super cold but tomorrow night will be much warmer. That's happened five nights in a row now and I'm starting to think they're using the same software the Department of FInance uses for economic forecasting.

At first it was kind of fun and all, since Ireland gets snow about as often as it gets competent prime ministers, but snow gets old real fast in a country that doesn't have the practice, and now I just want it to get the hell out of my way and let me get back to normal life. Instead, it's outstaying its welcome with the kind of tenacity normally only seen with drunks on the bus and those marvelous people who think that part of the social mission of public service in Ireland is a commitment to spend four hours on the phone listening to them work through everything in the world that isn't really their fault. (Maybe it is your fault, maybe it isn't, but I do know it ain't my job to fix what's wrong with you, because I can't see a copy of the DSM IV anywhere on my office bookshelf).

It was all great and fun and stuff when it was just soft and fluffy snow making my car twice the height those Swiss guys made it, but three days in, the soft and fluffy stuff turned into a lumpy hardpack crust getting between me and everything I gotta do to pay the bills and all the things that I run up the bills doing.

And at first I was cheered up by the way that people were nicer to each other as we wrestled with the misery, but nearly two weeks into this nonsense what I'm noticing is all the people who don't think that they need to do anything to clear the ice away from the front of their businesses. Big business is too big for that kind of thing, I notice. The banks, those kinds of people. Little guys who actually own their stores; you can navigate past those places safely. Big business; not so much. It's going to be brisk business down the Four Goldmines next year as they start to work their way through all the people who picked themselves up from outside big businesses and while they waited for the ambulances remembered what Dillinger used to say about the banks. Thanks goodness I won't need to sit through that.

For me, it's just a matter of wondering whether I'm going to be on my bike again this side of Christmas. The house is still surrounded by a half mile thick no go zone of pack ice before you can get to a main road, not that the main roads are any kind of picnic for bikers. What ice is still left is piled up semi randomly in the gutters, leaving you to wonder whether to get out in the middle and risk some clown skidding through black ice into you, or get in close and kill yourself on whatever's lurking beside the kerb. So I've been riding the buses, which has been educational and impressive. I don't know how bus drivers are getting to work in the first place, given that they don't get paid enough to live anywhere with good transport links or decent roads, but get to work they do, and then they fight their way through stupidly messy roads to get the rest of us to work. I'm a fan of bus-drivers suddenly.

And maybe there's a lesson for us in how we're dealing with the snow in how we ought to deal with the other storms of crap which are falling on the country, but whatever that lesson is, I'm just too damn cold to think what it would be.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Sons of Anarchy go Ireland. Hilariously

Last night I was at a loose end and I sat down and watched the four episode chunk of the third season of Sons of Anarchy where the gang goes to Belfast and does things.

I'm an unabashed fan of SOA, which has a lot to recommend it, but the Irish end of things has always left me wondering if anyone involved with the production has done so much as watch the Quiet Man all the way through, let alone meet anyone Irish or ask anyone from east of South Boston whether they were getting things roughly right.

From the outset, I've been fascinated by the notion that the Sons of Anarchy's principal source of finance is running guns from Ireland to the West Coast of the US. I've assumed all along that this was just a matter of trying to find something criminal for the SOA to do without being you know, SO criminal that audiences would just revolt. I'm not sure I agree with the thinking here. It's as though the team behind the Sopranos had decided that they'd make a movie about Italian American criminals but would skip over prostitution, drug running and protection rackets in case it stopped the audience from watching the characters. In real life, bike gangs finance their operations with crystal meth, and AMC have had a good run with Breaking Bad, which is all about making crystal meth. But the team chose to go with gunrunning and now they're stuck with it.

What it's meant in practice is a succession of dodgy Irish accents from American actors who aren't very good at accents even when they're good at everything else. Titus Welliver is GOOD at playing villains. But he gets 100% less frightening every time his accent slips. Now all of this should have been pretty apparent to the team before very long, but it hasn't stopped them from upping the Irish presence as the show has unfolded, and the whole of the third season has been dominated by a confrontation between the SOA and the IRA. And for four episodes, most of the cast were in Belfast and it was just hilarious.

Of course they couldn't afford to send all the cast to Belfast, so all the principal photography was still done in Calfiornia. But they could afford to send a second unit over to Belfast to do pickup and establishing shots. One advantage of making a show about a biker gang is that you can put the cast into helmets a lot, and one helmet looks much like another. So they got all kinds of shots of mobs of bikers prowling Belfast and its environs, and then they'd cut from those shots to close ups of the actual cast doing things in US locations chosen to look not catastophically unlike the locations in Ireland.

If you don't live in Ireland, it probably works, but if you're from these parts it jars. A lot. The light is wrong. The foliage is wrong. I never appreciated until I lived away from Ireland just how much greener it is than anywhere is. It's all a rich deep green that you don't see in warmer climates. Like California. And in Northern Ireland, it's all been very carefully worked over. There are two separate scenes where the SOA get stopped by the Northern Ireland police on tree shaded roads. There are tree shaded roads in Ireland, but they're not that common around Belfast, where there's much more farmland and pasture than people realise. More importantly, the police in Northern Ireland don't stop people in that kind of terrain; it's far too hard to control.

While I'm quibbling about the depiction of the Northern Ireland Police, they don't carry full sized assault rifles any more, even on rural patrol. They don't use ordinary landrovers, and they especially don't use 1 ton landrovers with canvas tilts. Trouble cars in Northern Ireland are uparmoured long wheelbase landrovers. And if you bribed the PSNI to take down an entire biker gang, they'd bring enough men and machinery to do it properly rather than showing up half assed with the wrong vehicles. And of course, if the said biker gang then turned the tables on them, there'd be a manhunt on an epic scale until the bikers were banged up or gunned down.

Outside of the rural scenes, most of the Northern Ireland action takes places around the compound of the Belfast Sons of Anarchy chapter, which is subtly wrong at a lot of different levels. It's too spread out and open; the kind of place in Belfast that they're trying to suggest just doesn't have that much open space. And there's set dressing like wall murals that are just wrong; it's like they were trying to come up with generic bits of nationalism which wouldn't annoy anyone. Trying not to annoy people is - in my experience - the most foolproof way of getting on everyone's nerves. But that draws me into the weird idea of the linkage between the Sons of Anarchy and the IRA. it just doesn't ring true to the reality of life in that part of Northern Ireland. You're in or you're out. There's no halfway points in Northern militancy - collusion between people who hate each other, sure, but there's no half measures when it comes to which side you're notionally on.

The front of the compound is a corner grocery store called Ashby's. Which is completely not a nationalist name, but even if you skated over that (Sands isn't really a Catholic name either, but it's pretty famous now) standalone old-fashioned grocery stores like that have been pretty much obliterated even in the most entrenched traditional communities - a point neatly underlined in the establishing shot of the Europa Hotel with the gaudy Spar across the street from it. On the topic of the Europa, since the second unit crew almost HAD to have stayed in the Europa while they were there (it's so famous as a bomb magnet that every foreign crew is practically obliged by natural law to stay there at least once) it's genuinely weird that they did so little to make sure that the interior shots in California weren't done in some place that at least looked vaguely like it. But if Ashby's had ever existed and hadn't long since been burned out and rubbled, it would be a Spar by now. Everything else is.

And whee, those accents. I know they couldn't fly everyone to Ireland, but how much would it have cost to fly in actual Irish actors to play the Irish roles? It would still have sounded wrong because Irish people can tell the difference between accents, down to neighborhood, and so the Irish cast would still all have sounded like they didn't belong together, but it would still have been a lot less horrible than the Americans doing their best, and with enough Irish people in the local cast, they'd have known not to call a sixty year old Catholic Belfastman Keith.

And back to the gun running because it was so front and centre in all of this. The logistical backbone of this whole show is that Russians smuggle weapons into Ireland and the IRA then smuggles them out to California. It just doesn't make any sense. Private ownership of guns in Ireland - either half - is so tightly regulated that if you gathered up all the legally held weapons on both sides of the border, you'd be able to fit them into a single room. Keeping guns out of the hands of subversives has been a core government preoccupation for so many years that there probably isn't another country on earth which it's more difficult to smuggle guns into. It can still be done, but it's crazy hard. And smuggling guns back out would be only slightly less hard. If you wanted to get guns from A to B, running them though Ireland would be the worst way imaginable. And even the idea that the IRA would have some vast surplus of guns they no longer needed and could sell to the US is kind of dumb. The IRA's full arsenal on its best day was only about a thousand weapons. By the end of season one, the SOA had already moved at least that many guns around California. But that's just niggling at the idea of Ireland as a point of origin for gun smuggling, as opposed to a point of delivery. The really idiotic idea is the notion that the US needs to import illegal guns at all. The US is awash with guns. They're as plentiful as cell phones and the US is one of the world's leading manufacturers of firearms. It's one of the few manufacturing areas where the US still has a significant domestic industry to meet domestic demand, though it still imports a lot of weapons from Brazil and China to meet the demand for cheap knockoffs of the domestic product. There's absolutely no need for the SOA to go to the trouble of bringing in guns from Ireland. So I've suffered through all these terrible accents for no good reason.

Unstoppable; Of course, it does actually stop.

On the way into the movie I was on the phone to my sister and I'd already forgotten what the film was called, even before I'd watched it. It's some movie, I said, about a big explodey train running out of control. Oh yes, she said, I know the one you mean.

Unstoppable isn't actually that bad; for a Tony Scott film it's almost low-key. Watching the movie you realise the trailer is a terrible cheat; most of the thrilling looking crises which are set up in the trailer are complete anti-climaxes in the actual film. I thought at first the problem was that the movie's based on a true story and Scott didn't want to throw anything in which was grossly out of line with the real incident. Then I looked up the real incident and realised that it's just lousy pacing and poor plot construction.

First up, what happens in the movie? We meet the two main characters, Denzel Washington's veteran and Chris Pine's novice (I have to assume that Tony Scott has Denzel's kids in a fridge somewhere, because it's hard to understand how Scott could otherwise have got Denzel to play a train company employee again after the breathtakingly unnecessary Pelham 123), and see how they don't like each other but are - of course - going to be forced into working together and will bond and blah, just blah. Good thing that Denzel and Pine are charming actors, because this kind of thing is boooooring. Then, with wonderful slapstick, Ethan Supplee manages to let a train get away from him by jumping out of it to change a switch in the train yard but leaving the key in the ignition as it were. The train rolls off and starts moving faster and faster.

Cut to the train yard manager, who for no particularly good reason is played by Rosario Dawson. I wouldn't normally comment on a casting decision like that, but Scott has managed to populate the movie with a cast that look as though they're been hastily carved from potatoes, so it's jarring to have Dawson running the show. Rosario gets to explain to us, the feeble-minded audience, just how bad this could be. We know we're the feeble minded audience, because, for goodness sake, we just handed over some of our own money to watch a Tony Scott film.

Well, it's all terribly bad, but it could be worse. Rosario's got a cunning plan to divert the train into a siding before it does any damage. So she details one of her slacker staff to go and throw the switch for the siding and sends Ethan Supplee (remember, the genius who pulled off the original bonehead mistake, just the guy you'd hire to sort it out) in pursuit of the train to catch up with it. But the train's moving faster that they thought it was. They thought it was just coasting, but Ethan's left the engine running, and it's picking up speed. And in the immortal words of Goose from Mad Max, it's headed straight for population.

Ethan and his only slightly less stupid sidekick head off down the road after the train and make an entirely plausible mess of trying to match speed with a speeding train in a pickup truck on a parallel road. And with that, the train company's run out of easy fixes. Rosario tells her boss to derail the train, which is apparently filled with explodium (or molten phenol, which doesn't even sound like a real thing, but turns out to be somewhat real, though not as dangerous as this). The company's having none of this, and instead cooks up a bizarrely dangerous scheme involving putting a train in front of the runaway so that it will run into the back end and slow down enough so that they can lower an engine driver from a helicopter. While all that's being planned, we have various bits of hijinks with the train running through small villages flattening horseboxes and nearly hitting a train full of school kids. The train full of school kids is supposed to be ironic, I think, but it winds up just looking stupid. It's the company's school train safety train. The idea that a train company in the US would have an outing for kids to learn about train safety by being IN a train just doesn't make any sense at all, except as a mechanism for a movie to put moppets in peril. Which is forgiveable, but the moppets are no sooner in peril than they're back out of it, so it's a complete waste of time which could have been better used.

Anyhow, it fills in the time until the corrupt company bosses can pull off their bonehead move with the train and the helicopter. And it goes super-wrong, as all first plans in all movies do. The slowing-things-down train isn't heavy or powerful enough to slow down the train from in front of it by putting the brakes on, and the helicopter just succeeds in smearing the volunteer engine driver along the top of the runaway engine. Which was only to be expected. There you are, with a train going at 70 miles an hour in open countryside, and you've got a guy you want to lower from a chopper onto it. What do you do, hot shot, what do you do? Well, I'm guessing that you don't hang the poor rube off a hundred feet of rope for no good reason, when for the same money you could match speeds with the train - which is not, after all, in a position to - you know - swerve - and get in close enough that your engine driver could practically step out of the chopper onto the roof of the train instead of swinging round like a yo yo. And you'd probably also warn off the three news choppers swooping in and out of your way. They skimped on these simple steps, with inevitable results. It all goes horribly wrong and the engine driver in the slowing-things-down train is immolated when his train gets blown out of the way by the runaway.

Which is where I get vexed with the whole dumb moppets in peril thing. The helicopter and so on might be stupid, but it's good moviemaking; it looks great and it's carried off well, and it would have been even better if it had had ten minutes of prep. The doomed engine driver is played by David Warshofsky, who's like the Canadian Will Patton, and he gets a little scene at the very beginning to annoy Chris Pine, and then gets all crispy doing the right thing. It would have been so much better to give the actor some more screen time to put some emotional tension into the scene and drop the moppets.

Anyhow, plan A goes horribly wrong, and they move to plan B, which involves trying - at last - to derail the train. Which now looks like a dumb idea, because i) they've run out of unpopulated countryside to try it in and ii) the runaway is now going so fast that the derailing devices aren't likely to work. But evil corporate don't listen to Rosario or Denzel when they point this out, so Denzel has to go rogue with his much simpler plan to reverse up behind the runaway, hook up to it and then it full throttle heading the opposite direction. Corporate are terribly displeased about this, and threaten to fire him, so Denzel reminds them that they already have fired him and he's just working out his notice. I thought THAT cliché was only allowed in cop movies.

Anyhow, the tension's being screwed up to the sticking point at this stage, since the runaway is only minutes away from the derailer an if that fails, it's only a few minutes away from Stanton, and the infamous Stanton curve, which is high over the city, and surrounded by oil storage tanks, and which the runaway will surely fall off if it heads into it at 70 miles an hour. Still just enough time for plan B to be tried, and just before it, Plan A1, which sees the Pennsylvania state police opening fire on the train. A cutaway to a news programme tells us that they were trying to shoot out a fuel cut off switch on the side of the train which would have just made it coast to a halt when the engine stopped drawing fuel. While this seemed monumentally stupid, it did at least answer my question when I first saw the trailer for the movie and wondered why the police were carrying guns into action against a runaway train. Anyhow, as you'd expect, this is a failure, though not quite on the scale it deserves to be. Let's all shoot at the fuel tanks of the train made of explodium really oughtn't to be a bullet point on anyone's contingency plans.

In due turn, the derailing exercise fails, and the last chance left is Denzel and Chris' rogue plan to slow the thing down using a non-stupid idea. Which involves much sparks and running along the top of the train and Chris Pine having to jump from a pick up truck doing 70 miles an hour onto the front of the runaway, and you know, general high jinks and tension of all kinds.

I'm not really giving anything away when I say that this just about works, and they save the day, so that Chris' wife and Denzel's daughters (who all just happen to live in Stanton) are not all turned into charcoal by the explodium train crashing into the explodium storage tanks. And Denzel's getting fired is reversed, and the evil corporate stooges are all fired. But Denzel's daughters DO apparently have to go on working in Hooters to pay for their college tuition.

In reality all, this happened in Ohio countryside, and the runaway train never got above 45 miles an hour, and using a train in reverse seems to have been the first thing which occurred to the train company. The tactic was so successful that it got the train down to 11 mph and a "trainmaster" (which is just the coolest job title I've seen all week) ran along beside it to jump on and switch the engine off. The train did get to be a runaway in exactly the way the movie shows, although the guy it got away from was a 35 year veteran who knew exactly what he was doing, rather than an idiot. And no-one got hurt and there was no real property damage either. Most surprisingly of all, the train crew sent to slow the train down was made up of a veteran and a rookie. So the beginning of the movie is about right, and the end's roughly accurate, and the whole middle of it - well, when they tell you something is inspired by real events, they're really telling you that they made all the exciting stuff up. Except for that bit about the police trying to shoot the fuel switch. That apparently happened. Didn't work any better in real life than it does in the movies.

And in reading up all this I found out the answer to the most frustrating piece of dialogue in the whole movie, when the police ask Rosario why the deadman switch doesn't just stop the train. Rosario flips it off by saying that "there's a wand the driver has to hit, but that's not the point right now". Turns out that trains don't have something as simple as a dead man switch, because they're too easy to defeat. They have a vigilance switch, which you have to hit when it beeps. If you don't, the brakes engage. But the brakes on a train don't do as much to stop it as you'd expect them to - on the real life runaway the engine brakes cut in, but the engine had too much momentum for them, and they just burnt out. So there's that answered.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Chaos Walking: Patrick Ness

Since it's inevitable that I'm going to niggle about things, let's get the important thing out of the way; Patrick Ness has written three very fine books - or rather one very fine book in three volumes. A lot of the best stuff I've read in the last few years has been aimed at children, and I am coming round to the idea that there's some odd version of Einstein's great dictum in play. Einstein used to say that if you couldn't explain what you're doing to a four year old child, you should stop doing it, which is advice which works at so many different levels. I wonder if something similar isn't true about writing fiction. Or perhaps it's just that I'm reading only the very good stuff.

Chaos Walking has a very strong anti-war message, but it's rather less simple minded than most anti-war tracts, because the core message is that war is never good, no matter what the reason. And the important part is "no matter what the reason". There's a thread running through all three books that you can only bring war to an end if you put to one side any idea of justified retribution, because your retribution becomes the cause of the next retaliation. Mind you, Robert Littell put the whole idea much more pithily in a wonderful little spy novel called Walking Back the Cat "I don't care who's right. What matters is who's left." The only way forward is to let the past bury the past and look to what you can do now to make things better.

The message is sold on a lot of different levels, but the cleverest part of the approach is that the three narrators, for different reasons, are all equally ignorant of the causes and true villains of the earlier war which is driving the war they find themselves caught up in. Throughout the three volumes, they get told different versions of the background, but never hear anything solid, and by the end of the third book, the reader still doesn't know how the first war started, or how it truly ended. It's very unusual for a children's book to embed a large mystery at the heart of its narrative and leave it completely unresolved at the end, but it's a hugely important part of the lesson that Ness is trying to get across; that for all that we say it's important to understand the past, it's all too easy to get stuck in it. Only people who are free of the past can build the future.

Which is all very well as far as it goes, but how do the books work as fiction? How well do they drive the narrative forward and get you to buy into the characters?

Not as well as he could have. Now that's usually damning someone with faint praise, but here I'm measuring the work overall against its best bits, and its best bit is so good that everything else seems a little washed out in comparison. First, let me move away from the abstract and into the particular.

The first viewpoint character is Todd Hewitt, the youngest boy in a small settlement town on a newly colonised planet. We meet him when he's a month off his 14th birthday, when he will become a man, and it's through his uneducated eyes - eyes that have never known another way of living - that we see his world. There are no women in it; his small town, Prentisstown, has only men and this one remaining boy. And there is no quiet in the town; every man's thoughts are broadcast in "the Noise" a kind of involuntary telepathy which seems to be a side effect of a biological weapon used by the original inhabitants of the planet in the war that was fought against the colonists before Todd was old enough to understand. The same weapon killed all the women and left the town to wither and die with no future and a present built of loss.

Before long Todd is on the run from his town and fleeing into the wider world, where he starts to realise that what he's been told about the past may not have been true. And in his flight he stumbles over Viola, a girl his own age who's the only survivor of a crashed scout ship from the next wave of colonists. And together they FIGHT CRIME. No, of course they don't fight crime. And the stumbling's rather elegant; it's actually the fact that he's found what appears to be the only girl on the planet that precipitates Todd going on the run at all. There are very few arbitrary coincidences in the narrative; almost everything happens because someone has meant it to happen that way, usually for sinister reasons which much later become apparent.

So there's Todd and Viola on the run, accompanied by Todd's faithful, idiotic and TALKING dog. Because the Noise affects everything; every animal has a voice, though the voices of the animals are much simpler than those of the men. It's a testament to Ness' skill that although Manchee the dog has a vocabulary of less than a dozen words, he's somehow a fully fleshed out character and what happens to him matters. And chasing after them is the whole town of Prentisstown. At first it seems like it's just a posse led by the Mayor, but as the first book unfolds we start to see that the Mayor of Prentisstown is much madder than he seemed at first meeting and that the posse is actually the whole town on the march to war, a war which has been long planned to start when the last boy became a man.

The balance of the narrative is about that war; the way that at first the Prentisstown army fights the other towns, and wins only to face the moral problems which come with victory and occupation and the bigger problems which come when the undermined occupation forces come under assault from the natives Todd had been told were wiped out.

The first book is in Todd's voice alone; the second book joins Viola's to the narrative, and in the third the voice of one the natives comes into play. Todd was too young to see the first war; Viola wasn't even on the planet and the native was, like Todd, just a child when the world fell apart. None of them know who really started the first war or how it was brought to a close; none of them know how all the women in Prentisstown died. And as I said at the outset, none of those questions is ever really answered. Through all three volumes Todd carries his mother's diary, but it's never read to the reader. At first Todd's illiteracy stops him from reading it - and brilliantly, his shame about his illiteracy means that he won't admit to anyone else that he needs help reading it - and later, when other people read it to him, there's room for doubt that he's really hearing what's on the page. To the end, the diary remains an enigma.

The unabashed villain of the piece is the Mayor of Prentisstown, but he's a great villain, forever hovering between out and out bastardy and apparent reasonableness. The relationship between the Mayor and Todd is at the heart of the work; can the Mayor corrupt Todd? Can Todd reform the Mayor? Is the Mayor a complete monster or is he just doing his best and getting it horribly wrong? There's a great case of supporting characters, and they're impressively complex; the leader of the resistance to the occupation is a great depiction of what's good and bad in the kind of people who can run a resistance movement. And Ness does a wonderful job with the talking animals; without ever making them anthropomorphic, he makes them real and vital and when they go into harms way it matters every bit as much as it does when the humans do.

All that said, the heart and soul of the whole work is Todd. His voice is the most vivid and compelling; his view of things puts you right inside the head and heart of a real person. The other two narrative voices are much less distinctive and strong; they get the job done, but they don't bite into the reader the way Todd's does. As a result, the first book, which is in Todd's voice alone, is by far the best read. I have a suspicion that Ness didn't get as much time to work on the other two as he did on the first, and that if he'd had more time to refine Viola and the native, they'd have been just as good. But this is, I have to say, a niggle. The first book is the best, but the other two are very good, and the ending of the whole work is spot on, bleak, but with an edge of hope to it.

What's very impressive is that Ness figured out a believable way to make 14 year olds IMPORTANT in a narrative. Kid's books always have kids as the viewpoint characters, but it never makes a button of sense that kids should be in the foreground of anything major. But Todd's important because he was the youngest child in the settlement, never having known any other world, and of totemic importance to the Mayor's insane plan of campaign. And Viola is critical because she's the only representative on the planet of the next wave of colonists; for the current colonists, whoever gets her on their side gets the new colonists on their side as well. So there's a solid and believable reason for everything to revolve around them, rather than the more usual thing of plucky kids just happening to get roped into things bigger than themselves.

I don't know if this is a classic for the future, or just a damn good book; I know that I'm looking forward to my nieces and nephews being old enough to get carried away by it.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Let the Right One In/Let Me in

First I read the book, then at the weekend I saw the original movie adaptation in Swedish and then on Wednesday I watched the US adaptation. I have to admit, the US adaptation was wilful perversity on my part. There's a point at which diminishing returns set in as you try to understand different takes on the same idea.

The book is, on balance, the most satisfying version of the story. With translations it's hard to tell whether you're reading good writing or a good translation (so I don't know if I'd hate the Millennium Trilogy the same way if I could read it in the original Swedish) but the English translation of the book is a good read, well written and atmospheric. And with 480 pages to work in, Lindqvist is able to bring all his characters to life and create a fairly detailed and rich evocation of the Stockholm housing estate in the 1980s which forms the background for the action. Movies have to get the job done in the equivalent of no more than 150 pages, and everything you put on the screen costs money. Every character is a cost; that's one of the major differences between books and movies. A movie will always reduce and condense the dramatic personae of a book.

Both the movies strip the story down to its essentials; lonely boy meets child vampire in rundown housing estate, gradually realises that the child is a vampire, and eventually runs away from his miserable life into an unknown future with the vampire. Everything that isn't essential to putting this across is cut away. What's left in the movies is satisfying in different ways, but if you've come to them having first read the book, you're acutely conscious of how much has been lost.

The Swedish movie was scripted by Lindqvist, and he tried to keep as much as he can of the wider world of the estate. Major subplots involving the lonely boy's mother and the police got carved out completely, and the parallel track of the indigent drunks, who are both the main victims of the child vampire and the only people who come close to figuring out what's going on, is cut back to the bare minimum; instead of the deeply realised characters of the books, we get quick sketches of recognisable types. The same thing happens with the school bullies who in the book have a much more complex back story and a more ambiguous relationship with the boy; the trio of bullies get knocked back to simple bully stereotypes. It had to be done, really. The main story needs all the room it can find, and there's just no room for the complexities of the book.

The US version strips things down even more. The Swedish version kept the boy's father as an actual character, but the US remake cuts him back to a voice on the phone, and the neighborhood deadbeats lose their identities almost completely. Their role as the de facto investigators of the vampire killings is taken over by what appears to be the only police detective in Los Alamos. Setting the US version in 1983 Los Alamos is a weirdly inspired move because we never see Los Alamos in the movies and when we do, it's not covered in snow. Somehow, it looks like the last place in the world anyone would ever want to live. It's actually grubbier and more downbeat than social housing in Sweden, but then again, Sweden's probably a nicer country than the US to live in if you're poor anyhow.

So those are the gross differences. Read the book if you want to get a deeper and more involving story and a much stronger sense of how Sweden ticks. Watch the movies if you want to see a vampire story about kids which isn't really suitable for kids. Both movies keep everything low key and simple; if you buy the idea that vampires are possible, everything else makes perfect sense. Life as a vampire comes across as tough and empty and depressing - life as a vampire's minder comes across as even worse. Yet the life of a lonely twelve year old boy beset by bullies and with no friends and a family that's falling apart can make even life with a vampire seem like a better deal than hoping that his life will get better if he stays put. Far more than the book, the movies work to the extent that the child actors can sell their characters.

In the US version, the boy (Owen in the US version) is MUCH creepier than the boy (Oskar) is in the Swedish version - which is much less true to Lindqvist's original character. In a way, it's easier to imagine Owen going over to the dark side than it is to imagine Oskar doing it, because in the opening moments of the movie, Owen already seems halfway there as he spies on his neighbors while wearing a Michael Myers mask. Oskar seems sad and lost; Owen seems like he's got a good chance of being a serial killer when he grows up, even if Mother Theresa turns out to be the new neighbor.

And then there's the vampire; Eli in the Swedish version, Abby in the US version. I think that Chloe Moretz is this decade's answer to Christina Ricci and Natalie Portman, a child performer with such ridiculous poise and charisma that almost anything is possible for her. And I have to admit that I was a little irritated that she took up this role. In a few short years, she'll be an adult; the time in which her unique ability as a CHILD actor can be used is terribly limited. To throw it away on a remake ... but as John points out, it's not as though there are a huge number of roles for children in the first place. And I have to be fair. It's an interesting challenge for a child actor. Weirdly, I think that Lina Leandersson in the Swedish movie shades it, because she's a more ethereal looking actress and somehow conveys a greater sense of alienness (though I discovered just now that her voice was too high, and they dubbed in an actor with a deeper voice for her lines, which may account for some of the distancing). Moretz is GOOD, don't get me wrong. She can't not be good. But her Abby is not quite as out there as Leandersson's Eli.

Both movies pull their punches on key icky bits in the book. In the book, Eli/Abby's minder is a pedophile who Eli has hooked in and enthralled while keeping him at a distance physically. In the Swedish movie, the pedophile element was dialled right back, and in the US version it was removed altogether - though I actually liked the revision because in one minor shot, we see that the minder was once a child Owen's age, and he's grown old trying to help the unchanging girl he loved; that one shot (of a faded photograph) presages Owen's future, and we get to see Owen appreciate this and still later accept the price. There's something very strong and sad in that moment. The other pullback is that in the book, Eli isn't a girl at all, but a boy who was castrated before being turned to a vampire. The Swedish movie doesn't explain the back story, but in one quick shot shows the mutilation as Oskar watches Eli change into his mother's dress; in the US movie, the same scene doesn't show the scar; I suspect it's going to be a deleted scene on the DVD because the whole scene is set up for the same reveal, yet it doesn't happen.

These are things which probably only matter to someone like me who's overdone his exposure to the whole thing; really, all three versions are solid work. I like it that both the movies keep things very simple and light on special effects; the climax, where Eli/Abby rips the bullies apart in a swimming pool, is done very simply in both movies, with Oskar/Owen being held below the water and seeing only bits of body falling past him. Cheap to shoot, but also a great way to show the violence without showing it.

The films work because the love story works, which works because the actors - all four, in the two different versions - do a fine job of getting us to buy into their loneliness and need for each other. That's the heart of the thing; that's what makes them worth seeing. But it's worth pointing out that the US version also made John jump a foot in the air when the investigating cop meets his untimely end. A movie is doing good work when that happens.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Due Date; first, hire two actors, then see what happens

If it weren't for the fact that it's awfully hard to stage a car crash and a car chase in most theatres, I'd say that Due Date would make a perfectly good two handed stage show. It's absolutely anchored in the interaction and reactions of the two lead actors. Luckily, they went out and got two lead actors who could carry it off.

It's not a great movie; it's not even a great script. But it carries it off, just, because the leads are up to the challenge.

Robert Downey Junior is having, as I've said before, one of the great second acts of an American acting career. He is not, however, just playing to his familiar strengths. Since he came back out of oblivion, he's been playing various likeable characters who have problems. In Due Date, he's playing an unlikeable character. He's not a bad person; it's just that he's tense, and judgmental and far too impatient with everyone. He tries to be relaxed and calm and nice to people, but you can see how it's an effort (there's an early scene with a limo driver where you get a perfect sense of the character; Downey makes no effort at all to connect with the driver; the limited conversation is obviously something he's just enduring till he can get out of the car and never see him again). This is not quite the loveable Downey we've seen in other things.

Zach Galifanakis keeps weirding me out when I see him. It's because I first saw him as the pathologist in Tru Calling, where he was playing a pretty straight role as an educated grown up with a responsible job. So it's been odd watching him in the Hangover and Due Date as an overgrown flabby man-child with absolutely no sense of what's allowed for grown ups. Due Date's Ethan Tremblay is nothing all that new for anyone who's seen The Hangover, although it is different. This is a much sunnier character, though equally out of his depth in the real world. What's astonishing is the way Galifanakis sells it. It's far harder than it looks to play someone too stupid to realise that he's stupid (there's a standout moment when Ethan dismisses the idea that the Grand Canyon could possibly be a natural feature - it takes real genius to get an audience to buy the idea that there's anyone dumb enough to stand in front of the Grand Canyon and STILL think someone dug it out).

And that's the whole job done, boys and girls; the interactions between the blissfully deluded Galifanakis and the uptight Downey. Its drags on a bit at times, but it has moments of real power; there's a scene when Downey leans down to comfort Galifanakis after a truly disastrous incident with Galifanakis's father's cremated remains. Downey's character can't stand Galifanakis at this point, but it makes perfect sense that in a moment this bad, he would transcend his dislike. Another actor might not have made it work; Downey nails it.

And two thirds of the way through it kicks everything up a gear in comedy terms; there's a jailbreak cum car chase which is such magnificent physical comedy that I just burst out laughing at the beginning and kept laughing all the way through. It was a long time building up to the punchline, but once it took up a notch, for a while, Due Date was one of the funnier things I've seen this year.

The Tourist: Olen Steinhauer

As the Tourist drew to a close, I was all set to get quite annoyed with it, because it was wrapping up in a hurried and confusing way. It's a rather literary book, and it takes its own sweet time setting up the character and situations. So when the last forty or so pages started introducing twists and almost immediately tying them off, I was thinking, "Well, this is a bit of a mess for someone with five novels under his belt."

Turns out, I was being unfair. The Tourist is the first of three or four books, at a guess, and it's filling the role of origin story of sorts for its main cast. I'm not sure I want to find out what happens to them next, but I have to give points to Steinhauer for the way he sets up the end of the book as the beginning of the story.

That said, it's hard enough going. There's not a lot of action, and most of the characters are different levels of unlikeable, so that on the one hand you're stuck with people who you're not even meant to like much, and on the other hand, there's not much going on to distract you from the unlikeability.

I'm not qualified to say anything terrible insightful about the way the book depicts spying. The central conceit - the main plank for the whole sequence, I imagine - is that the CIA has a black ops unit called the Tourists, who are completely unaccountable and go around killing and torturing people for the greater glory of the US. This is a recurring theme in bad movies and TV shows; I've long ago lost track of how many times TV has introduced us to a super elite team of spies who operate above top secret. Alias seemed to be intent on inventing ever more arcane levels of unaccountability, for example. I got the impression that Steinhauer had watched some of this stuff and thought to himself, yeah, that's all very well and good, but in real life you'd go nuts doing that, wouldn't you?.

This is almost certainly true, but it isn't necessarily that much fun to read about. The main viewpoint character, Milo Weaver, is introduced to us just as the lifestyle really starts to catch up with him, as he flounders through his last mission as a Tourist in a haze of booze and amphetamines. At one level, I can completely see it. A clandestine agent would be under a lot of stress and with no real limits on what he could get away with, he'd be in a position to self medicate to manage the stress. It's just somehow Steinhauer doesn't get me believing in Weaver as someone who's depending on alcohol. He's not hazy enough, or disorganised enough and he makes the transition away from it unbelievably quickly. We have to buy into the idea that the love of a good, entirely random, woman turns his life around, and that's just too Hollywood compared to all the other efforts to make it real and gritty.

Still, there's some interesting stuff going on around the edges of the book, in what I surmise is the master plot. Steinhauer has already written five novels which were an exploration of the decline of communism in a fictitious Eastern European country. With these books, he seems to be trying to write an extended critique of the national security state as practised in the USA; both the endless expansion of the security organs of government and the shabby uses to which the organs are put. There are some interesting thoughts hovering in the wings here, but it's clear that it's going to take more books to put them out there.

Some things did ring false. A master plot mechanism seems to be the idea of former spies holing up in the unlikely venue of the UN and working against the worst excesses of the national security agencies. I know just enough about the military committee of the UN security council to view this with immense scepticism. It's a lovely idea, but it doesn't fit with the historical development of the UN as an organisation. Most importantly, the idea that the UN could have a black budget is hilarious. I've sat in on budget negotiations for UN agencies, and I wouldn't claim for a second that UN budgeting is lean or exact; what I will say is that it's VERY scrutinised. The UN gets its money from levies on the member states, and everyone pokes around at it; the people who chip in are convinced they should chip in less, and the people who take out are determined to get their cut from it.

Still, it's nice to dream. The Tourist will have a sequel out one of these days and maybe I'll check it out.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Black Out/All Clear: Connie Willis, but even more so

Some time in the late 1980s, I read Connie Willis' breakthrough book, Doomsday Book. It remains for me one of the most perfect pieces of Science Fiction ever written, but you don't have to take my word for it; when Doomsday Book came out, it started the process of hurling awards at Willis which has quite rightly continued ever since. Doomsday Book is a wonderful, heartbreaking book, and in many ways the best book ever written about time travel. Part of what makes it a wonderful book about time travel is that it's a wonderful book about time travel, not a wonderful book about time machines. Willis has gone back time and again to the characters and milieu of Doomsday Book, but she's never bothered to explain her vision of time travel in any detail, any more than Jack Kerouac took time out in On the Road to explain the workings of the internal combustion engine. Good writing is about people and predicaments, not about stuff.

Black Out and All Clear come to almost 1200 pages between them, and I spent most of both books torn between wishing there was more and wishing there was a whole lot less. It's a frustrating pair of books about frustration.

I should clarify that point; Willis, for almost twenty years now, has written mostly about frustration; not the towering kind, but the minor kind, when you're trying to do something important to you and no matter what you do, tiny things and minor characters seem to keep stepping into the frame and blocking the clear path forward. It's probably not a coincidence that she takes a long time to write her novels. Bellwether, one of her finest short novels, is entirely about an entire team of people trying to derive a scientific understanding of crowd behaviour and being frustrated at every turn by an incompetent assistant. The assistant is scatty but likeable, and the whole panorama of minor reverses is depicted with such sharp observation that the resolution of the plot comes as a complete surprise to the reader; so much time has been lost to digression that, just like in real life, the punch line comes as a surprise simply because it resolves the plot, rather than because it resolves it in a unexpected way.

It's not ridiculous to say that what Connie Willis does is a little bit like street magic. While the patter and the handwaves hold your attention, deep in the background everything is being moved relentlessly into the position where all will be revealed.

I spent a lot of the time in Black Out and All Clear discovering Willis' influences, or perhaps just the books she enjoys. She likes Wodehouse, and Christie, and Sayers and Jerome K Jerome; a bevy of writers who excelled in sharp dialogue, astute misdirection and plots which were simple on first examination, complex on reflection and transcendentally simple on careful reconsideration. I'm not actually a fan of Christie now that I'm older, but I read a lot of her books when I was younger and she was quite possibly peerless at the odd art of sending the reader off at a tangent to what was really going on. And during her mid period, she wrote wonderfully offhand sarcastic dialogue. I single her out because she actually has a cameo in All Clear, and her books are constantly referred to in the text; Sayers gets the occasional mention, but for Jerome and Wodehouse you have to infer it from the way she writes.

The two books take three time travellers and dump them into the blitz, stranding them so that they can't get out. It's one of the iron rules of Willis' vision of time travel that travellers are only observers; the space time continuum will protect itself from tampering by not letting them even travel to any place where their actions might change the course of history. So in each of her multiple books about the history faculty of Oxford University, the travellers are frustrated in their efforts to get to specific locations by the laws of time travel and the elusive concept of slippage, which stops them from going exactly where they want and allows Willis to have all kinds of fun putting them in places where countless minor inconveniences will get in the way of them completing their mission. So at first when the three protagonists are stuck, they think it's just another example of slippage; it's only very gradually that it dawns on them that they're stranded and they can't get out.

I can only imagine the frustration of Willis' editors. Her last novel, Passage, was far too long, an endless sequence of trivial setbacks and reverses which didn't advance the plot but were important to the misdirection at the heart of the book and to building up the sense of the characters. But in a sense, Passage's real problem was that Willis seemed to be reluctant to pull the trigger on her cast; she was writing a book about death, and inevitably characters were going to have to confront death, but it took an age to get there. Black Out and All Clear have some of the same problem, and Willis has been very open about the fact that it all began as a single novel and got out of control.

In essence, there's not a lot in play. Three time travellers are stuck in a dangerous part of the past. How will they get out? Will they even get out at all? Will they destroy history in the process? Sorting this out doesn't have to take 1200 pages, but it did. And there were moments - in fact hours - when I wondered just how much longer this was all going to take. The slow process of realisation, the hundreds of setbacks, the constant misunderstandings, are all documented in detail. Many of the misunderstandings are massive fakeouts; I genuinely lost count of the number of times where I was asked to believe that a key character had died, only to be shown the same events from another perspective in the next chapter and realise that they hadn't died at all.

And many of the characters DO die, but the weird thing is that most of the real deaths are approached obliquely and not depicted or even reflected on at all. This can be quite jarring when you, the reader, have already had to live through the fake deaths as though they were real and cope with the reactions of the other characters.

And yet, and yet. Willis writes so well, and creates so many three dimensional characters that by the time I'd finished, my main feeling was profound frustration that I hadn't seen more of them. The editors obviously got out some big sticks toward the end of things because compared to the stately set up of the first book and most of the second, the ending feels almost rushed, and I wanted to know more of the details of all the things which were being skipped past.

One thing which struck me all the way through; Willis' approach to sex and romance feels as though it's from a bygone age of propriety. None of the viewpoint characters ever really gets beyond flirting. Given the immense emotional turmoil they ought to have been feeling, in any other book they'd have been at it like rabbits, but everything is much more buttoned down and prim in Willis' view of the world. And I honestly found it rather refreshing. I miss that outlook on life, and I wish it was more prevalent. Oh well,

All in all, Black Out and All Clear are a frustrating, but ultimately very satisfying read, and I suspect that they may be exactly what Willis wanted; that all the awkward pacing and sense of "but I wanted to know more" was exactly what she was trying to set up. For anyone who hasn't read her at all, I'd still start with Doomsday Book and see whether you like it, but for anyone who already knows Willis' work, I can't imagine you're still waiting around to read it.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Burke and Hare; Apparently Scotland has no actors

I've a longstanding affection for John Landis, largely based on the films which didn't make a lot of money (as opposed to crowd pleasing crap like Trading Places). I still think that American Werewolf in London is one of the most perfect movies I've ever seen, purely because I've never seen another movie which manages to box the compass so successfully between comedy and drama and tragedy. Everything is in there, and if it doesn't sound ridiculous to say it about a werewolf movie, it's one of the most realistic movies I've ever seen. Not because of the creature effects, but because real life isn't as monotone as movies; in fact, the worse things get in real life, the funnier everyone gets. It's how people cope.

Anyhow, when I saw that Landis was directing Burke and Hare, I thought, that's worth taking a chance on. It's a grisly subject, but if anyone could figure out a way to make me care about bodysnatchers and make me laugh along the way, I figured Landis had a shot at it.

I figured wrong. Either Landis doesn't got it any more, or I've changed and he was never really what I remembered. Mind you, lots of people seem to have thought that Landis could bring it; the movie's a tapestry of Brit actors and director cameos. Some of them are no guarantee of anything; I mean, I like Tim Curry, but as far as I can tell he picks his roles the way drunks order off kebab trucks. Tim's been in some terrible movies, and he's often BEEN the terrible part of the movie. But Tom Wilkinson's never less than solid, and I've never seen Andy Serkis put in a bad performance. Mind you this might be the first time I've seen Andy Serkis get all the way to the end of a movie without dying horribly. (In King Kong he actually dies horribly twice, that's how committed he is to dying horribly). Simon Pegg's always pleasant to watch, and it was nice to see Ronnie Corbett getting work.

The challenge is how do you make a couple of scumbags funny and sympathetic enough for comedy protagonists? Because Burke and Hare were scumbags, it's that simple. Partly, you do it by showing the first couple of body sales as a matter of taking advantage of accidents, and then you skim over the multiple murders that followed. Partly you do it by showing how down on their luck a couple of Irish laborers in Edinburgh would be once the canal building craze tapers off. But mostly, you hope that Pegg and Serkis can sell it, and that's asking too much of them. They're both sound actors but there's only so much you can do with basic likeability; the script just doesn't push them to something big enough to involve the viewer in his gut.

The thing which baffles me is that they couldn't find any Irish or Scottish actors for the principal roles. You've for Serkis and Pegg playing guys from Donegal (it's jarring to hear Pegg get the pronunciation of Donegal JUST wrong every time he mentions it; how did the dialect coach let that one through?), and Curry, Wilkinson and Corbett and Bill Bailey playing Scots. Pretty much every principal speaking role is played by someone who has to fake the accent. Why? It's a great cast, but it's not a big name cast, for goodness sake. Of course, I'm sitting here typing this and I can't think of anyone Scottish to hire.

The biggest misstep in the whole thing is the decision to put an all-girl production of MacBeth into the middle of the plot. Burke's motivation is that he wants the money to impress a girl, but it's just bonkers that the girl he's decided to impress needs money for something as whimsically stupid as an all girl MacBeth. It's a great big horrible distraction in the middle of something which ought to be a lot more focused and grim.

Which is not to say that there aren't little pleasures along the way. Pegg and Serkis get in a lot of clever little moments together, and there's always the fun in every Landis movie of looking out for the director cameos (my favourite is hiding Costas Gavras in a family photograph). And the film closes with a gag that makes you realise what might have been done if they'd got a bit more serious. After a wrapup in which Bill Bailey tells us what happened to all the major characters afterwards, the camera moves through a Victorian looking museum, tagging it University Edinburgh medical school. Pause. Present Day. And the camera settles on a skeleton hanging in a case. The actual skeleton of the actual William Burke, who wound up being used for dissection after Hare sold him out and he was hanged for all the murders. it's a grimly funny moment, and it's a shame that the movie only finds the right tone in the very last shot.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

RED: good simple minded fun

Comic book adaptations seem to work best when they pick a comic book no-one's really heard of. The Losers was an adaptation of a comic book I'd never heard of. So was Kick-Ass. X-Men was an adaptation of a whole bunch of comic books I'd heard of. So was Iron Man 2. Actually, I'm missing the point here. If a comic book gets famous enough that I've heard about it before the movie comes out, that usually means that it's mutated out of control and that it's too self important for its own good, full of back story and mythology and the lord knows what all. The small scrappy ones I've never heard of just get on with their jobs and do whatever it was that one or two people wanted to do. Lots of personal visions are really best kept that way, but collective visions are - well, X-Factor is vast telephone-voting-enabled shared vision of what celebrity for nonentities ought to look like, do I need to put together a powerpoint deck?

Anyhow, I'd never heard of RED before the trailer hit me between the eyes a couple of months ago and gave me something to look forward to. They had me with Bruce Willis stepping nonchalantly out of a spinning cop car as though he was getting out of a parked golf buggy. Helen Mirren as a stone cold assassin was just bonus points.

Sadly, nearly all the cool action beats are already in the trailer and if all you want is an explodey evening out you can pick up the trailer before something else and not have missed the things which matter to you. But if you'd like a little bit more with your explosions, RED's got that, and it's mostly down to the women.

Helen Mirren effortlessly takes over every scene she's in, which is no mean feat when you have to share the screen with the likes of John Malkovich in playful mood, Morgan Freeman, and Brian Cox playing a gloomy Russian to the hilt. They could have made a whole movie called the Adventures of Victoria and everyone in the cinema would have walked out of this one to see it, because Helen Mirren sold perfectly the idea of someone who'd got so good at shooting people that she could do it without mussing her hair or being slowed up by retirement. There's one wonderful little moment during the climactic caper which sells the whole character; having infiltrated the political conference venue in heels, it's time to get serious, and Malkovich's character shows up to take Victoria's heels and pass her a pair of combat boots which she steps into matter of factly. Girl always has to have the RIGHT footwear. Took five seconds to show it, cost nothing to shoot, spoke volumes. Masterly.

There was a time when no-one would have expected Mary Louise Parker to last five seconds on screen with Helen Mirren before being burned up and blown back out of the frame, but she's taken her kookiness and made something very compelling out of it as she's headed into her forties. A lot of the front half of the movie depends on the chemistry between her and Willis, and she's wonderfully convincing as someone scatty and likeable. RED's a surprisingly warm movie for a comic book adaptation about stone cold killers running round murdering people all over the place, and Mary Louise is the source of most of the warmth; she's a warm presence and everyone else in the case warms up around her.

Those are the standout performances, really. Willis is his usual self, which is fine with me; I like him best as a wise-cracking badass and being an OLD wisecracking badass lets him get back to why John McClane worked so well in Die Hard; Willis is a great action hero because he's not remotely indestructible. He's a bit more indestructible here than he ought to be, but it's honestly come by; as the movie opens up with the character in retirement, we see him exercising and eating carefully and it somehow makes it a little more believable that he could still beat up younger guys in a fight. Malkovich is as good as the writing, which means his character is a bit all over the place, but he's game. And Cox and Morgan have yet to put in a bad performance and they're certainly not going to start here.

It's all great fun. The action's mounted pretty well, although it's heavily front loaded and the back half of the movie feels a bit more sluggish by comparison. The thing which weirded me out was that I think we were supposed to buy into the notion of Karl Urban's character becoming one of the good guys, and when I'm introduced to someone methodically faking a guy's suicide while he's hanging there tied up and begging for his life, I find it hard to warm up to him afterwards even if he turns out to be the spokesman for the popular front for the liberation of fluffy bunnies. It doesn't help that God very kindly blessed poor Karl with a face that has a natural bent for looking mean; he was a wonderful almost wordless bad guy all the way through the middle Bourne movie. Still that one bad mood-call apart, the movie does a nice job of giving you people to root for and putting them in just enough danger to get you invested.

I was sitting there thinking a sequel would be nice, when they ended the getaway with one of the better sequel hooks I've seen; Willis' character had to rope in Cox's Russian by promising him a favour, and Cox wants the favour paid off with a job in Moldova. Having set up the hook, they cut right to the sequel, with Willis and Malkovich trying to get away from the entire Moldovan army in a wheelbarrow. Somehow, I don't think we'll ever see how they got into that pickle, even if we do see some kind of sequel.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Despicable Me; movie villainy shouldn't be this heartwarming

Despicable Me is ridiculously charming. I can't work out how it gets way with it, because it ought to have brought me out in some kind of diabetic shock instead of making me feel all smiley. I'd been suckered in by the trailer, which features a thoroughly heartless depiction of Mr and Mrs Middle America going on holiday in Egypt and almost losing their kid to a terrible fall from rickety scaffolding onto the great pyramid. On the one hand, it makes US tourists look like fat expendable morons; on the other hand, it probably didn't cheer up the Egyptian foreign ministry much either. But it was a funny trailer and I thought, what the hell?

And the movie tries to stay true to this heartless glee at villainy for oh, it must be about ten minutes. After that, our dastardly anti-hero turns into the most put-upon of punch-clock villains and we're not in the movie I thought I was going to at all. Well, I didn't mind. As put upon punch clock villains go Gru is entertaining, and everything around him is funnier than he is, so it all works out fine. Gru's nemesis, Vector, is a nerd who might as well have been called Bill Gates, particularly after the second or third time that Gru tried to amp up his interchangeable minions by doing power point presentations in a turtleneck sweater. I imagine Bill won't sue, and Steve may not even notice. Scott Adams might; the evil bank manager at the Bank of Evil (formerly Lehman Brothers) is a three dimensional version of the pointy haired boss from Dilbert and I couldn't believe how little they did to make him look in any way different.

The reason the movie works is the minions and the three kids. The kids are wonderfully thought out; nothing like real kids, and yet terribly like real kids. Like all Hollywood children they're far too grown up, but whoever animated them gave them perfect childlike attitudes. It's perfectly plausible that they might make Gru see the error of his ways; they certainly had me rooting for them. And the minions are marvellous. I'd pay money to see a movie that was just about the minions. They're just somehow hilarious. They speak a high pitched gabble which is almost, but not quite, intelligible (the director voiced most of them) and they've got way more individuality than a horde of little yellow blobs in identical blue dungarees ought to have. Looking back on the move almost a week after I saw it, I couldn't tell you a single funny thing they actually do, but they're brilliant.

Actually, I can tell you one thing they do. They OWN the closing credits, which are also the only place where there's any point in the 3D glasses. Like most 3D movies, Despicable Me is in 3D for no good reason at all; nothing happens in the action that really benefits from the technology. But the closing credits are very imaginative; they feature the minions trying to reach out into the audience with longer and longer tools, and it's a perfect way to use the completely useless "oh look, here's something sticking out of the screen" effect which is all contemporary 3d amounts to.

Anyhow, it's all great fun when it really shouldn't be, and I sort of want Gru's car. it's little bigger than mine, and I shudder to think what the mileage would be, but it has a certain presence on the road.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Takers; the moral is that you need white guys to sort things out

Takers makes a useful parallel text for last week's The Town; flashy where the Town was all about being low key, stupid where The Town was trying to be intelligent and absolutely terrible with its female characters where The Town tried actually to HAVE female characters. In other words, it's kind of crap.

I'd hoped for a lot more, since it had Idris Elba, and Idris tends to elevate most things that he's in, almost as though David Simon had said to him "Listen, you. I brought you over from London because I needed something extra, and I gave you Stringer Bell to play. And if you ever do anything that makes Stringer Bell look bad, I'm going to get all those real criminals we hired for the Wire to come and beat you to within an inch of your useless limey life." Idris is good, and considering all they could think of to do with Marianne Jean-Baptiste, their other English ringer, was to make her into some kind of crack-addled idiot, she's good too. That's about all my good. It falls off a cliff a bit after that.

Idris is the ringleader of a gang of impossibly smooth bank robbers. Two of them are white dudes, and four of them are black. There's never any convincing reason put forward for how this weird mix would have happened, unless you want to buy into the idea that it's all happening in a parallel universe where colour doesn't matter in the USA any more. And honestly, I don't think that Obama's changed things THAT much yet. As a gang, they're profoundly annoying, because the whole point of their life of crime seems to be fuelling a non musical re-enactment of the rat pack. Hayden Christensen is one of the two white guys, and his characterisation consists entirely of a Frank Sinatra hat. The hat doesn't have any lines, but it's somewhat more recognisable than Christensen and has more personality than any of Idris' five subordinates.

Up against the gang is Matt Dillon as the driven robbery homicide detective trying to find them. It's been a long time since Matt Dillon was in any ways essential to anything, and his by-the-numbers driven cop is not going to change that. He's a wild card, dammit. He's a loose cannon. He's out of control. He roughs up suspects, but dammit, he gets results. Well, yeah. The one time we see him roughing up a suspect, what he beats out of him is the first name of the person who was arrested by the same officer who arrested the roughed up suspect. If Matt had asked the arresting officer who else he picked up that evening, he could have got MORE information than he got with the beat-up. Matt has a partner, who is even more of a cliche than he is; he's a family man, with a sick kid, who keeps telling Matt he should give more time to family. So inevitably the partner winds up making a big mistake to help his family, and it all ends sadly. Within moments of the foreshadowing scenes we're given, we know it can only go one way and drearily it goes that way.

Which is a shame, because the partner, in keeping with tradition, is played by a nice affable actor who's working harder with the material than it deserves. And there's one little twist in the thing which made me think that the writers were smart enough to go a better way; for the front half of the movie, Internal Affairs are eternally trying to get Matt Dillon to meet with them, and he keeps evading and ignoring them. As the final act begins, they finally manage to frog march him down to their offices and it turns out that they haven't been trying to charge him for all his random acts of violence but to warn him that his partner is dirty. The one genuinely novel thing in the whole movie is that Internal Affairs turn out to be pretty nice guys just doing their best to be human. A little more of that kind of thinking would have done the movie the world of good.

There's some good action set pieces, or what would be good action set pieces if they hadn't been jitter edited to the point where I think you could genuinely give someone a seizure by sitting them too close to the screen. The opening robbery is genuinely quite clever, and the big steal in the middle of the movie is a nice mix of careful planning and last minute improvisation which would have been better if it hadn't been edited in a blender. There's an exhausting foot chase which just goes on too long and almost seems to have been put in because the actor thought he was good at parkour. And there's a huge shootout in a hotel room which goes on too long, is too blender-edited, and steals way too much from the shootout at the end of True Romance without being anything like as interesting. Midway through it, Hayden Christensen gets shot to bits buying the rest of the gang time, making our first white martyr of the evening.

Anyhow, by this point it's all fallen apart into the classic big steal undercut by big betrayal, and the gang breaks up and gets picked off by the police until there's just the big traitor facing off with Idris and Matt in a three way shoot out which ends up with everyone shot, but the traitor still on his feet and ready to give Idris the coup de grace, when along comes the OTHER white member of the gang to shoot the traitor, rescue Idris and generally save the day. Amazingly this dumb cop out, "it takes a white guy to make everything work out properly" ending is not the most annoying thing in the movie because I have not touched on what happens with women.

The Town doesn't exactly have strong female characters; you've got Blake Lively playing a trashy bimbo who Affleck discards and Rebecca Hall playing the girl who gets taken hostage by the robbers and falls for Ben Affleck; I mean they're basically a pair of plot coupons and it's no accident that I barely described them in last week's review. But they're Joan Crawford with the whole damn movie to herself compared to what Takers gives the ladies to play with. Marianne Jean-Baptiste plays Idris Elba's crack addict older sister who exists mainly to disrupt Idris' plans and give him something human to worry about. Amazingly, they then hired Zoe Saldana to play the girlfriend of one of the gang, a girl so important that the whole betrayal plot is driven by the fact that she took up with a fresh gang member when her original boyfriend got jailed. This pivotal role has about five lines and she gets murdered off screen. This is Zoe Saldana. I'm not saying that she's the next Meryl Streep, but her talents are not negligible, and they give her less to do than Hayden Christensen's hat. For this crime alone, Takers is a terrible movie.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

The Town; Or the return of Bubba Rogowski

A few years ago, Ben Affleck directed an adaptation of Denis Lehane's Gone Baby Gone, and then had the misfortune to have it ready to release at just the wrong moment for releasing a film about child abduction. It was pretty well received, all the same, and along with Hollywoodland it was the beginning of Affleck's rehabilitation after a string of bad movies. The most distinctive thing about it was the way in which nothing looked prettied up; all the actors looked like those pictures of stars doing their shopping which are forever going up on the internet with astonished comments about how unremarkable and crappy they look when they haven't got their makeup on.

The Town is more of the same, and I don't mean that in a bad way; once again Affleck has gone out of his way to make South Boston look as naturalistic as he can, and it's to the film's benefit. Mind you, no amount of dialling down the makeup can do anything about Affleck's cheekbones or Jon Hamm's ridiculous levels of coolness, but somehow the movie struggles on despite these intrusive notes of glamour.

It's a strong little movie which lives and dies on the performances. With Gone Baby Gone, it was almost surprising how many people Ben Affleck had been able to talk into working with his kid brother in a deeply depressing detective movie. When that worked out, it automatically became a lot less surprising when he could get a good cast for the Town, but what's surprising is that he was able to get Victor Garber for what amounts to a non-speaking part; Garber gets about four words before being clubbed unconscious, and I spent the rest of the film wondering when we'd see the rest of him; nope, that was it. There's quite a bit of that; Chris Cooper's there as Affleck's dad, and they have one scene together which is just as good as you'd expect, but it doesn't really get anything done which needs to be done.

Anyhow, Affleck's the weakest link in some ways, which is hardly surprising with him trying to carry the lead AND direct the movie. It makes what I think was supposed to be a very detached character a little bit more detached than Affleck probably wanted. But it's fine, it just about works, and if he hadn't been up against Jon Hamm and Jeremy Renner it might not even have been noticeable. Sadly Hamm steals all the scenes he's in, no matter who else is there, and Jeremy Renner isn't far behind. Renner is one of those actors who does a very good job of portraying half-smart guys who are up for anything exciting - without him, The Hurt Locker would have been nothing like as good. In this movie, his whole character can be distilled down to one moment when Affleck tells him that he needs Renner to come with him to do a job of hurting people and that he can't ask why. Renner's reply: "Whose car we taking?".

The main plot of the Town is Affleck and three friends robbing banks, while Jon Hamm's FBI task force tries to catch them. It's like a very very low intensity version of Heat. It has several advantages over Heat, in that it's shorter and it isn't taking itself so damned seriously, and it isn't trying to pack in quite so many things. The Town is cheap and simple; boy robs bank, boy meets girl, boy tries to quit the life of crime, can't and loses girl. How well a thing like that will work will depend on whether you buy the romance and whether you buy the tension between the life Affleck is trying to leave behind and the life he wants. I'm still not sure about the romance, but the pressures keeping him in the life of crime are sketched in well, and overall, the emotional arc for Affleck felt right. There's a wonderful pay off moment as the film draws to a close and Affleck is on the run and reaching out by phone one last time to the girl. He knows that the FBI are with her as he phones her, and that she's going to try to get him to come to a trap, but still he wants to say goodbye. And as the conversation draws to a close, she manages to slip a warning into the conversation without tipping her hand to the feds, and Affleck gets to walk away knowing that there was still something left between them. it oughtn't to be as cheering as it was, but it was a great little moment.

That said, the actual career of crime doesn't make enough sense. The Affleck gang (as Hamm wittily calls them, the Not-F***ing Around Crew) are incredibly professional and well prepared, and from what we see of the way Affleck does things (his final escape is a miracle of lateral thinking; the feds are watching all the bus and train stations, so make your escape as a bus DRIVER) it's clear that he's a good planner and thinks through the details. Yet the FBI gets on to the crew because they realise that the crew is just too good with their technical defeats of alarm systems; the only way they could be that good would be if they had a guy working in the phone company. And just like that, they identify the guy in the phone company by finding someone with a pattern of days off which matches the pattern of the robberies they're investigating. Because the phone company has to keep records of these things. And Ben Affleck won't have thought of this, and made sure the records aren't accurate? Particularly when he's got a guy on the inside who's good with computers? No, that don't work for me.

That's my only quibble, mind you. It's a well put together piece of work which is actually pretty slow in the middle and works all the better because of it. The final heist goes completely wrong, as they inevitably do, and unfolds in a rather stereotypical way, but it's done well, and it's done with people you've begun to take an interest in, so it works, and the aftermath is very solid.

So, who's Bubba Rogowski? Bubba was a character in Gone Baby Gone, a very good piece of casting for one of the less annoying criminal buddy characters of crime fiction. Affleck brought back the same actor as the driver for Affleck's crew, and it was good to see him again. The actor calls himself Slaine, which is annoying, but he's a big heavyset babyfaced guy who was just perfect as Bubba, who has the moral development of a four year old, and he's pretty good here as a slightly less sociopathic version of the same kind of couldn't-give-a-crap-about-anyone-but-my-buddies kind of guy.