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.

Sonita (2015)

This week I’m covering documentaries which screened at the Sheffield Doc/Fest in the past (this year’s programme is online, and taking place this month), and the 2016 winner of the Youth Jury Award was this film about an Afghani/Iranian rapper who left to pursue her musical dreams and now finds herself a de facto activist against child weddings.


A sweet and likeable film about a young Afghani woman living in Tehran, Sonita Alizadeh سونیتا علیزاده, whose family want to sell her as a bride but she has different ideas. Specifically of course, as documented by the film crew who are following her, she wants to be a rapper. Along the way she drags the director into her plans and things take a different turn from what we expect. The film gives a strong sense of the intersection of tradition and patriarchal violence, and from a Q&A at the screening afterwards, Sonita’s dreams after the film were of becoming a lawyer and working against child marriage, so that’s pretty great too.

Sonita film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami رخساره قائم مقامی; Cinematographers Behrouz Badrouj بهروز بدروج, Ali Mohammad Ghasemi علی محمد قاسمی, Mohamad Hadadi محمد حدادی, Arastoo Givi ارسطو گیوی, Parviz Arefi, Torben Bernard, Ala Mohseni; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at Ritzy, London, Friday 11 March 2016.

Chamissos Schatten (Chamisso’s Shadow, 2016)

Ulrike Ottinger is a filmmaker who came out of the 1970’s New German Cinema, making distinctive and odd films like Madame X and Ticket of No Return, before moving on to film a number of works in Mongolia and the furthest east, where she has shown a huge amount of interest in ethnography. This film fits in with that, and while it is in a sense a travelogue, it’s also very much a film about the way that history is latent in the present cultures of the Bering Sea, and the continuum of practices since the 18th century (when some of the texts she reads over these images are taken from). History, then, is indivisible from present-day life, and undoubtedly will continue to be for many generations.


An epic ethnographic documentary in four parts, this covers the cultures and people living around the Bering Sea, both on the Alaskan and Russian sides. As you might expect from the running length it does so in some detail, and as suggested by the title, it also links in historical perspectives. Specifically these come in the form of texts written by naturalist Georg Steller (who accompanied Bering on his exploits), then a century later by Adelbert von Chamisso, a poet and botanist, as well as a little bit from James Cook. However, it’s director Ulrike Ottinger’s voice and cinematic style which dominates the film, though in a respectful way, observing and allowing the people of the region to move about their lives and tell stories when they feel compelled.

It’s difficult to sum it all up in a short review, but the sense I got was of a continuity between Steller in the 18th century and the modern scenes, as a lot of the same practices and customs take place that he described, even if political changes have meant movements of the populations and the closure of the borders between the two nations (which come closest at the top of the world, between the Big and Little Diomede Islands, between which also runs the International Date Line). A lot of the shots of the expanse of this wilderness are breathtaking, but it’s in the simple details too that the film shines, in just pointing the camera at the people, and if some of the sequences seem too long for comfort (some hunters skinning and cutting up a seal), others you feel could go on for an entire chapter (the indigenous people demonstrating their dances was a particular highlight).

Chamisso's Shadow film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Ulrike Ottinger (based on texts by Adelbert von Chamisso and Georg Steller); Length 720 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 May 2020.

Three Historical Dramas by Raoul Peck: The Man by the Shore (1993), Lumumba (2000) and The Young Karl Marx (2017)

One filmmaker who has consistently engaged with (usually revolutionary) history is the Haitian Raoul Peck. Many of his films deal with the turbulent times of his home country, a country which has suffered no small amount of turbulence over the last fifty years, as testified by the five-film French DVD box set of his Haitian films (one of which is The Man by the Shore reviewed below). Elsewhere he has turned his attention to thinkers like the American James Baldwin (in the documentary I Am Not Your Negro), to leader Patrice Lumumba (of what was then called the Republic of the Congo, later Zaire and now the DRC, subject of a 1992 documentary as well as the biopic below), and of course to a formative period in the life of Karl Marx.

Continue reading “Three Historical Dramas by Raoul Peck: The Man by the Shore (1993), Lumumba (2000) and The Young Karl Marx (2017)”

Two 2018 Films by Sergei Loznitsa: Victory Day and The Trial

For my history themed week, I’m focusing on a couple more films which are somewhat tangential to history, both made by a Ukrainian filmmaker. The Trial takes footage from the 1930s and uses it to make a point about the way that events are manipulated by the (state-controlled) media, whereas Victory Day is about the way that history informs the present, specifically World War II, taking a celebration of Soviet victory over Germany, but as it unfolds at a monument in Berlin itself. These are slow, self-effacing documentaries that nonetheless reveal something fairly interesting about the ways we relate to history, and the way it can be used.

Continue reading “Two 2018 Films by Sergei Loznitsa: Victory Day and The Trial”

Monos (2019)

As far as revolutionary cinema goes, Monos is very much more about capturing a mood, an intensity to being a guerrilla in the jungle, rather than trading in any particular or specific history. It’s more of a mood piece, and it worked (for me) very well, although critical opinion I’ve seen has certainly been divided. It’s probably not the exemplar of a ‘cinema of resistance’, but it’s about revolutionaries and the idea of resistance.


As an experience of a film, I really liked this. It has a dreamy intensity to it, which starts out as if amongst the legionaries in Beau travail albeit situated in a mountainous and muddy jungle terrain (rather than the heat of Claire Denis’s film) and with teenage revolutionaries in a sort of Lord of the Flies-type dystopia. The Latin American setting and the guerrilla-style warfare that is being undertaken suggests that they are fighting against state suppression and possibly some kind of American military-industrial nexus of capitalist interests, but honestly I’m just reading all that in based on what I’ve seen of South American liberationist history (as it has been portrayed on film at least), and no specifics are ever touched upon here, undoubtedly quite intentionally. However, it has such a concrete sense of place, and evokes such a tangible mood through the movement of the actors in the setting, and the throbbing Mica Levi score, that it achieves something that feels properly cinematic, though perhaps on reflection it’s more of a suggestion of cinema than something fully achieved. What it does evoke is a scenario that could as easily be science-fiction, making it more Hunger Games than Apocalypse Now. Ultimately it feels like more of a cautionary tale about what happens when trust breaks down amongst a group than about any specific socio-political idea, with the curiously gender-non-specific character of Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura) a particular highlight for me. It must have been an intense shoot.

Monos film posterCREDITS
Director Alejandro Landes; Writers Landes and Alexis Dos Santos; Cinematographer Jasper Wolf; Starring Julianne Nicholson, Moisés Arias, Sofia Buenaventura, Julián Giraldo; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Wednesday 13 November 2019.

Two Films about the Personal Legacy of Revolutionary Activity: What Walaa Wants (2018) and Born in Evin (2019)

The topic of resistance includes not only stories about revolutionaries but the stories of their legacy and influence, particularly on their children. These two films are about two such children, who may have grown up either surrounded by conflict and in the often painful absence of their parents (as in the Palestinian story of What Walaa Wants) or, at the other extreme, in complete ignorance of their parents and revolutionary activities, having begun a new life in exile away from those traumas (as with the Iranian daughter of revolutionaries living in Germany, in Born in Evin). Neither film can be entirely satisfactory, because it feels like two people grappling with uncertainty about how to exist in the world, given these backgrounds, but both are illuminating about the generational nature of resistance and trauma.

Continue reading “Two Films about the Personal Legacy of Revolutionary Activity: What Walaa Wants (2018) and Born in Evin (2019)”

A Hidden Life (2019)

A discussion that has cropped up once again in political and media circles has been around “antifa”, and every time it happens a lot of people with the same wearied tone have to explain it’s not an organisation, it’s an ethos, a motivating ideal, a praxis and a shared struggle: it is just short for “anti-fascist”. Such struggles can take an explosive, active form, and there are no shortage of World War II movies to illustrate that (though most are Hollywood stories of heroism against the odds). Terrence Malick’s most recent film instead deals with the internal contortions, of morality and faith competing with self-preservation, and the way that just these simple acts of resistance can carry their own dangers. The only thing that “antifa”, such as it is, calls us to do is to resist fascism. All that I can hope is that to continue to do so is something which does not lead to the outcome in today’s film, but as some of the world’s largest countries have taken an active turn towards demagoguery and fascism, that is starting to seem rather more perilous.


I haven’t really connected with many of Malick’s films since The Thin Red Line (and certainly not the last few), as he’s progressively loosened his narrative focus in preference for impressionistic movements. However, with A Hidden Life, he seems to have reined this extravagance in a bit (though the stylistic tics are still very much evident), not to mention choosing a setting and theme that seems more fitting to his particular style. Of course, there’s still plenty of voiceover, used more as another layer of sound than to convey any specific information, and he takes the interesting decision to have the film in English except where perhaps the words are less important — background chatter, bureaucratic invective, in which case it’s in German.

It’s an odd film, though, that bathes this story — of Franz (August Diehl), an Austrian peasant in the early-1940s, who grimly resolves (with an at times wavering, but nevertheless increasingly bitterly held, sense of moral clarity) to defy military tribunals and not speak the ‘Hitler oath’ — in a certain sort of beatific calm, which makes sense given he was after all beatified not so long ago. There’s little sense of the actual war, and perhaps in 1940-1943 (when the film is set), it hasn’t particularly reached the alpine Austrian setting of St Radegund or even the Berlin prison he’s shipped off to later. There’s one chilling scene where the village’s mayor inveighs against the dangers of immigrants and foreigners, despite clearly having none in his midst, which obviously remains current, but otherwise this is very much focused on Franz and (almost equally) his wife Franziska, grounding their story in the community and (as you might expect from a Malick film) the glory of the natural world. It’s not even quite as overtly spiritual as some of his more recent films have been, though given Franz’s Catholic faith and his later beatification, it is obviously imbued with that throughout.

I liked it, and didn’t even feel the running time once the movie started to hold me. It’s shot with some oddly distorting lenses, and the camera operators must all have been children given how close to the ground the camera seems to be most of the time, but Malick’s impressionist excesses aren’t so much on show or are perhaps less jarring when not juxtaposed against Hollywood or indie music backgrounds.

A Hidden Life film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Jörg Widmer; Starring August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Michael Nyqvist, Jürgen Prochnow, Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruno Ganz; Length 174 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Friday 17 January 2020.

Systemsprenger (System Crasher, 2019)

Another film that was at last year’s London Film Festival is this drama about a young girl (not yet 10 years old) who’s had a troubled upbringing and lashes out at everyone around her. It’s about the limits of empathy within bureaucratic systems, despite the best attempts of people within those systems.


This is a tough film in some ways — after all, its protagonist Benni (Bernadette, though she hates that name, played brilliantly by Helena Zengel) starts off being a deeply unpleasant young girl, lashing out at everyone around her and getting into fights easily. She’s first seen in a hospital, covered in bruises, being monitored by doctors. However, over the course of the film we come to, if not always tolerate her, at least understand something of how she has grown the way she has, and the filmmaking is engrossing, wrapping you up in her world and those of the (often patient, sometimes very much not) carers around her. It becomes a film as much about how society is shaped in ways that don’t tolerate or accept non-conformist attitudes, about how difficult it is to find the resources to deal with those who won’t conform, and how bureaucratic systems just aren’t designed to keep up with real people and their problems at times. Of course, Benni is trouble but nobody really has the time or energy to look after her the way she wants and so she finds herself lashing out, in ways that would get her killed if she were older — and may yet get her killed, in the troublesome future which awaits her, a future that her most patient carer (Micha, played by Albrecht Schuch) lays out clearly for her. I suspect we all know kids a bit like Benni (albeit hopefully not quite as out of control); it’s a thin line between just being vocally unhappy sometimes, and being treated as problem that needs to be locked away, and though people try to help, the institutions that support them only seem to be geared towards incarceration, which leaves our “system crasher” with so few options despite her age not even being in double digits.

System Crasher film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nora Fingscheidt; Cinematographer Yunus Roy Imer; Starring Helena Zengel, Albrecht Schuch, Gabriela Maria Schmeide; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at home (Curzon Home Cinema streaming), London, Thursday 30 April 2020.

Шар нохойн там Shar nokhoir tam (The Cave of the Yellow Dog, 2005)

Following up further with the BFI Player’s women directors list, having already gone on at length about the offerings in my post about My Twentieth Century, I spotted an odd little film I’d not previously heard of, a Mongolian drama set out on the steppes amongst a traditional family, with a gentle energy (it’s only a U certificate).


This Mongolian film very much reminds me of those 1980s and 1990s Iranian films, which were always so empathetic and understanding towards children and families — though of course they also often symbolically loaded the films further with political allegory that is not quite so relevant here. However, some of the same strategies are at work in terms of crafting a gentle story that barely really has any plot — a young girl played by Nansal Batchuluun takes in a dog, the presence of which is resisted by her parents — but is more of a pretext for presenting traditional peripatetic Mongolian life on the steppes, in all its harsh beauty, as the family settles for a time in various valleys before packing up and moving on. It all looks great, and it never really rouses itself much from its ambling pace, but partially that’s just the movement of life, and it’s a wonderful thing.

The Cave of the Yellow Dog film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Byambasuren Davaa Даваагийн Бямбасүрэн; Cinematographer Daniel Schönauer; Starring Nansal Batchuluun Нансал Батчулуун, Urjindorjyn Batchuluun Ү. Батчулуун; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Thursday 2 April 2020.