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Five films that shaped me: from Ace Ventura to The Vanishing

28 mins read

Totally non-exhaustive, probably inaccurate, and could be heavily expanded on, but we don’t have sixty years. These are a selection of films that have had an impact on me beyond initial viewing- and I’m loathe to condense my choices.

When thinking about this idea, I found myself breaking into a cold sweat at the prospect of having to showcase only five films when I’m a total cinephile and prefer to maraud about wildly in fiction, lost to reality in a deliciously pleasant fuge state. It couldn’t be done, I said to myself, pacing furiously in front of a Victorian fireplace, while immediately preparing for exactly how it could be done.

I’ve had to eschew some of my favourites in order to convey impact, as opposed to “Battle Royale has some sweet fight scenes” and “Gangs of New York is sheer indulgence, if only for Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill.” (Infact just slap most of his films in here.) No, this article forces me to consider which films had a lasting impact beyond watching them obsessively, and Marge Simpson’ing “I just think they’re neat!” to anyone who will listen.

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Here I showcase a list that will probably infuriate me if I re-read it, cause me agony at the corkers I’ve had to patch, and result in fisticuffs with myself at dawn. I present, the (selected) five films that shaped me.

5. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls.

An 'Ace Ventura' Reboot Might Happen, But Fans Can Rest Easy In Knowing It  Won't Be An Exact Replica
Image Credit: Bustle

Right before you start I know it’s two films and I’m cheating before we’ve even dived into this list, but hear me out. The character of Ace Ventura is so ludicrous it cannot be contained in simply one film, and to evaluate, I simply must refer to both.

As a child of the 90’s, I shared in the Jim Carrey obsession of the time. Love him or hate him, Carrey had a unique delivery and style of physical comedy, with many coining him the man with a ‘rubber’ face for his facial contortions, and tendency to exaggerate his expressions and mannerisms to ridiculously amusing heights. An eye-ball bulge, an eyebrow wiggle, a wide, maniacal serial-killer smile, all part and parcel of the absurd Carrey package.

Critically panned, generally abysmally rated, Ace Ventura found a cult home amongst viewers that enjoyed a sense of abstract lunacy in their comedy. The dude literally has to find an American football dolphin (“Snowflake”) mascot in the first instalment, going through a range of elaborate disguises, ridiculous ideas, and hare-brained schemes to do so, resulting in a litany of comedy antics and capers that certainly didn’t appeal to everyone, but tickled the surrealist looney tunes vibe in me immensely.

I recall times in primary school where I would re-enact the entire films with friends, casting myself as Carrey of course, perfecting (or trying to) his delivery, exaggerated movements, and voice, leading to dismay amongst peers as we did the ‘Alrighty then’ meditation scene from When Nature Calls 700 times to the extent that Kubrick would have found us excessive.

With his “this wave is so gnarly” hairdo, Hawaiian shirt, striped trousers (I refuse to call them ‘pants’ they are TROUSERS America!) and smorgasbord of animal allies and accomplices, Ace Ventura is definitely one of the most recognisable characters of the 90’s and boasts a weirdly competent cast, including Carrey, Sean Young from Bladerunner fame, and Courtney Cox, the friend herself.

The vernacular that Carrey popularised has never left my vocabulary, much to the dismay and delight of associates in equal measure. A sharp head turn, a ludicrous eyebrow swizzle, an exaggerated smile that risks breaking my jaw- probably influenced by old Ace.

Some of the jokes haven’t aged well, and I’ll leave it with ‘product of time’ patter to avoid too much discussion, while acknowledging the offence it may have caused some people. I’m aware of the takes about Ace Ventura, but as a kid I never developed any negative associations or prejudices, and carried that into my adult life with ease. In the spirit of honesty about my influences, I can’t count how many times I’ve watched either movie in my life. A ridiculous amount that should have me tried for heresy. Regarding the impending trial, If I’m not back in 5 minutes, just wait longer. Alrighty then!

4. Kill Bill, Volume 1.

The Feminist Legacy of 'Kill Bill' Never Belonged to Quentin Tarantino |  IndieWire
Image Credit: Indiewire

My favourite of Tarantino’s waning brilliance, (I don’t rate Once Upon a Time in Hollywood or The Hateful 8 as on par with previous work, and he’s becoming self-parodying or too aware of what audiences know him for and want from him, but that’s another voluminous opinion-novel, and just my take.) Kill Bill turned me onto violent anime-ified Japanese culture at a far-too-young-age to be watching it, a recurring theme of myself and horror/violent films, and I still maintain it’s Tarantino’s most stylish affair.

Did anyone NOT develop a katana obsession after seeing it? Strictly talking about the first volume here; the second while still enjoyable had far less katana fights and I must stress that I’m writing about Kill Bill in relation to developing the common weeb virus- it was the first intro, aside from Linkin Park’s Breaking the Habit music video and Pokemon/Yu-gi-Oh, that yours truly had to the scene- and I was obsessed.

Yellow motorcycle leathers, katanas, and slick editing in urban and rural environments, with a healthy slash of stylish violence makes this a classic for me. Personally I think it’s the best role Uma Thurman has ever had, probably ruffling the Pulp Fiction feathers of some. For me it’s not contest, between the empowered assassin who is absolutely lethal, and the iconic gangsters moll with a drug habit. Look, she’s iconic in both, but she’s very clearly not wielding a blade in one of them is she?

I’m a big fan of rating fight scenes, and The Bride’s fight with the Crazy 88 is a brilliantly choreographed bloodbath, utilising both vivid colour and black and white to take us away from hyper-realism into an altogether Dynasty Warriors experience. One of Tarantino’s talents is this slick and stylish execution of violence that, in my opinion anyway, is far removed from provoking a repulsed or visceral reaction in audiences.

To those that can’t stand violence however, my take is clearly not going to gel with your appraisal. When a film-maker wants you to feel sick at what you are seeing, they will generally employ techniques Tarantino does not, with the exception of Django, where those awful whipping scenes are meant to make you feel ashamed, repulsed, and disgusted with white subjugation of Black individuals.

Kill Bill is a revenge flick. After watching male action heroes in more mainstream productions (I say this because female action heroes and villains have always existed in film, however there was a skew towards casting men in those roles as we can observe) I had a giddy sense of identification with The Bride. Not that I wanted to massacre folk of course, but that she was cool. Kill Bill is just endlessly cool to me, which may suggest a defect but I’m vibing with it. Aesthetically pleasing, chock full of katana battles, with a strong cast including Daryl Hannah, Lucy Liu, Michael Madsen for a split second in Volume one, and of course, David Carradine.

The only part I’d criticise for the whole ‘is this necessary’ question in retrospect is the hospital assault: she’s already been through enough and we get it Tarantino, she’s justified in her actions. It’s gross and clearly meant to evoke feelings of such, but I do question as to it’s necessity in story. Even to illustrate she’s had one of the worst runs of it ever, it’s probably overkill.

If you see me cutting about with a ludicrous replica Odachi, you know what to blame. Aside from myself.

Wiggle your big toe.

3. Matilda

Matilda (PG) - Relaxed Film Screenings at The Atkinson, SouthportThe  Atkinson
Image Credit: The Atkinson

Another 90’s classic right? Well actually, despite being critically acclaimed on release, Matilda failed to return a profit at the box office, the hallmark of modern Hollywood’s perception of success. Thankfully this attitude was not so egregious then, although I’m sure DeVito was seething about the returns in his capacity as producer, as well as his iconic role as megalomaniacal father to our protagonist, obsessed with getting Sticky with Mickey and generally being absolutely appalling in a gloriously devilish way.

Matilda appealed to me in the way it appealed to all children who felt at odds with their family. The fact I was around the same age, same hairstyle, and same obsessive interest in reading (something I lament not doing as much of in my adult life) fuelled the fire considerably, and led to strange feelings of both relating to the character of Matilda, and adoring the absolute fruitcake that was Agatha Trunchbull.

Now, DISCLAIMER, my parents are not the Wormwoods, nor do I approve of Trunchbull’s pigtail patter despite chortling at it like a storm drain, but there was a delicious sense of being stunned into incredulousness with the antics of these people. An indication into my sense of humour I suppose; surreal, slapstick and unconscionable, with good witty japes thrown in. The ludicrousness of Trunchbull combined with old Harry and Zinia Wormwood as back up villains shaped my sense of humour considerably, cackling at things I’d denounce wholeheartedly in reality.

Trunchbull is a legend, with Pam Ferris capturing the public with her deranged performance making her one of the most iconic figures to grace a primary school. A bellowing bull of sheer comedy gold, and a warped role model- just bin the sadism and penchant for offing folks Dad’s to steal their house.

Roald Dahl depictions are rarely rubbish, working with good source material. However, I think Matilda is one of the truest movie-to-book adaptations of his work, something DeVito was praised for as surprise, he was also the director. How did this man have the time to perfectly execute sociopathic, car-dealer swindler Harry so well? Stellar.

Aside from just admiring the morally devoid characters, Matilda herself is an updated version of various female characters throughout literary history whom have chosen books over looks as Zinia would say, although the reality is that you can have both as Matilda, and to a greater extent, Miss Honey prove. A hero for the smart little girl who is mischievous and strong willed, who refuses to conform to the expectations laid out by her family. A Queen, essentially.

One of my party tricks with peers and family throughout high school, college, and to this very day is the perfect recital of the Bruce Bogtrotter cake scene, playing both Agatha herself and poor, unfortunate Bruce with gusto. I’ve only been asked to do it once by a lecturer, and thankfully or unfortunately, depending on your constitution, they forgot by the end of class to ask me to prove it. This is not an invitation to inundate me with requests, but if you do, challenge accepted. Do not question me on Trunchbull dialogue. God what has this film done to me?

In this classroom, in this school, I- am- GOD!

2. The Vanishing (1988)

European Film Awards Reviews: Spoorloos (The Vanishing) (1988)
Image Credit: Seongyong’s Private Place

I’ve mulled over this choice, wondering if there are horror films that illustrate my taste better, like the original Suspiria and pretty much all of Argento’s work before the 1980’s, or the Dawn of the Dead remake that made me terrified to walk home after an illicit 11 year old viewing at a mates, that I saw before any of Romero’s original zombie films. I decided to showcase a film that is critically acclaimed, yet hasn’t broken into the mainstream consciousness of horror greats, and explain why out of all the great horrors I feel it shaped an aspect of myself more so than others: the lesson that the unseen is often more powerful than the seen, and that the imagination of a viewer is ultimately its own horror beast.

I also considered The Exorcist III for this slot, due to its focus on descriptive dialogue rather than showing you horrendous bloody murders, and Brad Dourif’s amazingly creepy delivery. Ultimately, I decided to throw spotlight on the Dutch masterpiece instead. Go home Exorcist, you’ve invaded the public psyche enough. (But for real, watch The Exorcist III, it’s one of the few sequels that is actually decent. Avoid the second one at all costs.)

Firstly it’s important to establish I don’t mean the relatively trash American remake that has car chases and other unnecessary Hollywood-isms that totally miss the point of building suspense in arguably one of the most subtle ways shown in a horror film/dark drama. I saw what they did to Oldboy. Recently when propositioning someone to watch it, I realised I’d acquired the 1992 version and was promptly compelled to cleanse myself down with one of those wiry silver scrubbers in penance. I HAVE SINNED.

The Vanishing is an exercise in bloodless fear, with little physical/violent conflict depicted, and a choice posited towards one man that, if he accepts, he will discover knowledge of that which he desires most, at an unknown and potentially devastating price.

I watched this, having rifled through my Dad’s DVD’s when I was around 13, and it was the first film, and perhaps one of the only films that made me scared to nip to the bathroom afterwards despite it being firmly rooted in human, natural fear. That is to say, no monsters, spirits, or otherworldly elements that could suddenly manifest in the bog at 3AM, save for stray family members.

This has been a constant in me, where despite loving a variety of genres, particularly within horror, the idea of the perpetrator being just one of us has always compelled and scared me more than the supernatural. This is not unsurprising given I don’t believe in ghosts or similar elements, but I love to get behind anything spooky regardless if I believe. I’ll never rain on your ghost walk parade, if anything I’d come along and pretend to have felt ‘an eerie presence’ and all that jazz, do the Derek Acorah patter.

The Vanishing deals with human curiosity, and how sometimes the only way to satisfy it is to put yourself in the position of the person whom you are curious about. It’s about the unknown and how it scrabbles about in your mind, embedding itself to the point where even if it is ludicrously dangerous to continue to seek the information, you simply cannot stop yourself. The human need to know, at any cost.

I’d be spoiling a potentially brilliant cinema experience by rambling on about the plot in more detail, but I must acknowledge that by modern horror’s standards, it would be considered a snooze fest for the jump-scare crowd. Horror has, like all genres, went through so many different trends and iterations, and audiences somewhat expect the cinematic experience of ‘every ten minutes there’s a visual scare that doesn’t make sense but AHA we got you!’ and it leaves me the old senile crone, ruining everyone’s enjoyment because I’m too busy analysing why it doesn’t make sense to include it.

The Vanishing made me scared in a new and different way, probably for the first time. Knowing your protagonist is willingly choosing to endanger themselves, for the reasons our main does, creates not a fear of the unknown, but a fear of ourselves, how far we are willing to push for information and to satisfy our curiosities. As someone who fancies themselves a bit of an old writer, it was an invaluable exercise in how the subtleties of the human psyche can be far scarier than the most horrific acts of violence depicted graphically.

The book it’s based on is called The Golden Egg too, so it’s obviously cracking.

  1. Mulholland Drive.
New 4K digital restoration of David Lynch's 'MULHOLLAND DRIVE' to be  released in cinemas from 14th April, 2017 | The Arts Shelf
Image Credit: The Art Shelf

David Lynch’s 2001 masterpiece is the last film I remember ugly crying to. This is the kind of film that obsesses you to the extent that you go on every conceivable forum after viewing, desperate to share your theories with others and intrigued to discuss the subtext, leading to a Topsy Kretts meltdown a la The Number 23 where your hotel walls are covered in mind maps, ancient runes, and your own tears.

Lynch is known for his non-linear narratives (Blue Velvet, Eraserhead) and is known to many as the Twin Peaks geezer. Mulholland Drive is perhaps arguably his most linear, and trust me it isn’t linear. At all. However, I do agree with the estimation of other critics and viewers that it is indeed his most coherent narrative.

This shaped me in that I didn’t know I could still be affected by a film to that extent. Bear with me, it was a rough time and I felt like I’d literally watched everything that was ‘good’ after hiding in my bedroom-bunker for years pouring over the greats.

I saw Mulholland Drive far too late on in life, a sort of jaded cinephile who felt a bit numb to a lot of new content they were seeing. I’d had it downloaded for some time, but at that point I struggled to focus my attention on films if I wasn’t in the mood, and I was really having a bad five years at the time.

This view is obviously ridiculous and pessimistic, and suggests a sort of pretentious obsession with the ‘old days’ which I fully admit RE cinema, I wear the badge, but pretentious? I wouldn’t say so. Brilliant films still get made, I just have a silly affinity for the pasto’s, people from the past, as Jez of Peep Show fame would say.

There’s one specific scene in Mulholland Drive where the reality we are presented with gives way to the actual reality, a common theme in Lynch’s work, the idea of perception being reality and perception being subjective. It absolutely killed me the first time I saw it. It tied the film together, and I immediately understood what Lynch was trying to present, the inherent meaning of the work. There’s a moment when watching a film, or observing a painting, reading a book etc, where you just intrinsically get it and it hits you hard, (if the author/director/artist is competent and has an underlying message or theme that is.) and suddenly all the pieces fall together.

Mulholland Drive was like a gunshot wound for me when I got it. The vulnerability of dreams, love, and the corruption and lie of Hollywood intersplice to create a powerful, moving piece of work that deals with all the broken dreams inside a human, and how the mind desperately tries to correct even our own actions to mediate the dissonance between reality and fantasy.

Angelo Badalamenti’s score is sublime, and as another reason why this film shaped me, I contemplated the importance of that score and music in informing the viewers interpretation and regulating their mood; the old cheeky ‘sad song to make them weep’ mantra, but with actual substance to back it up.

The final important lesson I took away from Mulholland Drive was the notion that as a writer, you do not have to explain everything. Often my writing suffers as a result of fearing misinterpretation or miscommunication, and one must be bold in the use of ambiguity. It’s incredibly effective and freeing, supplanting the daunting feeling of having to spell it all out painstakingly. Lynch is a master of utilising the non-linear narrative to his advantage, to create strange, dream-like worlds where reality and perception converge into a distinctly Lynch-esque feel.

One must trust the audience to get it. It’s so much more rewarding when you do. Props also for Rebekah Del Rio’s Spanish language cover of Roy Orbison’s Crying– it makes the scene I referenced above. Makes it.

As we approach the end of this list, it strikes me I could do a cheeky wee honourable mentions, but ultimately I chose these films to illustrate their personal impact on me rather than a list of films I like and could analyse the blue suede shoes off of. The reality is that most of the media we consume influences us, albeit to differing degrees, and I’d be here until the rapture if I tried to explain it all. Sorry Hunchback of Notre Dame and your fabulous singing gargoyles- one day your legacy and influence will be told.

Featured Image Credit: Rachel Swan/Getty/Indiewire/IMBd

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