‘Captain Marvel’ (Marvel #2)

Generic and somewhat flat, the latest in the Marvel universe is an uninspiring genesis film.

A generally unconvincing Oscar-winning Brie Larson (Room, Kong: Skull Island) finds herself on the wrong side of good in a galactic war that, slowly, reveals her human roots. Mentor Jude Law (Sherlock Holmes, Cold Mountain) encourages the latest superhero to overcome her emotions in the fight against the Skrulls – but contact with former (human) friends and S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, including (a digitally enhanced) Samuel L Jackson, undermine her training.

The underlying humour (Jackson and the cat in particular) make Captain Marvel passable, but directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Billions, Half Nelson) are sadly out of their indie film/TV comfort zone.

A second (2021) watching raised the rating a little.

Rating: 44%

‘Triple Frontier’

A superior genre film from Netflix as five former special forces operatives reunite to steal a drug lord’s fortune in the jungles of deepest South America.

Putting their lives at risk for country is placed on the back burner as millions of dollars are at stake: Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina, A Most Violent Year) is on a personal mission and pulls together a team that includes Ben Affleck (The Town, Gone Girl) and Charlie Hunnam (King Arthur, The Lost City of Z).

Character and plot development are dealt with on a fairly equal basis until we hit action stations, and whilst there are some howlers in plot line, it’s all entertaining enough until the guys make their planned escape. It then hits the ‘pretty dumb’ button hard. With J.C. Chandor (Margin Call, A Most Violent Year) at the helm and written by Chandor and Mark Boal (Detroit, The Hurt Locker), Triple Frontier could, and should, have been a lot better. But it’s still entertaining for what it is.

A Netflix original.

Rating: 59%

‘Hotel Mumbai’

The harrowing events of the coordinated terrorist attack on multiple targets across Mumbai in 2008 form the basis of Anthony Maras’ feature film debut.

The luxurious Taj Mahal Hotel, where terrorists controlled the corridors for four days killing more than 30 people, was the highest profile target. And it is here that Maras focuses his occasionally gripping, predominantly bland, factional telling. Like many disaster films of old with large casts, it’s the lack of characterisation that’s the problem. Dev Patel (Lion, Slumdog Millionaire) as staff member Arjun is the film’s mainstay but with Armie Hammer, Jason Isaacs, Nazanin Boniadi and Carmen Duncan as guests, their stories need to be told – along with time spent with the (admittedly gripping) rampaging terrorists stalking the hotel.

Hotel Mumbai certainly has its moments, but in terms of a tribute to victims and survivors, it falls somewhat short as excess of killings and violence outweigh any attempt at a message.

Rating: 53%

‘On the Basis of Sex’

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is trending, an icon of our time. Last year came the acclaimed documentary, RBG, which introduced the fiery advocate for the advancement of gender equality and women’s rights to a wider audience.

Mimi Leder (Pay It Forward, Deep Impact) and her film introduces her to far more – although, inevitably, the biopic of only the second woman to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, is sadly diluted for mass consumption. Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything, Inferno) plays Ginsburg with steely aplomb, but in covering 30 years, the narrative skims across too much detail.

Rating: 56%

‘Innocent Erendira (and Other Stories)’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I’ve never been a great fan of short stories. The lack in depth of narrative or characterisation results in a shortcoming, a dissatisfaction. Yet in 38 pages of Innocent Erendira(or, to give it its full title, The incredible and sad tale of innocent Erendira and her heartless grandmother), there is depth of narrative and characterisation by the bucket load – and a great deal more. It is the story of a young girl who accidentally burns down the desert home of her obese grandmother – and, as a result, is forced into the life of prostitution and slavery to repay her debt. It’s a magical story – a larger-than-life grandmother who builds her retinue and revenue on the basis of Erendira’s earnings as they move from isolated town to isolated town across haunting desert landscapes. But eventually, Erendira meets the young Ulises, and they plot to kill the grandmother.

Written in 1972, The incredible and sad tale of innocent Erendira and her heartless grandmother is the longest (and newest) of stories in the Picador 1982 publication – with other stories from as early as 1948 and only a few pages long. True magical realism, which juxtaposes the mundanity of reality alongside the fantastical and magical: folktale magic and the supernatural, qualities that make disturbing subjects more palatable. The abuse of Erendira by her grandmother: the beautiful Laura Farina dispatched by her own father to bestow sexual favours on Senator Onesimo Sanchez (Death constant beyond love).

Marquez, in his stories, is not condoning but highlighting the plights of young girls within the sex trade – the abuse is part of the patriarchal establishment, from family to politics to church. But his focus is much wider – the oppressed, the dispossessed, the powerless. Identifying as both a native of Colombia and South American, Marquez is only too familiar with a history that is full of bloody doctrines and dictators – and his short stories poetically but critically highlight this. Erendira is beautifully accessible – unlike many of the other stories contained within this compendium. Prime examples of magic realism they may be, but my personal preference lies with the novels of Marquez, where time spent allows more immersion than a five-page story such as Eyes of a blue dog (1950).

‘The Guilty’

A tense, riveting claustrophobia of a narrative restricted entirely to one night in a Danish emergency call centre and built around the headset of one operative, Jakob Cedergren (Submarino, Terribly Happy).

Unexpected twists and turns evolve as an abducted woman manages to make an emergency call from the vehicle heading north out of Copenhagen. A police sergeant on suspension, a concerned and flawed Cedergren is superb as the night develops and his earlier convictions and hunches are sorely tested.

Writer/director Gustav Moller, in his debut feature, builds suspense in this taut chamber drama – and, with its running time of 85 minutes, shows confidence in the art of filmmaking. The Guilty won a slew of international awards, including the Audience Award, World Cinema, at Sundance 2018.

Rating: 88%

‘The Woman in White’ by Wilkie Collins

Commonly regarded as one of the first ‘mystery novels’ and an early example of detective fiction, Collins’ The Woman in White is a true nineteenth century literary classic.

First published in serial form in 1859 and set in Victorian England, the story examines the twisted circumstances surrounding the arranged marriage between young, innocent heiress, Laura Fairlie, and the older Sir Percival Glyde.

It’s the tale of social mores, class, gender inequality, love, treachery, mental illness, fraud – and a murder conspiracy investigation that made it so popular in its day. And it being written by Wilkie Collins, it’s also a prime gothic melodrama!

A young, handsome art teacher, Walter Hartright, is appointed tutor to Laura and takes up residence at the isolated Cumbrian estate of Limmeridge. A ward of her invalid (hypochondriac) uncle, Frederick, Laura lives a sheltered life with her half-sister, Marian Halcombe. Unencumbered with wealth, looks or social expectations, Marian is intelligent and feisty – and almost immediately befriends Hartright. 

Love develops between teacher and Laura – socially unacceptable in Victorian England – and he is forced to curtail his three-month appointment. His departure is made more crucial by the imminent arrival of Sir Percival Glyde, a man betrothed to Laura at the wishes of her beloved father on his deathbed. A charming aristocrat who wins over the Limmeridge household, he is, of course, not what he seems. A dastardly, short-tempered older man in severe financial trouble is his reality, with creditors queuing for their monies – and a grand conspiracy unfolds with Laura, now Lady Glyde, the innocent victim and Marian, by her position as a woman in Victorian England, almost equally powerless. It’s only on the return of Hartright from self-imposed overseas exile that justice can move forward. 

Told by a series of narrators central to the events as they unfold, The Woman in White stands out from novels of the time in that Collins has written complex, spirited and believable female characters. Whilst Marian Halcombe herself may talk of her limitations as a ‘mere woman’, it is unquestionably ironic, as Collins has created a woman of action who is not afraid to say what she thinks. 

True to its time (and the fact it was published in serial form), The Woman in White is drawn out, verbose and occasionally pompous. It takes more than 600 pages to tell its tale as Hartright, Halcombe, family lawyers, doctors, housekeepers, maids all have their say and contribution to the narrative. Interestingly, the fraudulent conspiracy and its reveal take up only a little over half the novel: the social unmasking of the complexities of the dastardly deed take up a great deal of planning and careful scrutiny in the latter part of the novel.

It’s an entertaining and involving read, if occasionally long-winded. And whilst gender politics may grate by today’s standards, for it’s time The Woman in White is remarkably forward thinking (as well as an insight into English attitudes towards foreigners! Judging by comments proliferating social media today regarding Brexit, little has changed in more than 150 years…).

‘The Mule’

Clint Eastwood’s latest annual directorial feature is inspired by the true story of a 90 year-old Korean War veteran turning into a drug mule for the Mexican cartel, driving from Texas to Illinois on a monthly basis.

A chance meeting leads a strapped-for-cash Eastwood (Gran Torino, Million Dollar Baby) to drive millions of dollars of drugs across state lines as DEA special agent Bradley Cooper (A Star is Born, American Sniper) closes in.

It’s a repetitive storyline as we follow Eastwood through several road trips, with the back story of his broken family life occasionally taking centre stage. But it’s all a little hollow, lacking in any real substance or emotional resonance.

But there’s a great jazz soundtrack from Arturo Sandoval!

Rating: 58%

‘The Sisters Brothers’

An easy going western as famed sharpshooting assassins the Sisters Brothers are dispatched to the Californian goldfields by the Commodore to deal with one Herman Kermit Warn.

Patrick deWitt’s award-winning The Sisters Brothers is a gripping, darkly funny and wholly compelling novel. Condensing the sprawling nature of the brothers journey from Oregon in its adaptation for screen, Jacques Audiard (Rust & Bone, A Prophet) cuts to the chase, with brothers Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator, Walk the Line) and John C Reilly (Stan & Ollie, Chicago) quickly catching up with Warn (Riz Ahmed – Venom, The Reluctant Fundamentalist). But not everything is what it seems – resulting in the boys reconsidering their long term prospects.

There’s a great deal lost in translation from page to screen – in particular Eli’s moral and ethical rumination of life as a gunslinger. But, in his first English language feature, Audiard has captured the boisterous, humorous gung-ho of the genre, supported by a great cast and, albeit foreshortened, an offbeat and garrulous storyline.

Rating; 72%

‘Panther in the Basement’ by Amos Oz

It’s 1947 and, with British soldiers patrolling the streets and imposing evening-to-early-morning curfews, Jerusalem is a city on the edge.

As the British Mandate in Palestine draws to its inevitable end and the battle lines between Jews and Arabs slowly come to the fore, 12 year-old Proffy is caught up in the fervour and unrest – and dreams of adventure. The nearby hillsides echo with the sounds of bullets and explosions and the silences of the family apartment are occasionally interrupted by fervent knockings and hushed whispers late into the night.

Amos Oz’s wonderfully vivid novella (a mere 122 pages) is a rites-of-passage story of a teenage boy growing up in a troubled city. Semi-autobiographical, the bookish Proffy spends the summer with friends Ben Hur and Chita as members of a fictional underground group fighting the British. He is ‘an excited panther in the basement, seething with oaths and vows, knowing exactly…to what he will dedicate his life, for what he will sacrifice it when the moment of truth comes.’ But then he is accused of treason by the movement, spotted in a café fraternising with the enemy, one Sergeant Dunlop. Appeals of counter-espionage fall on deaf ears: Proffy is forced to understand the true nature of loyalty and betrayal.

In this short novel, Oz beautifully captures a pivotal moment in the life of Proffy, his family and his about-to-be country. It’s the last days of an occupying force and a time of many questions. The boy is young but not purely innocent: those questions of himself and the world around him need to be asked – and preferably answered. But it is only as an adult 40 years later that understanding, to some degree, can be achieved.