Reviews

REVIEW: Instant Family (2018)

Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie Wagner (Rose Byrne) find themselves in over their heads after they decide to foster tough teenager Lizzy (Isabela Moner) and her two younger siblings, anxious and accident-prone Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) and volatile Lita (Julianna Gamiz).

Instant Family was an unexpected delight. It’s marketed as a straight up comedy, and while it still is very funny, it’s actually got a lot of heart to it as it portrays all the highs and lows of foster care. Pete and Ellie are reasonably well off, they have a thriving home renovation business and are content in their lives until a family member makes a comment about them never having kids. It gets them thinking and they sign up for a foster parent course where there’s the usual stereotypes like the gay couple and the deeply Christian couple, but there they all find a sense of support and belonging to get them through the complexities of fostering children who, in many cases, believe they aren’t worth anything.

Both Wahlberg’s and Byrne show off their comedic chops but they both handle the dramatic moments just as well. The young cast is great but it’s Isabela Moner that really shines as Lizzy. Lizzy’s someone who has practically raised her siblings herself so finds it difficult to both relinquish control to Pete and Ellie, and to trust them both. All three kids have had a tough life but being the oldest Lizzy has more of an understanding of what’s going on. Moner does a great job gradually showing Lizzy’s vulnerabilities as she learns to trust and open up to Pete and Ellie, but still never loses her independence or strength.

There are the usual family hijinks of temper tantrums over food, inappropriate boyfriends, and screaming arguments over toys, but when there’s the more serious and emotional moments (of which there are more than one might think based on the marketing) the film handles them well and doesn’t use any cheap joke to lessen the moment. The emotional scenes pack a punch and you’ll have to be tough not to tear up at least once.

Instant Family is a film about love, family and trust. It’s funny but it’s also a tear-jerker both when there’s something sad and when there’s something happy as this unusual family makes a breakthrough. It’s a feel-good dramedy that also never shies away from the difficulties these children and the people who foster them can face. Instant Family really was a surprise in the best possible way. 5/5.

Advertisements

READ THE WORLD – Netherlands: Safe as Houses by Simone van der Vlugt

Trigger warnings for rape.

Home is supposed the be a safe place, but when a man forces his way into Lisa’s house taking her and her five-year-old daughter Anouk hostage, there’s no where to hide. In the coming days, Lisa will do just about anything to keep her daughter safe, but all the while she wonders why the only witness to her attack has not raised the alarm.

Translated by Michele Hutchison.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Julia Binns and due to both the narration and the story itself, I flew through this book. Safe as Houses is such a compelling story, there’s no slow set-up, instead within the opening chapters Lisa’s home is invaded by a dangerous criminal. It’s fascinating to see how Lisa tries to relate to Kruger, the escaped criminal who has a twisted mind, in order to try and keep herself and her daughter safe. Numours times Lisa ponders how she would react if she didn’t have Anouk with her and this book truly shows the strength of a mother’s determination.

Kruger is a violent man and he sexually assaults and rapes Lisa, believing she’s interested in him and wants it. She shuts down and can’t say no as she’s terrified of what he might do if she puts up a fight. Those scenes are tough to read (or in my case listen to) and they really made my skin crawl.

The emotions of the different characters are fully realised, and they all act in believable ways. Even five-year-old Anouk is neither too mature for her age nor an inconvenience to the plot. She’s a child that on some level knows that things aren’t good as her mother is hit in front of her and they are forced to sleep in the basement, but she also still wants to do finger paints and play with her dolls. When there’s the more everyday moments between Lisa, Kruger and Anouk, having breakfast together, or watching the TV together, it makes everything feel even more unsettling and on a knifes edge.

Safe as Houses is an incredibly fast-paced story so it’s unfortunate that while the conclusion is thrilling, it also comes to an abrupt stop. It’s the sort of ending where I wish there was an epilogue so you could see how the characters are coping because they went through such horrendous things in order to survive. I just wanted a little more from the conclusion after enjoying the rest of the novel.

Safe as Houses is a gripping thriller that’s often tense and scary. It’s a proper page-turner though not necessarily a thriller that will stick in my mind for a long time. Still, it was a strangely enjoyable read. 4/5.

REVIEW: Life (2017)

When a team of scientists aboard the International Space Station are examining the first samples from Mars, they discover a rapidly evolving life form that not only threatens their lives, but all life on Earth.

A lot of comparisons can be made between Life and the original claustrophobic-space-horror-film Alien, but that doesn’t mean Life doesn’t do a good job with that template, and it offers its own spin of certain elements.

The first half of Life is more of the philosophical and scientific side of things as you get to know the basics about the crew and what they are trying to achieve with this life form they are studying. While the second half is more action-packed as naturally when the creature escapes, things get increasingly worse and the intensity never really lets up. It’s interesting how to begin with there is humour in this film, most of it coming from Ryan Reynolds’s character, but as soon as the danger is realised, the tension jumps up a notch and all characters are suddenly a lot more serious.

The camera work and editing make every tunnel and compartment of the ISS feel deadly. As the creature grows smarter and reactionary towards the humans onboard it becomes a bit of a cat and mouse chase around the space station as the crew attempt to contact Earth and stay alive. The dangers are real as members of the crew get injured or die in increasingly gruesome ways and it really is a battle as the creature and the humans onboard have a lot of the same basic needs.

Life is a tense, claustrophobic space horror that leaves you on the edge of your seat, but its dark undertone gets more and more prominent as the film progresses, leaving you drained by the time the credits begin to roll. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Côte d’Ivoire: Allah is Not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma

Birahima is ten years old when he becomes a child-soldier. After his mother’s death he travels to Liberia to find his aunt but on the way there he gets caught up in rebel fighting and must become a child-solider in order to survive.

I found the way Allah is Not Obliged was written was unlike anything I’d really read before. It’s from Birahima’s point of view and it really feels like a child is telling the story. There’s lots of long sentences, as if he’s gotten excited, there’s a lot of repetition of sentences in the space of a couple of paragraphs, and he often stops to explain something mid-sentence or goes off on a tangent. There’s also the brutal honesty that comes from a child. He talks about how he and other child-soldiers are high, they don’t have a lot of food, the way they are in danger; it’s all just a fact of life for him and he tells his story with more wisdom and humour than any ten-year-old should have.

Allah is Not Obliged is set in the 1990s and it blurs the line between fact and fiction. I didn’t google every single name of the war lords and rebels Birahima mentions, but I definitely noticed that the first half of the book there seemed to be more fictional war lords, whereas in the later half of the book, it got quite detailed about what happened in various coups, and the war lords and politicians involved. In the second half of the book, those people Birahima named, were real people. This gave me an insight into West African history that I knew next to nothing about.

Birahima’s story takes place in a number of countries on the West African coast. He gets caught up in different conflicts in Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone as he travels back and forth, trying to find his aunt while also trying to stick with the men who appear more powerful and therefore are more likely to keep him safe.

Allah is Not Obliged doesn’t shy away from the brutalities of war and because how Birahima’s voice is so knowledgeable and factual about the whole thing, it’s easy to forget he is a child. One thing’s for sure, this book definitely shows how the children who become child-soldiers are forced to grow up very quickly, but at the same time, don’t fully understand everything that is happening around them.

While Allah is Not Obliged is a reasonably short book at just over 200 pages, I found it to be a slow and often dull read, especially towards the end of the book when it got quite dense with the more fact-heavy stuff. it was never a book that I felt compelled to pick up again as the Birahima’s meandering story never really pulled me in. It has an interesting writing style, with Birahima’s voice shining through almost constantly, and it has a weird blend of the brutalities of war and the dark humour these young people have to embrace in order to stay somewhat sane.

REVIEW: The Last Five Years (2014)

Struggling actress Cathy (Anna Kendrick) and her successful novelist boyfriend Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) each tell the story of their love.

The Last Five Years is a little hard to wrap your head around at the beginning and that’s because it’s got two stories running parallel to each other. Cathy’s story is told in reverse, from when their relationship ends to the joys of falling in love, while Jamie’s is linear, going from their relationship beginning to the struggles and its end. The story bounces back and forth between the different moments of time as Cathy and Jamie take turns singing a song from their point of view. The colours of characters clothes and the general lighting helps you figure out where you are in their relationship as everything is so much brighter when they’re in love, compared to when their relationship is going downhill. Once you get used to this story technique The Last Five Years is enjoyable, it just takes a while o get settled into it.

The opening five minutes of The Last Five Years is fantastic and unfortunately the rest of the film never really lives up to that emotional performance. Anna Kendrick is just brilliant, as she sings with a broken heart, and the song “Still Hurting” is beautiful and powerful. While it’s definitely one of the saddest songs in the musical, it’s also the most powerful and memorable one. While the songs are generally nice, unfortunately for a musical, nice isn’t good enough and The Last Five Years doesn’t have a particularly memorable soundtrack. The songs are solid, but the melodies are quite similar so besides the great opener, not many of them stand out.

Kendrick and Jordan are both very charming and have great chemistry but it’s unfortunate that the story doesn’t treat it’s two lead characters the same. Cathy is sweet, supportive, and tries her best while Jamie has a whole song about how it sucks that he’s now married to Cathy as it means he can’t cheat with all the women who suddenly want to sleep with him. It makes the story unbalanced but also interesting because as the story progresses you see how Cathy and Jamie’s interests, wants, and dreams no longer line up and maybe they never really did.

The Last Five Years is a sweet musical with a very realistic take on relationships and how the two people in a relationship can feel differently about each other at different times. While the songs and performances are good, there’s little that makes this film stand out. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Sierra Leone: The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

The story of three men in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s. Old academic Elias Cole lies in a hospital bed reminiscing about his life in Freetown in 1969 and his love for Saffia Kamara, the wife of his charismatic colleague. Elsewhere in the hospital is Kai, a gifted young surgeon, is tormented by nightmares from the civil war while British psychologist Adrian Lockheart is working at the hospital, trying to help those who have been affected by the civil war, and trying to find meaning in his work. The three of them meet in different ways and are more connected than they realise.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith and this is definitely one of those books I would’ve DNF’d if I was physically reading it. I really didn’t like The Memory of Love for a lot of different reasons.

Firstly, there are the three main characters. Chapters are told from each of their perspectives and Holdbrook-Smith does a good job at distinguishing between these characters with his voice. The three men have a lot of similarities, they’re all smart, stubborn and reserved but the only one I didn’t have a huge problem with was Kai. Kai is kind, thoughtful and a great uncle, his relationship with his eight-year-old nephew is the best. The big difference between Kai and Elias and Adrian, is his attitude towards women. He’s more respectful than the other two, though can still be infatuated. Elias becomes obsessive and almost stalkerish when it comes to Saffia, the way he describes her was unsettling, especially those moments when he could tell he made her feel uncertain or uncomfortable but didn’t care. Adrian has a wife and young daughter in the UK, but that doesn’t stop him cheating on his wife with musician Mamakay. He gets very jealous over Mamakay before they’re even together, and he is often ignorant and patronising of her life. Adrian likes to think he has a connection to Sierra Leone as his mother was almost born there, but really, he’s the white saviour type character and he doesn’t even realise it. Adrian and Elisa both made me angry at different times in the book, and their love stories weren’t that loving or romantic to me.

The story itself was quite dull and very slow. It takes a long time for the connections between these three men to become clear and they all seem to drift through their lives. The Memory of Love is a story about love but it’s not a particularly romantic or even emotional story. I was never engaged with any of the characters or their pasts. There are many examples of how war as affected the country and its people, but it is always like a footnote in the three men’s lives. The people and the country have suffered a great deal of trauma, but I never really felt the full affects of that.

This is a personal taste thing but as someone that can’t watch medical dramas on TV because of the blood and the surgeries, I found listening to some of the description in The Memory of Love really hard going. When Kai is in an operating theatre everything is described in vivid detail; what he and the other medical staff are doing, the blood, the bones, the pus, and it honestly made me feel a bit queasy at times. Another thing that’s described in minute detail is Adrian’s diagnosis of various patients and the ins and outs of various mental health issues. This attention to detail made it feel more like a medical journal than a historical fiction book and made the story almost grind to a halt when it was being all educational.

In The Memory of Love two out of three of the main characters are unlikable, and at times infuriating, the story wasn’t engaging and nothing about it was memorable. I was just going through the motions listening to this on audio, just like the characters were and their lives and romances weren’t captivating at all. 1/5.

REVIEW: Capernaum (2018)

While serving a five-year sentence for a violent crime, twelve-year-old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) decides to sue his parents for the neglect and the life they’ve given him.

Capernaum begins with Zain being led to court in handcuffs to sue his parents and then the story goes back so you can see how he ended up in this situation. To say that Zain’s life is a tough one would be an understatement but it’s how the film shows how so many people in his life struggle. While his parents are certainly at fault in the way they treat him and his siblings, it’s through the quieter moments that you can see that they are second guessing themselves and are making terrible choices as none of the options available to them are good ones. Zain is such a resourceful and strong boy, who has a great sense of empathy in spite of, or because of, the world he’s grown up in that doesn’t see value in children. He’s someone who tries to do the right thing by those he cares about, even if it might mean doing some light thievery to achieve his goal.

When Zain runs away from his parents, he meets undocumented worker Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her baby son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). She takes him in and the three of them form a new kind of family. The whole cast is brilliant, but this trio were phenomenal. Al Rafeea is an incredible young performer and the way that director Nadine Labaki captures the dynamics between the children in this cast brings out some wonderful performances. There’re moments between Zain and Yonas that can’t have been perfectly scripted due to one of them being one years old, but they feel so sweet, intuitive and natural. The scenes with Zain and Yonas are so natural and are both sweet and heart-breaking at times.

It could’ve been so easy for Capernaum to just be sad and bleak but thanks to an organic screenplay and true to life oddities, there’s laughter to be found here. It also shows that while life and so many of the people in it can be terrible, there are kind people who want to help others with no ulterior motives as well. The way Capernaum is shot neither romanticises nor demonises the poverty Zain and the people he meets face. It’s an honest look at what’s life like for some people and, with its script that has so much natural dialogue, it makes Capernaum feel like you’re a spectator to Zain’s life for a while.

Capernaum is sad but it’s also funny and thoughtful. With a great cast led by Zain Al Rafeea, it’s a film about family, compassion and survival. It’s a film that’s often like a punch to the gut but it’s one that leaves a lasting impression. 5/5.