3 stars

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.

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.

READ THE WORLD: Bangladesh – The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam

Maya Haque – outspoken, passionate, headstrong – has been estranged from her brother Sohail for almost a decade. When she returns home to Dhaka hoping for a reconciliation, she discovers he has transformed beyond recognition. Can the two, both scarred by war, come together again? And what of Sohail’s young son, Zaid, caught between worlds but desperate to belong?

I didn’t realise this until I went to Goodreads to mark this book as read, but The Good Muslim is the sequel to A Golden Age. I didn’t know The Good Muslim was a sequel and I don’t feel I really missed out on anything as it reads like a standalone novel.

The chapters alternate between different points in time, the early 1970s and the mid-1980s. The chapters in the early 1970s are during the aftermath of the Bangladesh Liberation War, as Sohail comes back from the war and he and his family attempt to get used to what peace means. The chapters in the 1980s are when Maya has returned home after being away for over seven years. She struggles to reconnect with her brother and a nephew she doesn’t know. The vast majority of The Good Muslim is from Maya’s point of view, in both the flashbacks and the present day.

A lot of the tragedy of these two siblings drifting apart comes from the fact that they are so different. They are either headstrong or reserved, and either they don’t listen to one another or are unwilling to talk about their experiences. Sohail is haunted by his actions during the war, while Maya has been dealing with the aftereffects of the war as she has worked in clinics across the country, performing abortions on women who were raped by soldiers and were shunned by their families. Both Maya and Sohail are affected by the conflict but they deal with it in different ways and it can be frustrating to see how they keep meeting at cross-purposes when they clearly did care about one another.

The rift that developed between Maya and Sohail is ultimately down to religion. After the war, Sohail becomes very religious, in fact he’s almost a zealot who appears to have his own followers and he forgets about all other responsibilities and attachments as he pursues his commitment to his faith. Maya doesn’t understand this or how much her brother could change after the war. Maya’s stubbornness is frustrating at times as she is so convinced that her idea of religion is the correct one and barely even attempts to understand her brother and his beliefs. Meeting her young nephew, she tries to help him as he doesn’t go to school and has no structure to his life. This adds to the conflict between Maya and Sohail as he has vastly different ideas of what his son should be learning and how he should be living.

The ending of The Good Muslim is what has the most impact, but unfortunately the kind of slow burn of a plot as you gradually learn more about Maya and Sohail’s experiences during the war and how that shaped them into who they are today, does take a bit too long to pull you in and make you deeply care about the two of them. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – The Channel Islands: The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B. Edwards

Narrated by Roy Dotrice.

Eighty years old, Ebenezer has lived his whole life on the Channel Island of Guernsey, a stony speck of a place caught between the coasts of England and France yet a world apart from either. Ebenezer himself is fiercely independent, but as he reaches the end of his life, he is determined to tell his own story and the stories of those he has known.

First of all, I’ll say that I did really enjoy the narration by Roy Dotrice. I don’t know if they are an old man themselves or they’re just that good at voices and accents but they truly embodied the cantankerous Ebenezer Le Page. It was like listening to an old relative recount their life in the corner of the living room and as they rambled on so much and mentioned so many people it was almost easier to just nod your head and tune them out. I think I might have done that with The Book of Ebenezer Le Page as there’s not a lot that has stuck with me and I’m only writing this review the day after I finished the audiobook!

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page is a sprawling epic about one mans life. Ebenezer is writing about his past 80 years of life and all the people he’s met, loved and lost. He is one of the oldest people on Guernsey and has never left the island. He talks about so many people that it would’ve been handy to have had a family tree! So many people that he mentions are his cousins (or second or third or fourth cousins), or sometimes they are known as cousins, but they aren’t actually blood related. Then there’s his friends that he talks about too that might also be distantly related to him in some way.

Ebenezer lives through two world wars and remarkably doesn’t seem too changed by either of them. Guernsey was occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War but while how Ebenezer dealt with the occupation is featured, it’s not an overly big or dramatic event – it’s just something that he and his friends and neighbours have to deal with. Having to just “get on with things” seems to have been Ebenezer’s life moto. He’s a proud man, and a self-sufficient one, and he’s happy to work for a living rather than getting a pension in his old age.

Ebenezer really is the epitome of an old man who has seen many things and just doesn’t know how the world works anymore. It can make him equally judgmental and oblivious. For instance, he’s very quick to judge some people and can take an instant dislike to some of them. However, when he opens his home up to tourists and has a gay couple stay with him, he thinks they are very pleasant chaps and doesn’t understand why a neighbour would say horrible things about them. It’s hard to tell whether he just doesn’t think “that sort of thing” goes on, or if he genuinely doesn’t care.

It’s not the events or anecdotes in The Book of Ebenezer Le Page that have stuck with me, instead it’s the feeling this book gave me. It’s strangely nice to hear someone, even a fictional someone, tell you their life story and see how it intersects with real world events. Ebenezer has a distinct narrative voice so even though he is obviously telling you about the various events and people in his life, they are still interesting because of how he felt about them.

I wouldn’t read The Book of Ebenezer Le Page again, and I’m not sure who I would recommend it to, but it is a strangely calming and enjoyable read and an interesting way to see how and island and its people may or may not have changed over the decades. 3/5.

REVIEW: Unlikely Angel (1996)

When performer Ruby Diamond (Dolly Parton) meets an untimely demise, she finds she hasn’t done enough to get straight into heaven. Saint Peter (Roddy McDowall) says she has one chance, she needs to reunite a workaholic widower father (Brian Kerwin) and his two children, rebellious teenager Sarah (Alison Mack) and quiet Matthew (Eli Marienthal) before midnight on Christmas Eve.

Everything about Unlikely Angel is cliché and easy to predict but that’s part of its charm. It’s sometimes nice to watch a film where you have a pretty good idea of what all the moments of conflict will be about, and you know everything will turn out alright in the end.

There are all the usual tropes, Sarah acts out wanting attention from her dad, while Matthew is scared his father is going to forget about his mum if they move on, and it’s up to Ruby to smooth things out. Then there’s the time limit element, as Ruby must reunite this feuding family and bring Christmas back to their lives before it’s too late for her.

The interactions between Peter and Ruby were equal parts sweet and amusing. They’re two very different characters but they bounce off each other well as either Ruby pesters Peter for advice, or Peter does something to stop her having “impure thoughts” about the men she might meet.

What I liked about Unlikely Angel was how Ruby grew as a person over the course of the film. She was always likeable (being played by Dolly Parton certainly helps with that) but she always looked out for number one before she died, but she grew to care so much about this family that she puts her potential future in Heaven on the line to see them happy.

There’s a couple of original songs written and sung by Dolly Parton in Unlikely Angel that will either make you get up and dance or profess your love to someone. “Unlikely Angel” (the song not the movie) is actually quite lovely and Dolly Parton’s voice is always beautiful.

Unlikely Angel is peak Christmas TV movie but with added Dolly Parton it means it isn’t quite as grating as it could be. 3/5.

REVIEW: Charlie’s Angels (2019)

When systems engineer Elena (Naomi Scott) blows the whistle on her employer misusing a dangerous technology, Charlie’s Angels Sabina (Kristen Stewart) and Jane (Ella Balinska) are called into action to save Elena and to stop the technology from getting into the wrong hands.

It seems that Charlie’s Angels has been predominately slated before it was even released here in the UK and, after seeing it, it definitely doesn’t deserve all the hate. That being said, while Charlie’s Angels is more entertaining than you might’ve heard, it’s not without its problems.

For almost every fast-paced and exciting action sequence, there’s one that is just a little dull. The same can be said for the comedy, some one-liners really work, while others really don’t. But, it’s the cast, who all look like they’re having a lot of fun, that make this film.

Kristen Stewart gets the chance to show off her comedic chops and steals just about every scene she’s in as the sarcastic and motormouth Sabina. Naomi Scott does well as the fish out of water Elena while still almost seamlessly finding a place amongst the super spies, while Ella Balinska gives a star-making turn as the serious Jane. All three of them have their “hero moments” and they are all really satisfying.

The supporting cast are all good too. The title of Bosley is now what all the Angels’ handlers are known as and Djimon Hounsou, Patrick Stewart and Elizabeth Banks all put their own spin on what a mentor-type character should be like. Sam Claflin plays Elena’s power-hungry boss and while he’s no in the film a lot, his scenes when he’s scared for his life are hilarious thanks to the expressions on his face.

The third and final act of Charlie’s Angels is when the film really comes into its own. Once the trio of heroines are more of a cohesive unit and all the motives and bad guys have been revealed, that’s when everything comes together. This is when you truly see what a Charlie’s Angels film with these three characters could be like and it’s so fun and entertaining that you wish the film had found its groove sooner. Seeing Elena, Sabina and Jane be proper action/spy heroines makes me hope that this film somehow gets a sequel because now this trio is a solid team, I want to see them save the world again.

Charlie’s Angels is fun. The humour doesn’t always land but the charm of the three leads pulls it through. The final thing I have to quickly mention is the costuming in Charlie’s Angels as it is brilliant. It’s so nice to see female characters in outfits that are practical but look good and show off each character’s personality. 3/5.