Saturday, 31 May 2014

Stephen Hunter: The Third Bullet

Two Stephens writing about the Kennedy assassination. It felt like a weird synchronicity that I tripped over The Third Bullet just as I finished 11/22/63, although with the 50th anniversary last year we should probably all just be grateful that every book published for the past 18 months wasn’t about JFK.

Stephen Hunter isn’t as good a writer as Stephen King, and lately he isn’t even as good a writer as Stephen Hunter, but in The Third Bullet, he starts off with the most godawful crossover of the writer into his own fiction that I ever hope to read, and showed why only Stephen King should be allowed to try it. When King injected himself into the closing stages of the Dark Tower sequence, it was jarring and dumb, but somehow I felt like he’d earned the right to do it. He’s been circling round the same narrow set of ideas and places for most of his writing life, bits of his books jutting into each other and huge chunks of his own life spearing through the main characters. King has really thought about the way readers and writers and the writer’s own experiences somehow merge together in the world of a book, and it would have been almost out of character if he hadn’t had some kind of cameo in his most personal book. Hunter….

When Stephen Hunter was just a broke gun nut writing books in his spare time for reviewing movies and doing anything else he had to do to stop his newspaper from downsizing him, I liked his books. Now that’s he’s got millions and decided that that gives him permission to throw his political opinions into his books whether they belong there or not, he no longer feels like anyone I’d like to have a pint with. And it’s not like the rest of his work is holding up well enough that he can afford to sound like a cross between a saloon bar bore and a taxi-driver with a UKIP tie.

How do I know he’s got millions? Because he goes out of his way to tell me. The Third Bullet opens with Stephen Hunter killing himself, and by the time it happens, it almost seems like a good idea.  I, Sniper starts with a roman a clef opener in which a stand-in for Hanoi Jane gets murdered after the author all but says “and served her right, the unpatriotic bitch”. That pretty much ruined the book for me, or it would have if Hunter hadn’t gone ahead and ruined the rest of it anyhow. The Third Bullet kicks that up several gears by using the same device of an opening murder of a thin disguise of a real person; the difference being that this time it’s Hunter, with literally the worst fake name imaginable; “Aptapton”. What the everloving …. ? Anyhow, he fleshes out his alter ego with a loving portrait of all the cool stuff his success has bought him and a passel of references to his various bestsellers, with plenty of fake humility about how the public hadn’t really taken to the one about killing people with motor cars. So it wasn’t just me, then. It’s just dumb and self indulgent, but what makes it terrible, lazy, smirking story telling is that Aptapton is remembering writing fictional books which we know (because, God help us, we’ve read all the Stephen Hunter books - only the devotees could possibly be reading this crap, hoping that maybe he’s got back on form) are supposed to be real events in the Swagger-verse. Now, a better writer - a King, for example - could have done something with that meta-reference. But a hack like Hunter just breaks the glaze of credibility which any novel needs, and replaces it with nothing. You need to start the ball rolling by having an elderly writer killed for looking in the wrong place for a new story? Fine. Do it. But make up some different books for him to have written.

After an opening so bad, everything else has at least the chance of being better, and there are indeed bits and scraps of what follows which made it just about worth slogging to the end. But for all that his recurring characters keep bitching about how Swagger keeps doing the same dangerous things again and again and hoping that they’ll work, Hunter doesn’t seem to be reading his own memos; Swagger just does keep doing the same things again and again and succeeding. 

The one new thing is that Hunter tries his hand at first person narrative, weaving into the text the memoirs of the villain of the piece. This doesn’t quite come off, because Hunter is trying to write in the voice of a man who is trying to write like Nabokov, and you have to be a very good writer to write someone writing badly. Or at least it’s best if you haven’t already stuffed up third person narrative in the same book. Huh? How can you get third person narrative wrong? You have to make your mind up what you’re writing; is your voice that of the writer, recounting the stuff which has happened from the outside, assisted by the knowledge of how it really was and not just how it looked? Or is your voice really that of the character, putting us inside the character’s head and only showing us what he sees and thinks. You have to choose one, and having chosen, you have to stick to it. Your voice, or the character’s voice. Hunter breaks that rule again and again, letting his own opinions seep into the narrative where they just don’t belong.

As with all Swagger-verse books, the problem in the plot is Swagger, the unbreakable hero in a world of expendable meat sacks. The older Swagger gets, the less credible his survival gets, and the harder Hunter has to work to create a scenario in which Swagger can prevail against all the odds. His incredibly powerful opponents have to construct edifices of dizzying double-think so as to create a plan which will seem fool-proof without ultimately being Swagger-proof. The ingenuity doesn’t go into Swagger’s escapes, but into thinking of a way the villains can talk themselves into being dumb enough to create something which even Swagger can escape from. The whole plot feels like that monologue the villain always indulges in so that the hero can wriggle out of his bonds. Come to think of it, maybe that’s what that whole first person section was supposed to be.

There is, rather wonderfully, a Chekhov’s gun, an actual gun which exists merely to flag the secret identity of the villain as cryptically as possible. I felt dumb for not seeing it, which is the way that kind of thing is supposed to work. Ah-ha, of course, you think. Well played. 

If I was feeling generous - and plainly I’m not - I’d say that this was an interesting revisit of the first and most worthwhile Swagger book, Point of Impact. They’re both, after all, about a plot to shoot a guy and get a patsy blamed for the shooting, and the set-up depends on  gimmicking a gun to make it look as if it’s fired a bullet from a different gun. But rather winningly, Hunter’s afterword explains that what you’ve just finished reading is the book he originally tried to write when he started Point of Impact, but which he couldn’t get to work the first time. Damned if I didn’t feel stupid at how it had never struck me that there was a critique of the Warren Commission embedded in Point of Impact. Seems so obvious now. But I’d have to say that Hunter was right the first time.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Stephen King: 11/22/63

I have complained in the past that Stephen King never uses one word if he can use forty pages of digression, but 11/22/63 still takes the biscuit. Ostensibly a novel about travelling back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination, it’s instead a novel about travelling back in time to wallow in nostalgia about small town life in the late fifties. The assassination-thwarting - and the time paradoxes which then threaten to unravel well, everything, ever, take up about the last fifty pages of the book. Which would have been fine if the book had been some kind of sane length like John Varley’ Millennium, but this is Stephen King we’re talking about, so there’s some 800 pages in front of that all about anything BUT thwarting the assassination.

I’d been sitting on the book for ages; I bought my copy - I think - in the Hidden City Sainsbury’s because it was cheap, and then it got put on hold because there was always something more inviting which wasn’t going to take so long to get through. I started reading it this year. I got through the first part, which is about 100 pages of set up for the time travel mechanism and its inevitable rules, and I could see that the second part was going to be some kind of small town schmaltz-o-drama that I wasn’t in the mood for, so I put the book to one side for a couple of months.

But here’s the thing; when I picked it up again, I could pick up from where I’d left off. King’s like that; you’re not feeling impressed by the writing, but it sticks with you; you remember his people and their predicaments. So I started back in. A couple of dozen pages every couple of days, dipping in on my lunch breaks; the book sat there like a big doorstop for months in my office, in among the books of rules and the computer manuals. I never really felt like rushing to the end, but I kept plodding on. And last week I finally finished it.

I don’t think it really works. Of course, that depends on what you think King thought he was trying to do. If he was trying to write a book about the past, with some strong relatable characters in it; well it probably works. If he was trying to write a book about the Kennedy assassination - no, it completely fails. It feels like an afterthought, for all that it’s the title of the book and supposed driver of the whole operation. If he was trying to write a book about time travel - no. A book about living in the past is not a book about time travel. If he was trying to write a book about a man who has to choose between the woman he loves and destroying the whole world; well; he aces the whole love story bit, but there’s not enough time given to the choice, and the crisis falls completely flat. Also, the destruction of the whole world includes, you know, everything, including you and the woman you love, so it’s not even a choice.

Better time travel books you can read for fun and profit:

Millennium by John Varley; even Varley’s worst book is better than most people’s best efforts, but it is his worst book, an expansion for screen play purposes of a tight little short story called Air Raid. Also, it’s less than 200 pages and has about five times as many ideas in it as all of 11/22/63

Any of Connie Willis’ time travel books, but obviously Doomsday Book 

Time and Again by Jack Finney, which would probably be the best time travel book ever if it weren’t for, well Connie Willis.

Better Kennedy assassination books? Well, I’m reading a terrible one right now. Watch this space.

The Two Faces of January; a world out of time

The Two Faces of January isn’t just a movie set in 1962; it’s a movie which feels like it was made then, and somehow kept in a sealed casket till now. And I don’t mean that they expertly captured the little tics and signifiers of the time. There have been a lot of movies recently which dived into the recent past and tried to capture its feel. No matter how well they got the look of the era, they were still modern films with a modern sensibility; to take a case in point, American Hustle evokes the 70s perfectly, but it would never have been MADE in the 70s. The Two Faces of January could have made right in the time it depicts; it’s faithful to Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel in all the right ways.

I’d have enjoyed it even if it hadn’t been very good. Half the dialogue is in Greek, and I still find spoken Greek strangely comforting. I think it’s actually supposed to make us feel uneasy and out of our depth like Chester and Colette, not knowing who they can really trust or even whether they’re being sold out by the people they’re talking to. But since I could follow all the dialogue - at least up until the action moved to Istanbul - I was probably missing out on part of the atmosphere. Didn’t matter. Had fun. Greek cheers me up.

It’s a three hander; middle aged dodgy stock dealer Chester and his younger wife Colette are in Greece on what’s either a grand tour of Europe or the slowest getaway in the history of getaways; Colette certainly doesn’t know which, but sometimes it seems that even Chester isn’t sure. They fall in briefly with Rydell, an American kid scraping along on a mixture of his savings and whatever he can scam from credulous tourists when they fall for his spiel as a tour guide and are dumb enough to let him do the negotiating with Greek traders. Rydell seems at first to be another Highsmith’s amoral young Americans wreaking heartless havoc in Europe, and I spent the first half of the movie waiting for him to Ripley Chester and Colette to an early grave. But before long Chester’s dodgy past catches up with him and they’re relying on Rydell to get them out of Greece one step ahead of a murder hunt. And it’s obvious from the get go that Rydell’s about one page ahead of them in the big book of how to get out of Greece with the cops on your tail. He’s no Ripley, and while Chester doesn’t know Greece, nor is he a helpless target. 

Clearly, it’s all going to end badly for somebody, maybe for everybody, but the tension lies in trying to figure out just how bad it’s going to get, and for who. Making all that work is down to good writing and three strong performances in the centre; the movie works because they could each of them believably go either way, towards redemption or the dark side, and the actors are good enough to make it matter which way it will go. 

One Thousand Times Good Night; White Folks Got It Tough

Sometimes everybody means so well, they completely forget that they’re doing nothing useful, and One Thousand Times Good Night is a movie about people like that, made by people like that. It’s well-acted and every now and then looks almost as good as it wants to, but that just made it more annoying. It’s a movie which wanted its audience to leave the cinema feeling furious about the injustice of the world but it just left me feeling furious about how little the movie or anyone in it was doing to address that injustice. Sure, I haven’t cured cancer this week, let alone ended world hunger or brought piece to the universe, but at least I know that I haven’t done any of that; it’s not like I think that I can talk about the problems and then sit down exhausted as though I’d somehow solved them and deserve a nice lie down and a pampering session.

Juliette Binoche is playing a photographer, who we’re told is the best war photographer ever. You should never have to tell the audience in a movie that someone is the best visual anything ever. It’s a visual medium; you’re literally never going to have a better opportunity to show us that someone is a great photographer. But instead all the side characters keep leaning towards the audience and telling us how great she is. She’s so great that she has to neglect her family and ruin her life, because without her pictures of how awful the world is, we wouldn’t know, and things would just be terrible.

There are two moments which made me want to go and kick a few people; one small, and one big. The small one is when Nicolai Coster-Waldau’s marine biologist explains to a bunch of kids that the Irish Sea is full of Plutonium and that it’s terrible because it never changes or goes away. Plutonium is terrible because it does change and go away; while it’s a handsomely poisonous heavy metal like most heavy metals, the real wallop comes from the fact that it’s slowly changing into another element and releasing huge amounts of radiation while it’s doing it. And any scientist who actually cared about radioactive pollution would know that. But a script-writer and actor who thought that the character should have a job which showed he cared about big issues - well, they obviously didn’t know about it and didn’t care either.

The big one is the big emotional pay-off at the end of the movie. Juliette’s neglecting her two young daughters, which is making them about as happy as you’d figure. Then she gets a commission to photograph a refugee camp at the same time that her older daughter is doing a school project on Africa. So she brings the daughter, and it all gets slightly threatening without anyone getting hurt. Once they’re back, the hazard turns into a vast family row and the final collapse of the family, all of which makes perfect sense. The stinker comes when Juliette sneaks in to see her daughter do a presentation at school about the trip; and the presentation is all about how her mother has to go and take these pictures because poor Africans need her more than her family does. And that’s OK with her daughter now. So Juliette’s the good guy after all.

And I’m sitting there with my jaw tangled up in the gum under my seat thinking "what the actual …. ?” We saw about twenty people getting capped in that camp, and they hadn’t been having much fun before the shooting started. Those terrible lives were a problem which needed solving, and that problem barely got a mention; all that mattered was that Juliette got to have her cake and eat it.

It’s actually a pretty good movie about two parents having a huge row because a horrible job is making everyone unhappy; Binoche, Coster-Waldau and the two kids playing the children are great. As a family drama it rings true, especially Coster-Waldau, who was effortlessly charismatic and convincing as someone who’s been living in Ireland long enough to blend in. It’s just that as the issues film it wanted to be, it’s complete bollocks, rich people moping about stuff they’re doing nothing to fix while they wallow in comfort that the rich people they really are have completely forgotten is luxury beyond the reach of just about everyone watching the movie.

The characters live in that part of Wicklow near Dollymount, in a house bigger than my neighbourhood. Juliette must be the bestest war photographer EVAR, because there’s no way that a marine biologist is pulling in enough money to pay for that house, two cars and private schools for two kids (especially a marine biologist who’s got such family friendly hours that he can drop the kids to and from school every day and still get to work - what - twenty miles? probably more - away.

It’s not an issues movie, no matter what it thinks. It’s The Hurt Locker for chicks who want to have it all.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Godzilla; stop helping

In principle all Godzilla needed to do was be better than Roland Emmerich’s New York-set mess (featuring: Bueller? Bueller? Bueller? Bueller! Chief Wiggum! Leon the Professional! Rain! More Rain! Massive Suckage!) And all right-thinking people were rooting for it since a) Roland Emmerich looking bad b) the director of Monsters c) Walter White.

Well. The best bit is the opening credits, which have probably the only bit of genuine wit in the whole movie. If you get the movie on DVD, you’re going to be pausing all the way through the opening credits to see all the extra comments they added in about everyone; they get redacted before you can take in more than the sense that they’re funny, and it’s a great notion. Enjoy it. You’re not going to need to chuckle again for the next two hours.

What’s quietly amazing is that this was Gareth Edwards’ second movie, and his first movie’s entire crew fit in a van; the crew list for this movie would barely fit in the same van, and somehow Edwards ran them anyhow. I commented when I blogged Monsters that he should have been running a medium sized country, not making guerrilla movies and it turns out I was right. But he could only shoot the script he was given, and dear god, it’s not great. Emmerich’s Godzilla is dumber in every way and yet it might have been more fun to watch.

The amazing unforced error is wasting Bryan Cranston, who is dead, dead, deadily-dead-dead before we even glimpse Godzilla. The torch passes to the actor playing his son Ford Brody, who looks like a cross between a canned ham and a drunk Joaquin Phoenix. He gets to carry the whole rest of the movie, and it’s like watching an octopus carrying worms in a string bag; you know it’s not going to work, and you know you’re not going to enjoy watching it not working. All the while you’re begging for the focus to shift to literally anyone else, but it stubbornly stays on Ford Brody, who is the carved timber Zelig of Godzilla’s universe, present for every damn thing that happens, logistics, logic, physics and sheer lack of charisma be damned.

In other corner, Godzilla his own self. It’s nice that they try to make him more than just a force of destruction, but the script can’t help trying to make him an avatar for the importance of nature. Yeah, about that. I lost count of the number of people who explained straight to camera that Godzilla, king of the monsters, is an apex predator, the last survivor of a whole bunch of huge animals who had their own ecosystem back when the world was full of radioactive materials. The climax of the movie is Godzilla fighting and destroying two other throwbacks to this weird ecology, and when he’s through killing them and laying waste to San Francisco in the process, he doesn’t even nibble on them. Apparently the Japanese complained bitterly that this Godzilla was an American Godzilla because they thought it was too fat; if you ask me, he got fat because he was eating all the wrong kinds of food. This is a monster who lives on radiation and he’s just killed two other monsters who’ve been snacking on actual nuclear warheads for the rest of the movie. Why go to all that trouble if he’s not going to eat them?

Edwards does his best with this nonsense, channelling the same stuff which made Monsters work so well; keeping the monsters not quite in shot and concentrating more on the people. And there are set pieces which stand out; a high altitude parachute drop is particularly good, with the parachutists all trailing red smoke as they plummet down into half-ruined San Francisco. On the one hand, it looks great, and on the other the smoke trails make sense; to do their job they have to stick together and the smoke helps them to stay in formation. Some of the other spectacular shots are not so smart; the good guys race to a nuclear waste storage unit to find a monster. By the time they get there, the monster has broken out of the store; by gouging out half the mountain it’s under. You’d think the helicopter escorts for the convoy might have noticed that on the way in….

Other idiocy abounds. The cool looking parachute drop is so that the good guys can defuse a nuclear bomb that they were hoping to use as bait/destruction for the monsters. The monsters love nuclear weapons, so they just grabbed the bait and took it to their impromptu nest in the rubble of San Francisco, not quite the plan. So now Ford Brody has to parachute in to find the bomb and defuse its clockwork timer before what’s left of the bay gets way bigger and more radioactive. Why bother? It’s a nuclear weapon which has been grabbed by monsters who eat nuclear weapons and crush everything they touch. There’s no way in hell the thing is going to work after they’ve got their hands on it.

Dumbest moment in the movie goes to the TV ticker at the end “King of the Monsters saves our city” says Fox news, panning over the rubble field which used to be San Francisco. A better movie would have made that sarcasm.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Sabotage; Arnie makes everything worse

If nothing else, Sabotage gave me an idea for a new Bechdel Test. Does the movie have two named female characters? Who try to kill each other in a gunfight that’s not about a man?

Sabotage is yet another retread of Training Day, the film which David Ayer can’t stop remaking. Corrupt, charismatic, hyper violent cop? Check. Somewhat more reasonable cop who spends the movie figuring out how to see through his bullshit but nonetheless winds up compromising their integrity? Check. Plot that doesn’t make any, you know, sense? Oh, yeah. Weirdly, the only thing that raises it above Ayer’s endless treadmill is that there are two comparatively interesting characters played by women. Notice, I did not say two interesting women characters. It just happened that the only people in the movie who weren’t petty dicks or rampaging testosterone driven asshats were being played by women. Or Harold Perrineau, one of several TV ringers brought in to provide some actual performances.

The best performance in the movie comes from TV veteran and part-time Cherie Blair impersonator Olivia Williams. Surrounded by platoons of shouting neanderthals, she takes the smart angle of being quiet, buttoned down and intelligent, making her simultaneously unique in the movie and the only character anyone in the real world would want to have a drink with. She doesn’t make her appearance until about half an hour into the action, and within five minutes I wanted the previous thirty minutes back, and the whole movie to be about her and her partner, Harold Perrineau, wisecracking their way through an irrational outbreak of mass murder in Atlanta. 

Instead it’s a movie about Arnie’s larger than life DEA special operations team, who are pretty much an all-American death-squad. From the get-go we’re sold them as a team of elite operators who just get the job done, damn it, but in reality they’re smallpox in combat boots, the living embodiment of the cliché that when all you’ve got is a hammer, everything better be a nail. We meet them “raiding” a drug cartel money laundering operation and trying to help themselves to a share of the cash on hands; the rest of the movie is about the fall out. First there’s an enquiry about the missing money (the perfectly reasonable question of how the hell anyone would ever know laundered money was missing after Arnie exploded the whole cash pile is magnificently overlooked), and then there’s an outbreak of massively over the top murder as someone - someone, I tell ya - retaliates for the theft. It’s Olivia Williams’s unhappy lot to have to pick up the pieces as one team member after another gets schwacked as horribly as possible. I was guessing that the guys who got killed earliest were the ones with the best agents, but that was because I thought Max Martini was Aaron Eckhardt, who thankfully had nothing to do with the project after all.

There’s some good action set pieces - including the gunfight of sorts between Olivia Williams and Mireille Enos, also slumming from a TV show - but casting Arnie just wrecked any chance the movie had of being interesting. Arnie takes up too much space, and doesn’t have it in him to play any kind of ambiguity - or in his personality to play a character who turns out not to be a tortured hero. Giving him a role meant it was going to be an Arnie vehicle, and damn the point of the movie or any sense of balance among the various lunkheads on offer. Giving the role to someone like Michael Chiklis could have made a truly electric movie. And probably one with a better profit margin, since it would have been a better movie for a fraction of the price of Arnie.

In good news, it’s that rare movie in which almost every annoying character gets killed horribly, and the nicest people are still alive at the end of it. I think we’re supposed to be upset that Arnie dies at the end, nobly murdering a whole bunch of people for revenge that he could have got much more simply if he was a fraction of the badass he’s held out to be, but I was thinking well, at least there are slightly fewer assholes in the world. And, if I’m honest, I was also wondering whether they’d show cigar smoke coming out of the three or four sucking chest wounds he fetched up with. A Luc Besson movie would have paid attention to details like that.