Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Shane Kuhn: The Asset

Move over Dan Brown, there’s a new worst thriller writer in my landscape.

Shane Kuhn’s The Asset is a book I hate-read, something I haven’t done in years. I was startled to realise that it wasn’t a first novel, because so much of what it made it terrible was classic first novel stuff. Marty Stu protagonist? My word yes. Love interest actually called Love? Why not? Explanations of character background which read like research material left in by mistake? Whole front half of the book. Cliffhangers resolved by idiotic fake-outs? Present and wrong. “Gritty" descriptions of things which are so wrong that they make everything else wrong by association? Oh yeah. 

Why did I even try to finish it? Largely because I’d read an enthusiastic review and I wanted to believe that there was something later in the book which would justify it. No, there isn’t. The Asset starts terrible and stays terrible all the way to the bitter end. There is nothing to redeem it. The plot’s dumb. The main character is fantastically annoying in more ways than I could have thought possible. Everyone else is hateful. The thrilling incidents cluttering up the action seem to have been pulled together by using Cards Against Humanity to reconstruct drunken memories of terrible 1990s TV spy shows. Any technical thing I could check was wrong, which swept the ground away from the over-arching conceit that this was a chilling insight into the weaknesses of the TSA’s efforts to protect US aviation.

Above all, it’s a hate letter to the TSA. The nicest TSA employee in the book is depicted as a drunk whose murder will surprise nobody; everyone else is an incompetent swine. The one great exception is our hero, who is an unappreciated genius who nonetheless has managed to carve out a magnificent career as a consultant to the TSA, being paid a fortune to give them advice they either ignore or cover up. The whole opening of the book reads like the kind of pathetic roman a clef you’d get from a guy stuck in a dead end job, a long rant in which he settles all the scores he’s got with his co-workers while imagining a world in which he gets the luxury life he dreams he deserves. Which is weird, because Shane Kuhn doesn’t seem to be a frustrated cube rat who’s somehow locked a literary agent’s kids in a basement full of acid; he’s a writer and director with a butt-load of credits, and the idea that an experienced writer is somehow spamming this stuff out is so bizarre I almost think it’s intended as a joke. Either that or he’s got a friend in the TSA and lent him his name for a week. I dunno. 

Anyhow, it’s rotten. It’s the first book I’ve actually deleted from my Kindle rather than just marking it as read and leaving it lying around. For all I know, Kuhn’s other books are better - it’s hard to imagine how they could be worse - but why take the chance?

Life; Gravity meets Alien, and you shouldn't meet the result

Life seems to have been made to answer a question no-one’s asked; what if you made a crap version of Gravity? And now I know the answer, and I’m not the better of it. Want to see a movie in which everyone’s floating in space and in tonnes of trouble? Check out Gravity. Want to see a movie where half a dozen people get eaten by a space monster? Watch the original Alien. I don’t know what the reason for watching Life would be. In my case it was straightforwardly “Nothing else was on this week.”, which is a terrible reason in a world where I could always have stayed home or even watched something for a second time.

It’s good looking, I’ll give it that, but it’s good looking in the service of nothing in particular. They’ve gone out of their way to gimmick up a plausible looking replica of the International Space Station, but making that look realistic makes it all the more jarring that they’ve staffed it with idiots who don’t have a plan. Here you’ve got six of the smartest people off the planet, trying to figure out whether there’s life in a soil sample for Mars, and just about every part of the plan is stupid. The moment where it all goes pear-shaped is when Calvin, the hideous little blob of god-knows-what crushes the exo-biologist's hand and then squirms and stabs its way out of the glove-box glove it’s just managed to empty. The science team has full control over the atmosphere inside the glove-box, and they’ve already figured out that Calvin needs at least some oxygen and warmth to keep going. Why isn’t the box configured to flood with refrigerated Halon? Calvin’s not going to get much done at -100 C. Or just vent the box to vacuum. Or a hundred and one other things, any of which could have been in the plan that they’ve got one whole character for explaining. Seriously, one sixth of the cast is quarantine officers, and they had no machinery in place to sterilise the lab if things went weird. Did humanity lose its only VHS copy of The Andromeda Strain?

Later on Calvin gets on to the outside of the ISS, which I would have seen as “problem solved”, but he somehow sneaks back in through “the thruster manifolds”. This is idiotic. The whole thing about the ISS is that the living spaces are airtight. If they weren’t, well, it would all end very badly, very quickly. So something on the outside of the ISS has no way INTO the ISS. If there was a way in, no matter how narrow, all the air would come out, and then there would be tears before bedtime. Once Calvin’s outside, you just leave him there until space does the job of suffocating and freeze drying him for you. But that would have been a short movie, so he sneaks back in and gets back to killing the whole crew one after another.

In ways which don’t make a button of sense. Calvin’s abilities are pretty much whatever the hell the script needs from moment to moment; hides everywhere, runs around, swims in zero gravity, knows what all the machines do even though there’s no way he could have figured it out, knows what the characters are thinking even when there’s no evidence the characters are thinking at all … Whatever we need for a jump scare. It reaches the nadir when Calvin shows up hidden wrapped around a character’s leg. How did he even get there and why did he bother hiding? Because they needed a low-rent John Hurt at breakfast moment, I think. After that Calvin’s ability to figure out the controls of an escape capsule and pull them just the right way to de-orbit it was just “meh, I guess, whatever."

Everyone dies. I mean, everyone dies. All the cast, and then - inplicitly - the whole population of planet Earth, since in a bait and switch you can see from Jupiter orbit, Calvin gets down to the surface and schwacks some kindly Asian looking fishermen. I’d say this rules out a sequel, but maybe they have daydreams of a whole series of movies in which more and more Calvins kill their way through all seven billion of us.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Get Out; just go and see it

I very nearly gave Get Out  a miss, since the reviews were all calling it a horror movie, and horror doesn’t fill any gaps in my life. As chance and release schedules played out, it was the only thing running that week which didn’t need me to carry an insulin shot, so I took the gamble that it was only horrifying for white liberal movie reviewers.

So it proved. It’s probably not going to be the best movie I see all year, but it’s the best I’ve seen so far, and it’s likely to be in the small set of movies I recommend to people from 2017. 

This is largely because it is the first thing I’ve seen in ages which is written, rather than carefully stitched together around expensive set pieces. There’s an idea here, and the movie has to sneak up on it, and along the way it just builds up the sense of unease. It’s not just the growing acceptance that these creepy white people are up to no good; it’s the creeping realisation that we’re all a bit like that, but we just don’t have a well worked out plan to back up our little bits of unreasoning racism and white privilege. There’s enough of that in the first hour that most people are going to wince at least once in troubled recollection of something which seemed harmless at the time.

It probably helps that the director and writer started out in comedy. Successful comedy starts from seeing people as people, and then just dialling one bit up to the point where it starts being funny. Every now and then you hit a sweet spot where the what’s funny is still somehow likeable, and you wind up with a half hour comedy show that runs for a decade, but even when you don’t do that, you’re still trying to think about what makes people tick. And as I’ve said repeatedly in this blog, you don’t have to destroy the whole world; if you’ve made the characters work, it’s enough that their world is coming to an end.

So, in Get Out, it’s just one amiable guy in peril. Chris is a decent guy, just trying to get along. The world’s tilted against him, but he doesn’t want any trouble. He’s never looking for a fight; just for a quiet way to get around the awkwardness. When a racist cop wants to see his ID, Chris looks for the path of least resistance. Somehow, that says a lot more about quiet systemic racism than an angry scene would have, though just for the fun of it his white girlfriend has the angry scene on his behalf. Through the whole moment, Chris’s face is reminding us that this is not how it goes when he’s on his own.

It’s only a week later when I’m thinking about the set up, that I realise that it’s part of why it feels so satisfying when Chris finally starts pushing back and trying to save himself. At every step of his escape plan, he’s forceful and direct and clever. He’s terrified but he’s seeing the angles and playing them, clawing his way out of the trap an inch at a time. There’s something powerful in those moments, something which makes Get Out a weirdly feel good film.

As a bonus for actual comedy fans, the movie has its very own Arbogast in Chris’s best friend Rod, who works for the TSA, that one-stop punchline for everything wrong with US law enforcement. What’s delightful is that no-one takes Rod seriously, but Rod’s both almost right and the one man fire brigade who might just save Chris if he can put the whole thing together. Rod thinks the worst of white people, and adorably thinks that the TSA is a real band of heroes; he’s right about himself if not the rest of the TSA, and only wrong about white people in that he’s not thinking worst enough. Somehow, the writing makes all that both hilarious and charming.

It’s a genuinely tense, genuinely funny movie with something to say. No-one should see only one movie in a year, but if your bar is that low, this looks like the one you ought to see.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Kong: Skull Island; what was that camera?


I spent a ridiculous amount of the running time of Kong: Skull Island wondering firstly what Brie Larson’s camera was, and then what kind of film she had loaded in it. Firstly, it’s some kind of Leica M4 with an attached meter in the hot shoe and an adapter on the viewfinder to correct the frame lines for - I think - a 35 mm lens. Which is all real stuff which people had to use in 1973 when we used celluloid film like barbarians and focused and exposed using our hands and brains like some kind of caveman. As to what film she was using; God only knows. Something which let her take pictures of the Aurora Skulliensis in the middle of the night without a tripod. That right there is almost more fantastical than a 150 foot high gorilla, because I’m like anyone else that way; I’ll believe any kind of nonsense when we’re talking about stuff I’ve never held in my hands, but once you get onto something I’ve tried and failed, I’ll be damned if I’ll believe that anyone else could ever have succeeded.

Kong is another one of those movies which wrote cheques with the trailer that it struggles to cash at full length. Kong fights helicopters! Looks great in the trailer, but it’s over in the movie in what feels like a heartbeat as Kong swats a dozen choppers out of the sky in the space of a few minutes. After that, it’s monsters slapping monsters, and humans getting in the way, and somehow it misses the sheer gut punch of Peter Jackon’s bloated but satisfying King Kong. I’m not quite sure why it doesn’t work as well. I suspect it’s partly that the original King Kong has a single straightforward plot which is all about the girl, where Kong:Skull Island is one of those things where a whole bunch of plots are put on the table, and then abandoned in favour of a literal “get to the choppah” story for a dwindling number of survivors.

Which is not to say it couldn’t have made all this sing. The cast is solid, with nothing as stupidly risky as putting Jack Black into a major role in a drama. John Goodman? Samuel L Jackson? Tom Hiddleston? These are guys who could probably get away with reading out the phone book. You don’t need MUCH script. You just needed a bit more than we get.

It’s not a bad movie. It’s a pretty good one. It’s just that the trailer made it look like it would somehow be even more. Just the notion of  King Kong crossed with  Apocalypse Now got me expecting some kind of magic that probably nothing could ever have delivered. When I merely got a solid adventure drama, I couldn’t help feeling a bit of disappointment. And the more I think about it, the more I think that the real disappointment is that Kong is interesting when he’s fighting against men and machines, and somehow less interesting when he’s wrestling with octopuses and creepy looking dinosaurs. Dozens of helicopters facing into catastrophe is an arresting image; CGI’d monsters fighting each other no longer has much novelty. So once Kong has Blackhawk Downed the whole air cav contingent, what seemed most fascinating about the movie was over and done with.

Tune in in two years time when Kong fights Godzilla. Or not, since both Godzilla and Kong have turned out to be things which were much more fun in my anticipation than they were on delivery.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Logan; only the moppets get out alive

Logan is a pretty good film if you judge it by such conventional metrics as gritty realism, decent acting and lack of Stan Lee cameos. It’s the first Marvel movie without a Stan Lee cameo, so what makes all non-Marvel movies a little better is finally available in a Marvel movie too. 

If you judge Logan by the simpler metric of “Was that fun?” things aren’t so good. It’s not a fun movie. The body count is off the charts. This may not be the first movie I’ve ever seen where the entire adult cast dies, but somehow it’s the first one where I’ve had the thought in those words. Come to think of it, that might be why it doesn’t have a Stan Lee cameo. Maybe they thought it would bum Stan Lee out too much to get killed in a movie.

Also missing, thank heavens; mid credit easter eggs, end credit easter eggs and all that palaver. This is, instead, an action movie which happens to have mutants instead of random palookas. It’s a Marvel movie only because they own the idea of mutants; for everything else, it’s a bleak modern thriller about men out of time getting one last shot at a redemption which is going to cost them everything.

Which does not make for chuckles. The weight of age is heavy on Professor Charles Xavier and Logan. Nothing is easy any more, and the world’s been turning to crap around them.

How well any of this works depends on your tolerance for kids in action movies. There’s one main kid, Laura, and a bunch of ancillary moppets who were lucky not to be in a Korean movie; they’d have been wiped out to the last baby in Korea. In America, they still pull those punches, which is honestly the only way any of those kids don’t wind up as paste instead of making a clean getaway. 

Laura spends most of the movie without any dialogue, and the moment when she starts talking doesn’t really make a lick of sense. On the way out of the movie, I overheard someone saying she was better than Chloe Moretz. I have nothing against Dafne Keen, but not even Chloe Moretz could be better than Chloe Moretz if she was given nothing better to do than grimace, gut people and scream all movie long. Dafne Keen does what she can with what she’s given, and could probably do a lot more, but Laura is no Hit Girl.

Meanwhile, the bad guys continue to have the weirdest staff. Richard E Grant’s Dr Evil and Fey Ginger With a Fake Hand second in command have an unlimited supply of tooled up nutbags to hunt our heroes, and what’s amazing isn’t just their inability to overwhelm the goodies through sheer weight of numbers, but the fact that they never falter. Logan and Laura are carving hideous lumps out of the mook squad, and at no point do the mooks stop and do the maths. They just keep attacking to the last man. Not one of them runs away, or just tries to fade into the treeline. I have no idea what Evil Inc uses for motivation, but if they could somehow match it with some kind of basic competence, they wouldn’t even need mutant super soldiers.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

The Great Wall; possibly not the dumbest wall related spend of 2017

Zhang Yimou has made, in his time, Hero, The House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower and Raise the Red Lantern. The Great Wall cost more than any of them, and it’s worse than any of them. Weirdly, in western terms it probably makes more sense than any of his great movies, since it has a plot which would fit on a beermat and could still be understood if you’d drunk all the beer in the pub. To this day I have no idea what Curse of the Golden Flower was about, and I have my doubts about whether I really understood House of Flying Daggers. It doesn’t really matter because in addition to making them look absolutely gorgeous, Yimou somehow found a way to make us care about the people running around in magnificent costumes whacking the hell out of each other.

Part of the problem is something which you might think at first glance would be a cool notion. What, I’m sure you’ve sometimes asked, if Han Solo was the hero of Star Wars? Han is cool. Luke is not cool. Wouldn’t Star Wars be more fun if the cool guy was the hero instead of the comic relief best buddy? Yeah, now that I’ve said it out loud, it’s starting to sound shaky isn’t it? But that’s pretty much the way they went with the script of The Great Wall. You’ve got a whole clutter of Chinese heroes, trained to within an inch of their lives, poised to fight off a plague that threatens not just their civilisation but the whole world. Wow enough, as Jurassic World would say. That’s a story. What more do you need?

How about a couple of scruffy European bandits who’ve come to China hoping to steal some gunpowder to make their fortunes back in Europe? What if we make them not just the viewpoint characters, but the heroes who reluctantly save the day? And how about if we make them morons? THAT was the way the script team went. And on it goes. Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal, two perfectly decent actors who I pretty much like, fit into this movie in the way that three gallons of winter weight engine oil fit into salad dressing. I kept hoping that there was a Chinese cut which made them into complete buffoons, which would at least have made some kind of sense.

Meanwhile over in Yimou’s actual wheelhouse, the spectacle is magnificent. Much of it doesn’t make a button of sense, but it looks so good you can’t really quibble. Well maybe you could quibble at the idea that the drum corps work in full armour and all their drum signals sound exactly the same, but that doesn’t make the setup one bit less colourful. The Europeans are wrecking everything and getting in the way of the Chinese performers putting in any real character work, but the setpieces are exactly what you would have expected if you gave Zhang Yimou a tonne of money and told him to fight a vast horde of unstoppable monsters using anything cool he could think of. But as is so often the case, more is less. The scenes of the Crane Troop swan diving off the Great Wall on bungee cords to shish kebab monsters are breathtaking, but they pale against the bamboo forest fight in House of Flying Daggers which has the same balletic elegance, but a much better focus. 

The good news, in a weird way, is that it looks like The Great Wall will not make its money back in western markets, so with any luck Chinese cinema will go back to doing what it does well without trying to shoe horn in things that just make it all worse.

John Wick: Chapter 2; you wanted him back

Unaccountably the trailers left out the perfect John Wick line for a trailer “You wanted me back. I’m back.” It was right there in the script, and they left it there as an Easter egg for people like me marvelling at missed opportunities. Thanks, film-makers. You shouldn’t have.

The original John Wick was a weird work of art which I’ve never really wanted to watch again. The fights are amazing, and yet somehow I knew that they would be wearisome a second time around. The milieu was intriguing, but it had made its point so solidly that there was nothing left for me to unpick on another watch. It was just one of those movies which impressed me more than I expected simple violent popcorn to impress me, and which I knew I’d probably like a lot more if I just kept the cluttered jumbled memories you take out of the cinema.

Still, just because I didn’t need to watch the first one again didn’t mean that I didn’t want to see what a second helping might look like. The trailers were impressive and it did seem like a good mix of ultra-violence and bonkers parallel economy. The trailers are, in fact, incredibly misleading. Not about what they’re selling - the movie is exactly the mix you see in the trailer - but about the plot. Every line you hear from Winston (Ian McShane) in the trailer is massively out of context; when you get to the movie, half the time he isn’t even talking to the person the trailer leads you to think he’s talking to. I suppose it’s one way to avoid spoilers.

So how does it all hold up? Well, there’s gunfights. And fistfights. And pencil-fights. John Wick survives more lethal injuries than I can remember anyone surviving in a movie. And he kills so many people I went and found this; thank you George Hatzis; that’s 128 people killed by John Wick, including two killed with the same pencil.

Screen Shot 2017 03 02 at 21 00 04

You know what; it gets kind of samey. It was fresh the first time, and it’s still completely competent the second time, but well before the body count was into the high double figures I was just wincing at the waste of human life instead of savouring the drive in the shoot out. The Red Circle night club shoot out in the first movie is so over the top it takes on a life of its own. Chapter Two; not so much.

What was new and fun was expanding the mythology. The weird shadow economy of assassins has Continental Hotels all over the place, all running off the huge chunky gold coin standard. They have stupid-ass markers which let you keep track of blood debts. There’s a vast 1950s switchboard area where tattooed women take phone calls to place murder contracts, type them up on IBM machines from before there were ever colour TVs, and then somehow text them out to every mobile phone in assassin land. There’s a king of the beggars, because of course there is. And all of that is somehow going to be pointed at John Wick in Chapter Three, because by the time the movie is over, he’s managed to get the whole mythology pissed off with him. Bad news for the mythology, because when John Wick announces that he’s going to kill everyone - well, look at the graphic, people. Chapter 3 is going to be like weaponised ebola.

But here’s my thing, for what little it’s worth. Everywhere John Wick goes, he’s recognised. Everywhere he MIGHT go, people are talking about him in hushed whispers. And yet, when he gets pressured into coming out of retirement, it’s because he’s the ghost who no-one ever sees. How the hell can you be the world’s most well-known mystery man? It’s like being the world’s tallest midget.