‘The White Tiger’ by Aravind Adiga

the_white_tigerOn first reading a few years ago, I found Adiga’s debut novel informative, well written and immensely entertaining. But sadly, from an entertaining perspective, The White Tiger does not pass the test of time.

An epistolary novel, with self-proclaimed murderer and modern Indian entrepreneur, Balram Halwai, our unreliable narrator, writing long letters to His Excellency, Wen Jiabao, premier of China and soon to be distinguished guest of the Indian government.

Spread over seven nights, Balram describes his rise out of poverty to managing director of his own fleet of taxis in the emerging southern Indian city of Bangalore. His is a story of ambition, corruption, power and murder – a personal story that is also a reflection on contemporary India that remains mired in the traditions of the caste system.

From his feudal village, where landlords control everything and every wage earner pays his dues, Balram uses his wits and cunning to rise above the ordure. A chance appointment as a driver to Ashok, a landlord’s son newly returned from the States, leads him to the corrupting influence of the country’s capital, New Delhi. It’s a very different world to Balram with its exclusive shopping malls, hotels, restaurants and clubs out-of-bounds to most Indians.

Whilst his brother and father continue to run the family business in their village, Ashok is the trusted family delivery-boy, paying out millions of rupees to politicians and government workers in bribes and donations. But a few too many conversations take place inside the car and within earshot of the ‘trusted’ Balram. And gradually, as Balram becomes more and more angry about his servitude and his treatment by his employers, so a plan unfolds.

Mordant satire abounds in Adiga’s novel – Balram can be cutting with his views on Indian politics, the caste system and his extended family, controlled as they are by the paternal grandmother and living in penury. His other ‘family’, the landlords, also come under the proverbial hammer.

But it’s also Balram who is the problem in The White Tiger. Or, more specifically, Balram is essentially the only character in the story who is, in anyway, fleshed out. Thus we are fed a limited, two-dimensional perspective as events unfold, events that have already been revealed early in the novel. The result is there’s no sense of depth, no sense of suspense to Balram’s confession (if, indeed, it is a confession).

The White Tiger is an easy read (it’s seemingly effortlessly written – certainly a point in Adiga’s favour). And the early half of the novel, set in Balram’s village, is incisive and humorous. But as the narrative unfolds, so it loses something and, ultimately, becomes a disappointment. The White Tiger was awarded the 2008 Booker Prize, beating out Sebastian Barry’s exquisite literary magic that is The Secret Scripture.

‘Jackie’

jackie-posterA stunning central performance from Natalie Portman (Black Swan, Thor) is the emotional core of this raw portrait of Jackie Kennedy in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination.

Elegant, intelligent, graceful which eschews tradition and expectation – a description of both Jackie herself as well as director Pablo Larrain’s (No, Neruda) semi-documentary. This is no lush Hollywood biopic – instead we get a stripped down telling of the human side of an event that changed history.

Rating: 72%

‘Lion’

lion-movie-poster-504x709A superior piece of (based-on-truth) storytelling, Lion avoids overly mawkish sentimentality as adopted 20-something Saroo Brierley searches for his birth mother somewhere in India.

Separated from his family as a young boy, Saroo finds himself in the Tasmanian home of Sue and John Brierley via an orphanage in Calcutta (a fine, Oscar-nominated performance from Nicole Kidman – The Others, Rabbit Hole). But as a young adult, Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) needs closure.

With an immensely  respectful and immersive telling of the early stages of the story (some 40 subtitled minutes with 5 year old Saroo), director Garth Davis, in his feature film debut, builds the emotional arc beautifully as the notion of family, identity and home are explored in this thoroughly engrossing film.

Rating: 75%

‘The Blind Assassin’ by Margaret Atwood

blindWhilst Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize winning The Blind Assassin is (inevitably) beautifully written, it is, personally, one of her least interesting novels.

Set in Canada in the present day, octogenarian Iris Chase narrates a story that spans the twentieth century. Down-at-heel in a small condo in a tourist town in Southern Ontario, Iris slowly reveals events that, from a once privileged position of family wealth and power, led to her downfall.

Married off to save the family business at a young age, the suicide of her sister Laura in 1945, an arrogant older husband with political ambitions supported by his manipulative and interfering sister, Winifred. In spite of being surrounded all her young life by wealth, Iris is not in a happy place, very much the gender victim of the conservative times.

Ostensibly, The Blind Assassin is the story of the two sisters and their relationships with two men at either end of the political spectrum. A trophy wife to the patriarchal bully with fascist leanings that is Richard Griffen, Iris is trapped in a loveless marriage. Alex Thomas is a communist agitator wanted in connection to the fire at the Chase button factory and the death of a night watchman. Laura is infatuated with the political activist – but it is Iris who has a long-standing love affair with him.

Within their story is the novel within the novel – Thomas entertains his lover with stories of Planet Zycron, written for the pulp magazines from which he survives financially (writing under an assumed name).

Iris ups and leaves Griffen with newborn baby in tow having discovered he had been sexually abusing a 16 year-old Laura. A less privileged life is on the cards, but at least she will be with the man she loves. Bad timing – having returned from the Spanish Civil War, Alex Thomas volunteers for the war in Europe. He does not return and never knows his daughter, Aimee.

Forty years later, Iris looks back on this early time in her life (time between now and then is written off in a paragraph or two). It’s a resigned memory – a little bitter (mainly towards a still living Winifred), a little angry (her powerlessness within her own home as a newly-wed), a little sad (the death of Aimee from substance and alcohol abuse). But there’s undoubtedly a level of relief, having escaped the suffocating life destined by her marriage to a political climber.

There are, in my mind, a number of issues with The Blind Assassin but the main problem is its length – a judicious editor should have cut from 630+ pages to 350 or so. A tight, well-told family melodrama would have resulted. Instead, we have a rambling family melodrama populated with unlikeable characters and a (bad) sci-fi/fantasy theme running through it.

Final result was that, in essence, The Blind Assassin bored me. There were several occasions when I came close to giving up. But I persevered…

Margaret Atwood collected her only Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin in 2000. Having received mixed reviews on publication, it was not the favourite to win – Trezza Azzopardi (The Hiding Place) and Michael Collins (The Keepers of Truth) were joint favourites to win.

 

 

‘Paterson’

patersonA poetic and unadorned celebration of very little, Paterson is a deeply personal off-beat character study from director Jim Jarmusch (Down By Law, Only Lovers Left Alive) grounded in the everyday.

Bus-driver Paterson (a magnificently low-key Adam Driver – Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Inside Llewyn  Davis) simply gets on with his day – rising at 6.10am, snuggling up to his girlfriend for a few minutes before breakfasting on Cheerios. He’s a (bad) poet: she (Golshifteh Farahani – Body of Lies, About Elly) an incessant creator (baking, painting, sewing). After dinner (creative but…. cheese and brussel sprout pie?) Paterson takes the dog for a walk and stops off at a local bar for a beer or two.

And that’s about it. For a week. Yet Paterson is a quietly charming film full of observation and quietude.

Rating: 71%

‘Assassin’s Creed’

asscreedinternationalHaving extremely low expectations meant that this was not as bad as anticipated! Don’t get me wrong, it’s still bad, wasting the talent on offer, from young Australian director Justin Kurzel (MacBeth, Snowtown) through to Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard (MacBeth, La vie en rose) and Oscar-nominee Michael Fassbender (MacBeth, Steve Jobs).

An adaptation of a best-selling video game, Assassin’s Creed‘s saving grace is the visually arresting set pieces as we move between 15th century Spanish Inquisition and modern day. But even they wear thin.

Rating: 34%

‘A United Kingdom’

a-united-kingdom-new-posterWhilst A United Kingdom may not be pushing the boundaries of contemporary cinema – and its certainly a little clunky in parts – the beauty of director Amma Asante’s (Belle, A Way of Life) heartfelt feature is that it reaffirms the value of film as an informative entertainment.

Post World War II and Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana, studying in London, causes international outrage when he marries an English (white) woman. His ascendancy to the throne coincides with neighbouring South Africa bringing its apartheid policies into force.With Botswana under the historical ‘protectorship’ of the UK, both Labour and Tory governments in Britain will stop at nothing to keep its relationship with South Africa (and its gold) on positive terms.

British foreign and colonial policy at its malodorous worst (a splendidly vile Jack Davenport – Pirates of the Caribbean, Kingsman: the Secret Service – is the (fictional) British representative to southern Africa) yet the true love story between Prince Seretse (a solid performance from David Oyelowo – Selma, The Butler) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl, An Education) overcomes all.

Rating: 63%

‘Passengers’

passengers-1An unexpected template of a space feature (did we really need yet another outside the spacecraft repair scenario?) which evolves into a two-handed stage play with Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy, Jurassic World) and Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook, The Hunger Games) waking up somewhat earlier than intended on their 300 year journey to the distant Homestead II planet colony.

It’s not bad – it’s just not very good – although there’s an enjoyable series of interludes with Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon, The Twilight Saga) as the android barman.

Rating: 48%

Best of Year (2016) -Film

i-daniel-blakeAs mentioned in an earlier post, 2016 was not awash, in my opinion, with great films. Lots of good ones, a few that didn’t quite live up to expectations or some abject failures. Hence my top 10 for the year is noticeable by its lack of US ‘studio’ films and dominated by European ‘sensibility’. There’s little room for last year’s big critical darlings – only Spotlight making the cut from the Oscar nominated best films. No The Revenant or The Big Short (the latter sitting just outside the top 10).

To be honest, I was a little surprised by the way my list panned out – but it’s all based on my own percentage rating and rings true. ‘Story’ dominated – whilst I’m not averse to action and adventure, it’s the narrative that is all-important. So the indie productions are well-represented.

My top 10 films for the 2016:

10=: Captain Fantastic (Canada) w/Viggo Mortensen
Mr Gaga (Israeli documentary) dir/Tomer Heymann
7=:    The Hateful 8 (US) w/Samuel L. Jackson
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (New Zealand) w/Sam Neill
The Embrace of the Serpent (Colombia)
5=:    Spotlight (US) w/Michael Keaton
Hell or High Water (US) w/Chris Pine
4:      Indignation (US) w/Logan Lerman
3:      Nocturnal Animals (US) w/Amy Adams
2:      Mustang (Turkey/France)
1:      I, Daniel Blake (UK) dir/Ken Loach

Quiet, social commentary films are there in numbers – the devasting Ken Loach Cannes Palme d’Or winner, I Daniel Blake sitting atop the list as my favourite film of the year. That was a little unexpected knowing La La Land was my last film of 2016. Going by critical response, I anticipated the Damien Chazelle homage to Hollywood musicals of the 50s to be the film of the year. It was good – but not that good, as indicated by its failure to feature in my top 10.

Both Mustang and The Embrace of the Serpent were nominated for last year’s best foreign language film – but they lost out to the Hungarian Holocaust drama, Son of Saul. You can see my opinion (Son of Saul came in around 15th for the year on my selection). The other foreign language film on the list, Mr Gaga, is the superb documentary focussing on Israeli contemporary dance choreographer, Ohad Naharin.

Both Hell or High Water and Nocturnal Animals share the presence of a Texan sheriff as crucial to the storyline – the underrated Michael Shannon in Tom Ford’s elegant suspense feature and the show-stealing Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water.

Disappointing not to see a local Australian film in the list but the Antipodes is represented by the most successful New Zealand film ever made – the irrepressible Hunt for the Wilderpeople. And its back-to-nature setting is mirrored by the alternative upbringing of the (large) Cash family in the Washington State wilderness of Captain Fantastic.

Best of Year (2016) – Male Performance

the_founderPersonally, 2016 was not awash with great films (or at least not yet released in Australia). And the same can be said about male performances. Drawing up the list was something of a struggle. There’s lots of good performances (Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs, Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge, Ryan Reynolds and Deadpool, Viggo Mortensen as Captain Fantastic, Tom Hanks in Sully and Don Cheadle in his personal labour-of-love that was Miles Ahead) but few that were that one rung up the ladder.

 

 

But my top five male performances of 2016 are:

5: Leonardo di Caprio (The Revenant)
4: Geza Rohrig (Son of Saul)
3: Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water)
2: Dave Johns (I, Daniel Blake)
1: Michael Keaton (The Founder)

Keaton’s renaissance over the last couple of years continues (Spotlight, Birdman) although chances are he will be overlooked again for his less than flattering portrayal of Ray Croc, CEO of McDonalds.

Part-time actor Dave Johns is riveting – and completely carries Ken Loach’s latest deeply humane British social commentary, I Daniel Blake. Jeff Bridges is in the supporting role for Texan sheriff in Hell or High Water – more screen time may have elevated him higher on the list. Like Johns, Geza Rohrig is rarely off-screen in the Hungarian Holocaust Oscar-winner, Son of Saul. And last year’s Oscar winner for best actor, Leonardo di Caprio, makes my top five for his role in The Revenant – narrowly beating out Tom Hardy who starred alongside him.

The list would have undoubtedly looked very different if the Australian release schedule mirrored the US – Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea), Denzel Washington (Fences), Joel Edgerton (Loving), Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) and Dev Patel (Lion) could well have formed the top five.