Thursday, 29 July 2010

The A Team; how to blow up the Port of Los Angeles without making me care very much

The A-Team movie ends with the classic opening narration of the original TV series, all about how there was an elite team of guys who if you really needed them and you knew where to look, maybe they could help you, and all I was thinking was maybe somewhere there's an ABC Team, and if you really needed someone to write an actual movie and you knew where to look, maybe you'd have made a better movie than this one...

Two months back, the first of this season's dumb team action movies hit with The Losers which also has a mismatched team of experts on the run after being framed for a crime they didn't commit, getting chased by a conspiracy they barely understand and climaxing in a fight in the Port of Los Angeles. The Losers didn't just get there first, they got there better.

The A-Team had so much more freight to carry, it inevitably came in behind the nimbler and smarter Losers, but it's actually worth thinking about how it goes wrong. The cast is fine - actually, Sharlto Copley is more than fine, Liam Neeson's always solid, Bradley Whitford's very nearly as good as he thinks he is and even Curtis Jackson's not at all bad. Ok, Jessica Biel's not great, but that's the writing; Meryl Streep couldn't save that character. The supporting baddies are more fun, as they always have to be in such movies. You have to have solid dependable muscle and a sneering mastermind, and it might just be me, but usually I leave the movie wishing someone would make a full length film about the bad guys instead. The A-Team was no exception. i couldn't even tell you who played Lynch (sneering mastermind) and Pike (stolid mercenary), but they had great fun (standout line, from Lynch to Biel's character when she's condemning the CIA for not having rules "We do have rules. They're just cooler than yours.")

The A-Team goes wrong by thinking more is more and that something can be too big to fail. So the setpieces are enormous, unbelievable and unrelenting. The gag you see in all the trailers, where the Team get stuck in a tank falling out of a Hercules and open fire from it as it freefalls? That's actually quite expensive to set up at all, so they run it very long. So long that it stops being interesting; so long that suspension of disbelief stops working. And it's actually quite a restrained sequence compared to the big ticket climax, which involves catastrophic levels of destruction in the Port of LA. The Losers couldn't afford to destroy much property or even hire computer monkeys to look like they did, so in the immortal words of Olivier, they had to try acting, and even then it looked like a TV episode from the 70s. The A-Team's approach to the same problem also looks kind of like a TV episode, run through the imagination of a hyperactive five year old with an unlimited budget, or Michael Bay, which come to think of it is probably the same thing.

In order to coax Lynch out into the open, the Team set up an elaborate scam involving a whole container freighter and a cup and ball game with shipping containers. Which starts to go wrong when Pike fires a rocket into the freighter. What happens next more or less breaks reality. A shoulder launched rocket blows a big enough hole in the ship that it immediately starts to sink. The ship, and everything on it, seems to be made entirely of explodium, as literally everything begins to detonate in great rippling bursts of flame. Then the containers, still exploding merrily, start toppling off the deck of the sinking ship until the Port of LA looks like some bastard cross between a game of pick up sticks and bonfire night. This is actually quite boring. It's as expensive as all get out, no doubt, but it's dull, dull, dull. Mostly because it's a night scene, everyone's masked, the focus is on all the tumbling containers and explosions and it's really kind of hard to care what all this noise is happening to.

You have to blame CGI. Most of the more outrageous stunts are entirely computer generated and they happen in the dark or in the sky because those environments are much easier to model and to hide mistakes in. Unfortunately, they also hide everything else. The movie actually had a perfectly useful principal cast who were more than capable of selling their lines and putting across their one note characters. But instead the producers just kept throwing more and more stunts at the screen.

Flashing back to the beginning of the movie, the most annoying thing is the structure. Just like Ridley Scott's underpowered Robin Hood, this is primarily an origin movie. It sets out to tell us how the modern day A Team winds up on the run, a job which the original TV series managed to deal with in a short voiceover to the opening credits, and a job which didn't really need to be done anyhow - was there really any prospect that anyone was going to be showing up at the movie who didn't know about the TV show? So, bad enough that it's an unnecessary origin movie, it's actually got another origin story to get through first; we don't just have to spend the first half of the movie numbly enduring how the A-Team get jailed for a crime they didn't commit (and then break out in a succession of the lamest jail breaks of all time), first we have to endure a completely pointless "how they all met" shenanigan which begged us to believe that eight years before the US pull out from Iraq, the only way in which you could possibly get a corrupt Mexican general killed would be to lure him into Arizona and have his helicopter shot down by an F22 on a flimsy pretext. It's Mexico! - Hollywood Mexico at that - you could get just about anyone killed and turned into brandname dogfood for less than it costs to fill up the fuel tanks on a F22. God, that was an unbearably long run-on sentence. The first half of the movie's kind of the same as that.

The McGuffin, by the way, is everyone squabbling to try to get hold of a set of printing plates for US dollars. We're told that before the US invasion, only Iran had a printing press capable of forging US currency. I think that this was actually asking us to believe that outside the US, only Iran actually used paper money. Presumably the rest of the world is still using tree bark and cowrie shells.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Inception; what the Matrix wants to be when it grows up

Inception had all kinds of people jumping out of their skins when it hadn't even opened, because Christopher Nolan has built up a pretty solid body of work, delivering tense action-heavy films that require a bit of thought from the audience. And then he makes a movie which is all about dreams. The pre-release reviews were delirious and initial blog reactions were calling it the third best film ever made, so inevitably once the thing was actually pulling in money, the backlash fired up its engines and people started with the usual thing of "Well, all you sheople are obviously enjoying yourselves but we more thoughtful folks don't quite see what the fuss is about."

I decided to take some time out from my relentless commitment to Albanian language documentaries about underwater goat herding and check out this kerrazee new phenomenon before the critics ruined the fun for everyone. And Inception's a pretty good movie, but inevitably it's not the best film ever made. Not even, in Homer Simpson's wonderful phrase, the best film ever made, SO FAR.

What's surprising is that it's straightforward. It's got a freaky main idea - that you can intervene in other people's dreams - and Nolan's got form on making movies with tricky plot structures and loads of flashbacks that undercut the viewer's certainties, so you'd naturally expect Inception to be tricky in its presentation. Instead it's almost matter of fact. He gets the idea of nested dreams out of the way briskly and for that point on plays it very straight. A while ago I watched The Prestige with someone who is smarter than me and better at recognising people and remembering their names and we had to keep pausing the film for me to explain what had just happened. The same person had no problem at all following the plot of Inception because Nolan seems to have decided that the idea was weird enough that if he tried making it complicated he'd lose the audience completely. And, depending on your read on the final scene, you might argue that he kept it straight so that the big twist at the end would be more of a shocker.

I have to say that the big twist at the end - and I'm part of the bloc that thinks it IS a big twist at the end, not a happy ending - isn't that much of twist. With what we're shown in the first half an hour, there's really only place the movie can go. Arguably, it isn't even a twist; it's the inevitable working out of the logic of the dream.

Still, it's an interesting ride getting there. Di Caprio is fine, although I've always felt that there's only so much you can do as an actor with "tightly wound" before you get into diminishing returns. Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon Levitt as sidekicks are much more interesting and rounded characters because they're not trying to be bags of nerves; they're playing guys getting a job of work done. Tom Hardy in particular is great fun. Ellen Page somehow doesn't get enough to do, which is a shame because she's the kind of actress who can sell a smart line and this is a movie which has a lot of smart lines needing to be sold. Marion Cotillard continues to amaze me with how much she can get done with very little. She was the heart of the two best scenes in Public Enemies almost without saying a word, and with very little screen time or dialogue she is still one of the most hypnotic elements of the film.

Yeah, you say, but what explodes? Well, the stunts are pretty impressive, although not always the ones you saw in the trailers. The big setpiece dream worlds are clever and convincing, but the movie works best with the small scale moments; there's a long scene where Joseph Gordon Levitt has to work in zero gravity to move the rest of the cast from a hotel room to a lift - it all makes perfect sense in context - which is just hypnotic. There's nothing spectacular to it; it's just a guy moving a complicated bundle down a corridor and getting into a fist fight along the way, but it's got a wonderful ... there's no better word ... dreaminess to it. Worlds folding up and falling down are all very well, but the corridor scene is what people are going to remember. There's a lot of other fun bits of business; the moment when a train appears for absolutely NO good reason in the middle of a car chase is expertly judged; just enough thunder at just the right moment.

After a while, though you start to realise that what Inception's really doing is showing the Matrix how to do it right. The Matrix was a wonderful movie in so many ways - I still occasionally stick the DVD into the player just to watch the lobby shootout and Morpheus's rescue because it's awesome in a trashy way - but it doesn't hold up when you stop watching it, because you realise that none of the "science" makes any sense. Apparently the original plan was that the humans were all linked up as distributed processing nodes, which made sense in terms of what the movie was about, but the suits said that this was too hard to understand and insisted that the humans had to be hooked up as organic batteries. Which didn't make any sense at all, and once you started to pick that part of the background apart, the whole thing just melted. Inception doesn't bother for one second trying to explain how interfering with dreams would actually work - at one interpretation it isn't even pretending it's possible to begin with; it just puts people to work doing it, makes the people themselves interesting and then sticks to a few simple rules. Result, a completely satisfying film about people trying to solve problems. And I think that part of the reason it works is that Leo and his partners don't have the fate of the whole world resting on their shoulders; they're just trying to save their own worlds, and that's quite enough pressure to be getting on with. A lesson there for people who want to make a spectacle; keep it simple.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Retribution Falls; Yeah, I miss Firefly too

I've commented before that people write the books they want to read and which they have to write because no-one else has gotten round to it. If I'm right about that, Chris Wooding really misses Joss Whedon's cancelled SF show Firefly.

Not that Wooding is wrong to miss the show; it was great and it's a shame that there wasn't more of it. And it's not that Wooding is just writing a whole bunch more episodes of the show in his mind, because he's not. The internet is full of fan fiction in which people take their favourite characters from established fiction and write more stuff with them in it. Wooding's done something different; he's taken the basic premises behind Firefly and put his own characters into it. So instead of the common crappy thing of "What if I took these lovable characters and put them into new adventures? With me in them, and I'm the hero and they're the sidekicks?" Wooding's done the much weirder thing of saying "What if you had a set up like Firefly's, but you populated it with assholes?" That's the kind of thing which deserves a sort of twisted respect, because a writer's got to spend months of time with his characters and just like real life, if you've got to be stuck in a small room with a bunch of folks, you'd prefer to be with cute loveable funny folks.

When Whedon threw together Firefly, the characters were his usual assembly of flawed but likeable smartasses, for all that they were supposed to be near-piratical ne'er-do-wells. On TV, you grab a bunch of such characters and you expose them to a series of wacky challenges against a larger background. The larger background of Firefly was the wild frontier in space; Firefly and its crew bounced from one planet to the next, getting into some kind of bind every week. Travel between planets was practical and fairly routine, but cost money so if they wanted to keep flying they had to take risks to get the money, and this drove the day to day plots forward while in the background bigger plots unfolded. Fox got bored waiting for it to make sense and/or money and took it behind the bike-shed after 14 episodes, and that was that - while I like the movie, it does NOT answer the questions in the TV show and killing Wash was just the pits....

Anyhow, Wooding has cooked up his own background world, which is weirdly mappable to the Firefly universe without being a knock off. There's just one world, but the terrain is shattered and broken in ways that make air transport the only practical way to move people and things around. The air transport doesn't make a gram of sense, since it's based on what might as well be called made-it-up-for-the-sake-of-cool-ium, but is actually called aerium, which somehow can be run through an engine to generate lifting gas. While there is no way that the laws of physics could ever fit this into their busy schedule, it does let you have big chunky airships trundling around the skies in the same way that Firefly had big spaceships trundling around space. And the separated duchies and townships make for islands or even sort of planets, each existing in its own little bubble of isolation, which lets the characters stay slightly ahead of the posse in a way that would be trickier in a more joined up world.

The fragmentation has also left the world a somewhat lawless one, so that for the main cast it's effectively the Wild West, which again echoes Firefly, a show pretty much designed to be a western in space, complete with the resonance of a civil war in the not too distant past. So the set up and the tech and the equipment on offer (everyone has access to firearms, but old school, wild west-y sorts of firearms; shotguns and machine guns and autocannons but no missiles or lasers) all weirdly echo Firefly. There's even a mysterious force of killers on the edge of reality called the Mane, who echo Whedon's Reavers.

Why Wooding gets away with all of this - and there's no way it happened by accident - is that he's populated it with a very different cast of characters. His Firefly, the Ketty Jay, is crewed by a bunch of jerks. Frey, the captain, has none of the soiled nobility of Mal Reynolds, and his crew has nothing in common with the loyal and steady gang of smartasses who follow Reynolds around. Frey's a cowardly jerk who cares about his own skin and his ship - not always in that exact order. The rest of his crew consists of a doctor who spends most of his time getting drunk and beating people up, an engineer who never talks, one pilot who's an idiot with no redeeming features and another pilot who's only useful when flying a fighter, a navigator that he's just hired who turns out to be undead, and two passengers one of whom is a summoner of daemons who's on the run for killing his niece by accident and the other of whom is a cyborg golem possessed by the ghost of the same niece. You could go looking for an echo of Simon and River Tam in that last pair if you wanted to, but good luck making it stick.

In a way, Retribution Falls is a deconstruction of Firefly; Wooding is showing us a far darker version of what it would be like if you had a world where vaguely crooked morons could lay their hands on flying trucks. Where I think he deserves big points is that he doesn't pull his punches with his characters. They're not lovable jerks, they're just jerks. By the time you get to the end of the book, they're a lot less jerky, at least to each other, but they've gone through a lot together and been given good reasons to rely on each other. Wooding puts them into the grinder by dint of a persuasive series of stumbles, and manages to keep them in it through a rather choppy and episodic narrative. Frey begins the book happy enough to have one of his crew shot in the head rather than give up the codes to fly his ship; by the end of the book he's taking risks with his own skin to save the others, and Wooding's done a good enough job of orchestrating things that it feels like something Frey and his crew have earned. It's not a great book - Wooding's not a terrific stylist - but it's a solid piece of work that despite its influences is somehow very true to its own self.

At the back of the book there's a reprint of the blog entries which Wooding put up as the Captain's log before the book was published; they sketch in the background for the opening of the book, but the book doesn't really need them. What's interesting is that they're first person smartarse, and I can't help thinking that they represent the way Wooding set out to write the book before he realised that he couldn't get the characters to come across as big enough assholes unless he used third person distancing. I'm hoping that for the second book he can find some more of that smart-arsery - the only real weakness in Retribution Falls is that it cries out for more sardonic humour than it has.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Predators; step away from the dead franchise

Predator was actually a perfectly good stupid movie, or so it seems in hindsight. I remember watching it in the cinema in the long ago and being quite surprised by the sudden twist it took from simpleminded action movie to science fiction splatterfest. It worked because the battle between Arnie's lunkhead mercenaries and the lone Predator was apparently balanced; on the one hand, they were certified badasses with overwhelming firepower and on the other hand, the Predator was a thing from another world with invisibility and all kinds of high tech.

Every attempt since then to reactivate the franchise has failed, and it's time to face up to the ugly truth; it's actually kind of a crap franchise. The Predators are ugly and they don't make a button of sense once you stop to think about them. In the first kind-of-good movie, we spent most of the time not being really sure what the Predator was and what its full capabilities might be. In all the follow ups, the audience has known what the Predators can do, and with the mystery gone, so's the romance. It doesn't help that the producers have gone for the "one Predator was good, more would be better" model. One Predator was a stretch for Arnie in his prime; if you add more, there's no way that any reasonable number of humans have any chance at all of surviving. If you can throw enough characters at the screen to balance out more Predators, the audience will lose track of who's who.

So Robert Rodriguez gave it a shot anyhow, hiring the slightly unlikely Nimrod Antal (whose debut film Kontroll is a much better use of your time) to kick new life into the fifth film with Predators in it. It's not all that good. Part of the problem is the high concept; instead of Predators visiting Earth and hunting the wild life, you've got humans kidnapped from Earth and stranded on a game reserve where they can be hunted. The eight victims for this movie buy into the plausibility of that idea a hell of a lot quicker than I did, and I'd read an on-line summary of the plot and spend far more time reading SF than any of the characters. That's not the problem, by the way, it's just a niggle. The problem is that you've got eight randomly selected badasses who've never met each other, and who are not so much characters as crudely sketched stereotypes - a Mexican drug cartel enforcer, a Spetznaz commando, a Yakuza thug, Walton Goggins (I love Walton Goggins, but as I said in an earlier post, every character he's ever played should have been executed before we even met them) and a Central African Militiaman - oh and two more white bread looking Americans and a chick, who are unsurprisingly the last people standing at the end of the movie. None of them are really given much of an opportunity to gel as characters as opposed to stock types; we know they're just there to get killed and it's kind of hard to get worried about it.

On the other side of the equation, there are three or four Predators and they're honestly impossible to tell apart. There's a climactic fight between two of them which is actually quite important in terms of resolving the plot and I couldn't tell you which of them won. So not much to root for on either side.

The other part of the high concept is that all of the human badasses are shown to us as being genuinely bad people who have done horrible things back on earth. So the hook is that you've got these alien Predators, but the humans are predators too! Gosh. I suspect it might have worked better with less humans and more opportunities to see them as people, but the movie doesn't have the space for it. In the middle of it, Larry Fishburne makes a surprise appearance which further underlines the idea that humans can be every bit as bad as the aliens, but all in all, it's not a feel good message.

There's all kinds of little niggles which bugged me even at the time. The ragged band of humans hikes across the jungle looking for the high ground, although they never really seem to find any high ground, and when they do at least find some open terrain where they can see for more than ten feet in any direction, they just keep going. Five or ten minutes later, they bust through some more jungle, crest a rise, and look out over a bowl dominated by a sky full of weird moons and spare planets and stuff. Leaving to one side that the sky's so cluttered with big objects up close that the planet should have been ripped apart by tides every few minutes, this is played as the big reveal that they're not in Kansas any more. But five minutes ago they were out in the open under exactly the same sky and didn't notice a thing.

The one harmless milquetoast character is so completely out of place and yet so unexplained that it's inevitable that he turn out to be a serial killer in the final reel; I was looking at that particular reveal and thinking aw, is that the best you can do? And I found myself wondering about all the weapons. Adrien Brody (who I am now convinced is a robot) carries a camouflaged Atchisson AA12 combat shotgun, a weapon which would fall into the awesome-but-impractical category if they'd ever made more than unsellable prototypes. It turns out that there's no real life situation in which a drum fed full automatic shotgun is the ideal solution, which makes it sort of weird that Brody's ultimately pragmatic mercenary would be carrying such a cumbersome and useless weapon as his main way of making loud points. Then I wondered why a Russian spetznaz would be carrying a minigun, a weapon made in and used only by the US. Because someone had one in the original movie, of course, but that didn't make it any more sensible. And Danny Trejo's odd decision to carry two MP-5Ks and fire them one handed from the hip definitely comes under awesome but impractical; I found myself wondering how you'd cock or reload either of them with your other hand full. As I've said in other contexts, if I've got time to ask myself these things, you're doing something wrong.

Predators is a movie sadly lacking in anything approaching cool dialogue, but unsurprisingly the one quotable line belongs to Walton, who early in the movie is eyeing up the lone chick as he walks behind her. She feels the leering gaze with some kind of girl sixth sense which is probably the only thing in the movie which has a real world counterpart and turns around to glare at him. With that patented Walton Goggins evil-bastard grin, he smiles back at her and says - with impressive sincerity - "You've got an AWESOME ass." It's so winning, you almost forgive him. That's acting.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Get Him to the Greek; it's amazing what Russell Brand can get away with

It's not often that I can hear someone in a cinema laughing almost loud enough to drown the soundtrack out, and generally when it does happen I'm the weird kid who's not joining in the fun, but Get Him to the Greek is one of those odd things which oughtn't to be as funny as it is.

The reason it works is Russell Brand. I'd like to say something faux-wise about how Brand isn't really acting when he does a rock and roll star with a drug and sex problem and a penchant for selfishness and manipulation, but even if that were something I particularly agreed with or thought was important, it's not why the film is watchable. Yes, the moments when Brand is being kind of creepy are solid and believable, but they're not very funny. What's funny is Brand doing all the over the top things which you'd expect him to. The opening ten minutes of the film are a montage of bits of videos and talk show appearances for his character showing how he implodes after coming out with an asinine album called African Child (described at one point as the worst thing white people have done to Africa since apartheid). It's absolutely hilarious, because Brand does a note-perfect parody of every self-regarding music industry idiot you've seen thinking that the problems of the world can be solved if everyone listens to them. It's funny because it's exaggerated, but it's hilarious because it's not THAT exaggerated.

As is so often the case with someone naturally funny, it's hard afterwards to think what made you laugh so much; Brand is just one of those people with a gift for the ridiculous. Things aren't quite so great when he's off screen for any reason. Jonah Hill is a very believable ordinary guy in over his head, but he's up against a hurricane of charisma and it's hard to care very much what happens to him. And Hill is too ordinary, in one way. His girlfriend is played by Elisabeth Moss, who's kind of funny looking but still completely out of Jonah Hill's league. They have a couple of scenes together which are put together badly enough that I had the time to think about how it's fine in Hollywood now to have a really overweight male lead with a girlfriend less than half his weight, but almost impossible to imagine a situation where you're going to have a hefty female lead paired off with a slim and toned boyfriend. When, during a stupid comedy about rockstar excess, I have the time to think about that kind of thing, the movie is not hitting its marks properly.

Prize for weirdest piece of cognitive dissonance comes from Russell Brand's girlfriend for the movie, who's played by Rose Byrne. I've watched three seasons of Damages during which Rose Byrne has been playing a character for whom the word "darn" would cause her to put money in the swearbox, and it was jarring to watch her play a British chav pop star who at one point gets her own little rock video about how much she likes anal sex. It's got the worst euphemisms since Chuck Berry's My Dingaling (so bad I've made a point of forgetting them) and just in case you've missed the point of where Jackie Q likes it the most, the song finishes off with Rose Byrne pulling the camera in close and saying "It's my arsehole." I was in a mild state of shock.

And somehow, despite all this vulgarity, it works. All credit goes to Russell. He's a peculiar genius.

And in a nice shout out to the film which created the character of Aldous Snow, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, there's a cameo for that movie's star Kristen Bell, who we see in a trailer for a ridiculous hospital show in which she's the world's greatest blind doctor. They should start making all these fake shows Sarah Marshall's in. They'd be better than all the movies that Bell keeps making instead.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Christopher Brookmyre: what the hell happened to him at school?

I've just finished reading Brookmyre's Pandaemonium, which is - not that I'm obsessively keeping track - something like the third straight book he's written which is anchored in teenage angst in secondary school. He used to write about journalists and fun loving criminals, but he seems now to have headed into some weird second childhood.

I <Russell Brand> quite like </Russell Brand> Brookmyre's stuff; he's another one of those writers I buy because my recollection of the last book is driven by a vague recollection of it being amusingly written than by any real expectation that it's going to be worth keeping. Brookmyre is kind of like a successful writing version of those guys who say three clever things in the course of an evening's drinking so that you start to think of them as good company even though afterwards you can't remember anything worth telling anyone sober about.

In that vein, Pandaemonium is littered with useful putdowns for atheists to deliver to Christians; they're quite sharp and witty and you think to yourself as you're reading, oh that's clever, I must use that. Then you get to the end of the book and you remember that there's no point in bothering with sharp witty putdowns for annoying true believers, because you can't win an argument with a true believer, and no-one but you is going to think it's one bit funny to poke sticks in their cages. Yes, it is sort of clever to make the point that the Catholic church hasn't made so much headway on their mission statement of universal charity and brotherhood that they can afford to ignore those topics and concentrate on sex, but once you're out of your twenties, when are you going to say that? To someone you disagree with? You're an adult. What are you hanging out with people you disagree with for? Someone who agrees with you? So you're scoring points over people who aren't there to an admiring audience. That's made the world a better place, hasn't it.

I was, you might intuit, somewhat disappointed with the thinking in the book. But I don't really read semi-comic thrillers in the hope that I'm going to trip over the new Bertrand Russell, I read them to amuse myself and pass the time. And in the hope that they might be a bit thrilling. Pandaemonium is a bit off in its pacing and its resolution is either too rapid or not thought through enough, I can't quite decide. It's supposed to be a thriller about the forces of hell emerging from some misjudged experiment and attacking a bunch of school kids on an outward bound bonding course. This is a notion which has been the bedrock of god knows how many videogames and bad horror movies, and it's been used so much because it makes for a nice economical plot. Establish a bunch of characters, put them in hazard, show you mean it by having enough of them to kill loads of them and still have a few left over to root for. It's simple, and in movies and video games, it works.

Equally, the mad scientist with the experiment that goes wrong is older than steam - literally, come to think of it, and none the worse for that. The problem Pandaemonium has is that it takes too long on setting up the characters - both scientists and teenagers, and starts running out of road when the monsters are turned loose. The monsterama is crammed into the last third of the book and it feels rushed. Brookmyre has a problem which is quite tricky to sort out. Once the monsters are on the loose, there's lots of them and they're going to get through a lot of casualties very quickly. Perversely, this is something which takes longer to deal with on screen than it does on a page. Unless there's something seriously wrong with you, it's hard to write a death scene which takes up space on the page. Because Brookmyre is essentially a decent person, he cuts away from the gore rather than dwelling on it. and so his book has a completely different balance to the movies and games which it explicitly references. A horror movie and a video game would be one third set up, two third execution; Brookmyre can't stretch his punch line material to hit this balance and the book winds up with the wrong pacing for the action genre it's trying to echo.

The pacing is just one of those things. I don't know how you would fix it; I think the only way would be to rejig the set up so that the monsters don't all hit at once, and that's a different book, and might not work properly.

On the other hand, I do think that the book is a cop-out thematically. The elevator pitch is that demons are boiling out of the underworld, and throughout the buildup to the bust-out, the corollary to the elevator pitch is scientists and schoolkids and teachers and chaplains wondering about whether heaven and hell are real and whether there's anything to religion or not. From pretty early on, Brookmyre tips his hand; the best lines and the best arguments all go to the atheists and their sympathisers, and the believers are at best shown as well meaning people who will figure out the ugly truth eventually. Which means it's not much a surprise to me when he chokes on the possibility of real demons and gives us an ending where they're just misunderstood creatures from another dimension, but it's a disappointing execution of the idea because it's not built up to the right way. In the finished product, it feels as though Brookmyre needed to make his mind up, or more accurately show his hand, and rather than building it up with sly clues, he just drops the punchline on the table and strolls off.

I was disappointed most of all with that bit. It's not at all a bad book; I was reading it and liking it fine and thinking that there were people I'd lend it to rather than just giving it away. But it doesn't rise to the challenge it sets itself, which is to use classic horror movie/video game tropes to ponder a bit on one of the great imponderable. In the end, it takes the easy way out. I didn't want religiosity to win, I just wanted something which more faithfully caught the scale of the question of whether religion has a foundation in reality. A lot to ask of a thriller, I know.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

I, Sniper; Stephen Hunter forgets that you can't go back to the basics this often

I've blogged before about Stephen Hunter's slide from good all round thriller writer to someone I regret reading every time I buy the latest book, and there's no pressing need to go into all that again. In that last post I ended with a grumble about my misgivings at Hunter's next book, which appeared in paperback this week and which I read instead of doing what I ought to do, which is to finish Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, a much better written and far more interesting book which I keep putting down despite its quality.

The good news is that the rest of I Sniper is neither as hateful as its first chapter, nor as tiresome as its predecessor. The bad news is that it's still not all that good, and if you're Irish, it's downright annoying in parts. Hunter has settled into a simple-minded rhythm in his books; his hero has to confront a challenge, the challenge will be encapsulated in an over-arching villain and his compellingly competent henchman, and the hero will overcome first the henchman and then the villain despite being in a position of overwhelming disadvantage. This is all very well and good, except that there aren't really that many variations on jeopardy you can play when your hero's principal schtick is long range rifle shooting.

Bob Lee Swagger was introduced in Point of Impact, which has a double resolution in which the hero must dispatch his enemies and then defuse a frame-up. Both resolutions are well paced and cleverly done, not least because both of them were new ideas which hadn't been done before, but also because they were carefully built to look like one thing and turned out to be something slightly different. The enemy dispatching deal in Point of Impact depended on Swagger manipulating his enemies to trek to a point where he could be sure of being able to shoot them from long range. Lots of misdirection, both of the characters and the reader, was required to come up with a satisfactory climax in which the villains, the hero and the reader all found themselves outsmarted by the writer. The only problem with such tricksy writing is that you can only do it once. After that your readers are expecting it, and you can never hope to pull off that same trick again.

Hunter tries anyway, and in I, Sniper, his heroes have to do much the same things as they had to do in their very first book together, except not as well, and not as surprisingly. I was galloping along through the book, which is perfectly all right if not worth reading again, and then we hit the end game and I thought, here we go again. And indeed, here we went again. The pitcher was taken to the well, and for me at least, this time it broke.

Oh well. The other problem is that Hunter's lost the knack of villains. His ubervillain is a paper thin disguise of Ted Turner, who has every right to feel aggrieved at what's done to his character (in every sense of the word) in the course of proceedings. The competent henchman is that most implausible of notions, the stage Irishman turned SAS operator. There's no readily apparent reason for the henchman to be Irish, although it seems that Hunter went out drinking one night with Mick Lally and decided that it would be great to try capturing Lally's manner of speaking on the printed page. Speaking as someone who spent ten years being paid to impersonate a plausible stereotype of Irishness, I don't underestimate the difficulty of capturing the peculiar mixture of wordiness and incoherence which characterises most Irish people in casual conversation, but Hunter makes the classic mistake of assuming that intelligent Irish people will all talk like bit players from Ulysses. In real life, Irish people swear a lot, and talk too much, but for the most part there's nothing grandiloquent about us. There's a big difference between talking too much and talking in paragraphs. The one thing which Hunter gets right about the character is calling him Anto; what he gets dead wrong is the idea that anyone called Anto would take the time to explain, in ten dollar words, that Anto is short for Anthony. The whole point of calling yourself Anto is that life is short. If you were the kind of person who took the time to explain your name to people, you'd call yourself Anthony, with great - and grating - emphasis on the "h" in the middle.

Wild Target; I never watch this kind of movie

I had to decide this week whether I'd watch a badly reviewed comedy thriller with Bill Nighy or a well reviewed comedy with Russell Brand. Applying the weirdly masochistic logic that I ought never to use, I reasoned that Wild Target wouldn't last long at the cinema and that Get Him to the Greek would, and that I never watch comedy thrillers and perhaps I ought to see what I was missing. As a chain of reasoning, it was a classic example of how you can confuse logic with thinking clearly. Wild Target wasn't going to last long at the cinema because it wasn't particularly good, and I don't watch comedy thrillers as a rule because they're generally unsatisfying in both jobs.

Wild Target is apparently a remake of something French, which is something I didn't know when I was making my mind up. I'm wary of making sweeping generalisations unless they're so hilariously wrong that I can claim I thought I was being funny, but I don't think I'm going to get a lot of argument against the proposition that remakes in English are inferior to the original (this may not be true in the other direction; remaking the Good the Bad and the Ugly in Korean led to one of the most ridiculously enjoyable foreign language movies I've ever seen). In other words, if I'd known there was a version of this with Gerard Depardieu in it, I wouldn't have bothered with the remake. If Depardieu had managed to bugger it up in French, there was no chance that anyone was going to make a better job of it in English, and if Depardieu hadn't buggered it up in French, there was no point in watching any other version.

There are a lot of advantages to never having read or watched anything to do with Harry Potter, and to the ones I already knew about (like not worrying about getting several days of my life back for something more productive, and being able to shut down certain kinds of useless conversation instantly instead of getting drawn in) I can add the fact that I can watch Rupert Grint not doing a particularly good job without being distracted by my memories of him playing Ron Weasley or whatever it is that he does in Harry Potter land. Rupert Grint seems to have prepared for his role in Wild Target by watching a compilation of all Simon Pegg's silent reaction shots. It doesn't appear to have struck him that Pegg can only get away with the silent reaction shots because the rest of the time he's talking a disconnected kind of sense and so something which makes him shut up is noteworthy for that reason alone. I gather this is the role that Depardieu had in the French original and it's straining the definition of the word understatement to say Depardieu has nothing to worry about.

Bill Nighy, the reason I even bothered, is one of my favourite middle aged actors, a man who can salvage almost any scene he's in. Since he's very often the best thing in an otherwise terrible movie, he spends a lot of his career somehow projecting the sense of a reasonably intelligent and decent type who's making the best of a bad job. What I hadn't realised up until now is that this only works when you're not the top billed performer in the movie. Bill's good, but he can't drag the whole movie up to his level without some help.

And the help's gone home early in Wild Target. There's a reasonably satisfying, if somewhat contrived, ending, and it starts promisingly. Sadly, that leaves a big block in the middle which doesn't work. Blame the writers, and to some extent blame the actors for not getting the chemistry to gel in the mid game. I'm inclined to toss some blame at Jonathan Lynn, the director, who ought to know by now that he can't do feelings and thus not bother trying.

The story is simple enough; hit man is hired to whack girl who has swindled gang boss, falls for her instead, and hilarity ensues. As the girl, Emily Blunt is convincing as a heartless thieving manipulator, but not all that convincing as a romantic lead. I just googled the movie from curiousity and saw that at one point Helena Bonham Carter was attached to the role - now that would have brought the horsepower the role needed. The whole point about the character is that she's absolutely amoral and yet somehow beguiling. Carter could carry that off; too much of the time Blunt just seems petulant. Which is a believable way to do the part, but it makes the middle of the movie too heavy and it's too hard to buy into Bill Nighy's feelings for his target.

As you'd expect from a guy who cut his teeth writing Yes Minister, Lynn does best in the early scenes, all brittle repartee and heartless pursuit of shakey objectives, and flies into the mountain side when we get to the middle and the three principals are hiding out in the countryside getting to know each other. It's a jolting change of tone from the first act, which establishes Nighy as a formidable and remote professional who isn't even sure why he's killing people any more and Blunt as a heedless scoundrel who sees the whole world as something cooked up for her to plunder. Blunt's introduced riding a bike across London obliviously causing accidents all along the way and wilfully riding past no cycling signs until she gets to the British Museum (or something of that ilk), where she distracts the guards with fireworks so that she can ride into the galleries and through them. It's actually a very funny and well executed intro, but it doesn't have any particular point to it; she's just going in to the museum to meet a forger, and if anything you'd think she'd be trying to do it a little less flamboyantly.

But as long as the movie has this blackly heartless tone, it works quite well. You can play assassins for laughs as long as you maintain a tone in which anything goes. It's all going to go horribly wrong if you let reality intrude. and once the movie leaves London, all bets are off.

Anyhow, now I know why I don't usually watch that kind of movie. Before I just knew that I didn't watch them, but it had been so long since I'd seen one that I'd forgotten what the problem was.