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Movies I’ve watched 18 movies in 62 days. If it was up to me, I’d be watching a movie a night, but two a week is not bad for a house dad. Notables include: Fire of Love (2022): You’d be disrespecting this documentary if you watch it in something other than a movie theatre or a top-notch home cinema. The images and sounds of the volcanos are unforgettable. The characters (a husband and wife volcanologist team) reminded me of Free Solo’s Alex Honnold—a mountain climber mortally obsessed with his passion for free climbing. (I remember my friend being so disturbed by Alex Honnold’s megalomaniacal risk-taking that my friend walked out of the movie.) Free Solo didn’t put me in the mood to climb a mountain, but — by showing to what lengths the human mind and body can be pushed — it evoked in me a sense of awe, and of pride for our species and what we’re capable of. I don’t want my daughter to be a free climber or a volcano junkie, but I am glad that there are questing daredevils out there. Most of these daredevils will expire without leaving a legacy, but sometimes they are posthumous treasures. In Fire of Love, Katia and Maurice Krafft leave us with a rich legacy of scientific discovery and cinematic wonder. I won’t be going anywhere near a volcano, either. B+ (Available on Disney+) Avatar 2 (2022): It should be celebrated for being arguably the most amazing audio-visual cinematic spectacle ever. But it felt too long. I’m wondering if James Cameron has cowed his editors into silence. B- The Quiet Girl (2022): A touching Irish film about a poor girl taken in by kind relatives. As a student of storytelling, I learned one big thing from the film’s only flaw: Ambiguous endings are okay only if the main storyline has been resolved. In other words, tell us what happens! But, if you must, go ahead and leave the conclusions to other subplots unclear. (Watch The Verdict, as reviewed below, to see how best to end the many strands of a story.) A- Lightyear (2022): My little Scottish village hall puts on one child-friendly movie a month, so I took my daughter to see Pixar’s latest. The plot was so convoluted that none of the parents, let alone the kids, could follow along. I’ve watched a lot of Disney/Pixar this past year. One of the things I’ve noticed is that even the best of them (Wall-E, Coco, Inside Out) include way too much mindless running around. I believe kids could be satisfied with mellower movies, but it’s hard to think of anything recent that bucks the trend. These mindless CGI chases are not doing kids’ movie sensibilities and attention spans any good. F Banshees of Inisherin (2022): This will sound odd, but Banshees is the best terrible movie I’ve ever seen. It was “best” for its amazing acting, setting, and script. (Most of the Oscar noms are valid.) But ultimately it was a terrible, nihilistic, stupidly bleak waste of a movie that used its bleakness to be edgy, gratuitously shocking, and as an “emblem of sophistication,” to borrow a friend’s phrase. D

The Verdict (1982): An aging alcoholic lawyer (Paul Newman) wants to redeem himself by taking on a big-time corrupt city power. Sound cliche? Who cares! I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Despite the cliche story, everything else about this movie — the acting, the sets, the camera angles — was gritty, raw, and weird, making the film mesmerizingly unpredictable, even if you know where it’s going. A

The Big Chill (1983): This one felt flawless to me. It’s a wonderful movie about college friends who come together in mid-life. I remember that time, in college, when your friends become your family. But these friendships almost always dissolve when everyone moves away and finds a family of their own. No movie has better captured this dynamic than The Big Chill. A-

Audiobooks I only have another hour left on Hilary Mantel’s sequel, Bring up the Bodies (2012). This is just as good as the first. Remember to listen to the version in which Ben Miles narrates.

Books I’ve read If you’re looking for THE Scottish history book, go ahead and buy T.M. Divine’s The Scottish Nation: A Modern History. This is not popular history; it’s history, so don’t go in expecting entertainment. There’s a reason why this one took me 3.5 years to finish.

Books I’ve started I’m excited to have started both Regenesis: Feeding the World without Devouring the Planet by George Monbiot and The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by Graeber & Wengrow. Monbiot will be making the claim (among other claims) that organic meat is just as bad for the environment as non-organic meat (accounting for the endless acres needed to cultivate organic beef). And the Davids Graeber and Wengrow are making the case that early civilizations were just as smart and philosophical as our modern ones. Foraging communities often had enough wealth and organizational intelligence to erect impossible monuments, after all. The chapter on how Native American philosophers helped to trigger the French and American Revolutions was utterly convincing. (Perhaps more on this in another newsletter).

Podcast highlights Ezra Klein Show — Klein talks with sex and relationship thinker, Dan Savage. The Rewatchables — Every episode is terrific, but their Sideways review is a particularly good one. Long Now Foundation — I enjoyed this interview with Kate Darling about robots and how the human-robot relationship might come to resemble our human-pet relationship. Let’s Make a Sci-Fi — This is a podcast miniseries hosted by three comedians who set out to write their own sci-fi. Bizarrely, the team doesn’t lean on their primary skill (comedy), instead making a somewhat dull science-fiction TV pilot. But the journey is better than the destination, and there is a lot to learn about the craft of storytelling from their efforts. Blogs Blogs are dead, except for my friend David’s blog, which has been thriving for sixteen years. His themes span from the science of Roger Penrose to photos of local flowers. He doesn’t pull any punches when he condemns the state of conservative intellectualism—a post inspired by Corey Robin’s book The Reactionary Mind. What I’d like to be consuming I wish I had an HBO Max account. The Rehearsal looks like it was made for me. And I’m curious to give White Lotus and The Last of Us a try to see what all the fuss is about.

What I’m happy to no longer be consuming The Bills season ended not with a bang but with a pitiful fizzle. I’m sick of wasting three hours of my weekends on something that makes me feel uneasy. I can’t stand all the head injuries, yet I feel compelled to root for a team I’ve been watching since I was six. Due to salary cap issues, it’s almost a guarantee that the Bills will regress in 2023, giving me good reason to pause my interaction with the game.

Movies watched from BFI’s Top 100 list I am well on my way to reaching my goal of watching all 100 of BFI’s greatest movies ever list. I have roughly 45 more movies to watch. I found myself scoffing halfway through Jeanne Dielman and Wanda, not because they were bad movies, but because I thought they were so slow and arthousey that they deserved to be nowhere near a best-ever list. (Why them and not The Verdict?!) But then they grew on me, and I finished both with grudging admiration. None of these films have been pleasurable, but all have been worth my time. #1 Jeanne Dielman (1975) #18 Persona (1966) #34 L’Atlante by Jean Vigo (1934) #75 Mirror by Andrei Tarkovsky (1975) #48 Wanda (1970) #95 A Man Escaped by Robert Bresson (1956)

Avatar 2 (2021) - Avatar 2 got only a 77% positive score on Rotten Tomatoes. I agree that it felt long and some expensive details (the little underwater vessels launched from the bowels of the whaling ship) seemed unnecessary. Yet I feel like you have no choice but to give *the most amazing visual cinematic experience* a thumbs up—because that is indeed what it was. My biggest gripe is that they cast Sigourney Weaver to play a teenage girl. With her, I couldn’t suspend disbelief and I wish they’d just moved on from the characters who died in the previous movie. If you can build a whole new world, it should follow that you shouldn't have to recycle characters for the sequel. B-

The Wonder (2021) - The story of an Irish girl putting on a possibly miraculous fasting performance is worth the telling, but not in this way. The Wonder had the feel of an “indie” film with a weird breaking of the fourth wall*, but the smell of Hollywood with an implausible tale of family formation shoehorned in. C- *I suggest as a maxim: A story must have a really good reason to break the fourth wall. The Wonder didn’t.

White Noise (2021) - I was on board for the first half of this bonkers (and amazingly shot) movie. I’m not convinced Adam Driver deserves all the top roles he gets, but I thought he made the most of it and showed some range. The inane dual lecturing scene was the movie’s highlight, but, in the end, the movie relies too much on its source material, becoming as wordy as the novel. I’m not sure it said anything new or useful about any of its top themes: death, fear of death, consumerism... C-

Banshees of Inisherin (2021) - Banshees had almost all of the key ingredients: wonderful acting, terrific characters, gorgeous scenery, and even a great (and funny!) script. The story had interesting themes to explore, such as ending a friendship, or the debate one might have about choosing a life dedicated to a craft vs. one devoted to life’s simple pleasures. Yet the story was gory, grim, and stupidly bleak.

I have no problem with bleakness. Bleakness, as a tonal atmosphere, can serve a purpose beyond being "edgy," gratuitously shocking the audience, and stamping the project with an “emblem of sophistication,” to borrow a friend’s phrase. I'd argue that a filmmaker who manufactures bleakness is trying to fib his way to greatness, is suffering from moral or intellectual immaturity, and is compensating for storytelling deficiencies. D

The Quiet Girl (2022) - This is another, and far better, bleak(ish) Irish film, about a young girl who finds what she’s missing when she’s cast off to distant relatives. A-

Call Me Mule (2022?) - I got an early look at this documentary about a man traveling around California with three mules. Along the way, he’s helped by the public and often threatened by authorities. It is sad that, in this "free country," so many of us would be so in awe of someone experiencing freedom. It is unfortunate that people like Mule are so unusual, when, in a truly free country, this sort of trip and this sort of person would not be something to gawk at with astonishment. It speaks to the public's innate desire for adventure and the various forces holding them back from living lives of adventure—whether it's the law, urban sprawl, screens, suburbia, etc...

Movies watched from the BFI’s “Top 100 Greatest Movies Ever” List

#18 Persona by Ingmar Bergman (1966) - Persona seems certainly worthy of being on a great list, but some of the arthouse flourishes have aged poorly. Persona may be home to the most erotic scene captured in a movie, which is remarkable, as no clothes were removed or body parts touched.

#95 A Man Escaped by Robert Bresson (1956) - This film is more conventionally lovable than most of the films on the BFI’s list. Most moviemakers would feel pressured to sex up a Nazi prison jailbreak as much as possible, but this movie lives on because it’s so spare, understated, and mature. If it was anything other, it’d cause our modern eyes to roll.

#75 Mirror by Andrei Tarkovsky (1975) and #34 L’Atlante by Jean Vigo (1934) - I’m sure I’d appreciate these films more if I had a good film instructor who could help me comprehend the influence these films have had on other films. With Mirror, I was more or less lost. Even though I didn’t take joy from either of these offerings (and even though the experience of watching them felt like “taking my medicine"), I was still able to watch with respect and curiosity.

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