Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The Quinn Group Redux

In April last year, I ranted briefly on how perhaps the collapse of Quinn Group was down to the kind of faulty maths that would let someone overestimate the cost of dole payments for all the group's employees by a factor of three. We had to dig out the group, or the taxpayer would be hit for €3.6 million a week in dole payments. The horror.

Turns out, it would have been cheap even at that price, since the Dáil is now in the throes of bringing in legislation which will impose a €240 million euro levy on - well, taxpayers.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec; I don't think those words mean what you think they mean

Last week I was suggesting that Luc Besson had moved away from directing because it all started to seem too much like hard work, but having seen his first piece of directing for (theoretically) adults since 2006, I'm coming round to the idea that he stopped directing because he'd forgotten how to do it properly. I had seen the trailer for Adele Blanc-Sec (my respect for the truth stops me from going along with the official title's assertion that there are adventures) back before I was deported to the occupied territories, and thought to myself; gosh wow; Luc Besson, finally back at the director's chair in a movie with the apparent DNA of the Mummy and Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider. That's gotta be good news. Then the thing sunk without trace; opened for a week on one screen earlier this year and that was that.

If I was smart, as opposed to being too clever for my own good, I'd learn from experience, and realise that if a movie doesn't get released, it's because the people who were hoping to make money from it - who believed in it - have realised that it's no good. No, like an idiot, the fact that the movie is being withheld from me just spurs me to find this great rarity and spend my hard earned money on it. Because I am stupid. Not as stupid as Adele Blanc-Sec the movie, because if I was that stupid I'd need to be helped to cross streets and cut up my own food, but stupider than I have any real right to be.

I still think it ought to have worked. They had - apparently - an established comic book character, and a pretty good setting; pre-WWI France. Adele Blanc-Sec is a pioneering woman journalist and author who goes off on all kinds of swashbuckling adventures. There's a tonne of comic book plots just lying around for a movie to be built around. Instead we get a fitful, misfiring half-comedy with a couple of small scale setpieces and a bunch of money thrown at animating a CGI pterodactyl and a bunch of reanimated mummies. I usually complain that movies don't spend enough money on writing, but here, where the script could have been picked up off the floor, with convenient drawings to assist the storyboards, it simply beggars conventional understanding that this was the best that Besson could do. He's been making kid's movies for the past five years, and maybe that's compromised his sense of what grown up movies are supposed to do, but this is a pale shadow of the drive (and lunacy) of movies like Nikita and Leon. I'm not saying Nikita or Leon are masterpieces, but they both motor along on the back of strong central performances and a really good eye for action staging. Adele Blanc-Sec spends way too much time away from its titular character and doesn't give her enough to do when the camera's on her.

I could be missing something; this might all be hilarious in France for some reason that I'm not culturally equipped to understand. But Besson isn't exactly a highbrow auteur; it would be well against the run of play for him to make a movie which would go over anyone's head. I think he just screwed it up, and I need to stop complaining that he's not directing any more and instead appreciate the stuff he got right when he was still good.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Colombiana: Guns DO kill people

Long ago and far away, before it all - I imagine - started to seem too much like hard work, Luc Besson used to make movies. Nowadays I think he writes ideas on beermats and lets other people run with them, and for the most part. They. Are. Not. Good. Besson may be the most prolific producer of stupid movies since the Golan brothers quit showbiz.

Colombiana is, mirabile dictu, one of the less terrible ones, which is not to say that it's in the running for any more meaningful praise. I suspect that if it didn't have Zoe Saldana in the middle of it, it would be straightforwardly terrible pile of crap. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 28% and honestly that feels about right. There's some good action scenes, and Zoe can carry the stuff with no gunfire, but it's kind of a mess and there isn't really enough gunfire.

Usually with these kind of stupid movies where a chick goes around killing forty times her own weight in bad guys, there's all kinds of quibbling you can do about the internal logic. Colombiana's actually running on such a clean script that all I could come up with was a sense of bewilderment that we had to buy into a parkour chase through Bogota in 1992 when Parkour didn't really become a thing until about five years later. Niggling about that took a lot of the fun out of the chase, but that was about all the niggling I could get done. Other than that, the script is clean, tidy, sorted. It doesn't make a lick of sense in real world terms, but it's sound within its own structure. If you're going to buy the idea of a 5' 6" girl ninja assassin killing all around her, then you're not going to have anything left to argue about with the rest of the movie.

If you're a pop culture nut, you can laugh your ass off at Michael Vartan, who gets to partially reprise his long running role as "slightly clueless love interest to the kickass heroine" from Alias, but with every last vestige of his nuts cut away. I imagine that Vartan comes home from his trailer most nights and yells drunken incoherent rants down the phone at his agent about how he should be getting roles where he carries the movie. If I was the kind of person who could feel other people's pain - who am I kidding? I'd still keep the talent for people with real problems. But it IS funny.

And, just when you think you've seen it all, in the big climactic punch up, Zoe gets to do that classic Hollywood thing of killing the villain's number 2 with his own gun. Except that she field strips it on the fly and stabs him in the throat with the slide. Guns DO kill people. Useful lesson.

Don Winslow: Savages

OK, Don, you beat me. You can go back to the easy listening stuff that I was complaining about before, and I'll stop complaining.

Savages is a good book, in a way. It's not literature; the characters are a little too one note, the pace of the plot a little wrong. But it packs quite a punch as it wraps up. I'm not sure what Winslow had in mind at the beginning, but I suspect that he had half in mind to do one of those caper novels where a small band of lovable rogues outsmart the big organisation and ride off into the sunset. Somewhere about three or four weeks into writing that book, I think he had an epiphany and asked "Who am I kidding? The little guys never get away with it." And then he got right back to writing it towards a big old helping of doom.

It might have been better - for the reader, if not for the book - if Don had gone back over the original chapters and changed the tone a little, because once the going gets tough, there's more than a little mood whiplash. And the pacing of the unfolding tragedy isn't quite right. When things fall apart once and for all, as we knew all along that they would, it's not just too sudden, but too rushed, too hasty. Winslow is a good writer, and I suspect that he did on purpose all the things which don't quite sit with me, simply to make a point about how things are, as opposed to how we want them to be. But I'm not sure that it worked.

That said, the ending is heartbreaking, for all that it gets less space on the page than a list of all the shops in a shopping mall did earlier. Savages is not Winslow's best book - Power of the Dog is probably his best piece of work overall and California Life and Fire the one I like to come back to. But it's well worth your time. Just wish it could all have worked out for those crazy kids.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Cowboys and Aliens; Alien invaders are always somehow remedial

I knew, going in, that Cowboys and Aliens was not going to be good, because I am depressingly aware of how easy it for a movie to go wrong and I have long ago realised that the more of the movie they show you in TV ads, the less likely it is to be a masterpiece, or even competent.  But I try not to let things like mere incompetence ruin my day at work, and apply the same standards to play as well. So me and two old age pensioners braved the show at the local fleapit - my suspicion is that I'd have been entirely alone had it not been for the fact that the local newspaper was giving out vouchers good for a free ticket on Monday nights.

Let me lead off with the bad news, and we can ramp it up from there. At no point does Daniel Craig emerge from the water like some gleaming river god in spandex trunks and flaunt his six pack. Neither does Olivia Wilde, which is only the beginning of the disappointments she brings to the part of "Hey, what do you mean Summer Glau turned down a kooky SF role? Who looks a bit like her?". Harrison Ford sets out to play a villain, but either his agent choked or the scriptwriter wimped out without being asked; whatever, he has a redemptive arc not unlike his earliest famous role, except if Han Solo began as a worthless sadist and somehow magically became Han Solo.

Main performances duly dismissed, we note in passing that a breathtaking array of talented people get tossed aside in the course of the whole thing, including Clancy Brown and Walton Goggins (there is something seriously wrong with ANY movie which can put Walton Goggins in a role and leave you at the end vaguely wondering if he made it or not). Then we stride bravely into what I'm going to have to call the plot.

Aliens are, I have to concede, dicks. With the one exception of ET, who I've always thought was merely a clever piece of propaganda by the alien-overlord-lovers' front, aliens only ever seem to have one thing on their minds. And what tiny, limited, poorly prepared minds they have. The aliens in Cowboys and Aliens fit well into the main sequence of such lunks, slotting in nicely among the aliens of HG Wells (vast intellects too stupid to take their shots), Independence Day (vast intellects too stupid to keep their anti-virus up to date), Signs (vast water-soluble intellects too stupid to bring rain coats to a planet covered in water) and Battle LA (vast intellects prepared to come humungous distances and burn stupid amounts of energy to steal something they could have cobbled up anywhere given the technology they demonstrably have). Cowboys Aliens fall nicely in the middle, having come to earth to steal our gold. Which, Olivia Wilde helpfully points out, is just as rare in their world as it is in ours. This is not news to anyone who knows even a little bit about how elements are formed, but just because something is rare doesn't really explain why it's in demand. For example, common sense is vanishingly rare despite its name, and yet, the demand for it is disappointingly small. Aliens do be wanting their gold. We don't be knowing why. We CAN eliminate the idea that they're collecting as bling, because like every other scary alien in Hollywood history, Cowboy Aliens are strangers to common decency and lope around without clothes, jewellery or even utility belts. Possibly this is why we haven't conquered the universe; our stupid preoccupation with dressing up to go out is getting in the way of our destiny.

Creating a believable space alien is a very difficult thing to do, and I have to applaud the makers of Cowboys and Aliens for realising this and just throwing their hats at it. The aliens look as though every other alien you've ever seen had some kind of a rainbow party and then agreed to abandon the spawn which resulted. There's bits of the DNA of Cloverfield, the actual Alien, Predators, the completely crap humAlien in the second of the two Alien movies which we're all agreed never really happened and probably a bunch of other stuff from movies I've been lucky enough never to have seen. And there are just boatloads of them, leading to my usual preoccupation with the logistics of it all; what do they all eat? They're huge, they'd have to eat all the time... and so on.

I was originally going to rant on and on about how implausible it was that you'd have aliens which had the technology somehow to suck gold straight out of the ground and refine it with pure magnetism or something, and were too stupid to have invented clothes or have any better plan for dealing with pesky humans than just running out and trying to beat them up. Then, as I was in the state of zen which ironing can bring to the truly enlightened, it struck me that I was looking at this wrong. All we were being shown was the goldminers. And even on earth, no matter how much we value gold, we've never put much value on goldminers. Suddenly the aliens made sense to me. Of course they were ignorant assclowns who didn't have clothes or clues or clever ways to use their genius technology. They were goldminers. Their society's expendable sod busters. Ta-da. That problem was solved.

Of course, it still left all the other stuff in the movie which doesn't make any sense, or feels like it was old long before this movie. Daniel Craig spends the whole movie in an amnesiac trance, until we discover - through native american rituals - the real story behind how he wound up amnesiac with a big alien killing bracelet on one wrist. I'm just not going to tell you that; not because I don't want to spoil the surprise, but because I'm afraid that if I recount it, the stupid will rub off. At no point does the bracelet ever really make sense; at first it seems to switch itself on only when aliens are around, but later it seems to be all about whether Daniel's in the mood for destruction. Which is slightly less stupid, because why would aliens make weapons which detected themselves? Mind you, why would alien weapons be powered by human thought waves? At no point does the alien game plan make sense, even if they ARE just dumb goldminers. They're kidnapping the local population to figure out their weaknesses? How much more do they need than "they're half our size and have no energy weapons"?, though I suppose I shouldn't rule out the possibility that they're just bored sadists passing the time as they dig for gold. Aliens are dicks, after all.

Anyhow, after many distractions, a satisfying coalition of cowboys, bandits and actual Indians fights off the wicked goldminers, and kills them to the last man so as to save the prisoners. I'm not actually sure about the math, because it looks to me like they might have lost more of the assault party than they got back, but then no-one ever does that math in real life OR the movies. Olivia Wilde gets killed at least twice, with no really noticeable effect on her performance either time. Harrison Ford learns to love the son he never had as well the dipstick he actually managed to bring up. Sadly, the wrong son gets wasted, but them's the breaks in Hollywood, and Paul Dano must have had a better agent. Or an Oscar nomination. Something, anyhow. Keith Carradine bucks the trend in the movie and actually gets out of it alive, but like everyone else involved probably now wants to, spends the ending trying to convince us he can't remember how he got into it or what might have happened. Daniel Craig's character grows and develops nearly as much as the scenery, but to less persuasive effect; rarely has a genuinely good actor been given so little to do with his talent. (Craig may well have less dialogue than any other speaking part, and there's only so much you can do with grimaces).

Still, it's taught me a valuable lesson; not only are aliens dicks, but the ones we meet in the movies are usually the alien lumpenproletariat. Which is good news for plucky humanity, until some bunch of aliens gets wise and sends lawyers.