La ley del deseo (Pedro Almodóvar, 1987)

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La ley del deseo, directed by Pedro Almodóvar (a. k. a. Law of desire, 1987).

Score: The edgy and the melodramatic.

Almodóvar is one of the most iconic Spanish filmmakers ever, but for some reason, I had never watched any of his films. I did some asking around and decided to start with this one, as they told me it was one of the “authentic” and “good” ones. And most of what I had heard about Almodóvar my whole life started to make sense.

La ley del deseo tells the story of Pablo Quintero (Eusebio Poncela), a queer and frivolous filmmaker. His relationship with Juan (Miguel Molina) is not running smoothly, so Juan decides to leave town for a while and think. Pablo finishes writing a theater play for his sister Tina (Carmen Maura), who is trying to make it big as an actress. Then Antonio (Antonio Banderas) appears in Pablo’s life. Antonio is passionate and obsessive, which Pablo finds amusing, but Antonio is certainly one edgy character…

Almodóvar’s filmmaking is known for being colourful, queer, excessive and melodramatic, and this is certainly Exhibit A. The pacing is quite well-achieved, never fully stalling, and the genre mixture is refreshing. A bit too dramatic and/or soap operatic for my taste but that’s not a bad thing. There is some shy usage of visual symbolism which I’m guessing he further developed as he became more experienced as a director. It’s actually shocking how much male nudity and homoerotic imagery there is for someone who ended up becoming a mainstream artist. It’s not that Spanish people today would be offended by it, it’s just that they don’t care. I guess it was also an aftereffect of the destape (1). In any case, now that we don’t have the need to let all that repressed sexuality out, queer themes outside Almodóvar are somewhat relegated to the indie scene.

Like one dear coworker of mine said: “Foreigners like Almodóvar because they don’t realize how bad the acting is, they watch him with subtitles”. Banderas does a very solid job, and Maura overdoes it but as you watch the movie you realise it just fits her character’s personality. But the rest of actors, they sound like they’re reading from a cue card or they’re radio announcers for some cheesy furniture outlet, sometimes within the same sentence. The whole thing is so fabricated and unreal that sometimes it works like a charm, though.

Must watch if you’re interested in the history of Spanish cinema. Will like it if you’re interested in LGTB-themed melodrama.

(1) Literally “uncovering”, a reaction in Spanish cinema to Francoist censorship, resulting in a lot of Spanish comedies in the late 70s and 80s containing nudity just for the sake of it and many sexual themes.

Day of the tentacle Remastered (LucasArts and Double Fine Productions, 1993-2016)

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Day of the tentacle Remastered a.k.a. Maniac Mansion 2, developed by LucasArts and Double Fine Productions (1993-2016, PS4).

Score: Adorkable.

Day of the tentacle brings us back to the Edison mansion for more adventures five years after the events of Maniac Mansion. Purple Tentacle drinks some toxic waste coming out from Dr. Edison’s lab that gives him evil intelligence and a desire to take over the world. In order to stop him, Dr. Fred uses his newly invented and not tested in humans Chron-O-John to send Bernard the nerd, Hoagie the roadie and Laverne the nurse back in time. Though Hoagie gets sent two hundred years into the past, when the Founding Fathers are having a convention, and Laverne is sent two hundred years into the future, when tentacles have already taken over the world.

The gameplay allows you to switch between the three characters and also send objects back and forth in time using the Chron-O-John (though it took me a while to realize this…) Some actions taken in the past have consequences in the future environments, and a lot of the crucial puzzles depend on this. While it’s always a bit inconvenient to play a point-and-click with a PS4 controller, the controls and shortcuts are fluid and easy to use.

The dialogue has the same sense of humour that is Schafer’s trademark, though it’s less socially aware than Grim Fandango and Broken Age, and more focused in being a fun adventure with some very absurd situations. The graphism and slapstick is heavily based on Looney Tunes cartoons.

The remaster does improve the graphics and sound a little and includes a fully functional version of Maniac Mansion, but maybe it’s not worth it if you already played the original. Worth your time if you enjoyed The secret of Monkey Island or other graphic adventures.

Watchmen (Moore, Gibbons and Higgins, 1986)

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Watchmen, by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and Joe Higgins (1986).

Score: Deconstrelicious.

Watchmen is a textbook example of genre deconstruction. According to TVTropesdeconstruction means to take apart a trope so as to better understand its meaning and relevance to us in Real Life. This often means pursuing a trope’s inherent contradictions and the difference between how the trope appears in this one work and how it compares to other relevant tropes or ideas both in fiction and Real Life.” (The Other Wiki only had a very boring article about Derrida.)

Moore and Gibbons explore the implications, as well as parody, transform and turn on their heads multiple tropes and milestones of the superhero genre. In the early Forties, a small group of civilians decide to don a cape and an eyemask and beat small-time criminals, inspired by comic-books. A nuclear accident in the Fifties results in the creation of Dr. Manhattan, an omnipotent superhuman, and this leverage causes the US to win the Vietnam war. Later, in 1977, vigilantes are outlawed following a massive law enforcement strike. In 1985 Rorschach surreptitiously investigates the murder of The Comedian, suspecting someone is hunting down former vigilantes.

I’m not at all versed in superhero lore, so I’m sure I missed out on a lot, but here are some things I absolutely loved. One of the first ideas that gets torn to pieces is the fight for justice and freedom. Transplanting the Manicheist, black-and-white overly simplistic ethics of classical superheroes gives you fascists like The Comedian or Rorschach as a result. The violent persecution of small-time petty criminals does nothing to prevent the root of all evil, and some of the vigilantes realise this, some others don’t and some others don’t care. In the end, none of the heroes are real heroes at all, so maybe what Sally Jupiter and Ozymandias did was nobler than what Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian did: is it really better to wage war against the Second World or exploit your popularity as an actress or an industrial tycoon? Neither option had to do with justice and good in the end. In the other hand, the existence of someone with superhuman powers such as Dr. Manhattan’s would mean total alienation to the rest of the world, like it’s the case here.

There’s also less solemn, more meta deconstruction, such as discussion of capes and costumes, that awkward feeling when the vigilantes were dressed up but the goons weren’t, the guy who had a kink of getting beaten, that gloriously ridiculous evacuation of the burning building, and last but not least, Rorschach repeatedly trying to stab the super villain with a fork while he was parsimoniously explaining his master plan.

The panels are arranged in neat 3×3 grids that are expanded if necessary, and following the action is very easy. The juxtaposition of dialogue, narration and excerpts from “Tales of the Black Freighter” works effectively and is easy to understand due to the distinctive bubbles and boxes. The drawings by Gibbons are beautiful and expressive, and the colouring by Higgins I found elegant. Gibbons is definitely up to the challenge posed by Moore and his drawing style is just as insightful (I love details such as Nite Owl’s paunch in 1985). I’ve also heard there are a lot of tiny details scattered on the backgrounds and waiting for a re-read, so I will definitely read this again in a few years.

The Spanish edition in a single volume is gorgeous and richly printed, the only problem it has is that it’s huge and very inconvenient to read unless you’re sitting at a desk.

Fight Club (Chuck Palahniuk, 1996)

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Fight club, by Chuck Palahniuk (1996).

Score: must-read.

When you’re a teenager you think no one can brood harder than you do. Then quarter-life crisis comes, knocks you to the ground and makes you see how wrong you were. I first read this about a decade ago. Like every other eighteen-year-old who reads this or watches the movie, it becomes sort of a bible of the edgy, reasserting what you already thought of the kind of world you were entering as a young adult. Fast forward ten years. You have been fighting to get those good jobs that the old folks refuse to let go without a fight. You were told you had to study hard to be someone but you’re flipping burgers anyway. You either have a stable relationship or you don’t, but neither is what they promised you. Anything other than living one paycheck away from bankruptcy seems like a bad taste joke. You pick this book up again. And you laugh bitterly at yourself.

Fight club is told first-person by a thirty-something everyman. Ikea-furnished condo, stable clerical job, the guy can’t sleep due to existential crisis. Doctor tries to hand-wave him by telling him terminally ill people have it much worse. Narrator ends up hugging and crying in the arms of the hopeless, the only place where he can let go of his angst. Until he realises Marla Singer is a tourist just like him. Shortly after, he meets Tyler Durden in a work trip. “We have a sort of a triangle thing going here. I want Tyler. Tyler wants Marla. Marla wants me.” What follows is a downward spiral of petty protesting against a world where these people don’t belong and they cannot change into something they can enjoy, in the form of peeing in rich people’s food, splicing porn stills into children’s movies or picking fights with random people.

Palahniuk loves his beige prose, and the grammar inconsistencies and limited vocabulary make the first-person narrator work superbly. In a similar fashion as in Ellis’ style, the narrator’s litanies and juxtaposition of contrasting scenes give the whole text a symbolic and lyrical value. The linguistic simplicity doesn’t mean the book hasn’t got layers upon layers of meaning, symbols and metaphors. But if you take this as a philosophical treatise, you’re making a teenager’s mistake. This is not a metaphysical statement. This is not a book to live by. Ultimately, it’s the story of a young man who is too sensitive for a tragically flawed world.

If you liked the movie, if you want to understand more of the pop culture of the last two decades, if you want to read a plain good book, read this one.

***SPOILERS***

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House of cards (Season 4, 2016)

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House of Cards, season 4 (Netflix, 2016).

Score: On a plateau.

***SPOILERS FOR SEASONS 1 TO 4***

Claire is decided to leave Frank if he stays unwilling to acknowledge a career of her own, but she won’t go public because the momentum he can give her is too succulent to leave to waste. Thus, the first chapers explore what it would be like if the Underwoods were pitted against one another. But that gets boring fast so something must happen to change the direction of the plot. This is where Lucas Goodwin gets in. He gets out of jail for helping the FBI and enjoys some sort of surveillanced freedom. He uses that to try to shoot Frank dead and kill Meechum in the process, because what kind of bodyguard would Meechum be if he didn’t stop a bullet for the President? If they wanted to have Frank shot, Meechum had to go. And thus when Frank finally recovers things get back to normal.

I’m getting a bit tired that this show has to use up full-season arcs to undo what the previous season cliffhanger did. Season 2′s cliffhanger was Rachel attacking Doug and leaving him for dead. All of Doug’s Season 3 arc was devoted to nursing him back to health and putting him back in service of the Underwoods, though he barely does anything this season. The same thing happened with the Claire-wants-a-divorce cliffhanger: they spent half the season undoing all of it (and it required almost killing Frank) until they’re both back at square one: sacking and pillaging back to back. I still don’t get what function Thomas Yates serves as a character, but it looks like after roaming Season 3 like a ghost he’s now Claire’s lover.

This is conflicting for me, because in the one hand it fulfills one of my fetishes: it’s realistic. Like people don’t serve narrative purposes in real life, but things just happen in a more or less sequential order. In the other hand, I’m watching fiction. I want ellipsis, I want what I’m watching to have a beginning, a crux and an ending, and at this pace the ending is far beyond the point I get bored of this. There’s still exciting backstabbing and political shenanigans, but it’s more of the same now. It’s on a plateau of exciting stuff and if it stays up there indefinitely it’s going to stop being interesting.

One thing I liked a lot was Hammerschmidt’s arc. Something has to come back and bite the Underwoods in the butt, and it might as well be Hammerschmidt. Something very positive about this season was that there were a lot of throwbacks to previous arcs. Whether this was the intention all along or just the writers being clever, I don’t care, it was an effective strategy.

This story needs closure now. I know it’s hard to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs, but as good as something is, it needs to end sometime.

Ghost in the shell (Masamune Shirow, 1989-1990)

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Ghost in the shell, by Masamune Shirow (1989-1990).

Score: Good cop story, weird cyberpunk story.

Unless you’re very new to the world of manga and/or science-fiction, it’s hard not to pick up this with great hype. This little volume has spanned beloved animated movies, TV shows and lately a controversial, white-washed Hollywood adaptation. You open up its pages and you’re getting your nose into history.

But if you opened this thinking you would find a reflection on life, death and artificial intelligence, you’re in for a big surprise: Ghost in the shell is essentially a collection of short cop stories. It follows the adventures of Major Motoko Kusanagi and her counter-cyberterrorist special task force. The structure of the stories is very classical, with the call to hunt down the bad guys, the car chases, explosions in abandoned warehouses and later discovery that things were not as they looked and the culprit was someone unexpected. There is a conducting thread in the form of the Puppet Master, a hacker who breaks into cyborgs’ minds. The last story revolves around him and is the one that was adapted into the first animated movie.

For an author that writes so many footnotes (he even states at the beginning that he recommends to read the story first and the footnotes later) he doesn’t always do his homework when it comes to research. Nobody said hard science-fiction was better than its soft counterpart, but if you’re going to make hard science-fiction and you don’t get your facts right the effect gets lost. Shirow is clearly a believer, and that’s not a bad thing either. He talks about brain cells, nanobots and spirits as though they were in the same category of objects. You can go with the flow until he says stuff like microorganisms existed before galaxy clusters. The first animated movie focused a lot in what makes something intelligent, and therefore, a bearer of rights. Shirow doesn’t care much about that, instead he approaches the matter of what makes something alive from a spiritual and religious focus. The source material and the adaptations vary wildly in this matter and you can like both, one of them or neither.

The technical quality is fine, at least for the standard set by manga. The proportions are not outrageous but sometimes the lack of detail is felt, along with missing panels Shirow himself admits he was too lazy to draw. I wish manga was all in colour, not just the first few pages of each chapter. If comic book authors of different schools can do it, why not mangakas? I’d like to know. In the other hand, the clothes and technological design are very fresh and original, and clearly influential.Neuromancer had come out five years before and Shirow wanted to ride the wave of cyberpunk in his own way.

Last but not least, I want to speak of the quality of the Spanish edition I read. I’ve owned the Planeta 2002 edition for over a decade and it’s a great edition. The speech bubble text is handwritten! Without being able to read the original Japanese dialogue, I feel the translation is well-achieved and naturally written, one of the things I appreciate the most in a translation. It deals very well with a surprising aspect of this work: its sense of humour. The first movie gives you the impression that the source material must be very grave and solemn, and that’s not the case. From page one the serious scenes are mixed with comical vignettes, and even in action-packed sequences background characters will make humorous remarks, like: “Mom, why are the police so ugly?”.

To wrap it up, the work has its flaws, but its historical significance makes it a must-read.