Wednesday, 15 June 2016

X-Men Apocalypse; Magneto is Donald Trump

X-Men Apocalypse is a profoundly stupid movie, as if anything based on a comic book has much chance of being anything else, but since Bryan Singer has clearly believes the whole X-men project is a platform for him to speak his mind about minorities, I’m going to take him at his intention, and ask him if he’s really thought this message all the way through.

We’ve now lived through six X-Men movies not counting Wolverine movies, which are the It’s Not Lupus of the X-Men infection. There’s the first three, which fell apart, and the next three which amount to a desperate struggle to reboot things into an alternative universe where Bret Ratner doesn’t exist. You think that’s mean? X-Men Apocalypse takes a moment from its busy schedule to lay down a sick burn on Bret Ratner’s master work X Men Last Stand. And the whole way through this, the underlying subtext is that we should be nice to minorities, and accept people who are different to us.

Which, before I go further, I completely endorse. 

What we don’t want to be going around accepting is rampaging arseholes. Accepting rampaging arseholes is a bad plan. Confronting them is messy, ugly, and the best you can hope for is getting way too close to arseholes, and everything that comes out of them, while the worst you can dread is no-one being able to tell the difference between you and the arseholes after a while. But if you don’t confront them, you’re going to live in a world run the arsehole way, because arseholes want things their way, and the hell with the rest of us. 

And whether Bryan Singer likes it or not, the X-Men movies are a celebrity endorsement for arseholes. Who, let’s face it, have things way too much their own way as it is, without well meaning efforts to cheer for entitlement.

That escalated pretty fast, you might be thinking. Well, so did the Man With Tiny Hands campaign, and I am now going to tell you why one thing leads to another.

One of the minor mysteries of our age is why so many people in dead end jobs think that a maniacal millionaire can possibly be their saviour. Surely, well meaning socialists of my acquaintance keep wringing their hands, people can see that a fair world would have equal rights and prospects for everyone. It turns out, that’s not how a lot of people think. A lot of people see nothing wrong with a grossly unequal society. They can see how sweet things are for the people at the top of that society, and they’d like to be just like them. That kind of life would suit them fine, and they can see damn fine that the people at the top haven’t done anything amazing to earn their wealth. Their only problem with the system is that right now, they’re not at the top. And in their minds, a “fair” system would give them a better chance of getting all that money for nothing. Just them, personally. Not all those other guys.

And X-Men is like the logical working out of that fantasy. All the X-Men are outsiders, ignored by society, but secretly brilliant, and as soon as they’re given a chance, they can be wonderful with way less effort than it take to learn to play the guitar badly. That’s the message of the X-Men; if we could just change the world so that we’d get the recognition we deserve, we could have all the nice things. And that’s a very lower case “we". It’s the “we" you hear from a basement dwelling internet troll who’s trying to pretend to be Legion as he explains how "those blast points are too precise for sand people and everyone knows this really”. It’s not the “we” of a community.

Movies like the X-Men movies help to popularise and cement that mindset. We’ve had twenty years of this nonsense, and it’s starting to rot people’s minds, just the way that thirty years of computer games have given us a generation of mid level economic decision makers who think that the simple-minded models of Sim City and countless other “sandbox” games are a meaningful parallel for the real world. 

But they’re just movies! No, they’re propaganda. Anything which costs a fortune - and these movies cost a fortune - is going to reflect the outlooks of people who have fortunes. And people who have fortunes want to keep them, and make them bigger, and they sure don’t want anyone knocking on the door questioning the status quo and looking for some of that money. So let’s not be seeing any movies which might get people’s minds working that way. If we can, let’s be seeing movies which make people accept the status quo; get them to buy the idea that the people in charge are unique, and special, and deserve to be in charge because of their inner greatness. You know what, we laugh at those idiots trying to make movies out of the works of Ayn Rand, but the only thing that’s really funny is that anyone thinks there’s a NEED to make movies expressly about Ayn Rand’s ideas.

Still, it’s a big jump to call Magento Donald Trump, isn’t it? I mean, Michael Fassbender is so dreamy. Dreamy, dreamy, dreamy. Happens I agree with that, but Magneto is a monster, and every X-Men movie gives him a free pass. And none more so than this movie. That’s what got my motor running.

Like all modern crap summer movies, X-Men Apocalypse has an - the word will come to me - oh yeah - apocalypse going on. There’s a monster from the deep past, and he wants to destroy everything and make the world suit him. Like most movie villains, he’s an assclown. Dug up out of the ground by accident, he wanders round the world, or Poland anyway, looking for henchmen. So Magneto; good choice, really. Certified monster, can manipulate metal, which is everywhere. And some other random chick with white hair, who can manipulate weather. Another good choice. Then two complete bystanders, one with the superpower of flying, which in this world is like having the superpower of eating your food with a knife and fork, and the other whose superpower is wearing stripperriffic spandex and cutting up things within about twenty feet of her. No way they’re going to be much help in conquering the world. Maybe if he just wanted to conquer, I don’t know, Podunk, Idaho.

Anyhow, his key henchperson is Magneto, who spends the back half of the movie destroying landmarks all over the world. Meanwhile his boss has completely levelled Cairo to make himself a pyramid out of the ruins. Between them, I don’t know how many people they killed. We literally don’t see a survivor in Cairo, population 12 million. Magneto is scragging everything from the George Washington Bridge to the Sydney Opera House; there’s no way that doesn’t come with a body count. By the time the “good” X-Men show up to do something about it, Cairo’s a pile of rubble and half the industrialised world’s infrastructure is ruins. And in the thirty minute punch up that follows, we don’t see a single living person who’s not a member of the elite. 

So far, so stupid Marvel movies. They level cities all the time. But this time the coda really got on my nerves. Because there’s a happy ending. Just for the good guys, not for anyone else. Half way through the movie, the Xavier Academy for entitled douchebags gets blown to bits [1]. And at the end of the movie, Magneto and Jean Grey are patiently putting it all back together again, just the way it was, using their superpowers. It’s not just that Magneto is completely off the hook for his latest monster fit (there’s a cute voiceover in which the TV tells us that he was instrumental in stopping the Apocalypse, which he completely was by, you know, stopping doing what he was doing). It’s that with half the world in ruins, Cairo flattened, and god knows how many hospitals and water treatment plants and what all completely buggered up thanks to Magneto he’s whiling away his time before disappearing rebuilding the Xavier Academy for entitled douchebags. And that’s when I cracked, really. That’s what makes Magneto Trump. Ruin everything around you, take the blame for nothing, and then do some small token thing which cheers you up and only benefits your rich friends, and ignore all the other devastation you’ve created.

X-Men. Screw those guys.

[1] Apart from the fact that it’s Xavier’s academy for entitled douchebags being blown up, which is objectively a great idea, it’s also the coolest scene in the movie, since it’s got the Speedster running around saving everyone. Just like the last movie, the Speedster is the best thing in it. And the actor deserves all the love, because it took him three and a half months, or something like four weeks for every minute on screen. He’s practically in another movie, and I’d much rather watch that one. 

Thursday, 9 June 2016

The NIce Guys; why couldn't this have been a TV Show?

Maybe it’s just me, but the charm of detective stories is not the endless parade of murders, but your sense of connection to the working stiffs trying to figure out what happened to the not-working-any-more stiffs. I am inclined to think I’ve stumbled into the mainstream on this one, since it’s a good explanation for the endless parade of cop serials on TV.

The Nice Guys was in development hell for a while as a TV serial, and they made it into a movie when they just couldn’t get the pilot to gel. Based on the movie, they gave up too soon. It would have made a great TV serial, although if the money’s out there for a show about a couple of mismatched lunkheads who are stumbling through their lives as much as through their cases, just bring back Terriers

That said, the TV show probably wouldn’t have been able to afford Russell Crowe. They wouldn’t have had the money for Ryan Gosling either, but Ryan could probably be replaced by any number of smaller actors. I’m not sure that The Nice Guys would have worked as well without Crowe’s Jackson Healy. Crowe hasn’t been this - loveable - since Gladiator. Healy ought to be a terrible person, and yet somehow he’s not. I’m not sure how Crowe does it, but somehow he gets the most likeable character in the whole movie out of a guy who beats people up for money. Healy’s about the smartest man in the whole show, which is not difficult, but he’s also somehow the decentest. I could have watched Healy all day, but I’m pretty sure no-one could afford to pay Crowe to play him for that long.

Crowe apart, it’s a Shane Black movie. There’s a mismatched duo. There’s a young daughter in peril who’s also the smartest person in the movie. There’s any number of effete villains fleering around the place and beating up the heroes. There’s a briefcase, which I was amazed to see did not have a bomb in it. There’s an action climax at a big outdoor event full of rich people. There’s a McGuffin which gives away the tawdry secrets of rich connected scumbags. These are all good things. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a great little movie. The Long Kiss Goodbye is one of the best stupid thrillers I’ve ever seen. I still watch The Last Boy Scout from time to time just to cheer myself up. They are all, in their own ways, assembled from the same simple bag of components that Black has been using since he was a screen-writing wunderkind introducing us to Martin Riggs - back in those happy days when we all believed that Mel Gibson was just acting crazy. 

It’s not a great Shane Black movie. That’s a split between The Long Kiss Goodbye if you just want thrills, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang if you want something a bit more meta. But even a not-great Shane Black movie is a lot of fun. It probably helps to have seen some of his other stuff, because a lot of the jokes are sour glances at his earlier work. When things go wrong, and they go wrong all the time, it’s funnier when you realise that they’re things which would have been miraculously effective in more mainstream thrillers.

The running gag - and the thing which could have held up any amount of TV episodes - is that Healy and March are the worst detectives ever. Healy at least knows he isn’t a real detective, but he’s naive enough to think that real detectives exist. Meanwhile March is convinced that he’s a real detective, and the movie mercilessly undercuts every “insight” he has. March is the kind of person who can say “You know who else was following orders? Hitler.” and think he’s made the winning move in the argument; Healy’s look of utter incredulity as the camera comes back to him is almost worth the ticket price all on its own. If they could have found someone to swap in for Crowe, and a way to keep writing nonsense for him to react to, they could have had something which would run forever, or at least until the loveable precocious pre-teen kid got too old to be a proper foil for the so-called grownups. Donal Logue would have been great, but if you’ve got money and Donal Logue, bring back Terriers. As I keep saying.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

The Lone Hero; The Gray Man, Orphan X, Victor the Assassin

I’m never getting any of this time back. Ten days of reading time, a snatched minute here, a distracted lunch break there, and all I’ve got to show for it is this sense of numb bewilderment. These books are popular - Orphan X (Greg Hurwitz) even got a favourable review in the Guardian - and that must mean they’re pushing a lot of buttons somewhere. 

I’ve mumbled before that our villains tell us what we’re scared of, whether it’s vampires standing in for shadowy elites poisoning our sense of community or zombies standing in for the faceless hordes coming to take our stuff. Now I’m wondering if our heroes tell us what we admire, or what. If today’s thriller heroes really do say anything about our values, it’s scarier than zombies.

The gold standard of lone hero narrative is - YMMV - Chandler’s endlessly quotable mission statement for the noir hero

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

Today, we are not talking about those guys. We are talking about guys who can barely talk, for starters.

Well, let’s not be picky. Not everyone can be Chandler. Not every character can have Philip Marlowe’s voice. That’s not what I’m trying to pick at here. What’s bugging me is that today’s lone heroes are outsiders defined almost entirely by their ability to kill other people. Even though the Gray Man and Orphan X are explicitly put forward as people trying to be good guys, the way they go about being good guys is to schwack people who they think are bad guys. What makes them men of honor in their context is that they choose who to kill, rather than doing as they’re told by someone else.

I got down this rabbit hole because Back Blast - the newest Gray Man book - was cheap and I was curious about whether it sorted anything out for Courtland Gentry, proud owner of the weirdest name in state sanctioned murder. That hinted me into The Hunter, Victor’s debut. I’m ashamed to say that I bought Orphan X by accident; it looked cheap and I got it mixed up with something else I had in my “maybe” list. I’d finished it by the time I noticed it getting a favourable review in the Guardian. I sort of agreed with that review; Orphan X is competently written and the protagonist’s superpowers are credibly undercut by his knack for getting things wrong on the big picture. But what it all boiled down to was for a couple of weeks I was immersed in a peculiar world where men were men and everything else was some kind of target, and now I’ve emerged blinking wondering what the hell it says about the world we live in.

Back Blast sorts out all Court Gentry’s problems, at the expense of turning a whole five-thriller series into the world’s longest origin story; finally the Gray Man’s off the hook and rehabilitated, and the CIA wants to put his superpowers to good use killing bad people. I’ve got just enough respect for Mark Greaney to suspect this is all going to wind up not working out as advertised and his new friends in the CIA will spend the next few books bamboozling him. But; lots of people get killed, you can’t trust big gummint, and somewhere out there, there’s a factory churning out young men who can kill anything that walks and most things that don’t. Orphan X; product of an elite killing machine factory has gone into business for himself killing people because they look bad to him; by the end of the book, lots of people get killed, you can’t trust big gummint, and the protagonist is set up for a life of further adventures killing more people. And The Hunter; lots of people get killed, you can’t trust big gummint, and at the end the protagonist has been pushed into working for the CIA to use his killing powers for good - not that I imagine that will work at all as planned; see under you can’t trust big gummint.

And these guys are just the ones I was reading this last couple of weeks; Jack Reacher kills all around him and you can’t trust big gummint, and John Milton kills all around him, and you ...

You can never trust big gummint, and I wouldn’t argue that you should. But all these guys are loners, full of weird skills and no hobbies. Some have no money and possessions (Reacher, Milton, The Gray Man on his bad days) others have way more money than is remotely credible (Orphan X, Victor), but they always seem to have whatever they want and no real needs; maybe they like a particular kind of vodka, but half the stuff in their lives seems to be there because it struck the author as a cool signifier of some kind. There seems to be no point to them beyond their deadliness. You can read all the Marlowe books without ever getting a full sense of his life; family? previous career? thoughts for the future? A mystery, pretty much. But before you’ve got half way through any of them, you know what kind of person Marlowe is, and what he’s going to do when the going gets tough. All you know about today’s loners is that they kill stuff.

And we’re supposed to be OK with that; these are the protagonists, and the world’s their target range. They pick the people who are bad enough to kill, and by reading along we’re tacitly endorsing the choices - more than that, we’re tacitly endorsing the idea that it’s OK for lone murderers to decide who lives and and dies. Today’s heroes are vigilantes. Let’s hope I’m reading way too much into that. 

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Money Monster: Men, honestly.

The one concession Money Monster makes to the idea that men are anything other than a waste of oxygen is the casting of George Clooney as Lee Gates. Lee Gates is a complete asshole, but George Clooney is simply incapable of playing an irredeemable asshole, because, George Clooney. He’s our generation’s Cary Grant; cast him as a villain if you want, but the audience will just see him as a hero anyhow. He does his best to be a jerk, but he’s just so loveable.

Meanwhile, the brains of the operation is a tag team between Caitriona Balfe and Julia Roberts. Balfe is the apparently tricky but actually upright PR flack for the demon finance company at the heart of the plot, and Roberts is Clooney’s longsuffering producer. Balfe starts out looking like the role director Jodie Foster played in her last bank robbery movie, Inside Man, but where Foster gave us a steely operator who’d never seen a bus she couldn’t throw a friend under, Balfe’s an adorably Irish marshmallow. Yup, Jodie Foster directs a movie where the heavy lifting is being done by a woman. Bechdel tests being passed all over the place. And the world hasn’t come to an end, because these women aren’t busting ghosts. Or box office records.

Mind you, Balfe’s character doesn’t really add up when I think about it. The rot at the heart of her company gets right by her until the very last minute, despite the fact that she’s a) in charge of explaining what it’s doing and b) banging the guy at the heart of the rot. She’s smart, but not when realistically she ought to be smart. And how can the communications chief for a finance company know so comically little about high frequency trading? If you’re feeling mean, it’s because she was b) banging the boss. If you’re feeling a little less mean, it’s because someone has to explain it to the audience, and her character pulled the illogical short straw, even though they had George Clooney playing a guy whose actual job was dumbing that stuff down for the audience.

You know what? This is the kind of stuff which bothers most people after the fact. What matters is whether the movie works in the moment, and Money Monster mostly does. Julia Roberts takes a cliché and makes a plausible enough person out of it, Balfe is charming enough to get us past all those quibbles of mine, and George is, well, George. And there’s lots of solid work being done round the edges by people who could do a lot more if you let them. Jack O’Connell’s gives us a dopey hostage taker who’s just smart enough to know he’s doomed and just dumb enough to do it anyhow. It could have been one bum note, but he’s just the right kind of pathetic. Dominic West and Giancarolo Esposito aren’t given anything like as much to do as they should have been, but it’s good to see them getting work.

And there are moments of cleverness; at one point George tries to solve the problem by getting everyone to buy the bad company’s worthless stock. Wonderfully, everyone dumps it instead and his whole “we’re all in this together!” speech falls flat on its face. I liked that; I’ve seen movies where that would have worked and we’d all have been expected to cheer good old American knowhow.

But as a critique of capitalism, it’s pretty broken. High Frequency Trading, stock pumping and late stage capitalism are all aspects of a problem that needs a harsh kicking; Money Monster instead blames the wipe-out on shady dealing which even the people in charge can agree is wrong. The CEO embezzled a boat load of money, manipulated a strike in a South African mine to drop the price of the mining company, and then figured that when the stock bounced back up, he could grab the profits and cover up the embezzlement, while making it look like his investment company has the magic touch. That’s just criminal, even under the existing rules. Catching the system doing that in a movie just lets the rest of the system off the hook. It’s about as useful a critique of capitalism as Trading Places, just with suicide belts and gunfire. And yet George and Jodie probably think they were sticking it to the man.

Nah. You’re just playing, where the system will let you play. The status quo rolls on.

Our Kind of Traitor: Damian Lewis is posh

Listening to Damian Lewis in Our Kind of Traitor, I realised that I had never heard him  speak in his normal accent. In Band of Brothers, he was playing American. Same in Life, same in Homeland. And then, here he was in Le Carre, sounding hella posh and reminding me how weird acting is. Also, how posh Le Carre world is, whether you like it or not.

Well, most of the time. You can always rely on Le Carre to throw in one utterly vulgar person just for the contrast. Lest anyone think for a second that it’s an author cameo, Damian’s posho owns the one moment in the movie where Le Carre might as well have kicked a hole in the backdrop and strode through to declaim from stone tablets what’s wrong with the world. It’s not that I disagree with him, it’s just that, hell that wasn’t subtle. It’s the speech where Lewis points out that in sufficient volume, money doesn’t have a smell, for anyone who’s having difficulty following at home.

Of course, Damian’s only support; the heavy lifting is being done by Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsgard. The last time I saw them together it gave me one of my favourite blog posts; there was so terribly much wrong with Angels and Demons that the review just soared on wings of other people’s idiocy. Ewan flailed with an impossible piece of balderdash; Stellan bought a place in my heart with his impeccable delivery of “We’re saved. The symbologist has arrived.”, a line which summarises everything Dan Browne thinks we ought to believe about his hero, and delivers it in the exact tone which the sentiment deserves.

Armed with a script based on a book by someone who can actually write, Ewan and Stellan are almost coasting in Our Kind of Traitor. Neither performance is exactly subtle, and Skarsgard in particular is capable of much more than he bothers with here, but since the characters were written to make sense in the first place, even coasting gives you people to root for.

That said, it’s a good thing you can root for the characters, since the money laundering plot swerves between impenetrable and not making a button of sense. Yes, there’s a boat load of money hidden hither and yon, and it has to be some place. I get that bit, and how important it would be to have one guy who’d know all the account numbers. It’s a bit more of a wrench to work out why the transfers of the money require big ceremonial signing sessions in bank offices full of notorious criminals who you’d think would be staying well away from the official side of things.