Tag Archive: Writing

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.

Words, whims and writing.

Often when I take a break from writing it can be a bit of a struggle getting back into it. This is why, as much as possible, I try to avoid taking that break.

Now I’m not talking the kind of writing tasks that one does on a daily basis – my day job involves doing said activity to a fairly decent quality and so to ‘take a break from writing’, for me, is not to take a break from the entirely necessary technical and creative aspects of it that are required for everyday living (in my case at least).

Rather, what I mean when I say ‘break’ is really just referring to a break from the amount of in-depth thought and all-round work I put into the ideas, reviews and articles formulated for this blog on a regular basis, or likewise the creative writing I may do in my own time to further my personal interests away from prying eyes.

That’s what I’ve taken an impromptu break from in the past month and a half. In the time since my last film review, Christmas and New Year have passed, the first full month of 2016 has passed… and Star Wars: The Force Awakens is still performing strong at the box office a full seven weeks after its release.

This break wasn’t exactly planned. It just kind of happened, and that’s just the way I work. If I did schedule a “break” into my writing plan, followed by a brief period of feeling good about myself for doing so, then I’d likely spend that break wishing I was writing instead. While I often try to fight whatever my body or mind is telling me when it comes to this, if it wants a break there’s usually not much I can do to combat that.

But of course there comes a point when one must forcefully attempt to kick back into gear, and I’ve got a whole bunch of ideas that I’m planning to catch up on imminently. The first of which is an in-depth look at my favourite film of 2014 (The Babadook) that I started last October and have continually put on the back-burner for one reason or another.

Once I put the finishing touches on that piece, I’ll finally get around to posting a roundup of my favourite films from last year, which will tie in nicely with awards season. While most people like to post these kind of lists at the end of every calendar year, I actually find February to be more appropriate timing, as it gives me a chance not only to catch up on any films I may have missed at the cinema last year, but also to check out some foreign releases that may have only recently arrived here in the UK.

I’m a sucker for little details like release dates, as I’m sure some of you know, though I’ll set out and explain my own rules pertaining to this when we get to my list (which won’t be limited to the typical ‘top 10’ either). Needless to say I don’t strictly stick to films ‘released in the UK during the calendar year’ – if I did, as some do, then at least two or three that make the list would actually be from last year’s awards season; the very point of which was to award the best films of the previous year.

Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash was first screened at the very beginning of 2014 at Sundance, before being released in the US and Canada later that year; therefore for it to appear on a list at the end of 2015 doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. From my point of view it is certainly not a 2015 film (coincidentally it was one of my top three films of 2014, so it’s not that I have anything against this amazing movie).

There is another subtle detail that makes the timing of my own personal list seem almost planned to perfection; that being the upcoming UK release of a film screened at London Film Festival in October last year and one that quickly shot into my top three. I’ll hold you in suspense for exactly one more week on that.

And… I think that wraps things up for now.

MGS 2 pic 3.

What we propose to do is not to control content, but to create context.”

Over the next few months I’ll be looking back at some of PlayStation’s most significant titles as the console celebrates its twentieth anniversary in the UK this year (by year in this case I count from September 2015 to September 2016).

On this occasion I’ve selected a game that was both ahead of its time and simultaneously very much a product of its time; a project the likes of which simply wouldn’t be possible in today’s gaming industry, and not in the way you might imagine.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty was released in late 2001/ early 2002 (depending on whether you were living in America or Europe respectively) around the time the PlayStation2 was starting to really hit its stride. You could justifiably argue this was one of the titles that helped kick start the console’s mainstream popularity – indeed it was widely regarded as the PS2’s first ‘essential’ game; the first to receive truly widespread critical acclaim.

It’s almost impossible now to capture the sense of anticipation that surrounded this game pre-release. To claim it was the video game equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster released during the peak summer months is no overstatement. For many gamers it was even more than that: think almost as big as the hype and expectation that is currently greeting The Force Awakens and you’d be pretty close. While there have certainly been bigger and better games since, I don’t recall this kind of attention ever greeting another video game in history.

This was a time before publishers generally marketed their games as if they were a big deal. Today we see major game studios scrambling every year to make their generic first-person shooters or action-adventure games seem relevant, and it’s not at all surprising to see cinematic game trailers appearing in your local movie theatre before the film. This wasn’t the case with video games before Metal Gear Solid 2.

Creator Hideo Kojima knew exactly how BIG his new game was. He turned this enormous hype against those responsible for it; using the marketing campaign and then the content of the game itself to dupe the series’ own fans in a way that remains unprecedented to this day.

In a move that took a definite amount of balls (which may have seemed almost career suicide to a director-designer less confident and capable than he), Kojima switched out the protagonist fans knew and loved from previous games – chain-smoking mercenary Solid Snake – for an unknown and less aesthetically pleasing rookie with a whiny voice and shoulder-length blonde hair.

No one saw it coming. Not only because the marketing campaign gave no glimpses or made any mention of this new character – named ‘Raiden’ – whom you were to spend three quarters of the game controlling, but also because that same marketing had made it appear as if you were instead going to play the entirety of Metal Gear Solid 2 in control of the aforementioned Solid Snake, the same way you did in the original MGS three years earlier. As it soon turned out, all of the game’s promotional material had been taken exclusively from its prologue tanker level, which made up barely an hour of the overall playing experience.

This wasn’t just a case of withholding plot information – it was dangerously close to deliberately misleading consumers, and some of the anger directed towards Kojima afterwards was from the very same fans who had been eagerly preparing to sing his praises…

Raiden was a far cry from what fans had expected going into MGS 2... but in the end, that was kind of the point.

The character of Raiden was a far cry from what fans had expected going into MGS 2… but in the end, that was kind of the point.

Most of the hype surrounding this game was due predominantly to the impact of the first Metal Gear Solid, released in 1998 for the PlayStation. At the time it was labeled the ‘greatest video game ever made’ – which held true as the closest thing to an objective opinion the industry has ever had (I was never quite on that bandwagon, but I could see where they were coming from). In this sense it was almost like the Citizen Kane of video games; a somewhat appropriate comparison seeing as the game gave off extremely cinematic vibes.

This was, after all, a time when the video game industry was obsessed with trying (and largely failing) to emulate films. Metal Gear Solid was the first game to do that convincingly, and this sequel even more so. The trajectory on which it sent the industry is polarising for many; as it seems a lot of players today generally still judge game quality on how ‘cinematic’ they are.

In some ways this is concerning. Yes it has given us some visually beautiful and well acted games, but it also prevents many more original titles from getting noticed – and often it is those more original titles that capture the true essence of what video games can achieve. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a fabulous recent example of a game that told its story primarily through gameplay mechanics rather than exposition-heavy cut scenes – something which the MGS series has traditionally been infamous for.

But that present concern does not stop me from reflecting on the sentimental attachment I have to this particular cinematic game; and acknowledging just how well it turned out as a self-contained, narrative-driven experience.

The success of MGS (itself the third part in a previously Japanese-exclusive Metal Gear series dating back to 1987 on the lesser known MSX2) made the mainstream world really take notice of Hideo Kojima’s talents. For this sequel he was able to hire Hollywood composer Harry Greyson-Williams to help give Sons of Liberty an even more important, cinematic feel – and it shows from the game’s impressive opening sequence. To this day the soundtrack for this game remains one of the PlayStation’s most memorable, and it was certainly among my favourites growing up. It gave MGS2 a sense of gravitas that very few other games had.

What also added to this sense was the fact that the game took itself so seriously. A risk considering some of its characters and plot elements; one that could have fallen flat if the whole thing was not executed well. Fortunately it was, and while the jury is still out for a lot of people on whether Hideo Kojima is actually a good writer, one can’t help but appreciate the immaculate level of polish he puts on all of his games. MGS2 was a shining example of that polish.

The game’s story, for all its Hollywood production values, may appear unnecessarily convoluted in places. You could argue the overall experience is unbalanced, with most of its narrative exposition and main themes coming in the final third. Indeed, this rather crippled the pacing of the gameplay towards the climactic final boss fight. That’s without taking into account another crucial point: unless you’re already invested in the MGS universe, most of this game is unlikely to make the least bit of sense.

After all, your adversaries include an immortal vampire who runs on water, a woman who can’t be hit by bullets, and a literal ‘fat man’ on skates who is also an ingenious bomb expert. An anonymous Russian ninja occasionally pops up to help you out of rough spots. The leader of the game’s villainous group wears a full body armoured suit with two tentacles attached, which he uses to suffocate people and out of which he can even shoot missiles.

His right-hand man – Revolver Ocelot, who was a major character in the first game as well – is at times subject to mind control from the inhibited consciousness that exists in his forearm. This, an arm which previously belonged to the now deceased main villain from the original MGS and has since been surgically grafted onto Ocelot – who had lost his own arm in the first game when it was cut off by a different ninja, though one that bore a striking resemblance to the ninja appearing in this sequel.

So you see how this game might be a little hard to follow for the uninitiated? Hell, even for long term fans it takes a bit of effort to keep track.

Without doubt it was mostly those familiar with the first game who Kojima had in mind while making Sons of Liberty. One can’t help but experience a strong feeling of nostalgia while playing as Snake on the tanker, and there is a similar (but at the same time unmistakably separate) sense of deja vu in playing through Raiden’s espionage mission. Well of course, you might say, this is a sequel after all!

Yes, it was as much a sequel as sequels can get, and in certain ways it felt almost like a lazy one. In fact it’s the very definition of a fan-pleasing experience from beginning to end of the opening tanker chapter; at which point Kojima stops pandering and proceeds to give fans the proverbial middle finger instead.

The game drastically changes in both tone and pacing with Raiden’s appearance. Here you find yourself forced to play as a rookie, not only within the context of the plot but as a player too; having to go through the same basic setup that you’ve already been through in the original MGS with Snake.

Your Colonel unnecessarily tells you basic controls. In baby steps you’re taken through the opening sequence alongside Raiden as if you, like him, are new to this kind of thing – despite the fact that you’ve just played the prologue level as a veteran in control of Solid Snake, picking up where the first game left off. You’re taken from that to literally starting afresh, and the experience was almost as jarring as having the Snake character yanked from your fingertips.

Suddenly it’s almost like you’re playing a version of the first game over again – though one that doesn’t feel quite as authentic. On the surface, most of Raiden’s campaign seems an unoriginal retread of a path you already walked in Metal Gear Solid; the deja vu you feel in this case is not the same nice nostalgic feeling present in the previous tanker chapter, but a rather more unsettling one.

This game’s main villains, Dead Cell, are uncannily similar in their eccentric curiosity to the Foxhound group from the first game. There’s also the return of a mysterious ninja; in both games an ambiguous individual with ties to neither side. And your Colonel? Just so happens to (seemingly) be the very same one who helped guide Solid Snake through Shadow Moses in that first title.

The whole thing felt like too much of an echo back to Metal Gear Solid – close to a simple copy and paste in certain respects. It is only in the plot’s final third that this all brilliantly unravels; when it is revealed that ‘recreating Shadow Moses’ was precisely the intention of a shady organisation that had been manipulating both sides all along to further their own plans for society.

You find out that your Colonel, whose orders you’ve been following on the mission to which Raiden is assigned, is actually an A.I. (or something…) operating on behalf of the Patriots; a group of individuals who control the United States from the shadows, from whom even the President receives orders. The game’s main villain – at least, you’ve been led to believe he’s the villain up to this point – proposes to break the Patriots’ rule over the country and set everyone free from their control (hence becoming the Sons of Liberty of the game’s title).

Your real mission is to eliminate him before this plan comes to fruition – though you only find this out toward the game’s conclusion, up until which point you had been fed a convenient and rather typical espionage cover story regarding hostages, ransom demands and nuclear bombs.

At the same time, it is revealed that the Patriots set up the conditions for the entire operation from the beginning – indirectly giving Solidus (your adversary) the means by which his plan could progress to its later stages – as part of a test to see if a typical rookie operative could be moulded into a legendary mercenary, similar to Solid Snake but this time created on their own terms, if placed in the right environment. This operation is codenamed the ‘S3 plan’, which stands for ‘Solid Snake Simulation’.

Yes, the conventionality of it all – from the game’s plot outline to its blatant comparisons with the original, via a ‘rookie’ in the form of Raiden – had been a setup; not only from the perspective of the game’s characters but for the benefit of the player. We’re the real test subjects for the S3 plan – how successfully the game manages to pull the wool over our eyes and keep up the illusion is the litmus test that shows its effectiveness.

This sequel played on and caught you up in your own expectations. Raiden is informed towards the end of the game that his Colonel, a man he had never met in person, was, in part, a projection of images cobbled together from his own subconscious expectations. In a way this is true for the player as well; the Colonel sounds exactly like the one we knew from the previous game because our expectations from that game told us this is what a Colonel should sound like. It becomes blatantly apparent that the two characters are different entities, so Kojima had no other reason to re-use the same likeness than to make this point – at the same time putting us in the same state of unease as Raiden; the only difference being that the player senses this unease from the beginning. But it’s something you put to the back of your mind, at least until the in-game characters become aware of their situation later.

In the end you realise we, as players, were duped as much as the fictional characters in this game. The prologue tanker level was everything fans wanted and had asked for, picking up where the first game left off with two of its most popular characters in a brand new, visually pleasing scenario. You strap yourself in and get ready to enjoy an indulgent sequel experience that will leave you feeling your expectations have been met.

Hideo Kojima shows here that he was fully aware of what those expectations were, and teases you with the intention of meeting them for all of an hour’s playing time before pulling you out of the illusion.

Then, you’re in his game. A game that repeats much of what you saw first time round, but in a way that isn’t quite as authentic. Suddenly you’re back to roaming claustrophobic corridors and learning guard routine patterns. At times it feels almost like a parody of what came before, while also forcing you to play as a less accomplished character than your previous protagonist… but whom you play as anyway because that’s the game you’ve been given, and even though things are not exactly how you’d like them to be, this is still Metal Gear Solid after all.

So everything’s not quite as you’d like or imagine it to be – but this version is crafted to show you just how willing you and every other player is to accept what you are given. It’s a copy, albeit not an exact one. Merely a recreated scenario; one that becomes almost dream-like right before the end, at which point you ‘wake up’. Seriously, the ending cut-scene to this game feels so tonally contrasting to what came immediately before it that it feels like stepping back into reality from what had become a nightmare.

Before fighting the final boss, the Patriots’ blatantly reveal their intention for you to succeed in your mission by killing your adversary. While Raiden protests at this, saying “I’m through doing what I’m told” and even claiming “we’re not puppets in some game, you know”, the game nonetheless throws you into the fight; a fight to the death which you willingly comply with because it’s the scenario that presents itself.

You aren’t going to turn the game off now if only for wanting to see how it ends. While playing through the final sneaking section leading up to this point, the malfunctioning Colonel A.I. dared you, the player, to “turn the game console off right now”, or suggested “you shouldn’t sit so close to the TV”, or commented “you’ve been playing the game for an awfully long time… don’t you have better things to do with your time?”

These comments showed the game’s awareness of its own place within its medium, playing on concerns that players may be facing outside of its universe… are you sitting too close to the TV? Are there better things you could be doing with your time? The answer to both is, probably, yes.

Through it all you keep playing anyway, because “this is a game after all. It’s a game, just like usual” (to use another of the quirky Colonel’s quips) – as if you needed reassuring that, despite its self-awareness, you were still just playing a game to have fun. Of course, this kind of experience was far from typical.

When people claim this is a ‘postmodern’ game they aren’t simply saying it has certain postmodern threads or thematic elements. The entire experience is, in a sense, a reflection of the original, which itself was heralded as a masterpiece of modern gaming. It was postmodern in the purest sense of the term – coming after the modern, it offered context by which we could judge what came before.

This concept of ‘creating context’ is taken even further in a revealing conversation with your Colonel after the plot’s main points have been divulged. It becomes apparent that he is more than just an ‘A.I.’ during this final reveal. He first explains ‘their’ true origins:

“To begin with, we’re not what you’d call… human.

Over the past two hundred years, a kind of consciousness formed layer by layer in the crucible of the White House.

It’s not unlike the way life started in the oceans four billion years ago.

We are formless. We are the very discipline and morality that Americans invoke so often.

How can anyone hope to eliminate us? As long as this nation exists, so will we.”

Now, to grasp what’s going on here you need to understand we’re no longer really talking in tangible terms. What this is referring to is not any single character or being, but to human culture itself – the culture around which modern society has been circling for quite some time. A culture in which following certain rules and holding objective beliefs is rewarded; indeed, the idea is that we need those things, organised in a structure, to survive as a species.

MGS2 was released just after the turn of the Millennium; a time when the world was in the midst of transitioning to a more ‘digitised’ age. With this new flow of digital information came a unique challenge to the cultural pattern referred to above, and it is this challenge that ‘the Patriots’ are responding to during the course of this game. Their answer is an advanced A.I. that will control the flow of information so it doesn’t overwhelm humanity. The ‘Colonel’ goes on to explain this:

“In the current digitized world, trivial information is accumulating every second, preserved in all its triteness, never fading, always accessible.

The S3 plan does not stand for Solid Snake Simulation. What it does stand for is ‘Selection for Societal Sanity’

You seem to think our plan is one of censorship?”

Raiden: “Are you trying to say it’s not?!”

Colonel: “What we propose to do is not to control content, but to create context…

The digital society furthers human flaws and selectively rewards development of convenient half-truths; everyone withdraws into their small, gaited community, afraid of a larger forum.

They stay inside their little ponds, leaking whatever truth suits them into the growing cesspool of society at large.

The different cardinal truths neither clash nor mesh; no one is invalidated, but no one is right.

Not even natural selection can take place here; the world is being engulfed in ‘truth’.

And this is the way the world ends… not with a bang, but a whimper.”

Bear in mind this was before the rise of social media. Facebook and Twitter did not yet exist, but MGS2 foresaw their emergence with alarming insightfulness. Are they not guilty of promoting the very things described in the above dialogue?

Selectively rewarding convenient half-truths… everyone afraid of a larger forum, leaking whatever ‘truth’ suits them into society at large… no one is invalidated, but no one is right… the world being engulfed in ‘truth’.

Let’s be honest: this is social media in a nutshell. Social media itself is representative of the Internet in a nutshell.

You’ve probably complained about it yourself. Look at how social media trends develop; observe how they eventually die out; see how someone will ‘share a link’ of a tragedy in the Middle East and, with their social justice fingertips at the ready, point out to everyone that it doesn’t get the same coverage as a similar tragedy in Europe… and point out how much of an injustice this is.

To some the flow of ‘trivial’ information over the Internet represents freedom. Others ridicule and scoff at it, indirectly revealing that they think it should be controlled; advocating the kind of ‘S3 plan’ the Patriots had in mind.

I admit I’ve fallen on both sides in the past. I know that for all the amazing bits of useful information to be found online, there is much more ‘rubbish’ one has to wade through. That ‘useless’ information (one of the biggest enemies of productivity if nothing else) is precisely the kind that the A.I. in this game was proposing to filter out.

Isn’t the main problem with a lot of online information that it often appears on our news feeds without appropriate contextualisation? Isn’t the problem then exasperated by everyone reacting to it without bothering to look into that context?

Maybe the Patriots were right after all. Many of us crave the context they proposed to create. But there will always be a side of us that misunderstands context for control over that same information. Or perhaps, from another point of view: there’s a side of us that prefers reacting to things free from context – because context can affect our ingrained sense of ‘truth’ in a way that could make us revaluate what we believe or how we live. And to do that is uncomfortable.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty ends with Raiden completing his mission, but having gone through an identity crisis in the process, he finishes with a question; “who am I really?” A question Kojima was posing to the player as much as the protagonist.

The game doesn’t provide a conclusive answer, finishing in open-ended fashion that encourages you to find truth for yourself. Snake gives you this gem in conclusion to the game’s events: “what you think you see is only as real as your brain tells you it is.”

It’s worth pointing out that Hideo Kojima originally envisaged the Metal Gear series ending with Sons of Liberty. If you’re wondering why he had the balls to try pulling this off, it is quite simply because he wasn’t relying – as so many major studios and developers are – on milking this thing any further as a franchise. Which made its status as a ‘blockbuster’ game even more unique.

Indeed Kojima was convinced later to make more games in the series, and the sequels that followed MGS2 included considerably more fan service than we see here – not to mention an overarching plot that pretty much retconned the final twenty minutes of MGS2. Kojima made those other games for the fans, whereas here he wasn’t particularly concerned with pleasing anyone. For that reason I consider both the original MGS and this sequel to be the truest portrayals of his vision we’ve seen.

With MGS2 he was encouraging players to really think about what they were doing; what had led them to play this game; how they consume what they see online and in the media; even how they were living their lives and what the future might hold. Here we had the video game equivalent of a major Hollywood movie franchise (the biggest name of its time) tackling convoluted themes such as freedom of choice and the subjectivity of truth, without having given its audience any indication beforehand that it was going to do such a thing. Many were not so much left unsatisfied as left flat-out baffled by the experience.

This remains one of the most complicated game plots of all time. In my eyes it represents a masterpiece – not strictly a ‘gaming’ masterpiece, but certainly in how it sets up and tells its story, as well as how it manipulated players before and after release. That’s a bit of a controversial opinion in some circles, with many considering this game not even the best in its series. But I think it’s a game everyone should experience, even if you go away feeling slightly exasperated by it.

Furthermore, if you’re ever going to start playing the MGS series, do yourself a favour and start with the original before moving on to this one. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2005) is a prequel and, although arguably a better game overall, its story went some way to changing how you looked at everything that came before. The first two games should be taken as separate entities before they’re later considered in the context of the series as a whole.

Even today I still frequently go back to MGS2 to re-live a game that is as simple in its gameplay as it is complex in its storytelling. It features one of the most unique plots and some of the most challenging themes ever included in a video game, and it’s undoubtedly one of my personal favourites.

The Phantom Menace (1999).

Darth Maul pic 1.

At last we will reveal ourselves to the Jedi. At last we will have revenge.”

Let’s establish something straight away. There are certain things about The Phantom Menace that are just atrociously bad no matter what way you look at it.

One of those things is dialogue, which is not only written badly but delivered in the same bland style by every character. With the monk-like Jedi, who are taught to keep their emotions under control, one can maybe let it pass – but they lose their sense of uniqueness when you have Natalie Portman as Padme and even a nine year old Anakin Skywalker (played by Jake Lloyd, who we’ll be getting to later) also talking like they do.

It’s telling that this film’s best character is one who only has a few lines of dialogue in one scene. Darth Maul is a badass for this very reason – in his case, the lack of character development only adds to his shadowy mystique. Everyone else in this movie wasn’t so fortunate.

Liam Neeson, when he heard about the chance to play a Jedi knight in a new Star Wars film (the first in a trilogy of prequels intended to fill in the backstory of iconic characters like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader, as well as show what led to the fall of the Jedi and rise of the Empire), reportedly accepted the role without first looking at George Lucas’ script… which may hint at one of the main reasons why things went south with the finished product.

You had a writer-director at the helm who was responsible for conceiving what became one of the biggest franchises in cinema history. His record for making successful movies spoke for itself; and who was really going to turn down the chance to be involved in the hotly anticipated next instalment? Moreover, who was going to stand up and tell him some of his ideas sucked when he seemed so childishly excited about the whole thing?

This documentary about the film’s production sums up why we got all the bad – and admittedly some good – parts of The Phantom Menace. Coming alongside Lucas for this film after working with him on the similarly polarising Star Wars special editions was producer Rick McCallum, who was clearly as excited and passionate about the project as its original creator.

McCallum’s favoured area was CGI, and his extensive work on The Phantom Menace went some way to ushering in the new era of digital filmmaking that is so prevalent today. If one is to praise the film for anything they must surely start here – though it’s debatable whether it has aged well overall.

Many shots in the film are so clearly dominated by CGI, and acting performances suffer as a result of often being placed in front of a blue screen rather than in real environments. In time The Phantom Menace risks looking increasingly dated, whereas the original trilogy for the most part is still enjoyed by many today. The reason for that perhaps is; while the original trilogy was certainly also impressive in its use of special effects for the time, it relied more so on strong characters and an engaging script to connect with its audience. Here we don’t find any such luxuries.

Indeed this film is at least significant within the context of cinema history in that, among other digital advances, it featured the first fully computer generated character: Jar Jar Binks. Many people have criticised this infamous character extensively – and their issues are largely justified. Sure, you rarely hear anyone complaining about Jar Jar because of a terribly unconvincing design. On a technical level the character is undeniably impressive. The problems most people had pertained not to this aspect, but to pretty much everything else about him.

When I recently viewed the film again for this review, the first moment at which it loses me completely is that same moment when Jar Jar first appears on screen. Master Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn, who along with his ‘padawan’ Obi-Wan Kenobi has just narrowly escaped an assassination attempt, is running for his life from the droid army that has just touched down in the forests of Naboo. The tone is reasonably well set in this opening sequence – while the dialogue may be dry, it is (as I’ve alluded to) more forgivable when spoken by a Jedi.

Seeing Jar Jar standing there like a goof with his hands in the air, unable to decipher Qui-Gon’s simple command to ‘get out of the way’ while making all sorts of embarrassing noises, I find my feelings change instantly. Jar Jar Binks, each time he unceremoniously appears in any given scene, turns me into an angry viewer – because if I’m being totally honest I think everything about his character is utter trash, garbage, outside of his aesthetic value as a piece of CGI. And that is a very shallow defence.

I realise his main purpose was to appeal to the kids. That doesn’t mean the rest of us have to like him. Perhaps some adults may say they find him funny; that Lucas’ cringeworthy attempt at ‘comic relief’ actually worked on them here – though I dare any grown man with a sense of self respect to admit to that.

Jar Jar’s presence offsets the tone for the entire film. One could argue; if the rest of this movie had been superb, most audiences may have been prepared to look past their gripes with this irritating, child-friendly ‘gungan’. But I’m not sure this film was even capable of being good once George Lucas had uttered the line “Jar Jar is the key to all this” (check the documentary). Lucas was right – Jar Jar was the key… to why The Phantom Menace sucked so badly in the eyes of so many people.

In a way the Jar Jar character perfectly sums up how and where it all went wrong. During production of this film, George Lucas came across as a big child; one with lots of unquestionable influence over others. While that is no bad thing in itself – Hollywood could do with more independently minded directors like him – I think it had a large part to do with why he thought his sillier ideas for The Phantom Menace were good, and why they all made it into the finished product.

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not closed-minded towards this film’s appeal. Indeed from my own experience I can say yes, it is actually rather good from the perspective of younger eyes.

When The Phantom Menace was released in 1999, I was at the prime age for it, and I still remember enjoying my time watching it at the cinema. As a nine year old I was blown away by the action sequences; the Jedi seemed cool as hell; I ended up owning the action figures and played the video game based on this film. Even buying and reading the novelisation was pretty exciting.

Back then I glossed over trade disputes, political meanderings and any related dialogue in favour of cool lightsaber battles and an exhilarating pod race; things that people often point to in defence of this movie. And make no mistake: the climactic lightsaber fight in The Phantom Menace is hands down the best one in the entire saga – on a technical if not emotional level – though looking back at the pod race, I can’t help but think that particular scene is overrated (every shot is from the right, often panning right to left as it follows the pods, and as a viewer the scene quickly becomes bland when you realise that).

As fun as they are, what these well executed set-pieces highlight is how poorly paced the rest of the film is. Watching it now feels like a grind before Darth Maul’s appearance, as his appearance signifies something’s going to happen soon; his first fight with Qui-Gon is pretty damn thrilling, though far too brief. It does leave you wanting more, but honestly, if the second lightsaber fight towards the end wasn’t there to look forward to, it’d be somewhat of a struggle to keep watching all the way through on repeat viewings.

Almost every scene is filled with exposition, and not the exciting kind. When we first see the Jedi council on Coruscant, over an hour into the film, we discover their main purpose is to sit in a circle and talk. They discuss Anakin Skywalker and the return of the Sith in a calm, collected manner.

There’s no urgency in any of these performances, and I think that can be attributed more to the director than his actors. You get a strong sense that they’re all following a tightly laid out process, with little room for improvisation or manoeuvre. Lucas knew exactly what he wanted to achieve on paper and everyone followed it almost too rigidly in practice. Ewan McGregor, though reaction to his casting as Obi-Wan is mixed overall, is one of the few actors in the movie to show some much-needed urgency in his performance towards the end.

Then, of course, we have Jake Lloyd as a young Anakin, who perhaps would have become known as the most irritating aspect of this movie if not for Jar Jar taking the spotlight. This is the ‘boy who will become Darth Vader’, whose origin story was among the main attractions of these prequel films. The biggest criticism of his performance is, again, attributable to the dialogue fed to him by his director – dialogue which simply doesn’t fit. No normal nine year old boy would talk like that.

Furthermore, seeing a nine year old Anakin leaving his life as a slave on Tatooine to become a Jedi creates a slight continuity issue (I say ‘slight’ because there are bigger ones to be found elsewhere in this prequel trilogy). In the original Star Wars, both Luke’s uncle and an older Obi-Wan speak of his father as if he was a young rogue-like man who followed Obi-Wan off on a journey to the stars. His uncle never approved of this way of life, feeling Luke’s father should perhaps have stayed and helped out on the farm. There was never any mention of him being a slave.

In The Phantom Menace, we get little indication from his portrayal that Anakin is set to become a villainous tyrant in the future, aside from what Master Yoda describes as ‘fear of losing his mother’ (which apparently will lead to anger and then to hate); a mother who he has had no problem leaving behind to start training as a Jedi on the other side of the galaxy. This fear never comes across from Anakin himself and we once again have to rely on being told rather than shown what is supposed to be a vital element of his character.

Also, having spent his childhood as a slave on a desert planet, a far more humbling upbringing than the privileged, detached surroundings of the Jedi temple, one would think Anakin is in a better position to become a thoughtful, kind, understanding Jedi than most?

But let’s say it’s true – that Anakin is at risk of ‘turning to the dark side’ due to his inner fears. Are we to believe then, that the Jedi do not have some sort of counselling service to help their younger members deal with such issues? That a Jedi counsel full of wise sages, one of whom has 900 years experience, couldn’t come up with ideas for combating an issue that they themselves acknowledge could eventually lead to evil?

And then, that the Jedi would just approve his training anyway at the end of the film (presumably because the plot needed to move forward), having seen firsthand the dangerous untapped emotions in him? Their policy of simply avoiding the issue is a terrible example to set.

This whole situation was nonsensical, and it is indicative of a plot driven by the fixed destination George Lucas saw ahead of him, rather than organically developing in its own right. Numerous parts of this film don’t make narrative sense (and its sequels would be worse when it comes to this kind of thing) unless you come to it knowing yourself where it’s heading and therefore justifying it in the same way Lucas must have done when he was writing it.

Now, here’s the thing; for all the criticisms I’ve thrown at this film, I don’t hate it. I don’t even consider it ‘bad’ overall. Part of me still looks forward to watching it even today. My reasons for this are slightly unconventional.

First, I kind of like that The Phantom Menace inverted certain rules that most other mainstream films follow. For example, there is no real central protagonist in this movie. And the Jedi, the perceived good guys, are vastly overpowered compared to their flimsy adversaries – at least until they come up against Darth Maul.

Speaking of which, the Sith are the underdogs in this trilogy. The roles we saw in the original films, in which the Rebel Alliance was up against the oppressive, unstoppable Galactic Empire, are here reversed: the Jedi knights and the Republic are the major force in the galaxy, and it is the Sith planning to overthrow them.

Second, I must admit to actually (almost) enjoying the political backdrop against which this film is set. In large part this can be attributed to Ian McDiarmid, who played Palpatine. Even at my young age when I first watched this movie he quickly became my favourite actor, based on his performances in The Phantom Menace and its two sequels. Also, on that first viewing – and even up until I saw Attack of the Clones – I didn’t connect the dots that this guy was the same evil Emperor from Return of the Jedi. This part of the plot, with Palpatine’s subtle manipulations in the political background, I thought was executed well, though much of that rested on McDiarmid’s capable shoulders (undoubtedly the best performance in the film). People can say the focus on politics was boring – but I think that was the entire point from the perspective of a Sith.

That awkward dialogue, the terrible pacing… these things contribute to what I’d say is essentially one of the most unconventional mainstream films ever released. For all of the criticisms you could justifiably throw at George Lucas, his outright boldness in making this film the way he did is something one can almost respect – at least until you remember… Jar Jar was the key to all this.

5 / 10

Crimson Peak.

Crimson Peak pic 1 - Mia.

Guillermo del Toro is arguably the greatest visionary director working in Hollywood today – and Crimson Peak shows his talents at their visually vibrant best.

It should go almost without saying that from a production and costume design standpoint, del Toro’s latest ‘Gothic horror-romance’ delivers in signature fashion. The film is gorgeous in the typically dark, eccentric kind of way one expects from del Toro, and the team working with him on this movie – including composer Fernando Velazquez and Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen – play vital roles in bringing his vision for Crimson Peak to life.

Laustsen’s cinematography was easily the best thing about the 2006 Silent Hill movie; a video game series in which del Toro himself was briefly involved alongside Hideo Kojima with the false dawn that was the failed Silent Hills project. Others who were fortunate enough to sample the PT demo that remains the only evidence of what the director could have achieved with that title, will similarly pine for it as I did at certain points while watching Crimson Peak. This film features a lot of ‘encountering strange things in corridors’, and one scene in particular has Mia Wasikowska’s character Edith approaching a partially open door before it’s slammed shut by something on the other side. Sound familiar?

Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) is the young woman around whom this film’s narrative revolves, though she is not its most interesting character nor is Wasikowska given much to work with in terms of character development – her most taxing moments being reactions to the events happening around her. Tom Hiddleston on the other hand, provides a much more intriguing character and performance in his role as the charming, shady English aristocrat Sir Thomas Sharpe.

Tom Hiddleston delivers what is undoubtedly the movie's most intriguing performance.

Tom Hiddleston delivers what is undoubtedly the movie’s most intriguing performance.

Sharpe’s overall character arc is by far the most interesting in the movie and is perhaps the strongest element of the film’s script, in contrast to his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) who ultimately appears no more than a villainous caricature. Hiddleston’s performance, one of the best I’ve seen from him, makes you feel suspicious, curious and even sympathetic towards his character, and not necessarily in that order.

The story begins with Sir Thomas Sharpe visiting Edith’s father and his business associates, to whom he presents a pitch for his clay mining invention as he seeks valuable investors. Though his proposal is rejected, he and Edith become romantically involved, and Edith soon finds herself visiting the dilapidated old mansion where Sharpe and his sister live. This takes place in a world where ghosts, it seems, are commonplace, and Edith has always been able to see them (though it’s left unclear whether anyone else can). Her harrowing – albeit harmless – encounters with spirits at the Sharpe’s old house make her begin to question the underlying intentions of her newfound romantic interest and his family history…

To be honest, Crimson Peak’s plot is not its strongest attribute, nor is its execution, at least until the exhilarating final 20 minutes. Up until that point, those moments that I touch on above – when Edith encounters strange happenings in the mansion’s corridors – appear simultaneously entertaining as spectacle and lacking in any sort of narrative substance.

The film, despite appearances, isn’t truly a horror movie and part of me feels like it would have been better placed to fully go that route rather than the Gothic semi-love story that it ends up being. Those ghosts are not there as a main attraction; rather they’re present for effect, as a side note to the main attraction. And any time the movie does try to become frightening, it does so by utilising those dreaded jump scares that too many American horror movies fall back on.

Ironically, although Crimson Peak made me pine for what Silent Hills could have been, the main thing it lacks is what the PT demo had in abundance: atmosphere. This film has some nice effects and looks beautiful, no disputing that, but it all feels so surface-level. There’s a severe shortage of subtle undertones or metaphorical storytelling – major plot points are basically spoon fed to the audience.

Visually this film is stunning, and for many people that will be enough to make it a satisfying experience.

Visually this film is stunning, and for many people that alone would be enough to make it a satisfying experience.

I was left feeling slightly underwhelmed by Crimson Peak in the end – which is not to say there wasn’t parts of it I very much liked, of course. Part of me just really wanted to like it even more; to name it as a clear ‘film of the year’ contender perhaps… but ultimately the film fell just short of that for me. While I definitely see it as a strong contender to win two or three Oscars next year, it didn’t truly resonate on an emotional level quite as much as I had hoped.

8 / 10

Insidious Chapter 3.

Insidious 3 pic 1.

This third instalment of the Insidious series is an interesting film. It is not bad… granted it isn’t particularly original either, though if you haven’t recently seen films such as Jacob’s Ladder (a slight reference to which you can see in the above image) and The Exorcist, then you may find yourself thinking it is actually a pretty good modern horror movie.

I went in with no other expectation than to be greeted with a sequence of needless jump scares and helpless screaming girls, yet, as was the case with both Fast & Furious 7 and Mad Max: Fury Road, I came out feeling that those initial lowly expectations had at least been surpassed.

There is a scene in the film in which I can clearly recall this thought process happening, too. It is when Elise Reiner, played by Lin Shaye in what is the movie’s most accomplished performance, talks about the death of her late husband. She speaks of him having suffered depression and committing suicide, and the scene is handled with such grace that I found myself somewhat taken aback, perhaps even a little sentimental, while thinking “wait… what? This is supposed to be a generic horror movie I’m watching, right?”

Yes, that is what it was supposed to be, and for most of the film it plays that part fairly well. But it is not only that, as the scene I have just mentioned kickstarted a satisfying and heartfelt story arc for the character of Elise. Though she has appeared in the previous two Insidious films, this instalment is very much her story.

It is a shame, however, that the other characters’ stories aren’t quite given similar care and attention. Even Quinn (Stefanie Scott), the films other ‘main’ character who becomes a victim of the latest haunting, does not come across as entirely genuine despite the premise of her trying to reconnect with her dead mother. A potential relationship with the typical ‘cute boy next door’ is an idea dropped once it has served its purpose of leading to a jump scare early on – you know, that one you’ve probably seen in the trailer.

Dermot Mulroney, who plays her father, does not have much to do aside from a few key references to his dead wife – otherwise he spends most of the movie running around after his daughter, looking flustered. It all builds to a rather predictable climax with the film’s antagonist spirit, encounters with whom admittedly make for some decent atmospheric scenes, but in the end is easily defeated by… well, ‘sentiment’ is the simplest way to describe it.

The creepiest moments owe a debt to the two classic horror movies I have mentioned above, which isn’t to say they’re not executed well; only that we’ve seen this kind of thing before. There are otherwise some nice effects that build up the atmosphere early on – in particular Quinn’s early encounters with the ‘demon’, who waves at her from a distance.

For a few brief moments, the film somehow makes the simple action of ‘waving at someone’ creepy in the same fashion that It Follows did for ‘walking towards someone’. The crucial difference between the two horror films is that the latter was built on this unique premise; whereas here it is the exception in a film of many bad habits.

That’s this movie’s main problem: it feels unbalanced, in its writing and its execution. You get the feeling there are some scenes about which director Leigh Whannell (in what is his directorial debut) feels more passionate, while at other times he’s going through the motions of what should be in a typical horror film. I’d like to see what he can do with freer reins than he’s clearly had here, as there are some pleasantly surprising and worthwhile moments in Insidious Chapter 3. Unfortunately they’re just a little too few and far between.

6 / 10

Religious art pic 2.

If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway…” – Stephen King

I’m not here to talk about religious paintings. Or maybe in a way, I kind of am.

Let me preface this by highlighting that there are a lot of people who, given the opportunity, would like to control the lives of others. It is not a character trait limited just to the stereotypical dictators throughout history. Many crave it, others are rightly wary of it; that feeling of some kind of authority over another person, though one may justify it with righteous thoughts related to “only looking out for your own good” because they care about you so much.

We fear to lose that which we love – and often try to protect against this fear by controlling the object of it. You can likely recall such occasions in the past when you were on the receiving end of this kind of thing and, depending on what kind of person you are, you would probably have reacted in one of three ways: by submitting, rebelling or simply not caring.

Within Christianity, as within any religion, indeed within any group or commonly held worldview, there can be found these individuals who were first attracted to it because some part of them enjoys the social organisation it gives – and the subsequent opportunity for control over others that it can offer. Indeed it is often an inherent desire to have some outside force controlling their own lives, with the perceived comfort and security that comes with it, which first makes one open and willing to accept any religious claims at all.

This, I think, is why many prominent Christians (rather like North Korea and other dictatorships throughout history) fear art specifically, though they may not openly admit or even be aware of it. Of course, art that tells them they’re right about everything is usually fine. But the problem is, most of it tends not to play by such rules – and if it does, certainly doesn’t rule out breaking them.

Anything that hints, however subtly, that they or any part of their worldview may be wrong, often ultimately represents the enemy. Precisely because it dares to suggest, and present differing ideas; introduces concepts or reinvents old ones; holds the capacity to help people think clearly about things that may have been previously clouded in their minds, and then decide for themselves.

If one is secure in their beliefs, which can of course (and unfortunately) include some of the most extreme forms of dogma, there is little chance their minds will be changed by alternative viewpoints, nor am I necessarily saying they should be so easily swayed – but what I am referring to is more those who cannot accept or understand alternative viewpoints at all, and become offended just because other people dare to think differently from them. From here, their desire for control over others may become more apparent, as they look to mould everything around them to fit their own point of view.

Art is, indeed, a battleground for the free-thinking mind. And as one of those people who enjoys seeing ignorance squirm, raising its voice when confronted by an idea it can’t yet comprehend; who sighs in exasperation at those who gleefully declare they’ve won an argument only because their worn-out adversary walks away from it, I see art as vital to our cultural progression in whatever form it takes.

I say our knowing that many Christians will use the ‘in the world, but not of the world’ excuse to get out of paying any real attention to what secular art might have to teach them. Most art is, after all, full of sin – that includes ALL of it, not just whatever isn’t to your taste. You may think the old Western ‘cowboys and indians’ stories, in which indigenous native Americans were portrayed as frightening animals ripe for slaughter by the heroic white men who invaded their land, were somehow less sinful than wild rampant sex scenes and excessive swearing?

No; the difference between the two (aside from obvious genre/ narrative conventions) is mainly that the latter is under no illusion about itself and isn’t afraid of being so blatant about it. In fact if I had to choose which I have usually found to be more artistically tasteful, there is little question for me: it would be the latter, though this kind of thing should of course be judged on a case by case basis.

If art’s intention is to do anything, regardless of whatever beliefs or worldview may lie behind the eyes of its artist, it is to reflect our perception of the world around us. It is, in its purest form, an interpretation of life. This can be its greatest strength – for that reason, I’d consider it inherently dishonest were it not full of this thing Christians call ‘sin’ in some sense (allowing, of course, for appropriate exceptions – though even within some of the most wholesome children’s stories there can be found dodgy themes lurking beneath light-hearted exteriors). Art reflects this earthly reality in different forms, whether for you to get offended over or mindlessly enjoy, and it’s not really for me to decide which of those categories you fall into when you consume it.

Yes, it is a minefield out there, but it’s a glorious one of self-discovery as you find out where your own strengths and weaknesses lie as it pertains to personal taste. That is something only YOU can discover, no matter how much others may try to force something down your throat, or say you’re a bad person simply because of an opinion that’s different from their own. Though many of us would admit; you can’t really have what you like without also having to deal at some point with what you don’t. Because art, like anything created, is based on and reflects the individual tastes of the artist who creates it – for as many who have the same taste as you, there will be many others who do not.

Apologists for art, one of which you may consider me to be after all this, are known for saying it should be provocative. I think it certainly should be, but the only thing provocation really means is to instigate an emotional reaction. Often this reaction is positive – laughter, love, empathy. But it can also be very offensive. In fact it is arguably when art is at its most offensive that we can actually learn much from what it’s trying to communicate. Offensive material stands out and catches our attention – you must give it that, if nothing else. Whether it does that simply for the sake of it (which it has every right to do, if one so wishes), or to make a greater point is, of course, a different kind of debate.

Recently I was fortunate enough to attend the UK premiere of an Irish film, Patrick’s Day, in which the director stood up beforehand and said something to the effect of “I hope you enjoy my f**king film… if not, Spongebob is showing in the next screen.” The comparison could not be more fitting – Spongebob, a light-hearted children’s movie not likely to cause any real offence, and Patrick’s Day, a film about a 26 year old schizophrenic man who’s spent his whole life under the care of his over-protective mother before falling in love with an older woman bearing secret suicidal tendencies. One of these films left its audience with much to consider about a subject they may have been ignorant of beforehand… the other, was nothing more than silly entertainment that I question is really worth anyone’s precious time or money. What kind of person you are will likely define which represents which for you.

This, I think, was precisely the director’s point. Those who did not enjoy Patrick’s Day, perhaps due to the uncomfortable way it made them feel, are likely the kind of people who prefer a light-hearted, easy going film such as Spongebob. Also, by freely swearing in an environment otherwise considered ‘polite’, he sent a message to the audience that if they were easily offended, they should probably brace themselves for more to come.

It told me: here was a filmmaker who was not afraid of making a film that would confront and openly challenge its viewers – and you know what? Considering its main theme was mental health, one of the few topics still broadly misunderstood and brushed under the carpet by many in today’s society, I was delighted by this man’s sheer audacity.

After all, mental illness is far from polite. It can be rude, obnoxious, hurtful and even dangerous. These are just some of the reasons many people are uncomfortable approaching the topic. Often, whichever side of the ‘carer/ cared for’ divide one falls on (Patrick’s Day portrayed both perspectives in an impressively honest and heartfelt way), these are things to which you must become accustomed. Mental illness is a killer of polite conversation if ever there was one.

I felt towards Patrick’s Day the same way I feel about films in general – that they are vital for helping us understand more about others and ourselves, useful for exploring certain subjects that are harder to tackle in everyday conversation, and can be a vehicle for communicating the perceived faults of others (or indeed, ourselves) without having to bluntly say it to one’s face.

So what does any of this have to do with Christianity? An interesting question; one you might pose as if ‘Christianity’ is somehow separate from everything I’ve been talking about thus far. As if it is some tangible thing one can grasp in their left hand, while films and other forms of art are grasped in their right – rather like the divide between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’.

But of course many circles in contemporary liberal Christianity would scoff at the thought of being considered ‘religious’. We don’t follow religion, they say, we follow Christ. And I certainly see the merit in that sentiment – no one is ever truly happy being compartmentalised by those who casually judge from the outside looking in – yet many of them risk becoming hypocrites. They readily categorise other aspects of everyday life into stereotypical boxes, while scorning the idea that their beliefs should be confined to the umbrella term of ‘religion’, without realising these tendencies are pretty much the same thing.

Films, for them, might become the immoral cause of rising violence and premarital sex because of the images they portray. Video games are senseless entertainment for teenage boys. Even religion itself, the thing they find so frustrating to be associated with, is seen as a caricature: some emotionless system of rules and misguided authority, those within it hopelessly deceived – when the truth is that every ‘religion’, while sharing certain similarities, has unique qualities that mean it’s probably just as big an injustice to broadly label them as such.

My point, though, is that in acknowledging the act of ‘following Christ’ as more than a simple religious act in the traditional sense, you would presumably be ready to accept that this equally broad term I’ve been using called ‘art’ is not so easily classified either. Furthermore, these two things are not actually so separate at all. There is no real divide, aside from that which people like to create themselves.

One might say Christ is sovereign; in that case, all of this falls under Him. You might well see him reflected in everything you watch, read, play, or any other activity you enjoy partaking in – even despite of everything else you see there that is considered ‘sinful’. You would only be following His example; when Christ looks at you, does he not see something worth loving despite the sinfulness of it?

Art can make you question what you believe, and why you believe it. In that sense, some think it dangerous. Why do you follow a religion or God? Why do you not? What do you support with your money? Who or what inspires you? These are the questions to which answers help contextualise one’s life, and I think they are personal answers everyone should know. Think about why you know those answers; what led you to them? Be prepared for new information that might make you think twice. This is the kind of thing art has taught me, though with all of it, as with everything else, I take a pinch of salt.

Storytelling through art, whether in the form of a painting, a piece of literature, film or however else you define it, has the capacity to communicate ideas, beliefs and/ or concepts better than simple words could. It can help us deal with things otherwise left unspoken, communicating them in creative and interesting ways. You may like the way some do it; others you might detest with a passion. And that’s all fine.

I myself can think of numerous examples when I have felt both ways about certain storytellers (and I use the term very loosely in some upcoming cases) who – in sticking with our theme – have presented their Christian beliefs through art. Thankfully, if the reception and wider impact of their work has shown anything, it is that good quality always rises to the top, regardless of the worldview held by its makers.

On one side, you have films like Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, which had a ‘resounding’ victory at the Golden Raspberry Awards earlier this year. This followed other overtly Christian films such as Heaven is for Real and God’s Not Dead from 2014, the latter of which was deservedly panned critically and came across as nothing more than a naive propaganda piece to the average discerning eye.

Kirk Cameron’s subsequent reaction to the negative reception that greeted his film – calling those who disliked it ‘haters’ and ‘atheists’ – showed that the man had no interest in whether or not his movie was actually any good by reasonable objective standards. Rather he wanted to see his own set of values promoted through any means necessary, with anyone who dared not like his style degraded for not agreeing with him.

This situation prompted some thoughts within myself at the time related to these questions: what should a good ‘Christian’ film, or any other Christian work of art for that matter, actually look like? Is a film like Saving Christmas, only liked by those who feel a strong sense of loyalty toward its clear intentions, the best you can hope for or expect as it pertains to conveying a specific Christian message? Is that message even necessary to put the Christian ‘spin’ on something? Are Christians going to learn at some point that to criticize something does not mean you’re working for the devil? Otherwise how would we feel free to judge the difference between good and bad quality at all within Christian art/ media, if to say something’s bad is only going to garner derision and accusations from your peers?

Well, those are questions to be thoughtfully considered and hopefully answered another time. On the other hand, there are many positive examples of Christian art that has found mainstream success. In fact one of the greatest fantasy tales of modern times, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, was bedded in Christian beliefs, from its characters to its mythology. Ironically though it is one many Christians would be wary of, for its elements of witchcraft, sorcery and of course the fact that it is ‘fantasy’ in the first place, therefore demanding a fair suspension of disbelief if one is to find their own meaning and enjoyment in the story. This accessible nature – not to mention Tolkien’s legendary attention to detail – was a large reason the tale found such mainstream success.

Of course I cannot talk about Tolkien without also mentioning one of my other favourite writers, C.S. Lewis, who felt Christianity was a means by which to see the world more clearly, rather than an excuse to remain ignorant of it. A filter, if you will, through which you can view not only the real world, but also fantasy and myth, which were particular interests of Lewis during his academic career alongside Tolkien at Oxford.

To Lewis, Christianity did not negate the importance of diverse storytelling; rather, it illuminated and enhanced the need for it. As the sun shines light on the physical world around us, so Christianity can shine light on our creativity and imagination in a way that helps us better contextualize and understand the things it produces. And likewise, how this creativity comes through in filmmaking, even if we should disagree on the finer details of how it is used in the end, is glorious. I daresay Lewis would have agreed, if he had shared the same passion for movies that he had for literature (the two are, after all, of the same extended family).

Writers like Lewis and Tolkien represented a more refreshing approach to Christianity in storytelling than the otherwise drab options available today. They both felt stories, fantasy in particular, and by extension the world around them as they understood it, didn’t have to be restricted or dictated by their beliefs, but rather set free by them. They took unique approaches, but Christian elements can be clearly seen in both of the respective classic stories these writers are most famous for.

Not that I’m saying we should just go backwards and copy what’s already been done in the past. For the pure sake of originality, I’d love to see new ideas emerge and different styles embraced. Some themes have been played out across all art over many centuries (I swear if I hear one more Hollywood trailer talk about someone being ‘the one’ to save us all in their perpetual regurgitation of cardboard cut-out Christ figures…) – to try something different would, in artistic terms, restore some respectability to how Christianity is viewed in the public eye.

So no, I’m not here to talk about religious paintings. In fact what I’ve written on this topic thus far probably comes across as a rambling selection of thoughts better suited to a book where they’d presumably be fleshed out in a more structured and detailed fashion. Perhaps I will do that. For now I’m happy just to leave it here, and hopefully, just maybe, it will have encouraged you, should you have taken the time to read through it, to come with your own considered conclusions.

Usual Suspects pic 1.

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled, was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

Growing up in the 1990s I realise I may be a little biased, but I consider that decade one of the strongest for American cinema. The Usual Suspects was, for me, the peak of this time. Best known for the two things for which it justifiably won two Academy Awards – those being Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor – the story is told in flashbacks as Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), the sole survivor of a freighter explosion, is interrogated by police.

Enter the name Keyser Soze, not only within the film’s narrative but into the world of pop culture in general; a mysterious crime lord whom few people have ever seen. Those who’ve heard of him speak his name in fear. Even those who don’t believe he exists greet any suggestion of his involvement with trepidation and wariness. Such is his mythical presence and power, whether based on actual fact or not.

Of course the film’s famous final scene is what throws everything up in the air. It is revealed that Kint himself was an untrustworthy narrator; most of the story (or perhaps all of it) seemingly his fabrication, mixed with just enough necessary facts to be convincing. We really have no way of knowing how much of his story is true; but it is the only version we see.

It is Kint who tells the story of Keyser Soze, using the quote above when describing him. In the end, my reading of the situation is that it’s a double bluff; Soze is Verbal Kint’s creation, rather than the other way around, and the idea of the character becomes, arguably like the devil himself, a myth. The devil’s greatest trick may indeed have been convincing the world he didn’t exist, but more impressive is he who creates a convincing devil in the first place.

Pulp Fiction pic 1.

‘What’ ain’t no country I ever heard of. Do they speak English in ‘what’?”

Dialogue drives any Tarantino movie. Hilarious, fast-paced dialogue that prefers to flesh out its characters over driving some high-minded plot forward; creating an experience that feels more organic than the typical ‘sacrifice whatever doesn’t advance the storyline’ attitude prevalent in most screenwriting classes. Tarantino, of course, never had a formal ‘film school’ education anyway, instead working in a video rental store until finding his big break with 1992’s exhilarating Reservoir Dogs. It was in this unconventional setting that he found his own self-taught style through first watching lots of movies; becoming a typical film buff who eventually realised his dream of making them.

This love and enthusiasm for his profession shines through in each one of his films, not least his exceptional early work. Pulp Fiction is, for many, still considered to be his peak. A non-linear narrative following characters that are only tenuously linked to each other, through conversations and scenarios the detail of which would be seen as unnecessary in other mainstream movie scripts – this is the foundation on which Pulp Fiction’s success was built, and it is one not so easily replicated as some would like to think.

I would assume there are few reading this who have not seen the film. Certainly I don’t recall recently speaking to anyone who had not, and to recap the interweaving story lines here, each one as eventful and entertaining as the other, would take up more time than I am currently willing to give. Pulp Fiction, despite being mostly famous for its script, is a movie more effective on screen than in being described off it. How can one, for example, write any of Jules’ lines with half as much impact as Samuel L. Jackson delivers them? So I would strongly advise you seek the film out and add it to your DVD or Blu-ray collection, if you have not already.

Frustration from some of the more snobbish in the industry towards the effect that Pulp Fiction and other Tarantino movies have had is understandable, if not something I agree with. After all, there have been many who saw Tarantino’s story of ‘rags to riches’, the filmmaking version of the American dream, and therefore took it to be an easier path, when in actuality, the route through school is usually a much stronger guarantee of knowledge and success. Tarantino is, if you like, something of a freak of nature in this sense. The amount of wannabes that have tried and failed to emulate his style shows that his success was no simple fluke of circumstance – he has proved, in many ways, to be a talented exception rather than the new rule, and there have been few others like him in cinema history.