Saturday, 27 November 2010

Sons of Anarchy go Ireland. Hilariously

Last night I was at a loose end and I sat down and watched the four episode chunk of the third season of Sons of Anarchy where the gang goes to Belfast and does things.

I'm an unabashed fan of SOA, which has a lot to recommend it, but the Irish end of things has always left me wondering if anyone involved with the production has done so much as watch the Quiet Man all the way through, let alone meet anyone Irish or ask anyone from east of South Boston whether they were getting things roughly right.

From the outset, I've been fascinated by the notion that the Sons of Anarchy's principal source of finance is running guns from Ireland to the West Coast of the US. I've assumed all along that this was just a matter of trying to find something criminal for the SOA to do without being you know, SO criminal that audiences would just revolt. I'm not sure I agree with the thinking here. It's as though the team behind the Sopranos had decided that they'd make a movie about Italian American criminals but would skip over prostitution, drug running and protection rackets in case it stopped the audience from watching the characters. In real life, bike gangs finance their operations with crystal meth, and AMC have had a good run with Breaking Bad, which is all about making crystal meth. But the team chose to go with gunrunning and now they're stuck with it.

What it's meant in practice is a succession of dodgy Irish accents from American actors who aren't very good at accents even when they're good at everything else. Titus Welliver is GOOD at playing villains. But he gets 100% less frightening every time his accent slips. Now all of this should have been pretty apparent to the team before very long, but it hasn't stopped them from upping the Irish presence as the show has unfolded, and the whole of the third season has been dominated by a confrontation between the SOA and the IRA. And for four episodes, most of the cast were in Belfast and it was just hilarious.

Of course they couldn't afford to send all the cast to Belfast, so all the principal photography was still done in Calfiornia. But they could afford to send a second unit over to Belfast to do pickup and establishing shots. One advantage of making a show about a biker gang is that you can put the cast into helmets a lot, and one helmet looks much like another. So they got all kinds of shots of mobs of bikers prowling Belfast and its environs, and then they'd cut from those shots to close ups of the actual cast doing things in US locations chosen to look not catastophically unlike the locations in Ireland.

If you don't live in Ireland, it probably works, but if you're from these parts it jars. A lot. The light is wrong. The foliage is wrong. I never appreciated until I lived away from Ireland just how much greener it is than anywhere is. It's all a rich deep green that you don't see in warmer climates. Like California. And in Northern Ireland, it's all been very carefully worked over. There are two separate scenes where the SOA get stopped by the Northern Ireland police on tree shaded roads. There are tree shaded roads in Ireland, but they're not that common around Belfast, where there's much more farmland and pasture than people realise. More importantly, the police in Northern Ireland don't stop people in that kind of terrain; it's far too hard to control.

While I'm quibbling about the depiction of the Northern Ireland Police, they don't carry full sized assault rifles any more, even on rural patrol. They don't use ordinary landrovers, and they especially don't use 1 ton landrovers with canvas tilts. Trouble cars in Northern Ireland are uparmoured long wheelbase landrovers. And if you bribed the PSNI to take down an entire biker gang, they'd bring enough men and machinery to do it properly rather than showing up half assed with the wrong vehicles. And of course, if the said biker gang then turned the tables on them, there'd be a manhunt on an epic scale until the bikers were banged up or gunned down.

Outside of the rural scenes, most of the Northern Ireland action takes places around the compound of the Belfast Sons of Anarchy chapter, which is subtly wrong at a lot of different levels. It's too spread out and open; the kind of place in Belfast that they're trying to suggest just doesn't have that much open space. And there's set dressing like wall murals that are just wrong; it's like they were trying to come up with generic bits of nationalism which wouldn't annoy anyone. Trying not to annoy people is - in my experience - the most foolproof way of getting on everyone's nerves. But that draws me into the weird idea of the linkage between the Sons of Anarchy and the IRA. it just doesn't ring true to the reality of life in that part of Northern Ireland. You're in or you're out. There's no halfway points in Northern militancy - collusion between people who hate each other, sure, but there's no half measures when it comes to which side you're notionally on.

The front of the compound is a corner grocery store called Ashby's. Which is completely not a nationalist name, but even if you skated over that (Sands isn't really a Catholic name either, but it's pretty famous now) standalone old-fashioned grocery stores like that have been pretty much obliterated even in the most entrenched traditional communities - a point neatly underlined in the establishing shot of the Europa Hotel with the gaudy Spar across the street from it. On the topic of the Europa, since the second unit crew almost HAD to have stayed in the Europa while they were there (it's so famous as a bomb magnet that every foreign crew is practically obliged by natural law to stay there at least once) it's genuinely weird that they did so little to make sure that the interior shots in California weren't done in some place that at least looked vaguely like it. But if Ashby's had ever existed and hadn't long since been burned out and rubbled, it would be a Spar by now. Everything else is.

And whee, those accents. I know they couldn't fly everyone to Ireland, but how much would it have cost to fly in actual Irish actors to play the Irish roles? It would still have sounded wrong because Irish people can tell the difference between accents, down to neighborhood, and so the Irish cast would still all have sounded like they didn't belong together, but it would still have been a lot less horrible than the Americans doing their best, and with enough Irish people in the local cast, they'd have known not to call a sixty year old Catholic Belfastman Keith.

And back to the gun running because it was so front and centre in all of this. The logistical backbone of this whole show is that Russians smuggle weapons into Ireland and the IRA then smuggles them out to California. It just doesn't make any sense. Private ownership of guns in Ireland - either half - is so tightly regulated that if you gathered up all the legally held weapons on both sides of the border, you'd be able to fit them into a single room. Keeping guns out of the hands of subversives has been a core government preoccupation for so many years that there probably isn't another country on earth which it's more difficult to smuggle guns into. It can still be done, but it's crazy hard. And smuggling guns back out would be only slightly less hard. If you wanted to get guns from A to B, running them though Ireland would be the worst way imaginable. And even the idea that the IRA would have some vast surplus of guns they no longer needed and could sell to the US is kind of dumb. The IRA's full arsenal on its best day was only about a thousand weapons. By the end of season one, the SOA had already moved at least that many guns around California. But that's just niggling at the idea of Ireland as a point of origin for gun smuggling, as opposed to a point of delivery. The really idiotic idea is the notion that the US needs to import illegal guns at all. The US is awash with guns. They're as plentiful as cell phones and the US is one of the world's leading manufacturers of firearms. It's one of the few manufacturing areas where the US still has a significant domestic industry to meet domestic demand, though it still imports a lot of weapons from Brazil and China to meet the demand for cheap knockoffs of the domestic product. There's absolutely no need for the SOA to go to the trouble of bringing in guns from Ireland. So I've suffered through all these terrible accents for no good reason.

Unstoppable; Of course, it does actually stop.

On the way into the movie I was on the phone to my sister and I'd already forgotten what the film was called, even before I'd watched it. It's some movie, I said, about a big explodey train running out of control. Oh yes, she said, I know the one you mean.

Unstoppable isn't actually that bad; for a Tony Scott film it's almost low-key. Watching the movie you realise the trailer is a terrible cheat; most of the thrilling looking crises which are set up in the trailer are complete anti-climaxes in the actual film. I thought at first the problem was that the movie's based on a true story and Scott didn't want to throw anything in which was grossly out of line with the real incident. Then I looked up the real incident and realised that it's just lousy pacing and poor plot construction.

First up, what happens in the movie? We meet the two main characters, Denzel Washington's veteran and Chris Pine's novice (I have to assume that Tony Scott has Denzel's kids in a fridge somewhere, because it's hard to understand how Scott could otherwise have got Denzel to play a train company employee again after the breathtakingly unnecessary Pelham 123), and see how they don't like each other but are - of course - going to be forced into working together and will bond and blah, just blah. Good thing that Denzel and Pine are charming actors, because this kind of thing is boooooring. Then, with wonderful slapstick, Ethan Supplee manages to let a train get away from him by jumping out of it to change a switch in the train yard but leaving the key in the ignition as it were. The train rolls off and starts moving faster and faster.

Cut to the train yard manager, who for no particularly good reason is played by Rosario Dawson. I wouldn't normally comment on a casting decision like that, but Scott has managed to populate the movie with a cast that look as though they're been hastily carved from potatoes, so it's jarring to have Dawson running the show. Rosario gets to explain to us, the feeble-minded audience, just how bad this could be. We know we're the feeble minded audience, because, for goodness sake, we just handed over some of our own money to watch a Tony Scott film.

Well, it's all terribly bad, but it could be worse. Rosario's got a cunning plan to divert the train into a siding before it does any damage. So she details one of her slacker staff to go and throw the switch for the siding and sends Ethan Supplee (remember, the genius who pulled off the original bonehead mistake, just the guy you'd hire to sort it out) in pursuit of the train to catch up with it. But the train's moving faster that they thought it was. They thought it was just coasting, but Ethan's left the engine running, and it's picking up speed. And in the immortal words of Goose from Mad Max, it's headed straight for population.

Ethan and his only slightly less stupid sidekick head off down the road after the train and make an entirely plausible mess of trying to match speed with a speeding train in a pickup truck on a parallel road. And with that, the train company's run out of easy fixes. Rosario tells her boss to derail the train, which is apparently filled with explodium (or molten phenol, which doesn't even sound like a real thing, but turns out to be somewhat real, though not as dangerous as this). The company's having none of this, and instead cooks up a bizarrely dangerous scheme involving putting a train in front of the runaway so that it will run into the back end and slow down enough so that they can lower an engine driver from a helicopter. While all that's being planned, we have various bits of hijinks with the train running through small villages flattening horseboxes and nearly hitting a train full of school kids. The train full of school kids is supposed to be ironic, I think, but it winds up just looking stupid. It's the company's school train safety train. The idea that a train company in the US would have an outing for kids to learn about train safety by being IN a train just doesn't make any sense at all, except as a mechanism for a movie to put moppets in peril. Which is forgiveable, but the moppets are no sooner in peril than they're back out of it, so it's a complete waste of time which could have been better used.

Anyhow, it fills in the time until the corrupt company bosses can pull off their bonehead move with the train and the helicopter. And it goes super-wrong, as all first plans in all movies do. The slowing-things-down train isn't heavy or powerful enough to slow down the train from in front of it by putting the brakes on, and the helicopter just succeeds in smearing the volunteer engine driver along the top of the runaway engine. Which was only to be expected. There you are, with a train going at 70 miles an hour in open countryside, and you've got a guy you want to lower from a chopper onto it. What do you do, hot shot, what do you do? Well, I'm guessing that you don't hang the poor rube off a hundred feet of rope for no good reason, when for the same money you could match speeds with the train - which is not, after all, in a position to - you know - swerve - and get in close enough that your engine driver could practically step out of the chopper onto the roof of the train instead of swinging round like a yo yo. And you'd probably also warn off the three news choppers swooping in and out of your way. They skimped on these simple steps, with inevitable results. It all goes horribly wrong and the engine driver in the slowing-things-down train is immolated when his train gets blown out of the way by the runaway.

Which is where I get vexed with the whole dumb moppets in peril thing. The helicopter and so on might be stupid, but it's good moviemaking; it looks great and it's carried off well, and it would have been even better if it had had ten minutes of prep. The doomed engine driver is played by David Warshofsky, who's like the Canadian Will Patton, and he gets a little scene at the very beginning to annoy Chris Pine, and then gets all crispy doing the right thing. It would have been so much better to give the actor some more screen time to put some emotional tension into the scene and drop the moppets.

Anyhow, plan A goes horribly wrong, and they move to plan B, which involves trying - at last - to derail the train. Which now looks like a dumb idea, because i) they've run out of unpopulated countryside to try it in and ii) the runaway is now going so fast that the derailing devices aren't likely to work. But evil corporate don't listen to Rosario or Denzel when they point this out, so Denzel has to go rogue with his much simpler plan to reverse up behind the runaway, hook up to it and then it full throttle heading the opposite direction. Corporate are terribly displeased about this, and threaten to fire him, so Denzel reminds them that they already have fired him and he's just working out his notice. I thought THAT cliché was only allowed in cop movies.

Anyhow, the tension's being screwed up to the sticking point at this stage, since the runaway is only minutes away from the derailer an if that fails, it's only a few minutes away from Stanton, and the infamous Stanton curve, which is high over the city, and surrounded by oil storage tanks, and which the runaway will surely fall off if it heads into it at 70 miles an hour. Still just enough time for plan B to be tried, and just before it, Plan A1, which sees the Pennsylvania state police opening fire on the train. A cutaway to a news programme tells us that they were trying to shoot out a fuel cut off switch on the side of the train which would have just made it coast to a halt when the engine stopped drawing fuel. While this seemed monumentally stupid, it did at least answer my question when I first saw the trailer for the movie and wondered why the police were carrying guns into action against a runaway train. Anyhow, as you'd expect, this is a failure, though not quite on the scale it deserves to be. Let's all shoot at the fuel tanks of the train made of explodium really oughtn't to be a bullet point on anyone's contingency plans.

In due turn, the derailing exercise fails, and the last chance left is Denzel and Chris' rogue plan to slow the thing down using a non-stupid idea. Which involves much sparks and running along the top of the train and Chris Pine having to jump from a pick up truck doing 70 miles an hour onto the front of the runaway, and you know, general high jinks and tension of all kinds.

I'm not really giving anything away when I say that this just about works, and they save the day, so that Chris' wife and Denzel's daughters (who all just happen to live in Stanton) are not all turned into charcoal by the explodium train crashing into the explodium storage tanks. And Denzel's getting fired is reversed, and the evil corporate stooges are all fired. But Denzel's daughters DO apparently have to go on working in Hooters to pay for their college tuition.

In reality all, this happened in Ohio countryside, and the runaway train never got above 45 miles an hour, and using a train in reverse seems to have been the first thing which occurred to the train company. The tactic was so successful that it got the train down to 11 mph and a "trainmaster" (which is just the coolest job title I've seen all week) ran along beside it to jump on and switch the engine off. The train did get to be a runaway in exactly the way the movie shows, although the guy it got away from was a 35 year veteran who knew exactly what he was doing, rather than an idiot. And no-one got hurt and there was no real property damage either. Most surprisingly of all, the train crew sent to slow the train down was made up of a veteran and a rookie. So the beginning of the movie is about right, and the end's roughly accurate, and the whole middle of it - well, when they tell you something is inspired by real events, they're really telling you that they made all the exciting stuff up. Except for that bit about the police trying to shoot the fuel switch. That apparently happened. Didn't work any better in real life than it does in the movies.

And in reading up all this I found out the answer to the most frustrating piece of dialogue in the whole movie, when the police ask Rosario why the deadman switch doesn't just stop the train. Rosario flips it off by saying that "there's a wand the driver has to hit, but that's not the point right now". Turns out that trains don't have something as simple as a dead man switch, because they're too easy to defeat. They have a vigilance switch, which you have to hit when it beeps. If you don't, the brakes engage. But the brakes on a train don't do as much to stop it as you'd expect them to - on the real life runaway the engine brakes cut in, but the engine had too much momentum for them, and they just burnt out. So there's that answered.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Chaos Walking: Patrick Ness

Since it's inevitable that I'm going to niggle about things, let's get the important thing out of the way; Patrick Ness has written three very fine books - or rather one very fine book in three volumes. A lot of the best stuff I've read in the last few years has been aimed at children, and I am coming round to the idea that there's some odd version of Einstein's great dictum in play. Einstein used to say that if you couldn't explain what you're doing to a four year old child, you should stop doing it, which is advice which works at so many different levels. I wonder if something similar isn't true about writing fiction. Or perhaps it's just that I'm reading only the very good stuff.

Chaos Walking has a very strong anti-war message, but it's rather less simple minded than most anti-war tracts, because the core message is that war is never good, no matter what the reason. And the important part is "no matter what the reason". There's a thread running through all three books that you can only bring war to an end if you put to one side any idea of justified retribution, because your retribution becomes the cause of the next retaliation. Mind you, Robert Littell put the whole idea much more pithily in a wonderful little spy novel called Walking Back the Cat "I don't care who's right. What matters is who's left." The only way forward is to let the past bury the past and look to what you can do now to make things better.

The message is sold on a lot of different levels, but the cleverest part of the approach is that the three narrators, for different reasons, are all equally ignorant of the causes and true villains of the earlier war which is driving the war they find themselves caught up in. Throughout the three volumes, they get told different versions of the background, but never hear anything solid, and by the end of the third book, the reader still doesn't know how the first war started, or how it truly ended. It's very unusual for a children's book to embed a large mystery at the heart of its narrative and leave it completely unresolved at the end, but it's a hugely important part of the lesson that Ness is trying to get across; that for all that we say it's important to understand the past, it's all too easy to get stuck in it. Only people who are free of the past can build the future.

Which is all very well as far as it goes, but how do the books work as fiction? How well do they drive the narrative forward and get you to buy into the characters?

Not as well as he could have. Now that's usually damning someone with faint praise, but here I'm measuring the work overall against its best bits, and its best bit is so good that everything else seems a little washed out in comparison. First, let me move away from the abstract and into the particular.

The first viewpoint character is Todd Hewitt, the youngest boy in a small settlement town on a newly colonised planet. We meet him when he's a month off his 14th birthday, when he will become a man, and it's through his uneducated eyes - eyes that have never known another way of living - that we see his world. There are no women in it; his small town, Prentisstown, has only men and this one remaining boy. And there is no quiet in the town; every man's thoughts are broadcast in "the Noise" a kind of involuntary telepathy which seems to be a side effect of a biological weapon used by the original inhabitants of the planet in the war that was fought against the colonists before Todd was old enough to understand. The same weapon killed all the women and left the town to wither and die with no future and a present built of loss.

Before long Todd is on the run from his town and fleeing into the wider world, where he starts to realise that what he's been told about the past may not have been true. And in his flight he stumbles over Viola, a girl his own age who's the only survivor of a crashed scout ship from the next wave of colonists. And together they FIGHT CRIME. No, of course they don't fight crime. And the stumbling's rather elegant; it's actually the fact that he's found what appears to be the only girl on the planet that precipitates Todd going on the run at all. There are very few arbitrary coincidences in the narrative; almost everything happens because someone has meant it to happen that way, usually for sinister reasons which much later become apparent.

So there's Todd and Viola on the run, accompanied by Todd's faithful, idiotic and TALKING dog. Because the Noise affects everything; every animal has a voice, though the voices of the animals are much simpler than those of the men. It's a testament to Ness' skill that although Manchee the dog has a vocabulary of less than a dozen words, he's somehow a fully fleshed out character and what happens to him matters. And chasing after them is the whole town of Prentisstown. At first it seems like it's just a posse led by the Mayor, but as the first book unfolds we start to see that the Mayor of Prentisstown is much madder than he seemed at first meeting and that the posse is actually the whole town on the march to war, a war which has been long planned to start when the last boy became a man.

The balance of the narrative is about that war; the way that at first the Prentisstown army fights the other towns, and wins only to face the moral problems which come with victory and occupation and the bigger problems which come when the undermined occupation forces come under assault from the natives Todd had been told were wiped out.

The first book is in Todd's voice alone; the second book joins Viola's to the narrative, and in the third the voice of one the natives comes into play. Todd was too young to see the first war; Viola wasn't even on the planet and the native was, like Todd, just a child when the world fell apart. None of them know who really started the first war or how it was brought to a close; none of them know how all the women in Prentisstown died. And as I said at the outset, none of those questions is ever really answered. Through all three volumes Todd carries his mother's diary, but it's never read to the reader. At first Todd's illiteracy stops him from reading it - and brilliantly, his shame about his illiteracy means that he won't admit to anyone else that he needs help reading it - and later, when other people read it to him, there's room for doubt that he's really hearing what's on the page. To the end, the diary remains an enigma.

The unabashed villain of the piece is the Mayor of Prentisstown, but he's a great villain, forever hovering between out and out bastardy and apparent reasonableness. The relationship between the Mayor and Todd is at the heart of the work; can the Mayor corrupt Todd? Can Todd reform the Mayor? Is the Mayor a complete monster or is he just doing his best and getting it horribly wrong? There's a great case of supporting characters, and they're impressively complex; the leader of the resistance to the occupation is a great depiction of what's good and bad in the kind of people who can run a resistance movement. And Ness does a wonderful job with the talking animals; without ever making them anthropomorphic, he makes them real and vital and when they go into harms way it matters every bit as much as it does when the humans do.

All that said, the heart and soul of the whole work is Todd. His voice is the most vivid and compelling; his view of things puts you right inside the head and heart of a real person. The other two narrative voices are much less distinctive and strong; they get the job done, but they don't bite into the reader the way Todd's does. As a result, the first book, which is in Todd's voice alone, is by far the best read. I have a suspicion that Ness didn't get as much time to work on the other two as he did on the first, and that if he'd had more time to refine Viola and the native, they'd have been just as good. But this is, I have to say, a niggle. The first book is the best, but the other two are very good, and the ending of the whole work is spot on, bleak, but with an edge of hope to it.

What's very impressive is that Ness figured out a believable way to make 14 year olds IMPORTANT in a narrative. Kid's books always have kids as the viewpoint characters, but it never makes a button of sense that kids should be in the foreground of anything major. But Todd's important because he was the youngest child in the settlement, never having known any other world, and of totemic importance to the Mayor's insane plan of campaign. And Viola is critical because she's the only representative on the planet of the next wave of colonists; for the current colonists, whoever gets her on their side gets the new colonists on their side as well. So there's a solid and believable reason for everything to revolve around them, rather than the more usual thing of plucky kids just happening to get roped into things bigger than themselves.

I don't know if this is a classic for the future, or just a damn good book; I know that I'm looking forward to my nieces and nephews being old enough to get carried away by it.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Let the Right One In/Let Me in

First I read the book, then at the weekend I saw the original movie adaptation in Swedish and then on Wednesday I watched the US adaptation. I have to admit, the US adaptation was wilful perversity on my part. There's a point at which diminishing returns set in as you try to understand different takes on the same idea.

The book is, on balance, the most satisfying version of the story. With translations it's hard to tell whether you're reading good writing or a good translation (so I don't know if I'd hate the Millennium Trilogy the same way if I could read it in the original Swedish) but the English translation of the book is a good read, well written and atmospheric. And with 480 pages to work in, Lindqvist is able to bring all his characters to life and create a fairly detailed and rich evocation of the Stockholm housing estate in the 1980s which forms the background for the action. Movies have to get the job done in the equivalent of no more than 150 pages, and everything you put on the screen costs money. Every character is a cost; that's one of the major differences between books and movies. A movie will always reduce and condense the dramatic personae of a book.

Both the movies strip the story down to its essentials; lonely boy meets child vampire in rundown housing estate, gradually realises that the child is a vampire, and eventually runs away from his miserable life into an unknown future with the vampire. Everything that isn't essential to putting this across is cut away. What's left in the movies is satisfying in different ways, but if you've come to them having first read the book, you're acutely conscious of how much has been lost.

The Swedish movie was scripted by Lindqvist, and he tried to keep as much as he can of the wider world of the estate. Major subplots involving the lonely boy's mother and the police got carved out completely, and the parallel track of the indigent drunks, who are both the main victims of the child vampire and the only people who come close to figuring out what's going on, is cut back to the bare minimum; instead of the deeply realised characters of the books, we get quick sketches of recognisable types. The same thing happens with the school bullies who in the book have a much more complex back story and a more ambiguous relationship with the boy; the trio of bullies get knocked back to simple bully stereotypes. It had to be done, really. The main story needs all the room it can find, and there's just no room for the complexities of the book.

The US version strips things down even more. The Swedish version kept the boy's father as an actual character, but the US remake cuts him back to a voice on the phone, and the neighborhood deadbeats lose their identities almost completely. Their role as the de facto investigators of the vampire killings is taken over by what appears to be the only police detective in Los Alamos. Setting the US version in 1983 Los Alamos is a weirdly inspired move because we never see Los Alamos in the movies and when we do, it's not covered in snow. Somehow, it looks like the last place in the world anyone would ever want to live. It's actually grubbier and more downbeat than social housing in Sweden, but then again, Sweden's probably a nicer country than the US to live in if you're poor anyhow.

So those are the gross differences. Read the book if you want to get a deeper and more involving story and a much stronger sense of how Sweden ticks. Watch the movies if you want to see a vampire story about kids which isn't really suitable for kids. Both movies keep everything low key and simple; if you buy the idea that vampires are possible, everything else makes perfect sense. Life as a vampire comes across as tough and empty and depressing - life as a vampire's minder comes across as even worse. Yet the life of a lonely twelve year old boy beset by bullies and with no friends and a family that's falling apart can make even life with a vampire seem like a better deal than hoping that his life will get better if he stays put. Far more than the book, the movies work to the extent that the child actors can sell their characters.

In the US version, the boy (Owen in the US version) is MUCH creepier than the boy (Oskar) is in the Swedish version - which is much less true to Lindqvist's original character. In a way, it's easier to imagine Owen going over to the dark side than it is to imagine Oskar doing it, because in the opening moments of the movie, Owen already seems halfway there as he spies on his neighbors while wearing a Michael Myers mask. Oskar seems sad and lost; Owen seems like he's got a good chance of being a serial killer when he grows up, even if Mother Theresa turns out to be the new neighbor.

And then there's the vampire; Eli in the Swedish version, Abby in the US version. I think that Chloe Moretz is this decade's answer to Christina Ricci and Natalie Portman, a child performer with such ridiculous poise and charisma that almost anything is possible for her. And I have to admit that I was a little irritated that she took up this role. In a few short years, she'll be an adult; the time in which her unique ability as a CHILD actor can be used is terribly limited. To throw it away on a remake ... but as John points out, it's not as though there are a huge number of roles for children in the first place. And I have to be fair. It's an interesting challenge for a child actor. Weirdly, I think that Lina Leandersson in the Swedish movie shades it, because she's a more ethereal looking actress and somehow conveys a greater sense of alienness (though I discovered just now that her voice was too high, and they dubbed in an actor with a deeper voice for her lines, which may account for some of the distancing). Moretz is GOOD, don't get me wrong. She can't not be good. But her Abby is not quite as out there as Leandersson's Eli.

Both movies pull their punches on key icky bits in the book. In the book, Eli/Abby's minder is a pedophile who Eli has hooked in and enthralled while keeping him at a distance physically. In the Swedish movie, the pedophile element was dialled right back, and in the US version it was removed altogether - though I actually liked the revision because in one minor shot, we see that the minder was once a child Owen's age, and he's grown old trying to help the unchanging girl he loved; that one shot (of a faded photograph) presages Owen's future, and we get to see Owen appreciate this and still later accept the price. There's something very strong and sad in that moment. The other pullback is that in the book, Eli isn't a girl at all, but a boy who was castrated before being turned to a vampire. The Swedish movie doesn't explain the back story, but in one quick shot shows the mutilation as Oskar watches Eli change into his mother's dress; in the US movie, the same scene doesn't show the scar; I suspect it's going to be a deleted scene on the DVD because the whole scene is set up for the same reveal, yet it doesn't happen.

These are things which probably only matter to someone like me who's overdone his exposure to the whole thing; really, all three versions are solid work. I like it that both the movies keep things very simple and light on special effects; the climax, where Eli/Abby rips the bullies apart in a swimming pool, is done very simply in both movies, with Oskar/Owen being held below the water and seeing only bits of body falling past him. Cheap to shoot, but also a great way to show the violence without showing it.

The films work because the love story works, which works because the actors - all four, in the two different versions - do a fine job of getting us to buy into their loneliness and need for each other. That's the heart of the thing; that's what makes them worth seeing. But it's worth pointing out that the US version also made John jump a foot in the air when the investigating cop meets his untimely end. A movie is doing good work when that happens.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Due Date; first, hire two actors, then see what happens

If it weren't for the fact that it's awfully hard to stage a car crash and a car chase in most theatres, I'd say that Due Date would make a perfectly good two handed stage show. It's absolutely anchored in the interaction and reactions of the two lead actors. Luckily, they went out and got two lead actors who could carry it off.

It's not a great movie; it's not even a great script. But it carries it off, just, because the leads are up to the challenge.

Robert Downey Junior is having, as I've said before, one of the great second acts of an American acting career. He is not, however, just playing to his familiar strengths. Since he came back out of oblivion, he's been playing various likeable characters who have problems. In Due Date, he's playing an unlikeable character. He's not a bad person; it's just that he's tense, and judgmental and far too impatient with everyone. He tries to be relaxed and calm and nice to people, but you can see how it's an effort (there's an early scene with a limo driver where you get a perfect sense of the character; Downey makes no effort at all to connect with the driver; the limited conversation is obviously something he's just enduring till he can get out of the car and never see him again). This is not quite the loveable Downey we've seen in other things.

Zach Galifanakis keeps weirding me out when I see him. It's because I first saw him as the pathologist in Tru Calling, where he was playing a pretty straight role as an educated grown up with a responsible job. So it's been odd watching him in the Hangover and Due Date as an overgrown flabby man-child with absolutely no sense of what's allowed for grown ups. Due Date's Ethan Tremblay is nothing all that new for anyone who's seen The Hangover, although it is different. This is a much sunnier character, though equally out of his depth in the real world. What's astonishing is the way Galifanakis sells it. It's far harder than it looks to play someone too stupid to realise that he's stupid (there's a standout moment when Ethan dismisses the idea that the Grand Canyon could possibly be a natural feature - it takes real genius to get an audience to buy the idea that there's anyone dumb enough to stand in front of the Grand Canyon and STILL think someone dug it out).

And that's the whole job done, boys and girls; the interactions between the blissfully deluded Galifanakis and the uptight Downey. Its drags on a bit at times, but it has moments of real power; there's a scene when Downey leans down to comfort Galifanakis after a truly disastrous incident with Galifanakis's father's cremated remains. Downey's character can't stand Galifanakis at this point, but it makes perfect sense that in a moment this bad, he would transcend his dislike. Another actor might not have made it work; Downey nails it.

And two thirds of the way through it kicks everything up a gear in comedy terms; there's a jailbreak cum car chase which is such magnificent physical comedy that I just burst out laughing at the beginning and kept laughing all the way through. It was a long time building up to the punchline, but once it took up a notch, for a while, Due Date was one of the funnier things I've seen this year.

The Tourist: Olen Steinhauer

As the Tourist drew to a close, I was all set to get quite annoyed with it, because it was wrapping up in a hurried and confusing way. It's a rather literary book, and it takes its own sweet time setting up the character and situations. So when the last forty or so pages started introducing twists and almost immediately tying them off, I was thinking, "Well, this is a bit of a mess for someone with five novels under his belt."

Turns out, I was being unfair. The Tourist is the first of three or four books, at a guess, and it's filling the role of origin story of sorts for its main cast. I'm not sure I want to find out what happens to them next, but I have to give points to Steinhauer for the way he sets up the end of the book as the beginning of the story.

That said, it's hard enough going. There's not a lot of action, and most of the characters are different levels of unlikeable, so that on the one hand you're stuck with people who you're not even meant to like much, and on the other hand, there's not much going on to distract you from the unlikeability.

I'm not qualified to say anything terrible insightful about the way the book depicts spying. The central conceit - the main plank for the whole sequence, I imagine - is that the CIA has a black ops unit called the Tourists, who are completely unaccountable and go around killing and torturing people for the greater glory of the US. This is a recurring theme in bad movies and TV shows; I've long ago lost track of how many times TV has introduced us to a super elite team of spies who operate above top secret. Alias seemed to be intent on inventing ever more arcane levels of unaccountability, for example. I got the impression that Steinhauer had watched some of this stuff and thought to himself, yeah, that's all very well and good, but in real life you'd go nuts doing that, wouldn't you?.

This is almost certainly true, but it isn't necessarily that much fun to read about. The main viewpoint character, Milo Weaver, is introduced to us just as the lifestyle really starts to catch up with him, as he flounders through his last mission as a Tourist in a haze of booze and amphetamines. At one level, I can completely see it. A clandestine agent would be under a lot of stress and with no real limits on what he could get away with, he'd be in a position to self medicate to manage the stress. It's just somehow Steinhauer doesn't get me believing in Weaver as someone who's depending on alcohol. He's not hazy enough, or disorganised enough and he makes the transition away from it unbelievably quickly. We have to buy into the idea that the love of a good, entirely random, woman turns his life around, and that's just too Hollywood compared to all the other efforts to make it real and gritty.

Still, there's some interesting stuff going on around the edges of the book, in what I surmise is the master plot. Steinhauer has already written five novels which were an exploration of the decline of communism in a fictitious Eastern European country. With these books, he seems to be trying to write an extended critique of the national security state as practised in the USA; both the endless expansion of the security organs of government and the shabby uses to which the organs are put. There are some interesting thoughts hovering in the wings here, but it's clear that it's going to take more books to put them out there.

Some things did ring false. A master plot mechanism seems to be the idea of former spies holing up in the unlikely venue of the UN and working against the worst excesses of the national security agencies. I know just enough about the military committee of the UN security council to view this with immense scepticism. It's a lovely idea, but it doesn't fit with the historical development of the UN as an organisation. Most importantly, the idea that the UN could have a black budget is hilarious. I've sat in on budget negotiations for UN agencies, and I wouldn't claim for a second that UN budgeting is lean or exact; what I will say is that it's VERY scrutinised. The UN gets its money from levies on the member states, and everyone pokes around at it; the people who chip in are convinced they should chip in less, and the people who take out are determined to get their cut from it.

Still, it's nice to dream. The Tourist will have a sequel out one of these days and maybe I'll check it out.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Black Out/All Clear: Connie Willis, but even more so

Some time in the late 1980s, I read Connie Willis' breakthrough book, Doomsday Book. It remains for me one of the most perfect pieces of Science Fiction ever written, but you don't have to take my word for it; when Doomsday Book came out, it started the process of hurling awards at Willis which has quite rightly continued ever since. Doomsday Book is a wonderful, heartbreaking book, and in many ways the best book ever written about time travel. Part of what makes it a wonderful book about time travel is that it's a wonderful book about time travel, not a wonderful book about time machines. Willis has gone back time and again to the characters and milieu of Doomsday Book, but she's never bothered to explain her vision of time travel in any detail, any more than Jack Kerouac took time out in On the Road to explain the workings of the internal combustion engine. Good writing is about people and predicaments, not about stuff.

Black Out and All Clear come to almost 1200 pages between them, and I spent most of both books torn between wishing there was more and wishing there was a whole lot less. It's a frustrating pair of books about frustration.

I should clarify that point; Willis, for almost twenty years now, has written mostly about frustration; not the towering kind, but the minor kind, when you're trying to do something important to you and no matter what you do, tiny things and minor characters seem to keep stepping into the frame and blocking the clear path forward. It's probably not a coincidence that she takes a long time to write her novels. Bellwether, one of her finest short novels, is entirely about an entire team of people trying to derive a scientific understanding of crowd behaviour and being frustrated at every turn by an incompetent assistant. The assistant is scatty but likeable, and the whole panorama of minor reverses is depicted with such sharp observation that the resolution of the plot comes as a complete surprise to the reader; so much time has been lost to digression that, just like in real life, the punch line comes as a surprise simply because it resolves the plot, rather than because it resolves it in a unexpected way.

It's not ridiculous to say that what Connie Willis does is a little bit like street magic. While the patter and the handwaves hold your attention, deep in the background everything is being moved relentlessly into the position where all will be revealed.

I spent a lot of the time in Black Out and All Clear discovering Willis' influences, or perhaps just the books she enjoys. She likes Wodehouse, and Christie, and Sayers and Jerome K Jerome; a bevy of writers who excelled in sharp dialogue, astute misdirection and plots which were simple on first examination, complex on reflection and transcendentally simple on careful reconsideration. I'm not actually a fan of Christie now that I'm older, but I read a lot of her books when I was younger and she was quite possibly peerless at the odd art of sending the reader off at a tangent to what was really going on. And during her mid period, she wrote wonderfully offhand sarcastic dialogue. I single her out because she actually has a cameo in All Clear, and her books are constantly referred to in the text; Sayers gets the occasional mention, but for Jerome and Wodehouse you have to infer it from the way she writes.

The two books take three time travellers and dump them into the blitz, stranding them so that they can't get out. It's one of the iron rules of Willis' vision of time travel that travellers are only observers; the space time continuum will protect itself from tampering by not letting them even travel to any place where their actions might change the course of history. So in each of her multiple books about the history faculty of Oxford University, the travellers are frustrated in their efforts to get to specific locations by the laws of time travel and the elusive concept of slippage, which stops them from going exactly where they want and allows Willis to have all kinds of fun putting them in places where countless minor inconveniences will get in the way of them completing their mission. So at first when the three protagonists are stuck, they think it's just another example of slippage; it's only very gradually that it dawns on them that they're stranded and they can't get out.

I can only imagine the frustration of Willis' editors. Her last novel, Passage, was far too long, an endless sequence of trivial setbacks and reverses which didn't advance the plot but were important to the misdirection at the heart of the book and to building up the sense of the characters. But in a sense, Passage's real problem was that Willis seemed to be reluctant to pull the trigger on her cast; she was writing a book about death, and inevitably characters were going to have to confront death, but it took an age to get there. Black Out and All Clear have some of the same problem, and Willis has been very open about the fact that it all began as a single novel and got out of control.

In essence, there's not a lot in play. Three time travellers are stuck in a dangerous part of the past. How will they get out? Will they even get out at all? Will they destroy history in the process? Sorting this out doesn't have to take 1200 pages, but it did. And there were moments - in fact hours - when I wondered just how much longer this was all going to take. The slow process of realisation, the hundreds of setbacks, the constant misunderstandings, are all documented in detail. Many of the misunderstandings are massive fakeouts; I genuinely lost count of the number of times where I was asked to believe that a key character had died, only to be shown the same events from another perspective in the next chapter and realise that they hadn't died at all.

And many of the characters DO die, but the weird thing is that most of the real deaths are approached obliquely and not depicted or even reflected on at all. This can be quite jarring when you, the reader, have already had to live through the fake deaths as though they were real and cope with the reactions of the other characters.

And yet, and yet. Willis writes so well, and creates so many three dimensional characters that by the time I'd finished, my main feeling was profound frustration that I hadn't seen more of them. The editors obviously got out some big sticks toward the end of things because compared to the stately set up of the first book and most of the second, the ending feels almost rushed, and I wanted to know more of the details of all the things which were being skipped past.

One thing which struck me all the way through; Willis' approach to sex and romance feels as though it's from a bygone age of propriety. None of the viewpoint characters ever really gets beyond flirting. Given the immense emotional turmoil they ought to have been feeling, in any other book they'd have been at it like rabbits, but everything is much more buttoned down and prim in Willis' view of the world. And I honestly found it rather refreshing. I miss that outlook on life, and I wish it was more prevalent. Oh well,

All in all, Black Out and All Clear are a frustrating, but ultimately very satisfying read, and I suspect that they may be exactly what Willis wanted; that all the awkward pacing and sense of "but I wanted to know more" was exactly what she was trying to set up. For anyone who hasn't read her at all, I'd still start with Doomsday Book and see whether you like it, but for anyone who already knows Willis' work, I can't imagine you're still waiting around to read it.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Burke and Hare; Apparently Scotland has no actors

I've a longstanding affection for John Landis, largely based on the films which didn't make a lot of money (as opposed to crowd pleasing crap like Trading Places). I still think that American Werewolf in London is one of the most perfect movies I've ever seen, purely because I've never seen another movie which manages to box the compass so successfully between comedy and drama and tragedy. Everything is in there, and if it doesn't sound ridiculous to say it about a werewolf movie, it's one of the most realistic movies I've ever seen. Not because of the creature effects, but because real life isn't as monotone as movies; in fact, the worse things get in real life, the funnier everyone gets. It's how people cope.

Anyhow, when I saw that Landis was directing Burke and Hare, I thought, that's worth taking a chance on. It's a grisly subject, but if anyone could figure out a way to make me care about bodysnatchers and make me laugh along the way, I figured Landis had a shot at it.

I figured wrong. Either Landis doesn't got it any more, or I've changed and he was never really what I remembered. Mind you, lots of people seem to have thought that Landis could bring it; the movie's a tapestry of Brit actors and director cameos. Some of them are no guarantee of anything; I mean, I like Tim Curry, but as far as I can tell he picks his roles the way drunks order off kebab trucks. Tim's been in some terrible movies, and he's often BEEN the terrible part of the movie. But Tom Wilkinson's never less than solid, and I've never seen Andy Serkis put in a bad performance. Mind you this might be the first time I've seen Andy Serkis get all the way to the end of a movie without dying horribly. (In King Kong he actually dies horribly twice, that's how committed he is to dying horribly). Simon Pegg's always pleasant to watch, and it was nice to see Ronnie Corbett getting work.

The challenge is how do you make a couple of scumbags funny and sympathetic enough for comedy protagonists? Because Burke and Hare were scumbags, it's that simple. Partly, you do it by showing the first couple of body sales as a matter of taking advantage of accidents, and then you skim over the multiple murders that followed. Partly you do it by showing how down on their luck a couple of Irish laborers in Edinburgh would be once the canal building craze tapers off. But mostly, you hope that Pegg and Serkis can sell it, and that's asking too much of them. They're both sound actors but there's only so much you can do with basic likeability; the script just doesn't push them to something big enough to involve the viewer in his gut.

The thing which baffles me is that they couldn't find any Irish or Scottish actors for the principal roles. You've for Serkis and Pegg playing guys from Donegal (it's jarring to hear Pegg get the pronunciation of Donegal JUST wrong every time he mentions it; how did the dialect coach let that one through?), and Curry, Wilkinson and Corbett and Bill Bailey playing Scots. Pretty much every principal speaking role is played by someone who has to fake the accent. Why? It's a great cast, but it's not a big name cast, for goodness sake. Of course, I'm sitting here typing this and I can't think of anyone Scottish to hire.

The biggest misstep in the whole thing is the decision to put an all-girl production of MacBeth into the middle of the plot. Burke's motivation is that he wants the money to impress a girl, but it's just bonkers that the girl he's decided to impress needs money for something as whimsically stupid as an all girl MacBeth. It's a great big horrible distraction in the middle of something which ought to be a lot more focused and grim.

Which is not to say that there aren't little pleasures along the way. Pegg and Serkis get in a lot of clever little moments together, and there's always the fun in every Landis movie of looking out for the director cameos (my favourite is hiding Costas Gavras in a family photograph). And the film closes with a gag that makes you realise what might have been done if they'd got a bit more serious. After a wrapup in which Bill Bailey tells us what happened to all the major characters afterwards, the camera moves through a Victorian looking museum, tagging it University Edinburgh medical school. Pause. Present Day. And the camera settles on a skeleton hanging in a case. The actual skeleton of the actual William Burke, who wound up being used for dissection after Hare sold him out and he was hanged for all the murders. it's a grimly funny moment, and it's a shame that the movie only finds the right tone in the very last shot.