A particularly popular film from the 2000s that has always seemed to slip out of my viewing schedules (I even owned it on Blu-ray for a few years) is In Bruges. From what I gather it’s a dark comedy from director Martin McDonagh, set in Bruges. Everyone raves about it. One day I might actually get around to seeing it (cue people messaging me that I REALLY need to see it).
So today I took my brother Tommi into Cardiff to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The film has been out for a few weeks at this point and he still hadn’t seen it. As I’d already watched it six times, I felt like taking it in via a different format. The Vue cinema was screening it in 4K, but I wanted to venture even further into cinematic progress, and arrived at the relatively new format called 4DX. It’s impossible for me to think of the term 4DX without hearing Doc Brown in my head saying “Marty, it’s perfect! You’re just not thinking fourth dimensionally!”
So. Twenty years ago today, a little book about a boy who learns he’s a wizard was released in the UK. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone hit book shops on the 26th June 1997, following in the US on the 1st September 1998 as Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone. I first heard about it in high school when I was eleven years old in 1999. A friend of mine, who my mind tells me was called Harry, had stood up in class and talked enthusiastically about it. The name alone caught my attention: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It wasn’t until my best friend Chris Marshall revealed he was a fan of Harry Potter that I even saw a copy of the book. He agreed to lend it me.
I can remember how my room looked, how the row of back gardens and garages outside my bedroom window appeared in the late evening, as I reached the moment in the book that Harry finds out from the half-giant Hagrid that he is a wizard. I’d put the book down to reflect on the beginning of the story, and began grinning, hardly believing my luck. It’s one of my earliest memories of purposefully delaying further discovery of a brand new story, because I valued the precious moment of enjoying it for the first time. These days I tend to do it with movies I know I’ll love, I’ll leave them on the shelf for years at a time, as if they’re ageing like a good wine, ready to be experienced at the perfect moment. (Sidenote: I don’t necessarily recommend this process, it can occasionally backfire.) I was already in love with the world that J.K. Rowling had created, and it had barely even been revealed to me.
I don’t remember finishing the book, just feeling ever so slightly anxious that the second one wouldn’t take place at Hogwarts, the school for witchcraft and wizardry that Harry attends. (Wait, did I really just type that needless explanation out?) Chris assured me that it did, and promptly lent me the sequel, The Chamber of Secrets. I loved it even more than The Philosopher’s Stone, and recall being utterly chilled to the bone by the moment when Harry finds the final message: Her skeleton will lie in the chamber forever. *shudder* The series was utterly thrilling, in a way that the books of my youth had never delivered. My childhood favourites were of the Enid Blyton variety: The Adventurous Four, The Magic Faraway Tree etc. They were wonderful little adventures, and admittedly perhaps, catered more to under 10s. Harry Potter presented rich characters and believable relationships in an unbelievable setting. The adventure, intrigue and mysticism of Harry’s story was supported by an ever deeper beating heart that lay underneath and alongside the humour and charm of Rowling’s writing.
I would eventually borrow Chris’ copy of the third book, The Prisoner of Azkaban, rounding off what was then a trilogy of novels, all read at the perfect age of 11. I too was entering a new world at the time (high school) and the time and place of me finding the Harry Potter universe couldn’t have been more appropriate. I got lost in the world, fell in love with the characters, and had the good luck to grow up with the series as it continued until 2007, maturing along with the characters of the story. In 1999, I was starting high school, it was exciting, scary, and new. In 2007, I was a young adult, utterly lost, but hopeful. My experience with the series was bookended at very pivotal points in my life.
The excitement at getting to buy The Goblet of Fire, the fourth book, at launch in 2000, is truly hard to describe. Unaware of exactly when it would be coming out, I spotted it for sale in a makeshift book shop set up in my school, and was subsequently filled with adrenaline for the next few hours before I got home and begged my mum to buy it for me. The following day I returned to school, money desperately clutched in hand, bought the book, and cradled it in my bag like the Holy Grail, trying not to smirk broadly in Maths, knowing the NEW Harry Potter book was under my desk!
The movies were a whole other kind of excitement, which really peaked with the first two films, then my interest petered out for most of the middle of the cinematic series. I remained enraptured with the books however, and the only time I went to one of those midnight launch gimmicks was for The Deathly Hallows, the final of the seven novels. A car drove past WHSmith at 11:58pm, and a girl brandishing a copy out of the window bellowed “HARRY DIES! HARRY DIIIIIIES!”
At no point before it, and perhaps at no point ever again, did people take such utter glee in trying to spoil other’s enjoyment of something than on the launch of the last Harry Potter book. Weird. Nevertheless my reading experience was incredible, as I devoured the final novel wide-eyed and accompanied by a few boxes of Cadbury Milk Chocolate Fingers.
Harry Potter has provided me with an alluring escape at many difficult periods of my young life, whether it was bullying, depression, heartache, heartbreak, or life’s great evil: boredom. It’s one of the ultimate comforts, always there to transport me to a fictional plane that welcomes me warmly every time, whether it be through the movies, the written word, or even Stephen Fry’s delicately performed audio books.
I suppose this is a personal account of my history with these books (it is a blog after all, right?) and any attempt to answer why Harry Potter has been such a phenomenon over the past twenty years would be quite pointless, and yet I still feel like taking a bite sized shot at it. What Rowling did was combine elements that have been quite familiar in children’s fiction before (boarding school story, young witch and/or wizard story, distinctive British humour) but with the loaded and expertly crafted back story of Harry being an orphan, and the continued presence of death in his life. Then you follow it up with six more books that get progressively darker and mature, each making an almost seamless transition to the next.
I once heard that the death of Rowling’s mother heavily coloured her creation of Harry Potter, and that seems to really ring quite true, the entire story is all about mortality. I’m forever tied to a morbid fascination with death, it terrifies me as an eventuality, draws me in as an unknown experience, and captivates me as a subject to be explored in storytelling. Amidst all of the great characters, superb writing, razor sharp yet realistic wit, textured plot and tremendous fun that make up the skeleton, flesh and blood of Harry Potter, at its heart it is just that, heart.
The central theme is compassion, and, quite cheesily, but not ineffectively, the power of love. In the overall arc of the story, it’s quite a broad stroke, but it really is about how love is the most powerful and positive part of the human condition. From confronting your fears to doing the right thing, finding inner strength and courage, the importance and weight of friendship, and making sure you’ve managed your mischief, all of life’s great lessons are contained within the few thousand pages of Rowling’s magnum opus.
Authors and publishers the world over have no doubt been scrambling to create and discover the “next Harry Potter” for years, and that’s actually a phrase I have heard multiple times from writers, prompting an inner eye roll. There is no next Harry Potter, it’s a once in a lifetime occurrence, not too dissimilar, I would imagine, to The Lord of the Rings. A fantastical event story that truly captures that wonderful thing we all take for granted, and all have unlimited access to: imagination.
So I was perusing Facebook today, as you do, and I came across a wonderful little nugget of information on the site’s feature of showing you things you posted on this day, over the years. Among a bunch of fairly inconsequential flashbacks, I saw this:
Yes, five years ago today, at approximately 6:55 a.m., I finished watching a life changing movie: Seven Samurai.
So what is a “life changing movie” to a) address the wanky term, and b) further annoy Ian by using the word movie instead of “film”? Well, a life changing movie is a film that typically leaves me dumbfounded and/or moved as the credits roll, trying to process what I’ve just seen and how it affects my outlook on life. Seven Samurai ticked all those boxes, as I lay in bed at nearly 7 a.m. on October 21st 2011, wondering how I would get through my shift at work later that day, and also if I could ever make a film that good.
Spoilers: I can’t, and nor will I ever, but that’s okay. Seven Samurai completely opened my eyes to the seemingly never ending supply of great movies that history has to offer us, if we only make the effort to look for them. Made and released in Japan in 1954, Seven Samurai was one of many films from legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, another excellent movie in a string of classics he was pumping out, particularly in the 50s and 60s.
I’d vaguely heard of the film before, maybe from my dad who is a big fan of it, and I definitely remember reading about it in the TV guide one day in my youth and being mildly intrigued, but clearly not enough to watch a three hour film (and in black and white no less, yuck!)
I can’t remember what quite spurred me on to watch it in 2011, with a little help from my friendly uncle Don Load. At just under three hours it was quite an undertaking to watch, especially as I had chosen 3 a.m. to start this cinematic epic. I probably figured I’d get bored and just drift off to sleep, and while I did nod off occasionally, I was anything but bored. In fact, going against my usual “I’m sure I didn’t miss anything important” mentality when it comes to nodding off during films, I would jolt awake and rewind to make sure I was getting everything.
The story is set in feudal era Japan, and focuses on a quaint village that’s visited regularly by bandits, who take a sizable cut of their harvest in exchange for not attacking them. The villagers, driven mad with anger at the fear that has become instilled within them, and their shortage of food, decide they’re going to fight back. However they’re too cowardly to do it themselves, so the elder of the village sends a group into a nearby town to hire a group of samurai to protect them.
Setting up the samurai characters, mostly ronins, wandering samurai with no masters, takes about a full hour of the film itself, and I love that. The pace is slow but it never drags, as the characters are fully realised, with their own motives for taking up the cause, and their own histories as baggage. We then see the samurai attempt to prepare the villagers for battle when the bandits return, and close out with the battle itself, which takes days and probably another full hour of the film’s lengthy running time.
Rich with Kurosawa’s masterful control of the frame, in gorgeous black and white, the film has such an energy. Whether it comes from the powerhouse performance of Toshiro Mifune (one of my all time favourite actors) as the wild Kikuchiyo, the movement of the camera, the stillness of a moment where a character meets his maker in dreamy slow motion (not used much at the time), the rousing score or Takashi Shimura’s calm yet commanding portrayal of the unspoken leader of the samurai, Kambei. And it’s funny too. I’ll take Toshiro Mifune getting wide eyed with glee when the women come out to harvest over any modern comedy film for a laugh or two. On every conceivable level, the film just excels.
It changed my life because it lead me to watching other Kurosawa films, which lead me to watching more foreign films, which broadened my horizons greatly and now I can consider pretty much any film from any genre, era or country interesting (within reason). This is something I couldn’t have said five years ago, and if my aspirations of making my own films are to really come to fruition, then I truly believe it will be because of the films I’ve attempted to educate myself with. Films I would have never given a second thought if Seven Samurai hadn’t broken down the door of ignorance in the corner of my brain that dedicates itself to my love of movies.
It also has presented me with one of the best kinds of goals. An unachievable one. I would love to make a film that suspends someone’s disbelief as much as I can mine with Seven Samurai. What I mean is, if it weren’t for the fact that Seven Samurai features many great Japanese actors, who I’ve watched and enjoyed in dozens of other films, I could probably believe that Seven Samurai was actually a four hundred year old movie.
The level of authenticity that is achieved with Seven Samurai is astounding to me, and the fantastical idea of Akira Kurosawa finding this lost film that was made in 1586, and passed it off as his own, is almost plausible. I believe every frame of the film when it comes to the setting and the characters, from the set design to the costumes, the way the actors embody their roles and the long drawn out battle that is the antithesis of a typical movie action scene.
Of course, the film isn’t perfect, no film is, but I still hold it up as the best film I’ve ever seen. Every time I watch it, it’s an event, and I remember it well. The first time I watched it was the only time I’ve ever seen it alone, as I always strive to pass on the experience to someone else, or make it as memorable as the film deserves. I can’t just pop it on any old day, I need to plan towards it, or have a damn good reason to give either of my two Blu-ray copies a spin.
The second time I watched it, I introduced it to my fiancee Connie. I could never be totally sure how much she really enjoyed it, but by this time I had imported the American Blu-ray version, which boasts the full 207 minute restored cut of the film, so she had sat through three and a half hours and not wanted to kill me. This was before she really started to embrace watching older films as well. We chronicled the experience in the below video.
The third time I watched it in Norway, where I had just recently moved, at the same time as my YouTube friend Matt, who was watching at home in the UK. We chatted intermittently throughout the film during his first time viewing and it was a cool way to share the experience. The fourth time I watched it with my mum, in an interesting double bill, in which she showed me The Magnificent Seven (the excellent US remake of Seven Samurai) and I showed her Seven Samurai. We enjoyed noticing all the similarities between the samurai and gunslinger characters from each version, and getting to share my love with the film with my mum was great.
The fifth time was much the same as the third, simultaneously watching with a YouTube friend, this time while on Skype with CP, who watched the film for the first time over in New York. Whereas Matt was somewhat of an Asian cinema aficionado, CP, as he sometimes puts it, “struggles to get into anything made pre-1970.” He ended up really enjoying the film, conceding that it was “quite alright,” a quote I will tease him with forever. I’m still hoping to somehow rope my dad into sitting down long enough to watch it with me, but that’s a work in progress.
Seven Samurai also changed my life as it made me realise something quite important. Up until that point, the only films that I really loved, films that gave me so much pleasure from watching, were all genre films. Science fiction, fantasy, action, films with very specific goals in entertaining their audiences. Those films are still fine, and can still be great, but Seven Samurai showed me how a film that simply tells you a great story, with great characters, regardless of the setting, language or age of the movie, can be just as rewatchable, enjoyable, and entertaining. Nor are they just “slow paced foreign films.”
As a result I have found countless other films that give me the same kind of joy, that aren’t Back to the Future or Aliens (as brilliant as those films are.) Other films that give me inspiration for my own ideas for stories, whether they come to life through a novel or a film I’ll probably never get made. I’ll keep on chasing the endless dream and goal, of making a film as believable, disbelief suspending, entertaining, and everlasting, as Seven Samurai. I fully expect to never reach that goal, but it’ll be fun trying.
P.S. If you’re reading this and have never seen the film, don’t be shy, hit me up, and I’ll bring it over sometime.
P.P.S Here’s my “review” of the film, about sixteen hours after I had first watched it, for posterity.
So, my last post here was on February of 2013. 2013.
It got me thinking, back to when I was just about to move out for the first time, to move to a different country, and how much has changed since then. It would be fun to travel back to February 2013 Luke and tell him that in the space of three years he’d be going on to travel to America, attend a WrestleMania, see David Gilmour play live, write a book, finally lose all that weight, discover movies that would change his life, finally cut his hair short (and keep it that way to the point of long hair seeming odd), get paid to make videos about movies, have over a million people see those videos, and a plethora of other things.
A lot can change in a week. In three years things can become almost unrecognisable. While the changes in my life aren’t quite that drastic, it’s still quite odd to think every now and again how crazy it is that I’ve been living in Norway for over three years. This game could go on forever though, with thousands of variables, as I imagine myself reassuring 2007 Luke that in a couple of years my life would begin to completely change and to hang on in there. Or prompting 1996 Luke to ask that girl out, otherwise she would fade away completely. Or pushing 2003 Luke to just lean fucking forward and listen otherwise he’ll regret it forever.
Back in 2013 I had a vlogging channel, which I since abandoned, but have continued vlogging alongside all of my regular movie content on my YouTube profile RazorwireReviews. I even coined the term “vlogumentary” a couple of months after abandoning this blog, to fit my more elaborate, feature length event videos like the 24 Hour Movie Marathon, which take about as much effort as a film to make, but are essentially a long form vlog.
Part of me would love to get back to writing here, but hey, as Han Solo once said with a sly grin “it’s me.” I will endeavour to use this site for at least something and start logging entries for all of my vlogs, which will result in an absolute clusterfuck of a timeline, but I can catergorise them for easy access through this site which will be handy. I will probably include anything that is vlog-like, including the “vlogumentaries” and who knows, maybe I’ll pop back with written posts here and there.
I plan to finish off my novel Messages from Dad (coming to a book store near you in 2027) in November, so maybe I could even warm up my writing muscles by going back to some of those said key events over the past three years and write about them. I could fill a whole book with the US trip no doubt. Which also had a series of vlogs. Which I will also log here.
Well, well, well. I think that’s all for now. Just remember, wherever you go… there you are.
So every vlog I make on YouTube, ends with a link to this blog. Only I haven’t used this blog in over a month, yet I’ve recorded a vlog for every day of 2013 so far. I guess this means, for the time being, vlogs>blogs. And why is that? Well, it’s easier. Most of my vlogs are very stream of consciousness, talking about such utterly inconsequential things that on more than one occasion I have found myself becoming bored of what I’m even saying. Man that was a long sentence. Anyway, Norway soon. Just had my little bro Tommy over for a night and day, we went to see Wreck It Ralph, it was great. I’ve now updated the YouTube tab on the header of this site to link to my YouTube vlog channel. I’ve also added a menu bar to take you to my film production company, where my latest film has just been released.
It’s officially been 6 months and one, single, solitary day, since I last posted a blog here. Will I re-focus my efforts as a textbook “New Years Resolution”? No, probably not. I’ve got far too many things on my plate. I would apologise, but lets be realistic. The main bulk of reading on this blog site is done with my own eyes. It’s nice to look back and reflect, but I’ve found videos to be a quicker and easier way of doing that. I really was enjoying the blog writing when I kick started this new one off, but I always ends up feeling like there’s so much more to do.
Creatively, I feel smothered. I have books I want to write, films I want to make, graphics I want to design, videos I want to make for YouTube, archiving projects I want to complete, films I want to watch, TV shows I want to watch, books I want to read. Ok so maybe the last few weren’t exactly creative outlets but they do spur on my motivation. A good movie always sparks my interest in making my own masterpiece one day. I know there’s one in there somewhere. Whether I’ll manage to find it or not remains to be seen.
I have a set of “goals” for the year, and plan to contribute to one of them at least once a day. They are:
– Print a physical copy of my 2010 novel In The Flesh
– Write a new book that I will try to self publish
– Make a new film
– Complete the WCWe Documentary
– Attempt to regain my Herculean 13 year old physique
– Complete the No Stairway! Collection project
– Watch every Blu-ray I own
– Plan and prepare a LEJOG bike ride for 2014
– Watch every Akira Kurosawa film
– Watch more movies that I’ve never seen
– Make a video every day(partly to push myself into completing said goals)
So far I’ve been blasting away at the No Stairway! Collection project. A set of DVDs of all my old(and new) films, with extras, commentaries etc. The main bulk of time is coming from capturing stuff from VHS to DVD to laptop etc. Great fun though and funny to watch back also. I’m sticking to the goal of making a vlog or random video every day for this whole year, not including my main YouTube review channel. Yep, lot to do, but if I do it, I’ll somehow feel like my time here isn’t as wasted as it probably is.
Look out for the next blog post in many, many months. I’m moving to Norway in February. Eek!