Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Green Zone: Bourne Goes Baghdad

The best thing I can say about Green Zone is that I went to it on my own, and thus I didn't have to say something sheepish at the end about how I had hoped it would be better and I now realised that we should have checked out something else. John was too sick to go to the movies and I didn't have anything better to do, so I went to the movies on my own for the first time in I honestly don't know how long. Maybe a decade. In the days when I went to see nearly everything - the days before ubiquitous videotape - I saw a lot of movies on my own, but I had to rack my brains to come up with a recollection of what that was like.

Where does Green Zone go wrong, when all the signs and portents said it should have gone so right? It had Matt Damon, it had Paul Greengrass, it had Brian Helgeland. That last name, that's where it went wrong. Brian Helgeland wrote the script. That used to be a slam dunk no-brainer guarantee of quality; or so I stupidly thought until I went back over Helgeland's filmography and realised that it's been 13 years since LA Confidential and he's not exactly been living up to that since. Among his crimes against adaptation in the years since then; the unnecessary and crap remake of Pelham 123; the unnecessary and crap remake of Man on Fire; and the unnecessary film versions of The Postman and Blood Work. Also the unnecessary and crap remake of Payback, though your mileage may vary if you buy into the idea that it was ruined by Mel Gibson's meddling. In which case <farnsworth tag> GREAT NEWS EVERYONE <farnsworth tag> there's a director's cut and the two of you can go and watch it together.

In fairness to Helgeland, Imperial Life in the Emerald City is not the kind of book any sane person would try to turn into a movie, least of all an action movie. It's an episodic memoir of life in the madhouse that was Paul Bremer's experiment of destroying a country to make it profitable for his corporate backers, and if you were going to commit it to video, you'd do what they did with Generation Kill and make a HBO mini-series of it. Which no-one would watch, because there would be literally no-one to root for. I imagine that the sequence went something like this; read book; option book; spend three years trying to figure out how the hell you could make a commercial film out of it; give up and throw away both the title and the entire text of the book in favour of making an action movie with a political message.

Sam Goldwyn said it first; if you want to send a message, use Western Union. While they've been running around like Mrs O'Higgins' cow trying to figure out how to make Green Zone, the message has reached anyone interested enough in hearing it. For the two or three people who haven't heard, the US government made up all that stuff about Weapons of Mass Destruction. That's not a spoiler even for the movie, because that cat is let out of the bag about half way through. I suspect, however, that slightly more viewers were surprised by the events in Titanic than were surprised by the big reveal in Green Zone.

The political message that people might not have been expecting was the news that there are people living in Iraq who should have had a say in their own destiny and were completely ignored in favour of outsiders and their agendas. While this is an important point, it's not exactly news, and if I'd been looking for a way to make it, showing us how the US missed an opportunity to co-opt the Iraqi Army and the Baath party wouldn't have been in my top ten. Our main Iraqi viewpoint characters are Freddy (see below) and a bunch of senior Iraqi army officers and Baath party members with the collective huggability of a bag of plutonium snakes wrapped in barbed wire and battery acid. Your mileage may vary, but I'd be surprised if any of you even blink as they get shot a lot.

So on the political message; not really news, not really delivered in an interesting way. How does it work as an action movie? Again, the news ain't good. There isn't much action, and there isn't much of a sense of jeopardy. The characters don't draw you in, so it's hard to care much what happens to them. The best character in the whole thing is Freddy, the hapless Iraqi who drives the entire plot, and even he doesn't make a button of sense; there's never a moment when you feel you understand his motivation for what he's doing. The actor playing him does a good job of getting across a human being driven by fear and panic, but fear and panic aren't enough to get you to go find an American patrol, rat out an Iraqi general to them, and then sign on as their unpaid interpreter as they hunt down the general. There's probably a deleted scene somewhere that explains why all this seems like a good idea to Freddy, but why they took that out and left other stuff in, I have no idea.

I know it's fashionable to hate on Matt Damon, but I've never really rated him very highly as a performer. He seems to do his best work as characters who don't actually have personalities and are struggling to fake one; Bourne and Ripley and whatever the hell his character was called in the Departed. Whenever he's just playing an ordinary person, there's no there there. So his character Roy Miller runs around and gets upset about the way that the war has been fought on a lie. Since most of the population of planet earth has been upset about that since 2003, getting us to care about his little hissy fit is going to take a bit more than Matt Damon's blank line readings. And it's hard to care about him getting into hazard because he doesn't really get into much hazard.

The rest of the cast; most of them don't even have names; if you don't believe me, check out the cast list on IMDB and see how many of the speaking parts just have organisation descriptions. Although Matt Damon is supposed to be a team leader, you never get a sense of his team; and you never get any sense at all of his most dangerous opponent, some completely anonymous special ops guy and his even more anonymous team of operators. Quite how they managed to make the entire cast so uninvolving is beyond me, but it's a big chunk of what's wrong.

A word about the look; Greengrass likes to shoot as naturalistically as he can, but unfortunately this seems to work out as completely unnatural. Firstly, Greengrass likes jitter cam way more than is healthy. So most scenes in daylight are shot in juddering choppy takes which are naturalistic only if you're trying to show the viewpoint of an unmedicated epileptic working a road compactor during an earthquake in a roundabout factory. So quick word to Greengrass. Stop. In real life, our brains are very good at compensating for motion blur and rapid movement; shaking everything up makes things look more fake, not less. Which moves us on to night work; just light the damn scenes. Shooting with digital in extremely low light just makes for a muddy grainy reddish brown mush which doesn't look anything like darkness does in real life to dark adapted eyes and isn't even easy to look at. The tradtional somewhat overlit hollywood look is actually closer to how we see things in reality. It's a movie. Show us things. Or if that's too much work, try radio for a while.

As always when watching movies set in God's sandbox, I was wondering where they shot it all, and it turns out that they did the interiors in England and a surprising amount of the exteriors in Spain; the slummy bits of Baghdad were done in everyone's favourite sandbox stand in, Morocco (also starred in Black Hawk Down; I assume I was the only person in the world irritated by the fact that the sun was rising in the wrong place relative to the coastline for EAST Africa).

Two other things which bothered me. Firstly, the film has a Chelabi stand in; Ahmed Zubaidi is such a thinly disguised substitute for Ahmed Chelabi, I have no idea why they even begin to think that tweaking the name was going to protect them from a lawsuit. And there's a traditional and entirely unbelievable Hollywood ending in which Matt Damon's character goes public with his story. What makes it especially tin-eared in this context is that it's seven years down the road; we know that nothing like that happened and that even if it did, it didn't make a button of difference. A better film would have used that irony properly; Green Zone signs out on it as though somehow Miller has won and saved us all.

Monday, 15 March 2010

NIght of Thunder; the slow death of a serviceable talent

Some time back I blogged the film made of Stephen Hunter's break-out thriller, Point of Impact. My grumble at the time was that Hollywood had made a curiously flat movie out of an interesting book. I can stop blaming Hollywood for this kind of thing, because Stephen Hunter has started making curiously flat books out of his best characters.

I've just, rather gratefully, put down Night of Thunder, a book which would almost certainly not have been published in its current form if it hadn't had such a long run of better predecessors. This post is going to be mostly about those better predecessors; the scope of the current failure can only be understood in that context.

I've read everything that Stephen Hunter has published, except for his movie reviews, which aren't easily available here. I remember borrowing his first book, The Master Sniper, from my local library, which means I read it thirty years ago, near enough. Oh dear. The Master Sniper is a clever twisty bit of work with some strong characters and a neatly grubby plot where it turns out that the last big Nazi crime is all about the money. It's a short book, but they all were in those days. His next two books weren't as good; Second Saladin and Tapestry of Spies are both variations on a theme, the way in which governments hire tricky people to get things done and those tricky people screw decent people over because decent people are dumb enough to do the right thing without asking what's in it for them. Or whether they're right in thinking it's the right thing. His fourth book, The Day Before Midnight, was a real barn-burner by comparison. Big, high concept plot, lots of characters, many of them genuinely engaging, and a hell of a lot of gunplay. I'm still surprised that book never got made into a movie.

Everything seems to have changed for Hunter with Point of Impact. Everything he's done since then has happened in what we might as well call the Swagger-verse; nine more books have been set in the same world, eight of them revolving around either Bob Lee Swagger, the protagonist of Point of Impact, or Earl Swagger, Bob Lee's father. Point of Impact's a very good thriller. It was clearly written as a stand alone book; Hunter had some horrible problems marrying together the time lines of earlier work when he wrote Black Light, the second Bob Lee Swagger book and the one where - I'd argue - he made the mistake of getting too interested in his character. In between Point of Impact and Black Light, he wrote the very good Dirty White Boys, which is probably the only book he's written from the point of view of the bad guys. Point of Impact and Dirty White Boys are probably Hunter's best books. In Black Light, he set out to draw together the origin stories of the main characters in each book; both Bob Lee and Lamar Pye are revealed to be sons of the same father, Earl Swagger. Hunter, in the afterword to Black Light, admits that he never figured on doing this when he was writing the first two books, and as a result the time lines don't gel properly in the three books. That's a perfectionist's flaw; the three books actually hang together reasonably well considering that they've been slammed together as an afterthought. If Hunter had just stopped there, all might have been well. He'd put together a trilogy of books about violent American manhood that were passably well written and genuine page turners. The right move would have been to have a good hard think about some new characters and write about them.

Sadly, instead, Hunter's been going back to the same well ever since, and he's just worn the characters out. Since Black Light, we've had three books about Earl, and four more about Bob Lee. It's been ever diminishing returns. Writing about Earl presents Hunter with some serious problems; the character has to die in 1955, because that's one of the key facts about Bob Lee Swagger, and it's the pivot around which the three good books turn. So all the books about Earl have to be prequels. This makes it hard to pump in tension, because the reader knows Earl has to make it out in one piece, and it makes it even harder to put together the plots because the books are all stuck in the time between 1945 and 1955. Even so, the books about Earl have been more of a success than the books about Bob Lee. Hot Springs is probably the best of the three, because it's really the origin story of the guy who eventually shoots Earl, and although no-one seems to have told Hunter this, he's actually much better at writing squirrelly little almost-successes than he is at writing manly heroes. Most of his best viewpoint characters are company typists, not he-men.

The Bob Lee books are stuck with a problem Hunter shouldn't still be trying to beat. Bob Lee is a VietNam veteran. In his first appearance, that was fine, because the book was published in 1993, and a man young enough to be a Marine Corps sniper in VietNam was a plausible middle aged burnout 20 or 25 years later. 16 years later, it's pushing credibility that Bob Lee is still running around getting into trouble and getting out of it safely. In Night of Thunder Bob Lee is explicitly 63 years old. Being 63 is not easy. Being 63 when you've been shot up half a dozen times and spent most of your early middle age as a fully paid up alcoholic; well, it's not plausible. But it's not just that the character's too old to be doing what he's doing; what he's doing feels too thin and used up. Night of Thunder lacks a decent villain. It lacks a deep and twisty plot. It lacks any real depth of characterisation. Bob Lee is invulnerable, and everyone else is disposable cardboard. We KNOW that none of the bad guys are going to make it.

Night of Thunder is not the worst Bob Lee Swagger book; that dubious prize goes to the 47th Samurai, which combines a flat, go nowhere plot, uninteresting characters and a truly unbelievable quest for Swagger. Not content with having his character be the greatest rifle shot that ever lived, Hunter makes him into a passable Samurai swordsman. Now I get that Hunter likes violent cinema and wanted to do a homage to all the samurai movies he's enjoyed. But if that was what he wanted to do, it would have been a better plan to think up a new character and make up a whole new book about him. In the 47th Samurai Bob Lee jumps the shark to become Mary Sue Hunter, and I stopped believing in him. Night of Thunder can't really top that. Not that it does anything else much.

In part I'm moved to this long grumble by the sample chapter for the next Bob Lee book, I, Sniper. That chilled my blood in all the wrong ways. It gives us the sniper murder of three thinly disguised icons of the left (not being the kind of person who grinds his teeth to sleep each night at the thought of how commies are running America, I don't have all of these modern-day Satans at my fingertips, but the first to go might as well have been called Jane Fonda and have done with it for all the trouble Hunter went to). It's not just that it's badly written (the exclamation mark is a sign that you don't know the word you need to suggest true drama); it's rather hateful. Hunter's authorial voice seems to be suggesting that the world could do with a bit of leftie-culling. No, not really, I don't think.

But above all I'm depressed by the slow dwindling of what was, in its prime, a strong storytelling voice. No-one was ever going to confuse Hunter with literature, but at his peak, he was genuinely good at what he did. And now he's not. In the past it seems to have taken him three to four years to write a book, partly because he was still a working journalist. I wish he'd get back to that pace instead of chunking out thinner and thinner pastiches every year.

And speaking of thinner things, a word to his US paperback publisher. I don't care how cool you think it looks or how much money it seems to be saving; making a standard sized paperback five millimeters narrower than its already tiny size is not big, not clever, and not the way you're going to stop people from downloading e-books. I thought my oversized Glen Cooks were awkward to read, but at least I wasn't peering at the text through a slit the width of business card.

From Paris WIth Love; get ready for the change-up

Raymond Chandler famously wrote something to the effect that when a writer felt the well of inspiration run dry, he could always resort to having a man come into the room with a gun in his hand. Chandler was talking about his own process; his books are something to relish for the prose style and the depth of the characterisation rather than the plots. It's not unfair to say that Chandler's novels don't actually have plots, just a pile of stuff happening. Of course, this is also true of life, but detective stories are supposed to be all about the plot. Chandler knew this, but either didn't care or didn't know what to do about it. I tend to think that he didn't care; this is the guy who was asked what was going in the film adaptation of his own novel The Big Sleep and responded that he hadn't a clue. Somehow, it didn't matter; just as when you've got a man playing the piano well enough, no-one takes the time to wonder why his tie doesn't match his shirt, when you've got a man who can write as well as Chandler did, it seems almost churlish to fuss about whether he's also making sense.

I was thinking about all of this while watching From Paris With Love. Partly because it wasn't as though the film itself was giving the higher centres of my brain anything better to do, but mostly because Pierre Morel appears to have been operating for the first half of the movie on the principle that if he couldn't think of anything else to do, he could always have John Travolta kill the living hell out of a few people and buy some time that way. Morel has form in the delicate art of hiring biggish names to come to Paris and kill people; last year he put out Taken, in which Liam Neeson kills most of the Albanians and a lot of the Arabs in Paris. One difference - maybe the only difference of any importance - is that Liam Neeson's an actual actor, and it was hard to avoid the feeling that the expression of weary disdain he uses to show contempt for his quarry wasn't actually acting, but just him flashing back to the moment when he got handed the script and the cheque and didn't quite have the self respect to hand them back. Travolta is a star rather than an actor, and he takes to his cartoonish role with palpable relish. I don't think it bothered him for a second that he was in trash. He actually kills even more people than Neeson did in Taken, for far less apparent reason. At least Liam had had his kid stolen by white slavers and was killing his way through them to find the girl. Travolta's Charlie Wachs seems to have arrived in Paris with a plan that boiled down to "Kill everyone you meet, and sooner or later it will all make sense." While the first part of the plan works out fine, the second part is epically failed.

Which is not to say that the film isn't fun, at first. Switch off the bit of your brain that manages empathy and it's rather like Tom and Jerry with live ammunition and a largely dead cast. The body count ratchets up so fast that the characters start making jokes about it, and it's largely played for laughs. It's easy - it's fair - to blame Morel for this, but Morel's a hired gun for Luc Besson and Luc Besson "wrote" this. I find myself wondering what the world looks like for Besson. I once joked that there were few problems a civil servant could face which couldn't be solved with a shredder, a chainsaw or a large enough quantity of Semtex, but Besson seems to think that most problems can be solved with a brisk massacre of some faceless horde or other. Sometimes there's enough panache to it that I don't mind (Bruce Willis's moment of negotiation in the Fifth Element ought to be a compulsory part of every course in negotiation), but twice in a year now Luc has put together a movie in which a white dude shows up in Paris and kills a bunch of foreigners more or less just because they're there.

Anyhow, it's all full tilt boogie for about an hour or so, with Travolta killing everyone he meets in more and more outrageously kinetic ways and Jonathan Rhys Myers trying to keep up with him while he worries about his cute love interest. Then it gets a bit weird. Back when I was talking about the Kingdom, I mentioned that the massive shootout at the end made me think that the director had belatedly realised he had a load of ammunition to use up; this time it's like Morel paced himself wrong and ran out of bullets half way through, because from the middle of the movie onwards, there's a lot less shooting and a lot more worrying about stuff. There's also a major change in tone, from incredibly violent knockabout farce to something where violence seems to have real and upsetting consequences for people we've actually been given enough time to see as human. So, as I said, get ready for the change-up. I'm not sure that From Paris With Love would have been a good film if it had taken the same line all the way through that it eventually settles into, but I'd feel less worried about the people who made it. As I think about it now, the second half makes you realise that the people making the movie are equipped to know that there's something terribly wrong with the thinking in the first half, and they went ahead and did it anyway.

And then I gave them some money. Feeling bad about it isn't going to make THAT any better.

There are enjoyable little touches. There's a whole scene that was written just to let Travolta say the words "Royale with cheese" in Paris. (It feels disloyal to John to record that I then had to explain that this wasn't shoddy product placement but a potentially awesome shoutout to Pulp Fiction). And Travolta's given a lot of good lines (he probably insisted) which he delivers well. (Personal favourite - Rhys Myers trying to explain the combination lock in his car to Travolta who just bangs in the numbers he obviously already knew and says "Let me, I'm a good guesser." It works because it really underlines that Travolta is on top of the situation and Rhys Myers is a babe in the wood. Earlier on, Rhys Myers, who's playing an entry level spy dreaming of the big time, is tasked to swap the licence plates on a car about to be used by real spies; while he was unscrewing the plates John muttered that you'd have thought the CIA would give him a power screwdriver; I responded that refusing to issue a power screwdriver to someone who you'd given a gun and coded safe in his carboot was exactly the kind of pointless economy that defines government agencies.

John found it hilarious that all the detonators in the suicide belts were bright red and had danger markings on them, and I'm not sure he was fully convinced by my reply that real world detonators are covered with health and safety warnings and suicide bombers work a lot with "salvaged equipment". Which was a tiny, tiny link to last week's film, also set in Paris, but apparently made on a completely different planet.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

MicMacs; you'd have to be French

Jean Pierre Jeunet is, by conventional wisdom, completely bonkers. I'm not sure I buy into that idea, but Jeunet's certainly not like the other children. This is probably a good thing, because most of the other children really aren't all that good at what they do. Not being like them is probably a good start towards doing something worthwhile. I'd seen the trailer for MicMacs before I saw the film, and so when on Wednesday evening, just before I left the office, Mary asked me what I was going to see this week, I had an answer ready. MicMacs, I said. More lunacy from the man who brought us Amelie. Just going on the trailer, I said grandly, it looks as though everyone involved in the production was working with a scuba system filled with LSD; the performers would have been on some kind of drip feed of finest blotter acid just to keep up. Oh, said Mary uncertainly.

The reality turned out not to be quite as hallucinogenic as all that. Wes Anderson (another of nature's not-like-the-other-children types) was quite a bit madder in Fantastic Mr Fox, just to take one example out of the air. It's an engagingly odd affair, but a lot of the time it's almost depressingly grounded. The protagonist, Bazil, has a terrible life. We get introduced to him in his childhood when he finds out that his father has been blown to bits clearing mines in Algeria; then his mother has a breakdown and he's sent off to a horrible boarding school (it seems to be the male version of Coco Chanel's school in Coco before Chanel; from my limited exposure to French cinema, I'm coming to the conclusion that schooldays are not the happiest days of French lives); he breaks out of that and we next see him as an adult working in a rundown video store. Where he gets himself shot in the head; by the time they let him out of the hospital, he's been turfed out of his flat, the other people in the block stole all his stuff and his boss has hired a replacement for him. Twenty minutes in, Bazil's reduced to living on the streets and scraping a living hustling on the edge of other street people's entertainments. It ought to be in even more depressing than it is. In part it's not ghastly because Bazil's such a nice guy; he's so winning that even though he's having a terrible time, his sunny outlook softens the edges.

Anyhow, the scene having been set, Bazil is taken in by the denizens of a scrap yard, who live in a collective of one-note characters scavenging materials and getting by on the slimmest of margins. This is actually where Jeunet delivers something you wouldn't get from anyone else; the scavengers each have a defining quirk - the thrill seeker who dreams of being in the Guinness Book of Records for human cannonball, the bespectacled woman who can calculate the size or duration of anything at all just by looking, the contortionist, the Congolese ethnographer who speaks entirely in clichés because he's collecting figures of speech, the doddery old man who makes pointless mechanical toys - but the actors who've been hired to do each part run with what they've got and give every one of these characters a real and vivid personality which goes beyond what the script needs. And the script is intentionally sparse with words; most of the sympathetic characters only have nicknames. Only the villains have full names, and when the credits finally roll, a staggering percentage of the acting roles are descriptions, not names at all. But because Jeunet is working in France and is taken seriously there, he has his pick of theatrical and TV actors who can take such deliberately underwritten stuff and magic it into people you can believe in.

Most of the movie is about Bazil's plan to wreak havoc on the two arms companies which have blighted his life; one by making the landmine that blew up his father and the other by making the bullet that hit him in the head. Havoc is duly, and imaginatively, wreaked though part of the charm of the movie is that Bazil's plans don't really work as he expects them to, so that most of his grand designs devolve into frantic improvisation as they collide with the two problems which don't usually affect Hollywood plans; in Hollywood, only the protagonist actually has a plan, while in MicMacs the arms dealers have plans of their own, and in Hollywood gadgets work, while in MicMacs, there's only so much reliance you can place on "salvaged equipment".

Although there's a lot of Heath Robinson ingenuity in the plots, most of the really satisfying moments come from extreme simplicity. Bazil mounts a classic man-in-the-middle attack on the companies by impersonating a buyer so as to derail a huge dirty buy. The company representatives are told (unbeknownst to each other) to show up at a busy train station with their samples for a meet. Then the gang steal their sample cases by the marvelously simple expedient of standing beside them with much bigger cases with open bottoms which they drop over the sample case; one second the case is there, the next it's been swallowed up by the bigger luggage. I was wondering how that doesn't happen every day in crowded stations.

And it's that kind of thing that leaves me saying that the movie isn't actually as hallucinogenic as the trailer had made me expect. It's quirky and whimsical and full of glancing references to other movies, but most of the time the effects are being driven by small and ordinary things. They're small and ordinary things happening in a completely fantastical and whimsical world, but somehow while you're watching it, it all hangs together beautifully. One very funny bit comes near the end, where the villains of the piece have been shoved into a car boot and dragged off to an uncertain fate. We see the next few moments through their perception; they're hooded and being dragged through a series of transitions that suggest they've been bundled onto a jet, flown to North Africa and dragged out into the wilderness of the desert to face their just desserts. And as I was watching this, I was impressed with Jeunet for respecting his audience enough to know that they'd know that this was a fakeout and not feeling the need to spell it out. What impressed me even more was that when the villains get to find out it was a fake-out, Jeunet flashed back to how the fakeout was done, and MADE THE SCENE WORK. That takes something special.

Although it's a wonderful film, I did think that the anti-arms company message was a bit too heavy handed - to use a word from TVTropes, it was anvilicious. That's actually my only crab. I had great fun. But that brings me back to my title. I was constantly wishing that I was actually French, because I really felt like I was missing out on all kinds of subtext in the movie; it was most noticeable with Remington (the cliché-spouter) where I wanted to know what hackneyed French phrases he was using. The sub titlers worked wonders getting across English phrases, but I knew in my heart of hearts that I was missing out much richer jokes in the French. Over and above that, just as when I watched Nightwatch and Daywatch and realised that some of the fun for Russian viewers would have been the resonances from other roles played by the leads, I knew that the French audiences would have been contrasting the players with their other roles. All that said, I was distracted all the way through by the fact that Dany Boon, who plays Bazil, was disconcertingly like a less sardonic Colin Murphy....