Criterion Sunday 155: 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 | Writers Natto Wada, Yoshio Shirasaka, Shintaro Tanikawa and Kon Ichikawa | Cinematographers Shigeo Hayashida and Kazuo Miyagawa | Length 169 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 1 May 2017

Advertisements

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.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
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)

ADVANCED SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Amber Fares | Cinematographer Lucy Martens | Length 78 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 8 March 2016

Irudhi Suttru (aka 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)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Sudha Kongara Prasad | Cinematographer Sivakumar Vijayan | Starring R. Madhavan, Ritika Singh | 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.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Ryan Coogler | Writers Ryan 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

LGFF: 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.


FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Georgian Film Festival
Director Nana Mchedlidze | Writers Levan Chelidze and Nana Mchedlidze | Cinematographer Giorgi Chelidze | Starring Dodo Abashidze | Length 75 minutes || Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Sunday 4 October 2015

Palio (2015)

I’ve already seen one film about horse racing this year as part of my project, and it was perfectly likeable, but I wasn’t exactly enthused about getting back in the saddle (sorry). And yet Palio turns out to be one of the best documentaries this year, not to mention entirely gripping, about a sport I retain very little interest in. Partly that’s because the racing itself seems almost a sideline to the personalities, politics and corruption involved — like any good Italian drama, surely? This short race, run twice a year around the main square in Siena, has been going since mediaeval times, and is competed by the city’s 17 districts, each with their own cartoonish name (Wave, Unicorn, Eagle, and the like) complemented by a colourful banner and uniform for their jockey. But it’s those jockeys the film focuses in on, because they embody all the contradictions and drama of the contest. They hold no district affiliations, just a keen desire to ride the victorious horse (a horse can still win even if the rider is thrown). There’s no reward aside from the glory and a ceremonial banner, and the avoidance of a possibly brutal kicking from their district if they lose. But it’s also not a cheap thing to succeed, for it’s a game that rewards those that play it best, making deals, rigging the votes and administering hefty bribes along the way. It’s certainly no secret that this goes on, although the reigning champion, Gigi Bruschelli (a man with a twinkling, sardonic smile), demurs on getting into the details. Instead the director calls on the old-timers to provide commentary, and they clearly hold no love and only grudging respect for Bruschelli, looking instead to a young Sardinian, Giovanni Atzeni, to prevent Bruschelli reaching a record number of wins. It unfolds like a political thriller, and continues to build and provide surprising revelations, but it’s also a fond portrait of a small number of men who speak with passion and eloquence about a sport that from the outside seems bizarre and ridiculous. That said, I can’t let the review go by without mentioning that it’s also a sport that takes its toll not just on the jockeys (whether flung from their steeds and trampled under foot, or attacked brutally by the enflamed crowds) but the horses; the film doesn’t really engage with this directly, although it features a number of the races, shot and edited with a keen sense both of its thrilling speed and incipient danger — there are pile-ups every bit as spectacular as in Formula 1. In a sense this is an issue with horse racing as a whole, and it will never be a favourite amongst animal rights activists, but even within this context the Palio seems particularly tough going. However, as a human drama, Palio is superlative.


© Palio Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Cosima Spender | Writers Cosima Spender and John Hunt | Cinematographer Stuart Bentley | Length 91 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Thursday 1 October 2015

McFarland, USA (2015)

The feel-good sports film is a genre Kevin Costner has always had a good handle on, from his baseball films in the late-80s and Tin Cup (1996), a much underrated golf comedy. He’s done some others about baseball again, boxing and American football more recently, but I didn’t catch those. However, this Disney film about an against-the-odds cross-country running team in late-80s California is his latest venture, and most pleasing it is too. Whale Rider director Niki Caro has been drafted in, and crafts a solid story of some young underprivileged Latin American kids in a poor Southern Californian town who are helped towards unlikely sporting glory by their high school coach Jim White (played by Costner, and affectionately called ‘blanco’ by the kids). White spots their potential as they run to and from the fields where they spend hours before and after school in the back-breaking labour of picking crops, and the film incidentally gives a good sense of some of that hidden labour that underlies our modern food systems, not to mention the rather less-hidden dimension of class and race-based tension that is palpable when the team start to meet their wealthier competition. The (white) White family are ostensibly at the story’s heart, but the film gives plenty of time to the seven kids on the running team and their extended families, particularly the star runner Thomas (Carlos Pratts), so as to avoid some of the crasser dimensions of movies condescending to the yokels/poor/racialised Other. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of genre clichés, but they’re handled as subtly as they can be, without distracting from the team achievement at the film’s core. And of course, Costner once again proves dependable in the lead.


© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Niki Caro | Writers Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson | Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw | Starring Kevin Costner, Carlos Pratts, Maria Bello, Morgan Saylor | Length 129 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Sunday 27 September 2015

Bend It Like Beckham (2002)

There are a number of balls in the air in this film — two teenage girls’ desire to play football professionally, a three-way love triangle they have with their coach, the clash of races and cultures between Sikh and anglo populations in West London, and a coming-out story — and it’s to the director and writers’ credit that everything works out so well. That’s not to say it’s perfect — some of those resolutions are a little strained, and I’ve never been a fan of the angular Jonathan Rhys Meyers as an actor or as a love interest (though at least here he’s playing Irish) — but on the whole it’s all rather sweet. Parminder Nagra plays Jess, the character who dreams, as in the title, of bending the ball into the back of the net like her idol David Beckham, while Keira Knightley is Jules, who happens upon Jess playing with her (male) mates in the park and invites her to join their semi-professional local women’s team. Jess’s family have other ideas for their daughter of course (a solicitor, married to a nice Sikh boy), but the film is about Jess realising her dreams and still making her family proud. It all wraps up rather too neatly — and there’s definitely more than a hint of lesbian romance to the two women’s friendship, though that is quashed by the script via Jules’s mother, an underwritten sub-plot featuring the coach, and ultimately sidetracked into another story about one of Jess’s male friends. However, all that can be forgiven, because after all it’s a comedy and thankfully it’s intensely likeable, in no small way due to Nagra in the lead role, not to mention the interest gained from seeing her family’s story.


FILM REVIEW
Director Gurinder Chadha | Writers Gurinder Chadha, Guljit Bindra and Paul Mayeda Berges | Cinematographer Jong Lin | Starring Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley, Jonathan Rhys Meyers | Length 112 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 20 September 2015

Love & Basketball (2000)

I’ve been on holiday the last week, and have just returned home, so I’m a bit late in writing up this review. Apologies if it seems particularly weak as a result.


Director Gina Price-Bythewood’s most recent film Beyond the Lights was fantastic and an eye-opener for me, in being a serious-minded romance film that didn’t condescend or resort to sentimentality. Looking back at her feature film debut from 15 years earlier, all the elements were in place even then, though this story takes place against a backdrop of college basketball rather than music. Both leads (Omar Epps as Quincy, and Sanaa Lathan as Monica) are adept at their respective roles, and the film tracks their friendship (and courtship) over a period of years, from childhood moving into neighbouring Los Angeles homes, to professional careers in basketball. Along the way, Prince-Bythewood adroitly tackles the way that gender influences their respective careers, and though the women’s game is no less absorbing when we see it played, it’s clearly not the money ticket that Quincy has with the NBA. The roles of their parents (particularly Quincy’s father, himself a famous basketball player, played by Dennis Haysbert; and Monica’s mother, played by Alfre Woodard) are quite central to the film, which is a coming of age of sorts, and sets out the generational difficulties rather well, as the kids must emerge from their parents’ shadows.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Gina Prince-Bythewood | Cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos | Starring Sanaa Lathan, Omar Epps, Dennis Haysbert, Alfre Woodard | Length 124 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 31 August 2015