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.

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.

Uncle Drew (2018)

In my week of films available on Amazon (or which I watched on Amazon anyway), there will probably be some fairly strange choices, because I’ve already featured a lot of the stuff I’ve seen there during other themed weeks. This means we’re left with stuff I watched that I haven’t yet written up, and as I haven’t done a week on basketball movies yet, have Uncle Drew, which is exactly the kind of thing you think you’ll hate — and look, I don’t know you, maybe you will — but maybe also it might be quite enjoyable for all that. It’s hardly a taxing film in any case.


A genuinely very odd film which is also, oddly, quite likeable I think. It’s a basketball story (so already that means I have no idea what’s going on or what half the jokes are) based on a series of commercials (that I obviously haven’t seen), but developed into a classic narrative of the underdog trying to win the big competition. In this case, it focuses on a bunch of elderly former basketball players trying to win a street basketball tournament in which Nick Kroll is the bad guy (because of course he is; does he ever play nice guys?), with the avuncular title character (Kyrie Irving) along the way teaching the “young bloods” his elderly team are up against, how to play the game properly. The old guys are all (so I gather) well-known basketball players, albeit in a lot of ageing make-up and prosthetics, so the athleticism somewhat strains credulity, but it remains broadly fun and pleasing for most of its running time, with the lead actor (Lil Rel Howery) firmly in the Kevin Hart mould, and a fairly underwritten role for Tiffany Haddish to just do her thing for a bit, which is always fun. Now that I’ve seen this and High Flying Bird (a Netflix film), though, I reckon I must be an expert at the game.

Uncle Drew film posterCREDITS
Director Charles Stone III; Writer Jay Longino; Cinematographer Karsten Gopinath [as “Crash”]; Starring Lil Rel Howery, Kyrie Irving, Nick Kroll; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Saturday 16 February 2019.

Ride Like a Girl (2019)

I don’t like to feature films on my site that I think are disappointing, as it seems to me a poor way to use a platform, however few followers one might have (and I don’t have many). However, I’ve committed myself to another Australian-themed week (which so far is by women directors) and I haven’t got many films to draw on, or time to watch new ones, so here’s one I saw on the plane over. It’s directed by Rachel Griffiths, a long-established actor whose work I’ve really appreciated, turning her hand to directing.


I know nothing about horse racing, or the competitive life of the professional jockey — though I am reminded that I’ve read a novel about a young woman riding horses for a living (it’s called House Rules by Heather Lewis) and let me tell you that had a very different tone to this film. Sadly, for all its positive messaging about young women growing up to achieve their dreams, Ride Like a Girl sticks to a programmatic structure and a deeply predictable template that majors on big swelling music to convey emotional journeys. The actors are uniformly excellent, but many of their best qualities are lost in the mix here, and the undoubtedly talented work of the jockey whose life is being told here seems reduced to a series of cliches. Still, it all looks very handsome.

Ride Like a Girl film posterCREDITS
Director Rachel Griffiths; Writers Andrew Knight and Elise McCredie; Cinematographer Martin McGrath; Starring Teresa Palmer, Sam Neill, Stevie Payne; Length 120 minutes.
Seen on a flight from London to Auckland, Friday 21 February 2020.

Criterion Sunday 289: Hoop Dreams (1994)

I’m not exactly a big sports fan (and I know nothing about basketball), but it seems to me that when your team wins, you get happy not just for the drama of the contest but the hope that this win will lead to bigger and better things, and eventually your team will be the champions. We watch a fair few clips of basketball games in Hoop Dreams, but it’s not the teams’ wins that matter, but those of the two boys whom the film is following, and the hope — which sometimes seems as distant as the idea of a championship win to some of these teams — that their lives can be better.

After all, this ultimately is a film about what it takes to make something of yourself in America, specifically when you’re born poor and Black and live in an area of a big city (Chicago in this case) where there’s little enough money to be made honestly, and only crime and drugs seem to be good options. I think that’s a story that became particularly familiar during the 1990s in cinema — when making cinema about the African-American experience seemed to be all about ghettos and crime. But if that’s a background that has dogged Arthur Agee’s dad (as only the most notable example within the film), what’s excellent about is that he’s never just those things in the film. Indeed, like all the characters, he has many levels, and most of all we remember him as a dad (and a particularly effusive and supportive one), which by the end of the film both Arthur and William also are.

This film follows both of these guys over a period of about five years, as they go from promising 14-year-old kids scouted by a high school recruiter on the poorly-maintained courts of the Chicago suburbs where they live, through a peculiarly American high school system, where kids with sporting talent get scholarships and money and chances, as long as they perform. Of course, they have to travel for hours to get to these nice schools in predominantly white neighbourhoods, to play ball and win leagues. But Arthur doesn’t quite make the grade for that school, so finds himself busted down to a less wealthy local school.

You end up caring about it all, because it’s not about the Game but about the people just trying to make a chance in life, doing their best not to be worn down or overtaken by the Game, though it’s always looking for new talent and the chances move by all too quickly at times. It’s also about families and community, and that’s probably what lingers the longest for both these players, and whatever their own personal successes and failures (both within this film and since it was released), it’s the time with the families that sticks around.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • One of the film’s big champions from its very first appearance at Sundance Film Festival in January 1994 was the Siskel and Ebert film review show, and we see clips of Gene and Robert talking about the film on their TV shows, from Jan 1994, through its wider American release, as well as in episodes leading up to and after the Oscar nominations, and then an end-of-year best of list (in which both named it as their favourite film) and finally at the end of the decade, after Gene’s passing the previous year, when Roger named it his favourite film of the 1990s and talks briefly to Martin Scorsese about the film.
  • In the clips of Roger Ebert, we see him imagining a return to the same characters after a number of years have passed, and as if in answer to that is Life After Hoop Dreams (2015), a 40 minute follow-up directed by Steve James and Abbey Lustgarten (a Criterion producer). It is primarily filmed ten years after the original film, but then picks up with some interviews a further 10 years on from that (like a very abbreviated 7 Up). Obviously it can’t stand up to the original, but it’s interesting to see how the boys we saw in the first film have grown up, putting into perspective their childhood dreams and the great maturity they’ve gained through life experience and — to an extent — tragedy, as both have lost people close to them. What is clear that the love and dream of basketball hasn’t died in either, though we see that like the parents in the original documentary, it’s their children who are now more of the focus for each.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Steve James; Writers James and Frederick Marx; Cinematographer Peter Gilbert; Length 170 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 2 February 2020.

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.