‘Eyrie’ by Tim Winton

9781926428536To say Tom Keely’s life has imploded is something of an understatement. A former journalist and high profile spokesman/activist for an environmental group in Western Australia, an unspecified (but very public) meltdown has left Tom a shadow of his former self.

Divorced, self-medicating, living in isolation on the tenth floor of the down-at-heel Mirador apartment block overlooking the port of Fremantle, Tom is going nowhere fast. And even if he were, he’d never remember. Solace is to be found at the bottom of a few too many bottles, helped by handfuls of anti-depressants: he remembers little of the maudlin, self-deprecating telephone conversations he has with his mother, Doris, or his high-flying international executive sister, Faith.

But a chance meeting on the balcony of his apartment block with Gemma and her six year-old grandson, Kai, changes all that. She’s a blast from the past – a frequent victim of a violent father who, with her sister, found refuge in the Keely household. Now it’s Gemma’s turn to protect, her daughter being inside for drug related crimes.

Eyrie is unusual for Winton in that, whilst it follows the central preoccupations of earlier novels – volatile, often violent, family life; the possibility of redemption from earlier choices – it’s set in the big (for Western Australia) conurbation of Perth and Fremantle. Not since Cloudstreet in 1991 has Winton spent any time of note in “the gateway to the booming state…”

It’s a story of the little people, a David and Goliath parable of community versus corporations, of basic human values against profit. Tom, Gemma and Kai are powerless against the immutable system: this mismatched, surrogate family is necessary for their survival. Its existence is based on a mix of memory, need, the vulnerability of a broken and disturbed child and more than a little lust.

Yet it’s the drug addled father of the boy who is the biggest threat to the security of Gemma and Kai. Like the corporations controlling the State, it’s the system that’s let Gemma down. The paranoid drug fiend has found out where she lives and is most definitely a threat to her life. But even finding refuge in leafy Mosman Park in South Perth and the home of Doris is no long-term answer.

Eyrie is an enjoyable Tim Winton novel. But it’s not his best. Pointed in its critique of local politics, littered with complex characters (I built a soft spot for Doris and her reinvention after her husband’s early death), it’s all a bit of a ramble. And Keely is a little too self-indulgent.

Eyrie was shortlisted for the 2014 Miles Franklin Award, but it lost out to Evie Wyld and All the Birds, Singing.

 

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‘Concussion’

concussion-will-smith-new-posterThat makes it 3:1 for the month of February. Four biopics with fascinating stories, three that have gone seriously wrong in the translation to the screen. Documentary Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict and Trumbo failed miserably:  Steve Jobs was a dramatic tour de force.

Add Concussion to the former. Accomplished pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu uncovers the truth about brain damage in (American) football players – a whistleblower the NFL were keen to discredit.

Will Smith (Men in Black, I Robot) is convincing as the Nigerian doctor but the film is a mess, a confused mishmash of David and Goliath, love story and social racial commentary that totally misses its intended mark. Like his previous film, Kill the Messenger, Peter Landesman appears to root out exceptional stories but fails to deliver exceptional films.

Rating: 41%

‘Room’

room-2015With the screenplay adapted by Emma Donaghue, the author of the best selling novel, Room was always likely to follow pretty closely the outline of the book. What surprised me was that, in many ways, its actually better.

The story of the bonding between mother and child (and not just Ma and Jack), Room is a film of two halves. The initial claustrophobic enforced captivity is followed by the world at large as seen through the eyes of five year-old Jack.

Structurally, the reworking has paid dividends – a key cinematic event takes place much later than in the book, which makes much more sense. But it’s the performances that are the standout – Brie Larson (Short Term 12, The Spectacular Now) is exemplary and as a result likely to pick up the best actress Oscar. And, as Jack,  nine year-old Jacob Tremblay is astonishing.

Rating: 71%

‘Trumbo’

Trumbo_poster_goldposter_com_4A bland recounting of a fascinating yet appalling true story of the Hollywood 10 – and scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo in particular. And by failing to provide any real context to the move against scriptwriters immediately following World War II, Trumbo provides little insight into a shameful piece of American history.

Director Jay Roach (Meet the Fockers, Austin Powers: Goldmember) provides too light a touch to what is essentially serious material. And an overly mannered performance by Bryan Cranston (Argo, Drive), surprisingly nominated for an Oscar, may capture the idiosyncricies of mannerisms and intonations of the real-life Trumbo, but the result is a lack of any real engagement.

Rating: 48%

‘Deadpool’

deadpool_ver10A superhero with attitude, Deadpool is brazen, weird and fun – and without resorting to excessive juvenile crudity and stupidity (which were on the cards).

Although yet another Marvel origin film, Deadpool is not (thankfully) full of superhero action sequences (no destruction of New York). Throwaway comic commentary on other X-Men mutants and the film studios actually trash the brand Marvel – all to good and positive effect.

The story, for what it’s worth, is ho-hum. But debut director Tim Miller keeps the action coming and the tone light. Ryan Reynolds is crude, flirtatious and successful as the hero (as opposed to the disastrous The Green Lantern) ably supported by the rest of the cast.

Rating: 65%

 

‘Steve Jobs’

SJB_Tsr1Sht5_RGB_0818_1-780x1235It may veer from the truth and nothing but the truth in the telling of a few key years in the life of Steve Jobs, but Danny Boyle’s biopic, Steve Jobs, is an electric, quick-fire, multi-layered drama written by Aaron Sirkin (The Social Network, Moneyball).

Overcoming the ‘controversy’ of looking nothing like Jobs, Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave, Shame) is magnificently self-aggrandising in the title role – a modulated performance of ego, self-confidence and God-like arrogance… (And to think the portrayal has been toned down from the real thing). And whilst Jobs is “the conductor to his orchestra” (maestro would have been more self-appealing), the bit players in this unfolding drama are unanimously excellent, with Kate Winslet receiving her seventh Oscar nomination.

Rating: 76%

‘The Hateful Eight’

the-hateful-eight-poster-2The Hateful Eight is exactly what you would expect from a Tarantino film – razor sharpe dialogue, fabulous characterisation, OTT violent shoot-outs with bursts of laugh-out-loud humour.

Iowa in the midst of winter blanketed in snow is the setting, providing magnificent vistas for this bloody western that is both sprawling and intimate, with most of the action taking place in Minnie’s Haberdashery. The eight are holed up due to the snow storm and, like a staged whodunit, the characters slowly reveal themselves for who they really are.

Tarantino regular Samuel L Jackson (Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained) is a joy, Walton Goggins (Django Unchained, TV’s The Shield) a revelation and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Kill Your Darlings, Road to Perdition) worthy of her Oscar nom for best supporting actress.

Too claustrophobic to be a ‘western’ in the true sense of the word, The Hateful Eight is a hugely entertaining piece of filmed theatre.

Rating: 79% 

‘The Luminaries’ by Eleanor Catton

17333230Convoluted and confusing, The Luminaries is certainly challenging. The fact it’s 832 pages long adds weight [sic] to the argument. But this Gothic monster of a book is also a joy of storytelling, characterisation and language.

The 2013 Man Booker Prize winner does, in its first 300 pages or so, require considerable investment.

Newly arrived in the southern New Zealand port of Hokitika in 1866, barrister Walter Moody, looking to make his fortune prospecting for gold, inadvertently stumbles into a secret meeting of 12 respected members of the local community.

What unfolds is an extraordinary tale of murder, mayhem and mischief as each man tells their tale of events of the past few weeks. Behind a series of unsolved crimes is a complex mystery. All appear to be connected but, like a difficult jigsaw puzzle, needs to be painstakingly put together. And it’s apparent there are still a few pieces missing.

It’s the sheer number of strands revealed at this initial meeting that require attention and the patience of Job.

The banker, the chemist, the court clerk, the shipping agent and more have their say. And the evidence of those not present at the meeting is also crucial. The politician, the whore, the sea captain, the missing entrepreneur all have a role to play in events in the rough and ready gold rush port. Suspicions abound, but what’s not clear – to anyone – is what’s going on!

The second half of the book is set in real time – and advances at a cracking pace. The unexplained events and unsolved crimes start to fall into place as the jigsaw nears completion: The Luminaries becomes a page-turning gold rush tale, its finale a Hollywood-style courtroom scene.

But Eleanor Catton hasn’t simply written a Wilkie Collins-esque, nineteenth century potboiler. Her fascination with astrology and the signs of the Zodiac pattern the intricate structure of the novel.

Each section (twelve in all) is exactly half of its predecessor, mimicking the waning of the lunar cycle: the twelve men are each assigned a sign of the Zodiac and display the characteristics of their sign: the luminaries of the title – sun and moon – are the whore (Anna) and the missing entrepreneur (Emery). It is the movement of the heavens that determines the interaction between the characters.

The mimicking of the lunar cycle certainly adds to that thrilling page-turning as the reveal gains momentum. But in all honesty, the significance of the planetary configurations passed me by. This astrological framing adds little – whether the shipping agent, Balfour, is a Libran or Piscean matters not: I did not dwell on the horoscope charts at the start of each section or take note of the chapter titles referencing zodiac signs.

As a thriller, the meticulously plotted The Luminaries is compulsive. But its problem is the beginning, the first (long) section. The sheer number of characters resulted in a confusion of the crowd, each becoming indiscernible from the other. This is where that investment of effort, energy and time is needed. It is worthwhile – but understandable if the decision is that it’s all too difficult.

 

 

‘Looking For Grace’

3b167b4c5d618f119927b4817593d45a_originalA disappointing Australian film from Sue Brooks, the director of the excellent, award-winning drama Japanese Story.

A rebellious daughter from a middle-class Perth family, Grace is heading on a bus into the vast wheat belt of Western Australia. Told from different perspectives, the story, like the landscape,  is flat and monotonous – Grace may have stolen money from her father (a wasted Richard Roxburgh – Moulin Rouge! Van Helsing) but who really cares? Mom is having problems with the cleaning contractors and whether the sofa qualifies as one or two pieces of furniture.

The fractured storytelling may eventually come together – but I’d given up long before then.

Rating: 40%

‘Anomalisa’

anomalisa-posterIn turns despairingly dull and wistfully wacky, the stop-motion Anomalisa is one of those films that has the critics reaching for the superlatives whilst leaving audiences generally baffled.

Nominated for best animation Oscar, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2015 Venice Film Festival, penned by Charlie Kaufman (Synecdoche New York, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), the story of Tom Stone, the depressed customer relations expert, wears its credentials on its sleeve. (Tom is splendidly voiced in a flat Lancashire accent by David Thewliss, Harry Potter, The Theory of Everything).

But sporadically funny, inventively clever with its animation, usually very odd (Stone is suffering from the rare Fregoli syndrome – the delusional belief that different people are in fact the same person) fail to disguise [sic] that Anomalisa eventually runs out of emotional steam.

Rating: 47%