3 stars

REVIEW: Peninsula (2020)

Four years after a zombie virus has spread across the country, South Korea has been quarantined from the rest of the world. A small team led by former soldier Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) come back to the peninsula in order to retrieve a truck containing $20 million in cash.

Peninsula is a sequel to Train to Busan, but as it has new characters and is set after the events of the first film it can stand on its own. It’s a similar scenario to 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later really.

I think the best way to go into Peninsula is to not think too much of its predecessor. Train to Busan was like lightning in a bottle in terms of a zombie movie with a lot of heart. Peninsula tries to capture the same emotions with familial relationships, but it doesn’t reach the same heights of Train to Busan.

Gang Dong-won gives a great performance as the tortured but capable Jung-seok. He’s guilt-ridden over what happened to his family as they were fleeing South Korea four years earlier so to go back there and meet other survivors gives him a lot to think about. On the peninsula he meets Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun) and her young daughters Joon (Lee Re) and Yu-jin (Lee Ye-won), and their grandfather Elder Kim (Kwon Hae-hyo). This little family is very likable and easy to root for but due to there being more characters outside this family unit and the heist/survival plot, they don’t get as much development to make you truly care about them.

As well as the zombie hoards Jung-seok and his comrades also have to deal with the soldiers of a unit who were abandoned by their government in South Korea. These men are mostly sadistic and greedy, looking out for themselves and subjecting any one they find to their cruel games.

The car chases as people try to either get away with the money, avoid the zombies or both are fun though a large part of them are done with easily noticeable special effects. Likewise, while scenes with a handful of zombies are actors in makeup (the zombies still move in an unsettling way and the makeup is very good), often when there’s a lot of them it’s CGI.

One could describe Peninsula as a zombie heist film with hints of Fast and Furious thanks to all the innovative car chases. The way people use lights, sounds and flares to attract or distract the zombies is really interesting and fun. All in all, while it doesn’t really hold a candle to its predecessor, Peninsula is a decent zombie film. 3/5.

SERIES REVIEW: Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo

As I said in a recent TBR post, though I read and enjoyed Six of Crows years ago I never finished that duology and I’d never read the original trilogy that started this Grisha’verse. Thanks to the trailer for the Shadow and Bone Netflix show, it got me reinterested in this series and now I’ve read the trilogy for the first time – and plan to reread Six of Crows and then read Crooked Kingdom for the first time. And then at some point I’ll probably also read the other duology in this world that has my new favourite character in it.

Set in a fantasy world inspired by Imperial Russia, Shadow and Bone sees Alina Starkov, a mapmaker in the army, suddenly learn she has a dormant but extraordinary power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. She’s whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling, and soon she learns nothing is what it seems as she may be in more danger than she realised.

Shadow and Bone is my least favourite in the trilogy. I think it’s partly because it’d been a while since I’ve read fantasy, and while it’s still a genre I like, just getting in that YA fantasy mindset took some time. Also because of general internet osmosis, I knew going into it who was the big villain so I was kind of just waiting for that to be revealed too.

That being said, I think it did a great job of introducing the really interesting magic system. I liked the fact that while the Grisha are powerful, they have their limitations. They aren’t all powerful in all types of magic, there’s three different types of magic and they each have the skills for one type. How the magic and the history of this warring country is woven into the story is done well as there never seems a moment where you’re just listening to a history lesson. A lot of the time, you’re learning about things the same time as Alina is. This continues throughout the next two books and it makes the story all the richer for it.

The dynamic between Alina and the Darkling gets more interesting in each book but its here that all that important foundation is set. Their relationship verges on creepy a lot of times in the book before characters intentions are clear, and it gives their interactions an unsettling edge. Their powers compliment one another so they often appear to have the whole two sides of the same coin deal going on.

I gave Shadow and Bone 3/5.

Siege and Storm is my favourite in the trilogy. It feels like almost non-stop action and even when it’s not there’s more political intrigue as Alina learns to navigate the court and starts to become a leader which is just as gripping.

I thought the pacing in Siege and Storm was excellent and how it introduced new characters and new aspects of this world was nicely done. Here you see more of the technology of this country, not only are there pirate ships but also these aircraft which are unlike anything we’ve seen in these books before. The mixture of technology and science/magic in this world is really interesting.

Also, Siege and Storm introduces one of my favourite characters I’ve read in a long, long time – Sturmhond. He is clever and charming but also ambitious and ruthless, and I pretty much loved everything he said. As you learn more about him you see how he’s a man of many faces. He’s almost a chameleon as he can fit in in any social or political situation and often can get people to agree with him. I just loved him a lot.

I gave Siege and Storm 5/5.

Ruin and Rising is a near perfect end to this trilogy. Like Siege and Storm, I read it in two sittings because I was instantly pulled into the story because of the characters and the cliffhangers at the end of each book. While Alina has formed various bonds over the course of the previous two books, in this one there’s almost a family of choice trope happening as Alina and her small band of survivors fight to stick together and to do the right thing. The final act almost seemed to feel rushed. Throughout the book Alina had been working towards one goal but then that changed suddenly and, while there were possible hints in the previous book her original goal had still been an overarching theme, it made the final showdown seem more of a Plan B and it didn’t quite have the same effect.

I gave Ruin and Rising 4/5.

Overall, I really enjoyed this trilogy. Alina is a great and believable heroine. She acts to things how you’d think any sane person would react, she’s constantly learning from her mistakes and evolving into a powerful leader as she accepts and relishes in her newfound power. The rest of the characters are great too. As I’ve said, Sturmhond is my favourite but how some of the secondary or minor characters are allowed to develop is really cool as you see sides to them you wouldn’t have expected to begin with. While Alina’s closest relationship is with her best friend Mal, there’s a lot of good dynamics and friendships between female characters in these books which I always appreciate.

The Grisha trilogy is, on the whole, fast-paced, action-packed, and has compelling characters and a vivid world. I can see why these books have become so well loved and I’m definitely looking forward to the Netflix show.

REVIEW: X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

When the government develops a “cure” for mutations that will turn mutants human permanently, Magneto (Ian McKellen) rages war and the X-Men must choose what side they’re on. Meanwhile Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) returns and is more powerful than ever, calling herself the Phoenix and turns on her friends, aligning herself with Magneto.

X-Men: The Last Stand is one of the X-Men films that I’m pretty sure I hadn’t seen it in its entirety since the cinema, 15 years ago. I remember being a bit disappointed by it but not necessarily why and a lot of my thoughts and opinions on it before this rewatch were probably thanks to the general internet consensus over the years.

The Last Stand definitely isn’t as good as the first two X-Men films, but I don’t think it’s as terrible as I’d been led to believe. The main problem with it is that it tries to cram two storylines together in a film that’s less than two hours long.

The “cure” plot is good though because of the other stuff there isn’t as much time to give the emotional and ethical dilemma some characters face, namely Rogue (Anna Paquin), space to fully develop. Sure, mutants were born with these powers but for some if they change how they look or make them unable to be close to anyone, they can be a curse. But does that mean they should change who they are? The conversation between Storm (Halle Berry) and Rogue touches on these things but there’s so much more that could’ve been explored. Storm thinks every mutant is perfect the way they are, and that’s perhaps easy for someone like her who can control the weather but is otherwise completely normal. For Rogue who can’t touch someone without harming them, it’s very different.

The Jean Grey/Phoenix Saga story line is what feels shoehorned in. If The Last Stand had just focussed on the cure storyline, or even the Phoenix Saga one, it would’ve had the potential to be a much better film. Jean returns suddenly evil and far more powerful than any other mutant. She has a completely different personality and it’s hard to care about what she’s going through. Every time the plot moves forward with the cure stuff it then has to pause to go back to Jean, and often Logan (Hugh Jackman’s) love for her, and it grinds the film to a halt.

The opening sequence in the Danger Room is great as you see the X-Men in a battle situation, most of which you haven’t seen use their powers to their full capabilities before so that’s cool. Likewise, the final battle is exciting as there’s so many different powers on display and each of the X-Men do get their moment to shine there.

Rewatching The Last Stand I remembered what disappointed me most. After all the promo of Angel (Ben Foster) being in one of the X-Men suits I thought he’d become a proper part of the team, so I was disappointed when he was pretty much a cameo. Generally, that’s another problem The Last Stand has, it introduces a lot of new characters, as well as already having quite a full roster, that a lot are given minimal screen time and little to know character development – I couldn’t name half the new characters that joined Magneto. Scott Summers (James Marsden) really is given the short end of the stick in this film. He’s given nothing to do, is used to bring Jean back to the story, and barely anyone misses him when he’s not there.

X-Men: The Last Stand is a bit of a mess. There’s some good stuff to be found but with an over abundance of characters and conflicting plots that each deserve a whole film it’s a bit of a let down as an end to a trilogy. Still, the final battle is pretty great (even if it goes from day to night in a second) so it does leave you on a high and maybe in a more forgiving mood. 3/5.

REVIEW: To Best the Boys by Mary Weber

Every year for the past fifty-four years, the residents of Pinsbury Port have received a mysterious letter inviting all eligible-aged boys to compete for an esteemed scholarship to the all-male Stemwick University. In the province of Caldon, where women train in wifely duties and men pursue collegiate education, sixteen-year-old Rhen Tellur wants nothing more than to become a scientist. As the poor of her seaside town fall prey to a deadly disease, she and her father work desperately to find a cure. But when her mum succumbs to it as well? Rhen decides to take the future into her own hands—through the annual all-male scholarship competition. With her cousin, Seleni, by her side, the girls don disguises and enter Mr. Holm’s labyrinth, to best the boys and claim the scholarship prize. But not everyone survives the deadly maze.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a fantasy YA, especially a standalone fantasy YA, so while I did end up enjoying To Best the Boys, it did take me a little while to get into the story. I think it was just all the standard elements of the genre; being dropped into a world with the world-building happens as it goes, the casual mention of various creatures and the social/political landscape, that I hadn’t really had in a while after reading more contemporary or historical fiction set in our world.

Once Rhen and Seleni join the competition and enter the labyrinth, the story just speeds by. The sort of trials in the maze they have to go through, and how they have to work with some boys their friends with and like, and some that they really don’t is interesting, especially as all the while they’re trying to keep their identities secret.

The society of Caldon is made up of the Uppers and the Lowers – the upper and working class basically. Rhen was born a Lower after her mother was disowned for marrying her scientist father, though she has connections to the Uppers as Seleni and her Aunt and Uncle are Uppers and continue to invite Rhen to their extravagant parties in the hope to pair her off with a rich young man. It’s clear that Rhen feels more comfortable with her Lower friends in the port or doing scientific experiments with her dad than at these parties.

Caldon is also a patriarchal society and the way Rhen struggles to make her voice heard, where a lot of older men are in power and don’t listen to anyone who is not like them, is unfortunately similar to our own world. Rhen’s passion is for science and learning and wants to make something of herself and while that’s the main driving force of the story, To Best the Boys takes a moment to acknowledge that Seleni’s dreams of finding love and being a wife and mother are just as valid. It’s having the ability to make that choice is what is important to Rhen. Seleni and Rhen’s friendship was one of my favourite things about To Best the Boys. They are so close and Seleni is almost the best of both worlds as she loves the balls and dresses and dancing with boys, but she also enjoys being involved with Rhen’s experiments and adventures. Seleni can almost fit in anywhere whereas Rhen can’t be something she’s not.

As well as the feminist angle, To Best the Boys has some disability representation. Though they aren’t given the names we use, Rhen is dyslexic and there’s another character, Rhen’s love interests younger brother, who has autistic traits.

As it’s a standalone, To Best the Boys did feel a little rushed at times, but equally the story is so tight and focused in on the event to win the scholarship that a lot of character backstories or more world-building isn’t really needed. 3/5.

REVIEW: Vehicle 19 (2013)

Michael Woods (Paul Walker), a parolee, arrives in Johannesburg to reconnect with his ex-wife but when he unknowingly picks up a rental car that has kidnapped whistleblower Rachel Shabangu (Naima McLean) in the boot, he becomes entangled with the corrupt local police.

Vehicle 19 is one of those one location films and this one takes place in a car. It’s in a similar vein to Locke (2013) and Wheelman (2017) however with Vehicle 19 the camera never leaves the inside of the car. While Michael may briefly leave the car, the camera stays stationary. This technique is a double-edged sword really. It’s supposed to rack up tension as you are in a tight space with the main character with no escape, but equally some thing’s end up repetitive as you’re forced to see the action happening at a distance through the car windows.

Paul Walker does a good job carrying the film, giving a solid performance. His character wants nothing to do with Rachel and the trouble he’s now involved in and seeing him go from self-centred to determined to do what’s right feels like it’s earnt. Rachel and Michael’s dynamic ends up being really interesting and something I wish we’d seen more of. The fact that Michael is kind of a fish out of water works well too, both in terms of the politics of the city and just knowing about the layout of the city. He is clearly a skilful driver, but he doesn’t know Johannesburg at all so is often forced to ask for directions or go back on himself as he races through the streets.

Corrupt police officers are nothing new in film, but Vehicle 19 does manage to pull a few surprises with the genre. The car chases are often exciting though sometimes restrictive in terms of how the action is shown.

At just over 80 minutes Vehicle 19 does go by at a good pace and, after more character stuff at the beginning, the action beats are hit steadily. Vehicle 19 is a decent thriller and though its unusual filming style makes it stand out a little more than the generic action film it could’ve been, it’s still not something that’s super memorable. 3/5.

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.