It’s been 14 years since we went to Prague with our sister. We’re old. We saw a hotel called Metamorphosis. Cracked us up. Check in as a person, check out as a cockroach. It was snowing in late March. A man on the street sold us cheap tickets to the opera. Our seats were just below the ceiling and we froze our butts off. People were eating ice cream in the snow. It was supposed to make you feel warmer. Not true. We had an attic room in a pension—Airbnb had not yet been invented, so we found it on a site called Eurocheapo. Our first choice was a converted mental hospital turned Soviet torture chamber but someone had already booked it. Our landlord wore a different costume every day. It made him happy. A typical meal consisted of a slab of meat, breaded and fried with cheese, with an egg on top. That made us happy.
Cat’s Eye (our new column in the Philippine Star)
24 January 2016
by Jessica Zafra
Movie reviews can be many things, but they are primarily their authors’ reactions to the movie they just saw. I underscore they just saw because while it seems obvious that you have to see something before you can pass judgment on it, a lot of people have opinions on the movie before they’ve even seen it. These premature opinions are cut-and-pasted together out of press releases, online reviews, tweets, and stuff overheard in traffic. There are other people’s opinions. You are told that a movie is important, and you swallow it without checking.
Why would you repeat what you’ve heard without thinking for yourself? Because this is the Information Age, the medium is the message, and we’re afraid to admit that we don’t know. Basta lang may masabi. We live in fear of being left behind, out of the loop, and not trending. The 21st century mediaverse has turned everyone into a D-list celebrity perpetually in danger of slipping into obscurity.
But I digress, because I always digress.
There are many kinds of movie reviewers. There are summarizers—the ones who discuss the plot in such detail, including the spoilers, that you feel like you’ve already seen the movie. Revealing spoilers is a health risk—remember what happened to the people who exited an early screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, yelling out a major shocker. Granted, people are too sensitive about what constitutes a spoiler. If it’s general knowledge, it’s only a spoiler to the ignorant. It is a fact that the Titanic sank. The spoiler is: Who dies?
There are reviewers who champion their favorite filmmakers, and reviewers who take every opportunity to tell you how much cooler and more knowledgeable they are than you. I recommend that when you write, you imagine that you are the reader. It is harder to condescend to yourself, or to kick yourself in the head. There are reviewers who lecture you on how they would’ve made a better movie. The only proper response to them is: Why didn’t you?
Others approach reviews as personal memoirs of moviegoing. I’ve always loved the movies—along with books they make up my parallel life, which is way more exciting than the real one. For starters, I never have to drive an oil tanker across the desert, pursued by pale speed wackos including a guitarist with a flamethrower attached to a wall of amps with bungee cords, and taiko drummers. The movies satisfy my need to drive an oil tanker at topspeed across the desert—and to drive, period.
I try to evoke my movie experience for the reader, sometimes including the irritation of being pulled away from the parallel universe by some jerk live-tweeting the movie on a very bright phone screen. It follows that the quality of my writing varies with how much I was affected by the movie. If I admire a movie for its style but it doesn’t make me feel anything, the review is not going to be fun to read. It will sound like homework.
For instance, the cinematography of The Revenant is spectacular, but the movie is two and a half hours of watching a guy suffer. My main reaction is: Para ninyo nang awa, bigyan n’yo na ng Oscar si Leonardo. (Then why do I love Gravity, which has a similar premise? Because its heroine had a character, and because it’s set in space.) I appreciate the fact that Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight tackles an important issue. It’s about time films talk about how the Church covered up over a thousand cases of priests sexually abusing children in Boston alone. Still, it’s over two hours of watching journalists knock on doors and interview people. It’s static. I don’t believe in praising movies because they tackle socially-relevant themes—what is is, the Cinema of the Intent? Movies don’t get points for meaning well. Look at the movie itself, because a good movie is a good movie whatever its subject, and a mediocre movie is still mediocre no matter how many social ills it denounces.
Conversely, a movie created mainly for entertainment is not diminished by the fact that it ignores contemporary social problems. It doesn’t even have to be grounded in reality, come to think of it. When you’re watching Mad Max: Fury Road, you’re too busy trying to keep your eyeballs in your head to ask why George Miller does not address injustice and terrorism. Only afterwards, when you resume breathing normally, does it occur to you that Mad Max is set in a dry wasteland whose resources are available only to the powerful, ruled by a crazy dictator who promises his soldiers that if they die in his cause, they will go straight to heaven. It’s a metaphor for our world.
Or take Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It is practically a remake of the first Star Wars in 1977. (The prequels do not exist. The prequels do not exist.) As my friend pointed out, J.J. Abrams’ job was to heal the community that felt screwed over by those crappy prequels. Mission accomplished. The movie is full of plot holes—Rey defeats the most powerful adept of The Force the first time she picks up a light saber—but you don’t notice them while you’re watching the movie, because you’re absorbed in what’s onscreen. Or if you do notice the plot holes (Poe returned to base without even trying to retrieve BB8 from Jakku), you let them pass until the movie ends because you have to know what happens next.
On the other hand, if the plot holes and gaps in exposition prevent you from getting into the movie, and the characters are not engaging enough for you to overlook these flaws, the filmmakers have failed you. Know what you like. Make up your own mind.
January 22, 2016By: jessicazafra Category: Television
“YOU’RE the kind of lawyer guilty people hire,” the embezzler’s wife tells Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk). Even the most clueless criminal can tell that the protagonist of Better Call Saul is a shady character. But when the AMC series begins, Jimmy has not fully embraced the shady side. He’s still trying to do the right thing — it’s just that in Jimmy’s world, “good” and “bad” are relative. Yes, he gets a pair of scam artists in trouble, but he does bargain their punishment down from death to one broken leg each. All things considered, that’s a great lawyer. Great-ish.
Better Call Saul is the story of the man who would become Saul Goodman (As in, “It’s all good, man”), the unscrupulous lawyer on Breaking Bad. Many of the characters from Breaking Bad deserve their own series — I would watch one in which Badger pitches story ideas to Hollywood, or Gus Fring cooks chicken — but Saul is an excellent choice. Not only does he find creative solutions for dire situations, not only is he a vending machine of hilarious quotes, but he takes such delight in being his scuzzy self. He’s not a hypocrite. Everyone should love their job as much as Saul does. “Don’t drink and drive,” he reminds his clients, “But if you do, call me.”
January 20, 2016By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Movies
In The Big Short, Adam McKay’s adaptation of the Michael Lewis nonfiction book, a motley group of highly-strung fund managers and financial analysts realize in 2005 that the housing market, the very foundation of the American financial system, is headed for a meltdown. For starters, no one thinks to ask why subprime mortgages are called subprime. So these perceptive assholes start to bet against the housing market by buying credit default swaps.
McKay knows that if we hear the terms “credit default swap” and “collateralized debt obligation”, our minds will leave our bodies and start hovering around the snack bar. Which is one of the reasons the market went bust: regular people don’t want to wrap their brains around these concepts. The joke is that the experts themselves didn’t understand them, either. They just headed off any questions with the words, “It’s too complicated.” Even as it became clear that the financial system was headed for Armaggedon, they refused to acknowledge that anything was wrong. It wasn’t just oversight, it was system-wide fraud.
Screenwriters McKay and Charles Randolph solve the jargon problem by having the narrator, trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling with a bad perm and a reptilian aspect), address the audience directly, and bringing in physical representations and celebrity explainers. The subprime mortgage marget is explained with building blocks, or if that’s not visually arresting enough, Margot Robbie from Wolf of Wall Street in a bubble bath. Anthony Bourdain compares collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) to three-day-old fish remarketed as fish stew. Our personal favorite: synthetic CDOs are dogshit wrapped in catshit. It’s an educational movie, a hilarious comedy, and a financial thriller that is thrilling even if we know how it ends.
The terrific cast is headed by Christian Bale as Michael Burry, a socially-awkward investment analyst with a glass eye who has heavy metal blasting in his office. This makes sense because compared to the mortgage market, heavy metal is harmonious. He starts betting that doomsday is nigh. Vennett gets wind of his transactions, and a wrong number leads him to a hedge fund headed by a very angry man named Mark Baum (Steve Carell). Baum is wrestling with personal tragedy, but even if he wasn’t, he’s the sort of person who is most happy being unhappy.
Meanwhile, two young traders named Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) accidentally learn of the scheme and enlist the help of retired financial wizard Ben Rickert (Hot damn Brad Pitt looks good with facial hair. Pitt, one of the producers, starred in the adaptation of another Michael Lewis book, Moneyball). They come up with another way to profit off the impending catastrophe.
McKay, who directed the Anchorman movies and co-founded the Funny Or Die website, has us rooting for these guys against the housing market. We join them in seething against the clueless morons who laugh at them. We rail against the blind fools who refuse to see the evidence in their faces (Melissa Leo’s literally blind S&P officer explains that if they downgrade the outlook, the banks will just go to their competitor).
And then, when it is obvious to everyone that our guys were right, we can’t really celebrate. They’ve won, but the losers—the people responsible for breaking the economy—will never be brought to justice. The US government bails them out with the people’s money, and they take the bailout and give themselves performance bonuses. For screwing up. They’ve won but the ordinary people pay, losing their houses, their life savings, their pensions. They’ve won, but they’re profiteers who cannot claim moral superiority to the financial powers they bet against. In this equation, everyone is an asshole.
P.S. CDOs are back, rebranded as “Bespoke Tranche Opportunities”. Shiftyyyyyyy.
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Check out some other films on the 2008 financial meltdown: the Oscar-winning documentary The Inside Job, J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call, and Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes.