2 stars

REVIEW: Ready Player One (2018)

When James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the creator of a popular virtual reality called the OASIS dies, a virtual contest is created to compete for his fortune and for control of this virtual world.

Ready Player One is based on the book of the same name by Ernest Cline. I read the book back in 2016 when the hype for it was at its peak and to be honest, I didn’t really like the book. I thought the main character was creepy towards and obsessed about the main female character as well as being very arrogant and all around unlikable – and then there was this over reliance on pop culture references that ended up being more annoying than anything else. So to say I had low expectations for the film version is an understatement.

The film follows Wade Watts or, as he’s known in the OASIS, Parzival (Tye Sheridan) as he and his friends search through the OASIS for the clues to finding the keys that will lead to Halliday’s fortune. There’s car races and battles and so many pop culture references. Some references are very blatant while others are blink and you’ll miss it types where if you get it that’s cool but it if you don’t you’re not missing anything. Or at least, I feel that what the film was going for but as it relies so heavily on nostalgia and computer game and movie references, there’s a whole other level of enjoyment to potentially have with Ready Player One if you get all these references. Otherwise, when Wade is in the virtual world it does look great and there’s all these cool looking characters or items, but you don’t get any meaning from them – they’re just there.

Wade’s not as unlikable here compared to his book counterpart and that’s probably because while we do get voice over narration from him explaining what the OASIS is, you don’t spend all his time with his thoughts. There’s still a very rushed “romance” that’s terrible and Wade’s friends turn out to tick the ethically diverse box.

As well as Wade and his friends competing with other players to find the keys to OASIS’s future, there’s a big bad corporate businessman played by Ben Mendelsohn who wants to win the challenge in order for his company to take it over. It’s such a cliché and Mendelsohn is pretty great as the over the top businessman who’ll stop at nothing to stop those pesky kids, but it’s something we’ve all seen so many times before and they don’t do anything interesting with it.

In the virtual world, Ready Player One looks great and some of the battle sequences are engaging but on the whole the characters and story just seem flat. It’s also a pretty depressing future (it’s set in 2045) where people escape into the OASIS because everyone’s stopped trying to make the real world better. Ready Player One plays out like a video game and if you enjoy them and know a lot of the pop culture references, you’ll probably have more fun with this film than I did. 2/5.

REVIEW: Victor Frankenstein (2015)

Told from Igor’s (Daniel Radcliffe) perspective, the troubled young apprentice tells the tale of his unhappy life before being rescued and befriended by Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy) and how they worked together to create life where it should not be.

The story of Frankenstein is so well known – it’s the blueprint for the monster genre – that it is nice to see a film that does try and put its own spin on things, however that doesn’t mean it’s successful in doing so. Having Igor being the main character is new and having him being intelligent and not a snivelling sidekick to Frankenstein was interesting. He goes from being downtrodden and never having anyone care about him, or even see him as a human being, to being more self-assured thanks to Frankenstein’s friendship and belief in him – that turn around is very quick though.

McAvoy as Frankenstein is good fun, the way he annunciates certain words or gets into other characters personal spaces is unsettling as he seems like he’s living life on a knifes edge. His Frankenstein is obsessive and volatile and is indeed the quintessential mad scientist. The characteristics of this Frankenstein seems to take a lot of inspiration from Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes. In fact, the tone and filming and editing style seems to be trying to emulate the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films. There’s the bickering relationship between Frankenstein and Igor, the random slow-motion shots in action sequences, the illustrated title cards, and one scene where Igor runs through a forest seemed to be a poor imitation of a sequence in A Game of Shadows.

Besides from the ethical dilemma of what Frankenstein and Igor are trying to achieve, the main antagonist for them is Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott) who is investigating the thefts of human and animal bodies parts. He is also obsessive and unfortunately quickly becomes a cartoonish villain – though a verbal sparring session between him and Frankenstein is one of the more compelling parts of the film.

The editing in the scenes where Frankenstein and Igor have successfully animated a dead body and then everything goes wrong is not good. Especially in the final showdown it is difficult to keep track of where characters are in relation to each other and to generally have a good idea of the space they are currently inhabiting. It’s hard to keep track of what’s happening and minor antagonists are dispatched so quickly it’s laughable.

While Victor Frankenstein does attempt to breathe new life (ha!) into a well-known story, in the end the final act becomes a clichéd monster movie and the lead up to it often feels like you’ve seen it before due to character and stylistic choices being so similar to previous big franchises. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Bolivia: The Matter of Desire by Edmundo Paz Soldán

Translated by Lisa Carter.

Pedro, a Bolivian-American political scientist teaches at a university in upstate New York. Having become entangled in an erotically charged romance with Ashley, a beautiful red-headed engaged graduate student, he returns to Bolivia to seek answers to his own life by investigating the mysteries of his father’s past.

The Matter of Desire starts with Pedro arriving in Bolivia and in the present he is reconnecting with old friends, living with his Uncle David, and trying to learn more about his father; a political activist who was assassinated when Pedro was a child. The story also jumps back in time every now and then to show how Pedro met Ashley and the progression of their relationship.

Pedro isn’t a particularly likeable character. He is the epitome of the self-absorbed academic character and it gets old and annoying very quickly. Instead of focusing on academic work and research which are more challenging (and is what his university expects him to do), he has made a name of himself by being the go to academic for news sources to quote on any events or issues concerning Latin America, something that doesn’t require as much thought or attention. He even admits to using other academic works as templates for his own, copying their style and then overlooking figures and research that don’t support his claims. He just doesn’t seem like the sort of person who should be teaching, never mind the fact he got in a relationship with a student.

Pedro is also obsessed with finding out more about his father. It’s understandable as he was a child when his dad was killed, and his dad has become an almost legendary hero to the people of Bolivia as he was fighting against a supposed corrupt and totalitarian government. Pedro’s father wrote a book before he was killed, and Pedro is desperate to find hidden meanings in it and believes the book, like his father, is great. While the book also has a kind of cult status, it’s not generally seen as such a great achievement as Pedro thinks it is.

Admittedly I found the politics aspect a bit confusing. I know nothing about Bolivia’s political history and was confused when googling the names mentioned as some of them were real people, while others weren’t. The author may have been using a pseudonym that Bolivian’s or people who are familiar with Bolivia would know who was meant, but someone like me was left confused. Also, I’m pretty sure Pedro’s dad was a fictious figure, as was the city where this was all taking place.

The fact that naturally a lot of the books I read for the Read the World Project are translated doesn’t really register for me a lot of the time. I’m someone who looks for an enjoyable or interesting story first rather than how well a book is written. I would be interested in seeing The Matter of Desire in its original language though, as there’s parts of the book, often dialogue between a native Spanish speaker and someone who’s learnt the language, where there’s the odd word, phrase or sentence in Spanish dropped into the conversation. I think this is a prime example of Spanglish. A lot of the time based on context, you can easily pick out the meaning of the Spanish word or phrase based on the rest of the conversation that’s in English. I’d be interested to see if in the original Spanish version, the phrases that are in Spanish in the translated version, were in English in the original.

The first half of The Matter of Desire was very slow to get into. It’s difficult to become attached to a self-centred character and one who fails to communicate with a lot of people in his life including friends, family, and Ashley who he is supposed to love a lot. The second half of the 214-page book (which sometimes felt a lot longer) was a bit more interesting as Pedro was learning more about his father. Perhaps it’s cruel but I think I enjoyed that part more as the things he was finding out about his dad weren’t all good and it was taking the shine off the idolised version of him that Pedro had. Pedro was so obsessed with the fact that his father was a great man, that seeing him have to deal with the fact that may not have been the entire story was kind of enjoyable.

All in all, I did find The Matter of Desire a struggle to get through. I didn’t really care about Pedro and towards the end as more secrets and lies are uncovered, things seemed to get pretty complicated very quickly and without much of a clear explanation. 2/5.

REVIEW: Bloodshot (2020)

After he and his wife are murdered, Ray Garrison (Vin Diesel) wakes up with no memories, having been resurrected and enhanced by a team of scientists. The nanotechnology in his blood makes him a super soldier and near indestructible. But as flashes of what happened to his wife come back to him, he seeks revenge, not realising that there might be more to his resurrection than he was led to believe.

Bloodshot is an action/sci-fi film that doesn’t quite now if it wants to be cheesy and fun or overly serious. Vin Diesel is his usual growly self. Is decent in the fight sequences and does a good job at being confused when needed. The supporting cast are pretty fun, with them all fitting the usual tropes. After Ray wakes up, he meets Dr Emil Harting (Guy Pearce), the scientist who saved and enhanced him, along with other former military personal who have been given a new lease of life by Harting’s technology.

KT (Eiza González) is the former soldier that gets the most development and appears to have more of a moral integrity than the others. There are small moments with her that make you start to suspect there’s something more going on. Alas those moments are small because the answers are given far too quickly.

There is some intrigue to be had in Bloodshot but unfortunately due to the script being chockfull of exposition – honestly some characters just monologue on their motivations or backstory at the drop of a hat – the intrigue comes to nothing. It’s like the filmmakers didn’t trust the audience was smart enough to pay attention to some pretty big cues and to puzzle together what was happening themselves. Instead, anytime there seemed to be a moment where new information was being revealed, it was explained almost straightaway.

The action and special effects with the nanotechnology are pretty good. There’s an action sequence in a tunnel that really stands out. The action is contained to a small area and it really showcases the power Ray has at his fingertips. It’s also lit by red flares and the smoke and powder everywhere along with the dramatic score and slow-motion shots, makes it an aesthetically pleasing sequence.

That being said, another action scene stands out for the wrong reasons. There’s an action/chase sequence that’s supposed to be taking part in London, but it is so clearly not in London that it’s completely jarring. It doesn’t even look like the characters are in the UK anymore as they run down side streets and encounter police cars that look nothing like UK police cars. At a guess, I’d say it was filmed in a Mediterranean country because the houses and shops in the UK look nothing like the ones in that sequence.

The concept of Bloodshot is interesting and while the majority of the action sequences are well shot and engaging, the actual plot doesn’t live up to its potential. 2/5.

While I’ve included the trailer like I always do, I’d not recommend watching it as it gives away the majority of the twists and turns in Bloodshot.

Y is for You Again (2010)

When Marni (Kristen Bell) realises her brother Will (James Wolk) is about to marry, Joanna (Odette Annable) the girl who bullied her in high school, she sets out to expose his fiancée’s true colours.

There are so many things that do not work in You Again but perhaps the main thing is that there’s more chemistry between Bell and Wolk who are playing siblings, than Wolk and Annable who he’s engaged to. From the opening scenes where you learn how terrible Marni’s high school life was, her brother Will is always there to jump to her defence and while sibling relationships like that are great, as the film goes on the dynamic between them feels far closer than two siblings should be. And as Marni’s vendetta against Joanna grows, it often feels like no one would be good enough for her brother, not just the fact that Joanna bullied her in school. It could well be Kristen Bell’s fault for being adorable and being able to bounce off just about anyone.

There’s some brilliant female talent in You Again but due to a poor script (people who are a part of the same family talk to each other like their just acquaintances a lot of the time) and a generic plot, they don’t really get to show off their comedic talents that well. Jamie Lee Curtis plays Marni and Will’s mother while Sigourney Weaver plays Joanna’s aunt. Turns out that they were friends in high school that drifted apart for some unknown reason, so there are two generations of feuding women here. Betty White is in it too and she has some of the funniest moments, and while Kristen Bell is charming she is not great here.

The central themes of this film are not handled well. The messages that everyone can change, people can deserve second chances, high school shouldn’t define the rest of your life – they’re all great but are bigger and more sensitive themes than this not that funny comedy can handle. The conflict between Weaver and Curtis’s characters was more interesting and neutral. This is because for a long time you don’t know why they fell out, and neither does Jamie Lee Curtis’s character, and when everything comes to ahead you can see both sides and no one was the out and out villain. Unlike the situation between Marni and Joanna where Marni suffered a lot at the hands of Joanna and her friends, and there’s no way anyone who was bullied would want the bully to be a part of their family.

I’m potentially going too deep in what’s supposed to be a fun comedy, and comedies can have serious messages or stories in them, but You Again just doesn’t do enough to make you feel sympathy for Joanna or forgive her.

You Again has a few funny moments, Curtis and Weaver’s characters and history are interesting, but on the whole You Again is just a mindless watch with nothing that memorable about it. 2/5.

U is for Unforgiven (1992)

Retired gunslinger William Munny (Clint Eastwood) reluctantly takes on one last job, avenge a woman who had been attacked by a couple of cowboys, with the help of his old partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and a young man, The “Schofield Kid” (Jaimz Woolvett).

Unforgiven is one of those films that’s always recommended when someone’s interested in exploring more of the Western genre. Because of that, I was expecting to really like it but unfortunately, I did not. On the whole, I enjoy Westerns and even did a module on them at university, but I really struggled with Unforgiven and found it more boring than anything else.

Unforgiven is just really slow going. The majority of the film is just highlighting how old William and, to a lesser extent, Ned have gotten. They used to be the best of the best, cold stone killers but they have changed, becoming farmers rather than killers. William’s world weariness is balanced out by The Schofield Kid’s enthusiasm. The dynamic between the youngster, keen to leave their mark, and the older gunslingers who have killed and know the toll it can have is good, but really the characters don’t have much of a personality. They are clichés of the genre and many of the characters could’ve been swapped with others from the genre with little to no effect on the plot.

Everything finally kicks off in the final act and a lot of the previous heavy-handed exposition becomes relevant as you see the change William goes through. It’s a final act that works because of what came before it, but unfortunately what came before it was often dull or meaningless. There’s a side plot with Richard Harris as gunfighter English Bob which amounts to nothing and is only there to hammer home how brutal lawman Little Bill (Gene Hackman) is. However, there are other scenes before and after the ones featuring English Bob that show how nasty Bill can be, so is Richard Harris even needed here?

Unforgiven won Best Picture at the Oscars in 1993 and while I haven’t seen the other nominees from that year, I’m still somewhat surprised it won. It looks good, with wide shots of the landscapes and the film quality makes it feels like a much older film than it is, which adds to the charm of a Western as they should feel timeless. However, Unforgiven is an arduous watch. The performances are mostly fine, but there’s attempts at humour that often don’t work, and the story and characters aren’t particularly compelling. Unforgiven just really wasn’t for me. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Turkey: The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak

Sixteenth century Istanbul: Jahan is only a boy when he arrives in the city bearing an extraordinary gift for the Sultan. He has no family or possessions to his name except Chota, a rare white elephant destined for the palace menagerie. There they learn to guard against the scheming of animal tamers, gypsies, deceitful courtiers and the mischievous Princess Mihrimah. Jahan travels on Chota’s back to the furthest corners of the Sultan’s kingdom and back again. But one day he catches the eye of the royal architect, Sinan, a chance encounter destined to change Jahan’s fortunes forever as it enables him to enter the marble halls where the treacherous plot.

I found The Architect’s Apprentice a really slow read. That’s because it is more of a character study of Jahan and while there are incidents in his life, they are like a footnote in how he grows as a person. There’s really not as much action as I was expecting, especially with the blurb mentioning lies and deceit – I thought there would be a lot more political intrigue than there was.

A lot of time passes in The Architect’s Apprentice, it spans decades of Jahan’s life, and it really took me a while to realise that. I didn’t realise that Jahan was growing up because it seemed to take a long time for him to start maturing and evolving as a person. Plus, while things were happening to him, it just seemed like it was one event after the other and it was difficult to gage the passage of time.

For the most part I did like the writing in The Architect’s Apprentice. There’s some lovely passages and the descriptions of Instanbul and the various temples and buildings Jahan is involved with building and designing are vivid. It really does make the city feel alive and it often felt more of an interesting character than the human characters.

The relationship between Jahan and Chota the elephant was a big part of the story and one of the more interesting parts. They were incredibly close, and it frequently seemed like Chota understood what Jahan was saying and what was happening around them. The times when Jahan was with Chota made him feel like more of a real person as Chota seemed to bring out the best of him and he seemed more animated and not just a spectator in his own life when he was with Chota.

Perhaps it’s my fault going into The Architect’s Apprentice with vastly different expectations so what the book actually was, was a disappointment. Still if you like a slow-paced historical fiction novel set during the height of the Ottoman Empire then maybe try The Architect’s Apprentice. 2/5.

H is for House of D (2004)

Tom Warshaw (David Duchovny), an American artist living in Paris, looks back on when he was a teenager and the friends he had and begins to discover who he really is.

The vast majority of House of D is set in New York in 1973, and follows Tom as a teenager, played by Anton Yelchin, and his friendship with Pappass (Robin Williams), a mentally handicapped man who is often called a retard, his relationship with his mother (Téa Leoni) who relies of pills and is paranoid about keeping her son safe, and the quasi-friendship he was with an unseen woman (Erykah Badu) who is locked up in the Women’s House of Detention.

There is a lot going on in House of D in terms of themes and plot lines and the various relationships Tom has – there’s also the start of a romance with a girl at his school. Just one of these aspects could’ve made a decent film if it was the primary focus, but having to juggle so many different things means none of them are ever truly developed.

Based on the plot summary and even the trailer, you are left expecting more than what the film gives you. There’s a lot of set up for what could be a big, emotional and dramatic payoff but it ends up being more of a whimper. There’s no real satisfying conclusion to Tom airing his secrets and trying to atone for past mistakes as the payoff isn’t as emotionally satisfying as the lead up promised.

Really the thing that makes you most emotional watching House of D isn’t the story, but the fact you’re watching Anton Yelchin and Robin Williams together on screen and after both of their untimely deaths. While the story leaves a lot to be desired, their performances don’t – especially Yelchin. Even in a film that’s not that great you’re reminded of what an incredibly young talent he was as you see him hold his own against the likes of Williams and Leoni.

The tone of House of D is a weird one. It’s a story that is often very depressing, but it also has scenarios where you’re not sure if you’re supposed to be laughing or not. A lot of this comes from Williams’ Pappass. Thanks to Williams’ comic timing and visual comedy, he is funny, but because his character is mentally disabled, there’s that conflict of are you supposed to be laughing with him or at him.

House of D is a sad drama and it’s one that isn’t particularly memorable. It’s messy and somewhat insulting and insensitive at times, and really Anton Yelchin is the standout and only diehard fans of him should seek out House of D. 2/5.

REVIEW: Ophelia (2018)

Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) comes of age as lady-in-waiting for Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts), and her singular spirit captures Hamlet’s (George MacKay) affections. As lust and betrayal threaten the kingdom, Ophelia finds herself trapped between true love and controlling her own destiny.

Ophelia, as you might’ve guessed, is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet but putting Ophelia front and centre. As someone who only knew the bare minimum of what happened in Hamlet, you don’t need to know the story before watching Ophelia, though I’m sure if you did know it you might notice more of the things they put a spin on.

The performances in Ophelia are not that great, and in some cases are just bad. The likes of Watts and Clive Owen (who plays Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius) are fine but never really go full throttle on inhabiting characters have the potential to be interesting and entertaining. MacKay and Ridley have very little chemistry, and unfortunately Ridley’s performance leaves a lot to be desired. For instance, there’s some scenes that are supposed to be big, emotional moments based on other characters reactions and the score, but from Ridley’s performance you wouldn’t really think Ophelia is that affected by what is going on.

The period costumes and setting all look lovely. The costumes and makeup during a costume ball sequence are especially interesting, with Ridley having blue face paint around her eyes, contrasting with her red hair. Also, in another party scene, George MacKay has a lot of eyeliner on which is certainly a look.

The 1 hour 40-minute runtime does end up dragging a bit. The plot meanders along slowly and while every effort is made to put Ophelia front and centre of the action and in charge of her own destiny, in reality she’s still a victim of circumstance and the men in her life – Hamlet, Claudius, her father – still often have more power over her life than she does.

The finale is somewhat satisfying as all the tensions between characters reaches boiling point and the threat of conflict with a neighbouring country comes to fruition. However, it feels almost too little too late and it doesn’t have the emotional heft that you’d want in an epic finale.

Ophelia is a bit of a dull spin on a classic story. While the idea of having this story told by a female character who is unfairly treated in the source material, the end product isn’t as interesting as that scenario. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Vietnam: Night, Again edited by Linh Dinh

A collection of short stories by over a dozen different authors. These stories are about relationships, family, and show a side to Vietnam that’s not just the war.

Like with a lot of short story collections, I found Night, Again to be a bit of a mixed bag and unfortunately in this case I wasn’t grabbed by many of them. I thought the writing in them was generally good, and they each were like a slice of life for often very normal people. There were a few I really liked though.

One of them was “A Marker on the Side of the Boat” by Bao Ninh. This story was about a soldier who was saved by a woman, but then the pair of them are caught in a bombing. This was a fast paced and engaging story that pulls you in in such a short number of pages.

“Gunboat on the Yangtze” by Tran Vu was an unsettling one as it was about a brother and sister who have an incestuous relationship. It’s an uncomfortable read really as to begin with even though their relationship is obviously unhealthy, there’s an almost innocence to their relationship that it seems actually supportive and good for them. That strange feeling doesn’t last for long, as events quickly take an even darker turn.

A lot of the stories in Night, Again were dark or depressing. Even the ones that were lighter in tone had a sense of melancholy about them as the characters often had a bittersweet moment of realisation about their circumstances or who they were. I did get a bit of whiplash going from story to story as while a lot of them were pretty gloomy, there was the odd story like “Scenes from an Alley” by Le Minh Khue, which was a darkly funny tale.

All in all the majority of stories in Night, Again weren’t that memorable, but I’m pleased I read some stories that weren’t just focussed on a war, but often instead dealt with the everyday tragedies. 2/5.