‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas

9781741758207When The Slap first came out a little under 10 years ago, it felt like everyone was reading it – and had an opinion. ‘Whose side are you on?’ was the question.

A hard-edged dissection of middle-class suburban Australian living, a man slaps a four year-old child who is not his own at a family barbecue. From that moment on, the lives of friends and family, witness to the event, irrevocably change.

Centring around eight main characters, The Slap explores divided loyalties, family feuds, friendships pushed to breaking point as values, histories, family ties, social and gender politics are all placed firmly under the uncompromising microscope.

There’s no question, an over-indulged four year-old Hugo is popular neither with the other kids at the barbecue nor the adults. He’s already caused several scenes with his tantrums, including the breaking of a present (given to someone else) barely 20 minutes old. Appeasement is the order of the day – there’s obviously a history with Hugo and parents who do not believe in intervention. But brandishing a cricket bat at his son is the breaking point for Harry.

That’s the end of the barbecue.

What follows is a state-of-the-nation narrative, an ambitious, fractious social document that is at times funny, at times infuriating and a little too often, incredibly smug.

Set in the Melbourne inner-northern suburb of Northcote, gentrification and multiculturalism has changed what was once an essentially Greek working-class area. Tsiolkas reflects this.

Both Hector (Chapter 1) and his cousin Harry (Chapter 3) are Greek, with Hector married to Aisha (Indian – Chapter 7) and Harry to Sandi (Serb). Both men are having affairs – Hector with 17 year-old Connie (Chapter 4) and assistant to Aisha at her vet surgery: Harry is in a long-term relationship with a Lebanese woman and who supplies his cocaine from a Vietnamese dealer. They’re both narcissistic and display misogynist traits – particularly Harry. Connie lives with her aunt, the result of her parents both dying from AIDS five years earlier: her father was a bisexual heroine addict. Connie’s best friend, Richie (Chapter 8) has recently declared his homosexuality to her.

Add Islamic conversion, indigenous and migrant assimilation, alcoholism, ageing, class and dysfunctional parenting and the result is a fluid narrative (if nothing, the story is engrossing) that is somehow overdone. It’s a little too diverse and representative, a little too shoehorned.

Interestingly, no character is entirely likeable – although neither are they totally unlikeable, with the obvious exception of Rosie (Chapter 5) and Gary – the parents of Hugo. Tsiolkas has painted a grim harridan in Rosie where even Gary finds some of her behaviour with Hugo hard to stomach (she still breastfeeds the four year-old). Her involving the police in the ‘bashing’ of her son by ‘that animal’ and the subsequent court case is a crusade too far for many.

The Slap is something of a page-turner – although, like all soap operas, it can outstay its welcome at times as it meanders around the lives of the eight characters and their associates.

Favourite to win the 2009 Miles Franklin Award (having already collected the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and the ALSS Gold Medal), The Slap lost out to Tim Winton and Breath.

 

 

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‘All the Money in the World’

All_the_Money_in_the_WorldSolid and somewhat imaginative telling of the kidnapping of 16 year-old Paul Getty in Rome in 1973: the downside of having a grandfather, John Paul Getty, who was the richest man in the world. He was also one of the tightest and refused to pay the $17 million ransom.

Director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Alien) famously reshot scenes featuring the old man, replacing shamed Kevin Spacey with a superb Christopher Plummer (Beginners, A Beautiful Mind). His cold intransigence leaves Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain, Manchester by the Sea) as Paul’s desperate mother just that – constantly on the edge of desperation and frustration.

Scott certainly takes liberties in the telling of the story and its entertaining enough. But bottom line, as a whole its quite a minor achievement.

Rating: 56%

Best of Year (2017) – Film

moonlight-poster-lgA very good year but not quite vintage. There were quite a few films that fell into the 70-80% bracket (including the best Australian film, Lion, and best animated feature, Loving Vincent) but 12 films comfortably headed the list, with the top three significantly clear of the rest of the field.

My top 10 films of the year (God’s Own Country and the best documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, just missed out) are:

10: Detroit
9: The Salesman
8: The King’s Choice
7: Land of Mine
6: Baby Driver
5: Blade Runner 2049
4: Insyriated
3: Manchester by the Sea
2: Dunkirk
1: Moonlight

Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit was a distressing powerhouse, an immersive experience of police brutality and racism during the 1967 riots. The film boasted an excellent ensemble cast although I singled out Will Poulter as the police officer in charge in my top five male performances of the year.

The second film by director Asghar Fahardi to win the Best Film in a Foreign Language Oscar (the first was the magnificent A Separation), The Salesman is a surprisingly quiet narrative as a teacher looks to discover the identity of the person who assaulted his wife in their new home.

Based on historical fact, King Haakon VII of Norway is forced to make a decision that will impact on his country and millions of lives. It’s April 1940 and Nazi Germany has invaded under the pretext of protection from aggressive Allied Forces. The King’s Choice is whether to accept their protection – or declare war.

2017 was a good year for Scandinavian films – the Danish Land of Mine also features in the top 10 as young German POWs are forced to clear the land mines from the beaches immediately following the end of World War II.

An unexpectedly huge box-office hit, Baby Driver with Ansel Elgort as the ubercool getaway driver, is entertaining with a capital ‘e’ with a blast of a soundtrack. But following accusations of inappropriate sexual behaviour, Baby Driver could well be the last time we see Kevin Spacey on the big screen.

The original was one of the coolest sci-fi films of its generation. Thirty years later a sequel was finally released – and its one of the coolest sci-fi films of its generation. Blade Runner 2049 – thanks to its director Denis Villeneuve and the superb cinematography of veteran Roger Deakins – is a cerebral spectacle and makes my top five films of the year.

The shattering Lebanese/Belgian Insyriated is in fourth. My pick of films seen at the Melbourne International Film Festival, headed by Hiam Abbass (the female performance of the year), the claustrophobic drama finds a middle-class Syrian family (and a couple of neighbours) holed up in their Damascus apartment as civil war rages around the streets.

Casey Affleck may well have won all the awards (including my vote for best actor of the year), but the cast and creatives of Manchester by the Sea certainly picked up their own accolades. Emotionally destroyed by tragedy, Affleck returns to his hometown following the death of his older brother where he needs to face his demons to find closure.

Visually stunning, Dunkirk is a film of few words with its emotional sweep and visceral beauty and a jigsaw of narratives, separate but creating a cohesive whole as 300,000 British, French and Belgian soldiers are rescued from the beaches of northern France.

But top of my list – and Oscar winner for best film – is Moonlight. Yet another indie ensemble piece (it was a good year!), small in scale, ambitious in scope, Moonlight is a minor masterpiece, pure melancholic poetry. What a turn up for the books when it beat La La Land to best film!

‘Pitch Perfect 3’

HO00004515The singing has always been the strength of the Pitch Perfect trilogy – and the ‘riff off’ in the third is as strong as the memorable opener in the first.

Out in the big wide world, the Bellas are reunited for one last competition – on an American military base in Spain. Only they’re facing bands who use musical instruments. Throw in a subplot involving Fat Amy’s criminal father determined to get his hands on the inheritance Amy (an increasingly confident and funny Rebel Wilson)  didn’t know she had, and there’s the premise for the final Pitch Perfect.

Not as original or fresh as Pitch Perfect, but significantly better than the dire Pitch Perfect 2, the final instalment pitches [sic] the music content perfectly, resulting in an entertaining elongated music video with a silly story providing the narrative with Anna Kendrick’s voice in fine form.

And nice to see another female director (Trish Sie – Step Up All In) provided with the reins of an important studio film.

Rating: 65%

Best of Year (2017) – Male Performance

mbts_27111-e14852560476521My review of films released in Australia continues with my top five male performances.

As with female performances, there were a limited number of stand-outs – and looking through films seen in the year made me aware that many of the highlights were ensemble pieces (Moonlight, Dunkirk, Danish film Land of Mine etc).

But my top five male performances for 2017 are:

5: Hugh Jackman: Logan
4: Josh O’Connor: God’s Own Country
3: Will Poulter: Detroit
2: James McAvoy: Split
1: Casey Affleck: Manchester by the Sea

Number five is something of a surprise – it was a toss up between Jackman and Joel Edgerton in Loving. But in his final appearance as Wolverine, Jackman introduced a level of humanity and vulnerability to a character who, in previous films, was something of a two-dimensional superhero.

Set in Yorkshire, God’s Own Country was described as an English Brokeback Mountain, and lonely, isolated Josh O’Connor was suitably dour and monosyllabic prior to the arrival of the Romanian casual labour, Gheorghe.

Whilst Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit was very much an ensemble piece, there was no ignoring that Will Poulter as the devastatingly sadistic white supremacist police officer and murderous psychopath was the stand-out.

A multiple personality disorder provides James McAvoy with a dream series of roles in Split – ranging from a nerdish nine year-old Hedwig, the reasoned Barry (a fashion designer) through to the menacing Patricia and disturbing Dennis. It’s a role McAvoy deserves to gain more accolades.

But it’s the quiet, nuanced Oscar-winning performance by Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea that gets my final vote.

Best of Year (2017) – Female Performance

artworks-000241909670-zi4ra4-t500x500It’s list time! A review of films released/screened in Australia in 2017. And first off is female performance.

The year is reportedly a strong one for female roles but that’s based on films released in the States in readiness for Oscar and/or Golden Globe glory. In Australia, it’s been a so-so year with only a handful of obvious performances to make the list. My main quandary was the order of the top two.

So my top five performances by a female in 2017 were:

5: Florence Pugh (Lady MacBeth)
4: Viola Davis (Fences)
3: Ruth Nega (Loving)
2: Sally Hawkins (Maudie)
1: Hiam Abbass (Insyriated)

Relative newcomer Florence Pugh was a revelation in the spare, minimalist Lady MacBeth, the tale of a young woman sold into an oppressive marriage in 19th century England. Initially (although reluctantly) accepting her lot in life, the story becomes progressively sinister, with Pugh firmly at the centre of the scheming.

Viola Davis is a powerhouse of an actress and her Oscar-winning performance in August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1950s set family drama, Fences, is a dream. It’s the performances that carry the day (Denzel Washington plays Davis’ husband) as the film cannot shake-off its stage origins.

Understated and nuanced, Ruth Nega is quietly impressive in Loving, based on the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the dirt poor couple whose mixed-race marriage broke all the rules on the statutes and led to changes in the law via the US Supreme Court.

My top two are potentially interchangeable. Both actresses were the central character in their respective films – and both were charismatic and beguiling in their own way.

Sally Hawkins is one of the most extraordinary actresses working today (and will likely feature in next year’s list with her acclaimed role in The Shape of Water): she was sensational in Maudie. If it wasn’t for The Shape of Water, Hawkins would likely be appearing in any number of ‘best of’ lists for the year, although the indie-feature, a fine character study with superb performances, loses its way as a narrative.

But year’s best performance belongs, to my mimd, to Hiam Abbass in the claustrophobic feature, Insyriated. Sadly unreleased commercially in Australia, the Belgian/Lebanese film was my personal highlight of the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival.

A middle-class Syrian family is barricaded in their second-floor Damascus apartment as the civil war rages around them. A deeply impressive Hiam Abbass controls the household – and a film that is devastatingly direct in highlighting the impact of war.

 

 

‘The Greatest Showman’

greatest_showman_ver7It’s a slick, entertaining, all-singing, all-dancing old-fashioned musical of the life of one of the greatest of all showmen – impresario P.T.Barnum.

The founder of the modern circus, according to The Greatest Showman the innovative Barnum (Hugh Jackman – Les Miserables, Wolverine – in a role he was born to play) overcame poverty, married for love (Michelle Williams – Brokeback Mountain, Manchester by the Sea) and tapped into the fascination of the bizarre by setting up a circus of morbid curiosities and ‘freaks’. Success follows, but in wanting acceptance by polite society, Barnum almost bankrupts himself and his marriage by touring the  Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson – Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, The Snowman) around America.

Sanitised to make it a family spectacle, The Greatest Showman, even with its patchy soundtrack, stirs the heart with its acceptance of difference and diversity, even if, at the end of the day, it’s shamelessly old-fashioned and predictable.

(The sad thing about the film is that its telling is very far from the truth, with Barnum early in his career dubiously involved in loopholes in the slave trade, did not come from a poor background and he made almost $15 million in today’s money from the Lind tour. There’s poetic license and then there’s poetic license).

Rating: 53%

‘Autumn’ by Ali Smith

28446947._UY1200_SS1200_My first experience of the award-laden Ali Smith – and I must admit I’m not totally sure what I have just read.

Is it the story of Elisabeth? Or is it the story of the 101 year-old Daniel Gluck, currently in a coma but where his dreams involve him as a fit, handsome young man? The two are former neighbours who struck up a friendship in spite of the enormous age difference (almost 70 years) between them. It is due to Daniel’s influence that Elisabeth is a junior lecturer in art history.

Is Autumn a story of history? Of memory? A socio-political, post-Brexit commentary? Past, present, future – Smith takes us on an ever-evolving journey as events of the past reflect in some way on the present (and therefore the future). There’s a sense of hopelessness and a lack of any sense of direction as Elisabeth sits by the bedside of Daniel. His non-responsiveness to external stimuli allows her to reflect on moments from her childhood.

But Smith’s latest is not a simple narrative of memory and recall. Her prose is not that straightforward!

In a time-fractured narrative, Elisabeth’s day-to-day experiences are interspersed with Daniel’s own fleeting memories of 1930s Germany and the Profumo sex scandal in 1960s Britain involving government ministers. A side-story is that of little known pioneer British Pop Artist, Pauline Boty, who died tragically young at the age of 25. The result is an expansive meditation on turning points in history – Profumo led to the ruling Conservative government losing the 1964 election, 1930s Germany saw the rise of fascism in Europe whilst Brexit has lead to massive schisms in British society.

Yet, for all its expansiveness and inventiveness, capturing the zeitgeist of current British world of uncertainty and inwardness, Autumn fails to engage. Its lack of coherency undermines its sensibility and Smith’s storytelling acumen. Her prose is, at times, beautifully written and deeply profound, but at other times deliberately obscure and pretentious – the literary equivalent of an art-house film. Argument is that life is hardly coherent, a maze through which we travel.

Autumn was shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize (Smith’s fourth nomination) but lost out to American writer George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo.

‘The Hiding Place’ by Trezza Azzopardi

268016A debut novel, The Hiding Place is a memoir-like narrative as the adult Dolores returns to her childhood home following the death of her mother, Mary. It’s been many years since Dol was last in the much-changed Tiger Bay, Cardiff, the scene of extensive emotional and physical abuse within the family.

Fostered out when a mere five years old, Dol’s memories come flooding back as she wanders through the dilapidated terrace house, hemmed in by the semi-derelict neighbourhood. Five sisters; the handsome, debonair father; a beautiful but overtly nervous Mary – all consigned to history until today.

But many of Dol’s memories are unreliable, viewed from the perspective of the youngest child. As her sisters slowly appear in readiness for the funeral, so truths and altered memories are triggered. The change in perspective brings shattering realisations to Dol.

Disfigured by fire as a baby, abandoned by the serial gambler of a father who loses the family livelihood in a card game, ultimately abandoned by the mother as she dips in and out of sanity, Dolores looks back at a childhood of grim poverty and few opportunities. Instead of love and warmth, family life offered fear and reprisals, uncertainty and pain, hunger and neglect. The grimy 1960s dockside setting of Tiger Bay added to the desolation and sense of isolation.

It’s a disturbing tale of the gradual disintegration of the troubled Gauci family mirrored by the slow demolition of the city’s slums. Evocative in its telling, the girls are forced to navigate their lives and the irresponsibility of their parents. Yet it is only as an adult that Dol realises that the common experiences of her memories are not necessarily shared.

Much lauded on release, The Hiding Place was shortlisted for the 2000 Booker Prize. A recent creative writing graduate, Trezza Azzopardi was sitting alongside the likes of Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro on that list. Atwood’s The Blind Assassin was presented with the award.

 

‘Justice League’

justice_league_comiccon_keyartA ponderous launch of the DC superhero collective as a ponderous Ben Affleck looks to bring together the not-so-happy cohort. With the honourable Superman (Henry Cavill) no longer in the picture and crime on the increase, it’s no easy task for Batman and his latest ally, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot).

The rise of Steppenwolf, dormant for 5,000 years, and the threat to mankind finally brings Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) into the mix.

Justice League has its moments but as an entertainment, it needs a more convincing lightness of touch and humour. Battle scenes are pedestrian, the chirpy Flash humour not quite funny enough, the interface between characters needing work. The Zack Snyder (director) of Sucker Punch is needed!

Rating: 37%