Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

Space Hulk

I still have a battered copy of the second edition of Space Hulk, a £40 big box boardgame from the 1990s that now sells on ebay for around £200. Set in the grimdark sci-fi universe of Warhammer 40,000, the game is unfolds aboard huge spacecraft adrift in the depths of space as hulking power-armoured Space Marine Terminators fight off packs of ravenous aliens in tight corridors. The game draws heavily from the Alien franchise — this included the Genestealer design inspired by H.R. Giger’s iconic xenomorph as well as the tension-elevating mechanic of using of “blip” tokens to represent swarming dots on a radar screen. Although the box contains 20 Genestealer models, they are only placed on the board when within line of sight of the Terminators. Until then the tactical decisions must be made based on unknown numbers at each blip. I do love asymmetric knowledge at the game table.

When I collected the box from my parents’ house, I found some of my early attempts at miniature painting inside, probably circa 1998. In this post, I put them side by side with new examples of identical models from the box. Let’s (hopefully) see some progress.

My original attempt was actually pretty faithful to the box art, with the bright red armour of the Blood Angels chapter. With the new Blood Angel and Ultramarine I felt free to experiment, particularly as they did not need to fit in with a larger army. These older models are also a good example of my previous comments that less detail can allow greater creative interpretation. I wanted to produce much richer armour, which I built up through multiple layers of different contrast paints — successive layers were darker but increasingly watered down, and the topmost layer was mixed with a wash to change the flow properties to gather more in the recesses. The result of that layering is a pearlescent finish to their ceramite armour plates, most visible on the Ultramarine’s blue shoulder in contrast to the matte black of the Blood Angel. The lighter helmets draw attention to the faces (initially a happy accident as the red armour became a darker hue than initially intended, so I avoided the face with the final coat) as do the glowing eyes. The glazed red on the Ultramarine is more obvious but I prefer subtler object source lighting on the Blood Angel, the green just catching the raised edges of the cheeks. As a photographer, OSL is definitely something I am interested in exploring more.

Interestingly, there is no gold paint used on any of these models. The aquila on the 90s paint job is a yellow not even trying to mimic gold. The gold details on the new models have been underpainted in silver then layered with a translucent yellow and then darker washes. This approach allowed for very different tones to the warm gold of the Blood Angel (with a red brown wash) and the colder tone of the Ultramarine (using a wash of brown and blue). The plain black bases are because they are going to be replaced entirely with new ship corridor bases in the future.
Work in Progress: Terminator arms
There was failed experimentation along the way. Initially I had intended to use non-metallic skulls and a black aquila on the chest in the style of newer Blood Angels imagery. However, with the darker armour the black aquila just did not work, looking unfinished, so I abandoned it in favour of the more classic gold. That in turn made the aged bone colour of the shoulder honour badge and other skull motifs feel too weak, so I reworked them in a more stylised gold and bleached bone. Since that proved successful, the same approach was incorporated into the Ultramarine paint scheme from the start.
Again I think the original attempt was relatively faithful to the box art if a little too dark in the purple skin and too light in the blue carapace. The colours are extremely flat with very little layering beyond the bone of its claws. And shout out to those old school green bases. My first new paint job from the Space Hulk box was the middle Genestealer, which is probably closer to how I have always pictured them. Saturated skintones in unusual hues are great for aliens. Continuing my previous comments about seeking varied skintones, I found a lore-consistent approach with the inversion on the right side. When separated from their brood, Genestealers lose their colouring and shift to the traditional blue and purple appearance that aids with concealment in corridors, so some adopting a dark purple carapace with blue skin seems equally plausible. Sure, an in-universe justification for the appearance of fictional characters isn’t strictly necessary, but I enjoy that aspect of worldbuilding anyway.

Rule #32: Enjoy the miniature things

Few current readers are likely to know of Palace of the Phoenix King, one of the first websites I created at the age of around 12, dedicated to my recently discovered hobby of fantasy tabletop gaming, specifically Warhammer Fantasy Battles and its dungeon-crawling sibling, Warhammer Quest. The site took its name from the monarch of the High Elves of Ulthuan, who shared the “Phoenix” moniker I used online. Sadly, nothing remains of the site (which collated fan-created content from around the world) or its broader successor, Palace of the Phoenix.

As a teenager I became a modestly capable miniature painter, though never hugely proficient. As a hobby, it fell by the wayside when I departed for university. Several years ago, playing D&D with friends gave me an excuse to paint a few miniatures, and I still found it enjoyable to engage in a creative endeavour which resulted in something physical that I could hold. At the start of this year, I found myself returning to the painting side of the hobby in earnest, fuelled in large part by experimenting with a newer style of acrylic paints: highly pigmented but suspended in a thinner medium that pools in the recesses whilst leaving a translucent layer on the surface. Combining these with traditional acrylic layering and washes has provided some fresh creativity to old skills. I also learned some new techniques for photographing miniatures, and will share the results here.

I dug out some of my old greenskin models at my parents’ house, stripped them with isopropyl alcohol and repainted them from scratch. These old metal orcs were simple but expressive and I kept them fairly classic. When painting at this small scale, increased contrast is necessary to improve readability. However, I have never really been a fan of the Games Workshop signature style of stark edge highlights across an entire model. I much prefer the results from zenithal highlights (undercoating based on light hitting from above) or volumetric highlighting (breaking down a model into basic geometric shapes). A subconscious decision, I found myself varying the skintones across the models I have been painting even within a species like the greenskins — why should they all be an identical shade of Goblin Green? Having noticed, I now think the variety is important. I also started experimenting more with bases, beyond the flock and static grass of old, using coconut coir (crushed coconut shell fibres) for more irregular, organic ground coverage.
When visiting Downing in April for a 20-year anniversary, I may have wandered into a Warhammer store a few doors down from college and come away with a box of ogres (or “Ogors” as Games Workshop now calls them in a desire for everything to be trademarkable). I have always liked the characterful ogre models with their exaggerated proportions, and their larger size made them ideal as a first subject when learning how to photograph miniatures. The large bases also allowed me to experiment with more advanced basing materials like texture pastes, grass tufts and leaf litter.
A lot of the models I have been painting recently are the undead rather than my prior staples of elves and greenskins. I happened to have some boxes of Mantic’s skeletons and zombies that I bought several years ago (intended for D&D) as these models were more threatening and considerably better priced than their more cartoonish Games Workshop equivalents. These are some of the first models I painted this year and there is some noticeably chalky texturing that is far smoother in later models. The coconut coir is on full display here, though I am tempted to rebase them: the zombies rising from mud and the skeletons on dungeon flagstones.
Given my love for Warhammer Quest, I had to pick up the recently released Cursed City. For infamously overpriced Warhammer products, the 60 models in the £100 box were surprisingly good value. Comparing these to the models above provides a stark demonstration of the “detail creep” in modern miniatures, accelerated by computer-aided design. I was not initially a fan of the Deadwalker Zombies which felt overdesigned with their coffin lids and headstones on their backs; that was until I realised that the inhabitants of the vampire-influenced cursed city of Ulfenheim must have been impaling corpses after burying them in order to prevent them from turning, only for the dead to be raised as zombies instead. That storytelling through visual design won me over and these are now some of my favourites pieces to date, even if the level of detail provided less room for interpretation through painting. I have also tried to tie the models to their bases through weathering (like the muddied hems of dresses).

There will definitely be more from the Cursed City box to share in the future. Next time, however, my revamped models from the 1996 edition of the Space Hulk board game.

Unplayer One: Prince of Persia (2008)

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.

In 2008 the storied action-platformer series Prince of Persia was rebooted with, to my mind, its best entry — a sadly underappreciated gem that was unceremoniously rebooted almost immediately for a cash-grab tie-in with the now-forgotten Jake Gyllenhaal movie. Unlike many 3D games from the era, Prince of Persia’s cell-shaded art style provides visuals that hold up 15 years later, and its vibrant colour palette looks exquisite on modern OLED displays like the Steam Deck I used to replay it.

Set in the disintegrating ruins of a desert city, the Prince is a scoundrel who finds himself dragged into Princess Elika’s battle to prevent a great evil breaking free from a thousand years of captivity. Ahriman’s evil power has infected the land, visually desaturating it, with his corrupted lieutenants each guarding four regions connected by a desert temple. The semi-open world allows players to choose the order in which they tackle accessible areas. In each location players locate a “fertile ground” which Elika’s magic can heal, restoring life and colour, and populating the space with the collectable orbs of power that enable progression. Healing all fertile grounds in a region grants access to the lieutenant’s tower for a showdown.

Unusually the Prince begins the game with the four combat skills he will use throughout the game, mapped to the controller’s four face buttons. Player progression is instead by way of Elika unlocking the ability to interact with various magical plates embedded throughout the world, allowing the pair to access new areas whilst free-running — the joy of traversal is the game’s strength.

Elika’s ability to catch the Prince whenever he falls was derided by some as too much of a concession to casual players. Yet, by returning the player to the last stable ground, the game still forces you to complete each platforming challenge — as they increase in length these can become memory tests, particularly when an unruly camera obscures what lies ahead. Meanwhile combat variety comes from learning the corresponding move to negate certain enemy defensive stances with variety added through environmental hazards into which the Prince can lure enemies. It may lack depth but it is sufficiently engaging for a dozen hours.

Having a companion throughout the entire game, it is vital that Elika and the Prince banter believably. He quips like Spider-Man but she is unconvinced, perceiving the depth he hides behind shallowness. There is an attraction but they are evenly matched. Each time Elika heals a fertile ground, it is clear that the act is exhausting. Usually the Prince helps her up. When he does not, she notices; sometimes she avoids his hand. Their relationship develops in bursts and feels organic.

“You had to pick this religion? You couldn’t have picked one where all the evil creatures were, I don’t know… slightly angry sheep?”

The Prince

After defeating Ahriman’s lieutenants, we return to the desert temple to find Elika’s father possessed by Ahriman. Following a prolonged battle, her final act of restoration is to rejuvenate the trees that had imprisoned Ahriman. Depleted, she callapses, and as the Prince carries her lifeless body the credits begin to roll. He lays her down on an altar before the temple (an image that may seem familiar to those who played 2005’s Shadow of the Colossus). A vision of Elika’s father flashes and we realise he too sought only to save his daughter. At this point, the game returns control and gives you no direct prompt, although the newly restored trees glow invitingly. The player could turn off the game, the Prince presumably retreating back into the desert a changed man. But those trees are an innate lure, silently encouraging us to to approach and do The Wrong Thing.

One by one, we cut them down restoring life to Elika but releasing Ahriman in the process. “Why?” she asks as we pick her up. It turns out that we — the Prince — are just as selfish as Elika’s father in our determination for a good ending. A similar act would not have the same weight in another medium: only in a game are we actively choosing to unravel all the progress we made over the past 15-odd hours of healing the land, all to save one person. The game ended abruptly here, although downloadable content added a further sequence in which the pair hunt down and defeat Ahriman, frustrating players that this ending was locked behind a paywall.

Yet I rather prefer the original ending. It may not be triumphant or cathartic, but its surprising nihilism feels more meaningful. Not everyone gets to be a hero.

“The wind is free, but the sand goes where it is blown. Unaware of the world around it. Whirling on the breath of the Gods, at the mercy of the storm that engulfs it. What is one grain of sand in the desert? One grain amongst the storm?”

Narrator

2023: A Year in Film

Continuing from last year, I am again composing a top ten list of films (a week later than intended). Some readers will know that I have reduced my day job to four days a week, which has given me more time to watch and review films this year. That led to a considerable increase with 114 new QuickViews this year, of which 64 were new releases in the UK (that is the qualifying criterion for this list, although QuickViews identify films by year of first release worldwide). There are a few omissions, most notably Killers of the Flower Moon, but at almost three and a half hours long it is clear that Scorcese no longer cares whether people see his films in the cinema rather than streaming — and if he doesn’t care, why should I? Other potential contenders which I have yet to see include Fallen Leaves, R.M.N., and Godzilla Minus One. Last year compiling the list was straightforward: it consisted of all the films I had rated 9 or 10, with a single 8 in the #10 spot. 2023 has seen a noticeable decline in quality at the top end, in part due to various releases being delayed to 2024 as a result of the strikes in Hollywood. However, the overall average has remained at 6.8, suggesting a general tendency toward the middle. The year’s worst was body switching catastrophe Family Switch, followed closely by Rebel Moon, Luther: Fallen Son, Mindcage and Ghosted. That gives Netflix an ignominious three spots in the bottom five as its content quality continues to flounder in favour of quantity.

On to the good stuff. I will link each of the Top 10 to their respective QuickView, but with some additional comments. This year’s list is again dominated by writer-directors, that level of control tending to allow the most auteur creativity. If I were to identify a single theme running through most of this year’s list, it would ambiguity, in both truth and relationships.

10. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

Although I was aware of Nan Goldin as a photographer, I was not familiar with her work going into this documentary. Whilst documentaries about artists can provide important background to understand the individual, it is rare that they provide a fresh lens through which to view their art. Laura Poitras achieves this by exploring Goldin’s childhood and her embrace of the LGBT community and sex workers in response to it, all which informed her photographic series The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. By contrast the coverage of her protest activism against the Sackler family becomes repetitive even though it was the film’s primary selling point. This is a documentary for the art lover, not the protester.

9. The Creator

I enjoyed Gareth Edwards’ latest sci-fi excursion more than most, primarily for its world-building. It is always a delight to experience a well-realised new sci-fi world and Edwards’ eye for grounded visual detail is always sublime. Stories about AI uprisings are nothing new but — by comparison with Zack Snyder’s mere sci-fi pastiche of other works in Rebel Moon — Edwards provides novel context through humanity’s politically divided approach, the looming physical presence of the West’s orbital strike platform a colonial threat of violence to enforce their view on eradication of AI. The Creator was undermined by its clumsy, exposition-laden script, but its world will stay with me.

8. Return to Seoul

Having just reviewed it, I don’t have a great deal to add about Davy Chou’s film about an adoptee’s search for identity in the country of her birth. Notably this was Park Ji-min’s first acting role — in some ways that may have benefited the performance in Freddie’s disconnection with the culture and people of Korea. The result is raw and effective without the artificiality that can come from an overly considered performance that seeks to evoke a specific reaction from the viewer.

7. How To Have Sex

This is truly a breakout year for Molly Manning Walker with her excellent directorial debut alongside being the cinematographer on the well-received Scrapper. Her own film is really how not to have sex — a coming-of-age, loss-of-virginity story that stands apart through its female perspective. It allows the viewer to understand why Tara’s insecurity manifests in passivity, and how that leads to bad outcomes. How To Have Sex should be a breakout role for Mia McKenna Bruce too, her performance wordlessly communicating vulnerability and shame.

6. Oppenheimer

“Barbenheimer” was the year’s biggest (and most unexpected) mainstream cinematic event — the kind of viral concept that could only arise organically, much as marketers spent the rest of the year trying to find the next one (I don’t think many people did “Saw Patrol”). I enjoyed Barbie but found Oppenheimer to be cinematically superior, though it was not without issues — primarily its structure, which made its last hour feel repetitive and overlong. However, it also demonstrated the kind of creative flourishes that make Nolan’s work stand apart, like the disconcerting drumming roar that seemed to envelop Oppenheimer’s concerns about The Manhatten Project, a sound that is only later revealed to be the stamping of feet as Americans celebrate the successful test. Oppenheimer is suitably haunting about the danger of destructive invention, even if I wish it had been more direct in dismantling American propaganda about the need for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

5. Anatomy of a Fall

Some of the best French films of late reveal an obsession with the idea of uncertainty over past events, demonstrated by The Accusation, The Night of the 12th, and now Anatomy of a Fall. Justine Triet’s script is the most meticulous of the three: it is half investigation, half courtroom drama, unfolding largely from the perspective of the accused, but without providing the audience with a definitive sense of her innocence or guilt. It directly addresses the unreliability of witness evidence through the changing story of her son. As our understanding of memory advances, this is becoming an increasing issue within the legal system in general.

4. Tár

Todd Field’s third feature-length film — his first in 15 years after a string of unrealised projects — is a magnificent examination of power and its abuse. I still find its “cancel culture” labelling to be reductive, since it tackles identity as well as the conflict between power and public perception. Cate Blanchet is on top form as the embattled conductor Lydia Tár (a very different performance to Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of Leonard Bernstein). Field also deliberately distances his film from the #MeToo movement by making both perpetrator and victim women, though Lydia is undoubtedly coded with sterotypically masculine characteristics.

3. Close

Lukas Dhont’s second feature might be the year’s most heartbreaking. Newcomers Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele are as impressive as Frankie Corio in last year’s #1, with no awkwardness to their warm and tactile friendship. It is peers rather than parents who disrupt their relationship and I defy viewers not to be moved by Dambrine’s wide-eyed looks of guilt. Its rural vistas are beautiful, but it is the simplicity and focus of Close — free of extraneous sublots — that renders what is on screen so memorable.

2. Spider-Man: Across The Spider-verse

As the relentless superhero movie juggernaut of the past 15 years continues to collapse, Across The Spider-verse serves as a reminder to studios that audiences are still excited by artistic creativity and human storytelling. Into The Spider-verse featured a loose animation style that deliberately broke rules, like animating Miles with half the number of keyframes than his spider-brethren, creating a barely perceptible sluggishness until he comes into his own in the climax. Across The Spider-verse expands this playfully with the anarchic Spider-Punk, who appears to be cut out from print and with stilted animation on every third frame leaving him deliberately out of sync with the rest of the characters. I mention this as just one example of the attention to detail that is crammed into this joyous work of art which might not be registered consciously but which elevate its impact. Across The Spider-verse was not just the best animated or superhero movie of the year, but one of the year’s very best films.

1. Past Lives

Like last year, the standout by some margin is a debut from a female writer-director. Celine Song’s Past Lives is an inversion of Return to Seoul, a woman who was similarly plucked out of Korea as a child but finds her past catching up with her in New York rather than travelling back to Korea. If Aftersun captured the sense of a fading memory, Past Lives captures the longing for a moment which never occurred. I said at the time that “Unrequited love is a common theme for cinema but rare is the greater agony of requited love left unrealised”, a haunting, heady concoction that I have not tasted so potently distilled in the two decades since In The Mood For Love.

Christmas 2023

Merry Christmas

When propaganda overreaches

Despite the UK Government’s rhetoric (Suella Braverman was not alone, merely the worst), I cannot think of a more appropriate event on Armistice Day than a march for peace. In London an estimated 300,000 people took the streets to call for a ceasefire in Gaza in a protest organised by Stop The War. The sheer numbers are telling in a city that is itself no stranger to terrorism and whose immediate sympathies lie with the victims of such attacks. It suggests that the Israeli PR strategy, which for decades has sought to present itself as a victim despite its ongoing occupation of Palestine, is finally failing.

Palestine Peace Protest

The very day after the Hamas attacks in Israel, I saw paid adverts on social media platforms like Tik Tok denouncing the attack and extolling Israel’s resilience. There was nothing wrong with this message but — as a Londoner who has seen (and even written) similar messages after terrorist attacks — I found it strange for two reasons: firstly, the speed with which they had been produced; and secondly, in age of target advertising, these were clearly seeking an overseas audience, not the population directly affected. This deliberate propaganda response became clearer over the coming week with a deluge of adverts on platforms like YouTube which listed the number of dead, injured and missing civilians. They ignored, of course, that within just a few days of carpet bombing those numbers were dwarfed by Palestinian casualties. Strangely, not all of my friends seemed to receive this propaganda blitz. That is the problem with algorithms that control our viewing diet based on “engagement” as — even if we inhabit the same platforms — we truly have no way of seeing what our neighbours do. It is not a case of simply reading multiple news sources. We do, to a material extent, now inhabit different realities.

Hasbara (Hebrew: הַסְבָּרָה) — Hasbara has no direct English translation, but roughly means “explaining”. It is a communicative strategy that seeks to explain actions, whether or not they are justified.

Propaganda during conflict is nothing new, though Israel’s hasbara is a particularly acute form in the digital age, a broad information warfare strategy to bolster domestic belief, maintain support from allies and delegitimise critics. It has been incredibly successful, convincing Western allies to overlook repeated breaches of international law for decades by exploiting Western Islamophobic sentiment whilst accusing critics of anti-Semitism. In reality, it is not anti-Semitic so much as anti-semantics, objecting to Israel’s description of apartheid regime and colonian occupation as “self defence”. As Israel hides behind the Jewish community (many of whom joined Saturday’s protest) its actions make them less safe.

Perhaps it was complacency from past success that led to a lie about babies being beheaded during the Hamas attacks, walked back almost immediately by Israeli ministers — those lies continued to circulate in the USA and there seemed to be little ramification for peddling falsehood in a post-truth world. The trouble is that is that once such blatant lies were exposed, there was no reason at all for the rest of the world to believe the IDF’s purported exculpatory analysis of the Gaza hospital explosion. Even US ministers must be cautious having been embarrassed by unquestioningly parroting the first lie.

Western mainstream media continues to be slanted in favour of Israel but in the UK the extent appears to be waning as biases become increasingly obvious to viewers (if not Britain’s responsibility for creating these circumstances in the first place) and mercurial presenters like Piers Morgan detect the shifting tide of public sentiment. In the UK and US political support remains strong but the reasons are increasingly transparent: a video resurfaced of Biden in 1986 declaring Israel America’s “best $3 billion investment” to protect its interests in the Middle East, and the financial incentives are similarly clear — just two weeks ago, Israel granted 12 gas exploration licences off the coast of Gaza to giants like BP and Eni. Platforms like Twitter and Tik Tok allow this information to circulate more widely, whilst Palestinian citizen journalists document attacks in real-time, and users can respond and dismantle the messages fed by hasbara. Support for Palestine is less stark than social media may suggest, though that reinforces the idea that younger people may be the ones shifting away from historic Western support for Israel whilst the older generations remain unswayed.

Palestine Peace Protest
Watermelon became a symbol of Palestinian solidarity as the emoji (which shares its colours with the Palestinian flag) is used to circumvent censorship on some social media platforms.

Hasbara evidently remains effective within the global Zionist community, with many returning to the IDF ahead of its ground offensive, and even moreso within Israel (though of course not all support the war). It is horrifying to hear some Israelis describe Palestinians as “animals”, parroting the dehumanising language of their right wing politicians, the same dehumanising language that allows them to justify the incarceration of generations of Palestinians in the inhumane conditions of Gaza and the West Bank, the same dehumanising language that finally led to Suella Braverman’s sacking, and the same dehumanising language that Israelis ought to remember all to well was previously levelled at the Jewish population in Nazi propaganda. When the powerful phrase “never again” is being weaponised to justify genocide, it should be clear to all that hasbara has overreached.

Authorship and Ownership

The recent literary furore over new versions of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s books has fascinated me because I think it misses a larger point about our modern relationship with stories themselves. For those unaware, the Dahl estate decided to reprint his stories with edited text that makes frequent small changes to alter descriptions like “fat”, “ugly” and “crazy”. Media coverage of the changes (which was not entirely acccurate) prompted widespread cricitism. However, the issue strikes me not as a matter of language but of ownership and immutability of the printed word.

Roald Dahl books

Humans, as we are frequently told, are storytelling creatures. It is how we understand our relationship with the world and each other, how we reconstruct our memories on a daily basis and how we interpret our histories. Until the last few hundred years, almost all of those stories endured through oral tradition which made them inherently malleable. On each retelling the stories would change, being adapted to fit the sensibilities of the time, the orator and the audience.

It was really the printing press which led to the mass adoption of a single version of a story, stamped with its author’s name, which could survive beyond the author’s lifetime. That, together with the concept of copyright, resulted in the monopolistic ownership of a story by its author which now effectively prohibits any unauthorised retelling until (under UK law) 70 years after their death. Literary criticism identified the artificiality of this ownership in Barthes’ essay The Death of the Author, opining that the author commands no definitive interpretive control over the text once it has been published.

“Don’t gobblefunk around with words.”

Roald Dahl, The BFG

The changes to Dahl’s books are not the result of censorship but of capitalism: the estate plainly saw the opportunity to sell more copies of the books by making these changes, as evidenced by their rapid decision to keep reprinting the original text as well when it became clear that some would refuse to buy the edited versions. That is not the reversal of a principled decision but a series of pragmatic adjustments to fit the market.

Ascribing new words to a dead writer makes me inherently uncomfortable — this blog will turn 20 later this year, and even in that time I imagine I would cringe at some things I may previously have said, but it would be galling for anyone but me to change those words. I would much rather that Dahl’s choice of words be used to educate about societal changes and why we no longer ridicule people for being “fat” or “ugly” or “crazy” (from my own childhood, I recall my dad explaining the problematic existence of golliwogs in Enid Blyton’s Noddy books, which is when I began to understand how racism could be normalised within a society). I consider the high water mark for acknowledging the issues with past artistic works to be the Warner Brothers warning plate which precedes recent releases of old cartoons.

Warner Brothers content warning
The text reads: The cartoons you are about to see are products of their time. They may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in American society. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. While the following does not represent the Warner Bros. view of today’s society, these cartoons are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.

The better way to excise content entirely is to retell the story. The estate could have selected an author to do so, but they are invested in Dahl’s name as much as the stories themselves. As a society we continue to maintain the close link between the author and their creations but it is something that warrants consideration. I have written previously about the way that comicbook superheroes can be killed and reinvented to reflect the values of each decade in manner more similar to the oral myths of old. This is made possible due to lack of authorial ownership, meaning that multiple authors can provide a variety of perspectives. To be clear, publisher ownership is not a solution, having its own issues in exploitation of creators and gatekeeping of new works. However, there is a longer term decision that society needs to make as to whether we are being best served by the current system of story ownership, rooted in capitalism, or denied a cultural tradition that was once fundamental to our species.

2022: A Year in Film (Part 2)

Continuing from part 1, this concludes the Top 10 films of the year.

5. The Northman

When an artistic director known for creating tightly constrained, evocative films on a small scale suddenly finds themselves in possession of a Hollywood budget, it can often spell disaster. It was with some trepidation, then, that I approached Robert Eggers’ viking epic with a budget estimated to be almost ten times that of The Lighthouse — a film that essentially featured two actors and one location. Eggers’ overriding attention to detail on this new scale must have been a monumental undertaking, drawing from both Norse history and their ritual practices. Continuing to collaborate with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, the pair capture the wild fury of the untamed landscape against which small villages seem an almost futile refuge. It may have been relentlessly grim, but The Northman was the most gripping cinema of the year.

4. The Banshees of Inisherin

Having rated Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 10/10, there was a weight of expectation on Martin McDonaugh’s follow-up, The Banshees of Inisherin. Happily, reuiniting with In Bruges leads Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson made things feel immediately convivial and familiar, that is until a rift opens between the lifelong friends they play. It seems strange to have such a humourous, exaggerated tale unfold on an island that seems weighed down by despair, but perhaps no more than setting a tale of guilt and violence in a picturesque fairytale town like Bruges. Having demonstrated that Seven Psychopaths was an isolated misstep in an otherwise faultless filmography, McDonaugh has cemented his position amongst the best directors working today.

3. The Worst Person in the World

A late contender (I saw it only a few days ago after shortlisting films I had missed in order to cross them off before the end of the year), this Norwegian romantic comedy drama left me with the most fully-formed impression and understanding of a character from any film this year. Renate Reinsve deserves the recognition she is receiving for bringing Julie to life as more than an archetype. She is deeply flawed but the title is more about self-perception and how our subjective reality can influence behaviour: we will most often attempt to act like the person we believe ourselves to be. Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt’s script shares my view that the most effective way to allow people to become better versions of themselves is to show them that that is the way we see them.

2. Everything Everywhere All At Once

A sign of how weak a year it has been for Marvel is that a film called The Multiverse of Madness wasn’t even the best multiverse movie of the year. Clunkily-named directing duo “Daniels” unleashed a frenzy of creativity that coalesced into a sublime action comedy drama filled with talent but ultimately resting on Michelle Yeoh, who slides between genres with ease. Daniels have improved leaps and bounds from their debut Swiss Army Man, which was certainly original but mired in puerile humour that undercut any risk of emotional impact. Yes, their world-building is still utterly absurd, but the very grounded relationships between parents and children imbue the proceedings with genuine emotional stakes. It remains a film best experienced for the first time with as little foreknowledge as possible, but it is such a whirlwind that it almost demands further viewing.

1. Aftersun

When I started reviewing films on a 10-point scale, I viewed 9 as the benchmark for the best handful of films each year with 10 reserved for those that affected me profoundly in a personal way, that rare and magical experience that cinema can offer outside of mere objective competency. My expectation was that there might be one film a year that received a 10. In fact, it has been three years since the last one. What I find most astonishing about Aftersun is not that it is a debut from both its director and one of its lead actors, but an intangible quality it has achieved in capturing the ephemeral sense of memory within the fundamentally transient medium of film. It does this in obvious ways like the use of camcorder footage being recorded and watched, but through subtler means too ⁠— the way the camera lingers to suggest curiosity or regret, and the void between scenes as time seems compressed into short windows of recollection. There is a darkness that hangs over much of Aftersun that eventually speaks to a particularly personal concern, but the film had ensnared me long before. And in the months since, it has only embedded itself further as a holiday that I too now recall, a memory that never occurred. That is a new experience, and worthy of a 10.

2022: A Year in Film (Part 1)

For the first time (as far as I can recall), I am composing a top ten list as this is the first year in which I feel that have seen almost all the films likely to compete for a spot. I have seen and reviewed a total of 82 new films this year, of which 49 were released in the UK this year (that being the qualification criterion, although QuickViews identify films by the year of first release worldwide). The notable omissions are She Said and Smile; I am also due to see an advance screening of The Whale tomorrow, though it would not qualify since its general release is not until February 2023. Ratings for 2022 ranged between 2 and 10, although the average score was a respectable 6.8, bearing in mind that generally I am selecting films I expect to enjoy. The year’s worst was Moonfall, though it only narrowly beat Russell Crowe’s Poker Face to that ignominious victory.

On to the good stuff. I will link each of the Top 10 to their respective QuickView, but with some additional comments. This post will cover the honourable mentions and #10-6, with the top 5 to follow tomorrow.

Honourable mentions

This year’s best animation was Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion Pinnochio, which outstripped Pixar’s middling offerings of late. There were a number of pleasantly surprising actions films, including a colourful and creative adaptation of the Japense novel Bullet Train, a reimagining of Prey that transported the sci-fi franchise back 300 years to a Comanche Tribe, and the heartfelt and poignant Top Gun: Maverick. There were also several horror standouts with X (which introduced me to Jenna Ortega before her excellent incarnation of Wednesday) and the high concept Hatching from Finland, which just missed out on a top 10 spot.

10. Living

My opinion of Living has only improved in the months since its release, through discussing it with others and through the way Nighy’s quiet performance retains such potence. I still consider Ikiru to be the superior film, but I may have been unfair to Kazuo Ishiguro in describing his adaptation as “slavishly faithful” since he has injected something of his own style into the material as well. Its message about living life meaningfully also has a personal significance to me this year (and indeed to this post), as I have transitioned to a four-day working week. That change is what has afforded me greater time in the second half of the year to spend in darkened cinemas and writing these reviews.

9. The Batman

Not a single Marvel film made the top ten list as Phase 4 of the MCU continued to underwhelm, but a DC comicbook movie outshone them all. The Batman fell outside of the divisive “Snyderverse” and before James Gunn took the reins in a shake up of DC’s cinematic future, which allowed Matt Reeves to carve out his own style for the Dark Knight unburdened by wider franchise concerns. Admittedly to my eye much of that style came from The Crow, but the result was the most compelling incarnation of Gotham since Tim Burton’s take on the city. Robert Pattinson has already ably proved his acting credentials but I was still pleasantly surprised by his turn in the cowl. Whatever DC’s future plans, I hope this world will not be sacrificed.

8. Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Rian Johnson reportedly hates the “Knives Out” tagline being attached to Glass Onion as he wants them to be seen as standalone mysteries like Agatha Christie’s novels. I described Knives Out as feeling theatrical with its constrained setting and by contrast the island resort of Glass Onion feels cinematic in scope, though as a mystery it is equally tightly controlled. It stands well above the other whodunits released this year, largely as Johnson continues to play with the form rather than simply replicating it. And let us not forget it also provided the Christmas gift of a delightfully idiotic Ben Shapiro twitter rant complaining that a mystery film “misdirected” him in the first half!

7. Belfast

I was almost a year late to Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s ode to his youth. With a US release in 2021, it already scooped a writing Oscar at the start of the year for Branagh, whose well-observed family drama within a coming-of-age tale is understated yet compelling. As an unabashed crowdpleaser, it treats the Troubles (to this day a masterpiece of British understatement) as a backdrop rather than its focus, which could certainly be viewed as an overly nostalgic take on a dark period in Northern Ireland’s history. However it does accurately reflect the naive childhood perspective that it seeks to portray.

6. RRR

The year’s biggest Bollywood release is a rousing revolutionary fantasy which delivers its message against colonialism but has been deservedly scrutinised in its reinforcement of an oppressive caste framework. It is nevertheless one of the most creative action films of the year, and one of the most entertaining. It also reminds me that — whilst I enjoy and advocate for world cinema — I do have a tendency to overlook cinema from the South Asian subcontinent despite my own heritage. It is something I intend to rectify next year, particularly as streaming services make many of those films more accessible than ever. Readers are encouraged to hold me to account (or provide recommendations in a less aggressive manner!).

Christmas 2022

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"Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has."

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