Top Hat (1935)

Wrapping up my several weeks catching up on my favourite films I saw for the first time in 2019, is this Astaire-Rogers musical, generally considered to be their best collaboration and certainly the most famous of them all. It’s a delightful attempt to recreate some of the Lubitsch touch (with some uncredited inspiration taken from Hungarian plays of the era, which fits in with the European-ness of the whole undertaking), and it moves along with gay abandon.


I do not love a mistaken identity plot, and it was probably a tired device even in 1935, but somehow this film manages to make it almost acceptable, though it remains a source of great frustration every time someone fails to say their name and the film gets into some huge contortions trying to keep the whole thing going. And yet! Of course it is delightful, for there is dancing. Fred Astaire plays Jerry, a professional dancer, something of a big name who finds himself in (some weird cinematic form of) London to star in Horace (Edward Everett Horton)’s stage show, a dramatic conceit that’s quickly forgotten about when… Jerry falls in love with Ginger Rogers’s Dale (not playing a character who is a professional dancer, just a character who happens to be really good at dancing) and must fly off to (an even weirder cinematic soundstage recreation of) Venice to woo her. There are all kinds of misunderstandings wrapped up with this convoluted plot, among which one that leads to Horace being punched in the face by his wife Madge (Helen Broderick, who is, by the way, a comic highlight along with Erik Rhodes as the archly self-regarding Beddini) but the writing keeps it all tight and moving along swiftly. Ginger’s dresses are also particularly on point, and the whole thing is, to use a term which was then used rather more casually (but nonetheless aptly), a gay affair. Nice to see, too, that Eric Blore’s valet Bates uses they/them pronouns.

Top Hat film posterCREDITS
Director Mark Sandrich; Writer Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott; Cinematographer David Abel; Starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton, Helen Broderick, Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 30 December 2019.

Criterion Sunday 276: The River (aka Le Fleuve, 1951)

There’s a hint in this Jean Renoir film, made in India in the English language, of contemporary Powell and Pressburger films. Not just from the lush and almost anti-realist colour, but also in a certain colonialist attitude: it’s set amongst British settlers, presumably in the past when it was a colony of the Empire, and concerns three young women and their affections towards a one-legged American ex-serviceman called Capt John (he limps a bit). It’s narrated by the youngest of the three, Harriet (Patricia Walters), who is a writer of sorts, and creates her own narrative for the oldest, who is half-Indian. It all has a languorous air, perhaps because it’s about the last vestiges of colonialism in a newly independent country, or perhaps because of its Western gaze, although it feels like a benign vision of the country compared to some other more orientalist portraits (or a film like Black Narcissus), but I would imagine that’s largely down to Jean Renoir’s sensitivity as a director and writer. Certainly a film that will reward another viewing, I suspect.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s an interview with Martin Scorsese, whose Foundation helped in the restoration of the film, and who is unabashedly a big fan of the film. He speaks about his childhood experiences seeing it, about the colour and the staging, about Renoir’s collaboration with Rumer Godden and the humanity that Renoir has for his characters, as well as touching on the colonialist aspects.
  • Renoir introduces the film in a 7-minute filmed introduction made in 1962 (there are similar ones included on other Renoir films in the Criterion Collection). He relates some stories about the production in an avuncular manner, and hints at his (perhaps troubled) collaboration with the producer Ken McEldowney.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean Renoir (based on the novel by Rumer Godden); Cinematographer Claude Renoir; Starring Patricia Walters, Radha Burnier, Adrienne Corri, Thomas E. Breen, Esmond Knight; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 17 November 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.

Little Women (2019)

Given this film has only just been released, it’s a late entry into my contenders for favourite of the year. To my shame, I’ve never seen a previous adaptation, and I’ve had the book unread on my shelf for half my life. I intend to remedy both points, as I’ve now ordered a copy of the much-beloved 1994 version by Gillian Armstrong; I was a teenager when it came out which may be why I didn’t see it then. Still, this latest film convinces me that it’ll be worthwhile.


I’ve seen some criticisms of this that mostly follow along the lines of the way it’s put together — not just the tricksy narrative conceit of bridging a seven year gap in the sisters’ storylines by constant cross-cutting, and the way that the death of [you all know which one right; we all know that surely by now, this story having been made so very many times?] becomes so emblematic of the death of their childhoods, as they move into a world of adult responsibilities… but also the way that the editing feels rather choppy, as if in a rush to move through this story. I can understand that some might suggest it would make a better miniseries, but honestly I think there’s little need to dwell too long on such a familiar story.

Despite not having read the original or seen any previous adaptation, the character arcs feel somehow very familiar, even as director Greta Gerwig brings something modern to the story. I imagine the older sister Meg has always felt a little bit underpowered (and requires someone of the iconic stature of Emma Watson to even bring a little bit of pathos to a very telegraphed storyline). Beth has humanity here, ironically a little bit more life to her than I had expected, but as presented it feels as if Little Women is canonically all about the conflict between Jo and Amy — and those more familiar with the story can put me right if this isn’t the case. Both Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh are wonderful actors, perhaps the best of anyone in the cast (and this is a cast with Laura Dern and Meryl Streep in it), but they capture the most attention, and there’s as much nuance in both performances as in any of recent memory (as much as in Streep’s, doing some of her finest work in years I think for the number of scenes she has). There are, for example, inflections to Ronan’s face in certain scenes that pull me back strongly to Cate Blanchett in Carol (if only because I’ve seen that film so often and so recently, not that I’m suggesting anything about Jo, though it certainly did cross my mind).

Aside from the acting, there’s a heavy emphasis on the monetary, proprietorial nature of marriage in this era, the sense of romantic partnership as transaction, which is what makes Amy’s storyline in particular so freighted with pathos. There’s this short scene where Streep’s elderly aunt calls Amy in from painting, something she loves and enjoys and wants to make a success out of (despite her self-awareness of her own limitations), to baldly inform her that the fate of the family basically rests on her making a good marriage and to forget about the frivolity of learning and artistic endeavour she’s currently engaged in. There are several scenes of this nature — in which women are confronted matter-of-factly with the reality of their world — that pass by almost subliminally, given the aforementioned speed of the film and its editing, but which resoundingly linger as these contrapuntal notes in what is otherwise a beautiful, warm and enriching film about life, with all the autumnal beauty and familial warmth you’d expect from a U-rated period drama. I suppose it could feel a little heavy-handed, but I think it all works enormously well within the context of a properly family film to make clear the constraints within which the characters live.

Little Women film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Greta Gerwig (based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott); Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux; Starring Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Eliza Scanlen, Meryl Streep; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Thursday 26 December 2019.

崖の上のポニョ Gake no Ue no Ponyo (Ponyo, 2008)

I’ve reviewed a few of Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata’s films on my blog (such as My Neighbours the Yamadas earlier today, and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya), but I’ve not yet touched on the most famous figure from that studio, Hayao Miyazaki. I’ve now seen a number of his films, though, and for all my sneering at the idea of them when I was younger, they are in fact all remarkably good. My favourite remains Spirited Away which perhaps one day I shall write about here, but in the meantime here’s the one with the catchiest theme song…


I’m not honestly sure how one reviews Miyazaki-san’s films. I resisted them for so long when I was younger, assuming them to be twee nonsense, but they have a genuine sense of wonder that is difficult to express in a critical discourse — something about the rush of colours, the transformative and magical that lurks in the everyday, and the blending of quotidian reality with supernatural undersea elements. The set-up is that Sosuke is a five-year-old boy living at home with his mum (who works at the local retirement community) while dad is out for long stretches on the high seas. This land-based reality is mirrored by an alternate underwater family structure: his absent father becomes Fujimoto, a grumpy sorcerer who hates humans and is trying to repopulate the oceans, the mother is now a mystical deity, and the magical fish-human of the title is like a reflected sister/partner for Sosuke. The themes of the environmental devastation (which Fujimoto is working to counter), and the way that this is reflected in the dangerous volitility of the ocean, are all expressed very gently, but even in the joy of the animation you get a sense of this threat underlying it all.

Ponyo film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Hayao Miyazaki 宮崎駿; Starring Yuria Nara ならゆりあ, Hiroki Doi 土井洋輝; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 November 2019.

Four Films by Jia Zhangke: The World (2004), Still Life (2006), Dong (2006) and 24 City (2008)

One of the great contemporary Chinese filmmakers is currently Jia Zhangke, who made A Touch of Sin (2013), one of my favourites of the decade. His interest in small people dwarfed by huge government building programmes or infrastructure projects seems to run through his films, and is certainly evident in the screenshots (seen here) of the three narrative feature films (and one documentary) I’m reviewing in this post, all from the 2000s. However, more than that, they seem to be about people who are alienated from their society, or otherwise find difficulties in being connected, people who slip out of the system or are trying to keep in touch despite enormous societal changes going on around them.

Continue reading “Four Films by Jia Zhangke: The World (2004), Still Life (2006), Dong (2006) and 24 City (2008)”

Three Black American Satirical Films: The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), Chameleon Street (1989) and Sorry to Bother You (2018)

Satire has always been a popular artistic form, especially when confronted with the wealth and ingrained power of the American elites. As a form, it has been utilised by a number of filmmakers over the years, notably African-American artists seeking to attack the privilege and entitlement of the (majority white) leaders, whether of government, the media or the corporate world. Whereas a film like Dear White People (2014) and its subsequent TV series may look at the educational system, the films below cover the institutions that support American power most directly — the FBI and corporate America — and in Chameleon Street suggests the contortions that such power inflict on the (Black) psyche.

Continue reading “Three Black American Satirical Films: The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), Chameleon Street (1989) and Sorry to Bother You (2018)”

Amazing Grace (2018)

Harking back to last week’s musical theme is this concert film of Aretha Franklin in 1972. Despite being filmed at the time, there were technical issues to deal with, not to mention Franklin herself, and was only released finally last year. As it is essentially a gospel concert filmed in a church, with contributions from Franklin’s own father and others in the same tradition, it provides a slice of African-American religious experience, albeit one that has been elevated and curated for a quite different audience.


We see director Sydney Pollack near the start, chatting to his camera operators as the church is set up, and then throughout the film we see him from time to time gesticulating wildly to get his cameramen to pick out something happening in the audience or away from centre stage. Indeed, because this concert was filmed in a church, there’s not really any space to hide and so, unlike many concert films, there are a lot of shots where we can clearly see all the cameras and sound recording equipment, and somehow that makes this feel all the more intimate and personable. But, as the familiar documentary marketing blurb goes, due to technical complications the footage was never released… until now. (Actually it seems it was ready a decade ago, but while she was alive Aretha Franklin blocked it from being released.)

Aretha is of course staggeringly good, but the film is wonderful in affording time to everything around her: the faces of the gospel choir are featured every bit as heavily, the well-practised patter of Rev Cleveland introducing the songs and helping out on the piano and vocals on a number of the more straightforwardly gospel numbers, and then there’s the audience, who are like a time capsule in and of themselves, getting to their feet, providing the call-and-response that Cleveland expects. On the second of the two nights, word has clearly got around, so Aretha’s father is there (hopping up to wipe down her sweating brow while she’s in full stride), Clara Ward (another gospel singer), even Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts can be spotted up the back in the audience.

Still, ultimately, this is Aretha’s film, and her performance is really spine-tingling, cementing it almost instantly as one of the all-time classic great concert movies.

Amazing Grace film posterCREDITS
Directors Sydney Pollack and Alan Elliott; Starring Aretha Franklin; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Wednesday 15 May 2019.

Guys and Dolls (1955)

Just one final review for my musicals-themed week, as I just watched this yesterday, and it feels like an important part of the musical landscape of 1950s America.


I don’t have a problem with this being a great stage musical (and I’ve certainly enjoyed it a lot on stage), but I’m not sure this is the best possible film version that could have been made from it. What I do like, that I didn’t think I would, was the sheer staginess of the whole thing: the opening sequence, the craps game near the end, and others where characters directly look at the camera and break the fourth wall fell so stage-bound there could almost be a proscenium arch around them. It all says ‘Hollywood musical’ pretty effectively and I think it kinda works for the already stylised form of the Runyon stories, in de-naturalising a pretty dark and naturalistic setting (gamblers, late-night dives, gangsters, and all that jazz). What I don’t buy is that these songs about the way men treat women (sorry, ‘guys’ treat ‘dolls’) never really seem particularly sarcastic and pointed, because Brando and Sinatra are pretty alpha guys who look good (Brando has rarely been as pretty as he is in this film), dress sharp, do all the right moves and make all the right noises — these are men in control, and so when they talk about being manipulated by women, there’s no sense of desperation or neediness, it just comes across as being a bit nasty or certainly a bit calculated. It’s also rather long. Still, there’s a huge amount that’s great too, there are at least a couple of really top songs (indeed, the “Luck Be a Lady” rendition was the only time I really felt Brando being vulnerable and needy, desperate for the luck of the dice, which I think needed to come out more elsewhere), and it looks great in the way that golden era Hollywood made so effortless.

Guys and Dolls film posterCREDITS
Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz; Writers Mankiewicz and Ben Hecht (based on the musical by Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling, itself based on the short stories “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure” by Damon Runyon); Cinematographer Harry Stradling; Starring Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Jean Simmons, Vivian Blaine, Stubby Kaye; Length 150 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 19 October 2019.

楊貴妃 Yokihi (Princess Yang Kwei-Fei, 1955)

A brief theme week not tied into any particular release coming up, though the London Film Festival starts on Wednesday 2 October and it always features a trove of world cinema. No, after my recent theme week on Asian diaspora cinema, I wanted to refocus on cinematic visions of China, some of which have been made by expatriate Chinese directors, most of which are made by other countries, and some which are perhaps specifically resistant to Chinese influence in the region — from or about contested territories like Taiwan and Hong Kong.


A late colour film by Mizoguchi, based in Chinese history, which deals with court intrigues involving the lowly lady of the title raised to chief consort of the Emperor, whose family are then inducted into government, provoking the ire of the people and a tragic ending for all concerned. The camera glides beautifully throughout these palatial rooms, strikingly picked out in shades of red, as Machiko Kyo does subtle work as a beautiful woman sacrificed to the imperial ambitions of the men around her. It may not be esteemed among Mizoguchi’s best, but it’s pretty great nonetheless.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Kenji Mizoguchi 溝口健二; Writers Ching Doe 陶秦, Matsutaro Kawaguchi 川口松太郎, Yoshikata Yoda 依田義賢 and Masashige Narusawa 成沢昌茂; Cinematographer Kohei Sugiyama 杉山公平; Starring Machiko Kyo 京マチ子, Masayuki Mori 森雅之, So Yamamura 山村聰; Length 98 minutes.
Seen on a train (DVD on a laptop), Monday 1 July 2019.