Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Iron Man 3: Back to Black

Somehow, I managed to forget that Shane Black wrote and directed Iron Man 3, and so when Robert Downey started the movie with a rambling monologue, I didn't join the dots up the way I should have. Cool, I thought, I hope Downey keeps doing improv. It turns out it's less improv and a return to the career-saving Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the 2005 silly little movie which pulled both Black and Downey out of the long slumps they'd found their way into once their earnings gave them the chance to buy pretty much all the drugs in the world. Except that Iron Man 3 isn't that good, because it isn't exactly a leap into the dark to cast Robert Downey in a movie these days, and there's a big difference between bringing in a tiny personal project with everything in your own lives on the line and bringing in a $200 million dollar movie which is a sure thing unless both of you set fire to the money and flee to the Bahamas. Given their histories, I wouldn't rule out that they talked about that before remembering that they're grownups now. Poor bastards.

Anyhow, since Black is a hedgehog rather than a fox, and knows one trick really well, there's bits of the baggage of his previous scripts all over Iron Man 3, and those are the good bits; the not good bits are where he had to write "and then all hell breaks loose" and turn the thing over to CGI folken. The opening and closing monologues are more or less nicked from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which to some extent is the modern gold standard for silly voiceover). The master plot is lifted out of The Long Kiss Goodnight, and then really carefully reworked so that it's a genuine surprise when the reveal is pulled; I sat there for long minutes into that, waiting for it to be Alan Rickman's wonderful fake-out scene in Die Hard, but no, it's just what it says it is, and magnificently it makes perfect sense, not just as a plot twist, but as an explanation for all the things which up to then had seemed like movie contrivance. Well played, Shane Black. Do some more of that. Do it with less money so that you have to use actors and writing; you're good at that. Other themes making a comeback; snappy dialogue under pressure, kids put in hazard and getting themselves out with improvised weapons, an unstable white smart-ass paired with a steadier and more responsible black guy (but that was there before they let Shane Black near the franchise, so lets not call that a Lethal Weapon shoutout), and smart ass white character getting a wicked dose of PTSD and not dealing with it well.

When I blogged Iron Man 2 back in 2010, I complained that they'd just amped up the special effects when they were by far the least interesting thing in the first movie. For a big chunk of Iron Man 3, I dared to hope that the producers had the same insight; for a lot of the movie Tony Stark is out of the suit, out of his element and getting by on his wits. Of course, they kind of have to keep chucking the suit into the mix, it's in the title, but it breaks, runs out of power, isn't where he needs it to be, or only has bits to hand. So for about the first two thirds, I was having fun. Then it's time for the showdown, and the movie lost me. There are more suits than you can hit with a big stick. This is all kinds of wrong; just like the climax of the second movie, there's just a clutter of invulnerable suits bopping around doing massive amounts of property damage in the dark; even if you could see it properly, it wouldn't be that interesting.

But more importantly, it sweeps away any sense of anything being at stake; every time Tony Stark is in trouble for even a moment, yet another suit swoops in to deflect the problem. A running gag through the movie is that the suits can be remote controlled (unlike Oblivion, there doesn't seem to be the remotest intent to ponder the role of the drone in our lives) and will fly through the air in bits to adorn Tony at the drop of a hat. This is used to pretty good effect when it's just one suit that doesn't work very well (and there's a really nice bit late in the movie where we don't know the suit is empty until is gets hit out of nowhere and we realise that "No-one could have survived that" works pretty well when "No-one" is just who's in the suit). When it's Tony jumping out of one suit into another in split seconds it just feels like a stupid gimmick. [1] What bugged me all the way through is that Black used to be able to navigate an action scene which felt like the action mattered. There's a moment in The Long Kiss Goodnight when Geena Davis rides up a rope and then back down it again, shooting all around her which is simultaneously ludicrous and magnificent, as all the best action should be; the last ten minutes of that movie are one long fight scene in darkness, and yet it hangs together beautifully, absolutely nailing the whole notion of a chaotic fight that ends with the villain murdered so thoroughly that you could teach ten year olds what catharsis means with just that one clip.

Continuing a trend of using far more actor than the movie really knows what to do with, the movie cheerily wastes Miguel Ferrer, Ben Kingsley, Guy Pearce, James Badge Dale and Rebecca Hall. Of all of that, I think it was James Badge Dale which bugged me the most; in Rubicon he was pretty persuasive as a smart guy who was coming to realise he was in the wrong line of work, and here in Iron Man 3, he just gets to be smug muscle with a mean streak, a job for which even Vin Diesel would have sufficed. At least everyone else got a chance to act; as always, watching Guy Pearce playing a villain reminds me that I want to watch his Australian cop show, Jack Irish

However, trying to wrap this on a constructive note; this is a perfectly good movie, especially if you leave it early enough to miss the climax, and it's great to see Shane Black and Robert Downey continuing their shared rehabilitation to good effect. But if you want to have some real fun, go back to when the band was fresh and exciting and had everything to prove; Kiss Kiss Bang Bang cost less than Iron Man 3 spent on doughnuts and it's a lot more fun.

[1] And it offended my inner cost accountant; the only way those suits could work at all would be if they were tailored for a specific person, and yet people are jumping into all kinds of suits built for different people without any practical problems at all. (Iron Patriot suit; Don Cheadle (5'8½") James Badge Dale (6') William Sadler (5'8") Iron Man suit: Robert Downey (5'8½") Gwynneth Paltrow (5'9" and very different build) Guy Pearce (5'11" - though in that case it's not like anyone cared if it fit properly))

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Rachel Aaron: The Revenge of Eli Monpress

Quite why this is called The Revenge of Eli Monpress, I don't know. Monpress doesn't really get his comeuppance, and it's not as though he's handing out much in the line of comeuppances himself. I suspect the publisher wanted some label to slap onto the second anthology and thought "this'll do". I'd like to believe that Rachel Aaron didn't get a say in it, but who knows?

Having now ground my way through all 2000 or so pages that exist on the topic of Eli Monpress and his world, I feel like I perhaps shouldn't have. By the time I got to the end of The Legend of Eli Monpress, I was keeping going in the hope that the snarkier, more world weary aspects of the books would come to the fore in the back half of the sequences and that the bigger world plot would deal with my niggles about the rather sugary foreground. 

Alas, it was not to be. It's hard to know how edge of the seat the readers were about any of this when the books were new and you were waiting eagerly for the next instalment, rather than crunching your way through the whole lot in about a month (a month, I remind myself, when I could have been reading other things with a much lower diabetes risk). But I'm afraid that it all comes down to a sugar rush in the end, with our original band of three emerging blinking from the end of the world and setting out to continue their lives of crime as if more or less nothing had happened. Most of the more interesting characters have been killed, or worse, given in to the prevailing perkiness, and all is right back to where it used to be.

This is irritating in more ways than you'd expect. As the front half closed out, you got a sense of big existential struggle which the three musketeers were just buggering up with their frivolities. The back half gets into that existential struggle, but doesn't really sort it out at all. Eli and his chums are living in a profoundly weird world, but Aaron never really explains how it got that way, or what it's all supposed to mean - and when I say this, I don't mean that I expected it to be set out in chalk, with diagrams and exposition; I mean that nothing in what we're shown gives us any way to figure out what it's all about.

Briskly, first, the plots; in the fourth book, Eli and his chums see off an invasion by the most powerful tyrant the world has ever seen, more or less single handedly. And we get a sense of some of the backstory; everyone's strings are being pulled by the Shepherdess, who is one of three powers protecting the world from demons trying to get in. It's started to get on her nerves a bit, so she tends to goof around with the livestock and play her favourites off against each other, which is why Eli is so super powered and always seems to be in the way whenever major shit goes down. So there's that cleared up. In the fifth book, all this boredom gets to the Shepherdess big time, and she decides to destroy the world and retire to a tiny replica she's made with just the good bits. As even the least attentive reader might suspect, it falls to Eli and chums to frustrate this plan and save the world, which they duly do, without any important characters getting their hair more than temporarily mussed. As the book wraps up, all is as it was on the ground, though there have been some significant changes of personnel and responsibility up in heaven, one of which has resulted in all those spirits which infest everything in the world becoming ever so much more chatty and self-aware than they were. 

At which point, my head exploded, slightly. Like in most fantasy books, no-one in these books ever takes a crap, and equally they rarely stop for lunch or get a haircut. Usually I pay little heed to this, because I do all those things in real life and hardly need a fantasy book to give me some startling new perspective on them. But since no-one ever has a burger break in Aaron's books, she gets to skate around the fascinating problem of how you'd ever eat a meal in comfort in a world where everything is somewhat sentient. One character, Gin, gets to eat pigs pretty much non stop whenever he gets some downtime, but no-one ever seems to ponder how that would work in a world full of talking trees. How DO the various trees and bushes and bits of grass feel about being lunch, let alone the livestock? It's a puzzle which never really gets covered, but by the end of the sequence, Aaron has made it a lot worse. She's created a world where everything has a face; not even vegans would be able to get through the day with a clear conscience. And of course, when I have a moment to think about this kind of thing, there's something amiss; I shouldn't have the time left over from "ooh-ah" to think "but..."

Meanwhile back at the big picture, consider this. The world's a little bubble, preserved against a howling wasteland of demons outside the bubble. There are three Powers protecting it, hanging around for the past five thousand years waiting for the Creator to come back and sort out the problem of demon infestation. This is potentially fascinating; it's a longstanding bugbear of mine that these magical worlds don't make a button of sense with their permanent unchanging status quo, and here's Aaron with the beginnings of a notion that the unchanging status quo is enforced from the outside by bigger powers with reasons of their own for keeping things just so. But you'd think with 2000 whole pages to mess about with and five books, she could have done just a bit more to hint at the bigger picture beyond that status quo. Nope. At the end of it all, the world's still a bubble, still surrounded by monsters, and we still don't why the hell this is. Is it a computer game? Is it God's phone charm? We dunno, and I guess we ain't gonna. Considering that was all I was pushing through the books to find out, I feel vaguely gipped, albeit by my own idiocy in sticking with the programme when I could have done something else instead.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Olympus Has Fallen, and it can't get up

I read somewhere just the other day that it doesn't matter if you're telling a story that's already been told, because you'll bring your own voice to it, and make it different. Or, worse, there's always worse. I realise now that I like Korean movies which are made by Koreans in Korea with Koreans. American movies made from Korean source material are kind of pants, American movies directed by Koreans are kind of pants and it turns out American movies with Koreans (or more likely, whoever they could get from anywhere east of Siberia) are even more pants. Well, it's all learning.

Olympus Has Fallen seems to have that meaningless craptastic title because Roland Emmerich has an infinitely more bombastic take on the same material called White House Down; in one of the more justifiable "if you liked this, you'll love this" trailer decisions I've ever seen, the fleapit ran a trailer for that just before Olympus Has Fallen. It looks terrible in that Roland Emmerich, everything-is-made-of-explodium, way which makes his movies such a guilty pleasure for people who know they ought to have grown up by now.

Olympus has Fallen was made instead by Antoine Fuqua, who directed a movie a long time ago that got an Oscar, but has since demonstrated just how little that Oscar had to do with him. Cut him some slack here - he was on a clock, trying to get this one to the theaters before the Emmerich juggernaut rolled over it and crushed it without trace - but Fuqua's whole catalogue is pretty lacklustre; even if he'd had all the time in the world, this is likely to have felt pretty warmed over.

Plot is el simplistico, yet another of Hollywood's "let's see if we can get this all onto one post-it note" plots. Disgraced Secret Service agent must save the President when White House is captured by Korean terrorists. Oh, and nuclear armageddon. Lone man in a building against hordes of faceless foreign mooks with hostages and a master plan? Done. Done to death, by now, really. President in a bunker hundreds of feet below the White House with a nuclear time bomb ticking which will blow up the whole world? Yep, that was the climax of Salt, wasn't it? Washington destroyed by inscrutable forces America can't really understand? Honestly, I don't put my winter coat back in the wardrobe until the true signs of summer are here and someone's levelled Washington at the multiplex. Koreans as villains? Pah. Old news. it had novelty when Bond did it, but it seems like every rock Hollywood turns over these days has Kim Jung Un hiding under it. If only his dad had lived to see it; he loved the movies. Maybe a little too much.

As the movie gradually shifted gear from Gerard Butler saving the president to Gerard Butler saving the whole USA from nuclear obliteration, I was dogged by the nagging irritation I often get in these one man against armageddon movies. Why, I keep asking myself, has no-one ever filmed Stephen Hunter's little known, but plain brilliant, The Day Before Midnight? That in itself isn't a new story - the whole notion of a lone nut taking over a missile silo and holding it to ransom had been done before in Twilight's Last Gleaming - but Hunter's take on it was clever and twisty, and paired off a gung-ho military narrative on one front with a game of espionage cat and mouse on another front. It had good simple minded characters an audience could root for, a neat enough twist in the middle, and plenty of action and suspense. And pretty much the whole end game of Olympus Has Fallen could have been rejected first drafts for that novel. Hmmm, I thought to myself. Didn't Fuqua work with Hunter once? Yes, he did. Fuqua actually directed the only movie adaptation of any of Hunter's books that I know of. And yet he went ahead and made this thing instead of The Day Before Midnight? Oh well.

So, what do we get? Well, nothing makes a lick of sense; Gerard Butler gets transferred out of the White House, but 18 months later, not one password has been changed. Not one. I have to change my login every forty days…. As always, Hollywood's Washington is staffed entirely by people who can take ten seconds to weigh up letting a dozen Americans die as against enabling the invasion of a whole country full of Asiatics, and come down firmly on the "Meh, they don't live here" side of the equation, though in fairness that COULD be an accurate reflection of the truth. Shortsighted, amoral, local idiocy? Well, let's say the argument could go either way. As laid down by federal statute, every time two almost identical movies appear in blockbuster season, Morgan Freeman has to play the President in the one with the smaller budget, though in fairness he only plays the acting President this time. There is a loveable moppet, but mercifully he's rescued half way through the movie and we don't have to live through endless scenes of him being not-really-in-peril. The White House is apparently a complete pushover, despite being honeycombed with secret tunnels - or maybe because of the secret tunnels, I don't know. 

North Korea is super organised, and not just in that ludicrous high-kicking everyone-flashing-coloured-sheets-of-cardboard-in-arenas way; in movie-world, they can orchestrate hundreds of people into a coordinated assault from a dozen different directions. Also the US Air Force is epically useless, since their most modern fighters can be shot down by a lumbering cargo plane with machine guns sticking out the side. In fairness, the USAF may not have felt the need to prepare for a tactic which outlived its usefulness in 1943. Also, there's fun to be had on both sides of the gun control debate, since gun nuts can argue that America needs far more guns to deal with the peril of endless human waves of North Korean tourists, and everyone else can point out that North Korean tourists would probably have been a good deal less well armed if they'd been attacking the seat of government of a country with fewer guns than cellphones. Also, it's kind of weird that the White House has terrible air defence ex-stock but can be retro-fitted with stolen state of the art equipment in a matter of hours by half a dozen foreigners working in total darkness with no power tools. As Mr Hertz would have said, "Does the USA really suck, or are the Koreans just that good?"

Under the heading of "Hey, it's that guy!" I had no idea until now that Dylan McDermott had disappeared, but he's back, and instead of playing the romantic leads which Gerard Butler is now ruining, he's playing second banana villains. Aaron Eckhardt is in it, playing the President; yes, I was right when I said he'd be showing up in more action movies, but sadly wrong about where he'd be in the pecking order; "President who needs to be rescued by Gerard Butler" is practically designated chick. Weirdly, last week's Oblivion had both Melissa Leo (who you hardly see these days) and Morgan Freeman in only a handful of actual speaking parts, and they're back together again this week, presumably glad of the work, and in Melissa's case wishing it didn't come with quite so much getting the crap kicked out of her.

Finally, I hope that Gerard Butler is in fact the greatest actor alive, given how much unsettling conviction he brings to the dickishness of his character, a man who's reasonably nice to small children, grumpy to everyone else and only really comes into his own when he's knifing people or promising to knife them later.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Oblivion: a world so devastated, there's nothing left but Tom Cruise(s).

Aliens, as I have had occasion to mention before, are dicks. It takes so much energy to move a worthwhile amount of mass from one star to another that there's no conceivable point in doing it; if you can get hold of that much energy, it makes more sense to use it to solve your problem wherever you happen to be. Yet, time and again, aliens come and invade Earth to get something which they could have got for a lot less trouble by just staying where they were. Thus, aliens are dicks. Incredibly rare element which only earth has? don't be stupid. If you've got the energy to move from star to star, you've got the energy to synthesise any element in creation. More lebensraum? Build it in orbit round your own star. And so on. So if aliens come and invade earth, it's because they're assholes doing it for the laughs.

It's worth bringing it up again, because the aliens in Oblivion aren't just dicks, they're incredibly spiteful dicks. We get introduced to them via Tom Cruise giving us a voiceover, as he explains that sixty years ago, aliens showed up, blowed up the moon, trashed the planet and attacked the human race to the point where the humans nuked the earth and headed off to Titan to wait out the fallout. Tom Cruise is now the last man left on planet earth and his job is to maintain the drones which patrol the ruins and safeguard the vast fusion power plants which are sucking up the earth's oceans and pumping power to Titan for the new world they're building there. Now, the background in SF movies is almost invariably hokum which doesn't make a button of sense, but not even Tom Cruise's character sounds as if he's buying this story. The only way to have made it sound less credible would have been to skip the voice-over and show the audience a huge blow-up of an email which began "Greetings, beloved sir. I am Lawyer Gregory Plantagenet, Barrister, a solicitor working for the Nigerian Bank of Alien Invasions….".

As I said, alien invasion? There's no plausible business model. Aliens can blow up the Moon, but the downsized 2017 Earth nuclear arsenal trims them back to nuisance level? The whole planet's patrolled by hundreds of drones, but they need just one (1) repairman? Repair drones are impossible? Humanity's figured out how to transmit power efficiently from Earth to Titan despite the fact that Saturn is so far away from Earth that even if the Earth sea was putting out the same amount of power as the Sun, the Sun would still be a better deal since it's on fire anyway. And, oh yeah, Saturn is right beside Titan and is pretty much MADE OF hydrogen and helium, thus a far better site for a fusion power plant than Earth. And best of all, Tom's character Jack Harper had had his memory wiped so that the aliens can't find their way to humanity's final refuge in Titan, despite the fact that the human HQ is an orbiting four-sided dice so big that it's visible from ground level, and that's beaming out a focused beam of energy towards wait, that's no moon. No wonder Jack Harper thinks there's something not quite right here.

Because all SF movies either hide the plot behind a screen of explosions or pull away the curtain in Act 2 to reveal that their bullshit is not what it seems, it will come as a surprise to no-one to hear that all is not what it seems. For example, that's Andrea Riseborough as mission control, when I was sure it was Emily Blunt, who fortunately had better things to do. Anyway, in a development which will astonish no-one following Tom Cruise's personal life, it turns out that he's been brainwashed to believe in a race of entirely fictitious space aliens, while in reality being the unwitting pawn of apparently human but actually much more alien malevolences. In a further development which makes it seem almost as though Tom Cruise is bending reality to his dreams, the whole world is carpeted with Tom Cruise clones, which is the point where we cross over into aliens aren't just dicks, they're downright spiteful.

The vast four sided dice (in a nod to the notion that there might just possibly be some people in the audience who haven't played D&D, everyone calls it the Tetrahedron) is actually some kind of weird alien intelligence whose preferred mode of engagement is to make multiple photocopies of the first passerby it finds (Tom Cruise), and then send them to invade the poor old host system on its behalf. Since the Tet can also make drones in truly industrial quantities, only playful malevolence can account for the preference for using clones, but it does give Tom a truly gratifying moment where he gets to sacrifice himself for the good of humanity while completely surrounded by copies of himself, also getting sacrificed for the good of humanity. Had the malevolent intelligence been slightly less of a dick about the whole plan, the invasion would have been safe. There you go, it always pays to be no more unpleasant than you absolutely need to be.

I have to admit, some of this surprised me, largely because I had been assiduously prepared by the trailer to expect that this was an adaptation of Tom's risible Samurai movie, and a million other dumb flicks where a lone hero realises that he is happier among the savages and rises to become their leader and saviour. Oh damn, I hope you've already seen Avatar, I don't want to give away the plot or anything. So when instead the movie spent its whole first half just following Jack Harper round his dreary life of drone repair and stiff dinners with his mission controller/wife, I wasn't getting what I'd teed myself up to throw popcorn at.

Oblivion takes its own sweet time to get to the point, is what I'm saying. And in other hands, that could have been fun. Even if I did spend the whole movie thinking she was Emily Blunt, Andrea Riseborough's actually pretty good as a repressed brainwashed clone, perkily staying chipper for no apparent reason. And there's something interesting about the underlying conceit; Harper's haunted and confused by his memories, unable to figure out who he really is, and setting himself up for a real crisis of identity when he gets to find out he's just a photocopy. Trouble is, Tom Cruise has too many miles of cocky smartass in his rearview mirror to convince as someone troubled by self-doubt, so that never gels. For much of the movie, the bobble-head mascot on his cool aircraft dashboard has a more nuanced personality. This movie also has Morgan Freeman in it, phoning it in as openly as I've ever seen him, and Nicolai Coster-Waldau taking a break from Game of Thrones and effortlessly out-cooling Tom in every scene even though he's got less dialogue than several of the props and they made him wear a pony tail. It also features Olga Kurylenko, who gets to react a lot and wear more clothes than she usually does, which is progress. Up to now she had to choose between clothes or dialogue, but she actually gets both this time.

It's all based on a comic book, a trend becoming so prevalent that it's only a matter of time before we get government policies based on comic books, assuming that isn't already the case. I did find myself wondering if the comic book faked out the tragic self-sacrifice climax quite as comprehensively as the movie did, or if that was Tom Cruise insisting that if he couldn't get the girl at the end, at least one of his clones would. 

If you were feeling like being openly cruel to liberal friends, you could recommend that they go and see this movie, since it contains a meditation on the character of identity and personhood, and the villains are drones, the mechanical hate figures of 21st century post-colonial warfare. In fact the drones are kind of loveable, because the prop designer made them look like scrunched up angry smiley faces with glowing red eyes, but I'm sure that's not supposed to be my take-away from the movie.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Urban Waite: The Terror of Living

I've commented in the past about the wonderful weirdness of watching Korean movies and not knowing enough about the cast to know who the hero is supposed to be or whether the camera's hovering on someone important to the plot. It didn't occur to me till I was reading Urban Waite's first novel that the same unsettling uncertainty hovers over any first book. Sure, there are only so many ways that a book can go, only so many stories to be told, but just how is this one going to play out? Where's the focus going to rest? How straight is it going to played? And this is not the same as wondering whether the book is going to surprise me; it's more that with an unknown talent, you just don't know what's waiting for you in the shadows on the other side of the page you're reading right now.

The Terror of Living is a spare, simple thriller which I rushed through in less than a day. It's that weird thing, a well-written page-turner, every word carefully chosen and committed to the page only when Waite was confident that it would add something to our understanding of the characters. In an afterword he name-checks inspiration from all kinds of writers, but I can readily imagine an approving nod from one he conspicuously leaves out; unlike Rachel Aaron, Waite has taken Elmore Leonard's advice to heart, never telling the reader anything that he doesn't need to be told. 

I never blogged anything about No Country for Old Men, since at the time the blog policy was that I was trying to amuse myself by ripping into things which were bad enough to be sarcastic about. It's relevant here, however, because The Terror of Living shares a lot of DNA with it, and demonstrates rather beautifully that you can take the same story again and again and find new things to do with it, if you're a good enough writer. Both books share a drug deal gone wrong and an implacable killer hunting down the people on the edges of it. But Waite takes those ideas to his own places. I haven't read McCarthy's book - Blood Meridian convinced me that I couldn't hack his prose style - but The Terror of Living can certainly go at least a couple of rounds with the movie without embarrassing itself.

It's not without its oddities; there's a whole swathe of the cast who never get any names, and Waite handles the decision deftly, always finding a way to make it clear who he's talking about without letting it become a distraction. It adds to the unease which pervades the whole book; are we meeting someone who's about to die? About to kill someone else? Who's going to get out of this thing in one piece? We get deeper into the named characters; Hunt, the ageing rancher who makes ends meet by smuggling drugs across the Canadian border; Drake, the sheriff's deputy who wrecks one of the smuggling runs and triggers off the action of the book, and Grady, the dribbling psycho turned loose on everyone else to clean up the loose ends the money men can't tolerate. And yet, though we learn more about their lives and what makes them run in their different directions, somehow, this doesn't cloak them with the invulnerability which comes with top billing in a movie; all the characters have been sketched in so solidly that the risk to any of them feels imminent and terrible. For at least the first half of the book, it feels as though anyone could die at any time - and by the second half of the book, enough bodies have fallen that only an idiot would be confident that anyone still standing has a guarantee.

Another interesting stylistic choice is that there's no shouting; or rather, that Waite never tries to do shouting in dialogue. Instead he describes the confusion that sweeps through either the person yelling or the person trying to make sense of the yelling. I'd never seen that done before, and it's a wonderfully low key way to conveying the shift from the rational to the furious. I know that only yesterday I was approvingly quoting Leonard's dictum to delete anything that feels like writing, but sometimes writing is clever enough that it would almost be offensive not to notice it.

The Terror of Living is not the most impressive book I've read this year, since Angelmaker has left a very high bar to clear. But it's one of the best thrillers I've ever read and a hell of a promising start for Waite.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Rachel Aaron: The Legend of Eli Monpress

Rachel Aaron is doing something right, but I don't quite know what it is. The Legend of Eli Monpress is an anthology of the first three of five books about <drumroll> Eli Monpress </drumroll>. It is like something out of a bygone age; well behaved cosy fantasy in which everyone means well and fatalities take place discreetly off stage. I imagine that when Joe Abercrombie sits down to write another one of his furiously gritty sagas of panic and mutilation, he's thinking about Rachel Aaron and trying to be the exact opposite. I'm pretty confident that when Richard Morgan went ranting on about how fantasy needed shaking up, it was exactly this kind of book that he was ranting on about. And yet, despite being a hellish cross between Mills and Boon, the flower fairies and fanfic Lord of the Rings, the book had something in it which kept me turning the pages, and indeed has me putting aside time to read the other volume and see how Aaron sorts out the whole mess.

Part of why it works is that Aaron's had a genuinely personal - and genuinely smaltzy - idea and run with it as a coherent background. In a move which would make Teilhard de Chardin smile and then hit her with something quite heavy, she's imagined an otherwise standardised fantasy world in which every object and piece of scenery has a spirit, which talented people can cajole or menace into doing things for them. Now, as a notion, this is gooey beyond the dreams of Willie Wonka's sweet factory, but goddammit if Aaron doesn't just about carry it off. What's even more remarkable is that she's not much of a stylist, so you're not exactly being wafted along on wings of rhetoric to the happy place where all this stuff might start working for the savvy reader. Aaron's one of those writers who strews adjectives with gay abandon, in oblivious defiance of the great Leonard-ian dictum that a good writer avoids anything which sounds like writing. 

So that's the schtick; who's she got running around in front of it? Well, there's your actual Eli Monpress, who is so super powered it's way past funny and into the area where you wonder if the author is in on the joke. On the one hand, he's the world's greatest thief; on the other hand, he's a uniquely talented wizard; on the other other hand, he's got an extraordinary network of friends and acquaintances for someone so young. But that's not all, by any means; he's the chosen of the gods, and all the spirits of the whole world think he's the cat's pyjamas. Everyone's reaction to him is some form of admiration, tinged with varying amounts of annoyance. Backing him up are Josef and Nico. Josef is your standard garden variety thug, carrying around your perfectly ordinary most magical sword in the world. Nico is a "demonseed", and probably the most interesting character in the whole farrago, being as how she's possessed by a local manifestation of the world's big bad and is struggling to hold onto her humanity.

Pitched against our gang of three is the whole world, more or less. Monpress is pursuing notoriety for reasons which are - three books and almost a thousand pages in - still less than clear. It could just be that he's kind of a dick, and this is the way he's chosen to be kind of a dick. And the price of being the most wanted man in the world is having everyone chase after you while you're going about your unlawful business. The sharp end of the hunt is Miranda Lyonette, who's a wizard working for The Man, or as they say in those parts, the Spirit Council. She keeps catching up with Monpress just as he stumbles into a crisis so big that she has to take a time-out from catching him in order to ally with him and save increasingly large chunks of the world. 

This is all very childish, especially in the way in which nothing ever seems to result in permanent harm to any of the main recurring characters. You could quite easily let kids read these books; no-one gets terribly hurt, few people get killed, even off screen, and even Enid Blyton books had more sexual tension in them. The villains get their comeuppance in due course, and the status quo is maintained with ease. It's all so terribly cosy. And yet, I kept on with them, and I think I did it because there's a nicely sinister tone around the edges. Behind all the childlike theatrics of Monpress and Lyonette, there are more grown-up characters angling for position in a much bigger game. Some of them are just paper cut-out authority figures of the type you have to roll out in any book with essentially teenage protagonists, but hanging around the edges you can find some nicely edgy compromised fixers, and the big bad's principal opponents seem considerably greyer than the pastel colour scheme we see in the foreground. I have hopes that those elements are going to be more important in the final acts. And at this point, I am steeped in syrup so far that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o'er. 

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Trance: Inception without the simplicity

When I was talking about Inception some time back, I was particularly struck by how straightforward the narrative was. You're supposed to end up not quite knowing what's happened, but at any given moment in the movie, you feel like you know what's happening right now. Danny Boyle went another way with Trance, and from about half way into the movie, it's genuinely hard to figure out who's messing with whose head, other than the certainty that Danny Boyle is messing with the audience's head.

The movie starts off in a pretty straightforward way, with a wonderfully minimalist art heist being narrated to us by James McAvoy. About halfway through his matter of fact explanation of how his auction house prevents thefts, even the slowest members of the audience should have realised that he's explaining how he's subverted all the protections so that the theft can happen anyhow. The plot's neat and simple, and a defining moment is how the gang makes sure that the squad of heavies in the van outside can't come and interfere with their work; they back up a G-Wiz electric car to the doors of the van and leave it there. Doors won't open, heavy gang are stuck in the van. You'd think people would anticipate that kind of problem, but in the 1980s, the British army bought an armoured personnel carrier with exit doors that were too heavy to open from inside unless the vehicle was parked nose up and gravity could lend a hand.

Since no movie heist ever goes according to plan, before very long the wheels come off the scheme, as McAvoy double-crosses his accomplices and gets hit so hard on his head that he can't remember the details of the double cross afterwards. The accomplices try torturing the location of the loot of him, but get nowhere, and so they hire a hypnotist to try to hypnotise him into remembering it. And almost immediately, the lines around reality start to get blurry. 

Now, I could try to explain the various fakeouts and wheels within wheels, but to do that, I'd have to have some confidence that I knew myself what the hell was happening. It all feels pretty clear at first, but as the hypnotist quietly takes more and more control off the other characters, it gets harder and harder to figure out how much is opportunism, how much is hallucination and how much is a ludicrously impossible deep laid plan. 

Like Danny Boyle's first movie, Shallow Grave, Trance is effectively an intricate and deadly dance among three main characters who are all trying to rip the others off. James McAvoy's Simon is plainly completely untrustworthy; not only did he screw his employers by organising a theft on the premises, he then screwed his accomplices by trying to keep the ill-gotten gains for himself. Franck, the criminal kingpin, is plainly mad bad and dangerous to know; on the one hand, he's tortured McAvoy and will probably kill him the minute he gets his hands on the loot; on the other hand, he's being played by Vincent Cassel, who is pretty much the Walton Goggins of France, except not as likely to be playing anyone remotely sane. Rosario Dawson as Elizabeth, the hypnotist, gets scarier and scarier the longer she's on the screen. There are other characters, including poor old Tuppence Middleton in a thankless role as either a passer-by or a hallucination, but the three leads are doing all the heavy lifting, and the movie works because they work so hard; even while it's not making a button of sense. And it's a great looking movie; Boyle has always been good at the visuals, but he holds back from the outright lunacy which made Sunshine feel like a jammed DVD for its climax.

When you get a movie this intentionally confusing, there's always the temptation to believe that it would be worth while to sit down and watch it again, and try to see if there's anything inconspicuous in the early moments which resolves the puzzles of the ending, but with Trance, I suspect that a second viewing would just make the confusion worse. I watched Inception again recently, and was surprised how well it stands up to a second viewing, largely because it balances the complexity of its theme with simplicity in execution. Trance would probably just get more baffling with repeated viewings, as the dreams within dreams start to trip over each other. The early manoeuvres don't make sense when you think about them at the end of the movie, and I've got a feeling that this would only get worse if you watched it again knowing where each character was going to wind up.

The film does have two really solid set pieces at each end; the robbery at the beginning is tense and perfectly paced, and the final confrontation between Simon, Franck and Elizabeth is a claustrophobic masterpiece and one of the scariest uses of a burning car that I've ever seen in a movie. Trance is a quality product all the way through; it's just that it doesn't make enough sense once the pressure lets up and you get the chance to think about what's been happening.