The Old Guard (2020)

I’m taking a pivot today from documentaries to feature a very recent release on Netflix, the action superhero film The Old Guard, most notable perhaps for its star turn by Charlize Theron, but with I think quite a lot of hidden depth. It’s an odd outing for a director previously best known for romances like the stellar Love & Basketball (2000) and the equally excellent Beyond the Lights (2014), but a very solid one too.


I see this is pulling down a good range of opinions, but even as someone who hasn’t always been so thrilled with the comic-book adaptations/superhero genre in the past, I thought it was great, punchily shot and edited and with some fine performances. One could quibble that not all the writing was up to the same standard, but it almost doesn’t matter with supporting actors of the quality of Chiwetel Ejiofor or KiKi Layne. At the heart of the film though is Charlize Theron and her gang of immortals, and it’s a difficult thing to convey hundreds if not thousands of years of existence adequately, but I think Theron pitched it at the right level. The film allowed moments of existential reflection, not to mention moral qualms about resorting to violence — already more than most genre films manage — but they key is in the characters and the performances, I think. Plus it all fit together expertly, and while she may be better known for romances, director Gina Prince-Bythewood shows herself to be a solid action director too.

The Old Guard film posterCREDITS
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood; Writer Greg Rucka (based on the comic book by him and Leandro Fernández); Cinematographers Tami Reiker and Barry Ackroyd; Starring Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Marwan Kenzari مروان كنزاري, Luca Marinelli; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 16 July 2020.

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.

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)

This was released back when cinemas were still open, but has since gone to streaming-on-demand services (where you can pay some money right now to rent it). It got a bit of flack from the usual quarters, but it’s a really solid, colourful and beautifully-orchestrated superhero action film, a genre I have been very wary in recent years of dipping back into (having gone to see far too many of the Marvel films, and having been burned on some of the DC ones) but this one somehow managed to renew my interest. The director’s 2018 debut film Dead Pigs had some success on festival circuits, certainly a distinctive if divisive work, and she gets a bigger budget and brighter palette here.


I swore off superhero movies some time ago, but I was drawn back in by the creative team. It’s surprising to me too the way that Margot Robbie has really come into her own in the last five years; there’s a scene in this film where a girl is in awe of all of Harley Quinn’s achievements (that’s the title character played by Robbie), but it feels like she’s talking directly to Robbie. No, it turns out that between director Cathy Yan, the producer/star, the fabulous ensemble and the tireless work of her production designers and set dressers and costumiers, that I low-key loved this film. It does its critiques of toxic masculinity (Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina, both on top form) without ponderousness, giving them vignettes of pure malevolence and just letting them linger without distracting soundtrack choices or cutaways: when things are bad, they are allowed the space to be bad. But then there’s the fun, colourful, hyper, truly comic book fizz of the rest of the film, especially the kinetic fight sequences which make most of the Marvel ones (in fact, most of the fights in most other comic book films) feel badly staged. The ensemble camaraderie is real, and Winstead is a particular stand-out, albeit perhaps just by virtue of sort of playing against the cartoonish colourfulness of everyone else, but this feels like effortless fun (and I imagine it was anything other than effortless to create).

Birds of Prey film posterCREDITS
Director Cathy Yan 閻羽茜; Writer Christina Hodson (based on characters from DC Comics); Cinematographer Matthew Libatique; Starring Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ella Jay Basco, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ewan McGregor; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Tuesday 11 February 2020.

Four Underappreciated Films by Hirokazu Koreeda: Distance (2001), Hana (2006), Air Doll (2009) and The Third Murder (2017)

The filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda has been turning out warmly-received films since his fiction feature debut Maborosi in 1995. Many of them — certainly, it seems, all of the most acclaimed — are warm-hearted family dramas, whether dealing with children directly as in I Wish (2011), with parents of kids in Like Father, Like Son (2013) or with young people in Our Little Sister (2015). However in many ways that’s only half his output, as he’s also made plenty of films that don’t fit quite so neatly into this framework. I was planning on writing a post about maybe one of these, but then I realised I had a vast cache of reviews of films that really aren’t very well known by this famous director, and I wonder how many great directors could have made great films if they’d been given as many chances. For one example not even covered here, there’s his latest English/French-language The Truth (to be reviewed here later this week), but there are also these four films reviewed below: a film about terrorists; a period drama; a sex drama; and a legal thriller.

Continue reading “Four Underappreciated Films by Hirokazu Koreeda: Distance (2001), Hana (2006), Air Doll (2009) and The Third Murder (2017)”

パパはわるものチャンピオン Papa Wa Warumono Chanpion (My Dad Is a Heel Wrestler, 2018)

Every year the Japan Foundation has a touring programme that takes over the ICA for a week or two, and then goes on the road around the country, with a (fairly random) selection of Japanese films, mostly recent but a few classics also. One of them this year was this 2018 family drama based on a series of children’s picture books, which has an appropriately engaging, childlike and colourfully comic sense of its subject.


I’m not a major follower of wrestling but this film goes a fair way to covering its appeal, not just to kids but a range of fans. However, it very neatly uses a child’s relationship to his father as a way to introduce the sport through very literally fresh young eyes, assuming that we the audience are learning like the kid about ‘faces’ and ‘heels’ (good guys and bad guys), and that maybe just because you play a bad guy doesn’t mean you are one (that much is clear right from the very start when our beefy hero of a dad, played by real wrestler Hiroshi Tanahashi, helps an old lady across a bridge). Indeed, there are a lot of big, open emotions on show in what is unquestionably a sentimental movie at times, but it’s just so very sweet that it makes you forgive it for its earnestness. My favourite character was the geeky woman who writes for a small town paper (or maybe it’s a lifestyle magazine), and who is obsessively interested in wrestling much to the amusement of her colleagues — though somehow she also manages to become friends with the kid, so clearly the parents aren’t looking out for him much. Anyway, it’s all very sweet and likeable and very much in love with wrestling.

My Dad Is a Heel Wrestler film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kyohei Fujimura 藤村享平 (based on the picture book by Masahiro Itabashi 板橋雅弘 and Hisanori Yoshida 吉田尚令); Cinematographer Hironori Yamasaki; Starring Hiroshi Tanahashi 棚橋弘至, Kokoro Terada 寺田心, Yoshino Kimura 木村佳乃, Riisa Naka 仲里依紗; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Saturday 8 February 2020.

Tank Girl (1995)

A colourful, brash and cheerfully perverse action film, Lori Petty seems well-matched to the title role, being every bit as quirky as a comic book character brought to life might be — somewhat hyperactive, but quirky without being grating. That said, it feels like the key here is that she isn’t constantly trying to present herself as sexually available at the same time as fighting off bad guys and blowing up compounds (a direction you imagine a male filmmaker might have gone, and one that has certainly hampered female characters in a lot of other comic-book and sci-fi films). There’s a kind of camp at play here that’s reminiscent of the Wachowskis in Jupiter Ascending (2015), with busy set design worthy of Terry Gilliam. The kangaroo creatures spoil it all somewhat, teetering too close to the cult perils of Howard the Duck, and the action sequences go on somewhat, but on the whole this remains good fun, with an iconic 90s alternative rock and ‘riot grrrl’-influenced soundtrack.

Tank Girl film posterCREDITS
Director Rachel Talalay; Writer Tedi Sarafian (based on the comic by Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett); Cinematographer Gale Tattersall; Starring Lori Petty, Naomi Watts, Reg E. Cathey, Ice-T, Malcolm McDowell; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 15 May 2017.

繕い裁つ人 Tsukuroi Tatsu Hito (A Stitch of Life, 2015)

There’s a style of modern Japanese cinema that always seems just a little bit precious to me, in danger of being too arch, too cute, too sentimental, often with syrupy music that juts out even amongst all that. I’m not saying this is entirely one of those films, but it’s on a spectrum — one that, to be fair, also includes the work of Naomi Kawase and the very fine films of Hirokazu Koreeda. There is restraint in this story set in Kobe of a thirty-something seamstress Ichie (Miki Nakutani), following her grandmother’s designs, but wondering whether to update them, do her own designs, move into the modern world of branding and shopping centres. Even that thematic focus makes the film a little out of time itself, and it has a sort of quiet classical beauty to it. It’s based on a manga series, which only makes it clear that my idea of manga is pretty narrow, if they include ones about middle-aged women sewing suits and dresses for even older people. I like, too, that the film toys with a romantic subplot but doesn’t make it the core to our protagonist’s narrative, has a character in a wheelchair whose disability doesn’t define her entirely, and isn’t rushed in its storytelling. It does still have rather too big an orchestral soundtrack for my liking, but on the whole, it’s fairly inoffensive.

A Stitch of Life film posterCREDITS
Director Yukiko Mishima 三島有紀子; Writer Tamio Hayashi 林民夫 (based on the manga by Aoi Ikebe 池辺葵); Cinematographer Kazutaka Abe 阿部一孝; Starring Miki Nakutani 中谷美紀, Takahiro Miura 三浦貴大; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 7 February 2017.

Gemma Bovery (2014)

You could make a case — and I wouldn’t be entirely unreceptive to your viewpoint — that this film is a regressive form of faux-naïf haute bourgeoise naffery. I’m pretty sure New Waves have formed in opposition to less provocation, and even if it isn’t quite the desultory cinéma de papa of the past (it has a female writer and director, for a start), it’s hardly challenging in the laidback literary allusions of the screenplay and its bucolic country town setting. There’s also a self-aware subtext revolving around the fitting of literary archetypes to (overtly constructed) characters that reminds me of another French film starring Fabrice Luchini, Dans la maison directed by François Ozon — though that film was more aggressive in pushing its meta-narrative, so if forced I’d generally prefer Anne Fontaine’s filmmaking to that of Ozon.

But already I feel I’m pushing back too strongly against a film which, broadly, I rather enjoyed. If it has that self-aware constructedness that may perhaps be traced to the involvement on the screenplay of former film critic (and Jacques Rivette collaborator) Pascal Bonitzer, it could also be said to critique a masculinist construction of feminine identity by having our central character Martin (Luchini) — and despite the film’s title, his is the point of view around which the film revolves — carefully watch and steer the narrative path of Gemma Arterton’s title character. Arterton is a fine actor who does great work with what is ultimately a purposely thin character, existing in that sort of Daisy Buchanan mould as an object of male lust and projected fantasies of femininity. That said, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it particularly challenging: Gemma is still largely a pawn to the (male-centred) narrative, and some of the comedy at the expense of Anglo-French relations can get a little strained (although there’s a very amusing smaller role for Elsa Zylberstein as a status-obsessed socialite). But as a testament to Arterton and Luchini’s excellent and subtle acting skills, Gemma Bovery does provide a pleasant divertissement.

Gemma Bovery film poster CREDITS
Director Anne Fontaine; Writers Pascal Bonitzer and Fontaine (based on the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds); Cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne; Starring Gemma Arterton, Fabrice Luchini, Jason Flemyng; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Wednesday 26 August 2015.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)

For all that I’m trying to watch films with some element of female authorship, this adaptation of a comic book written by Jane Goldman and directed by Matthew Vaughn (the team behind the stylish and misanthropically nasty Kick Ass) doesn’t exactly give me a great deal of hope. It has enough stylishness in its staging, with the kind of set design and gaudy palette that fully justifies its origins, that it has won over plenty of people. It also stars Colin Firth, putting in an impeccable performance as the kind of heightened Englishman he’s so often called to be in films, in a film that itself lovingly curates an overabundance of signifiers of English-ness (my favourite being an underground workshop packed with taxicabs and red London Routemaster buses, amongst other such iconic machines). Which would all be fine, except these signifiers include the mock-Burberry-clad working-class ‘chav’ — whose apparently natural environment is picking fights in pubs (one which is actually a really very pleasant pub, it should be pointed out, should you find yourself down the Lambeth Road anytime soon) — and it does so with a level of subtlety that makes Attack the Block seem the very model of kitchen-sink drama. Then there’s the sickening attitude to violence that would orchestrate a mass killing to a jaunty soundtrack and self-consciously stylish camerawork and then try to exculpate itself by painting the victims as merely bigots, but then this is all of a piece with a film that also finds plentiful humour in some kind of anal-fixated homophobia, not to mention a bit of racism (there’s a quip in relation to Samuel L. Jackson’s bad guy about “colourful megalomaniacs” that’s straight from the Cumberbatch playbook). But, you know, it’s FINE, right, because it’s a SATIRE about spy films, exposing all of this as the seedy underbelly of the genre (albeit one that’s always been pretty clearly on display throughout much of the Bond cycle, to the extent that I was almost thankful that Kingsman‘s cribbing from Skyfall of the value of a 50-year-old whisky wasn’t turned into a cheap gag at the expense of a woman’s death). So, in short, no I didn’t much like it, though the plentiful laughter from the young woman along the row from me at the cinema suggests this might just be one guy’s grumpy opinion. There’s a self-aware refrain that’s repeated a few times that this isn’t “one of those kinds of films”, but it just leaves me wishing that it had been. Instead, if you’re a fan of violently nihilistic misanthropic nastiness clothed in the natty threads of the aristocratic English gentleman, knock yourself out. This is probably your film of the year.

Kingsman: The Secret Service film posterCREDITS
Director Matthew Vaughn; Writers Jane Goldman and Vaughn (based on the comic book The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons); Cinematographer George Richmond; Starring Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Thursday 29 January 2015.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

You can’t deny that Marvel Studios have done a good job at shaping their film presence over the last decade, in a way that goes well beyond just giving Stan Lee his surely contractually-obliged cameo (and yes, there’s one here too). It just seems, though, as someone who is coming over time to appreciate a well-written screenplay, that there’s an overabundance of detail (of plot, characters, worlds, special effects, music and noise): a sensory overload at times. Maybe that’s to do with the source material, but for a two-hour film, there certainly are a lot of distractions. Partly that goes with the fantasy sci-fi setting, but the opening half hour features plenty of breathless cross-cutting between all-but-identically-named worlds, blathering on about nonsense with silly names, trying to sketch out various tribal allegiances that you need series TV (or a comic book) to really do justice to. At the core of the plot, though, is a mysterious orb, a classic MacGuffin whose purpose and power is fairly redundant. After all, the point is surely the journey of the five outlaw protagonists, led by Chris Pratt’s likeable goofy Andy Peter “Starlord”, as they pursue this orb — and at that, the film succeeds.

I mentioned the writing above, but I don’t mean to criticise it. The real joy of the film — as with most of Marvel’s films — is in the character interactions, and these are all done well enough that I was left wanting less of the action-adventure and more of the hanging out. A standout is Rocket the genetically-modified raccoon-like creature (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a ball of maniacal energy imbued with a carnivalesque sense of dangerous fun and a touchy ego. In fact, when stacked alongside his character, a kind-hearted mutant tree called Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) and the heavily-tattooed and scarified warrior Drax (Dave Bautista), it’s the humanoids who have the tough acting job here. Pratt plays to his strengths so well honed in The Lego Movie, while Zoë Saldana’s Gamora gets a lot of glowering done under her green makeup, but they have to work hard not to be relegated to sideshow attractions.

The tone of the film is largely comedic, so when the bad guy Ronan (Lee Pace) is introduced, his vengeful pantomime (which is played and filmed totally straight, all threatening low-angle shots of his blue face lurking in shadows against the starry night sky) quickly descends into bathos. There’s so much of this kind of thing — Karen Gillan’s Nebula is another blue-skinned vengeful opponent, one amongst many — that it becomes a little wearing. Indeed, every so often the film requires an injection of fun, so has Starlord popping up at some inappropriate moment to boogie along to another 70s rock classic (you can certainly tell when the director was born, and in its persistent musical referencing of the era, it particularly calls to mind American Hustle).

It’s not perfect by any means: there are some very weird and apparently pointless moments of nastiness (such as Benicio del Toro’s ‘Collector’ and his subjugation of women) that aren’t even effaced by the presence of a female screenwriter — a rare enough occurrence on this kind of project. There’s also a post-credits sequence that briefly threatens the return of one of the more unloved characters in the Marvel back catalogue. Most aggravating is the reliance on what is now becoming the most inflexible of plot points for this Studio’s universe — the protracted destruction of a major city by bombardment from the air (not a real city, this time, but a sort of alien composite of many you’ll be familiar with). However, despite all this — which makes the running time seem longer than it mercifully is — Guardians of the Galaxy is on the whole a rather enjoyable comedic adventure romp.

Guardians of the Galaxy film posterCREDITS
Director James Gunn; Writers Gunn and Nicole Perlman (based on the comic book by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning); Cinematographer Ben Davis; Starring Chris Pratt, Zoë Saldana, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Bradley Cooper; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 4 August 2014.