‘The Lobster’

colin-farrell-in-the-lobsterAbsurd comedy – that, in spite of its strange premise, is original and, at times, startlingly funny!

Acclaimed, award-winning Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (Alps, Dog Tooth) makes his English-language debut with this commentary on relationships, love – even  ingrained social norms of ‘coupledom’ and social control.

Choosing to turn into a lobster rather than the more common dog should he not find love in 45 days sets Colin Farrell (In Bruges, Horrible Bosses) apart from the rest. But then he does not have a shared characteristic that leads to love, such as frequent nose bleeds (Ben Whishaw – Skyfall, Perfume – and Jessica Barden).

Flat, deadpan delivery and limited emotional range adds to the disconcerting oddness of The Lobster.

Rating: 71%

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood

handmaidsI received something of a shock on reading this. A yellow-tinged paperback that’s been on my bookshelf for close on 30 years – and I discovered that in spite of assumptions on my part, I’d never actually read it! So that’s now been redressed.

A dystopian future where religious fundamentalism has destroyed the infrastructure of the US – or at least a part. But Atwood writes not about jihads or intifadas. Instead, the Republic of Gilead and all its repressive might appears to have come about as a result of sectarian Christian wars and the declaration of a State of Emergency following the assassination of the President and most of Congress.

A totalitarian patriarchal theocracy is now in place – and, in Gilead, the bodies of women are controlled for political purposes. Reported nuclear and chemical spillage has resulted in increased sterility: birth and children of the future are paramount. As a handmaid, Offred, our narrator, has one function: to breed.

Offred is provided for – shelter, food. But, like all women in Gilead, she is denied access to reading material, conversation, personal items, love, hope. Bored, she inevitably slips back into memories – of her partner, Luke, and her daughter – of the time before marshall law. But she also observes the present – the suspension of civil rights, the executions of undesirables (pro-abortionists, Quakers), the everyday lives of women (and men) reduced to impersonal roles ‘for the greater good.’

The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985 during the Reagan era of ‘old values’, conservatism and the genesis of the Christian right as a political force. At the same time, relations with the Soviet Union were at a dangerous low, people were panicked by HIV/AIDS, nuclear power and the rise of a militant Islam.

Cold and matter of fact in style and language, Attwood’s novel is compelling yet prophetically terrifying.

Shortlisted for the 1986 Booker Prize, The Handmaid’s Tale lost out to Kingsley Amis and The Old Devils.

‘Bridge of Spies’

IMG_0290You can’t fault the filming or the performances: the problem is that Bridge of Spies errs towards worthy and dull.

At 141 minutes, it lumbers through the trial of Rudolf Abel followed by the prisoner exchange in East Berlin. More observational than commentary, Spielberg avoids Bond-like car chases or emotional pitfalls (as its a true story, likelihood is there weren’t any!). But, billed as a Cold War espionage thriller, the result is a total lack of thrills!

It’s still absorbing. But with Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan, Philadelphia) leading a strong cast, a script written by the Coen Brothers (No Country For Old Men, True Grit), fabulous source material and any number of Spielberg regulars behind the scenes, Bridge of Spies should have been something much more than it actually is.

Rating: 59%

‘The Walk’

the-walk-featuredHead-spinning! The 3D camerawork on the walk across the two WTC buildings is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.

The Walk is a spectacle in every sense – the exaggeration of storyline and characterisation in the Parisian backstory of Philippe Petit, the New York preparations for the illegal stunt and then the superb dramatisation of that walk itself. It’s the more extraordinary for the fact it’s a true story.

Director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, I, II & III, Forrest Gump) has not only created a wondrous retelling that, whilst slow to take off, builds to a soaring climax. It’s also a homage to New York and the World Trade Centre.

Rating: 76%

‘Crimson Peak’

0406CPIt looks stunning. But sadly, unlike director Guillermo del Toro’s previous outings in the genre – the magnificent Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone – that’s as far it goes.

Psychological fear and a child’s imagination were the mainstays of those previous features. Crimson Peak falls into the haunted house syndrome. The decaying house is the star, sitting as it does, isolated atop a huge red clay hillside in the English countryside. With its terrible secrets and dubious owners, impressionable Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, Stoker) marries into the family (Tom Hiddleston – Thor, War Horse).

What could have been a (red) gothic masterpiece is, like the clay the house sits upon, a claggy mess.

Rating: 46%

‘Legend’

Tom-hardyIn creating the extreme contrast between psychotic Ronnie and tough-but-loveable Reggie, Legend loses its hard edge in telling the story of the feared Kray Twins and their control of underground London in the 1960s.

Tom Hardy (Inception, Mad Max: Fury Road) is magnificently magnetic as both Ronnie and Reggie – this is no gimmick but two sides of one character literally wrestling with each other on screen. But the rest of the film is strangely underwritten (a surprise considering its written by Oscar-winner Brian Helgeland – LA Confidential, Mystic River) and underdeveloped, creating something of an episodic mishmash of the evil that men do. 

It’s flawed, overlong, not as hard as nails as it should have been – yet it’s still entertaining and extremely cinematic.

Rating: 60%

‘Miss You Already’

fed30d767b4c005a71947fcbef4b0a5c_500x735Considering the subject matter (breast cancer), it’s not surprising the film puts you through the emotional wringer.

Two best friends since primary school must  now come to terms with the distinct possibility that their friendship may not last the full course. Director Catherine Hardwick (Twilight, Thirteen) allows the film to slip into melodrama and maudlin sentimentality a few too many times but its emotive core and humane exploration of the subject makes this (generally) forgivable.

The friendship between Milly (Toni Colette – The Sixth Sense, Muriel’s Wedding) and Jess (Drew Barrymore – He’s Just Not That Into You, Charlie’s Angels) is fresh and believable and the London locations help carry the film though it’s more unconvincing moments.

Rating: 50%

‘Learning to Drive’

11191080_oriA minor piece of entertainment that’s hard to dislike but which will hardly leave you shouting its plaudits from the rooftops.

The main problem is its total lack of challenge – all the characters are one-dimensionally ‘nice’. Patricia Clarkson (Pieces of Eight, The Green Mile) as the cheated upon wife, her husband;  Ben Kingsley (Gandhi, Shutter Island) as the Sikh driving instructor, his new-to-the-US wife – all are challenged by events around them, none of them rise to the bait.

Director Isobel Coixet (The Secret Life of Words, My Life Without Me) choses to focus on hope and the positive rather than the darker elements of feminism, racism, sexism et al – and is the weaker for it.

Rating: 48%

‘Gabriel’s Lament’ by Paul Bailey

117597Gabriel is a tortured soul. On 1 February 1950, the 13 year-old boy’s mother walked out of the family home. He never fully comes to terms with her disappearance, convinced that her absence is only temporary. It takes Gabriel another 30 years and the death of his father to discover the truth.

Gabriel’s Lament is, initially, a painfully sensitive portrayal of love, loss and a terrible yearning – a yearning for his absent mother’s love and approval. Gabriel’s life essentially collapses as he struggles to come to terms with his mother walking out. A much older Gabriel is narrating the story and, whilst predominantly chronological, comments here and there indicate that he went through hell and back – in spite of becoming incredibly wealthy as a result of selling the film rights to his one and only novel.

Juxtaposed with the loss of one parent is the in-your-face presence of the boorish Oswald Harvey – 35 years the senior of Gabriel’s mother. He and his even more boorish friends, the Van Pelts, create a living hell for Gabriel as he tries to come to terms with his loss and the impact it has on his life.

Even after he has left home and finds himself in a series of London bedsits, Gabriel cannot emotionally settle into any particular routine of importance: a series of dead-end jobs living in seedy rooms with, usually, eccentric housemates is his lot. But no matter who comes into his life, it’s his relationship with his father and absent mother that is the core of Gabriel’s Lament. Oswald Harvey is writ large throughout – even after his death in the mid-70s, his bullying, lecturing presence remains. And so is Amy Harvey – so much so that Gabriel has some kind of breakdown in the US.

It is the sudden inherited wealth that changes the Harveys and their lifestyle – and in particular Harvey Oswald. In spite of being something of an ageing buffoon (and thrice married), Harvey is much loved by the younger Amy. But money changes it all – and the dormant, boorish snob in Harvey comes crashing to the surface. In a matter of months, Amy Oswald leaves her husband and abandons her young son.

The novel follows Gabriel from 1949 until the end of the 70s, through Christmas dinners with his father in the large house overlooking Clapham Common; bedsits and shared bathrooms in Clerkenwell, Hackney, Fulham; a brief sojourn in the US to a large home in Chiswick (from where Gabriel is writing his – this – story).

His loss is essentially bereavement without closure – the emotional scars of his abandonment manifesting in loneliness, isolation and depression. But Gabriel’s Lament as a novel is over-indulgent, with few redeeming characters. From sensitive handling of the young boy to a man in his 40s who still refers to his mother as ‘mummy’ is just too much.

Paul Bailey’s sixth novel was shortlisted for the 1986 Booker Prize alongside such luminaries as Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro and Robertson Davies. But they all lost out to veteran author Kingsley Amis and The Old Devils.