4 stars

REVIEW: Flee (2021)

Animated documentary telling the true story of Amin, who arrived as an unaccompanied minor in Denmark from Afghanistan. Today, at 36, he is a successful academic and there’s talk of marriage between him and his long-time boyfriend. In a series of conversations with a close school friend, Amin finally tells his secrets that he has been hiding for over 20 years.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an animated documentary before and I think the two elements really complimented each other. The animation is so good that when there is a little real news footage scattered throughout the film it’s almost jarring, though it does help to drive home certain points or atrocities, giving the real news story to back up Amin’s accounts. What’s really striking about the animation is how the style changes when Amin is deep in a memory or is thinking what could’ve happened. Instead of the colours and neat lines it becomes dark and almost as if it’s in charcoal. These abstract and often faceless images highlighted the fear and darkness Amin and his family faced.

With the music and the animation, Flee manages to be bother beautiful and haunting at the same time. The things Amin saw and went through are more often horrible than not, but there are some moments of fun for him in his childhood, even when things look bleak. The animation and music captures that duality of life incredibly well.

I think Flee is the kind of film that would be a good way to show children what a lot of refugees can go through in the hopes of keeping with their family and being safe. The corruption of the police and greed of the traffickers are clear – at one point it is heavily hinted at that a young woman would be raped by Russian police as she didn’t have any money or valuables for them to take, so they had to make her pay for not having the correct papers somehow.

Flee shows how quickly a person’s life can change. Amin and his family were all normal, living happy lives until things changed in Afghanistan. His father was arrested, never seen again, and eventually he, his mother and older brother and sisters had to flee to Moscow, with the hope of making it to Sweden where another older sibling lived.

Flee is thought-provoking and equally devastating and hopeful. Amin has gone through so much but has managed to make a life for himself, with a man he loves. That’s another aspect of Amin’s life that he struggled with, being gay and from a culture where it was not talked about or even seen to be a thing. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Qatar: The Girl Who Fell to Earth: A Memoir by Sophia Al-Maria

A funny and wry coming-of-age memoir about growing up in between American and Gulf Arab cultures as Al-Maria shares the struggles of being raised by an American mother and Bedouin father while shuttling between homes in the Pacific Northwest and the Middle East.

The Girl Who Fell to Earth begins with the story of Al-Maria’s parents. Of how her father came to America and how they met, fell in love and were happy for a while. Then in goes to Al-Maria’s childhood and the start of feeling like she belonged in two places and none at all. Growing up she and her young sister spent years with her mother and grandmother in her home on a small farm, then they moved with their mother to Doha to live in a large apartment their father had though they rarely saw him, instead spending time with all the women on their dad’s side of the family; aunts and cousins.

Al-Maria in part doesn’t seem to know who she is because she moves between America and the Middle East at major milestones in her life. As a young teen in America, she tries to express herself but the things she’s interested in (fashion and music) disappoint and sometimes anger her mother. When she goes back to the Middle East as a teen she discovers new restrictions on her life, especially once she starts her period and she’s no longer allowed to go to certain parts of the house where the men are.

Al-Maria grows up in the 80s and 90s and she’s at university in Egypt when 9/11 happens. Her university is an international school with a whole mixture of Americans, Europeans, and Arabs from different countries, so after the attacks you feel the repercussions on all these people in a different way that white Western people did.

The Girl Who Fell to Earth is really interesting because it seems like Al-Maria not only has a culture clash but a personality clash with her parents, her mother especially. It’s like she’s expected to know how to act in both societies but there are things she’s never taught and neither side of the family rarely think they should – she’s just expected to know things. Her not knowing where she belongs, how she feels like an alien when people can’t easily classify “what” she is based on her looks or her level of English or Arabic, comes out in anger, confusion and just general teenage angst.

The Girl Who Fell to Earth doesn’t offer any simple or easy answers to Al-Maria’s turmoil. Her childhood and upbringing weren’t easy and while as an outside perspective you can think of what you’d have done differently in her position, or even in her parent’s position, these were the choices she made. Sometimes they were reckless or thoughtless while sometimes they were a conscious decision.

The Girl Who Fell to Earth is told with a wry sense of humour. There are things that happen in Al-Maria’s life that are sad or shocking but they are told with a degree of distance to them. It’s is as because she doesn’t feel connected to either part of her heritage, it’s difficult for the reader to connect with what she experienced. 4/5.

REVIEW: Schumacher (2021)

Documentary about seven-time Formula 1 champion Michael Schumacher.

Formula 1 is not a sport I follow or know a lot about but it’s hard to not have at least heard of Michael Schumacher. It’s a name and person I was always aware of growing up as he first raced in the F1 a month before I was born and I remember seeing his ski accident featured in the news. Really that sums up my knowledge of Michael Schumacher before watching this documentary.

I found Schumacher to be really interesting and engaging. The balance between talking heads, voiceovers from various industry professionals and those who know Michael Schumacher, and archival footage was great. The filmmakers had a good understanding of when to let the footage speak for itself; whether that was a montage of photos and clips of Schumacher with his family, or letting key races play out.

The documentary seemed to balance the story of Schumacher the man outside of F1 and Schumacher the driver. It’s clear that they were very different people and while he was focused and put his all into both aspects of his life, his competitiveness when it came to racing was almost unparalleled. You get to see the highs and lows of his racing career and included are the times where he was probably in the wrong when it came to altercations with some of his opponents but it was clear that he’d never apologise for such things as in some ways it was almost like anything goes when on the track. Hearing David Coulthard talk about their relationship on and off the track especially highlighted Schumacher’s competitive-streak.

The documentary shows how Schumacher got into racing from humble beginnings of go-kart racing to almost pure chance that got him into his first F1 race. From there you see how talented he really was and how he loved a challenge. It was like as well as winning Championship titles, what he wanted to do was win them in ways other drivers hadn’t. Sometimes that meant going with teams and cars that were the underdogs – proving that while others may have a faster car, if Michael Schumacher was behind the wheel of a bad car it didn’t mean all was lost.

The skiing accident is mentioned briefly towards the end of the documentary and while you can make assumptions on Schumacher’s condition based on the thing’s family members say, it’s clear that the family is firm in keeping their private life private and the filmmakers respect that. At one point his wife Corrina says how before the accident and during the height of his fame Michael kept his private life private and now his family are committed to do the same.

I feel that Schumacher is one of those great documentaries that is enjoyable and interesting to both those who are fans of or are knowledgeable about the subject matter, and for complete novices (like me). It’s an engaging and thoughtful documentary about both Michael Schumacher the family man and Michael Schumacher the F1 driver and seems to cover both sides of his life with respect. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Sweetest Thing (2002)

Christina (Cameron Diaz) is more than happy to flirt, have one-night stands, and leave men in the dust. That is until she meets Peter (Thomas Jane) in a club and with the help of her best friends Courtney (Christina Applegate) and Jane (Selma Blair) she decides to follow her heart and to gatecrash his brother’s wedding.

While The Sweetest Thing is built on romance and the driving force behind Christina’s motivations is the fact she wants to see Peter again, it’s really about the friendship between these three women. Christina only meets Peter because she’s trying to help Jane get over her ex and it’s Courtney that drives them for hours in order to get to the wedding on time. All three of them are very funny people and they feel like they are great friends. They have in-jokes and do their best to cheer each other up while also being totally open with one another.

The Sweetest Thing has the crude humour also seen in Bridesmaids so if you like that, there’s a good chance you’ll like this too, and it should probably be talked about as much as Bridesmaids is to be honest. There’s a whole song and dance number about how to make a man feel good about his penis (sounds weird but it does work) and all three friends are very open about talking about their sex lives. There’s another musical moment featuring Aerosmith’s Don’t Want to Miss a Thing which I found hilarious and there’s a montage like any self-respecting romcom should have.

Cameron Diaz is just a delight in this film. She’s funny and sweet and while their first meeting is pretty short, she and Thomas Jane have enough chemistry to make you believe that she’d make the unexpected choice to travel for hundreds of miles just on the chance that there’s something between them. But really all her best moments are with Christina Applegate and Selma Blair, they all have great friendship-chemistry and each feel equal parts weird and real.

The Sweetest Thing is funny and at times outlandish and ridiculous but it never stops being fun. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Devil Makes Three by Tori Bovalino

When Tess and Eliot stumble upon an ancient book hidden in a secret tunnel beneath their school library, they accidentally release a devil from his book-bound prison, and he’ll stop at nothing to stay free. He’ll manipulate all the ink in the library books to do his bidding, he’ll murder in the stacks, and he’ll bleed into every inch of Tess’s life until his freedom is permanent. Forced to work together, Tess and Eliot have to find a way to re-trap the devil before he kills everyone they know and love, including, increasingly, each other.

I’ve been getting the book-only Illumicrate subscription for the past six months and this is the first book I’ve actually read from them. That’s not necessarily anything against the books from previous months (especially as I’m just generally not reading as much as I used to) but as soon as I read the blurb for The Devil Makes Three and looked at that beautiful but dark cover, I really wanted to read it as soon as possible. Thankfully, for a book I’d never heard of before and had just piqued my interest – I really did enjoy The Devil Makes Three.

The atmosphere in The Devil Makes Three is incredibly vivid. Even before the devil makes an appearance there’s a sense of foreboding and bleakness to both Tess and Eliot’s lives. As the story progresses you learn more about the two of them and how their relationships with their parents are strained for different reasons. Each of them are going through tough times and with Tess especially it’s made her hard and prickly. She’s been betrayed by the people (her parents) who are supposed to care about her and put her and her younger sister Nat first so she now finds it incredibly difficult to trust and rely on other people. This means that she tries to deal with what’s going on with the devil on her own before opening up to Eliot about what’s been happening to her.

The things Tess ad Eliot experience after the accidentally release the devil are truly creepy and terrible. Things they experience blur the line between dream and reality, making events even more unsettling as they (and you as the reader) are never entirely sure what’s real. There is a bit of gore in The Devil Makes Three but it’s not over the top and instead it’s ink that’s used to give you nightmares. Honestly never thought of ink as creepy/evil but the way it’s described here, how it moves and bleeds from pages and almost devours people, it’s really quite disturbing.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a creepy/horror story and The Devil Makes Three was really very good. The ending was a little sudden and I’d have liked to see more of the consequences of Tess and Eliot’s actions on people in their wider sphere who were affected, but overall, it’s a gripping and atmospheric read. 4/5.

REVIEW: Boss Level (2021)

Retired Special Forces officer, Roy Pulver (Frank Grillo), is seemingly trapped in a never-ending time loop that restarts as soon as he dies.

I shall start off this review by saying perhaps you shouldn’t read this review. Because Boss Level is one of those films that is truly a delight and perhaps works even better when you know nothing about it. All I knew was that it starred Frank Grillo (an actor I always like) and I’d seen some positive buzz about it on my Twitter feed. But I enjoyed this film enough to want to write about it so do read on if you fancy learning about why Boss Level worked for me.

Boss Level begins by throwing you right into the time loop with Roy. By this point he’s died over 100 times and can predict and counter the moves of his attackers. His dry narration sets the tone of the film and shows just how bored he is of going through the motions. People are trying to kill him and he doesn’t know why and sometimes he doesn’t even care. By starting the story after Roy is used to his predicament, you’re learning about any new occurrences as he does and it adds to the mystery of it all.

Boss Level is also really fun and often funny. The fights, car chases and shootouts are great, and as there’s so much trial and error for Roy as he goes through certain scenarios (the error leading to his death again) you get to see how his skills grow as he learns what works and what doesn’t in a fight. The editing between the different loops as Roy gets further and further before dying is great too. How the film never over explains things and manages to briefly show you the steps Roy has taken since waking up without it ever getting boring is impressive. It trusts the audience to understand the time loop scenario (as there’s been many a time loop film) so if we join Roy in a loop further along, we have a good idea of what he’s already had to do since it’s pretty much the same every time.

The humour comes from Roy’s attitude to this situation he’s in, and from a lot of his deaths. Some are so sudden and unexpected while others he just sighs and waits for it to happen. Frank Grillo’s voice suits the almost wry narration style perfectly and he looks good doing a lot of the fight sequences himself. There are times where the tone gets more sombre, almost naturally there’s a lost love, but Grillo handles those moments well too.

Boss Level is action packed and innovative. The reasoning why Roy is stuck in a time loop is slowly revealed and the action and fights are always entertaining. Boss Level is just a real good time and it’s one of the first new-to-me films I’ve watched in a while that I’ve fully enjoyed and not just thought was simply fine. Honestly, I was starting to think I didn’t know how to like films anymore! 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Andorra: The Mysterious Balloon Man by Albert Salvadó

At the end of the eighteenth century, changes abound all over Europe. France is in conflict with its neighbours (and is losing a monarch too), England and Spain struggle for supremacy in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and on the other side of the ocean and new power is starting to emerge – the United States of America. After realising that traditional spies will no longer work in this changing world, civil servant Alfred Gordon propose that the British secret service should employ Thomas Headking – an Englishman living in Spain who is on the run for killing a nobleman’s son in a duel. From using his business acumen Thomas gains information and secrets, while getting embroiled in romantic drama, that the British could find very useful.

I don’t tend to read reviews of books I know I’m going to read (especially for my Read the World Project) but as I discovered The Mysterious Balloon Man via Goodreads when looking for an author from Andorra, I happened to glance at people’s star ratings and they weren’t particularly high. Because of that I went into this book with some trepidation but then was pleasantly surprised to fine I weirdly enjoyed it.

It is an odd book and is very heavy on the history and politics of the time – there’s a handy table at the beginning showing all the real historical figures in The Mysterious Balloon Man and who they were which was helpful. Because The Mysterious Balloon Man is one of those books where it’s set during real historical events and features a lot of people who really existed, Charles IV the King of Spain and William Pitt the British Prime Minister to name a few, but the main character we follow are all fictious; Alfred Gordon, Sir Arthur Blum (head of intelligence services at the Foreign Office), Thomas Headking and the everyday Spanish people he interacts with whether that’s his business partner (who doesn’t know his partner is a spy) or Maria the deaf-mute woman he helps and becomes his source inside the Spanish Prime Minister’s residence.

The Mysterious Balloon Man is the first book in a trilogy and the titular Balloon Man plays a very minor role in this book and doesn’t even show up until the latter half of the story. Really, The Mysterious Balloon Man is about Thomas Headking becoming a reluctant spy/businessman and all the goings on in the British secret service as they try and keep track of what’s going on in Spain and France and have some infighting too. It’s a slow-moving book with a lot of political goings on so if that’s not your thing then it wouldn’t be for you.

What I was surprised to find in The Mysterious Balloon Man was this incredibly wry sense of humour running through it – especially from Alfred Gordon. There’s a lot of him butting heads with his superior and other civil servants and there’s people who you wonder how on Earth they got to positions of such power when they are so incredibly incompetent (very true to life really). This sort of tongue in cheek humour made the stuffier moments easier to take in.

While all in all it’s hard to see whether or not Thomas and the British secret service really achieved what they set out to do, as they were doing it, I was mostly entertained. I’m not sure when I will continue with this trilogy but there was enough in this first book to not give up on this series. I think mainly I’m intrigued to know more about Ali Bey as the trilogy is called The Shadow of Ali Bey and they only made a brief appearance in this book. 4/5.

REVIEW: Deadpool 2 (2018)

My original Deadpool 2 review from when it was first released.

Wade Wilson aka Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) puts together a superhero team to protect mutant kid Russell (Julian Dennison) from time travelling cyborg Cable (Josh Brolin) who is out for vengeance.

Considering how the first Deadpool film really didn’t work for me on rewatch, I was a bit apprehensive going into the sequel, but I was pleased to find that Deadpool 2 actually held up! Think this was mainly down to the new characters who were mostly played straight to Deadpool’s off the wall comedy and references. There are still a lot of references (some of the X-Men ones are especially good), crude humour and jokes but more consistently land this time. Plus it does help that they try and give Wade some more serious and emotional development for Reynolds to sink his teeth into, so Deadpool isn’t just a joke machine.

Director David Leitch (of John Wick fame) really ups the game with the action in Deadpool 2. It’s clear from his stunt background that Leitch knows how to film fights that are innovative and well shot, as well as how to show character through their fighting styles. It’s like everyone involved with Deadpool 2 just fully embraces the silliness of the film and its characters, which makes both fights and character beats just work so much better.

Most of Deadpool’s superhero team aren’t around long to make much of an impression but the sequence they are in is so unexpected and hilarious that it’s not really a shame they’re not in it much. Domino (Zazie Beetz) is the one member of Deadpool’s team that sticks around and she’s fantastic. Her superpower is being lucky and how that’s show on screen is very cinematic (no matter what Deadpool might say) and it’s just fun!

Josh Brolin as Cable is pretty brilliant too. The prosthetics and special effects work on his cyborg body and how that’s integrated with his human one looks impressive anyway and with that and the costuming, Cable is an intimidating presence. He’s almost unstoppable and how he and Deadpool work against one another (before naturally finding some common ground) is a great dynamic, with one being stoic and the other never shutting up.

That’s not to say Deadpool 2 doesn’t have its flaws. Julian Dennison’s performance as Russell doesn’t always work, it’s hard to take his anger seriously at times and equally the quieter, emotional moments don’t always land either. Then there’s the treatment of Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), the love of Wade’s life, it feels cheap and so cliché and while Wade often comments on narrative stereotypes, this one is treated so seriously. It’s there to just add emotional weight to Wade’s character and it’s a disservice to Vanessa as her own character.

Deadpool 2 is funny, action-packed and just good fun. The new characters work well with ones we’ve previously met – Karan Soni’s psycho killer Dopinder is an unexpected highlight – and while the first Deadpool movie worked for having a simple plot, Deadpool 2 flourishes for having more action, more characters and more emotional moments – though some don’t always hit the mark, at least the attempt was made. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Broken Hearts Gallery (2020)

Lucy (Geraldine Viswanathan) can’t help but hoard past mementos from failed relationships, but after her latest breakup with her first proper Grown Up boyfriend Max (Utkarsh Ambudkar) her best friends convince her to start to try and let go of the past. In doing so, Lucy beings to curate an art space dedicated to past relationships with the reluctant help of wannabe hotel owner Nick (Dacre Montgomery).

The Broken Hearts Gallery doesn’t reinvent the wheel in terms of romcoms but what it does do his hit all the needed romcom beats very well and has a load of charm and a fantastic leading lady in Geraldine Viswanathan. Viswanathan is very funny, and she is the glue that holds this film together. She does a great job of showing the different sides to Lucy and make her sympathetic and believable. Plus, Viswanathan and Montgomery have great chemistry as their verbal sparring goes from friendly to flirty as they get closer.

The Broken Hearts Gallery works because it’s never cynical about romance or the type of genre film it is a part of. Yes, Lucy is a hopeless romantic and Nick is more closed off, but there’s something both satisfying and melancholy about the message of letting go to past relationships. That ability to be able to remember but also move on is important in the breakdown of any relationship, romantic or otherwise. Lucy curates this space in order for her to try and let go and it ends up snowballing into something so much bigger than she could imagine – because she’s not the only one who struggles with the what ifs and maybes.

Besides the romance aspect of The Broken Hearts Gallery, one of the key aspects of both Lucy and Nick’s lives are their friendships. Lucy lives with Amanda (Molly Gordon) and Nadine (Phillipa Soo), one whose been in a relationship for six years and the other that leaves behind a string of broken-hearted models. How they each think of love and commitment is different but then their friendship is so strong. They aren’t afraid to call each other out on their issues but they’re also very protective of one another and their dialogue, while full of quips and not particularly realistic, is often very funny. While it doesn’t get as much screen time as the girls’ relationship, Nick has Marcos (Arturo Castro), a friend/employee and his wife Randy (Megan Ferguson) and their relationship is often both funny and awkward.

The Broken Hearts Gallery is sweet, funny and heart-warming. It’s a film that’s made to put a big smile on your face and has relationships that are full of chemistry – platonic and romantic. It’s just a delightful film that makes you feel better if you’re feeling down. 4/5.

REVIEW: Love and Monsters (2020)

Seven years after monsters took over the planet and humans had to take shelter underground; Joel (Dylan O’Brien) sets out to find his girlfriend Aimee (Jessica Henwick) who is at another colony 85 miles away.

The creature designs in Love and Monsters are fantastic. The creatures are all mutated insects and cold-blooded creatures like frogs and crocodiles. So many of them have gone from being tiny and easy for a human to step on to the size of a car or even a house. The designs are great because you can tell what kind of bug they were originally but they’ve transformed into something out of the stuff of nightmares. Also, the creatures are used sparingly so then tension is always there and when one does show up it leads to a great sequence.

While there is a smattering of other characters throughout the film, Dylan O’Brien (and a dog, but I’ll get to that) carries this film. There’s his voiceover as he narrates his journey in the form of letters to her that’s equally funny, awkward and charming. In fact, as a character that sums up Joel pretty well. He is not known for his bravery and he makes a lot of mistakes in his trek across the surface, but he learns and O’Brien really captures Joel’s fear and joy in learning what’s out in the world.

Because that’s what Love and Monsters shows. There are creatures out there that are happy to stomp on or eat you, but there’s also beauty out there too. Not all of the creatures are nasty and in a world where no human has been for seven years, there’s so much that Joel, and any other survivor, has forgotten about. Even the simple pleasures of the smell of the grass and the feel of the wind, through experiencing them for the first time in so long Joel realises that while he might have been surviving, he wasn’t living.

Now onto the dog. Soon after leaving his colony Joel meets Boy, a dog who saves him from a monster attack, and they have such a brilliant bond. A lot of the time it’s just Joel and Boy together, with Boy being Joel’s sounding board and only true friend. Their relationship is easy to get invested in and as they protect one another, the tension grows because you don’t want anything bad to happen to either of them.

As well as being funny and a bit dark and scary, Love and Monsters is also surprisingly sweet and touching. You wholeheartedly believe in the love Joel has for Aimee and the little moments of connection he finds with other survivors are great too. Love and Monsters is a pretty innovative film about going outside your comfort zone and finding hope and connection at the end of the world. 4/5.