Thursday, 25 February 2016

Triple 9; don't be on the poster

Seriously, don't be on the poster. Pretty much everyone on the poster gets whacked. I had done my crude maths on this one. It was a heist movie, and I like heist movies. It was directed by John Hillcoat, who I hear good things about. It had loads of good actors, mostly the kind of unflashy non-stars that I like. It looked like a safe bet.

And in a way, it was. It's pretty much the movie it sets out to be, and the performances are solid. But it's not fun; if your heist movie reference baseline in The Italian Job, this is going to be a bummer for you. And if your baseline is Heat, as of course it should be, you're going to be holding Triple 9 up to the light and saying "Meh, no. I should have put Heat in the DVD player instead."

Amazingly, the Georgia State Film Commission helped out in making the movie, which makes Atlanta Georgia look like the other Georgia during any of its wars; random gunfire all over the place? Check. Russians behind it all? Check. At least when Yorkshire hires itself out as a war zone, it tells everyone it's Nordor. Other fun fact; the bank they rob at the beginning looks just like the hotel John Wick stayed in, and I'm just going to believe they were the same place, even if IMDB insists that they're not.

Everyone is serious as all get out, except for Woody Harrelson, whose performance is most easily understood if you assume that no-one told him they were shooting in Atlanta and he thought he was in the New Orleans Police Department. Oh, and blink and you'll miss it, but that's Omar from The Wire playing Sweet Pea, one of only four female roles with more than minute in total speaking time (seriously, Kate Winslet gets more in than all the other women put together, and she's got about ten minutes total screen time).

There are some great set pieces; the opening robbery is cool, and it goes wrong really well. There's a ghetto raid in the middle which works great as a scene while doing just about nothing to advance the plot; it says a lot about this movie that the scene you'd want to keep is the one you could most easily afford to lose.

My abiding thought is that it shouldn't have been a heist movie at all. The Triple 9 in the title is the idea that cops drop everything if a cop gets shot (see, the opening of Bad Boys, which gets just the right amount of mileage out of the same idea), so if you want to do a robbery, drop a cop somewhere else and you'll have all the peace and quiet you need. What gives the idea its edge in this movie is that half the bad guys ARE cops, so they're figuring to drop one of their own to get the job done. And that on its own would have made a perfectly good movie, but instead there's a whole second movie about Chiwetel Ejiofor wanting to see his kid and make money from his very particular set of skills learned in Iraq. And that would also have been a perfectly good movie. The mistake was trying to make both of them at once. Not least because anything which gives Ejiofor that little to do is wasting precious natural resources.

Wayward Pines: the TV show

My off hand notes on Wayward Pines the book trilogy caused a spike in my page views the like of which I never expect to see again. That was all down to the TV show, which I've only now got round to watching.

Watch the TV show or read the books, but don't do both, I think. I think if you were coming to the TV show completely fresh, not knowing what was going on, it would have been gripping, baffling stuff. If you watch it having read the books, you know what's going on, and you're free to think "That's not what Sheriff Pope ought to look like." or "Melissa Leo doesn't look young or crazy enough to be Nurse Pam." And so on. Matt Dillon, by the way, looks absolutely fine for Ethan Burke. Just the right amount of manly jawline.

There's a lot of detailed changes from the book, including some major swerves in the last episode. The neat three act structure of the books has been dropped, and the world of trouble from the third book has been simplified and telescoped. Probably worked better as narrative on the screen, but it will have bugged anyone who read the books first. I know I said that if you've read the book the suspense goes out the window, but weirdly, you can still get cranky because the story isn't just what you were expecting. What you read first becomes reasonable and logical and what you see later is weird and wrong, even if it's perfectly fine on its own merits.

It's TV, so the Abbies are just wrong, by which I mean they're not wrong enough. They just look like a bunch of summer stock Nosferatus, because that's the limitation of what you can do with people in makeup, where a writer can make much more unsettling changes.

In the end, though, my big thought about the whole thing was the difference between how you read and how you watch. I watched Wayward Pines the TV show in a state of half distraction, an episode or half an episode at a time, watching the time before I had to get to work, and checking my email as it unfolded. I wasn't really present in the show, and it wasnt't just because I knew what was going to happen and so didn't feel I had to concentrate.It was TV, and so it was kind of background. When I was reading the books, I had to concentrate; if I didn't read them, nothing was going to happen. If I didn't concentrate on the TV show, the TV was still going to play it back.

The surprising thing is that there's going to be a second season. It might even work; they've found a good jump-off point for a continuing narrative. And since there aren't any books this time, if I do watch it, I'll have to take it on its own merits. And focus.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern want your brains

Somehow it took longer to get Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to the multiplex than it took to get the successor in. I put this down to the fact that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter had a killer hook and a single hero, and above all was set in America, which remains the centre of the universe. Also, no-one had to worry about any recent great Lincoln movies, whereas great Pride and Prejudice adaptations are a dime a dozen.

Still, my hopes were high. There was a good notion, a decent looking cast, and if all else failed I could go back to the ticket desk and demand my money back, since I had cunningly asked for a ticket to Pride and Prejudice and the guy on the till had not corrected my mistake. I’m not sure I could have carried off the pretence that I had been looking forward to Keira Knightley’s cheekbones, but you just need a plan, not the conviction that it’s possible.

Sadly, PPZ is another one of those things which looks good on a napkin and doesn’t work at greater length. Like the Laffer Curve, and the WMD dossier and so on. The idea of the book is a great one, just the kind of thing which you’d cook up in the pub and it would be huge laughs until you were sitting in front of the typewriter the next morning, praying that the feeling of nausea and despair was a hangover, and not the realisation that you had to do the thing which had seemed so jolly the night before. The idea of a movie is slightly less daunting, because movies are idiotic to begin with and no-one’s expecting you to write as well as Jane Austen in a movie. On the other hand, producing the book was cheaper, so that’s the order we got them in, followed in short order by Android Karenina and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and thank God at that point the madness stopped and we didn’t get Moby Dick Nixon and Northanger Abbey Road. It seems safe to assume that there’s little risk of film adaptations of any of those titles, but if we do wind up getting Moby Dick Nixon I’m sorry for even suggesting it.

Things that go right: well, there’s a good game in the underlying zombie story, albeit a game which would make most wargamers cry. Zombies versus Napoleonic era British infantry is right in the wargaming wheelhouse, though the more reflective of us would suck our teeth and point to the absence of effective force multipliers for living infantry against the undead in an age before breech loading weapons, before going on to ponder the economic disruption of a zombie apocalypse and the way in which it would compromise the British ability to make war in their preferred way, which was to bribe other people to do all the awkward bits. Also, we’d be well out of countenance at the absence of both Wellington and Napoleon from proceedings.

Also going right; there’s a perfectly decent summer stock production of Pride and Prejudice going on in this movie; the cast are uniformly decent at doing Austen and seem a lot happier at it than they do when they’re fighting zombies. Charles Dance is lovely as Mr Bennet, Lily James impressed me more as Elizabeth Bennet than I expected her to, and Sam Riley’s Darcy was adequate, though I spent the whole movie thinking he was another ringer badged in from Game of Thrones along with Dance and Lena Headey (who is not given remotely enough to do). 

But; and it’s a huge but. For PPZ to work, the zombies have to be the thing which was missing all along from the source text. And instead, they’re just a pain the ass. At every step of the way, you’re reminded that the original book was a masterpiece, and that the zombies are making it worse, not better. I think that where the movie gets it wrong is making the zombies a big deal. The book proper is set against the background of the Napoleonic Wars, but you’d never know that this was life and death struggle for the fledgling British Empire; Austen is very properly focused on the life and death struggle to keep up appearances in the British upper middle class, and the war is a piece of background against which the infinitely more pressing day to day life of the characters unfolds. The zombie peril should have been just the same; a massive problem, which to the characters on screen was a mere distraction from their real worries. Elizabeth should have been stabbing zombies as an afterthought, not trying to save the empire. And in fairness to Lily James, she would have nailed it if she’d just been given the script.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Mark Dawson; The John Milton books

Not all of the John Milton books, because life is too short; just the first three, because Amazon had a bundle deal for three of them as e-Books and I seem to be redeveloping a mild thriller itch. 

They’re not bad. Dawson’s an OK writer and I am taken with his low-stakes approach of things; there’s an agreeable British cheapness to proceedings. Still they’re anything but indispensable, and I’m only commenting on them at all because as I was working my way through them, they struck me as a very British counterpart to Mark Greaney’s books. John Milton is a much more believable character than Courtland Gentry; he’s got a more plausible name, to start with, and it all runs on from there. He’s good at what he does because he’s experienced, not because he’s a wunderkind, and he’s out of the business because the strain made him an alcoholic, not because of some labyrinthine mystery.

Mostly, it started to sink in how the modern thriller is mired in a default of lone drifter comes to town, rights wrongs, moves on to next town. And there’s only one person to blame; Jack Reacher. Much as Harry Potter and the Hunger Games triggered a twin tsunami of magic schools and gritty dystopias for the under 16s, the huge success of Jack Reacher has left publishers everywhere looking for his understudy. 

Lone drifter is a perfectly good idea; it worked for Shane and it’s worked on and off ever since. And it doesn’t work too badly for John Milton, who’s a pretty plausible lone drifter, with good reasons to be drifting and lonely and most of all meddling. I found his economy of effort beguiling, though Dawson is going to need to find a way out of the narrative trap of always having Milton more or less sorted only to be derailed at the last minute by someone snatching the romantic interest and holding her hostage.

Still, it’s none of it the best in class. If you want lone middle aged alcoholic struggling with demons and righting wrongs, the gold standard is still Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder - the books, of course, not the movies. If you want the lone drifter putting the hurt on the bad guys, Reacher’s still the king. If you want British spies doing their subtly low rent versions of American bombast - actually, that’s Dawson’s strongest suit, but it’s a crowded field with a lot more depth to it; read Deighton, or Mick Herron, or Adam Hall; or  - an influence which Dawson winks to in the first book - James Mitchell’s Callan, the original British assassin who tries to quit his shadowy spook world but can never quite get loose.

Finally, obligatory grumble; like most guys in the field, Dawson can’t be bothered to do his gun homework, so things are littered with notions like Makarov revolvers. Guys; it’s the 21st century. If you just want some well cool hardware to name-drop and Wikipedia is too much like hard work, just go here and look at the pictures.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Cixin Liu: Three Body Problem/The Dark Forest.

If you only read one Chinese language Science Fiction book this year, The Three Body Problem will probably be it. If you’ve only read two, the other one was The Dark Forest.

The Three Body Problem is one of several different things which is getting the Sad Puppies movement all up in a wad about life, since it got the 2015 Hugo despite not having been written by a right wing libertarian middle aged American white guy, and as we know, middle aged American white guys are going through a period of suffering and neglect unparalleled in human history since shortly after amphibious life forms crawled out of the primordial ooze.

Like many people, the first thing I had to get my head round was that China had SF at all. It’s only a vibrant thousands-years-old culture of a billion people, so the thought that it might have indigenous fiction in its own language had naturally never crossed my mind. One of the minor victories of capitalism was persuading me that Mao’s cultural revolution had outlawed popular culture. The alternative notion that capitalism might have just decided to ignore any evidence that Chinese people were people ...

OK, I missed something. I don’t think I was the only person. The Three Body Problem was published in Chinese in 2008, and wasn’t published in an English language translation till last year. The Dark Forest  was the sequel, which came out in Chinese pretty soon after The Three Body Problem and was translated by a different translator soon after Three Body Problem.

I never know how much has been lost in translation, even when the translation is littered with footnotes which hint at the subtext which a foreign reader will miss in direct historical allusions. The only novel I’ve ever read in translation which struck me as a beautiful piece of writing was Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow which is wonderful reading even in translation into English. The Three Body Problem and The Dark Forest are not translations which anyone will read for the pleasure of the language, and I found it impossible to know whether they were just good old fashioned terrible writing about interesting ideas, or whether the flat, didactic style was an artifact of a larger cultural tradition which only a Chinese reader would understand as the art it was intended to be. Much as with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I found the most interesting thing about the book was not the plot, but the insight into a society I don’t know much about. These are books in which the USA is an afterthought and Europe barely a footnote. The perspectives are unfamiliar and thought-provoking; for me at least, more so than the SF elements.

The Three Body Problem is a more readable book; that’s partly because I suspect that the translator was more on the wavelength of the original writer and partly because it’s more bedded into the present day, so that all I needed to struggle to understand was a different angle on the world that I think I already know. The SF ideas fall neatly into two groups; one great big one, and a bunch of well-cool stuff around the edges. The great big idea is that life on other planets sucks; the Three Body Problem is a matter of life and death for the population of Alpha Centauri. The chaotic interaction of three suns has destroyed all but one of the planets in the system and made life on the remaining planet a living hell of constantly changing weather. The little ideas around the edges are all about how Earth finds Trisolaris, and what Trisolaris does in response. Invade. But since this is hard SF, they invade within known physics, which means that the first book ends on the cliffhanger than the invasion fleet is on the way, and it’s going to take four hundred years to get to Earth.

The second book struggles to deal with the narrative problem of an invasion which takes longer than the history of modern thought. Sneaky Trisolaran tactics have crippled Earthly scientific progress, so Cixin Liu isn’t stuck with trying to imagine 400 years of the kind of technical progress you get in a war economy; he’s stuck instead with trying to frame a narrative with human characters who simply can’t outlive the problem the book’s built around. The big idea here is  resolution of the Fermi Paradox, which is a big bold notion in its own right; it’s so big, in fact, that warping the narrative to bring a narratively surprising pay-off kind of ruins everything else. There’s a wonderful ballsup of Earth’s defensive fleet and their efforts to preserve humanity which feels like a sketch of the midgame of Seveneves, written long before Stephenson got to it (much as there’s a bit of nano materials science in the first book which feels like it fell of Stephenson’s own desk). As Stephenson demonstrated, you could get a whole book out of an idea like that, and here it’s a sideshow, part of the mounting despair and defeatism which underpins the final climax.

Which itself is kind of anti-climactic. Not least because for some reason, the jacket copy for the English translation gives away the whole conceit of the book.

The Fermi Paradox is that there are so many stars in the universe that no matter what the odds are against interstellar travel, we should have had visitors by now; Cixin Liu’s resolution of this paradox is simple and horrifying, a Malthusian analysis which argues that the only safe move for any civilisation which spots another one is to destroy it without further ado. The whole book is leading up to that reveal, and the way in which Earth can use it to defend against certain defeat; but it’s right there on the back cover.

All that said, Cixin Liu is chucking ideas round like they aren’t even a thing. There may not be much re-read value to the translations (or perhaps even to the Chinese originals), but they’re worth one read, and the third book in the sequence comes out some time this year.