Quote of the Week

“There will always be story-telling, whether it’s on the big silver screen, or it’s your television or whatever, people will keep on telling stories.”  — Stellan Skarsgard

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Spider-Man: Homecoming Movie Review

spider-man-homecoming-posterWhen I was growing up, superhero films weren’t really a big thing. Superheros mostly existed on tv shows or within comics. Other than the iconic Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve, I don’t really remember seeing any other big superhero films. However, this changed with the advent of the 2002 Spider- Man movie starring Tobey Maguire. As a kid, it was a formative movie and changed my life in two ways: 1. It kickstarted my interest in comics and 2. It caused me to form a soft spot for spiderman. With hindsight, I recognize that the movie had some faults (it’s so over the top and the MJ storyline is weird), but I still think it’s a fantastic adaption. It just has so much heart. So when the 2012 movie came out, I was game. It was a good adaption, and I particularly liked the direction the director/writers went with Peter’s character. However, I felt that Andrew Garfield looked a bit too old and I didn’t feel “wowed” by it, like I was by the 2002 movie. Similarly, when Spider-Man:Homecoming was announced, with Tom Holland as Spiderman, thereby making Spiderman younger (his actual age in the comics initially), I was intrigued as well. I watched the movie last weekend and I gotta say, I was quite impressed and felt a review was due.

Unlike the previous spiderman movies, this one doesn’t really go into Spiderman’s origin story. There’s no big spider-biting-Peter scene or anything. Instead, the movie picks up near the ending scene of Captain America: Civil War. We don’t really see the fight scene again; rather we see Peter’s reactions as he is first taken to Germany, his feelings before the fight, his journey home, etc. (Peter makes a sort of home movie LOL). Afterwards, Peter neglects school in an attempt to be a superhero — moonlighting as a vigilante. It it through his vigilantism that he first notices the activity of the Vulture and his team, who use leftover Chitauri technology to create insane guns to sell to people. He attempts to tell Tony Stark, but Stark brushes him off. So spiderman then attempts to fight Vulture’s sidekicks, but ends up almost drowning until the spiderman suit Stark gave him saves him. Tony warns Peter to stop moonlighting as a vigilante and start acting like the high school student he is. Of course Peter ignores him and continues on. The rest of the movie deals with the Vulture conflict.

Here’s the thing, this movie is very different from its predecessors (can you even call them that?). Firstly, as mentioned, there’s no mention of spiderman’s transformation (aside from when Ned asks and Peter quickly explains). Secondly, there’s a few pivotal spiderman characters missing — namely Harry Osborn and Mary Jane. There do exist some characters who occupy their roles (i.e. Peter’s best friend and love interest), but they don’t have their typical characterization. For example, Ned (played by Jacob Batalan), who is Peter’s best friend, isn’t some super rich dude and instead is incredibly smart — functioning as Peter’s “guy in the chair”. Similarly, MJ’s character is taken for an entirely new spin with Zendaya playing Michelle Jones (MJ), an observant, activist, unpopular smart girl. On the same note, some of the characteristics for other known characters change, such as Flash. Instead of being the physical bully, Flash Thompson (played by Tony Revolori), is a social-media bully, who bullies Peter for being a dork/ nerd and shows off his wealth.

Which brings me to another point — how relatable the movie felt. Of course superheros don’t exist and genetically modified spiders don’t go around biting people and changing them. However, there was an element of realness in the movie. It was present in the humor — the jokes the characters would make and the things they would talk about (i.e. Peter and Ned were really into Star Wars and superheros). It was present in the characterizations of the characters — a social media bully is far more likely and actually prevalent today than a physical bully, plus it’s easy to imagine activist and “woke” girls like MJ existing. It was present in the diversity among the cast — where white people mixed with black people and spanish people and asian people. It looked and felt like a real high school.

On that note, the acting was pretty good in this movie as well. Tom Holland was pretty good in making spiderman likeable. The supporting cast, Jacob Batalan, Tony Revolori, Zendaya and Marisa Tomei as Aunt May, were great as well. However, the stand out actor for me in this movie, was probably Michael Keaton. Fair warning, I might be a little biased when it comes to Michael Keaton because his Batman movies are among my favourites. However, he was just fantastic in this role. Here’s the thing, you know that spiderman isn’t going to die in any movie adaption — it just doesn’t happen. So the threat of anything very serious (like death) happening to spiderman isn’t really real. Yet, when Michael Keaton was onscreen, particularly in the car scene where he realized that Peter was Spiderman, you felt real terror for Peter. You, as the audience, were terrified for Peter, despite knowing that nothing absolutely terrible would happen to him. This was because Michael Keaton was able to imbue his character with a menacing nature that genuinely terrified. Plus, his character was also understandable, to an extent. When Adrian Tooms/ Vulture talked about how the rich only get richer or about how poor people always suffer, you could see his point. He wasn’t some two dimension villain (which by the way, are totally fine as well), despite the fact that he was indeed a killer. To me, that’s the mark of a fantastic actor — one who makes you forget the constrains of the script.

Speaking of which, I actually liked the small community aspect of this movie. Not only did it speak to spiderman literally being the “friendly neighbourhood spiderman,” but it was also a good break from the big Marvel superhero movies. There were no high stakes, or too many characters crowding out the scenes. It was literally just spiderman and his problems, which included navigating through being a student and a hero, dealing with a criminal, and learning to be spiderman. Of course there were a few scenes with Tony Stark, but mercifully, they were limited so the viewer did not get the chance to tire of Stark.

All that said, there were some negatives for the movie as well. One that particularly stood out to me, was the emotional aspect. While the movie was relatable and funny, its emotional scenes did not have the impact I suspect the director wanted. For example, there’s a scene where Peter is crushed by steel beams and attempting to save himself without the spiderman suit Tony Stark gave him. Peter cries, yells for help until ultimately taking all of strength and belief in self to rescue himself (there’s this cool shot of Peter’s face mixed with the reflection of the spiderman mask in a pool of water).  It’s supposed to be a big moment — the moment where Peter realizes that he’s not just “a guy in a suit” (LOL). However, it didn’t feel like that. It just felt like any other sort of scene — the heart was missing. Similarly, the acting/ storylines were a bit uninspiring at times. For example, Laura Harrier as Liz Allen was just so boring. It made no sense why she liked Peter plus Harrier’s acting left a lot to be desired. Additionally, I’m not quite sure what the makers plan to do with MJ’s storyline. I’m wary that they’ll pull the whole geeky-girl-transforms-into-beauty with her. However, this is speculation on my part so not a real negative. Yet, even with the real negatives, the positives for the film completely outweigh them.

My rating: watch it to enjoy a fun summer movie about spiderman and high school kids.

China Rich Girlfriend Book Review

china-rich-girlfriend-kevin-kwan.jpgI really enjoyed Crazy Rich Asians and its cliffhanger left me desperate to get my hands on this sequel. Thinking back on it, I might have gone into the sequel with too high expectations. Or maybe I just got bored of the characters. Whatever the reason, what I’m trying to say is that I didn’t enjoy China Rich Girlfriend as much as I hoped I would.

In short, the book picks up two years after the first one. Nick and Rachel have reunited and Nick has stopped all contact with his family after the way they treated Rachel. Things have progressed to the point of marriage. However, despite these changes, Rachel still hasn’t been able to locate her birth-father as he apparently changed his name when he was younger. Through luck and Eleanor Young’s intervention, Rachel’s father’s identity is revealed (turns out that he’s super rich too) and he attends her wedding. He invites an excited Rachel and Nick to join him in Shanghai, China with the rest of his family. He has a son named Carlton, who’s described as being the Asian Prince Harry and a PhD educated wife, Shaoyen. However, once Rachel lands in Shanghai, her father begins to distance himself and she never manages to set foot into his house. She does manage to create some sort of bond with her half-brother Carlton, through the help of Carlton’s lady friend, Collette, whose father is apparently the 5th or 3rd riches man in China. A lot of other stuff happens, but the ending essentially is a happy ending. At least for Rachel and Nick it is.

As with Crazy Rich Asians, this book also shares different POVs and sticks with the main characters of Rachel, Nick, Astrid, Eleanor, and Eddie. However, to my dismay, Eleanor’s part in this book diminishes quite a bit and she gets overtaken by another character, the former soap actor turned rich wife, Kitty Pong. Kitty was actually introduced in the previous book as the gold-digging and tacky girlfriend of Nick’s cousin and Eddie’s brother, Alistair. Through the machinations of Nick’s aunts and cousin Oliver, Kitty broke up with Alistair and ended up dating Bernard Tai, another member of the Singaporean Elite, albeit more trashier and brash than the others. However, what is interesting about Kitty’s story in this book, is that her POV doesn’t feature very heavily. Rather, her story is told by others around her.

On this topic, I’ll do a recap of the stories besides Rachel and Nick. On Astrid’s side, it turned out that Michael’s investment firm made a lot of money, thereby propelling Michael into being super rich. However, his new riches have also changed Michael from being a loving husband, to being a materialistic, money-obsessed man who only cares about how Astrid’s looks can benefit him. In fact, their relationship takes on an abusive tone, until Astrid decides to leave him (not without its own difficulties though). Coming to Eleanor, I’ve already mentioned how her part in this novel was quite small and barring a few scenes where she ponders Rachel’s newfound parentage, she doesn’t feature much. Eddie has also changed, becoming less crazy, although still very much money obsessed. Finally, Kitty’s story is unique. Turns out, after getting some plastic surgery and having a daughter, Bernard did a complete turn around; from being a playboy intent on blowing his father’s money, to becoming an over-protective, uptight dad who controlled his daughter’s life very carefully; including making sure that she never played with plastic toys or ate non-organic food. With her husband and daughter in America, Kitty attempts to make her place with the Hong Kong Elite, failing miserably until she decides to give up, take her daughter back, and move to Singapore to become a part of the Elite there.

As with the previous book, we get alternating POVs from other characters as well, including Astrid’s husband, Rachel’s father Gaoliang, Carlton, etc. However, unlike the previous book wherein the musings of varied characters were often focused upon the main characters, the musings here were not as strictly managed. In other words, the characters mused about their life often too. For example, we got quite a few scenes and chapters devoted to Collette and her relationship with Carlton and her parents. That said, these scenes did technically manage to connect back to the main characters eventually (very much eventually).

That brings me to the plot. Despite my feelings toward the book, on a technical level, this book is more advanced that its predecessor. The plot is more complicated than that of the last books and it’s also more fleshed out. You can tell that Kevin Kwan has gotten more comfortable with writing — as the book felt a lot less clunkier than the original. However, there’s still A LOT of description in the book. I think that’s actually one of my main contentions with this book. In Crazy Rich Asians, the description was annoying, but also served to show you just how crazy rich the people were. However, in this book, you already know that these people are/ will be crazy rich, so the description doesn’t feel as necessary to the plot here. There as nothing new to glean from it, so it became annoying and boring very fast.

Similarly, I actually found this book to be less funnier than the original. I mean, it was funny and a great look at China’s development, but at the same time, it didn’t feel or read as funny as the first book. I think in part because of how much the description overwhelming bored the reader (or at least me). Secondly,  the new characters introduced in the book didn’t grab me. In particular, I found Collette very strange and annoying and couldn’t connect to her at all. Additionally, on the topic of China’s development, I would’ve liked to see more commentary on China’s history. In particular, the strict adherence to communism and its changing nature. It just felt like the culture connection was missing here — unlike in Crazy Rich Asians. However, thinking back on it, I think it might also have to do with the fact that Crazy Rich Asians was, in part, based heavily on Kevin Kwan’s experiences. As such, the thoroughly embedded showings of Singaporean culture in Crazy Rich Asians was probably due to the fact that he lived it. Similarly, the lack of Chinese history and culture in this book might have to do with the fact that Kevin Kwan never really experienced it. Either way, I missed it.

Plus, there were some vital scenes missing that I would’ve liked to see. For example, one of the main issues in this book, is the fact that Shaoyen has a hard time accepting the fact that Rachel exists and she might take some of Carlton’s inheritance. However, she comes around eventually — but there’s only one chapter showing this. Besides that one chapter, which comes at the conclusion of the book by the way, there’s no other interactions between the two; which sucked because I really wanted to see their interactions and read their POVs. It just felt like a rip-off for the reader.

Yet, all that said, it’s still a decent enough book. It might fall short of its predecessor, but it’s still a nice, light enough entertaining read.

My rating read it to continue the Crazy Rich Asians adventure and for a light, funny time pass read!

Crazy Rich Asians Book Review

16085481I had been itching to read this book since it first debuted in 2013. However, the itch was manageable, until I heard about the movie adaptation and the cast that was selected. I LOVE Gemma Chan and Constance Wu and really like Michelle Yeoh. When their casting was confirmed, I decided I couldn’t wait anymore and quickly conspired to get my hands on this book!

Fair warning here — I think my reaction to the book is heavily biased by the actors casted for the movie adaptation. During my read, I kept on picturing the actors as the characters, which obviously made me like the characters far more that I might have otherwise. Secondly, I’ve talked before about how diversity is important to me, and this book is great on that front! Not only is it written by an Asian, Kevin Kwan, but it mostly features Asian characters in an international setting. On top of that, I think this movie might be one of the first to feature an entirely Asian cast in a Hollywood feature. It just feels so amazing to me and I’m so incredibly excited! As a result, I think my perception of the book is higher than it might be otherwise as well — because I want the book and movie to do well, so I see it in a good light. Of course, this is speculation on my part that I cannot confirm as I am obviously a subjective individual. Anyways, let’s move onto the review now.

Basically, Crazy Rich Asians is about two main characters: NYU’s Economics Professor Rachel Chu, and her NYU History Professor boyfriend, Nick Young. Rachel and Nick come across as any other young couple in love, and that’s what Rachel thinks. However, it turns out that Nick is actually filthy rich — his family is one of the richest in Singapore, tracing their riches and genealogy from several hundred years ago. Nick doesn’t tell Rachel any of this, as he was brought up to never talk about his family’s wealth. As a result, Rachel only finds out when Nick invites Rachel to spend the summer with him in Singapore, as he performs as the best man in his best friend, Colin Khoo’s, wedding. Colin Khoo, it turns out, also belongs among the Singaporean Elite and his wedding to model Araminta Lee (another part of the Elite), is actually the talk of the year in Singapore! Rachel only finds this out when she actually goes to Singapore and her Singaporean best friend from college, Peik Lin, reveals this to her.

On top of dealing with the crazily rich, Rachel also faces resistance and sees first-hand (although she doesn’t always understand them), the politics in Nick’s family and their mixed reaction to her. The Singaporean Elite, it turns out, are obsessed with genealogy, and Rachel, being the daughter of a poor single mother from Mainland China, doesn’t pass their test. However, the younger squad, Nick, his beautiful cousin Astrid, his other cousins, Colin and Araminta all like Rachel enough — it’s their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers who are opposed to Rachel. On top of facing resistance from them, Rachel also faces bullying from Singaporean socialites who are jealous that she managed to land Nick.

The plot of the book is very simple. I’ve outlined most of it above — Rachel and Nick journey to Singapore, she meets his family, they are cold to her. Nick thinks its a success while Rachel is unsure. They both go to bachelor/bachelorette parties where they deal with their own issues — Rachel gets bullied really badly by the other bridesmaids as they are determined to break up her and Nick. Things continue to spiral, until eventually, Rachel and Nick break up because of his mother’s meddling. However, this is only the plot of Rachel and Nick’s story.

The book actually has around five main characters: Rachel, Nick, Nick’s beautiful cousin Astrid, Nick’s mother Eleanor, and Nick’s money obsessed cousin Eddie. Although all characters have scenes together, their separate stories also differ a bit. Astrid’s story deals with her marriage to middle-class army man turned businessman Michael Teo. Michael obviously doesn’t match up to Astrid’s family (her being super rich as well), but he works day and night and the two really love each other. At least that’s what Astrid thinks, until she starts suspecting that he’s having an affair. Things escalate to the point of Michael asking her for a divorce. However, it’s only through the intervention of Astrid’s ex-boyfriend, super-rich tech guru Charlie Wu, that their misunderstandings are cleared (there was no affair) and they reconcile. Sidenote — despite being super-rich himself, Astrid’s family also disapproved of her relationship with Charlie because his background wasn’t filled with riches — he was a new generation (?) rich person, thus pointing to their obsession with lineage. Eleanor’s POV actually provides a good example of this. Eleanor’s story mainly deals with her attempts at figuring out the relationship between her son and Rachel, ensuring that Nick stands to inherit most of his grandmother’s money, and trying to break up his relationship. Finally, Eddie’s story just deals with his anxiety at trying to impress the public with his riches and his anger at his family for being so cheap (in terms of spending their money).

However, it’s also interesting to note that the book doesn’t just deal with the POVs of the five main characters. Other characters POVs pop up often as well. For example, we got little insights in characters like Nick’s dad, Charlie Wu, Peik-Lin’s dad Wye-Mun, Eddie’s mother, etc. However, their insights typically relate to the five main characters, vs. their own problems. I actually thought this was quite smart of the author to do, because it makes the book more focused and easier to understand. Your attention remains cemented on thoughts of the main characters, vs. getting jumbled into the various lives of various characters.

On that note, let’s talk about some of the technical aspects of the book, namely the writing. Here’s the thing, the writing is nothing special. It doesn’t consist of fantastic pieces of prose or flowery writing. In fact, some of the dialogue felt clunky at times — meaning that you felt like the dialogue was specifically meant to be written vs. a character was actually saying it. However, what the book does have, is copious, and I mean copious amounts of description. Kevin Kwan has the tendency to go overboard when it comes to descriptions. He describes every single little detail. For example, when entering Peik-Lin’s house, he uses almost an entire page to describe the Versailles inspiring living room in their home. Additionally, this description isn’t just done for surrounding scenery, it’s done for everything; from the food the characters eat, to the clothes they wear, to the sights they see. To be honest, it does get a little annoying to read extensive descriptions because it sometimes feels never-ending. However, at the same time, I actually kind of enjoyed it. The sheer amount of imagery it conjures is ridiculous. Not to mention that the descriptions of the stuff itself are absurd in themselves. It really highlights just how crazy rich these people are.

Which brings me to another facet of the book – its humour. The book is incredibly funny. It’s not funny in the sense that it has many jokes or anything, but it’s funny in the characters it has. They all, aside from the some of the main ones, shamelessly gossip, backbite, and plot against others. It’s absurd, but also super funny! It’s downright ridiculous the way some of them act — but at the same time, it’s so entertaining to read! For example, during Araminta’s wedding day, as she was walking down the isle, all she could think of, was how Astrid couldn’t even be bothered to wear a new dress to her wedding. Of course my relaying of this scene completely downplays just how hilarious it was in the book. Plus, I also really enjoyed the culture showcased throughout the book. We get little hints as to what Singaporean culture consists of — apparently food is a hot topic, the word “lah” is used very often, and there is some casual racism involved towards Mainland Chinese people. We also get little scenes of old Chinese traditions. It’s fascinating to read! Additionally, the characters themselves are also interesting and cool — Astrid being one.

Yet, for all of its hilarious triumphs, the book does have its faults. For one thing, in terms of plot, there’s not a whole lot that really happens. It’s fairly predictable and things don’t always get resolved. Secondly, the reader doesn’t really build a deep connection with the characters. Their motivations aren’t always clear and they aren’t always very interesting. For example, I personally had a tough time with Nick sometimes, just because he could be so oblivious. Finally, the descriptions could get too much. At times, it felt like the descriptions were there to show off to the reader the characters wealth, vs. describe it to them (if that makes any sense).

My rating: read it to enjoy a fantastically hilarious book about the lives of the crazy rich asians (in Singapore)!

Quote of the Week

“Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of viol or of lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?”   —- Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray 

Clockwork Lives Book Review

51TmxyY28AL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_When I first laid eyes upon Clockwork Lives, I was stunned by the beautiful cover. It’s a delicious red with gold writing and alchemical symbols. In fact, the markings are sort of carved on the hardcover book itself. On top of that, the paper inside feels luxurious and is given a parchment-like look. In other words, it’s incredibly aesthetically pleasing. Yet, despite the instant high regard I had for the book’s cover, it did not translate to the content of the book for me.

Basically, Clockwork Lives about a woman named Marinda. She lives in the small town/city/village (?) of Lugtown caring for her ailing father, super mechanic, Arlen Peake. As her mother, Elitia, left the family when Marinda was very young, she and her father form an incredibly close relationship; despite the fact that Arlen has some oddities about him. When Arlen dies, Marinda inherits his sizeable estate. However, there’s a catch. In order to get full access to her inheritance, Arlen stipulated that Marinda must fill a red book (much like this one) with people’s life stories. Using some sort of alchemical magic, Arlen managed to make it so that once a drop of someone’s blood hit a page in the book, their story automatically wrote itself in the book. Marinda, who prefers living a quiet, regulated, and isolated life, is understandably very upset at this development. Nonetheless, determined to get her inheritance, she undertakes the task of filling the book with stories. However, to her dismay, it turns out that the length of people’s life stories varies. In other words, one person’s story might span ten pages, as did Arlen’s, while another person’s story might just be a paragraph. Determined to fill up her book as quickly as possible (which meant that she needed to get longer life stories — aka epic lives), she journeys to her father’s hometown, Crown City, after having limited success in Lugtown.

The rest of the book details a) Marinda’s past, i.e. the situation with her mother, b) the various stories Marinda manages to collect about different characters c) the journey of self-discovery and growth Marinda embarks upon and d) the universe the book takes place. On that last point, this book is actually a sequel to Clockwork Angels, written by the same authors. I actually haven’t read Clockwork Angels, so I don’t really know what it’s about. However, what I’ve been able to glean from reading Clockwork Lives, is that this book series takes place in a steampunk alternative universe. Marinda’s country, Albion, is ruled by a leader known as the Watchmaker who apparently brought peace (“stability”) to the region and is actually centuries old. The Watchmaker figured out a way to create gold, using alchemy, and hence ensured that Albion grew prosperously. As this book is mostly for and from Marinda’s point of view, you don’t really get a big backstory for the Watchmaker. However, there are definitely a few hints as to how not everything is as rosy as it seems. There’s implications that the Watchmaker has done some terrible things. I actually found this part quite interesting and yearned for a deeper explanation of the Watchmaker’s past and activities.

On that note, I realized I forgot to talk about the format of the book. Each life story functions as a short story, thereby making this book seem like a collection of short stories. Each story is different (although quite a few of them connect!) and often has a different message (some have no messages at all). The interest level of the stories themselves also vary. I know I’ve talked before about how I don’t really like short stories because I find them lacking and prefer to read more fleshed out stories (aka The Hound of Death review). However, I actually really liked the short story format here. I think it worked really well for the book and that might actually have to do with the way the stories themselves were composed. As Arlen explained in the beginning of his story, it’s not the entirety of the life that matters, but the story that defines you/ you choose to tell. So in Arlen’s case, he wrote about how he grew to be the super mechanic he was vs. writing about his later life after he moved to Lugtown. It made for a really interesting reading experience.

In general, this was a decent enough read. I just felt like it was almost very middle-of-the-road. There were moments where Marinda’s growth and journey were incredibly inspiring. However, there were also moments where the book was just there. It’s hard to put into words, but I didn’t feel wowed by the book or anything. It was just a good enough read. The writing was decent, the plot was decent, and the implications of the book were also decent. The point of the book, or the way I understood it, was to encourage readers to live epic lives. It was to encourage readers to seek adventures, to take risks, to meet new people without fear. Again, a good and decent goal. Basically how I felt about this entire book: good and decent enough.

Sidenote — this book and the other books in this series were actually inspired by Canadian rockband Rush and their studio album named, Clockwork Angels. One of the co-authors of this book Neil Peart, is actually the drummer for Rush.

My rating: read it to enjoy some interesting short stories or as a good time pass read.

Ella Enchanted Book Review

24336Fun Fact: Ella Enchanted was among the first books I ever purchased for my own personal library decades ago. Also, a little embarrassed to admit this, but one of the biggest reasons I picked up this specific book, was because it had Anne Hathaway on the cover. I was/am a HUGE Princess Diaries fan and had watched her in its movie adaptation. Although I wasn’t a big fan of the movie, I did somehow, end up becoming a big fan of her. For some reason, Anne Hathaway appealed to my young self, as not only was she beautiful, but she came across as having spunk. And now that I think on it, I think this idea I had of her really affected the way I approached this book. The image I had of Anne Hathaway blended in with the characterization of Ella in the book, resulting in my forming an instant love for the spunky, strong, and smart Ella.

As I first read this book decades ago, you might be wondering why I decided to talk about it today; but there’s a reason for it. If you’ve been on my blog for a while, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that I actually haven’t reviewed any books in a long while. Aside from The Night Circus, it’s been almost five months since I reviewed one. And the reason for that, was that I had actually fallen out of love with reading. Or perhaps a better way to phrase it, would be to say that reading did not hold the same excitement for me anymore. I would pick up book and then put them down after reading two pages. It puzzled me and made me sad, as reading had been one way I defined myself for years. However, I just could not find it within me to complete a novel. Then randomly, I plucked Ella Enchanted from my personal book collection and began reading. Henceforth, almost magically, my love of reading returned! As such, I figured that I owed the book at least one review on my blog. So let us begin!

Basically, Ella Enchanted is an adaption of the Cinderella fairytale. However, in this story, she’s named Ella and doesn’t really become a scullery maid by choice. Unlike in the original fairytale, book Ella had been cursed. When she was born, a fairy gave Ella the “gift” of obedience, making it so that Ella had to obey whatever anyone said to her — including if they wanted to take advantage of her. As a result, her mother forbid her to tell of her curse to anyone. When Ella’s mother died (like in the fairytale), it was revealed that their family cook, Mandy, was also a fairy. However, she refused to reverse Ella’s “gift” out of fear that something could go wrong.

Similarly, Ella and Prince Charmont (aka Charming), don’t really first meet at a ball. Rather, they meet at her mother’s funeral and form an instant friendship (their families apparently knew each other in the book). However, their bond suffers as Ella’s father remarries and her step-mother send her off to finishing school in another country. Fed up of her step-sisters taking advantage of her curse (i.e. by commanding her to give them all her money or forcing her to miss meals by telling her to not eat), she decides to run away from school and find the fairy who cursed her in the first place. The rest of the book details Ella’s adventures after running away from finishing school, her attempts at removing her curse, and her friendship with Char.

As it’s Cinderella with a twist, the ending remains the same as the core — Ella and Charmont marry and live happily ever after. However, as it’s an adaptation, some things have been changed. One of the biggest and best changes, in my opinion, is that made of Ella’s character. While Cinderella was depicted as being kind and doing servitude quietly, Ella is feisty and determined. She’s headstrong, stubborn, and brave. Even though her curse causes her to lose her freedom (as she has to do whatever people tell her to do), she manages to find loopholes and assert her own will. It’s kind of inspiring to be honest. On top of that, she’s also incredibly talented with languages (it’s actually really cool!). She dabbles with speaking ogrese, elvish, etc.

Speaking of language, the world that Gail Carson Levine, the author of the book, manages to create is also really cool. Although the book focuses mainly on Ella and her exploits, we do get some hints as to how the magical world around her is. I’ve already mentioned the differing languages (there’s actually some pronunciations included!), but there’s also descriptions of the types of creatures, their personalities and customs, their way of living, etc. Plus, the fairy subplot that she includes is interesting as well. It really felt like the reader was on the journey with Ella, vs. just reading about how her adventures went. Levine writes in a way that is easy to read and understand. However, she also manages to include the themes of love, friendship, strength, and determination within her writing, in a way that doesn’t come across as preachy or too subtle.

I never really enjoyed Cinderella too much as she was always too passive of a heroine for me (especially in the Disney versions). However, this refashioning is one of my favourite adaptations ever. It changes Cinderella/ Ella from a meek character seeking her happily ever after to a brave one who becomes her own hero and goes after what she wants. Highly recommend this for young girls looking for a role model to emulate (or to parents who are looking for a role model for their kids).

My rating: read it to enjoy a modern, inspiring take on the Cinderella fairytale.

The Last King Movie Review

last_king_dvd_2d.jpgI put on The Last King/ Birkebeinerne on a whim. I just needed some background noise. However, when the film opened up with the allegation that it was in fact based upon some real life events, I knew that it would no longer just be background noise. I’m a huge history fan so my interest was fully piqued.

Basically, the background history is this: from around 1130-1240, Norway underwent a series of civil wars. Prior to this, Norway had often been ruled under a power-sharing agreement wherein 2 kings or so would agree to govern together. This was done so because Norway had vague kingship laws. As long as a pretender had a claim to the throne (regardless of his legitimate/ illegitimate status), they could partake in the sharing of power. However, over time, some kings broke their oaths (i.e. to not claim the throne until someone’s reign was over) or attempted to usurp all power. Inciting these power struggles, were the neighbouring kingdoms of Sweden and Denmark, who would periodically pledge their support to various leaders. As such, various civil wars began. It is important to note that the civil wars weren’t always between the same two groups, as agreements and alliances shifted. However, by 1177, a faction known as Birkebeiner (birchbark leggers), gained power and elected Sverre Sigurdsson (Sverre of Norway) as King in 1184. However, Sverre’s kingship wasn’t peaceful as a number of pretenders challenged his throne. By 1197, the Norwegian Catholic Church also fell into conflict with Sverre, and as a result, backed another faction: the Baglers. Unlike the Birkebeiner who were mostly made up of poorer peasants (hence their name – they could only afford birckbark to wrap their shoes), the Baglers consisted of the richer merchants, noblemen, and clergymen. Eventually, the Baglers and Birkebeiner emerged as the two main factions. Yet, despite the challenges, Sverre managed to hold onto power, until he died in 1202. His son Haakon Sverresson was made king after his death, but Haakon died in 1204, after less than 2 years on the throne. Desperate for a leader, the Birkebeiner put Inge Bardsson, a nobleman, on the throne. On the other hand, the Baglers saw this as the perfect opportunity to strengthen their claim to the throne and began fighting intensely. Amidst this struggle, it became known that Haakon Sverresson had actually fathered a son – thereby strengthening the claim of the Birkebeiner. However, the son, Haakon Haakonsson, was born within Bagler territory, thereby putting his life in danger as the Baglers were determined to kill him to strengthen their claim.

This is where the movie begins (1205/1206). Two Birkebeiner, Torstein (played by Kristofer Hivju) and Skjervald (played by Jakob Oftebro), manage to sneak into Bagler territory and pick up the infant Haakon Haakonsson and his mother. While enroute to a safehouse, they are spotted by Bagler troops. Hence, Torstein and Skjervald take the baby and flee, promising to deliver the child to safety. After a couple of cool skiing sequences (the birkebeiner carried the child while skiing in order to escape), they manage to find shelter for the night and deliver the child to the safehouse. Skjervald then decides to go home to his wife and child. Unfortunately, the Baglers get to his house and kill both his wife and child in their pursuit to find baby Haakon. Skjervald manages to escape and skis to the safehouse to warn Torstein and other Birkebeiner that the Baglers are still on their tail.

Meanwhile, back at the Birkebeiner stronghold, Nidaros, one of Haakon Sverresson’s loyal men, Inge (played by Thorbjorn Harr), is framed for his murder. Behind this conspiracy, is his younger brother, Gisle (played by Pal Sverre Hagen), who wants the throne for himself. It is shown that he indulged in an affair with Queen Margaret of Sweden, the widow of King Sverre, and convinced her to poison Haakon Sverresson. After administering the poison, she flees to Sweden, with the promise that Gisle will become king and then power will be theirs. However, Gisle betrays her and instead attempts to marry her daughter, Christina Sverresdatter (played by Thea Sofie Loch Naess), in order to secure his claim to the throne and gain the backing of the Birkebeiner. However, Christina is loyal to the throne (Birkebeiner) and Inge, so she attempts to betray Gisle and free Inge from jail. Unfortunately, she does not succeed.

Concurrently, the Birkebeiner ready themselves for battle to protect baby Haakon from the Baglers. Again, Torstein and Skjervald ski with the baby. The rest of the film deals with the two conflicts. Spoiler alert: Inge gets freed and reigns as regent for the young Haakon, who manages to reach Nidaros safely.

If you’re wary about watching this film without knowing about Norway’s history, I’d tell you to not worry. You actually don’t need to know the history behind the film in order to enjoy it. From a thematic point of view, the movie itself is very well made. Although it is historical in nature, the writers managed to adapt it to the big screen well as the story is (relatively) easy to follow onscreen. Of course you don’t get the nitty gritty details, such as who exactly the Baglers are, why the two (Baglers and Birkebeiner) are fighting, etc. However, I don’t think it’s necessary to know every single detail in order to enjoy the movie. Visually, it’s pretty cool to watch, especially the skiing action scenes (I’d probably call them the highlight of the movie). Plus, there are some nice emotional cute scenes with the baby. If anything, I’d say a prior knowledge of Norway’s history would probably allow you to appreciate the movie more, but again, I don’t think it’s necessary to know to enjoy.

The only big negative for the film, in my point of view, is that the film is not completely historically accurate. First off, from what I’ve been able to gather, Inge and other Birkebeiner actually did not know about Haakon Haakonsson’s existence until after Inge had been chosen to be the next king. So movie-Inge declaring himself to be regent until Haakon came of age is wrong. Secondly, Inge is never really framed for Haakon Sverresson’s murder. Suspicion falls upon Margaret of Sweden who actually does fail a trial and flees to Sweden. Inge is chosen to become the next Birkebeiner King. So movie-Inge being jailed is wrong. Thirdly, the character of Gisle doesn’t really exist in history. Inge did have a younger brother, but his name was Skule and he actually was the ruler of Norway, but after Inge’s death and he technically functioned as Haakon’s regent rather than Inge. So the whole plot of Gisle attempting to usurp power by framing Inge – no idea where that came from. On top of that, Gisle is implied to be a secret Bagler and is semi-supported by the Bagler’s as well. Given that information, it seems like Gisle’s character was partially inspired by the real life Bagler king, Philip Simonssen. Which is interesting, because the real life Christina Sverresdatter actually married Philip Simonssen. All of which implies that Gisle is a made up character, representing Skule and Philip together? I mean, if I squint, I can see why the writers chose to do that. However, as a history lover, I’m not impressed with it. Nonetheless, it’s a decent enough movie.

My rating: watch it if you’re a history lover, knowledgeable of Norwegian history, and/or if you want to watch cool skiing sequences.