‘Go Tell It On the Mountain’ by James Baldwin

An intense, burning eloquence marks James Baldwin’s searing Go Tell It On the Mountain, an emotionally powerful semi-autobiographical novel first published in 1953.

Unrelenting in its rage, Baldwin’s first novel focuses on the role of the Pentecostal church in the lives of African-Americans, and the Harlem-living Grimes family in particular. Based on his own personal experiences of growing up in Harlem with a strict disciplinarian preacher as a stepfather, Baldwin speaks primarily through John, a wise, sensitive 14 year-old struggling with his sexuality, his beliefs and his faith in family.

Yet Go Tell It On the Mountain is as much a commentary on Afro-American history as it is about the repression and moral hypocrisy of the church. The novel provides the back history of John’s parents and paternal aunt – of terrible Deep South poverty, of alcoholism, deprivation, the rigid and unrelenting role and judgement of the Church and religion on the lives of the saved and the sinners, the fallen and the raised.

But while aggressively critical in places of Pentecostalism; ‘If God’s power was so great why were their lives so troubled?’ asked John of the adults around him, Baldwin has a sneaking admiration for the church’s positive source of inspiration for people – even if he’s not wholly convinced. The fact the novel ends with John’s soaring force of redemption and conversion on the night of his birthday, dust rising from the very floorboards he lies convulsing upon is some indication. But even then, not all is what it seems, his preacher father, Gabriel, himself wise to tricks of the fallen through personal experience, is not wholly convinced.

Go Tell It On the Mountain – in spite of being banned on publication in New York State and Virginia – has established itself as something of an American classic. Whilst not an easy read, it is a remarkably sincere, magisterial novel that captures an essential aspect of life in America at the time, its contradictions and seductions, that bittersweet mix of love and hate, its overt racism and prejudice.

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‘Vice’

More engrossing and informative than entertaining, director Adam McKay (The Big Short, The Other Guys) and his latest political exploration will leave you dumbfounded by the manipulation of power by former Vice President, Dick Cheney (a transformed Christian Bale – The Dark Knight, The Big Short).

From the Nixon years through to the George W Bush presidency 40 years later, Cheney and wife Lynne (Amy Adams – Arrival, Doubt) sought power as he became intern, analyst, chief-of-staff at the White House, senator, secretary of defence, VP. Arch conservative, Cheney is regarded as the eminence gris behind Bush and the tenuous reasonings in the invasion of Iraq and the US’s extreme policies of its war on terror.

It’s a fascinating insight – biting satire and a true acting masterclass that, outside the Cheneys, includes Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Eddie Marsan, Tyler Perry – even an uncredited Naomi Watts. No surprise Bale won a Golden Globe and the film has received eight Oscar nominations.

Rating: 71%

‘Loro’

Bombastic, MTV-style telling of the life and times of scandal-plagued Italian PM, Silvio Berlusconi (Toni Servillo – The Great Beauty, Consequences of Love) or at least a period in his career as his marriage to second wife Veronica fractures.

Nudity, raucous poolside parties, coke-snorting bacchanalia is the order of the day as director Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, TV’s The Young Pope) controversially speculates on what may or may not have taken place behind both political and private closed doors as characters attempt to win the favour of the billionaire politician.

The Fellini-esque excess of debauchery, sex and depictions of unfettered wealth grate and ultimately bore – even if, unlike it’s two part release in Italy, the 150 minute international version switches at the halfway stage to a more in-depth, serious exploration of the corruption of power and money.

Sadly, too little too late – I’d switched off caring before then as Sorrentino delivers, once more, artifice rather than depth.

Rating: 34%

‘Glass’

Connecting the key superhuman characters from writer/director M.Night Shyamalan’s films Split and Unbreakable is, on paper, a fascinating concept. Sadly, Glass is nothing more than mildly intriguing with a third act that goes terribly, terribly wrong.

The vigilante from Unbreakable, David Dunn (Bruce Willis – Die Hard, The Sixth Sense) tracks down the multiple personalities of Kevin Wendell Crumb (an excellent James McAvoy – X-Men, Atomic Blonde) – but both end up in a Philadelphia institution for observation. But that’s where a heavily sedated Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight, Pulp Fiction) is also incarcerated….

Rating: 41%

‘American Rust’ by Philipp Meyer


Whilst occasionally slipping into seemingly aimless meanderings of thought, Philipp Meyer’s powerful debut novel is a tragic dissolution of the American dream and the waste of young lives as a consequence.

With the heavy industries of the Pennsylvanian steel belt closing down, thousands are left unemployed. Once thriving communities are thrown into economic decline and uncertainty, hulking factories lie empty, towns in the Valley virtually abandoned. With little to look forward to and a desperate need to ‘find fresh air’, 20 year-old Isaac English decides to leave the family home and head west to California. He has $4,000 in his pocket, stolen from his father, and the hope that his best friend, Billy Poe, will join him. But they do not get very far. On the outskirts of town, in a decrepit old factory, events unfold that leave one man dead along with an unreliable witness ready to tell a story for the right amount of cash.

With inevitable comparisons to John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy, Meyer, with his alternating narrators unflinchingly evoking time and place, immerses the reader in the false hopes and small town secrets of restless lives. 

Isaac, his sister Lee, who has escaped to study at Yale, and the complex Billy are the voices of the aspirations of the younger generation. All three are alienated from the world they have chosen. It’s in part their story, alongside Billy’s mother, Grace, living with her son in an isolated trailer on the edge of town and that of the local police chief, Harris – Grace’s part-time lover.

American Rust is a story of loyalty, of loneliness, of love, of uncertainty: of dashed hopes, wasted lives, social decline. It effortlessly merges multiple plotlines and the complexities of the key characters. Harris ponders on the possible isolation of his ensuing retirement whilst concerning himself with alleviating Grace’s concerns about her son. Isaac is troubled by doing the right thing by Billy – and Billy is determined to keep quiet about what happened that fateful night. Lee carries her guilt for having escaped the town at the expense of lost opportunity for her brother, leaving him to care for their father, disabled in a factory accident.

The novel does occasionally become something resembling a soap opera, but American Rust is the perfect companion piece to Michael Collins earlier The Keepers of Truth, a human reality and social insight to Collins’ murder mystery set in a similar industrial landscape.

Published in 2009, American Rust was regarded by many critics as one of the best novels of the year.  

‘Cold War’

A sublimely shot monochrome homage to 1950s European film, Cold War is an impossible tragic love story – a sad ballad of time and place across (east/west) frontiers.

With music the setter of moods (from traditional Polish peasant music to freeform jazz), Oscar-winning writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski (Ida, Summer of Love) focusses on the intimate within the narrative as a magnificent Joanna Kulig (The Innocents, Elles) sings her way to fame in 1950s Poland. A product of a post-war communist youth organisation, it is there she meets Wiktor (Tomasz Kot – Bikini Blue, Gods), music conductor at the folk-music academy. A doomed love affair from Warsaw to Paris, Berlin to Belgrade unfolds over the next 20 years.

Like the story itself, Cold War is starkly beautiful, its intimacy cold, its emotions constrained, distant. An intimate epic.

Rating: 84%

‘Dumplin’

Predictable yet heartwarming, overweight teenager Danielle Macdonald (Patti Cake$, Lady Bird) mourns the death of her beloved live-in aunt – and, in her memory, signs up for her mom’s Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant as a protest.

It’s a fun ride with an edge as mom, Jennifer Anniston (Cake, We’re the Millers) finds herself dealing with an escalation of tradition, a group of Dolly Parton drag queens and a better understanding of her own daughter.

Director Anne Fletcher (27 Dresses, The Proposal) generally takes the middle road in a narrative that is smart and funny with more than a little melancholic sadness. The result is an engaging, predictable entertainment – more than helped by that Dolly Parton soundtrack!

A Netflix original.

Rating: 59%

‘Colette’

A somewhat dull, episodic telling of the story of Colette, the French La Belle Epoque novelist who challenged her husband, successful Parisian writer Henry Gauthier-Villars – known commonly as Willy – and by doing so revolutionised social constraints, fashion and gender expectations.

As Colette, Keira Knightly (Atonement, Pirates of the Caribbean) is spiritedly charming throughout, dealing with an arrogant, bombastic, misogynist husband (Dominic West (Pride, Tomb Raider). But as a film it’s all a little too clean and by rote, with no real emotion or impoverished struggle. Something of a disappointment as the directorial follow-up by Wash Westmoreland to Still Alice.

Rating: 54%

Best of Year (2018 – Film)

The final list of the year – the top 10 films, and, to my mind, it’s something of a stunner, with non-English language films dominant. And just failing to make the top 10 were a number of much praised indie films – including Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, The Florida Project and Lean on Pete. Last year’s Oscar winner for best film, The Shape of Water, just missed out on the top 10, as did my only animation for the year, Isle of Dogs.

My top 10 films of the year:
10: The Rider
9: BPM (Beats Per Minute)
8: Loveless
7: 1945
6: The Favourite
5: Roma
4: Custody
3: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
2: Shoplifters
1: Foxtrot

The final film I saw at the 2018 Melbourne International Film Festival slipped into 10th spot – an intense indie film of bravura performances beautifully controlled by director Chloe Zhao.

The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival (essentially the runner up for the Palme d’Or), BPM is a powerful, lyrical, emotional narrative that resonates on a much wider political level than its ACT UP AIDS awareness setting.

In Loveless, director Andrey Zvyagintsev continues to comment on contemporary Russian society as a Leningrad couple look to divorce. Their 12 year-old son, caught in the vindictive and argumentative maelstrom, disappears in the stark yet rivetingly sincere feature from the director who is responsible for the equally devastating Leviathan.

In seventh spot, a film that was completely under the radar and barely received commercial distribution. But this black and white story of two Jews returning to a small Hungarian village days after the end of World War II is a picaresque narrative of startling beauty and powerful commentary.

One of the favourites in the current Oscar race, The Favourite is a ribald delight as the English court of Queen Anne is the setting for the locking of horns by three women in an attempt to win the royal favour.

Another Oscar favourite (and odds-on to win the foreign language film nod) is another black and white beauty. Roma by Alfonso Cuaron is the gorgeously shot year in the life of Cleo, a maid to a middle-class family living in Mexico City in the 1970s.

Devastating and disturbing, debut director Xavier Legrand’s claustrophobic tour de force is no easy watch, but with superb performances from a relatively small cast, Custody is heart-wrenching in its pain, fear and anger.

The runner-up for best film of the year is Shoplifters, the Palme d’Or winner at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It’s a deft, emotionally delicate feature from socially conscious filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda.

But my favourite film of 2018 is the Israeli film, Foxtrot, a sublime mix of intense drama interspersed with flashes of surreal brilliance. It’s bold, it’s imaginative, it’s powerful – an appropriate follow-up from director Samuel Maoz and his visceral debut feature film, Lebanon.

Best of Year (2018 – female Performance)

This particular list of five was much harder to draw up than the male performance category, with a number of performances vying to feature in the five.

Rachel Weisz gave two powerful performances in The Favourite and Disobedience (she may well find herself nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar nomination) and relative newcomer Jessie Buckley was fabulous in the little seen UK indie film, Beast. The youngest on the almost list is seven year-old Brooklyn Prince, who was a sensation in The Florida Project and the oldest is Glenn Close for The Wife – a performance that many are tipping for Oscar glory.

In previous years, non-English speaking roles have topped my list – but for 2018 there are none in the top five – Daniela Vega (A Fantastic Woman) and Diane Kruger (In the Fade) were the closest, both featuring in the top 10.

So after long deliberation, my top five female performances for 2018 are:
5: Charlize Theron: Tully
4: Melissa McCarthy: Can You Ever Forgive Me?
3: Lady Gaga: A Star is Born
2: Frances McDormand: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
1: Olivia Colman: The Favourite

Charlize Theron was certainly helped by having Mackenzie Davis to play off against but with a script from back-to-form Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult) and subtle direction from Jason Reitman, the quirky humour of Tully was perfect material for Theron to shine.

As literary fraudster Lee Israel, Melissa McCarthy turned in a perfectly dowdy, deadpan performance that is completely against the grain for this larger than life comedic actress – and she nailed it.

It’s one of the behemoths of the year, a critical darling and yet somehow missed out on numerous Golden Globe awards – including Gaga losing to Glenn Close. Gaga is very, very good – but just occasionally I wanted her not to be so Gaga on screen.

Foul-mouthed Frances McDormand was pitch perfect in one of my favourite films of the year – and understandably picked up last year’s best actress Oscar. But she was pipped to the top of the pile by –

Olivia Colman, a British character actress who, quite bluntly, is magnificent as the English Queen Anne in The Favourite, a dark, ribald, period-piece entertainment.