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.

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.

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.

Sword of Trust (2019)

After news of director Lynn Shelton’s death broke last Saturday, like probably many cinephiles I watched a couple of her films the next day, revisiting Laggies and then her final film, made last year and which only trickled out onto UK streaming services at some point, presumably earlier this year. It’s a shaggy story but the easy charm of its leads and their interactions mean there’s no reason why it wouldn’t have made a perfectly good cinematic release, which events have conspired to prevent. Technically, it’s not her last feature film directorial credit (that would be comedy special Marc Maron: End Times Fun), but it’s the last one that marks her own work and distinctive voice, and features a fairly large acting role for her in the first five minutes of the film as the estranged partner of the protagonist.


This film further proves director Lynn Shelton’s adeptness with actors, eliciting some really fine character work via improvisational methods (so I gather), all within a loosely comedic framework. The themes of the film could’ve gone properly dark but it largely avoids that: the idea is that Jillian Bell’s character Cynthia inherits a sword from her recently deceased grandfather that he believed “proves” the South won the Civil War, whereupon she and pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) discover that there’s money to be made from this absurd notion. “What is this, Antiques Roadshow for racists?” Mel asks when shown a YouTube clip by his shop assistant Nathaniel (Jon Bass) of an online vendor offering top dollar for items that “prove” their topsy-turvy thesis, and indeed there’s a running commentary about fake news and conspiracy theories throughout the film thanks to Nathaniel. The film never quite gets dragged down into the dark holes it skirts around, and ends up being a pretty low-stakes movie about small-scale grifters toying with ideas they all realise they shouldn’t really be getting involved with (it’s such a shaggy dog story that the involvement of guns towards the end of the film feels like a bit of a mis-step to me). Still, there’s such a lot of good character-led acting happening here, in such an easy unforced way, that it really makes you feel Shelton’s loss all the more; she had such a way with actors that for all the plot’s contortions, this film just feels like hanging out for an hour or two.

Sword of Trust film posterCREDITS
Director Lynn Shelton; Writers Shelton and Mike O’Brien; Cinematographer Jason Oldak; Starring Marc Maron, Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Jon Bass, Dan Bakkedahl; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (Sky Movies streaming), London, Sunday 17 May 2020.

Your Sister’s Sister (2011)

Moving back to proper indie films is another of Lynn Shelton’s small but well-crafted features dealing with relationship dramas in the Pacific Northwest. She always worked with the finest actors, and it really pays off at times (though it’s not my favourite of her films, preferring Laggies and Touchy Feely). I’ll cover her final film tomorrow.


I like plenty about the improvisational aesthetic that this film fits into, that world of “mumblecore”, low-key relationship drama, situations focusing on believable people in relatable circumstances. I like all three of the actors, and Lynn Shelton is a fine director. I did, however, feel like the set-up here was a little bit overwrought, as if a plot discarded from a telenovela or soap, which meant I found it difficult to connect with the characters. That said, of course, the acting was all superb, and it’s largely set in a striking part of the Pacific Northwest.

Your Sister's Sister film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lynn Shelton; Cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke; Starring Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mike Birbiglia; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 27 April 2017.

The Invitation (2015)

The thing about devoting a week to American indie cinema of the last couple of decades is that it tends to cohere around a fairly self-contained representation of society, which is to say it’s very middle-class and white, with a lot of films about struggling post-university 20-somethings and relationship dramas. This is why I wanted to loop in more class-based dramas like Skate Kitchen which deals with a poorer subsection of the otherwise familiar New York City, and while today’s film is about well-off people having a talky social gathering, it does differ a least in tone as it increasingly moves towards horror. (Indeed, there’s actually a subgenre of “mumblecore” dubbed “mumblegore” and while this film isn’t that, it’s interesting to see the way that indie cinema has mutated and spread into genre filmmaking.)


Most horror films, I suppose, are based around the externalisation of fear as something which can attack you, but this one seems to be using grief instead. It’s about a man (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend (Emayatzy Corinealdi) who are invited to his ex-wife’s (Tammy Blanchard) for dinner, where their relationship history is revealed (not such a surprise, but affecting) and something else seems to start taking place. There’s a sense of it developing like one of those Buñuel films, except replacing gradually-mounting absurdism with terror. The director shows her assured control here: there are some great compositions and a slow-building tension that grips throughout.

The Invitation film posterCREDITS
Director Karyn Kusama; Writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi; Cinematographer Bobby Shore; Starring Logan Marshall-Green, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Michiel Huisman, Tammy Blanchard; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Tuesday 2 August 2016.

Skate Kitchen (2018)

Crystal Moselle is a New York filmmaker whose debut was a few years ago, so quite some time after the heyday of no-budget filmmaking in the 2000s, though her films have a similar observational, improvised quality (moving more into a documentary feeling). Certainly many of the filmmakers of that era and the stories they tell can be very white and middle-class, so it’s been good to see a new generation telling more diverse stories. Moselle’s first film was The Wolfpack (2015), a documentary which blurred the lines between real life and reenactments of movies, and one that was compelling although I didn’t love it. However, her first fiction feature is one I do unreservedly love, being a fictional narrative but which uses real people in a very unforced depiction of their lives, and which could probably be programmed together with the same year’s Minding the Gap. Moselle has a TV series now out on HBO called Betty which follows some of the same characters, and I’m certainly interested in tracking that down.


One of the things I hate in art/literature/journalism is when someone seizes on [thing the young people do now that we didn’t used to do] and makes it into some kind of big metaphor about how all of society is in decline and we should all just give up now, because how can we even function as humans anymore when things have come to this. I’ve seen a lot of that kind of hand-wringing about social media, and it’s tiresome. Anyway, I’m not even sure that little mini-rant is entirely justified, but yeah there are kids on their phones in this film (we only really see them on Instagram), and it’s just… not a big problem? Like, it’s how they meet up, and it’s fine and there’s no Weighty Statement being made.

I like the way this film approaches its story in an almost documentary-like way. Indeed, it feels like more of a documentary than a “real” one such as All This Panic (also about New York City girls), not to mention this director’s own first film, which has an archness to its choice of documentary subjects. The central drama here, such as it is, comes out as a sort of background detail, which is just as well because it’s pretty rote (overdemanding mother at home, friendship group interrelationships being stretched to breaking point by a boy). Instead what we get are lots of scenes of kids just hanging out, having a good time, sometimes getting into tussles, but it’s cool, they’re just down, doing their skating thing.

It’s really quite delightful. I love its sense of space, of the city as a character here, and the almost thrown-off haphazard way it takes in scenes. Also, the actors — who clearly are real skaters — have an unforced quality to them, and positively glow in the NYC light.

CREDITS
Director Crystal Moselle; Writers Aslıhan Ünaldı, Moselle and Jennifer Silverman; Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner; Starring Rachelle Vinberg, Dede Lovelace, Jaden Smith; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Friday 28 September 2018.

Two Relationship Dramas by Nicole Holofcener: Friends with Money (2006) and The Land of Steady Habits (2018)

There’s a certain strand of filmmaking that I like to think of as ‘low stakes cinema’ where nothing really bad happens or is likely to happen to any of the characters — no one’s actions are going to kill or seriously hurt anyone, and there might be a bit of embarrassment or hurt feelings, or even a relationship break-up at the very worst. Much of Nicole Holofcener’s cinema sort of fits neatly in there, and the lives she depicts are just a little more ragged around the edges than, say, Nancy Meyers’s (certainly their homes are less punishingly set designed). Both of these films deal with ensemble casts, groups of people defined by relationships, whether romantic or those of friendship, navigating through complications, without the kind of pat resolution you get with, say, sitcoms. In this way they fit somewhat into the same mould that younger ‘mumblecore’ filmmakers were doing at the same time, though her filmmaking seems closer to the kind of comfortable New York background of Noah Baumbach, something which traces its lineage back through Woody Allen. Between these two films below she made Please Give (2010, which I’ve seen and liked, though wasn’t able to rouse myself to write much about it) and Enough Said (2013), which is just lovely, and I think one of the last screen performances from James Gandolfini.

Continue reading “Two Relationship Dramas by Nicole Holofcener: Friends with Money (2006) and The Land of Steady Habits (2018)”