Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Chris Wooding: Ace of Skulls

And with this, it looks as though Chris Wooding has decided to ring down the curtain on the Ketty Jay. For those wondering if it’s closed out with the same gleeful ruthlessness as Serenity’s wrap-up of the Firefly saga; nope, Wooding choked on that one. The book is full of moments where it looks like he’s ganked another character, only to pull the camera back and show us that they’re just grazed and it will all be somewhat fine. This reaches the mild-irritation threshold when he stages a tearful funeral directly after yet another apparent death, only to pan out and show us that they’ve just solemnly buried the ship’s cat.

Foreboding turns out to be a limited resource, and after the first couple of times when it looks as if it’s all over for one or other of the reprobates we’ve come to know in the last three books, except that it’s not, you’re just flicking past the pathos to find out how he’s going to handwave them back into play.

So for all that the book ends with the band breaking up, I’m not ruling out an endless sequence of reunions in the future. Which would be fine, if Wooding can dial down the apocalypse level a bit. No genre writer ever seems to be able to write about mere local disaster; inevitably the heroes have to save the whole world. The first book in the sequence had me almost hoping that Wooding would keep things low key and scruffy and have a long running sequence of scrapes and idiocy for his crew to weather, but instead, each book has been a step on a path to the apocalypse, with the crew of the Ketty Jay stumbling up the food chain of a conspiracy which threatens the whole world and which only they can defeat. When I was talking about The Iron Jackal, I was feeling good about it, but I've got more misgivings now. It was nice when it was small time losers caught up in something they didn't understand, but somehow it's not quite so good when they're the only way to save the whole world.

In pondering why this is not just wrong, but unnecessary, I find I have to run all the way back to one of the first grown up books I ever read, the long out of print Desmond Bagley thriller High Citadel. It’s a fun little book which has a motley band of survivors of a botched hi-jacking holed up in the Andes trying to hold off a bunch of rebels who want to come and whack the President they’ve just deposed. The stakes are reasonably high for the survivors, but at the very most they’re worrying about who’s running a single banana republic. And that turns out to be plenty of motivation for everyone. In the 60s and 70s bookstores were full of books like that, genre trash which piled up just enough pressure to justify a bit of heroism. Somehow, SF and its wider ecosystem has never gone down that road; no matter how low key things might look at first, there’s always some cosmic Armageddon hovering over the climax.

Most SF actually needs to wind everything up to eleven for much the same reasons that Michael Bay needs to distract us from the shallowness of his movies by blowing everything up, but Wooding, as I've commented before, is capable of making a series of books about real characters changing and developing as they lurch from one disaster to the next. He's good enough to keep it small and real, and yet he had to go bigger and bigger. 

And to some extent this makes sense; he was so determined to develop his characters that he couldn't just keep them moving from one minor disaster to the other liking the unchanging puppets of network TV; as they wised up, inevitably they were going to break up, and so the sequence always had to have an endgame. I just wish he'd had enough confidence in his own ability to make that endgame about the people, not their world.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Gangster Squad; another lesson in poor management technique

On a scale of one to ten for "You got that job how, exactly?" John Lithgow's crime boss in Cliffhanger comes in at eleventy billion and a bit, simply because it's hard to understand how someone could be clever enough to figure out how to rob a plane in midair, charismatic enough to get a whole gang to give it a try, and yet visibly monkeyshit crazy enough to think that "When they err, murder them." is a viable management technique. Using the same scale, Sean Penn's Mickey Cohen rates about a seven or eight, tops, because there's no moment during the movie which suggests that we're in the presence of a sophisticated mind; clearly Mickey is the product of an eco-system which prizes pure atavistic murderousness over mere subtlety.

Since the movie Gangster Squad is also the product of an eco-system which … well you can see where I'm going here … this insight into Mickey's psychology is spelled out for us in a voice-over which stops short of explaining where Los Angeles is and what its average rainfall was in each month during 1949. Mickey is bad news, ruling by fear and whatever he has to do to generate more fear. So we meet him having a guy ripped in half by two cars. On the one hand, I'm not sure if it works as we're shown it, and on the other I bet that never happened in real life, but then again the movie ends with a shoot-out which rivals the storming of the bunker in Hell is for Heroes, so it might be that real life wasn't a big influence (the movie opens with the title card "inspired by real events", the Hollywood get-out-of-jail-free card for making stuff up entirely but at least getting the hats right). 

While it's not much of a shock to see that Mickey treats his rivals poorly, it's depressing to see Hollywood continue to push the idea that the essence of effective leadership is instant hideous death for anyone associated with a setback. Mickey's pimping academy gets raided; his response is to burn it down, with the manager inside. Mickey's heroin shipment gets intercepted; his response is to have his subordinates drill a hole in the sole survivor's head. This left me wondering why the LAPD thought they needed a Gangster Squad. Given Mickey's efforts to make the gangster lifestyle profoundly unattractive for anyone living within a twenty mile radius, there didn't seem to be much call for a secondary effort to discourage people from joining his forces. I'd have figured all they really needed was one guy in a nice suit to sidle up to all the aspiring crims and whisper out of the side of his mouth "That Mickey, huh? Kind of a dick. Really would make you think about moving to Florida, wouldn't it?"

Because movie world, no more than the real world, does not run on the basis of my common sense ideas, Chief Parker (growled, rather than performed, by Nick Nolte) went another way, empowering Josh Brolin to put together a dirty half dozen or so and go round breaking the law on an epic scale to slow Mickey up somewhat. I have to admit, this was why I watched the thing at all. In addition to the ever reliable Josh, we had Ryan Gosling and Robert Patrick. They're always fun, particularly Robert Patrick, who's growing into a more affordable and less annoying Jon Voight. Anyhow, they put the hurt on Mickey something wicked, pausing from time to time to take casualties in the most predictable way possible. This is yet another one of those movies which allows every doomed character one last speech about their hopes, dreams and doubts, and then having duly humanised them just enough, schwacks the holy hell out of them. In Hollywood, if you want to live forever, get a job on the good team, act as much like an asshole as you can while still staying almost likeable, and never, ever waver. The moment you show weakness, compassion or humanity, you're a goner. Also, avoid having a kid, or anything which might play like a kid. No pets. Don't mentor anyone; I cannot emphasise how suicidal it is for a law man to have a young protege who needs to learn just one more lesson.

And why is all this worrying? Well, it's the impact of all this violence on weak and easily influenced minds. Specifically, the weak and easily influenced minds of senior managers everywhere, who will learn from this movie that; effective management involves killing the survivors of any setback, regardless of whether they were involved; it's always a mistake to show kindness or human emotion; it's suicidal ever to share the secrets of effective work with anyone junior to you; and rules are really just for the little people; big people are above such things.

Killing Them Softly; the kind of movie which gets men a bad name

The day after, the thing which sticks with me is that Killing Them Softly has exactly one female speaking part, and it's a hooker who doesn't get a tip. Or a name. Killing Them Softly fails the Bechdel test so hard it practically rips a hole in reality in a hunt for a number below all previous concepts of zero, but in one sense, it's the nicest thing it could have done for women. All the men in the movie are so consistently horrible that no-one could blame women for not wanting to join them - except that these men would mope and whine about that for the whole movie as yet another example of what bitches women are.

In a move which would probably count as brave if he still had to give a damn what anyone thinks of him, Brad Pitt plays the main asshole as an asshole, and still looks like less of an asshole than literally everyone else on the screen. Apparently made as a satire on US values, Killing Them Softly plays better as a cry for help to the space aliens around us, specifically a 90 minute plea for them to come and put us out of our misery. If the planet gets disintegrated by cosmic rays any time soon, I'm blaming Brad Pitt, assuming that disintegration is slow enough to give me some time to think about whose fault it might be. Also playing assholes; Richard Jenkins as a crooked lawyer who wants to think he's just a business man; James Gandolfini as a hit man trying to make murder the least unattractive facet of his personality, Ray Liotta as a guy who's gotta get got, and arguably shoulda got got long before the movie opened, and a whole bunch of actors as a bunch of guys clogging the lint filter on the gene pool. 

In a weird way Killing Them Softly is the antidote to all those Tarantino-esque crime movies about cool criminals who talk too much. There's been a lot of justified criticism about crime movies which glamourise crime (to all of which, I echo Godard; they're movies; they're trying to make everything look glamorous), but it turns out that a movie which sets out to do the opposite is a whole bunch of no damned fun at all. Even when it's well acted and well written, a movie has to pass the beer test; "Is there anyone in this whole mess who I'd have a beer with?" For Killing Them Softly the answer is "Only if I knew they had a fatal allergy to beer."

I sound cranky about this, and I'll admit to that. I wanted to like this film, even though it had Brad Pitt [1] in it. It's adapted from a book by George V Higgins, Cogan's Trade, albeit one from his early period before he realised that completely naturalistic dialogue is completely unreadable dialogue. In his later work, Higgins hit the sweet spot between what people actually sound like and what they want to think they sound like, and could run entire books in direct and indirect speech, the narrative unfolding as characters telling stories about other characters, every voice articulate and distinctive, somehow suggesting real speech without all the umms and errs which make real speech seem ludicrous on the page. But even the early stuff, precisely because it's so dominated by dialogue, ought to be movie gold, so I was pretty optimistic.

Well, that did not go according to plan. It's a very faithful adaptation of the book (which too late I remembered I'd never been able to finish because everyone on the page was a dick), and it's weirdly faithful to the book's time; I don't think you ever see a computer or a cell phone in frame. The book was published in 1974, and the movie could quite easily have been shot there as well; the locations are down at heel and grubby and timeless, and the cars are big old American barges that could have been in the background of any episode of Starsky and Hutch. Yet it's stubbornly anchored into November 2008 by the constant use of snippets from the dying days of the Lesser Bush Presidency and the Obama campaign. 

Which is, I think, a big part of the problem. Cogan's Trade was a grubby little book about grubby little people holding up a card game and getting got for their troubles. Killing Them Softly wanted to be an issues movie, so they explicitly, anviliciously, mirror the low-rent criminals and their money worries off against the high toned posturing of the politicians talking about the US financial crisis. Again and again Jackie explains that people need to get got so that confidence can be restored on the street on and the money can start to flow again. Just in case anyone failed to pick up on that, the movie ends on Jackie ranting about how the USA is not a country but a business. I've had subtler tax demands. The whole point of the underlying work is that these are unimportant people, doing terrible things for trivial reasons, and here come Brad and his production company (Plan B, though I was hoping it was 1984 Private Defence Contractors, the most pompous wannabe hip company name I've seen in years) wanting their work to be all important like.

If your work is mirroring reality well, you don't need to spell it out. Higgins knew that.

[1] I think I've hated Brad Pitt in every movie I've ever seen him in, even if I actually liked the movie itself, including Twelve Monkeys and Fight Club.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Scott Lynch: The Republic of Thieves

The first book I blogged about was Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora, which at the time I noted cagily was part of a sequence but none the less I was looking forward to what came next. That's a bit more than five years ago, or less time than it takes George RR Martin to change his socks, and Lynch has got as far as the third book of the sequence. I read 2007's Red Seas Under Red Skies during that lovely period when the blog fell pretty much silent, or as I'd like to think of it, when it was all about quality and I only wrote when I felt I had something clever to say. Red Seas was one of those books that struggled a bit to keep up with the opening, both its own opening scene and the book which had gone before it. It was, for instance, quite hard to decide whether Lynch ran out of things to say about ships or had always planned to swerve abruptly back on to dry land to prove a point. Then it ended on quite a nasty cliffhanger, so it felt almost spiteful that Lynch then took about five years to get out the third book.

Which of course had to start by painting Locke Lamora right back out of the corner he'd been painted into. That got pulled off better than I thought it would; of course our hero is going to bound free so that he can get on with the next thing, but for that kind of thing to work, there has to be some sense of price paid for the redemption. Lynch gets that about right, and gets it done at the right pace; it takes time, as it should, but not so much time that there's no room for anything else.

With that out of the way, Lynch has cleared the space for the plot of the book, at which point things start to go a bit out of whack. In the other two books the main action - the contemporary action, if you will - has taken up most of the book, with flashbacks to earlier history being nicely judged to give context and counterpoint. In this book, the contemporary and flashback sections are evenly balanced, which means that neither really feels as if it's carrying enough weight for a whole book. Nor do they really sum to one good book put together, because there's not enough going on in the shared theme to carry a whole book.

This is something which we were going to have to get out of the way sooner or later; Locke has always been carrying a torch for the permanently off-stage Sabetha, and we were going to have to get all that unresolved sexual tension out of the way somehow or other, even though one of the things which fantasy alway does super badly is anything to do with romance. Making it the linking theme of the two subplots doesn't do anyone any favours. Not wrapping up the whole backstory of the doomed romance probably makes it worse; having trudged through the start of it all, presumably we're going to have to trudge through how it fell apart in a later book. It's always difficult to sell a romance in a book as a love for all the ages, but when one side is a boy who won't grow up and the other side is someone almost defined by her determination not to respond to his infatuation….

What's vexing is that all of this is coming at the expense of space which could have been used either for the colossal mess of producing a cod-shakespearean tragedy on a shoestring, or the even bigger mess of fixing an election on a gargantuan budget. Actually, more time for the election would have been great, since that's a more interesting plot, with lots of scope for the kind of intrigue and incident that Lynch does so well. The play's mostly a backdrop for the playing out of Locke's infatuation, where the election is a cleverly constructed fakeout which integrates well with the bigger game which Lynch seems to be working up for the sequence.

However, that leads me to my real gripe. I quite liked Lies of Locke Lamora because it was a clever self contained novel in which the stakes were local and personal; no-one had a great big destiny and no-one was making a hero's journey or any of that other tosh. Three books into the sequence and it's looking like Lynch has been faking me out all along; Locke has got boat loads of destiny, there is some big world-crushing plot in the background and he's absolutely central to it, and he's going to wind up traipsing all over the imaginary world picking up problems towards the eventual smashing of the nightmare in several books' time. 

Well, bah. That wasn't what I wanted. Since Lynch is still a damned good writer, and his take on the end of the world strikes me as clever, I still think it's well worth sticking with the books, but once again I've been frustrated in my daydream of someone writing books in an imaginary world where the main characters aren't the centre of the universe.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Seven Psychopaths; the difficult second mess

There comes a point when you bundle up all the notes and blind alleys, spread them out in a row in front of you, and face up to the fact that it's not going to come together. Or, if you're Martin McDonagh, you look at the cast of titans waiting for you to shit lightning, and you wing it anyhow.

In Bruges is a surprisingly good movie, in that it's always surprising to see a movie written and directed by a playwright do anything other than gently waft the self esteem of the dozen or so aesthetes in each city that troop out to watch it. The other surprising thing about it is that it's only - the last time I checked - the 200th sweariest movie ever made, despite the fact that the DVD comes with an optional cut with nothing but the swearing that runs for longer than more Road Runner cartoons. Anyhow, when some mad Irish guy with serious cultural credibility commits the faux pas of making a movie which people paid to see, there's nothing for it but a Hollywood followup.

Seven Psychopaths is just that follow up, and as second endeavours go … well, it's a second endeavour. It helps you see why you liked the first one, and makes you kind of wish they'd stopped there. I realised that the carrying cast of In Bruges were playing characters who were somehow likeable despite being appalling. The characters in Seven Psychopaths aren't likeable. Well, Christopher Walken is likeable, but Chris Walken is never less than awesome, and if they'd asked him to be a proper cold-hearted psycho as well, he'd have made everyone else look like amateurs. Unlikeable amateurs. For the rest, Colin Farrell is his usual self, which is somehow less cool than usual, Woody Harrelson is an irredeemable asshole, and Sam Rockwell is the guy I've still never seen play a sane or reasonable person. One of these days I'm going to see him in a romantic comedy and I'll be spending the whole thing waiting for him to joint the rest of the cast like chickens.

Which is all the fault of the writing, because man, this thing is written to death. If it was any more aware of itself as a fiction, there'd be subtitles and a cartoon of Jacques Derrida in the bottom of the frame signing out the deconstruction of conventional narrative. Usually I complain that they spent the budget on bullets instead of writers, but I see that my thesis may need to make room for exceptions. The last thing I saw that was this much about how tough it is to write for the movies, it was the Coen Brothers' equally messy Barton Fink, except that this feels like they filmed Fink's notes instead of his struggles, plus it completely lacks the lunatic panache John Goodman brought to the climax.

Writers pride themselves on their insights into the world around them, but it seems to elude them that no-one really cares that much about writers. Until they succeed, they're whiny little neurotics squirrelling away imaginary worlds and drinking too much, and once they made it big time, they're just ridiculously articulate neurotic millionaires; either way, most people have got better things to worry about, and really, you'd think those keenly honed writerly senses would pick up on that.

So, to save you some time; pretty much everyone gets killed. There are just a boatload of sequences which turn out to be dreams, fantasies, outright lies or just fakeouts. There's one piece with hit-men talking quasi-articulate pop cultural nonsense right at the beginning, which ends up with them both getting shot in the head (take that, Tarantino, I suppose), and in many ways that might be the high point - especially for most of the people who trooped in full of happy memories of In Bruges and two hit-men being quasi-articulate for the whole movie. Most of the people you meet after that get killed, usually for no really good reason, and then the movie has a long dull bit where Colin Farrell, Chris Walken and Sam Rockwell hole up in the desert and argue with each other about nothing, which is not as compelling as that line up, scripted by that director, would have led me to expect. Then, some more wilfully bathetic shoot-out stuff, and it stutters to a halt. There's a credits gag which is - unlike most credits gags - pretty clever, if you've last long enough to see the credits. It's been set up beautifully, and it is ABOUT the credits; if only the rest of the movie was that well crafted.

With any luck at all, Martin McDonagh has got Hollywood out of his system now.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Resident Evil: Retribution. Is it still 3D if two of the dimensions are "stupid" and "violent" ?


Milla Jovovich can get into this outfit in 30 seconds or less

Ah, what a long strange trip it's been. It's more than three years since I saw Resident Evil: Afterlife, and somehow that was just enough time for me to forget that it was a great big pile of dinosaur crap. And not one of the cool dinosaurs either. I'm thinking about the ugly remedial looking ones which haven't had a Jurassic Park cameo yet.

Well, resting under that pile of dinosaur crap, being ignored by dung beetles and just quietly festering, you'd find Resident Evil: Retribution, assuming that, like me, you were dumb enough to looking under one pile of crap to see if it was crap all the way down. I've watched all the Resident Evil movies - most of them on DVD, thank goodness - and of all of them, this was the most computer-gamey of the whole lot. Levels, bosses, stuff coming out of nowhere, everything being fake…

The whole mess starts up where the last mess left off; all those helicopters full of mooks come and shoot up a boat. First Paul WS Anderson (for it had to be him, didn't it?) shows us the gunfight in reverse, with the credits, and then he shows it the right way round. It looks equally expensive - and pointless - either way, and it doesn't do a single damn thing other than clear the deck for something like five minutes worth of exposition from Milla Jovovich while she rapidly rehashes the plot of the four previous movies. I think it's the first time I've seen a movie spend that kind of time on "Previously on…." and I was wondering what it's going to be like in another ten years when she has to rehash a dozen of the damn  things. All that stuff takes about 10 minutes of a 96 minute movie, but then again, it's not like they had anything better waiting for it to be over.

Then it's straight into video game world; Milla wakes up wearing next to nothing, and then gets broken out of captivity with just enough stuff to get her to the next rally point, and then the one after that, rinse lather and repeat until the movie is over and they've set up the next sequel (which will start in a completely besieged White House surrounded by zombies and on past form will then continue in either Weehaugan or Tierra del Fuego).

Stuff that happens; there's a moppet, because why the hell not? There's yet another vast Umbrella Corporation underground HQ, this one buried under a Russian naval base in Kamchatka. It's got half a dozen different gigantic bunkers, each outfitted as a different world capital, ostensibly so that Umbrella could test its viruses on realistic environments, but actually so that Milla can schwack her way through a variety of environments without having to explain how she's getting from A to B. The whole complex is populated by clones, natch, ostensibly so that they will have a huge pool of fake people to test bugs on in their fake environments, but actually so that half the cast of the earlier movies can be brought back to get killed all over again.

Stuff that's kind of cool; clone storage, which is creepier than something obviously based on a dry cleaning shop has any right to be. Umm, that's it. Stuff that's extra dumb; Milla gets a skintight outfit (picture) with a million buckles presented to her as part one of her escape plan. With one minute left before the door closes again, she's standing looking at it. With thirty seconds left before the door closes, she's got the whole thing on and it isn't even wrinkled. Ammunition; Milla just never runs out of bullets, but the only time that reloading is even an issue is right at the beginning, where she uses her one spare magazine to beat up four different zombies before finally reloading and shooting them. No-one else ever runs out of bullets either; the five man team that gets sent in to help her escape should have five other guys just to carry their reloads.

I don't know why I expected anything better than this. I blame time. Time and that amazing wrinkle-free outfit.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Ben Aaronovitch: Moon Over Soho

 I don't remember plots very well, which has given me an odd relationship with detective stories. I read most of the Morse books, until the worsening fonzification of Morse bored me to giving up, and then I read most of the Dalziel and Pascoe books, until the overhanging literariness of the whole enterprise got to be more than I could bear. I didn't read them because I wanted to know whodunnit; I read them because I was checking in to see how everyone was getting on down at the Oxford nick or the Yorkshire fuzzery. The only set of detective novels where I'd have any chance at all of remembering the plots is the Yellowthread Street books, because the plots of those books were so wilfully outrageous you can't help remembering them. And even then I wasn't that bothered about whodunnit; I was tuning in to see how Spencer and Auden would trip each other up, and what mad combination of circumstances would bury the much put-upon Christopher O'Yee under a pile of his own neuroses.

Which is all by way of saying that I read Moon Over Soho to find out what DC Grant and DI Nightingale had been getting up to rather than to steep myself in a mystery. Which is probably just as well, since the principal appeal of the books is the characters themselves rather than the plots, which are unlikely to rise Agatha Christie from her unquiet grave; the principal piece of suspense in Moon Over Soho for the reader is wondering how much longer it's going to take Grant to figure out that he's banging the villain. From a purely technical point of view, Aaronovitch is doing a good job of depicting someone who hasn't figured out what's going on, if it weren't for the fact that it's first person narrative explicitly written after the fact, and even if Grant doesn't realise how dumb he's being at the time, he'd have a crushing sense of it once he sat down to write about it…..

So the actual plot for the book isn't that impressive, but the larger plot of the series is banging away on all cylinders. Nightingale's still something of a mystery, as he should be, and the messy things from the first book are messy now; poor old PC May is still massively messed up, and Nightingale is on sick leave for most of the action since being shot almost dead is not something you just walk off. 

Things which are a bit worrying; DC Grant is turning into Captain Kirk or James Bond, forever embroiled in romances which end up with the damsel getting briskly written out of the action somehow. Magical London might be getting a bit Harry Potter-ish, what with poor old PC May going all Hermione [1] on us in the closing pages; this, I do not like. Magic's not magical if everyone's got it, for a start, but more importantly, May was more interesting as a character who wasn't magical. There should not be one for everyone in the audience. And of course, it's always worrying that there seems to be some over-arching big bad staying one step ahead of the action; Hermione is bad enough, but Voldemort too?

Yet, it's all going pretty well despite those quibbles. Grant's an engaging narrator in a world full of rounded enough characters. I continue to enjoy the constant asides about how things work, and I like the notion of his magical world where no-one really knows how it's all supposed to work and hardly anyone even cares. And I'm interested, still, in what comes next. Aaronovitch is doing that right. For the moment. 

 

[1] Full disclosure; I haven't read Harry Potter, but since I live in the world, I can't help knowing about it.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Ben Aaronovitch: Rivers of London

Ben Aaronovitch has been beavering away about PC Peter Grant for four books, or about three or four years without me picking any of them up, but a couple of weeks back a friend suggested I'd like them. Hmmm, I thought to myself. I haven't had a lot of luck being impressed by modern urban fantasy, but most of his suggestions have been at least readable, so I chanced one.

Rivers of London is surprisingly solid stuff. Aaronovitch isn't a sparkling writer, but he has a good easy style that gives a strong sense of his narrator as a person. And his characters have a bit of dimensionality to them, for all that they're essentially magicked up copper stereotypes. It's always a good test of characters in series of books if you end the book wanting to know more about them; where they came from, where they're going. As Rivers of London was drawing to a close, I found myself wondering what Thomas Nightingale's background was, and whether Leslie May would be showing up in the next book.

I also liked the magic; it's never clear why it works, but it's equally puzzling to the characters, and it's limited in a very satisfying way. The most puzzling thing of all, however, is how Aaronovitch sounds so convincing about police minutiae. Grant is a wonderfully disillusioned guide to the London Met; I've no idea whether it's all made up or not, but it sounds right; it sounds lived-through. The asides feel like the kind of thing someone would remember in mid-sentence as a thing an ordinary listener wouldn't already know. 

The plot's neither here nor there; it's the standard police procedural approach of having two plots running side by side and not quite intertwining. On one side, the spirit of Punch is wreaking havoc through the west end, and on the other hand the various river spirits of London are having a feud over which of the two competing spirits of the Thames is the boss. Neither really sets the page on fire, but that's not the point. In serialised police procedurals, the beginning is about putting out the pieces and establishing at the least the basic rules. It's the job of the first book to make you interested enough in the people and the milieu that you'll buy another one, and then another. And I've bought the second, so I think Aaronovitch has proved his point.

How I Live Now; probably better than the book

I'm only guessing that the movie of How I Live Now is better than the book it's based on; I haven't read the book, just a summary. Which hardly tells me how well Meg Rossof carried off her characters and her action; it could all be great. But the book's got twins, and telepathy, and what looks like a lot of clutter which the movie wisely shaved away until you've just got no more than you need to pull in the audience and rip them apart for a couple of hours. Rossof seems to have thrown a lot of cool stuff in to make the book more exciting and have lots going on; the movie pares it right down to the basics, discarding characters and themes and sideshows to give you one exhausting slice into the heart of the story.

I've said often in these posts that you don't need to put the world at stake; you just need to make the characters real enough that they become the world. How I Live Now has got elements in common with The Hunger Games, including a teenage female lead, a little girl for us to worry about, a cool brooding hunk for the girl to worry about, a civilisation destroying war and a whole bunch of trying to get by in a wilderness. But The Hunger Games puts the lead right in the centre of everything that matters in the world, while How I Live Now puts Daisy right on the edge, completely adrift in a world which never gets a full explanation. She's just going through the random stuff at the edge of an apocalypse; the end of the world just happens to be the end of her world as well. In a more American outlook on things, she'd be the plucky survivor who would find the amazing secret which would end the war, switch the power back on and make it rain unicorns, but Daisy starts out as a neurotic mess and doesn't get hugely more competent with time. She scrapes by, and no-one watching would fool themselves for a second that they'd do any better. Daisy grows and develops, but it's the growing and developing we all do; from barely getting by as kids to barely getting as adults.

There's a slightly weird overlap thematically with Kevin McDonald's last film, The Last King of Scotland, which was also about someone coming into a brewing war zone without much of a clue and finding their way back out of it more by luck than judgment, but How I Live Now doesn't have an Idi Amin, just the chaos of a country falling apart in slow motion. From that point of view it's got much more in common with Cuaron's Children of Men, on what looks like Children of Men's doughnut budget; it's a good looking movie, but it's determinedly small scale. It goes off-road as soon as Daisy gets out of the airport, and from their on out it's doggedly rural and there are never more than a few people in the frame. 

McDonald has thus doomed himself to live and die on the strength of the players. So he hired Saoirse Ronan, leaving himself with nothing to worry about. Ronan can sell just about anything, but more importantly she's got the kind of star quality which lets her collapse into a very small space and draw you into after her. When your whole movie rests on one character, nothing but the best will do. Ronan exudes attitude from the moment she slouches onto the screen and through passport control, but at every swagger she lets you see how precarious that confidence really is. 

It's an unenviable day out for the rest of the cast, playing teens and pre-teens up against someone who got an Oscar nomination for her first big day out at the age of 13 in Atonement. They just seem to have taken a deep breath and gone for it, with pretty fair results. I'm not sure what anyone could have done with Edmund, Daisy's crush; being dishy, manly and taciturn doesn't give an actor much to work with. Isaac and Piper give their actors more of a chance, and they pretty much nail it, with the rather wonderfully named Harley Bird doing a great job as Piper. Piper could have been a tiresome fey moppet plot token, but Bird makes her into a credible temperamental little girl. 

Still, it's a gruelling movie. McDonald doesn't show much violence directly, but suggests it constantly, showing us the aftermath, or flickering glimpses by firelight of things best not seen. It's a subtle, enervating way to show that war is hell even for the people on the edges, but it's no-one's idea of fun.