The Funny World We Live In

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“Did you fight in World War Two?”, I once asked my Grandad when I was young, naive and uninformed. “No”, he told me, “I was a little boy back then”. If I had asked that question today I would have been laughed at for my poor ability to do basic maths, as my Grandad was 64 and the year was 1999, but at that time my juvenile mind could be forgiven for such a mistake. “Can you remember it?”, was my next question. “Only very vaguely”, he replied (I just nodded as I didn’t know what that word meant). He then went on to tell me a story. A story that had a rather profound effect on my young self. To the best of my recollection, it went like this:

   “It was the year 1941 and I was five years old. At that time, England and Germany weren’t getting along very well. There were these people in Germany called the Nazis who wanted the whole world to be like them, but we said no. This made them very cross. Now you know when you throw a tantrum because you can’t have your own way?” I nodded, and I seem to remember my mum rolling her eyes. “Well, that’s exactly what the Nazis did! They flew planes over to England and dropped lots of bombs on us, and we called it the Blitz.

    “During the Blitz, I was living in a small house with my mother. My father had joined the army and gone to help fight those horrible Nazis. My mother, your great grandma, found it very difficult to look after us both. All the food was rationed, which meant that everyone was only allowed a certain amount because our supplies were being cut off by the enemy, and we had barely enough to feed us. What made it even harder for her was the fact that I had the measles.” I gasped, as I had learnt about the measles in school and knew that it was very bad. “This meant that my mother had to be very careful not to let me near other people in case I passed the measles onto them.” At this point, an alarming thought hit me and I jumped backwards about a metre. “You’re not going to give the measles to me are you Grandad?!”, I asked. “No silly boy! I don’t have them any more!” He proceeded to laugh heartily as I sat back in my spot, ridiculed and disgraced, and then continued the story.

   “One evening, my mother was walking back home from collecting our rations with me in her arms when all of a sudden she heard the terrible wailing sound of the air-raid sirens! The Nazi planes were coming to drop more bombs on the town, so my mother had to rush home as fast as she could so we could get into the bomb shelter and be safe. As she ran through the streets the bombs started falling around us” He made explosion noises for dramatic effect and all the time I was staring with wide eyes and an open mouth. “But when we got back to our house, we found that it wasn’t there anymore. A bomb had fallen right on top of it and it was now just a big pile of rubble” This revelation shocked me in a similar manner to the part in The Lion King where Mufasa is killed by Scar (one of the more traumatic moments of my childhood). I would have been on the edge of my seat had I not been sitting on the floor.

    “What did you do? Where were you going to live?”, I asked. “Well”, he paused for a second either to maintain the suspense or because his memory had momentarily failed (as often happened when he was telling stories), “because we had nowhere else to go, we were taken to one of the special underground shelters that had been set up for people whose houses had been bombed”. This gave me an air of relief as I was deftly afraid that my infant grandad and relatively young great grandmother were going to be forced to live on the streets (I had seen people who lived on the streets and they weren’t particularly pleasant looking). However, the next word he spoke quickly dispelled the relief.

    “But”, that infamous conjunction which always presumes to ruin everything, “when we got to the shelter we found that it wasn’t very nice. The ceiling was leaking, it was quite small and very crowded, meaning that everyone was all squashed together. This particularly worried my mother because of my measles, which was very contagious”, thankfully I had learnt this word in school just a few days prior so I didn’t have to interrupt him to ask what it meant. “If she took me in there was a very high chance that everyone in the shelter would catch it!” “Oh no!”, I exclaimed, momentarily throwing Grandad off track. “So”, he continued, “my mother, being the selfless person that she was, decided that we would not stay in the shelter after all and instead we were able to stay with one of the neighbours whose house hadn’t been bombed. The very next morning, as my mother was downstairs eating breakfast while I was still sound asleep in bed, she saw something in the morning paper that chilled her to the bone”. I prepared myself as I had a feeling I was in for yet another ghastly shock. “On the front page was an article saying that the shelter we had looked at the previous night had flooded. A water pipe had burst and the exit had been blocked by debris from the bombing, meaning that everyone inside had drowned”. My vocabulary hadn’t quite expanded enough to include the word debris but I knew perfectly well what drowning meant, and it didn’t take long for me to work out the implications of this development.

    “But that means,” I began with confidence, “if you had stayed in the shelter, then you would have drowned too!” Exactly”, Grandad confirmed, “and if I had, then I wouldn’t have married your grandma and had your dad, and you would never have been born!” This revelation caused my young mind to spin to such a degree I almost felt dizzy. “In a funny way, me having the measles as a baby is the reason you are alive!” I let this sit with me for the rest of the evening, as we had dinner, watched a bit of TV and finally set off home.

    After hearing this story of how a deadly disease saved my Grandad’s life and therefore indirectly assured my existence, I was perplexed. It is also vexing to think that so many people died and yet one was chosen by fate to survive and pass on his torch in the gene pool (although my philosophizing was of course not quite as deep at the time). I couldn’t help thinking to myself back then, and I still think to myself now: it’s a funny world we live in.

THE END

Posted by Frank Short

Why Does No One Talk About “Aliens” Anymore?

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Computer Generated Imagery. We seem to have reached a point now where we can’t live with it, and we can’t live without it. Every film that wants to make money exploits this miraculous technology, and anything we can imagine is now possible to create on screen. Some good has come from this, such as the first Jurassic Park and the Disney/Pixar films, and some bad has come from this, such as Michael Bay’s seemingly endless output of repetitive and formulaic crowd-pleasers like Transformers and that film about giant talking turtles. Either way, you can’t make a blockbuster without it, right? Wrong.

A lot of people seem to have forgotten that one of the greatest (if not the greatest) sci-fi action movies ever made had no CGI whatsoever. Yes, that’s right. What movie am I talking about? Why, James Cameron’s Aliens of course. This film, starring Sigourney Weaver, came out before the days of computer animation and yet managed to be more epic and exciting than any modern Michael Bay flick merely through the use of guys in rubber suits, well crafted models and highly sophisticated animatronic puppetry… and also a hefty dose of extremely good writing, acting and direction (which god knows are in short supply these days). It’s everything you could want from a film of this genre; it’s chock full of enjoyable, believable characters, the story’s well conceived and structured, the action’s great, the set pieces are unbelievable… it just has the lot. And if you’ll pardon my French, this b**ch looks more badass than any computer animated monster I’ve ever seen:

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As a sequel, the most notable thing about the film is that while it continues the same story, it has a completely different tone to the original and this really works to its advantage. While Alien showcased suspenseful horror, essentially being a “slasher” film in space, Aliens went for full on action and sci-fi spectacle, showcasing an epic war between a small group of humans and an army of extra-terrestrial beasts. This different approach enables the film to be fresh and entertaining while not duplicating the stuff we saw in the first film. However, the narrative of the first film is still continued in a logical way and the basic plot structure of Aliens mirrors that of Alien while still adding a lot of new, exciting elements. Because of the above, one might go so far as to call it the perfect sequel.

Aliens screenshot

So why does the film get virtually no attention these days? Everyone has a fond remembrance of the first film and it’s not like the director fell into obscurity; in fact he’s become one of the most renowned directors in Hollywood and most of his films are cemented and remembered as benchmark cinematic achievements. But then, most of his films make use of CGI. Terminator 2 and Titanic were both pioneering incorporators of the technology and the less said about Avatar the better. Does this mean that Aliens gets overshadowed as a blockbuster in the eyes of the general public purely because it goes “against the grain” by modern standards? At the time of its release, it was a massive deal and got all the praise it deserved. But today, CGI heavy action films are the “big thing” and many may view Aliens as outdated, regardless of its quality. This is a terrible shame, as I think Hollywood really needs to be reminded that there are other, often better ways to make a blockbuster.

If I’m honest, I probably prefer the first Alien as a film overall mainly because of it’s quiet, unsettling, yet strangely poetic feel (I’m a former film student, we’re just suckers for that stuff). But just because the first film was a brilliant piece of cinema doesn’t mean that the follow up should be forgotten. On the contrary. Give it a watch (or a re-watch if you’ve already seen it) and compare it to similar films today. How well does it hold up? In my opinion, it’s still a masterpiece.

Posted by Frank Short

Why “The Imitation Game” Deserves To Be Remembered

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Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing

The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, tells the story of Alan Turing, an eccentric yet exceptional mathematician/cryptanalyst recruited by the British government to help crack the Nazi Enigma code. When I first saw the film at the cinema, I gaged a few different reactions from fellow audience members as we were walking out. One teenage girl said something along the lines of “that was really boring”, a frustrating but unsurprising response considering the ignorance of youth. However, I felt more encouraged when one middle aged woman said, “I think I’ll Google him”. Upon hearing this, I immediately thought to myself: this film has done its job.

So who was Alan Turing? What did he do that is worthy of remembrance? He’s certainly not a household name (or at least he wasn’t before this film came out) but his life story is something that has deep resonance in today’s world. For those of you who haven’t seen the film, Alan invented what came to be known as the “Turing Machine”. This was a contraption that not only managed to crack the code of the infamous Enigma Machine employed by the Nazis, allowing the Allies to intercept German transmissions and subsequently win the Second World War, but also served as the starting point for the development of what we would now call a computer. The significance of his work should therefore not be understated for fairly self-explanatory reasons.

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At this point you’re probably thinking, this man will surely have been hailed as a hero! Well… he wasn’t. In fact, he was prosecuted and chemically castrated. Why? Because he was gay, why else? As awful as it may seem now (in western culture at least), back then performing homosexual acts was a crime, plain and simple. Tragically, Alan Turing wound up as yet another genius unacknowledged in his time. Now that isn’t to say that to this day the man still hasn’t been acknowledged: quite the opposite.

There have been a number of tributes to Alan Turing since his death, including a 1986 play staring Derek Jacobi, and in the 21st Century he has received a posthumous pardon from Queen Elizabeth II as well as a public apology from the British government for “the appalling way he was treated”. So the purpose of The Imitation Game is not to seek justice and redemption, but rather to widen Turing’s cultural recognition. Cumberbatch himself has expressed his befuddlement as to why Alan’s story is not a more prominent part of British cultural heritage and hoped that the film would rectify this.

So we all know what this film was trying to achieve, but did it actually do a good job? In my opinion: yes. I’ve read reviews arguing that the film doesn’t work with its full cinematic potential, referring to its lack of scope when depicting the war, and is more evocative of a TV drama. For me however, the film is much more of a character study than a war film and has more than enough intrigue and emotional depth to justify a feature length theatrical release. I also feel that the consensus by some that Cumberbatch’s performance is merely a Sherlock knockoff is ill founded as while there are strong hints of Sherlock’s intelligent wit and social awkwardness in there, Cumberbatch’s Turing displays a greater level of humanity and vulnerability. It’s just a role that really suits the actor’s talents. Despite the film’s minor factual inaccuracies, sacrificed I’m sure in the name of artistic license, all the pieces come together to make a thoroughly enjoyable biopic.

If you haven’t seen the film yet I highly recommend it, and if your tastes are anything like mine you won’t be disappointed. When the DVD arrives on the shelves, I know I’ll be picking up a copy and giving it a re-watch. Also, if you don’t know much about Alan Turing, please do Google him.

Posted by Frank Short