‘Doctor Strange’

ds_endless_possibilities_posterAn extended origin story of lesser known superhero, the arrogant super-surgeon Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game, Star Trek: Into Darkness) dominates what turns out to be a somewhat dull, formulaic action adventure.

The Himalayas look ravishing (Strange turns to eastern spiritualism at the failure of western medicine) but its LSD-inspired visual trickery of the infinite universe goes on too long. (At least seeing it in 3D will provide a sense of value-for-money)

Director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Deliver Us From Evil) choses to focus on the action rather than anything approaching rounded characterisation (cue the Yoda-like Tilda Swinton – Michael Clayton, We Need to Talk About Kevin – two-dimensional scowling tough guy Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave, The Martian – et al) but, ultimately, fails on that score too.

Rating: 48%

‘Master Georgie’ by Beryl Bainbridge

12101_original_1The short (192 pages) Beryl Bainbridge novel seems to have gained more appreciation with critics than readers, collecting as it did the New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 1998 as well as being shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Master Georgie is not only short – it is somewhat slight. Told in six chapters, the story is set in 1850 Liverpool and the 1854 Crimea War and essentially follows four characters – Myrtle, Pompey, Potter and George ‘Master Georgie’ Hardy himself – inextricably linked by an event in a Liverpool brothel. Hardy himself, whilst central to the narrative, is the aloof focus of the other three, all having chosen to follow the surgeon to the battlefields.

Besotted Myrtle owes her position in the Hardy family to George – an orphan who hovers somewhere between maid, companion, sister and child-bearer (George’s wife Annie having continually miscarried). Pompey, a former street-urchin, is the giver of sexual favours to ‘gentleman George’ in return for opportunity to better himself. Potter, amateur geologist, is Hardy’s pompous brother-in-law.

None are particularly interesting, sympathetic or empathic: their motivations vague and unclear. The result is that, overall, Master Georgie is a somewhat vague and unsatisfying novel.

There are beautifully lyrical moments alongside barbed commentary on the ineptitude of privilege in war and subsequent death, squalor and misery: Bainbridge is never afraid to make it clear where her political sympathies lie – whether in the Crimea or Liverpool. Master Georgie therefore becomes about linked moments scaffolded by a narrative that simply ‘is’. It’s not overly engaging but is easily read – and at 192 pages, in a short time frame.

‘The Handmaiden’

handmaiden_poster_2764x4096_1200_1778_81_sSexually explicit, exquisitely filmed, quietly sensual, Chan-wook Park’s (Oldboy, Stoker) (loose) adaptation of Sarah Waters’ best seller is luridly mesmerising over its 150 minute run-time.

Told in three parts and set in 1930s Korea under Japanese occupation, the twists and turns of the intricate lesbian love-story-with-a-difference keep you engaged, even if some of the scenes are less than subtle.

Rating: 71%

‘The Sellout’ by Paul Beatty

81npfiyubal-880x1404The jury’s out for me as far as Paul Beatty’s 2016 Booker Prize winning novel is concerned.

Technically brilliant, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, savage and outrageous, undoubtedly challenging, yet… Its profane satire is unrelenting, the reading exhausting, the narrative one-dimensional.

A coruscating metaphor for race relations in the US, The Sellout is the story of ‘Bonbon’ Me. An Afro-American living in the City of Dickens on the outskirts of LA, Me is the son of a controversial home-schooling sociologist who is shot in the back by LAPD at traffic lights whilst on his way to the latest Dum Dum Donuts Intellectuals meeting.

It is his relationship with his dead father and the impact of his opinions that is at the centre of The Sellout: essentially what it is to be black and living in a racist country. Me, at the beginning of the novel, finds himself in the Supreme Court charged with reinstating slavery and segregation. The Sellout is the provocative, comically daring explanation of just how he got there.

It’s a mad journey. Littered with the n-word, it’s caustic yet elegant, scathing yet intelligent. No stone is left unturned as Me purchases an inner city farm on the proceeds from the LAPD payout. The ageing Hominy volunteers himself as slave to his ‘massa’ plantation owner and Me is forced to hire a local dominatrix to administer whippings.

When violent and crime-ridden Dickens loses its identity with its boundaries subsumed into greater LA ripe with real estate potential, Me steps in. A painted white line loosely reinstates those boundaries, raising a sense of neighbourhood pride and belonging. The segregation of the local High School, banning white students, is the final act. A media frenzy results (ironically, there never were any white students at the school anyway) and Me is arrested.

Within the scaffold of the plot is a miasma of characters, events, commentaries and references to contemporary racist America. It is satire gone wild – a mix of Swift and Vonnegut. The first 100 or so pages are magnificently and maliciously vitriolic – and at times shockingly funny. But Beatty fails to moderate and change the pace of a book struggling to identify a singular narrative beyond its early pages. The Sellout remains interesting but fails to sustain that initial level of engagement.

 

‘Francofonia’

francofonia_posterThe visual feast that was Russian Ark, director Aleksandr Sokurov ‘s homage to the Hermitage in St Petersburg, is sadly missing in Francofonia.

Purportedly the history of the Louvre during the Nazi occupation of Paris, it’s something of a schizophrenic  documentary, uncertain as it is of what exactly is its focus. The story of the French director, Jacques Jaujard who worked with Nazi Franz Wolff-Metternich to prevent the Louvre collection being sent to Germany is a story in itself (Sokurov choses an odd re-enactment of pregnant pauses and furtive glances). But mixed in there is a superficial positioning of the Louvre itself and its collection (cue Napoleon) along with a meditation to the meaning of art. Result is Francofonia misses on all fronts.

Painfully dull.

Rating: 48%

‘Julieta’

ho00003757After the execrable I’m So Excited, relieved to see writer/director Pedro Almodovar (Talk To Her, All About My Mother) return to his female-centric storytelling. But, sadly, Julieta is far from his best.

Hidden family secrets worm their way to the surface as Julieta (Emma Suarez – The Mosquito Net, Hours of Light) re-evaluates her life following a chance encounter on the Madrid streets. A somewhat uninvolving, emotionally distant mother/absent daughter tale unfolds – loosely based on short stories by Alice Munro.

Rating: 51%

‘Highways to a War’ by Christopher Koch

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707An absorbing tale of courage in the face of adversity and, unusually, a war story set in Indochina where the emphasis is on the war as fought by local, as opposed to foreign, troops.

Australian photojournalist Mike Langford is an enigmatic but hugely popular Tasmanian farmboy who finds himself, almost by default, in the centre of the action in the mid 1960s. It is his disappearance years later inside the Khmer Rouge-controlled Cambodia and the search for him by his friends that is at the heart of Highways to a War.

Mike’s boyhood friend and executor of his estate, Ray, travels to Thailand on learning of the disappearance of a man he has not seen for many years. With cassette tapes left by Mike, photographs by the thousands (published or simply stored in boxes), a few accompanying notes and the stories of his friends and colleagues, Ray pieces together the extraordinary story of the boy who ran away from home in rural Tasmania to become a legendary war photojournalist.

But Mike was much more. He recorded not the US offensives: instead, he chose to focus on local Vietnamese (and later Cambodian) troops, recording the war from their perspectives. Less equipped than the Americans, involved in more of the hand-to-hand skirmishes, the risk was much higher for the troops and western media representatives. In telling the world their story, the unassuming photographer is elevated to mythic status in Saigon and (later) Phnom Penh.

But Highways to a War is also a love story. For Mike, there’s the businesswoman, Claudine Phan in Saigon followed by the true love of his life, the feisty Cambodian, Ly Keang. Core to the novel is the friendship of the three photojournalists, Langford, Jim Feng and Dmitri ‘Count’ Volkov: only one will survive. But overarching all is the love for country.

The result is a haunting novel that follows Mike’s own personal highways to war and a world of lives lived on the edge. Packed with compelling characters both inside the press circle and out, Highways to a War is a story of place and time vividly realised by Koch’s powerful but empathic writing.

Christopher Koch (1932-2013) is best known for his novel The Year of Living Dangerously, adapted for the screen in 1984 and starring Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver, with Linda Hunt picking up the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Yet Highways to a War is one of two Koch novels to win the Miles Franklin Award (the other being The Doubleman in 1985).

‘Deepwater Horizon’

deepwater_horizon_ver10A templated disaster movie – the dramatisation of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig in 2010 that resulted in the worst oil spill in US history. Eleven men lost their lives.

Director Peter Berg (Hancock, Lone Survivor) efficiently cuts to the chase in introducing the human interest – family man Mark Wahlberg (Lone Survivor, The Departed) and wife Kate Hudson (Almost Famous, Rock the Kasbah) – before we head off to the scene of the disaster.

Berg choses to go back to the basics of an action film – the confusion is well captured (there’s times when it’s not clear what’s going on), tension is palpable. John Malkovich (Red, Dangerous Liaisons) wins no favours as the British Petroleum company man putting time and money ahead of safety and goes head to head with rig chief Kurt Russell (The Hateful Eight, Backdraft) and Wahlberg. The amazing thing is so many survived.

Rating: 54%

‘The Girl on the Train’

girlontrainposterSadly, it’s not the psychological thriller it could and should have been, with director Tate Taylor (The Help, Get On Up) seemingly out of his depth in building any sense of real suspense.

The Girl on the Train certainly has its moments – with the reveal somewhat unexpected. But this amplifies the disappointment of the final result. Emily Blunt (Sicario, Into the Woods) tries hard with material that fails to ultimately deliver. It’s not bad – it’s just not very good.

Rating: 49%

‘The Magnificent 7’

magnificent7_intl_1sht_englishAction-packed thrills with a perfunctory storyline and little in terms of character development. Yet, surprisingly, it doesn’t matter one jot.

Director Antoine Fuqua (Southpaw, Training Day) reunites with Denzel Washington (Training Day, The Equalizer) in an engrossing and exciting (second) remake of Kurosawa’s Japanese classic. Lots of shoot outs and macho strutting – but then, it is a western.

And I love the political statement at the end (of the seven, check out who survives!)

Rating: 73%