2 stars

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.

READ THE WORLD – Saint Kitts and Nevis: Only God Can Make a Tree by Bertram Roach

Adrian is the son of a black Caribbean woman and an Irish immigrant father and is blessed with the pale skin and European features to allow him social mobility in the rigidly hierarchical society of twentieth-century Caribbean life. He falls in love but is offered the opportunity to improve his social standing, and thus the rest of his life, if he can suppress his heart’s desire and decide with his head. Will he choose Julia, the only woman he has ever really loved, and settle for being an overseer, or will he opt for the plantation-owner’s daughter, Alice Mills, who could provide him with the social standing he has always dreamed of?

Only God Can Make a Tree is a short book at less than 150 pages, and it is a quick read both because of its length and because of the writing style. It’s written very simply and is very much a book where it tells you what’s happening and what characters are feeling rather than showing you through metaphors or flowery language. This makes it seem like it’s not a very well-written book as you can’t easily connect with the characters and the plot is just laid out in front of you. It took a while to get used to how it was written, but its blunt, on the nose approach to this story did make it easy to read and sometimes engaging.

For such a short book it covers a lot of time and different characters lives. Adrian is the main character but as the choices he makes have knock on effects onto the people around him, you get snippets from other characters points of view as they struggle to deal with the fallout of his actions. The latter half of the book spans more time as Adrian fathers’ children and they grow up and have to live with Adrian being their father and what that can mean for them.

Adrian is a character that’s equal parts infuriating and sympathetic. While his actions are his own, and they are often reckless and hurt women who do love him, he is boxed in by the hierarchical society and has limited options if he desires to climb the social ladder. Adrian has high aspirations in a society that won’t really allow him to have those aspirations. He is a man that’s almost trapped between two societies because of his parentage, he can pass for white a lot of the time, but at the same time many white people will never see him as anything but black and will treat him accordingly. There’s also how Adrian appears to be destined to make similar mistakes to his own father, and all the rum that’s available is not good for any of the characters.

The sections about life in Saint Kitts and Nevis in the twentieth century were interesting. White, often English, people still owned the cotton and sugar cane plantations but now they pay people to work the land, albeit very cheaply. The former slaves are now labourers. As not a lot of time has passed since the abolition of slavery, there’s still some tension as the white plantation owners believe that the black people are still savages deep down. Often the glimpses of Caribbean society and how it works were more interesting than Adrian’s life. Though that being said, how Caribbean society works had a direct effect on Adrian and how is life panned out so the intersection between the two was also interesting.

I read Only God Can Make a Tree in less than two hours but I’m not sure how long this story will stick with me. It’s a concise family saga that gives a unique insight into post-slavery Caribbean and how one man’s aspirations can have long-lasting and unexpected effects. 2/5.

REVIEW: Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017)

My review from when I first saw The Last Jedi is here and as this is the first time I’ve watched this film since the cinema, and it’s been a few years, there’s probably going to be spoilers in this review.

As Rey (Daisy Ridley) urges Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to train her in the ways of the Force, the Resistance is on the run from the First Order.

I’d not seen The Last Jedi since I saw it in the cinema, I did watch it twice then and was left feeling a bit meh about it. Over the past two years there’s been many people screaming about this film on the internet, both championing it and slating it, having problems with it that boil down to straight up misogyny or racism, or having genuine issues to do with characterisation and story. Honestly, the environment surrounding The Last Jedi online makes me somewhat hesitant to mention it, whether I had good things or bad things to say about it.

But after rewatching it now in preparation for The Rise of Skywalker, and just a day after I rewatched The Force Awakens which I love, I can safely say I don’t like The Last Jedi. There are some bits I enjoy, and the film looks great, but overall I just don’t like what happened to a lot of the characters or how (at least at the moment and The Rise of Skywalker could change this) it feels like a standalone film and the events of this film won’t have much of an effect on the next one.

My main problem with The Last Jedi is that it feels like a filler episode for a TV show. It is a very character-driven film. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it spends so much time focusing on its characters that the overall plot doesn’t really move forward. These characters do things, but often what they do is pointless because it doesn’t move the plot forward, or they don’t achieve anything and in fact more often than not what they do hinders the heroes in some way. Having characters fail isn’t a bad thing, it allows them to learn and grow and seeing characters fail can be interesting, but when their failures are for nothing, then there’s a problem.

Then there’s the characters and their characterisations. Firstly, I while I like Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) I do not like how Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Rey spend 95% of the film apart from one another. One of my favourite things about The Force Awakens was the relationships between Finn and Poe and Finn and Rey. Those characters instantly gelled and their chemistry was off the charts and I wanted to see more of that, and for Rey and Poe to finally interact. Instead there was a kit of stuff with Finn and Rose, which again I liked how their relationship developed but I wish it had done so when they were with the rest of the heroes.

Then there’s the characterisations. I think Rey and Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) arcs were the most consistent with what was seen in The Force Awakens but Poe seemed like a completely different person which is even more weird when you consider the fact that The Last Jedi starts immediately where The Force Awakens finished. There’s a fine line between cockiness and arrogance and Poe just leaps over that line. Considering in The Force Awakens he very much cares about what happens to his fellow pilots and follows General Organa’s (Carrie Fisher) orders, it’s just unbelievable he’d be willing to sacrifice so many lives in order to blow up a ship. Over the course of The Last Jedi Poe learns humility, battle tactics and to trust his superiors – all things that someone who is a Commander in the Resistance should already know, considering they are an experienced pilot and Commander.

With Finn it feels like this was a waste of potential. Finn is an ex-Stormtrooper and that could lead to so many interesting things instead of him just casually being able to tell people plans for various First Order ships when needed. You could have members of the Resistance not trusting him, Finn not trusting himself, Finn having guilt over killing those who used to be his brothers in arms, Finn wanting to help other Stormtroopers defect, conflict between Finn and Poe when he realises Poe’s the one who killed his friend and thus helped snap him out of his brainwashing in The Force Awakens. A lot of the time in The Last Jedi it feels like Finn is a secondary character; to Rose, to Poe, to Rey, when he should be one of the leads.

I feel like I’ve just been talking about the problems I have with this film, but I do like some things about The Last Jedi. Even though he’s not in it much, I really like Benicio del Toro’s character, he’s a conman and a thief and not a nice guy but I do have a soft spot for that kind of character. I like the action sequences too. The fight in the throne room between Rey and Kylo Ren is fantastic to watch and it’s exciting to see these two enemies fight side by side if only for a moment. I also think the fight between Kylo Ren and Luke is clever and I like what it allows the rest of the heroes to do.

I also like the idea of Luke being ashamed for what he did – or didn’t – do when training Kylo Ren and how he failed him and his family. I like how resistant he was to train Rey and how scared he was of her strength. That all made sense to me, but I don’t have the nostalgia or strong love for the original Star Wars characters. Perhaps that’s why the choices made about the new characters I fell in love with in The Force Awakens hurt so much.

All in all, I found The Last Jedi to be rather disappointing on rewatch. In some ways it’s almost style over substance as it’s a very visually appealing film and there’s sequences that are entertaining in isolation but when you look at the broader story and how the characters act, it’s just not an enjoyable time. 2/5.

REVIEW: The Knight Before Christmas (2019)

When medieval English knight Sir Cole (Josh Whitehouse) is magically transported to present day Ohio, he meets high school science teacher Brooke (Vanessa Hudgens) and together they must figure out how he can complete his quest in order to return home.

The Knight Before Christmas is one of those Christmas films that is most definitely not good, but at times it can be weirdly watchable and that’s mostly down to the charm of Vanessa Hudgens.

The Knight Before Christmas is a classic fish out of water tale. Being a medieval knight Cole knows nothing about anything from technology to food and everything in between. This leads to what are supposed to be funny moments – sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t. After Brooke hits Cole with her car she takes him in as she feels bad and it’s obvious that he’s lost his memory what with him having old fashioned speech patterns and believing he’s a fourteenth century knight and all.

You do have to give Netflix kudos for having a character in The Knight Before Christmas sitting down and watching another one of the Christmas films. I guess it makes sense in terms of costs and the legalities but it’s still kind of funny. I’m pretty sure they namedropped a fictional country that features in another of their Christmas films too. Does this mean that there’s a Netflix Christmas Film Cinematic Universe?

The close relationship between Brooke and her sister Madison (Emmanuelle Chriqui) is nice and they feel like believable siblings without Madison being solely relegated to the supportive family member. Hudgens and Whitehouse don’t have a lot of chemistry but they’re not terrible together. As Cole and Brooke slowly begin to understand and care for one another you can’t help but wish they’d realise how they feel a lot sooner – but then where would be the drama and “suspense”?!

The Knight Before Christmas is cheesy predictable Christmas nonsense. It’s harmless but forgettable but Vanessa Hudgens’s charm and big doe eyes save it from being awful. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Barbados: The Polished Hoe by Austin Clarke

Narrated by Robin Miles

Trigger warnings for rape, sexual assault, racism.

On a Caribbean island in the 1950s, elderly Mary Gertrude Mathilda commits murder. As she explains herself to police, her story exposes the ugly underbelly of life on Caribbean plantations, with its slavery and brutality.

This is one of those books that I’m very glad I listened to the audiobook. The characters speak in creole and it’s something I find easier to understand when hearing it compared to reading it. A good 90% of the book is in that kind of vernacular as the characters talk a lot and describe events and places in great detail.

Even though I listened to the audiobook, I still found The Polished Hoe a bit of a slog to get through. The story takes place over one night as Mary Gertrude Mathilda gives her statement to the police Sergeant Percy. But her statement is more than the how and the why of the murder, it’s Mary Gertrude Mathilda’s life story and how it’s entwined with the history of the island. You don’t learn the how of the murder till the last couple of chapters but the reasons why Mary Gertrude Mathilda would commit murder is sprinkled throughout the story with the final reason that provokes her to finally act is revealed towards the end of the novel.

Mary Gertrude Mathilda grew up on a plantation, working in the fields, then in the kitchen as she got older. She was also repeatedly raped by Mr Belfeels, the plantation owner. The descriptions of their encounters and the assaults she experienced are vivid, but she also recounts them in such a matter of fact way that there’s a distance there too. Even as an adolescent she knows what is happening to her is wrong, but she also knows there’s nothing she can say or do to make it stop.

There are also long sections from Percy’s point of view. He’s been infatuated with Mary Gertrude Mathilda since he was a teenager and he struggles to put his fantasies aside when he’s with her, listening to her story. They are both well-written and well-developed characters, full of contradictions and flaws and aspirations. There is a long history between them and they each delve into a different part of it at different times throughout the book. You get the sense of how their friendship could’ve been much stronger if there wasn’t the issue of perceived class that divided them – Mary Gertrude Mathilda is well respected in the community because of her connection to Mr Belfeels while Percy is just a police officer, even if he is the Sergeant.

It was hard to follow the general plot of The Polished Hoe and both Mary Gertrude Mathilda’s and Percy’s trains of thought in the novel. While the story takes place over one night, they recount historic events and how it’s affected them both and the islands inhabitants. The story meanders from different times and places and jumps back and forth from different points and ideas. The writing definitely captured how people speak as Mary Gertrude Mathilda would start talking about one thing and then that would inspire her to go onto another topic before circling back around to finish what she was originally saying.

The Polished Hoe is well-written but while the characters are well-defined, the actual plot is thin on the ground and it’s more about two characters reminiscing about their experiences. It has a lot of detail of what life on a plantation is like and covers tough topics like racism, slavery, rape and white privilege but those themes, while obviously important, aren’t enough to make an engaging story. I kept reading The Polished Hoe because it was an audiobook (so it was easy) and because I wanted to know what Mary Gertrude Mathilda had actually done and what was the repercussions but unfortunately not all of those questions were answered in a satisfactory way or at all. 2/5.

REVIEW: Midway (2019)

The story of the soldiers and aviators who helped turn the tide of the Second World War during the iconic Battle of Midway in June 1942.

The first 20 minutes or so of Midway are honestly thrilling as the film opens with the attack on Pearl Harbour. Unfortunately, that sense of urgency and pace doesn’t continue for the rest of this almost two and a half hour-long film.

There are a lot of military characters and names to keep track of. The main pilot is cocky Dick Best (Ed Skrein) whose cavalier attitude towards death puts his superiors including Rear Admiral Wade McClusky (Luke Evans) on edge, but naturally when things are at their breaking point he’s just the kind of guy they need.

It’s a pleasant surprise that the film spends time with the Japanese characters, the admirals and soldiers who planned and carried out the attacks on Pearl Harbour and Midway, and tries to elevate them from just being the Bad Guys. Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi (Tadanobu Asano) is the main character we follow on that side of the battlefield as he tries to bring glory to Japan without taking undue risks. In fact, the Japanese are almost three-dimensional characters, especially compared to their American counterparts that are largely comprised of clichés and strong accents.

The most interesting character is reserved intelligence officer Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) who had warned the Japanese were planning something big before the attack on Pearl Harbour, but his superiors failed listened to him. Now with Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) taking command, he is charged with predicting the Japanese’s next move. Their working relationship, as Nimitz slowly puts his faith into Layton and his team of codebreakers, some of whom are a little eccentric, is perhaps the most compelling element in this sprawling account of military underdogs.

The last third is full of aerial battles that are a sight to behold – seeing the pilots dive headfirst towards aircraft carriers in order to drop a bomb on target are nail-biting moments – but the spectacle becomes overwhelming and the various characters, the majority of which you know little about to care about them, are hard to follow in the carnage.

Midway does it’s best to offer a respectful account of events that took place and the men, both Japanese and America, who took part and risked their lives. The action is big and bold but that doesn’t allow any room for nuance. 2/5.