‘Quarantine’ by Jim Crace

quarantineThe story of Christ in the wilderness for forty days is hardly an obvious subject for a known atheist. But that’s exactly what Quarantine is – award-winning Jim Crace’s fifth novel.

Only Christ is one of a handful of characters who have travelled to live, temporarily, on the edge, looking for guidance and to secure resolution and transcendence in what Crace is presenting as a godless universe. But they have the misfortune of stumbling across Musa. A successful nomadic merchant left for dead by his companions, with only his young pregnant wife to care for him until his last breath, Musa survives (much to the chagrin of Miri).

Ever the entrepreneur, the odious Musa convinces the travellers that they are on his land – and must therefore pay rent for the caves they look to fast and find some kind of spiritual guidance. And food, water, home comforts are all available – at a price.

The metaphoric satanic Musa is very much centre stage of Crace’s short novel. Jesus is an enigmatic, almost ethereal character – in choosing the most inaccessible and distant cave, he is as remote as the landscape they have all chosen to meditate and commune with God. Unlike the others, who meet as the sun sets to break their fast, Jesus stoically continues, plagued by hallucinations and teetering towards madness, devoid of water and food for forty days.

A retelling of a familiar story – or at least its humanising: the unendurable suffering of a fast in such inhospitable environs; the need by Marta, looking to become fertile, for some home comforts in her cave; the ever-opportunistic Musa turning everything to his advantage. And, hardly surprising for an atheist, a Jesus who seems to have no divine origin but is simply a craftsman who takes religious instruction a great deal more seriously than his contemporaries.

Quarantine is a beautifully told, spellbinding narrative, its hallucinatory realism interlaced with humour and menace. The wilderness rendered in almost obsessive poetic detail: the beguiling master of words, Musa, a lecherous bully who, we know, will always land on his feet: a secular telling of a biblical story.

Shortlisted for the 1997 Booker Prize, Quarantine was reportedly the runner-up to the winner, Arundhati Roy and The God of Small Things.

 

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‘Darkest Hour’

darkest-hour-australian-movie-posterA provocative historical drama as Winston Churchill, in the early days of his prime ministership, is confronted with a possible invasion of Britain from Nazi forces. Virtually the entire British army is stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk.

Unpopular within his own Conservative party, a war-mongering Churchill (a career-defining performance from Gary Oldman – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban) is at odds with his appeasement-seeking colleagues. War in the corridors of power and on the Continent forces Churchill to decide whether to sue for peace or fight on against incredible odds.

Director Joe Wright (Atonement, Anna Karenina) focuses on the claustrophobic machinations of parliament and underground war rooms. The result is the fiery determination and irascible wit of Churchill at the forefront of a wordy, manipulative  narrative that has no intention of being subtle in the telling of its stirring story.

Rating: 71%

(A perfect complement to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk)

‘The Shape of Water’

the-shape-of-water-posterMagical, whimsical adult fairytale that is deeply romantic and touchingly moving.

A mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine, Maudie), a night-time cleaner at a 1950s top secret US research facility, falls for a mysterious, recently captured Amazonian amphibian. With Russian secret agents closing in and American military prepared to kill off the creature rather than allow it to fall in their hands, Elisa needs to take drastic action.

A love story of those on the margins – Elisa, a mute orphan: gay neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins – The Visitor, Let Me In): best friend and colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer – The Help, Hidden Figures): the creature itself.

Deeply humane, director Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) takes you on a flight of fancy, a beautifully crafted meditative journey celebrating life itself, supported by a stunning ensemble cast and behind-the-scenes creatives.

13 Oscar nominations – no surprise there!

Rating: 87%

‘Call Me By Your Name’

CallMeByYourName2017Languid telling, during a 1980s Tuscan summer, of first love where 17 year-old Elio (a gentle,  nuanced performance by Timothée Chalamet – Interstellar, Ladybird) falls for his father’s archealogical assistant, the over-confident Oliver (Armie Hammer – The Social Network, The Lone Ranger).

It’s a bumpy ride for Elio – and for the audience. At times beautiful, at times stretching credulity as the all-American bumptious Jock purportedly falls for the skinny, bookish waif. Chalamet is pitch-perfect as Elio but a towering Hammer is less convincing.

Director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) perfectly captures the nervousness of first love and its associated heartbreak but Elio’s relationship with his father, Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man, The Shape of Water) and peers highlights the shortcomings of the love affair.

Rating: 68%

‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas

9781741758207When The Slap first came out a little under 10 years ago, it felt like everyone was reading it – and had an opinion. ‘Whose side are you on?’ was the question.

A hard-edged dissection of middle-class suburban Australian living, a man slaps a four year-old child who is not his own at a family barbecue. From that moment on, the lives of friends and family, witness to the event, irrevocably change.

Centring around eight main characters, The Slap explores divided loyalties, family feuds, friendships pushed to breaking point as values, histories, family ties, social and gender politics are all placed firmly under the uncompromising microscope.

There’s no question, an over-indulged four year-old Hugo is popular neither with the other kids at the barbecue nor the adults. He’s already caused several scenes with his tantrums, including the breaking of a present (given to someone else) barely 20 minutes old. Appeasement is the order of the day – there’s obviously a history with Hugo and parents who do not believe in intervention. But brandishing a cricket bat at his son is the breaking point for Harry.

That’s the end of the barbecue.

What follows is a state-of-the-nation narrative, an ambitious, fractious social document that is at times funny, at times infuriating and a little too often, incredibly smug.

Set in the Melbourne inner-northern suburb of Northcote, gentrification and multiculturalism has changed what was once an essentially Greek working-class area. Tsiolkas reflects this.

Both Hector (Chapter 1) and his cousin Harry (Chapter 3) are Greek, with Hector married to Aisha (Indian – Chapter 7) and Harry to Sandi (Serb). Both men are having affairs – Hector with 17 year-old Connie (Chapter 4) and assistant to Aisha at her vet surgery: Harry is in a long-term relationship with a Lebanese woman and who supplies his cocaine from a Vietnamese dealer. They’re both narcissistic and display misogynist traits – particularly Harry. Connie lives with her aunt, the result of her parents both dying from AIDS five years earlier: her father was a bisexual heroine addict. Connie’s best friend, Richie (Chapter 8) has recently declared his homosexuality to her.

Add Islamic conversion, indigenous and migrant assimilation, alcoholism, ageing, class and dysfunctional parenting and the result is a fluid narrative (if nothing, the story is engrossing) that is somehow overdone. It’s a little too diverse and representative, a little too shoehorned.

Interestingly, no character is entirely likeable – although neither are they totally unlikeable, with the obvious exception of Rosie (Chapter 5) and Gary – the parents of Hugo. Tsiolkas has painted a grim harridan in Rosie where even Gary finds some of her behaviour with Hugo hard to stomach (she still breastfeeds the four year-old). Her involving the police in the ‘bashing’ of her son by ‘that animal’ and the subsequent court case is a crusade too far for many.

The Slap is something of a page-turner – although, like all soap operas, it can outstay its welcome at times as it meanders around the lives of the eight characters and their associates.

Favourite to win the 2009 Miles Franklin Award (having already collected the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and the ALSS Gold Medal), The Slap lost out to Tim Winton and Breath.

 

 

‘All the Money in the World’

All_the_Money_in_the_WorldSolid and somewhat imaginative telling of the kidnapping of 16 year-old Paul Getty in Rome in 1973: the downside of having a grandfather, John Paul Getty, who was the richest man in the world. He was also one of the tightest and refused to pay the $17 million ransom.

Director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Alien) famously reshot scenes featuring the old man, replacing shamed Kevin Spacey with a superb Christopher Plummer (Beginners, A Beautiful Mind). His cold intransigence leaves Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain, Manchester by the Sea) as Paul’s desperate mother just that – constantly on the edge of desperation and frustration.

Scott certainly takes liberties in the telling of the story and its entertaining enough. But bottom line, as a whole its quite a minor achievement.

Rating: 56%

Best of Year (2017) – Film

moonlight-poster-lgA very good year but not quite vintage. There were quite a few films that fell into the 70-80% bracket (including the best Australian film, Lion, and best animated feature, Loving Vincent) but 12 films comfortably headed the list, with the top three significantly clear of the rest of the field.

My top 10 films of the year (God’s Own Country and the best documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, just missed out) are:

10: Detroit
9: The Salesman
8: The King’s Choice
7: Land of Mine
6: Baby Driver
5: Blade Runner 2049
4: Insyriated
3: Manchester by the Sea
2: Dunkirk
1: Moonlight

Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit was a distressing powerhouse, an immersive experience of police brutality and racism during the 1967 riots. The film boasted an excellent ensemble cast although I singled out Will Poulter as the police officer in charge in my top five male performances of the year.

The second film by director Asghar Fahardi to win the Best Film in a Foreign Language Oscar (the first was the magnificent A Separation), The Salesman is a surprisingly quiet narrative as a teacher looks to discover the identity of the person who assaulted his wife in their new home.

Based on historical fact, King Haakon VII of Norway is forced to make a decision that will impact on his country and millions of lives. It’s April 1940 and Nazi Germany has invaded under the pretext of protection from aggressive Allied Forces. The King’s Choice is whether to accept their protection – or declare war.

2017 was a good year for Scandinavian films – the Danish Land of Mine also features in the top 10 as young German POWs are forced to clear the land mines from the beaches immediately following the end of World War II.

An unexpectedly huge box-office hit, Baby Driver with Ansel Elgort as the ubercool getaway driver, is entertaining with a capital ‘e’ with a blast of a soundtrack. But following accusations of inappropriate sexual behaviour, Baby Driver could well be the last time we see Kevin Spacey on the big screen.

The original was one of the coolest sci-fi films of its generation. Thirty years later a sequel was finally released – and its one of the coolest sci-fi films of its generation. Blade Runner 2049 – thanks to its director Denis Villeneuve and the superb cinematography of veteran Roger Deakins – is a cerebral spectacle and makes my top five films of the year.

The shattering Lebanese/Belgian Insyriated is in fourth. My pick of films seen at the Melbourne International Film Festival, headed by Hiam Abbass (the female performance of the year), the claustrophobic drama finds a middle-class Syrian family (and a couple of neighbours) holed up in their Damascus apartment as civil war rages around the streets.

Casey Affleck may well have won all the awards (including my vote for best actor of the year), but the cast and creatives of Manchester by the Sea certainly picked up their own accolades. Emotionally destroyed by tragedy, Affleck returns to his hometown following the death of his older brother where he needs to face his demons to find closure.

Visually stunning, Dunkirk is a film of few words with its emotional sweep and visceral beauty and a jigsaw of narratives, separate but creating a cohesive whole as 300,000 British, French and Belgian soldiers are rescued from the beaches of northern France.

But top of my list – and Oscar winner for best film – is Moonlight. Yet another indie ensemble piece (it was a good year!), small in scale, ambitious in scope, Moonlight is a minor masterpiece, pure melancholic poetry. What a turn up for the books when it beat La La Land to best film!

‘Pitch Perfect 3’

HO00004515The singing has always been the strength of the Pitch Perfect trilogy – and the ‘riff off’ in the third is as strong as the memorable opener in the first.

Out in the big wide world, the Bellas are reunited for one last competition – on an American military base in Spain. Only they’re facing bands who use musical instruments. Throw in a subplot involving Fat Amy’s criminal father determined to get his hands on the inheritance Amy (an increasingly confident and funny Rebel Wilson)  didn’t know she had, and there’s the premise for the final Pitch Perfect.

Not as original or fresh as Pitch Perfect, but significantly better than the dire Pitch Perfect 2, the final instalment pitches [sic] the music content perfectly, resulting in an entertaining elongated music video with a silly story providing the narrative with Anna Kendrick’s voice in fine form.

And nice to see another female director (Trish Sie – Step Up All In) provided with the reins of an important studio film.

Rating: 65%

Best of Year (2017) – Male Performance

mbts_27111-e14852560476521My review of films released in Australia continues with my top five male performances.

As with female performances, there were a limited number of stand-outs – and looking through films seen in the year made me aware that many of the highlights were ensemble pieces (Moonlight, Dunkirk, Danish film Land of Mine etc).

But my top five male performances for 2017 are:

5: Hugh Jackman: Logan
4: Josh O’Connor: God’s Own Country
3: Will Poulter: Detroit
2: James McAvoy: Split
1: Casey Affleck: Manchester by the Sea

Number five is something of a surprise – it was a toss up between Jackman and Joel Edgerton in Loving. But in his final appearance as Wolverine, Jackman introduced a level of humanity and vulnerability to a character who, in previous films, was something of a two-dimensional superhero.

Set in Yorkshire, God’s Own Country was described as an English Brokeback Mountain, and lonely, isolated Josh O’Connor was suitably dour and monosyllabic prior to the arrival of the Romanian casual labour, Gheorghe.

Whilst Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit was very much an ensemble piece, there was no ignoring that Will Poulter as the devastatingly sadistic white supremacist police officer and murderous psychopath was the stand-out.

A multiple personality disorder provides James McAvoy with a dream series of roles in Split – ranging from a nerdish nine year-old Hedwig, the reasoned Barry (a fashion designer) through to the menacing Patricia and disturbing Dennis. It’s a role McAvoy deserves to gain more accolades.

But it’s the quiet, nuanced Oscar-winning performance by Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea that gets my final vote.