REVIEW: Onward (2020)

When Ian (Tom Holland) turns sixteen, his mum (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives him a gift left to him and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) by their late father. When the magic spell their dad left them goes awry, the two brothers have to go on a quest to finish the spell so they can bring him back to spend a day with him.

The world the characters inhabit is one where magical, mythical creatures have forgotten about magic, and instead have evolved to be like us, using cars and electricity and the latest gadgets. Ian and his family are elves (though to be honest I wasn’t sure what they were supposed to be until a character referred to them as elves) and there’s centaurs, ogres, pixies, unicorns and everything else you could imagine. A Manticore (voiced by Octavia Spencer) is very funny and a spin off all about her would be welcomed.

The character dynamics are good, especially the relationship between Ian and Barley. People who have a close sibling relationship, especially with an older brother, are likely to appreciate it a lot. However, when there’s conflict between them, it’s resolved very quickly, and it doesn’t leave enough time for the things they say to one another to really sink in or have much of a consequence.

However, while this pseudo-magical world is interesting, it’s not fully utilised for the first half of the film. It’s a great setting and a great what-if scenario but it’s never explored to its full potential. While naturally characters and their relationships should take priority, the world they inhabit should have more of an impact on them than this world does. The animation in Onward is beautiful and the action-packed finale is entertaining, but what got the characters to that point was a bumpy ride.

Onward is sweet and fun but it lacks both the magical spark a story like this really should have, and that spark of Pixar magic Pixar films usually have as well. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Taiwan: Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

Translated by Bonnie Huie and narrated by Jo Mei.

Afflicted by her fatalistic attraction to Shui Ling, an older woman who is alternately hot and cold toward her, Lazi turns for support to a circle of friends that includes the devil-may-care, rich-kid-turned-criminal Meng Sheng and his troubled, self-destructive gay lover Chu Kuang, as well as the bored, mischievous overachiever Tun Tun and her alluring slacker artist girlfriend Zhi Rou.

Set in the late 1980s, Lazi is at university in Taipei but the focus of Notes of a Crocodile are her romantic endeavours and how she tries to open herself up to love. Lazi is quite reserved when it comes to love, and it’s like she gets to a certain point in a relationship and then becomes shut off and terrified about whether she has the capacity to continue to love someone.

Lazi is an interesting character because it’s like she’s searching for love and security but is also fiercely independent. It’s how those two sides of her conflict feels very relatable. She also ponders gender and sexuality, the feminine and the masculine, and where she fits within those binaries and if she even wants to fit in them.

A lot of the conversations she has with her friends are about love and how people feel about themselves and others. Notes of a Crocodile probably has the most communicative characters I’ve seen in a book in a while. There’s still instances where Lazi or her friends don’t find the right words to say at the right time, or she talks to a friend rather than to the person who is breaking her heart, but at least they’re talking and trying to figure out their feelings.

Interspersed in the main narrative, there’s the story of the crocodile – a semi-human creature that the general human population of Taiwan are simultaneously intrigued by and scared of. The crocodile is a metaphor for queer people in Taiwan and how they were treated, and how they can feel isolated and unlovable. It took a while for me to understand these crocodile-segments and how they fit with the story and how they related to what Lazi was going through.

I listened to Notes of a Crocodile on audio and I think the narrator did a good job even though the story was a bit disjointed. A lot of the chapters end abruptly, and sometimes the narrative jumps back and forth in time so sometimes Lazi is with Shui Ling, other times she’s over her, and then sometimes she’s still coming to terms with their relationship ending. Then there’s her friend’s various relationships that you see at different points too. It’s a bit confusing but the main theme throughout is finding somewhere to belong and a lot of heartbreak.

Notes of a Crocodile was an interesting read about a time, place and culture that I knew little about. Lazi is an interesting, flawed and sometimes infuriating character but that makes her feel more real. 3/5.

REVIEW: Dark Waters (2019)

Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a corporate defence attorney, takes on an environmental lawsuit against the chemical company DuPont that exposes a lengthy history of pollution.

Dark Waters is based on a true story and that makes this film and what the characters go through, all the more amazing and terrifying.

Rob Bilott is contacted by a farmer (Bill Camp) whose cows keep dying, leading him to believe there’s something in the water from a chemical company who has a landfill nearby. This is where Bilott’s investigation starts but over time it becomes clear that it is just one part of a decade’s long conspiracy. It’s like he falls down a rabbit hole and each piece of information he uncovers is as shocking as the last, especially the lengths to which the company goes to to cover things up, and how deadly their practices are.

Something that Dark Waters does well is show how much time and effort it takes to put together this case and get justice for those affected by the pollution. Bilott’s quest for justice takes up years of his life and the scenes of him going through hundreds of boxes of documents is just as gripping as when he’s in court or trying to convince his boss that they should continue with the lawsuit. Dark Waters is also the epitome of one of my favourite things (is it a trope? I don’t think so) in films – competent people being good at their jobs. It’s Bilott’s resilience and ability to think outside the box that allows him to make so much headway even when everything is stacked against him.

All the performances are great here and many of the actors have at least one inspiring or impressive speech. Ruffalo is brilliant as a man who puts everything on the line, including his career and his homelife, to do the right thing, and continuing to fight even when this huge corporation with all their money and power throws so many hurdles in his way to try and stop him. While Dark Waters is definitely Ruffalo’s movie, the supporting cast are all terrific to. Tim Robbins and Bill Pullman deserve a mention but it’s Anne Hathaway that stood out in the supporting cast. She plays Rob Bilott’s wife and while naturally she has a smaller role, it is still an important one. These court cases and the investigation takes up Rob’s life for years, and it’s important to see how this affects his family, and while his wife is understanding of why he has to do this, she is the one keeping everything together.

It’s easy to compare Dark Waters to the likes of Spotlight and Erin Brockovich; Spotlight for Ruffalo and the investigative aspect and Erin Brockovich for the one person fighting against the big corporation. Dark Waters is easily as good as those two films, but it also stands on its own merits. It’s an engaging investigative movie where unfortunately you’re left feeling equal parts stunned and unsurprised that corporate corruption and greed can be so powerful.

It’s a film that needs to be seen, because the products that this company makes are just everyday things that are in everyone’s homes, and I for one was unaware of what the chemicals they produced could do, and how prevalent they are. 5/5.

REVIEW: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

Narrated by Michael Page.

Locke Lamora is the leader of the Gentleman Bastards, a small gang of thieves who are masters of the long con. They are not the petty criminals the other gangs of the city of Camorr think they are, instead they steal from the rich putting together heists full of disguises and trickery. The Lies of Locke Lamora follows the Gentleman Bastards as they start the ball rolling on their latest con, but there’s more going on here with challenges to the power structure of the criminal underworld of Camorr and bigger threats than they’ve ever encountered.

I loved this book and I’m annoyed at myself that it’s taken me so long to read it. I started reading it on my kindle way back in 2013, I got about 150 pages in but then stopped even though I did like the atmosphere and Locke as a character. I think the reason I stopped (besides life getting in the way) was because the beginning is a bit slow as it has a lot of things to set up. It’s more character focussed so you learn about who the Gentleman Bastards are and how they work, and how this whole world works with both the upper-class and the lower-class systems of Camorr too. Seven years later I tried again and this time I went with the audiobook which I thought was brilliant. The narrator did such a good job a distinguishing between the many characters in the story and he really brought this world to life, along with its dark humour. The Lies of Locke Lamora surprised me with how funny it is. A lot of that come from Locke’s sarcastic thoughts or his reactions to the situations he ends up in, and I just love characters with deadpan humour and who aren’t afraid to “Well shit, this isn’t going how I thought it would.”

The city of Camorr is kind of Venice-like with its canals and boats and the changing weather. The setting is also a bit historical and feels like the seventeenth century with the clothes they wear, the rules of society, and the style of language they use – though there is a lot of modern and inventive swearing too. However, there’s also some magical elements or alchemy to this world too, but it’s all weaved together in a way that makes it feel so real. Your plopped straight into the story and the setting is built up around the characters and the plot in an organic way and it never feels like there’s an infodump.

The structure of The Lies of Locke Lamora is really interesting. There’s the present where Locke and the Gentleman Bastards are grown up and conning noble people, and there’s interludes or flashbacks to when the Gentleman Bastards are children, where you see how they meet, and how they learn to be great thieves. The flashbacks were so great because they not only added backstory and layers to the characters, but they are just as engaging as the action in the present. I never got bored or annoyed when there was a flashback, even if one happened when the tension and the action was amping up in the present.

The characters are brilliant and are so lifelike. While they are all thieves and conmen, the Gentleman Bastards all have their own distinct quirks and personalities. The relationships between the Gentleman Bastards, in their various combinations, are wonderful too. They are more of a family and brothers in arms than just a gang. They all care deeply about one another and are willing to die for one another, and they all trust one another and it’s the epitome of the found family trope which I love.

Locke is a great leader of this family too. They each have their role and they often fit the archetypes of characters needed for a heist, and Locke is definitely the brains of the operation. That’s not to say he won’t bounce ideas off the others or listen to their advice, but he’s definitely the smartest one – and he’s often the smartest one in the room. His intelligence, and ability to think a couple of steps ahead is his superpower, so when there’s other people or powers who come into play that are potentially smarter than he is, that’s when things get even more interesting and you start to worry that these characters won’t make it out of this situation fully intact.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is such a fun and thrilling adventure story. There’s twists and turns and surprises, as with any good heist story, and there’s bloody fights and verbal battles. The Gentleman Bastards are characters I can’t wait to spend more time with, and I’m tempted to carry on this serious with the audiobooks if they have the same narrator because they were that good. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Tibet: Love in No Man’s Land by Duo Ji Zhuo Ga

Translated by Hallie Treadway.

The Changthang Plateau lies in the centre of Tibet. A vast, rolling grassland stippled with azure-blue lakes and ringed by snow peaks, it is home to seven-year-old Gongzha and his family who live, as their ancestors have done for centuries, by herding and hunting. But it is 1967 and the Cultural Revolution is seeping across China. Not even the grasslands of Tibet are immune. As the Red Guard systematically loot and destroy Tibet’s monasteries, Gongzha helps hide two treasures belonging to his local temple: an ebony-black Buddha marked with an ancient symbol and a copy of the twelfth-century text the Epic of King Gesar, written in gold ink. The repercussions of his act will echo across the decades.

Love in No Man’s Land is a sprawling epic that goes from the 1960s to the 1990s. In that time, you see how life for the families who live on the grassland of Tibet change a lot, but at the same time they still keep a lot of their traditions and history. For instance, even though roads and cars start to become more common, there’s still so many places where modern civilisation hasn’t touched it and people still live how their ancestors did before them.

The writing in Love in No Man’s Land is beautiful and evocative. It really paints a vivid picture of both the harshness of the vast grasslands but also the beauty of them too. With the mountains and lakes, the wild animals (wolves, yaks, antelope and bears all play a big part), and the changing weather, it all feels so magical and far-removed from “the real world”.

Love (as you might guess from the books title) is a big theme of this book. Gongzha has a childhood sweetheart, he loves his family and he’s respectful of the grassland and the creatures who live there. He has a big heart and seeing him deal with tragedy from a young age (death and violence are not uncommon in the communities he is a part of) and how that shapes him is interesting.

As well as Gongzha and his personal journey, a big part of Love in No Man’s Land is this mystery surrounding an ancient symbol. It’s in caves, on statues, on bears, and it seems to be a part of the very essence of the grassland. Gongzha encounters it at different points in his life, each time learning a bit more about his people’s past and how they could possibly be connected to the symbol, but it’s not something that he spends his life pondering.

While Gongzha is the main protagonist you meet a lot of different characters. These people dip in and out of Gongzha’s life, and sometimes they’re the children of someone Gongzha used to know, meaning it can be difficult at times to keep track of who is who and how they’re connected to one another. That being said, having so many characters helps this word feel lived in and real. Love in No Man’s Land is in the third person and while the majority of the book is from Gongzha’s point of view, a lot is also from the point of view of the various characters that are in Gongzhas life, even if for a short while. Some might be the focus for only a page or two, while others have more of a decent sized chunk. There are some coincidences where people encounter one another and don’t realise at first that they might have a couple of people already connecting them. But on a whole, these connections seem organic as they are a people who have lived in this part of the world for generations and rarely move far from their families.

I learnt so much about the Tibetan herder’s lifestyle and how it’s evolved over the years from reading Love in No Man’s Land. I think I preferred the atmosphere this book evokes more than anything and I didn’t always feel that connected to Gongzha which is probably down to us having so different lives. It was still a fascinating read – especially this mystery to do with the symbol – and a beautifully written one too. 4/5.

REVIEW: Troop Zero (2020)

In rural 1977 Georgia, misfit Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace) dreams of life in outer space. When a competition offers her a chance to be recorded on NASA’s Golden Record, she recruits a makeshift troop of Birdie Scouts, forging friendships that last a lifetime.

Christmas isn’t exactly happy; her mother has recently died, and she doesn’t really have any friends besides her neighbour Joseph (Charlie Shotwell) and Miss Rayleen (Viola Davis) who works with her dad, but she is a remarkably positive child. She likes to stare at the stars and is obsessed with space, so when she hears that a troop of Birdie Scouts will be able to send their voices into space, she will do anything to get to the jamboree and win the competition. Anything turns out to be recruiting Miss Rayleen as her troop mama and finding the most unlikely kids to be in her troop.

The Birdie Scouts of Troop Zero are some of the oddest misfits you might ever meet, but they also feel so very real. They’re kids that continue to be who they are, even when other people may laugh at them and call them names. They are unlikely friends but seeing how they each slowly let their guard down and start to reach out to one another is the sweetest thing, even if there’s some bumps along the way.

Troop Zero follows almost every cliché in the book (bullies, the popular team brining up every rule in the book to get in the heroes way, the community coming together) but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an enjoyable film and just about the most wholesome thing I’ve seen in ages. It tackles themes of grief, friendship, family and finding you voice and standing up for yourself and those you care about. Plus, it does all this in a funny and charming way and has some great performances from the young cast.

Mckenna Grace really is one to watch and with the supporting cast of the likes of Allison Janney, who plays headteacher Miss Massey who is equal parts funny and mean, and Viola Davis who does what Viola Davis does best, the characters in Troop Zero truly come alive and you can’t help but root for these ragtag bunch of misfits who find somewhere they really do fit. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Venezuela: The Conspiracy by Israel Centeno

Translated by Guillermo Parra.

When leftist revolutionary Sergio’s sniper shot misses the President of Venezuela, he’s thrown into a sudden tailspin. As he attempts to escape the increasingly militarized regime, he winds up taking residence in a bohemian beachside commune, where he keeps a low profile until Lourdes, his former comrade, the object of his desire, and his possible betrayer, turns up one evening. Pursued by their former trainer in guerrilla warfare on the orders of the newly appointed Minister of the Interior, the two team up with unlikely partners to hatch a new plan for their survival.

Reading The Conspiracy is an experience. You follow multiple characters point of views throughout the story, giving you a wider understanding of the events unfolding after the failed assassination attempt than the majority of the characters. The sections from Sergio’s point of view are in the first person and there are often very long paragraphs and run on sentences. His mind is frantic and that comes across in the words on the page. There are times when he doesn’t believe what he’s seeing or doing and sees threats from everyone, making his narrative even more jumbled up and like a stream of consciousness.

The other characters point of views are written in the third person and while there’s still often long paragraphs, they tend to come across more measured and in control than Sergio, highlighting how his grip on reality is loosening.

The women in The Conspiracy are often described in a sexual manner with greater attention paid to their physical appearance – especially when it’s from Sergio’s point of view. It can be uncomfortable and eyeroll inducing due to the overtly sexual and lewd language used to describe them. But, with Lourdes especially, these women aren’t just there to be visually pleasing to the men. Lourdes is smart and capable and can tell when the walls are closing in and will go down all guns blazing if she sees no other choice.

There are a lot of twists and turns in The Conspiracy and while you as the reader tend to have more of an overview as to what’s going on than Sergio, there’s still surprises and people turn on one another or reveal secret plans. It makes it difficult to tell who to trust and while you learn more of Loudres’ backstory, the way the story is written means that like Sergio, you don’t always know if you can trust her motives.

The Conspiracy is full of backstabbing and political intrigue, but the writing style won’t be for everyone though with its manic energy and an unreliable narrator in Sergio. But at just over 200 pages, it’s a story that goes by at a steady pace and is an engaging read. 3/5.