‘Notes on a Scandal’ by Zoe Heller

13258Made into a hugely successful film starring Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal is, on the surface, a potent tale of loneliness, need and jealousy. But beneath that strangely captivating veneer is a deeply disturbing tale of abuse and sexual misconduct.

Veteran history teacher Barbara, with more than 30 years teaching to her name, is captivated by the newly appointed art teacher, Sheba Hart. In her 60s and disliked by colleagues and pupils alike at the north London comprehensive school, Barbara is lonely and in desperate need of friendship and company. With her need to be liked by everyone, the attractive, somewhat flighty fortysomething Sheba appears to be the perfect candidate.

In spite of a few obstacles, mainly in the form of other female teachers, Barbara inveigles her way into Sheba’s affections. An invitation to Sunday dinner with the family – husband and two kids – at their large, rambling Hampstead home puts Barbara in seventh heaven and she seizes the opportunity to become Sheba’s mentor, friend and confidant.

Only Sheba has already embarked on the perilous path of an affair with one her pupils – 15 year-old Stephen Connolly.

But this is no Nabokovian immersion into the somewhat questionable delights of illicit flesh.

Sheba is facing trial, having lost her job and her family: the tabloid press is having a field day. Moving in with Sheba as a trusted and supportive friend, Barbara is in her element. And, in an attempt to balance the malicious and salacious media reports of the tabloid press, she decides to chronicle events from her perspective of events leading up to the fall of Sheba.

“This is not a story about me” she states. But of course, it is. And what follows is the sad tale of a lonely spinster who places massive significance on the smallest kindness or slight, blowing things out of all proportion. Interspersed with stories of the staffroom or meals at the Hart family home – with Barbara always centre-stage – is the development of Sheba’s relationship with the spotty, lank-haired Stephen. But always from Barbara’s matter-of-fact judgemental perspective.

What motivates Barbara beyond that need for friendship is unclear – frustrated maternalism, sexual desire or just out-and-out madness (the film version implied Barbara as something of a predatory lesbian). But it makes for a wonderfully addictive read. As Barbara awards gold stars for the early days when her friendship with Sheba evolved, so the unreliable narrator leads us into her sparsely furnished life, the vitality of the Hampstead home and her absolute delight in finding herself, finally, useful and needed.

Notes on a Scandal was shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Prize – but lost out to D B C Pierre and Vernon God Little.

‘Mommy’

579120Mommy is the latest energetic, thrilling, powerfully performed coup-de-theatre from award-winning French-Canadian writer/director Xavier Dolan (Heartbeats, I Killed My Mother).

Original, funny, heartbreaking, Dolan is never afraid of shying away from what he wants to say – and he has a lot to say in a story of intense (single) mother love and her ADHD son, Steve.

Rating: 68%

‘The Garden of Evening Mists’ by Tan Twan Eng

The Garden of evening mistsI liked The Garden of Evening Mists. But liked – not loved. It’s certainly informative but, at times, blandly written – a seeming lack of emotive empathy creating too much of a distance to the events unfolding.

Set in 1980s Malaysia, The Garden of Evening Mists is a multilayered, multi-themed, culturally complex novel. It may be the story of recently retired Malaysian judge Teoh Yun Ling looking back over her (personal) life and trying to make sense of her experiences but it’s also the story of memory and forgetting, identity, nationalism and a sense of belonging.

In focussing on two particular time frames – the 1950s Malayan Emergency with the struggle for independence from British rule alongside events of the Second World War and the Japanese occupation of Malaya – the book is set against the backdrop of colonialism, insurgency and brutality. But, through its diversity of characters, The Garden of Evening Mists is much more complex than simply the story of occupation or colonialism.

Yun Ling is the only survivor of a brutal Japanese slave camp (her sister Yung Hong was murdered) and she spent several years at the start of her career post WWII prosecuting war criminals. Yet, in spite of her hatred of the Japanese, she travels to see Nakamura Aritomo to ask him to create a memorial garden for her sister. The exiled former gardener to Emperor Hirohito lives in the Cameron Highlands in Central Malaya. He refuses her request – but offers, instead, to take Yun Ling as an apprentice.

The Highlands are a stronghold of the communist insurgents – and the mainly European tea and rubber plantation owners are prime targets. Magnus Pretorius, a former business partner of Yun Ling’s father, runs a highly successful tea plantation and is friendly with Aritomo. It is the gardener who, to the best of his ability, protected Pretorius and his plantation workers during the Japanese occupation.

But now the (predominantly Chinese) communists are hiding in the forested highlands and British forces are ever present in the area – an irony not lost on the South African-born Pretorius, who lost most of his family in the Boer Wars.

As Yun Ling becomes more embroiled in the beauties of Japanese formal gardens and zen philosophy, so slowly the skin she has formed to protect herself from her past is peeled away.

Knowing little of Malayan history pre and post WWII makes The Garden of Evening Mists a fascinating novel – events may be fictional but the essence of the setting is not. But sadly, Twan Eng Tan’s writing is not always up to the themes. Descriptions at times seem laboured, clever for the sake of clever. And whilst short, Yun Ling’s recounting of her story in the slave camp is surprisingly sterile and uninvolving.

It’s Aritomo who is ultimately the most memorable – the gardener, the acclaimed ukiyo-e (wood block printing) artist and rumoured horimono (body art) practitioner. Not everything is what it seems.

The Garden of Evening Mists was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize but lost out to the juggernaut that is Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel.

‘Spy’

spy_movie_poster_1By avoiding building the comedy around the ineptitude of new-in-the-field agent Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids, The Heat), Spy is, at times, extremely funny. Who cares if it’s a long way from originality (Bond films are essentially the recycling of, what, three or four storylines?).

It’s fast and furious as we charge round Paris, Rome and Budapest to stop the sale of a mobile nuclear bomb (as I said, it’s hardly original) with agents and double agents popping up all over the shop.

McCarthy is a joy and ably supported by names such as Jason Statham, Jude Law and Rose Byrne. But it’s also a film where lesser known names (in film, at least) but recognisable faces are given prominence  – Alison Janny (Juno, The Help) and Miranda Hart (The Infidel) in particular.

Spy is pure, daft unadulterated entertainment and is the perfect CIA companion to the recent MI5 Kingsman: The Secret Service.

Rating: 70%

‘Clouds of Sils Maria’

poster_zoomThe latest from writer/director Olivier Assayas (Irma Vep, Apres Mai) is intelligent, thought-provoking and buoyed with fabulous, incredibly realistic performances from Juliette Binoche (The English Patient, Chocolat) and (surprisingly) Kristen Stewart (the Twilight trilogy).

The sparring of thoughts and opinions between the two women is riveting – as is the storyline itself of an ageing actress evaluating her career, forwards and backwards. And then there’s the beautiful location of the Swiss Alps and Sils Maria.

Rating: 69%

‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

mmfr-epic-poster-galleryMad Max: Fury Road is visually stunning, with excitement pumped to the max (excuse the pun) that leaves you breathless. There’s no doubt that director George Miller, in this Australian-American co-production, has achieved an extraordinary updating of his original Mad Max films from the 1980s (also known as The Road Warrior in some countries).

But… I yearned for significant human interaction on screen that softened the frenetic chase across the desert. It is reported that not all was well on set between the two leads – and the lack of chemistry between Charlize Theron (Monster, Prometheus) and Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises, Inception) shows.

Whilst an impressive piece of film making, ultimately felt bombarded and a little disappointed. (And Furious Furiosa would have been a more appropriate title – this is Charlize Theron’s movie).

Rating: 62%

‘Kumiko The Treasure Hunter’

11189963_oriI do not share the love for this film as bestowed by the critics.

Kumiko The Treasure Hunter is one of those ‘stereotypical arthouse’ films that, whilst at times is quite beautiful and engaging, leaves you thinking WTF???

The drabness of Tokyo is juxtaposed with a wintry Minnesota and Kumiko herself dressed in red (a more than passing reference to the fantasies of Little Red Riding Hood) provide, at times, opportunities for beautiful cinematography. But it’s not a film to warm to. And even a lovely central performance by Oscar-nominated Rinko Kikuchi (Babel, 47 Ronin)  would ultimately try the patience of a saint….

Rating: 49%

‘Pitch Perfect 2’

securedownloadEssentially the same film as its prequel!

Same scenarios (new girl has something different to offer, the Bellas have a problem regarding stage presentation, they’re underdogs for the championship), same outcomes (what else?).

But whereas Pitch Perfect was unexpectedly fresh and engaging with a sense of fun, the follow-up is lazy, laboured and play-it-by-numbers plagiarism.

Rating: 36%

‘Infini’

infinionesheetInfini is unusual for Australian genre film – sci-fi. What it lacks in budget (and it shows in places) it almost makes up for in heart and story.

It’s a good effort, but the search and rescue on a distant planet needed more finesse, a little more story and better sound-editing. An intense, well-balanced, slightly manic performance by TV star Daniel MacPherson (Neighbours, City Homicide) was a highlight – he can certainly carry a film.

Released in Australia to VOD in an attempt to prevent loss of (some) income to illegal downloads.

Rating: 53%

‘Ex Machina’

ExMachina_Payoff_hires2aIt’s cool, elegant and current.

A breakthrough experiment in artificial intelligence is to be evaluated by testing the human qualities of Eva (Alicia Vikander – Testament of Youth).

The directorial debut of novelist Alex Garland (screenplays include Never Let Me Go, The Beach and 28 Days Later…), Ex Machina is a claustrophobic chamber piece for four characters, a cat-and-mouse of truth, double-truths and even triple-truths with quiet, nuanced performances. It’s a slow-burner (arguably too slow in the middle) but full of questions and debate. And it looks stunning.

Rating: 66%