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.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Fast Five; what laws of physics?

Comparatively few people watch Tom and Jerry cartoons for the dialogue, and I don't think any sensible person is checking out Fast Five in the hope that it contains a previously unfilmed Joss Whedon script, still less Shakespeare. However, even by that stunningly low standard, Fast Five is a film that would be truer to its nature if someone just edited out all the dialogue scenes until there was nothing left but car chases and explosions. It would also be a lot shorter and a lot more fun to watch, since there'd be nothing left but the good stuff.

It's a movie where it's best to check your brain at the door, but that's not much of a surprise. I was swayed by the fact that it was getting enthusiastic write-ups as a superior action movie, and there was literally nothing else on within easy reach of the third floor operations room, not since the sinister minions of the puppet administration blew up the road link to the nearest outpost of civilisation, or at least of Burger Kings that open after 530 in the evening. So I braved the witty banter of the locals (I hate to say this, but from my conversation with the people in the queue in front of me, the collective IQ of every other patron in the cinema may have been less than mine: and I was stupid enough to go to a Vin Diesel movie with my own money) and laid my money down.

It all lived down to my expectations. The point of Paul Walker has always eluded me, and in a perfect world Vin Diesel would be the spokesman for whatever company makes Mr Potato Head, but I knew that going in, and just waited for the stunts. Having seen the first Fast and Furious movie, I nurse the mad idea that if you somehow mashed Vin and Paul Walker together you might get some kind of off-brand Jason Statham, but even if it didn't work out that way, at least you'd have mashed Vin Diesel and Paul Walker and the world would be a better place to that extent. While I'm talking trash about the cast, I'd never wondered what Demi Moore would have looked like without any lips, but apparently someone WAS wondering about that, and made Jordana Brewster. There was something weirdly distracting about her scenes, perhaps because I'm blessed with just enough survival instinct to know that in the real world when you can see that little lip on a girl, you need to be getting way the hell out of her reach. The only thing narrower than her lips was her pregnancy; she spends the movie Hollywood pregnant, that wonderfully weird state where you're still a size zero, but you get sick at plot convenient moments.

But you were presumably wondering about the stunts. I know I was. They're actually great fun, if you can just switch your mind off. Mythbusters has kind of ruined a lot of these things for me. The big finish has Vin and Paul towing a ten ton safe through Rio behind two muscle cars, and when I wasn't wondering just how much all of that COST, I was distracted by my knowledge of what actually happens to steel cables when you put a car at one end and an immovable object at the other. The cable flat out breaks, every time. I've since had it pointed out to me in someone else's blog that the cable is the least of it. Long before the cable takes up the strain, you've got the question of how the friction of a 10 foot square lump of steel on concrete can be overcome by the friction of about four square feet (max) of hot rubber. Because unless a ton and half of car on four tires has a better grip on the tarmac than ten tons of dead weight, the wheels are just going to spin, aren't they? Still, you gotta switch off that thinking part of the brain and enjoy it all. (A piece of me still thinks that it wouldn't have been that difficult to put wheels under the damn safe and just short circuit that quibble).

The last stunt sequence does have a neat twist in it, which I didn't quite see coming. I knew something was up, because there's a moment early on in the chase where a vehicle appears which doesn't need to be there, and my sense of the conservation of money told me that everything I could see on the screen was there because it had been put there by the stunt arrangers, so that big garbage truck had to have a reason to be there. I felt weirdly clever ten minutes or so later when it turned out to be quite important. If I'd had my full complement of working brain cells by that stage, I might even have figured out the whole thing, but by that stage I'd been bludgeoned into moderate insensibility by the torrent of splashy images and dumb exposition.

Fast Five is apparently available in Imax, but the ideal way to watch it is probably at home, on a large TV connected to a DVD player which lets you edit out all the talky bits.