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.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Monsters: one man does exactly what he set out to do

Every couple of years, someone gets headlines for making a movie for some absurdly small amount of money, a trend which started when Roberto Rodriguez allegedly brought in El Mariachi for under $7,000 twenty years ago. Gareth Edwards reportedly brought in Monsters for around 800,000 dollars, and the amazing thing is that it doesn't really show. I've seen a hell of a lot more money spent to vastly less effect.

On the one hand, if you're crazy determined and have the right skills, these days you can use a laptop to create effects which used to need whole server farms to render. So Edwards was able to matte in scenes of massive destruction and the odd vast alien on a laptop in his bedroom, thus compacting into one man what usually takes about five minutes to credit in tiny print at the end of the average modern blockbuster. And on the other hand, if you don't hire any actors and work with a total crew, stars included, that will fit in a mini-bus, your filming costs are pretty low as well. Monsters  has only two credited acting performances and everything was shot guerrilla style with high end digital video cameras. Most of the other performances were reportedly improvised by asking whatever locals were in shot to join in while the two professional actors improvised from a three by five card. From all of this, I conclude that Gareth Edwards could give Derren Brown a run for his money in sheer talent for manipulating total strangers, and that he's totally wasted as a guerrilla director; he ought to be running a medium sized country. 

What's impressive is how well all this half-assing pays off, assuming it all really was half-assing. The movie opens with marines running around with machine guns and jeeps, and there are a whole bunch of guys with guns in the middle of the movie; if either of those scenes involved Edwards sweet-talking heavily armed guys into helping out for a few minutes rather than using ringers, someone in the UN should be phoning him right now to sort out a few of those pesky armed confrontations I'm always seeing on the sandbox news.

Necessarily, the whole thing is loose and unplotted; most of the movie is just the two main characters drifting through a series of encounters in a ruined Mexico (although few of the "Mexican" scenes were shot in Mexico) as they try to make their way to the US border. Mexico and a big chunk of the southern US have been sealed off as a quarantine zone after space aliens crash landed in Mexico and started trashing everything in sight. The landscape is full of ruins and rubbled military hardware, all of it CGI'd in well enough that nothing looks jarringly photoshopped into place. The threat of alien attack hovers over the whole landscape, but the aliens are seen only at night, in glimpses as they roll in for some more trashing and everyone else runs away and squints out at the carnage from behind something heavy.

It works because it feels right. We're watching a couple of pretty clueless people trying to get clear of something they don't understand and can't really fight against. They drift, and bicker and try to figure out whether the locals can be trusted, and struggle to convince themselves that they'll be OK because they haven't seen any actual aliens yet. This isn't an exciting movie, but I've rarely seen anything that hung together so well on its own basic premise. A lot of the people who watch movies with space aliens are going to find it very boring, because there isn't a huge amount going on most of the time. But there are other, messier, more compromised and frankly rather crappy movies if that's what you want. What makes Monsters rather special is that it's entirely true to itself. Most movies leave you thinking that the writing was OK, but the direction didn't drive it along, or that the performances were good, but the writing didn't give the actors enough to work with; there's always a weak link which leaves you thinking that a better job could have been made of the movie. Monsters is exactly what it set out to be. The acting fits the script and the tone of the movie perfectly. The effects blend in and support the atmosphere of the movie rather than overwhelming it. Even if it's not great art, it's consummate craftsmanship, and in its own modest way, an almost ludicrous vindication of my endless whining on about how the less money you spend on a movie, the better it gets.

When you wind up watching this on DVD, play close attention to the beginning, or like me, you will wind up having to go back and watch it again after the movie ends. Not that it will actually clear up anything, but by that point you'll be so desperate to figure out what comes next that it will still seem worth a shot. Thinking about what comes next, I checked out just what this calling card netted Edwards, and he's directing yet another remake of Godzilla. This is either going to be a terrible waste of a very particular talent or the next King Kong.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Looper: "We're going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws"

I went to Looper expecting to just get all swoony about Joe Gordon-Levitt like I did after Premium Rush; instead I spent a lot of the time mulling over the odd fact that Bruce Willis has been in a heck of a lot of interesting movies for a one-note actor. It happens that I'm just like a lot of other people and like that one note, but it's only when you run over all the other stuff that you realised how many holidays Bruce has taken from smirking and wisecracking. For starters, he's been in the only other recent time travel movie to make much money, Twelve Monkeys. Bruce is better in Twelve Monkeys, which is a glorious mess, like most Terry Gilliam movies. Rian Johnson hasn't got the track record or the license to go nuts that Gilliam had by the time he made Twelve Monkeys, so his mess is more low-key and hardbitten than Gilliam's.

Still a pretty good mess. Like Brick, and indeed anything else I've seen Joe carry, it's a thinking person's movie which has just enough action and danger in it to give the actors something to think about and the audience a good reason to care which way the action pans out. Joe is in familiar country here; Rian Johnson directed his breakout role in Brick, and Jeff Daniels, hiding behind a beard once more here, played his mentor and only real friend in The Lookout, a movie I ought to have written up when I watched it last month. I liked it that no real effort is ever made to explain time travel, how it works or what its limitations are; the pull quote up there in the title is from Bruce Willis' response to a half hearted question about the topic; Jeff Daniels gets the even pithier "It'll fry your brain like an egg." It exists, it seems to be be one-way only, and that's your lot. The use it's put to is completely bananas, but then again if you'd told me thirty years ago that the biggest use of lasers by volume in 2012 would have been domestic video playback, I'd have kept laughing until some time last week.

So, the future has time travel and the only use they've been able to think of putting it to is sending murder victims into the past to be murdered where it's easier to hide a body. Apparently it's crazy hard to hide a body in the future, but somehow easy enough to orchestrate a system where people will wait thirty years in the past for a guy to show up bound and gagged in a vacant lot and then just blow his brains out (why not shoot him before you send him back? Why not - since you can send him back to a precise time and place - send him back in time into a volcano or the Marianas trench? Because then Rian Johnson wouldn't have had a movie!) Joe Gordon-Levitt plays a character conveniently named Joe, who has the apparently (for no good reason I could think of) highly paid job of putting the schwack on these poor schmoes. From what we can see of 2042 Kansas, which is Joe's present day, this is by no means the worst job on offer. Rian Johnson's vision of the US thirty years from now is pretty bleak. Not only is the place full of apparently homicidal vagrants, but there haven't been any new car models since oh, about five years from now at a guess. Upside, Apple is apparently bankrupt, probably because it doesn't look as if there are enough rich people to buy their computers and phones any more. Anyhow, Kansas looks like Wichita crossed with Mogadishu and cyberpunk Hong Kong (but that last only at night; in daylight, it's just a dump; it looks like the bits of Albuquerque where we see people selling meth in Breaking Bad.) It's not a fun place. Which appears to have made it ripe for Jeff Daniels to come from back from the future to orchestrate the whole dumping the bodies in Kansas scenario, and - since that's not exactly difficult and he's a man from the future with time on his hands - take over the entire Kansas criminal underworld. A task, which as Joe wryly observes, would have been impressive if he'd carried it off just about anywhere else.

Joe and all the other guys who do all this killing are referred to as Loopers. (I was at a loss then and now to figure out why they needed so all-fired many of them; just how many people in the future need that much murdering, for goodness sake?). Because? Because the criminals of the future make a point of killing all their hired killers before they have any chance of talking to the authorities, and they do this by sending the thirty years older criminals into the past to be killed by their younger selves. A service for which they pay a huge premium, as a weird death in service benefit. (I could see this happening about three times, tops, before it occurred to the future criminals that they could save a fortune in severance pay by sending the future killers back to be killed by completely different killers). Like a lot of the plot holes around which this movie forms a net, this is something we have in the plot because it creates a cool problem for the protagonist rather than because it makes an atom of sense. Joe is a ruthless killer, and sooner or later he will have to kill his own future self "closing his loop" as the narrative puts it. Or, since this is movie world, not killing himself and then trying to cope with the fallout.

In the first act of the movie, Johnson sketches in the ground rules, showing us what the workflow is for a Looper and then showing us just how seriously the men in charge take it when someone fails to close the loop. Joe's best friend Seth, played by perma-doomed utility indie actor Paul Dano, fails to pull the trigger on his future self when he's bagged back to him, and dies horribly (though imaginatively) in the man-hunt that follows. (Not covered; how the blue blazes the powers that be figure out that the trigger hasn't been pulled). So when Joe finds himself facing his own future self, the audience has a pretty good sense of the world of hurt he's looking at right now if he doesn't cut off his own life thirty years from now. 

Joe's future self is played by Bruce Willis, which among other things required Joe to putty up his nose and put on contacts so that he wouldn't look ridiculously unlike Bruce. The fact that Joe can actually get a performance past the prosthetics and the fact that he's essentially trying to play the younger, stupider version of Bruce Willis - well, the guy's just that good, that's all. Bruce is in Bruce setting two, the one he used in RED; strong, silent, deadly and world weary. It pretty much works, because in the middle of the movie we see a clever montage of how Joe evolves from Joe Gordon Levitt's young unreflective idiot to Bruce Willis' older, wiser and infinitely more dangerous operator. 

There's a bunch more plot - including the news that the 2072 future is even worse than 2042 and has a huge villain in it who must be stopped by the traditional murder him as a child method -, and a lot of messing about with what happens if people jump backwards in time, and it all ends in a satisfying though far from cheery way. But my word, it's a mess of plot holes. What makes them really noticeable is that there's such a lot of intelligence on display; when Bruce and Joe finally confront each other, Bruce's world weary explanation of why he can't remember what his younger self did is so believable and clever, I found myself wondering why there were so many other missing sensible explanations. Everyone knew better, and yet didn't do their housekeeping. Look at the ending of the movie and ask yourself how some aspects of the action just get erased by the fact that a character died - and thus couldn't do all the things that their future version has just done - and other aspects of the exact same character's actions persist. Maybe there's a director's cut on the DVD which will make sense of that.

And in fun news for people who like their time travel movies to be full of people who've done time travel movies, Garret Dillahunt is in Looper. He played a deeply creepy robot from the future in the short-lived Sarah Connor Chronicles (also starring Lena Headey, Summer Glau, and my favourite line in any Terminator related product ever "No, it belongs to the guy I killed and stuffed in the trunk."). In Looper he's actually playing someone quite sweet and decent, and I almost didn't recognise him until he pulled a gun on a five year old. 

Anyhow; Looper; not as amazing as you might have hoped, not as good as Joe's best work, but pretty darned good all the same if you can somehow switch off any part of your brain which would otherwise say "Hang, on, this doesn't make any sense."