Spyro: Reignited

My memories of playing the original Spyro games are some of the fondest of my childhood. When the news broke that the first three in the series were being remastered for the PS4, I was ecstatic. While the current-gen versions of Skyrim and Bioshock Infinite are gorgeous to behold, their remastering does feel a little premature. But bringing back old 3D platformers from the late 90s feels as fresh and exciting as if the games were new. It seems less like a cynical cash-grab and more of a gesture that’s rooted in passion for gaming. The Spyro games were rebuilt from scratch, and because they’re so old, the contrast between the original trilogy and the remastered one is breathtakingly jarring.

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I was delighted when my brother called me on his lunch break last November to disgruntledly tell me that he’d accidentally purchased two copies of Spyro: Reignited, and had decided to give me the extra copy for free. Tee hee.

I’d like to examine three things in this post:

  1. The quality and depth of the remake efforts
  2. How well the original games stand up after all this time
  3. My own gilded nostalgia

 

Spyro: The Dragon

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The first game in the series is the one I remembered the least. I’ve always associated it with vomit, because the last time I played it I was 9 years old, sitting cross-legged in my pajamas, and I had the sudden feeling that I ought to go to the bathroom. After feeling fine just a few seconds before, by the time I reached the toilet I puked everywhere. The whole thing was pretty traumatic at the time. I felt like I puked my entire body weight into that toilet. My throat was burning hot but my skin was trembling with cold. At one point my dad was like “Good Lord, there’s so much of it, it’s even coming out of his nose!” and it was like my entire insides were trying to escape me until all that remained was a dry and desolate husk.

For some reason I blamed the episode on the first Spyro game and vowed never to play it again as long as I lived. There was just something about the game that seemed to lack the charm of the other two. Anyway, it’s all important information, because I’m now 26 years old and I still haven’t thrown up since.

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The first thing that struck me about the game when I played it again in its remastered form was just how beautiful it was. The levels have so much more detail, depth, and texture. They’re as bright and colorful as a Pixar movie, and the swaying blades of grass, rippling castle flags, and cascading waterfalls are all imbued with this animate, living energy. I spent my first few minutes simply wandering around the hub world admiring the ambient sounds and smooth character animations. Just watching Spyro prancing around in such a fluid and crisp way made the whole experience feel fresh and whimsical.

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It was only when I entered one of the levels that I remembered why my younger self was so quick to dispense with the game. I quickly became bored- and I’d only just started playing the damn thing! There didn’t seem to be any sort of context for what was happening. None of the levels have any sense of narrative or personality. They each evoke some kind of time period, place, or culture from the real world, but they just feel shallow. They feel like movie sets rather than real places, and there is little variation between them beyond murdering every living creature in sight and unfreezing the dragons. As I progressed through the game, I became more and more tempted to give up and start playing Spyro 2. I was that bored. Each level felt like a chore, and I had no motivation to play except to finish it. The final boss fight in particular annoyed me. Gnasty Gnorc was the only thing giving the events of the game the slightest context, but he doesn’t say anything and just runs away from you. There are no checkpoints so when I died I had to go through the rigmarole of the whole thing again. It just felt poorly designed and lacking in the excitement and intensity of a final showdown.

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This might seem unfair given the technology available at the time, but I think it’s important to remember that one game shouldn’t be considered better than another by virtue of it being released earlier. Wolfenstein 3D is undoubtedly a more influential, innovative, and revolutionary shooter than Wolfenstein: The New Order, but no one can straight-facedly claim that it’s the better gaming experience. Spyro 1 established the central gameplay mechanics that would make the series a success, but beyond that, I found it a real slog.

 

Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage!

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To me, this will always be Gateway to Glimmer, which was the title given to the game’s European and Australian release in 1999. This was the first Spyro game I owned. Back in the day I would go to my friend’s house after Line Dancing on Friday nights and watch him play Spyro 3. I begged my dad to get the game for me. He couldn’t find it at the store, so he bought me Spyro 2 instead. The second game in the series is widely considered the best among fans and critics alike. It’s certainly my favorite in the franchise, and I realized upon playing the remastered version that almost all of my memories from the series came from this game in particular.

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As soon as I started playing Ripto’s Rage I felt immensely satisfied. Right off the bat we have firm context: an experiment in interdimensional travel goes tits-up and a megalomaniacal warlock with a raging hard-on for dragons is inadvertently summoned to the magical realm of Avalar. With the help of his semi-sentient dinosaur thralls, he proceeds to conquer Avalar and impose himself as dictator. The realm’s deposed government-in-exile, respectively a bipedal cheetah, a hyper-intelligent mole, and a sexually-frustrated fawn, decide that the most logical way to retake power is to summon a dragon to their world because Ripto hates them so much. I feel like this is a reckless move, because none of them have ever seen a dragon and the last time they pissed about with wormhole technology they opened up their realm to a cosmic invasion. They should be grateful they didn’t end up summoning fucking Smaug. I’d like to see how far Elora’s sass gets her when Alduin conjures a meteor storm and starts belching Gamma Rays at every living thing in sight.

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Luckily, they end up with Spyro. At first they seem disappointed not have gotten Draco as portrayed by Sean Connery, but as the fate of Avalar becomes increasingly dire, they hinge all their hopes of success on him, and it’s up to Spyro to reverse the coup d’état. The game begins, and at this point the player is invested. When I complained about the lack of narrative in the first game, I wasn’t thinking we needed something along the lines of The Count of Monte Cristo. It doesn’t need to be that complex- these games are aimed at kids after all. It just needs to have a little conflict and a dash of color in its cheeks. From the outset we have enough motivation to take down Ripto- he’s arrogant, snarky, cruel, and power-hungry. He’s tearing apart the harmony of this magical realm. By comparison, Gnasty Gnorc has about as much depth and personality as a tetherball with a smiley face drawn on it.

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But it’s not just the macro elements that make Ripto’s Rage stand out. Playing the game I got the feeling that every level had been carefully designed. For starters, there’s an intro cinematic that takes place every time you enter a portal. Each level has a conflict of some kind, and it’s up to you to solve it. Right at the beginning of the game you find yourself in a place called Glimmer. The land is populated by a race of sentient jerboas known as the Gemcutters. Not only does it have a native species, but it has a sense of life, commerce and industry too. The Gemcutters of Glimmer are renowned for their mining. However production comes to a halt when a hostile race of giant lizards shows up. At this point the Gemcutters enlist you as a kind of traveling pest control service, and you proceed to systematically exterminate every last one of them. A lot of levels follow this kind of pattern- each one begins with a cutscene that shows how the equilibrium is upended, and it’s up to you to restore the status quo. It never occurs to Spyro to solve the given problem using diplomacy, but I think I’ll save my thoughts on his morality for another post.

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The format of having us dip in and out of these self-contained stories works really well, and you find yourself motivated by the desire to check out the next cool environment and funky cast of characters that awaits you. The effort and attention afforded these levels is not just aesthetic however- it translates to gameplay too. As compared to the previous game in the series, there’s more variety on display. Each level has various optional challenges and side quests, calling upon you to swim, fly, ice-skate, chase, stealth, and puzzle-solve your way to success. You do everything from ride high-speed mining-carts around carelessly-laid boxes of TNT to herding cutesy bovine-elephant hybrids into a pen.

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The game is structured very well, and its three boss battles are excellent. They’re equal parts challenging and fun, as you utilize various creative power-ups via fast-paced gameplay to take down Ripto and his mates. Each encounter feels dramatic and significant, a feat achieved by the game’s teasing the bosses at earlier points in the narrative, building up to them with various steps and hoops in your way, and some appropriately climactic showdown music.

 

Spyro: Year of the Dragon

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This game’s an interesting one. A lot of our favorite characters return from Spyro 2, and the same sense of charm and personality is present in the game’s many cutscenes. But the game as a whole just smacks of trying too hard to emulate the success of its predecessor. It’s still fun, but it doesn’t feel all that original. Everything that worked well in Ripto’s Rage is carried over and ramped up to the point that it comes across as contrived. For instance, the characters of Spyro 2 added a real sense of humor and soul to the game that was missing in the first installment. The third entry in the series therefore massively expands this cast of characters and even lets you play as some of them. This isn’t an inherently bad idea, but it just isn’t executed that well. Sgt. Bird is a pain in the ass to maneuver, Bentley’s fat ass takes up the whole screen, and the monkey with the ray gun comes across as painfully bland- in both game design and personality. I thought Sheila’s jumping mechanics were fairly original and interesting, but none of her sections stood out as particularly exciting. You can even control Sparx in a series of Gauntlet-style dungeon-crawler missions, which I found utterly inane. None of it feels necessary. It seems like they’re just throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks.

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Another thing that worked well in Spyro 2 was its optional puzzles and mini games. Once again, the developers decided that this was an easy and fool-proof strategy for critical success and gave Year of the Dragon mini games up the ass. Some of them work, but a lot of them feel lazy and pointless. The skateboarding can be fun and the thief-chasing is as good as ever, but the overabundance (and varying quality) of these mini games just makes Year of the Dragon seem flabby and decadent. I’d rather they focused on just a few recurring mini games and gave them greater depth and more enjoyable controls.

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The main plot? It’s fine. I like the idea of this mysterious kingdom on the other side of the planet, whose natives have to reach the dragon world by burrowing into the earth and tunneling through until they pop out the other side. It’s kinda like The China Syndrome meets Alice in Wonderland meets Gears of War. Anyway, the ruler of this antipodean kingdom is a female tyrannosaurus with a rather threatening array of magical powers known only as the Sorceress. Quick aside- I find the image of a dinosaur wearing makeup and lipstick really unsettling. Anyway, the Sorceress sends her minions to the dragon world to steal all their eggs while they’re sleeping. It’s a pretty good plot device, meaning that Spyro is the only one who can travel to this strange new world to retrieve them since the tunnels are too small for the other dragons. It’s also interesting that the Sorceress has an army of bipedal rhinos at her command, which makes all the levels and hub worlds feel connected. This time you’re the outsider, and you’re up against the entire military apparatus of this kingdom. The Rhynocs are present throughout the various levels, acting as garrisons to oversee the many races they’ve subjugated and the many lands they’ve annexed. The bureaucracy is tantamount to the Roman Empire in a lot of ways. Of course, Spyro comes in and massacres them like the bloodthirsty revolutionary he is. Freedom fighter or terrorist? I honestly don’t know anymore. The fact he never even attempts to solve anything other than through violence started to alienate me. Sure, the Sorceress is a tyrannical despot and all that, but presumably the Rhynoc sentries are just doing their jobs, trying to get by in a cruel world, and can’t be held accountable for the atrocities of the wider system they’re a part of. Right? It’s hard to root for Spyro when he’s flat out goring Rhynocs that are surrendering to him.

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Overall, the third game is good but it tries too hard to emulate its predecessor and comes up short in that regard. The boss fights have none of the build-up and context of Spyro 2’s encounters, and each one feels like a shallow imitator of that game’s arena-with-power-ups model. The bosses themselves are introduced right before the fights, and their designs lack the simple yet effective tones of Crush and Gulp. I liked that there was a secondary villain in Bianca; her inclusion reminded me of Alora from Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy. Sadly though, you don’t get to bloodily rip her limbs off, which was a disappointment for me because I’d been thinking of nothing else ever since that time she boasted I’d never find the dragon eggs she’d hidden right as I could see one in the background over her shoulder.

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Snow Day 2

Last year we had an ass-ton of snow one weekend in March and I decided to go outside to take some photos. I couldn’t really walk anywhere picturesque, so I decided to take some wintry shots of the places I grew up. I was feeling kind of nostalgic I guess, because I ended up calling in on my childhood friend Artie and engaging him in a conversation of old memories. A lot of my conversations with Artie take place in the past tense. We’re the kind of people that enjoy telling the same old stories over and over again. When I see him and my other school buddies, I often feel like the youngest version of myself. That’s not to say that Artie and I are trapped in our school days like a pair of McDonald’s All Americans in rocking chairs- I just mean that when I’m around the people I grew up with, I tend to retain parts of myself that I’d otherwise dispense with in other situations. For instance, I’ll make the kind of jokes that appealed to my adolescent self, speaking a lot of gibberish and putting on silly voices. I’ve always found that the past has a stronger pull than I’d like. I often feel the urge to escape it, perhaps just to prove that I can more than anything else. Finding new ways of being myself has the irresistible sensation of conquering the unconquerable- the past.

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And the past has been looming over me bigger than ever of late. Snow puts me in a reflective mood, even though it almost never happens in the town in which I live. Last Friday, on the first day of February, snow fell on our little town again. It put me in mind of last year’s snow day, and so once more I resolved to go out and make use of this novelty with my dSLR in hand. This time however, I had an agreement to meet some folks at the pub where I work. I didn’t want to photograph the same neighborhoods I did on last year’s snow day, so I took the extra-long route, zig-zagging across town and taking my time with things that interested me.

I also tried to think about the things I looked at. When I got to work on last year’s Snow Day post, I realized that I didn’t like the idea of uploading my photos without some words to accompany them. A blog post feels kind of naked without text. So I decided to intersperse the pictures with random stories from my childhood. The post felt a little too messy for my liking and I wasn’t sure it was my best work. I decided to forget about it. And yet, despite my dissatisfaction with the post, it turned out to be one of the most popular pieces of content I published last year. I figured the spike in traffic directed toward my website either had to be from former classmates curious to see if I’d slagged them off, or misguided foreigners hoping for National Geographic-esque stills of a rustic idyll.

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I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed on both accounts if that’s why y’all are here for round two. Nailsea is no chocolate box. Which is not to say that my hometown is especially ugly or anything, but it’s not a community that’s developed with a sense of touristic charm in mind. For the most part it’s functional rather than aesthetic, having been established around the industries of coal mining and glass manufacture. Now it exists as a sort of de facto suburb for commuters to the city. I imagine that it’s one of thousands of such quiet communities across the U.K, where little much of note happens except the odd headline regarding sleeping cows getting tipped over by dastardly youths or beige-cardiganed OAP’s farting themselves to death while reading Gardener’s World. But in a way I feel like these towns are more real than the likes of Polperro and Lyme Regis, which have always seemed like fantasies to me.

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As I went in search of inspiration last Friday, I ended up thinking about my own feelings toward my hometown. During my adolescence I developed a real hatred for it. It’s only fairly recently in my life that this deep-seated loathing towards Nailsea has subsided. Growing up, I attached a lot of the problems I had in my life to the environment I was in. I hated my hometown because it reminded me of everything I wanted to forget. For the longest time I saw it as a cage that reinforced my own failures in life. I dwelled so much on my experiences of being bullied, my romantic shortcomings, and my general sense of not belonging, that I believed wholeheartedly that I couldn’t flourish here. So I traveled. Other places seemed marvelous to me, because with them came the idea that I could be whomever I wanted. Other places were fantasies to me. As soon as I was 16 I vowed to leave Nailsea and never come back. Nailsea was the past, and as I said earlier, I wanted conquer it. I wanted to completely expunge it from my memory and create a life with no trace to the community in which I was raised. But you can’t ever really defeat the past.

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First I went to college in the nearby city of Bristol for two years. That in itself was interesting, because I found myself in an urban environment for the first time. It was bustling, cosmopolitan, and multicultural. I tried out new styles of clothing, often opting for the things that looked as different as possible from what everyone back home wore. I tried new types of music. I plunged headfirst into new ideas, reading from old philosophers, watching foreign films, going to the theatre on a semi-regular basis. But I still wasn’t happy. In fact, I was deeply unhappy during my time at City of Bristol College. I spent every break I had hiding in the library listening to my iPod and eating lunch in the bathrooms so that I wouldn’t be seen eating alone. Bristol, I decided, just wasn’t far enough.

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At the age of 18 I moved to Winchester, which is about two hours away from here to the south-east. This had to be my time, I thought to myself. I’m in a new place studying something I’m passionate about, surrounded presumably by more likeminded people. Perhaps I was just unlucky. Perhaps I was just born in the wrong place. But as it turned out, I was even less happy in Winchester. What I was sure would be the time of my life ended up being some of the worst years I had experienced yet. It was during this period of my life that I started to think something might be seriously wrong with me. I had grown even more reclusive and isolated than I had been in Nailsea or Bristol. Winchester, I decided, just wasn’t far enough.

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So I hopped on a plane and moved 4000 miles to the USA, in Making a Murderer’s very own creepy pine forest Wisconsin. I loved it. I loved it so much that I’ve gone back to the US for the past 5 years in a row. But I learned a few things while I was out there. As much as I enjoyed my time in this new place, I found that it was largely down to the specific friends I made- Aaron and Anne-Marie. I also learned that my problems were too deep-seated to be fixed by a change in environment. I learned that I ought to have been looking inward, instead of far away. Sure, it sucked the first time I came home from living in the USA, but that’s no different to going somewhere nice on vacation and having to return to the hum-drum of normal life. Everyone can relate to that. It was only when I started going to the US every year (and got the medicinal therapy I needed) that I let go of my hatred for Nailsea.

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Now I don’t really feel anything toward it. It makes no sense to imbue the physical streets with the shades of memories good or bad. I’ve separated my memories and feelings from the town itself. As I trundled through the snow last Friday, I felt kind of numb to everything. Now it’s just a place, and I think nothing of it for better or worse. In fact, in recent years I’ve even been surprised at the ease with which I walk around town now. I go out more often and talk with more people than I used to.

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I’d left the house too late on Friday to capture the snow at its brightest and puffiest. Now the midday sun was melting it into gray slosh. Everything was wet and disgusting, but I decided to keep taking photos anyway, because the imperfection of these muddy remnants reminded me of the imperfection of real life. And Nailsea is nothing if not thoroughly real.

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I passed a grocery store that operates out of an old house that seems more akin to a Victorian toyshop. I’ve never been in there, although I have a vague memory of sitting in the car outside and staring through the windows as my mom went in to buy something. I passed the hill that leads to my old house where I used to ride my bike and feel a mixture of fear and excitement at the gradient. I passed the fish and chip shop we’d sometimes stop at growing up, where I’d always feel a pleasure at the heat of the food through the paper in which it was wrapped. It felt like a present waiting to be unwrapped. I passed the road on which my childhood nemesis used to live- a support teacher I routinely clashed with and who once said I lacked any empathy. I was a hyperactive little shit that just couldn’t sit still back in those days, a fact that often surprises those of my friends so accustomed to the docile creature I’ve grown into.

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I finished my little walk in the snow at the pub where I now work. It’s a nice place and I feel pretty comfortable there. One of the best things about working in a kitchen is all the free food you get given. Whenever the chefs make too much, I’m often treated to spare chips or something. One time they made too much garlic bread, and I got treated to a couple slices. It was glorious.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for this year’s Snow Day post. Maybe it’ll snow again next year and I can make it a trilogy!

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

I’ve always been profoundly offended by the censorship of artistic expression. It’s the one thing that consistently fires me up and has the power to bring me down on even the most cheerful of days. It’s an issue that I feel is only becoming more relevant in today’s society. When I hear about a book being banned I’m filled with a Krakatoan rage that makes me want to read every banned book there is, and sing their names from the nearest rooftop.

When browsing the internet for modern examples of banned and controversial books, one title in particular kept coming up: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. The title alone attracted me straight away. The key element of that title is the compound adjective “Part-Time”. Without it, the title is worthless. And with it, it’s utterly compelling.

The book is a fictionalized memoir of Alexie’s experiences as a Native American teenager who transfers to a white school outside the reservation on which he lives. This is where the whole part-time business comes in. When he goes to school, he’s part of the white world. When he comes home, he’s a Native American. Except the opposite is true in terms of how each world perceives him. In the white world, he’s seen as that Indian kid. Back on the reservation, he is seen as a traitor to his people- someone that’s trying to be white. And as such he doesn’t feel whole in ether environment. This conflict of identity is the crux of what the novel is about.

Admit it- you’re curious now, aren’t you? Of course you are. Inherent in the premise is a “fish out of water” narrative and a clash of cultures. You can already imagine the fear of being a 14-year old kid walking into a new school for the first time. It’s a scenario that draws universal empathy. Only on top of that, you have the racial aspect of the boy’s fear.

This promised to be a perfect introduction to the banned book spree I was about to embark on. I have a long-standing interest in novels and memoirs that deal with adolescent angst. Bullying, hormones, and the search for identity are things I can relate to. The things I can’t relate to are racist abuse, alcoholism, and being a part of a community that has had its very soul gutted via the machinations of the U.S government. Therefore, the book already won the intriguing distinction of being both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. A lot of what the protagonist Arnold goes through resonates with me very deeply. But there’s also a lot of what he goes through that teaches me something entirely new, and opens my eyes to the Native American experience.

I won’t spend too much time covering the plot so that y’all can read it and enjoy it for yourselves. Instead I’d like to discuss why the book is considered controversial, what I liked about it, and why I think y’all will like it too. In short, the book is controversial for the simple reason that it’s aimed at teenage readers. If it were marketed toward adults, there would be nothing for us to talk about. There is nothing remotely shocking about the book’s actual content. When I finished Alexie’s novel, I thought “That’s nothing compared to some of the depraved shit I’ve read in other books- or seen on HBO dramas.”

To understand the book’s controversy, you have to understand the kind of people that are taking issue with it. The argument lodged against the book is that it’s not suitable for young readers. I heartily disagree. This is exactly the kind of book that teenagers should read, because it’s all about being a teenager. I would have loved something like this as a 14 year old. The book is written in a very straightforward, accessible style, and just like The Catcher in the Rye, it’s written in this conversational, colloquial first person voice. It reads as though written by a teenager. There are some lines written all in block capitals to showcase the narrator’s anger, and throughout the book are several illustrations that serve as Arnold’s own cartoons about his life. It’s also got this very light-hearted, comedic tone that juxtaposes nicely with some of the horrific events of the book. The union of humor and tragedy is a natural one in my opinion. I understand that it can be a little jarring for the more serious-tempered folks out there, but I just think it’s inevitable that wherever tragedy strikes, comedy won’t be far behind. When it’s done right, the marriage can lead to some really effective forms of artistic expression that resonate with people very deeply. Often in life you’ll see people making light of a dire situation- especially young people.

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The passages that cause the most uproar among concerned parent groups are the ones that deal with bullying and racism and sex. For instance, Arnold talks frankly about being referred to as a “faggot” and a “retard”. These are horrible words. But what the concerned parent and religious groups fail to understand is that if you ban a word outright, then kids are not only going to use it more often, but they’re going to use it irresponsibly. These churchy types have a profound mistrust in the ability of young people to handle serious subjects. The fact is that these words exist on the schoolyard. Kids are going to encounter them. And they need responsible adults to help them understand the gravity and power of the language they use. My own teenage years are laced with these cruel words and the devastating effect they can have. I suffered these harsh words and I was guilty of using them myself on some occasions. And like any teenager I told jokes with my friends that were offensive, vulgar, or just straight-up gross. A lot of parents don’t want to believe it, but foul language is endemic to the teenage experience. This gives Alexie’s novel a resonant quality. It rings true. Real teenagers ask each other “What would you rather do…eat your Nan’s diarrhea or have sex with the gym teacher?”

They don’t “Run through fields of wheat”.

But what offends the conservatives and the Christians more than crude language? Their own depraved biology of course…

Alexie’s novel doesn’t have any actual sex in it- but it does contain sexual references. The narrator now and then jokes about how much he masturbates, and for this reason many parents have called for the novel to be removed from school libraries. But to write a book about puberty without covering masturbation is like writing a book about the history of music without covering brass instruments. I get the feeling that these “concerned parents” would see teen fiction stripped of all references to sex, drugs, alcohol, violence, and cursing until it’s so watered down and wholesome that it’s worthless as a piece of art. At that point you’re bordering on propaganda, because you’re trying to create an image of young folks that’s patently untrue.

I remember when I was a teenager, everyone around me was eager to talk about puberty in some form or another. It’s natural to want to try and make sense of the changes your body is going through. I remember once at school, I was in a drama class, and a kid in my group asked each of us to reveal how many times a day we masturbated. These types of conversations happen on every schoolyard and at every sleepover. And by writing about it in his book, Alexie is reaching out to teenagers all over the world and letting them know that they’re not weird, that they’re not sinful, that there’s nothing wrong with how they feel.

My favorite passages in the book were the high school basketball scenes. And that’s not just because I love hoops, but because it highlights the dichotomy of Arnold’s world so well. The white kids live in a culture that tells them they can do or be anything, and their games are full of hope. The Native Americans however, don’t have that same agency. They exist in a world where they are made to feel like they can’t achieve anything. The American Dream is a White Dream. Arnold is different from most of the kids in his tribe in that he’s determined to see the world and realize his ambitions. He thrives in a white school and his former classmates on the reservation hate him for it. They call him an “apple”, suggesting that he is red on the outside but white on the inside. When Arnold returns to his old high school as the star shooter for the rich white school, he’s met with an extremely hostile reception.

At first he’s determined to get revenge on them for bullying him, but then Arnold realizes that his fellow tribe members on the other team probably didn’t eat breakfast that morning. It’s a heartbreaking moment, because he realizes that this basketball game was all these poor kids had. It’s not really satisfying to beat them when your team has vastly superior resources.

The two biggest themes in my opinion are the lack of hope and the struggle for identity for Native American peoples. The cyclical nature of violence, alcoholism, poverty, and despair as portrayed in Alexie’s novel makes for very depressing reading. That’s why the humor is so important in my opinion. Arnold is an endearing protagonist because, unlike everyone around him, he refuses to give up.

Overall I quite enjoyed this book. It’s not as subtle as The Catcher in the Rye, but I think the simple language works well for the themes it wants to explore. The scenes of bullying are visceral and hard-hitting- as are some of the tragedies that occur in the latter half of the book. I would absolutely recommend this to anyone interested in Native American issues or Coming-Of-Age/Teen/Young Adult fiction.

My Favorite Titles

When I was ten years old, my schoolteacher gave a lesson on writing stories. I have this distinct memory of her asking us to think about what makes a good title. Given that we were a bunch of hyperactive little shits, we bombarded her with outrageous names like “THE LAVA DRAGONS” that only escalated in ridiculousness. I remember trying to come up with the craziest, most random title I could think of. When the orgy of shrieks and swallowed snot was over, the teacher told us that the best titles often didn’t spell everything out for you. A good title, she said, created a sense of mystery. You don’t want to reveal everything all at once- you want to pique a person’s interest.

Our teacher then proceeded to tell us what she decreed was the best title in the history of art and media.

The Magic School Bus!” she cried to a silent, head-scratching audience. “Think about it! You hear it and you just think: What made this school bus magic? In what way is it magic? What can it do that a normal school bus can’t? It makes you want to read more, doesn’t it? It takes something familiar- a school bus- and it makes it magic!”

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No one said anything. I frowned at the woman; I figured she was just lame. Anything that had the word “school” in the title had to be lame. I was firmly of the belief back then that every teacher had no life outside of school, and that it was their mission to make everything in the world boring.

But what she said did get me thinking about titles, and it made me question my ideas. I knew that next time I had to come up with something cool, I’d think about how it sounded before just shouting it out. As the years went by, I began to appreciate that teacher’s words more and more. Even though I thought she was being dumb at the time, what she said nevertheless got through to me, and it stuck with me, to the point that I’ve held onto it for all these years.

I’ve never considered myself the most imaginative title-creator. It’s something I tend to fret over and struggle with when I’m writing a poem or a story. I spend ages trying to think up something witty and original when asked to think of a name for a pub quiz team, a 5-a-side football team, a video game character, or whatever. I’m deeply envious of people that can come up with something catchy on the spot. When I first met my friend Aaron while studying abroad in the USA, I complimented him on his penchant for lyrical, alliterative phrases and titles. Seemingly on the fly, he’d come up with things I’d never even think of. During the snowy nights at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire, we’d be folding laundry and listening to music. Aaron had an indie playlist called “Hay Fever and Horn Frogs”. The title didn’t necessarily make sense, but it rolled off the tongue well and it was playful. There’s no such thing as Horn Frogs- they’re like Bananafish and Jackalopes- but in Argentina there are these little badasses called Horned Frogs.

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At the moment I’m finishing up work on my novel and having to decide on its final title. Most authors tend to come up with working titles as they begin the writing process, and give their manuscript its real title when it is finished. It’s generally considered bad advice to come up with a title before a fleshed out story. I for one feel unable to name something until it’s finished. I have to look back on the work and think about what the most important themes are. There are no set rules as to what makes a good title, but one way to go about it is to think about the essence of your work and create a title that embodies it.

I’ve been thinking about some of my favorite titles and why I like them. Here’s my list:

 

Long Day’s Journey into Night – play, Eugene O’Neil

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – novel, Maya Angelou

Look Homeward, Angel – novel, Thomas Wolfe

Tree of Wooden Clogs – film, Ermanno Olmi

A Streetcar Named Desire – play, Tennessee Williams

No Country for Old Men – novel, Cormac McCarthy

Things We Lost in the Fire – film, Allan Loeb

Beneath a Steel Sky – video game, Dave Cummins

Shadow of the Colossus – video game, Fumito Ueda

Out of this Furnace – novel, Thomas Bell

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant – novel, Anne Tyler

Minutes to Midnight – album, Linkin Park

Dreams of Milk & Honey – album, Mountain

Physical Graffiti – album, Led Zeppelin

Where the Red Fern Grows – novel, Wilson Rawls

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada – film, Guillermo Arriaga

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – novel, John Berendt

The Autumn of the Patriarch – novel, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Places I Stopped on the Way Home – memoir, Meg Fee

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – novel, Jeanette Winterson

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream – short story, Harlan Ellison

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – novel, Carson McCullers

Call Me By Your Name – novel, Andre Aciman

 

Looking at my list, I can already see that I have a real thing for lyrical and poetic titles. A lot of these titles are fairly long too. Heck, some of them are even complete sentences. I like titles to feel unique rather than punchy. But that’s just me. What are some of your favorite titles? Let me know in the comments!

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review Part 4 – American Venom (Spoilers)

When I set out to blog about Red Dead Redemption 2 I had no idea I was writing a quartet. This game is so vast and layered that more and more features seem to emerge for me to write about every time I sit down at my desk. Each deceptively-simple sentence begets another. Each planned paragraph leads to an unplanned one. And each blog post seems to carry within it the seeds of the next. But for what it’s worth, this definitely is the last post in the series.

If you’re finding me for the first time, I covered the gameplay in part one, the themes and tone of the franchise as a whole in part two, and the plot in part three. Today I’d like to write about the epilogue, as well as take a closer look at our protagonists Arthur Morgan and John Marston. Needless to say, there will be spoilers from here on out.

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When I started my Red Dead Redemption 2 playthrough, I wasn’t sure what to make of Arthur Morgan as a character. At first glance he seemed bland and generic. During the game’s effective opening chapter, he didn’t stand out very much. By contrast, the likes of Micah, Sadie, and Dutch were a lot more colorful. I wondered if RDR2 was following the gaming trend of having all the peripheral characters more lively and interesting than the protagonist. Perhaps there is a reason so many playable characters get outshined by their supporting cast. Maybe a quiet, brooding hero appeals to the widest audience? Or maybe it’s all about letting the player project their own personality onto the protagonist, making it therefore desirable to developers to create an inoffensive blank slate for us to infuse with whatever qualities we so chose?

I will say that I wasn’t giving Rockstar enough credit.

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Arthur Morgan’s greatness is in his subtlety. He emerges as a nuanced character as the narrative progresses. He becomes more complex as a person and as a character because the events of the plot cause him to look inward and really think about his actions. His arc is so compelling because Arthur becomes more self-aware. Put simply, he is a totally different person at the end of the plot than he was at the beginning. And so often in video games, the only notable difference in the protagonist at the end of the game is the fact their fingernails now smell like coins.

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When the game begins, Arthur is a senior member of the gang, serving as Dutch’s right hand man. As the latter dominates the cutscenes with his stylish outfit and verbose speeches, Arthur at first glance is playing the role of a henchman. He’s a grizzled, no-nonsense gunman. In a movie, he’d be a character whose primary role in the plot is to be pumped with lead at some point. I noted several moments at the beginning of the game where members of the gang would tease Arthur for being inarticulate or simple. This makes his transformation all the more affecting in my opinion; I love that Rockstar have given us this ostensibly dumb henchman as our leading man only to reveal that he is far more nuanced than the stereotype he seemingly inhabits.

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As the game went on, I actually found it a breath of fresh air that the protagonist wasn’t the chosen one or something. He’s not special, famous, or powerful. He’s just the trusty hired muscle to Dutch’s swaggering, infamous, larger-than-life celebrity. Too often games try to make players feel important by making the player-character a legend in the world of that game, or a leader of some kind. But it tends to feel hollow and token when you have to personally do everything. Perhaps the best example of this is in Fallout 4, where the factions in the game make you their leader after only knowing you 20 minutes, and then proceed to send you on the most mundane of fetch quests. Am I a king or a fucking errand boy? I’d ask myself. In Mafia 3, the game teases you with the exciting promise of being the boss of the city’s criminal underworld. But there’s no real gameplay based around the management of a criminal enterprise. Despite being the boss, you have to personally clear out entire warehouses full of thugs by yourself. In real life, mafia bosses don’t leave the goddamn house. These desperate attempts to make the player feel important often fall flat because they don’t gel with the actual gameplay. For instance, in the Mass Effect series, you can’t send Garrus and a few redshirt space marines down to the surface to take out alien strongholds on your behalf, because that wouldn’t make for a very fun game would it? Despite being the commander, you have to personally see to everything, leaving the majority of these highly-trained warriors you’ve been recruiting from all corners of the galaxy to remain on the ship playing Ticket to Ride in the mess hall.

Red Dead Redemption 2 doesn’t suffer from this disconnect however. Your role as a gunslinger compliments the gameplay. It makes sense that you’ll do the heavy lifting and ride into town looking for ways to “earn”.

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As the plot progresses, Arthur starts to think about the morality of how he “earns”. I got the feeling that, far from being blind to the sins of his work, Arthur had merely repressed these doubts for many years. At the beginning of the game, he doesn’t seem particularly interested in being a good person, and more or less embraces his outlaw persona. But as the actions of the gang become more reckless and violent in the wake of Hosea’s death, Arthur finds that he has to confront these doubts. Dutch goes too far, and Arthur discovers that despite his low opinion of himself, he isn’t like his mentor after all. He’s a better person than that, and during Chapter 6 he works to become a better person. It’s a beautiful catharsis, because Arthur is taking his life into his own hands and working to do the right thing. Now he has a real sense of agency. He’s not just accepting his status as a petty outlaw- he’s striving to be better. He acquires a modicum of dignity and self-respect that flies in the face of Dutch’s authority. Now Arthur’s more than just a hired gun. His tuberculosis diagnosis fills him with a desire to determine exactly who he is and what his legacy will be.

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Before the diagnosis, he acts more or less indifferent to the wrongs of the gang and the suffering of innocents. He’s not evil like Micah, but he has no self-esteem and seems content just to submit to an outlaw’s existence. He doesn’t believe at this point that he can be better, or that there is any other path for him. He’s amoral. When Charles seeks to help the German family, Arthur dismisses the idea. It’s not their problem. Charles challenges him, telling Arthur that he’s better than that. And when the German guy they save gives Arthur a gold bar, he’s humbled and speechless. He’s starting to realize that it feels good to help others.

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Once he gets diagnosed with tuberculosis, he begins to reflect on his actions a lot more. For the first time in his life, he has the bravery to look inside at his doubts and resolve to do the right thing. I’ve written in my previous posts how Rockstar uses its characters as vehicles for the larger themes of the narrative. Arthur represents the biggest theme of the franchise- redemption. His sense of shame and regret compels him to do the right thing and make amends for his past. This was incredibly powerful for me. Arthur stands up to Dutch and goes out of his way to secure a future for John and his family. The advice Arthur gives John in many ways drives the entire plot of RDR1.

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Arthur sees that John has a chance at the life he himself could have had with Mary Linton and implores John to take it. Ultimately he sacrifices himself to see John achieve that dream. And John follows that advice so well throughout the epilogue…until he doesn’t. The biggest tragedy of the game is that, after finally setting himself and his family up for a life of peace, he makes the fateful decision to avenge Arthur, which Arthur wouldn’t have wanted. He rides to Mt. Hagen and kills Micah, which is very satisfying. But this decision then sets off a chain of events which lead to RDR1. Edgar Ross finds Micah’s corpse and tracks Marston back to his family farm, which utterly destroys the life Marston had worked so hard to build. It’s admittedly a tough decision; now that everything has come together, John feels an immense debt to Arthur, and a real duty to avenge the friend that made his new life possible. Ultimately however, Abigail is right: Micah isn’t worth sacrificing their newfound happiness. In avenging Arthur’s death, John is tarnishing the very thing Arthur died for, and disregarding his last wish.

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Much like Arthur, John Marston is a different person by the end of the narrative. At first he’s this lucky rascal with nine lives and a wayward spirit. He has trouble committing to something and he doesn’t know what he wants. By his own admission he is a lousy father. He and Abigail don’t sleep in the same bed, and there’s no relationship to speak of. But as the game goes on, he matures, finds a sense of focus, and realizes how important Abigail and Jack are to him. Arthur plays a big role in helping him realize this. By the end of the game, John, Abigail, and Jack are a working family.

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Overall, the epilogue was my favorite part of the game. The pace was much more steady, the events more realistic, and I liked how character-driven the missions were. The epilogue itself would make a great standalone film or novel in my opinion. A stranger shows up at a ranch, desperate for work, trying his best to hide his mysterious past, but is forced to relive it when the shit hits the fan. The relationship between John and Abigail is also really touching. They’re both people with rough, impoverished upbringings, who have lived on the fringes of society. They don’t feel entitled to a dream. But as the plot goes on, they start to dream a little, and you see them enjoying life for the first time. It’s bittersweet; you’re sad because you know it will all end in tragedy, but you’re also glad they got to experience true happiness before it all goes to shit during RDR1.

One of my favorite fan theories involves a little detail during the house-building scene. Throughout the montage, a blue jay appears multiple times in John’s vicinity. Given the various references to reincarnation throughout the game, many have speculated that the bird might be Arthur. If you got the good ending, Arthur dies peacefully while watching the sunrise. He loved nature and blue is sort of his color throughout the game- the color of loyalty. Whether Rockstar intended this in a literal sense I can’t say- but I don’t think that’s the point. It’s just nice to believe that Arthur’s watching over John as he follows his advice.

My Year in Review: 2018

At the stroke of midnight 2018 will be gone forever, and there will be no time left to improve upon it or add to its legacy. Except not really. In Houston, Texas it will still be 2018 for 6 whole hours- which is enough time to read Albert Camus’ The Stranger, persuade the neighborhood kids to whitewash your fence, make muffins with that special someone (and making muffins only takes 10 seconds, right?), annex the Sudetenland, and still have a few minutes to spare to get unceremoniously killed by a tortoise dropped from the talons of an eagle. But no one’s that productive of course. If it weren’t the last six hours of the year it wouldn’t even occur to you to do all those things. Take any six hour period from an average day and you’ll probably see me slouched in my computer chair, tearfully stuffing Jaffa Cakes into my gob and praying for a swift heart attack. And let us not forget- when the clock strikes twelve it will have already been 2019 for six hours in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. At the same time everyone here will be counting down the last 10 seconds of the year against a backdrop of spilled beer, horrible music, and none-too-furtive muffin-making, the sun will be rising quietly over the Tian Shan mountains. I don’t know what the Kyrgyzstani translation for “New Year, New Me!” is, but I imagine that when they look up at the first clear sky of the year the novelty is already wearing off. Maybe they think about how each year seems to go by quicker than the last, or how today feels an awful lot like yesterday. Or maybe they think nothing at all.

After all, what is a year really? I guess I tend to think of a year as being its events. I think of it in terms of the decisions I made, for better or for worse. But once those events are over- and a fresh calendar is stapled to the wall- do they really mean anything? I’m so often given to reflecting on a year as a whole, and assessing the decisions therein. I don’t think events can ever really be lost, because even though they may have concluded, the consequences inform our present circumstances. For instance, my decision to eat that tube of Pringles two weeks ago had the consequence of me suffering an ulcer the size of Fort Worth. Mouth ulcers pass, but the event still exists in the present. If I continue to engorge myself on junk food, I’m not going to be able to see me ol’ gigglestick when I’m in the shower (it’s already disappearing from view). Maybe- just maybe– time is like a flat circle, and the past, present, and future all exist within the same space. Everything that’s going to happen has already happened, and everything that’s happened will happen again ad infinitum. The beginning and the end meet each other like a serpent of myth that bites its own tail. It will always be 2018 while simultaneously not being 2018. Or maybe I’ve lost it.

So what have I done with 2018? What decisions did I make? And what will last? In preparation for this piece I took a look back at My Year in Review: 2017. It definitely reads like a story, as though it is a single journal entry in a diary of my life. I find that idea very appealing- it would be great to look back in 50 years at 50 Year in Review posts, assuming I’m still writing when I’m 76. I love preserving memories in as much detail as possible, so for what it is worth, here’s my story of 2018.

When I think of 2018 I think of temping, dog-sitting, and solo travel. I worked in the recycling department of a warehouse where we dismantled outdated computer hardware. It was my first job working with tools, so I did a lot of new things. My most vivid memory is unloading a truck full of scrap metal. It was June, aggressively hot outside, and at the back of the truck were a load of metal doors that had been stripped from old server bays, each bay bigger than a fridge. There had to be about 300 in total, too tightly stacked for the forklift to get under. So we asked the truck driver to park as close to the skip as possible, and just like a conveyor line, me and two other guys launched these doors one by one into the skip as if we were throwing javelins. I’ve never had to call upon my upper body muscles like that. By the end I felt as if my arms would fall off. Someone came along and said “It’s the Tale of the Never-Ending Doors!” which is how I always think of it.

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Throughout the year I’ve used the money I’ve made from temp jobs like this to go traveling by myself. My first experience of solo travel was a week-long trip to Hungary, where my confidence in myself grew immeasurably. I discovered I love being in my own company, and that I want to spend all my time seeing new places and cultures. I tried to do as much as possible, going to thermal bathhouses every day, touring museums, going to concerts, taking a dinner-cruise, and even visiting a nightclub!

I also took a weekend trip to Ireland to see my friends George and Elizabeth. We barbecued sausages at their lakeside cottage and followed in the steps of faeries. When I left the warehouse, I decided last-minute to take another solo trip- this time to New Orleans in the USA. I stayed there for a week, drinking Hurricanes, making excursions to the bayou, and sitting front-row at a raunchy striptease burlesque.

When the week was over, I took a train south to Houston. The month I spent living in Texas was among the happiest periods of my life. When I look back on it I think of going down to the park in the morning to eat brisket tacos at the food trucks. I think of J. Cole and the podcast Sh*t Town playing as we drive down the freeway. I think of evenings sitting on the floor playing Super Mario Strikers while necking martinis. I think of all the snuggles with our puppy Adelaide, and the time she tried to hide in my lap when her parents told her off for being sassy. I think of Brandless and Netflix. I think of the time we tried on our wedding suits, or the time we were grilling brats on the deck and it started raining. Watching all the thunderstorms outside the window at night.

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In September Aaron and Anne-Marie got married in Wisconsin. Their wedding was my favorite memory of the year. I got to be a groomsman and I even gave a speech at the rehearsal dinner- though I was somewhat inebriated so I don’t remember much of what I said. Something sappy probably. Aaron was the definition of a debonair gentleman and didn’t seem nervous at all. Anne-Marie was the most beautiful girl I have ever seen, holding herself with such an elegant sense of poise and posture. The two slow-danced to “Clouds” by Letters and Lights, and I was happy.

In 2018 I also managed to write a novel and almost finish a second one. I’m on the last two chapters of the second one at the moment. In December I went back to work at the pub I was at before my time at the warehouse. My year came full circle in that way. It was hectic during the Christmas period, but I made new friendships. I also made garlic bread and stuffing balls, when asked. One time I cut my finger open on a cracked ceramic bowl that fell from a shelf and blood sprayed everywhere. My friend Dan said it looked like a horror movie, with the amount of blood covering the floor. I knew instantly that it was the deepest cut I had ever had.

So that’s the story of my year. On the whole it’s been good, but I’ve yet to exercise control over my emotions. I started the year on 40mg antidepressant tablets, tried going down to 20mg, but by the end decided to go back up to 40mg. I learned that my journey is far from over and that progress isn’t always linear. My overall feeling is that it was good- but only reaching the heights of fucking fantastic in isolated spikes. And really, that ain’t too bad.

My Top 10 Movies of the Year – 2018

It’s Christmas Eve! Which, for TumbleweedWrites, means it’s time for my annual Top 10 Movies of the Year. It’s been an excellent year for cinema, and I’ve spent a great deal of time narrowing down all the films I’ve seen into a definitive Top 10. I’ve been to the cinema more times in 2018 than any other year, so these 10 that I’ve picked really are the crème de la crème. As per usual, this post is best accompanied with a mince pie, tall glass of milk, and some kind of roaring hearthfire.


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As I said, I’ve seen a lot of movies this year. There are a couple of movies that didn’t quite crack the top 10, but are still interesting enough that I want to give them a shout-out. Namely: Outlaw King and Unsane. I was hesitant about watching Outlaw King because I assumed it would be a glossy hack-n-slash flick that was more interested in over-the-top battle scenes than exploring a historical era. I love Gladiator and Troy, but I’m worried that a lot of movies set in Ancient and Medieval time periods are more concerned with spiky balls on the ends of chains than they are character development, sociopolitical insight, and historical accuracy. I’m proud to say I was wrong about Outlaw King. It strikes a healthy balance between artistic license and respect for history. Overall it’s a well-acted and nuanced film that skillfully avoids cliché to focus on telling one of the most interesting stories from Scottish history.

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Unsane, on the other hand, is a movie I had no preconceptions of. I watched it during a plane ride from London to New Orleans and I actually really enjoyed it. It’s a very disturbing picture- in both its themes and its cinematography. There’s something about its tight camera angles and muted color scheme that makes me uncomfortable. Claire Foy does an excellent job in her portrayal of a stalking victim that gets locked up in an asylum for unknown reasons.

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#10 The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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The western genre is one of my favorites in all of cinema, so naturally I get excited whenever I hear of a new one coming out. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs isn’t my ideal type of western, but it’s a refreshing twist on the formula. In general, my favorite westerns are ones with these epic, sweeping narratives- ones where there’s a real sense of struggle. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs– being an anthology of unrelated vignettes- isn’t that. But the format works for the Coen Brothers’ quirky style and offbeat sense of humor. Not all of the stories are equal in my opinion, and which one you take to probably comes down to your personal tastes. I enjoyed “The Gal Who Got Rattled” best of all. Somehow it has the scope and feel of a feature length film. My least favorite was “All Gold Canyon”. As a whole, the film is an interesting and unique take on one of my favorite genres, but the stories within are a mixed bag.

 

#9 Loveless

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Loveless is a film that’s as much about a mood as it is its characters. On the one hand it’s a story of a boy that goes missing during his parents’ vitriolic divorce- and yet its focus doesn’t remain on them exclusively. The movie seems more interested in conveying a wider sense of malaise in contemporary Russian life. The film achieves this with its gorgeous cinematography, lighting, and gray color scheme. There’s just something bleak and existential about it. It’s about modernity, it’s about people that can’t communicate, it’s about the alienation of individuals in Putin’s political climate- it’s about all of this rather than the boy that goes missing. This is intentional I think- the child’s well-being isn’t given the attention it deserves in both the world of the film and in its themes.

 

#8 Hostiles

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Unlike The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Hostiles is very much in the style of the westerns near and dear to my heart. It’s dark, gritty, and bleak, with a heavy emphasis on realism. Christian Bale and Wes Studi are reliably excellent in their respective roles, and I found myself quite invested in their characters. Bale plays a grizzled cavalry officer whose hatred of Indians is born out of the gory history he shares with Studi’s character- a Cheyenne war chief. He reluctantly agrees to return the imprisoned chief to Montana so he can die peacefully in his homeland. Naturally, this creates for some rather effective tension. Their journey across the country forces them to confront their differences and their preconceptions, and there are some truly riveting action scenes in there too. I particularly liked the nuanced ending, which the film builds towards with a careful and well-executed pace.

 

#7 Phantom Thread

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Although not quite as exciting as There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day Lewis’ understated and steadily-paced final movie is the perfect send-off for the greatest actor of his generation. The sense of presence he brings to his roles is so powerful that he can take your breath away with just a look. Even when he’s not playing a psychotic oil tycoon, he just has this aura that’s arresting. This movie illustrates the range of his talent so well, in that the character he plays is a complex, narcissistic, compulsive genius whose strict sense of order and obsession with routine is completely turned on its head by a feisty woman that’s determined to love him.

 

#6 I, Tonya

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I really liked this movie! From a stylistic point of view it reminded me of Scorsese somewhat. Its eclectic mixture of humor and tragedy is conveyed in a really interesting way with mockumentary interviews, fourth wall breaks, and this fleeting narrative style. It’s a movie that I think can only really work if it’s a masterpiece. Without a clever director, skilled cinematographer, and stellar performers, I think this idea would fall flat. I, Tonya gets everything right, and is executed so well that the comedy and the tragedy are equally effective without impeding on one another. The fat guy that wants everyone to think he’s a secret agent is side-splittingly funny, and you kinda end up liking him even though what he does is pretty despicable.

 

#5 Bad Times at the El Royale

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I went to see this movie for my birthday with my kid brother and it was a gas. This stylish thriller channels The Hateful Eight and Pulp Fiction in a slick, 60s-counterculture atmosphere. The movie is just damn good fun and even though it’s fairly long, it’s engaging and exciting from beginning to end. I’m a big fan of stories with multiple, overlapping story threads, and the setting of a roadside hotel that’s half in California and half in Nevada is really interesting. The line that marks the state boundary is also a clever motif for the film’s themes of morality, and the gray area that runs through that dichotomy.

 

#4 Disobedience

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I went to see Disobedience at the Watershed Cinema in Bristol, which is my local go-to for arthouse movies. This beautiful motion picture tells the story of an illicit affair between two women in an Orthodox Jewish community in North London. It’s a really nuanced and complex character-driven drama with some truly outstanding performances from its three main actors. The claustrophobic cinematography highlights the struggle of Rachel McAdam’s character as a gay woman and a devout Jew. This film is both heart-wrenching and heart-warming and deals with its challenging subject matter with a mature and sophisticated sensitivity. There are no heroes and villains here- the primary characters all come across as exceedingly authentic.

 

#3 1945

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When I heard that the Watershed was showing a Hungarian picture I leapt at the chance. I watched the film with my parents in the cinema’s smallest room with about 20 other people. 1945 is set in- you guessed it- 1945, in the months after Hungary was liberated by the Soviets in WW2. The plot is simple but so effective. There are no main characters at such, but the action begins with the arrival of two Jews in a rural town. The townsfolk become suspicious of their intent, and as they slowly walk from the train station to the center of the village, the entire town unravels.

 

#2 You Were Never Really Here

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I was certain- both before it came out and after I watched it- that this would end up as my Film of the Year. It promised to be a masterpiece and it is. Lynne Ramsey is turning into one of my favorite modern filmmakers. In terms of how it puts its pieces together, this is probably the most interesting entry on this list. Ramsey leaves a lot unsaid, utilizing fleeting images and a surreal, dreamlike use of cinematography to tell a minimalist narrative. There are echoes of Taxi Driver, as Joaquin Phoenix plays a troubled military vet who works as a kind of vigilante-hitman, taking the law into his own hands and earning a living clubbing in douchebags with a ball-peen hammer. As I said, this is a title worthy of top spot, and would certainly be taking home that honor if it weren’t for…

 

#1 Roma

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I can’t not give the TumbleweedWrites Film of the Year Award to Alfonso Cuaron’s colossal, larger-than-life, career-defining magnum opus, Roma. Based on his experiences growing up in the bourgeois neighborhood of Colonia Roma in Mexico City, this film tells the story of a live-in maid to a dysfunctional, middle-class family in the early 1970s. It’s hard to think of a component of storytelling that Cuaron doesn’t absolutely nail in this epic drama. It’s funny, it’s poignant, it’s quirky, it’s atmospheric, and above all it’s just real. It’s not just the story of the au pair, but of the director’s own childhood, as Cleo’s story intersects with various historical events and random encounters too weird not to have come from Cuaron’s personal memories. If there’s any film that’s come out this year that you need to see before you die- it’s this one. Absolutely mesmerizing from start to finish!

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