Saturday, 30 October 2010

RED: good simple minded fun

Comic book adaptations seem to work best when they pick a comic book no-one's really heard of. The Losers was an adaptation of a comic book I'd never heard of. So was Kick-Ass. X-Men was an adaptation of a whole bunch of comic books I'd heard of. So was Iron Man 2. Actually, I'm missing the point here. If a comic book gets famous enough that I've heard about it before the movie comes out, that usually means that it's mutated out of control and that it's too self important for its own good, full of back story and mythology and the lord knows what all. The small scrappy ones I've never heard of just get on with their jobs and do whatever it was that one or two people wanted to do. Lots of personal visions are really best kept that way, but collective visions are - well, X-Factor is vast telephone-voting-enabled shared vision of what celebrity for nonentities ought to look like, do I need to put together a powerpoint deck?

Anyhow, I'd never heard of RED before the trailer hit me between the eyes a couple of months ago and gave me something to look forward to. They had me with Bruce Willis stepping nonchalantly out of a spinning cop car as though he was getting out of a parked golf buggy. Helen Mirren as a stone cold assassin was just bonus points.

Sadly, nearly all the cool action beats are already in the trailer and if all you want is an explodey evening out you can pick up the trailer before something else and not have missed the things which matter to you. But if you'd like a little bit more with your explosions, RED's got that, and it's mostly down to the women.

Helen Mirren effortlessly takes over every scene she's in, which is no mean feat when you have to share the screen with the likes of John Malkovich in playful mood, Morgan Freeman, and Brian Cox playing a gloomy Russian to the hilt. They could have made a whole movie called the Adventures of Victoria and everyone in the cinema would have walked out of this one to see it, because Helen Mirren sold perfectly the idea of someone who'd got so good at shooting people that she could do it without mussing her hair or being slowed up by retirement. There's one wonderful little moment during the climactic caper which sells the whole character; having infiltrated the political conference venue in heels, it's time to get serious, and Malkovich's character shows up to take Victoria's heels and pass her a pair of combat boots which she steps into matter of factly. Girl always has to have the RIGHT footwear. Took five seconds to show it, cost nothing to shoot, spoke volumes. Masterly.

There was a time when no-one would have expected Mary Louise Parker to last five seconds on screen with Helen Mirren before being burned up and blown back out of the frame, but she's taken her kookiness and made something very compelling out of it as she's headed into her forties. A lot of the front half of the movie depends on the chemistry between her and Willis, and she's wonderfully convincing as someone scatty and likeable. RED's a surprisingly warm movie for a comic book adaptation about stone cold killers running round murdering people all over the place, and Mary Louise is the source of most of the warmth; she's a warm presence and everyone else in the case warms up around her.

Those are the standout performances, really. Willis is his usual self, which is fine with me; I like him best as a wise-cracking badass and being an OLD wisecracking badass lets him get back to why John McClane worked so well in Die Hard; Willis is a great action hero because he's not remotely indestructible. He's a bit more indestructible here than he ought to be, but it's honestly come by; as the movie opens up with the character in retirement, we see him exercising and eating carefully and it somehow makes it a little more believable that he could still beat up younger guys in a fight. Malkovich is as good as the writing, which means his character is a bit all over the place, but he's game. And Cox and Morgan have yet to put in a bad performance and they're certainly not going to start here.

It's all great fun. The action's mounted pretty well, although it's heavily front loaded and the back half of the movie feels a bit more sluggish by comparison. The thing which weirded me out was that I think we were supposed to buy into the notion of Karl Urban's character becoming one of the good guys, and when I'm introduced to someone methodically faking a guy's suicide while he's hanging there tied up and begging for his life, I find it hard to warm up to him afterwards even if he turns out to be the spokesman for the popular front for the liberation of fluffy bunnies. It doesn't help that God very kindly blessed poor Karl with a face that has a natural bent for looking mean; he was a wonderful almost wordless bad guy all the way through the middle Bourne movie. Still that one bad mood-call apart, the movie does a nice job of giving you people to root for and putting them in just enough danger to get you invested.

I was sitting there thinking a sequel would be nice, when they ended the getaway with one of the better sequel hooks I've seen; Willis' character had to rope in Cox's Russian by promising him a favour, and Cox wants the favour paid off with a job in Moldova. Having set up the hook, they cut right to the sequel, with Willis and Malkovich trying to get away from the entire Moldovan army in a wheelbarrow. Somehow, I don't think we'll ever see how they got into that pickle, even if we do see some kind of sequel.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Despicable Me; movie villainy shouldn't be this heartwarming

Despicable Me is ridiculously charming. I can't work out how it gets way with it, because it ought to have brought me out in some kind of diabetic shock instead of making me feel all smiley. I'd been suckered in by the trailer, which features a thoroughly heartless depiction of Mr and Mrs Middle America going on holiday in Egypt and almost losing their kid to a terrible fall from rickety scaffolding onto the great pyramid. On the one hand, it makes US tourists look like fat expendable morons; on the other hand, it probably didn't cheer up the Egyptian foreign ministry much either. But it was a funny trailer and I thought, what the hell?

And the movie tries to stay true to this heartless glee at villainy for oh, it must be about ten minutes. After that, our dastardly anti-hero turns into the most put-upon of punch-clock villains and we're not in the movie I thought I was going to at all. Well, I didn't mind. As put upon punch clock villains go Gru is entertaining, and everything around him is funnier than he is, so it all works out fine. Gru's nemesis, Vector, is a nerd who might as well have been called Bill Gates, particularly after the second or third time that Gru tried to amp up his interchangeable minions by doing power point presentations in a turtleneck sweater. I imagine Bill won't sue, and Steve may not even notice. Scott Adams might; the evil bank manager at the Bank of Evil (formerly Lehman Brothers) is a three dimensional version of the pointy haired boss from Dilbert and I couldn't believe how little they did to make him look in any way different.

The reason the movie works is the minions and the three kids. The kids are wonderfully thought out; nothing like real kids, and yet terribly like real kids. Like all Hollywood children they're far too grown up, but whoever animated them gave them perfect childlike attitudes. It's perfectly plausible that they might make Gru see the error of his ways; they certainly had me rooting for them. And the minions are marvellous. I'd pay money to see a movie that was just about the minions. They're just somehow hilarious. They speak a high pitched gabble which is almost, but not quite, intelligible (the director voiced most of them) and they've got way more individuality than a horde of little yellow blobs in identical blue dungarees ought to have. Looking back on the move almost a week after I saw it, I couldn't tell you a single funny thing they actually do, but they're brilliant.

Actually, I can tell you one thing they do. They OWN the closing credits, which are also the only place where there's any point in the 3D glasses. Like most 3D movies, Despicable Me is in 3D for no good reason at all; nothing happens in the action that really benefits from the technology. But the closing credits are very imaginative; they feature the minions trying to reach out into the audience with longer and longer tools, and it's a perfect way to use the completely useless "oh look, here's something sticking out of the screen" effect which is all contemporary 3d amounts to.

Anyhow, it's all great fun when it really shouldn't be, and I sort of want Gru's car. it's little bigger than mine, and I shudder to think what the mileage would be, but it has a certain presence on the road.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Takers; the moral is that you need white guys to sort things out

Takers makes a useful parallel text for last week's The Town; flashy where the Town was all about being low key, stupid where The Town was trying to be intelligent and absolutely terrible with its female characters where The Town tried actually to HAVE female characters. In other words, it's kind of crap.

I'd hoped for a lot more, since it had Idris Elba, and Idris tends to elevate most things that he's in, almost as though David Simon had said to him "Listen, you. I brought you over from London because I needed something extra, and I gave you Stringer Bell to play. And if you ever do anything that makes Stringer Bell look bad, I'm going to get all those real criminals we hired for the Wire to come and beat you to within an inch of your useless limey life." Idris is good, and considering all they could think of to do with Marianne Jean-Baptiste, their other English ringer, was to make her into some kind of crack-addled idiot, she's good too. That's about all my good. It falls off a cliff a bit after that.

Idris is the ringleader of a gang of impossibly smooth bank robbers. Two of them are white dudes, and four of them are black. There's never any convincing reason put forward for how this weird mix would have happened, unless you want to buy into the idea that it's all happening in a parallel universe where colour doesn't matter in the USA any more. And honestly, I don't think that Obama's changed things THAT much yet. As a gang, they're profoundly annoying, because the whole point of their life of crime seems to be fuelling a non musical re-enactment of the rat pack. Hayden Christensen is one of the two white guys, and his characterisation consists entirely of a Frank Sinatra hat. The hat doesn't have any lines, but it's somewhat more recognisable than Christensen and has more personality than any of Idris' five subordinates.

Up against the gang is Matt Dillon as the driven robbery homicide detective trying to find them. It's been a long time since Matt Dillon was in any ways essential to anything, and his by-the-numbers driven cop is not going to change that. He's a wild card, dammit. He's a loose cannon. He's out of control. He roughs up suspects, but dammit, he gets results. Well, yeah. The one time we see him roughing up a suspect, what he beats out of him is the first name of the person who was arrested by the same officer who arrested the roughed up suspect. If Matt had asked the arresting officer who else he picked up that evening, he could have got MORE information than he got with the beat-up. Matt has a partner, who is even more of a cliche than he is; he's a family man, with a sick kid, who keeps telling Matt he should give more time to family. So inevitably the partner winds up making a big mistake to help his family, and it all ends sadly. Within moments of the foreshadowing scenes we're given, we know it can only go one way and drearily it goes that way.

Which is a shame, because the partner, in keeping with tradition, is played by a nice affable actor who's working harder with the material than it deserves. And there's one little twist in the thing which made me think that the writers were smart enough to go a better way; for the front half of the movie, Internal Affairs are eternally trying to get Matt Dillon to meet with them, and he keeps evading and ignoring them. As the final act begins, they finally manage to frog march him down to their offices and it turns out that they haven't been trying to charge him for all his random acts of violence but to warn him that his partner is dirty. The one genuinely novel thing in the whole movie is that Internal Affairs turn out to be pretty nice guys just doing their best to be human. A little more of that kind of thinking would have done the movie the world of good.

There's some good action set pieces, or what would be good action set pieces if they hadn't been jitter edited to the point where I think you could genuinely give someone a seizure by sitting them too close to the screen. The opening robbery is genuinely quite clever, and the big steal in the middle of the movie is a nice mix of careful planning and last minute improvisation which would have been better if it hadn't been edited in a blender. There's an exhausting foot chase which just goes on too long and almost seems to have been put in because the actor thought he was good at parkour. And there's a huge shootout in a hotel room which goes on too long, is too blender-edited, and steals way too much from the shootout at the end of True Romance without being anything like as interesting. Midway through it, Hayden Christensen gets shot to bits buying the rest of the gang time, making our first white martyr of the evening.

Anyhow, by this point it's all fallen apart into the classic big steal undercut by big betrayal, and the gang breaks up and gets picked off by the police until there's just the big traitor facing off with Idris and Matt in a three way shoot out which ends up with everyone shot, but the traitor still on his feet and ready to give Idris the coup de grace, when along comes the OTHER white member of the gang to shoot the traitor, rescue Idris and generally save the day. Amazingly this dumb cop out, "it takes a white guy to make everything work out properly" ending is not the most annoying thing in the movie because I have not touched on what happens with women.

The Town doesn't exactly have strong female characters; you've got Blake Lively playing a trashy bimbo who Affleck discards and Rebecca Hall playing the girl who gets taken hostage by the robbers and falls for Ben Affleck; I mean they're basically a pair of plot coupons and it's no accident that I barely described them in last week's review. But they're Joan Crawford with the whole damn movie to herself compared to what Takers gives the ladies to play with. Marianne Jean-Baptiste plays Idris Elba's crack addict older sister who exists mainly to disrupt Idris' plans and give him something human to worry about. Amazingly, they then hired Zoe Saldana to play the girlfriend of one of the gang, a girl so important that the whole betrayal plot is driven by the fact that she took up with a fresh gang member when her original boyfriend got jailed. This pivotal role has about five lines and she gets murdered off screen. This is Zoe Saldana. I'm not saying that she's the next Meryl Streep, but her talents are not negligible, and they give her less to do than Hayden Christensen's hat. For this crime alone, Takers is a terrible movie.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

The Town; Or the return of Bubba Rogowski

A few years ago, Ben Affleck directed an adaptation of Denis Lehane's Gone Baby Gone, and then had the misfortune to have it ready to release at just the wrong moment for releasing a film about child abduction. It was pretty well received, all the same, and along with Hollywoodland it was the beginning of Affleck's rehabilitation after a string of bad movies. The most distinctive thing about it was the way in which nothing looked prettied up; all the actors looked like those pictures of stars doing their shopping which are forever going up on the internet with astonished comments about how unremarkable and crappy they look when they haven't got their makeup on.

The Town is more of the same, and I don't mean that in a bad way; once again Affleck has gone out of his way to make South Boston look as naturalistic as he can, and it's to the film's benefit. Mind you, no amount of dialling down the makeup can do anything about Affleck's cheekbones or Jon Hamm's ridiculous levels of coolness, but somehow the movie struggles on despite these intrusive notes of glamour.

It's a strong little movie which lives and dies on the performances. With Gone Baby Gone, it was almost surprising how many people Ben Affleck had been able to talk into working with his kid brother in a deeply depressing detective movie. When that worked out, it automatically became a lot less surprising when he could get a good cast for the Town, but what's surprising is that he was able to get Victor Garber for what amounts to a non-speaking part; Garber gets about four words before being clubbed unconscious, and I spent the rest of the film wondering when we'd see the rest of him; nope, that was it. There's quite a bit of that; Chris Cooper's there as Affleck's dad, and they have one scene together which is just as good as you'd expect, but it doesn't really get anything done which needs to be done.

Anyhow, Affleck's the weakest link in some ways, which is hardly surprising with him trying to carry the lead AND direct the movie. It makes what I think was supposed to be a very detached character a little bit more detached than Affleck probably wanted. But it's fine, it just about works, and if he hadn't been up against Jon Hamm and Jeremy Renner it might not even have been noticeable. Sadly Hamm steals all the scenes he's in, no matter who else is there, and Jeremy Renner isn't far behind. Renner is one of those actors who does a very good job of portraying half-smart guys who are up for anything exciting - without him, The Hurt Locker would have been nothing like as good. In this movie, his whole character can be distilled down to one moment when Affleck tells him that he needs Renner to come with him to do a job of hurting people and that he can't ask why. Renner's reply: "Whose car we taking?".

The main plot of the Town is Affleck and three friends robbing banks, while Jon Hamm's FBI task force tries to catch them. It's like a very very low intensity version of Heat. It has several advantages over Heat, in that it's shorter and it isn't taking itself so damned seriously, and it isn't trying to pack in quite so many things. The Town is cheap and simple; boy robs bank, boy meets girl, boy tries to quit the life of crime, can't and loses girl. How well a thing like that will work will depend on whether you buy the romance and whether you buy the tension between the life Affleck is trying to leave behind and the life he wants. I'm still not sure about the romance, but the pressures keeping him in the life of crime are sketched in well, and overall, the emotional arc for Affleck felt right. There's a wonderful pay off moment as the film draws to a close and Affleck is on the run and reaching out by phone one last time to the girl. He knows that the FBI are with her as he phones her, and that she's going to try to get him to come to a trap, but still he wants to say goodbye. And as the conversation draws to a close, she manages to slip a warning into the conversation without tipping her hand to the feds, and Affleck gets to walk away knowing that there was still something left between them. it oughtn't to be as cheering as it was, but it was a great little moment.

That said, the actual career of crime doesn't make enough sense. The Affleck gang (as Hamm wittily calls them, the Not-F***ing Around Crew) are incredibly professional and well prepared, and from what we see of the way Affleck does things (his final escape is a miracle of lateral thinking; the feds are watching all the bus and train stations, so make your escape as a bus DRIVER) it's clear that he's a good planner and thinks through the details. Yet the FBI gets on to the crew because they realise that the crew is just too good with their technical defeats of alarm systems; the only way they could be that good would be if they had a guy working in the phone company. And just like that, they identify the guy in the phone company by finding someone with a pattern of days off which matches the pattern of the robberies they're investigating. Because the phone company has to keep records of these things. And Ben Affleck won't have thought of this, and made sure the records aren't accurate? Particularly when he's got a guy on the inside who's good with computers? No, that don't work for me.

That's my only quibble, mind you. It's a well put together piece of work which is actually pretty slow in the middle and works all the better because of it. The final heist goes completely wrong, as they inevitably do, and unfolds in a rather stereotypical way, but it's done well, and it's done with people you've begun to take an interest in, so it works, and the aftermath is very solid.

So, who's Bubba Rogowski? Bubba was a character in Gone Baby Gone, a very good piece of casting for one of the less annoying criminal buddy characters of crime fiction. Affleck brought back the same actor as the driver for Affleck's crew, and it was good to see him again. The actor calls himself Slaine, which is annoying, but he's a big heavyset babyfaced guy who was just perfect as Bubba, who has the moral development of a four year old, and he's pretty good here as a slightly less sociopathic version of the same kind of couldn't-give-a-crap-about-anyone-but-my-buddies kind of guy.

Monday, 4 October 2010

The Gentleman's Hour; the easy-going second novel

The Gentleman's Hour isn't Don Winslow's second novel, or even anything close to it, but it's his second novel about Boone Daniels, a surf bum who makes the little money he actually needs by occasionally doing private investigations. The first book, The Dawn Patrol, was a genial follow up to the much more tense The Winter of Frankie Machine. Although I'm not sure that this was the plan at the outset, the three books form a loose trilogy about the surfing community in San Diego. Winslow writes about the scene with real affection, and he's constructed a wonderful cast of recurring characters who wander through the action, though by the time we've got to the end of The Gentleman's Hour, it's pushing it a bit to call what's happening action.

The Southern Californian private eye story is one of the oldest continuing traditions in crime fiction, and Winslow is particularly true to one of Chandler's great themes, which could almost be described as the shaggy detective story. Chandler took it to almost absurd lengths in The Long Goodbye; halfway through it I gave up waiting for the plot to make sense and just settled down to enjoying the ride. Winslow's got a wonderful easygoing style which lets him away with a lot of digression and blind alleys, and this is just as well, because the book ultimately doesn't hang together properly.

It does, however, provide me with a convenient peg to talk about a recurring character in modern detective fiction, the criminal who owes the hero a big favour. It's like a diabolus ex machina, and it's getting a bit old as a narrative trick. It's not as pervasive as the weirdly skilful sidekick (Harlan Coben really took that one right over the edge of parody in the Bolitar novels, but it's as old as Parker's Spenser books and the second most annoying character in them, Hawk) but they could both do with being put out to pasture.

In Dawn Patrol, the hero's villain buddy thing was done quite well, since he was part of the plot. And nailing the villain buddy, and the collateral damage which might follow for Boone's wider circle of friends, was a major emotional hook in the plot. Boone's buddy was a bad person, who turned out to be a lot worse than Boone had thought. He'd corrupted one of the people Boone really looked up to, and Boone's biggest problem was bringing the villain to justice knowing that he was going to shaft not just a villain who needed shafting, but people who didn't deserve it. The Dawn Patrol resolves all the problems of its main characters in a satisfying and believable way, and Winslow probably should have drawn a line under Boone and his friends at that point and moved on to a fresh cast for a third book. He'd done just that moving from Frankie Machine to Boone Daniels, so it's not as though he couldn't have pulled it off.

Instead he stuck with Boone and his buddies, and in a way I don't blame them. They're great company. As Boone falls further and further into a maze of blind alleys and dead ends, I was perfectly happy wandering along after him, just as clueless as he was, but enjoying the show. Unfortunately, all books come to an end, and the Gentleman's Hour has to wrap up the plot. And it turns out that all the blind alleys and distractions are connected. This is a terrible idea; the book would have worked much better as a mess, which I know is a stupid thing to say about detective fiction. This isn't the really annoying bit; the really annoying bit is the hero's villain buddy Red Eddie, who I suspect you think I had lost track of there. I hadn't. He's managed to stay out of jail and in business since the end of the Dawn Patrol, though he's got an ankle tag and a pending trial for drug dealing and people trafficking and the lord knows what all. Despite the fact that this is all Boone's fault, Boone has also saved both Red Eddie and earlier Red Eddie's kid from drowning. So Red Eddie owes Boone, and isn't going to kill him for all this inconvenience. And this ought to be a much bigger deal than it is in the book; it somehow doesn't carry the right weight. And this isn't of trivial importance, because as the books draws to a close, Boone gets right in over his head, and is stuck with no escape and the prospect of a grisly death. And I'm wondering how the hell he's going to get out of it, when two of Red Eddie's thugs show up and just plug all the bad guys, because Red Eddie heard about the fact that Boone's been marked for death and decided he couldn't let it happen. Somehow, this all feels too cheap and easy, and it ruined the ending of the book for me.

In better news, Winslow's taken a break from San Diego's surf scene for his next book, and it looks like a return to the tighter form of his earlier work. While you're waiting for Savages to come out in affordable paperback, check out California Fire and Life and The Power of the Dog, two unrelentingly grim and powerful books which show just how good Winslow can be when he gets serious. And they'll tee you up nicely for Frankie Machine and Dawn Patrol, which are not really at all grim, but carry a nice balance of fear and fun like a good episode of TV. A very good episode. The Gentleman's Hour might have been Winslow taking it all a little bit too easy, but Winslow taking it easy is a lot better than most people's working at it.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

emobile; as if the world needed another stupid company

Check it out. Ads like this are going up all over Dublin, for Eircom's newest attempt to capture the mobile market. These three people are allegedly part of the management team, which consists entirely of altogether-too-relaxed-looking clowns with supposedly reassuring titles. That's Sara, In charge of thinking ahead, John, Head of Non-Complication and Mark - Director of Simplicity. Not shown; Paul - Director of eliminating duplication and redundancy, because apparently they don't have that position. How else to explain the existence of two guys who apparently have the same job. Oh, you're arguing that non-complication and simplicity are different jobs? Not if they're done right, they're not. If your organisation actually has a difference between making it simple and making it not complicated, it ain't simple. Or not complicated. So the message here is emobile; it takes two kind of annoying looking guys to make it simple enough to use.

Also check out the way that five out of the six hands are in their pockets. Unlike in real life, when all six hands are going to be in YOUR pocket.