Thursday, 21 January 2010

Sherlock Holmes

Theres's a lot more explodium in Victorian London than I had ever suspected, but that's not something I ever complain about. And I really enjoyed Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes. It's not that it's terribly well written, or that it makes any sense, or that the plot and pacing are out of the ordinary. It's simply that Robert Downey seems to be going through a phase in his career where he can't get anything wrong. He's just wonderful. Thanks to him, the film gets away with blue murder. A day after I saw it, I can't remember a single line from the film other than stuff I'd already seen in the trailer, but as long as Downey's on the screen everything seems uproarious.

I gather that a lot of people have been crabbing that it has nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes as it was written. I don't really know if that's even a legitimate gripe, but I once read all of the Sherlock Holmes canon in the space of a few weeks as a teenager, and it was really quite dull. Holmes as written is a tremendously dry character. So if the film's not true to the canon, that isn't something that would really trouble me much. The canon's not much fun.

Mind you, there's a lot for me to niggle about. The science isn't up to much. Actually, it's not science. One of the big reveals at the end is that all the apparent magic the villain has used is actually science, but it might as well be magic for the all the link the alleged science has to anything in the real world. (personal favourite has to be the notion of an antidote to cyanide which can be administered orally the day before exposure. Mmmm yeah. That would work).

I don't mind this because science in movies is always bunkum. The thing which actually bugged me at the time is that the villain is called Lord Blackwood. This didn't bother me at first because I hate the aristocracy instinctively and it makes perfect sense to me that the evil genius is from the ruling class. Then half way through we get told that he's the son of the Lord Chief Justice - but that this is a secret. And my mind starts going, wait a minute. Lord Blackwood's father is the Lord Chief Justice, and his mother is some dead chick who died giving birth to him. And no-one knows that Lord Chief Justice is the father. So how did Lord Blackwood get to be a Lord at all? This is a time when the peerage was still more or less exclusively hereditary; if you didn't inherit your title, the only way you were going to be Lord anything was when you were well into a very successful career of public works. Lord Blackwood was in his thirties and had devoted his life to being a complete bastard. Now in our day, that makes you a New Labour peer, but this is Victorian England. SO that didn't add up for me.

Now I have to be fair here. It's not like suspension of disbelief was an issue in the first place; for goodness sake, this is Guy Ritchie's reimagining of Sherlock Holmes. It's not as though it was ever going to make sense. But somehow this bugged me, as did the passing reference to Lord Blackwood's cunning plan to take back the lost colonies of America; a pushover because they were weakened by the aftermath of the Civil War. Yeah, right. Tower Bridge is half completed (placing the film between 1890 and 1894). So it's been twenty five or thirty years since the Civil War ended and America is completely over it. Within five years they'll be invading Cuba.

Those things to one side, the movie is huge fun. It's basically a bunch of setpieces, many of which (Holmes' bareknuckle fight in the first act for instance) seem to be there just because Ritchie likes making movies with those kinds of scene in them. Check your brain at the door and enjoy watching Downey's winning streak roll out into a fourth year. Then go home and rent a copy of Charlie Bartlett, which is a much better film in most of the ways that really count, and will let you appreciate just how much - and in some ways how little - Downey is doing in this blockbuster.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Front Line; would be so much better if it was a real front line, with shooting.

Since I got tired of wargaming, I've been spending Monday evenings at home and watching TV I'd never seen before.

Which is how I'm getting to see Pat Kenny's The Front Line, or rather how I'm getting to see about twenty minutes of it before I remember that after a 20 per cent pay cut I probably can't afford to replace the TV every week and so I'm going to need to change channels before I actually jump up and head butt the screen so hard I wind up wearing the Sony like a toilet seat round the neck of some cartoon character. If it doesn't do anything else it might eventually drive me back to wargaming, because it's getting so that being furious with losing isn't as bad in my memory as the the red mist that I get from watching Front Line, or as it should probably be called, Ireland's most annoying whiners.

I was pitching the theory to John the other night that The Front Line existed because Joe Duffy has always hated Pat Kenny and wanted to make him look like a fool, so he pitched the idea in the RTE canteen one morning that what Pat should do was run his own version of Liveline or whatever it is that Joe Duffy's morning moan-fest is called. John riffed on it beautifully, suggesting that the actual pitch would have been for Joe to say "You know what I always wanted to do? Do Liveline late at night on the TV." Which I agree, is much more subtle. However it happened, Pat's run with the idea, and there he is with his very own live line clone on TV.

Dear, suffering, holy, god almighty tonight, it's enough to make you despair of the ability of the average Irish person to buy a bus ticket without a UN peacekeeping force to handle the complex paperwork and fraught commercial negotiations. You've got a studio audience full of people who volunteered to be on the show. As you can imagine, the kind of people who volunteer to be on the audience of a TV show devoted to grilling politicians for getting things wrong - well, you're not moved to volunteer because you've no strong feelings about anything. It would be easy to single out some of the whingers for detailed excoriation, but it doesn't feel entirely fair, even though I've never managed to watch the show for more than twenty minutes without conceiving the visceral urge to go down to Montrose and beat at least one specific individual until I died of exhaustion.

Despite all that, it's fairer to generalise. And in general the vocal part of the audience of The Front Line consists entirely of a selected band of cretins who will reliably advance the same set of moronic opinions each week:

1. The government should take personal responsibility for every single thing that ever happens and collectively resign en masse every time anyone stubs a toe, fails to win the lottery or overhears something which hurts their feelings
2. Nothing that happens is ever the fault of "ordinary decent people"
3. Everything that happens is the cause of deep anger in the overwhelming majority of the population. Bonus points if you can get two consecutive speakers to announce that two diametrically opposed things are both unanimously opposed by everyone. Bonus points are awarded no later than fifteen minutes into every damn show
4. The government should pick up the tab for every trifling need of every single citizen
5. No citizen should actually pay taxes
6. No service, of any kind, should attract any form of charge
7. Everyone should be paid more than the average wage, because we're all entitled to loads of money
8. Everyone should be paid less than the average wage, because we need to be more competitive
9. Notwithstanding 2. above, there would be no problems at all in Ireland if people just took responsibility for looking after things like they used to back in the good old days

If for any reason the audience forgets its responsibilities, there's almost invariably some invited guest who can be depended on to say something which would give any reflective person an aneurysm. It's hard, sometimes, to believe that we live in a world where you go on the TV and announce you're an expert in something that hasn't traditionally had professional certification, and the very worst you can expect to happen is that they'll give you an appearance fee. I'm still waiting for the moment when the host of these lunkfests turns around to one of these walk-on opinion-wranglers and says "So, Mr Leotard, you claim to be an expert in the challenging field of prospering in a collapsing economy. Just how much money have you personally made other than through selling gullible people dumb ideas you haven't been stupid enough to try yourself?" or "So, Dr Ludaramaun, you claim to be an expert in disaster recovery technology. How many lives have you actually saved in the course of your long and successful career as a superhero?"

Brain exploded yet? Mine usually has by this stage.

The thing which makes it clear that this is actually Joe Duffy's subtle revenge on Pat Kenny - doubtless Pat squatted on something important to Joe, like the Late Late Show or something - is that as the season has rolled on, the audience has got progressively more likely to include at least one mouth-breathing redneck under-achieving cretin who will bring his intervention around to everyone's favourite, an unfocused rant about how "ordinary decent people" are getting shafted while the government cossets druggies and pikeys and immigrants and so on and so on. Now when Joe gets that on the radio, they just hang up the phone and say something like "Whoops, we seem to have lost the connection". When Pat gets that, he's stuck with it. It's live TV, and the goon's physically there. They can take the camera off him, but they can't actually gag him. And no amount of audience-screening is going to protect Pat from this. Joe can have his researchers chat away to the phone-callers for a couple of minutes to decide whether they're going to be a disgrace, but Pat has the clown show bussed in hours ahead of time and it's no struggle for them to put up a facade of calm till their moment in the spotlight. It was kind of hilarious when some maniac spoke for us all and ripped into Pat for telling everyone else they should accept less pay and benefits while he got paid sixty times what someone on benefits can hope for. But when every week you can be sure that you're going to get the kind of bigot - well let's put it this way; a lot of these guys, if they were in a taxi, after three minutes the driver would stop and refuse to move until they got out.

Yep, getting beat stupid by my friends is starting to look more inviting every week.


There's no way to talk about this without discussing the ending, so don't read on if that's an issue.

When I saw the trailer for Daybreakers, it went on to my must see list. I wasn't for one moment deceived into thinking that it was going to be great art, it was just that it had Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill, it had an interesting take on vampires and it looked like there would be lots of the Human Resistance attacking the vampires.

I'm devastated to report that there's a quite noticeable shortage of resistance-on-vampire action. For your human death squad whacking vampire needs, I have to direct you to aisle six and John Carpenter's Vampire$(TM) which is the actual legal title of the damn movie. Also, once they clear out the first vamp nest, stop watching, because the film kind of blows after that.

While Daybreakers is a little short on action, there is, however, a surprising amount of pure cleverness.

Daybreakers is what I think of as a one-joke movie, (I think in Hollywood they call this high concept, but one-joke is a lot truer to what's usually going on) where the joke is what if vampires were the majority? In fact,most serious stabs at the vampire genre have to dance around this problem quite a bit. Vampires live forever and everyone they bite can turn into a vampire, and they're crazy hard to kill. So logically, there ought to be nothing else after a while, what with all the guys that get turned never going away and such. Now that kind of logic just ruins the story, so the writers usually come up with some handwave that either makes vampires easy to kill, or hard to make or both. Daybreakers decides to run in the opposite direction, and shows us a world where within ten years of the first vampire getting turned, there's so few humans left that they have to be farmed and the total known supply of human blood is expected to run out within a month.

So there's a crisis, but it faces the bad guys. And just to make the crisis more interesting, once a vampire hasn't had any juicy delicious blood for a while, he or she starts devolving into nosferatu. So it's not just that they're going to starve; along the way they're going to turn into mindless horrible looking killing machines who will attack everything around them. Whee. And standing between vampirekind and this undesirable outcome is Ethan Hawke's terribly ethical reseearch scientist and his effort to come up with a blood substitute. No pressure, then.

The movie has a lot of fun setting out its milieu; no-one goes out in daylight, blood's replaced (or more accurately been added to) coffee, and life goes on with little changes like everyone working at night and the city being honeycombed with subwalks so that vampires can get around during daylight. In this vision, vampirism gives you little fangs (they must have had to loop everyone's dialogue) yellow eyes, a tendency to explode when staked and catch fire in strong direct sunlight, but not a lot of the other popular tropes. No-one, for example, falls asleep at dawn, and no-one needs to sleep in a coffin. Garlic and silver don't seem to have been outlawed either. And while they dodge daylight, it looks as though only direct contact of an actual beam of light on their skin is anything to worry about, which makes it perhaps a little too easy for the vampires to be out and about in the day time.

But the initial fun's in the little touches; the massively adapted vehicles which can drive in daylight by using video feeds into the darkened interior, the by-the-way observation that "vampiric small animals unaware of their condition are now the leading cause of forest fires" and above all in the way that normal American corporate life isn't shown to have changed in its essential particulars just because practically everyone in gainful employment is a bloodsucking fiend.

Earlier I mentioned the way in which writers often have to tweak the powers of their vampires to stop them from being so dangerous as to be unstoppable; Daybreakers has an ingenious tweak to level the playing field between living and undead; humans are now so scarce that killing one is out of the question and the army has to be equipped with non-lethal weapons so as to capture them alive; the humans aren't so bothered about inflicting casualties, but of course need to get a dead centre hit with a crossbow. This is clever and internally consistent, though unfortunately there's only one stand up fight to let us see this in action and it ends badly for the humans anyway. And being taken alive is no picnic; we don't see any of them again.

So you have the clever opening, which is unfortunately followed by a whole bunch of middle in which there's an annoying paucity of explosions. There is the cute discovery that the vampire army can work in daylight by using light proof armour, which is endearingly kludgy in its approach to helmets, but that aside it's a bit of a trudge until you get past the discovery that there's a cure for vampirism, which boils down to extreme sunbathing with someone on hand to put you out just before you go extra crispy. Every bit as much fun as it sounds, so you're kind of wondering if Ethan's going to be able to market this to his corporate bosses.

At this point the film feels like it's spinning its wheels a bit, because the human resistance, who are more like refugees than resistance, haven't been making a great fist of things and our heroes have been whittled down to three; two ex-vamps and one human, versus well everyone else in the movie more or less. Then the ex-vamps get cornered, and one of them is fanged up, and we get what I thought at the time was a very lame reveal; that if vamp who's been turned back into a human gets bitten, the vampire who did the biting gets turned back into a human. Which seemed almost as convenient as the fix for vampirism in Near Dark without having nearly as cool a movie in back of it to save it from lameness.

I judged too soon, because in a moment of sublime genius, Ethan Hawke walks back into corporate HQ and goads Sam Neill into biting him. Whereupon Sam Neill turns into a human, which still didn't strike me as being much of an improvement, until Ethan bundles him into a lift and sends him down the basement where thirty hungry vampire soldiers were getting ready to come up. And when they see Sam, looking just like a tasty human - well there's a blood famine and here's a Big Mac. They tear into Sam, and in turn revert to human - at which point they're tasty snacks to the next group of vampires to show up - and suddenly it's very elegant because here's a completely plausible way in which just one ex-vamp can turn the whole population back into ordinary humans - albeit at the cost of most of those humans lasting about as long as a happy meal at a six year old's birthday party. Russian in its simplicity. It's the first time in ages that I've seen a movie with a last minute fix for a universal problem which actually had a plausible delivery mechanism for the last minute fix and a built in way to limit the problem in the future. Sheer genius.

I often wonder what's going through Ethan Hawke's mind when he does action movies because, a) he's too good for them and b) he's not actually good in them. He's not that kind of an actor; he just isn't right for action roles. He's clearly a thoughtful person in real life and in action films he makes a serious effort to portray a realistic intelligent person wrestling with a problem. As a result, he's usually completely out of place and so it plays out in Daybreakers. Willem Dafoe is capable of almost anything, which unfortunately means that he's capable of showing up with an expression of complete disinterest on his face and sleepwalking through a whole movie where he ought in fact to be lighting up the room. In Daybreakers, he isn't really breaking a sweat, but at least he's awake. Sam Neill, on the other hand, can add yet another to his showcase of bastard-coated bastards with creamy bastard filling. Sam's fun as a good guy, but he's always more fun as a bad guy. He has the face and the voice for devilry, and he does a wonderful turn here as someone who slowly reveals layers of inner complexity, for values of complexity that equal jawdropping wickedness. Great fun, and completely coherent. He's bad, until you realise that he's worse, until you realise that he's much worse, until you realise that he's not only beyond redemption but blissfully unaware that redemption is necessary. All without raising his voice. He bottoms out nicely with his explanation that Ethan's work on blood substitutes and cures and what have you is all very well, but what Sam's company is interested in is repeat business, so there'll be no more talk of curing vampires, and full steam ahead on synthetic blood, and for the better-off types, genuine fresh human blood - at the appropriate premium.

I have to say that while I enjoyed the satirical intent behind depicting profit driven corporations and exploitation of repeat business and helpless resources as the logical line of work for vampires, I did wonder whether mere money would continue to drive the greedy in a world where a lot of what humans need and pay for has become largely unnecessary. You're dead; you don't eat, breathe, sleep much, sweat or feel hot or cold. All you need - though you need it badly - is blood. An awful lot of the conventional economy would collapse. What would money actually be for at that point?

So hats off to the Spierig Brothers for a great idea for the milieu and a genuinely clever punchline, but they have to lose some points for not having enough meat to the middle. And for hiring Ethan Hawke when there were better things he could have been doing.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Twelve; Jasper Kent

New exercise.

Try to write something about each book I read.

I could have started this by trying to write something about the books I've been reading in the last few weeks, but re-reading the Baroque Cycle is one of those things which leaves you thinking that there's nothing you can possibly add to all that Stephenson pumped into the books.

So instead I figured to start the exercise with the first book I've started and finished in the New Year.

Twelve is something I've been looking forward to reading since I first saw it in trade paperback. It seemed like such a neat idea. Vampires on Napoleon's retreat from Moscow.

Of course I put off buying it until it was in normal size. Nothing like re-reading Stephenson in trade paperback size to remind me of just what a pain it can be to read a book that's bigger than it needs to be. So I didn't actually buy the book till just before Christmas, and what with one thing and another I didn't start reading it until a few days ago.

It's not a book I can see myself reading again. It's not a bad book, it's just not very involving. I remember a long time ago trying to read a translation of the Gulag Archipelago and giving up because it was too flat and ugly. To this day I haven't decided whether Russian's an inherently inelegant language or whether I was reading a bad translation; I haven't been interested enough in the Gulag Archipelago to give it a second try. Now Jasper Kent wasn't writing in Russian and getting translated, so it's not same problem, it's just that reading his prose reminded me of that.

I think that Kent tripped over the problem of trying to write a narrator who's true to his time, and true to his character. Now, it's always a good idea to try to make your protagonist an everyman, because that's - to use a word I hate - relateable. The problem is that if you make him your narrator, you're stuck with the problem that your narrator's an everyman and it would ring false to have him write well. Because Alexei Danilov is supposed to a shallow and rather unreflective Russian officer (whose lack of speed on the uptake is important to the speed with which the plot unfolds), he has to write like one. Which makes for a very flat narrative.

The result is a book which moves along efficiently but unmemorably, and which doesn't draw you to re-read it. Once you've gone through the plot, you've got all you're going to get from it because there's no particular pleasure to be derived from the prose.

Which is a shame, really. The idea's a good one, and the execution is intelligent and consistent. It would have been easier to write a more engaging book. Kent set out to write a book which was anchored in its period, and he pretty much succeeded. His hero is a reasonably clever man who makes a lot of mistakes but does his best to remedy them along the way. The book unfolds in a very believable way and it's plain that there was a lot of research before he set out to write it. The vampires are tough to kill without being impossible, and the only way the hero can prevail is to pick them off piecemeal and at great personal cost. It all hangs together nicely and the characters are preoccupied with very human concerns. It ought to be a better book than it is. But I'm at a loss to figure out how it could have been made a better book without the author being false to his purpose.