Reviews

REVIEW: Isn’t It Romantic (2019)

After a mugging goes wrong, Natalie (Rebel Wilson), who is disenchanted with love, finds herself trapped inside a romantic comedy.

Isn’t It Romantic is absolutely delightful. It clearly states all the typical rom-com clichés at the beginning when Natalie is being rather cynical about the genre, and then once it becomes a rom-com, it has so much fun with those clichés. It treads the fine line of poking fun at those clichés but still embracing them when the right moment comes.

Rebel Wilson is great as Natalie, she’s charming and funny and has great chemistry with all of her co-stars. When Natalie wakes up in her rom-com life, Blake (Liam Hemsworth) who had previously not known she existed, can’t take his eyes off of her. Hemsworth looks to be having a lot of fun being a typically hot yet potentially self-centred love interest while Adam Devine’s Josh does well of not falling into the nice guy/friendzone trap. Josh and Natalie are best friends, and believable ones at that, and their friendship is so sweet and Josh never acts like Natalie owes him anything which is great.

The soundtrack is full of so many great throwbacks to rom-com movies. The way Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” is used is pure brilliance and there’s so many other songs that reference other rom-com movies, in many ways Isn’t It Romantic is like a love letter to the genre.

The fun thing about Isn’t It Romantic, is that while it follows the typical story framings of a romantic comedy, it also has a feel-good message about loving yourself and being happy. Isn’t It Romantic is sweet, funny and it’s a film that leaves you with a big grin on your face. It’s a great way to spend 90 minutes and it’s the right balance of fluffy and satirical. 4/5.

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READ THE WORLD – Myanmar: Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi

A collection of letters from the Nobel Peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, about her experience as a political prisoner, her countries traditions and the affects of inflation and corruption on its people.

The letters span about a year after her release from house arrest in 1995. Some are reflective on her experiences of being a political dissident and that of those of various other members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), while others are about the broader affects of being a political prisoner. How it can seriously affect children who only get to see a parent for 15 minutes every fortnight, or how the interrogations and solitary confinement can have mental and physical repercussions.

Each of the fifty-two letters are accompanied by an illustration by Heinn Hter. These illustrations are simple yet beautiful and help paint a vivid picture of the people and the country that Aung San Suu Kyi talks about in each of her letters.

The way Aung San Suu Kyi describes her country, its traditions and its people, is often quite poignant. Her writing is simple yet affecting and the way she can go from describing the beautiful and joyful moments, to the harsher reality that people live in when their wages can’t afford food and they must buy petrol on the black market.

I knew very little about Aung San Suu Kyi before reading this book, only that since she was no longer a political prisoner, she and her party didn’t necessarily live up to people’s expectations and there are some controversies surrounding them. As these letters are from the mid-90s, there’s still a lot of hope and belief in what the future can bring. In this moment of time at least, Aung San Suu Kyi is an eloquent and confident public speaker who doesn’t let the system stand in her way. Multiple times her street is barricaded for differing amounts of time, sometimes the soldiers let people pass to go to her house, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they allow her to leave, when others they don’t. There’s no real reasoning behind it and it’s one of the many odd things that has become a part of her life.

Letters from Burma paints Myanmar to be a beautiful country, but one with a difficult future ahead. The way these letters are a combination of discussions of big political and social upheaval in the country, along with really mundane things like Aung San Suu Kyi being concerned with her home’s leaky roof; makes her seem like a down to earth and also very smart.

Letters from Burma is charming though perhaps a little idealistic. While Aung San Suu Kyi may have had the best intentions in the 1990s, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everything went as planned. I’m interested in reading more about Myanmar’s history and what Aung San Suu Kyi has done in the years since her release from house arrest. Still, I think Letters from Burma is a good place to get an overview of what the country was like in the mid-1990s and before.

REVIEW: Open Grave (2013)

When a man (Sharlto Copley) wakes up in a mass grave, with no memory of what happened to him, he must determine if the murderer is one of the five strangers who rescued him, or if he himself is the killer.

Open Grave is a tense, well-acted film, and it really works when you know as little about the story as possible. It’s creepy and unsettling and it will definitely make you jump a few times.

The atmosphere that’s set up from the very beginning is foreboding and unsettling. The deep pit the protagonist wakes up in is in the middle of nowhere, with the only house nearby being occupied by five people who either can’t remember what happened either, or can’t communicate what they know.

The way the story is played out means you are trying to figure out what’s happening at the same time as the characters are. The suspense is maintained throughout as different characters discover different elements to the truth but as they have no reference point, it still doesn’t always make sense to them – or they jump to what could be a very wrong or dangerous conclusion.

Sharlto Copley is brilliant as a man who is not sure who to trust and, as he gets flashes of memory, he’s not even sure he can trust himself. The rest of the cast are great too, managing to juggle the right amount of fear and suspicion with the desire to survive.

Open Grave is a compelling film that’s sharply directed and knows how to build the tension. The way it sprinkles in answers throughout is great as it’s not until the end of the film do you see how everything fits together. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Latvia: Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena

A nameless woman tries to follow her calling as a doctor but then the state steps in. She, along with her daughter, are banished to a village in the Latvian countryside where she’s deprived of a career, her sense of self, and her relationship with her daughter. As her sense of isolation increases, will she and her daughter be able to return to Riga where the beginning of political change begins to stir?

Translated by Margita Gailiyis.

Soviet Milk is told from the alternating perspectives of an unnamed mother and her unnamed daughter between the years 1969 and 1989. During this time Latvia was a part of the Soviet Union and it’s clear from the outset how the state keeps a close eye on its people and the affect it can have on their lives. The alternating perspectives did through me a bit at the beginning as I didn’t realise that’s what was happening but as some of the passages were told from the two characters different points of view, I got the hang of it.

I enjoyed both the mother and the daughter’s point of view. It basically begins when the daughter is born and so you see her grow up, how she learns different things from her mother, and how she begins to see the restrictions placed on her and her family. When she’s a young child she is brought up by her grandmother who is also unnamed (nearly all the characters are unnamed and are instead referred to by their familial status), their relationship is very sweet and the time she spends with her grandmother and step-grandfather are moments of true childhood innocence.

After her mother’s medical career is dashed and they have to move away from the city and her grandparents, that’s when the daughter has to grow up as more often than not, she has to look after herself and her mother. Her mother’s struggles and depression are vividly realised, and the book is well-written enough that makes her actions sympathetic and not solely selfish as one might think.

Soviet Milk was an interesting insight into the psychological affects of living in your homeland when it’s occupied by an outside force. Previous books that I’ve read for the Read the World Project that have been set in countries during the time of the Soviet Union, have either been from a child’s point of view so they don’t understand the gravity of the situation, or its about characters who have just got on with everything. I think this is the book I’ve read where being a part of the Soviet Union had a real affect on the mental health of one of the protagonists. There was still the food shortages and secrets, but there was also the desperate need to be free which the mother had even when living in her own country.

Soviet Milk is a moving and poignant story about the love between a mother, daughter and grandmother and how the Soviet occupation can affect multiple generations. It was a compelling read even though each perspective was just a couple of pages long. 4/5.

REVIEW: Woman Walks Ahead (2017)

Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain), a painter from 1980s New York, travels to Dakota to paint the portrait of Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes) and becomes invested in the Lakota peoples’ struggle to keep their land.

The direction and script hit all the usual biopic buttons but it’s the relationship between and performances from the two leads that really stands out in Woman Walks Ahead. Jessica Chastain is brilliant as Catherine Weldon, she’s a determined woman but she also has her fears and makes mistakes as she attempts to learn about the Lakota people. Michael Greyeyes’s is steely and calm as Sitting Bull but there’s also a wit to him. There’s a surprising amount of amusing moments between Sitting Bull and Weldon as they get to know one another. Their relationship is one of deep friendship, but there’s also those hints of something more, if life was kinder.

The wide-open spaces of Dakota’s plains and the ever-changing sky is both harsh and beautiful. It’s a fitting setting for this story as Catherine see’s the beauty in things that most people would not, and the story of the Lakota people’s struggles is one that’s deeply tragic and the film never shies away from the atrocities committed.

As the focus is so much on Weldon and Sitting Bull, the military personnel who are all the villains of the piece, are largely cardboard cut-outs of characters. Though Sam Rockwell’s Colonel Silas Groves is an intriguing character, the reveals about his backstory comes too late to have a lasting impact. Groves and the other military men are deeply racist and when the film attempts to show Groves in a better light, it ultimately falls flat.

Woman Walks Ahead is based on a true story about an unlikely and touching friendship. The performances and cinematography are both beautiful and often haunting, but unfortunately they don’t quite elevate this film to greatness. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Estonia: Burning Cities by Kai Aareleid

Translated by Adam Cullen.

Destroyed by German and Soviet armies in the war, Tiiana’s home city of Tartu in Estonia has a lot of secrets and she’s slowly unravelling them. The adult world is of cryptic and hushed conversations and Tiiana experience both great events like Stalin’s death, and personal events like the disintegration of her parent’s marriage from the periphery. Ultimately, she is powerless to prevent the great and defining tragedy of her life – the suicide of a loved one.

I liked the way the story was told. Chapters (if they could really be called that) were often only a few pages long. They each began with a year and they’re like a little snapshot into that period of the characters’ lives, especially at the beginning when there weren’t many chapters set in the same year. As the story progressed and Tiiana got older, you spend more time with her in each year, seeing how her life changes in small and big ways.

Burning Cities begins in 1941 when Tiiana’s parents Liisi and Peeter meet, after a few short chapters Tiiana is born in 1946 and then you follow her as she grows up to the year 1962. There are a few chapters set in the 1990s and 2010s throughout the book and as you’re never properly introduced to the narrator in those chapters, it takes a while to make the connections between them and Tiiana as a child.

A lot of things to do with the Second World War or how it was in Estonia before the war doesn’t really register in Tiiana’s every day life, especially when she’s a child. She knows that other children and adults don’t like the Russians but she’s not sure why and when she becomes friends with a Russian boy from the school next door to hers, she questions whether her father’s uncertainties about the friendship is because he’s a boy or because he’s Russian.

Tiiana is a well-written and believable child. She learns to observe people from a young age and is fascinated by books and how there’s apparently different eras that the adults talk about. She’s smart but also sheltered, because of her father’s job she never wants for anything unlike some of her fellow classmates. It’s the little things that make the city of Tartu a strong presence in the novel. It’s a place that’s being rebuilt but there’s so many parts of it that aren’t whole or are broken. This mirrors Tiiana’s parent’s relationship as they drift apart and attempt to hide things from Tiiana to no avail. As Tiiana gets older she becomes more outspoken but she’s still quiet young and naïve and, much like her parents, doesn’t talk about how she feels.

Burning Cities is a story of family secrets and tragedy told, through the most part, through the eyes of a child. It’s a well-written story that often paints a vivid picture, but it still has a hazy quality to it as much of it feels like a memory with some events or people more solid than others. It’s a book that pulls you in from the very beginning, with interesting characters and a haunting writing style. 4/5.

REVIEW: What They Had (2018)

Bridget (Hilary Swank) returns home to help her brother Nick (Michael Shannon) look after their mother Ruth (Blythe Danner) who has Alzheimer’s and persuade their father Burt (Robert Forster) it is time for him to look into care options for Ruth as her illness deteriorates.

What They Had opens with Ruth getting out of bed in the middle of the night, putting on some lipstick, her shoes and a coat over her nightshirt, and then lets herself out of her home and walks off in the middle of a snowstorm. This incident is the final straw for Nick who has been trying to get his father to see how much the illness is affecting Ruth and how they both need help and support. He calls Bridget and she and her daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga) fly out to help.

Everything about What They Had and how a family deals with a loved one having Alzheimer’s is incredibly true to life. Everyone’s experiences with an illness differs but there were so many moments in this film I could relate to as someone who has had one grandparent die after having dementia, and another currently living with Alzheimer’s. The script allowed each character to have their own point of view of what this illness was doing to their family. Nick is often frustrated as he’s the one that’s been helping his father look after his mother for so long, whereas Bridget can still see the funny side of things – because sometimes things happen or are said which are funny – but that’s not exactly helpful to Nick. Then there’s Bert who is in denial and doesn’t want to be apart from his wife, which is totally understandable, even if that could be what’s best for the both of them.

The whole cast give brilliant performances, with Swank and Shannon bouncing off one another really well and feel like proper siblings. It’s Blythe Danner though that really needs to be commended. The way she portrays someone with Alzheimer’s is spot on and even with the more absurd moments, she’s never over acts it. It’s the quieter moments though, when Ruth slips from being unaware of what’s happening around her, to momentarily understanding it and being frustrated by it, before slipping back to obliviousness, that are like a punch to the gut. It gives her loved one’s emotional whiplash and highlights how horrible the disease is.

What They Had is a well written and well-acted film that never lacks empathy for these characters. It’s certainly a tough watch at times, especially for those who have experienced a love one losing their mind to Alzheimer’s or dementia, but it’s a film that highlights the struggles and difficult choices a family in that position must make. 5/5.