Speed Racer (2008)

There’s certainly a message to this film, but it’s buried in layers of aesthetics that you’ll either hate or, as I did, sort of get to tolerate after a while. I think it’s an acquired taste, but I enjoy the Wachowskis and their increasingly baroque output, as witness Jupiter Ascending, one of the great films of the last decade and one equally likely to divide its audience. Anyway, I’m taking a bit of a break this week from the themed reviews, so this is just a post for my regular women filmmakers slot on Wednesday, and I should cover a newish release on Friday.


I’ve seen films based on cartoons and manga before, but they don’t usually go quite so far in capturing a certain uncanny hyper-saturated cartoon-panel-like sensibility as this film. It all but completely does away with standard filmic editing or any kind of naturalistic construction of reality, as each element within the frame looks as if it’s filmed separately and layered on, moving often independently of the other images. Conversations are between superimposed heads swiping right or left across the screen, and rarely between two people standing or sitting facing one another. Even in domestic settings, every shot looks like it’s against a green screen, so it must have been fearsomely difficult to have acted on the film — though, that said, the performances are hardly naturalistic either. It’s all pushed to a ridiculous degree, with the racing sequences themselves more like a very hi-def version of Mario Kart, and certainly defying all laws of physics. And I suppose that’s where the achievement lies, in creating a film so at odds with reality, but still with a very clear message about the corrupting power of capital and the need to resist it.

Speed Racer film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski [under different names at the time] (based on the manga マッハGoGoGo Mahha GoGoGo [“Speed Racer, aka Mach GoGoGo”] by Tatsuo Yoshida 吉田竜夫); Cinematographer David Tattersall; Starring Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 1 June 2019.

Criterion Sunday 326: Metropolitan (1990)

This film feels like the New Wave if that movement were about spawning the Noah Baumbachs and Wes Andersons who would come to define the genre of ‘brittle New York-set comedies of manners skewering the affectations of the urban haute bourgeoisie’ (well, that’s what they call themselves in Metropolitan, “uhbs” for short). Then again, I suppose this kind of confected class paradigm has always been part of the NYC milieu, but Whit Stillman is particularly good at capturing the absurdity without also making me hate the characters — although I did certainly dislike most of them. That self-important sense of a man who lectures a more educated woman about Jane Austen before at length revealing grandiosely that he doesn’t like to read novels, only literary criticism; or the exceedingly designer-clad woman who declares to all that she despises snobbery; or the earnest invocation of French socialists at a tuxedo-clad debutants party. Part of the film’s affectation is to present these quaint society throwbacks of the Upper East Side (apologies if I’m getting the geography a bit wrong, as I’m not from NYC) in a slightly arch framework, with the title cards and graphics all suggesting a world-preserved-in-aspic quality, a sort of faux Gilded Era of society wits with a youthful sense of their own mortality and impending worthlessness (only briefly punctured when they meet an older version of themselves who doesn’t quite align with their self-mythologising). The key is, though, it’s well-written, which carries the film’s at times amateurish feeling — though I do genuinely mean that in a generous way, in the sense of someone who really loves what they’re depicting but perhaps hasn’t quite yet acquired the polished skill that Whitman would come to possess.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are a couple of short clips presenting multiple takes of alternative casting, including the actor who plays the hated Rick as the central character Nick, and Troma director Lloyd Kaufman as a music producer.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Whit Stillman; Cinematographer John Thomas; Starring Edward Clements, Carolyn Farina, Chris Eigeman, Taylor Nichols; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Thursday 18 June 2020.

Hail Satan? (2019)

I’ve been featuring films shown at Sheffield Doc/Fest on my blog this week, as the festival’s online 2020 edition is currently live. The last edition premiered a number of high-profile documentaries for UK audiences, including the Doc/Audience Award winner For Sama and the Tim Hetherington Award winner One Child Nation, amongst others. A film which gained a cinematic release fairly swiftly after the festival and which takes a different tonal approach to serious societal issues is this one, ostensibly about Satanic practice in the United States (or at least, one branch of it), but actually about civil liberties, a wider discussion that’s always relevant.


This is an amusing documentary that doesn’t take itself too seriously, largely because it’s about a movement that likewise isn’t very serious — at least, not about Satanism itself (ironically enough). Really it’s about raising social consciousness for issues of real freedom (of abortion rights, against transphobia, and of course the rights to religious freedom that require the separation of church and state), and so mostly frequently we see the Satanists protesting outside government buildings trying to protect and enshrine rights that go far beyond Satanism per se. While the film likely doesn’t reflect the variety of Satanic religious practice (I’m sure at least some of it is undertaken earnestly), it’s a rare work that deals with the happier, more productive end of trolling for a change.

Hail Satan? film posterCREDITS
Director Penny Lane; Cinematographer Naiti Gámez; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Sunday 25 August 2019.

Step (2017)

I suppose this kind of milieu, the inner-city school, isn’t particularly uncommon, nor even focusing on athletic achievements in that venue (The Fits, although a fiction drama, isn’t so removed from this). And indeed there’s a whole (and great, in my opinion) franchise of films dedicated to this dance style, Step Up. Still, it’s nice to see the dance form tied to a story that’s grounded in a sociopolitical context, and though it’s always worth being attentive to the means of production (the film crew appear to be largely white), I think the resulting film avoids exploitation and is empathetic towards its subjects.


See, I get the reviews calling this film uplifting or inspirational, because that vibe definitely exists here, at least in part. But it’s set in a Black girls’ school in Baltimore, and the context — as we’ve seen only too often, and recently as well — is tough for them. That much the documentary makes clear at the outset. Still, this is about three young women who each approach their goal of getting into college via different means, but all of whom are into step dance. Those sequences could be better filmed (choppy editing and close-ups are all too common in dance films and really don’t help viewers appreciate it), but the pathos is all there, and by the end I think the film really allows for some empathy with its stars. Well, I shed a few tears.

Step film posterCREDITS
Director Amanda Lipitz; Cinematographer Casey Regan; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Sunday 13 August 2017.

Unlocking the Cage (2016)

In the subsection of crusading documentaries bringing attention to a particular issue, this one dealing with animal rights — and specifically the legal attempt to claim them as legal persons (which is, in the States, a legal right that is also claimed by companies, I believe) — is an interesting one, which intersects with certain trends right now. It also exemplifies the place that any documentary festival has for the latest work by longstanding creators in the genre. That said, it’s a fairly minor final film from one of the great 20th century documentarians (Donn Pennebaker), who died in 2019, and there are also troubling aspects to some of the legal arguments in light of this particular historical juncture (the review below was written in 2016 when I saw the film).


This is a solidly made documentary (as you’d expect from the talent) about the issue of animal rights. It’s lovely that people are out there trying to make a difference on this and given my own (vegan) dietary choices, I’m certainly on-side with their struggle. However, it never really convinces me that the particular legal path they’re going down is the best avenue. Still, any attempt to help animals, even arguing for their “personhood”, is a good cause, and who knows, maybe we’ll all look back in 50 years and wonder that such rights ever needed fighting for. But for now, I do strongly wonder if slavery analogies are the most tactful in this respect.

Unlocking the Cage film posterCREDITS
Directors Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker; Cinematographer Hegedus; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Thursday 16 June 2016.

Unrest (2017)

A documentary which won the Illuminate Award at the 2017 Sheffield Doc/Fest is this one, dealing with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a still misunderstood and under-researched ailment suffered by a large number of people. It’s one of a range of documentaries which are dedicated to publicising situations which don’t get much media attention, in the hope of effecting some meaningful change.


A moving and quite effective documentary about ME (also known as “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome”). If nothing else, the filmmaker — Jennifer Brea, also the primary subject of the documentary and someone who lives with this — makes it clear how little understood the disease is (partly a lack of understanding and funding by those who have the money and power to effect proper research), and how much scepticism about it remains within society. She also is very clear about how debilitating it can be, and while she herself is sometimes mobile, she interviews a range of people at various places in the spectrum, including a bedridden young woman in England and a man in the States who is almost completely immobile and silent, and (it turns out) the son of a leading researcher in the field, whose desperation to find sources for funding turns out to have quite a personal impetus. For this kind of personal documentary, it’s quite well-made and presents a clear case for further understanding and empathy with those who deal with it — which is, it turns out, a surprisingly large number of people.

Unrest film posterCREDITS
Director Jennifer Brea; Writers Brea and Kim Roberts; Cinematographers Sam Heesen and Christian Laursen; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Monday 6 November 2017.

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin (2018)

As of writing this (and hopefully not for too much longer), I’ve never actually read any of the work of Ursula K. Le Guin, and I feel ashamed at that. More than ever, it’s important to celebrate authors who work in the fantasy and science-fiction genres who deal frankly and positively with difference, specifically characters with fluid gender and sexual identities, characters which cut across class divides and are sympathetic and believable. Le Guin has been doing so since the 1960s, and too many authors with a lot of media cachet have been getting recent media traction with appalling untruths about, for example, transgender people. Difference is still scary and threatening to far too many people, and reading the work of authors like Le Guin is a small way to rectify that.


A straightforward hour-long talking heads documentary about an American fantasy author who died at the age of 88 in January 2018. It dwells most on her upbringing and the work in the 1960s that made her name, and about her own personal growth in encountering feminism and moving from primarily male protagonists to integrate different class and gender perspectives into her stories from the 1970s onwards. As it’s quite short, you get the sense that there’s a lot more that could be covered, and it leans rather heavily on the opinions of David Mitchell and Neil Gaiman, but on the whole this is a fascinating piece. In particular, her speech near the end of her life to the National Book Awards is a reminder that her acuity and social consciousness remained undiminished throughout her life.

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Arwen Curry; Cinematographer Andrew Black; Length 68 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Saturday 10 November 2018.

What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (2018)

Another film that seems relevant to recent political and social crises is this documentary from 2018, re-edited in a shorter ‘director’s cut’ the following year (where it also screened at the Sheffield Doc/Fest). I’ve seen critiques of the film from Black critics, a sense of it as being overly aestheticised and a little removed perhaps from the lives and struggles it’s showing, but the director was keen to emphasise the collaborative nature of the work.


The director was presenting a ‘director’s cut’ of this film (at 106 minutes, slightly shorter than the version premiered at Venice last year and shown at the 2018 London Film Festival), and though I can’t compare the two versions, this is a beautiful monochrome-shot film about a few different Black experiences of life in and around New Orleans. At times there’s some of the quietly observed quotidian reality that you get in, say, RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening, or a hint at the kinds of generational stories in the TV show Treme, not to mention a panoply of images that recall a myriad of great films about the American South, even at times a sense of a staged performance (as during Judy’s literal performance in her bar near the end of the film). However, this feels like a film that’s not quite observational documentary but a sort of collaborative improvisation, in which Minervini (as he was careful to stress in an on-stage Q&A afterwards) wanted to present voices and stories that were not and could never be his own, and to respect them. So all those familiar stories, about Black peoples’ lives and deaths, about trying to move beyond trauma, or sometimes the inability to do so, these are presented in a graceful, economical manner — you’re never far from the trauma, but that doesn’t feel like the totality of experience by any means. Judy in her bar, the Mardi Gras Indians sewing their elaborate costumes while singing, the two boys playing outside and alongside railroad tracks, Judy’s mother doing her washing out the front of her home, even the New Black Panthers organising and handing out meals and water to local homeless people or protesting the deaths of Black men at the hands of police, all of these moments are both filled with joy and hope even while being inflected by countless stories, memories and history, ones spoken about and others unspoken. There are three central groups of characters in this film, but there are hundreds of stories in every sequence I think, and that’s what Minervini is great at capturing.

What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire? film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Roberto Minervini; Cinematographer Diego Romero; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 12 April 2019.

Two Netflix Films about Mediæval Kings in the British Isles: Outlaw/King (2018) and The King (2019)

Although Robert the Bruce (whose story is rendered in Outlaw/King) and Henry V (of The King) were two historical figures whose lives never overlapped, they did live within a few generations of one another (Henry was born around 60 years after Bruce died), and both lived in what was then a divided island, though part of that was down to the actions of Bruce himself. Neither film can probably claim to be great history — they are more invested in generic tropes of heroism and resistance, while The King isn’t even based on the history but on Shakespeare’s rendering of it some century and a half later — but both illuminate some of the ways that history is used and abused, also adding to that popular idea that Mediæval times were all about grim misery, mud and gore.

Continue reading “Two Netflix Films about Mediæval Kings in the British Isles: Outlaw/King (2018) and The King (2019)”

Dark Waters (2019)

As I hope is evident in my week focusing on films about history, the engagement with historical events is not one that is just about a discreet set of events separated away in the past. The forces that have shaped history continue into the present, as their legacies are manifested in behaviour and actions, but sometimes too filmic engagement with history is a prod to current events. For example the events portrayed in this film, which stretch back decades into the mid-20th century, are ongoing; even the legal case it documents hasn’t been concluded. These are urgent issues that will have an effect on our future, and so the film is used as a way to make those decisions more relevant and personable. (And as usual in such cases, the filmmakers have got Mark Ruffalo in for that.)


Todd Haynes has made some of my favourite films in the last few decades but I can’t claim this one is up there with them, largely because it cleaves so heavily to a very specific genre formula, and it’s not a genre I hugely love (the legal procedural thriller). It’s one of those issues-driven movies — the ones that Mark Ruffalo certainly seems to have done a few of recently (such as Spotlight) — and it’s all very efficiently despatched. Ruffalo plays a lawyer taking a huge American chemical company (DuPont) to task for the untold damage they’ve done not just to thousands of people they employed making the chemicals for Teflon, but also those who lived near the plant in West Virgnia, not to mention possibly every single human and living creature on the planet who has been just a little bit poisoned by the actions of them and other massive chemical conglomerates whose only interest — literally, their only apparent interest — has been in protecting the billions of dollars of profits they have been making. The fact that this fight is ongoing even at the time of the film’s making is just part of the reason for it to exist, and though it may not wow anyone as a film, it’s a story that’s worth telling and is gripping in its details all the same.

Dark Waters film posterCREDITS
Director Todd Haynes; Writers Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan (based on the article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich); Cinematographer Edward Lachman; Starring Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Nova, Melbourne, Thursday 5 March 2020.