4 stars

REVIEW: Isn’t It Romantic (2019)

After a mugging goes wrong, Natalie (Rebel Wilson), who is disenchanted with love, finds herself trapped inside a romantic comedy.

Isn’t It Romantic is absolutely delightful. It clearly states all the typical rom-com clichés at the beginning when Natalie is being rather cynical about the genre, and then once it becomes a rom-com, it has so much fun with those clichés. It treads the fine line of poking fun at those clichés but still embracing them when the right moment comes.

Rebel Wilson is great as Natalie, she’s charming and funny and has great chemistry with all of her co-stars. When Natalie wakes up in her rom-com life, Blake (Liam Hemsworth) who had previously not known she existed, can’t take his eyes off of her. Hemsworth looks to be having a lot of fun being a typically hot yet potentially self-centred love interest while Adam Devine’s Josh does well of not falling into the nice guy/friendzone trap. Josh and Natalie are best friends, and believable ones at that, and their friendship is so sweet and Josh never acts like Natalie owes him anything which is great.

The soundtrack is full of so many great throwbacks to rom-com movies. The way Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” is used is pure brilliance and there’s so many other songs that reference other rom-com movies, in many ways Isn’t It Romantic is like a love letter to the genre.

The fun thing about Isn’t It Romantic, is that while it follows the typical story framings of a romantic comedy, it also has a feel-good message about loving yourself and being happy. Isn’t It Romantic is sweet, funny and it’s a film that leaves you with a big grin on your face. It’s a great way to spend 90 minutes and it’s the right balance of fluffy and satirical. 4/5.

Advertisements

REVIEW: Open Grave (2013)

When a man (Sharlto Copley) wakes up in a mass grave, with no memory of what happened to him, he must determine if the murderer is one of the five strangers who rescued him, or if he himself is the killer.

Open Grave is a tense, well-acted film, and it really works when you know as little about the story as possible. It’s creepy and unsettling and it will definitely make you jump a few times.

The atmosphere that’s set up from the very beginning is foreboding and unsettling. The deep pit the protagonist wakes up in is in the middle of nowhere, with the only house nearby being occupied by five people who either can’t remember what happened either, or can’t communicate what they know.

The way the story is played out means you are trying to figure out what’s happening at the same time as the characters are. The suspense is maintained throughout as different characters discover different elements to the truth but as they have no reference point, it still doesn’t always make sense to them – or they jump to what could be a very wrong or dangerous conclusion.

Sharlto Copley is brilliant as a man who is not sure who to trust and, as he gets flashes of memory, he’s not even sure he can trust himself. The rest of the cast are great too, managing to juggle the right amount of fear and suspicion with the desire to survive.

Open Grave is a compelling film that’s sharply directed and knows how to build the tension. The way it sprinkles in answers throughout is great as it’s not until the end of the film do you see how everything fits together. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Latvia: Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena

A nameless woman tries to follow her calling as a doctor but then the state steps in. She, along with her daughter, are banished to a village in the Latvian countryside where she’s deprived of a career, her sense of self, and her relationship with her daughter. As her sense of isolation increases, will she and her daughter be able to return to Riga where the beginning of political change begins to stir?

Translated by Margita Gailiyis.

Soviet Milk is told from the alternating perspectives of an unnamed mother and her unnamed daughter between the years 1969 and 1989. During this time Latvia was a part of the Soviet Union and it’s clear from the outset how the state keeps a close eye on its people and the affect it can have on their lives. The alternating perspectives did through me a bit at the beginning as I didn’t realise that’s what was happening but as some of the passages were told from the two characters different points of view, I got the hang of it.

I enjoyed both the mother and the daughter’s point of view. It basically begins when the daughter is born and so you see her grow up, how she learns different things from her mother, and how she begins to see the restrictions placed on her and her family. When she’s a young child she is brought up by her grandmother who is also unnamed (nearly all the characters are unnamed and are instead referred to by their familial status), their relationship is very sweet and the time she spends with her grandmother and step-grandfather are moments of true childhood innocence.

After her mother’s medical career is dashed and they have to move away from the city and her grandparents, that’s when the daughter has to grow up as more often than not, she has to look after herself and her mother. Her mother’s struggles and depression are vividly realised, and the book is well-written enough that makes her actions sympathetic and not solely selfish as one might think.

Soviet Milk was an interesting insight into the psychological affects of living in your homeland when it’s occupied by an outside force. Previous books that I’ve read for the Read the World Project that have been set in countries during the time of the Soviet Union, have either been from a child’s point of view so they don’t understand the gravity of the situation, or its about characters who have just got on with everything. I think this is the book I’ve read where being a part of the Soviet Union had a real affect on the mental health of one of the protagonists. There was still the food shortages and secrets, but there was also the desperate need to be free which the mother had even when living in her own country.

Soviet Milk is a moving and poignant story about the love between a mother, daughter and grandmother and how the Soviet occupation can affect multiple generations. It was a compelling read even though each perspective was just a couple of pages long. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Estonia: Burning Cities by Kai Aareleid

Translated by Adam Cullen.

Destroyed by German and Soviet armies in the war, Tiiana’s home city of Tartu in Estonia has a lot of secrets and she’s slowly unravelling them. The adult world is of cryptic and hushed conversations and Tiiana experience both great events like Stalin’s death, and personal events like the disintegration of her parent’s marriage from the periphery. Ultimately, she is powerless to prevent the great and defining tragedy of her life – the suicide of a loved one.

I liked the way the story was told. Chapters (if they could really be called that) were often only a few pages long. They each began with a year and they’re like a little snapshot into that period of the characters’ lives, especially at the beginning when there weren’t many chapters set in the same year. As the story progressed and Tiiana got older, you spend more time with her in each year, seeing how her life changes in small and big ways.

Burning Cities begins in 1941 when Tiiana’s parents Liisi and Peeter meet, after a few short chapters Tiiana is born in 1946 and then you follow her as she grows up to the year 1962. There are a few chapters set in the 1990s and 2010s throughout the book and as you’re never properly introduced to the narrator in those chapters, it takes a while to make the connections between them and Tiiana as a child.

A lot of things to do with the Second World War or how it was in Estonia before the war doesn’t really register in Tiiana’s every day life, especially when she’s a child. She knows that other children and adults don’t like the Russians but she’s not sure why and when she becomes friends with a Russian boy from the school next door to hers, she questions whether her father’s uncertainties about the friendship is because he’s a boy or because he’s Russian.

Tiiana is a well-written and believable child. She learns to observe people from a young age and is fascinated by books and how there’s apparently different eras that the adults talk about. She’s smart but also sheltered, because of her father’s job she never wants for anything unlike some of her fellow classmates. It’s the little things that make the city of Tartu a strong presence in the novel. It’s a place that’s being rebuilt but there’s so many parts of it that aren’t whole or are broken. This mirrors Tiiana’s parent’s relationship as they drift apart and attempt to hide things from Tiiana to no avail. As Tiiana gets older she becomes more outspoken but she’s still quiet young and naïve and, much like her parents, doesn’t talk about how she feels.

Burning Cities is a story of family secrets and tragedy told, through the most part, through the eyes of a child. It’s a well-written story that often paints a vivid picture, but it still has a hazy quality to it as much of it feels like a memory with some events or people more solid than others. It’s a book that pulls you in from the very beginning, with interesting characters and a haunting writing style. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Greenland: Crimson by Nivaq Korneliussen

Five young people’s lives collide in Nuuk Greenland as secrets are revealed and relationships crumble. Inuk has something to hide and runs from his problems. His sister Fia breaks up with her long-term boyfriend and falls for Sara. Sara is in love with Ivik who holds a big secret. Ivik struggles with gender dysphoria, and transgender identity, while Arnaq, the party queen pulls the strings of manipulation, bringing these five lives to a shocking crescendo.

Translated by Anna Halager.

Crimson is the UK title of Last Night in Nuuk, a book I’d been aware of as it was written by a young Greenlandic author and is set in the country’s capital city. Besides from that, all I knew about the books before diving into it was that it was about the interconnected lives of five young people who are in their early twenties.

Crimson has five chapters and each chapter is from a different character’s point of view. It’s not a truly linear story which makes delving into these characters lives for such a short space of time interesting. As the story progresses some events from previous chapters are retold from a different perspective, through this you can see different sides of an argument or what happened next after the first character had left the party for instance.

Each character, and therefore each chapter, has its own distinct voice. This helps as besides a couple of sentences at the start of the book about each character giving you the most important facts about their lives, you are thrown into this book blind, learning about what makes each character tick in around 30 pages. Some chapters are more like diary entries while others are written like a stream of conscious, this can be a little jarring, but it does make each character feel different.

While these five characters are all connected in some way, they all feel very alone and drifting through the days. Sara is the one who is more obviously depressed while Arnaq uses partying, drinking and sex to ignore her problems even though those three activities often cause her new ones. I feel Crimson is an unflinching look at what it is to be someone in your early twenties, when you’ve got no real career prospects and you don’t truly understand yourself or anything that’s happening around you.

Crimson is a story about people struggling, their connections, love and sexuality. It’s a quick read at less than 180 pages and the way it’s set out, in each chapter you don’t just learn about the current character you’re following, but you see other sides to characters you’ve previously met. Even though this story is set in a country that appears to be so remote it’s almost alien to me, it’s a story that’s universal as young people will have fun and be irresponsible and make mistakes no matter where in the world they’re from. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Netherlands: Safe as Houses by Simone van der Vlugt

Trigger warnings for rape.

Home is supposed the be a safe place, but when a man forces his way into Lisa’s house taking her and her five-year-old daughter Anouk hostage, there’s no where to hide. In the coming days, Lisa will do just about anything to keep her daughter safe, but all the while she wonders why the only witness to her attack has not raised the alarm.

Translated by Michele Hutchison.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Julia Binns and due to both the narration and the story itself, I flew through this book. Safe as Houses is such a compelling story, there’s no slow set-up, instead within the opening chapters Lisa’s home is invaded by a dangerous criminal. It’s fascinating to see how Lisa tries to relate to Kruger, the escaped criminal who has a twisted mind, in order to try and keep herself and her daughter safe. Numours times Lisa ponders how she would react if she didn’t have Anouk with her and this book truly shows the strength of a mother’s determination.

Kruger is a violent man and he sexually assaults and rapes Lisa, believing she’s interested in him and wants it. She shuts down and can’t say no as she’s terrified of what he might do if she puts up a fight. Those scenes are tough to read (or in my case listen to) and they really made my skin crawl.

The emotions of the different characters are fully realised, and they all act in believable ways. Even five-year-old Anouk is neither too mature for her age nor an inconvenience to the plot. She’s a child that on some level knows that things aren’t good as her mother is hit in front of her and they are forced to sleep in the basement, but she also still wants to do finger paints and play with her dolls. When there’s the more everyday moments between Lisa, Kruger and Anouk, having breakfast together, or watching the TV together, it makes everything feel even more unsettling and on a knifes edge.

Safe as Houses is an incredibly fast-paced story so it’s unfortunate that while the conclusion is thrilling, it also comes to an abrupt stop. It’s the sort of ending where I wish there was an epilogue so you could see how the characters are coping because they went through such horrendous things in order to survive. I just wanted a little more from the conclusion after enjoying the rest of the novel.

Safe as Houses is a gripping thriller that’s often tense and scary. It’s a proper page-turner though not necessarily a thriller that will stick in my mind for a long time. Still, it was a strangely enjoyable read. 4/5.

REVIEW: Life (2017)

When a team of scientists aboard the International Space Station are examining the first samples from Mars, they discover a rapidly evolving life form that not only threatens their lives, but all life on Earth.

A lot of comparisons can be made between Life and the original claustrophobic-space-horror-film Alien, but that doesn’t mean Life doesn’t do a good job with that template, and it offers its own spin of certain elements.

The first half of Life is more of the philosophical and scientific side of things as you get to know the basics about the crew and what they are trying to achieve with this life form they are studying. While the second half is more action-packed as naturally when the creature escapes, things get increasingly worse and the intensity never really lets up. It’s interesting how to begin with there is humour in this film, most of it coming from Ryan Reynolds’s character, but as soon as the danger is realised, the tension jumps up a notch and all characters are suddenly a lot more serious.

The camera work and editing make every tunnel and compartment of the ISS feel deadly. As the creature grows smarter and reactionary towards the humans onboard it becomes a bit of a cat and mouse chase around the space station as the crew attempt to contact Earth and stay alive. The dangers are real as members of the crew get injured or die in increasingly gruesome ways and it really is a battle as the creature and the humans onboard have a lot of the same basic needs.

Life is a tense, claustrophobic space horror that leaves you on the edge of your seat, but its dark undertone gets more and more prominent as the film progresses, leaving you drained by the time the credits begin to roll. 4/5.