Reviews

REVIEW: Guarding Tess (1994)

Secret Agent Doug Chesnic (Nicolas Cage) is the agent in charge of the protection detail for Tess Carlisle (Shirley MacLaine), the widow of the former President of the United States and a woman who seems to enjoy making Doug’s life difficult with outlandish demands.

Guarding Tess has a typical plot – two very different characters who clash, learn to get along and understand one another – and it’s a functional yet dull plot as the two leads are never given much of a backstory or layers to their personalities. So many on the male characters speak in a monotone, even in stressful situations, which makes what’s supposed to be exciting on screen, not engaging at all.

Guarding Tess seems to be tonally all over the place too. It’s supposed to be a comedy, and there are a few funny moments, but then there’s these big dramatic moments in the last act that don’t hold any real weight due to the farcical nature of the previous hour of the film.

Cage and MacLaine have chemistry but it’s the kind of chemistry where you’re not sure if they’re going to tear chunks out of one another or kiss which naturally makes things a little uncomfortable and weird at times. It’s just as the relationship between Tess and Chesnic, and the rest of her Secret Service detail gets slightly interesting that the film swerves into something completely different and that relationship is never fully developed.

Guarding Tess ends up being a very bland “comedy” drama. The characters are, for the most part, pleasant but there’s so little drama or tension that they are just going about their daily lives and very little of interest happens. 2/5.

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REVIEW: A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney

Alice is a normal teenager with school, a high-maintenance best friend and a mum who gets annoyed when she misses her curfew. But what her mum doesn’t know is that the reason she so often misses curfew is because she’s fighting monsters called Nightmares. Nightmares come from Wonderland, a dark realm where there’s magic, creatures and secrets. When Alice’s handsome and mysterious mentor Addison Hatta is poisoned, Alice must venture further into Wonderland than she ever had before to find the antidote. She’ll have to use all her skills and connections to keep from losing her head – literally.

As you might imagine, A Blade So Black is inspired by Alice in Wonderland and it’s fun to see the references to the sour material and how the author puts a spin on certain aspects like characters names and idiosyncrasies. When it comes to Wonderland itself, not a lot of the world is explained but what you do see of it is very weird and eerie. The Nightmares are indeed nightmarish creatures and Alice’s battles with them are fierce. Alice is strong and skilled, but she also makes mistakes, gets scared and doubts herself a lot which means it’s never clear if she’ll come out on top in a battle.

A lot of the conflict in A Blade So Black comes from the fact Alice struggles being a normal teenager with being a Dreamwalker. She’s keeping secrets and lying with the only person in her “normal” life who knows about what she does in Wonderland is her best friend Courtney. Alice is black and, in her neighbourhood, a teenage black girl has recently been gunned down which adds to her mum’s anxiety when Alice seems to disappear and not answer her phone, as she is almost constantly worried the same thing is going to happen to her daughter.

Alice is a bit of a stroppy teenager (which is allowed) and one with magical responsibilities, but she doesn’t often think things through and how her actions can hurt other people. Her mum has very justifiable reasons to be angry and scared when Alice isn’t contactable for long periods of time, but Alice can’t really see that which is frustrating.

A Blade So Black is bit of a weird book pacing-wise. The first half spends the time setting up the conflicts between Alice and her friends and family as she juggles her Dreamwalker duties and being a normal teenager and introduces you to Wonderland but nothing big plot-wise happens until the halfway point. It’s then that Hatta gets poisoned and after that a lot happens very quickly with new characters being introduced and you learn more about the history of Wonderland and what it could mean for Alice. It makes the second half of the book feel rushed and, while it is the first book in a series so it’s understandable that not all plot threads will be tied up, there’s a pretty major one that doesn’t feel like the characters make much headway with.

The premise of A Blade So Black and its setting is more interesting than the actual plot. Still, it’s a quick and enjoyable read and it’s a solid foundation for future books in the series to build on. 3/5.

REVIEW: Dora and the Lost City of Gold (2019)

Dora (Isabela Moner) is a teenage explorer who’s more at home in the jungle more than high school. But when her parents (played by Eva Longoria and Michael Peña) go missing while searching for a lost city, Dora and her new friends go on an adventure to rescue them.

As a more grown up adaptation of the Dora the Explorer TV show, Dora and the Lost City of Gold finds itself as a good kids’ adventure film. There are plenty of references to the TV show like an inventive animated sequence and Dora’s love of singing when doing a mundane task. Then there’s when 6-year-old Dora turns to the camera and asks, “Can you say delicioso?” to the confusion of her parents as they look to see who she’s talking to and saying she’ll grow out of it. These kinds of moments are tongue-in-cheek but can feel a little awkward. Though, having characters question some of the weirdness, like a fox wearing a mask, makes most of the references work.

Isabela Moner is great as Dora as she gives a performance that’s both charming and moving. She’s full of energy and enthusiasm but she also gives Dora a little awkwardness as she finds it difficult to be anything but herself in high school when being unabashedly yourself is seen as a source of embarrassment for most people.

Dora is like a teenage Latina Indiana Jones and it works. There’s so many of the usual adventure puzzles and clichés like quicksand and booby traps but having a teenage girl at the forefront, working things out and having the adventure is wonderful. Her teenage friends all each have their moment of figuring things out and contributing to the adventure as well. Sammy (Madeleine Madden) is super smart while Randy (Nicholas Coombe) is into his games and knows all about jungle puzzles. That’s not to say they don’t have their fears and anxieties over being lost in the jungle, but it’s great seeing how they all become friends and learn to work together.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold is a fun adventure film that’s not afraid of its origins and affectionately skews the conventions of the TV show. It’s funny and charming and an easy, inoffensive watch for children and adults alike, even if you have only the most basic knowledge of the TV show it’s adapted from. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD: Burkina Faso – Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman by Malidoma Patrice Somé

Audiobook narrated by the author.

Malidoma Patrice Somé was born in a Dagara Village but when he was four years old he was kidnapped and taken to a Jesuit school where he remained for the next fifteen years. There he was indoctrinated into European ways of thought and worship and learnt to read and write. When he made his escape and returned to his village, he had to go through a hard initiation to be able to belong with his community and learn their ways and beliefs.

I found Of Water and the Spirit to be an interesting and thought-provoking take on the interaction and conflict between spirituality and academia. Somé is a man who has multiple degrees, undergraduate and postgraduate, so is a very knowledgeable man in that respect, but he also has a great spiritual belief. To me, as someone who is an atheist, it is impressive yet feels contradictory that an educated person can believe so whole-heartedly in the powers of a talisman or a medicine bag.

Somé has important things to say about culture, unity and learning from the mistakes of your ancestors. His discussion of ancestors is interesting as it seems like the Dagara people are very in tune with their past and their ancestors so they can learn and evolve, whereas in the West we often easily forget about the past and ignore any past wrongdoings. According to Somé this is why the West isn’t tolerant of those who are from different cultures and faiths, and it’s not until people look to their past and own up to past atrocities that they can move forward.

Of Water and the Spirit has some stunning imagery as Somé describes what he saw and felt as he went through the initiation. It’s magical and beautiful yet unsettling as boys get burnt or die during the initiation, but Somé also sees some beautiful things.

Considering Of Water and the Spirit was published in the mid-90s it’s disappointing that many of Somé’s observations on tolerance, understanding and belonging are still just as relevant twenty years later. Somé is a man of two worlds and he never fully feels like he fits in either of them, the “educated” West and his spiritual village, but what he does feel is a sense of purpose and a belief that it was his destiny to gain so much knowledge and use that to spread his beliefs and try to make people more understanding.

Of Water and the Spirit can feel a bit preachy at times, but it’s difficult to dislike the memoir because it is what he went through and believes he experienced. We are all different and believe in different things and it was interesting to learn about the culture and beliefs of the Dagara people.

REVIEW: Crawl (2019)

When Haley (Kaya Scodelario) goes to check on her father (Barry Pepper) during a category 5 hurricane, she finds herself trapped in a flooding house with deadly alligators.

Crawl is a combination of creature feature and disaster movie and with that it has a lot of the usual tropes, but it uses them well. There is a fair few jump scares, but they feel earnt as the film knows how to crank up the tension, leaving you almost constantly on edge. The jumps care’s release the tension just for a moment but then you realise something truly horrifying is happening and it’s hard not to look away.

One thing about Crawl that makes it feel extra tense is how something like this could happen. Not the deadly alligators going on a rampage in a hurricane, but the hurricane and the dangers it brings. Characters must rely on wide-up torches and radios as the water levels rise and the threat of flood defences failing and making everything worse is a real problem. It’s not just the alligators Haley and her dad have to survive, it’s the elements as well.

Crawl tells a simple story well – it’s runtime is under 90 minutes and the pacing is so incredibly tight that you encounter the alligators much quicker than you’d think. Scodelario and Pepper both give great performances as Hayley and her dad’s interactions feel believable as they fight to survive together. Also, the script is great as through their short conversations throughout the film you learn about their history which helps flesh out their characters without it ever feeling like a big exposition dump.

Crawl has all the makings of becoming a classic creature-feature. It’s tense, scary, claustrophobic and suitably gory and knows how to give the audience a brief reprise through humour every now and then too. The song that plays over the credits is so unexpected but also ridiculously perfect. 5/5.

REVIEW: The Fate of the Furious (2017)

My original review of The Fate and the Furious from when it was first released is here.

When Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) turns his back on his family and starts to work with mysterious cybercriminal Cipher (Charlize Theron), his family must team up with old foes in order to stop him before it’s too late.

Like the films that came before it, The Fate of the Furious really does make everything bigger and more ridiculous. The laws of physics and logic go completely out the window but if you are happy to see a bunch of unbelievable stunts with cars then The Fate of the Furious is a lot of fun.

There are some serious moments though in The Fate of the Furious, especially once you learn the reason why Dom has turned on his family. This does lead to some emotional moments though it does also lead to a character we’ve met before getting the rough end of the stick. It would have been nice if the film had found a way around that obstacle that wasn’t so common and unfortunate.

Jason Statham returns as Deckard Shaw but this time he’s forced to work with the people he tried to kill the last time they met. He presents a bit of a wildcard element in the team dynamic we’ve become accustomed to over the past few films. Statham’s banter with Dwayne Johnson (who plays Agent Luke Hobbs) is always fun and Statham almost manages to steal the whole film in one of the final action sequences.

With Dom being on the opposite side to his family, it gives Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) more of a lead role than she’s ever had before. She keeps the family together, leading the team and never losing faith in Dom. Rodriguez gives a great performance and, While Diesel certainly has his moments, she is really the heart of the film.

I have to mention the score composed by Brian Tyler. He has composed all but three of the Fast & Furious films and perhaps it’s because I’ve watched them so close together, but you notice that these films, and this team of characters has a theme. It’s something that’s noticeable in all of the big scenes, the heist in Fast Five for instance, and the finale of The Fate of the Furious as the team races across the ice. It really helps add to these films sense of identity and gives you an extra shot of adrenalin as when you hear it, you know something big is about to happen.

The Fate of the Furious is over-the-top but the cast and crew fully commit to the stunts that defy the laws of physics and that just makes it all the more fun and entertaining. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Rosemary Harper doesn’t expect much when she joins the crew of the aging Wayfarer. While the patched-up ship has seen better days, it offers her a bed, a chance to explore the far-off corners of the galaxy, and most importantly, some distance from her past. But Rosemary gets more than she bargains for with the Wayfarer. The crew is a mismatch of species and personalities, from Sissix, the friendly reptilian pilot to chatty engineers Kizzy and Jenks who keep the ship running. Life aboard the Wayfarer is chaotic but more or less peaceful – exactly what Rosemary wants. That is until the crew is offered the job of a lifetime; the chance to build a hyperspace tunnel to a distant planet. They’ll earn a fortune… if the manage to survive the long and dangerous trip. Along the way Rosemary learns she isn’t the only one on board with secrets to hide, and that space may be vast, but spaceships are very small indeed.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is mostly a space road trip where not a lot of big plot things happen. Instead it’s a character driven story as Rosemary becomes a part of this crew that’s more like a family. The way exposition and character backstories are interwoven into the story is wonderful, as often it is from characters learning from one another or learning to open up and ask for help and support.

The book is told from all of the crew member’s point of view at least once, though characters like Rosemary, Sissix, Kizzy and the captain Ashby seem to get more focus. You still get a good feel of all the characters though and how they fit together. They each have their problems or secrets, some of which they don’t even know about themselves, but they still all mange to work together.

How space, and the many different species that live there, is beautiful and vivid. Humans are far from the dominant species which is a different take compared to the majority of sci-fi I’ve come across before. It’s also great to read about characters that are different species and are so different from humans – whether that’s by appearance, social norms or both. The political systems, and politics between different species, are intricate yet as the author has taken the time to sprinkle information throughout the story, when there’s tension between species, you can quickly understand why.

The world (or should that be universe) of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is full or rich detail as the crew stop off at different planets to restock their ship and even see friends. There’s so many different people and their technology is advanced yet not always working well, meaning the world feels lived in. This isn’t the shiny and sleek kind of sci-fi, instead it’s a dirty, lived in kind of sci-fi. The Wayfarer isn’t a new ship, things go wrong with it and it’s the crew that fixes it and makes it feel like a home.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a bit of a slow read but that doesn’t mean it’s not a compelling one. It has so much detail with its world building and it really gives the characters room to breathe. Every single member of the Wayfarer crew has their own unique personality and the author does a great job of not turning any of them into clichés.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a sweeping science-fiction novel that never forgets that humanity (though is that the right word when there’s characters who are not human?) is the most important thing. 4/5.