Sunday, 29 June 2014

Claire North: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

I’m beginning to feel like I’m on a time travel trip; between Edge of Tomorrow and X-Men: Days of Future Past and 11-22-63, an awful lot of my reading and movies in the last while has been different takes on going back in time and trying to change things. Of that whole spread, Edge of Tomorrow was the most satisfying; it’s fun, and the conceit held up throughout my time with it. Harry August is probably a better work of fiction, but perhaps because I was reading it at my own pace, the conceit started to crack about half way through. And so there I was enjoying the action but thinking that it didn’t even make sense in its own world

The gag in Harry August is that every now and then, someone is born who can remember being born before. Unlike all those tiresome people who remember a past life in which they were an Egyptian princes, Harry August’s kalachakra are people who keep being born into the same body again and again, starting out from the same place and trying to make a better life while the world around them stays more or less the same. It’s reincarnation meets the many worlds hypothesis meets video-game grinding, though Claire North is a good enough writer that it’s much better than I’ve just made it sound.

The headache, once you start to ponder it, is that kalachakra have a parallel society; all the reincarnations have figured out ways to stay in touch, passing messages and support up and down the generations by word of mouth and messages left on stones and other hiding places, each generation sending back word to the generation before of what to look for. In genre terms, they’ve created a society of benign vampires, a leisure class of immortals who live again and again in the same time, becoming ever more accomplished in each incarnation and ever more prosperous, before suffering the inevitable death and rebirth before starting again.

And North really sells it; the Cronus Club has a wonderfully lived-in feel to it. And yet. The more you think about it, the harder it is to make sense of it. The Kalachakra live every live differently; how can this not change the world around them until it alters out of all recognition? And while you can buy into the idea of one person living his life again and again, how can that sync up with dozens and hundreds of people doing the same thing? How can they all share the same sets of memories through all the resets?

This shouldn’t matter; the meat of the book is setting up Harry August, and then giving him an opponent, and then letting the war unfold. The only credible opponent for Harry is another Kalachakra, and the only credible war is for the future. And once that conflict kicks into gear, the book settles into a steady groove leading to a very satisfying pay-off.

What I find myself thinking now that I’ve had ten days to mull it over, is that the pacing is wrong. And that Harry August would have benefitted from being a longer book. The set up is as economical as it can be; we need time with Harry to see what he’s up to and how his world works. But that takes up nearly half the book, and doesn’t give us enough time in the central conflict. I don’t often argue for books to be longer, still less for trilogies, but this was one where more would have been better.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past - Time to go past, into the back

From what I can figure out, the third X-men movie stank out the room something wicked; I saw the second movie in Belgium, which was somehow more exciting than the movie, and so the third seemed very missable even before I saw that Brett Ratner was “directing” it. When the studio got their breath back and had softened up the audience with a couple of Wolverine movies, they tried to take a fresh start at the whole mess with X-Men First Class, which came out when I was in the Hidden City and ran afoul of my policy of only watching dumb movies that realised they were dumb.

This week, Days of Future Past was the least stupid non-3D movie on offer, and - largely thanks to the power of nerds on the internet - had a Rotten Tomatoes score which left us thinking “Well, there’s got to be something to this…"

Yeah. 

Let’s put it this way; if you need to see a movie this year where the plot turns on using time travel to defeat unstoppable monsters, watch Edge of Tomorrow. If you thought that the X-men series of movies needed a hard reboot from the narrative trench the first three movies had dug; great news! Days of Future Past is that movie, but unless you’re a comics geek, it’s not something you need to see, or will even get all that much out of. It’s riddled with callbacks to earlier movies and comic books; this is the echte movie that you’re going to love if you love things like this.

Which makes it all the weirder that they’ve wheeled out such star power. There are eight meat puppets with Oscar nominations trying to upstage the stunts and CGI. YMMV, but for me the one doing the best job of standing out from the clutter was Jennifer Lawrence, simply because she’s such a straightforwardly loveable actress that she can power through the makeup, stunts and terrible dialogue and still make you want to see what’s going to happen to her. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender don’t have quite as much luck, and Peter Dinklage isn’t given enough to do with his character, who is either a villain or a misguided hero depending on how you want to look at things but either way needs some space to work.

The biggest problem that X-men movies have is character clutter; the longer they go on, the more characters they accumulate, and they all need to be given time to do something. A movie doesn’t have the space for eight or ten fully realised characters, not when they have to devote half the time to stunts and plot exposition. So you wind up with directors hoping that sheer star power and acting talent can somehow wash over the set pieces everyone came to see, and OF COURSE THEY CAN’T. Don’t be stupid. When these movies have worked at all, it’s been in letting the set pieces inform the plot or the characters; there’s a wonderful bit in the second movie when Magneto makes his escape from plastic prison by scrounging iron from his guard’s blood. The stunt work is imaginative, but what makes it work is Ian McKellen at the centre of the screen, wordlessly conveying the essence of his character’s motivation; on the one hand, he’s satisfied with the sheer elegance of what he’s doing, but on the other hand there’s a creepy pleasure in his face as he finally whacks seven kinds of crap out of the people who’ve kept him locked up for a year. Days of Future Past has a really well executed open, as mutants cooperate against an unstoppable enemy, cleverly using their different powers to help each other out think and out-manoeuvre the bad guys; at the end of it I still had no idea who these guys were and not much reason to care, but I’d been impressed by their practical work. That’s the good stuff. There isn’t really enough of it. 

One thing I have to admit, however, is that the climactic stunts are smart. So many of these set pieces are just guys rubbling scenery because it looks spectacular; Days of Future Past peaks by lifting up RFK Stadium and moving it across Washington, so that it can be dropped as a cordon around the White House and give Magneto space to work on the President without interruption. It’s ridiculous and it makes no kind of physical sense, but at least the building’s being wrecked for a reason….

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

World's End: Dr Who gets pissed

I remember being quite annoyed during my exile about the way that movies would somehow drift past me because I wasn’t in the Hidden City for the rare weeks the fleapit took a break from cartoons, but missing World’s End was a complete puzzle. It was something that ought to have been there for ages, but somehow I was never in a city where it was showing, and so I never got to see the end of the Cornetto Trilogy.

Until now, and I think it might have been better for me if I’d just gone on thinking that I’d missed something great. Shaun of the Dead was a legitimately great idea with solid execution and Hot Fuzz was a little marvel, so I was pretty much expecting the last one to be something special. 

Mostly, it’s a Dr Who episode with a genuinely brave brave Simon Pegg performance wedged into it like the leg of a rusty bar stool. Simon Pegg’s Gary King is an irredeemable tool, and Pegg doesn’t pull any punches or give in to the impulse to make him anything but a complete arse. It’s as though someone had merged “Withnail" and “I" into one awful chimera with all of the drawbacks of both and none of the baroque charm of either. 

Shaun of the Dead was dedicated to giving a British take on zombie movies, and Hot Fuzz gave us a British parody of all the cliches of American buddy cop movies. Worlds End is trying to give us a British take on apocalypse/monster invasion movies, and the first place it trips over itself is that Britain’s been doing the end of the world in its own way since I was in my crib. At certain times of the year, the world ends on British TV every Saturday evening at 7. But even without that, British SF writers have been turning Triffids and god knows what else loose on the British countryside since before I was born. So weird mysterious aliens taking over a small English village in secret for sinister purposes; that tale’s been told in every way it could be told. No surprises are left. Well, who knows? Maybe this was all a big revelation for Americans.

Mind you, the SF is not where the audience’s belief is being stretched to breaking point; the big challenge is getting us to buy into the idea that after 20 years of drunken knobbery, Gary can fetch up on his old friends’ doorsteps and flannel them into going on a pub crawl with him. In real life, Gary would have shown up at the rendezvous - late - to find the place full of tumbleweeds before he rolled off to get pissed - again - all on his own. Weirdly, if Simon Pegg had chickened out and made Gary a loveable scamp who kept bringing mischief and fun into his friends’ lives at unpredictable intervals, the whole movie would have made perfect sense. But instead Pegg doggedly shows us someone who thinks that he’s a loveable crazy scamp, but is actually just a complete arse. It’s a great performance, and it completely breaks the movie.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

22 Jump Street; the sequel to end all sequels

I’ve never seen 21 Jump Street, neither the TV show nor the movie version. At the time the TV show aired, it was as though someone had read my mind and figured exactly the kind of thing I wouldn’t want to watch; when they brought out the movie as a huge joke a couple of years back, I was living in something even more ridiculous than a movie re-make of a kid’s TV show, and didn’t feel the need to partake. But the trailer for 22 Jump Street was so preposterously, winkingly, self aware that there seemed no option but to see it.

Amazingly, it’s that rare movie which lives up to the trailer. I had though they were just goofing around in the trailer, messing with the idea of how dumb and unlikely a sequel would be. Nope, that is pretty much all the good bits in the movie. They never let more than a couple of minutes go by without graffiti-ing the fourth wall like it isn’t even a thing. About to have a scene with Ice Cube; describe his ridiculous office as being like a huge cube of ice. Having another car chase two thirds of the way through the movie; spend the whole chase monologuing about how expensive it is after all the big scenes they’ve already had and how they’ve already used up the budget. And never, never, ever pass up an opportunity to have a character look straight into the camera and say “This is just like what happened the last time.” It ought to be terrible. It’s actually wonderful.

Not all of the rest of the jokes landed for me; I had a lot of those otherwise-rare moments when the whole cinema seemed to be guffawing hysterically around me and I was blinking mildly as if to say, “Well, yes, I see that this was a joke, but really….” It’s a crowd pleaser and I’m not a crowd. Who knew, apart from everyone I know?

For all serious film students, there’s one thudding moment which tells you the world’s got some work to do. Jonah Hill is a chubby schlub, but pulls the hot chick anyway. His big nemesis in the movie is a woman who’s actually better looking than he is and pretty much in his own weight class. And she does not pull the hot anything, which is one of those little constants in movies, no matter how much they labour the idea of being right on about everyone having the right to party their own way. Dumpy chicks can stay single for the moment; Hollywood doesn’t want to be thinking about that. Though she does have a mind of her own, some killer zingers and lots to do, so she’s got that going for her, which is nice.

Favourite moment; early on in the movie where the captain is working through how the best thing for Tatum and Hill to do is just do what they did the last time; everyone liked that. And Tatum sparks up cluelessly to say “What if instead we join the Secret Service and go to the White House and protect the President from terrorists?” and everyone turns around and glares at him while he shrivels up and says “Well, *I* thought it was a good idea…..” I loved him for that. 

Second favourite moment; the end credits. Where they do every sequel idea they could think of, all the way up to 40 Jump Street (cool moments include Jump Street Generations with the original TV cast, and 30-something Jump Street where Seth Rogen is swapped in for Jonah Hill while everyone says “No-one will even notice.”). Although I suspect they could probably get away with making most of them, I think they spent the day shooting those credits specifically so that they’d have an excuse not to.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Edge of Tomorrow; All You Need Is Kill

All You Need Is Kill was the title of the source novel for Edge of Tomorrow, and I hate that I live in a world where the kind of people who green light movies are also the kind of people who’d change a title like that. The wrong people are running things.

That out of the way, Edge of Tomorrow is the best Tom Cruise movie in ages, and the first good SF film I’ve seen since Gravity, though Gravity almost doesn’t count as SF given the way everyone slobbered over it. Sooner or later, SF always fails under load; there’s always something which is central to the plot and just wouldn’t work. The quality of an SF movie depends almost entirely on how long it takes you notice the stupid. These days, a movie practically qualifies for greatness if you can get to the end credits before quibbling, and just the other week I watched Godzilla blow its coolness budget during the opening credits.

In contrast, Edge of Tomorrow managed to keep me in the zone all the way to the last act, and even then it was still doing fine as SF, just not impressing me with pace and storytelling. Somehow they hit the right balance between mad ideas, over the top action and pretty decent acting, throwing them all in with the right pace and variety to keep me in the moment. Who knew you could get a summer blockbuster with brains? 

One of the lessons is that you doesn’t matter if people have done this stuff before, so long as you do it right. Powered armour? Been done. Doomed marines fighting aliens? Done before. Man repeating his life again and again? Done before. Beach invasions? Where do I start?  Write the lines, spool up the actors and maintain a good pace and it doesn’t matter if it’s not new.

Which brings me to the theme of the movie, which is all about a man who through a fluke finds himself endlessly reliving the war against inscrutable aliens. Considering that Tom Cruise went straight out of Oblivion into the production of Edge of Tomorrow, he must have wondered if the script was blurring into his real life. Or he may have wanted it that way. Just like Oblivion, Edge of Tomorrow ends with Cruise sacrificing himself to save the whole world from inscrutable aliens and then magically still getting the girl in a coda. Unlike Oblivion it didn’t feel anything like as annoying.

So, how does it all work? Well, it works by surrounding Tom Cruise with better actors, and making him start the movie as a glib smarmy creep. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much why Jerry Maguire worked, but it’s even more fun to sit Cruise down opposite Brendan Gleeson’s baggy worldweary face and have him chewed up and spat out in one wonderful scene that ought to have been subtitled “This how we feel about empty pretty people in the real world”. As always, I’m never sure if Cruise is really acting when he plays shallow self-involved jerks, but he’s so good at undercutting his apparent likeability. In one fell swoop, Cruise is busted down from empty PR flak to doomed grunt private, just in time for another star turn from Bill Paxton as his genially horrible master sergeant, taking gleeful pleasure in making sure that Cruise will be one of the first to get shredded in the doomed airborne counter-attack they’ve got planned for tomorrow morning.

Shredded he gets, and then he wakes up at the beginning and has to keep reliving the same 48 hours again and again, trying to figure out what’s happened and who can help him, and eventually how he can get off that doomed beach and do something to make a real difference to the war. Cruise does a solid job with the way that his character gets built up and worn down by the repetition, but the direction and writing are very clever, repeating just enough to give a sense of how many more repetitions must have happened, and playing around with the repetitions; sometimes showing us the first time that something’s happened to him and sometimes the hundredth. It also plays well with how Cruise gets to know the all the other characters while always remaining a stranger to them; he’s seen them again and again, but for them every time is the first time.

The best thing in the movie - for me anyhow - was Emily Blunt as the only other person who’s gone through this cycle, and so the only person who can help Cruise understand what’s happening and maybe even beat the odds. This is her second time out on time travel; she was in Looper, though I spent so much time talking about Willis and Joe that I left her out completely. In fairness, Looper would have worked without her; Edge of Tomorrow wouldn’t have. Her character is central to the whole movie, and now that I’ve seen her do it, I can’t imagine anyone else getting the job done. The big gimmick in all these endless resets is that each time you come back you know what not to do the next time; eventually, you’ve rehearsed and tried every possible move and you’re master of the world around you (until you get to something you haven’t done yet, which gives us one of the better lines late in the movie when Blunt asks Cruise “What happens now?” and he says “I don’t know. We never got this far before.”) Cruise, of course, has been running in movies since 1981, and so it’s almost ordinary to see him poised and confident and effortless; that’s Cruise setting A. Blunt more than equals his poise from the first moment she appears. Which is pretty neat. I expect Gleeson to outshine everyone, and Bill Paxton is a peerless goodhearted asshole, but it’s always good to see someone square up to Cruise and just out-charisma him. And it’s good for Cruise; give him some competition and he stops relying on green screen and star power, and shows us what he can do when he’s trying.