Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Alex Gerlis: The Best of Our Spies

Having mentioned this in the course of venting about Allied, I feel like I ought to flesh it out a bit. Simply put, The Best of Our Spies is a much more plausible story about a German spy setting up with an Allied officer and trying to steal all his secrets. It’s low key, and low stakes, and nobody blows up hardly anything from one end of it to the other. It’s one of those books I read a little chunk at a time, as I often do when the characters have been put together and then put in harm’s way. It’s the book reading equivalent of squinting at things through your fingers. You get invested, the characters start to feel like real people, all trying to do their best, and you just can’t bear to keep on looking as things get worse for them.

There is no big mystery; from the beginning we know that the spy we’re calling Nathalie has been working for the Germans, and so do the British high command. She’s not going to get caught, because she’s been caught without ever knowing it, rumbled when her radio operator gets caught and turned. From that point on, British Intelligence are playing her like a banjo, manipulating her and the poor schmuck they marry her off to. The game is cynical and simple; sure, they could turn Nathalie too, but if they keep her in play, letting her think she’s still spying, the intelligence she provides to the German will have a sense of authenticity to it which couldn’t be faked.

Once the game’s afoot, the tension is not whether Nathalie will get caught; it’s what will happen when all the contradictions collapse around her. Will she survive? Will she somehow be able to keep the fake life she’s built with her clueless Allied stooge? And perhaps the biggest mystery of all; how the hell did she even get into this mess? That’s as big a puzzle, right up to the end, as how the hell she’s going to get out of it.

It’s not quite Alan Furst, because, after all, what is? But it’s solid, and it’s heartfelt, and it never seems fantastical.

It would have been a perfect source text for a good movie with Marion Cotillard and some worthwhile, unflashy British actor, a McAvoy or a Whishaw or a McGregor. It was what I was half hoping Allied would turn out to be. Instead, I think that Allied has probably made sure that this much better story is always just going to be a book.

Allied: Marion Cotillard would be ready if all she had was cutlery

Marion Cotillard automatically outclasses pretty much anything she’s in. She was so effortlessly good in Public Enemies that she’s more or less the only thing I remember from what was supposed to be Johnny Depp’s star vehicle. She is so good that her two best scenes don’t even have dialogue. She is, in fact, so good, that for as long as the camera is on her in Allied, you can forget that it’s balderdash at just about every level. Her final scene is, despite everything I’d already seen, still somehow a punch in the gut, because Cotillard is just that good. She makes silence devastating. She can even make you think that terrible dialogue is a real person lost for something to say.

Brad Pitt, in the meantime, has - at most - upped his “my wife just died” game from the miserable baseline he set in Se7en, where his reaction to finding Gwynneth Paltrow’s head in a delivery box seemed to be based on hazy memories of how a friend looked when their younger brother’s hamster had died. The rest of the time he’s playing a straight arrow, which is a good way to remind us that “normal” Brad Pitt is about one step up from an animatronic display at Disneyworld.

So it’s Cotillard’s movie, but in more ways than one. Allied is like someone had a perfectly good script about deep cover and betrayal, and someone - someone, let’s say, Pitt-shaped - wedged a low budget war thriller into it, ruining both ideas beyond repair. There’s Cotillard’s movie, which is all about whether she could possibly have seduced an Allied spy, married him, had a baby and all so that she could get access to Allied secrets and slip them to the Germans. Could that possibly be true, or have the paranoid loons of Section V have got it ridiculously wrong? And then there’s Brad Pitt’s movie, in which things explode and people get shot to bits and there’s excitement of a particularly teenage kind. Man, I wish it had just been Cotillard’s movie, not least because it seemed from the trailer that someone might have been trying to adapt Alex Gerlis’ The Best of Our Spies.

Or, you know, I’d have been fine with Pitt’s movie, since if it had just been that, it would have been Brad and Marion, together they fight Nazis. I wouldn’t even have worried that there was another better movie; there would have been explosions and a cool female lead, and I’m easily pleased. The trailer promises that, in its way. It could have been fun.

Alas, it was not to be. And with plot and the pacing all over the place, and the camera not staying on Marion like God intended, I had way too much time for my mind to wander and ponder how many things were just plain wrong.

Over on the Brad Pitt plot front; he parachutes into Morocco for his deadly mission, landing miles from anywhere and marching across the desert to be picked up a local driver and driven to Casablanca. Where he transforms into a Frenchman just in from Parism with all the papers and clothes for the role, and two Sten guns in a suitcase. Along the march he skylines himself on the dunes, just like he wouldn’t have been trained to; that bugged me a bit. But the rest of the plan is madder. Everything has been done to make him someone who’s just arrived in Casablanca, except for the bit where he arrives the way his papers say he should have. It’s a small town, from a French emigrĂ© perspective, and there’s a war on. How long is it going to be before someone asks why they never saw him coming through the port or the airport?

And then there’s the thing he came to do; he’s there to assassinate the German ambassador. On the one hand, in 1942, Vichy Morocco wouldn’t have rated an Ambassador; it would have had a consul at best. On the other hand, Ambassadors are useless. I don’t know how many of them you’d have to shoot to make a difference to anything. It’s a great peace-time move, since it’s a diplomatic incident and casus belli, but once you’ve got a war on anyhow, what’s the point?

Meanwhile the spying and betrayal plot is breathtakingly wrong; Brad Pitt is told his wife may be a spy, and if she is …. he must execute her by his own hand. What? This is Britain, April 1944. Every German spy in England had been caught, and turned, and they were being used relentlessly to sow disinformation in Germany about D-day. And now MI5 has found a possible extra asset who the Germans think they’ve got past the British completely? They’d no sooner have her executed than a five year old would shoot Santa on Christmas Eve. This is melodrama for the sake of melodrama, when they had an actress who could have handled actual drama. In reality MI5 would have turned her round, rolled up her network and used the whole boiling to reinforce the message that the invasion was going to hit Calais. And with a real actor, as opposed to Brad Pitt playing it straight, they could have had real drama from the marriage falling apart. Nah, we’ve got this nonsense, and Brad flying to France to get intelligence, and - oh man, it’s not even worth getting into it.

But it could all be happening in an alternate reality of some kind, since this is a London where the Blitz is well underway in 1943, and the Luftwaffe is mounting massive raids in April 1944. Or so I thought, until I checked and it turns out that Operation Steinbock was underway at the time and it even involved He 177s, so the ridiculously over the top air raid and crashed bomber in Brad and Marion’s back garden are historically just about plausible.  Damn. I’d been all set to hate on that. Oh well, I enjoyed my annoyance while I was having it.

One movie or the other would have been fine. The Brad Pitt one could have been thrilling. The Marion Cotillard one could have been a classic. Trying to do them both at the same time just ruined everything. But still, it was almost worth it to see Marion dismissively smack down Brad Pitt wondering if she could do with hit with a Sten. “I could do it if all I had was cutlery.” She could. I’d watch it.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to FInd Them; no room left for a ...

I’ve managed not to consume any Potterverse materials up until now. Not out of any particular antipathy to the work of the world’s richest author. It’s just that it would be a tonne of work to read all the books and watch all the movies, and they’ve been so culturally prevalent since I got back to Ireland and points north that it didn’t feel like I needed to do more than let it all wash past me. Like pretty much anyone with an internet connection, I’m broadly aware of Snape and Dumbledore and muggles and what-all, and nothing about any of it has left me feeling that I need more than the ability to recognise that someone else is now talking about the whole Potter thing, smile at the bit which is obviously supposed to be hilarious, and carry on with my life. Perhaps I’m missing out, but there’s a big world of books out there and time is limited. Millions of other people are reading those books; I think I can leave that job to them and get on with reading books which millions of people should be reading but unaccountably aren’t.

Still, this frigid week there was pretty much nothing going on at the cinema other than Fantastic Beasts, and it’s not like I’m actively opposed to that stuff. So I put my head round the door of the Potter-verse, as it were, and found myself about as underwhelmed as I thought I might be. There’s magic. There’s beasts. There’s special effects. There’s a peril all set to destroy New York, as bloody usual. There’s Eddie Redmayne, still on double secret super probation after this, where his performance was so feyly bonkers that I left out mentioning it for fear that my fingers would melt. There’s Ron Perlman, because why not? And a bunch of folks I’d never seen before, who I assumed were the young kids who’d sold their next ten years to the franchise because they wanted to be super-rich, together with a bunch of folks I had seen before, who I assumed - correctly - would get killed by the end of the movie to give it some kind of emotional stakes. Ta-ta Samantha Morton and Colin Farrell, I know you’ve got better things to do, or at least I hope you do. And hi there Johnny Depp, who has a blink and you’ll miss it cameo right at the end which might even mean that we’re finally going to be spared any more Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

How does it all look? It looks like someone wedged a bunch of magic into an expertly realised version of Depression-era New York, which is to say sepia with moments of way too much CGI. The cast give it their best shot, which is to say the best shot you can give things when it’s all kind of bollocks and everyone knows it. There are moments of real power; when Porpentina almost gets offed, it’s quite affecting, and also throws in the single best line in the movie “Don’t panic!” “What do you suggest I do instead?” I’ll ‘ave that, I will.

There are going to be four more of these movies, covering a span of 20 years and ending with the end of WWII, and a bit of me really wants to see just what that might do. Not a very big bit, I have to admit, and it’s drowned out by the much bigger bit which figures that it won’t do much that’s any real use, since these are all prequels and nothing can happen to disrupt future history. 

And it was mulling on that which got me grumping about the subtext of all these movies. Just like superhero movies, it’s always the same narrative; there’s a big crowd of ordinary people and their elected representatives, who are just the worst, and there’s a little gang of wonder-children, who are just the best. And they’re just the best not because they’ve really worked hard or made a useful difference to the world, or done anything for other people, but because they were born talented. Or rich. Or rich and talented. But no-one appreciates their talents and the world is against them, and they have to hide their talents and keep the mob at bay. And in theory their talents could make everything so much better, but in practice they just wreck everything in squabbles with other badder talents, and in the end either everything is in ruins or it’s the same old status quo; nothing ever gets any better. Stop me if any of this reminds you of anything which has happened in the last month.

And I’m getting tired of this approach; not just weary with the reliance on just one damn story, but with the way in which a whole generation of people are growing up with this story being drummed into them from every side; the elite are wonderful victims of the faceless mob, and politicians and bureaucrats are all scoundrels who either incite the mob or pander to them. And really, I don’t care how much money JK Rowling is giving to charities off the back of the profits on this; it’s time she started telling a new story.

Sunday, 20 November 2016


Last year I saw Sicario, and it struck me as a weird movie where the centre of the story wasn’t so much a woman as the way that a woman was gradually moved away from what was happening so that men could get on with doing something terrible. That might feel strangely evocative of things which happened this year, but that’s not what this post, or any other post, is going to be about.

Arrival is instead a movie with a woman right in the middle of it, and the focus never really comes off her. Luckily, they hired Amy Adams. I can’t prove this, but I think you could point a camera at Amy Adams while she was doing her nails and it would get you something unexpected which could make the centre of a whole movie. There are other people in the movie - Jeremy Renner and Forrest Whitaker, for example - but it really doesn’t matter, because they’re just guys around the edges of a woman trying to figure out what seven legged space aliens are talking about.

After I saw the movie, I read the Ted Chiang short story it’s based on, and it’s a surprisingly good adaptation. It’s not actually a faithful adaptation, because the story is much more low key and evocative. In the short story, Louise is trying to come to terms with what she learned about the world and what matters when she was trying to learn a foreign language. In the movie, inevitably, Louise is trying to save the world. Because it’s apparently impossible to get funding for a science fiction movie, no matter how simple, unless it involves the fate of the world. Which has to rest on one lone maverick resisting the patriarchy.

But, I hear you say, Hollywood won’t give you the money to make a spectacle unless you give them a story they can understand. Sure, yeah, right. But the source text isn’t spectacular. A faithful adaptation could have been done for Doctor Who money, or even Midnight Special  money. Villeneuve could have put the exact story Chiang wrote right onto the screen, and with Amy Adam carrying the narrative, it would still have worked. However, I suspect that it might still have made a loss, because the general public won’t go to an SF movie unless it looks spectacular. John and I were in a packed house, which wasn’t the case when we went to Midnight Special.

And although I might have preferred a low key movie, something truer to the spirit of the story, that’s not to say it isn’t a good looking movie; the spectacle works, and the thriller-y moments probably do make it a more audience friendly film. The alien ships are startling, and they’re ambiguous; you can see them as whatever you want to. And while the alien writing doesn’t make a button of sense, it’s still great looking when it happens. And for all I know, it’s an alien powerpoint presentation and I shouldn’t be as worried as I was about how perfect coffee ring splotches appear out of nowhere and float in the mist. On the one hand, impossible to figure out how it happened, on the other hand, terrible as a way of writing anything so that people could read it. But if you imagine it as seven legged Steve Jobs making a pitch, a little less idiotic. Of course, there’s another explanation, but that would be giving the game away about what the movie is really about.

The real reason I wish they had filmed the story as written is that where the movie works best is as a meditation on loss, and the way in which the grief of loss is tied up so completely in the joy of all that came before the loss. What matters, in the end, is the totality of the experience, and how you cannot have one without the other. A movie which could have devoted itself entirely to that might not have been a spectacle, but it would have been spectacular.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Accountant; a pilot for a TV show we're never going to see

He’s an autistic accountant! He’s a sadistic assassin! Together they fight capitalism! 

No, I suppose not. But as The Accountant wrapped up with almost pathological tidiness, I was finding it hard not to imagine it as a feature length pilot for a crime show coming our way on HBO. Tragically, I’d watch the hell out of that; there’s a moment when Jon Bernthal was explaining to a shady futures trader just WHY it was wrong to short stocks and ruin pension funds, and I was thinking “We need this as a whole series of public service announcements on prime time TV.” I quite like the thought of a show which airs once a week and is all about rich scumbags getting spanked to a sound track of explanations of why a spanking is just a good start on what they really deserve. Probably not going to happen in the USA in the next couple of years, I imagine.

It’s an uneven movie. Sometimes it’s all about how hard it is to live with a developmental disorder no matter how clever it makes you. Sometimes it’s all about how you can make a bad childhood worse by adding military nutcases to the mix. And sometimes it’s just merrily sociopathic fun as Ben Affleck gets medieval on the bad guys like it isn’t even a thing. Bonus points for the bit where he tortures information out of a guy by telling him to grunt when Ben says the right name for the big bad, lets off the pressure just enough to let him grunt and says “Practice.” In moments like that, it’s almost a fun dumb Jason Statham style crowdpleaser, for all that it probably thought it was aiming much higher.

It’s just crawling with talent. I’ve got a lot of time for Ben Affleck, who’s long struck me as a guy who’s got a realistic sense of what he can do, and picks roles which work for his range. He was surprisingly good in Gone Girl, because he’s pretty convincing as someone who might be a nice guy OR a good looking asshole with a winning manner. He’s OK in this too, though I’m not sure how much of an effort it is for anyone to play emotionless badass. Far more impressive on the talent front are the likes of John Lithgow and JK Simmons, both playing old guys past their prime who turn out to be a lot more complicated than they look.

Above all, it’s incredibly densely packed. There’s nothing in this movie which isn’t going to be used more than one way. Nothing goes to waste. Nothing you see at the beginning is just left there; it will be back in play by the end. And it ought to feel contrived - it IS contrived - but it’s somehow satisfying as all the pieces fit into place. So watch carefully. It all fits together quite elegantly, just like the jigsaw puzzle that young Ben Affleck is putting together at the beginning of the movie. It’s not great cinema, but it’s nice to see something put together so well.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Dr Strange; don't text and drive

Or, you know, DO text and drive, and then get in a horrible accident and lose the use of your hands so that you go to Kathmandu and study the mystical arts and become the Sorcerer Supreme. Marvel’s just worried enough that people might take that message from Dr Strange that the very last credit is a warning to drive responsibly. I’m struggling to visualise the exact demographic which would be tipped into responsibility by just that one line. People who go to Marvel movies and stay all the way to the end of the credits to see whether there’s an end credit gag and are also terrible drivers impressionable enough that the ecstasy of seeing Baron Mordo cripple a guy for giggles will prime them to change their whole driving style as soon as the credits tell them to.

On the other hand, I drove for four hours the next day and didn’t text once. Just like every other time I’ve driven a car, but who knows? Maybe that was going to be the day I finally turned into a typical driver and Marvel saved me from my worst impulses. I guess we’ll never know.

As always, Marvel has hired in a bunch of good actors and then given them a load of guff to react to. I’d been hoping that the ‘Batch would save it, but his preparation for the role seems to have consisted of getting Robert Downey Jr to impersonate House MD while they were both having too much to drink. The one actor who seems to be both having a good time and actually taking the material seriously is Tilda Swinton, probably the only actor in the world who needs to dial her weirdness down in order to fit into a Marvel movie. Her Ancient One is just good fun; when she says something clever, it sounds like she just thought of it, rather than it being a line someone wrote to be funny. (perfect example from the trailer, when Mordo gives Strange a mysterious word on a piece of parchment and tells him it’s the WiFi password, because “we’re not savages”.)

As always with these things, there’s an origin story, and it’s a clueless apprentice who despite being completely terrible in every way at everything which ought to matter is somehow the most important person in the world, and before the movie is over he has to save the whole world from dark forces. Cue CGI explosions and all the usual guff. And there’s a whole load of CGI of buildings warping and transforming because that’s the way they’ve decided that dimensional movement ought to look. It’s as if someone saw Inception and said “What if we could just do that and nothing else for the whole movie?”, a question which ought to have got the answer “It would just remind people that Inception was a much better film.” before anyone wrote a cheque for 168 million dollars. The CGI is not terrible - it’s not even as terrible as the trailer made it look. But it’s not doing anything in service of the plot. It’s exactly like a kaleidoscope; for a few minutes the constantly changing images are interesting, and then you realise that they’re just images that change without ever going anywhere or meaning anything. Too much of the time modern movies seem to be a demo reel of things which CGI houses can do, rather than a story in which the CGI serves the plot.

Anyhow, whether you liked it or not, there’s no escaping it; there are setups for Strange to be in the next Thor movie (Chris Hemsworth continues to be far more amazing as Thor than he has any right to be) and then a whole sequel of his very own. And presumably beached in the middle of all that guff there will be the occasional transcendent moment like Mad Mikkelson shrugging at Strange’s pettish insistence that people get his name right and saying “Perhaps. Who am I to judge?” almost as though he’s weighing up his own decision to take Marvel’s paycheque.