Monday, 31 October 2016

Claire North: The Sudden Appearance of Hope

The inside of Claire North’s head is a strange place. She has the knack of coming up with weird high-concept scenarios combined with the talent to make them sing on the page. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was a weird take on reincarnation, Touch was a weird take on possession, and The Sudden Appearance of Hope is - well, I’m not sure what it’s a take on. The Invisible Man? Depression? Social anxiety?

What’s impressive about all this is the sheer consistency of it all; North is banging out a weird novel with a weird hook reliably once a year, and there hasn’t been any real fall-off in the quality of the writing. The characters still work, the writing is good without getting in the way of the reading, and the plotting is - well, honestly, plotting’s not her strong suit, or maybe it’s pacing; either way her books tend to end in a rush.

The big difference between Hope and the two earlier novels is that the bad guys are independent of the high concept. In Harry August and Touch, the narrator’s troubles come from other people with the same talents that he has. But Hope Arden’s problem is the kind of problem which makes conspiracy impossible. If no-one can remember you, you can do all kinds of things, but you can’t really form a club. Well, if you wanted to cheat, you could. You could have a world in which ordinary people couldn’t remember you, but your own kind could. That would have put Hope right into the same wheelhouse as the two earlier books, as a small coterie of parasites fell out about the best ways to exploit the herd.

North didn’t want to go there; she wanted Hope to be utterly alone. But then she needed something for Hope to push back against, so for the first time she needed a second concept in a book, something which Hope could fight. What she settled on was a creepy intensification of Facebook crossed with a creepy intensification of Weightwatchers. On the one hand a social media app which watches everything you do, and on the other hand a system for making you feel bad about yourself so that you’ll eat the right foods. For values of right which are more about selling you branded goods than making you eat healthily.

More than ever, North is taking a look at modern society and not liking what she sees. Perfection, the app in Hope, is a perfectly plausible extrapolation of stuff we’re doing right now. Perfection the company isn’t even an extrapolation; it’s a perfectly unremarkable specimen of capitalism. And there’s nothing all that novel about making money out of making people feel bad about themselves; it’s pretty much the established business model for every women’s magazine and all the companies which advertise in them. As if there’s any real distinction between the magazine and the advertising.

Hope is the more interesting thing. It doesn’t do us any harm to be reminded as often as possible about the rapacity of the marketing and internet businesses, but how often are we going to meet someone who no-one can remember? Hope’s a tricky character to put on the page. Harry August and the nameless narrator in Touch were engaging bounders; well, I’m being a bit unfair to Harry there. But they had a predicament which they could control and exploit. Hope is a victim of something she can’t change or even understand, condemned to a kind of solitary confinement which should have driven her completely crazy. Since no-one can remember her, she can steal anything she wants to; if she gets caught, the person who catches her will forget about her as soon as they look away. Handy. Until you realise that it’s a death sentence if she’s admitted to hospital, because no-one will remember to check on her or change dressings or even feed her. Hope’s life is almost impossible, and North has a constant struggle to balance that impossibility with cunning workarounds which will somehow let Hope get by from day to day. I did find myself wondering about driving, though it’s not as though most drivers seem to be aware of other road users even without Hope’s unique problems.

As always, it’s just a good book. There are things which don’t quite work, and the ending is rushed, yet again, but the writing’s equal to the concept, and that makes all the difference. I’ve gone past hoping North can keep it up; clearly she can. Now I’m just waiting patiently for her to do it again next year

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Everything you need is in the title

$68 million. If you’ve ever wondered what $68 million looks like, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is not going to be much help. That’s what the reported budget was, and I defy you tell me how it made it onto the screen. Unless Producer Tom Cruise conducted a tense negotiation with Star Tom Cruise and when they were finished there was a loose handful of small denomination bills left to pay for the rest of the cast, the stunts and whatever else they thought they might be doing. The writing had already been paid for; Lee Child may not be Shakespeare, but you can pretty much film any of his books straight from the page.

When I watched the first attempt to sell Tom as Reacher, I called it something on the lines of a perfectly presentable couple of episodes of a TV cop show no-one was ever going to get excited about. Almost incredibly, Never Go Back comes in well under that bar. There’s a couple of fights, a car chase with less thrills and spills than the one with OJ in it, and a Hummer gets blown up in an Afghanistan flashback (the most technically impressive thing about that was they somehow found a piece of Louisiana which could double for the sandbox). And running. Just so much running. It’s hard to believe two experienced military investigators don’t realise how conspicuous it is to be the only people running in a crowded street. I have watched bad TV pilots with more action in them. In fact, I have just watched a ten minute ad for Beemers with more action in it. There’s not a lot of excitement (1) on offer, and there isn’t much in the line of fun characterisation and dialogue to make up for it. Nor is there much of a plot; it’s pretty much Reacher beats his way through yet another cookie-cutter conspiracy by sinister corporate forces to smuggle heroin out of a war zone. Why is the US forever going to war near places which ship wagon loads of heroin?

In an effort to bulk it up to two whole episodes of TV, there’s a B plot where Reacher may or may not have a long lost daughter, who provides a handy hazard moppet cum streetwise accomplice for him as he bashes his way to the answer. If anything it just ups the sense that this is a double length pilot for the Reacher and Turner show, where two mismatched military cops will fight crime while trying to look after the troubled teen neither of them wanted, neither of knows what to do with and neither can help bonding with.

Tom Cruise continues to nail the basic attitude of Reacher, 24/7 asshole, without being continuously convincing as anyone’s idea of a man mountain. When Ed Zwick remembers to keep the camera low and shoot him against landscape, Cruise briefly towers on the screen. Then one of the other cast walks into shot and the illusion is shattered. When I wasn’t wondering what I was going to have for dinner, I found myself imagining what might have happened if they’d given Peter Jackson $68 million and let him use weird sets and forced perspective to make Cruise tower over hobbits like Cobie Smulders (who is exactly the same height if you believe the people who say Tom Cruise ISN’T five foot seven but a whole five foot eight). Maybe that can be Jack Reacher: The Hard Way, which is totally the title they need to use to describe the way they’re doing things.


(1) all the sadder that the best line is Reacher grating out “I’m going to break your arms, your legs and your neck. What you hear in my voice is excitement.” to his gloating nemesis asking “Is that fear I hear?"

Friday, 21 October 2016

Ben H Winters: Underground Airlines

Did this start with the title and then Winters just had to do something with it? It’s such a great title.

It’s also a great high concept hook. Winters is good at this. The Last Policeman trilogy had a great hook; the world is ending, let’s look at it through the eyes of one guy trying to live a normal life as everything falls apart. Underground Airlines has another killer hook; what would the modern world be like if the USA still had slave states?

Spookily normal. Winters hints at the economic isolation of the USA, and the ways in which the bigger world would be different, but he keeps his focus squarely on his narrator and the day to day reality of hunting down escaped slaves. Victor’s USA is not all that different from our own; mobile phones, the internet, a hollowed out industrial economy. And four states with three million slaves, not to mention a Republic of Texas which either is or isn’t independent depending on whose propaganda you read. The Texan War fills the same space in this USA that the Vietnam war filled in the real world; a meat grinder which deflected the government just at the time when it might have started to deal with its internal contradictions.

As with the Last Policeman, a lot turns on the narrator. Henry Palace was a loveable doofus, charmingly out of his depth and gamely trying to do the right thing. Victor is a much darker character, clinging to his freedom by taking it off other people. When slaves escape to the free states, the feds hunt them down and hand them back, and Victor is one of the undercover agents who does the hunting. You need black agents to do this, and the only way the US Marshals can get those agents is by turning some of the escaped slaves on the rest. Victor is not one of the good guys. Victor is the guy who finds the good guys and betrays them.

It’s a tricky balancing act, both for the character and the writer. Victor’s smart enough to hate himself, and sneaky enough to pretend that he’s OK with what he has to do to get by; Winters is smart enough to get all of this into Victor’s voice as he tells us his story, an unreliable narrator who even lies to himself.

SF usually has three components; the gimmick, the plot which showcases the gimmick somehow, and the characters who make you care what happens. The gimmick is the easy bit, because that’s the bit you can write on a beermat; what if X were Y. The characters are usually the bit where SF crashes and burns. From what I’ve seen of Winters, he’s good at the gimmick and all the little touches which make the gimmick seem like it’s not a gimmick at all, and he’s good at the characters. It’s the plot which struggles. In the Last Policeman, the collapsing plots and pointless McGuffins were part of the character, really; Henry thought life had more meaning and complexity than it really did, and each book was about him finding out that it’s all just a mess. Underground Airlines is much darker and grittier, and so the lack of a plot which hangs together well is more of a problem for the book. The plot takes a long time to set up and then peters out far too abruptly before ending on what’s eithert an optimistic note or a sequel hook depending on whether we get another book.

I’d kind of like another book. Victor’s good company for all his flaws, and Winters kept the tension rising in the late going so that I could hardly bear to read the next chapter in case something terrible happened. And there’s a lot of stuff unpacked quickly in the closing pages which I would like to see fleshed out in another book. 

The thing which I’m still not sure about is how much of the idea is a what-if about how you could make slavery work in a modern world, and how much of it is a coded criticism of what we have instead with Asian sweatshops churning out cheap goods in horrible conditions that we all try hard not to think about.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

War on Everyone; don't let the McDonaghs out without Brendan Gleeson

Let’s tally this up. 

Martin McDonagh; In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths

John Michael McDonagh; The Guard, Calvary, War on Everyone

In Bruges and The Guard are both pretty good, and I can make an argument for Calvary. Seven Psychopaths and War on Everyone are pretty terrible; sprawling messes which keep winking out at the camera while wasting decent casts and going nowhere.

And it’s tempting to say that the problem is that they’re set in America and the McDonaghs only think they understand America. I think the problem is more personal. The problem is that there’s no Brendan Gleeson. And it’s not that I miss his ability to take the McDonaghs’ writing and make it sound like something which occurred to him in the moment. It’s that I think Brendan Gleeson is the only person who can pick up a McDonagh script and bitch-slap either brother across the face with it, bellowing “Do yis not get it? Yis can’t just type this crap and pray that I’m going to make it sing. Go away back to the pub and find another beermat. This is shite, and I’m not going to try to make it work."

Absent their profane muse, there’s nothing to make the McDonaghs skulk back to their lairs and get the damn thing right. They seem to have just enough moxie - or be just cheap enough - to keep the producers off their backs, and they head out to the location and bash out whatever the hell they feel like, in the apparent hope that the actors will save it, or the editors, or at the last ditch the audience’s affectionate memory of the stuff they did get right. Or maybe they just don’t care. Maybe they really think this stuff is golden.

Guys, it’s really not. I could have gone to the latest Mel Gibson movie, which I figured would be reliably stupid. I could have gone to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Tim Burton Grotesques, except I’m tired of watching Eva Green waste her talent. I went to War on Everyone in the same way that I slow down when I’m passing a car crash; I know this is going to be not good, but I can’t help wanting to know what way it’s going to be not good.

Paul Reiser is in it. He’s playing cop thriller stock character number 374, the long suffering lieutenant reining in his loose cannons, and yet somehow McDonagh couldn’t figure out a way to drag in an Aliens reference. Would it have been SO hard to work in “It was a bad call…”? Apparently. 

Doing most of the heavy lifting; Michael Pena and Alexander Skarsgard [1] as Bob and Terry, hopefully the most corrupt and unpleasant cops in Albuquerque, because man, you’d hate to think there was anyone worse on the payroll. I have a feeling they seemed funny as hell at three in the morning, but here in Ireland we don’t open the cinemas at three in the morning. Even if we did, it may not be legal to get the audience into the pharmacological state that would make Bob and Terry fun to be with. These are not likeable arseholes, and let’s face it, it’s not that hard to find unlikeable arseholes just by going to work in normal Dublin traffic. You’ll make your quota by lunchtime; you don’t need to go to the cinema.

Mostly, War on Everyone feels like they shot the first draft and had no money for reshoots and rewrites. “Let’s go to Iceland!” was not greeted with “In the name of God, WHY?” but with “Well, I guess.”  I dunno. Maybe McDonagh had never been to Iceland, and fancied doing it with someone else’s money. It’s pricey to visit; you can see why you’d use someone else’s money. What I couldn’t see is how it made sense to bring the narrative to a screeching halt to make it happen.

The most frustrating thing is that there are plenty of good moments. Skarsgard perfectly sells “You should see the other guy. Totally unscathed.” It’s far too consciously witty to work, and somehow it does anyhow. When people can do that, it really kills me that they can’t keep it up.


[1] I am way too lazy to try to figure out how to do the diacritical mark over the second “a”. Don’t even.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

The Girl With All the Gifts; heartwarming zombie fun

A couple of years ago, I read The Girl With All The Gifts and predicted that it would make a great movie one of these days. When the trailer showed up, I had goosebumps; it seemed like they’d got the look and the tension just right, and they seemed to have absolutely nailed the casting of Melanie. Glenn Close, Gemma Arterton and Paddy Considine were just icing on the cake; Sennia Nanua was nothing like the way I’d pictured Melanie and exactly the way she had sounded in my head when I was reading her dialogue. She was perfect. The movie had to be a disappointment. The last time I’d seen a trailer that looked so good, it wound up being Suicide Squad.

The great news is that it all lives up to the trailer this time. Weirdly Glenn Close might be the weakest thing in it. Sennia Nanua is adorable. She is completely believable as a precocious kid who adores her teacher and wants to be with her all the time, and she’s equally credible as flesh-eating monster doing whatever it takes to keep her precious human friends safe. She’s good enough to get away with lines which would have been cheesy for anyone else, including the almost perfect response to Ms Justineau asking if she wants a cat. The camera shifts, from the cat painting Melanie is gazing at, to her bloodsplattered face as she says matter-of-factly “Already had one.” That should not have worked.

I was surprised how true the film was to the book, but apparently Carey was working on the script at the same time that he was working on the book. The only significant change was to get rid of a subplot involving feral human survivors, which would have driven up the shooting price and not really added anything to the real plot of the movie; you could make a pretty good argument that the movie’s an improvement on the book, cleaner and more focused. The production costs were extraordinarily low by feature film standards, and if you know anything at all about film-making, there’s a lot to enjoy in such simple things as the way that scenes are staged and mounted to get the most out of limited budgets. When the camera goes wide to show the whole ruined post-apocalyptic world, the CGI shows its price a bit, but most of the time the camera is staying where it counts, with the tiny five person main cast.

When I reviewed the book, I talked about how grown up woman actors would fight to the death for the parts of Justineau and Dr Caldwell. What I underestimated was just how little it would matter who won that fight compared to how much it would matter who played Melanie. Melanie was a great character in the book, but it was always a long shot whether you could get that on the screen. Sennia Nanua does it all. She is adorable. For the movie to work, the audience has to be rooting for Melanie all the way, and with Sennia Nanua, any audience will be. I hoped it when I saw the trailer and heard her voiceover, which almost made me choke up with emotion. I believed it once I saw the whole performance. It’s a wonderful, heartwarming life-affirming zombie movie which ends with the whole human race being wiped out. To make that work took a kind of genius. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Connie Willis; Crosstalk

This is a book you read for the pleasure of the journey, because the destination, even the itinerary, has been telegraphed in the first thirty pages. Literally nothing goes to waste; every single character is there for a reason. Pay attention; passing references which seem to be just part of the mile a minute dialogue are as often as not the introductions of key characters who are going to show up at any minute. And yet, there are no real surprises. The suspense resides mostly in wondering just how long it’s going to take before the characters finally catch on to what the reader knows.

To some extent this is pure Connie Willis. Willis has spent most of her writing career writing about misunderstanding. Nearly every book has turned on misunderstanding and error, and so of course she’s written a romance novel. All romance novels are about misunderstanding, as the heroine completely fails to recognise the man of her dreams despite the reader seeing it a mile off. The extraordinary thing about the book will elude anyone reading Willis for the first time; the plot, the surprises, the resolution are all as utterly obvious as the final outcome of the Mills and Boon romances which Willis is echoing.

With anyone else, I’d think it was the writer getting lazy, but Willis isn’t lazy. She’s getting longwinded as she goes along, but she writes well enough to make that an acceptable vice. It’s almost as though she’s saying to her regular readers; here’s one with no surprises. See how you like it.

I liked it fine; you can’t spend time in Willis’ company without enjoying yourself. Her books are full of people talking over each other in different voices, as if she’s somehow taking dictation on the set of a series 1930s screwball comedies now lost to us, and if you can’t just sink into the fun of the language then there’s something dead in you. But it’s not a good Willis book. In Bellwether she did most of the workplace chaos and comedy in a fraction of the space and with a much better pay off. And if you want drama and romance, you need only look at Lincoln’s Dreams, her astonishing second novel. For pure drama, there are very few SF books by anyone which surpass Doomsday Book. If that’s just too intense, To Say Nothing of the Dog is in some ways her masterpiece; the stakes aren’t high, but the complexity of the plotting and the depth of literary reference and sheer cleverness is extraordinary. 

In other words, if you already like Connie Willis, this is going to seem a slip, and if you don’t already like Willis, this isn’t the place to start.

In other news, if you’re Irish, there’s a lot of little things which are just going to feel like chewing tinfoil, starting with the idea that anyone christened Bridget would ever be called Briddey. On the other hand, this is Irish America, which has always felt like a terrible parody of Ireland anyhow. Maybe it’s completely true to that.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

The Magnificent Seven: why wasn't the wagon Plan A?

I think I was about four minutes into The Magnificent Seven before I started wondering if we’d in fact perfected the Western decades ago and there was no need to go there any more. Let alone with a remake of a remake. Nothing in the next 129 minutes really changed my mind about that. It had been a toss up between that and Tim Burton’s latest, and I kind of wish I’d taken the big risk of it being a complete mess instead of figuring that Denzel would cancel out the Antoine Fuqua of it all. (Fair warning; one of those days, I’m going to find myself needing to describe a movie as a complete Fuqua-up).

The biggest misstep is Chris Pratt, who already was in a much better remake of The Magnificent Seven and just doesn’t quite work in this remake. Mostly because the character needs to be kind of mean, and Pratt can’t do mean. He can do funny, even snarky, but Chris Pratt’s never gonna be the guy who shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. Everyone just plugs along, even if Ethan Hawke seems to be there because he ran out of excuses to meet up again after Training Day.

It’s anyone’s guess whether this is supposed to be a banker for Denzel’s looming pension years; they’ve cheapened the sequel by killing everyone you ever heard of, leaving Denzel and two guys I’d never seen before to ride off into the sunset. So maybe there’ll be a whole run of these, just like there was the first time. Or maybe everyone will go meh, like I did, and Denzel will do something else to stave off the indignity of living on his existing savings.

Meanwhile, no-one in the movie needs a pension plan. It’s been a while since I saw a western with a body count like this one. Denzel and Co clear their throats by killing the average body count of most Liam Neeson movies, and then hunker down for some serious killing in the climax. Peter Sarsgaard’s creepy plutocrat sends hundreds of mooks to stomp them flat, and they get cut down in droves. So do the townsfolk. So do the Seven, who are down to Three by the time the dust settles. This is a small town of sharecroppers being hounded out by a mining magnate. If you correct for scale, The Seven are about as good for the town as the Avengers are for Manhattan, Segovia or - well, anywhere the Avengers go problem solving.

However, it’s the villainy I find most troubling. The Seven are seeing off the forces of corporate greed, in the shape of human cartoon Bartholomew Bogue. If you ever want to see a genuinely scary, amoral capitalist scumbag with a mining jones, I commend to you the third season of Deadwood, where George Hearst is depicted as the kind of robber baron who would burn down an orphanage to light his cigar and yet still pass for human among his peers. Bogue is written as the kind of twitchy sociopath whose criminal career would end about six weeks into his first hiring spree as his goons collectively realised that their best prospects for short term survival would turn on making their employer’s survival a very short term thing. Yup, he’s another one of those idjits that shoot the help.

Or send two hundred of the help into a defenceless town to butcher everyone before belatedly remembering that he’s brought a Gatling gun. Why wasn’t the Gatling gun Plan A? Nah. Send in the two hundred guys, and when you’re down to about a dozen and the assault has gone to hell in a handbasket, then turn to the sergeant and tell him to bring up the wagon. Of course, Bogue is nothing if not consistent; once Denzel’s Chisum finally gets the drop on him, Chisum has pretty much choked him to death before Bogue remembers he’s got a hideout gun in his boot. Slowly he inches it out, and then gets plugged at the last minute by someone else in the grand old style. Bogue is pure Hollywood idiot. In the real world, people would be saying “Remember that asshole Bogue? Why did he ever think he would ever amount to anything?” Unless he borrowed a ton of money from his Dad and another ton after he lost the first ton, I suppose. But still. If the Gatling gun isn’t plan A, you don’t deserve a Gatling gun.