Criterion Sunday 274: Night and the City (1950)

A fun little number that’s set in London but made under the auspices of a Hollywood studio (with a number of big American names heading the cast) so it still sort of feels like a Hollywood pic. Richard Widmark plays a small-time conman and hood who’s looking for a break while doing some strictly small-time hustling, and finds it in wrestling. There’s a whole plotline featuring an old-school Greco-Roman wrestler who’s grumpy at his son (Herbert Lom) for taking up with a bunch of newer guys doing moves he doesn’t approve of at all. Well somehow Widmark gets in the middle of all this and it’s probably a bad idea, but he tries to make it work. Widmark doesn’t quite feel right for the role, or maybe I should say he’s not right for what the character needs to be to make it a success, so I guess you could make a case that he’s exactly right: he’s doomed. It’s a noir. Of course he’s doomed. (At least in the Hollywood ending; I haven’t yet seen the British cut.) There’s a real post-war sense of gloom to the capital that’s both true to the genre and also fits the era, and it’s all captured magnificently.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a British cut of this film with completely different music and a different ending, which I haven’t yet watched.
  • Historian Christopher Husted does a comparison of the scores for the British and American versions, and comes down in favour of the American score (preferred by Dassin himself), which does a better job of conveying the doomed noirish setting.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jules Dassin; Writer Jo Eisinger (based on the novel by Gerald Kersh); Cinematographer Max Greene; Starring Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Herbert Lom; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 6 November 2019.

Fighting with My Family (2019)

This Friday sees the release of Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, a biopic about Harriet Tubman, starring British actor Cynthia Erivo in the title role, so I thought I’d look back on the biopic genre for this themed week. Fictionalised version of real people’s lives are usually made after their deaths, looking back on their legacies and sometimes making the mythical aspects of their story just a little bit bigger, but there have been a number in recent years that deal with more recent stories, and such is the case with Fighting with My Family. The person it’s about is still very much alive, and really not very old, but it’s also a story that’s likely not known to mainstream audiences, hence its telling here. As it involves professional wrestling, there’s a cameo for Dwayne Johnson, one of cinema’s most charismatic stars (and he was also attached as a producer), though the sport has always been about showmanship so quite how accurate it is to life is down to individual viewers I suspect.


I remember seeing Florence Pugh being introduced to the audience before the first time I saw The Falling (2014), which she was in all too briefly, and then her wowing us in Lady Macbeth (2016, which really was one of the best films of its year, and I concede I was behind on that), so with all her excellent skills at projecting deeply internalised emotional states, I didn’t quite believe the news that she was going to be playing a wrestler. And aside from some small fudges in the wrestling scenes to accommodate a stunt double (which amount to rather more feverish cutting than you’d ideally want, given the sport’s emphasis on physicality), she really nails the performance aspects. In fact, this was a far more emotional film than I’d expected or prepared for, as it becomes a story about her character (a real life professional wrestler, Saraya/”Paige”) dealing with her family, and them dealing with her success, especially her brother (Jack Lowden) whose arc is very much one of resentment and then grudging acceptance. That’s probably the main drawback for me about this film — the very clear and obvious character arcs that everyone is going through, and the sentimental beats that the film tries to hit at the appropriate moments — but it’s such a warm-hearted enterprise, and approach with such affection, that I didn’t really mind. It got to me, I was involved in her story, and I barely even cared that the big WWE arena climax seemed to come out of nowhere (professionally). Also, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson remains as solid a presence as you could hope for, even if he never gets his jeans dirty in Norwich as the poster suggests.

Fighting with My Family film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Stephen Merchant; Cinematographer Remi Adefarasin; Starring Florence Pugh, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Jack Lowden; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Camden Town, London, Tuesday 5 March 2019.

حقول الحرية Huqul Alhuriya (Freedom Fields, 2018)

Like so many in the region, Libya is a country with a troubled recent history, and so there has been little filmmaking as such from there. The documentary I cover in the review below is therefore primarily a British production by a British woman director (whose father was from Libya), and takes an unusual subject matter: women involved in sport. In that respect, it recalls for me the recent Canadian-Palestinian documentary Speed Sisters (2015).


Like a lot of documentaries this was a labour of love over many years with a lot of disparate sources of funding, but it remains a portrait of modern Libya as told through the stories of women on a Libyan football team (not really the national squad, exactly, because there’s little enough recognition for women’s football, but they might as well be). The strength of the movie — again like a lot of documentaries — is in its subjects, who come from a broad range of backgrounds, from well-educated middle-class daughters of prominent conservative families, to ones from various parts of the country covering differing ethnicities and backgrounds. One even hails from what is now a ghost town, from which its entire population was displaced due to conflict.

They are united by sport, perhaps, but maybe more by the desire for a different future, and of course we see a bit of the country’s political turmoil in the background — online images of conservative clerics, news footage of fighting and fires and revolutionary change — while the intertitles date the footage from the “Libyan revolution” (in this case, the civil war of 2011), but the film remains focused on the women. They express themselves on the field, and in rides with the director in their cars, where they sing along and eat ice cream and generally get to speak out more freely. That’s perhaps part of what the title is alluding to: this isn’t just about football (in fact, it’s not until quite late in the film that we get to see them actually competing), but about women’s liberation more generally, a struggle that’s ever continuing, especially in Libya.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Naziha Arebi نزيهة عريبي; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 11 October 2018.

Women Filmmakers: Yim Soon-rye

Even by my standards, this is a mini-Women Filmmakers’ Wednesday entry, as I’ve only seen two films by Yim Soon-rye. However, born in 1961 and having studied film in Paris, she’s had a long career in the Korean film industry. Her films are characterised by their focus on women protagonists, that are a bit more contemplative than much mainstream cinema, though having only seen two I can’t really extrapolate much further myself. However, I will certainly be seeking out more opportunities to view her films.

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Yim Soon-rye”

Criterion Sunday 155: 東京オリンピック Tokyo orinpikku (Tokyo Olympiad, 1965)

As far as documentaries about sports go, for all the experience I have of them (which, for the avoidance of doubt, is very little, though I have seen Riefenstahl’s one about Berlin 1936), this documentary on the 1964 Summer Olympics is very good. It has all the techniques we’ve become used to in modern sports coverage, but framed and edited to emphasise the human form, the endurance, the technique, rather than simply who won. There are plenty of beautiful shots, poetic inserts, crowd details and little bits other films wouldn’t bother with — like athletes hammering in their starting blocks, or the sand being levelled in a waterlogged long jump pit, stuff like that. It’s all beautifully done and even three hours passes quickly.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Kon Ichikawa 市川崑; Writers Natto Wada 和田夏十, Yoshio Shirasaka 白坂依志夫, Shintaro Tanikawa 谷川俊太郎 and Ichikawa; Cinematographers Shigeo Hayashida 林田重男 and Kazuo Miyagawa 宮川一夫; Length 169 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 1 May 2017.

Queen of Katwe (2016)

There’s no shortage of varied string-tugging that goes on in this film, but surprisingly — for a triumph-against-the-odds narrative, for a Disney film, for a big Western-funded film production set in Africa — it does so without hitting the expected marks. As one example, there’s no orchestral score overwhelming the scenes at key moments (which is to say, there is a score, but my point is it doesn’t unduly ingratiate itself; the African pop music is more noticeable, and excellent). More importantly, there’s no white/European central character to channel a condescending understanding of the struggles the African characters face. The closest the film comes to such a figure is David Oyelowo’s university-educated coach, who lives a relatively middle-class life. That said, everyone in this film has and does struggle through poverty, and for a Disney film it does show a lot of that. It’s picturesquely shot, with plenty of vibrant colours, and despite the difficult lives of its characters there’s little reliance on some of the more overworn African film themes (there are some threatening characters, but no gang violence for example), and it gives its characters a chance at lives that aren’t just punchlines to the usual tropes of colonialist filmmaking. I wouldn’t call it perfect, and it’s definitely still a feel-good triumph-against-the-odds sports movie — even if the sport is chess — but for all that, it’s done well, with passion and with great acting from its three leads.

Queen of Katwe film posterCREDITS
Director Mira Nair; Writer William Wheeler (based on the non-fiction book by Tim Crothers); Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt; Starring Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Monday 24 October 2016.

Speed Sisters (2015)

There has been no shortage of excellent documentaries in recent years, as the rise to prominence of festivals like the UK’s Sheffield Doc/Fest or Canada’s Hot Docs can testify. Many of these new voices have been those of women filmmakers, gratifying within an industrial context which so often marginalises them. In watching Speed Sisters, I think, for example, of the work of Kim Loginotto, whose films like Gaea Girls (2000) have used a subculture as a way of examining wider issues within a society. And while it’s probably easy to dismiss such documentaries as light-hearted — it’s been the kind of criticism most often applied to any filmmaking or artistic creation by women over the, well, millennia really — I think there’s more value to them than is sometimes admitted. (And yes, can you tell I’ve been looking up reviews online and getting grumpy at them?)

Undoubtedly the context of this film, which deals with a Palestinian women’s motor racing team, is one with quite a bit of history and politics to unpack, so any attempt to broach such issues — the fraught relationship between Israel and Palestine not least — is going to seem flimsy to some viewers. But it’s so valuable for those such as me who are not familiar with the area to get a sense of what it’s to live, work — and race — in Palestine, a place overwhelmed by physical manifestations of state control, yet one nevertheless in which people do live their lives with a degree of freedom and vivacity that must seem surprising if it’s only the news headlines you’re reading.

The protagonists of Speed Sisters come from various backgrounds — though, given the expense entailed in the sport they’re engaged in, mostly middle-class (hardly rich, if you see some of the cars they ride, but at least with prospects) — and the documentary is canny in teasing out some of the tensions, notably between the highly-motivated Marah, whose single-mindedness and success at racing makes her sometimes unwilling to deal with the setbacks she encounters, and the self-consciously glamorous Betty, who in coming from a family of racers is Marah’s de facto chief rival for racing success but also far more aware of her media presence and image. The team is rounded out by Mona, an older woman who largely races for fun, Noor, who enjoys the speed but seems to keep forgetting the direction she needs to be going, and their captain Maysoon, barely holding these egos together while working a day job in a little clothes shop. These are thumbnail sketches the film builds up of its chief characters — and given the film’s creation over a number of years, I assume there have been personnel changes in that time that aren’t attentively followed. Indeed, presenting the precise sporting context is probably the weakest aspect of the film: it gives a great sense of what these racing meets are like and the skills involved in handling the cars, but the details of the competition itself (or indeed which race in which season is happening) passes in a blur, and seems less to the point.

The wonder, the joy of the film, is in seeing the women all live their lives amongst these racing meets. It’s a film about the women’s interactions with their family and the men in their lives (all of whom, from the head of the racing Federation down to the fans and the families, largely seem supportive and generous). It’s a film about their friendships and occasionally fractious relationships with one another. But most of all it’s about the way they navigate the very present borders and controls imposed on their lives, in trying for example to find spaces and roads on which to practice, and the dangers inherent in that, which so often they breezily laugh off (watching Maysoon chat away during her daily commute through a checkpoint in Ramallah, moaning about the traffic and the distracting smell of tear gas while there seem to be active clashes happening nearby, is just one eye-opening example). It’s a film that’s not specifically about racing, really, but about people — ordinary people, if obviously interesting and charismatic ones — trying to live in a place where that sometimes seems difficult.

Speed Sisters (2015)CREDITS
Director Amber Fares; Cinematographer Lucy Martens; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 8 March 2016.

இறுதிச்சுற்று Irudhi Suttru (aka साला खड़ूस Saala Khadoos, 2016)

There’s plenty of life left in the boxing drama (the recent Creed proves that), even when it’s told about women’s boxing or from a woman’s perspective — hardly unfamiliar to those who’ve seen Million Dollar Baby (2004) or Girlfight (2000). This Tamil/Hindi film (it was made in both languages and released under separate titles) takes its place in that lineage and though it may lack the big budget of its Hollywood counterparts, it proves itself the scrappy underdog — not unlike its star, Madhi (played by Ritika Singh), who lives in poverty in Chennai, making money by selling fish, but shows enough promise in the ring to interest trainer Prabhu (R. Madhavan). Madhavan is clearly the star here, and its mostly on his beefily charismatic presence that the film coasts — his character is down on his luck, he drinks and smokes (vices which merit an on-screen statutory health warning in Tamil Nadu it seems), and is constantly fighting against the corruption within the sport’s administration which seeks to sideline him and his charges. Singh, meanwhile, is called on to be little more than angry and scowling for the first half, before finally finding a measure of inner strength and resolve towards the end.

In the end, the film leans rather too heavily on clichéd tropes, among which are frequent use of desaturated slow-motion footage to call back earlier moments in the film, not to mention plentiful montage training sequences — though one or two of these come closer to energetic dance numbers, which makes sense given its Indian production context. It’s not the most satisfying film in the end, but it has enough spark within it to make it an enjoyable enough watch.

Irudhi Suttru (aka Saala Khadoos, 2016)CREDITS
Director/Writer Sudha Kongara Prasad சுதா கொங்கரா; Cinematographer Sivakumar Vijayan शिवकुमार विजयन; Starring R. Madhavan माधवन, Ritika Singh रितिका सिंह; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Monday 1 February 2016.

Creed (2015)

I did not expect to begin 2016 loving a long-running franchise boxing movie, but in truth there have been plenty of excellent ones over the years (and, indeed, there’d been enough critical praise coming out of the US for Creed that I wasn’t entirely surprised). Still, what I think is most interesting about the film — and, like Straight Outta Compton, also what has undoubtedly been most overlooked by the prestigious awards ceremonies (you know the one) — is that this is a film that wants to engage with a specifically Black experience of the United States. Of course, that said, it’s a mainstream picture which cleaves to certain generic rules, so any anger or systemic critique is contained within a familiar and audience-pleasing narrative arc, focusing here on Adonis (or ‘Donnie’ to his friends, played by Michael B. Jordan, still most familiar to me from The Wire), the son of Stallone’s key antagonist Apollo Creed from early in the Rocky series. The film follows his life, from troubles as a disowned and abandoned kid, to growing up in affluence with the love of his stepmother, to reconnecting with something essential about his roots. In doing so, the film loops in a love interest in the form of Tessa Thompson’s musician Bianca (a character far more interesting and nuanced than the film really has time for, but excellently acted within those parameters), and of course Sylvester Stallone. His Rocky Balboa is the figurehead that every Rocky film is going to have to deal with, but the way he’s used here is masterful, as a mentor and coach, as a link to family and history (including film history, inevitably), but still very much supporting Jordan’s title character and his story. Along the way there’s some spectacular fight cinematography from veteran DoP Maryse Alberti, and it’s this interplay of lucid camerawork and tight plotting with solid acting that makes this one of the best sports movies of recent years.

Creed film posterCREDITS
Director Ryan Coogler; Writers Coogler and Aaron Covington; Cinematographer Maryse Alberti; Starring Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson; Length 133 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Sunday 17 January 2016.

პირველი მერცხალი Pirveli mertskhali (First Swallows, 1975)

London Georgian Film Festival logo
With the London Film Festival just getting underway, I present short reviews of the four films I saw at the London Georgian Film Festival last week.


Sitting down to watch a football-themed comedy made in 1970s Georgia during the Soviet era is probably a niche interest, and certainly the filmmaking has a roughness and simplicity to it that suggests a small industry. Unless Georgians in the 1970s had a great fondness for dressing in archaic fashions, this is a historical drama about the earliest Georgian football team at the outset of the 20th century, a bunch of local misfits (the genre clichés are the same wherever you’re making your films) who recruit the mighty, and somewhat older, Jasoni (Dodo Abashidze) to come help them win with his fearsome strike. From playing with local English sailors (hilarious accents on these chaps), they’re conquering the more feted teams of the world. It’s told largely through a young guy who knows nothing about the sport but ends up fitting nicely into the goalie’s gloves (if they wore gloves, but this is early days), so it’s pretty easy to follow. It’s rousing and patriotic but perhaps lacks some of the polish that more recent films from Georgia have. Still, an interesting curio, and for all its macho credentials (with nagging wives at home), it’s directed and written by a woman.

First Swallows film posterCREDITS
Director Nana Mchedlidze ნანა მჭედლიძე; Writers Levan Chelidze ლევან ჭელიძე and Mchedlidze; Cinematographer Giorgi Chelidze გიორგი ჭელიძე; Starring Dodo Abashidze დოდო აბაშიძე; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Sunday 4 October 2015.