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.

Little Women (1994)

Well, I’ve done my due diligence now and have watched Gillian Armstrong’s 1990s adaptation of this perennial classic. It’s as white as the snow that adorns the Christmastime landscapes, but has many of the same delights as the most recent adaptation by Greta Gerwig.


Watching this for the first time after seeing the latest adaptation, and it feels in retrospect like that was a remix of this one (not least because the two adaptations share the same producers). Gerwig’s version cuts up the narrative, and reimagines what some of the leads might be like with different actors, but they have a certain fidelity in some respects. For my money, Christian Bale here has exactly the same dandyish energy as Timothée Chalamet in the new one and controversial as it may be, I like Saoirse Ronan more than Winona Ryder, although I don’t think it can be overestimated just how much Ryder embodied the 1990s in cinema. I feel sad that Trini Alvarado never had much of a (film) career after this, because she is every bit as good as everyone else in this ensemble cast. There’s a lush, almost nostalgic glow, but the film doesn’t dwell in this comfort, acknowledging the hardship and the sadness of life that surrounds the family. And then of course there’s Beth, who surely never had a better rendition than that by Claire Danes. Somehow director Gillian Armstrong’s choice to cut from her final bed scene to the nanny harshly ripping apart roses feels perfect, and in many ways this film may come to be viewed as one of the finest of the decade.

Little Women film posterCREDITS
Director Gillian Armstrong; Writer Robin Swicord (based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott); Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson; Starring Winona Ryder, Christian Bale, Susan Sarandon, Trini Alvarado, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst, Gabriel Byrne; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 27 December 2019.

Arbitrage (2012)

First up, “arbitrage”. According to my learned sources, it’s a matter of taking advantage of price differences between markets to turn a profit. Our protagonist Robert Miller is a rich white man (a derivatives trader, or a hedge fund manager, or whatever; my knowledge of the financial world is incredibly meagre). He has all the problems attendant on great wealth. He has to deal with the potential loss of hundreds of millions of dollars (presumably from said arbitrage), which would jeopardise his company’s sale and make him poorer (though hardly poor in any real terms as experienced by the audiences for this film), his daughter is digging around his dubious accounting practices, and, possibly more importantly — though it’s only a possibility — he has to reconcile himself to the part he played in the death of his mistress (accidental, but still manslaughter). So, he has a lot on his plate.

There are a lot of films with this kind of premise — the fall from grace of a plutocrat. In this film, as in so many, the character played by Richard Gere lives in a gorgeous apartment (though frankly even the poor kid from Harlem has a nice flat) with the best suits, the best art, just all those little touches that make it reek wealth. And there’s no real reason to like or sympathise for this character. And yet Gere manages to make the viewer care — if not actually care whether he loses all his money or not, but perversely to care whether he gets away with the crime of which he’s so manifestly guilty.

So, there’s no real reason for this movie to exist, and whether you see it depends on your tolerance for stories about rich white men and their transgressions. For despite the pedigree of the supporting cast (Susan Sarandon as Miller’s wife, Laetitia Casta as his mistress, Tim Roth as the detective investigating her death, Vanity Fair editor-at-large Graydon Carter’s exemplary head of hair as another trader), this is firmly focused on Gere and all these other actors are merely afforded minor appearances. But the ride itself is well-made and well-played.

Arbitrage film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nicholas Jarecki; Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux; Starring Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Sunday 3 March 2013.