Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Catherine O'Flynn, Miguel Syjuco and Jackie Kay's autobiography.

The News Where You Are by Catherine O'Flynn

"Catherine O'Flynn's narratives of urban disenchantment answer the challenge for novelists to take the ordinary and make it compelling," writes Rachel Hore in the Independent on Sunday. "In [this, the author's] second fictional outing, a regional TV studio becomes a symbol of the awfulness of modern mass culture."

Frank Allcroft, a forty-something Birmingham newsreader with a morbid interest in the city's dead, is led on a trail to solve the murder of his predecessor, Phil Smethway. "Grim themes, these," writes Hore, "but they are leavened by a flow of laugh-aloud satire" - as when a carpet showroom advert on the radio is described in meticulous, deadpan detail.

For Olivia Laing, however, writing in the Observer, the Costa First Novel Award-winner's evident gifts "seem to have abandoned her here. The News Where You Are is marred, despite its obsession with graves and subterranean shopping centres, by a strange lack of depth. There's a flimsiness to the characters and the plot is contrived. The narrator seems almost addicted to metaphysical pronouncements, but their baldness diminishes their impact."

Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco

"Ilustrado," writes the New York Times' Raymond Bonner of the Man Asian Literary Prize- winning novel, "is being presented as a tracing of 150 years of Philippine history, but it's considerably more than that. Just as the country is searching for its identity, its author seems to be searching for his own."

"In a daring literary performance, Syjuco weaves the invented with the factual, putting himself directly into his own fiction." The author's protagonist shares his own immigrant background and many of own life experiences, not to mention his eagerness to expose the corruption endemic in elite Filipino society.

For Angel Gurria-Quintanam in the Financial Times,"beyond Ilustrado's furious skewering of Filipino elites is writing that bristles with surprising imagery." It is, she opines, "an unruly and energising novel [that] pushes readers into considering matters of authenticity, identity and belonging."

But for Adam Mars-Jones, writing in the Observer, "many if not most of the narrative mechanisms ... don't actually work." For him, none of the book's multiform elements - "pseudo-autobiography, broad comedy [or] standard genre-movie motivation ... begin to mesh.." And neither Salvador, the political writer murdered at the start of the story, nor his student-acolyte Miguel who tells it, ever "comes to life."

Red Dust Road: An Autobiographical Journey by Jackie Kay

"As a gay single mother of mixed race, brought up by communist adoptive parents in Glasgow, who walks with a slight limp when she's tired... Jackie Kay ticks every conceivable box"; so writes Daisy Goodwin in the Sunday Times. "But this is no solemn Roots-style search for identity," Goodwin opines, "but a clear-eyed, witty and unsentimental account of the push and pull between nature and nurture."

"Red Dust Road is a fantastic, probing and heart-warming read," agrees Bernardine Evaristo in the Independent on Sunday; "It opens up the conversation around adoption beyond Kay's own personal narrative." "Like the best memoirs," Evaristo writes, "this one is written with novelistic and poetic flair."

 

Marvel Studios
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In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, every other line reeks of a self-help manual

This lame sequel suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing.

The 2014 romp Guardians of the Galaxy boasted the budget of a blockbuster and the soul of a B-movie. What that meant in practice was that audiences had to endure the same biff-pow battle scenes and retina-blistering effects as any space adventure, but they were rewarded with eccentric characters and tomfoolery for its own sake.

Despite the Marvel Studios imprimatur, the film showed the forces of intergalactic evil being fought not by superheroes, but by a ragtag band of bickering goofballs: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, a self-regarding rogue in the Han Solo mould; the green-faced alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana); Drax (Dave Bautista), a literal-minded hulk; Rocket, a racoon-like warrior (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and Groot, a piece of bark that says “I am Groot” over and over in the dulcet tones of Vin Diesel. Movies this odd don’t usually become $770m smash hits but this one did – deservedly.

Those characters return in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (the “Vol 2” reflects Peter’s love of mix-tapes) but the new film suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing. Gags are rehashed; several sequences (including an interminable slow-motion section involving a laser-powered arrow) are dragged way beyond their desirable lifespan. Late in the day, Rocket tells his shipmates that they have too many issues, which rather pinpoints the problem with the screenplay by the director, James Gunn. Gunn has saddled his characters with unreasonable baggage, all of it relating to family and belonging. No matter how far into space they travel, all roads lead back to the therapist’s couch.

Peter, raised by his late mother, is delighted when Ego (Kurt Russell) materialises claiming to be the father he never knew. The old man makes grand pronouncements, only to undercut them within seconds (“’Scuse me, gotta take a whizz”) but, on the plus side, he has his own planet and pulls the whole “One day, son, all this will be yours” shtick. Gamora also has family business to contend with. Her blue-skinned sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), wants to kill her: Nebula has never quite got over Gamora being Daddy’s favourite. To be fair, though, he did force them to fight one another, replacing parts of Nebula’s body with metal whenever she lost, so it’s not like we’re talking about only one sister being allowed to watch Top of the Pops.

The more Peter gets to know Ego, the less admirable he seems as a father, and soon we are in the familiar territory of having parenting lessons administered by a Hollywood blockbuster. The reason for this became obvious decades ago: the film industry is populated by overworked executives who never get to see their children, or don’t want to, and so compensate by greenlighting movies about what it means to be a good parent. Every other line here reeks of the self-help manual. “Please give me the chance to be the father your mother wanted me to be,” Ego pleads. Even a minor character gets to pause the action to say: “I ain’t done nothing right my whole life.” It’s dispiriting to settle down for a Guardians of the Galaxy picture only to find you’re watching Field of Dreams with added asteroids.

Vol 2 gets by for an hour or so on some batty gags (Gamora misremembering the plot and star of Knight Rider is an especially juicy one) and on the energising power of Scott Chambliss’s glorious production design. The combination of the hi-tech and the trashy gives the film the appearance of a multimillion-dollar carnival taking place in a junkyard. Spectacular battles are shot through scuffed and scratched windscreens, and there are spacesuits cobbled together from tin pots and bubble-wrap. This is consistent with the kitschfests that inspired the Guardians aesthetic: 1980s science-fiction delights such as Flash Gordon, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

If only Vol 2 had mimicked their levity and brevity. Gunn ends his overlong movie with a bomb being attached to a giant brain, but this is wishful thinking on his part. He hasn’t blown our minds at all. It’s just a mild case of concussion. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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