Reviews

READ THE WORLD – Kuwait: Mama Hissa’s Mice by Saud Alsanousi

Translated by Sawad Hussain.

Growing up together in the Surra section of central Kuwait, Katkout, Fahd, and Sadiq share neither ethnic origin nor religious denomination—only friendship and a rage against the unconscionable sectarian divide turning their lives into war-zone rubble. To lay bare the ugly truths, they form the protest group Fuada’s Kids. Their righteous transgressions have made them targets of both Sunni and Shi’a extremists. They’ve also elicited the concern of Fahd’s grandmother, Mama Hissa, a story-spinning font of piety, wisdom, superstition, and dire warnings, who cautions them that should they anger God, the sky will surely fall. Then one day, after an attack on his neighbourhood leaves him injured, Katkout regains consciousness. His friends are nowhere to be found. Inundated with memories of his past, Katkout begins a search for them in a world that has become unrecognizable but not forsaken.

Mama Hissa’s Mice is one of those stories were the chapters alternate between the present and many years in the past. In the present, forty-two-year-old Katkout wakes up injured in the street and struggles to get to where he and his friends host a radio show in the hopes of finding Fahd and Sadiq there waiting for him. In the past, it’s all about their childhood, their families and what life was like before, during and after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990 and the subsequent Gulf War. The three friends were about twelve or thirteen during the invasion and I personally find it really interesting when big historical and dangerous events are shown through the eyes of a child. Because Katkout and his friends know bad things are happening but they also have fun and don’t always comprehend the seriousness of what’s happening.

Fahd and Sadiq’s fathers are sworn enemies and Katkout often finds himself in the middle of their arguments. Their feud, which sometimes trickles down to the two boys, is because one is Sunni and the other is Shia. Katkout doesn’t understand the differences or what it means to be one and not the other and as a child when he asks his mother which they are she refuses to answer, just saying they are Muslim. Mama Hissa is the matriarch of Fahd’s family and she is the only one that can stop the arguments between the two neighbours. As a child, Katkout loves spending time with her, in their home, listening to her stories and learning a lot.

Though I sometimes like what was happening in the past more than the present, and vice versa, having these two narratives run side by side complimented each other. The tension built in the present as it becomes clear Katkout is hiding something as he and his friends become the targets of violence, meanwhile in the past the political divides become clearer as the boys get older and understand things more.

I found the stud during and after the Gulf War really interesting as the only time I’ve seen it in books or films before is with a focus on the American allied forces and what they were doing, rather than what was happening to the average Kuwaiti. In Mama Hissa’s Mice the American’s weren’t always shown in the best light and it’s shocking how quickly things can change for families overnight when decisions are being made by governments or countries that normally have nothing to do with them.

Mama Hissa’s Mice works best because of the narrative structure. Getting the glimpses of the past and the future and seeing how history repeats itself or how characters ended up on the path they’re on makes things more interesting than if it’d been a linear narrative. Katkout can be a frustrating character, both when he’s a child and an adult, but he is the glue that holds a lot of the other characters together.

REVIEW: Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)

Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) is just trying to get her taxes sorted while running her laundrette business with her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) when she’s informed of a threat to her world and the multiverse and is told that she might be the only one who can stop it.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is one of those films that’s completely barmy but brilliant. It’s a film I knew little about before watching it (I hadn’t even watched the trailer) and had just heard positive things via social media though had seen no spoilers or had any real idea of the plot. I think that might be the best way to see this film as it’s such a surprise at times as it veers off into different themes or genres that I never expected.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is a lot of movie. So much so, it can be almost overwhelming at times but by no means is that a bad thing. It suits the tone and the story perfectly but how the plot moves with the sounds and visuals can feel chaotic. However, you never feel lost in what’s happening. What Evelyn is going through is overwhelming to her, so to make the audience feels like that too. It helps make Everything Everywhere All at Once feel different and as it bounces between ideas, time, and universes, there’s a beauty to it too.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is impressive for many reasons but something that surprised me was how in one scene I could be laughing and in the next I’m tearing up. How the writers and directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan (known as the Daniels) handled the different tones of this film, balancing the emotional payoff with inventive and fun action sequences is impressive. Though the story feels chaotic and weird at times, I never felt that the film was getting away from its directors. All the weirdness and chaos was just what was needed as a story about the multiverse and an older woman having to learn how to save the day is a bit unusual and unexpected.

Michelle Yeoh is just fantastic as Evelyn. She is funny and relatable and she’s both strict and caring. Evelyn has a lot on her mind with the responsibilities of running a business and looking after her ailing father (James Hong) that she neglects both her husband and her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), however unintentionally. The action sequences with Yeoh showcase her talents but equally, the big emotive moments do as well.

Honestly, the whole cast is outstanding and the trio of the family; Evelyn, Waymond and Joy is wonderful. All three actors bring their A game and elevate each other with their performances. Each character is allowed to be well-rounded and a real person. They can be scared, strong, kind, mean, funny, stressed, or apathetic and it’s all fine – especially as some characters learn from others about how to be better people or how to go through life with a better attitude.

There are so many layers to Everything Everywhere All at Once and it’s one of those films where I’m enjoying reading everyone else’s thoughts on it – especially Asian Americans. Because Everything Everywhere All at Once is an immigrant story, it’s a story about family, love, and kindness, it’s a story about second chances and togetherness. It’s one of those stories that’s so specific that it becomes universal.

I don’t even really know if I have the words to properly describe Everything Everywhere All at Once but it’s funny, action-packed, heartfelt, and beautiful. It’s weird and wonderful and it’s a film that I’ll be thinking about for a long time. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Bahrain: QuixotiQ by Ali Al Saeed

Guy Kelton is a young man with a troubled mind. His shattered dream and the relentless mundane life he’s been living, alone and broken away from his family, takes an unexpected toll on him, driving him to violent, reckless extremes. He falls deeper and deeper into a bloody abyss; through extremes that would eventually lead him to the most devastating discovery about his existence. Going through his mid-twenties, Patrick Roymint, lost and confused, still struggles to come to terms with the loss of his whole family many years ago. But soon as he decides to change all that and try to rebuild the future he’s not had, he is dragged into the unseen, disturbing and filthy underworld of the little, diminishing Okay County. As both men go through a series of mysterious and bizarre events, their lives take dramatic turns that lead them to new revelations about their past, present and future. They somehow find their fates connected by some mystic, unfathomable power.

At second time of trying, I managed to read QuixotiQ. I think there’s a few reasons why I struggled with this book even though it’s pretty short at less than 200 pages long. The first is the translation/editing. It’s a self-published novel and I believe the translation was done by the author, or the author wrote it in English but that was their second language. I say that as there were a few instances where it didn’t quite read right to me, a native English speaker. Sentences were phrased awkwardly or adjectives were used which didn’t really fit the context of what was going on.

Then there was the plot itself. It was a bit difficult to figure out what was happening with Guy and Patrick. Guy especially has a lot going on in his head and he has dreams or visions where both he and you as the reader can’t really tell what’s real and what’s not. It makes the story kind of hard to follow and you’re unsure if he’s going mad, just having vivid dreams or if QuixotiQ has some surreal fantasy elements.

The chapters are short and there’s sometimes point of view changes between the chapters and in the chapters, shown by a line break. However, it can sometimes be hard to tell whose point of view your in to begin with as the first three or more paragraphs just use “he” or “she” rather than a character’s name so it can be disorientating. Mandy, Patrick’s girlfriend, and Christina, her friend and former co-worker, also have chapters from their points of view.

All four of the characters are going through tough times and their thoughts and motivations are often jumbled. I supposed it’s a good way at showing how lost these characters are, but it does make things hard to read at times and I didn’t particularly like or connect with any of the characters. Especially as things spiralled out of control for Guy, I just couldn’t comprehend why he was acting that way or see what had tipped him over the edge. The writing style and the story made character motivations unclear to me.

QuixotiQ is the only book I found by a Bahraini author in English. If I wasn’t doing my Read the World Project I would’ve probably DNF’d it as I found it muddled and uninteresting. The bright side was that the chapters were often very short so it was easy to pause and take a break when the strangeness and unclear character motivations got too frustrating.

REVIEW: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

When Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) meets America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a girl with extraordinary but uncontrollable powers, he gets pulled into an adventure spanning the multiverse to save her and their universe.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is an interesting film and probably one where people may have expected more from its concept. While Doctor Strange does traverse the multiverse, he only spends a decent amount of time in a couple of different universes so it doesn’t really feel like a true “multiverse of madness”. That being said, this is one of the shorter MCU films of late at just over two hours so the lack of extra universes makes a pretty snappy runtime for a film that’s juggling a fair few characters.

Helping Doctor Strange on his mission is his trusted friend and the new Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong) and former Avenger Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). Personally, I love seeing Wong’s role expand from one MCU movie to the next. Benedict Wong is a charming guy and brings a likeability and stability to Wong, especially when next to Strange’s more reactive and harsher attitude. Wanda has an interesting arc and Olsen has always been good in the role but it looks like she really relishes showing a different side to Wanda. I’d be interested to know what people who’ve not seen WandaVision (or have forgotten huge chunks of it) thought of Wanda and her storyline in this film and whether her motivations were understandable and if there was enough context in the dialogue to explain what was up with her.

Dr Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) has more to do here than in the first Doctor Strange movie which was nice. In the brief moments we saw of her in the first film it seemed like she was smart and capable at rolling with the magical punches, and in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness that proves to be the case. Gomez’s America Chavez is an interesting one. The Young Avengers comics is one of the few series I’ve read so I did know about her before watching the film and I’m not sure they did the character from the comics justice. America Chavez should have more gumption and confidence in her abilities, which we don’t really see here. You could say this adventure is what helps her become the America we see in the comics than can be a bit of a copout – especially when so often male characters don’t have to go from meek and mild to a confident leader.

It probably shouldn’t be a surprise as Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is directed by Sam Raimi but there’s a lot of creepy horror imagery in this film. Raimi directed the original Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy and outside of that he’s best known for his horror films and he certainly brings the horror here. There are jump scares, evil spirits, and some gory and bloody moments too. When you continuously hear that directors can’t put their own unique stamp on franchise films, it’s nice to see something in the MCU that does feel distinctly different.

The score by Danny Elfman is also pretty great and knows how to amp up the tension and add to that unsettling feeling. There’s one fight sequence where music plays a big part and it’s really fun visually and audibly, and shows a different way the magic that’s at Doctor Strange’s disposal can be used.

I think the things people may love or hate about this film are the things that I can’t really talk about in a spoiler-free review. There are cameos and reveals, some work and may have a lasting impact, while others I’m pretty sure are just fanservice. It’s the inclusion of the horror-esque elements that make Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness standout but the problem I have with it, is the same problem I have with Doctor Strange – I don’t really like Stephen Strange as a character, and I much prefer it when he’s part of an ensemble. The start of the film is a bit slower but he’s at least with Wong more who mutes Strange’s attitude a bit. When Strange is front and centre, as he should be as the titular character, that’s when things get a bit shakier for me. A trope I love is “grumpy man adopts sassy teen” and though that’s the kind of dynamic they try and push with Strange and America, it just never hits the mark.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is often weird and creepy but it doesn’t feel like it did enough with its multiverse premise – or there were bigger expectations on it than it ever hoped to deliver. The acting is good, the score’s great, but there was never really enough to allow me to connect with the majority of the characters or to make me really feel anything. 3/5.

Sidenote: if you want a really great multiverse adventure, watch Everything Everywhere All at Once.

READ THE WORLD – South Sudan: Making Peace and Nurturing Life: An African Woman’s Journey of Struggle and Hope by Julia Aker Duany

Julia Aker Duany’s life growing up in South Sudan, moving to America with her husband and children, and then returning to South Sudan in the 1990s to see how life has changed due to war and learning how best to help people.

Making Peace and Nurturing Life is the kind of memoir that’s very informative, not just about one person’s life and experiences but about so much more like the culture they grew up in and their country’s politics and conflicts. Julia Aker Duany describes herself as “an African, a Sudanese, a Nilotic from southern Sudan, a Nuer from Lou, a Gon from Rumjok section, a woman, a mother” and by the end of the book you really do have a decent understanding of what all those different aspects of her identity mean to her and how they have shaped her when growing up.

I found the culture shock between America and Sudan interesting because the things that she was surprised about weren’t necessarily ones that I’d seen mentioned in other memoirs or immigrant stories. Just generally Julia Aker Duany had a really interesting take on life, family, and responsibility and it was always interesting to see the connections between what was important to her as an adult to what she was taught by her mother and wider community.

Julia Aker Duany is a professor and academic who loves learning so it’s interesting and invaluable to have a woman from Sudan explain things that are usually generalised by white/Western academics. She makes a point to criticise the textbooks she learnt from in America as the were titled things like “Women in the Third World” and didn’t really differentiate between the women in these “Third World” countries, cultures, or tribes. She has an in-depth knowledge of both places and how she used her knowledge of women’s traditions to help empower women and solve conflicts in Sudan was really impressive.

Making Peace and Nurturing Life is a very readable book and it explains complex things in an accessible way. I’ve learnt a lot about many different countries and their histories through my Read the World Project but this is one where I really feel I have a firm understanding of what started the conflict between northern and southern Sudan and how events have had knock on affects for its people.

Z is for Zoe (2018)

Cole (Ewan McGregor) and Zoe (Léa Seydoux) are colleagues at a research lab that designs drugs and technology to improve and perfect romantic relationships. As they become close, their relationship is threatened when Zoe discovers the truth about their relationship, sending them into a spiral of confusion, betrayal and the most intense of human emotions, love.

Zoe is such a sweet, thoughtful take on relationships, romance and what it means to be human. It’s that kind of near-future sci-fi that I love where everything is as we’d expect bar one aspect. In this instance, that thing is how evolved AI is and that androids, or “synthetics” as they’re called here, can be so lifelike that they can fool humans. They can be programmed to feel and connect with people so humans never have to be lonely.

Ash (Theo James) is one such synthetic and seeing him learn and adapt and feel does make you question the differences between humans and machines. While his code is his foundation, he’s been given memories and personality and is able to decide things for himself. Theo James does a good job at adding little hesitations to Ash’s movements and showing that as he learns, he mostly appears “human” but there’s still the odd moment with him that’s a little unsettling.

The romance between Cole and Zoe is interesting as they both seem so isolated but for different reasons. There’s a hesitancy about both of them and as more of their pasts are revealed, you begin to understand why they act that way.

As a sidenote, I really liked the relationship between Cole and his ex-wife Emma (Rashida Jones). So often you see an antagonistic relationship between ex’s, even when they’re coparenting like these two are. While there still is the odd moment of awkwardness between the two of them, it’s clear that they both still care about each other and want the other to be happy, even if it’s not with themselves.

Zoe is an interesting sci-fi/romance film. The central performances are all great and the romance between Cole and Zoe is believable. Similarities can be made between Zoe and Her, and both films have a similar melancholy vibe to them. So if you like one of those films, there’s a good chance you’d like the other. 4/5.

Y is for The Year of Spectacular Men (2017)

After graduating and kind of breaking up with her boyfriend, Izzy Klein (Madelyn Deutch) decides to move back to LA from New York and move in with her successful younger sister Sabrina (Zoey Deutch). As Izzy tries to figure out what she wants from life she makes the most of her freedom and binge watches The X-Files and meets many guys who could possibly be “the one”.

I feel after I highlighted the potential nepotism in Quincy, I have to give The Year of Spectacular Men equal treatment. It’s directed by Lea Thompson (who also plays Izzy and Sabrina’s mother) and stars her real-life daughters and while they both have acting experience prior to this film, it’s interesting to think if some of the scenes between the daughters and mother would have the same natural and comforting vibe as these three do.

The Year of Spectacular Men is kind of a combination of coming-of-age story, rom-com, and family drama and as it tries to be so many things at once, it doesn’t always nail each one. I think the aspect that works best is the coming-of-age one as Izzy is at a crossroads in her life, trying to figure out what she wants to do after university. She’s had many different ideas or interests that she’s picked up and then dropped and she is sort of in limbo when it comes to romance. She seems to simultaneously get really attached to a guy while also doing what she can to push them away. It’s as if because she’s so unsure of herself, she’s unsure of any relationship in her life.

Perhaps it’s a given as they are real life sisters but the scenes with Izzy and Sabrina are the highlight of tis film. Their relationship is the heart of the film and it’s interesting how though Sabrina is the younger one, she seems to have her life more together as she has a home, a boyfriend, and a blossoming career as an actress/model. It’d be easy to have Izzy be resentful of her little sister but instead she admires her, helps her and always wants to protect her – even from things that she really shouldn’t. it’s still an interesting dynamic as Sabrina is the one encouraging Izzy to find a job, helps her make connections, and just try and get her out of her spare room.

The humour in The Year of Spectacular Men is more of the quirky and sometimes absurd kind rather than huge laughs. Izzy see things in an unusual way at times and how she acts around other people is sometimes awkward as she’s not totally comfortable in herself.

The Year of Spectacular Men is a pretty breezy rom-com/drama. The familial dynamics are the best and it’s always nice seeing films about messy twentysomething women who don’t have everything figured out. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Kiribati: Poetry by Teweiariki Teaero

This is where working at a university whose library boasts it has a copy of every book ever published in English, whether digitally or physically, comes in handy. This is where I found some texts for the smaller countries, especially those in the Pacific. A book called Indigenous Literatures from Micronesia edited by Evelyn Flores, Emelihter Kihleng and Craig Santos Perez proved to be invaluable. It’s a collection of poetry, short stories, critical and creative essays, chants, and excerpts of plays by over seventy different Indigenous Micronesian authors and it tells you which country each of the authors are from including Marshall Islands, Guam, Nauru, Kiribati, Palau, and Kosrae, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Yap, the four states of the Federated States of Micronesia.

There were a few writers from Kiribati featured in the book but I picked Teweiariki Teaero poetry to feature as he had three poems in the collection and they each were quite different. The poems were “Garlanding”, “Nareau’s Return” and “Merry Ancestors”.

Of the three “Merry Ancestors” is the one I liked the most. It’s almost like a children’s story as the sounds of thunder and lighting and a storm is explained as their ancestors having a party. I generally love when there are stories explaining stuff like storms to children to make them less scary or to connect the thing that’s happening to the past or spirituality.

“Garlanding” didn’t really have as much impact or interest to me as the other two but I still liked how it’s a poem about flowers and an act of giving and love.

“Nareau’s Return” is a poem where a little googling led me to understand it more as it had cultural reference in it that I was unaware of. The Nareau in question is the creator deity in the mythology of the Gilbert Islands, of which Kiribati is a part of. Reading the poem again knowing that Nareau is a god rather than simply an old man like he’s described adds extra layers to the poem and makes his confusion of how the country has become industrialised more understandable. He doesn’t recognise his home and the sounds of things like cars overwhelms him.

X is for X+Y (2014)

Nathan (Asa Butterfield), a socially awkward teenage math prodigy finds new confidence and new friendships when he lands a spot on the British squad at the International Mathematics Olympiad.

Saying Nathan is socially awkward might be a bit of a disservice to him but that’s how IMDb phrased it. In actuality Nathan is Autistic. He’s quiet and likes things a certain way, he loves maths but isn’t good at physical touch. Autism is a spectrum and while Nathan is certainly reserved in social situations, it’s almost like he can pass it off as being shy, especially compared to Luke (Jake Davies). Luke is also on the British squad and he’s the almost stereotypical type of Autistic character. He doesn’t get any social cues, is abrupt and doesn’t fit in. At times it feels like X+Y is showing that Nathan’s Autism is the “acceptable” or “good” version when compared to Luke, especially as other boys on the team make comments about Luke and how obvious it is that he’s Autism to Nathan’s face, showing they haven’t picked up any supposedly obvious traits from him.

It’d be interesting to here from Autistic people to see how good or bad a job the filmmakers and actors did with regards to Autism. Both young actors are pretty great but how truthfully each of their depictions are, I’m not sure.

X+Y is as much Nathan’s story as it is his mum, Julie’s (Sally Hawkins). She struggles to connect with her son and she’s still grieving for her husband who died in an accident when Nathan was younger. As Nathan starts to make connections, noticeably with rival Chinese mathematician Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), it allows him to open up more and between them he and his mother start to bridge the gap between them.

X+Y is a bit of a formulaic film and hits a lot of the usual narrative beats but the stellar British cast does a good job at elevating it most of the time. X+Y is one of those films that’s tinged with melancholy and hope and is decent though predictable. 3/5.

W is for White Hunter Black Heart (1990)

White Hunter Black Heart is thinly inspired by director John Huston and the experience he and his crew had while making The African Queen. Renowned filmmaker John Wilson (Clint Eastwood) travels to Africa to direct a new movie, but his desire to hunt down an elephant turns into a grim situation with his movie crew, putting production behind and lives on the line.

This is honestly one of the best performances I’ve seen from Clint Eastwood. John Wilson is such a charming guy but he’s also reckless and selfish. He clearly has a moral backbone as he picks fights with racists and insults antisemites to their faces but when he becomes obsessed with hunting a huge elephant it’s like any of his likable qualities fade away. Though, were those supposedly admirable qualities really there, or was it all his ego? Using when his friend is belittled to make a point and appear smarter than others or using when a black waiter is mistreated to start a fight and get out some of his pent-up aggression. While in a roundabout way he stood up for those people, did he do it just to make himself feel good or from a sense of justice? These are the things you’re left wondering about John Wilson.

Eastwood plays him to perfection. It probably helps that through his long career Eastwood has played his fair share of toxic male characters but here the toxic masculinity isn’t something to be admired but to be cautious of. Combined with the ego and insecurity of an artist, John is a captivating character and someone you’re never too sure what he’s going to do next.

Pete (Jeff Fahey) is the film’s writer and John’s friend. He’s the voice of reason to a lot of John’s suggestions, or rather he attempts to be but John is so strong-willed that he often barely registers Pete’s objections.

Personally, I enjoyed seeing Brit Alun Armstrong in this. He played Ralph Lockhart who works for one of the producers of the film John and Peter are supposed to be finishing writing and scouting locations. There’s some good banter between Ralph and John as they have opposing ideas and as Ralph gets more used to John’s obsession and almost gives up on the film being made, he has some funny lines. Just the disbelief and grim acceptance of the film productions situation is amusing as he’s one of the first to realise how potentially bad a situation the cast and crew could be in thanks to John.

White Hunter Black Heart is a gripping film thanks to Eastwood’s performance. He plays a fascinating character and there’s a sense of foreboding throughout as he gets more and more obsessed with hunting a bull elephant. It’s very reminiscent of Moby Dick with the elephant being John’s white whale and woe betide anyone who stands in his way. 4/5.