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.