The Haunting of Hill House

Oh boy, this is going to be a tough one to talk about. I have very mixed, and somewhat polarized views of how this turns out, and as such, I'm struggling with whether or not I can offer a recommendation. The first five or six episodes are fantastic! After that, however, I really feel like the show peters out, begins to meander and run in place, and then kind of unravels in the end. Those first five or six episodes are so good, however, that I think I can recommend the series as a whole based on the strengths of its first half.

I can't discuss this show without getting into spoilers, so be warned that the further down you read, the more spoiler-y this will become.

A masterfully suspenseful start

Each of the first five or six episodes is told from the point of view of a different sibling in a family that is tormented by a summer spent in a haunted house. This structure creates a deeply textured and nuanced tapestry, in which each episodes recasts the events of the previous episodes in a new light. Giving each character his or her own episode provides us with a rich character study that helps us to understand each character's attitude when they all get together and the family drama gets rolling. All the while, the subtle supernatural elements create a building sense of intrigue as the mysteries surrounding Hill House, and the family's last night there, continue to mount and the plot continues to thicken.

Each of the first six episodes is told from the perspective of a different character.

I really love the camera work! Slow pans and zooms are used with excellent effect to draw out scenes and add tension and keep the scene mysterious. Sometimes, there's a creepy detail in the background. Other times, there's an ominous lack of anything creepy to see as the camera slowly pans from character to character across a room or down a hallway. In any genre other than horror, these labored camera movements would seem wasteful and pointless, but they really add to the atmosphere here.

The set design is also really great. The gothic Hill House provides an excellent and ominous set piece, but the other sets are also uncanny and unnerving in their own right, especially Shirley's funeral home. Around episode 6 or 7, I was really starting to struggle with reconciling the geometry of Hill House, and this is something that is paid off really well at the end of the series.

The geometry of Hill House becomes a source of unease as the series develops.

A meandering, incoherent ending

Unfortunately, the series faltered a bit for me after the sixth episode. At this point, all the characters are together in one place, and so no one character receives the focus of the narrative. The story starts to meander a bit here, while also running in place, as the intrigue that was so carefully crafted in the preceding episodes is squandered, new plot points and concepts are thrown at the audience, and old plot points and concepts just disappear.

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What Remains of Edith Finch - title

The Finch family is, as we are told, cursed. It's not a spoiler to say that every member of the family dies a tragic, premature death. The family tree in the sketchbook tells you as much at the start of the game.

We play, ostensibly, as 17-year-old Edith Finch, the last surviving member of the Finch family, but also an expecting mother. Her son will carry on the name and legacy of the family. She returns to her childhood home to learn the stories of all her cursed relatives, as she debates internally with whether to share these stories with her son, or to let the past (and its myriad tragedies) fade away and die.

The Finch family is cursed by tragedy.

The house itself, is a whimsical generational home in which each member of the family is given his or her own unique room. As more members of the family are born, new rooms are added onto the house, including a towering structure on the top that makes the house look almost like a castle. After losing both of her sons, Edith's mother began sealing off everyone's rooms so that Edith (and any future children) would not become aware of how the others died. But, each room has alternate ways in and out, including some secret doorways and tunnels.

Despite the whimsical, fantastical nature of the house, everything feels surprisingly real and lived-in. The house is cluttered with the paraphernalia of the family (since they were apparently also hoarders), and each room has a very distinct personality. Even the shared spaces that do not belong to any one individual still exhibit a sense of personality to them. This is a family that takes great pride in their history and the connectedness that they have towards one another.

The Finch home is a whimsical, generational house.

As she learns about these stories, Edith questions whether the family members should know about the stories of their relatives and the supposed curse? Or does that knowledge make tragedy a self-fulfilling prophecy? Should she share these stories with her unborn son, at the risk that the knowledge may cause him to also fall victim to the curse? Or is he cursed either way, and has a right to know it?...

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A Quiet Place

I missed yet another theatrical sci-fi movie. The trailers for Annihilation made the movie look like kind of a dumb monster flick, so I didn't rush out to go see it. I only started to hear several weeks later that it might actually be a pretty good sci-fi film. Unfortunately, life happened, my weekends were busy, and I never made it out to the cinema to see it.

So instead, I was invited to see a new horror movie with some friends. A Quiet Place is also a monster flick, but its novel gimmick really helps to set it apart from other monster movies. The gimmick itself isn't even particularly original. Other movies have featured monsters that are especially sensitive to sound. It's the execution of A Quiet Place that sets it apart.

Much like last year's exceptional War for the Planet of the Apes, A Quiet Place's dialogue comes mostly in the form of subtitled sign language, which the family of protagonists already knows because the oldest child (Millicent Simmonds) is deaf. This leads to the movie being palpably quiet for most of its runtime. I say "most" because there's a few moments of punctuated loudness that work effectively. There's also quite a few moments in which artificially-loud noises, sound effects, and musical ques are used to create cheap jump scares.

That last bit was disappointing because when A Quiet Place is cleverly using its sound design to ratchet up tension, it works phenomenally. This comes through most clearly with the deaf daughter. The movie goes almost completely silent whenever it switches to her point of view, with a faint, high-pitched static being the only sound you'll hear. When this is combined with some depth of field effects that make it hard to see clearly what's going on, it really helps to sell the sense of powerlessness and lack of awareness of the character, which ratchets up the tension for the audience.

The daughter is deaf, so the family already knows sign language, and use it throughout the movie.

The diagetic loud noises, such as the toy space shuttle or knocking over the lamp at the beginning of the movie work really well to punctuate the silence and create momentary panic. It's when lazy, cliche horror movie sounds start to come into play that things start to feel cheap. I'm not sure whether to blame this on actor/director John Krasinski, or on producer Michael Bay. I lean towards the latter. It doesn't ruin the movie, but it does weaken it a little...

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This year's holiday season saw a fundamental shift in the way (and reasons) that I buy games. I bought a gaming console as a gift for a child. This Christmas, my girlfriend and I bought our 7-year old a Nintendo Switch (and also managed to get our hands on an SNES Classic). For the first time, I'm not buying games and consoles for myself anymore; I'm buying them for my proxy-child.

My game and console purchases aren't just for me anymore...

I guess I'm old now...

This also means that I now possess my first Nintendo console since 10-year-old me replaced my old NES with a Sega Genesis...

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Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

What are the two biggest, most consistent weaknesses of the Marvel movie franchises? Well, they have a lot of trouble with direct sequels -- the sole exception being Captain America: Winter Soldier (why, oh why did I never review that movie?!). They also have a lot of trouble with villains -- the sole exception probably being Loki. I'd also throw in a third weakness, which would be the over-reliance on McGuffins to carry the plot.

Well, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 actually manages to avoid all three of those Marvel pitfalls!

Vol. 2 gets around the sequel slump by slowing things down a bit so that it can be a more character-driven story. For the majority of the film, the stakes are set pretty low and personal, and each character gets a chance to be an actual character rather than just an action hero. The main plot revolves around Starlord connecting with his long-lost father, only to discover (almost too late) that said father is actually a supervillain, and that he didn't realize that he had another father figure right there beside him the whole time. That's a great setup. But I almost feel like Starlord and the rest of the Guardians crew feel more like the B-Story here, because this movie feels like it's more about Yondu than about Peter Quill, Gemorah, or any of the main cast. But that might be partly because the entire cast gets such a balanced amount of screen time, and no one character or plot thread dominates the others.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 - Starlord and dad
This movie operates on a smaller scale, with a more personal conflict -- at least initially.

Despite the frequent cuts and the presence of almost half a dozen individual plot threads, the movie is remarkably tightly-themed. Virtually every plot thread in the film revolves around family. Quill meets his father. Gemorah finally gets to understand her sister. Rocket is dealing with raising Baby Groot and confronts his own inability to stop being an asshole long enough to let anybody actually like him. Drax is being repeatedly reminded of the loss of his own family. And Yondu is dealing with the feeling that he's a failure in the eyes of anybody who he ever might have considered "family".

This family-centered core of the movie then manages to help resolve the second major issue with Marvel movies. Vol 2 actually has a pretty interesting and mysterious villain...

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