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The Second Plague

I happened to come across a pond full of sunbathing frogs (quite fitting as I have been celebrating Passover), and I knew I couldn’t miss the opportunity to take photos of them. I was determined to get as close as possible without them springing into the water out of fear. So I became the Stealthy Amphibian Paparazzi for a few minutes: lying on a bridge and sticking my arm out of the fencing (praying I wouldn’t drop my camera), crouching in the soil with ants crawling into my espadrilles, sneaking through the bushes whilst swatting away hormonal wasps… All that effort for a couple of snaps*, but I just think it’s the coolest thing to see interesting creatures up close and personal.

*Please click on the photos to view them on a larger scale so that you can see the detail on their skin!

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Flora Into Focus

Another nature-inspired photography expedition! I’ve been exploring more of my camera’s settings recently, and in this collection of photos, you’ll notice that I’ve tried to capture (parts of) plants in the foreground, while the backgrounds remain abstract and out of focus. I wanted to highlight the subjects by making them sharper, to stand out from the general foliage. I’m no expert in composition, but I’m satisfied that these comply with the criteria I’d set out to investigate on my travels. These images were taken abroad (though I did wish we grew birds of paradise in our back garden) which is why some of the flora looks quite exotic. To you, they may be ordinary photos of plants, but right now I’m just continuing to experiment with my camera, and trying to be artistic…

Under The Skin

Film Review: Under The Skin

It’s weird because I don’t have a lot to say about this film. I’m still trying to figure out whether I liked it or not. I don’t know if it’s the kind of film you’re supposed to enjoy, or simply appreciate.

 Sound:

Under The Skin is an arty film, that’s for sure; stylistically, there are plenty of valuable attributes. A key element is silence. There is hardly any dialogue at all, and what we do hear are the vague mumbles from Glaswegians passing by, and the seductive undertones of the alien’s humanoid voice.

The rest of the background noise is from the alien’s surroundings as she explores Glasgow: the laughter and chatter of the people, the crashing waves against the shore, the hooting vehicles on the crowded roads… When I came home from the cinema, I noticed how alone I was, and every sound I created made me feel like I was in my own silent film. I suddenly became very aware of my actions, and although it gave me a sense of peace and perhaps mindfulness, I could only think back to the disturbing film I had just watched.

The music is minimal, but makes a big impact on the atmosphere conveyed. I only picked up on two pieces of music. One consists of a steady gong-like pattern, which is used when the alien lures naked men into her black, viscous void. It mirrors the slow, even paces of the characters, and yet your heartbeat can’t help but exceed the tempo as you anticipate the victims’ fate. The second piece of music is composed of scratchy violin sounds. The high-pitched, short, sharp sounds have the effect of your spine tingling and your head spinning simultaneously. So, so creepy.

 Light:

The contrast of light and darkness is evidently an extremely important component of this film.

  • Right at the start, you are left to watch a blinding white pinpoint of light race towards you through a black vacuum, accompanied by the ‘scratchy violin music’.
  • The second scene involves the alien undressing a dead woman and taking the clothes for herself. This takes place in an illuminated, endless-looking white space, and the two women are just black silhouettes against the backdrop.
  • The ‘viscous void’ I refer to is inky black and ominous, framed by a black studio-like room. Light is only shone on the naked bodies, to separate them from their surroundings, and it is unclear where the light is coming from.
  • Most of the film is set in dark places. The brightest parts are at the beginning, in the scene mentioned above, and at the end, when there is snow falling from a milky sky. This brings about a sense of wonder, in my opinion.
  • The alien’s eyes are dark. There is some fixation on her eyes, and I couldn’t quite work out what the meaning of it was. I just know that the darkness of the pupils has some relevance and symbolism that shouldn’t be ignored.

 Horror:

This is not some typical sci-fi film where an alien race invades Earth and tries to take over the planet. This is about one alien’s (ambiguous) mission, and it is very profound. I have to describe the intense moments, not because I want to give away spoilers but because I just can’t get these moments out of my head. They are more than unsettling images. It’s not to do with nudity or stranger danger; it’s the Under The Skin part!

I can’t tell you how much the body deflation under the ‘viscous void’ freaked me out. Watching the men’s bodies shrivel up into thin, hollow, latex sacks was enough to make me feel sick. When the insides of the bodies were churned down some kind of sewage shoot, with the ‘scratchy violin music’ dubbed over it, I couldn’t help but squirm in my seat. I had to hold in my tummy to make sure that everything stayed where it was (it’s a psychological thing that I fear bodily harm from fiction could occur to me at any given moment).

The other instance I want to talk about was the final scene. So the alien is being raped; the man is disgusted by her and flees; she stands up to reveal black patches on her back; she kneels down and peels off her head, as well as at least half of her abdomen; she exposes the black, anorexic creature that she is inside Scarlett Johansson’s skin and holds her human head in her hands; the man comes back and pours paraffin over her before setting her alight; she runs helplessly out of the forest and into a snowy field, and is left to burn; fire consumes her and a thick, black smoke rises into the pure white sky; and that’s how the film ends. I mean, firstly: WHAT?! What did I just watch? The alien is left to burn into an inter-galactic ash. I don’t understand the director’s message here. Are we supposed to learn something about consequences of interfering with others’ lives, maybe, or about how some tasks are just impossible? Someone help me out here, because I’m really dumb-founded.

 ***

I am completely weirded out by this film and do not necessarily recommend it, however artistic and intense it is. My friend and I can’t stop thinking about Under The Skin, and it leaves a very uneasy feeling in my gut. To be honest, I watched the trailer and did some research beforehand, and I knew just as much going into the film as I did when I came out afterwards.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Film Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

At the weekend, I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel at the cinema. Having watched the trailer a few times, I was very intrigued about the plot. It appeared to be a comic murder-mystery set in a pink hotel, with an unsuspecting lobby boy as a conspirator. That’s not exactly something you hear about every day! To be honest, the main reason I wanted to see this film was because I knew that Saoirse Ronan had a part in it, and she is one of my favourite actresses (I particularly admire her former roles in Hanna, The Host and How I Live Now). I have been meaning to start reviewing the films that I see, as I have been almost every weekend, without fail, for the past few months, and have always picked up on interesting things that I want to share. I feel that this film is a good place to start, as there are certain things that make it different to anything I’ve ever seen. Although I like writing, articles and reviews are not things I’ve had much experience creating. I hope that as I review more films, my style will take form, and I will improve my technique. For now, I will take a very casual approach, and just spill whatever’s on my mind. So here are my thoughts on particular aspects of The Grand Budapest Hotel

Characters:

The main character is Monsieur Gustave H. Gustave has one of those typical posh, British accents that is charming and alluring. He is calm and collected in almost every situation, no matter how diabolical, and asserts his authority all the way through the story. He is admirable, intelligent and brave, nonchalant, flirtatious and suave. But most of all, he is unexpectedly sensitive, often reciting poetry at the most inconvenient moments, or using his impeccable manners whilst serving ‘mush’ to some rather brutal-looking crooks in prison. There are so many character traits that make him a fascinating subject throughout the film, and he is definitely a likeable protagonist, whom one can respect greatly for his vitality.

Zero is Gustave’s apprentice, who starts working at the hotel as a lobby boy. At first, he starts off quite submissive and obliging, but you can really see his growth and character development. By the end of the film, he is the one to help Gustave with his escape plan (Gustave shows his appreciation in a very over-the-top manner, complete, of course, with a poetry recital…), he gets married to Agatha (Saoirse Ronan’s character) and he reprimands the new lobby boy (who is presumably hired in his absence). I really loved how this unpretentious boy matured into a real man, and how he helped to move the story along with his own sub-plot and comic persona. He was able to make his own decisions and have an influence on those around him. Despite his namesake, the list of ‘zeros’ at the start begins to pad out as he experiences more on his adventures in Lutz.

Agatha is a minor character in relation to the whole story, but she is a useful tool in plot development. The cast was predominantly composed of male actors, so this delightful (yet cunning) character was like a breath of fresh air. I was moved by Agatha’s response to Zero – I could tell how much she loved him just from the adoration in her eyes. As a side note, it was lovely that Saoirse was able to use her own accent in the film. I find her natural voice so sweet and soothing; I think this added to her character, even though the Irish accent felt a little out of place juxtaposed with the German, French, British and American accents.

I won’t go into much detail about the other characters, but I would like to point out that the villains were truly portrayed as evil antagonists. The black-clad figures were ominous with their metal rings and leather jackets and monstrous motorcycles… I remember one scene where the main villain is at the doorstep of a poor woman’s house and his eyes are barely visible – they’re just consumed in shadows. The lighting really did play an important part in defining him, wherever he was, and I noticed how eerily he appeared and disappeared. Another sinister character is the brother of the woman who is murdered. The reason I mention him is because there’s a particular moment I remember where he is chasing Agatha through the hotel, and the music is just perfect. As the man strides angrily towards her, his motivations, facial expression, general appearance, and emotions are wrapped up so completely by the music that accompanies the sequence. I enjoyed (and feared) that part, simply because the menacing music couldn’t have matched the character any better.

 Music:

Having mentioned the music briefly, I would like to add a few more comments. My favourite musical moment was when Gustave and Zero were in a monastery, and were told to sing along with the other monks as they filed into the chapel. The music dubbed over the film at this point was quite racy, and fitted in well with the action. However, the clever part was that the tune the monks were singing in the scene matched the music that was dubbed over. So although they were independent of each other, they happened to fit together beautifully, and the fact that the monks were humming/singing/“ahh”ing the perfect notes to the film score made the sequence all the more exciting! It’s quite hard to explain exactly what I’m talking about, but I hope my point is sort of getting put across.

Most of the music for the rest of the film was of a particular style, appropriate for the setting, in my opinion. It was what I imagined the traditional folk music of Lutz to sound like. All in all, it worked well, and added to the schema of the imaginary setting.

Cohesion:

The structure of the film was quite interesting. It starts off with a young woman placing a key on a statue, as if paying her respect to the bust. She sits on a bench next to the statue, and opens a book, called ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’. Then we skip to a scene where the hotel manager asks the owner about how he came to own the hotel in the first place. From this point, the different sections of the film are introduced with chapter title screens, and so essentially it is a story within a story within a story. At the end of the core story, the owner finishes narrating the story, and the film finishes with the girl on the bench closing the book. So there is a clear, almost symmetrical structure, and a strong sense of cohesion. I think this added to the story-telling factor of the film, and I liked how this was executed on screen.

 Setting:

Lutz is a fictional European place, with a mixture of French and German-speaking natives. There is a very traditional feel to the setting: everything from the clothes of the characters to the style of the buildings. To me, Lutz felt completely real, and I believed in everything about it. Whoever created this place is a genius!

What I noticed about the setting was the fine use of purpose-made sets and backdrops. Some of the animation (eg. the cable car lift going up to the hotel) was animated, some of the backdrops were hand-drawn or computer-aided designs, and some of the rooms (eg. the hotel’s dining room) felt like they were models. I must emphasise that all of this really was subtle, and did not take away from the high quality of production; rather, on the contrary, it added to the world-building and fantastical element of the setting.

Something else that loosely relates to the setting is the careful placing of props. Some of the sets were very simple-looking (eg. in the prison cells), and yet just by adding something a bit out-of-the-ordinary (eg. photos of provocative women stuck on the prison cell walls), the sets could be completely transformed. To me, it felt like whoever designed the sets paid a lot of attention to detail, and this really paid off.

Camera shots:

As I watch more films, I tend to take more notice of how they are being filmed, and how the story is being told through the shots. This film had a very distinct and precise style, which is one of the reasons why it stands out from anything else I’ve ever seen. Every single camera shot had a purpose. Every shot felt necessary. I can’t stress this enough, and it’s one thing that I can really take away from having watched the film. A lot of the shots would focus on a door, for example, just as it was about to be opened by a character; close-ups on faces were less frequent, but helped to gage the character’s raw emotions, for example. One thing I particularly liked was that when characters were on some sort of journey (even just walking from one part of a house to another), you wouldn’t see the whole of it – just snapshots at random points along the journey (eg. just as they are about to go through a door, or are rounding a corner, or are nearing the top of a staircase). It’s as if the director just cut down to absolute minimum footage needed to capture the important moments. And it really works. This is the mechanism that makes the sequences of events so fluid and captivating to watch.

The continuity in the camera shots was very accurate. An example of continuity I can remember is a conversation between Zero (when he’s older) and the hotel manager, in the hotel’s dining room. The shots switch back and forth between their faces, and there’s a daffodil in every shot (in a vase that’s on the table between them), so that you know just how close the characters are, even though they’re not both in the shot simultaneously. This was just one of the techniques that I picked up on whilst watching.

Favourite parts:

Now we move onto my favourite parts of the story. I have to say that the escape sequences were the most thrilling. The fast pace and full-on action was what made these parts exciting. I particularly enjoyed Gustave’s escape from prison with his inmates. Their route meandered perilously through the building, and you didn’t have a clue where they would end up. Another wild-goose-chase type part was when Zero and Gustave were sent on cable cars near the ski resort, to chase after one of the villains. The repetitive series of events built up a lot of suspense and excitement.

I would like to point out that the film was hilarious in some parts, but there were also instances of extreme gore. The violence came at really random points throughout the film, and because of the generally humorous tone, it was totally unexpected. I couldn’t believe it when a man’s fingers were chopped off, or when a woman’s head was pulled out of a basket! The characters were surprisingly brutal! Maybe the shock of such horrors actually made the film more incredulous, and therefore more comedic? I’m not sure, but the extreme contrast of light-heartedness and goriness worked well in an intriguing way.

****

So those are my thoughts and interpretations of The Grand Budapest Hotel. As I have taken so long to write this (not that I counted or it felt like a chore), and seeming as you got to the end (if you’re reading this), it would be lovely to have some kind of response. Did you see the film too or are you planning on seeing it? Do you agree with some of the things I picked up on? Maybe you could do me a favour by re-blogging this or posting a comment. Either way, thanks for reading, and let me know what I should see next!

New Perspective

She perceives the world through the camera lenses that are her golden brown eyes, wishing she could capture these moments and treasure them eternally. Nature sweeps into focus and she grasps these fragile fragments of beauty that surround her.

When did the clouds become so radiant?

When did the leaves sway like shadow puppets on a windy day?

When did the blue of an iris melt her heart so slowly and painfully?

 

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City of Sky and Glass

I was lucky enough to embark on a dream journey around the city of New York, which has always been a place I have longed to visit. Having spent a week there, I got a flavour of the culture and lifestyle, which is completely different to my own. The city is always, always bustling with tourists, business people, dodgy looking men lurking on street corners…

You can’t possibly imagine the scale of all the buildings unless you’re there – you often see whole skyscrapers reflected in other skyscrapers! It felt like London had been given plastic surgery: a bit of alligning the roads into a neat grid of avenues and streets, a bit of scrubbing and polishing, and a lot of pulling here and there – stretching the skin of the buildings as much as is humanly possible!

I enjoyed taking lots of photos of all the famous sites I visited, the food, exciting pop culture things which are practically meaningless to anyone else, and of course, my family. In this small selection of photographs from my adventure, I wanted to capture specifically the futuristic architecture and uniqueness of such an imposing, enormous city. In an attempt to impress you, I present to you the City of Sky and Glass…

Windowpane

We were lined up orderly on the conveyor belt, praying for one another. I remember the streaky sparks that spattered as electricity surged through the saw’s silver blade, slicing through the suffering surfaces. I will never forget The Changing: the way my arms and legs were amputated and I was separated from Mum and Dad, never to see them again. Little did I realise that my life as a windowpane had only just begun.

You see, when I first met Frame, I detested him straight away. But before I had time to protest to the handyman, I was already fixed to him permanently, with only a thin layer of glue and silicone piped between us. Soon afterwards, I met Handle, who didn’t seem all too thrilled about being fixed to Frame either.

It was awkward at first, not knowing where to look. In one direction was Room, the forever warm and cosy place inhabited by humans. The Timberlake family were a peculiar species, but their familiar faces never failed to cheer me up.

Mrs Timberlake would always take time to bathe me, and I liked the consistency of her soapy sponge strokes that massaged my back. The Timberlake twins, Maggie and Mildred, were little bundles of joy who smudged their grimy hands all over my face, leaving sticky fingerprints everywhere! Luckily Mrs Timberlake soon set things right, as her regular inspections usually resulted in her polishing me to perfection.

Baby Timberlake was the worst by far. I simply couldn’t bear her screaming, her crying, her wingeing, moaning, burping, shrieking, or gurlgling. My poor ears will never be the same again! On the contrary, Grandpa Timberlake was a peaceful soul, constantly sleeping in Rocking Chair (who always complained about the weight). His chest rising and falling was, at times, therapeutic, but his snoring – his snoring! – always gave Handle and me something to talk about.

Most objects in Room were friendly. I could rely on Encyclopedia for insights into anything and everything. Then there was Radiator, who always started heated debates. But aside from them, I had my eye on Lamp. She was stunning. I was generally too shy to talk to her, but when I did, I could feel my cheeks turning red, and I had to look down at Window Sill to hide my embarrassment. I really fancied her, but eventually I figured that she was just another person who tried to ignore me and look right through me.

The only Object I couldn’t stand was Grandfather Clock. He was just plain irritating, with his ticking and tocking and ticking and tocking all day long. According to Radio, he hasn’t uttered anything but tick or tock for the last eighteen years! One day, I offered to give him elocution lessons, but as half expected, his response was tick tock, so I assumed he was a foreigner, who would make a troublesome and rather challenging pupil to assist.

At night, Mr Timberlake pulled down Blind so I couldn’t see into Room. I don’t think I missed much, because all the Objects had to keep particularly quiet when the Timberlakes were asleep. Blind made me so itchy, and I hated him at first, almost as much as Frame and Grandfather Clock.

On the other side of me, were Garden and The World Beyond. Garden was more beautiful than you could put into words, especially when all her flowers were in bloom.

I was desperate to learn about life in the neighbours’ houses that lay in The World Beyond. Windowpane of Number 12 couldn’t tell me about its room, even if she wanted to. I could see from Frame that she was always covered in condensation from shower steam, and didn’t enjoy living in the humidity.

I had loads more friends (and enemies) in Garden and The World Beyond. There was Rain, who tickled me all the time. We had a special kind of friendship…

Then there was Spider, who thought I had the perfect corners for making her webs on. I let her stay all through the first spring, but then a howling wind came and whisked her away. I was beginning to worry that I was renting out my corners too cheaply, so when Spider’s cousin came along, I raised the cost, and he simply scuttled along Drainpipe to find a better deal.

Magpie was pure evil. I had always been suspicious of her and her friends, right from the start. It was the way she stared at me with those beady black eyes that made me shiver, like the first time I encountered Snow. One time, Magpie flew past me, and left a white mess on my shoulder. I was more than horrified! Not exactly the kind of birthday present I was hoping for. Mrs Timberlake had to put Key in Handle (which he told me was a very painful experience) and pushed me outwards, so I was hanging over Garden. I waved to Grass below, excited my newfound freedom. Mrs Timberlake got out her soapy sponge, and scraped the muck right off my shoulder. I’d never been happier.

I have a lot of stories to tell about Room, Garden, and The World Beyond. When milder Timberlake and her gangster friends ‘accidently’ hurled poor old Tennis Ball at my tummy, I knew I would never see Bookshelf or Radio or Lamp or Radiator or Handle or Carpet or Garden ever, ever again. The pain came as a total shock. And perhaps, this was worse than my fate at the factory. My life was shattered into a million shards of glass. Part of me is still fixed to Frame, but I am sharp there, and nobody will want to talk to me now.

These broken pieces that belong to me no longer form the windowpane I was so proud to be. I am not a windowpane now, just a window in pain.

 

*PS – I have just been informed that this monologue, which I wrote about 2 years ago, has been selected to be published in the Red House Yearbook 2013 as a winner in the ‘short story’ 13+ category, which is quite an honour. Photo credit to Google Images, as usual.