‘Why Him?’

why-himOver-protective father Bryan Cranston (Trumbo, Argo) is horrified to discover the intentions of foul-mouthed, heavily tattooed, multi-millionaire Laird Mayhew (an immensely likeable James Franco – Milk, 127 Hours) are truly honourable.

Played purely for hit-or-miss laughs, with mostly predictable or squirm-inducing misses, Christmas Cheer is most definitely missing as the straight-laced Fleming family descend on the Californian Mayhew mansion. But when it’s funny, it’s very funny.

Rating: 49%

‘The Natural Way of Things’ by Charlotte Wood

9781760111236A dystopian narrative of the future (or possibly the present), an imaginative story of misogyny and internment – Charlotte Wood’s haunting The Natural Way of Things is an Australian answer to Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (and with more than a passing reference to the BBC TV series, Tenko.)

A group of 10 young women find themselves imprisoned in a remote, ruinous deserted sheep station somewhere in the Australian outback.

Lorded over by the sadistic Boncer, the camp is surrounded by an unscaleable electric fence. Their captors – Hardings International – represent the corporate moral right, punishing these girls of ‘low moral character’ for their highly public sexual escapades. Their captivity is to teach them ‘what’ they are (what rather than whom. As a discursive parable, The Natural Way of Things highlights that women are generally vilified and blamed rather than seen as victims or part responsible. It is Verla who was at fault in her affair with the politician, Yolanda to blame for being gang-raped).

Each girl is kept in an individual sheep pen, forced into hard labour, issued Hamish-style clothing, shorn of hair and fed starvation rations of dried food. Two males – Boncer and Teddy – are employed to keep them in their place along with the dubious Nancy. But as time passes, the food begins to run out and the Hardings International representative shows no signs of visiting. They are all captives.

The Natural Way of Things is a deeply unsettling yet poetic novel. The title itself raises many questions – is the natural way the survival of the fittest? Is it what has become ‘natural’? (the rampant misogyny in Australian culture?). The girls themselves represent diversity of class, ethnicity, education and personality with each finding their own way (singularly or in groups) to survive their ordeal.

But Woods primarily focuses on the fiercely independent Yolanda and the courageous Verla.

They barely speak to each other yet their bond is deep. In hunting for food, Yolanda keeps captives and captors alike alive. In hunting for mushrooms, Verla keeps herself alive in her determination to kill.

With his baton, Boncer is a vindictive bully, dangerous in his elevation to power: Teddy is a ‘surfer dude’, breezing through yet, less apparent, equally dangerous. As alpha male, Boncer is threatened by Yolanda but, through her hunting prowress, gives her a wide berth. His control slowly breaks down. Now, only the girls can rescue themselves.

With its underlying menace, The Natural Way of Things is bleak. Its starkness, like its landscape, is threatening – in spite of some beautifully poetic prose

‘What? We can’t hear you,’ and then closed her eyes against the sun, hands on her hips, murmuring something beneath her breath. So she didn’t see the man’s swift, balletic leap – impossibly pretty and light across the gravel – and a leather-covered baton in his hand coming whack over the side of her jaw.

 Charlotte Wood’s fifth novel has, unsurprisingly, been garlanded with many awards, including the 2016 Stella Prize (best Australian novel written by a woman) and joint-winner of the Prime Minister’s Award for Literature (shared with Lisa Gorton and The Life of Houses). The Natural Way of Things was shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Award but lost out to Black Rock White City by A.S. Patric.

‘Mahana’

8160964210c80b4cd26183fae2c70f78_500x735Rose-tinted 1950s nostalgia from New Zealand director Lee Tamahori – his first for more than 15 years (Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in Die Another Day) and light years away from his 1994 hard-hitting Maori drama, Once Were Warriors.

Adapted from the novel by Witi Ihimaera (Whale Rider), the Mahana family are ruled over by the powerful but successful sheep rearing patriarch (Temuera Robinson – Star Wars II & III, Once Were Warriors). It’s a time of change, represented by his 14 year-old grandson, Simeon, and Elvis Presley movies yet the focus is on the tensions within the extended family and its rivalry with the Poata family. The racism of 1950s New Zealand and wider political issues of the day are barely touched upon.

It’s a slight, mildly engaging family drama that starts off strongly but peters out into predictability.

Rating; 45%

‘Elle’

1af37ad8-5b4f-46cf-92894a4f82706508‘It was necessary’ states the rapist to his victim, a wealthy divorced Parisian businesswoman, the stunning Isabelle Huppert (The Piano Teacher, Amour). Having discovered his identity, a dangerous sexual cat-and-mouse ensues. With new sexual challenges, Huppert dumps her current lover – the husband of her best friend.

Elle is nasty, violent and vicious. Stylish it may be with its Parisian chic and director Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, Robocop) has teased out a superb performance from his lead (tipped to be Huppert’s first Oscar nomination). The director’s intention may well have been for us to mirror Huppert’s cat, who watches her violent assault with indifference. But a ‘rape revenge black comedy’? Loathsome.

Rating: 30% 

‘Eileen’ by Ottessa Moshfegh

ottessa-moshfegh-eileenEileen Dunlop, 24, is perversely and gloriously unlikeable. It’s 1964 and Eileen lives in an unnamed New England town with her alcoholic ex-cop father in the squalid, rambling family home. The mother is long dead and the older sister has flown the coup. He survives on gin, she on handfuls of peanuts, the occasional shower and weekly handfuls of laxatives to help purge her body.

Eileen is undoubtedly trapped – the demands from her father and the monotony of her job as a secretary at the local boys’ juvenile prison offer little cheer and even less joy. Yet she does very little to help herself other than daydream about her escape. I couldn’t be bothered to deal with fixing things. I preferred to wallow in the problem, dream of better days.

 As a psychological drama, Eileen is masterful. The unreliable narrator unravels in front of us – a repressed, body-dysmorphic, depressed, naïve young woman who deludes herself into believing that, publically, she is in control. Yet, hiding herself in her mother’s matronly clothing several sizes too big (useful for shoplifting), her own alcoholic binges and erotic fantasies centred primarily round Randy, a prison guard, point to an erratic self evaluation and misinformed sense of self.

The arrival of the charismatic Rebecca Saint John to work at the prison shifts Eileen’s focus. Beautiful, stylish, confident, Rebecca is everything Eileen is not. She is the fillip Eileen needs to break free from her own self-loathing and undermining relationship with her father.

New lipstick and underwear (stolen of course), different clothes from her mother’s wardrobe and an attempt to be more social (within limits) all make their appearance (much to the dismissive amusement of her father). And it achieves the result Eileen wants – a drink with Rebecca after work, a Christmas Eve social. Yet, in these last few pages of the novel, she finds herself in a totally unexpected situation.

Eileen is a character completely out of place. Other than a few months in Boston at college (pulled out to care for her dying mother), she has lived her life in the small coastal New England town. She shows no interest in popular culture, preferring obscure library books, a subscription to National Geographic and the wardrobe of her dead mother. She has stepped out of a Patricia Highsmith novel. (Should the novel find its way to film, Rooney Mara is the perfect fit).

 But the problem with Eileen is that, as a narrative, it’s a little drab and slow moving – something of a tortoise. Eileen is a great character study, a psychological drama centred round the main character. It is not a psychological thriller as suggested by the front cover – nothing of any import happens until the last few pages.

In her debut novel, Ottessa Moshfegh was (somewhat surprisingly) shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. She lost out to the first American winner of the award, Paul Beatty and The Sellout.

 

 

‘The Fencer’

usposter27x40inch_thefencerlowA true story told as a predictable melodrama, The Fencer is conventional but engaging.

Endel Nelis (a solid Mart Avandi) arrives to teach at a school in the small Estonian town of Haapsalu during the post-war Stalin era. His leaving Leningrad stirs suspicion among party officials at the school: the fact he is a fencing champion adds to their interest.

Starting a successful fencing class as part of the (‘voluntary’) Saturday Sports Club goes against the proletariat teaching of the principal – and brings attention on Nelis from education officials outside the town. And then the kids get wind of an all-Soviet elite fencing competition due to take place in Leningrad….

The Fencer is a David & Goliath story set in the drab, atmospheric 1950s (perfectly captured in set design and cinematography). It’s an unchallenging enjoyment marred slightly by an overemphatic score.

Rating: 56%

‘Like Crazy’ (La pazza gioia)

like-crazy-700x1000-copy-2An Italian Thelma & Louise as Beatrice and Donatella escape a psychiatric facility deep in rural Italy.

It’s a fun ride with the well-heeled Beatrice (a magnificently loopy, constantly talking Valeria Bruni Tedeschi – Human Capital, A Castle in Italy) leading a suicidally-depressed Micaela Ramazotti (The First Beautiful Thing, Those Happy Years) in search of her young son.

Comedy and drama, pathos and elation are part of their journey as the two women develop a close friendship. Director Paolo Virzi (Human Capital, The First Beautiful Thing) avoids all the hospital stereotype pitfalls, allowing the narrative to follow the two central characters in their adventures.

Rating: 68%

‘I, Daniel Blake’

i-daniel-blake-posterVeteran director Ken Loach (Kes, The Wind That Shakes the Barley) is a no nonsense storyteller who wears his anger firmly on his sleeve. Social and political injustice dramatisations are told with passionate integrity.

I, Daniel Blake is no different – a quietly devastating film of the destruction of an individual by an uncaring system. Suffering a heart-attack at 59 and advised by medical experts not return to work in the foreseeable future, Daniel finds himself up against a system that ignores  that same expert medical advice in its push to get him back to work immediately – any kind of work. And if he won’t do as he is told – well, there’s always the food banks.

As Daniel, stand-up comedian and occasional TV actor Dave Johns is the superb backbone of this damning critique of government policy.  But, whilst the anger is palpable, the story is told quietly, gently and with a large dose of Newcastle humour.

Rating: 84%