Tag Archives: gripping

127 Hours


Let’s brainstorm awful ideas for movies. The sort of film that should never be made or would only be attempted by foolhardy, insufferable idiots. Mmm let’s see. It’s actually harder than you might think to think of truly terrible premises. First of all I thought of a bed ridden man who likes to photograph boxes or gravel or picture frames (not the images just the frames), or something unbelievably dull. But make him a bed ridden man and he suddenly has an element of sympathy and interest.

An ordinary man with a fascination for gravel or sand then, who likes to talk about this obsession to the few people in his life, other boring folk perhaps or patronising do-gooders. Actually scratch that. Maybe just a saucy account of a weekend away for Tony and Cherie, a blow-by-blow description of dinner at Gillian Mckeith’s or X Factor runner-up Ray Quinn’s struggle to publish a novel.  In fact that one sounds quite funny.

Hang on I’ve got it. Take one guy; make him a bit of an arrogant, irritating prick. Then have him set off on some mad, impulsive trip without any means of contacting anyone. Make sure he doesn’t tell anyone where he’s going; we need to keep human contact to an absolute minimum. When he’s penetrated suitably deep into the wilderness, way, way beyond civilisation or chance of rescue, trap him somehow. Like throw him down a canyon and have him wedged by a rock so he can’t move. Then pick a random amount of time, something silly but memorable like 89 or 127 hours, and just leave him stuck there, barely moving. That should be truly awful.

Imagine pitching this idea to producers. Not a chance of getting your dream realised. Unless maybe you’re Danny Boyle and the industry hangs on your every move since Slumdog Millionaire. And also let’s just say it’s a true story to properly get their juices flowing, their minds racing ahead in time to the prospect of awards success, emotional crowds gushing praise in theatres everywhere. Watching someone motionless and isolated shouldn’t work, and it couldn’t be further away from the vivid romp through India that was Slumdog, but somehow Boyle makes it not just tolerable but inspiring and riveting.

It certainly helps that the film itself is 94 minutes as opposed to the real time, 127 hours, long. It also helps that Boyle’s playful and distinctive direction grabs you from the very first scene. Knowing the claustrophobia that’s to come, Boyle peppers the opening to the film with visual interest and movement. Watching climber Aaron Ralston get ready is a marvellous experience through Boyle’s eyes.

The screen splits and divides into two or three, with intricate close ups of bottles filling with water and hands rooting around in drawers and shelves. These loving details are then impressively contrasted, first with an atmospheric night drive and then a frenetic bike ride across a bright orange, stunning Utah landscape. This scenery, with its back drop of sheer blue sky, is properly showcased with gorgeous wide shots. At the same time Ralston’s speeding movement is conveyed with fast editing and camerawork. When he comes off his bike to energetic music your adrenalin is really pumping.

The soundtrack to 127 Hours is terrifically good. A.R. Rahman, who worked with Boyle on Slumdog, really excels here with a difficult task. The opening and endings to the film are particularly wonderfully scored. I was not a fan of Slumdog’s score, or indeed the film itself, so it’s refreshing to see Boyle doing something completely different despite the easy options no doubt available to him now as an Oscar winner. He clearly cares about this incredible true story and set about bringing it faithfully to life. He couldn’t have done this half as well without the excellent James Franco.

Franco plays thrill seeking climber Ralston as both a slightly annoying arse and a clever, likeable everyman. In the early scenes he meets two female climbers and effortlessly impresses them with his knowledge of the area and daring sense of adventure. His youthful, flirty antics with them in startling, deep blue waters give the ordeal that follows far greater emotional resonance. Franco portrays the panic of being trapped superbly, as well as the calmer more reasoned moments. He’s completely believable and does well without other actors to spark off of to continually engage us.

The story also works so well due to flashbacks of Ralston’s life, showing his regrets and key memories of loved ones. These segments humanise Ralston; he isn’t just a physical machine stuffed with practical climbing knowledge, seeking an adrenalin fix. He’s made mistakes like all of us. And Boyle’s script and direction leaves the flashbacks realistically and suitably vague. In a starving, dying of thirst state delusions are bound to be half-baked. More importantly the gaps can be filled by the audience; everyone longs for their own friends and special, loved people in their lives, as Ralston goes through the levels of despair.

And passing through these levels he arrives eventually at resignation. Ever since the boulder trapped his arm he has quietly known what he’ll have to do, what he’ll have to endure and sacrifice, to escape back to his life. Incidentally the moment when the boulder falls and snares him is the only part of the film that feels less than real, as the rock bounces for a moment like the polystyrene prop it probably was. Apart from this the close, stuffy, handheld camerawork injects genuine realism alongside the fantasies.  

And the moment when he cuts through his arm, the single headline grabbing fact either attracting or repelling viewers, was believable. What was refreshing was that on a number of occasions you think he’s going to, but doesn’t. The film keeps you on its toes, waiting for the pivotal moment, and when it comes it shocks you and continues to shock as he battles through the unimaginable pain.

Whilst the gore shouldn’t disappoint those seeking it, the blood and horror wasn’t as bad as I was expecting it to be. I’m normally quite prone to sickness at such things but I barely looked away. It’s undoubtedly horrific but unavoidably compelling too. And crucially 127 Hours isn’t about a guy cutting his arm off. It also doesn’t have any other overriding, commanding themes and messages. The beauty of the story is that it can be about whatever you want. And whatever you make it about in your own head, the eventual rescue is as uplifting as cinema can be.

I’ve seen six of the ten films on the Oscar Best Picture list now. Of these six, 127 Hours is only better than Inception in my opinion. Black Swan I enjoyed the most and The King’s Speech, The Social Network and Toy Story 3 are all better films in their own ways. However the true story behind 127 Hours is more remarkable than any of these tales, despite the fact its circumstances inevitably limit the scope and entertainment value of the film. Some critics have unfairly suggested 127 Hours only made it onto the shortlist because Boyle is a past winner. It’s a film that excellently and faithfully brings to life an amazing true story, with directorial flourish. And at times, thanks to Franco’s charm, there are surprising laughs to get you through. It doesn’t deserve to win Best Picture, but it more than warrants its nomination.

Black Swan


Some people are perfectionists. You cannot imagine them any other way. They strive again and again to be the best, to fulfil their wildest, finely crafted, unblemished dreams. We all know people that work themselves into an unfathomable, illogical frenzy about the slightest flaw. You worry about what will happen to them if they ever completely lose perspective and fall through the cracks of their own expectations. How far can they push themselves, what lengths will they go to in the quest for perfection? Will you lose the person you know as they struggle towards faultlessly achieving their goals?

Black Swan is a film about the extremes of the perfectionist and the mania that can ensue in the dizzy rush for excellence in art. It’s packed full of themes about creativity and control, trust and tantrums. Is talent about honing your skills again and again until they’re technically sound, or something more intangible you must simply give into, like desire? Can anyone ascend to stardom and maintain their youthful innocence? Just how destructive can all consuming ambition be? Most of all, whatever questions Black Swan raises, it is a piece of beautifully pure, utterly gripping drama.

Drama as powerful and captivating as this is rarely found at the cinema these days. Perhaps because of the influence of and sizeable chunks of Swan Lake used in the film, Black Swan has the sensual quality of a stage production. Frequently it is flinchingly shocking. Acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky ratchets up the tension and paranoia to chilling, unsettling but completely compelling levels. The whole thing is a visual feast. Most surprisingly of all, given the sheer number of scares jostling for position and all the hype around the film, there were more than a handful of moments in which the auditorium was plagued by infectious giggles.

Most of these laughs come via Vincent Cassel’s Thomas Leroy, director of the New York ballet company. He is amusingly frank with Natalie Portman’s Nina, as is Mila Kunis as Nina’s dancing rival Lily. Both of these supporting cast members give excellent performances but it’s Portman’s Oscar worthy turn rightly stealing the headlines. In the past I’ve found her acting irritating, especially her regular appearances as an English rose type figure, with stereotypical accent. She was the only thing I mildly disliked about V for Vendetta. But here Portman’s character is meant to be prissy and annoying, and despite this as her delusions worsen and multiply you find yourself rooting for her to overcome her demons. Her portrayal of mental confusion and paranoia spiralling into madness is startling.

Barbara Hershey plays Nina’s controlling mother, who has projected her disappointments from her own curtailed career onto her daughter. In a sickly sweet, cotton ball world at home Nina lives as a little girl, primed only to succeed as a dancer. This suffocating environment is far from helpful as Nina works to try and embrace the role of evil, seductive Black Swan as well as the pure, fragile and perfect White Swan Queen. Her director continually tells her to loosen up and the suffocation from Nina’s home life spread throughout the film, haunting her and the audience. Nina projects her own anxieties onto the confident, relaxed Lily, who soon becomes a recurring, taunting theme in her fantasies.

At the beginning of the film, Cassel’s director tells his dancers his will be a “visceral” reworking of Swan Lake. And Black Swan is certainly visceral. Of course it touches on all the themes I mentioned earlier, but in reality it’s far too over the top to explore them properly. Above all else it is a fantastical and theatrical story. You’ll be gripped by the drama, haunted and confused by the plot. Sucked in by claustrophobic visuals, charmed by stunning dance sequences and engaged by superb acting; Black Swan has a bit of everything and its vividness is inexplicable. You won’t see anything more sensual this year.

 

Unconventional style: Inglorious Basterds, Juno and The Ghost


(some spoilers)

The most stylish person in a room looks different to everyone else. Often the first step to style, the boldest move towards quality, is doing something different and distinctive. A lot of the time these risky moves will end in tears but some people just have the knack for it.

Three such people are directors Quentin Tarantino, Jason Reitman and Roman Polanski. Recently I’ve watched some of the best known, latest works of all of these men and it’s clear they’re endowed with the lucky gift of success when embracing the unconventional.

Firstly Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds is such a fascinating, intriguing picture. Events within the plot and elements of the execution bear Tarantino’s sensational touch – leading Nazis weren’t slaughtered in reality in a cinema in Paris – but that does not mean there aren’t serious elements to this film too. On the surface it’s a simplified, warped version of history, with a non-existent band of American Jews exacting revenge for the Holocaust, which wasn’t widely known about until the discovery of death camps at the end of the conflict. But at the very least it’s a sumptuous exercise in the best of filmmaking and with its faithful use of various languages, does say something factual rather than fictionalised about the misunderstandings and deceptions of war. It’s also, somehow, hilarious.

As the film’s star Brad Pitt says in one of the interviews on the Blu-Ray disc, this film plays out more like a novel. It’s broken into chapters, the first handful of which establish the characters and the rest bring them together for an explosive, visually stunning finale. Only a few of these characters are typical and expected for the wartime context; the French farmer in the marvellous opening scene for example. But the rest are Tarantino creations. They’re extremely vivid and engaging but also wild, sometimes implausible extremes, almost as if plucked from the pages of a striking graphic novel. Somehow the director/writer makes them wonderfully believable and then gives them bags of room to play in his chapters, which often consist of one, long and extended scene.

The opening scene establishes the marvellous character of the “Jew hunter” played by Christoph Waltz. There are some splendid, picturesque shots of the French countryside, followed by a wonderfully tense dialogue scene indoors. The interrogative German is sinister through his politeness, only to reveal the true nature of his visit. Other scenes in the film get similar space to breathe and come to life, in particular another edge of the seat, tense encounter in a tavern. This is the film’s longest scene and is incredibly realistic and satisfying as the spies, including the wonderful Michael Fassbender, attempt not to blow their cover. Language again plays an important role, and does so throughout, becoming almost another character. Often Inglorious Basterds feels more like a play, only for some explosive action to remind you that only a film could deliver such thrills, laughs and intrigue. Ultimately the spot-on dialogue, lengthy scenes, exploration of language and sensational characters and events, is not only stylish but says something worthwhile about the war.

All of these films say something worthwhile. Juno chips in with messages about taking people at face value and what really makes relationships work, as well as challenging views of young people. And The Ghost, whilst being primarily an impressive exercise in storytelling rather than a substantive study of politics, does have some underlying messages about identity and ethics.

If you had one word to describe Juno, chances are it would be “quirky”. Anywhere you look online you’ll find this label plastered to the film’s witty face. Personally it seems an unfair, limiting term for such an intelligent, funny, well-acted production. But I guess it is undoubtedly true. Juno isn’t your average teenager. She’s witty, quick and cynical. She wasn’t used by some sex mad male but got knocked up by banging the best friend who’s crazy about her out of boredom. She sets about helping a deserving couple, rather than unthinkingly obliterating the fledgling life inside her.

The couple she decides to “donate” her child to are almost as important to the story as Juno. Played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, they are the grown-up heart of the film, the crucial counterpoint to Juno’s usually happy exuberance. All the cast deal superbly with fast, funny dialogue, including Juno herself, Ellen Page, as well as her Dad and Step-Mom, J.K. Simmons and Alison Janney. And of course the love that suddenly blossoms at the end with Michael Cera, is wonderfully touching and encompassed by the duet which ends the film.

Of all these films it’s The Ghost with the most stylistic flourishes, perhaps ironic given the everyman Brit accent adopted by Ewan McGregor. There are no jaw-dropping stunts in this film; all the drama comes from the story and suffocating, tense locations. When crucial, potentially stunning events occur in the plot, Polanski deals with them with the utmost style. The film starts by simply showing an abandoned car to heighten the mystery surrounding the death of the previous Ghost Writer, rather than showing a spectacular murder scene. At the climax of the film McGregor’s character is abruptly hit by a car out of shot; we only see papers scatter and swirl in the traffic, littering the street.

Rich in detail, in The Ghost we learn surprisingly little about anything ever. Polanski somehow captures the Dan Brown like, page-turning twists of the novel and distils them on film, whilst also adding a layer of intelligence to the swerves of the plot. You are gripped, determined to keep watching for the big reveal. A reveal cunningly disguised throughout and then stylishly unveiled with an anticipation building close-up of a gradually passed note. The Ghost is immensely enjoyable and stylish; I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

So filmmakers do something different, unpredictable and restrained if you want to make it big and be lavished with praise.

Outcast


When you’re an established director in British television it must be important to time your leap into films. It could be a matter of waiting for the right opportunity to come along. You might have a brainchild of your own to nurture into life. However you go about it, mistakes could be fatal for your aspirations. Do you stick to what you know or strike out boldly to get yourself noticed?

Colm McCarthy adopted the practical approach of a bit of both. Born in Edinburgh, his debut feature is set in the city and packed full of bleak, grey vistas. They’re similar to the gritty tone of one of McCarthy’s previous credits, Murphy’s Law. And McCarthy relies on the star of that show, James Nesbitt, to head up a strong line-up of British acting talent in Outcast. The director also co-wrote the film, which is a shocking and dramatic departure from glossy programmes like Hustle, The Tudors and Spooks which also adorn his CV.

Outcast is the tale of Mary (Kate Dickie) and Fergal (Niall Bruton), a mother and son pair that find themselves settling into a dingy, dirty flat on a rough estate on Edinburgh’s outskirts. As the film progresses it’s clear that Mary is fiercely protective of her son and that she and him are running and hiding from something dark in their past. Connections which link them to Cathal (Nesbitt) gradually surface, who arrives in the city on a primal hunt to kill. It doesn’t take long before members of the recognisable British cast start dropping like flies, but the culprit remains ambiguous right up until the climax of the story.

From the start Outcast tries too hard to establish its weird, horrific credentials. Rather than subtly revealing the occult aspects to the story, the clunky script hammers them home. We watch as Nesbitt’s character endures the application of painful ritualistic carvings to his back and immediately afterwards, Dickie’s mysterious mother drawing blood from her own naked chest and daubing ancient symbols over the walls. Later when Fergal’s teen love interest Petronella (Hanna Stanbridge) barges into the flat and discovers these odd images, Fergal simply explains his mother has different beliefs, rather than panicking or struggling more realistically (and interestingly) to keep the secret burden from his friends. Equally bizarrely Petronella isn’t fazed.

With so much blood and gore on show, Outcast needs strong, engaging and believable characters to be watchable. Unfortunately a weak script again lets down the cast. Most of the characters are nothing more than stereotyped caricatures. The highly sexed yobs on the estate are entirely predictable, as is Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan’s small role as an estate slut. Petronella’s simple brother is also a cardboard cut-out of a character. Her relationship and eventual love for Fergal, a key pillar of the plot, is not at all convincing. Another faulty key ingredient is Nesbitt’s miscasting as the menacing pursuer. Most of the time he appears baffled and far from frightening. Christine Tremarco gives a good performance as a rather pointless housing inspector and Dickie’s genuinely mysterious mother is just about the only character with the capacity to deliver proper scares. She does so a number of times, springing out from nowhere on her wandering son, issuing warnings and cursing Tremarco’s character so that she loses her mind.

For a horror film Outcast is far too predictable and its execution is heavy handed. All the pieces of a really gripping, frightening story are there but they simply don’t fit together in the right order. The crucially important occult influences are both overused and not ever satisfactorily explained. Grand themes like repressed sexual desire, forbidden fruit and ancestor’s sins returning to haunt the next generation, never quite come off. Brutal sacrifices and attacks, potentially original elements of the story, are uncomfortable to watch but never truly shocking. When more traditional scares arrive in monster form, the special effects look amateurish and almost laughably like a parody of a classic.

Most of the praise heaped upon McCarthy’s debut feature seems severely misguided in my view, although one review is right to hail the project an “ambitious” one. Sadly for the British film industry, Outcast lacked both the polished script and the resources to pull off what it was attempting. Throughout the whole thing you’re never quite sure what’s going on, but you’re never shocked or scared either. Outcast’s two dimensional plotting and characterisation means that a handful of sexy scenes, the charms of rising star Hanna Stanbridge and continuous gore are all that’s left to endear it to the (I suspect male) teenagers keen to get hold of it on its release, despite the 18 certificate.

Fish Tank


Fish Tank is a gritty and real film, driven by its rough setting and well realised characters. It’s a critically acclaimed piece crafted by writer/director Andrea Arnold and centred on a knock-out debut performance from Katie Jarvis as foul mouthed fifteen year old Mia. She lives with her fierce and distant mother and her prematurely aged younger sister on a downtrodden, ragged estate. She drinks and wanders her days away, stomping with rage around the local area whilst she waits for others in an unknown system to decide her fate. She loiters near those her own age, only to end up violently and angrily confronting them most of the time. Spewing obscenities, wearing a permanent scowl and seeking vulgar distraction, Jarvis’ magnificent debut achievement is to subtly showcase Mia’s softer side.

Until the arrival of Hunger and Inglorious Basterd’s Michael Fassbender, Mia’s life consists purely of booze, slagging matches and dance. Dance appears to be her one true interest and she tentatively practices in a nearby abandoned flat, reluctant to display her slowly and shyly honed skills to others. The only other distraction from the confines of her miserable life is an almost mythical looking white horse, tethered by the dangerous boys at the local gypsy camp, with a revolving wind turbine dominating the roadside background. Mia tries, without success, to free the creature on several occasions. One time she lingers with the animal long enough to comfort it gently, patting its rising and falling frame, quietly seeking the warmth so lacking in her own life. It’s this scene that convinces you to root for Mia; she’s not really the mindless swearing teen on show most of the time. Beneath the beast conditioned by her environment lurks something better. Perhaps the essence of a childhood never lived.

So when Fassbender’s character Connor crashes onto the scene as her mum’s new man Mia understandably, after initial feisty reluctance, latches onto his fatherly encouragement. During a beautifully shot, moving trip to the countryside, she helps him catch a fish with his bare hands in the river. He compliments her dancing ability, urges her to go for a local audition. Despite his rough and readiness, his working man confidence, Connor appears to belong to a different, more caring world than Mia’s. A world where fifteen year old daughters have loving, concerned fathers. And yet a father figure is not all Mia wants. Connor excites her and their chemistry goes beyond caring. She pretends to be asleep one night so he carries her to her room. Does she want a lover or the dad she never had?

The film’s title, Fish Tank, is a symbol for Mia’s life. Watching this on DVD the picture was narrowed throughout, presumably a technique again designed to highlight the confinement of Mia’s existence. She is as helpless and ignorant as a fish in many ways, but through no fault of her own. Even her preferred route out, that of dancing, she has simply snatched at because she spends her time watching the same music videos and programmes on TV, selling a certain vision of womanhood and success. A lot of the film’s component parts appear to be cliché at first glance, but the quality of composition and relevance of the themes lifts the story above anything attempted before. Fassbender and Jarvis give mesmerising performances, sparking wonderfully off each other and being at once realistic and impossible to truly fathom. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan must be praised for making the bleak backdrop of the estate look simultaneously grim and stimulating and contrasting this with vivid countryside vistas, splendid British suburbia and striking establishers of trees sensually swaying in gusty winds.

The film builds to a dramatic and gripping climax, with Mia confronting her demons and her future. Whilst British cinema may be ridiculed now and then for being too dependent on this sort of film, if they are continually churned out they should all be as fresh and well made as Fish Tank, and the film is deserving of its Bafta for Outstanding British Film. As shoppers flock to HMV for Christmas DVD bargains, Fish Tank may be a little heavy for a festive present, but it is ultimately life affirming and should satisfy those who like their cinema edgy and critically adored. But it’s not for the faint hearted.

Burke and Hare/Shutter Island


A week ago today I saw Burke and Hare at the cinema. Now ordinarily I wouldn’t dream of waiting an entire week, allowing my first impressions, insights and musings to rot and fester, before decanting my thoughts into review form. That would just be unprofessional. Even more amateur than my usual efforts. However in the case of Burke and Hare I knew before, during and after the film that it would not be a memorable experience. Burke and Hare is predictable stuff that can be neatly categorized and classified. It is, as one reviewer says, “packed with the cream of British comedy talent”. You cannot help but regard it as waste though that the cream should resemble the squirty, mass manufactured variety rather than a rich, full and substantive treat.

The only strong lasting impression that Burke and Hare had on me was to increase my desire to go to Edinburgh. I have technically been before, as a four year old, but have no tangible recollection of the visit. It would be too generous though to claim that the film was solely responsible for my urge to head north, as it was an idea formed in my mind previously over the past few weeks, founded by reading about the city, strengthened with some lovely shots in David Tennant’s recent drama Single Father and rounded off with the agreeable atmosphere of the place presented here.

As I’ve said, Burke and Hare is predictable. It starts off pleasantly enough with Bill Bailey humorously introducing us to the premise, but not that humorously, and he sums up the film too. The problem is that it barely steps up a notch from this gentle beginning. It watches like a who’s who of British comedy and television and thus falls into the trap of lots of British productions by feeling like something more suited to the small screen. Rarely did I think a scene warranted the scale and noise of the cinema and there were only a handful of others with me, showing that the public must have reached the same pre-emptive judgement.

However I hope that Burke and Hare hasn’t fallen completely flat on its face at the box office to deter filmmakers from churning out such hearty fare. Because this sort of comedy is like a British biscuit; by no means unique but it certainly has its place as a needed comfort food from time to time. Refreshingly the film does not take itself too seriously and some (emphasis on some), some of the classic visual gags are nostalgically funny. It’s also splendid to see Ronnie Corbett again, even though it’s surely sheer novelty that makes his scenes so enjoyable rather than majestic acting prowess or a hilariously wonderful script. Simon Pegg also enhances his reputation by doing a remarkable job with mediocre material; as Burke he is the only character to come close to being rounded as well as occasionally funny. His relationship with Isla Fisher’s character, who adds the traditional totty to proceedings, has the potential to be moving at times. As several reviewers have remarked though, Burke and Hare could have done with a sprinkling of Pegg behind the camera as well to make this a more modern, and most of all a funnier British comedy.

If Burke and Hare was difficult to remember then Shutter Island will be difficult to forget. I genuinely believe that this Scorsese thriller is one of the films of the year and I’ll be rushing out to buy it on DVD so I can enjoy its treasures again and again. It’s impossible to fully appreciate this film in one sitting. It also must have been magnificent on the big screen and I am gutted that I did not manage to see it at the cinema as I desperately wanted to. If Burke and Hare’s score was jolly and comforting, then Shutter Island’s is chilling and mesmerising as it builds the tension and paranoia.

Leonardo DiCaprio hogged the limelight with Inception and critics raved about director Christopher Nolan’s exploration of dreams. But in my view Inception did not represent what dreams are really like and merely toyed with the structures of narrative with some fresh action scenes in comparison to Shutter Island’s bemusing, beautiful and ugly psychological study. DiCaprio’s character was haunted by visions of his dead wife in Inception too, but here the nightmares and the hallucinations are far more recognisable as dreams with their symbolism and scares.

It would be easy to dwell on Shutter Island’s brilliance but I will try and briefly summarise it. I cannot think of anything I disliked about the film and it feels far shorter than its considerable runtime. It is well acted and directed. The locations look fantastic. The soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment and enhancer of the rising levels of terror, paranoia and tension. The action scenes are engaging; the period perfectly evoked and made use of with its undertones of Cold War suspicion and Second World War horror. Most of all the narrative twists and turns are truly gripping and seductive. You come to care about DiCaprio’s character far more than the oddly named Cobb in the more widely praised Inception, and you’re far more clueless and concerned about what’s going on. In short: Shutter Island is a must see. It’s the primetime meat to Burke and Hare’s daytime sandwich.

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.

The Song of Lunch/ The Fry Chronicles/The Road/South of the Border, West of the Sun


Trawling through various cultural mediums is for me not just a search for entertainment and means of passing the time but a hunt for reassuring truths, universal truths of life that we all share and when found elsewhere as better formed, well expressed versions of your own troubles offer satisfying comfort. I am no poetry connoisseur but when I do read poems the ones I enjoy speak to me for saying something true, often in the simplest of ways.

Take The Song of Lunch, a BBC adaptation of Christopher Reid’s narrative poem, recommended to me by a friend. Through the artificial constructs of art it says something true and genuine about life, rising above the reality of existence. Of course lunches with old friends are not the profound verbal duels shown here, they are not always feasts of slow-mo exquisite detail. But at times the language, the imagery of the poem is spot on and the sentiments exact. That feeling of so much change and yet so little. Those regrets impossible to accurately voice. The simultaneous significance and insignificance of everyday gripes like the noise of the next table, the disappointing wine. On the whole the dramatisation of the poem works well too and certainly the first half an hour or so is immersive and engaging. Alan Rickman’s lazy, lingering, drooling tones suit such a piece perfectly. You rejoice with his ageing character as his planned escape from the office comes off, via the “yawn” of the lift and enjoy his observations of the London crowds. The direction matches the poem well, vividly evoking stand out lines and images. The arrival of the old lover and the disbelief and resurgence of old feeling is also dealt with well, but as Rickman’s character loses himself amongst his thoughts the adaptation struggles to convey the essence of the words, resorting to overlong focuses on Rickman’s vacant, ogling face. During these moments the drama loses its urgency and coherence and even Rickman’s loving recital of the language, full of irresistible rhythm and emphasis, cannot avert awkwardness for the audience. Despite this and the sense that the adaptation worked best at the beginning, only to trail away, The Song of Lunch was a beautiful, meaningful and enjoyable watch.

Emma Thompson, the old flame and muse of Rickman’s character in The Song of Lunch, also features prominently at times in Stephen Fry’s latest and second autobiographical work, The Fry Chronicles. This book focuses on Fry’s Cambridge years and the formative years of his career, mainly in comedy. However the book joyfully flits about all over the place, touching upon all manner of topics. Forgive me for what is a very Stephen Fry-espque tangent, but the cover of The Fry Chronicles, by which I mean the covering of the book itself, is extremely attractive and I cannot understand the unrealistic snobbery of people who continue to adhere strictly to the old mantra “never judge a book by its cover”.  It is surely impossible today not in some, even wholly unconscious way, to judge or dismiss books based upon their colourful jackets. A writer can slave away at the world’s next great novel only for it fall flat on its face, or be devoured by entirely the wrong sort of audience, because of a wrong decision in the marketing department. Fry’s book is carefully kept simple, with a mostly pure white background and a tasteful picture of himself accompanied by the title in bold blue. The quotes selected for the cover go some way to conveying the essence of what is in inside. I have also bought and shall soon read C by Tom McCarthy, the expected winner of this year’s Booker prize. His publishers too have done a fine job of creating an enticing, attractive cover, reflective of the book’s content (a whirl of lines reflect the theme of communication) and informative (positive criticism expectedly prevails), without excluding anyone by opting for a garish pink. A nice touch to The Fry Chronicles’ cover is that the inside cover has a coloured stripe pattern that matches that of the socks Stephen sports on the cover and generally such colours would seem to represent his personality too.

Cover rant over, is The Fry Chronicles actually any good, jostling for position as it does with whopping political memoirs from not just Blair himself but his advisers and fellow New Labour architects and other assorted celebrities with bright, bubbling, amusing lives to share? The answer is yes and I have not even quite finished the thematic, slightly chronological trip through Fry’s memories as yet. Of course like any autobiographical work has its faults but Fry does his best to acknowledge them. It is also surely more entertainingly, amusingly and playfully written than a host of other similar works set to come out in the endless run-up to Christmas gift season. Fry’s book will ride high on the bestselling lists right up to the turkey dinner and beyond, and deserves to. Not only is it stuffed full of interesting content and fascinating anecdotal tales, but offers an enormous amount of wit, humour and personal, emotional insight; of the truth I search for on my cultural wanderings.

If anything the book starts slowly with a brief focus on Fry’s adolescent addiction to sugar, which if I am honest I found irritating and hard to relate to, but never boring as the sheer energy and wit of Fry’s prose carried me through this section. Once he reached the start of Cambridge however I could identify far more and I whizzed through this portion of the book. Every now and then Fry will interrupt the recounting of actual events to bemoan his lack of confidence and express his own doubts. He fears that he has become a jack of all trades, master of none and that he has squandered natural talents. It is comforting to hear a man of such talent and intelligence admit to such fears about topics as wide ranging as ambition, fame and relationships. He even hopes that his trials and tribulations are merely facts of the human condition, shared by all, and in so doing says something true. At times his refusal to analyse the failings of others as he examines himself is frustrating, with most name-drops also accompanied by gushing praise, but this is all tolerable as he repeatedly acknowledges he is too kind to be a critic, can be seen as arrogant and would not want to judge anyone but himself, in what is after all, an excellent autobiography first and foremost, as well as a snapshot of the entertainment world of the eighties (which Fry makes accessible to those not familiar with the era, as well as the ardent fan).

If Fry’s book is for the most part a light hearted, jovial glance at what it means to be human, set amongst manicured university grounds and the artificial, rich entertainment world, then director John Hillcoat’s 2009 cinematic imagining of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road is a bleak and brutal, stripped back stare at the core of existence. Unlike Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps which I reviewed last week, concluding that it had little purpose or idea of what it was, this movie has a strong narrative and never fails to engage, doing so on a number of levels. Early on we are struck simply by the aesthetics of a barren, apocalyptic landscape, the moving soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and the emptiness of father and son walking, emaciated and dirty. Then there are moments of genuine tension, excitement and action when the gangs, cannibal or not, emerge and threaten to discover our protagonists and then no doubt exploit or kill them. The scene where a gang member discovers the crouched Viggo Mortensen whilst taking a piss, clutching a gun with just two bullets left, bullets meant for his son and himself should they be necessary, is incredibly tense. It emerges that to be a father in such an environment means being just steps from being a killer. The film grapples with some big ethical questions around suicide, parenting and violence by placing them in a fictional, extreme context. Even without thinking about these deeply it’s impossible not to be moved by the bonds between Viggo Mortensen’s father and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s son, who both give excellent performances, or not to be gripped by the hard hitting action or grim scenery.

For me the most moving parts of the film were the flashbacks that revealed the boy’s mother choosing to leave the father and son, effectively choosing to die rather than go on living in a dangerous, frightening, fallen world. Viggo Mortensen’s character must deal with the fact she chose to die rather than be with them throughout the film as he clings desperately to life for his son. Again here I found that elusive truth that could resonate in my own life; people can do irreparable damage to each other, unimaginable hurt, just by living or in this case by choosing not to, but for her things were clearly so bad for it to be the only choice, the only path forward. This passive process, this capacity to senselessly destroy the meaning of the lives of others, is also recognised by Haruki Murakami in his novella South of the Border, West of the Sun.

I read this in its entirety during a series of train journeys this weekend and found it compulsive reading, for want of a better less clichéd phrase. This is the second Murakami I have read following Norwegian Wood and he seems to have an ability to articulate romantic feeling that I find fascinating, given the differences that perhaps ought to exist between Japanese and Western culture. He seems to capture some sort of universal feeling, especially when writing about the ambitions and frustrations of adolescence. His style is simple and elegant and full of spot on imagery, whilst always retaining a sense of urgency and passion. I could empathise with the narrator of South of the Border, West of the Sun despite our vast differences; he a wealthy, Japanese bar owner, facing a mid-life crisis and the return of a childhood sweetheart, me an ordinary student in Britain. I could share the agony of his conflicting desires and that sense that incompleteness will always prevail. In fact the novella seemed to conclude that such incompleteness was the only certain destiny of the human condition and that life will always be a meandering search for truth in vain.

Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman


Ned Beauman’s debut novel is a distinctive, original and confident creation that is immensely readable. It is not especially remarkable for young novelists to produce compelling fiction but it is a considerable achievement for Beauman to have pulled off a story based on some controversial ideas and subject matter that may have otherwise repulsed or offended readers if not carefully executed. It is by no means a perfect debut and its often ghastly and occasionally two dimensional themes do grate at times, but its success lies in its bold originality and playful prose.

The inside cover of Boxer, Beetle brazenly asserts that this is a clever, distinctive and entertaining novel. Despite a number of flaws including the unconvincing skin deep characterisation of one of the main protagonists Phillip Erskine and simply an over abundance of weirdness at times, I would not disagree with this confident claim on the cover having finished the book. At times the novel displays all three qualities and its brave comic handling of potentially problematic areas such as the collection of Nazi memorabilia ensures it is a distinctive experience throughout. It probably helped my enjoyment of the book that I found many of its chosen themes of eugenics, fascism and underworld boxing culture historically fascinating, but Beauman also vividly evokes the period sections with well written and sensual description that ought to engage those without a particular interest in the era.

Indeed Beauman demonstrates a gift for colourful and accurate description during the third person period sections of the novel and he also has little trouble in fleshing out believable minor characters with unique idiolects. He does struggle to make the key characters, repressed homosexual and twisted beetle collecting Fascist scientist Phillip Erskine, and rampant homosexual Jewish boxer Seth “Sinner” Roach, into rounded individuals though. It might be argued that Beauman does develop their characters enough, it is simply that I did not like them and neither was I meant to, but I can’t help thinking that Erskine in particular was a little too predictable in terms of prejudice and the attempts to make Sinner endearing in some way by introducing a regret at losing his devoted sister seemed forced.

The first person sections of the novel were always enjoyable however, seen through the quick witted and odd eyes of the impossibly smelly Kevin Broom, nicknamed “fishy” by his rich Nazi collector friend Grublock, who meets a sticky end at the hands of a sinister Welsh assassin searching for clues about the boxer and the beetles from 30s Britain. At times the present day sections felt almost like a comic novel, such was the pace and playfulness of the prose. One chapter begins with the narrator musing about what Batman would do, only to conclude that he could not imagine Batman in a Little Chef and that in general the everyday, mundane architecture of modern Britain was not conducive to a cunning, acrobatic and glamorous gothic hero. Generally the novel works superbly well, even with so many ideas flying about, providing they pass through the lens of the likeable narrator. In the third person sections too many ideas can bog the plot down and make passages with Erskine in particular almost tedious. However the novel rarely becomes an essay, despite a couple of unfocused chapters devoted to invented, short lived artificial languages and the third person chunks set in the past tend to zip along well enough despite the inferior sense of character.

Overall Boxer, Beetle is a satisfying read with a bizarre, strangely gripping narrative populated by characters we are not meant to take too seriously dealing with a cocktail of varying grand ideas and themes. Beauman’s writing style succeeds largely in pulling together a lot of seemingly unconnected subject matter into a coherent and entertaining read. It will be interesting to see how Beauman chooses to follow up such an individual first book but his writing talent is evident and Boxer, Beetle is such a mixed bag you get the impression he could and would turn his hand to anything and make a success of it.