romance

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.

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.

J is for Jenny’s Wedding (2015)

Jenny’s (Katherine Heigl) parents and siblings are always trying to set her up but little do they know she’s already met the right person – her “roommate” Kitty (Alexis Bledel). When Jenny finally feels ready to come out to her family as she and Jenny want to get married, it shakes everything her traditional parents know.

Jenny’s Wedding is one of those films that’s technically about gay characters but is more about their family and how (straight) audiences would relate to the family’s confusion and hurt at being lied to and their general misunderstanding when it comes to their daughter and her relationship. That’s not to say Jenny’s Wedding is bad, just that going into it you’ve got to know it’s not a lesbian romcom and is more a family drama with a dash of gay on the side.

Heigl and Bledel don’t really have any chemistry and not enough time is spent on them to really believe in their relationship, or even believe that they’re more than the roommates they’ve been saying they were for the past five years. Katherine Heigl though did give a great performance whenever she was with her family. She really sells the hurt and fear she had about coming out and how once she feels in a place to be truthful, because of her mother’s (Linda Emond) fear of being judged by her friends and neighbours, is forced to continue lying to keep her happy. How she’s pushed to almost breaking point by her parents continuing to act like everything’s the same while also ignoring huge part of her life and identity is tough to watch.

There’s a side plot with Jenny’s sister Anne (Grace Gunner) who by seeing how happy Jenny is with Kitty, comes to reassess her own marriage and happiness. That was a sweet moment and how Anne and Jenny worked through some of their sibling issues once everything was in the open was good too.

While the overall plot is a bit cliché, the dialogue between various feels authentic and the cast all give good performances. As long as you know it won’t be a romcom and is in fact quite sad and painful at times, Jenny’s Wedding is a decent watch. 3/5.

I is for The Immigrant (2013)

Trigger warning, the film has mentions of rape and sexual assault.

New York, 1921. Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard), a Polish immigrant is tricked into working in a burlesque theatre as she tries to make enough money to get her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) out of the infirmary on Ellis Island.

The Immigrant is one of those films that I’m glad I’ve watched as I think it’s impressively made with some great central performances, but I don’t think I’d ever watch it again as it was so bleak.

When Ewa is stranded at Ellis Island after her aunt and uncle supposedly do not come to claim her, she is rescued by Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a charming man who works at a burlesque club cum brothel. Bruno is emotionally and financially manipulative towards Ewa, and presumably to a lot of the other women he has working for him, but while they are used to their jobs and way of life, Ewa doesn’t want to live like this and uses it as a means to an end.

When Orlando (Jeremy Renner), a magician and fellow performer at the theatre arrives, Ewa finds herself torn between the two men. One who has always looked to control her while the other takes her as she is and perhaps could make her feel loved rather than used. With Orlando’s appearance, Bruno starts to unravel and while he has always been a showman, you begin to see how much of his entire life and persona was act. Bruno is an interesting character as while he’s definitely not nice or good, at times you can almost pity him.

The fact that The Immigrant has a sepia-tone throughout, courtesy of cinematographer Darius Khondji, and an emotional yet often haunting score from Christopher Spelman, makes the film seem almost classic and timeless. The attention to detail in the production design and costumes too make it really easy to become immersed in this time period and be swept up in the difficult situation Ewa finds herself in.

The Immigrant is a great looking film with a fantastic lead performance from Cotillard. It is a film with a bit of a slow plot but the performances are often riveting so it’s not too noticeable. As I said, it is a pretty bleak film though. The things Ewa goes through and how she struggles to deal with her guilt and perceived sin is tough to watch. 4/5.

H is for House of Flying Daggers (2004)

Romantic police captain Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) breaks Mei (Ziyi Zhang), a beautiful member of the rebel group known as House of Flying Daggers, out of prison but things are not what they seem.

Plot-wise House of Flying Daggers is bit of a mixed bag for me. It’s interesting how pretty much every single character is hiding something and there’s a lot of twists, especially in the last act as motivations are revealed. So that’s intriguing and a twist usually happens just when I’m starting to get a little bored. Which is kind of clever from a scriptwriting point of view, it’s as if they knew when interest might start wanning and pull the audience back in. The love story/stories that are slowly revealed aren’t so interesting to me and the initial conflict of the rebel group vs the government ends up being dropped to focus on the romance. In some ways this leaves the ending a bit unsatisfying.

That being said, House of Flying Daggers is a beautiful and stylish film. When Mei performs a dance and shadow game at the start of the film, how the camera follows her movements as the long fabric from her clothes spins around is wonderful. The colours in House of Flying Daggers are a feast for the eyes. Whether it’s the pastel colours of the Peony Pavilion or the greens of the bamboo forest it’s all captured brilliantly by cinematographer by Xiaoding Zhao.

The fights and actions sequences are suitably dramatic and well shot too. Everything is easy to follow and they’re always exciting and innovative. Not being someone who watches wuxia films that regularly, I always find it’s a visual treat seeing action scenes like this when you compare them to a lot of Western action films that are heavily edited, perhaps in the dark and hard to follow. Plus, it’s fun seeing these people defy the laws of gravity and it all just be an understood part of this world.

The music composed by Shigeru Umebayashi is also beautiful. It’s the sort of music that made me believe in the love story more than the plot did.

I’m glad I’ve finally watched House of Flying Daggers after having the DVD for so long. Like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon it’s a film that’s referenced in popular culture a lot – I realised that a shot of Mei towards the end of the film was on the cover of one of my university Film textbooks, always thought it was a beautiful cover but never knew what film it was from – so it’s good to actually know the original material.

The fights, colours and acting in House of Flying Daggers makes it stand out when the plot isn’t always that interesting. Perhaps it’s a film where it’s more style over substance but in this instance, I didn’t really care as I was swept up in it all. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Suriname: The Cost of Sugar by Cynthia McLeod

Trigger warnings for slavery and all the mistreatment that comes with that.

Set in Suriname between 1965 and 1979, The Cost of Sugar is the story of two Jewish step sisters, Elza and Sarith, descendants of Dutch settlers and the children of a plantation owner. Their pampered existences become intertwined with the fate of the plantations as the slaves decide to fight against the violent repression they have endured for too long.

The Cost of Sugar begins when Elza and Sarith are teenagers. They’d grown up with each other since they were children and were close until they started to think about marriage. They’re two very different people; Elza is kind and sometimes a bit of a doormat whereas Sarith is strong-willed and flighty. That’s kind of a nice way to describe Sarith to be honest.

I think this is the first book I’ve ever read that had a narcissist protagonist, or maybe I’m more aware of what the characteristics of a narcissist are so could actually name and somewhat understand Sarith’s actions. To begin with, Sarith seems like a typical rebellious and jealous teen. She’s beautiful and gets a lot of attention and had sex when doing so before marriage is obviously a big no no but when Elza meets a man and apparently finds love and marriage, Sarith gets jealous. She can’t stand someone else being the centre of attention or getting something she doesn’t have. It isn’t even a case of something she wants, it’s like Sarith doesn’t know what she wants, or she wants something just because someone else has it.

As the years go on it’s clear that Sarith is incredibly self-centred and craves attention. She wants to socialise and go to parties, even when she does get a husband and has a child. She wants to be able to have affairs but as soon as her husband seeks attention elsewhere and maybe even falls in love she does everything in her power to destroy it.

It’s not just the sisters attitudes to love and relationships that is different but also their attitude towards slaves. They’ve both grown up with house girls and slaves and are used to others doing things for them but where Sarith is cruel and sees the servants as lesser than, Elza cares about them and loves those who have been a part of her family for so long. Sure, as they’re slaves it can be argued they don’t have much of a choice about being kind towards Elza but there is a different amount of respect between Elza and her slaves and that of Sarith and hers.

While all the family drama is going on (Elza is content to be a wife and mother while Sarith implodes her life in different ways) there’s also the uprising of runaway slaves who attack plantations, killing the white owners, setting the slaves free and looting and burning what’s left. As The Cost of Sugar is almost always from the white characters points of view, these attacks are seen as a looming threat and it’s almost like a ticking timebomb for how long their life of privilege can last. There are few “good” white characters. Elza’s husband for instance came from the Netherlands to Suriname as an adult so has a different idea of how slaves should be treated as he’s so used to what is seen as the norm there. He teaches his houseboy how to read and write and speak Dutch and gives him the opportunity to earn his freedom. Still, any white character who has slaves and does nothing to change things isn’t that good.

The Cost of Sugar is an interesting look at the that time period and the dynamic between plantation owners and slaves outside of North America. I don’t think I’d read a story that focused on white European slave owners rather than American ones before. While there are certainly a lot of similarities, there were some cultural differences too which was interesting. For instance, the bigotry towards Jewish white people from the protestant white people is brought up throughout the novel. The Cost of Sugar is a pretty engaging read and the short chapters and different characters points of view help make it a quick read. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Tunisia: The Scents of Marie-Claire by Habib Selmi

Translated by Fadwa Al Qasem.

The story of the relationship between Marie-Claire, a French woman, and Mahfouth, a Tunisian man, from beginning to end as they live together in Paris.

The Scents of Marie-Claire is a short book at less than 180 pages and that’s probably a good thing as if it was longer, I may have given up on it. I did read it in two days but I did so while not liking the narrator at all. The Scents of Marie-Claire is written in first person point of view and Mahfouth is the narrator.

I think I’ve said before but I tend to find books from male characters point of view (especially when they’re written by men) a bit uncomfortable with how the male characters describe female characters and The Scents of Marie-Claire is no exception. As it’s from Mahfouth’s point of view, Marie-Claire often comes across as just an object for his desire and not a person with her own thoughts and opinions. When she says she doesn’t want sex or attention he takes it as a personal affront and feels she’s cruel for denying him and is doing to be purposefully hurtful, rather than maybe she didn’t feel like it or had a lot going on in her head. You never get anything from Marie-Claire’s point of view so it is easy for Mahfouth to paint her as a villain in their relationship.

A big selling point of The Scents of Marie-Claire is the culture clash between the two of them however this didn’t seem to be a huge thing to me. Yes, when you learn about their childhoods, they are very different but if anything it is Mahfouth’s general misunderstanding of women but also obsession with them that causes problems in their relationship. That could well be a typical aspect of Tunisian men in general that I’m unaware of rather than a specific character thing. He’s very self-conscious about their relationship and showing affection in public which could be a sign of him being more aware of their differences, though as I said, to me it seemed more likely because he was awkward about how he felt about sex and relationships.

The Scents of Marie-Claire is an odd reading experience as there’s a distance from Marie-Claire so I never really felt like I knew or understood her as a character. Meanwhile, you’re in Mahfouth’s head so much that it isn’t an enjoyable reading experience as I didn’t like what he was thinking and feeling. 1/5.

REVIEW: A Cinderella Story: Christmas Wish (2019)

Kat (Laura Marano) dreams of becoming a famous singer-songwriter but it’s hard to imagine her dreams coming true thanks to her cruel stepfamily.

Not only does Kat have to clean and tidy their home but any money she earns from her job as a singing elf at Santa Land goes straight to her stepmother Deirdra (Johannah Newmarch). While naturally the evil step sisters and stepmother act can be repetitive (and the actors perhaps overact a tad), Deirdra does say some cutting things to Kat. They strike a chord but the moment is never left to be fully impactful before there is a joke or the plot moves swiftly on.

Kat’s best friend and fellow elf Isla (Isabella Gomez) fits in the fairy Godmother role and to be honest she’s more charismatic and charming than the lead which is good for her but not for Marano. Isla really is a great friend. She’s supportive and is always willing to listen to Kat moan about her family and the two of have great chemistry. The same can’t be said for Marano and Gregg Sulkin who plays her prince Charming in this scenario, Dominic the son of a billionaire who’s working as Santa so he learns what hard work and responsibilities are. They aren’t terrible together but there isn’t some great spark either.

Going into A Cinderella Story: Christmas Wish you know exactly what to expect and it certainly does hit all those Cinderella plot beats which does make it pretty predictable. There are some unbelievable moments, like how can Dominic not recognise Kat just because she’s got a pink wig and an elf hat on, but overall, it’s a pretty harmless adaptation of the well-known story. Though it is supposed to be a comedy and the jokes and slapstick humour didn’t work for me. However, it’s also a musical so there’s some cutesy pop songs about Christmas and falling in love in it too that aren’t too bad. So swings and roundabouts really. 2/5.

Part of me wonders how all the A Cinderella Story films compare to the original with Hillary Duff. I doubt any of them will be as good as the original, I do have a soft spot for it, but Christmas Wish is the fourth out of five “sequels” so there must be something to them in order for them to keep being made.

READ THE WORLD – Ecuador: On Friday Night by Luz Argentina Chiriboga

Translated by Paulette A. Ramsay and Anne-Maria Bankay.

Susana grows up with her parents living next door to the Manns family – Susana and her parents are Black, the Manns are white. She spent her childhood playing with Jamie and Margarita next door and as she becomes a young woman, she’s unaware of how their father, Marvin, becomes infatuated with her.

I think On Friday Night is one of those books that would’ve worked better for me as an audiobook. That’s mainly down to how this book was written. It was written in both the first and third person and it took me a long time to realise the when it was in first person it was from Susana’s point of view. There’s no chapters or line breaks or anything to help show when the narrative has gone from one character’s point of view to another; it could change from one paragraph to the next. This made it difficult to follow to begin with, especially as there was no blurb on my copy of On Friday Night so I had no idea what the story could be about before starting it.

All I knew before starting On Friday Night was the author Luz Argentina Chiriboga is known for writing about the Afro-Hispanic cultural identity and that certainly came into play in this book. Susana’s family comes from a working-class background but Susana is smart and is able to go to university and get a job working at the bank where Marvin Manns is the manager. The Manns are Hispanic and much more affluent. There’s a blurring of the lines when Susana, Jamie, and Margarita are children as they just like having neighbours to play with but as they grow older there’s more frequent comments about Susana being Black, even from Margarita.

This cultural and class divide is even stronger once Marvin makes his feelings about Susana known. Their whole romance and situation just felt very messy to me. He’s at least thirty years older than her, she’s the same age as his children so any respect for her as a mother figure would be impossible to find, and while he is besotted with her, he also is quick to believe other people’s lies about her. I don’t know if it was down to the story, the writing, my brain or a combination of all three but at times I really didn’t understand what was going on with some characters motivations and choices. At one point Susana and Marvin break up and I was really unsure how they ended up back together as he never seemed to apologise for his accusations.

Besides from the “love story” between Marvin and Susana there’s the history of their parents that’s mentioned – again without any type of indication that we’re going to suddenly go into the past – and Susana’s first love who is a conman. Susana is so naïve in many ways and it can be frustrating to see how she reacts to different situations. I mean, at one point she truly seems to believe she could be a mother to Jamie and Margarita when she’s the same age as Jamie and maybe a year or two younger than Margarita.

The writing style in On Friday Night really didn’t really work for me but once I’d got my head around it, the story was fairly easy to follow – even if the point of view changes still got me every now and then. This all made a 150-page book take me longer to read than it should. If there had been line breaks or anything to make the reading experience easier, I probably would’ve enjoyed the story more. Though the whole relationship dynamic between Susana and Marvin still often made me feel uncomfortable.

READ THE WORLD – Kyrgyzstan: Jamilia by Chingiz Aïtmatov

Translated by James Riordan.

Jamilia’s husband is off fighting at the front. She spends her days hauling sacks of grain from the threshing floor to the train station in their small village in the Caucasus, accompanied by Seit, her young brother-in-law, and Daniyar, a sullen newcomer to the village who has been wounded on the battlefield. Seit observes the beautiful, spirited Jamilia spurn men’s advances, and wince at the dispassionate letters she receives from her husband, while she also draws closer to Daniyar.

Jamilia is a very short book at around 90 pages and it’s just one long chapter. Jamilia is told from Seit’s perspective and he narrates the story in the first person. It’s a simple story in terms of plot, a young woman in a small farming community potentially finds a better and stronger love while her husband is away, and in terms of writing. The writing is so simple that it often reads like Seit is sat with you, telling you the story. That come partly the tenses as sometimes the narrative voice knows more than the present-Seit would.

Considering this book was published in the 1950s, Jamilia herself could almost be described as a manic pixie dreamgirl. Seit is infatuated with her, as are a lot of the other men in the village, and as it’s from Seit’s point of view, you never really get to see much of Jamilia’s personality or her hopes, dreams and desires. You just see her through Seit’s eyes, and his judgement is clouded by his own feelings for her.

Jamilia is one of those books that even though it’s so short it took days to get through. I think that’s because of a few things. One, the story didn’t really grab me, I thought there’d be an illicit romance and more drama when there really wasn’t and it was just a series of events in these farming peoples lives. Two, I thought it’d be from Jamilia’s point of view so you could see her conflict about being drawn to a man who wasn’t her husband and have more of an insight into her seeing she is the titular character. And three, the writing style was so simple it ended up being boring so even when there was something different happening in the plot, I wasn’t really engaged with it.

Looking at Goodreads a lot of people seem to really like this book so maybe I’m in the wrong, or it could be down to the translation. Either way I’m glad to have now crossed off Kyrgyzstan from my Read the World Project.