Life, animated (Roger Ross Williams, 2016)

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Life, animated, directed by Roger Ross Williams (2016).

Score: beautiful and understanding.

Autism, like many other mental disorders, is barely understood by the mainstream. There is a trend in fiction to introduce highly-intelligent, socially inept characters such as Sheldon Cooper (he’s not crazy, his mother had him tested), Criminal Minds’ Spencer Reid or BBC’s Sherlock and people will automatically assume they have an autism spectrum disorder such as Asperger syndrome. Even Mark Haddon had to say that The curious incident of the dog in the night-time wasn’t actually about Asperger’s, because he came so close to its popular conception that people assumed he had done extensive research about it.

This is why the existence of movies like this one makes me very happy. Life, animated is a documentary about Owen Suskind, the son of journalist Ron Suskind, who suffers from autism. Using home videos of Owen as a kid, original animated sequences and present-day footage and testimonies from the Suskind family, Owen’s progress to almost total autonomy is charted. In the early years when Owen wasn’t able to speak, his family realized that Owen really enjoyed watching Disney animated movies with the rest of them. He started repeating lines from the movies (a phenomenon called echolalia) and Ron eventually found a way to speak with him using a Iago the parrot puppet.

His therapists explain that Owen’s autistic disorder means he has a very hard time managing as many stimuli as everyday life exposes him to, but cartoons, for its simplified and predictive nature, provide him with a way to perceive the world in a tractable way and act as a gateway to autonomy. Hear me out: don’t we all use fiction in a similar way? Don’t we all use it as a mirror, as catharsis, as a self-knowledge tool? Like David Mamet said, we don’t go to the theatre to forget, but to remember.

This is Life, animated’s greatest virtue: it doesn’t try to make you feel sorry for Owen, it wants you to relate to him, and it’s very easy to do. There is some explaining of Owen’s disorder but the documentary is mostly focused on showing how he has improved and overcome many obstacles in his life, with the help of his therapists and a close-knit community. The fear and reject some may feel towards people with mental disorders would be much smaller if we knew them better and saw they’re people just like everyone else, who want to be happy and loved.

This documentary is a great step towards that direction.

El bar (Álex de la Iglesia, 2017)

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El bar, directed by Álex de la Iglesia (a.k.a. The Bar, 2017).

Score: very effective.

Coquettish and shallow Elena (Blanca Suárez) walks into a bar just by chance: she’s on her way to a blind date and her phone has run out of battery. Inside the bar there are its usual denizens: the owner, Amparo, (Terele Pávez), and her lifelong employee Sátur (Secun de la Rosa); bearded young hipster Nacho (Mario Casas), middle-aged lady who’s addicted to slot machines Trini (Carmen Machi), retired cop Andrés (Joaquín Climent), mysterious businessman Sergio (Alejandro Awada) and deranged hobo who loves to quote the Bible Israel (Jaime Ordóñez). When a man walks out of the bar and is shot in the head from an unknown angle, they all know something very serious is going down.

First of all, if you’re claustrophobic, beware that this movie plays a lot with reduced spaces and stressful situations. Its characters are quite genre-savvy: they soon realize they’re not in a normal situation and start ticking possibilities off their list. Once the genre is established, the rules are followed to the last consequence. In the end, the details are not important: what the movie wanted to talk about is how people are forced to change under extreme situations and how they show their true colours then. And you, dear viewer, are part of that game too: which of them deserve to survive the most? Which do you want to get to see the end of the movie?

This movie is an effect movie: it wants you to feel trapped, threatened and grossed out; it uses every tool it has at its disposal to do so and it succeeds, so it’s a good movie even if only for that reason. It has many trademarks of De la Iglesia’s moviemaking, such as his fascination for the grotesque, social commentary and characters trapped in tight places, pretty much literally. For my taste, the social commentary is somehow blunt in the beginning of the movie and the black comedy doesn’t quite work but as the movie progresses and the comedy is dropped it greatly improves.

The social commentary gets subtler, once it goes beyond ridiculizing the characters: note how their relationship with the powers that be is essentially different from anything on the American movies that modeled the genre. It’s no coincidence; De la Iglesia has made the genre his and used it to comment on aspects of our society (that we both share for being Spanish) that worry him, in this case, the government’s management of extreme situations.

All in all, much better than I expected and recommended.

The notebook (Nick Cassavetes, 2004)

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The notebook, directed by Nick Cassavetes (2004).

Score: a great unintentional comedy.

Based on the homonymous novel by Nicholas Sparks, The Notebook is the story of two star-crossed lovers in 1940s Charleston. This story is told from a notebook by an old man (James Garner) to an old woman (Gena Rowlands) who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling) is a young man working in the Seabrook sawmill who falls in love at first sight with rich heiress Allie Hamilton (Rachel McAdams). After pestering her until she agrees to go out with him, they fall madly in love; her family forbids the relationship and she is forced to leave for college without him. But love is love, and they will not let their relationship die without a fight.

I hated the first twenty minutes of this. It was corny and boring and perpetuated creepy stereotypes, like insisting until the girl says yes and then being condescending towards her. But then I started to realize the comedic value of this film’s poor management of dramatic situations. The mother shrieking: “Are we going to support him while you bear his children?!?!” Allie freaking out when they almost lose their virginity and Noah looking like “I came here to get laid and you’re honestly being so annoying right now”. Their lovers’s spats: “I love you! I hate you! I never want to see you agaiiiinn! Wait, I didn’t mean that!” “I’m so distressed about seeing you that I’ll just drive my car into this conveniently placed fence”. I laughed really hard watching this movie.

But then, something extraordinary happens: the film becomes half-decent for about thirty minutes. ***SPOILERS*** This middle section where they have both settled down, continued with their lives. They look back, wonder what might have been. They don’t love each other with the irrational heat they had before, but want to know each other better. It is revealed that Allie’s mother was also in love with a working-class man but decided against marrying him. All the bile she’s been spewing at her daughter is actually the product of her own remorse and her trying to justify that she made the right choice. Damn, this is a story I can actually relate to! Also, when you see Noah in front of the house he built with his bare hands, brawny, bearded, brooding like a Byronic hero, it’s hard to keep your ovaries from exploding. Ellie has to make a choice I can care about: between her Manic Pixie Dream Boy and another guy who’s not so exciting but is not a bad guy. Bring on the Betty and the Veronica, only Noah is both at the same time.

This movie is basically Love in the time of cholera if the girl had chosen the loser. In fact, I found the story all the more interesting when I thought old Noah hadn’t managed to marry old Allie and he was still pestering her well into the realm of senile dementia. So much for being friendzoned. In the end, it’s a cheating romance. We only get to see the external impediments to their eternal love, but we have to believe that was the greatest obstacle they had to face ever and it’s really hard to swallow. We’re just given the romance which conquers all and then reassured that they actually lived happily ever after, no need to worry about what happens after the credits roll. Like, he’s still by her side when she has Alzheimer’s and wants her to remember to the very end! You’re a bad person if you don’t acknowledge that as true love. ***END SPOILERS***

Too long, didn’t read: you can enjoy this movie as long as you don’t take it seriously.

I killed Adolf Hitler (Jason, 2007)

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I killed Adolf Hitler, by John Arne Sæterøy “Jason” (2007).

Score: All’s well that ends with time travel.

In a grim alternate reality where murder is legal, the unnamed protagonist of I killed Adolf Hitler is approached by a scientist who has built a time machine to task him with murdering the Führer before he rises to power. Unfortunately, Hitler survives and manages to steal the machine and travel forward to the present time. The protagonist then embarks on a quest to find Hitler and finish the job, with the help of his also unnamed ex-girlfriend.

I killed Adolf Hitler is fifty-odd pages long and has very succint dialogue. Every character is an anthropomorphic animal, which creates a greatly alienated environment but at the same time it’s surprising how expressive these creatures are. In the end, finding and killing Adolf Hitler is the least important thing in the plot: panel after panel you see the characters waiting, growing up, breathing, learning. Doing what they can to survive in a bleak world and trying to make it a better one. Realizing that things were not as bad as they seemed, if only they had seized the moment.

Highly recommended.

Destiny: Rise of Iron (Bungie, 2016).

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Destiny: Rise of Iron, developed by Bungie and distributed by Activision (2016).

Score: sisyphean.

Rise of Iron is the last of the Destiny mandatory expansions, which came out back in September for the not at all insignificant price of 30 euro/dollars. Just like it happened with The Taken King, you absolutely need to buy the new expansion if you want to be able to keep playing any of the game’s interesting modes. Rise of Iron included a new patrol area, a new social area, eight new story missions, one new strike, one new raid, three new Crucible maps (and a fourth one only on PS4) and a new Crucible mode.

The storyline is about the Lords of Iron, the last of which is Iron Banner host Lord Saladin, who all sacrificed themselves about a hundred years before the events of Destiny in order to contain a technological plague called SIVA. Guardians are now summoned to stop the Fallen House of Devils from infecting themselves with SIVA and becoming Splicers (which you might guess it’s already too late for).

As usual, the eight new story missions are just an irritating formality in order to be acquainted with the new enemies and mechanics. The new kind of enemies, Fallen Splicers, are regular Fallen, only tainted with a flesh-eating, stiff-limb-growing disease, and controlled by a superior instance… now that sounds familiar. The Taken were still better at being new enemies because at least they did stuff that was different from their non-possessed counterparts, such as splitting in two or pushing you out of platforms with their super annoying shields. Splicers are just Fallen with arthritis.

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J’irai cracher sur vos tombes (Boris Vian, 1946)

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J’irai cracher sur vos tombes, by Boris Vian (a.k.a. I spit on your graves, 1946).

Score: unsettling.

This essay was written in the context of MUEC with the assistance of Professor Cora Requena.

They say good literature cannot leave the reader indifferent. Something must break, turn or bloom in you after you read a good book. It is also generally considerered that noir fiction, like other popular genres, never sets out to do that.

J’irai cracher sur vos tombes is told, masterfully, from the perspective of Lee Anderson, a man who arrives at a small town in the South of the United States with the clear purpose of exacting revenge for something done in the past to a certain kid… Lee starts hanging out with the local teenagers, attending wild parties and going on sex and alcohol binges with them. His final targets seem to be two sisters, Lou and Jean.

Vian maintains tension and suspense over Lee’s true identity and purpose for eight out of the twenty-four chapters of the book, while narrating in first person and leaving plenty of hints. The book is also sexually explicit and bloody violent, but never gratuitously. It has a deep will of social commentary about a topic so sordid it cannot be portrayed without explicit and brutal violence.

A classic of roman noir, this can be read and enjoyed by anyone who is seeking groundbreaking good literature.

***SPOILERS***

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Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Seasons 2 and 3 (2014-2016)

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Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Seasons 2 and 3 (Fox, 2014-2016).

Score: stumbled and fell but later recovered.

Remember what I said about Brooklyn Nine-Nine being a show with a fair and witty sense of humour? Well, that stopped being true with the beginning of Season 2.

The sense of humour got blunt. Characters started to behave in ways they would never have before. It was painful to watch Jake mock Terry for wanting to get a vasectomy, make an awkward racial remark to him, as well as bet on Rosa’s friend’s phone number like it was a trophy. Boyle stopped being lovable and became downright ridiculous; Gina lost all her social skills and became mean in a way that made me wonder why the other characters kept her around at all.

Fortunately, around episode 15 of Season 2 things got back on track and the show slowly turned into what it used to be again. There are no really big changes to the kind of episodes and the dynamics between the characters; every year we get the customary Halloween episode, all of them delicious, and the Pontiac Bandit keeps paying us visits.

The beginning of Season 3 saw some changes to the Captain of the Precinct that were foreseeably temporary, a new romantic relationship and, halfway through, the introduction of hilarious Adrian Pimento (Jason Mantzoukas), a paranoid former undercover agent Rosa is instantly hot for.

All in all, it’s not up to the level of quality set by Season 1, but still worth watching.

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

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Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve (2016)

Score: beautiful.

Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguistics professor. When twelve UFOs appear all over Earth, she is approached by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitalker) and tasked with deciphering their language. With the help of physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), they need to answer the urgent question: what is their purpose on Earth?

Arrival casts aside the usual protagonists of a first contact story, the soldier and the physicist, and gives the spotlight to the eternal redshirt: the linguist. The usual approach is mocked with an exchange along the lines of: “Have they reacted to Fibonacci?”; “We don’t even know what they answer when we say hello.” Arrival takes the baton from Solaris, but is much more optimistic: we can actually understand aliens, if only we take the right approach.

Unlike many other First Contact movies, there’s no big fuss about showing the aliens. The tension up to that point is well-achieved and based on those expectations on the part of the viewer. Are we going to see them already? What are they like? The first act of the film does away with these questions and focuses on other motifs.

***SPOILERS***

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Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)

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Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy (2015).

Score: spot-on.

Back when I reviewed Trumbo, I had the opinion that if you’re not willing to bend a true story around to make it fit a dramatic structure, you’re better off making a documentary. I’m glad that Spotlight proved me wrong.

Spotlight tells the true story of the Spotlight investigative journalism team in the newspaper The Boston Globe; this team lead by Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Stattery) and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy) uncovered and reported the massive scandal of child molestation within the Catholic Church.

Spotlight is extremely careful to portray these events in a rigorous way. Any adaptation requires interpretation of the facts and therefore cannot be objective, but it can try to be rigorous. The actors shadowed their real-life counterparts and tried to impersonate them as best as they could; apparently, they succeeded. The Boston Globe offices were recreated minutely; but more importantly, the whole subject matter is looked at in depth and from different perspectives.

What I found the most enriching about the movie is its depth about the social structure that enabled these molestations: in Catholic communities, priests are authority figures, meant to guide and protect their parishioners, which only makes it more difficult for victims to resist, speak out and be supported when they do. It’s not only about a group of people doing something immoral, it’s about a power structure and a way in which it is deeply flawed. Nevertheless, the journalists are not heroes nor saviours here: it is also discussed how they could have uncovered the scandal sooner but they didn’t because it wasn’t convenient at the time.

The movie is about the development of the investigation and the report: no romances are shoehorned in and the protagonists’ personal lives are discussed very briefly and only in how they affect their work. It’s a textbook example of how you can make an engaging film about a quite abstract topic and still refuse to use cheap dramatic tricks or to make it gossipy and personalistic in order to make it more interesting. It’s so close to being a documentary that it could be called a dramatic reenactment, and a quality one.

All in all, a must watch.

Resources: The Boston Globe on Spotlight.