drama

READ THE WORLD – Bosnia and Herzegovina: How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišić

Translated by Anthea Bell.

For young Aleksandar – the best magician in the non-aligned states and painter of unfinished things – life is endowed with a mythic quality in the Bosnian town of Višegrad, a rich playground for his imagination. When his grandfather dies, Aleks channels his storytelling talent to help with his grief. However, when the shadow of war spreads to Visegrad, the world as he knows it stops. Suddenly it is not important how heavy a spider’s life weighs, or why Marko’s horse is related to Superman. Suddenly it is important to have the right name and to pretend that the little Muslim girl Asija is his sister. Then Aleksandar’s parents decide to flee to Germany and he must leave his new friend behind.

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone Is one of those books where quotation marks aren’t used when characters are speaking. Personally, I find this stylistic choice really hard to read and I’m not saying I skim read, but having speech marks make the endless paragraphs easier to read and breaks up the text a bit for me. About midway through there’s some chapters where there isn’t any speech and instead it’s just Aleksandar’s thoughts and how he feels about the situation he’s in and I enjoyed them a lot more as they were easier to read. Then it was back to having conversations where I felt I missed bits because I wasn’t always certain when the dialogue started/ended or who was talking. It did make me smile though as clearly the author knew he was doing as at one point Aleksandar’s teacher gives the class a writing task and the teacher takes a moment to tell him that he has to use quotation marks and mustn’t forget them like he has done in previous work.

Aleksandar is a child at the beginning of the book and so has a child’s understanding of what’s happening when war breaks out, and even before that when his grandfather dies. As his grandfather told him he was magic, Aleksandar believes that he can bring him back from the dead, if only he could find his wand. Even before soldiers arrived in his hometown things are changing as teachers in his school need to now be referred to by “Mr” rather than “Comrade” and Aleksandar is the kind of boy to question things when adults tell him he shouldn’t.

When Aleksandar returns to Bosnia over ten years since he and his family fled to Germany, he’s in his twenties and he finds the place a lot different to how he remembers it. He still has some extended family and friends there and it’s interesting to see how there’s sometimes animosity against him from those who didn’t manage to leave and had to live through the war. He and his parents had it difficult too, having to learn a new language and having little support in a whole new place but it’s clear the trauma and difficulties were different for those who stayed behind.

Though it’s not gone into much I thought it was interesting that it showed that difference as other books I’ve read during my Read the World Project haven’t really shown both sides. Most just follow those who managed to leave or those who lived through the conflict in their hometown, without much consideration of what other people would’ve gone through as their own situation was already so difficult.

As I found How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone so difficult to read, I ended up not really liking the story much. Though the latter half where Aleksandar’s older and always thinking about the girl he had to leave behind and going through the address book to find her was interesting and sweet, it wasn’t enough to get me truly invested in his story.

REVIEW: Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (2022)

Two years after her husband’s death, Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson), a 55-year-old retired religious studies teacher, makes a plan. She books a hotel room and hires young sex worker Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack) in the hope to finally experience some good sex.

This is one of those films I went into blind and wanted to watch it purely because there was an actor I liked in it. In this case that’s Emma Thompson but I have to say I’ll be checking out Daryl McCormack’s filmography after this because he was utterly charming and charismatic. Thompson though is a tour deforce. Emma Thompson is generally great, she’s funny and quick and nails those dramatic moments, but in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande it’s like you get to see another new side to her. Nancy is scared and vulnerable while also being incredibly opinionated and sure about the things she does know about. Sex is something she’s unsure about having only slept with one man her entire life and having never had any pleasure from it. But her life and her thoughts on society are things she is sure about as she’s a planner and thinks through every possible scenario.

The conflicts that arise in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande are often personal and internal ones. Nancy is conflicted by what she’s doing. Hiring a sex worker is so out of her realm of normality that she second guesses herself almost constantly. Then there’s the boundaries both she and Leo put for their own peace of mind and how things deteriorate when those boundaries are crossed.

The fact that Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is pretty much just set in a hotel room is great too as I’m a big fan of single-location films. How Leo and Nancy move around the space is interesting and when tensions boil over, they feel so far apart even though they’re in the same room and are still as physically close to one another as they have been before.

The discussions Nancy and Leo have before, during and after sex are both funny and interesting. Their ideas of what sex work is and its value differ greatly and some of that can be put down to a generational divide. To begin with Nancy thinks there must be “something wrong” with Leo or he must have some huge trauma to do what he does but for him it’s a job he enjoys doing. He enjoys giving others pleasure and there’s the clients that don’t want anything from him but some company. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is probably one of the most nuanced and positive depictions of sex work I’ve seen in a film. Leo is never guilty about his job and he is kind enough to explain to Nancy what he gets out of it.

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is funny, cringey, sexy, and a touching film about human connection – sexual or otherwise. The fact that it’s pretty much just set in a hotel room is great too as I’m a big fan of single-location films. The humour cannot be overstated and with a clever script and brilliant performances Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is a delight! 4/5.

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.

READ THE WORLD – Bahrain: QuixotiQ by Ali Al Saeed

Guy Kelton is a young man with a troubled mind. His shattered dream and the relentless mundane life he’s been living, alone and broken away from his family, takes an unexpected toll on him, driving him to violent, reckless extremes. He falls deeper and deeper into a bloody abyss; through extremes that would eventually lead him to the most devastating discovery about his existence. Going through his mid-twenties, Patrick Roymint, lost and confused, still struggles to come to terms with the loss of his whole family many years ago. But soon as he decides to change all that and try to rebuild the future he’s not had, he is dragged into the unseen, disturbing and filthy underworld of the little, diminishing Okay County. As both men go through a series of mysterious and bizarre events, their lives take dramatic turns that lead them to new revelations about their past, present and future. They somehow find their fates connected by some mystic, unfathomable power.

At second time of trying, I managed to read QuixotiQ. I think there’s a few reasons why I struggled with this book even though it’s pretty short at less than 200 pages long. The first is the translation/editing. It’s a self-published novel and I believe the translation was done by the author, or the author wrote it in English but that was their second language. I say that as there were a few instances where it didn’t quite read right to me, a native English speaker. Sentences were phrased awkwardly or adjectives were used which didn’t really fit the context of what was going on.

Then there was the plot itself. It was a bit difficult to figure out what was happening with Guy and Patrick. Guy especially has a lot going on in his head and he has dreams or visions where both he and you as the reader can’t really tell what’s real and what’s not. It makes the story kind of hard to follow and you’re unsure if he’s going mad, just having vivid dreams or if QuixotiQ has some surreal fantasy elements.

The chapters are short and there’s sometimes point of view changes between the chapters and in the chapters, shown by a line break. However, it can sometimes be hard to tell whose point of view your in to begin with as the first three or more paragraphs just use “he” or “she” rather than a character’s name so it can be disorientating. Mandy, Patrick’s girlfriend, and Christina, her friend and former co-worker, also have chapters from their points of view.

All four of the characters are going through tough times and their thoughts and motivations are often jumbled. I supposed it’s a good way at showing how lost these characters are, but it does make things hard to read at times and I didn’t particularly like or connect with any of the characters. Especially as things spiralled out of control for Guy, I just couldn’t comprehend why he was acting that way or see what had tipped him over the edge. The writing style and the story made character motivations unclear to me.

QuixotiQ is the only book I found by a Bahraini author in English. If I wasn’t doing my Read the World Project I would’ve probably DNF’d it as I found it muddled and uninteresting. The bright side was that the chapters were often very short so it was easy to pause and take a break when the strangeness and unclear character motivations got too frustrating.

Z is for Zoe (2018)

Cole (Ewan McGregor) and Zoe (Léa Seydoux) are colleagues at a research lab that designs drugs and technology to improve and perfect romantic relationships. As they become close, their relationship is threatened when Zoe discovers the truth about their relationship, sending them into a spiral of confusion, betrayal and the most intense of human emotions, love.

Zoe is such a sweet, thoughtful take on relationships, romance and what it means to be human. It’s that kind of near-future sci-fi that I love where everything is as we’d expect bar one aspect. In this instance, that thing is how evolved AI is and that androids, or “synthetics” as they’re called here, can be so lifelike that they can fool humans. They can be programmed to feel and connect with people so humans never have to be lonely.

Ash (Theo James) is one such synthetic and seeing him learn and adapt and feel does make you question the differences between humans and machines. While his code is his foundation, he’s been given memories and personality and is able to decide things for himself. Theo James does a good job at adding little hesitations to Ash’s movements and showing that as he learns, he mostly appears “human” but there’s still the odd moment with him that’s a little unsettling.

The romance between Cole and Zoe is interesting as they both seem so isolated but for different reasons. There’s a hesitancy about both of them and as more of their pasts are revealed, you begin to understand why they act that way.

As a sidenote, I really liked the relationship between Cole and his ex-wife Emma (Rashida Jones). So often you see an antagonistic relationship between ex’s, even when they’re coparenting like these two are. While there still is the odd moment of awkwardness between the two of them, it’s clear that they both still care about each other and want the other to be happy, even if it’s not with themselves.

Zoe is an interesting sci-fi/romance film. The central performances are all great and the romance between Cole and Zoe is believable. Similarities can be made between Zoe and Her, and both films have a similar melancholy vibe to them. So if you like one of those films, there’s a good chance you’d like the other. 4/5.

Y is for The Year of Spectacular Men (2017)

After graduating and kind of breaking up with her boyfriend, Izzy Klein (Madelyn Deutch) decides to move back to LA from New York and move in with her successful younger sister Sabrina (Zoey Deutch). As Izzy tries to figure out what she wants from life she makes the most of her freedom and binge watches The X-Files and meets many guys who could possibly be “the one”.

I feel after I highlighted the potential nepotism in Quincy, I have to give The Year of Spectacular Men equal treatment. It’s directed by Lea Thompson (who also plays Izzy and Sabrina’s mother) and stars her real-life daughters and while they both have acting experience prior to this film, it’s interesting to think if some of the scenes between the daughters and mother would have the same natural and comforting vibe as these three do.

The Year of Spectacular Men is kind of a combination of coming-of-age story, rom-com, and family drama and as it tries to be so many things at once, it doesn’t always nail each one. I think the aspect that works best is the coming-of-age one as Izzy is at a crossroads in her life, trying to figure out what she wants to do after university. She’s had many different ideas or interests that she’s picked up and then dropped and she is sort of in limbo when it comes to romance. She seems to simultaneously get really attached to a guy while also doing what she can to push them away. It’s as if because she’s so unsure of herself, she’s unsure of any relationship in her life.

Perhaps it’s a given as they are real life sisters but the scenes with Izzy and Sabrina are the highlight of tis film. Their relationship is the heart of the film and it’s interesting how though Sabrina is the younger one, she seems to have her life more together as she has a home, a boyfriend, and a blossoming career as an actress/model. It’d be easy to have Izzy be resentful of her little sister but instead she admires her, helps her and always wants to protect her – even from things that she really shouldn’t. it’s still an interesting dynamic as Sabrina is the one encouraging Izzy to find a job, helps her make connections, and just try and get her out of her spare room.

The humour in The Year of Spectacular Men is more of the quirky and sometimes absurd kind rather than huge laughs. Izzy see things in an unusual way at times and how she acts around other people is sometimes awkward as she’s not totally comfortable in herself.

The Year of Spectacular Men is a pretty breezy rom-com/drama. The familial dynamics are the best and it’s always nice seeing films about messy twentysomething women who don’t have everything figured out. 3/5.

X is for X+Y (2014)

Nathan (Asa Butterfield), a socially awkward teenage math prodigy finds new confidence and new friendships when he lands a spot on the British squad at the International Mathematics Olympiad.

Saying Nathan is socially awkward might be a bit of a disservice to him but that’s how IMDb phrased it. In actuality Nathan is Autistic. He’s quiet and likes things a certain way, he loves maths but isn’t good at physical touch. Autism is a spectrum and while Nathan is certainly reserved in social situations, it’s almost like he can pass it off as being shy, especially compared to Luke (Jake Davies). Luke is also on the British squad and he’s the almost stereotypical type of Autistic character. He doesn’t get any social cues, is abrupt and doesn’t fit in. At times it feels like X+Y is showing that Nathan’s Autism is the “acceptable” or “good” version when compared to Luke, especially as other boys on the team make comments about Luke and how obvious it is that he’s Autism to Nathan’s face, showing they haven’t picked up any supposedly obvious traits from him.

It’d be interesting to here from Autistic people to see how good or bad a job the filmmakers and actors did with regards to Autism. Both young actors are pretty great but how truthfully each of their depictions are, I’m not sure.

X+Y is as much Nathan’s story as it is his mum, Julie’s (Sally Hawkins). She struggles to connect with her son and she’s still grieving for her husband who died in an accident when Nathan was younger. As Nathan starts to make connections, noticeably with rival Chinese mathematician Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), it allows him to open up more and between them he and his mother start to bridge the gap between them.

X+Y is a bit of a formulaic film and hits a lot of the usual narrative beats but the stellar British cast does a good job at elevating it most of the time. X+Y is one of those films that’s tinged with melancholy and hope and is decent though predictable. 3/5.

W is for White Hunter Black Heart (1990)

White Hunter Black Heart is thinly inspired by director John Huston and the experience he and his crew had while making The African Queen. Renowned filmmaker John Wilson (Clint Eastwood) travels to Africa to direct a new movie, but his desire to hunt down an elephant turns into a grim situation with his movie crew, putting production behind and lives on the line.

This is honestly one of the best performances I’ve seen from Clint Eastwood. John Wilson is such a charming guy but he’s also reckless and selfish. He clearly has a moral backbone as he picks fights with racists and insults antisemites to their faces but when he becomes obsessed with hunting a huge elephant it’s like any of his likable qualities fade away. Though, were those supposedly admirable qualities really there, or was it all his ego? Using when his friend is belittled to make a point and appear smarter than others or using when a black waiter is mistreated to start a fight and get out some of his pent-up aggression. While in a roundabout way he stood up for those people, did he do it just to make himself feel good or from a sense of justice? These are the things you’re left wondering about John Wilson.

Eastwood plays him to perfection. It probably helps that through his long career Eastwood has played his fair share of toxic male characters but here the toxic masculinity isn’t something to be admired but to be cautious of. Combined with the ego and insecurity of an artist, John is a captivating character and someone you’re never too sure what he’s going to do next.

Pete (Jeff Fahey) is the film’s writer and John’s friend. He’s the voice of reason to a lot of John’s suggestions, or rather he attempts to be but John is so strong-willed that he often barely registers Pete’s objections.

Personally, I enjoyed seeing Brit Alun Armstrong in this. He played Ralph Lockhart who works for one of the producers of the film John and Peter are supposed to be finishing writing and scouting locations. There’s some good banter between Ralph and John as they have opposing ideas and as Ralph gets more used to John’s obsession and almost gives up on the film being made, he has some funny lines. Just the disbelief and grim acceptance of the film productions situation is amusing as he’s one of the first to realise how potentially bad a situation the cast and crew could be in thanks to John.

White Hunter Black Heart is a gripping film thanks to Eastwood’s performance. He plays a fascinating character and there’s a sense of foreboding throughout as he gets more and more obsessed with hunting a bull elephant. It’s very reminiscent of Moby Dick with the elephant being John’s white whale and woe betide anyone who stands in his way. 4/5.

V is for Vita & Virginia (2018)

The love affair between socialite and popular author Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) and literary icon Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki).

Vita & Virginia is one of those films I chose to watch for two reasons and neither of them was because I thought I’d really enjoy the film. Those two reasons were one; it had an actor I liked a lot in it (in this case, Gemma Arterton) and two; it’s directed by a woman so can count towards my 52 Films by Women challenge. I didn’t go into Vita & Virginia thinking I’d hate it (and I didn’t) but equally, it wasn’t a story I was particularly interested in.

Based upon their real letters Vita & Virginia tells the story of how these two women met and became entangled in each other’s lives. There are many times where the letters are just read out by the actresses and the camera lingers on the face of the recipient as they register the words. This was an interesting way to show how they kept in touch and felt about one another to begin with, but the repetition soon got old.

It’s unfortunate that while the two leads do a decent job with what they’re given, it’s their relationships with their husbands that is far more touching and interesting than their forbidden love affair. Arterton and Debicki don’t have great chemistry whereas the support and care both Harold Nicolson (Rupert Penry-Jones) and Leonard Woolf (Peter Ferdinando) show their respected wives feels more real. Both couple’s marriages are unconventional in different ways and it’s a shame that’s what interested me more than what was happening between the titular characters.

The cast is good, it’s just how the film is put together (and a sometimes-dry script) that lets them down. How Vita & Virginia is edited feels weird. Some scenes or moments are cut too short so any intended emotional impact is lost while others meander or build to something that never happens. It makes this one hour and 50 minutes film often feel a lot longer than that. The music is also a bit strange at times, with almost techno, dance music playing during a party. It kind of feels it was going for the Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette anachronistic vibe of clashing the historical and the modern but as it wasn’t consistent in Vita & Virginia, it’s just more jarring and feels out of place.

Overall, while the cast does what they can with what they’re given, the lack of chemistry between the leads and its slow-pace makes Vita & Virginia feel far longer and duller than what it probably was. 2/5.

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.