Friday, 5 December 2014

Kafka meets Gervais in modern office parable The Room

Anyone who’s ever toiled under the glaring fluorescence of the dreary modern office will enjoy the slow descent of Björn from meticulous “man of the future” to nutty “monster”, courtesy of an unassuming ergonomically designed private office in his building.

Told entirely from Björn’s point of view, Jonas Karlsson’s The Room has been compared with Franz Kafka’s The Trial in almost everything you read about it, and with good reason: the sparse style and lack of biographical detail in this modern parable, translated from the native Swedish for the first time, is hugely reminiscent of writers such as Kafka and Samuel Beckett.

We meet Björn on the first day of his new job at the Authority, where he’s been transferred in a rather ambiguous set of circumstances that are either down to his amazing administrative prowess or his insufferable superiority.

It wasn’t really my decision to move on. I was fairly happy at my last job and felt comfortable with the routines, but somehow I outgrew the position and ended up feeling that I was doing a job that was way below my abilities, and I have to admit that I didn’t always see eye to eye with my colleagues.

Eventually my former boss came and put his arm round my shoulders and told me it was time to look for a better solution.

Determined to make as good an impression at his new position as he did at his last job, Björn continues with his programme of self-improvement and dedication that he’s sure will see him rise to the top.

I worked out a personal strategic framework. I arrived half an hour early each morning and followed my own timetable for the day: fifty-five minutes of concentrated work, then a five minute break. Including toilet breaks. I avoided any unnecessary socialising along the way.

Sadly, this winning strategy of hard work doesn’t seem to be having the desired effect, as his boss only wants to talk to him about his lack of a change of shoes for indoor use and his colleagues give up on attempting to interact with him. By the time Björn reckons that a little bit of networking might not be too bad an idea, it’s too little, too late.

I carried on to her desk and adopted a relaxed posture with my weight on one leg, so that she could be left in no doubt that I was amenable to having a conversation. She looked up at me and asked if I wanted help with something. ‘No,’ I said. She went on working. I stood there for a while, looking at the badly drawn child’s picture of a sunset, and wondered if she was aware of its flagrant inaccuracy.

In this and other equally awkward moments, the odious Björn continuously fails to live up to his own standards of a modern, go-getting man on his way up the ladder. Until one day, on his way to the toilets for one of his prescribed breaks, he sees the door to a room. Inside is a haven from the open-plan horror outside, a tidy, well-designed, private office space that seems to call to him - even after he discovers that no-one else in the office can see it.

Like Office Space the movie or The Office on TV, The Room teems with wonderfully observed ridiculous moments in the life of a white-collar worker, forced into close quarters with random strangers and obliged to hand out unearned respect at every turn. Björn’s picture of himself and the slowly emerging image of the Björn that everyone else sees are painfully funny examples of how a whole-hearted commitment to any paper-pushing company appears more and more ridiculous when held up to any scrutiny.

Karlsson’s short tale doesn’t pull any punches on the bleaker sides of the single office-drone’s life either, its small-mindedness, loneliness and despondency all hit Björn at one time or another.

Like any good parable, The Room is short and easy to read, but what it all really means will take a bit more pondering. And even if you don’t want to look too deeply into it, this funny, moving story will happily while away a Sunday afternoon in front of the fire.

First published on The Register.

Monday, 24 November 2014

What We Do In The Shadows? Laugh ourselves silly, mostly

It’s hard to believe that What We Do In The Shadows has been eight years in the making, given its spot-on, bang-up-to-date parody of both the vampire obsession and found footage/fake documentary style movies.
But it has almost been worth the wait solely for the great scene where newly vampified Nick runs around a club shouting “Twilight! Twilight!” at people while pointing at himself.
This vampire mockumentary, loosely based on a short film made by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement in 2006, is the tale of flatmates Viago (Waititi), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and Vladislav (Clement) and their attempts to handle the problems of modern life in Wellington despite the vast centuries difference in their ages and the fact that they’re bloodsucking vampires.
In the best tradition of early sketches of The Office and, of course, with welcome echoes of Flight of the Conchords, Waititi and Clement take this fish-out-of-water setup and run with it in all sorts of hilarious directions.
You’d think that the whole idea would be worthy of just a sketch or two, that all the best jokes would be in the trailer and the rest of the movie would be strung together by weak one-liners – but you couldn’t be further from the truth.
What We Do In The Shadows is a brilliant send-up, like This Is Spinal Tap for vampires, as my fellow-cinemagoer put it, with wonderful set pieces littered with zingy one-liners. From the werewolves that just want to be good, led by fellow Flight of the Conchords alumni Rhys Darby –
“What are we?”
“Werewolves, not swearwolves.”
– to the perfectly pitched ordinary bloke and computer analyst Stu, who almost always maintains his cheerily blank disposition no matter what’s going on around him, this is a genuinely funny film.
The loose plot features new vampire Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), who is turned by silent downstairs flatmate Petyr, the Nosferatu-like eldest of the vampires. Into the staid flatmates’ life, he brings his best mate Stu, the modern world and a whole host of problems to keep the action going. This naturally features introductions to the internet:
“Leave me alone to do my dark bidding on the internet!”
“Whatcha bidding on?”
“This table…”
...heart-to-hearts with his best mate about being a vampire:
“You might have noticed I’ve changed all our tennis games to night-time tennis games…”
...and swaggering banter with the other gang in town, the werewolves, rather reminiscent of the animosity between news teams in Anchorman.
Taken in isolation, the jokes are silly, amiable stuff, a far cry from the sort of edgy dark stuff we’re all supposed to find hilarious and never be insulted by these days. But as a whole, the film is a riot, like the best ridiculous time you had with your mates in the first year of uni when you all laughed until your stomachs ached and few of you could remember why.
Go to see it at the cinema and then buy it on your portable media of choice – this looks like one of those films you’ll chuck on over and over again.
First published in The Register.

The Genome: Loose morals... and even looser plotlines

The Genome is the latest novel from Sergei Lukyanenko, the sci-fi and fantasy author, and now modern Russian figurehead for the genre since his Night Watch novel was made into one of the few Russian movies to cross over to Western blockbuster status.

The success of that film will likely draw a fair few new English-speaking readers to this novel, but they’re likely to find the book as frustratingly baffling as the film’s sequel, Day Watch.

Things start out well as we meet Alex Romanov, a genetically altered “master pilot-spesh” who’s just had half his body regrown after an accident at work. It’s fair to say we’re in the rather distant future, where humanity is living throughout the universe thanks to loosely explained six-dimensional hyper-channels, and can genetically predispose their offspring for certain jobs.

Thanks to Alex’s souped-up body, he can assess distance and velocity at a glance, retain mobility at six Gs and stay conscious up to 12Gs. All very handy.

He’s also had the capacity for romantic love genetically removed somehow, for some rather weakly explained reasons to do with being a father figure for his crew and only “loving” his ship when he buries his consciousness in its artificially intelligent but non-self-aware operating system.

Straight off the bat, Alex runs into Kim O’Hara, a 14-year-old girl who’s also a “spesh” and about to enter her pupation phase. The genetic modifications, you see, aren’t present from birth, but come on in early puberty in what seems like a rather gratuitously gruesome and painful process for such a medically advanced civilisation. However, all basically acceptable sci-fi stuff. Shortly thereafter, things get decidedly odd.

Alex gets a job as pilot and captain of a ship, interviews and hires a suitably hodge-podge crew of oddballs and misfits guaranteed for plot-driving conflict, and takes off for distant destinations. So far, so typical.

Then, after a rather boring middle section, the novel suddenly becomes a classic whodunit with Sherlock Holmes investigating with the help of Alex after a murder on board. Well, not actually the actual Sherlock Holmes, the clone of a detective-spesh who modelled his genetic modifications on Sherlock Holmes, but he’s basically Sherlock Holmes.

It’s not that this idea doesn’t have legs, it’s just that it sort of comes out of nowhere and there are so many Holmes homages at the moment that it’s all a bit passé
Then there’s the strange sexual politics and morals. That 14-year-old girl the captain gallantly rescues is a fighter-spesh with super killing skills. She also happens to have been genetically conditioned to be hyper-sexed and fall in love with people at the drop of a hat (again, how the hell? But, anyway). This does not seem to be the least bit disturbing to Alex, nor is the fact that faithfulness doesn’t seem to be an issue.

Lukyanenko frames all this as a kind of sexual enlightenment, an anything-goes attitude towards sex. We may just about be able to accept that 14 could be the new age of maturity in a future society, however distasteful that is, and take the rest of it as sexual enlightenment. But then why is the homosexual character in the book still discriminated against? If it’s all so enlightened and all, that kind of attitude doesn’t really fit.

What it really looks like is the kind of wish-fulfillment stuff that sci-fi, horror and fantasy authors are often mocked for: creating a world that’s just a place where they can indulge their lurid fantasies rather than one in which plot or intention matter to the book.

There’s plenty of potential in Lukyanenko’s world-building, but it’s all squandered on these jarring societal mores and that weird plot curveball that sees Sherlock Holmes show up. The book ends up neither here nor there and, since it’s also kind of tasteless, there’s not much left to recommend it.

First published in The Register.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Amnesia: A mad Aussie dash through history, hacking and the CIA

Never has the long shadow of America across the world been so ominous and so ephemeral as it is in the wake of Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations and Wikileaks. Data surveillance and the huge US presence in the tech and internet worlds have contributed to a sense of America as the omnipresent, unseen superpower in a way that no world leading country has ever been before.
This ownership of the web is what lets the US suggest, with no apparent sense of irony, that people like Julian Assange, an Australian citizen, are “traitors”, though what patriotism or loyalty they owe a country they have nothing to do with is unclear.
It is this long shadow that Peter Carey takes to task in his hacker conspiracy thriller Amnesia.
The title refers to Australia’s amnesia when it comes to the 1975 Constitutional Crisis, which saw the elected government sacked from office by the Governor-General after British and American interference and alleged CIA involvement. The novel’s protagonist, dissolute journalist Felix Moore, believes Australia loved America so much after US troops helped to save them from the Japanese navy during World War II, it refuses to really examine the dissolution of the government.
We were naïve, of course. We continued to think of the Americans as our friends and allies. We criticised them, of course. Why not? We loved them, didn’t we? We sang their songs. They had saved us from the Japanese. We sacrificed the lives of our beloved sons in Korea, then Vietnam. It never occurred to us that they would murder our democracy. So when it happened, in plain sight, we forgot it right away.
Allegations after the crisis suggested that members of the government and the Australian Labour Party had close links to the CIA and that the US agency was instrumental in dismissing Prime Minister Gough Whitlam because he opposed Nixon’s bombing of North Vietnam, welcomed Chileans escaping the coup there and threatened to close US military bases in Australia, including Pine Gap.
That base, run partly by the CIA, along with the NSA and the National Reconnaissance Office, was later made famous as a key component of the ECHELON network, which has allegedly been monitoring phone calls, fax, email and other data traffic since the early 70s for the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand – the so-called Five Eyes intelligence alliance.
Whether or not Carey comes down on the side of the CIA theorists, Felix clearly does and his left-leaning politics, combined with his tendency to make up quotes, are what have landed him where we find him at the opening of the novel: in the High Court facing defamation charges.
Supporting him in court is corporate fat cat, probable criminal and, as we later find out, possible spy, Woody Towndes. Woody is an old friend of Felix’s and when he gets kicked out of the family home after losing the case – which required him to burn his books, a directive he follows in his backyard while drunk, inadvertently burning down half his house – it is Woody who comes to his rescue.
Meanwhile, we learn that a hacker genius behind a worm that sprang the doors open on prisons in the US and Australia is one Gabrielle “Gaby” Baillieux, the daughter of another of Felix's old friends, Celine. Woody, who was helping Gaby as well as Felix, has put up bail for Gaby and now wants Felix to write her story, exonerating her of the crime. Felix, however, has other ideas, much coloured by his memories of college crush Celine and a rather dogged hope of getting to the truth – or his idea of it, anyway.
Felix is the very definition of an unreliable narrator, who admits to making up quotes – a massive journalistic no-no – and putting words in the mouths of historical characters when he has no way of knowing what they said or thought. After defying Woody and being kidnapped (on several different occasions, sometimes by Woody, sometimes by supporters of Gaby), abused and bullied into going on with the tale, he spends his whole time in a drunken state of fear – which doesn’t add much to his credibility.
Felix's book is the tale of Gaby and Celine, as told by Felix. Both women give him taped interviews leading to a second half that bounces between Gaby and Celine’s point of view, peppered with episodes of Felix’s increasing misery in captivity. Their stories encompass and echo Australia’s relationship with the US, from Celine’s conception during the Battle of Brisbane, when US and Australian troops clashed on the streets in 1942, to Gaby’s birth on the night that Whitlam is dismissed from office. Celine’s husband is a Labour MP; she is an actress and sometime activist, filling Gaby’s life with politics and eventual acrimony as their views start to diverge.
Both these things are what drive Gaby’s introduction to the early world of hacking, via the mysterious and alluring Frederic Matovic, who shows her the interactive fiction game Zork on a Mac Iix. Gaby is no Girl With A Dragon Tattoo, though: while she may be driven to the web by personal problems, her hacking is far more the product of strong politics than teen rebellion.
Although the novel clearly has something to say about data surveillance and the web, Gaby’s story is also a wonderfully nostalgic tour of the early IT world and that obsessive inquisitiveness that a lot of folks who first played games on floppy discs will remember.
Why she would risk committing such a crime as writing the Angel worm, which opens prison doors, or why there should even be a question that she might have to face an American justice system that still employs the death sentence, are issues Carey both addresses and avoids, dancing around and through them without leaving clear-cut answers.
What we get instead is a mad, frenetic dash through Australian life, history and politics (with no added explanations for international audiences, which fits) and the journey of an early hacker. Amnesia manages to be a comedic Evelyn-Waugh-style story of the media, an astute breakdown of the political relationship between the US and Australia and a conspiracy thriller about hackers all at once, without taking a single breath in between.
Review first published on The Register.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Interstellar: An awesome sci-fi spectacle – with a tired old plot

The weight of expectation is a heavy burden and thanks to a clever information-withholding marketing campaign, the formidable Batman trilogy and the eye-opening Inception, Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar has more than its fair share. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that it buckles somewhat under the pressure.

While the movie is just as awesome a spectacle as his previous outings and the teasers and trailers would have you believe, Interstellar commits the classic epic sin of taking itself far too seriously. Every line is clunkily fraught with meaning, every tiny event carries a camera-lingering significance that just gets a bit much after a while.

Sure, Matthew McConaughey has to save the whole world and everything, but is there no time for even just a little fun along the way?

The Earth is in turmoil, all the crops are dying of blight and everyone is doomed, so admittedly, it’s not a particularly cheery premise. In the midst of this is McConaughey’s ponderous farmer Cooper, who should have been a NASA astronaut and engineer, but now struggles to grow corn like everybody else.

In fact, things are so utterly focused on growing food that any other kind of progress or investment has halted. The only machines around are for farming or helping to farm – there aren’t even hospital machines anymore because saving people from dying in any way other than feeding them is apparently a waste of resources.

It’s all a bit bleak and mildly nonsensical, but hold up, there’s some M Night Shyamalan-style antics going on in Cooper’s daughter’s bedroom. Murph (Mackenzie Foy) is convinced it’s a ghost, but no, turns out, it’s gravity and gravity has a message, a message for Cooper. That message takes Cooper to his old mentor Professor Brant (Michael Caine), who’s putting together a mission to try to save everyone by finding them a new planet to live in.

NASA is still operating, it’s just a secret now and they’ve been working hard in their secret underground lair. And wouldn’t you know, Cooper was the best pilot he ever had, so he’s going to sign him up right now to captain the whole thing.

Despite how tired that sort of plotting is, it’s only mildly aggravating. McConaughey does the dreaming, slightly rubbish father role well and the young actors playing Murph and her brother Tom (Timothée Chalamet) are terrific, while John Lithgow is his dependably brilliant self as the kids’ maternal grandfather Donald. There are a few overwrought conversations on Earth, but they’re nothing compared to the hand-wringing over-egging the pudding that’s going to happen.

As soon as they hit the stratosphere and Caine’s voice starts intoning Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night”, you know that the epic majesty and bleak desperation of the journey will not be allowed to speak for themselves – they’re going to be shouted from the rooftops after being telegraphed to the audience.

It’s not just that every moment has to be filled with meaning, there’s also a healthy dollop of over-sentimentality. Why does humanity deserve to survive? I’ll give you one guess. (It starts with L, in case you need the hint).

But even though Interstellar does everything it can to be overbearing, it still almost gets away with it, because it’s so breath-taking and so very, very cool. Like Alfonso Cuarón did with Gravity, Nolan puts in a huge effort to depict space as accurately as the plot and limitations of special effects allow and the result is truly amazing. Although there are a few hang-on-a-minute moments with the science as well, the whole point of the movie is that they’re supposed to be pushing the very boundaries of what we know, so it’s easy to get swept up along with them.

This movie is naturally an epic, because every scene is beautifully shot, from flowing fields of corn to alien vistas, so it’s a shame that Nolan felt the need to ham it up so much. He should have left more room for moments like the one where McConaughey tells robot AI T.A.R.S. to turn his humour setting down a few notches (all the best lines are from or about T.A.R.S.) and let the scenes speak for themselves.

But then, the dialogue is only so disappointing because the spectacle is so fantastic. This could have been an epically good movie instead of a good epic, but it’s still worth the price of the cinema ticket for those views.
Review first published on The Register.

Horizon finds new potential in the sci-fi staple deepsleep tale

The most likely way for humans to first travel beyond the Solar System is through some form of hibernation, most often referred to in sci-fi as deepsleep. The prospect is rife with dramatic potential for a good book – what would it be like to be the same age and yet years older than friends and family, or to never see them, or anyone else, ever again?

What Horizon does very well is take the whole idea in a new direction. What if you went to sleep when the world was at a politically precarious peace and when you woke up, everything had changed, including your interstellar mission?
An uneasy alliance of Earth’s political superpowers – Pax Americana, the Compact, the United Northern States and the European Union – get the first interstellar spaceship off the ground and stick an equally uneasy complement of crew members aboard, each with their own agendas, ethics and political leanings. When they come out of deepsleep fifty years later, everything back home has changed. The Earth is on the brink of environmental collapse and power struggles in the wake of the crisis have reset the political landscape.

As if that weren’t enough, one of the crew is dead and the AI that runs the whole ship is going a bit haywire. In a cloud of suspicion, paranoia and resentment, the crew have to try to figure out what’s going wrong with the ship while coming to terms with mind-boggling changes at home and what, if anything, those changes should mean to them.

Frequently, deepsleep tales focus on the isolation of being out of your time, but author Keith Stevenson focuses instead on the stagnation of it, the difficulty in adapting to 50 years of changes when your mind lives in the past. Not only do the crew struggle to understand and accept Earth’s political and ideological turmoil, they’re also flummoxed by the technology Earth now employs with ease. Instead of being isolated, this crew are outdated – in expertise, experience and understanding.

Behind it all is the fear that something has gone wrong on the ship and could kill any one of them, a constant low level dread that saps the crew’s patience with each other and makes things worse and worse. Like all the best survival-in-a-confined-space stories, Horizon is a great thriller and tying the crew’s mission to the changes back on Earth is a deft stroke that adds another layer to the mistrust between them.

In fact, Stevenson’s debut novel only stumbles when it comes to the ending, which is a bit too deus ex machina for my taste and rather defeats the work that’s gone into the characters’ growth throughout the crisis. Before the limp finish, however, Horizon is a tense page-turner with a fresh perspective that should put Stevenson firmly on folks’ one-to-watch list.
Review first published on The Register.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Citizenfour: Poitras' documentary about Edward Snowden concentrates on the mission, not the man

There is no subtlety in the political stance of Laura Poitras, which makes Citizenfour a completely one-sided documentary. Yet oddly enough, this bias doesn’t detract from the power of the film that covers a week in a Hong Kong hotel bedroom, during which Edward Snowden reveals himself and the extent of the NSA’s cyber-surveillance to Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and fellow Guardian journalist Ewen MacAskill.

This is not a documentary that interrogates either Edward Snowden or his motives. Poitras is clearly on his side – the film is dedicated to “those who make great sacrifices to expose injustice” - so her movie is less an examination of why this came about than a chronicling of how.

We open in a car in the dark of a tunnel, with faint lights overhead, as Poitras, never seen on-camera, reads from the emails that Snowden first sent her about his NSA information, signed "Citizenfour". Rather than have talking heads tell us about the state of high alert America has been in since 9/11, Poitras outlines her own experiences of being constantly stopped at US border control following her earlier critical films about the Iraq War and Guantanamo – My Country, My Country and The Oath - documentaries she considers a trilogy with this one.

This surveillance and her films were some of the reasons that Snowden reached out to her. The NSA sysadmin had originally attempted to contact Greenwald, but was unable to persuade him to use security precautions. Poitras peppers the slow building of trust between the two with scenes from US government hearings where the NSA denies monitoring electronic communications in the country. A talk from former intelligence official turned whistleblower William Binney outlines some of the activities of the NSA he was privy to before leaving in 2001.

These tactics are also used to highlight the scope of what Snowden reveals, once Poitras, Macaskill and Greenwald meet him in Hong Kong. It’s in an Occupy Wall Street talk on surveillance that she neatly hamstrings the idea that metadata, as opposed to content, is in any way a harmless kind of information about someone. Security researcher Jacob Appelbaum illustrates how metadata locates you and how just a few more links, such as between your debit card and your travel pass, can fill in all the details of your life and place you where a crime occurred or a meeting was held, putting you under suspicion.

It’s tempting to dismiss many of the elaborate precautions required to evade such surveillance as paranoia and it’s clear that Macaskill and Greenwald initially do when they first meet Snowden. A complex series of tells and passwords are given to them by Snowden - that he’ll be working on a Rubik’s cube, they’ll ask about a restaurant, he’ll reply, they’ll reply, all in set responses – before he’ll trust they are who they say they are.

Once in the room, Snowden uses his “magic mantle of power”, a red blanket, to hide what he’s typing, to the bemused smirk of Greenwald. When he scolds Greenwald for having too short a password on his computer, Greenwald tries to brush it off with a joke, “I just type fast”, but Snowden is not amused. Even a fire alarm going off in the hotel shortly after Snowden unplugs a VoIP phone he feels can be used to listen in on them is treated with the utmost suspicion. Yet as the evidence of what the NSA, GCHQ and other intelligence agencies have been doing piles up, it becomes harder to imagine any level of paranoia being enough to stop government surveillance. By the end of the film, Greenwald won’t even say half the things he wants to say in the same room as Snowden, he writes them down and then tears up and discards the pieces of paper when they’re done.

Aside from his occasional bouts of paranoia, Snowden comes across as almost frighteningly calm about what he’s about to do. His passionate idealism and determined commitment make him appear young and almost naïve, but his position is calmly and intelligently argued, so that you begin to wonder if it’s your own cynicism that greets such apparent sincerity with scepticism.

That jaded reaction to Snowden and to the leaks - that we all knew something like this was probably going on and what of it - is taken to task by Appelbaum in another talk later in the film. He says that the fatalistic reaction of his generation to their own loss of privacy, which he sees as really a loss of liberty, is frightening. By the end of Citizenfour, you’ll be frightened too.

Despite the wealth of media hours devoted to Snowden and the NSA, Citizenfour does make the whole thing fresh again, with its tight thriller-like filming and the claustrophobic images of the same four walls around him as Snowden systematically dismantles his life for the sake of disclosing what he knows. It also throws in the occasional unknown tidbit, that the NSA loves Britiain’s GCHQ’s Tempora programme, for example, “because they can query it all day long”, something that the US doesn’t allow.

 This is a film that reminds you about the magnitude of the NSA revelations and forces you to confront again the loss of privacy and curtailing of freedom that we’ve come to expect and accept in the modern world. While a deeper view of Snowden himself would have been welcome, by refusing to delve into his personality and taking at face value his claims that the leaks came at the prodding of his own conscience, Poitras keeps all the focus on the NSA’s spying and asks the audience to question a society that allows such mass surveillance of its citizens.
Review first published on The Register.