4 stars

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.

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: The Kitchen (2019)

When their gangster husbands are sent to prison, their wives continue to operate their rackets and under their hand the business thrives.

The production design, hair and costuming firmly places The Kitchen in the time it’s set; late 1970s Hell Kitchen, New York. The violence is often bloody and shocking, and events seem to happen very quickly, there are a few montages complimented by an iconic song from the era. It would’ve been nice if some plot points could’ve had more time to evolve but on the whole the twists and turns work.

The three leads in The Kitchen are all great and while these characters are (for the most part) all working towards the same goal, they each have their own take on the situation and different strengths and weaknesses. Kathy (Melissa McCarthy) is a stay at home mother and is the one with the family connections to the Irish Mob. She’s the most level-headed but also the most compassionate which can lead to her downfall. Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) has always felt like the outsider and never accepted by the family, leading her to want more money and power than the family could ever dream of. Claire (Elisabeth Moss) has been beaten by her husband and refuses to be the victim anymore.

The support network these three women have for one another is wonderful, but that doesn’t mean they always see eye on how to run this business. The Kitchen does a great job at handling the core theme of “women in a man’s world” and how they can be as ruthless and as smart as their male counterparts, but also have different ideas on how to take on the same challenge.

McCarthy is the standout. When she has a dramatic role, she can sink her teeth into she can really bring out a brilliant performance. Kathy is often seen as the more mumsy of the three, but McCarthy does a great job at showing that inner steel and determination as she becomes more comfortable with the power and status she wields.

The Kitchen is engaging, surprising and has a trio of lead performances that really pull you into the story. It’s great to see a gangster movie with the women at front and centre. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Tibet: Love in No Man’s Land by Duo Ji Zhuo Ga

Translated by Hallie Treadway.

The Changthang Plateau lies in the centre of Tibet. A vast, rolling grassland stippled with azure-blue lakes and ringed by snow peaks, it is home to seven-year-old Gongzha and his family who live, as their ancestors have done for centuries, by herding and hunting. But it is 1967 and the Cultural Revolution is seeping across China. Not even the grasslands of Tibet are immune. As the Red Guard systematically loot and destroy Tibet’s monasteries, Gongzha helps hide two treasures belonging to his local temple: an ebony-black Buddha marked with an ancient symbol and a copy of the twelfth-century text the Epic of King Gesar, written in gold ink. The repercussions of his act will echo across the decades.

Love in No Man’s Land is a sprawling epic that goes from the 1960s to the 1990s. In that time, you see how life for the families who live on the grassland of Tibet change a lot, but at the same time they still keep a lot of their traditions and history. For instance, even though roads and cars start to become more common, there’s still so many places where modern civilisation hasn’t touched it and people still live how their ancestors did before them.

The writing in Love in No Man’s Land is beautiful and evocative. It really paints a vivid picture of both the harshness of the vast grasslands but also the beauty of them too. With the mountains and lakes, the wild animals (wolves, yaks, antelope and bears all play a big part), and the changing weather, it all feels so magical and far-removed from “the real world”.

Love (as you might guess from the books title) is a big theme of this book. Gongzha has a childhood sweetheart, he loves his family and he’s respectful of the grassland and the creatures who live there. He has a big heart and seeing him deal with tragedy from a young age (death and violence are not uncommon in the communities he is a part of) and how that shapes him is interesting.

As well as Gongzha and his personal journey, a big part of Love in No Man’s Land is this mystery surrounding an ancient symbol. It’s in caves, on statues, on bears, and it seems to be a part of the very essence of the grassland. Gongzha encounters it at different points in his life, each time learning a bit more about his people’s past and how they could possibly be connected to the symbol, but it’s not something that he spends his life pondering.

While Gongzha is the main protagonist you meet a lot of different characters. These people dip in and out of Gongzha’s life, and sometimes they’re the children of someone Gongzha used to know, meaning it can be difficult at times to keep track of who is who and how they’re connected to one another. That being said, having so many characters helps this word feel lived in and real. Love in No Man’s Land is in the third person and while the majority of the book is from Gongzha’s point of view, a lot is also from the point of view of the various characters that are in Gongzhas life, even if for a short while. Some might be the focus for only a page or two, while others have more of a decent sized chunk. There are some coincidences where people encounter one another and don’t realise at first that they might have a couple of people already connecting them. But on a whole, these connections seem organic as they are a people who have lived in this part of the world for generations and rarely move far from their families.

I learnt so much about the Tibetan herder’s lifestyle and how it’s evolved over the years from reading Love in No Man’s Land. I think I preferred the atmosphere this book evokes more than anything and I didn’t always feel that connected to Gongzha which is probably down to us having so different lives. It was still a fascinating read – especially this mystery to do with the symbol – and a beautifully written one too. 4/5.