Tag Archive: Critique


I saw Hidden Figures back in early January at a preview screening at Odeon. Since then I’ve been bombarded by trailer after trailer for the film, attached to almost every screening I’ve attended since.

This wouldn’t be a problem if it were a teaser we were talking about, but no. The final Hidden Figures trailer is the most tragic case of spoiling an entire film since we saw the same thing happen to Room around this time last year. These aren’t isolated cases, either. Trailers for Batman vs Superman and Viggo Mortensen’s Captain Fantastic were the other major culprits from last year, and I could list more if I wanted to spend time thinking about it. The unfortunate mentality of sheer desperation – of studios and editors thinking the only way to get audiences to pay for a film is by showing everything to them beforehand – is currently one of my biggest problems with the film industry.

Honestly, this is a case of a film blowing its entire load prematurely – and yes, the analogy to an overeager, desperate man unable to contain his excitement for the payoff is entirely appropriate. Within the Hidden Figures trailer – having seen the film and liked it very much, I can tell you for certain – we see brief clips from every major scene in the movie, beginning to end; we hear literally every relevant piece of dialogue, swiftly cut together at speed so as to fit it all in; and the overarching theme of the film is thrust upon you with virtually no sense of subtlety.

I’m going to put the trailer below to help illustrate my point. However, I will say this: if you have not yet seen this trailer and plan to see the film anyway (it is actually worth your time, hence my frustration), don’t watch it. Don’t ruin it for yourself. I know if I had seen this trailer beforehand, I likely would not have enjoyed Hidden Figures as much as I did. But then, I like to be surprised when I watch a film; perhaps you see a cinema trip as more of a risk and like to know absolutely every detail you’re going to see, in which case go ahead and watch this trailer. We’ll just continue to not understand each other.

There is a clear stopping point for me in that trailer – or rather, a point at which it becomes obvious they’re giving away too much. It is the line “I don’t know if I can keep up in that room”, as the general tone shifts to not-so-subtly make it clear that ‘hey, this is a film with a serious message you know’. Tonal shifts like this should be the film’s domain, not its trailer. But again, the trailer is too focused on squeezing every possible detail into two minutes, to let you know you might like this movie, if you liked its incredibly condensed version. It’s not too difficult to decipher, as well, that there is likely an agenda at play with the trailer for this film, if not the film itself. However, I’m going to save this part of my analysis for another article on each of the nine Best Picture nominees.

In contrast, the first trailer for Fences, another Best Picture nominee this year, is a much better example of a well executed trailer than the fast, desperate cutting of the Hidden Figures equivalent. If you watched the one above, now check out this trailer, and observe the clear difference between the two. Note there has since been a second trailer, similar to this but with only a few extra details added, though I haven’t seen that version shown in UK cinemas.

We’re left in no doubt from the Fences trailer that it also tackles some interesting themes and social issues; but it communicates this in much less words than the Hidden Figures equivalent, and does it without spoiling many of the film’s major scenes. In fact, this trailer communicates its message through clips from (seemingly) two major scenes, showing only brief glimpses of a few others while leaving the rest to the imagination, in effect building anticipation for the overall film. I think Hidden Figures could have achieved this too, though perhaps not to the same effect (there aren’t many actors with the screen presence of Denzel Washington, after all).

Bear in mind my comments here are not directly related to the quality of each film; rather, I’ve focused entirely on critiquing their trailers, though to do so is important as the quality of a trailer does correlate with how many people are going to see the film in question. I will be giving my thoughts on the films themselves when I give my breakdown on each of the nine contenders for the Best Picture Oscar in a separate post, to come soon.

I’m one of those people who needs to write. I’d go so far as to say my health – perhaps my very survival – depends on it. That isn’t me trying to sound melodramatic.

No, I, like many other writers, consider writing not simply a hobby or a method of making money, though it can and does fit easily into those categories. When I say I’m a writer, I’m saying it is as important an activity as eating or sleeping; to go without it for too long leads to moodiness and agitation.

Naturally with writing, one also ends up reading. To write means to record ideas on paper, and one can’t do that unless you’ve first gathered inspiration to form ideas worth recording. Ideas, information and knowledge are things I’ve treasured along with writing from a young age. In more recent years I’ve also become passionate about the importance of establishing the difference between ‘opinion’ and ‘fact’, whether historical or current, and the methods by which we go about establishing said distinction. Do you believe stuff based on evidence? What, in your mind, constitutes evidence? Hint: it isn’t always what people try to say it is.

To think about this is, I think, especially vital in the age of the Internet, where we’re exposed at ease to many opinions often presenting themselves as fact, and vice versa. Unless you want to believe everything, or nothing, or just stick to the inherent bias you grew up with, then you had better develop an eye for what constitutes evidence and a good argument. There’s a lot of bullshit out there, but that’s not to say I don’t value the Internet extremely highly; it has led to my generation becoming arguably the most open-minded of any generation before us. Growing up with so many easily accessible ideas around us has, in general, been healthy.

I find it hard being around people who do not care about these things, who may accept ‘truths’ just based on bias rather than applying critical thought; I find it offensive, and insulting, to see and hear that kind of thing in my presence. I’m not easily offended but this, you could say, is one of my ‘triggers’. Journalistic integrity and freedom of speech are two of the absolute pillars of a free-thinking society, while censorship lies at the opposing end of the spectrum (to be clear, by censorship I do not mean age ratings on products like movies and video games, which are often helpful and entirely necessary).

In my mind the acts of writing and critical thinking go hand in hand, though I know this is not the case for everyone – as I have read plenty in which it was clear the writer was not a critical thinker. Nor must one be particularly intelligent to write a lot, though to be a good writer (volume written doesn’t necessarily correlate with quality content) requires knowledge, not only of your craft but of the world around you.

Naturally then, the best writers also tend to be among the smartest, though it would depend on your point of view pertaining to how we should judge this kind of thing. Do we judge a writer by how clear and concise their style, or by how much knowledge they communicate through it? I suppose the best of them have both qualities. I certainly like to strive for both.

I grew up in a relatively ‘free’ family environment, with parents who weren’t overly strict and didn’t force any particularly weird rules upon me. It was an environment in which I was free to play video games, watch films, and read books without having to worry about which ones were ‘banned’, though at the same time neither of my parents were especially interested in those things and did not therefore instil any inherent bias for or against either. Each medium played their part in helping me grow up relatively open-minded and with an understanding that the world was bigger than my own little bubble.

To an extent, I do consider an open mind to be a privilege; one that many other people who grow up in different family environments aren’t encouraged to have (not that I was particularly encouraged towards it, but it wasn’t heavily discouraged either). Would I really have had the same learning opportunities, the same privilege of experiencing different sides to the world at an age where my mind had not yet grown hardened to them, had I grown up in a strict religious family for example? Likely not.

I find it a great shame when parents take it upon themselves to mould their children into who they want them to be (“for their own good!”), rather than allowing that child the space to discover themselves as an individual. This doesn’t just happen within fundamentally religious families either, and it isn’t always obvious. But as the subject of religion is a sore point for many, including to an extent myself (which I will explain a little further on), let’s stick on it for a moment.

Looking across the history of Western civilisation, our society and culture in the UK, US and Europe have been moulded by Christianity to the point where people have grown up believing – often subconsciously, before coming to ‘know Christ’ and being ‘born again’ later – in God, particularly the version of him portrayed in the Bible. Horror movies and literature in the West often portray demons or the devil himself as the source of all evil. In a court of law, people must place their hands on the Bible in some vague appeal to their conscience; a reminder that God is watching and they’ll be somehow punished for not telling the truth in front of Him.

Not that I want to get too deep into that issue here; what I’d rather do is illustrate how our ability to be open-minded about stuff can be inhibited simply through the culture or environment in which we grow up. If you grew up in the UK like me, you’ll be familiar with our inherently Christian culture. The US is similar, if not worse when it pertains to a Christianised culture, though the secular/ religious divide is arguably more extreme (or at least, more vocal) there as well. The UK, while moderately liberal, is also less willing to voice concerns over things like our monarchy, when we really should.

Now, I think it’s fine for people to acknowledge they’re not ‘open-minded’ about certain things, so long as they are aware of it. PC culture would dictate that we need to be respectful of everything, to the tiniest detail, but we’re all inherently different to begin with and naturally aren’t all going to see things in the same light. Some people don’t like swearing, others do. Some of us like eating meat, others don’t. People on either side, or somewhere in the middle, should be able to live how they want. Don’t rely on the approval of others for that. Equally, don’t expect everyone to be fully accepting of it.

Each of us have our inherent biases; open-mindedness is being able to recognise that bias and acknowledge there are people who’ll be coming from a different point of view. So long as that point of view doesn’t cause or advocate harm to others – which, again, is where religion can pose a bit of a problem – there’s no reason we can’t all respect each other as fellow humans while acknowledging our differences and not getting offended over stupid shit.

My own bias plays in to how I’m writing this article. Why is it, for example, that I feel the need to say swearing is okay, when really most people don’t need to be told that to do it anyway? Or why I focus on the importance of respecting points of view other than your own? Well, it comes back, again, to religion, more specifically Christianity; a religion that did not dictate too harshly how I should live my life growing up, but did at least subtly hold me back from fully expressing myself. Looking back on it, and seeing the effect it has on others as well, it’s clear this is what it does.

The unique thing about Christianity – at least, the Protestant side of which I have direct experience – is that it does not say you must obey its rules, and yet you kind of do, because if you don’t, it means you don’t really love Jesus and will go to hell anyway. A little slip-up is okay, but you must live the correct lifestyle consistently if you’re a ‘proper’ Christian. And boy, being told you’re “not a true Christian” is regarded as the highest form of insult. It’s something they’ll use against me, to discredit my own experiences, because in their eyes only someone who was “never a true Christian” could ever wish to turn away from it.

In many cases, Christians will use that one line as an all-encompassing excuse not to truly engage with issues raised by those who disagree with them. In fact, in my years of being around Christians, I can say in hindsight that many of those relationships, in the interest of ‘accountability’, involve carefully examining each other to determine whether one is a ‘proper Christian’, and each will make their determination, whether privately or publicly, about whether someone else is.

Christianity is supposedly about choosing to do the right thing through your own free will. But free will, of course, only goes as far as our inherent bias lets it – and this religion knows that all too well. It teaches the ultimate form of bias – that when we get to heaven, we’ll want to obey God without question, out of free will, because that will be our inherent nature. For now, on earth, we must deal with our ‘sinful’ nature, which wants to do bad things against God.

I’ll continue on that diatribe another time – there is so much more to say – but for now rest assured I’ve managed, though it has taken a lot of work, plenty of inner conflict, self-justification and thorough research, to largely let go of the hold Christianity had over me growing up and even up until a couple of years ago. Which isn’t to say, of course, that I have anything against Christians as people, though they can’t seem to help but take it personally (and I suppose one can’t blame them, if they believe with honest conviction) when others tell them they think their religion isn’t true.

The single biggest factor in breaking free from the confines of certain aspects of a religion, or anything else, relies on someone being open-minded enough in the first place to even consider whether they might be wrong. Of course I’m not saying that one necessarily leads on to the other (plenty of open-minded Christians have helped carry it out of the dark ages – while many conservatives/ traditionalists/ fundamentalists would claim that’s precisely the problem), but it’s certainly rare for anyone to leave their religion unless they’re open-minded enough to consider something other than what they’ve been conditioned to believe is true. They could, having considered everything else, still settle on Christianity being the truth, and I wouldn’t begrudge them that; it’s their prerogative to believe what they want, just as it is mine.

But if you consider it impossible for yourself to be wrong about something as ‘big’, as important as this, then you’re going to see opposing viewpoints through that specific lens. And naturally you’re going to shut yourself off from learning specifically why people might hold different points of view, because in your mind, in your version of reality, they’re already wrong and you – say, through the Bible – already have all the answers you’ll ever need.

Or maybe it’s more that, deep down, you’re terrified of realising you were wrong, having to admit it to others, and the damaged relationships that would inevitably result from that. I can understand that concern. I’ve seen it before, in people who stick with the Christian lifestyle not because they passionately believe in it, but because they perceive it to be simpler than the alternative, especially if they have a family of their own or friends who look up to them for spiritual support. The amount of Christian pastors hiding this kind of secret – feeling the weight of responsibility to ‘lead the flock’ and fear of letting them down – would shock the everyday church-goer.

I have realised I may need to pad what I say a little here, for those who may not know the full context surrounding my current opinions. First, if it seems I am overly negative towards Christianity, now or at any point to come, this is not necessarily an attack on its principles or even on the faith itself. Many Christians I’ve known are the liberal type who do not adhere strictly to everything the Bible says, or take what it says literally in the face of all scientific evidence to the contrary. Those people are Christian simply because the lifestyle makes most sense to them, and that’s fine.

However, let’s bear in mind what I said about bias. I am a UK citizen, yes, but more than that: I was born and lived in Belfast, Northern Ireland up to the age of 18, at which point I moved over to England for university.

Now, I’m going to assume any potential readers won’t quite realise the significance of that, so I’ll divulge some more. In Northern Ireland, as most people will know, we have a bit of a history of conflict; a kind of Irish ‘civil war’ as such, originating from when Ireland joined the UK a few centuries ago largely against the will of the Irish people. Long story short, back in 1922 the Irish Free State was formed as Ireland won some measure of independence from Britain (though they still had to abide by an ‘oath of allegiance’ to the UK until achieving full independence via a referendum in 1937).

At the same time, the predominantly unionist (that is; loyal to the union of the United Kingdom) six counties of Northern Ireland decided they wanted no part of Irish independence from the crown, and this country itself was technically formed in 1922 as well. Republicans (that is; those who are committed to seeing a fully independent Irish republic) have always held issue with this, just as unionists held issue with southern Ireland trying to take what they saw as their British identity. Even today, Northern Ireland sits in a unique position, in which its residents can claim to be Irish or British and neither would be lying; we are, after all, entitled to dual citizenship from birth should we so wish to claim it.

A large part of the origins of that conflict between Ireland and the UK was this: Ireland was largely a Catholic country, whereas the UK, at that time in the 1700s and continuing since, was protestant. So while technically you could say that means they were both ‘Christian’, no. Trust me, growing up in Northern Ireland it’s impossible to see ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ as equally Christian. You’re either on one side or the other, and our version of ‘peace’ is tolerating the other side while those old grievances still reside in the back of our minds.

For me growing up in a predominantly Protestant area, I naturally also grew up with that bias. But now, at this stage of my life, I see it all for what it is. Some others of my generation – usually those who have not ventured outside Northern Ireland to live for any sustained amount of time – still hold that strong sense of bias, and probably always will, as I firmly believe it becomes harder and harder to let go of built-in beliefs the older you get. None of us want to feel we wasted years of our lives being wrong about something after all, so as time goes on we’re more likely to make excuses to ourselves that help us keep believing it, partly also for the pride of being known as someone who ‘sticks to their convictions’ rather than someone who ‘flip flops around changing their mind’.

The elephant in the room when it comes to religion and conflict in Ireland, of course, is the claim I made to myself and others for many years: that the violence perpetuated in the name of God was committed by those who “weren’t truly Christian”. This is like what I said before; Christians justifying actions they don’t like by those who seemingly share their faith by simply disregarding it as “not the God I believe in”. If other believers aren’t acting the way you think they should, just keep yourself happy by saying they’re not ‘proper Christians’ and move on, free of any guilt and/or responsibility on the part of your own personal faith in God. Something similar is happening on a more global scale with Islam currently, but I won’t be touching that hot topic here.

Obviously we shouldn’t paint everyone with the same broad brush. We’re individuals, and we’re human, which means we all have different tendencies. Some of us gravitate more naturally to violence, though again there are environmental factors influencing that. Still, it’s undeniable: the Irish ‘troubles’ have their origin firmly rooted not just in patriotism but in the religion that goes hand in hand with it.

Christians on the outside looking in may try to justify their own belief in the loving nature of God by claiming they don’t represent him, but that’s precisely why they were fighting. Unionists would resist Irish rule “for God and country”. In their place would you not do the same to defend your own deeply rooted convictions/ beliefs? The men on the ground, murdering each other for a higher cause, were doing it because they believed it was God’s will in both cases, on either side – and it would not have been uncommon to see those same men in church on a Sunday morning, having taken part in terrorist acts during the week and planning more for the week to come.

All of this leads up to where Northern Ireland stands today. Belfast itself is an impressively modern city, attracting tourists from around the world and parts of it, particularly the city centre, looking a world away from the depressingly grey colours associated with the 1970s. I truly enjoy being back for the most part.

But it’s not all great. Our government serves as a stark reminder of our recent history, not only in its finely balanced unionist/republican divide (to get into the intricacies of it would be too complicated a matter to delve into here) but in the hold that religion has over us. Gay marriage is still illegal and our majority party, the DUP, have vowed to continue blocking it (while consensual gay sex was only decriminalised in 1982). Abortion is only legal under extremely strict criteria, and Northern Irish women often need to travel to England for private treatment to carry one out. Bars and clubs are forbidden from serving alcohol before 11.30am (whereas in England you can grab a beer from 7am in Weatherspoon’s if you feel so inclined).

Whether you feel strongly about the above issues or not, it’s indisputable that Northern Ireland feels a little left behind, even when compared to other regions within the United Kingdom. Of course, we have enough conservative Christian unionists living here that our population is generally happy with things as they are, as they see it as sticking to the rules set out in holy scripture. For me, I feel almost embarrassed by this stuff, and can’t see myself ever coming back to live long-term in Belfast unless certain things change.

Living in England introduced me to many Christians who were more open-minded than the kind of Christianity I’d always known in my homeland. And well, I’ve simply carried on from there, never really wanting to stand still, always keen to learn more. I don’t feel any blind loyalty to one way of thinking, and I don’t consider myself a nationalist in any sense of the word.

There’s one other element that went into all of this that can’t be discarded; in fact it may be the most important one of all. I mentioned earlier, near the beginning, how films and video games had been an important part of my childhood. One can’t be truly passionate about either of these mediums without encountering other cultures in the process. Two of my favourite video games, for example, are the survival horror game Silent Hill and its classic sequel on the PS2 (both developed in Japan), which first introduced me to the subtle elements of atmospheric horror unique to Asia.

Around that time, J-horror was also starting to take the film industry by storm, with Hideo Nakata’s Ringu inspiring a 2002 Hollywood remake starring Naomi Watts. That ended up being rather short-lived, with Ju-On: The Grudge (2003) and its 2004 American remake coming along at the tail end of it, but it can be attributed to sparking my interest in Japanese cinema and, more broadly, Asian culture. Why is this significant? Well, naturally, the more you see of the world, the less you feel you lie at the centre of it. Perhaps something I read recently can help sum it up; “A stolid attachment to a monolithic set of institutional forms becomes much more difficult when one is constantly faced with the beliefs and disbeliefs of many other traditions” (from Ghosts and the Japanese, Michiko Iwasaka and Barre Toelken, introduction).

This, I believe, is why many Christians steadfastly refuse to openly engage with other ways of thinking; deep down they know it could lead to them questioning themselves and ultimately ‘losing face’ should they begin to doubt their own faith. So they build caricatures and stereotypes of other worldviews and belief systems, because that makes it easier for them to paint themselves as the ‘enlightened few’ who have the One truth. Martin Scorsese’s recent film Silence summed up the inherent cultural differences and conflicts between East and West quite succinctly I think.

Sure, Christians may go on ‘missions’ with a view to ‘evangelising’ to those caught up in cultures they see as less enlightened, but they do not truly engage with the existing culture they meet when they get there, aside from the actions one must take so as not to appear awkward – such as taking your shoes off at the door when entering a home in Japan, for example. Even at the peak of my faith I could not help but feel a little awkward and uncomfortable at the idea of ‘mission’ to spread the gospel to those we see as less fortunate than ourselves. They’d return talking about how they ‘learned so much’… but I wonder how much they did learn, really?

I wanted to set this context so that anyone reading may understand my point of view a little better. I’m not saying others who were to go on a similar journey to myself would come to the same conclusions. I know some may read what I say about religion or Christianity and say “well, that’s not my experience”, and that’s cool. This is just me. Find your own way, but don’t let that way be dictated by blind loyalty, dodgy reasoning or a fear of changing your mind. Who knows… letting go of those things may help open the doors to something new.

Here’s what I have planned for this blog in the near future, in case anyone thought I’d given up on it.

Video games: my ’20 Years of PlayStation’ series is still ongoing. Next on my to-do list are two of the greatest horror video games of all time, and two of my favourite games in general: the original Silent Hill (1999) and its 2001 sequel. I figured it would be fitting to get both of these out – or at least one – by the end of the month, as we are in ‘Halloween’ month after all.

Speaking of which, around Halloween time last year, while I was making the case for why the horror genre is not only great but essential, I promised another film essay, focusing on The Babadook. Granted, I kind of slipped on this one, though it’s always been on the backburner, and hopefully I will also have it out by the end of October. Believe me, I’ve thought so much about this film – my top film of 2014 – that it won’t be too difficult getting a detailed analysis down in coherent words and clicking publish. I had in fact already started working on it around this time last year.

Looking back in my ‘film essay’ category I see that I haven’t in fact published one here since last July, which really is too long, especially considering I was going along at a pace of around one per month up until then. There are two others I have planned immediately following the next: Nightcrawler and Ex Machina, arguably two of the most overlooked films of the past couple of years, and certainly two of my absolute favourites, so I want to do them some justice.

Originally I had planned my ’20 Years of PlayStation’ series to, like my plan for film essays, proceed along at a pace of around one per month. Obviously that hasn’t happened for various reasons – not that I’ve just been sitting around, rather I’ve had other things to focus on in the time being – so what I’m going to do with that is, at the very least, get out the two Silent Hill articles (because honestly writing about either of those is an almost limitless joy), then write up something about Final Fantasy VIII (1999), my favourite childhood game and one belonging to a series that frequently splits even its own fans. I’ll be making my case for why VIII, rather than its predecessor, was the peak of the series overall.

After those, I’ll assess whether it’s worth continuing ‘20 Years of PlayStation’ at all. In reality it will probably end with the year 2016 (as we will then technically be into 21 years and so on), and I’ll instead focus on more modern stuff again.

I’ve also been working on an article focusing on the issue of performance enhancing drugs in sport, after a year in which we’ve seen a few high profile cases of doping offences and accusations. That one doesn’t entirely follow the politically correct narrative – I think along the lines of allowing some PED’s to be used in a controlled manner, rather than banning everything outright – but I’m writing it mainly to shed some light on the stuff that people tend to overlook when it comes to ‘cheating’ (the blanket term for any offence) in sport.

Otherwise, there are four other prominent ideas for articles that I want to finish and publish here by the end of the year. Those are, first: a piece tackling the issue of review ethics and people who deride critics for any reason, from simply being a butt-hurt fan to those who accuse us of just being ‘haters’ who don’t know how to enjoy stuff.

I have a strong belief when it comes to critique; that it should not tell you what to think about a film, video game, or whatever the product/ service may be, but rather it should help you develop how you think about them. Reviews above all should inform the consumer – they’re not about telling people what they should or shouldn’t enjoy as if there’s some objective standard. Something I love may be something you hate, because everyone has different tastes; but the detail I give about that thing should be enough to tell you how you’re going to feel about it, independent of my own opinion.

Linked to this but worthy of its own article, I’m going to go into the impact that films, video games and books have each had on me personally in terms of my own development. Certain aspects of modern society actively discourage critical thinking and open-mindedness – in fact, I think it’s always been like this, but today’s culture of political correctness means we hear things like “you can’t say that” more than ever, especially on social media (my advice: whatever kind of person you are, it’s healthy to have less of that in your life).

That’s why I think this is important. Art is vital for helping people think outside the confines of the masses; it’s why I value artistic integrity and freedom of expression so highly. Many people who have a single-minded approach to issues in life, on the other hand, don’t. I heard a statement recently that stuck with me: an open mind is a learning mind. Rarely has a truer statement been made throughout history.

My final two planned articles for the year have been an even longer time coming. They are: my Best Films of 2014, and Best Films of 2015.

Now, obviously I understand that most people who like to do this sort of thing prefer to do an ‘end of year’ list and leave it at that. It’s like a nice way to wrap up the year in film, but for me none of those lists are definitive. Not that I’m saying mine would be, though here’s the thing; I consider a film that comes out in 2014, regardless of where it first comes out, to be a 2014 film.

For example, a film released in the UK in, say, early 2015, yet features heavily in awards season, is undoubtedly a 2014 film (Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, for instance) – because the Academy Awards reward the best films of the previous year. Said film will have been out in the US a few months before, but many of us living elsewhere would not have had a chance to see it yet, and it is therefore, by default, left off the list.

From my perspective, then, to make a list at the end of a calendar year would feel a little silly, bordering on dishonest, as the best films released in the UK that year would only represent around half – if that – of the year’s best films overall. I like world cinema; films from Europe, Asia, or elsewhere. And usually it takes a year or so to catch up on films from those places as their releases gradually filter out across other regions. I prefer to include those in my lists, as I want the list to be as definitive and conclusive as possible.

The other thing to note is my dislike of limiting said lists to a ‘top ten’, again usually done for efficiency (I understand; critics are busy, and wrapping up a compact top ten list at the end of the year is simpler than the method I’m currently advocating). The ‘best’ films of a year may not be limited to just ten – or perhaps in an extremely dry year, there wouldn’t even be ten worthy of inclusion.

Now, most critics actually agree with this to an extent; hence why they do some ‘honourable mentions’ that don’t quite make the top ten. For me that’s curious (why name-drop if you’re not going to detail your reasons?) but again I sort of understand why one would – it saves time, and essentially a ‘top 10’ is more marketable than, say, a ‘top 13’. I have more flexibility in my personal schedule and don’t see why I would restrict myself in that way when I’m not required to.

So basically, my lists will feature the best films of each year, whether it’s 10, 12 or 15 movies long. The 2014 list is almost ready to go and realistically I hope to have that one posted here by the start of next month. 2015, hopefully by the end of the year, and as for my 2016 list, well, I’m thinking Summer 2017 at the earliest. The good thing is, as I’m about to hit another film festival – my second such event of the year – I’ll have a decent head start on a lot of the biggest films to feature in awards season coming up. I’ll probably be writing an article around Oscar time too that will give large hints as to the films I found most impressive over the past year.

One final thing… I plan to do brief film previews (yes I am capable of writing shorter pieces!) every Friday. This will give me an opportunity to look forward to some new movies that catch my eye – that won’t necessarily get the mainstream marketing treatment – and share it with you guys. I’m frequently finding new stuff to get excited about so there’ll be no shortage of things to write about here, and I figure it might be useful to have a category for which posts are regular and somewhat set in stone going forward. That way, one could turn up here every weekend and know they’re at least getting something new, even if I haven’t otherwise written anything of great existential meaning.

Speaking of existential meaning, I’m off to prepare for one of the best times of the year: London Film Festival.

I know what you might be thinking. What makes this trailer particularly good and others not? Well, this trailer doesn’t force the entire film’s plot down your throat. It leaves something to be desired – teasing you with a short sequence of scenes that don’t make a lot of sense in isolation but hint at a bigger, more sinister picture…

Interestingly the last trailer I saw that I felt was as well done as this one was for Star Wars: The Force Awakens – another J.J. Abrams film. Sure, this guy’s not perfect, but he is one of the few of the current generation of directors in Hollywood (with the exception of Spielberg and Scorsese, who I suppose are still considered ‘current’) who genuinely understands, respects and appreciates the art of good storytelling in cinema. Dare I say he’s even approaching ‘auteur’ status (I suspect those who get snobbish over the term may have a problem with my usage of it in this instance); which, by extension, allows him more creative control over the marketing of his films.

Trailers for Abrams’ films are quickly becoming the only ones I can bear watching (as it pertains to mainstream cinema at least) without getting irritated that they’ve spoilt too much of the movie.

Some may say they do need more than this in a trailer to be intrigued enough to see a film, in which case we’re probably not going to agree. I like to be surprised when I see a new movie, rather than know too many details beforehand. When I watched the second Batman v Superman trailer a few months ago, I found myself wishing it didn’t give so much away especially when, let’s be honest, everyone who is a fan of either of its two central characters will be going to see the film anyway. That trailer actually went some way to diluting the hype I had for the movie beforehand.

So here’s what I’m going to do. Any time I come across a movie trailer I find interesting, I’ll share it here and comment on what to expect from the movie. This way I’ll also have more of a chance to talk about films that I don’t see at the cinema to review immediately, which will naturally extend to foreign movies that are harder to come across in certain parts of the UK – where I’m currently living, it isn’t always easy to see the films I’d like to see.

I’m going to do this because from my point of view it has become just as important to reward this kind of marketing campaign (over the heavy-handed kind that is commonplace in Hollywood) as it is to reward good movies. Otherwise, the Transformers series and others like it could continue to dominate this industry indefinitely.

Deadpool.

Deadpool pic 3.

If, like me, you’ve recently found yourself becoming tired of the increasingly redundant superhero/ comic book movie formula that has come to prominence in the film industry over the past fifteen years, rest assured that Deadpool shares the sentiment. This is a movie that fully embraces its role as the black sheep of recent superhero studio offerings, reflected in its self-referential, irreverent attitude and crude content.

Deadpool is, much like its title character, a reluctant, outrageous and mostly hilarious instalment in the expanded X-Men film series – one that shows as little loyalty and respect for its own expanded universe as it does for other supposedly wholesome family-friendly superhero movies that have come before. The film’s stylish opening credits set up its smart-ass, self-deprecating tone in referring to cast and crew by stereotypical tropes – e.g. “directed by an overpaid tool”, featuring “a villain with an English accent” and also starring a “hot chick” – rather than their real names.

Note that such stereotypes are common throughout other superhero movies, not least Marvel’s own; the main difference between them and Deadpool is not so much that this film breaks away from the typical formula (without its sense of humour it would undeniably appear as formulaic as anything else), but that it is excessively self-aware of that formula. It openly embraces the subsequent shortcomings of its own genre before inverting those conventions upon themselves.

Deadpool himself often looks to the audience, casually breaking the fourth wall as he shares in-jokes that play off our preconceived notions of what to expect from this kind of movie. He throws out quips regarding the lesser budget of his film in comparison with the larger ‘franchises’, his own character history (including that misjudged appearance in X-Men Origins: Wolverine that you’d think he’d rather forget), and even acknowledges the naysayers who claimed Deadpool would never get his own movie nor would Ryan Reynolds be a successful casting choice in the central role. Here he goes some way to proving them all wrong, flipping a middle finger in the process.

The coolest thing about Wade Wilson, the quick-witted mercenary who becomes ‘anti-hero’ Deadpool, is that he’s largely a spokesperson for those of us who roll our eyes when the Avengers continually come out on top in perfectly choreographed set pieces; or when Hollywood flippantly destroys entire cities and incurs several casualties that we’re not supposed to care about because the camera doesn’t focus in on them.

In fact perhaps the best thing I can say about this movie is that it’s not, despite initial appearances, simply out for those kind of mindless thrills. Violence, while at times bordering on excessive (though trust me, there’s much worse to be found elsewhere), is not simply there – it has a point. That it’s done in somewhat flippant and comical fashion is what will offend more conservative viewers; that its point is, in the end, to ridicule the high-minded moral compass of other movies is what will turn others off because here they can’t sit quite as comfortably in their seats as when they’re watching the good guys win.

Whether this character resonates with you or not (and by his offensive nature, there will obviously be some with whom he doesn’t gel), one can’t deny that he is a gifted individual; which indeed, for some, will make it all the more galling that he willingly chooses not to perform the noble heroics we’ve come to expect from such a character. He could be a hero… but hey, the world has enough of those anyway.

I think there are two main groups Deadpool will especially appeal to. The first and most obvious are those who simply wish to lap up the dirty jokes, half-naked attractive people on screen, and all-round tone of underworld seediness. Come to it just for those things and you certainly won’t leave disappointed. The second, a group in which I fit quite easily, are those jaded by the repeated formula we’ve become so used to seeing and who find it refreshing to have something different on offer from a major studio.

This is, after all, a superhero/ comic book movie not for kids, but adults – adults who may realise now just how watered down those other movies are. Here is one with excessive swearing, violence, and a potential heart of gold that it willingly – and repeatedly – rips up in front of your eyes for the sheer fun of it. Featuring a protagonist who is, in stark contrast to a ‘true hero’ like Captain America, a rather shallow man (the choice of Ryan Reynolds for the role is itself the subject of self-deprecating humour at one point) using his newfound powers for personal gains, namely revenge motivated primarily by the loss of his good looks.

The phrase “with great power comes great responsibility” is inverted time and again – even the usual redemptive character arc is neatly avoided at the last moment. Wade Wilson remains the same ‘Merc with a mouth’ at the film’s conclusion that he was at the beginning; the movie retaining its stubbornly flippant attitude to the end. In this case, it fits, and for me it worked out brilliantly.

Tonally and stylistically, I found the whole movie to be well-crafted and immensely enjoyable. Be aware that it is likely to offend if you don’t share its sense of humour, or its thoughts and opinions on the genre of which it is an entertaining part. But of course, there is also another element to all this; what some people might consider the ‘elephant in the room’.

That is the undeniable fact that this is still a movie by a major studio. While it is essentially making fun of its own methods, it is profiting by doing so, and those profits will ultimately go towards making movies in the same vein that may return to the same old habits. I do however feel that this is a different, bigger conversation for another time. And really, there was no better way to tackle this particular Marvel character than the way in which they did so here.

As a standalone film and all-round experience, I can’t deny the great time I had with Deadpool. There will surely be a sequel; I hope they push the anti-PG bar even further with it. For right now I don’t mind backing Hollywood to do so, even if they have got to a point where they’re selling our own jaded attitudes back to us.

8 / 10

Why (some) trailers suck.

If there’s one thing I haven’t liked in the lead-up to the new Star Wars movie, it’s the furore that surrounds every new little piece of footage or plot detail divulged before anyone’s had a chance to actually see the film.

A lot of us would agree that spoilers are annoying. What’s curious though is the contradictory way that many people react to trailers. In the case of The Force Awakens it’s not the trailer itself that bothers me – marketing has actually been handled quite slickly for the new movie, with little offered to spoil the overall experience – but rather it’s this culture of ‘needing to know’ as much as possible before going in. It perpetuates the ‘geeking out’ notion in the immediate aftermath of release, meaning a lot of people will end up having the experience spoiled for them by others – and they accept it willingly. The rest of us have to do our best to avoid that for as long as we want to enjoy it for ourselves, to form our own thoughts and reactions rather than having them forced onto us via preconceived conceptions.

But what’s the difference between this, and reading or watching a review before seeing a film? Oh yes, I have heard that response before. These two things are not the same, providing the review is doing what a review should be doing, but the ethics of that I will get into in another post. Suffice to say, a review in basic terms is meant to inform you on whether or not you might enjoy a product; essentially whether it’s worth spending your time and money on.

The marketing department is not so much interested in that kind of thing. It wants your money by any means necessary, and is going to make itself appear as attractive as possible, to start as many hashtags as possible and make it seem as cool as possible, in order to work its way into your wallet.

A trailer’s job is to sell you the film; I understand that as well as anyone. The kind of criticism I have for trailers is often greeted with flimsy explanations along the lines of “this is just the way things work”. Yes indeed, that’s exactly right. I don’t disagree.

People want to know what they’re getting and don’t have the time – or more accurately, the inclination – to actually put thought into it for themselves. They’d rather be spoon-fed the information. To search out a decent review or even look at a synopsis takes effort. A lot of people simply can’t be bothered doing any research on new films or video games, and the only information they receive for new releases is that presented to them in an attractive, cleverly edited fashion.

The reason we’ve got to the point where trailers need to show you an entire ‘movie in a nutshell’ in order to get your ass in the seat is because we’ve given studios the impression that we’re fine with it. There’s an undercurrent of indifference; of “let’s just have casual fun” because none of this actually matters in the grand scheme of things. With so many important issues seemingly competing for our attention in today’s society, we need to know everything about the film now. This is the way the industry works because of our flippant attitude towards it; they didn’t just come up with the idea on a whim one day.

Consumers often make ill-informed decisions based purely on marketing, mistaking that marketing for critique that tells you whether or not something is worth paying for. A trailer wants to make you think this thing is worth paying for, whether it actually is or not. And protesting ‘that film was terrible’ isn’t a valid excuse for a refund afterwards, so once they’ve got you in, it’s job done.

Furthermore, perpetuating this problem is the fact that people don’t seem to care. As long as they’ve had a good time with friends, mission successful. The cinema is not for the movies, but for sitting next to someone who makes you feel like your life has meaning. You’re important because you have people to hang out with. Supporting bad movies is fine in that case; that part doesn’t really matter after all, does it?

No I suppose not… if you’re not interested in enjoying good movies, or in experiencing one for yourself rather than relying on others to validate your thoughts and opinions.

So far, so very cynical, you might be thinking. What sparked off this little rant? Well two things actually, on rather different ends of the cinematic spectrum.

Here’s one case. While in London back in October I caught a screening of Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, which was showing as part of London Film Festival. It’s an excellent film that intrigued me because I had bothered to put a little research into what was on around that time. The synopsis sold it to me – it sounded interesting. A powerful, emotional movie, it turned out to be one of the top five films I’ve seen in 2015 and looks set to be a major player in awards season early next year.

In the past few days I unwillingly saw the trailer for Room, and it made want to punch the screen in frustration. Why? Because had I seen that trailer before watching the film, there would, frankly, have been little reason to see the film at all. The trailer was the film. It had the beginning, middle and end all wrapped up in a 2 minute 30 second package. It made me feel almost sorry for those unfortunate enough to see this trailer before experiencing the film for themselves.

On the other hand we have the trailer for a film many more people will be going to see, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. This one is interesting not only because the most recent trailer for the film, released last week, spoils the first, second and third act, but also because there was no real need for it to do so. This movie finds itself in a similar situation to Star Wars in that it already has an established fan base and audience that will be going to watch it – in a sense, those people don’t need to be convinced. Even those who expected the film to disappoint would still go to see it out of curiosity.

Yet the second half of the trailer gleefully shows you everything, from surprise appearances to a previously unseen enemy to the (perhaps rather obvious) reveal that Batman and Superman will end up working together to defeat a greater enemy. Now, fair enough, they may still be holding certain things back and it’s always possible that this trailer represents some kind of red herring. But this is a major Hollywood studio we’re talking about. Their pocket books don’t deal in subtlety.

This side of the film industry is firmly in the hands of studio executives who don’t truly care about the experience of film in a movie theatre; that much has never been more obvious. They’re interested in one thing: your money. They let others deal with the creative, artistic side of the business. I don’t hold that against them. I do hold it against the people who continually support this cycle; who need a trailer like the one for Room to even consider going to see such a gem, or who geek out at the various reveals in the Batman v Superman trailer to the extent where they’ll leave little to be desired from the film itself when it’s released next year.

I look forward to watching The Force Awakens and giving it as fair an assessment as possible. I hope others can do the same and call it how it is. Please stop giving movie studios the impression that they’re the ones in control around here.

Love vs Honour pic 1.

This kind of thing is a little unusual for me, for a couple of reasons. First and most obviously, I don’t typically post book reviews on here, though perhaps it is something I will begin to do occasionally.

Second, this particular book – a novel called ‘Love vs Honour’ – was written by someone I know and speak to on a regular basis. I’m being honest about that because, while I have tried to judge the book in as objective a manner as possible, I cannot know for sure how much my thoughts and overall opinion on it have been influenced by my personal knowledge of said individual. Usually I would, for obvious reasons related to my own integrity, steer clear of reviewing a product in such a case. I’m passionate in my belief that any reviewer who finds themselves in a situation where they may hold back from being as open and honest as possible regarding the information they provide about a product (in order to, say, try and boost sales as ‘a favour’ to someone else, or equally to criticise it simply because they do not like the author personally), should really not be reviewing that product at all.

However, I am making an exception in this case partly because of the nature of the subject matter, and also because I do not believe I am breaking the aforementioned principles by doing so. I have approached this book as honestly as I could, though I share the above information with you so that you can judge for yourself. That is, after all, the essence of what reviews are about: giving you the information you need to make an informed decision, and that includes any hint of bias on the part of the reviewer. You may indeed, in the end, think of me as biased, and should you form that opinion, then I am at least satisfied that I shared the information with you necessary to do so.

On to the book itself then. Love vs Honour (by Simon Dillon) follows a Christian guy and a Muslim girl, who meet and find themselves promptly falling in love, though interestingly without the usual romantic hyperbole that typically goes along with that. The characters are in love, but it feels real and authentic, rather than some fantastical fairy tale story. Obviously their respective beliefs present certain difficulties, if not between them, then certainly when it comes to their families who, to varying extents, seem to be caught up in the dogma and vitriol of their religions. To the point where Johnny and Sabina, the two main characters about whom we now speak, feel they cannot tell their parents about their feelings for each other, as it becomes apparent on both sides that this sense of love is the crucial element missing from their family lives – at least on the surface.

Against this backdrop their love quickly blossoms, and the fact that it feels so real is crucial – because they’re soon planning to deceive each other’s families in order to keep in touch beyond the weekend on which they met. For this to happen, one might think their own conviction to their religions would have to be somewhat in question (as a ‘good Muslim’ or a ‘good Christian’ would presumably not go along with such a deceptive scheme), and it is. This is exasperated, if not caused by the fact that they are in love, which is a feeling that neither of them have so far experienced within their respective belief patterns and is, therefore, perceived as more powerful than either of them. This becomes a theme played on throughout the novel, as the difficult situations they face eventually extend beyond the boundaries of their relationship.

Though the book handles its love story well, that is not, for me, its greatest strength. Nor is some of its early dialogue and character development, which I frankly found to be a little awkward. Rather, this is a novel most impressive in its overall accessibility. Romance is not typically my chosen genre to read, but the book does not rigidly define itself in this way.

Likewise, while it offers balanced and fair portrayals of both Christianity and Islam, it does not openly take a stance on either – instead presenting the facts and opinions of the characters within its narrative who do hold those beliefs, and letting the reader decide for themselves. Or not, if they so wish. The book does not hold you captive with an agenda of its own, even if a slight bias towards one of its two religions can be seen when observing the story as a whole. Its overriding message is one that I believe will be felt by anyone with natural human empathy, regardless of your personal beliefs – it does not forcibly attach such sentiment to a particular religion, even if there are understandable hints towards the author’s own convictions.

This honesty and open-mindedness in the novel’s storytelling is the main reason I wanted to highlight it here on this blog. Frankly I find this to be a rare thing in stories told by authors with certain religious convictions – they often use this form of art as little more than a propaganda tool, rather than enjoy it for what it’s meant to be. It is possible to have a strong message in your work and not force it down your reader’s throat, or feel that you must trick them into accepting that belief themselves. Too many Christian stories (I can recall a couple of semi-mainstream movies that recently did such a thing) present a manufactured, often sugar-coated version of their belief system in order to portray a narrative that is not entirely honest with itself, let alone the rest of the world. Christianity is not a perfect ‘religion’, nor does it know all the right answers, even though it follows a perfect man who did.

Even should you find yourself disagreeing with me on those finer points, I think this book will be an enjoyable and eye-opening read from whichever stance you take. If you couldn’t care less about that side of things and are instead interested in a decent love story, the novel delivers on that as well – just don’t come expecting a masterpiece that will change how you view the genre.

It’s not a long book either, less than 300 pages, and is very nicely paced so it won’t take you long getting through it. Frankly it is also cheap enough to be worth a second thought, even if you have your doubts as to whether it’s for you. In my case I didn’t think it would have resonated quite the way it did, but then again, one could argue I initially felt compelled to stick with it due to reasons mentioned above.

You can download the Kindle version of the novel here. Also available in paperback.

Memento pic 2.5

We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different.” – Leonard Shelby

Everyone has mental health issues. For as long as we humans are an emotional, fickle and mindful species who share the same world despite each being unique in our own way, we’ll experience differing psychological reactions to that world and to each other.

Yet these differences often drive us apart. We can also be a prideful people who find it difficult to grasp why everyone else doesn’t think or act like us. How is it possible that person holds such a different opinion to myself, or this person promotes beliefs I don’t share? This is the type of thinking we can fall into almost by default, and it leads to the formation of taboos, bigotry and ultimately even bitterness toward others.

Such thinking patterns are usually reinforced by habitual circumstance. One simply does not have the time, especially if working a job to provide for one’s family or to enjoy an extravagant lifestyle, nor might one have the motivation to think differently from their social group, to then stop and consider the bigger picture; why they might think a certain way, whether or not it is wrong to deride other groups for whom such treatment may have typically just been thought of as ‘normal’ in the past. Some prefer to be told how they think, while others might prefer just not to think about it at all, letting events run their natural course.

Artists tend to be neither. You could say they like to think themselves part of the ‘enlightened’ few – as arrogant as that sounds – with which comes an inherent desire to share, attempt to change patterns of thinking and perhaps even help change the world. Artistic portrayals of worldly or personal taboos, for all the controversy they may occasionally stir, can help to lessen a harsh collective attitude towards something and challenge imbedded notions without necessarily confronting individuals at face value. They provide opportunities for reflection, though within all of that you’ll get some effective and (probably more) less effective ways of doing so. As with many things, in this case the trying is at least the most important part; a process of trial and error the most effective learning experience.

Of course throughout history many were misunderstood, even by themselves. Van Gogh and Picasso’s depression (famously reflected in the latter’s ‘blue period’ between 1901-04) was only properly appreciated and contextualised in their work long after their deaths. The message their art conveyed, the way it made others feel, unquestionably ahead of its time and, as its continuing popularity shows, transcendent. It reflected a reality not yet fully explored in the ‘real world’ itself – nor would it be for many more years to follow.

Picasso's Blue period was known for its melancholic, haunting imagery - and in turn helped blue become depression's signature colour.

Picasso’s Blue period was known for its melancholic, haunting imagery – and in turn helped blue become depression’s signature colour.

Nowadays things are quite different. Film, television and digital media have all made storytelling and multiple forms of art more accessible than ever before, while they are also more open to critique than ever before. This critique is about more than simply determining whether something has value or not, deciding whether it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’; it is about extrapolating some sort of meaning from the surroundings we’re exposed to. It is ultimately about asking why, and the most insightful among us can often see into the soul of an artist by observing the work they produce.

Granted it is sometimes true that one can read meaning into a piece of work that was not originally put there by its author, and it is obvious that the sheer accessibility of critique means the best of it can get lost in the maelstrom. But these arguments do not negate the need for it. None of us can be expected to always get things right (some just appear better at it than others). Making mistakes does not necessarily mean we were on the wrong track to begin with, while one could argue that finding meaning in a piece of work does not require its creator to have meant it. Many of the most memorable works of art mean different things to different people depending on their personal taste and background.

I can watch a film like The Babadook (2014) and consider it a masterpiece for its unique depiction of loss, grief, and the gritty realities of chronic depression. Someone else may view it as another generic horror movie and little else of note. Neither of these opinions is ‘wrong’ (though one may have been formed with more thought than the other) – they are subjective, dependent on the experiences and point of view of the individual, and it is up to the next consumer to make an informed decision on whether they will like it based on the critique provided them by various accessible sources. I don’t wish anyone to simply take my word for it, but I would like to think my word can at least help with the decision-making process.

Now, the reason I go to such lengths here to make a point about subjectivity is not only related to how we approach art; it is in fact a major factor in how we approach mental health as well. However much we split others into personality groups, categorise them introvert or extravert, male or female, the fact remains: no two people share the same mind. That may sound obvious, overly simplistic; bordering on patronising even. But for all the complicated concepts humanity has advanced in its time, this ‘simple’ idea is still too often falling through the net.

We want others to conform to our idea of how things should be done, and the most charismatic have often succeeded at bringing other people round to their own way of thinking while the rest essentially complain that it wasn’t them who were able to do the same. ‘Our way is right, yours is wrong’. This black and white picture is what continues to drive traditional thinking patterns in a postmodern culture, as the basic argument for it (and we could debate whether it’s a valid one) is that without such a structure we would lose our ability to decipher the difference between the two.

Mental health, rather like the artist among the conformists and anarchists, falls into neither category (black or white, good or bad), and this is where the challenge seems to lie for most people. As I said at the beginning, we all have it. We all occasionally struggle with it – from the disappointment of having to get out of bed on a Monday morning, to grief over the death of a loved one – though some considerably more often and more intensely than others.

So I think now I must at least get to my overall point, before I begin to lose you in an abundance of barely relatable context. But you should know I would not have led you down this path had I not first held some idea of our destination.

Certain movements in cinema history have their roots in mental illness – Expressionism, for example, owes a significant debt to surrealist paintings and, in particular, the work of Van Gogh. Part of me wonders whether my affection for old German Expressionist films have quite a bit to do with this; their distorted, atmospheric imagery at the time induced a curious, evocative unease not unlike how one may view the world through depressive eyes.

But those films, rather like Van Gogh himself, do not seem to have intended this connection I now make. Van Gogh’s art was a reflection of self – the part of himself he did not fully understand. A compulsion to explore what was on the surface unseen, was what subsequently drove his desire to create. Had he set out with the intention of forming the legacy he ended up with, I daresay it would not have felt half as organic or genuine, and it certainly would have happened differently. History’s greatest artists are regarded in hindsight for their tragic sense of not quite knowing what they had, but conversely it was this ‘not knowing’ that paved the way for the rest of us to understand a little bit better.

German Expressionism may therefore have succeeded in capturing the unspoken essence of a condition, but the actual content of some of their films shows they did not fully understand it either. Indeed, one could argue they did more harm than good for the public perception of mental health.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), for example, featured a final twist calling into question the sanity of the film’s narrator, showing him to be a patient of a mental asylum at which Dr Caligari is the director. This narrator, Francis, who had previously told us the story of Caligari – portraying him as a shady, controlling character who himself eventually ended up in the same asylum – is placed in a strait jacket amidst the screams commonly associated with such an environment.

While I have no problem with the film or its twist (it did, after all, appear on my Top 25 list, and should be taken within the context of its time), this did reflect what was a relatively normal perception in society back then – that those with some form of mental illness were not to be trusted and somehow feared; best put in a strait jacket and confined within a cell to protect the rest of us from harm. This perception covered not only the most extreme forms (in which case a person may indeed become a danger to others and require some kind of confinement), but also the lesser ones. To even suggest or show that you weren’t entirely ‘sane’ brought with it this stark imagery, and such broad labelling became a fear that is secretly harboured by many to this day.

Its imagery may have captured a spirit of unease, but mental illness was ultimately nothing more than a caricature used to advance the plot in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

Its imagery may have captured a spirit of unease, but mental illness was ultimately nothing more than a caricature used to advance the plot in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

This film was also one of the first cinematic examples that utilised mental health issues (albeit rather extreme forms of them) as a potent narrative tool. This has continued consistently throughout film history, and you can probably name at least a couple yourself without my input. While one could argue this has been helpful in raising awareness of certain conditions, more often than not I think they are exaggerated (and to an extent, romanticised) for dramatic effect. Though I would not necessarily claim that’s a negative thing.

My favourite film for portraying the issues of which we now speak is 2001’s Donnie Darko. This movie bears many other qualities besides this aspect and, in a way, that’s precisely its strength. It doesn’t take mental illness and use it purely as its main narrative device or concluding twist; instead mental health is shown as a thing that just ‘is’ a natural part of central character Donnie.

He meets a girl (Gretchen) in the film who soon becomes his girlfriend, yet as they’re still just getting to know each other they have a telling conversation about her family. Gretchen explains how she, along with her mother, had to flee from her father and change names so that he couldn’t find them again. She describes him as having ’emotional problems’. “Oh really?! I have those too!” Donnie blurts out before asking, “what kind of emotional problems does your dad have?”

Her reaction is not what one might expect. She does not hear this admission and suddenly become fearful that Donnie might therefore be exactly like the man her father was. Because after all, they are different people, and having taken a little time to talk to Donnie, Gretchen can see who he really is – rather than the caricature one may have attached to him due to his condition.

In addition to characterisation, some details of the film’s plot can easily be read as representative of how mental illness works in a broad sense; what it can mean for individuals and their loved ones. For example, the timer counting down to the end of the world, given to Donnie near the start of the film by his imaginary friend Frank, seems to have deeper significance than the fantastical time-related aspect of the narrative. I found it comparable to the feeling of inevitability regarding the destructive qualities of mental illness. You can’t outrun it, you can’t hide from it, and if you try to avoid it, it will soon catch up and ‘end your world’ as you know it.

His portrayal of flawed teenager Donnie remains one of Jake Gyllenhaal's best roles.

His portrayal of flawed teenager Donnie (behind whom stands ‘Frank’ in this picture) remains one of Jake Gyllenhaal’s best roles.

Ultimately, this countdown leads to Donnie’s death, the ‘end of his world’, or rather his ‘turning back time’ in order to undo all the wrong actions he took and all the pain he had caused to others over the course of the story. Though the film was of course steeped in backstory about time travel, its resolution arguably proves more insightful than any other movie for showing how some are ultimately driven to suicide, feeling in the end that it was perhaps an inevitable outcome for them and, in a warped sense, actually beneficial to their loved ones, to whom they may feel no more than a burden due to their illness.

Donnie Darko was an alarmingly insightful film for its time, though ‘its time’ was of course only 14 years ago. How far have we come since then? I think quite far, actually. In the same way that last year’s Pride and Oscar contender The Imitation Game (in tackling the story of Alan Turing, himself branded a criminal in the aftermath of World War 2 for being homosexual despite his help with the Allied victory in the war) reflected the gradual lessening of a taboo towards homosexuality in modern society, 2015 has so far seen three films which I believe achieved something others have previously failed at. That is; tackling the issue of mental illness head on, honestly and candidly, without the need for ambiguous metaphors.

They’ve done this by not approaching the subject as if it is limited only to ‘special’ or ‘unfortunate’ people who belong comfortably out of sight, out of mind alongside the issues they struggle through. They haven’t been agonisingly patronising. Yet they’ve also reflected the existing flaws still inherent in how many of us approach the topic.

British film X+Y, released back in March, is a comedy-drama about a teenage Mathematics prodigy (Nathan) who has difficulty forming relationships and understanding people in general. When his father – the person he felt closest to – dies at a young age, even his mother finds it hard to form a connection with her son. Though they find that he has a gift for Maths, and with the help of a flawed tutor bearing his own issues, Nathan is trained up for the International Mathematical Olympiad. But along the way he encounters a Chinese girl through an exchange program and finds himself falling in love.

A not-so-typical romance helps keep the story of 'X+Y' fresh amidst potentially tough subject matter.

A not-so-typical romance helps keep the story of ‘X+Y’ fresh amidst potentially tough subject matter.

Seeing Nathan trying to make sense of his emotions through the equations he knows so well is as sweet as it is awkward at times. Crucially however, the film never lets itself get overtaken by sentiment; there is not a feel-good ‘happy ending’ per se, though it is hinted at. It is, to simplify the story, a tale of what it is like to live and cope not only with autism, but with the feeling of being told you are ‘special’ and not really understanding why. Nathan’s mother is also given equal portrayal in the film, as we appreciate her own struggles in loving a son who doesn’t always return that love or show appreciation for what she does for him. This is the reality for many carers and close family members of those who suffer from this kind of condition.

While at Belfast Film Festival in April, I saw another film which did something very similar. Patrick’s Day followed a young schizophrenic man named Patrick, whose condition means he requires constant supervision. Cared for by his mother, who understandably feels over-protective of her son after being his carer for over 20 years, their lives are disrupted when Patrick meets and falls in love with a woman who herself secretly harbours suicidal tendencies. Believing her son can never possibly have a normal life of independence, his mother does all she can first to break up the relationship, and then to convince Patrick that this woman was no more than an imaginary person, projected by his overactive mind.

Irish film Patrick's Day portrayed schizophrenia in a more authentic, 'real' way than most other films.

Irish film Patrick’s Day portrayed schizophrenia in a more authentic, ‘real’ way than any other movie I’ve seen.

It sounds harsh I know, but thanks to the film’s even-handedness, we never judge Patrick’s mother too harshly. We see things from her point of view, as much as Patrick’s, and we see that her path as carer is, in some ways, just as difficult as the condition her son lives with. At the same time we fully appreciate Patrick’s condition, and the film communicates well the difficulties of trying to lead a relatively normal life with such a potentially serious illness. But in the end its message is a hopeful one that says: it is more possible than you might think.

Finally there was The Dark Horse, a New Zealand film released in the UK last month. Based on the real-life story of New Zealand chess player Genesis Potini, who suffered from bipolar disorder which disrupted his career and required frequent stays in hospital. This film picks up after one such hospital stay, and we see Potini go to stay with his brother and nephew, the latter of which is about to be unwillingly ‘inducted’ into a motorcycle gang. During the film we see Potini’s everyday domestic struggles exasperated by his fragile mental state – though ultimately we see that he is psychologically stronger than others would give him credit for – as he ends up homeless and attempts to provide direction to a group of disadvantaged teens by coaching them in chess.

You don't need an appreciation of chess to appreciate The Dark Horse... but it does add a nice extra layer to the film.

You don’t need an appreciation of chess to appreciate The Dark Horse… but it does add a nice extra layer to the film.

What I liked most about The Dark Horse was probably its juxtaposition between mental health issues and the hardcore ‘biker gang’ domestic environment in which it is predominantly set. These are two things that would not appear to mix – one does not think of large, bearded ‘hard men’ bikers or their social group as typically susceptible to such issues. But they are, just as much as the rest of us, and the film indirectly challenges you with this thought. Do we still think of mental illness as affecting only a certain ‘type’ of person?

Taking these three films as a collective, the best way I can sum up how they handle the topic of mental illness is with one word: maturity. They don’t make sweeping statements nor do they try and draw a comparison between ‘us and them’. Each individual story was treated as, first and foremost, a human one. Because of that, and due to the increasing awareness of these conditions in modern culture (itself reflected by the fact that these films have even been made in this way), audiences are crucially able to feel empathy with the characters. Certainly that signifies we’ve come a long way from the days of mental illness being confined to the asylum’s walls.

Now you may say I have been generalising in a lot of this and, aside from the specific examples I’ve given to illustrate my points, you’re right. I do so not because I buy into the use of generic labels (such as ‘mental illness’, ‘artists’, among others) as it pertains to every person who falls into the category, but partly to exemplify how easy a trap it is for the rest of us to fall into. To blame me for using generalisations in this way is to blame me for how humans communicate – indeed it is to blame me for being human in the first place.

Also understand that when I use a term such as ‘artist’ I am not, in fact, talking about any particular person or group; I am attempting to communicate the heart of what I believe that term means. Many may adopt it, or find the label unjustly attached to them without meeting this criteria. I don’t think I should be held responsible for their doing so, though I’d gladly debate them on which of our definitions might be considered more objectively accurate.

Am I obliged to be entirely original in my approach, completely authentic in my delivery, and should I just give up if I cannot yet achieve such a thing? I think my overall narrative here goes along the fault lines of an emphatic ‘no’! But that does not excuse any of us from striving for it steadfastly, in our thinking, actions and attitude.