Tag Archives: childhood

Films that remind you of people – Amelie


Sometimes you really wish you could forget someone. Not because you want to but because you feel like you have to. People are forever telling you to “move on” from them, as if they were a shifty beggar in the street wasting your time. They have condemned you to the rubbish dump of their lives, so you should do the same. Whatever you manage to salvage from the wreckage of them will only remind you of the way things were before the crash, in a time you cannot travel back to. It’s time for a new stage of your life, minus them.

There are days when it feels like you might be able to do it. There are loads of things to live for, more pluses than minuses dotting the horizon of the future. But the thing is life has a knack of throwing reminders your way that jolt you back to her, to him, to them, to there. Oh look, memory sneers in a stage whisper from the shadows, it’s the bar you spent all night talking in, the river bank where you first kissed or the station she used to get off at. Even when you’ve succeeded in blanking them out from familiar places, their memories surprise you in other ways.

“This was our song” is a phrase you often hear from the devastated dumpee, just before their face melts in a cascade of noisy tears, possibly years after the breakup itself. Then there’s the novel that becomes ostracised on the book shelf because of a strange connection you are suddenly seeing these days within its pages. Even their favourite paper or magazine can give you a slap in the newsagents occasionally.

Some of the worst offenders are films. There will be the trashy romantic comedy given inexplicable significance because it happened to be your first date. There will be films that divided you and films you wished them to see. And there will be some favourites of theirs you never found the time to watch.

This was the case for me as I finally watched Amelie in its entirety. I had seen bits of it but never the whole thing. I knew that the music was fantastically whimsical and enchanting. I had watched an uplifting scene via YouTube in which Amelie spirits a blind man along a street, vividly describing everything in a whirlwind of sensuous movement. I knew it was French and starred Audrey Tautou. And I knew it was one of the favourite films of someone I wish I could forget.

In a way I was desperate to hate Amelie. I knew what it would be like because I knew the people that liked it. I was hoping that it would try too hard, alienate me with its quirkyness and annoy me with its arty farty simplifications. There were times I felt a little like that. But mostly I loved it.

Why did I hope that I wouldn’t? It was hard at points to be enjoying it so much because they enjoy it. How much easier it would have been to be repulsed and to have found another tiny reason to take another minute step forward and away from the past!

Amelie is about being alive, feeling alive and dreaming. It’s about the smaller things, so particular and peculiar that they must be real, containing a touch of magic that makes life worthwhile. It is extremely funny and eccentric, fresh and unique.

It’s the eccentricity that I thought might annoy me. I thought that Amelie might have been quirky for its own sake, as so many films of its ilk are. But Amelie’s comedy is crucial to its success. It is almost self mocking at times with the ridiculous and random nature of its details.

In the opening twenty minutes I fell in love with the narration. Normally voiceover is catastrophic and awful. Perhaps Amelie’s is so charming and intoxicating because it is French. Or perhaps it is that at once meaningful and light hearted tone, which doesn’t take itself too seriously. Amelie feels like a novel throughout its enjoyable beginning which explains her tragic yet amusing childhood. Characters are brought to life instantly because of their odd habits and Amelie herself has baffling, childlike musings about the world which add to her appeal.

I was disappointed when the narration became less frequent throughout the film, which is extraordinary given my usual distaste for voiceover. I loved the musicality of the voice, the specific details it would come out with and the telling but mysterious insights we’d instantly learn about characters. Most of all I loved the way it seemed to mock any work of art trying much too hard to stand out.

But the retreat of the narrator brings Amelie herself to the foreground. The wonderful lines from the narrator are replaced by some witty and surprising scenes of dialogue. The visuals and sounds of the film grow and grow until modern day Paris seems like a wondrous place, with deserving and interesting souls to be saved on every corner.

I expected Amelie to be preachy, perhaps patronising or too desperate to be different. I wanted to dislike it for my own good. But in the end I am glad to have seen it. I liked it because it’s good, not because of any associations it has with anyone. I thought it was unique and it made me feel alive and full of possibility, regardless of what others think. It’s a beautiful and beguiling film that reminds us how life can be so too, with dreams coming true, big or small, out of nowhere.

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BlogalongaBond: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service


“FAR UP! FAR OUT! FAR MORE!” reads the poster. As a youngster I would have scoffed at this. I would act superior to my friends whenever a Bond film happened to be on TV. I would dazzle them with my knowledge of the films. And if I was ever asked what the worst film in the entire series was I would always reply – “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, obviously”.

Why was this? There was only really one reason; George Lazenby. It was his only Bond film, he did less than everyone else and therefore it was the worst. OHMSS (as I shall refer to it from now on) was an unwelcome aberration before the jolly rebirth provided by Roger Moore. As I grew up I was taught to love and treasure Roger’s cheeky eyebrows. But now, just as You Only Live Twice has slipped since childhood from one of my favourites towards the bottom of the pile, OHMSS is one of the very best in my personal Bond canon.

This is because the dated but charming slogan on the poster was spot on for a change; you really do get far more from OHMSS than any other Bond film. Not in every department of course; the range of locations is European and perhaps ordinary by modern standards, the gadgetry is minimum and the action less frequent than some would like. But for Bond fanatics, particularly those familiar with the Bond of Fleming’s books, this is the most faithful adaptation. A film with a storyline that really lets us get to know a little of the man behind the agent, the icon and the image.

As the excellent review from Kinnemaniac (which says everything I’m going to say more amusingly and precisely) points out, it is perhaps inevitable that diehard fans pounced on the instalment least popular with the general public. OHMSS is rarely picked for Bank Holiday TV schedules like other outings from Connery and Moore. Again as Kinnemaniac points out though, OHMSS attempts a tone not seen in the franchise again until the Dalton films and then properly in Casino Royale with Daniel Craig’s Eva Green love interest. Indeed perhaps Lazenby has Craig to thank for a new generation falling with renewed vigour for his solitary outing as 007.

Producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman no doubt fretted over replacing Sean Connery. For cinemagoers of the sixties he was THE embodiment of James Bond. Unlike audiences of today they were unaccustomed to the regular replacement of the actor playing Britain’s top secret agent now and again. The way in which they chose to tackle the casting and the whole creative process of the sixth Bond outing was bold and experimental.

Lazenby was nothing more than an Australian model, director Peter Hunt had been an editor for the early films. Or perhaps OHMSS was a safer bet than it appears. Saltzman and Broccoli might have gone back to the books through caution rather than ambition, and the whole project delayed the business of thinking about Bond’s future properly until Connery could be lured back for Diamonds are Forever. In any case the special features of my Ultimate Edition DVD reveal the bitchy arguments and distrust on set that never looked likely to form harmonious or long lasting foundations, despite frequent praise for Lazenby’s surprising ability.

Lazenby of course unavoidably remains the film’s defining feature. Nowadays I am more than happy to overlook his occasionally dodgy acting. The reason many fans of the books take to him is that he simply looks like James Bond. Rather than acting out aspects of his character, he is simply being Bond and our selective imaginations can iron out the creases in his portrayal. Re-watching OHMSS this time I noticed just how good Lazenby’s acting is on occasion though. He pulls off subtle little looks as well as the more obvious love scenes.

You hope to discover something new each time you watch a film and I found out that I like OHMSS best when Diana Rigg is on screen as Tracy with this viewing. I knew I loved the opening scene with Peter Hunt’s teasing direction of a mysterious driver, John Barry’s sublime soundtrack to the seaside action and Lazenby’s fourth wall breaching line; “this never happened to the other fellow”. And indeed I rank the scenes until Bond heads off to Piz Gloria in the Swiss Alps (surely the only base of villainy to match YOLT’s volcano?) as some of my favourites in the whole franchise. But then things simmer down with Bond undercover as Sir Hilary Bray. There’s occasional hilarity, an interestingly un-mysterious Blofeld and lots of girls, but not that same look at Bond as a man in love. When Rigg turned up again my interest was ignited again and turned up a couple notches.

Lazenby and Rigg’s chemistry is important, indeed vital for Bond’s first true love story, but the main reason I enjoy her presence on screen is because of what it does to the story. And the creative execution of the storytellers must be praised when talking about OHMSS. It’s evident for Bondians familiar with the whole series that the reins are looser here. They are telling a story rather than following a formula.

The two key architects are John Barry and Peter Hunt. I’ve already mentioned my admiration for the scene that introduces us to Tracy and reveals Lazenby as Bond. It just might be my personal favourite out of all the films. But aside from my preferences it’s the perfect illustration of Barry’s musical talent and Hunt’s ahead of his time direction.

The OHMSS soundtrack was one of the first that I bought. Its got a brilliant title theme, along with a gorgeous mix of thrilling synthesised ski chase accompaniments and romantic themes inspired by the sublime We Have All the Time in the World by Louis Armstrong. And then there’s Hunt’s evident ambition as both an editor and director.

Supposedly Lazenby got the role as Bond after he demonstrated his aptitude for fight scenes. The punch ups in OHMSS swing between the comical and the innovatively magnificent. Long before the creators of the Bourne films would claim that Craig’s Bond copies their style, Hunt and Lazenby filmed frantically paced and edited brawls in hotel rooms and the froth and spray of Portuguese waves. There may be the odd inadvertently funny grunt or strange bit of camerawork but Lazenby’s exciting physical Bond foreshadows Craig’s by almost forty years.  If Hunt were working today his action scenes would be hailed as visceral and hard hitting. But back then change wasn’t embraced.

Even this fresh, frenzied approach to fisticuffs came back to underlining OHMSS’s USP; Bond is a man! He may still be a dapper chap with a trio of ladies actually making appointments to pull his trigger but now and then he’ll need to smother a man into submission rather than K.O. him with a single swipe. And his heart is as prone to silly somersaults as the rest of us male apes. Haters of Lazenby’s emotional depths though will not have long to wait for Bond to haul his armour back on. Within two years he’ll be protected by a 70s haircut, pink tie and drawling Scottish accent.

Doctor Who: Series 6: Episode 5 – The Rebel Flesh


I am rather late with my thoughts on the latest episode. This is because in a lot of ways I thought The Rebel Flesh was scarcely worth commenting on. Not because it was bad but because it was mostly a setup for next week’s The Almost People. My suppressed OCD instincts could never allow me to skip an episode though. Judging by the build up to next week, it would seem that we’ll get some fairly substantial answers to aspects of the story arc, as well as a dramatic conclusion to the story established here.

The trailers and promotional material for The Rebel Flesh all emphasised the aspect of the Doctor mediating between two sides in a war, without necessarily condemning one as the enemy. This was all rather ominous given that the weakest episodes of last year’s series came via the Silurian double bill, in which the Doctor was reduced to an ineffectual peacekeeper. However thankfully not only does next week’s finale look far more satisfying than last year’s, as a standalone ideas piece this was superior to the disappointing Silurians.

Matthew Graham’s script has some very interesting ideas and manages to be original despite treading well explored sci-fi territory. The Doctor gets some fantastic lines when he is calmly and seriously explaining the rights and beauty of the flesh but I can’t help feeling Graham doesn’t carry off the scattier moments as entertainingly as Moffat or even RTD in the past. Matt Smith’s increasingly assured and diverse performance helps gloss over these occasional weaknesses in the more playful chunks of dialogue though and one line did manage to capture the mysterious, funny and mad side to our temperamental Time Lord: “I’ve got to get to that cockerel before all hell breaks loose! I never thought I’d have to say that again.”

The concept of the Gangers is suitably chilling for the tone of the new series and delightfully unsettling. There are genuinely complex ethical questions that arise from such a technology. Doctor Who is at its best asking those sorts of questions and sparking intelligent debate. But of course it also has its essential ingredients. Here we get some typical running around and down corridors, as well as scary gooey faces and a dark, near future setting.

With the somewhat obvious creation of the Doctor’s Ganger, and its emergence at the end, many are wondering if this is connected to the big question marks of the series surrounding the Doctor’s death in episode one. It would seem to be an easy get out clause. But for some reason my instincts tell me it would be simultaneously too simple and complex a solution. Too simple because Moffat doesn’t like answers you can see coming and too complex because clearly, despite their similarities, the Gangers have underlying faults and differences that make them monstrous. And I’m sure the Doctor will be of the opinion that there can’t be two of him dashing about the universe, for reasons of cosmic law and order.

Elsewhere in this episode we are still being fed teasing reminders of Amy’s pregnancy, with the Doctor scanning her inconclusively once again and telling her to “Breathe” before he darts of to try and stop the solar tsunami doing too much damage. Also Amy’s and Rory relationship continues to be pushed and strained. This week Rory has another love interest, in Ganger/human Jennifer, which is a nice role reversal for the hapless husband, often just reduced to a comic presence lusting after the TARDIS redhead.  Theories swirl in the online fan community, with some suggesting Rory is fading in and out of reality. Seems random? Don’t forget his disappearance through a crack in time and space last year and his return as an auton. Also the Doctor has forgotten about Rory a few times this series, including in this episode. Such moments appear to be simple humour at first glance. But maybe they’re not.

On a second viewing I thought Raquel Cassidy’s performance as factory leader Cleaves was quite appalling and irritating. That’s right just a random jibe at a hardworking actress there.

Stay tuned for next week’s The Almost People, which will nestle nicely before the Champions League final. Superb Saturday viewing.

BlogalongaBond: You Only Live Twice – A review from memory


After getting the ball rolling last month with the underwater mad, but still in my view underrated Thunderball, I was looking forward to sitting down to the even grander and more SPECTRE dominated You Only Live Twice. Here was a Bond film not only hell bent on exotic thrills but a whistle-stop tour of Japanese culture for a Western audience. With such a diverse location to work with, a script adapted by Roald Dahl from one of Fleming’s best novels and the fresh direction of Lewis Gilbert, this would surely be bigger and better Bond. I licked my lips at the prospect of rediscovery.

Unfortunately I came across a substantial stumbling block perusing the beloved and holy row of Bond DVDS. I do not own a copy of You Only Live Twice. I am anxious to keep this knowledge from my friends. Among them my, perhaps unhealthy, obsession with all things 007 is the stuff of notorious legend. I am counting on the fact that they are not good enough friends to read my blog.

You might ask why I haven’t simply gone out to buy a copy. I am not marooned on a desert island with no access to British high streets and if HMV should prove woefully stocked the internet is of course at my disposal. If it were a missing fragment of any other film series I wouldn’t hesitate. But my James Bond collection is comprised of two disc Ultimate Editions with beautiful matching packaging. To my horror, around the release of either Casino Royale or Quantum of Solace on DVD, the Ultimate Editions were re-released with all new (and vastly inferior) packaging. Reluctant to tarnish the perfection of my sacred DVD area, I have refrained from buying a newer copy of You Only Live Twice and have been unable to find a copy to match my collection.

Oh I know you feel my pain reader. Life is a cruel and unpredictable mistress. I felt resigned to my fate and the torturous wait till June where the snowy delights of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service lurked in the Alpine trees. I was on the verge of giving up and leaving a gaping hole in my own personal BlogalongaBond journey. But then I got to thinking: why didn’t I own You Only Live Twice? Why hadn’t I made it a priority when assembling my shrine to the world’s most recognisable spy?

For Sean Connery of course it was the film that took the character too far and into the realm of the ridiculous. He resented the space age driven plot and the increasing repetitiveness of the one liners. In particular he must have felt like a first class prat being initiated as an honorary citizen of Japan, with a haircut that made him look like a monk (perhaps M really did want him to be “half monk/half hitman”). For fans looking back on the whole series of 22 films, Connery’s concerns might seem rather unfounded compared to the silliness to come with the Moore era. But clearly the Scot didn’t agree with the direction of travel away from intimate plots like those in From Russia With Love. The scale of this, the franchise’s fifth film, couldn’t be beaten without being dreadful.

I think some of Connery’s conservatism must have rubbed off on me. As a child YOLT was one of my favourite Bond entries. In particular I thought the climactic battle at the volcano base was one of the most exciting things in the universe, a totally awesome shootout with the baddies. I would have called it “an engrossing and epic finale on an impressive scale. One of the classic scenes in film history” had I had the required vocabulary. I also loved all the scenes featuring Little Nelly, as my Dad would chirp on and on about it, building the anticipation until the treasured scene would grip the household with awe and laughter.

But then as a teenager I obviously sought to reject the things my parents thought of as “good”. Little Nelly became silly. It was the sort of bland nonsense my Dad would always blabber on about. Later on I would find my love for Bond rekindled by the approach in Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale, so that I rapidly acquired and devoured the books (none of Fleming’s are missing from that collection). So enthralled was I by the dark and bleak novel that pushed Bond’s character to the limit, that my attitude to the film as a whole became lukewarm at best.

Most of all it was my view of Blofeld that changed so dramatically after reading YOLT the novel. I was struck by the complete contrast between the cinematic and literary characters, even in terms of physique. In the books he was tall, in the films a short, bald, fat and often wheelchair bound man with a fluffy white pussy. I don’t mean that he was a woman; the contrast wasn’t quite that shocking.

Anyway I might be being unfair because it’s Austin Powers’ Doctor Evil that creates such a daft cultural vision of Ernst Stavro, rather than the portrayals from the Eon films (aside from perhaps the PTS of For Your Eyes Only). But after reading the book I was no longer captivated by Donald Pleasence’s iconic performance. He was THE Blofeld to me and countless others, but after my personal enlightenment he became a wasted opportunity, a stupid cardboard cut out villain and an imitation.  

I’ve already mentioned that unintentionally hilarious assimilation of Bond into the ninja community, which ruined the pace of the film and its focus upon Japanese culture. Another definite reason I came to find YOLT a turnoff was that it tried too hard to do its location justice at times, almost showing too much respect. That is not to say there wasn’t beautiful cinematography of the landscape and cities, just that too much was made of the whole “culture clash” angle. Having said this there were some wonderfully contrasted Ken Adam interior sets, which simultaneously showcased the equally beguiling faces of modern and traditional Japan.

In the aftermath of the recent earthquake and tsunami it is fitting and poignant to watch YOLT this month. Sadly, as I’ve explained, I am not. Everything I have said so far I have said from memory. Some of these files have been saved since childhood, others downloaded from more recent viewings. The trend seems to be that boy me loved it, more recent me had reservations. There are things about the film that the younger me hated that I now love however. Nancy Sinatra’s title song was whiny and not very Bondian back in the 90s, but now I find it a refreshing and beautiful track. Likewise John Barry’s score, which picked up substantially on the Japanese themes at times if memory serves me right, now strikes me as majestic when once it was irritating and plodding (not that I’d have used those words).

I genuinely wish I owned YOLT on DVD, despite what might be a tone of negativity coming across because of my love for the pages of the book dripping in revenge and sensual doubt. I know that the last time I saw the film on TV I found it to be a wonderful snapshot of both 1960s and Japanese culture, with fun as well as thrilling moments and the fresh angle of the space race. In many ways it is the classic film of the entire franchise, adhering more to the globally recognised Bond formula than Goldfinger and coming complete with spiky dialogue with Blofeld; the ultimate confrontation.

 But perhaps this is also why I can’t quite bring myself to love YOLT. Like Connery, and with the added benefit of hindsight, I see YOLT’s sensational and epic tone as the start of a trend away from the style of the early films. I adored these grander and dafter cinematic Bond adventures for different reasons, but in the early films I could indulge my love for the books and the movies at the same time. Whilst good, perhaps YOLT symbolises the end of my own personal Bondian bliss and this is why my memories of it are so mixed.

Doctor Who: Series 6: Episode 3 – The Curse of the Black Spot


The TARDIS crash lands in a wardrobe. Beloved outfits are callously clobbered from their hangers and crumpled beneath the weight of Time Lord tech. Beyond the doors lie in wait neither lions or witches but the Doctor’s most terrifying foe yet. Amy and Rory will have wished they’d stayed at home. The spine chilling tunes of My Chemical Romance make it through the Doctor’s atmospheric filters, numbing even Amelia Pond’s fiery ginger heart with angst and melancholy. Outside in a teenage bedroom the curse of the blackheads lurks in the shadows.

Thankfully this wasn’t the plot to Episode 3. Pirates are about as far from serious adolescent tedium and clouds of Clearasil fumes as it gets. This was a fantastical and traditional romp, and in many ways a return to a classic Who episode formula that Moffat’s era has largely abandoned. Doctor picks up distress signal, Doctor lands in middle of dangerous situation, Doctor seems to work out what’s going on, Doctor works out what’s really going on is scientific and alien related, Doctor fixes things and moves on.

Some commentators are already calling this episode predictable and disappointing, but for me it was the most enjoyable of the series so far. I understand why for some a light hearted and often comic dash about a “becalmed” pirate ship is a rather lifeless contrast with the bombastic, secret stuffed opening two parter. But as I said last week, Day of the Moon was something of a letdown for trying to do too much, which affected its strength as a standalone story. The Curse of the Black Spot was a self contained and entertaining tale, that kept the key things that make the new Who so, so much better than the RTD period.

There was once again a wonderfully realised childhood fear and fancy, that has become Moffat’s trademark. He didn’t write this episode, but Stephen Thomson wrote the second episode of Sherlock, The Blind Banker, so the two have history. Last night’s theme was reflections. There is something scary about a reflection, particularly when it distorts or is not clear. Also when you think you see something that you can’t have done in the mirror image of your surroundings. I remember imagining as a child that mirrors could act as gateways, as they do for Lily Cole’s Mermaid here and also that there was a whole new world on the other side.

The Guardian’s weekly blog calls these ideas “high concepts” and I believe that these lifted the fun of the episode to a new level. There were some good red herrings in the plot that were difficult to work out and it was nice that even the Doctor’s reasoning took mistakes to progress, after he initially thought the creature could only appear through water. Then of course the big reveal was that there was another ship, a space ship, sending out a signal from the same place. This was typical Who as the historical fun and detail of the pirate ship was contrasted brilliantly with a sci-fi sick bay. The seemingly supernatural goings on of course had scientific explanations. The idea of a computerised nurse so fiercely protective of her human charges was an interesting commentary on the limits and excesses of technology, and Lily Cole’s turquoise illuminated figure had convincing and captivating FX.

The pirate ship setting, whilst not as impressive as the American locations of the series opening, nevertheless retained an air of higher quality about it. This wasn’t the Doctor running around a quarry or a council estate as he tended to do under RTD. Hugh Bonneville clearly relished playing a pirate and there were some good performances from other members of the supporting cast of swashbucklers. Cole did well despite not having a single line to say. Most of all this episode was a refreshing change of tone from the seriousness of the American episodes, with Rory mucking about under the influence of Mermaid song and Matt Smith unshackled from ambiguous and sexual banter with River Song to simply be a scatter brain genius. Having said this he still had chances to show his range in scenes with Bonneville and then in that climax with Rory and Amy. He continues to impress.

Twitter went mad as the show reached its climax. The general feeling was that a Time Lord who has been round the block a few times would know CPR. I agreed that this was ridiculous. They could have still had a dramatic moment with the Doctor helping Amy. He’s called the “Doctor” after all. The falseness of this moment undermined some of the other strengths of the episode. But they did certainly achieve drama once again and question the strength of Rory and Amy’s love for one another for the umpteenth time.

In terms of the ongoing secrets of the series, I much preferred how this episode handled them. There was a random appearance from the same woman Amy saw in Episode 2 and the Doctor pondering that fluctuating pregnancy scan. But the secrets were slipped into a great story, rather than taking centre stage and becoming too numerous.

Next week’s show, mischievously entitled The Doctor’s Wife (River Song wasn’t in the trailer, but then given the hints being his wife always seemed too easy), looks extremely promising. It could improve upon the simple fun of this show by touching on the Doctor’s fascinating past with more “high concepts”, still being a standalone story and hinting at those continued secrets. Bring it on.

A History of Violence


(some spoilers)

I was keen to see A History of Violence, but I also sat down to watch it with trepidation. The title of this film had me envisaging a brutal compilation of some of history’s goriest moments or something similarly horrific like a serial killer’s holiday snaps. Director David Cronenberg had a reputation from what I’d heard, as he followed up the success of this film with hard-hitting gangster story Eastern Promises, containing its own controversial fight scenes. I haven’t much stomach for excessive blood and guts.

 The opening scene was indeed chilling; brilliantly so. From the very start A History of Violence declares itself to be a film that will give its actors room to act, its story room to grow and unsettle, and yet with a runtime of 96 minutes it’s no tedious slow-burner.  The action kicks-off at detailed walking pace, with two shady but calm types loitering outside a motel. They exchange perfectly ordinary, mundane words. One of them disappears inside whilst the other moves the car a little further along. Then we see which man wears the trousers as the driver’s ordered to go and get water from the cooler in reception.

Inside he dawdles, the camera slowly following his casual, deliberate movements. Then he nonchalantly passes the bloody scene of carnage behind the counter to fill up his container with water. By this point the tension’s been skilfully raised to breaking point. A crying girl appears, clutching a soft toy. The man freezes. The gentle manner he adopts to reassure her, to stop her running or screaming, makes you wonder if he’s a reluctant pawn in a criminal world. Or at least he has enough heart to keep children out of his messy business. But then he gradually reaches for his gun.

The next scene starts with a girl waking from a bad dream, worrying about monsters. Viggo Mortensen appears to comfort his child, instantly establishing himself in the caring everyman role he played so well in The Road. He tells her: “There’s no such thing as monsters”. And yet the inhuman calculating coolness we saw in the preceding scene lingers hauntingly, encouraging the audience to feel differently.

The first twenty minutes of A History of Violence following its disturbing opening scene, caught me off guard for their ordinariness. Mortensen’s character Tom Stall is a simple country soul, running his store and looking out for his family. Far from being dull these establishing scenes are touching and add to the meaning of later events. Stall’s relationship with his wife, played by Maria Bello, is tenderly romantic and loving despite the length of the marriage. His daughter is cute, his friends and colleagues kind and his teenage son remarkably perceptive and intelligent for his age.

But then a handful of fleeting moments change everything. The thugs we saw at the start of the film turn up at Stall’s diner and proceed to terrorise his staff and customers. Reacting instinctively Stall intervenes to save everyone and inadvertently catapults himself to fame. His picture covers the town’s paper alongside the headline, “Local Hero”.

At this point A History of Violence’s title starts to make sense, as the film becomes a meditation on the consequences and ethics of violence. We’ve already seen some High School moments in which Stall’s son, played by Ashton Holmes, rose above the aggressive taunts of the sports hot-shot. Now Stall tries to deal with the accompanying trauma of killing a man, two men, in unforgettable close-up fashion. His family and the community rally round to comfort him. We never see the reasons behind the thugs’ killings. Cronenberg is careful to make most of the violence purely about how it makes a deep, repressed part of some people feel; how it satisfies them.

With the unwelcome arrival of more mobsters to Stall’s quiet town, the plot takes another unexpected twist. The story shifts from a thoughtful exploration of the nature of violence, to tense suffocation as the gangsters stalk Stall’s family, to suspicion and confusion as ghosts surface from Stall’s past. It’s all marvellously subtle, but hints from earlier in the film begin to make sense. Those establishing scenes really were good as you hope with Stall’s family that the demons go away. But of course they don’t.

The acting is superb. Mortensen and Bello are not just excellent as a couple early on in the idyllic stages, but wonderfully convincing and captivating later as destructive events unravel. There are memorable cameos from William Hurt and Ed Harris. The way the performers completely inhabit their characters ensures A History of Violence works masterfully as a gripping, suspenseful and action packed thriller, as well as an insightful film questioning ideas like the American Dream, identity, relationships, humanity and the past.

And the cherry on top of a filling, tasty and sumptuous slice of movie cake is a final scene as stylish, patient, subtle and moving as the opening one. If you haven’t seen A History of Violence, do so soon. It was not at all what I expected it to be and well worth a watch. Don’t be put off by the title or the 18 certificate because ultimately it’s a first-rate and surprising story. It won’t mentally scar you, merely make you think.

Thoughts on … Never Let Me Go/The Canal/The Dice Man


I have recently enjoyed three excellent and thoroughly engaging novels. Each had me gripped in very different ways, but each shares the key ingredient of successful storytelling; a strong narrative voice. The extremely distinctive first person narrators of each of these novels draws you in and captivates you. A narrative voice that feels real and engaging is the element I most struggle with when trying to write my own creative works. I certainly therefore don’t feel qualified to dissect the successful and unsuccessful subtleties of the writing in these books in review form, but feel compelled to record what made them so readable for me as “thoughts”, for that is all they are, and to recommend them to others nonetheless. I may inadvertently let slip the odd slight spoiler, for which I apologise but place a warning here.

First up then is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which I admit I was only inspired to read due to the hype surrounding a forthcoming film adaptation and the allure and beauty of the trailer for it. What’s noticeable and striking even in that brief snippet of film is the overwhelming Britishness of the story and it’s a very British novel too. That sense of place comes not just from the boarding school setting, the childhood themes, the nostalgic reminisces and stunning countryside, but from the voice of the novel, Kathy H. Whilst it appears she is candidly telling her life story, with little reason or desire to embellish and hold back, you soon notice her strong focus on others, on those immediately close to her. If she criticises a friend she will qualify what she means and spend pages delving into another random memory of them to share their alternative, better side. In many ways this is a novel of memories, about the ones that slip away and the ones you never let go of. Given that she focuses on those most important to her, it’s enlightening, revealing and intriguing that she never actually says in the novel, as far as I can see or recall, that she loves the man events make clear to be her soul mate. Indeed Kathy does not spell things out about herself often and retells everything, overpowering emotions and all, with a simplicity and undertone of British restraint. It’s this restraint and modesty that is the most chokingly moving at times too.  It’s clearly to Ishiguro’s immense credit that he simultaneously creates a strong, rounded character in Kathy, whilst also letting events, and things Kathy omits, paint a picture of their own. Kathy has confidence that, from what she has retold to us, she need not say explicitly “I loved him”.

 I’m glad I read the original story as a novel before the release of the film in January. Despite the promise that attracted me in the trailer, Carey Mulligan will do well to play Kathy H as quite as compellingly as Ishiguro writes her. The film is also set to cut large chunks of Kathy’s childhood memories of Hailsham, in favour of the adolescent portion of the story. I hope this omission does not detract from events later on and make them less meaningful. The one fault I found with the book, and one the film will also struggle to overcome, is the sense that there is never a satisfying big conspiracy revealed, as is hinted at. The one that does emerge seemed fairly clear early on and whilst Ishiguro seems to hint that there is more to it (I had visions of some sort of apocalyptic Britain or a more interesting and dramatic disintegration of ethics) there really isn’t. Mostly though Never Let Me go is a terribly moving story because of the way it feels so real. Kathy’s language is simple but beautiful at times, like many of her memories. Her friendships and loves are not obsessively described with clichés and extravagant imagery, and are consequently all the more like our own. The way things turn out is so tragic because you can place yourself in her shoes.

I have also recently read Lee Rourke’s debut novel, The Canal, joint winner of the Guardian’s alternative award Not The Booker Prize. As the review on the Guardian website points out, this is a debut crammed with ideas. This might have been a problem if the ideas weren’t original or didn’t resonate with me, but I found most of them to be insightful and well expressed musings on a realistic truth. The novel begins as an engaging meditation on the nature of boredom and how it is a fundamental part of existence to be embraced, rather than feared and avoided. It eventually evolves into a touching love story, which becomes an obsession and climaxes with an eventful ending. Most of the novel aims accurately for realism; its ideas, its dialogue, its images. Only at the end do feelings and events become sensational.

The title of the book makes it clear that it will have a strong sense of setting and the surroundings of The Canal are ever present throughout the narrative, the backdrop to almost all the action. Its features are described with some wonderful imagery and symbolism. Even the book itself, the physical design of the novel, is pleasing to look at and hold. If I were Rourke I’d be delighted with the tasteful design of my first fictional foray. He ought to be proud too of the dialogue in his work, which really stands out as exceptionally believable and realistic, becoming almost a script at times before reverting back to the narrator’s thoughts. The dialogue is rightly praised on the back of the book.

Like Never Let Me Go, much of The Canal’s success comes down to the convincing narrative voice. However if Kathy H was restrained, the nameless narrator of The Canal is mysterious. The woman he meets on The Canal is also mysterious, until he slowly uncovers her secrets. She is for the most part a rounded character and their relationship believable, but at times it succumbs to cliché. There are other clichés too such as the stereotypical gang of youths and the unstoppable march of building work that eventually swallows his patch of The Canal. These unimaginative elements let down the originality and realism of the rest of the book, but The Canal was an engaging, un-put-down-able read.

If The Canal mused about boredom then The Dice Man is a full on exploration of its depths and connections to the meaning of existence. The main reason I was reluctant to be bold enough to call these thoughts of mine a review was that The Dice Man is simply too mammoth, sprawling and impressive a work for me to digest, let alone analyse adequately. It’s jam packed with ideas and full of such variety that it touches on more areas in one chapter than most novels. It has spawned a cult and resembles a bible in weight and heft. It’s immensely controversial, challenging long established truths in religion and philosophy, outraging those with a strong moral compass. It contains scenes that are graphically violent and sexual. It is regularly and consistently funny. However as with The Canal, it is the quality of composition and writing that truly impresses me with The Dice Man.

From the very first page The Dice Man makes it clear it will not follow the conventions of an ordinary novel, but mimic several at once. It flits from the brilliantly cynical and scathing first person voice of Dr Lucius Rhinehart, to describing events in his life in the third person. It also chucks in various articles about events in the Dr’s life, along with other methods of storytelling such as transcripts of interviews and television shows. With all the talk of ideas, philosophy and sex surrounding The Dice Man, it can be forgotten that it is an exemplary exercise in creative writing, full of tremendous variety. The dialogue is always funny and realistic and the characters well realised, albeit obviously through the lens of Dr Rhinehart’s own entertaining, intelligent opinions. There are narrative twists and turns, violent thrills and sexual ones. The careful craft and exciting breadth of this novel ensures that a novel of over 500 pages remains gripping throughout. It consumed me for a whole week.

Then of course there are the ideas themselves, the philosophy behind The Dice Man. The reason this book has become so notorious and actually converted readers to the “religion” detailed within its pages, is that many of the ideas make sense, that and the alluring mystery to it all. The mystery blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality. Luke Rhinehart is of course a pseudonym, but a quick Wikipedia search on The Dice Man and you discover the real author, George Cockroft, also genuinely experimented with the “dicelife”. So there is some truth to the claims that this a factual account and that may account for its vivid detail. However it is also undoubtedly a sensational work of fiction, at times taking swipes at the profession of psychology and the state of society in general. I have already said that as a novel it should be praised and not revered simply for its bold ideas, but it is true that the seductiveness of the ideas help sweep you along in the story.

The basic principle of The Dice Man is to abandon free will, at least to a great extent. Every decision in your life you are unsure about should be decided by the throw of a dice, and in fact later on, even those you do feel sure of. You may create options for the various numbers of the dice or die, but whichever they choose you must blindly follow. The options must try to embrace all aspects of your multiple existence, so for example if you have idly fantasised about masturbating over your pot plant, even for a second, this ought to be considered and given to the die to decide. The aforementioned variety and randomness of the novel thus mimics the theory at its heart, with one section actually printed twice immediately after you have read it, presumably at the will of the die.

The philosophical implications of handing over control of a human life to chance are vast and fascinating and I shall not even scratch the surface of their interest here. But Rhinehart comes to believe in the novel that by following the dice and developing his theory he can become a kind of superman, the ultimate human that abandons the misery imposed on us by clinging to a sense of “self”. We often feel completely contradictory desires each day, none more true than the other.  What is truly haunting and bewildering about The Dice Man is that by listening to Rhinehart’s distinctive, cynical, hilarious voice, we come to see the sense to his arguments and then when he commits an unspeakable sin at the will of the dice, we feel implicated too. Does a truly liberated human existence require immorality?  Rhinehart becomes obsessed by the potential of his simple idea to elevate him intellectually, to truly free him from boredom and obligation. He says that he resembles Clark Kent and by pursuing “dice theory” Rhinehart aims for a permanent transformation into Superman, The Dice Man, on another level to the ordinary human drone.

I’m not saying The Dice Man is the perfect novel, do not misunderstand my awe and praise. At times it left me baffled in completely the wrong way, and despite its championing of the random and new experiences, it can become repetitive, particularly the frequent bouts of sex. And whilst it is sometimes credibly intellectual and inspiring, such as the scene when Rhinehart defends his new theory to a panel of his influential peers, at others it does appear to be simply sick and shocking for shocking’s sake. The thing is that The Dice Man knows it is not the perfect novel, in fact its cynicism screams and mocks the idea of a perfect novel being possible. Even the repetitive sex scenes are always evocatively described or hilariously painted and the idea that a man striving for complete liberty is constantly tied down by sexual desire is ironic and mocking in itself. The Dice Man really is often laugh out loud funny. It is also scandalous, entertaining and everything else it has been described as. Most of all it is an original creation, a unique fusion of cultural influences, which perfectly encapsulates the America of its time and remains powerfully relevant today.

These three novels perhaps demonstrate the importance of two ingredients in particular amongst the many needed for a success: interesting ideas and an individual narrative voice.