4 stars

REVIEW: Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019)

Following the events of Avengers: Endgame Peter Parker (Tom Holland) just wants to put aside being Spider-Man for a bit and have fun with his friends on a school trip across Europe. But when elemental creatures appear, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) comes to Peter for help and introduces him to new superhero Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal).

Spider-Man: Far from Home is so much fun, but it also manages to handle some emotional beats while adding a whole new dimension to the MCU. Following on from Endgame, Far from Home touches on some of the logistical issues that would come with half of the world’s population returning after five years. People’s homes have been sold to someone else, people’s younger siblings are now older than them, and naturally people have missed a good chunk of what’s happened with their friends and families while they’ve been gone.

It’s the emotional fallout though for Peter Parker that really adds to the pressure he’s feeling. He lost is father-figure and mentor and feels like he has huge shoes to fill while still wanting to live a normal life. A scene where Peter and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) reminisce about Tony Stark and how they are, or are not, coping without him is a wonderful scene that highlights how Far from Home balances the fantastic with the personal.

Far from Home, like Spider-Man: Homecoming, is a teen high school comedy with all the good and bad things that can come with that. There are some cheesy jokes that don’t land or carry on too long, but then there’s also some hilarious moments as the young cast really do feel like a bunch of friends. MJ (Zendaya) has a larger role in this film as she’s sarcastic and funny but thoughtful as she tries to learn to let people be close to her. The teacher Mr. Harrington (Martin Starr) is a standout though and just about everything out of his mouth is hilarious.

Mysterio is an enigma and a character that is very difficult to talk about without going into spoiler territory. Gyllenhaal does a great job of playing the different layers of the character though, and midway through the film there’s a scene where he goes all out with a monologue and it’s magnificent.

The special effects are great too but there’s one sequence that will be talked about as a standout in the MCU for years as all of Peter Parker’s fears come to life. That whole sequence is awe-inspiring as it is so well put together and fits into both the story of the film and Peter’s emotional journey perfectly.

Spider-Man: Far from Home is funny, thrilling and spectacular. The first act isn’t as solid as the latter two as it retreads old ground seen in the previous Spider-Man film, but when the story shifts and certain things are revealed, it becomes something completely thrilling and innovative. Both post-credit scenes are some of the most important and game-changing in the MCU. Spider-Man: Far from Home is a satisfying end to Phase Three of the MCU, and where Phase Four is heading is anyone’s guess. 4/5.

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READ THE WORLD – Austria: Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig

Translated by Tess Lewis.

A collection of nine short stories, each about loneliness and identity.

This was an engaging and eerie short story collection. Each story ranged from 3 pages to 15 pages long and the majority of them pulled you into the story no matter how short they were. The stories themselves were varied in terms of character and plot, but they all are rather unsettling.

Two stories really stood out to me. The first was “The Same Silence, the Same Noise” which is about someone who becomes almost obsessed with their neighbours. It’s weird because the neighbours keep to themselves, but it is their distance that the narrator finds so fascinating. The second was “Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut” which is about a man who meets an old lady who has created a doll that looks just like him. Dolls are pretty creepy anyway but the way the protagonist becomes enamoured with his lookalike doll is disturbing.

I’ve read a few short story collections for my Read the World Project, and Maybe This Time is probably my favourite (so far). The stories all had the same theme so even when the content was different, as I read each story, I got the same sense of uneasiness. Things just felt off in these stories. Characters were either alone and captivated by someone or something else, or they might even seem to start to lose themselves as they become enthralled by whatever or whoever has caught their attention.

Maybe This Time is a very weird and unnerving collection of stories, and it is a collection that has certainly left an impression on me. 4/5.

REVIEW: Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu

Seventeen-year-old Rachel Walker’s family and community have turned away from the world and closely follow the Lord’s words. Every part of Rachel’s life is controlled; what she wears, what she does, who she is meant to be. Her future is laid out for her; modesty, children and obedience to her future husband. But when Lauren, a girl who escaped the community five years earlier returns to Rachel’s small Texas town – her whole world is turned upside down as she allows herself to ask the questions that have been bubbling inside her.

Devoted was a very engrossing book. Rachel is a wonderfully complex character as she grapples with conflicting ideas of what it is to be faithful to God while still wanting to be loved by her family. Rachel loves to learn; she’s always got her head in books but her father doesn’t feel it’s appropriate as she is meant to be a wife and homemaker without any ideas above her station.

The idea of what abuse is in Devoted is only mentioned briefly but it is an important thing. When Rachel first learns of Lauren’s perspective after growing up in the same place but then leaving to move in to the big city, Rachel is surprised to hear Lauren call the environment abusive. To Rachel abuse means being hit or touched inappropriately, but what is clear to the reader, and slowly becomes clearer to her, is that she, like many of the young women in her community, is the victim of emotional and psychological abuse. That mental abuse can be as harmful as physical abuse is never outright said, but conversations between Lauren and Rachel showing how they both have lingering problems thanks to what they’ve experienced – even Lauren who has been out of that world for 5 years. The friendship and support between Rachel and Lauren is so important to both of them and even though Lauren is about five years older than Rachel with more worldly experience, as a character she is never pigeonholed as Rachel’s mother or sister figure. They both make mistakes as they learn to help and support one another and that’s OK.

The discussions of faith, praying and God were really interesting and tactful. Not all religion is “bad” but those who pick and choose what words to follow, especially if those words promote the subservience of women, aren’t necessarily nice people. It offers a more complex idea of religion and faith, and there are many ways to be faithful and there is no “right way” as it is all down to personal choice.

Rachel struggles with her faith when she’s at home with her family. The way her father and Pastor Garrett preach is often uncomfortable and Rachel often feels she’s making mistakes and is not good enough for God when she has questions or a desire to learn things. It’s when she can step away from them that she can connect to God in her own way, she doesn’t have to cut herself off from her faith just because she no longer believes or practices like her family has done, and how she has done her entire life.

Devoted is a book about a sensitive topic but it’s one that is always handled with care. While Pastor Garrett and the threat of the “brainwashing” camp Journey of Faith looms, members of Rachel’s family, and even other people in the community, aren’t demonised for what they believe. What Devoted manages to make clear, is that the way Rachel’s community follows religion is not healthy or the right way for everyone. Rachel’s older sister Faith appears very happy with her life, settling down with a husband and having a child in her early 20s, but that doesn’t mean that is the kind of life Rachel should be made to have if she doesn’t want it. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Brink (2019)

A fly-on-the-wall documentary following former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s global mission to spread extreme nationalism.

The Brink spans across about a year, from Autumn 2017 to late 2018, and gives unbridled access into the life of Bannon as he meets with politicians and campaigners and discusses the next move in forwarding the nationalism agenda.

The thing that the The Brink did really well is show how Bannon is a hypocrite and almost constantly contradicts himself. The type of documentary it is means the filmmaker doesn’t make their own commentary on what is happening, instead they allow the camera and the actions of the people on screen to tell the story. While Bannon speaks out against the rich and the elite, you also see him going to the dinners at the Upper East Side, flying in private jets, and staying fancy hotels. It is clear he is a hypocrite as he enjoys the lifestyle that being a part of the elite can bring. He also lies and contradicts himself when questioned on past statements, even when journalists have the evidence to back it up.

Bannon’s meetings and dinners with far right and nationalist politicians from across Europe are often uncomfortable to watch. There is Nigel Farage, former leader of UKIP and now the leader of the Brexit Party, who says increasingly inflammatory things as well as members of the National Front in France and other right-wing politicians across Europe. However grimy these dinners might make one feel; they are illuminating as you see how these people think and the propaganda they believe in without any filters.

The Brink is often shocking, with one of the most surprising things being how much access the filmmaker got, sitting in on so many dinners, meetings and private conversations. You get to see exactly the kind of man Bannon is – he can be charming and charismatic, he is smart – though not as smart as he believes he is – but he is also aggressive, rude, and will talk down to anyone who is not acting quick enough to achieve his goals.

The Brink is an engaging documentary though it does help to have a lot of background knowledge on Bannon, his time in the White House and certain events he was involved in. It throws you straight in, following Bannon and his aims without giving a lot of context. There are titles that appear every now and then, giving more information, but really, if you don’t know all what Bannon did as a part of Trump’s campaign staff did as, then the film is more of a character study. 4/5.

As an aside, The Brink would make a good double bill with another political documentary – Knock Down the House. Both of them cover the same amount of time and culminate at the results of the 2018 US midterm elections, however they follow people on complete opposite sides of the political spectrum – showing just how divisive politics has come, not just in America but around the world.

REVIEW: The Riot Club (2014)

Two first-year students, Miles (Max Irons) and Alistair (Sam Claflin) join the infamous Riot Club at Oxford University, where reputations can be made or destroyed over the course of a single evening.

The Riot Club is a fascinating film as the vast majority of the characters are completely awful and unlikeable but it’s still a compelling film to watch. The young men who are a part of the Riot Club are rude, entitled, violent, destructive, and a few are inclined to sexual assault as well.

What works well is that when you are introduced to both Miles and Alistair, you feel sorry for them for different reasons. Alistair has overbearing parents and his older brother’s reputation to live up to, while even though Miles is a posh boy, he’s more down to earth than others and finds it difficult to be a part of the rich boy’s club and with his fellow students who were from state school backgrounds. It’s like he doesn’t totally fit in with either group.

As the film progresses and they both get initiated into The Riot Club you meet the right other young men that complete this club. James (Freddie Fox) is the President but it’s boys like Harry (Douglas Booth) and Dimitri (Ben Schnetzer) that really egg the group on and display a complete disregard for people and money.

There are so many things, both little and big, that make you uneasy about the young men in the Riot Club and their beliefs. All these things build up, as Alistair appears more comfortable in the Club while Miles becomes more torn, and everything comes to ahead at a dinner in a small family-run pub. The actions of The Riot Club are deplorable and there’s so many moments that show how a few of the young men could become half decent people if they were away from the toxic environment of the Club.

The Riot Club is unsettling and maddening. As events build and get worse, it’s like a car crash you cannot look away from as you watch these boys bring out the worst in one another, to the detriment of the innocent bystanders around them. It’s an unflinching display of superiority complexes and an entitlement that money can fix all problems as they men show no respect to people they see as beneath them. It’s rather concerning that there’s a good chance that young people like the characters here exist in the real world. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Malawi: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

Narrated by Chike Johnson.

William Kamkwamba loved school but when he was just 14 years old, he could no longer attend because his family couldn’t afford the fees. William resorted to borrowing books from the small local library to continue his education. It was there that he discovered a book with a turbine on the front cover, and with the help of that book William began to build a windmill outside his home to get electricity in his home.

I learnt so much about Malawi and its history from The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. While I know there has been, and still is, drought and famine in various countries in Africa I’d never learnt about what happened in Malawi between 2001 and 2002. During those years, floods and then droughts caused an emergency in the country as everyone run out of food. The way the book is written gives you the factual information, like the causes of floods and drought and the different diseases that can plague the country, while also making the stark reality of the situations more affecting because of how they all relate to William and his family. William is the only son in his family, and he has six sisters so that’s a lot of mouths to feed and William never shies away from the dire situation they were all in when they were slowly running out of food. There are vivid descriptions of people losing an extreme amount of weight due to starvation and descriptions of people dying in the street. It’s shocking but never exploitative.

The book provides a lot of context about Malawi, its history, superstitions and the difficulties its people faces. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind follows William’s life as he grows up and gains fame at 19 years old for making a windmill that produces electricity for his family’s home. There is more of a focus on William growing up and the last third with him gaining fame and recognition for what he achieved unfortunately seemed a bit rushed. I did like how it was clear from a very young age that William was interested in finding out how things worked. He would take a part radios and ask people how cars engines would make cars move and was generally curious about everything.

William is an impressive young man. He never gives up and believes in what he was doing when it comes to collecting scraps to make a windmill. People in his village, and even some members of his family, think he’s crazy rummaging around in the scrapyard and saying he’s going to give his home electricity. The doubts people have about him never dents his determination or conviction, and its very satisfying when he’s able to prove people wrong.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is informative and inspiring. William Kamkwamba is a smart man who perseveres even when other people think he’s mad or is using dark magic. Hearing about how he made a windmill to provide electricity for his family, and how he also went on to build other solar or wind-powered devices to improve the lives of his family and the other people in his village was heartening. He’s an inventor and this autobiography captures his inquiring mind and his desire to make life better for his family and his village wonderfully. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Spain: The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Pulp fiction writer David Martín is holed up in an abandoned mansion in the heart of Barcelona, desperately writing story after story while becoming increasingly frustrate and disillusioned. When he is approached by a mysterious publisher, Andreas Corelli, makes him an enticing offer David leaps at the chance. But as he begins to research and write this novel, and after a visit to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, David realises there’s a connection between his book and the shadows that surround his dilapidated home, and maybe his publisher might be hiding secrets of his own.

The Angel’s Game is set in the same universe as The Shadow of the Wind, but I don’t think it matters if you haven’t read that book or if you haven’t read it for a while. I read and reviewed The Shadow of the Wind four years ago so naturally I can’t really remember much about the book, but the only connections I noticed was the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and the dilapidated tower home the main character in this novel came to live in. (After writing this review I googled the series and realised that The Angel’s Game is in fact a prequel to The Shadow of the Wind though apparently each book in the series is supposed to be able to stand on its own from the others, so it really doesn’t matter what order you read them in.)

Set in the 1920s and early 1930s, The Angel’s Game really makes use of both the time period and the city its set in to add to the mystery and eeriness of the story. Not being able to get hold of a character, or instances of mistaken identity are rife, and both increase the tension at key moments. The city of Barcelona truly becomes a character in its own right in The Angel’s Game. The narrow alleyways, abandoned houses, tiny shops and the often-bleak weather, makes the city a wonderful setting for a gripping mystery. The descriptions of the city are vivid making the few times characters venture elsewhere, even more stark and different to what we already know.

David is an interesting man. He’s often unlikable as he pushes away those who care about him when he’s obsessed with writing and is unsure how to love or be loved in return. He’s always had affection for the daughter of a friend’s driver, Cristina, but circumstance and society keeps them a part. His reluctant friendship with Isabella, an inspiring writer who is many years younger than him is surprisingly sweet and while their relationship isn’t without its troubles and miscommunications, their honesty with one another is truly needed by both of them.

The mystery of the tower house, its previous owner and what happened to them kicks in about the third of the way through the book. Andreas Corelli seems to be connected to it all though it takes a long time for David to figure things out. David becomes obsessive, both about his writing and the secrets his home holds, looking for reasons behind the deaths and strangeness that appears to be following him. The Angel’s Game is told in the first person from David’s point of view, meaning that as the story progresses and things get weirder, you begin to doubt what you’ve been told so far as David’s grip on reality seems to slip.

I shan’t say I picked up all the threads of the mystery before they were explained to me, nor that I totally understood the ending, but that didn’t make me like this story any less. The Angel’s Game was a very readable book and the whole gothic take on Barcelona fully pulled me into the story. Would it have been nice if the story wasn’t quite so convoluted and weird? Yes, but it’s still a book that I ended up enjoying more than I remembered enjoying its predecessor. 4/5.