The man who knew infinity (Matt Brown, 2015)

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The man who knew infinity, directed by Matt Brown (2015).

Score: mediocre.

The man who knew infinity is a biopic about Srinivasa Ramanujan, an Indian mathematician who made major contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series, and continued fractions. He was compared to Euler and Jacobi by his peers, became a Fellow of the Royal Society and died of disease at age thirty-two. Now you know who the man was, I’m going to tell you why this movie sucks so hard.

The movie opens with G. H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) affably telling us how he didn’t invent Ramanujan (Dev Patel) but discovered him. This is a play on a later line that theorems are not invented but discovered that backfires horribly because it makes it look like Ramanujan would have not amounted to anything if Hardy hadn’t believed in him. Three cheers for The Good White Man! In real life, Ramanujan was a respected researcher in mathematics back in India, and it was the magnitude of his genius that drew attention to him from Europe. In the movie, he lives in a parody of India where if you know how to work an abacus you’re a genius. The Indian characters speaking English to each other in thick Indian accents made me cringe. Only twenty-odd minutes of the movie are spent in India, the audiences can endure twenty minutes of subtitles.

In the movie, Ramanujan gets on the first ship out of Madras as soon as The Good White Man is interested in his work. In real life, it took some time to get him to move to Europe, partly for religious reasons and partly because I guess it’s hard to leave your family and friends behind for years even if The Good White Man is offering you a scholarship. The second act of the movie consists basically of The Good White Man defending The Poor Brown Man from The Chauvinists because hey, The Poor Brown Man might be brown, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a genius. I’m sure Ramanujan suffered the effects of racism while he was in England, but there’s no way an obscure professor gets to bring a guy from India with a scholarship if there isn’t general consensus that the guy is good at what he does.

Hardy and Ramanujan had different ways of working, as seen in the film: Hardy focused very hard on proof and rigour, while Ramanujan worked in a more intuitive way. But in real life, Hardy and Ramanujan were peers, not mentor and apprentice. Ramanujan didn’t have to prove anything to anyone, he was actually invited to Cambridge and awarded a PhD for his original research. This whole subplot where Hardy forces Ramanujan to write proofs for his theorems makes Hardy look condescending and Ramanujan whimsical and stubborn. Those dynamics would have been good in a story about a master and an apprentice, not coming from a researcher to another guy who’s having him for breakfast every day. Hell, if the guy is so good, just get him another person who writes proof for what he’s making, that’s actually the easy part.

The third act of the movie focuses on Ramanujan’s illness and death, and on The Good White Man doing everything in his power to get The Poor Brown Man’s work acknowledged. In real life, Ramanujan was elected a member of the Royal Society because he rocked that hard, not because Hardy went around pestering people about it. In fact, he wasn’t even the first Indian to receive the honour. Also, the whole subplot with his mother hiding Janaki’s letters so he would come back sooner is just disgusting.

A movie that should have been about an Indian genius and his eventual visit to Europe was made instead about how good a white man is for not being prejudiced and admitting that a non-white can be pretty smart too. And fighting for him, because he can’t!

Last but not least, the movie says virtually nothing about Ramanujan’s work, which would be the most interesting thing about the movie (like with Emily Dickinson’s biopic). I really wish someone would start making biopics that actually said something about the person’s work. In a format similar to The big short, with some info dumps here and there that made science and art more approachable to people. Now that would be enjoyable to watch.

Hail, Caesar! (E. & J. Coen, 2016)

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Hail, Caesar!, written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen (2016).

Score: meh.

Hail, Caesar! follows the everyday life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin, based on real-life E. J. Mannix), a studio producer in Classic Hollywood known for being able to fix any problems: with depraved movie stars, nosy gossip reporters or slips of the tongue. The production of in-universe Hail, Caesar!, a Ben-Hur expy, is stopped when movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) goes missing. Other subplots include trying to hide that star DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is having a baby out of wedlock, preventing columnist Thora Thacker (and her sister, both played by Tilda Swinton) from publishing embarrassing gossip about studio stars, or cowboy stunt actor Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) being moved to a drama production directed by auteur Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) and struggling with the acting.

The main problem with this movie is it doesn’t have any main plot, it only has subplots. It feels disjointed. Most of the top-billed actors are only onscreen for fewer than fifteen minutes and their plots feel like outlines. It’s like this movie only has a first act. It plays with well-known Classic Hollywood anecdotes and situations, but really doesn’t have a soul. If you’re young and this is one of your first contacts with Old Hollywood, you might enjoy it. Conversely, you might also enjoy it if you like everything Old Hollywood related. If you’re a casual fan, you’ll probably be like: “Well, and?”

It’s got amusing scenes, like the one where the priests and rabbi discuss the portrayal of Jesus onscreen; but then later it pretends that Marxist philoso-babble is funny in itself or something. It also tried too hard to cram in every little Classic Hollywood theme, trope and sequence, from tap-dancing to hard-boiled detective. Channing Tatum’s tap-dancing is actually impressive, but the number in itself is not that great and doesn’t save the movie.

It’s Singin’ in the rain all over again, only Singin’ in the rain had a spark. It was more than: “Look at all these films I’m referencing!” and that’s why it became a classic while Hail, Caesar! will not. I’m sure the Coens had great fun making it, but what the creator enjoys is not always what the viewer enjoys.

Tarde para la ira (Raúl Arévalo, 2016)

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Tarde para la ira, directed by Raúl Arévalo (a.k.a. The fury of a patient man, 2016).

Score: good.

José (Antonio de la Torre) is a sullen and melancholic man who lives in a common neighbourhood. He spends his spare time in a bar, where he knows the bartender Juanjo (Raúl Jiménez) and his sister Ana (Ruth Díaz). Ana’s husband Curro (Luis Callejo) has been in jail for eight years for a foiled robbery on a jewellery shop. This doesn’t stop José from pursuing and romancing Ana just a few days before her husband serves his sentence. (If you check IMDb, please note there’s a huge spoiler on the plot summary next to the movie poster.)

This is “Spanish Sean Penn” Raúl Arévalo’s directorial debut and writing debut alongside David Pulido, after a career lasting over fifteen years as an actor. And he definitely does a great job. The storyline is great, with rounded up and developed characters and a very suitable pacing. I don’t know much about photography but his shots and scene planning look conscientious.

The lead is Antonio de la Torre, my favourite Spanish actor alive. He’s more restrained than in other roles he’s played, but that’s absolutely adequate for his character. Luis Callejo is a very nice surprise. In a movie where tension is high and everything is left unsaid, the fact that Callejo can speak only with his eyes is of huge value.

This being said, there is something that made me very upset about this movie: dialogue is very hard to make out. I have a loss of hearing of five percent, and this means it’s hard for me to make out dialogue if background noise or music is too loud, or if actors are slurring their lines. I would have turned the subtitles on, but apparently Movistar+ wasn’t offering them (meaning if you are deaf you paid five euro so you couldn’t enjoy the movie). Even with maximum volume my dad and I had trouble understanding what the characters said, especially in the pillow talk scene. If you have been reading me for some time, you know I’m a sucker for naturalness in acting. But consonants have a right to live too.

All in all, very recommended. Check it out!

Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Season 1 (2013)

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Brooklyn Nine-Nine, season 1 (Fox, 2013).

Score: hilarious.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine follows everyday life in the 99th Precinct of Brooklyn. Main characters are Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg), a childish but brilliant detective; Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero), a perfectionist, insecure and sweet; Charles Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio), an adorkable foodie; black-leather clad tough-as-nails Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz); Terry Jeffords (Terry Crews), a scary-looking mama hen for his subordinates; and petty and narcissistic civil servant Gina Linetti (Chelsea Peretti). In the pilot, a new commanding officer arrives: impassible and strict Captain Ray Holt (Andre Braugher).

What I like the most is this show’s fair play sense of humour. It has a very diverse cast but stereotyping jokes are mostly avoided (there are a couple of lesbian jokes that are really out of place but in general this is well done). Characters are given likable personalities, with virtues and flaws, and those flaws are funny, neutral and not stereotypical or looking to ridicule. For example, Boyle is likable for being loyal, cheerful and helpful, but he also blurts out secrets as soon as he knows them and can be very fastidious about his food. Captain Holt is black and gay and the jokes made about him are about how inexpressive and stoic he is (though it is mentioned several times how hard it was to him to get promoted for being part of a minority).

Gags are mostly based in ridiculous or absurd situations and episodes are fast-paced and varied. I actually laugh out loud at least once in every episode. The show is pretty much choral and follows the format made popular by shows such as The Office and Parks and recreation. The second half of the season adds two romantic arcs and knits the personal relationships tighter, and it’s not an unwelcome change (don’t let people tell you otherwise, I’m nearing thirty and workplaces are still like high-school, and I suspect they will always be).

Highly recommended.

Stranger than fiction (Marc Forster, 2006)

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Stranger than fiction, directed by Marc Forster (2006).

Score: more than it seems.

Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is a quite boring man. He’s a fastidious IRS worker with a nonexistent social life. He is tasked with auditing anti-system baker Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who looks like she could turn his world upside down. One day he starts hearing the voice of a woman narrating everything he’s doing in a very literary way. When she says “little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death”, he knows he needs to do something about it, so he goes to see Literature professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), who tells him he needs to find out whether he’s in a comedy or a tragedy. Meanwhile, somewhere else, author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) receives the visit of an assistant sent by her publisher. Penny’s (Queen Latifah) job is to help Karen get over her writer’s block.

I watched this film shortly after it came out and didn’t think much of it. I found the story quirky but it didn’t make a lot of sense to me; I rewatched it recently as part of a creative writing course and it gets much better if you look at it from a literary theory or creative writing perspective. It plays with concepts such as ellipsis (the reason Harold doesn’t hear the author all the time), with genres (”Do you feel inclined to solve murder mysteries?” or “are you king of anything?” are not stupid questions at all, if you’re a Literature professor), with “little did he know” (up there with “it was a dark and stormy night”), with plot development and most of all, with metafiction, for reasons I’ll discuss later.

The genre of the movie is hard to pin down: it sways from comedy to tragedy with worrying ease. It manages to keep you on the edge of your seat until the very end. It would have been better if Ana Pascal was something more than a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, though.

And now, some analysis.

***SPOILERS***

Continue reading

The killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956)

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The killing, directed by Stanley Kubrick (1956).

Score: has not aged well.

The second movie in the career of Stanley Kubrick (the third if you count the so-embarrassing-he-had-to-destroy-the-negatives Fear and desire), The killing is a modest heist movie. It tells the story of how Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) plans to rob the earnings of a racecourse. For that, he will count with the cooperation of cashier George Peatty (Elisha Cook, Jr.), corrupt policeman Randy Kenna (Ted de Corsia), barman Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer) and financing from Marvin Unger (Jay C. Filppen). Meanwhile, George’s selfish and abusive wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) is planning on getting rid of her husband with the help of her lover Val Cannon (Vince Edwards) so they can run away with the money.

The reason this film doesn’t appeal to modern audiences is that it takes itself way too seriously. The music breaks into the scenes in an overly dramatic way. The film is very smug about the way it’s telling the story, the only problem is we have seen this done dozens of times by its successors, in more elaborate and varied ways. Sterling Hayden delivers his lines comically fast and inexpressively, with forced pauses that are only there because the screenplay had an ellipsis. I was picturing the victims telling the police: “He was wearing a clown mask and spoke abnormally fast!” The bar brawl. The bar brawl was glorious.

The voiceover. It’s one of those rules of screenwriting: “never use voiceovers! Show the characters doing stuff instead!” Like every other rule, it can be bent or broken, but this is just not the case. Times and places are important, but anyway it would have been more elegant to use text, or show a clock, or show where the character is going, or use dialogue, or just trust the audience’s intelligence. But the voiceover just goes on an on, adding useless detail like: “he had acid reflux that morning so he decided to stop by the store later and see if they also had some of those chocolate bars he liked so much…” I don’t care what he’s thinking! On with the action! Apparently the studio made Kubrick add the narration and he hated it, which is only natural.

Would only recommend if you are an unconditional old Hollywood fan.

Westworld, Season 1 (2016)

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Westworld, season 1, created by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan (HBO, 2016).

Score: interesting, though slow.

Loosely based in the homonymous 1973 film starring Yul Brynner,Westworld is set in a futuristic Wild West theme park inhabited by lifelike androids. Wealthy people pay astronomical amounts to spend a holiday in a fictional, scripted setting where everything can be as tame or as exciting as they like while being completely safe for them. Not so much for the poor hosts, the androids, which can be raped, tortured and killed only to be serviced and sent back to the park without any memories of their demise. Everything starts to change when some hosts start remembering past narrative cycles, such as Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), the sweet farmer’s daughter, or Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), the madam of the brothel in Sweetwater. In the meantime, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), founder of the park, is being threatened out of power by a management board who wants a more manageable and profitable version of the park. Two coworkers (Jimmi Simpson and Ben Barnes) come to Westworld to bond and on a voyage of self-discovery. A mysterious man in black (Ed Harris) who has been coming to the park for three decades is looking for a higher stakes game within Westworld, something called the maze.

If you’re going to watch this, you need to be patient because the first five episodes barely give the viewer any new information. Good thing is that the last five give out all the necessary information to wrap up the story with no cliffhangers, so this is something you can get into knowing that even though a second season is confirmed, you only need to commit for ten episodes. After having watched the whole thing, the first episodes do give out information, you just don’t understand it yet, so pay attention and enjoy the ride. Also, given how important circular timelines are in the story, you need to be acquaintanced with scripted events that happen in Westworld every narrative cycle and how they start changing as the plot advances, and that means some repetition in the first episodes.

It’s an adult show in that it has action, violence and copious nudity but also in that it requires some figuring out due to the nature of its storytelling and, being about androids who may or may not be becoming sentient, it also deals with some philosophical and anthropological themes I’ll explore below. As it has been already pointed out it has learned a thing or two from video games and role-playing games, in that it features NPCs, sidequests, a difficulty curve and sandboxing. Red dead redemption is an acknowledged influence and you can tell.

Visual effects are quite good. It doesn’t look like they’re saving the budget for the finale and everything looks in place and believable. I especially liked the effects for showing young Dr. Ford, it looked very convincing. Costumes and sets look gorgeous and any anachronisms and inaccuracies can be excused because you are looking at theme park Wild West from the future. It was probably the idiots at R&D who mistook an African Cape buffalo with an American buffalo, or they couldn’t find an American one and the guests wouldn’t know the difference.

To sum it up, entertaining and worth watching.

***SPOILERS***

Continue reading

The road (Cormac McCarthy, 2006)

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The road, by Cormac McCarthy (2006).

Score: interesting.

The road is a minimalistic novel that follows the misadventures of an unnamed father and his son in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It is built as a series of vignettes that focus on the man’s scavenge for canned goods, trying to normalize his son’s childhood and hiding from cannibalistic slavers and death cults.

The damn thing is depressing as hell. Even being used to post-apocalyptic stories, this one is especially pessimistic. The only people that the father and son come across are bandits, cannibals or wretches they can’t share any of their goods with because they risk starving themselves. At the same time, this book was hugely influential this past decade so I felt I was a bit late to the show. This has been done to death and sometimes in a more elaborate and innovative ways, from The walking dead to The last of us. So the book feels a bit dated, though it has great historical value.

In literary terms, the book is quite well written, with beige prose and clever dialogue. But as someone who is fighting the notion that genre literature is inherently worse than high-end literature (whatever that means), there is something not quite right about the plot. You can tell this wasn’t written by a genre author because it lacks certain attention to detail in worldbuilding that a speculative fiction author wouldn’t have overlooked. Let me elaborate.

***SPOILERS***

The man and the boy have been scavengers for as long as the kid has been alive, which might be anywhere between five and ten years. In the whole book they don’t hunt anything, gather but a few mushrooms and basically live off canned foods. I did some research and even though shelf life is officially two or three years, four or five-decade-old canned goods will still be edible, even though texture and taste will have deteriorated. We’re on the same page for now.

Cannibals and death cults are basically the only thing the man and boy find. Such would definitely exist in such a scenario. But where are the good people? Are we to believe the only two decent people in the world are these two? That the rest have been enslaved or are too scared to do anything constructive? If I recall correctly, there are two mentions of communes. Why doesn’t the father make an effort to try to get into one? He needs all the help he can get and he knows his way around, it would be a match made in heaven. I have a pet theory: the guy craves moral control over his son. He keeps telling the boy that they’re the good guys and they help people and such but being in contact with other people would show the kid how much of a coward his father is. Like, the little guy starts suspecting without ever speaking to anyone else.

On the other hand, it’s implied that nothing at all is alive except for humans and I find that really hard to swallow. Humans are not particularly resilient. If humans have managed not to die, there must be grass, rodents, cockroaches, something. I mean, once they live off old apples for a few days. Either apple trees are still alive and kicking or they managed to eat five-year-old apples that hadn’t rotten. A commune not only could be farming, but it would be the sanest thing to do. If no animals or plants are left whatsoever, there’s no fucking way these guys have survived for almost a decade, even on canned potatoes. It’s not even implied what happened is nuclear fallout, and even massive albedo would not have killed everything except for humans (how convenient) Also, I find it implausible that they always manage to find old cans within a few miles of where they are. It all makes the theory that all of them are in purgatory and the kid is actually an angel almost believable.

So, it is one of two things: either the author didn’t think it through, or all I’ve said is actually implied in the book. There are farms and decent people and viable communes and the guy is just a human turd who has made his son’s childhood living hell. Who knows.

That being said, the dynamic between father and son is quite well-achieved. The kid changes as time goes by and starts challenging his father in many ways; mostly he’s pissed that they never cooperate or help anyone but still call themselves the good guys. The father might seem a decent guy at the beginning, but his pathological mistrust is actually making things worse for both of them (except that time when they decide it’s a good idea to fire a flare gun. Like, wow. You spend a whole day covering your tracks because someone might have seen you briefly among the trees but why not shoot a flare gun, whose only purpose is to tell people where you are. Amazing).

The fact that the kid is found by a decent family right after the father’s death might look whimsical but it’s actually cleverly justified. When they leave the underground shelter, the kid insists that he has seen a child and a dog. The father waves it off as a delusion because who would keep a dog and a kid instead of eating them. Everyone’s a bastard except for me and my son, right? So this family starts following them because the father is too narrow-minded to believe his son and start covering their tracks. The family knows they’re peaceful because they leave a ton of food and supplies behind in the shelter, so they start following. Also, probably the kid saw the other kid and the parents believed it.