Thursday, 3 November 2011

Contagion; catchy title

About a third of the way through Contagion, Elliott Gould dismisses blogging as "graffiti with punctuation", which left me wondering if I should say anything at all about the movie.

It's a weird movie, even for Stephen Soderbergh. Hollywood goes through binges of end of the world movies, and right thinking people always rip into them for showing us the end of the world through the eyes of a couple of far-from-typical scrappy protagonists who survive the whole thing. Contagion is the antidote to that. The world doesn't actually end, but a celebrity cast gets randomly picked off - or spared - by the titular disease until the movie finally comes to an end without having really made any point I could see. Other than that people are kind of dickish under pressure, but most of us don't need to go to the movies to figure that out.

While Soderbergh is determined to mess with the standard formulae of disaster movies, he sticks to the Hollywood baseline in two very noticeable ways. Firstly, he makes sure that as long as he's got Jude Law on contract, his character will be a complete douchebag. Secondly, he uses his movie to highlight the appalling discrimination which still applies against ordinary looking women when it comes to getting jobs in places like the Centres for Disease Control and the World Health Organisation. Neither body seems to have any trouble at all hiring pudgy looking male schlubs, but apparently if you want to get a job as a female epidemiologist, you need a headshot. And perfectly plucked eyebrows. I should never complain about any policy which results in Marion Cotillard getting work, but when the male side of the CDC consists of Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston and Enrico Colantoni…. (it drove me nuts trying to figure out who he was until I saw the name in the credits and realized he was Keith Mars - but then I didn't recognize Cranston at all with hair on his head and no meth lab in the background).

The movie tries to get its credentials in order bright and early by killing Gwynneth Paltrow briskly and efficiently in the first ten minutes (a policy which most movies could usefully emulate), and going on to schwack anyone who's been on screen for more than a few minutes. The problem is that once you've shown that anyone can die at any time, the audience sort of tunes out. When you've every reason to expect that the latest person on screen is going to be spark out within a few minutes, you withhold your empathy; that's just common sense. It's why horror movies work; it's also why horror movies put so much care and attention into the shock and gore surrounding each death; it's the only way to break through the conscious lack of emotional connection we all adopt to deal with horror movies. The characters don't matter, so it doesn't matter that they're going to get killed. And vice versa. When you have a grown up movie trying to do the same thing, it just tends to backfire.

So Contagion is a chilly little number, all buzzkill and unclear agendas. Some people live, for no readily apparent reason; some die, for just as little reason. Society falters, and the garbage doesn't get collected, but civilization somehow motors on. It's all somehow lacking in drama. In setting out to make an unconventional movie, Soderbergh demonstrates perfectly why the conventional approach is the better one.

Tower Heist; works better than I expected

Which may have been the mission statement for the whole movie, or just for the titular heist. Caper movies generally have two acts and a coda. In the first act, you set up the motivation for the caper, in the second act the careful plan goes wrong, and in the coda, whoever's been established as the villain of the piece gets suitably punished. Until recently you could never get away with the money. If the robbers were career villains, they had to get caught; if they were some variation on lovable scamps, they'd avoid prison but lose the money. Because crime wasn't supposed to pay.

That was before financial deregulation and "greed is good" of course. I don't pretend to be keeping track of the shifting moral dynamic of caper movies, but sometime around the 90s, the lovable scamps at least were allowed to start getting away with their misdemeanors. Which actually changes the experience of watching the movies, because for a long time you were just watching to see how it would all go wrong, but now you're half hoping that this is one of those movies where the robbery works out and everyone gets away with it.

Tower Heist stacks the deck on this one by making the quarry so detestable. Alan Alda is working overtime these days to put behind him his M*A*S*H* persona, and his billionaire investment fraudster character is a nicely judged portrait of charm laid thinly over despicable selfishness. You want to see the scrappy underdogs get away with what they're doing; but even more important than seeing them win, you want to see Alan Alda lose. The other weapon in the armory is a back-to-form Eddie Murphy. Somehow, Eddie Murphy has finally made a film where he isn't in a fat suit, isn't playing a woman and isn't playing every character in the movie. He isn't even a dominant presence in the movie; he's just there, hitting his marks and being consistently funny. Which makes a pleasant change, even if all he's doing is riffing on the character he played in 48 Hours, or rather on what that character might have been like if he'd spent the next twenty years getting into trouble and narrowly back out again. Joining him for nostalgia week, Matthew Broderick may be playing the ultimate working out of Ferris Bueller, but it's hard to see any trace of Ferris' exuberance in the worn out, pouchy, mid-life pummeled Mr FitzHugh. Time is cruel to us all, but there's something about missing cheekbones which always makes me wince in empathy.

The movie is efficiently slung together by veteran safe pair of hands Bret Ratner. Studios love him because everything comes in on time and under budget, and that lean efficiency is hard at work in Tower Heist, where literally nothing is wasted. Every single expensive shot in the movie comes in handy for something relevant to the plot. It's like a vast Chekhov's gun, although the impressive bit is that Bret keeps things on the move efficiently enough that it's only afterwards you realize how mechanical it's all been.

That the movie works at all as a movie is down to the pacing; the set up of the first act is slow and deliberate, with everyone's motivations sketched in very solidly so that you can see how a bunch of glorified waiters would try to steal from the world's second or third richest swindler. The second act is quick and clean; the heist isn't absurdly complicated, and each step of it going wrong seems unforced and natural.

All in all, it's more fun than you have any right to expect from a Bret Ratner movie. Though the much vaunted efficiency does take a holiday near the end. Eddie Murphy barricades Judd Hirsch into a closet and turns up the workmen's radio to drown out his cries for help; five minutes later most of the principal cast is in the same unfinished apartment and yet there's no sound from the radio, and nothing at all to indicate that there's anyone stuck in a closet. Ratner might have got away with it, except that he cuts back to Hirsch afterward and he's still in the closet, and the radio is still on.

Finally, Casey Affleck is, I think, one of the most unassuming actors of his generation. I can't get over his willingness to play idiots when he's good-looking enough to insist on getting the character rewritten to something less remedial.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Neal Stephenson: Reamde

I've seen Reamde described as Stephenson's most accessible book, and I suspect that this is true. It wasn't at all what I was expecting, since the last time I noticed what Stephenson was up to, he was putting together some vast sprawling web-thing which involved Mongolia.

Rather than being the fruit of that labour, Reamde is a comparatively straightforward - for him - thriller set pretty much in the recognisable present day. It's a fun read, but it's not really what the fans were probably waiting for. To understand why that's a bad thing, we have to do a bit of a survey of the work to date. We will stipulate that all Stephenson books are far too long and full of digressions.

His first big hit was Snow Crash, which is probably the shortest book he's done since hitting the big time. It's a wonderful sprawling mess of larger than life characters in a dystopian not too distant future. It races through ideas and preposterous situations so fast that it's not immediately apparent that it doesn't really make a huge amount of sense, and it doesn't really matter that it's all over the place because it's tremendous fun (where to start; the hero is called Hiro Protagonist; the Mafia is now the biggest economic force in America, but it only delivers pizza....)

The next book was the more focused but somehow madder The Diamond Age, which had a world warped by zero cost nanotechnology and China as a new economic superpower operating on whimsically Confucian lines (well, I just checked Wikipedia since it's almost 20 years since I read the book, and I've got that wrong, but never mind). In and among completely re-imagining political economy for a world without nation states or much need for money, it also contains a feature complete attempt to explain Turing Machines and a riot of other stuff. I ought to read it again, but there's a stack of other stuff I have to do first.

Then comes Cryptonomicon, which is a 900 page doorstep that jumps around WWII and the present day with a wildly complicated plot about cryptography. It ends on a sort of cliff hanger which left most readers waiting for a whole bunch more material about the Waterhouse and Shaftoe families who provide most of the main characters. We're still waiting....

Because that would have been too easy - Stephenson then took five years or so to chunk out three absolute monsters generally referred to as the Baroque cycle that take more than 2000 pages to give us the 17th century ancestors of the Shaftoes and Waterhouses. It's a great mad romp which makes less narrative sense than anything which had gone before, but was full of distracting detail and colourful incidents (it includes, for no particularly good reason, a duel fought between some minor characters with howitzers).

Then came Anathem, possibly his most weirdly ambitious book to date, and the first one he wrote to be set on an entirely imaginary world; all his earlier work was either set in recognisable history or a plausible future of our own bad little habits gone mad. Anathem was, naturally, long and discursive. It takes forever to get started, and then kicks into shockingly high gear. It is quite difficult to give a terse summary of all the new stuff in it, but it's full of ideas which no-one else has ever written down before, sometimes for good reason. It's also weirdly GOOD; it's sensibly focused for once on a single character and he has a very satisfying resolution of his adventures.

With Reamde, Stephenson sticks to the idea of a long book which is all over the place, but there are very few new ideas in it. Instead, incident after incident gets thrown at the reader until the only option is to suspend disbelief and wait to see who's still alive at the end of it. I think there are at least a dozen viewpoint characters of importance. The breakneck nature of the incidents is probably best summed up with the moment where the most important character pauses in the middle of an emergency to wonder if anyone else in history had ever been attacked by gangsters, jihadists AND bears in the space of a week. In a way, it's story telling by hyperactive five year olds. One character makes a deal with a front man for Russian gangsters; this goes wrong and drags them into contact with first the Russian gangsters and then Chinese hackers and THEN Welsh jihadists. It's all strung together by coincidences, and sometimes you'd be forgiven for thinking that Stephenson's decided to do an entire series of adventure novels all in one fat book and just get the thing out of his system.

It's fun, mind you, and full of those little Stephenson touches which always make him worth the trouble. No-one has ever quite equalled him in describing a particular kind of modern male mindset; the guy who knows how to something precise and technical, but not how to figure out what other people are thinking. Working entirely in the present day, he can shine a light on all kinds of little corners of that mind. It's just that there are no great big ideas to go with it. Stephenson seemed to be taking a day off from making up cool stuff. Of course, he's already made up more cool stuff than anyone's got a right to expect....

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The Quinn Group Redux

In April last year, I ranted briefly on how perhaps the collapse of Quinn Group was down to the kind of faulty maths that would let someone overestimate the cost of dole payments for all the group's employees by a factor of three. We had to dig out the group, or the taxpayer would be hit for €3.6 million a week in dole payments. The horror.

Turns out, it would have been cheap even at that price, since the Dáil is now in the throes of bringing in legislation which will impose a €240 million euro levy on - well, taxpayers.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec; I don't think those words mean what you think they mean

Last week I was suggesting that Luc Besson had moved away from directing because it all started to seem too much like hard work, but having seen his first piece of directing for (theoretically) adults since 2006, I'm coming round to the idea that he stopped directing because he'd forgotten how to do it properly. I had seen the trailer for Adele Blanc-Sec (my respect for the truth stops me from going along with the official title's assertion that there are adventures) back before I was deported to the occupied territories, and thought to myself; gosh wow; Luc Besson, finally back at the director's chair in a movie with the apparent DNA of the Mummy and Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider. That's gotta be good news. Then the thing sunk without trace; opened for a week on one screen earlier this year and that was that.

If I was smart, as opposed to being too clever for my own good, I'd learn from experience, and realise that if a movie doesn't get released, it's because the people who were hoping to make money from it - who believed in it - have realised that it's no good. No, like an idiot, the fact that the movie is being withheld from me just spurs me to find this great rarity and spend my hard earned money on it. Because I am stupid. Not as stupid as Adele Blanc-Sec the movie, because if I was that stupid I'd need to be helped to cross streets and cut up my own food, but stupider than I have any real right to be.

I still think it ought to have worked. They had - apparently - an established comic book character, and a pretty good setting; pre-WWI France. Adele Blanc-Sec is a pioneering woman journalist and author who goes off on all kinds of swashbuckling adventures. There's a tonne of comic book plots just lying around for a movie to be built around. Instead we get a fitful, misfiring half-comedy with a couple of small scale setpieces and a bunch of money thrown at animating a CGI pterodactyl and a bunch of reanimated mummies. I usually complain that movies don't spend enough money on writing, but here, where the script could have been picked up off the floor, with convenient drawings to assist the storyboards, it simply beggars conventional understanding that this was the best that Besson could do. He's been making kid's movies for the past five years, and maybe that's compromised his sense of what grown up movies are supposed to do, but this is a pale shadow of the drive (and lunacy) of movies like Nikita and Leon. I'm not saying Nikita or Leon are masterpieces, but they both motor along on the back of strong central performances and a really good eye for action staging. Adele Blanc-Sec spends way too much time away from its titular character and doesn't give her enough to do when the camera's on her.

I could be missing something; this might all be hilarious in France for some reason that I'm not culturally equipped to understand. But Besson isn't exactly a highbrow auteur; it would be well against the run of play for him to make a movie which would go over anyone's head. I think he just screwed it up, and I need to stop complaining that he's not directing any more and instead appreciate the stuff he got right when he was still good.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Colombiana: Guns DO kill people

Long ago and far away, before it all - I imagine - started to seem too much like hard work, Luc Besson used to make movies. Nowadays I think he writes ideas on beermats and lets other people run with them, and for the most part. They. Are. Not. Good. Besson may be the most prolific producer of stupid movies since the Golan brothers quit showbiz.

Colombiana is, mirabile dictu, one of the less terrible ones, which is not to say that it's in the running for any more meaningful praise. I suspect that if it didn't have Zoe Saldana in the middle of it, it would be straightforwardly terrible pile of crap. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 28% and honestly that feels about right. There's some good action scenes, and Zoe can carry the stuff with no gunfire, but it's kind of a mess and there isn't really enough gunfire.

Usually with these kind of stupid movies where a chick goes around killing forty times her own weight in bad guys, there's all kinds of quibbling you can do about the internal logic. Colombiana's actually running on such a clean script that all I could come up with was a sense of bewilderment that we had to buy into a parkour chase through Bogota in 1992 when Parkour didn't really become a thing until about five years later. Niggling about that took a lot of the fun out of the chase, but that was about all the niggling I could get done. Other than that, the script is clean, tidy, sorted. It doesn't make a lick of sense in real world terms, but it's sound within its own structure. If you're going to buy the idea of a 5' 6" girl ninja assassin killing all around her, then you're not going to have anything left to argue about with the rest of the movie.

If you're a pop culture nut, you can laugh your ass off at Michael Vartan, who gets to partially reprise his long running role as "slightly clueless love interest to the kickass heroine" from Alias, but with every last vestige of his nuts cut away. I imagine that Vartan comes home from his trailer most nights and yells drunken incoherent rants down the phone at his agent about how he should be getting roles where he carries the movie. If I was the kind of person who could feel other people's pain - who am I kidding? I'd still keep the talent for people with real problems. But it IS funny.

And, just when you think you've seen it all, in the big climactic punch up, Zoe gets to do that classic Hollywood thing of killing the villain's number 2 with his own gun. Except that she field strips it on the fly and stabs him in the throat with the slide. Guns DO kill people. Useful lesson.

Don Winslow: Savages

OK, Don, you beat me. You can go back to the easy listening stuff that I was complaining about before, and I'll stop complaining.

Savages is a good book, in a way. It's not literature; the characters are a little too one note, the pace of the plot a little wrong. But it packs quite a punch as it wraps up. I'm not sure what Winslow had in mind at the beginning, but I suspect that he had half in mind to do one of those caper novels where a small band of lovable rogues outsmart the big organisation and ride off into the sunset. Somewhere about three or four weeks into writing that book, I think he had an epiphany and asked "Who am I kidding? The little guys never get away with it." And then he got right back to writing it towards a big old helping of doom.

It might have been better - for the reader, if not for the book - if Don had gone back over the original chapters and changed the tone a little, because once the going gets tough, there's more than a little mood whiplash. And the pacing of the unfolding tragedy isn't quite right. When things fall apart once and for all, as we knew all along that they would, it's not just too sudden, but too rushed, too hasty. Winslow is a good writer, and I suspect that he did on purpose all the things which don't quite sit with me, simply to make a point about how things are, as opposed to how we want them to be. But I'm not sure that it worked.

That said, the ending is heartbreaking, for all that it gets less space on the page than a list of all the shops in a shopping mall did earlier. Savages is not Winslow's best book - Power of the Dog is probably his best piece of work overall and California Life and Fire the one I like to come back to. But it's well worth your time. Just wish it could all have worked out for those crazy kids.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Cowboys and Aliens; Alien invaders are always somehow remedial

I knew, going in, that Cowboys and Aliens was not going to be good, because I am depressingly aware of how easy it for a movie to go wrong and I have long ago realised that the more of the movie they show you in TV ads, the less likely it is to be a masterpiece, or even competent.  But I try not to let things like mere incompetence ruin my day at work, and apply the same standards to play as well. So me and two old age pensioners braved the show at the local fleapit - my suspicion is that I'd have been entirely alone had it not been for the fact that the local newspaper was giving out vouchers good for a free ticket on Monday nights.

Let me lead off with the bad news, and we can ramp it up from there. At no point does Daniel Craig emerge from the water like some gleaming river god in spandex trunks and flaunt his six pack. Neither does Olivia Wilde, which is only the beginning of the disappointments she brings to the part of "Hey, what do you mean Summer Glau turned down a kooky SF role? Who looks a bit like her?". Harrison Ford sets out to play a villain, but either his agent choked or the scriptwriter wimped out without being asked; whatever, he has a redemptive arc not unlike his earliest famous role, except if Han Solo began as a worthless sadist and somehow magically became Han Solo.

Main performances duly dismissed, we note in passing that a breathtaking array of talented people get tossed aside in the course of the whole thing, including Clancy Brown and Walton Goggins (there is something seriously wrong with ANY movie which can put Walton Goggins in a role and leave you at the end vaguely wondering if he made it or not). Then we stride bravely into what I'm going to have to call the plot.

Aliens are, I have to concede, dicks. With the one exception of ET, who I've always thought was merely a clever piece of propaganda by the alien-overlord-lovers' front, aliens only ever seem to have one thing on their minds. And what tiny, limited, poorly prepared minds they have. The aliens in Cowboys and Aliens fit well into the main sequence of such lunks, slotting in nicely among the aliens of HG Wells (vast intellects too stupid to take their shots), Independence Day (vast intellects too stupid to keep their anti-virus up to date), Signs (vast water-soluble intellects too stupid to bring rain coats to a planet covered in water) and Battle LA (vast intellects prepared to come humungous distances and burn stupid amounts of energy to steal something they could have cobbled up anywhere given the technology they demonstrably have). Cowboys Aliens fall nicely in the middle, having come to earth to steal our gold. Which, Olivia Wilde helpfully points out, is just as rare in their world as it is in ours. This is not news to anyone who knows even a little bit about how elements are formed, but just because something is rare doesn't really explain why it's in demand. For example, common sense is vanishingly rare despite its name, and yet, the demand for it is disappointingly small. Aliens do be wanting their gold. We don't be knowing why. We CAN eliminate the idea that they're collecting as bling, because like every other scary alien in Hollywood history, Cowboy Aliens are strangers to common decency and lope around without clothes, jewellery or even utility belts. Possibly this is why we haven't conquered the universe; our stupid preoccupation with dressing up to go out is getting in the way of our destiny.

Creating a believable space alien is a very difficult thing to do, and I have to applaud the makers of Cowboys and Aliens for realising this and just throwing their hats at it. The aliens look as though every other alien you've ever seen had some kind of a rainbow party and then agreed to abandon the spawn which resulted. There's bits of the DNA of Cloverfield, the actual Alien, Predators, the completely crap humAlien in the second of the two Alien movies which we're all agreed never really happened and probably a bunch of other stuff from movies I've been lucky enough never to have seen. And there are just boatloads of them, leading to my usual preoccupation with the logistics of it all; what do they all eat? They're huge, they'd have to eat all the time... and so on.

I was originally going to rant on and on about how implausible it was that you'd have aliens which had the technology somehow to suck gold straight out of the ground and refine it with pure magnetism or something, and were too stupid to have invented clothes or have any better plan for dealing with pesky humans than just running out and trying to beat them up. Then, as I was in the state of zen which ironing can bring to the truly enlightened, it struck me that I was looking at this wrong. All we were being shown was the goldminers. And even on earth, no matter how much we value gold, we've never put much value on goldminers. Suddenly the aliens made sense to me. Of course they were ignorant assclowns who didn't have clothes or clues or clever ways to use their genius technology. They were goldminers. Their society's expendable sod busters. Ta-da. That problem was solved.

Of course, it still left all the other stuff in the movie which doesn't make any sense, or feels like it was old long before this movie. Daniel Craig spends the whole movie in an amnesiac trance, until we discover - through native american rituals - the real story behind how he wound up amnesiac with a big alien killing bracelet on one wrist. I'm just not going to tell you that; not because I don't want to spoil the surprise, but because I'm afraid that if I recount it, the stupid will rub off. At no point does the bracelet ever really make sense; at first it seems to switch itself on only when aliens are around, but later it seems to be all about whether Daniel's in the mood for destruction. Which is slightly less stupid, because why would aliens make weapons which detected themselves? Mind you, why would alien weapons be powered by human thought waves? At no point does the alien game plan make sense, even if they ARE just dumb goldminers. They're kidnapping the local population to figure out their weaknesses? How much more do they need than "they're half our size and have no energy weapons"?, though I suppose I shouldn't rule out the possibility that they're just bored sadists passing the time as they dig for gold. Aliens are dicks, after all.

Anyhow, after many distractions, a satisfying coalition of cowboys, bandits and actual Indians fights off the wicked goldminers, and kills them to the last man so as to save the prisoners. I'm not actually sure about the math, because it looks to me like they might have lost more of the assault party than they got back, but then no-one ever does that math in real life OR the movies. Olivia Wilde gets killed at least twice, with no really noticeable effect on her performance either time. Harrison Ford learns to love the son he never had as well the dipstick he actually managed to bring up. Sadly, the wrong son gets wasted, but them's the breaks in Hollywood, and Paul Dano must have had a better agent. Or an Oscar nomination. Something, anyhow. Keith Carradine bucks the trend in the movie and actually gets out of it alive, but like everyone else involved probably now wants to, spends the ending trying to convince us he can't remember how he got into it or what might have happened. Daniel Craig's character grows and develops nearly as much as the scenery, but to less persuasive effect; rarely has a genuinely good actor been given so little to do with his talent. (Craig may well have less dialogue than any other speaking part, and there's only so much you can do with grimaces).

Still, it's taught me a valuable lesson; not only are aliens dicks, but the ones we meet in the movies are usually the alien lumpenproletariat. Which is good news for plucky humanity, until some bunch of aliens gets wise and sends lawyers.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Empire of the Wolves; A reflection on how Jean Reno can only do so much

When I were but a lad in Yorkshire, slaving down the pits to dig up the money that Keynes had suggested be buried down there so as to revive the economy, I went to the local fleapit and saw a truly leotarderrific movie called Best Defence. It was so braintwistingly bad that even in the 1980s, before focus groups had really been invented, they realised that it would be folly on a cosmic scale to release it in its finished form. So they shot a bunch of extra, completely disconnected material with Eddie Murphy in it - this was long ago, when adding Eddie Murphy to a movie still seemed like a good idea - and released a film which succeeded in failing twice in a single movie-length.

Easily the weirdest bit of it was that while it ostensibly starred Dudley Moore AND Eddie Murphy, they were never on screen together, and even at a very young age I could sort of tell that they'd made one movie and then spliced another, even worse, one into it. It was all so incredibly terrible  that I can remember whole chunks of it even now, and I use the word chunks because puke also has chunks in it.

Which brings me to Empire of the Wolves. While I was watching it, I decided that they'd started out with a stupid movie about a woman who had amnesia and turned out to be a drug smuggling assassin, before realising that it was too utterly insane even for French audiences. And then - I assumed - they'd cast around for a way to save it from itself and seized on the notion that if only they could borrow Jean Reno for a long weekend, they could sling an extra narrative in which he played a bent cop trying to solve a bunch of murders which were loosely connected to the hallucinations crazy amnesia chick was having. I reached this conclusion as I noticed that Jean Reno (who was on the poster for the movie and was literally the only reason I bothered buying it) was almost never in shot with anyone else in the whole damn movie, and especially not with amnesia chick.

It turns out, when I go looking it up on the internet, that there's an underlying novel by the dependably bonkers (imagine Dan Brown, but with something approaching writing talent, and French, and depressingly nuts) Jean-Paul Grangé. Suddenly my cunning hypothesis was set at naught. Mind you, it did explain why Reno was playing yet another variation on the shifty French cop which he used in Crimson Rivers. (also a Grangé adaptation) Grangé's go-to fix for the police is to have one middle-aged shady cop and one naive innocent to play him off. Since he's, you know, driven by demons of realism, he's inclined to top his dodgy cops at the end of each book. This isn't as realistic as he thinks it is. If the French police had just the one dodgy cop who was super-intuitive and dangerous, and he kept running into weird esoteric cases, that would actually be LESS crazy than the idea that the French police force had more than one such dodgy cop and one of them was always available for the weird stuff despite the fact that they kept getting killed at the end of the cases. Dodgy cops aren't stupid. Necessarily.

Anyhow, it was a salutory lesson to me. Jean Reno has been the saving grace in many a terrible movie (I've mentioned in the past his wonderful moment with Ian McKellen in the Da Vinci Code, and there's also his role as the only half way interesting person in the Godzilla remake), and the star in the occasional work of Bessonian genius (no matter what you may think of Leon's gender politics, Reno is wonderful in it). But Empire of the Wolves hammered home to me that he's no more a guarantee of quality than Michael Caine is.

Empire of the Wolves is well shot, occasionally well lit, and utterly incoherent. I suspect that in doing all that, it's depressingly faithful to the underlying book. But there's enough crap in there for about four movies, or better yet, no movie. Crazy Amnesia Chick has amnesia because she was brainwashed by the French counter-terror police, which you'd think would be enough plot for a whole movie. But no, that would be stoopid. It turns out that the French counter-terror police chose as their random subject for the experiment a woman who was trained from childhood by a Turkish secret society to be an assassin and drug smuggler. Well, I mean, you don't even ask what the odds are of something like that. You've already had to suspend disbelief on a positively Brunelian scale to get your head round the first dumb plot, so the notion that the Turkish underworld has secret societies with chicks ought to just slide right on down your dramatically enlarged gullet of gullibility. But that's not all; they snatched her after she betrayed the secret society. It's literally impossible, at this point, to figure out how many different kinds of on the run she is (which is why I liked the fact that the IMDB goof list for the movie begins with noticing that her bra fastening shifts from one scene to the next).

Anyhow, for reasons too made-up to recount, the secret society is murdering the living daylights out of anyone who looks vaguely like amnesia chick used to look (because, and I can't believe I forgot this till now, she's also had plastic surgery as part of her running away from the Turkish mob), and Jean Reno is investigating those murders. In any kind of real world, he'd have more chance of tripping over a working time machine made out of liquorice allsorts than of figuring out the connections holding the plot together, but hey, it's the movies. So we got hallucinations of werwolves (or something!), amnesia, Turkish secret societies, plastic surgery, ritual serial killing, drug smuggling, people trafficking... God himself would shrug and head off to the golf course. What chance does Jean Reno have?

None. He just can't save it. Jean's on kind of a roll with me at the moment. I watched him in Armored a while back - I honestly couldn't tell you what he does in the movie, and I think that was because he wanted to be somewhere else almost as much as I did. I watched him last week in 22 Bullets, another French policier adapted from a novel, and while it was OK, it clearly wasn't that year's great policier. Next up in the rotation is Crimson Rivers 2, and I bet that's going to suck like a Dyson vaccuum cleaner.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Flexible Roads

Every terrain layout in wargaming has to have roads, and they're always a bit of an annoying compromise. The most annoying bit is that they stand proud of the ground, when they should really be blended into it. Roads are usually a little bit higher than the surrounding ground so that they'll drain properly, but most resin road pieces are much too high. And of course resin is rigid, so the roads always have to lie flat. A few years ago, we started to see latex roads which could be laid over rolling terrain. They're hard to paint; it's all horrible compromises, really. And even though they're usually quite a bit thinner than resin, they still sit on the table rather than blending into it. I got so fed up of looking at the effect that when I bought up all my Hexon, I decided to build the roads directly into the tiles. It's making the tiles more work than I'd hoped, but it is a nicer effect.

Which is all by the by, because today I tripped over a way of making nice, thin flexible roads. I'd made the roads on the tiles by painting PVA glue onto the tile and then sprinkling sawdust over the glue. When the glue set, I worked thinned PVA into the sawdust to seal the top. This darkens the sawdust quite noticeably and then a dry brush of light grey gives a passable simulation of a dusty gravel road. I was in such a hurry to get at least some of the tiles looking right that I didn't prime them properly, or even wash them, so when I chipped at one end of the road to get some gunk off the edge of the tile, the whole mess of glue and sawdust lifted off the tile.

And it hit me; you could make a perfectly good flexible road this way. Paint the glue onto smooth plastic, sprinkle on the sawdust (or sand, sand would work well), seal it, dry brush it, seal it again, and then just peel it off. Hey presto, completely flexible low profile road for essentially nothing but your time. Being so thin and light, it would tend to shift on the table, but heavy resin roads tend to shift as well, and you can't store twenty feet of resin road in an envelope.

Moonlight Mile: Dennis Lehane

Back before Dennis Lehane was a big deal with three movie adaptations and a string of script credits for things like The Wire, I read his first detective novel A Drink Before the War, and enjoyed the general purpose smart-assery of his characters. Fairly rapid fire, he then chunked out four more books with the same main set of characters, and I read and enjoyed them all. I liked the fact that from one book to the next, the mental and physical wounds of the last book continued to nag at the narrator. Usually the characters in hardboiled detective fiction seem to go to rehab or something between books, reappearing in the next book in the pink of condition no matter what happened to them in the last one. Patrick Kenzie's lack of resilience kind of made up for things like Bubba Rogowski, Lehane's instant miracle fix for everything Kenzie wasn't personally up to, either because of weakness or nuisance-y scruples. Whenever Kenzie was overmatched, Rogowski would materialise and overkill the hell out of the problem. Whenever someone needed killing or getting the truth beaten out of them and Kenzie was having a crisis of conscience, Rogowski would show up and do the needful, so that Kenzie's angst level could be maintained at entertaining rather than crippling.

There are a couple of recurring tics in American noir. One is the Rogowski problem, which comes from wanting to make the hero someone the reader can identify with; do that, and you wind up needing some implausible manifestation of bad-assery who can pick up the slack when your all-too-human protagonist gets out of his depth. Another one is what I call the Chandler weakness; a lot of noirs read as though the writer has less of an idea what's going on than even his hero. Incidents and events pile up for a couple of hundred pages and then a resolution gets pulled out of the pile because the writer's run out of road and something needs to be done to wrap things up. When it's Chandler, you forgive it; he wrote like an angel and to some extent the point of his books was that life is confusing and messy, with the good guys doing well to get out of it alive, let alone victorious. When it's anyone less, you get picky about it; see my comments on Gentleman's Hour, which has the typical sloppy Chandler plot followed by an overly neat wrap up that depends on a lesser staple, the bad guy who owes the hero a favour.

In Moonlight Mile, Lehane's back with Kenzie and Gennaro, and inevitably Rogowski, after an eleven year break. In the meantime Lehane's been writing more serious (and less fun) books and making real money. Kenzie and Gennaro have got married, had a kid, and started to run out of cash. Much of the book is preoccupied with the impact of the collapsing US economy, Lehane having always been a writer who is preoccupied with the larger political problems of the world as much as with his characters. I still can't completely figure out how much of the restless anger in Kenzie's narration of the books is Lehane himself and how much is Lehane trying to flesh out an irritable character by letting us see what irritates him.

Moonlight Mile is a follow up from the one Kenzie and Gennaro book to have been made into a movie, Gone Baby Gone, which is a good example of an apparent Chandlerian shambles. It spins an unexpected answer out of nowhere, but is actually built and plotted very carefully from the ground up to deliver a powerful payoff. It made for a pretty good movie too. It's tempting to suggest that Lehane went back to this because it had the movie, but the reality is that he went back to it because it's probably the strongest of the five prior books and the one whose events had the heaviest impact on the characters. In Gone Baby Gone, Kenzie and Gennaro go looking for a lost four year old, and have a huge falling out over how to deal with finding her. In Moonlight Mile, the same lost girl has gone lost again, and Kenzie's guilt over the first case forces him into trying to find her again.

However, this time it's not an apparent shambles, but a real one. The whole middle of the book is a bunch of random things piled on each other, and the plot features an actual McGuffin that Dashiell Hammet might have thought twice about (Honestly, why the thing isn't called the Maltese Cross just so as to scream the shoutout for even the hard of hearing, I don't know). By the time we get to the big twisty last minute, how are they going to get out of this, reveal, I found myself for once wishing that a book was longer - not because I was having fun exactly, but because the sixty or so pages where everything falls into place feel so rushed and perfunctory compared to the welter of incident which has come before - I was going to write "set-up" but it's not set-up at all; set up connects to what's coming next, and this just marks time for it.

There are things to like. One of the bad guys, Yefim, is a nicely realised villain. He comes across as a perfectly plausible bad guy. He's good humoured and lazy, but effective as a menace because you can believe that behind the good humour and the laziness is the willingness to kill you if that's what it takes. What makes him work well is that quite early on you realise that what stops him from killing people is that he knows killing gets the cops interested and a dead man can't do anything else for you; much better to threaten for as long as that will work. I liked Yefim, but I'd never want to meet him. And Bubba is kept to a minimum, which is always good. Bubba's like any seasoning. And of course Lehane's a solid writer; his characters have some heft to them, the dialogue rings as true as noir dialogue ever can, and there's always a sense of the grubby reality of life to what's going on. It's by no means a bad book, it's more that it's not as good as I hoped it would be.

I have no idea what the title of this book has to do with anything that happens in it.


Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Machete; thinking you're hilarious isn't enough

I'm kind of glad I didn't see Machete at the cinema, because I'd have felt shortchanged. I feel kind of shortchanged having paid a fiver to buy the DVD. Of course, it was stupid of me to expect to feel any other way. It's the extension to ridiculous length of an intentionally stupid fake trailer stuck into the middle of Tarantino and Rodriguez' Grindhouse. As a cinema in-joke, it was hilarious. As a full length movie, it's a bad idea.

How bad is it? I tuned out for the climax. Let me make this clearer. I tuned out for the climax, which was about thirty minutes ago in real time and I can't actually remember what I did instead. That's how not gripping Machete got.

How does it all go wrong? How do you get a clever director with a simple premise and a celebrity cast to make a dumb fun action movie this uninvolving? Tough question, but it I had to boil it down, I'd say that a movie has to have either good characters or an awful lot of explosions, and Machete didn't spend enough time at the explosion store.

There is, kind of, a plot, but it's mostly there as an excuse for a bunch of setpieces pulled out of movies which had an actual excuse for being bad. All those bad old grindhouse crapfests that Rodriguez is paying homage to were bad because a bunch of guys with no money made them in a tearing hurry before someone came to take the camera back off them. Rodriguez had tonnes of money and all the time in the world, and made the damn thing bad on purpose to echo the originals. This isn't so bad it's good; it's just not good.

There IS a lot of blood. The movie's called Machete after all, so people get all kinds of edged weapons stuck in them, when they're not being shot, crucified or blown to bits. The one really clever bit has Machete attacking a mook with a weedwhacker; if the movie had maintained that tone throughout, it would perhaps have been as much fun as everyone making it seemed to think it would be. Maybe the dumbest thing about extending a fake trailer is that Rodriguez seems to have felt obliged to fit every single image from the trailer into the movie, even though the trailer was completely incoherent. The incoherence then infects everything else. The funny thing about that is that I've seen loads of trailers which had scenes in them that never made it into the movie. The trailer was only sacred in the director's mind, but he treated it like the source material of a Harry Potter adaptation.

Well that's an hour or so of my life I'm never getting back. I suppose I ought not to count the three quarters of an hour or so I spent doing something else, whatever the hell THAT was. Something more useful than the second half of Machete, but that doesn't narrow the field much.

Friday, 15 July 2011

The Guard; it's like Father Ted, but with guns, and drugs

The Guard isn't really like Father Ted, except that it's a comedy set in Ireland which was bankrolled with a lot of British money and doesn't really bother trying to be fully comprehensible to anyone outside Ireland. Father Ted was a huge success outside Ireland, but it's full of jokes which only Irish people had any chance of appreciating properly. The Guard is somewhat the same; everyone's going to laugh, but the subtext is going to get right past a lot of people who haven't grown up in Ireland.

It's a really good movie. There's a lot of good writing for the actors to get their teeth into, and a cast which can handle it well. You could argue back and forth about some of the ways the movie's paced; it jumps from one scene into another without warning, and without the kind of measured setup other movies would have. It's a movie which trusts people to keep up with what's going on. It's also a movie which lets the acting do the work; there's almost no action or stunts. A lot of the odd pacing comes down to showing us not so much what's happening as how people are reacting to something which has just happened off screen. The pace is set at the beginning; we see a car whipping along the roads of Connemara at high speed, and then cut to Brendan Gleeson's Garda Sergeant sitting in his patrol car at the side of the road, noticing the speeders. The next shot is him walking up slowly to the wreckage of the car and checking to see whether anyone's survived the crash. It's a very economical piece of story-telling; the producers saved a load of money where any other film would have spent a fortune on a car chase, and we also get a sense of Gleeson's way of dealing with things; if he can't stop something bad from happening, he's not going to work up a sweat trying to.

The thing I really liked about it was that the three main bad guys are a change from the ordinary run of movie villains. You really do get a sense of three guys who feel the same way about a life of crime that most of us feel about a life of ordinary work, the way any of us feel about a job really. Marking time, spinning our wheels a bit, wondering if there's something better we should be doing with our time, but in our hearts realising that we're stuck with it. Liam Cunningham and Mark Strong have a lot of fun with it all  - it's not their best line, but it's a great example; Strong asks Cunningham where he found the guys unloading a boat full of drugs and Cunningham says "I put an ad in the paper, henchmen wanted." They're good enough actors that they sell you on the idea of criminals smart enough to make jokes about being criminals.

The thing which is probably going to bewilder non-Irish people is Gleeson's relentless rudeness to Don Cheadle's FBI agent. If you haven't lived in Ireland, the whole concept of "slagging" can be hard to get your head around. That's one of two things which are probably going to get lost in translation; the other is Pat Shortt's cameo as a cowboy hat wearing IRA quartermaster. I don't know if Shortt could actually play someone sinister, but he doesn't even try here, and it rings wonderfully true as the kind of fixer you have round the edges of all kinds of things in Ireland. Whether anyone from outside the country will buy it, I have no idea.

Still, it's great to have another good Irish film.

Tree bases

One of the horrible expenses of wargaming, both in time and money, is decent looking terrain. Today, I'm going to talk about a fix for trees.

Trees are always a pest. Unlike hills and rivers, they don't scale satisfactorily; you have to have groups for all the figure sizes you're likely to use, just as you do with buildings. And unlike buildings, you tend to need a lot of trees. Small numbers of them just look wrong.

You can make trees, but it's a lot of work and you need to be good with your hands. You can buy them, but robust ones tend to be pricey and the strongest ones you can get don't really look very much like trees, being far too round and regular. The other annoying thing about trees is that you need to find a way to get them to stand up. Tree models are top heavy, and they usually just come as little wire stems in the expectation that they're going to be speared into a permanent layout. Wargamers don't do that - they need trees in little clumps which can be dotted round the table or tightly clumped to make forests. I've never been able to come up with a way to spike small scale trees into a base which stood up over time.

Last week, I took delivery of about a hundred nice trees which were made out of wire cable, and had to do something with them. And I think I may have cracked it. The problem is to get a base which is thick and rigid enough to hold the wire stem firmly without being too thick or heavy. And it needs to be something which is soft enough to drill holes in, without being so soft that the tree will wobble out.

The answer - provisionally - is a specialist woodworking component called a biscuit. It's a compressed lozenge of birch fibre 4mm thick and about one inch by two. They're made for a joinery technique called biscuit jointing, and you buy them in bags of a hundred. Chamfer the edges so that they'll blend somewhat smoothly into the table surface, drill holes in them, and then poke the wire stems into the holes with a dab of wood glue. Paint and flock the bases to fit your terrain scheme, and there you go. It seems to work for trees scaled for 10mm and 6mm, where you're going to get about four trees on a biscuit without crowding. Once you go up to 15mm scaled or 25mm scaled trees, you're probably going to be better off buying proper plastic tree bases and gluing them to scrap card bases in the normal way.

I think I did the first batch the wrong way, throwing them together and then painting and flocking the bases; I'm doing a second batch now by painting and flocking the bases before I drill them and glue in the trees. The quickest and safest way to chamfer the bases is with a sanding wheel on a dremel; the texture of the biscuits doesn't lend itself to shaving them with a knife. The other thing to keep in mind is that the biscuits are designed to swell up when they're coated with PVA glue, so it's a good idea to seal them with paint before you do any flocking.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Fall; it scares me how good it's not

Like most people who read books, I have an informal pantheon of writers I've read who go beyond "I know I shouldn't waste my time with this" and off into "Oh my word, that's really, really bad stuff." Dan Brown, for example, a man who's honestly capable of nothing good; it's genuinely breathtaking to romp through his prose marveling at the tin ear for dialogue, the contrived situations, the characters who could be slid under the door of a bank vault without harm, and above all the crazily wrong "details". I read The Da Vinci Code marvelling that a writer could literally be wrong about everything I knew enough about to check. Or there's Stel Pavlou, a man who writes like his X-Box is broken and he has to fill the gap until the new one arrives. Matthew Reilly used to be a guilty pleasure of mine, but lord, he's really not a good writer. And there's alway lyin' Lord Archer, my touchstone for crappy writing, whose Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less is the first book I can remember reading and thinking that I could have done a better job on. With crayons.

Every now and then I hit a writer who's mostly humdrum, but has moments of sick genius; if you're ever need of a laugh, I commend to you any piece of rip-roaring action in Michael Asher's Death or Glory: The Last Commando. Every few pages, Asher oscillates out of his default mode of hackneyed cliche and into either quite decent descriptions of life in the desert or perfectly dreadful purple prose to describe gunfights. It's like the machine gun equivalent of those bodice rippers that flail around looking for synonyms for naughty bits, but with a lot more verbed nouns and bloodshed. I was too hypnotised at first to check his sources, but I did make the time eventually and discovered that his Nazi supermen were fighting with rifles never issued for desert warfare and machine guns only ever used in aircraft. Usually that kind of slip would just kill the mood for me, but it was a mere blip compared to the lunacy of the prose.

And then there's Chuck Hogan, who is threatening to displace even Lord Archer in my mind. I've just finished his and Bill del Toro's follow up to last year's The Strain, and it's quite a bit worse than the first book. On the one hand, it manages to make the entire end of the world feel dull and uneventful. On the other hand, Hogan's actually crossed the line into writing so bad that it's distracting. From quite early on, there's stuff in here so clunky that it actually kicks you back out into the real world blinking at the idea that someone could get this past an editor. Why they didn't take the typewriter off Chuck when he felt the need to describe a tablet as sublingual and then immediately gloss that as "under the tongue", I will never know.

Although the vampires have fattened up physically since I last checked in at the end of the world, the same can't be said of the characters. Somehow, the lead humans have got less interesting and involving since I saw them last and nothing else has stepped up to pick up the slack. I was quite looking forward to meeting a bunch of slightly less horrible vampires, but we see very little of the vampire forces of law and order and by the end of the book they've been completely wiped out. I kept waiting for the book to pick up, but it fizzles out apathetically, no mean feat in a book which has world war three break out and create a nuclear winter so as to reduce vampire sun tanning issues. It was hard to fight the feeling that Hogan and del Toro were thinking oh yeah, crap, this a trilogy, let's just get the middle book out of the way so that we can do the big finish.

Gonna need to be a hell of a big finish to get them out of my bad books.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

The Heroes: Joe Abercrombie

I've long argued that you can't write about a battle in a satisfactory way, and that the smartest thing a writer can do, once faced with a battle, is to cut away from it and come back for the aftermath. It turns out that I wasn't completely correct in this assertion. Joe Abercrombie's The Heroes is an entire book about a single three day battle, and it actually works. Not only that, but Abercrombie doesn't cheat; he keeps the focus of the entire book on what's going on right now; there are no detailed flashbacks or other narrative manoeuvres to widen things out. The characters are preoccupied by things which happened in the past, but those things are sketched in just enough to give them some weight rather than recounted as full size episodes. Pretty much, The Heroes is all battle, all the time.

Now, of course, some things stay true. One of the reasons that it's hard to write about a battle is that it's very difficult to give a sense of how a battle develops without stepping outside of the immediate frame of reference of the viewpoint characters. Abercrombie has always worked by establishing some strong viewpoint characters and switching between them to let us see as much of the action as he wants to show us. In The Heroes, he sticks with this, but uses a lot more characters and switches a lot more often. And because it's just a book about a battle, rather than something longer and larger, he can do something authors don't usually do, and make some of the viewpoint characters very senior officers. Usually it's hard to craft a good narrative around generals, because it's hard for a reader to identify with generals, and it's also quite hard to construct an interesting narrative arc around someone who's already at the top of their career. But if you're writing about a battle and one of your unspoken rules is that anyone can die at any time, you have a bit more latitude.

Coming from Abercrombie's previous work, The Heroes felt a lot less rich than I was expecting; there's only so much development can happen in a three day battle, and a lot of what happens is entirely predictable. Abercrombie is making the point that war is hell and largely futile, and so most of his characters end up dead or disillusioned, many of them having started out disillusioned anyhow. This means that a lot of the characters have narrative arcs as predictable as those of the cast of a horror movie.

Having said that, Abercrombie carries a lot of this off very well. Several times, as the battle proceeds, he shifts from one minor character to another, by having the focus shift from someone who'd just died to the person who killed him, who dies in turn, and so on. Having set this up as a way of telling the story, it was a real jolt the first time that the viewpoint shifted to a major character. Hang on, I thought, I don't want him to die yet. The work's been done when you start worrying that someone's going to get the chop.

The Heroes isn't as much fun, or as involving, as Best Served Cold, because it doesn't really have the space to draw the reader into a big complicated plot. But it's a very good read, nonetheless, and I like the way that, just as with Best Served Cold, characters from his earlier books sidle into view. The other interesting thing is the way each new book gives a sense of a major feud that's playing out a much higher level, with the present action just a minor skirmish to the half unseen players high above. The monstrous wizard Bayaz from the First Law makes a comeback, with his mortal enemies from the south hanging around the edges. Bayaz is perhaps the most unequivocally bad character Abercrombie has come up with. He has a genius for cooking up anti-heroes and sympathetic villains, and then there's Bayaz. What makes Bayaz stand out is that everyone else stumbles into good or bad, while Bayaz just strides along without any regard for either. Bayaz does what he wants, when he wants to, as part of some larger game which has yet to be explained. I'm kind of looking forward to the explanation, but I'll happy read the next book whether it explains things or not.




Saturday, 11 June 2011

Point Blank: the French do this so well

In previous ruminations on French cinema I have speculated that the school system must be fabulously unpleasant , and that France may not have any working elevators, but for some unaccountable reason I have never wondered aloud about the unrelenting awfulness of the French criminal justice system.

As some of you know, by law promulgated under Louis Napoleon, every year France is obliged to produce one superior costume drama. It is a more recent legal requirement that no more than 20% of France's total annual cinema production may exclude Gerard Depardieu. Finally, the 1981 Noir act made it mandatory for French cinema each year to produce one truly brilliant crime movie, in the hope that one day they'd somehow duplicate Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva. So far, all that's actually happened is that Luc Besson uses loopholes in the 1981 act to keep producing movies like From Paris With Love and Taken, when what we really want him to do is make another Leon or Nikita.

Point Blank is not a masterpiece; the last really good French crime movie I saw was the extraordinary Tell No One, and Point Blank doesn't measure up to it. But it's a damn good little movie, brought to us by the guy who directed the somewhat better Anything For Her, and sharing a lot of the same DNA; for starters they're both about ordinary guys having to go to extraordinary lengths to get their beloved wives out of terrible captivity. They both race along nicely, and they keep things wonderfully simple and grounded, so that the hazards seem scary not because they're immense but because they're quite real.

All in all, I preferred Anything For Her, because it set up a farfetched but pretty simple problem and let it work itself out. Point Blank has a nice simple problem at first, but then gets it all lost in a conspiracy which throws a huge chunk of needless backstory into the middle of the movie and breaks its narrative coherence a bit. But that's me; it still rockets along perfectly well, and ends satisfactorily.

But the movie really left me wondering how French people must feel about their police, because it's yet another one of those French crime films where the mcguffin behind all the violence and hazard is dirty cops doing their own thing and covering it up. It struck me as I was watching it that this is a recurring theme in half the French crime movies I've ever seen. Maybe it's just that France, like the rest of Europe, hasn't got the kind of armed lunatic criminals that America's got, and the only organised armed group big and competent enough to be scary is the police itself. I honestly don't know. But it comes back again and again.

All the same, you have to love French crime movies. I love the way the cops always look exhausted and baggy. I love the way that every single copper with a speaking part HAS to wear a black leather jacket of some kind. I love those orange armbands they pull on when they have to go chasing people and they need everyone to know they're police. France has to be the easiest country in the world to pretend to be a policeman in. And I love the chase scenes in French police movies, because they're exhilarating without being in any way flashy. There's a wonderful foot chase in Point Blank which is completely gripping without being in any way flashy. It's not quite as good as the foot chase in Tell No One, but it's pretty good. (The chase in Tell No One is a completely humdrum run through Paris, but it's done so well that when the hero has to decide to run across a six lane highway,  it feels every bit as scary as it would be to try to do it yourself, and when the cops decide not to bother following him, it seems like a perfectly sensible choice).

There's just something very satisfying about these policiers. The cops and the people they're chasing seem real and ordinary in a way that American movies can't manage. Even when it's all fundamentally silly, it's still gripping because these are not the glossy disposable people of Hollywood, but people you can imagine having real lives.

Still, Point Blank's a bit daft. The master plot is that a nurse's aide has to get a guy out of hospital, and to make him do it, the bad guys kidnap his wife. About halfway through, there's actually a moment where just about everyone could live happily ever after by just leaving the wife in the middle of a crowded train station and walking away. At that stage, everyone has what they need, and there's no need to keep the hostage. But since the movie's only half done, the hostage gets kept (at considerable inconvenience to the keeper) and the movie gamely plugs on. That kind of bugged me; from there on out, it's a movie which is running on an idiot ball plot, something which is particularly bothersome when just about everyone in the movie is actually being played as someone with an ounce of sense.

So, I'd have to say, by all means check it out, but if you can, go find Anything For Her instead. And either way, watch Tell No One. And dig out Diva again. It's been too long since you watched it.

Iain M Banks: Surface Detail

Any new Banks book is always worth reading once, though it's been a while since I've felt that any of his mainstream fiction was worth keeping around. Banks writes very well, but not always about anything I actually want to come back to. Last year I read Transition, which was a Banks (as opposed to M Banks) novel, but science fictional, and found it eerily disposable. As always, the technical quality of the writing was first rate; as has increasingly been the case since the Crow Road, the actual characters and subjects didn't do a thing for me.

Surface Detail is another Culture Novel, which used to be something I really looked forward to. When Banks first started yarning on about the Culture, he'd hit a wonderful sweet spot of snarky computers, larger than life space lunacy and genuine hazard, all carefully assembled so that by the end of the book, there'd be a genuine surprise. Nowadays, I just find that I end the books confused about what the hell was really going on, a problem which set in for me with Excession in 1996 and has been getting steadily worse ever since. It's never been a problem I really worried about, since I'm not really all that bright and being confused by fiction just lets fiction mirror reality, but I like to think that I've been confused by something genuinely out of my league rather than something which is just badly put together. It's the difference between getting to the end of the narrative and saying "So, THAT was it." and saying "WTF?"

With Surface Detail, we may have crossed into badly put together country. Usually Banks throws in multiple viewpoints and brings them together so that I can see that what looked disconnected was really strung together all along; In Surface Detail it wasn't so much that the viewpoints were disconnected as that I couldn't see what they were there for in the first place. A lot of the time I thought that Banks had just taken a whole bunch of half started work and munged it together into one book for the sake of getting something out in 2010. For all I know, that's exactly what was happening.

Tis a pity, really. There's lots of fun stuff going on in the book. There's even some stuff that isn't at all fun, but is very well done. The vision of hell is genuinely gruelling, although I couldn't help thinking that somewhere along the line someone had slipped Banks a copy of the collected works of Alan Campbell. It just fails to cohere into one meaningful chunk. There's all kinds of things you'd like to see more of, and not that much that you'd like to see less of, but the book would have been stronger with fewer narrative lines in it, which is another way of saying that it would have done no harm to axe at least one and preferably two of the viewpoint characters. That would have given everyone else some room to work and develop in.

In a way, the problem is Banks trying to top himself. He started writing SF with a crescendo, and he's had to build from there, so eight books into writing about the Culture, the only apparent way to up the ante is to write about the afterlife. He's used up every lesser spectacle. I think he's kind of missing the point of what a good writer can do. A bad writer needs to blow things the hell up just to get everyone's senses overwhelmed. A good writer can blow up one person, and because he's made the person real, make it the end of the reader's world just as much as it's the end of the character's world. Banks, on a good day, is that good. He just needs to dial it down a bit.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

The Passage: Justin Cronin

Dispiritingly, in a way, The Passage is the first of at least three books. I am coming around to the idea that if a good writer can't make his points in 900 pages, he might not have any points. Hell's teeth, I can remember when 900 pages was a whole trilogy, and now it's just the first book. The mind reels.

The Passage got very ballyhooed when it came out in hard cover and then a bit more fuss when it was in trade paperback. It's a solid piece of work, but I'm not sure that it was quite all that and a bag of chips. There's something not quite right with the pacing, and it hits everything else along the way.

The Passage has a pretty simple through line; botched US Army experiment to make super soldiers unleashes a plague of vampires who wipe out civilisation. I've actually seen this movie, but with one messy exception, Cronin isn't writing up a video game or a summer blockbuster. He's actually trying to reflect on what kind of world it would be if vampires tore the place apart and the survivors had to try to get by. Where it doesn't quite work for me is that the first two hundred pages or so are excellent, filled with foreboding and well drawn characters who have complex back stories (complex back stories that for once actually make sense in terms of the plot). Then we fast forward to life after the fall and to be honest, it all starts reading like a lot of young adult post-apocalyptic fiction I've seen. I'm not sure what happened. Since the author's afterword says that his young daughter was involved a lot in the writing, I suspect that Cronin may have been writing for an overly specific audience once he got the book into terrain where his daughter had characters to identify with directly.

After the darkness and immediacy of the opening, the slow pace of the middle hangs heavy. Cronin's also taken the very risky approach of dispensing with all of the characters he began with and starting a whole new set in a whole new milieu. It might as well be another book, and in bygone times it probably would have been. He doesn't quite pull it off. I was interested in what was happening to the characters, but I wasn't caught up in their drama in the same way that I was with the first part of the book. What made matters worse was that that whole middle bit isn't really advancing the master plot of the book at all; the master plot kicks back in abruptly after more than 400 pages of undirected post-apocalyptic angst, and feels almost too rushed once it gets back into gear.

It's not a bad book, it's just not a great one. I want to see what happens next, because Cronin's done a very good job all the way through of only showing us what the characters see. There are no big explanations, and as the book ends, the exact nature of the catastrophe is still clouded and uncertain. Has it affected only the US, or has it wiped out the world? What are the "viral infected" really? Yes, I'd buy another book to get some answers to those questions. And it's well written stuff, for the most part actually written rather than a bunch of movie scenes tossed at the page like last year's The Strain. The mistakes I complain about there have mostly been avoided in a novel which is, just like The Strain, the first of a series about the collapse of the would after a sudden outbreak of vampirism. Having said that, there are moments when Cronin tries to be cinematic, or hits overly familiar dramatic beats, and they're not very good. There's a chase with a train where Cronin runs head long into his inability to write action sequences, and that chase is how the characters escape from a narrative dead end which reads as though Cronin was falling into familiar hero's journey story dynamics.

One of the oddest things about the whole book is how it has no religion in it. The whole world collapses into anarchy, and the small number of survivors are stuck in a tiny enclave run according to rigid rules for survival, and yet somehow, there's no religious current to their lives. I really found it hard to believe that a band of survivors could run through a hundred years and five or so generations of children without religion creeping into the way they did business. It's quite weird; as is the lack of interior religious life in even the better drawn near contemporary characters. Once upon a time I explained all of Irish history without mentioning religion, but this was an experiment to see if it could be done; it wasn't that I actually believed that religion was something a full accounting could omit.

It's going to be interesting to see what comes next. I really admire Cronin's decision not to explain what's really going on, and it's a savvy marketing approach since it's making me want to buy the next book. I just hope he can get the next one running entirely on the darker fuel that runs the beginning and end of the first one.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Jackboots on Whitehall; there's a game in this

I seriously doubt that anything I write about Jackboots on Whitehall can really do it justice. It's quite epically insane, but at the same time it's not really any good. It's like they blew their entire creative budget having the idea and then didn't really know what to do with it. It's a movie which probably only wargamers could really love. Partly because it's entirely populated by models, partly because its approach to history is so anarchic that only wargamers could deal with it.

Honestly, I wanted to love it; how could any lead-pusher, even a retired one, resist a movie which in its very first frame is "PRESENTED IN PANZERVISION!"? Sadly, there's a startling fall-off in quality after that.

It reminds me a bit of two movies, the genuinely hilarious, if appalling, Team American World Police, and the not remotely as funny as it thought it was Churchill the Hollywood Years. From Team America it gets the puppets, and from Churchill it gets the idea of a high concept re-imagining of World War II. Sadly, it didn't even get the jokes that Churchill the Hollywood Years got, let alone the take-no-prisoners lunacy of Team America.

Creative formation seems to have gone something like this; wouldn't it be cool to do a war movie with Action Men and Barbies? Yes, it probably would, particularly if you're about ten and no-one's invented the Play Station 3 in your universe. What's kind of amazing is that the McHenry Brothers managed to get hold of (apparently) £6 million in someone else's money, together with Ewan McGregor, Timothy Spall, Richard E Grant and Dominic West to voice over the "action" without apparently going through the intermediate step of having a script. I'm not even sure if they had an outline. I think they had an elevator pitch and the biggest balls in the whole world. It's astonishing that they got away with it.

Anyhow, it's all very like what happens when kids re-enact wars with whatever's to hand; there are setpieces that use all the toys they had handy, and then the - super-talented - voice cast say things over the action while the camera hovers on the almost motionless faces of the puppets. This could have totally worked if they'd found something to say which was worth the time of the voice cast. Actually, Jackboots cries out for a Rifftrak, a new young Woody Allen doing a What's Up Tiger Lily, or well, any damn thing at all other than the script it's actually got.

Anyhow, the plot, such as it is, is that the British Army gets stranded at Dunkirk, leaving Britain defenceless except for the RAF (which is promptly shot down) and a single platoon of Punjab rifles guarding 10 Downing Street. Naturally, the next logical move for the Germans is to tunnel their way to London. They subjugate London briskly while Churchill flees to Scotland to mount a last stand at Hadrian's wall, only to be saved by the last minute intervention of Braveheart's wild Scots who join in when they see that Ewan McGregor's puppet has such huge hands that he must be Scottish. The movie ends with the Germans fleeing in disarray, and the Scots occupying London while Churchill realises that hairy-arsed barbarian allies aren't always dependable. Whether that's a biting satirical comment on the Northern Alliance, I have no idea.

Running it all together like that, I'm making it sound far better than it actually is. So, if that sounds terrible, it's actually worse. Just dial your expectation filter way the hell down.

A lot of the fun for wargamers is in the nitpicking, but then that's a lot of the fun in wargaming (anyone can win a game of soldiers, given enough luck and a dumb enough opponent, but it doesn't really count as a proper win unless you've expressed doubts about the historical accuracy of your opponent's paint job and had one entirely pointless argument about how the rules don't properly simulate real world tactics - or more properly speaking, privilege your chosen method of engagement). So I found myself saying "No wonder the RAF's been shot down in droves; the Luftwaffe's using planes from the future! No Fw 190s in 1940!" and "The Hindenburg bombing England? Where do I start?" "Sten guns in Kent in 1940?" "Tiger tanks in London in 1940?" "PIATs in London in 1940?" I was particularly vexed with that last one, not because the PIAT didn't get introduced until 1943, but because 1940 was a banner year for completely ridiculous British anti-tank weapons that looked as though they'd been made by five year olds out of plumbing supplies, and the real life equipment would have been so much funnier than PIATs. By the time they'd got to the Scottish border and changed in Napoleonic red coats I'd actually run out of nitpick, and had nothing left to quibble over whether those were period correct uniforms for the 43rd infantry under Wellington.

Anyhow, that's Jackboots on Whitehall. It doesn't really work at all, but if you've got a certain kind of mind, it provides endless bragging rights. You can be one of the select few who've actually marvelled their way through the whole thing.

Field Grey: Philip Kerr

Previously on "grumbling about stuff I'm not smart enough to do myself", I unburdened myself of some thoughts on the continuing adventures of Bernie Gunther, the central character in Kerr's continuing series of novels about - actually, damned if I know at this stage. Kerr seems to be on a mission to remind us that everyone's just as awful as everyone else, and in Field Grey one of the mission statements seems to be to remind us that France wasn't just plucky Maquisards plotting the downfall of the Reich. Another one is that the CIA is - I hope my imaginary readers are sitting in their imaginary armchairs for this bit, imaginary smelling salts to hand - just as bad as the KGB. And that Bernie is as bad as any of them, which makes it damned hard to root for anyone, I have to say.

I complained earlier on that the standard Gunther book trick of switching back and forth between pre and post war worlds was starting to show some strain. While Field Grey isn't as broken backed as If the Dead Rise Not, there's definitely rather too many time frames tangled up in each other in this book and after a while I sort of gave up trying to keep track of when the heck we were. Up to our neck in moral ambiguity, for the most part. I won't swear that this is a complete inventory of time and locale, but we swap from 1955 Cuba/USA to 1941 Ukraine to 1940 Berlin and Paris, back to 1945 Siberia/Czech Republic forward to 1948 and forward again to 1955 - repeatedly.

Through all of this Bernie endures a lot, but it's not entirely instructive. Kerr's always been circling back to the question of what Gunther got up to in the war, intentionally leaving it blank so as to create a gap in the centre of our understanding of the character, but as he reworks the margins of this deliberately empty space, contradictions are beginning to show up. It's not so much the physical continuity, though I won't swear that's perfect either, as the psychological continuity. I can accept that there are things which Bernie would elide as he confides in the reader, dodge his way around, try to pretend that they never happened; I just find it hard to see the changes which they should have caused in him. Bernie before the war is supposed to be a different kind of person to Bernie after the war, but it's hard to get a real sense of any change at all.

And there's the law of diminishing returns. Bernie's getting older, his options are falling away, and with every book he seems to be painted ever more into a corner from which he can't escape. How much more can Kerr do with the character? I imagine there's at least one more book - well, I just checked, and it's called Prague Fatale. That makes it 1941 and the assassination of Heydrich, I imagine. and some other framing narrative. Ah well.

And a shout-out, while I think of it, to the guy who wrote the incredibly misleading blurb on the back of my copy, which describes about the last forty pages of the book as though it were the beginning. Little things like that can really feed into the experience of the book.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean; Stranger Tides: Please stop now, while we're still having some fun

It's not the smallest paradox of diminishing returns that the first POTC film was based on a theme park ride and was huge fun, while the fourth one is "suggested" by a damn good book and is more or less pointless. Sadly the producers haven't noticed this, and the movie ends on a promise of endless sequels, with Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow practically shrugging at the audience while explaining to his bosun that it looks like he's stuck being a pirate forever.

It's pointless asking them not to make any more sequels, but I could at least dream that they won't make the next movie in 3D. As usual, the 3D is a huge waste of time. The technical constraints in setting up a 3D shot tend to flatten out action scenes perversely, and the payoff is usually something getting pointed out of the screen and nothing more. So you get an overall muddy and washed out look because of the polarising filters, and action scenes which are closed in, murky and lacking in real movement. This is a shame because even when the other three movies stopped making sense (the first one succeeded, I think, because making sense wasn't even on the list of things it was trying to do) the action scenes had a brisk imagination to them. The better ones were almost as good as Jackie Chan, and a lot of the best physical fun in the movies came from the way that Depp could be simultaneously agile and clumsy.

The real fun, and the real reason why Depp is trapped on this hamster wheel (and there's a hamster wheel sword fight in one of the other movies which outshines anything on the action side in the fourth movie), is Jack Sparrow. They wrote out (and flat out killed) most of the big names by the end of the third movie, but Jack Sparrow was box office magic. Depp is one of the few actors who'll drag me out to look at anything on spec - even though I didn't think that The Touristwas any good, the one thing which was worth watching was Johnny Depp. I honestly think that you'd get the POTC film everyone wants if you just put the camera on Depp for a few hours and didn't bother spending any money on stunts at all.

And it's not as though they stopped with Depp. Geoffrey Rush is back, chewing the scenery as Captain Barbosa. Which I can honestly take or leave, especially the Cornish accent. Penelope Cruz is there as well, trying gamely to smoulder as much as Johnny Depp, and inevitably failing. But I've saved the best for last; Ian McShane is Blackbeard. Damn, that's all they needed, really. They could have shot the film as Waiting for Godot with Depp and McShane sitting on whatever the pirate equivalent of a park bench is, just doing Sparrow meets Blackbeard, and made as much money as Avatar did. During the third POTC movie they unaccountably hired Chow Yun Fat to play a pirate and then gave him next to nothing to do. Giving Chow Yun Fat nothing to do in an action movie is - I actually can't think of an analogy. My sliding scale of stupid things doesn't run quite far enough at the stupid end to cover it. Anyhow, I thought they were going to make the same mistake with McShane when we'd got through damn nearly an hour with no sign of him. He's still not in enough scenes, but he makes the most of all of them. Sadly he dies at the end, but as POTC watchers know, merely dying is hardly an obstacle to being in the next sequel. I hope they bring him back.

Things I hope they don't bring back; the whole subplot with the mermaids and the priest lashed to the mast of the Queen Anne's Revenge. I'm quite hoping that those two plot points got a happy ending at the end of the movie there because I really don't want them getting in the way of what POTC ought to be about, which is Jack Sparrow being awesome and everyone else trying to keep up. Anything else is just a waste of everyone's time.

So, that's the recipe for five and six. All Depp, all the time, bring back Blackbeard, and don't bother with the action scenes, they just get in the way. And you can bring back Penelope Cruz, I suppose.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Hanna; not as thrilling as it should be

Lets see. You get yourself Cate Blanchett, Saoirse Ronan and Eric Bana, plus a bunch of talented English actors, and you give them to Joe Wright, and tell them to make a spy movie. And somehow, you chunk out Hanna, which a lot of the time struck me as the kind of movie Michael Bay would make if he wasn't allowed to use explosions. It's very good looking, but it doesn't make a lick of sense. And if you're not going to make a lick of sense, you really do need to batter the audience's critical faculties into acquiescence with firepower; good acting is only going to make the problem worse.

Sometimes I wonder what's going through people's heads when they cast movies. Eric Bana is an Australian, and he's playing a German. Cate Blanchett is an Australian, and she's playing an American with a German name and an accent that moves between Louisiana and Lubeck almost at random. And Saoirse Ronan is Irish and playing someone who grew up in a forest twenty miles south of the Arctic circle with only a German speaking Eric Bana for company; hell if I even know what the right accent for THAT is. Everyone's great, but none of it makes an awful lot of sense. In a fast moving thriller movie, you wouldn't have time to notice those problems, but Hanna is a slow moving movie, even when Hanna herself is running full tilt.

The first big thing you have to buy into is that Eric Bana is for some reason raising his kid to be a perfect killer in a forest twenty miles south of the Arctic circle. For why? Hell if I know, but it seems to be a deep seated plan to kill Cate Blanchett's character. Who could do with a whole lot of killing, but that just leaves me wondering why Eric waited so long. So that his daughter could do it? How does that make the world a better place for anyone? Anyhow, she comes of age and decides to activate the transponder that will tell Blanchett where she is so that she can come and get her and set off the whole complicated revenge scheme. And I'm just sitting there asking myself why would anyone have a transponder that specifically does that? Why would anyone be still listening out for it fourteen years later? As always, when you have time to ask these questions, there's something wrong. Either rewrite the plan, or throw more action at the audience.

It's not that the people behind the movie don't know how to run an action scene; the bits where Hanna gets clear of the improbable underground base in Morocco are really good action beats (except that they've been done just as well or better in a bunch of Luc Besson movies), it's more that they seem to think that such things are beneath them and the stellar cast they've been at such trouble to get hold of. Look, they seem to be saying, we've made a lovely looking movie, full of blatant symbolism and reflections on our modern world, and isn't Saoirse Ronan luminous and talented? Yup. All true. But it's actually a very stupid movie when it thinks it's being a very intelligent one. Hanna doesn't know what electricity really does since she's grown up in a forest, but when a TV set in a cheap hotel panics her, she knows that the remote control ought to make it work. And later on, she knows how to use Google, because that's the convenient way to info-dump a backstory in a modern movie these days. Bah.

It's such a shame. Everyone is doing their very damned best, but it just doesn't work.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

2011 Eurovision; new fish, new barrel, same shotgun

Eurovision is one of my guilty pleasures, though it's not what it used to be when I could listen to Terry Wogan's commentary; Graham Norton's too snide for my taste. Still I usually tune in...

Finland gets things off to an anodyne start; one teenage kid with a guitar. Between what he's wearing and the whiny song, he's the guy who shows up at your party with a guitar and if someone doesn't strangle him in the first hour, he's just going to ruin everything. Oh, dear lord; here comes Bosnia and Herzogovina with the Finnish kid's elder brother. He's wearing a jacket he seems to have stolen off a clown that died from embarrassment. And he's got an acoustic guitar, though just like everyone else in the band he seems to be using it to keep his hands full rather than actually playing it. This is going to be just epic. And here's Denmark, with four guys who are at least pretending to play their instruments. They've got a real dirge of a song, just not fast enough for the upbeat tone they seem to have been aiming for.

Just looking at Hungary, with a song from straight out of the glory days of disco, but easily the most arresting feature is that great big blue ring she's wearing; I swear it's bigger than my fist; I don't know how it's not dragging the mike away from her mouth. And here's Ireland. We'll never again be as embarrassing as Dustin, so I can watch this pretty calmly, but I've always been amazed by Jedward. They finish each other's sentences, but their physical coordination is a thing of wonder. You'd expect twins to dance in sync, but most of the time, they're doing well if either of them has his own legs in synch with each other. It's completely counterintuitive, but somehow beguiling. They're terrible but they're having so much fun it's hard to be annoyed with them. Still can't fight the idea that the roots of their hair go as deep as the strands stick up.

And here's Sweden's boy band, who I reckon are going to get 15% of Europe's vote, if that old Kinsey percentage has any accuracy to it. They look like an off duty version of the Village People, but prettier. Whoever put together Estonia's bit hasn't watched anything but Glee boxed sets for at least a year. At first I thought they'd clubbed Lea Michele and dragged her in a box to Tallinn the way Kim Jong Il used to kidnap Japanese movie directors. And you know, that's not an entirely bad idea, so please, feel free to try it. Greece sent the guy who models for German suit commercials, but in case that was too euro-mainstream, they backed him up with a white rapper from London, which is just bananas. Yet, just think, it wasn't until Greece, the ninth act, that we have someone coming out and doing a song even partly in their own language instead of English.

And the Cold War is SO over; Russia's sent a singing Jimmy Dean; no, I'm being too kind. It's the Russian John Travolta from Grease, complete with three idiot greasers to pose behind him. Pity they forgot to steal his song as well. Meanwhile, France has brought a howitzer to the knife fight; apparently the planners thought this was still a song contest, so they sent a professional singer with an actual song. He appears to be a junior officer in the Tenor regiment, and he's going to be on a charge when he gets back to barracks and has to explain to the TenorGeneral why he appeared in public with his jacket all unbuttoned and no dress sword. But my word, he can surely sing the hell out of an actual song. He's got no business here at all.

Wow, Italy are back in the Eurovision. Now I know the world's going to end at any minute. They appear to have sent the guy who plays the piano at Berlusconi's bunga bunga parties, who after all is probably a bit short of work at the moment. Moldova must be filling in the obligatory eastern european lunatic segment; no it just got weirder. It was pretty mad with three guys wearing three foot tall furry dunce hats, but they were just warming us up for the chick who came in on a unicycle and an even taller dunce hat. Why don't they just have a special prize for this stuff?

Austria seem to have learned nothing from history; they still think that doing whatever Germany just did will be a winning strategy. So last year Germany sent a girl with an actual song and a little black dress, and guess what Austria's doing. Not always the same hands, please. Nearby Slovenia; it's possible their Eurovision invite crossed with the invite to Slutwalk 2011, but whatever happened they get the prize for the most slapperiffic girl combo so far; they look like they've snuck out to celebrate their junior certs without their mothers seeing what they were wearing.

Georgia have sent the band who play over the credits in some terrible 1980s attempt to make Tron in a garden shed. The costumes aren't quite mad enough to distract from the song, but my god, they try.

And now we get to the moment when the host country gets to show case the best of their talent. I know that the Germans didn't choose this act by having a random lottery, because a random pick would have been better. They had to pick this one out on purpose. The singer's got a whole suit inspired by the Bosnian jacket, and a schtick which was looking a bit dated when Sinatra still seemed cool to young people.

The wacky world of eurovision voting hasn't changed much; it's still the same old whirl of regional circle jerks despite an attempt to dilute phone voting with expert juries. It's fun to watch the non-regional stuff; now we know who's working on building sites in Italy, and it's fun that Poland gave Ireland a point - some of those returning construction workers must have been feeling sentimental. And someone up in Scandinavia must have picked up on my tentative offer to let our former colonial overlords in Viking land back in.

And my word, Azerbaijan won. Not a great song, but a perfectly solid one, and the one group who had a decent visual. So fair enough. And thank goodness we didn't embarrass ourselves, but we didn't win, so we don't have to worry about paying for that next year.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Olen Steinhauer; The Nearest Exit

I blogged earlier on The Tourist, Olen Steinhauer's first Milo Weaver book, and complained that it took it own sweet time to get anywhere and then wrapped it all up with ludicrous haste. At the time, I thought that this was just Steinhauer getting his origin story out of the way. Turns out I was being too kind. The Nearest Exit has pretty much the same problem, and I'm coming to the conclusion that Steinhauer may have a preferred structure of high concept opening, a boatload of faffing about in the middle, and a very hasty wrap at the end which purportedly whips together everything he's just written about, but feels kind of forced.

It's a more satisfying bit of work than the first Milo Weaver book, but it still doesn't feel essential to me. The plot is tricksy, but essentially straightforward, and the time line of the action is cleaner and brisker. What's weird is that in The Tourist, Steinhauer seemed to be setting up a struggle between the wild end of the CIA and an entirely ridiculous notion of a UN intelligence agency; the second book drops this idea completely. Steinhauer seems to think in very big chunks, so it wouldn't surprise me if he came back and got stuck into what he set up in book 1, but The Nearest Exit spends most of its time wallowing in individual angst before briskly annihilating almost the entire Department of Tourism, stripping out Steinhauer's only apparent master villain.

Stuff that is good; it makes a nice change for an evil government department to be run by someone who appears to be a nice guy and actually turns out to be one. The character writing is good - I know I complain about how the characters aren't very likeable, but they're well realised, and they more or less make sense. Stuff that isn't good; well, I'm glad the Department of Tourism has been pretty much wiped out, because I never could work up any belief in them, or in the way they're depicted. Reading about the Tourists was always annoying. Maybe people really can stay functional while constantly drinking and taking uppers, but it doesn't make any sense to me that anyone professional would try. Then again, I prefer not to do anything important if I've been drinking. Maybe I'm not the guy to measure this against.

Anyhow, the UN is off the boil, and the Department of Tourism is pretty much gone. And Milo Weaver's boring marriage is still limping along. There's a third book due out in the autumn, and I wonder if I care enough about what's going on to do more than check out the plot on Wikipedia.