‘Viceroy House’

Viceroy's_House_(film)Lord Mountbatten arrives in Delhi as the last British Viceroy to India. He’s to oversee the transition to independence.

Director Gurinda Chandar (Bhaji on the Beach, Bend It Like Beckham) somehow manages to reduce partition and its associated violence into an episode of Downton Abbey – even casting Hugh Bonneville as Mountbatten. Lots of hooded stares and pushing among the Hindu and Muslim servants in Government House: lots of love struck stares between Jeet Kumar (Hindu) and Aalia Noor (Muslim) in the servants quarters.

In all, the film aims to be epic in its telling, but lacks emotion or authenticity. It is only Gillian Anderson (The X-Files, The Last King of Scotland) as Lady Edwina Mountbatten who stands out in what is essentially a boring and tedious film.

Rating: 40%

‘Alien: Covenant’

3229948-alien+covenant+ka+promoIt’s not the most coherent of the Alien/Prometheus films and, at times the action seems a little rushed after an overly slow intro, but Alien: Covenant is nothing if not spectacularly crafted.

Thrills and (literally) spills abound as the synthetic David (a sublime Michael Fassbender – Prometheus, 12 Years a Slave) looks to creation and immortality. But the real story of course is the virus that evolves into the deadly creatures – and what’s low in number in Alien: Covenant is still enough to create carnage on an unchartered planet and aboard the colony ship, Covenant.

Ridley Scott (The Martian, Alien) plumbs the same scares from the original to great effect along with several references to earlier films in the franchise as the action keeps on coming and the gore count keeps on rising.

Rating: 62%

‘The Van’ by Roddy Doyle

13452626Thirty or so years ago, in modern parlance, Roddy Doyle was trending. His first two novels, The Commitments and The Snapper, had successfully transferred to the big screen. And the third in the Barrytown Trilogy, The Van, was shortlisted for the 1991 Booker Prize. (Doyle went on to win the Booker two years later with Paddy Ha Ha Ha).

But today, the working-class Barrytown vernacular of the Rabbitte family wears thin. The ups and downs of these Dublin residents and friends have been charted throughout the trilogy – with the expectation that with such low personal and communal esteem, everything is doomed to failure. And whereas previous Barrytown narratives have focussed on the younger members, The Van looks to the older generation of Jimmy Rabbitte Sr and mate Bimbo.

They’ve both been laid off from work – Jimmy Sr from the off, Bimbo about a quarter into the book.

Hearing and seeing the previous family breadwinner cope with his diminished responsibility is the strength of The Van – a man bought so low he relies on his teenage son slipping him a fiver so that he can afford to buy a round at the pub (as long as there’s only himself, Bimbo and Bertie).

Jimmy Sr spends his endless days lost – checking out the library, playing with his grandchild, walking the dog – and without any sense of purpose. It changes when Bimbo gets laid off from the bakery: Jimmy can share his new found knowledge of the area. But it’s a hollow victory. Both men soon become lost and aimless.

And then Bimbo buys the decrepit van and goes into partnership with Jimmy Sr. A fish and chip business just in time for the World Cup (as long as they can get it clean) with plans to set themselves up outside the pub or prime coastal spots. Against the odds, it’s a financial windfall for both men in spite of the low quality goods they’re serving through the hatch.

But it’s Bimbo’s wife, Maggie, who has the business acumen. Decisions are made without any reference to Jimmy: but then Bimbo bought the van, so is it a real partnership? Enclosed in cramped conditions, temperatures rise and their relationship shifts and changes.

Farcical humour abounds as Jimmy and Bimbo slip and slide through the narrative (literally – a little too much chip fat, ketchup and oil gets spilt in the confines of the van) or a gang of kids rock the vehicle ‘for the crack’. But, overall, it just ain’t funny.

Pints (in great quantities) are drunk; comments are made about friends, neighbours, passing females; food is served along with a volley of wisecracks; the achievements of the Irish football team celebrated – all in a novel that is predominantly dialogue. ‘Hilarious’, ‘wonderfully funny’, ‘faultless comic writing’ are all plaudits writ large on the cover.

Maybe in the 90s it was. But tastes [sic] change and The Van is as hard on the palate as the burgers Jimmy and Bimbo serve up. Doyle’s novel was shortlisted for the 1991 Booker prize, but lost out to Ben Okri and The Famished Road.

‘Don’t Tell’

Don't Tell Movie Poster 1Don’t Tell is based on the true story of the court case of Lyndal who, as an 11 year-old, was sexually abused by a teacher at a prestigious Queensland school. The outcome resulted in the change in laws in the way civil cases are tried.

Now a surly, rebellious 22 year old, Lyndal (an empathic Sara West – The Daughter, One-Eyed Girl) sues the Anglican church in 2001 for damages. Lawyer Stephen Roche (Aden Young – Killer Elite, Mao’s Last Dancer) and barrister Jack Thompson (Breaker Morant, Australia) support her through her court hearing.

Director Tori Garrett makes his feature film debut in this well told, authentic courtroom drama, focusing on the story rather than any cinematic gymnastics.

Rating: 62%

‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’

arthur-posterDirector Guy Ritchie transposes his loveable cockney rogues of Lock, Stock and Two Smokin’ Barrels and Rock’n’Rolla to Medieval England and the world of Game of Thrones.

The cocky,  buffed Charlie Hunnam (Crimson Peak, The Lost City of Z), robbed of his birthright, must overcome the evil of his uncle, Jude Law (Cold Mountain, Sherlock Holmes), controller of the country through dark magic. But first Arthur must understand the power of Excalibur, his new found sword.

It looks good (production design by Gemma Jackson – Game of Thrones!), the soundtrack loud but the bombastic treatment wears thin and the film slips into tedium.

Rating: 39%

‘The Finkler Question’ by Howard Jacobson

9781408808870Having read English at Cambridge under F. R. Leavis and taught the subject at Selwyn College, Cambridge, you just know anything written by Howard Jacobson will not fall under ‘light read.’ But what you may not be prepared for is the wit, irony and warmth alongside the satire and intelligence. Even on a second reading, The Finkler Question made me laugh out loud.

Jacobson is tackling one mighty difficult and potentially contentious issue in The Finkler Question – that of Jewish identity alongside male friendship.

It is through the friendship of three men – former schoolmates Julian Treslove and Sam Finkler and their teacher, Libor Sevcik – that Jacobson explores his subject, an exploration that is at once brilliantly funny yet with a deep melancholic sense of loss and longing.

Through the three men, opinions and opposing philosophies of what exactly is Jewish identity are voiced, discussed and debated – from the strident, anti-Zionist, Israeli-hating Finkler through to the ‘convert’ that is Treslove, more orthodox than any of his friends as he reads 12th century Maimonides on the reasoning for circumcision or demands answers to his questions of, how he sees it, the innate ‘Jewish’ cleverness of the use language. A 90 year-old Czech, Libor sits somewhere between the two men.

A former BBC radio producer (a minor position – an early morning arts programme on Radio 3), Treslove is a melancholic lost soul – a father of two (adult) boys to separate women, both of whom chose not tell him of their respective pregnancies. His great love is the great operatic tragedies. It is he who labels Jews at Finklers, having met his first Jew at school in the guise of Sam/Samuel/Shmuel/Shmueli (several identities in one…). This new word “…took away the stigma, sucked out the toxins.” A late night mugging a few yards from the BBC in Portland Place following an evening with Sam and Libor leads to Julian questioning his sense of who and what he is.

As a result, The Finkler Question becomes, in part, Julian as a Gentile and his relationship with Judaism and ‘Jewishness’. But in ostensibly looking at Libor, Sam and other characters as Jews and how Julian ‘measures up’, The Finkler (Jewish) Question is as much about the sense of belonging and the associated obligations/expectations of that belonging.

As an anti-Zionist, is Sam a lesser Jew? Hephzibah only introduces a kosher kitchen at the behest of Julian yet she is the director of the planned Anglo-Jewish Cultural Centre. Tyler, Sam’s wife, was a convert. Yet, in spite of her upholding the religious customs and beliefs more than Sam, as a reformist, she was not totally accepted. And deep down, Julian himself despairs of the religion that he does not fully grasp or can ever, ultimately, be part of.

The Finkler Question is something of a meandering narrative, jumping in time and place. It verges on plotless per se other than as a stream of (Jewish) consciousness. Julian finds some of the answers to his questions: some of the questions he doesn’t understand himself. Both Sam and Libor deal with their grief at the loss of their wives in their own ways.

Anti-Semitism does rear its ugly head in obvious ways but also in surprising ways – The Finkler Question continues to challenge and question assumptions. People – Jews and non-Jews alike – come ago, vehicles for Jacobson to propound yet more opinions (occasionally over-contrived – Julian’s youngest son a Holocaust denier). And Treslove’s neurotic obsession occasionally palls (Maimonides?).

But the 2010 Booker Prize winner is a seamless roll of pathos and humour, of philosophy and politics, relentless in its search for a truth. Not that Jacobson is going to answer The Finkler Question – mainly because there is not one answer. Put two Jews in a room and you’ll get three very different opinions. Welcome to The Finkler Question.

 

‘Their Finest’

6ae71bd038dd9f5e9b5981c2eb33743e_500x735Wistful and surprisingly charming (thankfully avoiding anything ‘cutesy’ or cloyingly sentimental), director Lone Scherfig’s (An Education, One Day) latest cuts deeper than the storyline suggests.

A World War II romance with a difference as Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace, Tamara Drewe) finds herself in a man’s world – that of the work place – as more than a secretary. Morale-lifting films are the order of the day – and Arterton is there to provide the ‘slop’ (female dialogue). Fellow screenwriter Sam Claflin (Me Before You, The Hunger Games) is the love interest but it’s Bill Nighy (Love Actually, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest) as the ageing thesp who steals just about every scene he’s in.

Rating: 73%

‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’

zookeepers_wifeOverly sanitised telling of the true story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, owners of the Warsaw Zoo who saved the lives of more than 300 Polish Jews in World War II.

A leaden script and pan-European casting (along with Jessica Chastain – The Help, Zero Dark Thirty) doesn’t help a turgid, uninspiring narrative. Director Niki Caro (North Country, Whale Rider) noticeably misses the storytelling boat – somewhat unforgivable considering the source material.

Rating: 42%

‘Things to Come’

thingstocome.poster.ws_A gentle and sensitive film from writer/director Mia Hansen-Love (The Father of My Children, Goodbye First Love) sees a deft, quietly powerful performance by Isabelle Huppert (Elle, The Piano Teacher) come to terms with loss.

An academic, Huppert loses her (demanding) mother, her publisher, a cheating husband and sees a close friend (and former student) move out of Paris. Yet Things to Come avoids easy sentiment or emotional grandstanding – her marriage dissolves, her mother is simply no longer there. It’s an elegant telling of, on the surface, a minor story that explores security and complacency, the dichotomy between self sufficiency and loneliness.

Rating: 65%

‘Get Out’

dimsSomething of a box-office sensation in the US (made for $4.5 million: $170 million takings), Get Out is the Stepford Wives of race relations!

Things go mighty wrong as photographer Chris (Daniel Kaluuya – Sicario, Kick-Ass 2) travels with his girlfriend to meet her family for the first time. Their very white, middle-class upstate suburb just doesn’t ring true.

First time director Jordan Peele injects fresh ideas into the horror film genre with an effective mix of creepiness, gore and humour (courtesy of comedian LilRey Howery). Enjoyable.

Rating: 60%