4 stars

READ THE WORLD – Luxembourg: Dr. Mabuse by Norbert Jacques

Translated by Lillian A. Clare.

Set in 1920s Germany, Dr. Mabuse is a greedy anarchist who assumes many guises and controls a legion of henchmen (both willingly and unwillingly) through money, power, and telepathic hypnosis. State prosecutor Norbert von Wenk gets put on Dr. Mabuse’s trail after strange things happen at gambling halls and so begins a game of cat and mouse.

Dr. Mabuse is a great villain. He’s truly evil and is a power-hungry master-manipulator. He can hypnotise people to do what he wills, whether it’s cheating at a game of cards or even taking their own life. The way the hypnotism is described by one of he’s victims is very unsettling and uncomfortable, especially when he’s forcing his will upon a woman. It is for all intents and purposes rape of the mind and body. He’s also great at disguises and putting on different personas so at times von Wenk and Dr. Mabuse are in the same room and may even be talking to one another but von Wenk has no idea that it’s the man he’s after until later.

The writing style of Dr. Mabuse is that typical late nineteenth century style. The language, the mystery, and the action reminded me both of Sherlock Holmes and Raffles at times. If you like stories about those characters – though they’re both far more heroic than Dr. Mabuse – then you might like this one too.

Dr. Mabuse is a fun, pulpy, mystery. It’s full of twists and turns and though some of them are unbelievable – how this man manages to evade capture at some points incredible – but it just goes to show how Dr. Mabuse is the kind of criminal mastermind that’s always a few steps ahead. Though it goes to great lengths to show how smart Dr. Mabuse is, it doesn’t do so at the detriment of von Wenk. He’s a pretty smart and capable man himself, and has enough pull with the law to get police officers (and a lot of them) where he needs them quickly. It is fun seeing von Wenk put things together and try and solve the case. There’s a lot of surprises and when some of Dr. Mabuse’s accomplices would rather die than say anything about him, von Wenk faces a lot of dead ends.

Dr. Mabuse is a pretty enjoyable read and being set in 1920s Germany it’s interesting to see the effects of the First World War on the German citizens and society. They were often only passing mentions but it helped make me understand the place that Dr. Mabuse was operating in. 4/5.

REVIEW: Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (2022)

Two years after her husband’s death, Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson), a 55-year-old retired religious studies teacher, makes a plan. She books a hotel room and hires young sex worker Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack) in the hope to finally experience some good sex.

This is one of those films I went into blind and wanted to watch it purely because there was an actor I liked in it. In this case that’s Emma Thompson but I have to say I’ll be checking out Daryl McCormack’s filmography after this because he was utterly charming and charismatic. Thompson though is a tour deforce. Emma Thompson is generally great, she’s funny and quick and nails those dramatic moments, but in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande it’s like you get to see another new side to her. Nancy is scared and vulnerable while also being incredibly opinionated and sure about the things she does know about. Sex is something she’s unsure about having only slept with one man her entire life and having never had any pleasure from it. But her life and her thoughts on society are things she is sure about as she’s a planner and thinks through every possible scenario.

The conflicts that arise in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande are often personal and internal ones. Nancy is conflicted by what she’s doing. Hiring a sex worker is so out of her realm of normality that she second guesses herself almost constantly. Then there’s the boundaries both she and Leo put for their own peace of mind and how things deteriorate when those boundaries are crossed.

The fact that Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is pretty much just set in a hotel room is great too as I’m a big fan of single-location films. How Leo and Nancy move around the space is interesting and when tensions boil over, they feel so far apart even though they’re in the same room and are still as physically close to one another as they have been before.

The discussions Nancy and Leo have before, during and after sex are both funny and interesting. Their ideas of what sex work is and its value differ greatly and some of that can be put down to a generational divide. To begin with Nancy thinks there must be “something wrong” with Leo or he must have some huge trauma to do what he does but for him it’s a job he enjoys doing. He enjoys giving others pleasure and there’s the clients that don’t want anything from him but some company. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is probably one of the most nuanced and positive depictions of sex work I’ve seen in a film. Leo is never guilty about his job and he is kind enough to explain to Nancy what he gets out of it.

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is funny, cringey, sexy, and a touching film about human connection – sexual or otherwise. The fact that it’s pretty much just set in a hotel room is great too as I’m a big fan of single-location films. The humour cannot be overstated and with a clever script and brilliant performances Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is a delight! 4/5.

REVIEW: I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007)

Forty-year-old single mum Rosie (Michelle Pfeiffer) produces doomed TV show until she casts twenty-nine-year-old Adam (Paul Rudd). As the show gets a new lease of life, so does she as they start to date but her insecurities about their age difference threatens to compromise their relationship.

I have a soft spot for films/shows that are about films/shows being made (Singin’ in the Rain and Hail, Caesar! for example) so for me, Rosie’s job was just as interesting as the family and romance stuff she has going on in her life. She’s a writer and producer of “You Go Girl” – a teen comedy show where all the teenagers are played by twenty-somethings – and there’s some great referential humour in that concept with interfering network heads, censors, and trying to make the cast look younger. Even though I Could Never Be Your Woman is fifteen years old, many of the problems Rosie faces in trying to put together the best show she can on a tiny budget are still applicable to TV shows nowadays.

Something else I very much enjoyed in I Could Never Be Your Woman is all the random British and Irish actors that are in this. Saoirse Ronan plays Izzie, Rosie’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Yasmin Paige (of The Sarah Jane Adventures fame plays Melanie, Izzie’s best friend, while Sarah Alexander plays Rosie’s catty assistant. Then there’s Graham Norton who works in the “You Go Girl” costume department, David Mitchell is a co-writer on the show, Tracey Ullman plays Mother Nature (that’s a bit of a weird one), and Mackenzie Crook and Steve Pemberton also make brief appearances. I’d be somewhat fascinated to learn how all these people ended up on this film as it really is an eclectic bunch.

But I Could Never Be Your Woman has more going for it than just a cool job for the female lead and a load of British and Irish comedy actors making brief appearances, it is actually pretty funny and is a sweet romance. Rudd and Pfeiffer have great chemistry and while Rosie’s worries about their age difference is understandable, they do actually work well together. It probably helps that Paul Rudd looks ageless so me watching this for the first time now didn’t really see much difference between the two of the age-wise.

Rosie and Izzie’s relationship was also great. While Rosie is obviously the adult and her mum, she talks to Izzie in a mature way and they both give each other advice on their love lives with mixed results. I also liked Rosie’s relationship with her ex-husband and Izzie’s father Nathan (Jon Lovitz). They clearly are great co-parents and I always like to see examples of the non-“traditional” family done well.

I Could Never Be Your Woman is a good fun, 90-minute romcom. In some ways it feels a bit dated and very 2000s with the fashion and slang but it’s still a fun story and the various relationship dynamics really make the film work. 4/5.

Z is for Zoe (2018)

Cole (Ewan McGregor) and Zoe (Léa Seydoux) are colleagues at a research lab that designs drugs and technology to improve and perfect romantic relationships. As they become close, their relationship is threatened when Zoe discovers the truth about their relationship, sending them into a spiral of confusion, betrayal and the most intense of human emotions, love.

Zoe is such a sweet, thoughtful take on relationships, romance and what it means to be human. It’s that kind of near-future sci-fi that I love where everything is as we’d expect bar one aspect. In this instance, that thing is how evolved AI is and that androids, or “synthetics” as they’re called here, can be so lifelike that they can fool humans. They can be programmed to feel and connect with people so humans never have to be lonely.

Ash (Theo James) is one such synthetic and seeing him learn and adapt and feel does make you question the differences between humans and machines. While his code is his foundation, he’s been given memories and personality and is able to decide things for himself. Theo James does a good job at adding little hesitations to Ash’s movements and showing that as he learns, he mostly appears “human” but there’s still the odd moment with him that’s a little unsettling.

The romance between Cole and Zoe is interesting as they both seem so isolated but for different reasons. There’s a hesitancy about both of them and as more of their pasts are revealed, you begin to understand why they act that way.

As a sidenote, I really liked the relationship between Cole and his ex-wife Emma (Rashida Jones). So often you see an antagonistic relationship between ex’s, even when they’re coparenting like these two are. While there still is the odd moment of awkwardness between the two of them, it’s clear that they both still care about each other and want the other to be happy, even if it’s not with themselves.

Zoe is an interesting sci-fi/romance film. The central performances are all great and the romance between Cole and Zoe is believable. Similarities can be made between Zoe and Her, and both films have a similar melancholy vibe to them. So if you like one of those films, there’s a good chance you’d like the other. 4/5.

W is for White Hunter Black Heart (1990)

White Hunter Black Heart is thinly inspired by director John Huston and the experience he and his crew had while making The African Queen. Renowned filmmaker John Wilson (Clint Eastwood) travels to Africa to direct a new movie, but his desire to hunt down an elephant turns into a grim situation with his movie crew, putting production behind and lives on the line.

This is honestly one of the best performances I’ve seen from Clint Eastwood. John Wilson is such a charming guy but he’s also reckless and selfish. He clearly has a moral backbone as he picks fights with racists and insults antisemites to their faces but when he becomes obsessed with hunting a huge elephant it’s like any of his likable qualities fade away. Though, were those supposedly admirable qualities really there, or was it all his ego? Using when his friend is belittled to make a point and appear smarter than others or using when a black waiter is mistreated to start a fight and get out some of his pent-up aggression. While in a roundabout way he stood up for those people, did he do it just to make himself feel good or from a sense of justice? These are the things you’re left wondering about John Wilson.

Eastwood plays him to perfection. It probably helps that through his long career Eastwood has played his fair share of toxic male characters but here the toxic masculinity isn’t something to be admired but to be cautious of. Combined with the ego and insecurity of an artist, John is a captivating character and someone you’re never too sure what he’s going to do next.

Pete (Jeff Fahey) is the film’s writer and John’s friend. He’s the voice of reason to a lot of John’s suggestions, or rather he attempts to be but John is so strong-willed that he often barely registers Pete’s objections.

Personally, I enjoyed seeing Brit Alun Armstrong in this. He played Ralph Lockhart who works for one of the producers of the film John and Peter are supposed to be finishing writing and scouting locations. There’s some good banter between Ralph and John as they have opposing ideas and as Ralph gets more used to John’s obsession and almost gives up on the film being made, he has some funny lines. Just the disbelief and grim acceptance of the film productions situation is amusing as he’s one of the first to realise how potentially bad a situation the cast and crew could be in thanks to John.

White Hunter Black Heart is a gripping film thanks to Eastwood’s performance. He plays a fascinating character and there’s a sense of foreboding throughout as he gets more and more obsessed with hunting a bull elephant. It’s very reminiscent of Moby Dick with the elephant being John’s white whale and woe betide anyone who stands in his way. 4/5.

S is for Space Cowboys (2000)

When an aging Russian satellite suffers a system failure that could set it on a collision course for Earth, retired engineer Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood) is called into help as his now outdated guidance system is what the satellite runs on. He blackmails his former boss Bob Gerson (James Cromwell) in order to get his old team back together to complete the mission, and soon Frank, pilot William “Hawk” Hawkings (Tommy Lee Jones), flight engineer Jerry O’Neill (Donald Sutherland) and navigator Tank Sullivan (James Garner) are all going through training at NASA to prove their fitness for the mission.

I love a good space movie, especially ones that focus on the technical aspects of space travel and have all the usual tropes with interesting characters in ground control as well as in space, office politics, and things not going to plan – Apollo 13 and The Martian are my favourite space films. Space Cowboys ticks all those boxes so I had a great time with this film.

The friendship between the old teammates is what really made Space Cowboys for me. So many of the scenes when they’re all together, just chatting, or messing around during their training were fun to watch. It all seemed so natural as they took the mick out of one another but also clearly cared about one another. Some of them hadn’t seen each other for years but the sign of a good friendship is being able to easily fall back into the old rhythms of a friendship like no time had passed at all.

The first two acts of Space Cowboys are Frank getting the team back together and them going through training together. There are the usual clichés of clashes between the old, would-be astronauts and the young, trained professionals but things never turn too nasty and as their training progresses you can see there’s a grudging respect between the two generations. The third act is the mission into space and naturally just about everything that could go wrong, does. There’s a bit of a farfetched reveal about the satellite but besides from that the mission in space is tense and action-packed.

As someone who grew up watching James Cromwell as the nice and gentle farmer in Babe, it’s been a weird experience watching the rest of his filmography as I get older, especially when he plays characters who aren’t that nice at all. Whenever he and Eastwood butt heads it’s fun to see but Cromwell’s character has such a shifty undertone to him it’s a bit disconcerting.

Have to mention the needle drop of *NSYNC’s Space Cowboy which was not a song I’d ever think would be in a Clint Eastwood movie but when the title works, it’d be a crime not to use it.

Overall Space Cowboys is a fun film with engaging characters. Sure, the main plot is saving a failing satellite but really it’s a film about friendship, loyalty, and trust and it has one of the most believable group of friends I’ve seen in film in a while. 4/5.

M is for Matchstick Men (2003)

Phobia-addled and compulsive con artist Roy (Nicolas Cage and his protégé Frank (Sam Rockwell) are on the verge of pulling off a lucrative con when Roy’s teenage daughter Angela (Alison Lohman) shows up on his doorstep.

Matchstick Men is one of those films I’d heard of but knew nothing about the actual plot. I’d heard of it in the sense I’d seen it be mentioned as an underappreciated Nicolas Cage movie, and having now watched it I kind of agree. It’s really a hidden gem of a film when it comes to Cage and Rockwell and their performances.

But the real standout is Lohman. Gosh, she’s incredible and really holds her own up against Cage who she shares just about every one of her scenes. The relationship between Angela and Roy is so sweet and awkward as he is completely out of his depth talking to a teenage girl. He suddenly has someone else in his home, making a mess when he has everything clean and orderly, and it is clearly a struggle for him. They both have their issues with trust and letting each other in, but it’s clear from pretty much the outset that they care about one another.

While Matchstick Men is a sort of heist film and features a few different cons as well as the long con Frank and Roy are working on, it’s more about the relationships between the characters. The cons, while interesting and at times fun, take a backseat so the characters become what you’re invested in more than the con.

Like any good film with a con, Matchstick Men surprised me. It’s funny and weird at times thanks to Cage’s eccentric but never over the top performance, but it’s also sweet and kind of sad too. All the characters are looking for some sort of connection while also trying to keep their heads above water.

So yes, I join the ranks of calling Matchstick Men an underappreciated film. Whether you’re a Nicolas Cage fan, a Sam Rockwell fan, or a Ridley Scott fan because that’s who directed this odd but great film, there’s probably going to be something for you to enjoy here. 4/5.

I is for The Immigrant (2013)

Trigger warning, the film has mentions of rape and sexual assault.

New York, 1921. Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard), a Polish immigrant is tricked into working in a burlesque theatre as she tries to make enough money to get her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) out of the infirmary on Ellis Island.

The Immigrant is one of those films that I’m glad I’ve watched as I think it’s impressively made with some great central performances, but I don’t think I’d ever watch it again as it was so bleak.

When Ewa is stranded at Ellis Island after her aunt and uncle supposedly do not come to claim her, she is rescued by Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a charming man who works at a burlesque club cum brothel. Bruno is emotionally and financially manipulative towards Ewa, and presumably to a lot of the other women he has working for him, but while they are used to their jobs and way of life, Ewa doesn’t want to live like this and uses it as a means to an end.

When Orlando (Jeremy Renner), a magician and fellow performer at the theatre arrives, Ewa finds herself torn between the two men. One who has always looked to control her while the other takes her as she is and perhaps could make her feel loved rather than used. With Orlando’s appearance, Bruno starts to unravel and while he has always been a showman, you begin to see how much of his entire life and persona was act. Bruno is an interesting character as while he’s definitely not nice or good, at times you can almost pity him.

The fact that The Immigrant has a sepia-tone throughout, courtesy of cinematographer Darius Khondji, and an emotional yet often haunting score from Christopher Spelman, makes the film seem almost classic and timeless. The attention to detail in the production design and costumes too make it really easy to become immersed in this time period and be swept up in the difficult situation Ewa finds herself in.

The Immigrant is a great looking film with a fantastic lead performance from Cotillard. It is a film with a bit of a slow plot but the performances are often riveting so it’s not too noticeable. As I said, it is a pretty bleak film though. The things Ewa goes through and how she struggles to deal with her guilt and perceived sin is tough to watch. 4/5.

H is for House of Flying Daggers (2004)

Romantic police captain Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) breaks Mei (Ziyi Zhang), a beautiful member of the rebel group known as House of Flying Daggers, out of prison but things are not what they seem.

Plot-wise House of Flying Daggers is bit of a mixed bag for me. It’s interesting how pretty much every single character is hiding something and there’s a lot of twists, especially in the last act as motivations are revealed. So that’s intriguing and a twist usually happens just when I’m starting to get a little bored. Which is kind of clever from a scriptwriting point of view, it’s as if they knew when interest might start wanning and pull the audience back in. The love story/stories that are slowly revealed aren’t so interesting to me and the initial conflict of the rebel group vs the government ends up being dropped to focus on the romance. In some ways this leaves the ending a bit unsatisfying.

That being said, House of Flying Daggers is a beautiful and stylish film. When Mei performs a dance and shadow game at the start of the film, how the camera follows her movements as the long fabric from her clothes spins around is wonderful. The colours in House of Flying Daggers are a feast for the eyes. Whether it’s the pastel colours of the Peony Pavilion or the greens of the bamboo forest it’s all captured brilliantly by cinematographer by Xiaoding Zhao.

The fights and actions sequences are suitably dramatic and well shot too. Everything is easy to follow and they’re always exciting and innovative. Not being someone who watches wuxia films that regularly, I always find it’s a visual treat seeing action scenes like this when you compare them to a lot of Western action films that are heavily edited, perhaps in the dark and hard to follow. Plus, it’s fun seeing these people defy the laws of gravity and it all just be an understood part of this world.

The music composed by Shigeru Umebayashi is also beautiful. It’s the sort of music that made me believe in the love story more than the plot did.

I’m glad I’ve finally watched House of Flying Daggers after having the DVD for so long. Like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon it’s a film that’s referenced in popular culture a lot – I realised that a shot of Mei towards the end of the film was on the cover of one of my university Film textbooks, always thought it was a beautiful cover but never knew what film it was from – so it’s good to actually know the original material.

The fights, colours and acting in House of Flying Daggers makes it stand out when the plot isn’t always that interesting. Perhaps it’s a film where it’s more style over substance but in this instance, I didn’t really care as I was swept up in it all. 4/5.

E is for Enough Said (2013)

Divorced masseuse Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is slowly coming to terms with her daughter leaving to go to college when she meets Albert (James Gandolfini). As they’re getting to know one another she discovers that he’s her new friend and client Marianne’s (Catherine Keener) ex-husband.

Enough Said is one of those wonderfully simple but effective films that feels very real and rather cosy. With its ninety-minute runtime it develops its main characters (and its side characters) very well and shows their messy sides as well as their good sides. Enough Said could’ve been a bit trite but thanks to the performance from Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini and a script that knows how to balance the absurd with heartfelt moments, it really works.

Eva is a nice woman but she’s in need of connections. While it’s clear she loves her daughter and is sad about her moving away, she’s so caring that she also takes her daughter’s best friend under her wing. This causes tension between the friends, and the mothers and daughters, but Eva is a bit too oblivious to see that to begin with.

While the focus of Enough Said is the blossoming romance between Eva and Albert and how she then learns about all his negative traits from his ex-wife, it’s good that her daughter still plays a big part in her life, as does her friends (played by Toni Collette and Ben Falcone). It makes Eva feel like more of a real person with a real, lived-in life.

It’s also nice to see a story about post-divorce life and dating and all the things that come with that. Co-parenting and having to still talk to your ex even if you don’t like them anymore because of your child, and having to deal with new stepparents too. Plus, these characters have all lived a life and are at an age where romantic partners might not be the idealised versions one might dream of but that’s OK.

There’s a seen in Enough Said that reminded me of the big reveal in Crazy Stupid Love though only in the fact that a bunch of characters were finally together and secrets were revealed. In Enough Said it’s awkward and uncomfortable as they are finally on the same page and some characters are justifiably hurt. It’s not the hysterical farce of Crazy Stupid Love (which I do love and think is one of the funniest scenes on film ever) but this more understated dramatic reveal works brilliantly here.

Enough Said is the best kind of movie for grownups. It’s funny, sweet and realistic and it’s just a lovely film where the relationships are believable and the chemistry is suitably awkward yet nice. 4/5.