Reviews

READ THE WORLD – Sri Lanka: Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu

Narrated by Emily Woo Zeller.

Lucky is an unemployed millennial programmer. Her husband, Krishna, is an editor for a greeting card company. Both are secretly gay, presenting their conservative Sri Lankan-American families with a heterosexual front while dating on the side. When Lucky’s grandmother falls, Lucky returns to her mother’s home in Boston and unexpectedly reconnects with her childhood friend and first lover, Nisha. When the two rekindle old romantic feelings, Lucky tries to save Nisha from entering a marriage based on a lie and finds herself pushed to breaking point.

Marriage of a Thousand Lies is an unflinching look at how someone who does not fit into their culture’s ideals can try and reconcile two sides of themselves. Lucky is in almost constant conflict with herself. She knows and accepts she’s a lesbian, she likes being a lesbian, but she doesn’t like how she has to hide that part of herself from her family. This struggle of being who she is but not wanting to lose or disappoint those who are closest to her is something that is almost constantly on Lucky’s mind as she tries to find the strength to be who she is.

Lucky’s mother wants her and Kris to have a baby and be just like all the other Sri Lankan families in their community. Lucky’s mother wants Lucky to fit in as she knows what it’s like to be shunned by the community. Lucky’s parents are divorced but naturally her father and his new wife (a close family friend) are treated just the same by everyone, it’s her mother that is seen as an outsider for being a divorcee.

Marriage of a Thousand Lies is written in the first person from Lucky’s point of view but you never really get a handle of how she’s feeling about what is happening in her life. Lucky is so emotionally closed off from a lot of what is happening around her that she barely reacts to what those closest to her are saying or doing. It makes the emotional impact of some big, potentially life-changing moments, not feel that important at all.

While they are obviously pretending to be happily married for their families, often it seemed like Lucky didn’t even like Kris and resented him for being married to her even though it was something that she agreed to and it worked for the both of them. Their relationship was never satisfactorily explored.

Nisha was equal parts frustrating and understandable. She would often have these big ideas, saying to Lucky they should run away together, but when Lucky tries to take her up on that, she reverts back to being the doting daughter. She is just as scared as Lucky about potentially losing her family and community over who she loves but she is so torn that she keeps hurting Lucky with her indecisiveness and mixed signals.

Marriage of a Thousand Lies is a well-written and poignant story. It handles the complexities of sexuality, religion and culture well but having a distant protagonist made it difficult to connect with her and the story at times. Also, in its honesty Marriage of a Thousand Lies becomes a very sad story as you, and Lucky, realise there might not be a way that everyone finishes this story happy. 3/5.

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REVIEW: Bullet to the Head (2012)

After his former partner is killed, Washington D.C. detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) comes to New Orleans and forms a reluctant alliance with hitman James Bonomo (Sylvester Stallone), whose partner has also recently been killed, in order to bring down a common enemy.

The plot of Bullet to the Head is somewhat derivative but the action sequences and the characters make that plot enjoyable on the whole. Stallone and Kang make an unexpectedly great duo and the scenes of them finding their feet around one another are fun. Stallone’s Bonomo is the typical monotone antihero who resorts to violence to get what he wants very quickly, while Kang’s Kwon is a by the book cop who wants those responsible for his partners death to face legal justice. The filmmaker did a nice job of sidestepping the usual trope of having the Asian lead be a martial artist, instead Kwon can throw a punch but it’s his logic and connections with the police that help him and Bonomo track down their partners killer.

While Kang and Stallone are fun to watch, Jason Momoa steals every scene he’s in as sadistic killer Keegan. He’s an intimidating combination of brains and brawn and manages to standout against a physical adversary like Stallone, and against a potential strategic adversary like Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s Morel.

There are some grisly fights in Bullet to the Head and the action sequences pad out a plot that is surprisingly convoluted with multiple bad guys, and people double-crossing one another at almost every turn. The plot is unoriginal, but having minor characters who then get a backstory and motives means there’s a lot of moving pieces and they don’t always come together neatly.

Bullet to the Head is a retro action film that knows exactly what it is and leans into all of its one-liners. It’s not great but it’s not boring either. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)

After getting caught street racing one too many times, Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) has to move to Tokyo to stay with his father to avoid a jail sentence in America. There he meets Han (Sung Kang) who becomes Sean’s mentor and coaches him into becoming a major competitor in the world of drift racing.

Besides a cameo at the end, and the whole messed up timeline thing future films cause because of Han, Tokyo Drift is a film that can very much stand on its own in the franchise. It has new characters, a new setting, and a whole new style of racing not seen before in the franchise.

Having the racing style be drifting rather than a 10 second drag race, means the race and chases have a whole new feel compared to the previous films. Cars drive around like they’re on a slalom ski slope rather than the busy streets of Tokyo. The way the races are shot, along with a score that’s not so heavy on the techno beats, leads to some thrilling moments.

Considering how far this franchise of films goes in terms of having more female characters, and often ones that are just as capable and as layered as their male counterparts, it’s jarring to see in the opening five minutes of Tokyo Drift a teenage girl offering herself up as the prize for two young men to race for. It does leave a bad taste in your mouth and while there continues to be scantily clad girls, when a new female character is introduced in Neela (Nathalie Kelley) it is slowly revealed she’s not just a pretty face and has the most interesting backstory in the film.

Sean isn’t the most interesting of leads, and Black’s performance is not that great either (the guy doesn’t really know how to emote) but luckily Sean is surrounded by more interesting characters and actors who do better at delivering clichés-filled lines of dialogue than Black. Han is cool, calm and collected and is the kind of person who stays in the background to observe people. He forms a bond with Sean but that doesn’t stop him working with D.K. (Brian Tee), a young man connected to the Yakuza. It’s Black’s scenes with Kang and Kelley that make Sean feel more than a stand in for the audience as you get glimpses of what can almost be classed as chemistry between them.

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift makes great use of the Tokyo cityscape, making night-time races look slick and the colours of the city lights, and the bright cars, pop. The first half of Tokyo Drift is a bit slow, but the second half is a thrill ride as things come to ahead between characters and stakes get higher. Tokyo Drift is a bit like the black sheep in the Fast and Furious family, and it’s one that has more resonance after the events of Fast & Furious 6/Furious 7, but it is still a good time. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Austria: Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig

Translated by Tess Lewis.

A collection of nine short stories, each about loneliness and identity.

This was an engaging and eerie short story collection. Each story ranged from 3 pages to 15 pages long and the majority of them pulled you into the story no matter how short they were. The stories themselves were varied in terms of character and plot, but they all are rather unsettling.

Two stories really stood out to me. The first was “The Same Silence, the Same Noise” which is about someone who becomes almost obsessed with their neighbours. It’s weird because the neighbours keep to themselves, but it is their distance that the narrator finds so fascinating. The second was “Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut” which is about a man who meets an old lady who has created a doll that looks just like him. Dolls are pretty creepy anyway but the way the protagonist becomes enamoured with his lookalike doll is disturbing.

I’ve read a few short story collections for my Read the World Project, and Maybe This Time is probably my favourite (so far). The stories all had the same theme so even when the content was different, as I read each story, I got the same sense of uneasiness. Things just felt off in these stories. Characters were either alone and captivated by someone or something else, or they might even seem to start to lose themselves as they become enthralled by whatever or whoever has caught their attention.

Maybe This Time is a very weird and unnerving collection of stories, and it is a collection that has certainly left an impression on me. 4/5.

REVEW: Robin Hood: The Rebellion (2018)

When Maid Marian (Marie Everett) is captured by the Sheriff of Nottingham (James Oliver Wheatley), Robin Hood (Ben Freeman) leads Will Scarlett (James G. Nunn) and Little John (Jamie Kenna) into battle to rescue her.

There are so many different takes on the Robin Hood story, and this one is not going to be remembered – fondly or otherwise. Robin Hood: The Rebellion is largely set across one day as Marian is captured and Robin infiltrates the Sheriff’s castle and attempts to rescue her. Being set in such a short space of time, the film relies on the title cards to explain what has been happening to the people of Nottingham, and also through so much expository dialogue that it becomes almost a chore to listen to the characters talk.

One of the main elements of the Robin Hood story that makes it something people enjoy to revisit, is the characters and their relationships. However, in this tale the characters have little to no characterisation and there is no chemistry between any of the cast members. Whether that’s Everett’s Marian and Freeman’s Robin who are supposed to be in love, or Freeman’s Robin and Nunn’s Will Scarlett who are said to be best friends in the opening titles but there’s not sense of any kind of relationship between them. John’s defining characteristic is that he complains all the time, and at least he got a gimmick as Will Scarlett barely has any lines or is unable to make an impression. There are a few quips courtesy of Robin Hood but they don’t work as they happen so rarely in an otherwise sober film that they feel out of place.

On the whole, the acting is as wooden as the trees in Sherwood Forest and those who are able to ham it up, like the Sherriff or his cousin Guy of Gisborne (James Groom), come across desperate and the performances don’t work in the film they’ve been given.

Robin Hood: The Rebellion is dull and uninspired. The sword fights are not at all exciting and the dialogue and plot are tedious as the same things happen again and again and characters have the same conversations again and again. 1/5.

REVIEW: 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)

After getting busted for street racing, disgraced former cop Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) is enlisted to bust dangerous criminal Carter Verone (Cole Hauser). Brian recruits his childhood friend and fellow street racer Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) to bring down Verone, and in the process earn their freedom.

2 Fast 2 Furious is the first film in the franchise without Vin Diesel and instead there’s the chemistry between Walker and Gibson that sees you through this film. Maybe Paul Walker just had natural charm and chemistry with everyone? Having Roman be a childhood friend of Brian’s means you get a bit more of his backstory, and as the two of them have known each other for so long, there’s easy camaraderie with each of them calling the other out on their antics when needed. The filmmakers did well not to try and replicate the Brian and Dom dynamic, and instead created a very different foil for Brain in Roman. Roman is loud, brash and kinda ridiculous but he’s a guy with a heart of gold under all that bluster and Gibson and Walker make the not-great bantering dialogue work.

Helping Brian and Roman on their mission is undercover agent Monica Fuentes (an underused Eva Mendes). She’s undercover working for Verone and the moments where the danger is truly apparent for her, Brian and Roman, you can see her calm façade start to crack. Other characters who help out Brian are his friends; garage owner Tej (Ludacris) and racer Suki (Devon Aoki). Suki is a character I’d love to make an appearance in another Fast & Furious film, she’s so cool, a great driver and says so much with just a look.

2 Fast 2 Furious has some good car chases but it’s a car decoy scene in the final act that really steals the show. It’s inventive and touches on the set pieces full of characters coming together, both minor ones and main ones, to help solve a problem that become more frequent in future films in the series.

2 Fast 2 Furious is fun, fast-paced and the car chases are sharper than those in the previous film. It sets up a great new character dynamic, and the sometimes-cheesy dialogue can be forgiven as it really is a fun film that’s perhaps more joyful than the first one as it refuses to take itself seriously. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Portugal: Raised from the Ground by José Saramago

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

A multigenerational family saga set in twentieth-century Portugal. Raised from the Ground follows the Mau Tempo family, a family of poor landless peasants, as they try and make a life for themselves as national and international events take place around them. But nothing really impinges on their grim reality until the first communist stirrings in the country.

The way Raised from the Ground is written took me a long time to get my head around. It’s like there’s an omniscient and omnipresent narrator, telling the lives of the different members of the family as each generation grows up. This style means there’s no speech marks when people talk and there often are very long sentences with many commas in them. The long sentences aren’t so bad, it’s the paragraphs that are anywhere between a page long and four-pages long that cause problems. It is very easy to get lost in those long paragraphs.

The story itself is not memorable and the characters, of which there are a lot, are not well developed. When the story shifts focus from one character or relationship to the other, it’s hard to remember or keep track of who is related to who. While the first 80 pages or so are engaging, the dreary existence of this peasant family becomes repetitive and dull as there is little chance for them to better themselves. No doubt this is the point of Raised from the Ground, but a novel can’t just make a point, it must also be interesting and unfortunately this one wasn’t.

Raised from the Ground pans around sixty years and the verbose narrator also talks about events that happened before the books beginning multiple times. Across those years different national and international events are referenced (including two World Wars) and the little footnotes that explained a reference to an important event in Portugal was appreciated. Though the way the book is written, focusing so closely on one family’s struggles, meant that the historical context was never fully explained so the impact of these events on the family and their community was never really felt.

I’ve read multigenerational family sagas before and on the whole I rather enjoy them. However, Raised from the Ground is not one of the ones I enjoyed. The combination of the writing style and the story meant I often felt my eyes glazing over. I did like the little titbits of Portuguese history speckled throughout the novel, though there wasn’t enough of that to keep me interested. 1/5.