‘Fury’

fury_ver6_xxlgGritty, brutal, superbly realised observation on warfare (mud, blood, death) of the first half gives way to something of a Boys Own testosterone-fuelled crusade in the second half but which is nevertheless superior film making of its genre. Doesn’t quite make it to the classic WWII feature it is trying to achieve but is still a darned good attempt.

And the cast is excellent. Brad Pitt as ‘Wardaddy’ is just that, a tough but paternalistic sergeant in charge of keeping his men in line at war’s end and the tank itself, ‘Fury’. Shia LeBeouf (Transformers, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) has possibly never been better as weapons man ‘Bible’ while the new, wet-behind-the-ears assistant driver Norman (a convincing Logan Lerman – Perks of Being a Wallflower, Noah) adds a much-needed reflective humanity to the proceedings.

Rating: 70%

‘Time’s Long Ruin’ by Stephen Orr

Time's Long Ruin cover 3a (5)The tragic disappearance of the three Beaumont children from Glenelg beach in Adelaide in 1966 is one of the most poignant in recent Australian history.

Living only a few minutes from the shoreline, the three children, aged nine, seven and four, jumped on the bus for the short trip down the road. Bus fares in their pockets, they promised they would be home in time for lunch.

The eldest, Jane, was considered responsible enough to care for her younger siblings and her parents were not overly concerned. Whilst seen by a number of people on that busy Australia Day public holiday, they failed to return to their Somerton Park home. They were never seen again.

In spite of one of the largest police investigations in Australian criminal history involving a local and national search with thousands of police hours and hundreds of volunteers following up every conceivable lead and false witness, the children disappeared without a trace.

The case is seen as significant in a change in Australian society. It was the end of the innocence whereby parents routinely allowed their children such freedoms. Children were no longer presumed to be safe alone and without adult supervision.

Time’s Long Ruin

Adelaide-based novelist Stephen Orr uses the framework of the tragic event to explore a fictional “what happens when children disappear?” But it is also an exploration of both the disappearance of a way of life, of an innocence of 1960s suburban Australia and the underlying undercurrent of violence, domestic abuse, racism and deceit.

The novel, longlisted for the 2011 Miles Franklin Award, opens with our narrator, a nostalgic Henry, looking back to 1960 and the time of the disappearance. He still lives in the Croydon suburb of his childhood, but is not what it was. The ghosts of the past surround him, the unsolved loss of his best friend and her siblings continuing to weigh heavy upon him some fifty years later.

Nine year-old Henry Page sits to one side, watching his friends at play. Club-footed, he has become a loner, spending his time reading or collecting shells on the beach whilst next door neighbours Janice, Anna and Gavin Riley surf the shallow waves.

Janice is Henry’s only genuine friend. Intelligent, something of a tomboy, she takes charge of her younger siblings and arranges backyard games where Henry will not feel left out. Like their parents, living as close at they do with no fence to separate their yards, they are completely familiar with each other’s lives.

The Rileys and the Pages holiday together at a local caravan park, the kids all attend the local primary school. Bob Page is a local detective with a “not quite right” wife whilst Bill Riley, a travelling sales rep, stores “samples” of his linen ware in the back shed and is prone to abuse his wife Liz when too much beer has passed his lips.

The first half of the book is reminiscent of Tim Winton’s Perth-set seminal Australian novel Cloudstreet, with Orr creating a perfectly ordinary world of backyard barbecues, games of cricket, bad television and the intense heat of an Adelaide summer.

Little happens as neighbours become involved in arguments over petty theft from the local milk bar, trees overhanging property fences. When not with Janice, Henry patrols the local streets dressed as his father’s assistant, helps the local doctor sort out his second-hand book collection or spends time with Con, the elderly Greek neighbour, who mans the manual train crossing.

But Orr is not trying to present an idyll – ‘time’s long ruin’ is also about the slow passing of time, the boredom and mundane. A sense of foreboding is in the air – we know what happens next – but there is also that undercurrent of threat. Con and his wife Rosa are singled out by racist behaviour: domestic violence is ignored.

Then, on Australia Day 1960, the three Riley children disappear from the beach, never to be seen or heard of again.

As a result, the second half of the book picks up its pace significantly, although as the fate of the children is never discovered, there’s no climactic scene.

Instead, Orr superbly explores the desperate waiting, the unknowing, the blame, the suspicions. From an anxious Liz waiting for the train they promised to be on through to the calm yet devastating realisation that the children were unlikely to be seen again, hope remains tantamount.

Orr weaves into this the (real) stories of the leads and hoaxes received by the police over the course of a number of years – the sightings, the possibles, even hoax letters sent under the penmanship of Janice – and the need by Bill and Liz to cling to the off-chance that everything would turn out well.

‘Before I Go To Sleep’

BeforeIGotoSleepI half-dozed through its first half as it meandered through its somewhat contrived storyline. Startled awake at the midpoint for a few minutes with an unexpected twist and then slumbered (me and the film) for the final reel. Kidman really should stay off the Botox if she wants to be convincing in her emotions!

It’s a bland, unconvincing adaptation by director Rowan Joffe of the best selling novel by S J Watson. Joffe is responsible for scripting 2 other bombs – The American and Brighton Rock – which is a pity as he also bought British films 28 Weeks Later, Gas Attack and Last Resort to the screen.

Rating: 38%

‘Locke’

locke_movie_posterWholly and utterly engrossing. A man, a car and a (hands-free) phone. No flashbacks, no cutaways, no histrionics – the narrative simply unfolds in front of our eyes. Brilliant!

Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises, Bronson) is extraordinary and holds our attention throughout. But Locke is also technically inspiring and totally intriguing. It is, after all, only Tom Hardy on screen driving a car (at night) and talking into a phone…

Rating: 88%

‘All That I Am’ by Anna Funder

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Collecting the 2012 Miles Franklin Award, the debut novel from award-winning non-fiction writer Anna Funder is an absorbing read but which is, at times, deeply frustrating.

Based on true events and (mostly) real characters, All That I Am is the story of German resistance to the rise of Nazism, focusing on a group of well-heeled individuals centred round left-wing expressionist playwright Ernst Toller. Recently released from prison for his part in the 1919 Bavarian revolution, Toller represented, to the group, a more hopeful future away from the disastrous aftermath of World War I, the Weimar Republic and subsequent rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party.

With its split timeframe – modern day Sydney and 1939 New York – we are presented with a reflective narrative and two perspectives of the same series of events.

Toller himself, holed up in a New York hotel prior to the declaration of war in 1939 and prior to his suicide, provides us with the wider political context. But the more intimate detail of life in Germany and pre-war London as refugees comes from centenarian Dr Ruth Fabian. At her home in Bondi, it is she who has recently received the last writings of Toller, which have come to light as the result of the demolition of the Mayflower Hotel in New York.

Alternating chapter by chapter between Toller and Fabian, we hear of events as the playwright dictates to his young American secretary that elicit a different, more personal response from Ruth a few pages later.

More than 70 years on, Ruth is forced to remember, to remember a time when she lost her family, her friends, her husband but also lost hope and all understanding: the rise of fascism in Germany and all its potential threats were ignored both at home and, inexplicably, by the rest of the world.

But this is not agit-prop political dogma, nor is it a historical tome. Ruth Fabian and Ernst Toller may be the narrators as Anna Funder explores memory, perception and the reconstruction of the past, but central to the novel is Dora Fabian.

Beloved older cousin of Ruth, political activist and part-time lover of Toller, Dora’s idealism and determination to change, challenge and harangue is the driving force of All That I Am. (It is no co-incidence that the novel bears the title from a quote of Abraham Lincoln, a president associated with human rights and freedom from slavery).

Whether it be smuggling Toller’s manuscripts out of his Berlin flat under the noses of the Gestapo or providing information to British parliamentarians and journalists about Hitler’s re-armament of the German army; organising political rallies or furthering the rights of German refugees in London, Dora was generally at the centre of events.

But for every political discourse, there are many complementary non-political observations from Ruth. Descriptions of wild, extravagant Berlin nightclubs in the 1920s, dour attic rooms in London, painterly pictures describing active trade unionists, pompous academics, suspicious neighbours, dangerous politicians, depressed refugees.

Life has changed for the band of friends as they are forced to flee from a life of luxury and privilege into exile, forbidden to involve themselves in politics (something they ignore) and fearful of covert Nazi reprisals.

The friends and various associates, both German and English, struggle to increase the awareness of the terrible threat of Hitler and Nazism. And, based as the novel is on true events and real events, we know they ultimately failed – or were simply ignored.

And it is because so much of All That I Am is based on true events that there is little in terms of suspense and which, strangely, lacks an emotional intensity that would be expected of such a story.

It is in part due to the split narration and the two characters telling the story. Ruth Fabian remembers Dora. It is Dora who needs to be remembered. Toller, on the other hand, writing much closer to the action in time (1939), also reminisces about the importance of Dora. But ultimately, in spite of the fact he kills himself in the hotel, the pompous playwright cannot let go of his central role in the unfolding of wider events.

Anna Funder lovingly crafts her novel and beautifully develops the narrative. Yet suspense is jettisoned at the expense of authenticity and, in its clinical, clear writing of the story very well told, something is lost.

That something is an extra level of emotion. Described by The Evening Standard in London as “… an absorbing study of exile, courage and memory”, it is just that – a study. And whilst it’s thoroughly enjoyable, just occasionally I was looking for a little more.

‘Life of Crime’

Life_of_Crime_Poster

About as much zip as a velcro jacket. Considering it credentials – Elmore Leonard novel, a cast including Tim Robbins, Jennifer Aniston, John Hawkes & Mos Def – this should have been more zing, less drag. It seemed to go on for ever.

The choice seems to have been to focus on the drama rather than the comedy in the material – mistake. The plot is predictable, so any attempt at eking out the serious element was on something of a hiding for nothing. A caper is what it cried out to be and 20 minutes shorter.

Rating: 41%

‘The Skeleton Twins’

The-Skeleton-Twins-1Engaging, poignant dramedy that is occasionally very very funny. Well acted central performances by Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids, Saturday Night Live) and Bill Hader (Saturday Night Live) but The Skeleton Twins leaves you wanting the whole to be a little gutsier, a little darker rather than just melancholic. The central themes are suicide and depression, afterall.

Picked up the script award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Rating: 61%

‘Jasper Jones’ by Craig Silvey

9781742372624_332x500Described as the Australian To Kill a Mockingbird, Jasper Jones is astute, witty, wise and a beautifully written coming-of-age story.

Opening at the tail end of 1965, bookish 13 year-old Charlie is disturbed late one night by Jasper Jones.

Just one year older, there are light years between the two boys. Solitary, rebellious, mixed-race, Jasper is an outcast in the (fictional) Western Australian mining town of Corrigan. His reputation precedes him.

With a mix of awe and fear, desperate to impress, Charlie responds to the older boy’s call for help. It is the end of his innocence as Jasper leads him to a hidden glade a little way out of town and reveals a terrible secret.

“I’m excited but afraid. I long to turn and wedge myself through the horse’s arse from which I’ve just fallen, to sit safe in the hot womb of my room. But this is Jasper Jones, and he has come to me.”

A secret not to be shared

Charlie must now carry the heavy burden as the town simmers in the almost unbearable summer heat. Tensions are running high with the disappearance of Laura Wisehart, the mayor’s daughter, in an already volatile atmosphere with the loss of jobs at the local mine and the unpopular war in Vietnam that has resulted in the deaths of conscripted Australian soldiers.

He’s not a brave boy, Charlie, preferring the safety of his books. But even home life is far from serene with his tempestuous and temperamental mother. Dissatisfied with a small town existence and lack of ambition of her teacher husband, frustrations are reaching boiling point. The young teenager therefore prefers to lock himself away than deal with the simmering tension between the adults and a constantly angry mother.

Only Charlie’s diminutive best mate, Jeffrey Lu, seems to be oblivious to all around him. Thick-skinned to the racist taunts, Jeffrey is out to prove that he’s the best cricketer in town. He is – by a very long way. But a Vietnamese teenager receives no favours or chances in this town.

And then there’s Eliza, Laura’s sister and the object of Charlie’s affections. But his secret involves Laura… Yet it appears that Eliza has something to tell him.

Multiple award-winner

Winner of the 2009 Indie Book of the Year, the 2009 Western Australia Premier’s Award and the 2010 Australian Book Industry Book of the Year Award and shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and IMPAC DUBLIN award, Jasper Jones is just one of those books almost impossible to put down. An Australian Southern Gothic novel (Charlie is reading Mark Twain), the heat is real, the cicadas loud as the tension builds.

Jasper, Charlie, Jeffrey – they’re all outcasts. And whilst the secret cannot be revealed, Jeffrey remains an integral part of the hidden truth. None of the boys are accepted by the white supremacist townsfolk, yet little is as it appears. Not the mayor, not the chief of police. Jasper’s bruises support that.

Author Craig Silvey is a master storyteller, a wonderful creator of characters and a cracking good writer of dialogue. Engrossing and enthralling, it’s a book that will make you laugh – the friendship between Charlie and Jeffrey is at once moving as it is, at times, hilarious – as well as make you angry. This is small town Australia in the 1960s with its share of town bullies and racism.

But Jasper Jones is also one of those incredibly rare, beautifully written books that, having finished reading it, you suddenly realise there’s no more to come.