3 stars

REVIEW: A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney

Alice is a normal teenager with school, a high-maintenance best friend and a mum who gets annoyed when she misses her curfew. But what her mum doesn’t know is that the reason she so often misses curfew is because she’s fighting monsters called Nightmares. Nightmares come from Wonderland, a dark realm where there’s magic, creatures and secrets. When Alice’s handsome and mysterious mentor Addison Hatta is poisoned, Alice must venture further into Wonderland than she ever had before to find the antidote. She’ll have to use all her skills and connections to keep from losing her head – literally.

As you might imagine, A Blade So Black is inspired by Alice in Wonderland and it’s fun to see the references to the sour material and how the author puts a spin on certain aspects like characters names and idiosyncrasies. When it comes to Wonderland itself, not a lot of the world is explained but what you do see of it is very weird and eerie. The Nightmares are indeed nightmarish creatures and Alice’s battles with them are fierce. Alice is strong and skilled, but she also makes mistakes, gets scared and doubts herself a lot which means it’s never clear if she’ll come out on top in a battle.

A lot of the conflict in A Blade So Black comes from the fact Alice struggles being a normal teenager with being a Dreamwalker. She’s keeping secrets and lying with the only person in her “normal” life who knows about what she does in Wonderland is her best friend Courtney. Alice is black and, in her neighbourhood, a teenage black girl has recently been gunned down which adds to her mum’s anxiety when Alice seems to disappear and not answer her phone, as she is almost constantly worried the same thing is going to happen to her daughter.

Alice is a bit of a stroppy teenager (which is allowed) and one with magical responsibilities, but she doesn’t often think things through and how her actions can hurt other people. Her mum has very justifiable reasons to be angry and scared when Alice isn’t contactable for long periods of time, but Alice can’t really see that which is frustrating.

A Blade So Black is bit of a weird book pacing-wise. The first half spends the time setting up the conflicts between Alice and her friends and family as she juggles her Dreamwalker duties and being a normal teenager and introduces you to Wonderland but nothing big plot-wise happens until the halfway point. It’s then that Hatta gets poisoned and after that a lot happens very quickly with new characters being introduced and you learn more about the history of Wonderland and what it could mean for Alice. It makes the second half of the book feel rushed and, while it is the first book in a series so it’s understandable that not all plot threads will be tied up, there’s a pretty major one that doesn’t feel like the characters make much headway with.

The premise of A Blade So Black and its setting is more interesting than the actual plot. Still, it’s a quick and enjoyable read and it’s a solid foundation for future books in the series to build on. 3/5.

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REVIEW: Dora and the Lost City of Gold (2019)

Dora (Isabela Moner) is a teenage explorer who’s more at home in the jungle more than high school. But when her parents (played by Eva Longoria and Michael Peña) go missing while searching for a lost city, Dora and her new friends go on an adventure to rescue them.

As a more grown up adaptation of the Dora the Explorer TV show, Dora and the Lost City of Gold finds itself as a good kids’ adventure film. There are plenty of references to the TV show like an inventive animated sequence and Dora’s love of singing when doing a mundane task. Then there’s when 6-year-old Dora turns to the camera and asks, “Can you say delicioso?” to the confusion of her parents as they look to see who she’s talking to and saying she’ll grow out of it. These kinds of moments are tongue-in-cheek but can feel a little awkward. Though, having characters question some of the weirdness, like a fox wearing a mask, makes most of the references work.

Isabela Moner is great as Dora as she gives a performance that’s both charming and moving. She’s full of energy and enthusiasm but she also gives Dora a little awkwardness as she finds it difficult to be anything but herself in high school when being unabashedly yourself is seen as a source of embarrassment for most people.

Dora is like a teenage Latina Indiana Jones and it works. There’s so many of the usual adventure puzzles and clichés like quicksand and booby traps but having a teenage girl at the forefront, working things out and having the adventure is wonderful. Her teenage friends all each have their moment of figuring things out and contributing to the adventure as well. Sammy (Madeleine Madden) is super smart while Randy (Nicholas Coombe) is into his games and knows all about jungle puzzles. That’s not to say they don’t have their fears and anxieties over being lost in the jungle, but it’s great seeing how they all become friends and learn to work together.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold is a fun adventure film that’s not afraid of its origins and affectionately skews the conventions of the TV show. It’s funny and charming and an easy, inoffensive watch for children and adults alike, even if you have only the most basic knowledge of the TV show it’s adapted from. 3/5.

REVIEW: Fast & Furious 6 (2013)

When Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) needs help taking down a team of precision drivers led by criminal Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), he turns to Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) and their team. Following the revelation that Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) is still alive and working with Shaw, Dom and his family will do anything to get her back.

There are high-octane thrills in Fast & Furious 6 with car chases around London (though it never really uses the city to it’s full potential and nearly everything there takes place at night), a tank causing chaos on a motorway in Spain, and a sequence where the team take on a plane.

There are also some brutal fist fights too as Rodriguez’s Letty takes on Gina Carano’s Riley (Hobbs’ right-hand woman) on the London Underground. It is amusing how their brutal and efficient fight is juxtaposed with Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Han’s (Sung Kang) unsuccessful fight against another one of Shaw’s team.

Though Letty is back she has amnesia so seeing her slowly reconnect with Dom and figure out who she is and where she fits in with this group of people who seems to know her is interesting. Rodriguez and Diesel still have a tonne of chemistry even if Letty isn’t the person Dom used to know. Also, credit to the writer as the Fast and Furious franchise really is getting better in its representation of and attitudes towards women. Elena (Elsa Pataky) and Dom had gotten together by the end of Fast Five and how she lets Dom go, and Letty’s reaction to her, is very mature on all sides.

There’s a whole subplot in Fast & Furious 6 that feels out of place. It involved Brian having to leave the team in order to investigate Shaw’s criminal connections and I achieves nothing in terms of furthering the plot. However, it is more of a character study as Brian attempts to atone for his part in Letty’s “demise” and her current situation.

As the series has grown and the team/family of heroes has expanded, it does mean that the villains don’t get much development. Evans tries his best to be a different kind of menacing to the ones Dom and his crew have encountered before, but it doesn’t really hold up bar one scene where he and Diesel have a standoff. Roman makes a comment that Shaw’s crew is like their evil twins but that’s all down to appearances rather than their skills or personalities as you never really get to know any of them.

Fast & Furious 6 is still fun and has bigger stunts than before, though it does have a somewhat convoluted plot. The emphasis is still on family though and on the whole the emotional beats land which is what you really want from this franchise. 3/5.

REVIEW: Point Blank (2019)

When ER nurse Paul’s (Anthony Mackie) heavily pregnant wife Taryn (Teyonah Parris) is kidnapped, he has to work with injured murder suspect Abe (Frank Grillo) to get her back as they face off against rival criminals and renegade cops.

Mackie and Grillo work well together here. Their characters are polar opposites which leads to some amusing moments, but they bring a lot of energy to their scenes together as thy have a common goal. Paul wants to get back to his wife, while Abe wants to get back to his younger brother Matteo (Christian Cooke) and all four of them are trying to keep ahead of the criminals who want them dead.

Point Blank is a predictable action thriller but the way the action is shot and how the plot speeds along makes it a fun ride. Quick edits a long with some decent fights make those scenes interesting however the car chases are more pedestrian than exciting. There are some surprisingly emotional moments though the script isn’t good enough to really pack an emotional punch.

There are some odd music cues in Point Blank as a fight or something will kick off and it’s like a needle drops onto a record but the song that starts playing isn’t one that really fits. It can be quite jarring and takes you out of the film as what you’re hearing and what you’re seeing really don’t mesh that well together. Sometimes the music choices even cheapened those times where they were going for something dramatic.

Towards the end of Point Blank, it starts to lean too far into the buddy comedy element and the ending is cheesy, but that doesn’t stop most of the film being a fast-paced and a generally compelling action film. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Sri Lanka: Marriage of a Thousand Lies by SJ Sindu

Narrated by Emily Woo Zeller.

Lucky is an unemployed millennial programmer. Her husband, Krishna, is an editor for a greeting card company. Both are secretly gay, presenting their conservative Sri Lankan-American families with a heterosexual front while dating on the side. When Lucky’s grandmother falls, Lucky returns to her mother’s home in Boston and unexpectedly reconnects with her childhood friend and first lover, Nisha. When the two rekindle old romantic feelings, Lucky tries to save Nisha from entering a marriage based on a lie and finds herself pushed to breaking point.

Marriage of a Thousand Lies is an unflinching look at how someone who does not fit into their culture’s ideals can try and reconcile two sides of themselves. Lucky is in almost constant conflict with herself. She knows and accepts she’s a lesbian, she likes being a lesbian, but she doesn’t like how she has to hide that part of herself from her family. This struggle of being who she is but not wanting to lose or disappoint those who are closest to her is something that is almost constantly on Lucky’s mind as she tries to find the strength to be who she is.

Lucky’s mother wants her and Kris to have a baby and be just like all the other Sri Lankan families in their community. Lucky’s mother wants Lucky to fit in as she knows what it’s like to be shunned by the community. Lucky’s parents are divorced but naturally her father and his new wife (a close family friend) are treated just the same by everyone, it’s her mother that is seen as an outsider for being a divorcee.

Marriage of a Thousand Lies is written in the first person from Lucky’s point of view but you never really get a handle of how she’s feeling about what is happening in her life. Lucky is so emotionally closed off from a lot of what is happening around her that she barely reacts to what those closest to her are saying or doing. It makes the emotional impact of some big, potentially life-changing moments, not feel that important at all.

While they are obviously pretending to be happily married for their families, often it seemed like Lucky didn’t even like Kris and resented him for being married to her even though it was something that she agreed to and it worked for the both of them. Their relationship was never satisfactorily explored.

Nisha was equal parts frustrating and understandable. She would often have these big ideas, saying to Lucky they should run away together, but when Lucky tries to take her up on that, she reverts back to being the doting daughter. She is just as scared as Lucky about potentially losing her family and community over who she loves but she is so torn that she keeps hurting Lucky with her indecisiveness and mixed signals.

Marriage of a Thousand Lies is a well-written and poignant story. It handles the complexities of sexuality, religion and culture well but having a distant protagonist made it difficult to connect with her and the story at times. Also, in its honesty Marriage of a Thousand Lies becomes a very sad story as you, and Lucky, realise there might not be a way that everyone finishes this story happy. 3/5.

REVIEW: Bullet to the Head (2012)

After his former partner is killed, Washington D.C. detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) comes to New Orleans and forms a reluctant alliance with hitman James Bonomo (Sylvester Stallone), whose partner has also recently been killed, in order to bring down a common enemy.

The plot of Bullet to the Head is somewhat derivative but the action sequences and the characters make that plot enjoyable on the whole. Stallone and Kang make an unexpectedly great duo and the scenes of them finding their feet around one another are fun. Stallone’s Bonomo is the typical monotone antihero who resorts to violence to get what he wants very quickly, while Kang’s Kwon is a by the book cop who wants those responsible for his partners death to face legal justice. The filmmaker did a nice job of sidestepping the usual trope of having the Asian lead be a martial artist, instead Kwon can throw a punch but it’s his logic and connections with the police that help him and Bonomo track down their partners killer.

While Kang and Stallone are fun to watch, Jason Momoa steals every scene he’s in as sadistic killer Keegan. He’s an intimidating combination of brains and brawn and manages to standout against a physical adversary like Stallone, and against a potential strategic adversary like Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s Morel.

There are some grisly fights in Bullet to the Head and the action sequences pad out a plot that is surprisingly convoluted with multiple bad guys, and people double-crossing one another at almost every turn. The plot is unoriginal, but having minor characters who then get a backstory and motives means there’s a lot of moving pieces and they don’t always come together neatly.

Bullet to the Head is a retro action film that knows exactly what it is and leans into all of its one-liners. It’s not great but it’s not boring either. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)

After getting caught street racing one too many times, Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) has to move to Tokyo to stay with his father to avoid a jail sentence in America. There he meets Han (Sung Kang) who becomes Sean’s mentor and coaches him into becoming a major competitor in the world of drift racing.

Besides a cameo at the end, and the whole messed up timeline thing future films cause because of Han, Tokyo Drift is a film that can very much stand on its own in the franchise. It has new characters, a new setting, and a whole new style of racing not seen before in the franchise.

Having the racing style be drifting rather than a 10 second drag race, means the race and chases have a whole new feel compared to the previous films. Cars drive around like they’re on a slalom ski slope rather than the busy streets of Tokyo. The way the races are shot, along with a score that’s not so heavy on the techno beats, leads to some thrilling moments.

Considering how far this franchise of films goes in terms of having more female characters, and often ones that are just as capable and as layered as their male counterparts, it’s jarring to see in the opening five minutes of Tokyo Drift a teenage girl offering herself up as the prize for two young men to race for. It does leave a bad taste in your mouth and while there continues to be scantily clad girls, when a new female character is introduced in Neela (Nathalie Kelley) it is slowly revealed she’s not just a pretty face and has the most interesting backstory in the film.

Sean isn’t the most interesting of leads, and Black’s performance is not that great either (the guy doesn’t really know how to emote) but luckily Sean is surrounded by more interesting characters and actors who do better at delivering clichés-filled lines of dialogue than Black. Han is cool, calm and collected and is the kind of person who stays in the background to observe people. He forms a bond with Sean but that doesn’t stop him working with D.K. (Brian Tee), a young man connected to the Yakuza. It’s Black’s scenes with Kang and Kelley that make Sean feel more than a stand in for the audience as you get glimpses of what can almost be classed as chemistry between them.

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift makes great use of the Tokyo cityscape, making night-time races look slick and the colours of the city lights, and the bright cars, pop. The first half of Tokyo Drift is a bit slow, but the second half is a thrill ride as things come to ahead between characters and stakes get higher. Tokyo Drift is a bit like the black sheep in the Fast and Furious family, and it’s one that has more resonance after the events of Fast & Furious 6/Furious 7, but it is still a good time. 3/5.