Book Reviews, Reviews

The Sun and her Flowers Review

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Rupi Kaur’s first book of poetry, Milk and Honey, was one of those books that took the Internet Book community by storm when it came out. It was a regular feature in Bookstagram posts, mainly for the gorgeous illustrations (also done by Kaur) that accompany the poems. So I was surprised that there hasn’t been more hype around the release of Kaur’s second book which is equally as vibrant and beautiful as the first.

Kaur’s poems are the kind I like best, with a lot of emotional heart and personal connection. She draws inspiration from throughout her life, splitting the poems into themes: “wilting” (moving on from a failed relationship), “falling” (depression), “rooting” (her mother’s experiences as an immigrant and in her marriage), “rising” (a new relationship and falling in love) and “blooming” (feminism and femininity). Sectioning her work like this does mean that reading chronologically can get slightly repetitive, but that just means that The Sun and her Flowers works best as a book to dip into.

Her poems range from a couple of pages to just one line, but she mostly works in short stanzas that focus on one emotion or thought at a time and it creates some beautiful ideas that float on the page but don’t linger too long. They’re accompanied by line drawings that are incredibly simple but somehow lyrical and sit alongside the poems to emphasise the themes and emotions.

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It’s very difficult to write about or review poetry without either becoming too technical – clinical, even – or focusing too much on the emotions you felt while reading. I can only say therefore that anyone, but especially women, should absolutely go and find a copy of either this or Milk and Honey and just lose yourself in it.

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Book Reviews, Reviews

Our Numbered Days Review

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I was introduced to Neil Hilborn by a friend during my I Hate Poetry phase that I had in high school, and I credit him with providing the turning point when I realised just how stupid and stubborn I was being.

Hilborn writes mostly from his own experiences with a heavy focus on mental illness. He’s found a cult following amongst those with their own struggles and as one of their number I can absolutely see why. Hilborn is refreshingly honest throughout his poetry. It’s definitely not all sunshine and puppies because mental illness isn’t like that and it’s wonderful to hear someone expressing that instead of trying to paint over the painful moments. Our Numbered Days embodies one of my favourite quotes from Alan Bennett’s The History Boys:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met […] And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

But he doesn’t fall into the very common trap – which I know I have – of writing about depression as though everything and everyone is terrible with the paradoxical sense of superiority that can only come from feeling worthless (for examples of this see The Catcher in the Rye, or literally anything ever written by a teenager). Hilborn comes across as a man who knows that the world is good even if he can’t feel it. His work is punctuated with moments of true hope and emotion, and many of his poems had me bawling. I would be interested to hear what someone without experience of mental illness makes of his work seeing as how deeply rooted a lot of his poems are.

Hilborn’s style manages to be sophisticated without seeming pretentious or overworked. Reading his work feels like talking to a friend, albeit one who has a wonderful way with metaphors (and boy does he have some beautiful ones. Plus there’ll always be a place in my heart for the “slutty chicken” simile.) His roots in slam poetry are evident in his writing, but this works to create a personal connection with the reader rather than being distracting. That said, if you have the chance to see him read his work I would absolutely recommend you leap at it. I had the pleasure of hearing him at the Bullingdon in Oxford at the end of August and he is a brilliant performer as well as one of the funniest people I’ve met.

To finish, here are two of Hilborn’s poems. The first is OCD, his most popular poem and the one that went viral to gain him his following. It’s based on his own experiences with the illness and is a captivating performance from him (and it’s just as spellbinding in real life):

The second is The Future, which isn’t in Our Numbered Days but is my absolute favourite of his. It’s another personal look at his struggles with Bipolar Disorder, and the final note of hope never fails to make me cry.

Book Reviews, Reviews

The Psychopath Test Review

 

 

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Believe it or not, I’m actually reviewing a book on this book blog! Shocking, I know.

When I tell people I’m interested in true crime, I usually have to follow that up with the caveat that I’m not a serial-killer-in-training or one of those naïve weirdos who think they can change mass murderers through the Power of Love. My main fascination with the subject lies in the psychology behind it: what circumstances would drive someone to do something so abhorrent, how the police use profiling to catch a criminal, and how the justice system deals with people who have done awful things but might not be entirely accountable for their actions.

The Psychopath Test focuses, as the title suggests, on psychopaths i.e: people who feel little to no emotion or empathy. It’s a mental illness that has caused a lot of divide in the psychiatric community, and that’s just amongst those who believe it is a mental illness. Ronson approaches the subject very openly, talking to a wide range of sources from Robert Hare, the man who developed the list of criteria currently used to diagnose psychopaths, to CEOs he believes may have utilised their psychopathic tendencies to climb the corporate ladder, to Scientologists who believe that psychology and those who practice it are evil and corrupt. Possibly the most interesting is ‘Tony’, a man who claimed to have faked insanity to get out of prison for a GBH charge and ended up in Broadmoor diagnosed as a psychopath and desperately trying to prove his sanity. Tony’s story is an intriguing look into the nuances of the psychology, how difficult it is to really quantify mental illness with a series of boxes to check, and how terrifyingly easy it would be to get it wrong and ruin someone’s life. (As it turns out, Tony’s diagnosis may not have been so entirely wrong. Ronson revealed in an AMA on Reddit that Tony has been incarcerated at least three more times since he met him.)

It’s common for people writing about mental illness who don’t have experience of it to become hysterical and fall into the trap of fear-mongering, but Ronson thankfully has a much more sympathetic approach. He himself struggles with anxiety, so he’s aware of how mental illness can affect the way you think and act and doesn’t place blame with the sufferers. There are a few places where he clearly begins to think of psychopaths as ‘other’, especially when he’s in the presence of Emmanuel ‘Toto’ Constant (founder of the Hatian death squad FRAPH), but interestingly he catches himself doing this and turns it into a very interesting discussion point. It’s a much more sympathetic approach than many journalists would take to the mentally ill and criminals, and I find this open mind set much more enjoyable to explore the subject through.

I have a lot of love for Ronson’s style as he explores all of these issues. It’s light and friendly, and it doesn’t feel like he is trying to push an agenda; instead it feels more like he’s leading you on a treasure hunt for information, taking you on the same journey of discovery he went on because he found it fascinating and hopes you will too. There’s no opening statement telling you how you should be approaching the book, just the story of how Ronson himself was introduced to it and how that story progressed. It’s my favourite style of non-fiction and Ronson’s witty voice makes it a highly entertaining read.

There is a distinct lack of satisfying conclusion which I can see as being irritating for some people, like this reviewer for the Guardian comments, but for me the lack of certainty is part of the fascinating quality of the subject. It seems a little unfair to ask Ronson, a journalist, to answer questions that generations of trained professionals have failed to agree on. However, I can understand that this sort of open-ended investigation may not be for anyone, so if you want any kind of conclusive answers then this may be one to avoid.

This is the first I’ve read of Ronson’s work and I am absolutely going to be seeking out more. The Psychopath Test manages to balance information with effortlessly readable style and leaves you with a lot to think about, which for me is the mark of an excellent piece of journalism. There aren’t always easy answers, but investigation for the thrill of the chase will almost always provide an entertaining read.

Film Reviews, Reviews

Sucker Punch Review: I Hate Zach Snyder

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Beware of spoilers if you haven’t seen this yet. Also beware of anger. Lots of anger.

Sucker Punch came out in 2011 and I saw it a couple of years after. I’ve been thinking about it recently and I’ve only just been able to put into words quite what I think about it.

The plot is slightly convoluted but definitely interesting: Baby doll is committed to an asylum by her evil stepfather who pays off a corrupt official to have her lobotomized. In her head Babydoll creates a fantasy world where she envisions the asylum as a strip club/brothel where she teams up with four other girls to escape before she has to meet the High Roller, a wealthy man who has ‘bought’ her. Every girl has to dance, and it turns out that Babydoll’s dancing is hypnotising to men. The girls use this as a distraction while they steal the items they need to escape. We never see Babydoll dance; instead we see a post-apocalyptic fantasy/sci-fi world where the girls fight through armies of robots and literal dragons to get the fantasy representation of the items they need to escape the brothel. The film switches frequently between layers of the story, and each version of events parallels the other two.

There’s a lot about the film that I really like. The action sequences are great, and I like the multi-levelled plot even if it is a little up itself. The general idea of girls working together and empowerment is great. If this film had played itself straight then I could even have accepted the skimpy outfits (I would have rolled my eyes a lot, but it’s hardly anything new and the film’s based on video games, so what do you want?) and I would have probably enjoyed it. The problem is that the director, Zach Snyder, claims that this is the ultimate feminist film.

When faced with accusations of sexism in the way he dressed his female characters Snyder threw back this:

Someone asked me, “Why did you dress the girls like that, in those provocative costumes?” And I said, “Well, think about it for a second. I didn’t dress those girls in the costume. The audience dressed those girls.” And when I say the audience, I mean the audience that comes to the movies. Just like the men who visit a brothel, [they] dress the girls when they go to see these shows as however they want to see them.

I’m not entirely sure what he’s trying to say here, but it seems to be his slightly pretentious way of saying that the characters are only dressed like they are because that’s what the audience wants to see, and it’s the audience projecting the sexuality they want to see on to the girls. I remember reading an interview (although I can’t find it now) where Snyder claimed that the people who thought the film was overtly sexual were of the same ilk as the men who frequent the brothels in the film. Basically, if you interpret the women as sexual, you’re projecting your own debauched sexual perceptions onto them and don’t you feel stupid and dirty now you disgusting pervert.

This argument is bullshit. No Snyder, the audience didn’t “dress the girls”, you did (or at least the wardrobe department under your direction). The film purposely uses traditionally sexualised imagery – girls in short skirts and tight crop tops, pigtails, the name ‘Babydoll’ – in a sexual context – a brothel/strip club – with camera angles designed specifically for the male gaze – hello panty flashes and between-leg shots – and then tries to turn around and tell the audience off for interpreting these things as sexual. Don’t get me wrong, I get what Snyder thinks he’s trying to say: that these things shouldn’t be inherently ‘immoral’ and that not everything that women do or wear should be sexualised. I’m totally all for this message! It’s just that there’s a huge difference between subverting a trope to a get a point across and just doing the thing and claiming that it’s a critique. Someone filmed all those upskirt shots, Snyder, and it wasn’t me.

It’s not the point he’s trying to make that I don’t like; I’m all for women in both film and real life wearing whatever they want as they kick robot butt. What really rubs me up the wrong way is Snyder’s attitude. When people said that they thought the film was sexualised, he threw his head back dramatically and cried that ‘People just don’t understand my art!’, and even went as far as to suggest that the people who didn’t like the film were perverted idiots. It didn’t seem to occur to him that if people weren’t ‘getting it’ then he probably communicated his message badly – really badly.

However, the outfits aren’t even the thing that made me really angry. There’s so much more.

Not on the ‘unnecessary sexualisation’ track but definitely on the topic of ‘Zach Snyder doesn’t know how to tell a story’, it also pulls a ‘twist’ ending where the film tries to claim that the protagonist is actually Sweet Pea because she survives to carry on the story, suggesting that Snyder doesn’t understand basic narrative concepts; the protagonist is the main character, the one that drives the story i.e. Babydoll. Sweet Pea survives, sure, but only because of Babydoll’s actions and sacrifice that form the entirety of the plot. Sweet Pea has barely any screen time and does very little other than argue with Babydoll. Survival does not a protagonist make. This is a very mild complaint compared to the others, but it still irritated me a lot.

On a more severe note: obviously the women are constantly under threat of sexual violence with several attempted rapes for multiple characters (but they’re definitely not sexual beings guys), which is an unfortunately common thing in fictional media. It’s a disgusting and unnecessary shorthand for disempowering a female character that shows up in stories that really don’t need it, and this film is particularly guilty of fetishising it; a lot of the dramatic tension comes from the fact that the girls are under constant threat of assault, and you almost anticipate the moment when it will happen. A large part of the plot is the build up to the unwanted encounter between Babydoll and the High Roller who she has been ‘sold’ to, and this is literally what Babydoll is fighting to avoid.

This leads me on to the thing that angered me the most: the High Roller. In the theatrical cut he’s curiously omitted, and the film ends up making very little sense. What happens to Fantasy!Babydoll after Real!Babydoll’s lobotomy? How does her meeting with the High Roller turn out? What’s up with that doctor? Despite the fact that the film is practically incoherent without it, however, I think I’d really rather watch that version than the extended cut which includes a proper meeting scene between Babydoll and the High Roller. The reason? It’s disgusting.

Babydoll is captured, accepts her fate and goes to meet the High Roller who has ‘bought’ her. She expects a rape; however, he’s gentle with her and talks to her like a human being. He has no intention of raping her, but instead he’ll wait until she comes to him willingly. The scene is painted both by the film itself and the actors and directors as a love scene and as Babydoll finally owning her sexuality. Babydoll has found a man who doesn’t seem to want to hurt her. Awww, how sweet.

But we seem to be forgetting the tiny fact that this man has literally bought her virginity. He basically says to her “You’re going to sleep with me, but you’re going to enjoy it. Also, I totally own you.” Does Snyder just completely not understand what rape is? Just because it’s not violent doesn’t mean it’s consensual! He may not be going to take her by force, but other than when it happens Babydoll has absolutely no choice in the matter: she will sleep with him. How is it possible for Babydoll to consent to a man who literally bought her? WHY DID YOU DO THIS SNYDER?

So please, if you’re going to watch this film, do so with a critical eye. Enjoy the baddass action scenes. Enjoy the multi-layered plot and the connections between the worlds. Enjoy Oscar Isaac’s face with his stupid moustache. Hell, even enjoy the skimpy costumes; that’s what they’re there for after all. Just please, never call this film feminist.

And Zach? If we ever meet in real life, we’re going to have words.

Book Reviews, Reviews

The Asylum For Wayward Victorian Girls Review

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Chances are you’ve never heard of Emilie Autumn unless you move in very particular musical circles; I very much stumbled across her when someone referenced her in a blog. Her style is self-described as ‘victoriandustrial’ with a bit of musical theatre thrown in, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but something I actually quite like (if you want to check her out I’d start with Opheliac, which is generally considered to be her best album). She’s bipolar and an outspoken feminist, both of which feed into pretty much everything she does. She’s occasionally a bit controversial in her comments and her aesthetic has garnered accusations of romanticising mental illness, but overall I like her and her music has actually helped me through some tough times.

In 2009 Autumn self-published The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls to accompany the tour she was on and is based on the time she spent in a mental institution. Part autobiography, part historical novel, part fantasy, AFWVG is an odd mish-mash of styles mixed in with handwritten notes, recipes and photographs including shots of Autumn herself and as a whole looks stunning.

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I would definitely describe this as a Marmite book: either it works for you or it doesn’t.

The fictional half of the book is told in letters ‘received’ by Autumn during her time in the mental institution. Emily-with-a-Y, a Victorian violin prodigy who is condemned to life in The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls, a place where vulnerable girls are mistreated and abused, and ultimately part of sinister dealings by the corrupt Asylum doctors. It’s fairly standard fare, but for the most part it’s executed reasonably well. Emily-with-a-Y is likeable and very human, although she does fall prey to the ‘Chosen One’ trope a little as the Asylum doctors find her a little too interesting for no apparent reason. There are also a few issues with overly-loquacious style and structure – there are places where the action begins to pick up pace only to be followed by a whole chapter describing the food at the Asylum – but I found it relatively enjoyable and, with a good editor (which will be happening now that Autumn has signed with a publishing house) it definitely has potential.

You do need to let historical accuracy go a little which people have complained about, but I don’t think that that was what Autumn was going for. Although her description can be a little clunky at times she does create a vivid, gritty world that holds genuine fear for the female characters and, although the villains are exaggerated, she draws parallels between their attitudes towards women and sentiments that are still held by some today that manage to cut close to the bone.

But it’s the autobiographical parts of the book that are by far the more interesting. Autumn bares her soul in these sections, drawing on things that she wrote around the time she was committed to create not just an account of her time in the mental institution, but a holistic look at what it means to be ‘crazy’. She’s definitely not always likeable in these parts, but she’s brutally honest about it and it’s both harrowing and beautiful. These parts aren’t for the faint hearted – the three diaries she includes sections of are very difficult to read – but I would honestly say it’s worth it. If you’ve ever been through anything similar then Emilie’s thoughts and experiences will probably speak very personally to you.

Unfortunately, I get the feeling that Autumn became more interested in the fictional world that she created than telling her own story because the autobiographical chapters become less and less frequent and don’t receive any proper conclusion. Instead she meshes the two worlds she’s written about together, which is fair enough, but I would have liked some closure or reflective thoughts on her time in the institution. I would definitely call this my main complaint because I enjoyed (although maybe that’s not the right word) the autobiographical parts much more than the fiction, although I realise that how much Autumn tells us is entirely up to her as it is very personal.

I’m not sure I could say that I recommend this book. It’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea and I know that a lot of people didn’t like it, either because of the faults in the composition of the fiction or because the autobiography didn’t connect with them, and I can definitely understand why. I have to say that I’m glad I read it though because it spoke to me personally. I think it’s the kind of book each individual would have a different experience with, so if it sounds like your kind of thing then check it out. Just make sure you have a strong stomach.

Film Reviews, Reviews

La La Land Review

Beware of spoilers!

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I went to see the current darling of Hollywood with my housemates last night. If you haven’t come across La La Land then I don’t know what to say to you, other than to ask you what it’s like under your rock. It’s been everywhere, and has blasted onto the awards scene with 200 nominations including for 14 Oscars – tied for the highest number ever with Titanic and All About Eve – and has rave reviews from both critics and viewers in one of the few cases where the two seem to agree. I went into the cinema quietly hopeful; true, there was no way that it could possibly live up to the hype, but it had several things going for it as far as I was concerned. I love musicals, I’d heard the cinematography was amazing (a passion of mine), and it starred Emma Stone, who holds a special place in my heart ever since Easy A. Should be great, no?

Well, no.

I realise that I’m in the minority in saying this, and I’m in no way trying to tell people what they should and shouldn’t like. If you loved it, great. You clearly saw something I didn’t, and feel free to keep on loving it. I really wish I could join you; I so wanted to love this film and it had so much potential, but there were just several major stumbling blocks that prevent me from joining the parade all the way to the Oscars.

I feel like if La La Land had committed to its concept then it could have been good, but in reality it was just messy. Stylistic choices were made just for aesthetic purposes and cluttered and confused things. The mood switched between quirky and ‘deep’ so quickly it gave me whiplash. It didn’t even feel like it had committed to being a musical: after opening with a huge musical number the film gets bored and wanders into romantic-drama territory before remembering that it’s supposed to be a musical and shoehorning a song in at the end. Admittedly those songs are quite good, although there are only a couple I’d want to hear again, but I feel like if a film’s going to be a musical then it has to be a musical. La La Land seems to want to be a musical because that’s quirky and different, and because musicals are Oscar Bait.

In fact, La La Land seems to do a lot of stuff for quirkiness’ sake. The opening number is a good example of this; it comes across as more a series of stylised ideas than a cohesive sequence, and this just gives the impression that it’s just showing off. Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with showing off in film – Tarantino’s movies are nothing if not hugely self-involved and I still love those – but I get the impression that Damien Chazelle confused being ‘different’ with being ‘clever’. The cinematography is ‘clever’, the dialogue is ‘clever’, the message is ‘clever’. It’s like that one hipster friend who dresses well and takes nice photos but is generally insufferable and won’t stop criticising your music taste.

General consistency issues and self-important quirkiness aside, La La Land has potential. There are some nice moments in there, even if they’re sparse and disconnected, and it does manage to evoke the atmosphere of some classic musical films, so props to it for that. But there is one error, one major failing that ruins the whole film (for me at least), that La La Land is guilty of: the characters are fundamentally unlikable.

This really is the sticking point for me when people talk about how much they love the film. I came out of the cinema completely unable to comprehend how people liked, let alone identified with, these people. Mia, played by Emma Stone, has no discernible personality beyond A) wanting to be an actress and B) being Emma Stone, which is normally something I love, but unfortunately silly faces and dancing is not enough to make up for a character who is less than two dimensional. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is the embodiment of everything I hate: rude, obnoxious and incredibly pretentious (it’s possible for people to just not like jazz, okay?!), and I can totally understand the ‘white saviour’ criticisms levelled at him for his belief that he can single-handedly save jazz. Their problems are very much middle-class white people problems, and while I’m not saying it’s impossible to feel sorry for struggling actresses and musicians it’s more difficult when they’re living in really nice apartments, going to huge parties and just moaning all the damn time.

The characters are just a series of all of the worst tropes from romantic comedies. They bitch at each other in place of flirting, then have a musical number together and are suddenly madly in love. Instead of actually showing them being a good couple, they have a montage of them doing clichéd romantic things. Worst of all, they’re absolute arseholes to everyone around them because it’s ‘quirky’. Sebastian gets Mia’s attention by blasting his car horn until she comes out of the house (people in the cinema were actually laughing at this, while I was considering what heavy object I would use to bash his head in). Mia’s even worse: she runs out on a dinner with her boyfriend and family because she realises that she’d rather be on a date with another man – a date she made while still dating her boyfriend, no less – abandoning her boyfriend with no explanation and definitely no proper apology.

The more I think about this film the more I dislike it, which is actually quite an achievement. I sat in the cinema waiting, desperately hoping, for it to get better, but it just…didn’t. If you haven’t seen it and you think you might then definitely go, but make up your own mind about the film. Sometimes I do have to wonder if critics have seen something in a film that I haven’t, or, as seems more likely in this case, watched an entirely different film altogether.

Book Reviews, Reviews

The Disaster Artist Review

Apologies for the long hiatus from any content at all, let alone book related content! 

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First of all, let me start by saying that if you haven’t seen Tommy Wiseau’s cult masterpiece The Room then you haven’t lived. It is one of the most beautiful messes ever to exist and everyone should see it at least once before they die.

Some context: long ago, in distant 2001, Thomas Wiseau decided to make a film. For those who haven’t seen it, The Room is an attempt at a serious romantic drama written, directed and starred in by Wiseau, who unfortunately has very little talent at any of those three things. The film is only still around because it reached cult status for its sheer awfulness. People attend screenings of The Room like they do Rocky Horror Picture Show, heckling the screen, throwing spoons and joining in with every iconic line (“You’re tearing me apart Lisa!”). It transcends all possible description with mere words, so I can only advise that you seek it out and watch it as soon as possible. You can thank me later. If you can’t watch it right now, all you really need to know can be summed up by this quote from Professor Ross Morin:

It is one of the most important films of the past decade…the Citizen Kane of bad movies.

What The Disaster Artist reveals is that the making of the film was just as painfully entertaining as the film itself. Written by Greg Sestero, Wiseau’s (possibly only) friend who was dragged into starring in the film, this book gives an enthralling insight into every aspect of the film and the genius(?) behind it.

Wiseau is a fascinating and often quite sinister character, both as a man and a filmmaker, and Sestero is perfectly situated to give us a reasonably in-depth look into both. The book alternates between ‘past’ (how Sestero met Wiseau, their friendship and how The Room was conceived) and ‘present’ (describing the making of the film), ending with the glorious premiere. It’s hard to say which chapters I enjoyed more; the filming chapters were great fun and full of hilarious anecdotes about Wiseau’s odd directing choices and his inability to read the lines he wrote himself, and if you’ve seen the film then you’ll find lots of explanation for some of the more…unusual…aspects of the film, such as why there are pictures of spoons everywhere or why there’s a scene where the characters play football in tuxedos for no discernable reason.

But Sestero goes beyond just writing a funny book about a terrible film in the ‘past’ chapters and actually gives some thoughtful insight into Wiseau’s past and how it affects his behaviour and motivations. In some ways this is even more interesting than the amusing anecdotes from the film set, and goes a long way to explain how The Room ended up the way it did. Somehow the film is all the more interesting when you have a glimpse into the psyche of the man who made it. Of course, there’s no way to confirm Sestero’s stories about Wiseau’s past – Wiseau is notorious for lying and avoiding questions about his history – but he makes some educated guesses that turn his friend into more than just a strange comedic caricature.

This is definitely a book I’d recommend to anyone who’s seen The Room, or even anyone with an interest in film-making because it gives such a unique and in-depth perspective of the process. It’s a light and engaging read that offers a little more than most books of its kind. I’ll be interested to see how the film adaptation that’s coming out later this year treats it (yes, they’re making a film about a book about making a film). It’s bound to be entertaining with a great cast, but I’ll like it all the more if it keeps some of the heart that makes this book so readable.

Book Reviews, Reviews

The Firebird Chronicles: Rise Of The Shadow Stealers Review

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Apologies for the long unplanned hiatus. It turns out that moving cities and starting a new job takes up a lot of your time! Hopefully I’ll be able to start posting with more regularity. To kick us off again, a book I was sent for review by its author, Daniel Ingram-Brown, who may be the world’s most patient man and who you should definitely check out here or on his Twitter.

Rise of the Shadow Stealers is one of those books that you would never normally find but somehow stumble across – or in my case, get sent a copy after a Twitter connection – and reading it makes your week. The premise is charming, fanciful and wonderfully meta: set on an island where fictional characters are trained to fit their roles in their respective novels, Fletcher and Scoop team up for a quest to restore their lost memories of their lives before they were at Blotting’s Academy and to attend the wedding of the mysterious Storyteller.

I have to say I found Rise of the Shadow Stealers rather surprising, and not in a bad way. I came to it assuming from the cover and blurb that it would be children’s fiction (not that that’s a bad thing in the slightest. Critics sniffily dismissing something as children’s fiction irritates me no end). It’s actually quite sophisticated for that genre though, interweaving a delightfully whimsical fantasy plot with more mature themes, like maintaining morality in difficult times and finding your purpose, and drawing heavily on religious symbolism and metaphor throughout. This can get a little heavy-handed in places, particularly the religious parallels, but for the most part it’s skilfully interwoven with the fantasy narrative that means you can read it on whatever level you’d like: whimsical fantasy, Christian literature, good old fashioned morality tale and so on. A lot of reviews made comparison to the Narnia series and I can definitely see their point. Rise of the Shadow Stealers stands on its merits as a charming fantasy novel, but it really comes into its own when you delve deeper and think about the messages behind it all.

While the plot is technically about Fletcher and Scoop’s quest to reach the Storyteller’s wedding, it’s as much about their growth as characters as it is about getting from to B. This is a world inhabited by purposeful stereotypes (the infinitely wise but slightly batty old mentor, the outrageously evil witch, and even one character who proudly identifies herself as a Snob), who can at times feel a little 2-D by themselves, but this does help to emphasise the fact that the two protagonists develop naturally and realistically enough that I was really very fond of them by the end. Their flaws are what make them important as characters, and so they’re nicely fleshed out and allowed to make mistakes. Fletcher in particular undergoes some notable development, and his transformation is well handled and enjoyable to witness, because the characters, like the rest of the book, are charming and you find yourself really rooting for them as they undergo their quest.

The real triumph of the novel, however, is the world building. You can really tell that Ingram-Brown had great fun creating Fullstop Island (which is just the most adorable name ever) from the ground up to create a setting that lives beyond what we see in the story. It’s my favourite kind of world building too, where tiny details and minor characters are fleshed out beyond just filling their role to advance the plot, even if they just appear in once scene. Particular favourites of mine were the batty and slightly weird ladies who run the tea shop and one very special character who appears at the end, who you will have to read the book to find out about. If nothing else convinces you to give Rise of the Shadow Stealers a go, the joy of it’s construction should be all the persuasion you need.

You’ve probably noticed the common theme in this review: ‘charming’. You can’t help but enjoy yourself while reading this book, and I would recommend it to anyone out there who needed a little cheer to brighten their week. I’m definitely looking forwards to the sequel and what Daniel Ingram-Brown has up his sleeve for his characters next.

Film Reviews, Reviews

A Heathers Review? How Very.

heathersHeathers wasn’t particularly well received when it was first released in 1988, but has recently reached the iconic status of a ‘cult classic’. It also has a kick-ass musical with some of the best music ever that’s going to be on Broadway very soon (and you have no idea how excited I am about that). I can totally see why. Winona Ryder and Christian Slater on a quest of murderous revenge against the popular kids and what they represent in society complete with fast witty dialogue and croquet – what’s not to love?

The answer is not much. The writing is quick and clever with many iconic lines that have found their way into my own idiolect (“What’s your damage?” and “How very” being amongst those) and the main characters are engaging, if not necessarily likable. Veronica is a particular triumph of characterisation, with just the right amount of black humour (“If you were happy every day of your life you wouldn’t be a human being. You’d be a game-show host.”) and unimpressed bewilderment to make the audience root for her despite the fact that she, y’know, kills people. Throw in a dash of 80s fashion (mmm those shoulder pads) and you’ve got yourself a classic.

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Check out those shoulder pads.

 

In fact, as is the case with many of my favourite films, it’s the characters that make this film. Christian Slater does a delightfully creepy turn as Jason Dean (apparently modelled on Jack Nicolson), somehow mixing ‘sociopathic killer’ with ‘kicked puppy’ in such a way that – while you’re never in any doubt he’s anything less than crazy – you can’t help but want to give him a hug, and Lisanne Faulk’s Heather McNamara is nothing short of adorable. For a rollercoaster plot involving death by drain cleaner, a red power scrunchie and multiple people all named Heather it’s the more genuine and low-key interactions between the characters that really bring the film to life, and the ending with Martha Dunnstock honestly melted my heart.

It’s not a film to watch if you’re easily offended, with some of the dialogue straying very close to the risqué (“Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?”), but then 80s teen films have had a wonderful irreverence that their modern counterparts have never quite managed to capture. There’s just something about them that has a casual confidence; they’re not out to please anyone, they just want to tell a good story. Most modern films try too hard to get us to like them, throwing in explosions and 3D effects and more straight white love triangles than you can shake a stick at. Heathers doesn’t care. Heathers just wants to tell you about homicidal teenagers, and boy does it do that.

There is one major failing of the film that cannot be ignored, however, and that is Kim Walker as Heather Chandler. Chandler is supposed to be the ultimate Queen Bee, the embodiment of every high school bully, the kind of girl even the Pope would want to bitch slap. But Kim Walker’s not scary. She’s not mean. Even the greatest and most iconic line in the entire film, “Well fuck me gently with a chainsaw!”, is delivered reluctantly after an obvious hesitation. It’s a testament to the great writing that the film suffers only a little for it, but when the entire plot hinges on Heather Chandler being mythic bitch it doesn’t work when she seems like the kind of girl you could easily meet in church on a Sunday.

But, as I said, the film still works – it works very well. Heathers is the kind of film that stays with you after you’ve watched it, and isn’t that really the mark of a successful movie? And it’s not just the enjoyment factor – Heathers teaches you life lessons too. Namely not to tell a loner in a trenchcoat who shows up in your garden in the middle of the night that you wish your best friend was dead, because you might just get what you wish for…

Film Reviews, Reviews

The Man From U.N.C.L.E Review

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I have to admit that I never planned on watching The Man From U.N.C.L.E. A friend of mine had free cinema tickets, and various people wanted to see the new Mission Impossible, the Bad Education movie and The Visit with none of us of able to agree on something. Eventually I called a compromise with U.N.C.L.E – it billed itself as a spy film, and I’d heard it didn’t take itself too seriously, so it would hopefully appease all parties. I’d also seen a few vague comparisons to Kingsman, which we’d all liked. So I went into that cinema hoping that it wouldn’t be too bad. By the time we left we were all declaring it our new favourite film.

Think back to the old James Bond films with Rodger Moore, Sean Connery and Piers Brosnan. It was a better time, a time when Bond could blow up the ridiculously-named villain’s HQ, kiss a beautiful woman and make a dramatic escape on a jet ski all without spilling his martini and no-one complained about property damage, mentioned terrorism or tried to psychologically profile him. Then remove the alcoholism, sexual harassment and terrifying thought that that man is the one protecting our country, add a slightly weird cameo from David Beckham and you have The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The film is based on the 60s TV show of the same name which was essentially American Bond and with that knowledge you might sensibly assume that the reboot film would set out to capture the spirit of these old thrillers. The real triumph of the film, however, is that it realises that the TV series could never be taken seriously in the age of the hard-drinking depressed Daniel Craig Bond and so sets out to be the exact opposite of that with its tongue in its cheek and a premise that sounds like the daydreams of a twelve-year-old boy.

The plot is certainly aptly melodramatic: set during the nuclear arms race of the 1960s, an American and Russian spy team up to prevent a billionaire couple from creating a nuclear missile to sell to the highest bidder, as well as each secretly trying to retrieve the plans for their own country. U.N.C.L.E presents this premise beautifully with a garish opening montage set to the blaring brass theme from the original show, and then goes on to reveal the hero’s name as Napoleon Solo like it’s no big deal. Nuclear missiles, crazy scientists and chase sequences in motorboats are all presented to us like they’re completely natural, but in the background you can practically hear the film squealing and wetting itself with glee because something else exploded. And that’s what I loved about the film; it’s not comedy in the traditional sense – yes, there are jokes and running gags, and it’s the master at comedic anti-climaxes – but it’s funny because U.N.C.L.E knows what it is and it loves it.

It’s a film that knows what its strengths are and plays to them. It’s also completely aware of its audience, and knows that the way to success for an action film is characterisation. Just look at Captain America: The Winter Soldier: as good a straight action film as it is, its real heart is in the relationships between the characters, particularly Steve with Bucky, Sam and Natasha. U.N.C.L.E goes the same way, creating complex characters in an uncomplex world and making the audience fall in love with them. The forced partnership and eventual reluctant friendship of American spy Napoleon Solo (to push the comparison further, the Bond equivalent, although he often seemed more Sterling Archer than 007) and KGB agent Illya Kuryakin is equal parts hilarious and adorable. Illya himself deserves particular mention, being a tragically adorable angry Russian puppy with an interest in women’s fashion who already has his own fandom of which I am most definitely a proud member. Even the obligatory romance between female lead Gaby Teller and Illya is better done than any Hollywood romance I’ve seen recently, giving both parties equal agency, not letting it distract from the main plot and not even glancing in the direction of a love triangle with Solo, and for that I applaud the writers.

Speaking of equal agency, the film does some wonderful things with its gender roles (that this article sums up pretty well). So many films would have used the 1960s setting to excuse putting the female characters in the background, but U.N.C.L.E has no time for that kind of lazy writing. Gaby is established as a three-dimensional character with her own skill set that makes her an integral part of the group. The main villain is Victoria Vinciguerra rather than her husband, and she proves herself a worthy adversary, not just hiding behind a group of henchmen like so many female villains do. It would have been so easy to make her husband the mastermind and Victoria merely some sub-villain for Gaby to face off against while the men handled the real danger, but instead U.N.C.L.E sets the bar for female characters in action films. Historical accuracy my arse. In fact, Gaby has entered my list of favourite film heroines, partially because she’s a badass car mechanic with no time for the men’s bullcrap and partially because her dancing is adorable.

That article I linked to earlier pretty much sums up my feelings about The Man From U.N.C.L.E actually. It’s fast paced explosive tongue-in-cheek fun and the critics who claim it’s bland are entirely missing the point. The Man From U.N.C.L.E wasn’t made to be a cinematic masterpiece. It wasn’t made for critics. It was made because spy thrillers have lost their joy, because everyone needs a hot-tempered KGB agent with puppy dog eyes in their life, and because films seem to have forgotten how to have fun. And in my eyes, that does make it a masterpiece. So suck on that critics.