Pirates of Silicon Valley (Martyn Burke, 1999)

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Pirates of Silicon Valley, directed by Martyn Burke (1999).

Score: The one film you have to watch if you want to learn about the birth of the personal computer.

My friends and I joked over dinner about how ridiculous it would be if Michael Fassbender won the Oscar over Leonardo DiCaprio on Sunday for playing Steve Jobs after watching The Revenant. “Pirates of Silicon Valley! Now that was an accurate movie about Steve Jobs!”, we sentenced. I remembered watching half of it on TV one afternoon after a nap and decided it needed proper watching.

Pirates of Silicon Valley is a made-for-TV docudrama about the first years in the existence of Apple Computers and Microsoft, back when it was still called Micro-Soft. The segments that focus on Steve Jobs (Noah Wyle) are narrated by a fictionalized version of Steve Wozniak (Joey Slotnick) and the ones about Bill Gates (Anthony Michael Hall) and Paul Allen (Josh Hopkins), by the in-universe Steve Ballmer (John DiMaggio). The movie follows the adventures of these Harvard dropouts and unlikely billionaires while they design the prototypes for the first personal computers under the noses of IBM, who couldn’t begin to think what an everyman had to do with a computer, steal the graphic user interface and mouse from Xerox and finally fight each other over prominence putting a juicy operative system out in the market.

What Pirates of Silicon Valley lacks in the technical department (and seriously, the movie poster is hideously designed) it makes up for in historical accuracy. Both Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak have publicly acknowledged that the movie was a “reasonably accurate portrayal”, and that is really something. And it is a severe one for Jobs. He’s shown being a fusty hippie, then a cut-throat entrepreneur and later a fairly abusive CEO, spiced up with his refusing to acknowledge his daughter and his outright stealing of other people’s ideas. Bill Gates’ portrayal is only slightly more flattering. Unlike the 2013 biopic, this does not hesitate to bring up the nastiest aspects of Jobs’ personality (and according to some of his biographers, there were many).

While the writing is not top-notch, it effectively combines scenes from the history of the companies, the history of personal computers and the personal lives of the people involved for a quite entertaining and informative result. Especially interesting for people who do not speak computer and want to know how it all started. Spoiler alert: it is a not very inspiring story and there’s some dirty laundry in it.

The Revenant (Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2015)

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The Revenant, directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu (2015).

Score: A big pile of nothing.

You’ve probably flocked to the cinema to watch this like me. The big Oscar’s runner-up. DiCaprio’s most ambitious acting up to date. Hype on two legs. A big pile of nothing.

The Revenant tells the story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who, while in a fur trading expedition, gets in a fight with a grizzly bear and her cubs and ends up badly injured. The leader of the expedition offers a generous reward for three men who stay back and nurse him back to health. There are three volunteers: Glass’ half-Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), young Bridger and the selfish and unpleasant John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy). Long story short, Glass gets left for dead and crawls his way for miles to hunt down the men who marooned him.

The technical aspects are quite impressive. With the right crew and enough money they always are. Prosthetics and props are state-of-the-art and photography is beautiful, though I’m not sure to what degree it was absolutely necessary to only shoot with natural light. The little CGI, basically used to animate the grizzly bear, is jaw-dropping. I loved how you could even see the moss on her claws when they came close to the camera.

The acting. DiCaprio wheezes, grunts, crawls, winces and does everything in the palette of a badly injured, desperate man. At moments it looks like he’s going to yell up to the heavens: “Can I have an Oscar now???” DiCaprio says this was the most difficult role of his career because he “chose to devour a raw slab of bison’s liver, even though he is vegetarian. He also had to learn to shoot a musket, build a fire, speak two Native American languages (Pawnee and Arikara), and study with a doctor who specializes in ancient healing techniques”. Like he’s been the first actor ever to learn obscure (when not artificial) languages and learnt some techniques related to the character’s background. I mean, this is pleasantly surprising in a contender, expected in an A-line actor, and he’s not the first actor to go to such lengths. And even with all the physical exhaustion, tongue-speaking and wonderful prosthetics Tom Hardy just steals the show from him. Because Hardy’s performance is wonderfully nuanced and expressive. The way his eyes widen when he’s been caught red-handed and has to make up a lie, all the little facial gestures that make Fitzgerald so despicable, but also so human. He says more about this character by doing less than DiCaprio milking the giant cow.

This movie could have been made in at least forty-five fewer minutes. The photography is wonderful and all but so many shots of beautiful landscapes belong in the art book, not in the movie itself. I liked the arc with Hikuc (Arthur RedCloud) looking for her daughter Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o), but it should have been closer-knitted, with fewer slow scenes in-between. The part where Glass is helped by a Native American was completely unnecessary and overall added about twenty minutes of runtime (it would have also spared DiCaprio from eating the bison liver, everyone wins). The beginning didn’t interest me in the character’s lives, the middle part was interesting but the ending took its sweet time to arrive. The climactic scene with the horse carcass should have come much sooner. Also, at this point we were already watching Bear Grylls: The Movie. There were muffled laughs in the cinema during the dream sequences with the dead wife floating over Glass, suspended on obvious-looking wires.

It’s totally going to kill it in the Oscars.

The lost thorn (Joshua P. Aguayo)

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The Lost Thorn, by Joshua P. Aguayo.

Score: A little cyberpunk adventure.

The Lost Thorn takes place in Quito in 2132. Samantha Thorn is a drug addicted and problematic teenager in a city run by evil megacorp ClearSight with an iron fist. Kiriana Fondegass, another teenager, is employed to monitor Samantha at all times since she’s considered to be dangerous and subversive. Everything changes when Samantha’s gang leader tasks her with inspecting a very rare magical object.

While Aguayo still has to polish his style, The Lost Thorn is a fun little cyberpunk adventure. All the usual cyberpunk tropes are played straight and at the same time cyberpunk is used to deconstruct another branch of fantasy, but I won’t spoil which. The chapters are excellently planned and the pacing is very enjoyable.

The tone and sense of humour will make it more enjoyable for young adult readers, but everyone looking for some fun commute reading can find this novel entertaining.

La escopeta nacional (Luis G. Berlanga, 1978)

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La escopeta nacional, directed by Luis García Berlanga (1978).

Score: Such a spot-on satire that it still applies today.

I like to think of Berlanga as a Spanish, more bitter Billy Wilder. Berlanga had an ability to mock Francoist society during the dictatorship and at the same time avoiding the censor’s scissors. La escopeta nacional was made at the beginning of our present democracy but still manages to attack and maim the pillars of our corrupted status quo, which the dictatorship allowed to flourish. In fact, this film could be remade today with a few changes and still work. That’s how far we’ve come.

Jaume Canivell (José Sazatornil “Saza”) is a Catalan industrialist who attends a hunt with the nobility with his secretary and lover, Mercè (Mónica Randall). His goal is to have the Minister (Antonio Ferrandis) make his newly patented intercoms compulsory in as many homes as possible so he can profit from the sales. The Marquis of Leguineche (Luis Escobar) is so broke that the invitees have to actually pay for the hunt themselves but pretend that the Marquis is paying and his son (José Luis López Vázquez) decides to elope with a beautiful and ambitious actress… To a nearby cottage still within his family’s property. Canivell has to suck up to nearly everyone and get himself in ridiculous situations to try to (illegitimately) get his business up and running.

Berlanga doesn’t spell it out for you. He throws the audience into chaotic and long shots with many characters in them and fast-paced conversations, and lets each one make up their mind about what is going on. The satire is such that it can really fly over some people’s heads, left wondering what is so funny about a bunch of nobles, priests and businessmen hunting partridges while their wives follow them around in fur coats and high heels; while for other people the slight off-ness of everything is just hilarious. Though it does get blunter later on.

I think this is the first film I’ve ever watched where two Catalan characters speak to each other in Catalan for the duration of the movie and, naturally, subtitles in Spanish are provided. I find it unthinkable today to expose the sensitive ears of monolingual Spaniards to that “goatherd’s dialect” that is the Catalan language in a Spanish movie. That’s how far we’ve come.

So if you want to watch some satire from one of the masters or learn a bit of recent Spanish history, this will be worth your while.

Cloud atlas (David Mitchell, 2o04)

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Cloud Atlas: a novel, by David Mitchell (2004)

Score: Astounding.

Cloud Atlas must have been a hell of a book to market. It’s usually classified as a sci-fi, I’m assuming because it’s considered the lowest common denominator of genre, but there is no such thing as sci-fi elements in it until the fifth of its six stories. I guess those people who believe sci-fi should have never crawled out from between the covers of greasy pulps and don’t want any in their literature needed to be warned. But those who get bored if there are no robots in the plot and nothing goes pew pew are going to be very disappointed in the first four stories.

Cloud Atlas is also one of those wonderful books, like those written by Vonnegut or García Márquez, where you get carried away by the colours in the narrator’s words. Where the form is so exquisite that you feel like a tourist in the minds and lives of the characters. The plot is not the only driving experience, but the tone and style are. Cloud Atlas is composed of six short stories that are related to each other. Each of them gets interrupted halfway through to give way to the next one, until the sixth, which is reproduced fully, and then the rest close in reverse order, the last chapter being the second half of the first story.

You don’t want to know the details of the plots. You will have a great time finding out what the stories are about, but I will tell you it starts in the South Pacific around 1850 and ends in a far-distant future. All the stories are related to each other and something I love is that all the stories are actual pieces of writing in-universe, i.e. diaries, correspondence, interviews or novel manuscripts. And each of them appears in the chronologically next one in one way or another.

All these formats and styles allow Mitchell to show off his chameleon-like stylistic abilities. Each of the chapters reads different and in a way that is completely suitable for each character and wildly different from each other. Some writers, like me, would love to master only one of these styles. Imagine mastering all seven of them. From Adam Ewing’s purple prose to Zachry’s deformed English, Mitchell takes every chance he has to play with language. He makes some very bold and convincing creative decisions about how future English could have evolved in Sonmi’s and Zachry’s stories. His mastery of characterization and first-person narrative makes both Robert Frobisher and Timothy Cavendish deeply endearing and fleshed-out. Such simple stories wouldn’t have worked half as well if they weren’t told by such extravagant narrators. I love “An Orison of Sonmi~451”, not only for its mastery of dystopia and cyberpunk tropes, but as a satire of corporatism, social class struggle, political corruption and basically everything under the sun. (And I have to say I gasped when I found that half-hidden reference to Borges’ “Funes the Memorious”. 451 can’t be an accident either.) The parallels between the Moriori in Ewing’s story and Zachry’s Valleymen are quite clever and give some sense of closure and circularity of time. Mitchell even does a great job at writing a formulaic and exciting thriller with Luisa Rey’s story, is there something this man can’t write well?

Last but not least, the way Mitchell closes the stories in reverse order not only provides the final bits of information but keeps having the stories throwing shoutouts to each other in unexpected ways. Some stories throw their endings at you like gravestones, while some others leave you forever with a smile on your face. Frobisher writes to Sixsmith: “Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a “sextet for overlapping soloists”: piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late, but it’s the first thing I think of when I awake, and the last thing I think of before I fall asleep”. It’s hard not to sympathise with Mitchell letting himself be seen this way.

The few hundred words I’ve written about it don’t really do it any justice: do yourself a favour and pick up this book.

Horns (Alexandre Aja, 2013)

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Horns, directed by Alexandre Aja (2013).

Score: I guess “curious” is the right word.

Someone murdered Merrin Williams (Juno Temple) and everyone thinks it was Ignatius Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe), his middle school sweetheart and lifelong boyfriend. Ig one day grows a pair of goat-like horns and people start being disturbingly honest to him. Ig decides to use his newfound powers to find Merrin’s true killer and take vengeance on them.

I’ve been thinking about fantasy tropes and fantastic elements in narrative and I had decided that more often than not these have a symbolic or metaphoric nature. So for the first half of the movie or so I was very content with interpreting the horns as a symbol of Ig’s quite literal demonisation in the eyes of the public, and the reason why Lee didn’t see them was that he was the only one who thought he was innocent. But as the movie goes on it becomes painfully obvious that he is actually turning into a demon and in this movie a cigar is just a cigar. Well, you can enjoy such a film all the same.

There is also a very curious shift in tone throughout the film. It starts as a quite dirty black comedy that veers into a whodunnit and ends up being a complete fantasy tearjerker. The imagery is just Christian imagery we’re all familiar with in the West and it sticks to horns, snakes and even a freaking pitchfork, all opposed to Merrin’s gold chain with a cross. It doesn’t really stray from the beaten path in that sense. All the middle school clique with a pair of sweethearts in it that goes horribly wrong reminded me a lot of The butterfly effect.

I wouldn’t actively recommend to watch it but it was entertaining. Good to watch if they air it on TV on a Saturday afternoon after you take a nap.

The hateful eight (Quentin Tarantino, 2015)

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The hateful eight, directed by Quentin Tarantino (2015).

Score: Tarantino being Tarantino.

It’s hard for me to hide my dislike of (most of) Quentin Tarantino’s work. It’s hard for me to artistically respect someone who has made a career of thinly veiled plagiarism and brags about only liking (and plagiarising) bad movies. But people kept telling me that the film was at least some fun and, well. I’m dubbing it The Hateful 167 Minutes I Spent Watching This Pile of Garbage.

The hateful eight tells the story of John Ruth “The Hangman” (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter who is taking murderer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to be hung in a village called Red Rock. Along the way they also encounter bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and the new Sheriff of Red Rock, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). A huge blizzard is chasing them, so they decide to take shelter in Minnie’s Haberdashery, where they find English Hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), Bob the Mexican (Demián Bichir) taking care of the house while Minnie is away and a Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) who is coming home to his mother for Christmas. And then shit hits the fan because they’re all murderous pieces of shit that can’t trust one another.

So there are two main aspects to the film. For one there are a bunch of bounty hunters, murdererers, war criminals and whatnot locked in a house in the middle of a blizzard and almost twenty thousand dollars in bounties at stake. Mindless violence ensues, naturally and because you came to watch a Tarantino flick. The second aspect is all the post Civil War subtext, including people from different sides of the conflict finding that they have to be in each other’s presence, and will have to until everyone who took part in the war has died. After such a conflict many people have to live with having done horrible things to their fellow citizens, to their brothers and sisters if you want to put it that way. It’s great to write about these topics and you don’t need to be an auteur to do it, you can make an entertaining film that makes people think about such issues. What really infuriates me is Tarantino’s short-sightedness and lack of subtlety and tact. It’s like he’s saying: “I’m treating racial issues so I’m entitled to use the N-word sixty-five times because it’s so much fun to use it”. I find it mildly offensive that Jennifer Jason Leigh has obtained an Oscar nomination for a role where the only thing she does is being shoved around in cuffs and beaten to bloody shambles. It annoys me a lot that a middle-aged white man glorifies and romaticises racist slurs and misogyny and calls it his artistic liberty just because the movie included some poor excuses of reflection on race and gender.

And even if you don’t want to think about any of that the movie is not fun at all. It’s slow and boring and utterly unoriginal. Tarantino insisted in shooting it on Ultra Panavision 70, a format only used by literally other ten movies in history, and he chose it for some reason that seriously eludes me. Having an intermission so the cinema staff can change the reel in 2016 is something I find quite depressing. Tim Roth’s accent, for goodness’ sake. The vomit scene is just as ridiculous as that one from Family Guy. If you want to write a comedy, do it, if you want to write a drama, do it. If you overdo drama it just becomes grotesque. (Compare and contrast a climactic scene near the end of Glamorama.) At least Tarantino has improved at shooting firelit scenes and we didn’t have to endure the Orange Faces of Doom like in Django Unchained.

Well, everyone’s liking it, so if you go and watch it I hope you have all the fun I didn’t.

Fallout 4 (Bethesda Game Studios, 2015)

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Fallout 4, developed by Bethesda Game Studios (PS4, 2015).

Score: Like Fallout 3, but with more stuff.

Which is not a bad thing, mind you. I think Fallout 3 was the first game ever that I played for more than a hundred hours in total. So after seven years of waiting I wanted what I guess everyone wanted: the same general feeling that made me enjoy Fallout 3 so much and a little something extra so I’m not playing the same thing over. Mission accomplished.

Fallout 4 takes place ten years after the events of Fallout 3 in Boston and its surroundings. The playable character, the Lone Survivor, lived in Sanctuary Hills with their spouse and their son Shaun, when the bombs fell in 2077 and they took refuge in Vault 111. The Lone Survivor is cryogenized upon entering the Vault and awakes briefly to see two people killing their spouse and taking their baby away. The Lone Survivor is later released to the post-apocalyptic Commonwealth of Massachusetts 210 years later, where they resolve to retrieve their kidnapped son and take revenge on his captors.

For those of you who don’t know, the setting is a post-apocalyptic dieselpunk, which sounds weird as fuck but it’s very fun to play. This means you get to encounter robot butlers that go berserk and start showering you with flamethrowers, visit the ruins of unscrupulous megacorps that experimented on people and marketed failed medicines as chemical weapons, and defend yourself from absurdly mutated animals such as mole rats, radroaches or the always exasperating Deathclaws.

So, the great improvement from Fallout 3 (and, to a lesser degree,Fallout New Vegas) is the plot. Let’s admit it, the plot in Fallout 3 was quite uninteresting and the fun came from other places. The plot inFallout 4 is quite impressive when compared with the previous two games. Your search for your abducted baby takes some pleasantly surprising turns and there is one major addition to the universe that makes the world much more interesting: synths and the Insititute. In this aspect, Fallout 4 plays the classical trope of artificial intelligence straight but in a very interesting way. You have four different factions that each have their own interests and agendas and in the end you have to choose; these are better developed than the factions in New Vegasbut the idea is more or less the same. There is a grand total of thirteen possible companions with different personalities. Hint: my favourite is Nick Valentine.

As for the gameplay, some things have stayed the same, some things have been passed on from New Vegas and some others are new. V.A.T.S. still exists but now it doesn’t stop time completely. The perk tree is very similar and some perks have stayed the same, but now it’s visually less confusing. Weapons don’t break down anymore and you can mod them just like in New Vegas. You can also craft items such as food, drugs, and armor and weapon mods. The power armor system is new. Power armor does break down and you need to repair it, but you can also mod it. It needs Fusion Cores to work, otherwise you can’t run in it and can’t use V.A.T.S. It’s not really an option for stealth players but I fucking love it because I’m such a Timmy. The other new thing is the settlements minigame. We were kind of introduced to how the system would work with Fallout Shelter, but still the in-game tutorial could have been so much better because it took a lot of trial and error and looking things up on forums to finally figure out how it works. It’s sort of fun once you get the hang of it.

There’s no Hardcore Mode this time, like there was in New Vegas, and I’ve tried both Normal and Survival modes. Normal is fine if you want to do a quick run of the main story and not much else, but it will get boring if you start doing every sidequest unless you like your games very easy. There is a new set of quests called Radiance Quests which are given by every faction and are basically infinite. They usually take the form of “Clear X location” or “Retrieve X object”. These get very boring very soon in Normal or easier modes, but the good news is you don’t have to take them. On the other hand, they are key in Survival mode as they help you level up and stack up on caps and gear. Hardcore Mode consists of your health replenishing more slowly and there being more special enemies. It might sound stupid but it increases the difficulty in a very effective way, and you get rewarded for your efforts with more gear with special perks. The difficulty curve is quite well achieved in the sense that difficulty stays steady. You don’t want to gouge your eyes out when you’re still at low levels and you will still get your ass handed to you if you’re not careful at high levels. This is achieved by having the enemies level up with you, and it’s barely noticeable.

All in all, if you liked the previous Fallout games you’re not going to be let down. If you’re new to the Fallout universe, I hope you have as much fun as I did.

Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014)

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Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle (2014).

Score: Exactly what it says on the tin, elegantly executed.

Whiplash tells the story of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a novice drummer who starts attending the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music, where he meets the extremely talented but hideously abusive band conductor Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons). Neiman’s ambition is to become one of the greatest drummers in history, like his heroes Charlie “Bird” Parker and Buddy Rich. Fletcher keeps pushing Neiman harder and harder and abusing him verbally with the excuse of getting his full potential out of him, while Neiman becomes more arrogant and alienated each time. The movie explores the ideas of what makes greatness, what greatness is worth, if anything at all, and where it is that instructors should draw the line to attain that greatness in their apprentices.

The movie’s strengths are attention to musical detail and character development. Sound production and mixing, as well as the musicians’ performances are stunning, and the music is delightful to hear both for jazz fans and for newcomers. Miles Teller does a great job at playing drums, though it’s understandable that body doubles and prerecorded tracks were used.

The tension and conflict between Neiman and Fletcher is excellently built up and resolved. Chazelle avoids clichés and easy ways out as the plot zigzags its way to the stunning ending. Look out for the visual reference to Private Pyle and the false foreshadowing involving the car accident. Fletcher’s dialogue is spot-on and swerves creepily between the sweet and the wild animal, a feature that can be sadly common in coaches and teachers in competitive environments. But Neiman is no saint either. Neiman grows arrogant and cut-throat as the plot moves on, leaving aside his family, his social life and his own health on his way to greatness. In the end he likes playing the same game Fletcher is playing, and they’re perfect for each other. This grey on grey continues until after the credits roll. There is no straight answer to what happened.

Like Dark Confidant wisely said: “Greatness, at any cost”.