In his early American thriller, director Alfred Hitchcock (Rear Window, Pyscho) crosses the nation from California to New York as a wholly unappealling lead, Robert Cummings (Kings Row, Dial M For Murder) must prove his innocence of wartime sabotage.

Check the narrative against The 39 Steps and you will see an all too familiar storyline as Cummings hooks up with the suspecting Priscilla Lane (Arsenic & Old Lace, Four Daughters) to help him in his case. It’s all a somewhat turgid, unconvincing tale – surprising considering both Suspicion and Rebecca were the film’s immediate predecessors.

Rating: 46%

‘At Eternity’s Gate’

A hybrid biopic of Vincent Van Gogh.

On the one hand, At Eternity’s Gate is a suitably atmospheric, muddily confusing paen to an artist whose mental stability was questionable and who cocked a snook at traditional painting techniques. But director Julian Schnabel (Miral, Basquiat), himself an artist, is guilty of self indulgent experiential obscurity as a convincing Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project, The Lighthouse) loses a grip on the world around him.

Brother Theo (Rupert Friend – The Young Victoria, Starred Up) and Gauguin (Oscar Isaac – Ex-Machina, A Most Violent Year) provide a degree of stability in these later years of Vincent’s life. But all to no avail as the artist loses his life in mysterious and, to this day, questionable circumstances.

Nominated for 1 Oscar (best actor, Willem Dafoe) in 2019.

Rating: 54%

‘Mullumbimby’ by Melissa Lucashenko

Exploring contemporary indigenous life in her novels (Mullumbimby is her fifth), Melissa Lucashenko’s approach is darkly comic, humour told with a sharp satirical eye but with respect to heritage and history along with the occasional terseness and anger.

With a recent divorce settlement, Jo Breen has purchased a neglected property in the Byron Bay hinterland. As a Goorie, she feels a deep connection with the land of her Ancestors. Looking for something of a sea change and, heading into the beautiful, rolling landscape with teenage daughter, Ellen, and her horses, Jo is looking to make good of her life.

But, naturally, little goes according to Jo’s expectations. With poor phone reception and isolated from school friends, Ellen is unimpressed. And not only does Jo find herself in the midst of a looming native title war between local Bundjalung families – she finds unexpected and unlooked for love. Not that the two are separate issues. It’s  the dreadlocked, devastatingly handsome Twoboy, down from Brisbane with his brother, who is the initiator of the native title war.

Much of Jo’s world is vividly realised by Lucashenko’s writing – whether it be socialising with family and friends or her connectedness to the immediacy of the more isolated parts of her property. Lucashenko writes powerfully about country, race and identity and employs memorable imagery. She does, however, struggle when it comes to fully realising male characters – indicative by the fact most of the characters in Mullumbimby are female. Sexy though Twoboy is, he is something of a stereotype parody, failing to convince as to why Jo would continue her involvement with him.

But it’s a minor caveat as Mullumbimby isn’t ultimately about Twoboy. This is Jo’s story and the cultural story of land and country. The Miles Franklin winning Too Much Lip it’s not, but this earlier novel is still an enjoyable read.

‘The Life Ahead’

A remake of the Oscar-winning French film Madame Rosa (itself an adaptation of the novel by Romain Gary), The Life Ahead, set in the southern Italian city of Bari, is an honest yet endearing story of trust and, ultimately, love.

Rebellious Senegalese Muslim steet urchin Momo (Ibrahima Gueye) is taken in by former prostitute, Madame Rosa (Sophia Loren – Two Women, Divorce Italian Style), an unofficial foster mom to the kids of other prostitutes. A Holocaust survivor, an ageing Rosa is haunted by past events and memories come to the fore as she slowly loses awareness of the world around her.

Directed by Sophia Loren’s son, Edoardo Ponti (Between Strangers, Coming & Going), The Life Ahead is gentle in its telling of acceptance with a regal performance by the 86 year-old actress at its centre.

Nominated for best original song Oscar in 2021.

Rating: 64%

‘Il divo’

An extraordinary performance by Toni Servillo (The Great Beauty, The Girl by the Lake) is the heart of director Paolo Sorrentino’s (The Great Beauty, Loro) biopic of the later working years of Italian politician, Giulio Andreotti.

A man who served as Prime Minister of Italy three times in the 1970s and late 80s as well as numerous cabinet positions from the late 1940s onwards, the right-wing Andreotti was mired in controversy and corruption charges. Among others, from financial to power brokering, Andreotti was accused of working with the Cosa Nostra and involved in several murders. The high profile politician was cleared in many instances by statutes of limitation rather than found not guilty.

With Andreotti’s known slouch and inexpressive face, Servillo shuffles through the darkened rooms and corridors of power as politicians, journalists, socialites, mafiosi come and go, their names flashed on screen to help identify. In a dialogue intense feature, problem is that a knowledge of events would be hugely beneficial to understand exactly what is unfolding. Wry humour abounds in a claustrophobic Il divo – but too often, it’s for those in-the-know.

Nominated for 2010 best make up Oscar.

Rating: 61%

‘On the Beach’

A controversial adaptation of Neville Shute’s 1957 Nuclear end-of-the-world novel (the author completely disowned it), On the Beach sees the entire population of the northern hemisphere wiped out by nuclear fallout. Australians await their fate as air currents slowly carry the fallout south.

Filmed in Melbourne, director Stanley Kramer (The Defiant Ones, Judgement at Nuremberg) focuses on the arrival to Australia of the only surviving American submarine, captained by Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird, A Gentleman’s Agreement). But this is no military narrative. On the Beach is a character-driven story as each person deals with the inevitable: Peck’s love affair with Ava Gardner (Mogambo, The Barefoot Contessa), the crew aboard the Sawfish, Australian naval officer Anthony Perkins (Psycho, Friendly Persuasion) dealing with a young wife in denial.

It’s a deft, message-driven feature (even if Shute felt it was diluted in its message) made at the time of the Cold War and nuclear arms build up. But 60 years later, On the Beach, whilst engaging, comes across more as a talkative curio, an overly-simplified and naive melodrama.

Rating: 59%

‘The Show Must Go On’

I’ll admit to being a sceptic. Queen without the legendary Freddie Mercury? One of the great vocalists of contemporary rock? The ultimate showman? A man who loved the limelight and could control thousands of fans with his voice.

After his death and a distancing for the band, their hiatus and solo outings eventually found Brian May and Roger Taylor (bassist John Deacon retired from the industry) returning to live performances as Queen with friends as guest vocalists. There was also the huge success of the rock musical, We Will Rock You. And then along came American Idol runner-up, Adam Lambert.

A man as much in love with the limelight as Mercury, a man with a big voice and a man who is an entertainer with a capital E. And now Queen with Adam Lambert tour to stadia and huge sell-out concerts across the globe.

The Show Must Go On is a hugely enjoyable documentary (directors Simon Lupton & Christopher Bird) with new and archival footage of both Queen and Adam Lambert’s journeys along with interviews (including Rami Malek, Simon Cowell, an erudite Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters), recollections and anecdotes. It’s straightforward with nothing overly fancy or showy – that’s left to the extremely personable Lambert.

Rating: 68%

‘The English Patient’

A lush, epic, sweeping blockbuster, this Oscar-winning feature is, by today’s standards, overblown and all a little dull and boring.

As World War II approaches its end, a badly burnt Count Almásy (Ralph Fiennes – Schindler’s List, Harry Potter) lies dying in an abandoned villa on the outskirts of Florence. Cared for by a Canadian nurse (Juliette Binoche – Chocolat, Cloud of Sils Maria), lucid and delirious with morphine, Almásy recalls the doomed love affair with Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas – Sarah’s Key, Darkest Hour), wife of a British spy in Egypt.

Intelligent, romantic but emotionally inert, director Anthony Minghella (Cold Mountain, The Talented Mr Ripley) draws fine performances from Fiennes and Scott. But the separate narratives of pre-war Egypt and end-of-war Italy are disconnected and strangely unengaging in this adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize winning novel.

Nominated for 12 Oscars in 1997 including best actor, actress & adapted screenplay, won 9 including best film, director, cinematographer, score – Gabriel Yared – & supporting actress, Juliette Binoche.

Rating: 57%

‘Shuggie Bain’ by Douglas Stuart

My mother is in every page of this book… stated Douglas Stuart on winning the 2020 Booker Prize with his haunting debut novel, Shuggie Bain.

Based on Stuart’s own story, a lonely effete young boy tries valiantly to emotionally support his alcoholic mother. Abandoned by her second husband and two older children from a first marriage, the once beautiful and sassy Agnes Bain slowly self destructs. Only her youngest, Shuggie, has a naive, steadfast faith – frequently abused – in her. Living in a perpetual state of anxiety, this is a boy whose unconditional love for his mother is such that he leaves a bucket beside her bed should Agnes vomit as well as arranged three tea mugs: one with tap water to dry the cracks in her throat, one with milk to line her sour stomach, and the third with a mixture of the flat leftovers of Special Brew and stout that he had gathered from around the house and frothed together with a fork.

With an impoverished, rough and ready Glasgow setting, Shuggie Bain is raw, unflinching and uncompromising in its truths, yet in its honesty and intensity, it is also heartbreakingly emotive.

The 1980s Glasgow streets of overcrowded inner city tenements and concrete; distant run down public housing estates isolated on the periphery; unemployment, poverty, decrepitude along with loss of hope and self-respect loom large as Shuggie tries to find his safe place. With his preference for dolls and mammy’s company, that’s never going to be easy in the rough, tough immediacy outside the front door. Avoiding school and other kids becomes his norm.

It’s a slow demise for Agnes in Thatcherite Scotland, unceremoniously dumped by husband Shug with her three kids in a ground floor apartment on the edge of the city. The party girl, indulged as a child by her father, now finds herself in the shadows of a closed down coalmine and an insular, judgemental community. Lonely, isolated, impoverished, in her fragile reality Agnes turns more and more to drink – and predatory men.

Daughter Catherine soon gets out, marries and emigrates to South Africa. It’s left to Leek and Hughie to deal with Agnes. She is proud and full of love yet, with drink inside her, their mother is boorish, manipulative and occasionally violent until she passes out. This is a world of cashing the weekly benefits on Monday, raiding the gas and electricty metres on Thursday and going hungry on Sunday. But there’s always Special Brew or the last dregs of vodka in the house. Despite occasional periods of sobriety that give the boys hope, her addiction continues to spiral out of control. Unable to take any more, Leek moves out. At the age of 12 or 13, Shuggie is left alone to cope.

Shuggie Bain never gives up on his mother, no matter how many times she let’s him down. Promising to remain sober for the move to a new home in inner-city Glasgow, she is drunk by lunchtime. An inebriated mother and finding himself once again the butt of gay jokes at his new school, a deeply saddened Shuggie finally recognises that Agnes’ mantra we can be brand new rings hollow.

‘When They See Us’

A powerful and distressing four part miniseries, When They See Us is the story of the Central Park Five and an almost unbelievable miscarriage of justice.

19 April 1989 a woman is brutally raped and left for dead in the northern part of Manhattan’s Central Park. Arrested in the park for different infringements, five African-American boys, four of whom are 15 or under, discover the following morning they are the main suspects for the attack on the white woman. In spite of evidence that at best is circumstantial, the five are convicted in the courts. Convicted murderer and serial rapist Matias Reyes confessed to the crime in 2002.

Deprived of legal representation or parental presence, harangued for 40+ hours without food or sleep, coached into wordy confessions, the boys are bullied, threatened, beaten and coerced. The NYPD want to close the case and these boys will do. It’s a harrowing first episode from director Ava DuVernay (Selma, 13th) with scenes redolent of 1960s Mississippi or Alabama.

The intensity is lightened as we experience the trial and parole of the four younger accused but the final (considerably longer) episode throws you back into the mire as it primarily focuses on Korey Wise (an extraordinary Jharrel Jerome who plays him as both teenager and adult). At 16, he spends all his time in an adult prison – and sex offenders are targetted by the other inmates. He maintains his innocence throughout – even when acknowledging guilt could earn him parole.

But it’s not just about the five. Their families also travel on the journey. Antron McCray (Caleel Harris) sees his parents separate. Raymond Santana (Marquis Rodriguez), just 14 when arrested, is released after seven years to find his father remarried to a woman who believes him guilty. Wise’s mother finds God (as does 15 year-old Yusuf Salaam – Ethan Herisse).

When They See Us is devastating and deeply moving television as we witness the worst excesses of institutionalised racism and brutality – the police, the courts, the prisons – the whole system.

Rating: 84%