‘First Man’

first manIn spite of knowing the outcome of Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon, director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash) and his taut telling of the historic moment teases out every thrill, tension and suspense.

Somber, claustrophobic and with a focus on the men and their families (a controlled, nuanced Ryan Gosling – La La Land, Drive – as Armstrong, a riveting, scene-stealing Claire Foy – Unsane, TV’s The Crown – as his wife, Janet), First Man is intimate and deeply humane. But it is also a technical tour de force, with particular reference to the editing by Tom Cross (La La Land, Whiplash), and a likely swag of behind-the-scenes Oscar nominations.

Rating: 68%

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‘Satin Island’ by Tom McCarthy

satinislandAn unexpectedly accessible and engaging cerebral read, Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island is a state-of-the-world stream of consciousness as corporate anthropologist, U., navigates his way through contemporary life and his role in the multi-national, multi-government epoch-defining Koob Sasson Project.

Tasked by Peyman, his boss, with the writing of the book to define the age, U. spends his time in a sporadic oscillation between global and localised catastrophes (oil spills, Lagos traffic jams) and page five news about a dead parachutist – along with the occasional sexual encounter with Madison, a woman he met at a conference in Budapest. His purpose is to accumulate information from which the identification of a codex can possibly be developed – so that he can write that defining tome.

Satin Island is no domestic narrative of the mundane and the every day – it’s about airports and overseas conferences (London, New York, Paris, Seattle, Turin, Vienna), data analysis and expounding theories of human and corporate behaviour. It’s about disappearing into screens, power point presentations and decoding the world.

But what prevents Satin Island from slipping into a miasma of intellectual and theoretical inaccessibility is the wry humour and lightness of touch by Tom McCarthy. Contemplative and challenging it may be as U. scrutinises everything around him in what is essentially a novel without a plot. Madison features occasionally, as does Petr, a friend dying from cancer – but that’s the limit to the human-interest story. The remainder of the relatively short novel is about connection and events, a Chaos theory for the 21stcentury that will enable U. to write that book.

Shortlisted for the 2015 Booker Prize, Tom McCarthy lost out to Marlon James, the first Jamaican author to win the award, and A Brief History of Seven Killings.

‘Venom’

Venom_(film)_poster_007It’s telling when, in director Ruben Fleischer’s Venom, the most engaging moments are the two (short) scenes between Tom Hardy (The Revenant, Inception) and his local Asian female shopkeeper.

Venom is a unimaginative bombast of an origin film as Hardy acquires the power of an alien symbiote as an alter ego in his (initially reluctant) battle with power-crazed Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed – The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Nightcrawler).

In spite of all the CGI, the latest in the Marvel Comic oeuvre feels somewhat dated and wastes a great deal of talent. It’s an uninspiring yarn lacking any sense of the fun expected from a director responsible for Zombieland and Gangster Squad.

Rating: 35%

‘The Siege of Krishnapur’ by J.G.Farrell

siegeofkrishnapurTo the north of Calcutta, (the fictional) town of Krishnapur and its British garrison is laid under siege by rebelling sepoys during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Essentially the retelling of the (true) siege of Lucknow, Farrell’s engrossing novel is based partly on contemporary accounts, diaries and letters of the British residents themselves.

Imperialism is placed under the microscope as a complacent community, with the exception of our hero, Mr Hopkins (the Collector), ignore all danger signs. Hopkins is a rarity in that he is a man devoted to progress and contemporary culture. Yet even his values and ideas about civilisation, religion, community – even the essence of Englishness itself – come crashing down around his ears amidst the terrible privations, disease, inhumanity and death during the months under siege in almost unbearable heat.

As Indians encamp in their hundreds on the far banks of the dry river bed to watch the spectacle, the folly and illusions of colonialism are driven home. Cholera cares not for the British class system and, after several months of water rationing, personal hygiene may not be high on the priority list. Food is so scarce that the capture and satisfying crunch of a beetle elicits jealous rage and, of little value, silver cutlery ends up being sequestered for (effective) canon ammunition.

The Siege of Krishnapur, through humour, cutting wit and more than a little moral high ground (the now discredited phrenology, for example, looms large throughout), draws out the drama of events as the characters are subjected to changes in rules almost unfathomable to the privileged many.

Farrell himself (who died tragically at the age of 44 in a fishing accident) said that he wanted to show “yesterday reflected in today’s consciousness” – and his incisive prose and biting wit suggests that he more than achieved this. Occasionally, however, Farrell slips into preaching, particularly when it comes to the discussions and arguments about religion. But a minor caveat for a book that looks not to why the rebellion happened from the Indian perspective, but from the perspective of the ingrained, misplaced superiority of the colonialists.

JG Farrell was awarded the 1973 Booker Prize – and The Siege of Krishnapur is regarded by many critics as the best of all the winning novels.

‘American Animals’

American-Animals-movie-posterAward-winning documentary filmmaker Bart Layton (The Imposter) takes on the true story of a daytime heist that goes wrong with mixed results.

Four clean-cut Kentucky university students attempt a multimillion-dollar art theft from their own library led by the incompetent Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Dunkirk) and Evan Peters (X-Men Apocalypse, Kick-Ass).

It’s a preposterous idea of fantasy and fiction as the bored four make plans, the narrative interspersed with commentaries from the real-life, evidently traumatised, protagonists and parents. Sadly, the film fails to do the story full justice. A slow, ponderous first half is ultimately uninteresting, lacking any gripping immediacy or empathy. It’s the heist that grabs the attention, 20-30 minutes of action and wry, incompetent humour that highlights the dullness of the preceding first hour.

Rating: 56%

‘Custody’

custody.poster.ws_An intense, devastating family drama of domestic abuse as Denis Menochet (Inglourious Basterds, In the House) looks to gain joint custody of his young son.

Bleak and hellish, Custody is unrelenting in its slow build with palpable fear in the eyes of newcomer Thomas Gioria as Lea Drucker (The Man of My Life, In My Skin) looks to protect her family.

Debut director Xavier Legrand’s claustrophobic tour de force is no easy watch, but with superb performances from a relatively small cast, Custody is heart-wrenching in its pain, fear and anger.

Rating: 87%

‘Searching’

SEARCHINGA tense thriller, as a narrative Searching is hardly original – father (John Cho – Star Trek, Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay) desperately searches for his missing teenage daughter with the help of concerned police detective, Debra Messing (TV’s Grace of Will & Grace).

Yet every single scene of this self-assured first feature from director Aneesh Chaganty is revealed within a screen – I-phone, I-pad, Face Time, computer, surveillance camera, news bulletins. The result is a cutting-edge thriller that, in making up for lack of character development, ramps up the tension as, in commenting upon our use of (and reliance upon) computer technology, it heads for a somewhat unexpected denouement.

Rating: 74%

‘Headlong’ by Michael Frayn

headlongMichael Frayn is a successful novelist and playwright equally at home with farces, comedies and profoundly serious dramas. Throughout, he explores the extreme lunacies of life and the thin dividing-line between order and chaos.

Headlong is a ‘classic’ Frayn, incorporating a farcical narrative where a young academic and wannabe art historian believes he has stumbled across a missing Bruegel masterpiece with scholarly investigation and art history. And like so many farces of wrong doors, missed opportunities, inappropriate clinches, dropped trousers and general absurdity (Frayn wrote Noises Off after all), Headlong is a frustrating, bumbling, infuriating novel.

Martin and Kate Clay, with baby Tilda in tow, head for their country home (a damp, slightly squalid cottage some three hours drive from London) for a year’s sojourn of research and writing (both are university lecturers). On arrival, they discover their neighbour, Tony Churt awaiting them. Never having spoken to any of the local residents, the part-time country folk are surprised by an invitation to dinner at Upwood, the very dreary, run-down Churt manor house. Evidently looking for quick cash, Churt introduces Martin in particular to the family Giordano in the hope of advice on an under-the-counter, avoiding-inheritance-tax deal. But among many other paintings in the freezing house, Martin is convinced he has spotted a Bruegel.

Cue initially fascinating research into the (little known) life of Pieter Bruegel and the politics of life in 16th century Protestant Netherlands under Spanish Catholic rule. Theory and counter theory abounds along with the following of historical lines that may prove the authenticity of a missing (or several) Bruegels from the series of works in The Seasons. Martin’s research also explores the ideology that, like so many paintings of the time, the works were iconographic in their messages – symbols of oppression by the ruling Spaniards. More and more convinced of his discovery, Clay looks to defraud the Churts.

But a convoluted plot evolves where Martin looks to find a ‘mysterious buyer’ for the Giordano (to the Curts, the centrepiece of their collection) and who will throw-in a few thousand pounds for three or four other works (including, of course, the Bruegel).

In the course of looking to validate his discovery and secure purchase (including hightailing it out of the mud-splattered valley to London driving an ancient Land Rover towing the Giordano wedged into a horse box before parking it illegally outside a Mayfair art gallery), Clay comes close to destroying his marriage, bankrupting the family, having an affair with Laura Churt, the glamorous wife of Tony, killing himself in a road accident and defrauding Sotheby’s.

Headlong is a story of prejudice (city culture and rustic ignorance) and miscommunication, a so-called comedy of misattribution (misunderstanding motives, whether in the English countryside or the oppressive imaginary landscapes of the 16th century) and missed opportunities (Clay constantly forgetting to check known recent auction prices for Giordano is the equivalent of the farce dramatist’s ‘wrong door’). It’s infuriating – and, after a while, a little too academic for its own good.

Favourite to win the 1999 Booker Prize, Michael Frayn lost out to J.M.Coetzee and Disgrace.

‘The Garden Book’ by Brian Castro

The-Garden-Book_Brian-Castro-510x799Literary and obscurely poetic, Brian Castro’s meditation on loneliness, addiction, abuse and racism is a perverse and unappealing narrative.

Broken into four sections with events seen from the perspective of four people, The Garden Book is the story of poet Shuang He (Swan Hay) and her sad, isolated life in the shadows of the Dandenong Hills on the outskirts of Melbourne between the wars.

Darcy Damon (section one), her husband, is a good-looking opium addict: Swan Hay herself is a third generation Chinese-Australian and university graduate: Jasper Zhalin (section three) an American architect/pilot and lover of Swan: and finally Shih, their son, looking back at events and attempting to piece together the story some 50 years later.

It’s a frustrating read. Castro has created several captivating characters, allowing him to touch upon fascinating themes that are as relevant today as they were then. The often hidden history of the Chinese in Australia and the racism simmering below the surface of everyday life is exposed – not just towards Swan and her father, but also her Jewish friend, Ruth Black. But Castro’s language, whilst rich and archly beautiful, is impenetrable and exacting in its telling of a narrative.

A progressively angry and violent Damon, former chauffeur to the notorious local gangster, Squizzy Taylor, becomes increasingly remote as he builds a large house to cater for the burgeoning tourism of the local area. Swan, writing poetry on gum leaves, slips between sanity, depression and addiction (opium and/or alcohol), made worse by the cot death of their daughter. As war inches closer and Damon spends more and more time absent from the property as a reservist, into the narrative walks Jasper Zenlin. Charming, wealthy and sophisticated, he loves Swan and her poetry, eventually having the work published by an obscure printing house in Paris on the eve of the war. Swan is a sensation – but never knows it until post-war.

Victim of malicious gossip and accusations, Swan lives intensely and painfully in her mordant solitude. She loses all – Damon, her father, Jasper, her children, even, ultimately, herself.

As a précis, with more verve and action (plane crashes, opium-fuelled orgies, bigamy, spies), The Garden Book sounds like a regular literary thriller. But it falls into an academic exercise, an emotionless gymkhana of poetic verbosity. By the end, I hated it.

The Garden Book was shortlisted for the 2006 Miles Franklin Award but lost out to Roger McDonald and The Ballad of Desmond Kale.

 

‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’

miseducationA modest, low-key Christian gay conversion therapy drama as Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass, Let Me In) is caught in the clutches of Bible Study classmate Coley at the School Prom.

Writer/director Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behaviour) elicits sensitive, nuanced performances from a cast of predominantly young adults as Moretz develops a close relationship with the dope-growing, resigned-to-their-fate Jane (Sasha Lane – American Honey, Hearts Beat Loud) and Adam (Forrest Goodluck – The Revenant, Indian Horse).

Whilst avoiding overt grandstanding, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, through its lightness of touch and wry humouris a damning indictment of institutional Christianity. It collected the Grand Jury Prize at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

Rating: 68%