fantasy

REVIEW: Mortal Kombat (1995)

Three martial artists, Liu Kang (Robin Shou), Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) and Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson), are summoned to a mysterious island to compete in a tournament – the outcome of which will decide the fate of the world.

I’ll preface this by say to the best of my knowledge I’ve never played any of the Mortal Kombat games (I think I might’ve played Street Fighter though) and I know nothing about the franchise. Much like how the release of a new Dune movie trailer made me want to watch the original from the 80s, the trailer for the new film adaptation of Mortal Kombat was released last week and as the action sequences looked pretty cool, it made me want to check out the first Mortal Kombat film from the 90s.

Maybe the original Mortal Kombat film works for fans of the games, but as someone with no experience with, I found the film to be incredibly monotonous and boring. The story is paper thin, Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) is an evil sorcerer who needs to win one more Mortal Kombat tournament in order to take over the Earth, there’s then a string of fights as the three heroes make their way through the tournament to the final showdown with Shang Tsung. It really is just one fight after another and there’s little to differentiate between them.

The fight where the trio of heroes are working together is half-decent as you’re seeing their different fighting styles plus there’s more adversaries so that makes things a bit more exciting. When it’s a one-on-one fight it’s not that entertaining. Perhaps that’s due to the fact I’ve now seen more modern action/fight sequences with the quick editing that makes things more engaging but with the slow mo shots trying to make things dramatic and the techno music that often plays during a fight (a call back to the game I’m sure) it all seems rather cheesy.

The characters themselves are all pretty one dimensional too. Sonya is the badass special forces officer (until she’s easily kidnapped and held hostage – obviously), Johnny Cage is a Hollywood actor with a big ego, while admittedly Liu Kang has a bit more backstory than the others, he’s quest for revenge is his main motivator. Their opponents are just people to fight on their quest to reach the final battle and you feel nothing as they are beaten or killed.

Everything about Mortal Kombat is very 90s and of its time. The set designs, the lighting and especially the special effects which have not aged well and were probably not that great for the standard of the 90s either.

I found Mortal Kombat more bemusing than anything. It’s cheese to the max but not in a fun way if you have no emotional connection to these characters of the games. It’s a repetitive film that may have some cool fight scenes but then they’re often undercut by the music which just makes the whole thing laughable. 1/5.

I’d be super interested to hear what fans of the game think of this, or even people like me who haven’t played it before. I’m not sure if it’s one of those adaptations that can please everyone.

REVIEW: To Best the Boys by Mary Weber

Every year for the past fifty-four years, the residents of Pinsbury Port have received a mysterious letter inviting all eligible-aged boys to compete for an esteemed scholarship to the all-male Stemwick University. In the province of Caldon, where women train in wifely duties and men pursue collegiate education, sixteen-year-old Rhen Tellur wants nothing more than to become a scientist. As the poor of her seaside town fall prey to a deadly disease, she and her father work desperately to find a cure. But when her mum succumbs to it as well? Rhen decides to take the future into her own hands—through the annual all-male scholarship competition. With her cousin, Seleni, by her side, the girls don disguises and enter Mr. Holm’s labyrinth, to best the boys and claim the scholarship prize. But not everyone survives the deadly maze.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a fantasy YA, especially a standalone fantasy YA, so while I did end up enjoying To Best the Boys, it did take me a little while to get into the story. I think it was just all the standard elements of the genre; being dropped into a world with the world-building happens as it goes, the casual mention of various creatures and the social/political landscape, that I hadn’t really had in a while after reading more contemporary or historical fiction set in our world.

Once Rhen and Seleni join the competition and enter the labyrinth, the story just speeds by. The sort of trials in the maze they have to go through, and how they have to work with some boys their friends with and like, and some that they really don’t is interesting, especially as all the while they’re trying to keep their identities secret.

The society of Caldon is made up of the Uppers and the Lowers – the upper and working class basically. Rhen was born a Lower after her mother was disowned for marrying her scientist father, though she has connections to the Uppers as Seleni and her Aunt and Uncle are Uppers and continue to invite Rhen to their extravagant parties in the hope to pair her off with a rich young man. It’s clear that Rhen feels more comfortable with her Lower friends in the port or doing scientific experiments with her dad than at these parties.

Caldon is also a patriarchal society and the way Rhen struggles to make her voice heard, where a lot of older men are in power and don’t listen to anyone who is not like them, is unfortunately similar to our own world. Rhen’s passion is for science and learning and wants to make something of herself and while that’s the main driving force of the story, To Best the Boys takes a moment to acknowledge that Seleni’s dreams of finding love and being a wife and mother are just as valid. It’s having the ability to make that choice is what is important to Rhen. Seleni and Rhen’s friendship was one of my favourite things about To Best the Boys. They are so close and Seleni is almost the best of both worlds as she loves the balls and dresses and dancing with boys, but she also enjoys being involved with Rhen’s experiments and adventures. Seleni can almost fit in anywhere whereas Rhen can’t be something she’s not.

As well as the feminist angle, To Best the Boys has some disability representation. Though they aren’t given the names we use, Rhen is dyslexic and there’s another character, Rhen’s love interests younger brother, who has autistic traits.

As it’s a standalone, To Best the Boys did feel a little rushed at times, but equally the story is so tight and focused in on the event to win the scholarship that a lot of character backstories or more world-building isn’t really needed. 3/5.

REVIEW: Practical Magic (1998)

There’s said to be a curse on the Owens women – any man who they fall in love with will surely die. Witch sisters Sally and Gillian (Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman) are unlucky in love and just trying to get by in a town that’s scared of them and their family. But after Gilliam’s boyfriend dies suddenly and a detective (Aidan Quinn) starts asking questions, things get more difficult for them.

Practical Magic is just a delight and the fact that it has a 22% rating on Rotten Tomatoes is a travesty! Do these people not appreciate and love the power of sisterhood, love and female relationships?! Because this is what Practical Magic is. It’s like a love letter to sisters and family and the power women can have, even when things go a bit wrong, and it’s brilliant.

Sally and Gillian were raised by the eccentric aunts, Frances (Stockard Channing) and Jet (Dianne Wiest), and the relationships these four women have are the heart and the soul of this film. The aunts are funny and weird, but they love their nieces so much and try to teach them all they know about magic. Sally has more of innate gift for it, but Gillian has some powers too, but their biggest gift is how in tune with one another they are. Bullock and Kidman have amazing chemistry and they feel like sisters, they argue and laugh and know each other better than anyone. If I’m being honest the tone of Practical Magic is kinda all over the place, but this film definitely wouldn’t have worked so well without these two leads.

Speaking of tone; there’s comedy, horror, romance, crime – it’s a mix of so many things but it works! The whole aesthetic for Practical Magic is peak 90s witchy vibes. The costumes, the setting (especially the house where the majority of the film takes place), the fact that Sally’s job involves creating plant-based remedies – to coin a popular internet term, it’s all very cottagecore. The soundtrack is very 90s too but there’s so many good songs on it from Stevie Nicks, Faith Hill, Joni Mitchell and more. The score by Alan Silvestri is great too. A lot of it feels homely and suits the setting of a small town on a small island where everyone knows each other.

Honestly Practical Magic was so much fun and so heart-warming. I often found myself with a huge smile on my face because of these women and their love and respect for one another. Yeah, the “big bad” of the film is them apparently not being able to have a lasting relationship with a man, but the driving force for the Owens family, and even some of the other women in the town, is love for one another and the lengths they’ll go to keep each other safe. 5/5.

REVIEW: The Craft (1996)

Sarah (Robin Tunney) is a lonely newcomer to a Catholic prep school in LA, until she falls in with a trio of outcasts, Nancy (Fairuza Balk), Bonnie (Neve Campbell) and Rochelle (Rachel True). Together they practice witchcraft, conjuring up spells and curses in order to get what they want like love, beauty, and power – but magic comes with a price.

At the beginning of The Craft, it does a great job of leaving you guessing how much of what the girls are doing is magic, and how much is by chance. Sarah has always had weird things happen to her but it’s not until she’s with the other three that they can seem to control what they want to happen.

Yes, The Craft is a bit dated and very nineties in a lot of ways. The hair and the fashion, the chunky landline phones and the way the girls learn from the occult through books in a shop rather than scouring the internet. But, for someone like me who’s watching it for the first time almost fifteen years after it was first released, it’s still an effective film.

It’s creepy and eerie and the sort of spells or things the girls want are all relatable teen things. They want the boy their like to like them, they want their bully to stop tormenting them, they want to look beautiful – all things that teen girls wish for, but these four can actually do something about it.

The four actresses are all great in their roles and they have good chemistry. The dynamics between them all is interesting, especially how Sarah fits in (or doesn’t) with a ready-made, solid trio of friends. Tension rises between Sarah, who appears to have natural power, and Nancy, who wants to be strong and powerful and to get what she wants. The way these two butt heads as the film progresses and their spells get out of their control is interesting as there’s the high school teenage bitchiness level to a friendship group potentially breaking down, but then there’s also the potentially dangerous consequences to these girls actions and how they can hurt one another if they no longer see eye to eye.

The final act goes all out creepy and scary and perhaps it’s a bit of a leap from the sort of high school drama The Craft had inhabited before, but it’s still exciting to see how everything comes to a head – Fairuza Balk deserves a special mention for doing crazy so well.

The Craft is a great mix of high school drama and the occult. It’s whole aesthetic is great and it’s the kind of eerie but fun horror film I’m totally on board with. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Bhutan: Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti by Kunzang Choden

Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti is a collection of twenty-two stories set in four different regions of Bhutan. The presence of the yeti is ubiquitous to the kingdoms of the Himalayas, where beliefs and attitudes related to it go beyond scientific judgment and analysis.

This short story collection is really quite interesting. Choden has listened and talked to village elders throughout Bhutan to write down the stories or folktales that had previously just been verbally passed down the generations. The way the stories are written are simple but effective and they do feel like you’re just listening to a tale that often has some sort of lesson for the listener to learn. A lot of the stories seemed like fables with the people who encountered the yetis (or the migoe as the Bhutanese call them) learning something, or making horrendous mistakes that then the listener will learn from.

The migoi are often described as “a giant hairy man with the features of a monkey”. All of the descriptions are very vivid, especially for the female yetis with their “huge sagging breasts… swinging and rolling on its chest” and there’s also illustrations in Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti which was an unexpected but nice surprise and it really adds to the stories. Everyone has an idea of what a yeti looks like thanks to popular culture, but to see how the Bhutanese sees them, which is generally similar to the Western version but has some different things like how they possess the “dipshing” which enables it to turn invisible at will.

Some of the stories in Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti are quite gruesome as the people who encounter the yeti either anger it and therefore it harms them, or from their own fear or desire to be perceived as strong, they do their best to capture or kill the yeti.

Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti is a short but interesting read. It’s fun to hear different stories about yetis and how while they generally have similar attributes throughout the different regions of Bhutan, there are some differences in terms of the spirituality or legends surrounding the yetis. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Liberia: She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore

Narrated by Wayétu Moore.

Gbessa, exiled from the West African village of Lai, is starved, bitten by a viper, and left for dead, but still she survives. June Dey, raised on a plantation in Virginia, hides his unusual strength until a confrontation with the overseer forces him to flee. Norman Aragon, the child of a white British colonizer and a Maroon slave from Jamaica, can fade from sight when the earth calls him. When the three meet in the settlement of Monrovia, their gifts help them salvage the tense relationship between the African American settlers and the indigenous tribes, as a new nation forms around them.

I enjoy memoirs narrated by the author, but this was the first fiction audiobook I’ve listened to that was narrated by the author which was an interesting experience, and I think Moore did a good job.

She Would Be King has beautiful, lyrical writing which was very nice to listen to. I’m not sure how easy I’d have found it to physically read the story though. As She Would Be King is narrated by an omnipresent voice, one you learn who it is and how they relate to the characters as the story progresses, and I think that makes it feel like you are being told this mythical tale by an old storyteller.

While the writing in She Would Be King is generally poetic, the violence Gbessa, June Dey, Norman and many other characters face is not glossed over. The beatings, whippings and forced abortion are written in detail, forcing you to face the atrocities’ that were committed to generations of people.

She Would Be King is a mix of historical fiction and fantasy. It takes place during the early-mid 1800s and the effects of slavery and colonialism is a big part of the characters lives. June Dey is raised on a plantation while Norman Aragon grows up being measured and experimented on by his father as he tries to learn more about the power he believes his son has inherited. Gbessa is the only one of the three who has always lived in West Africa, but with her dark skin and red hair she was shunned by the villagers and called a witch. The fantasy element, though it probably could be classed as magical realism, is the fact three characters all have “superpowers”, immortality, invisibility and being bullet proof. How they each discover these abilities and how they, and others, react to them is a big part of their growth as characters.

The pacing of She Would Be King is uneven, and with this all-knowing narrator it’s hard to get into begin with. Some elements of the story seem rushed and then in others it’s difficult to tell how much time has passed for a character, for instance I was surprised when a character said Gbessa had been in certain town for five years, I wouldn’t have said it was that long.

She Would Be King is a magical story about the formation of Liberia, how people can change, how they can find their own family or home, but also how they can’t forget about who they are. She Would Be King feels like a retelling of a legend, it can be hard to follow or connect with some characters at times, but it’s still and impressive tale. 3/5.

REVIEW: Artemis Fowl (2020)

When his father (Colin Farrell) is kidnapped, child prodigy Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw) must find a missing magical artefact and battle against powerful fairies in order to rescue him.

I shall preface this by saying the Artemis Fowl series was one of my favourites as a child. I read them from roughly the ages of 9 – 14 and though it’s been a good while since I’ve read the source material there are some things that have stuck with me for all these years. In the books, Artemis Fowl is an antihero, with the emphasis on the anti. He is a criminal mastermind and his parents are not a major part of the story at all, in fact he gets involved with the world of magical creatures because he kidnaps one and wants money and secrets. The film version may use a few elements of the plot of the book (and brings in a villain from later books) the end product is mostly unrecognisable.

Part of this may be down to Artemis Fowl going through what is commonly known as production hell. There’s been a variety of directors and producers attached to the film over the years, and it has had multiple release dates before being dumped on Disney+. Also, there’s the antihero part. Artemis is not a nice boy, he is super smart and looks down on everyone, and is not above threats of (and carrying out) torture to get what he wants. This is the kind of lead character that doesn’t really suit the family-friendly Disney image. Though that was part of the reason the books stood out in the boom of young boy heroes like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson and Alex Rider.

The film begins with Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad), a giant dwarf, being arrested and as he’s interrogated, he begins to narrate the story of Artemis Fowl and what transpired at Fowl Manor. This as a narrative device is weird to begin with. Sometimes the dialogue is as if Mulch is talking to an unseen integrator while at other times it’s as if he’s talking directly to the audience. I guess this choice was made as a way to give information about this magical world to the audience, but it ends up being jarring and the film would’ve worked just as well as a straightforward narrative.

This is Ferdia Shaw’s first role so we’ll have to see over the course of his career if he improves, but in Artemis Fowl his line delivery is often flat and he doesn’t do a good job at show much emotion on his face. Lara McDonnell, who plays kidnapped LEPRecon Officer Holly Short, isn’t given much to do – in fact in one of the big action sequences in Fowl Manor she gets stuck in a chandelier for the majority of the ensuing battle. That being said, I feel the cast did the best with what they were given. It’s not their fault they had a bland script with little character development, and the end product was often shoddily edited making their characters look disconnected from one another. Watching the trailers again after seeing the film is interesting as there’s so many shots shown that aren’t in the film and hint at whole scenes and plotlines having been cut.

Artemis Fowl has a trim runtime of 90 minutes but amazingly it feels longer. The action scenes aren’t exciting, the intrigue isn’t there, and the characters aren’t particularly memorable. Though Judi Dench growling out “Top of the morning” was the one and only time that I laughed. While Judi Dench may have been an odd choice for Commander Root (the character being a male fairy in the books for one thing) her growling, no nonsense attitude was one of the only enjoyable things to watch.

Artemis Fowl is an incredibly disappointing adaptation and is also a disappointing film. It tries to cram in a lot of lore and it repeatedly tells you things about the world and its characters rather than show you, or indeed having the things it tells you actually being relevant – for instance the film begins with Mulch waxing lyrically about how smart Artemis Fowl is, when a lot of what he does comes from what he’s just heard his father talk about rather than researching himself. Artemis Fowl ends up just being a dull, lifeless film with generic and unexciting action sequences, and is unlikely to be remembered fondly by anyone – both people new to this world and fans of the book. 1/5.

REVIEW: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)

Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund Pevensie (Skandar Keynes) return to Narnia with their annoying cousin Eustace (Will Poulter) reluctantly in tow. There they reunite with Caspian (Ben Barnes) aboard the royal ship The Dawn Treader and join him on his quest to find seven missing Lords.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the Narnia film I’ve seen the least. In fact, I think I’ve only seen it once before this viewing and that was not long after it was released on DVD so watching it now was almost like the first time I remembered that little about it.

Having the adventure set at sea with the heroes travelling from island to island, with each island being different and having their own mystery or problem to solve, keeps the film interesting and it evolves the world of Narnia. However, this island hoping is a double-edged sword as none of the places or creatures they discover feel fully developed, and a lot of them feel like checkpoints as they travel to their final destination.

The special effects creating sea creatures and dragons are great, but it’s a shame some of the practical effects and make up used to bring creatures like minotaurs to life in previous films, is swapped out for computer wizardry. Having watched the Narnia films back to back, little things like that stand out.

Perhaps another thing that’s more obvious as I’ve watched all the Narnia films in row, is that some of the characterisation is a bit off. Edmund seems to have picked up some of his brother’s traits of feeling more entitled about being royalty – both in his own world and in Narnia – when previously he’d been more accepting of what had happened to him. This leads to conflict between Edmund and Caspian, conflict that’s exacerbated by outside forces, and neither of them talk about it again or apologise which felt weird and wrong for both their characters.

Eustace is not a nice person when he arrives in Narnia. He’s a tattletale, spoilt and complains about everything, so naturally his time in Narnia offers him a chance to grow up and become a better person. The script and Will Poulter’s performance both do a good job at actually making you care about Eustace, as he is really annoying to begin with. He goes from being a character that’s entertaining to dislike, to one that actually has some redeeming qualities and surprisingly is one you find yourself liking.

It is a shame the powers that be never continued with this film series. Well, there’s supposed to be an adaptation of The Silver Chair but who knows if that’ll ever come to fruition. While the setting of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a lot different to the previous outings in Narnia, a lot of the heart and charm is still there. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008)

A year after their adventure in Narnia, the Pevensie siblings return but for Narnia it’s over a thousand years and it’s a much darker place than the one they remember. Miraz (Sergio Castellitto) wishes to destroy all Narnians and take the throne from its rightful heir, Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), so the Pevensie’s and Caspian must join forces to save Narnia

Unlike The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe which is perhaps one of the most faithful book to film adaptations yet, Prince Caspian does it’s own thing for the most part. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing and personally I feel adding in more conflict between Peter (William Mosely) and Caspian adds more to Peter’s character.

What Prince Caspian does really well is show how difficult it was for the Pevensie’s going from grown adult Kings and Queens, to being children again. They’ve already grown up and had a life and then they’re back at the beginning again. Peter is clearly the one who struggles the most with this and puts other creatures’ lives on the line as he’s desperate to prove himself, even to his own siblings.

Ben Barnes does a good job at portraying Caspian as a young man who out of his depth and wants to do good without being self-righteous. The new Narnian characters are all a lot of fun and do well to fill the gap left by Mr Tumnus and the Beavers and help show how much has changed in Narnia since the Pevensie’s left. Peter Dinklage and Warwick Davis both play dwarfs, with Dinklage getting almost as much screen time as the Pevensie’s, while Eddie Izzard voices Reepicheap, a swashbuckling mouse.

While Prince Caspian deviates from the book, and is a much darker story than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, there’s still the air of magic and hope about it. This comes from Andrew Adamson’s direction. It’s assured even in the big battle sequences and knowing how much of a rapport he built with the young actors playing the Pevensie children, Georgie Henley especially, it’s clear how he got such good performances from his young cast.

Prince Caspian shows the darker side on Narnia but also the good there is in people. The special effects, hair and makeup and costumes are still great and overall Prince Caspian is an action-packed adventure. Also, Edmund (Skandar Keynes) is still the MVP in my book.4/5.

REVIEW: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)

The Pevensie children, Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley), travel through a wardrobe to the magical world of Narnia and discover they’re a part of a prophecy to free Narnia from the clutches of the White Witch (Tilda Swinton).

I remember going to the cinema to see The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe but can’t quite believe that was fifteen years ago. I grew up reading The Chronicles of Narnia and really enjoyed the film adaptations, but as it’s been so long since I’ve watched them, I thought I’d revisit them as an adult an see if they still have the same magic about them.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is one of the most faithful book to film adaptations I’ve seen, especially for a children’s series where so often what ends up on screen is completely different to what’s on the page. Perhaps it helps that the Narnia books are certified classics and are known across the generations, or it’s just more proof of the care and heart that was put into this film by everyone involved.

There are some moments that don’t grip your attention as much as others, but overall, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a story of hope, perseverance and good triumphing over evil. It’s a universal story and one that’s told very well from the production and set design to the performances.

The four young leads are all wonderful and they do feel like real siblings. Georgie Henley as Lucy is especially brilliant as it’s with her that you encounter Narnia for the first time and her wonder and delight is infectious. For me, Edmund has always been the most interesting of the Pevensie siblings. He’s jealous of his older brother and he can be mean but over the course of the film matures as he sees the consequences of his actions and strives to help others and do good. Skandar Keynes does a good job at showing how spiteful Edmund can be, but also how sympathetic and remorseful he truly is.

Tilda Swinton is the White Witch. She is menacing and cruel and can switch from being seemingly kind and caring to vicious in a second in order to get what she wants. She’s a foreboding presence even when she’s not on screen and it’s clear to see why the creatures of Narnia fear her so.

Half the fun of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is hearing well known voices come from a variety of creatures – Ray Winstone and Dawn French as Mr and Mrs Beaver is a delight. The special effects, makeup and costumes that bring the creatures of Narnia to life are fantastic and still hold up fifteen years later. One has to wonder how the filmmakers here made a pretty photorealistic lion with Aslan, that looks and acts like a lion while still being able to emote, and the lions and creatures in The Lion King (2019) just don’t emote at all.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a film that’s still full of magic. The care and attention put into everything from the costumes and special effects to the score and the story, means that it looks just as good and is just as enjoyable all these years later. 4/5.