Archive for March, 2015

CHAPPiE

Posted: March 18, 2015 in Film reviews
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Directed by Neill Blomkamp. Starring Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver.

In near future Johannesburg crime rates have fallen after the introduction of police robots, known as Scouts. The Scouts are produced by weapons company Tetravaal and were designed by Deon Wilson (Patel). Deon is working on another project however, the creation of a true artificial intelligence, he just needs the beat-up body of Scout 22 in order to upload the new AI software and asks the CEO of Tetravaal, Michelle Bradley (Weaver) for permission. Bradley isn’t impressed by the notion of a robot that can compose poetry and refuses.

Unbowed Deon decides to go ahead anyway, and takes the remains of Scout 22 home with him. As he leaves the factory however, he’s kidnapped by gangsters Ninja and Yolandi (handily played by South African rappers, er Ninja and Yolandi…) who demand an off switch for the robots so they can do a heist to get the money to pay off a rival gangster. Deon explains that the Scouts don’t have an off switch, but, fearing for his life he instead uploads his AI into Scout 22 for them. The result is a thinking robot named Chappie, albeit one analogous with a small child who needs to learn, and learn he does from a confused mixture of Deon’s morals, and Ninja and Yolandi’s gangster ways.

Meanwhile one of Deon’s co-workers Vincent (Jackman) has learned of Deon’s experiments and uses this information to his advantage in discrediting the Scouts in favour of his own design, the human controlled Moose.

Will Chappie learn to exceed his programing, or will the Moose squash him flat?

Blomkamp first came to the world’s attention in 2009 with the visceral and (somewhat—Alien Nation and all that) original sci-fi thriller District 9. It was a great little film, especially from a first time director working with a low budget. Sadly his follow up, Elysium, was far less enjoyable (you can read my review of it here) so there was a certain amount of curiosity over his third film, would it be any good?

Well it’s no District 9, but given that film came out of left field that’s no surprise, but at the very least it’s better than Elysium by some distance.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s flawed. For starters it barely has an original bone in its body, channelling Short Circuit, Robocop, Blade Runner, District 9, Dredd and a whole heap of other stuff. And it can’t ever settle on a tone. At times it’s almost too cutesy, whilst at others it’s too vicious. A film can be both, but it needs to ride the line consistently, too often Chappie veers too far one way or the other. Its morality is questionable at times as well. Ninja might learn to love Chappie, but you never quite forget that he was moments away from killing Deon earlier in the film, and as role models go he and Yolandi aren’t great surrogate parents…but then that’s half the fun.

And there is fun to be had here, because the film just about manages to be better than the sum of its parts, down in no small part to Sharlto Copley’s motion capture/vocal performance as the titular robot, convincingly playing Chappie like a toddler—albeit a bullet proof toddler who could wrench peoples’ arms off if he wanted to and who walks and talks like a gangster—inquisitive, innocent, nervous, and prone to tantrums. I have a suspicion that whether you like the film or not may come down to whether you can engage with Chappie, if he’s cute and empathetic you’ll enjoy the film, but if you find him annoying (and some reviewers have compared him to a metal Jar Jar) then likely you won’t.

Hugh Jackman is good value as the villainous Vincent, even if you feel more should have been made of his religious convictions and his view of AI as the Devil’s work. Still he’s dangerous, yet also slightly comedic with his Aussie slang and Steve Irwin inspired outfits. Patel plays the nice guy role well, though he never quite convinces as an uber genius. Weaver is always good, but her role is so underwritten that it’s hard to see what she brings to the film aside from another big name to put on the poster. Ninja and Yolandi are oddly engaging, and their lack of acting chops and urban roots do give the characters a sense of being real, although whenever they’re on screen with Dev Patel or Jose Pablo Cantillo as their pal Amerika you’re never in any doubt as to who the real actors are.

At times the film is downright hilarious, and Chappie’s attempts at carjacking is something that will make me smile for a long time, but again because of the shift in tone the film often goes from madcap humour to somewhere a lot darker, and given Chappie is effectively a child, some of the things that happen to him pretty much count as child abuse and are a little hard to watch.

The effects are great, and I was easily convinced by Chappie and the other scouts, even if the Moose seemed a bit ropey at times. The Johannesburg setting provides something a little different but in terms of world building this pretty much is set today, only with robots, and the script does feel under developed in several places. Deon pretty much comes up with the world’s first AI after a few late nights working on his home computer, and Tetravaal seems less like a global weapons corporation, than a small scale factory that looks like it should be making engine parts. Similarly for a film that has the potential to deal with weighty issues, any thought given to the morality of handing policing over to robots, or the nature of consciousness are barely considered, in fact by the end consciousness is just a plot point to be batted around as easily as an email. This is no Ex Machina, but then perhaps it never set out to be, it just feels like a missed opportunity.

But like I say, I still enjoyed it. Blomkamp’s direction is good, the film is rarely dull, it’s very funny and at times quite emotional, and if you don’t set your expectations too high, and assuming you find Chappie loveable rather than annoying, there is a lot to like about Chappie and his messed up human family!

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Safe House

Posted: March 13, 2015 in Published fiction
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I’ve now published a new book! My novel Safe House is now available on Amazon UK, Amazon.com, in fact all the Amazons!

A story of spies and ghosts, or as I like to say Spooks vs Spooks, it’s available for the extremely bargainous price of £1.29/$1.95 so why not check it out, remember you don’t even need a Kindle to read it, just the free Kindle viewer app. Below are the cover and blurb. I’ll keep you up to date with sales figures 🙂

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John Tyrell was once a top MI5 agent, but illness has left him a broken man. Called out of retirement to aid in the debriefing of a defector, he reluctantly joins the enigmatic Chalice Knight and her team at White Wolf House.

It seems the perfect location; comfortable, remote, secure…but it’s a house built on blood-soaked ground, a place that reacts to traitors and murderers; and Chalice’s group contains both.

For them this house is anything but safe…

I Am Pilgrim

Posted: March 4, 2015 in Book reviews, Regarding writing
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I Am Pilgrim

By Terry Hayes.

In a seedy New York motel room a body has been discovered, all traces of identity removed with forensic precision. On hand is NYPD detective Ben Bradley, and his friend, a shadowy figure who will go by many alias throughout the book but will mainly come to be known by the codename ‘Pilgrim’.

Pilgrim is a former intelligence officer who’s written the definitive book of forensics, a book that the killer seems to have referred to. Before long however Pilgrim has bigger fish to fry than the murder of a single woman, as he’s recruited by the President to track down a terrorist named Saracen, a man who’s planning an apocalyptic biological attack on the US.

Despatched to Turkey Pilgrim finds both cases converging, but can he solve the ultimate murder, can he stop the ultimate terrorist, and will he survive the violent finale?

As a writer there are some books that depress me, books that are so well written, so well-paced, so perfect, that I know, in my heart of hearts, that I could never write anything as good.

And then there are books like this. How this book gathered so many five star reviews I’ll never know given it’s flawed on so many levels.

Where to start? Well how about with the ‘will he survive part’. No spoilers here but he does, but then I knew that from the start because the book is written in the frickin first person! First person narrative can and does work in a lot of novels, but what it can do, and does demonstrably here, is suck the drama out of a story. Hayes compounds this by shifting perspective after a few chapters to show us things from the Saracen’s point of view. Initially he does this using the narrator’s voice, with Pilgrim referring to reports and other information he’s read and filling in the blanks to imagine what happened, but Hayes quickly dispenses with this conceit as too cumbersome and basically just writes all the Saracen bits in third person from then on.

One thing you’ll notice about this book from the beginning is its length; seriously it’s like a brick and comes in just a shade under 900 pages. Hayes even adds to this with a commentary at the end about how he knows it’s long but this was necessary for us to understand who Pilgrim is etc. etc. yadda…yadda…that he feels the need to justify the length suggests that, on some level, he realises it’s a problem. The length isn’t necessary, it’s taken up with a lot of extraneous details about both Pilgrim and other characters, supposedly this is to give them depth, except it never works.

Pilgrim is the worst kind of literary character, the faceless, perfect agent; an orphan adopted by a billionaire, he’s a Harvard trained Doctor turned secret agent who rises to become head of a super-secret organisation before he’s 30 (acquiring the utterly ludicrous moniker of’ Rider of the Blue’ in the process) then retires soon afterwards to live a peaceful life in Paris. He’s an expert on art, sailing, and bass playing, and was previously a recreational drug user, although this plays no part in the narrative, and isn’t even brought up late on when he has to be dosed up with a lot of drugs.

His story is told in flashback, sometimes flashbacks within flashbacks, what this means is that, after a promising start, the novel veers all over the place (both geographically and temporally).

I’m sure Hayes is trying to give his character life, but he fails utterly, Pilgrim never rises beyond being a thinly veiled avatar, nothing but a collection of anecdotes. That he’s then portrayed as the greatest spy/detective in the world just adds insult to injury, he’s the kind of character bad fanfic writers would invent, probably the kind of character I’d have invented when I was seventeen. We never even get much to show us that he’s this uber agent, aside from a ludicrous scene involving a mirror which has to be read to be believed.

What progress he makes through the book is down to luck and contrivances, and boy do the contrivances start to mount up, with a completely unconnected series of murders, and the world’s most lethal terrorist, both ending up in the same small Turkish town, a place that, amazingly, Pilgrim knows intimately, what are the odds? Throw in a single terrorist who can apparently synthesise a lethal bacillus in a garage and you have a plot that holds about as much water as a sieve.

As well I need to talk the politics of this book. Now I consider myself fairly middle of the road, which doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy writers who might be more to the left or right of me, but Hayes employs the worst kind of stereotypes, the kind of thing I’d accept from Ian Fleming as a man of his time but which stand out like a sore thumb now. So all Muslims are evil, all Turks are corrupt, all Swiss bankers crooks, all Italians lazy… Lesbians, they get a bad rap, Americans? Well Americans are great, where would we be without them? Europe is awash with Muslim extremists as well apparently. It’s curious, looking at the blurb it seems Hayes lives in Switzerland which surprises me, you’d think he’d want to be somewhere safer, somewhere more American.

I’m not saying you can’t suggest a lot of Muslims are bad, Turkish people corrupt etc. but for god’s sake use some light and shade.
As a final negative I’d like to highlight that Terry Hayes now has the dubious honour of being the worst example of “Things other writers do that annoy me, #2” namely foreshadowing. Please believe me when I say it isn’t hyperbole to suggest that a minimum of every other chapter will feature a comment along the lines of “if only I’d realised the mistake I’d made in trusting X” or something similar. As with the first person narrative it dilutes the drama.

Amazingly, despite all the flaws it isn’t completely terrible. Despite the length it mostly rattles along at a decent pace, helped in part by the neat trick of short chapters, and I was never tempted to completely give up on it, even if Hayes did have me throwing my hands up in the air at regular intervals.

I’m just amazed that someone didn’t edit the hell out of this before it was published and that so many people have claimed it’s the greatest thriller ever, I’m slightly amazed that someone bought the rights when it was still only two thirds written, but I guess whilst Hayes is a debut novelist, pointing out you wrote, amongst other things, the script to Mad Max 2 and Dead Calm has to lend your work a certain cachet.

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