Between summer in the USA and kicking off the Reeltime series, I have slipped behind on the New Year’s resolution I set myself to remove one film a week from my lengthy watchlist. As in the previous two updates, here are a series of mini-reviews with ratings out of 10 to reflect the rating I gave on IMDb. And a reminder that new releases this year do not count towards my resolution even if those titles were already on my watchlist (so there is no Blade Runner 2049).
29. Captain America: Civil War (2016) – 7/10
An Avengers film in all but name, it is better constructed than Age of Ultron but suffers from similar flaws of advancing the wider MCU at the expense of the more interesting smaller story about the regulation of superhero activities. There are some impressive superhero fights but it often feels like slamming handfuls of action figures against one another.
30. The Road (2009) – 7/10
This traversal of a post-apocalyptic landscape feels familiar having played The Last of Us, which it clearly influenced, down to the fathers attempting both to protect a child and to prepare them for the future. The Road certainly evokes the atmosphere, if not the depth, of Cormack McCarthy’s celebrated novel.
31. The Handmaiden (2016) – 9/10
Although it only hit Western shores this year, I have been eagerly anticipating Park Chan Wook’s latest for some time. A sumptuous period erotic thriller, this is dazzling cinema and, although it lacks the originality for which he is often known, his strongest work since Oldboy.
32. Super 8 (2011) – 7/10
Abrams effectively recreates Spielberg’s vision of 1980s small town America – all pedal bikes and walkie talkies – though Stranger Things has now leveraged that nostalgia to better effect. Abrams’ obsession with his “mystery box” means we never see enough of the mistreated creature to empathise fully.
33. The Girl on the Train (2016) – 7/10
An enjoyable but lightweight thriller, it has the right ingredients – alcoholism, infidelity, abusive relationships – but fails to use its unreliable perspective to full effect like Gone Girl. Knowing we are watching drunken memories renders most twists perfunctory rather than revelatory. Despite its attractive cast, Tate’s direction avoids dwelling on the infidelity for titillation, which would be admirable were the film more cerebral instead.
34. A Clockwork Orange (1971) – 9/10
It is rare that a once controversial film can still shock almost fifty years later but the film’s most unsettling sequences draw more from being psychologically perverse than from mere violence or nudity. The dark satire relies on making McDowell’s electric performance relatable which is no small feat. It is synchronicity between music and visuals that draws us inside his head.
35. Swiss Army Man (2016) – 6/10
An uncompromisingly offbeat film about a hopeless, stranded man who befriends a corpse who helps him journey home, this is beautifully shot and unique in tone. However, its puerile obsession with flatulence and excrement begins to grate and continuous bathos ultimately undermines any more poignant messages about life, loneliness and making connections.
36. Eye in the Sky (2015) – 9/10
A superbly taut combination of thriller and drama covering a single drone operation, exploring the military, legal and political questions without proselytising in this moral quagmire. Powerful performances are led by Helen Mirren as the colonel in command, Aaron Paul as the conflicted drone pilot and an unusual but poignant final film appearance for Alan Rickman as the Lieutenant General corralling authorisation back home.
37. Moonlight (2016) – 8/10
A simple, beautiful film that follows a young black man in a rough Miami neighbourhood at three points in his life as he grapples with adolescence, his sexuality and his place in the world. Bolstered by a stellar ensemble cast and characters that linger with you, it may be true that the film would be less noteworthy if all these characters were white but that is part of what makes it important – it compromises neither the accessible universality of its themes nor its uniquely black lens.
38. Passengers (2016) – 8/10
Whilst its story shares Moon‘s focus on engineered off-planet loneliness (in this case waking early from stasis on a colonist ship still ninety years from its destination), Passengers receives an unexpected boost from a big VFX budget and star power in the form of Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence as the leads. That does not make it superior but there is surprising depth beneath the glossy sheen.
39. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) – 8/10
At first glance a “cancer romance”, it shares more DNA with (500) Days of Summer‘s approach to bucking conventions: quirky without being self-indulgent and earning its emotional moments rather than manipulating viewers. Its witty script and talented cast help, but its chief strength is respecting the intelligence of its audience.
40. Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) – 7/10
Capturing a very specific 1980s USA college rite of passage, I don’t share the film’s sense of nostalgia for this group of jocks beyond the soundtrack. A spiritual successor to Dazed and Confused, this is the light, meandering Richard Linklater without the interpersonal depth of Before Midnight or the scale of Boyhood‘s character study. Yet, disappointing Linklater is still decent cinema.
With half the year behind us, I am actually slightly ahead on the New Year’s resolution I set myself to remove one film a week from my lengthy watchlist, exceeding the 26 films I needed to hit by this point. A couple of extra films in hand will probably be useful given that I have three weeks in the USA at the end of summer which might interfere with progress. As before, here are a series of mini-reviews with ratings out of 10 to reflect the rating I gave on IMDb. And a reminder that new releases this year do not count towards my resolution even if those titles were already on my watchlist (so there is no Wonder Woman).
15. Chappie (2015) – 6/10
A mashup of sci-fi tropes, its realistic robot effects do look fantastic. However the characters are thinly sketched and the cartoonish South African gangsters swiftly become tiresome. The film fails to explore its ideas of artificial consciousness in any depth and its social commentary never digs beneath the surface.
16. Bridesmaids (2011) – 8/10
Comparisons to The Hangover (presumably because this unusually features brief scenes of female gross-out comedy) do the film a disservice as it is not a straight comedy. Its strength is Kristen Wiig’s sympathetic performance as a woman feeling left behind as her engaged best friend seems to be drifting toward a different life. Given the shared talent, I wish the new Ghostbusters had been closer to this.
17. The Place Beyond The Pines (2012) – 7/10
Frustratingly uneven, the film abruptly pivots twice revealing itself to be a triptych about the effects two fathers have upon their sons. The first two segments provide excellent character studies of Gosling as a reckless stunt rider wanting to provide for his son and Cooper as a hero cop struggling with a crisis of conscience. It lacks the relatable realism of Blue Valentine but there is still much here to enjoy despite its meandering structure.
18. Paterson (2016) – 9/10
A quiet, gentle film that lets you experience a slice of life for a New Jersey bus driver and poet. Though he may now be known for Star Wars, Adam Driver is capable of great subtle, sensitive portrayals.
19. The Neon Demon (2016) – 3/10
My issue with Nicholas Winding Refyn films (including Drive) is that they are pure style over substance, no matter how stylish. This takes it to the extreme as he trades masculine idolatry of Gosling for the feminine in the modelling industry. Yet he fails to show us what everyone sees in Jessie, and his stylishness is worn down to imagery that is obvious, crass and not nearly as interesting as he seems to think.
20. Jupiter Ascending (2015) – 6/10
Like The Chronicles of Riddick, this is a triumph of meticulously detailed worldbuilding (the Wachowskis’ forte) without the running time to make use of it. Racing through its plot, we touch on interesting ideas that are snatched away for bombastic action by hastily sketched characters in a universe that ironically feels rather empty.
21. Hell or High Water (2016) – 9/10
A slow burn thriller set against a sun-drenched Texan backdrop, we spend time with both the bank robbing brothers and the two officers in pursuit. Ultimately more a character drama than suspenseful, everyone has credible motives for their actions, whilst a laid back Jeff Bridges is what The Dude might have been if he’d become a Texas Ranger.
22. John Wick (2014) – 7/10
With most action films sanitised for a teenage audience, it is refreshing to see a stylish revenge thriller that doesn’t pull its punches. Its one-line plot is ridiculous with an ex-hitman on the rampage after thugs kill his puppy, but (much like Jason Statham) Keanu Reeves plays it perfectly straight whilst the well-choreographed craziness (including Ian McShane’s hotel for contract killers) unfolds around him.
23. Trance (2013) – 6/10
Its opening promises a stylish heist movie but Trance is more interested in perception of reality and memory. Often a fun conceit, here the concept overpowers the characters and even the plot so that the late-stage twists feel less revelatory and more perfunctory. Its tangled web is unpredictable but messy rather than mysterious.
24. Ant-Man (2015) – 7/10
Ant-Man is a competent, workmanlike superhero movie with an inspired standout sequence featuring a miniaturised fight on a child’s train set. The leads are good enough to give the film some heart, but one cannot help but miss the playful visual creativity lost when Edgar Wright departed the project.
25. Kumiko the Treasure Hunter (2014) – 7/10
A surreal musing on modern isolation best summed up by a Midwestern widow’s line, “Solitude? It’s just fancy loneliness.” Set half in Japan and half in the US, Kumiko is a withdrawn Tokyo woman who becomes obsessed with the idea that she can find the hidden money depicted in the movie Fargo. With its offbeat premise and somewhat amoral tone, I suspect the Coen Brothers would approve.
26. Lantana (2002) – 8/10
Although reliant on a number of coincidences that strain credulity without quite breaking it, Lantana is an interwoven exploration of faltering relationships. Its Australian setting is less relevant than subtle performances which provide a nuanced view on betrayal and the lies we tell ourselves.
27. Jurassic World (2015) – 6/10
Epitomised by its hybrid dinosaur Indominus Rex, this is a sequel that conforms to the “bigger is better” mantra throughout. The result is a retread through familiar ground but with more of everything. There are a lot of parallels to the original but ultimately less characterisation and too much cheesy dialogue means less investment no matter how much CGI they throw at us.
28. The 400 Blows (1959) – 8/10
Truffaut’s debut, which sparked the French New Wave, will either delight or irritate with its ambiguous closing shot that leaves the audience to wonder what comes next. We have come to care for 13-year-old Antoine, modelled on Truffaut’s own troubled childhood, unfairly treated by his parents and teachers as a lost cause until he decides to run away and slides into petty crime.
The once-regular Android app updates began to feel redundant as my preferred apps became increasingly static, the only changes being that I moved back to the Google defaults for things like Calendar and SMS. Recently, however, there have been a few changes that are worth highlighting. For reference my current Android devices are a Google Pixel and Sony Xperia Z4 Tablet.
Evie: After a couple of days’ use, Evie became the default launcher (home screen) on my phone. Having lauded Action Launcher for years, it was a surprise to find how swiftly it won me over but a few well-designed gestures made it that little bit faster in day-to-day use — swipe down to search and you can immediately start typing; swipe up to see a full list of installed apps with an alphabetically quick selector on the side. For now I am still using Action Launcher on my tablet, although that too could change. I do miss Action Launcher’s “covers” (hybrid app icons that open folders when swiped) but that’s the only real drawback.
Google Home: Having tried both Amazon Alexa and Google Home, both have excellent features but Google’s voice-recognition is still superior and its natively integrated features work more smoothly than Alexa’s “skills”. The reason I highlight the app is that it includes a feature than many people have missed. Although Google Home speakers do not yet support bluetooth audio, you can still cast all audio from your phone using the Home app, even if your music app doesn’t natively support Google cast. It will work with Chromecast devices as well. Given the choice, casting from an individual app is still preferable because you won’t have booming notifications interrupting your music.
GoneMAD Music Player: A highly customisable player for those who want their interface to work in a very specific way, the real reason I switched was for a player that could display my music library by Album Artist (rather than just by Artist). It’s a small thing, but with a huge library it’s a huge help and sadly lacking in most Android music players. It also natively supports Google cast, so I can stream music out to my Google Home speaker and other devices.
Pocket Casts: Unlike iOS, there is no default podcasting app on Android but I tend to change very rarely. Pocket Casts’ ability easily to synchronise subscriptions and how far through you have listened to an individual podcast between multiple devices (including streaming through a web browser if you so desire) is its standout feature.
Pushbullet: Pushbullet is one of those powerful utilities that, like Tasker, adds such fundamental functionality that it instantly feels like it must always have been there. Initially developed to allow notification mirroring between devices, including to your desktop PC, it was swiftly iterated to allow interactivity like responding directly to text messages from your PC and pushing files or web pages from one device to another. The addition of end-to-end encryption between all your devices seals the deal.
Solid Explorer: A fully featured file browser that replaced ES File Explorer after its ad-fuelled fall from grace. It has the same features like accessing network and cloud storage as well as local files. In landscape mode you can view two folders simultaneously, making it easy to copy from one to the other.
Signal: Although Whatsapp has now implemented end-to-end encryption, its ownership by Facebook still leaves some concerns. Signal, the successor of TextSecure is the messaging app I would recommend for privacy. Like Whatsapp it uses your mobile number as an identifier so you don’t need to create an account. It is open source so the encryption protocol is community vetted and even has a recommendation from Edward Snowden! The downside is that obviously it can only send encrypted messages when the recipient is also using the system.
VRTV: With increasing amounts of virtual reality video and relatively inexpensive headsets using Google’s Cardboard or newer Daydream standards, it is nice to have a single app that supports both. Smooth video playback with limited headtracking drift and support for the Daydream controller. For its hands-free HUD controls, AAA VR Cinema is also worth a look if you don’t need Daydream support.
VSCO: For a while I was told my Instagram account is “cheating” because most of the photographs I post are taken with my dSLR. Best not tell anyone that I also do not edit photos with Instagram filters. I prefer the less destructive filters and finer tuning available through VSCO, resulting in less image degradation in exchange for pleasant hues. Although VSCO has its own sharing platform, you can eschew that and share out to Instagram or any other app to post the results. Also worth mentioning is Prisma which is the opposite extreme, using strong filters to alter your images more fundamentally until they resemble fine art rather than photographs.
We are a day away from polling and this piece is written for those still undecided or who are considering not using their vote. I hope you’ll read and, if it resonates with you, feel free to share it.
This election was initially painted as a guaranteed landslide for the Conservatives to convince you that there was little need to consider your vote. Whilst polls remain as unreliable as ever, it is clear that this election is far from a foregone conclusion.
It is no secret that my politics align predominantly with the Liberal Democrats though I am generally averse to party-based politics. Whilst I continue to support the Lib Dems — and I believe they are in a position to recover a number of seats lost as a “punishment” for entering a coalition with the Conservatives — the result of this election will be a Government led by either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. You should take it as read that I support voting Lib Dem, certainly in any seat where they have a good chance of winning and particularly if you remain opposed to Brexit. However I think it’s important publicly to air my thoughts on the decision that most people will be making between Labour and Conservative.
As the incumbent, we know what May is doing and what her Government is doing. The Brexit negotiations are already a shambles with the Government’s response being to complain that the European countries are banding together to bully the UK (almost as if they were some kind of union). Expect negotiation leaks to continue because 27 countries are not going to keep quiet, particularly if goes against their own self-interest. May sees this election as validating her “hard Brexit” stance so that, if the deal turns out to be terrible (which seems increasingly likely), she can abdicate responsibility by claiming she was simply enacting the will of the people. If that was the case, she ought to have held this election (one she repeatedly denied she would call) before triggering Article 50 rather than wasting valuable time afterwards.
May’s position is that you have to vote for her because the Conservative party is the only “strong and stable” option to lead the negotiations. So stable, in fact, that infighting led to the Brexit referendum. So strong that May refused to partake in debates with the other party leaders, yet expects us to trust her to hold her own in intensive two-year negotiations. All we have seen are robotic responses to interview questions that hardly inspire confidence.
Despite the default claims that Labour’s manifesto is “uncosted”, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and CLASS have both conducted detailed studies and comparisons of the manifestos that are still worth skimming at this stage. The IFS found that both parties would run a surplus by 2019/20.
The Tories are continuing along the austerity route whilst adopting an old Labour policy by pledging a cap on energy prices. Labour is pledging to roll back the cuts in public services like the NHS and policing, to scrap tuition fees and to build more affordable housing to combat the housing crisis. Corbyn’s other major pledge is to renationalise railways. Railways are the clearest example of failed privatisation. Competition has not created a better service because competition is limited by the network infrastructure. As a result commuters face continuous delays, packed trains and ticket prices soaring well above inflation. Given how much of the Capital’s business relies on the rail network bringing workers in, a reliable service would actually be a great boon to business. The only reason to oppose this policy is a purely ideological stance in favour of privatisation rather than a pragmatic one.
Labour’s ambitious polices are to be funded through increased corporation tax and taxes for the wealthiest. This, we are told, is a dangerous idea because those corporation tax cuts led to a 44% increase in tax receipts since 2011. This conveniently ignores that the UK economy was coming out of the worst recession in decades over that period which saw innumerable business collapse. Of course companies were becoming more profitable as the recession subsided, which is precisely why there were more profits to tax. Taking economic advice from anyone who ignores the difference between correlation and causation is far more dangerous.
We are also warned that increasing corporation tax would cause businesses to flood out if country. Yet, even with Labour’s proposed increase, Britain would still have the lowest corporation tax rate in Europe (and the G20) with the exception of Ireland and Switzerland, the same two countries that currently have lower rates. Why have businesses not already fled to those countries? It is almost as if there are other reasons to be based in the UK beyond just tax rates. The truth is that increased taxation is not going to cause businesses to flood to mainland Europe because there is nowhere for them to go.
Security is a key issue for many voters, though I do not think anyone should be making political capital out of the recent tragic events in London and Manchester. The emergency services’ response is to be praised unreservedly. The wider domestic and foreign policy approaches of Corbyn and May are of course relevant.
Theresa May was Home Secretary for six years before becoming Prime Minister so we know more about her approach to this issue than anything else. She has consistently pushed for increased mass surveillance of all British citizens, preventing use of secure encryption and generally increasing regulation and censorship of the Internet. She is doing so again in the wake of the latest attacks, using them to push her anti-privacy agenda and, more concerningly, her desire to scrap the Human Rights Act. We rely on encrypted communication for banking and the security of our personal information. Compromising that encryption with back doors makes us all vulnerable to criminal intrusion, something that is increasingly clear as high profile cyber attacks continue to rise. Meanwhile, those with nefarious intent will simply switch to alternatives methods of encryption (and use of VPNs) rendering the actual intelligence value minimal.
May oversaw cuts to police budgets (opposed by Labour) in excess of 20%. It is unsurprising then that this has led to an 18% reduction in staffing, shedding 43,300 people between 2010 and 2016. It is routine policing that makes us safer. MI5 and the security services can use all the powers they like to identify tens of thousands of suspicious persons but, without local officers policing within the community and monitoring those individuals, that intelligence is useless. Former MET chief inspector Peter Kirkham has openly accused the Government of lying about the number of officers on the streets. By contrast, Corbyn has pledged to reverse those cuts.
May has now said that we are “failing” on this front. If that is true, the blame lies squarely with her, given that it is her agenda that we have been following over the past six years.
Meanwhile Corbyn is smeared by the press with the ridiculous claim that he supports terrorism. This is apparently based on the fact that he met with the IRA to further to Northern Ireland peace protest or the fact that some extremists have attended his rallies.
Corbyn is a pacifist. The media predominantly portray Corbyn as therefore dangerously weak. In fact, he has acknowledged the renewal of trident and does not plan to reverse this. He has said that any use of nuclear weapons would have to be very carefully considered and ruled out launching a first strike. May, on the other hand, said she was prepared to launch a first strike. That is not a strong stance; it is a fundamentally unstable one. She is willing to escalate a conflict from conventional to nuclear in a way that would all but guarantee nuclear weapons being fired at British cities.
Meanwhile Corbyn has highlighted the link between British foreign policy and the rise of terrorism. It is abundantly clear that Blair’s wars made Britain a high profile target for terrorists. Whilst Blair may be have been Labour, the choice we now have is between an MP who voted against the war (Corbyn) and one who voted for it (May). As if to illustrate the point, May has recently returned from a trip selling arms to Saudi Arabia, generally considered the largest state-sponsor of terrorism.
The current Government pushes ahead with cuts to the NHS and May has left Hunt in charge despite the fact he has impressively created a situation in which junior doctors went on strike and the public supported them in doing so. The Conservatives are becoming increasingly clear about their plans to privatise increasing portions of the NHS and the next five years will be crucial. Between critical underfunding and piecemeal sale of assets and hospitals, we are reaching a critical juncture. Attempting to rebuild the NHS would be a monumental task that would make Corbyn’s plans to nationalise the railways look like child’s play. That cannot be allowed to happen. The NHS is one of this country’s crowning achievements and several studies have found it to be the most efficient in the world. Lack of funding means that, in spite of the valiant work by its staff, its effectiveness will decline.
Privatising healthcare is not some great experiment being undertaken by the Government. We know exactly what modern privatised healthcare looks like: it looks like the USA, with astronomical prices that are great for healthcare companies and terrible for everyone else. Large insurance premiums coupled with high excess fees make routine treatment unaffordable to the poorest and most vulnerable.
Maybe, like me, you are personally doing okay under the current Government. Maybe that is enough to secure your vote. I hope it is not.
I can fully sympathise with people not feeling well represented by either party in this election. However, this is an occasion where one cannot shrug off responsibility by saying they are both as bad as each other. That led to the populist election of Trump, because enough people convinced themselves that Hillary Clinton was probably just as bad. They were wrong. May was relying on the same apathy when she called a snap election hoping for a landslide win. It is the reason she did not think she had to bother with televised debates, which would only harm the image she has sought to portray.
Ultimately, if you remain undecided, consider a vote for the leading non-Tory candidate in your area as a vote for a hung Parliament. The lack of a clear majority will force the resulting Government to slow down and force parties to work together constructively if they are to achieve anything.
A quarter of the way into the year, it seems sensible to check in on that New Year’s resolution I set myself to remove one film a week from my lengthy watchlist. So far I have managed to stay on track, knocking off dozen films in a dozen weeks. Here’s a round-up of what I’ve been watching by way of mini-reviews. For clarity, new releases this year do not count towards my resolution even if those titles were already on my watchlist (Logan would beat many of the films below). Unlike my full-length reviews, ratings here are out of 10 to reflect the rating I gave on IMDb.
1. Cinema Paradiso (1988) – 10/10
Starting with a classic film I knew would be strong, this film is a number of things at once: a young boy’s experience with cinema and his burgeoning love of film, which will spark any cinema lover’s own memories, a coming-of-age drama, a concentrated reminder of the power of cinematic romance, and a tribute to the magic of the simple act of projecting light and shadow.
2. Whiplash (2014) – 9/10
An intense drama about a talented jazz drummer and his demanding, manipulative band conductor, it relies on the strength of its two leads. Miles Teller and JK Simmons are superb, mentally circling one another in an atmosphere in turns akin to sports films and thrillers rather than music. With some similarities, Whiplash resonated for me where Foxcatcher did not.
3. Night on Earth (1991) – 6/10
Jim Jarmursch dialogue in taxicabs at night sounds right up my street but, the after three captivating conversations, it closes with two weaker, meandering segments. The film’s effectiveness is perhaps tempered by having seen his later work, which resonates more.
4. Ghostbusters (2016) – 5/10
I wanted to love this to spite the pre-emptive hate it received for daring to entertain a female-centric retelling. Unfortunately, whilst the characters are great, they are hamstrung by an atrocious script that renders the entire affair mediocre at best.
5. Limitless (2011) – 6/10
Brain-enhancing drugs invite parallels with Lucy but Limitless takes itself far less seriously, making it much easier to forgive its contrived plot that withstands little scrutiny. Between Bradley Cooper’s charm and Neil Burger’s gaudy direction, it manages to be entertaining if underwhelming.
6. Rear Window (1954) – 9/10
Rightly considered one of Hitchcock’s best, its suspense is maintained by the offbeat nature and the contained, mundane setting keeping the outcome uncertain.
7. Hick (2011) – 4/10
It might be loosely based on a true story, but this meandering road movie of a 13-year-old Midwestern girl interacting with a damaged drifter makes for routinely uncomfortable viewing without any real direction or point to warrant the investment. Chloe Grace Moretz, Eddie Redmayne and Blake Lively do make for an interesting cast.
8. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) – 8/10
Another great offbeat New Zealand comedy from Taita Watiti (What We Do in the Shadows). The New Zealand bush makes a stunning backdrop as a troubled child and his antisocial foster uncle find themselves on the run from the authorities.
9. In the Heat of the Night (1967) – 8/10
Set in the Deep South, a murder investigation by an out-of-town black cop ignites racial tensions. It is depressingly impressive that its commentary on race still resonates so strongly 50 years later.
10. Let Me In (2015) – 8/10
My usual English-language remake concerns were quelled when they announced a Midwest setting, showing an understanding of Let The Right One In‘s themes of loneliness and isolation. I had hoped it would mean a different aesthetic of empty desert but we are treated to the same snowy landscapes in a faithful rehash. It is a good remake but — much like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo — it brings absolutely nothing new so soon after the original.
11. 127 Hours (2010) – 7/10
Like Buried, the film relies mostly on one actor’s performance in a confined space. Unlike Buried, there is no suspense as most viewers know how the harrowing tale of the trapped climber concludes. Instead the film-makers try to get inside Aron’s head and, whilst I imagine it is faithful to his autobiographical book, any insights felt shallow. It is still engaging and features beautiful canyon cinematography.
12. Band of Robbers (2015) – 7/10
A modern day retelling of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, re-imagining them as adult petty criminals, this is a fun caper that fails to achieve much with its conceit but does not outstay its welcome either. Stylistically it feels less like Mark Twain and more a homage to the Coen Brothers and Wes Anderson. Which is hardly a criticism.
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.
Sitting in a car at traffic lights and discussing the nature of death with my cousin, whose mother had passed away a few days before, I found myself struggling to communicate an idea and instead explained it through my experience of the game Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. In an increasingly common trend, Brothers was developed by a small breakaway team within a larger developer, Starbreeze Studios, a Swedish studio known for violent first person action games. A thoughtful, beautifully colourful fantasy tale about two young boys was an unexpected offering.
The initial premise is somewhat trite: two boys must undertake a dangerous journey to obtain water from the Tree of Life in a distant land to cure their dying father. The control scheme is immediately frustrating, with one half of the gamepad (one analogue stick and one trigger) used for each brother, whom you move simultaneously. It takes most of the game before it starts to feel natural but by the end it is clear that it could not have been designed any other way. Recent ports have brought the game to mobile devices but I think a controller is required for the best experience.
The game has no intelligible dialogue but the brothers work cooperatively as they traverse the land and help others they meet along the way. They meet two trolls who turn out to be friendly creatures that the brothers reunite. Nature is routinely their chief adversary, through dangerous animals or treacherous terrain. The game’s prologue shows the younger brother, Naiee, in a boat with his mother during a storm in which she is swept away and drowns. As a result, Naiee has a phobia of water and is unable to swim. Crossing rivers requires his older brother’s help, climbing onto his back and being ferried across. The trauma is deeply-rooted.
Towards the end of the game the brothers fend off a giant spider, but not before she mortally wounds the older brother. Although they reach the Tree of Life together, by the time Naiee has scaled its branches to retrieve the water, his brother is dead. He grieves, burying his brother. His sluggish, pitiful movements are affecting, but moreso is the effect on the control scheme. Suddenly you are playing with half the controller, with a single hand, as if you have physically lost a limb. It is a perfect parallel to the overwhelming sense of loss as we grieve the death of a loved one, as if we have lost a part of ourselves. But the game is not yet over and has more to say. Naiee must still return to his father with the cure. The return journey is smooth until, nearing his village, a storm floods the surrounding land. Frozen by the edge of the water, he cannot reach his father without swimming. The boy reacts as he always does near water, pausing, the controller vibrating softly in his refusal to move on. The game offers no prompt, but the solution emerges organically — the absent elder brother’s unused half of the controller becomes the key as Naiee draws on him for strength to proceed. Using both halves of the controller (as you had when crossing water so many times before), Naiee forces himself on, overcoming his fear and saving his father’s life.
This, I explained in the car, was my view of death. Irrespective of an afterlife, I find it difficult to view people as truly “gone” as long as we carry them with us. We often worry that the dead will be quickly forgotten but they continue to exist in our choices, our decisions and actions. In truth we only need to worry if they meant nothing to us at all, if they had no impact on us. Brothers was a perfect metaphor for this concept, and one that could not have been communicated so fully in any other medium. As a game, its control mechanics were not simply a way to tell a story but part of the tale itself.
In the West too frequently we shy away from discussing death, which leaves us ill-equipped to deal with the absolutely universal experience of grief, as well as our own mortality. Interactive art like Brothers can provide us with shared cultural touchstones and, as a result, better tools and vocabulary to explore these ideas.
I remember as a boy my father introducing me to myths of the Norse gods. Although they were told to me as pure fiction, they resonated with an identical primal, religious truth to the Biblical stories that pervaded my Catholic upbringing. Over time I developed a more nuanced understanding of fiction not merely as a vehicle for entertainment but a purveyor of deeper truths. Nowhere is that truer than with tales that transcend a single telling and earn the loftier title of myth. The difference may be nothing more than that they are a mongrel amalgamation of retellings, more powerful than any single story or storyteller.
Neil Gaiman’s work has always been infused with the ancient myths, particularly his most literary works, The Sandman and American Gods. Now he is releasing his retelling of the tales with which I (and he) grew up in a volume titled simply Norse Mythology. The muted black and gold cover feels less fantastic than the artwork adorning his past fictions and the black-edged paper of the signed first edition produces a sombre, earthy tome. Mjöllnir weighs heavily on the cover though the book thankfully lacks its heft.
Of course, another Gaiman book meant an another launch event and another chance to hear him speak, this time in a packed out auditorium at the Southbank Centre. The larger audience meant that the evening was host to some big announcements. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Gaiman chose to open with a reading not of the topical tale of The Master Builder (which he paraphrased as Odin deciding to build a wall around Asgard to keep the frost giants out and, essentially, making them pay for it…) but rather with Freya’s Unusual Wedding. His respect for the oral tradition that begat these tales is evident in the punchy short sentences and in the humour that suffuses his versions. They originated, he noted, in an oppressive part of the world where in the summer the sun barely set and in the winter it barely rose — in either case the solution was to get drunk and tell stories round the fire. These are stories that deserve to be told out loud.
When asked what stories he thought he would survive in the next thousand years, he saw limitation in the fact we tend to read rather than speak and retell our biggest stories. Whilst he would love to see The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy still being read, it would require similar study to reading Shakespeare to unpack a simple joke about digital watches and their relevance at a specific point in time during the transition from analogue to digital. Which would almost certainly ruin the joke. Instead, he decided he would be happy if, in another thousand years, we were still telling the Norse myths. Perhaps we are in an age when we contribute new ideas to an existing canon of characters and keep them moving forward, polishing, refreshing and renewing them. Think of comicbook superheroes updated for each decade, Sherlock reborn in the modern world. Gaiman himself has done so with The Sandman‘s Dream and Death being touchstones for countless modern writers exploring those same Eternal characters.
He revealed a considerable amount on various other projects too, With a lot of his work being translated into other media, it’s a great time to be a fan of his work. We saw the latest trailer for the forthcoming Starz adaptation of American Gods (which is likely to be released through Amazon Prime in the UK). Meanwhile the Good Omens film is progressing, with a director to be selected in the next month or two, followed by casting. He mused on the emotional experience of writing those characters without his co-author Pratchett to call on, a film that he wanted to see made but will never get to view. A bigger surprise was a previously unscreened trailer for an adaptation of the short story How To Talk To Girls At Parties. The story drew from his proto-punk youth in 1970s Croydon which is readily apparent on screen. It is due to be released this summer and the cast includes Elle Fanning, Nicole Kidman and Matt Lucas. Hopefully you will see the trailer before too long, once it is polished and the sound mix finalised.
However the biggest news of the night, on which the event closed, was a simplest. Gaiman revealed that he is now a solid three chapters into writing The Seven Sisters, the sequel to Neverwhere. Cue raucous cheers and applause. It was only right that he reveal it here in London. The city has changed in the 20 years since Neverwhere, and it’s high time we returned Below.
Lately I have seen a resurgence in comments denouncing the coddled, lazy, entitled Millennials but now, rather than coming from the older generation, they are coming from mine. First up, there is no real definition as to what constitutes a “Millennial” but broadly it covers those born from the early 1980s to the late 1990s. That means a lot of the people denouncing Millennials are unknowingly part of the group themselves. I think it is fair to say that largely they intend it to apply to those younger than them, those who passed through university just behind us.
A video recently circulated in which Simon Sinek weighed in with his apparent insights on “the Millennial question”. It takes little effort to find inconsistencies. He highlights participation medals (of which I am not a fan), criticising them because those who win them know they are not worth anything and so feel worse, but then explains that on entering the real world “in an instant their entire self-image is shattered”. Sinek has discovered Schrödinger’s medal, which makes one feel simultaneously special and worthless, identifiable only once he knows which serves his point at the time. Meanwhile instant gratification means people will “skip seasons [of a TV show] just so they can binge at the end of the season”. By which he perfectly describes delayed gratification: holding off so that you can later enjoy something the way you want.
Later on, Sinek makes a few interesting (although not novel) points about corporate culture and social use of technology. They have nothing to do with Millennials but without that contextualisation his “insights” cannot be packaged as anything other than relatively banal observations. Ultimately Sinek’s best-case scenario for Millennials is that they will be “an entire population growing up and going through life and just never really finding joy”. That demonstrates incredible condescension and, frankly, a remarkable lack of imagination.
So what about those two common accusations of laziness and entitlement that Millennials face from society at large?
Much criticism seems to come from the fact that many Millennials move back home and live with their parents long into their twenties, well after they ought to have moved out. They expect their parents to be able to provide this for them even though their parents had struck out on their own by that age. This cannot be assessed without considering the underlying economic reality. University graduates are now leaving education with colossal debt as a result of huge tuition fees that their parents were never required to pay and then voted to introduce. They are entering a job market decimated by a financial crisis in which they played no part. They are likely to be the first generation to earn less than the previous one. Meanwhile their parents profited from buying cheap property, while reducing Government spending on new housing, resulting in a broken housing market as prices continue to spiral. Already saddled with huge debts and limited job prospects, where else are Millennials expected to live?
Not only are job opportunities limited in the current economy, but Millennials are being expected to work in unpaid internships because there are apparently no jobs for them without existing experience. So let us be clear: a generation received free education then chose to withdraw it from anyone else, they ruined the housing market whilst profiting themselves, and they caused a financial crisis that ruined the economy. And now they expect Millennials inheriting this mess to work for free.
I agree that there is absolutely a problem with entitlement. Just not where most people are pointing fingers.