Friday, 27 August 2010

The Expendables; why we moved out of the eighties

I am working my way painfully toward a theory that the movie industry uses the same budget line to pay for writers and explosions, since the explodier a film is, the less writing it seems to have. It's a half hearted effort to explain how completely unsatisfying 2010's summer blockbusters have been, and half a heart is about as much as they collectively deserve.

In the Expendables, Sly Stallone leads a motley crew of killers who clean stuff up for no apparent reason. And actually, they don't clean stuff up. They make an absolutely incredible amount of mess. We're introduced to them rescuing some hostages being held by Somali pirates, sorry, I meant Somali Fisheries Protection Officers. Anyhow all they have to do is hand over the ransom and escort the pirates, sorry SFPOs, back off the ship. Instead they shoot the pirates to bits. How they didn't slaughter the hostages to the last man and sink the ship I'm not sure, since their preferred method of shooting people seems to involve the kind of ammunition which doesn't so much put a hole in the target as turn it into a red splash. Anyhow, they do their manly deeds and then fly back to their US urban base in a Grumman Albatross amphibian which DOES NOT have the range to travel from the Red Sea to the US. It's a cool ride, I admit, but it doesn't have the range to cross the Atlantic. Still, this is a 1980s movie, and it's got a waiver from having to make sense or be remotely realistic.

The real mission for the movie is for them to get rid of the corrupt general in charge of the peaceful island of Vilena. Since this is in principle an entirely manly audience, they must have discounted the risk that anyone would think Hm, isn't that a brand-name for an interlining fabric that's used in dressmaking? Vilena, we learn, in Bruce Willis' throwaway cameo, is rich in resources which the CIA want to control. (I was astonished to learn that it took a whole six hours to shoot this scene, which features a micro-cameo from Arnold, a man who never needs retakes if only because he acts so woodenly there's never going to be any chance that a second take will be better than the first). Based on subsequent events, we're supposed to think the resource is cocaine, but it's clear that Vilena is actually the location of the world's explodium mine, since literally everything in Vilena appears to explode if it's given so much as a harsh glance from a passing macho-man.

Given that Sly and the lads are more or less invincible, the movie has to go to fairly absurd lengths to prevent them from just flying over to Vilena and flexing the general to death with their concentrated essence of manliness. So in a move straight out of the Dogs of War, Sly and the Stath go recon in Vilena, and get into all kinds of trouble, which allows us to see just how deadly they are, and which in plot terms is I think designed to get them emotionally invested in the crusade to free Vilena. They kill a literal truckload of soldiers with their bare hands, and then, amped up on roid rage or something (seriously, check out the veins on Sly's arms) they take to the air and strafe the crap out of the harbour, killing another couple of truckloads of soldiers between the machine gun fire and the Stath's decision to dump the contents of the fuel tanks on the area and fire a distress flare into the mess. For once, a distress flare actually delivers distress - no, wait, when I come to think about it, I can't remember the last time I saw a distress flare being used for any other purpose in a movie. Anyhow, the Albatross apparently runs on high-test nitroglycerine, because it just immolates the whole wharf area. Oddly enough, the corrupt government has enough time and resources to rebuild the wharf in time for the eventual return of our heroes, which does leave me wondering if the corruption was perhaps being overstated by the CIA.

The Albatross, by the way, is not factory fitted with four heavy machine guns in the nose; that seems to be an after market addition. Which somehow can only be fired if the Stath crawls into the nose and sits in a little tonneau seat in front of the cockpit to fire them. Since they're fixed in place, I'm putting that design decision down to Sly thinking it would look cooler than the simpler approach of having a gun button on the dasboard.

Whee. Anyhow, there's some action back in whatever city holds the Expendables combination urban HQ, tattoo parlour bar and motorcycle hangar. It doesn't really have anything even half way rational to do with the plot, but it gives Jet Li an opportunity to try to beat up Dolph Lundgren in an abandoned warehouse (80s movies are an unheralded documentation of the decline of American manufacturing in the 1980s; if America's industry had been working at full capacity, there would have been absolutely nowhere for action movie fights to happen). Then the Expendables set out to blow up the explodium factory in Vilena. I was tremendously distracted from the righteousness of their cause by the fact that the corrupt general was being played by the guy who does Angel Batista in Dexter. He does such a convincing well meaning idiot in Dexter that it's become impossible for me to buy into him being anything else in any other role. Anyhow, the Expendables rig the general's headquarters to explode, and then a gunfight breaks out. The last twenty minutes or so of the movie are just one long mess of explosions in darkness. The whole of the military compound explodes, repeatedly, until there's nothing left but rubble. The entire Vilena army gets killed to the last man, along with their corrupt general and all their evil CIA trained mercenary scoundrel bosses.

John pointed out the climactic bit of dumb; the mercenary leader is making his escape to the waiting helicopter, and to stop him, Sly has a colleague hurl an unexploded artillery shell into the air so that Sly can shoot it in the fuse and make it explode over the helicopter. Given that dropping a breeze block into the rotors of an idling helicopter will turn it into a lawn sculpture, why bother with the artillery shell, or with trying to make it explode? (I often wonder how they recruit waiting helicopter pilots, because they have the life expectancy of snow flakes in an oil rig disaster. After a while you'd think the word would get out).

Anyhow, it's all tiresomely explodey, and so much so that they don't really have any opportunities for cute one-liners as people get eviscerated and otherwise discommoded. My dominant emotion at the end was "Thank goodness that's over".

I don't care how many people call this Sex and the City for boys or ramp on about how it's a camp pleasure; it's actually a betrayal of all the cheesy stupid values of the 1980s movies it's trying to revive. And not least because for all the fuss about how expendable these guys are, not one of them gets killed. EVERYONE else who's in the movie, pretty much, gets blown to bits, but the one thing the expendables turn out not to be is expendable.

So once again, The Losers is head and shoulders the contender for best stupid movie of the summer. Next week, we'll see if Salt can beat it.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Twelve; Stuart Neville

The Twelve is one of those books I read out of a tangled up sense of obligation. It had got a lot of good reviews, and there's been a certain amount of fuss about the follow up. And I'm interested in Northern Ireland at the moment and sort of conscious that my understanding of the place is out of date. So it seemed to my addled mind that The Twelve might be a way of starting to get my head around the preoccupations of the province. I was already nicely in character when I found myself wondering if an author called Stuart Neville could conceivably be from the nationalist community. By the end of the book, I wasn't even sure if he was from the province, or even from Ireland. There was something about the scene setting which reminded me of colour pieces by journalists from out of town. When you live in a town, its landmarks affect you a different way and you don't have the same need to explain them.

There's a problem at the heart of the book which would need a lot of talent to beat; the characters are pretty much horrible people. In a way, that's unavoidable. Neville's writing about the IRA. Making them cuddly would be as jarring as writing a novel about lovable klansmen. If you want to be down to earth about the Troubles, there's no getting away from the fact that most of the main actors were bad people. The problem from the reader's point of view is that there's only so much time you can spend in the company of bad people before you get fed up.

It doesn't help that the book is structured to showcase a spread of different kinds of atrocity. The main character Gerry Fegan is haunted by the ghosts of the people he's murdered in the course of the troubles, and in an effort to appease them, he sets out to kill the people who planned the killings he carried out. Somehow, it feels contrived that Fegan's tally includes a full spectrum of all possible types of victim; civilian bystanders, suspected informers, RUC, UDR, British soldiers and loyalist paramilitaries. And even though the reality is that the IRA operated in a tight cell system within a very inward looking clannish community, which would mean that Fegan would have known most of the people involved in planning his jobs, it still feels far too convenient that they're all so closely intertwined. Everything feels as though it's been marshalled to make a point.

That's really the biggest weakness in the work; it feels like a book about a problem rather than a book about people.

The IRA and Sinn Fein (always called the party, never spelled out) come off pretty badly in the book, but no-one comes off well. Loyalist paramilitaries are dismissed as criminal inadequates who killed only those who they were sure couldn't fight back. The British security forces are depicted as - lord, I'm not sure how they're supposed to be perceived - we see them setting up people to be killed and worrying mostly about covering their backs and making sure the politicians aren't embarassed. The British establishment gets a walk on part in the shape of an Assistant Secretary of State for Northern Ireland who's like a walking assembly of every conceivable political cliche (ambitious, but lazy, resentful of people with actual ability, obsessed with the perks of office, and ending the book having been cleaned out by a hooker). With those as the "good guys" it's hard to say that the IRA is really getting singled out for bad coverage.

Ultimately, The Twelve is a depressing book. Fegan finds redemption of a sort, and all sorts of bad people get ventilated, but the thrust of the book is that the IRA and Sinn Fein have rolled out of a corrupt and evil war into a somehow even more corrupt peace, where the leaders of murder gangs on both sides have been let into the world of politics and their foot-soldiers bought off with bogus Community Development jobs. That's certainly a way to look at what's been achieved between 1998 and today. But given that the book's central character arc is about the struggle for redemption and forgiveness, it's an outlook jarringly at odds with the experience the reader is supposed to identify with.

Thinking about it as I've tried to type this post, and to stick within my self-imposed limitations on talking politics, the book has been useful in making me think about the situation in Northern Ireland. I just don't think I've come away from the book thinking the things that it was so obviously written to make me think.

Think of a Number: John Verdon

I think I should probably stop buying books simply because they've got a good review in the Guardian's thriller section, because it's leading me astray. I bought this book on impulse because I was in a bookshop and it had been well reviewed and if I'm honest because Waterstone's has programmed me so thoroughly to buy books in threes that I even seem to do it when I'm buying books in other shops. Alan Campbell's God of Clocks was there, and I wanted to read Stuart Neville's The Twelve, and this made three.

Anyhow, Think of a Number is not very good. Verdon isn't a a natural writer, and seems to think that it's necessary to explain his character's mental state all the time. It's not, and even when it is, when you've chosen to see the entire book from a single viewpoint the question of mental state is handled better by using the right words. Think of a Number is very mechanical in how it sets people up. I give credit where credit is due; Verdon was clearly trying to write something solid and character driven, it's just that it doesn't work. Oh well.

The set up is one of those ingenious things which only happens in fiction; a serial killer who's taunting his victims, apparently by knowing their every thought. The plot hangs together so well that as I think back over it now, it comes to me that this is that odd beast, a book which has had its master plot worked out in advance in some detail, and then had the narrative and character tics worked into the master plot to fill in the spaces. The character plot for the viewpoint character is that he's unable to get away from his obsession with police work and as a result almost loses his marriage. This is a pretty good idea, but it doesn't work out. Verdon obsessionally documents the myriad little irritations and unspoken arguments of a marriage running into trouble, but rather than letting the reader work out the meaning of the needles and the silences, he insists on explaining each of them. I think that this was deliberate; that it's part of the characterisation to document everything analytically, but it doesn't quite work. More to the point, the idea's a good one because everyone reading a thriller knows that the killer can't kill the viewpoint characters and that therefore there has to be something else at hazard to get the reader invested. The risk of a marriage falling apart is a good relateable hazard that could go either way without ruining the master plot, which is all good for the tension, but somehow I never managed to care what happened to the marriage.

Like all modern tricksy thrillers, it's all about the reversals and giving away the secret behind the inexplicable. The opening set-up is genuinely clever and a little surprising in the way it works out, but I was way ahead of the characters when it came to everything else. There's an old spoilery rule of thumb in TV and movie genre fiction that anyone who gets more than a couple of lines of dialogue will turn out to be important even if they initially appear to be scenery. TV and movies can't afford to hire actors and do setups unless they're doing work towards the punch line. Something of that vibe started to creep up on me during the final act of the book, and the identity of the killer became apparent to me long before it was revealed.

But I have learned something useful; read the jacket reviews. If the book is being praised to the skies by writers you already know of and don't bother reading, leave it in the shop.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Under the Dome; read The Stand instead

I've read quite a lot of Stephen King over the years. I don't really like horror fiction, and I ignored King all the way through his early success; the first Stephen King book I read was his non-fiction collection, Danse Macabre, which is one of the very few books I've ever read about how a writer actually does his writing. It's a bit of a lashup, but there's a lot of good stuff in it, and there's a winning humility. King wasn't under any illusions about himself, and I liked the voice of the man enough to dip into his less grisly work. So I read The Eye of the Dragon - that was in 1988, as I walked around the bits of Ireland I didn't think I'd seen enough of, and I have happy memories of sitting at the side of the road in the ring of Kerry on a warm June day eating a simple picnic and reading a not particularly good book. Good times, and for once I'm not being sarcastic. I also read Gene Wolfe's not quite successful books about Ancient Greece on that trip, and while I've never gone back to them, or indeed to Gene Wolfe, they're tinged with the affection that rightly belongs to the landscape and the simple pleasures of taking a holiday at my own speed and for my own reasons, something I haven't often done since.

Since then I've read the Stand, both versions, and all of the Dark Tower sequence, and a lot of the science fiction-y stuff which he did after he wrote The Stand. The pure horror never appealed to me, although I've been repeatedly told that I'm opting out of the best stuff. Well, so it goes.

Under the Dome was the first real doorstopper King's chunked out in the better part of a decade, and it's been getting a certain amount of attention from the commentariat because it doesn't have much supernatural in it and it seems to be a thinly veiled metaphor for the stuff which is bugging King about America, or modernity, or some damn thing. There's a sense in which the commentariat deigns to pay attention to King from time to time and grudgingly endorse him for writing books people read, in much the way that the artistic directors of the Bolshoi might take in the dancing bear show and concede that if nothing else, people pay to watch the bear boogie.

King is, indeed, a readable writer. He's not a great stylist, and he does villains and patsies better than he does ordinary people or heroes, but he can roll along a narrative at impressive speed. His great stylistic weakness, I've always thought, is that he never stops to think of the right word; if he can't think of the right word, he'll bang out a whole paragraph to take its place. This can be a great strength when he's trying to map out the interior language of schmucks, but it does mean that you never really have much of an urge to stop and consider what you've just read. Stephen King is not a quotable writer.

Style aside, he's usually a strong enough plotter, although in recent years he's shown a tendency to choke in the last act. The set-ups are usually pretty solid, but the pay-offs can fizzle - Cell, a couple of years ago, had a very fizzle-y ending. And plotting isn't always enough, even when it's good - with the exception of the Stand, and the need to re-read parts of the Dark Tower sequence because I'd just flat out forgotten what the hell had happened while I waited for King's block to wear off, I've never re-read any of his books. Or kept them for that matter.

Well, enough with the intro. What about the book which everyone is prepared to pretend to take seriously?

It's not actually as good as some of his earlier stuff. The Stand, particularly the director's cut, is a better book, and a more satisfying read. Hence the heading on this post. As always, the set up's impressive, and it's the follow through which starts to disappoint. What if you put a small American town under glass, cut off from the world? Well, in King's vision it all goes to hell within a week. As I type this, I suddenly realise that Under the Dome has a theme in common with Lord of the Flies; if you isolate a group of people from accountability or the prospect of fresh resources, what will happen? Golding used a plane load of school kids on a desert island, and King uses 2,000 small town Americans stuck suddenly behind a forcefield. To be brutal about it, there is no prospect at all that Under the Dome is ever going to become a set text in secondary schools.

Mostly it's because King stacks the deck too much. His principal villain is already a monster, and this is perfectly logical, but he's much more of a monster than he needs to be. The book is, I think, intended as a meditation on how we're all stuck in this world together and we must resist demagoguery and short sighted self interest. That message would come across a lot more strongly if the leaders of Chester's Mill weren't delivered to us pre-corrupted. Big Jim Rennie would be a much more compelling and interesting villain if he was simply a power hungry miniature Huey Long with his fingers in the till; instead he's insane enough to have set up the largest meth production lab in the US under the cover of a fundamentalist church. Meeting Rennie at this stage of his development is like being introduced to Hitler in 1944; it's no longer a surprise that it's all going to go horribly wrong, and the monster's so divorced from reality that it becomes impossible to think "There, but for the grace of God go I...."

However, as always, it's the villains and the screw-ups which jump off the page; the heroes are somehow flat, no matter how much backstory they're given. It's hard to write believable nice people, but what makes it really hard is when you put them up against richly textured monsters; then the flatness of the heroes - and if we're honest, of most real people - seems particularly affectless. There were moments, and too many of them, when I started to lose track of which good guy was talking, because I'd forgotten to make a mental note of which job was supposed to be getting done - all the heroes have a specific job to do, lord help them.

The thing which nagged away at me the whole way through the book was that everything was happening too fast. Within a week, everything has fallen apart for Chester's Mill and apocalyptic destruction has rained down on the population. I kept feeling that the book's argument would have been far more compelling if it had been spread over weeks or months rather than days. I'm not sure why King felt the need to rush it all; in other books he's been perfectly capable of playing a long game. I suspect that when he was trying to figure out the physics of the confinement he decided that he'd run out of air unless he ran the plot faster, but since he decided for himself how the dome was going to work and what the air budget would be, that's not really much of an explanation.

Anyhow, it all falls apart with over-dramatic speed, and then everything explodes, which starts a fire, which kills everyone, more or less, and fills the dome with choking smoke because the fire used up all the oxygen. So the very small number of survivors from the fire can't breathe, and this is the tension point of the final act - will anyone get out alive from the dome before they suffocate from lack of oxygen? I was distracted from caring about this as much as I should because I was too busy being bugged at the fact that car engines and propane powered generators were still working despite the lack of oxygen. Which got me to wondering why there was such a lot of propane (other than the fact that King needed something to blow up for the last act and diesel won't explode).

So, short version - it's not a very satisfying book. Since it's by a perfectly competent writer and it's insanely long, there are all sorts of good bits along the way; in particular, the set up as primary characters are mapped in and put into place, is strong and solid. But ultimately it falls apart at the end, and the nagging feeling that it's all going horribly wrong is pretty much down to King's decisions about pacing and the need for a cataclysmic climax. There are plenty of good books about ordinary people going under to fascism, and Under the Dome is not going to be remembered in the same breath. More troublingly, given King's manifest intent, I think the book is going to wind up reassuring people that there's no need to worry too much about things going wrong just so long as you take the elementary precaution of not letting your town be run by a lunatic fundamentalist Christian meth dealer.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Knight and Day; time for Tom to dust off the DA suit

I was listening to a movie on TV the other day and heard Diane Keaton say that in Hollywood there are only three ages of woman, Barbie, the DA and Driving Miss Daisy. Something similar may be true of a man who's usually content to lead with his capped teeth and designer sunglasses. It might just be time for Tom Cruise to face up to middle age while he can still pull off the shift with a bit of dignity.

Knight and Day was not a movie which had to make a lot of sense in order to entertain me. It more or less had my attention with the trailer, which featured the best stupid line of 2010; Tom Cruise bellowing "No-one follow us, or I'll shoot myself and then her." I was slightly worried that this might turn out to the best line in the movie; what I hadn't quite planned for was that they squeezed more or less all the good stuff in the movie into the trailer. So this week's top tip; don't go and see Knight and Day, just watch the trailer when it's in front of some other movie, and imagine that they made another eighty or so minutes about as good. Because you'll have to imagine it; they didn't have whatever it was they needed to make a proper movie.

I don't know what was in short supply, exactly. They had all the explodium Michael Bay wasn't using, they had Tom Cruise, they had Cameron Diaz, they seem to have had an unlimited budget for location work. They even had a couple of unexpected ringers; the ever reliable Peter Sarsgard is playing the main antagonist, and Paul Dano, the foolishly brave young actor who took on Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, is hiding behind a straggly goatee as the human half of the mcguffin. So most of what they needed was there. Oh, yeah, it's happened again. They forgot to hire some writers.

I just went and looked it up. They hired a writer with no previous writing credits of any importance. Yes, that will work out fine. That certainly explains where James Mangold, the director, started to go wrong. Mangold did quite a good Johnny Cash biopic, where he had the handy edge of having a plot blocked in for him by real life, and a respectable, though ultimately wrong headed, adaptation of3.10 to Yuma which did fine off the back of an Elmore Leonard plot until it fell apart in the final act. So, that's why Knight and Day is not so much a movie and more a string of stuff that happens for no particular reason.

Parts of it are huge fun; there's a chase scene on the freeway around Boston which has the courage of its own ridiculousness, and is consequently highly enjoyable. Not a single thing that happens in the whole sequence makes a button of sense or comes remotely close to plausible, but that's the best way to go sometimes.

Sadly, most of the good stuff is, as I said earlier, flagged in the trailer. There's a big setpiece at the end where Tom and Cameron get a motorbike and three Smart Cars mixed up in a bull fight in Sevilla. Every single good shot in the setpiece shows up in the trailer, and the whole scene plays in sadly perfunctory fashion. Of course, I was never going to be pleased unless the Smart Cars dominated the whole scene, and indeed preferably the movie, but I don't think anyone else, not even the Sevilla tourist board, is going to be that impressed.

There's weird headscratching stuff to puzzle about . The title is never explained; it seems like Cruise's character's real name is Knight, but why throw the "Day" in there? What's that for? Cruise's character is called Roy Miller for most of the movie, which is also the name of Matt Damon's character in Green Zone. Was there a reason for this?

There's a bold approach to continuity which would have worked even better if they'd really run with it; every time Cruise and Diaz get in over their heads, Cruise drugs Diaz and they gloss over the get away by having her fading in and out of a drug induced stupor while fragments of the action do absolutely nothing to explain how Cruise gets them out of it. This is actually sort of genius, and they should have done far more of it. As long as you're not making sense, you've got to make no sense at all, is my view on the thing.

Weirdly, Cruise's take on his superspy character is a nice one; sure he's incredibly violent and competent and - going by how much money he seems to have access to - somewhat corrupt, but there's a wonderful earnestness to all his scenes with ordinary people as he tries hard to be likeable and to be positive and constructive in life or death situations. It's not just funny; in a weird way it rings true. You could imagine a successful super spy being successful just because he always tried to make things easy for people.

All in all, it's a fun little time passer, but it's not what I suspect anyone involved was hoping for. This summer's big dumb fun blockbuster is still out of reach.