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Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age (2018)

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If this is your first time reading Pixels in Praxis or are averse to spoilers, check out our FAQ before proceeding.

Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age (just Echoes moving forward) is almost as traditional and conservative as turn-based RPGs can be.  Any gamer familiar with the series will slide in comfortably to Echoes' skill system, patient battles, and spiritual story. There's no pretense to buzzword-heavy originality, only skilled hands who have made a consistent product for decades returning to the series for a single-player game for the first time in nine years.

Even with that familiarity, I was shocked at the number of times Echoes moved me to tears.  This is a humbling game that reminds me how unnecessarily bombastic and leaden turn-based RPGs have been the last few years (even Persona 5 could have used a touch of subtlety at times).  Echoes asks us to lay still with the faith of its characters, to sit in quiet contemplation of their decisions as time moves on without them, and explore a beautifully lived-in world.


Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

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Morgan Neville directs Won't You Be My Neighbor?, a documentary about the life and work of Fred Rogers.

Won't You Be My Neighbor? could have embraced Fred Rogers' teachings in its presentation.  The stillness and beauty he inspired is too often interrupted by talking heads on or off-screen.  This disrupts Mr. Rogers' serenity and, in its worst moments, director Morgan Neville and editors Jeff Malmberg and Aaron Wickenden craft montage that comes across as insincere instead of heartfelt.  Worse still, there are aspects of Mr. Rogers that are brought up only to be lightly brushed aside to keep up his aspirational image.

Still, this is a documentary about Mr. Rogers and you'd be hard-pressed to find another film this year that provides a comparable amount of sincerity, catharsis, and vulnerability.  The near wall-to-wall keys plunked down in the music by Jonathan Kirkscey along with choice selections from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood find an easy home with the older and more recent footage.  There are insights, some I had a sneaking suspicion about and others I was not prepared for, that keep intrigue up even when treading well-known territory.


Octopath Traveler (2018)

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If this is your first time reading Pixels in Praxis or are averse to spoilers, check out our FAQ before proceeding.

Octopath Traveler confuses redundancy for depth.  Its eight characters, each with their own prologue and four chapters of adventuring, are a collection of differing accents occupying what seem to be unique spaces until you progress just a bit into its far-too-long narrative.  Then the similarities become too apparent and I started to wonder why developers Square Enix (SE) and Acquire focused so heavily on stretching out the concept instead of delivering a smaller choice of tight stories.

They did a fine job crafting Octopath Traveler as I felt compelled to stop then take in the often gorgeous soundtrack and meticulously constructed environments (dubbed HD-2D as diorama is apparently too old-fashioned a word). But the total is akin to a finely fluffed pastry puff around a hollowed and dusty center.  Yet this is all by design, the absurdly named HD-2D gives the travelers a stage show feel though one offered through a dusty looking-glass.  Its aesthetic feeds into the distance, compounded by inter-party conversation where these travelers occupy separate spotlights and talk to one another over a wide gulf.


Hereditary (2018)

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The Grahams know no peace. After Annie's mother dies, she fills the vacuum of conflict and emotional pain by sniping at her husband Steve, son Peter, and daughter Charlie.  As Annie's wounds fester in the handcrafted details of her miniature art she begins the cycle of trauma once more for the next generation.  Ari Aster wrote the screenplay for and directs Hereditary, which stars Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Gabriel Byrne, and Ann Dowd.

Toni Collette, and - to a lesser extent - Gabriel Byrne, sensed a tremendous horror film inside Hereditary.  Both function as stars and Executive Producers working in front of and behind the camera of writer / director Ari Aster's debut film.  That's a mighty twosome, and when Hereditary centers specifically on Annie (Collette) it conjures an unpredictable edge that rivals similar traumatized home horror film The Babadook.

The rest of Hereditary could use some of the unpredictable energy Collette brings to her role.  It's rigorously composed with the steady sway of the camera attempting to lure the audience hypnotically into the Graham family's tense and empty home.  Hereditary always looks excellent, but the aesthetic served to keep me at a distance from the open nerve of trauma.  Right up until the end, the traumatized Grahams function mostly as gruesome puppets in a sterile home with the artifice of the former unfortunately highlighted by the cautious framing in the latter with the threads of horror's past wafting into view.But when Collette is left on her own to wrestle against Annie's demons the too large home feels ill-equipped to handle the weight of her torment.  Her wail is a fearsome thing, and Aster is wise to give Collette space at Annie's lowest as her pain transcends time when her screams bounce against the walls then into open air.  Even before further tragedy hits the Graham family Collette does such an effective job keeping the other performers on edge that I was dreading the moment one of them would push her too far.  As Annie's reaches her emotional limits Aster's script hits its most powerful notes.

Most of the dialogue in Hereditary consists of passive-aggressive sniping between the family members.  They don't speak in tart wit or wasp-y affectation.  Each one knows the hurt they can inflict on the next with Annie's children, the morbid Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and haunted Peter (Alex Wolff), taking the vast share of their mother's pain.  Aster's scenario has each talking as though the specter of emotional trauma is sitting in plain sight while everyone is too scared to comment on it while too restless to let it be still. Shapiro is astonishingly good at balancing her performance between those two worlds, looking with wet eyes out at the ghosts her mother refuses to see and loosing each syllable to the air as a desperate gasp to be heard. Along with Millicent Simmonds of A Quiet Place and Sophia Lillis of It, Shaprio uses horror to make good on her clearly tremendous potential.

Then there's the matter of Peter and where Hereditary starts to lose its effectiveness.  Wolff, to his credit, has the physical chops to make the psychic scars manifest in panicked and sometimes grotesque contortions of his body.  Vocally he strays between soul crushing weight and cartoonish hysterics.  The problem is, so does the plot and feel of Hereditary.  Once the emotional demon is let loose Aster's tone suffers from a bit of an identity crisis, not quite settling on some of its campier elements nor the careful buildup in Hereditary's first forty or so minutes.Ann Dowd, no stranger to metaphysically murky stories weighed down by trauma, arrives as a one-note ray of sunshine that is an odd fit for this world and the point where Hereditary starts to lose its power. She's the clearest link to Hereditary's roots in Rosemary's Baby-esque domestic horror without the payoff - and when there is a payoff it's a mannequin of grotesque parts that owe a nod to Lucky McKee's 2002 film May.  Aster strides forward so confidently up through to her arrival that the disparate hodgepodge of homages to other horror films comes as a big disappointment.  He shows a great grasp of the physical and mental strain of trauma then largely abandons that focus to chase different tonal threads.

Hereditary never quite pulls itself back together.  I continued to marvel at Collette's performance which exists in its own tortured sphere away from Byrne, Wolff, and Shapiro.  Byrne - to his credit - nails his unique brand of credulous skepticism and musters enough mystery around Steve's loyalties that his final scenes are as quietly unpredictable as Annie's are volatile.  But all that meticulous buildup whiffs in the end, leaving Hereditary with shocking moments that curdle the mind and little else to speak or.

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Hereditary (2018)

Screenplay written and directed by Ari Aster.
Starring Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Gabriel Byrne, and Ann Dowd.


Revenge (2018)

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Richard is looking forward to his annual hunting trip with friends Dimitri and Stan. He's also anticipating debauched times with his mistress Jen.  These are men who will have their way by whatever means necessary, and they're about to learn Jen will respond to their sins in kind.  Coralie Fargeat wrote the screenplay for and directs Revenge, which stars Matilda Lutz, Kevin Janssens, Vincent Colombe, and Guillaume Bouchède.

Upfront, let's dispense with the idea that Revenge subverts the exploitation film - something I've read too many times in relation to this and other films.  Every new flavor of the month piece of cinema with a bit of self-awareness in style seems to get the subversion label slapped on without a second thought.  Revenge is exploitative.  Richard (Kevin Janssens) indulges Jen's (Matilda Lutz) fantasies of being in control while stringing her along as a bright toy.  After Richard's friend Stan (Vincent Colombe) rapes Jen, Richard chastises Stan like Stan smudged his favorite action figure.

What creates the wide gulf of quality between a film like Quentin Tarantino's exploitative low-point Death Proof and Revenge writer/director Coralie Fargeat's powerfully successful approach is a matter of emphasis.  Exploitation film comes with a bit of nudging to the audience, a whisper of, "You bastards are enjoying this - aren't you?"  Tarantino would linger on enjoyment. Fargeat lingers on bastard.