‘Belle Dormant’ (‘Sleeping Beauty’)

MV5BNjNjMDUyYjUtY2IxYy00N2RjLTgyMjQtYTg4NjNiYmJjMDJlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjkxODIyNzE@._V1_UY268_CR9,0,182,268_AL_A whimsical updating of the Grimm fairytale as the 100 year-old curse is about to expire in June 2000.

Travelling between the two time zones, director Adolfo Arrieta (Merlin, Flammes) appeals to the inner-child of his audience as Prince Egon (a cool Niels Schneider – Heartbeats, Dark Inclusion) travels in a helicopter with mobile phone to plant the kiss on the sleeping princess.

Problem is Belle Dormant is more whimsy than its attempted mischief and poetry. In spite of the presence of Schneider and (a wasted) Mathieu Almaric (Quantum of Silence, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), the film flits through the storyline with little magic or sense of adventure.

Screened in the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rating: 35%

‘Hot Milk’ by Deborah Levy

Booker_Levy-xlarge_trans_NvBQzQNjv4BqrnykcIhNBTQGIhNzmTaT-bRxN3k0gyKMaHVGwcklXbAIn spite of a (mostly) semi-desolate, southern Spanish location, Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk is a story of interiors and the claustrophobic confines of home and family. As Sofia looks to discover the cause of her mother’s multitude of illnesses at the clinic beside the Mediterranean, so she herself discovers more about herself and the ties that bind her to Rose and her absent, Greek father.

It’s an enigmatic novel. The relatively straightforward narrative of Sofia and Rose arriving at the Spanish seaside village (almost deserted of tourists due to a plague of jellyfish) looking for a diagnosis at Gomez’s controversial clinic for Rose’s inability to walk is interspersed with streams of symbolic fancy and daydreams.

A PhD exploring memory following a first class honours degree in anthropology lies abandoned as Sofia drifts through life. Meeting local student Juan followed by German seamstress Ingrid unleashes a new sexual longing in Sofia, a longing repressed by the chains of her mother’s incessant demands and needs.

A barista at a local café in London, Sofia’s home is the storeroom. Visiting her estranged father and new family in Athens, she sleeps in the spare room, a windowless stockroom. Leaving the door of the rented Spanish villa unlocked may create an illusion of freedom, but her options are closed. Gomez may or may not be a quack but can he release Sofia from Rose?

Hot Milk was the bookies favourite to win the 2016 Booker Prize, variously described as ‘hypnotic’, ‘mesmerising’ and ‘gorgeous’. I do not agree.

Levy’s poetic writing is at times obscure and pretentious, the novel’s equivalent of an art house film’s imbroglio of impenetrable (or just plain annoying) symbolism (did we really need the clinic to be built from marble so that it resembles “a spectral, solitary breast”?). Rose is one of the most unlikeable of all characters – a litany of dismissive complaints about the weather, the food, the people in the early stages of the narrative is a stereotype of the British abroad. And whilst there is, initially, a level of downtrodden sympathy for Sofia and her guilt, she does little to help herself in the course of the, thankfully, short novel.

Levy’s novel lost out to the first American to win the Booker Prize, Paul Beatty and The Sellout.

‘A Ghost Story’

a-ghost-storyA potentially pretentious existential narrative somehow works, in spite of its repetition and slow scene building. The result is a mesmerising exploration of life, love and loss that is lyrical, poetic and hypnotic.

Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) is killed in a car accident, leaving Rooney Mara (Carol, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) to grieve for her loss. Affleck returns as a sheet-shrouded ghost.

Haunting rather than scary, writer/director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon) plays with the stereotypical haunted house story, producing an accessible, graceful film that, in 92 minutes, never outstays its welcome.

 Rating: 71%

‘Lady MacBeth’

lady_macbeth-431569675-largeSold into a stifling marriage by her parents, Katherine (a superbly scheming Florence Pugh – The Falling) is confronted with oppression and prejudice by husband and father-in-law alike. But a passionate encounter with the new hounds man sees a steely change in the newly wed.

A Victorian melodrama with a very definite contemporary twist as the female empowerment early in the narrative turns into something much darker. Renowned theatre and opera director William Oldroyd makes his film debut with this spare, expertly told narrative – and in less than 90 minutes!

Rating: 72%

‘Bitter Fruit’ by Achmat Dangor

Bitter_Fruit_(Dangor_novel)Set in 1998 South Africa, just a few years after the end of apartheid and majority rule came into force, Bitter Fruit is a dense, harrowing drama of a disintegrating middle-class ‘coloured’ family. A chance sighting of former security policeman, Lieutenant Du Boise, stirs bitter memories of 20 years prior that have a devastating impact on the Ali family.

A cynical, embittered Silas Ali, approaching 50, a former ANC activist, now liaises between the Minister of Justice and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. His wife, Lydia, ten years younger, is a nurse who, during the course of the novel, establishes her independence by becoming a significant player in the research of HIV transmission. Their highly intelligent, strikingly beautiful but increasingly troubled son, Mikey/Michael, loses his way, drops out of university and becomes involved with Muslim activists.

The marriage between Silas and Lydia is increasingly built on false premise – and the sighting of Du Boise brings it to a head: Lydia’s violent rape at the hands of the security forces, Silas’ inability to acknowledge or address events of that night. But there’s more, so much more, all of which goes unsaid and it is this bitter fruit that becomes so unbearable, open wounds so deep that the two have been in a state of limbo for 20 years.

Rape, incest, murder, alcoholism, divorce – the fruits of apartheid – past and present all feature in Bitter Fruit.

Through a series of incredibly well-drawn characters (the Ali family, Lydia’s extended family, friends and colleagues), we are provided with a powerful insight into the new South Africa and the “grey, shadowy morality” of an ANC government “bargaining, until there was nothing left to barter with, neither principle nor compromise”. And the political, cultural and religious conflicts that inevitably impact.

Yet it is the evolving family drama that remains centre stage throughout Bitter Fruit in spite of the political context – and it is the stronger for it. Mikey/Michael is a child of the new South Africa and he reflects on the failings of his parents’ generation. Silas has to come to terms with the new order – a place where elevated involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle has been replaced by a sense of ordinariness. And Lydia must face her past in order to move forward.

But in the same way family friend Julian accepts his wife Val leaving him and embraces his homosexuality (no bitter fruit there), the Alis need to look to change as Mandela looks to hand over the responsibility of power – in with the new, out with the old. Silas is soon likely to be out of a job – as are his colleagues Kate and Alec. Mikey/Michael leaves behind the sexual conquests of older, white women and looks to finding a personal resolution at the Griffith Street Mosque and the Sufis.

Bitter Fruit is a challenging read. But it is also an incredibly rewarding one. Nadine Gordimer, Andre Brink etc have provided the voices of white South African dissension, but Dangor’s novel helps provide a different perspective. The characters in Bitter Fruit ensure no one singular voice is presented, that a multifaceted account is provided, reflecting a modern day South Africa.

And, growing up in one of the ‘coloured’ townships of Johannesburg, witnessing first hand the violence, despair and injustice of an apartheid state before rising, via ANC activism, to head the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Achmat Dangor’s voice can be assumed to be genuine and authentic.

Bitter Fruit was shortlisted for the 2004 Booker Prize but lost out to Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.

‘Dunkirk’

dunkirk-posterOh, oh, oh. It’s visceral magnificence on screen. Grand gestures aplenty but the minutiae of wartime claustrophobia, fear and defeat balance this superb, emotional sweep of a film.

Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight) tells the true story of the rescue of 300,000 British, Belgian and French soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, surrounded by an advancing German army. It’s the flotilla of weekend sailors and fishermen (and women) who save the day as the navy destroyers are picked off by the German air force.

A true ensemble piece – Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy along with newcomers Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard are just a few – that is a jigsaw of narratives of few words and which makes up the whole,  building to a rousing crescendo. Exhausting!

Rating: 89%

‘Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel

lifeofpiA young teenager afloat the Pacific Ocean in a 26-foot long boat with only a Bengal tiger for company: Piscine Molitor ‘Pi’ Patel, late of Pondicherry in Southern India, the only human survivor of the shipwreck of a cargo boat travelling to Canada.

Having sold the family zoo, the Patels are fleeing the corruption of India for a better life in the frozen wastes of North America. Aboard are a few of the animals bound for American institutions. Only they do not make it. A storm two days out of Manila sees the boat sink – and Pi along with an injured zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena and Richard Parker, the tiger, survive.

But not for long. Hyena soon dispatches the zebra, quickly followed by the orang-utan. But Richard Parker dispenses with the hyena. Now tiger and boy establish an uneasy routine for survival.

Life of Pi is told in three sections (and precisely 100 ‘chapters’) with the middle section by far the longest and which details the extraordinary journey of 227 days aboard the lifeboat. It’s rich in explanation of Pi’s survival techniques and his gradual training of the tiger to enable the two to reach an uneasy truce.

Such a story inevitably pushes the boundaries of believability. But then Life of Pi is full of metaphor and symbolism. Born into a Hindu family, the intelligent and curious Pi adds Catholicism and Islam to his beliefs, seeking out answers to his questions of faith in Pondicherry prior to the family’s departure.

“A germ of religious exaltation, no bigger than a mustard seed, was sown in me and left to germinate. It has never stopped growing since that day.”

Through him, Yann Martel finds harmonious common ground in the three religions. Through his fantasy adventure novel, Martel looks to encourage belief in the unbelievable – one of the major hurdles to faith and believing in God.

But an alternative is provided by Pi in the third and final section of the novel – the ‘human answer’ he gives to officials from the Japanese shipping agents, owners of the cargo boat. Pi’s mother becomes the orang-utan, an injured seaman the zebra, the crazed cook from the boat the hyena. Pi himself is Richard Parker.

The ‘truth’ of Pi’s story is of little concern – the issue is the reader’s preference. Interpretation is, of course, subjective and its intention here is theological reflection. Do you need concrete proof or can you take things on faith?

‘Everything was normal and then…?’

‘Normal sank.’

Life of Pi is unquestionably overwritten at times – the first section in particular left me frequently impatient with its descriptions and long-windedness. But, theological symbolism aside, life aboard the lifeboat is fascinating and engaging reading. And, oddly, verging on believable. There are a couple of significant exceptions – the floating island of acidic algae populated by millions of meerkats and meeting the alter ego, also adrift. But by then Pi had been alone for some 200 days so an element of madness is excusable (although these incidents did feel like excuses for Pi to descend into paroxysms of theological wonder and divinity. From the outset we are told that this is a story that will make you believe in God).

That particular objective failed to materialise in me personally but as a yarn set on the high seas, with the exception of that tendency to overwrite and slip into philosophical and theological musings, Life of Pi is an engaging read.

Yann Martel’s second published novel was awarded the 2002 Booker Prize.

‘Spiderman: Homecoming’

Spider-Man-Homecoming-poster-2-largeAn adolescent superhero within an adolescent storyline. The cheeky charm of Tom Holland (The Impossible, How I Live Now), introduced as Peter Parker in a cameo in last year’s Captain America: Civil War wears thin over the length of Jon Watts’ (Cop Car, Clown) first foray into the Marvel canon.

A predictable storyline (youth ignored by adults who therefore relies on his own wits to save the day) with a flat, uninvolving telling with little real excitement and only the occasional flashes of humour. That’s Spiderman: Homecoming.

Rating: 32%

‘Baby Driver’

baby-driver-posterPure unadulterated entertainment. It’s slick, fun, engaging with a fabulous soundtrack and an ubercool lead in Ansel Elgort as Baby (Insurgent, The Fault in Our Stars).

Nearly a decade as the getaway driver for crime boss Kevin Spacey (American Beauty, Horrible Bosses) closes in – but just because he’s paid his debt does not mean Baby can simply drive off into the sunset with new beau, Lily James (Cinderella, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). It’s a heist bound to fail – especially with pyscho Jamie Foxx and trigger happy husband and wife team, Jon Hamm and Eiza Gonzalez in the vehicle.

Director Edgar Wright’s (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) narrative may not be original, but a surfeit of ideas, fun and sheer class make Baby Driver one of the best films of the year.

Rating: 83%

‘The Beguiled’

timthumb.phpA languid, Southern Gothic psychosexual potboiler as a wounded Yankee soldier (Colin Farrell – In Bruges, Miami Vice) turns up at a Virginia girls school at the height of the American civil war.

His arrival awakens sexual longing for the adult teachers left at the school (Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst) as well as kindles burgeoning sexuality among the girls (particularly Elle Fanning). Erotic, poetic, tense – the southern humidity is palpable in the enclosed, claustrophobic space of the girls’ privileged environment.

The Beguiled, seemingly more expertly teased than directed by Sofia Coppola (Lost In Translation, Marie Antoinette), is a beautifully nuanced ensemble piece that, whilst at times a little slow, tells its visceral story with aplomb.

Rating: 73%