‘American Sniper’

american-sniper-poster-clint-eastwoodPowerful stuff. The politics are hard to take (it’s a military film directed by Clint Eastwood afterall) and there’s no evaluation. But’s it’s a taut, well crafted, well acted companion piece to The Hurt Locker.

Bradley Cooper equips himself well as Chris Kyle, the true story of whom American Sniper is based.

Rating: 76%

‘The Stranger’s Child” by Alan Hollinghurst

the-strangers-childOne of the biggest surprises in the UK literary world of 2011 was the exclusion of Alan Hollinghurst’s fifth novel, The Stranger’s Child, from the shortlist of the Man Booker Prize. Ambitious, intricate, Hollinghurst’s ‘country house’ novel is spread over one hundred years and is masterfully told.

Regarded by many as his best, the best novel of the year by far and from a novelist already the recipient of the Booker (The Line of Beauty, 2004), critics were outraged, accusing the judges of dumbing down the list in favour of sales rather than merit. Hollinghurst, Sebastian Barry (On Canaan’s Side) and D J Taylor (Derby Day) were just three of the authors jettisoned from the long list that caused yet another literary spat for which the Booker shortlist is renowned.

Victory for Julian Barnes and The Sense of an Ending, the most ‘literary’ of the shortlisted works, was something of a retort by the judges to the critics.

The Stranger’s Child is Hollinghurst’s epic. Spread over 100 years and divided into five parts, each is centred round a celebration of some description – a dinner party, a birthday, a memorial service.

Stories, places and characters interweave and overlap within the time frame, with poet Cecil Vance central to the whole. An audacious young seducer of men and women, the aristocrat takes his place in English literary history as a poet cut down in his prime during the Great War. Featuring in only the initial section of the book, Cecil and his writings, his actions, his very spirit are present throughout the entire novel.

Part of the establishment, the heir to his father’s baronetcy and the vast Corley Court, the poet’s visit to the more modest home of fellow-Cambridge student George Sawle in 1913 sets in motion a litany of events, the intrigues and ramifications of which are still being discussed and discovered almost a century later.

Seen from the perspective of family, lovers, servants, biographers, publishers, schoolteachers, the century unfolds and unfurls, with the author exploring themes Hollinghurst constantly visits in his novels – the sense of Englishness and its changing social, sexual and political landscape.

Class is at the core of Hollinghurst’s novels, with The Stranger’s Child no different.

The arrogant dilettantism of the aristocratic younger members of the Vance family through to the socially impressionable young bank clerk Paul Bryant in the 1960s; Peter Rowe, the snobbish gay schoolteacher through to Daphne Jacobs, sister of George Sawle, former wife of Dudley Valance (Cecil’s younger brother) and now impoverished widow. All are central characters, all represent and highlight the changes in English culture and attitude over the twentieth century.

As the book opens, Cecil and George’s relationship is unmentionable in polite society. As the book closes almost one hundred years later, biographer Paul Bryant departs a memorial service with his partner, Bobby, a same-sex relationship officially recognised by a civil union.

It is a huge shift. The twentieth century saw huge changes. Yet Hollinghurst, in his magnum opus (to date), stunningly conveys these changes in a narrative of imaginative yet economic depth.

The Stranger’s Child is no historical prose cluttered with a bevy of upstairs, downstairs characters. Two Acres, the intimate upper middle-class home of the Sawles family, beautifully captures the mood of pre-Great War England far more than the several thousand acres of Corley Court. The fate of three times married Daphne and her rise and fall from Two Acres to a “decrepit-looking bungalow” via Corley Court conveys social change far more readily than many history tomes.

It is the author’s most accessible book to date, avoiding as he has the occasional foray into florid verbosity that has, to my mind, marred his previous novels (The Swimming Pool Library in particular). He is a master storyteller and, with The Stranger’s Child, has delivered his masterpiece.

‘Life Itself’

Life-Itself-Poster-goldposter-com-1I must admit, I am not sure what all the critical fuss is about – this is a standard documentary albeit of a fascinating man (film critic Roger Ebert) confronting a debilitating disease.

It can be somewhat confronting in itself and uncomfortable viewing, but the doco leaves too many questions unanswered. And that’s not wholly to do with the fact Ebert died before the film was completed. Life Itself lacked a real focus – it left me somewhere between thinking it was a film about the career of the film critic and a film critic confronting the disease. Neither was addressed to the full.

Yet Life Itself  is picking up numerous film critics awards (although it failed to get a coveted Oscar nod). A case of a vote for one of their own?

Rating: 48%

‘Into the Woods’

sq_into_the_woodsWith a fabulous cast (Meryl Streep in particular), the first two-thirds whizz by in an entertaining frenzy of composite fairy tales. But once the initial quest is achieved (the end of the first act in the original stage production) and a secondary narrative evolves, the effervescence becomes somewhat flat.

But have to love the music – Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd: the Barber of Fleet Street, Follies, A Little Night Music) is a genius!

Rating: 66%

‘The Imitation Game’

TheImitationGame-BC-2Powerful, charismatic performance by Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness, August Osage County) leads the way in the compelling story that is extraordinary and devastatingly tragic. Old-fashioned film making at its best.

It’s no wonder The Imitation Game is one of the Oscar favourites.

Rating: 84%

‘Questions of Travel’ by Michelle de Kretser

9781743317334“It’s not a page-turner” was the comment I received from a friend on noticing I was reading Michelle de Kretser’s 2013 Miles Franklin Award winning novel Questions of Travel. That was approximately 15 months ago. A few days later, only a few pages in and admitting defeat, it went back on the shelf.

With more time on my hands over Christmas and a planned few days away, a second attempt was in order. I made it to the end: some 515 pages. It took nearly three weeks. Questions of Travel is certainly not a page-turner. And nor is it a book that needs time and concentration. It’s simply tedious and lugubrious.

“All through the drab season, she was granted intervals of grace.” The writer may have been talking of Laura and her time at Ramsey’s, the fictional Sydney-based travel-book publishing company, but it’s a summation of Questions of Travel. Only the intervals of grace are short, the drab season extended.

The novel has certainly polarised opinion – some have called it ‘masterful’, ‘brave’, ‘thought-provoking’. Others have been less than kind. I fall into the second camp.

Through two separate characters, Laura and Ravi, and 40 years of separate narratives, de Kretser explores/questions travel and tourism, work and leisure, friendship, family, the ties that bind.

Sydney-born, Laura is an outsider, blamed by her father and older twin brothers for the death of her mother (who died 2 years after the birth of her daughter from breast cancer). At the earliest opportunity, Laura, like so many Australians, escapes to London and so begins some 20 years of peripatetic existence. Years of house-sitting and travel writing result in an ever moving lifestyle with few roots – it’s only after glimpsing the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games on TV that Laura realises she is home-sick. She returns home.

Her’s is a story of loneliness, isolation and the search for a sense of belonging. It’s a fractured, frustrating story that, certainly prior to her return to Australia, is aimless, judgemental, cynical: a stream of consciousness from a person who, in herself, is not very interesting.

Running concurrently to Laura’s dull judgemental life is that of Ravi, a Sri Lankan living through the island’s civil war. Initially, his is the more interesting story as he navigates his way through schooling, family life, poverty. Yet, in spite of the tragedy that forces him to flee his home, even Ravi’s story ultimately lacks any real depth.

It is in Sydney in 2004 that Laura and Ravi’s paths cross. But (in a nice touch), there’s no fireworks or life-changing relationship. Laura is a copy-writer at Ramsey’s – Ravi, seeking political asylum, an intern. They share an occasional cigarette together in the staff carpark.

Michelle de Kretser undoubtedly writes beautifully – her lyrical prose and occasional turns of phrase the highlight of Questions of Travel. But all too often it slipped into self-indulgent rambling by characters we cared little about. At its core, de Kretser is exploring the emotions around the subject of travel, migration and human movement. Ravi’s perspective of Sydney, the occasional comment from Laura about Naples, Prague, London are seen through the eyes of outsiders, visitors. But all too often the narrative is hollow, distant, ringing of judgement rather than being insightful. The result is Questions of Travel is a major disappointment.

‘Mr Turner’

MV5BMjUzNTg0MzM3NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDg3NTY5MjE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_Truly outstanding. Mike Leigh and period drama are not normally synonymous (Topsy-Turvey is his only other foray) – yet this gritty bio of artist JMW Turner with all its period grubbiness (no sanitising of the British late 18th/early 19th century upper middle classes here) bears all the social commentaries you’d expect from one of the great writer/directors.

And the magnificent Timothy Spall, a Mike Leigh stalwart (Secrets & Lies, All Or Nothing, Topsy-Turvey, Life is Sweet), is sensational. One of the best films of 2014.

Rating: 90%

Best of Year – Top Films of 2014

WHIPLASH+onesheetAnd finally – my favourite films of 2014. I’ve made it a little easier on myself as it’s a list of 10 (rather than the five for best male and female performances) ….

10. Inside Llewellyn Davies
9. Ida
8. 12 Years a Slave 
7. Wadjda
6. Locke
5. Gone Girl
4. Mr Turner
3. Pride
2. Boyhood
1. Whiplash

I’ll also add the most overrated film – The Grand Budapest Hotel – alongside the most disappointing – All Is Lost.