romance

REVIEW: The Spectacular Now (2013)

Popular and borderline alcoholic Sutter (Miles Teller) has everything until he is dumped by girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson). Then after a night of partying he wakes up on Aimee’s (Shailene Woodley) front lawn, and as they each try to figure out what the future might hold, a unexpected romance blossoms between them.

The central relationship between Sutter and Aimee is a bit of a cliché, the popular bad boy dates the quiet and studious girl who doesn’t realise how beautiful she is, but the chemistry between Teller and Woodley is off the charts so it’s easy to ignore the typical starting point for their relationship. The script is full of natural sounding dialogue, especially the scenes between Sutter and Aimee. Their conversations seem spontaneous as they go from one topic to the other and the way they laugh and talk over each other now and then feels true to life.

The Spectacular Now is a film that starts off as a teen romantic comedy and then evolves into something a lot more serious and hard-hitting. Aimee and Sutter each have their own family issues but while after a little encouragement Aimee is looking to the future and college, Sutter is desperate to not grow up and just wants everything to stay how it is.

The slice-of-life approach of telling this story means that you can get invested in Sutter and Aimee’s lives and, while a lot of the important moments come from the mundane, when there is something shocking, it feels even more unexpected as their lives are so normal and it wasn’t like the film was building to a huge moment. That being said, some serious conflict between Aimee and Sutter seems to be solved off screen or brushed under the carpet by them, or maybe it’s a bit of both, as it feels very rushed and Aimee appears to forgive Sutter far quicker than a lot of people would, even some one who is in love with him. While that may be true to life that people sometimes want to ignore what’s hurt them, it feels like a missed opportunity for Aimee and Sutter to have a proper discussion about what’s going on in their heads.

The use of alcohol in The Spectacular Now is interesting and important. So often alcohol in teen coming of age movies is just used in the party scenes or to set up some comedy, but in The Spectacular Now it shows how for some teenagers it can be an emotional crutch. Sutter drinks all the time. To begin with it doesn’t seem like a big deal or that he doesn’t drink a lot, just topping up a fizzy drink with something from his hip flask now and then, but as the film progresses you see there are very few scenes where Sutter isn’t at least a little buzzed. He drinks with friends, he drinks alone, and he even gives Aimee a personalised hip flask as a gift. Miles Teller’s performance has to be commended as he never turns Sutter into a drunken cliché, his performance is subtle and it’s in those few moments when Sutter is sober that you see how interesting his performance is.

The Spectacular Now is a sensitive and touching coming of age story but really, it’s Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller who make the film work. Their performances really are nuanced and powerful and their chemistry makes the unlikely relationship between their characters work. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – The Bahamas: Woman Take Two: A play in three acts by Telcine Turner

Set in The Bahamas in the early 1970s, Woman Take Two tells the tale of a few people forging alliances for themselves – for love and/or money. There’s Harold Davies, a businessman who will do anything to save face and further his career, including using his teenage daughter Sofia in his nefarious plans. Then there’s Beverly Humes and her fiancé Lionel Joseph who find themselves entangled in Harold Davies’s schemes.

It’s been a while since I’ve read a play and I always find it an interesting experience. Woman Take Two is a very short play with just three acts and 93 pages. The story is relatively short, and the action only takes place over a couple of times, but there’s still some good character beats which would make it an interesting play to see performed. I liked how in the dialogue there were colloquialisms and they also defined what they meant. The colloquialisms added a sense of realism to the characters and made the dialogue flow easily.

Harold is not a nice person and he is cruel to both his employees and his family. He is a strong patriarch that won’t take no for an answer. It’s difficult to tell if he is good at manipulating others, or if it’s just the people he manipulates are naïve and trusting.

A lot of the problems that face characters in Woman Take Two, especially Lionel and Beverly, could’ve been solved if they had actually communicated better. Lionel especially went a roundabout way to explain himself and the situation he was in, wasting time and other people’s trust. Obviously, you need conflict in a play, but this was one that seemed contrived and had the potential to be easily solved.

Woman Take Two is an interesting play about relationships, greed, and mistrust. 3/5.

X is for XXY (2007)

Trigger warnings for sexual assault.

Fifteen-year-old Alex (Inés Efron) is intersex and is living as a girl, but she and her family begin to wonder if she’s emotionally a boy when another teenager’s sexually advances bring things to a head.

XXY is set in a small coastal town in Uruguay and unfortunately, a lot of people there are closed minded about people who are different. Alex and her family have kept the fact she’s intersex a secret but as everything comes to a head, the cruelty of others is revealed and it is uncomfortable to watch.

XXY is a slow, thoughtful film. Many times the camera lingers on Alex, her body or just her face, as she wanders alone. The coastal setting with the beach and the stormy sea fits the tone of the film as Alex often feels alone as no one can know how she feels, even her parents who want to look out for her. Her father (Ricardo Darín) is especially kind and protective and he puts in a lot of time and research into figuring out how best to support Alex as she tries to decide who she wants to be.

Inés Efron gives a brilliant performance as Alex. Showing the hope and fear she feels, as well as her rebellious nature. The chemistry between her and Martín Piroyansky who plays Alvaro, the son of her mother’s friends who comes to stay, is there but it’s interesting. The dynamics between their two characters are constantly shifting as they get to know one another and make a connection that neither of them was expecting.

XXY is a sincere take on the struggles a young person can face when figuring out who they are, and if they’re OK with that. The haunting score and stark setting makes XXY feel bleak but there are moments of happiness and hope their for Alex and her family too. 3/5.

W is for West Side Story (1961)

When two teenagers from rival gangs fall in love, Tony (Richard Beymer) is from the Jets and Maria (Natalie Wood) is from the Sharks, the tension between their respective friends builds towards tragedy.

West Side Story is one of those classic and much-loved films that I just hadn’t seen before even though I do tend to enjoy musicals. Now I’m happy to say I’ve watched it and enjoyed it. I also discovered that I knew a number of the songs in West Side Story, but never realised they had originated from the musical, for instance; “Somewhere” and “I Feel Pretty”.

West Side Story is a bit slow to start, especially as the opening ten minutes is mostly young men clicking their fingers threateningly and having dance battles. However once the characters and the rivalry between the Jets (Polish Americans) and the Sharks (Puerto Ricans) is set up the movie goes by at a steady pace with great songs and dancing. West Side Story also offers commentary on racial divides, how unachievable the American Dream is and, with the song “Gee, Officer Krupke”, how the authorities try to blame crime on everyone and everything but themselves.

The dancing really is incredible. All of the cast are extremely talented and there are so many wide shots so you can see just how well everyone moves. There are fun song and dances like “America” led by Rita Moreno as Anita. Moreno is the perfect blend of attitude and sensitivity as Anita and the way she dances and how the camera follows her is a delight to watch.

The set design and lighting add to the drama too as tensions grow between the Jets, led by Tony’s best friend Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and the Sharks led by Maria’s older brother Bernardo (George Chakiris). There’s so much red used in West Side Story, both to symbolise violence and passion and love and romance. The costumes are beautiful too, from the purple suits the Sharks wear to the dresses Maria and her fellow seamstresses wear.

While Rita Moreno almost steals the whole movie as Anita, Beymer and Wood do make a great lead couple as Tony and Maria. Their romance is sweet and powerful and while tragedy is just around the corner, they’ll do anything to stay together.

West Side Story is fun, bright and has some great songs and dances. I’m pleased I’ve finally watched this classic musical, and with Stephen Spielberg making his own version – I’m interested to see how it compares to the original. 4/5.

V is for Vertigo (1958)

Former police detective John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart) is suffering from acrophobia and vertigo when he’s recruited by an old friend to investigate the strange activities of his wife, Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), but as he follows her movements Scottie becomes dangerously obsessed with her.

My second Alfred Hitchcock film and perhaps one of his most popular films – or at least one that has an easily recognisable name. Again, I knew nothing about the plot of Vertigo going into it, and I think that worked in the films favour. Though to be honest, I’m not sure how I’d describe the plot as it can get very convoluted and hard to follow.

The colours in Vertigo are beautiful. San Francisco looks stunning and there are scenes where the camera really shows off the city. There’s a lot of pastel colours in the clothes and the sets, and then there’s neon lights from hotel signs, they should clash but they don’t. A dream sequence with animation is unexpected but it’s vibrant and unsettling, really making an impact even though it’s pretty short. The “vertigo effect” is impressive and unnerving. It puts you in Scottie’s shoes when he’s at his most vulnerable.

Scottie is an interesting character. Before he starts investigating his old friend’s wife, he seems like an enthusiastic person, fun to be around even while he’s struggling with his newfound condition. He has his friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) to help him, whether that’s just to be someone to talk to or to help him with a case. She’s bubbly and smart and is clearly in love with him, but he either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. And once he becomes caught up in Madeline Elster, all he shows her is indifference which she doesn’t deserve.

As Scottie’s obsession gets more and more out of hand, the tension amps up through the score and Scottie’s behaviour. He changes as he becomes entangled in Madeline. He becomes a strong and frightening force as his passion overtakes logic and it’s uncomfortable to watch.

While the two-hour runtime of Vertigo seemed to drag at times, the ending seemed rushed as everything was wrapped up. It also seemed to have a non-ending, leaving me with more questions and wanting to know what happened to these characters next. As Vertigo is only the second Hitchcock film I’ve watched, I don’t know if this is a Hitchcock thing, or is just pure chance that both Vertigo and Family Plot left me feeling this way.

Vertigo is an eerie film with a couple of brilliant performances from Kim Novak. Her different mannerisms were fantastic, even if she didn’t have perfect chemistry with Stewart – though that might be down to how much older than her he looked. The mystery was complicated, and as the film progressed I found myself caring more about the women in Scottie’s life than the man himself, even if he was possibly driving himself to madness. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Comoros: A Girl Called Eel by Ali Zamir

Translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins.

Teenage girl Eel lives on the Comorian island of Anjouan with her twin sister Rattler and their father All-Knowing. Eel is curious about the world beyond what her overbearing father dictates. When she meets handsome fisherman, Voracious, who offers her the possibility of a life of liberation and love she cannot foresee what it will cost her or the fateful path it will lead her down.

A Girl Called Eel is a 271-page story that’s told in just one sentence. I wasn’t sure what to make of that to begin with, but it worked well, make it an impactful read and one that was easy to follow. There is still a lot of commas in this one sentence, along with line breaks, so it isn’t just pages and pages of block text. Having the story be told by Eel in one, almost desperate, sentence adds to the feel that it is a long string of conscious thought. Especially as ever now and then she interrupts herself, saying how she’s getting ahead of herself or mentioning what’s happening to her in the present as she recounts her past.

Eel basically tells her life story up to that moment, her and her sisters’ birth, how they got such unusual names, how she met and instantly fell in love with Voracious, and how her life unravelled, though if she hadn’t have been so naïve, she could’ve seen the warning signs miles away. Because that’s the thing about Eel, because she’s so inquisitive and studious and quiet, she believes she’s smarter and more capable than she is. She looks down on her fellow students, believing them to be trying too hard just because they open their textbooks, and she thinks her sister is wasting her life, hanging out with friends all the time, but when Rattler does try to focus more on herself and her future, Eel just scoffs and feels no one can change who they are.

Eel is a fascinating character to me. She’s headstrong and determined and curious, loves Voracious with her whole heart but she’s also incredibly self-centred and unfeeling towards a lot of other people. As she tells her life story, she doesn’t shy away from the cruel thoughts she thought in the moment, or the ones she now thinks with hindsight. She thinks she’s smarter and more aware of the world than she is, which then makes her more naïve and childish. All this doesn’t make her a particularly likeable character, but it does make her interesting.

The format of A Girl Called Eel, along with a compelling, if not likeable narrator, makes an almost typical story of a girl getting taken for a fool by an older man more interesting and engaging.

P is for Playing It Cool (2014)

A screenwriter who doesn’t believe in love (Chris Evans) is tasked with writing a rom-com. As he struggles to put metaphorical pen to paper, he meets a woman (Michelle Monaghan) who he starts to have feelings for. It’s a pity she has a boyfriend but taking on the advice (both good and bad) from his eclectic group of writer friends, he tries to sort out his head and win her heart.

The two romantic leads in Playing It Cool are never actually give names so I’ll be referring to them by the actors’ surname to get through this review.

Playing It Cool is a rom com that likes to think it’s an anti-rom com but by the end it embraces a lot of the tropes, but it feels as if it is forced to do it rather than embracing it tongue and cheek. In some ways it reminded me of Isn’t It Romantic which poked fun at the tropes of rom coms, however unlike Isn’t It Romantic, Playing It Cool is often outright mean and treat the tropes and romance in general as something to be scorned. This comes from being told from Evans’ perspective and he’s jaded and shut off from romantic relationships. His actions come across quite bitter and having a lead that’s so self-centred doesn’t really make you root for him.

His best friend Scott (Topher Grace) loves romance. He’s an old fashioned romantic, a much nicer person and someone who is much more engaging on their quest for love. In fact, the glimpses we get of Evans’ writer friends make them seem all the more real and relatable than the main character.

Evans and Monaghan do have chemistry and it’s easy to be caught up in that when they’re on screen together. However, both of their characters are not good people and are frustrating to watch. He chases her when he knows she has a boyfriend; she is happy to cheat on her boyfriend and they both lie. It’s not really the basis of a healthy relationship.

By the end there’s the big rush to declare your feelings sequence, with a feel-good song and an attempt at a big romantic gesture but it feels conceited. There’s a 99% chance these two people will not live happily ever after, so the ending doesn’t feel like the triumph for love it’s framed as. While only being six years old, Playing It Cool is a rom com that feels far older with its attitude that men and women can’t just be friends, and some jokes that really fall flat due to their inappropriateness. 1/5.

I is for Imagine Me & You (2005)

When Rachel (Piper Perabo) catches florist Luce’s (Lena Headey) eye at her wedding to Heck (Matthew Goode) she instantly feels things she’s never felt before, questioning her sexuality and prompting a stir among Rachel’s family and friends.

Imagine Me & You is a very funny and entertaining rom com. It follows a lot of the usual tropes of the genre, but the fact it’s about two women falling in love make it feel fresher and more exciting.

Nobody is really made the villain in Imagine Me & You because love is complicated. Rachel loves Heck, and though what she’s suddenly feeling for Luce is unlike anything she’s felt before, it doesn’t make the love she felt for Heck meaningless. Imagine Me & You really handles the discussions of love, whether it’s something that builds or it can be instantaneous, very well and doesn’t make one relationship lesser to build up another.

The chemistry between Perabo and Headey is palpable and Perabo is especially brilliant showing Rachel’s confusion and heartache as she tries to figure out what she’s feeling for Luce while feeling guilty for feeling anything at all.

The extended cast are wonderful too. Celia Imrie and Anthony Head who Rachel’s parents and Sue Johnston who plays Luce’s mum, really highlighting the wonderful British cast this film has. They all have very funny lines and their relationships with their on-screen daughters is brilliant and feels real.

Imagine Me & You is a funny and sweet romantic comedy and it has one of the best declarations of love I’ve seen in a romcom – or any genre of film to be honest. 5/5.

REVIEW: Ophelia (2018)

Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) comes of age as lady-in-waiting for Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts), and her singular spirit captures Hamlet’s (George MacKay) affections. As lust and betrayal threaten the kingdom, Ophelia finds herself trapped between true love and controlling her own destiny.

Ophelia, as you might’ve guessed, is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet but putting Ophelia front and centre. As someone who only knew the bare minimum of what happened in Hamlet, you don’t need to know the story before watching Ophelia, though I’m sure if you did know it you might notice more of the things they put a spin on.

The performances in Ophelia are not that great, and in some cases are just bad. The likes of Watts and Clive Owen (who plays Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius) are fine but never really go full throttle on inhabiting characters have the potential to be interesting and entertaining. MacKay and Ridley have very little chemistry, and unfortunately Ridley’s performance leaves a lot to be desired. For instance, there’s some scenes that are supposed to be big, emotional moments based on other characters reactions and the score, but from Ridley’s performance you wouldn’t really think Ophelia is that affected by what is going on.

The period costumes and setting all look lovely. The costumes and makeup during a costume ball sequence are especially interesting, with Ridley having blue face paint around her eyes, contrasting with her red hair. Also, in another party scene, George MacKay has a lot of eyeliner on which is certainly a look.

The 1 hour 40-minute runtime does end up dragging a bit. The plot meanders along slowly and while every effort is made to put Ophelia front and centre of the action and in charge of her own destiny, in reality she’s still a victim of circumstance and the men in her life – Hamlet, Claudius, her father – still often have more power over her life than she does.

The finale is somewhat satisfying as all the tensions between characters reaches boiling point and the threat of conflict with a neighbouring country comes to fruition. However, it feels almost too little too late and it doesn’t have the emotional heft that you’d want in an epic finale.

Ophelia is a bit of a dull spin on a classic story. While the idea of having this story told by a female character who is unfairly treated in the source material, the end product isn’t as interesting as that scenario. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Taiwan: Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

Translated by Bonnie Huie and narrated by Jo Mei.

Afflicted by her fatalistic attraction to Shui Ling, an older woman who is alternately hot and cold toward her, Lazi turns for support to a circle of friends that includes the devil-may-care, rich-kid-turned-criminal Meng Sheng and his troubled, self-destructive gay lover Chu Kuang, as well as the bored, mischievous overachiever Tun Tun and her alluring slacker artist girlfriend Zhi Rou.

Set in the late 1980s, Lazi is at university in Taipei but the focus of Notes of a Crocodile are her romantic endeavours and how she tries to open herself up to love. Lazi is quite reserved when it comes to love, and it’s like she gets to a certain point in a relationship and then becomes shut off and terrified about whether she has the capacity to continue to love someone.

Lazi is an interesting character because it’s like she’s searching for love and security but is also fiercely independent. It’s how those two sides of her conflict feels very relatable. She also ponders gender and sexuality, the feminine and the masculine, and where she fits within those binaries and if she even wants to fit in them.

A lot of the conversations she has with her friends are about love and how people feel about themselves and others. Notes of a Crocodile probably has the most communicative characters I’ve seen in a book in a while. There’s still instances where Lazi or her friends don’t find the right words to say at the right time, or she talks to a friend rather than to the person who is breaking her heart, but at least they’re talking and trying to figure out their feelings.

Interspersed in the main narrative, there’s the story of the crocodile – a semi-human creature that the general human population of Taiwan are simultaneously intrigued by and scared of. The crocodile is a metaphor for queer people in Taiwan and how they were treated, and how they can feel isolated and unlovable. It took a while for me to understand these crocodile-segments and how they fit with the story and how they related to what Lazi was going through.

I listened to Notes of a Crocodile on audio and I think the narrator did a good job even though the story was a bit disjointed. A lot of the chapters end abruptly, and sometimes the narrative jumps back and forth in time so sometimes Lazi is with Shui Ling, other times she’s over her, and then sometimes she’s still coming to terms with their relationship ending. Then there’s her friend’s various relationships that you see at different points too. It’s a bit confusing but the main theme throughout is finding somewhere to belong and a lot of heartbreak.

Notes of a Crocodile was an interesting read about a time, place and culture that I knew little about. Lazi is an interesting, flawed and sometimes infuriating character but that makes her feel more real. 3/5.