‘Black Panther’

Black-Panther-poster-main-xlThere’s no question that the latest in the Marvel Comic franchise is politically important with its virtually all-black cast. And director Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station) has bought more than a touch of meaningful social commentary with him. But you can’t help thinking that Black Panther is more than a little over-hyped.

It’s an incredibly slow start with its origin story and photogenic African savannah panoramas. And while the court of King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman – Get On Up, Captain America: Civil War) livens up considerably, a sluggish Black Panther is upstaged by his senior general, Danai Gurira (Mother of George, All Eyez On Me), as well as the villain of the peace, Michael B Jordan (Fruitvale Station, Creed).

Rating: 61%



‘A Fantastic Woman’

fantasticOscar-winner for Best Foreign Language Film, this timely Chilean drama, focussed around a stellar central performance by transgender actress Daniela Vega (The Guest), explores grief and prejudice in modern-day Santiago.

With the sudden death of her older partner, Orlando, Marina finds herself ostracised by his grieving family, including threats of violence from Orlando’s adult son. But what prevents the latest from Sebastian Leilo (Gloria, Disobedience) slipping into oversimplified or overtly emotional political melodrama is the multilayered performance from Vega. As Marina, she is as steady as a rock, a history of violence and prejudice hidden behind her knowing, fathomless gaze.

Rating: 71%

‘My Brother Jack’ by George Johnston

Mybrotherjack_1A vivid and sincere telling of what is a semi-autobiographical novel (the first in a series of three), My Brother Jack talks of life in Melbourne between the First and Second World Wars. Chronicling the story of bookish, nerdy (in contemporary parlance) David Meredith and his older brother, Jack, My Brother Jack is a commentary on interwar Australian society and dull, mundane suburban existence.

A violent father, a sapper in the First World War deeply affected psychologically by his experiences, and a mother who became something of a hero in the same war as nurse and matron: both returned to the anticlimactic lifestyle of a too-crowded, rundown weatherboard home behind a picket fence in Melbourne. Jack, three years older than David, is a lad-about-town larrikin, supportive but disappointed in his younger brother.

Mundane life with a potential mundane future as, established by an unimaginative, brutish father, David is signed up for a seven-year apprenticeship in the printing industry. Yet he falls in with the Bohemian 1920s crowd and a new life unfolds. Over time, David becomes a successful journalist and war correspondent.

A seminal novel of mid-twentieth century Australian life, My Brother Jack is a candid portrayal of changing values and the vacuous suburban dream of the time. Although rarely present in the physical sense (particularly in the second half of the novel), it is Jack who is the marker for Johnston’s reflections.

It’s an allegory of old-style versus new – Jack is the true Okker, physically strong with a word and smile for anyone and everyone: it is he who tries to smooth over ruffled feathers, sees the positive in everything, even if his injury at boot-camp keeps him from seeing any action at the onset of World War II. Three kids (the third, much to Jack’s relief, is the boy he so desperately wanted) and a happy, faithful marriage: Jack is presented as optimism personified (although inevitably always disappointed).

David, meanwhile, marries ‘well’ and the social climbing, steered by the stylish and beautiful Helen, begins immediately – a perfectly manicured home in an anodyne new suburb along with carefully selected friends. It’s ultimately not the world for David – and his petty cruelty and rejection of his wife’s values and interests are honestly (if unpleasantly) portrayed.

Stylistically, the novel reflects the semi-autobiographical, journalistic background of the writer – along with the time it was written (1964). Straightforward prose, prone occasionally to err on overly long descriptive tedium, Johnston sets out to tell his story. And he does it well, painting a vivid picture of life behind the closed doors of the family weatherboard or the sterile dinner parties that accompany married life.

A little editing would have helped (occasionally there’s too much detail!) although, ironically, Johnston speeds through his time as a war correspondent and his travels across the world. But that’s the point. My Brother Jack is the travails of living and surviving in Australia in those post war years. It is the sequel – Clean Straw For Nothing – that Johnston explores life as an expatriate.

My Brother Jack was awarded the Miles Franklin Award in 1964 (as was the sequel five years later).

Booker Prize 2016: Shortlist

Madeleine_Thien_interviewed_by_Dietmar_Kanthak_in_Bonn,_January_2015Back in 2014, the Man Booker Prize made the decision to extend eligibility to include American authors (as long as they were writing in English). Such a decision was not unanimously welcomed. But it was to be 2016 before the Booker judges presented the award for the first time to an American: Paul Beatty and his satirical The Sellout.

Having read all six novels shortlisted for the 2016 award, the question remains – was it the right call? Controversy surrounded the list with the exclusion of J.M.Coetzee’s The Schooldays of Jesus and Elizabeth Strout and My Name is Lucy Barton from the 13-novel longlist.

The shortlist:

Paul Beatty: The Sellout
Deborah Levy: Hot Milk
Graeme Macrae Burnet: His Bloody Project
Ottessa Moshfegh: Eileen
David Szalay: All That Man Is
Madeleine Thien: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

 Only Deborah Levy had appeared on a Booker shortlist before (in 2012 for Swimming Home) and was regarded as one of the favourites to win. Speaking personally, of all the six novels on the list, her Hot Milk was the one I liked least. Using mother-daughter relationships to explore the nature of the feminine (along with hypochondria), it is a strangely inert narrative. Like the daughter, Sofia Papastergiadis, the story is as listless as the temperatures of the southern Spanish setting.

Less pretentious is Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. But like Hot Milk, it is populated with unlikeable characters. At times drab and slow moving, it’s something of a psychological character study with little of any import taking place until the final few pages.

Whilst shortlisted for the Booker as a novel, All That Man Is, to my mind, is a collection of nine short but interrelated stories. Some enjoyable, some minor.

Three down and three to go – and next on my list is the eventual winner, Paul Beatty with The Sellout. As I wrote in my personal review: Technically brilliant, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, savage and outrageous, undoubtedly challenging, yet… Its profane satire is unrelenting, the reading exhausting, the narrative one-dimensional.

It’s just the sort of literary gymnastics that appeals to literary judges – but not necessarily to everyday readers to quite the same extent.

Up until reading my final book on the list, I’d assumed that Graeme Macrae Burnet and his compelling His Bloody Project would have comfortably topped the list.

Set in a remote northern Scottish farming community in 1869, it is a multilayered psychological thriller exploring events leading up to the violent and bloody murder of three members of one family by a 17 year-old neighbour. Absorbing, intricate, His Bloody Project comfortably became the bestseller of the six shortlisted novels.

But Burnet’s magnificent achievement was pipped at the post by Madeleine Thien’s superb Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Magisterial, tragic, profound, enchanting – seven decades of contemporary Chinese history from Mao’s cultural revolution through to the student’s uprising and events at Tiananmen Square.

Booker Prize history was made in 2016 by presenting the award to an American writer – but personally I would have presented it to the Chinese-Canadian author.

‘Molly’s Game’

v1.bTsxMjU1NTM5NztqOzE3NjUwOzEyMDA7MTk0NDsyODgxA superior piece of storytelling based on the true story of a former Olympic-hopeful skier running the most exclusive LA and New York high stakes poker game.

As one would expect from scribe Aaron Sorkin (writer of The Social Network, Moneyball alongside TV’s West Wing and The Newsroom), the dialogue drives the narrative. There’s little cinematic gymnastics as Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, The Help) engages us from the off as she hires Idris Elba (Thor, Beasts of No Nation) as her lawyer to protect her from the FBI witch hunt to name names.

Rating: 64%

‘Lady Bird’

lady_bird_ver2_xlgWarm and quirky, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is a coming-of-age narrative as 17 year-old Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson struggles to come to terms with living in Sacramento, California rather than New York.

As Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, Brooklyn) nails it as the eccentric, generous yet ultimately self-centred teenager determined to get what she wants – even if it pits her against her loving but exasperated mom (a superb Laurie Metcalf – Stop-Loss, Fun With Dick and Jane), a supportive dad (Tracy Letts – The Big Short, August: Orange County) and school friends.

Personal and honest, Lady Bird is a lightweight gem.

Rating: 79%

‘Sweet Country’

Sweet_Country_(2017_film)In spite of the expansive 1920s-set Australian outback, director Warwick Thornton (Samson & Delilah, The Turning) creates a claustrophobic manhunt as ‘black fella’ Sam (newcomer Hamilton Morris) is tracked cross-country by a posse for killing ‘white fella’ Harry March (Ewan Leslie – The Daughter, Dead Europe) in self-defence.

Artfully conceived and shot (the Northern Territory landscape is the star), the Australian western boasts a plethora of strong performances (including Sam Neill – Jurassic Park, The Daughter – as a man of God in a Godless town and Bryan Brown – Breaker Morant, Australia – as the vindictive local lawmaker).

It errs on slow and serious at times, but Sweet Country is nevertheless a powerful and engrossing Australian film.

Rating: 68%

‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ by Madeleine Thien

605302408Magisterial in its telling, Madeleine Thien’s novel is a mesmerising but tragic evocation of seven decades of contemporary Chinese history.

An accessible yet challenging narrative, Do Not Say We Have Nothing deftly weaves between generations and place as Li-ling, based in Canada, looks to understand events that led to her father’s tragic suicide at the age of 39. Having left his family, including the 10 year-old Li-ling, in Vancouver, Jiang Kai is found dead only a few days later in Hong Kong.

As Li-ling looks for answers many years after her father’s death, a sprawling narrative unfolds of China under Chairman Mao and the struggle for power after his death. The impact of revolution and counter-revolution on ordinary citizens – and Jiang Kai and his circle of friends and peers at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in particular – is lyrically and movingly portrayed.

Incorporating ancient Chinese mythology, folk tales, everyday events and unfolding politics emanating out of Beijing, a litany of memorable characters populate the novel – Sparrow, Wen the Dreamer and his wife, Swirl, Big Mother, Zhuli, Ai-Ming, Yiwan, Kai himself – as their stories and histories interweave.

Central to the novel is Sparrow, a young and brilliant composer, teacher to Kai at the Conservatory. It is through his family that we travel through the decades and witness the destruction of family, dreams and idealism as revolutionaries become accused of counter-revolutionary views, as music becomes marginalised and censored, as political criticism results in denouncement and death.

Yet in spite of the terrible hardships and separations, humanity shines through as the ties that bind overcome the grief and suffering inflicted upon generations of Chinese. Sparrow and his family continue to eke out a living, even after the music they love becomes cause for persecution (at one stage every piano in China is destroyed) and family members are reassigned across the country according to the demands of labour.

Fiction and history blur in this epic story that is at once enchanting and informative, delicate and profound, tragic but uplifting. One to savour – I spent more than three weeks reading this powerful 460 page opus.

Shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize, Do Not Say We Have Nothing lost out to Paul Beatty and The Sellout.

‘Happy End’

Happy End PosterA French haute-bourgeois family, Calais-based, live their lives, a microcosm of the minutiae of everyday events.

Octogenarian Georges Laurent (Jean-Louis Trintignant – Amour, My Night With Maud) heads the family but he has passed the trucking business onto his daughter – Isabelle Huppert (Elle, The Piano Teacher). Into a family of adults living in the large rambling house enters 12 year-old Eve, daughter of Huppert’s brother from his first marriage.

Detached and icily controlled, director Michael Haneke’s (Amour, The White Ribbon) latest is a bourgeois, insidious soap opera as each quietly look for their own ‘happy end’.

Rating: 59%

‘The Post’

the-post-0547279001515497618Interesting story solidly told and performed (you’d expect nothing else from Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and director Spielberg) yet somewhat dramatically inert.

As secret documents of clandestine American involvement in Vietnamese politics from the 1940s onwards come to light, The Washington Post owner (Streep) and editor (Hanks) must decide whether to play safe or risk contempt of court and publish.

Pre-empting Watergate and All the President’s Men, arguably the best of the investigative political journalism genre, The Post comes across as a feature where Streep, Hanks and Spielberg, whilst engaging in lots of freedom of the press and women’s position in society conversations, hardly overstretched themselves.

Rating: 61%