Thursday, 31 December 2015

Charlie Fletcher: The Oversight

The Oversight is a book I wanted to like, while knowing it was essentially corny. This now, I should be clear, is what I was thinking before I started reading it. It’s a book about magical guardians of reality, and there are orphans in peril and novices to be adopted into the brotherhood and ominous backstory, and gaslight and such as. I am a sucker for anything which mixes gaslight and magic, because Tim Powers did it so well and I keep hoping someone else can do it too. And also because magic has been stuck in the middle ages for far too long.

So The Oversight has been sitting in the queue for a while because I liked the idea in principle, but I was worried that it might misfire in practice, and there were all kinds of other books I felt like reading first. Many of which turned out to be terrible, but the thing about reading something which you know is terrible is that, yes, you’ve wasted your time, but at least you’re not grappling with disappointment as well.

The Oversight is not a disappointing book. It’s not as well written as it thinks it is (when you can tell that a book thinks it’s well-written, it’s still got some learning to do; as Elmore Leonard said, discard anything which feels like writing), but it’s well written by the standards of the genre. And the set-up is exactly as corny as I thought it would be; there’s a magical police force down on its uppers, hemmed about on all sides by the bad guys. There’s a circus. There are children - well, teenagers - in peril. There are magical archetypes and supporting characters so broad you’d think the pages would bulge.

And it all works anyway. The main characters make sense, and I wanted to know what was going to happen to them. And Fletcher managed to maintain a creepy tension throughout the book, putting his cast into peril and keeping them there until I was dreading the next chapter. He’s written a book which gives you the feeling that no-one is safe, and that getting killed could be the least of your worries. 

Perhaps most importantly, given that this is going to be a trilogy, there’s a good mix of cliff hanger and back story on display. The book ends with a good chunk of the cast still in play, and many of them in well over their heads. The “let’s tell the newbie how the world works.” element of the backstory isn’t too heavy handed, and better yet, there’s a good excuse for it. It’s one of the better approaches I’ve seen to the usual “hero who knows nothing saves the world” trope, and it feels thought out rather than just the usual narrative convenience of using the protagonist as a way to explain the world.

All in all, it’s solid stuff. The sequel’s out, but if I come at the rest of the trilogy at the same speed I’ve used up to now, I’ll be reading the last two books in one big lump sometime late next year.

Friday, 25 December 2015

Neal Stephenson: Seveneves

It was only when I got Seveneves as a Christmas present that I realised I hadn’t blogged it when I read it back in May. Which was weird, because I had opinions about it, and it’s not like me to keep an opinion to myself.

The big obvious opinion to have about Seveneves is that it’s either two books which should have been one, or one book which should have been two, depending on how you feel about Neal Stephenson’s chronic digression problem. There’s one book about the disastrous attempt to preserve humanity after the moon blows up, and there’s a second book about the world long after the almost total failure of the attempt. Cramming them both into the same volume doesn’t do either of them any favours. I don’t know if it was down to Stephenson getting fed up with the project or the publishers saying “For God’s sake, just give us something we can print, whatever the size.” but Seveneves feels rushed to print. And what I said about two books - there could just as easily have been three, since a lot of the second half of the book is tied up in explanations of all the stuff which happened in the big gap between the climax of the first half and the events of the second.

Seveneves is, then, one of those books which has something to annoy everyone. If you like it, there’s not enough of what you’ll like. If you don’t like it, there’s way more of it than you’ll want. Being a guy who owns everything Stephenson has published under his own name, I’m in the first group. I’m not sure how many people are in the second group, since Stephenson’s been getting length wrong since Snow Crash made him another of those writers who can write whatever the hell he wants to and still get published. By now, I think SF readers have made their minds up about whether they want to risk his next book or not.

For them as take the risk, it’s Stephenson in typical form, chucking out ideas in all directions and only running with half of them. Because most of the book is the end of the world, there’s an awful lot of stuff in there which feels like it’s been ripped from bad movies and only marginally polished. Some of those bits wind up having a pay-off in the book’s overall endgame. One part of me says they would have been better left as a homage to doomed best pals in apocalypse movies, and another part says that the pay-off is interesting without having been thought out enough or explained properly - which brings me back to the general theme of this post; either don’t do it, or do it properly, but don’t half-ass it this way.

Still, what do I know? It did not occur to me that the title of the book had any real meaning at all until the chapter where the title is paid off in such literal terms that I sat there feeling as though a piece of the moon had hit me on the actual head.

The Force Awakens; Humans are the worst

The Force Awakens is a sincere effort to recapture the excitement of the original Star Wars trilogy; it’s resolutely grubby, small scale and human, just like the originals. JJ Abrams seems to have spent the last few years brooding over the millions of voices which cried out as one that Phantom Menace and the rest of them had way too much CGI and way too much talky nonsense about high level politics. So he’s gone practical as much as he can, and there’s no galactic parliament to drag things shrieking to a halt every few minutes. And - so far - there’s no Jar Jar Binks, though I won’t relax until Abrams tells us all exactly what the JJ in his name really stands for.

And yet. If you’ve seen the originals, The Force Awakens is going to feel familiar in some bad ways too. There’s a super-weapon in the shape of a sphere. It blows up a peaceful planet or two, and then the good guys have to blow it up in the nick of time before it gets used to blow up the rebel base. And to do that, they have to attack a thermal exhaust port. Which is protected by a shield which a plucky ground expedition has to nobble first. And along the way, an old wise mentor gets chopped up by an evil Jedi and chucked off a bridge. And there’s a confrontation between a father and a son. And a desert planet with an economy which doesn’t make a lick of sense and horrible traders taking advantage of people. And an orphan who doesn’t know who her parents really are. And a cantina full of aliens and jazz bands. Yes, we liked the originals. But they’re on DVD and Blu Ray. We could just watch them again. We wanted something new that felt the same way, not a movie which at times feels as though it was scripted by taking all the fun action bits from the first three movies and putting them in a slightly different order.

And yet. If you can watch the X-wings coming to the rescue at wavetop height and not feel a little shiver of joy, there’s something dead in you. The Force Awakens works as a movie, and works as a Star Wars movie. Which is to say that it’s held together by outrageous coincidence and a magnificent disregard for the laws of physics; the interwebs will pass off the coincidence as the Force in action, and spend the next two years concocting ever more elaborate explanations for how Finn and company can see a star system light years away getting exploded within seconds of us watching the weapon being fired at the same target. It can be this generation’s Kessel run.

Which brings us to scene-stealer-in-chief Han Solo, still effortlessly the most magnetic thing in the Star Wars universe. I don’t know if it’s just Harrison Ford’s own talent, or the fact that Han Solo as a character has never had the weight of destiny hanging off him; Han just makes sense as a space adventurer. Whenever he’s on screen, the nonsense around him becomes magically more plausible. He’s the personification of the simple SF principle that weirdness becomes believable if someone normal acts as though he’s seen it all before. The younger cast are doing their best, but the whole point of the movie is that everything’s coming as a shock to them, so as hard as Boyega, Ridley and Isaac work, they can’t beat the world-weariness which only a seventy year old who never even liked the movies can bring to the game.

Now, about the Dark Side. Which is, unsurprisingly, back. And not making any more sense than it has up to now. There’s a scene in the middle of the movie where Domhnall Gleeson is firing up the troops with a speech before firing up the super weapon. When I wasn’t trying to see if a toothbrush moustache was emerging mysteriously from his frothing upper lip, I was brooding on the Dark Side’s business model, which seems to be strong on super weapons and vast faceless armies and light on anything which resembles a purpose to all the badness. The First Order seems to be in business to be evil, just for the sake of being evil. I don’t have a problem believing that, but where’s their marketing department? No matter how objectively wicked any operation has ever been in human history, there’s always been a comforting narrative from the people in charge about the purity of their motives and the benefits for the foot-soldiers. As I’ve said before, Bwa-Ha-Ha is not a mission statement.

Brooding on that one, it suddenly hit me that in the Star Wars universe, humans are the bad guys. The Empire, and now the First Order, are exclusively staffed by humans. The Resistance is a raggle taggle mixture of dozens of races, all working together to stop the baddies; the baddies are a mono-culture of faceless humanoids massacring all before them. There’s the occasional alien hire here and there, and the First Order even has some non-Aryan employees in subordinate positions, but for the most part, as long as there’s been a Dark Side and a bunch of maniacs to push its message, it’s been all humans, all the time.

Now the Dark Side starts to make sense; it’s the same old Dark Side which has brought us the wonders of our own history, from the Roman Empire to the Mongol Hordes to Manifest Destiny and everything in between. Schwack them other dudes which is not like us, take their stuff and keep their land. Pretty sure that JJ and the guys never even noticed that one as they tried to figure out what comes next.

There’s two ways to look at that. One is to think of The Force Awakens as a re-imagining of A New Hope, which would mean that whatever we get next will have the vibe of The Empire Strikes Back, which is probably the best - and most low-key - of all the Star Wars movies to date. The other is to think of The Force Awakens as a brisk recycling of all the good stuff from the original three movies, freeing up the second movie to be a recycling of the prequels….

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Sisters; what people are going to see when they can't get Star Wars tickets

It should go without saying that Sisters passes the Bechdel test, but somehow I couldn’t get it out of my mind that it has passed the test without making me feel all that appreciative for it. I think I shall stop talking about it. The big mystery of Sisters is the sisters. They’re both terrible in their own unique and contradictory ways, and then we meet their parents, and the questions start. How the heck did these calm level headed people wind up with these kids? It’s not genetics (Hollywood has trained us not even to care whether everyone in the family has consistent eye colours or even look vaguely like each other), it’s simple nurture. Kids learn how to be adults by watching the adults in their lives. How could Katie and Maura have learned how to be such complete idiots from watching their parents? Also, related question, when was the last time I saw Dianne Wiest playing anything other than the jaded mother of children refusing to grow up?

Sisters is a fun movie, though it’s probably worrying that my favourite moments in a “women’s movie” involved John Cena being impassive and macho. Cena isn’t an actor, but he’s weirdly perfect in this as the epitome of pointless manliness. He’s also pretty much the only person in the movie who hits conventional Hollywood standards for physical perfection; the rest of the case are believably battered looking middle aged people - mostly ringers from the dozens of comedy shows which owe Tina Fey and Amy Poehler varying levels of favours.

And in a slapdash occasionally misfiring way, it’s a pretty good comedy. It’s just that it’s dumb and lazy and I’d never thought of Fey or Poehler as dumb and lazy. They’re smart and sharp, and it’s a waste to make them play idiots. More than that, it’s a waste not to have them play their women for depth. These are performers smart enough to play sisters with problems and get us thinking. Instead they go to the well of dumb plumbed by every Hollywood comedy desperate for ideas, and have a big party. Which gets out of control and nukes everything in sight. This is the comedy equivalent of having a guy enter the scene with a gun, every five minutes.

Which led me into feeling old; not just the sheer number of movies I’ve seen, or chosen not to see, where the centrepiece is a party going wrong, but the way I felt about the party at all. The girls spent a boatload of money they don’t really have on buying party supplies, and then the party trashes the house which is not just the centre of their family’s past, but the centrepiece of the family’s plans to finance its own future. And I just felt myself cringing through every minute of it, getting more and more depressed at the size of the financial hole they were digging. This was not the party mood they were trying to build, I felt. Yet there I was.

Anyhow, it’s going to make a whole boat load of money from the people who showed up at the multiplex without booking Star Wars tickets in advance, so everyone is going to be fine, and will hopefully use the money to make something smart the next time.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Simon Toyne: Solomon Creed

I think there’s a publisher’s pipe dream that someone is going to bring them the next Jack Reacher, since at any given time only one publisher can possibly be making money from Lee Child, and to a certain kind of mind it doesn’t seem fair that only one corporate behemoth is hoovering all the spare change out of the sofa cushions. We’re living in a weird golden era for teenage fantasy fiction for much the same reason; in the mad hope that they might find the next JK Rowling, publishers are green-lighting all kinds of things. Whatever else you might think about Harry Potter, he’s been the catalyst for all kinds of objectively better books getting the light of day. And, of course, even more objectively terrible ones. An infinite number of monkeys might get you Shakespeare, but it’s definitely going to get you a lot of not-Shakespeare.

So publishers are looking for a new sequence of novels about a mysterious loner who shows up and rights wrongs before heading off into the sunset, and Simon Toyne’s getting the benefit of the doubt as the publicity machine swings in behind Solomon Creed. So, which boxes get ticked?

Loner? Yup.

Mysterious back-story? What could be more mysterious than NO backstory?

Small town in the middle of nowhere menaced by something complicated? Yup.

Ass-kickings and beat-downs a go-go? Not so much.

Toyne’s one of yer actual writer writers, and so there’s characters, and prose which if not purple is definitely kind of mauve round the edges. It’s not exactly overwritten, but there are flourishes and figures of speech where Child would have used a couple of verbs and a grudging adjective. In fact Toyne’s a better stylist than Child, and he’s genuinely making an effort to put characters on the page and give them plenty to do. He’s doing so much of that that Solomon Creed his own magical amnesiac albino self hardly gets a look in; most of the heavy lifting is done by the locals, while Creed stands around watching and looking mysterious. Which is kind of inefficient, given that the locals are not in this for the long haul; they’re mostly not going to be around for the climax, let alone the sequel. Toyne isn’t really investing his talent in the future of the sequence.

It’s a weird read. On the one hand, Toyne throws a couple of good anti-heroes onto the page, and at least one of them has a solid story, with plausible motivation and a very believable reaction to what’s going on around him. I’d have been happy enough to read a whole book just about Mulcahy; he’s broken and compromised, but resourceful and wishing he could be decent. His villains; not so good. One-dimensional Mexican psychos who don’t make any sense as anything other than Hollywood meanies.

Which leads me into the big problem. This is a mystical albino Jack Reacher, so there has to be a big corrupt problem for him to overcome (and a damsel in some kind of distress). And the big corrupt problem is just stupid. It’s stupid in the round, and it’s stupid in the details. And it’s stupid in a very Hollywood way. Evil Mexican drug kingpin swears revenge on banally wicked Arizona township because he’s the kind of loon who feeds his reputation by horribly killing anyone even in the neighborhood of something which inconveniences him. The front half of the book is full of a creepy squirrelly low-rent menace. What makes it work is not that the kingpin is doing anything horrible yet, but that the corrupt leaders of the town are getting their panic in early, casting around for a sacrifice to throw him when he comes looking for tribute. That’s nasty and believable. Then we get to the wrap up, and it’s an overly complicated sting that makes The Usual Suspects look straightforward. Which just sweeps away all the grubby credibility of the set-up. And the detail of it is annoying, full of last minute Scooby-Doo switches, as the bad guys change sides for no other reason than because it’s a twist on what seemed to be happening a moment ago. Jeffrey Deaver used to be able to do this kind of thing and make it work; Toyne just can’t. Every single twist is the kind of thing which leaves the reader thinking “Well, if you were out to get him all along, why not just shoot him last week? What was the point of waiting til now and sweeping your mask off?"

The book ends with everything tied up in a bow, a little bit of backstory for Solomon Creed and the set up for the inevitable sequel, but it’s hard to think that Jack Reacher’s got anything to be scared of.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Bridge of Spies: Back to the past

Bridge of Spies is a wonderful demonstration that some people are just surefooted, no matter what they do. Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks just made a two and a half hour movie of middle aged white guys talking. White guys talking about a minor historical event whose outcome is wellknown to just about anyone who’s going to pay to see a movie about it. Anyone interested in the period knows that Abel was swapped for Gary Powers. Anyone not interested is going to skip the movie anyhow. 

It’s just a really solid piece of story telling. If everyone knows how it’s going to end and there’s no real suspense, the only thing which is going to keep people watching is good detail and a good cast. The secret weapon is probably Mark Rylance. Tom Hanks is so consistently reliable these days that it’s almost like he’s not acting any more, just showing up and being an utterly believable nice guy. Hanks is in pretty much every scene, and he’s as solid as he always is, a slighty stubbier and heavier James Stewart for our flakier times. Hanks pretty much drags every movie back in time just by showing up. So it’s all kinds of fun to watch Rylance steal every scene they have together. Rylance underplays every moment, never raising his voice or showing any sign of excitement. It’s a wonderful piece of characterisation; without ever spelling anything out in exposition, Rylance shows us a man who’s endured so much that he’s become utterly unflappable. Again and again, Hanks asks him if he’s worried about some aspect of his plight, and Abel comes back with a simple catchphrase “Would that help?” Poor Tom’s Jim Donovan starts to look more and more oblivious, for all his guile in negotiation.

Above all, it’s an example of one of the great truths of entertainment; if you tell a story well, people don’t care if they’ve heard it before. Tom Hanks is always worth watching, even though he’s never really doing anything surprising. Just as Dr Johnson said that it’s worth watching a bear dance not because it does it well, but simply that it does it at all, there are actors out there who do the same thing again and again in such a charming way that it’s always a pleasure to see it one more time. It helps - as here - when they’re surrounded by other people to play against, but it’s always worth your time.

Of course, it’s Spielberg, so in and among the great human direction there are attempts to grab your attention; he keeps cutting from a character doing something to a different character doing something which seems like a continuation of the same thing, but is completely different - so in one moment, you’re watching Gary Powers being shown all the things in his escape kit, and then the camera pans and suddenly we’re among the evidence of Abel’s spying kit. Most jarringly, Hanks has a moment when his S-bahn train rattles over the Berlin Wall and he witnesses people being gunned down as they try to cross. Later, he’s back in Brooklyn and for another commuter train he watches kids jumping over fences in backyards. It’s heavy handed as hell, not least because the chances of his character even being anywhere in Berlin during a shooting at the Wall were close to zero; there are only a dozen confirmed deaths in the first year, which is explicitly when the film is set; they play pretty fast and loose with the Wall, which went up overnight in August, not in the depths of winter, but Spielberg never saw a symbol he wouldn’t squeeze till it cracked.

Afterwards, I found myself wondering whether Spielberg was even thinking about parallels with today; the Cold War is expressly described as a conflict of two cultures convinced that they’re at risk of imminent destruction at the hands of the other culture. Hanks gets a bunch of speeches where he explains that if American wants to win this war, it has to show itself to be better and more decent than its foes. The depiction of both sides is nuanced; while the US comes out looking better than the Soviet side, there’s an edge of cynicism and amorality to much of the US establishment, while the main Soviet negotiator is a perfect foil for Hanks, another good natured guy making the best of a tricky job where he knows he can’t quite tell the truth but that he can’t get away with a lie either. I couldn’t decide whether this was nostalgia for a shadowy war which now looks better compared to today’s shadowy war, or a quiet call to conduct the new wars more decently. It’s probably too much to hope that anyone in power is going to see that angle.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Black Mass: I miss Captain Jack

Johnny Depp has done terrible things, such as Mortdecai and The Lone Ranger, but I don’t think I’ve ever watched him in a movie about actual terrible things. It was educational, if nothing else. Depp is utterly convincing as Whitey Bulger, or at least so utterly awful that you can’t quite take your eyes off him. I didn’t know he could do horrible, and for a while I was sitting there feeling quietly impressed. The reviews have been very positive, since for the first time in ages Johnny Depp isn’t playing a fey man-child made out of whimsy. Finally, a great actor was giving a performance which showed what he was capable of; finally he was setting himself a challenge.

Well, maybe. Because in his own way, his Whitey Bulger is just as much of a cartoon as Cap’n Jack Sparrow. It slowly sank in that if Johnny Depp really wants to show some range, he needs to play an ordinary doofus, something which he hasn’t tried since Donnie Brasco. Which I never saw, though I did see Nick of Time, made the same year and probably the last time that Depp tried to play a role completely straight. It’s just been one long parade of weirdos ever since, and in some ways, Whitey is business as usual. All the feyness and whimsy has been replaced by pure ferocity, but bouncing from extreme to another is not quite the same thing as creating a real character. 

And the ferocity is unrelenting. There is a moment in the middle of the movie where Bulger swings from apparent good humour to menace and back to apparent good humour, and Depp is scarily convincing as a man who is never NOT a complete asshole, even when he thinks he’s using humour to make his point. The problem is trying to relate that performance to anything which might work in the real world. Bulger is mean and scary, but he’s living in a world where people can have their lives snuffed out in an instant for almost no reason, and it’s hard to see how he got through twenty years without being murdered by someone who just couldn’t put up with his crap any more. He’s believable as someone who was feared, but he’s not believable as anyone’s friend. In the second act of the movie, he has a girlfriend, and a son. He loses them both, in different ways, and that’s supposed to be part of how Bulger becomes ever more dangerous, how the last of his humanity is stripped away. Instead I found myself struggling to understand how he had a girlfriend. 

What’s missing from the performance is any sense of charm. For Depp, suppressing his charm must have required superhuman effort; as an actor, and from what I can see even as a person, he’s ridiculously charming no matter what he’s doing. And Bulger was an objectively terrible person; for a man like Depp, it must have seemed almost wrong to make such a monster charming, to give such a monster any part of Depp which was genuinely Depp himself. But Bulger in real life must have been charming even if only on the surface. You can’t survive on fear alone in a world like that. You gotta have friends, even if it’s only so that you can take them by surprise. So that curiously one note performance is impressive, but fundamentally wrong. After a while I wanted to see what Daniel Day Lewis would have done with it.

Other thoughts; well, man, thank goodness we don’t live in the 80s any more. The hair. The suits. The hair. And the sunglasses. The dentistry. There’s a squicky moment when Bulger chokes out a rat, and then tells his henchmen to knock his teeth out, presumably to prevent the body from being identified. And I said to John “Has he even looked at anyone’s teeth in this movie? None of them HAVE dental records to check."

And talking about rats … You could, quite literally, kill yourself if you took a shot every time someone tells you that they’re not a rat or that they hate rats, or that rats deserved to be killed, or that they’re going to have to kill someone in case they rat out. Honour is apparently everything to all of these guys, every last one of whom is ratting on someone before the movie is over, if they haven’t already started ratting before the movie even started. I guess it’s that old story that the thing which annoys us most is other people with our own faults.

It’s a well made movie, with a pretty good script, and solid performances built around Depp’s weird one note smoulder, but it’s two hours spent in the company of awful people getting deeper and deeper into the muck. Afterwards I was reading IMDB and kept seeing that they cut whole scenes, plots and characters - an hour or more of material - for “pacing”. It’s not pacing. It’s the simple human truth that you can only spend so much time hearing horrible people tell a joke before you need to go and get a drink.