‘Perfect Strangers’

jBI9CbQ.jpgA huge commercial and critical success in its native Italy, Perfect Strangers is a, mostly, laugh-out-loud comedy as seven best friends pool mobile phones around the dinner table. No secrets? Hardly.

Faltering friendships and relationships abound as texts and Messenger are shared, conversations placed on speaker. Discussions and arguments ensue as the friends-since-school discover they know very little about each other.

It’s a dark black comedy – raw nerves are touched and opinions can be challenging for audiences. The cast of seven give impeccable performances as director Paolo Genovese (Perfect Family, A Neapolitan Spell) keeps it contained within the claustrophobia of painful truths.

Rating: 63%

‘The Salesman’

SalesmanThe best film in a foreign language Oscar winner, The Salesman is a confident, assured piece of cinema.

Surprisingly low key and minimal, to label it a revenge thriller would be doing Asghar Fahardi (A Separation, The Past) a disservice. Yet Shahab Hosseini (A Separation, About Elly) is determined to discover the identity of the man who assaulted his wife (a superbly resigned Taraneh Alidoosti – Modest Reception, About Elly) in their own home.

As with the magnificent A Separation, Fahardi builds the tension (without overly altering the pace) primarily through words, leaving you somewhat breathless as the narrative builds towards its compelling finale.

Rating: 81%

‘Loving’

C4aLimZXUAAHSse.jpgQuiet, understated, honourable – Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) has crafted a loving portrayal of a young couple caught up in the race relations maelstrom of 1950s Virginia.

Based on the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, Nichols’ film tells of the dirt poor couple whose mixed-race marriage broke all the rules on the statutes and led to changes in the law via the Supreme Court.

But the nuanced performances by Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby, Black Mass) and Ruth Negga (World War Z, Warcraft) avoid all grandstanding and courtroom dramas. Instead, over 10 years, Loving is their story of love , raising a family and survival.

Rating: 77%

‘Miss Sloane’

timthumb-1.phpIt may not be innovative or making an overtly political statement, but Miss Sloane is a superior, highly polished conspiracy theory drama.

Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, The Martian) dominates all around her as the high-flying Washington D.C. lobbyist taking on the gun lobby and her ex-firm. And she intends to win – whatever the cost. A crowd-pleasing, flag-waving ending is a little trite but characters and narrative alike move the storyline along at a cracking pace – exactly what you would expect from director John Madden (Shakespeare In Love, The Debt).

Rating: 61%

‘Bliss’ by Peter Carey

blissAn acerbic commentary on family, consumerism, advertising and bourgeois avarice, Carey’s debut novel was presented with the 1981 Miles Franklin Award.

As Harry Joy hovers above his prone body in the opening pages, dead for nine minutes before being revived, he looks around his wealthy suburban home of a successful Australian east coast advertising executive. At just 39 years old, he has suffered a massive coronary.

But Harry wakens in the hospital convinced he has died and in Hell, this new world populated by actors playing roles. His beautiful wife Bettina is unfaithful and in the process of leaving Harry for his trusted business partner, Joel. And his teenage children are not the innocents he believes them to be – son Harry a drug dealer dreaming of working for the Colombian cartel; daughter Lucy more than prepared to bestow sexual favours on her brother in return for a hit.

Life at 25 Palm Avenue has definitely changed. Having met with Honey Barbara – part-time dope grower, part-time hooker – and her hippy, pantheistic outlook, Harry is quick to divest clients who do not meet his newly acquired ethical standards. As Harry’s suspicions and paranoia grow, his determination to become a Good Person grows.

The family conspire to have him committed. Not that that’s particularly difficult – along with his convictions and financial suicide, the local mental home is a privatised business and any patient, sane or otherwise, means subsidy dollars for Dr Alice Dalton.

There’s a strange, dream-like quality to Bliss. In this unspecified tropical, humid rainforest (likely to be Queensland), everything and everyone is a little strange and more than a little odd.

Harry doesn’t stay in the hospital for very long. Money gets him in, money gets him out. And Honey Barbara is now part of his life in Palm Avenue, in spite of her hatred for all things poisonous (living in a commune in the middle of nowhere, everything about city life is poisonous). But nothing is easily settled in the Joy family –  Joel now lives in the Palm Avenue home, even if Bettina no longer feels any love for him.

Bliss is all a little crazy and anarchic, with pauses to the flow of narrative every few pages that creates a staccato reading. This structure does at times make it difficult to ‘get into’ the swing of the novel, added to which Carey is not adverse to occasionally fast-forwarding 20 years to inform us of the conclusion of a particular event or story. But Carey’s prose is beautifully descriptive and accessible – and the black, black humour is, mostly, captivating.

It’s not my favourite Carey novel – it digresses at times, annoys at others – but there is no doubting its deep humanity and love of its subject and subjects.

 

‘Logan’

loganposter2Violent and foul-mouthed it may be (no limitations to the final Wolverine film being a kid-friendly flick) but director James Mangold (The Wolverine, Walk the Line) has crafted Hugh Jackman’s final outing with respect and a satisfying sense of finality.

Mutants may have been (mostly) wiped out but new and illegal experiments on kids in Mexico go badly wrong. Cue ageing Wolverine and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) stepping into the breach. It’s an action drama that’s invested in the script. And young newcomer Dafne Keen is excellent.

Rating: 77%

‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler

a-spool-of-blue-threadThe Pulitzer Prize-winning Anne Tyler treads familiar ground with her 20th novel: the importance of complex family relationships and the struggles by parents and siblings alike to assert their individualities within a shared existence. And, like so many of her earlier stories, A Spool of Blue Thread is set in Baltimore.

A leafy Baltimore suburb is home to the Whitshank family in a large, sprawling house built by Junior Whitshank in the late 1930s. Now, daughter-in-law and ex-social worker Abby rules the roost with an excess of love, energy and irrepressible enthusiasm as she (s)mothers her husband Red and four adult children – even if they have long moved out, married and had children of their own. Or at least three have.

The eldest boy, Denny, is proving to be something of an enigma to Abby and Red. Having dropped out of college, he has adopted an itinerant lifestyle and only occasionally contacts members of the family. Most of the time the Whitshanks have no idea where Denny may be.

A Spool of Blue Thread is a chronicle of the Whitshanks family life told over three generations in four sections. There is little reflection on times past per se – Tyler choses to bookend the present day family story whilst telling Abby and Red’s 1959 courtship and the meeting of Junior and Linnie Mae in the 1930s separately. Family fortunes and misfortunes, jealousies petty or otherwise, death, illness, sadness, joy, changes and constancy all inevitably form part of the Whitshank history. And there’s certainly a twist or two.

But A Spool of Blue Thread is all a bit too hollow, too cutesy and homely as apple pie. Anne Tyler has a reputation for her characterisation yet none of the contemporary Whitshanks are particularly interesting – due in part to the fact that most of them are only walk-on characters. The one-dimensional eldest siblings Amanda and Jeannie are present but have little presence: their husbands – both named Hugh – and children even less so. Denny is the black sheep of the family – but he remains an enigma to us all. As a character portrayal, A Spool of Blue Thread fails badly

Ultimately, it’s wane and tedious. The so-called courtship of Junior and Linnie Mae is diverting enough and Tyler captures the mores of the time beautifully. But overall I just didn’t care enough about any of the characters and this oh-so-white existence in its Baltimore bubble. I’m not looking for melodrama, a breathless narrative or even an overtly political statement, but a little grit here and there would not go amiss. But then that’s not Tyler’s style.

A Spool of Blue Thread was shortlisted for the 2015 Mann Booker Prize but it (thankfully) lost out to Marlon James and A Brief History of Seven Killings.

‘Jasper Jones’

mmt966-flatpackPublished in 2010, Jasper Jones the novel has established itself as one of the most loved of all local novels – an Australian Southern Gothic where the heat is real, the cicadas loud as the tension builds in the (fictional) West Australian town of Corrigan.

It’s a coming-of-age melodrama and something of a thriller mystery, touching upon the racism and narrow-mindedness of 1960s Australia.  The townsfolk are on high alert with the disappearance of schoolgirl Laura. But both indigenous teenager Jasper Jones and his confidant, Charlie, know where she is and think they know  what has happened to her.

Sadly, whereas the novel masterfully tells its tale and introduces a wonderful array  of characters, director Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae, Radiance) has chosen to race through its telling. The result is a superficial hotchpotch of barely related scenes and events. Young actors Aaron L McGrath (Around the Block) as the barely seen Jasper and Levi Miller (Pan, Red Dog: True Blue) try hard but ultimately they, along with a stellar Australian cast including Hugo Weaving, Toni Collette and Dan Wylie, are wasted.

Rating: 51%

‘Pigeon English’ by Stephen Kelman

9781408828205Recently arrived in London with his mother and sister (the rest of the family remain in Ghana), eleven year-old Harri needs to learn the rules and language of the street – and quickly.

Living on the eleventh floor of a block of flats on a rough London council estate where the Dell Farm Crew rule the roost, Harri is a kid who loves his family and with his own dreams. But then a boy is knifed to death on the estate: the police call for witnesses is met with silence. With a little too much TV experience and crime series in particular to his name, Harri along with best mate Dean, enticed by the thrill and adventure, decide to naively start their own investigations.

Pigeon English is something of a hybrid first novel from Stephen Kelman. That it is homage to the experiences of young migrant kids and alien environments is unquestionable. But Kelman himself also confirms that it is homage to the 2000 murder of 10 year-old Damilola Taylor on London’s notorious North Peckham estate by local gang members. Taylor had only recently arrived with his family from Nigeria.

But the novel is also a celebration of childhood, friendship and the innocence (or not) of experience in an ever-changing world. Told from Harri’s infectious and ebullient curiosity and glorious multicultural slang, he might possibly be the fastest runner in his school: he certainly believes himself to be in love with classmate Poppy: he misses his Papa, grandma and baby sister still in Ghana. But Harri is also wary of gang members X-Fire and Killa along with his sister’s worldly friend, Miquita (girlfriend of Killa).

It’s an endearing read tinged with more than a little sadness – the waste, the hopelessness, the fear, the despair of life in such environments. Harri tries to make the most of it – and it is his enthusiasm for the world around him that draws you into the book.

Pigeon English was shortlisted for the 2011 Booker Prize, but lost out to Julian Barnes and The Sense of an Ending.

‘Silence’

silence-posterA labour of love long in gestation by legendary director Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, The Departed) is a contemplative work reflecting on the meaning of faith, love, colonialism and the questioning of authority.

Padres Rodrigues (a quietly solid performance by Andrew Garfield – Hackshaw Ridge, Spiderman) and Garupe (Adam Driver – Paterson, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) arrive in 17th century Japan in search of the reported apostatised Padre Ferreira. The last Jesuit priests, outlawed, arrive to christian persecution.

Scorsese’s latest is a slowly unfolding epic which looks beautiful (cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto – Babel, Brokeback Mountain – the only Oscar nomination for the film) but is slowwww and, at times,tedious and unengaging.

Rating: 57%