‘Just Mercy’

Just Mercy: a conventionally told story based on truth, with director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, The Glass Castle) appealing more to emotional melodrama than hard-hitting outrage.

At the beginnings of his career, civil rights defence attorney, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B Jordan – Creed, Black Panther) set up his office in Alabama to look at prisoners on death row. His first case was that of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx – Ray, Baby Driver) – sentenced to death for the killing of an 18 year-old white girl. Convicted on the evidence of one (white) ex-con, evidence of 12 (black) witnesses are not even presented in court.

It’s not quite the open and shut case expected as Stevenson battles against overt and institutionalised racism and indifference. Just Mercy certainly appeals to the heart and as such is a well-made feature. But it all becomes a little too predictable, too cleansed and, surprisingly, not as compelling as it should be, lacking the edge that should be as sharp as a razor.

Rating: 64%


A star in France, American actress Jean Seberg returns to 1960s USA as a career move but finds her radical politics at odds with a country confronted by the civil rights movement.

It’s a fascinating story as the high-profile Seberg (Kristen Stewart – Twilight, Personal Shopper), in financially supporting the Black Panther movement, finds herself firmly on the radar of the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover. Her affair with activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie – The Avengers, Detroit) adds to the security concerns.

Sadly, renowned theatre director Benedict Andrews (Una) fails to instil any real sense of pace or suspense, resulting in a somewhat stolid, clunky telling. None of an excellent cast are called upon to do much more than go through the motions.

Rating: 44%

‘The Mars Room’ by Rachel Kushner

Convicted for murder, Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences plus an extra six years at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, deep in California’s Central Valley. A single parent and former exotic dancer at the titular The Mars Room, Romy’s crime is the killing of a dangerous and violent man who stalked her incessantly for months even when she moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

With her seven year-old son, Jackson, now living with her mother, from the hustle of life on the outside Romy is now faced with the more desperate and potentially violent hustle of survival behind bars. Certain women in jail and prison make rules for everyone else… If you follow their rules, they make more rules. You have to fight people or you end up with nothing.

Forming friendships over pruno, the illicit liquor brewed in socks, and stories shared through the pipes, with the likes of Betty LaFrance, a former leg model now on death row; Conan, a wisecracking trans woman who makes dildos in woodwork class; bully Teardrop and Laura Lipp, who killed her baby in revenge against her man. That’s Romy’s lot for the foreseeable future (two lives plus six years).

It’s a back and forth narrative from a less than innocent Romy working in The Mars Room where if you’d showered you had a competitive edge and if your tattoos weren’t misspelled you were hot property through to the inequities of institutional living. She’s hard, cynical and a less-than-attentive mother (Jackson is farmed out to neighbours so frequently he starts speaking Spanish). A subplot sees Gordon Hauser, a naive and idealistic academic teaching inmates at the prison and is one of the few non-prisoners in The Mars Room.

All the signs indicated Kushner’s third novel to be a gritty prison novel: dissecting class, wealth and other power structures both within the penal system itself alongside inequities whereby poor, working class women find themselves victims of below-par legal representation. But, sadly, The Mars Room does not deliver. Its disjointed telling of its narrative results in a perverse distancing of events. Romy, in spite of her ‘flaws’, is portrayed as a sympthatic, likeable figure but the emotional investment is lacking: a universal empathy rather than anything more personal.

And then there’s the unrelenting but fragmentary nature of the same, same but different. As Kushner herself writes in the book: The problem with reading was how relentless it was. You managed to concentrate long enough to read a whole paragraph and then there was another one, and they just kept coming.

The Mars Room was shortlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize but lost out to Milkman by Anna Burns.

‘The Big Sleep’ by Raymond Chandler

Published in 1939, The Big Sleep saw the introduction of Philip Marlowe, one of the most renowned private-eyes in fiction, to detective story novels.

Tough, wise-cracking, hard-drinking who, whilst fair, takes no nonsense. That’s Philip Marlowe. And that, of course, to many, is Humphrey Bogart, so famously associated with the hard-nosed detective. It’s hard to visually get past the 1940s Hollywood adaptation of this particular little storyline with Bogart and Lauren Bacall as Vivian Sternwood.

1940s Hollywood cleaned up the storyline somewhat as Marlowe finds himself working for the wealthy General Sternwood in an attempt to deal with Arthur Geiger, a bookseller who is blackmailing his wild young daughter, Carmen. It transpires Geiger’s store is a pornography lending library and Carmen is something of a star model. But The Big Sleep – a euphemism for death – is a lot more complicated than that – this is LA and its seedy underworld with money and reputation at stake. Both Sternwood daughters are spoilt brats with a great deal of cash to throw around – and Vivian’s latest husband, Rusty Regan, is missing.

Complex, tough, slightly breathless and with an undercurrent of wry humour as Marlowe and Vivian spar off each other, The Big Sleep is an archetypal detective novel with plenty of thrills and spills. Yet it transcends its genre, with poet WH Auden famously stating Chandler’s works should be read and judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art. It’s a view shared by many – The Big Sleep appears in many top 100 best novels lists.

‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’

A heart-warming charmer of a feature as twenty something Downs Syndrome Zak (newcomer Zack Gottsagen) finally escapes from the retirement home he has been placed in by the state. He aims to enrol in Saltwater Red Neck’s school of wrestling over the border in Florida. Luckily for Zak, he bumps into bad-boy Tyler (Shia LaBeouf – Honey Boy, Fury), himself needing to keep a low-profile, and a road trip of an unlikely kind unravels.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is a quirky, witty delight as the two spar off each other and avoid the authorities (represented by Dakota Johnson – Fifty Shades of Grey, Suspiria – a volunteer carer at the retirement home).

Rating: 78%

‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers

A total slog – a book that ‘ought’ to be read rather than ‘want’. It’s a heavy going environmental undertaking with the stories, spread over many years, of nine Americans whose different connections with trees bring them together to address, in different ways, the destruction of forests and the environment.

Nick Hoel, Mimi Ma, Adam Appich, Ray Brinkman, Dorothy Cazaly, Douglas Pavlicek, Neelay Mehta, Patricia Westerford and Olivia Vandergriff are the nine. Different ages, different backgrounds, different geographical locations. Yet their stories intertwine and intermix.

A college drifter, Olivia is electrocuted and momentarily dies: on revival, she believes she is invincible and that higher powers are messaging her. She heads west and California to a group of activists trying to protect the remaining three percent of giant redwoods. On the way, she meets Nick, equally aimless.

Nonviolent radicals, engineers turned activists, computer programmers, academics, dendrologists: loggers, company men, journalists, police. All lock horns throughout The Overstory as peaceful demonstrations teeter on the edge of violence, as sit-in protesters, handcuffed together across forest access tracks, are violently manhandled or long-term squatters in ingenious makeshift platform encampments high in the trees are forced out by company helicopters.

It’s a narrative of protest, a call-to-action awareness: You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor. A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways. But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions, that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes …

The human narrative is the overstory. But the thousands of years below the surface of the earth is the understory – of the interconnectedness of trees and, as expanded by dendrologist Patricia Westerford through her research, the fact they communicate with each other. Initially derided by colleagues and peers, Westerford drops out of academia and eventually becomes a park ranger in the isolated wilds of Oregon. She later discovers her work has been redeemed and even expanded upon: she becomes something of a environmental cause celebre and dedicates herself to the eco-cause.

People die, marriages collapse, children are born, jobs are lost throughout the arc of Powers’ narrative. Yet the struggle continues. In the life span of tree, the human expectancy of three score and ten is but minor. It’s a tangled narrative, epic in scale, high in concept. It’s also stunningly well written. But to be honest, there were too many times of gritting teeth to continue reading to the end. The end of the 512 pages seemed a very long way off on a few too many occasions.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize, The Overstory lost out to Milkman by Anna Burns. It did, however, win the 2019 Pulitzer Prize.

‘For Sama’

A raw, uncompromising and deeply personal documentary, For Sama, five years in the making, is the story of rebellion and civil war.

Journalist Waad al-Kateab, living in the city of Aleppo, the largest in Syria, films the beginnings of protests against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Five years later, in 2016, she flees her home with husband and young daughter, Sama, with most of eastern Aleppo destroyed by government missiles, supported by the Russians. Waad filmed the horrors of those five years.

With her husband, Hamza, a doctor and surgeon, they operate an illicit hospital initially for those injured in the protests. But as the hospitals in the area become targets, soon they are supplying the only medical facility in the area. Reliant on generators, bottled water, smuggled medical equipment and a host of volunteers, they struggle valiantly on.

Harrowing, challenging and deeply moving, Waad blends news reportage with intimate personal testimony. Scenes from the aftermath of the latest missile attacks are juxtaposed with family life, both hers and friends and neighbours. Seen from a female perspective, she choses to focus on how conflict affects families, and, in particular, the innocence of children. Heartbreaking.

Nominated for Best Documentary Oscar in 2020.

Rating: 80%

‘The Long Take’ by Robin Robertson

A verse and prose tour-de-force, The Long Take is a remarkable 200 page film noir narrative as Walker, a D-Day veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, finds he cannot return to his home in Nova Scotia. Instead, we witness, through Walker, the decline of the American dream as he drifts between San Francisco, LA and New York.

Taking up the position of a journalist, Walker charts the seediness of cities riven by social and racial divisions, corruption and the social decline of the inner city neighbourhoods.

Achingly melancholic, The Long Take is a paean to lost opportunities of post-war America, a hypnotic, atmospheric narrative of broken chances, lost opportunities and, as a timely allegory, it is disturbingly profound. A dreamlike telling, once started, Robin Robertson’s oh-so-accessible verse is almost unputdownable! A daring, high-concept triumph.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize, Robin Robertson lost out to Anna Burns and Milkman. (But Robertson did win the 2019 Walter Scott Prize – the first Scot and first poet to win the award).


Eminently watchable as the toxic, sexist environment of Fox News created at the top by head honcho, Roger Ailes (an almost unrecognisable John Lithgow – Love is Strange, Terms of Endearment), is confronted and dealt a resounding body-blow by senior female anchors.

But as a film it’s all a little too fractured as real life TV personalities Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron – Monster, Atomic Blonde) and Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman – Boy Erased, The Hours) front the campaign yet barely spend a moment together on screen. It’s left to (the fictional) Margot Robbie (I Tonya, Suicide Squad) as the ambitious ‘new girl’ to pull the many strands together into a single narrative.

Theron and Robbie are excellent whilst Kidman is left with too little to do – an indicator that the film is superficially overpacked. A little more time outside of Fox News would have paid huge dividends.

Nominated for 3 Oscars in 2020 (best actress – Charlize Theron, supporting actress – Margot Robbie), won 1 – make up.

Rating: 61%

‘Blood’ by Tony Birch

The debut novel by renowned short story writer, Tony Birch, Blood is the perfectly modulated story of family, loyalty and love. As the two main characters, brother and sister Jesse and Rachel, struggle to make sense of the world around them, so their mother, Gwen, commits the family to yet another hasty retreat as her latest relationship breaks down.

It’s these treacherous waters that the two children must navigate. Mature for 13, Jesse has been looking after his sister, Rachel, since he was five. Gwen is less than attentive to the needs of her kids. Lovers come and go, men who usually don’t want the kids around.

Blood is a deceptively complex novel in spite of the writer’s unassuming language and predominantly linear, generally predictable, narrative. In Jesse, we find a boy both naive and yet already experienced in a lifetime of pain and disappointments. A weary acceptance pervades his character as he watches, time and time again, Gwen self-destruct. But any temptation to move on and fend for himself is countered by the enduring bond between him and his sister. He has, after all, sworn to protect her, no matter what. That promise was made in blood. But the constant reoccurring question for Jesse is whether he can keep it. For a short time, things are made easier as Gwen settles into a relationship with ex-con, Jon, good with his fists, in a rundown farmhouse on the edge of Melbourne. He has more time for the kids than Gwen. But she soon tires of the cosy domesticity and moves on.

It’s not long before another man, good with his fists, is on the scene. But Ray is not so much an ex-con as a drug-dealing current one. A decision Jesse makes puts them all in danger – and, ramping up the drama, Blood assumes the form of a road-trip.

Unadorned in its telling, Birch’s novel begins very much a domestic drama as Jesse’s desperation to escape and his fear of what will happen to Rachel is at the forefront. But that final third becomes compelling as the family flee the drug gang. Whilst it may push the boundaries of believability, all in all it is something of a magnificent achievement.

Shortlisted for the 2012 Miles Franklin Award, Blood lost out to Anna Funder and All That I Am.