‘Lady Bird’

lady_bird_ver2_xlgWarm and quirky, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is a coming-of-age narrative as 17 year-old Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson struggles to come to terms with living in Sacramento, California rather than New York.

As Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, Brooklyn) nails it as the eccentric, generous yet ultimately self-centred teenager determined to get what she wants – even if it pits her against her loving but exasperated mom (a superb Laurie Metcalf – Stop-Loss, Fun With Dick and Jane), a supportive dad (Tracy Letts – The Big Short, August: Orange County) and school friends.

Personal and honest, Lady Bird is a lightweight gem.

Rating: 79%

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‘Sweet Country’

Sweet_Country_(2017_film)In spite of the expansive 1920s-set Australian outback, director Warwick Thornton (Samson & Delilah, The Turning) creates a claustrophobic manhunt as ‘black fella’ Sam (newcomer Hamilton Morris) is tracked cross-country by a posse for killing ‘white fella’ Harry March (Ewan Leslie – The Daughter, Dead Europe) in self-defence.

Artfully conceived and shot (the Northern Territory landscape is the star), the Australian western boasts a plethora of strong performances (including Sam Neill – Jurassic Park, The Daughter – as a man of God in a Godless town and Bryan Brown – Breaker Morant, Australia – as the vindictive local lawmaker).

It errs on slow and serious at times, but Sweet Country is nevertheless a powerful and engrossing Australian film.

Rating: 68%

‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ by Madeleine Thien

605302408Magisterial in its telling, Madeleine Thien’s novel is a mesmerising but tragic evocation of seven decades of contemporary Chinese history.

An accessible yet challenging narrative, Do Not Say We Have Nothing deftly weaves between generations and place as Li-ling, based in Canada, looks to understand events that led to her father’s tragic suicide at the age of 39. Having left his family, including the 10 year-old Li-ling, in Vancouver, Jiang Kai is found dead only a few days later in Hong Kong.

As Li-ling looks for answers many years after her father’s death, a sprawling narrative unfolds of China under Chairman Mao and the struggle for power after his death. The impact of revolution and counter-revolution on ordinary citizens – and Jiang Kai and his circle of friends and peers at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in particular – is lyrically and movingly portrayed.

Incorporating ancient Chinese mythology, folk tales, everyday events and unfolding politics emanating out of Beijing, a litany of memorable characters populate the novel – Sparrow, Wen the Dreamer and his wife, Swirl, Big Mother, Zhuli, Ai-Ming, Yiwan, Kai himself – as their stories and histories interweave.

Central to the novel is Sparrow, a young and brilliant composer, teacher to Kai at the Conservatory. It is through his family that we travel through the decades and witness the destruction of family, dreams and idealism as revolutionaries become accused of counter-revolutionary views, as music becomes marginalised and censored, as political criticism results in denouncement and death.

Yet in spite of the terrible hardships and separations, humanity shines through as the ties that bind overcome the grief and suffering inflicted upon generations of Chinese. Sparrow and his family continue to eke out a living, even after the music they love becomes cause for persecution (at one stage every piano in China is destroyed) and family members are reassigned across the country according to the demands of labour.

Fiction and history blur in this epic story that is at once enchanting and informative, delicate and profound, tragic but uplifting. One to savour – I spent more than three weeks reading this powerful 460 page opus.

Shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize, Do Not Say We Have Nothing lost out to Paul Beatty and The Sellout.

‘Happy End’

Happy End PosterA French haute-bourgeois family, Calais-based, live their lives, a microcosm of the minutiae of everyday events.

Octogenarian Georges Laurent (Jean-Louis Trintignant – Amour, My Night With Maud) heads the family but he has passed the trucking business onto his daughter – Isabelle Huppert (Elle, The Piano Teacher). Into a family of adults living in the large rambling house enters 12 year-old Eve, daughter of Huppert’s brother from his first marriage.

Detached and icily controlled, director Michael Haneke’s (Amour, The White Ribbon) latest is a bourgeois, insidious soap opera as each quietly look for their own ‘happy end’.

Rating: 59%

‘The Post’

the-post-0547279001515497618Interesting story solidly told and performed (you’d expect nothing else from Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and director Spielberg) yet somewhat dramatically inert.

As secret documents of clandestine American involvement in Vietnamese politics from the 1940s onwards come to light, The Washington Post owner (Streep) and editor (Hanks) must decide whether to play safe or risk contempt of court and publish.

Pre-empting Watergate and All the President’s Men, arguably the best of the investigative political journalism genre, The Post comes across as a feature where Streep, Hanks and Spielberg, whilst engaging in lots of freedom of the press and women’s position in society conversations, hardly overstretched themselves.

Rating: 61%

‘Phantom Thread’

Phantom_Thread_PosterLike the clothes produced at the House of Woodcock, Paul Thomas Anderson’s (There Will Be Blood, The Master) latest is distinguished, stylish and classy.

Set in 1950s London, Daniel Day Lewis (My Left Foot, There Will Be Blood) is designer to European royalty and the aristocracy. A lover of women but a confirmed bachelor set in his ways, his head is turned by Alma (Vicky Krieps – Das Zimmermaedchen Lynn, Hanna), a waitress working in a hotel in Yorkshire. Elevating Alma to a stylish beauty, the London home ruled over by sister Cyril (Lesley Manville – Another Year, Mr Turner), is soon challenged by a young woman determined to be more than merely decoration.

A gorgeous period drama that slips and slides into obscurity as intent is not always clear, Phantom Thread remains a beguiling character study of three determined personalities, as controlled and clipped as post-war English manners.

Rating: 74%

‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’

3bb_KEY_1SHEET_101_F3_smA profane delight – a black comedy dark yet compassionate, violent yet profound, a  blistering yet deeply humane commentary on small town America.

Frances McDormand (Fargo, Burn After Reading) and her wry, foul-mouthed performance anchors writer/director Martin McDonagh’s (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) superb script. Mildred wants answers from the police for the rape and murder of her daughter more than 12 months earlier.

Head of the local police, Woody Harrelson (Natural Born Killers, Seven Psychopaths) and dumb, racist cop, Sam Rockwell (MoonSeven Psychopaths), are firmly in her sights as the darkly comic narrative unfolds. A real crowd pleaser.

Rating: 88%

‘I, Tonya’

i_tonya_xlgIt may be overlong – and ‘the incident’ forms only a small part of the whole – but director Craig Gillespie (Lars & the Real Girl, The Finest Hours) highlights the eccentricities in the life story of US competitive ice-skater, Tonya Harding.  Importantly, he choses to laugh more with the characters than at them.

From the wrong side of the tracks, Harding (a confident, Oscar-nominated Margot Robbie – The Suicide Squad, The Wolf of Wall Street) was abused by her mother (a magnificent out-of-character Alison Janney – Spy, The Girl on the Train) and husband (an almost unrecognisable Sebastian Stan, the Captain America trilogy). Yet she rose to number one in the world and represented the US at two winter Olympics. But Harding is best remembered for her involvement in the attack on fellow ice-skater, Nancy Kerrigan.

It’s a tragic story and this black comedy tells it well. How much Harding knew is left in the air as Gillespie explores the issues of class and the nature of truth in this entertaining sports movie.

Rating: 65%