Tag Archives: Film

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!

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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.


HONORABLE MENTIONS

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!

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.

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.

Spring 2018 Recap

Today I’d like to do a springtime recap! These posts are always super-fun to write, and they let y’all know what I’ve been up to when I’m not writing or scrapping metal. Don’t worry; there are no spoilers for anything I review here.

 


TV: Westworld & Evil Genius

 

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These are the two shows I’ve really been obsessed with this year so far. I’m actually enjoying Westworld’s second season more than its first. I won’t spoil anything for those of y’all still catching up, but I love the direction they’re taking the show in and the themes that come with that narrative avenue. The crux of Westworld is its exploration of the consequences of theme park robots remembering what happens to them before they’re destroyed, repaired, and reset, and I think that the concept of these “dreams” and “reveries” being the catalyst for self-awareness is such a fascinating, clever idea. It’s probably the most layered TV drama that I watch. It’s a show that I think about when I’m not watching it. I love going online after the episode finishes and watching video breakdowns of all the hidden meanings and revelations.

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Evil Genius, on the other hand, is a Netflix crime documentary, pitched to me by my kid brother as being to 2018 what Making a Murderer was to 2016 and The Keepers was to 2017, respectively. I loved both shows, and Evil Genius definitely scratches that particular, chillingly-macabre itch. It’s just as addictive, and like them, it’s a documentary that proved as engaging as a thriller flick. But where Making a Murderer raised questions about the U.S criminal justice system, and The Keepers was poignant and unsettling, Evil Genius is just plain weird. It’s a case of reality conjuring up something stranger than fiction. Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong is about as frightening as a Cormac McCarthy antagonist, and her associates tantamount to a Who’s Who of Erie’s most despicable white trash assholes.

 


Cinema: I, Tonya

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This might be my favorite movie of the year so far! When I think back on all the media I’ve consumed in the past few months, I, Tonya stands out as something that was both an enjoyable and a creative experience. Margot Robbie gave a career-defining performance as redneck figure skater Tonya Harding. A complete performance. One that utilized every aspect of her talent in order to create a Tonya that was in equal parts flawed and sympathetic. Given the nature of the film as being both comedic and heart-wrenching, it had to have demanded a lot of her, and she just kind of gets it right. It works, and the performance made the movie. I love how creative she is an actress and how invested she is in her recent roles; it seems like she is selecting parts that she’s really passionate about and working as both an auteur and a performer. She reminds me a lot of a young Robert De Niro.

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I was very impressed with the choreography and cinematography of the ice skating scenes, which are the most exciting moments in the film. Watching them was like watching the car chase in The French Connection or the bank heist in Heat. They’re treated like action scenes and the way the movie pulls them off is simply breathtaking. It honestly looked like Margot Robbie was executing that triple axel.

 


Theatre: A Streetcar Named Desire & A View from the Bridge

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The Tobacco Factory and the Old Vic in Bristol have had some awesome plays on this year. In my last “creative roundup” post I wrote about going to see Macbeth. And recently I’ve been to see two more tragedies: A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams and A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller. I was already very familiar with the former, having seen the Marlon Brando film version several times. But it’s a story that’s so damn good that it never gets old, and I jumped at the chance to see it on stage. Even though I write fiction and poetry, I’d say my two favorite storytellers of all time are Shakespeare and Williams. As far as narratives go, they’re my absolute idols. I love the themes that Williams works with, and the modern adaptations of his plays have the freedom to be more explicit and visceral. In the Brando film version, the darker elements of the plot are hinted at but never seen. So much has to be inferred when watching it (or indeed any other adaptation of Williams’ work from that period). But watch one of his plays nowadays and it is absolutely brutal. Everything Williams wanted to write about but had to dance around in the 1950s is unleashed in all its bleak and depressing glory. I thought that Kelly Gough in particular did a fantastic job as Blanche Dubois, in a performance that made me think about just what a tragic character she is.

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A View from the Bridge, on the other hand, was a play I knew literally nothing about. I’ve seen both The Crucible and Death of a Salesman on stage, and I know that Miller is an O.G. I went to see this one with my father and my nan, and it was only on the drive to the theatre that I learned the play was about Italian-Americans in the New York docks, which made me think: I’m gonna like this. The play turned out to be one of the best I’ve ever been to- not just this year, but ever. At the interval we all looked at each other, blown away by how good it was.

“This is absolutely brilliant,” my nan said, and the woman behind us was like “It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

There were a lot of young people in the audience, who were no doubt studying the play for their Lit exams, and when the play ended everyone was on their feet whistling and hooting. It was probably the loudest applause I’ve ever heard at the Tobacco Factory. If you ever get the chance to see this play then DO IT. It’s a classic tale of incest and revenge…

 

 

What I’ve Been Up To Recently

My vision for 2018 is for it to be my most ambitious year yet. 2017 was all about recovery; it was about finding my productivity and finding my happiness. But none of that was planned from the outset. It just sort of happened. And because of that progress, I now hold myself to a higher standard. I figured out that I want to live and do something with my life, and now it’s all about getting to work to achieve what I want.

One of the ways I want to improve my life this year is simply to do more. My problem the past few years has been my tendency to hibernate between my travels to the USA, counting down the days until I get to taste root beer again, until I hear cicadas at night. Now I want to make up for all the time I wasted while I was still in the UK and refusing to get out of bed. I want to fill my life full of vivid experiences. I haven’t got much money, but I have been looking to do small things in my spare time. I don’t want my weekends to slip by in a haze of basketball highlights and potato chips. It’s as simple as just saying “Yes” more often. It’s things like going for a walk with my kid brother Frank before he moves out, traveling to Stamford Bridge to watch Kanté tear it up with my old writing buddy from Winchester, or finally trying out Bingo and Trivia Night at the pub where I work.

Of course, I’m most interested in things that are creative, that light a fire in my soul. So here are three things I’ve seen this year so far, that I consider to be of artistic value:

 


Humanity – Ricky Gervais Stand Up Tour

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In January I went to the Colston Hall in Bristol- the place where I both sang and danced in three separate shows when I was a kid- to see my first stand up gig. I just couldn’t turn down the chance to see one of my favorite all-time comedians in the flesh. What was great was that Ricky Gervais was in the best form of his life- the quality of his material hadn’t dropped at all since the likes of Animals and Science. I can see how a comedian might not be able to keep up with the times, but Gervais is as sharp and relevant now as he ever was. During Humanity he told stories about celebrities, which to the average person like me, was so interesting, because it was like he acted as bridge between the real world and Hollywood. He’s worked with so many famous people, and yet he comes across as a very down-to-earth guy. It was like he was our man on the inside, sharing the juicy details of the bizarre existence of the famous. I don’t want to spoil any of the material, so go watch this show now (it’s on Netflix!).

 


Loveless – Andrey Zvyagintsev film

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About a ten minute drive from where I live is a cinema called The Curzon, in a Victorian seaside town called Clevedon. It’s one of the oldest continually-running movie theaters in the world. They’ve got this old organ from the 1930s and sometimes a fellow in a bow tie comes down to play it before the movie starts. I went to this cinema a few weeks ago to see a Russian movie called Loveless. It was the only night they were showing it, and I really wanted to see the film. I think it’s the first foreign-language movie I have seen in the theater, and maybe the first I’ve seen since my days in Film Studies class at City of Bristol College. The film was beautiful and bleak. It’s all about a kid that goes missing during his parents’ bitter divorce. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen in recent times, and it gives a very cynical portrayal of domestic life in Putin’s Russia. It’s not about Putin or politics per se, but you can feel it ticking in the background. Fleeting glimpses of current affairs, from car radios or TV sets, contribute to a general impression of national sadness. The dialogue in this film was great; the adults rip into one another like Siberian Lynxes. It’s a whole lot of sex, swearing, and darkly-humored nihilism.

 


Macbeth – Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory

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The Tobacco Factory in Bristol is one of our go-to theaters, along with the Old Vic. I try to see Shakespeare as often as I can, and so far I’ve seen about 15 of his plays (almost half!). However until last Thursday, I had never seen Macbeth. I’ve wanted to check out this gory tragedy for years and years, but it just kept eluding me. In 2016 I saw the Michael Fassbender film adaptation with my roommate Aaron, but I loved it so much that it only made me want to see the narrative on stage even more! I got my chance this week and went along with my dad and brother. The Tobacco Factory is a modern theater, but it’s perfect for Shakespeare because the seats are arranged around a small, central stage area. You get to see the actors up close and it gives the plays this real sense of intimacy. I liked this adaptation of Macbeth– the stage floor was covered with a deep layer of blackened wood chips, the sound effects had the diseased, deathly tone of buzzing wasps, and the WW1-inspired costumes were low-key and utilitarian, in a way that contributed to the bleak atmosphere. Best of all were the three witches with their heads wrapped in gauze. It was creepy as fuck. Also, the play featured my favorite stage actor- Simon Armstrong- who I have seen in Bristol dozens of times in everything from Moliere to Chekhov. I also only just realized that he plays Qhorin Halfhand in Game of Thrones (the Night’s Watch ranger that Jon Snow serves under in Season 2!).

My Thoughts on Phantom Thread

I can’t remember the last time there were so many movies out at once that I’ve really wanted to see. I still need to see Loveless, Hostiles and I, Tonya. I’m also looking forward to seeing Annihilation, You Were Never Really Here, and Solo: A Star Wars Story, which come out very soon. I’m confident I’ll enjoy them all. So far the only movies I’ve had the time to see are Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri and Phantom Thread. The former was good, the latter was better. And it’s the latter of those two films that’s inspired me to blog today.

At first glance, Phantom Thread didn’t look to be my kind of film. It’s set in the couture business of 1950s London. It’s a romantic period drama about a fancy dressmaker who makes fancy dresses for the fancypants people of high society. The kind of movies I usually watch tend to have a higher density of people face down in a gutter drowning on their own blood. But then I noticed something: this film starred Daniel Day-Lewis and was directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. The last time these two hooked up we were given a brutal drama set against the harsh backdrop of the Southern California Oil Boom, ending with the unforgettable image of a preacher getting his head caved in with a bowling pin. There Will Be Blood is a contender for my favorite film of all time, so I knew I had to give this a go.

And Phantom Thread did not disappoint.

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It’s a slow, meditative drama that’s admittedly not for everyone. But what really makes this film is the intensity of the performances from its two leading actors. Daniel Day-Lewis demonstrates yet again that he is the most talented and versatile actor of his generation, and he brings this absolutely dominating screen presence that turns even the most subtle scene into a hair-raising, edge-of-your-seat affair. You can feel the goosepimples crawling up your arms every time he does something as seemingly mundane as giving his opposite number a closed-mouth glare. And as good as Day-Lewis is, I thought that his co-star Vicky Krieps was right there with him. She matched his raw intensity and produced one of the most powerful performances I’ve seen in years.

Day-Lewis plays a famed dressmaker, and Krieps a waitress who sort of becomes his mistress and his muse. He’s wholly dedicated to his art, but Krieps is determined to have a piece of him for herself. The movie essentially follows her attempts to have a relationship with him- one that she gets something out of. She doesn’t want to ruin his art, or stop him from making dresses, but she just wants a little piece of him that is hers and hers alone. The film is a fascinating portrayal of the struggles of having a relationship with an artist. Day-Lewis is kind of a narcissistic- yet brilliant- genius, but Krieps has a profound effect on him, and ultimately he is shocked at how she changes his life and completely disrupts his routine.

Phantom Thread reminded me a lot of another film I watched recently. The other week I finally got around to watching the 2013 documentary Salinger. Funnily enough, Salinger was originally meant to be a feature film with Daniel Day-Lewis in the starring role. In Phantom Thread, Day-Lewis’ character is very particular, adhering to a strict and exact sense of routine. His every waking day, his every living breath, is dedicated to the art of dressmaking. And it pushes anyone away from getting too close. There’s no room in his life for intimacy; everyone comes second to his art. And it’s this aspect of the film that reminded me of Salerno’s documentary of one of my favorite writers- JD Salinger. The film portrays the novelist as being so obsessed with his art that it pushes away his wife; he would supposedly spend weeks at a time writing inside a windowless bunker, which neither she or anyone else was allowed in. Both movies seem to raise the question: is that lack of intimacy the price one pays for achieving true, lasting greatness? Can you live a normal life and be dedicated to your art? What are you willing to sacrifice for immortality? The most touching part of the documentary, for me, was a reported quote from Salinger to the effect that he wished he had never written The Catcher in the Rye. It made me sad, because it suggested to me that perhaps he wished he had lived a more normal life, without all the media scrutiny and the burden of being America’s greatest novelist.

Phantom Thread, however, ends on a much more optimistic note. In the end, Day-Lewis and Krieps have found a way to make it work. Theirs is a dark love in which he willingly allows her to feed him poisonous mushrooms so that he becomes so ill that he is completely dependent on her. It’s a crazy kind of passion, but then genius often comes hand in hand with madness. Despite all the difficulties of living in his world, she is determined to make a place for herself- and that’s what makes Krieps’ character so compelling.