The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008)

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It is most certainly flawed, but The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is likely to make this harrowing chapter of history more accessible for some children.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas serves as an introduction for children to Nazism and the Holocaust. It covers a broad range of elements integral to Nazi Germany such as institutional racism, nationalism and indoctrination, albeit in a juvenile, contrived and ultimately implausible manner.

The film charts the relationship between Bruno (Asa Butterfield), a German 8-year-old and Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a young Jewish boy. Bruno is the son of Ralf (David Thewlis), the SS Commandant of a nearby concentration camp in which Shmuel lives, and Elsa (Vera Farmiga), who is largely ignorant of the Jewish persecution her husband is responsible for.

The inquisitive Bruno first meets the titular boy in striped pyjamas when he stumbles across the camp perimeter next to the woods that surround his house. The innocent Bruno is puzzled by Shmuel’s predicament, he doesn’t understand why soldiers are ‘taking their clothes away for no reason’ or why another inmate Pavel works in the camp after a career as a doctor. As he repeatedly visits Shmuel and develops a friendship with him, his confusion soon turns to indignation.

Clearly, their relationship is unrealistic. The abhorrent reality is that most children were killed immediately upon arrival at the camps, and even as a child who either somehow slipped through the net or was deemed useful, it is very unlikely that Shmuel could escape his oppressors’ eyeshot so many times to speak with Bruno.

The boys’ exchanges are contrived and awkward, they are not natural conversations but a vehicle for the screenwriters to teach their young viewers the basics of the Holocaust. Considering his age, Asa Butterfield is a decent young actor – he has the potential to be a star. Scanlon, however, was quite stilted.

One of my problems with the two boys’ relationship and indeed the whole cast are the English accents, it seriously affected the credibility of the characters.  Even Vera Farmiga, an American woman, gives her German character an English accent, which she does very well, incidentally. I’m sure the film’s adult cast members were more than capable of at least hints of German or Eastern European, but attempts to do so by Butterfield or Scanlon would have probably been risible.

The most villainous and unlikable character of the film is probably Kurt Kotler (Rupert Friend), but he is also something of a caricature. With his chiselled jaw, blond hair, blue eyes and immaculate uniform, Kotler is the personification of the somewhat homoerotic Nazi dream of Aryan supremacy. The problem is that instead of him being a compelling example of a Nazi propaganda poster-boy, Friend’s character is an example of the cliched ‘Ve have vays ov making you talk’ Nazi stock-character.  And of course, Friend makes no attempt to Germanise his English accent, which meant I just couldn’t believe in him.

With implausible characters and relationships, some viewers may begin to lose hope as the The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas descends into a sophomoric history lesson. However, the climax completely batters you with its shocking, powerful twist. Despite all of the preceding problems, the fittingly horrendous denouement will leave an impression on child and parent alike. Seldom have I seen a film picked up so greatly by its final minutes.

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

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Stunning CGI and compelling allegory makes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes a solid instalment.

Unlike a lot of summer blockbusters, there isn’t much fun in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The film opens with a map sequence showing the spread of the Simian virus, it is a worryingly plausible and perhaps even prescient prelude to the film’s nihilistic 130 minutes.

Based in San Francisco, a group of virus resistant humans stumble upon the apes in a forest whilst locating a dam that’s vital for the city’s power supply. Carver (Kirk Acevedo), a trigger happy human, wounds an ape upon the surprise encounter, setting relations off to a uneasy start. Caeser (Andy Serkis), leader of the apes,  eventually allows the humans to work on the dam on the strict condition that they surrender their weapons.

This collaboration makes Koba (Toby Kebbell) rather apprehensive. Koba, a bonobo, has suffered at the hands of humans, developing an intense hatred for them. While Caesar is wary of humans and acts very much in the interest of his fellows apes, he recognises the humans’ capacity for good, something that frustrates and disillusions Koba to the point of rebellion.

Immediately the film impresses with its motion capture, seldom am I compelled by CGI characters like I was by Caeser, Koba and the scores of other primates. The range of chimps, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos are effortlessly brought to life through superlative animation and great physical performances.

The Homo sapiens of the film are, on the other hand, somewhat unremarkable and one dimensional – they’re all disposable save for a few. However, both the humans and apes have members whose existence are purely narrative function, they each serve identical purposes, it’s a rather simple construct. Caeser, the hyper-intelligent Chimpanzee who is stern but fair with his colony and the humans he encounters, has a clear equivalent in Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the human leader who also favours peace and cooperation.

These two leaders are beacons of appeasement and democracy, however both sides are jeopardised by bigoted brutes. The aforementioned Carver and Koba assume these roles, both have a tendency for violence and prediliction for martial law, however Koba has a much more sinister influence in the colony. Gary Oldman’s character Dreyfus, a senior member of the humans, is also a counterpart of Koba’s, however I found Carver to be more zealous in his contempt.

There is a slight narrative sag about half way through the film, however this break in momentum is swiftly fixed when the embittered, war-mongering  Koba orchestrates a full scale conflict with the humans. The film then becomes an interesting allegory for war, racism and genocide. With scenes of humans being herded into cages and brutal punishment for dissent amongst the ranks, clear correlations can be made between Koba’s colony and Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, Stalin’s USSR and the slew of other hideous regimes of history.

Generally, the film is to be commended for its anthropomorphic balance. I liked how for the majority of the time the apes communicated using sign language as opposed to just English. Speaking English is biologically impossible for apes, however I’m willing to believe that this isn’t necessarily true in the film’s universe. What I’m not willing to believe is that Chimpanzees can shed tears, they can’t, it is a human function that’s unique among primates. Also, there are instances in which the apes, chiefly Caesar, bear facial expressions or engage in conversations that are just too human. Thankfully, the anthropomorphism is seldom sentimental.

Although character development is familiar and predictable, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is ultimately a spectacle packed nihilistic summer blockbuster about instinct, hierarchy, politics, racism and war.

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The Last King of Scotland (2006)

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This image may summarise the film’s implausibility.

Although it features a superb transformation from Forest Whitaker and a series of well-constructed scenes,  the largely fictional narrative that surrounds them is ultimately rather formulaic and implausible.

‘The Last King of Scotland’ is all about Forrest Whitaker; as soon as he graces the screen, he is Idi Amin. The unison of Whitaker’s physicality and his superb East African accent, which is perhaps the most impressive element of his performance, transforms him into the Ugandan dictator.

Although it is clear that Amin is a manipulator and intent on getting his own way, he is loquacious, magnetic and, surprisingly, quite affable. He charms both the viewer and Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), the impressionable Scottish doctor who initially believes Amin’s rousing yet hollow speeches.

It soon becomes apparent however that this is a charm offensive, a manipulative process that wears very thin once Amin’s deeply ugly, frenetic megalomania is laid bare. Like many of history’s dictators – Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot – Amin succumbs to paranoia, and mass violence ensues.

The film begins with the proclamation that ‘This film is inspired by real people and real events.’, however it fails to state that the central character Nicholas Garrigan is actually entirely fictional. I hadn’t looked into the film’s veracity before watching it, however although there appeared to be clear narrative exaggerations at times, I had presumed that Garrigan was at least a real person. It is a typical example of the ‘inspired by real events’ cliché, ‘inspired’ is always the key part of the sentence.

The film follows Garrigan as he inadvertently becomes Amin’s personal physician and at times ‘closest advisor’; it is indeed an extraordinary predicament, but I suppose stranger things have happened. McAvoy is good as Garrigan, his gradually souring relationship with Amin is interesting and intense, they have many great exchanges.

However, with the knowledge that Nicholas Garrigan is an invention of Giles Foden, author of the book on which the film is based, Scotland’s narrative seems rather formulaic and implausible. I found Garrigan’s relationships with medic Sarah Merrit (Gillian Anderson) and Kay Amin (Kerry Washington) to be hackneyed plot mechanisms.

While the film includes real events such as the Israeli hostage crisis at Entebbe International Airport, much of what occurs is either historically unfaithful or sheer fiction. The story was inspired by one of Amin’s many self-bestowed titles – The King of Scotland.

An example of the film’s implausibility is the scene where Garrigan and Amin first meet. Amin’s Citroen DS has been in a collision with a cow (what appears to be an Ankole-Watusi), leaving him with an injured hand that Garrigan tends to. The creature appears to be fatally wounded and wails in a pain until Garrigan, who has repeatedly asked for it to be put out of its misery, takes Amin’s gun from the roof of the car and mercifully shoots it twice in the head.

Although the surrounding guards train their guns on Garrigan, predictably Amin respects his audacity, and, amusingly, is particularly pleased when he finds out he is Scottish. It is a scene that is quite bereft of credibility.

Although the film has elements of character study, my main problem with the film is that it doesn’t give an insight into Amin’s rule and the atrocities committed under it. Although he is clearly a despot, a mentally ill bully, the film’s emphasis on his fictional relationship with Garrigan rather than fact meant that I didn’t find him hateful.

‘The Last King of Scotland’ features a superb transformation from Forest Whitaker and a series of well-constructed scenes, however ultimately the largely fictional narrative that surrounds Whitaker is rather formulaic.

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