‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’

batman-vs-superman-posterAn incoherent mess, so busy trying to be a bridging film to the introduction of The Justice League, director Zack Snyder (Man of Steel, 300) forgot to focus on one storyline.

It really is all over the place – and we begin and end with the destruction of New York. Ultimately dull and boring – it’s only the sound editing that’s a stand out as Ben Affleck (Gone Girl, Argo) and Henry Cavill (Man of Steel, The Man From U.N.C.L.E) face off against each other.

Nominated for 8 Razzies in 2016 including worst film (won 4 including worst screenplay and worst supporting actor in Jesse Eisenberg).

Rating: 34%

’45 Years’

45years-2999700A quiet, serious drama expertly performed by British thesps Charlotte Rampling (The Duchess, The Night Porter) and Tom Courtenay (The Dresser, Doctor Zhivago). You completely believe these two have been married for 45 years, such is the power of their performances.

Both won their respective best actor categories at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival: sadly only Charlotte Rampling received an Oscar nomination.

Director Andrew Haigh (Weekend, Greek Pete) has modelled  a piece of Meissen porcelain – an elegant, nuanced film of small gestures, discrete comments and seemingly slight but important questions answered or left hanging in the air.

Nominated for 1 Oscar in 2016 (best actress)

Rating: 75%

‘Hail Caesar’

v1.bTsxMTQzNDQ1MztqOzE3MDUwOzIwNDg7MjUyNjs0MDAwAwful mess of a plotless indulgence by the Coen Brothers (No Country For Old Men, True Grit). Aiming undoubtedly for eccentricity rather than a linear comedy, the award-winning brothers have pulled in an A-list of stars to pastiche the Hollywood studio system of the 50s.

But what a waste. Josh Brolin (No Country For Old Men, Milk) as head of production at Capital Studios is charged with keeping the stars in line, but with George Clooney (Syriana, Gravity) kidnapped by the Hollywood 10 in the name of Mother Russia, the key is to keep it away from Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton, We Need to Talk About Kevin) and the gossip columns.

It does have its moments (a take on On the Town featuring a somewhat effete all-dancing, all-singing Channing Tatum and suggestive choreography is very funny) but Hail Caesar ultimately fails to deliver and falls into its own miasma of cleverness.

Nominated for 1 Oscar in 2016 (production design)

Rating: 39%

‘The Daughter’

The_Daughter_(2015_film)_POSTERBased on Ibsen’s stage play, The Wild Duck, writer/director Simon Stone’s The Daughter is a brooding, authentic family drama littered with unpleasant personalities – the father/son duo of Geoffrey Rush (Shine, The King’s Speech) and Paul Schneider (Water For Elephants, Bright Star) in particular.

It’s a dour affair as Schneider returns to the rural New South Wales logging town from a self-imposed exile in the US following his mother’s suicide. Family secrets he reveals turn friendships upside down.

The Daughter is powerfully performed, with a bevy of local Australian actors at their best – but it’s Ewen Leslie (Jewboy, The Railway Man) who is mesmerising. It’ll undoubtedly feature in end-of-year award nominations.

Rating: 69%

‘The Redundancy of Courage’ by Timothy Mo

9112Colonised by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, Timor Leste (East Timor) declared independence in November 1975 under the leadership of the left-wing FRETILIN party. Just nine days later it was invaded and occupied by Indonesia. Sharing a border on the island of Timor, the Indonesians feared the rise of a communist state within the south eastern Asian archipelago. Whilst condemned by the UN, the invasion was supported by the west.

Narrated by Adolphe Ng, a fictional The Redundancy of Courage is firmly based on events following the invasion and occupation. But this is no overtly political discourse.

Chinese, gay and Canadian-educated, Ng is an outsider on the island. Even his future, the opening of a beachside hotel, is isolated at the edge of town. Yet the worldly and essentially apolitical hotelier is, to some extent, accepted by the young radicals and intelligentsia who meet in the cafes of the Praca in the capital.

But the invasion changes everything. Told in three parts, Ng’s narration is one of survival.

As an outsider, it’s his friendships with the ardent, political Rosa and the strident Maria, doctor to the poor, who draw him into the cause immediately post-independence. But he remains more of an observer – it’s not his cause. Even after the invasion, with his hotel commandeered by the malais (Mo never refers directly to Indonesia), Ng looks to survive. He becomes nothing more than a servant in his own business, always fearful for his life (the occupation of Timor Leste was marked by violence and brutality).

Ng’s sense of detachment and judgement at this juncture is verging on unpleasant. His disdain of the Timorese and life in Timor Leste is patronising, to say the least. Yet he becomes drawn more and more into the conflict, with that sense of detachment creating a seemingly more balanced perspective of events.

From the hotel to the jungle, from servile to freedom fighter and back to servile, Ng depicts the struggles of the Timorese against the occupiers. But the resistance is not presented simply as a heroic struggle – Timothy Mo is unflinching in presenting flawed heroes and resistance fighters, balancing bravery with foolhardiness, ruthlessness with sensitivity, joy with desperation, loyalty with betrayal.

Resistance for Ng ultimately accounts for nothing (hence the title) but The Redundancy of Courage is a powerful, at times harrowing, novel. The meat of the novel, the extended period when Ng finds himself as a member of the guerrilla army hiding in the interior of the island, is a gritty, detailed (if somewhat dense) page-turner.

It took Indonesia almost 25 years to relinquish control of Timor Leste. The Redundancy of Courage covers the first few years of this occupation. With the exception of the mention of the murder of five Australian journalists (the Balibo 5), the novel never directly names places, political parties or people (Timor Leste itself is Danu, FRETILIN becomes FAKOUM). As a result, whilst specific to Timor, The Redundancy of Courage is a universal story of unequal conflicts, of bullying military tactics. But it’s also a deeply personal story – of one man’s courage in the face of adversity, but whose courage shifts and turns in order to survive.

The Redundancy of Courage was Timothy Mo’s fourth novel and third to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It lost out in 1991 to Nigerian author Ben Okri and The Famished Road.



’10 Cloverfield Lane’

10cl_poster10 Cloverfield Lane is somewhat confused as to what its meant to be.

As a taut psychological thriller with three people trapped in a (well-stocked) subterranean bunker, the tension verges on palpable. But for it to truly succeed, that tension needs to be considerably ramped up.

Horror? Sci-fi? A too early reveal indicates where we’re going (and undermines that potential potboiler), with the ending a soft soap explanation that we could have done without.

It’s entertaining enough from debut director Dan Trachtenberg, with John Goodman (Argo, The Big Lebowski) obviously enjoying himself as the man whose motives we’re not quite sure about. But it does leave you wondering just what it could have been with three people, a bunker and a vat of acid.

Rating: 50%

‘Son of Saul’

getmovieposter_saul_fia_3A shallow depth of field results in sharp focus on events in the immediate foreground. A limited palette of browns, sepias and greys; only German and Hungarian subtitled; events taking place at night or seen in low light (candlelight, subterranean sleeping quarters). Debut director Laszlo Nemes has produced a viscid, claustrophobic confusion and a harrowing loss of place.

Set in a German death camp, Son of Saul is quite simply horrific as much by its (dimly seen but definitely heard) suggestion as the known inhumanity of the Holocaust.

But in his single mindedness in finding a rabbi for a dead child, Saul (a phenomenal Geza Rohrig, a man barely off screen for the entire 107 minute running time) puts others at risk. And it’s this unreflective determination that ultimately unravels the emotional impact of Son of Saul, the recipient of the 2016 Oscar for best foreign language film.

Rating: 74%

‘Triple 9’

triple9Starting with a violent bank job and police chase, Triple 9 is hardly original (and in its early stages, somewhat confusing). But what unfolds is a gritty and atmospheric storyline of corruption, bent cops and the Russian mafia.

Director John Hillcoat (Lawless, The Proposition) continues to explore the male world of loyalties and sudden violence, with an impressive cast queueing to play against type – Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave, Secret in their Eyes), Anthony Mackie (The Avengers, The Adjustment Bureau) and a wonderfully blousy Kate Winslet (The Reader, Titanic) as a Russian mob leader.

But it’s the quiet dignity of Casey Affleck that provides the focus to a film that is considerably better than its story. Hillcoat just needs the right material to become huge.

Rating: 60%

‘The Finest Hours’

TheFinestHoursTheatricalPosterEngaging and at times compelling, The Finest Hours is an old-fashioned tale of heroism on the high seas whilst family, friends and love interest await anxiously on land.

In spite of its subject, helmed by Chris Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, Fright Night), The Finest Hours is a surprisingly quiet, character-driven drama. The reluctant heroes – a quiet, against character Chris Pine (Star Trek, Unstoppable) and the ridiculously underrated Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jesse James, Interstellar) – are stoic in their actions to save lives.

Shamelessly manipulative it may be, but The Finest Hours is based on a true 1952 event  – and its sentimentality and old-fashionedness works perfectly in its telling.

Rating: 62%

‘Under the Frog’ by Tibor Fischer

124434_under_the_frogThis so-called ‘delicate serio-comic treasure’ (so wrote Salman Rushdie in The Independent on Sunday) did nothing for me.

The title is taken from the Hungarian expression ‘a béka segge alatt’ used when things could not be any worse – ‘under a frog’s arse down a coalmine.’

The timeframe is Budapest in the immediate years between the end of the Second World War and the 1956 revolution. Young basketball players and improbable heroes Gyuri and Pataki are the central characters in Tibor Fischer’s debut novel.

Staccato and anecdotal, the result is a somewhat fractured and strangely laboured novel. Against a background of postwar (communist) politics, Gyuri, Pataki and their teammates navigate the (restricted) world around them – and attempt to avoid conscription to the Hungarian Army.

Born in the UK to Hungarian basketball playing parents, Fischer is patently referencing their experiences and the world they left. There is, at times, incisive and coruscating commentary on some of the absurdities of life in Budapest. And he can write well – the last chapter in particular is heartfelt and poignant.

But there were too many diversions from the central narrative. And Fischer’s use of humour passed me by. If anything, reflective of the mindset of the central characters, the humour is not the claimed ‘black humour’ but instead juvenile and bordering on misogynistic.

It’s interesting that Under the Frog was shortlisted for the 1993 Booker Prize where it lost out to Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. I didn’t find that particular novel funny either.