Quickfire round: American Murder: The Family Next Door

Despite its forgettable title (is it American Family: The Murder Nextdoor? Or America Nextdoor: The Family Murder? Neither!) this documentary uses incredible original footage to tell the chilling story of how, and why, Shannan Watts and her two children were cruelly murdered.

One person in this photo escaped death. Can you guess who it was?

I’ll start off by saying that this documentary shows how far we’ve come with technology in our society that it is able to tell the story in such a coherent manner with absolutely no voice-over and only first-hand footage (from police body cams and interview rooms, neighbours, news crews, text messages, and Shannan herself).

This method of telling the story makes it all the more terrifying. We start out with police body cam footage – after Shannan’s friend and colleague called the police, concerned for her whereabouts as she wasn’t responding to texts. The footage – otherwise entirely routine – immediately captures a scene of confusion and mystery as Shannan – and her two young children – are nowhere to be seen. Her phone is there and switched off, but the children’s blankets are gone. Her husband, Chris Watts, raced back from work at a remote oil well, and seems distracted as he speaks to officers about the last time he saw his wife alive and who – or where – she could have gone to.

Incredibly, the documentary also features Shannan herself. She was a prolific Facebook user, recording and posting footage of family moments almost daily. What a juxtaposition these happy videos of her and her husband are to the text messages she was exchanging with her friends and colleagues shortly before her death – telling a story of how her husband had become distant and uninterested in her.

I think I know what makes the documentary so gripping. The Facebook videos and text messages are all pre-death, of course. And the police footage is post-death. We therefore see the story unravel from two perspectives – Shannan’s, as she hurtles towards her murder, and the police, as they piece everything together. Everything is revealed in sync with each other – the text messages become more surreal and desperate as the police interviews become more dramatic and revealing. It’s great storytelling, if incredibly tragic.

If you like true crime, you absolutely don’t want to miss this.

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Quickfire Round: The Social Dilemma

I’m glad this documentary exists, as it’s made a lot of people wake up to the fact that massive social media companies like Facebook are hardly being generous by giving free access to their platform. Alas, corny acting prevents it reaching its full potential.

Haters gonna hate.

First, the good bits: this film presents first-hand accounts of how social media companies are engineering their platforms to maximise user engagement, putting the health and safety of their billions of users on the back burner as they compete to sell advertising spots. We hear about techniques such as A/B testing – tiny tweaks to the user experience, like moving the location of a button, are rolled out to a random selection of users to see whether it increased or decreased engagement.

Little nuggets of inside information and analysis like that are welcome – another example is Facebook’s photo tagging feature. Ever had an email like, ‘Emily tagged you in a photo on Facebook’? Notice how they don’t show you the photo in the email – you have to go onto the platform to see it. And while you’re there, you might as well check your notifications, and your news feed, and the latest group posts… you get the idea.

Okay, now the not-so-good. Firstly, the show entertains a little too much conspiracy for my liking. In some painfully acted live action scenes, we see ‘the algorithm’ represented by three Facebook engineers in a lab, watching their target’s life and deciding when to ping their phone to drag them into the platform and view an ad that they just sold for 3 cents. The thing is, Facebook does run instant auctions for advertisers to bid on an impression on a user’s Facebook feed. What they don’t do is literally spy on your actual life and ping you at the exact time it most benefits them. They just don’t.

The rest of the acted scenes are also pretty bad. I understand what they were trying to do with the part showing the teenage boy getting increasingly radicalised by far-right propaganda, enough to attend a rally and get arrested, but it didn’t hit deep enough and it just felt so weak as to be worthless.

Thankfully the takeaway from the film is something I can agree with: social media wasn’t invented to be evil, but evil it has become. Delete Facebook, the worst offender by far. If you need to, create a plain shell account to stay in touch with those who can’t be persuaded off the platform.

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Quickfire round: Love Guaranteed

This film was rubbish. A shallow, childish, and ultimately very weird film about a man who sues a dating website for failing to find love. I mean, it sounds interesting, right? But it wasn’t good.

Susan striking the classic ‘objection!’ pose, in what is one of the more exciting parts of the movie

The trailer looked so impressive. Man shows up in lawyer’s office, asking for help to take advantage of a clause in a mega corp dating agency’s terms that guarantees love, as long as you’ve been on 1,000 dates. This guy did that, somehow. (breakfast, lunch, and dinner, he says).

Alright! David v Goliath! A kickass lawyer! 1,000 dates? Sign me up!

And then you press play and you get this sort of clown music going on in the background. The lawyer rolls up to her office in a battered old car, the handle of which falls off as she shuts it. She shoves it in her bag.

Oh no, it’s one of those Rom Coms. The ones where all the characters must be dosed up on LSD because all of their actions are slightly exaggerated and eccentric. This is the sort of thing you see in kid’s movies except that kids don’t really understand the concept of suing a company so I have no idea why they did it this way.

Anyway, yeah, she’s a great lawyer but she’s too nice because she does everything pro bono and so can’t afford to look after herself. Her client is supposed to be a nice, even charming, guy (no prizes for guessing he’s the plot’s love interest) but when someone walks into your office and says he’s been on 1,000 dates, would you ever – ever – think of them as charming?

I will save you all 90 minutes of your time. For the curious, and this is something I saw coming after about 20 minutes, the case goes to trial and he confesses his love for his lawyer, which means, technically, that he did find love through Love Guaranteed after all. The case is withdrawn. But then… the company pays them the damages anyway (either way they were destined for charity) and wants to make them the ‘new face’ of the company???

???

That’s it. That’s the review.

363w.

Quickfire round: Speed Cubers

I caught this brief documentary on Netflix because it’s always fun to watch what people can do when they get nerdily obsessed with something – like solving a Rubik’s Cube. What I discovered, however, is that Speed Cubers is about something else entirely.

Feliks and Max together at a tournament – both clearly enjoying themselves

You see a documentary about people that solve Rubik’s Cubes really fast. So you watch it, thinking you’ll get some kind of history into the word records of solving them, known as cubing (participants are called cubers). Maybe it’ll explain the different world record categories, the little placemat you need to use to accurately record your time, or why they get an opportunity to inspect the cube before the timer starts running.

You don’t really get so much of that.

Instead, Speed Cubers is the story of an incredible friendship between two of the most successful cubers in history: Australian Feliks Zemdegs and Korean-American Max Park, who has autism.

We hear from the parents of both kids – Feliks became a national hit from a fairly young age and appeared on many an TV show in his native Australia. For Max, it was a different upbringing. Diagnosed at a young age with autism, Max struggles with communication and has the social skills of a person much younger than him. What Max really likes, however, is to solve a Rubik’s cube as fast as he can. When his parents discover this skill of his, it ends up having fantastic developmental benefits for Max. They take him to his first in-person tournament, and he does quite well. But his parents are less bothered about his speed cubing and more excited by the fact that this was the first public event they had taken Max to. And, according to his mother, he displayed traits that day that he had never displayed before, allowing him to develop those social skills that he lacked before.

Max is a really good cuber, and eventually beats most of Feliks’ records. Feliks isn’t salty, though. He in fact befriends Max and is always super supportive of him. They always hang out at the world championships (yes, this is a thing) and Feliks is regularly in touch with Max’s parents. He truly is a role model – not just to Max as a cuber, but to us all as a person.

So, in this 40-minute documentary you do get an insight into the world of speed cubing. But you also get so much more.

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Quickfire round: Sonic the Hedgehog

Affectionately known as the Blue Blur, Sonic the Hedgehog stars in a live action debut that is… actually pretty good, really. With a much improved character model, this is a solid family movie.

Before and after. You can see the immense improvement to Sonic’s model.

Sonic the Hedgehog is a video game series dating back to 1991. I was born in 1996, and my first proper experience with Sonic games were the GameCube trifecta of Sonic Adventure DX: Director’s Cut, Sonic Adventure 2: Battle, and Sonic Heroes, which I think all came out in 2003. The game series had more of an impact on my life than you might think, but that’s a story for another day. What matters is that Sonic has a hugely varied fan base – the target audience of children, and sone much, much older fans who remember the classics.

So, when we first saw the trailer for the live action movie, we were all taken aback by the insanely awful character model. Live-action Sonic looked too human to the point where it was just terrifying to look at. Nowhere near human enough to pass as a human, though, which begged the question – why? Why did you need to massacre the original design of the character just to fail at making him fit into the real world even a tiny bit?

Thankfully, the studio listened, pushed the release date back, and re-did the models. The result is much better. As for the rest of the movie – it’s all fine. There are funny jokes. The acting is decent, especially Jim Carrey, whose casting made complete sense, as chief antagonist Dr Robotnik. There are action scenes, there are slower more dramatic scenes, and you genuinely root for the characters.

The only criticism I have is that the plot was very shallow and it all felt over very quickly. I mean, everything pretty much happens over the span of 2 days. Given the target audience, however, I suppose it makes sense. Go watch!

328w