‘Beautiful Boy’

beautiful boyQuietly directed by Felix von Groeningen (The Broken Circle Breakdown, The Misfortunates), Beautiful Boy is a humane and deeply moving (true) story of drug addiction and father/son bond.

Timothee Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name, Lady Bird) embodies the tragedy of addiction and wasted opportunity as his loving father, Steve Carell (Foxcatcher, The 40 Year-Old Virgin), is forced to dig deep to continue the emotional support so desperately needed.

The support cast is forced to take a back seat in what is essentially a two-hander. And, whilst a cycle of rehab, relapse, recovery results in the emotional impact lessening as the film progresses, the two leads are riveting in their performances.

Rating: 71%

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‘Possession: A Romance’ by AS Byatt

possessionMassive and complex AS Byatt’s multi-awarding novel may be, but this overwrought piece of pretentiousness left me perfervid and polysyllabically frustrated (I can do it too!).

The writing was on the wall almost 30 years ago when I first purchased the book – it has stayed on the bookshelf since then. Now a yellowed, vintage copy (appropriate – a large part of Possession: Romance is entrenched in 19thcentury poetry and letters), pages and pages of varied fonts, indented prose, academic musings incorporating footnotes into the main body of the novel alongside stereotypical characterisation and humour that falls flat results in a fetid indulgence of epic proportions.

I long gave up on the exploits of the nerdy, academic researcher, Roland Michell, wanting to make a name for himself in the world of 19thcentury English literature and the poetry of Randolph Henry Ash. Naturally his boss, James Blackadder at Prince Albert College in London, is mean spirited and threatened by all and sundry – but in particular the wealthy American, Mortimer Cropper, patron of the Newsome Foundation in Arizona. That upstart is also interested in Ash – and is purchasing all paraphernalia even vaguely related to the poet, including all research papers, original writings and letters.

So right from the off we have academic confrontation and competition – made even more profane when Roland keeps quiet about his discovery of a potential connection between Ash and Christabel LaMotte, a scorned lesbian poet long forgotten until recently championed by feminist academics. Cue more stereotypes of lesbians and feminists that can be added to brash Americans and batty, socially awkward academics as Roland heads of to the Women Studies Centre in the north of England where he meets LaMotte expert, Maud Bailey.

Professional rivalry ensues in the tedious literary detective story that unfolds from their research at the final home of Christabel LaMotte.

Possession: Romance is a series of writings and genres from different periods: epic poems, diaries, letters, lists, academic papers, contemporary prose. But it’s simply too self-consciously clever and sits alongside stereotyped characters and clichéd events and plot development. Byatt herself takes an academic approach to biography whether in fiction or semi-fiction. You may not be able to fault the research and command of language but, as a novel, this is an impenetrable, self-promoting, self-indulgent entrapment. Literary with a capital ‘L’.

Possession: Romance was awarded the 1990 Booker Prize.

‘Donbass’

donbassRaw and uncompromising, award-winning director Sergey Loznitsa, known for documentaries (Maidan) and social commentary features (A Gentle Creature), draws together a montage of several unrelated stories and events in a war-torn eastern Ukraine.

Moments are disrupted by sudden mortar explosions, armed militia flag down a local bus in search of food, residents are forced to live in squalor in the basement of their apartment block to avoid shelling.

It’s oppressive but sadly all-too-familiar viewing as (Ukrainian) Loznitsa comments on Russian policy in their support of a war in the former Soviet State that’s disrupted the country since 2014. Individual vignettes are powerful but there’s little historical or political context provided to help understand exactly what is unfolding in front of us.

Rating: 51%

‘A Star Is Born’

a star is bornAfter a magnificent opening 20 minutes or so as troubled rock star Bradley Cooper (American Sniper, Silver Linings Playbook) meets the big-voiced Lady Gaga, A Star is Born settles into a slow, episodic unfolding of its narrative.

Gaga’s meteoric rise into a Grammy-award winning Britney Spears-like pop star is juxtaposed with Cooper’s demise into drug and alcohol addiction. It’s his struggle that is the real focus of Cooper’s directorial debut – in spite of the fact Lady Gaga is a revelation in her first leading role.

A solid remake/adaptation of the 1954 classic starring James Mason and Judy Garland, with some fabulous tunes from both leads, A Star Is Born is nevertheless disappointing considering the hype that surrounds it.

Rating: 64%

‘Bad Times at the El Royale’

royaleNothing is what it seems at the El Royale, a fabulous 60s Lake Tahoe hotel with a seedy past and now firmly off the beaten track. Seven strangers all inevitably interlinked in some obscure way – the question is who’s going to survive the night.

It should have been magical – with a cast including (the ever enjoyable) Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth – but it’s Cynthia Erivo (Widows) who steals the show in a somewhat lacklustre thriller. An over-indulgent 140 minutes that could – and should – have been much more than a fleeting, unmemorable bit of fun.

Rating: 58%

‘First Man’

first manIn spite of knowing the outcome of Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon, director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash) and his taut telling of the historic moment teases out every thrill, tension and suspense.

Somber, claustrophobic and with a focus on the men and their families (a controlled, nuanced Ryan Gosling – La La Land, Drive – as Armstrong, a riveting, scene-stealing Claire Foy – Unsane, TV’s The Crown – as his wife, Janet), First Man is intimate and deeply humane. But it is also a technical tour de force, with particular reference to the editing by Tom Cross (La La Land, Whiplash), and a likely swag of behind-the-scenes Oscar nominations.

Rating: 68%

‘Satin Island’ by Tom McCarthy

satinislandAn unexpectedly accessible and engaging cerebral read, Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island is a state-of-the-world stream of consciousness as corporate anthropologist, U., navigates his way through contemporary life and his role in the multi-national, multi-government epoch-defining Koob Sasson Project.

Tasked by Peyman, his boss, with the writing of the book to define the age, U. spends his time in a sporadic oscillation between global and localised catastrophes (oil spills, Lagos traffic jams) and page five news about a dead parachutist – along with the occasional sexual encounter with Madison, a woman he met at a conference in Budapest. His purpose is to accumulate information from which the identification of a codex can possibly be developed – so that he can write that defining tome.

Satin Island is no domestic narrative of the mundane and the every day – it’s about airports and overseas conferences (London, New York, Paris, Seattle, Turin, Vienna), data analysis and expounding theories of human and corporate behaviour. It’s about disappearing into screens, power point presentations and decoding the world.

But what prevents Satin Island from slipping into a miasma of intellectual and theoretical inaccessibility is the wry humour and lightness of touch by Tom McCarthy. Contemplative and challenging it may be as U. scrutinises everything around him in what is essentially a novel without a plot. Madison features occasionally, as does Petr, a friend dying from cancer – but that’s the limit to the human-interest story. The remainder of the relatively short novel is about connection and events, a Chaos theory for the 21stcentury that will enable U. to write that book.

Shortlisted for the 2015 Booker Prize, Tom McCarthy lost out to Marlon James, the first Jamaican author to win the award, and A Brief History of Seven Killings.

‘Venom’

Venom_(film)_poster_007It’s telling when, in director Ruben Fleischer’s Venom, the most engaging moments are the two (short) scenes between Tom Hardy (The Revenant, Inception) and his local Asian female shopkeeper.

Venom is a unimaginative bombast of an origin film as Hardy acquires the power of an alien symbiote as an alter ego in his (initially reluctant) battle with power-crazed Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed – The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Nightcrawler).

In spite of all the CGI, the latest in the Marvel Comic oeuvre feels somewhat dated and wastes a great deal of talent. It’s an uninspiring yarn lacking any sense of the fun expected from a director responsible for Zombieland and Gangster Squad.

Rating: 35%

‘The Siege of Krishnapur’ by J.G.Farrell

siegeofkrishnapurTo the north of Calcutta, (the fictional) town of Krishnapur and its British garrison is laid under siege by rebelling sepoys during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Essentially the retelling of the (true) siege of Lucknow, Farrell’s engrossing novel is based partly on contemporary accounts, diaries and letters of the British residents themselves.

Imperialism is placed under the microscope as a complacent community, with the exception of our hero, Mr Hopkins (the Collector), ignore all danger signs. Hopkins is a rarity in that he is a man devoted to progress and contemporary culture. Yet even his values and ideas about civilisation, religion, community – even the essence of Englishness itself – come crashing down around his ears amidst the terrible privations, disease, inhumanity and death during the months under siege in almost unbearable heat.

As Indians encamp in their hundreds on the far banks of the dry river bed to watch the spectacle, the folly and illusions of colonialism are driven home. Cholera cares not for the British class system and, after several months of water rationing, personal hygiene may not be high on the priority list. Food is so scarce that the capture and satisfying crunch of a beetle elicits jealous rage and, of little value, silver cutlery ends up being sequestered for (effective) canon ammunition.

The Siege of Krishnapur, through humour, cutting wit and more than a little moral high ground (the now discredited phrenology, for example, looms large throughout), draws out the drama of events as the characters are subjected to changes in rules almost unfathomable to the privileged many.

Farrell himself (who died tragically at the age of 44 in a fishing accident) said that he wanted to show “yesterday reflected in today’s consciousness” – and his incisive prose and biting wit suggests that he more than achieved this. Occasionally, however, Farrell slips into preaching, particularly when it comes to the discussions and arguments about religion. But a minor caveat for a book that looks not to why the rebellion happened from the Indian perspective, but from the perspective of the ingrained, misplaced superiority of the colonialists.

JG Farrell was awarded the 1973 Booker Prize – and The Siege of Krishnapur is regarded by many critics as the best of all the winning novels.

‘American Animals’

American-Animals-movie-posterAward-winning documentary filmmaker Bart Layton (The Imposter) takes on the true story of a daytime heist that goes wrong with mixed results.

Four clean-cut Kentucky university students attempt a multimillion-dollar art theft from their own library led by the incompetent Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Dunkirk) and Evan Peters (X-Men Apocalypse, Kick-Ass).

It’s a preposterous idea of fantasy and fiction as the bored four make plans, the narrative interspersed with commentaries from the real-life, evidently traumatised, protagonists and parents. Sadly, the film fails to do the story full justice. A slow, ponderous first half is ultimately uninteresting, lacking any gripping immediacy or empathy. It’s the heist that grabs the attention, 20-30 minutes of action and wry, incompetent humour that highlights the dullness of the preceding first hour.

Rating: 56%