Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The Watchers: Jon Steele

The Watchers is an oddly structured book. The front two thirds of it are slow and foggy, as the three main characters circle around each other never quite connecting and never quite understanding the world they're in. Then the back third pulls the trigger on the plot, answers all the formless questions in the front end and chucks action where before there was talk and confusion. To simplify it down to a thing I say a lot, it's another one of those things where two different works seem to have collided with each other to the detriment of both.

One of the books is an affecting low-key story of distanced, broken people trying to make sense of their dislocation in the orderly paradise of modern Switzerland. The other book is a comic book horror romp about angels and demons having it out over the fate of the world in the shadows of Lausanne cathedral. I think I'd have quite liked either of them, but much as I'm one of those sad people who eats his vegetables, and then his meat, one thing after another rather than all together, I wasn't at all sure that I liked the two of them mashed together that way. It didn't help much that Steele handles the anomie and dissociation much better than he handles the action. While everyone was just pottering about, I was wondering where the hell it was all going, but enjoying the characters' company. Once it turned to fisticuffs, I was wondering what the hell was going on and not really enjoying anything all that much. Partly because Steele seems to have taken it on himself to invent jitter cam for the printed page. When no-one's ever done something before in an art form less than a hundred years old, fair enough; maybe no-one's had time to think of it before. On the other hand, people have been writing novels for ... just ages. The field is littered with geniuses. It's pretty safe to assume at this point that if you've just had a new technical idea, it's a bad one.

I'm not having an awful lot of luck with angels and demons duking it out in fiction; Mercury Falls didn't do much for me either. It's a pity, because I'm a complete sucker for that line of fiction; if you're going to mess around with good versus evil, you might as well go the whole hog, and I have a perverse affection for the literary conceit of making good and evil just another job full of guys trying to get through the day. Steel's angels draw their sensibility more from Blackwater contractors than long-suffering chair polishers, so that the ineffable unknowability of the divine is forever being hand waved by reference to "You don't need to know." and "That's above your pay grade." instead of the old standbys of "There are things mere man is not meant to know." It's a fun gloss on an old problem, both for religion and writers; if you want to keep the customers on the edge of their pews, you have to draw them in with a little mystery. You have to make it clear that you have all the answers, but that the customers aren't ready for them yet. They'll have to stick around for the whole show, do things your way for a bit, wait patiently and do the right things so that in the fulness of time it will all become clear to them.

And just as in religion, a big part of the sell is that if you're patient and do all the right things, what appears to be the end is just a new beginning. The Watchers ends on a sequel hook. I'm still processing how I feel about that. Would I read a follow-up? Is there enough left unsorted in the characters to make me come back and find out what's still bothering them? I don't know. The book felt so literary at the beginning - its opening prologue was so well written that I bought the book on the strength of it, only to realise that it had very little to do with the rest of the book - that it never occurred to me that it might have been conceived as part of a series. Only as I read the coda and realised that it was a sequel set-up, did it sink in that this was always intended as something bigger. Then the slowness and the odd structure fell into place. And when I check Amazon, as you do, I see that the second book in a projected trilogy came out a month or so back. I didn't push "buy it now." Time will tell.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Empire State: Adam Christopher

This book caught me out slightly. I bought it as an ebook, having read the free sample that you can often get ahead of time so as to weigh up whether you want to spend more time on the book. I bought Wool on that basis, and also The Terror of Living, and so it seemed to me that this was a strategy with a bit of a future to it, though I did wonder if we were going to live in a world where all books had twenty really good pages at the start and then a really sharp fall off in quality afterwards.

Empire State doesn't have a steep fall off in quality after the sample; it just turns into a completely different book. The sample is pretty much entirely a bad evening in the life of a small time bootlegger in a Prohibition-era Manhattan that has feuding superheroes in the skies overhead. It's tight, and well-written and quite exciting, and I wanted to see more of that. So I bought the rest of the book, and that character's nowhere to be seen, and neither is Manhattan, still less the feuding superheroes. Literally with the turn of the page to the paid for section, we switch viewpoints and whole worlds, and I wasn't reading at all the book I thought I was going to be.

I read on, wondering if it was all going to level out or what, but no, we never got back to that sharp opening. I wasn't reading a bad book; I was just reading something that I wasn't in the right mood for. Which would have been true even if I'd bought the dead-tree version, by the way; the blurb on the jacket is pretty misleading too. Which happens all the time, and you correct for it a bit, but I was struck by the coincidence that the switch of tone happened to fall just at the point where the sample broke off on its cliff hanger.

You're not going to get a superhero book at all, really. What's on offer is  a mixture of noir detective story and parallel universe story, with some clever ideas about parallel universes and quite a lot of Rocketeer type super science hanging round the edges. As with all noir detective stories, the private dick spends a lot of time wondering what the hell is going on, but the narrative is so dream-like and disconnected, I spent the first half of the book waiting for the apparently inevitable reveal that the main character is just an avatar in someone else's noir computer game. The actual reveal is quite a bit more clever and well thought out, and largely justifies a lot of the hard work the reader's had to go through to get that far, but it's not a fun read, really. I'd been expecting something a good bit more bubble gum. Empire State is not a light-hearted romp for all that it's about quite silly things.

Chandler once said that when you don't know how to get from one scene to another, the easy fix is for a man to come through the door with a gun; Christopher's gloss on this seems to be that when he can't come up with any other way to make a transition, something hits his viewpoint character on the head. I lost track of how often Rad Bradley lost consciousness, but he invariably shakes it off without more than a grumble about where his hat's got to this time. My last adventure in knocking my head off something didn't knock me out for even a second as far as I can tell (as I said to the doctor who asked if I'd lost consciousness "I don't think so, but how would I know if I had?"), and I was having trouble thinking straight a fortnight later. Plainly I need a noir head. 

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Pacific Rim; Sons of Anarchy do not unite to destroy all monsters

Pacific Rim cost $180 million, and looks it in every way possible. On the one hand, it's every bit as splendid looking as you'd expect of $180 megabucks spent by Guillermo del Toro; on the other hand, it's every bit as humdrum and uninvolving as you'd expect of a movie with that amount of money on the line. There's a recurring line about government initiatives; "Something has to be done, and this is something, so we're doing it." and I'm slowly coming to realise that for effects driven movies there's a slightly different line. "These are the things that we can put on the screen with computers, and someone's going to have to come up with a plot which will let us put those things on the screen." It doesn't, apparently, need to be much of a plot; just anything at all to fill the bits in between the expensive set pieces. And so it is with Pacific Rim, an impressive looking blockbuster with nothing much to say.

I had been looking forward to this movie since I first started to hear about it. Giant Robots! Meh, maybe. Fighting sea monsters! Meh, again. Directed by Guillermo del Toro! Oh, wait, hang on, what did you say this thing was going to be about? Pan's Labyrinth was the first good movie I wrote about on this blog, and indeed one of the reasons that the blog took its current turn to an endless self-indulgent meditation on how I waste my time looking at other people's work, rather than being mostly about painting and cameras. (It would probably be more about painting and cameras if I could find an easier way to put photos into the blog). Del Toro has gone all Hollywood since then, but Hellboys 1 and 2 were still pretty impressive stuff for me, keeping that balance between the fantastical and the humane which had made Pan's Labyrinth such a standout. If anyone could pull off a giant robot movie as a real movie about people, it would be - I thought - Guillermo.

So, now I know it can't be done. It's definitely a movie, and it's definitely got giant robots in it, together with a whole bunch of other del Toro tics like Ron Perlman and adorable girls in terrible peril and mad scientists and ramshackle machinery and wonderfully imagined monsters, but it doesn't really pack any emotional punch at all. I spent most of the front half of things thinking about how the robots didn't make any sense (and also about every time I see Charlie Hunnam, he's delivering voice-over soliloquies about lost family members). Then  Ron Perlman popped up, and John and I simultaneously said "Finally", and started hoping that the movie was going to find a better gear. No, not really, and so we spent most of the rest of it hoping Ron would come back (he does, briefly, in a credits joke we didn't wait around for, so let that be your top tip from today's entry; there's a credits gag you might want to wait for).

The film looks great, and the monsters look great, and if you're into giant robots, the giant robots will probably impress the heck out of you. But if you allow yourself the luxury of thinking for a second about what's going on, it starts to fall apart very quickly. Which is why it doesn't work as a movie. It's giant robots fighting sea monsters so plainly it's complete tosh from start to finish, and the audience can't afford to think too deeply. What's actually supposed to happen - the great unspoken contract between the audience and the movie is that either the spectacle will be too overwhelming to give you a moment to breathe, or the characters will be so engaging that you won't care that what they're doing doesn't make a bit of sense. Most big movies blow that, and that was why I thought del Toro might break the jinx. Though really, having read hisvampirebooks, I'm not quite sure why I was still thinking that. It's a pretty mechanical plot; the last remaining elites of the human resistance in their giant robot suits must save the world, and everything in the end will rest on a disgraced maverick and his ageing mentor, plus lots of self sacrifice and wacky comedy-relief scientist shenanigans. If you don't like robots, watch Independence Day instead; it's pretty much the same plot, just as stupid, and somehow more enjoyable. 

I could never really buy into Pacific Rim's robots. They're so huge and complicated, you need two people to pilot them, and they have to be mentally linked to do exactly the same movements at exactly the same time. On the one hand, this sounds like the kind of thing a writer cooks up so that he can have some way of giving his characters something to talk about and someone to say it to, and on the other hand - well, where do I start? You've got technology which can somehow couple two human brains into sync both with each other and yet you still need them to wave their arms and legs around physically to make the robot move? All the robot operators spend their time flailing around spastically in enormous control rooms looking like Jedward trying to play xBox with a Kinect, except that at least a Kinect can pick up your arm and leg movements with infra red sensors, while futuristic age robot technology has vast mechanical waldos fastened to the operators to magnify their movements. And they're all wearing armour, even though they're inside a hundred-metre metal colossus which ought to make armour for the crew completely pointless. Logically, they ought to be directly linked to the robot through the same mind reading technology that supposedly links the crews together, and cocooned perfectly still in a million layers of shock gel to cushion them against the relentless jolting of the monster punch-ups. But that wouldn't have looked cool….

I couldn't get away from that one. Giant robots are ridiculous anyway, so I was ready to put up with all kinds of nonsense (including; 100-metre metal colossus explicitly made out "of iron, no alloys", but can be carried around by helicopters; radio communication between Hong Kong and the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and through a transdimensional rift in space and time; armed guards everywhere despite the fact that there was absolutely no evidence of any threat which armed guards could have handled…), but somehow it was the stupid control system which broke my ability to lean back and enjoy the movie.

Which is a shame. There's good stuff. It's nice that the movie stands alone, with no need for another one; the backstory of how the war against the monsters started is sketched in efficiently before the credits , and the movie's ending rules out any kind of sequel. And the main action isn't about blowing up the world; it's more interested in showing us what the world is like after a dozen years of combat. Predictably enough, that's at its best when del Toro takes a break from robot action and takes the movie into a slum in Hong Kong which is built in the remains of one of the monsters; the time we spent with Ron Perlman and the mad scientists scavenging for monster body parts is vintage del Toro, full of messy organics and real suspense with real characters. There's more of a sense of threat and hazard in those scenes than there is in the huge sprawling robot on monster brawls which dominate the movie (all of which happen at night and in the rain, which makes them feel terribly samey and hard to follow).  

Disappointingly, Charlie Hunnam and Ron Perlman get no screen time together, so we didn't get any kind of a Sons of Anarchy reunion. I know my readers will think that's the greatest single weakness of the whole movie.

PS: This just showed up on Cracked, and I agree that it would have made a much better movie - I also think that it would have made it a much more del Toro movie, since Pan’s Labyrinth is a movie with a girl right at the heart of things.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Despicable Me 2; a better zombie movie than World War Z

As predicted last week, Despicable Me held on in the Hidden City fleapit, so I halfheartedly sloped along this evening on the "catch it now or never catch up with it til video" principle which drives a lot of my movie-going decisions. I didn't expect the original to be up to much, and it surprised me; I expected the sequel to be kind of flat, and this time I called it.

Despicable Me 2 is better than a film with a "2" in the title usually is, and it doesn't actually ruin the original, but there's not enough of the kids this time. In the first movie, the three kids were sneakily undermining Gru's will to evil, all while he plotted to steal the moon and one up his upstart rival. In the second movie, Gru finds romance instead of fatherhood, and I have to say I was right there with Edith and the disgusted expression on her face every time the love theme bobbed around. Kristen Wiig's Lucy is good fun (it's almost criminal how funny she can make the phrase "lipstick taser" sound), but the fun of Gru is his misanthropy, and he was softened quite enough in the first movie, thank you very much.

Still there's always the minions. Having said three years ago that I'd pay good money to see a movie with nothing but the minions, I had second thoughts when I saw that's the next stage in the despicabilification of the world. The minions are great as comic relief, but since they have the attention span of greenfly, I'm struggling to think of how you could hold a movie together around their antics. Despicable Me 2 was visibly struggling at times. Still, that's 2014's problem, by which stage I shall have fled the Hidden City, and who knows what that might do to my perspectives.

Not enough kids, I'm having mild misgivings about the minions, and the love story struck me as a bad idea. How are things on the overall villainy front? Well, Lucy's an agent with the Anti-Villain League who, like most representatives of Lawful Good in the movies, come across as very nearly as dangerous as the evil they're after and considerably less likeable. The villain; well, I liked the villain in the first movie because he was a stereotype of a particular kind of annoying person; I'm always that little bit less forgiving when the villain is a stereotype of a whole country (exception; any time Jean Reno plays a frog hitman is quite OK with me). But mostly my issue with the villainy is that there just isn't enough of it, and it's not on wonderfully preposterous scale that Gru used to deliver. In the first movie, the gadgets had a chromed grandiosity to them which pleased the eye; there's not enough of it this time round, unfortunately. What there is, is a villainous plot which effectively turns the minions into zombies, which is a nice idea until the writers realised that they were making a kids' movie and the tiny tykes would run screaming into the waiting arms of a million lawyers if the zombies did what you zombies, you know, do. So there's a miracle cure, and it's 100% more credible - and more effectively foreshadowed and written - than the miracle cure in World War Z, which I did not see coming, other than in the general way that I don't expect to see anything less credible this year than Brad Pitt saving the world.

All that grumbling done, I watched pretty much the whole thing with a grin on my face. Maybe the minions can't carry a movie on their own, maybe they can, but when they trooped out into a fairy princess birthday party in a mismatched assortment of armour and started beating the tar out of each other, I wanted a full set of them in 28mm. And while Gru isn't at his sparkling best, there's a wonderful bookend half way through the movie where he starts the day full of the joys of love, and joins in cheerily with everything going on around him, only to end the day dumped and reversing every single feel good gesture we saw earlier.

What Gru needs is whatever colour of kryptonite it used to be that made Superman into evil superman. There's your third movie.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Now You See Me; I wish they made more movies like this, for less money

Abiding here as I do in the wastes of Nordor, exiled from even the kingdom's most paltry pleasures in the hilly fastnesses of the Hidden City, I rarely have to contend with the luxury of choice. Either there's one movie which is not outright craptastic, or there's nothing at all, and I retire to the third floor operations room with an improving book, or the list of people I've unaccountably not got round to schwacking yet, whichever seems most likely to while away the evening.

So it was an unfamiliar sensation to have to pick between entertainments this evening. Now You See Me, or Despicable Me 2? The hardheaded decision was to remember that this is the Hidden City fleapit, mental age eleven, and that a cartoon was more likely to run a second week. About five minutes into the movie, I kind of wished I'd flipped the coin the other way, because Now You See Me showed early signs of being the kind of movie I'd enjoy watching in Dublin with someone I like. Sadly, it sort of blew that early promise, but I still had fun.

The best scene in the movie - for me anyhow - is right at the beginning, where we're meeting the magical wing of the cast. Woody Harrelson has three minutes of glory hypnotising a middle-aged wife, then mind-reading her husband to figure out he's had a fling with his sister in law before shaking  him down for $250 to keep quiet about it, and then using some more hypnotism to make the wife forget all she's heard. Hypnotism.Does.Not.Work.That.Way, but it's awesome because Woody sells it, and because it's pitched perfectly; small scale, kind of vindictive, but still a nifty kind of rough justice. If the whole movie had pitched itself that low, Now You See Me could have been a minor classic. It had the players to make it work, heaven knows. Instead, they went high concept and big budget, and I got a fun movie which makes me feel almost guilty for wanting it to be something else.

The high concept is that four streetwise magicians reinvent themselves as Vegas headliners as part of a much bigger scam to rob banks and generally Robin Hood around the place. The big headline magic is great to watch, but is all too obviously stuff which no stage act could ever do; you're not wondering how they did it, just shrugging at yet more CGI standing in for impact. And parts of this plot are nicely done; I really enjoyed a moment in the third act when it becomes clear that they have no idea what they're doing, which nicely undercuts the strutting showmanship we've been watching up to now. Like all big twisty revenge plots, there's a reveal at the end which makes a nonsense of almost everything we've seen up to then, but it's fun while it lasts.

Some of the stunts and action are nifty - there's a car chase in the middle which was bound to work considering the movie is being directed by the guy who made The Transporter, a consideration which also applies to a borderline slapstick fight scene earlier in the movie. And although the magic isn't plausible magic, there's a moment when Isla Fisher's character is drifting above the stage in a soap bubble which is pure spectacle despite being palpably fake.

Still, most of why it works is the actors. The four magicians; hmm. Woody Harrelson is great, and has a role which lets him talk, but the other three don't get that much to do. I always, rather unfairly, think of Isla Fisher as the Canadian Amy Adams. Jesse Eisenberg, apart from that one time in Zombieland, is a little bit too good at playing smart jerks. And Dave Franco appears to be guesting from a TV show. The real work is being done by the likes of Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Mark Ruffalo and best of all Melanie Laurent. Laurent was magical in Inglorious Basterds, but it was startling to see just how much she got done here with the kind-of-underwritten role of "chick from Interpol who might be in on the conspiracy but probably isn't". It's crazy that she isn't in all the movies, all the time. I spent a lot of the movie just waiting for her to come back on and smoulder a bit more. It was a constant reminder of the movie I wished they'd made instead, with less money and lower stakes and more heart.

PS: If you don't mind spoilers and you do want to read a much funnier takedown of the whole moronic plot, I couldn't possibly have done better than this

Monday, 1 July 2013

The Raven; the writer did it.

John Cusack burst into the movies with the one-two punch of The Sure Thing and Say Anything, or at least that's the convenient narrative; the ugly reality is that between those two movies, he did a bunch of really-dumb-even-by-80s-standards teenage comedies. At the time I was inclined to shrug that off under the heading of "He was young, and he needed the money", but as I look back over the 30 odd years since the Sure Thing, there's a scary number of "Oh, yeah, and he was in THAT." moments. Cusack really can't pick 'em. He's one of the most charming actors alive, and I've seen him save some woeful stuff from utter desolation, but man, Cusack seems to say yes to everything. Having said that, I've seen War Inc, which was his own idea, so I'm thinking that Cusack might not be able to tell the difference between good and bad any more.

In The Raven, Cusack is playing Edgar Allan Poe. There's casting against type, and there's an actor trying to extend their range, and there's even Tom Cruise playing a 6'5" superman. And then there's the guy who brought us Lloyd Dobler playing Edgar Allan Poe. I bought the DVD to see how bad it could be, and ….

Well, Cusack isn't that bad. He plays Poe with what we'd now call a goatee, but at the time would have been a van dyke. It's less unflattering to Cusack's face than Poe's actual face hair, which was a small moustache that - in the pictures I've seen - just makes his chin look even smaller than it would have if he'd shaved. And in a way, that's the whole movie; don't go with the unimpressive reality of a tortured soul but with something over the top and wrong which will look exciting to the modern eye.

Poe led a miserable life, and died in circumstances which are mysterious only if you've never met a miserable drunk who can't keep his act together, but I can see how Hollywood didn't see a movie in that. So instead Poe's last days are a serial killer plot where Poe is hounded by an insane genius who copies a bunch of Poe's most famous murder scenes so as to provoke Poe into writing some more murder scenes. I appreciate that this was an era before television and people would have had to make their own entertainment, but it all seems just a bit arduous. Possibly the killer might have tried reading a wider selection of authors; he does after all end the movie expressing an interest in tormenting the then practically unknown Jules Verne.

The Raven is a bit of a mess. Most of the killings are swiftly nicked out of Poe stories, logically enough, but where that didn't suffice, they nicked bits from all over the place; a good bit of the drive in the plot is stolen lock stock and barrel from the genuinely gripping The Vanishing (either one, I suppose, but it felt more like they'd nicked it from the objectively worse American remake), and the ending seems completely purloined (Poe would approve) from The Silence of the Lambs, right up to the moment when it turns out to be lifted from The Departed

Thrown into it, almost at random, are all kinds of people. Brendan Gleeson is there, and so is Brendan Coyle from Downton Abbey, briefly playing a horrible barman. Luke Evans, looking a bit less like the Canadian Orlando Bloom than usual, is there in the role of Johnny Depp from Sleepy Hollow. And in fairness, they all do their best. This is that ugly movie where all you can do is blame the writer. The acting's fine, the director blocks everything in as well as he can, and the muddy look is generic to bad serial killer movies. But the story … yup, I hate to do this, but it's time to point the finger at the ten fingers of whoever the heck typed this thing. Which is, I suppose, as near as I'm going to get to a nice irony for this commentary; The Raven all about the writer as villain, but not the way the writer thought it would be….