Reviews

REVIEW: Joker (2019)

In Gotham City, wannabe comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is disregarded and mistreated by those around him. As he embarks on a downward spiral of violence and crime, he comes face-to-face with his alter-ego – “Joker”.

There’s been much debate and “controversy” surrounding Joker long before it was released to the general public, and to be honest it wasn’t high on my list of films I wanted to watch. But when a friend from work said he wanted to see it, and I’m not someone who needs much of a push to go to the cinema, I said “Sure let’s go.”

Joker is the origin story of perhaps the most famous comic book villain. But really, it’s more of a character deconstruction than just an origin story. You see Arthur get beaten up multiple times and he’s lied to and made fun of – it’s tough to see a character being ground down so much and so often. Slowly, Arthur is pushed to the edge, and when he finally puts on the Joker makeup (which is different to the clown make up he wears for work) he becomes a whole new person.

Joaquin Phoenix gives a fantastic performance. His whole physicality changes bit by bit as he becomes closer to the persona of the Joker. The camera lingers on Phoenix’s body when he’s half-dressed, making his unhealthy skinny body on full display and an uncomfortable image. Phoenix’s “Joker” laugh is different to a lot of the iterations that have come before it. It’s unsettling as it goes on far longer than you’d expect, and it’s an uncontrollable and almost painful thing for him.

This film doesn’t have much action with the Arthur going crazy and causing chaos, instead the moments of action and violence are used sparingly which amps up the tension and makes the whole experience more uncomfortable as you’re never sure when Arthur is going to snap next.

Arthur is an interesting and flawed character and as everything in Joker is from Arthur’s point of view, pretty much all the other characters and their actions are window-dressing to the downward spiral of his life. The same can be said for the films setting. There’s brief mentions of the huge divide between the rich and the poor, and the cutting to funding for mental health and social services, that’s present in this Gotham City and how it affects Arthur and the city’s population. However, these themes are never fleshed out fully, and are instead a backdrop and a potential reason for Arthur’s issues.

Joker leaves you a lot to think about, but upon reflection, it might not say as much as it thinks it does. It’s an uncomfortable viewing experience and for the most part that is down to Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. He is great, but the film he’s a part of is perhaps not as deep as it thought it was. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD: Lithuania – Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė

Translated by Delija Valiukenas.

In 1941, 14-year-old Dalia and her family are deported from their native Lithuania to a labour camp in Siberia. As the strongest member of her family she submits to twelve hours a day of manual labour. At the age of 21, she escapes the gulag and returns to Lithuania. She writes her memories on scraps of paper and buries them in the garden, fearing they might be discovered by the KGB. They are not found until 1991, four years after her death. This is the story Dalia buried.

Again, my Read the World Project is opening my eyes to parts of world history I never knew about. I didn’t know that the Soviet Union deported hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians to either Gulags (prison camps) or to sparsely populated areas of the Soviet Union to provide free labour. Other people from different countries were also deported by the Soviet Union including Poles, Estonians and Latvians. Dalia’s account is tough to read but an important insight into a part of history that perhaps isn’t as well-known as it should be.

Shadows on the Tundra is about Dalia’s experience being deported with her mother and brother, the people they meet, and the terrible conditions they face in a work camp. The account spans a couple of years as Dalia and her fellow deportees are taken from their homes in trains, with no idea where they are going or why, to struggling to survive in the long icy winters in Siberia. The fact that people had the hope that they were being taken to America for a better life, especially when they were put onto boats, made what they were actually forced to experience even worse.

Dalia’s account doesn’t pull any punches. Her matter of fact way of describing the hardships they faced, the excruciating and thankless work they had to do in inhumane conditions and the way they were mistreated by those in charge, it all paints a vivid picture of human suffering.

There are moments though, how ever small and fleeting, in Shadows on the Tundra that show that Dalia and the friends and allies she made, had moments of fun or respite. They don’t last long though. With the malnourishment, the sickness, the frostbite, and the storms that bury everyone in the small barracks that they built themselves, everything looks incredibly bleak.

Shadows on the Tundra is often hard to read, in fact it’s truly devastating at times. It’s hard to imagine how anyone survived living in such terrible conditions on the edge of the Artic circle, having to steal wood in order to stay warm when the punishments for being caught was so severe. Shadows on the Tundra is an incredible account of how a young girl is forced to grow older than her years in order to survive. It will send a chill down your spine more than once.

REVIEW: The Seventh Seal (1957)

As the Knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) return home from the crusades, they find their country in the grip of the Black Death. As the Knight seeks answers about life, death, and the existence of God, he plays a game of chess against Death (Bengt Ekerot) in order to prolong his time on Earth.

The Seventh Seal is a classic film that opens with the iconic imagery of a man, sat across from Death, playing chess on a beach. It’s an image that’s been replicated in media over the years, and it was the only thing I knew about this film before watching it.

The Seventh Seal is about more than a chess match though. As Antonius and Jöns travel across the country to Antonius’s home, they meet different characters along the way that join them in their journey in the hope to avoid the plague. There’s Jof (Mils Poppe) and his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson), two performers who with their young son are looking to earn money and keep safe. Jof and Mia symbolise the goodness that Antonius is looking for proof of.

The image of Death is so unsettling in The Seventh Seal not only because of the black cloak that covers Death from head to toe, but because of Ekerot’s performance. It’s so measured as he verbally spars with Antonius who tries to bargain for more time. It’s also how Death appears when you least expect it, in a shadowy corner unseen by everyone but Antonius. There becomes a sense of foreboding as you realise that moments of light-heartedness Antonius as with Jof and Mia cannot last long with the presence of Death looming over him.

There are moments of humour in The Seventh Seal, most of which comes from Jöns. He has seen a lot and is equal parts cruel and thoughtful, his wry commentary on the romantic escapades some of the people he meets goes through are funny. However, that humour does stand out when everything around Jöns is so bleak with the plague, witches being burned, and Death around the corner.

The Seventh Seal is weird and haunting. The score, scenery and imagery are unsettling, but it all comes together to be almost beautiful. I’m not sure I’ll watch The Seventh Seal again, but I’m glad I have seen it. 4/5.

REVIEW: Internment by Samira Ahmed

It’s been one year since the census landed seventeen-year-old Layla Amin and her parents on the registry. And one month since the President declared that “Muslims are now a threat to America”. now, Layla and her parents are suddenly taken from their home and forced into an internment camp in the desert for Muslim American citizens. With the help of newly made friends trapped within the internment camp with her, her Jewish boyfriend on the outside, and an unexpected alliance, Layla begins to fight for freedom, leading a revolution against the internment camp’s Director and his guards.

Part of the reason why Internment is so affecting from the first few pages, is how close it is to our reality now. The rhetoric that comes from the fictional President, and the reactions of white nationalistic people in this story, mirrors what we’ve seen ourselves over the past few years. It’s unsettling because it’s as if the events in Internment could happen, or maybe something very similar already is.

Layla gets frustrated with her parents conforming to societies new rules (her dad gets fired from his job, and she gets suspended from school for kissing her Jewish boyfriend) before they even end up in the internment camp but it’s out of fear and wanting to protect themselves and their child that they do this. In the camp everyone is under constant surveillance and Layla gets more frustrated about how her parents are acting. It’s a self-preservation tactic but Layla is so angry about the injustice she’s experiencing because of her religion that she doesn’t care.

Ayesha, Layla’s new friend in the camp, is great and she makes just the right number of pop culture references without it being too on the nose or cringey. How the two of them lift each other up in such dark times is wonderful to see, and together they make plans for how they can resist and fight for their freedom.

The only minor quibbles I have with Internment concerns David, Layla’s boyfriend, and Corporal Jake, a guard in the camp. Layla almost seems obsessed with David and the risks she puts herself, and others, through to make contact with him is reckless. He is her one piece of normalcy and a connection to the world outside of the camps electric fences, but it almost gets a little unbelievable at times. Corporal Jake is an unlikely ally for Layla, but it’s never really explained why she trusts him so quickly, or how he seems to have so much power and respect in the camp when he’s still pretty young himself at only a few years older than Layla. Those issues can be forgiven though as the messages in Internment and how resilient Layla is to be commended.

Internment touches on a lot of themes to different extents. Islamophobia, racism, fascism, the power of the media, how women and girls who decide to wear the hijab or men who wear traditional dress can have different experiences as they are more “visibly” Muslim. Layla doesn’t wear the hijab and even she must reflect on some of the unconscious stereotypes she believes as first about those who do.

The last third of Internment had me all choked up. Layla is put through so much pain – mental, emotional and physical – as she and her friends and her parents are constantly threatened, but she still manages to stay strong and resolute in her aims. It’s as more and more people from different backgrounds join Layla in her protests that it shows how powerful protests, even peaceful ones can be. The way social media is used to spread the word of what is happening in the camp, and how people outside of it react feels true to life and shows Layla and her fellow prisoners aren’t as alone as they might’ve feared.

Internment is a tough yet powerful read. It showcases the true horrors of human nature, how fear or greed can make people turn on each other, but it also shows the strength people have, how people can fight for what’s right and protect one another. It’s (unfortunately) a timely read but that makes it all the more affecting. 5/5.

REVIEW: Hot Pursuit (2015)

Uptight and by-the-book cop Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) tries to protect Daniella Riva (Sofia Vergara), the wife of a drug boss, from crooked cops and murderous gunmen as they race across Texas so Riva can testify.

Hot Pursuit is a crime-comedy film which isn’t that funny. Witherspoon plays the uptight and desperate to prove herself cop well, but her character is very one note for the majority of the film, and that one note can become grating after a while. Vergara’s Riva is loud and brash, and watching her and Cooper clash can sometimes be fun, however her shtick does get repetitive rather quickly.

There are the usual tropes of the witness trying to get away, the arguments and then the unlikely duo working together to survive. It’s when Cooper and Riva do reluctantly work together that the film starts to be fun, but there’s too many times where one turns on the other, so they end up at cross-purposes again and it feels like the story and the characters have taken three steps back again.

One thing Hot Pursuit has got going for it is it does get to the main plot and the action pretty quickly but it also has some very cringey and almost wince-inducing moments too as jokes fail to land and everyone just looks very awkward.

Unfortunately, the funniest part of Hot Pursuit is the gag reel that plays during the credits. That gets you laughing out loud, and a few proper belly laughs too, whereas the rest of the film is lucky to get a few chuckles at best.

Hot Pursuit is full of clichés and not very funny, though the sparks of what could be great chemistry between Witherspoon and Vergara manages to make the film a bit more bearable. 2/5.

REVIEW: Roger Federer & Rafael Nadal: The Lives and Careers of Two Tennis Legends by Sebastián Fest

Non-fiction book about the two men who have dominated men’s tennis since 2004: Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Each player is legendary in his own right. The Spanish Nadal is the winner of fourteen Grand Slam titles, including five consecutive French Open singles titles from 2010 to 2014, and is the only player ever to win a Grand Slam for ten straight years. Federer, from Switzerland, has spent over three hundred weeks of his career ranked as the number-one player in the world and has won seventeen Grand Slam titles and two Olympic medals. But neither player’s career would have been nearly as successful without the decade-long rivalry that pushed them to excel to the peak of tennis excellence.

This book, being first published in 2015 is naturally a little out of date, Federer currently has twenty Grand Slam titles while Nadal won his nineteenth Grand Slam title earlier this month, but it does a good job covering ten years of their careers, how they intersect and gives you some background on their childhoods, families and philosophies. The edition I read was “revised and updated” and it did touch on 2017 and how it was a comeback year for both Federer and Nadal. They finished the year with two Grand Slams each and in the number one and two spots in the rankings – the first time they both had those rankings since 2010.

The book isn’t in any real chronological order which can be a bit confusing, instead each chapter is focused on a theme or an event and how that affects Federer or Nadal, or both of them. Some chapters are focused on one man and then they next few are on the other, while other chapters are about an event or theme that affects them both. As the chapters jump back and forth in time, it’s sometimes difficult to figure out where we are in terms of what year it is and what’s going on in the two men’s careers. As someone who has followed Federer and Nadal’s careers since 2008 but has never really known about the ins and outs of tennis politics, it was sometimes difficult to figure out the context of what was going on.

I did like how this book was a balanced account about both men – though that could be down to how much respect Nadal and Federer have for each other and the sport. That’s not to say they don’t have differences of opinion and the period in 2012 when they clashed on the players council is covered. Reading about how they had such differing opinions and strong feelings about different subjects then, makes the fact that Federer and Nadal have rejoined the ATP players council together this year all the more interesting and shows how their relationship has continued to evolve.

The sections where other tennis players from throughout history, people like Rod Laver and Martina Navratilova, offer an insight into the sport and the affects Federer and Nadal have had on it were very interesting. It was nice to hear how other tennis legends viewed them, and how their rivalry compared to rivalries of the past.

If you’re interested in Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, their achievements and their rivalry, then this book is worth picking up. It might help to have more than a basic knowledge of tennis and the bureaucracy around it but for the most part the author does a good job at explaining who everyone is. Naturally there’s some chapters that aren’t as interesting as others, and a few are a little dry, but it’s nice to read a book where Federer and Nadal’s personalities shine through and the main thing you can take from it is how humble and respectful the two men are. 4/5.

REVIEW: Always Be My Maybe (2019)

Best friends in their childhood, Sasha (Ali Wong) and Marcus (Randall Park) ended up drifting a part, even though everyone always thought they’d end up together. When they reconnect sixteen years later, maybe this is their second chance?

Always Be My Maybe is a romantic comedy that captures the best friends to lovers trope perfectly. The road going from best friends to lovers is never smooth thanks to the fear of ruining a friendship, the fear of opening up your heart, and just the general awkwardness of becoming more than friends with your best mate. Having the two leads have great chemistry and give great performances makes you feel for both of them in this scenario.

Sasha has become a celebrity chef, travelling across the country to open restaurants in different cities. It’s as she returns to her hometown of San Francisco to open her latest restaurant that she runs into Marcus. Marcus is almost the complete opposite of Sasha. He’s stayed in San Francisco, he works for his dad’s business and he still performs in the same band but never tries to take the band to the next level. It’s equal parts awkward and endearing, seeing the two of the reconnect and try to find some middle ground after so long a part and lives that have gone in different directions.

The supporting cast are great too. Michelle Buteau plays Veronica, Sasha’s friend and PA, and she probably has all the best lines, while there is Keanu Reeves playing an over the top version of Keanu Reeves – or at least what we think Keanu Reeves would be like – who steals every scene he’s in.

As a romantic comedy Always Be My Maybe is sometimes uniquely Asian-American. For instance, Sasha cooks Asian cuisine, and there’s lots of discussions of different dishes and her and Marcus’s parents encompass Asian stereotypes without them becoming one-dimensional characters. But Always Be My Maybe proves that love, fear, and aspirations are all universal while still being very funny.

Always Be My Maybe doesn’t reinvent the rom-com wheel but it’s sweet, funny and with its charming leads it’s near perfect. 4/5.