Friday, 29 April 2016

Oliver Harris: The first two Nick Belsey books

Nick Belsey’s not a nice guy. He’s not even someone I think I’d want to have a drink with, but he’s somehow compelling as a character. Like many interesting people, he’s best experienced with a bit of distance. A lot of distance, if possible. I read once long ago that adventure was just horrible things happening far away to people you don’t know well enough to really care about, and Nick Belsey’s a perfect adventurer.

What makes them worth reading is a wonderful queasiness; in both The Hollow Man and Deep Shelter, Belsey’s a man well out of his depth, just smart enough to know he’s wrestling with things he doesn’t understand. In The Hollow Man, he’s trying to figure out what happened to a Russian oligarch, and in Deep Shelter he’s trying to figure out why some nutbar is obsessed with the network of underground bunkers under London. But unlike most cops in fiction, he’s making the problems worse the longer he pokes at them. No, that’s not fair. He starts out by pretty much causing the problem, and then he struggles to solve it without anyone figuring out how much of it is his fault.

So in The Hollow Man, Belsey’s life has fallen apart so badly that when a Russian oligarch is reported missing, it starts to seem like a good idea to camp out in his mansion, and then steal his identity, and then … well, it just keeps getting worse. Grippingly. It falls apart a bit in the end game, not because the plot’s stupid, but because the climax is kind of stupid and doesn’t really add much to the real resolution of the plot. Harris actually wraps the plot up very cleverly, with just about every red herring accounted for in a perfectly reasonable way; given that most of the people driving the plot are not that smart, the dumb things which are happening make perfect sense as stuff dumb people do. And when the dust has cleared, Belsey has just about held on to his job without really solving any of the problems he started the book with.

Though it sets him up nicely for the next book, where he’s still coming in to work, just about, but all the baggage from the first book is hanging over him. Belsey’s on restricted duties now, smartest cop in the station or not. Which is just enough leeway for him to chase a suspect into a bunker. Nothing like enough leeway for anything he does next, which starts with breaking into the bunker without a warrant, deciding to loot it, deciding it would be fun to take a one night stand there, and then getting her snatched by ...

Well, that’s what it’s all about. Who snatched the girl, and how can Belsey get her back without anyone figuring out it’s all his fault that she got snatched in the first place. And for all that it’s a preposterous cold war secret state plot full of spies and nutters, it’s queasily plausible at every step of the way. Belsey has no idea of what he’s got into or how he’s going to get out of it, but he’s not too troubled by scruples. He’s scrambling from moment to moment, just trying to survive the latest catastrophe without having the time to plan for the one after that, and as his options narrow, he has to accept that all he can do is choose what really matters. He makes the right choices, more or less, and it doesn’t feel false to the character; Belsey’s a mess, but he’s a guy who knows the difference between right and wrong.

Just like the first book, the climax is a mess, but the resolution of the plot is solid and true to the characters; it’s as if Harris goes into every book with a fireworks budget and has to spend it before he can go home. And Belsey doesn’t quite save the day, or quite get fired, so I’m sort of looking forward to seeing if he’s still got a job in the next book.

I’m kind of surprised that no-one’s tried to make it all into a TV show. It would make a great modern TV cop show now that we’ve got used to the notion of smart audiences and complicated anti-heroes.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Bastille Day: The right movie in the wrong time

Bastille Day got a bad break when its original - and blindingly obvious - release date went by without unleashing the movie on the world. They’d completed shooting by the end of 2014 and quite why it wasn’t ready in the middle of 2015 is one of those things which half hearted googling won’t explain. But that’s only the most obvious way that it’s a work out of its obvious time. For one thing, as a buddy action movie with a loose cannon cop and a weaselly criminal sidekick battling a conspiracy of wicked authority figures, it belongs in the 1980s. For another thing, it oughtn’t to be a movie. When the opening credits came up, I saw that it was a co-production of Amazon Prime and Studio Canal, and I was sitting there thinking I could have watched the thing on my computer like any other TV show in this Amazon Prime and Netflix era; what the hell was I doing watching it in a cinema?

By the time the end credits came up, the case was closed; this would have made a great TV show. It’s not a bad movie by any means, but it would have really worked as a six part TV drama, giving all the room Idris Elba’s glower needed to get its work done, and allowing the wicked authority figures more time to show a bit of nuance. France is naturally good at dodgy cops, and with enough room to breathe, they could have had a great time with the bad guys. Of course, that only holds good with all-French operations; I tried watching the weird Franco-Everyone co-production Jo a while back, and marvelled at how they’d simultaneously wasted Jean Reno and Paris to produce something that I took back out of the DVD player after episode one. So if they had gone for a mini series, it might have been really pants. Maybe I should be careful what I wish for.

For what they actually did, it was a real blast from the past. Crooked cops, weaselly supervisors, hero with impulse control problems, second banana who needs a father figure; pick a cliche, tick a cliche. The action takes your mind off it, and Idris can’t not be marvellous, so as long as he’s on the screen it all hangs together. And there are bits which are better than you’d dared to expect; there’s a rooftop chase which you know isn’t going to hurt anyone, but which is paced fast enough that you can’t remember that obvious problem until it’s finally over.

The one thing which might seem ripped from today’s headlines is that the big steal turns on using a riot for cover, and the riot is modelled pretty much on things like “Occupy!”. So near the end there’s a moment when Idris has gone in to clobber the bad guys all on his own, because he is the hero and of course he does, while the kids wait outside the edges of the riot fearing the worst. And then they mobilise the riot to help Idris out of a jam. I think it’s supposed to be inspiring that the crowd can overcome the police cordon - I almost liked the message that if one person runs forward it will inspire everyone else to follow - but this is stuck in the middle of the usual Hollywood message that you can’t trust big government, and only crooks and mavericks can ever get anything done, so I’m not seeing much potential to change the world, even by accident.

In other news, in a movie which is grabbing bits of 1980s classics all over the place, I liked the fact that when Idris finally had to break up an elaborate con aimed at hiding a bank robbery in the middle of an apparent terrorist outbreak, he grabbed himself an old school MP5, just like John McClane’s “Ho ho ho, now I have a machine gun.” No way that wasn’t a shout out when every other gun on screen was right up to the minute. 

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Criminal: Kevin doesn't it again

I ought to have ragged on Kevin Costner’s 3 Days to Kill when I watched it on DVD; it’s a truly Bessonian disaster area which can’t make its mind up if it’s a gritty thriller or hassled-dad comedy and winds up making a mess of both ideas while spending Luc Besson’s usual stunts budget of one million zlotys. It was plainly intended as Kevin Costner’s pitch for the lucrative Liam Neeson second life as a bad-ass geriatric, and then it made a big crater at the box office and Costner went off to guest star in something even worse for a bit before taking a second stab at it with Criminal, a movie so dumb I couldn’t quite believe it wasn’t made by Europa Corp. 

It looked promising in the trailers, what with Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Oldman being prominent. How bad, I asked myself, could a movie with those two guys in it really be? Pretty damned bad, it turns out. For starters, Costner, Jones and Oldman don’t come cheap, and by the time they’d cut those cheques, there wasn’t much left for stunts. Or writers. Or the quality control that it might have taken to stick a decal on an idling helicopter to make it look like it had a US registration, the way it would have had if it was actually on the tarmac at a US airbase instead of being the production’s sole helicopter sitting on a UK runway hoping no-one would notice the slip.

So there’s nothing else for it but to hope that the actors will earn their money. Not as much as I’d like. Tommy Lee Jones looked like they’d dug him for the weekend. Oldman set the knob to “rage” on day one of the shoot and then threw the knob away. Oldman can be fun when he’s mad, but the key to it is how good he is at crazy-mad, not angry-mad. Costner, bless him, tried to stretch himself. He rarely plays anything other than loveable everydogs, and in Criminal he starts out as a psycho and then tries to turn himself believably into something more loveable. It doesn’t work, but at least he put in the effort.

In the end, they’re all let down by the material. It’s all built off the notion that the CIA can transplant someone’s mind into some other guy, so as to make sure a crucial mission is completed. There have been a load of movies playing with that idea, and there seem to me to be two secrets to making it work. The first is to commit thoroughly to the madness, as John Woo did in Face/Off, and the second is to throw enough preposterous action at the screen that the preposterous idea at the middle of the plot doesn’t look too far out of place. That’s where Criminal went wrong; not enough money to make the movie all crazy all the time, and not enough commitment to the idea. Instead they try to keep things low-key and gritty, which just leaves the madness looking way too mad for everything else around it.

If I had to sum up how it all goes horribly wrong, I’d start with the fact that Ryan Reynolds has an almost uncredited role as the spy that Costner is taking over from, and going on the few minutes he gets before being all murdered, I’d have had a lot more fun watching a movie which was all about him instead of all the other dudes.

The other bad sign is that they found a way to shoot it in London without letting London be in any way a character in the movie. I’ve watched a succession of even worse movies struggle to make Bulgaria look like London; Criminal makes London look like Bulgaria which is perversely impressive. 

Friday, 15 April 2016

Midnight Special

Midnight Special hit the cinemas on a wave of critical buzz, but I’d have gone just on the strength of Michael Shannon, one of the most reliable lunatics in show business. I’ve missed his last couple of outings, and I was feeling bad about not sending some money his way, even though his characters could be relied on to lose the money and then destroy everything around them in a fit of rage. Shannon does rage like Johnny Depp does whimsy, like it’s an emotional Swiss army hammer which will just turn everything into a nail.

And of course, the choices were stark; it was either watch that, or one of two joyless CGI disasterpieces, and even though I was puzzled to ponder how The Huntsman: Winter’s War could gainfully occupy no fewer than three of the best young actresses working in Hollywood right now, I wasn’t interested enough to want to sit through the damn thing and see them waste their time on it.

Just as well, then, that Midnight Special was about as good as its buzz. It loses its way at the end, as most small indie SF movies do, but up until then it trundles along splendidly. The performances are uniformly excellent, and I never thought I’d say that about anything with Whiny Darth Vader in it; Adam Driver isn’t doing anything especially amazing as an NSA analyst, but he pitches himself perfectly to the movie’s understated realism. Midnight Special is so determinedly unspectacular in its early going, it’s almost a shock that the last few minutes swing to high end CGI like a cross between the end of ET and the whole of Tomorrowland. Sadly, that seems to have eaten all the money they migth otherwise have spent on getting their day-for-night to grate a little less; I could work out pretty much why they had to go day-for-night for one big scene, but in a movie which otherwise used good camera technique unobtrusively, it was jarring enough to take me out of a scene which ought to have been all about the characters.

It’s a smart person’s SF movie; nothing is ever really explained, and the viewer has to work out what’s going on by paying attention. The characters aren’t going to tell you anything about, but their guardedness feels like the natural quietness of ordinary people keeping their emotions tightly wrapped, not the creepy silence of movie constructs keeping quiet just to prevent the big twist from coming out. Shannon is tight wrapper in chief, of course, but he’s aided and abetted by Joel Edgerton, who I’d never heard of and immediately wanted to see more of, and Kirsten Dunst, who for me has never really beaten her debut in Interview with a Vampire but here fits right in with a bunch of people who are showing, not telling.

There’s nothing essential about it; if you go to see it, the odds are that you won’t run into anyone else who has, and it’s not going to change the world in any important way. It doesn’t even have that many new ideas in it; it’s a kid with magical powers running away from the sinister government to get to a magical destination which might just change the world if he gets there. A whole bunch of dumber, spendier movies have been made riffing on those notions. But Midnight Special shows us what all that might be like if it genuinely was ordinary people wrestling with this stuff in the real world; things would go wrong, nothing would make much sense, folks would stumble into the climax, and in the end, all the bad stuff you’d done in the good cause would catch up with you, because the world’s big enough to send in the reserves after the excitement stops. Which is why the movie closes on Michael Shannon’s face, weighing it all up, satisfied that it was worth it all to give his kid a chance. No bad thought to close on.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Zootropolis: At least they tried

Zootropolis is a good movie by any measure; it’s funny, it’s well paced and they’ve got the balance right between jokes for kids and jokes for the people bringing them to the movie. It takes a certain amount of sense to realise that ONE joke about Breaking Bad is the right amount for the whole movie.

More than that, it’s a movie which is trying to get across an important message. And like the heading says, at least they tried. I’m just not sure it worked. The high concept in Zootropolis is that all mammals are living together in harmony despite the fact that some of them are natural predators and most of them are prey. The predators are holding their natural impulses in check and everyone just gets along, at least as much as people get along with each other. So the movie has a lot of chances to make points about bigotry and prejudice in a way which might just get kids thinking about their reflexes before they set into the same rut we’re living in now.

Where things go a bit wrong is when the movie swings off into the bigger question of the war on adjectival nouns. The big plot point in the movie is growing paranoia that the predators might go back to their old mammal-gnashing ways, which raises the stakes on prejudice to the point where society could fall apart. A lot of movies are trying to find a way to talk about the way western society is reacting to middle eastern social implosion, assymmetric warfare and the growth of islamic communities in the west. I’m just not sure that the tension between predators and prey is the best metaphor. 

The thing is, predators are naturally dominant over prey. It pretty much wouldn’t work any other way. And predators are far less numerous than prey; again, it pretty much can’t work any other way. So predators only make a plausible metaphor for the elite; the people at the top of the pyramid who live off the efforts of people below them. If you were looking for a global analogue for predators in the real world, I’d suggest that you wouldn’t look much further than the people who actually field an armed drone called Predator”. 

But it gets worse. The message here is that predators are always a threat; only constant, relentless self control can stop them from hulking out and devouring all around them; they can never truly be good without immense effort, while the prey species are just lovely whether they’re trying or not. So no matter who you think the predators are standing in for, that’s not really a message that we’re all truly alike.

And it gets worse again; because when all is said and done and the dust has cleared, the predators have been rehabilitated, and they’re back in charge of the city; the natural order of things has been restored. Which is not a message for change in the way we do things.

Anything else to worry about? Well, for all that we’re being told that stereotypes are wrong and anyone can be anything, most of the animals are stereotypes; none more so than the sloths, who all work in the DMV. Because they’re slow. And can’t be anything else.

And however uneasy they might be about the global war on whatever we’re fighting this week, the writers give us an enchanting picture of the benefits of a pervasive surveillance state; the key reveals in the plot are all down to a Central London level of CCTV cameras, because, of course, we’re all safe under the unblinking eye of the state.

No, ha ha, of course we’re not. This is a Hollywood movie, and if there’s one lesson you can always rely on from Hollywood movies, it’s that you can never trust mid level functionaries of central government. Government is always the bad guy; you can only trust mavericks and people who work outside the system. No wonder everyone’s getting ready to vote to Trump.

With all the politics so dodgy, it’s a good thing it works as a fun movie. It’s got Idris Elba in it, as the wonderful Chief Bogo, my new role model. It’s got a beguiling economy of props, in which almost everything we see in a character’s hands winds up being used for something unexpected yet somehow inevitable. It’s got a gag every minute or two, and most of them are good. It’s got a lot of shoutouts to other movies - including an extended Godfather riff - but they’re paced right, and they’re still funny even if you don’t recognise the source material. Mr Big is the best criminal mastermind since the Toad in Flushed Away, even if he is a wafer thin replica of Vito Corleone. 

So, by all means see it; it’s about the best thing running in wide release right now, as if that’s saying much. But don’t get your hopes up that it’s going to change the world, or anyone’s mind.