Reviews

REVIEW: The Great Debaters (2007)

At the Wiley College Texas in 1935 Professor Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington) who inspired his students and with the school’s debate team, went on to challenge Harvard in the national championship.

The Great Debaters is one of those inspiring films that though the characters go through their trials ultimately there’s hope for a better tomorrow. It’s the brilliant yet politically radical Tolson that helps his students finds their voices and put together their arguments. He’s the leading force for this team but, through his guidance, each member of the debate team finds their own way.

Set against the backdrop of racial segregation, Jim Crow laws and prejudice, The Great Debaters show how a small group of young people were given confidence in their abilities and fight to make themselves heard. The fact this debate team not only beat every team from African American colleges, but also went on to go toe to toe with white-only colleges is commendable and how the characters grapple with that pressure is clear to see.

The debate team consists of Hamilton Burgess (Jermaine Williams) Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) and James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker). All the young actors give great performances, but a special mention goes to Denzel Whitaker who plays a young man who at fourteen is at least five years younger than his fellow debaters and it’s through his eyes we see a lot of the film.

Forest Whitaker plays James’ father, a minister and teacher, and their relationship is sometimes fraught but it’s also one of respect. Farmer Sr. and Tolson have conflicting ideas about things like unionising and what they should teach their students, and it’s interesting to see how two educated and progressive men can have conflicting ideologies but still be open to a healthy debate on them.

The Great Debaters is the second film Denzel Washington directed and it proves him to be talented behind the camera as he allows emotional moments to linger and trusts his actor’s performances in the close ups of their faces. The scenes of the different debates leave you enthralled as you watch these young people argue their side with passion. There are a lot of great lines that come from the debates but one that sticks on is: “No, the time for justice, the time for freedom, and the time for equality is always, is always right now!”

The Great Debaters is based on a true story and it does follow a lot of the typical story beats one might have, but that makes it no less enjoyable or uplifting. It is full of great, rousing speeches from Denzel Washington and it never shies away from the harsh realities so many people faced in the 1930s. 4/5.

REVIEW: They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott and Harmony Becker

In 1942, at the order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, every person of Japanese descent on the west coast was rounded up and shipped to one of ten “relocation centers,” hundreds or thousands of miles from home, where they would be held for years under armed guard. They Called Us Enemy is Takei’s firsthand account of those years behind barbed wire, the joys and terrors of growing up under legalised racism, his mother’s hard choices, his father’s faith in democracy, and the way those experiences planted the seeds for his astonishing future.

It sounds cliché to say reading They Called Us Enemy was a rollercoaster of emotions, but it was. It was infuriating to hear about some of the politicians and lawyers who set in motion the anti-Japanese sentiment have gone onto having very successful careers. It was sad to see what George’s parents went through and how they struggled to keep their family together and to do the best thing for them all. And it was wonderful to see that hope can survive in even the most terrible of circumstances, and how there are people who will help others even though they themselves may get hurt. I felt myself tear up multiple times reading They Called Us Enemy. Some tears were due to sadness and frustration that people were treated like this (and are still being treated like this) while other tears were of the joy of seeing George Takei meet with Gene Roddenberry and how Star Trek really had such a positive impact on George and the world.

They Called Us Enemy does a great job of showing both how a child would deal with having to leave their home and live in confined spaces with strict rules, and how adults would be scared because they have a better understanding over what is happening to them. There’s the childlike innocence about a lot of George’s experience, at least to begin with in some camps where they were obviously not pleasant but not as harsh as their later experiences.

I learnt so much about the internment of Japanese Americans from this book. I first heard about this event in history through following George Takei on Twitter, he said something about it that got me googling and I learnt about something I’d never heard of before when I was in my early twenties. A lot of quotes and moments in They Called Us Enemy will stick with me, but one that really stood out was: “That remains part of the problem – that we don’t know the unpleasant aspects of American history and therefore we don’t learn the lesson those chapters have to teach us. So we repeat them over and over again.”

I suppose I have the “excuse” of being British and growing up in the UK that I didn’t learn bout this part of American history in school, in fact in History class we barely touched on the attack on Pearl Harbour and it’s just the catalyst for America joining the war. Naturally all our history is UK-focused. But still, as George Takei says, it’s important to know our history – both the good and the bad – so we don’t make the same mistakes again.

They Called Us Enemy is an important and impactful book but it’s also a compelling story with wonderful art that perfectly captures the innocence of childhood. They Called Us Enemy is definitely a book I’d recommend to anyone, whether they were a fan of George Takei or not. His childhood is, unfortunately, the childhood of tens of thousands Japanese Americans and it’s a story of 120,000 people that must be heard. 5/5.

REVIEW: Little Women (2019)

The four March sisters come of age in America in the aftermath of the Civil War.

I read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott for the first time a couple of years ago. It was a book I thought was just alright, and I didn’t really see how it had become such a classic and my lasting impression of it was how much I hated Amy March. So it was with some trepidation I went to see this latest adaptation, but I was very surprised by how much I ended up enjoying this film and how it made me connect with all of the March sisters and it even made me tolerate Amy.

This feat was accomplished by the actor’s performances and writer and director Greta Gerwig’s brilliant screenplay. There are two timelines happening in Little Women. The present has Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is living in New York and trying to earn a living writing stories until she’s called home as her sister Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is sick where she reconnects with her mother (Laura Dern) and her older sister Meg (Emma Watson), while Amy (Florence Pugh) is travelling Europe with their Aunt March (Meryl Streep). Then there’s the other timeline that starts 7 years earlier where you can see how the sisters would put on plays, had dreams and aspirations that are so different from one another’s and how they are all determined to make their lives their own.

These timelines are easy to follow due to the characters costumes and how in the flashback scenes, the colours and costumes seem so much brighter, while the colour palette of the present scenes is a lot more muted, mirroring how the sisters have grown up and apart. It’s also fascinating to see the sisters grow into the people we see in the present, and how their relationships may change but continue to be so strong.

Also central to the story of Little Women is the March sisters’ friend and neighbour Laurie (Timothée Chalamet). He finds friendship and love and family with the March’s and his relationship with Jo is so important to the two of the but for different reasons.

Little Women has a beautiful score, wonderful costumes that add layers to the already complex characters and is shot so well. Gerwig’s Little Women is funny, touching and it makes you feel so happy and content by the end of it, even if some tears are shed along the way. It’s a delightful story told so well because the actors don’t just play their characters brilliantly, they embody the March sisters’ heart and soul. Ronan and Pugh particularly standout but while Beth and Meg have more understated roles, Scanlen and Watson bring out all of the layers to their characters just as well as Ronan and Pugh.

Little Women was a wonderful surprise in how much I loved it and while it is quite the feminist story, it’s also a universal story about love, family and find your place in the world. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Saint Kitts and Nevis: Only God Can Make a Tree by Bertram Roach

Adrian is the son of a black Caribbean woman and an Irish immigrant father and is blessed with the pale skin and European features to allow him social mobility in the rigidly hierarchical society of twentieth-century Caribbean life. He falls in love but is offered the opportunity to improve his social standing, and thus the rest of his life, if he can suppress his heart’s desire and decide with his head. Will he choose Julia, the only woman he has ever really loved, and settle for being an overseer, or will he opt for the plantation-owner’s daughter, Alice Mills, who could provide him with the social standing he has always dreamed of?

Only God Can Make a Tree is a short book at less than 150 pages, and it is a quick read both because of its length and because of the writing style. It’s written very simply and is very much a book where it tells you what’s happening and what characters are feeling rather than showing you through metaphors or flowery language. This makes it seem like it’s not a very well-written book as you can’t easily connect with the characters and the plot is just laid out in front of you. It took a while to get used to how it was written, but its blunt, on the nose approach to this story did make it easy to read and sometimes engaging.

For such a short book it covers a lot of time and different characters lives. Adrian is the main character but as the choices he makes have knock on effects onto the people around him, you get snippets from other characters points of view as they struggle to deal with the fallout of his actions. The latter half of the book spans more time as Adrian fathers’ children and they grow up and have to live with Adrian being their father and what that can mean for them.

Adrian is a character that’s equal parts infuriating and sympathetic. While his actions are his own, and they are often reckless and hurt women who do love him, he is boxed in by the hierarchical society and has limited options if he desires to climb the social ladder. Adrian has high aspirations in a society that won’t really allow him to have those aspirations. He is a man that’s almost trapped between two societies because of his parentage, he can pass for white a lot of the time, but at the same time many white people will never see him as anything but black and will treat him accordingly. There’s also how Adrian appears to be destined to make similar mistakes to his own father, and all the rum that’s available is not good for any of the characters.

The sections about life in Saint Kitts and Nevis in the twentieth century were interesting. White, often English, people still owned the cotton and sugar cane plantations but now they pay people to work the land, albeit very cheaply. The former slaves are now labourers. As not a lot of time has passed since the abolition of slavery, there’s still some tension as the white plantation owners believe that the black people are still savages deep down. Often the glimpses of Caribbean society and how it works were more interesting than Adrian’s life. Though that being said, how Caribbean society works had a direct effect on Adrian and how is life panned out so the intersection between the two was also interesting.

I read Only God Can Make a Tree in less than two hours but I’m not sure how long this story will stick with me. It’s a concise family saga that gives a unique insight into post-slavery Caribbean and how one man’s aspirations can have long-lasting and unexpected effects. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD: Bangladesh – The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam

Maya Haque – outspoken, passionate, headstrong – has been estranged from her brother Sohail for almost a decade. When she returns home to Dhaka hoping for a reconciliation, she discovers he has transformed beyond recognition. Can the two, both scarred by war, come together again? And what of Sohail’s young son, Zaid, caught between worlds but desperate to belong?

I didn’t realise this until I went to Goodreads to mark this book as read, but The Good Muslim is the sequel to A Golden Age. I didn’t know The Good Muslim was a sequel and I don’t feel I really missed out on anything as it reads like a standalone novel.

The chapters alternate between different points in time, the early 1970s and the mid-1980s. The chapters in the early 1970s are during the aftermath of the Bangladesh Liberation War, as Sohail comes back from the war and he and his family attempt to get used to what peace means. The chapters in the 1980s are when Maya has returned home after being away for over seven years. She struggles to reconnect with her brother and a nephew she doesn’t know. The vast majority of The Good Muslim is from Maya’s point of view, in both the flashbacks and the present day.

A lot of the tragedy of these two siblings drifting apart comes from the fact that they are so different. They are either headstrong or reserved, and either they don’t listen to one another or are unwilling to talk about their experiences. Sohail is haunted by his actions during the war, while Maya has been dealing with the aftereffects of the war as she has worked in clinics across the country, performing abortions on women who were raped by soldiers and were shunned by their families. Both Maya and Sohail are affected by the conflict but they deal with it in different ways and it can be frustrating to see how they keep meeting at cross-purposes when they clearly did care about one another.

The rift that developed between Maya and Sohail is ultimately down to religion. After the war, Sohail becomes very religious, in fact he’s almost a zealot who appears to have his own followers and he forgets about all other responsibilities and attachments as he pursues his commitment to his faith. Maya doesn’t understand this or how much her brother could change after the war. Maya’s stubbornness is frustrating at times as she is so convinced that her idea of religion is the correct one and barely even attempts to understand her brother and his beliefs. Meeting her young nephew, she tries to help him as he doesn’t go to school and has no structure to his life. This adds to the conflict between Maya and Sohail as he has vastly different ideas of what his son should be learning and how he should be living.

The ending of The Good Muslim is what has the most impact, but unfortunately the kind of slow burn of a plot as you gradually learn more about Maya and Sohail’s experiences during the war and how that shaped them into who they are today, does take a bit too long to pull you in and make you deeply care about the two of them. 3/5.

REVIEW: Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

With Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) seemingly back from the dead, an old but deadly force threatens the galaxy. While Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) seeks him out, Rey (Daisy Ridley), under the guidance of Leia (Carrie Fisher), finishes her training.

The Rise of Skywalker is almost too much film. There is so much going on as Rey, Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) go on an adventure together, the Resistance prepares for battle and new (and old) characters are introduced. It goes by at a relentless pace but it works because seeing these characters interact, working together solving seemingly insurmountable problems, is still one of the highlights of these films.

The cast are still as charming as ever. Unfortunately some characters are pushed to the side (Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose being the biggest casualty of this) while some new characters don’t get too much to do at all. Adam Driver continues to be a standout in the series, giving a nuanced performance as Kylo Ren and his continuous struggles with his heritage.

The Rise of Skywalker continues the Star Wars tradition of having interesting and quirky alien creatures, brilliant set design and costuming, and great cinematography. Every planet the heroes (and villains) visit is different and the space battles and lightsaber fights are a way to show off different sides to a characters personality while still being engaging.

The final act of The Rise of Skywalker is pure spectacle and completely Star Wars. There’s the battle of good vs evil, inner conflict, hope, and more spaceships than you could shake a stick at. It’s exciting and is such a rush of space wizard magic – especially when John Williams’s wonderful score kicks in.

Some of the issues I have with The Rise of Skywalker comes from the issues I have with the new Star Wars trilogy film as a whole, like how some plot/character elements I feel are a wasted opportunity. As they can be applied to all the films and not just this one, it feels unfair to solely judge The Rise of Skywalker on the fact it didn’t capitalise on elements that the series hasn’t really revisited since The Force Awakens.

It’s a joy being with the characters of this new trilogy again and while some aspects of this saga are wrapped up too neatly while others aren’t wrapped up enough, The Rise of Skywalker is thrilling, action-packed and a lot of fun. 4/5.

EDIT: I wrote and scheduled this review after seeing The Rise of Skywalker on Thursday. Since then I’ve been seeing all the debates and thoughts (both positive and negative) about this film on social media. Some of it I agree with to an extent or understand, some of it I don’t. My opinion of this film may change when I see it again, or it may not. I just know I was so very happy to see Rey, Finn and Poe going on adventures together and working together that I can forget about or forgive some of the things I might not have liked as much.

REVIEW: Klaus (2019)

When Smeerensburg’s new postman, Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), befriends toymaker Klaus (J.K. Simmons), their gifts melt an age-old feud and deliver a sleigh full of holiday traditions.

Klaus is wonderful! Everything about it is so beautiful. The animation, the story, the characters, the music and the songs; it all comes together into one of those truly special films. It’s funny, sweet and charming with such a timely yet timeless message at its centre.

Jesper doesn’t want to be in Smeerensburg. He’s used to putting in minimum effort and relying on his family’s money for everything, so when he’s shipped off to Smeerensburg and the risk of being cut off looming over his head, he has to think on his feet to get this town that never sends any letters, using the post office.

Jesper’s work is cut out for him as the town is home to an ancient feud between the Ellingboe’s and the Krum’s led by Mr Ellingboe (Will Sasso) and Mrs Krum (Joan Cusack). What Klaus really captures is how children are children and don’t tend to pick up the illogical reasons to hate someone without influence from the adults around them. The children of Smeerensburg want to play together even though there’s a violent feud that has been going on for generations.

Besides from being funny and heart-warming, Klaus can tug at your heartstrings too. From seeing the huge smiles on the happy children’s faces (honestly the animation is gorgeous) to learning more about Klaus’s past, it’s enough to bring a tear to anyone’s eye. The score is magical and the original song Invisible by Zara Larsson is brilliant too and echoes the core theme of the film.

The main message of Klaus is that a simple act of kindness always sparks another. It’s a wonderful message to have in any movie, but for a Christmas movie which has a take on the origin of Santa Claus, somehow makes that message even more impactful. It’s a lovely thought to live by, and one that highlights that deep down, people are (on the whole) inherently good. 5/5.