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The Life of P

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QuickViews 2018 (Part 3)

Another instalment of this year’s single-paragraph reviews gets off to a good start but hits a clutch of decidedly (and numerically) average films, improved by a full Takashi Miike trilogy at the end.

32. How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2017)7/10
Neil Gaiman’s short story about adolescent insecurity, with a literal approach to the alien nature of the opposite sex, does not obviously lend itself to a feature-length film. Mitchell’s film draws out every theme available in the story, straddling disparate genres as he presents the 1970s punk scene, a coming-of-age tale about individuality, alien tourism, and a sweet love story. Elle Fanning (still 17 at the time of filming) delivers wonderfully as an alien driven to rebel and experience the world. However, the film’s erratic nature will prove highly divisive. Whether you enjoy the experience will be clear from the titular house party early in the film: either you can embrace its weirdness or it will send you running for the comfort of something saner and more coherent.

33. Deadpool 2 (2018)7/10
Like the Guardians of the Galaxy sequel, Deadpool retains his confident swagger but has lost some of his disruptive freshness. The humour remains edgy and wonderfully delivered, and the film maintains its ability to surprise, despite straining with the attempt to tell a larger story. Domino is a fantastic addition and her “lucky” superpower allows for the most creative action sequences. In some ways the film serves as an argument against Disney’s acquisition of Fox, so that Deadpool can take equal potshots at DC and the MCU from the sidelines. Deadpool 2 also makes far better use of a post-credits sequence than Marvel has managed of late.

34. The Mermaid (2016)7/10
This Chinese blockbuster is a contemporary ecological fairytale about a mermaid who is sent to kill the rich property developer threatening her species’ home but finds herself falling for him. With Stephen Chow at the helm, it is gloriously silly and filled with fun creative flourishes. Sure, the story is ridiculous and its message about ecology and wealth (although apt for modern China) has the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but ultimately it is the characters that make this an enjoyable ride. Yun Lin sells the title role particularly well. The Mermaid doesn’t stand up next to Chow’s masterpiece, Kung Fu Hustle, but it is still a worthwhile addition.

35. The Red Turtle (2016)5/10
Studio Ghibli’s first non-Japanese production is undoubtedly beautiful with lush handdrawn backgrounds, any frame of which could be hung. The wordless tale presents a shipwrecked man coming to terms with his plight and then follows him through the key stages of his life. Despite a certain lyricism, the content is too sleight to fill even its 80-minute running time. Adults may find enough to muse (it will almost certainly bore children) but I did not feel I had acquired any new insights by the end. Stripping away the repetition and filler, its beauty and haunting style could have been conveyed equally well in a short film with a fraction of its running time.

36. Alien³ (Assembly Cut) (2003)5/10
David Fincher may now command respect but he had to battle studio interference in his first film, stepping into an already embattled project with script rewrites whilst sets were already in construction. The 2003 Assembly Cut restores half an hour of character scenes demonstrating Fincher’s desire for a deeper film with parallel threads of isolation beyond the prison planet itself, through divisions of gender, criminality, intelligence, religion, and sanity. This outing is more akin to atmospheric original, limiting the xenomorph’s screen time (albeit undermined by some shoddy CGI), than Cameron’s gung-ho sequel. The last act is a confused mess of an action sequence in a network of identical tunnels in which it is impossible to tell where any characters are in relation to one another. In extended form the film is not as bad as its reputation, but still worlds away from its predecessors.

37. The Jungle Book (2016)7/10
Although commonly labelled live-action, that is not entirely accurate since Neel Sethi is the only actor who appears onscreen, with CGI filling the space around him. A wobbly opening scene concerned me but generally the CGI is excellent, with breathtaking vibrant jungle vistas when the camera pulls back to capture characters in silhouette. The A-list voice talent can be a little distracting, although Bill Murray is an inspired choice for Baloo. Similarly, retaining just a few of the Disney songs is a stranger choice than excising them entirely. Sethi’s Mowgli is believably curious, isolated and angry, Favreau drawing out an impressive performance against empty green screens. It is not a classic, but the original was not Disney at its height either and this stands comfortably alongside it.

38. The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)5/10
André Øvredal’s follow-up to his excellent Norwegian cult hit Troll Hunter is good by Western horror standards but underwhelming if you are not a particular fan of the genre. It does many things right early on, building tension in the enclosed confines of a morgue and spending time fleshing out its characters. Unfortunately it then falls back on routine jump scares as it races to an unsatisfying conclusion. An hour of good setup is wasted on an ineffective climax. That’s what Jane Doe said.

39. Warcraft (2016)5/10
Warcraft seemed like a fitting way to kick off my mini-break around the E3 gaming convention. Where it succeeds is in bringing Blizzard’s chunky character design to life. The Orcs in particular are stunningly rendered, their actors unrecognisable yet able to convey a range of emotion. Sadly the script attempts far too much in convoluted plotting, at the expense of worldbuilding and character moments. Many gamers may be familiar with Azeroth but newcomers will see nothing more than a generic fantasy world. Whilst the $160 million budget allows a real sense of scale to the battles, the stakes are only ever as high as our investment in the characters, and there is scant opportunity for this to develop. This is a particular shame as some of those quieter moments are the film’s best.

40. Mute (2018)5/10
It is was unsurprising that, after the lukewarm reception of Warcraft, Duncan Jones chose to return to smaller scale sci-fi. The relative freedom of Netflix funding was squandered on the tale of a mute bartender searching for his missing girlfriend in near-future Berlin. Near-silent protagonists taking on criminal elements invariably means style over substance, though both Drive and Baby Driver have shown it can be successful. Although the cyberpunk visuals are impressive, they are little more than a painted backdrop for a uninteresting characters in a messy story that veers into uncomfortable territory due to poor handling of its darker subject matter. The setting invites an unflattering comparison with Blade Runner, seeking to evoke its atmosphere without any world building (the best attempts being the nods to Mute existing in the universe as Jones’ debut Moon).

41. Shinjuku Triad Society (1995)6/10
Prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike rose to prominence in the latter half of the nineties with the loosely connected Black Society Trilogy, as he graduated from the straight-to-video market. Shinjuku Triad Society bears the hallmarks of his later work, with its outcast anti-heroes and perverse, often violent, sexuality. Whilst his portrayal of sexual violence is problematic, it is not without intent but is reflective of his characters, even if the perspective is overly detached. His approach starkly challenges the orthodox Japanese sense of masculinity that imbues, for example, Takeshi Kitano’s anti-heroes.

42. Rainy Dog (1997)8/10
Takashi Miike continues to explore cultural intersectionality with a Japanese hitman stranded in Taiwan and forced to work for a local crime boss. The near-constant rain creates an oppressive mood, and his connection with a local sex worker, Lily, built entirely on their shared desire to escape Taiwan begins to seem reasonable. His predicament makes him no friendlier to the son left in his care, who follows him like puppy despite his horror at his father’s work. Yet this is not played for sentimentality as the story veers more toward a fable, subverting cliché with Lily being the one to develop an attachment to the boy.

43. Ley Lines (1999)7/10
Concluding the trilogy, we return to Shinjuku. Childhood friends, bonded over their outcast status due to mixed Chinese/Japanese heritage, grow into restless adolescents and run away to Tokyo in search of a better life. In typical style, Takashi Miike takes a standard coming of age setup and veers into much darker territory. After a Chinese sex worker steals their money, the boys are drawn into the criminal underworld to support themselves, leading to betrayal and violence. Like Rainy Dog, by its conclusion this feels more like a meditative fable, particularly with the overt parallel of a loan shark with a penchant for Shanghai folk tales.

QuickViews 2018 (Part 2)

Continuing the single-paragraph reviews of films I have watched for the first time this year, we hit a rare perfect 10. Because I wanted eleven films, and not at all due to a numbering error, here are #21-31.

21. Elle (2016)9/10
Although sold as a thriller about a woman seeking revenge on her rapist, this is actually a much broader film about an older woman’s sexuality, how she uses it and how it affects her interpersonal relationships. As an offbeat thriller it is refreshingly unpredictable and suspenseful, but the film relies upon Isabelle Huppert, whose performance is enthralling throughout.

22. The Interview (1998)8/10
A taut Australian crime thriller set almost entirely within the confines of a police station as two overzealous officers try to extract a confession, while the audience questions whether they are watching an innocent man bullied or a devious criminal toying with his captors. Hugo Weaving plays both sides of the role to chilling effect. Often reminiscent of The Usual Suspects, the budgetary restrictions on the scope arguably serve to aid the atmosphere, together with a sombre score.

23. Elysium (2013)6/10
Like District 9, South African director Neil Blomkamp’s sophomore feature tackles social inequality through science fiction. A bigger budget adds star power in the form of Matt Damon and a ludicrously-accented Jodie Foster, while the film’s messages are delivered with even less subtlety than before. Blomkamp’s trademark effects work delivers up highly realistic technology from exosuits to near-future weaponry, making the dizzying shaky-cam action a particular shame. With a plot that rarely surprises, and a completely overwrought ending, this is ultimately a film that sells itself more on visuals than anything else.

24. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)10/10
Based on the talent involved, I expected to like this but I had no idea just how much. Starting with a mother seeking justice for her murdered daughter by calling out the local police department, this is really a journey through multiple characters dealing with grief and exploring the effect of tragedy upon our relationships, emerging as anger, love and fear. Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell are stellar in portraying richly nuanced characters, and are accompanied by an excellent supporting cast. Many scenes are soaked with such powerful emotion, whilst avoiding sentimentality through use of raw drama and dark humour, that watching the film is a cathartic experience. Of particular note, it is rare and refreshing that we see a female character whose grief is expressed through violent, misplaced rage. Martin McDonagh proved his talent with In Bruges but has seriously upped his game.

25. Lady Bird (2017)8/10
An alternative coming-of-age film, the focus is Catholic high school girl Christine (who has adopted the name “Lady Bird”) and her turbulent relationship with her mother. This is an unusually well-realised mother/daughter relationship, in which they both know they love one another, yet their strong-willed personalities frequently grate. Saoirse Ronan deftly avoids portraying Lady Bird as quirky for its own sake, instead making it a believable element of her awkward teenage self-expression, whilst still anxious about the perception of her wealthier peers. Religion largely takes a back seat to the more human elements of the story, in what struck me as a female counterpoint to Richard Linklater’s films about male adolescence.

26. Now You See Me 2 (2016)3/10
The level of smartness of this sequel is evident from the fact they failed to call it Now You Don’t. Where the original was a surprise success with stylish sleight of hand distracting from its lack of substance, this movie fails to cover its tracks at all. The freshness is gone, but so too is the tension. The tricks are now overblown and ridiculous, to the point that each time one is revealed it induces a groan rather than amazement. There is no magic here.

27. The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009)7/10
Troubled hacker Lisbeth Salander becomes more nuanced in this sequel but the story suffers from separating her from journalist Mikael Blomkvist. Although they are following leads on a related series of murders, we lose the chemistry that made the original so memorable. Noomi Rapace’s performance still enthrals whenever she is on screen, but the more routine aspects of Blomkvist’s investigation are less compelling. Although still a good undiluted thriller, The Girl Who Played With Fire is inferior to its predecessor and is more reliant on the final instalment of the trilogy than being an effective standalone film.

28. Lolita (1962)7/10
The tagline was “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” and the answer is that they didn’t. With slightly altered ages we still follow middle-aged college professor Humbert as he becomes infatuated with a 14-year-old “nymphet”, played wonderfully by Sue Lyon. Yet, despite Nabokov receiving a screenwriting credit, we lose the lyrical language that elevated his novel, along with any real access to Humbert’s mind. The movie may still have been scandalous but it has lost any edge over time. To Kubrick’s credit, he does still allow the viewer to find a paedophile sympathetic (and later simply pathetic) while spending almost two and a half hours in his company.

29. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)9/10
With ten years spent building up characters, this is an event movie unlike any to date. Much like the first Avengers movie, I came away impressed firstly that it did not buckle under its own weight. In particular, the introduction of the Guardians of the Galaxy to the rest of the MCU cast works expertly, aided by James Gunn apparently writing their dialogue. Despite threadbare development to date, Thanos becomes a villain with whom one can sympathise, convinced his actions are necessary even as certain acts pain him. Although the number of fight sequences is exhausting, there is sufficient creativity and some memorable tag team moments. Infinity War stands up to a second viewing but whether its stature lasts will depend on how satisfactorily certain choices are explained by the final instalment next year. In assuming a working knowledge of the majority of the heroes, their backstories and their interpersonal relationships, Infinity War does not really work as a standalone film but it mounts a compelling argument that, for monolithic franchises, this may no longer be an appropriate test.

30. Gold (2016)7/10
Matthew McConaughey immerses himself deeply in the character of modern-day gold prospector Kenny Wells. Based on the 1993 Bre-X mining scandal, in which the discovery of a massive Indonesian gold deposit turns out to be a fraud, there are overtones of The Wolf of Wall Street to this fictionalised account, albeit with a protagonist at once less charming but more sympathetic. Gold serves as a film as much about ambition as avarice, as we analyse Kenny’s motivations and trustworthiness.

31. OtherLife (2017)8/10
A challenging Australian indie sci-fi, this is a taut thriller in the vein of Ex Machina. Ren is a scientist/programmer developing a breakthrough biotechnology that allows for time compressed virtual experiences (“As far as the brain is concerned, reality and fantasy are chemically identical”). She is driven by the desire to cure her comatose brother, whilst her business partner is concerned by financial viability and a potential Government contract for virtual incarceration. Jessica De Gouw is fantastic in a typically male role, coupled with excellent cinematography that greatly elevates the production. Although much of the plot unfolds predictably, and despite a meandering last act, the overall result is impactful and thought provoking.

The Myth Factory

NO SPOILERS FOR AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR CONTAINED BELOW

Human beings are storytelling creatures, as we are oft told.  Usually this is about the narratives through which we interpret the events in our lives, but on a larger scale stories tell us from where we came and allow us to conceptualise our place in an increasingly large universe. Over time our most sacred stories transitioned from oral folklore and mythology into codified religion and, in doing so, they gradually lost their mutability to become dogmatic truths. As a species, we lost something in this shift.

In 2009, Disney made a surprising acquisition of Marvel for $4.29 billion. Now, with billions of dollars in revenue from the monumentally successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, it makes perfect financial sense. But in 2009, we were only two films into what Marvel termed “Phase One” of the MCU following the breakout success of Iron Man. The only other release, The Incredible Hulk, had a lukewarm reception. It can be viewed as a shrewd commercial gamble but I think that misunderstands their intention. Disney’s real motivation only became clear to me several years later when, in 2012, it purchased Lucasfilm, ostensibly paying $4.06 billion for a single franchise, Star Wars. Unlike Marvel at the time of the acquisition, everyone knew that the Star Wars label was essentially a licence to print money, so few questioned the business decision. Most of the scrutiny came from fans concerned about the consequences for a fictional universe dear to their hearts. At the time I pointed out those fears were misplaced given the expert curation of the MCU following the Marvel acquisition and George Lucas’ own inability to manage his creation. Disney’s stewardship has been more uneven in respect of Star Wars (quite aside from mixed reactions to the films, the dearth of videogames following an exclusive licensing deal with EA is a travesty), but the acquisition builds to the same goal.

For several hundred years, the most retold stories outside of religion were fairytales, be they the Germanic tales we associate with the Brothers Grimm, the Middle Eastern tales collected in One Thousand and One Nights or the countless folk tales from Africa, China and beyond. These continued the oral tradition of being retold and altered, with each storyteller imparting something of themselves. These are the stories upon which The House of Mouse truly built its empire, moving from amusing cartoons to stories with deep societal roots which then became synonymous with childhood. Although I may dislike the “Disneyfiction” of darker tales, such retelling is perfectly in keeping with their folk story origins.

In the 20th century, comicbooks were a major disruptive force. With DC and Marvel at the forefront, we saw the creation of a new mythology of alien gods and human heroes. This mythic nature may be clearest with Marvel’s literal translation of the Norse pantheon into the Asgardian race, but is equally true of super-powered mutants and those caught in their wake. These were also mutable characters who could change with the times, routinely killed off and resurrected to reflect the values and needs of each decade. The core elements of the characters remained the same, but they provided a lens through which to perceive rapidly changing times. It is no accident that their rise occurred alongside increasing secularisation, because for many these were allegorical stories that served a similar purpose as religious teachings in calibrating our moral compass through lessons like Spider-man’s familiar, “with great power comes great responsibility”. And if you question the cultural impact that comics had before the rise of their colossal movie franchises, consider 2007’s mainstream US press coverage and backlash to the “unpatriotic” decision to kill Captain America in a post-9/11 story arc.

Amazing Fantasy #15, Aug. 1962

These mythological intentions are even clearer with Star Wars. George Lucas has overtly espoused his appreciation for John Campbell’s seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he examines what he terms the “monomyth”, a single overarching story that humans in unconnected societies have been telling one another around the world and across the ages, a story that appears fundamental to what it means to be human. He identifies all the points of commonality and maps out “the hero’s journey”, which Lucas slavishly used as a template to craft Luke Skywalker’s adventure. The extent to which the resulting story resonated with its audience can scarcely be described.

This, then, is what Disney has been acquiring beyond its original foothold in fairytale and folklore: the sources of modern mythology, control over the central stories that we tell (and retell) outside of religion. We see now the culmination of the MCU’s ten-year story in Avengers: Infinity War, drawing together characters it has spent a decade establishing. Even within that timescale we can see societal shifts emerge and become incorporated, such as Black Panther upending the perceived wisdom that a black blockbuster could be a financial success, whilst also posing searching questions about racial identity and responsibility or Civil War’s (underdeveloped) questions about identity registration and the nature of a society’s sense of security.

Many are baffled by the success of the Marvel and Star Wars films. This may be because they seem childish when compared to more serious fare or because it is easy to view them in the same way as forgettable action flicks. They are fantasies and they are silly. For several years my advice has been to approach these films specifically with the concept of mythology in mind. When we read the stories of the Norse gods, we don’t decry the ridiculousness of Loki’s children including a large wolf, a gigantic snake and an eight-legged horse, or that Odin keeps the severed head of wise Mimir alive by using some herbs and singing. These sorts of stories are not bound by that kind of cold logic. Rather, it is the shape of the story, and individual interactions, from which we learn  a few truths about the world, what it means to be human and, perhaps, ourselves.

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.

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

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