4 stars

REVIEW: Le Mans ‘66 (2019)

When American car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is tasked with designing and building a Ford that will beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, he and his team including driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), have to battle corporate interference and the laws of physics to win.

There’s nothing overly surprising about Le Mans ’66, even if you know nothing about the titular race or the people involved, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an entertaining film.

Le Mans ’66 is an underdog story. In the broader sense Ford is the underdog to Ferrari’s powerhouse as they attempt to put the Ford name on the racing map and make a lot of money while doing it. But then there’s Miles, Shelby and his team. They are the underdogs to the men in suits at Ford. Shelby and Miles know how to make a car go fast and they know no matter how fast the car is, you need the best driver to drive it. That’s Miles but as he does not get on with 95% of the people he meets, Shelby must fight for him to be able to race in the car they’ve built together.

It’s a lot of fun seeing Shelby verbally – and sometimes physically – spar with the paper pushers at Ford. His main foe is racing director Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) who wants everything done in his way, no matter how little he may know about what it takes to make and race a car. While there’re many obstacles put in his way, Shelby does find an unlikely ally in marketing guru Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal).

The racing sequences are thrilling. Quick cuts between long shots and extreme closeups adds to the intensity of the races and you never feel lost or isolated. Instead, you’re right next to Miles in the car as he weaves in between his opponents and races towards the finish line.

The scenes where Shelby and his team test and break and rebuild Ford’s cars are a lot of fun as they highlight the differences between Shelby’s approach to making cars and the executives at Ford’s approach. These scenes are also little snapshots into Shelby and Miles’s friendship and the way Damon and Bale bounce off one another is very entertaining to watch.

Le Mans ‘66 follows the usual beats for a true sporting story, but with a talented cast and solid and entertaining performances from Bale and Damon, Le Mans ’66 is an enjoyable and often exciting film. 4/5.

REVIEW: Maleficent (2014)

Vengeful fairy Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) curses an infant princess to succumb to a sleep-like death when she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel on her sixteenth birthday, but as time passes she starts to think Aurora (Elle Fanning) might be the one person who could restore peace between two troubled lands.

As the sequel to Maleficent is released this month, I decided to rewatch the first film for the first time since I saw it in the cinema five years ago. In that time, I’d forgotten a lot about it, but I think I ended up enjoying it more than I remembered.

Maleficent is a darker take on an already fairly dark tale. It gives a reason for Maleficent to be spiteful and angry at King Stefan (Sharlto Copley), and her anger and pain is definitely justified. The opening act of Maleficent shows how she was when she was younger and trusting, and how she grew to become the protector of the magical land. It’s when she’s betrayed in the cruellest of ways that she becomes the villain that we know.

There’s silly child-friendly humour courtesy of the three fairies that take care of Aurora (played by Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple) and those moments often feel somewhat out of place compared to the darker tone of the rest of the film. Still it’s all about balance and those moments do make things a little lighter, especially compared to scenes with King Stefan who is getting pushed to the edge over his desire to kill Maleficent for what she’s done. Copley does madness very well and in Maleficent that’s no exception.

Angelina Jolie is brilliant as Maleficent. She’s charming and her presence – thanks in part to such an intimidating costume – commands every scene she’s in. Her chemistry with Sam Riley, who plays Diaval the raven when he’s in his human form, is an unexpected delight, as they bicker like an old married couple. How Maleficent slowly begins to like Aurora and feels conflicted over her affection and her past actions is believable too, thanks to Jolie’s performance.

The pacing is a little off at times, with something’s being rushed and the ending of Maleficent is perhaps a bit too neat for a film that’s about the story’s villain but the spectacle and performances make an interesting take on such a well-known story. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Seventh Seal (1957)

As the Knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) return home from the crusades, they find their country in the grip of the Black Death. As the Knight seeks answers about life, death, and the existence of God, he plays a game of chess against Death (Bengt Ekerot) in order to prolong his time on Earth.

The Seventh Seal is a classic film that opens with the iconic imagery of a man, sat across from Death, playing chess on a beach. It’s an image that’s been replicated in media over the years, and it was the only thing I knew about this film before watching it.

The Seventh Seal is about more than a chess match though. As Antonius and Jöns travel across the country to Antonius’s home, they meet different characters along the way that join them in their journey in the hope to avoid the plague. There’s Jof (Mils Poppe) and his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson), two performers who with their young son are looking to earn money and keep safe. Jof and Mia symbolise the goodness that Antonius is looking for proof of.

The image of Death is so unsettling in The Seventh Seal not only because of the black cloak that covers Death from head to toe, but because of Ekerot’s performance. It’s so measured as he verbally spars with Antonius who tries to bargain for more time. It’s also how Death appears when you least expect it, in a shadowy corner unseen by everyone but Antonius. There becomes a sense of foreboding as you realise that moments of light-heartedness Antonius as with Jof and Mia cannot last long with the presence of Death looming over him.

There are moments of humour in The Seventh Seal, most of which comes from Jöns. He has seen a lot and is equal parts cruel and thoughtful, his wry commentary on the romantic escapades some of the people he meets goes through are funny. However, that humour does stand out when everything around Jöns is so bleak with the plague, witches being burned, and Death around the corner.

The Seventh Seal is weird and haunting. The score, scenery and imagery are unsettling, but it all comes together to be almost beautiful. I’m not sure I’ll watch The Seventh Seal again, but I’m glad I have seen it. 4/5.

REVIEW: Roger Federer & Rafael Nadal: The Lives and Careers of Two Tennis Legends by Sebastián Fest

Non-fiction book about the two men who have dominated men’s tennis since 2004: Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Each player is legendary in his own right. The Spanish Nadal is the winner of fourteen Grand Slam titles, including five consecutive French Open singles titles from 2010 to 2014, and is the only player ever to win a Grand Slam for ten straight years. Federer, from Switzerland, has spent over three hundred weeks of his career ranked as the number-one player in the world and has won seventeen Grand Slam titles and two Olympic medals. But neither player’s career would have been nearly as successful without the decade-long rivalry that pushed them to excel to the peak of tennis excellence.

This book, being first published in 2015 is naturally a little out of date, Federer currently has twenty Grand Slam titles while Nadal won his nineteenth Grand Slam title earlier this month, but it does a good job covering ten years of their careers, how they intersect and gives you some background on their childhoods, families and philosophies. The edition I read was “revised and updated” and it did touch on 2017 and how it was a comeback year for both Federer and Nadal. They finished the year with two Grand Slams each and in the number one and two spots in the rankings – the first time they both had those rankings since 2010.

The book isn’t in any real chronological order which can be a bit confusing, instead each chapter is focused on a theme or an event and how that affects Federer or Nadal, or both of them. Some chapters are focused on one man and then they next few are on the other, while other chapters are about an event or theme that affects them both. As the chapters jump back and forth in time, it’s sometimes difficult to figure out where we are in terms of what year it is and what’s going on in the two men’s careers. As someone who has followed Federer and Nadal’s careers since 2008 but has never really known about the ins and outs of tennis politics, it was sometimes difficult to figure out the context of what was going on.

I did like how this book was a balanced account about both men – though that could be down to how much respect Nadal and Federer have for each other and the sport. That’s not to say they don’t have differences of opinion and the period in 2012 when they clashed on the players council is covered. Reading about how they had such differing opinions and strong feelings about different subjects then, makes the fact that Federer and Nadal have rejoined the ATP players council together this year all the more interesting and shows how their relationship has continued to evolve.

The sections where other tennis players from throughout history, people like Rod Laver and Martina Navratilova, offer an insight into the sport and the affects Federer and Nadal have had on it were very interesting. It was nice to hear how other tennis legends viewed them, and how their rivalry compared to rivalries of the past.

If you’re interested in Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, their achievements and their rivalry, then this book is worth picking up. It might help to have more than a basic knowledge of tennis and the bureaucracy around it but for the most part the author does a good job at explaining who everyone is. Naturally there’s some chapters that aren’t as interesting as others, and a few are a little dry, but it’s nice to read a book where Federer and Nadal’s personalities shine through and the main thing you can take from it is how humble and respectful the two men are. 4/5.

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.

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.