‘Murder on the Orient Express’

v1.bTsxMjQxNTA3MjtqOzE3NTU4OzEyMDA7MTAwMDsxNDgwIndulgent telling of the Agatha Christie 1934 whodunnit, director Kenneth Branagh (Thor, Cinderella) is limited in any radicalised new version – the very point is that it all takes place within the confines of the train.

Like his 1974 predecessor, Sidney Lumet who filled the train with stars (Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave), Branagh has opted for a stellar cast in the hope of skating over some of the shortfalls in the plot.

Branagh himself plays the famed Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot but even with support from the likes of Johnny Depp, Michele Pfeiffer and Judi Dench, the film never gets up enough emotional steam to thrill: it’s just a little too busy looking at its own sumptuous reflection to make sure it looks good.

Rating: 49%

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‘Lovesong’ by Alex Miller

17930610One of Australia’s most consistent writers, Alex Miller has, in Lovesong, produced one of his finest books.

A haunting melancholia pervades, a poignancy almost too painful to witness as John Patterner tells the tale of a married couple living a life of love, dreams, compromise, deceit and almost unbearable sadness. It is his life, shared with the beautiful Sabiha and their young daughter, Houria.

The two meet in a café in Vaugirard, an off-the-tourist-track working-class neighbourhood in Paris. Sabiha, newly arrived from Tunisia, is living with her recently widowed aunt, Houria, owner of the Chez Dom. John enters the café having taken the wrong train to Chartres and a sudden rainstorm sends him searching for shelter. Spending a few months travelling away from his native Australia, John’s original plan was to spend only a few days in the French capital. Meeting Sabiha changes all that.

It’s almost twenty years before John returns to Australia and its here the book’s narrator, Ken, a successful novelist, first meets him and, over time, hears this plangent story.

Gentle, lyrical and poetic in its telling, a tragic love story unfolds among the fragrant spices and sweet pastries of Chez Dom with its predominantly male migrant North African customers searching for a home away from home. An unlikely yet contented marriage, running the café after the death of Houria, is overshadowed by the lack of the daughter Sabiha is convinced has always been promised her. Their lives are in limbo: the two have agreed they will return to Australia only after their daughter has met her Tunisian grandfather. Receiving news that her father is dying, the idea that Sabiha might die childless pushes her into taking action with tragic and unforeseen consequences.

A deceptively simply written narrative in the form of a therapeutic confession, Lovesong contains many hidden (and not so hidden) depths about love, relationships, loneliness, ageing. But it’s also a gift – Ken himself has ambitions for the tale with its believable characters who are vulnerable yet resilient, fragile yet tough when needed.

Shortlisted for the 2010 Miles Franklin Award (Miller’s sixth), Lovesong lost out to Peter Temple and Truth.

 

Miles Franklin Award: Shortlist 2015

1503647227678My first completed Miles Franklin Award shortlist for a given year! The Award, presented each year to a novel which “presents Australian life in any of its phases”, was first established back in 1957 (making it older than the Booker) with Patrick White and Voss the first recipient.

The 2015 Award was presented to Sofie Laguna and The Eye of the Sheep, the fourth woman in a row to win. The irony was not lost on the Australian literary world – following controversy over all-male shortlists in 2009 and 2011, the alternative Stella Prize was established for novels written by women and first presented in 2013 to Carrie Tiffany and Mateship With Birds (a further irony is that the 2013 Miles Franklin Award shortlist was an all-women affair).

The 2015 shortlist:
Sonya Hartnett, Golden Boys
Sofie LagunaThe Eye of the Sheep
Joan LondonThe Golden Age
Christine PiperAfter Darkness
Craig SherborneTree Palace

With the exception of Christine Piper’s debut novel After Darkness, the shortlisted books all feature children as significant characters and dealing with abuse, domestic violence, dysfunctionality and/or tensions within the family.

It was not a ‘classic’ year – the shortlist is a solid list of well-written books, predominantly domestic in theme and outlook, but which lack a greater perspective. Only Piper’s narrative of the internment of Japanese residents on Australian soil during World War II looks beyond the immediacy of environment, whether rural (Tree Palace) or suburban.

Strong in context – little is written about the internment of ‘aliens’ in Australia in WWII – but not very convincing in content, After Darkness is, to my mind, the weakest of the works on the shortlist. A renowned short story writer, Piper’s novel would have made an excellent long short story. Tree Palace also struggles – strong on authentic dialogue but its lack of social authenticity weakens the overall narrative.

The three novels directly involving children are the strongest works on the shortlist. Like Tree Palace, Joan London’s The Golden Age, whilst eminently readable, needed more social edginess in its telling of 1950s provincial Perth wracked by the devastating polio epidemic and its impact on a Hungarian refugee family, survivors of the war.

That leaves Golden Boys and The Eye of the Sheep, pretty neck-and-neck in my personal opinion. But by a very short head, I favoured Sonya Hartnett’s novel. Sofie Laguna’s story of six year-old Jimmy Flick was superb until the last chapter – a too-neat tying of knots and a father’s redemption having emotionally abused Jimmy throughout. Abuse is also prevalent in the disquieting Golden Boys, set in the 1970s and a time of confused innocence that turns out to be a rude, confronting coming-of-age with its own codes of conduct and justice.

So personally my vote would have gone to Golden Boys – but by so short a head that I have no issue with The Eye of the Sheep being favoured over Sonya Hartnett’s novel (and having recently met Sofie, I completely understand why she would not want her novel to spiral down into the dark underbelly of child abuse and leave the very loveable Jimmy in such a negative space).

 

‘The Disaster Artist’

TheDisastorArtistTeaserPosterOccasionally laugh out loud, The Disaster Artist is the funny telling of the making of The Room, regarded as one of the worst films ever made.

When aspiring young actor Greg Sestero (a toothy, smiling Dave Franco – Now You See Me, 21 Jump St) meets the deeply strange Tommy Wiseau (a modulated and controlled wackiness from James Franco – Milk, Why Him?) at an acting workshop, their worlds change.

It’s all based on truth as the deluded Wiseau, tired of Hollywood rejections, sets out to make his own film. Money is no object as he writes, directs, stars and produces the mess that is The Room – a film so bad it becomes a huge cult hit.

A loving homage with lots of cameo performances (Jacki Weaver, Zac Efron, Josh Hutcherson, J.J. Abrams, Kristen Bell and more), expect The Disaster Artist to appear in this year’s awards shortlists – particularly James Franco as lead actor (he also directed).

Rating: 74%

‘Tree Palace’ by Craig Sherborne

imagesThe sense of an ending, of closure pervades Craig Sherborne’s elegiac second novel.

Moira and Shane are ‘trants’ (itinerants) roaming the north-western Victorian plains, settling wherever they can for a few days or, if they’re lucky, a few weeks. With Moira’s two teenage kids, Zara and Rory, and Midge, Shane’s brother, the family live on the edges, dossing down in disused properties and stripping heritage buildings when funds are low.

When they come across the run-down property outside the small (fictional) town of Barleyville, it appears to be perfect for their needs: things are looking up. For Moira, this could finally be a place to settle down. It’s also easy access to Alfie, the respectable outlet for Shane’s ‘antique business’. Problem is Zara, at 15, is a new mother and doesn’t want a bar of the newborn or trant lifestyle.

Displaced, never fully embraced by locals in towns with a sense of something closing, with shops boarded up and mail blackening the doorways like rot, they need each other to find their way. It’s Moira who holds them all together, we’re not bad people … We’ve got the shine off us, that’s all.

 It’s a vernacular novel – true rural Aussie yet simultaneously exposing a part that’s rarely seen or heard. It’s also a fairly entertaining one: Sherborne chooses to keep the tone relatively light with authentic dialogue and packed with hope. But there’s the rub – such marginalised lifestyles would not be quite so trouble free.

The establishment and authorities are present but other than the arrest of Shane, they are far too benevolent. Itinerants are rarely welcomed, seen as people living off welfare, getting something for nothing, contributing little. Closed rural communities would unlikely turn a blind eye to the squatting of their discovered personal Tree Palace – particularly after the birth of Mathew.

With the exception of Moira, it’s a novel populated with characters not particularly likeable (and Moira is no angel). The authenticity of dialogue and Sherborne’s commentary on the entrapment of rural poverty are beautifully modulated. Yet it needs more social authenticity. Bottom line is that I wanted to like Tree Palace more than I did.

Craig Sherborne’s Tree Palace was shortlisted for the 2015 Miles Franklin Award but lost out to Sofie Laguna and The Eye of the Sheep.

‘The Teacher’

theteacher.poster.ws_Corruption in a 1980s Bratislava high school as the new teacher ensures she gets what she wants from both kids and their parents – in return for high grades. And her connections within the Communist Party ensure that no one dare stand up to Miss Drazdechova (a splendidly malevolent and manipulative Zuzana Maurery – Colette, Thanks Fine).

Director Jan Hrebejk (Oscar nominated Divided We Fall, Kawasaki Rose) keeps the tone  sardonic and caustic rather than overly grim as parents finally appeal to a higher authority.

Rating: 73%

‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’

4AsH9jqVsmbsc3RKWj3FwK6gG8dIf you thought director Yorgos Lanthimos’ last film The Lobster was odd and more than a little confronting, wait for this, his latest truly absurdist feature.

Surgeon Colin Farrell (In Bruges, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) is forced to make an unthinkable sacrifice, the result of a mistake on the operating table. Looking for justice (or revenge), young Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk, ’71) inveigles his way into the doctor’s privileged family, where Nicole Kidman (The Hours, Lion) is more than a little suspicious.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is magnificently and beguilingly uncomfortable, delivery of dialogue flat and emotionless (a Lanthimos trademark), pointed jet-black humour off-kilter, domestic horror and violence taken to an extreme. It’s a harrowing experience (the entire auditorium emptied in silence) yet strangely and unaccountably rewarding.

Rating: 70%

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‘Loving Vincent’

a8513dbe6f8b58fc9e4bf0b3aa3fc134_300x442A world first – a fully painted animation where Vincent Van Gogh’s emotive impasto and bold brushstrokes effectively transfer to the screen.

A year after the artist’s death, Armond Roulin is sent by his father, Postmaster Joseph Roulin, to personally deliver a letter to Theo Van Gogh. Initially reluctant, Armond travels to Auvers-sure-Oise via Paris where he slowly becomes embroiled in the mystery that was Vincent Van Gogh.

The narrative itself may be stilted and slight but technique (more than 100 artists, 853 paintings and 65,000 frames in the 94 minute film) never fails to impress. Painted in the style of Van Gogh, actors (including Douglas Booth, Saoirse Ronan and Helen McCrory) are placed in the artist’s rendered landscapes, creating a living tableaux to tell the story of those tragic last days.

A UK/Polish co-production commissioned by Wroclaw: European City of Culture 2016.

Rating: 72%

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‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ by Peter Carey

9780143571209A meandering epic of a narrative, True History of the Kelly Gang is as much a commentary on corruption and prejudice in rural Victoria in the late 1800s as it is a history of the legendary bushranger Ned Kelly. But then Kelly’s story is a product of that corruption and prejudice. Whilst hardly an innocent (few were in those hardened times), Kelly, along with his dirt-poor Irish Catholic family, was as much a victim as perpetrator.

Ned Kelly himself is the narrator, a series of letters and notes to his daughter, written in his unschooled, semiliterate vernacular, providing this sweeping outback adventure a resounding voice of authenticity. As created by Peter Carey, it is this voice that carries the narrative – empathic, sympathetic, angry, fair, apologetic, at times resigned, at other times determined as Kelly speaks of events around him so that his daughter (born in California) may understand something of a father she likely will never meet.

A rebel, a bushranger, a thief, a murderer, a horse rustler, a common criminal – accusations flowed thick and thin from (usually corrupt) colonial police, politicians and landowners. But over time, he also became something of a local hero in the drought stricken, impoverished northern Victoria – a tough, no-nonsense larrikin who stood his ground and who, in attempting to survive and support his mother and younger siblings, found himself up against the establishment.

In a very bad year even the richest farmers … was pressed hard themselves and so harsher than usual to their poor neighbours. Through his connections in government the squatter Whitty had been permitted to rent the common ground and as a result a poor man could no longer find a place to feed his stock in all the drought stricken plains. If you set your horse grazing beside the govt. road it would be taken by Whitty’s drones and locked away in the pound. I have known of 60 horses impounded in one day all of then belonging to poor farmers…

 Almost by default, Kelly became the most wanted man in the State. A (small) decent piece of land and a few livestock was the want, a little illegal trading (his mother ran a shabeen). But an Irish Catholic family (a notch beneath the cattle) was a sitting duck for the local ‘traps’ and heavy-handed treatment; arrests for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time were common. And it wasn’t just Ned – father (when still alive), mother, brothers, aunts, uncles. A Kelly (or Quinn – his mother’s family) was guilty by association.

It’s a history full of incident and fulsome, rambunctious characters who defy a corrupt authority. Kelly and the gang take to the untamed rolling wilderness, camping out in miserable winter surrounds, avoiding the squads of police sent from Melbourne to trap the wanted men who have, by now, robbed banks and killed.

A (self) portrait of the man behind the myth, True History of the Kelly Gang remains a fiction but uses real people and based on historical fact. Yet it is a vivid recreation of the life of Australia’s most notorious outlaw/nationalist. Carey’s novel was awarded the 2001 Booker Prize yet, controversially, lost out to Dark Palace by Frank Moorhouse for the 2001 Miles Franklin Award.

 

 

‘Borg vs McEnroe’

 

largeposterThe rivalry between the ice-cool Bjorn Borg and volatile John McEnroe dominated tennis headlines in the late 70s/early 80s. Not interested in anything but being the best, Borg retired from tennis at the age of just 26 when the American replaced him as world number one in 1981.

But not before, in 1980, Borg won his fifth consecutive Wimbledon title, beating McEnroe in five sets in what is regarded as the greatest final ever seen at the All-England club. Borg McEnroe is centred round the 1980 tournament as pressure mounts on Borg to make history.

Sverrir Gudnason (Blowfly Park, Original) is appropriately cool and emotionless as Borg – and his likeness to the Swede is uncanny. Wedding plans (to Romanian tennis player Mariana Simionescu) and Wimbledon preparations do not go hand-in-hand, adding to the pressure. An emerging McEnroe (a wonderful supporting role from Shia LeBeouf – Transformers, Lawless) has his own points to prove – to both his family and the tennis world in general.

Mixing flashbacks to both men’s childhoods (interestingly Borg was a wilful and volatile teenage tennis player) with current relationship issues both on and off the court, director  Janus Metz (Armadillo, Fra Thailand til Thy)  brings his documentary aesthetic to ultimately let the tennis and the final itself speak for the film. Overheads, close-ups, cropping add to the excitement, making up for a somewhat oversimplified and stodgy off-court narrative.

(It makes for an interesting accompaniment with the 60s-set Battles of the Sexes)

Rating: 58%

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