My introduction to the writings of Roger McDonald was through his 2010 novel, When Colts Ran. With its immersive sense of place and character in a small Australian outback town over a period of time and history, When Colts Ran is a sweeping paean to rural Australian life. But it’s no easy read.
McDonald’s earlier work, Water Man (published in 1993), also explores similar themes of displacement, disillusionment and uncertainty with its overlapping narratives of characters and events 50 years apart.
Mal Fitch is a successful Sydney theatre director native to Logan’s Reef, a dry, desolate Red Centre settlement. Mal returns every summer to work behind the bar at The Criterion Hotel – the only pub in a town now dying on its feet. His father is the near legendary water diviner Gunner Fitch, long dead, killed in World War II. It is Gunner’s rivalry with wealthy William D’Inglis, owner of the local flourmill, that continues to have repercussions on Logan’s Reef and the Fitch and D’Inglis families.
More than 50 years earlier, Gunner was contracted to source water on the Croppdale property of the D’Inglis’ family. Instead, he went off to war and was blown up at the Battle of El Alamein. But Fitch knew there was water – and a lot of it – deep below the surface of the local rocky landscape. But now no-one knows where to bore – and the parched land and the few remaining residents are desperate. Like When Colts Ran, Water Man is no easy read. But, unlike the later book, Water Man is not particularly enjoyable. A litany of unpleasant characters with little or no redeeming features populates Logan’s Reef both past and present, with the centenarian William D’Inglis the cohesive element to the storyline. It is he that continues Gunner’s strange legacy.
The characters themselves are undoubtedly affected by the barren, arid landscape, a brutal environment of desperation, meanness and general unpleasantness. It is not just the drought-ridden soil that needs the replenishment of water. And Water Man does elicit change when the waters do eventually arrive. An almost magical change takes place among even the bitterest of men (there’s very few womenfolk), a modern day fable of our time. It’s just a pity that more investment in the fate of the locals had been garnered.
Water Man was one of only three novels shortlisted for the 1994 Miles Franklin award. McDonald, along with David Malouf’s superb Remembering Babylon lost out to Rodney Hall and The Grisly Wife.
Once you get over a film where you’re inundated with the dreaded McDonalds visuals (those eponymous golden arches…), director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr Banks) takes us into the foundling 50s and 60s of American fast food.
The contractural stubbornness of the McDonald brothers led opportunist franchise manager Ray Kroc (a superb Michael Keaton – Birdman, Spotlight) to go it alone – and make Mackers one of the biggest companies in the world. Attention to period detail and an intelligent script (Robert D Siegel – The Wrestler, Big Fan) leaves your sympathies (surprisingly) vacillating between Kroc and the brothers.
It’s fun, it’s entertaining, it carries an important sociopolitical message – but, inversely, Cyndi Lauper’s Kinky Boots confirms that the musical is, personally, my least favourite of the stage genre.
The story is based on true events – Charlie Price inherits his family’s Northampton shoe-making business and, in attempting to avoid bankruptcy, makes an unlikely alliance in the making of ‘shoes for women worn by men.’
As drag queen Lola, Callum Francis (understudy in the original West End production) is captivating and likely to give the Broadway and West End stars a run for their money. The showstopping Not My Father’s Son and Hold Me in Your Heart are standouts, with Lola belting them out like the best of them. But sadly, the rest of the energetic Australian cast struggle with the material. They certainly try hard and their enthusiasm is undeniable. But it’s all just a little too try hard.
Enjoyable at the time, listening to the soundtrack a few days later left me, with a couple of exceptions, unmoved – a telltale sign!
It’s hard to believe that Fantastic Beasts… is penned by the same author who bought Harry Potter, Hermione, Ron Weasel et al to the world. That was consummate storytelling.
JKRowling has forgotten that basic tenet – for the first hour or so, new to 1920s New York Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything, Les Miserables) spends too much of his time inside his own suitcase full of those fantastical beasts struggling to find any significant story. Lolly coloured beasts abound – most of them scary looking but in reality pussycats.
Fantastic Beasts… ultimately boils down to the struggle between good and evil (where do we know that particular theme from…?). But, unlike Potter, its full of characters who are mostly pale imitations of those you find in Hogwarts 70 years later. I certainly have no intention of spending another four movies with them – I’ll stick to reruns of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
A thoughtful, metaphysical science fiction, Arrival is considerably more challenging than the average alien invasion adventure. Just when you think you’ve worked it out, director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners) throws in another question into the mix.
Pondering on the bigger questions of time, loss and love can get a little bogged down and, at the two-third point, Arrival flags. But a quiet, nuanced performance by Amy Adams (Nocturnal Animals, Doubt) carries the film through its more uncertain moments. And the denouement was certainly unexpected!
Stylish but deeply cynical, intoxicating but unnerving, director Tom Ford’s follow up to his 2009 debut A Single Man is a sensual minefield of emotions and narrative.
A beautifully modulated performance by Amy Adams (Arrival, American Hustle) as the unhappily married high-end LA art dealer is juxtaposed by the raw emotion of ex-husband Jake Gyllenhaal (Southpaw, Donnie Darko) featuring in a different but interlinked storyline to the one inhabited by Adams.
With a support cast including Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass, Savages) and Michael Shannon (Man of Steel, Revolutionary Road), Nocturnal Animals is a sophisticated thriller with more than a hint of psychological revenge.
It’ll hardly stay with you post-viewing but director Gavin O’Connor (Warrior, Tumbleweeds) provides an entertaining yet frustrating action crime drama.
Ben Affleck (Gone Girl, The Town) is an Asperger maths genius. But with precision military childhood training courtesy of his sadistic father, he can balance more than just the books. He’s an accountant in demand – legit or otherwise. For more than half the film, cutting between childhood and precise behavioural patterns as an adult makes for a fascinating and, at times, amusing narrative. Sadly, intent on revenge and justice, The Accountant abandons its central premise for its predictable shoot-em up finale.
Loss, loneliness and dislocation are prevalent throughout Melbourne writer A S Patric’s debut novel.
As refugees from the Balkan wars, Jovan Brakocevic and his wife Suzanna are at a loss in their new Melbourne home. A former university lecturer and published poet in Sarajevo, Jovan is a cleaner at a local hospital; Suzanna cleans private homes. Their loss of a former life is palpable, the deaths of their two young children haunting their every move. Both are struggling to adapt – with their surroundings and with each other. A silence pervades.
Patric mixes his chronologies, slowly revealing the horrors of a country torn apart by religious and social wars, centuries in the making. Juxtaposed is the new everyday, where Jovan needs to concern himself with new brake pads or Suzanna leaving the lights on in their rented home. The couple are now in a country where a local Australian co-worker “… thinks he hates a boss or a politician or someone at his local pub,” Jovan observes, “but he hasn’t seen hate turn to fire, free-floating and exploding throughout a city, and then materialising again into a blistered red monster more real than any creature children imagine in night-time terrors.”
Black Rock White City is the story of trauma and the extent people can recover from tragedy and what happens to them in the process. It is told against the backdrop of an anonymous graffiti artist (labelled Dr Graffitio) vandalising the hospital and specialised equipment. It is this storyline that initially dominates, but slowly its prevalence becomes secondary. The real horrors are Balkan-related.
It’s bleak, challenging and deeply impressive. Yet I did not like Black Rock White City. Suzanna is the more interesting of the two central characters, but she only comes into any significant focus at the halfway stage. The novel’s slow beginnings centred on Dr Graffitio and Jovan’s sexual tryst with a dentist. The stark relationship between Jovan and Suzanna is beautifully realised: life in Sarajevo and Belgrade (White City) stunningly portrayed in its inhumanity and incomprehension. Yet the vandalism subplot gets in the way of this exploration, with its denouement a seemingly clumsy and abrupt afterthought.
Black Rock White City was presented with the 2016 Miles Franklin Award.
Overtly stylised Korean film noir, The Age of Shadows is a beautifully filmed cloak-and-dagger twisting narrative as the Korean Resistance attempt to move explosives from Shanghai into Seoul to move against the 1930s Japanese occupation.
It’s a slow start (with the exception of the fabulously staged shoot-out that opens the film) as characters are introduced, with Kang-ho Song (Snowpiercer, The Host) the Korean-born Japanese police officer heading the team trying to stop the Resistance. But director Jee-woon Kim (A Tale of Two Sisters, I Saw the Devil) ramps up the action as things become more and more desperate for all parties.
Hacksaw Ridge, the latest directorial outing by Mel Gibson (Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ) is a big, emotionally manipulative blockbuster of a war film. But, based on the true story of seventh day adventist, Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Valor, there’s an over reliance on faith and patriotism to fill in the slots between the battle scenes.
An endearing Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spiderman, The Social Network) plays Doss straight down the line, overcoming the barrack-room bullying. But the real star of the US-Australian co-production that is Hacksaw Ridge is the stunningly filmed, gruesome battles. Cinematographer Simon Duggan (The Great Gatsby, I Robot) and editor John Gilbert (The Lord of the Rings, The World’s Fastest Indian) should be in the running for Oscars.