3 stars

REVIEW: Shirley (2020)

Famous American horror writer Shirley Jackson (Elizabeth Moss) finds inspiration for her next book after she and her husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) take in young couple Fred and Rose (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young).

I don’t know anything about Shirley Jackson and haven’t read any of her books, and to be honest after watching Shirley I don’t think I have much more of an idea about who she was. Shirley is a strange take on a biopic. Instead of being a linear story about Shirley Jackson’s life, it’s more of a character study about how she, and to a lesser extent her husband, affect and manipulate a fictional couple who come into their lives.

There are interesting elements to Shirley, but interesting elements don’t necessarily make a compelling film. There’s a lot of extreme closeups on characters faces, tilted angles and some beautiful cinematography but it’s not enough to make the film memorable. The costumes and set design are also striking, as is the frequently intense score, but it often feels like window dressing on a film with a plot that’s just not interesting.

Elizabeth Moss does crazy and intense very well. Her chemistry with Odessa Young is strong as Shirley Jackson turns Rose into her housekeeper/assistant/muse for her latest novel that she’s trying to power through writer’s block to write. Real life merges with the fantasy of Jackson’s would-be novel as scenes from her book play out on screen, with Young portraying the missing girl in the novel.

The relationships between the four characters are supposedly important to the plot of the film but so many of them are pushed to the side that things happen between certain characters so out of the blue it’s jarring. Lerman’s Fred is absent for a lot of the film and his relationship with Rose suffers as she becomes more enamoured with Shirley Jackson. Stuhlbarg’s Stanley is also largely absent but when he does make an appearance, he does have more of an impact. Towards the end of the film Shirley and Stanley’s desires are revealed but because the way the film is put together, where you’re not sure what’s real or what’s fantasy, it’s hard to see the threads that led everything to that conclusion.

Shirley has a powerhouse performance from Elizabeth Moss but the film that surrounds her isn’t as engaging and leaves you feeling a bit confused as to what it was trying to say. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Botswana: The Screaming of the Innocent by Unity Dow

When a twelve-year-old girl goes missing near her village, the local police tell her mother and the villagers that she has been taken by a wild animal. Five years later, young government employee Amantle Bokaa finds a box bearing the label ‘Neo Kakang: CRB 45/94’. It contains evidence of human involvement in the affair. So begins an undercover struggle for justice and retribution.

Predominantly set in a rural village in Botswana in 1999, The Screaming of the Innocent is a story of ritual murder and a cover up. Have to say I found the opening chapters very difficult to get through and uncomfortable to read. They are set in 1994 and follow the men who are watching young Neo and planning how they are going to take her. The description in those chapters is vivid as you get into the minds of deprived but powerful men, as they watch Neo, describing her young body in a sexual manner. It almost made me feel queasy and that was the most striking part of the book. Then there’s the five-year time jump, and it’s not till much later that you discover what exactly they did to Neo and again it’s in graphic detail.

The Screaming of the Innocent is a relatively short book (just over 200 pages) and I thought the way the story was told was interesting. From the beginning you know who the men are who took Neo, but you don’t know how they got away with it – was it corruption or incompetence. It’s a fight for justice as long-lost evidence is discovered and someone who wasn’t even in the same region when the girl was taken, is pulled into the village’s turmoil and becomes their spokesperson.

While The Screaming of the Innocent is told from multiple perspectives as different characters remember what happened after Neo’s disappearance all those years ago, Amantle could be called the main character in the present. She discovers the evidence and has no idea of the impact it’ll have on her life or those in the village she’s just arrived in. She is someone who wants to fight for what’s right and is very earnest. She has connections to lawyers through friends and she almost has a fake it till you make it in her quest for the village’s to find out the truth. It can be a little grating as she’s so serious and focused and doesn’t always seem to realise the potential consequences of her actions as she’s convinced her method is the best.

The scenes where Amantle and her lawyer friends discuss the case and theorise what might have happened to Neo and how and why the evidence ended up where it did for five years was one of the most interesting parts of the story. The Screaming of the Innocent doesn’t feel complete though as while Amantle gets the answers she seeks, there’s still the longer fight for justice still to come.

The Screaming of the Innocent is one of those crime/mystery stories where by the end of it you as the reader know the answers, and even some of the characters do, but that doesn’t mean they’re good answers or ones that give people closure or justice. It’s a bit frustrating really as personally I like my crime stories where everyone gets their comeuppance.

Still, The Screaming of the Innocent being set in the 90s and a place and culture so different to my own was interesting. I didn’t always like how it was written, it seemed very simplistic at times – especially after the impactful opening chapters – but the story was a compelling one. 3/5.

REVIEW: Corpse Bride (2005)

When shy Victor (Johnny Depp) practices his wedding vows in a forest, he inadvertently gets married to Emily (Helena Bonham Carter) a deceased young bride who rises from the grave to be with him.

If you couldn’t tell by the character designs, Corpse Bride is directed by Tim Burton. I wouldn’t call myself a big Burton fan, I tend to like his films more often than not, but his stylish flair isn’t something I’m particularly fond of. Still, the character designs are all Burton with exaggerated facial features, especially the eyes, and quirky costuming. The whole animation style is beautiful and suits the tone of this odd story very well. The grey, sombre tones in the land of the living is a sharp contrast to the characters and setting of the underworld where everything is that bit more vibrant and weirder.

Before watching it, I didn’t realise that Corpse Bride was a musical. While “Remains of the Day” was a catchy song while it was playing out on screen, it and none of the other songs, were particularly memorable once the film was over. The score though, composed by long-time Burton collaborator Danny Elfman, was really lovely. It often manages to be eerie but with a magical quality to it, suiting the action and setting perfectly.

The voice casting is really good, but the standout is Christopher Lee he plays the intimidating pastor. He steals every scene he’s in and he’s equal parts menacing and funny. Joanna Lumley and Albert Finney are also entertaining as they voice Victoria’s (Emily Watson) parents and they make a great bickering double act.

Corpse Bride balances the spooky with the charming very well and visually it’s great, but the songs and the story aren’t up to the same standard. With it’s less than 80-minute runtime, Corpse Bride is a quick watch and one that gets you into that spooky, Halloween mood but there’s not enough to make a huge lasting impression. 3/5.

REVIEW: Becoming (2020)

Documentary following former First Lady Michelle Obama during her 2019 book tour for her autobiography ‘Becoming’.

It’s easy to view the Obamas with rose-tinted glasses considering who has been sitting in the White House for the past four years. During Barack Obama’s eight years as President, I was younger and had (and still do) the privilege not to be too invested in politics – especially US politics when I am a Brit living in the UK. It’s since he left office that I learnt about things like his foreign policies and use of drone strikes.

Becoming tries to make you separate the Obama administration from Michelle Obama and for the most part it succeeds. It relies on the viewer to already have an infinity for Michelle Obama, to already like and admire her. Barack Obama does make an appearance in Becoming, but it’s very much in a supportive role and it never takes the spotlight away from Michelle. Some portions of Becoming are about Michelle’s time in the White House, but it’s about her experience and how the media reacted to her rather than the political decisions made by her husband and his government.

I read Michelle Obama’s autobiography last year (I listened to the audiobook which was narrated by her and I highly recommend it) and Becoming the film is a nice comparison piece to the book, but if you’ve read the book, this documentary doesn’t add too much to what you’ve already learnt about her life.

On her book tour, as well as the huge stadium interviews and discussions she has with different hosts, Michelle Obama also meets people – both young and old. One thing that Becoming does well is show the discussions she has with young people, and how they have been inspired by her and are still learning about themselves. Things they see as very normal, studying and working to help support their family while they’re still in high school, is an incredible achievement and shows their strength and resourcefulness even though it’s their everyday life.

Becoming is a nice companion to Michelle Obama’s autobiography and it’s just a nice documentary to watch to see what a thoughtful and compassionate human being is like, when so many of the world and political leaders today don’t seem to have one iota of empathy. There’s also the message of hope that Michelle Obama brings in Becoming, that on her travels around America, meeting different people that there are good people out there, and there are more than we are led to believe thanks to the media. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Bhutan: Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti by Kunzang Choden

Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti is a collection of twenty-two stories set in four different regions of Bhutan. The presence of the yeti is ubiquitous to the kingdoms of the Himalayas, where beliefs and attitudes related to it go beyond scientific judgment and analysis.

This short story collection is really quite interesting. Choden has listened and talked to village elders throughout Bhutan to write down the stories or folktales that had previously just been verbally passed down the generations. The way the stories are written are simple but effective and they do feel like you’re just listening to a tale that often has some sort of lesson for the listener to learn. A lot of the stories seemed like fables with the people who encountered the yetis (or the migoe as the Bhutanese call them) learning something, or making horrendous mistakes that then the listener will learn from.

The migoi are often described as “a giant hairy man with the features of a monkey”. All of the descriptions are very vivid, especially for the female yetis with their “huge sagging breasts… swinging and rolling on its chest” and there’s also illustrations in Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti which was an unexpected but nice surprise and it really adds to the stories. Everyone has an idea of what a yeti looks like thanks to popular culture, but to see how the Bhutanese sees them, which is generally similar to the Western version but has some different things like how they possess the “dipshing” which enables it to turn invisible at will.

Some of the stories in Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti are quite gruesome as the people who encounter the yeti either anger it and therefore it harms them, or from their own fear or desire to be perceived as strong, they do their best to capture or kill the yeti.

Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti is a short but interesting read. It’s fun to hear different stories about yetis and how while they generally have similar attributes throughout the different regions of Bhutan, there are some differences in terms of the spirituality or legends surrounding the yetis. 3/5.

REVIEW: The New Mutants (2020)

The saga of The New Mutants production and release is almost legendary at this point. Different cuts were made, reshoots happened and the release date got pushed back by at least two years and was then released after the supposed peak of a global pandemic. What a legacy this film has.

The New Mutants follows Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt) who wakes up in a facility after her home is destroyed. There she’s told by Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga) that she’s a mutant and she and the four other teenagers are there to learn how to control their powers.

The New Mutants gets props for attempting something different within the comic book/superhero genre. There’s a small group of superpowered people (something we’re all familiar with by now) but instead of being in a safe and nurturing environment to learn about their powers like we’ve seen in previous X-Men movies, these teens are in what is called a hospital but is more like a creepy mental institution from a horror movie. There’s cameras and microphones everywhere and Dr Reyes likes to do tests on them and send them to solitary confinement if they misbehave. And that’s before each of the teens start to see and experience unexplainable horrors.

These mutant characters aren’t ones that are so easily recognisable. Personally while they’re regular human names didn’t instantly mean something to me, like Scott Summers would for instance, as their powers were slowly revealed I realised that all but one of the five were in the latter seasons of the X-Men: Evolution cartoon series. I highly recommend that series (it does the Apocalypse storyline brilliantly) especially if you want to see more of these characters as I feel it’s unlikely they’ll get a movie sequel.

Danielle is a nice enough character but isn’t particularly compelling. Her scenes with Rahne (Maisie Williams) are the best as their hesitant but blossoming relationship is an unexpected bright spot in a film where all the characters have or currently are experiencing great trauma. Anya Taylor-Joy often steals the limelight as the cutting Illyana, while Sam Guthrie and Henry Zaga aren’t given much to work with as their characters are the stereotypical quiet but nice guy and the brash jock type respectively.

After all the wait, The New Mutants is just fine really. It could’ve been scarier, and it could’ve delved more into these characters, so it doesn’t end up fulfilling the potential of its concept. It has a 90 minute runtime and you do feel that, an extra 20 minutes could’ve done wonders for character development and allowed for scenes to breathe as it was hard to gauge how long Danielle and the others had been in the facility before everything went wrong. Overall, The New Mutants is perfectly serviceable but not one to rush out to see during a pandemic. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Liberia: She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore

Narrated by Wayétu Moore.

Gbessa, exiled from the West African village of Lai, is starved, bitten by a viper, and left for dead, but still she survives. June Dey, raised on a plantation in Virginia, hides his unusual strength until a confrontation with the overseer forces him to flee. Norman Aragon, the child of a white British colonizer and a Maroon slave from Jamaica, can fade from sight when the earth calls him. When the three meet in the settlement of Monrovia, their gifts help them salvage the tense relationship between the African American settlers and the indigenous tribes, as a new nation forms around them.

I enjoy memoirs narrated by the author, but this was the first fiction audiobook I’ve listened to that was narrated by the author which was an interesting experience, and I think Moore did a good job.

She Would Be King has beautiful, lyrical writing which was very nice to listen to. I’m not sure how easy I’d have found it to physically read the story though. As She Would Be King is narrated by an omnipresent voice, one you learn who it is and how they relate to the characters as the story progresses, and I think that makes it feel like you are being told this mythical tale by an old storyteller.

While the writing in She Would Be King is generally poetic, the violence Gbessa, June Dey, Norman and many other characters face is not glossed over. The beatings, whippings and forced abortion are written in detail, forcing you to face the atrocities’ that were committed to generations of people.

She Would Be King is a mix of historical fiction and fantasy. It takes place during the early-mid 1800s and the effects of slavery and colonialism is a big part of the characters lives. June Dey is raised on a plantation while Norman Aragon grows up being measured and experimented on by his father as he tries to learn more about the power he believes his son has inherited. Gbessa is the only one of the three who has always lived in West Africa, but with her dark skin and red hair she was shunned by the villagers and called a witch. The fantasy element, though it probably could be classed as magical realism, is the fact three characters all have “superpowers”, immortality, invisibility and being bullet proof. How they each discover these abilities and how they, and others, react to them is a big part of their growth as characters.

The pacing of She Would Be King is uneven, and with this all-knowing narrator it’s hard to get into begin with. Some elements of the story seem rushed and then in others it’s difficult to tell how much time has passed for a character, for instance I was surprised when a character said Gbessa had been in certain town for five years, I wouldn’t have said it was that long.

She Would Be King is a magical story about the formation of Liberia, how people can change, how they can find their own family or home, but also how they can’t forget about who they are. She Would Be King feels like a retelling of a legend, it can be hard to follow or connect with some characters at times, but it’s still and impressive tale. 3/5.

REVIEW: Table 19 (2017)

After being dumped by her the best man Teddy (Wyatt Russell), former-maid of honour Eloise (Anna Kendrick) decides to attend her oldest friend’s wedding anyway, only to find herself seated at Table 19 – the table for guests who really should’ve known to RSVP no.

Table 19 is one of those quirky wedding comedies but not all the jokes land. In fact, it’s the sort of comedy that’ll raise a smile rather than a full-on laugh though it has a surprising sweeter side to it. It’s that balance between odd characters, drama and humour that the script struggles with at times. While the jokes don’t always hit the spot, it’s the quick dialogue between characters that really work, providing witty character moments and some heartfelt ones too. Also, Anna Kendrick really nails a very fast monologue that’s makes a lot of exposition entertaining.

It’s the characters and their relationships that are the most interesting thing about Table 19. On the table with Eloise are Nanny Jo (June Squibb), married couple Bina and Jerry Keep (Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson), teenager Renzo (Tony Revolori) and nephew of the father of the bride Walter (Stephen Merchant). They are unlikely tablemates and each of them have their own idiosyncrasies.

Table 19 really captures how messy life can be, and how an occasion like a wedding where you’re supposed to be happy and a loved-up couple are the centre of attention can really bring things to a head. While Eloise is the main character, each of her tablemates have something going on in their lives, some of which you learn more about than others. They each are lonely in different ways and meeting at this wedding is possibly the best thing that could happen to them all.

Table 19 is sweet, the cast are all great in their roles and having a plot that’s so contained to one venue means you can focus in on these characters and how their relationships may develop if given the chance. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)

Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund Pevensie (Skandar Keynes) return to Narnia with their annoying cousin Eustace (Will Poulter) reluctantly in tow. There they reunite with Caspian (Ben Barnes) aboard the royal ship The Dawn Treader and join him on his quest to find seven missing Lords.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the Narnia film I’ve seen the least. In fact, I think I’ve only seen it once before this viewing and that was not long after it was released on DVD so watching it now was almost like the first time I remembered that little about it.

Having the adventure set at sea with the heroes travelling from island to island, with each island being different and having their own mystery or problem to solve, keeps the film interesting and it evolves the world of Narnia. However, this island hoping is a double-edged sword as none of the places or creatures they discover feel fully developed, and a lot of them feel like checkpoints as they travel to their final destination.

The special effects creating sea creatures and dragons are great, but it’s a shame some of the practical effects and make up used to bring creatures like minotaurs to life in previous films, is swapped out for computer wizardry. Having watched the Narnia films back to back, little things like that stand out.

Perhaps another thing that’s more obvious as I’ve watched all the Narnia films in row, is that some of the characterisation is a bit off. Edmund seems to have picked up some of his brother’s traits of feeling more entitled about being royalty – both in his own world and in Narnia – when previously he’d been more accepting of what had happened to him. This leads to conflict between Edmund and Caspian, conflict that’s exacerbated by outside forces, and neither of them talk about it again or apologise which felt weird and wrong for both their characters.

Eustace is not a nice person when he arrives in Narnia. He’s a tattletale, spoilt and complains about everything, so naturally his time in Narnia offers him a chance to grow up and become a better person. The script and Will Poulter’s performance both do a good job at actually making you care about Eustace, as he is really annoying to begin with. He goes from being a character that’s entertaining to dislike, to one that actually has some redeeming qualities and surprisingly is one you find yourself liking.

It is a shame the powers that be never continued with this film series. Well, there’s supposed to be an adaptation of The Silver Chair but who knows if that’ll ever come to fruition. While the setting of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a lot different to the previous outings in Narnia, a lot of the heart and charm is still there. 3/5.

REVIEW: Skyscraper (2018)

Framed for the unfolding disaster, security expert Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) must infiltrate the world’s tallest building as it burns to save his family who are trapped inside with criminals.

If the premise of Skyscraper sounds familiar to you, that’s probably because you’ve seen some variation of this film before and it hits some pretty generic action beats to move the plot along. It’s also very easy to make comparisons to Die Hard and The Towering Inferno. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say Skyscraper is a combination of the two. Luckily for Skyscraper it has Dwayne Johnson as it’s lead, so some terrible dialogue and recycled plot points are easier to ignore.

Honestly the charisma and star power of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson really has to be admired as he will make any generic action film watchable. Will Sawyer is a compelling character who happens to be ex-military and is an amputee with a prosthetic leg. Having the hero of this disaster movie be more vulnerable was a nice touch. While Will was still strong and capable of running through fires, climbing buildings and fighting bad guys, there are moments where he has to stop and check his prosthetic leg over. Plus, as the days turmoil goes on it shows how having a prosthetic leg can be both a help and a hinderance in this unique situation. There are some action sequences that make use of the prosthetic leg, but on the whole, it is just shown as a part of him and that he is just fighting to save his family.

The performances from the supporting cast are solid too with people like Noah Taylor and Chin Han showing up making you go “I know him from somewhere!” Neve Campbell plays Sarah, Will’s wife, and she actually ends up with more to do than you think.

The set pieces are pretty spectacular, and I imagine seeing Skyscraper on a big screen would’ve made them even more impressive – and maybe even a sense of vertigo. The sequences where Will is climbing outside of the building, or his family is running through the burning building are good though the closer hand to hand fight scenes are a bit harder to follow and look a little messy at times.

Skyscraper isn’t really anything new to the disaster/action move genre, and it’s more serious than you’d expect, but it’s still reasonably enjoyable even if you can predict a lot of what happens and everything gets wrapped up unexpectedly quickly. 3/5.