‘Winchester’

Winchester-new-poster-1More haunted house hokum as Dr Eric Price (Jason Clarke – Mudbound, Terminator Genisys) is hired to ascertain the sanity of heiress Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren – The Queen, Red). Seems she is haunted by the spirits of those killed by the Winchester repeating rifle – and making decisions her board of directors are none too keen on.

With its pertinent anti-gun message, Winchester is timely in the telling of a story based on actual events as Sarah adds room after room to her already enormous home to house the spirits. And the Spierig Brothers’ (Predestination, Daybreaker) latest certainly looks good, with added gravitas provided by Helen Mirren. But sadly Clarke is not convincing as the laudanum-addicted psychiatrist and the chills are little more than lukewarm. All a little too familiar.

Rating: 44%

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‘Exit West’ by Mohsin Hamid

exit westIn an un-named city swollen by refugees somewhere in the Middle East, Saeed and Nadia meet at an evening class. But not everything is at it seems – it takes Saeed a few lessons to pluck up the courage to speak to the young woman dressed in flowing black robes, only to discover she drives a motorbike, lives alone, smokes dope and is wedded to the phone and internet.

Their evolving love story is fraught with dangers as religious militants take control of various neighbourhoods in the city and executions for minor infringements of religious law are not uncommon. But as the violence and dangers escalate, so rumours abound of doorways randomly appearing throughout the city: to exit through a door is the path to a new life somewhere else in the world.

Exit West is addictive reading. Inevitably, there is a sense of familiarity as more and more displaced persons, via garden sheds, bedrooms, toilet cubicles, emerge all over the world. But Hamid’s world is set in an imagined near future. It is the story of the plight of refugees. But this is not the grim tale of terrifying, interminable journeys across borders or families holed up in tiny spaces as war explodes around them. Instead, as Saeed and Nadia travel through the portal, their experience is both like dying and like being born as they step into an alien and uncertain future. It’s not what they expect and they face both danger and joy.

What follows is a profoundly moving personal story of love, courage and, most of all, loyalty as the two face and confront the displacement of certainty and equilibrium around them.

But, whilst addictive, Exit West ultimately falls short of being fully satisfactory. The relevance of the novel’s first third and the beautifully written exposition of life in the un-named city as life becomes more and more untenable (electricity blackouts, random home searches by both militants and government forces, executions) loses out to a somewhat pedestrian, off-kilter place (as opposed to time) travel narrative.

Salient, engrossing, at times quite magical but also somewhat odd – the portals through which individuals place travel are never explained, a flight-of-fancy that actually needed a little more grounding. Shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize, Exit West lost out to George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo.

‘The Florida Project’

The_Florida_ProjectLife on the margins – and director Sean Baker (Tangerines, Starlet) immerses us in the everyday of six year-old Moonee and her friends.

Newcomer Brooklynn Prince is sensational as the street-savvy kid smart-arsing her way round the run-down motel blocks on the outskirts of Disneyland. Heavily-tattooed mom, Bria Vinaite, hustles cheap perfume, knock-off Disney passes and, eventually, herself to make ends meet. As motel-manager, Willem Defoe (Spider Man, John Wick) can only look-on with a sense of powerless hopelessness.

Baker gives us magic in the mundane, a voyeuristic experience of brattish behaviour (by adults and children alike) that highlights the cycle of poverty and crime. The Florida Project unfolds quietly in a series of non-judgemental, semi-observational vignettes that focus on character rather than didactic commentary. The result is warm, humorous but ultimately tragic.

Rating: 80%

‘Sour Sweet’ by Timothy Mo

soursweetPersonal ambitions within migrant Chinese communities in 1960s London and clashes between cultures result in a beautifully modulated story of business, loyalties, expectations, tradition and, ultimately, family.

But Sour Sweet is no deep socio-political commentary on similarities and differences between Anglo and migrant Chinese communities. Instead, it’s a deft, occasionally funny, affectionate family story of the Chens, a young couple only recently arrived in north London. He is passive and works long hours as a waiter in Chinatown: it is the spunky Lily who is the driving force of the family, particularly with the arrival of a son (Man Kee) quickly followed by her sister (Mui) from Hong Kong.

As the Chens settle into London, with Lily determined to make a success of the family’s new life, so a power struggle is taking place among the Triads who control the illegal gambling and drug distribution in Chinatown. The two worlds collide when Chen, due to family obligations and expectations back in China, is forced to borrow money. His mistake is that he fails to tell his wife.

Yet Mo choses to predominantly focus on the unknowing Lily and her sister Mui – and Sour Sweet is the more charming for it. The two women save enough money from the housekeeping to open a small takeaway business somewhere in South London: Lily is the more savvy of the two but Mui has an aptitude for figures. Somehow they make it work with Chen happy to almost disappear behind the hatch in the kitchen.

What works less in Mo’s enjoyable novel is the parallel time spent with the Triads. Whilst Mo paints key characters with similar sympathetic traits, the detailed violence between rival gangs and the internecine struggles within the Hungs is sometimes too much. The sour of Sour Sweet comes too much to the forefront.

But Timothy Mo’s second novel is nevertheless something of a little gem. Shortlisted for the 1982 Booker Prize, it lost out to Thomas Keneally and Schindler’s Ark.

‘The Square’

the-square-the-square-film-the-square-film-review-1Ultimately uncomfortable watching as director Ruben Ostland (Force Majeure, Involuntary) presents a heady mix of odd social commentary along with moments of crazed subversion.

Arrogant gallery curator Claes Bang (The Bridge, Rule #1) finds himself in deep schtick both professionally and personally as a result of a distraction during the negotiations of a controversial new exhibition.

But what on paper appears to be a linear narrative is anything but as commentary on lack of social awareness or care is troweled on thick and fast in scene after scene. Subversive, anarchic, occasionally brilliant, overstuffed with ideas but a film that could have benefitted from being 105 minutes long instead of 152. Inexplicably, The Square was presented with the 2017 Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Rating: 52%

‘In the Fade’

imagesThis year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar was presented to the more political Chilean feature A Fantastic Woman. But the same category at the Golden Globes was won by the more accessible German film, In the Fade.

The grief and pain is palpable in Diane Kruger’s (Inglorious Basterds, Farewell My Queen) mesmerising performance as a mother coming to terms with the murder of her Turkish husband and six year-old son. But the grief is replaced by anger as the courts look to dismiss the murder charges against a Neo-nazi couple.

Tension rides high as director Fateh Akin’s (Soul Kitchen, The Edge of Heaven) feature vacillates between social consciousness and old-fashioned justice. It may ultimately morph into something all a little too predictable, but the less-than-innocent Kruger’s award-winning performance (best actress, Cannes) more than carries the day.

Rating: 73%

‘Black Panther’

Black-Panther-poster-main-xlThere’s no question that the latest in the Marvel Comic franchise is politically important with its virtually all-black cast. And director Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station) has bought more than a touch of meaningful social commentary with him. But you can’t help thinking that Black Panther is more than a little over-hyped.

It’s an incredibly slow start with its origin story and photogenic African savannah panoramas. And while the court of King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman – Get On Up, Captain America: Civil War) livens up considerably, a sluggish Black Panther is upstaged by his senior general, Danai Gurira (Mother of George, All Eyez On Me), as well as the villain of the peace, Michael B Jordan (Fruitvale Station, Creed).

Rating: 61%

 

‘A Fantastic Woman’

fantasticOscar-winner for Best Foreign Language Film, this timely Chilean drama, focussed around a stellar central performance by transgender actress Daniela Vega (The Guest), explores grief and prejudice in modern-day Santiago.

With the sudden death of her older partner, Orlando, Marina finds herself ostracised by his grieving family, including threats of violence from Orlando’s adult son. But what prevents the latest from Sebastian Leilo (Gloria, Disobedience) slipping into oversimplified or overtly emotional political melodrama is the multilayered performance from Vega. As Marina, she is as steady as a rock, a history of violence and prejudice hidden behind her knowing, fathomless gaze.

Rating: 71%

‘My Brother Jack’ by George Johnston

Mybrotherjack_1A vivid and sincere telling of what is a semi-autobiographical novel (the first in a series of three), My Brother Jack talks of life in Melbourne between the First and Second World Wars. Chronicling the story of bookish, nerdy (in contemporary parlance) David Meredith and his older brother, Jack, My Brother Jack is a commentary on interwar Australian society and dull, mundane suburban existence.

A violent father, a sapper in the First World War deeply affected psychologically by his experiences, and a mother who became something of a hero in the same war as nurse and matron: both returned to the anticlimactic lifestyle of a too-crowded, rundown weatherboard home behind a picket fence in Melbourne. Jack, three years older than David, is a lad-about-town larrikin, supportive but disappointed in his younger brother.

Mundane life with a potential mundane future as, established by an unimaginative, brutish father, David is signed up for a seven-year apprenticeship in the printing industry. Yet he falls in with the Bohemian 1920s crowd and a new life unfolds. Over time, David becomes a successful journalist and war correspondent.

A seminal novel of mid-twentieth century Australian life, My Brother Jack is a candid portrayal of changing values and the vacuous suburban dream of the time. Although rarely present in the physical sense (particularly in the second half of the novel), it is Jack who is the marker for Johnston’s reflections.

It’s an allegory of old-style versus new – Jack is the true Okker, physically strong with a word and smile for anyone and everyone: it is he who tries to smooth over ruffled feathers, sees the positive in everything, even if his injury at boot-camp keeps him from seeing any action at the onset of World War II. Three kids (the third, much to Jack’s relief, is the boy he so desperately wanted) and a happy, faithful marriage: Jack is presented as optimism personified (although inevitably always disappointed).

David, meanwhile, marries ‘well’ and the social climbing, steered by the stylish and beautiful Helen, begins immediately – a perfectly manicured home in an anodyne new suburb along with carefully selected friends. It’s ultimately not the world for David – and his petty cruelty and rejection of his wife’s values and interests are honestly (if unpleasantly) portrayed.

Stylistically, the novel reflects the semi-autobiographical, journalistic background of the writer – along with the time it was written (1964). Straightforward prose, prone occasionally to err on overly long descriptive tedium, Johnston sets out to tell his story. And he does it well, painting a vivid picture of life behind the closed doors of the family weatherboard or the sterile dinner parties that accompany married life.

A little editing would have helped (occasionally there’s too much detail!) although, ironically, Johnston speeds through his time as a war correspondent and his travels across the world. But that’s the point. My Brother Jack is the travails of living and surviving in Australia in those post war years. It is the sequel – Clean Straw For Nothing – that Johnston explores life as an expatriate.

My Brother Jack was awarded the Miles Franklin Award in 1964 (as was the sequel five years later).

Booker Prize 2016: Shortlist

Madeleine_Thien_interviewed_by_Dietmar_Kanthak_in_Bonn,_January_2015Back in 2014, the Man Booker Prize made the decision to extend eligibility to include American authors (as long as they were writing in English). Such a decision was not unanimously welcomed. But it was to be 2016 before the Booker judges presented the award for the first time to an American: Paul Beatty and his satirical The Sellout.

Having read all six novels shortlisted for the 2016 award, the question remains – was it the right call? Controversy surrounded the list with the exclusion of J.M.Coetzee’s The Schooldays of Jesus and Elizabeth Strout and My Name is Lucy Barton from the 13-novel longlist.

The shortlist:

Paul Beatty: The Sellout
Deborah Levy: Hot Milk
Graeme Macrae Burnet: His Bloody Project
Ottessa Moshfegh: Eileen
David Szalay: All That Man Is
Madeleine Thien: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

 Only Deborah Levy had appeared on a Booker shortlist before (in 2012 for Swimming Home) and was regarded as one of the favourites to win. Speaking personally, of all the six novels on the list, her Hot Milk was the one I liked least. Using mother-daughter relationships to explore the nature of the feminine (along with hypochondria), it is a strangely inert narrative. Like the daughter, Sofia Papastergiadis, the story is as listless as the temperatures of the southern Spanish setting.

Less pretentious is Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. But like Hot Milk, it is populated with unlikeable characters. At times drab and slow moving, it’s something of a psychological character study with little of any import taking place until the final few pages.

Whilst shortlisted for the Booker as a novel, All That Man Is, to my mind, is a collection of nine short but interrelated stories. Some enjoyable, some minor.

Three down and three to go – and next on my list is the eventual winner, Paul Beatty with The Sellout. As I wrote in my personal review: Technically brilliant, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, savage and outrageous, undoubtedly challenging, yet… Its profane satire is unrelenting, the reading exhausting, the narrative one-dimensional.

It’s just the sort of literary gymnastics that appeals to literary judges – but not necessarily to everyday readers to quite the same extent.

Up until reading my final book on the list, I’d assumed that Graeme Macrae Burnet and his compelling His Bloody Project would have comfortably topped the list.

Set in a remote northern Scottish farming community in 1869, it is a multilayered psychological thriller exploring events leading up to the violent and bloody murder of three members of one family by a 17 year-old neighbour. Absorbing, intricate, His Bloody Project comfortably became the bestseller of the six shortlisted novels.

But Burnet’s magnificent achievement was pipped at the post by Madeleine Thien’s superb Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Magisterial, tragic, profound, enchanting – seven decades of contemporary Chinese history from Mao’s cultural revolution through to the student’s uprising and events at Tiananmen Square.

Booker Prize history was made in 2016 by presenting the award to an American writer – but personally I would have presented it to the Chinese-Canadian author.