‘Free State of Jones’

freestateposterGruesome opening scenes of the American civil war segue into a worthy but overlong and somewhat pedantic (true) story.

In its attempt to be ambitious, director Gary Ross (The Hunger Games, Seabiscuit) has, instead, created something portentous. Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club, Mud)   is empathic as Newton Knight, leader of the deserters, slaves and womenfolk working against the corrupt Confederates but Ross’ storyline is episodic and over-detailed.

It’s hard to dislike the film – but it’s all a little too clean and too good to be true.

Rating: 52%

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‘The Little Stranger’ by Sarah Waters

The_Little_Stranger_Sarah_WatersWhat a disappointment. Sarah Waters is a best-selling author (The Little Stranger is her fifth although my first) who is, unusually, much lauded by the literary critics. Yet, this particular offering is somewhat vacuous and remote.

Set in 1947 Warwickshire, the Georgian Hundreds Hall has been in the Ayres family for more than two hundred years. But, like privileged pre-war gentry, the once stately manor is in steady, crumbling decline, the grounds choked with weeds, the family itself dying out. Old Mrs Ayres and her two adult children live in isolation, remote from the changing post war English society.

Struggling with the upkeep of their historic home, the family live in relative penury, with many of the dilapidated rooms in Hundreds Hall closed off. The only surviving male member, Roderick, badly injured in the war, struggles with the estate, supported by his capable sister, Caroline. Emotionally fraught, Roderick is on the cusp of a breakdown. But are there darker forces at play?

Into their now Gothic world walks Dr Faraday, a local GP who slowly becomes enamoured with the Hall and, over time, Caroline herself. Faraday inveigles himself into the family circle, particularly after Roderick is institutionalised. But is it the house that’s the root of the problem for the Ayres?

Waters is a superb writer and perfectly captures the decline of privilege in post-war England as the Labour government of the day introduced sweeping changes to the old way-of-life, including the Welfare State. But the story itself starts and stutters.

Is it a supernatural tale? A few bumps in the night, a few unexplained markings and sounds, a fire that finally tips Roderick over the edge? The pompous Faraday, as narrator, errs on the side of logic – constantly. Nothing moves him from blaming ‘nerves’. Yet things keep happening and the family is being bumped off. But by whom – or what?

That, I’m afraid, you’re never told. Or at least, you are left to your own imagination. That it’s an allegory of the killing off of redundant privilege is unarguable. But is ‘it’ more overt – the troubled unconscious of someone connected to the house?

The odd thing is that very little even happens ‘supernaturally’ until a third of the way into the book – up until then The Little Stranger is firmly in the historical fiction camp. And with its clipped, Brief Encounter style dialogue and conversation, it remains there, even when Waters attempts to move into the subtle, ambiguous psychological storytelling of the likes of Henry James (The Turn of the Screw). But The Little Stranger never reaches those Jamesian heights. There’s no suspense, there’s little tension – and things-that-go-bump-in-the-night happen all too infrequently over its 450 or so pages. And so by then, I’d given up caring and had somewhat lost patience.

So, for me, a poor introduction to the work of Sarah Waters – and therefore a surprise that it was shortlisted for the 2009 Booker Prize. But it lost out to the behemoth that was Wolf Hall and Hilary Mantel – so in some ways it was almost irrelevant what else was on that year’s particular shortlist!

‘Truman’

274230_1449577834.4595Just four days to say goodbye for long term friends Julian and Tomas.

Travelling to Madrid from Montreal, Tomas (Javier Camara – Talk To Her, A Gun in Each Hand) is on a mission to persuade Julian (Ricardo Darin – The Secret in Their Eyes, Nine Queens) not to give up his chemotherapy treatment.

It’s a quiet, subtle film about male friendship. The chemistry between the two leads is palpable: a gesture, a movement is worth more than a thousand words. Writer/director Cesc Gay (A Gun in Each Hand, Nico & Dani) avoids maudlin sentimentality but in doing so strips the film of some emotional impact, resulting in an engaging but strangely distant story.

Rating: 67%

‘Sausage Party’

sausage-party-poster1It’s rude, crude but at times very funny (and at times potentially offensive)!

An animated rebellion by supermarket food against their fate is led by Frank the Sausage. Frank (voiced by Seth Rogan) discovers almost too late that he will not be spending all eternity deep inside Brenda the Bun (Kristen Wiig) in the ‘great beyond.’ Now he needs to cross the supermarket aisles to convince the other foodstuffs of their fate.

It’s irreverent, crass and fluidly crosses animation boundaries as religion, sexuality and politics come under the spotlight, accompanied by expletives galore. And Sausage Party certainly adds new meaning to the idea of a food orgy!

Rating: 64%

‘Golden Boys’ by Sonya Hartnett

9781926428611Four of the five shortlisted novels for the 2015 Miles Franklin Award were by women writers. In spite of losing out to Sophie Laguna and The Eye of the Sheep, to my mind Sonya Hartnett’s Golden Boys is the best of the four.

A small, unnamed town where the local kids take to the streets as the long summer holidays loom before them. The arrival of the Jenson family changes the dynamics – Colt and his younger brother Bastian are showered with gifts by their father: bikes, skateboards, Scaletrix – even a swimming pool.

But there’s something odd about Rex. He’s just there a little too often. The local boys arrive for a swim – Rex is there with his welcoming repartee. Scrapes and bumps need fixing – Rex is there with his first-aid kit. But he appears to be the answer for 13 year-old Freya – the eldest of the six Kiley siblings. A schoolgirl crush develops – unlike her own father, Rex is not the local drunk who terrorises his own family.

It’s Freya who carries the weight of responsibility of her dysfunctional family and, along with Colt, it is through their eyes that the narrative of Golden Boys develops. Both despise their fathers for their own reasons: both yearn for a different environment. Both, distantly, recognise a kindred spirit.

It’s a suburban landscape of times past (no smartphones, PCs, tablets) where kids spent their time outdoors – on bikes, skateboards or at the local creek. Golden Boys is a story of its time – the neighbourhood acceptance of domestic violence; the response by, and its effect on, children; the insidious nature of Rex insulated by money.

It’s a disquieting novel, a finely tuned picture of life in regional Australia in the late 1970s/early 1980s. But, family life seen from the perspective of children, it is also a time of confused innocence and a rude, confronting coming-of-age where there are codes of conduct and justice.

‘Suicide Squad’

suicide-squad-movie-2016-posterSprawling and anarchic, director David Ayer (Fury, End of Watch) has perfectly captured the essence of the band of superheroes who make up the squad.

Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street, Focus) is riveting as the crazed Harley Quinn, Will Smith (MiB I-III, Ali) solid as Headshot. Add a superbly deranged Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club, Requiem For a Dream) as The Joker and the band of comic-book nihilistic antiheroes are magnificently ever present on screen.

But the story is one huge misstep – it’s a mess. Lots of energy from the intrepid band fizzles into a dull mishmash of oldhat stories and scenarios. Get the witch and save the world (I mean New York – again). Boring.

Rating: 45%

‘The Clan’

The-ClanThe Puccios are a seemingly respectable Buenos Aires family living comfortably in an Argentina of the 1980s under the dictatorship of the military junta.

But, like the country itself, respectability is only skin deep – patriarch Arquimedes (a menacing performance from Guillermo Francella – The Secret in Their Eyes, Rudo & Cursi) heads a criminal gang of kidnappers and extortionists made up predominantly of his family.

It’s all based on a true story and the source material is rich in detail and potential – but sadly any lack of suspense is lost as director Pablo Trapero (Carancho, Lion’s Den) choses a matter-of-fact, somewhat dull approach. Disappointing.

Rating: 51%

‘Morality Play’ by Barry Unsworth

239599An itinerant cleric from the Lincoln Bishopric stumbles across a troupe of Travelling Players in the winter forests of 14th century Yorkshire. Abroad without permission, Nicholas Barber is without money, food, warm clothes or a place to sleep. In joining the troupe, he becomes embroiled in a murder mystery that puts his life at risk.

Morality Play is a slight book – it does not set out to overtly comment on the social ills of 14th century fiefdom or religious zealotry. But it is there, the everyday descriptors and the presence of the lord of the manor, Edward de Guise, in his castle overlooking the town see to that.

The troupe is adept at presenting the morality plays of the time – traditional religious stories – but they’re broke. The few paying customers will not see them reach Durham in time for Christmas. So the mystery of the murdered boy is too much for Martin, the leader of the group. A woman may have been found guilty, but nothing adds up. And what about the disappearance of several other young boys from the area over the past year or so?

So begins the search for the truth – and the presentation of a play that will earn the players more money than they could ever dream of. But it’s a story fraught with dangers.

A master storyteller, Unsworth has presented a taut, thoroughly enjoyable historical detective story that was shortlisted for the 1995 Booker Prize (it lost out to Pat Barker and The Ghost Road).

‘The Wait’

thewait-posterAUAn evocative (Sicilian) setting with quiet, graceful, almost motionless performances, The Wait and its longeurs of pauses and silences is a film of slow building emotions.

In her grief, Anna (Juliette Binoche – The English Patient, Clouds of Sils Maria) is unable to reveal the truth to Jeanne (Lou de Laage – Breathe, The Innocents) who arrives from Paris to spend the holidays with her boyfriend, Giuseppe.

Beautifully shot, it’s the nuanced performances of the two women and the underlying study of grief that carries an otherwise wafer thin narrative in this adaptation of two Pirandello short stories by first-time feature director, Piero Messina.

Rating: 63%

‘Embrace of the Serpent’

large_fduupquMZnxdzshu4j2hkaL2CNSIntense, challenging, absorbing and shot in black and white: Embrace of the Serpent is no easy ride.

Two European scientists, forty years apart, are helped by the Amazonian shaman Karamakate to find a sacred healing plant. The two journeys are interwoven as we experience the changes along the river banks of the Amazon: the destruction of the indigenous way of life through the colonialist incursions of the rubber barons and catholic church.

It may be a touch too long at just over two hours, but it’s a heartfelt, stately journey from Colombian writer/director Ciro Guerra (The Wind Journeys, Wandering Shadows) based on the diaries of the two scientists.

Rating: 79%