‘mother!’

mother-posterAs the storyline unfolded (not having read any reviews), my initial response was that Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Lining Playbook, Joy) was nuts. The powders she kept in the bathroom didn’t help me change my mind. But husband Javier Bardem’s (No Country For Old Men, Buitiful) increasingly rash and illogical egocentric decisions made me wonder…

And as bombastic adulation, theft, vandalism, riots and cannibalism increased (all inside the house Lawrence has painstakingly renovated), so the role of the prophet and the greatest story ever told becomes clearer. Hip Hip Yahweh!

So it wasn’t Jennifer Lawrence who was nuts… Bemused and befuddled, it’s a roller-coaster head trip of excess that’s initially sort of fun to watch but writer/director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream) just doesn’t know when to stop.

Rating: 52%

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‘Mountain’

mountainA gloriously immersive and poetic documentary, director Jennifer Peedom (Sherpa, Miracle on Everest) takes us on a journey through our fascination in the stunning majesty that is the world’s highest peaks.

With a beautifully modulated commentary from Willem Defoe, spectacular cinematography from Renan Ozturk (Sherpa, Valley Uprising) and a truly soaring soundtrack from Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Mountain literally leaves you gasping for air – whether it be at the clouds rolling into the Himalayan valleys, the intense close ups of rock climbers on sheer rock faces in Monument Valley or mountain bikers travelling hell for leather on narrow paths high in the Austrian Alps.

It’s simultaneously cerebral and emotive in the extreme – and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 5 in E Flat Major have never sounded or ‘looked’ better.

Rating: 61%

‘In Custody’ by Anita Desai

71qai7hvu+LAnita Desai’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel is possibly the most frustrating reads I have had the misfortune of encountering in a very long time. To say I disliked it is a complete understatement.

A craven, weak-willed, poorly-paid lecturer of Hindi at a northern Indian city outside of Delhi, Deven is an infuriating metaphor for the downtrodden everyman, constrained by his lowly station and limited opportunities in life.

When Deven is offered the opportunity by a former schoolfriend to interview Nur, the greatest living poet in the Urdu language, he grasps at it, daring to dream of publication and escape from the ‘stagnant backwaters’ of Mirpore. Although a dying language in India since Independence, to Deven it is the lyrical language of poetry and a memory of the literary aspirations of his long-deceased father. But it’s Deven’s timidity and inertia that proves such an undertaking as a disaster.

Populated by a series of unseemly, grasping individuals, In Custody is unpleasant throughout. There is little love in Deven’s marriage to Sarla and everyone encountered takes advantage of him – whether it is the ageing, alcoholic Nur, himself trapped by acolytes and hangers-on, the publishing-school friend, Murad or fellow lecturer Mr Siddiqui.

Bills mount as he tries to follow his dream, but instead of interviews and recitals, demands for rum, biriyani, kebabs, room rental, tape recording purchases arrive. But, ever the eternal victim, at no point do we witness a proactive Deven vaguely attempt to turn things to his advantage (however slight). His obsequiousness towards the hero-worshipped poet over the course of the (thankfully) short novel wears the patience.

There is a great deal of symbolism within Desai’s writing, some of it more obvious than others. The title itself is indicative of the lives of all the characters: each is entrapped, imprisoned, held captive. And, to the initiated, political commentary is likely, touching as it does on linguistic, political and cultural issues. But that does not alter the fact that In Custody is an infuriating and unlikeable read.

Anita Desai was shortlisted for the 1984 Booker Prize but lost out to Anita Brookner and Hotel du Lac.

‘The Glass Room’ by Simon Mawer

9780349139005-uk-300“I will design you a life. Not a mere house to live in, but a whole way of life.” So states modernist German architect Rainer von Abt to the recently married Landauers, a wealthy couple living in the recently independent Czechoslovakia.

The minimalist Landauer house of glass and concrete causes a sensation in the tessellated, crenellated decorative tastes of the former Habsburg Empire. And for ten years, Viktor and Liesel enjoy von Abt’s promise: scintillating conversation along with the attention and company of artists, writers, musicians (both Czech and German). With its lack of ornamental detraction, Abt’s vision provides the growing family with an uninterrupted view to the world beyond. But, with rise of Nazism and fascism across Europe, it’s not a view Viktor welcomes.

Seeing the writing on the wall and ignoring the ‘it’ll soon blow over’ opinions around him, Viktor, as a Jew, transfers the bulk of his wealth and flees (with his family) firstly to neutral Switzerland before heading to the States via Cuba. He is one of the lucky ones.

But Simon Mawer’s novel is, ultimately, not the story of the Landauer family nor is it a telling of the Holocaust. The star of this particular tale is the building itself, a building sitting imperiously on a (large) suburban block with views over the unnamed Město (Czech for ‘town’) and its medieval castle.

As the Landauers depart, so German research scientists move in: post war under the Communist regime it’s a children physiotherapy gymnasium until, finally, it becomes a museum. Turning full circle, an ageing Liesel Landor (with an Americanised surname) returns, in 1968, to attend the official launch. The house is much changed having been damaged during the war along with general neglect. But Liesl, in spite of her blindness, knows every inch of her former beloved home.

In 1929, Fritz and Greta Tugendhat commissioned renowned German modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to design and build them a home in the wealthy neighbourhood of Černá Pole in Brno in then Czechoslovakia. Today, it is regarded as one of the pioneering prototypes of modern European architecture and, after many uses, was repaired and opened as a museum in 2012. It had ceased to be a family home following the departure of the Tugendhats as a result of the Munich Accord in 1938.

Simon Mawer’s fascinating story is a fictional account of a house inspired by the Villa Tugendhat. Characters come and go but Liesel, her best friend Hana and the caretaker, Lanik, remain constant. It is they who hold the human narrative of the house through the 60 years of the novel. Yet all the characters interact with and within the house itself – with its oversized plate glass windows, history takes place inside the glass room not outside.

Like its architecture, The Glass Room loses the artifice of the time – Viktor is a proponent of innovation and progress. Yet he struggles with the thoroughly modern Hana and her outspoken sexual frankness and flirtatiousness – as does her wartime lover, Hauptsturmführer Stahl, the head scientist at the Landauer House.

The Glass Room is, in the first instance, the story of an evolving marriage – that of Viktor and Liesel. But it’s also about relationships over the different time zones and events – Liesel and Hana, Viktor and Katalin, Hana and Stahl, Hana and Zdenka, Zdenka and Tomas (the latter two taking place in the Communist-era 1960s). And centre stage is that house, a symbol of the new world post World War 1 but which falls into decay with liberation from German control by the Russian army.

Towards the end, it does become a little ‘safe’ and comfortable – and Mawer’s narrative relies a little too much on coincidence and chance. But these are minor caveats. The Glass Room is a beautifully written novel of considerable power about human frailty and strength.

Shortlisted for the 2009 Booker Prize, The Glass Room had the misfortune of competing against the unstoppable Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

‘Patti Cake$’

patti_cakesInfectious storytelling as Killa P a.k.a Patti Cake$ is an aspiring rap artist from New Jersey looking to make it big. Only issue is that she’s overweight and white.

Debut feature film writer/director Geremy Jasper firmly positions Patti Cake$ as a crowd-pleaser  – and with the amazing Danielle MacDonald (Lady Bird, The East) as a convincing rapper, he almost succeeds. But the energy palls in the middle as Patti deals with her alcoholic mother (Bridget Everett – Trainwreck, Sex & the City) and feisty grandmother as the storyline heads into predictability.

Rating: 59%

‘The Lost City of Z’

large_large_ik3ebv7J18fs6cHkmu91oxz7EGtVisually grand, James Gray’s (The Immigrant, Two Lovers) The Lost City of Z is an old-school adventure yarn as British explorer Major Percy Fawcett spends large parts of his life in Amazonia searching for the elusive lost city of Z. He disappeared along with his son in the Brazilian jungles in 1925.

Yet, in spite of a likeable Fawcett portrayal by Charlie Hunnam (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Crimson Peak), the feature is strangely static, with little sense of thrill or suspense. It all becomes a little too episodic with Fawcett travelling between England and South America to spend time with his family, convince the Royal Geographic Society of the value of his expeditions before heading off, once again, into the wilds.

Rating: 58%

 

‘The Glass Canoe’ by David Ireland

3vm2w2y5-1398227068A fair-dinkum 1970s Aussie bloke’s story – an everyman’s tale of life centred round the pub in an Australia already dying when David Ireland wrote this wry, compelling novel. Away from the glamorous beaches of coastal Sydney, it’s the working class western suburbs, pre-gentrification, pre-multiculturalism and by far pre-2000 Olympic Games.

It’s a vernacular tapestry of life in The Southern Cross, with short one-page observations or three page chapters of events and local characters as they come and go as told by our narrator, Meat Man. (It’s a man’s world, remember – size does matter and Meat has earned his monicker).

The Southern Cross is no welcoming drinking hole as the regulars comfortably spend six days a week looking into their beer. “On hot days we jumped fully clothed into our bottomless beer glasses and pushed off from shore without a backward look. Heading for the deep, where it was calm and cool.”

Along with Meat, characters such as Alky Jack, Aussie Bob, Serge, The King and the only woman of significance within the hallowed walls, Sharon the barmaid, populate The Southern Cross. In this territorial world, casual strangers are at best frowned upon, but more usually invited “outside”. Drunken philosophies, pointless arguments, sudden outbursts of extreme violence abound.

Yet, in spite of the violence and the fact there’s an awful lot of deaths (natural and suspicious), there’s also plenty of (laconic) humour on tap. And Ireland never judges his characters – he simply presents them as they are in all their honest rawness and flawed humanity.

It’s a subculture long lost (mostly) within contemporary Australia and few tears are shed for the demise of a brutal, misogynist maledom. Yet Ireland’s vivid characterisation reminds us of something that once was.

The Glass Canoe, David Ireland’s fifth novel, won the 1976 Miles Franklin Award (adding to his 1971 win for The Unknown Industrial Prisoner).

 

‘Namatjira Project’

00001-002A meandering, unfocused documentary, the Namatjira Project explores the legacy of one of the earliest successful Australian aboriginal painters, Albert Namatjira. The first indigenous Australian to be granted citizenship back in the 50s, his extended family has battled to reclaim their heritage since his death in 1959.

The problem for Sera Davies’ film is its failure to determine its main subject. Is it Namatjira himself? His family? The battle to regain copyright? Or is it simply following the theatre production that is Albert’s life (a superb performance by Trevor Jamieson – Rabbit Proof Fence, Bran Nue Dae)? The result is a frustrating mishmash of unresolved questions.

Rating: 53%

‘Ali’s Wedding’

19983521_1884953185091404_3701407671146097916_oVoted as The Age newspaper’s best Australian film at the recent Melbourne International Film Festival, Ali’s Wedding is a dire rom-com that, based on true events, mistakenly plays everything for laughs.

The son of a popular cleric at the local mosque, Ali (Osamah Sami, writer of the film) lies his way through his exam results, inflating his score to the point he needs to study medicine at the prestigious University of Melbourne. A non-enrolled attendee at lectures, he falls in love with the Australian-Lebanese Dianne (Helana Siwares – Banana Boy), even though he, as an Iraqi, is due to marry to Yomna. How is he going to get out of this?

Squirm inducing humour that encourages laughter at points of difference, lack of character development that results in seeming stupidity (Ali’s mother in particular) and the occasional comedic moments that are poorly or overly developed in an (ill-conceived) attempt to maximise the humour: Ali’s Wedding is very disappointing.

Rating: 36%

‘God’s Own Country’

Gods-Own-Country_OIC-Poster_webDescribed by many as a British Brokeback Mountain – and it’s hard to disagree.

Lonely farmer Josh O’Connor (Florence Foster Jenkins, The Program) relies on binge drinking in the local pub and casual sexual encounters as he labours on the family farm. His world changes when Romanian Alec Secareanu (Chosen, Love Bus) arrives as casual labour.

As remote as the stunning Yorkshire landscape, debut feature film director Francis Lee’s naturalistic treatment of farm life (including the ewe birthing season) and gay sexuality has resulted in a poignant, finely crafted, nuanced narrative with captivating performances from the two leads.

Rating: 80%