READ THE WORLD – Portugal: Raised from the Ground by José Saramago

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

A multigenerational family saga set in twentieth-century Portugal. Raised from the Ground follows the Mau Tempo family, a family of poor landless peasants, as they try and make a life for themselves as national and international events take place around them. But nothing really impinges on their grim reality until the first communist stirrings in the country.

The way Raised from the Ground is written took me a long time to get my head around. It’s like there’s an omniscient and omnipresent narrator, telling the lives of the different members of the family as each generation grows up. This style means there’s no speech marks when people talk and there often are very long sentences with many commas in them. The long sentences aren’t so bad, it’s the paragraphs that are anywhere between a page long and four-pages long that cause problems. It is very easy to get lost in those long paragraphs.

The story itself is not memorable and the characters, of which there are a lot, are not well developed. When the story shifts focus from one character or relationship to the other, it’s hard to remember or keep track of who is related to who. While the first 80 pages or so are engaging, the dreary existence of this peasant family becomes repetitive and dull as there is little chance for them to better themselves. No doubt this is the point of Raised from the Ground, but a novel can’t just make a point, it must also be interesting and unfortunately this one wasn’t.

Raised from the Ground pans around sixty years and the verbose narrator also talks about events that happened before the books beginning multiple times. Across those years different national and international events are referenced (including two World Wars) and the little footnotes that explained a reference to an important event in Portugal was appreciated. Though the way the book is written, focusing so closely on one family’s struggles, meant that the historical context was never fully explained so the impact of these events on the family and their community was never really felt.

I’ve read multigenerational family sagas before and on the whole I rather enjoy them. However, Raised from the Ground is not one of the ones I enjoyed. The combination of the writing style and the story meant I often felt my eyes glazing over. I did like the little titbits of Portuguese history speckled throughout the novel, though there wasn’t enough of that to keep me interested. 1/5.

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REVIEW: Sorry to Bother You (2018)

When Cassius Green (LaKeith Stanfield) gets a job as a telemarketer, he learns that the key to success is having a “white voice” but the road to success and fortune isn’t what it seems.

Sorry to Bother You is a scathing look at capitalism and racism and how the two interact. There is a lot going on in this film and it doesn’t always seem to give each thing the attention it deserves. The idea that having a “white voice” will make you more successful and respected is obviously terrible but people in the real world have experienced such double standards. There is also the idea of the power of protests and unionising, standing with your co-workers to demand better pay and rights – though the success of this is shown to be debatable as the capitalist machine may be too strong.

Sorry to Bother You is set in the present-day though everything is just a bit different or over-exaggerated. This makes every theme the film touches on more eerie and relevant. The choices of what kind of television shows to appear on in the background, or what kind of things trend online, is very close to our reality and it shows how they can be used for good or for bad.

The performances in this film are great, both the actors on screen, and those that do the voice work for the “white voices”. It’s weird and amusing to hear very different voices come out of a character’s mouth. Hearing David Cross’s voice from Stanfield’s mouth is strange but both the physical and vocal performance make you believe that is Green’s voice. Green’s girlfriend Detroit (Tess Thompson) is a great character as she uses her art to make a statement and believes in standing up for the everyday person. Her character was a more interesting character who was proactive in her story compared to Green who instead just seemed to be just wander through the story until the very end.

Sorry to Bother You is very weird and surreal. It’s billed as a comedy though it doesn’t really hit that button, instead it’s a unsettling fantasy that hold a mirror up to our world today. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Fast and the Furious (2001)

I’ve decided that on the run up to Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw this summer, I’m going to rewatch and review all the previous Fast & Furious films. Any of the films I’ve previously reviewed, I’ll link to at the start of the new review.

Undercover LA cop Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) must decide where his loyalties lie when he becomes enamoured with the street racing gang he’s been sent to destroy.

Everything about The Fast and the Furious is so early 2000s it’s ridiculous – the clothes and the music make it like a miniature time capsule. But in some ways that kind of adds to the films charm especially when you look back on it as this was the foundations of an unexpected franchise juggernaut.

The Fast and the Furious is rightly known as Point Break but with cars. The undercover cop becoming close to the suspected criminals is not a unique plot but, for the most part, the film handles it well. It’s not just Brian having a romantic relationship with Mia (Jordana Brewster) that makes him questions things, it’s her brother Dom (Vin Diesel) who pulls people to him like gravity. The chemistry between the three of them, along with other members of Dom’s crew, make all the clichés work.

The car races and chases are pretty good, the with last 30 minutes of the film being truly gripping and entertaining as everything that’s been building between these characters come to ahead. The techno music that plays during one of the last chases is a bit much though.

The Fast and the Furious is a bit cheesy, with the dialogue being on the nose and the performances not always that confident, but it’s the chemistry between the leads that made these characters ones you’d want to revisit. 3/5.

REVIEW: Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu

Seventeen-year-old Rachel Walker’s family and community have turned away from the world and closely follow the Lord’s words. Every part of Rachel’s life is controlled; what she wears, what she does, who she is meant to be. Her future is laid out for her; modesty, children and obedience to her future husband. But when Lauren, a girl who escaped the community five years earlier returns to Rachel’s small Texas town – her whole world is turned upside down as she allows herself to ask the questions that have been bubbling inside her.

Devoted was a very engrossing book. Rachel is a wonderfully complex character as she grapples with conflicting ideas of what it is to be faithful to God while still wanting to be loved by her family. Rachel loves to learn; she’s always got her head in books but her father doesn’t feel it’s appropriate as she is meant to be a wife and homemaker without any ideas above her station.

The idea of what abuse is in Devoted is only mentioned briefly but it is an important thing. When Rachel first learns of Lauren’s perspective after growing up in the same place but then leaving to move in to the big city, Rachel is surprised to hear Lauren call the environment abusive. To Rachel abuse means being hit or touched inappropriately, but what is clear to the reader, and slowly becomes clearer to her, is that she, like many of the young women in her community, is the victim of emotional and psychological abuse. That mental abuse can be as harmful as physical abuse is never outright said, but conversations between Lauren and Rachel showing how they both have lingering problems thanks to what they’ve experienced – even Lauren who has been out of that world for 5 years. The friendship and support between Rachel and Lauren is so important to both of them and even though Lauren is about five years older than Rachel with more worldly experience, as a character she is never pigeonholed as Rachel’s mother or sister figure. They both make mistakes as they learn to help and support one another and that’s OK.

The discussions of faith, praying and God were really interesting and tactful. Not all religion is “bad” but those who pick and choose what words to follow, especially if those words promote the subservience of women, aren’t necessarily nice people. It offers a more complex idea of religion and faith, and there are many ways to be faithful and there is no “right way” as it is all down to personal choice.

Rachel struggles with her faith when she’s at home with her family. The way her father and Pastor Garrett preach is often uncomfortable and Rachel often feels she’s making mistakes and is not good enough for God when she has questions or a desire to learn things. It’s when she can step away from them that she can connect to God in her own way, she doesn’t have to cut herself off from her faith just because she no longer believes or practices like her family has done, and how she has done her entire life.

Devoted is a book about a sensitive topic but it’s one that is always handled with care. While Pastor Garrett and the threat of the “brainwashing” camp Journey of Faith looms, members of Rachel’s family, and even other people in the community, aren’t demonised for what they believe. What Devoted manages to make clear, is that the way Rachel’s community follows religion is not healthy or the right way for everyone. Rachel’s older sister Faith appears very happy with her life, settling down with a husband and having a child in her early 20s, but that doesn’t mean that is the kind of life Rachel should be made to have if she doesn’t want it. 4/5.

REVIEW: Havoc (2005)

TW: rape

Wealthy LA teens Alison (Anne Hathaway) and Emily (Bijou Phillips), want to become a part of the “gangsta” lifestyle but they soon get in trouble when they cross paths with a real gang of Latino drug dealers.

The characters, much like the film itself, are shallow and unlikeable. All of the teenage characters are trying so hard to be something they are ill-equipped to be that it comes across incredibly cringey. The acting is not good, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt Sam being embarrassingly bad, and the dialogue is full of clichés.

There is one character in Havoc that is not irritating, though that is probably because he’s a spectator to the teenager’s violence and provocativeness and you learn little about him. Eric (Matt O’Leary) is a teenager with a camera shooting a documentary about Alison and her friends and why they want to be a part of the gang lifestyle. Those scenes do offer hints of something more interesting and layered, but they do not last long and instead go back to the superficial teenagers increasingly risky antics.

In Havoc there is a gang rape scene, though characters frame it that it wasn’t rape because the girl consented to sleeping with the men to start with which is just wrong. She may have wanted to sleep with them, but not all at the same time and she was clearly distressed once she realised what was happening. It is really insensitive and irresponsible to portray something like that, without having characters believe the girl that was raped, and to frame it that she was lying about what happened.

Havoc is full of unlikeable and irritating characters and it doesn’t have much in the way of plot or surprises either. If you’re someone like me and likes to watch things just to complete an actor’s filmography, fans of Hathaway, Channing Tatum, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt should avoid it for as long as possible. 1/5.

REVIEW: A Girl Called Shameless by Laura Steven

It’s been two months since a leaked explicit photo got Izzy O’Neill involved in a political sex scandal that got national coverage. The Bitches Bite Back movement is gathering momentum online, and when a girl at school has a sex tape shared online, Izzy feels a fresh surge of anger and pain as she leads the charge against slut-shaming. Izzy and her best friends Ajita and Meg use comedy to fight back as they want to change the state law on revenge porn and get people to listen to them.

A read and reviewed The Exact Opposite of Okay at start of the year and I absolutely loved it. I’m very happy to say that A Girl Called Shameless is a more than worthy sequel.

A Girl Called Shameless is an enthralling book. It’s the sort of book you can read in a day because of how fast-paced it is, how layered and funny the characters are, and how it balances tough topics with levity and teenage-relatability.

In A Girl Called Shameless, Izzy and her friends start a movement to get the law changed as in her state revenge porn is legal. It was a great look at grassroots activism, how the pressure and desire for change can be almost suffocating, but also how there can be a lot of support out there. One thing that I thought worked really well is how through this book, the feelings Izzy felt when her explicit photos were shared online haven’t necessarily gone away. She might put on a front, but she is still hurt and angry and her confidence has taken a knock too.

Izzy has a lot going on in her life and it was good that it showed that not everything goes well all the time. Izzy finally gets a part-time job to help her grandmother pay the bills, she has an agent for her scriptwriting, she has school, and she also has this role of an activist. Izzy gets pushed to breaking point in this book, and sometimes she breaks, but she’s got a great support system around her and a strong sense of self so she keeps moving forward.

A Girl Called Shameless is even more inclusive with its message. Being against slut-shaming and fighting to get revenge porn made illegal is still the main focus of the novel, but it brings in other areas of oppression albeit sometimes briefly. There is a trans girl at Izzy’s school that gets involved with the Bitches Bite Back website, writing articles about how trans people can be affected by revenge porn. Izzy’s boyfriend Carson is black and the two of them talk about his fear of the police and the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a sharp shock when Izzy realises that Carson might not feel comfortable or safe to join a protest with her, because the police mean a different thing to him.

A Girl Called Shameless is funny, thoughtful and empowering. Izzy’s friends and family are just as important and complex as in the first book, and the narrative style of being written in blog posts with interjections from future-Izzy was great too. 5/5.

REVIEW: The Brink (2019)

A fly-on-the-wall documentary following former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s global mission to spread extreme nationalism.

The Brink spans across about a year, from Autumn 2017 to late 2018, and gives unbridled access into the life of Bannon as he meets with politicians and campaigners and discusses the next move in forwarding the nationalism agenda.

The thing that the The Brink did really well is show how Bannon is a hypocrite and almost constantly contradicts himself. The type of documentary it is means the filmmaker doesn’t make their own commentary on what is happening, instead they allow the camera and the actions of the people on screen to tell the story. While Bannon speaks out against the rich and the elite, you also see him going to the dinners at the Upper East Side, flying in private jets, and staying fancy hotels. It is clear he is a hypocrite as he enjoys the lifestyle that being a part of the elite can bring. He also lies and contradicts himself when questioned on past statements, even when journalists have the evidence to back it up.

Bannon’s meetings and dinners with far right and nationalist politicians from across Europe are often uncomfortable to watch. There is Nigel Farage, former leader of UKIP and now the leader of the Brexit Party, who says increasingly inflammatory things as well as members of the National Front in France and other right-wing politicians across Europe. However grimy these dinners might make one feel; they are illuminating as you see how these people think and the propaganda they believe in without any filters.

The Brink is often shocking, with one of the most surprising things being how much access the filmmaker got, sitting in on so many dinners, meetings and private conversations. You get to see exactly the kind of man Bannon is – he can be charming and charismatic, he is smart – though not as smart as he believes he is – but he is also aggressive, rude, and will talk down to anyone who is not acting quick enough to achieve his goals.

The Brink is an engaging documentary though it does help to have a lot of background knowledge on Bannon, his time in the White House and certain events he was involved in. It throws you straight in, following Bannon and his aims without giving a lot of context. There are titles that appear every now and then, giving more information, but really, if you don’t know all what Bannon did as a part of Trump’s campaign staff did as, then the film is more of a character study. 4/5.

As an aside, The Brink would make a good double bill with another political documentary – Knock Down the House. Both of them cover the same amount of time and culminate at the results of the 2018 US midterm elections, however they follow people on complete opposite sides of the political spectrum – showing just how divisive politics has come, not just in America but around the world.