Thursday, 25 February 2010

Solomon Kane; they don't make them like this any more and they might be right

Solomon Kane is apparently based on a series of novels by the author of Conan the Barbarian. I have to get that up front, because if I hadn't seen that on the posters, I would have thought it was based on a not very good computer game. There are a couple of moments in the middle of the thing where I honestly thought that the director was trying to recapture the familiar viewpoint of a player character in a first person shooter; a target rich environment and some kind of weapon vaguely waving in front of you at the bottom of the screen. I'm guessing here. I've never played a first person shooter. I just know about them from reading about them on the internets, where younger, hipper people tell me things about the cool world of technology and I pray that they're not making it all up the way the Samoan teenagers bamboozled Margaret Meade.

Solomon Kane lost me in the opening moments when ironically it didn't need to. It opens with a prologue set in "North Africa 1600". Ships are bombarding a fort, and the wind whips a flag across the screen. It's an 1700s pattern Union flag, from the period after Scotland joined the Union but before Ireland did. The flag wasn't introduced until well after the coronation of James I unified Scotland and England - before that, if an English ship had been bothering with a flag at all, it would have been St George's Cross. Pragmatically, I can understand why they used the Union flag; they wanted something which audiences would easily recognise as British. But all they had to do was set the movie a little bit later, and the flag wouldn't have been an issue.

The weird thing is that on the one hand, Solomon Kane isn't really anchored in its purported time, and on the other hand it doesn't really show it very well. The costumes feel slightly wrong for 1600 - they're closer to what you would expect for the 1640s. The main action is set in 1601, a time of comparative tranquility in England (in contrast to the lawlessness of the 1640s) when it's hard to believe that monsters could be stalking Somerset and Devon without the army doing something about it. Shift the thing into 1641 when the English Civil War had turned everything on its head and the puritans were rampant and beginning their migration to New England, and the background of disorder and Puritans making their way to America starts to fit better. So do the stupid hats. So all the way through the anachronisms were bugging me a lot. Possibly the weirdest thing was the the main action begins with Solomon Kane holed up in an abbey. This is England in 1600? The monasteries were gone. Catholic priests could be found if you looked hard, but there was no way you were going to find a big clump of them working openly in a big building.

John was able to switch off his knowledge of history and just enjoy the movie, but it kept bugging me all the way through. I was curious about where the film was made, and made a moment to check it afterward. Filmed on location in France and the Czech Republic, with studio work in England. It's actually become quite hard to film a period film in the UK because modernity is everywhere and it's hard to keep it out of shot. Not as much of a challenge in the Czech Republic. The other reason I could buy it not being shot in England is that the British tourist board would have pitched a fit; the weather is unrelentingly awful. The first act of the film involves incessant snow; the remainder constant rain. And lots of mud. Lots and lots of mud.

It's not a bad movie. I was wondering about the pacing, but looking at IMDB, it seems like the print we saw is cut down from something longer - there are scenes missing, and I suspect that with those scenes back in, the opening act is slower, but that the overall pace of the action will make more sense and the transitions in the final act will be less jarring and disconnected. But it's a pretty honest movie as a story; bad man gets redeemed through enduring hardship and doing good deeds. I liked that about it. John liked it that the witch we meet is just horrible, without any backstory or redeeming features. It's refreshingly free of gimmicks and post-modern self-awareness. It could have been made back in the good old days of Hammer horror, and it would have fit in fine. Probably would have made about as much or as little sense as it does now, too. The difference is that in the thudding final scene, I realised that this was actually the origin story for Solomon Kane, and we might have to anticipate a hell of a lot more of this. And I don't think we need it.

In other news, there were trailers. Jake Gyllenhall will be in Prince of Persia, a film whose trailer promises an experience somehow shallower than the source material, a 1990s video game about a dude whose magic power is jumping over things. Starring Jake Gyllenhall. Damn, I thought we'd hit a low with Nannie McPhee. The trailer is the first I can remember which has a woman's voice as the portentous voice-over. I hope that's not a trend. However, Prince of Persia looked like Citizen Kane compared to the cinematic turd which the Irish Film Board has bankrolled specifically to destroy St Patrick's Day; Zonad. A trailer usually has the best bits of a movie. Based on that principle, Zonad may well be an effort to prove that it's possible to spend tax money in a more anti-social way than underwriting a nerve gas programme or funding Ministerial pensions.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Gone Tomorrow; literally

I don't know why I buy every Lee Child book when they come out. I do know why I don't keep the books once I've read them in a rush, but I don't know why I bother buying them and reading them.

A friend recommended the books to me back when they were still fresh-ish, and I bought five and read them in a lump at the turn of the century. Even as I was reading them, I knew they weren't very good, but somehow the narrative pulled me along and I rushed through them in a matter of a few days. I remember doing the same in the 1990s with John Grisham, which for some reason my sisters were buying for my Dad; I'd be home in Ireland for a few weeks and rather than buying more books to read I'd just scavenge whatever was around me in my parents' house. Lots of Grishams, for some reason and I would rush through them in a matter of a few hours of reading time per book, forgetting what I'd read nearly as quickly as I'd read it.

Even though I'm trying at the moment to blog something about everything I read or see at the cinema, I wouldn't even have bothered blogging Child's latest book if it hadn't been for a passing comment I made in an email. Making sense of that comment forces me to give some back story.

If there's manlier fiction out there than Lee Child's books, it's probably a legal requirement that it be sold wrapped in oestrogen for safety reasons. Lee Child writes about Jack Reacher, a character so manly that he literally consists of nothing of manliness, with no confusing personality or baggage of any kind. Jack Reacher is a very high concept. He's an enormous ex military policeman who makes a point of owning nothing and living nowhere. He walks around the USA with an ATM card and an expired passport, buying clothes when he needs them, throwing them away when they get dirty, and getting into trouble all the time. The whole buying clothes and throwing them away thing started to feel quite meta to me yesterday when I had finished the book and was debating whether to give it away to Oxfam or what. The books are completely disposable; you read 'em, you get whatever brief sugar rush you can from them, and then like Reacher discarding his clothes rather than going to the laundrette, you chuck 'em away.

I've actually got a lot of stuff I want to read at the moment, and a nagging feeling of wanting to re-read some books I haven't read in a long time. So I'm puzzled that I took a few hours to rush through Gone Tomorrow, when I'd already read a dozen books with Jack Reacher in them and I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. There'd be an interesting set up (there was) which would involve abstruse information that would appeal to nerds who wish they were manly and active (there was). Reacher would be drawn into the mess, and would be diverted down side alleys (he was). Random mooks would be beaten briskly and efficiently to a pulp (they were). A chick would be introduced with whom Reacher would have a romantic dalliance just before the climax (one was, they did, and I totally meant that double entendre). The mystery at the heart of the thing would be stumbled over forty pages before the end (it was) and prove to be a lot less dramatic than the set-up and the blind-alleys had suggested (you may fill in the blank for yourself). Reacher would arm up and march on the bad guys, shooting them up and beating them up and generally prevailing but only just (yup), before walking off into the sunset (yup again).

If that last paragraph suggested a checklist, it's not accidental - the book opens with Reacher running through a mental checklist of ways to spot a suicide bomber. A lot of my thinking about this book seems to keep echoing with the book's own style and character.

From a purely stylistic point of view, one of the things which puzzles me about Lee Child is that he's done all his writing with a single very limited viewpoint character, but he repeatedly switches between writing in the third person and the first person from one book to the next. I can't think of another writer who's done that; either you're comfortable in the first person and you do that, or you're comfortable in the third person and you do that, or you're batshit clinically insane and you work in the second person plural. Or you start out writing in the first person, realise it's limiting and switch to third; I've seen all of those. But even with writers who switch between first and third person for different books, I can't think of another example of a writer who switches between modes in different books with the same character - particularly when the character never really changes.

I don't know why Child is doing this. Of course, I don't know why I'm reading the bloody things. I don't know why I'm putting down much better books to read them. Perhaps it's precisely because they are so mindless; sometimes my head is just tired and I don't want to have to think so hard. At the moment, my main reading project is getting to the end of Glen Cook's Black Company novels. They aren't exactly high art either, but there's an awful lot of ink to get through and Cook doesn't explain anything if he can suggest it instead. Lee Child, bless him, is very fond of pausing the action while Reacher ruminates through exactly how things work. It's all very Andy McNab. Near the end of the book, Reacher gets given a silenced sub machine gun. There's WAY too much explanation of the way that silenced sub machine guns work when all you really need to know is silenced sub machine guns get hot, so you need to wear a glove when you're firing one. Actually, that strikes me as a serious design flaw, up there with the people who think it makes more sense to sell bike pants with padding in them than design bike saddles which just work with ordinary pants. But Reacher ruminates on this for a bit; like most characters in manly fiction, he's apt to ruminate on stuff that's fascinating to men who themselves aren't especially manly.

Reacher gets a silenced machine gun, but weirdly only one clip for it. It's important from a plot point of view - his opponents have been carefully arrayed and numbered so that one magazine will be just not quite enough bullets to do them all in. Since I am that man who wonders how supervillains get planning permission, I am also that man who wonders how someone can get hold of the latest version of an exotic sub machine gun and not get hold of a second clip. The gun in question is a fancy-dan version of a gun widely used by police departments throughout the US; spare clips would be comically easier to find than the gun itself. But I admit, that's a bit too boy-man who reads manly books of me; for a logical error which anyone can appreciate, Reacher, at one point, shoots a bad guy, takes his gun, and takes the bullets out of the clip. Then he puts the bullets loose into his pocket. How much time would it have taken to load the bullets into his own gun - he even makes a moment to say they'd fit? More sensibly, why not just pocket the whole gun he's just found? Reacher doesn't do either of those comparatively simple things, and as far as I can tell the only reason he has a common sense failure is so that he can have a knife fight at the end of the book.

I think that what I spent Saturday afternoon doing (apart from backing up a hard drive and reformatting it, an activity completely compatible with reading manly fiction, in SO many ways) was the literary equivalent of a big mac. You know it isn't good for you, you know exactly what it's going to be like, and you know that consuming it isn't going to take long and isn't really going to be that satisfying. And you know that it will be Gone Tomorrow.

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Thursday, 18 February 2010

Ponyo; Not insane enough, but not sane enough either

Ponyo is actually the first Studio Ghibli film I can remember seeing in a cinema, and it's easily the weakest Ghibli I've watched all the way through. Miyazaki is a genius of sorts, but genius usually gets sloppy at some point and Ponyo is weirdly disappointing in ways I didn't expect. The biggest surprise is the look of the film; Miyazaki's earlier work was lush in its detail (or maybe seeing it on a TV makes it look more intense than a cinema screen, though I doubt that) and Ponyo is quite sketchy, which made me all the more surprised to see that it's actually got more drawing in it than any previous Ghibli film. Somehow all that extra work doesn't translate into visual richness although it was easy to see that this was what Miyazaki had wanted.

The other disappointment is how incoherent it all is. There's a perfectly serviceable a-story about a little boy and a fish who wants to be a little girl. It's the b-story that left me thinking that either Miyazaki had taken too many drugs or I hadn't taken anything like enough. As long as the focus stays on Sesuke and Ponyo, the boy and fish girl, everything's fine - the voice acting is as good as it can be when you're trying to do children and the look is spot on, very reminiscent of Totoro, which is in some ways Miyazaki's most emotionally satisfying film (Porco Rosso is tons more fun, but Totoro pulls off the highly unusual film feat of making a movie about how childhood feels, and is thus a much more important film). When the movie opens out to the ocean and the overarching message-plot, boy howdy do things go right off the damn rails.

It's not that I expect three act structures and napkin-ready high-concept plotting from Miyazaki. On his best days he's bonkers and allusive and probably only fully comprehensible to Japanese natives. The pace of his story telling almost always seems off from a western perspective, and he never seems to feel any need to explain anything fully or resolve all of his plot points. And most of his films have a way of going off the rails somewhere in the third act; I defy anyone to tell me Mononoke or Howl's Moving Castle maintain a continuous tone or anything approaching narrative sense, but by the time they go completely bonkers you've kind of stopped worrying about conventional plotting and you're just letting it pull you along. Ponyo does not have that going for it.

It's not that I couldn't see what the b-plot was getting at; man's destroying the oceans, magic can't be allowed to cross from the ocean to land. It's just that the way it was handled in the plot development was so disjointed and cursory. When Ponyo's father announces that the world will come to an end if Ponyo doesn't turn back into a fish, it comes out of nowhere and there's no explanation at all for it. We've seen any amount of big scenes of oceanic mayhem, but how is it supposed to hang together? I've had dreams which made a lot more sense.

It doesn't help that Captain Exposition for the whole operation is Ponyo's dad, as voiced by Liam Neeson. Most of the voice work is done by two kids whose names I didn't catch or care about and Tina Fey playing Sesuke's mother. And they're believable the whole way - they sound like what they're saying is stuff that the people we can see would say. Liam is, by comparison, burdened with pretty terrible lines and he phones them in. I think it's partly due to those factors that the film just stalls every time his character's on screen.

I'm not sorry I saw it - no time spent watching Ghibli animation is ever completely wasted - but I think it's the first time I've felt disappointed at the end of a Miyazaki film. Mind you, it could have been Porco Rosso II and I'd still have wanted to maim someone for the closing song, which - well, Alvin and the Chipmunks would have backed away slowly, shaking their heads.

Stray thoughts; Sesuke's mother is the worst driver in the whole world; every time they were in a car, I expected her and Sesuke to get smeared all over a crash barrier. Somehow it never happened and I'm not sure why she had to drive so erratically. It was obviously supposed to be a character beat, but it didn't relate to anything else the character did. Ponyo goes from fish to human because she drinks a drop of human blood, so this was actually a movie about magical fish vampires. Despite this, the audience was not full of detoxing Edward and Bella junkies. What is it about Miyazaki and bloomers? I get it that there are problems with showing small children running around in short skirts, but a five year old child in bloomers that look like the world's biggest nappies? There has to be another way.

Finally, if there's one overarching drawback of going to a children's movie, it's got to be the trailers for other children's movies. It was deeply depressing to watch the trailer for Nannie McPhee II, Electric Nanny-loo and realise that in order to cover her bills one of the most radiant and intelligent English actresses of her generation has to cover her face in fake warts and snaggle teeth and act like a Scottish troll version of Mary Poppins. Coming off the back of watching Emma Thompson in her breakout role as Harriet Pringle, seeing her as the ugliest thing in a movie trailer which opens with a huge pile of manure - not edifying. If it hadn't been for that horrible thought, McPhee wouldn't even have been worst trailer of the evening (hard call - Cats and Dogs II, the Return of Kitty Galore or Shrek 4?) John said that the upside of movies that bad is that they'll make children read books; I pointed out that it's not likely that they'll be reading books after they've poked out their own eyes in horror. Most kids movies in the next 12 months are going to be in 3-D, although it's very far from clear why. Mind you the point of 3-D eludes me at the best of times. I've thought it over; Shrek 4 is the worst idea. Having had the brainwave of imagining a world without Shrek in it, the film-makers then went ahead and made a movie that still HAS Shrek in it. When you've had an idea as good as "a world without Shrek", you ought to run with it.

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Saturday, 13 February 2010

Up In The Air; what was I doing at a quality movie?

Nothing explodes at Up in the Air, but I wasn't expecting anything to, so that was OK. The last time I was talking about George Clooney confronting the emptiness of a character's life, it was Michael Clayton, and his car exploded. In Up in the Air, George is much too squared away to have an exploding car. Thinking about it now, perhaps an exploding car might have helped him figure out where he was going wrong.

Up in the Air is a very good film that doesn't do what you expect it to. Traditionally, if you start the movie with a guy who's plainly got a system, what's supposed to happen is that by the end of the movie he's realised the system is a bad one and that he should lose himself in the lurve of a good woman. Up in the Air does not respect tradition. It also fails to give George Clooney all the best scenes; nearly all the best scenes in the movie work because one or other of his female co-stars is doing the heavy lifting, while George does two-shots.

My favourite scene is in the middle of the second act, when the two co-stars meet. Alex (Vera Farmiga) and Natalie (Anna Kendrick) have a great dialogue in which the 23 year old Natalie explains her vision of settling down with a man and Alex tries not to wince with every unreflective comment that makes her sound like a middle aged failure making do with a guy she met in an airport hotel bar. It's absolutely wonderful because Anna Kendrick does the cluelessness so well. Natalie has just been dumped by text and isn't at her sharpest, and Alex is a very realistic woman who knows not to be too bothered about the uninformed opinions of a girl with half her experience of life. Any other movie I've seen would have turned it into a sparring march which Natalie would have lost; this movie lets it run the way it would in real life, with Natalie tactless and Alex determined not to let it get to her and ultimately reflective while trying ever so hard not to be condescending. It's a great scene - in real life no-one's that articulate, but real people do let conversations run wrong rather than have fights.

Clooney's character starts as a cipher, obsessed by two things - the uncluttered simplicity of a life spent on the road without attachments of any kind, and some sort of complicated internal scoring system which revolves around high status loyalty cards. His job is firing people who their own bosses don't have the balls to fire, and in today's America, business is booming. He's developed a practised schtick which blurs the edges of getting downsized and eases the now jobless person into the job-placement process which his company sells to the downsizers as part of the package of getting rid of the people they no longer want to employ. It's persuasive, and ultimately hollow, much like George's character.

Conventionally, George ought to be introduced in the first act, tested in the second and have an epiphany in the third. What actually happens is that Acts One and Two go according to plan, and then the epiphany fails to take; George realises his life is empty (for added irony, he realises this just as he makes the big pitch for his philosophy of emptying out your life completely) and runs off to seize the opportunity he has belatedly realised is there for him to fill it with something worthwhile. At the end of that run, he discovers he was completely wrong; there isn't anything there for him. And so the film ends where it began, with George back in the rut of a life spent on aeroplanes and living out of a suitcase.

It ought to be more depressing than it is, but somehow it's actually quite a fun film. Part of it is that it never gets shrill, part of it is that the characters are likable without being unrealistic. The time spent with them is pleasant, and although George Clooney's character is - once you think it through - a complete disaster as a human being, he's not in any way a cruel man, he's trying his best to be gentle and decent in his work, and he seems no unhappier at the end of the film than he did at the beginning. The stakes aren't terribly high, and the damages done aren't tremendously unsettling; somehow, although Natalie is the unwitting cause of a suicide, Alex is cheating on her husband and Ryan (George's character) is a borderline sociopath, they all seem like nice folks who get through the movie without getting too badly hurt or hurting anyone else much.

I think that the takeaway for the movie was supposed to be something about how you should place your faith in other people and have friends; that loyalty to a loyalty programme (Ryan is obsessed with getting air miles from American Airlines, to the extent that every purchase, no matter how trivial is evaluated on whether it will get him more miles) is valueless. The movie actually has a lot to say about loyalty between people and corporations - we're shown how little point there is to Ryan's loyalty (at all his worst moments, there's a sign in the background for American Airlines frequent flier programme, with the slogan "We value your loyalty") - and the people he fires go on about how much they've given a company that doesn't even value them enough in return to look them in the eye when it disposes of them.

That wasn't quite what I took away from the film. We're shown dozens of people reacting to being fired, and for pretty much all of them it seems to be completely devastating - and somehow very personal, like a death, or the discovery that they're being dumped by a spouse. And as I watched this slow accumulation of vignettes, it came to me that in the - highly unlikely - event that I ever did get fired by my fiendish employers, I might well be angry, but I don't think I'd feel such a sense of betrayal. It's been a very long time since I believed for one second that my employers saw me as anything other than an expendable cog. My expectations of them are incredibly low. Nothing they do could surprise me - appall me, perhaps, but never surprise me. It didn't quite ring true to me that middle aged employees of corporations in the US could still have the expectation of anything from their employer other than a pay cheque at regular intervals - working in a much less unpleasant corporate environment it's more than a decade since I expected anything more in my job. Then again, the film would have had even less drama than it's got if all the firees had just taken it numbly and walked off.

Anyhow; well worth a look. As I say, the heavy lifting is done by Farmiga and Kendrick, with Clooney underplaying everything, but it's utterly engrossing all the way through.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

The Book of Eli

It's actually pretty hard to talk about The Book of Eli without giving away the surprise. You could do the movie reviewer thing and just talk about the quality and so on, but what makes the film interesting to talk about is the way the plot works out, and it's twistier than it needs to be.

I quite like post apocalyptic action movies because I adored Mad Max 2 when I was in my twenties (it happened to be a time when I needed role models with shattered legs) and I'm always hoping that the next post apocalyptic movie is going to be just as good, even though Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome should have taught me that even with the same cast and director, it's still not going to be any good. I manage to suppress this rational response each time a fresh serving shows up, because the essence of enjoying popular culture is to switch off your memories of popular culture.

But damn, the post apocalypse gets old fast. Just as I spend a lot of time at Bond movies wondering how the villain got planning permission for his headquarters (same way crooks everywhere did it, I know), I spent a lot of the rather slow and dreary set up of Book of Eli wondering why it was that in the whole surviving population of the world there didn't seem to be one person with the impulse to, you know, just pick up after himself. Was it just inevitable that all the survivors were going to be such dicks? Wouldn't there be people who just wanted to get along and keep things neat?

Anyhow, the central schtick in the movie is that there's just the one copy of the bible left in the whole world, and Denzel Washington's Eli is carrying it round. He's been walking west for thirty years because the voices in his head told him to. We get a couple of opening setups to let us see that Eli is a stupendous badass and that everyone else in the world is ghastly and kind of inept, and then we stroll into the main plot, when Eli heads into some windblown town with no visible means of support, and finds himself right in the crosshairs for the corrupt mayor of the burg, who's always in the market for a few good men - particularly after Eli gets into a bar fight where he singlehandedly kills about half of the legbreakers of his existing group of few good men. Anxious to keep Eli in town and on his side, he sends the town's cutest girl to win him over. But this just raises the stakes, because she comes back and drops the news about the world's one and only bible. The mayor is quite the bibliophile, and just to hammer home the point his character's called Carnegie. Something this heavy handed calls for a particular kind of scenery chewing, but luckily Gary Oldman had nothing better to do that week. And Carnegie wants the bible more than Aldo Raine wanted his Nazi scalps. He reckons a working bible will let him run the whole damn world.

Eli's having none of this blandishment, and he sets out on his way. Carnegie tries to stop him. Eli's so far taken out about a dozen guys in melee, so Carnegie sends mooks with guns. The first two shots at Eli miss, and then he starts shooting back. Three minutes later Carnegie's got a lot less mooks than he used and Eli's still on the way out of town.

More events ensue, Carnegie gets the book, Eli finally gets all the way west, and we get an uplifting ending. Here's where my quibbling starts.

There's a butt-load of stealing going on in this movie. The saloon showdown is out of every western ever made. The big reveal is a rip-off of Mad Max II - just swap out the tanker for the book, and hey presto, there you are - the bad guys have chased the good guys and apparently half killed the hero to get what they were looking for, only to discover at the end that it's useless to them. But that's OK, if it works. Doomsday is pretty much a string of setpieces from seven different better movies but it's good fun so you don't mind. Book of Eli seems to be taking itself way more seriously than that, and therefore it's harder to forgive it for being lazy and derivative.

One of the running things through the movie is that it's been a long time since the apocalypse and much has been forgotten (this leads to one really good gag when Eli admits that he's hidden the book in a TV, and the mook sent to get it doesn't know what a TV is). So it bugged me slightly when the town's cutest girl is able to step into one of the few running vehicles still left in the world and just drive the damn thing without difficulty. That doesn't make sense.

Other bits of lazy plotting or just plain plot holes. Eli's walking west and early one gets dry gulched by a chick acting as bait for goons. After a lot of walking he gets to Carnegie town, and then leaves Carnegietown heading west again. When the town's cutest girl follows him, she gets dry gulched by the same chick (and an all new band of goons, since Eli cut up the first batch of goons A LOT). WTF? How does that happen? Of course, Eli's been walking for thirty years, he kind of has to have been walking in circles; even at a mile a day, thirty years should have taken him from one side of the US to the other.

Biggest niggle is just one of those things which only someone like me cares about. It's the Book of Eli, after all. So the big twist is that the Book IS Eli; that he has the whole thing in his head. He's memorised it over time by listening to an iPod. The physical book he's been carrying all this time is a Braille bible. Which gives us a big reveal that he's been blind all along and his stupendous badassery has been even more stupendous because he was doing it all with hearing and smell instead of seeing things. I think this was supposed to amaze me, but I went to a school with blind children and I know what size Braille books are. A Braille bible would fill the back of a jeep, not fit in a backpack. Eli's book would just about hold one gospel. No, there's no such thing as Braille small print. Don't be silly. So I was completely distracted from the big reveal of Denzel, black Zaitochi by my irritation about the book. Maybe my mind is just made for disappointment.