‘The Many Saints of Newark’

A rambling prequel to The Sopranos, a teenage Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini – son of James Gandolfini, one of the most iconic of television mob bosses of all time) is heavily influenced by family – and uncle, Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola – Disobedience, American Hustle) in particular.

It’s standard mob material as Dickie rises in the pecking order within the family, putting him at odds with older cousins, including Tony’s oft-absent dad, Johnny Soprano (Jon Bernthal – Baby Driver, The Accountant). But in a New Jersey seeing increasing violence and confrontation based around race, Moltisanti’s biggest challenge is former employee, Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr – One Night in Miami, Harriet).

Helmed by Alan Taylor, occasional director of The Sopranos, The Many Saints of Newark is a low key, character-based feature that fails to link effectively with the later television series. There’s simply too much time between the two with a distinct lack of connect. The result is a solid yet, overall, uninspiring narrative.

Rating: 56%

‘Sons & Lovers’

Early British social realism, the adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel, directed by Jack Cardiff (The Long Ships, The Girl on the Motorcycle), is a gritty family drama set in a Nottingham mining village.

Dreaming of study and art school, Paul Morel (Dean Stockwell – Paris Texas, Married to the Mob) is supported by his long-suffering mother, Wendy Hiller (Separate Tables, Pygmalion). His drunk of a father (a maginificent Trevor Howard – The Third Man, Ryan’s Daughter) is a different matter, expecting his sons to follow him down the mine. When the eldest is killed in a pit accident, more pressure is placed on Paul – just as he becomes involved in a married woman – Mary Ure (Look Back in Anger, Where Angels Dare).

Stunningly shot (cinematographer Freddie Francis – The Elephant Man, Glory), the semi-autobiographical Sons & Lovers is an intense, dramatic intergenerational conflict with powerful and empathic performances.

Nominated for 7 Oscars in 1961 (including best film, director, actor (Howard), supporting actress (Ure), adapted screenplay – won 1 for best black & white cinematography.

Rating: 77%

‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’

A multiverse narrative in 2021’s biggest box-office success facilitates not one but three Spider-Man superheroes save the day.

With Peter Parker’s (Tom Holland – Uncharted, The Impossible) identity publicly exposed, he looks to Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch – The Power of the Dog, Doctor Strange) for help. But things go drastically wrong as villains of the past – Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) and Electro (Jamie Foxx) – reappear. As do past Spider-Men Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire.

Certainly more intriguing than previous outings, No Way Home pulls on the web strings of family drama, young love and loyalties and Holland steps up to face responsibilities. But it’s still a Spider-Man feature, so personal expectation remains low.

Nominated for the 2022 best visual effects Oscar.

Rating: 43%

‘The Swallows of Kabul’

A gorgeously lyrical watercolour animation, The Swallows of Kabul is a tragic tale of the Taliban’s 1990s occupation of the Afghan capital and the impact on the everyday.

Highlighting the dire position of women, young married couple Mohsen and Zunaira try, covertly, to make the most of their limited opportunities in spite of the oppressive presence of the Taliban. Older couple Atiq (a hero from the war with Russia but now somewhat forgotten) and Mussarat are dealing with something much more immediate and life threatening as the lives of the two couples unexpectedly cross.

Beautiful and captivating, directors Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec have created a sensual but emotive narrative. It avoids the depiction of the horrors and callousness of realism: The Swallows of Kabul is a deeply humanist film and, even within the fluidity of watercolour animation, packs an emotional punch as a woman is stoned to death.

Rating: 69%

‘How High We Go in the Dark’ by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Wildly imaginative, uncomfortably prescient, Sequoia Nagamatsu’s debut novel is a difficult, challenging read that spans generations as the world comes to terms with a climate plague and its aftermath. A series of narratives, loosely connected, unfold as humanity attempts to adapt and move forward.

It’s 2030 and Dr. Cliff Miyashiro arrives in the Arctic Circle to continue the research of his daughter, killed only weeks before. A child’s body, centuries old, has been recovered due to melting permafrost. But instead of a discovery that increases knowledge of the past, a virus is released that decimates the world and its population. So begins a mosiac of interrelated and interconnected tales as the effects of the discovery and release of the virus over many decades unspool.

Compared by many to the scope and breadth of Cloud Atlas, Nagamatsu’s richly visual prose is lucid and speculative that defies easy summary or categorisation. Which way are we heading looms large as a question.

As the virus reshapes life (and death), humanity is forced to redefine and examine. Skip is an unsuccessful stand-up comedian who takes a job at a euthanasia park for terminally sick children. It’s several years after the escape of the virus: such is its effect, infrastructural coping mechanisms have been established. After many months of helping provide, everyday, one last special day for kids, Skip meets Dorrie and her five-year-old, Fitch. The boy is a drug trial patient living in a cabin on site and the three form a family unit of sorts until the trial is discontinued.

City of Laughter is one of the strongest narratives, a nuanced tale of grief, tragedy, family and the absurdity of the situation: Dorrie reappears several chapters later years after life in the park. A heartbroken scientist searching for a cure finds a second chance at fatherhood when one of his test subjects – a pig – develops the capacity for human speech. The scientist is Dorrie’s ex-husband. A widowed artist and her teenage granddaughter embark on a cosmic quest to locate a new home planet, the young girl angry at having to leave her friends ahead of a many-thousand year journey. The artist is the wife of Dr. Miyashiro. 

How High We Go In the Dark is a beautifully written series of interconnectedness. But it is also particularly bleak and unforgiving. There are no resolutions, merely snapshot after snapshot of grief, loss and coping – an unrelenting miasma of misery (the exception being the tale of the talking pig) and sadness. Genre-defying, Nagamatsu allows his discrete stories to merge in its reflective commentary on the destruction we are bringing on ourselves. But, in focussing on the human stories, the constancy of its bleakness ultimately becomes too much – a little hope would not have gone amiss.

‘Senior Year’

When a cheerleading stunt is engineered to go wrong, potential prom queen Stephanie (Angourie Rice – Ladies in Black, Spider-Man: Far From Home) is rushed to hospital. She wakes up from a coma 20 years later. An older Steph (Rebel Wilson – Jojo Rabbit, Pitch Perfect) is determined to finish year 12 – and achieve her prom queen dream.

It’s all throwaway fun with a wholly predictable narrative as Steph finds her best friend (Mary Holland – Happiest Season, The Package) is the Principal of the school and the daughter of her arch-nemesis is the most popular girl. And if that’s not enough, with social politics having changed – no prom king and queen! Steph is out to turn back the clock.

Love her or hate her, Wilson provides her trademark anchor mix of sass and crudity. Spikier adult humour and language steers Senior Year away from the more traditional high school teenage films (there’s even a cameo from Alicia Silverstone – Clueless) resulting in a chaotic, tonally messy feature. But whilst forgettable, it’s not the worst way of spending two hours with a film that wears its heart on its sleeve.

Rating: 50%

‘To Sir, With Love’

A rare foray by Oscar winning Sidney Poitier (Lilies of the Field, The Defiant Ones) across the Atlantic to star in a British social drama, To Sir, With Love is a warm-hearted exploration of hopes and aspiration in London’s East End.

Adapted from the novel by E.R. Braithwaite, Poitier is an engineer unable to find work in 1960s England. He takes a teaching job in a rough and ready school full of no-hopers prepared for a life of low-paid drudgery. Poitier challenges their assumptions and expectations, breaking down barriers as his 16 year-old charges (including newcomers Lulu and Judy Geeson) respond to the respect towards each other he promotes.

Director James Clavell (better known as best selling author of the likes of Shōgun and King Rat) produces a well-made if naïve and unbelievable narrative. Whilst engaging as a story, To Sir, With Love barely touches the rampant racism or depths of social deprivation of 1960s East End.

Rating: 59%

‘The Weekend Away’

An appealling mystery poorly executed as a weekend away to Croatia for two university friends goes sadly awry.

Celebrating her divorce, wealthy Kate (Christina Wolf – TV’s The Royals, Batwoman) has persuaded new mom, Beth (Leighton Meester – TV’s Gossip Girl, Single Parents) to leave the baby with husband Rob and join her using ex-husband’s credit card. But then Kate disappears. With twists and turns involving Syrian refugees, male escorts, disinterested police and voyeuristic landlords, Sarah Alderson’s pulpy novel is a screen mess as director Kim Farrant (Strangerland, Angel of Mine) delivers contrivance after contrivance without ramping up the thrills or the reveal.

The port of Split looks beautiful, however, and Meester tries hard with below par material.

Rating: 44%

‘Booker Prize Shortlist: 2020’

2020 was a pretty good year for the shortlist but there were howlers left off the longlist – namely Colum McCann and his stunning Apeirogon as well twice-winning Hilary Mantel and the final book in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror & The Light. But once the controversy of those ommisions settled down, did the Booker judges, according to my tastes, get it right in awarding the prize to Douglas Stuart and Shuggie Bain?

The 2020 shortlist:
Diane Cook: The New Wilderness
Tsitsi Dangarembga: This Mournable Body 
Avni Doshi: Burnt Sugar
Maaza Mengiste: The Shadow King
Douglas Stuart:  Shuggie Bain
Brandon Taylor: Real Life

Bottom of the pile was Zimbabwean novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga. Tense, charged, challenging, Tambudzai’s slow breakdown of personal hope and dreams is no easy read. It’s not particulalry enjoyable either – there’s a sense of inevitable disconnect, written in a style that creates a veil, a do-not-cross barrier that results in an uninvolved distancing. (50%) 

A tad better was Avni Doshi. Burnt Sugar is a tale of memory and forgetfulness for both mother (Tara) and married daughter Antara. A caustic tale of mothers and daughters set in India, it’s a surprisingly cold, distant first novel lacking a compelling voice. (52%)

The next two are neck and neck – albeit very different.

Ethiopian/American Maaza Mengiste writes of the the invading Italian army of Benito Mussolini occupying 1935 Ethiopia (then Abyssinia). It’s an extraordinary story as Mengiste explores what it means to be at war, a primitive war that is fought with antiquated weaponry and surprise hand-to-hand combat in unwelcoming terrain in sweltering heat. Personal struggles of identity, ideas of family and parenthood with its sense of need and belonging –  Ethiopian and Italian – all come under her gaze. (60%)

A gentle, nuanced narrative of a single discomforting weekend in the life of Wallace, a lonely, gay, black biomedical graduate student, Real Life is elegant yet strangely distant. In its difficult intimacy and Wallace’s arm’s length interaction with friends and colleagues, a veil, an impassable barrier is created denying empathic access to the complexities of raw emotion and momentary candour. (60%)

It took me a while to get into it – three attempts to get beyond the first few pages – before settling into The New Wilderness. Urgent, prescient, imaginative, Diane Cook’s engrossing debut novel sees a world ravaged by climate change and overpopulation. But it’s not a didactic polemic – The New Wilderness is a humane and moving lament of our contempt for nature and, simultaneously, a moving portrayal of motherhood. (65%).

Douglas Stuart’s towering debut, Shuggie Bain, is a haunting, fictionalised reflection on his own childhood growing up gay and supporting an alcoholic mother. 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. At 80%, it resoundingly stands heads and shoulders above the other five books on the shortlist. My only question is would it have beaten Apeirogon?

So, yes, as far as I am concerned, the judges of the 2020 Booker Prize got it 100% right in its selection from the shortlist.

‘From Here To Eternity’

A 1950s black and white classic set in a Hawai’i military base prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, From Here to Eternity is a true landmark of film.

Towering in its telling, the ebbing narratives of the unit and the Commander’s wife (Deborah Kerr – Separate Tables, The King and I) are captivating as a newly transferred private, Robert Prewitt (Montgomery Clift – The Misfits, The Search) is bullied by the rest of his unit for refusing to join the boxing team. Only Private Maggio (Frank Sinatra – The Man With the Golden Arm, The Manchurian Candidate) befriends him and the two find themselves increasingly ostracised by the unit overseen by Sgt Warden (Burt Lancaster – Elmer Gantry, Sweet Smell of Success).

Whilst unquestionably dated and jingoistic, director Fred Zinneman (High Noon, The Nun’s Story) acquired an extraordinary cast for the adaptation of James Jones’ best-selling novel. Famed for the risque (at the time) Kerr/Lancaster beach scene, From Here to Eternity may be pure melodrama – but it’s pure melodrama at its best.

Nominated for 13 Oscars in 1954 including best actor (Clift and Lancaster) and actress (Kerr), won 8 including best film, director, supporting actor (Sinatra), supporting actress (Donna Reed), screenplay, cinematography.

Rating: 81%