4 stars

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.

REVIEW: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)

The Pevensie children, Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley), travel through a wardrobe to the magical world of Narnia and discover they’re a part of a prophecy to free Narnia from the clutches of the White Witch (Tilda Swinton).

I remember going to the cinema to see The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe but can’t quite believe that was fifteen years ago. I grew up reading The Chronicles of Narnia and really enjoyed the film adaptations, but as it’s been so long since I’ve watched them, I thought I’d revisit them as an adult an see if they still have the same magic about them.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is one of the most faithful book to film adaptations I’ve seen, especially for a children’s series where so often what ends up on screen is completely different to what’s on the page. Perhaps it helps that the Narnia books are certified classics and are known across the generations, or it’s just more proof of the care and heart that was put into this film by everyone involved.

There are some moments that don’t grip your attention as much as others, but overall, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a story of hope, perseverance and good triumphing over evil. It’s a universal story and one that’s told very well from the production and set design to the performances.

The four young leads are all wonderful and they do feel like real siblings. Georgie Henley as Lucy is especially brilliant as it’s with her that you encounter Narnia for the first time and her wonder and delight is infectious. For me, Edmund has always been the most interesting of the Pevensie siblings. He’s jealous of his older brother and he can be mean but over the course of the film matures as he sees the consequences of his actions and strives to help others and do good. Skandar Keynes does a good job at showing how spiteful Edmund can be, but also how sympathetic and remorseful he truly is.

Tilda Swinton is the White Witch. She is menacing and cruel and can switch from being seemingly kind and caring to vicious in a second in order to get what she wants. She’s a foreboding presence even when she’s not on screen and it’s clear to see why the creatures of Narnia fear her so.

Half the fun of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is hearing well known voices come from a variety of creatures – Ray Winstone and Dawn French as Mr and Mrs Beaver is a delight. The special effects, makeup and costumes that bring the creatures of Narnia to life are fantastic and still hold up fifteen years later. One has to wonder how the filmmakers here made a pretty photorealistic lion with Aslan, that looks and acts like a lion while still being able to emote, and the lions and creatures in The Lion King (2019) just don’t emote at all.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a film that’s still full of magic. The care and attention put into everything from the costumes and special effects to the score and the story, means that it looks just as good and is just as enjoyable all these years later. 4/5.

REVIEW: Paradise Hills (2019)

Uma (Emma Roberts) wakes up in Paradise Hills, an apparently idyllic reform school for wealthy young ladies, but things are not what they seem.

Honestly, I was not sure what to make of Paradise Hills to begin with, but I slowly got captivated by the whole look of the film and that unsettling feeling that something isn’t quite right at Paradise Hills.

Uma is strong-willed and opinionated – two reasons why she was sent to Paradise Hills as it’s where she can learn to become a better version of herself aka the version that her mother wants. At Paradise Hills she meets other girls who are in a similar position to her. Chloe (Danielle Macdonald), Yu (Awkwafina) and Amarna (Eiza González) are all there for different reasons but they are also all content with who they are.

The relationship that forms between them all is one of love and support. They are solid friends who look out for and help one another. The moments there are tension between them are not because of what one girl is thinking, but because of the situation they’re in and it’s circumstances that threaten to tear them apart.

There’s an other worldly beauty to Paradise Hills thanks to the art department. The production design, the hair, the make up and costumes makes Paradise Hills (the place) seem so far removed from what we know. It often gives off a twisted Alice in Wonderland vibe, especially with all the roses everywhere and the obsession with mirrors. To carry on the Alice in Wonderland analogy, The Duchess (Milla Jovovich), who runs Paradise Hills, almost fills the Red Queen role. She’s in control of everything, though she can lose her cool in a spectacular fashion, she’s obsessed with roses and she’s the only person in Paradise Hills whose clothes are colourful, making her stand out from everyone else. Uma and the other girls always wear white dresses while the male servants, gardeners and attendants are also in white.

The beautiful costumes and location is a harsh juxtaposition to the thoughts and emotions Uma is going through. Paradise Hills is perfection and that’s what Uma is supposed to be learning to be, but she doesn’t want to. She knows who she is, who she loves, and she doesn’t want to change anything about herself.

Paradise Hills is so much more than I thought it’d be. The theme of women supporting women is so strong, as is the message that people (especially young women) should be happy with who they are no matter what pressures from family or society they might face. The whole production is stunning and that makes the dark underbelly of what’s really happening at Paradise Hills all the more affecting. 4/5.

REVIEW: See You Yesterday (2019)

Two teenage scientists C.J. (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian (Dante Crichlow) who have built portable time machines use them to try and save C.J.’s brother Calvin (Brian ‘Stro’ Bradley), who was wrongfully killed by a police officer.

See You Yesterday is a very relevant film. Before Calvin is killed there’s moments where it’s clear that the police aren’t to be trusted. For instance, C.J. and Calvin have an argument in the street, just like any brother and sister do, and two police officers ask them what’s the problem in an intimidating manner. There’s tension in the scene that comes from the script and from just knowing what is happening to Black people at the hands of the police now and for years before.

C.J. and Sebastian are great characters and their friendship is at the heart of the film. It’s refreshing to have a film where romance is firmly at arm’s length with both of them scoffing at the idea of being anything over than best friends.

Naturally there’s a lot of the usual time travel tropes; not wanting to run into your past selves, accidentally changing things for the worst, but they work because we know the tropes. As a viewer, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a lot of time travel media, or at least have an idea of the “rules of time travel” so it’s how C.J. and Sebastian either fall into those traps or try and avoid them that is interesting. The fallout from some of their time travel adventures is emotional and both the direction and the young cast make those emotional beats land.

Having looked at the comment section under the trailer I can see the ending of See You Yesterday isn’t to everyone’s liking. I can see why as it’s sudden and leaves you wanting a more definitive answer. However, I feel it does suit the story and C.J.’s character. It perfectly encapsulates her desperation to save her brother and highlights how time travel is a fickle thing and may not give you the results you want.

See You Yesterday is fun, imaginative and emotional as it combines the socio-political issues of today with a time travel adventure. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Antigua and Barbuda: A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid

Narrated by Robin Miles.

An essay drawing on Kincaid’s experiences of growing up in Antigua and how the Antigua tourists may see is vastly different to the one Antiguan’s live in.

A Small Place is a piece of creative non-fiction. Jamaica Kincaid refers to the reader as if they were a tourist visiting the island, describing what they may see, what they think of the beautiful beaches, the food, and the people. But soon after describing how wonderful everything can look to a tourist, a little bit of paradise, she goes onto talk about the parts of Antigua that a tourist wouldn’t notice or understand. The corruption, the dilapidated schools and hospitals, the places that the Black Antiguans are not allowed. The club houses, the government buildings, certain beaches. She delves into the history of Antigua and how the British shaped the island and the long-lasting impact of colonisation.

I think having an essay that’s full of dark humour as well as hard-hitting truth’s that are full of anger, is a really effective way to describe what a country and its people are like, and how slavery, segregation, and now tourism can affect them. It makes this place, this ten-by-twelve-mile island, and its history easy to understand and it also makes you think. Especially as it goes into the effects of tourism on the country, how there are certain things tourists are blind to like political corruption and how people’s homes and communities are not at all like the fancy hotels a tourist may stay in.

A Small Place also has autobiographical elements of Jamaica Kincaid’s childhood. She recounts the experience of having an Irish schoolteacher, the casual racism she and her classmates experienced without being able to put the word “racism” towards it as European rule or influence had been so prevalent on the island.

A Small Place was written in 1988 so things may have changed a bit for Antiguans over the past thirty years but then again, it may have not with the prevalence of racism and corruption in the world. A Small Place is a great insight into how colonialism can affect such a small nation and how tourism can be just as harmful when the best land and the most money goes towards tourism-related endeavours rather than the communities. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Spectacular Now (2013)

Popular and borderline alcoholic Sutter (Miles Teller) has everything until he is dumped by girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson). Then after a night of partying he wakes up on Aimee’s (Shailene Woodley) front lawn, and as they each try to figure out what the future might hold, a unexpected romance blossoms between them.

The central relationship between Sutter and Aimee is a bit of a cliché, the popular bad boy dates the quiet and studious girl who doesn’t realise how beautiful she is, but the chemistry between Teller and Woodley is off the charts so it’s easy to ignore the typical starting point for their relationship. The script is full of natural sounding dialogue, especially the scenes between Sutter and Aimee. Their conversations seem spontaneous as they go from one topic to the other and the way they laugh and talk over each other now and then feels true to life.

The Spectacular Now is a film that starts off as a teen romantic comedy and then evolves into something a lot more serious and hard-hitting. Aimee and Sutter each have their own family issues but while after a little encouragement Aimee is looking to the future and college, Sutter is desperate to not grow up and just wants everything to stay how it is.

The slice-of-life approach of telling this story means that you can get invested in Sutter and Aimee’s lives and, while a lot of the important moments come from the mundane, when there is something shocking, it feels even more unexpected as their lives are so normal and it wasn’t like the film was building to a huge moment. That being said, some serious conflict between Aimee and Sutter seems to be solved off screen or brushed under the carpet by them, or maybe it’s a bit of both, as it feels very rushed and Aimee appears to forgive Sutter far quicker than a lot of people would, even some one who is in love with him. While that may be true to life that people sometimes want to ignore what’s hurt them, it feels like a missed opportunity for Aimee and Sutter to have a proper discussion about what’s going on in their heads.

The use of alcohol in The Spectacular Now is interesting and important. So often alcohol in teen coming of age movies is just used in the party scenes or to set up some comedy, but in The Spectacular Now it shows how for some teenagers it can be an emotional crutch. Sutter drinks all the time. To begin with it doesn’t seem like a big deal or that he doesn’t drink a lot, just topping up a fizzy drink with something from his hip flask now and then, but as the film progresses you see there are very few scenes where Sutter isn’t at least a little buzzed. He drinks with friends, he drinks alone, and he even gives Aimee a personalised hip flask as a gift. Miles Teller’s performance has to be commended as he never turns Sutter into a drunken cliché, his performance is subtle and it’s in those few moments when Sutter is sober that you see how interesting his performance is.

The Spectacular Now is a sensitive and touching coming of age story but really, it’s Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller who make the film work. Their performances really are nuanced and powerful and their chemistry makes the unlikely relationship between their characters work. 4/5.

REVIEW: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

When the War Between the States was derailed when the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville, America’s history took a different turn. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. Jane McKeene is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect rich white folk. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane, but not one Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies – not all of them undead.

I find alternate history stories fascinating. They can easily not work if they change the outcome of a big historical event, but then present things are 100% better or a lot of society’s problems are solved now that change has been made. That’s not the case with Dread Nation. While the outcome of the Civil War is different as the Union states and the Confederacy have had to stop fighting in order to fight the dead, that doesn’t mean prejudices and racism has disappeared.

Jane and the other Black girls at her combat school now have a skill that can be used by society, but that doesn’t mean they are treated well by white people, especially those in positions of power. It’s the way Dread Nation combines the horror of racism with the horror of zombies that is really interesting. Jane is not just fighting against the dead, but also the systematic racism that’s prevalent in every situation she encounters.

Jane is a great character. It took me a little while to warm to her as she’s so headstrong and doesn’t know when to stop when it comes to answering back her superiors. But she’s also smart, resourceful, and can lie like a rug. She’s one for tall tales and can think outside the box which is important when she’s put in dangerous situations.

Her reluctant friendship with Katherine, another girl from the school who can pass for white (which in term brings about a lot of interesting discussions of race and how Katherine feels about what her perceived skin colour can get her), is great as they are so different. Jane is a rule-breaker, constantly looking to learn things people would rather people like her didn’t, whereas Katherine is more reserved, looking forward to the life of an Attendant and doesn’t wish to rock the boat. They are both extremely capable of taking down the undead, or shamblers as they’re known.

The shamblers are unsettling and the way they’re described makes their presence felt almost constantly. They are a threat that’s always on the peripheral of Jane’s life, and when one or two or a dozen are near, it’s a fight to survive.

Dread Nation is a fast-paced, action-packed story with an interesting premise that lives up to the potential. It’s the first book in a series and I’m looking forward to continue it as there’s still so much to learn about the shamblers, how they group together, and what the government of each state is planning to do about them. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Trinidad and Tobago: Difficult Fruit by Lauren K. Alleyne

A poetry collection that is a journey which includes coming to terms with sexual violence and loss, with celebrating love and connection, and bearing witness to the world that shaped that journey.

I don’t often read poetry, mainly because I feel I don’t “get it” and don’t get enjoyment from it. With Difficult Fruit however, I found the poems to be affecting and easy to connect with and understand.

The poems deal with growing up and loss, how someone feels when burying a friend or dealing with an assault on their body and mind. Some poems are quite upsetting or uncomfortable as it doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities people go through, especially women as they grow up.

The poems in the collection are short, often no more than a page long and they are written in different styles. Some with one long stanza, while others are broken up in parts.

One of my favourite poems in the collection was “The Hoodie Stands Witness for Trayvon Martin” which personifies the hoody that Trayvon Martin, a black teenager who was shot and killed in 2012, wears. It’s short and unsettling and really affecting, especially as it’s about a real event and person that’s shocking and unjust. I don’t think I’d ever read a poem before that was so obviously about a certain event or person and it made me really stop and consider the poem and what it was saying.

I often find poems easy to just read and move onto the next one without much thought because they’re short and are about different things. However, with Difficult Fruit I found myself stopping to consider the meaning of a lot of the poems as while they were short, they were impactful. 4/5.

REVIEW: Lady and the Tramp (2019)

It seems like every classic animated Disney film will eventually be given a live action remake and 1955’s Lady and the Tramp is one of the latest to get the treatment.

While I’d watched the animated Lady and the Tramp many times as a child, it’s one that hadn’t really stuck in my mind so seeing this version made the story a new experience. Lady and the Tramp is the story of sheltered uptown Spaniel Lady (Tessa Thompson) and streetwise mutt Tramp (Justin Theroux) who meet when Lady’s life is disrupted by a new arrival.

If I had to pick one word to describe Lady and the Tramp, it would be charming. The costumes, the setting and score, it’s all so quaint. It’s also a charmingly familiar story even if you’ve not seen the animated film before. There’s something comforting about a story where you know what’s going to happen and the various character types – both human and dog in this scenario.

The combination of real dogs and CGI works very well here and isn’t uncanny valley like the “live action” aka completely computer-generated version of The Lion King. The animals are cute and the way their mouths are animated to move when they talk is easy to get used to especially with dogs like Tramp and Jock (Ashley Jensen) who have hairier and shorter muzzles.

Thompson and Theroux’s vocal performances are delightful, though it’s perhaps Janelle Monáe as Peg who really stands out. She sings a jazzier version of “He’s a Tramp” that’s great. Speaking of songs, the culturally insensitive “Siamese Cat Song” is not here, instead the troublemaking cats (who are a different breed to Siamese) sing a new fast paced song all about how they enjoy doing whatever they want.

The human cast are wonderful in their roles. Thomas Mann and Kiersey Clemons play Lady’s owners Jim Dear and Darling. Their romance is sweet and the drama in their lives compliments what is going on with Lady. The dogcatcher (Adrian Martinez) has a much larger role is and the main antagonist for Tramp. There are some fun sequences of Tramp taking the dogcatcher for a fool and the blend of animation and real animal in them is often near seamless.

Lady and the Tramp is perhaps more for children with some of its silly moments and jokes, but it’s still a film that adults can enjoy – whether they have nostalgia goggles on or not. 4/5.