Tag Archives: setting

Film review: The Devil’s Rock


On paper The Devil’s Rock has a refreshing and promising setting. I had high hopes of a different and thrilling horror. It is set in the Channel Islands, which is unusual in itself. Its story plays out on the eve of the D-Day landings, giving the film a period background and all the possibilities of Nazis, gloomy bunkers and heroic Commandos. Throw in generous portions of gore and the temptations of mysterious occult witchcraft, and there are enough ingredients in this film to satisfy your average viewer as well as fans of fright fests.

Unfortunately having the beginnings of a good beginning is not enough. The opening twenty minutes of this film are dull and frankly boring. Two Commandos land on a mined beach aiming to carry out a sabotage mission to distract the Germans from the Allied invasion of Normandy the following morning. One almost blows them both to smithereens by stepping on a mine and this moment could have been far more dramatic.

There are also plenty of attempts to establish characters the audience can care about through the dialogue; the lead figure is missing the love of his life and the reluctant/bumbling one just wants to hurry home for medals and the inevitable hordes of adoring women. He’s got a date with a nurse the next day. Yup that’s right, on D-Day. The characterisation is clumsy and tries too hard, feeling far too out of place to be believable. Yes soldiers like anything feminine with a pulse, no elite Commandos probably didn’t discuss tits when negotiating a beach stuffed with explosives.

I’m still not quite finished with the weaknesses of the beginning. It all gets very predictable very quickly. The pair hear noises and they split up, as is the tendency of daft victims in horror films. They stalk around the echoing corridors of a defensive bunker, presumably while the tension builds to gripping levels for the audience. Well what should be an incredibly suspenseful sequence in an atmospheric environment is actually plodding and uninteresting. Essentially you are watching two men with guns walk very slowly down identical, bare hallways, waving their weapons about needlessly. The score doesn’t affect your mood because the ominous music started ages ago, when they had just landed and there was no immediate supernatural danger.

Eventually, after what feels like an age but what was actually only about half an hour, The Devil’s Rock gets to the meat of its story, which turns out to be some disappointing and mass produced packet ham available from any cut price supermarket. There is nothing fresh or creative about the taste of this film once it shows its hand.

Captain Ben Grogan (Craig Hall) has to deal with a Nazi Colonel who claims to need help to contain a dangerous creature he has summoned on Hitler’s orders. The Devil’s Rock is a production from New Zealand, so one of the key limits on your immersion in the story is Matthew Sunderland’s terrible German accent. Blood, intestines and guts are splattered around the walls. The fate of the world and the war is at stake, etc, etc. When the monster is shown in full view it looks ridiculous and laughable and any final hopes for the film fade away.

Having said all that The Devil’s Rock is still a film capable of satisfying some horror fans with some distinctive features. Its finale is intense and reasonably well executed, even if I was no longer invested in the story and everything seemed a bit silly by then. If the words “sexy devil with an appetite for human flesh” appeal to you, then this might be worth a watch.

Page and Screen: The Big Sleep


Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel The Big Sleep, the first to star PI Philip Marlowe, was ready made for the big screen. It had a zippy, twisting and engrossing plot, propelled at pace by short, sharp chapters that feel like scenes from a movie. It is full of characters that are enigmatic, living in the shadowy underworld of Los Angeles, but they all jump out of the page at you because they are so flawed and real. Appropriately, the whole thing plays out in and around Hollywood. And perhaps best of all, Chandler’s dialogue is quick and witty, containing cool and sophisticated one liners that are easy to transplant straight from a book to a script.

The classic film version, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and directed by Howard Hawks, was released in 1946, just seven years after the original novel. Its place amongst other classics in a widely recognised Hollywood hall of fame is justified. It adds elements the novel was missing and brings screen legends like Bogart and Bacall together to successfully bring the charismatic Marlowe and feisty Vivian Rutledge to life. But it is also a largely faithful adaptation and owes its source material a huge debt.

What is the general story of The Big Sleep then? It is too complicated to properly explain briefly. Chandler’s original plot negotiated a weaving path between webs of blackmail, secrets and lies, fuelled by Hollywood excess. Essentially Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood who has two “wild” daughters, Carmen (Martha Vickers) and Vivien (Bacall), each with their own scandalous weaknesses. Carmen is being blackmailed by a dodgy bookseller doing something illegal on the side and Vivien’s estranged husband, who the General was fond of, has gone missing. Marlowe quickly unravels the blackmail but bigger problems continually turn up, leading him further and further into a tough investigation of gangsters, gambling and girls.

Elements of the original plot seem even more complicated on film because of the need to tone down Chandler’s frank portrayal of sex and drugs. For example Carmen is blackmailed because of naked pictures of herself but in the film she is wearing some kind of Oriental robe. Carmen’s attempts to seduce Marlowe, and therefore her dangerous nature, are also less overt in the film.

The best lines of dialogue are lifted completely unaltered from Chandler’s prose. There are far too many to quote. Almost all the dialogue in the book is slick and crucial to the irresistible noir style. The film’s script, by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, sticks as close as possible to the novel’s dialogue as well as its intricate plot and is consequently one of the best and most quotable in cinematic history, line for line.

The character of Marlowe comes to life because of his smooth talking street smarts. But this doesn’t mean that other characters are deprived of scene stealing lines. Even minor characters, such as a girl working in a fake bookshop called Agnes, get the odd gem. When Marlowe disarms her and asks “Did I hurt you much?” she shoots back “You and every other man in my life.”

Not all of the novel’s charisma could make it from the page to the screen. Despite an excellent performance from Bogart, accurately portraying Marlowe’s mannerisms and speech as the reader imagines them, it’s impossible to transfer the brilliance of his first person narration. Chandler gives Marlowe an incredibly strong voice and not all of the great lines in the book are spoken.

Marlowe’s nature as a detective means that he rapidly describes his surroundings vividly and unavoidably the film lacks the colour of these delicious chapter set ups, because it is in black and white. Marlowe also internally sums up other characters. We cannot see these first impressions on film. Despite the glamour of Bacall and the other actresses in the production, we’re denied such delicious and spot on imagery of the women as this; “she gave me one of those smiles the lips have forgotten before they reach the eyes”. No actress could express such subtlety. In the book we also learn a little more about Marlowe’s own state of mind and emotions, again through wonderful writing; “I was as empty of life as a scarecrow’s pockets”.

One of the changes the filmmakers did make was to intensify the relationship between Bogart’s Marlowe and Bacall’s Mrs Rutledge. The plot remains essentially the same, with some scenes tweaked and others, like a fairly pivotal one towards the end, omitted altogether and explained elsewhere. However Bacall’s character appears more often than she does in the book. The change in her character was probably for commercial as well as narrative reasons. Cinema audiences wanted to see a love story between their two big stars, not an unorthodox, cold and professional Detective teasing but ultimately knocking back a beautiful lady, as Marlowe does in the book.

Indeed the inclusion of the love story does fundamentally change Marlowe’s character in some ways. He is robbed of an ingredient of his allure as he is no longer a troubled but brilliant and determined loner when he admits that he loves Vivien. But it makes The Big Sleep work better as a standalone story and is considerably more satisfying than the end to the novel, which explains things but doesn’t exactly resolve them.

It is inevitable that the adaptation has its differences to the source material. And it is also essential that changes were made. I may miss Marlowe’s narration from the page and even the excitement of Chandler’s written action, compared to the film’s set pieces which are over in a flash. But the film gives me the unrivalled onscreen chemistry between Bogart and Bacall, which sheds light on and makes the most of the flirtatious relationship from the page.  It might even reveal new truths in Chandler’s story, whilst lacking others. Overall though it’s clear that both the novel and the movie are sublime; clever and gripping, sophisticated and cool. Entertainment at its best.

Film Review: X-Men: First Class


Flickering Myth ran a poll earlier in the year about which summer superhero movie people were most looking forward to. The contenders were surprise hit Thor, The Green Lantern, Captain America and this X-Men prequel, steered by director of Kick-Ass Matthew Vaughan. For me X-Men: First Class was the most anticipated of the selection by a mile.

The trailers promised a truly epic reinvention of a stagnating franchise. Vaughan went for a completely new look cast of mutants, with the exception of one comic cameo. Amongst this cast the partnership of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender takes centre stage, with the enormous task of matching and exploring the rivalry portrayed by thespian heavyweights Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in the previous Bryan Singer films. For the most part, their youthful interpretations bring something different that really works.

The film starts off brilliantly with Fassbender’s Erik Lehnsherr and McAvoy’s Charles Xavier on separate paths. Xavier is a brilliant Oxford academic with a fondness for pubs and science heavy chat up lines, which seem rather redundant when he can read minds. Lehnsherr however is driven by revenge into stalking the globe in search of his enemy and his mother’s murderer, Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw.

We see both of our key protagonists as children. The film starts with the young Erik, played rather limply by Bill Milner, being threatened in a Nazi concentration camp, by a toying doctor who turns out to be Shaw, into manipulating metal by moving a coin. We see the young Charles, far more convincingly played by Laurence Belcher (who was also excellent in the Doctor Who Christmas special), finding a fellow mutant, shape shifter Raven, in his kitchen and taking her in as a sister.

Things really get interesting when Xavier has graduated as a Professor in genetics and the CIA come to call on him. He then demonstrates his mind reading telepath tricks in a variety of ways, until he is believed enough to get free rein to create a team of mutants to take on Shaw, who is engineering a nuclear war via the Cuban Missile crisis, which he hopes will leave only mutants as Earth’s dominant species. The best bit of First Class however, is Fassbender’s pursuit of his Nazi nemesis.

What really excited me, more than anything else, was the historical setting of this film. Fassbender has been championed as a future 007 in the past and there hasn’t been a review of X-Men: First Class that doesn’t praise the mini James Bond adventure within it. Adult Erik travels in stylish, suave period suits to banks in Switzerland to interrogate the keepers of Nazi gold for info, by painfully plucking out fillings with his powers, and to bars in Argentina in cool summer gear to kill hiding Nazis with flying knives and magnetically manipulated pistols. In all these locations Fassbender speaks the native tongue and oozes the steely determination of a complex and damaged killer. His quest is a snapshot of what a modern Bond set in the past, bilingual and faithful to Fleming’s creation, could be like.

Aside from the dreams of a reinvented Bond though, the Cold War setting is exciting and thought provoking for other reasons.  The mutant situation mirrors the struggles at the time for civil rights for black Americans and other minorities, such as homosexuals (hinted at by the line “Mutant and Proud”). The whole film can make the most of the visual benefits of period costume, with fabulous suits and dresses, as well as period locations and set designs. The rooms on Shaw’s secret submarine resemble a villainous Ken Adam Bond set. And the ideological conflict between the US and Russia, echoes the differences in outlook between Xavier and Lehnsherr.

Despite rave reviews at first, respected critics have given X-Men: First Class an average rating. I think this is mostly because the film doesn’t live up to the enormous possibilities of its setting and doesn’t explore as well as it could the beginnings of the relationships in the X-Men. It is still a good film. For a blockbuster this is a slow burning watch, which I liked, but I admit that the action scenes could have been more frequent; even though a couple are terrific the film never really ignites. All in all Vaughan’s prequel is good but not as good as it could have been.

One of the reasons cited for disappointment is a lack of focus on the rest of the X-Men. It was a difficult balance to strike, with Xavier and Lehnsherr’s relationship proving so fascinating and McAvoy and Fassbender having so much chemistry, both comic and serious. I actually thought that characters like Beast and Raven were fleshed out more than I was expecting. A much criticised code name scene, in which the younger X-Men members sit around joking about what they’d like to be called, has been pummelled with criticism. I thought this scene was funny, as much of the film is, for not taking itself too seriously and entertaining for introducing the powers of the characters.

X-Men: First Class will divide audiences. Some will think it’s boring, others will love its action punctuated with character development and solid acting. Fans of X-Men will differ with some salivating over the explanations to Professor X’s wheelchair and Magneto’s helmet and others feeling letdown by the promise of so much more. Perhaps the most reliable fan base for this film is James Bond fans waiting for next year’s Bond 23. Fassbender’s literally magnetic and chilling performance is Bondian, as are the locations, the villains and babes on show like January Jones and Rose Byrne.

Lets do Something Different – Weird and Wonderful Places to Watch Films


 “Shall we do something different?”

Yes please. Different is good. Different is a much needed break in routine, a relief from the crushing weight of the same-old-same-old cycle and an antidote to incoming insanity. Different is the much missed friend putting an end to the loneliness, at least for a while. Different is a reminder that life is full of innumerable things to make your heart leap and your mind spin excitedly.

Most of the time though I’m a useless person to ask for something different to do. It might be because I’ll be perfectly content in your company doing something mundane. Or it might be that no matter what we find to do, I’ll be unmoved by your presence and wishing you into someone else.

I’d like to think it’s because I think and dream too big. “Different” whisks my imagination off to alternative, culture rich lives in majestic European cities, seedy exploring and wandering in the downtown sprawl of Tokyo or star gazing from the core of the Big Apple. “Different” means a totally new me, another identity in another world; sitting in sleek sci-fi surroundings or standing at the corner of a glamorous Hollywood set from yesteryear. Maybe a different me would be knuckling down to a novel, screenplay or acclaimed biography.

Whilst I do spend too much time conjuring these far from feasible fantasy scenarios in my head, in reality I am narrow minded and imprisoned by the familiar. We all know what it’s like to be bound to the events of a set cycle and the trick to fulfilling lives is packing your itinerary with interesting and varied activities. Or perhaps it’s not. Perhaps it’s all about character and personality.

Everyone has a carefree friend and they’ll probably tell you to be spontaneous. They’re the ones who come up with the different ideas. My organisation fetish is perhaps incompatible with this zest for life and ability to not just put on a brave face or forget your worries, but forget you have the capacity to worry. These are the people that will pluck two random and achievable everyday things out of the air to create an enjoyable, “different” experience.

And so I come to the point: last night I watched a film with a friend on a laptop on a rural hill. She won’t be offended if I say that she’s not exactly carefree and laidback, so we were both rather surprised when she suggested such a random idea. It was a regular local beauty spot “with a twist”. It was different. Wonderfully and refreshingly different.

It some ways it hardly matters what the film was. The novelty was the important thing. Even having a laptop in my car, combining two things that I use everyday for the first time, provided inexplicable satisfaction. It might have been simply that a portable computer was truly mobile and that in theory we could watch a film or play solitaire anywhere my petrol tank could take us. I think I overcame most of the technological thrills to be gained from a laptop a while ago now though, so all I can really say, once again, is that it was different, it was new, and that this is what was so pleasing.

We watched Flight 93, a drama about the fourth plane to crash on the 11th September 2001 and the only one not to hit its target, due to the bravery of the passengers onboard. It was a rather heavy and “emotionally harrowing” thing to watch in the dead of night on a blustery hilltop. But we’d been meaning to watch it for AGES and maybe the delay deserved a grand, a different, setting.

I’m not going to review Flight 93. It has its faults, from dodgy CGI to flimsy characterisation, and felt like very melodramatic TV drama, but its aims in telling such a story were admirable. If this is a review it’s a review of a location.

So transforming a sweeping vista of a countryside valley into a personal cinema experience was easy – but was it worth the relatively minimal effort?

Well the “wow factor” of having stunning scenery casually in the background to the action of the story, was almost non-existent, because it was pitch black. We both agreed, obviously, that it was a more beautiful and stunning sight in daylight. However the dots of light twinkling below, decreasing in number as the film progressed, were a more interesting backdrop than the usual living room picture or bedroom clock.

What about the atmosphere? I think this was definitely enhanced in some ways by our elevated location. Given the film’s subject matter, the height of our position went a tiny way to making us feel in the air on a plane, certainly more than sitting at home. I guess we were also in a vehicle and the handbrake groaned a couple of times, so we may have felt a fraction of that helpless dependency on machinery.

The most atmospheric thing was probably the howling wind. Wrapped in darkness, I could feel the isolation of the people on Flight 93, separated from their families and loved ones by deadly danger. I felt I could imagine their intense loneliness a little better, filtering it through my own memories and the solitary surroundings of my car. And the sound of that wind rocking us was just a hint of the noises that would have terrified them.

Perhaps the best thing was the privacy. It’s great to watch films as part of an audience, each person reacting in their own individual way and passing on part of their experience to those around them, but films like Flight 93 are built on the personal. Our very different auditorium allowed us to digest our own reactions to Flight 93 in comfortable darkness, whilst also sharing our thoughts with the very best company, not just strangers or any old popcorn muncher.

I live in England and the drive-in cinema is an American phenomenon but even stateside it’s something that has largely become cultural heritage. What I learnt this weekend though is that getting out there to watch films definitely has its merits, particularly with the right friends.

Forgive me if I got overexcited about this. I’d love to hear the best and strangest places you’ve watched films. I know it’s possible to take the cinema anywhere these days, so go on, surprise me. Or surprise yourselves with a cinematic excursion.

DVD Review – Max Schmeling: Fist of the Reich


Nazi Germany is a historical setting we are all familiar with. Films set within the Third Reich often have similarities; good natured people trying to help persecuted Jewish neighbours, informers, political intimidation, concentration camps and the striking red background of the swastika. Equally there are areas often overlooked. The boxing rings for example.

Max Schmeling is a German film directed by Uwe Boll which tells the story of one of the 20th century’s greatest boxers. He became world champion in the early 1930s, getting his big break by beating the title holder by default after an illegal “low blow” from his opponent. The film begins by following Max as a paratrooper for the German army in Crete, where everyone seems to know his name. During a conversation with a British prisoner he recalls how his fame started, flashing back to his regret at being denied the world championship outright. The rest of his career became a struggle to prove he deserved that title.

Schmeling wanted to prove himself outside of Germany as well as within it. He wanted to be the best in the world. He was already a national hero but he wanted to win other countries over with his ability. He frequently flew to America for huge matches at iconic venues such as Madison Square Garden. He was beginning to win admiration around the globe until his task became a lot harder with the rise of the Nazi party. As Germany’s image was soured so was Schmeling’s. One of the interesting themes in this film is that Schmeling saw himself as a boxer first and a German second. And that Nazism would simply pass as though it were an adolescent phase.

Hitler wanted Schmeling to be a symbol of the Aryan race and Germany’s might. As Schmeling sought to arrange fights with the formidable black American boxer Joe Louis, an opponent with an unbeaten record and extraordinary number of KOs that would enhance his boxing credentials should he somehow beat him, the Nazis tried to portray the clash as a battle between races and ideologies. Schmeling was naive in one sense but extremely brave in another, to carry on regardless of this manipulation and insist it was just a boxing match. Through his honour he simultaneously became a political pawn by refusing to recognise the wider significance, and rose above the Nazis by continuing with his dream.

So this film is an epic historical drama, encompassing wide areas of German life before and after the Nazis took power. We see both the glitz of the Weimar era and the race riots of Kristallnacht on the streets of Berlin, when Jewish shops and residents were viciously attacked. The period detail, particularly the costumes, and the variety of locations, are impressive. It is also a story of the rise of a sporting great, with Rocky style montages as Schmeling trains for his big fights and moments of tactical deliberation. And there is a love story, when Schmeling meets his soul mate in actress Anny Ondra and manages to marry her.

The love story gives this film something extra. There are, as I said, a lot of stories set in Nazi Germany, often with romances, sometimes with sporting heroes trying to avoid the control of the regime. But this romance is particularly convincing. Henry Maske gives an Arnie-esque performance, as a simple man falling for a beautiful woman. And Susanne Wuest is believable as first a teasing woman suspicious of a brute pursuing her affections and finally an actress frightened by what the Nazis are doing to her profession.

A short but enlightening “Making of” feature on the DVD reveals the reason for the authenticity of this relationship on screen; Maske is not an actor but a boxer. Therefore, as Wuest puts it in an interview, we have a boxer playing a boxer and an actress playing an actress. Director Boll was impressed with Maske’s performance and put it down to his ability to effectively play himself, identifying with Schmeling to inhabit the character.

Overall this might not be the most original film experience but it is immensely enjoyable. All of its various elements are superbly executed, from the production standards to the acting, from the music to the exciting and raw boxing matches themselves. This feels like an incredibly real snapshot of history and it’s a story that deserves to be well told about a remarkable man.

The Art of the Short Story – Reading and Writing Challenge Month


For weeks now I’ve attempted to absorb myself in the art of the short story. Not just to read lots of new ones and re-read old ones, but to look closely at their composition, compare their merits and work out why it was that these fleeting snapshots of life seemed so much more like art than their beefier cousin, the novel.

At the end of my blitz of numerous tales I feel at once wiser and just as ignorant. The fact that my study of these stories has been so intense, the fact that it was indeed a solitary blitz, meant I had much less time than I would have liked to dissect, contrast and concoct thoughtful, satisfactory points and conclusions. This mini task within the greater, rushed whole of Reading and Writing Month has certainly not proved to be the magic pill I might have hoped for; I have not morphed into a masterful writer myself simply by consuming such a renowned, diverse range. But I am glad I was ambitious and wide ranging. I feel as if I’ve discovered intriguing examples I’ll be able to return to again and again as an inspirational template and model for my own work. Or works I’ll re-read simply to marvel at and endlessly reinterpret and enjoy.

Even prior to this challenge I found that a certain type of short story would leave me baffled. It would feel as if I’d barely read what could be called a “story” at all. Ernest Hemingway was one of the particular authors that could simultaneously make me feel cold and unmoved and fascinated. At A-Level I studied Cat in the Rain and for this challenge I read other tales from Hemingway’s “First Forty-Nine Stories” collection, including Homage to Switzerland and One Reader Writes. One Reader Writes is barely two pages long and feels as though it were lifted straight from an experiment in a creative writing class, as the narrator, clearly barely literate, attempts to write a letter about her husband’s syphilis. Homage to Switzerland presents three almost identical but also very different conversations at a railway station in Switzerland.

This last story is more typically Hemingway. He simply paints the picture of a scene to the reader; who watches. It takes the rule of “show don’t tell” in storytelling to the extreme. It points towards any number of possible truths about the characters, just as the famous Cat in the Rain does. The reader is left to interpret, as if watching a scene from a play. Indeed the quote from The Guardian on the back of my Hemingway collection sums up, what in the end, is his subtle brilliance:

“The author’s exceptional gift of narrative quality gives the excitement of a well-told tale to what is, in fact, a simple description of a scene” (my emphasis)

Here then is the first vague, hardly groundbreaking truth I began to comprehend better about short stories; that they can show us the many, differing qualities of a specific scene, much like a play. They can have as much or little drama as the reader (or the audience) chooses them to. Their brevity and focus also means that short stories encompassing a substantial sweep in time become harder to write. They’re also more likely to succeed if they contain dialogue. I do not say light-heartedly that dialogue is easy to write, but simply that good short stories rest on their ability to show us things in flashes, like a play. This is easier to do with well written dialogue. The professional looking winners, submitted by amateurs, to last year’s writing competitions, for Summer and Halloween in The Guardian and Telegraph respectively, mostly contained convincing dialogue, from which the reader can infer.

Chekhov was of course a playwright and this might explain his aptitude for the short story. In an insightful and enlightening introduction to a collection of Chekhov stories, Richard Ford makes a number of points about the merits of Chekhov’s writing that can also be applied across the board to short stories. Firstly he highlights how teachers were always telling him it was the sheer economy of Chekhov’s writing that others tried to replicate. As he concludes though, whilst this was evidence of accomplished craftsmanship it was hardly remarkable. What Chekhov did to elevate his writing, what made them art, was to expose universal, everlasting truths of the human condition still relevant today. His stories, the most famous of which being The Lady with the Dog, went against convention by taking established forms and zooming in on their less explored aspects. Like poetry, or a well executed play, Chekhov slowly makes us accept facts of existence we knew to be true all along; he simply crafted the circumstances and phrases to express them.

And yet short stories don’t all have to be masterfully subtle scenes, open to endless interpretation. The subtlety helps and it certainly doesn’t do any harm to have the fine focus of a scene. But they can also be the seeds of future novels, as Haruki Murakami’s Firefly became Norwegian Wood or symbolic essays on ideas. If I had to categorise the stories I have read, and I don’t think it would be wise to, I would divide them between these focused scenes and explorations of a particular idea. Fiction, in this condensed form, can be a far better, fuller examination of any idea than a hard written essay. Short stories can also better express something, without all the trappings and requirements of a novel.

In a refreshingly frank and interesting introduction to the collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Murakami talks about the difference for him, as a writer, between short stories and the novel. As always I find his distinctive Japanese symbolism captivating, even when he’s not crafting anything creative:

“To put it in the simplest possible terms, I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden. The two processes complement each other…”

Certainly there is substantial crossover in style and themes from Murakami’s novels to his short stories. Like his most celebrated novels, these tales are often heavy with nostalgia, sentiment and emotion. I mentioned ideas, but Murakami is a writer more interested in feelings and moods. His short stories allow him to explore these moods in isolation, touchingly and with symbolism. Many of his stories are symbolic and for me at least, irresistibly enthused with ingredients like adolescence, love and Japan. He is also an old fashioned storyteller in the sense that his short stories are often told by a character, or have happened to a friend of the narrator. Stories are currency to be passed around and retold, often based on perplexing coincidence that cast life in light or shadow.

Among my favourites from his collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman was A Poor Aunt Story, apparently one of his youthful, inexpert creations. This was a story with a symbolic idea at its heart, as opposed to someone’s emotional journey; the narrator wanted to write a story about a poor aunt, only for one to appear stuck to his back for the world to see. It seemed to me a wonderfully poetic way to make a point about the forgotten members of society, the pieces in the background.

Murakami also has the knack for the occasional, sensational and fantastical funny tale. A perfect day for Kangaroos, Dabchick and The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes were all witty and amusing. Other personal favourites from the collection included: Hanalei Bay, Where I’m Likely to Find it (wonderfully mysterious), The Seventh Man, Hunting Knife and Birthday Girl.

Like Murakami, Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer excellent at moods, and I thoroughly enjoyed his atmospheric collection “Nocturnes”. This was five stories of music, love, nightfall and heartbreak. Here we find another string to the short story bow; loosely connected stories, that are quite separate but as a whole unite to portray one emotion, one truth or experience.

So finally then, to ideas. Whether they are sci-fi musings such as the poetically described automated house, with all its rhythm and life, in There Will Come Soft Rains from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, to Thomas Mann’s more intellectual and philosophical ponderings via his protagonist in Death in Venice, the short story can properly showcase them all. Mann’s masterpiece is a superbly written meditation on obsession, love, beauty, youth, art, ageing, inspiration and everything in between. It’s also just a damn good story, with an impressive sense of place, created from very little, compared to the time devoted to beauty and reflection.

Stories need not replicate the sweep of Mann’s success to be brilliant of course; I’ve already praised the narrow focus of the genre. They can deal with aspects and ideas within a grander theme. From the collection of love stories, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, The Hitchhiking Game by Milan Kundera and Lovers of their Time by William Trevor, stand out. Kundera’s story for its exploration of role-play and the need for a balance between meaning and fun in a relationship; what he calls “lightheartedness and seriousness” (reminded me of his unique philosophical novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being). And Trevor’s for its portrayal of the decay of love over time.

My three favourites from my fleeting trawl through the form then: The Hitchhiking Game, Death in Venice and Murakami’s Where I’m Likely to Find it.

Thus concludes my inadequate summary of the art of the short story. But as I say, I do feel enlightened and extremely excited to have reignited the joys of reading and writing.

How To Train Your Dragon


There are instructional guides for everything nowadays. Bright sparks and academics compile recipes for far more than just food. Type the word “instruction” into Amazon and you get back motivational guides, martial arts handbooks, “Traditional Patchwork Quilt Patterns” and even “The Baby Owner’s Manual”.

Personally, I’ve never owned a pet. As a child I would recoil at bounding dogs, repulsed by their drooling eagerness. I’d love a canine companion now, my very own incarnation of man’s best friend to walk and pamper and pat, but I wouldn’t know the first thing about caring for an animal. Well I’d like to think I wouldn’t kill it too swiftly, but it would be handy to avoid charges of animal cruelty or worse, incur the brutal intimidation and mudslinging of animal rights activists. So another scan of Amazon and perhaps “The Dog Owner’s Maintenance Log” is for me or “Dog Grooming for Dummies”.

I can’t help but think that, given my inept fondness for dogs, I’d be even more out of my depth with a creature that’s much harder to love. A tarantula or iguana for example. I know for a fact that should I bump into a dragon in a dark alley or atop a windswept cliff, a pocket sized book entitled “How To Train Your Dragon” would be of considerable use.

There are countless books and “must have” guides to the film industry as well, with everything from screenwriting to lighting covered somewhere in print. I’m willing to bet that somewhere there’s a section on the importance of a title for your Hollywood Blockbuster. Get that name wrong and nothing else will matter. The title of your story should be an instant hook, with an air of mystery and definitely not so dull as to repulse potential viewers before they’ve so much as glanced at the rest of your poster. At first How To Train Your Dragon seemed a poor idea for a film title to me, despite the inevitable quirky interest around that last word. It’s a name for a user’s guide not an all conquering family movie phenomenon.

 How To Train Your Dragon became something of a surprise hit though last Easter, and had not only sizeable audiences but unanimous critical praise. Rotten Tomatoes carries a 98% critic rating and 90% audience satisfaction for the film. For me this was initially surprising, given that How To Train Your Dragon contains hearty helpings of a foul smelling ingredient most recipes for good films would advise strongly against.

How To Train Your Dragon is completely predictable. And predictability, it’s easy to learn watching, writing and reading about films, is often just another word for bad. Samey storylines you’ve seen before, nine times out of ten stir up nothing but annoyance in the mind of an audience, and if not audiences then almost certainly reviewers. If the trajectory of a film is obvious and its ending plain from the opening scene, it doesn’t usually make for engaging entertainment.

But How To Train Your Dragon has flagged up an important truth for me. Some films thrive on the predictable, namely family films. There has to be a certain satisfactory happy ending, a particular sense of bonding and struggle, a recognisable group of relationships between characters. And I was wrong to say that How To Train Your Dragon is completely predictable. It’s got a refreshingly non-American setting for a start and a reasonably original twist on a familiar premise.

There’s something of a 3D trend in films at the moment, specifically in animation. I get the feeling that a handful of moments in this film, spectacular flying sequences and fluid fire, would be as good as anything yet seen in 3D. But as it was I made do with the small screen, DVD experience. And How To Train Your Dragon is still a pretty little film.

It kicks off with a funny and adrenalin pumping action sequence, with a Viking village under attack from marauding dragons swooping from above. Buildings explode and burn vividly in the night, illuminating the dark coastal scenery. We’re swiftly and efficiently introduced to all the main players with considerable humour and the set-up of age old conflict between two races is established. For an animated film it’s a surprisingly impressive start. And best of all the ending trumps this memorable beginning.

We meet Hiccup, voiced by Jay Baruchel, working out of the way in a Blacksmiths. He’s the weak son of Viking leader Stoick the Vast, voiced by Gerard Butler as an essentially family friendly version of his Spartan king in 300. Hiccup’s a disappointment and an outsider. But as the film progresses he finds he has a strange affinity with the dragons and begins to uncover the reality of their nature. He’s guided along the way by sympathetic  Gobber (Craig Ferguson), a Viking trainer, and finds a love interest in Astrid, voiced by America Ferrera. Astrid is cleverly and amusingly introduced in the opening action scene, walking away from an explosion in a satire of typical action films, to the sarcastic, smitten voiceover of Jay Baruchel.

In my opinion How To Train Your Dragon, a Dreamworks production, lacks the heart wrenching sentimentality and visual wow factor and beauty of a Pixar film. But as other films like the Shrek franchise show, Dreamworks do funny, tongue in cheek, successful animation, with good characters, really well.

Two interesting DVD extras delve into the casting process behind the film and its technical processes respectively. I find the process of characterisation and casting when there’s only a voice to work with extremely interesting and it’s intriguing to hear the filmmakers’ thoughts on how they got that right. In the visual production segment of the extras there’s a wonderful explanation of the various types of dazzling fire used to help distinguish between the wide varieties of dragons on show.

In short How To Train Your Dragon is a perfectly cooked family meal. It’s hardly dining at the Ritz but no one likes a snob and sometimes there’s nothing more fun than well executed comfort.

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.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed


The Disappearance of Alice Creed is the sort of film that it’s almost impossible to talk about or review without puncturing and spoiling the drama for those yet to experience it. And an experience is what the film provides; even if some berk lets slip a key plot detail there are more than enough twists, turns and unforeseen, sudden plunges on this tense rollercoaster ride to keep you entertained and constantly clueless. It’s the sort of film that has you on the edge of your seat, scanning every scene for minute details that might seem insignificant but will later prove to be vital hinges around which the hyper plot will pivot. Just when you reckon you’ve cracked where things are heading, something totally unexpected will grab you by the lapels and catapult you back to square one. Here you’ll lie briefly, dazed in the dust, before picking yourself up eager for more.

That’s not to say that every swerve woven into the script is a surprise, as in most films some will loom obviously in the distance, with the audience merely asking themselves “when” and “how” as opposed to “what” will happen next. This is a largely original thriller that also loses much of its unique edge at the end as all the indecipherable good work that has gone before must somehow be wrapped up. But on the whole this is an accomplished directorial debut from J.Blakeson, who also wrote the ambitious and resourcefully realised script. Not only is this a movie that delivers as a thriller but working with limited possibilities and an enclosed space it also develops fascinating characters that are for the most part captivating enigmas impossible to unravel.

The reason that the characters hold our attention so intensely and for so long is the steadily racked up tension, combined with only a meagre drip of information about who they might be. Crucially there are also only three characters in the entire film. The first five minutes are completely dialogue and mostly noise free, with only the soundtrack beginning to wind up the intrigue. We watch as two men methodically and meticulously transform a dilapidated flat into a prison, with some slow and beautifully shot scenes at a DIY store and car park contrasting impressively with more frenetic scenes later on. Then the near silence explodes into noise, with the Alice Creed of the title bundled into the back of a van, squirming and screaming. She is then stripped naked, still screaming, on a bed back at the newly fortified containment cell. The sound of her tearing clothes and panicked breathing dominates.

Gemma Arterton, as the title character, gets considerable opportunities to show off her acting chops, despite most of the dialogue going to her kidnappers, Eddie Marsan and Martin Compston. Marsan is often called upon for minor roles in big Hollywood productions, such as his recent Inspector Lestrade in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, and it’s refreshing to see his full impressive range on show here as the key kidnapper Vic. Arterton too has been confined to generic female roles in big budget movies, with a brief and comic turn in Bond movie Quantum of Solace perhaps her most famous appearance so far. In the BBC’s latest adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbevilles she took the lead role and had the space to prove her ability but in many ways her performance here is more convincing, as we watch her do so much with so little. With only three characters for the complex story to work with none is really more important than the other, but if anything Compston’s Danny is the most central figure, and like his fellow cast members he produces a superb and powerful performance.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed is a reassuring tribute to the raw power of narrative when all the luxurious additions of blockbusters are peeled away, leaving the bare essentials of storytelling: character and plot. These are the only ingredients talented directors and writers like J.Blakeson really need.

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.