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.

Love the Coopers (aka Christmas with the Coopers, 2015)

This may not be the worst movie this year, nor is it even the worst movie that my New Year’s Resolution has brought me to (that was probably Hot Pursuit), but it feels like the laziest. There are plenty of excellent actors involved in the large ensemble cast, but the whole enterprise is coated in a layer of treacly sentimentality so thick that it’s difficult to perceive some of the film’s likeable qualities (there are one or two amusing jokes, and I think there’s potential in the Olivia Wilde/Jake Lacy pairing), and by the end it had entirely squandered any goodwill I had towards it. Diane Keaton and John Goodman play the central couple, at whose home the traditional Christmas gathering is taking place, with stray members of the family travelling to get there. Everyone does the best they can, I suppose, but matching up Keaton with Marisa Tomei as her sister, or Alan Arkin with Amanda Seyfried as a (sort-of) love interest seem like bizarre choices. However, the worst choice was to have the film narrated by the family dog, voiced by a particularly unctuous Steve Martin. Not destined to be a holiday classic.

Love the Coopers film posterCREDITS
Director Jessie Nelson; Writer Steven Rogers; Cinematographer Elliot Davis; Starring Diane Keaton, John Goodman, Olivia Wilde, Ed Helms, Alan Arkin, Amanda Seyfried; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 16 December 2015.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

The thing about Llewyn is, he’s a bit of dick, to put it plainly. Over the course of the film we come to have a little understanding about why this is, and the structure of the film even gives us a little chance to revisit that initial assessment at the end. He’s not a dick like Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street — he’s not hateful at a fundamental level — but he’s a man in need of some social graces. So, starting with a vaguely obnoxious character in an iconic American setting (Greenwich Village in the early-60s), the new Coen brothers movie has crafted a story of quite considerable pathos which has already attracted plenty of impassioned online essays, itself always a good sign.

As you may already know (or have guessed from the setting), this is a story based in the roots of the folk scene in the 1960s that gave us such figures as Bob Dylan, as well as plenty of others who’ve largely faded from view, of whom Llewyn is one (it’s been suggested he’s loosely based on Dave Van Ronk, a figure of that era). There’s a nostalgic glow (well, it’s some form of cultural nostalgia, not one I personally have) that comes from seeing those old LP covers, with their blocky text and frontal shots of a morose singer-songwriter, and the cinematography itself has a similar slightly-faded, soft-focused, battered charm. Llewyn was in a duo but now performs solo at a folk dive hangout, alongside crooning Irish barbershops and earnest Arkansas grandmothers. He has no great success, and his life is a shambles. He’s a connoisseur of people’s couches, and we see him settling into one for the first time, assessing its comfort level. He has a prickly relationship with June (Carey Mulligan), another folk singer who is already partnered up with well-meaning but earnestly dull sweater-wearing Jim (Justin Timberlake). And his label is a joke.

These are just the jumping off points, though. It’s a character study, as the film’s title suggests, and it’s one grounded in failure — I might even go so far as to say this film should take its place in the pantheon of great American films about failure (like the flipside of that far-too-often-evoked theme of ‘the American Dream’). Llewyn is resistant to the idea of everyday life; his folk music isn’t a protest against anything except settling down and working a steady job like his retired dad had in the merchant marines.

The songs aren’t just a period affectation, though. There’s a tremendous amount of generosity towards them, and most are featured in their entirety. The film starts and ends with Llewyn playing, and in between we get to hear a number of others, all presented largely uncut. It’s through the songs, for example, that we get a sense of Llewyn’s relationship with his departed musical partner (“Dink’s Song/Fare Thee Well”, especially when performed in the company of his older middle-class friends — or perhaps patrons, after a fashion, given the way they exhibit him to their learned friends each time he visits). It’s also through the songs he sings that we learn how he sees himself, and about his relationship with his father. Finally, they bring us back to that early-60s milieu: the only protest song we hear in the end is a quaint one addressed to President Kennedy, criticising the space race.

Around the songs is structured a heavily allusive narrative, which loops back in on itself, repeating and slightly reconfiguring some of the events. The story ends where it begins, with an encounter in a darkened alley. There’s the repetition of his living arrangements (couches to couches), and then there’s the cat who accompanies Llewyn on some of his travels, who has escaped from the flat of that middle-class couple where he was crashing at the beginning. It’s been seized upon by those essay writers as an integral element, which helps to elucidate some of what the film is about — although perhaps “elucidate” is the wrong word. Still, it seems freighted with meaning, starting with its peripatetic name: Ulysses, as much bringing to mind the Coen’s earlier film O Brother, Where Art Thou? as any classical allusion. It feels appropriate, then, that John Goodman should return, and the strangeness of the sequence he appears in — accompanying Llewyn in a car journey from New York to Chicago — as well as the singularity of his character feels of a piece with that earlier role as a Cyclops-like Bible salesman.

Indeed this ultimately is a mythical journey, in an almost-equally mythic American setting, that returns ultimately to failure. At least, so it seems for the title character. For the viewer, however, it’s as grand a success as any film the Coen brothers have crafted, and a reminder to doubters like myself that sometimes they can really get things right.

Inside Llewyn Davis film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel; Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 9 February 2014.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

At their worst, the Coen Brothers can come across as dilettantish, with an air of superiority to their characters (who often seem little more than caricatures), and it would surely be possible to argue that they’ve shown this hand in O Brother. They’ve certainly marshalled a whole host of period references to the 1930s into a comic book confection to little lasting effect. And yet I have a warmth of feeling towards this film that derives primarily from the music, not to mention the gorgeous widescreen Cinemascope photography and the easy affability of George Clooney as a lead actor. I don’t think any of this makes the film less shallow, but it does make me more fondly disposed towards it.

Certainly its basis on the Odyssey doesn’t add any depth. George Clooney plays Ulysses Everett McGill, a convict on a chain gang, who, with help from two fellow convicts (played by John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson), is trying to get home to his wife Penny (Holly Hunter). There are many other references to famous characters and scenes from Homer’s story which show up in passing (the Lotus Eaters, the Sirens, the Cyclops, at least one suitor, and a deus ex machina of sorts), but it’s a sort of Cliff’s Notes transposition that provides a bit of passing interest along the way for these three escapees from a chain gang. The rest of the characters and situations are scavenged equally superficially from popular culture: a blues musician who’s sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads (Tommy Johnson, though the detail of the hellhound that the ‘devil’/sheriff has with him seems more Robert Johnson); George ‘Babyface’ Nelson, the bank robber; a Ku Klux Klan rally; some corrupt good ol’ boy politicians; some soulful black men; a little recording shack out in the middle of nowhere; and so on.

Moreover, much of the feeling of the film, not to mention its title, is derived from Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941), wherein a Hollywood producer with a background in knockabout humour wants to make a social problem movie called O Brother, Where Art Thou?, dealing with the plight of ordinary folk in the Great Depression. Perhaps the idea at the core of the Coen brothers’ film is that this is the film that character would have turned out, and if so, it’s appropriately shallow. There were certainly many inequalities and brutalities in this period, but it’s all so much comedy window-dressing for the Coens; this is a cartoon and, at times, a corny one at that (the escaped convicts even steal a pie from a windowsill) and needs to be taken in that vein.

Its greatest pleasures then are in the luminous widescreen cinematography by Roger Deakins, tweaked in post-production into a subtly sepia-tinted antique hue, and above all, the wonderful soundtrack. Perhaps the soundtrack album, or the documentary concert film Down from the Mountain (2000) derived from it, are really the best way to experience this, but there’s certainly a generous use of music and performance in the Coens’ film. In fact, it all builds to a big show, with Ulysses’ motley band (under the sobriquet the Soggy Bottom Boys) a dab hand at old time melodies it turns out.

If I’ve almost talked myself out of liking the film, I can’t ultimately deny that I enjoy its broad comic touches and above all the images and music, and on that level, it’s successful.


CREDITS
Director Joel Coen; Writers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (based on the epic poem Ὀδύσσεια The Odyssey by Homer Ὅμηρος); Cinematographer Roger Deakins; Starring George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Rialto, Wellington, Friday 4 May 2001 (and on TV at holiday apartment, Rovinj, Saturday 1 June 2013).

Argo (2012)

Like all film-lovers, I’ve had a complicated relationship with The Oscars™ over the years, but my general feeling is that I dislike the ways it rewards filmmakers and actors (and when it gets things right it’s usually for the wrong reasons anyway), and I dislike the way it affects how American studios create and distribute certain kinds of films. There are subgenres of ‘Oscar-baiting filmmaking’ that generally produce either torpid, listless, dull and often overlong films of little human interest but with plenty of empty emoting and visual grandstanding, or, as with last year’s winner The Artist (2011), perfectly entertaining little movies with an inflated pseudish cachet.

Argo falls into the latter camp: it’s entertaining and I enjoyed it for the most part, but I wouldn’t make any great claim for it being the height of film art. In fact, it’s rather campy in places: Alan Arkin and John Goodman as Hollywood studio people seem to be in an entirely different film. The scenes set in Iran at the height of the 1979-80 hostage crisis, though, are appropriately gripping, as we watch Ben Affleck’s CIA agent working to “exfiltrate” the six escaped US embassy workers, who are uneasily holed up in the Canadian ambassador’s residence (played by the ever-reliable Victor Garber).

Plenty of others far more knowledgeable than I have picked holes in the history, and I don’t doubt it takes liberties with the facts. More concerning is the demonisation of many of the Iranians, though the film’s animated introduction makes it clear that the US itself had a great part to play in the radicalisation of Iran and the overthrow of a democratically-elected government (as remains their wont to this day). Nevertheless, when it’s focused on the intimate human drama of these six Americans and the oddly far-fetched plot to get them out of the country, it makes for fine entertainment.


CREDITS
Director Ben Affleck; Writer Chris Terrio (based on the book Master of Diguise by Antonio J. Mendez, and the article “The Great Escape” by Joshuah Bearman); Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto; Starring Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Victor Garber; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Wednesday 6 February 2013.