All posts by mjvowles2014

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

Between my job, my novel, my travels, and this here blog, it’s been a chaotic and frustrating year for my reading. As I have stated in some of my recent posts, 2018 has so far been a year in which I’ve felt a little stressed and a little anxious. I’m awful at balancing multiple targets, at tending to each with equal effectiveness so that no one target stagnates. It’s all self-inflicted of course, and I’m going to spend the second half of 2018 trying to improve my lifestyle. Anyhow, I just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, having started it a few months ago. One thing I noticed is that my pace picked up massively after the first 100 pages. I think this is for two reasons though; the first being that those initial 100 pages were read in March-April during which I had just started work at the warehouse. After my trip to Hungary I didn’t touch the novel for almost two months, before returning to it again in June. Since my rediscovery of my love for reading in 2017, I’ve been on a hot streak with books and haven’t given up on a single one. So I picked up where I left off with McCarthy, determined not to break my streak of finishing every book I’ve started since January 2017. And it’s not like I wasn’t enjoying the book. Which brings us to the second reason: although I liked the first 100 pages or so, I wouldn’t say I was hooked. However the next 200 pages of the novel I consumed with a feverish hunger. I really started to get invested in the characters and their struggles once I got to the hotel shootout where Moss first encounters Chigurgh.

I had seen the film version of No Country for Old Men years ago, but I didn’t quite remember everything about it when I started reading. I received my copy of the book as a Christmas present last year, and figured it would make an interesting contrast to my last read- The Center of Everything. When I finished the book a couple weeks ago, I re-watched the Coen Brothers’ movie adaptation. Right off the bat I knew that I could never love the movie the way I had before I read the novel. And I used to love that movie. I’m not at all one of those pretentious bibliophile cum-rags that insist the book is always better than the movie. I can think of loads of examples where the movies outdo the original source material: The Last of the Mohicans, The Godfather, There Will Be Blood. But No Country for Old Men certainly isn’t one of them. The Coen Brothers are good at making films, but Cormac McCarthy is a living genius. The Coen Brothers adapted McCarthy’s novel as well as it can be adapted, but having read it I don’t see any way in which a movie could have anywhere near as much depth and complexity. And as I stated earlier, that’s not because books are inherently superior. Each art form has its advantages and disadvantages, depending on the kind of story you want to tell and the effect you want it to have. And the advantage a novel has is how far you can go into the souls of its characters.

Once I re-watched the movie, having read the book, I felt a pang of disappointment as I realized that all I was watching was a watered-down version of the same narrative, with nothing particularly outstanding in it that didn’t come originally from McCarthy’s mind. Even the dialogue was lifted straight from the text. For obvious reasons it’s abridged, but the way it’s been cut and pasted into the script means that it lacks the flow of the scenes in the book. It’s not as punchy and powerful.

The character of Chigurgh feels similarly hollow compared to his counterpart in the novel. The film makes him out to be more of a bogeyman or an alien, whereas in the book he is strikingly articulate. The passages where he gives us an insight into his strange worldview and twisted morality are some of the most fascinating in the book. When I was reading those passages, I didn’t interpret him as just some crazed lunatic- and that didn’t make him any less menacing either.

One of my favorite aspects of the book was the relationship between Sheriff Bell and Chigurgh. They never meet or have a conversation, but they’re connected. Bell is obsessed not just with catching Chigurgh, but with understanding him. He becomes the personification of a heartlessness that chills Bell to his very core. And Bell always interprets Chigurgh as being the symptom of something larger- a new breed of killers toting a violent, remorseless philosophy that he feels incapable of dealing with. In the novel you really get a sense of how invested the sheriff is in the case, and why, at the end, it consumes him. But in the film we are given very little of Bell’s motivations, so that he seems hardly bothered with what’s going on. The Bell of the novel seems much more agitated and much more desperate to solve the case.

I think the moment I went from simply enjoying the book to falling in love with it occurred in the lengthy denouement. And this is where my criticism of the movie does feel a little unfair. There is no way a standard, feature-length movie could replicate such an ending without killing the pacing. But in the context of a novel, the pacing of the last 50 pages is perfect. It’s a beautifully subtle and understated conclusion to such a bloody narrative. Bell tries his best to track down Chigurgh but he slips through his fingers once again. He is, as Bell says, a “ghost”.

You really get a sense of how deeply the murder of Carla Jean affects the sheriff. And it’s the catalyst for Bell’s unravelling in those final 50 pages or so. Bell confesses that, his whole life, he has been haunted by an experience in World War 2 in which he abandoned his men in order to save his own skin. He survived, his buddies were murdered by the Nazis, and the army gives him a medal for bravery. What I found most interesting about his confession was his idea that since then, he has been living “a stolen life”. He believes that he ought to have died in that field with his fellow soldiers, and this echoes Chigurgh’s fatalistic philosophy. Chigurgh tells Carla Jean, before he shoots her, how every little event, non-event, decision, and decision-not-taken, in her life led to her death at his hands. All roads lead to the same place. Bell feels like he cheated death- or better yet- that he avoided his destiny. Having sworn a duty upon entering the armed forces, his path was set for him, and he reneged on his oath instead of seeing it through.

I can’t stop thinking about his “stolen life” remark though. It implies that he was never meant to return to Texas, marry his wife, serve as sheriff. To him it feels fake, that he is living someone else’s life. It was someone else that was meant to marry Loretta and hunt down Chigurgh. These thoughts send Bell into a depression. We realize that it was his shame and his feelings of inadequacy that drove him to running all over Texas trying to solve a case that was far beyond his jurisdiction. Moss is a member of the community he swore to protect, and in trying to save him Bell is really looking for a second chance to save his wounded men from the Nazis. Bell is driven by a sense of failure, and for me he is the most fascinating character in the book. It was his journey that affected me the most.

Not every Cormac McCarthy book is a page-turner. They’re all brilliant in their own way, but if I’m going to the beach I’m probably not packing Suttree– for the same reason I wouldn’t pack Proust’s In Search of Lost Time or Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. But I would pack No Country for Old Men. It’s layered and intelligent but it’s also a hardboiled thriller. The language is so crisp and succinct. There are echoes of Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain in the dialogue that made me think McCarthy was having a lot of fun writing his own stylish noir.

In conclusion, this was an awesome read! However I’m going to change it up and read something more sentimental next.

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My Top 5 Indie Horror Films & My Growing Interest in the Genre

In the past year or so, I’ve noticed an increase in my appetite for the horror genre. Since this blog was started, I’ve written a post about my first experience reading a horror novel, a post about my recurring nightmares, and a post about the spookiness of the American college town I lived in for 3 years. In reviewing these three posts, I find myself wondering whether my tastes have suddenly changed, or if I’m actually returning to a proclivity for being scared that was always there. My first instinct is to believe the former- since I grew up in fear of horror movies and avoided them at all costs. As a kid I was exposed to things like The Ring, The Omen, and The Fly at sleepovers- and they left me utterly petrified and incapable of sleep. On one particular occasion I was exposed to the horror-comedy Scary Movie and when my mom came to pick me up the next morning I was visibly traumatized. It’s something she still remembers. After all, that was only last week. Kidding! I was about 10 or 11 years old, and I just wasn’t ready. Every other boy my age seemed unfazed by it all, and I grew up thinking I was a real pussy. But when I go deeper into my childhood, I encounter memories of my love of Goosebumps. I owned several of the books and was clearly interested in exciting my own sense of fear.

I’ve realized that I enjoy being scared, and I am attracted to the atmosphere of horror. And by atmosphere I mean all the elements of the mise-en-scène that contribute to that feeling of imminent danger. It’s not the danger itself, but the sense that it’s lurking around the corner. And I’ve enjoyed that for years in non-horror movies without realizing it- such as the scene in Nocturnal Animals where the normal family are getting followed and harassed by youths in the West Texas night. It’s a situation that could be real, and it had a much greater effect on me than the monsters of supernatural horror films. Since growing up and becoming desensitized acts of unspeakable violence as one does, I’ve watched things like Insidious and found myself thoroughly uninterested. Demons and phantoms just aren’t that intriguing- or indeed scary- to me.

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In the last year however, I’ve discovered several indie films that seem to encapsulate the brand of horror I’m interested in. They’re slow-boiling, atmospheric, and thought-provoking. They’re understated; by no means shying away from gore, but using it sparingly. They’re not concerned with testing your gag reflex- they prefer to cripple you psychologically.

Here’s my list of the top 5 indie horror films that have cemented my interest in the genre. They’ve all been released in the past 3 years and most of them are available on Netflix. What’s interesting is that three of these films all featured a near-car crash with an animal in the opening scene. I think it’s a plot device intended to keep the viewer in a state of panicked alertness without revealing the real threat of the narrative so soon.


  1. The Invitation – 2015

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I didn’t love this one quite as much as the first four, but it puts its pieces together skillfully, and I needed to round this list out to the nearest five. This movie does a great job of building suspense with the scenario of a dinner party where the hosts seem to be hiding something- but the payoff doesn’t ultimately match the rather effective tension that precedes it. The setting of the Santa Monica Mountains at night is suitably creepy, and the shadowy canyons that surround the mansions of the Hollywood Hills make me think that the Manson Family might be waiting around every corner. I definitely think the strangeness of Hollywood has a lot of potential for horror, and I can’t think of a better place for a movie to explore themes of Jonestown-style brainwashing.

 

  1. The Witch: A New England Folktale – 2015

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This is where the list gets tricky. The 4th, 3rd, and 2nd spots were hard to separate. The Witch is the biggest outlier on the list as the most supernatural of the five films. Generally speaking, I’m not into horror films where the threat is something inhuman, but if a story is executed so well, you can’t help but make an exception. What I liked about this movie was that the supernatural elements were so subtle. The titular witch doesn’t even get much screen time, and when she does she’s nothing more than a fleeting, hunchbacked silhouette scuttling away in the darkness. She occupies that hazy twilight between the real world and the world of imagination, which I think supplements the feeling that we’re in a fairy tale. It’s not a monster movie. The witch is more of a Shakespearean literary device that drives the human characters bananas and then goes back to its warren to hibernate for the winter and put up a new set of shower curtain rings fashioned from baby teeth. The focus of the movie is on our pilgrim family, alone in the New England wilderness, and their descent into paranoia and madness.

 

  1. Bone Tomahawk – 2015

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I watched this movie in the cinema with my dad and my brother. It’s both a western and a horror film, but I went to see it because I simply love westerns. I really enjoyed the movie, so much so that I even fashioned my moustache in the style of Kurt Russell’s character. It didn’t quite have the consequences I intended however. As I approached my friends with a cocksure, outlaw swagger and a thumb in my belt, I was told “Damnit if you don’t look like the Pringles logo right now”.

I also spent my time thinking about what made the film a horror title exactly. And upon reflection, I think that it’s all about the cinematography and the pacing of the film. It’s a western, with western characters, a western setting, and a western conflict, but it’s shot like a horror film. The fictitious Indian tribe of the Troglodytes don’t do anything supernatural, but they are shot as if they are monsters. They command the same level of fear that comes with an evil that can’t be reasoned with, and it’s a genius idea. What the film does, is portray the Troglodytes through the lens of 19th century racism. The Troglodytes are like an amalgamation of every settler’s fear about Native Americans. There’s a line that stuck with me near the start, where an Indian character asks one of the protagonists if they’d even be able to tell the difference between his people and the Troglodytes. It’s reflective of the way Native American peoples as culturally and linguistically different from each other as they were with the Europeans, were grouped under the single banner of “savages” because of the color of their skin. By having the Troglodytes play the role of a terrorizing monster from a generic slasher film, Bone Tomahawk cleverly illustrates how Indians were monsterized in the Old West. It’s an excellent piece of art house cinema and an interesting reinvention of one of my favorite movie genres of all time.

 

  1. Gerald’s Game – 2017

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This is another Stephen King movie adaptation that’s turned out to be an absolute banger. It’s your classic sex-game-gone-awry literary scenario. A middle-aged couple go out to an isolated and idyllic lakeside cabin for the weekend in the hopes of rekindling their stagnating marriage. The mild-mannered husband surprises his buxom wife by dropping it on her that he’s always had a rape fantasy, and persuades her that the best way to save their lousy sex life is to let him handcuff her to the bed posts and pretend he’s an intruder. Obviously, things go sour, and before you know it you find yourself in a complex and sinister narrative that touches on everything from child abuse to necrophagia. Don’t give this one a miss! It’s on Netflix and it’s a haunting, psychological thriller written by one of the masters of suspense.

 

  1. Get Out – 2017

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There was never any doubt in my mind that Get Out would take the number one spot on this list. For one, it’s the most deserving- that is to say, it puts its pieces together in the most effectual and masterful way. The movie is a triumph on every level of filmmaking; its performances, cinematography, pacing, and script are equally excellent. There’s not a dull moment to be had, and the movie pays off the suspense it creates in its earlier scenes by fully engaging with the heart of its mystery and concluding that in a satisfying way. This is unlike The Invitation, in which things are left too vague and mysterious for the audience to give a dang.

But furthermore Get Out rightfully heads the top of this power ranking because it encapsulates everything I want from a horror movie. It plays with the kinds of fears and dangers that I find really interesting and scary; a small community (in this case a neighborhood) acting as though they’ve got something to hide, a series of unexplained disappearances, the sinister use of hypnosis. I think what’s really scary is the idea of trust being violated- in this film it’s the trust implicit in hospitality. It’s hosts that seem a little too perfect and saccharine, whose exaggerated smiles don’t sit right. It’s the idea of being in unknown territory, far from what’s familiar and safe. If you haven’t seen this one yet, I can’t recommend it enough! You don’t even have to be remotely a horror fan to enjoy it- it’s one of those movies that transcends genre.

How Detroit: Become Human Put an End to my Gaming Slump

I was hesitant about the idea that Detroit: Become Human would be the title that broke my gaming slump. I’m also hesitant to spend full price on any AAA game these days- especially something I’m not familiar with. The rhetoric from my most trusted reviewers (“wildcard” Youtubers Yahtzee Croshaw, Jim Sterling, & Angry Joe) was that David Cage games were pretentious orgies of QTE’s, resembling laughably-bad interactive movies rather than actual games. And the opinions of reviewers I tend to regard with suspicion (IGN & Gamespot) were that Cage’s body of work represented not only his staggering genius, but an entirely unique and innovative approach to storytelling. Perhaps the truth lay somewhere in the middle, I thought. Or perhaps it all depends on the kind of gamer you are. I knew right off the bat that I’d be sympathetic to Cage’s mission statement, since I always give a greater importance to story than to gameplay.

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I kept an eye on the promotional footage of Detroit up until its release and I was very impressed by its visuals. The game came out and I waited for the reviews. I just needed to hear that the story was decent. Androids were in vogue with me at the time, and it may just have been my joyful experiences of Blade Runner 2049 and Westworld season 2 that sealed the deal. I needed a rich world to get lost in. At the time I had no real outlet for escapism in my life. And I hadn’t played a game I really enjoyed since Horizon: Zero Dawn was released over a year ago.

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It seems strange that one could have a gaming “slump”, but I honestly can’t think of any other word for it. In 2016 I was staying up all hours of the night pursuing the platinum trophy for Fallout 4. My PS4 was the material embodiment of my laziness. I spent so much time running around the Commonwealth chopping off the heads of Gunners and Super Mutants with my electrified Chinese Officer’s Sword “Brunhilde” that the irradiated wasteland felt more real to me than my actual life. But fast-forward a year to mid-2017 and I’m unable to play anything for more than 20 minutes. I was bored of gaming, if you can believe it. I tried Mass Effect: Andromeda, and it was probably the worst gaming experience of my life. I’ve never felt so let down by a game. I then tried Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, and that left me somewhat lukewarm. I wondered if I was truly falling out of love with video games or if I simply couldn’t find the right one to play.

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I took a chance on Detroit: Become Human and my overall verdict is a pretty positive one. Is it a game so close to my heart that I end up taking it more seriously than my career prospects and personal hygiene? No. Unlike The Witcher 3 and Bioshock: Infinite, I won’t take it personally if you don’t like it. But did Detroit: Become Human restore my interest in gaming? Yes.

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There are a number of things this game executes very well. The musical score is excellent; each of the three playable characters has their own soundtrack, and each piece of music has a distinctive tone reflective of that character’s narrative. As I’m writing this review I’m listening to the moody cyberpunk-noir music composed by Nima Fakhrara for Connor’s storyline.

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The visuals for this game are also excellent- and on a number of levels. The artistic design depicts a Detroit that is both grittily-familiar and slickly-futuristic, and the raw imaginative power of the concept art is rendered beautifully in the game’s state of the art graphics. Every location feels unique and interesting- and more than that- like a place that is lived in. This is achieved by little details about the way everyday things function being given special attention. For instance, the blank-faced androids crowded in at the back of the buses, the way the signal on their foreheads changes color based on their stress level, the maintenance drones vacuuming the office carpets, the monorails, the articles on android basketball, and the CyberLife emporiums that look like a cross between an Apple Store and a 19th century slave auction. Perhaps my favorite locale was the urban farm you have to chase a deviant android through during “The Nest” chapter.

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In addition to the stunning environments, the facial animations in the game are as good as any you will see today. I haven’t been this impressed by a game’s use of motion-capture acting since L.A Noire back in 2011.

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So what do we know so far? We’ve established that the game is a success on a technical and artistic level. But what of the gameplay? Most of the game consists of making dialogue choices TellTale-style and executing a sequence of Quick-Time Events. The story is entertaining, but not without its flaws. It brushes up on some complex themes- such as the nature of consciousness, whether or not a loving relationship can be established between a human and a robot, and the rising economic inequality brought about by mass unemployment- without really going deeper into those issues. The game misses the chance to say something original and profound as it seems more interested in pursuing a clumsy civil rights allegory. The story is definitely exciting, but it also has a tendency towards contrived melodrama. I enjoyed the creepy vignette where the player character has to escape a house of synthetic horrors, but found myself laughing at scenes where the humans started acting inexplicably cruel towards random androids for the sake of melodrama.

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For me, the biggest drawback of the game is its implementation of motion controls. I didn’t mind them so much in Until Dawn, where you had to keep the controller as still as possible or face getting discovered by Native American demons intent on repurposing your jawbone as a coat-hook. That to me replicated quite well the tension of having to hold your breath, and therefore enhanced immersion. However the motion controls in Detroit are wholly unnecessary. They don’t add anything to the experience and their inclusion actually detracts from the sense of immersion. They suddenly pop up in the game’s action sequences and are finicky as all hell. So if the controller doesn’t register you moving it down in exactly the way it wants you to, your favorite character gets shot in the forehead. That’s what happened to me at least. A character’s death carries no emotional weight when it occurs not because of the player’s choice, but because the player wasn’t quick and accurate enough. And I became even less enthusiastic when the game rolled out another model of the android for me to play instead, because all of the character development I had taken a part in was wiped clean.

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In conclusion, I think I can only recommend this game based on what you’re looking for. The pace is slow to begin with, and the chapter in which you spend most of your time washing dishes and cleaning up vomit will definitely put off some gamers. They’re probably necessary components of the narrative’s atmosphere and pacing, but I can’t blame you if you switch off the Playstation and start watching Blade Runner 2049 instead. You’ll find a far superior story there too. But for what it’s worth, Detroit: Become Human does have some exciting moments- enough that I enjoyed the game and wanted to play it when I wasn’t doing so. If what you’re looking for is fun gameplay, then perhaps this game isn’t for you. I would recommend this game to those that simply enjoy science fiction stories, and have at least some tolerance for QTE’s. As for me, this game ultimately broke the dry spell I had endured for over a year, and ended up being interesting and immersive enough that it occupied my thoughts when I wasn’t playing it.

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Flowers of the Algarve

During our stay in Andalucía, we chose to take a day trip into neighboring Portugal to see its famous Algarve province. The Algarve is considered to be the jewel of Portugal’s tourism crown; a lush region of orange trees, undisturbed coves, and lapis-blue terracotta tiles that has been repeatedly elected the best place in the world to retire. Given that we had this Mediterranean paradise practically within pissing distance of our hotel in Spain, we decided to hop in the rental car and cross the Rio Guadiana to see what all the fuss was about.

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Flowers of Andalucía

A couple months ago, my family and I took a trip to Andalucía. As we perused its quiet beaches and fishing villages, my brother and I decided we wanted to document our vacation in a creative way. We’re both people that get inspired by the aesthetics of a given place; the way a particular region or community’s identity is reflected in a consistent tone. We are both interested in the notion of place, and the way it lends itself to a distinctive aesthetic. But we wanted to discover the Andalucían place differently. Frank was drawn to its ambiance. He wanted to feel the pulse of these fishing villages. For him, that kind of life-force can only be derived from something that is animate. So he decided to make short films for each day of our trip, utilizing short clips and a still camera position. The still camera is important for capturing the ambiance, I think, because it meant that all the movement was coming from within the place itself. A moving camera would have diminished that life-force I think, and created a sense of distance between the viewer and the place. By having a fixed camera, he allowed the ambiance to assert itself. Short clips of gulls hopping out of the low tide, time lapses of meals in cafes, those were the kind of things he seemed to want. I, on the other hand, didn’t pursue the ambiance of the Andalucían place. I became interested in reducing it to a single image, a frozen moment in time, from which may be extrapolated the qualities of the viewer’s imagination. Frank wanted to capture the place as it was, whereas I wanted only to give an impression of it. We would see an empty, narrow alleyway in Seville and essentially take the same shot. I’d take a photo and he would take a video clip a few seconds long. And yet the resulting effect would be so different. Even though his camera would be still, and the empty alleyway devoid of activity, you still get that sense of life– be it a shift in the way the light falls on the wall, or a slight tremor in the air. When I went to Budapest in April, I took a lot of photos and I wrote a lot of haikus. Photos and haikus are very much alike; they’re both images. They’re a taste of something larger. You can sense the existence of that something larger when you see the image, and your imagination constructs it for you based on the taste you are given. 

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The area we stayed in was full of marshes and wetlands. I loved giving a sense of this low, unfolding landscape of reeds, muddy waterways, and marram grass by having the background out of focus. The color palette of the salt marshes was a dark, dry kind of green, which made the flowerheads stand out.

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Feather grass has always intrigued me.

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I find it hard to articulate why boardwalks are so exciting.

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This is one of those “old juxtaposed with the new” photos. The views from the castle ramparts included a big-ass industrial plant. I’ve always found industrial aesthetics super-interesting. I’ll take any chance I can get to photograph a factory, warehouse, power plant, sawmill, or shipping container.

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It’s interesting exploring small Spanish towns during a siesta. The whole place is deserted and the only sound is the trickling of a nearby fountain, like this one.

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I’ve always been fascinated with stories of how places get their names. It’s funny how one tribe of people can give a place its name, and so the name of the tribe lives on millennia after it has disappeared. England literally translates to Angle-land. The land of the Angle tribe. But the Angles were just one of the many peoples that settled the island. There were Vikings, Danes, Celts, Iceni, Romans, Saxons, and Normans too. Today we think of the English as being one group of people, but no one in England thinks of themselves as a member of the Angle tribe. The Angles are dead. And yet we still use their name to identify ourselves. It’s the same in France, which gets its name from just one of the tribes that settled it: the Franks. And the Franks were German. Up until Napoleon came along, only 10% of the country even spoke French.

Andalucía gets its name from the Vandal tribe, who were just one of many that settled the region. The southern coast of the Iberian peninsula has long been a hotbed for various cultures. The blend of Hispanic and Moorish architectural styles in particular made Seville very beautiful, as you can see above!

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While I was in Seville, an American student informed us that the entire cast of Game of Thrones were staying at a fancy hotel across the street. Before we knew what was happening, a good 50 people gathered outside the fence hoping for autographs and selfies. I waited for a long time, and when it became clear that they weren’t exiting the hotel, I found myself walking up to the front entrance in the hope of ambushing them in the lobby, or even the hotel bar. However a security guard told me to piss off.

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But I did get to see one of the places they filmed Game of Thrones. I’m sure y’all recognize the above picture as the Dornish palace where that guy gets stabbed by Indira Varma.

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Mazes always make me a little scared. Whenever I see one I recall a trauma from my childhood where I got lost.

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In this photo I’m focusing on the column. Usually I do this with flowers, and I always position the flower to the side of the picture, like I’m doing here with the column. It’s not because I like flowers so much. I just like how a focused object- be it a column or whatever- has a way of framing everything else. It sounds strange to say, but when I take pictures like this, I’m actually more interested in what’s out of focus.

My Thoughts on Solo: A Star Wars Story

This post is about a month late, but perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing. Hopefully it means that most of y’all have gotten around to seeing Solo: A Star Wars Story and can therefore appreciate what in tarnation I’m rambling on about. If you haven’t yet checked out the latest Star Wars flick because you’re some kind of flawlessly-extroverted sexual Tyrannosaurus too busy hosting wet t-shirt contests to give the time of day to space westerns, then I suggest taking off the star-shaped sunglasses and getting an Uber to one of Panama City’s movie theaters. You might even enjoy it! Then, come back to this site, disable your Ad-Blocker if you haven’t already, and continue with the post, because I will be covering major spoilers.

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I liked Solo. I wouldn’t say it’s a great film- but I liked it. I’ve heard it described as a “fun” movie and I’d certainly concur with that. It’s lighthearted and a little swashbuckling in tone, which to be honest is what I would expect from a film that styles itself as a space western. It’s got a couple drawbacks- which I will discuss later- but nothing so diabolical that it completely ruins the experience (like The Last Jedi for example). It’s not the movie I asked for, but I do think it’s a worthy addition to the franchise, and even something I’d like to see more of.

When I say I didn’t ask for it, what I mean is that I was hoping for Disney’s budget to be allocated to exploring events, characters and places farther removed from the main saga than an origin story of one of its most iconic heroes. However- it was exactly the type of story that I wanted. Everyone loves Star Wars in a different way, and for me the aspect of the franchise that I love the most is simply the world itself. That’s the defining characteristic of my profile as a fan. More than anything else I’m attracted to the vastness of its universe and the potential it has to tell any story you want. The proof of its potential is in what I consider to be the greatest Star Wars story ever written- Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords. The game is a perfect example of what you can do with the Star Wars template, and it’s the reference I use for illustrating that there is room in the franchise for telling stories that are nuanced, original, and dark. So even though I wasn’t initially excited about the prospect of a Han Solo movie, I found myself warming to the idea when the details of how this story was going to be told emerged in the initial marketing.

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Solo is crime movie. It’s a heist movie. It’s a wild-west movie set in outer space. It explores different worlds and different characters than what we see in the main saga. I’ve long wanted a film with Disney’s budget that focuses on the criminal underworld of the Star Wars galaxy. And the benefit of that hefty budget is seen straight away in the movie’s excellent set and costume design. I love that both this film and Rogue One capture the clunky 70’s-inspired aesthetic of the original trilogy in a way that is beautiful and fresh. That’s the first thing I noticed about this film- how beautiful it is. I’m glad they are committing to that crude and clunky sci-fi art style as opposed to something slick yet bland.

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The film opens on Han’s homeworld of Corellia- a planet that I have long wanted to see adapted for the big screen- and it looks incredible. The artistic design really brings life to the planet and its people, with a thick, industrial atmosphere. Han and Qi’ra are young lovers with big dreams. They live in an orphan community in thrall to a local crime lord, making a living stealing scrap parts from the city’s massive Imperial ship-building warehouses. One day they find a rare and valuable material that they hope to bribe their way off-world with. Han makes it out, but not before the whole thing goes tits-up and his missus is captured by the neighborhood bully and his pet Staffordshire Terrier. They’re separated for several years Cathy & Heathcliff style, until a chance reunion on a gangster’s luxury barge in which Qi’ra reveals that in order to escape she’s had to do terrible things at the behest of said gangster. Yada yada yada, and the two of them find themselves in a situation in which they have to pull off the heist to end all heists or face getting shanked by Paul Bettany’s vibroblade. It’s a pretty good plot and the action sequences in particular are fantastic. The train heist was probably my favorite. However there were a few issues I had with the story.

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The first problem is right at the beginning. One of the golden rules of writing dialogue is not to have the characters of your story act as mouthpieces for the plot, in which they end up saying aloud things they already know for the sole benefit of the viewer. It’s the sort of thing you get a lot in soap operas, where the characters are constantly puking information into your lap. For the most part, Solo adheres to this golden rule, but in the opening scene it gets violated like your Nan at a thrash metal concert. It’s a tough one, because the plot sort of writes itself into this hole by the nature of having the opening so fast-paced. I get that they don’t want to spend too much time going into Han’s childhood, but these are the kind of holes a good writer is expected to navigate. However, this was the only instance of this kind of thing that I noticed in the film’s dialogue.

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The second problem, for me, is in how Han and Chewie form their relationship. I wanted them to go more in-depth with the concept of a Wookiee Life Debt, which is a huge part of Star Wars lore. I expected it to manifest in a scene in which Han chooses to save Chewie’s family or something, but it never happens. Given that this film is the origin story of Han Solo, the establishment of his friendship with Chewbacca is something of paramount importance, and I just feel like this could have been done better. The film lacks any one strong and defining moment that we can point to as the birth of their bromance. For the most part they just seem fond of each other, and I don’t recall a particular scene where this fondness evolves into something more profound, that you know will last a lifetime.

The third problem I have is with Han’s character arc. For me, the heart of this film must absolutely be the transformation of a young, optimistic and naïve Han into the cynical, distrustful, self-centered rogue we see in A New Hope. Otherwise, this movie is essentially pointless. There would be no purpose to a Han Solo origin story without this specific arc. And it’s not that this inward journey isn’t there- I just feel as if it could have been done a little bit better. I know the movie wants to maintain its lighthearted tone, but the Han at the end of the film is not as jaded as I would have liked him to be. If you re-watch A New Hope, you realize just how much of a cold mercenary Han Solo is. For me, he’s still a little too hopeful by the end. I’m not saying he displays no growth, because clearly getting betrayed by Beckett and abandoned by Qi’ra changes him. I just wanted that growth to be more apparent.

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Where this movie succeeds, aside from its creative action scenes and stunning visuals, is in its performances. Woody Harrelson is perfectly-cast as the grizzled mentor type with dry wit and suspect moral values, but for me the standout performance was Paul Bettany as the film’s primary villain. He’s a different kind of villain to the kind we’re used to- which for the most part are variants of evil warlock figures. Dryden Vos is a more familiar antagonist for moviegoers, because he’s a purely human villain with human motivations. He doesn’t wield the mysterious space magic of Palpatine or have the samurai skills of Darth Vader, and yet he’s so menacing. His unnerving stage presence comes entirely from his unstable, psychotic persona, which Bettany does an awesome job of portraying. I was genuinely nervous every time our heroes were in a room with him.

No review of Solo would be complete, however, without a mention of the movie’s twist at the end. So it turns out that Dryden Vos in fact was serving as a kind of lieutenant for Darth Maul, who apparently survived getting sliced in half in order to reinvent himself as a cyborg Pablo Escobar. Within the context of the movie the twist doesn’t bother me that much, and it’s cool to think that Emelia Clarke might be seen again as some kind of Dark Jedi, but I’m not really a fan of Darth Maul surviving. Even within the realm of science fantasy there’s got to be a certain level of believability, and beyond that, as a narrative device I think resurrecting someone is weak. I loved Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace because he was so mysterious. But whenever you get a badass that doesn’t talk much- like Boba Fett for example- you can bet your ass someone will contrive a way for them to inexplicably survive in order to milk the fanboys for a quick and easy cash-grab. It cheapens Maul as a character, and it annoys me that he’s probably out there right now in other Star Wars media, dancing around with his iconic double-bladed lightsaber like some kind of circus monkey that should have long ago been put to sleep. This is the guy that got beat by a padawan Obi-Wan (an important part of his character growth), so there’s no way in hell he’d last ten seconds going toe-to-toe with Vader, Dooku, Windu, or an older Kenobi. I also thought it was particularly cringe-worthy that Darth Maul felt the need to activate his lightsaber during his hologram exchange with Qi’ra. She knows who he is, so that little display he did was just another wink toward the audience, and another example of the fact that this Maul is not really Maul at all- he’s Disney’s trick pony they’ve trotted onto the stage to ring a few more pennies from the masses. However, I’m not opposed to the idea of Dryden Vos serving a Sith Lord, and given that Maul has already been reintroduced in other media, it didn’t spoil my experience of the movie.

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In conclusion, Solo is definitely worth your time. I think it struggled financially because it wasn’t marketed very well. In my opinion, it should have been released in the fall of 2018, which would have distanced it from The Last Jedi and given Disney enough time to build some proper hype for the movie. I would be interested in a sort of loose sequel centering on the adventures of Lando Calrissian. I’m also curious to see what becomes of Qi’ra’s character. I hope that Disney continues to make standalone Star Wars movies and that they venture further from their comfort zone. Where would I rank Solo? Better than The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi by far, but not quite hitting the heights of Rogue One and the Empire Strikes Back. I’d put it on par with the prequel trilogy- highly watchable but not without its flaws.

Cross-Atlantic Co-Op with my American Roommate – A Way Out

When I first saw footage of A Way Out at 2017’s e3 showcase, I was instantly sold on the idea. I felt like I had been waiting a long time for a unique, innovative and layered co-op experience tailor-made for my specific tastes. And having completed A Way Out, I’m still waiting for that experience. I guess that tells you my overall takeaway from the game already. In a way, nothing has really changed for me since I watched the gameplay demo at last year’s e3, except I’m thirty bucks poorer. I distinctly remember that I was drawn to the game on a conceptual level. I loved the idea of A Way Out, and I still do.

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I checked a few reviews before buying it, and if anything they reinforced my enthusiasm for the title. I knew this wasn’t going to be the game of a generation or anything like that. It’s a niche idea, with a thirty dollar price tag that’s justified. It’s not a AAA title. I just wanted assurances that it was a solid game that ran smoothly and wasn’t complete ass. The reviews I watched gave scores in the region of 7-8, which in the gaming industry is considered about average (for some reason). So I bought the game and pitched it to my on-and-off American roommate Aaron during a phone call.

This, I said, would be a cooperative game in the truest sense of the word. We’d be playing as two prison inmates trying to escape and then evading capture once on the run. It’s not a shooter, it’s a game with a narrative focus, so we’d be completely reliant on each other throughout the game. We would be making decisions that affected the story together, we’d be working together to beat tasks specifically designed to be two-man jobs, and we’d be strategizing together.

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I love prison dramas like the Shawshank Redemption, Cool Hand Luke, and Escape from Alcatraz, so the setting was a massive draw for me. I loved the idea of a prison escape game, and it was a setting I thought perfect for co-op. One guy hiding in the laundry cart while the other pushes it, that kinda thing. It just looked different to anything else I’d seen.

What I found really intriguing, I told him, was that this game didn’t have a fixed genre. Most games are built around a specific way of playing. God of War is based around the solid core of its hack-n-slash combat, The Walking Dead its branching narratives, and Battlefield its first person shooting. By contrast, the developers of A Way Out decided to write the plot, and then utilize whatever style of gameplay best fitted a particular scene. I thought this was really interesting as a concept, and even if the game proceeded to shit all over itself, it could still- in my eyes- retain a sense of dignity at trying something new. Some missions had us racing cars, others had us stealthing around, and some scenes were 2D platformers.

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Best of all, I told Aaron, he wouldn’t have to pay a dime. I had bought the game and he would be able to experience the whole thing with me for free. The game gives you a token you can give to a mate.

We started with pretty high hopes. We laughed at the shower scene at the beginning where one of the playable characters gets hosed down like a disobedient chimp teetering on ironic self-awareness. We had fun talking to NPC’s in the prison yard and debating whether or not to be jerks. But as the game progressed, particularly once we left the prison, we realized that we were laughing at the game and not with it. The characters are shallow and utterly dull, the plot increases in ridiculousness all the way until a climactic twist that makes a mockery of the entire narrative, and you’d find more believable dialogue in an Evil Angel spoof of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The whole thing is infused with this 1980s-era B-movie camp, which didn’t sit too well with me considering the 80s is probably my least favorite decade of all time.

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I realized that for this game to really be a hit, it had to be well-written. The gameplay isn’t the draw here, because there is no central gameplay mechanic. Every chapter is a watered-down version of a different genre, the shooter sections about as polished and nuanced as a mid-90s CD-ROM title. I wondered if the game was trying to be intentionally silly, but if that’s the case it doesn’t really work. GTA: V had godawful writing, but no one cared because no one played it for the story- folks were there to rob banks, build their dream house, and reenact the Dukes of Hazzard on their way to the next meth lab. A Way Out doesn’t have that. And without any kind of immersion, we had little reason to play the game at all except to laugh at it.

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However, I’m still glad I played it. And like I said, my stance remains unchanged since I saw the e3 demo. A Way Out is a good idea- it’s just not executed all that well. There’s a lot of potential in the concept, and I hope someone tries something similar again. My favorite moment in the game was a sequence in which Aaron and I had to steer a canoe on a perilous, white-water cascade. It was the scene which best fulfilled what I wanted from a co-op experience- we had to communicate quickly and make split-second decisions about which side to paddle in order to avoid crashing into jagged rocks. It reminded me of the second video game I ever played- Wild Rapids for Playstation 1.

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In conclusion, I’m not sure I would recommend A Way Out like I did Vermintide, but I do want to stress that I don’t think the concept is inherently flawed. I just didn’t fall in love with this game the way I thought I would.