4 stars

READ THE WORLD – Slovakia: The Equestrienne by Uršuľa Kovalyk

Translated by Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood.

1984, in a small town in the east of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, Karolína is growing up. Her mother has too many boyfriends and her forceful but caring grandmother carries a knife. In an attempt to escape her hard and monotonous life, Karolína joins a riding school at the edge of town. There she befriends Romana, a girl with one leg shorter than the other, and Matilda, a rider and trainer who helps the girls overcome their physical limitations. Together they form a successful trick riding team and soon the small town doesn’t seem so small anymore for Karolína.

The blurb on my copy of The Equestrienne calls it a novel, but at 80 pages I’d say it’s more of a novella. Either way, The Equestrienne is a short, kind of bittersweet coming of age story. I always find it difficult to talk about such short books that are focussed on a short period of time. It spans about sixteen years as that’s roughly the age Karolína is when the story ends, but a lot of her childhood is glossed over and it’s when she’s around twelve and discovers the stables – along with a teenage boy called Arpi – that she starts to come into her own. At the stables Karolína makes a friend for the first time. And with Arpi she discovers cigarettes and music like Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones.

Change is a big element to The Equestrienne and Karolína’s life. Naturally, she’s growing up and maturing, having her first period has a big impact on her, but there’s the political changes happening in the background as the Soviet Union begins to dissolve. There’s a lot of moments of hope because of these changes, but equally there’s disappointment as they go from one dictatorship to another – capitalism.

The women in The Equestrienne are all fleshed out and interesting, which is a feat considering how short it is, and the only named male character is Arpi. All the other men are pushed to the background or become a threat to Karolína’s happiness or safety. The relationships between the different female characters are strong too. Karolína’s grandmother makes a huge impact on her life as she’s a force to be reckoned with and while to begin with Karolína often doesn’t understand or like her mother and her choices, as she matures she see’s the everyday strains she’s under. Then Matilda and Romana each give Karolína confidence and companionship in a time when she felt so alone.

The Equestrienne is a short but effective story that’s sad and sweet. It’s a universal coming of age story, but by having it set in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic means you can learn more about that culture and history and how things like the economy affected its people. 4/5.

REVIEW: Take the Ball, Pass the Ball (2018)

Documentary about the Barcelona team led by Pep Guardiola from 2008-2012, how they came to dominate the sport, winning 14 trophies in four years.

I’m not a Barcelona fan, though as Thierry Henry says in this documentary; if you’re a football fan, you’ve got to appreciate how Barcelona play and I certainly do. I am a fan of a lot of players who played for Barcelona during the teams’ heyday as I’m a fan and support of the Spanish National Team and there’s a lot of crossover between the two squads. As I didn’t know or remember a lot of the intricacies about the different players or how the club worked, I found Take the Ball, Pass the Ball to be very interesting.

It’s a pretty standard talking head-type documentary and a lot of former or current Barcelona players discussing things including Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets, Carles Puyol, Samuel Eto’o and Víctor Valdés. It’s fun to hear anecdotes and what players really thought, especially on things like the Guardiola-Mourinho rivalry. There were also journalists, including Sid Lowe who wrote Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona Vs Real Madrid, coaches, scouts and players who faced Barcelona on opposing teams.

Take the Ball, Pass the Ball is split into sections, focussing on different aspects that made Barcelona so great during those four years. Naturally there’s Pep Guardiola’s influence and how he motivated and changed the team, the bitter rivalry with Real Madrid, the key matches in the different tournaments that Barcelona went onto win, and the discovery and skills of Lionel Messi plays a big part too.

The thing that was most interesting was learning about the philosophy of Barcelona and where that came from. The short passes and building a team on a strong midfield (Xavi and Iniesta) has gone on to be incorporated into the Spanish National Team’s style of play and while other teams (club and country) around the world are now better at countering this style, at their peak, few could touch Barcelona. I knew nothing of Johan Cruyff before watching Take the Ball, Pass the Ball and to see how his strategies and ideas have continued to be the foundation of Barcelona’s style of since he was the teams’ coach from 1988-1996 is very impressive.

If you’re a fan of Barcelona, or even a fan of football and are interested in how one team dominated so completely then I’d give Take the Ball, Pass the Ball a watch. I enjoyed hearing the players and those involved with the team talk, especially when peoples humour (Valdés) or knowledge (Xavi) shined through. 4/5.

REVIEW: Noelle (2019)

Kris Kringle’s daughter, Noelle (Anna Kendrick), sets off on a mission to find and bring back her older brother Nick (Bill Hader) to the North Pole, after he gets cold feet when it’s his turn to take over as Santa.

Noelle is one of the most Christmassy films to ever Christmas! The North Pole where the Kringles and all the elves live is quaint and like something off of a Christmas card and all the Christmassy costumes are bright and wonderful. There’s also a CGI baby reindeer called Snowcone which is the cutest little dude ever.

Joining Noelle on her adventures to find her brother is Elf Polly (Shirley MacLaine), who is perfectly droll, and MacLaine is a great foil for Kendrick’s overt positivity. Noelle also enlists the help of private investigator Jake Hapman (Kingsley Ben-Adir) in tracking down her brother. There’s the typical culture clash as Noelle knows nothing about the everyday struggles of people but it’s never taken to extremes and any misunderstandings are minor and come from a good place.

Anna Kendrick is perfect as Noelle. She’s is bubbly, enthusiastic and joyful and, when she’s out of her comfort zone in Phoenix, Arizona looking for her brother, Noelle’s naivety is never cringey or awkward. If anything, it adds to her charm and while she does meet some people who aren’t as gung-ho about Christmas as she is, for whatever reason, it opens her eyes to other peoples struggles and shows that she might have some of her fathers Christmas magic.

Kendrick has great chemistry with everyone in this film. Though they don’t have many scenes together, the dynamic between Kendrick and Hader really works and they’ve do feel like a brother and sister who know each other really well and just want to help each other out. They’re also really funny together.

Noelle is a little cheesy and predictable, but it’s also wholesome and funny and it made me cry several times. It’s a story about kindness and has so many feel good vibes it’s hard not to enjoy it. 4/5.

REVIEW: Upgrade (2018)

After a brutal attack that leaves his wife (Melanie Vallejo) dead and himself a quadriplegic, Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) feels his life isn’t worth living. When an artificial intelligence implant called STEM is offered to him, Grey is able to move again and with his newfound abilities he seeks revenge for his wife’s murder.

Upgrade is really clever while never being obnoxious with it. The basic premise is something we’ve all seen before – having a man seek revenge/justice for his wife/girlfriend/family’s murder is the starting point for so many action/thriller films. With Upgrade it it takes that starting point and takes it to new and interesting places.

Upgrade is set in the new future where technology is so advanced. There are self-driving cars, smart houses, and the integration between humans and machinery seen as the norm. Grey is a guy who prefers to not rely on technology and to build things himself, so when he’s suddenly put in the position where he’s near enough defenceless without technology it makes things challenging for him as he has to relearn his body – both when he’s paralysed and when he can suddenly move again thanks to STEM.

STEM is like its own character. Grey can here its voice in his head and they have these conversations, discussing how to find the people who killed his wife. Stem can also take complete control of Grey’s body which lead to some very violent and innovative fight sequences. They really are great, and Marshall-Green does a great job as his body is moving robotically but brutally but the expressions on his face (which he always has complete control over) are often scared, confused and shocked by what he’s doing. His performance is all around great as you can clearly see the difference between not only when STEM has control and not, but also how Grey was before the attack.

Upgrade is a great revenge action flick but it’s also one of those films that has a decent amount of substance to it. In this world where reliance on technology is so great, there’s ethical dilemmas about what Grey has done to his body and how he can allow something to take control of it. And even outside of Grey’s situation the little bits of world-building that show how everyone is reliant on technology, surveillance and AI is interesting.

Upgrade is tense and thrilling and the action sequences really stand out due to how well they’re shot and how creative they are. The violence is sometimes pretty gruesome so be aware of that, but it’s also surprisingly funny thanks to the dynamic between Grey and STEM. Upgrade really is one of those films that you hear a load of great stuff about, and it does indeed live up to the hype. 4/5.

REVIEW: Fast Colour (2018)

After years in hiding, Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is forced to go on the run when her superhuman abilities are discovered. Years after abandoning her mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint) and her young daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney), the only place Ruth has left to hide is with them.

The three generations of this family all have abilities and while there’s similarities between them, they each have a different level of control to them. The abilities themselves, to break things down and rebuild them, to see the colours of the universe, for being a mythology that’s so different from the big blockbuster superhero films we are used to seeing, it’s explained well and it is captivating.

Fast Colour is one of those quiet sci-fi films. It’s a film about superpowered characters, but their abilities are not really the driving force of this story, instead it’s the relationships. It’s the moments where you get to see these three people just inhabit the same space that really work. There’s a static shot of the kitchen and slowly the three of them come in at different moments, easily moving around one another as they make breakfast together that hits home how even though Ruth hasn’t been with her mother and daughter for so long, they’re still a family and are connected to one another.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the standout here. Her guilt, fear and regret when it comes to how she acted in the past towards her family is palpable and I would say she gives a star performance, but to be honest she’s been giving great performances for years and it’s everyone else who needs to take notice. Lorraine Toussaint is also great. Her world weariness and desire to do anything to keep her family safe, her calm guidance when it comes to trying to teach her daughter and granddaughter their abilities, it all hides a pillar of strength and power more than those who’d seek to harm her daughter could imagine.

Fast Colour is just a beautiful film about familiar ties and inner strength. It has a beautiful and often haunting score by Rob Simonsen, that compliments the open, deserted spaces of a middle America where so many people are struggling. Fast Colour is a striking and impressive film, and it’s one that’s likely to stick with me for a while. 4/5.

REVIEW: 30 Days of Night (2007)

After the Alaskan town of Barrow is plunged into darkness for a month, it is attacked by a bloodthirsty gang of vampires and survivors, led by Sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett), fight to survive the next thirty days until the sun comes up again.

30 Days of Night is a great vampire film and it’s also a great apocalyptic survival film. The film begins with many of the townsfolk moving away for the month as thirty days without sunlight is enough to put anyone on edge, nevermind throwing vampires into the mix. As people move out, Eben is called to investigate more and more weird occurrences and soon it becomes clear that something is trying to cut the town off from the rest of the world. When the sun goes down, it’s clear why that’s the case.

The film quickly sets up Eben as the lead and introduces various townsfolk and the people who are most important to him; his grandmother (Elizabeth McRae), his younger brother Jake (Mark Rendall) and his ex-wife Stella (Melissa George). As the sun sets and the vampires attack, things get very gruesome very quickly.

The initial attack on the town is brilliant. It’s very suspenseful and does the jump scares just right. There’s also a great overhead view of the town that shows the devastation these vampires are causing, pools of blood on the snow, people trying to escape before being struck down, and the echoes of screams.

The vampires themselves are very creepy and effective. They are all dressed really smartly but then they have pale skin, black eyes and a load of blood coating their faces and hands. Danny Huston plays the leader of the vampires and he is an intimidating presence whenever he’s on screen. Admittedly I often find Danny Huston menacing in films as I think I’ve only ever seen him play the bad guy, but adding fangs, long nails and blood into the mix makes him even more menacing.

There are time jumps, as seeing the whole thirty days would make a very long film, and it shows how time has passed with the growth of Josh Hartnett’s beard. The survivors have to decide between whether staying put for the thirty days would be their best option, or do they need to go out for supplies and maybe move elsewhere to be safer.

30 Days of Night is so effective because normally in vampire (or any monster) films, the humans only need to survive for one night, or generally a much shorter period of time than thirty days. The thirty days adds an extra layer of tension as there’s so many other things that could go wrong. The survivors could be discovered, they could turn on one another, they might run out of supplies – some of these elements could have been explored more but the ones it does touch on are good.

The performances are all great too, naturally the characters closer to Eben are given more to do and development than others, but there’s still some effective character moments. 30 Days of Night is an unsettling vampire/survival film, the score is eerie and adds to the whole creepy vibe of the story and the vampires themselves are some of the most lethal and scary ones I’ve seen for a while. 4/5.

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.