Saturday, 25 April 2015

John Wick; This; this is how you do it, Run All Night.


John Wick is a really good terrible movie. Which is harder than people think.

To understand what’s been done here, you have to go back to a different movie;  Run All Night. Both feature a hit man who’s fed up and living in a slump. Both feature that same hit man being messed about by his former boss’s kid, and having to kill pretty much the entire criminal population of a big city. And both are about awful people killing each other. But John Wick is a satisfying action movie where Run All Night was an action movie without the sense to realise it should have been a claustrophobic noir drama.

What makes the difference? Well, you’ve got to know when to use an actor. Keanu Reeve isn’t an actor, exactly, but if you surround him with actors, you can get some fun stuff. John Wick is full of ringers. Ian McShane has a cameo. Lance Reddick has a cameo. Willem Dafoe is there. It just goes on and on. But the moment that makes the point about acting comes very early; Michael Nyquist rings a henchman to find out just why that henchman has punched out his eminently punchable son. “Because he stole John Wick’s car and killed his dog.” “Oh” says Nyquist, and in that one syllable we know everything that’s going to happen next; how deadly John Wick is, and how disappointing Nyqvist’s son has always been.

In the role of eminently punchable son, Alfie Allen shows up as pre-op Theon Greyjoy, and actually out-Theons himself. At this point, Alfie Allen’s best shot for ever playing anything but arseholes probably rests on plastic surgery and perhaps emigrating to a planet which doesn’t have HBO, so I suppose he might as well leave on the horrible wispy beard and embrace his destiny. 

John Wick plays out in a weirdly heightened reality in which high level crime has its own hotel-cum-UN, and everything of importance is paid for with Oreo-sized gold coins. It’s like a colourised Sin City in which the entire cast has decided to play just straight enough to make it all believable instead of transparently ridiculous, and these are all, in case I’m not being clear, good things. Action films are essentially idiotic, and there’s a trick to pitching the world just idiotic enough that the action seems organic to the reality. John Wick's world is just enough over the top that John Wick’s impressive set of skills seem credible instead of cartoonish. Making that work is mostly down to the playing; MacShane, Nyquist, Reddick, Allen and everyone else are quietly selling the world with every understated line.

So the action works. The centrepiece is John Wick chasing his quarry through the Red Circle night club, an extended shoot-em-and-beat-em-up which runs like someone saw the hammer fights in Raid 2 and Oldboy and thought it would be more fun to do them with guns and three floors full of targets. They were right, and even more amazingly, they pulled it off.

The movie is allegedly going to be a franchise trilogy; given that John Wick kills pretty much everyone else, I can’t wait to see what’s left for him to kill next time.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Kameron Hurley; The Bel Dame Apocrypha

Things which happen in writing SF; you cook up a great idea for a world, but you can’t figure out what’s happening in it. Or you come up with a cool invention which would change the world and you can’t think of a way of showing us the changes. In the so-called Golden Age of SF, writers would plonk the toy in the middle of the page and describe just how it worked by having their characters operate every control by hand. Because we lived in caves in those days and didn’t even know how to cook our own food, we all just went wow and wished we could have one of them in every house. We had to wait for Bill Gibson to kick over the tables and point out that when characters in ordinary books got on a bus, they just got on a bus and went places; we did’t get a blow by blow of how buses worked and what was involved in paying the bus driver. Neither did anyone make a phone call by picking up the handset and working the dial one number at a time like some kind of autistic savant. Good points, Bill. Why they weren’t blindingly obvious to everyone up to then is something for the next generation to ponder.

Kameron Hurley got the Gibson memo; everything on Imayma works on back of mutated insects, and at no point does anyone bother to explain how the hell that’s possible, let alone the detail of how it works. There’s bugs, and they make stuff happen. Don’t dwell on it. And she’s cooked up a great world - I’m not sure I buy the notion of a Caliphate run by women, but Hurley knows that once you’re on any road out of the ordinary, the correct position for the gas pedal is all the way through the floor. Imayma’s a world with genuinely jumbled up gender roles, and once Hurley has her lines drawn, she stays inside them. The problem in making a world run by women is what to do with the men; Hurley’s great idea for that problem is to grind them all up in a war, and keep the war going so long that women drift from picking up the slack on the home front to just plain running everything. Not that any of this is explained; these characters live in the world they’ve got, and they don’t need to explain it to themselves or anyone else. And the logic of women running things and men all being crammed into the front is carried through properly; gender politics and roles are broken in a way which feels just like any society coping with change. Contrast that with something like Robin Hobbs, who writes about a fantasy world in which women can join the army or run countries, but everyone has a conniption fit at the idea of a fallen woman. Nah. If women can fight, society’s not going to be able to keep them stuck in the kitchen.

So, nicely bonkers tech and a genuinely weird society which makes internal sense. And Hurley writes well. Them’s the positives. Not quite so good; the stories. The characters are strong, but hard to root for, particularly the protagonist, Nyx, who is way off on the anti end of the anti-hero scale. And the plots - most of the time it feels less like plotting and more like stuff happening to people until nearly everyone’s dead and someone wanders in to explain that this was all just a small part of a much larger scheme that the characters will never understand. I was reminded, somewhat, of the chaotic nihilism in Richard Morgan’s fantasy work, though I think Hurley is doing something very different and very much more principled and right in her assault on the conventions of genre writing. Morgan seems to be saying “Look at this and how bold I can be.” where Hurley is saying “Look at this, and think about the world you’re in.” 

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

FF7; The Stath and the Furious

All the reviews keep talking about how diverse the cast of the Fast and the Furious movies are, so I got a nice moment of “What now?” when Dom takes Mia to a car meet called “Race Wars”. It’s a wonderfully tone deaf moment; I don’t know what they were thinking. These are not movies which do sarcasm or winks to the audience; one of the things I’ve liked about them is how sincerely stupid they are. These are movies which understand that once you’re into the world of fantasy, you can never waver. You can carry the audience into amazingly dumb places, laughing all the way, so long as you never admit there’s a problem. 

But like so much else in the movies, blink and you’ve missed it. Dom and Mia are at Race Wars so that they can do a quarter mile drag race surrounded by slapperiffic women in bikinis, as all Fast and Furious movies are obliged to do. Then we get down to the serious business of chasing the McGuffin. Don’t ask why there’s a McGuffin. There’s always a McGuffin. I liked it better when they just stole boat loads of money.

This week’s McGuffin is a computer gizmo the size of a car key which somehow magically lets any computer connect to any device on the planet and track any person in the world by picking up their picture and their voice. I’d like to think this is impossible, but my youngest nephew will probably have one on his key ring by time he has a driving license. It’s basically a plot coupon; if Dom and the gang can get hold of it, they can use it to track down Dick Hard, I’m sorry, I meant Deckard Shaw, which brings me to the whole point of even being in the cinema.

It’s only the Stath, innit, in a Fast and Furious movie. I was cautious in my optimism about this when I first realised this was a thing which was going to happen, but still, the Stath bashing things up? I wasn’t going to skip that. He gets a great opening scene, paying a hospital visit to his injured brother (Luke Evans, completely in a coma, career best performance); after two minutes of emoting about the importance of brotherly love, the camera pulls back to show that the Stath has pretty much destroyed the hospital to get his family moment, and honestly the whole rest of the movie struggles to keep up with that opening.

Dom and the gang put the Stath’s brother in a coma, so he’s going to wreak furious vengeance upon them. This won’t do, so Dom and the gang need to get ahead of him and wreak a whole bunch of vengeance on him. Also in the mix; Kurt Russell as an unusually benign CIA skunkworks mastermind and Djimon Hounsou as the world’s best-equipped terrorist. Kurt is magnificent, of course; Djimon seems to be conducting an internal monologue “What would Morgan Freeman do there?” They’re fun and all, but the Stath is a more than adequate challenge all on his own; while Dom and the lads need to hunt down impossible technology to have any clue where their quarry has got to, the Stath shows up without fail right in the middle of EVERY caper the gang tries to pull.

The big chase in the middle is a perfect example of what these movies do best; it’s ridiculous, it doesn’t make any sense, and it’s still huge silly fun. To get the McGuffin, they have to get a prisoner off a bus driving through Azerbaijan. My heart goes out to the writers who have to come up with the increasingly convoluted explanations for why the only way to solve a problem requires a platoon of fast cars, but not to the extent that I’m going to risk brain damage by repeating them. The gang parachute half a dozen cars onto a remote mountain road so that they can catch the bus and its escorts unaware. Because of course they do. And the bus, when they catch it, has three mini-guns on both sides, and no weapons on the front or back, because of course it does. And despite the fact that this has all been hatched in secret, the Stath crashes the party anyhow. And who cares? the whole thing climaxes with Paul Walker running along the top of the bus as it falls off a cliff and jumping clear just in time to catch the spoiler on the back of a sports car. It’s magnificent, even if doesn’t make any sense.

None of the other chase and stunts are anything like as much fun. Everyone gets to beat someone up. Vin Diesel drives a car into the open air three different times, and every single time he tries to steer it, as if wiggling the front wheels will somehow make the slightest difference to where an airborne car is going to wind up. Djimon, bless him, is so well resourced that he doesn’t just have a battle bus, but an attack helicopter with its own jet drone. They chase the team around LA for the back half of the movie, burning missiles and jet fuel like there’s no such thing as reloads - seriously, the drone visibly has a three missile launch rail and fires half a dozen missiles …. The Rock shows up, and having shot the drone in the control box, grabs its minigun and shoots it from the hip for about ten times longer than he has bullets for. Since he’s the Rock, it seems safe to assume that he’s powering the gun with pure testosterone, where a lesser man might need a truck battery and an ammo belt more than three feet long. Meanwhile, the Stath and Vin Diesel are slugging it out in California’s most shoddily built car park; Djimon’s missiles smack in all around them, but it takes the stomp of Vin Diesel’s boot to bring the whole thing down around their ears before he jumps back into his car and does a Die Hard 4 straight at the hovering Djimon helo….

And there’s a butt load of emoting, but by now I almost feel like they’ve earned it. Even though Kurt Russell’s effortlessly the best actor in this movie and he’s still barely acting, the long-serving cast have built up enough good will and credibility that when Vin Diesel starts yamming on about family again, it rings true - corny, sure, but it feels right. These guys are cartoons, but with time and effort, they’ve become CONVINCING cartoons. Vin Diesel was plainly channeling his inner lunatic when he said this movie was going to get an Oscar, but he was right to think it was their best work so far. 

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Spongebob Squarepants; Sponge Out of Water

This was one of those deal where we ironically announced that we were going to see Spongebob instead of Fast and Furious 7 because we wanted to see something more mature. 

Turns out that Sponge out of Water isn’t a kid’s movie. Sure, there were kids at it - I think we might have been the only adults not chaperoning some tiny people - but I never saw an animated movie make less of an effort to talk to its alleged audience. This wasn’t the usual deal of a kid’s movie with plenty of pop culture references to keep the adults from falling asleep; this was by, for and about adult stoners. Adult stoners with a tiny attention span; Sponge out of Water is not so much a coherent narrative as a whole bunch of short bits that get thrown up on the screen one after the other. John grumbled that there wasn’t enough plot for a real kids’ movie; I think with small enough kids it mightn’t matter that nothing lasts more than a few minutes.

Which is not to say it’s not fun; it’s just not what we expected; not even what the trailer promised. If you go on the trailer, you expect Antonio Banderas to be a strong part of the movie all the way through; the reality is that he’s there at the beginning, setting up the story (well, setting up A story which promptly gets ignored for most of the movie), and he’s there at the end once the characters finally get onto dry land, but he’s pretty much absent for most of the action. The two big players are Spongebob and Plankton; Banderas’ Burger Beard is just a sideshow. 

If you dial your coherence expectations down a bit, it’s a lot of fun; there are all kinds of clever bits along the way. Best single sight gag is Spongebob and Patrick going out of their minds on candy floss “You could run around the world on this much sugar!” they yell, and then they cut to Spongebob and Patrick running around every landmark you can imagine until the camera pulls out and you can see that all the backgrounds have been Scotty and Squidward flipping through the postcards on a rack. I was thinking “simple genius” and then I remembered that it was all CGI and stop frame animation and it was probably anything BUT simple. There’s a great extended setpiece as Plankton attacks the Krusty Krab, and lots of other fun little bits scattered through. Yet it all felt like one of those movies they made so often in the 70s when they strung a load of sketches together until they had it up to movie length, and then hit print.