Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

Unplayer One: What Remains of Edith Finch

Unplayer One is a recurring feature exploring games in way that should appeal to those who enjoy art irrespective of the medium.  Unlike other review posts, these are likely to contain major spoilers so, if you have any intention of playing the game in question, please do so before reading.

 

“If we lived forever, maybe we’d have time to understand things
But as it is, I think the best we can do is try to open our eyes
And appreciate how strange and brief all of this is.”

“Home” is a nebulous concept. We know that at some point we leave our childhood home and set out to create our own. That process can take years, even decades, because a home is more than just the four walls that surround us. Home includes people, a family, and I think of home less as a physical place than something attached to those people, irrespective of geographical distance. One of my favourite lines from Zach Braff’s Garden State followed the musing of being homesick for a place that no longer exists, “Maybe that’s all family really is. A group of people that miss the same imaginary place.”

In What Remains of Edith Finch (which just received the BAFTA for Best Game), following the death of her mother, a young woman returns to a familial home where the physical structure is inseparable from the people who inhabited it. The house was built by matriarch Edie Finch and her husband. The Finch family is believed to be cursed — understandably given their tendency toward unfortunate and untimely deaths — and Edie turns the bedrooms into perfectly preserved memorials to each deceased member of the family. As the family grew, rather than reusing old bedrooms, they simply added rooms to the house in a bizarre, ramshackle way. The first glimpse of the eerily imposing house seems unnatural and unsafe with its cancerous protrusions, but once inside it feels more like an obvious organic extension of its inhabitants.

As Edith explores the house, she recalls or discovers the tragic stories of her ancestors through narration. The game falls into a genre derisively described as “walking simulators”, a first person exploration of the house, with the ability to interact with various objects in order to access new areas, reminiscent of 2013’s Gone Home. The shrines to each family member trigger themed interactive vignettes that explore their deaths. It is these tales with their wild aesthetic shifts and merging of the tragic and the whimsical that are the heart of the game. It is a triumph of storytelling and colourful characterisation. Edith’s own plight is that she was denied this family history and connection to her past when her mother tried to abandon it. We are told that it was her mother, Dawn, who sealed off all the bedrooms in response to which an ageing Edie, who continued to view the stories of her cursed family as important, drilled peepholes into each one.

The house is cluttered in beautiful detail, all placed with careful intent as each individual’s paraphernalia forms part of the storytelling. Twins Calvin and Sam shared a room but, when Calvin died at 11 (obsessed with space and flight, he launches himself off a swing over a cliffside), his half of the room was roped off and became a mausoleum frozen in time whilst Sam continued to grow. One can only imagine the psychological impact of waking each day to this unavoidable, increasingly anachronistic reminder of his lost brother.

Former child star Barbara’s room demonstrates both pride in her success but also how that early success trapped and infantilised her. Her murder is told through the medium of an exploitative comicbook about the events narrated by a Crypt Keeper-like figure who takes perverse pleasure in the tale, no doubt reflective of the media frenzy following her death. One of the lighter vignettes features Edith’s artistic brother Milton, who simply disappeared. A flipbook left behind suggests an intention to disappear into his paintings in a nod to developer Giant Sparrow’s previous game, The Unfinished Swan, featuring its signature melody and visual style.

The most poignant sequence belongs to Edith’s brother, Lewis Finch. His day is filled with unrewarding work in a dark, drab cannery. You perform his routine task of slicing fish: reach, grab, move, slice, repeat. It’s boring and repetitive. Your mind starts to wonder, just like Lewis. He begins daydreaming, escaping a simple maze overlaid across a corner of the screen, which you navigate whilst continuing to chop fish with your other hand. Stop, and the fish start to pile up, obscuring your view. Over time, as Lewis’ fantasy becomes more elaborate, the overlaid game increases in visual fidelity and grows to take up more of the screen, until eventually you are performing the job purely by muscle memory. Dissatisfied Lewis imagines himself a heroic and benevolent king, adored by his subjects, with the control and recognition he cannot find in life. Ultimately he disassociates from reality entirely. This was widely regarded as the best level design of the past year, through how it visually and structurally mirrors the psychological process it represents, and how it resonates so strongly with an audience of gamers who recognise that desire for escapism.

Dawn takes the loss of Lewis particularly hard and resolves to leave the family home with her daughter. She conceals this intention from Edie until the night before she leaves, causing a rupturing argument. Edie’s own end shortly afterwards is unresolved, which forms a fitting lack of conclusion for the woman obsessed with the family curse and preserving memories. As Edith talks about her experiences after leaving, we discover that the narrated stories we have heard are the memoir that a pregnant Edith wrote for her unborn child after exploring the house and learning its secrets. Edith wishes her mother had shared these stories with her and believes it is important that her child knows the family’s history, in all its tragedy. Edith, it is implied, dies during complications in childbirth, but her son — now the last surviving Finch — receives her memoir and later returns to the house.

Although one can run away, severing those family ties is far harder. Edith realises this where Dawn could not. Human curiosity means that we are not simply fascinated by knowledge of from where we come but beholden to it, and that becomes the legacy we bestow upon those who follow — the stories we have lived and the stories we pass on.  What remains of Edith Finch? A child, and generations of history. That, and a sense of amazement that our brief lives are experienced at all.

“It’s a lot to ask, but I don’t want you to be sad that I’m gone.
I want you to be amazed that any of us ever had a chance to be here at all.”

Edith Finch

QuickViews 2018 (Part 1)

Although I have no intention of repeating last year’s film-based Resolution, I did enjoy producing single-paragraph reviews for the new films I watched, given that I generally lack the time to write full-length reviews of late. I have continued to write these, and will collect and publish them in groups as I did with last year’s Resolution Films. Here are the first 20 of 2018.

1. Molly’s Game (2017)8/10
Aaron Sorkin is one of a rare breed of screenwriters whose name can be the biggest draw in a film. Fans will be pleased by his signature style of sharp, rapid dialogue, applied here to the based-on-true events story of a woman who ran a high-stakes underground poker game, expertly using the tempo of language to build and relieve tension. Sorkin’s directorial debut, his approach is assured but not particularly noteworthy, with some unnecessarily convoluted time jumping. Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba both excel.

2. This is 40 (2012)7/10
Judd Apatow spearheaded a comedic oeuvre that was once shocking and is now rather hackneyed. This is 40 finds freshness by accepting that the creators and audience alike have aged. When it focuses on the struggle to accept middle age and the strain it places on a marriage (together with the impact on children) there is something heartfelt to the comedy. When it reverts to ogling Megan Fox it becomes painful. Fortunately there is more of the former than the latter.

3. AlphaGo (2017)8/10
An accessible documentary film charting the astounding victory for DeepMind’s AlphaGo AI against then top Go player Lee Sedol. It is not technical enough to teach the viewer about top-level Go strategy or the nuance of AlphaGo’s neural networks but is more about the human challenge both in designing and facing off against such a machine, as well as humanity’s place as it designs superior machines. The best contributions are from a sanguine Fan Hui, previously beaten by AlphaGo.

4. Candy (2006)8/10
A tragic love story, Candy feels like a more grounded companion piece to Requiem for a Dream. It uses a similar act structure to present a junkie couple’s decline, but without the stylised excess. It ultimately may be less soul-destroying but Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish provide such good, raw and guileless performances that one aches for them despite the familiar journey.

5. Mindhorn (2016)6/10
A lightly amusing British comedy about a washed up actor reprising the role of the maverick TV detective he played in his heydey to help the police solve a murder on the Isle of Man. Offbeat without fully committing to its weirder excesses (given that it comes from Julian Barratt of The Mighty Boosh), this is essentially a lesser Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa without the strengths of the character or the history.

6. Phantom Thread (2017)8/10
Its first half is a portrait of a fastidious man against a period backdrop of couture dressmaking with Paul Thomas Anderson’s usual verisimilitude, but this is not a film about fashion. Daniel Day Lewis’ (allegedly final) performance is excellent, and the sound design deftly demonstrates how the external world grates upon him, but the character is less accessible than Tom Ford’s A Single Man. Patience is required until the second half which demonstrates the film’s real focus, exploring how a relationship works with such an obsessive fussy individual – distance, emotional manipulation and codependency. It is a film that lingers.

7. Midnight Run (1988)7/10
I was inspired to watch this off the back of the Rick & Morty episode Mortynight Run. An accountant on the run is chased by bounty hunters, the FBI and the mafia. The majority of the film is an odd couple road trip as De Niro’s Jack Walsh catches his target but has to haul him back to LA. The middle section devolves into a repetitive series of run-ins with a rival bounty hunter and mafia goons while the FBI are one step behind. Fortunately it closes more satisfyingly with a proper character arc in its conclusion.

8. Focus (2015)6/10
Another failed Will Smith vehicle, Focus opens as a slick caper movie with a group of con artists led by Smith and joined by Margot Robbie as a newcomer, both at their charming best. After the opening act, the remainder of the film switches gears to a longer con that lacks any real substance and does not fare nearly as well. It does succeed in keeping its audience guessing and does not quite overstay its welcome. Ultimately Focus is a briefly entertaining diversion if not much more.

9. The Breakfast Club (1985)7/10
Its cult status is questionable through modern eyes, but John Hughes defined an era of teen movies that did not rely primarily on sex jokes. Five disparate high school stereotypes discover common ground during a Saturday detention, but the film leans into its stereotypes as much as it challenges them, and the offbeat interspersed sequences of racing through corridors and dancing on desks seem present only to placate those without the attention span for the more emotional dialogue.

10. Black Panther (2018)9/10
A triumphant take on the superhero movie that offers not just a new aesthetic (like Doctor Strange) but is steeped in black culture throughout. It bridges the divide between African and Black American culture but also pits them against one another, considering colonialism and interventionism from the perspective of the technologically advanced but isolated African nation of Wakanda, whilst recognising black anger that atrocities past and present are allowed to happen. It also does not shy away from ritualised displays of strength and violence, but they parallel the respect and empathy felt by T’Challa for his adversaries. Such nuance is unusual for a superhero, particularly one that is meanwhile challenging conventional Hollywood wisdom that a blockbuster with an overwhelmingly black cast would not be profitable.

11. Machete (2010)5/10
Although its rise from a spoof trailer in Grindhouse to an actual franchise is impressive, the creativity here is less so. Robert Rodriguez serves up the expected sex and violence of exploitation cinema, but this is less a modernised homage like Planet Terror than derivatively aping the genre’s style. There is fun to be had at the over-the-top ridiculousness of it all — “We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us!” — but there is little of substance here that Rodriguez has not achieved better before in his Mariachi trilogy.

12. The Shape of Water (2017)9/10
What if Guillermo del Toro made a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film? There is a surprisingly whimsical tone as we are introduced to the life of mute Elisa and the idiosyncracies of her few friends. This merges with del Toro’s signature eye for detail in fantasy creatures when she discovers the amphibian man imprisoned at the lab in which she works (it is a big year for the underappreciated Doug Jones between this role and Saru, the best character in Star Trek: Discovery). The bond between the two forms the core of the film, surrounded by a series of strong supporting performances. Drawing together disparate aspects of drama, fantasy, a heist, romance and espionage, this is a stunning, unusual piece of filmmaking that is more than the sum of its parts and lingers long afterward.

13. White Girl (2016)7/10
Leah moves to New York the summer before starting college and falls hard for a local drug dealer. The film relies on their instant infatuation feeling real and, for the most part, it does. Leah is difficult to connect with because she is entirely unaware of her own privilege and drifts through life impulsively with the expectation that things will work out, which, presumably, they always have. She continues this way even as the decisions become more extreme. As a view on privilege this is perhaps successful, and her eyes are gradually opened to it, although it is difficult to say what she has learned. It also has a powerful point to make about promiscuity not vitiating the need for consent.

14. Moneyball (2011)7/10
Billy Beane, General Manager of Oakland Athletic, bucks tradition by adopting statistical analysis to identify undervalued players to fill his team’s roster on a limited budget. Despite being based on a true story, we are given relatively little insight into the statistical philosophy behind “Moneyball”. There is plenty here to enjoy for those uninterested in baseball, but it is clearly designed to resonate more with fans of the game, with significant time dedicated to reliving Oakland Athletic’s winning streak. The film then meanders, uncertain how to conclude, and feels overlong as a result.

15. RocknRolla (2008)5/10
RocknRolla feels more like a tribute to (or parody of) old school Guy Ritchie films than a genuine Guy Ritchie film. It features the trademark rapidfire banter, convoluted plot and East End gangster action, but they fail to form a cohesive whole, seeming more like a response to his critics. There are some standout kinetically shot action sequences and a few fun edits, but this does little to restore Ritchie’s directorial credibility. The film cockily touts its own sequel but there is little wonder that it has never emerged.

15. Dazed and Confused (2008)8/10
Following a group of high school students on the last day of school in the summer of 1976, I found this initially uncomfortable viewing because of the seemingly uncritical view of socially condoned violence. In fact this is more verisimilitude as Linklater accurately captures the aimless desires and insecurities of adolescence at a specific point in time.

16. Blue Velvet (1986)8/10
David Lynch describes himself as an intuitive director rather than an intelligent one. This style is perhaps clearest in Blue Velvet which is fundamentally a series of scenes plucked from a dream, loosely threaded together under the guise of a mystery. Everything serves atmosphere rather than character or narrative, giving power to its subversive tone. Lynch and Tim Burton share the same disquiet view of American suburbia as a veneer over a darker underbelly. This is represented here as our two pristine suburban investigators collide with seedy characters drawn from film noir.

17. Annihilation (2018)7/10
Another thoughtful science fiction story from Alex Garland, Annihilation has much in common with Monsters, featuring a group of humans journeying through the “shimmer”, an area abandoned following an extraterrestrial impact. Garland’s unwillingness to compromise is to be praised, particularly with a female team of scientists filling most of cast, but unfortunately he fails to produce characters of more than sketches. Nevertheless, the narrative has a surprisingly effective payoff and the film offers something to muse regarding the beauty and fragility of DNA.

18. Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)6/10
A bloated sequel that tries to recapture its anarchic satire of the Bond franchise’s excesses with muted success and decidedly less charisma from its leads, I actually enjoyed this far more than I feared from its critical reception. Arguably the story’s chief sin is swiftly to sideline its female cast, leaving once again a field of exclusively male agents. It makes the film’s direct references to equality and loyalty feel somewhat crass. Seeing the British Kingsmen working alongside their US counterparts, The Statesmen, is perhaps tailored to me (pun intended) but the creative design throughout both the Statesman HQ and the villain’s lair is wonderful. Whilst nothing matches the first film’s church brawl, there is still substantial creativity to the action set pieces.

19. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2018)5/10
After some interesting initial worldbuilding with hints of Avatar, this bloated space opera swiftly buckles due to its shallow story and disengaging lead characters. Although it all looks fantastic, and there are some exciting sequences, ultimately its running time is far too long to support a largely predictable story, and many scenes feel present purely to show off special effects. There might be a little more artistry than other generic effects-heavy blockbusters, but it is a far cry from Luc Besson’s past foray into space opera with The Fifth Element.

20. Ready Player One (2018)6/10
On one hand, Ready Player One is a better adaptation than it has any right to be; on the other, it is unsurprising that a book I described as “80s nostalgia-flavoured candy floss” has produced a film with little substance or residual impact. The virtual world of the Oasis is impressively realised in a sharply vibrant way. By contrast the real world is shot with an intentionally muted, softer look that makes it actively less engaging. The greater struggle, though, is that there is little logical coherence to ground those parts of the story. Similarly, both 80s and modern pop/gaming culture references are thrown at the screen haphazardly in the hope that name recognition is enough. Even Wreck-It Ralph engaged with the characters it picked. The initial world-building and the first challenge are engaging, but my interest largely fell away until the film’s closing. I’m glad I saw this spectacle in a cinema; I doubt I ever need to see it again.

“Careful Man, There’s A Beverage Here!”

Pairing wine with food is considered a fine art that has led to the dedicated job of the sommelier. Often people wonder why only wine? My curiosity was broader: why only food? As someone who approaches both his audiovisual entertainment and his beverages with an appropriate level of gravitas, this has led to a loose system of pairing drinks with whatever I decide to watch (and occasionally vice versa). To satiate several people’s curiosity, here’s a handy guide to what you’re drinking.


Archer: “All I’ve had today is, like, six gummy bears and some scotch.”
Arrested Development: anything that uses up the rest of the vodka. “It’s vodka. It goes bad once it’s opened.”
Back to the Future: Pepsi Perfect
Battlestar Galactica: Bushmills, mostly for that squared off bottle
Big Lebowski, The: a Caucasian (White Russian)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s: champagne, but not before breakfast
Crank: all the energy drinks
Film Noir (any): rye whiskey or Laphroaig
Four Rooms: “When you’re drinking champagne, you’re drinking champagne. When you’re drinking Cristal, you say you’re drinking Cristal.” Okay, well you’re not drinking Cristal.
Game of Thrones: red wine, port or mead
Godfather, The: a Godfather (Amaretto and Scotch)
Good Will Hunting/Gone Baby Gone: Samuel Adams Boston Lager
In Bruges: Belgian beer, easy on the horse tranquillisers
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: “Stuff it down with brown. That’s the best way to deal with things.” Accompanied by rum ham.
James Bond (Daniel Craig era): Vesper Martini
James Bond (other): Vodka Martini (but stirred, not shaken; you’re not an animal)
Jessica Jones: your convenience store’s cheapest whiskey
Justified: any Kentucky bourbon, ideally one produced by Buffalo Trace
Lost in Translation: “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.” Yamazaki or other Suntory whiskey


Léon: a glass of milk
Mad Men: Old Fashioned
Manhattan: Manhattan. Did you really have to ask?
Onegin: a single gin
Parks & Recreation: “There’s no wrong way to order a Lagavulin.”
Pirates of the Caribbean: Kraken black spiced rum
Rick and Morty: “Can you make me a Dumb Grandson Peptalk? It’s one part lame advice about stuff you know nothing about and a loooot of vodka.”
Rules of Attraction, The: Jack Daniels, straight from the bottle
Sideways: Pinot Noir. “I am not drinking any fucking Merlot.”
Suits: Macallan
Treme: Hurricane; don’t forget to torch the cocktail umbrella
Withnail & I: Literally anything you can find. But maybe skip the lighter fluid.

Let me know what I’ve missed…

The Photogenic Side of 2017 (Part 2)

Concluding the visual rundown of 2017, we have weddings, taxidermy and weird skies.

The Photogenic Side of 2017 (Part 1)

I have not been life blogging much in the past year so the new year seems like a good opportunity to expand on 2016’s visual rundown and cover many of the bits of 2017 I did not mention.

Resolution Review: The New 52

With the resolution complete, paying closer attention has taught me some interesting things about my filmwatching habits and choices. Firstly, in numbers:

  • Resolution films watched: 52/52
  • Lowest rating: 3/10
  • Highest rating: 10/10
  • Average rating of Resolution films: 7.2/10
  • New films watched this year: 122
  • Average rating of all new films: 6.8/10
  • Current length of watchlist: 378

One thing I realised halfway through the year is that, even if I met my target, I was still unlikely to reduce the size of my watchlist by the end of the year. In fact it has grown a little to 379. Even so, without this resolution it would easily have broken 400. The average rating I gave to films on my watchlist was a fairly high 7.2, which makes sense for a list of films that looked good enough to pique my interest. I was pleasantly surprised by the spread of 3 to 10, although virtually everything on the list was 5 or higher. The average for all new films was only slightly lower at 6.8 but then I rarely watch anything that I expect will be bad.

The resolution caused a few changes to my film-watching habits. The most noticeable was that I was making more time in the evenings to watch a film, which, after all, does not require much more of a time commitment than to binge a few episodes of a TV drama. The biggest change, and one I actually found difficult, was prioritising new films – 122 new films (this includes films released in 2017 and older films that were not already on my watchlist) is considerably higher than I have managed in previous years – but this came at the expense of the ability to rewatch films. On one hand, increasing new experiences is good. However, two thirds of the way through the year I found I was really struggling without the opportunity to watch the “comfort films” that I typically watch once a year. I eventually caved to watch Lost in Translation. The experience reminded me just how important some of these films are to me and, in turn, why I will always need to own certain films rather than relying solely on streaming services with a fluctuating selection. I am certainly looking forward to the increased freedom next year.

Typically 9/10 is the highest I would score a movie on first watching it, with the ability to move to a 10 if it holds up on rewatching. The one exception this year was Cinema Paradiso, already a classic in its own right and targeted at those who love cinema. There were a number of 9s from the watchlist: Whiplash, Rear Window, Paterson, Hell or High Water, The Handmaiden, A Clockwork Orange, Eye in the Sky, Black Hawk Down, Patton and The Pianist, spanning 1954-2016. It shows a surprising bias towards well-made war films, which is not a genre for which I have a particular affinity. There were a handful of additional 9s, two of which were on the list but released this year: Carol, Logan, Blade Runner 2049 and a short film called Testing. Two of the lowest rated movies were on the list, making them particularly disappointing: The Neon Demon and Hick. They were joined by two off-list films: the disappointingly unfunny and unnecessary sequel Ted 2, and risible 1970s low-budget horror Three on a Meathook.

Halfway through the year I also upgraded my living room setup to support 4K and HDR (now that the standards have crystallised). The biggest change was the TV itself. I have been eyeing OLED TVs for some time because of their near-perfect black reproduction (each pixel can be switched on or off independently and there is no backlight to bleed through). LG is producing stellar large flat panels, and (after a little consideration) I decided to go all in on a monolithic 65″ model OLED65C7V. I am unlikely to replace many films with 4K versions, given the relatively modest improvement, but it will be a consideration for future purchases where available. As with the PS3 last generation, the Xbox One S is now my default blu-ray player since it supports 4K and is likely to get software updates to address any changes to the format.

Resolution Update: 52 Pick-Up

An intensive weekend of film-watching put me back on track and I actually completed my resolution to remove one film a week from my lengthy watchlist with a full week in hand. I will add a separate post about the resolution and these films as a whole. Meanwhile, as the last three times, here are a series of mini-reviews with ratings out of 10 to reflect the rating I gave on IMDb. And a reminder that new releases this year do not count towards my resolution even if those titles were already on my watchlist (so there is no Star Wars: The Last Jedi).

41. Constantine (2005)6/10

Despite some impressive world-building and vivid visual flair, the film struggles to escape the mismatched casting of Keanu Reeves as as the titular John Constantine. For all its Biblical backdrop amidst a proxy war between Heaven and Hell, when the redemptive arc of its central character rings hollow, the end result is more Purgatorial.

42. Bronson (2008)6/10

Nicolas Winding Refn’s breakout film (prior to mainstream success with Drive) is an ambitious biopic of notorious inmate Charles Bronson which aims less to tell his story than to present a series of vignettes from his perspective. Despite an excellent physical performance from Tom Hardy, Bronson’s nihilistic violence offers scant nuance beyond his desire for celebrity, and a lack of character development leaves little for the audience to hold onto once the credits roll.

43. Black Hawk Down (2001) – 9/10

Ridley Scott’s last great movie before a 15 year drought broken ironically by The Martian. It’s a chaotic and visceral depiction of modern warfare that impressively maintains its narrative thread even when the violence confuses. It makes an interesting counterpoint to the long distance warfare of Eye in the Sky.

44. The Shining (1980)7/10

Despite its contribution to popular culture, The Shining is flawed film. As a ghost story adaptation it is a confusing mess and most of the performances veer into parody. Yet Kubrick carefully composes countless memorable shots that compound the sense of snowy isolation within the grand Overlook Hotel. Still, once the running and screaming starts, it is all rather forgettable.

45. Innocence (2004)5/10

A frustratingly inscrutable film set within the walls of a secluded girls’ school. Whilst we watch them frolic in the woods, a sense of menace hangs as we learn that the oldest girls must soon leave and no one is permitted to leave early. Allegorical of adolescence, I briefly thought it had a greater goal as a fable about ageing and death but this was rather undermined by its closing. Given how impenetrable most of the film is, it might have benefited from a more ambiguous ending.

46. Patton (1970)9/10

My favourite reviewer’s favourite film, this is a singular military biopic about a deeply divisive general, Francis Ford Coppola’s script was bombastic yet even-handed from the opening monologue delivered before a giant, screen-filling American flag, pieced together from various speeches given by Patton. Its tank battles are less visceral by modern standards but the character study retains its power. Perhaps fittingly for portraying such a larger than life character, such is George C Scott’s dominance of the screen that General Bradley is the only multifaceted supporting character.

47. Catch Me Daddy (2014)7/10

A strong, unconventional debut from Daniel Wolfe set against a bleak rural Yorkshire backdrop, the film’s focus is a young interracial couple striking out away from their families. The film’s narrative only emerges gradually over the first hour and the less one knows going in the better. The journey takes the viewer to some harrowing places undermined only by a melodramatic final scene that provides an unsatisfying conclusion.

48. The Pianist (2002)9/10

When I started this resolution I knew this was a film I would cross off the list, but it has been waiting until an occasion when I was sufficiently emotionally robust, particularly in the current fractured political climate. Based on Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoirs of escaping the deportation of Jews from Warsaw, this departs from most Holocaust films in both its lack of melodrama (though Nazi atrocities are unflinchingly displayed) and a general sense not of perseverance but powerlessness. Adrien Brody, who has to carry the film, is both captivating and haunting.

49. Orphan (2009)6/10

Advertised as horror and often successful atmospherically, Orphan is really a thriller following an American family’s adoption of a strange Russian girl and on that front it is unsatisfying. Aside from a grotesque opening dream sequence, the initial act smartly sets up the notion of an unreliable perspective but that conceit is then discarded for the remainder of the film. Instead it’s jump scares, logical leaps and a preposterous conclusion.

50. Inherent Vice (2014)8/10

A period noir following an LA private investigator in a 1970s that sparkles with character from the dialogue to the decor, the film actually bears a stronger resemblance to The Big Lebowski, with an investigation through a haze of pot smoke and surreal characters. Its low-key comedy bubbles beneath the surface, so it may seem too mellow and meandering to some viewers, but I found it engaging even at two and a half hours.

51. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)7/10

Overlong and uneven, the riveting final hour is a slog to reach. Jessica Chastain is absorbing as the obsessive, impassioned intelligence agent who locates Osama bin Laden, but the script is problematic. Opening with a half hour of torturing detainees, it skirts the issues of its legality and effectiveness, presumably to appease a wider American audience. Then follows an hour of disconnected intelligence gathering scenes that provide limited insight. A tighter focus on preparation for the final mission might have helped, but would have short-changed Chastain.

52. Your Name (2016)8/10

On paper this strange combination of high school body-swap comedy and time-travel romance is not an obvious choice for a runaway commercial success, becoming the highest-grossing anime to date. The animation is stunning but it’s really the film’s earnest charm that shines through, making it surprisingly easy to overlook the logical issues riddling its plot.

Christmas 2017

Resolution Update: 40 Films and 40 Nights

Between summer in the USA and kicking off the Reeltime series, I have slipped behind on the New Year’s resolution I set myself to remove one film a week from my lengthy watchlist. As in the previous two updates, here are a series of mini-reviews with ratings out of 10 to reflect the rating I gave on IMDb. And a reminder that new releases this year do not count towards my resolution even if those titles were already on my watchlist (so there is no Blade Runner 2049).

29. Captain America: Civil War (2016) – 7/10

An Avengers film in all but name, it is better constructed than Age of Ultron but suffers from similar flaws of advancing the wider MCU at the expense of the more interesting smaller story about the regulation of superhero activities. There are some impressive superhero fights but it often feels like slamming handfuls of action figures against one another.

30. The Road (2009) – 7/10

This traversal of a post-apocalyptic landscape feels familiar having played The Last of Us, which it clearly influenced, down to the fathers attempting both to protect a child and to prepare them for the future. The Road certainly evokes the atmosphere, if not the depth, of Cormack McCarthy’s celebrated novel.

31. The Handmaiden (2016) – 9/10

Although it only hit Western shores this year, I have been eagerly anticipating Park Chan Wook’s latest for some time. A sumptuous period erotic thriller, this is dazzling cinema and, although it lacks the originality for which he is often known, his strongest work since Oldboy.

32. Super 8 (2011)7/10

Abrams effectively recreates Spielberg’s vision of 1980s small town America – all pedal bikes and walkie talkies – though Stranger Things has now leveraged that nostalgia to better effect. Abrams’ obsession with his “mystery box” means we never see enough of the mistreated creature to empathise fully.

33. The Girl on the Train (2016)7/10

An enjoyable but lightweight thriller, it has the right ingredients – alcoholism, infidelity, abusive relationships – but fails to use its unreliable perspective to full effect like Gone Girl. Knowing we are watching drunken memories renders most twists perfunctory rather than revelatory. Despite its attractive cast, Tate’s direction avoids dwelling on the infidelity for titillation, which would be admirable were the film more cerebral instead.

34. A Clockwork Orange (1971)9/10

It is rare that a once controversial film can still shock almost fifty years later but the film’s most unsettling sequences draw more from being psychologically perverse than from mere violence or nudity. The dark satire relies on making McDowell’s electric performance relatable which is no small feat. It is synchronicity between music and visuals that draws us inside his head.

35. Swiss Army Man (2016)6/10

An uncompromisingly offbeat film about a hopeless, stranded man who befriends a corpse who helps him journey home, this is beautifully shot and unique in tone. However, its puerile obsession with flatulence and excrement begins to grate and continuous bathos ultimately undermines any more poignant messages about life, loneliness and making connections.

36. Eye in the Sky (2015)9/10

A superbly taut combination of thriller and drama covering a single drone operation, exploring the military, legal and political questions without proselytising in this moral quagmire. Powerful performances are led by Helen Mirren as the colonel in command, Aaron Paul as the conflicted drone pilot and an unusual but poignant final film appearance for Alan Rickman as the Lieutenant General corralling authorisation back home.

37. Moonlight (2016)8/10

A simple, beautiful film that follows a young black man in a rough Miami neighbourhood at three points in his life as he grapples with adolescence, his sexuality and his place in the world. Bolstered by a stellar ensemble cast and characters that linger with you, it may be true that the film would be less noteworthy if all these characters were white but that is part of what makes it important – it compromises neither the accessible universality of its themes nor its uniquely black lens.

38. Passengers (2016)8/10

Whilst its story shares Moon‘s focus on engineered off-planet loneliness (in this case waking early from stasis on a colonist ship still ninety years from its destination), Passengers receives an unexpected boost from a big VFX budget and star power in the form of Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence as the leads. That does not make it superior but there is surprising depth beneath the glossy sheen.

39. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)8/10

At first glance a “cancer romance”, it shares more DNA with (500) Days of Summer‘s approach to bucking conventions: quirky without being self-indulgent and earning its emotional moments rather than manipulating viewers. Its witty script and talented cast help, but its chief strength is respecting the intelligence of its audience.

40. Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)7/10

Capturing a very specific 1980s USA college rite of passage, I don’t share the film’s sense of nostalgia for this group of jocks beyond the soundtrack. A spiritual successor to Dazed and Confused, this is the light, meandering Richard Linklater without the interpersonal depth of Before Midnight or the scale of Boyhood‘s character study. Yet, disappointing Linklater is still decent cinema.

Resolution Update: 28 Films Later

With half the year behind us, I am actually slightly ahead on the New Year’s resolution I set myself to remove one film a week from my lengthy watchlist, exceeding the 26 films I needed to hit by this point. A couple of extra films in hand will probably be useful given that I have three weeks in the USA at the end of summer which might interfere with progress. As before, here are a series of mini-reviews with ratings out of 10 to reflect the rating I gave on IMDb. And a reminder that new releases this year do not count towards my resolution even if those titles were already on my watchlist (so there is no Wonder Woman).

15. Chappie (2015)6/10

A mashup of sci-fi tropes, its realistic robot effects do look fantastic. However the characters are thinly sketched and the cartoonish South African gangsters swiftly become tiresome. The film fails to explore its ideas of artificial consciousness in any depth and its social commentary never digs beneath the surface.

16. Bridesmaids (2011) – 8/10

Comparisons to The Hangover (presumably because this unusually features brief scenes of female gross-out comedy) do the film a disservice as it is not a straight comedy. Its strength is Kristen Wiig’s sympathetic performance as a woman feeling left behind as her engaged best friend seems to be drifting toward a different life. Given the shared talent, I wish the new Ghostbusters had been closer to this.

17. The Place Beyond The Pines (2012) – 7/10

Frustratingly uneven, the film abruptly pivots twice revealing itself to be a triptych about the effects two fathers have upon their sons. The first two segments provide excellent character studies of Gosling as a reckless stunt rider wanting to provide for his son and Cooper as a hero cop struggling with a crisis of conscience. It lacks the relatable realism of Blue Valentine but there is still much here to enjoy despite its meandering structure.

18. Paterson (2016) – 9/10

A quiet, gentle film that lets you experience a slice of life for a New Jersey bus driver and poet. Though he may now be known for Star Wars, Adam Driver is capable of great subtle, sensitive portrayals.

19. The Neon Demon (2016) – 3/10

My issue with Nicholas Winding Refyn films (including Drive) is that they are pure style over substance, no matter how stylish. This takes it to the extreme as he trades masculine idolatry of Gosling for the feminine in the modelling industry. Yet he fails to show us what everyone sees in Jessie, and his stylishness is worn down to imagery that is obvious, crass and not nearly as interesting as he seems to think.

20. Jupiter Ascending (2015) – 6/10

Like The Chronicles of Riddick, this is a triumph of meticulously detailed worldbuilding (the Wachowskis’ forte) without the running time to make use of it. Racing through its plot, we touch on interesting ideas that are snatched away for bombastic action by hastily sketched characters in a universe that ironically feels rather empty.

21. Hell or High Water (2016) – 9/10

A slow burn thriller set against a sun-drenched Texan backdrop, we spend time with both the bank robbing brothers and the two officers in pursuit. Ultimately more a character drama than suspenseful, everyone has credible motives for their actions, whilst a laid back Jeff Bridges is what The Dude might have been if he’d become a Texas Ranger.

22. John Wick (2014) – 7/10

With most action films sanitised for a teenage audience, it is refreshing to see a stylish revenge thriller that doesn’t pull its punches. Its one-line plot is ridiculous with an ex-hitman on the rampage after thugs kill his puppy, but (much like Jason Statham) Keanu Reeves plays it perfectly straight whilst the well-choreographed craziness (including Ian McShane’s hotel for contract killers) unfolds around him.

23. Trance (2013) – 6/10

Its opening promises a stylish heist movie but Trance is more interested in perception of reality and memory. Often a fun conceit, here the concept overpowers the characters and even the plot so that the late-stage twists feel less revelatory and more perfunctory. Its tangled web is unpredictable but messy rather than mysterious.

24. Ant-Man (2015) – 7/10

Ant-Man is a competent, workmanlike superhero movie with an inspired standout sequence featuring a miniaturised fight on a child’s train set. The leads are good enough to give the film some heart, but one cannot help but miss the playful visual creativity lost when Edgar Wright departed the project.

25. Kumiko the Treasure Hunter (2014) – 7/10

A surreal musing on modern isolation best summed up by a Midwestern widow’s line, “Solitude? It’s just fancy loneliness.” Set half in Japan and half in the US, Kumiko is a withdrawn Tokyo woman who becomes obsessed with the idea that she can find the hidden money depicted in the movie Fargo. With its offbeat premise and somewhat amoral tone, I suspect the Coen Brothers would approve.

26. Lantana (2002) – 8/10

Although reliant on a number of coincidences that strain credulity without quite breaking it, Lantana is an interwoven exploration of faltering relationships. Its Australian setting is less relevant than subtle performances which provide a nuanced view on betrayal and the lies we tell ourselves.

27. Jurassic World (2015) – 6/10

Epitomised by its hybrid dinosaur Indominus Rex, this is a sequel that conforms to the “bigger is better” mantra throughout. The result is a retread through familiar ground but with more of everything. There are a lot of parallels to the original but ultimately less characterisation and too much cheesy dialogue means less investment no matter how much CGI they throw at us.

28. The 400 Blows (1959) 8/10

Truffaut’s debut, which sparked the French New Wave, will either delight or irritate with its ambiguous closing shot that leaves the audience to wonder what comes next. We have come to care for 13-year-old Antoine, modelled on Truffaut’s own troubled childhood, unfairly treated by his parents and teachers as a lost cause until he decides to run away and slides into petty crime.

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"You shouldn't trust the storyteller; only trust the story."

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