‘Marriage Story’

Intense, incisive and compassionate, Marriage Story is the tale of a breakdown in the relationship of the seemingly perfect couple – and the frustrations of attempting, initially, for the divorce to be amicable.

A determination to return to LA and her film acting career puts Scarlett Johansson (The Avengers, Lost in Translation) at odds with successful New York stage director, Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman, Paterson). Their young son, Henry, is the pawn.

It’s a bruising journey as lawyers and courts go to town (Laura Dern – Wild, Rambling Rose – as Johansson’s attorney is excellent) – but it’s also, at times, exceedingly funny and sensitive to both sides of the argument. And with both Johansson and Driver at the top of their game in writer/director’s Noah Baumbach’s (The Squid & the Whale, Frances Ha) superior family drama, Oscar nominations at a minimum beckon.

A Netflix original.

Nominated for 6 Oscars in 2020 (including Driver, Johansson, best film and screenplay), won 1 (Laura Dern – supporting actress, who also won the Golden Globe and BAFTA in the same category).

Rating: 84%

‘Ford vs Ferrari’

A well-told story based on true events as Henry Ford II looks to promote the Ford brand beyond the suburban – resulting in the challenge to the Ferrari dominance of the 24 hour Le Mans road race.

Commissioning car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon – The Martian, Jason Bourne) to deliver the goods, who in turn brings in outspoken driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale – The Fighter, The Dark Knight), eventually provides results. But not without controversy and heartbreak along the way.

A solid delivery from director James Mangold (Logan, Walk the Line) provides plenty of track-side excitement and suspense. But a lack of emotional investment undermines a compelling narrative.

Nominated for 4 Oscars in 2020 including best film – won 2 for film & sound editing.

Rating: 64%

‘Too Much Lip’ by Melissa Lucashenko

Returning home to the tiny (fictional) country town of Durrongo in the Northern Rivers to pay the briefest respects to her dying grandfather, Kerry Salter is determined to spend only a few days over the state border in NSW before heading back to Queensland on her stolen Harley. But she is in Bundjalung country and it’s her Country – and her family.

Too Much Lip is a gloriously intuitive tale that is simultaneously hard-edged and extremely funny as Kerry is forced to pitch her wits both against and for a fractured family that is both abused and abusive, perpetrator and victim. And the longer she stays, the more Kerry finds herself sucked into the issues confronting her mother, brothers, nieces, nephews, aunts and neighbours – as well ancestors and the threat to the sacred island by corrupt local politicians. Old family wounds open as the Salters fight to stop the development of their beloved river. And to make things even more confusing, there’s the good-looking dugai (white-fella) Steve…

It may teeter on the edge of caricature on occasions, but Lucashenko’s seventh novel is a fast-paced narrative packed with full-throttle characters in Kerry; her mother Pretty Mary, trying to hold everything together but inclined a little too often to hit the bottle when she cannot cope; a brooding older brother in Kenny, a whisky-shot from violence. And then there’s gay little brother Black Superman, who, like his sister, thought by leaving (and finding work and love in Sydney) he’d escaped the family clutches.

It’s a fun ride with dialogue of blunt, Aboriginal vernacular English – but that humour is more than balanced by the darker elements of not-so-distant colonial history. Of Mount Monk, a part of Bundjalung country, Kerry’s grandfather explained. It’s a gunjibal’s fist waiting for us mob to step outta line, waiting to smash us down. We livin’ in the whiteman’s world now. You remember that.

Too Much Lip was presented with the 2019 Miles Franklin Award.


‘The Irishman’

An ageing hitman for the Philadelphia mafia (Robert De Niro – Goodfellas, The Godfather) reflects on events of the past fifty years – including his involvement in the disappearance of best friend and high-profile Chicago union man, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino – The Godfather, Carlito’s Way).

Years in gestation, Martin Scorsese’s magnus opus to cinematic mob stories is a magnificent, stately, slow burn (209 minutes) of a feature as mafia head honchos Joe Pesci (Goodfellas, Casino) and Harvey Keitel (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction) look to ‘influence’ politics of the day, including the presidential elections of JFK and Nixon, Hoffa’s control of the union, ownership of the Havana casinos and unquestioned business interests in the Philly/Delaware area.

But in spite of a feature full of incident and brimming with shady characters and passionate causes, with Pacino and Pesci superb, The Irishman is De Niro’s and Scorsese’s film. As much a psychological narrative as it is action-based, the drama unfolds at a stately pace, with Scorsese meditating on the culmination of his organised crime legacy (Casino, Goodfellas, Mean Streets et al), reunited with the likes of De Niro, Pesci and Keitel. It’s a crime-ridden ride – as you would expect – interlaced with moments of sublime humour. But what makes The Irishman truly memorable are those quiet, reflective moments writ large across De Niro’s expressive face.

A Netflix original.

Nominated for 10 Oscars in 2020 (yet controversially no nomimation for de Niro) but walked away empty-handed.

Rating: 92%

‘Small Island’ by Andrea Levy

An entrancing broad sweep of a novel as Andrea Levy explores life in London immediately following the end of World War II and the arrival of the first Caribbean migrants. Queenie Bligh is anything but popular in a run down Earls Court neighbourhood as she agrees to take in Jamaican lodgers.

Focussing on four key characters, Small Island is set at the significant point of historical change as Levy explores the concepts of empire, nationalism, prejudice, family, war and love. Honest and, at times profoundly moving, at times extremely funny, Levy handles her material with a non-judgemental passion that results in a wholly engaging and thoughtful narrative.

Gilbert Joseph first arrived in England from Jamaica as an RAF volunteer. But any expectations of flying were soon squashed and he found himself as a driver delivering coal, picking up spare parts from other bases. But having being demobbed and sent back home, Gilbert yearns for a return to the ‘mother country’ and study. Meeting Hortense offers him that opportunity.

Whilst Gilbert was experiencing a rude awakening to life in the mother country during the war, a somewhat privileged Hortense had gone through teacher training in Kingston. As the child of a national hero, Hortense was well endowed with the airs and graces of her father’s position. That she was an illegitimate child did not deter her determination and expectations. And a successful position in England was at the top of her list. Offering to lend Gilbert the money to pay for his passage back to England on the HMT Empire Windrush in return for marriage was, for Hortense, the perfect first step on the ladder of her ambition.

Never was a couple more ill-matched!

But fractured chronology and chapters broken into ‘Hortense’ and ‘Gilbert’ ensure that Small Island is no simple straightforward narrative. Interspersed with their stories is that of Queenie Bligh herself. Daughter of Yorkshire pig farmers, Queenie is no shrinking violet. But she was saved from a life of drudgery by a lonely, London-based widowed aunt who taught her manners and a touch of deference. Marriage to bank clerk (but desperately boring) Bernard Bligh ensured a comfortable if tatty-round-the edges London life, although air raids and a missing husband 3 years after war end meant Queenie was forced to take in lodgers in her large London home. And Gilbert, having met with Queenie during the war near to his Yorkshire base, is one of them.

A whole litany of colourful characters inhabit Small Island, from Jamaica based cousin, Elwood, through to members of Bernard’s regiment in India, from Hortense’s friend Celia through to Bernard’s father, Arthur, and Queenie’s parents. All contribute to the storyline. Life on the small sun-drenched but impoverished island of Jamaica is juxtaposed with the small, grey, post-war impoverished island of the mother country. Confronting racism and segregation, shocking prejudice and distrust is intermingled with genuine moments of warmth and humanity.

As a narrative, it is loosely based on Andrea Levy’s parents – her father travelled from Jamaica on the HMT Empire Windrush and the terrible prejudices and racism, overt and covert, he and generations of new migrants faced.

Occasionally, the book slips into a repetition of commentary or, to lighten the mood, slapstick humour (the mule and the bees way outstayed its welcome). But then shocking home truths (1948 was only a few years before signs reading NO BLACKS, NO IRISH, NO DOGS appeared in windows of boarding houses) ensure that Small Island is not always an easy read – and nor should it be.

Winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year and Orange Prize for Fiction – Best of the Best. both in 2004 and the 2005 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Small Island was inexplicably overlooked for even the 2004 Booker Prize longlist in the year won by Alan Hollinghurst and The Line of Beauty.

‘Pain & Glory’

More pain than glory as director Pedro Almodovar (Talk to Her, The Skin I Live In) reflects on choices made in this semi-autobiographical drama.

As the director, Antonio Banderas (The Mask of Zorro, The Skin I Live In), subtle and nuanced, has never been better. But the film slips into a meditation on the study of a filmmaker in decline, creatively paralysed by pain, ill-health and drug management. Meticulous and his best for a number of years as it weaves between the now and childhood, Pain & Glory still does not quite scale the heights of the Spanish director’s best.

Nominated for 2 Oscars in 2020 – best actor & Foreign Language Film

Rating: 73%

‘Hope Farm’ by Peggy Frew

A slow-burn of a tale, Hope Farm sees thirteen year-old Silver come of age as, thrust into an adult world, she watches her mother disintegrate at the very time she needs solidity.

Nothing more than a ramshackle hippie commune in rural Victoria, Hope Farm is a place of drifters and losers. It’s 1985 and Ishtar (Karen) and Silver find themselves in yet another transitory home. The beautiful but naive single mother finds herself in the thralls of yet another abusive partner and so the two pack their bags and, following Miller, head south from Queensland. But, unexpectedly, whilst remaining an outsider within the commune, Silver finds friendship in Ian, a bullied outsider himself.

The Ishtar/Silver relationship is fraught at the best of times as they drift from home to home. But in Miller, Silver sees a self-aggrandising bully and user. And with him having ‘borrowed’ all Ishtar’s money, there’ll be no quick exit. Poised as she is at the early stages of adulthood and understanding, Silver is both idealistic and naive, not fully comprehending things around her and the dynamics of the adult world.

Tension mounts at the farm as people come and go and Ishtar disappears more and more into herself. Silver struggles, blaming Miller and the home environment but she also struggles with understanding the desperate loneliness and unhappiness of Ian. Things get out of hand, culminating in the world of the alternative lifestyle literally come crashing down as the farm burns out of control.

Peggy Frew perfectly captures the sense of place in her writings – the stale dope smoke and damp, rotting weatherboard farm buildings pervade her narrative. And in Silver, she has created a lost but determined adolescent. But Hope Farm, like the smoke, drifts and wafts, like Ishtar, without any engaging foundation. Silver may need solidity from her mother, but so does the mother. It is lifestyle without structure, it is a narrative without structure.

Interspersed with Silver’s coming-of-age and the ‘now’ is the back story of Ishtar and the sad treatment of a pregnant teenager in 1950s Australia by parents and establishment alike. It has its similarities to Silver’s story even if they are seemingly polar opposites. But the main weakness of Hope Farm is the rushed tying up of loose ends at the end of the novel. In a few pages, several years are covered and characters histories mapped out. The result is an undermining of all that has gone before it.

Hope Farm was shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Award but lost out to A.S.Patric and Black Rock White City.


It’s 1979, the height of the Cold War and two families look to escape the former East Germany in a home-made hot air balloon.

Based on a true story, friends Peter Strelzyk (Friedrich Mücke – Friendship!, Alles ist Liebe) and Günter Wetzel (David Kross, The Keeper, The Reader), living in a small town of Pößneck close to the West German border, spend months preparing their escape. But when the first attempt goes wrong and with the State Police close on their heels, the two families make one last-ditch attempt.

It may be predictable but director Michael Herbig skilfully weaves a level of tension and suspense into a narrative that sees a determined yet humane Thomas Kretschmann (The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Wanted) as the Stasi officer relentless in his pursuit.

Rating: 65%

‘Half Blood Blues’ by Esi Edugyan

Esi Edugyan can certainly spin a good yarn (Washington Black) and she knows how to write. Yet, strangely, even though that and this earlier (2011) novel were both shortlisted for the Booker Prize, she lacks the power to fully engage.

Both rely on contrived plots that are dependent upon events or characters central to the narrative that push the boundary of belief. In Washington Black, it was the extreme precociousness of the young slave boy. In Half Blood Blues, the young musical genius, Hieronymous Falk, no matter how frail, somehow survives Malthausen.

Fifty years after fleeing an occupied Paris and returning home to Baltimore, our narrator, Sid Griffiths, and his old friend Chip find themselves returning to Europe together for the first time. Their destination – Berlin and a festival celebrating the lost genius of Falk.

Respected pre-war jazz musicians, the two were part of a Berlin-based combo that included the brilliant ‘Hiero’. Fleeing the Nazis, the three cross into France with forged documents, settling into any uneasy existence in the small Paris apartment of Delilah Brown, singer, agent and the French manager of legendary jazz musician, Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong. Hiero’s reputation precedes him and the legend is looking to cut a disc. But then the Nazis arrive and Hiero, a paperless German citizen and black, is arrested and disappears.

In the subsequent years, Chip becomes a renowned, internationally acclaimed jazz musician in his own right whereas Sid slips into obscurity. But the invitation to the festival and the premier of the documentary in which both men appear reawakens, for Sid, events of the past – his love for Delilah, his jealousies, the loss of three members of the jazz ensemble, the disappearance of Hiero.

There are moments of sublime invention and dialogue in Half Blood Blues (the claustrophobic pre-war Berlin scenes following the death of a young Brownshirt in particular). But it’s a highly improbable dual narrative that weaves between the present day and wartime Berlin and Paris as Sid looks for some kind of understanding and redemption. Diluted storytelling weakens the engagement – the dynamics between Hiero, Delilah and Sid in confined spaces in Berlin and Paris far outweigh the sparring of 80-something Sid and Chip.

Half Blood Blues was shortlisted for the 2011 Booker Prize but lost out to Julian Barnes and The Sense of an Ending.