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Blu-Ray Review: Buried


Being buried alive is up there with drowning and burning to death on the commonly accepted list of the worst ways to snuff it. Cinema has a long history of exploring and exploiting these fears for our viewing pleasure and pain. Certainly there are countless films about infernos or choking on salt water. There are classic scenes in tunnels with dust and dirt threatening to submerge our heroes. But never before has a film been quite so confined beneath the earth as Buried is.

Buried opens, after a slick titles sequence that gives the impression of descending through the soil, with a completely pitch black screen, affording me an opportunity to discover and enjoy high definition darkness. Paul Conroy, a civilian truck driver in Iraq, wakes up in a box below ground before our eyes in this nothingness. This is Buried’s only location, a wooden coffin. It therefore might not seem the best film to enjoy on Blu-Ray, as there are no luscious visuals and locales to gasp in wonder at. The ever so slightly sharper picture and sound quality does truly allow you to appreciate the astounding technical achievement of Buried though.

The textures of the sand and the splintered wood feel real enough to touch at such intimate proximity. Conroy’s face, along with all the varied expressions it shifts through, looks incredibly lifelike. The excellent soundtrack, along with Conroy’s rasping breathing, is crisp and clear. The flame from a lighter looks vivid and dazzling in the sparseness of the coffin.

And the additional special features that come with a Blu-Ray disc are worth a look for once. As Ryan Reynolds, who plays Conroy, says in an interview, realising such a concept from a good script was a feat of engineering as well as filmmaking. Director Rodrigo Cortes explains that seven different coffins, each used for different types of shots, were used to make the 90 minutes or so of film. The variety of camera angles and techniques is incredibly impressive, with Reynolds highlighting that unlike a lot of films the same shot was scarcely used twice here. Most of the shots are entirely realistic, placing you firmly in Conroy’s shoes, with just a couple of exceptions, zooming out and away from him to really emphasise his isolation and loneliness.

One of the crew members interviewed says that if Hitchcock were alive today this is the sort of thing he’d be doing. There is undoubtedly the sense that new ground is being broken, in terms of storytelling and filmmaking. The majority of mainstream releases these days are miles away from the level of audience immersion on show in Buried. Even on an ordinary TV screen in a comfortable living room you feel Conroy’s claustrophobia and live his rollercoaster of emotions. This is as much down to Reynolds’ captivating performance as the fine detail and execution of the production team.

Reynolds copes with everything the script asks of him with very little to work with. He takes us from panic to paranoia, from despair to determination and back again. He deals equally well with anger and heartbreak, often conveying an emotion simply through breathing or a look in his eye. He is helped by some good voice performances by those he interacts with on the phone, his one real lifeline, its battery constantly withering away. Particularly good is Brit hostage negotiator Dan Brenner, played by Robert Paterson, who is convincingly professional and genuinely sympathetic. He managed to calm me down as well as Conroy.

Somehow Buried contains what I can only describe as an action scene, in which both the acting of Reynolds and the inventive wizardry of the director, combine with unbelievable effect. Without giving too much away, there is a snake involved. I was literally on the edge of my seat. And the reason this scene was so scary, gripping and exciting, was how well established the character and situation is beforehand.

As well as inexplicably pulling off a believable and enthralling thriller in a box, Cortes’ directing and Chris Sparling’s script also manages some thought provoking dialogue on major issues of our time. The way these topics are explored is seamlessly part of the action and not forced. During the course of Conroy’s phone conversations we explore not just the depths of his character, but the limits and immorality of bureaucracy and the subjective nature of the word “terrorist”. Buried therefore also has political credentials, without ever leaning too far to one side of the debate.

 With similar limitations to Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, Buried is a film reliant on its lead actor. Whilst James Franco was good, Reynolds is even better. In fact Buried is better full stop. For the moving climax alone, that will have you unable to look away through confused tears, it is worth watching. Buried delivers a master class in acting, cinematography, dialogue and political comment. It is a unique and bruising ride of a story. And a must see film experience.

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Bin Laden may be gone but extremism remains a threat to the Arab Spring’s happy ending


Not a dusty cave but a million dollar mansion. The intelligence has been meticulously gathered, the courier watched, followed and watched again. A highly trained team of professionals swoop in by helicopter and penetrate the hideout, at long last. Shots are fired and echo in the night; of course there is resistance. He won’t come quietly and perhaps they don’t want him to. After an intense fire fight, only deep silence reigns. The bullet battered body is bittersweet treasure. The hunt is over and the operation a success. No American casualties.

President Obama’s dramatic, triumphant but restrained announcement was long overdue. His predecessor had launched a largely misguided military mission across the world, with the objective to wage “war on terror”. Since the daring and devastating attacks of September 2001 though, the primary target has always been the apparent mastermind, Osama Bin Laden. There can be no doubt that his eventual death, and the American managed manner of it, will have widespread political ramifications. The significance of these, particularly in relation to the future threat of Al-Qaida, remain up for debate.

The first consequence commentators are quick to highlight is the boost to Obama’s presidency. Many are already saying that the deliverance of justice and his apparent personal involvement will prove the vital factor in tipping the balance of next year’s presidential election his way. Obama will already be the favourite and confident of securing a second term, mainly because of the meagre Republican candidates standing in his way. Sarah Palin’s ridiculous volatility makes her unelectable, whilst Donald Trump just seems ridiculous. The election will probably boil down to economic performance, as they always tend to do. But for independent voters and the more patriotically minded American, retribution for 9/11 could prove the difference between a Democrat and Republican vote. After all Bush failed to get real results and what would the new candidates offer, besides perhaps more foolhardy wars putting Americans in harm’s way?

The more globally contentious result of Bin Laden’s assassination, for that is what this was no matter how jubilant some people are, is what the future of Al-Qaida as an organisation will now be. Prime Ministers and heads of state are quick to urge “vigilance” and that the battle with extremism is not over. In a statement Tony Blair made this his key message in reaction to the news. Indeed security chiefs have even warned that the world should be on high alert and ready for a backlash; Al-Qaida will be invigorated to act soon through furious grief. But other experts are saying that apart from an initial anger driven response, we no longer have as much to fear from Al-Qaida. They are already a fading force and Bin Laden’s death is the final symbolic nail in their coffin.

Some articles are pointing to the peaceful dawn of the Arab Spring. Across the Middle East and North Africa, supposed Al-Qaida heartlands, revolutions are in full swing that are driven by peaceful protestors calling for democracy. Al-Qaida and indeed other extreme Islamists have failed to hijack the will of the masses in these revolts. If they cannot grasp the initiative and seize control in such turbulent times, what sort of a threat do they now pose? The evidence suggests their strength is severely diminished. Times are changing and this is a new decade of the 21st century.

I am no expert on Al-Qaida and it might be true that the evidence seems to suggest the organisation itself is growing weaker, despite Bin Laden’s encouragement of autonomous cells in numerous cities. I also listen to leaders using the word “vigilance” and can only think how hollow it sounds, how meaningless to the life of the ordinary citizen. I am inspired and awestruck by the historic peaceful stands in support of freedom being made in a growing number of Arab countries. But anyone can see that these peaceful protests are not the end of the story and they certainly don’t herald the end of extremism.

Extremism, by its nature, is pursued by ideologically brainwashed or ignorant individuals in the minority. This has always been a fact, always be known to the reasonable man, but occasionally obscured by reckless, inflammatory rhetoric and foolhardy foreign policy. The Arab Spring is driven by democracy because the majority of Arabs and Muslim share our desires, dreams and aspirations for rights. It’s not a new phenomenon, even if their sudden decision to act has created a shocking domino effect. The uprisings are a cause for immense hope and a huge step forward but they do not signal the end of extremism in these countries. And just because extremists are yet to influence the process, doesn’t mean that they won’t.

The ethical dilemmas of these conflicts and potential civil wars are already plain, illustrated best in Libya where we may or may not provide the rebels with weapons. History shows us what happened in Afghanistan where the people were armed against the Russians only to morph into the Taliban. It is difficult to know where and when the West should get involved for the best outcome. Why not Syria, right on the borders of Israel, when we’ve given support to those championing democracy in Libya?

For me the most worrying thing about the Arab Spring is what happens next, after the apparent victory and the departure of the news crews. If Gaddafi falls, hooray for Libya, but what takes his place? As rebellions ignite and swell everywhere, the outcome of the Egyptian rebellion, one of the most vital and influential countries to be gripped by trouble, is consigned to the past. Why are we not tracking the progress of democratic reform there, ensuring that something worse than a dictator cannot step into the vacuum? Why are we not helping the Egyptians achieve the democracy they covet and fought for?

Ok of course someone, somewhere is doing this job. People at the UN, in our own foreign office, are probably involved in the process. But the story of what happened next to Egypt and any other nation successful in overthrowing a long entrenched dictator is not being told in the news. And it should be. If leaders are serious about vigilance then that must be a part of it, keeping the spotlight on reform and not letting dangerous reactionaries creep in from the shadows. The public and the media should be aware of what’s going on and care beyond the drama and the headlines. I’m not saying Al-Qaida will revive in the thawing of the Arab Spring, but if we stop paying attention we can hardly complain when we find something or someone we don’t like with the reins to power and oil.

Bin Laden’s death is symbolic, perhaps as important as the Twin Towers bleeding smoke, and as Hilary Clinton said today, a time for renewed optimism and hope. It is not a time for barbaric and inflammatory jubilation, but for justice, relief and remembrance. And of course we must keep up that so called “vigilance”. Ordinary folk like us can do something more than being unnaturally wary in public places by keeping up the pressure on our media to show us the ongoing ends to their stories, not just the thrilling battlegrounds and premature triumphs.

Source Code


Source Code is being compared to almost every film under the sun. It’s Groundhog Day meets Inception meets Final Destination meets Moon meets something totally awesome by Hitchcock. If you have a goldfish memory then you might appreciate being told that it’s a bit like this year’s The Adjustment Bureau, but better. It’s an unconventional and emotional sci-fi.

Duncan Jones, apparently the offspring of David Bowie no less (I actually do some minor research for my reviews!), has followed up his 2009 critically acclaimed debut Moon with another “certified fresh” hit. His direction in Source Code is assured and you wouldn’t guess this was Jones’ first big budget feature; there’s nothing tentative about his approach. The camerawork and characterisation for a film that constantly relives the same eight minutes needs to be intricate and skilled; it remains exemplary throughout, making Source Code an irresistibly stylish and satisfying watch.

For me though it’s Ben Ripley’s taught, clever and zippy script that’s the real masterpiece. It tantalisingly drip feeds the audience information on the central premise of the Source Code; technology that allows the military to send someone into the last eight minutes of a recently deceased person’s life. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Captain Colter Stevens must find the bomber of a Chicago commuter train before he strikes again, from inside the body of a teacher he’s never met, as he simultaneously tries to figure out what happened to him after his helicopter crashed in Afghanistan.  

The genius of the script is that it brilliantly builds tension and fully formed characters on top of an ethically fascinating central idea, despite being predictable on a few occasions. I guessed fairly early on, for example, who the bomber was. I could pretty much work out where things were heading for Gyllenhaal’s character. But I was still hooked and I was still knocked sideways by the surprising emotional impact of the film’s conclusion.

For some the film’s life affirming and rather cliché ending might be a turn off given the originality and sharp execution of what went before. Perhaps it’s just that my emotions are in tatters and unusually receptive to sentimentality. But for me everything that made up the thrilling ride that was the first part of Source Code, added to the emotional effect of its climax. It didn’t feel fake and soppy, but raw and real.

Gyllenhaal convinces completely as confused everyman, then as determined hero and finally as grief stricken and resigned to his fate. The film would have fallen apart had his performance not matched the material and direction. Michelle Monaghan plays fellow passenger Christina as the sort of woman you could fall for in eight minutes. The chemistry between the leads is as convincing and addictively sexy as that between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in The Adjustment Bureau, but the writing and the story as a whole here is far superior, much more intense, despite similar themes of fate and free will.

If I could explode two myths about Source Code it would be these; that it’s the best action film of the year and that Jeffrey Wright gives an awful performance. Firstly Wright simply looks poor in comparison to the other actors, Vera Farmigan, Gyllenhaal and Monaghan, because he’s given the worst of the script’s dialogue; technical babble to explain the Source Code. He’s also the only two dimensional character in the whole thing, but with the exception of one particularly expositional passage his performance never spoiled things.

To its title as “action film of 2011” then. I would not describe Source Code as an action film. It is thrilling yes, it’s full of gripping drama yes, but these elements come from characters and the pacing of the plot. Fight scenes, gun fights and chases are minimal and restrained. This is not a film reliant on explosions (despite one devastating and recurring blast). If it’s stunts you’re after there will be better ones in cinemas this year. It enthrals without the set pieces.

 But if sleek, modern and thought provoking storytelling is your thing then see Source Code. It will be the best sci-fi film of 2011. It might make you cry and in the warm afterglow of this film in the spring sunshine you’ll look at everything in your life more closely. It’s unlikely Source Code will change your life but for as long as it lingers fresh in the front of your mind, you’ll appreciate it more.

Blooded


You are a mega-bucks banker, a liberated twenty-something, a first class slut. You’re a whistling milkman, a tearaway toddler, a grieving widow. You’re a freedom fighter utterly consumed by ideological struggle. You’re a madman, a gunman, a best man. You’re an axe wielding gamekeeper in deep, sensuous love with your ladylike employer. You’re a sophisticated stalker, leering like an aristocratic butcher at young girls you view as goddesses; cheap meaty chunks of divine beauty. You’re a prisoner that’s only ever known the reality of four bare walls. You are human.

You’re barely clothed, stripped of decency and alone in the wilderness. You’re unreasonably frightened; terrified merely by nature’s regular and natural breathing. You feel an irrepressible sense of panicky foreboding deep in the truth of your gut. The cold bites greedily at your bare skin, sinking you deep into inescapable agony. You’ve never known anything like it; the never-ending needles of pain, the relentless rattle of your rib cage, the fear. The pain and fear of the hunted as you run for your life. As you run like an animal.

As you read this in the comforting light of your computer screen, chances are you are none of these things. And yet we can all imagine, however slightly, what the existence of a freedom fighter or a widow might be like. We can never truly know until we have lived it, and even then no two individuals will share identical emotions. But as human beings empathy remains one of the handful of characteristics that truly sets us apart from animals and beasts. There’s nothing quite like the sadness of feeling someone else’s loss as if it were your own or the failure of someone close to you to understand your own melancholy. Some may argue in favour of other traits and skills, like language and pure intelligence. In many ways though, empathy is the foundation to all art, the essence and gateway to all storytelling.

Empathy is at the heart of the intriguing central premise to Blooded, a British debut film out on the 1st of April. The release date of April Fool’s Day is fitting given that Blooded is part of the modern phenomenon of “is it truth or is it fiction?” storytelling. It makes use of a documentary/reconstruction format to tell the tale of the kidnapping of a group of pro fox hunting campaigners by an extremist animal rights group in the picturesque, but barren, Highlands of Scotland. Empathy becomes crucial to the story when the mysterious kidnappers release their captives across the wilderness in their underwear, before pursuing them with guns to make them experience the horror of being hunted.  Presumably the horror the foxes feel seconds away from a mauling by the hounds.

It’s certainly a distinctive and controversial concept for a film. The narrative is presented in unfamiliar layers compared to your average feature. We’re introduced firstly to the idea that a group of pro-hunters were filmed by a group of anti-hunters in the Highlands and that the resulting video became an internet sensation. We then meet the “real” pro-hunter personalities that lived through the event in classic documentary interview style. These interviews continue throughout the film through both voiceovers and close-ups. We also have the majority of the action shown to us via a reconstruction of the “actual” events, with different actors than those playing the “real” people. All of this is confusing and disorientating at first. But not in a bad way.

Just because Blooded has an unusual structure and deals with politically sensitive issues, does not mean it’s destined to fail. In fact last year I loved Catfish, a film in a similar truth/fiction style that dealt with current and also potentially dull and alienating topics. The cocktail of unconventional storytelling and thought provoking subject matter can prove a potent and satisfying one indeed. It has the potential to really set a film apart as an original success. Sadly though it’s a difficult balance to strike and Blooded doesn’t quite find it.

It’s a critical cliché to say that a film has an “identity crisis”. But there is no better way of explaining why Blooded’s bold ideas and execution don’t quite come together. The film opens with a character talking about extremism and how it essentially boils down to two sides trying to outshout the other. Watching it initially I couldn’t decide if this speech was meant to have humorous undertones or comment seriously on the issue. This becomes Blooded’s main pitfall.

As the opening of the film developed, I began to think of Blooded as an incredibly subtle mockumentary. The selection of hunting as the central issue seemed to be a swipe at all the modern day life and death disagreements about ultimately trivial things. The self-important tone of the music in the background, coupled with the overly sincere acting at times and some sweeping shots of grand Highland scenery for the titles seemed to say, gently, “look at this sad bunch of tossers who got mixed up in such an odd ordeal over something as pompous as hunting as if it were life’s defining feature”.

The film walked the line so finely between a tone of mocking and seriousness that I thought Blooded had the makings of a truly brilliant comedy spoof during its steady opening segment. Even beautiful cinematography of the stunning Highlands shrouded in mist and fog and sunshine seemed hilarious when viewed in the right jokey light at times. There were some good funny moments which utilised both the reconstruction and interview format to excellent effect. Most notably, when an American girlfriend of the group has shot her first stag, the experienced hunter takes some blood from the creature and wipes it on her face. He assures us she didn’t seem to mind this “Blooding” ritual, only for her to immediately respond in her interview “I resented that immediately”.

As the film progresses however the laughs are increasingly unintentional, as the story morphs into some sort of horror/political comment hybrid. The problem is that the hazy humour hovers over the rest of the film so that none of the “scares” are shocking. The animal rights activists, whilst extreme and clearly nutty to pull off such a stunt, just have too much of a conscience to be truly horrific foes.

Far too much emphasis is placed on the political issue. After watching Blooded, I delved through production notes from the filmmakers about their intentions and witnessed the “is it real?” marketing campaign online drumming up substantial interest. The filmmakers insist Blooded has no political agenda. It’s a thriller in documentary form and is not intended as a mockumentary. Blooded is meant simply as a thought provoking thriller, shot in a distinctive way, with some vague allusions to modern extremism.

Unfortunately for the filmmakers and director Ed Boase, Blooded fails as a thriller. I think it could have worked as very clever and subtle humour, had there been some more obvious signposts. Blooded ends up being controversial for the sake of it. It’s not enough to be simply thought provoking, especially when the entertainment is feeble and vague. The filmmakers must at least have an idea as to what sort of thoughts they want their audience to be thinking.

Watching Blooded with a friend of mine, neither of us could make sense of it. He said that the ending was “weak” as the film petered out and I agreed with him. As with so many films, Blooded tries to be several things at once, with the result that it does none of them well. My instinct on the one hand is to applaud Blooded for trying something different, but a much stronger voice of reason on the other is saying that the filmmakers needed to think harder about what it was they were trying to do.

Paul – A fresh and close-up perspective on cinema


Where is the optimum position to sit in the cinema? Actually that question is better put as, where is your favourite place to sit? For we probably all have differing, individual preferences. There are those that like to sit at the back of everything; the bus, the classroom, the theatre. There are those of a nervous disposition who like to have their seats adjacent to the aisle. Personally I prefer to sit against the wall in the upper middle section, usually away from others with a decent sightline, like the lonely uninteresting enigma I am.

But then perhaps where you sit also depends on the company you’re keeping that evening. If you’re on a hot date, somewhere close to invisible in the depths of darkness at the back, but within thrilling proximity of the projector, is a must. If you’re on a cooler date a discrete but ordinary and satisfactory view is preferable. With friends you want to bag a whole row for yourselves and avoid separation.

I’m the sort of person that requires exceptional circumstances to tolerate lateness. If I’m in charge of some sort of trip my contingent will be there early, with time to spare. I’m only late if I’m not bothered about said event, or if I’m trying to appear nonchalant and lose track of time. My point is that I’ve never timed my arrival badly enough to have to sit in the very front row of the cinema.

Arriving to see Paul it seemed my friends and I had plumped for this unknown space, the very front row, in order to give the appearance of being social. Of course it’s not as if, as decent human beings, we were going to have satisfactory conversations in the middle of a film, but that’s beside the point. Half way through the trailers however a handful loped away from the group for better seats. Leaving me in the front row, with others too embarrassed to surrender and back out of a commitment. Great.

I was thus anticipating a couple of hours of awkward discomfort, followed by a sleepless night due to chronic neck pain. And months of costly chiropractic bills. Which result in my financial ruin. I would drop out of university due to the endless agony and money worries. I’d then lose my car and find myself marooned at home. Scratching my constantly irritated neck in the shower I would slip, crack my head open and start losing unhealthy amounts of blood. I’d manage to drag myself to where my car used to be, but then remember I didn’t have one and die in a messy heap on the drive. All because I sat in the very front row; repeatedly contorting my neck and twisting my head from side to side, as if I were watching tennis, in order to see what was going on in a scene.

Before the end of the trailers though, I was beginning to view my predicament as an exciting opportunity for fresh perspective on the movie experience. Firstly there was extensive, ample leg room. I nudged a friend and performed erratic, normally dangerous, kicking movements in the air to demonstrate this. Perhaps what truly opened my eyes to the perks of the front row however was the trailer to Your Highness. Yes it looked like it might have the potential to be an amusing spoof, but more importantly Natalie Portman’s scantily clad features were rendered larger than life. I mean it was better than 3D.

When Paul the alien first appeared he loomed out of the screen at me. Even prior to this as loveable duo Pegg and Frost wandered in awe around a Comic convention, my proximity meant I felt as part of the crowd as they did. In the opening scene the alien crash landing seemed to happen right in front of my face, maybe because it literally did. The money ploughed into 3D is all well and good; but why not just make wider cinema screens with one endless front row, for the truly interactive experience?

Despite my obvious fascination with the novelty of my viewing position, I eventually lost myself in the film and forgot my surroundings. Because Paul is good enough to lose yourself in. I was really surprised by how much I liked it. Most critics have concluded it’s a poor offering from Pegg and Frost, far inferior to Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead. Many thought that the marrying of American and British humour was uneasy and un-funny. I would agree that Hot Fuzz and Shaun are better films. But Paul is the most accessible movie this British comedy duo has ever made. It’s warm and affectionate and very, very funny at times.

I thought that far from hindering the film, the mix of American acting talent and humour with British comedy and perspective, gave this film something different, compared to the likes of Fuzz and Shaun. One minute you’d have a very British joke about tea, followed by some edgier comedy about creationism or physical, bumbling stuff from the pursuing FBI agents. None of it was groundbreaking but I laughed out loud several times. And there are some lovely touches for fans of sci-fi, with the appearance of a certain Ms Weaver and a recurring joke about the three tits given to a monster by Pegg’s illustrator.

There’s also a recurring gag about Pegg and Frost’s characters being a gay couple, which is nothing new to us Brits. Whilst this is predictable and not greatly funny, I didn’t find it an annoying recurrence but an endearing one. And if Paul has predictable moments it makes up for them with some really surprising twists at the end, even if they come alongside things you’ll see coming a mile off.

What about Paul himself then? Even for me, from my close up vantage point, the CGI looked pretty believable and flawless. I actually preferred Seth Rogen’s voice to Seth Rogen’s voice plus his body. As funny as he is he can also be irritating. I loved the concept of an alien influencing and absorbing our culture and it allowed lots of sci-fi related, more sophisticated gags alongside the obvious visual ones. Paul even mimics Rose hilariously from Titanic as Pegg draws him.  I found Frost’s standard performance of a pathetic loser more touching in Paul than any other Pegg/Frost film, because of the way he can bond with both Rogen’s voice and the CGI Paul’s mannerisms. Pegg was the most impressive thing about the recent Burke and Hare, but here his acting is rather one dimensional and generic.

A supporting cast of Yanks including Jason Bateman and Glee’s Jane Lynch add flavour to the mix. But overall Paul is rather simple. This doesn’t make it bad. There is great to joy be found in the comic delivery of Pegg and Frost, and the fusing of thoroughly British funnies with American reactions in an American setting. The final, ordinary line of the film, hilariously delivered by Frost, sums up Paul: “That was good wasn’t it”.

Dawn of Evil: Rise of the Reich


Are monsters born or made? Is true evil ingrained within a person from the beginning or does it seep into the pores of the vulnerable and impressionable through bitter experience? These are both big questions that Dawn of Evil: Rise of the Reich asks. However ultimately this is a film asking one incomprehensible and fascinating question; what transformed aspiring artist Adolf Hitler into a hatred fuelled dictator and perhaps the most infamous figure in not just the 20th century, but all of history?

To answer this question the film takes us back to Hitler’s formative years in Vienna, where he travelled as a young artist to seek a place at the city’s respected Academy of Fine Art. Historians largely agree that during the future Fuhrer’s time in the city he developed a fierce resentment for the Jews, which built upon prejudices he already carried from his childhood community and his parents. Needless to say Hitler failed with his application to the Academy, after presenting a weak and mediocre portfolio. He projected his disappointment and anger onto the Jews, blaming those that were wealthy and in positions of influence for holding him back. He scraped a living selling post cards of churches. He stole food and tasted life in the gutter. He absorbed nationalist and anti-Semitic literature. Like many he drifted without a purpose. 

Generally details of his life in Vienna beyond this are vague. The precise intricacies of the monster’s birth cannot truly be known. Studies of Hitler tend to skip rapidly through his grim years in Vienna, to the First World War which invigorated him, and then onto the 1920s and the formation of the fledgling Nazi party. Consequently this film must conjure some fictions and twist what is known to achieve some form of artistic truth relating to such a notorious man.

At first the film succeeds. Hitler is bumbling and naive as he arrives at a home for Homeless Artists, with a degree of innocence. To feel this about a character instantly recognisable as Adolf Hitler is no small feat for the filmmakers and indeed to even attempt this story is bold and admirable for a piece of German cinema. Understandably anything connected to the shame of Nazi Germany is still raw and heavy with guilt for many in Germany, so to see Hitler so sympathetically humanised in the film’s opening stages is remarkably brave.

To see Hitler rendered as such a believable, flawed and scrawny young man actually makes his descent into total delusion and lust for power all the more chilling. He’s almost immediately spouting anti-Semitic vitriol and nationalist jargon to the old Jews already living at the homeless hostel. But he’s reciting it at this stage; it’s just something he’s learnt by rote. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe what he’s saying; he has been taught to mean it and feels he must. It is however, a hatred and anger not yet his own, which will become more venomous as he acquires his personal vendetta through life’s sour events. Disappointment and what he sees as injustice will ignite the prejudices he already holds and bring them to life as his guiding purpose.

Perhaps a partial and inadequate answer the film offers to one of its key questions, whether Hitler’s evil was born or made, is that it was both already present and considerably added to. There’s no doubting he already arrived with a narrow and twisted mindset but it’s also clear his hate deepens as the film progresses. One of the measures of this is the way in which his language grows increasingly elaborate to resemble the theatrical speeches of his later political career. At times the rhetoric is intoxicatingly colourful and persuasive, filled with symbolism and heroic, inspirational imagery. Mostly however the film exploits Hitler’s misplaced sense of grandeur and importance for laughs. Indeed Dawn of Evil: Rise of the Reich, is a disturbingly funny film. From the very first scene and Hitler’s arrival, the elderly Jews tease him to teach him some politeness and manners. There’s something irresistibly hilarious about Hitler being asked to leave and come back again, but this time to knock and wait for an answer. It’s a scene that’s well acted enough to be funny in itself, but knowing that it’s a man as dangerous and feared as Hitler being humiliated adds a level of uneasy, dark humour to things.

In fact the film makes a big deal about the lingering torment of being laughed at. A Jewish roommate of Hitler’s, Schlomo Herzl, is forever teasing the young artist. However he also takes him under his wing and treats him like a son, and it’s clear the humour is affectionate and for Hitler’s own good. Hitler simply cannot take being laughed at or looked down to by a Jew though and he finds Schlomo’s care for him repugnant. Nevertheless he exploits it. He accepts Schlomo’s help to prepare him for his interview and entry exam. He lets Schlomo sell his post cards for him so that he can pay rent. He treats him like a slave and then sets about robbing him of his young love. Evidence of a later political pragmatism perhaps?

There are some good scenes between Schlomo and Hitler, particularly in the first half of the film. There’s an interesting contrast between Hitler’s brainwashed nationalism and the haggard man’s devout faith. In their very first exchange Hitler declares to Schlomo that God is dead, following Nietzsche’s famous idea. Schlomo is constantly the wise counterpoint to Hitler’s wild unfocused enthusiasm. But in the end, especially for those who know their history, the relationship strains the bounds of believability to breaking point.

The interesting points about Hitler’s philosophical and political development, and the alternative path through life he might have taken had he gained entry to the Academy, are lost beneath a sensational conflict and love triangle. Initially Schlomo was a clever lens that helped us learn more about Hitler. His character helped us see both Hitler the human and Hitler the animal as he used him and treated him like dirt. You really come to hate the young artist, and not just for being Hitler, as he cruelly rebuffs every kindness extended to him by the old man. Eventually though the plot surrounding Schlomo’s book, which Hitler helps him title “Mein Kampf”, becomes ridiculous.

Tom Schilling gives a great performance as the young Hitler and it’s one that evolves throughout the narrative. His gestures and mannerisms are perfect and his appearance in general. His delivery of the trademark passionate rallying cries, in stirring German, becomes more assured as the character grows in confidence. For me though it’s a real shame that Dawn of Evil: Rise of the Reich seems to lose its way. It begins as a compelling and absorbing study of a neglected period of history. It asks intriguing questions about how far individuals shape history or the social forces around them. But in its efforts to spin a story within those grander themes it loses sight of its strengths, becoming simply a mediocre tale which concludes with a baffling attempt at a poetic ending.

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.