E is for The Edukators (2004)

Three friends, Jan (Daniel Brühl), Jule (Julia Jentsch) and Peter (Stipe Erceg), lead a silent revolution as they break into rich people’s houses and unnerve them through their protest art. That is until one homeowner returns sooner than expected, forcing them to cobble together a kidnapping plot that threatens their political beliefs and their trust in each other.

The main trio all give great performances as idealistic anti-capitalists. Their daily struggles, especially Jule’s as a waitress in a high-end restaurant where the customers often make ridiculous demands, are easy to understand and they are looking for a way to release their pent-up anger and frustration in the world they live in.

When they are forced to kidnap businessman Hardenberg (Burghart Klaußner) to save their own skin, things start to spiral. It’s through discussions with him that their youthful optimism and idealism clashes is shown how it clashes with an older pragmatism. They want to change the world, or at least be able to make at least one person change their thoughts and habits, but Hardenberg demonstrates the reality that even those with the best intentions can in time find themselves following the societal norm.

It’s not just their political ideals that are called into question, but their relationships too. All three of them have great chemistry in whatever combination, and their character dynamics mean they each balance the others out really well. Jule and Peter are a couple and while Jan has been friends with Peter for years, he and Jule had never had much to do with one another. But as they spend more time together, Jule and Jan get closer. The trio’s relationship is an interesting one and all the way through I was thinking a lot of their problems (keeping secrets, lack of good communication) could be solved if they were in a polyamorous relationship, by the end of the film, I was pleasantly surprised to see that they may have gone down that route, though nothing was ever explicit.

I’m somewhat surprised there hasn’t been an English-language remake of The Edukators yet, if or when there ever is it’ll be set in LA and will probably miss some of the nuances in the original. Plus, I’m sure it’d forego the hints at a potentially polyamorous relationship between the main trio.

The Edukators presents interesting ideas on revolution, capitalism and protest, how individuals can or can not change things, and it often depends on the people they have surrounding them, and how far they’re willing to go. 4/5.

D is for The Dead Pool (1988)

Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) must stop a sick secret contest to murder local celebrities, which includes himself as a target.

The Dead Pool is the fifth and (so far but I doubt there’ll ever be more but who knows with the likes of Harrison Ford still making Indiana Jones movies) final Dirty Harry movie. Like its predecessors, it has Harry growling at anyone who gets in his way and being involved in wanton destruction, but while this film has its action and violence, it’s surprisingly funny.

The Dead Pool has one of the most entertaining and inventive car chase sequences I’ve seen, and it contains a remote-control car the exudes menace. It makes great use of its San Francisco setting with all the hills and the score is just great. It’s equally parts fun and thrilling which I really wasn’t expecting from when the remote-control car first appeared.

Harry Callahan gets a new partner in Al Quan (Evan C. Kim) and they and their fellow officers are very aware that Harry’s partners often get injured or killed on the job. Al and Harry have an easy report with each other almost straightaway as Al rolls with the whatever dangerous situations he ends up in by being connected to Harry. However, it is a bit stereotypical that as Al is Asian American, he knows martial arts and stops a bad guy by using his skills.

Part of the fun of watching The Dead Pool is seeing some of the actors who are involved. Jim Carrey plays a musician, Patricia Clarkson reporter Samantha Walker who wants to do a piece on Harry, and Liam Neeson plays horror movie director, Peter Swan, who gets caught up in the celebrity murder contest. Neeson’s Swan is a wonderfully over-the-top director who gets under a lot of people’s skin due to his perfectionism and his temper. The scenes with Swan and Callahan are great fun as their personalities are such opposites you’re never sure which one is going to snap first.

The Dead Pool is a fun, entertaining crime film. Plus, its runtime is under 90 minutes and while there’s a lot going on, the pacing is good and the mystery keeps you guessing and intrigued as Harry slowly unravels the case. 4/5.

C is for Carlito’s Way (1993)

After former drug kingpin Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) is sprung from jail by his friend and high-powered attorney David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn), he plans to go straight and earn enough money to leave New York for good. But his plans are undermined by misguided loyalties and an outdated code of honour and he fights for his chance to escape.

Carlito is a man who knows how to survive but that doesn’t mean he wants to continue to live a life of violence and drugs. Everyone doesn’t believe him when he says he’s retired from that life, friends, family, former associates or rivals and even the police. It’s sad and tragic because it’s often other people’s actions, whether they’re friend or foe, that force him to react and it puts him in tougher situations.

The whole vibe of Carlito’s Way is very stylish. From Carlito’s long black coat to the neon lights and dance music in his club it all comes together in a lively and colourful backdrop to the drama of these characters lives. The violence is bloody, the shoot outs exciting, and director Brian De Palma knows how to build the tension during foot chases.

The performances are great. Pacino is a charismatic lead and the way he can flip from being so calm to a sudden bust of violence is unsettling. After a while, thanks to a narration by him, you believe Carlito is truly trying to leave his old life, it’s just that no one else does so they are often on edge waiting for him to snap and he uses that to his advantage. Carlito’s relationship with dancer Grace (Penelope Ann Miller) is surprisingly soft and he appears to become the person he wants to be when he’s around her. As Pacino’s Carlito becomes mores calm, Penn’s weaselly Kleinfeld becomes more and more erratic.

Carlito’s Way is a melodramatic tragedy, but it hits all those beats so well that you can forgive the moments where it veers too far into the theatrical. While there’s naturally violence in this gangster movie, it’s also more thoughtful and emotional than one might first think. It often feels more of a character study of a flawed and dangerous man who is just trying to leave the life of crime behind, but the New York underworld won’t let him go without a fight. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Georgia: The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili

Translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin.

Trigger warnings for rape, domestic violence, forced abortion, and torture.

At the start of the twentieth century, on the edge of the Russian Empire, a family prospers. It owes its success to a delicious chocolate recipe, passed down the generations with great solemnity and caution. A caution which is justified: this is a recipe for ecstasy that carries a very bitter aftertaste. Stasia learns it from her Georgian father and takes it north, following her new husband, Simon, to his posting at the centre of the Russian Revolution in St Petersburg. Stasia’s is only the first in a symphony of grand but all too often doomed romances that swirl from sweet to sour in this epic tale of the red century.

The Eighth Life is a sprawling epic, following one family through the generations for over one hundred years, spanning the twentieth century and beyond. It gives an insight into what life was like in Georgia when it was a part of the USSR and controlled by the powers that be in Moscow, and how the struggle for independence does not go smoothly.

The story of the Jashi family in The Eighth Life is told by Niza to her young niece Brilka. She recounts the family history, from her great-great-grandmother Stasia to her and her sister Daria, and all of the love and tragedy that befalls the family and their close friends in that time. The different members of the family experience so much heartache, it’s almost cruel or depressing how unlucky or sad their lives often turn out. Nothing ever runs smoothly for them, and there are so many instances when actions of previous generations have unforeseen repercussions on their descendants. Whether the tragedies that befall each member of the family is down to having a taste of the amazing yet potentially cursed chocolate, is down to you to decide.

This family saga takes place during the heights of communism. Various historical figures are mentioned either explicitly by name, or through their nicknames or other references. If you know more about the important figures in Russia and USSR’s history, they may be easier to pick up than if you don’t. Personally, I studied the Russian revolution in college and then only have a passing knowledge of Stalin and Lenin and know little about the other important figures of that time. I was still able to follow the passage of time, and with the Jashi family connected to the KGB and Moscow top brass, it was an interesting way to learn more about this period of history and how the extreme rules and surveillance could effect the everyday person.

At over 900 pages long The Eighth Life really is an epic novel. It takes its time to develop the many characters, but it also does a great job at keeping track of the family connections, and the little call backs to past events or conversations work really well. It’s an engaging read, and the writing is often beautiful. It’s fascinating to see how much can change in one person’s lifetime. How history can affect them in both big and small ways, and how events can shape a person so completely.

The Eighth Life is a fascinating yet often harrowing read. It doesn’t shy away from the realities of war or from how cruel people can be to one another, and how some people must close themselves off from feeling anything in order to survive. This might make The Eighth Life sound like a depressing read, and it can be at times as you wonder at how much suffering a person can take, but it also captures the many emotions people go through in life. There’s still love in its various forms, and hope, and freedom. It’s just unfortunate that those who are in love or free, can’t always experience it with the ones they want to the most. 5/5.

B is for Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

A young man named Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank) navigates love, life, and being transgender in rural Nebraska in the early 90s.

I feel I should mention a lot of content warnings for Boys Don’t Cry. It contains transphobia, homophobia, rape, violence, deadnaming, transphobic violence, misgendering, murder, references to transition/surgery/hormones – and I’m probably forgetting some things. In short, Boys Don’t Cry is very tough to watch and it’s probably, unfortunately, a testament to the time it was made in terms of how it treats its trans main character, even when it tries to frame things to show the film is on Brandon’s side.

Hilary Swank gives an incredible performance. It’s perfectly measured as someone who is confident in who they are but don’t always have the safety and security to do so. Brandon is flirty and charming, if a little awkward at times and it’s easy to see why Lana (Chloë Sevigny) could become enamoured with him. All the other men in her life are fighters, and macho men stereotypes, Brandon is kinder and listens to her more than people like her mother (Jeannetta Arnette) and her friend John (Peter Sarsgaard) do. Brandon and Lana’s relationship is sweet and loving and Lana cares deeply about Brandon, no matter what other people think of him.

There’s almost a dreamlike quality to Boys Don’t Cry at times. Like when Brandon is racing down the highway or looking across the open plains of Nebraska. It’s down to the score and the way these things are shot to feel at once distant and immediate, like Brandon can escape and be free at any moment.

Boys Don’t Cry is an unflinching look of what life can be like for a trans man in a place where bigotry and ignorance run rife. It’s an upsetting and harrowing film and while things like the terminology and (hopefully) attitudes have changed, it’s a film that can make those who are unaware of the struggles trans people can face, see things from a new perspective. 4/5.

A is for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), who’s idolised Jesse James (Brad Pitt) since childhood, tries hard to join the reforming gang of the Missouri outlaw, but gradually becomes resentful of the bandit leader.

The way this film unfolds is interesting. It’s narrated by Hugh Ross and with his dulcet tones and the way this film is beautifully shot by Roger Deakins, it almost feels unreal. Like this tale of the legendary outlaw is a myth or legend and even as you get to know more of the man, everyone’s reactions to him and the aura he has makes him seem like he’s more than just a man.

The cinematography in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford really is gorgeous. Couple it with a score that’s often haunting, it makes the wide-open plains of the Midwest beautiful and lonely.

The cast is great, with the likes of Jeremy Renner and Sam Rockwell give strong performances throughout. However, naturally there are few female characters here, but Mary-Louise Parker does what she can with what she’s given as James’ wife. Casey Affleck plays the many sides to Robert Ford very well. The jealousy, the bitterness, the idealisation, the nativity – he’s unsettling to watch due to his obsession with James and by the end of it, you find you may have more sympathy for him than a lot of the people who surround him do. Affleck is great but it’s Brad Pitt who is truly mesmerising. He is fantastic as Jesse James. There’s an underlying tension nearly every time he’s on screen due to his intensity that’s simmering beneath a calm exterior. It’s because James is so smart and paranoid that even when characters don’t have something to hide, they act as if they do.

While there are gunfights and a train robbery, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is more of a slow character study of the two titular roles. That means it can be a bit hard to get into to begin with, but it’s well worth sticking with it and fully immersing yourself into this snapshot in time.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a slow but thoughtful take on a legendary outlaw and the man who killed him. 4/5.

REVIEW: Strokes of Genius (2018)

Documentary that intertwines Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s lives with their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.

With the world as it is at the minute I, like probably so many other people, turn to the media that brings me comfort. Like all other sporting activities, tennis has had to be put on hold, but there is one tennis documentary that I’ve loved since the first time I watched it so that’s what I found myself watching as a form of escapism.

Strokes of Genius looks at the lives and careers of Federer and Nadal, both individually and how they relate to one another. The 2008 Wimbledon Final is used as an example of what makes them two of the greatest players ever and shows how it is still considered to be the pinnacle of tennis matches. The narrative of the documentary is built around the match and while the match is intersected with footage and information about Nadal and Federer’s childhoods, and there is input from their families, friends, and other tennis professionals, the tension still builds as the match goes to five sets.

Naturally Strokes of Genius will appeal more to tennis fans, and to Federer and Nadal fans specifically, but it’s also a love letter to great sporting rivals. How those rivals can shape someone’s career and life, make them a better player, a better fighter, and the unique relationship two rivals have. While the Federer and Nadal rivalry is the focus of Strokes of Genius, it also looks at the Borg and McEnroe rivalry and the rivalry between Evert and Navratilova. All four of them appear in the documentary and it’s fascinating to see how they feel about each other and their legacy as rivals.

There are so many great quotes in Strokes of Genius about both players, from each other and from the various people featured in the documentary. But I feel this quote from Roger Federer’s fitness coach, Pierre Paganini, sums up the two men and why their matches (both generally and when they are against one another) have always been so interesting and entertaining to watch; “Roger is an artist who knows how to fight whereas Nadal is a fighter who knows how to be an artist as well.”

Strokes of Genius really is an enjoyable an informative documentary. Every time I watch it it takes me back to the summer of 2008, watching that epic match, and it reminds me how much I love and appreciate both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and all they have achieved, individually and together. 5/5.