Klara and the Sun (2021)

Choosing the setting and characters to explore the theme of your story is a task in itself, maybe as important as finding the theme. These choices will ultimately define how your ideas become the narrative, the elements also by which the audience will hold on (or not) to the journey you’re proposing as a writer. And although many themes have been explored similarly throughout narrative history, some of them becoming tropes reutilized to exhaustion, there’s always some space for original interpretation. Something rare these days, I know.

Klara and the Sun is such a story.

This magnificent novel, by Nobel prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro, follows the adventure of one Klara, a robot designed to be a companion of humans. An AF or “artificial friend” built to address a growing problem amongst the human population, loneliness. But the story only uses loneliness as an anchor to talk about something else, for this story ultimately talks about “the human heart”, which some believe is a synonym for love. I’m not sure about that myself, maybe love is a too general topic, especially for a theme. In my view, the author is searching for that capacity that goes beyond self-interest, which is assumed to be an “only human” characteristic. Yet, he cleverly gives it to the protagonist of the story.

Yes, the artificial friend.

Klara is a robot who, as I said before, has been built to accompany humans. To help them. She starts the story impatiently waiting to be chosen by a human, at the AF store. From the beginning, we notice her personality traits, conveyed because she’s the one telling us the whole thing, as she acts as the narrator of the novel. We quickly get her curious and insightful personality as she tries to make sense of the world she experiences, not unlike we as humans would do but far more conscious about the process. Patterns and intuitions appear in her mind, prompting her to make assumptions in an ever-enduring necessity for understanding.

And yes, she gets picked by some Josie, a girl who falls in love with her and wishes to have her as a companion. And from this point forward, Klara gets to experience the world of a dystopian human society where extreme and cold rationality seems to have taken all places of society, leaving almost no place for feelings and higher callings (aka. spirituality). A place where children are genetically modified to perform better, with serious health implications for them, and a place where human labor is secondary to machine efficiency. All contrasting ideas merge into the spinal plot line of the story; Klara wants to help Josie, who’s currently dying because of ill-used genetic modification and she believes something incredible, the Sun can help her recover. With the little knowledge Klara has about the world, she believes the Sun to be a sentient being looking out for us, having magical powers that can heal the ill. She believes this so much she makes her life work to convince it to help Josie.

The plot gets quite complicated by the midpoint of the novel, turns out the mother of Josie wants to make Klara copy all of Josie’s manners and then when the time comes for Josie’s departure, take her place as the daughter.

Nuts, right?

I don’t think the idea here is for me to tell you the story, I think you should read it. And that ending… oh God…

If the capacity for love is the capacity to selflessly care about those whom you love then it doesn’t matter if it’s a human or anyone else who has it or does it, right? Just as long as it still exists in this world, which seems to be something were forgetting so fast. I hope many people have the chance to read Klara and the Sun, just to remember what it feels like to go beyond oneself, to go beyond getting something out of it, you know, to love.

Cure (1997)

There are movies that offer meaning at face value, you get what you paid for. They might have an intricate exterior, beautiful and provoking cinematography, fantastic set design, and an elaborated editing scheme; all aesthetic devices used to evoke the illusion of complexity. Yet there are other movies that are deceitfully simple in production design, but incredibly complex in their story and theme exploration. Movies like the latter can pass through regular viewers as boring and even bad ones, mainly because of the lack of commonality they have with mainstream media but also because of their groundbreaking nature.

Cure is such a film.

This amazing movie by director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, which many people consider his best one, is an exemplary exploration of the human condition, of the reality of unconscious desire hidden underneath a fragile exterior of normality. In it, we find a hypnotizer who seems not to remember even his own life, maybe hypnotized himself, meeting people randomly and suggesting them commit murders throughout the city. This obviously catches the attention of the police, more so because all the victims present the same cut pattern on their necks, a cross mark in the flesh.

And so, we meet our protagonist, Kenichi Takabe, a detective tormented by a mentally unstable wife, trying to keep up with a life he no longer enjoys. Yet this is not the type of detective willing to analyze clues or find patterns in the crime scene. We immediately understand that he wants to get to the bottom of things rather fast, as he’s on the verge of desperation about his own problems. There are many things that exacerbate the situation for him. For starters, none of the killers, the hypnotized ones, remembers what happened to them. Worst than that, eventually, Takabe finds the hypnotizer, a strange guy named Mamiya. Questioning him for answers proves futile as this character can only respond with more questions, making conversation not only pointless but annoying to the breaking point.

And thus, we come to realize the truth about the story, progressing towards the inevitable end, which I won’t spoil but be warned, from here on there are spoilers.

There’s one thing to keep in mind to understand what’s going on, the primordial piece of the puzzle. There’s one scene where Takabe gets the idea about the real killer being a hypnotizer, he asks Sakuma, a psychiatrist, and Takabe’s friend, about it.  The question is; are hypnotized people capable of killing? Sakuma answers with a blatant no, there’s no way to hypnotize a person out of their own moral choices. Yet most of the hypnotized people committed the murders.

Do you get the idea?

Some people make a comparison between Cure and Se7en, both no more than two years apart from each other. I got the same feeling while watching the movie and can say that there’s definitely some connection there, but there’s also a world of difference in the depth and complexity of each movie. As I said in the beginning, there are movies that want to make you believe there’s something complex being posed behind curtains, while others are so complex that they might pass blindly between your eyes.

By the way, researching the film I came across an amazing video essay about this movie, made by YouTuber Jack Gordon, you can check it here:

Taipei Suicide Story (2020)

Just by watching the initial 5 minutes of Taipei Suicide Story, I got immediately unnerved and had to reach a search engine to look for information. There was a question in my mind that needed an answer right away…

Are Suicide Hotels a real thing?

Turn out they don’t, but the sole idea of them being so completely changed my perspective on life. I think this is one of those what if… that better showcases the current state of human affairs. And I have to be honest here, I think that they shouldn’t be real for the most part, at least not in such an open way. I think killing oneself is a grave mistake, especially given the plasticity of the brain and our capacity to reinvent ourselves over and over again. Does society fail to provide meaning to us? Of course, but at the same time we are part of society I think, we are agents of meaning.

So, what do any of these ideas have to do with Taipei Suicide Story? Well, a lot actually! But let me explain. This short film (at 40 + minutes this is hardly short but anyways) by writer/editor/director KEFF, his second film so far, presents us with a setting in which suicide hotels are a real thing. Many people go to these places and they are allowed to stay only one night, by the end of which they can decide either to kill themselves or walk away. Following the protagonist of the story, a receptionist in this hotel, we get into a procedural mood all over the place. Workers go about the rooms of the hotel “cleaning” the place, which means taking out the bodies. Our protagonist doesn’t seem too interested in any of this and this proves to be his downfall. Just at the beginning, he has a chance to “see the truth”, when a repented customer comes to him to deliver the keys to his room, having decided to “give life another chance”. You can guess how the protagonist responds to this; he doesn’t care.

I’m tempted to imagine what could have been about that customer after leaving the hotel…

But anyway, the protagonist has another chance at empathy when a coworker tells him that one of the customers has been staying in the hotel for over a week now. Pissed off at the bureaucratic problem this situation poses, he goes to take charge of it all. It is then that his life changes 180° after meeting the woman living in the room. Her situation is simple, she wanted to kill herself but then decided against it, but still, she doesn’t want to live either. So, her only choice is to remain in the hotel. Not knowing exactly what to do, the protagonist gives her one last night to decide, either she kills herself or walks away.

From here on, the two characters get to meet and spend a significant amount of time together, initially because the protagonist feels guilty because of his inconsiderate way of acting, which quickly becomes interested in the woman, who doesn’t say much about her life and is more curious about this man who lives as if there was nothing bad going on. Yet the protagonist’s answers offer little comfort to someone lost of meaning, as he talks about the positive aspects of being a nobody, a regular whatever guy with a whatever life. The woman clings silently to some melancholic feelings as she chooses her last meal and they part ways with some sense of hope, as they both seem to connect on a sentimental level.

Yet every hope dissipates when the woman unexpectedly asks for a razor blade, asking the protagonist to deliver it himself into the room. And it’s here that the protagonist ultimately fails, as he’s given a new chance to change the destiny of this woman, yet some inexplicable fear of commitment, or perhaps his own failure to grasp a valuable meaning to life, impedes him from making a choice that could have saved both of them.

The offering of a helping hand. You can guess how the movie ends, nothing too hard to understand. I absolutely encourage you to watch Taipei Suicide Story and admire the simplicity of its presentation, the nakedness of its truth, and the masterfully created plot that keeps you hoping for something maybe you could not deliver yourself. In a sense, I think no one can walk away from this movie unchanged.

Snake Eyes (2021)

I’m gonna be honest here, I don’t care for GI Joe, I don’t know anyone who cares for GI Joe. To me this is a dead franchise (if it ever was alive). I’m gonna go even further, I remember watching those Gi Joe cartoons as a child, they sucked. No really, I mean these “soldiers” were competing for my attention with some crazy transforming robots, with two different dudes holding a sword, and a bit later with all kinds of Japanese craziness. So, let’s be clear, I don’t like Gi Joe cartoons and stuff, even the toys sucked in comparison with all the others. But… all that said, Snake eyes is a good movie, especially when has nothing to do with Gi Joe, truth is Gi Joe ruins the movie, tones it down, makes it dumber than it has to be and, in the process, kills the creative drive of the production team (this is so palpable through the third act of the movie). And the film has so many good things going on! It’s almost unconceivable that they butchered this action-packed film by adding stupid stuff like giant snakes???? It almost t feels like two different stories nearing the midpoint, where the cobra logo is revealed (a logo that no terrorist organization with any self-proud would use).

Anyway, let’s start from the top, shall we? So, what’s the movie about? Okay, it’s about this dude, Snake eyes, I mean the protagonist. He, as a child, gets to see his father being assassinated and makes a run for it in the middle of the forest at night (more on this a bit later) in the most awful first sequence I can remember in any film. Expository dialogue of the worst kind and cliché stuff all over the place. But I understand it’s workings, because at minute 10 you already know what’s all about (or you think you do). So, in ten minutes the movie sets a revenge path for Snake Eyes, the dude, and then moves some many years into the future without even explaining how the hell a little kid even makes it out alive in the middle of a forest, or how does he manage to stay alive with literally no more family and allies (cause the movie also tells us that the father erases the kid from records to protect him from ugh, Cobra). And I know I’m being a dick about it, I actually remember an interview of Tarantino when he talks about “There will be blood” by Paul Thomas Anderson, he says that he likes the first part of the movie, yet he doesn’t understand how the protagonist survives alone in the desert after breaking his leg falling into a pit, kinda the same thing here. But anyway, the kid grows and now has become a regular cast from Mortal Kombat. He enjoys/works beating people to a pulp, which earns him the opportunity of being scouted by the bad guys. Yet being with the bad guys, Snake Eyes fails to kill a dude which becomes his ally and then a number of plot twists start happening (I’m not gonna talk about it because this is the best part of the movie by far).

So, the story literally dies by the mid-point, the part (as I already said) where the Gi Joe stuff gets forcibly thrown into the plot and instantly destroys everything. And it’s so awful because we just come from an amazing action sequence between the three mayor characters of the movie and the villain’s army, the villain himself even makes an appearance here. I have to talk about the amazing camera work in this part, the action is top notch. And not only on this particular sequence, but since the beginning (and ending where we discussed) all fights are raw and violent, almost too violent for a ugg… Gi Joe movie. There’s Thai action vibe going on all over the place, some Tony Jaa mixed with John Woo style of direction, just really engaging and entertaining stuff. Which later on gets lost into the stablishing the franchise bullshit that ruins everything. I mean, the second half of the movie is so bad that it even adds a jewel that turns people to ashes instantly and the before mentioned giant fake snakes. Some betrayals here and there, more action sequences of the boring and no stakes kind and we get to the ending where the two main guys change roles, because everyone knows that Snake Eyes is the good one and Storm Shadow is the bad one, right? (actually who cares!)

There’s only one thing I want to add before ending this review/rant, I heard somewhere that in the really great movies the plot points are hidden and are difficult to find or to spot when they’re happening. In this case they’re so obvious that a snob writer would say “this movie sucks” without hesitating. Yet for me this is not the case, I mean everyone knows the hero’s journey, it works, okay? It’s kinda childish? Yes, but it hits the right emotional spots every time and Snake Eyes does this really good, until some stupid logo gets thrown into the mix and it becomes Hiroshima all over again. So, should you watch this movie? Yes, but beware of the dumb stuff.

A Few Good Men 1992 (review)

I swear that while I was watching A Few Good Men it occurred to me that I was watching the same plot as in Full Metal Jacket, the premises are quite similar, but with a positive twist of growth for the character and without the social criticism or experimentation in the human condition. The paths of both films are built on similar ideas, the patriarchal structure, the iron chain of command present in the military world and the fanaticism/violence it generates among those who train and are trained to defend the sovereignty of nations. While in Full Metal Jacket we witness the results of abandoning individuals schooled in unquestioning obedience to orders from superiors to their fate and the consequences of failed decision making, in A Few Good Men I feel we go a step further, we see the genesis of the error in judgment and move from consequences to reparations. I guess Aaron Sorkin had a bit more to say regarding the subject, sorry Kubrick fans, because here I feel the emotional journey is a bit deeper, though also more unrealistic or cartoonish.

But let’s go step by step, first the inciting incident, right? Well, a couple of soldiers enter the room of the infamous cadet Santiago, tie his hands, feet and put a gag in his mouth. An hour later Santiago is pronounced dead by the internist at the Guantanamo Bay base. Daniel Kaffe (Tom Cruise), a dumbass lawyer who has won all his cases without going to trial, is entrusted with the defense of the accused soldiers and becomes acquainted with the events, proving time and again that he is not prepared for what is coming. Daniel is a child, plain and simple, Aaron Sorkin is serious about choosing the character furthest from the self revelation to set up his dramatic arc, which is fine in a way. But unfortunately in practice this is one of the weak points of the story, as Daniel’s initial reactions are too over the top, too cartoonish to be considered plausible and kinda ruin the experience. One scene that I really find a bit ridiculous is the one where he walks into Lt. Colonel Joanne Galloway’s (Demi Moore) office with an apple in his mouth, proving to everyone that he doesn’t respect or value military discipline (something that will change during the movie).

Truth of the matter is Santiago was a mediocre soldier and the high command, in this case Colonel Nathan R. Jessep (Jack Nicholson), wanted to teach him a lesson. A thing the military calls “code red”, however, Santiago suffered from a heart condition and dies in the middle of the reprimand that the two soldiers accused of murder give him under the orders of his superiors. Thus the battle and the obstacles become clear, in order for Daniel to successfully defend the accused soldiers he will have to directly confront Nathan, who is the epitome of the chain of command, the patriarch par excellence, but not only him, but a whole system of beliefs protected by words like justice and honor that are at the heart of the military institution that Daniel despises so much (here there’s a slight hint to Daniel’s relationship with his father, who was a relentless defender of civil rights). However, as I said before, Daniel is a child so the road will be long and tortuous in his search for truth and justice. A journey that will bring him face to face with a series of threshold guardians, as described by Christopher Vogler in his “The Writer’s Journey” each with major influence over Daniel’s life, all men of strong opinions, dominant men. You see, it turns out that Daniel lived in a world of protection, a childlike world protected both by his litigation skills and his father’s reputation and also by the men in his own life, colleagues and friends who kept him in a childlike state. As Herman Hesse rightly said, to be born you have to break a shell and the shell Daniel has to break is the comfortable position he finds himself in, far from conflict and his own vision of the world, used to taking the easy route.

And well, the most interesting thing about the film I think is the trial, which is apparently Aaron Sorkin’s forte (I think I heard him talk about this somewhere). The thing is, the trial has its own structure and it’s also a constant battle between Daniel and his friend/rival Captain Jack Ross (Kevin Bacon) to impose the truth on the facts. We go from the motives for committing the crime to the mode, to Daniel’s theory, to the presentation of star witnesses and at the same time we understand all these individuals, all these military men who confuse honor with self-preservation, who confuse discipline with fanaticism and a revelation in the middle of the trial, a lie in the testimony of one of the accused soldiers, throws Daniel into crisis and his metaphorical death, falling back into childish behaviors, which now appear as a defense against frustration. And it is then that Daniel understands, the only way to win is to face the dragon head on.

The final sequence of the film, the climax of all this drama, stars Daniel and Colonel Nathan R. Jessep. A back and forth between the two that takes the tension to the limit and finally forces the colonel to tell the truth, not only he was the one who gave the order for the code red, but also he thinks it was the right decision (along with the famous dialogue “you can’t handle the truth!”). And that is how the truth ends up being the sword that cuts the head of the dragon, which leads him to fall and to lay bare the shortcomings of the chain of command immersed in the arrogance of the glories of the past, of the archaic way of seeing conflicts and an imperious need for renewal.

And I think that’s all I can say about A Few Good Men, a film that may not start off well, but that gradually builds a complex drama where the truth passes from one side to the other, takes on nuances and concepts such as honor and discipline are put to the test over and over again, perhaps proving to us that true honor is found in the decisions one makes as an individual, with the freedom and responsibility that this entails.

PULP FICTION 1994 (REVIEW)

I think there’s at least two aspects of modern narrative techniques from which Pulp Fiction benefits greatly, the idea of choosing a clear premise and immediately setting the most ( apparently ) incapacitated characters to achieve that premise and the enigmatic ability to hide the chronological sense that the non-linear narrative gives to stories. Quentin Tarantino demonstrates, or demonstrated back in 1995, his great ability to build complex and yet surprisingly simple stories. This, which sounds paradoxical, can be summarized in the old proverb that sometimes the simplest is the most complex, taking the narrative technique to its simplest patterns, the essential ones, altering its order, its presentation, but maintaining its deep meaning, is what allows a story like Pulp Fiction to work and not to feel like the sum of three different stories.

Take for example the idea of protagonist, for purists, for academics, this narrative element is defined as the character who carries the emotional weight in the story. From this we can intuit that there is an emotional weight in the story, right? Well this has been called the “tunnel of emotions” or the “simple emotional journey” that the protagonist goes through and that shapes the plot, or that the plot produces in the character (depending if you’re going to be a dick about it). Well apparently Quentin Tarantino took this idea of a protagonist and really just stuck with the simple emotional journey. Why do I say this? Well because the emotional journey in Pulp Fiction is shared by 3 main characters, one for each part of the story (and yes, the movie is episodic). Three major acts define the story, the first part for John Travolta, the second for Bruce Willis and the third for Samuel L. Jackson. However, if we assume that these three characters are one and the same, or in other words, that there is only a single emotional journey between the three of them, we can clearly understand what the film is about.

First, the story of Vincent Vega, the most impulsive of the characters, is the initial world of the story. A character unable to control himself, just back from a vacation in a paradise of drugs and excesses, has the mission to take care of the boss’s wife, a femme fatale that will bring him very close to betrayal and the consequences of excess, but that will not produce in him any change. After this, Vincent arrives at the bar where he meets his boss and Butch (Bruce Willis). In a tense moment, both characters measure their strength and perhaps symbolically exchange roles.

Now it is the turn of the next character, I mean Butch (Bruce Willis), who is warned not to act impulsively, not to be “proud” is what Marcellus Wallace, Vincent’s boss and owner (apparently) of Butch’s destiny, an obviously proud and impulsive boxer, tells him to lose the next fight in the fifth round. But obviously Butch is not going to do this, worse, he has cooked up a plan to win the fight and keep the betting money. A decision that, when carried out, becomes the midpoint of the film, the fulfillment of desire. If Vincent had to restrain himself from taking Mia Wallace to bed (Uma Thurman, Marcelus’ wife) this time Butch disobeys the boss and gets (potentially) what he wants. From here on the film moves on to the classic narrative archetype of the escape from the cave, described by Christopher Vogler in his “The Writer’s Journey” and carried out to the letter, the final confrontation between Butch (here protagonist of the story) and Marcellus (opponent) results in Butch’s self revelation, the honor inherited from his father, a war hero, which leads him to take the symbolic katana and save Marcellus from the hands of “corrupted soldiers”, thus ending the conflict between the two.

After this, the film gets a little strange, after the end of Butch’s story we move on to the story of Jules, who has another self revelation relatively similar to Butch’s, after miraculously surviving a series of bullets aimed to kill him. Jules decides to quit criminal activities, retire, transform himself into a kind of Siddhartha and wander the world, what he is really telling us is that he wants to get away from conflict and here I think is the crux of the whole thing. Vincent, who doesn’t see the miraculous escape as a prophetic vision, accidentally shoots Marvin, the boy in the car, causing another conflict that makes the film even longer. Could it be that Quentin already had his story ready at the end of Butch’s story but, forced to adhere to the Hollywood canon of three acts of standard movie length, got caught up in the nature of the conflict? Well, Jules does realize that as long as he remains in the criminal world, violent acts will continue to occur and his transition, the decision to stop committing violent acts, leads him to disappear from the film without explanation, because as we already know, when Vincent goes to Butch’s apartment he is killed precisely because he is not with Julius.

For me, the third portion of the film feels a bit disconnected from the rest of the story just like the first part, I understand that it is part of the non-linear plot and that it is the most meta reflection of the story, committing violent acts never ends well or committing violent acts produces conflicts that are only ended with a positive moral decision, be it honor for Butch or a religious revelation for Lucius. Recalling John Truby, the famous script consultant, he points out that in good movies the protagonists make bad decisions all the way to the end, each of those decisions a little less bad than the last, until they reach the point where they realize how wrong they are and then change, save themselves or die. In the case of Pulp Fiction both happen, two are saved and one dies, arguably the worst one of all, the unsalvageable one.

Well, I think that’s it, I decided not to talk about the non-linear editing and stuff, I think we can all make the mental effort to tell us the tale chronologically. Besides I think that’s not the point of the story, but this reflection on the nature of conflict and decisions, something like “making good decisions leads you out of conflict”. Now, for this Quentin Tarantino (the one from 1994) it seems that making good decisions has to do with factors external to the individual, a completely religious look that is closer to the youth free of pessimism and that puts him strangely on par with contemporaries like Richard Linklater. Anyway, I think Quentin Tarantino is a person very studious of literary techniques, which is strange because he keeps saying he didn’t go to film school, but it’s obvious that he has studied a lot of narrative, I also want to say, to finish, that in narrative seems to be a general idea that existence is mostly out of control for the characters, is this a product of the narrative action? I am referring to the process of writing a story. Or is it an acute reflection on the nature of conscious existence?

BOYHOOD 2014 (REVIEW)

Through Boyhood, filmmaker Richard Linklater not only shows us in a consistent way the process of childhood towards the end of adolescence, but also manages to build a story full of conflicts and obstacles demonstrating not only his mastery in storytelling but also using these devices as a showcase of how these obstacles both impede and advance human life towards self-knowledge and discernment of a very simple premise, no one knows what they are really doing!

I’ m sure that if I were at the box office of a movie theater and someone asked me, “Do you want to see a movie about the development of a child from infancy to late adolescence? My immediate response would be “but there’s another one about dinosaurs that shoot laser beams out of their eyes!”. How wrong would I be!!! Well I don’t know actually, that laser dinosaur movie sounds good! What I mean is that perhaps the process of a child growing up is not a very interesting tagline from an advertising point of view, neither is this idea of shooting a movie over the course of 12 years, at least not for me initially (although the film it’s certainly a titanic and beautiful achievement). I would even go so far as to say that Linklater has gone beyond the typical American flick on so many levels that the average pop corn devourer may find no way to connect with this story. Themes such as abusive parents, an unstable home, drugs and alcohol as social anesthesia, and the search for identity abound in the 2 hours and 46 minutes of this monumental portrait of the life of an ordinary, but intensely special kid.

Characters abound in this story, but let’s go with the main ones, the nuclear family composed of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) who are the children of Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Dad (Ethan Hawke). Apparently Ethan Hawke’s character doesn’t have a name, LOL. The film starts with the breakup between the two parents, mostly because Dad still prefers to hang out with friends and have a good time, while Olivia is more concerned with being with her kids. This leads to a time lapse where Dad completely disappears from the lives of the children and Olivia, a crucial moment for the rest of the story, as it deeply impacts with the initial desire of Mason, the main character of the film, which is to live with his father and mother together. From the very beginning we see how Mason’s wishes are cut short again and again because of this breakup. Forced to leave his home and his first friend without even being able to say goodbye. Being forced to live with a surrogate father, a violent alcoholic who ends up beating his mother and provoking a second breakup (and then a third) that will bring us closer to one of the most important revelations at the end of the film, that life is very much about letting go.

The form of the conflict is simple in concept, Mason is a child who cannot do what he wants, he is forced to follow the orders of parents, grandmother, teachers and all kinds of adults who impose again and again a truth over his own, the one he saw clearly in the first sequence of the film and that he recovers and reaffirms in the last sequence, that life is only the present and that there is no control over it, but the other way around. In this sense it is extremely interesting the dramatic construction that leads us to this last self revelation of the character, especially because during the first half of the film Mason simply suffers because of others while he finds spaces where to be himself, essentially spaces free of adults. At the same time, adults appear as imposing beings in need of attention, especially characters like Mason’s father, but also some teachers and even some older kids, trying to lecture younger kids and inevitably delivering lousy advice.

During the midpoint of the story we encounter Mason’s first rebellion in the concrete pursuit of a desire that takes him out of the family in which he is immersed and prepares him for what is to come, a life outside it. I refer to the sequence of his birthday, where he prefers to spend time with friends and enjoying the moment with his girlfriend. After this begins the slow process of learning to leave behind the past, childhood and childish things, to launch himself into the future, at which point the movie ends! The more Mason moves towards understanding that he doesn’t need anyone to tell him how things are, the more we see how the rest of the characters fail or get it wrong in comparison to himself and how he himself becomes increasingly immune to outside opinions. All of this culminates in two sequences leading up to the end of the story. Take it as the final confrontation with his father and then his mother. The father (Ethan Hawke) sequence is interesting in the tough love sense, Mason wants some paternal compassion one last time, but Dad greets him with a couple of truths about life, mainly that it’s a mistake to subject your self-worth to the opinions of others and that taking control of your life is the only thing that allows you to find meaning in existence. Then, with the mother, Mason faces the consequences of leaving the past behind, childhood, represented in the crying of the mother, who confesses that her whole life has been little more than a few steps she has taken without really thinking about it and that taking care of her children was the only thing that really made sense to her.

Past both of the previously described sequences, Mason makes his way down the road in search of his own place, and finally finds it in the conversation with a college girl in the middle of the mountains. What is it? Well, that what Mason felt at the beginning of the story looking up at the clouds is the only truth in his life, that moments pass and take us, that people have no greater control over them and that he himself was fine all along. And so it is that the 12-year journey of filming concludes, the same way it began, as a series of moments that chronicle a conflict, that present a series of complications and desires, but that ultimately produce no change but a reunion.

Casablanca (1942)

Wow, Casablanca, the classic of classics and I finally got to see it, after all those times I came across it on TV and immediately switched to another channel, after all those times I heard other people say it was a unique jewel in the world’s filmography, after all those times I threw up when I heard words like “romance”, “passion” and “impossible love” to describe the plot of this 1942 film, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring the charismatic Humphrey Bogard as Rick Blaine and Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund. After watching it, I can say without fear of being wrong, that yes… this movie is really special, both for its story and its characters, but it is also interesting because of the space in which the events take place and how this space echoes with all the other elements of the story. I’m referring to the political and social context, the geographical point where the story takes place (from the city of Casablanca to Rick’s bar and everything in between), all elements masterfully orchestrated to produce a powerful story about how external circumstances tend to shape our decisions and how our emotions tend to prolong conflicts, up to the point where we decide to take charge of the situation and manage to change destiny.


But wait… what’s Casablanca about? Well it’s about this guy, Rick Blaine, who owns Rick’s bar, a place where a bunch of refugees (mostly) try to escape Europe in the middle of WWII. In Rick’s bar they find one of the only places to have a nice time in the midst of the chaos of war. The thing is that Rick starts the movie with a selfish attitude, he only thinks about saving himself and does not interfere in other people’s affairs, not even in favor of friends or acquaintances. Now, this attitude also serves him to maintain a close relationship with Captain Louis Renault, who is in charge of Casablanca and also makes him pass under the radar of Major Strasser and the troop of Nazis who have come to Casablanca in search of Victor Laszlo, an activist against Nazism and active voice of the European resistance against the Germans. It is here that Rick and Victor’s paths cross, though not because of the war, but because Victor Laszlo’s wife is Ilsa Lund, Rick’s old girlfriend who has jilted him in France on the day of the Nazi occupation, the day Rick begins his journey to Casablanca. At the beginning of the film, Rick gets hold of some stolen passports that will allow anyone to use them to escape from Casablanca. Victor and Ilsa’s goal is to escape Casablanca before they are killed by the Nazis, do you see where the whole thing is going?

Before we go any further, let’s talk a little about the character of Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart. As I said earlier, Rick begins the story with a selfish stance on the whole war thing and other people’s problems. Even when an acquaintance is captured by the Nazis, Rick merely says that he doesn’t stick his neck out for nobody. Rick also doesn’t usually drink with other people and doesn’t accept anyone’s invitation if he can help it. But the situation changes radically when Ilsa and Laszlo arrive in Casablanca. From this moment on, Rick cannot help but show a different side of his personality, one that is more empathetic, but also more passionate, to the surprise of his acquaintances and to Ilsa’s pain, since Rick does not delay in letting her know the damage she has caused him by abandoning him in Paris.
Now, what happened in Paris? The thing is that Ilsa was dating Rick when the Nazis came to destroy everything. Rick had a plan to escape with Ilsa and his eternal companion, the pianist Sam Wilson. But everything goes to hell when Ilsa doesn’t show up at the train station, instead she sends a letter tersely explaining the situation (basically that they won’t see each other again). It is from this moment that Rick decides to send everyone to hell and focus on living a meaningless life, sheltered in his bar from the calamities of the world.


But the arrival of Ilsa and Victor Laszlo brings other unforeseen consequences in Rick’s life. One of them is found in perhaps the most dramatic scene of the film. I refer to the scene where the Nazis have taken over the bar and are singing the German anthem, but are interrupted by Laszlo and the brass band, when Rick instructs them to follow Laszlo’s order to play the Marseillaise. It is here that the change begins in Rick, who no longer appears as an outsider to the political conflict, but takes matters into his own hands. After the Nazis decide to close the bar and ban the festivities, Rick learns the truth about Ilsa’s disappearance. It turns out that she was already married to Victor before she met Rick, but when Victor leaves to face the war and after a long time in which Ilsa has no news about his whereabouts, she makes the decision to continue her life with Rick, just then, she receives news about Victor, who is alive.

Is destiny nothing but a cruel machine of anticipated tears?


Well, I prefer not to tell you the end of the story so as not to ruin the experience, although being honest, I think that when you see the ending you will realize that you have seen it before in countless parodies and homages, because that final scene and its dialogues are already part of the DNA of American cinema. That’s Casablanca, a movie about a guy who doesn’t want to get involved in war because of heartache, living in a neutral place (not being a villain or anyone’s ally) until someone else comes along to remind him that there are things in life worth fighting for and that sometimes being neutral can do more harm than trying to take a more concrete stand.

Greenland (2020)

Greenland is the plot of Deep Impact as seen from the point of view of 2020. What do I mean by that? I mean that director Ric Roman Waugh has decided to use a single point of view, more individual than the multiple characters that make up the plot of the second film, which I suppose had been used to present multiple sides to the problem of a comet crashing into Earth with devastating consequences for all life on the planet. I remember in that movie there was a president, some reporters, their families and a normal kid with a normal family. Now come to think of it, a president and reporters jump out at us if we think about how we would experience this cataclysmic event by watching TV (90s culture at a glance). However, Greenland does nothing of the sort, no one stares at the television (well, the people who weren’t selected I believe do), the characters are thrown into the adventure relentlessly from the moment they realize the gravity of the situation. It is in this space of time as the characters fight for the hope of surviving the apocalypse that they also face the limits of a selfish survivalist mentality, but also the limit in empathy and concern for others when faced with a situation of extreme danger.

But wait… what’s Greenland about? Well, well… it’s about John Garrity, a cheating father/husband and structural engineer, who is initially debating the purpose of life, being hung up on his family (almost losing them). Ironically, the catastrophic, yet initially interesting, situation of gathering with friends and family to watch an asteroid in the sky on TV gives him the budding opportunity to win back his own, when it becomes apparent that the asteroid will not only pass through the sky, but will fall on the earth and hard. Amidst the growing fear of the people, as they realize the gravity of the situation, John receives a phone message, he and his family have been chosen to be protected from the deep impact (not pun intended) inside bunkers that the government has had prepared since the the cold war. John convinces his wife Allison to take their son and leave quickly, to the confusion of the rest of his friends and family. He does so because he understands the gravity of the situation and is unwilling to complicate his own survival or that of his family. This leads him to refuse help to his neighbors, including a neighbor who begs him to take her young daughter. This initial conviction of “worrying about his own survival and closing his heart to the rest” is put to the test in several parts of the film and until the end, where this very debate of helping or not helping others becomes the key that opens the doors to the possibility of salvation.

Let’s think a little bit about the main character’s arc in relation to this idea to be discussed about saving oneself vs. helping others. John Garrick is a cheating husband, he was going through a complex situation in his marriage and decided for himself, he decided to be unfaithful. A morally glorified person might say that this makes him a bad person. However, if John were not a selfish bastard he might have thought of staying with his neighbors and sharing the same fate, he might have agreed to help the neighbor who was desperately asking him to take her daughter. Taking into consideration; A) that the plot of the movie is not structured in that way, B) that doing either of these two things would have greatly reduced his chances of survival (in fact he is almost left out himself in the scene where a plane can’t support any more weight and they can only carry 2 people) and more importantly, C) that John’s goal is to protect and save his family (that includes himself), it is interesting to learn the practical value of selfishness in pursuit of survival and let’s agree also, of the survival of the family. But that’s not the end of it, because nothing works the same way every time. When John and Allison lose the opportunity to enter the military planes heading for the bunkers and after being separated from each other, they both are forced to ask for help from other people, not to save themselves, but to find each other again. So… before they can save themselves, John and Allison have to find a way to get back together and this situation takes two separate perspectives for each character. For John this translates into the decision to get off the military plane when he realizes that his wife and son are down, that they have been taken down because John’s son has diabetes. So, John does not want to save himself if it means losing his family, demonstrating through this and in his desperate actions in pursuit of reuniting with his loved ones, that he is remorseful and that he loves his wife and son more than anything in the world. Allison’s case takes another turn, let’s say a more concrete one. After losing John at the military base, she assumes that she has lost her husband and decides to try her luck at her father’s house (demonstrating with this and with her nervousness that she is not prepared to face the situation on her own). This decision has two consequences, the first being that, by choosing a contingency plan and leaving a note in the car, should John arrive there, Allison lays the groundwork for the reunion. The second consequence is that Allison is exposed to a desperate couple who offer to give her a ride near her father’s house, but on the way learn that she is wearing a “Chosen” bracelet, as is her son. The desperate couple end up taking her son, the bracelet and throwing Allison out of the car and into her own mini-story within the overall story, the road to gain the strength to make the trip to her father’s house without help from her husband or her father (well she cheats in the end, but she came pretty close!). Along the way, Allison learns the differences between trusting a stranger when you have something of transcendent value (salvation) and trusting a stranger when you have nothing (which happens after losing everything, obviously). It is then that both Allison and we the viewers realize the value of people who dedicate their lives to public service, military and health personnel, the archetype they represent in the culture, the guiding and decisive figure in times of catastrophe.

The debate on selfishness and altruism ends after two scenes towards the end of the film. In the first, John manages to get his family to safety under a bridge in the midst of a meteor shower, then dives out into the open to save the life of a person trapped inside a car, burning his hand in the process. That burn finally becomes his ticket to salvation, when he has to beg the pilot of a small commercial airliner for a space for his family. So, after all this conversation, what can we say? Does empathy only work when it does not prevent survival? Is it that caring about oneself and nothing else is not enough to access salvation? From the way the ending is written I think the idea is something like “helping others brings us one step closer to salvation” if we think that every action of the characters that went in the direction of saving themselves might have initially seemed like a step towards salvation, but that in reality these actions took them further and further away from the goal and it wasn’t until they were both fighting for more than themselves, primarily for others (family) and ultimately for everyone (when John leads the rest of the people to the ultimate place of salvation) that the characters came close enough to the light to find in it the attainment of their goal.

The Vast of Night (2019)

The Vast of Night is a film that went somewhat unnoticed since its release, on the Amazon Prime platform (is that why?) during 2019, but it certainly stands out for its cinematography, production design, and snappy narrative, despite the large amount of dialogue that makes it up. Within the narrative possibilities within the film genre, I believe that films like The Vast of Night (as well as Hereditary, a film we reviewed previously) fall into what I would call “punitive films”, I mean films where the protagonist has to pay a high price for his moral and psychological failures (as opposed to a normal film, where the protagonist ends up learning a lesson and overcoming the difficulties). In this sense, the film directed by Andrew Patterson follows the ancestral logic of “curiosity killed the cat”, with negative consequences for both the protagonist and his loved ones (John Truby would be proud of this story).

Okay but… What is “The Vast of Night” about? The story centers on one night in a small town in America during the 1950s. The main characters are, Everett Sloan, who is the local radio announcer and his friend (love interest?) Fay Crocker, a radio operator (she actually communicates phone calls). The thing is, Fay intercepts a strange sound that is sneaking in between the phone conversations, causing the communications to be cut off. The same strange sound is picked up on Everett’s radio transmission, which is why Fay decides to warn Everett about the noise. When Everett hears the strange noise, which is disrupting communications, he decides to record it and broadcast it on his radio program, with the intention of arousing the interest of someone who knows where the sound is coming from. This action prompts an ex-military man to contact the radio and deliver information about the sound, it is visitors from another world and they are in the sky over the town tonight. The news adds to a slew of people calling Fay, warning about something strange they’ve seen in the sky outside of town. Initially, Everett thinks it’s either Soviet Union planes or spy satellites, and it piques his interest, as he wants to become famous enough to leave town and pursue a radio career in California. It is for this reason that Everett embarks on a hunt for information, along with Fay (who wants to be with Everett and support him) that leads them to find a secret tape, to retransmit a message similar to the sound of the transmissions, to make “contact” thanks to the retransmission and then, inevitably, to learn the truth and to pay a high cost for their curiosity.

Beyond the science fiction aspects, which are interesting in themselves, I think the story rests mostly on both main characters, a duo that at times can remind us of a young Fox Mulder and Dana Scully (The X-Files), they show a similar couple dynamic, although Everett has less empathy for his partner than Mulder (at times his lack of concern is annoying), although he makes up for it in charisma and enthusiasm. This character arc is extremely interesting, especially as it takes place in the space of an hour and a half, which is the length of the film and also the actual time within the story, which occurs during a basketball game, where most of the people in town are gathered in one place. Everett starts the story as a kind of teacher for Fay, teaching him the art of being a radio announcer while they go around the basketball stadium interviewing people, then they head to town, which is practically deserted because of the basketball game and they say goodbye to each other to go to work. However, since Fay intercepts the strange noise, Everett appears again and again (each time worse and worse) as a person blinded by the desire to get an exclusive regardless of the consequences (which Fay asks about several times). During the midpoint of the story, which is when Everett rebroadcasts the signal and the aliens cut the power at the radio station (in what is clearly a warning of the danger of the whole thing), Everett reacts by grabbing a portable recorder and continues transmitting, leaving Fay behind and showing no concern for her or the situation. It is not until Everett and Fay interview Mrs. Blanche and get the truth about what is going on that Everett realizes the gravity of the events, although, by that point, he can no longer back off (in part because he has managed to bring more people into the affair) and this leads him to inevitably fall into the clutches of the aliens.

As I said before, the events that are recreated in the film are presented with a great emphasis on dialogue, it is a constant and frantic search (mostly because of the fear and strangeness of the situation) to know what is happening, for the opportunity presented to an ambitious but irresponsible character, to make contact with forces that are beyond the ordinary. I think the film is 80% expository dialogue, something that all screenwriting gurus have pointed out ad nauseam as an amateur mistake, but which here works to perfection. What does this tell us? Well, to me it means that the problem is not in writing or not writing expository dialogues, but that there are situations in which it works and situations in which it doesn’t work. I mean that there are types of information that can be interesting to hear in expository form, such as paranormal events that provoke the imagination, which is different from when a character tells us about something he has just done (explaining it), which is the most common way to use expository dialogue wrongly.

That’s all I’ll say about The Vast of Night, one of those films that stand out only for the masterful narrative work, in the dialogues full of sense and humanity, in solid performances that deliver all the necessary information, in the minimalist use of science fiction paraphernalia. The best, in my opinion, of the whole film appears in Everett’s character arc, a well-built character, with personal ambitions and a charismatic personality but full of flaws (mostly lack of empathy) that lead him straight into the trap of the antagonist and that, even worse, endangers a person who cares about him and a baby! Ohhh the humanity!