Monday, 31 May 2010

Drood: Dan Simmons

I've read a lot of Dan Simmons' books so I can make some educated guesses as to how Drood came to be.

Simmons has been working his way through the classics recently. He's subjected us to two books riffing on the Iliad and the Odyssey, and he's written a book about Hemingway doing a bit of amateur spying in Cuba in World War II. The Greek retreads pretty much put me off Simmons for a while - they're not awfully well written and I didn't share Simmons' obvious self satisfaction with the idea of rolling out a protagonist who was a college literature professor and unaccountably indispensable to all and sundry. Generally speaking, when college literature professors write a book in which the main character is a college literature professor, I don't demand that they have their fingers broken and their typewriters taken off them, but I don't read the book. The Hemingway book was a potboiler, although not Simmons' worst potboiler, since that prize has to be reserved for Darwin's Blade, a perfectly ridiculous lashing together of all the daftest accidental deaths in all those Darwin's Revenge books you can find on illiterate people's toilet cisterns and the least plausible protagonist I've ever seen (genius insurance investigator, sports car racer and glider pilot? Why not make him the world's greatest lover and the drummer in a rock band while you're at it?)

The thing is that Simmons has serious form as a pretty decent horror and Science Fiction writer. The four Hyperion books are genuinely good stuff; tons of imagination, a reasonably consistent universe, some stuff you really need to think about and some characters you can root for. I was quite surprised that he followed up the Fall of Hyperion with two more books, but I was on tenterhooks for the fourth one. In Endymion he managed to go back to a universe he'd changed out of all recognition at the end of Fall of Hyperion and remake it into something equally interesting. A good job; overall the ending's a bit flat, but till you get there it's a bloody good time (really bloody; this was written at a time when Simmons would drop a body just to make a point about the weather).

About three or four years ago, Simmons had what was generally hailed as a return to his 90s prime with a book called The Terror, which was all about the Franklin Expedition. This was a book I felt I could give a miss to, because there was no possible way that it could be cheery; the Franklin Expedition went up to Baffin Island looking for the fabled Northwest Passage, a shortcut to the wealth of the orient through the icepacks between Canada and the North Pole. We now know that a) this was a doomed plan and b) it might be completely viable shortly what with global warming, but in the 1850s, it was more or less a long drawn out way to kill two hundred men from cold and privation. To this day, we can only guess what happened to the luckless crews of the two ships, but the best guess is that they got stuck in the ice and were a long time dying in horrible circumstances. Simmons thought it would be more fun with a monster picking them off as well, so The Terror is more or less Scott of the Antarctic crossed with the less idyllic bits of Mutiny on the Bounty and with the Thing on top. Whee, I thought, and read something else.

The real fate of the Expedition was a big deal at the time, and Charles Dickens, no less, wrote a play about it, in partnership with Wilkie Collins, and I speculate that when Simmons was working up the research for The Terror he tripped over the play and it got him to thinking about the unequal partnership between Dickens and Collins.

And from that meditation, came Drood. Anyone who's read a book in English has to be at least somewhat aware of Dickens, who is to English prose fiction what Shakespeare is to drama. I was surprised to discover how few novels Dickens actually wrote; considering that he was a colossus in his time and remains a colossus to this day, it gave me pause for thought to see that he wrote less than a dozen actual novels. He wrote any amount of lesser fiction, but the great works on which his reputation rests are surprisingly few in number. Very shortly now, Matthew Reilly, in many ways perhaps the most astonishingly bad novelist to get a major book deal in the 1990s, will actually have published more novels, and very nearly as many pages, as Dickens. Anyhow, our boy Dickens needs no introduction. He was a rockstar in his day and he's pretty much the only writer in English of his own era who's still read by a significant number of modern readers.

Collins; well, very much in the second string in his own time and practically obscure these days. Every now and then someone adapts one of his key novels for the screen and there's a brief upsurge in articles talking about how the Moonstone invented the detective story, or the Woman in White revitalised the gothic melodrama and so on and so forth. It's a fair bet that you could detonate a nuclear weapon in the downtown of any major city in Europe and not kill anyone who'd read all of Wilkie Collins. It would be surprising enough if you ganked someone who'd read any of it.

Dickens died before he could finish his last book, the Mystery of Edwin Drood. He got half way, then popped his clogs leaving not much in the way of notes as to where the hell he thought he was going with the thing. He may have been writing a mystery story or he may have been trying to write some sort of proto-Jim Thompson book in which the bulk of the text is given over to exploring the mind of a killer. Or a sequel to the Christmas Carol; we're probably never going to know, and them's the breaks.

Simmons takes as his starting point the railway accident Dickens narrowly survived, five years before his death from an apparent stroke, and fills those five years with the growing animosity between Collins and Dickens and the apparent obsession Dickens has formed over the ghoulish Drood, who seems to have been preying on the casualties of the train accident. The whole book is narrated by Collins, who sets out to portray himself as a cheerily unconventional soul whose talent is potentially far greater than Dickens', despite the way in which Dickens has overshadowed him. In Drood, Simmons has turned Collins into the unreliable narrator who over the course of the book becomes thoroughly unlikeable as well.

You don't at first mind too much the way in which Collins as narrator keeps finding ways to portray Dickens in the least flattering light, because it's easy to relate to the niggling annoyance that a second rate talent can feel about the good fortune accorded to a first rate talent, but over time it really starts to grate. The thing which annoyed me almost from the outset is that Collins is shown as treating women quite shabbily. I still can't make up my mind whether Simmons was simply trying to capture the mental outlook of a self-absorbed man of the time, or whether it's an overall part of Simmons' strategy to make the reader come to dislike Collins heartily by the end of the book. My gut instinct is that it's all entirely deliberate because the book is very self-aware; it's a book written by a writer pretending to be another writer who's pretending to be the loyal and supportive friend of someone who fills him with jealous resentment as much as with affection. There's a wonderful - for the long time Simmons reader at least - piece of sniping between Dickens and Collins near the book's emotional climax which revolves around both writers criticising each other for reusing plots and characters. Simmons himself has produced some of his best work by recycling shorter fiction and reusing it with greater depth and better writing; his best horror novel, Carrion Comfort, is a rebuild of an earlier short story, and Hyperion is essentially a bridging narrative to contain a reworking of several earlier short stories. (Critics try to make this sound less economical by claiming that the book follows the structure of Decameron or the Canterbury Tales, but this it tosh; Simmons was doing what Chandler did before him; taking his existing shorter work and trying to use it as a springboard to jump to the harder form of the full length novel; the proof of this lies in the three follow on books which have much more conventional novelistic structure).

Drood is heavy going, though I found myself wondering whether it would be a more interesting read for someone who had read all of Dickens and at least a modicum of Collins. Would the incidental characters have jumped out at me as the prototypes of central characters in other novels? Mostly my weary answer was that I wasn't having enough fun reading Drood to want to put six months into reading all of Dickens on the off chance that in retrospect it would all seem like a work of genius. Collins isn't much fun to be with, and he doesn't like the people around him enough to make them fun to be with at one remove either. So even though it's well written and you want to know what's happening, at the end of it, you're not going to be filled with the burning need to read it again.

At the risk of spoiling what fun that's in it, the thread running through it all is deception; Collins is deceiving everyone around him in small ways to suit himself, deceiving his reader by putting himself in the best light, deceiving himself in thinking that his self-serving explanations aren't giving away the myriad flaws in his character, and ultimately deceiving himself about the meaning of almost everything he's experienced in the course of the novel. Just in case any reader is missing out on the idea that you oughtn't to trust what narrators tell you, the text is littered with references to the creation of unreliable narrators by both of the protagonist authors.

Somehow, it doesn't quite gel. Simmons doesn't have a great track record with endings, and there's something rushed, flat and inconclusive about the wrap up in Drood. It's logical, realistic, congruent with actual history of the real life people involved, and yet curiously unsatisfactory. As I type this, I find myself wondering if Simmons, who was at such pains to try to capture the prose style of the 19th century might have been better off adopting one of the other stylistic tropes on which Wilkie Collins relied; the presentation of multiple narrators through letters might have given Simmons the chance to set up the ending more effectively.

I did figure out a tiny pointless thing about myself. I'm careful with books, and it's generally hard to tell if I've even read a book after I've finished with it (which is one reason, I suppose, why people keep asking me if I've read all the books in the house). Drood took a while to read, and it spent some time in my bag going in and out of work last week. The cover got dog-eared and battered and it didn't really bother me; which was when I knew that I wasn't going to keep the book, and thus that I wasn't really enjoying it very much. So, new test; the dog ear test. If I don't care about the cover, I don't care about the book.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Robin Hood; You, Scott, step away from the Middle Ages!

Robin Hood is one of those movies which seems to have had a build up out of all proportion to the finished product. I've been looking forward to it coming out for what seems like about three years when it was first reported that Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe were planning a film called Nottingham, which would have been all about the legend as seen from the viewpoint of law enforcement. When, a couple of years later, I heard that they'd (as they say in Hollywood) "gone another way" I was disappointed. This turns out to have been a useful primer for how I was going to need to feel about the eventual movie, just as the idea of a long buildup for something not that amazing turns out to have been a useful primer for the structure of the movie itself.

Robin Hood is a long movie, and it's a long movie where you start to feel the length pretty early on. It takes about an hour to slog through the precursor to the main action; it's that long before Robin even gets near Nottingham. This long buildup to the main plot is all the more appropriate when you get to the end of the whole movie and discover that the movie itself is just the long build up to how Robin Hood got into all that trouble and became an outlaw. So as should be clear, this is one of these long build up to an anticlimax experiences at more levels than seem possible for a mere motion picture, even one directed by Ridley Scott.

Who, oh who, shall we blame? It's so tempting to point the finger at Brian Helgeland, but Scott's got form on the middle ages and I'm going to let him take the hit for this, just as he took the hit for Kingdom of Heaven. When you've got as much control over the finished product as Scott does these days, it's not the writer's fault when it goes wrong, it's your fault for not hiring a better writer.

Anyhow, there you go. You get to numb yourself for a good bit over the two hours, and the movie ends before the conventional story is supposed to begin. Thus the need to hold out for the sequel, Robin Hood 2 the Enhoodening Sherwood Forest Boogaloo or whatever it finally gets called. Mind you, on the form we've seen so far, you'll be waiting a long time and it still won't be the movie you were hoping for, so have other plans dusted off.

What was good? What was bad? The performances are all at the very least perfectly workmanlike, although there may never have been a Robin Hood film that gave the Sheriff of Nottingham less to do (honestly, Matthew McFadyean must have had some very firm things to say to his agent. Sheriff of Nottingham in a Robin Hood movie. Juicy part. Loads to do. Great. There's actually more words in this paragraph than the Sheriff of Nottingham gets to say; talk about a let down for the actor.) Considering that a British director is setting out to make a paean to the yeoman virtues of the English peasantry, it's kind of a hoot that his four most English hero roles are played by a New Zealander, an Austrialian, a Swede and an American, but they all do a good job with what they're given.

It's traditional that all Robin Hood movies are stolen by the villain of the piece (no-one seems to have mentioned this to Kevin Costner, which is why you can only now, very belatedly, get a cut of Kevin Hood with all of Alan Rickman's scenes in it) and Scott's version is no exception. He gives the villain ball to King John for a change, and it's the standout role of the movie. Rather unexpectedly, it's stand-out because through most of the film King John seems like the only person with his head on straight. Sure he's petulant and self indulgent, but he's got a better understanding of where England's been going wrong lately than anyone else in the Royal family, and when he's called on to make tough decisions he consistently makes the sensible call rather than the stupid one (splendid moment at the climactic battle when he looks down to the beach and sees that there are rather a lot of people to fight. Rather than dithering, he turns to the experienced fighters around him and asks what they think would be the best move. And when they confidently say what they think, he nods briskly and says "Good plan" before letting them get on with it). All in all John comes across as a useful upgrade from the drunken loon who came before him. Not only is he sharp witted in repartee, he actually seems to be sharp witted in reality. It's a nice change from the usual approach to villainy in the movies.

What's bad? Well, the whole plot. Origin stories aren't interesting, no matter what people think in Hollywood and the last person in the whole English speaking world to need an origin story is Robin Hood. Then there's the beach invasion, which is so ludicrous that any sense of jeopardy goes out the window the minute the French army show up in landing craft. It's for all the world as if Scott had a sudden break with reality and told the prop makers that they were going to do Saving Private Robin. Because that makes more sense than the idea that he thought this was in any way convincing. The French army shows up to invade England at a secluded cove completely surrounded by cliffs, and they arrive in medieval flat bottomed rowed barges with ramps at the front. As an idea, it's something which Jeremy Clarkson could have seen the problems with. But it does allow Scott to replicate all the images from Saving Private Ryan, except for the bangalore torpedoes and the flamethrowers. Absolutely bonkers.

Other random bad things; mostly good ideas not followed through properly. Sherwood Forest is infested with orphan boys who are preying on the villages around them - obviously these are going to be Robin Hood's merrie men in the never-to-be-made sequel, but it's criminal how little is done with them in the movie that Scott was actually making. A lot less trick arrow shooting than you'd consider appropriate to the fun of a Robin Hood movie. And you could go on, but I think I've conveyed the sense of it.

If we follow the precedents set up to now, within less than a year there'll be a BluRay version with an extra hour of material added to it which Scott will explain was his true vision. It still won't be the movie he was supposed to make, where tough Sheriff Crowe sets out to take down the villainous Robin Hood and make the roads of Sherwood safe for commerce. Someone should get to work on that right now.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Iron Man 2; the difficult second movie

I once flippantly described George Bush's invasion of Iraq as his "difficult second war" following the surprised critical reception for his artistic collaboration with established mass slaughter success story the Northern Alliance. This was at a time when the people i was talking to were cheerily redrawing the maps of West Asia with phrases like "New Texas" inked in over the previous art, so my Vizzini-like scepticism about a land war in Asia was seen as juvenile cynicism. And since a side effect of that attitude was that I'm not really talking to those guys any more, it's been a long hard six years of having no-one to say "I told you so." to.

Ah well. Just as the lack of success in the difficult second war has left us wondering how much reality there was to the apparent success of the surprise hit in the first one, Iron Man 2 left me wondering whether I'd really liked Iron Man that much in the first place, and if so why?

I'm honestly not being difficult when I say that the most fun I had at Iron Man 2 was seeing a credit for "Inflatable Crowd Supervisor" as I waited for the much heralded Easter Egg which was supposed to show up after the credits. For any of you debating whether to do likewise, don't. It's thirty seconds of a dull actor showing up to look at a big hole in the ground which has the handle of a hammer sticking out of it. Meh.

The other useful thing in the credits is that they show you just how many people had to slave over hot computers to make all the special effects, which is sort of sad given that the special effects are definitely the worst thing in the movie. It's not that they're badly done, it's that they don't really add anything worth watching.

Which brings me to why the first movie more or less worked and the second one more or less doesn't. Comic book adaptations in the movies generally take a lead actor you've never heard of before, expose him to some kind of life changing event, and then expose the new and improved nobody to startling hazard. They usually play all of this tiringly straight. This is usually referred to as the origin story, and as a form of story telling it's older than dirt. It's also usually duller than dirt. Iron Man bucked that trend by casting an actor who had tons of experience and was capable of being genuinely funny. So instead of watching a teenager wrestle with a metaphor for puberty, we had a grown up wrestle with a metaphor for death, which at my age is a lot more relatable. Not to mention that once you've been through it, puberty stops being at all impressive as a challenge. The respective survival rates for puberty and death speak for themselves.

So I quite liked Iron Man, though it did fail my standard "is this any good?" test by not being a movie I bothered buying on disc once it got cheap. It was fun, but it wasn't something I particularly wanted to see again. What made it work were the character moments. Robert Downey made a wonderful Tony Stark and continued his recent streak of being the best thing in whatever movie he happens to find himself in. The supporting actors were given enough to do, and above all the special effects were brought in only when you'd seen enough of the actors to care what the special effects might do to them.

In Iron Man 2, they knew they had to deliver a bigger better version of what had already succeeded in the first movie, but for no readily understandable reason they seem to have decided that what succeeded in the first movie was the special effects, not the acting and the writing. So they amped up the set pieces and cut back on the writers. So there's lots of sound and fury and very little reason to care. The grand climax of the film is Iron Man fighting hordes of robot drones studded with weapons and it's just impossible to care what happens - partly because you know what's going to happen and partly because it's all so cluttered and busy and muddled that it rapidly becomes impossible to follow what's going on.

I found myself picking apart stupid things. Tony Stark has to build a linear accelerator in his Malibu beach house so that he can create a new element to power his Iron Man suit. Sweeping past the grand fallacy that a linear accelerator that could fit in anything smaller than Switzerland could make usable quantities of anything, let alone a new transuranic element, I was asking questions like; why is he making holes in the walls with a sledgehammer when he's got an Iron Man suit? Why does he have to steer his particle beam (with the world's largest Stillson wrench jammed into some kind of plumbing supplies) through 180 degrees to get it lined up with the target? Why wasn't it lined up to within a couple of degrees before he even switched it on? If you have time to ask these questions, the movie is doing something wrong.

And there are moments along the way which suggest that it knew enough not to do these things. Mickey Rourke's character is broken out of jail at one point in a wonderfully economical scene which demonstrates the power of huge bribes and wilful indifference to right and wrong; want to take a man out of a maximum security prison? Money no object? Bribe the guards to carry him out for you. It's such an obvious way for rich people to solve problems that all on its own the scene creates a little island of credibility. Sadly that island is not part of an archipelago.

Mickey Rourke reportedly only read his own parts of the script, which was either an inspired piece of method acting to help him create a character who doesn't really interact with the people around him, or Mickey seeing it as just another pay day and putting in the bare minimum of effort - the result's the same either way, as his character mumbles at everyone and makes as little eye contact as he can get away with. A rolling problem in modern movies is the difficulty actors have in reacting to the special effects; they have to imagine things which aren't there and then respond to them as though they were. This can lead to bizarre levels of over and under reaction to amazing scenes slammed in later; Iron Man 2 may be the first movie I've seen in which an Oscar-nominated star reacts to the other actors as though they were orange tennis balls on sticks standing in for something that was going to be added in later.

Other actors brought in for no real impact include Scarlett Johanssen (one great fight scene is NOT enough to justify all the other dull moments she brings to the party) Samuel L Jackson (I know Marvel's required by law to include him in everything they make, but Stan Lee's working harder in his scene) Gwynneth Paltrow (an annoying person in real life and not doing enough acting here to let me overlook it) and Sam Rockwell (I think he was setting out to be annoying, but overdoing it to the point where I had to ask myself how anyone so effortlessly infuriating could have held down a responsible job, let alone somehow risen to be CEO of America's biggest weapons company).

All in all, a bad job done by all. It's made a boatload of money, unfortunately, so everyone involved is going to conclude that they should do it again. Oh dear.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Centurion; a testament to the Irish educational system

Before I watched Neil Marshall's Centurion, there was an ad from the Scottish Tourist Board. The slogan was "It won't take you long to see the best of Scotland", which is one of those slogans which seem brilliant until someone like me says "No, I imagine it won't". It's going to take the Scottish Tourist Board a bit more than that to counteract Neil Marshall's influence, which depicts Scotland as a wonderful place to go and get chopped to bits by lunatics. I was sort of surprised to see that he was able to make the film IN Scotland. I imagine that they told the Scots it was someone else directing and he went in disguise.

Marshall's got extensive form on this, you see. In Dog Soldiers, the SAS goes on manoeuvres in Scotland and gets eaten by werewolves. In Doomsday an elite British army squad goes to Scotland to find the cure for a plague, and gets butchered by cannibals. And in Centurion, the 9th Legion of the Roman Army goes to Scotland and gets wiped out to the last man by bloodthirsty Picts. I think that even the most easygoing therapist would start to see that Neil Marshall's a bit conflicted about Scotland. On the one hand, he keeps making movies set there; on the other hand, he's not doing the place any favours. Since he's from Newcastle-on-Tyne, I'm wondering if it's got something to do with borderland angst.

Dog Soldiers is a very clever little film that sets out to do something very simple and does it very well. SAS, werewolves; it's almost like an elevator pitch right there. And it works splendidly, partly because one of Marshall's little knacks is that he's quite good at doing male group dynamics; his teams of men feel true to life, and when you're throwing werewolves around, you want everything around them to be grounded in the familiar. It ups the ante properly. Doomsday is more of a guilty pleasure; there's too much plot somehow hammered into too much action and I honestly stopped trying to count the films it nicked scenes from (conspicuous steals are Aliens and Mad Max 2 - but if you're going to steal, steal from the best and do it with panache). It's still great fun while being shockingly gory and very disillusioned.

Centurion's not really as good as either. It's not at all a bad film, although my heart sank when I saw the credits, which are a bit too intrusive and fancy, to be kind about it. To be unkind about it, I said at the time that plainly they'd spent too much of the budget on the credits to get them redone less bombastically. Huge pseudo-bronze lettering flies through the snowbound Scottish landscape; it's all far too over the top for the movie which follows. The closing credits are actually worse; a headache inducing mess of bits flying in from all angles. Oh dear. But like I say, I reckon they cost too much to send them back.

The movie's fine if you don't think about it too hard, and if you're thinking too hard in an action adventure movie, that might be the first indication that you weren't thinking hard enough before you bought the movie ticket. There are three things which will have you going WTF. Firstly, how does Michael Fassbender's character escape from the Picts in the first place? It's never explained; you see him being captured in a remote outpost, you see him getting bashed up by the Picts, and then you see him running for his life, but there's no explanation of how he got to be on the run. I suspect there's a deleted scene which clears this up. Secondly, the 9th Legion gets wiped out almost to the last man in one attack. Even if you buy the idea that 5000 trained men could get that beat up in an ambush, you're going to wonder how the Picts could arrange to have vast rolling flaming boulders on tap; they're awesome, but implausible. And thirdly, how do the Pict trackers keep finding the ragged band of seven refugees who are all that's left? That doesn't make a lick of sense, no matter how much they go on about the superhuman tracking skills of Etain the tracker.

There's fun to be had with some of the casting. Dominic West is in it, and we first meet him in an armwrestling contest which he closes out by stabbing his opponent in the arm. That McNulty, a pain in the ass in every era. Olga Kurylenko plays the superhuman tracker, and in a welcome break from every other film I've seen her in, she DOESN'T show up in revealing/no clothing and make an unsuccessful pitch to be romanced by the male lead. In fact, she's wearing more clothes in this than all her other roles put together. Hard to say if this means she's developing as an actress, because they made her mute. I saw Imogen Poots credited in the opening credits and spent the whole movie looking out for her; I remembered her from 28 Weeks Later, and there's such a clash between what that name would make you expect and the way she actually looks that I really couldn't have forgotten her. She's shoehorned in near the end as kind of a happy ending delivery system, but Michael Fassbender goes through so much that you can't really grudge him a happy ending.

I'm going to give Marshall a pass on the Picts, who all speak Pictish, or rather bad Gaelic, in weird accents that sound Russian rather than Scottish or Irish. We haven't really got a clue what Picts sounded like and although it sounds wrong to my ears, I don't know enough to contradict the call. What's funny is that the most convincing Pictish comes from Fassbender; he's the only one of the main speaking cast who delivers the Pictish dialogue in a natural sounding way, which of course I attribute entirely to the fact that he grew up in Killarney where he was taught to speak Irish properly.

There's an extraordinarily bonkers twist ending, in which the corrupt Roman leadership decides that they have to cover up the loss of an entire legion by making sure there are no survivors to carry the news back to Rome; it's bonkers because it only makes sense in today's world of mass media and whistleblowing. This is 117 AD; the public relations impact of a lone survivor announcing a calamity would be, well, nothing. And a whole Legion falling off the map wouldn't exactly have been the kind of thing you could keep from the only people whose opinion mattered. It's almost, though not quite, as unrealistic as the ending of Green Zone.