Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Black Sheep; New Zealand can get it wrong and then some

Comedy Horror is one of those things which it's hard to do right and easy to do wrong. One of my favourite movies ever is a horror comedy; I think American Werewolf in London is the best thing Landis ever did and one of the best movies ever made. When comedy horror works, it works almost better than it has any right to. Sadly, when it tanks, it usually tanks with all the weaknesses of both genres and the extra weakness which comes from not making your mind up to do one thing properly. And so it goes with Black Sheep.

The best thing in Black Sheep is the special effects, from Peter Jackson's ILM, Weta Workshop. Here's a useful tip for when you're going to a movie. If the most famous thing about it is the special effects lab, don't go. They seriously put Weta into the trailer and the poster and the opening credits. Weta are good, but really you want to have writers and actors and a director (in that order) that you've heard of. That's what makes a movie worth watching, not whether someone's managed the admittedly tricky feat of making carnivorous sheep look vaguely plausible.

I couldn't actually tell you what happens towards the end of Black Sheep because I stopped caring enough to watch it round about the time it became apparent that the writers hadn't cared enough to do more than string a bunch of incidents together in familiar patterns and hope that the sheer zaniness of KILLER SHEEP would do the work for them. So for the last half an hour or so that the movie was running on my laptop, I was doing something else, and to give you an idea of how boring the movie was at that stage, I can't remember what I was doing that was more interesting than the movie was.

But it did leave just enough residue in my mind to kick a though into gear this morning as I was making myself presentable. For the first time I can recall, I finally put my finger on the difference between movies and books. If you lose interest in a book, you stop reading it and nothing more happens to the story. But if you lose interest in a movie, it will still run until you rouse yourself to switch it off, and you can let it run its course in the background without paying any real attention to it. You actually have to concentrate on a book; you have to decide that it's worth your full attention, because nothing less will do. And with this, I am resolved that I ought to try to spend more time with books than with movies and TV. If I'm going to waste my time in idle diversions, I ought to waste it on something that makes my brain do SOME work.

La Horde; not my best idea for an evening's entertainment

Zombies seem to be this year's vampires, or something. They're so omnipresent they've finally got their own TV show, but even more than that, the French film industry has finally given them some attention. For some reason, the French film industry still doesn't think that there's quite enough to zombies to give them the whole movie, so La Horde mixes in a bunch of other stuff.

I don't know if the French movie guys do elevator pitches, partly because what French cinema I've seen leaves me wondering if France has any working elevators, but if they did, I imagine the pitch for La Horde would have been "It's 28 Days Later meets Assault on Precinct 13". Someone should have pointed out that these two movies have never met because when you try to get that much awesome into one container, all the awesome spills out of the bucket and you're left with all the heavy stuff people aren't going to like. If someone had only said that, La Horde would have been cancelled and I wouldn't have wasted an hour and half wondering why I was trying to watch it to the end.

La Horde starts with a bunch of cops deciding that they're going to take revenge on the criminals who killed a cop before the movie even started. The first quarter of an hour or so set all this up quite well, for all the world as if this is going to be another superior policier like 36 Quai des Orfevres, except with no good actors like Depardieu and Auteuil. And there's all kind of plodding work at the funeral of the dead guy which would be great for setting up the characters if only the rest of the movie had any interest in the characters. Given what's actually going to happen, all they really need is the first long shot as the cops discover the body of their buddy, then they can cut to sneaking into the derelict high rise where the bad guys are and get on with the damn movie. Nah, we get the whole long funeral scene. And then we sneak up. Dudes. The audience knows it's gonna be a zombie movie. It's in the trailers, it's on the posters, there's simply no possibility that you can fake this out. Train. Has. Left. The. Station.

Anyhow, first fatal misstep duly whined about, we bang the good guys into the bad guys. Should have used quotes there, because pretty much everyone in the movie is an asshole. The sneaking up fails massively within seconds of coming into contact with the enemy, and while the crooks are trying to figure out just how much they're going to kill the captured cops, the zombie outbreak gets underway. And from there on it's the ill-assorted remnants of both groups fighting their way past hordes of the undead to uncertain safety in the open air.

The thing is, a bunch of guys fighting their way through a zombie infestation is plenty of meat for a movie. You don't need to throw cops and robbers in as well. But when you add to that the problem that the zombie infestation is nothing like local, but has instead infected the whole of France (hey, maybe this is the stealth sequel to 28 Weeks Later), it all starts to seem like you hate your cast. They've just got too much pitted against them.

So, everyone gets killed. The only one who's still standing at the end of the movie is the tough chick. Although the movie unaccountably doesn't bother with the sex = immediate horrible death cliche of US horror, it does stick to that old standby of everyone dying except the final girl. But while she's standing there in the daylight panting, you can hear the sound of the next wave of zombies ravening in towards her, so she's got about the same life expectancy as a mouse in a threshing machine.

It's genuinely sort of hard to give a rat's ass, however. Everyone in the movie's kind of a dick. And pressure doesn't make them any more likeable. There's a scene in the middle of the final act when the survivors manage to clip a zombie in the spine and knock her down, and as the zombie wriggles and screams and tries to snap at everyone, they start talking about raping it. I don't know if the director wanted me rooting for the zombies, but at that point I was starting to take their side. Certainly stopped me from caring when the humans started into the final death spiral.

There was the germ of a good movie in there; most of that germ is in the trailers, which is why I took the time and money to check out the movie. But by the time they'd taken the cliches of a couple of fun genres and beaten all the fun out, there wasn't much left that I wanted to watch.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Thirteen Years Later: Jasper Kent

It's been a year since I tried to kickstart this thing back into action by making a point of blogging all the books I read. The exercise began with Jasper Kent's Twelve and here I am a year later trying to string together some useful reflections on its sequel.

In fact I've been terrible about the book blogging. I managed to be reasonably committed to the movie reviews, but some of the books I've read this year have been things I just didn't want to think about after I'd finished them. I've probably written down thoughts on less than half the books I've read this year gone out, and I'm not sure what this year will be like. But there's a certain appealing symmetry to trying to keep the show on the road with the sequel to the book which got me working at it again.

Twelve had it easy in a way, because people who don't know much about history have still heard of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. So the deeper historical background could be left to the reader to fill in around the narrative. Thirteen Years Later is set in the run-up to and aftermath of the December 1825 abortive revolt against the succession of Tsar Nikolai to Tsar Alexander. And I'd never really heard of that, so you can imagine how much background exposition was needed to get it all into context for the reader. There are probably, right now, more people in the world who've heard of the Decemberists as a musical combo than a revolutionary movement. Certainly Google thinks so; I just put that in as a search phrase and the first page of results had only one reference to the luckless Russians.

Kent's actually a lot more ambitious than I initially gave him credit for. These two books are just part of what he's now referring to as the Danilov quintet, heaven help us. It's an interesting idea. Vampires live forever, so sustained conflict with them would be a generational exercise for mere mortals. So we've had the retreat from Moscow, and the Decemberists and the next stop looks like being Crimea. I have to hope that when we get to that stop, we won't have to worry about vampire Florence Nightingale. The fourth and fifth books; well, one of them has to have the revolution in it, and given the way that Kent's putting the Romanov dynasty front and centre in the master plot, I'm inclined to think that will be the fifth book, leaving me mulling over where in time the fourth book will pull its inspiration from. If I had to guess, I'd pick the Russo-Turkish war, simply because it will fit in with some of the existing threads quite well.

Kent's switched from the first person narration of the first book to third person for this book, which allows him to split the action up among the main players. Probably the biggest drawback to that approach is that it lets him bring back a key villain from the first book, and having been tempted to do that, he gives that villain an insane amount of work to do. Kent handles the introduction of the return quite well, letting things pile up nicely, but by the end of the book, with the villain enmeshed in almost every strand of Danilov's life, I found myself asking how on earth the bad guy would have had the time and energy to pull off all the different things he was doing. Kent tries to take some of the sting out of it by having the villain admit that it was more a matter of doing things which looked amusing and working out the payoff much later, but in fact that just makes it worse. If his mind really worked like that, he'd be doing hundreds of other mean minded things as well, and well, mortal life's too short.

Kent's master plot involves a standoff between the Romanovs and a vampiric big bad who stalks each succeeding generation. This already gives him a villain who stays in place from one book to the next, pitched against a family who'll stay in place from one book to the next. I think he's concluded that the Danilovs also need their own personal nemesis, and I'm inclined to think he might be on thewrong track here, not least because of the downright Lecterification that's going on with his secondary (in the hierarchy - primary in the action) villain. But we shall see. About this time next year The Third Section will appear in paperback and I can scratch my head over whether it's keeping the show on the road.