Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

It's a little known fact that the International Committee for Weights and Measures has been deadlocked since 2004 over proposals to nominate an international standard unit of cinematic lunacy; while everyone is agreed that it should be the Bekmambetov, the committee still hasn't figured out how to  get past the fact that no-one would ever be able to spell it.

In 2004, Bekmambetov more or less redefined screen mania with Nightwatch, a marvellous welter of incoherent stunts masquerading as the adaptation of a brooding Russian horror novel. He followed it up with Daywatch and then went Hollywood with Wanted. I've seen 'em all, and man, they're fun. Stupid, but fun. 

So, I was kind of looking forward to Abraham Lincoln - Vampire Hunter. It seemed like a shockingly stupid one-joke notion, but I figured Timur would just throw lunacy at it till you couldn't see the underlying stupidity past the stunts. It wasn't like I was planning to watch it as a double bill with Lincoln or anything. Turns out that sometimes, even lunacy won't quite cut it. I'm not sure quite why Timur didn't pull this one off, but I'm tilting towards the idea that preposterous computer assisted stunts somehow don't look right in period dress. Most of Timur's best work in other movies has involved cars and machine guns and shiny stuff which we're using to seeing move very very fast. Maybe that stuff is easier to CGI. Whatevs, it doesn't quite work. Though Timur did get to destroy a train out of all recognition, which is something he has form on. It just wasn't remotely as cool as the last time he did it.

Although the charisma deficit doesn't help. Benjamin Walker is no Daniel Day Lewis. Sadly, he isn't even Damien Lewis. He isn't even any of these guys; Tom Hardy, Eric Bana, Timothy Olyphant, Adrien Brody or James D'Arcy, all of whom had a shot at it and apparently couldn't find the time. Raylan Givens as Abraham Lincoln. With an axe. That would have been something. Instead the charisma war is fought between poor old Rufus Sewell and Dominic Cooper, playing bad and good vampires respectively. Clash of the Titans, it ain't. 

Stunts not quite firing, leads not quite setting world alight; better place our faith in the writing. Well, maybe not. Seth Grahame-Smith had to follow Pride and Prejudice and Zombies with something, and deserves points for not just dropping some other monster into some other classic, but instead writing a somewhat different kind of alternative historical horror. But it's still, in essence, one of those ideas which sounds great in the pub. You could talk about it for ten minutes and it would be the funniest idea ever, but you wouldn't want to take it home and live with it. Lincoln's early years are a little sparsely documented for a whole President of the USA, so there's some wiggle room in his youth for a flirtation with vampire hunting, but then you have to stretch the hell out of it to keep him in play once there's a public career. And the movie keeps it simple and just has him retire from active hunting to win the fight through politics, where I suspect the book could do the more interesting thing and show us intrigue through those years as well. Only so much you can do in two hours of screen time and Timur needs to blow stuff up, so we just get the action stuff.

It's a shame. A lot of writers have mined the intersection between chattel slavery and vampire malevolence, with one of the best books being the slow and chilling Fevre Dream from back in the days when George Martin knew how to finish books. And there's always Anne Rice, if you like that kind of thing. And the way one evil could blend into another is caught nicely in Rufus Sewell's best line of the movie "Men have enslaved each other... since they invented gods to forgive them for doing it." (That it sounds rehearsed is perfect, since Sewell's character is exactly the kind of guy who'd have honed that line over time before a parade of victims until he'd got it just so). Of course, once it was Timur and Tim Burton throwing it together, you were never going to get a slow and subtle walk through the corruption of the soul. Not that I expected to; I was just hoping it would be dumb fun with lots of stunts. 

In the end, though, I find myself niggling the small stuff. The movie climaxes with Lincoln faking out the vampire leaders to save the day for the battle of Gettysburg, which has been going badly what with the Johnny Reb vampire mercenaries making mincemeat out of the Union. Quite how Lincoln could have a chat with his wife on the evening of the first day of Gettysburg and know that it was the first day of the battle and how it had gone - well, I thought, maybe telegraphs. But then he can pull together a cunning plot which involves grabbing all the loose silver in Washington and putting it on a train, and get that all done so that the silver arrives, after many adventures, in time for the climactic third day of the battle? Vampires were starting to look positively plausible by comparison.

And about that silver. I liked it that they had a well thought out notion under which silver was bad for vampires (not for the first time, it got brought back to Judas, and his thirty pieces of silver), so that they couldn't abide its touch, and wouldn't reflect in silver mirrors. But there's a patently ridiculous anachronism early in the movie where Abe's vampire mentor is showing him magic lantern slides of his principal vampiric adversaries. People have ragged on how there were no magic lantern slides as early as that, or how it came to pass that posed studio portraits of people who can't stand still in sunlight somehow came into the keeping of their enemies, but what bugged me was; photos? Which depend entirely on the chemistry of silver salts? How could you ever take a picture of a vampire under your own rules? Oh, let's just put the cool scene in anyhow. It's the little things…..

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

World War Z: Brad Pitt is NOT a zombie, because that would take way too much energy

It's only when you get to the end of World War Z that you realise the most imaginative thing you've seen was the opening credits, which keep running dissolves across the action on the screen until you realise, after five minutes of jumpcuts, that they've been getting partly masked by the outlines of "WORLD WAR Z" in big sans serif text. Smartest moment in the movie, and as you can tell, I'm not convinced it was that smart. It was only when I checked IMDB to see what else the director had done that I realised that this was the same Marc Forster who'd managed to bugger up a James Bond movie with Daniel Craig in it. 

Well, it was run off to a zombie movie or have a long conversation about workforce planning, which really would have immersed me more in the living dead than I wanted to be in that exact moment. So off I went to the cheapass Tuesday show at  the Hidden City fleapit, because absolutely nothing I'd heard about this production made me think it was gonna be worth much more than £3.

Let me count the ways. On the one hand, World War Z had a hard time getting out of post-production. I was in Glasgow when they were filming there in 2011 - somehow it was cheaper to fly everything to Glasgow and pretend it was Philadelphia than it was to just stay in the USA - and here it is two years later and the thing has only just climbed out of whatever pit it's been in ever since. Rarely a good sign. And then, there was Brad Pitt. I made my mind up about Brad the first time I watched Se7en and saw him try to summon up a reaction to finding Gwynneth Paltrow's head in a box. It looked like he'd just heard that his cousin's hamster might be poorly. To add to the fun, he was pulling this weakass near-performance while bracketed on either side by Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey. As the scene went on, even Gwynneth's head seemed to be getting more done. Brad, I thought to myself, you're pretty, and you make a convincing jerk, but I am never going to be able to take you seriously again. Even Fight Club didn't really change my mind much (I take the view that we'd all be much better off if it turned out Brad was a figment of Ed Norton's imagination).

So the thought that they'd had to build an adaptation of Max Brooks' perfectly good zombie book around a marquee name, my first thought was "that won't end well" and my second one was "and did it have to be Brad?"

The Zombie Survival Guide, which of course has a place of honour on my bookshelf, is a very well executed gag that contains lots of perfectly good advice in and among the straight faced critiques of chainsaws as a social improvement tool (Brooks and I are of not of one mind when it comes to the chainsaw's potential for making the world a better place). Success being what it is, it had to have a follow up, and considering that he was probably being pushed for The Werewolf Survival Guide or such as, I was kind of relieved when it was a collection of short stories all set in a well thought out zombie apocalypse. It would have been hard to make it into a tv series; although short stories lend themselves to tv episodes, they're all set in different places and have different characters, and it would have been expensive to make and really hard to get an audience to commit to; we DO like our characters coming back week after week. 

Of course, all those problems are magnified to hell and back when you decide instead to turn the book into a single two hour movie with one big name star who you have to keep on screen as much as possible in order to justify his paycheque. So instead of adapting all - or any - of the tense little vignettes in Brooks' book, we got a loose narrative where Brad singlehandedly locates the cure for the zombie plague, because for some reason a retired war crimes investigator is better able to figure out epidemics than doctors. We get a series of set pieces, set variously in Philadelphia (Glasgow), Korea (an aircraft hangar that could be literally anywhere), Jerusalem (Malta! and a mountain of CGI), and Wales (Scotland again) and also the inside of an aircraft.

Does any of it work? Well, the movie's a travesty of the book (the Onion's AVClub rather wonderfully suggested that now that producers were talking about a sequel, they knew just the book they could adapt to show us more scenes from the zombie war). It's also not really that much of a plot even on its own merits. Some of the individual set pieces are pretty good; there's an impressive bit where zombies get loose on a crowded aircraft which really works at every level; it's exciting and horrible and pretty scary, and it doesn't end well, any more than you'd expect it to. 

Because no-one ever can just you know, keep to the canon, the movie's zombies are brisk and organised, and can form inhuman pyramids to overcome obstacles, which ups the challenge factor quite a bit. The engine driving the movie is Brad staying one step ahead of the tidal wave of doom running through community after community as he searches for a cure; but it's easier to believe in the living dead than it is to believe that so many people would drop everything and throw their lives away just to oblige the United Nations of all unlikely things. I found it particularly hard to believe that the Mossad would even give a UN operative the time of day. I'm not sure what to make of the whole conceit of Jerusalem holding the horde of ravenous subhumans at bay with a vast wall, only to have their defences overcome by the sheer weight of numbers; did anyone think about the subtext at all before they fired up the CGI computers? It's a great looking set piece, but I can't imagine that it's going to go without being picked to pieces in the sandbox.

And it looks almost as if trashing Glasgow and Valletta used up all the money, because much of the rest of the movie plays out in small confined spaces with small numbers of zombies and a bare minimum of big ticket effects. There's a hint, at the end, of what they might once have hoped for; little snapshots of the much bigger global struggle play out against Brad Pitt's voice-over about the struggle continuing; in those two minutes or so, you're seeing what a movie actually based on the book would have looked like.

Other stray thoughts; shoot the continuity person, because Brad sets off from an aircraft carrier on a lumbering four engined cargo plane (we will pass in lofty silence over the sheer impossibility of such a take-off) and in virtually every shot of the plane after that, it's visibly different from each other shot. I lost count of the different makes and models involved, but given that they were faking half of what was on the screen most of the time anyhow, it just seems sloppy that they couldn't keep the damn plane consistent.

I think Brad's character is supposed to be burned out from his experiences investigating war crimes, but he winds up playing one worn-out tone so consistently through the movie that it's tempting to speculate that they had to make the zombies move fast just for some screen contrast with their star.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Alan Furst: Mission to Paris

Alan Furst has always written about people who drift into spying, rather than about spies, and Mission to Paris is not really about a top secret mission so much as it's about a whole series of drifts; France drifting into self-destruction and actor Frederic Stahl drifting in and out of romances while he drifts ever deeper into Furst's shadowy world of  deadly lies and compromise. But it's the drifting which defines the book, not the life and death decisions; the two killings we actually see are over in an instant, almost inconsequential, while the book lingers over the way that trivial pressures gradually drive Stahl to push back and risk everything.

Mission to Paris is anchored in the propaganda war which the Germans fought to weaken French resolve during the late thirties, when  war seemed like something terrible, to be put off at all costs. Like a lot of the horrible little things which happened before the war broke out, it hasn't had much attention in the years since then, and Furst's real achievement is get across just how pervasive and repulsive the German war for hearts and minds in Europe was; the slow patient hounding out of dissenting voices within Germany, and then the extension of the same methods into the neighbours, bribing and blackmailing and grinding away. 

Stahl arrives in 1938 Paris, unaware of the slitherings below the surface, and equally unaware of how Germany sees him as another potential pawn in their game; an Austrian émigré Hollywood star who they might persuade to parrot their propaganda lines if they can find the right mix of blandishment and menace. So it starts with charm, but menace is never far away.

What Furst does very well is showing us how very small things chip away at people, undermining their will to resist. Stahl is no hero, just a decent man who gets pushed so hard that he gets angry, and the book is at its best not when it shows him being brave, but when it shows him wavering, wondering what to do next. And of course, since each Furst book stands alone, there's alway the frisson which comes from not being sure when he's finally going to drop a character. Furst has been getting sentimental of late, letting people get away in one piece, but he's good at leaving you wondering if this is going to be the one that goes back to the harsh fundamentals of early books like Dark Star.

One thread running through the whole book which hasn't been as noticeable in other Furst books is the culpability - and power - of big business. On the one hand, French industrialists are among the most important German pawns, bribed directly with money and contracts and more indirectly with the expectation that a nazi-run France will be more accommodating to their business needs; on the other side of the coin, the USA doesn't have a proper espionage service yet, and Roosevelt is bankrolling intelligence work out of the Paris embassy with a slush fund contributed by wealthy businessmen in the US. I found myself wondering if Furst was consciously echoing the power dynamics of this century, where corporations have routinely put their profits ahead of any sense of loyalty to the community they trade among. Or perhaps he's just echoing the truth that resonates throughout history; he who has the gold, makes the rules.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Chaos & Blitz; the Stath doesn't abide like he should

In an earlier post I mentioned that I'd watched and failed to enjoy some of the Stath's more serious work, and it struck me that - since I'm not saving the world or rescuing puppies just at the moment - it might be worth my time to tease that out briefly.

What I did - and this is quite some time back, so details may be fuzzy - was treat myself to a double bill of Blitz and Chaos, which it occurs to me would be a really cool name for a computer game, particularly if it was a computer game about Cthulhu intervening in the invasion of France, 1940. Blitz also starred both Paddy Considine and Aidan Gillen, which was the genesis of my theory that it's a mistake to watch a Stath movie with any actual actors in it; Chaos starred Wesley Snipes, which just underlined the well known maxim that it's a mistake to watch a movie with any actual Wesley Snipes in it, full stop. 

Objectively, I have to say that Chaos  is a much worse movie. It's one of those things where there's a whole bunch of twists, which the writers seem to hope they'll get away with because they know in their heart of hearts that no-one in their right mind is actually going to watch the movie again to see if they were cheating outrageously. I wasn't even paying that much attention to the movie the first time, and I still thought the whole thing was one big dumb cheat. Also, it horribly misrepresents chaos theory, which is not in fact a theory that you can throw random crap at the screen for an hour and a half and then hand wave it by saying that all the randomness was actually an ingenious plot by a criminal mastermind. And, of course, Wesley Snipes. Anyhow, it's a bank heist movie in which all is not what it seems, and everyone gets murdered, and Ryan Philippe is a clueless well meaning copper who ends the movie - as he always seems to - despairingly realising that he's been played like a banjo. The big twist is that the puppet-master has been the Stath all along, which as shocking twists go is simultaneously meta and completely stupid. The Stath is many things; violent, crafty, smarter than he looks. What the Stath is not is some kind of Moriarty. Any kind of Moriarty. Making him one is unexpected, certainly, but Chaos isn't remotely clever enough to make it work. 

Blitz ought to be a much better movie, except that it's terrible. It's adapted from a Ken Bruen novel, which ought to make for a nice downbeat Lahndahn policier, and Aidan Gillen and Paddy Considine are both good actors. And the notion of making the Stath a loose cannon London Irish cop with a hurley and a bad attitude doesn't have "doomed to failure" rising off it at all. The Stath beats people up; a hurley's a pretty good beating people up implement. I don't know that I agree with the Stath's description of hurling as "a cross between hockey and murder", [1] but a burley's got the reach and heft of a baseball bat combined with a smooth complex shape that lets the user choose just what kind of hurting he wants to hand out; anything you like from a heck of a smack to a depressed skull fracture, depending on whether you use the flat or the edges. An elegant weapon for a more civilised age, if you like.  That clip with the hurley featured in the trailer, and cheered me up no end. That looked like a fun movie.

Against all my expectations, Aidan Gillen ruined it. Gillen is almost the Irish Walton Goggins, made by the good Lord to play shifty, suited, scumbags with panache. Sadly, in Blitz, he has to play a character who doesn't make any sense, a swaggering imbecile who likes killing coppers and daring the police and media to stop him. Somehow Gillen doesn't sell the character at all, probably because the character is a swivel-eyed loon and Gillen's genius lies in creations like Tommy Carcetti and the criminally under praised Petyr Baelish; both characters defined by the sense of a smart underdog who's always got one more angle in a game he knows he was never supposed to be in, let alone win. Between that and Paddy Considine's sad sack copper, the screen's full of performances which completely undercut the gleeful meatheadedness which Stath movies normally trade in. Blitz is, in many ways, almost a localised remake of Dirty Harry, what with the lunatic killer and the violent cop, but watching it made me appreciate for the first time how hard it is to make a credible lunatic on the screen. I could never quite buy Gillen's villain, and so I found the rest of the movie hard to stick with. Watching a good actor not quite nail it can become really distracting over the length of a movie, and thus my sudden realisation that it's bad news if the Stath is sharing the screen with real actors.


[1] The real skill of hurling can be judged from the fact that players were confident enough about missing each other's heads on the field that they only started wearing helmets when it was forced on them by outsiders.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Safe: the Stath abides

Jason Statham is a curiosity, a man who can't really act, can carry a movie, and yet somehow doesn't really play to the worn-to-death wiseass schtick of a Willis or Schwarzenegger. Mostly he shows up, beats the living hell out of things, and then wanders off again, like a normal-sized and somewhat more plausible version of Jack Reacher. Somehow, for reasons I don't really understand, Jason Statham movies cheer me up. Possibly it's because, like most people in office jobs, I can't help thinking how much better the world would be if rampaging morons in suits were treated with blunt force trauma rather than grudging deference. 

It turns out, I discovered a while ago, that there are essentially two tracks to Statham's work. One is simple-minded high concept idiocy where for whatever reason he has to beat up everything else in the movie while protecting some innocent or other, and the other is stuff where he's doing something darker and more complicated. The second sort of movie seems to go almost immediately to video; I watched a couple of them earlier this year, and can unburden myself of a Stathamist top tip; if you have heard of literally anyone else in a Jason Statham movie as a serious actor, don't watch that movie. The Stath works best as the lone tentpole in a wilderness of B list day players; put a bit of quality around him and the magic just falls apart.

The makers of Safe got this memo, or they didn't have very much money. It's nothing but Statham and day players as far as the eye can see. And it's a stupid high concept movie where Statham protects the innocent and afflicts the comfortable. It is not, however, a particularly good movie. Worse, it's not even a particularly good Stath movie. Here's why.

If you look at it from the point of view of plotting, Safe is absolutely risible. It starts with two perfectly good ideas. Idea one; get a cute kid who's a human computer and have the Chinese mob somewhat implausibly use her as an accounting system. Not bad. Walking Maguffin, by far the best kind; leaves the hero's hands free for punching people. Idea two; down and out hero who's dragging his way through a dead end life because the Russian mob have told him that as a punishment for letting them down, they're going to kill anyone he so much as shares a cup of coffee with. Ludicrous, but sort of cool. The rampaging idiocy starts not when the Maguffin is rescued by the hero, not even when it turns out that the hero is a ridiculously effective ex-spy who hasn't been in any way slowed down by a year sleeping rough, but when it turns out that the key secret that the Maguffin has trapped in her head relates perfectly to every single aspect of the hero's backstory. 


No, it really is. There was a perfectly good movie in there, and some total toolbag decided that it would be improved by making it 150 million per cent more stupid. And the niggling little giveaway that the writers knew better than this shows up in the way the movie handles all kinds of small business in a clever and economical way. There's a car chase through crowded streets, which the Stath calls off because all kinds of innocent people are going to get hurt; this is genius. On the one hand, it saves the production a fortune (on a chase which has already been done very cleverly by showing most of it from inside the car); on the other hand, it's a very clever piece of characterisation, showing us a hero who can work out the consequences of his actions and cares about the community. And of course it's unexpected; no-one ever calls off the car chase. I've never seen it done. Later on, someone tries to shoot a lock open; the ricochet blows a huge chunk out of his leg, and he does not in any way man up about it. The climactic fight between the Stath and his evil nemesis is magnificently subverted in a way which makes perfect character sense for everyone on screen, and also saves us the trouble of watching one of those tiresome mano-a-mano punch ups which go on forever and can only end one way. Someone on the writing team was, in between studio notes, trying to keep it real. Which is what makes it frustrating when it's not.

Other thoughts. I know I said that in good Stath movies, he's always the lone apocalypse in a sea of enemies, but even by that standard, Safe goes too far. Literally everyone else in the movie is a venal, crooked, dickbag - well, not the Maguffin, obviously. You've got the Russian mob; dickbags, of course. The Chinese mob; inscrutable dickbags. The NYPD (who surely need a better PR company); crooked dickbags in hock to every mob in town. The NY mayor's office, including the mayor; dickbags whose only issue with NYPD corruption is its lack of ambition. Once he stirs himself from his initial apathy, the Stath kills almost everyone else in the movie, and it still feels like he's not doing anything like enough to clean up Dodge. This movie makes policier Paris look like Mayberry. If space aliens had this as their only evidence of life on earth, they'd nuke the place from orbit and call themselves humanitarians.

So, second Stathamist top tip of the day; Transporter's good fun, and the two Crank movies are so riotously wrong they turn out to be right again. That's probably as far as most of us need to go on the Stath train.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Man of Steel; Superman has lost his pants

Zack Snyder inexplicably gets hatfuls of money chucked at him so that he can make movies which resemble nothing so much as a transcript of a kid in a sandpit mooshing his superhero figures together, so it's not entirely astonishing that when David "one plot" Goyer and Christopher Nolan couldn't quite find the time to make a Superman movie together, they outsourced it to Zack, a man with form on the superhero issue. He made Watchmen, a movie which everyone agreed worked best when Zack was making up a cool pre-movie credits sequence, and then started to tank pretty dramatically as soon as he knuckled down to trying to do a straight-faced adaptation of an all-but-unfilmable comic book. Before that, he'd made 300, a genuinely baffling adaptation of … a comic book. After Watchmen, he made Sucker Punch, which is best described as an adaptation of the comic book which Zack Snyder genuinely thinks ought to exist outside his head as well as inside. Sucker Punch is actually fun, in disturbing ways which mean I probably ought never to have ... well, any of the responsible jobs I've actually against all the odds and most kinds of sanity, held. 

In short, it was probably time for a Superman movie. 300 shot Zack to fame partly on the back of the way that everyone from Sparta came to war in just a cloak and their underpants, so it's slightly disconcerting that Superman has either figured out how to wear his underpants on the inside or has just flat out forgotten to put them on. Probably best not to dwell too long on which. He's still got the cloak, however, having failed to get this memo. In the climactic, which these days just means "boring", fight, General Zod swings Superman round about nine times by the damn thing, but at the end of the movie, Supe is still wearing it. Which highlights the intrinsic Superman problem. He's invulnerable. Since nothing really hurts or inconveniences him, why wouldn't he go on wearing a huge tactical drawback? He might as well.

Even though I rag on origin stories all the time, I am almost prepared to write Man of Steel  a pass on this one. The origin story is integrated well into an actual plot which relates to the origin, and Goyer moves the pieces neatly enough so that Clark Kent is just where the comic books always had him, just as credits roll. It's not at all bad. It's too long, and the fights are boring, and we don't NEED origin stories, but if we're going to get them, at least I'll give marks for trying to be clever about it.

But man, the fights are boring. Fights are only interesting if the characters are really in hazard, and with everyone either indestructible or not an actual character, there's nothing to the fights other than just how much CGI Zack can throw at the screen. Which is too much, or sometimes, way too much. Modern CGI is like a five year old demonstrating the truth of the old saying that there's a world of difference between things you can do and things which you should do. I kind of zoned out in all the action scenes, because they were busy, but they weren't action and they didn't even have the bubble-gum lunacy which made Sucker Punch's action bits fun and fresh (and at least in Sucker Punch, there's a real sense of hazard; those characters who get clobbered are NOT bouncing back in the next scene).

Just as with the first ever big budget Superman movie, there's a real sense of wonder to the cast. Playing Superman, we've got, as ever, an amiable block of wood. Given how very one-dimensional Superman is, as a character, it's hard to know how even a good actor could make him interesting, but Hollywood's never even tried. Instead we get amiable beefcake surrounded by a breathtaking array of ringers. There's Amy Adams, playing Lois Lane, because why the hell not? It's not even as if this is a sell-out, because that already happened when she played Amelia Earhart in Night at the Museum 2, despite the fact that there has only been one time, ever, in the history of cinema, where the numeral "2" appeared in a title and didn't shower everyone involved with shame. There's Laurence Fishburne, in the role of "What if I told you that your career would end up with you playing a man whose face looks like a frying pan in a Superman remake?". Over to the left and back a bit, Kevin Costner as Superman's dad, and Russell Crowe as Superman's other dad. Between them they actually have more Oscars than Marlon Brando, who played Superman's dad for the first movie. Man, it really didn't show, not either time, but it seems that's what you do. Notice out of the corner of your eye, Toby from the West Wing covering the mandatory superhero movie requirement for a scientist who we won't ever say is Jewish, but he totally is.

But I'm saving the best for last, and of course the reason why I even bothered; kneel before Zod, the one and only Michael Shannon, your go-to guy for the tightly wrapped part of the system that just had the wrapping come spectacularly undone. He was fun in Premium Rush, downright unsettling in Boardwalk Empire, and I was, of course, relying on him to rescue Man of Steel if the rest of it was as pants as Superman usually is. After a rollicking start, where it was really starting to look like Man of Steel would be The adventures of Zod and some boring dude with his underpants on the outside, Zod gets sent to jail, and by the time we meet him again, he's grown a goatee of doom for some reason and has magically become a million per cent less interesting. Possibly because he doesn't have Russell Crowe to bounce off at that point. Honestly, the early bits on Krypton are tough going, but any time Shannon and Crowe were trading insults, I completely forgot how crap looking and tedious everything around them had been. When it's just Zod and scenery, or Henry Cavill, as if that's a distinction, not so much fun. Still, not the Michael Shannon movie I'd recommend as your introduction to this talented maniac. That's still Premium Rush, which is eleventy million times better than Man of Steel and cost slightly less than the toothpaste budget for the principal cast.

Some thoughts on physics. Man of Steel gets a million marks out of ten for coming with a narrative explanation of kryptonite which makes some kind of narrative sense, but they're all then deducted from the overall score for making about as much scientific sense as Scientology (albeit both are about separating gullible people from money, so fair enough, really). Superman is all strong and everything on earth because the environment is different from Krypton, and having adapted to that, he's well, a super man. But bring him back into Kryptonian conditions and he loses the edge. It's actually narratively consistent and used very well; there is, thank God, no actual kryptonite. It's just that as science, it's not even wrong. The air is different and the sunshine is brighter, so super powers? Tchah. I wave my hand derisively in your general direction. Movie physics reigns unchecked for the rest of the movie; it doesn't matter what height you're falling from or what kind of speed you're doing; if Superman catches you, you might as well be settling into an armchair. And so on.

Still, I go back to what I said earlier about the whole origin story problem. Man of Steel isn't either a Michael Shannon lunacy fest, as I'd hoped, or an egregiously dreadful piece of Snyder-y which I could have fun ripping to pieces. It's a perfectly workmanlike, utterly unnecessary big budget action film that has moments where even Henry Cavill seemed almost like an actor. Admittedly, I'd been having a heck of day at the lunacy mines, to the extent that road traffic ads before the movie were making me feel weepy, so perhaps I'm giving the acting more of a pass than it deserves. But Man of Steel isn't a terrible movie. It even had moments where I was thinking that it wasn't doing a half bad job of storytelling. Then they'd ruin it all with another goddam CGI punch up and I'd start checking my phone for messages again. Hollywood, I don't know if you can hear me over all those fake explosions, but if it's not too much trouble, make some new movies. Put characters in them. Average Man. That sounds good to me, somehow.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

David Downing: Lehrter Station

A couple of years back, I said that Downing's next book would be called Tempelhof Station, but that was based on the slightly flakey logic that the next historical event for Downing to play with around Berlin would be the airlift. Instead Lehrter Station is set in the melancholy winter of 1945, and the aftermath of the Reich's destruction. Which is not so much an event as a massive dose of depression and schadenfreude, and I suppose I should have realised that a writer with Downing's penchant for slow meandering detours through the background of history would have been drawn to it.

1945 Berlin was not a fun place, and Philip Kerr went there a long time ago in A German Requiem, a book I never want to read again. Downing does not drag his heroes as far into despair as Kerr dragged poor old Bernie Gunther, but then in many ways Downing is a much perkier writer than Kerr. His heroes may never get ahead of the game, but somehow they still have a spark of optimism to them in a way that Bernie never did.

When Potsdam Station ended, the war had drawn to a close and John Russell was pretty much on the outs with everyone still standing, so the first order of business for the new book is to find a semi-plausible way to get him back into play in Berlin. Although the books are nowadays being sold with covers which call them "John Russell and Effi Koenen novels", I am coming around to the idea that Downing is actually writing a very long book about Berlin and the characters are just an administrative necessity, due to the marketing problems you'd have if you called each new book "Yet Another Berlin novel". With Berlin in ruins and nothing but bad memories, why would either of them go near the place?

Back they go, however, once again in thrall to at least two different spy agencies, and frantically struggling to stay one move ahead of destruction. What unfolds over the rest of the book is not so much a story as a series of things which happen, rounding out some stories from earlier books and tiptoeing into other ones. But it's all more in the cause of showing the reader the ruins of Berlin, and the ruined lives of the people left there. This is putting Downing up against Alan Furst, who is the 800 lb gorilla of the "stuff happening in Mittel Europa" novel world. And Furst is still better at it. I'm not sure why, though I think that part of it is his realisation that these fragile people drifting through hell couldn't possibly last through it all; each Furst book repeats minor characters and locations, but the central characters run through their fractured journeys in a single book, never to be seen again. There are exceptions to that rule, but Furst seems to run on the idea that nobody's got enough luck to get through more than a couple of life or death encounters, and so there's always a sense of hazard and realism to his characters. Downing, on the other hand, is sort of sunk by the problem that he's got series characters, and so the reader knows going in that the two viewpoint characters can't cop it no matter how bad it looks. Your characters need to be good company to make the reader go on rooting for them, and I don't know that Russell and Koenen are all that and a bag of chips. They're nice people, but my life is full of nice people that I'm happy to ignore on my down time.

Anyhow, there I was hoping for the Berlin airlift, but instead I get black marketeers, the beginnings of the ugly compromises with useful Nazis which became the Gehlen apparat, a modest measure of revisionism about the Soviet occupation of Berlin (sure, they were bastards, but they loved the ballet apparently), and a side shot of the underground railroad for Jews getting out of Europe towards Palestine. Also, plot resolution by Jewish commando, in a four page coda which compresses into almost nothing something which would have made a perfectly serviceable plot for the whole book. Puzzling, that.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Mary Gentle: Black Opera

If this was one of my snarky movie reviews, the tag line would be, "It ain't over till the dead lady sings", but I like books in general, and I like Mary Gentle's books in particular, so I'll hold that one back against the possibility that one day reality breaks and someone figures out how to make a movie out of a Mary Gentle book.

Weirdly, if they did, Black Opera might be the easiest place to start. It's got a pretty straightforward plot and we see everything through one pair of eyes. And there's nothing outright unnatural in it; if you had the wherewithal to make a costume drama in Napoleonic times and the spare money for a halfway convincing volcanic eruption, you're sorted. I don't know where you'd even start if you wanted to make a film out of the gloriously bonkers Grunts, or the intricately strange Ash, to pick my two favourites. But in a world which has seen Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, there's no reason why you couldn't make a movie about an attempt to stave off the invocation of the devil on earth by using an opera to trigger the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. In post-Napoleonic Naples.

Since this is Mary Gentle, it rapidly becomes clear that this isn't quite our post-Napoleonic Naples. For a start, it's not really post-Napoleonic. Napoleon is still in charge of a huge swathe of Europe, since Waterloo worked out a bit better for him than it did in history (and Borodino worked out a lot worse, as we learn in a fun bit of backstory for one of the other characters).  When I started picking up on those little clues, I began to wonder if this was going to be like Ash, where an apparently straightforward book about condottieri got gradually more and more divorced from actual history. 

About half-way through the book it began to feel more like a Tim Powers book than anything else; it has a bonkers quest to avert armageddon through the power of art, which is a very Powers preoccupation, and it was putting its characters through the wringer something wicked, which is another Powers habit. And it was cluttered with dead people playing an active role in the world of the living. None of these are bad things, and none are done badly, but they're Powers things, more than they're Gentle things, and I was constantly feeling a little adrift from my expectations. 

The plot, as I said, is pretty simple as these things go; nut cases set out to trigger volcano using the power of opera so as to summon the devil and end the world; good guys set out to stop this by setting up their own opera to drown them out. Gentle being who she is, the pacing and resolution are clever, logical and unconventional, with things coming to a head when you don't expect them to. But that's par for the course; what's impressive is that she wrote a more than 600 page novel, most of which is about the intrigues and headaches of trying to write an opera. There aren't that many big thrills or adventures all the way through the middle; there's just a bunch of people doing something difficult and creative, and somehow Gentle manages to make that gripping. That's a good writer; someone who can make me interested in something that bores the pants off me in real life.

All that makes Black Opera a good book, but if I was sending people off to start on her work, it's not where I'd begin. Her other work is just more fun; there's more new ideas and clever things in some of her earlier books. Grunts is huge fun in the most appalling taste, a fantasy novel where the bad guys are not bumbling idiots just waiting for the heroes to finish their journey and wipe them out. In Grunts, the bad guys have a clue, and an already good idea kicks it up a notch when a band of genre-savvy Orcs trip over a cache of Vietnam weaponry. Not only can they figure out how to use it, but they start to act like Vietnam War infantry grunts into the bargain. Grunts reads like an immensely long pub wrap-up of the world's most depraved D&D game, which I gather is not too far off how it came to be written in the first place. Slightly more seriously, Ash was Gentle's first step into her continuing habit of writing books which are not quite history and not quite fantasy, but somewhere in between; our own world's history kicked slightly adrift with a couple of counterfactuals and a little bit of magic and then left to run on logically from there. Ash starts out as a hard-headed take on condottiere romances like The White Company, and swerves off rapidly until we're in a world where Carthage is not only still a thing, but it's invading the Holy Roman Empire and kicking its arse hard. Which is only the beginning of the crazy. That's where I'd start; only when you've seen something that left-field can you start to appreciate how the more controlled and restrained Black Opera is a demonstration of how well Gentle can write, as opposed to how many good ideas she can have.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Simon Morden; The Metrozone Trilogy

I bought all three of these books at once, because they looked interesting, and then Equations of Life didn't quite wow me, so the other two spent most of the last two years sitting on a bookshelf while I read other things that seemed more pressing. It wasn't that Equations of Life was a bad book, but there are an awful lot of books out there, and I'm not going to get  all the good ones read if I keep spending time on the not-bad ones. Theories of Flight and Degrees of Freedom would probably still be on the shelves getting ever more dusty had it not been for the fact that Morden just published a new book about Samuil Petrovich and got me wondering whether I should be giving it all a second look. And they're small books; it wasn't going to take me forever to finish them.

Aaaand, I'm still not wowed. I'll catch up on the fourth book to see what happens, but it could take a while to get there.

What's the problem? Well, the tyrannosaurus rex in the toilet cubicle is Samuil Petrovich, who is just a little bit too over the top to be convincing even as an ironic comment on heroes. I have grumbled in the past about Jack Reacher being every teenage boy's fantasy come true, but Petrovich makes Reacher look like something out of Kafka. He's an unstoppable hacker; well, OK. He's a genius who's sorted out all the stuff that stumped Einstein; now you're testing my credulousness just a bit. He's a fun-loving criminal; now you're just taking the piss. He's a street fighter who makes Omar look a little flabby and uncommitted; no, just, no. And the hot chicks just love him, despite the fact that he's fundamentally unemployable, swears at everyone and is heartily disliked by everyone who isn't a hot chick. OK, at THAT point, someone still has some teenage nerd issues to work their way through, preferably not on my time.

This didn't actually level out as the three books progressed; Petrovich moved from asshole saving one kidnap victim, to asshole saving a whole city, to asshole saving the whole city again to asshole saving the world. And saving the world's only functioning AI. And giving it limitless free energy. And having a positive harem of useful female sidekicks. If life actually worked that way, everyone would be trying to be an asshole. And since it sometimes seems to me that "everyone trying to be an asshole" would explain a lot of what I see around me, the last thing we all need is propaganda for that policy. 

Which is a pity. Morden's got an interesting dystopia in his Metrozone, and he's not a bad writer; there are some nice little touches all the way through and there's never anything so clunky that you get dropped out of the moment to marvel at what just got past the editors. I have read much worse, and blogged about it too. I have written much worse. Simon Morden is a better writer than most of these blog posts. It all makes Petrovich more of a problem, not less. 

Still. Once I was in the groove, I did stick with it this time. Petrovich's Russian swearing was kind of addictive; I was wondering if I'd found a semi-polite fix for my Irish habit of using swearwords the way other people use "umm" and "err". I could swear all day in Russian and not sound quite as barbarous as I do at the moment, though of course there is an argument that if you can arrange to swear in a sufficiently upper-class voice, you sound like a supremely confident alpha chimp and all the other chimps will be intimidated by your apparent exemption from society's rules about politeness. Surrounded as I often am by chimps in sore need of a better plan, I find that argument seductive. 

Lee Child: A Wanted Man

It's never clear who in this book actually is the wanted man. I have a nagging thought that when Reacher stumbled out of the last book and into the first pages of this one, Child had figured to have a manhunt going on, but then couldn't think of a way to make that work, or a way to get his publisher to change the title. The production of Jack Reacher books is such an industrial production line process these days that I imagine the title for this book was set in stone, or at least advertising, long before it was out of first draft.

Give or take the flashback of The Affair Reacher has spent the last few weeks of his own time and the last three years or so of real time trying to hitchhike from South Dakota to Virginia, because he spent part of the narrative in 2010's 61 Hours on the phone to someone there and he was taken enough with her to want to meet her in person. It's proving a difficult hitch-hike; he spend Worth Dying For getting beat up before wiping out some kind of pedophile ring (I read it a while back and it's not like this stuff sticks in my mind for long) and he's no sooner started trying to thumb a lift out of that mess than he's hitched a ride with an all-new mess. From the "coming next on the Jack Reacher show" teaser at the end of A Wanted Man it looks as though he does finally get to Virginia without further distractions, but otherwise Reacher's life seems set to continue its weary pattern of puzzling situations which require him to figure out a problem and then kill more or less everyone still left standing up in his immediate vicinity.

By now, I'd have thought that Reacher would be bending his formidable intellect to the puzzling question of why he doesn't seem to be able to get through a week without walking face first into someone else's disaster. It was bad enough when trouble seemed to come and get him once a year or so, but he's been having a terrible year in his own world, and you'd think a guy so prone to mulling things over would be looking at his life choices and wondering whether perhaps it was time to buy some new tactics.

But of course, for Lee Child, all this is working. It's not like I didn't buy the latest novel, and I don't suppose it made much difference to his royalty checks that I bought it of £3.99 in a supermarket along with the week's fruit and veg. £3.99's about my price point for something that I'm going to read once; it's not like I'm on tenterhooks to see what's coming next in Reacher world. But I was looking at what I had to say about 2009's Gone Tomorrow and I have nothing new to say about the structure of Jack Reacher books. There's still a puzzling and potentially intriguing set-up which kind of fizzles out when Child has to think of a way for it all to fit together. All is not as it seems. Of course. It's just that when we're shown what it's really supposed to be, what we've already seen stops making sense of any kind. And yet there are nice ideas. I liked the notion that homeland security empire would start buying up no-tell motels to keep people in for their own good. I liked it that for once, central government weren't the bad guys. I liked that the central terrorist scheme was essentially a scam, but it would have been more fun to spend some quality time meditating on the ephemeral nature of money, and better writing to foreshadow it more rather than sort it all out in five pages of exposition after a gun battle.

In good news for those of us who've started to find Reacher's unstoppability a bit wearing, it turns out that he can't drive very well, though tiresomely enough, he's still so perfect that unlike all the other drivers in the world, he knows he's a below average driver, so even when it comes to driving, he's still improbably better than most of us, damn him.