fantasy

REVIEW: Onward (2020)

When Ian (Tom Holland) turns sixteen, his mum (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives him a gift left to him and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) by their late father. When the magic spell their dad left them goes awry, the two brothers have to go on a quest to finish the spell so they can bring him back to spend a day with him.

The world the characters inhabit is one where magical, mythical creatures have forgotten about magic, and instead have evolved to be like us, using cars and electricity and the latest gadgets. Ian and his family are elves (though to be honest I wasn’t sure what they were supposed to be until a character referred to them as elves) and there’s centaurs, ogres, pixies, unicorns and everything else you could imagine. A Manticore (voiced by Octavia Spencer) is very funny and a spin off all about her would be welcomed.

The character dynamics are good, especially the relationship between Ian and Barley. People who have a close sibling relationship, especially with an older brother, are likely to appreciate it a lot. However, when there’s conflict between them, it’s resolved very quickly, and it doesn’t leave enough time for the things they say to one another to really sink in or have much of a consequence.

However, while this pseudo-magical world is interesting, it’s not fully utilised for the first half of the film. It’s a great setting and a great what-if scenario but it’s never explored to its full potential. While naturally characters and their relationships should take priority, the world they inhabit should have more of an impact on them than this world does. The animation in Onward is beautiful and the action-packed finale is entertaining, but what got the characters to that point was a bumpy ride.

Onward is sweet and fun but it lacks both the magical spark a story like this really should have, and that spark of Pixar magic Pixar films usually have as well. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

Narrated by Michael Page.

Locke Lamora is the leader of the Gentleman Bastards, a small gang of thieves who are masters of the long con. They are not the petty criminals the other gangs of the city of Camorr think they are, instead they steal from the rich putting together heists full of disguises and trickery. The Lies of Locke Lamora follows the Gentleman Bastards as they start the ball rolling on their latest con, but there’s more going on here with challenges to the power structure of the criminal underworld of Camorr and bigger threats than they’ve ever encountered.

I loved this book and I’m annoyed at myself that it’s taken me so long to read it. I started reading it on my kindle way back in 2013, I got about 150 pages in but then stopped even though I did like the atmosphere and Locke as a character. I think the reason I stopped (besides life getting in the way) was because the beginning is a bit slow as it has a lot of things to set up. It’s more character focussed so you learn about who the Gentleman Bastards are and how they work, and how this whole world works with both the upper-class and the lower-class systems of Camorr too. Seven years later I tried again and this time I went with the audiobook which I thought was brilliant. The narrator did such a good job a distinguishing between the many characters in the story and he really brought this world to life, along with its dark humour. The Lies of Locke Lamora surprised me with how funny it is. A lot of that come from Locke’s sarcastic thoughts or his reactions to the situations he ends up in, and I just love characters with deadpan humour and who aren’t afraid to “Well shit, this isn’t going how I thought it would.”

The city of Camorr is kind of Venice-like with its canals and boats and the changing weather. The setting is also a bit historical and feels like the seventeenth century with the clothes they wear, the rules of society, and the style of language they use – though there is a lot of modern and inventive swearing too. However, there’s also some magical elements or alchemy to this world too, but it’s all weaved together in a way that makes it feel so real. Your plopped straight into the story and the setting is built up around the characters and the plot in an organic way and it never feels like there’s an infodump.

The structure of The Lies of Locke Lamora is really interesting. There’s the present where Locke and the Gentleman Bastards are grown up and conning noble people, and there’s interludes or flashbacks to when the Gentleman Bastards are children, where you see how they meet, and how they learn to be great thieves. The flashbacks were so great because they not only added backstory and layers to the characters, but they are just as engaging as the action in the present. I never got bored or annoyed when there was a flashback, even if one happened when the tension and the action was amping up in the present.

The characters are brilliant and are so lifelike. While they are all thieves and conmen, the Gentleman Bastards all have their own distinct quirks and personalities. The relationships between the Gentleman Bastards, in their various combinations, are wonderful too. They are more of a family and brothers in arms than just a gang. They all care deeply about one another and are willing to die for one another, and they all trust one another and it’s the epitome of the found family trope which I love.

Locke is a great leader of this family too. They each have their role and they often fit the archetypes of characters needed for a heist, and Locke is definitely the brains of the operation. That’s not to say he won’t bounce ideas off the others or listen to their advice, but he’s definitely the smartest one – and he’s often the smartest one in the room. His intelligence, and ability to think a couple of steps ahead is his superpower, so when there’s other people or powers who come into play that are potentially smarter than he is, that’s when things get even more interesting and you start to worry that these characters won’t make it out of this situation fully intact.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is such a fun and thrilling adventure story. There’s twists and turns and surprises, as with any good heist story, and there’s bloody fights and verbal battles. The Gentleman Bastards are characters I can’t wait to spend more time with, and I’m tempted to carry on this serious with the audiobooks if they have the same narrator because they were that good. 5/5.

REVIEW: Maleficent (2014)

Vengeful fairy Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) curses an infant princess to succumb to a sleep-like death when she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel on her sixteenth birthday, but as time passes she starts to think Aurora (Elle Fanning) might be the one person who could restore peace between two troubled lands.

As the sequel to Maleficent is released this month, I decided to rewatch the first film for the first time since I saw it in the cinema five years ago. In that time, I’d forgotten a lot about it, but I think I ended up enjoying it more than I remembered.

Maleficent is a darker take on an already fairly dark tale. It gives a reason for Maleficent to be spiteful and angry at King Stefan (Sharlto Copley), and her anger and pain is definitely justified. The opening act of Maleficent shows how she was when she was younger and trusting, and how she grew to become the protector of the magical land. It’s when she’s betrayed in the cruellest of ways that she becomes the villain that we know.

There’s silly child-friendly humour courtesy of the three fairies that take care of Aurora (played by Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple) and those moments often feel somewhat out of place compared to the darker tone of the rest of the film. Still it’s all about balance and those moments do make things a little lighter, especially compared to scenes with King Stefan who is getting pushed to the edge over his desire to kill Maleficent for what she’s done. Copley does madness very well and in Maleficent that’s no exception.

Angelina Jolie is brilliant as Maleficent. She’s charming and her presence – thanks in part to such an intimidating costume – commands every scene she’s in. Her chemistry with Sam Riley, who plays Diaval the raven when he’s in his human form, is an unexpected delight, as they bicker like an old married couple. How Maleficent slowly begins to like Aurora and feels conflicted over her affection and her past actions is believable too, thanks to Jolie’s performance.

The pacing is a little off at times, with something’s being rushed and the ending of Maleficent is perhaps a bit too neat for a film that’s about the story’s villain but the spectacle and performances make an interesting take on such a well-known story. 4/5.

REVIEW: Bright (2017)

In an alternate present-day where magical creatures live among us, two L.A. cops, human Daryl Ward (Will Smith) and orc Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton) become embroiled in a prophesied turf battle as they try to protect elf Tikka (Lucy Fry) and her magic wand.

As a concept, Bright is interesting but unfortunately that doesn’t make the finished product interesting. Though it doesn’t go into detail, it’s clear that magical creatures have been a part of the world for centuries and humans, orcs, elves, fairies and presumably any other magical creature we don’t see in the film, have been coexisting that long. That means then that really the present-day world in the film should be at least a bit different to what we know in our world so references to things like Shrek just felt out of place.

Bright uses the differences between magical and human races to talk about racism, segregation and racial profiling but it’s very heavy handed which makes it both cringey and kind of insulting to the real-life situations it’s mirroring.

The conflict between Ward and Jakoby as they both don’t really trust or like one another which is typical to the buddy cop genre but unfortunately Smith and Edgerton don’t really have any chemistry. Normally when this kind of odd couple is clashing it’s entertaining but not here as Ward and Jakoby’s arguments seem to go on forever and the humour that’s supposed to be found in those scenes is nowhere to be found.

Once Ward and Jakoby discover Tikka, the plot of Bright basically becomes them going from A to B, trying to stay alive and keep Tikka safe as a variety of different people try to catch them and get the wand in Tikka’s possession. There’s orc gangs, human gangs, evil elves, corrupt cops and this world’s magical version of the FBI, on their trail. The plot could’ve been a bit tighter if one of those aspects was removed because at times it seemed like there was far too much going on, and the numerous shootouts didn’t leave a lot of time to flesh out the characters – especially Tikka who was mostly silently a lot of the time.

The action sequences in Bright are good, as is the make up on the various magical creatures, but unfortunately the characters aren’t interesting enough to make this film consistently entertaining. 2/5.

REVIEW: A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney

Alice is a normal teenager with school, a high-maintenance best friend and a mum who gets annoyed when she misses her curfew. But what her mum doesn’t know is that the reason she so often misses curfew is because she’s fighting monsters called Nightmares. Nightmares come from Wonderland, a dark realm where there’s magic, creatures and secrets. When Alice’s handsome and mysterious mentor Addison Hatta is poisoned, Alice must venture further into Wonderland than she ever had before to find the antidote. She’ll have to use all her skills and connections to keep from losing her head – literally.

As you might imagine, A Blade So Black is inspired by Alice in Wonderland and it’s fun to see the references to the sour material and how the author puts a spin on certain aspects like characters names and idiosyncrasies. When it comes to Wonderland itself, not a lot of the world is explained but what you do see of it is very weird and eerie. The Nightmares are indeed nightmarish creatures and Alice’s battles with them are fierce. Alice is strong and skilled, but she also makes mistakes, gets scared and doubts herself a lot which means it’s never clear if she’ll come out on top in a battle.

A lot of the conflict in A Blade So Black comes from the fact Alice struggles being a normal teenager with being a Dreamwalker. She’s keeping secrets and lying with the only person in her “normal” life who knows about what she does in Wonderland is her best friend Courtney. Alice is black and, in her neighbourhood, a teenage black girl has recently been gunned down which adds to her mum’s anxiety when Alice seems to disappear and not answer her phone, as she is almost constantly worried the same thing is going to happen to her daughter.

Alice is a bit of a stroppy teenager (which is allowed) and one with magical responsibilities, but she doesn’t often think things through and how her actions can hurt other people. Her mum has very justifiable reasons to be angry and scared when Alice isn’t contactable for long periods of time, but Alice can’t really see that which is frustrating.

A Blade So Black is bit of a weird book pacing-wise. The first half spends the time setting up the conflicts between Alice and her friends and family as she juggles her Dreamwalker duties and being a normal teenager and introduces you to Wonderland but nothing big plot-wise happens until the halfway point. It’s then that Hatta gets poisoned and after that a lot happens very quickly with new characters being introduced and you learn more about the history of Wonderland and what it could mean for Alice. It makes the second half of the book feel rushed and, while it is the first book in a series so it’s understandable that not all plot threads will be tied up, there’s a pretty major one that doesn’t feel like the characters make much headway with.

The premise of A Blade So Black and its setting is more interesting than the actual plot. Still, it’s a quick and enjoyable read and it’s a solid foundation for future books in the series to build on. 3/5.

REVIEW: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Zélie remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls. But everything changed the night magic disappeared as under orders of the ruthless king, all maji were killed including Zélie’s mother. Now she has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of her brother Tzain and rogue princess Amari, Zélie must outrun crown prince Inan who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good. But she’s not only got to learn to control her powers, but she must also control her growing feelings for the enemy.

Children of Blood and Bone is told from three perspectives; Zélie’s, Amari’s and Inan’s and each of them had a distinct voice. Zélie is a divîner, which is someone who has dark skin and white hair which is a sign of the magic that would run through her veins if magic hadn’t had been destroyed. Divîner’s are an oppressed people, they are poor and are often abused and belittled by the King’s guards. Amarai and Inan are siblings who have both been brought up in the castle and, in Amari’s case especially, sheltered from what happens in their country.

I liked Zélie a lot, she’s fierce but impulsive and she cares fiercely for her loved ones. Amari was my favourite character and is probably the one who goes through the most consistent character arc. She’s lived a sheltered life, but she has a strong sense of morals and when she gets the chance to change things and stop her father she takes it, putting her life on the line. She is sweet and naïve to begin with but as she learns how the world works and how people act, she gets smarter and she’s more resilient than she realises. Inan is a character that I never really warmed to. He is desperate to show his father what a great soldier he is, and how he will be a worthy king, but then he also flip flops on his beliefs multiple times throughout the book. He doesn’t have a strong sense of self, will change his mind on things depending on who he’s with, and is generally a disaster and not in a fun, appealing way.

I read almost 400 pages of this 535-page book in the space of two days but then I got to a point, where I got so annoyed with what some characters were doing that I put it down for five days and had to make myself continue with it. Children of Blood and Bone has an enemies to lovers romance and while the foundations of this relationship were interesting, at that 400ish page mark, there was some serious instalove as these characters went from hating one another to barely being able to keep their hands off of one another in the space of about three pages. It was way too fast and seemed needless. Their romance caused conflict with other characters, but that conflict could’ve still happened with them being reluctant allies instead of being in love. Also, their sudden infatuation with one another seemed out of character for both parties and it was a detriment to Zélie’s character especially.

Besides from the romance which I hated, I really enjoyed pretty much everything else about Children of Blood and Bone. I liked the writing style, it’s has vivid descriptions of this world and culture without being overly flowery, and how the friendship grew between Tzain, Amari and Zélie was great. I especially liked how Zélie slowly opened up to Amari, and how Amari figured out her own inner strength.

Children of Blood and Bone is a fast-paced and action-packed story. The world and its magic system are interesting, and the mythology that is introduced can only grow in future books. As a first book in a series, it’s a great introduction to the characters and the world, but I wish it had taken its time with the romance as that did sour my experience of the last quarter of the book. I do plan to continue reading this series though and I’m intrigued to see where everything will go from that ending. 4/5.

REVIEW: Every Day (2018)

Teenager Rhiannon (Angourie Rice) falls in love with “A” someone who wakes up in a different body each day and must live that person’s life for a day, not causing any lasting problems before they go to sleep and wake up in another person’s body.

Based on the contemporary YA novel of the same name by David Levithan, Every Day is a surprisingly sweet, thoughtful and touching film. The supernatural or fantasy nature of “A” is explained well, and through inhabiting numerous characters (and the young actors performances) you get to see what their personality is like as they slowly get Rhiannon to believe what happens them each day.

The young cast are all great, but Angourite Rice is just wonderful as Rhiannon. Rhiannon has the typical teenage boyfriend drama, but as she grows closer to “A” she becomes a more confident person that has always been open and kind. Rice’s presence lights up the screen, bringing the laughs with the comedic moments but also can put across the pain of loving someone who she doesn’t know if she’ll see them again.

The soundtrack is great and everything about this film is so soft. Both in terms of the story and the way the film is shot with soft lighting and idyllic settings, whether it’s a lake house or a beach, makes it seem like Every Day takes place at the beginning of summer and “A”’s and Rhiannon’s romance will never end.

Every Day tackles ideas of sexuality and love in a broad way but it’s a way that’s accessible to it’s target audience without being preachy. It also features discussions of mental health which is handled well, however there’s so much more this story could have done with race and class as “A” spends time in these different people’s bodies and lives.

Every Day is a sweet film that’s about loving a person for who they are, not what they appear like, and its young cast does a fine job showing the different kinds of relationships you can have while in high school. 4/5.