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.