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 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.”
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 (1993) – 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.
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.