5 stars

REVIEW: Red Seas, Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

Audiobook narrated by Michael Page.

This is the second book in the Gentlemen’s Bastard series, the first being The Lies of Locke Lamora, so there may be vague spoilers for the first book.

After barely making it out of Camorr alive, Lock Lamora and Jean Tannen arrive in the city state of Tal Varrar where they are soon planning to take on the legendary gaming house The Sinspire. No-one has ever taken even a single coin from the Sinspire that wasn’t won on the tables or in the other games of chance on offer there but Locke and Jean plan to change that. The course of crime rarely runs smooth and soon Locke and Jean find themselves entangled in the politics of the city and are coerced into setting sail in order to find some pirates

Red Seas, Under Red Skies is almost a book of two halves and I very much enjoyed both of them. The first follows Locke and Jean about two years after the events of The Lies of Locke Lamora as they are putting the final touches to the long con they’ve been pulling. In that half there’s also flashback chapters to see what happened to them in the first few months after they left Camorr. I’m always impressed by the flashbacks in this series. They never bore me and do a good job of actually adding to the characters and their newly changed dynamic as Locke and Jean have been affected by what happened to them in the first book. The second half is the seafaring adventure as they’re forced to learn how to be passable sailors and go searching for pirates to bring back to the city. It’s like the first half is a city book and while the setting is different to where they grew up, Locke, Jean and you as the reader know what they’re up against and how to rig the system. When it becomes a sea/pirate adventure book, that’s when Locke, Jean and the reader are on uncertain ground as no matter how much charisma and smarts they have, there’s things out to sea that you can’t talk your way out of.

It was fun seeing Locke and Jean out of their element when they’re out to see, but really through the flashbacks you see that they haven’t really been 100% themselves since they left Camorr. They relationship has shifted a but and while they still definitely trust and care about each other (don’t think I’ve read about such ride or die best friends like them for a long time) they aren’t always quite on the same wavelength anymore. Locke especially is unsettled and doesn’t always believe in himself and his schemes and it’s interesting to see him doubt himself and work to overcome that.

There’s a lot going on in Red Seas, Under Red Skies with various outside forces having their own schemes that attempt to ensnare Locke and Jean, but I never felt lost or confused when reading it. There are schemes within schemes and it’s fun to see how things unfold and while there’s certainly surprises, when you think back, the groundwork for them was there and pretty much everything was meretriciously planned.

I love the blend of magic and science in this series. You get to see more of Locke’s bag of tricks and how a pack of playing cards can be more than what they seem. Alchemy is the main sort of “magic” but there’s a few instances where mind control and telepathy may come to play, and when they’re out to see there’s clearly some large, deadly and fantastical creatures in the water.

I love the characters, the world, and the whole vibe of Red Seas, Under Red Skies and this series as a whole. It’s a series I want to take my time with as there’s only three books released but even though it’s been a couple of years since I read the first book, I soon found myself immersed in this world again. Locke and Jean’s character development was so good and interesting and the new characters, especially the new lady pirates, were great too. 5/5.

REVIEW: Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)

Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) is just trying to get her taxes sorted while running her laundrette business with her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) when she’s informed of a threat to her world and the multiverse and is told that she might be the only one who can stop it.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is one of those films that’s completely barmy but brilliant. It’s a film I knew little about before watching it (I hadn’t even watched the trailer) and had just heard positive things via social media though had seen no spoilers or had any real idea of the plot. I think that might be the best way to see this film as it’s such a surprise at times as it veers off into different themes or genres that I never expected.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is a lot of movie. So much so, it can be almost overwhelming at times but by no means is that a bad thing. It suits the tone and the story perfectly but how the plot moves with the sounds and visuals can feel chaotic. However, you never feel lost in what’s happening. What Evelyn is going through is overwhelming to her, so to make the audience feels like that too. It helps make Everything Everywhere All at Once feel different and as it bounces between ideas, time, and universes, there’s a beauty to it too.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is impressive for many reasons but something that surprised me was how in one scene I could be laughing and in the next I’m tearing up. How the writers and directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan (known as the Daniels) handled the different tones of this film, balancing the emotional payoff with inventive and fun action sequences is impressive. Though the story feels chaotic and weird at times, I never felt that the film was getting away from its directors. All the weirdness and chaos was just what was needed as a story about the multiverse and an older woman having to learn how to save the day is a bit unusual and unexpected.

Michelle Yeoh is just fantastic as Evelyn. She is funny and relatable and she’s both strict and caring. Evelyn has a lot on her mind with the responsibilities of running a business and looking after her ailing father (James Hong) that she neglects both her husband and her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), however unintentionally. The action sequences with Yeoh showcase her talents but equally, the big emotive moments do as well.

Honestly, the whole cast is outstanding and the trio of the family; Evelyn, Waymond and Joy is wonderful. All three actors bring their A game and elevate each other with their performances. Each character is allowed to be well-rounded and a real person. They can be scared, strong, kind, mean, funny, stressed, or apathetic and it’s all fine – especially as some characters learn from others about how to be better people or how to go through life with a better attitude.

There are so many layers to Everything Everywhere All at Once and it’s one of those films where I’m enjoying reading everyone else’s thoughts on it – especially Asian Americans. Because Everything Everywhere All at Once is an immigrant story, it’s a story about family, love, and kindness, it’s a story about second chances and togetherness. It’s one of those stories that’s so specific that it becomes universal.

I don’t even really know if I have the words to properly describe Everything Everywhere All at Once but it’s funny, action-packed, heartfelt, and beautiful. It’s weird and wonderful and it’s a film that I’ll be thinking about for a long time. 5/5.

R is for Rope (1948)

Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) attempt to prove they’ve committed the perfect crime by hosting a dinner party after strangling their former classmate to death.

I’ve currently only watched like three Hitchcock films but this is definitely my favourite. It has so many tropes I love like the plot just being contained to one location and disaster gays because yep, this film from the 1940s is one of the gayest things I’ve ever seen. Honestly, I went into Rope knowing nothing about it and 10 minutes in I had to pause it and google “Rope Hitchcock gay” as I wasn’t sure if I was reading too much into it from a modern perspective but nope, turns out it was understood to be pretty gay in the 40s too.

This comes from the relationship between Brandon and Phillip, two friends and flatmates. Dall and Granger have great chemistry and their relationship is fascinating. While Phillip slowly starts to unravel as the guilt and tension gets to him, Brandon relishes in their crime and the fact their dinner guests are unaware that the missing guest is currently dead and in a chest in the middle of the living room they’re all sitting in.

Rope is so gripping as you spend most of the film in the murders shoes and not wanting them to get caught because they are both very likable. Brandon’s effortlessly charming, though he can make a biting comment now and then, and Phillip is sweet and as he gets stressed about their situation, so do you.

It’s Rupert (James Stewart), their former school housemaster, who poses the biggest threat to the murderers. A lot of the theories about morality that Brandon buys into he learnt from Rupert and as he knew them both when they were younger, Rupert is likely to be the one to figure out when something’s not quite right.

Filmmaking-wise Rope is just great. It’s just set in their New York apartment and so much of the action takes place in the living room, with the chest with a body inside a presence in the room that as the viewer, you’re always aware of. Rope is comprised of a lot of long takes, each are often five minutes long or more, and it’s so interesting when you realise what’s happening. It makes the film feel like everything’s happening in real time and therefore the tension builds organically. The way the camera and actors move around the set is like a dance and a lot of the cuts are “hidden” so it zooms into the back of someone’s jacket before moving out again or something similar.

While obviously Dall, Granger, and Stewart are the main focus of Rope (though Stewart doesn’t actually appear on screen until almost 30 minutes into this 80-minute film) the supporting cast are a good too and the characters feel and act as they would at a slightly awkward dinner party. I loved Janet (Joan Chandler), Phillip and Brandon’s friend and the girlfriend of the missing party guest. She has a wry sense of humour and isn’t afraid to call out Brandon’s sly comments.

Rope is just a really interesting film. It’s a tense film with a great cast and the homoerotic subtext between Brandon and Phillip just adds extra layers to it all. 5/5.

P is for Psycho (1960)

Secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals $40,000 from her employer, goes on the run, and checks into a remote motel run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a young man with a domineering mother.

Due to pop culture osmosis, I knew the general gist of Psycho and a lot of the twists before watching it. That doesn’t mean it didn’t surprise me though and I was thoroughly gripped throughout. Seeing how those famous pop culture moments unfolded was probably just as thrilling as if I knew nothing at all about it.

As soon as the opening titles appear accompanied by that iconic score by Bernard Herrmann I was enthralled. The fact that it starts with that unsettling and creepy music puts you on edge from the very beginning. The music, along with it being a Hitchcock film, makes you unsure who to trust long before anything really bad or suspicious happens. When Marion is leaving town with the money and encounters a police officer, the way he’s framed and the fact she can’t see his eyes because of his sunglasses makes it feel like he’s always watching her. His presence makes her act more nervous and guilty and that makes his presence felt even more.

Anthony Perkins is just brilliant as Norman Bates. He’s young and good-looking, and he has that boy next door kind of charm to him so when he does become serious it feels more unnerving. He does a great job of juggling the various shades of Norman’s personality and Psycho is one of those films that wouldn’t have worked so well with someone else in the role.

It’s kind of fascinating watching Psycho now, sixty years after it was made because it’s clear that it’s the inspiration of so many other films and the filmmaking feels ahead of its time. The silent by imposing police officer reminded me of the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and so many of the scares have been riffed on in other films and shows but seeing the original now just demonstrates how great it actually is.

I’m very pleased I’ve finally watched Psycho. It’s a classic that lives up to its reputation; it’s creepy, foreboding and just fantastic filmmaking. 5/5.

N is for Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)

Seventeen-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is pregnant and can’t get an abortion in rural Pennsylvania where she’s from without parental consent. In order to get the procedure, she and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) travel to New York and end up staying there days and nights longer than they anticipated.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is one of those quiet, almost contemplative films that says so much with so little. The relationship between Autumn and Skylar is great. They are quite different, Autumn is more reserved while Skylar is a bit more confident, but there’s so many moments where they communicate with just a look or a gesture. As the audience too, you don’t need the characters to say things like “I feel like this because X happened” because you can tell the history of these characters through how they act. Autumn and Skylar don’t actually talk to one another much, at least not about big important things, but you can still see how they care for one another and how supportive Skylar is of Autumn’s decision through their actions.

This is a sign of a great script, great directing, and great performances from these two young actors. Flanigan especially is incredible. She can convey so much with just a look and her fear, frustration and sometimes desperation is clear to see. Likewise, when it looks like she will be able to have an abortion, her relief is almost palpable. There’s a scene in the clinic where a counsellor is asking Autumn a series of questions and it’s pretty much one long take focused on Autumn’s face as we hear the councillors voice off screen and Flanigan’s performance is just stunning. It’s not just what she says and the answers she gives, it’s what she doesn’t say in the pauses and hesitation as she is forced to relive her experiences and realise that some of what’s happened to her was not OK.

So often in teen shows or movies the teenage characters are played by actors who are in their mid-twenties and look far older than what their characters are supposed to be. In Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Flanigan and Ryder do look like a couple of seventeen-year-olds who are out of their depth. This is probably a combination of their natural looks but also the making up and costumes as Skylar especially sometimes looks like she’s trying to be older than she is.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is such an important and timely film. It shows the lengths women, including teenagers, go to in order to get the healthcare they need and to make the choices that are right for them. It does all this without being overtly political or preachy which is to its benefit. Some will say that Never Rarely Sometimes Always is political purely by the nature of its subject matter but women’s healthcare and the right to choose what happens to their bodies shouldn’t be political. 5/5.

L is for Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

The story of the battle of Iwo Jima between the United States and Imperial Japan during World War II, as told from the perspective of the Japanese who fought it.

There’s a couple of things about Letters from Iwo Jima that I didn’t realise before watching it. The first is that it’s a companion film to Flags of Our Fathers (which I haven’t seen) and that film tells the American side of this true story. The second is that 99% of the dialogue is in Japanese, with the only time English is spoken is if it’s an American character, or there’s a Japanese soldier who knows the language. It makes sense that a true story about Japanese soldiers should have all the characters speaking their own language but I’m so used to American films where everyone speaks English but with an accent, that it was a pleasant surprise. Often even when it’d make sense for characters to speak their own language, like when there’s no English-speaking characters around, they still don’t so the fact that the story of Letters from Iwo Jima is told in Japanese made everything seem more authentic. Maybe what made me presume this film would be in English was because it’s directed by Clint Eastwood?

Onto the film proper. As mentioned, I knew very little about the film going into it, and I knew even less about the real events. So, learning about this small island and the brave men who defended it was really interesting and thanks to so many of the actor’s performances I found myself pulled into their story pretty quickly.

I suppose there were two main characters General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) and Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya) a soldier. Following these two men who were either ends of the military hierarchy meant that you got to see all aspects of the battle and its preparation. Kuribayashi has to deal with other generals who think his plan of digging tunnels in the mountains is pointless, or who would rather make their men commit suicide than retreat as were his orders. Watanabe plays those doomed hero characters so well. Saigo is just an ordinary man, a baker, who was conscripted and does what he can to survive.

There’s also Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) who was interesting as he was an Olympic gold medallist showjumper who is in between the other two in terms of hierarchy. There’s a scene where he reads a letter from a mother to her American son who’s a soldier, translating it from English to Japanese for his men to hear, and that letter along with the score made me tear up. It’s such a simple but impactful scene. That scene, along with a couple of others, show how on both sides of a conflict there can be cruel people but there can also be kind people.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film like Letters from Iwo Jima in terms of how it used colour. It is a colour film, but the colours are so washed out that so much of it looks to be in shades of grey, especially in scenes set during the night. The colours are so muted that when there’s a bright yellow flash from a grenade or the splatter of red blood, they’re even more startling. The few flashback scenes that set away from Iwo Jima, have more colour to them but it’s still muted compared to what you generally see on screen nowadays.

Letters from Iwo Jima is an impressive war film, showing the bravery of the soldiers without being overtly jingoistic. The score by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens is often soft and heart-breaking, contrasting with the horrors of war on screen but it makes those images even more impactful. Went into Letters from Iwo Jima knowing nothing and finished it being thoroughly impressed by all involved. 5/5.

K is for King Leopold’s Ghost (2006)

Documentary about the history of the Congo and how the greedy and incredibly ruthless King Leopold II of Belgium turned a vast country into his private estate from 1885-1908. How he plundered the land and caused countless victims; and how his lasting impact is still felt in the country as international powers and corporations fight to take and profit from the Congo’s many resources.

I knew little of the history of the Congo before watching King Leopold’s Ghost, all I really knew was that King Leopold II wasn’t a good person but what his crimes actually were, I had no idea. I presumed it was to do with slavery and taking the country’s resources (like most European nations did with countries in Africa) but the extent to which he took over the country and had the people enslaved – while running a PR campaign saying he was doing no such thing – was incredible. What’s also shocking is that King Leopold II never even went to the Congo but still caused so much damage that had a knock-on effect for decades.

King Leopold’s Ghost is a really interesting but hard-hitting documentary that doesn’t shy away from the horrors of colonial rule. It’s narrated by Don Cheadle which was an excellent choice as you can often hear the barely contained anger and disgust over what he’s explaining. It includes photos, videos, interviews with historians, and extracts from various people’s diaries and letters including King Leopold II, explorer Henry Morton Stanley, and writer Joseph Conrad.

I liked how King Leopold’s Ghost incorporated what other nations were doing at the same time as what was happening in the Congo. I find it difficult to understand how close certain historic events were to one another so this added extra context. For example, by the time King Leopold was getting involved in the Congo and stealing the land off its people and forcing them to work for him, Britain had stopped being involved with the slave trade. While Britain obviously has its own terrible colonial history, I found it interesting that it had moved away from the slave trade while Belgium was only just getting started.

One of the stats that really shocked me, is that it was estimated that in 40 years from the start of King Leopold’s influence in the Congo, half the population had died – which was 10 million people. And that’s just an estimate. Records of the hangings and killings weren’t kept by the Belgium people who were working out there and some weren’t even really aware of what they were out there for. King Leopold and Belgium’s atrocities have been covered up so that it’s only fairly recently that both Belgians and the Congolese have been taught about these things in schools. In school textbooks in the 1940s-1960s, King Leopold and his involvement in the Congo is framed as a good thing and he helped the people.

King Leopold’s Ghost goes from the nineteenth century to the early 2000s and shows how even when the Congo is supposed to be independent and has elected someone the people want, the Belgian and American secret services will protect their interests, to the detriment of the Congolese.

It’s disappointing but not surprising that still today so many other countries and international corporations have a vested interest in the Congo due to all of its resources. Uranium, ivory, gold, diamonds, coffee, and more are valuable commodities but few Congolese people actual benefit from the sale of it.

King Leopold’s Ghost is a really interesting and comprehensive guide to the history of the Congo and how what King Leopold put in place in the late 1800s, is still having a negative affect on the country and its people today. It’s a great documentary if you have little to know knowledge of the country and its history as it explains everything clearly and draws the links between various people, countries and events without being condescending to the audience. 5/5.

REVIEW: Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road by Kyle Buchanan

A full-speed-ahead oral history of the nearly two-decade making of the cultural phenomenon Mad Max: Fury Road – with more than 130 new interviews with key members of the cast and crew, including Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, and director George Miller, from the pop culture reporter for The New York Times, Kyle Buchanan.

While I generally love films and learning titbits about how they were made, there’s very few that I’d read a whole book on. In fact, Blood, Sweat & Chrome is only the second book I’ve read about a film’s journey to the big screen. The first was The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood by Kristin Thompson which I read when I was at university and thoroughly enjoyed. I think the reasons I sought out, read and enjoyed these two books are pretty much the same. The Lord of the Rings is one of my favourite films of all time and a formative influence as I saw the first one when I was 10 years old and while I haven’t watched Mad Max: Fury Road as many times, it’s a film that blew me away when I first saw it and every time I rewatch it I’m even more impressed by its attention to detail. They are both films that in some ways shouldn’t exist, or if they did, they have almost no right to be as excellent as they are, so hearing from the people who were involved with making them, sometimes for years, even decades, is just fascinating.

Blood, Sweat & Chrome is a book I got in the post on Saturday and if I’d started it earlier that day, I would’ve read it all in one sitting. From the get go it was just so interesting and incredibly readable. Buchanan adds context and description where needed but mostly the story of how this film was made is told from various people’s perspective. Just about everyone is interviewed for this book, cast and crew, including the kind of people you’d never normally hear from like VFX data wrangler Shyam “Toast” Yadav.

So many times, I found myself with a smile on my face as the stories about the ingenuity of the crew who were making these huge vehicles or the stunt team as they worked with the cast and crew to make things look as real as possible. The fact no one was killed or even seriously hurt during the production is a testament to the director and the stunt team as while they wanted these magnificent and ridiculous stunts, they also wanted to make it safe for everyone.

Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road is a great book for anyone who enjoyed Mad Max: Fury Road and wants to learn more about it, but I also think it’s a great book for people who are introduced in the film industry in general. It’s not shy about how studio interference can cause conflict between the director and their vision, or how long a film can take to be made and all the setbacks that a cast and crew can face. 5/5.

D is for Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)

Richard (Paddy Considine), a soldier, returns to his small hometown to get revenge on the small-time drug dealers and thugs who tormented his mentally challenged brother Anthony (Toby Kebbell) while he was away.

Dead Man’s Shoes is one of those DVDs that has been sitting on my shelves for years. Honestly, I could have had this film for close to ten years without watching it. Now I finally have and boy was it an intense but great viewing experience that I don’t think I’ll want to repeat anytime soon.

Paddy Considine is just fantastic. The fact he’s nearly always calm and measured when talking to people means he’s unsettling and threatening but you can’t quite put your finger on what it is exactly about him that makes you feel this way. He has all this bottled up rage, just simmering underneath the surface and the moment when you can see the rage in his eyes you know someone is about to suffer.

Toby Kebbell also does a great job portraying Anthony who is a bit simple, naïve and trusting. It’s hard for actors and scripts to portray this kind of role well and realistically, without becoming an insensitive cliché but Kebbell manages it.

What really pulled me in was the dialogue. The script is great as all the dialogue between the gang members especially feels natural and conversational and the actors’ performances are naturalistic too. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised by that as it’s a Shane Meadows film and he is a director who can get natural and engaging performances from his casts. You definitely don’t feel sorry for the gang members as Richard gives them a taste of their own medicine but it’s easy to feel caught up in their desperate bid to survive even when everything is falling apart around them.

While it’s clear they are horrible people, Dead Man’s Shoes treads a fine line to begin with as Richard’s brand of justice almost seems disproportionate to what we see happened to Anthony in black and white flashbacks. But as his quest for revenge continues, we see more and more of what Anthony went through is revealed you start to wonder if there’s a limit to the violence Richard is willing to dish out.

Dead Man’s Shoes is brutal and intense and a very well-made film. The cast is brilliant and script that feels real and honest about how strong a brother’s love can be and Considine’s powerful performance really does anchor the whole thing together. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Togo: An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie

Translated by James Kirkup.

Tété-Michel Kpomassie was a teenager in Togo when he discovered a book on Greenland and knew he had to go there. An African in Greenland follows his progress from Western Africa, through Europe and finally to Greenland, the journey took nearly a decade and then he spends almost two years traveling around Greenland and getting to know the people and their customs.

I feel like An African in Greenland has been on many of my TBRs over the past few years so I’m so happy and relieved that I’ve finally read it but also kind of annoyed with myself that it’s taken me this long.

It’s a very easy to read non-fiction book thanks to Kpomassie’s writing style. He documents his travels well and explains things while also sharing funny or weird anecdotes. An African in Greenland is split into four parts and the first is a brief introduction to his life and family who live in a village in Togo before he decides to make the trek to Greenland without telling his parents or having any real plan or money. It was fascinating seeing how he even got there. This was in the late 1950s that he set off and didn’t make it to Greenland till the mid-1960s. he went from country to country, staying long enough to earn money so he could make the next leg of his journey and managing to meet so many kind and helpful people along the way who’d let him stay with them for free. Trains, boats, busses, he took pretty much every form of transport bar plane.

Kpomassie was in his mid-twenties when he finally got to Greenland and while there’s obviously a big difference in what he’s used to in terms of temperature and culture, he just instantly loved the place and the people. It’s kind of fascinating how someone from a completely different part of the world can feel so at home in a totally different place. I liked how it showed the differences between southern and northern Greenland, both in terms of weather and the people’s attitudes. It makes sense as no matter how big or small a country is, the people who live in different places there have as many differences as similarities. It was interesting to see how while Kpomassie was friendly with people in the southern towns, he was also a bit disappointed as they didn’t live as he saw in his book. They were almost the metropolitan area where traditions like hunting were long gone, he had to go further north to find those who still hunted, had sleds and huskies and lived how he saw in his book.

An African in Greenland is a really interesting read and I learnt a lot about Greenland and its people. It’d be interesting to know how much life has changed for the people living in those remote regions with the internet and technology because in the 1960s it seemed a very isolated life even if there was a community of people around you. Then there’s Kpomassie as a person. While the things he learnt and shared are interesting, he as a person is just so impressive. He had a limited amount of schooling but clearly had a knack for languages as he did courses via mail and just the fact that he decided he wanted to go somewhere based on pictures in a book and no matter how many setbacks or detours he had, he kept going and achieved his dream. 5/5.