mystery

REVIEW: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

In October of 1994 three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found.

The Blair Witch Project is one of those films that I knew of but hadn’t watched because I am a wuss. I did wonder how effective The Blair Witch Project would be with so much of it has become a part of popular culture and referenced in various other types of media, so I was aware of certain shots and the general story before actually watching it. I’m pleased to say it was still nerve-wracking and creepy.

The pace of The Blair Witch Project is really smart. The opening twenty minutes is the three students talking to residents of Burkittsville, hearing the stories about the Blair Witch and the other weird and horrifying things that have happened in the woods outside town. This sets the tone and makes you expect weird and creepy things to happen, and soon they do.

The trio of filmmakers all give great performances and it’s easy to see why people could believe the events of The Blair Witch Project actually happened. The fear, panic and stress is clear to see and their reactions to the unexplainable events are understandable. Heather is the projects director and she’s the one who is always filming everything and to start with doesn’t seem to mind the creepy things that are happening around them as in her mind it’ll make her documentary even better. She’s joined by Josh, who she knows well, and Mike, who she doesn’t, and as things get weird, tensions rise.

As the trio bicker as they traipse around the woods, getting more and more disorientated, the addition of unexplainable and strange piles of rocks, sounds and bundles of twigs gets everyone feeling anxious and just wanting to go home.

The Blair Witch Project is a classic of the horror genre and it’s the film that really kickstarted the found footage subgenre of films. As someone who very rarely watches horror films in general, never mind the found footage subgenre, The Blair Witch Project is tense and eerie from the outset and all the tropes that are so common now, are effective and unsettling. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Yemen: A Land Without Jasmine by Wajdi Al-Ahdal

Translated by William Maynard Hutchins.

Under the watchful eyes of the men in her community the beautiful, virtuous university student Jasmine goes about her daily business, keeping to herself and avoiding the male gaze at all costs. That is until one Valentine’s Day, when she disappears without a trace. As the details surrounding her sudden disappearance emerge the mystery deepens. Sexual depravity, honour, obsession; the motives are numerous and the suspects plentiful. Family, friends, fellow students and nosey neighbours are quick to make their own judgements on the case, but the truth may be far stranger than anyone anticipates.

I found A Land Without Jasmine strangely captivating. It’s a super short novel, less than 100 pages, and has seven chapters, each from a different character’s perspective. The first is from Jasmine’s, as she describes the heated gazes she receives from all men, young and old, even when wearing her niqab. How uncomfortable she feels, how their attention often makes her feel anxious as she wishes to be treated for more than what she looks like. The following chapters are from the perspective of detectives, neighbours, and family as they try and piece together what has happened to Jasmine.

The way Jasmine describes the unwanted attention she receives is uncomfortable to read, but what’s even more uncomfortable is when the story is from the point of view of her teenage neighbour who is infatuated with her. He, like a lot of the other male characters, seems to be unable to separate his desires and dreams from reality. His desires are explicit, and he becomes obsessed with figuring out what happened to Jasmine, forgetting to look out for himself or how his actions might be perceived by the police or Jasmine’s family.

I thought the writing in A Land Without Jasmine was often very good and provocative. However, there were some phrases that felt a bit stilted down to a choice of a word when another might’ve been more suitable but that was likely to be down to the translation. It did take me a little while to get into the story though. I think that was down to it being written in first person and I can’t remember the last book I read that was written in that tense. I think sometimes first-person narrative can make the writing seem more simplistic. At some points this seemed to work in the novels advantage, as it sometimes made statements more impactful, but at other points it made reading it feel slow and awkward.

A Land Without Jasmine is a almost a sexy mystery story – though while it does have erotic language in it, the way the characters objectify and belittle Jasmine doesn’t make it particularly sexy or appealing. There are some moments of wry sense of humour here, and how it brings in family politics, the importance and power of different family tribes for one, is interesting as that’s something I knew little about. A Land Without Jasmine is a strange mystery but once you get into the writing style, it becomes a compelling one. 4/5.

REVIEW: Enola Holmes (2020)

When Enola Holmes (Millie Bobby Brown), teenage sister to Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes (Henry Cavill and Sam Claflin respectively), discovers her mother (Helena Bonham Carter) is missing, she sets off to find her. Soon she become entangled with a missing Marquess (Louis Partridge) as she follows the clues and fights to make her own way in the world.

Now Enola Holmes was just delightful! It is based on the book series by Nancy Springer, a series I haven’t read so don’t know how well it fares as an adaptation or to what extent the quirky humour and fourth-wall breaking may be from the novel. Because that’s the thing, the film opens with Enola talking to the camera, giving the audience a rundown on her life and what the immediate mystery is, and throughout the film she makes quips and gestures to the camera to highlight her true feelings about what is going on. Breaking the fourth wall tends to be something you find in comedy films, think Deadpool, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Trading Places, so to have it here, in what is in all intents and purposes a cosy mystery drama just adds something different to the film.

Millie Bobby Brown is brilliant as Enola. She’s funny and headstrong and resourceful, but she also shows the softer side of Enola. Her mother has taught her a lot, both academically and in terms of fighting skills, but she is still quite naïve about the world. She’s lived a sheltered life with her mother so when she disappears, it’s like her life crumbles a bit – especially when Mycroft wants to send her off to a finishing school.

Speaking of Mycroft, I was somewhat bemused by Claflin playing the eldest Holmes especially when Cavill is three years older than him and (no offence to Cavill), he looks younger and more boyish than Cavill – despite the help of a bushy moustache. This is Enola’s time to shine and the Holmes brothers aren’t featured all that much but when the siblings do get to share scenes, either all three together or just two of them, they all work really well together. Mycroft and Sherlock have been absent from Enola’s life for so long that they don’t know her, and she doesn’t really know them, so seeing how they do (or don’t) start to try and understand one another and build connections is interesting and shows different sides to each character.

The whole mystery aspect of Enola Holmes is a lot of fun too, and surprisingly politically. Enola has been raised to be a very modern woman for the early twentieth century and women’s suffrage and the ‘Representation of the People Act’ both play key parts in the two mysteries Enola is investigating.

Enola Holmes is just a delightful and charming film. The tone might not suit everyone, what with its lively score and often unconventional characters, but it’s the kind of film you can sit back and relax as you’re swept up in the adventure. I do hope we get a sequel, even if the more famous faces don’t all make a return. 4/5.

REVIEW: Personal Shopper (2016)

Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a personal shopper in Paris, refuses to leave the city until she makes contact with her twin brother who died there. Her life becomes more complicated when she starts receiving text messages from an unknown number.

Personal Shopper is one of those films I’d recommend going into knowing as little as possible – and avoiding the trailer at all costs. All I knew about it was “Kristen Stewart played a personal shopper and things aren’t what they seem” and I had no idea the level of unnerving suspense that would be throughout this film.

Maureen, like her twin brother, is a medium and while she doesn’t necessary believe in the afterlife and the souls of the dead, she does believe she can feel presences. What worked really well was how her beliefs aren’t mocked by those around her. Some characters also believe and treat the idea of spirits as perfectly normal, and even those who are a bit dubious don’t laugh in her face or belittle her for trying to get a sign from her brother.

Personal Shopper is all about grief and trying to find connections. Kristen Stewart is fantastic here, playing Maureen’s search for any sort of contact with her brother with desperation, and when she starts receiving text messages that seem to know far too much about her, she’s close to tears but also has a steely determination to see things through. Maureen responds to the texts and things spiral as she tries to figure out what’s happening – could it be her brother on the other end of the phone? Stewart is in every scene of Personal Shopper and is just magnetic to watch, you can’t take your eyes off her as the camera lingers on her as she tries to process things, often while trying to stifle tears.

Personal Shopper is an unsettling blend of drama, horror and thriller. There are so many moments that can be left over to the viewers interpretation, making Personal Shopper an interesting film to discuss with others. There’s an eeriness throughout the film, and a tension that I wasn’t expecting. The sound, and sometimes absence of sound, in Personal Shopper gets under your skin, leaving you on edge and waiting for the other shoe to drop almost constantly.

Personal Shopper really was an unexpected delight. I was captivated by its eeriness and by Stewart’s performance, how she can portray so much with so few words is wonderful. Personal Shopper really is a film that’s open to interpretation, what certain scenes mean, whether there are spirits, and if Maureen does the right thing. It’s an often creepy but always stunning film. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Bolivia: The Matter of Desire by Edmundo Paz Soldán

Translated by Lisa Carter.

Pedro, a Bolivian-American political scientist teaches at a university in upstate New York. Having become entangled in an erotically charged romance with Ashley, a beautiful red-headed engaged graduate student, he returns to Bolivia to seek answers to his own life by investigating the mysteries of his father’s past.

The Matter of Desire starts with Pedro arriving in Bolivia and in the present he is reconnecting with old friends, living with his Uncle David, and trying to learn more about his father; a political activist who was assassinated when Pedro was a child. The story also jumps back in time every now and then to show how Pedro met Ashley and the progression of their relationship.

Pedro isn’t a particularly likeable character. He is the epitome of the self-absorbed academic character and it gets old and annoying very quickly. Instead of focusing on academic work and research which are more challenging (and is what his university expects him to do), he has made a name of himself by being the go to academic for news sources to quote on any events or issues concerning Latin America, something that doesn’t require as much thought or attention. He even admits to using other academic works as templates for his own, copying their style and then overlooking figures and research that don’t support his claims. He just doesn’t seem like the sort of person who should be teaching, never mind the fact he got in a relationship with a student.

Pedro is also obsessed with finding out more about his father. It’s understandable as he was a child when his dad was killed, and his dad has become an almost legendary hero to the people of Bolivia as he was fighting against a supposed corrupt and totalitarian government. Pedro’s father wrote a book before he was killed, and Pedro is desperate to find hidden meanings in it and believes the book, like his father, is great. While the book also has a kind of cult status, it’s not generally seen as such a great achievement as Pedro thinks it is.

Admittedly I found the politics aspect a bit confusing. I know nothing about Bolivia’s political history and was confused when googling the names mentioned as some of them were real people, while others weren’t. The author may have been using a pseudonym that Bolivian’s or people who are familiar with Bolivia would know who was meant, but someone like me was left confused. Also, I’m pretty sure Pedro’s dad was a fictious figure, as was the city where this was all taking place.

The fact that naturally a lot of the books I read for the Read the World Project are translated doesn’t really register for me a lot of the time. I’m someone who looks for an enjoyable or interesting story first rather than how well a book is written. I would be interested in seeing The Matter of Desire in its original language though, as there’s parts of the book, often dialogue between a native Spanish speaker and someone who’s learnt the language, where there’s the odd word, phrase or sentence in Spanish dropped into the conversation. I think this is a prime example of Spanglish. A lot of the time based on context, you can easily pick out the meaning of the Spanish word or phrase based on the rest of the conversation that’s in English. I’d be interested to see if in the original Spanish version, the phrases that are in Spanish in the translated version, were in English in the original.

The first half of The Matter of Desire was very slow to get into. It’s difficult to become attached to a self-centred character and one who fails to communicate with a lot of people in his life including friends, family, and Ashley who he is supposed to love a lot. The second half of the 214-page book (which sometimes felt a lot longer) was a bit more interesting as Pedro was learning more about his father. Perhaps it’s cruel but I think I enjoyed that part more as the things he was finding out about his dad weren’t all good and it was taking the shine off the idolised version of him that Pedro had. Pedro was so obsessed with the fact that his father was a great man, that seeing him have to deal with the fact that may not have been the entire story was kind of enjoyable.

All in all, I did find The Matter of Desire a struggle to get through. I didn’t really care about Pedro and towards the end as more secrets and lies are uncovered, things seemed to get pretty complicated very quickly and without much of a clear explanation. 2/5.

V is for Vertigo (1958)

Former police detective John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart) is suffering from acrophobia and vertigo when he’s recruited by an old friend to investigate the strange activities of his wife, Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), but as he follows her movements Scottie becomes dangerously obsessed with her.

My second Alfred Hitchcock film and perhaps one of his most popular films – or at least one that has an easily recognisable name. Again, I knew nothing about the plot of Vertigo going into it, and I think that worked in the films favour. Though to be honest, I’m not sure how I’d describe the plot as it can get very convoluted and hard to follow.

The colours in Vertigo are beautiful. San Francisco looks stunning and there are scenes where the camera really shows off the city. There’s a lot of pastel colours in the clothes and the sets, and then there’s neon lights from hotel signs, they should clash but they don’t. A dream sequence with animation is unexpected but it’s vibrant and unsettling, really making an impact even though it’s pretty short. The “vertigo effect” is impressive and unnerving. It puts you in Scottie’s shoes when he’s at his most vulnerable.

Scottie is an interesting character. Before he starts investigating his old friend’s wife, he seems like an enthusiastic person, fun to be around even while he’s struggling with his newfound condition. He has his friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) to help him, whether that’s just to be someone to talk to or to help him with a case. She’s bubbly and smart and is clearly in love with him, but he either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. And once he becomes caught up in Madeline Elster, all he shows her is indifference which she doesn’t deserve.

As Scottie’s obsession gets more and more out of hand, the tension amps up through the score and Scottie’s behaviour. He changes as he becomes entangled in Madeline. He becomes a strong and frightening force as his passion overtakes logic and it’s uncomfortable to watch.

While the two-hour runtime of Vertigo seemed to drag at times, the ending seemed rushed as everything was wrapped up. It also seemed to have a non-ending, leaving me with more questions and wanting to know what happened to these characters next. As Vertigo is only the second Hitchcock film I’ve watched, I don’t know if this is a Hitchcock thing, or is just pure chance that both Vertigo and Family Plot left me feeling this way.

Vertigo is an eerie film with a couple of brilliant performances from Kim Novak. Her different mannerisms were fantastic, even if she didn’t have perfect chemistry with Stewart – though that might be down to how much older than her he looked. The mystery was complicated, and as the film progressed I found myself caring more about the women in Scottie’s life than the man himself, even if he was possibly driving himself to madness. 3/5.

N is for National Treasure (2004)

Archaeologist Benjamin Gates (Nicolas Cage) races to find the legendary Templar Treasure before a team of mercenaries, led by former friend and colleague Ian Howe (Sean Bean).

So I have seen National Treasure many times before, but as I don’t own a film beginning with the letter N that I had not seen before, and I rewatched the National Treasure movies the other day because they bring me joy, I thought it would do fine for this challenge.

National Treasure is just so much fun. It’s a heist movie (one of my favourite genres of movie) with history (one of my favourite subjects at school). Sure, the premise of hidden treasure and a secret, invisible map on the back of the Declaration of Independence is farfetched and kind of silly but who cares?! This premise makes a great film!

Ben along with his best friend and tech genius Riley (Justin Bartha) are the ones trying to stop Ian – their thinking is they must steal the Declaration of Independence in order to protect it. As their heist gets underway archivist Dr Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) gets caught up in their plans and the three of them are forced to work together to figure out the clues and find the treasure before Ian does.

The main trio of characters are all great. They are all well-rounded, they each have their own skills and knowledge to contribute to finding the treasure, and they just fit together nicely. Riley isn’t related to comedy sidekick and Ben doesn’t always have all of the answers.

The action sequences are well shot and exciting, and the score, composed by Trevor Rabin, is great and the central motif just works so well. The mysteries and double crosses that are key to a heist and a treasure hunt are all there and the film goes by at a good pace so you are never bored.

National Treasure is just a fun adventure film that knows exactly what it is, and it does it incredibly well. It’s pure escapism for a couple of hours and I love it. 5/5.

F is for Family Plot (1976)

When Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris), a phoney psychic, and her taxi driver/private investigator boyfriend George Lumley (Bruce Dern) are trying to track down a missing heir, they cross paths with a pair of serial kidnappers.

Family Plot is the first Alfred Hitchcock film I watched (I’m a terrible film fan I know) and it turns out, it was his last film. I find some sort of symmetry in that.

Family Plot is a fun thriller that’s more comedic than I thought it’d be, considering the director and the preconception I had of him and his films. The humour is very wry and often dark as people are kidnapped, there’s attempted murder, and Balance and George are trying to con a wealthy old lady out of her money.

The duos of Harris and Dern, and Karen Black and William Devane who play the kidnappers, are great to watch. Each pair have a very different relationship, but they all bounce off one another well and they play interesting characters.

There are some really fun filming devices in Family Plot, like an overhead shot of a graveyard where George follows someone on parallel paths. It’s funny because as the viewer you can pick put both characters routes and you know they can’t avoid George, but their efforts to do so make it all the more entertaining.

I found the score, composed by John Williams, really interesting especially in the sense of how and when it was used. It made great use of silence and showed how it could increase the tension more than a big soundtrack could.

Family Plot is perhaps a little long and certain events could’ve been tighter, but it’s still an engaging film with an interesting mystery at its core. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Chile: In the Distance with You by Carla Guelfenbein

Translated by John Cullen.

Vera Sigall, now eighty years old, has lived a mysterious, ascetic life far from the limelight of literary circles. This powerful character has a profound effect on those around her – Daniel, an architect and her neighbour and friend, unhappy in his marriage and career; Emilia, a Franco-Chilean student who travels to Santiago to write a thesis on the elusive Vera; and Horacio, an acclaimed poet with whom Vera had a tumultuous, passionate affair in her youth. When Vera suffers an accident that puts her in an induced coma in hospital, Daniel, Emilia, and Horacio are brought together and as they tell their stories, they reconstruct Vera’s past, and search for their own identities.

I found the writing in In the Distance with You to be beautiful and almost lyrical at times. The whole story is like a love letter to an author and to their works and the people surrounding Vera really feel connected to her in different ways. In some ways In the Distance with You is a story about stories; the ones we tell ourselves, the ones we tell others, and the ones we may write and publish to great acclaim.

In the Distance with You is told from three different points of view – Daniel’s, Emilia’s and Horacio’s – with the chapters alternating between the three of them. Daniel is the one who discovers Vera after her accident and tries to figure out what caused it as she lies in hospital. He’s a character that grew on me over the course of the book, as he grew as a person. He starts off being quite self-absorbed and only really cares about what’s happening with Vera, pushing his wife aside in the process, but when he meets Emilia, he finds someone else that he cares about and starts to open up more. Emilia learns so much about Vera from her own works and studying the few bits of information there is about her past. It’s interesting to see how a novelist may put bits of them into a story and it’s through these breadcrumbs that Emilia starts to put together a picture of the kind of woman Vera is. Horacio keeps his distance after Vera’s accident and instead revisits the past; how the two of them met, fell in love and worked together on their writing.

The mystery at the heart of the novel is Vera and her life. She’s pretty much a recluse with Daniel being the only person who saw her regularly, and even he doesn’t know that much about her past. As the story progresses, the layers of Vera’s life are slowly pealed back by each of the three main characters, and it’s only through all three of their point of views do you get a full picture of who Vera is. It’s interesting having a book so focused on a character that spends the majority of the story in a comatose state. Daniel, Emilia and Horacio orbit Vera even when she’s unresponsive and her being in that state almost forces them to reconsider who they are and what they want from life and those around them.

In the Distance with You is beautifully written story with fully realised characters. They’re flawed and it’s fascinating to see how even though Daniel, Emilia, and Horacio are very different people, they are connected by a love of or fascination with one person. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Spain: The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Pulp fiction writer David Martín is holed up in an abandoned mansion in the heart of Barcelona, desperately writing story after story while becoming increasingly frustrate and disillusioned. When he is approached by a mysterious publisher, Andreas Corelli, makes him an enticing offer David leaps at the chance. But as he begins to research and write this novel, and after a visit to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, David realises there’s a connection between his book and the shadows that surround his dilapidated home, and maybe his publisher might be hiding secrets of his own.

The Angel’s Game is set in the same universe as The Shadow of the Wind, but I don’t think it matters if you haven’t read that book or if you haven’t read it for a while. I read and reviewed The Shadow of the Wind four years ago so naturally I can’t really remember much about the book, but the only connections I noticed was the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and the dilapidated tower home the main character in this novel came to live in. (After writing this review I googled the series and realised that The Angel’s Game is in fact a prequel to The Shadow of the Wind though apparently each book in the series is supposed to be able to stand on its own from the others, so it really doesn’t matter what order you read them in.)

Set in the 1920s and early 1930s, The Angel’s Game really makes use of both the time period and the city its set in to add to the mystery and eeriness of the story. Not being able to get hold of a character, or instances of mistaken identity are rife, and both increase the tension at key moments. The city of Barcelona truly becomes a character in its own right in The Angel’s Game. The narrow alleyways, abandoned houses, tiny shops and the often-bleak weather, makes the city a wonderful setting for a gripping mystery. The descriptions of the city are vivid making the few times characters venture elsewhere, even more stark and different to what we already know.

David is an interesting man. He’s often unlikable as he pushes away those who care about him when he’s obsessed with writing and is unsure how to love or be loved in return. He’s always had affection for the daughter of a friend’s driver, Cristina, but circumstance and society keeps them a part. His reluctant friendship with Isabella, an inspiring writer who is many years younger than him is surprisingly sweet and while their relationship isn’t without its troubles and miscommunications, their honesty with one another is truly needed by both of them.

The mystery of the tower house, its previous owner and what happened to them kicks in about the third of the way through the book. Andreas Corelli seems to be connected to it all though it takes a long time for David to figure things out. David becomes obsessive, both about his writing and the secrets his home holds, looking for reasons behind the deaths and strangeness that appears to be following him. The Angel’s Game is told in the first person from David’s point of view, meaning that as the story progresses and things get weirder, you begin to doubt what you’ve been told so far as David’s grip on reality seems to slip.

I shan’t say I picked up all the threads of the mystery before they were explained to me, nor that I totally understood the ending, but that didn’t make me like this story any less. The Angel’s Game was a very readable book and the whole gothic take on Barcelona fully pulled me into the story. Would it have been nice if the story wasn’t quite so convoluted and weird? Yes, but it’s still a book that I ended up enjoying more than I remembered enjoying its predecessor. 4/5.