4 stars

REVIEW: Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015)

When a zombie apocalypse breaks out in their small town, best friends and scouts Ben (Tye Sheridan), Carter (Logan Miller) and Augie (Joey Morgan) – along with cocktail waitress Denise (Sarah Dumont) – must use their scouting skills to make it out alive.

This is one of those films where it started out and I was like, “Yeah, this is alright, a bit generic but fine” but then something clicked and I ended up having a great time with it.

The actual proper zombie battle stuff does take a while to get going, instead it spends time focussing on the friendship between the three scouts. The three scouts all have the sort of personalities you’d expect; Ben is the normal, relatable one, Carter is the loudmouth one and Augie is the more awkward one. They bicker and fall out as some of them feel like they’re getting to old for scouts while others still love it and it’s all very normal teen friend drama but in scout uniforms.

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse is actually really funny. There are clever visual gags, one-liners, gross out and humour (they’re teen boys – what do you expect?!), and just a lot of laugh out loud moments. Perhaps I went into this with rather low expectations, but this was far funnier than I was expecting it to be.

The comedic timing and chemistry between the three friends and Denise is really good. Denise is badass and how she fits into the dynamic of this kind of dorky friendship group works surprisingly well. The four of them each bring their own skills to the zombie fighting and the action sequences are all well shot and very entertaining.

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse has a solid mix of gore, crudity and laughs which makes it very enjoyable in its ridiculousness. Like honestly, there’s zombie cats and it has possibly the best use of a Dolly Parton song I’ve ever seen and that whole sequence, just like the film in general, is just so much fun. 4/5.

REVIEW: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

The centuries old vampire Count Dracula (Gary Oldman) comes to England to seduce his barrister Jonathan Harker’s (Keanu Reeves) fiancée Mina Murray (Winona Ryder) and inflict havoc in the foreign land.

As I was watching Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I realised I didn’t really know the original Dracula story. Dracula (and vampires in general) is a character that’s so ingrained in our popular culture so I know the general things of what makes a vampire and I’ve seen so many variations of the story like Dracula Untold (2014) or Van Helsing (2004) but never the origin of Count Dracula so watching Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a weird experience. I knew the names, places and the general story beats but seeing them all play out on screen was fun – though obviously I don’t know how true it is to the source material.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is visually interesting. The costumes, the set design and make up are all so striking. The make up used to make Gary Oldman look thousands of years old was so good that you just took his Dracula at face value so when he suddenly appears looking young and how Oldman looked in the early 90s it’s very effective.

The use of lighting and shadows adds to the creepy feel of Dracula’s home and the whole story. The way Dracula’s, and other creatures, shadows work, seemingly to touch people while they are the other side of the room, increases the uncomfortable feeling the humans have when in their presence.

The acting is a bit all over the place really. Keanu Reeves has a terrible British accent and both he and Winona Ryder are a bit wooden, especially in their scenes together. Somehow it doesn’t break the film though. Anthony Hopkins plays Professor Van Helsing and looks like he’s having a whale of a time with it. He swings from one emotion to another, serious professor to almost overexcited child at what is happening around him. Oldman’s Dracula is suitably unsettling and captivating and sells the obsessive love he has for Mina.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is over the top (the bright red blood, the dramatic dialogue and score) but it totally works. Watching it for the first time now, almost thirty years after it was released, there’s a certain charm about Bram Stoker’s Dracula that we don’t see as often in modern films. It’s proper old-fashioned filmmaking with striking sets, impressive make up and beautiful costumes. I often feel films that are set in the past, in this case the late 1800s, have a timelessness to them, so the potentially outdated effects etc just help make the film feel like a perfect time capsule. Bram Stoker’s Dracula really is worth the watch if you enjoy classic stories of good vs evil. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Craft (1996)

Sarah (Robin Tunney) is a lonely newcomer to a Catholic prep school in LA, until she falls in with a trio of outcasts, Nancy (Fairuza Balk), Bonnie (Neve Campbell) and Rochelle (Rachel True). Together they practice witchcraft, conjuring up spells and curses in order to get what they want like love, beauty, and power – but magic comes with a price.

At the beginning of The Craft, it does a great job of leaving you guessing how much of what the girls are doing is magic, and how much is by chance. Sarah has always had weird things happen to her but it’s not until she’s with the other three that they can seem to control what they want to happen.

Yes, The Craft is a bit dated and very nineties in a lot of ways. The hair and the fashion, the chunky landline phones and the way the girls learn from the occult through books in a shop rather than scouring the internet. But, for someone like me who’s watching it for the first time almost fifteen years after it was first released, it’s still an effective film.

It’s creepy and eerie and the sort of spells or things the girls want are all relatable teen things. They want the boy their like to like them, they want their bully to stop tormenting them, they want to look beautiful – all things that teen girls wish for, but these four can actually do something about it.

The four actresses are all great in their roles and they have good chemistry. The dynamics between them all is interesting, especially how Sarah fits in (or doesn’t) with a ready-made, solid trio of friends. Tension rises between Sarah, who appears to have natural power, and Nancy, who wants to be strong and powerful and to get what she wants. The way these two butt heads as the film progresses and their spells get out of their control is interesting as there’s the high school teenage bitchiness level to a friendship group potentially breaking down, but then there’s also the potentially dangerous consequences to these girls actions and how they can hurt one another if they no longer see eye to eye.

The final act goes all out creepy and scary and perhaps it’s a bit of a leap from the sort of high school drama The Craft had inhabited before, but it’s still exciting to see how everything comes to a head – Fairuza Balk deserves a special mention for doing crazy so well.

The Craft is a great mix of high school drama and the occult. It’s whole aesthetic is great and it’s the kind of eerie but fun horror film I’m totally on board with. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Yemen: A Land Without Jasmine by Wajdi Al-Ahdal

Translated by William Maynard Hutchins.

Under the watchful eyes of the men in her community the beautiful, virtuous university student Jasmine goes about her daily business, keeping to herself and avoiding the male gaze at all costs. That is until one Valentine’s Day, when she disappears without a trace. As the details surrounding her sudden disappearance emerge the mystery deepens. Sexual depravity, honour, obsession; the motives are numerous and the suspects plentiful. Family, friends, fellow students and nosey neighbours are quick to make their own judgements on the case, but the truth may be far stranger than anyone anticipates.

I found A Land Without Jasmine strangely captivating. It’s a super short novel, less than 100 pages, and has seven chapters, each from a different character’s perspective. The first is from Jasmine’s, as she describes the heated gazes she receives from all men, young and old, even when wearing her niqab. How uncomfortable she feels, how their attention often makes her feel anxious as she wishes to be treated for more than what she looks like. The following chapters are from the perspective of detectives, neighbours, and family as they try and piece together what has happened to Jasmine.

The way Jasmine describes the unwanted attention she receives is uncomfortable to read, but what’s even more uncomfortable is when the story is from the point of view of her teenage neighbour who is infatuated with her. He, like a lot of the other male characters, seems to be unable to separate his desires and dreams from reality. His desires are explicit, and he becomes obsessed with figuring out what happened to Jasmine, forgetting to look out for himself or how his actions might be perceived by the police or Jasmine’s family.

I thought the writing in A Land Without Jasmine was often very good and provocative. However, there were some phrases that felt a bit stilted down to a choice of a word when another might’ve been more suitable but that was likely to be down to the translation. It did take me a little while to get into the story though. I think that was down to it being written in first person and I can’t remember the last book I read that was written in that tense. I think sometimes first-person narrative can make the writing seem more simplistic. At some points this seemed to work in the novels advantage, as it sometimes made statements more impactful, but at other points it made reading it feel slow and awkward.

A Land Without Jasmine is a almost a sexy mystery story – though while it does have erotic language in it, the way the characters objectify and belittle Jasmine doesn’t make it particularly sexy or appealing. There are some moments of wry sense of humour here, and how it brings in family politics, the importance and power of different family tribes for one, is interesting as that’s something I knew little about. A Land Without Jasmine is a strange mystery but once you get into the writing style, it becomes a compelling one. 4/5.

REVIEW: Enola Holmes (2020)

When Enola Holmes (Millie Bobby Brown), teenage sister to Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes (Henry Cavill and Sam Claflin respectively), discovers her mother (Helena Bonham Carter) is missing, she sets off to find her. Soon she become entangled with a missing Marquess (Louis Partridge) as she follows the clues and fights to make her own way in the world.

Now Enola Holmes was just delightful! It is based on the book series by Nancy Springer, a series I haven’t read so don’t know how well it fares as an adaptation or to what extent the quirky humour and fourth-wall breaking may be from the novel. Because that’s the thing, the film opens with Enola talking to the camera, giving the audience a rundown on her life and what the immediate mystery is, and throughout the film she makes quips and gestures to the camera to highlight her true feelings about what is going on. Breaking the fourth wall tends to be something you find in comedy films, think Deadpool, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Trading Places, so to have it here, in what is in all intents and purposes a cosy mystery drama just adds something different to the film.

Millie Bobby Brown is brilliant as Enola. She’s funny and headstrong and resourceful, but she also shows the softer side of Enola. Her mother has taught her a lot, both academically and in terms of fighting skills, but she is still quite naïve about the world. She’s lived a sheltered life with her mother so when she disappears, it’s like her life crumbles a bit – especially when Mycroft wants to send her off to a finishing school.

Speaking of Mycroft, I was somewhat bemused by Claflin playing the eldest Holmes especially when Cavill is three years older than him and (no offence to Cavill), he looks younger and more boyish than Cavill – despite the help of a bushy moustache. This is Enola’s time to shine and the Holmes brothers aren’t featured all that much but when the siblings do get to share scenes, either all three together or just two of them, they all work really well together. Mycroft and Sherlock have been absent from Enola’s life for so long that they don’t know her, and she doesn’t really know them, so seeing how they do (or don’t) start to try and understand one another and build connections is interesting and shows different sides to each character.

The whole mystery aspect of Enola Holmes is a lot of fun too, and surprisingly politically. Enola has been raised to be a very modern woman for the early twentieth century and women’s suffrage and the ‘Representation of the People Act’ both play key parts in the two mysteries Enola is investigating.

Enola Holmes is just a delightful and charming film. The tone might not suit everyone, what with its lively score and often unconventional characters, but it’s the kind of film you can sit back and relax as you’re swept up in the adventure. I do hope we get a sequel, even if the more famous faces don’t all make a return. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Sudan: Thirteen Months of Sunrise by Rania Mamoun

Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette.

Thirteen Months of Sunrise is a very short (just 72 pages long) but impactful short story collection. There are ten stories in the collection, the shortest one is just two pages long while the longest is nine pages with the others being somewhere in between.

I think this is the shortest short story collection I’ve ever read, and I was impressed by how much the author could say in so few words. “A Week of Love” is the two-page story that follows the evolution of a relationship and it easily shows the various emotions and uncertainty when you like someone new.

A lot of the stories are about something that seems so everyone can relate to as it’s so mundane, like a person’s thoughts as they travel on a bus, or someone desperate to find a job to support their family. Many of the stories are a little snapshot into peoples lives in Khartoum, the capital city of Sudan, and the mental and physical struggles they have.

My favourite story in the collection was “Thirteen Months of Sunrise”, it has discussions of identity and the differences and similarities between people and cultures from Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

It’s hard to really talk about Thirteen Months of Sunrise because the stories were so short! Still, it’s a great translation and the stories are interesting and thoughtful. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Cameroon: Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Narrated by Prentice Onayem.

New York, 2007. After two long years apart, Jende Jonga has brought his wife Neni and their six-year-old son from Cameroon to join him in the land of opportunity. Drawn by the promise of America they are seeking the chance of a better life for them and their son. When Jende lands a dream job as chauffeur to Clark Edwards, a Lehman Brothers executive, Neni finds herself taken into the confidence of his glamorous wife Cindy. The Edwards are powerful and privileged: dazzling examples of what America can offer to those who are prepared to strive for it. But when the financial world is rocked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, all four lives are dramatically upended.

I really enjoyed how Behold the Dreamers took place in the recent past and how it showed the many big changes in a short space of time. There’s mentions of the race for Democratic nominees for President between Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama, and how when Obama got the nomination and then the presidency how Jende saw it as a sign that he and his family could achieve anything in America. Knowing about the financial crash and how that’s going to have a huge knock-on effect on the Jonga’s and Edwards’ makes there an air of tension in the story, it’s like you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop while the majority of the characters have no idea what’s about to hit them.

There’s a lot of themes in Behold the Dreamers, a lot of them surrounding the highs and lows of being an immigrant. There’s the loneliness, monotony and uncertainty surrounding trying get the correct papers to stay in the country or to work or to get an education. There are so many hoops for Jende and Neni to jump through, but they also find their own community with fellow immigrants who have lived and worked in New York for far longer than they have.

Behold the Dreamers does a good job at showing how the American Dream is portrayed to immigrants and how over time it often becomes clear that it is an impossible dream. However, for Neni she can only see the good about life in America, especially when comparing it to life in Cameroon. Neni in sees America through rose-tinted glasses. She’d watched episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air in Cameroon and thought that could be her life, and even when she watches other media like Boyz n the Hood she feels that’s the outlier, really life in America can be great for Black people like her. Her naivety and optimism are almost painful, especially when thinking about what is currently (and has been for years) going on in America and the rest of the world right now.

The Jonga’s are well-rounded characters and you can understand both Neni and Jende’s feelings when they’re trying to earn money for their families. Both of their relationships with the Edwards’ is interesting. While he never stops seeing Clark as his boss, Jende wants to look after him and protects his secrets, unconsciously getting entwined in his life far more than the average employee should. Neni on the other hand, never sees her work for Cindy (as a housekeeper/nanny for their young son) as more than it is. While she appreciates when Cindy might give her old clothes that were going to a charity shop anyway, she never stops seeing the social and economic divide between them and doesn’t see why she should help Cindy when she won’t help herself.

A lot of the time the problems the Edwards’ face often feel like #FirstWorldProblems – especially when compared to the Jonga’s. However, Behold the Dreamers makes it clear how while their lives are so different, money really can’t solve all of the Edwards’ problems. Cindy is lonely, she thinks her husband is cheating because he’s never home and always working, she drinks and often seems unhappy. Her issues are big for her and while she does sometimes try to offer Neni money or guidance, she can’t comprehend the uncertainty the Jonga’s are going through as they wait for the next immigration court date.

Behold the Dreamers covers so many themes and ideas while still making a compelling story. You want the Jonga’s to achieve their dreams, but the many barriers in their way slowly become clear and should they really spend their lives struggling for the idea of the American Dream? 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Guadeloupe: The Restless by Gerty Dambury

Translated by Judith G. Miller.

Guadeloupe, a French overseas department, May 1967. Nine-year-old Émilienne Absalon is struggling with the sudden disappearance of her teacher, Madame Ladal, and her father at the onset of a workers’ strike. As violence throws the city into chaos, characters both living and dead take the stage to help Émilienne find those she’s lost, and in the process rewrite Caribbean history.

This may sound weird, but I found The Restless so easy to read and was thirty pages into it before I realised, and that made me instantly like this book. Perhaps it’s because I was in the middle of a fantasy/sci-fi short story anthology when I decided I needed something different. While the short story anthology was good, I struggled going from one story to another when I wanted to spend more time with the different characters or learn more about the different worlds, so it was nice to feel settled in one place with a clearly defined protagonist again.

I really liked how the story unfolded in The Restless. The chapters alternate between Émilienne’s point of view and other character’s point of view. These other characters are family members, neighbours or other people connected to the Absalon family somehow – and some are dead, and some are ghosts. Each character had a distinct voice which certainly helped with the chapters not from Émilienne’s point of view as sometimes they’d start and you wouldn’t be sure who was now recounting their tale, just that it was a different person to before.

Émilienne is a great character. The author does a great job of showing how a child would experience and try to understand suddenly losing an important figure in her life like a teacher. How some things are difficult to explain to a child because they’re to do with governments and fears of communism and having ideas that are deemed inappropriate, but how the child can still pick up on how something isn’t right or is unfair. Add to the fact her father, who she believes can explain to her what happened to her teacher, hasn’t been home for days leads her to be very unsettled. Also, Émilienne and her fellow classmates’ anger and frustrations of the sudden dismissal of their teacher mirrors those of the workers who want their wages to increase.

In The Restless’s prologue, it gives a short overview of the talks between management and construction workers union that led to work stoppages in Pointe-à-Pitre and, after the breakdown of negotiation, violence as the police were ordered to fire on the demonstrators. This is important as it’s the backdrop to Émilienne’s stress of her missing teacher and father, and it provides context for the anti-union sentiment that you slowly learn her teacher was a victim of and provides reasons for her fathers absence.

The Restless is a relatively short but effective book. It juggles its characters well and provides both a child’s perspective to sudden violence that they cant comprehend a reason for, and various adults perspectives, some only just learning about their workers rights, some who have died and were struggling in different ways, and some who are just trying to get by. 4/5.

REVIEW: Don’t Take Me Home (2017)

Documentary about the Welsh international football team’s rise through the FIFA World Rankings, and their first international tournament for 58 years when they got to the Euro’s in France in 2016.

I’m half English, half Welsh, with my dad being Welsh. I was staying with him in Spain during a lot of the 2016 Euros, and have fond memories watching Wales’ matches (and also Iceland’s) because they were the underdogs and it was the first time Wales had been in a major international tournament for decades. Perhaps it’s because of those memories, and thoughts of my dad who died three months ago, that made me decide to watch Don’t Take Me Home, but I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did.

Rather than being a comprehensive history of Welsh international football, Don’t Take Me Home focusses on how coach Chris Coleman took these players who were grieving for their former coach and were 117th in the rankings, to the Euros and making a far bigger impact than just about anyone could imagine.

The focus is on Euros 2016 and follows the team through the Group Stages and beyond. It’s a talking heads type documentary with players and staff commenting on their thoughts and feelings before, during and after games. The footage of the games is interspersed with players commentary, and the matches are just as thrilling as when I watched them four years ago. Don’t Take Me Home also gives an insight into the players mentality and how they gel together, on and off the pitch. It really shows how this group of players are friends and that while naturally they trained hard and talked tactics during the tournament, they still could wind down and have fun.

One thing Don’t Take Me Home showed really well was the passion of the Welsh fans and how the teams’ success and drive made such an impact. Wales is a small country, one of the smallest in the tournament, and now it’s a country that other people have heard of. As I said, my dad was Welsh. He lived in Spain for eighteen years, and for so long the locals down the pub (my dad did learn Spanish) would presume he was English which naturally annoyed him a lot. It wasn’t until Gareth Bale started playing for Real Madrid that he had a point of reference for the Spanish (“Soy Galés como Gareth Bale”) and watching the matches down his local, with Wales doing better than Spain that year, made them take notice.

The footage showing the Welsh fans, both in France following the team around the country, and the ones back home in Wales in fan parks and down their local pubs, is just great. Their joy is infectious and Don’t Take Me Home is filled with a lot of feel good moments.

While Don’t Take Me Home will certainly strike a chord with Welsh fans, I think anyone who is a fan of football and underdogs will enjoy this insight into a team that achieved great things. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008)

A year after their adventure in Narnia, the Pevensie siblings return but for Narnia it’s over a thousand years and it’s a much darker place than the one they remember. Miraz (Sergio Castellitto) wishes to destroy all Narnians and take the throne from its rightful heir, Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), so the Pevensie’s and Caspian must join forces to save Narnia

Unlike The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe which is perhaps one of the most faithful book to film adaptations yet, Prince Caspian does it’s own thing for the most part. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing and personally I feel adding in more conflict between Peter (William Mosely) and Caspian adds more to Peter’s character.

What Prince Caspian does really well is show how difficult it was for the Pevensie’s going from grown adult Kings and Queens, to being children again. They’ve already grown up and had a life and then they’re back at the beginning again. Peter is clearly the one who struggles the most with this and puts other creatures’ lives on the line as he’s desperate to prove himself, even to his own siblings.

Ben Barnes does a good job at portraying Caspian as a young man who out of his depth and wants to do good without being self-righteous. The new Narnian characters are all a lot of fun and do well to fill the gap left by Mr Tumnus and the Beavers and help show how much has changed in Narnia since the Pevensie’s left. Peter Dinklage and Warwick Davis both play dwarfs, with Dinklage getting almost as much screen time as the Pevensie’s, while Eddie Izzard voices Reepicheap, a swashbuckling mouse.

While Prince Caspian deviates from the book, and is a much darker story than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, there’s still the air of magic and hope about it. This comes from Andrew Adamson’s direction. It’s assured even in the big battle sequences and knowing how much of a rapport he built with the young actors playing the Pevensie children, Georgie Henley especially, it’s clear how he got such good performances from his young cast.

Prince Caspian shows the darker side on Narnia but also the good there is in people. The special effects, hair and makeup and costumes are still great and overall Prince Caspian is an action-packed adventure. Also, Edmund (Skandar Keynes) is still the MVP in my book.4/5.