3 stars

READ THE WORLD – North Macedonia: A Spare Life by Lidija Dimkovska

Translated by Christina E. Kramer.

Zlata and Srebra are 12-year-old twins conjoined at the head. It is 1984 and they live in Skopje, which will one day be the capital of Macedonia but is currently a part of Yugoslavia. A Spare Life tells the story of their childhood, from their only friend Roza to their neighbour Bogdan, so poor that he one day must eat his pet rabbit. Treated as freaks and outcasts, even by their own family, the twins just want to be normal girls. But after an incident that almost destroys their bond as sisters, they fly to London, determined to be surgically separated. Will this be their liberation, or only more tightly ensnare them?

A Spare Life begins in 1984 but the story crosses decades into the new millennium as Zlata and Srebra grow together and have to make choices about high school, university, and relationships. Lots of people in their lives, including their parents, presume they are mentally deficient because of their situation but both girls are smart and capable. It’s clear from the outset that if they weren’t conjoined twins they could’ve had their own interests, friends and lives if they weren’t attached to one another by a small bit of skin and a vein.

People naturally don’t get on all the time, no matter how close they are, and for Zlata and Srebra to never be able to have their own personal space from one another it’s clear to see the frustrations both girls have. However, A Spare Life is solely told from Zlata’s point of view and personally I would’ve liked it if there were chapters from Srebra’s point of view to see what she thought of her sister and to see if their ideas of one another aligned. Though naturally the girls go through every experience physically together, it’s clear that they’re attitudes and feelings towards things are different and they have different interests and passions too. A Spare Life covers every problem the conjoined twins could have, from the mundane – how to use the toilet – to the more adult – what to do when one of them wants to have sex.

The collapse of Yugoslavia and the various conflicts different nations had during that time is like background noise to Zlata and Srebra’s childhood and adolescence. As they make plans to go to university, Srebra is the one who is most interesting in what’s happening to their home and the people around them, constantly reading newspapers and watching the news. Naturally Zlata also hears about these things but she rarely pays attention. It is interesting to see how different prejudices play out from a Macedonian point of view and how some of the conflicts I’ve read about during my Read the World Project play out in the background.

I found A Spare Life tough going at times because it’s a truly bleak story and Zlata goes through so much heartbreak that it’s depressing but then there’s so much of it you become desensitised to it all. There’s the hardship of being a conjoined twin and how that impacts every part of their lives but then there’s a lot of death surrounding the two of them. Childhood friends, family, loved ones, so many people in their lives die! Honestly it gets kind of much and sure, some people go through a lot of personal tragedy but reading about it here almost became tedious especially as the ones dying were often the ones who actually treated Zlata and Srebra well and like they were their own people.

Perhaps intentionally I found A Spare Life a book of two halves. The first being their childhood to early adulthood in Macedonia and the second half being when they decide to go to London and try and have the operation that would separate the two of them. I did prefer the first half as there was often the sort of childlike naivety to big situations and while they experience on traumatic event when they’re young, it’s not until they’re adults that so much of the death and depressing things happen to them. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Princess (2022)

When a strong-willed princess (Joey King) refuses to marry Julius (Dominic Cooper) her cruel suitor, her family is held hostage while she is locked in the tower of her father’s castle. To save her kingdom she must first save herself.

The Princess is one of those simple but fun action films. Its concept has probably been compared to The Raid or Dredd a lot already as instead of someone fighting their way up to the top of a tower, here our heroine is fighting her way down. Because the Princess is used to being underestimated. She was trained by her friend and mentor Linh (Veronica Ngo) in secret so when she wakes up and at the supposed mercy of her captors. She’s not going to wait to be rescued.

The action sequences are well-choreographed and fun as the Princess uses whatever comes to hand to fight before she actually gets her hand on some proper weapons. The lace from her dress or her hair pins become deadly weapons in her hands. She never shies away from an opponent even when so many of them are twice her size and it’s fun to see how she uses her size and speed against them.

The Princess has one of my favourite things in film when it comes to costuming. It’s where a character has one outfit for the entire film but over the course of the film it gets to look different thanks to what the character goes through. Sleeves are ripped off, skirts are caught and torn, various elements are added (some armour) or taken away (dainty shoes swapped for boots) and the evolution of the costume reflects the evolution of the character. With the Princess, she knows who she is and it’s how the costume becomes a reflection of that over time rather than discovering her true self. She wakes up in the tower in a beautiful, long white dress (clearly meant to be her wedding dress) and as she fights for her life it becomes more battered, bloody and well-suited for fighting hordes of mercenaries.

It’s honestly very therapeutic watching an angry young woman absolutely destroy dozens, if not hundreds, of men in her pursuit to save her family and to prevent herself from being forced to marry a sociopath. Sometimes it’s just nice to spend 90 minutes in a fantasy world where women can save the day and be near indestructible as they survive just about anything that could be thrown at them.

The Princess is a decent action film and one with women at its core. Julius’s henchwoman Moira (Olga Kurylenko) is more interesting than him, and the Princesses mother and sister are more rave and layered than her father the king. Then there’s Joey King in the titular role, she’s fierce and brave and fantastic. It is a shame that The Princess is one of the many 20th Century Fox films that has seemed to have been dumped on streaming services rather than get a cinema release since Disney bought the studio as it’se definitely one of those films that’d work well with a crowd. 3/5.

REVIEW: Jurassic World Dominion (2022)

Four years after the events of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom humans and dinosaurs are struggling to coexist. Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) are trying to keep under the radar, even as they help dinosaurs in need, to keep their adoptive clone daughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon) safe but when velociraptor Blue’s baby is taken by poachers they set out to save it. Meanwhile Dr Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) and Dr Alan Grant (Sam Neill) are reunited as they investigate the shady goings on at genetics company Biosyn.

Considering the premise of dinosaurs living with humans in the modern world is an interesting one and not one we’ve seen before in the Jurassic Park/World franchise, it’s kind of a shame that Jurassic World Dominion mostly glosses over that. Sure, there’s scenes towards the beginning of the film of dinosaurs clashing with humans and the bad side of humanity as of course humans would set up a black market for dinosaur sales and illegal breeding facilities, but people are for the most part just living with dinosaurs and all the chaos and danger that might cause. Almost feels like an allegory for how people/governments have dealt with and are living with a pandemic.

Like Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Jurassic World Dominion kind of feels like two genres of films in one. There’s the kidnapped child plot that the Jurassic World characters are in and the corporate espionage plot that the Jurassic Park characters are in. Eventually all the characters end up crossing paths and it at least ends more cohesively than Fallen Kingdom did.

The action sequences with dinosaurs are generally good. Some are well shot and exciting, others are poorly edited and are hard to follow. The last act of the film when characters are reuniting and teaming up against the dinosaurs and the evil corporation is the best as that’s when there’s a lot of good dino action happening almost continuously.

Having the original trilogy heroes back and seeing Dern, Neill, and Jeff Goldblum (because Dr Ian Malcolm is here too) all together on screen again is a delight. Sattler and Grant are still both fond of and exasperated by Malcolm’s whole persona and his swagger adds some much-needed levity to a film that at times can verge on being a bit dull. Having these three actors back, who all have great chemistry, playing three characters that still feel familiar even if they’ve evolved since the last time we’ve seen them, does make Pratt’s and Dallas Howard’s characters feel even more one-note than before. They are so generic that it’s a running joke on the internet that people can’t remember their characters names but in Jurassic World Dominion they both feel really flat. The fact that Dallas Howard and Pratt have negative chemistry is also abundantly clear when you have Dern and Neill’s characters just oozing longing and quick glances and you realise you’ve been waiting for almost thirty years for them to kiss.

Jurassic World Dominion is perhaps a bit overlong and disjointed to begin with but chase scenes with dinosaurs almost never get old and having Drs Grant, Sattler, and Malcolm back is what elevates this film. The other newer characters from the Jurassic World franchise are mostly forgettable – except DeWanda Wise’s Kayla Watts, she’s also a great source of energy and charm in this film. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Brunei: Written in Black by K.H. Lim

A snapshot of a few days in the life of ten-year-old Jonathan Lee, attending the funeral of his Ah Kong, or grandfather, and still reeling from the drama of his mother leaving for Australia and his older brother getting kicked out of the house and joining a rock band. Annoyed at being the brunt of his father’s pent-up anger, Jonathan escapes his grandfather’s wake in an empty coffin and embarks on a journey through the backwaters of Brunei to bring his disowned brother back for the funeral and to learn the truth about his absent mother.

Jonathan as a character could be equal parts interesting and infuriating at times. I do tend to struggle reading books from a child’s point of view and with Jonathan he seemed far more confident and surer of himself than the average ten-year-old. He does make brash decisions and argues with his siblings and cousin like any child would but sometimes he came across as older than his years with his ability to talk himself out of (and into) a lot of situations. Then there’s the times when he just seems incredibly bitter about everything he’s got going on in life. Some of it seems like a fair thing to be bitter about like how his father won’t talk about his mother and how he keeps missing her phone calls. Other time’s though it’s like that fatalistic attitude that teenagers have turned up to the max – I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with such a dramatic ten-year-old.

The adventure Jonathan goes on to find his older brother who might hold the key to be able to contact their mother is fun one. Just about everything that can go wrong does go wrong but Jonathan never stops trying to achieve his goal. He’s got this single-minded determinedness that’s impressive.

As an atheist (though I was christened a Catholic) I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the descriptions of Ah Kong’s funeral and the various traditions that Jonathan and the rest of the family had to take part in. The funeral is a Chinese one and there’s mentions of another character having been to Malay funerals but not Chinese ones, showing how there’s different tradition in each cultures funeral and that Brunei as a country is a mix of different people with different heritages, which was interesting.

Written in Black is a quick and easy book to read with an engaging story that keeps you turning the page. The plotline about Jonathan’s absent mother isn’t really given a satisfactory resolution though – or much of a resolution to be honest. In some ways it feels like his mother is avoiding him rather than his three other siblings and it’s sad there’s never really an explanation for that or anything to show that she cares about Jonathan just as much as her other children. Besides from that, it’s a fast-paced and decent coming of age story and Jonathan certainly does seem to mature a lot in such a short space of time. 3/5.

REVIEW: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

When Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) meets America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a girl with extraordinary but uncontrollable powers, he gets pulled into an adventure spanning the multiverse to save her and their universe.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is an interesting film and probably one where people may have expected more from its concept. While Doctor Strange does traverse the multiverse, he only spends a decent amount of time in a couple of different universes so it doesn’t really feel like a true “multiverse of madness”. That being said, this is one of the shorter MCU films of late at just over two hours so the lack of extra universes makes a pretty snappy runtime for a film that’s juggling a fair few characters.

Helping Doctor Strange on his mission is his trusted friend and the new Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong) and former Avenger Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). Personally, I love seeing Wong’s role expand from one MCU movie to the next. Benedict Wong is a charming guy and brings a likeability and stability to Wong, especially when next to Strange’s more reactive and harsher attitude. Wanda has an interesting arc and Olsen has always been good in the role but it looks like she really relishes showing a different side to Wanda. I’d be interested to know what people who’ve not seen WandaVision (or have forgotten huge chunks of it) thought of Wanda and her storyline in this film and whether her motivations were understandable and if there was enough context in the dialogue to explain what was up with her.

Dr Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) has more to do here than in the first Doctor Strange movie which was nice. In the brief moments we saw of her in the first film it seemed like she was smart and capable at rolling with the magical punches, and in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness that proves to be the case. Gomez’s America Chavez is an interesting one. The Young Avengers comics is one of the few series I’ve read so I did know about her before watching the film and I’m not sure they did the character from the comics justice. America Chavez should have more gumption and confidence in her abilities, which we don’t really see here. You could say this adventure is what helps her become the America we see in the comics than can be a bit of a copout – especially when so often male characters don’t have to go from meek and mild to a confident leader.

It probably shouldn’t be a surprise as Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is directed by Sam Raimi but there’s a lot of creepy horror imagery in this film. Raimi directed the original Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy and outside of that he’s best known for his horror films and he certainly brings the horror here. There are jump scares, evil spirits, and some gory and bloody moments too. When you continuously hear that directors can’t put their own unique stamp on franchise films, it’s nice to see something in the MCU that does feel distinctly different.

The score by Danny Elfman is also pretty great and knows how to amp up the tension and add to that unsettling feeling. There’s one fight sequence where music plays a big part and it’s really fun visually and audibly, and shows a different way the magic that’s at Doctor Strange’s disposal can be used.

I think the things people may love or hate about this film are the things that I can’t really talk about in a spoiler-free review. There are cameos and reveals, some work and may have a lasting impact, while others I’m pretty sure are just fanservice. It’s the inclusion of the horror-esque elements that make Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness standout but the problem I have with it, is the same problem I have with Doctor Strange – I don’t really like Stephen Strange as a character, and I much prefer it when he’s part of an ensemble. The start of the film is a bit slower but he’s at least with Wong more who mutes Strange’s attitude a bit. When Strange is front and centre, as he should be as the titular character, that’s when things get a bit shakier for me. A trope I love is “grumpy man adopts sassy teen” and though that’s the kind of dynamic they try and push with Strange and America, it just never hits the mark.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is often weird and creepy but it doesn’t feel like it did enough with its multiverse premise – or there were bigger expectations on it than it ever hoped to deliver. The acting is good, the score’s great, but there was never really enough to allow me to connect with the majority of the characters or to make me really feel anything. 3/5.

Sidenote: if you want a really great multiverse adventure, watch Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Y is for The Year of Spectacular Men (2017)

After graduating and kind of breaking up with her boyfriend, Izzy Klein (Madelyn Deutch) decides to move back to LA from New York and move in with her successful younger sister Sabrina (Zoey Deutch). As Izzy tries to figure out what she wants from life she makes the most of her freedom and binge watches The X-Files and meets many guys who could possibly be “the one”.

I feel after I highlighted the potential nepotism in Quincy, I have to give The Year of Spectacular Men equal treatment. It’s directed by Lea Thompson (who also plays Izzy and Sabrina’s mother) and stars her real-life daughters and while they both have acting experience prior to this film, it’s interesting to think if some of the scenes between the daughters and mother would have the same natural and comforting vibe as these three do.

The Year of Spectacular Men is kind of a combination of coming-of-age story, rom-com, and family drama and as it tries to be so many things at once, it doesn’t always nail each one. I think the aspect that works best is the coming-of-age one as Izzy is at a crossroads in her life, trying to figure out what she wants to do after university. She’s had many different ideas or interests that she’s picked up and then dropped and she is sort of in limbo when it comes to romance. She seems to simultaneously get really attached to a guy while also doing what she can to push them away. It’s as if because she’s so unsure of herself, she’s unsure of any relationship in her life.

Perhaps it’s a given as they are real life sisters but the scenes with Izzy and Sabrina are the highlight of tis film. Their relationship is the heart of the film and it’s interesting how though Sabrina is the younger one, she seems to have her life more together as she has a home, a boyfriend, and a blossoming career as an actress/model. It’d be easy to have Izzy be resentful of her little sister but instead she admires her, helps her and always wants to protect her – even from things that she really shouldn’t. it’s still an interesting dynamic as Sabrina is the one encouraging Izzy to find a job, helps her make connections, and just try and get her out of her spare room.

The humour in The Year of Spectacular Men is more of the quirky and sometimes absurd kind rather than huge laughs. Izzy see things in an unusual way at times and how she acts around other people is sometimes awkward as she’s not totally comfortable in herself.

The Year of Spectacular Men is a pretty breezy rom-com/drama. The familial dynamics are the best and it’s always nice seeing films about messy twentysomething women who don’t have everything figured out. 3/5.

X is for X+Y (2014)

Nathan (Asa Butterfield), a socially awkward teenage math prodigy finds new confidence and new friendships when he lands a spot on the British squad at the International Mathematics Olympiad.

Saying Nathan is socially awkward might be a bit of a disservice to him but that’s how IMDb phrased it. In actuality Nathan is Autistic. He’s quiet and likes things a certain way, he loves maths but isn’t good at physical touch. Autism is a spectrum and while Nathan is certainly reserved in social situations, it’s almost like he can pass it off as being shy, especially compared to Luke (Jake Davies). Luke is also on the British squad and he’s the almost stereotypical type of Autistic character. He doesn’t get any social cues, is abrupt and doesn’t fit in. At times it feels like X+Y is showing that Nathan’s Autism is the “acceptable” or “good” version when compared to Luke, especially as other boys on the team make comments about Luke and how obvious it is that he’s Autism to Nathan’s face, showing they haven’t picked up any supposedly obvious traits from him.

It’d be interesting to here from Autistic people to see how good or bad a job the filmmakers and actors did with regards to Autism. Both young actors are pretty great but how truthfully each of their depictions are, I’m not sure.

X+Y is as much Nathan’s story as it is his mum, Julie’s (Sally Hawkins). She struggles to connect with her son and she’s still grieving for her husband who died in an accident when Nathan was younger. As Nathan starts to make connections, noticeably with rival Chinese mathematician Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), it allows him to open up more and between them he and his mother start to bridge the gap between them.

X+Y is a bit of a formulaic film and hits a lot of the usual narrative beats but the stellar British cast does a good job at elevating it most of the time. X+Y is one of those films that’s tinged with melancholy and hope and is decent though predictable. 3/5.

U is for Upside-Down Magic (2020)

Nory (Izabela Rose) and her best friend Reina (Siena Agudong) enter the Sage Academy for Magical Studies, where Nory’s unconventional powers land her in a class for those with wonky, or “upside-down,” magic. Undaunted, Nory sets out to prove that that upside-down magic can be just as powerful as right-side-up.

As I near the end of my A-Z Challenge I wanted to watching something that wouldn’t be too taxing and found this Disney Channel Original movie on Disney+. It’s based on a book (which I haven’t read) and it’s almost a combination of Harry Potter and Sky High but that works surprisingly well.

Reina’s power is creating fire and she is good at it but lacks confidence, especially when Nory is no longer with her to be her hype woman. Those two are some of the best tween best friends I’ve seen in media for ages. Both young actresses were great and I really believed in their friendship. Nory’s power is that she can change into a creature, but not just one, she always ends up as a mixture of two or more animals which doesn’t fit in with the neat aesthetic of Sage Academy.

Honestly, the teachers at Sage Academy are the worst. So many of them are super strict and expect perfection all the time that it makes the kids unsure of themselves. Plus, as the sort of moral of the story is embracing all your weirdness and differences, there’s a lot of adults who are against that and the headmistress especially is dismissive of Nory. Skriff (Kyle Howard) is the groundskeeper/teacher for Nory and the three other kids whose powers don’t fit into the neat normal and he’s a bit jaded too to begin with but once he starts to help Nory and the others too, he becomes a lot more likeable.

Upside-Down Magic feels like one of the Disney Channel Original Movies that they actually spent some money and effort on. The young cast are all pretty great, the special effects don’t look terrible, and it’s a film with a good message and themes. The villain of the film is interesting and looks pretty good too, and how they build the weirdness and make a book super creepy is admirable.

Overall, Upside-Down Magic is a fun, easy-watch kind of kid’s film. There’s a lot of great friendships between various characters, like the bond formed between Nory and the other kids with upside-down magic, but really, it’s Nory and Reina’s friendship that’s at the heart of this film. They really are the best of friends. 3/5.

T is for The Trouble with Harry (1955)

The trouble with Harry is that he is dead and, while no one really minds, everyone feels responsible. After Harry’s body is found in the woods, several locals must determine not only how and why he was killed but what to do with the body.

Because some of Alfred Hitchcock’s most well know films like Psycho, The Birds, and Rear Window (only one of which I’ve seen but their reputations precede them) are horror or thriller films, I always get a bit surprised when I watch one of his films and find it’s a comedy. There’s still a dead body and the mystery of who killed him, but The Trouble with Harry is a much more light hearted film than I expected.

While everything does revolve around a murder the dialogue is often quite witty. As the characters try and figure out what happened to Harry and who was really to blame, the situation surrounding Harry’s body gets more absurd as by trying to save themselves, they might actually be making themselves look more and more guilty.

The Trouble with Harry is Shirley MacLaine’s first feature film and it’s so interesting to see her in a role like this when all the films I’ve previously seen her in she’s been a cranky and/of humorous older lady, granting wisdom or causing mischief. It’s clear she had her comic timing from the beginning and she has good chemistry with John Forsythe – even if their characters romance seemed a bit rushed. Though that’s probably because the events of The Trouble with Harry all take place across just a couple of days, meaning any reveals or blossoming romance between characters does feel a bit quick.

Even though there’s a corpse at the centre of The Trouble with Harry, thanks to where it’s set and all the scenes outside, it feels like a very autumnal film. It has a charm to it that I wasn’t expecting and is a very family friendly murder mystery. 3/5.

O is for One for the Money (2012)

Stephanie Plum (Katherine Heigl) is down on her luck when she gets a job at her cousin’s bail-bond business. Her first assignment is to bring in wanted local cop and guy from her past Joseph Morelli (Jason O’Mara), but as she chases him, she finds herself attempting to unravel the crime he’s accused of.

Based on a book series, One for the Money attempts to combine a chick flick with an action film to mixed results. It is perhaps more of the former than the later but thanks to Heigl’s easy charm and decent chemistry with O’Mara, their characters’ game of cat and mouse is an entertaining one.

There’s everything you’d expect from a film about a character who’s almost a wannabe detective. Stephanie goes around asking questions, makes friends with the local prostitutes including Lula (Sherri Shepherd) who helps her out and is funny, and has help from hot and experienced bounty hunter Ranger (Daniel Sunjata). It’s always nice to see a character who is fed up with their mother trying to find them a husband and who feels a bit aimless, actually find something she’s good at and enjoys.

One for the Money does lack a bit of threat and excitement though. While it does appear that Stephanie is being targeted due to her line of questioning, there’s no chases or particularly tense moments. The times where Stephanie is threatened by a big dude are resolved very quickly, not really allowing you to feel that she is truly in danger.

With a 90-minute runtime, One for the Money is a fun, breezy kind of film. Heigl is pretty great as Stephanie, though her voice over narration in the likes of noir thrillers doesn’t always work. However, Debbie Reynolds as Stephanie’s grandmother is a hoot and steals every scene she’s in. 3/5.