EIFF: “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”

“Bright moments.”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

“STATURE, JOHN! STATURE!”

Pardon me. While this We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a slight, rather limp feature that leaves little impact, the way Crispin Glover delivers this line during one of this film’s emotional outbursts may be the most quotable moment of the festival for me. So that is definitely a plus.

Directed by Stacie Passon, from a script by Mark Kruger based off Shirley Jackson’s 1962 novel, this film earnestly attempts to capture the eerie Gothic aesthetics of big-empty-house-filled-with-tragic-memories stories, but comes up with not much exciting or original to do with it. Sisters Constance and Merricat Blackwood (Alexandra Daddario and Taissa Farmiga), and their uncle Julian (Glover) live in the ominous Blackwood manor, near a small town filled with citizens who hate their guts. The film never really clarifies why the animosity has arisen, except general resentment of their wealth and oddness. To be fair, as Daddario, Farmiga and Glover play them, the Blackwoods are certainly wealthy and undoubtedly odd.

Constance is rarely found without an unnaturally wide smile and a disingenuously kind word for everything, though past tragedy seems to have instilled in her a crippling fear of leaving the manor (a fear which is conspicuously unexplored beyond a passing reference). Daddario plays Constance with a certain recognizable glint of 1950s maddened-housewife mania, which suggests some truly sinister effects of their upbringing, but is also cloyingly one-note. Farmiga is much more irritating as Merricat, who glowers and stomps around leaving bizarre mystical offerings and trinkets around, believing herself a kind of sorceress able to protect the house and her sister with hexes and magic. Julian, his mind gone after the same tragedy that took the sisters’ parents’ lives, is mostly portrayed as an annoyance, though Glover does well to conjure a level of pathos to his sad situation. 

The result of these characterizations is mainly a simple dispassion for whatever happens next. Each character is thinly developed, quirky often to the point of being aggravating, and generally just an uninteresting figure. The most interesting character, then, becomes Sebastian Stan’s intrusive Cousin Charles, who appears suddenly and suspiciously in their lives to “help,” and presumably collect a share of their fortune. Passon’s direction almost immediately clarifies that he is bad! and not to be trusted!, which is initially fun, but continues with so little nuance that one can essentially predict every development between the family members from then on. Charles manipulates the soft Constance, antagonizes the more suspicious Merricat, and disrespects the puzzled Julian, particularly when Julian mistakes Charles for his brother, the girls’ father, and yells at him about “STATURE!” This moment really makes the film.

Stan is impressive, and the standout performer, though that may be unfair given how thinly the other characters are written. Charles does not ever quite have a clear goal or intention, but the predatory way he installs himself in the family and imitates the archetypal patriarch are fun to watch, and he is certainly made fun to hate. If only Passon had made more in this film as fun to watch, it might feel less hollow. But as it stands, We Have Always Lived in the Castle cannot maintain its occasionally bright moments of weirdness and character conflict, instead listing into drab, predictable tales of male aggression, female weakness, and societal disquietude. There are richer, scarier, more engaging tales of a similar aesthetic to be found elsewhere. 

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

EIFF: “Them That Follow”

“A remarkably powerful film.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Perhaps it’s the bone-chilling speeches I’ve seen Christian scientists deliver to a classroom; perhaps it’s the infuriating conflicts arising lately from the morally bankrupt practice of parents not vaccinating their children; perhaps it’s the intensity of the filmmaking. Likely all three. Whatever the reason, Them That Follow struck me as a remarkably powerful film which, whilst leaving little to the imagination, shines a profoundly necessary light on a real, complicated problem – enough so that its less intelligent elements can be overlooked. What writer/directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage have made may not be perfect, but it is certainly a standout at this festival. 

Them That Follow delves deep into an Appalachian Pentecostal community that populate an eerie mountain and practice an illegal and profoundly dangerous ritual of serpents. That is, they routinely trap and keep deadly cottonmouth snakes, which they believe can channel the will of the Divine, and drape them over their congregants’ necks. If the snake remains calm, the person must be properly serving the will of the Lord; if it bites and poisons them, they must be somehow astray from His path. The absurdity of this logic is well-addressed in some outstandingly intense, spine-tingling sequences in which various parishioners are put through the ritual throughout the film. 

The local pastor, the de facto leader of the area, is played with electrifying fire-and-brimstone passion by Walton Goggins, while the townsfolk who follow him are played with commendable depth and lived-in realism by the likes of Olivia Colman, Jim Gaffigan, Kaitlyn Dever, and Lewis Pullman. Sparking the narrative are Alice Englert, as Mara, the pastor’s daughter, and Thomas Mann as Augie, a young man who has come to reject the church, but remains in love with Mara. Through some unsettling developments, their relationship becomes a warped rural iteration of Romeo and Juliet’s terrible journey, though somehow even bleaker at points than that story of teenage tragedy. Suffice it to say, the community is capable of some serious self-denial, resentment, betrayal, and ungodliness. 

It would be easy to dismiss Them That Follow as heavy-handed, unrealistic, too twisted for the good of the story and character development. But the directors explore the absurdity of their practices with considerable depth; to anyone moored in reality, this community is harrowingly rife with irresponsibility and endangerment, but to these individuals, it is their only connection to community, salvation, and acceptance. The fiery expressions of desperation, passion, and anguish that brim just below the surface of many a congregate are well-established and engaging to watch unfold. 

World-building aside, however, unfortunately, elements of the filmmaking leave something to be desired, including some unresolved threads and a lamentably abrupt ending that could have benefitted greatly from only a few more minutes, even seconds, of development. In addition, Poulton and Savage’s reliance on extreme close-ups and moody, austere cinematography occasionally smacks of fresh-out-of-film-school ingenuity, yet it rarely detracts seriously from the strength of the setting and performances. 

And the cast turns in some truly special performances. From top to bottom, the acting is sharp, uncompromising, and above all, convincing. More so than most in this festival, the performers disappear into their roles entirely. Goggins gets a refreshingly powerful role, for although he has turned in delightful work as clumsy and cocksure jerks in Tarantino’s last two features, he has always clearly been ready for a meatier material, and he does not disappoint. I certainly had to blink a few times to remind myself I was watching gifted comedians like Colman and Gaffigan, (and even Dever, gaining traction recently for her turn in Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, and Pullman, who commendably held his own in Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at El Royale last year against a positively stacked cast) who so effortlessly can make viewers guffaw and giggle, but here bury that mirth under an impressive amount of characterization. I should not patronize, of course — many a brilliant dramatic performance can be found when a comedian decides to turn their knack for timing and delivery on serious subject matter. Credit to the directors for coaxing so many impressive performances to the screen. 

Credit as well to those responsible for the unforgettable visuals and editing surrounding the truly terrifying snakes. If an award exists for Best Ensemble Reptile Performance, Them That Follow is a sure bet. Ophidiophobes, steer clear. Even as a fan of our slithery friends, I was squirming in my seat. Poulton and Savage have not made a horror movie in a traditional sense, rather an unsettling religious ensemble drama, but they make a real meal of the scarier elements; if you are looking to be disturbed by eerie reptilian menace, and vile human behavior,  — or even if you want to argue about the perils of true religious freedom — look no further.

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

EIFF: “She’s Missing”

“A captivating tale.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

The American southwest clearly possesses an almost mystical charm that has again and again proven magnificently well-suited to the film medium. From Wim Wenders to David Lynch to Tarantino and beyond, filmmakers have been venturing down south and to the left to capture the inimitable feeling of the region for many years, to fabulous results. Now, with She’s Missing, Alexandra McGuinness adds another entry into the southwest canon, with a film that pays dutiful tribute to this tradition while spinning a rather captivating tale in the process. 

One might expect, from the bluntness of the title, a fairly run-of-the-mill mystery that rests more on its leading performances rather than its writing. The missing-woman narrative has not only been done countless times before, but is indeed a theme in a number of the films in this very festival, and promises few exciting possibilities without something particularly inventive thrown in. Thankfully, McGuinness does have a wild card to play, in her selection of leads; Lucy Fry, as the shy wallflower Heidi, and Eisa González (instantly memorable from her standout turn in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver) as the much bolder, more ambitious, and more striking Jane. 

It becomes rather clear early on that while the narrative of She’s Missing begins trawling in unfortunately low-energy subject matter, the leading actresses are simply too good to let the film slip into mediocrity. González does very well in only a few initial scenes to establish her character’s magnetism, unpredictability, and indisputable dominance over the more accommodating Heidi, while Fry imbues Heidi with a curious devotion to Jane that oscillates between gentle, amicable affection and outright servitude. McGuinness, who wrote and directed the film, intelligently sets up their dynamics with a series of impressive show-don’t-tell choices, principally within scenes in which Heidi defers to Jane obediently, while Jane sees herself as generously guiding Heidi through a dangerous world. The opening shot, in particular, really tells us all we need to know, as Jane regally rides through the New Mexico desert astride a tall horse, and Heidi walks on foot beside them, leading the horse and doing most of the work, both seeming content with Heidi filling the more submissive role. In a prepared statement issued before the film, McGuinness suggested that to her, the film explores the complexities and toxicities of female relationships, and on that front, She’s Missing certainly accomplishes just that. 

Well, it does until the plot kicks in. As the title so unsubtly suggests, one of these ladies goes missing. It is not hard to spot early on which one it will be, and which will devotedly take it upon herself to drop everything and find her friend. When the investigation gets underway, however, the film becomes unfortunately stagnant and unfocused, with various intriguing but irrelevant subplots popping up and disappearing without much justification. One in particular, in which a somewhat suspicious cowboy type (Christian Camargo) romances Heidi with a mixture of pushiness and genuine charm, is certainly layered and results in some solid observations, yet fades away without having much to contribute to the established storyline beyond pithy insights into the complexities of the American southwest and southern male masculinity.

In this regard, notably, McGuinness deserves credit for portraying this American tale without lazy finger-pointing and condemnations; various Americana is portrayed with a refreshing nuance, as McGuinness’ camera explores local rodeos, gun stores, attitudes towards the Mexican border, southern music, and the ever-present mysticism of the desert with aplomb. To be clear, the cowboy adds a commendable layer of detail to the portrayal of the region, but nevertheless seems added in to let McGuinness make a legitimate but somewhat superfluous series of points given the film’s prevailing narrative. 

The major issue, again, comes when the aesthetics cannot make up for a rather limp plotline. Nothing really comes of the central story after the midway point, except some unearned leaps in narrative that introduce some quirky characters (including an entertaining turn from Josh Hartnett) but nothing particularly memorable or inventive. She’s Missing becomes rather easily divisible into three parts; the first, rich in aesthetic and narrative craft, the second, still striking a well-crafted mood but becoming less compelling, and the third, slipping away into the unshakeable feeling that McGuinness didn’t know how to end her ultimately unremarkable storyline. 

Perhaps the film’s original title, Highway, would set us up for a more realistic expectation of what the film offers: a sense of a region and set of characters in transit and transition, with interesting oddities flashing by but never lingering on any to great effect. Thankfully, Fry and González are with us for most of the film, so the ride is enjoyable essentially from start to finish, even if the attractions become conspicuously less inspired down the road. 

 

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

EIFF: “Bodies at Rest”

“A bombastically good time”

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars

More like Bodies under extreme physical exertion. This film has everything. Guns, fistfights, Christmas, air ducts, maniacal villains, walkie talkies, white tank tops, glass smashing, metal crunching, bones squelching, bodies flinging, explosions exploding — well, I should say it has everything from a description of Die Hard. 

This is not entirely a surprise, considering it’s helmed by Renny Harlin, the director of the impeccably named Die Hard 2: Die Harder. And its references do not stop with John McTiernan’s genre redefining classic; everyone from John Woo (with a shot-perfect recreation of Hard Boiled) to Tarantino to Jackie Chan gets their action-packed work borrowed from here and there. Though to its credit, Bodies at Rest has a commendably original setup.

The film takes place on one very intense Christmas Eve, when a record-breaking rainstorm forces the citizens of Hong Kong to stay indoors overnight. At the city hospital, a stoic and assured doctor (Nick Cheung) and cheerful young nurse (Zi Yang) stay after hours, swapping stories about their aspirations and day-to-day work in the hospital morgue. Suddenly, they find they must defend themselves and their workplace when a mysterious trio of brutes breaks in to retrieve an incriminating bullet from one of the morgue’s recently received stiffs. From there, Harlin directs the action with clear talent, with high-flying camerawork and eye-popping choreography coming at the audience from every angle. The camera flips, turns, swerves, and lurches as Cheung and Yang fight their way through the thugs’ various attacks. These initially mild-mannered workers prove remarkably adept at flinging fists and bodies around and against things, even as the criminal ringleader (Richie Jen) comes up with dastardly ways of trying to bend the doctors to his will. Some moments of breakneck intensity might make one wonder where these medical professionals learned all this fight choreography, but realism is quite clearly not Harlin’s intention. 

One wonders, then, after an hour of body-flinging, metal crunching and line-screaming, what Harlin’s intention actually is. The film has action and bombastic combat to spare, but it all just happens without much reason or tension. The doctors fight, they get away, they get caught, they fight again, they come up with plans, they get away, they get caught — it goes on in this manner for essentially the whole time. Some amusing uses of the hospital facilities are highlights of this otherwise fairly monotonous story — especially when the doctors use various chemical reactions to fight off the baddies with the power of science. Additionally, one sequence in particular, involving some of the most insane action editing I’ve seen, had the audience not only gasping but laughing out loud and on the edge of their seat at once. The script, written by David Lesser, shows a real knack for action storytelling in this moment and precious few others — unfortunately this spark of inventiveness rarely returns to the screen. 

This film simply packs in too much cheesy extravagance and not enough variety or intrigue. While it is a bombastically good time if you are into smash-em-ups, Bodies at Rest achieves little outside of a few good moments, and for your time, you are likely better off seeking out a different Hong Kong action flick that handles its style and substance better. Maybe feast your eyes on an all-time great of the genre like Hard Boiled, if you haven’t already. 

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

EIFF: “Yesterday”

“Exceeds the boundaries of ‘music films’ in impressive and unforgettable ways.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Here is a surprise. A few months ago, when the trailer for Yesterday was released, reactions stretched from sheer enthusiasm to sheer contempt. Perhaps the fantasy of it all gave some people pause, while the Beatle-worship appealed to the millions who are still steadfastly dedicated to their work. Either way, the project and the talent involved, from Danny Boyle to Richard Curtis to Ed Sheeran, were sure to cause some division. And I am happy to report, though division will likely still occur, Yesterday is both exactly what so many were hoping for, and a remarkably bold move in an unexpected and exciting direction. I recommend it to all.

As high concepts go, this one is quite a stretch. But although Curtis’ approach often suffers from major issues of overly sweet fluff and trite material, he threads the needle here with commendable grace and ingenuity. The plot follows Jack Malik, played with a hugely impressive sense of urgency and personality by Himesh Patel, an untalented songwriter who pushes himself to become a rockstar, even though he knows he probably doesn’t have what it takes. His dedicated best friend, manager, and confidante, Ellie, played by Lily James with her usual charm and magnetism, has much more belief in his talent and future career, and though Curtis is a little heavy-handed in her depiction as so deeply devoted to his success, their relationship is intriguing enough to provide a good setup for the film’s personal side. It quickly becomes something else, however, when the plot kicks in. For reasons unknown, Earth as we know it suddenly has a lapse in reality, and suddenly, the band we all know and love as The Beatles never existed. Only Jack remembers them, which, coupled with his now desperate desire to have some sort of success, quickly leads him to pass their songs off as his own. 

The premise, though a little daft-sounding at first, quickly proves two delightful things. Firstly, and most straightforwardly, The Beatles are just brilliant. Boyle, Curtis, and Patel clearly have a blast during the scenes where Jack is frantically trying to remember the lyrics to their immense number of genius songs, which naturally causes the audience to reach into our own memories, because odds are we know the lyrics too. Perhaps Marc Maron was actually spot-on when he said we all have a part of our brains that is preternaturally full of Beatles songs; when we hear them, it’s like we have known them our entire lives, and even semi-fans know the words to a great deal of their work. Yesterday works incredibly well as a heartfelt, loving celebration of these songs, and each performance will likely make you reconnect with The Beatles more and more each time. And yet, this was already clear from the trailer; just hearing a few bars of “Hey Jude” or “Help” or indeed “Yesterday,” no matter the plot, would remind you how great they were. Where Curtis’ script and Boyle’s crafty direction elevate the premise, however, is in the way they explore the wider implications.

This is the second of the film’s proposals: we are remarkably connected by our knowledge of The Beatles. There really is no comparable group that can claim the influence they have; to depict a world without the single most unifying musicians in history is a frankly inspired way to remind us what true cultural connection means. Sure, as is often the case with Curtis, there are a few overtly saccharine elements to Yesterday that elicit more eye-rolls than inspiration. Jack’s endlessly supportive friends and the relative ease with which he ascends to pop stardom is all played so neatly it feels too squeaky-clean at times. But I was impressed with the edge Curtis works in as well, and how subtly he does it; there is some remarkably bold criticism and brutal ribbing of modern culture to be found here. 

For while Yesterday celebrates the inimitable genius of these past masters, the film also considers the modern state of the music industry. Many of the film’s most hilarious (and rather poignant) jabs come when a predatory manager, played with comic ferocity by Kate McKinnon, callously orders Jack around, telling him what he has to do to become a star these days. Of course it’s all soulless, horrifically shallow things, that completely ignore and debase the charm and depth of the music to make money (which shouldn’t be a surprise to those who follow our biggest pop stars’ lives) but here Boyle and Curtis deliver a fascinating argument for why the dominance of this approach is so sad. The most puzzling element of this argument is the involvement of one of the worst offenders in this regard: Ed Sheeran. Sheeran, playing himself with an impressively game attitude, befriends Jack but also clearly resents that the music Jack plays is infinitely better than what he can do, and what he has made millions doing. When “Shape of You” comes on a few minutes after Jack sings one of the most beautiful songs of all time, “In My Life,” the effect is not just amusing but also rather revolting. How could such a dithering song be so popular when we used to have it so much better? 

My one serious criticism of the musical approach is that the film shies away from this very argument when it is in danger of becoming too critical. In one rather serious sequence late on, as Lily and Jack have more serious conversations about their attraction to one another, a Sheeran song that sounds like burning garbage plays, seemingly as if it is a genuinely sensual or compelling song. This is a bizarre moment that lets down the film’s otherwise convincing dedication to exalting music that clearly means something — every other music cue has a wealth of interpretations that will likely exceed your expectations of what could have been a staid and obvious love-in of a movie. Indeed altogether, Yesterday does not feel like it gets finished saying what it was trying to say about music, culture, fame, and honesty, and privileges Jack’s storyline with Ellie over the wider issues slightly too much. Thankfully, Patel and James are lovely to watch; with lesser actors, the romance between Jack and Ellie could easily become an infuriatingly distracting side plot that detracts from the more fascinating elements of cultural criticism; as it stands, their chemistry makes up for the distraction for the most part. 

Though such elements and a few other stylistic oddities keep the film from being truly great, there are some moments that prove this film is a cut above what its critics expected. I will not spoil a thing, as during one of these exemplary scenes in particular, I instantly felt deeply grateful I had not known what would come next, then incredibly moved. This is certainly the most moving moment of the EIFF for me so far, and I applaud the team behind this film for including it and dwelling in it with such grace and bravery. Let’s just say the legacy of The Beatles is explored in mature, intelligent, and unpredictable ways, and I found even more appreciation for their impact on the world as a result.

This is a delightful film, and though it is not perfect, and could have been improved with a little more bombast here and there and a little less Curtis cuteness, it is undoubtedly an entertaining and outstandingly crafted piece. When it was announced, I myself was more enthusiastic about this than I was skeptical; I have always loved and admired The Beatles, and expected a fun but light jukebox trip to celebrate how funky they were. But Boyle and Curtis, helped along by deft performances by Patel and James, as well as some other assorted cameos and surprises, have produced a wonderful thing that exceeds the boundaries of ‘music films’ in impressive and unforgettable ways. I was very impressed; see it, and I hope you will be too. If you’ll pardon the saccharine conclusion: remember to let it into your heart.

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

EIFF: “The Souvenir”

“A rich and layered portrait.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

The agony involved in being privileged is a frequent subject for films like The Souvenir. And like the existing canon of sad-little-rich-girl narratives, moments in it are irritatingly haughty in style and substance. Yet the familiarity of its achingly austere production design and composition are set apart in some manner by the film’s insistence that it knows this luxuriousness is all a bit much. Unfortunately, one is left without enough weight to the film to decide whether the approach was all worth it. 

Protagonist Julie (Hope Swinton Byrne) is hoping to direct her first feature film, a Truffaut-reminiscent poverty drama that equates a young boy’s love for his doomed mother with the lamentable decline of Sunderland. The proposition, as her film school professors remind her often, is a clear departure from her lived experience as an awfully wealthy young woman from London, and in serious danger of becoming a regrettably opaque view of something she does not understand.

Not so for director Joanna Hogg, whose delicate touches imbue The Souvenir with an undeniable sense that she understands her subjects deeply and affectionately. With the help of a memorable performance by Tom Burke as Julie’s occasionally charming, occasionally insufferable lover Antony, this film depicts a rich (both literally and figuratively) and layered portrait of high-class ennui and unrest. To call it intimate, however, would be a stretch. Hogg employs a pale, muted color palette, and an unobtrusive, still visual approach, which result in some deeply pleasant aesthetics but a dour sense of distance from the goings-on. 

As for the goings-on, there are not terribly many. This is not a problem in itself — of course a film can be intriguing without much plot or action — but The Souvenir opts to show the bare minimum of conflicts, confrontations, and even conversations that cause shifts and developments in Julie and Antony’s lives. In a trite but informative scene during one of Julie’s film school lectures, she and her professor excitedly discuss the visual trickery and intelligence involved in Hitchcock’s Psycho — with particular enthusiasm for his choice to leave all the “action” offscreen, and simply display “the results.” It was not immediately clear that this was meant to serve as a treatise on this film’s own approach, until a number of narrative leaps occur in its second half that are almost completely left off-camera, and to our imagination. Unfortunately, the power Hitchcock was able to find in the offscreen twists of Psycho is not replicated by Hogg; few moments in the dramatic developments of The Souvenir demand much emotional response, and ‘the results’ are more often twee than they are intriguing.

That is not to say the film fails to elicit any reactions. Some lines, in particular ones Burke delivers with his almost amphibian inflection, are not only funny but very interesting, achieving a rare sort of dialogue that is both familiar and excitingly creative. The most involving scene by far, however, is stolen completely by the already-renowned Richard Ayoade, who cameos as a contrived artisan friend of Antony’s who waxes on about film as lifeblood and nosily picks apart Julie’s personality with armchair philosophy. Ayoade is not only a master of tone and delivery in this scene, but a remarkably grounding presence, as at that point the film is somewhat in danger of listing into monotonous luxury — Ayoade’s chain-smoking jerk in a furry leopard-print coat is a most welcome disruption, even for only a few minutes. 

Similar interruptions of the austerity are charming and well-crafted. The musical selections are both fun and informative of character. Julie seems content to put on The Psychedelic Furs or Joe Jackson as much as she is to listen to Antony’s selections of opera or her mother’s beloved record of “Moonlight Serenade.” Many details shine brightly; the specificity of Julie’s parents country home, and their references to political and interpersonal realities and expectations in the film’s early-1980’s setting, are intriguing in many ways. The biggest name involved, Tilda Swinton, adds many tics and layers to her character of Julie’s mother that remind one what a gifted actress she is. She plays Julie’s mother with masterful grace and graciousness — though perhaps it is not surprising their onscreen relationship works so well, Tilda being Hope’s real-life mother. 

The headlining trio of Swinton Byrne, Swinton, and Burke are all clearly impressive actors. The attention to detail and consistency of aesthetics are also, undoubtedly, impressive. What is less impressive is the difficulty the film has maintaining its relevance. The film lists between ideas, likely an intentional reflection of Julie’s own inability to get the ball rolling on her projects, but nevertheless a needlessly languid approach that feels drawn out too far. One minute Julie is the focus, then Antony, then Antony’s vices, then Julie’s muted reactions to those vices, then her film school experience, then privilege, family, money, terrorism, Venice, the nature of art, and more assorted topics one might find discussed over a wine-drunk meal in Knightsbridge (of which there are many in this script). Again, the variety of topics is not an issue, but the lack of depth, to most of them, is. In particular, the topic of Julie’s privilege is discussed only twice, early in the film, very explicitly, then never revisited at all. One might almost think Hogg believed if she straightforwardly acknowledged, early on, that this is a film about rich, perplexingly discontent young people — who are mostly causing their own problems — and get that out of the way, it would assuage any reservations about the topic and let her ignore the complexities of privilege from then on. 

In a way, this is successful; it was not until the film ended that I felt a creeping unease with the unapologetic snootiness of it all. But looking back, there seems little reason to keep it all so uptight. Hogg’s film is sure to please those with an affection for austere glamour, but will likely repel those who find the issues on display middling and dull, and who find films like these more arrogant than artistic.

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

EIFF: “Strange But True”

“Had my eyes positively glued to the screen.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller here, back for a second time covering the EIFF! Glad to be back. More films more fun.

The suburban noir genre gets a capable but fairly average new entry in Rowan Athale’s Strange But True. The story, written by Eric Garcia from a novel by John Searles, follows the fallout of a bizarre meeting between a young pregnant woman and a grieving family. In the grey, quiet suburbs of New York, a very pregnant Melissa (Margaret Qualley) visits the home of mild-mannered, withdrawn Philip (Nick Robinson) and his mother Charlene (the always talented Amy Ryan). She knows them under tragic circumstances; she was dating their son Ronnie when he suddenly died on prom night five years earlier. Which makes matters particularly strange when she informs the two of them that she believes the baby inside her is Ronnie’s.

This forms the catalyst for the film’s spiraling developments. Charlene dismisses it as offensive and delusional hokum, though eventually considers certain ways it might just be true. Philip does some sleuthing on his own, even working around his broken leg to get to the bottom of whether Melissa is attached to any form of reality or not. The film takes some care to illustrate Philip’s detective skills; his passion for photography and his extensive memory of his brother come in handy as he stalks around asking former classmates and contacts what to do. Their tinkering ends up involving Philip’s father and Charlene’s ex, Richard (Greg Kinnear), whose initial introduction as a shallow opportunist is intriguingly deconstructed as he tries his best to unravel the mystery. The story makes clear that while the mystery is the priority, the characters’ painful and unforgotten histories and misunderstandings are key to working out who to trust and who is withholding important truths.

The key question on many of the characters’ minds is essentially whether Melissa is nuts or not. She insists she has not been with anyone else who could have left her with child, and seems, to all who know her, to be of sound mind. Yet as the film and its characters sink deeper into the underlying tensions in their quiet town, everyone from gracious neighbors like Bill (Brian Cox) and Gail (Blythe Danner) to local psychics and law enforcement get involved in unearthing some uncomfortably dark secrets. 

If darkness and secrets are your thing, this will likely entertain you. Strange But True is by no means a bad film, it is simply quite a self-serious one, which often leans more towards suspense than entertainment. Athale achieves some suspenseful sequences that are brilliantly tense, yet many other moments meant to be suspenseful are too languid and irrelevant to have an effect. Certain scenes towards the end, in particular, present some head-scratching twists that unfortunately fall into a common trap with twisty noirs: they come out of nowhere, and make no sense. A montage near the end is both impressive and puzzling : whilst it ties together multiple timelines and flashbacks quite well,  it really doesn’t provide much in the way of new plot developments. On another note, though perhaps I have seen too many noirs myself, but one ‘major’ twist towards the end was teased so heavily around the midway point that it greatly reduced the intended shock of its eventual reveal. It’s the kind of scene that makes you go “Oh, so they did it” — and you would be right.

Beyond the plot, there are also some intriguing choices elsewhere, for better and worse. The cast is undeniably an impressive bunch; Ryan and Cox in particular turn in performances that serve as effective reminders of their talent. Yet everything, from the acting to the visual craft, feels a few steps away from being truly cohesive or impressive. Kinnear and Danner are fine, but produce nothing particularly memorable; Robinson is a blank face for most of the runtime; Qualley is good at her expressions but less so on her delivery. Numerous shots are simply too dark, too fast, or too muted to leave an impression, and though some of the suburban scenery is captured well, momentarily, Athale rarely lets his camerawork breathe. Again, his approach also results in some winning moments, including a climactic sequence that I admit had my eyes positively glued to the screen. Yet the power of these infrequent moments (and, unfortunately, the limp and regrettable ways they often tie back into the overly twisty plot) mainly highlight the many missed opportunities in the rest of the film.

Unlike theatre of course, one cannot recommend a film try something different in a future performance. But if Strange But True had a chance to rework some elements, and tightened up its visuals and its performances with more practice and focus, this could be a genuinely engaging piece. As it is, however, it is a fairly run-of-the-mill thriller that could use more strange, more energy, and more thought. 

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

“History is much bigger than I am.” – Author Harry Turtledove discusses Agent of Byzantium

“Keep writing.  Nothing happens if you don’t.”

WHAT: The Byzantine Empire has not only survived but flourishes. However, the Eastern Roman Empire has many jealous enemies. Enter Basil Argyros, Byzantium’s version of 007, who has his hands full thwarting subversive plots from plotters foreign and domestic. In each story, Argyros finds himself operating in the context of a newly emerging technology – including the printing press, gunpowder, and distilled alcohol – each of which has the potential to disrupt the civilisation and society he is pledged to protect.

WHO: Harry Turtledove is an author in the genres of alternate history, historical fiction, fantasy, and science fiction. In this universe, he was born in Los Angeles, CA in June 1949. After failing out of his freshman year at Caltech, he attended UCLA, where he received a Ph.D. in Byzantine history in 1977. His dissertation was on ‘The Immediate Successors of Justinian: A Study of the Persian Problem and of Continuity and Change in Internal Secular Affairs in the Later Roman Empire During the Reigns of Justin II and Tiberius II Constantine (A.D. 565-582).’

In 1979, Turtledove published his first two novels, ‘Wereblood’ and ‘Werenight’, under the pseudonym Eric G. Iverson. Turtledove later explained that his editor at Belmont Towers did not think people would believe the author’s real name was “Turtledove” and suggested that he come up with something more Nordic. He continued to use the “Iverson” name until 1985 when he published his ‘Herbig-Haro’ and ‘And So to Bed’ under his real name. Since then he has gone on to write bestselling ficition, including stories set in a world in which the Confederacy triumphed in the American Civil War, and in which aliens invaded Earth during WWII.

He is married to mystery writer Laura Frankos. They have three daughters.

MORE? Here!


Why ‘Agent of Byzantium’?

Why not?  I was someone who wanted to write science fiction.  I had a doctorate in Byzantine history.  Was I going to write about Estonians?

When one of the big streaming services comes knocking to produce ‘Agent of Byzantium’ as a miniseries, which actor would you like to play Basil Argyros?

Given how little TV and how few movies I watch, I have no idea who actors are these days.

You’ve collaborated with other writers, including Richard Dreyfuss and Judith Tarr. What are the pros and cons? Does collaboration result in better writing?

With luck, the big pro is getting someone who is strong in areas where you are less so, and at the same time shoring up that person’s weaknesses.  The weakness, of course, is that in a collaboration each partner does 100% of the work for less than 100% of the money.

Is there a historical period you haven’t yet tackled that you’d like to?

Probably.  Almost certainly.  History is much bigger than I am.

As a writer what’s the one rule you never break?

Keep writing.  Nothing happens if you don’t.

If you could turn back time and make one change to make today’s world a better place, other than smothering some would-be-tyrant in their crib, when are you going and what are you altering?

There are so many unintended consequences and the web of history is so vast and complex, you never know what changing anything would do.  Even smothering tyrants is dangerous.  There was going to be a World War II after World War I; reasonably smart people saw it as early as the end of the first war.  If you strangle Hitler in his crib, maybe the Germans get a more capable dictator in 1939.

You’ve got a PhD in Byzantine history. What drew you to this “tedious and uniform tale of weakness and misery”?

I read L. Sprague de “Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall” when I was 14 or 15.  I got fascinated and started trying to find out what he was making up and what was real (not much and most of it, respectively).  After I flunked out of Caltech at the end of my freshman year–calculus was much tougher than I was–I looked around for something else to do.  Byzantium turned out to be it.  A colleague in grad school got drawn in the same way by Gore Vidal’s “Julian”.

What’s the one thing everyone should know about the Persian problem and of continuity and change in internal secular affairs during the reigns of Justin II and Tiberius II Constantine (AD 565–582)?

Justin II and Tiberius II were trying to hold together the expanded Empire Justinian had left them with the paper clips and duct tape he’d also left them after burning through resources to expand it.  That didn’t go real well.

You’ve got a solo return ticket for either a year on campaign with Julius Caesar; a fortnight with Hadrian and his entourage at Tivoli; or a day in the library of Alexandria. Which do you pick?

None of them would do me much good, I fear.  Campaigns are apt to be unpleasant and dangerous, I’m no warrior, and I presume I’m not allowed an AK-47. 😉  I don’t speak Latin, and I’m not really enough of a paleographer to work through manuscript Greek, which was written in all caps and without spaces between the words.  So I’ll stay in the 21st century, thankyouverymuch, with antibiotics, anaesthetics, and the Net that lets me annoy people at great distances and with great speed.

What are you working on now, what’s next for you?

I’m writing a new straight historical, “Salamis”, which is next in the adventures of Menedemos and Sostratos, the Hellenistic traders.  It will be done by this fall.  And I’m working on an a-h novella set in a time more recent than the 4th century BC(E).  We’ll see what happens with it.

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“So many people were killed to make Nero Emperor, it was kind of his destiny. He couldn’t opt out of it.” – Author Margaret George discusses The Confessions of Young Nero

“I’ve known a lot of Neros in my life, maybe I’m sort of a Nero too because I was lucky that I could write novels and make a living as an artist, but so few people can.”

WHAT: A mother’s deadly ambitions. A boy who would be sovereign. A name that would be infamous. This is the epic tale of Nero’s rise to power, a thrilling story of survival, betrayal, love, and the struggle for the Roman empire that would change history.”

WHO: Margaret George writes biographical novels about outsized historical characters: Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots, Cleopatra, Mary Magdalene, Helen of Troy, and Elizabeth I. Her latest subject is covered in ‘The Confessions of Young Nero’ and ‘The Splendour Before The Dark’. Her novels have been ‘New York Times’ bestsellers, and the Cleopatra novel was made into an Emmy-nominated ABC-TV miniseries.

Margaret especially enjoys the research she has done for the novels, such as racing in an ancient Greek stadium, attending a gladiator training school in Rome, and studying the pharmacology of snake poison.

MORE? Here!


Why Nero?

Why Nero? It’s because I think of all the Roman emperors, he seemed more like a person that you know. He seemed very modern. He reminded me of so many people I know personally who want to be artists. How many people do you know like that? Children want to go to film school, they want to become playwrights, they want to write novels, they want to play music and their parents say “No, I really think you’d better go to law school”.

So he was very modern in that way. It just happened that the law school his parent wanted him to go to was being the Emperor. That’s not something you can refuse by saying, “Well I don’t care to go to law school, I don’t want to be a doctor.” When that happens, most parents usually say, “All right then, go off to New York and if you don’t make it in five years, you’re going to come crawling back and we’ll see about law school.”

In this case, so many people were killed to make Nero Emperor, it was kind of his destiny. He couldn’t opt out of it. That was what really made him so interesting to me. It made his character alive in a way that say, Septimius Severus or even Julius Caesar or any of those people, who didn’t have that other side, couldn’t be. That is where I got the idea of the three Neros from. The Augustus one that did his duty, the artist in him and, last of all, the third one that had to facilitate the other two.

I feel as if I’ve known a lot of Neros in my life, maybe I’m sort of a Nero too because I was lucky that I could write novels and make a living as an artist, but so few people can.

Of course, this was a real life story so it wasn’t up to me to come up with a plot for the sequel that was as good as the first one, because history itself has provided me with that plot. It was a tragedy, of course. I must be drawn to tragic figures because when I think about it, Mary Queen of Scots was executed, Cleopatra and Nero committed suicide, Helen of Troy caused a war where many people were killed, and I’ve written about all of them. Life is sad even if you’re an emperor.

I like to write novels that cover a whole life. I think that you can’t understand the adult until you’ve met their younger self. The modern thing is to do just a slice of the life. When I started out I wanted to write about Henry VIII. At the time most of the books and plays just focused on a small part, usually the Anne Boleyn part and / or the Thomas More part – but I thought, “you can’t understand those out of context, you have to know the person, how he grew up, what formed him, you can’t just leap into the middle of his life.” That’s what people do now, because of space, I think, which is understandable, but I think you wouldn’t know the grown- up Nero until you knew the child.

How did you find writing the story in the shadow of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius novels?

I am thankful that ‘I, Claudius’ is told from Claudius’ point of view. Thank goodness Robert Graves didn’t get to do too much about Nero, because I find myself, especially from the mini-series, I just can’t get out of my mind the images I have of the actors that played those roles. Livia will always be Siân Phillips and of course, Caligula will always be John Hurt to me. Had there been a continuation with a grown-up Nero, I would certainly have had trouble in battling that image in my mind.

[DL: It’s interesting that neither you or Robert Graves haven’t got very much nice to say about Seneca.]

Neither of us do, do we? You know there’s such a difference of opinion about Seneca. He’s rather a mystery. It’s the old problem – stay within an institution and try to improve it, work from within and do what you can, don’t desert the field— or do you quit like Thomas More and say, “I just can’t have anything to do with this.” Seneca chose the first path, though he’s criticized a lot for that. You can make a case for the fact that he tried, he didn’t desert the ship. But you can also make a case that he stayed because he was getting so fabulously rich from serving Nero.

Is rehabilitating the reputation of Nero the ultimate act of iconoclasm?

I found that people are the most resistant to rehabilitating Nero. More so than they were to Henry VIII, which is kind of surprising because Henry was so much closer to modern times. What I found in some of the reviews, and some of the comments, is that people really prefer the villain. I have a friend who’s trying to rehabilitate Richard III, but it’s really hard because that colourful kind of villain is so attractive. Even in my Mary Magdalene book, Maureen Dowd in the ‘New York Times’ said that we prefer the golden-haired reformed prostitute because she’s so visual, she’s so easy to identify with. The disciple is not as interesting.

I was a little naïve in thinking that I could change many people’s judgment about Nero. I can see now how entrenched these ideas are about him. Public Broadcasting System recently did a programme, a kind of rehabilitation, called ‘The Nero Files’ and I braced myself. In it forensic scientists examined the case against the crimes of Nero and concluded was that he didn’t do a lot of these purported things and we can prove it by scientific evidence, for example, that plant-based poisons, which is what they had in the ancient world, worked slowly and could not cause someone to drop dead instantly, as Britannicus did. I wonder if many people watched the show and if some were convinced.

[DL: There is, of course, one crime that Nero’s associated with which is his kicking to death of his Empress Poppaea and her unborn child. She is perhaps the most famous victim of domestic abuse in history…]

Many modern historians don’t think that happened, and even the ancients fudged about it. But even if it wasn’t really true, it is so much in the popular mind that there had to be a version of it in the novel that involved Nero, but was involuntary. I couldn’t just get away with the modern view that she was ill and she had had a miscarriage. I had to acknowledge the belief that blamed Nero. But the only way to answer it, without being accused of just dodging the whole thing, was to have it happen but have it be an accident.

I say in my author’s afterword that Nero was not known to take physical action against people, striking them or abusing them. So it’s out of character if he did that, especially to his wife whom he loved very much, and they both wanted children. There’s even a papyrus, a poem written in Egypt afterwards, about Nero and Poppaea and their love, and no mention of his injuring her.

One of the problems of being a historical novelist is that a real historian can say here are the theories: one, two, three, four and he can lay them all out for the reader. But, if you’re writing a novel it has to be consistent, and you can only choose one, just one, not a list of alternative theories. So, that’s the way I handled it.

Other famous events in his reign you really cannot get away from, such as the fire in Rome and his killing Agrippina— those things really happened. The only way I can handle those them is to try to give the reasons they happened, not pretend they didn’t.

Do you have a role in selecting the narrators of the audiobook editions of your
novels?

Long, long ago when they still had cassette tapes, I would preview tapes for books from the library for a long car trip, because if I didn’t like the sound of the narrator I knew I couldn’t stand listening to it for hours. Sometimes the narrator just isn’t right.

After a certain point in my publishing career, I got the right to select the readers and that makes such a difference. If someone doesn’t sound like Nero or doesn’t sound like what I think he sounds like, I think that it just won’t capture the spirit of the book.

[DL: Why was Susan Denaker, the reader for the poisoner Locusta, so noticeably an American? Steve West, the reader for Nero, only once gives his new-found Americanness away with his pronunciation of ‘herbs’.]

I really wanted the main characters to be British – because everybody knows—ha ha— that the ancient Romans spoke with British accents. At least they do in all the movies! I think Susan sounded like an older, canny woman, the other two proposed readers sounded either really spacey or weird or else way too prissy to be like I pictured Locusta— a wise, older, and very level headed and practical person, so I hope it wasn’t too jarring that she had a different accent.

Since Peter Ustinov is unavailable, who would you cast to play your Nero?

People think of Nero as so much older than he really was. Every time I give a talk and I say, “you know he didn’t live long – he died when he was 30”, people are shocked. They had no idea. I’d like the young Robert Redford, but the current actor I came up with is Joe Alwyn. He’s 28, he looks like the young Nero, and of course, he’s British so he has the right accent.

I thought it was brilliant Zeffirelli cast ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with actual teenagers. You get older actors playing teenaged parts sometimes and it just feels ‘off’. Since the death of Luke Perry, ‘90210‘ has been back in the news. But the actors playing teenagers in it were not teenagers. One woman was 30 and Luke Perry himself was 26 so I think that if you really want to get the real Nero, you had better ask an actor who is that age, and so Joe Alwyn is my choice and I hope he is available! If he’s not taken up with Taylor Swift! But yes I think he’ll be perfect but we’ve got to do it right away or he’ll soon be too old.

[DL: Is there anything in the works to bring the novels to the screen?]

No not yet. I do have an agent in Hollywood who is working very hard to find a way of bringing it to the screen because the streaming services, like Amazon and Netflix and now Apple, are budgeting billions of dollars to bring out new series. So I’m hoping that in this climate there will be an interest in Nero because of course, a mini-series offers so much more scope than a two-hour movie. I don’t see how you could get Nero’s story into a traditional 2-hour movie format.

Did Nero’s rule produce any lasting achievements?

Ah, that’s a good question. I’m not trying to dodge this, but let me frame it a little, and consider whether anybody has real lasting achievements. It’s very rare because often the person’s accomplishments, at least within a couple of centuries, get superseded or wiped out. Nero had great diplomatic success with that treaty of peace with Parthia. That lasted 50 years.

Longer term, I would say the beginning of urban planning is his lasting legacy. He was the first one to tackle this, as he had a clean slate after the devastating Great Fire of Rome, so he had an opportunity to put green space in the rebuilding plan of Rome. He also dictated that the new streets had to be a certain width. They had to have fire fighting equipment in each house and the walls had to be at least a yard apart with no more common walls, and they had to build with a certain kind of stone that was fire resistant. Of course, people grumbled about these restrictions but he could mandate them because he was the emperor. Today we accept the necessity of city planning, but it was a radical idea then.

I have a new issue of ‘National Geographic’ examining planning cities – what did China do wrong in the last 30 years and Los Angeles in the last 15 years? How do you shape urban spaces in cities? How do we learn from past mistakes so that we have pleasant places to live? I’d say that urban planning is Nero’s one legacy which he would be very surprised about. He was proud of it but it came to him by accident because of the fire. It’s not that he set out saying, “I think I will redesign a city.” He was too focused on a different kind of art.

I would also say perhaps preparing the way for Hadrian was a legacy. Nero was a bit ahead of his time. Later, Hadrian could grow a beard and be a Grecophile and be gay, be all kinds of things that Nero did and was pilloried for.

If you could possess any one item associated with Nero, what would you have?

I would like to have his very own cithara, I could have it enthroned in some kind of shrine because none have survived from his time, and it was a very difficult virtuoso instrument to master. I’ve seen statues of Apollo holding it and that way it’s like 3D; you can walk around it and see how big and boxy and bulky it was but I’d like to see the real thing.

I do have some things from Nero’s time. I have coins which I have collected and I do have some jewellery from that era that is wearable. That I love having because I know someone wore it when Nero was emperor. I have learnt so much about history through my coin collecting. I did it with Cleopatra too.

If you could ask Nero any question what would it be?

I assume by your question that that means he’d have a retrospective vision. Because if he knows what’s happened since I would ask him for an honest appraisal of his art. Would he make the same choices knowing how posterity has painted him? To answer he would have to know how posterity painted him.

In the book I have him saying, “Do I care enough to throw everything over for my art?” If he cannot know what happened after his life, I would still ask him toward the end of his life: if you could go back and do it all over again, will you throw everything over for your art?

You’ve got a one way ticket to the Roman Empire for you and your family, you’re not coming back, when and where are you taking them?

I’m never coming back? Then I would go to England at the time when Hadrian was building his wall, and it would be okay for me to stay there because my ancestors were all there, so I’m going back to my roots. That’s one reason I want to go, seriously, but the Roman Empire in Britain fascinates me. It’s odd that Britain ever was in the Roman Empire, but it was for 400 years, so it’s a bit like the EU and Britain. Were they ever really and truly in their hearts, part of it?

I’d like to see Roman Britain at its height. I want to live in one of those heated villas but that’s so far from Rome it’s almost a mythological place. I remember my father saying years and years ago when I was writing Henry VIII, that I ought to do a novel about the end of the Roman Empire in Britain because they just upped and left and it must have been very strange to have this suddenly happen for both sides. So that’s what I would do but I’d better take some warm clothes.

You’ve got a solo return ticket for either a year on campaign with Julius Caesar; a fortnight with Hadrian and his entourage at Tivoli; or a day in the library of Alexandria. Which do you pick?

I wouldn’t take the library of Alexandria because I’ve spent so much time in libraries lately, I need a change of scene. And I’m sure I’d have a great time with Hadrian and his entourage, but I would choose the Julius Caesar campaign. Now I hope, because I’m being magically transported back in time, this would mean that I could keep up with the rigors of the campaign as I would be a ramped up version of myself.

I became fascinated by Caesar when I saw him through Cleopatra’s eyes as I was writing about them. He’s such an extraordinary character and I am curious about his genius on campaigns. But he also had the trait of being easy going and tolerant of his soldiers. When some of them ran away in a key battle, he grabbed them by the shoulders, turned them around and said calmly, “the enemy is this way.” He was unique and I would just like to watch him in action.

Also, his campaigns were the beginning of Europe, when it was wild and untamed. I would like to experience that moment in time. When Augustus, (Octavian) and Antony split up the Roman Empire, Octavian got the bad part, he got Europe, and Antony got the rich part, the Eastern part. How things have changed!

What are you working on now, what’s next for you?

I would love to stay in the ancient world and as I said I really am drawn to Britain and Roman Empire Britain. I haven’t quite decided who is calling me to go there. I hear a few voices, but I’m not sure which one is absolutely the loudest–or the most beguiling. So I will demur on that until I know for sure.

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“I’m sure the circa 2008 red was distinctive because I had no expectations at all, yet it startled me.” – Author Kevin Begos discusses Tasting The Past

“Anything from Alaverdi Monastery in Georgia. Beautiful wines, and they are making heroic efforts to save local native grapes.”

After a chance encounter with an obscure Middle Eastern red, journalist Kevin Begos embarked on a ten-year journey to seek out the origins of wine.* What he unearthed is a whole world of forgotten grapes, each with distinctive tastes and aromas, as well as the archaeologists, geneticists, chemists-even a paleobotanist-who are deciphering wine down to molecules of flavour. In his Tasting The Past we meet a young scientist who sets out to decode the DNA of every single wine grape in the world; a researcher who seeks to discover the wines that Caesar and Cleopatra drank; and an academic who has spent decades analyzing wine remains to pinpoint ancient vineyards. Science illuminates wine in ways no critic can, and it has demolished some of the most sacred dogmas of the industry: for example, well-known French grapes aren’t especially noble.

Kevin Begos is an award-winning writer in the fields of energy, science, wine, the environment, and everyday people. He’s been a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and was a Correspondent for The Associated Press. Among the many titles in which his work has been published are A Field Guide for Science Writers, Scientific American, The New York Times, The Washington Post, MSNBC, Tablet, and The Christian Science Monitor. In 1992 Kevin conceived and published one of the first ever electronic books. The archive of papers from that pioneering project, undertaken 18 years before the invention of the iPad, are now held at the Bodleian Library.

*In the time since Kevin’s first encounter with the mysterious red in a Jordanian hotel room, Cremisan wines have been brought to wider attention through the critical praise of iconic restauranteur Yotam Ottolenghi and his sommeliers.

Tasting the Past: The Science of Flavor & the Search for the Origins of Wine was published in June 2018 by Algonquin Books. To find out more click here.


Why Tasting the Past?

I hoped to evoke three things: my original quest for a wine that I was never able to taste again; then my search for ancient grape varieties; finally an allusion to Proust.

This is the story of an encounter that became an obsession. At what point did you know for certain that you were actually writing a book?

2014, when I saw that the Cremisan wine could be part of a larger narrative.

Where was wine first produced?

At the moment evidence points towards the Caucasus Mountain region about 8 to 10,000 years ago, but there are vast areas along the Silk Road to the East that really haven’t been properly explored. The Chinese may have drunk a different type of wine even earlier.

If I could meet anyone from history, I’d like to meet the nameless individual who constructed the first shelf – the first artificial surface atop two brackets. What made them think of a shelf? What did they use it for? How did others react to the innovation? Is there a similar figure, lost in the mists of early wine technology and culture whom you would like to encounter?

The person who realized that some vines were self-pollinating hermaphrodites that always produce grapes. I’d call that the first domestication.

What’s the single worst / most disruptive thing to happen to wine since phylloxera?

The Napa Valley? OK, I am being bad. But I think that mad yet very successful focus on just a few French grape varieties influenced wine markets around the world, and not in a good way.

You’re castaway on a desert island. You have with you eight bottles of wine. What are they and why?

  1. The Cremisan Jandali/Hamdani white, because it connects me to the Cremisan red I will never taste again.
  2. COS Pithos Bianco, a complex orange/amphora wine from Sicily that suggests what the Romans might have drunk.
  3. Anything from Alaverdi Monastery in Georgia. Beautiful wines, and they are making heroic efforts to save local native grapes.
  4. Loup D’Or from Deidre Heekin. Her wines are often wildly surprising, and this one uses hybrid American grapes.
  5. “Our Wine” Rkatsiteli from Georgia. Gloriously primitive winemaking.
  6. Taylor Fladgate 20 Tawny Port. Because I love port but won’t have a fabulously expensive older bottle on hand when I get stranded (see next note).
  7. A pre-phylloxera bottle of Lafite Rothschild. Because I sold everything to buy it and became a castaway.
  8. A Rhone Syrah, because I love Syrah and find so many surprises among producers there.

Honestly, was the Israeli/Palestinian, pre-commercial vintage of Cremisan wine you encountered at the start of your journey any good or were you sampling with rose-tinted tastebuds?

I’m sure the circa 2008 red was distinctive because I had no expectations at all, yet it startled me. Their winemaker then had been at Cremisan for many decades, and others say he really knew what he was doing.

On the day you come to supreme power what’s the first law you’ll decree in relation to wine?

Everyone has to try an unfiltered amphora/orange wine at least once.

You published one of the first e-books, Agrippa (1992). It’s kind of like hearing that President Grant was issued a $20 speeding ticket in 1872. How did you one go about publishing an e-Book in the late 20th century?

I did it either very badly or fabulously well, opinions differ. In the beginning, I didn’t have the faintest idea how to create an e-book. An idle comment turned into a wild obsession, then a few programmers/hackers made it happen, notably John Perry Barlow, John Gilmore, and one person who chose to remain anonymous.

What’s next for you?

Either a medieval poet or Darwin and orchids.


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