Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Miles Cameron: The Fell Sword

The Fell Sword is what you might call the difficult second book. Some of the obvious reasons don’t apply. The Red Knight wasn’t Cameron's first published book, nor his first experience with extended narrative. So it’s not the problem you often see where a writer has had years to polish the first book and then has to get the second one out on a much tighter time frame. I think it’s the mushy middle problem, where a writer has an opening idea and a roughed in endgame, but isn’t sure about the pacing of the middle. But from the look of The Fell Sword, there could be a hell of a lot of mushy middle still to go; the book is full of false starts and unfinished thoughts in all the side plots. 

The main plot - the one big incident - is the Red Knight’s intervention in a palace coup in Cameron’s version of Byzantium (one of the more engaging aspects of Cameron’s fantasy world is the way in which he cavalierly wedges High Medieval England up against late period Byzantium AND a gunpowderless Last of the Mohicans). Tucked in around the edges we’ve got palace intrigue in Harndon and the big bad from the last book regrouping.

The regrouping; well, no matter what Cameron’s characters might say about good and evil being hard to figure, the big bad is definitely bigger and badder than anything else going on in the book. There’s a hint in the book of the idea that F Paul Wilson used all the way through the Adversary sequence; two powers squabbling over a world using catspaws whose actions may have no relationship with the real motives of their masters. I’ve never found that argument terribly persuasive; on the one hand, I don’t really care how good your intentions are when the outcomes are measured in atrocity, and on the other hand it’s giving rhetorical shelter to an all-too pervasive argument in the real world that we should leave it to those in charge to make the “hard” decisions which spread terror and death and hardship but which will somehow make the world a better place if we look at the bigger picture. 

The palace intrigue; well it’s not so much that I wanted to see more of it as that I wanted to see it resolved or come to some kind of climax. One of the better things in Robin Hobbs’ Farseer trilogy is the sense of hazard as the bad guys get the upper hand at Court and it looks more and more as though Fitz is just going to get quietly crushed without a fuss. Even though the reader has to know that a trilogy with a first person narrator isn’t going to fizzle out like that, Hobbs does a pretty good job of creating the menace and threat which small-time bullying by powerful people can create. Cameron’s court intrigues have much higher stakes and none of the safety net, so it’s frustrating to see the tension ramp up without any sense of closure by book’s end. I felt the same about the trading subplot, which gets set up as a big deal and then collapses without any apparent consequences.

It all still just about works. The Red Knight is becoming ever more annoyingly superpowered, and the core characters are too magical by half, but the stuff around the edges is still compelling and Cameron’s got a good knack for cooking up secondary characters to root for. And although I’ve complained about his preoccupation with details of armour, he’s better than most fantasy writers at conveying the sense of what’s supposed to be happening in a big battle. I like his willingness to steal bits of history from all over the place and ram them in where they oughtn’t to fit, even if a lot of the time he just leaves them sticking out of the narrative and never comes back to them.

The question in my mind is not so much where this is all going - big confrontation between good and evil, natch - as just how long it’s all supposed to take? Is this going to a trilogy or some big sprawling mess of books which takes forever to get to the endgame?

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Miles Cameron: The Red Knight

Although it didn’t turn out at all to be what I hoped it would be, I was still pretty taken with The Red Knight. What I’d been hoping for was an emergency fix of Joe Abercrombie to tide me over the wait until the next real Abercrombie book. The Red Knight had a nicely downbeat start, with down at heel mercenaries showing up to do a small contract at a big monastery. The characters were smart and self aware and they seemed to be facing a nice little human scaled challenge which would keep them busy for the length of the book, and involve neither quests nor the end of the world.

While the book remained blessedly free of quests, it turned out to have all kinds of apocalypse on its mind, and The Red Knight his own bad self turned out to be less hard-bitten mercenary commander and more golden child of destiny. However, by the time this became obvious, the book had its hooks in me and I stuck with it for the ride. Sure, there’s a destined saviour of humanity gumming up the foreground, but there’s a decent cast of other characters to root for and a nicely complicated background which Cameron sensibly doesn’t explain too much. I liked his approach to magic, which is usually a problem in fantasy novels, especially when it’s being used for combat effects. I got a bit tired of him endlessly showing his work on the high medieval armour and weapons. Yes, getting the details right can make your action seem grounded and authentic, but it has to be incidental, not the apparent point of whole paragraphs. 

The best thing about the book is that it’s solidly locked into a single incident; the bad guys are trying to take out the monastery, and the good guys are trying to keep them out, and everything that happens in the book is the escalation of hostilities as both sides throw more and more into the battle. It’s rare that a fantasy book holds such a simple focus; usually it’s a pile of incidents all over the landscape to ratchet up the tension for one big showdown three books down the line. Instead of incidents we get people, each being pulled in turn into the growing mess around the monastery. It’s a good idea, though Cameron doesn’t always pull it off as well as he wants to; several times I found myself switched back to a character we hadn’t heard from for a while and having no idea who it was or why it mattered. 

It’s shockingly proof-read, at least in the e-book version; this is one where hard copy might make for a better reading experience. Still a pretty solid book; I swept straight out of that and optimistically into the followup, which is as good a test as any of whether a book’s got its job done.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Guy Adams; The Rain Soaked Bride

I was agreeably surprised by The Clown Service, not so much by the body of the book but by the clever punch of its ending, which exacted a heavy price for the heroes’ effort to outmanoeuvre the bad guys. The book had rambled a bit, but it really floored it when it got to the off-ramp. 

By comparison, The Rain Soaked Bride feels like the engine is idling. The book opens up by sorting out the cliffhanger of the first book as if it wasn’t even a thing. Hmm, I thought. Maybe you weren’t serious after all. And if I’m honest, it isn’t even as if I wanted Guy Adams to be serious. He’s very good at being funny. The opening chapters of the book play like those opening jokes you get in a TV show before they get down to the plot of the week, and in fact, that’s really what’s wrong with The Rain Soaked Bride overall; it felt like a good episode of TV instead of a book. The main characters are stuck in a country house, and a curse is knocking off the ancillary characters one by one. How well this works depends on how well the main characters work for you. You need a high quirk tolerance, that’s for sure. 

If you’ve got that, the August siblings and Toby Greene are fun to be around. August Shining, in particular, has the perfect deadpan of a man who has had a whole lifetime to get used to the knowledge that being right is not much use in a world which wants to believe something else.

Things end on a cliffhanger again, although this one seems almost to bottle the hard choices; it’s set up as an echo of the climax of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, so that anyone who’s read the book or seen the movie was waiting for it “We have all the time in the world.” We get the line, but not the closure. So now I have to wait to see whether there’s another fakeout in the next book.

Adam Sternbergh: Shovel Ready

Sternbergh has a lot of things going on in Shovel Ready. He’s got to concoct a hit man the audience can relate to, he’s got to sketch in a crippled New York and a world changed by ubiquitous but expensive VR, he’s got to find a plot of some kind for those ideas to anchor in, and he has to write well enough to overcome the fact that in his dystopian near future, the economic collapse has stolen all the quote marks.

I mean it as a compliment when I say that he does best with the quote marks thing. It’s incredibly annoying to read a novel which is first person narrated as direct speech and has nothing to differentiate between the narrator talking to the read and the characters talking to each other. It’s why I still haven’t read most of George V Higgins’ early books. Sternbergh pulls it off; you can tell who’s talking and who they’re talking to, with no more difficulty than I’ve experienced in conventional narrative. That’s much harder to do than Sternbergh makes it look. 

For the rest; he chickens out on his antihero, who turns heroic at the drop of a hat and has far too sympathetic a backstory. The collapse of New York is well thought out, though I imagine real New Yorkers would argue the point. Sternbergh gives us a New York where a dirty bomb and a succession of car bombs finally made New Yorkers cut and run, escaping either into the rest of the US or virtual reality. I’m not sure I buy it, but it’s a novel angle on the question of what makes a citizen into a refugee, and the tipping point where you go from one to the other.

A world changed by VR? Sternbergh’s by no means the first person to make the point that if we had the holodeck, no-one would ever get out of bed again, so the question is what does he say next? The most unexpected thing is probably his notion that it sidelines the internet completely, making it as quaint and marginal as fax machines are now. The plot twist which drives the big reveal is far less surprising; of course the new technology is used for beastliness. The actual beastliness is quite clever; it’s surprising, and yet obvious in hindsight. And horrible, although that kind of goes without saying in a book where the narrator is a man who goes around killing people with a box cutter; you’ve got to up the villain ante a lot to make that look good.

The weird thing is the way that it’s treated as somehow notable that a new technology is used not just for pleasure, but cruel pleasure; that the premium product is based on suffering. To me, this seems almost obvious. On the one hand, you don’t need to pay people to share an experience which is genuinely fun for everyone. It turns into something you pay for when the people on the serving end would rather be doing something else. But the other angle is simpler, and perhaps more depressing. Rich people are the people with the most money. And to BE the people with the most money, they had to be the kind of people who enjoyed taking things off other people. Sure, some of them just don’t care that they’re getting rich by making other people poor. But there’s going to be a lot of people in that demographic for whom it’s not just about winning; it’s about the other guy losing. And of course those people are going get their kicks from other people suffering. It shouldn’t surprise us; it’s something we ought to be ready for. Yes, behind every great fortune is a great crime. And often, ahead of it too.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Sons of Anarchy: Endings

About a quarter of the hits on this blog are from one post from about four years ago where I vented about Irish accents on SoA and their location work in Nordor. So I guess, now that SoA is finally over, my page views are just going to tank. 

SoA should have ended about two years ago. If it had a point, the point was the conflict between Jax and Clay and Gemma, and the best they were ever going to get out of that was five seasons. SoA should have hit its crisis in Season Five and destroyed its world, just like Hamlet does in Act 5. I’m not saying that the result would have been perfect; I don’t even know if it would have been any good, but it would have been better than the long drawn out falling apart of Seasons Six and Seven. There comes a point when you’re learned all you can from a crapsack world, and everything after that is “This? Again?"

Art always collides with money. Even low art. Even TV shows. Especially TV shows. They outrun their welcome, because no matter what you wanted to do at the beginning, in the end you’ve got kids at college, cocaine habits, mortgage payments or just the aching knowledge that you’ve got nothing else in the tank and you need the money for coffee and cigarettes. It happened to Lost, it happened to the X-Files,and man, did it ever happen to Sons of Anarchy. And it sometimes seems like the only other possibility is getting yanked before you’ve even told the story, like Twin Peaks or Firefly. Or Rome. Or Deadwood. Man, don’t make me talk about Deadwood.

So let’s talk about endings. The Sopranos ended so abruptly half of America thought their TV sets had broken. Six Feet Under got all kinds of lost along the way, but pulled an ending out of the mess which is, in its own way, truly unbeatable. Dexter, having turned into possibly the stupidest show on TV, found an ending to carry it right over the line into unredeemable, a trick which would be truly impressive if I thought for a moment that it was the plan. Breaking Bad stayed for exactly the right length and pulled off an ending which was both perfectly judged and almost hypnotic in the way in which every loose piece of karma was tucked away where it belonged.

However, there is one show which stands head and shoulders above them all for the sheer punch of its ending. The Shield  was frequently a violent mess that made no sense at all from week to week, but it found the perfect ending as Vic Mackey was stuck in his own personal hell; a meaningless desk job where he could do nothing and be made accountable for every pointless moment of it. By the end of The Shield, the writers could have had Vic torn apart by wolves and the viewers would have said “Well, Vic DID kind of have it coming, and wasn’t it awesome?” Instead they found a punishment which left Vic with nothing. And considering that most of us watching probably had equally meaningless desk jobs, there was a certain karmic backlash for the audience. There we’d been, enjoying the exploits of a truly horrible person, paying our own tawdry dues to the myth of the ubermensch, the bully with the heart of gold, the man who only hurts us because he loves us. And then Shawn Ryan turned it right back on us; there you go. Mackey is one of you now.

Anyone who’s read this far will know where I’m going. Kurt Sutter worked on The Shield, and at one point it looked like he was running a shelter for former cast members down at Teller-Morrow. So when it came to the ending, that was the yardstick he was going to be measured by. Was Jax Teller going to have an ending that would claw the show back to the promise it had at the beginning?

Nope. Jax spends his last day trying to right the wrongs he’s done, mostly by doing a bunch of NEW wrongs, and then splats himself on the front of a truck, just like his old man did twenty years before. And at the wheel of that truck, that delivery system for Jax’s ending; the man who owns the best ending trashy American TV has ever managed. Vic Mackey his own bad self turned up to turn Jax off, and even he couldn’t save it.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Black Sea; NEVER hire the psycho

Seriously. Never hire the psycho. That’s right up there with “Always be yourself, unless you can be Batman.” And I don’t mean, don’t hire the buy who TURNS OUT to be the psycho. I mean, when you’re talking about who to hire, and you actually say “He’s a psycho, but ….” Kim Kardashian doesn’t have a but big enough to fill in those dots. The words which come after “He’s a psycho..” are “So we’re hiring someone else."

Jude Law missed that meeting, bless him. So he hires the psycho. To be one of the twelve guys he needs to drive a submarine to recover a load of Nazi gold from another submarine which sank in the Black Sea ferrying it from Stalin to Hitler. It’s a tribute to the overall competence of the movie that it wasn’t til afterwards that I started trying to work out how a U-Boat even got into the Black Sea in 1941 … Anyhow, it’s there, it’s full of gold, and Jude Law is going to use a rust bucket ex-Soviet diesel sub to loot all the gold in lieu of the redundancy money his marine salvage employers just stiffed him out of. A motley crew of losers trying to steal a fortune in dangerous circumstances; it’s just a matter of time before they fall out over the spoils and start killing each other, leaving one survivor at the end with nothing but his life, innit?

Mandatory Bechdel test; failed, level one; there aren’t even two female characters. And the one they’ve got only exists in flashbacks.

Highlights; Scoot McNairy in the role of Carter Burke from Aliens; it’s not that he’s actually any good, it’s just that he’s so Carter Burke that you spend the movie waiting for him to say “It was a bad call, Ripley, it was a bad call.”. All the doleful old coots on the British wing of the submarine crew, each more doomed than the next, and still making you care. Including the laugh out loud line early on when Scoot McNair looks around the rust bucket and wails “This is just going to sink!” “Wouldn’t be much of a submarine if it didn’t."

It’s not a bad movie; it’s not great, and it doesn’t make as much sense as it thinks it does (near the end, the sub is inching through an underwater canyon in the shallows, until the hull has a fracture, whereupon they’re suddenly sinking to crush depth…), but it hangs together largely on the strength of a bunch of charming British character actors who make you care when it’s all going wrong. Jude Law is a morose self-pitying angry presence in the middle of it, and I found myself wondering if the movie would have been better without him. But I suppose you have to have a star. 

The Imitation Game; Spectrum Propaganda

The Imitation Game is propaganda for Hollywood’s current favourite disability, autism/Aspergers. Naturally, it stars Benedict Cumberbatch, who I can’t remember ever seeing playing anything else. I am getting over my ‘Batch crush; if he doesn’t play someone normal soon, I am going to write him off as a guy who’s exploiting other people’s disabilities.

Mandatory Bechdel test; failed, at level two; there are two named female characters, and they have a conversation, but it’s about trying to pull the man they’re looking at. Arguably failed at level one, since the main female character seems to have been dragged into the plot screaming and kicking so that the move could avoid dealing in any meaningful way with Alan Turing being gay. The Imitation Game handles teh ghey as though it had been made in the 1950s; yes, I suppose there is such a thing, and it’s awful the way people with it get treated, but for the love of god, don’t show us anything about it for fear the horses might take fright. I grump about this because the movie goes out of its way in its last few minutes to rant at the audience about how terrible state sanctions against homosexuals were in the 1950s. I can’t imagine that this is a lesson anyone in the audience needed.

Meanwhile, there’s a lesson for everyone in the audience about Alan Turing the visionary, the guy whose thinking about machine intelligence started us on the road to the world we live in today, blogs included. It’s a fascinating story, though the movie has nothing new to say about it; if there’s anything in the movie which comes as a surprise to you, it’s because you’re at a ‘Batch movie and you don’t even care what it’s about. 

Not that the ‘Batch is terrible; he never is. It’s just that if you’ve seen the ‘Batch before, this is what you’ve seen before. And if you know anything about Turing, you know everything in the movie. So you wind up having your fun with the side characters. Keira Knightley is never not fun, even if her character is there to keep everyone from having to think about, well, gayness. Charles Dance is his usual saturnine self. Mark Strong is huge fun as the head of MI6, effortlessly the smartest man in the room in a movie which is supposed to be about a completely different smartest man in the room.

Worst of all, if you know anything at all about Turing, or about Ultra, or about Bletchley Park, the way they try to dramatise the struggle to get the Bombe to work will just annoy you. There’s an epiphany about two thirds of the way through which turns on the concept of the “crib”; cracking a code by using the predictability of routine messages against the coder. This is not the stuff of visionary thinkers; it’s how they were trying to crack Enigma from day one. It’s how codes have been cracked since there WERE codes to crack.

And yes, I get that it’s hard to explain cyphers and mathematics and make it interesting, but there’s a moment in the movie which shows a real drama which they could have milked for tragedy of all kinds and built a whole movie out of; once the British cracked Enigma, they couldn’t risk using the knowledge for fear that the Germans would change the codes. For the rest of the war, the British had to decide which things they would let happen - killing hundreds and thousands of people - in order to preserve the advantage of knowing what the Germans were going to do next. That drama is wedged into the back third of the movie, crammed together with the miserable story of Turing’s last days, when either story would have carried a whole movie that would have needed no explanations of anything.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

What We Do In The Shadows: What if vampires were just ... arseholes?

What We Do In The Shadows - if nothing else, it at least give you something you can do to annoy all the Twilight fans you shouldn’t even have in your life in the first place. Tell them to go check it out; that it gives a real sense of what it means to be a vampire in an uncaring age; hell say whatever you have to in order to make them go; they’re never going to speak to you again so it’s worth the time it takes. It would be like that time I got two overly cineaste former friends to rent Pamela Anderson’s Barb Wire on the premise that it was a remake of Casablanca. Former friends. Maybe I should have held back. Though, in fairness, it totally IS a remake of Casablanca. With strippers. In your heart you know that Rick’s Café Americain would have had strippers in real life.

Does it serve a purpose other than annoying Twilight fans? Probably, yes, if you’re a fan of the comedy of awkwardness and mockumentaries in general, which it turns out I’m not (when I watched The Office almost ten years ago, it was in a near constant state of cringe that I might actually BE David Brent; people’s reactions to me saying that since then have been more amusing than I actually found The Office). What We Do In The Shadows is one of those movies where people are trying to be funny by playing people who don’t know that they’re complete idiots, and my problem is that even when that’s superbly well done, a) it’s not actually funny and b) my real life consists of dealing with people who don’t know they’re complete idiots.

Does it pass the Bechdel test? For the third time this evening, no. Maybe nothing does. 

How does it handle classical issues of vampirism?

Well, vampires don’t reflect in mirrors, but they can be photographed and filmed by video cameras. 

Could Wellington, New Zealand, population 400,000 support the dozen vampires and eight werewolves which we see in the course of the film without anyone noticing the steady erosion of the citizenry? Hard to say, though having the world’s stupidest police force would almost certainly make discovery less likely.

Are vampires sexy and irresistible? See post title.

Does never getting old mean never growing up? See post title.

Why do vampires prefer virgin blood? Best joke in the movie, actually.

The Drop: James Gandolfini goes out on a high note

All my ribbing on Bubba Rogowski to one side, I’m a fan of Denis Lehane. I’ve read most of his books, and still consider the early Kenzie and Gennaro books to be rock solid modern noir. And his stuff adapts well to the screen. So the thought of a movie with James Gandolfini and a script based on a Lehane short story; this seemed like a good idea to me.

More movies ought to be made out of short stories; a long short or a novella has just about the right amount of stuff in it for a movie, where most novels are too long and have to get hacked to ribbons to fit on a screen. 

I don’t know how faithful The Drop is to the underlying text, but it works pretty well as a short movie; you have enough time to get to know the characters, and the little bit extra you need to realise that you didn’t know them at all, and then it’s done its job. I like that in a movie.

On the other hand, it fails the hell out of the Bechdel test. There are two named female characters, and they never meet. So no conversations. Still possibly better than the last Gandolfini movie I saw, but I am beginning to wonder if I’m ever going to see a movie that even comes close to Bechdel compliance. Maybe it’s me. Maybe my taste is unevolved. 

That aside, it’s a nice tight little movie which gets its punch from how hard it is to figure out what’s going on. The Drop is one of those movies which from moment one makes it clear that things are going to end badly. The question is, how badly, and for who? Is this one of those movies where the bad guys go down in the end, or one of those movies where the good guy is doomed? And while we’re wondering about that, who IS the good guy here? Is Tom Hardy really just a lunk tending bar, or is he up to something? Is all that money going to get itself stolen, and who’s going to be holding the bag if it is? Is that dog going to wind up being somebody’s motivation for a riproaring rampage of revenge? 

In The Drop no-one’s giving anything away, and neither am I. Go check it out. It doesn’t go where you think it’s going; but where it DOES go will still take you by surprise.

Interstellar; should have sent the robots

The science of Interstellar doesn’t really work for me. Gravity and relativity don’t operate that way. If you’ve got enough gravity to influence the time, you’ve got enough gravity to squash you flat enough that time is the least of your worries. I’m also amazed at the way that the Ranger is single stage to orbit for four passengers plus two solid steel robots despite being smaller that the Shuttle Orbiter; if they’ve got engines that powerful, then a lot of their other problems ought to have solved themselves ages ago. But people have been ragging on Interstellar’s science since Noah stepped off the ark, so I’ll leave that to the experts.

Instead, I am going to rag on how Interstellar fails the Bechdel test so hard that it punches a hole in reality big enough for Matthew McConaughey to bring his whole family through. There are two (2) named female characters, who never actually meet or have a conversation, still less one about something other than the male cast. For the rest, it’s guys, guys, guys all the way. I nearly called this post “Stars need women”. For added fun, both the women are defined largely by being daughters; this is a movie about how fathers let their daughters down, but mean well anyhow. Anne Hathaway, the nearest thing this century has to Audrey Hepburn, gets to be Michael Caine’s daughter, which appears to be literally the only reason she gets to go on the big manly space rocket. (Mind you, the staffing appears to be a matter of whim and happenstance; Matthew McConaughey trips over the rocket and is promptly appointed pilot). Jessica Chastain gets to be Matthew McConaughey’s tomboy daughter, a character who might as well be a boy or a robot for all the gender identity she displays. And that’s it for the girls.

Not the men need to jump for joy. Caine is playing Michael Caine, and McConaughey is playing his middle aged self; when Matt Damon shows up, he’s playing a psychotic weasel, which I almost haven’t the heart to tell him is not necessarily acting. Matt is so good at psychotic weasels that you really do have to wonder. Everyone else is pretty much there to read the teleprompter; Mike, Matt and the other Matt stand out because they have enough on the ball to come across as people despite the script leaving them with nothing but their own talent to save them.

No, the stars of the movie are the robots, big featureless slabs of metal who get all the jokes in the movie and pretty much all of the matter of fact heroism without which the ostensible heroes would be high and dry with nothing to show for their efforts. The robots have their shit together and are blithely untroubled by all the crap the humans have brought into space, and they’re funny to boot. If they hadn’t had the humans holding them back, the mission would have been a glorious success.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Nightcrawler; a guide for entrepreneurs of all ages

I saw Nightcrawler four days ago, and yet when I sat down to bloc “this week’s movie” I had to look at the listings page to jog my memory. I’m not sure if that means that my mind is finally starting to drift, or that Nightcrawler is not as good as I thought it was on the day.

At the time, I was pretty impressed. It’s a good looking movie. It must be fun to shoot the scenery without having to worry that it’s supposed to be somewhere else; Nightcrawler is LA, in the role of LA, and the streetscape glistens in the half-light. And the performances are solid, to the extent that anyone’s getting a look in around Jake Gyllenhall’s portrayal of the appalling Lou Bloom.

What makes Lou Bloom appalling is not what he does. We’re numbed and blunted now; in every two hour entertainment we see the good guys hand out more death and destruction than any modern person will see in a life time, and we’re programmed to cheer. So when Lou drags a half dead road accident victim into a better place for his shot, or orchestrates two or three murders for the sake of exclusive video, that’s just routine for the multiplex. What carries it over the edge is the creepy running commentary. There’s always someone for Lou to explain his actions to, either on the scene, or later on as he tries to turn a profit on his latest piece of evil. And he has an endless stream of glib patter, whether he’s making up gibberish about a bike that he’s just stolen or spinning a line of crypto-MBA self-justification to keep his hapless assistant from ever getting a raise. Lou is not a terrible human being; he’s something completely alien, almost, but not quite, impersonating a terrible human being.

It’s an extraordinary performance from Gyllenhall, who’s always been a little otherworldly, but never in such a malevolent way. Only time will tell whether it will change the direction of his career, which hasn’t really had a direction up until now; he’s always been striking, but it’s been hard to know what kind of actor he wants to be. Lou Bloom is his first villain, and he’s a villain for our times. Hollywood’s made a lot of movies about journalists who do horrible things to get an exclusive. The horrible is always negotiable, but the characters tend to go one of two ways; either they knew better once and they’ve just had a moral collapse, or they’re grandiose strangers to decency, practically relishing the sheer wickedness as part of the fun. Lou is not grandiose; he’s small time, glib and self-centred. It’s fascinating to watch him run his bullshit on the people around him, convinced that it’s working, that they’re taking him at face value as a skilled, educated, real boy. Meanwhile his colleagues and victims in journalism - Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton and Kevin Rahm - aren’t taken in for a moment, but can’t think of a decent way to confront him. Lou sails on obliviously, thinking that he’s won everyone over when really he’s just run them over and they can’t get up.

It’s one of those performances where either you’re thinking “I work with someone just like that.” or you’re anxiously wondering if that’s the way you look to other people. Of course, if you actually were Lou Bloom, it would never occur to you for a moment that there was anything wrong with what you were seeing, still less that the problem might be you. So, this week’s top tip; if you’ve been to see Nightcrawler and you thought Lou made a lot of sense, make sure you tell people how much you liked him. You’ll be doing them a favour. They’ll appreciate the headsup.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Fury: the Pitts of the Ayerth

Fury contains one thing which has never been shown on screen before; an actual working Tiger tank. The go-to German tank in World War Two movies has always been the Tiger, but up until now it’s always been something else with - if they were feeling especially diligent - some plywood slapped on to make the shape less wrong. Even though Allied tankers thought everything they saw was a Tiger, and that it was a super tank which nothing could destroy, in reality the Germans only made about 1300 of them and less than a dozen actually survived the war. 

This is good news for a tiny number of people who’ve always grumbled under their breath “That’s not a real Tiger.” though they’ll still have plenty to grumble about while the Tiger’s on screen duking it out with Brad Pitt’s Sherman at ranges which actual WWII soldiers would have thought a bit intimate for bayonet drill.

For the rest of it, this is another David Ayer movie. This is the WWII one, rather than the LAPD one, but it’s the same old schtick of naive putz thrown into the company of a rampaging middle-aged arsehole who’s been let away with murder because he gets results goddamit. This week, it’s Brad Pitt in the Denzel role, and Logan Lerman in the role of Ethan Hawke. Neither Denzel nor Ethan will be losing any sleep. The only suspense is just how long it’s going to take before Pitt bites the big one, and how satisfying it’s going to be when he gets his comeuppance.

Blistering idiocy cuts in early, as Logan Lerman’s moping Norman shows up out of the blue to be assigned to Brad Pitt’s elite tank crew despite being a company typist with no tank training of any kind. Put to one side the questions about why high command would assign a complete waste of space to one of their highest performing tank crews; I accept that high command are easily that stupid in all wars. Just ask yourself how the hell high command even knew there was a vacancy to be filled. Norman shows up within minutes of Brad returning to a base that plainly had no idea that he was even alive, let alone that he’d just lost his bow gunner (the one job in a tank where conceivably an untrained man MIGHT be able to get by without getting everyone killed in the first five minutes).

Because magic, that’s how. Ayer’s formula requires a relateable audience surrogate, or Logan Lerman if that’s all that’s available. Pah.

Moving on. Brad and the rest of the US Army spend an hour or so apparently in a competition to see if they can make the audience root a bit for the SS for once, which is almost as much fun as it sounds for the audience. There’s a case to be made for a balanced look at the impact of total war on the people who fight it, but I’d argue that the way to go is to humanise the traditional bad guys, not dehumanise the traditional good guys. So Brad straight up murders a random German prisoner to make a point about the need for Norman to kill Germans, and once the US Army manages to take a German town they act like Hells Angels with candy bars. Combat starts to feel like a relief.

Finally, the mighty forces of the Wehrmacht manage to take down the war criminal Brad Pitt, after he decides to treat his broken down Sherman like a pill box and try to hold off an infantry battalion. It takes them ages, but they valiantly soak up all the bullets in the tank until it hasn’t any bullets any more, and then open the turret hatch and drop in two grenades. Which have such long fuses that Norman can get out of the tank through the belly hatch before they go off. Hours later, he clambers back in to the tank to pay his last respects to the rest of the crew. Miraculously, despite the fact that concussion and ricocheting shrapnel should have reduced everyone inside the tank to soup, Brad’s looking better than Norman. Which, in some ways, is not the weirdest thing about the grenades through the hatch plan. First, there’s the problem of that infantry battalion walking towards us on screen, with every fourth guy carrying a Panzerfaust anti-tank weapon. When they’re confronted with an actual tank, suddenly the only Panzerfausts are four in a packing case, and only one of them works. Second, precisely because it would be tremendously inconvenient if people could clamber onto your tank and just chuck stuff into the turret, hatches had latches. 

Still, it’s a once in a lifetime chance to see a real Tiger do something unrealistic. No, that’s really not enough. The completely fake Tiger in this is a better use of your time.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Dracula Untold; Nordor goes Transylvania

Dracula Untold might be the stupidest movie title of the year. It’s not untold at all; there the movie is, telling the story. "But, but, but," splutter the movie’s Renfields, sorry I meant to say producers, "it’s a story which has never been told before.” At which point I decapitate them with a sharpened DVD copy of Frank Ford Coppola’s Dracula I carry for specifically this purpose, and the argument has ended as all arguments with idiots have to end.

So, Dracula, Haven’t We Heard This Before? is crippled coming out the gates. This is not a new story. This isn’t even a particularly new take on an old story. It isn’t even a new and improved version of something which a hack did years ago and which might benefit from new eyes and voices. This is a feature length version of the historical flashback in Coppola’s Dracula and pretty much every other movie which has ever tried to pad the running time with a a bit about Dracula’s training wheels years. (Honourable exception, the completely insane one where Dracula turns out to be Judas Iscariot using an assumed name only slightly less hated than Judas).

So here we are in a world where only acting and good writing will save us. Naturally, the producers turned instead to special effects and discount Orlando Bloom himself, Luke Evans. Luckily they were shooting in Nordor, so they could ring Charles Dance (who suddenly had a hole in his schedule along with the hole Tyrion Lannister put in his abdomen) to class things up a little, and for those of you who’ve been wondering where the hell Rickon Stark got to, he’s playing Dracula’s son. After that, the producers of Game of Thrones locked the cast back into their trailers and the Dracula - Untold team had to get the rest of their talent from elsewhere, which if nothing else gave Luke Evans his first chance in a long time to be the second best performer in a motion picture, even if it was only this one.

But wait, I hear you say. This was shot in Nordor? After a decade of crummy bits of Eastern Europe standing in for half the planet including Medieval England, a movie actually set in Eastern Europe was shot in Nordor? Yup. I admit, few people can stand in Nordor, drink in the atmosphere and NOT think “This place reminds me of Transylvania on a wet bank holiday in the 1950s.”, but when you could have shot the movie in the real Transylvania for half the price? Of course, only last week I saw a movie set in Belfast in 1971 which was shot in Yorkshire. The Yorkshire Tourist Board must have just loved that one. Come to Yorkshire! It’s just like Belfast was like, 30 years ago. I bet they all put on their biggest flattest caps and went dahn to throw paraffin heaters through the windows of t' Yorkshire Film Promotion Board.

Since it’s doctrine that all vampire movies are a metaphor for society’s worries, I had to fight the temptation to see Dracula - Untold’s plot as echoing some of the wonderful texture of Nordor’s history. But bloodthirsty maniacs making pacts with evil in an existential struggle with other bloodthirsty maniacs and succeeding only in ruining their entire country for generations - that’s pure Transylvania. Nordor will have to tell its own story. And so I concluded that Dracula - Untold was yet another allegory about the travails of the world’s most misunderstood superpower. Dracula makes a pact with evil, in an effort to save freedom. Dracula fights his enemies using airpower, in the form of clouds of weaponised bats. Dracula’s enemies are vast hordes of Muslims who hate his freedoms, although he’s had dealings with them in the past. To beat the vast hordes, Dracula must turn to his own hordes of evil auxiliaries, who turn out to be even more trouble than the vast hordes were in the first place. And when it’s all over, Dracula’s made a desert and called it peace. 

Mind you, his enemies are idiots. When Mehmet Bey hears that Dracula has fear-inspiring powers, he decides that "men can’t fear what they can’t see", and marches his army towards Dracula blindfolded. Men have been fearing what they can’t see since about twenty minutes after the invention of fear, so Mehmet Bey is with that one sentence the stupidest fictional commander of anything, ever. Backed up, as idiots so often are, by some really talented middle managers, since the men actually manage to march to their deaths, sorry, I meant destination, even with the blindfolds. As the bodies start to pile up, it’s worth pondering the strategic brilliance at work. Dracula has started this fight over Mehmet Bey’s demand for a thousand boy soldiers to train up as Janissaries. Within a matter of days, Mehmet’s lost more soldiers than he was looking to draft, and he ups the ante by boldly saying “Send 100,000 more!” On the one hand, he already HAD 100,000 soldiers and a plan to invade Europe and still let himself get distracted by one bozo who wouldn’t give him 1,000 trainees? And on the other hand, he could march 100,000 soldiers into position in just over a day. That’s slightly less believable than vampires. We live in a world with Goldman Sachs, so vampires don’t seem like much of a stretch.  But 100,000 man armies marching across Transylvania in a day? It would take a day for the back of the column to get to where the front started out from.

Hiding in the margins of all this bombast, Charles Dance is running a one-man trailer for the movie they should have made, "The Adventures of the Dude Who Turned Dracula and What He Did Next". And judging by the epilogue, that might be coming out one of these days. Charles Dance gets about ten minutes of screen time and the movie’s last line (“Let the games begin.”) and pretty much undercuts the other 80 minutes without even breaking a sweat. Someone had to make Dracula what he is today; Dance makes that someone a lot more interesting than Dracula. I wanted to see more of that. That’s the story they should have, you know, TOLD.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

The Equalizer: own goal

The Equalizer has Alonzo Harris! and Hit Girl! and together, they fight crime!

Just kidding. Chloe Moretz is in the movie in the role of chick victim, and her wigs get more character development; it was like watching someone using the Mona Lisa to wrap a Happy Meal. And while this film was brought to us by the Director of Training Day, Denzel seemed to be sending out a message to Hollywood “Morgan Freeman will be dead any day now! I too can play not quite geriatric wise old black guys with a minor in ass kicking! Choose me for your grizzled magical negro related performance needs!"

I had been thinking that Denzel chunks out a dumb thriller every year or so to cover the rent; then I took a look at his filmography and, well, how can I put this? I think that the Fresh Prince of Bel Air might have been making more of an effort to stretch himself recently than Denzel has been. It’s all rent-paying, all the time for Denzel. Hard to believe he used to get Oscars.

Even harder to believe that Antoine Fuqua ever came near one. He wasn’t even nominated for Training Day, but there hasn’t been a poster for any of the movies he’s made since that failed to mention that it was yet another effort from the man who directed Training Day. Depressingly, I’ve watched most of them, though not because they were Antoine Fuqua movies. Sometime in the next couple of weeks I’ll probably watch Fury, which is brought to us by the guy who wrote Training Day, and also won’t shut up about it. When I go, it will be in the hope that a war movie full of Sherman tanks can transcend the presence of David Ayer, Brad Pitt AND Shia LeBoeuf; my hope is that it will succeed despite those three names, not because of them.

It was only when I was doing my post-movie trivia hunt that I realised that not only was Robert McCall supposed to have OCD, but that Denzel Washington had put tonnes of research into the disorder so that he could play it properly. I’m not sure how well you’ve pulled something like that off when no-one notices it. That’s getting a bit too method in your underplaying.

Still, it gives Marton Csokas plenty of room to overplay his Russian mobster. Teddy seemed kind of fun at first, but it didn’t take too long before he got to be just as bad company on the screen as he would have been in real life. And there was the wonderful moment when I started to think that his back-story had a problem. Just like every other Russian mobster ever, he’s covered in prison tattoos. But half way through the movie, we get a full bio for the guy which had him moving smoothly from Spetznaz to the secret police to untouchable enforcer for even more untouchable oligarch; where was the jail time that would have created those tattoos? The guy had a whole string of churches across his back, each of which should have represented a jail term; his back-story didn’t match his back-story.

Well, his main purpose in the movie is to give the Equaliser something to equalise that’s big enough to justify using a whole Denzel Washington movie on. Back when it was just an Edward Woodward TV show, the Equalizer handled corner stores getting shaken down and that kind of thing. Denzel needs something more Denzel-scaled; an untouchable criminal conspiracy spanning oceans? That’ll do nicely. Except that Denzel’s relentless underplaying works much better in the little scores he settles along the way; get a co-worker’s ring back, or shake down some crooked cops running a protection racket. Everything felt in balance; the way that Denzel worked and the sense of “Yup, they had that coming.” which also made The Guest a guilty pleasure a few weeks back.

When it’s time to shut down the mob, it all gets a bit trickier to root for. Yeah, the Russian mob looks like they could do with a whole lot of killing. But you know that a movie’s taken a wrong turn when the hero’s killing a whole bunch of complete bastards and all you can think is “Man, that was a bit unnecessary.” McCall gets a set piece early on when he kills half a dozen gangsters with whatever he can find handy; he seems to be enjoying himself a little bit too much, but he’s in a corner and these guys are all swinging for him at once. Then we get to the big finale, when McCall has to take on a bunch of machine gun toting special forces armed only with whatever he can find in a hardware store. And we get; first guy noosed and hanged with barbed wire. Next guy stabbed in the throat with a billhook. Next guy gets the back of his head cored out with a power drill. OK, this is not the Equalizer. This is Jason. This is Freddy. There ought to be some plucky final girl getting ready to schwack Denzel about now. Nope, he’s the hero. He banks a couple more interchangeable mooks, and then shoots Teddy to bits with a nail gun from twenty feet [1] before travelling to Moscow and electrocuting his boss. 

Put the Freddy stuff to one side. This a compulsively neat individual who likes simple solutions that won’t muss his shaved head up. In the hardware store the very first person he kills is carrying enough guns and bullets to massacre the church of scientology. Take the gun, shoot the other bad guys. What is wrong with you? I just googled Equalizer and every picture of Edward Woodward had a gun in his hand. The Equalizer does not have a problem shooting people. Denzel’s Equalizer just seems to have a problem. Good thing this isn’t going to be another TV show.

[1] Nail guns don’t work this way. Mythbusters spent a while demonstrating what a nail gun won’t do. It boils down to a) nail guns won’t hit what you’re aiming at unless the nail gun is touching the thing you’re aiming at b) whatever they do hit, the nail will hit side on.

The Strain; yes, that's pretty much what it's been

There’s a great moment, about half way through the TV version of The Strain when the cool vampires turn up, all tactical and covered in firearms and just rule the screen for a couple of minutes. It’s an end of episode cliffie, and I switched off the TV and went off to work thinking “Finally, this thing is rolling out the good stuff”. Then del Toro and crew played Lucy with the football on me for the next six or seven episodes and we didn’t see the cool vampires until the last two episodes, where they wander back in briefly to make Gus the most ridiculous job offer ever, and honestly by that stage I was just glad they’re all going to get butchered off screen next season, because if you’re going to make that little use of the concept, why even bother?

I’ve made no secret of my contempt for the books, although early on I had nursed the hope that del Toro would take some of the ideas buried in them and make three half way good looking movies out of them. There was about one movie’s worth of stuff in each book, I reckoned. That works out to a hell of a lot less than 13 TV episodes of anything worth looking at, even if you’d done the honest thing and made all three books into one 13 episode event. Trying to stretch the first book into 13 TV hours; that’s a strain, is what it is.

I was watching the thing side by side with Penny Dreadful, which is pretty much of an overstuffed baggy mess with too many characters and not enough plot, but which survives on the strength of characters you want to see more of. Eva Green holds the whole thing up even when it’s threatening to collapse all around her, but the other actors rise to their material. The weakest link is probably Josh Hartnett, who’s just flat and mopey when everyone around him is intense, but if you put even Josh Hartnett into The Strain, everyone else would just fade out by comparison. There’s no-one to root for in The Strain; the villains are either awful or interchangeable mooks, and the heroes? Oy gevalt. Abraham Setrakian is Armenian Van Helsing being played by Canadian Morgan Freeman. Vassily Fet, a role reportedly written specifically for the great Ron Perlman, is played by a ringer who gives the good guys pretty much the only person the viewers can root for. After that, it all goes off a cliff. If you’ve got the entire end of the world, you don’t need a family drama as well, but even if you did, no-one needs the Goodweather family. I was watching the new Homeland last night, and Corey Stoll got stomped to bits by a mob; I couldn’t help wishing the mob had found its way to New York.

The books had a couple of neat ideas, and a lot of terrible writing. The TV show’s got all the ideas, and way more of the writing. How did I not see that coming?

Thursday, 25 September 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones; not coming soon to a TV near you

It’s been a bunch of years since the last time someone tried to adapt Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder books for the screen; you have to go all the way back to Eight Million Ways to Die, which is mainly remembered - and that not much - as the first movie that gave Andy Garcia anything real to do. It’s also got a pretty solid Jeff Bridges performance, but Bridges’ real glory days came later and it’s hard to imagine anyone including it in a greatest hits of Jeff Bridges movie night.

Probably the biggest thing that went wrong with Eight Million Ways to Die was that nobody seemed to see anything wrong in relocating the action to southern California; once you’ve wrenched Scudder out of New York, you’ve vanished the protagonist’s real sidekick. Scudder is not a creature of sunshine, not in any way. He belongs on the mean streets of New York, brooding on stuff.

So thirty years later someone’s blown the dust off A Walk Among the Tombstones, a kinda-mid-period Scudder, and tried to get it right. Scudder is in New York, where he belongs, and in the 1990s, where he belongs. And Liam Neeson’s a surprisingly not bad Scudder, even if he does feel more like a dried out version of Bill Marks. A little bit too handy with the old ultra-violence, but fallible and compromised (his best line comes when he’s asked if he left the cops because of corruption “No, that was all that let me keep my family in comfort.”). 

The thing is that it feels like the pilot for a TV show no-one’s going to make. We meet Scudder, we meet TJ (I have never made my mind up whether Scudder’s gradual development of a teenage sidekick and a second wife were Flanderisation or a journey of redemption), and we get the sense of how Scudder gets by on the margins of the big city. Meet Matt Scudder, drunk cop turned recovering alcoholic fixer! Meet TJ, street kid and miniature magical negro! Together they fight crime! Sort of! Except when they lose. 

Except Liam Neeson’s not going to give up massive paydays for Taken clones to slum it on TV, and the world’s full of cop shows anyhow. So it’s a one-off that’s OK while it lasts. It might have been more than OK if they’d picked one of the Scudder books which wasn’t all about creepy serial killers - I came across a great phrase on the internet today “Stacks O Dead Ladies” which perfectly sums up the way that every damn crime movie and cop show seems to default to chopping up women. Why can’t brave duos fight some other kind of crime?

If they ever do try to make a Scudder TV show, it hit me this morning, all they have to do is wait for Donal Logue to get killed on Gotham. Logue would be a perfect Scudder. 

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

A Most Wanted Man; not a Michael Bay movie

I spent a lot of the most sinister moments in A Most Wanted Man thinking “That’s not Lena Headey, but if it’s not, who the hell is it?” Robin Wright, it turns out, with dark hair and the Lady McBeth vibe from House of Cards turned way past 11. She’s the face of the Feds, and the Feds are not the good guys. The Feds are not the good guys in a movie about muslim maybe-terrorists and the German secret police, but then again this is an adaptation of a John Le Carre book, and he’s never been a cheerleader for the USA.

A couple of years back I watched Anton Corbijn’s The American. A Most Wanted Man seems to have been made as a reaction to reviews that called it too restrained. The American’s mostly a mood piece with no serious action and you could count the gunshots on your fingers. You can count the gunshots in A Most Wanted Man on George W Bush’s braincells. "The American not action-y enough? I wasn’t even trying there."

So, don’t go if your action reserves are depleted. This is a movie entirely about brooding silence and character moments. I think I’ve used more words so far in this post than the script gives the wanted man of the title. And most of the rest of the cast are only slightly more chatty. Philip Seymour Hoffman more or less owns the movie and gets more dialogue than everyone else put together, but even he does more brooding than talking (the last two or three minutes of the movie are entirely wordless). Corbijn needed good actors for what he wanted to do, and he got them. Of course, he got some of them from Hollywood so everyone goes through the movie either speaking English with foreign accents or occasionally being subtitled; I have no idea what the policy was, other than the usual one of wanting to sell the movie in America and no frightening them off by getting an actual German to play your German secret policeman. Sure Hoffman is great, as when was he not, but Christoph Waltz or Bruno Ganz would have been just as good and just as recognisable and they could have spoken German.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Guest; Matthew Crawley is all growed up

If you had told me that Matthew Crawley could carry a thriller movie, I’d have raised an eyebrow; probably two, because my eyebrows are no more obedient to my will than anything else in the world. If you’d told me the movie would go into free fall whenever he wasn’t on screen, I’d have bought the Brooklyn Bridge off you just to keep both feet firmly anchored in unreality.

The Guest is a great little movie, and it owes it all to Dan Stevens, the most enjoyably amiable psycho to show up at the movies in ages. It loses its way a bit at the end; no matter how much you’re riffing off 1980s influences, it’s never a great idea to set your climactic stalk-out in a funfair maze. But the first two thirds are rock solid; Stevens is note perfect in his switches from charm to menace and there’s not a wasted moment. Everything is there for a reason; every little line and incident tells you a little bit more about what’s driving the characters. 

It’s plain from the moment Stevens shows up that things are going to go terribly wrong; the tension is how they’re going to go wrong, and just why. It’s Halloween, and everywhere we look, there’s pumpkins and scarecrows; is David some kind of ghost, back to wreak havoc in his army buddy’s old town?

Well, he’s definitely going to wreak havoc. Lots of it. And it’s horribly enjoyable. I grumbled last year about Luc Besson’s The Family, which somehow muffed the whole notion of a bunch of psychos handing out well deserved smackings to  the smug population of a small French town. The Guest gets it just right. Dan Stevens powers his way through a succession of annoyances and no matter how undeserving they are of the havoc, he’s somehow hilarious and awesome. He is not the good guy, and yet it’s impossible not to root for him, no matter how many times the camera stays on his smile for just long enough for it fade into something much more unsettling.

It wears its 80s influences on its sleeve; makes them part of the action even, right from the hints of 1980s slasher movies in the choice of font for the title to the way the cast gets trimmed to a final girl. And the way it gets in a sequel hook. Just as I despaired that we’d see a chance of The Guest 2; the Enguestening, Dan limps back into view to a “what the fuck?” from the final girl echoed silently by the whole audience. Did the director just roll out balls that cosmically oversized. Why, yes, yes he did. And I’m fine with that. I’d happily watch Stevens do it all over again with another small town family; he’s just that charming.

But first, I think he should play Ace Atkins’ Quinn Colson. When he was doing his “aw shucks, ma’am, I don’t want to be no trouble to you all” soldier boy, he had a wonderful wholesome rightness to him, with just the hint of some deeper damage; when I wasn’t laughing out loud at the latest atrocity, I was thinking “Yeah, Quinn Colson. You’d be perfect."

 Lady Mary doesn’t know what she’s missing.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Lets Be Cops; sure, why not?

For a movie that features an immense naked man’s crotch landing right in a character’s face and grinding away at it for way too long, Lets Be Cops is surprisingly wholesome. The real cops come out of it pretty well, the fake ones learn important lessons about who they really are and what they should be trying to do, and truth’n’justice prevail, for Hollywood values of truth’n’justice.

Your typical comedy with amiable schmucks getting out of their depth with vicious criminals usually ends with the amiable schmucks somehow discovering their inner badasses and clobbering everything around them. I liked it that Justin and Ryan NEVER got any good at the hard parts of being a cop. There’s a big shoot out at the end of it, and they spend their time cowering and panicking while an actual policeman sorts out the problem. And he’s not some kind of super cop; he’s just a decent guy with training and sense of purpose. And the panic isn’t played for laughs - much. Justin and Ryan are believably out of their depth, and it’s more menacing than funny.

It’s not outrageously funny - the only joke I can actually remember now is from the credits; embedded there in the cast list is "Insanely Handsome Police Tech - Luke Greenfield”. Which is one of the smarter things I’ve ever seen a writer-director do with a cameo. But it’s got a lot of heart and a likeable cast, and while it’s on you’re coasting along with it. I’ve seen worse, though in a strange way I get more out of worse movies because I can rag on them afterwards.

Weirdest thing in the movie is seeing Andy Garcia as a crooked cop. It’s been ages since I’ve seen Garcia in anything, and even longer since I saw him play a bad guy. The whole time he’s on screen, he can’t help making everyone else look like a stand-up comedian; it’s like he’s slipped in from another movie. Give this man more work.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Guy Adams: The Clown Service

Right up to the end, I was thinking of this as a passably silly book, kind of a cross between Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London and Mick Herron’s Slow Horses, something which would do to tide me over until one or other of those two got around to giving me another book I actually wanted to read. Then the book did something very clever indeed with the idea of change having consequences, and I was suddenly intrigued.

It’s a well written book, though I was puzzled by the way that the narrative voice kept shifting; we keep seeing the characters in different viewpoints as the book unfolds; at first Toby Greene exists only in third person narrative, and then we get a first person perspective, and similar things happen with August Shining. It’s carried off well enough, but it’s jolting, as though Adams hasn’t made his mind up how he’s going to tackle the story.

Which wouldn’t have surprised me, really. It’s one of those things which feels like the idea came before the characters. What if the British Secret Service had a department for dealing with the occult? And what if they were under-resourced and kind of a laughing stock? (this is why it didn’t make me think of Charles Stross’ Laundry, before you even ask). I could see a writer setting off down that road, trying to figure out where it was going to go and who the main voice would be, and then settling down on one main view. Inevitably, because it’s so narratively useful, the view of the newby.

But then there’s that clever switch at the end; was that just a moment of sheer epiphany for Adams, setting up a whole series of books that will be all about the consequences of the one clever idea that saves the day while ruining the years, or was that the plan all along? I can’t even decide which would impress me more. But the next one’s a must-read rather than a maybe.

Adam Baker: Outpost, Juggernaut, Terminus

Before reading on; it’s conceivable that you fall into the tiny Venn Diagram intersection of people who a) trip over this blog b) are interested in two year old zombie books and c) somehow are only getting round to reading any of these titles two years after they were published. If so, read on at your peril. There is, apparently, a minor risk that you might figure out the endings from this post. 

The internet consensus is that the best book ever about zombie apocalypses is Max Brooks' World War Z, which has among its virtues the realisation that a whole bunch of brief vignettes is going to capture the sense of the thing more effectively than a long drawn out focus on one group of people getting picked off.

Adam Baker has caught on to the idea that the end of the world should be the story of more than one group of survivors, but he’s decided to give each group their own book and their own little bit of the apocalypse. Three books in, the apocalypse doesn’t seem big enough for that many books and his groups of characters don’t seem big enough to need whole novels about their rich lives and problems.

So in Outpost you get a bunch of oil rig workers being the last to hear about the end of the world and struggling to get out of their Arctic oil rig and back to what’s left of civilisation (not much, but it doesn’t matter, because they don’t make it). Juggernaut has a bunch of jaded mercenaries in Bremer-era Iraq trying to steal bunch of gold and running into proto-zombies instead (it’s like Three Kings crossed with Night of the Living Dead if somehow neither of them had been much good). And Terminus has jailbirds and firefighters in an uneasy alliance trying to find the cure for the zombie plague in the bowels of a devastated Manhattan (this time it’s like Escape from New York crossed with something I’ve haven’t even seen yet). There’s another one out there called Impact, which guiltily I know I’m going to read when it  gets cheap, which has the crew of a crashed B52 getting picked off by zombies in the desert.

What they all have in common is female protagonists who might just as well be men, some core characters who are struggling to be more than cardboard, and a willingness to just keep hurling more and more incidents at the page whether they make sense or not (in Outpost, one character seems to make a getaway only to appear out of nowhere for climax intent on just ruining everything for the small number of uninfected survivors still left; it’s so preposterous that it kind of ruins everything that’s come before it). Oh, yeah, the other thing they have in common is space zombies. 

The best take I’ve seen recently on zombies (and the most intellectually satisfying execution of the infection logic) was The Girl with all the Gifts. There’s a huge guff mine about what zombies are standing in for in our cultural discourse, which I will truncate to “we’re not all in this together, and all those hordes of other people I’ve never met are just the worst”. This contrasts with vampires’ role in our thinking, which is best summarised as “elites need staking”. So I tend to hand wave all that and just think about how practical the plague sounds. Baker’s thinking is that the plague is from space - it’s still not clear whether it’s space aliens hard at work, or just human hubris gone bonkers in orbit and then coming back to visit and ruin everything. I suspect that Baker’s got a long game in a notebook somewhere and this is all going to make sense in hindsight umpteen books from now. There’s good and there’s bad. I like the simple notion that the plague’s been brewing up in an abandoned Russian space station, which then broke up and landed in chunks all over the planet. I’m less convinced by the idea that the zombie plague gradually fills up all its victims with hideous metallic tumours, because biochemistry doesn’t work that way. You’d be hard put to make a teaspoon out of all the metal atoms present in a human body - discounting the kilogram of calcium tied up in your bones and teeth, which wouldn’t make a great tea spoon, and the half pound of sodium and potassium which are both going to catch fire as soon as the air gets at them, the best candidates are the 19 grams of magnesium and the four grams of iron. So this isn’t just the zombie plague, it’s the philosopher’s stone, transmuting random organic chemicals into metal somehow. The explanation for that is going to take some build-up all right.

In short, not the world’s most convincing zombie infection, not that anyone but me is keeping score. But no zombie infection really is all that convincing; you’ve got to distract your audience with shiny new ideas or well executed characters, or if all else fails a whole bunch of explosions. Baker’s genuinely trying for the characters, but on the one hand, they’re not all well executed and on the other hand most of them should have BEEN executed; in trying for a consistently dark and gritty tone, he’s overshot and given us no-one to root for. Which does make it easier not to care when most of them meet horrible ends, I suppose. A couple of people - always including that book's female protagonist - make it out of each book in one piece, and I find myself wondering if they’re all going to meet up in some future book to form a Voltron of zombie killers, and whether I’ll care enough to check in and see how they get on.

AR Torre: The Girl in 6E

If all you read is the blurbs and the reviews, The Girl in 6E is a fascinating notion; a locked room mystery where it’s the detective who’s locked in. What makes it a slightly queasy read is the amount of time the author puts into explaining the day to day economics of how a girl might make a living if she’s decided never to leave her room. 

This girl makes a living from sex over the internet, and I am just going to leave that there and you can make your own mind up about where your comfort zone lies in reading about just how that works, what a girl’s gotta do and who and what she’s gotta do it with. Torre previously wrote erotica, so don’t expect too many cutaways to a row of asterisks.

The publishers didn’t take any chances, and there is nothing in the publicity material that even hints at it; what you get from the jacket copy is that the Girl in 6E is a stone killer and she’s locked herself away for years, but now something has happened which means she needs to break out again.

I kind of fancied the notion of a 21st century chick in the iron mask getting all medieval on the ungodly. Which is not really what you get. Most of the book is stuck in Apartment 6E, with glimpses out into the bigger world to let us see how the rest of the plot is getting on. And then the Girl in 6E leaves the Apartment to sort things out, and it’s somehow rather flat. In one sense, I approved. There’s a steely practicality to the protagonist, and it makes sense that once she has to move out of her comfort zone, she’s just going to get on with it and do what a girl’s gotta do. But so much of the book has been about her NEEDING to stay in the apartment that it feels almost anti-climactic that she can leave it without much of a hiccup. 

There’s a good idea at the heart of the book; what if someone had such a terrifying experience that it changed the way that she thought about herself forever? Not necessarily the way she truly was, but the way she thought about herself. And of course, over time, we’re all what we think we are; we do the kinds of things which we think our kind of a person does, or we think about doing them even if we never get around to it. The Girl in 6E thinks she’s a serial killer, and she locks herself away to protect the rest of the world from that. Though you have to wonder whether someone who’d go to those lengths to avoid killing anyone is really going to do it. The book never really finds a way to tease this out.

There’s a happy ending of sorts, which these days means that there’ll a sequel or a TV series, though I can’t figure out how a sequel would work, and the problems for a TV show …. 

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Lucy: you only NEED 10% of your brain

Lucy is about 10% as smart as it wants to be, which makes it about as dumb as an average audience; after that its main job is to keep things moving fast enough that the average audience won’t go “Hang on, that doesn’t make any sense.” 

This is one of these days when Luc Besson finished doodling on the beermat, held it out at arm’s length and said “Nah, I’m going to keep this one.” It never struck me until I saw it in another article about the movie, but most of Luc Besson’s own movies, as opposed to the stuff he jobs out to Olivier Megaton and the like, have got a strong woman protagonist. Nikita, The 5th Element, Léon, The Messenger; even Adele Blanc-Sec. Let’s not go crazy here; I’m not saying they’re great women characters or anything. But they’re fun and they’re strong and they’re not just eye candy getting kicked around by the plot till the hero shows up.

Scarlett Johansen has to pretty much carry the whole movie; none of the men have anything much to do than be interchangeable cops and bad guys, except for Morgan Freeman, who’s there to explain the science. Not even Morgan Freeman can sell the science, not that Besson’s making it any easier by making the science a constant cutaway from the action. Scarlett is having the worst day of her life, and we keep cutting to Morgan Freeman desperately trying to sell us on the idea that we only use 10% of our brains and that we could rule the world if we used all of them. The action’s great; the biggest weakness of the movie is that the more it turns into 2001 a Space Oddyssey, the less space there is for Scarlett being a stone cold badass. Luc Besson taking time out from badass heroines is like Michaelangelo laying carpet in the Sistine Chapel.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Everybody growl

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is brought to you in three dimensions, two colours and one tone of voice. Everyone sounds as if they’re trying out to replace Don La Fontaine. If they’d wanted an amazing twist, they should have got a guest cameo from Emma Thompson asking if anyone had ever considered just trying to talk out their problems. 

Of course, that would have jolted the entire tone of the movie. The first Sin City was a genuine novelty. There’d never been anything like it and it almost didn’t matter what was going on; the look was amazing enough no matter what was actually happening on screen. Nine years down the road, we’ve got used to CGI and comic book adaptations (to the point where I have to think hard to come up with a recent movie which wasn’t a comic book adaptation). And so I was looking at A Dame to Kill For and weighing it up as something more than visual tour de force.

Man, it’s an unsettling movie. Everyone’s horrible. When the nearest thing to a voice of reason in your movie is Jeremy Piven telling someone else that he’s crazy to be falling for a whore … And there’s a lot of things I just couldn’t look at (I worry about the world when I’m looking distractedly at anything but the screen and there are people behind me in the cinema laughing their heads off). Eva Green, as usual, is the best thing in the movie, right up to the moment when she gets murdered to bits because Frank Miller hates women; this is starting to feel like her thing now. Mickey Rourke is back as Marv and Jessica Alba is back as Nancy. It’s weird watching Jessica Alba in movies; I saw her first on Dark Angel where she was bigger than the TV set; putting her in movies makes her seem much less alive. It’s even weirder watching Mickey Rourke as Marv if you’re old enough to remember the original pretty pre-boxing-and-plastic-surgery model.

It’s a great looking movie. Trouble is, making great images of something horrible makes the horrible even worse. And there’s quite a bit of horrible in the movie; small bits of nasty business, a big sweep of “murder solves everything” and a permanent current of “Just what the hell is wrong with Frank Miller’s relationship with women?”. There doesn’t seem to be anywhere in Sin City where a girl can buy sensible clothing, probably because all the retail space is either dives or gun shops. And you need the gun shops, heaven knows, because there’s only two jobs in Sin City for women; hooker, and armed hooker. 

The first movie was, in its own weird way, somewhat indispensable. But we probably just needed the one.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Expendables 3; lies in advertising

So, you’ve got this film franchise about pension-age ass-kickers, and it’s called the Expendables, but three movies in, not one of them has been even remotely expended. The true expendables are the endless tide of mooks hurled randomly in their direction like so much skeet. This latest movie is trying to brood on the burden of ageing and the war on terror, but if they want to look clever, they could just include a fraction of the knowingness that underpinned all those scenes in the Austin Powers movies where we cut away to the families and drinking buddies of the latest body count, wondering what was keeping them….

Blessedly, for the first time in weeks, Expendables 3  was not in mandatory 3-D, probably because that would have been at least two more dimensions than any of the characters needed, but possibly just because the cast were trying to do as many of the effects as they could the way that they were used to, which is to say 80s style. Back in the 80s, if you wanted something to blow up, you just had to go out there with a bag of C4 and a bucket of petrol and wire it up for real, and hope that not too many people would get hurt in the excitement.

Just like its two equallystupid predecessors, Expendables 3 starts with a side-quest, has a mission gone wrong in the middle and ends in an extravaganza of property damage and collateral casualties which somehow leaves the principal cast unscratched and with an opportunity to deliver one signature more and one quip each so that everyone in the audience gets whatever they came for, or at least the best possible value from their lobotomy.

The opening romp, where they rescue Wesley Snipes from an “Armoured Prison Train”, is not a patch on the silly opener from the second movie, though they deserve bonus points for even daring to pretend that there’s such a thing as an armoured prison train, particularly in a world where it can be taken down by four idiots in a helicopter despite its armour, anti-aircraft cannons and hordes of armed mooks. Then it’s off to Somalia (the only REAL location mentioned at any time in the movie - I guess they figure the Somalis weren’t going to sue) to meet this movie’s villain, played by Mel Gibson as though he’s been wanting to do this his whole life. Somalia seems to be where the Imperial Stormtroopers recruit and train their staff before putting them in white armour, as brigades of blurry figures line up to be mown down by the Un-Expendables without so much as mussing our heroes’ hair. There’s a moment where a whole platoon of them show up in a school bus and get swept away by machine gun fire before they can do more than brandish their AKs. At that point I was wondering if anyone in Mogdishu had anything else to do but wait around on the off chance that today was the day the Un-Expendables would be passing through.

For the first time in ages, Mel Gibson is the best thing in a movie, though as with some of Tom Cruise’s better moments, you have to wonder how much of it is acting and how much of it is things was the director saying “Just be yourself.” Of course, as with most 80s movies villains, he’s somehow simultaneously a criminal mastermind, a terrible people manager and the worst strategist evar. His cunning plan for the end of the movie involves luring the Un-Expendables into a building wired with enough explosives to blow it to the moon and back. Plan B is to throw a regiment of special forces and a tank battalion at the building. Plan C; shoot your surviving minions and stomp over to the going-to-explode-at-any-minute building and challenge Sly to a fistfight. Mel couldn’t be any more 80s villain if he tried.

Apparently, there’s a bold action movie step right at the end of the movie where Arnie and Jet Li are implied to be gay partners. Hmmm. If you wanted to take our minds off the fact that pretty much everything else is just so worryingly full of <strikethrough>homo-eroticism</strikethrough> manly friendship, maybe you shouldn’t have chosen to climax in “Assmanistan”.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy; or Rocket Racoon hangs out with some other guys

Another day, another CGI-heavy Marvel slugfest. Long before this movie ever landed, I just wanted to see the racoon. The first trailer didn’t even give the racoon a line, but something told me that he was going to own the damn movie when it finally happened. 

And so it came to pass. Maybe the weirdest thing about Guardians of the Galaxy is that the CGI characters are somehow warmer and more interesting than the humans. Rocket Racoon is just the best thing Marvel ever bothered with. Groot has one line, repeatedly endlessly, and somehow he’s a warm presence all the way through the movie. And this is two actors literally phoning it in; all Vin Diesel had to do was say “I am Groot” a bunch of times and go home. Bradley Cooper did the whole thing in a looping booth. You almost have to feel sorry for all the other guys who had to show up and work up a sweat every day.

I kind of wish that the Marvel guys would learn from this; make a movie with interesting characters who feel like people and say funny things; instant hit. Explosions have been done to death. They’re boring now, because blowing things up is just the director saying “I am Groot” so loud you can’t even make the words out. Five guys bickering over whether they’ve even got a plan; there’s a million ways to make that fresh.

I don’t think my wish is going to come true any time soon, because the back half of the movie is literally interchangeable with any other Marvel movie. There’s a big flying menace which is going to destroy a big brightly lit city and so the heroes have to shoot it down, as though somehow having it fall in flaming chunks of explodium will do less damage to the landscape than letting it open fire. I have literally lost count of how often Marvel have done this, but I have bitched about it enough already. 

We watched it in 3D because they have made it literally impossible to see it in any other format. And John forgot his 3D glasses, so we got a chance to check out James Gunn’s claim that the movie had been designed in 3D from the ground up. No. I didn’t notice anything remarkable with my 3D glasses on, and John had just as much as I did with no glasses at all, because all the fun is the racoon and the other guys he gets stuck hanging out with.

Hercules; send in the ringers

Imax, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Unless you're running a cinema and you want to jack up your prices. Then it's great.

Hercules is a perfectly acceptable time passer, carried on the back of platoons of British ringers cheerfully ignoring the special effects and concentrating on making the most of their dialogue. In Imax you get the added miracle of stuff which is behind other stuff, and the occasional non thrill of things which seem to be sticking out of the screen slightly. All you have to accept for these benefits is a huge increase in ticket prices, a pair of uncomfortable glasses, and a general fuzziness in the picture. And all the nonsense which comes with trying to edit a movie so that there will be some apparent purpose to the pointless gimmick of 3D.

That aside, what's good? All the reviews are keen to make the point about how meta Hercules is. There's no magic; there's a rational explanation for everything, and Hercules isn't the son of a God, he's a good team player with a worryingly effective PR guy. And that works, though it's hard to fight the vague feeling that a cleverer director would have made it seem genuinely clever instead of just vaguely smartass.

It’s not a great movie; I didn’t come out of it wanting to watch it again later, or encourage anyone else I knew to watch it. It has some funny moments from Ian McShane and Rufus Sewell (until you see it done, it’s easy to forget how much skill is needed to sell a line like “And… we’ve walked into a trap.”), and none of it is actively awful. But in the end, for all that it’s trying to undermine the whole idea of legends, it builds to your classic flawed hero journey; Hercules has to be a fully realised lone hero and save the day somehow. If it had been true to what they were setting out to do, Hercules would have wound up trapped under something heavy waiting for someone clever to rescue him.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Joe Abercrombie: Half A King

This book is going to cause huge problems in bookshops. It’s going to be stacked high in the young adult section, and after kids have raced through it, they’ll be back in looking for the next book. Which is not going to be out for a while. So they’ll want to know if the shop has got anything else by Joe Abercrombie...

After their outraged parents have finished burning down the bookshops, I’m sure we’ll all agree that we’ve learned something important.

Coming at it from the opposite direction, I was kind of enjoying a Joe Abercrombie book with a low to middling body count and almost no actual torture. Mind you, at times I was beginning to wonder if he had written it as a bet to see just how much of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland he could tweak. The Tough Guide is a great book which would-be writers ought to read and memorise, but Abercrombie seemed to have taken the whole thing as a challenge; “Sure, those are cliches, but if you’re good enough, you can still make them work….” So there’s a teenage hero, and he’s on a quest, and he even has to be a galley slave, where of course he makes some great friends who are a huge help him to him in his quest. There’s a prince who has to overthrow a plot to dethrone him so that he can reclaim his king… and so on.

And Abercrombie, damn him, finds ways to make it all fresh. Even though there’s a lot of it which is just a kid-friendly retread of some of the hard stuff. Yarvi is a smart kid with a bad hand, kind of like a watered down Inquisitor Glokta (kids are SO not ready for Inquisitor Glokta). Nameless is so like Logen Ninefingers, I was waiting for him actually to be Logen Ninefingers. No. The Broken Sea does not cross over into the world of Abercrombie’s other books, so I still don’t know what the hell Valint and Balk think they’re up to (though Half a King continues Abercrombie’s preoccupation with money and the way in which it ought to matter in fantasy far more than most writers let it).

The next book up in the sequence, Half the World won’t be out til February of next year, which I suppose gives me time to read some of the other stuff which has piled up. I was going to say “If Abercrombie can keep it up, it will be worth the wait” but the reality is that Abercrombie has already demonstrated that he can keep chunking out gripping stuff by the yard almost at will. And this trilogy looks like it’s already pretty much sorted out in his head. So with any luck he’ll have it all in print by this time next year and can get back to his day job. 

It’s the kids I worry about. They’re not ready for the real thing. I’ve got adult friends who weren’t ready for it.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Blake Crouch: The Wayward Pines Trilogy

I can’t make my mind up about Wayward Pines, but it doesn’t really matter because Fox TV made up their mind and it’s all going to be a mini series one of these days. Which is a pretty ballsy move by Fox TV, because the three main books (there are a tonne of extra stories you can download off the internet) swerve all over the place the way that TV generally doesn’t. I’m not sure how that’s going to fit in with the usual TV model of set up an unchanging situation and just keep nursing it along until the residuals kick in.

Above all, it’s a very rapid plot. Everything happens in a month or less. There are flashbacks over much bigger chunks of time, but the main action runs very fast. At the beginning of the first book, our protagonist wakes up in a small town that he can’t find a way to get out of, and by the end of the third book he’s torn the whole place down around and killed all the bad guys and half the bystanders. In book one, he gets to find out what’s really going on in the too-good-to-be-true town; in book two, he’s co-opted by the bad guys to be sheriff and help to run the terrible conspiracy behind the whole enterprise but instead tears the whole thing wide open; and in the final book he completely fails to come up with a brilliant idea to save everyone from the chaos he’s unleashed. And that’s the whole thing; Fox TV’s bought themselves a cousin of the problem that Under the Dome hasn’t been able to solve.

All three books are just one high-concept idea; billionaire lunatic decides that the world is going to hell, so he comes up with a scheme to put a small town in suspended animation and wake them up when the world’s hopefully more to his liking. Our hero wakes up in the middle of this, since billionaire lunatic is definitely not running an all-volunteer operation; instead he’s faking car accidents, slamming people into suspended animation and waking them up centuries later in a painstaking recreation of a small Mid-West town as though it’s the day after the car crash. The whole first book is about our hero figuring this out, and Crouch does a pretty good job of keeping it confusing and creepy for most of the book. It’s not easy keeping a big reveal like that on the down low, no matter how many distractions he throws into the mix, and I was impressed by the way it was carried off; and also by the way Crouch made me feel the hero’s concussion - there’s a queasiness all the way through his scenes which gives them an extra bite.

In a sense, the first book is almost like a pilot for an indefinite series; the situation’s been set up, the basics have been explained, and now our hero can be the wacky sheriff of the wacky post apocalyptic town. It would be A Town Called Eureka, but grim, and surrounded by mutant cannibals, and run by psychos. No, wait, that sounds terrible. Crouch seems to have thought the same thing, because the status quo falls apart with impressive and bloody speed in the other two books, until there’s nowhere left to run for anyone. 

My hat’s off to Crouch to realising that there was only one way to go and no point in dragging it out, but the other two books don’t rise to the same levels of creepy angst the first one pulls off. We know what’s going on now, and without a central mystery, the essential weakness of the set-up starts to bite. Has it struck you yet that I haven’t used any character names? I finished reading the third book about three days ago, and I’ve forgotten what the hero’s name was. I can remember some of the villain names, and I can actually remember all the important character points which clutter up the hero’s personal life; I just can’t remember his name. He’s going to be played by some chiselled dark haired alpha male looking actor, and he had the kind of name a chiselled alpha male would have in a cop show, but what was it? I could look it up, but that would be missing the point.

That’s not my real gripe; I forget people’s names all the time. My real gripe is that the mad science doesn’t make any sense. Even if you buy the idea that people can be put into suspended animation for two thousand years, you still have to buy the idea that on the one hand, food supplies, petrol and I don’t know what all else can somehow last in storage for the same length of time without going off, while on the other hand buying into the idea that the entire population of human beings can die off and somehow evolve into vicious carnivorous taloned naked Morlocks prowling a depopulated North America in literal billions. In the real world, it took something like 6000 years for Tibetans to evolve slightly more efficient lungs; there has been literally no noticeable change in human morphology in the last 20,000 years. 

Still, fun while it lasted and the opening book has some punch to it.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Ben H Winters: The Last Policeman Trilogy

In a sense, almost everything is pre-apocalyptic fiction, since who knows, we could have an apocalypse any day. There’s a long tradition of books and movies which are set after the apocalypse, with everyone scrabbling away in the ruins eating off brand canned food and each other, but Ben Winters had the interesting notion of wondering what it might be like in the weeks and months just before an apocalypse, a gag which I don’t think anyone’s tried since Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. And even though On the Beach is about a bunch of people counting down the days until fallout polishes them off, in a sense it’s still after the real apocalypse, with the rest of the world already off the count from nuclear war.

The Last Policeman trilogy has the whole world waiting for the end; a dinosaur-killer asteroid is months from hitting the world, and we join Henry Palace, small town detective, as he tries to do his job in a world which has decided that life’s too short to go to work any more. Long before the big bang, civilisation is falling apart as people walk away from their dead end jobs and society just stops working, one essential service at a time. In among this slow motion catastrophe, Henry tries to solve the crimes no-one else cares about. 

It’s beautiful writing. I’m the world’s worst reader of detective stories because I really don’t care that much about whodunnit; I’m only really interested in who’s looking into it. Henry cares passionately about these crimes, but I spent the whole series of books enthralled by the way Winters brought a dying world to life, sketching in dozens of incidental characters and little details of social collapse which made the background more interesting to me than the foreground. And even Henry kind of realises this. He’s a wonderful creation, a young fogey who’s always wanted to be a cop and takes everything terribly seriously while somehow still being charming company. Henry ought to be ridiculous and absurd, but instead he has a wonderful dignity. He’s not good at his job, but in a world where no-one else is even trying any more, he’s as good as you can get.

The three books are terribly grounded; the crimes Henry investigates always seem to him to be the beginning of vast conspiracies, and then somehow peter out into life just being a mess of petty selfishness; everything in the end is ordinary, nothing extraordinary and somehow Henry sticks with it all, never faltering or thinking the less of the world or his place in it. And the final book has a wonderful subversion of that staple of detective stories. Henry has a sidekick, who can do all the sketchy things which Henry has only read about in books (and a recurring catchphrase as he demonstrates home made flamethrowers and god knows what else “Seen it done. Done it myself.”) But Cortez has his own magnificently simple reason for tagging along with Henry; perhaps the greatest beauty of the plotting in these books is that everything happens for a reason, and the reason is always simple.

And does the world end? Well, the books do. And it’s solid, and perfect and right. I’m not sure how Winters can follow this up, but if he never does, he’s still done a job he can be proud of.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; Golly, I wonder what will happen next

People are talking wildly about nominating Andy Serkis for an Oscar for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. On the one hand, it’s the absolute centre of the movie, just as it was in Rise of the Planet of the Apes three years ago. But it’s hard to decide whether it’s an extraordinary technical achievement or a genuine piece of performance, and whichever it actually is, it might spell the end of acting as we know it; if the computer can do this, why bother with new stars? Mo-cap the old ones and use the computer to make them young. Suddenly, it’s not a problem making another Star Wars movie even if Harrison Ford is in a wheelchair.

I spent a good chunk of Dawn thinking about the way that “alien threat” movies are supposed to be a barometer for what society is really scared of, and trying to figure out what Dawn was standing in for. With vampires, it’s easy; it’s all about the way in which creepy, superficially glamorous selfish individuals screw the rest of us over, and the way we’re complicit in it because we think we might just be able to Renfield our way to the top; vampire movies are about our relationship with celebrities, and dangerous elites in general. Zombies are another easy notion; vast faceless hordes, coming to ruin our communities with their incomprehensible primitive hungers. Pick your barbarian incursion, and zombies are your proxy. 

Talking apes with personalities and a history of being victimised by humans? You can map anything you like onto  the situation. In the grey corner, talking apes trying to build a civilisation from scratch; in the other grey corner, beaten down human remnants trying to rebuild some of what they lost when “simian flu” wiped out nearly everything. Throw in Iago the bonobo in the shape of Koba, scheming to start the war with the humans while the apes have still got numbers going for them, and poor old Andy Serkis’ Caesar’s got his work cut out trying to keep the peace.

But just as the end game for this series of movies is right there in their titles - it’s Planet of the Apes …. - the suspense isn’t whether there’s going to be a war, but whether it will kill anyone we’re invested in. That’s where Andy and the rest of the mo-cap crew run rings around the humans. It’s hard to figure out precisely why, though it might be as simple as Dr Johnson’s old saw about bears dancing; you’re not giving them marks because they’re doing it well, but because they’re doing it at all. Great apes have a running start with our affections; almost like us, but without the complication and annoyance that people always bring. And the ape performances build on that, making them more charming than the people they’re pitted against. By the end of the movie, it’s clear that we’ve just seen the opening skirmish in a bigger war, but I reckon most people left rooting for the apes to win. Which makes it all the more interesting to wonder who the apes are a proxy for in our world.