5 stars

REVIEW: X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen) and what’s left of the X-Men send Logan (Hugh Jackman) to the past in order to try and prevent an event that results in the annihilation of mutants and humans alike in the future.

From the opening scene X-Men: Days of Future Past is firing on all cylinders. You’ve got this small group of mutants fighting for their lives against sentinels (giant killer robots that can adapt to anything) as Kitty Pryde (Elliot Page) sends Bishop (Omar Sy) back in time in order to warn them. The special effects are great, the whole sequence is exciting but it’s also nerve-wracking as it makes it clear how powerful these machines are and that our heroes may not make it out alive. What a way to start a movie and show how awful this apocalyptic future these characters we know are living in.

When Logan is sent to the 1970s, he has to find and reunite the younger versions of Charles (James McAvoy) and Erik (Michael Fassbender). He finds a Charles who is a shell of the man he knows in the future, overwhelmed by his powers and the pain of losing both Erik and Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), his shut himself away from the world with only Hank (Nicholas Hoult) for company. Erik meanwhile is in prison in at the Pentagon and Logan knows one person who can help them get him out – Peter Maximoff (Evan Peters). Peter is such a fun character, he’s a bit manic and weird and how his power is shown is really different to what we’ve seen before. He’s a guy who can move super-fast, so it makes sense that to him everything and everyone moves slowly, making a very entertaining scene when you get to see his powers from his point of view.

Days of Future Past sees Erik truly become Magneto. While Charles is still an idealist and Raven is planning to do bad things for good reasons, Erik is firm in his beliefs. He will do anything to protect his fellow mutants even if that means hurting people he once considered to be friends or allies. His power has also grown and thanks to Fassbender’s performance and the costuming, Erik is a foreboding presence when he puts his mind to something.

The balance between what’s happening in the future and in the 1970s is done so well – as is the balance between action and emotion. The action sequences in the future are thrilling, the ones in the past are character-driven and equally exciting but then the scenes where it’s just two characters talking are just as compelling. Whether it’s Logan trying to convince Charles of what the future holds or Erik and Charles reconnecting, it’s just as engaging as the action and spectacle. The best quieter moment is between the old and young Charles Xavier. Seeing both actors playing the same character at vastly different points of their lives together on screen not only gets me in the nerdy part of my heart, but the discussions of hope and perseverance really struck a chord too.

I know I’ve said previously that X2 is my favourite X-Men film, but on this rewatch I was struck by just how impressive X-Men: Days of Future Past is and it might now be my favourite. There’s action and emotion and it’s got some funny moments too. It’s a real celebration of this franchise, its characters and the general story of mutants vs humanity. Just a fantastic film. 5/5.

REVIEW: X-Men: First Class (2011)

Mutants Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) bring together a team of mutants to stop Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) from starting a nuclear war.

I hadn’t seen X-Men: First Class in years and I’d forgotten how good it was! The casting is spot on almost across the board. McAvoy and Fassbender have such great chemistry and while thanks to Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen’s performances in the original trilogy you could sense the years or friendship and respect, seeing how Charles and Erik met and the foundations of their relationship was just great to see. McAvoy and Fassbender both do a great job of showing the younger versions of these iconic characters while still making their own mark on them. Fassbender especially is great at showing the almost warring sides of Erik as he has a single determination for revenge but also likes and understands Charles’s point of view.

The differing ideologies of Erik and Charles don’t only come into play but also Charles and Raven aka Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). Having them being adoptive siblings adds this whole new dynamic to characters we already thought we knew. Raven trying to figure out who she is leads to a lot of the sort of moral conversations about trying to fit in verses being true to yourself that wasn’t always discussed so much in the original trilogy.

The whole 60s vibe on First Class is a lot of fun. The use of Gnarls Barkley’s “Run” during the montage sequence of Erik and Charles recruiting mutants fits perfectly and the score composed by Henry Jackman is one of my favourites in the X-Men franchise and helps make First Class feel like its own thing outside of the rest of the X-Men films we’d seen so far.

Having X-Men: First Class be set during the Cold War adds another level of politics to the usual dynamic of humans vs mutants. There are humans being used by mutants, mutants trying to protect humans – it’s all put together so that the final conflict is truly satisfying.

While Charles, Erik, Mystique and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) are all characters we’ve seen older versions of before, the rest of the mutants – both good and bad – are all new to the films. Naturally not all of them get the same amount of screen time and development but thanks to good casting and chemistry between them means they, and their powers, are all fun to watch.

X-Men: First Class is the near perfect blend of action, humour and fun. The cast is great, as is the special effects and the yellow X-Men uniforms are just the best. X-Men: First Class was the perfect way to reboot/reimagine the franchise and these characters after X-Men: The Last Stand. The subsequent films with these younger versions of the characters might not all have been as impressive as First Class, but it certainly gave the franchise a whole new lease of life. 5/5.

READ THE WORLD – Tonga: We Are the Ocean by Epeli Hau’ofa

We Are the Ocean is a collection of essays, fiction, and poetry by Epeli Hau’ofa, whose writing over the past three decades has consistently challenged prevailing notions about Oceania and prescriptions for its development.

I found We Are the Ocean fascinating. It’s been a long time (since my uni days) since I’ve read academic essays, so I was a little apprehensive how I’d find these but quickly I realised my fears were unfounded. These essays were very readable and Hau’ofa’s voice came through clearly. As a lot of the essays were originally speeches at conferences, or adapted from a speech, that easy, conversational voice came through a lot.

I found these essays really interesting. I’ll readily admit I know little to nothing about the Oceanic region and the various island nations in that part of the world, so I learnt a lot from these essays. A lot of them were about the anthropology, history and financial structure of the countries in the Oceania/Pacific region. The relationship between the smaller island nations and Australia and New Zealand were a big part of it. How the trade worked, and how culture had been shared between the various countries and how people’s identities in some of the island countries were shaped by the influence of Australia and New Zealand rather than major western countries like America.

It was all super interesting and understandable because there was also talk of self-fulfilling prophesies as young people are told things like you’ll never amount to much in your home country unless you get an education abroad – so then is it of little surprise why the people in charge of banks, government etc aren’t fully educated in their home country. In fact, there’s often people of European, Australian, and New Zealander decent in positions of power due to colonial history.

The talk of anthropological studies and how historically anthropologists have been white and European and when they came to these countries, they made their own observations and didn’t think to make the effort to consult the native people who were experts in their own traditions. Hau’ofa being one of the only anthropologists from that region means he feels a great weight of responsibility of expanding the textbooks and the whole area of study.

The couple of short stories in this collection are kind of satirical and because they come after the majority of the essays it means you can pick up more of the references to the things and attitudes Hau’ofa is highlighting.

We Are the Ocean was incredibly interesting and easy to read. If you’re interested in history, social and cultural studies and how that all can interact to a person’s or country’s identity then this collection of work is for you. I learnt a lot from it and I’m please I read it. 5/5.

SERIES REVIEW: Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo

As I said in a recent TBR post, though I read and enjoyed Six of Crows years ago I never finished that duology and I’d never read the original trilogy that started this Grisha’verse. Thanks to the trailer for the Shadow and Bone Netflix show, it got me reinterested in this series and now I’ve read the trilogy for the first time – and plan to reread Six of Crows and then read Crooked Kingdom for the first time. And then at some point I’ll probably also read the other duology in this world that has my new favourite character in it.

Set in a fantasy world inspired by Imperial Russia, Shadow and Bone sees Alina Starkov, a mapmaker in the army, suddenly learn she has a dormant but extraordinary power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. She’s whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling, and soon she learns nothing is what it seems as she may be in more danger than she realised.

Shadow and Bone is my least favourite in the trilogy. I think it’s partly because it’d been a while since I’ve read fantasy, and while it’s still a genre I like, just getting in that YA fantasy mindset took some time. Also because of general internet osmosis, I knew going into it who was the big villain so I was kind of just waiting for that to be revealed too.

That being said, I think it did a great job of introducing the really interesting magic system. I liked the fact that while the Grisha are powerful, they have their limitations. They aren’t all powerful in all types of magic, there’s three different types of magic and they each have the skills for one type. How the magic and the history of this warring country is woven into the story is done well as there never seems a moment where you’re just listening to a history lesson. A lot of the time, you’re learning about things the same time as Alina is. This continues throughout the next two books and it makes the story all the richer for it.

The dynamic between Alina and the Darkling gets more interesting in each book but its here that all that important foundation is set. Their relationship verges on creepy a lot of times in the book before characters intentions are clear, and it gives their interactions an unsettling edge. Their powers compliment one another so they often appear to have the whole two sides of the same coin deal going on.

I gave Shadow and Bone 3/5.

Siege and Storm is my favourite in the trilogy. It feels like almost non-stop action and even when it’s not there’s more political intrigue as Alina learns to navigate the court and starts to become a leader which is just as gripping.

I thought the pacing in Siege and Storm was excellent and how it introduced new characters and new aspects of this world was nicely done. Here you see more of the technology of this country, not only are there pirate ships but also these aircraft which are unlike anything we’ve seen in these books before. The mixture of technology and science/magic in this world is really interesting.

Also, Siege and Storm introduces one of my favourite characters I’ve read in a long, long time – Sturmhond. He is clever and charming but also ambitious and ruthless, and I pretty much loved everything he said. As you learn more about him you see how he’s a man of many faces. He’s almost a chameleon as he can fit in in any social or political situation and often can get people to agree with him. I just loved him a lot.

I gave Siege and Storm 5/5.

Ruin and Rising is a near perfect end to this trilogy. Like Siege and Storm, I read it in two sittings because I was instantly pulled into the story because of the characters and the cliffhangers at the end of each book. While Alina has formed various bonds over the course of the previous two books, in this one there’s almost a family of choice trope happening as Alina and her small band of survivors fight to stick together and to do the right thing. The final act almost seemed to feel rushed. Throughout the book Alina had been working towards one goal but then that changed suddenly and, while there were possible hints in the previous book her original goal had still been an overarching theme, it made the final showdown seem more of a Plan B and it didn’t quite have the same effect.

I gave Ruin and Rising 4/5.

Overall, I really enjoyed this trilogy. Alina is a great and believable heroine. She acts to things how you’d think any sane person would react, she’s constantly learning from her mistakes and evolving into a powerful leader as she accepts and relishes in her newfound power. The rest of the characters are great too. As I’ve said, Sturmhond is my favourite but how some of the secondary or minor characters are allowed to develop is really cool as you see sides to them you wouldn’t have expected to begin with. While Alina’s closest relationship is with her best friend Mal, there’s a lot of good dynamics and friendships between female characters in these books which I always appreciate.

The Grisha trilogy is, on the whole, fast-paced, action-packed, and has compelling characters and a vivid world. I can see why these books have become so well loved and I’m definitely looking forward to the Netflix show.

REVIEW: X2 (2003)

When the rise of anti-mutant sentiment led by Colonel William Stryker (Brian Cox) leads to Professor X’s (Patrick Stewart) school being attacked and students taken, the X-Men must join with their adversaries Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) in order to stop Stryker.

X2 starts with a bang with the opening sequence still being talked about almost twenty years later. Nightcrawler’s (Alan Cumming) attack on the White House is thrilling and eerie and the special effects for his teleportation makes you believe that someone really could disappear, and reappear, in a puff of blue smoke. The make up Alan Cumming wears is also incredible and that along with his performance brings this socially awkward mutant to life.

The other standout sequence in X2 is the attack on Xavier’s school. Whoever thought having an home invasion sequence where it’s just Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) against a load of military men was a genius. It’s tense and exciting as Wolverine goes full feral mode to protect the children under his care. There are also glimpses of different students’ powers like Shadowcat and while Colossus (Daniel Cudmore) isn’t in it much, how he takes down the invaders while saving his fellow students is great.

While the action is great in that sequence, the way it suddenly pauses as Wolverine and Stryker come face to face and allow them to talk is good too. Stryker may hold the key to Wolverine’s lost memories and Jackman continues to walk the line between feral, confused and caring with that character perfectly.

One of the many things X2 does well is show how pretty much all the characters, including the heroes, are morally grey. Storm (Halle Berry) is not all forgiving and is instead angry at what humans do to mutants, Pyro (Aaron Stanford) is tired of hiding who he is, and it’s easy to see where Magneto is coming from.

As well as the various fight and action sequences, X2 also amps up the emotional stakes. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and Scott’s (James Marsden) relationship is given more screen time, and the budding romance between Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Bobby (Shawn Ashmore) is handled well as they navigate how to be in a relationship. While it’s a quieter moment, Bobby talking to his parents and showing off his powers is an important one not only to the character but to show the wider issues facing Bobby and his fellow mutants.

X2 is a well-paced, fun and action-packed superhero film. It introduces some interesting new characters while also giving the ones we already know space to develop. The special effects still hold up and it really is a fantastic superhero film that shows the duality of so many of these characters. Also must give a shout out to composer John Ottman, the X2 Suite is one of my favourite superhero themes. 5/5.

We shall see how this X-Men rewatch goes but I’m pretty confident that X2 is my favourite film in this franchise – it’s definitely one of my favourite superhero films in general.

REVIEW: Moxie (2021)

Fed up with the sexist and toxic status quo at her high school, a shy Vivian (Hadley Robinson) finds inspiration from her mother’s rebellious past and anonymously publishes a zine that sparks a school-wide, coming-of-rage revolution.

I read and reviewed Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu way back in 2017 and I equally had high hopes for the film and was apprehensive as I liked the book so much. I’m very pleased to say that I enjoyed the film and I think it’s generally one of the best book to movie adaptations I’ve seen in a long time.

Moxie is a coming age story that focuses on girls finding their voices and learning to stand up for themselves, rather than being all about a formative love interest. While Vivian is the one to almost unwittingly start this feminist revolution in her school, she is far from the only girl who has something to say. With the arrival of the zine Vivian finds herself with a whole new group of friends, all girls who are tired of the status quo and they each bring ideas of what they could do next to make their voices heard.

Vivian is a great character. She’s the kind of girl who’d always been quiet and just kept her head down but once she started paying attention, she quickly gets frustrated by how girls are treated at her school. Vivian is inspired by Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena) who’s not afraid to stand up for herself when popular jock Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger) will not stop harassing her and by the double standards when Kaitlynn (Sabrina Haskett) is told her wearing a tank top is against the school dress code, but the boy sat next to her wearing practically the same thing isn’t. Vivian is fallible, she makes mistakes as her rage at what’s going on often targets the wrong people and she’s learning about what being a feminist means and inclusivity as she goes. Vivian’s shocked when her best friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai) points out the privilege she has compared to her as the child of immigrants who have sacrificed a lot for her. Slowly Vivian learns while there are universal challenges facing women, there are ones she’d have no knowledge or experience of due to her upbringing.

Moxie is very aware of what’s been happening in the real world. You hear snippets of new stories about the #MeToo movement in the background and the English teacher (Ike Barinholtz) finds it difficult to say or do the right thing as a man and an authority figure when the girls start standing up for themselves and asking “difficult” questions. While that scene is used for comedic effect, it shows how awkward and difficult some find talking about these things because they have, unfortunately, been the norm for so long.

Moxie is a film with so much heart. It might stumble a bit in the third act, but then again so does Vivian, and it’s perhaps not as revolutionary for an older audience but for young people it’s a film that can prompt discussions and encourage them to fight for what they believe in. Also, so much of this film is about girls supporting girls and the different relationships between friends, and it’s a breath of fresh air to see this quite diverse group of friends supporting each other. Moxie is fun, funny and inspiring and to top it off it has a killer soundtrack. 5/5.

REVIEW: Over the Moon (2020)

Fuelled with determination and a passion for science, a bright young Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) builds a rocket ship to the moon to prove the existence of the legendary Moon Goddess Chang’e (Phillipa Soo).

First off, Over the Moon is a musical which I didn’t realise going into it, but I didn’t mind that one bit. The songs and music add so much to Fei Fei’s story. Most are like thoughtful and touching ballads, “Love Someone New” made me bawl my eyes out, and then you get “Ultraluminary” which is the perfectly catchy, upbeat pop song. As soon as it started it reminded me of the best kind of Eurovision song which is the highest compliment.

The animation is beautiful too, especially once Fei Fei gets to the moon. What’s really cool is that both the songs and the animation are different depending if the story is taking place on Earth or on the moon, helping the moon to be its own character. On Earth the animation is pretty much what audiences are used to, but then on the moon everything is bright colours and shapes and its so luminous and different to what Fei Fei is used to.

Over the Moon is a heartfelt film. While there is the fantastical element of having an adventure on the moon and seeking out a legendary Goddess, at its heart Over the Moon is about grief and moving on. Fei Fei still loves and misses her mother and while her father is starting to move on, has met someone new who brings her annoying eight-year-old son Chin (Robert G. Chu) into Fei Fei’s life, Fei Fei sees that as a betrayal of her mother and of their love. She’s a big believer of immortal love thanks to the stories her mother raised her on, so seeing her dad move on is painful for her.

Over the Moon is a great exploration of grief and how even if someone is gone, it doesn’t mean you stop loving them, or that you can’t ever love anyone else. It’s an important message and is one that’s handled in way that’s easy for younger audience to understand thanks to the songs. “Wonderful” (sung by Ken Jeong as a glowing green creature) is a great example as it’s all about moving on without forgetting.

The pacing in Over the Moon could be a little tighter, the stuff on the moon flies by compared to some of the set up on Earth, but besides from that minor complaint Over the Moon is just a gorgeous, animated film with important themes. I laughed, I cried, and it was just a beautiful and fun story about a young girl doing what she needs to do in order to be happy again. 5/5.

REVIEW: The Untouchables (1987)

During the era of Prohibition in the United States, Federal Agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) sets out to stop ruthless Chicago gangster Al Capone (Robert De Niro) and, because of rampant corruption, assembles a small, hand-picked team to help him – veteran beat cop Jim Malone (Sean Connery), trainee George Stone (Andy Garcia) and accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith).

From the opening credits I was instantly intrigued by The Untouchables and that’s thanks to Ennio Morricone’s score. The harmonica slowly amps up the tension and intrigue while the drumbeat gets your heart pounding. It’s an example of one of the main action themes that is present throughout the film and you soon learn that when you hear that sound, something big is about to happen.

The whole cast is great in their roles. Costner brings the almost naivety to Eliot Ness, who has a big task ahead of him going after Al Capone. As Ness and his team close in on Capone’s operation, you see the steely determination come through and how far Ness is willing to go for justice. It’s unsurprising that Sean Connery won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as he steals pretty much every scene he’s in. Malone is Ness’ guide and the scene with the two of them in a church, discussing how far they’ll go is a standout. Garcia’s Stone is a sharpshooter but honest while Martin Smith’s Wallace is more of a nerdy guy but the pair of them round out this unlikely team well.

The raids, shootouts and stakeouts are all a great balance of tension and payoff. The shootouts are exciting and entertaining but it’s the quieter moments like when a character is being stalked by another that really puts you on edge.

The filming techniques used in The Untouchables help make this film stand out in the crime drama genre. The scene with Ness and Malone in the church is filmed with a Split Diopter lens, making both characters in focus, there’s extreme closeups of Ness’ eyes at key moments, the camera sometimes acts like a characters point of view, only giving you the viewer so much information, and slow-motion is used to great affect in one of the final shootouts in the film. While The Untouchables is certainly a slick, crime drama it’s these little touches that help elevate the film. The costuming deserves a mention too as everyone’s suits add to their characters – Stone’s leather jacket is a personal highlight.

The Untouchables is slick, tense and thrilling as Ness and his men battle corruption and Capone’s men at every turn in order to bring the man to justice. The characters are all great individually but it’s how these four men work together and put aside any differences that’s really compelling. 5/5.

REVIEW: All In: The Fight for Democracy (2020)

Documentary about the history of America’s democracy, how people gained and lost the right to vote, and the barriers to voting that so many Americans face today thanks to voter suppression.

Honestly, as a someone born and raised in the UK it really blows my mind how difficult it is for Americans to vote. I have never spent more than a couple of minutes at a poling station, with no more than three people in front of me waiting to vote in the five General Elections I’ve been able to vote in – never mind the local elections I’ve participated in.

Stacey Abrams, who ran for Governor of Georgia in 2018, is a big part of this documentary and her story almost bookends the film. At the beginning you learn a little about her upbringing and how her parents made sure she and her siblings knew how important voting is, and then the last part of the film sees more about her run for office, how that turned out and how it serves as an example of the damage voter suppression can do.

I learnt so much about the American voting system from All In: The Fight for Democracy. One thing that really surprised me was how after the Civil War and Black men were able to vote, there were Black senators in the late 1800s and, knowing about the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s and how the majority of Black people were unable to vote in Southern states I couldn’t comprehend how things went backwards in 80 years. But, All In: The Fight for Democracy showed how a similar thing happened after Obama was elected in 2008; as soon as people who don’t fit the “traditional” mould start getting power and influence, those who want to keep the status quo get to work. Honestly, I spent a lot of time watching All In: The Fight for Democracy in awe of the cruelty and underhand way people have tried (and succeeded) to prevent people from voting.

Today there’s the strict use of voter ID, polls closing, gerrymandering, voter intimidation and purging the electoral roll. All of these things make it a lot difficult for people to vote, but Black people, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, poor people and young people are disproportionately affected. Naturally if voting is hard or people don’t know their rights, they will eventually stop trying and then they will lose their voice and ability to say who governs them.

All In: The Fight for Democracy is an important and impactful documentary. With historians, authors, lawyers, politicians, activists and academics explaining how and why voter suppression is happening, and how communities can fight against it, it’s a rousing film. It makes you feel equally infuriated and inspired but it doesn’t shy away from the realities of what is happening in America and how all citizens voting rights are in danger and the difficulties that lie ahead in trying to once again level the playing field for all American voters. 5/5.

REVIEW: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

In October of 1994 three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found.

The Blair Witch Project is one of those films that I knew of but hadn’t watched because I am a wuss. I did wonder how effective The Blair Witch Project would be with so much of it has become a part of popular culture and referenced in various other types of media, so I was aware of certain shots and the general story before actually watching it. I’m pleased to say it was still nerve-wracking and creepy.

The pace of The Blair Witch Project is really smart. The opening twenty minutes is the three students talking to residents of Burkittsville, hearing the stories about the Blair Witch and the other weird and horrifying things that have happened in the woods outside town. This sets the tone and makes you expect weird and creepy things to happen, and soon they do.

The trio of filmmakers all give great performances and it’s easy to see why people could believe the events of The Blair Witch Project actually happened. The fear, panic and stress is clear to see and their reactions to the unexplainable events are understandable. Heather is the projects director and she’s the one who is always filming everything and to start with doesn’t seem to mind the creepy things that are happening around them as in her mind it’ll make her documentary even better. She’s joined by Josh, who she knows well, and Mike, who she doesn’t, and as things get weird, tensions rise.

As the trio bicker as they traipse around the woods, getting more and more disorientated, the addition of unexplainable and strange piles of rocks, sounds and bundles of twigs gets everyone feeling anxious and just wanting to go home.

The Blair Witch Project is a classic of the horror genre and it’s the film that really kickstarted the found footage subgenre of films. As someone who very rarely watches horror films in general, never mind the found footage subgenre, The Blair Witch Project is tense and eerie from the outset and all the tropes that are so common now, are effective and unsettling. 5/5.