Author: elenasquareeyes

REVIEW: Always Be My Maybe (2019)

Best friends in their childhood, Sasha (Ali Wong) and Marcus (Randall Park) ended up drifting a part, even though everyone always thought they’d end up together. When they reconnect sixteen years later, maybe this is their second chance?

Always Be My Maybe is a romantic comedy that captures the best friends to lovers trope perfectly. The road going from best friends to lovers is never smooth thanks to the fear of ruining a friendship, the fear of opening up your heart, and just the general awkwardness of becoming more than friends with your best mate. Having the two leads have great chemistry and give great performances makes you feel for both of them in this scenario.

Sasha has become a celebrity chef, travelling across the country to open restaurants in different cities. It’s as she returns to her hometown of San Francisco to open her latest restaurant that she runs into Marcus. Marcus is almost the complete opposite of Sasha. He’s stayed in San Francisco, he works for his dad’s business and he still performs in the same band but never tries to take the band to the next level. It’s equal parts awkward and endearing, seeing the two of the reconnect and try to find some middle ground after so long a part and lives that have gone in different directions.

The supporting cast are great too. Michelle Buteau plays Veronica, Sasha’s friend and PA, and she probably has all the best lines, while there is Keanu Reeves playing an over the top version of Keanu Reeves – or at least what we think Keanu Reeves would be like – who steals every scene he’s in.

As a romantic comedy Always Be My Maybe is sometimes uniquely Asian-American. For instance, Sasha cooks Asian cuisine, and there’s lots of discussions of different dishes and her and Marcus’s parents encompass Asian stereotypes without them becoming one-dimensional characters. But Always Be My Maybe proves that love, fear, and aspirations are all universal while still being very funny.

Always Be My Maybe doesn’t reinvent the rom-com wheel but it’s sweet, funny and with its charming leads it’s near perfect. 4/5.

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READ THE WORLD – Haiti: Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

Narrated by Robin Miles.

Trigger warnings for sexual abuse, child abuse, eating disorders (bulimia), suicide, self-harm, breast cancer and rape.

Sophie is raised by her aunt in an impoverished village in Haiti but when she is twelve years old her mother sends for her and she moves from all she knows to New York City to be with a mother she barely remembers. As Sophie grows up, she clashes with her mother over the “testing” and she tries to find her own way.

“Testing” is a Haitian tradition where a mother would test to see if their daughter is still a virgin by inserting their finger into their daughter’s vagina to check that the hymen is intact. Sophie is mentally and physically scarred by the ordeal as she would have to go through the testing every night once she was in her late teens. It naturally puts a strain on her relationship with her mother, but her mother feels it’s her duty to make sure her daughter stays pure and virtuous, plus it’s something her mother and her aunt was subjected to as well. When Sophie returns to Haiti with her own five-month year old daughter, she learns that the testing happened to her grandmother and her grandmother has no regrets over testing her children even though she knew the pain and humiliation well. The testing is a tradition and is framed as a mother’s job to do to make sure her daughter stays a virgin until she’s married.

Breath, Eyes, Memory is quite a sad book really. It tackles a lot of tough topics (please do heed the trigger warnings) though it doesn’t give all of them the time they deserve to develop. It seems almost impossible how much pain and suffering the women in one family can go through. All the women in Sophie’s family have been hurt in different ways but they are all incredibly resilient because of it. That doesn’t mean they don’t hurt each other though; Sophie and her mother clash a lot and Sophie’s grandmother can be cruel to her daughters.

I found Sophie’s forgiveness of her mother to be too quick for what Sophie had been through. I liked how Sophie struggled with what her mother had done to her, but at the same time understood that her mother tested her out of her version of love and because it’s what happened to her. Still, it didn’t seem like their reconciliation took long at all when Sophie was well in her right to continue to keep her distance from her mother, no matter the pressure her grandmother put on her to forgive her. The ending of Breath, Eyes, Memory felt rushed as another problem or tragedy was added to Sophie and her mother’s lives, taking up the time that could’ve been spent on giving their reconciliation more time to feel natural.

The audio book of Breath, Eyes, Memory is narrated well but the language used in the book is quite simple. It adds some distance from the drama and serious topics do not feel as hard-hitting as they could. Breath, Eyes, Memory is a tough read about family, shared trauma, gender and sexual identity. It’s a lot to cram into a relatively short book and somethings do get lost along the way. 3/5.

REVIEW: Bright (2017)

In an alternate present-day where magical creatures live among us, two L.A. cops, human Daryl Ward (Will Smith) and orc Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton) become embroiled in a prophesied turf battle as they try to protect elf Tikka (Lucy Fry) and her magic wand.

As a concept, Bright is interesting but unfortunately that doesn’t make the finished product interesting. Though it doesn’t go into detail, it’s clear that magical creatures have been a part of the world for centuries and humans, orcs, elves, fairies and presumably any other magical creature we don’t see in the film, have been coexisting that long. That means then that really the present-day world in the film should be at least a bit different to what we know in our world so references to things like Shrek just felt out of place.

Bright uses the differences between magical and human races to talk about racism, segregation and racial profiling but it’s very heavy handed which makes it both cringey and kind of insulting to the real-life situations it’s mirroring.

The conflict between Ward and Jakoby as they both don’t really trust or like one another which is typical to the buddy cop genre but unfortunately Smith and Edgerton don’t really have any chemistry. Normally when this kind of odd couple is clashing it’s entertaining but not here as Ward and Jakoby’s arguments seem to go on forever and the humour that’s supposed to be found in those scenes is nowhere to be found.

Once Ward and Jakoby discover Tikka, the plot of Bright basically becomes them going from A to B, trying to stay alive and keep Tikka safe as a variety of different people try to catch them and get the wand in Tikka’s possession. There’s orc gangs, human gangs, evil elves, corrupt cops and this world’s magical version of the FBI, on their trail. The plot could’ve been a bit tighter if one of those aspects was removed because at times it seemed like there was far too much going on, and the numerous shootouts didn’t leave a lot of time to flesh out the characters – especially Tikka who was mostly silently a lot of the time.

The action sequences in Bright are good, as is the make up on the various magical creatures, but unfortunately the characters aren’t interesting enough to make this film consistently entertaining. 2/5.

READ THE WORLD – Oman: Celestial Bodies by Johka Alharthi

Translated by Marilyn Booth.

Set in the village of al-Awafi in Oman, Celesital Bodies follows the lives of three sisters. Mayya, who marries Abdallah after a heartbreak; Asma, who marries from a sense of duty; and Khawla who rejects all offers while waiting for her beloved, who has emigrated to Canada. These three women and their families witness Oman evolve from a traditional, slave-owning society slowly redefining itself after the colonial era, to the crossroads of its complex present.

The chapters in Celestial Bodies alternate between the first-person point of view of Abdallah and with the third person point of view of different characters. Pretty much every other character has a part of the story told from their point of view, though some are the focus more often than others. This part of the story is, for the most part, told linearly starting with Mayya’s marriage, her having her first child and then as her younger sisters get older, their experiences in marriage and romance. With the chapters from Abdallah’s point of view, they are almost always far in the future from what you read about the sisters, he reflects on his marriage and family, and his relationship with his cruel father.

The way the story jumps back and forth can be a bit confusing as sometimes Abdallah talks about how he perceives events or people before we’ve met them in the other half of the story. It does flesh those events/people out a bit more which is needed as the book spans a good few decades in the way characters reminisce about past events or talk about their children who are now adults when in the previous chapter, they were still young children.

There’s a lot of characters in Celestial Bodies as the story ends up spanning multiple generations. There is a family tree at the start of the book, which is helpful but unfortunately, I read the book on my kindle which made it a bit more difficult to flick back and check who was who and how they related to everyone else.

Celestial Bodies gives an insight into Oman and how the country and its people are changing. There are characters who once were slaves and now that the government has ruled that slavery is illegal, they are free. But while some want to leave the place they grew up and were a slave, wanting to truly be free, others feel that their life is good and that the man who owned them treated them well so why should they leave.

For a book where you only seem to spend a short time with each character as they are at a certain point in their lives before moving forward (or back) months or years, you do get a strong sense of who they are. The three sisters and their marriages are at the centre of this story and out of the three it is Mayya and her husband and children that gets the most attention, so you feel you understand her more than the other two.

Celestial Bodies is a beautiful book about love and family and the changes they go through over time. It also shows how people grow and change, as does the country and culture they are a part of, but those changes sometimes don’t happen at the same time and can cause conflict. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012)

In 2011 Changez (Riz Ahmed), a young Pakistani man, tells his story to journalist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber). How as he chased corporate success on Wall Street, he found himself caught up in the conflict and tension in a post-9/11 world.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is told through flashbacks. In the present Bobby tries to figure out whether or not Changez had anything to do with the kidnapping of an American academic as tensions rise between Pakistani students and police and the CIA are never far away. And in the flashbacks Changez is living the American Dream, he has a lucrative job on Wall Street and he is dating photography artist Erica (Kate Hudson), until that dream starts to crumble after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The harassment that Changez goes through in New York just because of the colour of his skin is tough to watch and is a harsh reminder that little has changed in the world today. It highlights how people are so quick to judge and make assumptions and how dangerous those assumptions can be – not just for the target of those assumptions, but the people around them too.

Riz Ahmed is brilliant as a young man, struggling to consolidate the different sides of him. He has such a strong presence and nearly every single shot of the film has him in it. You find yourself hanging off his every word as he tries to explain himself and find what makes him happy.

The story of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is all about ambiguity, but the execution can be a little heavy-handed especially in the beginning. Still, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a gripping drama with a great central performance from Ahmed and supporting turns from Schreiber and Kiefer Sutherland who plays Changez’s Wall Street boss. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Eritrea: African Titanics by Abu Bakr Khaal

African Titanics follows the adventures of Eritrean migrant Abdar as he journeys north speeding through the Sahara and crawling under barbed wire fences to make it to the coast where he must await news of a calm sea.

One thing I’m enjoying about my Read the World Project is how it’s opening my eyes to different cultures and periods of history that I had little to no knowledge of before. There is a migrant crisis happening in Europe right now, and has been happening for almost a decade, and so when I read the blurb of African Titanics I thought it would be set now-ish but that wasn’t the case. African Titanics is set in the late 1990s or the year 2000 and perhaps I was naïve, but I didn’t realise that people from different African countries were trying to make the journey to Europe for a better life then as well as now.

Having the story from the point of a migrant, hearing about all the things they go through to get to the coast, avoiding the police, escaping bandits, learning which smugglers you can trust to not just take your money and leave you stranded, makes something that’s often a footnote in the news feel more real and personal. These are people who are pushed to take dangerous risks and Abdar and his friends know how deadly the sea can be, but they still want to take that chance – even when they know of people who have died at sea.

African Titanics doesn’t just cover the dangerous journey, but the people Abdar meets along the way. He meets so many different people from different countries and their camaraderie transcends language barriers. The migrants form strong bounds as they have to rely on one another, and the men they have given money to to get them across the water. This adds humanity to an otherwise bleak story.

The writing in African Titanics is beautiful. It keeps Abdar’s story, and the story of other migrants he meets along the way, very matter of fact but that doesn’t stop you feeling for him and the other characters. There’s also vivid description of the different landscapes Abdar travels through and the sea is described both a new frontier and a deadly obstacle.

African Titanics is a short yet compelling story. Throughout the hardships Abdar faces there’s moments of levity and joy as he and his fellow migrants laugh and tell stories together. The combinations of the real and almost dreamlike sequences as Abdar thinks of what the future could hold makes it a thought-provoking story. 4/5.

REVIEW: In the Line of Fire (1993)

Veteran Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) is haunted by the fact he couldn’t save Kennedy in Dallas, and now thirty years later a man who calls himself “Booth” (John Malkovich) threatens the life of the current President and Frank is determined not to fail a President again.

In the Line of Fire is a film where it wastes no time setting up the characters and getting straight into the main plot. You learn as much about the characters as they share with each other, and when Booth starts to make his presence known, it takes the time to tease the character with extreme closeups on his eyes or mouth.

Eastwood’s Frank is a veteran of the Service. He’s a good agent but not the man he was, something he and everyone else knows, but he’s not willing to accept that yet. Eastwood’s performance is full of charm, but he also presents an uncompromising figure especially when others start to believe he’s not fit for the Presidents protection detail and should leave the case alone.

While Eastwood is certainly the lead of In the Line of Fire, it’s Malkovich who steals every scene he’s in. Booth is an incredibly cunning man and knows exactly what buttons to press to make Frank go off his game. The phone conversations between Booth and Frank are the epitome of cat and mouse as they each try to learn things from one another, though Booth always seems to be one step ahead. Malkovich give a performance that’s cool and calculating one moment, and then full of fury the next. As Frank digs deeper into who Booth is or was, he starts to become an almost tragic character.

In the Line of Fire is a smart thriller. While there are a few chase sequences and scuffles, it’s how Frank and the other Secret Service agents work through the limited information they have to catch a potential killer that’s so gripping. The score, the editing, and the cinematography all work together to rack up the tension as Booth gets closer to his goal of killing the President, and Frank gets pushed closer to the edge.

In the Line of Fire is a tense thriller with gripping performances. It’s only shortcoming is the romance between Frank and fellow Secret Service agent Lilly Raines (Rene Russo) which feels awkward, rushed and just unnecessary. 4/5.