BOOK REVIEW: SUSAN JOHNSON – THE LANDING

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In Susan Johnson’s latest novel, The Landing, the journalist and writer shows that she is very accomplished at her craft. Johnson has a way with words and the ability to observe and write about things that other people take for granted. The only problem is that this slow-burning, nuanced book could do with some improvements to the structure to ensure it is a tighter and more cohesive read overall.

The novel begins when we are introduced to Jonathan Lott, a man whose wife of decades has left him for another woman. The blurb even imitates Jane Austen by asking the following question: “Is it true that an about-to-be-divorced man in possession of a good fortune is in need of a new wife?” Lott has returned to the coastal Queensland town of The Landing, where a tight-knit community of eccentrics like to know everything about each other’s business.

The other characters in the book are Penny Collins, a divorced art teacher who is forced to care for her elderly French mother, Marie after the latter is kicked out of her umpteenth nursing home. Penny’s daughter, Scarlett is also causing problems because she ran off with an older man and is now a mother to two young children. There is also a neighbour named Gordie and his adult daughter, Anna who has returned home and leaves a trail of broken marriages in her wake. There is also a seven-year-old named Giselle who likes caring for young children even though she is quite young and innocent herself.

These characters are all quite different and quirky and some will resonate more with different readers than others. At times Johnson’s writing style is very reminiscent of the UK TV series, The Office in that it revels in everyday life situations and occasionally makes funny and pithy observations amidst monotony and tedium. This will be a joy for some readers while others will find the pacing a tad too slow and boring, while the large cast can also makes things feel rather disjointed, lightweight and incohesive at times.

Susan Johnson has a keen eye for writing about relationships and family dramas as well as adding in some interesting and wry observations. Her book is a quaint and easy read that feels rather honest and relatable in parts. While it is by no means perfect it does manage to charm readers with the adventures of a bunch of small-town eccentrics and their seemingly quiet and ordinary private lives.

***Please note: a free copy of this book was given to the writer through a The Reading Room giveaway. To read the original review on that website please visit: https://www.thereadingroom.com/book/landing/9497046

FILM REVIEW: IRRATIONAL MAN

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Woody Allen is quite possibly the only living director who could make a dark comedy film about a perfect crime. Heck, he has kind of already done that with his previous film, Crimes & Misdemeanours.But in 2015 Irrational Man is a wry, tongue-in-cheek story about an older professor’s relationship with a younger woman. Sound familiar?

The film sees Emma Stone starring as Jill Pollard, a wide-eyed and fresh-faced philosophy student who is also quite naive. At a university in New England in the United States, a new philosophy lecturer is set to join the faculty’s ranks. Rumours, gossip and innuendo precede him, about his divorce, the loss of his friend and how his wife ran out on him. And the man that arrives is more than a little unhinged and likes dabbling in Russian roulette.

Joaquin Phoenix puts in a rather dark performance as the surly, fat and self-loathing, Abe Lucas. He often quotes Kant, Sartre and Dostoyevsky but he prefers preaching from experiences taken from the “University of Life”. It doesn’t take long for Jill to fall for Abe’s charms and to gush to her parents (who are also academics) and her boyfriend (Jamie Blackley) about this enigmatic lecturer. Abe is a womaniser and he’s also impotent but he does manage to ignite romantic interest and passion from another faculty member, an unhappy married lady named Rita (Parker Posey).

This film is quite a wordy one that is full of intellectual exchanges and duel narrations by Stone and Phoenix, which reveal the characters’ different and intimate points of view. Things change however when Abe happens to think up the perfect crime that could be executed by an individual without a motive. It’s a curious idea and it’s one that is made stranger by the gorgeous cinematography and the poppy, jazz piano soundtrack (mostly Ramsey Lewis Trio’s “The “In” Crowd”). These elements seem at odds with the tense plot that eventually unfolds.

Irrational Man is not Woody Allen’s best film but it’s certainly not his worst one either. It’s also not his most original idea but even when Allen is operating at the mid-pack he still manages to outshine many other directors. As it stands Irrational Man still manages to challenge the viewer and deliver something clever, offbeat and dark. It means Allen’s fans are bound to find something they will enjoy because at the end of the day, this film is quintessential Woody Allen.

 

Originally published on 17 August 2015 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/film-review-irrational-man-usa-2015/

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DVD REVIEW: BLACK OR WHITE

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The film, Black Or White poses some good questions but the answers are undone by its half-cooked and underwhelming execution. The film plays the race card through a messy custody battle between two grandparents from opposing sides of the family. And while it should be applauded for raising such important and timely issues, it is ultimately lacking in insight and edge to really cut through.

This film is written and directed by Mike Binder who apparently has a personal connection to the story. The plot is actually based on true events and is about a widowed but well-heeled attorney Elliot Anderson (Kevin Costner) who is struggling with grief due to the recent loss of his wife Carol (Jennifer Ehle). He and his late wife acted as parents to their granddaughter, Eloise Anderson (the lovely Jillian Estell) but this arrangement was questioned by Eloise’s paternal grandmother (the reliable Octavia Spencer) because she starts a custody battle after hearing about Carol’s passing and Elliot’s descent into alcoholism.

The story is a complicated one. Eloise’s mother was only 17 when she fell pregnant to a drug addict (André Holland). She concealed the pregnancy from her family. But eventually she would die during childbirth, leaving her parents to step in and take over custody. Eloise’s African-American family members meanwhile, believe she should live with them in order to feel more connected to her roots.

The film is full of stereotypes and clichés about white Americans and African Americans. There are a lot of different threads and characters in the plot and some of these feel rather flimsy and overly simplistic. It’s a shame because the film had some good intentions and seemed sincere enough. It also could have given some great insights into racial identity as well as understanding and forgiveness in fractured relationships, but instead it all feels rather convenient, contrived and flat.

Black Or White is a nice but frustrating film about a divisive and complex issue. It was a good idea but this was ultimately a squandered opportunity where the insights are missing and all that’s left is something that is rather superficial. This family drama fails to get skin deep and was undone by problems with its execution and at the end of the day it reminds us that there really are no easy answers to questions about race and identity.

 

Originally published on 16 August 2015 at the following website: http://www.impulsegamer.com/black-white-dvd-review/

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DVD REVIEW: A LITTLE CHAOS

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A Little Chaos is a royal affair set in the 17th century in the grand gardens of the Palace of Versailles. It was a period when The Sun King decided he needed an outdoor ballroom and by George did he get one. This sumptuous period drama is a beautiful and exquisite visual feast but it could have done with a prune or two.

The film is the second feature to be directed by actor, Alan Rickman who also serves as a co-writer here. The man best known for playing Snape in Harry Potter made his directorial debut in 1997 in a drama called, The Winter Guest A Little Chaos meanwhile, is a historical fiction comedy/drama involving King Louis XIV and real-life landscape architect, André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts (Far from the Madding Crowd).

Le Notre had a reputation for classical ideas and ordered and manicured gardens. But his life literally comes undone when he meets Sabine De Barra, a strong and independent woman he hires to design the King’s garden. Kate Winslet stars as Sabine, a free-spirited widower who is reeling after the loss of her daughter. She is a strong and feisty character who would have been considered ahead of her time, had she actually existed.

Kate Winslet puts in a good performance. But the chemistry between her and Matthias Schoenaerts leaves a lot to be desired. Their love affair feels flat and forced but this may be due to the latter being miscast. Rickman on the other hand is an absolute treat and is positively regal as King Louis. A particular highlight in the film is when Sabine and the Sun King meet but the latter is not wearing his trademark wig so the former mistakes him for a gardener. It is natural moments like this that work in this fun and pleasant light comedy.

The special features on the disc are a tad disappointing with just a short “making of” snippet that barely feels like a featurette. The film is also a tad long and could have been tightened a little. This latter point is important especially when we consider that Sabine’s initial meeting with Le Notre is a mere three minutes long.

A Little Chaos is a safe romp around some magnificent gardens. The film is full of visual treasures, from the exquisite setting to the divine costumes. The cast all seem to be generally charming and the story seems nice and pleasant enough. It’s just a pity that it all feels a bit too reserved and stuffy for something that should have been light, airy and fun.

Originally published on 16 August 2015 at the following website: http://www.impulsegamer.com/little-chaos-dvd-review/

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FILM REVIEW: SHE’S BEAUTIFUL WHEN SHE’S ANGRY

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She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is a little documentary with a big, important message. It chronicles the second wave of feminism in the United States from 1966-1971. It was a tumultuous time that saw some radical changes. This film is an illuminating one that tackles one key part of a complex social movement.

This documentary marks the directorial debut of Mary Dore. It is very well-edited and draws together clips and recent interviews with the women who were an integral part of the movement (it does not necessarily feature the most famous feminist voices but it still uses ones that were instrumental in affecting change). There is also newsreel footage and snippets from programs showing misogynistic men spurting bile. It’s also eye-opening to learn that decades ago it was normal to have job advertisements segregated by gender, the executive jobs were for the lads while the secretarial duties were left for the girls.

This documentary starts off by looking at the publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. This acted as a catalyst that brought together a number of disenfranchised and determined women. The film talks about the establishment of NOW (the National Organisation for Women) and Jane- a group that were performing underground abortions when it was illegal to do so. Lesbian feminists like Rita Mae Brown and Karla Jay are interviewed and they talk about their part in forming the Lavender Menace. There are also women from different cultural backgrounds representing the African-American and Hispanic communities. Alta,a lady that founded the Shameless Hussy magazine is also interviewed but Ms. magazine’s Gloria Steinem is noticeably absent.

This film gives airtime to a lot of different voices and sub-segments of the greater group. Sadly, some of these expressions are reduced to some awkward and poor re-enactments which dilutes the message a little bit (a better alternative would have been to go back to the actual source themselves or at least choose some better actresses). Thankfully, these brief parts are outweighed by better moments in the film (like seeing the members of WITCH- Women’s International Conspiracy from Hell using very original theatrics to convey their message).

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is a documentary that remains timely and important. It sees a neglected subject discussed in detail and it shows the great achievements as well as the shortcomings of feminism. In all, this is an excellent, must-see film, especially when issues like the gender pay gap, reproductive rights, access to childcare and oppression and subjugation remain significant and fundamental problems.

Originally published on 14 August 2015 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/melbourne-international-film-festival-review-shes-beautiful-when-shes-angry-usa-2014/

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BOOK REVIEW: C J DUGGAN – PARADISE CITY

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C J Duggan’s Paradise City is about the best kind of love, young love. The eighth novel from this best-selling author and the first in her new series of young adult books is a fun and easy read. This teen romance has some things in common with both Puberty Blues and Grease and is a nice romp along the bumpy road through adolescence.

Paradise City stars Lexie Atkinson, a sheltered girl who has been exclusively home-schooled at her parent’s rural property in country Australia. But things look set to change when she is allowed to live with her aunt, uncle and cousin in the glitzy, beachside town of Paradise City for her final year of high school. It is here that this feisty and goody two shoes, farm girl spreads her wings and comes of age and all while tackling things like rumours, gossip and bitchy mean girls head on.

At first there is some trouble in paradise when Atkinson’s dream fails to live up to the reality of it all. This is especially the case when it comes to her relationship with her inconsistently behaved cousin, Amanda. The two have a rather strained relationship at first even thought they had been close when they were kids. But Lexie does manage to find her match in a sexy, young surfer dude named Ballantine. The latter is a gorgeous bad boy who makes the straight-laced Lexie experiment and live a little.

The chapters are short and the prose is very engaging. The characters are all quite relatable although there will be some readers that will despise Amanda. Some of the references in the book seem a little dated (especially some of the music ones that seem more relevant to when I was in high school). But these are just minor quibbles overall.

Paradise City is a mature, young adult novel that does have some sexual references but also tackles some big issues facing young people. The novel’s leading man, Ballantine will make many women swoon (even if we are decades older than he is). In all, this is an enjoyable and nostalgic read and it’s fast-pacing and private look at Lexie’s point-of-view is both interesting and entertaining. The ending will have you asking a few questions but it should also leave you wanting to hear more from this sunburnt town.

 

***Please note: a free copy of this book was given to the writer through a The Reading Room giveaway. To read the original review on that website please visit: https://www.thereadingroom.com/book/paradise-city/9264348

FILM REVIEW: COLIN HAY: WAITING FOR MY LIFE TO BEGIN

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Who can it be now? The documentary, Colin Hay: Waiting For My Life To Begin is about the affable Men At Work front man-turned-solo troubadour who is now known for his appearances on the TV show, Scrubs. The film is a fascinating and honest one that is a little in-cohesive at times but still manages to triumph and cover an artist’s brilliant career in music.

The documentary is the debut one from Aaron Faulls and Nate Gowtham. It’s a real love letter that brings together a lot of music as well as archive footage and clips from Hay’s recent live variety show of the same name. There are also lots of talking head interviews, including some very candid ones with the subject himself.

The unlikely group of interviewees that are featured include Hay’s sister, Carol; both his former and current wives; and his former Men At Work bandmates; as well as: Guy Pearce, Jimeoin, Zach Braff, Hugh Jackman, Mick Fleetwood and Sia, to name a few. To say this is a veritable who’s who of the arts and music worlds would be an understatement.

This film could have suffered from being pure hagiography and focused on the tremendous success of Hay’s band, their Business As Usual album and the hit singles, “Down Under” and “Who Can It Be Now?” But Messer Hay and the filmmakers are not afraid to show some darker moments and anecdotes alongside other funny stories and bits. Hay’s alcoholism and divorce are covered as well as the premature break-up of the band who suffered from their enormous and fast success.

The recent, controversial legal case and thorn in the band’s side is also described. Hay and Ron Strykert were sued for copyright infringement by the company, Larrikin Music Publishing (who own the rights to the children’s nursery rhyme, “Kookaburra”). Hay holds nothing back as he describes how upset his father was about the ordeal and the toll the proceedings took on his late, former bandmate, Greg Ham.

Colin Hay: Waiting For My Life To Begin is a rambling but heart-warming tribute to an excellent singer-songwriter and storyteller. It chronicles the colossal rise to the top that Men At Work enjoyed as well as the sad aftermath and the quirky little twists and turns that John Lennon once described as life happening when you’re busy making other plans. Hay is ultimately a likeable and inspirational raconteur and artist who has defiantly taken life’s challenges head on and come out the other side smiling, looking like he is singing while he’s winning.

 

Originally published on 12 August 2015 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/melbourne-international-film-festival-review-colin-hay-waiting-for-my-life-to-begin-usa-2015/

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FILM REVIEW: HOW TO DANCE IN OHIO

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How To Dance In Ohio is an intimate documentary that allows viewers to see the world through the eyes of a young person on the autistic spectrum. It’s an uplifting film that shows three young women who are coming-of-age and the challenges and triumphs they experience. The story is a gentle, subtle and uplifting one that’s a must-see for everyone.

The film is directed by documentarian, Alexandra Shiva who has garnered a reputation for telling stories about people who don’t make headlines or who are on the margins of society. Her previous works include, Bombay Eunuch about a transgender group in India and Stagedoor about young men who love theatre. How To Dance In Ohio is a personal story for Shiva because she has a friend whose teenage child is on the spectrum.

In Ohio, Dr. Emilio Amigo is the psychologist and owner of a progressive family counselling practice. His organisation offers support to children and families who are have a member that is on the autistic spectrum. The practice teaches the individual social skills and how to relate to others as well as offering therapy. This film chronicles the 12 weeks that are spent by Amigo and his colleagues in preparing the practice’s patients for their very first school formal (or prom in America).

Shiva interviews a few young adults who are on the autistic spectrum as well as their parents and therapists. She mostly focuses on three young women, which is interesting because female perspectives are often overlooked in this “male-dominated” syndrome. The main subjects are 16 year old Marideth Bridges, who loves learning new facts and playing the computer, 22-year-old Jessica Sullivan who enjoys cooking and works at a bakery that employs people with autism and her best friend, 19 year old Caroline McKenzie who is studying early childhood at college and who has a boyfriend that she met at Amigo’s group sessions.

The key message in this film also doubles as a rather interesting quote form Amigo, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”. The subjects are all radically different and have different hobbies, interests and degrees of communication, understanding and social-functioning. It’s a triumph though when they can all overcome these challenges to have a ball literally that is complete with music, corsages, dancing, a king and a queen.

How To Dance In Ohio is an intimate and empathetic coming-of-age story that lifts the veil on autism. The fly-on-the-wall style allows the subjects to tell their own stories and shows how they work hard to understand and be understood. It’s no mean feat and a testament to their strength, resilience and courage that their prom – a situation that most teenagers find difficult – is such a success. In all, How To Dance In Ohio is an entertaining, honest and frank look at autism and a very important, human story that every adult and child should see.

Originally published on 8 August 2015 at the following website: http://iris.theaureview.com/melbourne-international-film-festival-review-how-to-dance-in-ohio-usa-2015/

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DVD REVIEW: STEPTOE & SON RIDE AGAIN

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A sequel or the second film instalment in a franchise is often not very good. But Steptoe & Son Ride Again is actually far superior to their silver screen debut. In film number two the classic rag and bone men characters (or junk dealers) are restored to the former glories of their TV show by entertaining and making people laugh with their classic, dark comedy stylings.

The film is once again written by the creators and writers of the Steptoe & Son TV series, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. The show aired from 1962 to 1974 and was a huge success and with this movie it’s easy to see why. The plot revolves around the stubborn, wicked and manipulative dirty old man, Albert Steptoe (Wilfrid Brambell) and his naïve-but-eternally optimistic and hopeful son, Harold (Harry H. Corbett) who is always employing different hare-brained schemes in order to get rich quick. 

Harold’s latest hijinks see him on-route from London to York. The journey back home culminates in the pair’s work horse being declared lame. This animal is their livelihood so Albert, the old man pitches into his life-savings to allow the family to buy a new horse. But Harold goes and gets drunk and becomes involved with a local villain/godfather type, Frankie Barrow (Henry Woolf). The latter sells Harold a greyhound that turns out to be blind. Some more bad luck befalls the Steptoes but it does have some funny and bizarre consequences.

This film is a direct video to DVD transfer so the picture and sound quality is below average. The special features are also below par as they include a mere image gallery, trailer and isolated effects tracks. The actual plot here is the set’s saving grace as this one is much better than the first film. It is also really funny and finds the right balance between drama and comedy as well as visual slapstick humour and some clever witticisms.

Steptoe & Son Ride Again offers everything you’d want in a classic comedy film and the second movie in a franchise. It is entertaining and energetic and the performances are hilarious and spot-on (even though Corbett mugs things a little at times, this really suits his character and the adventures that transpire). Steptoe & Son Ride Again is a must-see for any fan and is a comic farce and testament to the series’ enduring success. In short, it’s great.

Originally published on 3 August 2015 at the following website: http://www.impulsegamer.com/steptoe-son-ride-dvd-review/

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DVD REVIEW: STEPTOE & SON – THE FILM

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Steptoe & Son is a British, comedy classic. The TV series ran from 1962 to 1974 and fans were entertained by the hijinks of its beloved comedy characters, Albert Steptoe and his son, Harold. In 1970 a spin-off film was produced with the same name and while it wasn’t as good as the TV show, it was still an above-average film that remained mostly faithful to the spirit of the series.

The film was written by the sitcom’s creators and long-time writers, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. In some ways the plot resembles or at least contains a few similarities to at least two different episodes. There is Albert Steptoe (Wilfrid Brambell) a steadfast, stubborn and dirty old man holding back his son, Harold (Harry H. Corbett) who is a naïve but aspirational 37-year-old man who is desperately trying to get away from his working class roots.

The two are rag and bone men or junk dealers/collectors. They have a horse and cart plus a house and yard that are filled with trash and treasures. Harold has never married but things look like they might change on the romantic front when he goes to the local football club and meets an exotic dancer named Zita (Carolyn Seymour). The two hit it off and are married after a whirlwind romance.

The old man is not enthused and he tries to break-up his son’s marriage, at first by losing the ring in some horse manure on the wedding day. When the love birds are due to go on a honeymoon in Spain, Albert digs in his heels and joins the pair. He is as disruptive as possible and contracts food poisoning before he begs Harold to return to England. Things do not end well but then a baby is thrown into the mix, which leads to some strange and funny results.

The Steptoe & Son film is a dark, comic-tragedy and TV spin-off. The two lead actors, Brambell and Corbett put in fabulous performances and their chemistry is obvious. The feature itself is good even though the video is poor and seems like a VHS to DVD transfer. Overall, this should be enjoyed by fans of the TV show who liked watching the verbal sparring that took place between the father and son. This Steptoe & Son may not be as great as the TV series but it still remains a faithful but gloomy look at those two cherished rag and bone men from Shepherd’s Bush.

 

Originally published on 3 August 2015 at the following website: http://www.impulsegamer.com/steptoe-son-film-dvd-review/

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