Reviews

READ THE WORLD – Mongolia: The End of the Dark Era by Tseveendorjin Oidov

Translated by Simon Wickhamsmith.

The End of the Dark Era is the first book of Mongolian poetry to be published in the United States, and one of the few avant-garde collections to have come from the vast steppes of Mongolia.

One of my favourite things with translated poetry is when on one page is the poem in the original language and on the opposite page is the translation. Even if you can’t read the original language, or make much sense of it at all when it’s in a completely different alphabet like here, it’s cool to see how the poem was originally laid out, how many lines there were and how much space it took up.

The first half of The End of the Dark Era is poems from between 1975-1983 and they’re all about a page long. A lot of them are about nature, or paint vivid scenes of the ocean, rocks or forests through them. There’s a distanced or almost dreamlike quality to a lot of them, and some feel like little mini stories being told to you.

The second half of the collection is called “Advantgardism” and is a collection of short fictions. Each poem or fiction is no more than five lines long and each are accompanied by an illustration by the author on the opposite page. The illustrations are all line drawings of horses in different poses. Personally, I found the illustrations more interesting than the writing, they were just unlike any illustrations I’d really seen before and they manage to make the horse look animated which is impressive. Though I did like how the words and image complemented each other.

I think the poems of Tseveendorjin Oidov are not for me. A few are brief but effective, but most seem to be the kind of poetry that I just don’t understand or would better understand if I had someone to guide me through them. Apparently, Tseveendorjin Oidov is considered to be the first Mongolian modernist and modernism is something I could never really get my head around – even when I studied it a bit at university. Maybe if you’re a modernist fan you should try some translated Mongolian modernist poetry and see how that compares to Western modernism writing.

REVIEW: Over the Moon (2020)

Fuelled with determination and a passion for science, a bright young Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) builds a rocket ship to the moon to prove the existence of the legendary Moon Goddess Chang’e (Phillipa Soo).

First off, Over the Moon is a musical which I didn’t realise going into it, but I didn’t mind that one bit. The songs and music add so much to Fei Fei’s story. Most are like thoughtful and touching ballads, “Love Someone New” made me bawl my eyes out, and then you get “Ultraluminary” which is the perfectly catchy, upbeat pop song. As soon as it started it reminded me of the best kind of Eurovision song which is the highest compliment.

The animation is beautiful too, especially once Fei Fei gets to the moon. What’s really cool is that both the songs and the animation are different depending if the story is taking place on Earth or on the moon, helping the moon to be its own character. On Earth the animation is pretty much what audiences are used to, but then on the moon everything is bright colours and shapes and its so luminous and different to what Fei Fei is used to.

Over the Moon is a heartfelt film. While there is the fantastical element of having an adventure on the moon and seeking out a legendary Goddess, at its heart Over the Moon is about grief and moving on. Fei Fei still loves and misses her mother and while her father is starting to move on, has met someone new who brings her annoying eight-year-old son Chin (Robert G. Chu) into Fei Fei’s life, Fei Fei sees that as a betrayal of her mother and of their love. She’s a big believer of immortal love thanks to the stories her mother raised her on, so seeing her dad move on is painful for her.

Over the Moon is a great exploration of grief and how even if someone is gone, it doesn’t mean you stop loving them, or that you can’t ever love anyone else. It’s an important message and is one that’s handled in way that’s easy for younger audience to understand thanks to the songs. “Wonderful” (sung by Ken Jeong as a glowing green creature) is a great example as it’s all about moving on without forgetting.

The pacing in Over the Moon could be a little tighter, the stuff on the moon flies by compared to some of the set up on Earth, but besides from that minor complaint Over the Moon is just a gorgeous, animated film with important themes. I laughed, I cried, and it was just a beautiful and fun story about a young girl doing what she needs to do in order to be happy again. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Slovakia: The Equestrienne by Uršuľa Kovalyk

Translated by Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood.

1984, in a small town in the east of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, Karolína is growing up. Her mother has too many boyfriends and her forceful but caring grandmother carries a knife. In an attempt to escape her hard and monotonous life, Karolína joins a riding school at the edge of town. There she befriends Romana, a girl with one leg shorter than the other, and Matilda, a rider and trainer who helps the girls overcome their physical limitations. Together they form a successful trick riding team and soon the small town doesn’t seem so small anymore for Karolína.

The blurb on my copy of The Equestrienne calls it a novel, but at 80 pages I’d say it’s more of a novella. Either way, The Equestrienne is a short, kind of bittersweet coming of age story. I always find it difficult to talk about such short books that are focussed on a short period of time. It spans about sixteen years as that’s roughly the age Karolína is when the story ends, but a lot of her childhood is glossed over and it’s when she’s around twelve and discovers the stables – along with a teenage boy called Arpi – that she starts to come into her own. At the stables Karolína makes a friend for the first time. And with Arpi she discovers cigarettes and music like Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones.

Change is a big element to The Equestrienne and Karolína’s life. Naturally, she’s growing up and maturing, having her first period has a big impact on her, but there’s the political changes happening in the background as the Soviet Union begins to dissolve. There’s a lot of moments of hope because of these changes, but equally there’s disappointment as they go from one dictatorship to another – capitalism.

The women in The Equestrienne are all fleshed out and interesting, which is a feat considering how short it is, and the only named male character is Arpi. All the other men are pushed to the background or become a threat to Karolína’s happiness or safety. The relationships between the different female characters are strong too. Karolína’s grandmother makes a huge impact on her life as she’s a force to be reckoned with and while to begin with Karolína often doesn’t understand or like her mother and her choices, as she matures she see’s the everyday strains she’s under. Then Matilda and Romana each give Karolína confidence and companionship in a time when she felt so alone.

The Equestrienne is a short but effective story that’s sad and sweet. It’s a universal coming of age story, but by having it set in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic means you can learn more about that culture and history and how things like the economy affected its people. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Untouchables (1987)

During the era of Prohibition in the United States, Federal Agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) sets out to stop ruthless Chicago gangster Al Capone (Robert De Niro) and, because of rampant corruption, assembles a small, hand-picked team to help him – veteran beat cop Jim Malone (Sean Connery), trainee George Stone (Andy Garcia) and accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith).

From the opening credits I was instantly intrigued by The Untouchables and that’s thanks to Ennio Morricone’s score. The harmonica slowly amps up the tension and intrigue while the drumbeat gets your heart pounding. It’s an example of one of the main action themes that is present throughout the film and you soon learn that when you hear that sound, something big is about to happen.

The whole cast is great in their roles. Costner brings the almost naivety to Eliot Ness, who has a big task ahead of him going after Al Capone. As Ness and his team close in on Capone’s operation, you see the steely determination come through and how far Ness is willing to go for justice. It’s unsurprising that Sean Connery won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as he steals pretty much every scene he’s in. Malone is Ness’ guide and the scene with the two of them in a church, discussing how far they’ll go is a standout. Garcia’s Stone is a sharpshooter but honest while Martin Smith’s Wallace is more of a nerdy guy but the pair of them round out this unlikely team well.

The raids, shootouts and stakeouts are all a great balance of tension and payoff. The shootouts are exciting and entertaining but it’s the quieter moments like when a character is being stalked by another that really puts you on edge.

The filming techniques used in The Untouchables help make this film stand out in the crime drama genre. The scene with Ness and Malone in the church is filmed with a Split Diopter lens, making both characters in focus, there’s extreme closeups of Ness’ eyes at key moments, the camera sometimes acts like a characters point of view, only giving you the viewer so much information, and slow-motion is used to great affect in one of the final shootouts in the film. While The Untouchables is certainly a slick, crime drama it’s these little touches that help elevate the film. The costuming deserves a mention too as everyone’s suits add to their characters – Stone’s leather jacket is a personal highlight.

The Untouchables is slick, tense and thrilling as Ness and his men battle corruption and Capone’s men at every turn in order to bring the man to justice. The characters are all great individually but it’s how these four men work together and put aside any differences that’s really compelling. 5/5.

REVIEW: Take the Ball, Pass the Ball (2018)

Documentary about the Barcelona team led by Pep Guardiola from 2008-2012, how they came to dominate the sport, winning 14 trophies in four years.

I’m not a Barcelona fan, though as Thierry Henry says in this documentary; if you’re a football fan, you’ve got to appreciate how Barcelona play and I certainly do. I am a fan of a lot of players who played for Barcelona during the teams’ heyday as I’m a fan and support of the Spanish National Team and there’s a lot of crossover between the two squads. As I didn’t know or remember a lot of the intricacies about the different players or how the club worked, I found Take the Ball, Pass the Ball to be very interesting.

It’s a pretty standard talking head-type documentary and a lot of former or current Barcelona players discussing things including Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets, Carles Puyol, Samuel Eto’o and Víctor Valdés. It’s fun to hear anecdotes and what players really thought, especially on things like the Guardiola-Mourinho rivalry. There were also journalists, including Sid Lowe who wrote Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona Vs Real Madrid, coaches, scouts and players who faced Barcelona on opposing teams.

Take the Ball, Pass the Ball is split into sections, focussing on different aspects that made Barcelona so great during those four years. Naturally there’s Pep Guardiola’s influence and how he motivated and changed the team, the bitter rivalry with Real Madrid, the key matches in the different tournaments that Barcelona went onto win, and the discovery and skills of Lionel Messi plays a big part too.

The thing that was most interesting was learning about the philosophy of Barcelona and where that came from. The short passes and building a team on a strong midfield (Xavi and Iniesta) has gone on to be incorporated into the Spanish National Team’s style of play and while other teams (club and country) around the world are now better at countering this style, at their peak, few could touch Barcelona. I knew nothing of Johan Cruyff before watching Take the Ball, Pass the Ball and to see how his strategies and ideas have continued to be the foundation of Barcelona’s style of since he was the teams’ coach from 1988-1996 is very impressive.

If you’re a fan of Barcelona, or even a fan of football and are interested in how one team dominated so completely then I’d give Take the Ball, Pass the Ball a watch. I enjoyed hearing the players and those involved with the team talk, especially when peoples humour (Valdés) or knowledge (Xavi) shined through. 4/5.

REVIEW: Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

It’s 1984 and Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is discreetly helping people in Washington and trying to live the quiet life. That’s until power-hungry businessman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) takes a powerful object and threatens the world and in the process Diana’s colleague Barbra Minerva (Kristen Wiig) goes down a dark path and Diana’s long-dead love Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) mysteriously returns.

Wonder Woman 1984 starts with a flashback sequence to a young Diana (Lilly Aspell) competing against full grown Amazon’s in a race across Themyscira. It’s a great sequence but you have to wonder how much it really adds in the film. There is a lesson Diana learns there, which she then reiterates later in the film, but because the film is so long, it doesn’t really have the impact that was probably intended.

Maxwell Lord is an overemotional and desperate type of villain. He’s manipulative and smarmy while also being a bit ridiculous and pitiful. It’s interesting having Diana have to go up against someone who is so much physically weaker than her and makes the final act not be a huge physical battle between the two. There are likely to be comparisons between Maxwell Lord and Donald Trump – whether they were intentional or not. There’s the floppy orange hair, the need to be more powerful and successful that they are, it’s easy to see some similarities.

Gal Gadot and Chris Pine continue to have great chemistry and Diana and Steve’s relationship is truly the heart of this film. The fish out of water dynamic is flipped around from the first film and it’s fun seeing Steve be enthralled with how much things have changed in the seventy years since his death – especially he’s joy in learning about more advanced planes and the space race. There are some emotional moments between Diana and Steve which really work and did cause me to tear up.

Kristen Wiig is good as Barbara aka Cheetah. She has the comedic timing to handle the self-deprecating jokes when she’s shy and awkward, and as Barbara gains confidence, Wiig can handle that too. It does feel a bit like Barbara was mostly in the film so she could become Cheetah and there could be the physical battle for Diana that she wouldn’t get with Maxwell Lord. Personally, I know next to nothing about the character, but some Cheetah fans may feel cheated.

The action sequences in Wonder Woman 1984 didn’t really have the same impact as those in the previous film. It may be because we now know the character of Wonder Woman and what she can do, though I do think the fights just weren’t as exciting and some of them did look a bit weird, which is probably down to shoddy CGI and green screen.

Wonder Woman 1984 really is a perfectly solid three-star film. It’s fun, perhaps a bit too long and convoluted but it’s a bright action, superhero film. The first Wonder Woman film is a lot better overall and, for me more enjoyable and has more rewatch value, I’m not desperate to see Wonder Woman 1984 again unlike how I was with the first film. Which is probably a good thing as now cinemas are closed near me again and HBO Max doesn’t exist here. 3/5.

REVIEW: Ava (2020)

Ava (Jessica Chastain) left her family behind years ago after becoming a deadly assassin who works for a black ops organisation. As Ava tries to reconnect with her mother (Geena Davis), sister (Jess Weixler) and ex-fiancé (Common), the repercussions of a job gone wrong make themselves known, she is forced to fight for her own survival.

Ava is a combination of two different genres – family drama and action thriller – and it does neither well. The family drama aspect is dull and while the thriller part is more convoluted with Ava’s mentor (John Malkovich) and employer (Colin Farrell) fighting over if she’s still capable at her job. By blending the two genres and plotlines, neither aspect is given the development it needs to be compelling. The family drama stuff drags, and the conflict between members of the black ops organisation feels out of place.

I’m a person of simple tastes and I’ll always like seeing actresses fight, and beat, guys in hand-to-hand combat, however a film isn’t a good film simply because it has that. The fight scenes are brutal, and Chastain often does end up covered in blood and bruises, but the sequences are so badly edited that they are neither easy to follow or engaging.

So often this films just seems to be going through the motions; Ava gets betrayed by her employers, she argues with her family, she gets in a fight or a shootout. It’s like the script was full of tick boxes of action or narrative beats but few of them connect with each other, so the overall plot isn’t cohesive or entertaining.

Ava is dull and generic, so if you like some mindless 90-minute action film then this would suit but it’s not memorable at all. Even though the scene with Chastain taking down a bunch of guys while wearing a backless red dress is pretty cool. 1/5.

READ THE WORLD – Zambia: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

Narrated by Adjoa Andoh, Richard E. Grant and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.

In 1904, in a smoky room at the hotel across the river, an Old Drifter named Percy M. Clark, foggy with fever, makes a mistake that entangles the fates of an Italian hotelier and an African busboy. This sets off a cycle of unwitting retribution between three Zambian families (black, white, brown) as they collide and converge over the course of the century, into the present and beyond. As the generations pass, their lives – their triumphs, errors, losses and hopes – form a symphony about what it means to be human.

I shall preface this review by saying it took me over two months to listen to this audiobook. Audiobooks are something I tend to listen to when I’m out and about and as I’m not going anywhere due to a pandemic it took me lot longer to read this book than normal. I think this probably did affect how much I enjoyed The Old Drift as it’s such a sprawling generational epic that I’d sometimes forget characters names between times I was listening or find it difficult to remember the different familial connections.

The Old Drift is a generational story, and it is interesting how three generations of three families can keep encountering one another in different ways and in different times. There’s romance and conflicts and just passing freak meetings, and often younger generations have no idea that their parents or grandparents may have met in some capacity before. Characters hear stories about things that as the reader you’ve already seen from someone else’s point of view and you realise that while some characters in these families might not meet themselves, they may have mutual friends or even passing strangers who have talked to them both at some point or another.

People in all three families go through love and loss, have children, and jobs and while there are universal struggles or life events The Old Drift does a good job at showing how their different backgrounds can have an effect on things. One family is descended from Italian immigrants/colonisers and one of their children then marries an Indian hairdresser. Another family is descended from a Black Zambian and a white English blind woman who ran away with her husband back to his home country. And the third family is Black, born and raised in Zambia. Due to their differences in wealth and education these families have very different lives and attitudes. One odd thing does connect them all and that’s hairdressers. A lot of the major life events for these characters happen in a hair salon or because of a hairdresser.

There’s a sci-fi element to The Old Drift I wasn’t expecting. As the story gets to the twenty-first century, there’s the technology we know, iPhones and drones for example, but then there’s advanced tech imbedded in people’s hands so they can use their had like a phone. It has a torch in a fingertip and their palm is a holographic touchscreen connected to the internet. It’s a bit jarring having these futuristic elements after previously appearing to be very true to the various periods of history these generations of characters have been living through – the AIDS epidemic plays a big role in many characters lives when the story gets to the 1980s.

There’s so much going on in The Old Drift that it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of who’s who and how they’re connect, nevermind finding meaning and some sort of thread to follow through this story. Seeing events from different characters points of view, some more in depth than others, lets you see how different people react to events, how it can be a big deal for some and barely a memory for others, but this can get a little repetitive.

I’m really not sure what else to say about The Old Drift. It is an impressive debut novel and one a may have found easier to follow if I didn’t have such huge gaps between picking it up. There’s a lot of tragedy in these characters lives and maybe it’s because you only see snapshots of their lives at different times but there certainly seems to be more sad moments than happy ones. This, along with how long the book is and the often lyrical narrative, does make The Old Drift a bit dense and hard to get through.

REVIEW: Noelle (2019)

Kris Kringle’s daughter, Noelle (Anna Kendrick), sets off on a mission to find and bring back her older brother Nick (Bill Hader) to the North Pole, after he gets cold feet when it’s his turn to take over as Santa.

Noelle is one of the most Christmassy films to ever Christmas! The North Pole where the Kringles and all the elves live is quaint and like something off of a Christmas card and all the Christmassy costumes are bright and wonderful. There’s also a CGI baby reindeer called Snowcone which is the cutest little dude ever.

Joining Noelle on her adventures to find her brother is Elf Polly (Shirley MacLaine), who is perfectly droll, and MacLaine is a great foil for Kendrick’s overt positivity. Noelle also enlists the help of private investigator Jake Hapman (Kingsley Ben-Adir) in tracking down her brother. There’s the typical culture clash as Noelle knows nothing about the everyday struggles of people but it’s never taken to extremes and any misunderstandings are minor and come from a good place.

Anna Kendrick is perfect as Noelle. She’s is bubbly, enthusiastic and joyful and, when she’s out of her comfort zone in Phoenix, Arizona looking for her brother, Noelle’s naivety is never cringey or awkward. If anything, it adds to her charm and while she does meet some people who aren’t as gung-ho about Christmas as she is, for whatever reason, it opens her eyes to other peoples struggles and shows that she might have some of her fathers Christmas magic.

Kendrick has great chemistry with everyone in this film. Though they don’t have many scenes together, the dynamic between Kendrick and Hader really works and they’ve do feel like a brother and sister who know each other really well and just want to help each other out. They’re also really funny together.

Noelle is a little cheesy and predictable, but it’s also wholesome and funny and it made me cry several times. It’s a story about kindness and has so many feel good vibes it’s hard not to enjoy it. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Federated States of Micronesia: My Urohs by Emelihter Kihleng

A short poetry collection from Pohnpeian poet, Emelihter Kihleng.

I think this was a very interesting collection. A lot of the poems were almost short stories or small snapshots at life, and I feel I learnt things about the Federated States of Micronesia from these poems, which is an achievement considering how short they are. For instance, I never knew about the connection between the Federated States of Micronesia and America, that many people live or work or have connections to Hawaii especially. In the poem “Destiny Fulfilled?” it covers how people from the various islands joined the US Armed Forces and its “War on Terror” in Afghanistan and Iraq. I also liked how it gets its title from a Destiny’s Child album and uses lyrics from the song “Soldier” to show the differences between pop culture and actual war.

I liked how the poet had footnotes in the poems, explaining a word or phrase that was in a different language, or adding context when a poem is inspired by real events. I believe Pohpeian is the language used throughout the collection, with many of the poems being in a combination of English and Pohpeian. Some are like a dialogue between two characters and there’s the English translation after each phrase, while in others it’s just the odd word or line that’s not in English.

The poems in My Urohs are about the people, the culture, the food, and the connections and differences between people who live on different islands in the Federated States of Micronesia and their different languages, stories and culture. It’s an interesting little collection and a great insight into a place I’d only ever heard of and knew nothing about.