‘Brick Lane’

A gentle, touching narrative as, having arrived in London from her home in a Bangladesh village to an arranged marriage, Nazneen finds herself over the years more and more entrapped.

An East End flat, two school-age daughters and a husband constantly bypassed for promotion, a voiceless Nazneen (Tannishtha Chatterjee – Lion, Anna Karenina) leaves her home only to shop. With a new neighbour, the opportunity to earn her own money from home sewing is too good an opportunity to pass by. But it exposes her to Karim (Christopher Simpson – Sixteen, The Keeper).

Set in the aftermath of 9/11, racism is on the rise in the UK resulting in a more militant response from younger Muslims. But in adapting the more hard-edged Monica Ali novel for the screen, director Sarah Gavron (Suffragette, Rocks) chooses to focus primarily on the drama unfolding behind closed doors.

Rating: 60%

‘A Private War’

With a distinctive eyepatch, Marie Colvin was a fearless war correspondent and something of a legend within journalistic circles. She covered Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka (where she lost the use of her left eye) and whilst she interviewed the likes of Ghadafi and Arafat, it was in the cry of the voices of the innocent, the powerless that Colvin excelled.

Equally at home with hard-drinking London corporates as hunkered down in a war zone, Colvin (Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl, A United Kingdom) inevitably suffered emotionally and physically. Documentary filmmaker Matthew Heineman, in his feature debut, explores both sides from early days to the lead up to the Syrian conflict and the besieged city of Homs.

A Private War is something of a mixed bag. Targeted by snipers or fearfully trapped with families in the rubble of constant bombing, the film is at its harrowing best. It’s time in London that sees the tension and impact drop. The result is an odd distancing, a lack of soul that is carried into battle. Pike ultimately fails to convince, creating an imbalance to a film that is both a personal and a universal experience of war.

Rating: 58%

‘The Way Back’

Separated from his wife, vodka added to coffee at work on the construction site, a slab of beer devoured per night, former High School basketball star Jack Cunningham (an honest and committed performance from Ben Affleck – Argo, Gone Girl) has his demons. A phone call gives him an unexpected way out.

Cunningham’s life may have its reasons for unravelling but he initially rejects the opportunity to coach his former High School basketball team. But eventual acceptance sees him dig deep and find a way back as the team of kids on the margin fight its way into self-respect.

Quality, unshowy filmmaking from director Gavin O’Connor (The Accountant, Warrior) sees a balance between inner personal battles and the more immediate rewards of success on the court.

Rating: 64%

‘Mystery Road’

The precursor to the TV series, director Ivan Sen’s 2013 feature introduces Detective Jay Swan as he returns to his Outback home town of Winton to investigate the murder of a young girl.

Not particularly welcomed by the local white police force or his own indigenous community, an alienated Swan (Aaron Pedersen – Goldstone, TV’s Jack Irish) finds his teenage daughter is connected to the dead girl. He’s not seen her or his ex-wife in more than 10 years. Corruption runs rife in the town as Swan goes up against colleagues and local landowners alike to solve a case low on the town’s priorities.

Framed by place and time (the body is found in Massacre Creek) and aided by stunning cinematography (also by Sen), Mystery Road is a strange hybrid of slow-burn murder mystery and social commentary. Tensions mount as colleague Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, Hearts and Bones) sees Swan interfering with his investigations – and which leads to an ill-conceived finale that fails to make much sense.

Rating: 60%

‘The Virgin Suicides’ by Jeffrey Eugenides

A first person plural narration of obsession by a group of teenage boys forms the structure of the debut novel by Jeffrey Eugenides as, over the course of one year in the small town of Grosse Point, Michigan, the five teenage Lisbon sisters commit suicide.

On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.

So begins The Virgin Suicides. There’s no explanation, no specific motives. The 1970s Lisbon household is one of six females and one male with the girls, singularly and collectively, the object of fantasies and longings of neigbourhood teenage boys. The parents, particularly Mrs Lisbon, are hard-line: no make-up, dowdy clothing, church on Sunday – and certainly no boys. And rules and regulations are toughened after the death of Cecilia, the first of the sisters to take her own life.

Cecilia is the oddity in the family – even the sisters acknowledge this. Inchoate longings, dreamy, esoteric. Her first attempt fails – but only by a few days.

But even at this juncture – without that opening paragraph – there’s no warnings that all four remaining Lisbon girls would follow their sister. Inevitably, there’s adolescent awkwardness at school: no-one is sure what to say. Yet there is a sense of normalcy with the sisters attending school, flirtations with boys (particularly Bonnie), even smoking. But slowly, things change. The family withdraw more and more, the suburban home is left to decay. The local boys continue to watch the house, to yearn for surreptious glimpses in half-lit windows. And then, they’re gone, all four.

The male gaze determines the narrative of The Virgin Suicides, hypnotised as the boys are/were (as the novel unfolds, it’s revealed the storyline is being pieced together many years later from memories, interviews, conversations). The memory of the girls are constructs, determined by the boys themselves. The novel is as much a nostalgic eulogy for lost adolescence and naive innocence as it is the loss of the Lisbon sisters.

‘Mamma Mia’

Adapted from the hugely successful stage musical of the same name, it’s the infectious pop of ABBA all the way as Sophie (Amanda Seyfried – Mean Girls, Les Miserables) plans her wedding – with a surprise in store for mum, Meryl Streep (August: Orange County, Into the Woods).

The all-singing, all dancing storyline sees the wedding scheduled for the Greek island that’s been home since the 1970s. But all three of Sophie’s potential dads (it was a fun summer) are on the invite list. As guests descend, so do Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan and Stellan Skarsgård.

Mamma Mia is fun and infectious – although it struggled to retain interest in a second (recent) viewing. Streep is streets ahead is terms of presence – unlike Brosnan who basically murders all and sundry when it comes to anything vaguely musical.

Winner of 1 Razzie in 2009 – worst supporting actor (Pierce Brosnan).

Rating: 57%

‘Human Capital’

A late-night car accident in a quiet country street in northern Italy opens Paolo Virzi’s (Like Crazy, The First Beautiful Thing) suspenseful and stylish thriller. The 4-wheel drive momentarily stops before heading off into the dark, leaving the cyclist lying in the bushes.

Told in four chapters and from four different perspectives, Human Capital leads up to this fateful event. Wealth, ambition, desire and privilege are at the forefront of the narrative: the vehicle of teenage Massimiliano Bernaschi was that 4-wheel drive. The question is was he driving it that particular night.

Yet Human Capital is not specifically the story of the road accident – it’s not about political corruption, string pulling or cover-ups. It’s much broader in scope. Human Capital is the story of two families – the wealthy Bernaschis and the Ossolas, whose daughter Serena (newcomer Matilde Gioli) is Massimiliano’s best friend. Her dad (Fabrizio Bentivoglio – Loro, The Invisible Boy), a small-time real estate agent and social climber, has bought into the hedge-fund run by the Bernaschis – and it’s now struggling.

Each chapter provides new information and a new perspective on events. And it keeps you guessing. Admittedly, the whodunnit takes second place to social commentary and injustice as the narrative unfolds, but Human Capital remains a darned fine story with superb performances from a central cast of eight – including Valeria Golino (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Like the Wind), a personal favourite.

Rating: 75%

‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’

Stirring it may be as justice fights law, the little man fights the State behemoth, but what’s staggering about a wholly engaging The Trial of the Chicago 7 is that, aside from a little tweeking from writer/director Aaron Sorkin (Molly’s Game, The Social Network), so much of it is closely linked to to the truth.

Chicago 1968. The Democratic Convention in the lead up to the elections that sees Richard Nixon elected as President. But it’s a country in strife – Martin Luther King had been assassinated only months earlier, more and more American youth are being drafted into the unpopular Vietnam War. It’s a tinderbox. 10,000 protestors, 12,000 police clashed. Months later, seven men mostly unconnected prior to the demonstrations are charged with inciting the riots.

It’s a court case to end court cases – an unquestionably biased judge (Frank Langella) that saw the defence lawyers and their clients collectively convicted of more than 150 counts of contempt. An overtly political prosecution as the new Attorney General looked to wield power. Two hippy defendents who commentated out aloud throughout the months of the trial. A Black Panther member denied legal representation. And so much more.

Sorkin’s dialogue soars, his wry humour is ever present and there’s a cast to die for (Langella, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Michael Keaton, a standout Sacha Baron Cohen to name but a few). That The Trial of the Chicago 7 doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights of a classic is more to do with it’s formulaic structure, sketchy characterisation of less central figures and obvious emotive manipulation. But that doesn’t prevent it being an enjoyable and, at times, even fun two hours.

(Update – nominated for 6 Oscars in 2021 including best film, supporting actor – Baron Cohen – and original screenplay).

Rating: 72%

‘The Boys in the Band’

It’s that man Ryan Murphy again – producer and occasional director of Hollywood, Glee, Ratched, American Horror Story and more. Only The Boys in the Band, a revival of the seminal 1968 play written by Mart Crowley, is remarkably restrained in comparison to some of Murphy’s more recent fare.

It’s 1968 New York and a tormented Michael (Jim Parsons – TV’s The Big Bang Theory) is hosting a birthday dinner party for longtime frenemy, Harold (Zachary Quinto – Star Trek, Snowden). Guests are exclusively gay males. The air of drunken bitchiness early in the evening degenerates into something far worse when Alan (Broadway star Brian Hutchison), former straight college roommate of Michael, turns up unexpectedly.

Wordy, wry, acerbic, astute as long-buried truths bubble to the surface within the claustrophobic confines of a single-set apartment. Renowned stage director Joe Mangello skilfully revives the 2018 Tony award winning production (with the same cast) for the small screen. It may be dated but The Boys in the Band remains both engaging and relevant.

Rating: 70%

‘In the Shadow of the Moon’

It’s slick, it’s polished but, ultimately, as a sci-fi thriller, In the Shadow of the Moon doesn’t quite gel.

In his feature debut, director Jim Mickle starts off well enough as police officers Locke and Maddox (Bokeem Woodbine – Queen & Slim, Billionaire Boys Club) track down a killer into the Philadelphia subway. But it results in the death of the female assassin (Cleopatra Coleman – Take the 10, Hover). Nine years later, in 1997, she’s spotted again – and killings start all over. With the death of his wife somehow connected, Locke (Boyd Holbrook – Logan, The Predator), now a detective, has his own reasons, both professional and personal, to become obsessed.

Weird science, off-kilter morality, time travel and more plot twists than a corkscrew, along with pedestrian performances, derail the ambition of the film’s potential.

Rating: 46%