romance

READ THE WORLD – Bolivia: The Matter of Desire by Edmundo Paz Soldán

Translated by Lisa Carter.

Pedro, a Bolivian-American political scientist teaches at a university in upstate New York. Having become entangled in an erotically charged romance with Ashley, a beautiful red-headed engaged graduate student, he returns to Bolivia to seek answers to his own life by investigating the mysteries of his father’s past.

The Matter of Desire starts with Pedro arriving in Bolivia and in the present he is reconnecting with old friends, living with his Uncle David, and trying to learn more about his father; a political activist who was assassinated when Pedro was a child. The story also jumps back in time every now and then to show how Pedro met Ashley and the progression of their relationship.

Pedro isn’t a particularly likeable character. He is the epitome of the self-absorbed academic character and it gets old and annoying very quickly. Instead of focusing on academic work and research which are more challenging (and is what his university expects him to do), he has made a name of himself by being the go to academic for news sources to quote on any events or issues concerning Latin America, something that doesn’t require as much thought or attention. He even admits to using other academic works as templates for his own, copying their style and then overlooking figures and research that don’t support his claims. He just doesn’t seem like the sort of person who should be teaching, never mind the fact he got in a relationship with a student.

Pedro is also obsessed with finding out more about his father. It’s understandable as he was a child when his dad was killed, and his dad has become an almost legendary hero to the people of Bolivia as he was fighting against a supposed corrupt and totalitarian government. Pedro’s father wrote a book before he was killed, and Pedro is desperate to find hidden meanings in it and believes the book, like his father, is great. While the book also has a kind of cult status, it’s not generally seen as such a great achievement as Pedro thinks it is.

Admittedly I found the politics aspect a bit confusing. I know nothing about Bolivia’s political history and was confused when googling the names mentioned as some of them were real people, while others weren’t. The author may have been using a pseudonym that Bolivian’s or people who are familiar with Bolivia would know who was meant, but someone like me was left confused. Also, I’m pretty sure Pedro’s dad was a fictious figure, as was the city where this was all taking place.

The fact that naturally a lot of the books I read for the Read the World Project are translated doesn’t really register for me a lot of the time. I’m someone who looks for an enjoyable or interesting story first rather than how well a book is written. I would be interested in seeing The Matter of Desire in its original language though, as there’s parts of the book, often dialogue between a native Spanish speaker and someone who’s learnt the language, where there’s the odd word, phrase or sentence in Spanish dropped into the conversation. I think this is a prime example of Spanglish. A lot of the time based on context, you can easily pick out the meaning of the Spanish word or phrase based on the rest of the conversation that’s in English. I’d be interested to see if in the original Spanish version, the phrases that are in Spanish in the translated version, were in English in the original.

The first half of The Matter of Desire was very slow to get into. It’s difficult to become attached to a self-centred character and one who fails to communicate with a lot of people in his life including friends, family, and Ashley who he is supposed to love a lot. The second half of the 214-page book (which sometimes felt a lot longer) was a bit more interesting as Pedro was learning more about his father. Perhaps it’s cruel but I think I enjoyed that part more as the things he was finding out about his dad weren’t all good and it was taking the shine off the idolised version of him that Pedro had. Pedro was so obsessed with the fact that his father was a great man, that seeing him have to deal with the fact that may not have been the entire story was kind of enjoyable.

All in all, I did find The Matter of Desire a struggle to get through. I didn’t really care about Pedro and towards the end as more secrets and lies are uncovered, things seemed to get pretty complicated very quickly and without much of a clear explanation. 2/5.

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.