Ex machina (Alex Garland, 2015)

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Ex machina, directed by Alex Garland (2015).

Score: Excellent.

Caleb (Domhall Gleeson) is one of the many employees of Blue Book, the world’s leading search engine. One day he wins a lottery to go visit the estate of the intelligent and reclusive CEO of Blue Book, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Once he’s shown around and signs a fairly abusive non-disclosure agreement, Nathan reveals that he actually wants Caleb to perform a Turing test on his latest creation: the gynoid Ava (Alicia Vikander).

This movie yells “deception” at you from minute one. The plot is advanced mostly through dialogue and at the same time exposition dialogue is kept to a minimum: Nathan interrupts Caleb every time Caleb tries to discuss technical aspects about Ava. He’s more interested in knowing how Caleb feels about her. As a result, dialogue unfolds in different interpretations as the viewer realizes someone is fucking with someone else’s mind and wants to know exactly what is going on. I can’t help but giggle at “Basic Instinct for robosexuals” every time I remember that. I wish I had thought of it.

The twenty minutes into the future atmosphere and aesthetic is greatly achieved, and a great part of that are the visual effects. I was aware that they are made by adding layers of CGI over chroma key material on Alicia Vikander, but even if you pay close attention the effect is seamless. Kudos on the location choices. The acting is good. The scenes are mostly dialogue with not much milking the giant cow, so the dialogue is spoken naturally and flows in a way that is easy to understand. Alicia Vikander manages to look surprisingly a lot like what we tend to assume a gynoid would look like, even if none exist yet.

Nevertheless, since this movie revolves around dialogue, deception and trying to figure out what makes a machine truly intelligent, you might not like it if you’re not into that much conversation and prefer a little more action like in the Elvis song.

And now for the discussion of themes, plot and character:

***SPOILERS***

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Airbag (Juanma Bajo Ulloa, 1997)

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Airbag, directed by Juanma Bajo Ulloa (1997).

Score: silly, irreverent and politically incorrect.

Okay, so this is the most morally depraved film I had the honour to watch as a pre-teen. I rewatched it yesterday during a re-airing and the first thing I wondered is how my parents let me watch that.

The movie opens with Serafín (Karlos Arguiñano [1]) attending and ruining a rigged game of Russian omelette organized by the mob. The money he wins goes to fund his son’s wedding. A few days before the wedding, Pako (Alberto San Juan) and Konradín (Fernando Guillén-Cuevo) decide to take the groom, Juantxo (Karra Elejalde), to a brothel for their stag party. Though he’s reluctant at first, Juantxo ends up going upstairs with a faux-Cuban prostitute (Vicenta N’Dongo), then he misplaces his engagement ring during a session of anal sex. The three friends try to retrieve the ring, but it has been snatched by the owner of the brothel, mobster Villambrosa (Francisco Rabal). On their crazy road trip from brothel to brothel trying to retrieve the ring, they get mistaken for Fátima Do Spirito Santo’s (Maria de Medeiros) gang and their car’s airbags are fitted with a huge stash of cocaine, adding persecution by inept Galician mobster Pazos (Manuel Manquiña).

The comedy comes from the juxtaposition of silliness and crude situations. The three friends visit brothels and casinos, mingle with the mob, corrupt police officers and pedophile politicians, who are all ridiculously incompetent: so much so, that the three friends are constantly praised as being “professional and dangerous”.

The first half is better than the second, and it all stalls a bit in the middle: the scenes in the luxury brothels could have been shorter and gone more to the point. Between the point when the three friends run away with the cocaine and the two gangs parley, pretty much nothing happens. Also the resolution of the different conflicts is not maybe too silly but too lazy, except for the Russian roulette and wedding scenes. The dialogue has some really classic moments, such as “hondanadas de hostias”, “somachigún”, “centollos en este tiempo no”, “el cuerpo es un misterio”, the business English for prostitutes audio tape, the scene with the two members of Guardia Civil…

The acting is quite natural, a milestone in Spanish cinema, and the main actors manage to be hilarious while staying contained. Technical aspects are good (it even won a Goya for special effects), the only problem I have with them is sometimes the music is too loud and muffles dialogue.

This was the highest-grossing Spanish movie until Torrente came out, and looking at it from an international perspective it’s weird as fuck. I guess it’s an indication of what we are as a culture.

[1] This is even funnier when you’ve grown up watching his cooking show where he also tells jokes and sings dirty songs.

Trumbo (Jay Roach, 2015)

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Trumbo, directed by Jay Roach (2015).

Score: Entertaining.

Trumbo tells the (adapted) story of real-life screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), who was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee for being a member of the Communist Party and had to resort to other people fronting him for his scripts, among other things. Dalton Trumbo ended up winning two Oscars he couldn’t accept on first instance: for Roman Holiday and The Brave One.

Though this movie is based on real events, it’s just mildly informative: “based” is the keyword here. It’s entertaining and useful to learn about Maccarthyism, but take it with a pinch of salt. When you write a biopic, you have to fictionalize a bit to make it palatable: fabricate conflict if the real one is too bland, add endearing and relatable characters, even if you have to invent them, sprinkle with some obstacles for the main character to face and finish off with some sense of closure. If you’re not willing to do any of this, just make a documentary. The biggest problem I find in Trumbo is that the whole approach is too black-and-white. I can relate to conservative people finding it offensive that the conservatives in this movie are so petty and so obviously confined to being the villains. Exhibit A is the fictionalized version of Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren). Their motivations are not given a second thought nor any depth. I find censorship and persecution for political reasons unacceptable but as a writer you owe your intellectual rivals more respect than that.

Other than that, the movie is beautifully done, entertaining and humorous. Bryan Cranston does a good job at mimicking the real Dalton Trumbo’s mannerisms and speech patterns and Helen Mirren is great at playing the cardboard Dolores Umbridge.

All in all, good to watch after work for some harmless entertainment.

Keynes vs Hayek (Nicholas Wapshott, 2012)

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Keynes vs Hayek: the clash that defined modern economics, by Nicholas Wapshott (2012).

Score: I’m not sure who the target audience for this book is.

This essay seeks to document and illustrate (but not explain or analyze) the theoretical conflict between John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek. Like, literally, that’s the only thing it does.

I defy anybody―Keynesian, Hayekian, or uncommitted―to read [Wapshott’s] work and not learn something new.”, happily chants this quote by John Cassidy on the blurb. I, a person with very basic knowledge of economics, didn’t learn anything relevant to my interests from it. I put it down after chapter 7 when it looked like it was going to be all the same until the end, and the only things I recall learning about the subject at hand is that Keynes had a very close-knit fanclub and Hayek was tall and awkward, spoke broken English and drew diagrams that nobody understood.

Adding background and anecdotes is not a problem (see Schopenhauer and the wild years of philosophy). The problem is that the actual theoretical content is never explained. I tried so hard to follow the arguments but kept asking the book questions it never answered, like: ‘Why was it important to abandon the gold standard?’, ‘Why is inflation good or bad?’, ‘What is the European theory of capital and why does it matter here?’ Wapshott just goes to the sources and starts quoting back and forth, without ever bothering to make sure the reader understands what’s going on. This reads like an essay from someone who didn’t fully grasp the source material so they quote it and parrot it in hopes it looks like they know what they’re saying.

I expected this book to explain, compare and contrast Keynes’ and Hayek’s economic theories, but maybe that’s not what the author set out to do. It’s got great reviews on Amazon, probably from people who know the answers to all those questions I had and who claim it helped them understand the current economical situation. On the other hand, Greg Ransom from hayekcenter.org, who looks like he knows a thing or two about economy, points out factual errors and poor documenting on Wapshott’s part.

I can definitely say it’s hard to follow and not very instructive if you’re not already familiar with the terms it’s discussing. I don’t know if it’s worth reading if you know more economy than me.

Gone girl (David Fincher, 2014)

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Gone girl, directed by David Fincher (2014).

Score: David Fincher is back.

I really like David Fincher but he’s had a decade of quite boring movies (or movies I should rewatch? I don’t know anymore). Gone girl brings us back to the time of Se7en and Fight Club, with a dark and edgy thriller.

Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) comes back home one morning after some errands to find his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) has disappeared. Their marriage was not at its best moment, but does that mean he made her disappear? Soon a police investigation starts, led by Det. Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and the media can’t wait to run their hands all over the tragedy.

I believe this movie’s biggest strength is pacing. For a movie 149 minutes long, it doesn’t stop, stall or become uninteresting. Its three acts are well-balanced and scenes are well-chosen and edited. The story is everything you expect from classic Fincher: mystery, twisted personalities, unreliable characters and human misery. I don’t know why you guys hate Ben Affleck so much, but anyway he plays the doofus and the loser very convincingly. And Rosamund Pike is just fantastic. Technical aspects are great but they don’t distract you from the good story you’re being told.

Definitely recommended if you like the kind of movie, avoid spoilers like the plague. There’s so much to discuss about themes and plot, but I’ll do so under the cut.

***SO MANY SPOILERS***

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How NOT to write a novel (Mittelmark and Newman, 2008)

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How NOT to write a novel, by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman (2008)

Score: interesting as a creative writing manual, not so much as generic entertainment.

Mittelmark and Newman have decades of experience working as editors and writers. It seems like one day enough was enough, and they decided to delight the world with two hundred mistakes unpublished writers tend to make a lot and pleaded: ‘stop torturing us with these, please’.

The basic structure of the manual is starting with a side-splitting counter-example of something you can do wrong when writing a novel, then mercilessly criticizing that kind of mistake and sometimes offering advice of some sort. These short chapters are divided in segments dealing with plot, characters, styles and the such. I really like funny story compilations, funny quote compilations and books of this sort in general so I picked this up thinking it was more of a “look at the hideous manuscript this idiot sent” with excerpts from stuff they received for publishing. Another time I didn’t read the blurb. I found it funny and useful at the same time since I want to be a writer, but if you don’t want to be one you probably won’t find it entertaining since it’s very focused towards getting people to not make this mistakes. The examples are so hysterical you might have a good laugh, though.

As far as creative writing manuals go, it’s pretty basic. We have all made some of these mistakes when we started (me thinking back to my time of awful fanfiction in three, two…) and some of these are stuff we tend to fall into from time to time, but once you have read a bit of good literature and gotten on your way to actually becoming a published writer, these will seem a little obvious. Also, it’s clearly stated that these rules are for commercial, mainstream novels. A lot of literary novels break these rules but, clever reader, they always do it for a reason, don’t they? (“But it says you should never include cats and X beloved novel has one and it sold millions!”, you complain. Well, maybe don’t take it so literally? Understand why it worked for that author and what traps they avoided when they included the cat?) Anyhow, it’s always a good idea to walk before running and to be familiar with how to apply the rules before you break them. As with everything criticism-related, follow the golden rule: don’t take it personally. The snarky tone and mocking of unpublishable authors might be hurtful if you do these things and still regard yourself as a good author, but hey, pride is not going to make you a better writer.

Last but not least, the Spanish translation is wonderful. It’s one of those translations that makes you forget the source material was actually in another language. The tone is culturally adapted, idioms are not translated awkwardly or downright literally, the exposition flows seamlessly. Kudos to Daniel Royo.

All in all, a book aimed at a very specific audience but that you can enjoy even if you’re not the target.

The legend of mother Sarah (Ôtomo and Nagayasu, 1990-2004)

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The legend of mother Sarah, by Katsuhiro Ôtomo and Takumi Nagayasu (1990-2004).

Score: Excellent.

After a nuclear war, humanity has been forced to flee Earth to satellite habitats in orbit to wait unit the surface is inhabitable again. One day, a group of scientists comes up with a non-nuclear bomb and suggest to use it to change the climate on Earth by burying the devastated Nothern Hemisphere in ice, which would make the Southern Hemisphere viable for vegetation again. Soon, a war starts between two factions: Epoch, who wants to follow this plan, and Mother Earth, who rejects it. Amid the political unstability, a new exodus to the surface starts.

Sarah is a mother of four who lost her children in a riot while descending from the satellite and is willing to go to any lengths to find them. She’s also a resourceful lady, mind you, and with the help of her friend Tsue the merchant, nothing will stop her.

I think this is better than Akira. There, I said it. It’s definitely a more mature work. Since Akira relied on Rule of Cool for everything, that also meant that it failed in the logic, consistency and tone department oftentimes. In The legend of mother Sarah, chapters are excellently planned and paced, with appropriate flashbacks for backstory. Tone is consistent and appropriate and promises to the reader are adequately fulfilled. There are science-fiction elements but they’re not over-the-top.

The tone is dark and depressing as fuck, but hey, that’s war to you. It managed to make me really angry. The bloodlust and the inability to let go of the warlords was well-achieved, to say nothing of the fact that they are actually better off with war, which entitles them to sack, pillage and hoard resources. And at the same time, Sarah never gives up. Sarah can kick ass but she will try to speak first and will try to avoid conflict. Sarah is determined to have a better world, and she will not allow violence or despair to veer her from this goal.

As you already guessed, this is clearly a seinen. Adult themes, including parenthood, childbearing, rape, war and morally difficult situations are dealt with. And though I’ve seen people express the opposite opinion, I didn’t find it heavy-handed or hackneyed. It can get very dramatic, but war and annihilation is not really a light topic.

The art is gorgeous. Nagayasu uses big panels, often spanning both pages, and there are plenty of awesome illustrations of landscapes and huge structures. The panels are well-planned and easy to follow. The characters are incredibly expressive, so much so that some key scenes have no text at all and work like a charm. Seriously, you look at their faces and know what’s going on, just like that.

To wrap it up, an excellent read.

Todo va a cambiar (Enrique Dans, 2010)

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Todo va a cambiar, by Enrique Dans (2010).

Score: instructive and enjoyable.

Written by one of the most influential technology bloggers in Spain, Todo va a cambiar (literally, “Everything is going to change”) is a short informational book about the way the internet and new technology have already changed our lives.

With every chapter, Dans introduces and explains a piece of new technology in an open-minded, understanding way, and invites the reader to hop on the train and explore all the possibilities such technology offers both in business and leisure. So, in the one hand, it is a good introduction for people who do not speak computer and want to learn a bit more about this hyperconnected, sometimes scary world we have found ourselves in. The exposition is really fluid and enjoyable, with a very informal, up close style, definitely one of the highlights of the book.

Nevertheless, I picked up this book hoping to learn something about copyleft that I could apply to my writing career. I admit I didn’t read the blurb. While there is not a lot on that topic, Dans makes some very useful remarks pointing to an advisable way to look at things: things have changed, and it’s useless to try to cling to old business models that aren’t attractive to consumers anymore. What people can get for free or for a ridiculous price, you cannot try to sell at the old price, because people won’t buy it. The same thing goes for formats or products that have become inconvenient or obsolete.

Once this fear and longing for a world where we had everything under control (or rather, the old guys with top hats and cigars had everything under control), it’s exhilarating to see the almost infinite possibilities new technology has to offer. In fact, if it weren’t for it, I wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading it. In fact, I wouldn’t have read this book either. So, I’m really thankful that I don’t have to be bothering strangers on the street and at conventions trying to sell them my fanzine, or that I don’t have the prospect of having to appeal to a mainstream publishing house if I ever want people to read my books.

If there is one bad thing I have to say about the book, is that I missed some more exposition of cyber security and privacy issues. Despite stating several times that he “isn’t trying to sell anything”, meaning that he tried to remain neutral, Dans is most definitely not. His vehement criticism of copyright enforcement is proof. So for this reason it bothers me that he is also so cheerful about business models that provide free services in exchange for personal data. I know that big players in technology have half-decent privacy policies, but you never know when the political situation can change and those huge personal data repositories can fall in the wrong hands. I feel that people also deserve to know how to protect their personal data and monitor the kind of data they’re providing to who, something I missed in Dans’ exposition.

You can read the social edition of Todo va a cambiar here.