THE WITCH (2015)

I don’t know exactly when the word “fairytale” began to conjure up images of love and happy endings. That was, of course, my understanding of the term through infancy too, until my parents gave me a book of traditional Scottish fairy and folk tales. Gone were the sanitised and tame caricature villains in favour of the genuinely terrifying, unsettling, brutal, tragic, and evil. I often found my young and uninitiated mind terrified and haunted, and yet I found myself impulsively coming back for more, with my heart in my mouth and stomach tight with nervous excitement for the horrors the next tale would bring. I was completely hooked. I have since read many similar tales from around the globe, developing a particular fondness for reading the original (and brutal) stories that would evolve (or devolve, one may argue) into the safe and familiar stories presented – complete with bubble wrap, candy-floss colours, and all sharp edges removed – in children’s picture books and movies today.

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The Witch, or “VVitch” as appears on the posters (a common Jacobean spelling from the time in which the story is set), is one such tale. Whilst the story is an original rather than a historical tale, director Roger Eggers – a fellow lifelong aficionado of folk tales in general and those of witches in particular (somewhat unsurprisingly) – has made every effort to ensure that The Witch is as ‘traditional’ a folk tale as they come: The language is true to the period, with some dialogue even taken directly from historical source materials including court records and journals; the storyline itself also inspired by both fictional and “historical” accounts of witchcraft, no doubt including many of the tales I so loved throughout my youth.

Eggers collaborated extensively with historians from both British and American museums to make the film as historically accurate as possible, going as far as consulting experts on historical agriculture to make certain that the family’s farm was just as any would have been at the time. Despite the film’s setting, farming can hardly be considered one of the film’s themes and we are only ever given fleeting glimpses of any such activity, a reflection of Eggers’ dedication to getting every detail just right. I personally loved the myriad small but significant details such as the characters’ delivery of early-modern English in British accents, exactly how newly arrived settlers in the Americas would have spoken (something that may escape the attention of a lesser director of an American/Canadian co-production both set and filmed on the North American continent), and that the film was shot using exclusively the sources of light that would have been available to a real family in the 1600s, limiting himself to the sun during the day and candlelight and moonlight after dark. I can’t help but think that this is as close to time travel as we have available to us at the moment.

Whilst I am yet to hear any criticism of the film’s artistic style or cinematography (and rightly so, may I add, for it is a visually stunning work of cinema), having spoken to some less enthused by the film’s plot it has occurred to me that some might have gone into the movie expecting a more conventional horror film, or more specifically something more contemporary in themes. I watched The Witch with my mum on a recent visit – my first trip south since moving to Glasgow late last year – and having left film selection up to her, knew little to nothing about it prior to watching it, with the exception of its tagline: “A New-England Folktale”. Perhaps I have this to thank for my getting exactly what I had expected: A folktale (rather more specific and a slightly different concept in my mind to that conjured by the term “horror film” as The Witch is listed on streaming or review sites, and even referred to in the trailer). As I said before, folk tales were often scary, but they were not intended to scare the audience of the 21st century silver screen; the tales that inspired this story were written by candlelight by men and women to whom a witch was not just a spooky concept but a genuine threat: it is estimated that some 50,000 witches were hung, drowned, and burned over several hundred years across Europe and the American colonies, with 17th century New England – the setting of the infamous Salem Witch Trials amongst others – no exception.

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Some things you should know before you watch this movie, if you have not done so already: The story moves slowly; antagonists hardly ever appear on screen (though to great effect when they do); there are no jump scares, which interestingly added greatly to the movie’s tension for me as I occasionally found myself bracing for jump scares that never came, leaving an unresolved tension lingering in my gut (a sad reflection perhaps on the predictability of some modern cinema); and the film’s conclusion is perfectly realistic and logical only when considered through the eyes of someone living in the period in which it is set. To a modern viewer with a stubbornly contemporary view of the world expecting a modern horror movie this will be a recipe for disappointment, but if you can leave the trappings of the modern world behind for a couple of hours, I am sure you will agree that The Witch is a consummate work of art.

EVERY JURASSIC PARK FILM (INCLUDING FALLEN KINGDOM), RATED AND REVIEWED

Today, the 6th of June 2018, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom comes out here in the UK. Whilst too young to have enjoyed the first instalment of this franchise upon its initial release, I do have fond memories of watching the movie and its sequels around the turn of the millennia. One particularly vivid memory – and it is strange the things we remember – is of my anger at a most irritating placement of an ad break during a television broadcast of the first film, just as a Tyrannosaurus rex tore the roof off the toilet in which cowardly lawyer Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero) hid, ruining one of the film’s most entertaining and iconic scenes with three minutes of unrelated adverts. Then came a hiatus of over a decade in which I didn’t watch any of them. In fact, I don’t remember caring much when I heard the first Jurassic World was coming out, as I’ve generally not been impressed with most franchise revivals (Star Wars prequel trilogy anyone?).

It may then surprise some of you to learn that I have tickets to see Fallen Kingdom this afternoon, the very first day it hits the silver screen. This is largely because of my girlfriend who, unlike me, never forgot about that world of prehistoric beasts. Since being together, we have seen all four films at least once every six months or so. Having stepped away from this world during my adolescence means that unlike Gloria, who grew with them, I have seen them from two vastly different perspectives: through the eyes of an excited child, to whom trips to London’s Natural History Museum to see the dinosaur skeletons were always the highlight of any week and voraciously consumed anything on the subject with unrestrained excitement (I never once missed an episode of the BBC’s Walking With Dinosaurs, and my first iMAX experience was a trip to that by Glasgow’s Science Centre aged 12 to see Dinosaurs Alive!); and as an adult for whom theme alone is not enough to really enjoy a film.

 

In anticipation of our cinema trip later today, here is what Gloria and I think of each move in the franchise (so far):

 

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Jurassic Park (1993)
A: The original and still the best. Abounds with iconic scenes (clever use of a reflective door is a personal favourite). The concept was like nothing seen before, the dinosaurs in both appearance and behaviour are largely accurate for its time (as for that matter are most concepts of genetics and technology), and despite its ambition the story feels believable. It’s a movie that is exciting, serious, scary, and funny in equal measure and more importantly knows the right time and place for each. Alan (Sam Neill) and Ellie’s (Laura Dern) professional and “personal” chemistry is palpable and yet Jurassic Park resists any attempt to add any explicitly romantic twists to the plot. Exciting and genuinely fun yet somehow equally mature and sophisticated. What I’d give to drive through those gates…
9/10

G: Innovative. The first commercial movie to deal explicitly with humans and dinosaurs, and they got it just right. The special effects were not only amazing for the era, but have aged spectacularly well and are as watchable now as they were then. Overall, the ensemble of characters are endearing and have enough depth. The T-rex encounter while trapped in the car when the power goes out is one of the finest scenes in any movie I’ve ever seen, and Spielberg’s skilful manipulation of pacing in the scene in the kitchen makes it one of the most tense and exciting in the film.
10/10

 

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The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
A: My biggest issue with this film is the casting, which lost the two strongest performances from the original (Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler, of course) whilst keeping less likeable characters such as Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum) – not a bad performance may I add, but simply a character I find to be intrinsically annoying, though thankfully less so than I find him to be in the first movie (in which he is fairly two-dimensional). Whilst the casting and storyline at times feel distinctly like the result of a cash cow spin off situation, the dinosaur chases are phenomenal and there are enough enjoyable scenes for this to be a worthwhile watch.
5/10

G: This one definitely feels more like another film about dinosaurs than a genuine sequel to the first. The Lost World finds its feet after a fairly weak opening, getting into gear just in time for the return to the franchise’s dinosaur-packed islands. The characters are frustratingly poor: Malcom is arrogant and frustrating, Sarah (Julianne Moore) is imprudent and irresponsible, and Owen (Vince Vaughn) is quite simply unnecessary. It is a group of characters in dire need of a leader that inspires confidence, crying out for the safe hands of Alan Grant.
7/10

 

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Jurassic Park III (2001)
A: A welcome return for Alan and, very briefly, Ellie too, with chemistry intact (though the introduction of her husband and their young child explicitly suggest the relationship to be nothing more than a friendship). I loved the abandoned feel of the island, setting the action firmly in dinosaur territory and adding to the sense of tension throughout. The much smaller ensemble and return to a more “brains over brawn” approach is also a definite improvement over the explosions and machine guns that were so prominent the second. This film strips away technology and science for a much simpler approach, building the story around the most basic concept of all: survival.
7/10

G: Glad to see the strongest characters back from the first movie, ditching The Lost World’s disjointed collection of irritating characters for a group firmly bound by the desire to survive. The group’s seemingly unshakeable teamwork – in particular the unspoken understanding and acceptance of the fact that people make mistakes and that sometimes bad things are done with good intentions – creates a real sense of family between all of the humans stuck on the island. This makes for an interesting turn from the more conventional human adversaries of the previous films in the series, and makes this one of the most simple and pure feeling films in the series.
8.5/10

 

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Jurassic World (2015)
A: A strange mix of unnecessarily futuristic technology (including hamster balls for humans and irresponsibly dangerous hybrid “designer” dinosaurs, something frankly ridiculous if we’re to believe this movie is set in a post-Jurassic-Park-catastrophe world) and disappointingly outdated and fictionalised dinosaurs (I won’t go into details as there are many much longer articles than this one dedicated solely to the subject). Jurassic World tries to capture the essence of Jurassic Park, but gets the balance wrong in my opinion, with the inclusion of comedic lines during some potentially quite tense moments and the unsubtle and predictable approach to developing the relationship between Owen (Chris Pratt) and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) – completely lacking the subtlety and tact that made that of Alan and Ellie so special – particularly disappointing when compared to the original. To its credit the film is a visual masterpiece and the reliance on animatronics is worth its weight in gold. If only those dinosaurs were accurate.
2/10

G: Tries way too hard to be funny and lighthearted, with pretty much all of the characters lacking a certain earnestness from which the film would have benefitted. I am also not a fan of the domesticated and frankly dog-like portrayal of dinosaurs: we’ve lost the focus on archaeology and palaeontology in exchange for dinosaurs that are dealt with from a purely financial perspective. I did like the final twist in which the Velociraptor Blue teams up with T-rex to defeat Indominus rex, and of course loved the long-awaited return to the Jurassic Park universe.
6.5/10

 

UPDATE:

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Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2017)
A: Tries, successfully, to be more emotional than the previous effort, which I liked. The film poses serious questions about the ethics of our manipulation and exploitation of nature and the morality of the economically motivated forces behind it. Unfortunately it also seems heavier on both special effects (I would have preferred more animatronics and less CGI) and action (which comes flying at you from all angles almost non-stop throughout). There was absolutely no mention of palaeontology or the natural biology of dinosaurs, instead choosing to focus on increasingly ridiculous (in name, appearance, and behaviour) hybrids, which are discussed and treated as though they were contemporary animals. The film is enjoyable enough, but felt less Jurassic Park than any other instalment in the franchise yet. No spoilers here, but the ending seems to open doors for expansion beyond the limits of those infamous islands, and even beyond dinosaurs themselves. I personally would have slightly altered the ending (to one that would firmly close the doors to any further damage to the franchise more films), but given its takings at the box-office I’m sure we’re in for a few more.
4/10

G: Nothing in this film blew me away as some aspects of the original “Park” films do, but I did really enjoy the more “intimate” moments shared with dinosaurs, as this film allows us closer to the dinosaurs and for longer than arguably any of the others. Some of the realism seems to have been lost, with Fallen Kingdom turning the series from the original sense of travelling back in time towards an increasingly science fiction universe. Whilst the constant action makes for exciting viewing, there were one too many near-misses casualty-free to be even remotely credible. Bayona (the director) and his team have made excellent use of not only lighting and shadows, but the cinematography and artistic direction itself to generating tension. I’ll be interested to see what I think after a second viewing…
6.5/10

The Killing Fields (1984)

When presented with the question of whether we prefer “fiction or non-fiction”, most would probably consider the two most obvious extremes: fiction and documentary. But, on which side of the battle do films such as 12 Years a Slave, Into the Wild, Catch Me if You Can, The Pianist, and The Killing Fields fit in? Of course, the answer is both.

It’s true that we live in a world in which so many inspiring, heartbreaking, exciting, and terrifying things happen that it can seem hard to justify the time and effort it takes to make up a good story for a film. Of course, fiction provides a creative outlet through which we may experience things that we couldn’t in the real world; it allows us to disconnect by immersing ourselves in other worlds – even those that are dangerous or scary – from the safety of our position as a spectator; and most simply provides us with the magic of creation: it never ceases to amaze me that something may exist simply because we wish it, something unique and new, an emotion or thought or moment that once recorded (whether in writing, on film, or any other artistic medium) may remain untouched for us to revisit whenever we please, and ultimately leave behind. On the other hand, where a film’s purpose is to educate – to deliver facts and observe, analyse, and/or explain a process, event, or subject – the documentary will always be king (and the genre is most certainly not going anywhere fast; consider for a minute the popularity of the BBC’s nature “docuseries” in recent years, for example).

But often amongst all the facts and dates are individual stories that deserve need to be told: not only to save the story itself, but to save emotion from being lost in a sea of faceless statistics and dates, a concept immortalised by the infamous Stalin quote “When one man dies it’s a tragedy. When thousands die it’s statistics.” (or any of the other variants of the line, in this case that of Russian historian Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko). This is where those films that straddle both life and art – with their stories adapted into screenplays and directed with entertainment and artistic vision in mind – come into their own. The intention here becomes not to passively and impartially educate per se, but actively instigate an emotional response, and whilst usually striving to remain true to the source materials (aside from any necessary truth-bending or gap-filling to benefit the telling of the story), the line between fact and “fiction” (for lack of a better word) may already have been blurred; most of these films are based on personal accounts rather than the quantitative analyses of academics, and so are inherently shaped and coloured by emotion, opinion, and bias. But in this instance it’s capturing these most human and emotional facets, rather than just communicating cold hard facts, that matters the most.

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Given the real-world importance of telling these stories it’s little surprise that this challenge so often attracts the very best in the business: just try to find a year in which the Academy Award nominations for best actor/actress does not include at least one for a portrayal of a real person (hint: it has happened only twice in the last 50-odd years, and not once since the late 70s). The Killing Fields is one such film. Nominated for no less than 7 Oscars (winning three), 13 BAFTAs (winning 8), and 6 Golden Globes (winning one) amongst countless other awards around the world, and bathed in the plaudits of critics and the public alike upon release (and over the 34 years since, often appearing in “top/best films” lists); this telling of the time shared by Pulitzer-winning journalist Sydney Schanberg (portrayed by Sam Waterston) and photojournalist and interpreter Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor) – from the start of the Cambodian civil war to the “year zero” policies of the Khmer Rouge’s reign – surely shouldn’t need much more justification to convince you to give it a watch if you haven’t already.

Of course, the value of a film cannot be measured in prizes and nominations alone. Everyone I have ever discussed this film with has gone away wanting to know more about the wars that plagued arguably one of the planet’s most beautiful regions, inspired to watch documentaries on both the Cambodian and other civil wars and genocides, and wanting to read the protagonists’ journalism from this time (which earned Schanberg a Pulitzer amongst other accolades) as well as learn more about their lives and careers both before and after the events of the movie. This film certainly set in motion a domino effect in my own choices of watching and reading materials – from historical fiction to documentary, and everything in between – attracting me to works I may have otherwise overlooked (most recently Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which spans China’s land reform campaigns, cultural revolution, the Tiananmen Square protests, to the present day). If this film aimed to raise awareness as well as entertain, it most certainly seems to have achieved both goals.

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Aside from the storyline itself, three aspects of the film’s production struck me as particularly significant:

  1. It was released in 1984, not even a decade after the events of the film, during the Cambodian-Vietnamese war (which ended in 1991), and within only five years of the end of the Cambodian genocide and removal of the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979 (but not their dissolution; they completely surrendered in 1999). The film remains powerful to this day, but I can hardly imagine the impact it would have had upon its release.

  2. It was largely shot in neighbouring Thailand, into whose borders the war spread. Whilst violence in Thailand was largely limited to the Thai-Cambodian border, and so the risk to those involved in making the film presumably low, the film’s proximity to the conflict it was portraying is certainly unusual. Thai authorities wholly supported the film (including lending air force planes repainted in Vietnamese characters), seeing its value as a vehicle to bring the conflict to international attention. Very much related to my previous observation, many involved in the film’s production were not descendants of the survivors and witnesses of the horrors portrayed in the movie, but the survivors themselves. That they should wish to face such a horrific past so soon to tell the story is both humbling and a reflection of the importance of its being recorded and shared with the world.

  3. Dr. Haing Somnang Ngor.
    Winning an Academy Award is widely considered to be something quite special. Doing it with your first on-screen acting role – and as one of only two non-professional actors to have ever won it – arguably makes the feat impressive even compared to other winners. But that this feat might be one of the least significant in Dr. Ngor’s life (and yes, he really did train and practice as an obstetrician and gynaecologist) almost beggars belief (and is testament to the gravity of the trials he had to face).

    Remember when I said that statistics can hide stories deserving to be told? Well it turns out that Dith Pran’s was told by a man with a story of his own, which Ngor would later tell in his memoir Survival in the Killing Fields (which I cannot recommend highly enough): the story of his surviving torture, imprisonment, forced labour, and the loss of his loved ones at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, despite being a doctor, buddhist, and glasses-wearer (intellectuals, those with “intellectual traits” such as wearing glasses, and religious people were targeted in the regime’s policy of classicide).

    Returning not only to South East Asia but to face the ordeals he experienced first-hand is likely the hardest acting job of all time, and I have read reports of the emotional toll creating some scenes in the film had on him. It is said he only accepted the role because he promised his late wife – who died during childbirth because Ngor could not assist with the pregnancy as it would reveal his education and in doing so put the three of them in mortal danger – that he would share their story. So whilst he may not have had stage or screen experience, as put so succinctly by fellow co-star Julian Sands:

    “…Haing had been acting his whole life – you had to be a pretty good actor to survive the Khmer Rouge.”

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After the events of the film, real-life Pran joined the New York Times in 1980 as a photojournalist alongside Schanberg (who would however leave the paper in 1985), with whom he remained friends until his death in 2008. Haing Ngor continued to work as an actor until his murder in California in 1996.

The film ends with Dith Pran (Ngor) saying “There is nothing to forgive”. How I wish we lived in a world where that were true.

A QUIET PLACE (2018)

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Most would instinctively describe cinema as a visual art-form, but one look at the history of everyone’s favourite (mostly) English-language cinema celeb-fest, the Oscars, shows that awards have been given for various aspects of a film’s audio since the third award ceremony in 1930 (Best Sound Recording). Whilst it’s not uncommon to have discussions about favourite soundtracks and movie themes, if A Quiet Place doesn’t cast sound design into the public consciousness nothing will. From the sound of unseen foes approaching (even more effective when implemented as a wandering “sound element”, more on this later), heartbeats racing as the tension skyrockets, to the piercing feedback of a young girl’s cochlear implant, sound plays a crucial role in the generation of tension. Marco Beltrami’s soundtrack’s not half bad either, the veteran horror scorer at it again with a mix of dissonant ambient tracks implemented in moments of action or threat and decidedly Jóhann Jóhannsson-esque minimalist beauties to lift the more sentimental moments to a higher plane. I actually stayed for the credits just to note the composer, always a sure sign of a great soundtrack.

I am an audiophile. I have always been obsessed with music, radio, and sounds natural and not alike: thunderstorms, bike tyres on loose gravel, briefcase clasps closing, the sound of oars skimming the water’s surface (the best thing about rowing)… So it may surprise some who know me well that it wasn’t actually the sound effects or the music that most impressed me: it was the silence. “If they hear you, they hunt you.”: one glance at the movie’s tagline tells us we’re in for a lot of holding our breath and tip-toeing around. It’s a simple yet effective strategy, and the suspense created by noticing anything that could create or cause the slightest noise – or even not so slight, such as an upturned nail on the stairs or Evelyn’s (Emily Blunt) baby bump – is so intense that I found myself almost longing to just get it over and done with. Almost. In reality, the only moment of relief permitted by the film is a simple yell shared by father and son, protected by a barrier of noise provided by the deafening roar of a waterfall.

Going beyond elective silence, Evelyn and Lee’s (John Krasinski) young daughter Regan (like Millicent Simmonds who played her) is deaf, in itself not an entirely unique concept – a character’s deafness was also used to wonderful effect in 2016’s Hush (here I feel obliged to mention that the writing of A Quiet Place was already underway in 2013) – but a young girl and her family’s struggle to come to terms with her disability would be difficult enough without the imminent threat of death at the claws of an alien predator (or “Death Angels” as they are nicknamed). The family’s ability to communicate non-verbally, undoubtedly initially for Regan’s benefit, is what allowed them to adapt and survive in the soundless world that the majority of humankind had failed to adapt to (civilisation as we know it all but wiped out), and – without giving too much away – the unique challenges of facing such a condition ultimately provide the Abbotts with the knowledge necessary to have a fighting chance at survival again towards the film’s close. Perhaps I, having grown up with a close friend who himself has a cochlear implant, am particularly attune to such themes, but Regan’s reaction to another of Lee’s failed attempt to fix another aid and provide some degree of hearing – fragile, restrained, and utterly devastating – left me in tears, and is unquestionably my favourite scene in the film. The maturity of such restraint in the face of pain, both physical and emotional, is what really makes this film so special (testament to the talents of Blunt and Millicent in particular, without whose measured and delicate performances such emotional impact would have been lost).

More than just a scary concept with a lot of jump scares, A Quiet Place is about a family’s ability to adapt and overcome. Here, we leave behind the all too familiar “every man for himself” survival concept in favour of a family’s altruism, and there is no limit to how far they will go to save each other. It’s a story of loss and sacrifice, and of acceptance. If I had to describe A Quiet Place in a word, it would not be “fear”, but “love”.

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PS: I normally wouldn’t talk too much about where I watched a film, but in this instance I feel I must say a few words before I go, as it enhanced the experience so much. A Quiet Place was the first film I have watched in a screen fitted with Dolby’s “Atmos”, showcased spectacularly by this film in which sound is so important. I’m not very well informed on the particulars of how it works, but sound elements move in a three dimensional space rather than the conventional “channels” used previously, giving a move specific sense of location (including a sense of “height”).

Not directly relevant to the film itself but definitely adding to my enjoyment of the visit (more specifically my first to an Odeon “Luxe” cinema), was the intense comfort of the auditorium. The cinema was absolutely packed – usually something that can feel quite claustrophobic, uncomfortable, and ultimately distracting – but everything about the room’s design leaves only one thing to give your attention to: the film (and so I did – only occasionally snapping back to reality at the odd shriek from one particularly timorous member of the audience seated further along the row to my right). All the seats in the auditorium were incredibly comfortable hand-stitched leather recliners with so much leg room that even when fully reclined I, at 6’1”, had enough room for a grown man to walk easily between my outstretched legs and the seat in front, minimising disruptions and eliminating distracting bumps in the back from the knees of the people sitting behind you. Each seat has its own private table for drinks and snacks, and two rather large armrests (goodbye awkward elbow bumping) which is both more comfortable and the added distance seems to make talking to the person next to you – a pet peeve of mine – more difficult or just less appealing, as nobody seemed to be doing it. Though on second thoughts the silence of the crowd (I have rarely seen a room so full so quiet) may have been equally to do with the quality of the film…

10 THINGS I LOVE AND HATE ABOUT YOU

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Love

  1. The most entertaining modern-day Shakespeare adaptation since Scarface (Macbeth). I was schooled in England, which meant a lot of Shakespeare was read (and watched). I once played Romeo onstage. Undoubtedly a result of a burn-out of sorts, I have developed a tendency to ignore all things Shakespeare – a condition not helped by the ceaseless use of the Shakespeare “brand” to rip off tourists – much like how our brains will stop registering physical landmarks given sufficient exposure (I would pass the Palace of Westminster without so much as a glance returning home from Leicester Square’s casinos or the Southbank Undercroft). And whilst not all of Shakespeare’s work may have been entirely original, cough cough, it sometimes takes a disguise like 10 Things to remind me that whoever is really to thank for writing/plagiarising his (/her/their, depending on who you ask) stories definitely knew how to write/pick a good one. A pleasant surprise, that I was watching The Taming of the Shrew dawned on me only once the film was underway (if I had known before, I had completely forgotten); I sat down to watch it knowing nothing but that it is one of my girlfriend’s favourites.
  1. Not just another cheesy romantic comedy aimed at preteen girls. I believe this film is as good an example as any of why one should never judge a book by its cover. In my defence, I haven’t ever refused to watch it: I don’t care about genre (all have both gems and turds) and will never knock a film before watching it myself (don’t believe the hype). But nevertheless, over the years I have chosen other films (often significantly worse, in retrospect) over 10 Things I Hate About You, such as when spending loose change on movies in thrift shops, picking something on streaming sites, and the like. I don’t know why (possibly actually the incredibly boring cover), but I expected something more generic, more normal, more “ok”. That’s not to say this is the best comedy I’ve ever seen – and it’s possible the experience was enhanced by its following a week-long thriller binge – but it massively exceeded my (admittedly modest) expectations and was much less alienating (as a young adult male watching it for the first time) than I expected.
  1. Nostalgia. I know, weird right? As mentioned above, I hadn’t actually seen this movie before, I didn’t grow up in America, go to a co-ed high school (and definitely had less fun than the characters in the movie), or ever get paid to seduce a girl so a classmate could date her sister (unbelievable, I know). But as a young adult slowly adjusting to wage slips, bills, and taxes, it did stir up happy memories of both the pettiness of the worries of student life and the fun I so recently left behind (my university year were the most care free and enjoyable of my 24 on Earth so far). I was taken aback that a first viewing of a film could have a similar (albeit less intense) emotional impact to that of, say, each American Pie binge with my best friend since graduating (and yes we watch all of them, including the bad ones: “American Pie Presents” I’m looking at y’all) – a genuine nostalgia, given that it is the continuation of a tradition we ourselves started in our high school years over a decade ago.
  1. Chemistry. This film strikes a nice balance: genuinely funny yet emotional enough when it counts, whilst maintaining a sort of easy lightheartedness and innocence throughout. In my opinion most significantly, the film has captured a most authentic sense of friendship between the cast. Apparently Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles – whose characters (Patrick and Kat, respectively) date in the movie – themselves dated during filming and David Krumholtz (who played Michael) has credited the film’s success to the real-life friendships formed on set:

    The cast was experiencing what I’ve since found to be all too rare: a unified chemistry throughout the ensemble, without a single bad apple in the bunch. We all agreed that we were having the best summer of our lives.

  1. The cast. Whilst friends played by real friends and a couple played by a real couple arguably makes for a fairly straightforward job for the cast (all jokes aside, Stiles’ performance is particularly strong), many have gone on to have rather fruitful careers; Whilst protagonists Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Cameron), Stiles, and Ledger have had arguably the best careers in the (almost) two decades post- 10 Things, a surprising number of the young cast are still familiar faces on screen. Either way it’s always fun to see actors “back in the day”.

 

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“Hate”

  1. The cast. Ok, I don’t actually hate the cast. More accurately, it saddened me to see a Heath Ledger looking so young, relaxed, and happy, in the context of his untimely and tragic passing. A phenomenal talent from the start – 10 Things serving as his breakout performance in American film – to finish – winning the second ever posthumous Academy Award for acting with his perfect rendition of The Joker in The Dark Knight, and the youngest posthumous Oscar winner ever, by over a decade – it saddens me to think of the wonderful talent that was lost. But what really breaks my heart is to think of the future he had ahead of him but didn’t get to live, the daughter he didn’t get to see grow, and the family and friends he left behind.
  1. Nostalgia. Nostalgia is always a little bittersweet. But, with real-world adulthood looming, looking back at my youth and those beloved university years that came and went in a flash, the realisation that 1999 was nearly two decades ago (already?!), and a poignant reminder that life is both delicate and fleeting is enough to send me into an existentialist crisis if I pay it too much thought. Thank goodness it was a comedy and not a coming of age drama.
  1. Not just another cheesy romantic comedy aimed at preteen girls. On a slightly cheerier note, I really wish this revelation (mentioned in point 2) had come sooner, as both storyline and setting would have been more relevant and relatable whilst at high school myself, being force fed Shakespeare like there’s no tomorrow.
  1. The guitar.* (If you don’t mind a little spoiler or have already seen the movie, you’ll find this point if you scroll down. If you do, please ignore the paragraph after point 10.)
  1. That I didn’t hate it. Not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* As if Kat, a strong, stubborn, and intelligent young woman, one scarred enough by past experiences to have literally chosen to transform herself from one of the most popular young ladies at school to a loner, having let someone past that tough facade into her surprisingly delicate world only to find out he was paid to do it would ever trust him again (or any other men, for a while at least), beautiful Stratocaster or not. Of course, as viewers we know how Patrick really feels, and it really is the right outcome, but – much like assuming a cat is a mammal because it has four legs like a dog, which is also a mammal – one can reach a correct conclusion through faulty logic (after all, a lizard also has four legs). Having witnessed the lengths needed to win her heart in the first place, I highly doubt any gift would be enough. Great guitar though.

THESIS (1996)

I feel very fortunate that as a film-nut I live with a girlfriend who is equally fond of spending an evening cwtching up (Welsh /kʊtʃ/ – a cuddle or hug) to watch a movie. Whilst discussing our favourite thrillers and crime movies after finishing Seven she asked if I had watched “Tesis” (Thesis). I had not. What’s more, I hadn’t even heard of it.

In case you haven’t either, this crime/thriller was the first feature-length directorial effort of Alejandro Amenábar – who would go on to direct The Others – another phenomenal film that I’d recommend if you’re ever in the mood for a spot of gothic horror – and the Oscar winning The Sea Inside (Mar Adentro) amongst others. Whilst not a directorial effort, the multifaceted Amenábar also scored a favourite Spanish-language film of mine, Butterfly’s Tongue (originally La Lengua de las Mariposas); Clearly not satisfied with “just” director and co-writer credits, Amenábar also scored Tesis, of course. Needless to say, I was already sold, and we watched it that very night…

Image result for tesis pelicula

… and absolutely loved it. Ángela, a film student writing a thesis on the effects of violence in the media on the family comes into possession of a snuff film, who she discovers features a girl who was a student at the same university and had disappeared two years before, throwing her into a game of cat and mouse in which the identity of the cat does not always seem so clear-cut. The story twists and turns, testing her loyalties, and turning allies into suspects and back. Very cleverly, the rate at which the most likely suspect changes increases throughout, before a rollercoaster finale in which many pieces of the puzzle are thrown firmly into their correct place. Much in the vein of other nineties crime films like The Silence of the Lambs and Seven, the killer is a highly intelligent and charming individual rather than a caricature and one-dimensional “villain”, though the lack of any law-enforcement bodies or formal procedural investigation sets it apart from most films in this genre (or at least those of a more procedural/investigative nature), and the vulnerability of the protagonists provides an especially dangerous and thrilling atmosphere throughout.

Aside from tackling many social issues particularly relevant to Spain at the time of writing, the story encompasses several now-clichéd concepts in modern thriller/horror cinema – found film, snuff films, psychopathy, serial killing – yet does so without seeming contrived. This is achieved by often working these concepts in as features of the plot rather than directly employing them as film techniques, coupled with the rather metafilmic inclusion of film student characters’ discussions of such topics within the script (snuff films are watched by characters in the film, cinematic violence debated with classmates and lecturers alike, and Ángela uses filming a documentary as a guise to interview her “suspects”, for example).

The acting is believable (though not entirely surprising, as many film student roles in the film were played by genuine film students) and the three lead actors would go on to have reasonably healthy careers in mostly Spanish-language cinema (Ana Torrent, Fele Martínez, and Eduardo Noriega). Slightly less believable is that a film written by a student and then filmed inside their faculty on a limited budget in only five and a half weeks could be such an excellent film.

SE7EN (1995)

I don’t think I will ever tire of revisiting this neo-noir masterpiece. As a forensic biologist, it may not surprise many that I am not averse to a good crime film, but of the endless sea of such films this is one of very few that in my opinion possesses the necessary quality of story and acting to not only permit an enjoyable re-watch, but arguably demand at least one – despite one already knowing what’s in the box the outcome. In fact, it is only upon this most recent (at least fifth) viewing of the film that I questioned how an hour-and-one-minute drive could possibly have been taken us from the seemingly eternal torrential rain of the unnamed city in which the majority of the film is set to the bone dry expanse of desert of the final scene – requiring a degree of suspension of disbelief that may not have passed unnoticed if not for the quality of story.

Image result for seven movie rain

Aside from the gloomy colour design, weather, and very clever use of lighting (or lack thereof), it’s Seven’s expert use of the unknown and unseen that makes for such an intense experience. I am sure anyone who has lived at one point or another in a large city, particularly one blessed with bad weather (in my case growing up in London and later moving to Glasgow), feels a certain familiarity with “the city” (as close to a name as viewers are given, though known to have been inspired by a rather unhappy time spent by then-struggling screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker in New York). I am sure a large part of what makes this movie so impactful for many is that the events of the film could be unfolding in “our” city, whichever that is; no matter how shocking or sad, the stories that affect how safe we feel will always be the local ones – we can’t just write them off as some far-off evil from which we are safe and sound.

What’s more, none of the murders being investigated are shown on-screen (though the film does end with an execution), instead showing us the aftermath and leaving the rest up to our imagination. This breaks down the audience/film barrier, putting the action inside our heads and thereby forcing us to live the scene. In fact, in two cases – lust and envy – we don’t see the victim at all, and yet they are arguably the two most horrific and chilling crimes in the movie, thanks to both extremity of concept and accompanying performances (Leland Orser and Brad Pitt) so genuinely convincing that it’s hard to believe that you are watching actors and not real victims.

Image result for seven movie box

We are biologically programmed to be afraid of the unknown – the ability to recognise and evade dangers (including identifying potential/novel threats) is a fundamental principle of survival of the fittest – and Seven exploits this masterfully. Until the killer’s surprising (but necessary – the police seemingly little closer to catching him than they were to begin with) decision to willingly hand himself in to the police just over two-thirds in (a surprise designed to include the identity of the actor portraying him; though now common knowledge, Kevin Spacey was not named in any of the film’s marketing or the opening credits), one is permitted an extremely limited picture of who the killer may be. This, combined with a collection of victims spanning a wide range of walks of life and socioeconomic status make him all the more terrifying (he could be anyone) and the crimes all the more unsettling (I am sure most of us can relate in some way, shape, or form to one of the victims).

“The only reason that I’m here right now is that I wanted to be.” – John Doe

The killer’s modus operandi seems particularly powerful in the current real-world climate of “lone wolf” attacks, in which an individual commits a violent act(s) fully knowing that they will/may die (e.g. suicide attack, murder-suicide, or “death-by-cop”) and/or make no attempt to evade capture, rather seeing themselves as a martyr/envoy for their cause. The most striking feature of “John Doe” is not only how sane, but how highly articulate and intelligent he seems (a not-entirely-unique concept, arguably most famously – and successfully – implemented in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs). The nineties’ shift away from the simple and senseless caricatures that litter the horror and thriller genres (not far from the rather generic serial killer profile of the first suspect in Seven) in favour of people who (if not for the blood stains and bandaged fingertips in this instance) could quite easily pass as lawyers, doctors, professors, or for that matter any other white collar job – the sort of person that society tells us we can trust – is arguably the most terrifying concept of all, as put so succinctly by Morgan Freeman’s Detective Somerset: “He’s not the devil. He’s just a man.”

In the context of his apparently increasing willingness to be typecast and/or accept minor roles in mediocre-yet-commercially-viable movies (though let’s not forget that most of us would be unwilling and/or unable to do any work at all beyond retirement age, let alone into our eighties), Freeman’s Detective Somerset is a refreshing reminder of the myriad outstanding performances that made his name one that could sell almost any movie. His on-screen chemistry with Brad Pitt (another stand-out performance in a filmography containing more than a handful of superb roles in legendary titles) arguably adds more emotional force to the movie than would have been provided by the script alone, as relatively little time is given to the building of relationships between characters or their personal lives. In fact, one of my few criticisms would be the relatively short screen-time given to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Tracy Mills: I believe developing her character would have greatly increased the film’s emotional impact; as it is she seems almost more of a plot device than a character. Spacey’s John Doe, much as Anthony Hopkins did with Hannibal Lecter’s Oscar-winning 15 minutes of screen time, reminds us that sometimes less really is more in the hands of a great actor (albeit one with a less meritorious personal life). He might not be on the screen for long, but in a performance like that, it only takes one word to steal the show…

 

“Detective.”

Podcast: On Tattoos 5/6 – Aftercare.

The fifth part of On Tattoos has just gone live on Anchor, iTunes, and Google Play. In this episode, I go over all the ins and outs of tattoo healing: Do’s and Don’ts, what changes to expect as your skin heals, how to wash and dry your tattoo, what “dry” and “wet” healing are (though not which is best, that’s something you’ll find out for yourself), and give other bits and pieces of advice I’ve amassed over half a decade of getting tattooed (so far)!

Please do subscribe on your preferred platform to catch the final part as it is released, and future podcast mini-series!

As always, if any of you have any comments or questions about this episode, drop me a line and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

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Podcast: On Tattoos 4/6 – How to survive getting tattooed!

This latest episode of On Tattoos comes a little later than intended, due to a combination of events (poor health, travel, family commitments), but is here at last! This week I speak about the process of actually getting tattooed: How to prepare for tattoo sessions and what to bring with you, how it feels and how to handle the pain discomfort, about taking breaks, and try to dispel some common misconceptions about the process of getting inked. I hope listening to this will help give some of you a better idea of what to expect and how to better your chances of having a fun, healthy, and positive experience, and removes some of your fears.

Listen to the episode on Anchor, iTunes, and Google Play, and remember to subscribe on your preferred platform to stay up to date with future postings!

As always, if anyone listening has any more questions, do leave it in a comment or send me it in audio form on my anchor channel, and I’ll do my best to answer them as soon as possible.

 

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