review

Nirbhaya Play Review

My viewing of the theatre piece, Nirbhaya, was in a rather timely manner. The last few weeks have been saturated with debate about the documentary India’s Daughter – a documentary which covers the same event that is the focal point of Nirbhaya. That event being the gangrape and murder of 23 year old doctor-in-training Jyoti Singh.

Whilst India’s Daughter has spurned a wave of debate on a spectrum of issues, from sexual violence in India, to capital punishment, to those defending Delhi against its new label of ‘rape capital of the world’, Nirbhaya remains focused on one issue alone: breaking the silence.

Nirbhaya, a word that was attributed to Jyoti Singh under circumstances when she could not be named as the victim of the crime, means ‘fearless.’ This theatre piece, and the cast within it are beyond deserving of that title. Nirbhaya sets out to tell the story of Jyoti Singh, and how the events of 16th December became a catalyst and a source of strength for women across India. Suddenly, silence was an option no more.

Jyoti Singh, or 'Nirbhaya' played by Japjit Kaur

Jyoti Singh, or 'Nirbhaya' played by Japjit Kaur

The piece explores four true backstories of the cast in the play. Each of them highlights the ubiquitous and rampant gender violence and injustice sweeping India, ranging from those who were abused as children to those as adults, and those for whom it was by close family to those for whom it was by a complete stranger. It was perhaps halfway through that it clicked with me that the stories being told weren’t just true stories, but were attributed to the cast members portraying the story too – a realisation that hit incredibly hard.

In a Q&A following the show, one cast member explained her feeling of regret in keeping her story locked up for so long, highlighting that Jyoti Singh may still be alive had gender violence been an issue that was challenged sooner. With all that is going on in India at the moment, and the global focus on India’s culture in the wake of India’s Daughter, this piece is harrowing but absolutely essential. Nirbhaya, indeed.

 

View the website for more on Nirbhaya and for upcoming shows.

It Follows Review

A smart and suspenseful horror that toys with traditional tropes before moving into true originality.

Year on year we are granted with the same supernatural endeavours by seemingly incestuous teams. The Paranormal Activities, Insidiouses, Conjurings, and Sinisters of this world perpetuate Tobe Hooper’s classic plotline in Poltergeist of 1) An innocent family moves into a house 2) house is haunted and gets gradually more dangerous. The threat is invariably a spiritual being, and the solution is often made gradually more tangible as the film progresses. Indeed, ideas are running so low that Poltergeist itself is set for a 2015 remake.

Enter It Follows, and we’re presented with a supernatural horror that breaks these trends and unsettles viewers like the original Poltergeist did those many years ago.

Maika Monroe takes the lead role as Jay in It Follows.

Maika Monroe takes the lead role as Jay in It Follows.

The title of It Follows is apt, as that is the plot for the bulk of the movie. The protagonist is Jay, a 19 year old girl from a sheltered suburban environment. Just beginning to grapple with growing up, she is soon thrown into a damned future after a seemingly innocent sexual encounter. Chloroformed by her partner, she awakes tied to a wheelchair. He explains that he has ‘passed it on’ to her and he previously had it passed onto him. It never ceases to follow, and it is slow but it isn’t stupid. It can take the form of anyone, from a stranger in the crowd to a best friend or parent. The only way to rid yourself is via a sexual encounter, thus passing it on.

There is no slow build-up of gradually increasing danger over weeks in Jay’s life, as the aforementioned films typically do. Instead, the film thrusts into suspense, confusion, and fear for its remaining duration.

Jay and her childhood friends band together to try and comprehend what’s going on. This cohort aren’t savvy frat-house guys or screaming sorority girls; they’re real teenagers making it easy to develop empathy. They’re goofy but caring, making in-jokes about one another whilst never faltering in their attempts to protect Jay. In this regard the film was similar to Spielberg’s Super 8, itself a homage to 1980s childhood adventure movies like The Goonies and Stand By Me. Adults are resigned to the background or as the current chosen form for ‘it’.

‘It’ is perfectly terrifying. Inspired by director David Robert Mitchell’s repeated childhood nightmare, its origins are never explained – a bold move as that sense of closure is never reached for the viewer. Instead we know those few rules we were given.

And the concept is terrifying. It always follows and never sleeps, even when Jay does. And its shape-shifting means that the viewer is constantly questioning background characters and whether they’re shuffling slowly towards Jay or merely ambling through their daily lives. The use of human characters as the source of horror is effective, with some variations of ‘it’ being truly haunting, as with The Sixth Sense’s various ghostly creations, which similarly had the viewer guessing as to what was real and what was an apparition.

All of this wouldn’t have had the profound effect that it does had it not been for the impeccable cinematography and sound design. Dream-like hazy visuals of suburban America merge with jarring suspense-building shots of ‘it’ gradually approaching. Some of the films finest moments include beautiful widescreen shots of Jay’s sleepy neighbourhood, and panoramic visuals of the environments.

This is married with Richard Vreeland's impeccable score. 80s synth is most prevalent, shifting perfectly between the said dream-like haziness to an unsettling noise when in the presence of ‘it’. The result is Drive-esque; rich, striking, and at times visceral. It is the third major component to a movie that is otherwise about Jay and her friends, and ‘it’.

The lingering sense of paranoia when you leave the cinema sits alongside the overwhelming sense of novelty from the movie. In recent years, many have tried to reverse typical horror tropes, such as Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, and Cabin in the Woods. It Follows doesn’t do this in such a palpable and overt way, and should be rewarded for that subtlety. Instead, it makes those tropes its own, not unlike Eden Lake, and as such sets a new benchmark for supernatural horror.

Score: 4.5/5

ind out more about It Follows on IMDB.

The Almond Tree Review

The Almond Tree is a small café based in Brighton serving exclusively vegetarian and vegan food. Its modest, unassuming exterior hides some of the best quality and lovingly created food in the south-east of England. The aim is not to impress with long lists of fancy ingredients and decorative displays of food, but neither is it to offer simple and easy dishes to the masses. It's a labour of love, where every single dish feels like it has been made especially for you. Many restaurants aim for that home-cooked meal feeling but fall short, whilst The Almond Tree has you enjoying good food, whilst evoking a hint of nostalgia for familial cooking.

I've been to The Almond Tree several times before, but this review is going to be slightly different. Firstly, the café closed for several months towards the end of 2014, and has recently been refurbished. Secondly, this is taken from their Valentine's Day special menu - the first of their planned event evenings. Normally, they shut in the evenings, so food is a breakfast/lunch affair. But this three-course meal provides an apt opportunity to review the café anyway.

Review

Before headed for the Almond Tree, my partner and I picked up some drinks. This was a BYOB event, which I think is always a plus. You get to choose exactly what you'd like, without paying obscene amounts for a bottle of wine or a few beers. If BYOB isn't to your taste, there were still drinks on offer at the café, so really it's a matter of preference, but you can't deny having the option is a bonus.

When we turned up, the lovely staff greeted, introduced themselves, shook our hands and took our coats. It's that initial personal touch that makes The Almond Tree an experience, and not just about the cuisine.

But it didn't stop there. Just a couple of minutes after we'd be shown to our table, we were offered a (free) glass of Prosecco to start the evening. We sat sipping our Prosecco, and were able to see the chef cooking our meals in the open plan kitchen just metres away. This filled the room with rich aromas of roasting vegetables and gentle spices.

The first course was a parsnip and ginger soup, topped with sliced fried tofu and kale crisps. A warm, thick, wintery soup that was smooth and packed with flavour. The tofu was fried to perfection - chewy yet tender, and marinating before my eyes in the delicious soup, whilst the kale crisps provided a nice contrast to the texture. Initially I thought they may be a bit out of place in this soup, but as soon as I tasted the combination it all felt right, with the kale slowly turning soft as it sat in the soup. A brilliant start.

Ginger and parsnip soup with kale and chewy tofu

Ginger and parsnip soup with kale and chewy tofu

Tofu and spinach bake

Tofu and spinach bake

Our main was being prepared as we ate, ensuring wait times between dishes was minimal. I was unsure what to expect from the main. The menu read 'tofu and spinach bake on a celeriac and nutmeg puree, served with cherry tomatoes confit and crispy vegetables.' I saw the chef finishing the meal, and the other staff armed with cameras taking photos of the creation, again showing the real sense of pride about the dishes that were coming out of the kitchen.

Rest-assured, the food was delicious. The tofu and spinach bake was reminiscent of an omelette. Again, beautifully cooked tofu presented a meaty texture which began to crumble in the mouth. The cherry tomatoes were divine, and the puree added a sweet flavour to the other components of the dish. The vegetables acted as a nice side, but the main event was definitely the bake itself. My tofu misadventures (particularly baking and grilling efforts) have demonstrated how difficult it is to cook with that good ol' block of soya, so this was really quite an impressive dish.

The final dish on the menu was fresh fruit, soya and coconut whipped cream, and chocolate drops. That description does not do this justice. I was fully expecting (and would have been happy with) a plate of fruit and chocolate chips, and a side pot of cream. What came out was more like a sundae; a martini glass with the components layered. Whilst the initial soup was like a farewell to the cold winter months that had just passed, the dessert was like a greeting to summer. Sumptuous fresh berries marinating in juice combined with a thick, sweet cream and shavings of dark chocolate. So simple, yet the superlative point of the meal. Delightful.

Coconut cream sundae

Coconut cream sundae

Enjoying the lovely Almond Tree!

Enjoying the lovely Almond Tree!

And before we could leave, we were brought a plate of homemade truffles - thick, sticky dark chocolate to end a brilliant meal.

As mentioned, The Almond Tree is a labour of love. Every ingredient to the experience, both literal and otherwise, is provided with the sole aim of creating dishes that can be deemed as perfect. It'll never win awards for innovative cooking, or gastronomic brilliance. But instead it offers something much more important: a sense of passion in everything they do.

Serial Podcast Review

How does one even begin to explain Serial? You know that feeling you get when you’re trying to explain a magnificent sprawling epic of a book to a friend? Or perhaps a film riddled with plot twists and double-sided characters? So that when you start attempting to explain the concept it all just sounds like a jumbled mess, but you cannot stress enough that it just has to be experienced? That’s kind of like Serial, the latest podcast phenomenon from the creators of This American Life.

The alleged perpetrator, Adnan Syed (Credit: Serial Podcast)

The alleged perpetrator, Adnan Syed (Credit: Serial Podcast)

I’ll have a bash at explaining it anyway. Serial follows host Sarah Koenig’s excavation of a 15 year old cold case in Baltimore County. The case is that of a murder of a 17 year old student, Hae Min Lee, and the convicted Adnan Syed. Adnan has been in prison since the early 2000s. A large part of the reasoning for this was a witness account provided by Adnan’s supposed accessory to the crime, Jay. Adnan himself, and many many people who knew him continue to this day to proclaim his innocence.

The 12 episode series follows the developments of the story as Sarah Koenig works through it, piece-by-piece. No stone is left unturned, as the case shifts between objective and empirical evidence about the plausibility of the murder itself, to the subjective and opinion-led scrutiny of the key constituents in the story. All of this comes with the overwhelming caveat that the case is being re-examined 15 years later, and many of the witnesses and people who lived within the community have gone from being young high school students to adults in that time.

That’s all I’ll say about the narrative of this case, as the more depth I go into, the more twists will be spoiled. There are a few things that make Serial an outstanding achievement though; a few running themes which elevate it from a real life ‘who-dunnit’ to a masterful dissection of American living.

Firstly, in terms of personalities, there are few absolutes. Nearly every witness comes across as somewhat confused about the crime. Everyone has done good and bad things. It is difficult to trust anyone. People who you feel you can put full faith in commonly do a 180 just minutes later. This is most apparent with Adnan, the supposed perpetrator, and his chief prosecuting witness, Jay. Throughout Serial’s journey you will find yourself consistently questioning both of them. We know that one of them is lying right from the get go, but Serial will sway your conviction on who is doing so multiple times throughout.

In part, this comes down to its second profound theme: memory. As mentioned, 15 years have passed since the murder. For every character, certain events stick in their mind, others have vanished. And for those that have stuck, how have they altered? How has context swayed and affected their judgement? Serial demonstrates the fragility of memory, even among events that one would think they’d never forget.

Finally, the legal system of the United States. Serial is a damning portrayal of this system, and its role in general society. This isn’t a conspiracy theory-esque exposé of corruption, but an examination of how the legal system actually works (or at times, doesn’t); it’s a flawed behemoth that can target and destroy people because... well, because. This is not a spoiler, and it is not claiming that the legal system failed as such, just that there are proceedings in this case and any case that, once understood, should shock and outrage most people. Serial brings these to light in the context of this narrative, and makes you question exactly what we mean by the term ‘justice’.

Besides these themes, Serial has achieved greatness in another sense. Rarely have I seen any series, much less a podcast series, lead to the development of such a massive, intelligent and enthused community. Google Trends shows an explosion of interest in the topic since its inception a little over 12 weeks ago. News articles are rife, and full of examination and analysis of the story. The subreddit for Serial has grown rapidly in a matter of weeks, and is home to perhaps the most interesting speculation and uncovering of the case outside of the show itself. This has reinvigorated podcasts as a medium, and indeed has inspired entire legions of people who don’t even touch podcasts to begin listening to them more frequently. For that alone, it deserves some applause.

Hae Min Lee, the victim (Credit: abc2 News)

Hae Min Lee, the victim (Credit: abc2 News)

Before closing, it’s important to reiterate that this is a real case. Hae Min Lee really died back in 1999. Sometimes it’s easy to forget this, and treat it as though it is merely a story. Indeed, by reviewing the podcast you could say that I’m doing exactly that. But I’d like to pay my respects to Hae Min Lee here. I mentioned the series' lack of absolutes – one person who is absolute is Hae herself, the innocent victim of this crime, and in these community discussions she is often sidelined for discussions on who did it and the plausibility of witness narratives. Currently, people are trying to raise money for a scholarship fund in Hae Min Lee’s name. It's a worthy cause and deserves our support.

In essence, Serial is a groundbreaking achievement. It’s with no hyperbole that I say that it’s one of the finest podcasts to have ever been made, from its structure, to the analysis of the case itself, to the community of would-be detectives it has inspired. Quite simply, you must listen to it, and form your own judgements on topics ranging from the case itself to the macrocosmic issue of America’s legal system - perhaps the real criminal at the heart of this crime.

Score: 4.8/5

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You can listen to Serial at http://serialpodcast.org/

Dear Esther Review

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Ken Levine, creator of the Bioshock franchise, has been attributed with the quote “the world is the best narrator” when it comes to video games – a sentiment that was most recently reiterated by Hidetaka Miyazaki, who stated over Twitter that “the greatest tool for narrative is the world you create for it to exist in. A well designed world could tell its story in silence.” With Levine's latest, Infinite, audiences have been split over the narrative of the game: most agree that the story is fantastic, but division exists over how well that particular story is told. With this in mind, it is an apt time to revisit indie game Dear Esther, which has recently been released for Linux, and stands as a bastion of interactive environmental storytelling. An experience which takes you through themes of catharsis, closure, and loneliness in approximately two hours, with little more than a desolate Hebridean island and a deluded narrator to weave the story together, Dear Esther explores boundaries in plot delivery, gameplay, and even what it means to be a 'video game'.

Dear Esther 4

The game started as an experiment by indie studio, The Chinese Room, before evolving under the hand of former DICE employee Robert Briscoe. Dear Esther lacks almost any recognisable video game tropes from health-bars, to items of any kind, or even death in the traditional video game sense. In fact, the closest the player will come to dying throughout the game are a couple of narrow mountain paths, and venturing too far out to sea during exploration, at which points the game will promptly transport the protagonist back to a few seconds before death. This is a game that doesn't want you to die – it wants you to experience it.

And a sensational experience it is too. The game plays out over four areas, with one goal of reaching a radio-mast that is visible in the distance from the very start. During progression, objects and images are scattered across the areas which relate to the narrator's backstory and his reason for being on this island. These are pieced together by short inclusions and passages from the narrator as the island is explored, based on what's been discovered. The voice acting deserves applause of its own – the monologues are powerful and emotionally evocative, creating, as with the rest of the game, a sense of poignancy whilst never feeling contrived.

A shipwreck on a beach

The game is set on a linear path, but is laden with extras and hidden treats for the explorer. Every sight in this game adds to the overarching narrative, and relates in some way. Those who stray from the path will find extra bricks to use in building the story – a tale which is never truly revealed to you, and thus every chance to explore should be taken. Unravelling this tale of misery avoids the tokenistic explorative elements of other games. The game never feels like a collect 'em up – something which even those more narrative driven linear experiences suffer from, such as the aforementioned Bioshock series. If anything, one of my few complaints is that I would have liked more – more side-paths, more caves, and more exploration. And explore you'll want to. The island is one of the most hauntingly beautiful settings I've ever experienced in a video game. The decade old Source Engine proves that it is far from obsolete, as it commits itself fully to the task of rendering this visually distinct island into existence. Decrepit buildings stand strong against the emptiness of the landscape, filled with signs of a time gone by. Foliage sways dutifully in response to the winds rushing over the landscape. Waves crash up against distance rocks in their failed effort to reach the shoreline. Caves, littered with stalactites and stalagmites, glisten from the trickles of water running down their walls. And, through the clouds and fog, the ominous radio-mast stands beckoning the player with brief flashes from its red signal light.

Radio mast on a hill

Of course, this would do nothing for immersion were it not for the stellar sound design. I have already touched upon the voice acting, but this is just the icing on the audible cake. The harsh coastal weather adds to the melancholic tone of the overall game, whistling past the player's ears with little opportunity for shelter. The soundtrack by Jessica Curry does not directly influence the game or the player, instead serving to echo the scenery and solitude of the setting. As such, its place is close to perfect, with only rare instances where it feels intrusive.

At only two hours long, it is easy to praise Dear Esther. The game never outstays its welcome. It is a game with very little 'gameplay' at all. It requires no skills to play through, besides your ability to ascertain the plot from what you're provided. And whilst replay value is there (the narration changes, as do objects and certain scenes, with each play through), the game almost doesn't give you enough time for annoyances and cracks to appear. Yet I can't help feeling that The Chinese Room have done more for gaming than most AAA games that I've experienced recently.

Cave

This is a game I'd be happy to show my grandparents – avid anti-gamers since the day I first brought a Game Boy to their house at the age of six. They would gain as much from this experience as I did. Whilst I'm not advocating gaming as a discipline for everyone, Dear Esther proves that gaming is a powerful art-form and storytelling device. A game that deserves every second of the two hours it'll take to play through it – each of those seconds drenched in beauty and meaning.

The narration by Dear Esther's world is a pinnacle point of video gaming, and one that Ken Levine and his ilk should notice. Bioshock Infinite may have been ten times the length of Dear Esther, but Dear Esther had less than 0.03% of the budget of Infinite's $200 million, and I'm struggling to decide which gave me the most richly realised world out of the two – although I know which my grandparents would choose. As it stands now, The Chinese Room are developing the sequel to Amnesia: The Dark Descent, entitled Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, which will be available later this year. Dear Esther has served as a great warm-up for this, and I eagerly await to see what the team manage to achieve with Amnesia's horrific world. In the meantime, pick up Dear Esther and let me know what your granny thinks of it.