Thursday, 24 February 2011

The Kings Speech; As always, it's the supporting actors who you root for

The King's Speech is actually a pretty good movie, but the attention is all going on Colin Firth as the King. He's got a stammer and angst and gets to do all the big gaudy stuff, but it's the people around him that are doing the really interesting work; Helena Bonham Carter steals most of her scenes as a wonderfully perky Queen, for example. But it's almost distracting; is that Derek Jacobi? Didn't he play someone with a stammer once? Who's that playing Edward Fox playing Edward VIII? Good lord, it's Guy Pearce. Good Lord, I thought Dr Fancypants from Nurse Jackie was a Brit. How come she's playing Wallis Simpson? Golly, is that Karen from Outnumbered playing Princess Margaret? Who's that playing George V? It's only bloody Michael Gambon, innit. And his missus? That's Claire Bloom. There's Alan Rickman's henchman from Sweeney Todd, and he's playing bloody Churchill, inne?

With all that going on the background it's easy to lose track of the two big names. Geoffrey Rush has the harder part, in that he's playing someone who's never supposed to get excited about anything. One of his best moments is trying out for Richard III in an amateur troupe and not getting any respect at all. I don't know if it's hard for a good actor to give a bad performance on purpose, but it must take exquisite judgment to give a performance which feels just like someone who's really just not that good. It's actually, as it turns out, an important bit of foreshadowing, but it works just as well as a little insight into the fuller world of Rush's character.

Firth is fine, but it's one of those deals where you think to yourself "Why does Hollywood always think that it's good acting to show us someone struggling against a handicap?" And I suppose I also thought "Lord, the crippling handicaps are getting less and less crippling these days, aren't they?" Every year for as long as I can remember, one of the Oscar bait movies has been either about someone with a disability, or someone in the Holocaust. I probably blinked one year and missed the ultimate shot, with someone both disabled and in the Holocaust at the same time.

Which is not to say that it's not worth seeing. It's genuinely worth the time. It's just that sometimes I'd like to see an actor getting praised for creating a credible ordinary person. Which in a lot of ways is exactly what Geoffrey Rush does in this movie. But when did Rush get his big moment? - when he played someone with crippling mental illness 15 years ago. Sort of bears out my thinking.

Monday, 14 February 2011

The Hammer: KJ Parker

Having read all twelve of Parker's books, I think I can say a few authoritative things about what happens in them. There will be a crime which cries out for revenge. There will be a protagonist who ought to be locked up, but is somehow unaccountably free to charm and swindle his way for his revenge. Getting the revenge will involve a scheme so ludicrously complicated that it will somehow destroy just about everything in the protagonist's world, and then for good measure, destroy the protagonist as well. Sometimes I wonder if Parker's carrying some monstrous grudge she just can't get past.

Things you will not see; magic. Elves. Dwarves. Dwarfs even. None of that crap. As I've said before, Parker's work is fantasy in the intensely limited sense that it suits her purposes to write in a past which has not in fact happened. What she wants to talk about is people in a time when technology is just coming into its own, when it's a force which a single mind could conceivably hold entire. I suspect that, like me, Parker rather misses the time when a man like Freiherr Gottfried von Leibniz could quite literally know everything that there was to be known.

With the Hammer, Parker does take one small lurch into the more modern world; for the first time, there are working guns. Not many, and not tremendously useful (at one point the main character tests a gun and painstakingly goes through the process of loading and priming, reflecting all the time that in the same time he could have loosed a dozen arrows and done a lot more damage), but guns none the less. The Engineer trilogy climaxed with someone completely failing to make the world's first gun, and failing so hard that he puts everyone else off the idea for the foreseeable future. This being Parker, that was a mere sideshow to the real game, of course, but her faithful readers could be forgiven for thinking that she'd said her last word on the topic.

The Hammer is otherwise very much like the rest of her work, which of course is just what we genre junkies like; a certain amount of the familiar. Her designated protagonist, Gignomai met'Oc, sets in train an enormously difficult plan to bring industry to a subsistence level agricultural colony. In doing so he almost wrecks the delicately balanced economy of the colony, triggers off a revolt against the home country and ruins his own life permanently. By the time he's finished, nothing on the island is the same ever again, but he's got his revenge. It's obvious from very early on that something has happened which is driving him. but Parker structures the book so that we're not quite sure what's bugging Gig or who he's after until about two thirds of the way through. We're shown just enough to draw us in, but not quite enough to see what's going on. Which parallels nicely the way in which Gig is manipulating the other colonists, telling them just enough of the truth to keep them committed to his scheme, but not enough of the truth about the reasons for it.

Another quirk of Parker's work is that she genuinely doesn't like action. Action's hard to write well, and tends to lead the writer into sin, or purple prose, which is probably worse than sin. So almost all the big action beats of the book, including a horrific murder in the middle of it, are described at second or third hand, usually in the kind of detached language you'd see in a law report. It's a surprisingly effective trick; as is Parker's ability to switch between Gig's viewpoint and that of the two other main characters almost in mid sentence. Only afterwards do you realise that these stylistic tricks have kept the veil over what's really going on and who's cheating who.

As always, there's a lot of fun to be had. Just as Connie Willis' books are always, at some level, about how hard it is to maintain focus in a world of distractions, Parker's books are always at some level about how much easier it would be if everyone would just be sensible rather than getting all emotional. And of course they're about how complicated it really is to make something; at some level, her entire work is like a long screed on the need to think about how much stuff has to happen in the background before you can walk into Curry's and buy an iPod. What makes her work ridiculous, yet compelling, is that one guy winds up having to do all the work.... But there's something wonderfully wry about it all. Her viewpoint characters delight in understatement and irony; as catastrophe unfolds, Parker's authorial voice will often have something dry to say to the effect that things went as might have been expected. At one point Furio, the moral balance to Gig's force of nature, finds himself struggling with a guard; Parker's description of what happens next is quintessentially her: 'Furio had never killed anyone in close combat before, but it turned out that it was something you could pick up as you went along."

She's now done three standalone books, and the question has to be whether she's going to go back to the big stuff or stick in the shorter form. And of course, how long it's going to be before I see another one...

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Lincoln's Dreams: Connie Willis

Lincoln's Dreams is one of Connie Willis' earliest books, and it's arguably not SF at all. Coming to it after reading her later work, I felt like I was putting a foot on a step that wasn't there, constantly waiting for the SF plot to kick in, and feeling not short-changed but simply puzzled when the book stayed grounded in the present.

It's masterful little book, marvellous in its command of details. The final line is brilliantly weighed and judged. You can flip to the back page of the book to see what happens and read that last line, and it won't make any sense. Go back, and read the book, and experience the narrator's confusion and panic and eventual resignation, and the final line will hit you in the heart like a thrown sandbag. In a way, it's a twist ending of sorts, but it's so completely earned; the reader realises what's really been going on at exactly the right moment, and that closer packs an unbelievable wallop. In a way, nothing is resolved, and yet somehow everything is.

It's an awfully simple, almost slight, piece of work. The narrator is a researcher for a successful historical novelist, and runs into a young woman who's having dreams that seem to echo events of the civil war. The narrator gets drawn into her drama, falls in love with her, and tries to solve the problem he thinks she has. Like all of Willis' work, much of the action is driven by distraction, as the narrator's efforts to fix the problem get derailed by misunderstandings and tiny setbacks. Willis has a genius for hiding her plot in the clutter, and in Lincoln's Dreams she adeptly mixes the plot into apparent clutter, leaving everything in plain sight and yet somehow invisible to the reader.

The book climaxes with a heartbreaking confrontation between the narrator and the woman, and then peters out into a brief coda in which I kept waiting for the loose threads from the confrontation to resolve and cohere. Instead, the entire plot almost imperceptibly coalesces until on the very last page you realise that not a word of the book has been a digression. This was only her second novel, published when she was 43 years old. It's an astonishing little jewel of a thing, and a startling reflection on grief and loss. As it truly hits its stride in its second half, the sense of yearning, of struggling to hold off inescapable tragedy is almost unbearable. I read the book over a period of about three weeks, dipping into it a few chapters at a time each weekend that I was back in Dublin. It might already be the best thing I read this year. I expect I'll read some other books which I enjoy more, but as a piece of writing, Lincoln's Dreams is all but perfect.

The Mechanic; don't try to be so damned clever

The total take for the showing of the Mechanic that I went to was £25.20, assuming that everyone else paid the same ticket price that I did. And 50% of the audience left before the movie was over. Presumably they had something more pressing. I had shirts to iron, and to be honest, that was starting to seem a little more pressing than what happened in the rest of the movie. Still, I stuck with it, hoping that the Stath would pull something out of his bag of tricks, or that failing that I'd remember where the hell else I'd seen Ben Foster.

Well, I had to look up the IMDB to answer the second question, and the Stath didn't pull off any last minute upping of the game.

Ben Foster, it turned out, was someone I had last seen as Charlie Prince in 3.10 to Yuma where he played what I described as an idiot's idiot. For the Mechanic, he upped his game a bit to playing professional screwup and wannabe hitman, though how in the name of all that's holy he could ever thought that he could go up against the Stath and win, I don't know. There are certain kinds of thing which suspension of disbelief will just let you down on, and top of the list has to be the idea that anyone else in a movie with Jason Statham is going to be somehow cooler than he is. I have no idea what unholy powers the Stath has been given, but for a man with one facial expression and one tone of voice, he's got a truly mesmerising amount of screen presence.

Still, what I had wanted was something light and stupid, and the Stath is usually a dependable go to guy for that kind of thing. For some strange reason this time round he'd decided to do something brooding and, you know, acted. So instead of gun fights and explosions and stupid hand to hand combat, there was a lot of brooding about how tough it is to have to be killing people all the time. Not what I came to the cinema to see, at all, at all.

Although things do explode. Notably an SUV explodes, from - get this - a gunshot fired into a pool of diesel. Kids, you can try this all you want at home. Correcting for the fact that there's nothing truly safe you can do with a handgun, firing bullets into a pool of diesel fuel is about as close as you can get to a harmless outdoor pastime. Diesel vapour will burn, just about, if you use an electric spark igniter. It will explode, under protest, if you compress the bejesus out of diesel vapour and heat it to several hundred degrees, which is more or less how a diesel engine works. In all other circumstances, it's practically inert. You could fire a magnesium flare into a tank of diesel and at most it would smoulder fitfully. Unless it happens in Hollywood, where the spark (non-existent) from a bullet striking concrete will trigger a catastrophic detonation and a pillar of fire forty feet high. No-one could have got away from that, you think. Since a nonagenarian in a walker could get away from what actually happens when you shoot diesel, it shouldn't be much of a surprise that our hero is able to roll clear before it all goes explodey. Hollywood. Literally anything can explode there. Pity the plot didn't ignite the same way,

Monday, 7 February 2011

The Next Ten Seconds: Simon Kernick

I read Simon Kernick's first book absolutely years ago, and it wasn't very good. It had what seemed to be a good hook, but it was very flatly written and it didn't really have a pay off to go with the hook. He's banged out another nine or ten books since then, all with jacket blurbs which made me think, oh, that's got an interesting hook, but I always reminded myself of how how disappointing his first book had been and I left them to one side. That was the right call, it turns out, since I've just finished reading his most recent book, and it's just like his first book; interesting basic premise, flat delivery, no pay off.

A lot of what you need to know about what's wrong with it is that it gradually dawned on me that one of the viewpoint characters must be a recurring character, because she had way too much back story and it was being fleshed out in a weird way. So I got curious enough to go and look at the interwebs, where I found a summary of all the previous work. And the summary was way more interesting than reading the actual book. Still, I persevered, thinking that the cold open might lead to a interesting climax.

Not so much. If I had to make a guess at what happened here, I'd say Kernick began with a smash-cut opening scene, and the sketch of an idea of a new character to ruin his recurring character's life, and then just made it up as he went along. This worked for Chandler, because Chandler was a genius and wrote like an angel. Kernick is not a genius, and writes like Andy McNab. The dumbest book I read last year, in many ways, was called Death or Glory: The Last Commando, by a guy called Michael Asher. It was quite magnificently bad prose; I derived a lot of guilty pleasure from marveling at just how wrong a man could go trying to write rip-roaring accounts of hand to hand combat. I gather Asher actually knows a lot about crossing deserts and generally getting by in tight spaces, he just doesn't know how to write about it. Oddly enough, the non-action bits aren't badly put together; workmanlike, but fine. Kernick's prose doesn't even have the saving grace of being cherishably bad. It's just flat, uninvolving and thuddingly obvious.

So it was all a big, irritating waste of my time. I should have chucked it to one side far earlier than I did. I don't know what made me stick with it to the bitter end, other than the stubborn belief that you finish things if you start them. What's irritating is that I had with me a copy of Spies of the Balkans, the new Alan Furst, and I could have picked that up instead at any moment. But no, I went right on banging my head off the wall. Since then I picked up the Furst, and I'm about twenty pages in. There's been more simple reading pleasure on every one of those pages than I found in the whole of the Kernick.

So, this week's Top Tip; avoid Simon Kernick. How he's getting published, I don't know, but there's no need for you to ruin your evenings.