‘My Michael’ by Amos Oz

A beautifully rendered evocation of time and place (Jerusalem in the 1950s), My Michael sees first year Hebrew literature student, Hannah, meet and later marry geology student, Michael. They are both young – too young – and are not emotionally prepared for marriage. Having given up her studies, an intelligent but bored Hannah becomes more and more dissatisfied and slowly deteriorates into a private fantasy world of derring-do and sexual encounters.

The unassuming, pipe-smoking Michael, as a scientist, is calm, methodical, unemotional. Living in a religious neighbourhood in a cramped apartment, he wants to save and move to a better part of the city. The romantic Hannah is more profligate, offsetting her loneliness with occasional shopping sprees. She becomes increasingly unstable as a distance develops between the two. The birth of their son, Yair Zalman, fails to bring closeness as Hannah slips further and further into post-natal depression and an emotional breakdown.

It’s a lyrical, haunting novel of time and place set during an unstable period of history as the newly formed Israel looks to survive. But Oz’s second novel is not a narrative of open, armed struggle – My Michael is Hannah’s story of personal struggle but which mirrors that of the growing pains of the state. It’s a novel rich with imagery, dense with symbols as Hannah yearns for excitement instead of the reliability of Michael or the tedium of their older, religious neighbours. A life of mundane routine with limited finances is not the life she dreamt of as a child. A princess ruling over her subjects, usually in the form of two Arab brothers – friends from childhood – are closer to the realms of expectation.

Hannah is not an easy person to like or empathise with – but then Michael, though loyal and decent, is somewhat unimaginative and rather dull. As a left-wing Zionist and kibbutznik, Amos Oz is likely exploring through them aspects of Zionism along with commentary on religion, science and art as well as an allegory of the unfolding of the future State of Israel. But there are also suggestions that My Michael is a reflection on his own parents’ marriage. For a shortish novel with very little happening within its pages (even the Sinai War/Suez Crisis of 1956 takes place in terms of Michael, having being mobilised, being absent from the apartment in Jerusalem), My Michael is as dense as it comes!

‘Talking Heads’ (2020)

New versions, new monlogues – Alan Bennett’s ground-breaking series, Talking Heads, finds new voices more than 30 years after the original first season of six were broadcast on the BBC.

Now there are 12 following the same formula – individuals, alone, talking directly to the camera voicing specific concerns. Time is marked by a change of clothes or a different location within the suburban home of the speaker. As each of the narratives unfold, it’s soon apparent that life is not quite following the expected pathways. Poignancy, regret, frustration, sadness, disbelief, fear… yet all (mostly) wrapped up with the ironing or afternoon tea and biscuits (and, in Bed Among the Lentils, more than a shot of whisky. A mesmerising Lesley Manville, as the alcoholic vicar’s wife who, not very good at flower arranging, finds solace and sexual release in the storeroom of a young Indian shopkeeper in Leeds).

As to be expected, some of the monologues appeal more than others – and there’s one misfire in terms of delivery (Rochenda Sandall in The Outside Dog in, arguably, the most melodramatic of the 12). But there are some real gems.

One-sided these monologues may be, but there’s delectable delight to be had in listening to street busy-body Imelda Staunton rant about the neighbours and fire off letters to all and sundry in A Lady of Letters; the shock of financial impropriety for recently-widowed Harriet Walter in Soldiering On or Manville’s guilty confessions. A repressed gay man, Martin Freeman continues to live with his elderly mother (A Chip in the Sugar) and is shocked by a possible love affair for her and a former lover. At 80! And then there’s the sensitively written An Ordinary Woman where Sarah Lancashire recognises she is in love with her 15 year-old son.

Nuanced in performance and dialogue, at their best, the individual monologues unravel slowly and are rooted in the everyday – loneliness, changing attitudes and values, petty jealousies, missed opportunities – pushed that little further by Bennett’s dramatic observational insight and dry wit. Less successful are those with larger, external themes (The Outside Dog and a serial killer).

Ground-breaking at the time, Talking Heads are masterclasses of their craft as Staunton, Manville, Lancashire hold you in thrall for the 35-45 minute running times.

Rating: 72% (average)


Too in-love – especially after several years of marriage – can be challenging for so-called friends and colleagues. But that’s the problem faced by Tom (Joel McHale – TV’s Community, The Great Indoors) and Janet (Kerry Bishé – Argo, TV’s Halt & Catch Fire). Things come to a head when they are uninvited to a weekend away – only to find themselves reinvited.

A rom-com, comedy thriller with an edge, a luxury getaway seems the perfect spot for relaxation, conversation, good food and wine. Wrong. Not everything is what it seems about the house, perfectly mirrored by the fact not everything is what it seems with the three other couples on the weekend break. Secrets, antagonisms and lies bubble to the surface as financial and sexual tensions are revealed. And there’s that dead body.

Intermittently funny, writer/director BenDavid Grabinski looks to observations about modern relationships. But with its stereotypes, the material is steered into too predictable a narrative.

Rating: 45%

‘Another Round’

An experiment with blood alcohol levels in their everyday has massive repercussions for four middle-aged male friends.

In a rut at home and at school as a history teacher, Martin (Mads Mikkelsen – The Hunt, Doctor Strange) bands together with three long-term friends to see how daily consumption of a controlled amount of alcohol affects their social and professional lives. Recognising an immediate effect, the controlled amount is increased – and increased again, and again with devastating results.

Isolation and loneliness, repitition and limits of achievement, the four men are each at a stage of desperation and midlife crisis, married with children, divorced with no children, single. To cope, alcohol is seen as the answer.

In focussing on four separate friends, director Thomas Vinterberg (Kursk, The Hunt) makes no moral judgement: each man responds differently, with different results. Anchored by a superb Mikkelsen, Another Round is a wry, deeply sad social commentary as much about friendship as it is about alcoholism.

Won the 2021 best foreign language film Oscar with Thomas Vinterberg also nominated for best director.

Rating: 74%


A fifty year love affair cut short by the ravages of Alzheimer’s, Iris is a quiet, nuanced exploration of the life together of revered novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch (Judi Dench – Skyfall, Mrs Brown) and husband John Bayley.

Reflecting on the past as his wife loses words, thoughts, objects, Bayley (Jim Broadbent – Moulin Rouge, The Iron Lady) recalls days together at Oxford as students through to her successses in the literary and academic world. Both somewhat eccentric, their’s is an upside down life of chaos and disorder – except of the mind, with Bayley himself a successful academic. Together a force to be reckoned with, apart the world falls apart.

A character-focused narrative, director Richard Eyre (The Children Act, Notes on a Scandal) weaves the current with the past as inspired casting sees Kate Winslet (The Dressmaker, The Reader) and Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey, The Monuments Men) play the young Iris/John. A devastatingly sad tale as one of the great minds of the twentieth century slowly decays, the film itself is a little removed, emotionally. But central tour-de-force performances breathe life into what is, in some ways, a domestic drama.

Nominated for 3 Oscars in 2002 – best actress, supporting actress, won 1 for best supporting actor (Broadbent).

Rating: 69%

‘Second Place’ by Rachel Cusk

An oddity, a literary twister, profound yet hollow. At a remote, coastal home, ‘an artist comes to stay’ and by his absence causes emotional havoc in the mindset of his host, M. And he doesn’t come alone.

Second Place is the first-person testimony of writer, M, who invites a renowned painter, L, to stay in the luxuriously renovated outbuildings of her marshland home. A ‘collector’ of people, M enjoys the complexities of character to offset her everyday of life on a property with her much-loved but taciturn husband, Tony. Solid, practical, dependendable, Tony is much more at home on his tractor alone in the middle of a field than sitting around a fire in a social setting. But L, whilst showing interest in the invitation, takes more than a year to arrive. And with him comes Brett, a beautiful, wealthy younger woman who immediately hits it off with Justine, M’s 21-year-old daughter.

Cusk’s book, told in the single voice of M, is little more than a philosophical monlogue, told in the form of letters to an unexplained ‘Jeffers’. Sense of time and place are absent but, in isolation and with seemingly restricted movement, there’s a hint of post-pandemic or environmental change having affected life in general. Second Place is a quest for self-understanding, self-contemplation or self-confirmation as M reflects and ponders on the meaning of art, parenting and mother-daughter relationships, monogamy, fate, privilege. The underlying arrogance of L as he seems to want to destroy M and her security is as inexplicable as it is extraordinary – he is the guest from hell as he remains aloof from the family, contributing little yet determining to paint vast murals on the interior walls of the tastefully decorated guest accommodation. So much of power lies in the ability to see how willing other people are to give it to M reflects of herself when she sees the wanton destruction – and chooses to do nothing.

Second Place is loosely based on Mabel Dodge Luhan’s Lorenzo in Taos and the author’s tumultuous friendship with D. H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda during the time the couple stayed at her artists’ colony in New Mexico in 1932. It is a challenging read, both in terms of its actual narrative in the perils of hosting such a guest and the subsequent battle of wills, but also stylistically in its monotone, singularly-paced unveiling indulgence. Essentially, Cusk’s novel is simply dull.

‘The Skin I Live In’

Darker than the usual Almodovar (High Heels, Julieta), The Skin I Live In is a psychological thriller as acclaimed plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas – Pain & Glory, The Laundromat) secretly develops a synthetic skin.

In memory of a wife seriously burned in a car accident, Ledgard uses Vera (Elena Anaya – Talk To Her, Wonder Woman) as his human guinea-pig at a fully-equipped home clinic. But, a prisoner, not all is as it seems. Weaving a back story of the death of his wife and suicide of daughter, Norma (Blanca Suárez – TV’s The Boat, The Boarding School) several years later, The Skin I Live In slowly evolves into a narrative of obsession, sexual tension and revenge.

Surprisingly restrained, as clinical and sterile as the surgeon’s operating theatre, Almodovar’s adaptation of the novel Mygale by Thierry Jonquet would benefit from a little more passion: it’s Vera’s story, revealed as the narrative develops, that highlights the coldness of life at the Ledgard home. Yet it remains stylish, twisted and intriguing.

Rating: 71%

‘L.A. Confidential’

Stylish 1950s crime drama as justice is dished-out, police-style, in an intricate web of deceit and corruption.

One precinct, one hot-bed of individual approaches to policing. Bud White (Russell Crowe – Gladiator, Boy Erased) is brutal – violence first, question later. Smooth-talking Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey – American Beauty, The Usual Suspects) loves the limelight and Tinsel-Town offers plenty of opportunities. But ambitious Ed Exley (Guy Pearce – Memento, Holding the Man) looks to rain on their parade with his uncorruptable point to prove. With a power vacuum in the city’s underworld, LA is ripe for new blood. But old hands have plenty to say on that score.

Adapted from the James Ellroy novel, there’s twists and turns aplenty from director Curtis Hanson (8 Miles, Wonder Boys) in a hugely entertaining ‘old-fashioned’ narrative of organised crime, police corruption and femme fatales (Kim Basinger – The Nice Guys, 8 Miles).

Nominated for 9 Oscars in 1998 including best film, director, cinematography, won 2 (best supporting actress – Basinger – and adpated screenplay). (Overshadowed by the behemoth that was Titanic)

Rating: 80%


Co-directed by Alan Hicks (Keep On Keepin’ On, Liv) and actress Rashida Jones, Quincy is an odd misfire of a documentary, a mishmash of the personal and professional life of the music legend, Quincy Jones.

His is a fascinating story, an integral part of popular culture for 70 years. Whether at home, today, with his seven children and their children or the archive footage of Jones’ in the 60s, 70s, 80s with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Beyonce, Ray Charles, Bono, Dr Dre, this is an insight into the man. Oscar, Tony, Grammy and Emmy awards: producer of the biggest selling album of all-time – Michael Jackson’s Thriller, producer of the film The Colour Purple – the list is endless. He was also married three times and his seven children are from five different women.

However, Quincy fails to determine what it is trying to say – a skirting of the professional and personal. Rashida Jones is Quincy’s daughter, resulting in a partisan glorification with personal/family issues edited (blink and you will miss that actress Natassja Kinski is the mother of youngest child, Kenya). The man is a legend and his achievements extraordinary (as shown by that archival footage) – but he deserves better than this.

Rating: 54%

‘A Prophet’

An unoriginal prison narrative is, in the hands of director Jacques Audiard (Rust & Bone, Dheepan), a gritty and uncompromising intrigue with a powerful central performance from (then newcomer) Tahar Rahim (The Mauritanian, TV’s The Serpent).

Having spent most of his life in juvenile detention, nineteen year-old Algerian Malik El Djebena’s first taste of adult prison is the notorious Brécourt. Controlled by The Corsicans – with César Luciani (Niels Arestrup – The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Diplomacy) the head-honcho – a ‘small task’ finds Djebena a lacky at their beck-and-call. Forced to co-operate, but under protection, his allegiance places him at odds with the large Muslim group. But a survivor who knows the ropes, Djebena works his advantage both inside and outside the prison walls.

A Prophet is an episodic and surprisingly calm, almost poetic, unravelling of its narrative with occasional moments of extreme violence. Rahim, playing off perfectly against a threatening Arestrup, is monumental in a role that develops from a level of innocence and uncertainty into one of calculated menace.

Nominated for the 2010 best foreign language film Oscar.

Rating: 90%