Sunday, 30 March 2014

Mick Herron: Slow Horses

Slow Horses is trying hard to be unsentimental and buck the cliches, but can’t quite manage it. It’s still great fun; one of those books you read in a sitting because you’re enjoying it too much to stop. If Mick Herron has a weakness, it’s that he’s not as good at dialogue as he thinks he is, so that in some of the long exchanges, I had to keep going back to see who’d said what I’d just read. 

The idea is a great one; cook up a dingy office full of spies who’ve screwed up and been put out to pasture, and then throw a problem at them. That’s almost a one sentence pitch for a tv show, right there.

Would it be any good as a TV Show? Hard to know. Herron’s good at characters; they’re nicely sketched in and have life and heft to them. Get the right director and a good cast, and it ought to run itself. Slow Horses often reads like the feature length pilot for a show which would be great in England and terrible in America. I wanted to know more about the characters and what they did next, which is a pretty good start on a tv show, just as it is a pretty good start on a series of novels. 

Where Herron misses his ball, I think, is not following through on his no-hugs-no-learning mission statement. The staff of Slough House are supposed to be screw-ups who are beyond redemption, but the plot gives them a shot at redemption and lets it almost work. They’re also supposed to be insignificant, so it’s a bit annoying when one of them turns out to be special after all. I’m not sure if the book would have been as much fun if Herron had followed him logic all the way through, but I have a picky insistence that when a writer tells you he’s going to do something, he should stick to the plan.

Still, I had lots of fun. I loved it that the main character has a terrible name and we’re told repeatedly how stupid everyone else thinks it is. I liked Herron’s tricksy reversals of perspective, even though a lot of them wouldn’t work at all anywhere but the printed page; an author can cut away from the action and leave things undescribed, but TV and movies have an unblinking gaze. Still there are other tricks which TV can use to the same end, even when we’ve come to expect them.

There’s a new book out as of last year, Dead Lions. Can’t quite afford it, but when it get cheap it’s on the priority list, and in the meantime maybe someone in TV land will make it all into a mini series. It would be brilliant.

Andy Weir: The Martian

The Martian isn’t a page turner; I found myself putting it down again and again in the week it took me to read it. Not because it was so thought-provoking that I had to take some time to ponder what I’d just read, but because the cliffhangers made me want to take a break and do something else. Every forty or so pages, something else would go wrong, and I just didn’t feel like finding out what it was for a while. Lots of books you just rush through in an effort to find to what’s happening next; The Martian’s that odd one where you don’t want to know what’s going to happen next, in much the same way that some TV probably works better if you have a whole week between episodes to wonder what’s coming, and to decompress from the world of the show so that the next time you dip in, it still seems fresh and clever.

The book itself is so simple and linear that it seems almost like a throwback to the fifties; protagonist gets stranded on Mars when a NASA mission goes wrong, and struggles to survive until he can somehow be rescued. The elevator pitch would have been Robinson Crusoe. In Space! and you could have sold it any time between Jules Verne and the death of print.  All that would have differed would have been how frank the dialogue was and the practical specifics of space travel; Weir is grounded about how cramped and difficult astronaut life can be, in a way which never occurred to our wide-eyed forebears. In the Golden Age, everything worked on slide rules and space ships were as roomy on the inside as space itself was on the outside. Today we’ve got a better understanding of just how unyielding the physics is; there’s no room for comfort in space; there’s barely room for people at all.

Trying to save Mark Watney, our intrepid hero, winds up risking another five lives and costing uncountable sums of money, a problem which is only addressed in the very last paragraph of the book. Which is also very 1950s; today’s SF writers would be more likely to make the whole book about whether it was worth spending that kind of money to save a single life, or at the very least would have made more of the idea that saving a single life could bring real benefits by getting so many people to work together. But for the most part, Weir is focused on solving each of the practical problems which come up, one after the other, for the survival and rescue. It’s, I suppose, a very manly book. There’s not much thought about how people feel, and a lot of thought about “Have you tried doing this?” 

And after a while, that doesn’t feel like quite enough in an otherwise well-written book. As each practical problem came up, I’d stop reading for a bit, because inevitably there would be a solution to that practical problem, and then another one would come up. There wasn’t very much variety from that rhythm. Weir’s Watney is good company as he tries to joke himself from one crisis to the next, but it’s only now, as I sit and think about what to say about the book, that I appreciate that he’s almost as much of a cipher as the side characters. He’s busy, and we see him being busy, and we get a sense of what he’d be like to work with, but as the book ends, we still know almost nothing about him beyond how he responds to the parade of disasters which comes his way. He is the quintessential everyman hero of early Robert Heinlein; indomitable, dauntless, inventive and knowledgeable, but somehow not there at all as a person.

The Martian was a 21st century overnight success, by which I mean that it started out as something self-published on the internet three years ago and then got a proper book deal and enough exposure that I bought a copy. But it probably didn’t need a book deal so much as it cries out to be made into a movie; it’s got everything a movie needs; resourceful protagonist, endless setbacks to be overcome and a high octane climax full of relentless, risky improvisation. And a movie wouldn’t be bothered at all by the lack of depth to the characters; everyone in the book has just enough to make for easy casting. So expect a movie. And if they can get the right guy for Mark Watney, expect a good one. The Martian is camera ready.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The Zero Theorem; Kafka, on acid, in the future

Not for the first time Terry Gilliam has set out to answer the question “What if Franz Kafka did ALL the drugs?”. The Zero Theorem doesn’t make any sense, and the challenge is to figure out if Gilliam meant it to feel that way or just couldn’t help himself. When it was over, I turned around to John and said “Should we have gone to Need for Speed after all?” “That might have been good or just a pile of crap, but it would have been just another movie. This…."

Well, yes. I’ve seen most of Gilliam’s movies, with the notable exception of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (I don’t count not seeing Tideland, because nobody saw Tideland). Pretty much, they’re all great looking messes. Gilliam excels at thrown together grotesquerie, every scene an exciting, busy heap of distractions, but what works for framing a scene doesn’t work building a story. Sometimes he gets good enough actors and enough pushback from everyone else that the film comes together despite him; then you get something like Brazil, or Time Bandits, or Twelve Monkeys: all unmistakably Gilliam and yet with a spine running through them which keeps you trying to follow the story rather than just enjoying the scenery. Or it can all go magnificently pear-shaped and you get The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen, which has some of the most beautiful scenes Gilliam or anyone else has ever done, none of which have anything to do with anything else happening in the movie.

Zero Theorem is off towards the messy end of things; scene after scene of trademark intricacy, all adding up to - well it’s hard to know. Easily the weirdest decision in the movie was to cast the hyper articulate and benignly sinister Christoph Waltz as the inarticulate, well-meaning protagonist. Of course Waltz is a brilliant pro and nails it, but that just means the centre of the movie is a plausibly unlikeable nutcase surrounded by grotesques, caricatures and one Manic Pixie Dream Girl. There’s no-one to root for, and while you’re not caring what happens to them, you’re not understanding why it’s happening.

Leth is an obsessional shut-in waiting for a phone call which he’s convinced will explain everything. He works for Man-Com, a vast technical conglomerate which looks like Google re-imagined by BF Skinner on Adderall; employees sit at tiny workstations working consoles like Bop-Its while pedalling frantically for no apparent reason. Management takes him away from all that and lets him work from home at solving the Zero Theorem, which seems to be a mathematical proof that everything adds up to nothing. Wackiness ensues, but hell if I could figure out whether Leth ever solved the Theorem, or got his phone call or figured out the secret of everything. After a while you’re not watching it to see what happens next, but to see what’s happening now; what strange piece of re-imagined technology is about to show up and confuse us even further? 

It’s not a great Gilliam film. Almost everything in it was done better in Brazil; the off-kilter dystopia, the protagonist looking for an escape in his imagination, the girl who might be just a figment of that imagination, the final refuge in dreams, the parade of terrible distractions amid awful people - it’s all there in Brazil, and in a film which hangs together better. But even a bad Gilliam film is doing things you won’t see anywhere else; if you’ve seen any of his other stuff and it’s spoken to you at all, Zero Theorem will scratch an itch that nothing else would.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel; L'Air de Panache

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a simply delightful film; I defy you to sit through it all the way without gradually breaking into a smile which will then stay on your face till the credits. Somehow Wes Anderson has the knack of making something utterly whimsical without slipping over the edge into nausea. He also seems to have the loved ones of half Hollywood locked in a - presumably just darling! - basement someplace, because his movies are so studded with star cameos that a grenade lobbed casually into the production cafeteria would more or less depopulate the Oscar ceremony.

Ralph Fiennes carries the whole show, miraculously making M. Gustave a heart-warming luvvie when everything about him ought to scream debauched scumbag. When Adrien Brody sends his heavies to schwack M. Gustave on the pretext that he’s a fiend who takes shameless advantage of lonely old rich people, he’s objectively completely in the right; just immeasurably less charming than Ralph. Backing M. Gustave up loyally is Zero Mustafa, played by a complete unknown  except when he grows up and is played by F Murray Abraham. Amazingly enough, despite looking less like F Murray Abraham than I do, or even than Scarlett Johansen does, Tony Revolori has got enough charisma and native wit to be completely convincing as someone who is going to grow up to look and sound just like F Murray Abraham.

Fiennes has to overcome not only the immense problem of a character who’s one waffffer thin mint from a complete monster, but also the challenge of standing out against the background. The movie is, after all, not called the Adventures of M. Gustave, even though that’s what it turns out to be. It’s called The Grand Budapest Hotel, and from the get go, the set designs are in a battle to the death with the actors for the undivided admiration of the audience. And they are magnificently, loopily, determinedly ridiculous. The Hotel is a vast pink confection in the middle of nowhere, accessed by funicular railway - I immediately started to wonder how they handled food deliveries. It’s the most important set in the movie, but there’s also a dementedly vast prison, a schloss, and a mountain top observatory cum monastery cum Winter Olympics arena jostling for the eye candy prizes. The Winter Olympics arena gets the second best action scene, a goofy chase with skis and a sledge which ought to end in disaster and inevitably does. The best action scene is a chase and shoot out back at the hotel which is almost but quite the climax of the movie.

In reality, Mittel-Europa between the wars was as whimsical and cheery as a typhoid epidemic, but somehow Anderson manages to keep his light and fluffy tone while still giving you a sense of the menace and unaccountability that trundled around as minor-league fascism bubbled to the top in nearly every state between Germany and Russia. 

Fun stuff; Saoirse Ronan is adorable, of course. Edward Norton is poised and intelligent as the last half way honest official left in Zubowka, and has a great moment riffing on Tommy Lee Jones’ iconic “every out house dog house …” speech from The Fugitive. Jude Law WILL look just like Tom Wilkinson when he grows up, and in the meantime was absolutely born to play useless, neurasthenic, pseudo intellectual tosspots. Jeff Goldblum - and I never thought I’d say this - was put on this earth to play possibly shady Central European lawyers, and should never do anything else again. The big shoot out reminded me of the preposterous shootout at the Guggenheim in The International but probably cost less than the catering for either movie.

And towering above it all, M. Gustave; pathetic, greedy, unscrupulous, neurotic and self-absorbed and somehow absolutely magnificent; not a hero despite himself, but someone who was a hero while still being an utter cad in his spare time. 

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Glen Duncan: The Last Werewolf

Vampires being as played out as they are, and zombies being dead on their feet, it seemed like time for me to check out the state of the art in werewolves. Or at least it did about two years ago, when I bought Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf. It sat in the pile ever after, because once I’d read about ten pages it became clear to me that Duncan thought he was better than all those other writers, and even worse, that he was better than all those readers. I didn’t have a pressing need to be condescended to at the time, so I read other things, and no doubt I would still be reading other things were it not for my decision that I needed to read at least some of the pile before I bought anything new to add to it.

Years ago, when I saw Se7en for the first time, I said something to the effect of it being like getting an all-expenses-paid gondola ride around the Paris sewer network; no matter how well you present a thing, it has to be something people would have wanted to see in the first place. The Last Werewolf has a couple of versions of that problem; on the one hand, no matter how good the writing, most people don’t want to spend their time hanging out with brooding nihilists, and on the other hand, the writing that can make sex interesting to read about it doesn’t exist yet. The fact that Duncan’s a goodish writer actually makes the brooding nihilism worse; Duncan’s good enough to make you appreciate just how big an asshole his protagonist is. 

Still, I stuck with it, though it must have taken me three weeks to finish the damn thing. It’s a mark of the overall quality of the writing that I could keep coming back to it without forgetting my place; it’s a mark of the confoundedness of the whole book that I was in no mad hurry to come back at all.

What goes wrong? Well, a lot, starting with Duncan’s urge to eat his cake and still have it; mocking genre conventions and then using them anyhow is all very well and good when you show some fondness for what you’re mocking, but the abiding tone of the whole operation is scorn. There’s a huge pacing problem; too much time is spent faffing about in angst and there isn’t enough time left to tackle the big reveal in the final act. The economics of the book’s world made my head hurt; the creatures of the night have effectively unlimited resources and so do the people who hunt them, but it’s never really clear how they get bankrolled. Duncan’s werewolf lives the life of Reilly, but it’s hard to see how he could be under any meaningful threat if he had reliable access to the kind of money that’s being tossed around casually; and it’s impossible to see how his opponents could afford the manpower to keep showing up at just the inopportune moment again and again. It’s all like something on TV, and not the good kind of TV either.

There are two sequels, and I don’t know how I feel about that. Most of the characters in this book are not going to feature in a sequel, what with the fact that only two of the book’s cast survive the climax. While that might seem like a promising start, the two which do make it were the two who annoyed me the most, so I can’t see them being added to the pile any time soon.

And now, back to the pile. There must be something good in it.

Dave Hutchinson: Europe in Autumn

After I’d read a few pages, I was asking myself how someone I’d never heard of could be writing as though he were Alan Furst writing science fiction in his spare time. Turns out, when I checked on line, that Dave Hutchinson’s older than I am, which explains the style and the sense of experience that informs it, but goes nowhere near explaining how it’s taken this long for a publisher to notice him.

Europe in Autumn would have interested me even it had been badly written, because I’m a sucker for books about Europe falling apart. Getting that and good writing made me check religiously to see what terrible thing was about to happen to keep my karma properly balanced. Then I went to see 300: Rise of an Empire to be on the safe side. Hutchinson’s a good raconteur, so much so that you hardly notice that the first half of the book doesn’t even seem to be about anything; it’s a collection of anecdotes connected only by the protagonist and the abiding sensibility of the book. Yes, nothing’s happening, but it’s happening in such a beguiling way that you’re content to sit there reading another chapter, not to see what happens next, but for the pleasure of the company.

Perhaps because the first half is so leisurely and directionless, it feels almost abrupt and rushed when the plot finally kicks in. Normally I’d be arguing for vicious editing and chopping back of the early stuff to give the plot itself some room to breathe, but the early stuff is just too well written to cut; for once in my life I find myself wishing that instead there’d been more room in the back half - I suppose it would have become the back two thirds - so that the plot development could match up to the pace of the buildup.

So what’s it all about? It’s about getting by in future Europe. At some indeterminate point in the future, economic reality, a flu epidemic and the global war on terror have collectively refractured Europe; not only has the EU fallen apart, but the constituent states have fragmented as well. Every split we could anticipate now has happened, but wonderfully Hutchinson realised that once a country started to fall apart and people saw some other group going it alone, there’d be no end to the impulse to act on the precedent, and you’d wind up with the Independent People’s Republic of Cork in no time.

Into this mess wanders Rudi, who just wants to be a chef, but speaks too many languages to be overlooked by the people making a living out of a world with so many borders - and so much of a need to get across them. He slowly gets drawn into the Coureurs du Bois, who are either organised crime or a resistance movement or something else again; explaining just what gives away too much of the plot.

The pleasure of the book rests in the writing; Hutchinson sketches in characters you want to spend time with, and has a knack for writing about ordinary things in an engaging way. Along the way, he chucks out wonderful ideas like they were no big deal; there’s a deadpan account of the creation of The Line, a transnational railway which declared itself to be its own country as soon as it finished construction, and an offhanded approach to plausible but cool technology, which is waved in when it’s convenient, but never allowed to overwhelm the plot or the people. 

As I ponder that, I realise that what Europe in Autumn is most like is some farfetched collaboration of Alan Furst and William Gibson, something which I would never have thought possible or even worth doing, but which turned out to be just perfect. The good news is that the book ends in a way which makes me think there might be a sequel; the bad news is that it took a long time for Hutchinson to get this far, and there’s no way to tell if he can produce something else this good any time soon.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

300: Rise of an Empire; presented in StupidVision

Well, Imax, but they ought to call it StupidVision, because paying €5 extra for an Imax version of something as idiotic as 300: Rise of an Empire should come with a free tattoo to tell everyone you need help with long words. Imax even has a bombastic intro for itself, about how it’s going to engage and impact you, and I started to worry that we’d selected ourselves for processing into Soylent Green, on the perfectly reasonable basis that society wasn’t going to miss anyone stupid enough to be in this cinema for this movie.

Things in 300:RoE which have no basis in historical fact; everything. Athenians did not fight in skirmish order with swords. People don’t take their helmets off in the middle of sword fights. You can’t hide a horse in a trireme, and even if you could, you can’t gallop it OFF a trireme and into combat, not that Athens had much of a cavalry arm in the first place. Xerxes was not nine feet tall. Persians didn’t use crude oil in warfare. And most importantly of all, ancient Persia did not have fishnet stockings, so Eva Green shouldn’t have been wearing them in the final sword battle, and for that matter, if they’d been doing the sword battle properly, I wouldn’t have been bored enough to notice she was wearing fishnets.

Things which are kind of cool; Il Doctore from Spartacus has a completely wordless bit part and classes things up considerably while simultaneously reminding you that Starz made a much better loincloths and gore show for about the same money as 300:RoE spent on Eva Green’s fishnets. Eva Green, fishnets or not, is kind of awesome despite everything. Somehow she even makes the terrible dialogue sound less terrible, which is more than anyone else can say. Coming in in second place is Lena Headey, who can’t save the dialogue but at least sounds cool as she slogs through it. Joint eleventy millionth place is held by all the other actors, who divide their time between flexing, jumping and growling out he-man platitudes as if they’re reading from crayoned cue cards that they’re having to squint to focus on. In the challenging role of Testikles, sorry, Themistokles, Sullivan Stapleton has more dialogue than the rest of the men put together and gives it all the power and passion I used to put into my efforts at conversational German.

Stuff that only makes sense in Zack Snyder world; “We can’t beat their tactic of sailing in circles!” wail the Persian admirals, whose ships work best when they ram the sharpened bows into the sides of their opponents ships, while their opponents sail in circles showing them nothing but their sides. Eva Green starts chucking them off the sides of their ships with lead water wings, reasonably enough. I couldn’t understand why the naval battles were taking place during an unprecedented level of tsunami activity in the Aegean, but then we got a night scene where the moon filled the entire horizon, so I realised that in Snyder times, the moon was so close to the earth that tides were a couple of minutes apart and three hundred feet high, so of course the waves were all over the place.

Things which were senselessly stolen from better terrible movies; Testikles' naval cavalry charge was done better in The Lone Ranger, leading to perhaps the first ever use of the phrase “done better in The Lone Ranger” so 300:RoE has that going for it. Also nicked; men running around in just their underpants and no armour with cloaks billowing in the wind; Original 300, which is terrible, but better terrible than this was. Though in an effort to make you feel like you were getting something new and different rather than a recycling of the stuff from the first movie, the Athenians have BLUE cloaks. And kilts.

Because the actual Zack Snyder was busy making Stupidman, the actual directing, if that’s the word I’m looking for, fell to some other dude whose name I forgot immediately. There’s no way to tell if using actual Zack would have made it better, or so much worse that it would have been fun. I’m not dumb enough, however, to think that the music would have been any better either way. 

The whole movie was made in Bulgaria, traditionally such an enemy of Greece that there’s still a street in Athens named in honour of King Basil the Bulgarslayer; it’s anyone’s guess whether this will improve international relations.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Non-Stop; Shakes on a Plane

If you have to watch Non-Stop, you should watch it in a cinema in Ireland so that you can listen to the whole audience break its heart laughing two thirds of the way through as a frantic talking head on American TV gibbers that no-one knows anything about Liam Neeson’s character. “He’s from Northern Ireland! He could be in the IRA!” Yeah, right.

Until Steve Buscemi takes over from Bruce Willis in Die Hard 6: Escape from Elba, Liam Neeson’s got an unshakeable lock on the title of most unexpected action movie hero EVAR. It all seems inevitable now that we’ve had time to get used to that lanky frame and craggy face contemplating the need for some beatdowns, but for the older generation Neeson was a brooding soulful presence, even in hopped up travesties like Michael Collins, rather than someone growling out threats before killing everything in a ten block radius.

Non-Stop is one of those movies where you spend your time thinking about other movies set on aeroplanes and ranking it against them. There’s something irresistible about putting a movie on a plane; right there and then you’ve got your unities of time place and action nailed; everyone’s stuck in the same tube and it all has to happen in the space of a few hours because we all know that aeroplanes can’t stay up there all day. Unfortunately, it seems to be nearly impossible to squeeze even a button of sense onto the plane to join the cast. Aeroplane movies never make any sense. The good ones have the sense not to try, although Snakes on a Plane demonstrated that you can take not trying too far.

Non-Stop has an impressively bonkers set up; Bill Marks, drunk, washed-up air marshall has to find the mysterious passenger who’s threatened to kill someone on the plane every 20 minutes unless he gets paid bin loads of money. Who is the villain? Who can he trust? Can he really trust the people he thinks he can trust? Which of all these people we vaguely recognise from TV shows could possibly be the bad guy, and which of them just looks like the bad guy? Is Bill Marks the bad guy? Everything’s pointing to it. So much everything that of course he can’t be the bad guy (plus, it’s Liam Neeson, and he’s kind to small children!). Unless that’s what we’re supposed to think….

It all falls apart in the usual way in the last act, as aeroplane movies always do. It’s very like Flightplan in its insistence on the notion that there’s a main character who thinks they’re at the centre of a complicated plot but can’t get anyone to believe them. It’s a bit like Redeye in its reliance on a menacing and crazy Irish person who’s way too good of an actor for the role. It’s a bit like Downton Abbey in its reliance on Lady Mary to explain the plot to everyone else.

Here’s a top tip for the next time you’re stuck in a aeroplane with a bomb and you have half an hour to do something with the bomb. Plastic explosive can be cut quite easily with even airline cutlery. And left to itself, it’s harmless. If your cunning plan to deal with the otherwise undefusable bomb is based on the idea of covering it with luggage to dampen the blast, consider just trimming off as much plastic as you can. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone try this, but it’s easily less nuts than what Liam Neeson actually tries...