This film is being distributed in the UK by Altitude Films and I saw it as a Vue Cinema. You have to estimate the adverts and trailers if you do not want to sit through them. But when they are over there is a warning about the use of mobile phones, tablets and all the other electronic clutter. Then the feature begins. However, on this occasion, after the BBFC certification, (PG – infrequent racist language, mild bad language, sex references, violence), I found we were watching contemporary sports people! This was not recognition of the enduring legacy of Jesse Owens, the film’s subject, but some sort of promotion. This is another of those really bad ideas made easier by digital technology, the cinematic equivalent of those annoying trailers that television often runs over the end credits.
So, after a couple of minutes, we did actually get the movie, a biopic. The film starts in 1933 when Jesse Owens won a scholarship to Ohio State University. Apart from his physical prowess the early stages of the film present his personal life, including marriage to his partner Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton) who has already born him a child. At the University there is a clear presentation of the racism that separates black students from white. Here we meet coach Larry Snyder full of aphorisms and nearly always hugging a bottle.
The film becomes more interesting when the spectre of the 1936 Berlin Olympics rises. In the USA, as elsewhere, there is a debate about a possible boycott because of the Nazi oppression, especially against Jews. The debate is dramatised through Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), for a boycott, and Avery Brundage, for participation. Avery Brundage journeys to Berlin where he meets Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl. The Nazi leader agrees to ‘tone down’ their actions for the duration of the Olympics. So Jesse goes to Berlin and wins his four gold medals.
The US characters are generally well played though fairly conventional, Stephan Jones as James Cleveland Owens (his actual names) is credible as the athlete and Jason Sudeikis’ coach is engaging and suitably liberal. The athlete/coach relationship is full of recognisable scenes and tropes: there is even a variation on the classic ‘I was made to run’ line. Jeremy Irons as Avery Brundage brings a Machiavellian quality to his character and steals most of the scenes in which he plays. Barnaby Metshurat’s Goebbels is equally Machiavellian but also monosyllabic and malevolent. Carise Van Houten’s Riefenstahl is well done but bears little resemblance to the actual character.
Riefenstahl provides an angle to the script which makes much of the filming of the Olympics, though it is only infrequently reflexive. Riefenstahl also acts as an interpreter tween Brundage and Goebbels. These scenes are the closest that the film comes to addressing the political substance of this story. Predominately this is a sporting film, so the various obstacles in Jesse’s path merely delay his triumph. There is a token appearance of a representative of the NAACP, which organisation supported a boycott. And when two US athlete who are Jewish are blocked by the Nazis, they still turn up and tell Jesse to win for ‘America’.
The film does address the vicious racism in the USA. However, probably unintentionally, the racism of the Nazis tends to be balanced by this. There is a telling scene where Jesse and Ruth, even after his medal triumph, have to use the staff entrance when attending a celebratory banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria. In neither case does the film address the actual nature of the racisms. The racist attitude of the crowd at a US college sporting occasion turns easily to cheers when Jesse wins. I doubt it was that simple.
The film is overall entertaining. There is a lot of CGI, but mostly well done if noticeable. The camera work and editing are generally fine, though at time parallel editing is somewhat clumsy. The Sight & Sound review notes that Owens was a life-ling Republican who argued against the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. There is a logic of sorts in that view. The film was completed long enough ago to have a release in Canada in February this year. So there is no attempt to address the ironies of Olympic boycotts including the current one.
I was eagerly looking forward to my last film and it didn’t disappoint. At a superficial glance Speed Sisters might look like something made for a sports channel on cable TV – but it is so much more than that. It’s actually a well-shot and well-edited 80 minutes which explores a whole range of issues about sport, gender and politics in one of the most difficult parts of the world to discuss any of the three. And it’s very entertaining. Motor racing is expensive so inevitably the five women at the centre of this film are all to some extent ‘middle-class’ but that doesn’t really matter. They all face the same kinds of problems that affect the mass of Palestinians on a daily basis – and it’s actually quite refreshing to see Palestinian women who can assert themselves without having to play the roles of ‘victims’.
Speed Sisters is the first feature-length documentary by the Lebanese-Canadian director Amber Fares and she does a great job. Her approach was risky – to follow five women over the course of a couple of years, hoping that there would be a worthwhile narrative to be constructed from the footage collected. In the final edit there are stories about four of the five women with one, Mona, rather fading into the background – though this is because she races more for fun than to be a ‘winner’ as such. The other four comprise the ‘team manager’ Maysoon whose journey takes her into marriage with a Jordanian driver and the three real competitors Betty, Noor and Marah.
The film works on several levels, all of them challenging in terms of stereotypical views of life on the West Bank. The young women are engaged in what is called ‘street racing’. But this is the West Bank with little space for sporting activity of any kind and restrictions on the use of roads and the general movement of people. This sport therefore becomes a time trial involving manoeuvring road cars around a complex ‘track’ marked out on a public square, market space etc. The women compete alongside the men but their times are recorded for a separate Women’s Championship. Each event involves three ’rounds’ with dozens of competitors. It is interesting that while the women are enthusiastically supported by the men who work on the cars, they still suffer from the authoritarian rule of the men in charge of the sport – who seem to make up their own rules as they go along. Maysoon, who runs her own shop in Jerusalem, attempts to protect her team from the worst decisions but they still have an impact.
Noor struggles to remember the correct route around the traffic cones and is often disqualified. Marah is, I think, the youngest driver – and arguably the best and most committed – but also the one who suffers most because of the changing rules. She is in some ways the hero of the narrative, living in Jenin in the North and passionately supported by her dad, who runs his own dental technician business. Betty, Palestinian-Mexican, wealthy and glamorous is the media favourite. It’s good to see that while there is intense rivalry, the women still support each other. The racing scenes are exciting and there is a terrific soundtrack:
While living in the Middle East, I also discovered a thriving, vibrant independent music scene. I wanted the Speed Sisters soundtrack to highlight some of these talented artists. The soundtrack needed to be authentic, fresh and as diverse as the Middle East. (Amber Fares)
Any kind of social activity in Palestine is difficult. At one point the team is attacked by Israeli soldiers when they drive near the wall. There is also a section of the film which makes an important point about the occupation. Noor and Betty have the ‘right kind of number plate’ that allows them to travel between Palestine and Israel, passing through checkpoints. One day they offer to take Marah to see the sea. Marah has to walk through the extensive border controls, with their long caged walkways, to meet the others on the other side. She’s never see the sea before (Jenin is only a short drive from the sea). When she gets to splash in the sea, it’s obvious that it has a profound effect on her.
Speed Sisters is a wonderful film. It’s released by Dogwoof in the UK on 25th March with various preview screenings lined up for International Women’s Day on March 8th. Don’t miss it!
Room is this year’s favourite amongst mainstream critics with four Oscar nominations and many other accolades, including a BAFTA for Brie Larson as Best Actor. It is a major film for both the Canadian and Irish film industries and it is proving immensely popular with its audiences – already established in IMDB’s Top 250 film entries. Its emotional power eventually worked for me but, surprisingly, in a relatively conventional way. I think I was expecting something quite harrowing but it came across as something different.
The narrative opens with Joy and her son Jack living in a small room as Jack’s fifth birthday approaches. It soon becomes apparent that they are prisoners in the room and that Jack was born there and has no experience of ‘the world outside’. I was quite surprised that Jack ‘escapes’ from ‘Room’ (as he calls it) and the remainder of the narrative deals with what happens to Jack and Joy when they are ‘outside’. I’m still thinking through how the two parts of the narrative fit together. I wonder what might happen if one part was considerably longer and the other shorter? But perhaps the narrative needs a balance between the two? Since the original novelist Emma Donoghue wrote the film script it’s reasonable to assume that the balance is correct but perhaps it depends on the audience? As a childless person, I was less interested in the ‘Room’ sequences than in the family melodrama that followed the release of Joy and Jack – although I think I recognise the interesting questions that the incarceration throws up about Jack’s development cut off from experience of everyday life. One of my viewing companions said how much she enjoyed the viewpoint of the child and it is certainly true that Jack Tremblay the young boy who plays ‘Jack’ gives a remarkable performance. Brie Larson as Joy is also good in what is a difficult role but for me the film picked up with the appearance of Joan Allen as Joy’s mother.
Director Lenny Abrahamson moves into the big league with this film. I didn’t see his previous film Frank, but I do wonder if something has changed with Room. I think I prefer his Irish films What Richard Did (2012) and Garage (2007). In all three films I feel a sense of distanced observation, even though difficult emotional situations are being explored. But in Room the approach just doesn’t seem to work quite as well as in the earlier films – perhaps there was some kind of subconscious attempt to be truer to the script – or perhaps young Jack is just too sympathetic a character? Thinking about Room some days after the screening, I also note that we never find out anything about the man who captures Joy. In the book I understand he is referred to as ‘Old Nick’. I didn’t think about this during the screening but making him a ‘non-human’ character is actually quite disturbing.
I did find the dialogue difficult to follow at times. Perhaps I was disorientated by having to sit in the circle of the Hebden Bridge Picture House (because the stalls have not recovered as yet from the flooding over Christmas). I’m usually much closer to the screen. At one point I thought that Jack referred to being “here in America”? There is actually nothing in the film to confirm that it is actually Toronto that is the location of the action. Yet this did seem to me to be a ‘Canadian film’. It seemed calmer, less frenetic than how I might expect a Hollywood version of the story to work out. I liked this – just as I liked the film overall. But I remain doubtful as to whether it is one of the handful of films that deserve honours and rewards (but then I don’t really value Oscars and BAFTAs – they seem simply commercially-driven celebrity events these days).
Critiques of Hollywood often seem to work well when they are made by outsiders. David Cronenberg had never before made a film in the US, but even with Maps to the Stars he spent only 5 days shooting exteriors in LA and most of the film was actually shot in Toronto. Hollywood Reporter‘s reviewer Todd McCarthy brands Cronenberg’s film a failure – or at best a weak and tired satire (Variety didn’t like it either). I’d have to disagree. But then I’ve never been to LA and my ideas about Tinseltown come only from the movies. Cronenberg and scriptwriter Bruce Wagner (a Hollywood insider whose novels draw on his own experiences in LA) seem to have seen all the movies I’ve seen and probably more.
‘Maps to the Stars’ refers to both the tourists maps of celebrity homes, the players in Greek tragedies and also the mystical bullshit emanating from Stafford Weiss (John Cusack on great form) as guru to celebs. He offers ‘massage therapy’ to the Norma Desmond character (Julianne Moore having enormous fun). Sunset Boulevard is just one of the obvious references. Mommie Dearest is quoted in one gag and Carrie Fisher appears in a cameo reminding us of Postcards From the Edge (1990) which she wrote and which starred Shirley MacLaine and Meryl Streep as a mother-daughter acting pair. The Julianne Moore character, Havana, here attempts to revive her career by pursuing the role taken by her own mother. Robert Pattinson plays the generic role of the outsider in the guise of the struggling wannabe actor who has to take jobs as a limo driver to pay his way and who inadvertently links together the players in this comic tragedy. The tragedy begins with the arrival of Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) arriving at LAX from ‘Jupiter, Florida’ who wants to visit some very specific sites and needs a driver. It takes a while to suss out exactly who Agatha is with her burned skin covered by long gloves. By then we’ve already met the rest of the Weiss household with 13 year-old son Benjie (Evan Bird), a foul-mouthed Justin Bieber-type star and his controlling mother Cristina (Olivia Williams).
Cronenberg in his deadpan way has suggested that the film is a humane family tragedy. It is that – and an attack on the vacuous industry/society that enables/provokes the acts we see performed by the central characters. It isn’t really an exposé of contemporary Hollywood as such. As Tony Rayns points out in his Sight and Sound (October) review, Wagner’s experiences relate to Hollywood in the 1990s before the domination of superhero movies and animations. Instead, Cronenberg presents the family tragedy in such a way that it reminds us, sometimes obliquely, of earlier films about Hollywood. At times I got flashes of Lana Turner in Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and also of Nick Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950) when Agatha quotes lines of romantic poetry (Bogart, a screenwriter has a desperate love for Gloria Grahame). Though not a Hollywood ‘industry’ story, I also thought of James Dean, Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause, when they ‘play house’ in the Hollywood hills. I was intrigued to see that Cronenberg in a press conference answered a question about the ghosts that appear to characters in the film with a reference to the ghost of James Dean haunting the world (“Il est vrai que le fantôme de James Dean hante encore le monde . . . “). Dean is also a link to the Cronenberg film that Maps to the Stars most resembles for me. Crash (1997) was one of Cronenberg’s most controversial – and certainly most misunderstood films. Given that Maps to the Stars involves many scenes of expensive cars gliding between expensive houses and expensive shops perhaps the resemblance is not surprising. I tried at one point to discern whether or not Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky were using the 25mm lens that became their trademark on earlier films. I’m not expert enough to tell, but there were scenes in which the ‘otherworldliness’ of the settings certainly came through the clinical images that director and cinematographer create.
Cronenberg’s Hollywood critics argue that he doesn’t get it and that Wagner’s script is out of date, but taken as a Ballardian speculative fiction with Hollywood memories haunting the tragic lives of its characters, I think Maps to the Stars works well. It’s amazing what you can do in Toronto with a few palm trees!