‘Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again’

Mamma_Mia!_Here_We_Go_AgainWhether you like/liked ABBA or not (and it’s more than 40 years since they won Eurovision), there’s no denying their catchy, upbeat pop is some of the most joyful around. And that’s true of Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again. Cheesy, superficial, predictable it may be as we travel back in time from Mamma Mia to see where it all started. Yet…

Casting is inspirational (Lily James – Cinderella, Baby Driver – for Meryl Streep and Hugh Skinner – Hampstead, Les Miserables – for Colin Firth in particular). Selection of songs perfect for the narrative (Cher as Meryl Streep’s mom!) and even Croatia standing in for the original Greek island is a perfect setting. Sheer unadulterated joy – even if, other than singing the songs, everything is forgotten about the minute you walk out of the auditorium.

Rating: 63%

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‘See You Up There’

SYUT_280x400-VERTSomething of a visual feast, the morality tale set in the aftermath of the First World War is an absurdist black comedy – a Buster Keaton/Grand Guignol Phantom of the Opera mix.

Severely disfigured in the final days of the war, a mask-wearing artist Nahuel Perez Biscayart (BPM, Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe) looks to his revenge on war profiteers (including his own estranged father), joining with the man who saved his life in the trenches (Albert Dupontel – Nine Month Stretch, Love Me No More).

Co-adaptor of the novel by Pierre Lemaitre as well as director, Dupontel tells a bittersweet yet sumptuous tale of revenge and redemption.

Rating: 59%

‘Mary Shelley’

mary shelleyThe extraordinary love affair between Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and Percy Byshe Shelley and the resulting penning of Frankenstein is manna from heaven for storytelling.

But the clunky treatment by director Haifaa Al-Mansour (Wadjda, Women Without Shadows) and a cast guilty of overacting (Bel Powley – A Royal Night Out, Diary of a Teenage Girl – as Mary’s stepsister, Gail, in particular) undermines the story and the quiet performances of Elle Fanning (The Beguiled, Maleficent) and Stephen Dillane (Darkest Hour, Welcome to Sarajevo) as her father.

Engaging as a story but sadly, as a film, a misfire.

Rating: 47%

‘Of a Boy’ by Sonya Hartnett

Of_A_Boy_(Sonya_Hartnett)_CoverA short, seemingly meandering story, Sonya Hartnett leaves you wondering just where the narrative is taking you. And when it gets there, you wish it hadn’t!

Evocative of youth and innocence with more than a hint of vulnerability, Of a Boy steers clear of overt sentiment in its telling of childhood and mother/child relationships – and that of nine year-old Adrian in particular. A boy on the sidelines – living with his Gran in a street where there’s no other kids, one particular friend at school. Lonely he may be, but Adrian is a survivor, having experienced the emotional deterioration of his mother following a divorce.

As Adrian befriends Nicole, the new girl across the road, the story of three missing children (the prologue of Of a Boy and likely based on the true story of the missing Beaumont children, who disappeared from an Adelaide beach) gradually moves off the front pages of the newspapers. And whilst children may not understand, they do not so readily forget.

Sparse language, evocative setting (the innocence of 1977 where the purchase of a slinky could create so much interest and joy) and a mood of cold, damp winter months with morning mists and the early onset of nighttime darkness add to the sense of foreboding of Hartnett’s haunting and deeply moving novel.

Of a Boy was the recipient of The Age Book of the Year as well as the Commonwealth Writers Prize for South East Asia and South Pacific Region but lost out to Alex Miller and Journey to the Stone Country for the 2003 Miles Franklin Award.

‘Floundering’ by Romy Ash

flounderingA convincing, tough, unsentimental yet moving storyline more than smacks of truth as brothers Tom and Jordy come to terms with an unstable, broken mum who, having abandoned them on the doorstep of their gran twelve months earlier, has turned up again. Without a word, she whisks them off on a road trip the boys will never forget.

Loretta seemingly has no plan – and very little money – other than to head west. Days of sleeping in an old rust bucket of a car with the boys still in their school uniforms and surviving predominantly on chocolate and soda shoplifted along the way follow.

Eleven year-old Tom is our narrator, a boy who sees a lot but understands little. Loretta is slowly falling apart, fragments of a desperate woman experienced on the periphery of Tom’s vision. When the three find shelter in an old caravan park on the west coast, the sense of menace is just out of view as the slightly older, surly Jordy attempts to protect his brother.

Floundering is a grim, anxiety-ridden experience. Yet its vivid language and powerful sense of character, presented by the author without any judgement, drags us into the  squalor of the road trip and the inhospitable dereliction of the coastal campsite. As Tom says of his brother when they realise they have been abandoned once more, “there’s a little piece of string connecting us, and I got no choice but to go with the pull of it.” And that describes the effect Romy Ash’s debut novel has on its readers. And I, for one, am glad to have done so.

Shortlisted for the 2013 Miles Franklin Award, Romy Ash lost out to Michelle de Kretser and Questions of Travel.

‘Back to Burgundy’

burgundyAn oenophile’s delight as Jean (Pio Marmai – Living on Love Alone, Alyah), 10 years roaming the globe, returns to the family vineyard. With his father seriously ill, Jean reunites with his sister and brother – and together they must decide on the future of the family business. Only he has another life on the other side of the globe.

The insights into the art of winemaking is the highlight of this enjoyable, if somewhat laboured and unconvincing drama. ‘Clean’ (not a compliment) is the accusation levelled on a neighbouring wine: more taut and acidic is the objective for the three siblings. Pity director Cedric Klapisch (Pot Luck, Chinese Puzzle) chose to play safe and produce a ‘clean’ film.

Rating: 52%

‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ by Karen Joy Fowler

besidesReadable it may be, interspersed with the occasional provocative wit, but overall, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves left me cold and unengaged.

Rosemary Cooke (our narrator) has a sister. Or did. Fern disappeared from the family around Rosemary’s fifth birthday. And to add to the childhood trauma of loss, her older brother Lowell walked out of the family home in Indiana seven years later – and hasn’t been seen since (although news of his whereabouts occasionally filters through). Now a college student in Davis, California (the place of Lowell’s last reported sighting), a lonely Rosemary grieves for her lost siblings. Only it transpires that Fern was a chimpanzee (apologies for the spoiler).

Inspired by real-life experiments dating from the 1930s onwards, the family ‘twin‑sisterhood’ was part of an experiment conducted  by her psychologist father for five years before being abruptly terminated. Just why never becomes completely clear until towards the end of Fowler’s novel. It’s Rosemary’s culpability (or at least her belief of it) that forms the core – a motormouth child who now prefers silence as an adult and who remembers only snatches of her earlier formative years. But then a simian upbringing is likely to silence most discussions with peers!

Psychology theories abound in Fowler’s book (transpires her father was a professor of psychology in Indiana) as Rosemary looks to justifications and answers. And she is constantly looking for answers. But those answers are in her past.

What starts out as a traditional family narrative soon becomes anything but. And whilst the dysfunctional family is well written, it soon becomes overanalysed – as does the message regarding animal lab testing. Ultimately, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves becomes a labouredrepetitive story as Rosemary looks to understand just what happened when she was five years old.

Shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize (the first year where American authors qualified for consideration), Karen Joy Fowler lost out to Richard Flanagan and The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

‘Our Fathers’ by Andrew O’Hagan

ourfathersA controlled, assured first novel, Our Fathers is an elegiac yet dark stroll down a Scottish memory lane. It’s 1960s Glasgow and the time of social reform and urban renewal. Out with the slums and in with the new – clean, modern, light-filled high rise tower blocks.

But 30 years later, the legendary Hugh Bawn is dying from cancer on the 18th floor of one of those same tower blocks he helped create. His grandson Jamie returns from England to watch over him  – and it is he who is Our Fathers narrator.

It’s a story of nationalism, socialism, alcoholism, pride and hopes – of three lives dictated and determined by the values and drive of one: Hugh ‘Mr Housing’ Bawn. He may be frail and dying in a flat where the lifts are constantly vandalised, but Hugh Bawn’s history is one of municipal principles and righteous politics. But it came at a cost – an alcoholic son who could never live up to expectations and who, in return, deeply traumatised and rejected his own son, Jamie. Even those same tower blocks, standing ‘proud as a Soviet gymnast’ are now being demolished, built as they were with substandard materials. And with them go the idealism and aspirations of the old working class socialist values.

Andrew O’Hagan is in the territory of writers such as Jack London and Robert Tressell,  with its overt celebration of social (socialist) working class realism. In writing almost a century later, however, Hagan records the loss of much of its associated idealism (it’s no coincidence that Jamie has moved to England and is a demolitions expert – both anathema to his grandfather).

But in looking to that recording of social realism, O’Hagan misses a crucial element to his narrative – emotional empathy. Consequently, whilst Our Fathers is an informative construction with rich prose and savvy dialogue, the heart yearned for a little more emotion and less emotional detachment.

Shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize, Our Fathers lost out to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.

 

‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’

jurassicA fun if overlong templated blockbuster, the latest in the the Jurassic world of dinosaurs sees an imminent volcanic eruption on the island threatening, once again, extinction.

Back come Owen (Chris Pratt, Guardians of the Galaxy, Passengers) and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard, The Help, Gold) to save the day and thwart Eli Mills (Rafe Spall – One Day, The Big Short) and his money-making plans.

It’s Indiana Jones and derring-do revisited: hardly new, entertaining enough and more than (obviously) topical (private, unethical military sales to the highest bidder; privatisation; genetic engineering etc). Director J. A. Bayona (A Monster Calls, The Impossible) handles the material well enough, but this ain’t gonna change the world.

Rating: 53%

‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’

sicario_day_of_the_soldadoThat sense of menace sublimely achieved in the first instalment, Sicario, is retained by director, Stefano Sollima (TV’s Gomorrah), in this thrilling sequel. That mood is more than helped by the mesmerising soundtrack from Hildur Gudnadottir (A Hijacking, Mary Magdalene).

It’s more of the same as the US look to control illegal immigration across the border from Mexico – and the answer this time round is to start a war between the drug cartels.

Benicio Del Toro (Traffic, Guardians of the Galaxy) and Josh Brolin (No Country For Old Men, Deadpool 2) return – but sadly no Emily Blunt. And it’s that lack of toughness and vulnerability that is sadly missing. The original was masterful: Sicario: Day of the Soldado is gritty and intense but too violently one-dimensional.

Rating: 66%