Saturday, 31 August 2013

Philip Kerr: Prague Fatale

I've complained in the past about the way that the second coming of Bernie Gunther jumps around too much in time, and that the links between his post war life on the run and his pre-war experiences strain the limits of credible coincidence. I'm confident that, like most of my subjects, Kerr doesn't scrutinise my every word with the care and attention of a man reading the IKEA instructions for defusing a nuclear bomb chained to his own right ankle, but obviously someone had a word with him about the time structures, and Prague Fatale displays a comforting respect for the Aristotelian unities of time and place. Coincidence continues to be a serious problem. But that's not the weirdest thing about the book.

In many ways the most interesting thing Reinhard Heydrich ever did was to get himself assassinated just when he was poised to become - perhaps - a heck of a big deal in the Third Reich. Based on what he'd done to get himself to the position of Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, Heydrich may have been one of the few people who could possibly have made World War Two even worse than it turned out to be; this was the man Hitler called "the man with the iron heart". Everything you need to know about what might have come next is summed up in the warm and cosy decision to name the first phase of the Final Solution Operation Reinhard in his honour, what with him having chaired the Wannsee Conference and everything (the second most interesting thing he did, I suppose). His assassination is one of the great nazi-centric what-ifs of the war, along with the musing over what might have happened if Hess had had any kind of plan when he jumped out of that plane into England. 

Characteristically, Kerr goes right ahead and treats the assassination of Heydrich as an epilog. It's always been a big part of the Guntherian schtick that he's the Zelig on the edges of the small things which happened in nazi era., and you almost have to admire Kerr for passing up the opportunity to Zelig Operation Anthropoid. Instead of putting the focus on the single most dramatic event of Heydrich's life, Kerr opts to give Bernie a locked room mystery to solve in Heydrich's commandeered residence, six months before the assassination. He packs the house with Heydrich's associates and then has one of his adjutants fetch up dead in a locked bedroom, apparently shot but with no gun in the room. Gunther spends the remainder of the book blustering at various unedifying nazis as he tries to figure out who might have done and it and why. It's like horrible nazi-fied version of every Poirot book ever, a parallel hammered home with sledgehammer subtlety when Heydrich announces himself to be a fan of Agatha Christie.

Mind you, none of this happens until the reader is well into the book; the first third or so are devoted to Bernie's investigation of an apparently random murder of a railway worker and his growing infatuation with a night club hostess; readers of any other Gunther book will not need to reach for the smelling salts when it becomes clear that all of these things feed back into the plot of the main event, even though there's really no way in which they should. While the main event turns out to have been a well-considered manipulation of Gunther's well known dogged insubordination for higher ends, that just makes it even more ridiculous that the other baggage would have tied into it. 

I'm now wonderfully behind on the whole Gunther thing, since A Man Without Breath has been out for ages and I haven't chased it down. I got Prague Fatale because it was in a pile of discounted books in Chapters, and I suspect that I will do the same for the next one; they're not bad books, they're just not essential reading.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

David Wong: This Book is Full of Spiders

This Book is Full of Spiders is a sequel to David Wong's first published novel John Dies at the End, but does neither of the obvious things which happen in a sequel; it doesn't just copy the schtick from the first book and it doesn't ramp it way past bearable. Given that John Dies at the End was borderline incoherent in its commitment to being out of its tiny mind, this was a good thing. John Dies at the End was originally published a little at a time on the web, and between the way that it reacted to the audience reaction and the fact that Wong's main writing gig was the Cracked website, which rates non sequiturs and dick jokes higher than narrative coherence, it's the novel equivalent of the driver strapping you into the passenger seat, flooring all the pedals at once and then wrenching the steering wheel off the column and frisbee-ing it out the window. Amping that up to 11 wouldn't have been good for anyone.

Of course, John Dies at the End is not a bad novel, or I wouldn't have bought the sequel with my own money. I like Wong's comic style, and in some of his longer pieces on Cracked, he comes across as the kind of person I'd enjoy having a beer with; his sense of what a person ought to do seems close to my own hard-earned belief that if you haven't made the world a little better for someone at the end of each day, you shouldn't have come to the party in the first place. And dick jokes, because as Col Stars and Stripes would say, if you can't have fun, what's the point?

John Dies at the End is so difficult to describe I'm not even going to try; it's best to imagine that Tristram Shandy has been invaded by The Naked Lunch and narrated by Bill Hicks; that doesn't really tell you what happens, but you now know the kind of metaphors to expect if you go and read it. Anything can happen, and it won't have much to do what happened in the last chapter, except in the vague sense that it will be happening to the same characters. I think one of the core theses is an effort to answer the question of what the X-Files or Supernatural would have been like if the two demon-hunters had been small-town fuck-ups and knew it. Anyhow, it's very funny and occasionally very disturbing and sometimes both at once.

This Book is Full of Spiders is recognisably set in the same small town (a nameless midWestern Hellmouth) with the same protagonists (John does not - in any permanent sense - actually die at the end of the other book). It's just a much more solidly, almost deterministically, plotted book. There's a structure of progressively more high-stakes acts, but more than that, everything which happens is building into what happens next rather than getting blown off as a hallucination before swerving off in another direction. It's actually a pretty impressive job of work from Wong, since he's constantly laying groundwork without showing his hand. Just to make it harder, he structures each of his three acts as a countdown to something horrible; chapter headings announce that it's so many hours to the massacre at the FFirth Asylum, or the Aerial Bombardment of [Undisclosed], and then the characters stumble around in an atmosphere of gathering doom until it dawns on the readers that David and John have once again managed to orchestrate a magnificent worsening of an already terrible situation without even noticing it. At the risk of adding yet another comparison, David and John are rather like Vorenus and Titus Pullo in the opening episodes of Rome, getting on with their own mundane business while the audience slowly figures out that they've just precipitated the downfall of Pompey or the assassination of Julius Caesar. For those of you immune to the charms of popular culture, substitute Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

From the purely technical point of view of the writing craft required to make this happen, Wong is playing a blinder, not least because he's doing it almost all as first person narrative with a narrator who's self-aware enough to know after the fact just what a farrago of sheer ineptitude he's describing, and he still manages to pull off his twists each time. Throw in the fact that his characters are fun and human and that Wong's a genuinely funny writer with the knack of burying opinions just when you didn't expect a real insight in among the dick jokes, and you've got a pretty good book.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The Lone Ranger; we have a new John Carter of Mars

Damn, Gore Verbinski's Lone Ranger  is actively terrible. Apparently Verbinski, Armie Hammer (who, it turns out, is not a product of the Victorinix company, if for no other reason than their products can do more than one thing and aren't made of wood), and omni-mistake Jerry Bruckheimer have all gone on the road complaining that the critics all focused on how much the move cost and how long it took rather than on whether it was any good. Guys, the critics were doing you a favour. The movie, just viewed as an actual movie, is the next best thing to - well, I was going to say a war crime, but this is a bad week for that comparison. You could have run a pretty respectable war for what it cost to produce Lone Ranger, but lets try to keep the waste of money in perspective. For example, it only cost HALF what it looks like it will cost to build a children's hospital in Dublin and it didn't take anything like as long as to produce as that's taking, though I've had several painful surgeries which honestly didn't feel like they were taking as long as Lone Ranger took in the cinema.

Still, put the money to one side, and just look at the movie. It's two and a half hours long, or to put it another way, at least an hour longer than its plot, which is a dumb as a bag of hammers, John-Ford-asking-is-that-all-you've-got tale of corruption on the railroads and the white man screwing over the red man, a theme which was last fresh some time around about the time they set the framing device, in 1930s California.

The framing device, of Tonto playing dress-up and explaining the story to a kid at a Wild West show in 1930-something adds about twenty minutes to the running time and exactly nothing else. Well, it gave Depp an excuse to clown around in ageing make-up, and it jolts the poor bloody audience out of the story at around about the points where they will eventually break this thing for commercials when it gets shown on TV. In fairness to the production team, it probably didn't have to cost much, though I bet they still found a way to make it cost more than space flight.

Then we've got the best part of an hour devoted to introducing us to Tonto and the future Lone Ranger and all the major villains, including a massive train wreck (which is totally not a metaphor for anything in the production, or it is, and I just want to be slightly bigger than that). And we didn't need that. I don't even know that we ever again need to see an origin story for anything, ever, but the lead up to Armie Hammer becoming the Lone Ranger is actively more stupid than the lead up to the A-Team becoming the A-Team, and until now I hadn't known that bar could be crossed without black magic, the sacrifice of first-born children and the opening of a a threshold into the alternate dimensions of Shoggoth. The good news is that you've seen most of this nonsense in the trailer, so that at least the rest of the movie might seem somewhat fresh, but when that's the good news….

Anyhow, after an hour which for most people was probably spent playing Angry Birds on their smart phones, the movie finally gets to the point where it should have just kicked off; Armie Hammer waking up with a crowd of dead folks around him, with Johnny Depp looting his body. That's a good opening in most of the trailers I've seen for this movie, and it would be a pretty good media res moment for the movie itself; any back story (a way over-valued resource) could conveniently be handled by flashback and exposition, something the rest of the movie hardly stints itself on in the first place. However, I don't want you to come away with the idea that if you just hacked the first hour off the movies, what would be left would be any good. We're a long way from being able to make that claim.

Firstly, you've got an Armie Hammer problem. I have probably missed his best work (I fear for humanity if I've just seen it), but Lone Ranger seems to be his try-out reel to fill the crater left by Taylor Kitsch in John Carter of Mars. Then you've got a Johnny Depp problem. A lot of people have complained that his acting in this movie is an insult to Native Americans, but honestly, after Sand Creek, the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee and every other damn thing that's happened to them, I hardly think they need to take a moment out to be aggrieved about a stupid caricature from a wealthy actor who probably meant well. I'm more concerned about the way it's an insult to Captain Jack Sparrow. Johnny Depp was potentially one of the great actors of his generation, but instead chose to play a complete f***wit because it was both hilarious and incredibly lucrative. And as long as he chose to do that, he owes it to the audience to be at least that funny all the time. Tonto is about as funny as the measles. When the character's being played for laughs in the first place, that's just unforgivable. 

Tchah, in other words. Who else isn't doing their best work? William Fichtner. I just saw him being ghastly in Elysium and forgot to give him a shout out for sheer creepiness. Butch Cavendish is a brute's brute, but that's by no means the best possible use of an actor who's always been good at suggesting a little more than just brutality. Tom Wilkinson is hiding behind a beard, wisely, but pulls off a fair to middling capitalist scumbag. Helena Bonham Carter, out in public with Depp but weirdly without Tim Burton to chaperone, plays a saloon-bar madame with a scrimshaw leg which must have seemed hilarious in the pub (actually, even the phrase saloon-bar madame with a a scrimshaw leg seems much funnier to me as I type it than it proved in practice). Ruth Wilson is the damsel in distress; lord knows I don't want to see anyone typecast, but using Alice from Luther as a damsel in distress is like using Milla bloody Jovovich to play Pippi Longstocking.

However, I will say this. The last half hour or so is bloody wonderful. There's trains, but you can't not admire a chase involving not just two trains and endless slapstick, but the Lone Ranger riding not just along the roof of one train, but THROUGH the train. The whole thing is scored to William Tell Overture, as it booody well should be, and for as long as that's jaunting along, it's enormous fun. Because it's exactly as stupid as it set out to be. Everything is ridiculous and larger than life and silly, and it would take a heart of stone not to enjoy it. But that's 20 minutes of good fun beached in 149 minutes of over-done mediocrity. So this week's top tip, FWIW, is to wait till this thing is on TV, and then tune in about half an hour before the NEXT programme. You'll laugh your socks off, as long as you remember to change channels as soon as the chase ends.

PS: I don't know why I didn't think of it at the time, but the last words of the movie got to Johnny Depp after the Lone Ranger has reared his horse up and screamed "Hi-yo Silver away." "Never do that again." says Tonto; and still the cast went on the road saying the critics were being unreasonable.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Hugh Howey: Dust

Let's put any grumbles I might have about Dust into context right at the start; within a minute of knowing that it was available as an ebook, I'd downloaded it, and by the following morning, I'd finished reading it.

Dust is one of those books that I read with trepidation. Wool impressed me a lot. I wasn't quite so sure about Shift, the prequel/follow-up; as I said at the time, it answered a lot of questions from the first book without giving me the strong characters which had been such an important part of Wool. So for Dust, I was on tenterhooks. I wanted to know what was going to happen to all the people I'd got to know in the other books, but more than that, I kept worrying about whether the resolution could possibly live up to the set-up. So this was one of those books which I kept putting down in the middle; as each crunching development thudded into place, I'd stop and ponder it a bit, trying to think how I felt about it and whether it was good enough for what had come before.

Well, it's stronger than Shift, not as good as Wool. It answers most of the questions, but not always as well as I wanted. To some extent this is just because there are no answers good enough for the great mcguffin of lunacy as the heart of the plot; the conspiracy which lies at the heart of the whole trilogy couldn't possibly work. People don't work that way, and neither do machines. The closer you get to the punchline of something like that, the harder it is to keep the suspension of disbelief going. The mystery is always more compelling than the answer. Even apart from that, as we get closer to the answers, Howey keeps snatching them away, trying to keep them just out of sight, holding off the reveal for a little longer and then slipping it into the next chapter as something which the characters have come to terms with and which the reader hasn't properly seen yet. Occasionally, this elliptical approach has very elegant results; one character has been set up very carefully so that his moment of self sacrifice can be spelt out with a single line of dialogue to the character he's saving; the reader understands perfectly, but the character can't make sense of it at all. It makes what might otherwise have been a very rushed sequence far more affecting than it had any right to be.

But that said, it's a very rushed book. The action in Wool unfolded in weeks; the action in Shift in days spread out over decades, even centuries. In Dust, the action is back to weeks, and for the first time it feels as though Howey was writing to a deadline, trying to get everything onto the page as quickly as he could. The strength of most of Wool lay in the feeling that everything had marinaded just enough; I complained at the time that the ending felt rushed, and the whole of Dust has the same problem all the way through; characters and situations which would have been teased out and given space in Wool are thrown quickly at the page and are gone almost before you have time to think them through. 

Mostly these days, you're waiting and waiting for a book to appear, so it seems ungrateful to complain that Howey has delivered a workable trilogy to me within four months of me knowing it existed. But Wool took time; it simmered slowly from 2011 to 2013. For once, I wish I'd had to wait a little longer, so that Howey would have had time to give Dust the same depth and power that Wool had.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Elysium: Action movie, not a call to action

Elysium is not a subtle movie. Neill Blomkamp doesn't do subtle. District 9 was an impressive science fiction action movie which stopped just short of holding up flash cards to remind the audience that apartheid was a thing which had been completely real within the lifetime of every single person watching the movie. Elysium throws a boat-load of action at the screen, but this time Blomkamp is taking a swing at something which is going on right the hell now and probably not going to be solved within the lifetime of anyone who sees the movie. Sadly, it's not that likely that a big action movie is going to drive any kind of big action in the real world.

Elysium is about the gap between the haves and have-nots; the haves are up in a luxurious space station, and the have-nots are stuck down on earth, which is one great big slum. Turns out, in Elysium-world, the poor aren't always with you. You can keep them at arms' length while you live forever in orbit, thanks to medical boxes which can just make anything go away (leukaemia or having your whole face blown off are both sorted out within a matter of seconds). Elysium, the space station, is a paradise; earth; well to get the look right, they did principal photography in a rubbish dump in Mexico City. 

Matt Damon's Max is stuck down in Los Angeles, working on a production line as he tries to get to the other side of his probation for a youth spent stealing cars and doing other naughty things. Then he gets irradiated in an industrial accident, and with literally nothing to lose, gets himself bolted into a robot exoskeleton so that he can pull off a big job and get himself a shot at being illegally smuggled into Elysium to get himself de-irradiated. And that turns into a crusade, as these things do in big action movies; it's never enough to save yourself, you always have to be saving the whole world. Not that the whole world doesn't need a whole mess of saving, but I always wonder a bit when it turns out that only one guy can do it, having backed into the solution completely by accident.

It's more interesting to think of some of the bigger questions in Blomkamp's future. It's our own present turned up to eleven, of course; a one-per-cent floating invulnerably above the rest of us in impervious luxury while everything else goes to hell in a handbasket. Conspicuously missing is any kind of middle class; you're either up there in comfort, or down here in squalor. We see exactly one middle manager down on earth; he seems kind of hassled, as well he might, trying to manage hundreds of employees in a factory which - turning experience on its head - is using human labour to build robots (John Stuart Mill would be puzzled to see that in the future, each worker is making his own robots, almost like no-one really understands any more how mass production works). I'll come back to that missing middle class in a minute; I just want to touch on a couple of other things first.

Elysium's economy doesn't make much sense; it's not clear how it could be self-sustaining up there in orbit with all its greenery devoted to manicured gardens instead of crops, so there ought to be a non-stop parade of shuttles moving produce up there to feed the wealthy. We do see shuttles, and they're impressively efficient by today's standards; single stage to orbit vehicles in all kinds of sizes, including a Bugatti for the very finest flying experiences. Right now getting cargo to orbit requires you to burn tonnes of propellant for every kilo you want up there; if they're got the energy requirement for that beaten, there's really no excuse for poverty anywhere on earth. Not that I am stupid enough to believe for a second that just because humanity figured out effectively free energy, the people in charge would share it out fairly; the fact that Elysium's economy concentrates all the resources in the hands of a tiny minority, even though it could easily be shared around, rings all too uncomfortably true.

It's slightly harder to figure out why they're keeping all the medical equipment to themselves, since the magic boxes can diagnose and cure anything in seconds with no apparent need to load them up with drugs or anything else. On the face of it, they should be dotted around like phone boxes all over the planet, keeping everyone fit and ready to work (and if you were feeling sinisterly inclined, quietly aborting most pregnancies to keep the population under control, a very necessary piece of housekeeping if everyone's going to live almost forever).

What's supposed to be keeping you distracted from all of this is the action and the whizzbang guns and robots. Blomkamp is very good at the look of the near future; hard-worn equipment looks believably hard worn and scuffed, and the technology always looks and feels like the kind of thing people would be using in the not too distant future (though I wondered why all the state of the art displays in Elysium defaulted to orange fuzzes, and everyone's file photographs looked like they'd been scanned through a gym sock). The fights are a bit of a mess, since Blomkamp has bought into the jitter-cam heresy, and shows us all the fights as though they were taking place on a merry-go-round during an earthquake. (it's a long time since  I went running around playing laser-tag, but in my memory it did not feel at any time as though I were having an epileptic fit, even when they were firing off strobe lights and pumping smoke into the room…).

Continuing his hate affair with the South African Defence Force, Blomkamp makes the sharp end of his villainy take the form of white South African mercenaries, who even use the same logo as his horrible MNU mercenaries in District 9. Sharlto Copley, who was queasily wonderful as the much put-upon anti-hero of District 9, gets to be the baddie in Elysium, and makes a nine-course tasting menu out of it. When he gets a grenade in the face, your basic reaction is to wish there'd been two, and later on, it's almost as though Blomkamp thought the same thing.

Anyhow, there's much blowing of things up and then good prevails, and a moppet in peril is made all better before the whole world lives happily ever after. Sadly, all of this strikes me as a very bad thing. The problem with Elysium is that it does a little bit to make the audience think about the shocking inequality of the world, and then gives us lots of ways to think that there's really nothing to worry about. The happy ending is part of that, but the really sneaky bit is that missing middle class I threatened to come back to.

Elysium has got goodies and baddies. The goodies are the poor teeming multitudes in the rubbish dump in Mexico City, and the baddies are the ridiculously well off rich folk in orbit. Now, clearly almost no-one in today's world lives in that kind of Olympian comfort, so audiences are not going to watch those pricks with any kind of shock of self-recognition. They're not going to see themselves as part of the problem; they're not going to appreciate that just by having the money and leisure to go and see a big budget movie in the comfort of an air conditioned cinema, they're already better off than half the population of this real world we're living in right now. More than that, they're going to think "Well, at least we don't have it that bad, so maybe our real world rich people aren't so bad as they could be." In short, Elysium is the kind of movie which looks subversive, but really does nothing to challenge the status quo. It's an action movie, when we need a call to action.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Kick-Ass 2: should have been one-and-done

I don't often get the chance to say this, but sometimes you need to bench the writers and open up the jumbo can of stupid. Stupid is not usually in short supply, either in Hollywood or real life, so I rarely find myself thinking that there isn't enough of it directly in front of me.

It was only when I was most of the way through Kick-Ass 2 that I realised how important stupid had been to Kick-Ass. Action movies need to be stupid. Partly it's down to the fact that no-one's going to an action movie for a healthy dose of reality, but mainly it's because most of what's happening in action movies is just plain wrong, and you need some stupid to take the sting out of it. If you stopped to think about the collateral damage of the average outbreak of hi-jinks (as some people have about Man of Steel, the climax of which involved more property damage and loss of life than every major incident which has ever happened in real life in the USA, all put together), you'd get all shaky and upset, so it needs to be somewhat ridiculous so that you can take a long calming breath and remember it's all a movie.

What lifted Kick-Ass above mere stupidity was the electric presence of Chloe Moretz as a tiny foulmouthed hurricane of violence, and she's also more or less the only thing which saves Kick-Ass 2 from falling flat on its face. But even Hit Girl doesn't quite work any more; what was shocking and hilarious because a pre-teen was doing it is somehow just worrying when a teenager is doing it. Take away what one little island of cartoonishness and the whole Kick-Ass thesis becomes a rather dreary meditation on the consequences of vigilantism.

Slightly notoriously, Jim Carrey had second thoughts about the movie and refused to do any promotion for it on the grounds that it was too violent, and he wasn't comfortable with it. I'm not sure how those concerns didn't bubble to the surface when he read the script and presumably watched the first movie to see what it was about. But we all have these moments of clarity after the fact - I'm waiting with interest to see his moment of clarity on MMR vaccination, for example. Thing is, I think he's just wrong. Both Kick-Ass movies are hysterically violent, but the second one in particular goes out of its way to make violence not cool. What may be driving Jim Carrey's second thoughts is that his own character revels in violence quite gleefully, and that gets punched up in all the trailers. What doesn't get covered in the trailers is that Col. Stars and Stripes is a more rounded character than that, and when he gets killed horribly it packs a meaningful punch. That isn't true of the dozens of mooks and non-speaking part cops who get arbitrarily wasted in an effort to let us see how horrible the super villains are, but the character deaths carry weight.

Of course, it all depends on what you want to read into it. The superheroes are mostly a bunch of self-deluding inadequates, the super villains are creeps, and almost everyone in Mindy (Hit Girl)'s high school is toxic. There are a couple of reasonable moderate decent guys, acting as various kinds of father figures and they have an impressively high casualty rate. Across the two movies, every single father figure gets straight up murdered, usually pretty horribly. Throw in Wanted and it all gets downright worrying. I can't imagine Mark Millar's actual message is that being a father is suicidal, but if I was his dad, and had somehow lived to have the conversation, I'd be sitting down with him and saying "Son, is there something we need to talk about?"

It's popular wisdom that smart people avoid movies with a number in the title. Kick-Ass 2 isn't a terrible movie; standing on its own, it's possibly even not a bad movie, since it's got a plot and characters and character development and an actual message (it's also got the best idea I ever saw for sub-titles - speech balloons!). But it's not a fun movie. There's a load of trailers up on the internet and if all you want is the fun you had at the first movie, you could pretty much catch all the best action beats in the trailers - including both of Hit Girl's best action scenes. Or you could just watch the first movie again.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

RED 2: hats, just hats everywhere

RED was huge silly fun, and made enough money that a sequel was inevitable, though - as I expected - they skipped the Moldova caper that closed out the first movie. They did make a wonderful callback to it by having most of the mourners at John Malkovich's funeral be Moldovan (don't worry, he gets better). As with the first movie, you could probably watch the trailers and get the best gags, but you'd miss out on the wonderful slow burn going on all the way through the opening as Mary-Louise Parker conceives a vicious romantic rivalry with Catherine Zeta-Jones. 

As in RED, the women are doing all the heavy lifting. Helen Mirren has huge fun stealing all her scenes, but the real heart of the movie is still Mary-Louise Parker, alternately hounding long-suffering Bruce Willis to take her out on jobs and freaking out about the consequences of Bruce being out on jobs. This includes a wonderful car chase which becomes less about catching the bad guy and more about making sure that she beats her rival for Bruce. With Zeta-Jones in a Porsche and Mary-Louise in a 2CV, it could only be half way to a fair fight in Paris traffic or a Top Gear special, which just adds to the fun. In scene after scene, it's Parker who sells the action with her pitch perfect reactions to the insanity going on around her. When she's not round, Helen Mirren is deadpanning it out of the park (best deadpan line, when asked where she got some bodies to fake everyone's death "From my freezer." ; funniest single scene; pretending to be crazy enough to think that she's the queen …). 

For the rest, it's shoot-em-up, beat-em-up, shoot-em-up some more. Some of it's done well, some of it not so much. There's a great scene where Bruce bashes his way through a squad of interchangeable mooks in a file room, using anything handy to get an edge against heavily armed goons half his age; there's a flair and imagination to that scene which doesn't always carry through. And though they try, there's nothing to equal the wonderful lunacy of the violence in the first movie; no RPG-Magnum duel and Bruce stepping into a skidding Porsche doesn't have quite the panache of him stepping out of a cop car, gun blazing.

The sheer star power of the thing is dizzying. You could go on about how many of the cast have Oscars, or at least nominations, but I think it's funnier that the movie has BOTH of cinema's Hannibal Lecters. Just as in Lecter-ville, Anthony Hopkins gets all the attention, but Brian Cox is always reliably entertaining, and continues his schtick from RED of being the unlikely Russian deus ex machina for those moments when not even the power of cool can get Bruce and co out of their latest pickle. I remember commenting the last time round that Karl Urban's CIA straight-edge put an uncomfortable tinge into proceedings; he's positively cuddly compared to Neal McDonough's gleefully sadistic fixer. Neal McDonough's blue-eyed aryan twinkle makes all his characters look like they're just waiting to be arrested for crimes no-one else has ever imagined, and he's just that little bit too intense for what's really just a comedy with bullets. It's OK for us to think that all this stuff is funny; it seems jarring that he thinks it's hilarious.

Oh; and the hats; everyone gets to wear one or more stupid hat. John Malkovich gets the stupidest, but until his Carmen Miranda number swept any conceivable board of all times and space, it was looking neck and neck between him and Mary-Louise.

 

As I left, the whole front of the cinema was dominated by some sort of PR stunt for the new One Direction Movie, including a bus sent by the Irish Sun. Appropriately enough, they'd found a topless one.

F Paul Wilson: Nightworld

I wonder, without being interested enough even to Google it, how much difference there is between the original 1992 edition of Nightworld and the revision I've just finished. Obviously there had to be a lot of small tweaks to keep apace with technology (though the end of the world is a handy shorthand for switching off a lot of modern conveniences and so not having to deal with people saying "But what about…."). But how much rewriting did he have to do to get his characters lined up properly with all the backstory he's spent the last fourteen years filling in with the Repairman Jack books? 

I suppose one answer is, probably not all that much. After all, he'd known for twenty years where all this was going, so as he drudged his way through the adventures of Jack, all he had to do was make sure that nothing he wrote would be out of kilter with what he'd already written. And if that's true, I suppose the question I ought to be asking myself is what it might have been like to read the recent Jack novels having actually found a copy of Nightworld (which was very hard to locate in the 1990s in Europe). Presumably as characters like Drexler and Hank wandered in during the last five or six books I'd have been going "A-ha! You're going to make it out of this alive, but only so that you can die really horribly later in Nightworld."

Fantasy and horror are full of long turgid sagas of good versus evil, but I'm not aware of another sequence quite as messy as Wilson's Adversary cycle, where the beginning and end were slapped into place years ago, and then the writer kept coming back to fill in the details for two decades. If you were reading the books as they were published, you'd be working with the mother of all spoilers at all times from 1992 onwards. I'm not sure how many people would stick with that; Wilson's not a great stylist, more one of those guys where you read to see what's going to happen. If you already know, there's not a lot else to keep you reading.

Nightworld is a bit of a letdown after all the buildup. It's icky and nasty, but it pulls some of its punches out of pure sentimentality, and Wilson's not quite enough of a writer to get some of the full force punches to land properly. A lot of long-established characters get clobbered in this book, but somehow, even the moments which are supposed to be affecting don't have enough wallop. Nightworld wasn't a very good book when it came out, and not enough has been done in the rewrite to improve that much.

As mystical ends of the world, Nightworld has a certain amount of ambition; the big bad makes great big bottomless holes appear all over the world, and then mystically arranges for the day to keep shrinking and the night to get longer until the world is in darkness all the time. This doesn't make any sense in the real world, but the hocus locus at the heart of the whole sequence explicitly suspends the laws of physics on a regular basis, so that's OK. And once it's dark, all kinds of horrors and beasties appear out of the big holes and devour all around them in nasty ways. Wilson's very upfront about the way that people's own fear and selfishness just makes matters worse; death and destruction haunt the night, but in the daytime, people are looting and pillaging and generally screwing each other over. Which is all part of the grand design of the big bad, who feeds off human misery. 

And this brings me to the headache of the endgame. The big bad has been driven the whole way through human history to create a world in which he will rule over endless fear and torment, because his big bad backers be loving the fear and torment. But Nightworld gives us a world in which about 75% of the population are dead within a matter of days and the rest of them are going to be either eaten up by monsters or starve to death because of the lack of sunlight, and thus of food, within a matter of months. And who is the big bad going to rule over and torment then, huh? Answer me that, smart guy.

Perhaps inevitably, given the lack of sustainability and environmental awareness inherent in his so-called plan, the big bad meets his come-uppance at the hands of a plucky band of mere mortals, some of whom get to live happily ever after in the devastated post-apocalyptic world which Wilson has long since told us all we're never going to see anything more written about. Until I actually finished the book, I had always assumed that he really did flat out end the world completely and there was nothing left to write about, but the day is kind of saved. I suspect he just didn't want to write a whole series of books set in the medieval era of misery which was likely to follow the complete destruction of modernity.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Daniel Polansky: Tomorrow, the Killing

It's one thing to set out to write a series of noir detective stories set in a fantasy world. Something else again to kick off your second in the series with a bald faced lift straight out of the opening scene of The Big Sleep. It's not that it takes balls of steel to steal from Chandler, it's that it takes insane courage to leave yourself open to comparison with the master. Polansky doesn't come off well from the comparison, but he gets points just for getting out of it alive. For the rest, he runs with another oldie but goodie, Hammett's Red Harvest.

I'm not quite sure what Polansky is setting out to do with his Low Town sequence. I've complained for years about the way that all fantasy books come out in big lumps of save-the-world quest three books thick, so it feels wrong to grumble that someone is writing short books with no apparent bridging narrative between the episodes. I should just take them on their own terms and be grateful that someone's ripping up the conventions. But I've become so habituated to the norms of fantasy that I couldn't help feeling a little disoriented. Where was the vast evil stalking the world? I didn't think I'd miss it until I did.

As to what's going on; when you're bringing two genres together and reworking a couple of iconic plots from noir, you live and die on the strength of the writing and the characters. Polansky doesn't make it easy for himself; the aristocracy are self-seeking creeps, the proletariat are crims and losers, and the narrator is one of those guys who reminds you every few pages that he's a bastard, largely to get there ahead of you. These folks are not going to be good company unless the writing works. For the most part, the writing keeps the unlovely characters in play, which is no mean feat when your narrator is a crooked cop turned drug dealer, and still probably the least awful person on the page. They might be awful people, but they make sense as people. Polansky is good at villains, because he understands that every villain has an excuse. 

To give you a sense of how solid the character work is, there's a twist to the narrator's own tale. He's supposedly drawn into the hunt for the General's missing daughter because of his connection to the General's murdered son; but it seemed plain as a pikestaff from early on that Polansky was prepping for a third act reveal that the real engine for the whole narrative is the narrator's guilt over his own role in that murder. In less skilful hands, this would all have felt like a fumbled attempt at a killer twist; Polansky managed to make it feel more like an unreliable narrator making a bad job of lying to himself until he finally had to confront his own sins. That's good writing.

Still, it's not epic stuff. I read the first Low Town book a couple of years ago, and I had to rack my brains to remember what happened in it; I could remember the character and the character background, but I was half way through the second book before I remembered the main plot, which was all about the price of magic and the narrator's childhood mentor. This second book is about how running away to be a soldier bent him even further out of shape; both books have been driven by the "present-day" price of mistakes made long ago, as all the best noir requires. The puzzle is where he's going with this. Polansky's two great influences weren't going anywhere in particular with their detectives, but neither did they come from anywhere in particular. Philip Marlowe didn't have a back story to speak of (the closest he came is in The Long Goodbye) but Polanksy's Warden has damn nearly as much backstory as some kid in a hero's journey narrative. Even if I can't see the big save-the-world quest, I wonder if there's something coming down the tracks.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Mary Doria Russell: The Sparrow/Children of God

When someone tells you that you'd just love a book, it's almost worth reading it, just to figure out what that tells you about the person making the recommendation. You'll learn a little about them, and perhaps a little about how they see you as well. If you ask an old acquaintance what they think of you, any answer is filtered through layers of politeness and face-saving on both sides; let them recommend a book, and you might be surprised at the kind of person they think you are.

So I dipped into the e-book sample of The Sparrow wondering quite what I might be getting myself in for. Jesuits in space is a pitch which only really bad writing would drive me away from, but I've a tonne of books I've told myself I have to read, and the bad writing bar is getting higher these days. The writing wasn't stellar, but the set up was intriguing, and it certainly didn't read badly. What the heck, I thought. In for a penny. 

I find myself wishing that I had blogged The Sparrow on its own, since I'm not sure the two books can be weighed together well in a single post, but for better or worse I just kept going into the sequel as soon as I'd finished with the first book. This wasn't because the first book ends on some transparent sequel hook or cliffhanger; more that I was curious to see what Russell could do next with her invented world of Rakhat. It turns out that she could do quite a lot with the new world, but that she'd somewhat played out the old one. You probably have to read both books for the sake of completeness, but the first one is unquestionably the better book. Don't just take my word for it; look at the awards. The Sparrow got five or six, including the Tiptree. Children of God made a couple of short and long lists, but that was the height of it.

The Sparrow is a simple book with a tricky structure, jumping back and forth between the preparation for a trip to Alpha Centauri, the trip itself, and the post mortem when only one mutilated survivor - Jesuit Emilio Sandoz - gets back. Right from the get go, we know the trip was a disaster, and the narrative is about slowly teasing out how the characters got schwacked. It fills the book with foreboding to tell so much of it in flashback, and in a way the pay-off feels almost rushed, as thought Russell has spent so long dancing around the problem that when it comes to the punchline, she's bored with it and dashes it off as quickly as she can. While this doesn't feel entirely fair to the characters, it's also true that what they're going through wouldn't be much fun to dwell on. We've spent a long time working round the edges of it, and the weight is already established; perhaps we don't really need the details.

I was startled to see that the book was written in the 1990s, when people seemed pretty optimistic about what technology might get done in the future; the book imagines a mission to Alpha Centauri being practicable in the 2020s, based on a thriving asteroid mining industry in our own solar system; that seems ludicrous today, but such is the peril of SF; the future is never what you think it's going to be. Asteroid mining is probably still just as far away now in 2013 as it seemed in 1995. Mind you, if you want to go looking for things which don't seem terribly credible, I think most people would jump on the notion of the Jesuits being able to bankroll humanity's first ever mission to another star; in contrast, it seems almost visionary to predict in 1995 that the second mission would be viable because of the opportunities for reality TV.

What's a little harder to buy is the notion that the mission planners would just choose to send a bunch of friends who happened to know each other from working together in Puerto Rico. That all feels like Robert Heinlein, as does the preoccupation with the way in which slower than light travel dislocates the travellers in time just as much as in space; one of the first half way decent SF books I ever read, as an eleven year old, was Heinlein's Time for the Stars. Although it's done well, it's table-setting; what Russell is really interested in is cooking her characters, and it's telling that she's worked in historical fiction since. She's interested in what people do when you put them under pressure, and in The Sparrow, I think she was looking for another way to look at the historical work of Jesuit missionaries and the problems of faith, free will and guilt; SF just happened to provide her with a way of isolating the issues a bit so that they could be weighed up without historical baggage.

I think that Russell just about pulled it off. It's a first novel, full of characters who are just a little bit - or a lottle bit - too good to be true. Normally that would annoy me, but given the way in which organised religion has become a punching bag, it was nice to read a book in which religious figures are doing their best and getting it right at least some of the time. It's all a little convenient in the way in which every possible viewpoint has been carefully lined up with a sympathetic character to put the case, but it all made a very agreeable change from the strident anti-religiosity which has become the norm in modern letters.

From a purely technical point of view, The Sparrow doesn't quite work. The central conceit is that this is a tragedy of errors, of misunderstanding piled on misunderstanding, the truth only gradually coming out as we see different characters' angles on what we thought we understood. The problem is that some of the questions can only be resolved by giving us viewpoints that we shouldn't have; the book starts out trying to suggest that all we're going to get is what we can hear from the survivor and whatever was in the diaries and log entries of the people who didn't make it, but towards the end, we start getting scenes which only an omniscient narrator could have recorded, and it slightly breaks the logic of the narrative and the implicit deal with the reader. That's just a quibble; I don't know if Russell could actually have got the job done any other way. What matters is the arc of redemption, guilt and forgiveness she's trying to navigate, and that's delivered powerfully and credibly.

As such, The Sparrow could easily have stood alone, the questions about the invented world of Rakhat left open. 

Even so, Russell went back, and let the consequences of the first visit work their way out in the second book. It's much less seamless; one half of it is the continuation of the long ordeal of Emilio Sandoz, and the other is the collapse of Rakhat's civilisation. Just as in The Sparrow, the narrative jumps back and forth in time, jumping ahead to the aftermath of the arrival of a second Jesuit mission to Rakhat, and then back to the evolving war among Rakhat's people. The Rakhat war is far more interesting, not least because it teases out the contradictions and puzzles the earlier book left open.

One of the most interesting things about Russell's Rakhat is that she finds a solid way to sell the idea of an unchanging society; Rahkat has a perfectly plausible stasis, and a system which would preserve it indefinitely - till the earthlings show up and knock over the first domino by accident. A recurring theme for character after character is the simple sentence "No-one meant any harm." The Jesuits came, determined to avoid the mistakes of historical missionaries, but no matter how careful they were, destruction seems almost inevitable. The book, however, is not concerned so much with the collapse of the civilisation as it is with the price of justice for the people the civilisation has oppressed.  Where's the line between justice and revenge? What does it do to people - to a people - if they set out to exterminate their enemies? 

That's the good part of the book; Rakhat is opened out and richly imagined, and torn apart by its own contradictions. The effort to shoehorn Sandoz into the continuing action doesn't work so well. There's an abashed admission in the afterword that she found it very hard to think of a credible way to get Sandoz ever to go back to Rakhat, and in a way it's a pity she didn't take a lesson from that difficulty and rest the character. He'd done all the heavy lifting in The Sparrow, and completed a ruinous journey. There was a good case for letting him fade out. Keeping him led Russell into all kinds of sin, including the worst Irish joke I've ever read; a Jesuit priest from Belfast with a Jewish father and a Catholic mother called - wait for it - Sean Fein. 

Monday, 5 August 2013

Cherie Priest: Dreadnought

In a slightly more orderly world, I'd probably have waited until I'd read a couple more of Priest's Clockwork Century books and then done a roundup of the whole thing; that, or blogged Boneshaker back when I read it some time last year. Instead, driven by my self-imposed deadlines, I'm half-assing it so as to make quota for the month, ruminating out loud about a book which is neither marvellous enough for superlatives nor terrible enough to be entertainingly destroyed for its crimes. Dreadnought is a workmanlike piece of sort-of science fiction which doesn't amount to much on its own. I suspect that the whole Clockwork Century thing is going to prove to be one of those things which hangs together better when it eventually gets re-issued in omnibus editions so that all the overlaps feel more like a continuing narrative.

What it's all got going for it is that Priest isn't a bad writer, that she's cooked up an interesting parallel universe, and that she's quite grounded about her viewpoint characters. They aren't superheroes and they don't know everything that's going on. In Boneshaker, Briar Wilkes is out of her depth the whole time despite being a tough minded survivor. In Dreadnought, Mercy Lynch is a farmer's daughter turned nurse; she gets a certain amount of respect from some people for her skills, but she's always on the edge of the action, just as a woman would be in the world Priest is mapping out. She doesn't quite know what's going on, and has to piece things together from conversations and exposition, and it's to Priest's credit that the exposition - always a problem in SF - usually feels organic to the conversations and scene setting.

Still, it's not a strong book. Boneshaker kind of kicked ass, which is why I bought up the other Clockwork Century books I could find - and also why I didn't blog it, I suppose, since I'm trying to amuse myself with this blog, and I've found that it's much harder to write amusingly about books than about movies. Reading a book takes more effort than watching a movie, and I don't make that effort for empty gaudy crap any more. Meanwhile, movies are going from bad to worse, and the blame for the disasters is spread over so many people that I don't feel like I'm picking on anyone in particular when I go after some piece of dreck I just wasted a tenner and a couple of hours of my life on. 

I like the idea of the Clockwork Century in general; Priest is keeping things simple. On the one hand, the American Civil War has ground on through two generations - apparently because of English interference. On the other hand, hamfisted drilling in Seattle has unleashed a toxic gas which turns people into zombies and can be refined into a drug. The dragging on of the war causes all kind of interesting counterfactuals; there's no left-over energy for winning the west, technology has moved faster and social mores are changing, not necessarily for the best. The lawless west looks like being a bubbling cauldron of plot ideas for Priest for as long as she wants to play around with the milieu. And she's sure having her some fun with her armoured airships and mechanical monsters, no matter how little mechanical sense they make. That's kind of the point of steampunk, I suppose.

Still, the zombification potion is one of those things where I scratch my head a little. It's at the heart of Boneshaker, and in local terms (it's a very local book, with everything happening in Seattle), it hangs together once you suspend a lot of disbelief. It gets a bit harder to buy into when the zombification potion makes its way east to the battlefront, as a marketable drug. Drugs in SF are always that little bit off; they're always super-addictive and ludicrously destructive. Yes, drug addicts are stupid, but they're not THAT stupid. Successful - profitable - drugs are like successful diseases; they have to kill their victims slowly and unspectacularly. Ebola is absolutely terrifying, but it's never gone endemic because it's so rapid and spectacular in its effects that it kills everyone in range before it can spread to another village. Just so with "sap" in the Clockwork Century; it's hard to see how you could make money with it. The side effects are epic and obvious, and it's scarce and dangerous to transport. It's not going to appeal to rich people, and you can't safely make enough of it to make up in volume for the tiny amounts which poor people can afford to pay for short-lived oblivion.

Yes, this is my "How did the super villain get planning permission?" muscle being applied to the economics of addictive made-up drugs. Ignore me. I mention it only because Dreadnought gave me the time to ponder that question, and the other interesting question of how Dreadnought could actually work. It's a vast battle-wagon steam engine, and a big chunk of the plot is Mercy Lynch playing The Lady Vanishes or Murder on the Orient Express on it, as it makes its way from St Louis to Tacoma through lawless banditry and zombie horde attacks (both of which, I agree, would have livened either work up considerably). And I will stipulate that vast armoured battle-wagon trains are both cool and plausible, since they're half the point of even thinking about wargaming in Mittel-Europa in the 1920s and after. However, Dreadnought is described as an engine studded with guns, and Priest dwells at some length on the complicated ammunition feeds and what all. And I immediately started to wonder about how many crew you'd need to aim and fire all that artillery. I still don't know the answer, because we never meet them. There's a platoon of soldiers on the train, who spend all their time firing muskets out of loopholes, and there are porters and conductors to make the train itself work. But as for the hordes of artillery men you'd need to keep all those guns running on time; never a sign of them. I was left thinking that all Dreadnought could actually do in practice would be fire all its guns directly ahead of itself, which is a pretty good plan when you're in a fighter plane, but works rather less efficiently if you're running on rails….

Still, these are practical quibbles about a book which is mostly about people. And Priest does her people well. Boneshaker had rather a lot of grotesques in it, but Dreadnought just keeps chucking efficiently sketched characters onto the page, all feeling like ordinary people trying to get by, appearing for a scene or two and then being left behind as the narrative motors on to the next station. At times, I felt as though Priest had been trying on different characters to see if any of them would make an adequate companion to Mercy on her odyssey, before deciding that they didn't have what it took, and shifting on to find another possibility; it was only as the book drifted to a close and Mercy was introduced to the surviving cast of Boneshaker that I realised that the whole thing had been about getting another piece across the board for the larger narrative I'm now going to have to go off and finish.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Tim Willocks: The Twelve Children of Paris

The Twelve Children of Paris is, depending on your outlook, either everything that's wrong with Willocks, all turned up to eleven, or his best book evar. Everything he's ever written is ludicrously violent and festooned with wildly overblown descriptions; he's the beating-folks-up equivalent of Stephen Donaldson, a man so addicted to using words no-one else uses that there's an on-line game called "Clench-racing", just to hurt Donaldson's feelings. 

Twelve Children is a sequel of sorts to The Religion, a pretty good book he wrote about the Siege of Malta. Mattias Tannhauser is back, I thought to myself; that will be cool. Hmm, hanging out at the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre. That might not be quite so cool. So it proved. 

A little bit of background wouldn't hurt. Willocks' first book was Bad City Blues, in which a doctor got improbably in over his head with rampaging criminal corruption in New Orleans. In the red corner, the doctor, who was insanely bad ass for a psychiatrist, and in the blue corner, the massively corrupt chief of police; there was all kinds of florid language and beat-downs, and the two of them came back for a sequel, Blood-stained Kings which was actually the first Willocks book I read. Blood-stained Kings is probably the most fun you can have at a Willock-ing, because plausibility was taken up in an aeroplane and crashed headlong through a window factory about ten pages in, removing any need to hold back from just chucking stuff at the page purely for the sake of being awesome.  It's ridiculous, but it's boldly ridiculous, full of grotesque villains and indestructible heroes battling themselves, each other, and plots which Thomas Harris would have discarded as unnecessarily gothic (it climaxes in a punch up in a vast barn built specifically to hold a shack as part of a revenge plot which Koreans would have thought excessive, and the hero arrives at the punch up by crashing a plane into the barn….). The chief of police actually got shot to death in the first book, but hangs on all the way through the sequel by virtue of a) being too fat to die immediately and b) the rule of cool, which underlines a thing which Willocks comes back to all the time; huge villains who are too cool to die of wounds which would kill anyone normal.

In between those two books, Willocks wrote Green River Rising, a pretty scary account of a prison riot gone wrong, full of horrible violence and naturally featuring an improbably bad-ass doctor. No-one had really noticed Bad City Blues, which is well-written but not a particularly good book, but Green River somehow took off, and that was Willocks sorted. So I was figuring that the next thing out of the bag would be another big piece of modern violence, but instead Willocks took a ton of time off (spending part of it writing a screenplay for Madonna, of all unlikely things), and emerged some years later with a historical novel about the Siege of Malta. The Religion is pretty hard going in places, partly because Willocks' style gets more and more overblown with time, partly because the 1400s gives him far too much violence and squalor to be playing with, and finally because he DOES like to hurt his characters. 

For all that, I liked it well enough that I was hoping Willocks would get around to delivering on the threatened trilogy of books about Tannhauser, who at least wasn't a bad-ass doctor (if it's not already obvious, Willocks is a doctor and martial arts nut in real life). But so long went by that I had almost forgotten the possibility existed until I saw a huge pile of hardbacks in the supermarket, and realised that Willocks had delivered himself of the sequel and that his publisher had decided to go big with it.

So, what's it like? Well, it's hard going. Willocks hasn't got any less florid, and the dialogue would make Fenimore Cooper cringe in places. There is an enormous anti-hero. There are children in peril all over the place. There's Tannhauser, killing everything he meets. There's Mrs Tannhauser, exerting a hypnotic spell over everyone she meets. There are oracular fortune telling women. There's a massacre. Actually, there's two. On the one hand, you've got the Catholic militias massacring Huguenots right and left, as they historically did; on the other hand, you've got Tannhauser running a one man murder machine all over Paris; I lost count of how many people he killed - all of them basically, as horribly as possible. Twelve Children will meet and exceed all your horrible butchery needs for this and several other years. There's a famous line from Godard to the effect that you can't possibly make a real anti-war movie, because war will always look too cool on the screen to show its true horror. With a book, of course, you don't have that problem; what winds up on the page is exactly what you wanted to say, even if you shouldn't have said it in the first place. Twelve Children doesn't feel like a book that's arguing against violence; it feels more like a book that's arguing for special status for people who are good at it. The depressing thing is that the through-line of the book - save the damsel, rescue the children, get out of town before the massacre catches up with everyone - could have worked perfectly well with a whole lot less violence. Willocks is still a good writer and can throw together a compelling character with magnificent briskness. But instead he spends too much time wallowing in endless violence or - worse - half-baked mysticism. If only he'd had an editor with Tannhauser's talent for merciless cutting.