‘The Gift’

The_Gift_2015_Film_Poster1An intelligent and effective thriller, The Gift is a no-nonsense chiller of a story.

It’s hardly a genre buster, but Australian Joel Edgerton, in his feature film debut as director, is in his element – his deft control of pace, character and tone a highlight. Edgerton (The Great Gatsby, Warrior) also stars, alongside against-type Jason Bateman (Juno, Horrible Bosses) and Rebecca Hall (Iron Man 3, The Town). Intriguing.

Rating: 66%

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‘Holding the Man’

holding_the_man_xlgFrom life to the page to the stage to the screen, Holding the Man is something of an iconic modern Australian love story. The fact Tim Conigrave and John Caleo died young from complications due to AIDS makes it a tragic love story. Yet, with all its rich source material, the film version fails to effectively engage.

The first problem is there is no convincing chemistry between the leads – a fine performance by the vulnerably arrogant Ryan Corr (The Water Diviner) as Tim is diluted by a doe-eyed lap dog Craig Stott unconvincing as the private school footie-captain. Add a split timeframe into somewhat episodic narrative (the two were together for 16 years between 1976 and John’s death in 1992 – Tim died three years later just 10 days after completing the book) results in a long film that is not 100% clear where it sits – schoolboy romance, love story, political agitprop, social commentary. Result is it falls between too many stools. Disappointing.

Rating: 53%

‘The Third Man’

imagesStunning cinematography (which won Robert Krasker an Oscar) and a truly memorable soundtrack are the stand outs in this British black and white classic. The film is, however, somewhat dated – the ‘clipped’ dialogue is far from natural leaving character development unresolved.

It’s hard to believe that director (Sir) Carol Reed, with such films as The Third Man, Odd Man Out and The Fallen Idol went on to direct such tosh as the Oscar-winning Oliver! and The Agony and the Ecstasy.

(Screened as part of the Great British Film Fest at Nova Cinemas in Melbourne)

Rating: 80%

‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E’

TheManFromUncle_Teaser_INTL_RGB_2553x4096.inddWhat happened? A light-hearted, frivolous, tongue-in-cheek, sexy (in its day) spy caper television series from the 60s turned into this mess?

Panache by the bucketload (60s fashion looks glorious on Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki) but too too often style outweighs substance. And there’s not an ounce of chemistry between Solo Bonaparte (Henry Cavill – Superman) and Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer – The Lone Ranger, The Social Network). Where was director Guy Ritchie’s high-octane entertainment of Sherlock Holmes and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels? Boring.

Rating: 31%

‘We Need New Names’ by NoViolet Bulawayo

68.Noviolet-Bulawayo-We-Need-New-NamesWe Need New Names is the powerful literary debut from NoViolet Bulawayo, a Zimbabwean now living in the US. Shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, she is (surprisingly) the first black African female writer to achieve this distinction. (Why Aminatta Forna was not shortlisted in 2010 for The Memory of Love is a mystery – but that’s another story).

A novel of two distinct halves, We Need New Names is something of a grower. We’re first introduced to the voice of ten year-old Darling in the shantytown of Paradise. This is her story, seen from her perspective and in her (fresh, evocative, ‘this is how it is’) language. There is a sense of acceptance, knowing no different as Darling and friends Bastard, Godknows, Sbho, Stina and Chipo are forced to entertain themselves with no school and little food, living, as they do, in extreme poverty.

Whether it’s stealing guavas from the wealthy neighbourhood of Budapest, playing games of their own making, dreaming of a better life in America or watching, usually from a distance, adult life, these savvy, street smart kids are funny yet unsettling. Darling herself lives in part with her grandmother (Mother of Bones); her absent father is in South Africa but who sends no money or word. Bastard is the leader of the group, influenced as he is by the strutting paramilitaries who are running amok in the country. Eleven year-old Chipo is pregnant.

But Darling has an escape clause – Aunt Fostalina, living in Detroit (or Destroyed, Michygen). The second half of the novel finds Darling dealing with the very different world of the much-dreamed about better life. The fact she is an illegal (as are Fostalina and her Ghanaian husband, Kojo) means Darling can never return (although it’s many years before she realises her situation).

The American element to the story is much more overtly politicised. It is Darling dealing with immigration and assimilation whilst trying to remain connected to the world she has left behind (Chipo has named her daughter Darling). Through her own observations over time, Darling slowly strips away her American dream. But it’s also a time of reflection and some understanding of the socioeconomic collapse of her childhood Zimbabwe.

We Need New Names is a profoundly poignant and moving book, written as a series of interrelated vignettes – a stream of consciousness and experiences of Darling growing up in Paradise and, later, Detroit. On the one hand it is a coming-of-age story: on the other, it is a deeply political observation of otherness and the outsider, of cultural differences and cultural expectations.

When things fall apart, the children of the land scurry and scatter like birds escaping a burning sky… Look at the children of the land leaving in droves, leaving their own land with bleeding wounds on their bodies and shock on their faces and blood in their hearts and hunger in their stomachs and grief in their footsteps. Leaving their mothers and fathers and children behind, leaving their umbilical chords underneath the soil, leaving the bones of their ancestors in the earth, leaving everything that makes them who and what they are, leaving because it is no longer possible to stay…

Look at them leaving in droves despite knowing they will be welcomed with restraint, knowing they will have to sit on one buttock because they must not sit comfortably lest they be asked to rise and leave, knowing they will speak in dampened whispers because they must not let their voices drown those of the owners of the land, knowing they will have to walk on their toes because they must not leave footprints on the new earth… Look at them leaving in droves, arm in arm with loss and lost….

‘Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief’

poster_going_clearA riveting documentary, Oscar-winning director/producer Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, The Armstrong Lie) most definitely wears his heart on his sleeve with this subject. It’s a damning indictment of the ‘Church’ of Scientology and abuses therein, supported by former high-ranking Scientology officials who have left the movement.

But by going for the jugular, Gibney missed any opportunity to at least hear any official comment from current (high ranking) members and therefore ultimately failing too provide the motivational perspective of joining in the first place. But, based on Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief is a fascinating two hours.

Rating: 69%

‘Trainwreck’

9318d710-b21a-11e4-a2cc-bd1352ee928a_TWK_Tsr1Sheet5_RGB_0210_1_WebA totally appropriate title for this complete train wreck of a so-called comedy.

A try-too-hard gender reversal ‘hard-drinking, sexually promiscuous girl about town meets quiet, steady professional boy’ should have been the perfect vehicle for a Judd Apatow (The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up) helmed comedy. But this star-vehicle for TV comedienne Amy Schuter is just not very funny: throw in lacklustre direction and the result is the film quickly going off the rails.

Rating: 40%

‘Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’

Mission-Impossible-Rogue-Nation-WallpapersI’ve something of a soft spot for the Mission Impossible features  (this is the fifth) – even if that largesse does not extend to include Tom Cruise (far from it).  And the latest is one of the better ones.

Formulaic it may be as the action flits from London to Morocco to Vienna to Kuala Lumpur but there’s more than a hint of sardonic, tongue-in-cheek humour. Lots of high energy ‘situations’ –  from motorcycle chases in Casablanca to fisticuffs on the gantries of the Vienna Opera House. And British agent Rebecca Ferguson (Hercules) is more than a match for old Tom.

Enjoyable if forgettable.

Rating: 60%

‘Last Cab to Darwin’

Last-Cab-To-DarwinBit of a ripper of an Australian film – a straightforward telling of a topical storyline (euthanasia) which touches on local culture, attitudes and behaviour.

Last Cab to Darwin misses its full emotional potential by avoiding dwelling on the darker side of the subject, but the film is full of wry humour and the road journey of four thousand kilometres through the guts of Oz looks sensational. And it’s certainly a successful transfer of the stage play of the same name by Reg Cribb.

Rating: 59%

‘The Sea’ by John Banville

The_Sea_John_BanvilleI like the writings of John Banville – his lyrical, stylistic prose, whilst dense and challenging, is poised and precise. Yet I disliked The Sea immensely.

It is essentially a reflective journal on memory and loss. Semi-retired art historian Max Mordern attempts to come to terms with the recent death of his wife Anna and understand the long ago disappearance of childhood friends Chloe and Myles Grace.

Choosing to stay in the coastal holiday home favoured by the Grace family (now a bed and breakfast run by Miss Vavasour) ostensibly to write and escape the immediacy of grief, Mordern instead ducks and weaves through recollections of his first childhood fantasy, his first love, his parents and the past years dealing with the slow death of Anna. Like all memories, there’s no linear recall and a reflection on a moment with his wife can seamlessly lead to a picnic with the Graces or Mordern’s mother coping with being abandoned by his father. And, like so many of Banville’s ‘heroes’, there’s always the bottle in which to find solace (in Max’s case, brandy).

There’s a whole litany of interesting characters in The Sea – Miss Vavasour and long-term resident of the B&B, the Colonel, in particular. But Mordern is not one of them. To his credit, whilst seeing himself as a victim, he at least avoids self-pity: this is not a maudlin tragedy. If anything, it is a meditation. But Banville has over-invested his middlebrow elegaic fictional prose in The Sea. It actually becomes tiresome and off-point.

Banville himself believes The Sea to be a work of art. This view was certainly shared by the judges of the 2005 Booker Prize – or at least the majority. A non-unanimous decision reliant on the chair’s casting vote presented the award to him over Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. But to my mind this ‘piece of art’ propounds one of elitism and intellectual exclusivity. Banville is challenging – but in The Sea he seems to get carried away. There are times in the book when the clarity of purpose becomes apparent and the narrative moves forwards (or backwards) clearly. But too, too often this is for short periods only and the intellectual snobbery takes over.