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Amiens – Accueil des Assistants

Yesterday was ridiculous. I actually feel quite sorry for people who paid 100€+ for transport and a hotel in Amiens.

My chronic, terminal laziness paid off, for once; because I forgot to book a hotel room, I was forced to get the train from Laon to Amiens in the morning. I paid 13.50€ for the train ticket, and 13.50€ back in the evening. Everyone who booked a hotel in Laon paid an additional ~100€.

The reason we paid all this money was so that we could sit in a lecture hall for seven hours, listening to several people waffle on in French, hand in some papers, and collectively lose our will to live. I actually saw a few people on the verge of tears, due to the sheer amount of paperwork we have to do. It genuinely is unbelievable. A few days ago, I complained about La Bureaucratie Interminable, but I now retract all those complaints, because compared to my current avalanche of papers, that was like filling in a colouring book.

I’m in McDonalds right now, hoping that if I ignore it, it will just go away.

The only practical benefit of the Assistants’ orientation day was that we got to hand in our documents so that we can get our salary, and told that we are not allowed to take a full class by ourselves.

It was nice to meet the other assistants in the Amiens académie too. I felt a bit inadequate, as some of them are practically bilingual, and some of them are one shade off being Hermione Granger – ‘I never know if I should use the subjunctive in a question like that! I mean, I do, just in case as I know all the subjunctives…’ – and then there’s me; someone who forever forgets the word for ‘chicken’.

At least I managed to follow the conference. Most of the speakers were kind enough to speak clearly, but one of the académie’s chief administrators decided that Friday October 4th 2013 was the day that the Guinness world record in speed-talking would be shattered. That was nightmarish, not helped by the fact that she ripped through the highly crucial slideshow as though she were skipping through embarrassing holiday photos.

In summary, it was great to meet the other assistants, and it was nice to see Amiens, but the conference itself was just there to indulge the French’s bizarre obsession with paperwork, procedure, and protocol. Everything that was said could have been said either in a quarter of the time, or in a series of succinct emails.

Oh well.

Right, rant over, time for an update.

I went back to see scary bank lady, – who is now to be referred to as ‘lovely bank lady’, – and managed to sort out my bank account and other financial shenanigans. I still have to wait over a week for my cheque book and bank card, and subsequently anything that requires a cheque book or bank card, but it’s nice to know that I have a usable French bank account.

My room is still as bereft of internet as a North Korean home, but that should change soon. 3G packages here aren’t too bad, and as I’m not paying rent, I can afford a decent one, but all that will have to wait until I get my bank card. The same goes for a phone contract; I’m paying a lot to use my UK EE phone on roaming, and I won’t be able to fix that until I sort my bank card.

School-wise, nothing much has been happening. I’ve not been needed for any classes, I’ve still not received a timetable, and I’ve not had any angry emails, so I’m assuming that all’s well.

I usually try to get to the staff room for a couple of hours per day, just in case, but I usually end up sitting at one of the computers, struggling with the AZERTY keyboards, and being talked at by French teachers.

I’m still too scared to speak entirely in French. If I’m forced too – e.g. unaccompanied at the bank, or the railway station, or talking to someone who doesn’t speak English – then I give it my best and it usually goes okay, but with my colleagues at the school, it’s just too easy to speak English. I’ve not even been here two weeks yet, so I’m giving it time. I already feel a lot more confident in speaking French than when I first arrived, but it is a challenge.

That’s all for now. I plan on risking my schizophrenic oven tonight and making curry. So, if you don’t hear from me for a while, it means that my oven decided to turn into a supercollider and created a black hole in north eastern France.

Hopefully that won’t happen.

A bientôt!

‘Pretend you don’t speak French!’ – Les Premiers Jours au Lycée Méchain

That won’t be hard.

This advice was given to me by every English teacher at Méchain individually. Their logic is that if I don’t understand what the kids say in French, they have to say it in English and subsequently I won’t have to take any lessons in French. This solves lots of problems, but also presents new problems; I could probably lead an English class in French as the vocab isn’t too extensive, generally speaking, but the problem would be that the students would ask questions in French, and chances are that I wouldn’t understand precisely what they say.

The main problem that arises out of speaking only English is that the students will almost certainly not understand me all the time. So I have to speak in a really measured way, and also limit my vocabulary to that of the average reader of The Sun. Mercifully, they do understand me, but I can already see this being a real problem. Maybe half-way through the year, my French will be good enough that I can confidently handle a class in French, but until then, I have to lie. Well, half-lie.

The other benefit of doing classes only in English is that the students really will be immersed in English, in the same way that I’m currently being saturated in French. They’ll either pick it up quickly, or have a psychotic break. Hopefully the former.

I officially started my job yesterday, but in the absence of a timetable – and any English department staff members around – I had no classes, and therefore nothing to do. I sat around in the staffroom, racked up £15 on my phone bill by phoning EE, and went to dinner with some other teachers. I had to explain where Leicester was in the UK, and they were really confused by my English pronunciation of English towns, so I had to emulate my recent experiences in McDonalds, and say things like Birmingham and Nottingham in the most French way possible.

On an unrelated note, another reason why I love France is that school dinners often consist of steak, fries, pâté, and brie. It’s a good job I have to cycle or walk up an impossibly steep hill every day, or this country could well be at the root of my obesity-induced premature death.

This is what a school dinner looks like in France. Yes, that is brie.
This is what a school dinner looks like in France. Yes, that is brie.

Today, however, I spent the morning getting grilled by French kids. Not literally, thankfully, though I suspect it will be literal before long. Nicolas – one of the English teachers here – had the great idea of having the kids in three classes play the journalist and interview me. He thought it would be a great way of introducing me to the school. Turns out it was a great way of making an ass of myself, so I guess he was half right.

Having said that, it did go pretty well; the kids’ level of English is generally quite good. In each group, there are two or three students who really stand out as having a natural aptitude for English – or studying, – so they tended to lead the interviews. Many of the more quiet students are able to speak well, but have to be coaxed out of their shells. Some are genuinely not great. The class dynamics are much the same in English schools; some students make themselves known, some do the opposite, but they mostly seem eager to impress, and to try, which is a real benefit.

Now that I know what level of English the kids speak, I can think more about lessons, content, and how I can gear material towards the students. Apparently, there are a few very poor classes, so I’m not looking forward to those, but I don’t think the other teachers would leave me alone with them. I hope.

I’m currently sitting in McDonalds with the other assistants, and three of my students are sitting right behind us, which is interesting. I’m not going to embarrass them by talking to them!

After a morning of basically repeating the same things over and over, I went out to lunch with the rest of the English teachers. We went to a restaurant called Poivre Rouge, which is basically an American-style steakhouse, but with all the steak-cooking prowess of French culture; I asked for a rare steak, and it was perfectly seared on the outside, and pink in the middle. I’m actively stopping myself from going on about the steak, but it really was amazing… The starter buffet was phenomenal. I actually took a photo, much to the amusement of the people nearby.

How buffets should be done.
How buffets should be done.

Overall, Méchain is quite a nice school. The staff are very welcoming indeed, and always pleased when I make the effort to speak in French. Admittedly that’s a necessity, as none of them speak English, but given the choice between being the silent sullen English guy, and the English guy trying to speak French, I prefer the latter.

The building is a bit imposing; it’s quite dark, and close in places, and there’s a framed quote from Franz Kafka on the foyer wall, which is a little unnerving, but quite apt. I’ve mentioned the nauseatingly green walls before, but the rest is all glass and girders, so just like many other schools, really. I’ll get some photos this weekend maybe, when all the kids aren’t around to accuse me of being a criminal.

A bientôt!

Le Brie et Les Réseaux Sans Fil

I’m now on day five of my year in France, and I can accurately and adequately sum up this country in just a few words. Those words are: cheese, wine, cafés, and confusion.

The first three things are some of the reasons why I’m falling in love with this country, the last one is simply due to all the paperwork, and French people speaking so fast.

The battery on my laptop is running out fast, and I’ll need to return to my unconnected cave before long, so this is just a quick update.

This weekend hasn’t seen too much going on, which is nice, as it’s given me an opportunity to relax a bit, and step back from what I still have to do in the next few days.

photo-2I finally got around to riding the Poma, Laon’s cable car that goes from the railway station to the Hotel De Ville at the top of the mountain. The view is incredible! I took a video going up on my iPhone, and another going down, but Apple’s newfangled AirDrop thing isn’t letting me get it onto my laptop to upload, so I’ll pop that on YouTube later, for your delight and delectation.

I’m stuck in the low town, and have to either cycle in first gear for 20 minutes, or bike to the station and get the Poma every time I want to get up there. Ah well, at least down here I’m close to McDonalds and their precious free WiFi.

Speaking of Le MacDo, trying to order things with English words in at a restaurant in French is both hilarious and cringe-worthy. I ordered a Big Tasty (‘un sandwich Beeg Tasty’) and a McFlurry (‘un Mack-Fluhr-Eee’) earlier, and I still haven’t quite recovered mentally. I even asked the sales assistant how they were supposed to be pronounced in French, and it just sounds hilariously wrong.

Next time, I’ll be ordering them in my best Leicester accent, just to see how they react.

On the subject of the language, I’ve just had a rather ground-breaking moment. A guy in McDonalds had been walking around the place for ages with his laptop, trying to get it to connect to the WiFi. Finally, he comes over to me and asks – in French – how to make it work. I managed to explain why it wasn’t working, fix the problem, then we chatted for a bit about Laon, my job and so on. As usual, I forgot a word or two, and had to ask him to repeat stuff, but compared to some of the conversations I’ve had, it went really well, mostly because I’m actually fairly confident about tech vocab. Perked up my Sunday a bit!

The locals refer to Laon as ‘a dead town’ on Sundays, and I can see why. I saw about five people and even fewer cars on my way to the Mac Shack, but when I got here, it was rammed. I think McDonalds is the only place in la ville basse which is actually open on a Sunday, and everyone else within a 20km radius of Laon seems to know this too. It’s clearing up a bit now, but when I got here at about 1pm, it was full of angry French people trying to get their sandwich et frites.

On the work front: I officially start work on Tuesday. I’m genuinely very nervous about it, as I’ve been told not to plan anything at all for my lessons. I like this, because it means I probably won’t have to do much, but on the other hand it means I may end up in front of a class of hormonal French adolescents, and have no idea what to do or say. That will probably happen, but it might not be as bad as I think. Either way, I am really nervous about it.

Right, my battery’s about done, and I need to get home to finish tidying up the flat before Stefan gets back.

A bientôt !

La Bureaucratie Interminable

I always thought the paperwork in England was bad. Well, it is, but comparing English bureaucracy to French bureaucracy is like comparing a game of hangman played on a napkin to The Times‘ Cryptic Crossword.

There is a folder in my bag which contains all my paperwork – forms, bank papers, justicatifs, proof of residence, proof of income, contract copies, birth certificate translations, photocopies of all my coursework essays dating back to the late 90s, and so on – which weighs almost as much as my laptop. Admitedly my laptop is comparatively light, but it’s still a lot to deal with, and an awful lot to lug up the hill in Laon on my bike, as I just did.

There is another volley of paperwork headed my way next week, as I venture to Amiens for the Language Assistants orientation day.

Anyway, I would go on complaining about the exhaustive and labyrinthine bureaucracy in France, but I simply don’t have the necessary paperwork.

Une petite mise à jour…

There’s not a huge amount to report, really.

I’m settling into my room a bit now, so I think I’ll stay there, at least for now. Also, if I were to privately rent a place in Laon, I’d need more paperwork and guarantors in both England and France. I’m physically not capable of doing any more paperwork.

There’s a rather long chain of paperwork that I need to sort out, until I’ve appeased the bureaucracy gods, who will then grant me access to the internet à chez moi. Until then, I’m limited to McDonalds, and SFR WiFi hotspots. The hotspots are actually great, as it gives me an excuse to get to the top of la montagne couronnée – the name the locals optimistically give the hill around which Laon is built, – to one of the nicest, most European cafés I’ve ever been to – Le Parvis.

I’m there right now, enjoying a bit of evening sun – well I was, it’s now dark – coffee, and the gentle babbling of French people talking about plastic cups and ungrateful kids. The café is right in front of Laon’s magnificent cathedral, which is currently pumping out a choral rendition of Adagio for Strings.

As far as the French language goes, I really need to work at conversational French. Every time I’m at Le Parvis, I chat to the server, but it’s always really one-sided, as I usually don’t know how to respond, or don’t know what she said. I explained that I was the English assistant at Lycée Méchain, and she seemed impressed, and relieved that I was English, not just a moron incapable of speech. Maybe one day we’ll have a real conversation that won’t end abruptly with me apologising, and ordering another beer out of embarrassment.

There are two other English language assistants in Laon. One arrived yesterday, and one’s arriving tomorrow, so we’re planning on meeting up on Sunday. They both study French at university, so I’m already feeling a little intimidated, as I do a completely unrelated media degree.

That’s all for now!

Bonne nuit à tous!

Laon – Le Premier Jour

I finally have access to the internet, and I don’t have to be in MacDonalds! My colleague at the lycée – who was very kindly chaperoning me around town yesterday – offered to let me interrupt his afternoon off, in order to reconnect with the world. He hqs also given me his school computer login so that I don’t need to travel 7km to his house, or go to MacDonalds in order to use the internet. Hqving sqid thqt; AZERTY keyboqrds qre hqrd to use for qn english,qn:::

There really is a lot to say, so I’m going to break all this up into sections, with a tl;dr at the end of each. (‘tl;dr’, for anyone who doesn’t spend their life on Reddit, means ‘too long; didn’t read,’ and basically means summary.

The Journey: Part Two
We arrived in Calais after a 30-minute trip sous la Manche on the Eurotunnel. Dad was having trouble getting his head around the idea of driving onto a train which would then drive under the sea. Mais ça s’est bien passé, and we arrived safely. Literally no one checked our passports, and none of the French immigration officials – if there even were any – checked my paperwork, which I’d meticulously planned and organised before we left. I wasn’t aware that the UK was in the Schengen Area, but we were treated as though it were.

After Calais, we took the A26 motorway which literally goes from Calais diagonally across France, dodges Paris, goes right past Amiens, Laon, and on to Reims. So once we got to France, it was just one road straight to my town. We took the exit prior to Laon, and stopped off in Crèpy, to meet one of my colleagues, who took us on to the school.

TL;DR: Journey was very quick, very smooth, and took around seven hours. I slept for a lot of the way in France.

Le lycée
The school is pretty nice. The walls on the second floor are painted a lurid green and yellow, which is slightly nauseating, but the staff are much nicer than the decorations. My colleagues in the English department are all native French-speakers, and occasionally struggle with the odd word or phrasing, but overall they’re great, friendly people who seem nice enough. I don’t start work until next Tuesday, so I’ll wait until then to comment on classes and things.

The vast majority of the staff don’t speak any English, so I’ve been trying to get by in French which, like I said, isn’t always easy.

I still don’t know exactly what I’ll be doing, other than that I don’t actually need to plan whole curricula or take an entire class on my own, thankfully. Language assistants receive exactly no training whatsoever, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not; it means that we’re not expected to do much, but it also means that we’re thoroughly unprepared for working with students in any capacity.

Like I said, I start next week, so I’ll reserve comments until then.

La langue
I’m just about managing with the language. Some people speak quite clearly, others run everything together like a Parisian drunk on cheap cognac. It’s like the difference between listening to someone from Berkshire, and deciphering the speech of a Geordie – to Southern ears.

Overall, I understand about 80% of what most people say, but sometimes people are really difficult to understand, either due to accent or ignorance, on my part. Also, there are areas where my vocabulary is really lacking; if it weren’t for Nico – my colleague – accompanying me to the bank to open my account, I’d probably be without an account.
People understanding me is another matter. It’s really embarrassing to get half-way through a sentence, then realise you have no idea what the word for ‘yoga’ is, or something – turns out it’s ‘yoga’, – and as a result, I tend to start sentences, run into a linguistic wall, and finish them in English, but only if I’m talking with my colleagues. If it’s with someone else, I muddle through or run away, depending on if they’re smiley or not.

TL;DR: c’est pas grave.

Domicile
This is where things start to get a bit less perfect. The lycée offered me a free room in their boarding annex, which I gladly accepted as it was free. Apartment rent in Laon is generally around the €300/month mark, so free accommodation right next to where I work sounds like a great idea.

It feels quite isolated behind the lycée, and the view – or lack thereof – is just of the boarding annex courtyard. The furniture isn’t great, the bed is alright thankfully, but the real problem is that there is absolutely no internet. Nothing, not so much as a stray beacon packet from a distant router. Add that to the fact that data roaming on my UK phone contract requires payment in body parts, I feel quite isolated at the moment.

I’m looking into a 3G dongle, which is a viable solution to one of the problems, but I’m not sure if being connected will completely change my opinion about the place.

Still, it’s free, which means almost 100% disposable income, and spending €30/month on a 3G package is much more financially viable than €300/month – exactly ten times more viable – just for a place with the internet.

I have an great en suite bathroom though, which is definitely a bonus.

TL;DR: Free accommodation isn’t great, but it is free.

Laon
While my room is currently the least pleasant part of this trip, the town is by far the best.

Laon is a medieval ‘city’ – 30,000 people – built on a around a steep hill surrounded by kilometres of flat fens. When I first saw it from the road, it immediately reminded me of Edoras from The Lord of the Rings. It is very spectacular; I really lucked out to end up here. Some of the town – including the cathedral – is on the central hill, but the rest is clustered around the base, including my school.

The town is small, quiet quiet, but is blessed with an abundance of cafés and culture, so it’s very nice.

Any description I give really won’t do it justice, so I’ll put together a gallery of photos later this week. The internet in the staff room is very slow at the moment – there are five other teachers in here, all checking emails – so I’ll head down to MacDonalds later.

tl;dr: Wow!

Right, I’ve waffled on for long enough, and typing this on on an AZERTY keyboard is quite difficult.

A bientôt !

The Journey: Part 1

Heavy fog makes almost every road in the South identical. We could have been anywhere in England, for all I knew. Luckily my dad knows where we’re going, or at least I hope he does.

We left at 7am this morning, after I spent an almost sleepless night doing last-minute packing and tidying. It’s just gone 11am now, and we’re waiting at the Terminal for our crossing at 11:50. I know we left a huge margin for error time-wise, but when we were stuck in traffic on the A14 near Cambridge, I was glad we had.

When we arrive in France, it’s a pretty straightforward drive on to Crépy – just outside Laon – to meet up with one of my colleagues, who’s showing me around the school and the town a bit.

I’ll be picking up the keys to my room later too. I’m interested to see just how ‘minimal’ it is – the word used by the school’s accommodation coordinator – but it’s free, so I’m sure I can cope. If not, I’ll be house-hunting before long.

So, other than dawdling through Cambridgeshire at 20mph, it’s been a quick and pleasant journey so far. Not a lot to report, which is good for me, but bad for anyone reading this wanting a gripping drama of road rage, evading marauders across the Fens, and handbrake turns outside the Eurotunnel Terminal.

A bientôt !

Mes derniers moments en terre anglaise

This blog bas been thoroughly neglected for at least a year now, and to be honest my posts before that were not only sporadic, but lacking content-wise. Reviewing comedy DVDs when I’m bored isn’t the best blog-fodder, but as exciting things are starting to happen in my life, I thought it might be best to dig out the ol’ blog, wrap it up in a fresh theme, and get writing again.

If we are friends on Facebook, you follow me on Twitter, you know me in real life – or all of the above, – then you probably know that in just under two weeks, I will be starting a new job. On October 1st, I will officially start my job as an English teaching assistant in a French high school.

My actual job title is assistant de langue vivante – which means ‘foreign language assistant’. The only real prerequisites of this job are the ability to speak fluent English, intermediate French, and having enough patience to cope with a class of French teenagers without screaming at them. I arguably possess one of these qualities, so the next few weeks could be interesting.

The school in which I’ll be working is in Laon (click for the Wiki page), the regional capital of the Aisne département of Picardy. It’s about 130km east of Amiens, 60km north-west of Reims, and 130km north-west of Paris. It is alarmingly close to Belgium.

I’m leaving on Tuesday September 24th – in under two days, – and I’ve yet to pack properly, so I’ll leave this post for now.

Check back for more details soon!

A bientôt!

28 Days Later

What better way to start a zombie movie than with a medium shot of a naked Cillian Murphy laying on a hospital bed? How about a quick, self-contained scene wrapping up an ever-present question in Zombie films; a tantalising teaser for fans: what caused the zombie apocalypse? This is the case in 28 Days Later; a clear explanation of the entire film’s premise, then straight into the nudity and the fall of Man.

Animal rights activists have a lot to answer for, if 28 Days Later is to be believed as an accurate representation of the fauna-friendly; after releasing ‘rage-infected’ monkeys from a research site in Cambridge, the UK quickly becomes overrun with the savage, violently-insane infected.

Possibly the most impressive thing about 28 Days Later is that, in this the present day, it has the audacity to be a zombie film. While nearing its tenth anniversary, 28 Days Later is born

Jim, in London, "alone."

into a subgenre – and indeed subculture – based partly on some of the most ridiculous movies ever produced, but also on the self-perpetuated idealistic imaginings of its patrons. The whole concept of a Zombie apocalypse is such a fertile field of imaginable scenarios that films – and books – attempting to harvest the potential are sadly frequently disappointing; they simply can’t live up to their own hype.

28 Days Later, however, is different. Rather than a perfunctory 120 minutes of underdeveloped archetypal protagonists chainsawing their undead friends and relatives, we get a compelling 120 minutes of adhesive story held aloft on beautifully experimental – yet solid – cinema.

Jim – Murphy’s character – awakes 28 days later (oho, I see what you did there Mr. Boyle,) after a bike accident left him comatose and hospitalised in a Westminster hospital, during which time the UK rapidly descended into a maelstrom of murderous carnage and chaos.

Chancing upon a few fellow survivors, they venture to Manchester, ironically, in search of the fabled last bastion of human civilisation; a military base offering food, water, protection and most importantly, hope.

Jim (Murphy) and Selena (Harris)

If there is one thing on which I cannot fault Cillian Murphy, it’s his ability as an actor to portray oblivious, emotionally-stunted moron who looks as though he’s one blink away from actually being catatonic. In 28 Days Later, we see Murphy run the gamut from fledgling survivor overwhelmed by the deadly world facing him, to love-struck gun-toting topless hero while maintaining the exact same facial expression. He’s as emotionless as Kristen Stewart, only I don’t want to punch him in the face to change his expression. He plays the part very well; the part being a shock-stricken man who went from bike accident to end-of-the-world in what he perceived to be a few seconds.

Similarly, Naomie Harris (who portrays Selena,) is in a constant state of angry hard-ass survivalist who sees little value in the lives of others, or perhaps that’s from her Finsbury Park upbringing. Occasionally she manages to let her guard down just enough to become Hannah’s sister-figure. Despite a fairly flawless performance by Harris, as an actor, she falls into the category of Angry Black-British Woman, a part often seen in low-budget BBC dramas, and characterised by forced lines, fierce expression and a not-so-subtle need to prove their relevance and legitimacy as a character. Nonetheless, Selena is a strong motivational force in the story, and pivotal character who gives the film some balls – metaphorically; Murphy’s first scene provides the physical.

The father-daughter dynamic of Frank and Hannah is a warming element to what is otherwise a very dark and cold film, though Megan Burns’ performance as Hannah is even worse than Murphy’s; she lacks confidence, her lines are laboured and heavy and she spends a large amount of her screen-time looking blankly at the rest of the cast. Admittedly, some of her later dullness is probably caused by a combination of shock due to her father dying and ingestion of a large amount of Valium.

Hannah (Burns) and Frank (Gleeson)

Her general woodenness is counterbalanced by the brilliant performance of her father by Brendan Gleeson, better known as Mad-Eye Moody. A warm and loving father-figure for all four survivors; Frank ferries the group to Manchester in his taxi, defends his flat against the Infected and coordinates their daily survival, at least for a short while (spoilers omitted.)

Last in the main cast is stalwart of the UK cinema scene Christopher Eccleston. Taking on the roll of Major West, a senior soldier who has subtly succumbed to insanity, West commands the platoon operating the Manchester refuge which Jim, Selena, Frank and Hannah believe will be their sanctuary.

Major Henry West (Eccleston)

After spending some time with the orphaned Army unit, Jim realises that there is something far more sinister happening and attempts, in futility at first, to rescue Selena and Hannah from Major West’s inhuman plans. It is at this point in the film that we realise who the main antagonist is; humanity itself. Apropos of nothing – in the eyes of most people – the bedrock of society has fallen away, pitting people against people (against zombies) in a savage fight for power masquerading as survival.

In recent years, many apocalyptic movies have subtly provoked the question of what makes us human? What separates us from the proverbial ‘them,’ before showing us that, in fact, we as a society can be monsters and are capable of unspeakable evil. A person’s initial natural reaction to seeing humanity in ruins is one of shock and disbelief, but over time the idea of deserving or justice creeps in.

The legitimacy of 28 Days Later as a zombie film has been disputed for a number of reasonsl firstly: the zombies run. Very fast. Had a person only seen the genre defining classic The Dawn of The Dead (1979, Romero,) I doubt they’d identify the sprinting masses of blood-drenched carnality as ‘zombies,’ per se. Similarly, the ‘zombies’ are not actually dead, there is little talk of cannibalism, they do not rot as conventional zombies do (according to The Walking Dead,) however they do starve, which leads me to believe that they are not zombies by the

Pte. Mailer; a zombie.

traditional definition.

On the pro-zombie side; they are a faceless and massive adversary of murderous humans who have involuntarily lost any semblance of their prior humanity (and higher-brain functions.) They kill to satiate a biological imperative, their infection can be transmitted by blood, bites and other fluids, and a bullet to the head will put them down.

Magnificent depictions of Britain as an abandoned apocalyptic wasteland also lend credence, not only to the zombie standing of 28 Days Later, but its rather outstanding camerawork and spectacle.

Director Danny Boyle made the bold – later dubbed ‘stupid’ – decision to shoot 28 Days Later, not on industry-standard film, but on Digital Video. With the vomit-in-throat-like rise of 3D in today’s cinema, DV is becoming a more prevalent format, but in 2001 when 28 Days Later was being shot, it was still a developmental technology. The result was that the images become slightly pixelated in times of fast-motion, there is occasionally some purple chromatic abberation (purple artefacts in areas of high contrast in the frame,) and certain scenes would not look out of place on someone’s personal YouTube channel. The Blu-Ray release of 28 Days Later is simple an upscaled version of the DVD release because no higher-resolution footage exists.

Let's go to Manchester!

The practical benefit of all this, however, is to create an overwhelming sense of realism within the film. Whereas Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project sought to exploit the harsh realism of Digital Video for narrative effect, it is used in 28 Days Later to maximise the credulity of what is already a highly plausible storyline – though in what way the term ‘plausible’ applies to the notion that the population of Britain maraud the streets, spewing blood and eviscerating people is open to debate – or perhaps not; I’ve been to Birmingham.

Despite one or two let-downs, 28 Days Later is nothing short of a masterpiece of modern horror cinema which, when considering that the director is the legendary Danny Boyle, is to be expected. The characters work well together, the story goes from naught-to-sixty in -3 seconds and the atmosphere meticulously built by the production crew is astoundingly real and believable, as well as beautiful.

I’m giving the Zombies eight George A. Romeros, the action six Jack Bauers, the story nine Danny Boyles and the acting seven Gary Oldmans (all out of ten.)

Zombies
Action
Story
Acting

Insidious

I have no compunction in saying that modern horror is an artless genre. ‘Round back of the horror genre, there are several large barrels containing archetypal characters, villains and stories. These barrels have been scraped so arrantly by the lowest common denominators in cinema that there is little left but rust and a rotten Scream mask. That’s right Eli Roth, I’m looking at you and your woeful history in the industry.

When I watched Insidious the first time, I certainly wasn’t expecting much from director and accomplished barrel-scraper James Wan (of Saw infamy.) I know it’s important to keep an open mind when watching a movie with the intention of writing about it later, but keeping an open mind when going into a horror movie is like trying to keep your eyes open when you see Jedward on TV. More so when the movie is directed by James Wan.

The bizarre thing is that I quite enjoyed Insidious, despite it’s general mediocrity.

The story begins with the beginning of the large story arc; a flashback [spoiler] into the dad’s childhood [/spoiler] showing him asleep in his bed while the Old Woman watches on from the window. Thus begins the very conventional portrayal of demons and spirits; transvestite men in incredibly camp outfits wearing badly-done make up.

The still from Insidious you will see everywhere.

This does not really improve with the discovery of The Twins; twin girls who look like the twins from The Shining but all growed-up and

scaring sumptuously-bearded Angus Sampson. Finally, we meet Red-face Demon; a strange hybridisation of Freddy Kreuger, Dave Grohl and Darth Maul. Strange as this mix sounds, it’s made more strange by the fact that it scared me about as much as the Google logo. I have never been so disappointed with a primary antagonist in my life; the first few times to which its existence is alluded, we see a shadow, or a hand/claw print. Then we very clearly see a grimacing red face which shatters the ominous crescendo like a fat guy falling through a greenhouse.

I won’t even bother with the ridiculous Child demon which looks like Dick Van Dyke with congenital dwarfism.

The only truly creepy demon is the Old Woman, mainly because she never moves, constantly watches, occasionally appears in photographs and is played by a man. Similarly, the Twins and their family never move, apart from sudden jumps to another facial expression, something which is unnerving, if not creepy. Some of the demons are camp enough to be cameos from Buffy.

Dalton and Renai in the new (not haunted) house.

Characters, always important. Insidious is quite minimal, if nothing else; characters are developed and mentioned when they are of crucial importance. For example, the first few scenes deal wholly with Renai and Dalton (mother and son) dealing with the new house. Further on, the focus is on Renai battling her husband’s devout rationalism, persuading him that there are supernatural forces present in the house (or, more precisely, their son) and so on. Any peripheral characters only serve to accentuate the focus of a particular scene.

That is something for which I would definitely commend Insidious; rather than bombarding the viewer with an ever-changing stream of faces and names of no importance, we are presented with about ten characters, all of whom have a very specific and identifiable purpose.

From a technical stand-point, Insidious is mostly uninventive; while the opening titles are quite pretty, the camera-work often feels like the DP quickly flicked through ‘How to Shoot a Horror Movie For Dummies,’ and James Wan’s directing is so reminiscent of Saw that there are times when I felt as though I actually was watching Saw without the gratuitous gornography element.

The photography is fairly standard in places, as I’ve already said, but I was equally often surprised by some very well constructed composition. It mirrors the casting in its simplicity and sparsity, but that’s definitely to its credit. The opening-credit shots of the house in high-contrast monochrome are really amazing, it’s just a shame about the vastly unconventional (or, rather, very conventional) title logo.

The 'clairaudience circle.'

Finally, and most importantly, the part of any horror movie that differentiates it from a drama or sci-fi movie: the horror. Demons, demonic possession, haunting. It sounds like the perfect combination for a horror movie, however I didn’t feel scared at any point, apart from one or two incidents, but then I was more surprised by the sudden appearance of a face behind someone, rather than scared by the face itself.

The fear and tension smoulders throughout the film, but not to any real extent; just enough to unsettle the viewer enough that they would jump at the sudden appearance of a demon’s face, or another equally disappointing event. The sense of foreboding is completely ruined by a sudden peak and then deterioration into camp Whedon-esque demons floating in James Wan’s unconvincing cinematic style. Oddly enough, this is a passable mix which is not completely unenjoyable.

The horror element of Insidious basically boils down to shock and awe; flashing the faces of weird-looking demons on-screen at random times isn’t scary so much as surprising. A good horror movie builds on a sense of growing threat by the unknown (or known, such as a named killer,) rather than sporadically making the viewer jump.

'Josh?' *Gasp, cue twist.*

Reading this review back to myself, I can see several good reasons why I should dislike Insidious; it’s quite uninventive, I’m indifferent to the general story and its implementation and James Wan’s odious directing is smothered all over it. The fact is that I quite enjoyed Insidious; the universal mediocrity of literally every element of the film seem to build the basis for a passable horror movie.

For the poorly constructed and borderline-contradictory reasons above, I’m giving Insidious a 7 out of 10.