Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Patrick Rothfuss: The Wise Man's Fear

This is some kind of enormous book. I'd been lulling myself along as I read it thinking that it was just over 900 pages, then it hit me towards the end that it was almost 1,000. This is the middle book of a projected trilogy and it's longer than the whole of the core text of the Lord of the Rings. The mind reels at how long the Peter Jackson adaptation would be. The damn thing is so big, and so heavy, that for the first time in my life I thought about buying an eReader just so that I could read a book without hurting my wrists.

And The Wise Man's Fear is not long because it's packed with every single incident that the author could think of; he quite deliberately skips two whole chunks of narrative because they've got nothing to do with the plot. The framing conceit of the trilogy is that the protagonist, Kvothe, is going over his life story during what's heavily foreshadowed to be his last few days of life, and he's telling it his way. So he skips an entire trial scene because it's boring and - rather brilliantly - anyone really curious can check the law reports. He also skips an entire sea voyage with pirates and marooning because it has nothing to do with the main story. Mind you, at that point I thought that Rothfuss had decided he needed a way to reset Kvothe's angst meter from "Got money, ready for new challenges" back to the default "Flat broke, need to improvise.", and just arbitrarily took everything off him so as to get him back into Rothfuss's comfort zone for the character.

These are all by the way; for the most part Rothfuss is doing a genuinely impressive job with the books. He's set himself a very hackneyed plot; youthful protagonist must learn the ways of magic to exact his revenge on the evil forces of darkness, yadda yadda yadda, but he's pulling it off pretty well. The main character is just charming enough to drag you along with him without being in any way ridiculously nice. The supporting characters are nicely sketched in. If I have an issue with any of the work done so far, it's that the main love interest doesn't make a lick of sense. It's not that the character isn't sketched in well (though I do tend to imagine that there's a picture of Raiders era Karen Allen on the wall in front of him when Rothfuss is working on the character), it's just that she pops up whenever the plot needs her to, with no rhyme or reason. At one point, Kvothe undertakes an (already mentioned) calamitous sea voyage to a distant city and the next thing we know, there's the main love interest for no readily apparent reason other than to drive him nuts. That began to bug me, though I have enough respect for Rothfuss' plotting skills that I suspect that in the third book we're going to see that there were no coincidences at all in play. Just about everything else that happens in the books so far has happened for a plausibly thought through reason. Rothfuss isn't likely to have slipped on something so central to the action.

Still, it's inhumanly long for the middle book and it's not yet clear to me that it's kicked the plot far enough down the road. Book One, the Name of the Wind, got us from Kvothe age six or so to age 15. Book Two, for this is she, got us to near enough age 17. In the framing narrative, Kvothe is well into his thirties, maybe his forties, living under an assumed name, and apparently the guy who accidentally kicked off a major war. Book Three's gonna have quite a lot of work to pull off to get us from where we are to where we know we ought to be going. Either the tempo of story telling is going to go up about a million gears, Kvothe is going to skip a BUNCH of things which are in the law reports already, or I'm going to need to hire a man to hold the book for me when I read it.

I fear the worst.


Sunday, 20 March 2011

Fair Game; a movie that's going to change nobody's mind about anything

One of the major ironies of Fair Game is the title, which asks us to buy into the idea that it was morally wrong of Bush the lesser to out a covert agent of the CIA in an effort to distract attention from a lie that found its way into Bush the lesser's State of the Union speech in January 2003. What makes that ironic is that the person implicitly complaining is a CIA covert operative. In real life, covert operations officers are more or less all about putting target civil servants into impossible positions and taking advantage of them for the greater good of the government that pays them. So for someone who was paid to treat a bunch of foreigners as "fair game" to take umbrage at being treated as fair game herself - well, the thing to do is sit back and muse about it.

There's lots of other ammunition, including a wonderful rabble rousing speech from Sean Penn at the end of the movie asking a pre-stoked audience whether there's something wrong with the fact that the story was moved from whether the President intentionally misled the American people to whether the guy denouncing him was married to a CIA officer. Well, Sean, isn't the whole movie we've just watched ABOUT that distraction, rather than about the weak case for the war? Don't you find that, well, ironic?

Which is not to say that it's a bad movie, I just think it's rather muddled about the who good and bad guys are, and more importantly about what the problem is. Valerie Plame lost her job, and now she's living in Santa Fe. This might well be upsetting, though I hear people are killing each other in Mexico for the chance to live in Santa Fe. Meanwhile, in Iraq, something between 160,000 and God-Knows-How-Many people are dead. Of the two tragedies, I think I know which one deserves some attention.

Having said all that, Naomi Watts is solid and believable and strikingly similar to the original; Sean Penn is solid and strikingly similar to himself, as he usually is. It's not a very action packed film, which is more or less what I expected, but it's odd that they chose Doug Liman to direct; Doug's past form on spy movies includes the first Bourne movie and Mr and Mrs Smith, after all. Mind you, it's about to include something called I just want my pants back, so perhaps it's best to keep an open mind.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Battle Los Angeles; a fearsome mutant vanquishes the demon enjoyment

I think the most fun I had at Battle: Los Angeles was the moment when they had a fake talking head on CNN explain that the all conquering aliens were here on earth to steal our water, because we had the kind they don't have anywhere else. This was such preposterous nonsense that it left me running in circles trying to figure out which part of it to hate first.

It's actually still providing me with entertainment as I try to think through all the ways in which I can riff on the monstrous idiocy, though I'm inclined to start with the simple observation that, on its own, it's perhaps the most realistic part of the movie, being as how in real life I WOULD naturally expect the talking head reaction on CNN or FOX or Sky News to be coming from someone completely ignorant of, well, everything. The ideal talking head on cable news seems to be a man who both doesn't know what's happening on the screen behind him, AND doesn't know anything real about his reported field of excellence. I've always treasured, for example, the moment when CNN wheeled out someone to explain in full solemnity that peace talks in Northern Ireland in 1992 had broken down because of opposition from Trades Unionists. This came hard on the heels of them more or less taking charge of public relations for the first war with Iraq, and left me wondering if the US had actually invaded the right country.

But I digress. Though, digressing right back, I was trying to figure out how the heck it could even be cost effective in materials terms to fight an interstellar war to get access to water, and I remembered that wars don't have to be cost effective for the people fighting them as long as there's a profit for the people deciding they ought to be fought. From which I infer that the invading aliens in Battle LA are irredeemably evil, because they've got wicked high technology, and apparently still have something like Halliburton as well.

Anyhow, having made sense of their motivation (and probably having given it more thought than anyone actually involved with the movie), I still have to make sense of why the hell I went to see it. I sort of knew even as I planned to go and see it that it was probably a festering pile of crap, but I'd been really taken with the early trailers and I sort of hoped that it wouldn't be as bad as the later trailers and all the reviews and my pure common sense and the presence of Michelle Rodriguez in the cast were warning me about. I went. I think I have an imp of the perverse. I wish that I could deploy this "doing things just because I really don't want to" germ in the cause of being more useful in work.

Battle LA is like some hellish leotarded mutant crossbred offspring of Cloverfield, Black Hawk Down, Independence Day and District 9. All of which are either good movies or at least bad movies which were fun to watch. Well, maybe not Cloverfield. Cloverhawk's Day Down in District 9 could very well have been the initial working title, before someone decided that it would just be awesome to throw in the climax of Independence Day and just break the thing beyond any feasible repair. So you got scrappy looking alien technology which is crazy destructive while being as streamlined and practical looking as bomb shrapnel, you got hopelessly outnumbered marines who don't know what's going on, and you've got scary monsters running round grabbing people and killing them. And I have to say, so far, so depressing, but at least kind of reasonable. It's probably safe to assume that if interstellar aliens ever show up here with mayhem in mind they're just going to curbstomp us in minutes. If they can figure out the energy budget for interstellar travel, they're going to find our state of the art weaponry as quaint as stone axes and almost as threatening.

Where it all moves over into blowing its own premise apart is when they decide to give it the Independence Day ending, as the survivors of the band of marines fortuitously figure out that there's an alien command base and just by chance they know where it has to be. So they go find it, and then call in an artillery strike. Actually, this bit is more the end of Saving Private Ryan than the end of Independence Day, so that's another good movie they stripped for parts and ruined. I was watching the grand climax as they try to hold off the aliens until the artillery can arrive and I was thinking; Saving Private Ryan did this perfectly. There was no need to try to do this again, and even if there was, this isn't the way you do it.

Having said all that Aaron Eckhart's pretty good. Everyone else is cannon fodder, but Eckhart's not bad at all considering how little they've given him to work with. Presumably this will now let him spend his middle age playing action heroes after a career spent up to now getting fewer and dumber roles than he deserved. But if you actually want to watch him in something clever and good, catch him in Thank You for Smoking. If you insist on both him and explosions, The Dark Knight Returns, where he can be just about found among the wreckage and the over and under the top competition being run between Christian Bale and Heath Ledger.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

1222: Anne Holt

In keeping with the usual trend of "Oh look, thing X is popular, go find lots of other things like it", we're drowning at the moment in Scandinavian crime novelists. Because Stieg Larsen has been a mega-success, publishers are translating gloomy scandiwegian crime epics into English at a rate for which I can think of neither metaphor nor precedent. I had no idea there were so many Scandinavian crime writers, but from what I can see, if all their works had been TRUE crime books, Scandinavia would have about four people left in it, all frantically phoning the police for protection.

One of the more unlikely beneficiaries from this is Anne Holt, who's apparently been creating a world of hurt for Norwegians since the mid-nineties. with a short break in the middle to serve for a couple of months as Minister for Justice. That must have been pretty weird for her civil servants.

Anyhow, the vagaries of this lunatic translation program have led to the rather bonkers situation that the first Anne Holt book to hit the English speaking world is the most recent one, so that new readers are wrestling with a character at the wrong end of a bunch of character development. Serial detective protagonists come in two varieties, the ones who don't change no matter what happens, and have no personal lives to speak of, and the ones with far too much personal life and a tendency to become progressively more damaged as time goes by. In defiance of all common sense, the second kind are usually WORSE written. Anne Holt's Hanne Wilhelmson is, I think, supposed to be annoying by design, but eight books in I suspect she's a lot more annoying now than she was originally intended to be, and she's most annoying just where I imagine Holt believes she's most interesting.

Authors tend to fall in love with their successful characters and gradually tweak their foibles to the point of caricature; Robert B Parker's Spenser became more and more unbearably pretentious and politically correct the longer the series went, and Colin Dexter's Morse moved from a plausible curmudgeon to an entirely implausible middle-aged sex-god the longer John Thaw's TV version filed the rough edges off the paper original. The less said about Kay Scarpetta the better, except that she's kind of the patient zero of the deeply annoying detective protagonist who functions as a walking public service announcement for whatever is bugging the writer at the time. This infection has spread, I'm sad to tell you, to Norway.

We meet Hanne Wilhelmson on the train, where she's a cranky old lady (except that she's a cranky old lady who's younger than me, and this cannot stand) on her way to get some treatment for her back. Which got all shot up in an earlier case, confining her to a wheelchair. 1222 is like the mother of all spoilers; it was written for the loyal audience who's been following the character for years, and it's full of callouts to earlier cases (including a fourthwall breaking reference to the US president staying in Hanne's apartment - talk about bludgeoning disbelief) and of course the spoileriffic "Well here I am in a wheelchair." elements which are going to make it pretty damned hard to read the earlier books once they come out in English. The train crashes, everyone gets stuck in a hotel, and then murder breaks out. As it does. Although Wilhelmson's been retired since the whole wheelchair thing, she's got the curse of Poirot and murder do be following her about for no good reason.

Mind you, it's a surprisingly well put together book. It romps along efficiently, and while I found lots of Holt's opinions entirely self righteous and irritating, the insights into ordinary stuff are nicely done and she sketches in her main cast efficiently and well. About half way through I got curious about whether Finse, the locale of the book, is a real place, and was surprised to discover that it is, and that Holt was describing the unlikely venue of a hotel in a town with no access other than by train entirely accurately. Or that Wikipedia is lying to me. The murders are engagingly low key and for once didn't involve child abuse by anyone at all, which was a relief. I don't think they're set up entirely fairly, but to some extent 1222 is Holt grumbling along through her chosen mouthpiece about how tough life is in a wheelchair, with a murder or two thrown in on the side because that's what people have come to expect. It's not at all bad, which was a relief because I'd bought it on spec as a birthday present for my sister and it would have been embarrassing if it had been crap. But I honestly can't see myself checking out any of the other books. Having seen how annoying the main character gets, I don't feel like getting to know her any better.


Last Light: Alex Scarrow

This was a book which I noticed out of the corner of my eye in big format a few years ago, and thought might be interesting, before getting distracted and forgetting about it. I tripped over its existence again a week or so ago when I saw that it had a sequel out; or to be more accurate, I noticed the sequel and realised when I looked it over that it had to be a sequel. With time hanging heavy on my hands in the evenings these days, I thought I'd risk a few hours to see if they were any good, even though I've read Alex Scarrow's first novel, A Thousand Suns, and knew that the odds were seriously against them. The theme looked interesting, and I thought there might be enough in that to overcome the weaknesses in Scarrow's technique when it came to plotting and dialogue and character, and well, writing.

Scarrow has actually improved quite a bit, or I'm getting less fussy. A Thousand Suns is kind of a mess, with a hackneyed master narrative set in WWII and involving "good" Germans doing "bad" things, and a really weak framing plot where a modern journalist trips over traces of the earlier events. For Last Light, Scarrow sticks to the same notion of a high concept narrated out by the experiences of a slate of viewpoint characters, but it hangs together more satisfactorily and his writing's improved a bit. It helps that the high concept's an interesting one and that Scarrow does quite a good job of conveying how bad the aftermath of civil collapse would be be without making it so directly harrowing as to be unpleasant to read.

I fear the worst for the sequel, despite it being the thing which snagged my attention; it's a good deal thicker than the first book and life has taught me that the longer a book is the more room bad writing has to spread out into. But so far Scarrow's doing better than I thought he would, and it's a thought-provoking book. Put to one side the idea that there's some crazy conspiracy to run the world, and just look at the points he's making about the fragility of supply chains and how little time it would take for things to collapse if oils supplies were interrupted. There's a lot in there to worry about; sadly, all we can really do is worry and hope that the people running the show will get a bit more serious about planning for real catastrophe.

True Grit; sometimes it's best not be too faithful

By all accounts the Coen brothers' True Grit is a more faithful adaptation of Charles Portis' novel than the John Wayne version. To anyone who has heard the Coen quip that they work as a pair so that one of them can hold open the source material while the other one types, this will not come as surprising news, but I am wondering whether it's the best way.

True Grit's a very good movie, but somehow doesn't quite work as a narrative. The opening half of the film, where Mattie Ross cajoles and blusters her way round Fort Smith trying to get the money she needs to bribe Rooster Cogburn into chasing her father's killer, is really very fine. It's all about talk and character, two things the Coens have always handled very well. Once the film eases into the chase after Tom Chaney, things don't work so well, because it's all about incident from there on in, and the Coens have a very naturalistic attitude to plot and incident. On the one hand, this is a great idea, since there's something terribly dispiriting about the new standardised Hollywood through-line where some loner finds redemption by confronting something or other. In real life, stuff happens in a jumble, and if there's a victory at all, it tends to go to the guy who's best at ignoring the jumble and getting on with things. The trouble is, we all have to live in real life anyhow, and we go to the movies to get away from it, so a little reality is the very most that any of us want to have to put up with.

The chase after Tom Chaney is a picaresque mess of blind alleys and missed opportunities. Years ago, Hal Hartley made a movie which he described as intentionally resembling a car chase with one flat tire, and I think he'd have nodded approvingly at what the Coens are doing in the back half of True Grit. The problem is that when the climax comes, its feels as flat and misfiring as the rest of the chase, and what ought to be tense is not.

Which is not to say that I didn't enjoy the movie; it's hard not to enjoy a movie which includes things like Jeff Bridges' opinion on why a man was hanged quite so high "Possibly in the belief it'd make him more dead." While Bridges is a bit all over the place, he's got some very good scenes in the early on. Hailee Steinfield, the lynchpin of the whole movie (and unfairly omitted from the poster in favour of Josh Brolin, who's practically not in the thing at all) is consistently good; the whole point of her character is that she's completely implacable, almost one-note, and for once the fact that an actor never moves off her baseline is a good thing in a movie.

However, for me the best moment was Mattie crossing the river half way through the film, moving from the dusty yellow light of the opening skirmishes into the greyer, frostier world of the chase proper. It's a tremendously exhilarating moment, and curiously, nothing that follows packs quite the same amount of punch. The second half of the film is resolutely downbeat and grim, and while I'm sure it's true to the book and more importantly true to life, it's curiously unsatisfying. The first half drew me in; in the second half, I found myself checking my phone messages. That's not a good sign, especially when I consider that I'd gone to unusual lengths to see the movie, which for some reason wasn't showing at all in the tiny town I'm staying in, and was in a dead end early evening slot in the nearest bigger town.

I do keep asking myself about the guy hanging up so high. Not why they did it, but how. Mattie has to climb to the top of the tree to cut him down, which meant, of course, that someone had to climb just as high to tie the noose up in the first place. Which is a curiously awkward way to carry out an impromptu hanging.