A Quiet Place

A really great monster movie that’s focused, brief and doesn’t bog down with world building. More importantly, it avoids cliché apocalyptic tropes. Think for too long and there’s a lot we don’t know about this situation. But none of it matters. We care about the family and we follow their story through to the movie’s efficient and early end. Great work.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

For some people, writing—not necessarily being a writer—is essential to who they are and yet nearly impossible. They are only themselves when being someone else’s voice. It is paradoxical and crazy making, lonely and can drive you to drink. This movie captures that without being cute or making a joke of the real struggles and real emotions involved.

Oscars 2019

I got behind with the nominees this year. They all came out at once and it was just too much. So no opinions this year. I saw things I liked, Roma, The Wife, especially The Favorite. I’ll root for them but have no idea whether they should win.

Me, Gaming

I’ve gamed since I was a kid. Early on I’d played everything I could get my hands on, which wasn’t much, and always for consoles. The Atari 2600, a couple Nintendo boxes. The big turning point though was when my dad brought home our first PC. Freed from the console, my choices exploded. My games of choice? Early RPGs like Pools of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds.

When I went to university a few years later, my tastes stayed the same. Only now I was playing Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and a Myst-style puzzle game whose name I wish I could remember.

When Blizzard’s Diablo invented the action RPG, I was fully onboard and played it and its sequel alongside Bioware’s Neverwinter Nights.

What came next was Bethesda’s Oblivion, the first truly open-world RPG I’d ever played and easily the most immersive and absorbing. It had an invisible leveling scheme: you didn’t select skills and traits, you earned them based on what you actually did while you were playing. So no calling yourself a mage while sneaking around and shooting things with a bow. I lost hours working through the detailed character creation screens, generating various characters with different pasts, personalities and backstories. I spent a month wandering collecting herbs. When I discovered and captured a wizard’s tower, I wandered some more collecting materials to build features and to decorate it.

It was only after half a year or more that I remembered that there was a story and that I could (should?) figure out how to help the king’s heir and drive off the demon invasion. Soon I discovered the thieves guild, then the assassin’s guild. I rose up and became the Grey Fox. I allowed myself to become a vampire. It seemed there was nothing I couldn’t do in this world and that no matter how much I wandered or what I did, the map would never be exhausted.

I played Oblivion right up until I switched for the first time from a PC to a Mac. That switch shut down all non-Blizzard gaming but at the time that was fine: I was busy writing and the time I had to game I was eager to spend in World of Warcraft. The first expansion, Burning Crusade, had been a hit and my brother and sister were both playing. Wrath of the Lich King was about to launch, and we used it and the subsequent expansions to hang out for years.

Eventually though, around the end of Warlords of Draenor and after years and years of game play, I was getting tired of Warcraft. It was still great and I loved it, but I was bored. Garrisons and the dailies it took to sustain them were starting to feel like a second job. I wasn’t really having fun anymore. Looking back now, I can see that I’d just gotten tired of playing the same game —and importantly, the same stories—over and over again. But at the time, I thought I was getting too old for video games, that I’d moved on.

I was wrong.

Pushed by frustrations with my Mac hardware, in late 2017, early 2018 I made the rash decision to sell my MacBook Pro and build a gaming PC. The switch didn’t last, and I’m back to Mac for basically everything, but that leap back into and embrace of the word of Windows ranks as one of the happiest decisions I’ve made in years. It pushed open the gates as surely as that first PC sitting in my family’s den had done. I could play what I wanted which meant I could game again (rather than “play Warcraft“). And it has been glorious.

One of the first games I bought was Bethesda’s Fallout 4, this post is an unexpectedly long preamble to my ravings about my experience playing it. That will have to wait for the next post though.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban and word is that he’s out to get Harry. In school, there’s the usual competition around the house points and the Quidditch Cup and the kids are learning real magic now (“Expecto Patronum!”). But bubbling throughout is the other stuff: a prof keeps foretelling Harry’s death, Malfoy’s working to have one of Hagrid’s hippogriffs executed, Dementors are conjuring up Harry’s memories of his parents’ death and, worst of all, Ron, Harry and Hermione aren’t getting along.

In the final chapters, everything swirls together so quickly my eyes hurt from trying to read fasterfasterfaster. Scabbers—who I spoke about over and over with my brother, always in admiring, loving terms—is a traitor! Sirius Black, after spending ten years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, is after the rat—seeking vengeance, yes, but also to protect Harry. The new Defenses Against the Dark Arts teacher, appropriately named Lupis, is a werewolf. He’s also a friend of Sirius and of Harry’s father, and he’s also out to catch the traitorous rat. In the final scenes, Hermione and Harry step back in time, saving Sirius, saving Hagrid’s Hippogriff, and saving Harry.

These books are plotted like steam engines, but what makes them come alive are the characters who feel like flesh-and-blood creations. Snape especially remains a mystery. At this point, I can’t see him being any good at all, and yet, I’m rooting for him.

Don’t be evil, Snape.

The Wife (2018)

My favorite scene in this adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s novel is basically every scene where Glenn Close is speaking quietly and sparsely to a man who doesn’t realize he’s not the smartest person in the room and who is not catching on to what Joan Castleman is carefully not saying.

The choice to rely on a journalist to carry the historical content of Joan’s narration in the novel is clever and well done. It leaves Close the freedom to expose the difference between being unseen and being effaced, between standing off to the side and being pushed there. The film zeros on that subtle emotional distinction and in a brisk, focused hour-and-a-half shows a fiercely intelligent and grounded woman refusing to become a thing defined and moved about by others. She refuses too to love one bit less than she feels. It’s a beautiful performance of a beautiful character.

Edmond

A light but cleverly done movie about the composition and first performance of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. Nothing ever bogs down, the performances are lively, and the direction hews a balanced line between creation and hagiography. The digital landscapes of 19th century Paris are beautifully done.

This film is a better biopic than something like Bohemian Rhapsody.

Incredibles 2

A movie that crafts a portrait of a strong woman by turning three of its characters—the father, the daughter, and the son—into clichés ready-made for epiphany. Surely Elastigirl and Void don’t need the help? I mean, why would Pixar stack the deck in this way?

Boy Erased

A boy named Jared is the son of a pastor and doesn’t seem as into his high school sweetheart as she is into him. He also has a tendency to look a second too long at other boys. At university, he is raped by a friend, and his assailant, afraid Jared will speak out about what has happened to him, tells Jared’s parents he’s gay. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Jared uses this moment to admit that he might be and agrees to go to a conversion camp. There everything is obviously terrible and abusive and Jared seems to see this and to reject the whole idea of conversion pretty quickly despite some early talk about wanting to “change.” Eventually he tells his mother he wants to leave the camp, that he is who he is, and the mother takes him away and works to convince his father to accept him as he is. The boy then moves to New York, finds love, and writes the memoir that becomes the basis of the movie.

I found this movie to be devastating but not, I think, because of the movie. It’s the subject and the bald presentation of the religious world view that makes conversion camps possible that got to me. The people in this film really are living in a different world, and it is a world where a rapist can catch his victim and bind him into silence by confessing his sin and asking for forgiveness in the moments following the assault. It’s a sick world in which religious delusions distort everything and it’s a world tied to particular places, especially the South. (In the film, Arkansas.) I’ve been inside this world, and I’m not convinced there’s any way to show the people living there that what they see and believe isn’t real or good. Watching the film, knowing what I was seeing was true was devastating.

The film itself though—the dramatic narrative performed on my screen—had a point of view problem that manifested as a third act problem and it’s hard for me to see a way around these. Jared’s story has very little drama. He’s oddly untouched throughout. He embraces a gay identity as he enters the camp and leaves because the camp wants to change that identity. The film has to show the camp and what happens there because without those images there’s no reason for the film really, but there is no drama in those scenes, only horror because the boy isn’t there to struggle. He observes. He witnesses. Like the film, like the viewer, he knows what he is seeing is wrong and that the people around him are misguided. The only question is how long he’ll put up with it.

To the extent the film generates drama it involves the mother and to a lesser extent the father, both of whom must confront the consequences of their beliefs and both of whom must change in the final act for the film to come to a proper end. They do change. Yet because the film focuses on the boy, their change happens off screen and out-of-sight. The problem this causes is captured nicely by the film’s trailer. The film clearly is being marketed as a dramatic (if saccharine) social issue film, but in order to generate sellable drama, the trailer has to rely on footage of the parents drawn almost exclusively from the final moments of the film. Again, I don’t see how the film gets around this without jettisoning its source, and ultimately, as flat as the film is, the horror of what it does show is enough to make it powerful. So ultimately, the film is what it is, dramatic problems and all, and what it is isn’t terrible.

Gloomy and bland as everything else is, there are two visually beautiful moments in the film. These are:

  1. Jared standing in front of a photograph of a male model—it’s an ad at a bus stop—and he reaches out and places his hand on the man’s face, then steps back, and, angry, throws a rock shattering the glass; and
  2. Jared staying over at a ridiculously gorgeous young artist’s ridiculously gorgeous apartment, but doing nothing except chastely staring into each other’s eyes in bed together.

The film knows these are pinnacle moments of beauty and sets them off as such in the narrative. The marketers do as well: both are given pride of place in the trailer.

For someone watching from Quebec, the film had one additional loop of interest. Let’s call it the “Xavier Vortex.”

First, cinematic wünderkid and world-class sex-pot, Xavier Dolan plays a deeply fucked up resident of the conversion camp who is always there to say something creepy and damaged to Jared. Second, the artist Jared spends the night with—named Xavier, but not Dolan—is played by Montreal actor Théodore Pellerin.

So the quebecois invasion of Hollywood continues apace…

Winter Creek

Last weekend we had the first sunny days in weeks (but it felt like months). So the Beav suggested we go walking on the river. Now, I know the ice is solid at this point. The snowmobiles are running up and down daily. But I lived in the heat too long as a child to be comfortable on frozen rivers and lakes and wasn’t keen on the idea.

Then he suggested we walk up a side creek he’d been wanting to canoe with his sister in the summer. This sounded less ominous: slower shallower water awaited if we broke through (which we wouldn’t and didn’t). This became our day.