‘The Assassin’

the-assassinElegant, surprisingly delicate, precise down a tee with stunning cinematography, The Assassin is not the average acrobatic martial arts feature.

More contemplative that combative, it’s quietness is both its strength and weakness. It’s hard not to get lost in the sumptuous interiors and breathtaking landscapes – yet the minimum dialogue, lack of clarity and sporadic action lulls you into occasional moments of soporific stupor.

It’s certainly a change of direction for Hsiao-Hsien Hou (Flight of the Red Balloon, A Time to Live A Time To Die), regarded as one of the most important directors working in world cinema. And while successful on the international film festival circuit, its cinematographer Ping Bin Lee (Renoir, In the Mood For Love) who has been picking up the plaudits.

Rating: 64%

‘The Crow’s Egg’

30-x-40-eng-cSimple, charming, endearing – two young brothers strut the streets of Chennai to earn the money to taste pizza.

Very much in the ilk of the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire – appealing young cast, catchy soundtrack, succeeding in the face of adversity – the first film of writer/director M Manikandan is a slight film with a lot of heart that touches on numerous global issues.

And as with Danny Boyle’s feature, it’s the kids who carry the day.

Rating: 69%

‘Secret in Their Eyes’

Secret-In-Their-Eyes-Poster-2It’s a quiet, solid English-language remake of the Argentinian Oscar-winning best foreign language film from 2009. But the original was hardly a thrill-a-minute revenge drama (and which inexplicably beat out Michael Haneke’s The White Riband and the French entry A Prophet for Oscar gold).

Julia Roberts (Erin Brokovich, August: Osage County) is pitch perfect in her bitterness and sorrow at the murder of her beloved daughter, Carolyn, amidst immediate post-9/11 paranoia and fears. But the weak link is the unconvincing relationship between Nicole Kidman and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave, The Martian). Are we really to believe they carried a torch for each other over the 13 years of the film. I don’t think so.

It does the job and tells the story – but there’s just no sparkle.

Rating: 54%

‘The Orchard on Fire’ by Shena Mackay

152822In spite of her pedigree as a novelist (14 novels published since her first back in 1964, shortlisted for Man Booker, Orange and Whitbread prizes), I’m not familiar with her name or work. This is further compounded by the fact that this particular book sat on my bookshelf, unread, for some 20 years. Yet The Orchard on Fire, shortlisted for the 1996 Booker Prize, is regarded as one of the best novels of the 1990s.

It’s an engaging read, although to be honest it does not start particularly well. Floral is the word (as opposed to florid) – flower references initially abound, and not just in the description of April’s garden (“…a brief froth of happiness, bursting in bubbles, evanescent as elderflowers…” to describe an, admittedly unwanted, cold beer did not bode well.)

But lonely, ageing schoolteacher April is heading for the village of Stonebridge in Kent and memories of her childhood and Britain in the late 1950s. And it’s here The Orchard on Fire takes off and starts earning those celebratory plaudits.

Having moved from a series of temporary residences as licensees of various London pubs to run the abandoned The Copper Kettle Tea Rooms, Betty and Percy Harlency settle into rural village life with their daughter April. But The Orchard on Fire is April’s story, not that of her reasonable, likeable parents.

She quickly befriends Ruby Richards, the red-headed firebrand of the village. Together but separately they deal in their own ways with the prejudices and vagaries of the adult world, navigating through childhood innocence and the lecherous advances of the elderly Mr Greenidge towards April.

It’s a short-lived friendship. In spite of creating an idyllic secret hideaway of shared dreams (and shared cigarettes) in an abandoned train carriage, the outside world is never far away. Physically abused by her father once too often, Ruby’s covered injuries become public knowledge and the Richards are shamed into a midnight flit. April never sees her friend again. Not long after, April returns to London with her parents, the lack of success at the tearooms having bankrupted the family. The connection with Stonebridge and Ruby is, for April, permanently broken.

Evocative, The Orchard on Fire beautifully captures a child’s view of the world and its depiction of ordinary daily life mixed with fears, terrors and misapprehensions. But there is also a generous underlying of humour that results in an avoidance of a relentlessly sad depiction of 1950s childhood. Ruby in particular is full of vim in spite of her home life and then there are the local ‘bohemian’ women, the fabulously arty Dittany and Bobs…

The 1996 shortlist for the Man Booker Prize was something of an ‘A list’, compromising of Margaret Atwood, Beryl Bainbridge, Seamus Deane, Shena Mackay, Rohinton Mistry and Graham Swift (the eventual winner for Last Orders).

‘Spectre’

CN_YqmzWEAEExOx.jpg-largeBoring Bond batters Blomfeld bearing bulging brown blazer.

Bombast in place of thrills, arrogance in place of charm, Spectre is an incohesive mishmash of tensionless set pieces – explosions and helicopter fight over Mexico City, car chase through deserted streets of Rome, explosions in London, kidnapping in Austria, more explosions in Morocco…

Technically, it’s all very well done, but whereas director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) breathed new life into the franchise with the superb Skyfall, this overblown concoction  already looks tired and offers nothing new. And, forgivable if there was an ounce of humanity in his performance, Daniel Craig just does not fit those suits…

Rating: 42%

‘Remembering Babylon’ by David Malouf

remembering1When a “white black man” suddenly appears in their midst, a nascent isolated north Australian settlement is suddenly confronted with fears of the strange and the unknown – of the indigenous communities beyond the cleared lands and the harsh, inhospitable land itself.

Uprooted, already a world away from the drudgery of their backgrounds, the small community live on the edge. To say they feel vulnerable is an understatement, living as they do “at the end of the line” in a wild, open country of “illimitable night”. It’s a long way from the mines of Scotland and northern England.

Into this fragility and fear walks “a parody of a white man” – a man who, as a young urchin 16 years earlier, had been cast adrift from his ship. Washed ashore, Gemmy Fairley survives and attached himself to a local group of aborigines where he had no contact with Europeans – until now.

His background is reconstructed as best as possible – but little shared language remains. Initially the centre of curiosity, the physically awkward Gemmy quickly becomes something mysterious and threatening, a “mixture of monstrous strangeness and unwelcome likeness”, neither European nor aborigine.

Whilst Gemmy himself struggles with his own identity, most of the menfolk decide for him. If things go inexplicably wrong, Gemmy is immediately suspected. Fear and distrust feed each other. Two elders visit Gemmy “in broad daylight”. This act of perceived impertinence gains sinister momentum when the only witness spreads a (fictional) rumour of the handing over of a large stone.

“And the stone, once launched, had a life of its own. It flew in all directions, developed a capacity to multiply, accelerate, leave wounds; and the wounds were real even if the stone were not. He [McKillop, the witness] would make them recognise it at last, as proof of the non-existence of that other, heavier and far more fatal thing, an imagination.”

Rifts appear in the community as paranoia and insecurities develop – the decent McIvors who first offer shelter to Gemmy are marginalised, friendships between the men are put to the test. Malouf captures the pioneering spirit of the first settlement of Australia – along with the fears and uncertainties. Life here is unquestionably hard – and “the white black man” represents all that is unknown and uncertain and is therefore seen as a threat to the balance of their world.

As the minister’s wife says to her husband:

“’I know you believe there is no harm in the man,’ she tells him, ‘and I’m sure you are right. There is none. But people are afraid. There is harm in that… It’s true there’s no harm in him, but he is a danger just the same.”

The profound and deeply moving Remembering Babylon is a massive achievement in a relatively short novel (182 pages) by one of Australia’s best novelists. It lost out to the rather ordinary Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha for the 1993 Booker Prize and Rodney Hall and The Grisly Wife in the 1994 Miles Franklin Award but collected the inaugural IMPAC International Literary Award – one of the world’s richest – in 1996.

‘Spooks: the Greater Good’ (‘MI-5’)

spooks_the_greater_good_xlgBased on the hugely popular BBC spy series Spooks (MI-5 in the US), the problem with Spooks; the Greater Good for its fans is that it is a little too removed from where the series ended four years ago.

The Thames House office is highly populated and overflowing with technology: few central characters remain – with the exception of head of department Harry Pearce (now Sir Harry) and his colleague and nemesis, Oliver Mace.

The good news is that it’s an enjoyable if hardly challenging spy thriller involving dastardly corruption and treason. Played by Peter Firth (Equus, Pearl Harbor), Harry is as immovable and right as ever; no matter how much you wish for it, the arrogant Mace (perfectly played by Tim McInnerney – Johnny English Reborn, 101 Dalmatians) is never the villain and Game of Thrones Jon Snow,  Kit Harrington gives a solid, respectable performance without coming close to shaking or even stirring a Bond dry martini.

Screened at part of the British Film Festival.

Rating: 57%

‘Mistress America’

Mistress-America-plakatI sometimes wonder if I am the only person on the (film-going) planet who just does not like Greta Gerwig. Her laboured, disingenuous kookiness rings affected and false. Frances Ha did little for me – and now Mistress America can be added to the mix.

Which is a pity as the star of  writer/director Noah Baumbach’s latest indie feature is Lola Kirke (Gone Girl, Reaching For the Moon) as the country girl arriving into the social whirl of her future step-sister’s crazed Manhattan lifestyle.

It’s also apparent I prefer Baumbach in a more serious mode – Margot at the Wedding, The Squid & the Whale – to his ‘humour’ of  While We’re Young, The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou and the Gerwig star-vehicles.

Rating: 39%

‘The Dressmaker’

dressmaker_xlgAdapted from Rosalie Ham’s very funny novel of the same name, The Dressmaker is hugely entertaining and quintessentially Australian – in spite of the lead played by Brit, Kate Winslet (The Reader, Titanic).

The 1950s outback is perfectly created, Tilly Dunnage’s frocks are glorious (as is Winslet’s command of the local accent), Liam Hemsworth (The Hunger Games) provides the beefcake – and Judy Davis (A Passage to India, To Rome With Love) as Mad Molly steals the show.

There’s comedy, pathos, tragedy and romance all rolled into one unabashedly entertaining feature.

Rating : 74%