It’s a bit telling that the most vivid memories I have of you as a child involve playing Solitaire.
Most kids probably remember playing catch, maybe even some video games if their dad was cool enough. But all I have is playing Solitaire while you chatted the time away with my grandparents.
It’s true you only had so much time to see us each week, and I guess you preferred catching up on whatever you were missing on the outside and I couldn’t offer much on that front. Or perhaps they just didn’t know to stop for only a bit. To be honest, I was always so bored of your conversations that I largely tuned out. I had a deck of cards to distract myself with.
When we did speak, you certainly promised we would play catch someday – not that I would have ever been interested in that. But I probably said I would like that. To at least do something with you. We promised so much to each other that we never ended up giving. Maybe we both needed to hear those things just to get through this ordeal.
All you really offered to me was empty promises.
It’s a bizarre feeling, to have always wanted to see you but being bored as soon as I arrived. I had an expectation of someone like you in my life, but all you ever gave me was a table to lay my cards on.
My sister would now and then call me out for not engaging with you – it was apparently my job to spark conversation between us. I guess I’ve always been bad at being the one to reach out.
Now and then, I could convince you to join me in a game. War, Scrabble, Uno, meaningless games that meant you were at least doing something with me.
Really, all my memories of you involve subtly but desperately trying to get enough attention from you. But that’s always been my problem, hasn’t it? No one ever seems to give me enough. I ask too much.
It’s funny that, as soon as you were finally physically there, I slowly realized I didn’t actually want anything. Why do I feel like I’m the disappointing one in this relationship? Why must I always be the one to carry the weight of showing up? I don’t owe you anything. You could have done anything – anything – to relate. But it’s always my burden, my fault.
Or maybe I’m missing the full picture. Everything from these times are such a blur to me, maybe the only element that didn’t traumatize me enough to forget was playing a game by myself.
When I was growing up, if anyone asked about you, I’d subtly act as if you were no longer with us. I don’t believe I told anyone about you until getting to college, after spending my childhood suffocating under the weight of your being. Your mere existence has scarred me.
At least if you actually were dead, I wouldn’t have to play this game of feigning interest in forming a bond that should have been there decades ago. You need a ‘son’ – but I don’t need a father anymore. Because, to be honest, I’d rather play a completely unsatisfying card game than spend any more time on you.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a Western anthology film directed by the Coen Brothers, telling six distinct stories of varying moods and styles that add up to a sweeping view of the Wild West.
Each vignette fits neatly into a certain Coen style. The first, which shares its name with the film, follows a psychotic yet cheerful outlaw, breaking the fourth wall and acting all too jovial as he provokes other gunslingers. Buster Scruggs has the violent tendencies of Anton Chigurh paired with the oddly light styling of a Raising Arizona character. This rather disparate character is followed by tales of ironic punishment, desperation, and other ideas familiar to anyone who has watched a Coen Brothers film.
If you wanted to quickly summarize the Coen Brothers style, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs would be the perfect showcase.
The question, then, is how well these short vignettes hold up compared to full-length Coen Brothers films. I find they all tend to land in the middle tier, perfectly capturing their black humor and bleak sense of humanity, but never quite saying much outside of itself – they have a tendency toward shaggy dog stories that can get a bit much when six play back to back. If you like the Coen Brothers, you’re probably going to like this film – I just doubt it will be anyone’s favorite.
What it certainly has going for it is the visual style. The initial segment with Buster Scruggs sets the mood; his plain white outfit suggests he’s stepped out of some modern dinner show instead of the actual Wild West. He offers up some bizarre musical numbers, all between violently dispatching suitably gruff men. Tim Blake Nelson is wonderful in the role, and the surreal nature of this vignette helps open up the possibilities of what follows.
The other vignettes are suitably stylized – it feels as if the film is trying to cover the entire ground of Western cinema in one quick swoop. Meal Ticket mixes the gaudy aesthetics of a circus side show with elevated speeches and haunting stops between acts – Harry Melling gives a mesmerizing performance as the Shakespeare-reciting man with no limbs. The Mortal Remains offers up a ride in a stage coach through an increasingly bleak landscape as its travelers tear each other down.
All Gold Canyon and The Gal Who Got Rattled take a more naturalistic approach. Tom Waits carries a quiet sequence as a prospector in a valley, searching for a “Mr. Pocket” that will make his journey worthwhile. He’s cast alone against this beautiful valley. Meanwhile, The Gal Who Got Rattled follows a woman as she joins a caravan across the prairie. Both sequences seem to find wonder in natural landscapes.
None of these narratives could sustain themselves for too long; the way they mix together is key. One small problem I have is pacing – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs kicks off with what I believe are its two shortest (and lightest) vignettes, causing those that follow to feel longer than they are. There’s a consistent level of quality among the six pieces, but I wish Near Algodones could have been used to break up the rather dense segments that follow. It’s too light to appreciate as much near the opening, but I feel like it would have been a welcome break between All Gold Canyon and The Gal Who Got Rattled.
There’s not much more to say without diving too deep into individual segments. It will make you laugh, make you wince in horror, sometimes with the same action. This is classically Coen, in bite-sized pieces. Their style is seamless for short-form narratives, little ironic moral tales that pack a punch. I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing them attempt another film with the same structure, so the film must have been a success. Yet I find myself looking back and wanting more – but would it be a Coen Brothers film without that lingering feeling?
4 Stars Out of 5
Bird Box is Netflix’s take on the post-apocalyptic horror genre, similar to films such as A Quiet Place in its dedication more to the method of survival than to the horrors of whatever monstrosity is causing that struggle.
Bird Box follows Malorie Hayes (Sandra Bullock) both during the initial disaster where she finds herself among a ragtag band of rather generic survivors, and five years later as she guides two children down river toward hopeful salvation. Some undefined creatures have been released upon the world, causing suicidal frenzy upon those who witness their presence – survival means blinding oneself to the outside world.
The central problem with Bird Box feels like one of pure machination. The narrative is Lovecraftian in concept, which is a genre that has never quite seen a proper film adaptation. You never have to show your monster – Jaws is a classic due to the way it maneuvers around direct representation – but you have to do something to establish the menacing presence.
These creatures work to a certain degree, but it’s never very satisfying. Everything it evokes is cliched, from ominous wind to whispering voices. The problem is Bird Box barely defines their intent while also suggesting the creatures are malevolent through that whispering. If they are actively evil, what’s stopping them from doing more? Are they incapable of touch, of going inside? The premise would work better if the creatures simply existed, their danger being that mere existence – but then they would have had to come up with something more creative than whispering.
But like most modern films in this style, Bird Box wants us to focus more on the interpersonal conflict among the survivors. It is unfortunately more cliched in that regard. A rather stellar cast of actors is given little to work with; the big names play their parts well enough, but they can only do so much with ‘angry drunk man’ and ‘old woman.’ The future story also makes it clear what will happen to everyone here. There are few gripping moral dilemmas, and the characters never develop enough to care what happens. It’s as rudimentary as these plot lines get.
The one place where Bird Box works well is in the river segment. Though the interweaving of the two narratives spoils the earlier story, it also manages some excellent foreshadowing. We first encounter a madman during the river sequence, a familiar matter to this future Malorie but an unknown threat to the earlier survivors. There’s also the lingering question of which of the two children is her biological child. Questions in one sequence are answered in the other, and a few of the climactic scenes on the river really work because of it.
It says a lot that a film with Sandra Bullock, John Malkovich, Jacki Weaver and Sarah Paulson has its most powerful moment delivered by a child. This is a story that works best while playing to its subtleties, but it gets too caught up in a familiar narrative structure.
All in all, Bird Box is a decent stab at a difficult subject matter. I doubt a proper adaptation of this style of literature would be impossible – but the film holds too much to traditional narrative structure when the story requires at least some experimentation to capture certain elements. Where films like It Comes at Night and The Witch succeed by dragging out the unknown, everything here is played too blatantly. It’s a horror that wants to be a drama, but the drama is rarely solid enough and the horror too simplistic to make up for it.
2.5 Stars Out of 5
Back in high school we played this vaguely baseball-like game with a big red rubber ball, the kind I have to assume was used in dodge ball before some poor kid got his teeth knocked out, ultimately replaced with dissatisfying foamy orbs that a few kids could still peg you with anyway.
I have two distinct memories of this game for whatever reason. The first is when some girl just absolutely nailed me in the face. Just watched it come straight at me, figured it would hurt but it really just left me dazed for a moment. There was that quiet gasp, and the poor girl apologized as if she was somehow at fault.
The one that left a bigger mark was when I heard you chatting with a new girl while waiting in line to bat. I was on defense, in the right range for me to hear you without you realizing that was the case.
You were always kind of a dick – the one other vivid memory I have of you is when you heard I was afraid of worms and decided to shove one in my face during dissection day – so I didn’t expect much from you when I flubbed an easy catch and the girl asked if I was, “like, retarded or something.”
But you corrected her – no, I was one of the smarter kids in our class, I just sucked at sports. And, god, I can’t put into words how that kind of validation feels. Nothing’s better than overhearing someone you hate defending you. Parental praise, that’s expected. Friends will sugar coat. The praise of an enemy, that’s how you know where you excel.
Sometimes I get home and plan to spend the whole evening writing, and then it’s bed time and nothing happened.
It’s not like I’m having a depressive episode (though realizing my time slipped out of my hands tends to end in me feeling gloomy). I’ll simply turn on a video game while contemplating what to have for dinner, and then I don’t eat for another two hours as I get distracted.
It’s not all games – there are a few key ones I go back to that I really wish I could erase any attraction toward. Overwatch, The Binding of Isaac, Slay the Spire – they’re designed to take up small chunks of your time, with no real end goal. They encourage this endless cycle and my addictive personality can’t turn away.
I’m so hopeless at unplugging. I really need to buy a laptop that can run word processors, a browser, and nothing else. I hate that the device I need to work is the same device where all these games are loaded up. How do normal people handle that temptation?
You know, the worst issues are the ones you know are a problem, yet you never find yourself taking the steps to change. It’s an excuse for self-hatred. Why can’t I simply set a time to be finished and stick to it?
Why am I at my most frustrated after an entire evening doing something I supposedly love?
I started crying in the middle of Night of the Living Dead.
Not at the film, of course. My distracted thoughts reminded me it was October 5, the day that would have marked six years since I began dating my partner if I hadn’t asked for a divorce only a few weeks earlier. I had to walk out and get some fresh air, and you were the first person I thought to bother.
We’ve been at a distance since our own break-up, because who wouldn’t be, but you were fully there for me that night. You were my one friend who could relate; I’m getting divorced before most of my friends are even considering getting married. But you’re older, and really, our lives this last year have sort of paralleled each other.
The most important topic we hit that night was that we never wanted to hurt our husbands; that, because of this fact, we likely delayed the inevitable. The relationship we had built together was supposed to be a side-thing, but we both realized that we only wanted a side-thing because we weren’t getting what we needed from our primary. And, because we weren’t getting what we needed, we could never give what they needed, either – we could put on a performance, but that could only go so far.
And who wants to only be given performative acts of love?
When you love someone enough to marry them, I think there’s something there that forms that goes beyond romantic love. There are so many ways to love someone, ways that might blind us to the truth. I do believe we both still love our ex-husbands – just not in the way they need. But they’re, well, like family. We want what’s best for them, and we’ve realized we’re not that.
There’s only so much time in this world, and I’d rather all of us go back to finding new loves than committing to a futile struggle to reignite old ones. We both came to the conclusion, wouldn’t it be nice if the person being broken up with could accept that this was simply what had to be, that things would turn out better for them in the long run than if we tried to stick around? That the end of romance didn’t have to be this tragic thing, that we could all be happy we had this person in our life for this certain period of time?
Why do people only see value in love if it lasts forever?
I was in a panic that night because I had convinced myself I was eternally scarring my ex-husband. But that’s not true. He’ll grow from whatever wounds I have caused. Someday he’ll meet someone new and be thankful I let him go, so that he can experience this new wonder. Who knows how many times that cycle will repeat, for all of us? But I just want to be happy with whoever I have in the moment – if it’s for a month, a year, until the end of time.
We can talk about future plans, the things we want from a partner in the long term – and we can focus on the loves we lost until it drives us to madness. But all we ever really have is now; the future is a series of present moments we’re yet to live through. Cherish the memories, but spend that precious time with the people who love you in the current shape you take.
Every time I start having bad thoughts pop up, I begin to imagine where I would rather be. There’s no particular place in my heart, no classic memory of a vacation I’ll never forget – because who wants to imagine Disney World as their escape? Instead, I focus on the act of leaving itself. Jump in the car, drive somewhere I’ve never been before. If my mind’s trying to convince me none of this matters, then I’ll give it a positive spin; if nothing really matters, I can go and do what I want.
It’s a funny thought because I don’t particularly care for driving. The trip would purely be a vehicle to listen to music – so many of my best musical experiences seem to take place in a car. And despite the intentional aimlessness of this fantasy, I always imagine ending up in Washington, perhaps because my childhood best friend lives there. After all, it’s a desperate fantasy; this will never actually happen, so I can accept my own imposing nature under the imagined circumstances.
But this fantasy has become corrupted; the negative thoughts have infiltrated. Driving is such a dangerous activity, perhaps the closest most of us come to a deadly situation each day. But we accept the danger – despite how little it would take for things to go wrong, it barely ever does. Accidents happen everyday, but I’ve certainly never experienced one.
But the problem is how easy it is to make an accident happen.
I want to assure myself this isn’t a desire but a fear. I am fully aware that driving isn’t an escape from harm, that I could always make like Thelma and Louise. There’s a difference between ideation and simply being aware of the call of the void, but they in many ways feel the same.
Perhaps this fantasy is dead now – but it was never truly alive to begin with. The only functional purpose of this conceptualized drive is to get me through any current pain. So I can accept the danger of an act I’ll never do.
If nothing else, I’d rather my darkest fantasies be contained to the road I’ll never take.
As I sit here, having just finished writing a review of If Beale Street Could Talk and eating lunch (Spaghettios, for I am still an unfortunately picky and childish eater), mesmerized by the several inches of snow covering the land outside that appeared overnight and thankful it’s a Saturday morning – though feeling sorry for my mailman friend who has to traverse it – I feel a strange form of inner calm, the kind that I was lacking through most of last year.
There’s that voice saying ‘everything is going to be alright.’ And I think it’s telling the truth this time.
I believe I started this project as a coping mechanism – after losing so much sense of focus in 2018, I needed something I could call my own. Something safe and reliable, something I could hold myself accountable to work on. Who knows if I’ll succeed – five articles a week is a bit of time, especially now that I have also decided to put so much focus on writing about movies. But perhaps this more personal project is the foundation for something bigger, a foundation I will leap from when I find the strength to invest my time into something more meaningful.
But right now, this project makes me feel alive. Like I’m seeing value in myself again. I still have pangs of depression, feelings of longing – but they all feel more manageable.
Who knows if I’ll feel this way by the time this piece goes up, only two days from now. But if I’m not, maybe being reminded of this feeling will ground me again. I want to remember what it’s like to feel as if everything’s alright in the world.
Sometimes you get snowed in, but all you have to do is wait until the sun comes out and the warmth will return.
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is the first film of the Black Mirror franchise, though calling it a film doesn’t exactly feel accurate – it’s a form of interactive media. It attempts to push the boundaries of what a film can be; to what purpose, I’m not exactly sure.
It’s really difficult to view this as a film; it’s being streamed through Netflix, sure, but watching Bandersnatch is essentially the same experience as playing a less interactive Telltale adventure game. I’m essentially doing the same things watching it as I am while playing Life is Strange, down to having to hold the same controller. In fact, for the second time this month, I find myself comparing a film directly to the Zero Escape series. Bandersnatch is obsessed with the question of ‘what if a character in a piece of media becomes aware they are being controlled by an outside force, and that force is the audience,’ but it’s been done. A lot. Bandersnatch makes an absolutely subpar adventure game, which means it doesn’t exactly operate as a great film, either.
The central narrative of Bandersnatch is too on-the-nose to be effective – a young man is attempting to design a ‘choose your own adventure’-style video game in the mid-1980s, basing his work on a massive novel by a man who went mad while writing it. He, surprise surprise, starts descending into madness as he works on his project, beginning to unravel at the idea of conspiracies and multiple timelines.
After going through many of its endings, I have no idea what it is actually trying to say as a whole. Where a game like Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward manages to wrap 20 or more endings into a cohesive narrative where each ending matters and adds to the others, Bandersnatch feels like an effort in randomness. Most of the endings are outright stupid, many drawing from Black Mirror’s worst cynical leanings.
Bandersnatch is a film committed to a gimmick and little more. The production value is fine enough; it certainly looks like a Black Mirror episode. But it goes off the rails quickly, and nothing ends up being all that satisfying. It hints at sinister possibilities, but it offers up so many options that there’s no centralizing force.
Netflix put in a lot of effort to make a work of little real impact. Video games have been perfecting the ‘interactive movie’ for decades; why watch one that’s less than two hours long with little cohesion when there are dozens of games doing the same thing but better on practically every front? The only selling point here is that it’s live action.
I don’t believe it’s impossible to make a proper interactive Black Mirror episode; interactive movies as a concept work. But Bandersnatch seems to think it can coast off the concept alone, seemingly convinced it’s original when it’s not at all. There’s no substance, just a flowchart of failed ideas. It’s pure novelty that’s not novel, a failed entry in a franchise that was already beginning to show cracks in its most recent season. Here’s hoping season five tries harder.
1.5 Stars Out of 5
If Beale Street Could Talk is Barry Jenkin’s follow-up to Moonlight, an absolutely stunning tale of a young black man discovering his sexuality during the 1980s – with Moonlight standing as my personal favorite film of this decade, Beale Street carries high expectations.
Based on a James Baldwin novel and following a young black couple in the early 1970s as the man is wrongly sent to prison, If Beale Street Could Talk carries a suitably heavy theme. Tish reveals she is pregnant with Fonny’s child as they sit separated by the glass in a visiting room; most of their love we get through flashbacks, the kind that blurs into the foreground with no clear visual delineation. Like Moonlight, Beale Street carries this sense of timelessness, that the events of the past weigh so heavily upon its subjects that the entire force of their impact pushes them through their present trauma. This is the story of a love worth going to the edge of the earth to save.
As such, Beale Street is not a work of pure tragedy; Barry Jenkins captures the beauty of little moments. The innocent nervousness of the couple’s first sexual encounter, the absolute glee as Fonny runs into an old friend, Tish holding her child for the first time; despite everything, there are moments of happiness that shine through.
The dialogue carries an expert wit; an early scene finds Tish announcing her pregnancy to Fonny’s family, and it is equally hilarious and devastating. The fathers are delighted in the prospect while Fonny’s mother claims religious devastation. The women spar with each other, their words increasingly barbed as the conversation carries on.
Other moments work solidly as passages. Tish narrates a scene as she works behind the perfume counter in a department store, observing the way in which different sets of people approach her. There’s this floating structure to the film’s presentation, taking steps back to let characters tell their own stories.
The very humanistic nature of Beale Street is matched by its phenomenal impressionistic cinematography. So much of the film consists of close-up shots, the background becoming increasingly blurred as emotions rise until the actors are the only element in focus. A particularly devastating shot finds Fonny stepping back, the entire image going out of focus as he loses sense of his own being. Beale Street captures that sense that, at our highest and lowest moments, it’s as if the world itself fades, only the self remaining.
Beale Street expertly showcases how a singular focus can impress just as much as a wide lens or an extended take. The lighting, the set design, it all coalesces around the central figure in each shot. Of course, none of this would work if the acting wasn’t high quality; so many shots leave the actors standing alone, backed by nothing but a blur of colors.
Barry Jenkins has created one of those works that feels like the Great American Film, a piece that so perfectly captures American culture in a certain time and place while seeming to carry a certain agelessness, a message as relevant in this era as it would be in any other. But it’s the unfortunate fact of these works that they carry a certain symbolic element, the feeling that they are trying to say everything at once. As human as these characters feel, as real as their situations are, there’s this constant lingering feeling that they represent something larger than themselves. Which, while I feel this is true of many fictional works, Beale Street has this way of drawing attention to its own artifice with occasional grand statements about the American experience. This is especially jarring with how each individual scene is shot with such singular focus; it’s a quiet film with loud aspirations, at its best when its characters are alone in their own time and space.
All in all, If Beale Street Could Talk is a worthy successor to Moonlight. It might lack the tight, cyclical focus that made Moonlight an outright masterpiece, but Barry Jenkins still carries a stunning eye for each individual moment. Moonlight was no fluke; Beale Street solidifies Jenkins as one of cinema’s young greats.
4.5 Stars out of 5
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