5 stars

REVIEW: They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott and Harmony Becker

In 1942, at the order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, every person of Japanese descent on the west coast was rounded up and shipped to one of ten “relocation centers,” hundreds or thousands of miles from home, where they would be held for years under armed guard. They Called Us Enemy is Takei’s firsthand account of those years behind barbed wire, the joys and terrors of growing up under legalised racism, his mother’s hard choices, his father’s faith in democracy, and the way those experiences planted the seeds for his astonishing future.

It sounds cliché to say reading They Called Us Enemy was a rollercoaster of emotions, but it was. It was infuriating to hear about some of the politicians and lawyers who set in motion the anti-Japanese sentiment have gone onto having very successful careers. It was sad to see what George’s parents went through and how they struggled to keep their family together and to do the best thing for them all. And it was wonderful to see that hope can survive in even the most terrible of circumstances, and how there are people who will help others even though they themselves may get hurt. I felt myself tear up multiple times reading They Called Us Enemy. Some tears were due to sadness and frustration that people were treated like this (and are still being treated like this) while other tears were of the joy of seeing George Takei meet with Gene Roddenberry and how Star Trek really had such a positive impact on George and the world.

They Called Us Enemy does a great job of showing both how a child would deal with having to leave their home and live in confined spaces with strict rules, and how adults would be scared because they have a better understanding over what is happening to them. There’s the childlike innocence about a lot of George’s experience, at least to begin with in some camps where they were obviously not pleasant but not as harsh as their later experiences.

I learnt so much about the internment of Japanese Americans from this book. I first heard about this event in history through following George Takei on Twitter, he said something about it that got me googling and I learnt about something I’d never heard of before when I was in my early twenties. A lot of quotes and moments in They Called Us Enemy will stick with me, but one that really stood out was: “That remains part of the problem – that we don’t know the unpleasant aspects of American history and therefore we don’t learn the lesson those chapters have to teach us. So we repeat them over and over again.”

I suppose I have the “excuse” of being British and growing up in the UK that I didn’t learn bout this part of American history in school, in fact in History class we barely touched on the attack on Pearl Harbour and it’s just the catalyst for America joining the war. Naturally all our history is UK-focused. But still, as George Takei says, it’s important to know our history – both the good and the bad – so we don’t make the same mistakes again.

They Called Us Enemy is an important and impactful book but it’s also a compelling story with wonderful art that perfectly captures the innocence of childhood. They Called Us Enemy is definitely a book I’d recommend to anyone, whether they were a fan of George Takei or not. His childhood is, unfortunately, the childhood of tens of thousands Japanese Americans and it’s a story of 120,000 people that must be heard. 5/5.

REVIEW: Little Women (2019)

The four March sisters come of age in America in the aftermath of the Civil War.

I read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott for the first time a couple of years ago. It was a book I thought was just alright, and I didn’t really see how it had become such a classic and my lasting impression of it was how much I hated Amy March. So it was with some trepidation I went to see this latest adaptation, but I was very surprised by how much I ended up enjoying this film and how it made me connect with all of the March sisters and it even made me tolerate Amy.

This feat was accomplished by the actor’s performances and writer and director Greta Gerwig’s brilliant screenplay. There are two timelines happening in Little Women. The present has Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is living in New York and trying to earn a living writing stories until she’s called home as her sister Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is sick where she reconnects with her mother (Laura Dern) and her older sister Meg (Emma Watson), while Amy (Florence Pugh) is travelling Europe with their Aunt March (Meryl Streep). Then there’s the other timeline that starts 7 years earlier where you can see how the sisters would put on plays, had dreams and aspirations that are so different from one another’s and how they are all determined to make their lives their own.

These timelines are easy to follow due to the characters costumes and how in the flashback scenes, the colours and costumes seem so much brighter, while the colour palette of the present scenes is a lot more muted, mirroring how the sisters have grown up and apart. It’s also fascinating to see the sisters grow into the people we see in the present, and how their relationships may change but continue to be so strong.

Also central to the story of Little Women is the March sisters’ friend and neighbour Laurie (Timothée Chalamet). He finds friendship and love and family with the March’s and his relationship with Jo is so important to the two of the but for different reasons.

Little Women has a beautiful score, wonderful costumes that add layers to the already complex characters and is shot so well. Gerwig’s Little Women is funny, touching and it makes you feel so happy and content by the end of it, even if some tears are shed along the way. It’s a delightful story told so well because the actors don’t just play their characters brilliantly, they embody the March sisters’ heart and soul. Ronan and Pugh particularly standout but while Beth and Meg have more understated roles, Scanlen and Watson bring out all of the layers to their characters just as well as Ronan and Pugh.

Little Women was a wonderful surprise in how much I loved it and while it is quite the feminist story, it’s also a universal story about love, family and find your place in the world. 5/5.

REVIEW: Klaus (2019)

When Smeerensburg’s new postman, Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), befriends toymaker Klaus (J.K. Simmons), their gifts melt an age-old feud and deliver a sleigh full of holiday traditions.

Klaus is wonderful! Everything about it is so beautiful. The animation, the story, the characters, the music and the songs; it all comes together into one of those truly special films. It’s funny, sweet and charming with such a timely yet timeless message at its centre.

Jesper doesn’t want to be in Smeerensburg. He’s used to putting in minimum effort and relying on his family’s money for everything, so when he’s shipped off to Smeerensburg and the risk of being cut off looming over his head, he has to think on his feet to get this town that never sends any letters, using the post office.

Jesper’s work is cut out for him as the town is home to an ancient feud between the Ellingboe’s and the Krum’s led by Mr Ellingboe (Will Sasso) and Mrs Krum (Joan Cusack). What Klaus really captures is how children are children and don’t tend to pick up the illogical reasons to hate someone without influence from the adults around them. The children of Smeerensburg want to play together even though there’s a violent feud that has been going on for generations.

Besides from being funny and heart-warming, Klaus can tug at your heartstrings too. From seeing the huge smiles on the happy children’s faces (honestly the animation is gorgeous) to learning more about Klaus’s past, it’s enough to bring a tear to anyone’s eye. The score is magical and the original song Invisible by Zara Larsson is brilliant too and echoes the core theme of the film.

The main message of Klaus is that a simple act of kindness always sparks another. It’s a wonderful message to have in any movie, but for a Christmas movie which has a take on the origin of Santa Claus, somehow makes that message even more impactful. It’s a lovely thought to live by, and one that highlights that deep down, people are (on the whole) inherently good. 5/5.

REVIEW: Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)

I reviewed The Force Awakens when it was released. You can read my original review here. As a good chunk of time has passed and I’m rewatching the sequel films on the run up to The Rise of Skywalker’s release, there may be more spoilers here than in a normal review – you’ve been warned.

Three decades after the Empire’s defeat, a new evil threatens the galaxy – the First Order led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). After meeting Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), defector Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) gets caught up in the fight against the First Order along with scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) and they struggle to find the Resistance and help in the search for the missing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).

I love The Force Awakens. I didn’t grow up watching Star Wars (I first watched all previous six films when I was at university) so there wasn’t the nostalgia or added fear and excitement that came with seeing a new Star Wars film when I went to see The Force Awakens. Still, I was blown away by the spectacle, the magic and the characters in this story that simultaneously felt new and exciting, and comforting because of how familiar the themes and the score were – because even if you’re not a huge Star Wars fan, some of those motifs are a part of popular culture.

The Force Awakens juggles the old and the new really well. It gives space for the original characters who everyone knows to be a part of this story, while also introducing us to new heroes and villains. The new trio of heroes; Rey, Finn and Poe are all wonderful. The immediate chemistry between Isaac and Boyega is palpable and how Poe and Finn meet and immediately put their lives in each other’s hands make their relationship so strong. With Rey and Finn, it takes them longer to really trust and understand one another, with each of them running away from different things. For Finn it’s his past while for Rey it’s the future and the unknown. It’s when the two of them start letting the other in that they relationship goes from annoying siblings to firm friends. Finn is the first person who ever came back for Rey, while for Finn, Rey is someone who makes him want to be brave.

The action in The Force Awakens is exciting and fun. The sound effects, the way things are shot, along with the score makes it all come together into these wonderful fun sequences. The aerial battles between the Millennium Flacon and TIE Fighters or between X-Wings and TIE Fighters are almost awe-inspiring to watch. It’s fun to see Finn and Rey or Finn and Poe work together to take down the bad guys. And it’s always great when after hearing a character is really talented at something, you actually see them do it. In this case it’s Poe being the Resistance’s best pilot. It’s even mentioned in the opening title crawl and you see how good he is multiple times.

Kylo Ren is an interesting character. He’s still feeling like he’s being pulled towards the light and he prays to a Darth Vader helmet to keep him on what he perceives to be the right track, but he’s also kind of scared and inexperienced. I love that he looks like such a normal guy when he takes off his helmet for the first time. Due to his costume and his actions, torturing Poe and killing villagers, he seems like such an imposing figure, but beneath it all he’s just pretending to be stronger and more in control than he is.

The lightsaber fights between Finn and Kylo Ren, and Rey and Kylo Ren are absolutely brutal. They tear chunks out of each other and cut down trees as they go at it. Finn is wholly unprepared and while he does get one hit in against Kylo Ren, ultimately, he is bested. It’s when Rey steps up, the lightsaber flies to her hand and the music swells that it’s really impactful, and once she lets the Force in, she is just as strong, if not stronger than Kylo Ren and it is beautiful to see her absolutely wreck him.

The thing I love the most about The Force Awakens is the characters – both the old ones and the new ones. The whole cast give such great performances (quick shout out to Harrison Ford for playing a believably world-weary Han Solo but still retaining that attitude) and their chemistry is wonderful. Even though you don’t see a lot of some characters or their relationships with one another, there’s enough hinted through the script and the actor’s performances that you can see the history between them. One such example is Poe and Leia (Carrie Fisher). It’s clear he’s told her all about Finn, that she trusts his judgement on Finn and his tactics, and that Poe is clearly relatively high up in the Resistance due to how easily he can talk to Leia and in a relatively familiar way.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is just brilliant. It’s funny, thrilling, emotional and just a joy to watch. There’s so much to fit in but there’s never a dull moment or a moment wasted. The quieter, character driven moments are just as important and as engaging as the dogfights and action sequences. The Force Awakens is truly something special and I’ll always love it. 5/5.

REVIEW: Arthur Christmas (2011)

When a child is missed on Christmas Eve, Arthur (James McAvoy) the clumsy youngest son of Santa (Jim Broadbent), races against time to deliver her present with the help of elf Bryony (Ashley Jensen) and his grandfather (Bill Nighy), much to the dismay of his older brother Steve (Hugh Laurie) who runs a tight ship at Christmas and isn’t impressed with Arthur putting the whole operation at risk.

Arthur Christmas is a lot of fun and a great adventure. It pokes fun on how Christmas is so commercialised nowadays and it’s almost a military operation to get all the presents and organise everything when the shops are heaving with people. At the North Pole Santa is more of a figure head of Christmas, and instead it’s his son Steve, along with millions of elves, that run the show. The sequences of the elves dropping off presents in dozens of homes in seconds are entertaining and inventive and they contrast nicely with the picture of Santa and his helpers that we generally have. That kind of typical Christmas is what Grandsanta reminisces about, when he used a wooden sleigh and a dozen reindeer to deliver presents.

Arthur loves Christmas. He believes whole heartedly in what his father does, the magic of Christmas and that every child matters. He’s almost naïve in his enthusiastic optimism, especially next to Steve’s stoic pragmaticism, but it’s charming too as he wants everyone’s Christmas to be special.

The dialogue is hilarious, and the writing is so sharp that the family arguments feel real. While Mrs Santa (voiced by Imelda Staunton) doesn’t have as large a role, she’s a soothing presence over tense family dinners and a the most practical out of all her family members. There’s a lot of great sight gags too, many of them courtesy of the countless elves running around the place.

The animation is beautiful and impressive. From how the operations centre at the North Pole is shown off in all it’s glory with all the screens and high-tech gadgetry to then how Arthur, his family and the elves feel so warm and alive. The North Pole is all icy blues but the colourful Christmassy jumpers and clothes that Arthur and his family wears brighten up the place and makes it feel lived in.

Arthur Christmas isn’t just a funny film, it’s also one filled with heart and sentimentality without being too twee. It does such a good job at offering a new and imaginative take on how Santa could possibly deliver presents to every child around the world, while never losing the spirit of Christmas. Arthur Christmas is a proper old-fashioned family film that everyone, no matter their age or whether or not they believe in Santa, can enjoy. 5/5.

REVIEW: Internment by Samira Ahmed

It’s been one year since the census landed seventeen-year-old Layla Amin and her parents on the registry. And one month since the President declared that “Muslims are now a threat to America”. now, Layla and her parents are suddenly taken from their home and forced into an internment camp in the desert for Muslim American citizens. With the help of newly made friends trapped within the internment camp with her, her Jewish boyfriend on the outside, and an unexpected alliance, Layla begins to fight for freedom, leading a revolution against the internment camp’s Director and his guards.

Part of the reason why Internment is so affecting from the first few pages, is how close it is to our reality now. The rhetoric that comes from the fictional President, and the reactions of white nationalistic people in this story, mirrors what we’ve seen ourselves over the past few years. It’s unsettling because it’s as if the events in Internment could happen, or maybe something very similar already is.

Layla gets frustrated with her parents conforming to societies new rules (her dad gets fired from his job, and she gets suspended from school for kissing her Jewish boyfriend) before they even end up in the internment camp but it’s out of fear and wanting to protect themselves and their child that they do this. In the camp everyone is under constant surveillance and Layla gets more frustrated about how her parents are acting. It’s a self-preservation tactic but Layla is so angry about the injustice she’s experiencing because of her religion that she doesn’t care.

Ayesha, Layla’s new friend in the camp, is great and she makes just the right number of pop culture references without it being too on the nose or cringey. How the two of them lift each other up in such dark times is wonderful to see, and together they make plans for how they can resist and fight for their freedom.

The only minor quibbles I have with Internment concerns David, Layla’s boyfriend, and Corporal Jake, a guard in the camp. Layla almost seems obsessed with David and the risks she puts herself, and others, through to make contact with him is reckless. He is her one piece of normalcy and a connection to the world outside of the camps electric fences, but it almost gets a little unbelievable at times. Corporal Jake is an unlikely ally for Layla, but it’s never really explained why she trusts him so quickly, or how he seems to have so much power and respect in the camp when he’s still pretty young himself at only a few years older than Layla. Those issues can be forgiven though as the messages in Internment and how resilient Layla is to be commended.

Internment touches on a lot of themes to different extents. Islamophobia, racism, fascism, the power of the media, how women and girls who decide to wear the hijab or men who wear traditional dress can have different experiences as they are more “visibly” Muslim. Layla doesn’t wear the hijab and even she must reflect on some of the unconscious stereotypes she believes as first about those who do.

The last third of Internment had me all choked up. Layla is put through so much pain – mental, emotional and physical – as she and her friends and her parents are constantly threatened, but she still manages to stay strong and resolute in her aims. It’s as more and more people from different backgrounds join Layla in her protests that it shows how powerful protests, even peaceful ones can be. The way social media is used to spread the word of what is happening in the camp, and how people outside of it react feels true to life and shows Layla and her fellow prisoners aren’t as alone as they might’ve feared.

Internment is a tough yet powerful read. It showcases the true horrors of human nature, how fear or greed can make people turn on each other, but it also shows the strength people have, how people can fight for what’s right and protect one another. It’s (unfortunately) a timely read but that makes it all the more affecting. 5/5.

REVIEW: The Runaway Jury by John Grisham

They are the twelve men and women at the centre of a multimillion-dollar court case. They have been watched, assessed and manipulated by high-priced lawyers who will stop at nothing to secure a verdict. Now the jury must make a decision in the most explosive civil trial of the century – a precedent-setting lawsuit against a giant tobacco company. But this jury has a leader and it is Nicholas Easter, Juror #2. He has planned every detail and, with the help of a woman on the outside, will bend the jury and its verdict to his will. As a corporate empire hangs in the balance and as a grieving family waits, the truth about Easter is about to explode in a crossfire of greed and corruption – and justice fights for its life.

John Grisham is known for his gripping legal thrillers and that reputation is well earned with The Runaway Jury. This is the first book by Grisham I’ve read, but I have seen and really enjoyed The Pelican Brief starring Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts which was adapted from his book of the same name.

The Runaway Jury is a riveting read. Considering it is about a court case and has a lot of characters with the twelve jurors, their family and friends, the lawyers on both sides and the judge and his court staff, it never feels overwhelming or boring. There are a trio of main characters really. Easter, the juror who knows more than he lets on, Marlee, the woman on the outside who appears to be calling the shots, and Rankin Fitch, a consultant for the tobacco companies who is known for using unethical schemes to win trials. These three are the ones who drive the plot forward and the verbal sparring between Marlee and Fitch as they each try and get what they want is brilliant.

The other jurors are featured to varying degrees and each have their own side plots as people with connections to the lawyers put pressure on them through their families to vote a certain way. These characters are juggled very well and while some of them you only spend a few pages with at a time, they all tend to have strong personalities and are easy to distinguish from each other.

Fitch is the kind of character you love to hate, while Marlee is smart, strong and resourceful. There are so many twists and turns as Easter, Marlee and Fitch try to manipulate one another and everyone around them, but nothing feels unearned or having a twist just for the sake of it. Considering how much legal jargon there is in The Runaway Jury there’s some surprisingly funny moments in it. A lot of that comes from how events are described in a very to the point manner, so the writing almost feels like it has a sardonic sense of humour.

It is funny reading The Runaway Jury over twenty years since it was first published because in some ways it is so incredibly 90s – especially in how it talks about smoking. A lot of the people giving evidence in the case are doctors. The ones on the plaintiff’s side describe in great detail how smoking is bad, causes diseases including cancer, and nicotine is addictive, while the doctors and researchers on the defences side dispute those claims, saving there’s not enough evidence for all that. It’s fascinating that something that is a fact now, smoking can and does kill, was something that was so heavily debated twenty years ago.

The Runaway Jury is a compelling courtroom drama that has humour and suspense in it too. The way all of the characters and plot threads are deftly handled is to be admired and it’ll keep you guessing characters motivations and the outcome of the trial to the end. 5/5.