Monday, 31 December 2012

Sons of Anarchy Season 5

Since about a third of the page views for this blog come from people wondering about the verisimilitude of SoA Season Three's trip to beautiful downtown Nordor, I feel like I owe it to my tiny readership to express some thoughts, no matter how cursory, about the short strange trip that was Season 5.

Season 4 was a bit of a mess - I tend to think of all of SoA as a bit of a mess, but apparently everyone thought that about Season 4, which scrambled around frantically trying to find things for everyone to do while Jax deliberated eternally over whether or not to schwack Clay. Having painted everyone into a corner with such gay abandon that he might as well have used a firehose instead of a brush, Sutter whisked aside the curtain and announced cheerily that it was all a CIA plot and that Clay would have to be kept alive so that … well, my suspension of disbelief doesn't get the kind of mileage it would need to get for me to try to explain how it all worked; obviously what's really happening is that Ron Perlman has Sutter's motorcycle locked in a basement somewhere, and to get it back intact Sutter had to think of something, anything, to avoid Ron needing to look for real work in 2012. My opinion; schwacking him and having him come back as ghost would have insulted our intelligence slightly less, but I suspect that Sutter was scared of being told that he was copying the Harry the Ghost schtick from Dexter the TV show.

Anyhow, from that unpromising start, Sutter had to assemble something in the shape of Season 5, and I was not that optimistic about how it was going to go. Clay was still sticking around, gumming up the works. The Sons were still operating in the alternate economic universe where it's possible to make money in the United States of Armed-error by IMPORTING guns from the least armed and least gun-friendly country in Europe, a universe which is co-located with the political fantasy land where the CIA is in any way interested in either Ireland or Mexico to the point where they'd make deals with domestic terrorists to keep a better eye on either of them. I had no idea what you could throw into the scales on the other side to balance that up into something I could watch without poking fun.

Well, fair dos to Mr Sutter, the man has got a couple of gears I hadn't suspected. Season five has finally settled Clay's hash. And the Sons are finally edging their way out of the guns and coke business. And a lot of the bad crazy stupid things they've done are starting to have real world consequences for them and the people around them, which is satisfying. I'm actually kind of looking forward to Season six, where all kinds of bits of plausible retribution are going to have to work their way through the system, schwacking guilty and innocent alike.

Not too dusty for a season which got going by burning Tig's daughter alive, introducing Jimmy Smits as a pimp and finally putting poor Opie out of his misery (though I don't discount the possibility that Sutter is planning to resurrect Opie in Season 6 so that something terrible can happen to his dead body. Opie is like the unluckiest Hell's Angel EVAR). Other fun things; bringing in Donal Logue as a ringer at the end of the season, undoubtedly so that he can terrorise the entire cast the whole way through the next season; bringing in Walton Goggins as a transvestite hooker, because Walton Goggins; and giving Harold Perrineau the best ever explanation of why kingpins need to take revenge - because otherwise they'll just brood on their grievances and lose focus on the big picture. And in a cheering testament to the way that in TV world chemo just works for good and bad alike, Ex-Sherriff Unser has lasted just as long with cancer as Walter White, without ruining anyone's life at all. Yay, Unser. There's a vocal constituency on the internet which want to see him get his own show called Unser PI, but if the money's out there for anyone to get a PI show it needs to be spent on ten more seasons of Terriers.

The Coldest War: Ian Tregillis

I read this in just over a day. For one thing, it's a nice short book that doesn't outstay its welcome, and for another thing, it's not the kind of book which is easy to put down. It took me the better part of a fortnight to get to the end of Dracula Cha Cha Cha, because it was all too easy to put that down and read something else. 

It's been about three months since I read Bitter Seeds, the first book in the trilogy for which The Coldest War is the middle bit. The middle bit tends to be where you get the measure of a writer. Middles are hard, and the second book tends to be the one where the publisher is piling on the pressure and you have to rush things. I had pretty high hopes for The Coldest War despite those worries, because Bitter Seeds had looked like part of something which had been carefully worked out in advance. And so it proved. Tregillis had thought through what he wanted to do and how he wanted things to unfold, and he'd also thought about how to keep his characters interesting when we check back in on them after twenty years. They're still not the most deeply drawn characters in the history of fiction, but they make sense in their own worlds. The things they do are consistent with what we've seen them do in the past, and they're also the kinds of things we could easily imagine ourselves sliding into if our own lives had unfolded in such horrible ways.

Bitter Seeds saw Britain winning the war against Germany by the skin of its teeth, but losing Europe to the Soviets, and with it all the German mad science which had sent Britain racketing over the edge of the dark side just to stay in the game. The Coldest War checks in on the consequences twenty years later, with a wall splitting Paris in two and Britain struggling in a world where it survived a war, kept an Empire and never gained its greatest ally; America is "in the fourth decade of its Great Depression". The Soviet Union is biding its time, twitching on all the borders of the Empire and building up its own versions of the super soldier technology it filched from Germany as the war ended. The team which gave Britain its magical edge twenty years before is disillusioned or dead, and it's only a matter of time before the Soviets make their move against an apparently defenceless empire.

Enter Gretel the mad seer from the first book, and the next stage of her inscrutable plan to do Tregillis-only-knows-what. The book opens with her finally fleeing from Soviet imprisonment and pitching up in Britain with an elaborate scheme to cash in on her manipulation of events in the last book by manipulating the British characters some more. Tregillis gets across the sheer frustration of trying to out-scheme a maniac who can actually see the future; how can her opponents know whether they're playing into her hands or not? Getting that across without spelling it out endlessly is a neat trick, but neater by far is the way in which Tregillis ruthlessly smashes every character into a broken bewildered state in which they're fair game for any kind of manipulation. Marsh has had a horrible time of things since the war; he's quit the secret service, his marriage has fallen apart and he's living from one odd job to the next. Beauclerk collapsed into alcoholism and drug addiction only to be saved by the love of a good woman and then sell out to his posho brother's pro-Soviet think tank. Both are riddled with hatred and self doubt, but very cleverly, everything that's broken about them is part of the bigger plan Gretel's working towards. Which makes for some very solid story telling and you can almost forgive the notion that the fate of the British Empire would rest on a couple of screw-ups who the entire high command has completely lost sight of. Of course, that's more plausible than it usually is, because it turns out that the Empire has a plan B these two deadbeats knew nothing about, and which on the surface looks like a brilliant - albeit utterly immoral - alternative that renders the antics of the first book completely obsolete.

It's all very well plotted, is what I suppose I'm trying to say. And the writing's actually kicked up a notch from the first book, as though Tregillis was settling into his groove with his characters and had sketched in all the background so that he was free to give us more of a sense of the personalities. All in all, Tregillis has actually pulled off the rather neat trick of living up to my expectations. The whole thing gets wrapped up with a bow in the spring of next year, and I'm looking forward to seeing how he gets everyone out of the fix he's left them in at the end of this book.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Kim Newman: Anno Dracula, The Bloody Red Baron, Dracula Cha Cha Cha and The Hound of the d'Urbevilles. Dracula, Dracula, Dracula, STAHP.

I think I was still living in Greece when I read my first Kim Newman book, The Night Mayor. It's not a very good book, and I read it because in those days if you could find anything in English in Athens at all you just bought it and hoped for the best, and also because in those days you had to read a book to make your mind up about, not like today when you can check out a million internet reviews and have your mind made up for you. [Amazon's reviews are great for that; I read the reviews, which usually tell me far more about the critic than the book, and then ask myself if the kind of people who like the book are the kind of guys I'd go for a pint with….]. The Night Mayor was an early casualty of my 2000 books policy, and I think I'd actually managed to forget who'd written it when I tripped over Anno Dracula four or five years later. That, I thought to myself, looks interesting. 

Difficult though it might be to believe it now, when SFF shelves in bookshops are groaning with the stuff, but in the early 90s, Anno Dracula stood out from the crowd. There weren't that many vampire books about, and most of them were sticking firmly to the template still being mined by the likes of Twilight; yes vampires were veddy veddy real and ebber so ebber glamorous, but they were a gorgeous shadowy minority lurking round the edges of the real world, scaring the bejesus out of ordinary people but not really doing anything of note. Newman had the rip-roaring audacity to munge vampires into alternate history and ask everyone to ponder a world where Dracula got away with it in grand style, seeing off Van Helsing and those other puling weaklings and pulling none uvver than Queen Victoria 'er own blooming' self.

He's been riffing on the notion ever since, with uneven results. My last post was about Tim Powers, whose entire body of work has been variations on a theme of secret history. Powers has put together book after book in which fictional everyday people have bashed into the edges of the lives of the famous through the ages and discovered the supernatural weirdness operating at the edge of reality which made extraordinary lives remarkable. 

In contrast, most of Newman's work in the past twenty years has been about re-imagining the world of fiction if the bad guys got a better break or at least better press agents. In the Anno Dracula series, Dracula managed briefly to take over England and in the process make vampires almost respectable. In last year's The Hound of the d'Urbevilles, Newman set out to tell us the story of Professor Moriarty as seen through the eyes of his henchman Basher Moran. It didn't quite pan out, partly because the book is a collection of stories written at various times and partly because Moran becomes a very annoying voice if you have to sit through a whole book with him. Newman casts him as a much put-upon thug who feels he doesn't get the respect he deserves, which is a very funny thing for the length of a short story, but wearing for the whole evening - unless you can arrange to do what you'd do in real life with someone like that, which is to take another couple of pints every time he starts into another self-serving sob story about how he could have been a contender if it hadn't been for all the other guys who got in the way. As I've said before, flawed characters are the heart of great narrative, but you need bloody good writing or acting to make their company bearable for long.

Anno Dracula itself is actually a fairly nifty and nimble piece of work. Newman had the crucial insight that the best way to show life under monstrous tyranny is to look at something else rather awful and show how the tyranny overshadows even that. So the main motor of the plot in Anno Dracula is an attempt to catch Jack the Ripper. The helter skelter hamfisted investigation bounces off everything else which would be wrong with a world in which the all-powerful Prince Consort of the British Empire was a lunatic Carpathian bloodsucker, and so we're shown, rather than being told, which is the right way to do these things. Although the writing isn't that brilliant, there were a lot of good ideas in it, and sometimes that's as good as you can expect genre stuff to be.

Newman went back to the well briskly with The Bloody Red Baron, which hit the historical reset button slightly and let World War One kick off as it did historically despite the chaos which ended Anno Dracula. It's hard to blame him; even if you've never warmed to the thought of Snoopy's long struggle with the Red Baron, there's something irresistible about the whole notion of mashing together the winged terrors of the night and the winged knights over the trenches, and you can't really have the Red Baron without the conventional backdrop. On the debit side, the book itself isn't as good as the idea. Most of the surviving characters from the first book are dragged back in by the ears and given something to do, and then Newman has a high old time converting half the fictional Edwardian era into vampires in an exercise which was probably a lot more entertaining for him and his mates down the pub than it turned out to be for me. I don't know if I've actually chucked the book under the 2000 books policy, but it's definitely a candidate. Largely because it's relentlessly grim. A world in which vampires are running the show ought to be grim and World War One was not anyone's idea of a picnic, but even correcting for all of that, The Bloody Red Baron is just bloody hard going. 

And so to Dracula Cha Cha Cha, which appeared earlier this year in paperback after a lengthy break in the cycle. It includes a separate novella called Aquarius, which is set in the summer of love and is mostly devoted to ripping up early 1970s British TV cop shows and the general notion that hippies were idiots. Cha Cha Cha is set in 1959 Italy and is best seen as the consequence of the always pop-culture crazed Newman overdosing on Italian cinema for some reason. It is very, very wearing. On the one hand, there isn't a clear through line in the plot. On the other hand, there's an endless parade of cameos from fictional and re-imagined historical characters, which is actually the real reason the plot keeps disappearing; it gets kicked out of the way for yet another celebrity guest star. There are moments of real cleverness - the casting of Tom Ripley as a catspaw is clever, but what makes it work is that Newman imagines a Ripley who knows he's out of his depth without realising just how deep the water is, and puts us compellingly inside his slightly panicky mind. This very neatly turns on its head the structure of most of Highsmith's original Ripley books, where the protagonist is flailing around wildly as Ripley calmly exploits him. Newman can do good stuff when he gives himself the room to do it. But instead the novel is a clutter of references and asides which I knew had to be references I was supposed to get if only I were one of the elect who cared enough to immerse myself in contemporary pop culture. Instead I took comfort in the thought that there are people out there whose anoraks would blot out the sun, and felt ever so slightly more mainstream than I usually do. Also, a little of the annoyance that I suspect I provoke from time to time in people who care even less than I do. 

Newman intends to come back and tie the whole thing up in a bow sometime next year with a book called Alucard, which I am hoping/dreading will be set in Japan and be full of anime references and Godzilla. And yes, I will probably read it, completist that I am, but I won't be keeping it.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Tim Powers: Hide Me Among the Graves

Hide Me Among the Graves is a sequel to The Stress of her Regard, the first Tim Powers book which really felt to me like heavy going. Stress is a hard book, far more literary than his earlier, simpler works, and far more upsetting in its denouement. Powers has never held back when it came to putting his characters through the grinder, but Stress  kicked it up enough notches that I was almost in tears by the time I reached the end of the book, and I've only read it once since then. I've read most of his books three or four times since I discovered him by chance back in the 1980s, but Stress was always the one I skipped when I went on a Powers jag.

Either I've toughened up, which is unlikely, or Powers has started pulling his punches as he gets older, but Hide Me Among the Graves is nothing like as hard going as its predecessor. It's probably also not quite as good a book, but I've thought for a while now that sometime in the late 1990s Powers lost a step, and so I was not expecting him to be at the same giddy heights that I saw when I was reading him first. It is very well written, and the main characters are solid and memorable, but it lacks the drive and immediacy which made something like The Anubis Gates a page turner. Of course, when I read The Anubis Gates, I had a lot less really good stuff to compare it to, and it was a struggle to find anything by Tim Powers in Ireland in those primitive days when you found rare books by slogging around every bookshop you knew until you found one battered copy in the basement of some tiny shop in London. In contrast, I got Hide Me Among the Graves by downloading it from Took about forty seconds. Took me the best part of three weeks to read it, because I kept getting sidetracked, and it's a tribute to Powers' basic skills that I could keep coming back into the book after several days away from it and never lose track of what was going on; it's a comment on how he's lost some of his younger drive that I didn't just rush through it, ignoring everything else, as I would have back in the day when after months of slogging I would discover yet another Powers book (that was another thing about the good old days - you didn't even know whether a book existed until you came across it by accident).

I've always liked Powers' take on magic, because he makes it capricious and costly, a horrible force which you harness at terrible personal expense and which will only do what you want if it suits it to bother. The magic which runs through Stress and Hide Me is not even magic, but the side effects of unworldly creatures struggling to make a connection with individual humans despite the fact that neither can really understand the other. The theme running through both books is the way that such spirits possess humans who then become great artists, but wreck the lives of everyone around them. Stress played it out with Shelley and Byron's set, and Hide Me picks up the problem with the Rossettis and Swinburne some fifty years later.

Powers always tries to colour within the lines when he sets a book among historical characters, so the historical figures can only do what they did in real life, and somehow they never really come fully to life as much as the fictional characters he puts in among them. John Crawford and Adelaide McKee are much more interesting people than Christina Rossetti and the rest of her family, and it's not just because you can't google them to find out what will happen to them. Hide Me unfolds over such a long period of time (almost twenty years) that half the historical figures in it have met their historical deaths by the time the book's epilogue is over, so in Powers' scheme of things, everyone is at hazard. It's just that somehow he seems better at fleshing out a character when he has free rein over everything than when he has to stay carefully within the limits of what we know from their real lives and writings.

This is, at best, rather weak praise for a good writer, but it's not the book I'd recommend to people who were starting out on the Tim Powers project. The three you're going to come across at the moment (because he's perennially out of print for most of this books) are Stress, Hide Me and Stranger Tides, which as I've noted previously, was given a rather unsatisfactory film adaptation (but is at least back in print because of it). But I'd suggest starting with either his breakout book, The Drawing of the Dark, a magnificently bonkers novel featuring renaissance mercenaries and a mystic plot which depends on beer, or The Anubis Gates, which takes a mad rampage through Georgian London as time travel goes horribly amiss for a guy hired as the expert guide for a literary expedition. They're both rather easier to get into than anything being pushed at the moment, and they will get you bedded in for the full gotta-catch-them-all experience.

The Killing [Forbrydelsen] III; Sometimes, less is less

I posted briefly on the first - and I now realise, best - season of The Killing at the beginning of the year. Last night I watched the grande finale, and it crystallised something which nagged at me all the way through watching the second season and the third one; that seasons only ten episodes long weren't even half as good as the sprawling, character driven mess 20 episodes could give us. And re-reading my own post about the first season, I see that I was almost foretelling what might go wrong in the future. The first season is engrossing, even though the red herrings and indeed the whole final plot don't really hang together very well. What made The Killing work was the way it brought characters to life as they grappled with the aftermath of a single murder that - despite endless hints that it was part of some vast sinister conspiracy - came home to very simple and domestic miseries. The second season was a little disappointing after that; while Sarah Lund remained a hypnotic and charismatic presence at the heart of the action, the surrounding characters for the new murder - and the new murders themselves - never really came into focus in the same way.

For the third season, they tried to bring things back to family, with Lund chasing after the abducted daughter of Denmark's most important family of plutocrats, to discover that the abduction itself was driven by revenge for a father who'd lost his daughter. Meanwhile, Lund's own family relationships were falling apart as she simultaneously wrestled with becoming a granny and the problem of breaking up the marriage of an old flame. Over on the inevitable (and honestly never that interesting) political wing of the story, the Danish prime minister was wondering what more he could have done to stop his son from killing himself and how much he was going to need to do to stop his own brother from becoming a complete moral bankrupt. Could there have been more family to fret about? Probably not. But just by having so many family issues to deal with all at once in so short a time, they wound up not being able to work out any of them well enough to give us the same depth of empathy we had the families in the first season. It might be that this kind of thing is like cooking pasta; you've got to use a bigger pan than you think if you don't want everything sticking together in an indigestible clump of starch.

We live in a world where they brought back Dallas after almost 30 years, so I assume nothing from the insistence of the entire production team that the end of the third season of The Killing is the end, full stop. Mind you, given that the season ends with Lund straight up shooting the bad guy in the head rather than live with idea that he might just go on being the bad guy, it's going to be …. challenging …. to get a fourth season on the road. It will take more than one line of dialogue to get them out of that one. Maybe we can come back in 20 years, when they let her out of jail for murder. Although people have been shocked by Lund snapping, I have to say that there was a moment when a cold certainty crept over me that it was the only way things could go. I looked at Lund sitting there in the back of the car, staring at the man she knew had killed at least one young woman and almost certainly dozens, and I thought to myself, she's going to shoot that guy in the back of the head before very long. I was wrong. She shot him in the side of the head. I'm not sure if it was true to the character we've lived through forty episodes with, but I think that it was true to the character we were with in those moments; otherwise I'd never have seen it coming.

The weird thing is how closely the master plot in the first and third seasons coincided. A couple lose their daughter (to murder/to kidnapping). They struggle to get to grips with it, and to find some kind of justice. All the way through, they're supported by a long time family friend who's a core part of the family business and who they've always trusted, and in the end it turns out that he's the real bad guy. And he gets extra-judicially murdered by someone who's at the end of their tether. 

I have to be clear; if I've got a complaint at all, it's that there just wasn't enough of something I really liked. This was great TV. I just wish that there had been more of it. With more time, the third season at least could have been even more awesome than the first one.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Dexter is Delicious; albeit not in any way tasteful

Just now a friend suggested that since I was both hungry and surrounded by idiots, I could solve both problems by eating them. Like most advice, it was wretchedly impractical, not least because idiots are fatty and unappetising, and it would take far too long to cook one to the point where it was in any way palatable.

Still, it reminded me that I'd been meaning to say something about the last Dexter book but one, Dexter is Delicious, which is all about cannibals, to the extent that Dexter books are about anything other than Dexter's obsession with his own magnificence. Yes, let me rephrase. Tucked in and around the corners of the unending love story between Dexter and, well, Dexter, there's yet another improbably mass murder mystery stalking Miami, this time involving people who like to eat people.

Dexter is Delicious is the fifth book Jeff Lindsay has written about Dexter Morgan, and there's a sixth somewhere tucked around the third floor ops room if I can ever move myself off the sofa and look for it. I have to admire Lindsay for continuing to write the books; the first two got him a TV deal and a show which is now improbably in its seventh season. On the one hand, Lindsay never needs to do anything else again other than figure out how big a room he needs to store the royalty cheques, and on the other hand, it's got to be tough to keep working away at a character on the page when the TV show has taken the same character, made it three dimensional and ridiculously charming and then run off all over East Jesus in directions that have nothing to do with your original plan. 

I have to admire Lindsay for plugging away at it, but I don't have to admire all the books. Dexter is Delicious isn't that bad, actually, compared to Dexter in the Dark, the third book. The first two books had been pretty good, but the third one lost the plot in a big way, dragging the supernatural in by the ears and then not being very sure what to do with it. That whole angle got dumped sharpish in the somewhat less odd but otherwise unremarkable Dexter by Design, and I think it's pretty safe to say I wouldn't have bought any more Dexter books at that point were it for the fact that they tend to be discounted, and that I keep hoping that Lindsay will find his mojo again and amuse me the way he did with the first book (I like to think that if Lindsay is reading this blog entry he is very sanely thinking "Pah. He paid for the books, all of them. Let him hate, I've got his money. Also, bwahaha!" ). 

I'm not sure that Lindsay ever saw Dexter as a long running character; Darkly Dreaming Dexter gave us a very memorable anti-hero, but didn't exactly cry out for a sequel. Except that we live in a time where anything that makes money has to be done again and again until all the fun is flogged out of it. The initial notion is a good one; a serial killer who only kills people even more despicable than he is. And in the first book, Lindsay's deadpan self-aware narrator is a sly and crafty voice (it's perfectly captured by Michael C Hall in the first season of the TV show when some of the other other cops are talking about a vigilante killing of some scumbag and say they'd like to shake the killer's hand. "Ah, you say that now." muses Dexter to himself, and in that one line delivery Hall perfectly conveys a man who knows he's beyond redemption and isn't too bothered about it so long as no-one catches up with him any time soon). 

One problem is that archness gets tired after a while, and five books in, Dexter is starting to sound almost camp. The other problem is that Miami's supply of people who are actually worse than Dexter has crossed the line into ridiculous some time back; if there were actually enough lunatic killers running around Miami to keep Dexter as busy as he is, Somalia would be sending Florida peacekeepers. The TV show dodges some of the bigger problems of Dexter; in the books Lindsay doesn't make any bones about the fact that Dexter doesn't just kill people; he carves them up slowly over the course of the night, taking his time over it. There's only so much time you can spend hanging out in the head of someone who does that before the joke starts to turn sour. The show ducks this issue by having Dexter kill everyone quickly and cleanly, so it's not too challenging to come up with plausible fiends who are worse than Dexter, but Lindsay's really loading the bases against himself over the long run.

Hence the frankly daft front plot of Delicious, which is built round the notion of a batshit bananas cabal of freaks who like eating people, and just for the sake of upping the weirdness quotient, have tripped over a couple of people who want to be eaten, which is like, not weird at all. Anyhow, pretty much nothing to do with that makes a button of sense, and it mostly functions as a distraction from more interesting things, like whether Dexter having a new baby daughter will make him a reformed character (don't be stupid) and whether his sister will ever find love (again, don't be stupid) and finally, just what the hell his even-worse-than-Dexter brother Brian, last seen limping off scene to - apparently - die at the end of an earlier book, is playing at. Dexter's reaction to his brother trying to be a loving uncle provides most of the real fun in the book, before he comes in for the big finish and left me quietly dreading what might come next.

I've complained before about the problem of serialised detective characters needing to do horrible things, and conveniently having a complete sociopathic but weirdly effective best friend who will mysteriously do the horrible thing so that we can go on liking the hero and even adore him for having such a wide range of interesting friends. I've got a sinking feeling that in the sixth book, I'm going to see Lindsay roll out Brian in the role of the guy who does things that even Dexter can't quite bring himself to do. I may wait for the New Year to nerve myself up to that.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Thirty Minutes or Less; would have made a better run-time than a title

I wasn't going to say anything about Thirty Minutes or Less which I watched half heartedly last night hoping it would as much fun as Zombieland, or after a while, as much fun as Tower Heist, and after a little longer, as much fun as that time I had to get my head sewn up after a concussion. Then it was over, which was one of its better bits; say this much for Thirty Minutes or Less, say that at least it doesn't last too long. It was only this morning, as I mulled over all the better things I might have done with the time, that it struck me that it was yet another one of those movies which had tiresomely crammed about twenty minutes of ideas into more than an hour of flailing, and that if they had brought it in at thirty actual minutes or less, it would have made a perfectly good pilot for a show no-one was ever going to want to see any more of.

The plot has about four moving parts; two losers decide to murder the dominant loser's dad for his lottery winnings, and to finance the hire of a hit man for that, they coerce another loser into robbing a bank for them. They do the coercion by strapping a bomb vest to a pizza delivery guy. Amazingly, that's the more direct plan; the first draft had them setting up a porno movie so that they could blackmail some random husband into robbing a bank. I know what you're thinking; if you can assemble a remote controlled bomb vest, don't you already have most of what you need to bypass the need for a hit-man? There you go again, bringing a brain to a dumb-fight.

Anyhow, that's the whole thing, pretty much; coerce the schlub to rob the bank, and then watch as everything comes unstuck. At that point, they seem to have completely forgotten the title, and the pizza guy gets ten whole hours to rob the bank. Trying to rob a bank from scratch in Thirty Minutes or Less could have been frenetic and silly and genuinely exciting; taking the whole damn day over it means we have to spend the day in the company of our cast of losers, not one of whom comes close to being proverbially loveable. Even eighty minutes of them was probably too long. There has to be someone in every movie you want to see more of. Either the villain is larger than life and hamming it up like the dickens, or the hero's a scrappy outsider who deserves a break, but there has to be someone for you to root for. Problem is that the villains are moronic dicks, too stupid to be masterminds and not magnificently silly enough to be fun to watch (best idiot villains of all time? I'd start my list with the Wet Bandits from Home Alone, which for bonus points also had one of the most fun snarky heroes. Not haute couture, I know). Fine, fine, you grumble, root for the heroes. Can't; they're whining nobodies. Though they don't have to be; the pizza guy begins and ends the movie with moments of sneaky everyman cleverness, so it's a real mystery how his brain goes on holidays for the rest of the movie. 

I read the other day that Rowan Atkinson believes that if everyone is having fun on the set, no-one will have any fun in the theatre, and if that's a general truth, then the whole cast and crew must have had a hell of a good time making Thirty Minutes or Less.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Iron Sky: It's Nazis, from the dark side of the moon and... that's all I got.

Iron Sky is another one of those "What could possibly go wrong?" ideas. I heard about it before I even found myself in exile, and thought, golly, I hope those wacky Finns get the money to make that, because that would be awesome. 

The idea IS awesome, but Iron Sky  is yet another miserable reminder of the gulf that lies between idea and execution. In principle, an SF comedy about Nazi revenants coming back to  conquer the earth from secret bases on the far side of the moon - comedy gold. From certain angles, nazis are never not funny. In a world running short of safe targets for open mockery and disdain, at least with the nazis you don't have to worry that anyone's going to run out and demand that you show more respect. Even if fat white people get organised, we'll always have the nazis to fall back on. Sure, you've got to be careful - as Basil Fawlty would say - not to mention the war, but leaving aside thirteen years of genocidal lunacy, what's not to laugh at? Laughing at nazis vents our hate for every other uptight authority figure in an over-tailored uniform.

Plus, as any war gamer will tell you, the nazis got all the coolest toys. If their leadership hadn't been batshit insane and an almost comical working out of the paradox that enough organisation gives you nothing but chaos, their engineering might have had everyone in modern Europe all doing exactly what Berlin told us to do…. So the thought of what kind of cool crap they might have rolled out with 60 plus years to tinker on the back of the moon? Even if all the jokes fell flat, there was always that to look forward to.

Sadly, the jokes do fall flat. One really big joke can only take you so far, but what's even worse than relying on one big joke is trying to rely on two big jokes and losing focus on either. The other big joke is that the US Government is moronic and venal. On the one hand? Just the US Government? Really? You think? And on the other hand? A joke depends at least a little on being a surprise; something you didn't already know. Iron Sky's nazis are actually pretty well thought out; the upper crust are the same kinds of nasty people you find at the top of every political system, and the other ranks are sort of sweetly deluded about the essential decency of their system. They all play it straight, which means that it works a lot better dramatically and as comedy than the raucous shrieking one-note caricatures infesting the US administration. The one good US moment is when a spin doctor channels the infamous meltdown from Downfall. Other than that, it's always kind of a relief when the focus shifts back to the moon.

The cool toys; well, there's a war-game gag to look at almost anything and muse, "There's a game in that…." (Infamously, John once unthinkingly said this after putting down a book about soccer….). There sure is a game in Iron Sky, to the extent that the computer game is coming real soon now. The Nazi armada is wonderfully detailed and suitably old school, and it's sadly plain that most of the thought went into the look of the movie instead of into the detail of the story. What does this remind me of? Oh yes, Jackboots on Whitehall,  another great idea which would have been so much better if it had stayed a great idea rather than starting the death march to mediocrity which always wears away the beauty of a great idea before it can ever get to the ball. Whenever the evil geniuses in the late great The Middleman were monologuing their genius, they made a point of emphasising how their scheme had been sheer elegance in its simplicity, the subtext being that once they tried to put the scheme into reality, a million tiny things made defeat inevitable. Iron Sky is another one of those things which would have been so much more fun if it had never happened.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Three Musketeers, and a bunch of annoying people.

I've adverted in the past to the way in which my exile to the Hidden City has cut into my opportunities to fritter away my precious time on worthless but entertaining schlock. Thus it was that I missed Paul WS Anderson's version of The Three Musketeers until just now, when I loaded up a cheapish DVD and prepared myself to marvel.

I'd seen the trailers and thought to myself; bulletproof underlying book, airships and - is that Ray Stevenson? Is that Christoph Waltz as Cardinal Richelieu? How can this fail? Somehow the glamour distracted me from the glaring hints that failure was not just an option but almost a requirement. Firstly, there was Milla Jovovich, who, no matter her many virtues, has been a virtual guarantee of disaster ever since she ran away from Luc Besson. Secondly - and he's never far behind, since Paul WS Anderson and Milla are to bad action movies what Paul and Linda McCartney were to unnecessary sequels to the Beatles - there was, well, Paul WS Anderson, the poor man's Michael Bay. WS can mount set pieces, but he doesn't ever seem to have figured out anything else; in a properly run world, he'd be the unsung second unit man who made sure real movies had a couple of really good explosions. Sadly, through some quirk for which I blame you, the moron general public, his movies keep making more money than they cost to make, and thus there seems to be no stopping him. There's only so much I can accomplish by paying less than cost price for his movies on DVD; the rest of you are going to have to start spending your money on better movies. 

Frustratingly, there's a better movie struggling fitfully to get out of the Three Musketeers, and as is usually the case, it's the movie the actors are trying to make in conspiracy with the writers and against the director and the special effects team. Caddishly, they haven't let Milla in on this plot, and she spend most of her time hurling herself around athletically and laughing as though she'd been told she could get a real job if she somehow constructed the world's most annoying mannered laugh. Matthew McFadyen's wonderfully world-weary Athos plainly wants to murder the heck out of Milla's Milady deWinter and after you've seen and heard enough of the period laugh, you're rooting for him to get the job done before you see her entire set of teeth once again. I like Milla, but she needs to start her own band instead of Linda McCartney-ing it with WS all the time. It probably doesn't help that the whole point of Milady deWinter is poise, grace and subtlety, and the whole point of Milla is running up vertical surfaces while clobbering the ungodly. 

I'd never heard of the actor who was playing Aramis, who managed to look vaguely like Orlando Bloom, but somehow with less in the line of cheekbones, and he doesn't do much to keep the Three Musketeer show on the road; all the musketeering belongs to Athos and the unstoppable Ray Stevenson, essentially doing Titus Pullo in a different outfit, and there is nothing, and can be nothing wrong with that. I'd be perfectly happy to watch Ray do Titus Pullo as Atticus Finch, let alone Porthos. So long as the camera is on Athos, Porthos, Christoph Waltz's perfectly pitched Richelieu, or even, in a pinch, Orlando Bloom's entertainingly nasty Buckingham, the movie is quite fun. Move the focus away from them and there's nothing much to be had but explosions and the kind of romantic flummery I'd expect in a Disney special about the problems of contemporary teenagers. Or to put it another way, whenever the camera rests on d'Artagnan, everything takes a nosedive.

I had thought I'd never heard of Logan Lerman, who plays d'Artagnan in much the same way that I play chess [1], but it turns out that he played the hapless kid in 3.10 to Yuma. He doesn't seem to have aged a day, and he brings to the role everything it truly doesn't need. d'Artagnan is written as an annoying callow teenager, but in a big sprawling book, there's plenty to distract you from that and anyway he gets smarter and less annoying; it's part of what the book and its sequels are about. A movie as dumb as this one has to keep all its characters pretty one-note, and man does that one note from from d'Artagnan get tired fast.

So, how about those airships? Well, they were invented by Leonardo da Vinci. I don't think that Hollywood is entirely clear on when da Vinci lived and worked; I think he's turned into a convenient shorthand for well-cool crap to throw at the screen in any movie not set in the present day. So we can pass cheerily over the fact that this is 1625 and that using da Vinci for engineering ideas makes about as much sense as having the characters in the Matrix discover a cache of Edison's prototypes and using them to out compute the Matrix. And I don't know when or how the hell they think he would have got the time and money to turn all his doodles into working prototypes; the movie with starts with a break in at da Vinci's vault in Venice. It's genuinely hard to think of a worse place to build a basement than Venice, let alone a basement filled with exquisitely engineered booby traps and protected by four locks so precisely machined that unless all four are released at once, none will work, and all miraculously still working a century after da Vinci died and 125 years after he left Venice for good. 

It turns out that we've terribly underestimated the sheer technical brilliance of the 1600s, because within a year of the musketeers stealing and then losing the plans for da Vinci's airships, England's built a working prototype with essentially ALL THE GUNS IN THE WORLD on it, and not to be outdone, Richelieu's managed to nick the plans back and built his own French knock-off that makes the English prototype look like a rowboat with aspirations. Little does he know that England's sneakily built a whole fleet of the damn things, which make their appearance at the end of the movie in a homage to Resident Evil: Afterlife. Yeah. Resident Evil: Afterlife. If there was some kind of merit based system for queuing movies in the order which they deserved a homage, we'd need to invent a new kind of maths just to handle the number we'd be up to when it was Resident Evil: Afterlife's turn.

Which is not to say that the airships aren't sort of fun. They're just nothing like enough fun to have been worth the trouble and expense they must have involved for the production. There's one rather cool moment, when the Cardinal's airship looms up out of the fog at the musketeers and the figurehead has poor Constance lashed to it as a combo bonus figurehead and hostage; if only that hadn't blown the imagination budget for the production, the airships could have been as much fun as I'd hoped they'd be. 

The weird thing is, why bother? It's The Three Musketeers, a book which has been made into a movie so many times that a stack of all the DVDs would stop a bazooka. All you need to do is bring along a bunch of actors and let that reliable old V12 engine rev up and do what it knows how to do. You've got a femme fatale, a scheming villain mastermind, ANOTHER scheming villain mastermind, a band of somewhat over the hill but still potent desperadoes and a dumb punk kid with a lot to learn and only the best to learn it from. Throwing in airships and da Vinci and steam punk in general is like thinking that Apollo 11 would have got to the moon a whole lot better if you'd just painted it yellow and stencilled "Pussy Wagon" on the back. And there are moments when Athos and Porthos are reflecting on the essential cussedness of life in public service and how there's nothing else for it but another drink; the whole movie could have been like that, with a couple of good sword fights and a real sense of danger and they'd have really had something.

Instead it's a confused mess with a few big explodey set pieces in the middle (there was a moment when Aramis was firing off some kind of primeval gatling gun, AGAIN, and I thought to myself "Did WS just recycle that shot from the first time he used it?"). The best bit is that in the middle of it all is the good old plot from the original; get back the Queens' jewels so that the King won't be provoked to a war with England through a carefully orchestrated misunderstanding. Gawdelpus, they can't even get that bit right; the musketeers manage to rain down so much destruction on England trying to sneak out the jewels that the King of France doesn't need to think about war; as the movie closes, Buckingham has brought the whole Royal Navy and Air Force to start the war on his own bat. In the meantime, Alexandre Dumas has dug himself out of his long slumber and is working his way towards WS's home to show him just what he remembers about sword fighting from back in the day when you wrote about things you knew how to DO instead of just throwing crap at the screen and hoping no-one would stop to ask questions.

[1] When it comes to chess, I embody the difference between knowing what to do and knowing how to do it.

Friday, 16 November 2012

The new improved TV license; a service you'll be happy to pay more money for

One of the few privileges of being a wetback is not having to watch Mexican television, so - for example - I've been treated to about 90% less Uncle Greybo explaining about the digital switchover this year. (Like all Mexicans, I couldn't wait for the digital switchover, because TV without Uncle Greybo and those two moronic dogs was going to be a huge improvement even if the digital service came in black and white). It's proven harder to escape the ads for the TV license, which Telefis Mexico has been screening to fill all the gaps where they used to have proper adverts, back when we had money. I think they're going about this the wrong way - although like all Mexicans, it would be hard for me to think of a time when they went about anything the right way. Of course no-one wants to pay the TV license - that's a given. But what really sticks in our gullets is the thought that the money we give them for the TV license goes to the likes of Pat Kenny, who then lectures us from the lofty heights of half a million pesos of extorted TV license fees about how we're living beyond our means and we all ought to be paid much less.

Meanwhile, Ryanair is making money hand over fist by selling ostensibly cheap aeroplane tickets, and then giving us the opportunity to hand over extra money for such premium services as being allowed to get on the plane early enough to get an overhead luggage space, or not have to sit in the actual toilet. For a mere ten extra pesos, the passport office will promise to try to get you a passport while you still look something like the picture you sent in. I suddenly realised, Irish people are willing to pay a bit extra to make something horrible a little less unbearable.

Thus, a modest proposal. RTE should offer a "premium" TV license. It will cost five pesos more, but will come with a guarantee that none of it will be used to pay Pat Kenny. I guarantee that it will wind up being the only kind of TV license they ever sell. 

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Rango: Utter lunacy isn't usually as funny as this.

The definitive sign that Johnny Depp was not like the other children in Hollywood was not Edward Scissorhands, but the 1995 utterly bonkers Jim Jarmusch western Dead Man. What made it special was not that it was as mad as a bag of hammers, but that Depp had to have known going in that it would never make a dime, and he did it anyway. At that point, it was finally clear that Depp was more interested in being crazy than in making money, and everyone could relax and wait to see just how crazy it would get. 

Rango is, among other things, a partial remake of Dead Man, inasmuch as Johnny Depp is playing a city slicker who finds himself in the wild west and way over his head after what really ought to be a fatal injury. It's also a remake of about eleventy hundred other things, most notably Chinatown, but probably also Blazing Saddles, Pale Rider and I imagine pretty much everything else Gore Verbinski could remember while he doodled it onto the world's tallest stack of bar napkins. I mean that in the nicest way; Rango is fun partly because the gags have been set up for it by better-known movies we've already seen and liked. 

Rango was one the early casualties of my trip to the Hidden City, whose fleapit programmes as though everyone in the City still had acne and a room temperature IQ, and consequently never shows anything likely to appeal to anyone with a vote. Despite being a CGI cartoon, Rango looked far too grown up and edgy for the management, and so it's only now, when I picked up a copy for £4 in Sainsbury's, that I finally got a chance to see it. 

Kids' movies these days always seem to have something wedged in to cheer up the babysitters, so that most of the high-budget CGI cartoons of the last few years are an uneasy straddle between dumb jokes for the kids and kid-safe smart jokes for the adults. When it works, you get Up or Despicable Me, when it doesn't, you get Alice in Wonderland. Rango, on the other hand, feels more like a movie for adults (rather childish adults, it's true) which just happens to be safe for children to watch. I say this as something remarkable, but it occurs to me as I say it that when I was a kid, pretty much all the movies on TV happened to be safe for kids to watch. Of course in those days we were busy betting on the dinosaur races and starching our crinolines; how times change.

Rango is great fun; it's been a while since I watched a comedy which made me laugh out loud at the silly bits. The animation is very clever, not least in how they somehow managed to get a wonky looking chameleon with a lopsided head to look and move like Johnny Depp. Rango doesn't look at all like Johnny Depp, and yet somehow he's just like him. It's not just the voice acting; I suspect it would still work even if you had a completely different actor voicing the character. Mind you, Depp owns not just the character but the movie; for big stretches he's the only thing in it, and he's always the focal point. Good thing he's excellent, as he often is when he's playing a guy who's so far out of his depth that the only option left is to pretend to be a hero and hope everyone else falls for it.

The elevator pitch must have been "What if we made a movie where Johnny Depp is the city slicker who becomes the sheriff of a Wild West town which is living through the water-swindle plot of Chinatown and, oh yeah, everyone in the movie is some kind of small animal?" "Johnny Depp, you say?" Ridiculously, that's more or less all there is to it, but as with all movies, it's all in the details. The town of Dust is lovingly visualised, and full of echoes of all the great westerns. The characters are a wonderful mixture of scruffiness and telling little details which pop them to life. The writing is nice and sharp, and just absurd enough to be funny when it needs to be. It's fun to watch. I suspect that it would stand up to repeat viewings as you try to puzzle out all the references you missed the first time. It's littered with throwaways; Rango gets bounced around a highway for a frenetic five minutes at the beginning of the movie, and in and among the stunts, there's a moment where he smacks into the windscreen of a car being driven by the spitting image of Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Five seconds, and we're on to the next thing; it's there for anyone who knows the book or the movie, and then it's gone, because life is short and they still need to glue Rango to the mudflap of a passing truck. There's another great moment when Rango tries to blend with the landscape and fails spectacularly (wearing a Hawaiian shirt at the same time was probably not the way to start…); it's funny, and then when Johnny Depp protests "It's an art more than a science!" it's somehow hilarious.

Usually when I like something this much, no-one else does, but somewhat to my surprise Rango actually made its money back. So weirdly, and much against the odds, Johnny Depp went out and made something completely bonkers, and it made money too. I imagine that Gore Verbinksi repeats this to himself as a soothing mantra while he tries to get to sleep each night between now and whenever the much troubled Johnny-Depp-plays-Tonto-with-a-bird-on-his-head Lone Ranger finally gets to the screen.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Robert Kroese: Mercury Falls

In a moment of clarity, I held back from buying the whole Mercury trilogy just in case it turned out like a lot of other trilogies I've bought sight unseen. I may finally be learning.

Mercury Falls isn't a bad book, by which I mean I had no real problem getting to the end of it. But it's not a particularly good book either, because I'm not that bothered to see what happens next to the quirky cast of characters.

Comedy is hard. It's easy enough to be funny for a few moments in a rattled off email or a pub conversation. People are ready to laugh; they know you, you're a funny guy, if only because there's a lot of stuff about people that's best dealt with if we all pretend it's funny. Making total strangers laugh; hard. Making total strangers laugh when they're sitting on their own with a book? I can't dependably make myself laugh writing this blog, let alone sustain something funny to book length. So I don't diss Kroese for not making me laugh as much as I hoped I would; that stuff ain't easy. But it's one thing to know something's hard to do and another thing to let it pass when it doesn't pay off.

Going on the product description on that there intarnet, Mercury Falls seemed like it was worth a punt. A tongue in cheek book about the apocalypse with a renegade angel wisecracking his way through the mayhem and saving the world for his own inscrutable reasons? Well, if the writer could hit the tone right, that sounded like it could be fun. There was a fun tongue in cheek mock interview between the writer and his characters which suggested that Kroese had the ear to handle the wisecracks. 

It might could be that Kroese hits his stride in the sequels and I'm cutting myself off unnecessarily from some fun, but I got a stack of books which I pretty much know will be somewhat better and a finite amount of time, so I'm going to leave that gamble for later.

The real problem is that Kroese can write, but he can't do wisecracking quirk as well as he needs to. He has a good dry deadpan style for description, but the dryness undercuts a story that cries out for a lot more comic hyperbole. The other problem is that all his villains are office drones reimagined as part of the infinite bureaucracy of heaven and hell. Office drones are supposed to be tedious; the challenge is to do justice to that without being tedious yourself. Pretty much his only weapon in that war is Mercury, and Mercury isn't carrying enough water to make that work. Partly I think that's because Kroese is trying not to let his title character run away with the whole story, which is the kind of advice you get when you're trying to write in a structured environment. It's good advice, but it's predicated on the idea that when you hold back the rampaging monster, you've got something else to put into play which will be equally diverting. 

The notion of the otherworld as a frozen bureaucracy has been done, a lot, in both book and film, and there's a touch which can make it work. The last thing I read which made it work was the first Johannes Cabal book, which opens up with a trip to hell and isn't afraid to let the title character do the heavy lifting. Bureaucracy is all about the boredom, and you need to open the jumbo-size can of crazy to counter it - and you can't just tell us that life is tedious in the bureaucracy; make it real for the reader. Subject your character to the actual forms (somehow that never gets old, even though it should). 

As to the plot; well it's the old massive collision of unstoppable armies undercut by the fakeroo where no-one really knows who's working for whom or who the guy behind the curtain might be. Since I was reading it in the hope of getting skyscraper sized snowmen and ping pong games, every time we got back to the plot I sighed and started hoping this bit wouldn't take too long. It's a fierce complicated plot, and Kroese actually seems to know quite a lot about real eschatology. (Go on, look it up; I don't get a chance to use that word very often). It's just that when all that kind of thing ought be getting wrapped up fast and whimsical, Kroese gives us dry, grammatical and factual. I bet his software is really well documented.

Heaven help us, Kroese's biggest sin may simply have been to bring too much brain to work, not something I usually need to complain about.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Skyfall; some spoileriffic afterthoughts

I've already taken a first swing at Skyfall, but over the course of the past week I find myself coming back to some of its less obvious influences and implications. There's no way to tackle any of them without blowing the gaff completely on the plot of the movie, so read on at your peril if you're one of those delicate souls who hates to know what happens in a movie before they see it.

As  I said earlier, it's thematically a remake of Casino Royale. Let me spell that out in clearer terms. Like all Bond movies, it begins with a big set piece chase-cum-battle, and like all Bond movies, there's a bridging bit in the middle where Bond finds out more about the big bad by bonking his fancy woman, which inevitably leads to the fancy woman getting schwacked. So I won't make too much of a fuss about the precise echoes between those bits of the plot of Skyfall and Casino Royale. That would be like complaining about him introducing himself as Bond, James Bond. [Though you have to kind of wonder why the word hasn't got round international terror/espionage circles; I'd have thought by now that the management of every villainous bar would have standing orders to add cyanide to the Martini of anyone who introduces himself as Bond, James Bond.]

One big, can't-get-away-from-it parallel is that both movies feature the climactic total destruction of a moderately sized decrepit house in scenic surroundings; one in Venice and the other in the Scots Highlands. It's particularly noticeable because while Bond movies invariably end with something getting blowed up real good, in all other movies it's the villain's enormous lair. I'll get back to the house in a moment, but first I want to talk about the other parallel, which is the one I approve of. One thing I like in Skyfall is that the sakes are wonderfully small and intimate, and thus far more believable than usual. It's just one pissed off and tooled up ex-spy out to get his old boss, not some ludicrously powerful megalomaniac setting out to control and/or destroy the world. The stakes in Casino Royale were similarly manageable; nobble a money launderer, and then - and far more importantly - save the woman who'd betrayed Bond but still meant everything to him. Bond does his damnedest, but still can't quite pull it off.

Skyfall's Vesper Lynd is "M", and the strongest part of the movie is that even though M betrays Bond, he'll still put his life on the line to serve her and ultimately to try to save her. It's a tribute to the skills of Judi Dench, Daniel Craig and Javier Bardem that you can see how that might work; this is why you get the actors in. Craig, ever taciturn, never explains what he really feels or why he's doing anything, but he's a good enough actor to suggest what's going on, especially in his reactions to Bardem, whose wonderfully wordy villain explains exactly how he feels about being strung along and then hung out to dry. And yet, when Barden has scenes with Dench, we see just how that much hate has to be built on the kind of love that never really goes away; right up to the end it's clear that if M would only apologise, Bardem would be hers all over again. That's an emotional complexity and power you don't expect to see in a Bond film, and if they had to repeat a theme from another movie, they've amped it right up to 11 in the best possible way.

Now, back to the house, because someone's gotta say this; it's only Home Alone, innit? The house gets rigged and booby trapped with improvised munitions and then the bad guys get shredded as they try to break in. A slightly more confident movie might have tried to get Macauley Culkin to do a cameo. 

The other weird thing about the house - Bond's family home, apparently - is that it's as close as we've ever come to seeing a Bond origin story, and I know at least one person who's gotten himself very hot and bothered about it. The house has a priest's hole in, with a secret tunnel leading off the back of it towards a nearby chapel. "But this,", my colleague has screamed to the heavens, "Means Bond must be from a Catholic family! The very icon of Britishness is Catholic, not Protestant!". This would be true if we lived in a world where no-one ever moved house, and if Scotland was a place where people didn't spend several hundred years running each other off their ancestral lands. Since we don't and it wasn't, and since Bond doesn't even think of himself as anything other than English….

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Paolo Bacigalupi: The Windup Girl

I imagine that somewhere in Monsanto's corporate HQ, there's a guy still thanking God that this book is SF. Not because he's grateful that the things in it haven't happened yet, but because no-one of any importance reads SF. If The Windup Girl had been brought out as a literary novel, decision makers might have started wondering about GMOs. But since it came out as an SF book with elephants and skyscrapers on the cover….

I've written before about Bacigalupi. The Windup Girl is his first published novel, and it just happens that I've come to it last. It establishes the world he uses for the later two novels, Shipbreaker and The Drowned Cities, a world which I think he's going to go on digging through. Although the characters in The Windup Girl are strong and memorable, the world is really the star of the show. The other two books are set in a collapsed US long after the end of peak oil and all the easy living that came with it. It's clear in the books that there's been conflict and upheaval as well global warming; he's not writing about a world in which challenges inspired us all to work together, but about a world where people tore each other apart when the going got tough. The Windup Girl is set in Bangkok, as the government struggles to keep the rising flood waters from swamping the city, an almost too-obvious parallel with their efforts to save all of Thailand from being overwhelmed by waves of plant and animal diseases from outside their tightly regulated pocket of just-getting-by.

It's often difficult for me to think of something intelligent and funny to say about a good book. The Windup Girl is that especially difficult thing, a good book which I think is also an important one. It's probably the best written SF book to date on the topic of genetic manipulation of commonplace organisms. His other work has had genetically manipulated near-humans, but in The Windup Girl, he's teasing out what might happen if we go on manipulating the genetics of other things, particularly crops. We've always manipulated crops and food animals; that's what breeding programmes are all about. What's changed is the degree of control. We used to hold back some of the crop to plant next year as seeds; but there's no money for breeders in that kind of thing. We used to use chemicals to control pests; increasingly we're trying to use different pests to prey on the pests that we're more worried about. Bacigalupi shows us a world where these trends have continued, and gone badly wrong.

The world has been devastated by global warming; climate change has swept away coastlines and farm belts and fatally undercut the world's ability to feed itself. And states and companies have fought each other for control of how food is grown; plagues have swept through crops, triggering an escalating arms race between the plagues and the crop designers struggling to create varieties which will resist the plagues. It's never spelled out, but running under the narrative is the hint that the plagues were engineered, released to wipe out competing companies' products. 

The world of The Windup Girl is a world short of energy; oil is gone, and with it the cheap energy we take for granted now. Food is in short supply, and with it, the energy which humans and animals need to do the physical work which has had to take place of fossil-fuelled electricity. Bacigalupi inks in a detailed and persuasive world where even subsistence is a victory.

The book has a plot, which is mostly about the way in which individual ambition and desperation bring the Thai government crashing chaotically down, but the real power in the work is not the plot of this one disaster, but the brilliantly sketched in sense of a world in which such disasters have become almost inevitable. 

This is the first time that I've linked from a blog entry to someplace where you could actually buy the book. You shouldn't be reading this blog entry. You should be reading the book.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Skyfall; the reboot gets rebooted

The very first movie reviewed on this blog was Casino Royale, which was a solid effort to make a more grounded and intelligent Bond movie in a world that had - it seemed - had its fill of smirking stunt-fests. Casino Royale is a good movie; it starts with a great big action sequence involving chasing around through slums and construction machinery, then it slows right the heck down into something more cerebral where Bond has to match wits with a cunning adversary in an effort to save the life of a woman who's important to him. It ends up with a massive shootout in a house which gets completely demolished, and Bond doesn't quite manage to save the woman. The movie works because it's well acted; an astonishing amount of talent got thrown at it and they were given an actual script rather than a succession of one liners to roll out between explosions. Oh, and it's got just horrible amounts of product placement.

Casino Royale was followed by Quantum of Solace, which was pretty terrible, really. There's an opening chase, which is quite fun, but after that it's all over the place and the climactic explosionathon makes even less sense than the plot. 

So, I wasn't too sure what to expect from Daniel Craig's third outing as James Bond. The production had had problems, what with the studio going bust in the middle of pre-production, and six years on from Casino Royale, Daniel Craig is showing his age a bit. At the current announced pace of work, he's going be doing his fifth Bond movie around his fiftieth birthday. Skyfall jokes around his age a bit, but in another few years it might not be so funny.

So, you'll all be hoping that Skyfall  is a return to the Casino Royale form. And the good news is that, yes, it is. The not quite so good news is that it's perhaps too much of a return. It starts with a chase through slums and construction machinery. Then it slows right down….

Three movies in seems a little early for the gritty reboot and the reestablishment of the iconic characters like M and Q and Moneypenny. Only time will tell whether this new new start is going to get another messy Quantum of Solace followup. Which is not to say it's a bad movie at all, just that it's so easy to map it onto the supposed game changer, and leave me wondering if we're just changing the cliches around, in the same way that Bourne franchise seems to be repeating itself.

The opening chase is great fun, mind you. There's cars in traffic, motorcycles racing across the roof of the covered market in Istanbul and the gratuitous but hilarious destruction of half a train by a digger; tune out that silent voice in your head asking why there's a digger on a railway flatbed and no-one in Turkish Railways thought of lashing it down so that it wouldn't shift, let alone be driven off up the train by some lunatic British spy. And fun and all though the opener is, it's when things slow down that the movie becomes really enjoyable, because once they get things slow enough to let everyone talk, there's all kinds of acting and dialogue being done. The scenes between Javier Bardem and Daniel Craig are so much fun that - just as in Casino Royale - you get annoyed that the action is getting in the way of the characters. Bardem's the first Bond villain in ages who's been worth watching for his own sake. It really does help to get in the actors  for these things. So they hired in Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Whishaw and Albert Finney, who astonished me by not getting shot into a hamburger at any point in the movie, but not by effortlessly keeping up with Daniel Craig and Judy Dench. As always, it's a serious mistake to be a girl in a Bond movie, and an even bigger mistake to dally with Bond; just once I'd like to see the villain's fancy woman walk away in one piece from one of those movies instead of being toyed with briefly and then schwacked to make a point about how rotten the bad guys are.

The product placement is, if anything, even more appalling than it's ever been, though just in case we missed out on any of it, there was a solid ten minutes of adverts before the movie, all for products which were about to be waved in our faces in the course of the feature presentation. There's been - I gather - a huge fuss about Bond having a deal with Heineken; I think the books were nicely balanced when Bond was shown drinking Heineken only when he was flat broke, busted, playing dead and feeling incredibly sorry for himself, as all Heineken drinkers properly should.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Joe Abercrombie: Red Country

There's an awful lot going on in Red Country, Joe Abercrombie's largely successful attempt to write a spaghetti western in a fantasy setting. There are at least four climaxes, and nearly as many endings as the extended edition of Lord of the Rings. Impressively, at least two of the climaxes would have done a lesser man fine as the whole point of a book, but Abercrombie starts chucking them at the page from about the middle of the book and keeps them cranking out from there on in, as if to say "You like that? You think that's a big deal? That's nothin', nothin' I tell ya. Check THIS out." In lesser hands, it would be story telling by hyper active five year old; with Abercrombie, it's all part of a bigger story about mission creep, and the way that every quest is someone else's disaster.

The engine for the book is deceptively simple; Shy South, bandit turned farmer, comes back from a trip to market to find her farm in ruins, her farmhand swinging from a tree and her younger brother and sister missing. There's only one thing any book can do at the moment; start out on the roaring rampage of revenge to get the kids back, aided only by her cowardly useless stepfather.

This being Abercrombie, nothing is ever that simple. For a start, as Shy's stepfather Lamb says. "You have to be realistic." Long time readers of Abercrombie will feel their ears prick up at that phrase; Lamb is just one of several characters to wander in from Abercrombie's earlier work with a new name or no name at all. Being realistic means slowly and painstakingly following the trail not on the fleetest of horses, but in the broken down ox wagon which is all that's left to them; Shy's quest is going to be a lot slower, and a lot bigger than she bargained for.

Abercrombie's first books, the First Law trilogy, had a fairly manageable number of viewpoint characters and usually stuck with one for the length of a whole chapter. In Best Served Cold, the viewpoint shifted among the various revengers even within the chapters. By The Heroes, he was comfortable flitting into spear carriers for a few lines, usually before clobbering them unmercifully. Red Country is positively dizzying by comparison, the view shifting from one minor character to another from page to page. It's a mark of the way that he's developing as a writer that Abercrombie can make this work, with each little voice having something distinctive to it. In The Heroes, he was flitting among his characters to bring home the arbitrary way in which a battle carries everything before it, deliberately bringing them to life specifically to make a point about the way that every death is the end of a whole world. In Red Country, he's flitting among his cast of ne'er-do-wells to show us how everyone is the hero of their own story, the decent sympathetic person just doing their best and appalled at the scoundrels around them. And then we switch to the next scoundrel and hear their jaundiced view of the person whose eyes we've just been looking through. 

The message that - in our own minds - we're all getting the soundtrack music synched to our walk is one of the two big themes in the book; the other being that once you get hold of one end of the spaghetti, there's no telling what size of a meatball is going to flick off the other end. There's a whole lot of kids being stolen and a whole lot of bad guys to get through before Shy and Lamb find out why. And of course, child stealing on an epic scale must have some suitably grandiose plot behind it, though Abercrombie being Abercrombie, the grandiose plot neither works out well for the plotters, nor forms the centrepiece of anything in particular. Abercrombie is quite fond of blowing up the Bond villain HQ almost as collateral damage while sweeping on towards something else which is more important to the characters.

So, how does it all go? Well for fans, there's all kinds of fun. The return of the character presently known as Lamb. The return of Nicomo Cosca, back once again to command scoundrels in the pursuit of profit. Cosca is always huge fun, since even if nothing else happens, there's the enormous entertainment to be derived from his explanations of how his contract absolutely required him to let down his employer and, indeed, now calls for a bonus payment. It's been ten years, apparently, since the events of Best Served Cold and Nicomo has had any number of reverses of fortune in between, though somehow he's managed to retain the loyalty of Friendly from those days, and he's still there counting everything and emotionlessly schwacking whoever he's told to schwack. Friendly is somehow the Bubba Rogowoski of Abercrombie's world, except that everyone else in his world is so ruthless that it hardly needs a Rogowsk….

And there are others from the good old days, though it would ruin some of the fun to say too much about who's around and why. And it would take the attention off the new characters, who are great fun in their own right, especially Cosca's notary, Temple, who appears to be a cross between Moist Lipwig from Ankh Morpork and one of KJ Parker's more slippery anti-heroes, but somehow rises above all those influences to make a tremendous foil for Shy as the book unfolds.

What surprised me the most was how Abercrombie managed to keep the characteristic beats of a spaghetti western without somehow swamping his own world. It's hugely influenced by Clint and by Deadwood and all the really good Sergio Leone flicks, but it's still somehow recognisably the frontier of the world which Abercrombie has been sketching in through half a dozen books now. I wasn't sure how well he'd carry that off, but it works. And threaded through the whole thing are the laconic wisecracks which pepper his books. He has the knack of getting his characters to say funny things which sound like the kind of funny things people might well say at a bad moment. 

And just as with The Heroes, there's a sense of bigger things being moved around while the main cast aren't looking. The bigger cosmic battle which preoccupied the plot of the First Law Trilogy hasn't gone away, and the child-stealing ties into it, though our heroes solve their problems so shambolically that any possibility of a big explanation flies out the window. Future books will spell it all out, no doubt, only to swab over the spelling lesson and change the rules.

And a big hats off to Abercrombie for being perhaps the first ever writer to do Chekhov's gun with an actor. To say more would ruin it.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Magical thinking; your iPhone might as well be an amulet

Without me quite noticing, my thoughts on Taken 2 turned out to be my 200th post, which a more self-important blogger might have kept for some state-of-the-blog reflections. I can't think of anything important which needs to be said about this blog; it's enough trouble to think of things to say about anything else without disappearing into meta-oblivion. I do continue to be baffled that it has actual viewing stats; I was much too lazy even to figure out how to look them up until I discovered that I had occasional commenters. The night before last, at one in the morning in Google time (GMT? UTC? does it matter?) there was a spike of 160 views, which I assume was some bot-related glitch that is making someone else microscopically richer. As far as I can tell, almost all the hits from actual people come from people wanting to find out about the Belfast episodes of Sons of Anarchy - notice how I don't provide a link to that post, since it's safe to assume everyone who cares has already read it. Despite the resulting temptation to make this all Sons of Anarchy, all the time, no sweeping change of policy is imminent. This is mostly me trying to remember how to write something which isn't a report on the troubles of the sandbox or the psychoses of Nordor and the lack of mass attention suits my purposes far too well to mess with obscurity.

Now, to my scheduled programming. The other day an email conversation broke out among my exiled friends in Mexico on the theme of "What the hell is wrong with SF these days?", though in much the same way as you can go to a perfectly good riot and a hockey game will break out, it wasn't too long before we were arguing over climate change and then inevitably someone mentioned economics. I'm not sure that we even got as far as agreeing that there was something wrong, let alone what it might be, but one thought did surface which I wish I'd had myself. This was that technology has become so glossy and unknowable that people are drifting into magical thinking. I've pondered the thought before that the rapid pace of change today is making people more interested in books where despite wars and magic happening at all times, nothing ever really seems to change. But somehow I hadn't made the jump to thinking about the kinds of technology we have today and how it's changed the way we relate to it.

Machines have changed in the past twenty years in ways which have completely altered our relationship with them. They've become much easier to use, but much harder to know. Modern cars are easier to drive and safer than what I first drove, but if anything goes wrong, there's no chance at all that you're going to be able to fix it yourself. I used to be able to pull the plugs out of my first car's engine and replace them in less than ten minutes (a leaking head gasket you can't find time to fix will build that skill very quickly). I haven't even been able to find the plugs in any car I've owned since then. I sometimes wonder if they actually still have spark plugs. My current car occasionally just sulks and the easiest way to deal with it is literally to reboot it; disconnect the battery and leave it for a while until the electronics reset. If that doesn't work, the next step is a tow truck. And if you can't fix it, do you really own it? Sometimes it feels like I have a bizarre lease on my car where I make unpredictable huge payments to the only garages in Mexico and Nordor that have the magical permissions to talk to the computers without which it's just a pretty 800 kilogram paperweight.

That's unknowability in things that we used to think we could know. It's deeper and denser with things that we never understood, like computers and mobile phones. I figured out once what a laser printer actually did to produce slightly chemical smelling perfect black and white pages and it froze me in place like a chemical-free acid trip. Go on and look it up; I can wait. That kind of thing might as well be magic. It's almost absurd that we use it for something as banal as printing out bank statements. It ought at least to be printing out the coordinates of distant planets or some such. Mobile phones; even before they put in cameras and GPS and touch screens, they were the stuff of wizardry, complicated computer systems in the background keeping track of exactly which phones were in range of every antenna in the country and handing them off more or less seamlessly from one to the next without the average user even blinking at the wonder of it all. It just works, to the point that we get borderline psychotic when for some reason it doesn't. GPS is a worked proof every microsecond of special relativity and all most of us think about it is that the user interface sucks and the maps are never up to date.

I have not digressed. Our world is full of small shiny objects which do things which were previously unimaginable, by means we don't understand. If they fail us, pretty much all we can do is throw them away and get another one. They might as well be amulets.

So Joe advanced the argument that a population surrounded by amulets is vulnerable to magical thinking, on the one hand looking for books full of magic - thus the growth of fantasy "literature", or harking back to a more comprehensible world where a man could get out three screwdrivers and a pincers [1] and have a shot at getting something broken to work again; hence the sudden growth out of nowhere of steampunk and its various outliers.

We read to get away from the world we're in, and the books we buy tell us a lot about the things we're trying to get away from. It's probably not a good sign that the growing trend in SF - the preferred reading of nerds, geeks, and all folks technical - is to run away from the technical side of the world we live in. 

[1] I haven't actually seen a pincers on sale in a hardware shop for as long as I can remember. Either they've been entirely displaced by better designs of claw hammer or we've given up on the idea of ever needing to pull anything out of something else.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Taken 2: Taken too far

The first Taken movie was a bit of a surprise, because Luc Besson bolted into one of his interchangeable thriller plots an actual actor. Putting someone like Liam Neeson into a simple-minded bullet-fest made it somehow more gripping. The flip side was that it turned Liam Neeson unexpectedly into a middle aged action star, with decided uneven results. It's not the best possible use of his talents….

As always, when something exceeds beyond expectations, the impulse to make a sequel is irresistible, so Taken had to be followed by Taken 2. And probably a Taken 3. Luc Besson doesn't ever stop; we've had four Taxi movies and three Transporter movies when one of each would have been just the right number. Liam Neeson could be seeing people and things taken off him from now till he's older than Indiana Jones at this rate.

What was Taken 2 like? Not as good as Taken. The first movie worked because it had a very simple through line; daughter done need to be rescued, and Liam stops at nothing in the chase. It's actually a pretty dark and unpleasant movie; Liam murders and tortures his way through a lot of - admittedly unpleasant - people by the time he gets to the sinister Arab man-behind-the-man who's trying to buy her. Apart from the sheer surprise of watching a subtle actor making Jack Bauer look a social worker, it's compelling because you're trying to keep up with just how far over the line Neeson's Bryan Mills is willing to go. As far as torturing a guy with electricity and then just leaving him plugged in until he dies, which is not what heroes are supposed to do. And that isn't good, as such, but it's at least thought provoking.

Taken 2 is much more conventional. When Bryan's ex wife gets kidnapped, he's ruthless and determined, but no more than Hollywood good guys usually are. Which makes the movie just like everything else; it lives and dies on the strength of the acting and whether the stunts are impressive. The most you can say for either is that it's workmanlike. The most imaginative thing in the movie is Liam Neeson triangulating his own location by getting his daughter to throw hand grenades around and timing the bangs. There's nothing in the action scenes themselves which lives up to that kind of thinking; the fights are just fights, and the long car chase in the middle was somehow samey enough that I had time to think that we were being set up for the end of the movie. In Taken, Bryan Mills brings his daughter a famous singer to give her singing lessons. In Taken 2, he's trying to bond with her by giving her driving lessons, and as soon as she has to drive the car during the car chase, I thought "Oh yeah, this movie is going to end with her passing her driving test…" Admittedly it did give one of the better lines of the movie; the daughter says she can't do the driving. "You know how to shoot a gun?" growls Liam. Mousy shake of the head. "Then you drive."

I honestly had higher hopes of the movie based on the cast and the trailer. I thought it was an imaginative idea that all the torturing and murdering Bryan Mills got up to in the first movie would have people hopping mad at him and looking for revenge. That sense of consequence is usually missing from thrillers, particularly anything with Luc Besson's name on the title and a number at the end. Sadly, the main cast aren't exactly giving it their all, and the sense of jeopardy is lacking. In the first movie, things were dark enough that it genuinely felt like Bryan mightn't catch up with his daughter in time; that we might be watching an actual drama. In the sequel, there's never really a moment when you think there's a genuine risk that either Bryan's daughter or ex-wife will suffer anything more than a chipped nail.

The action all happens in Istanbul, which Bryan Mills explains to his daughter is a place where every invasion back and forth between East and West has gone through. I think Luc Besson might be leaning just a bit too hard on his contra-jihad by action movie tendencies when he comes out with this. I'm losing track, but this is at least the third movie where Luc Besson has flung together a script that revolves around Americans coming to places where Europeans are surrounded by swarthy looking muslimiac outsiders and has slaughtered them with no more apparent compunction than a rat catcher going about his day job. I'm not sure whether it's all intended as some grand parody of America's relationship with the Middle East, or Luc Besson having a lengthy DW Griffith moment on the need to do something more muscular about the growing Islamisation of France, but it sure doesn't FEEL like grand parody. As with the first Taken, the disposable horde are Albanians, but they're Albanians who either speak English or fragments of Arabic, and it's fair to say that there's zero effort to depict any of the complexities of Albania's long miserable history. The geography is also suitably hilarious, with the editing making it look as though there's a customs post between Albania and Turkey.

The movie is the first I've seen in a long time that almost visibly seems to run out of money in the middle. There's a pretty expensive car chase in the middle, which culminates in Liam's daughter crashing a taxi through the security barrier of the US Embassy. Somehow, within minutes of doing this, Liam is cut loose to hunt down the surviving members of the Albanian gang and "do what he does best", which leads to about a half hour of dreary stalking and perfunctory gun and fist play and a speech about how revenge is terrible. It's a wrenching tonal shift from the more high-powered grenade chucking and car chasing in the middle of the movie, and it really did feel as though they'd realised they still had a whole bunch of movie to do and no money left to make it exciting.

The car into the Embassy bit has so much WTF in it, it's almost worth a post in its own right, but briefly; Istanbul isn't the capital of Turkey, so it would have been the Consulate; no US diplomatic mission in the world is vulnerable to a car crashing through its security barriers, because for a decade now they've all been surrounded by various kinds of dragons teeth expressly to stop cars and trucks well outside the possible blast radius of any kind of plausible car bomb; US Marines with a prepositioned 50 cal would have shot any incoming taxi practically to a standstill rather than just dinging it a bit; Liam and his daughter had let off three hand grenades, stolen a taxi, shot a cop, shot about ten other dudes, trashed about a dozen cop cars and a load of private property and stolen some poor hotel maid's off duty clothing - no way they were just walking back out onto the streets of Istanbul out of an Embassy they'd just invaded...


Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Elite Squad: Brazilian Tourist Board joins Koreans in exile

I was ruminating a while ago about the impact of the South Korean film industry on the willingness of anyone to come and visit Korea, but last night forced me to face up to the reality that there's probably a permanent tension between the Film Board and the Tourist Board wherever you go. Time to find a new problem.

Elite Squad was a modest international success a few years ago, and was the biggest movie in Brazil that year. I picked it up cheap on DVD expecting … well, I'm not sure what I expected. Probably a cop thriller, since I'm shallow that way. It's not that kind of a movie, though it was marketed that way. There's action, but it's not thrilling, edge of the seat kind of action; it's more mechanical than that, and works only because the movie has tried to get you invested in the characters, so any risk at all to them will having you leaning forward at least a little.

In a way, the whole plot of Elite Squad is a weird inversion of a timeworn narrative for criminals. In movie after movie, we're shown that when you treat your underclass badly, they live down to the bad expectations and become ever worse. It's the "movie liberal" explanation of all crime. Welcome to Elite Squad, which shows you the same origin story for paramilitary police. It's based on a tell-all book written by a couple of veterans of BOPE, a shock unit of the Brazilian Military Police who get to do all the really deadly police work in Rio de Janeiro. And when I say deadly, take it all the ways that I might mean it. 

The basic plot of the movie is that the grizzled veteran captain of one of the companies wants out, but can only get out if he can select a replacement; so we see the slow development of two possible replacements from rank and file police officers to aspire to something more. For the purposes of dramatic simplicity, one's a hothead who acts first and thinks - not at all. The other is a police officer turned law student, and a huge part of the unfolding drama is the contrast between his police life and the lives of the upper class university students he's trying to fit in with. Weirdly, he's the one who isn't made up; he's loosely based on one of the writers. 

BOPE are - and I can say this at a safe distance - a bunch of heavily armed thugs who justify everything they do on the basis that criminals are scum and all the other cops are corrupt. And the movie goes out of its way to endorse that outlook; every other cop we see is somewhere on the sliding scale from laughably corrupt through laughably corrupt and inept all the way to so corrupt it's stopped being funny. If this is even close to the truth, I'm not quite sure how Brazil can actually function without spontaneously turning into Mogadishu, but if nothing else, it's a warming reminder of how lucky we are with the cops that we've got. Yeah, cop-haters wherever you may be; the Brazilian fuzz are still that bad in this movie.

It's kind of hard to see who isn't despicable in this world view. The cops - we covered that. The criminals; well, criminals, aren't they? Everyone else; well, we really only see the middle class, and they're pompous self-obsessed whinge-bags who hate the cops and collude to various degrees with the criminals while hating the cops. Kind of left me wondering who was left for BOPE to be on a self-righteous crusade to protect.

Each other, I suppose. By the time the movie is over, none of the BOPE characters seem to have any working relationship with anyone other than their fellow praetorians. Everything and everyone else has failed to live up to their expectations, and somehow, this almost seems liberating for the characters. Millwall has come to Rio "No-one likes us, we don't care." Since everyone is both despicable and hates them, everyone is fair game. You can shoot them on the run, torture them to find where the next runner might have got to, and finish them off as they lie there begging for mercy. Judge Dredd would fit right into BOPE.

What I can't quite decide is what the movie wants me to think about this. I know what I actually think; what I can't figure out is whether that's the reaction the movie set out to cause. Because it seems to me that if anything, it was set up as an apologia pro BOPE vita; the most sympathetic BOPE character is the wannabe lawyer and he's rebuffed at every turn for every decent thing he tries to do until he's left with nothing but to pull on his black combats and blow away the bad guys. It's as if the movie is howling, on behalf of the goon squad, "Look at the monster you've made of me! This is all you deserve!" Worse, it's as if the movie's decided to give a vivid justification for every small time fascist who ever figured that all the untermenschen really needed was a good kicking to show them who's boss. 

Never mind the poor old tourist board; if this is Brazil, then god help them all.