Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017)

One of the more overlooked biopics of recent years was about the creator of the Wonder Woman character, which was released to capitalise on the DC Comics tie-in movie, but explored very different territory. It’s a lovely evocation of an era, and of unconventional sexuality which comes under misguided public scrutiny.


I love a good love story, and this one may namecheck its Harvard professor (played by Luke Evans) in the title, the creator of the Wonder Woman character, but it’s really about the two women in his life, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) and Olive (Bella Heathcote). As a piece of filmmaking, it’s every bit as burnished and handsomely mounted as any other period biopic (Hidden Figures say), but where it excels (like that film) is the quality of the performances, particularly that of Rebecca Hall, who is fantastic as Elizabeth, moving convincingly through a range of emotional responses over the course of her character’s life, as I did while watching her and this film. Solid, humanist stuff capturing something about the power dynamics in relationships — however unconventional this one may have been.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Angela Robinson; Cinematographer Bryce Fortner; Starring Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Leicester Square Studios, London, Sunday 12 November 2017.

Love Me or Leave Me (1955)

You can’t possible cover musicals without touching on the output of Doris Day, truly a luminous figure in the 1950s for Hollywood musicals. Today’s film marks rather an odd and startling entry into the genre, with some pretty dark themes. However, it has its share of big numbers, and Day carries it through easily.


Having gone to see this because I assumed “Doris Day” + “musical” would mean light and fluffy (thinking to her 1960s roles perhaps), I was rather taken aback by quite how dark this behind-the-scenes of the entertainment business story is. It’s a fictionalised version of a real story from the 1920s and 30s, of nightclub dancer Ruth Etting (Doris Day) whose career takes off as a singer and Hollywood actor thanks to some initial help from small-time gangster Marty Snyder (James Cagney), but then she finds herself stuck with him. Right from the off he’s aggressive and unpleasant, believing himself to be far more than he really is and taking violent umbrage to anyone who disputes his narcissistic idea of himself. There are these occasional quiet moments where you get the sense of his inner turmoil, but he’s never anything less than utterly vile, a nasty violent spirit of pure patriarchy at work, shaping Ruth’s career and pushing her to do things he wants (and to quit the things he doesn’t want as soon as the power starts to go her way).

Day is excellent in moving between this glamorous stage presence to a woman behind the scenes who is barely able to control anything she does and lacks the will to follow it through — being a big mainstream musical, there are times when you can see how much darker this could go though the film sort of swerves to avoid some of the narratives being set up: for example, we see her starting to drink heavily as her relationship gets worse; or there’s the fade to newspaper headlines about her sudden marriage to her manager Marty just after he basically initiates a rape to extract what he think’s he’s “owed”. Truly, there is some deeply bleak stuff in what is otherwise a handsomely staged period musical, which makes it both difficult to watch at times but also fascinating.

Love Me or Leave Me film posterCREDITS
Director Charles Vidor; Writers Daniel Fuchs and Isobel Lennart; Cinematographer Arthur E. Arling; Starring Doris Day, James Cagney, Cameron Mitchell; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Wednesday 24 July 2019.

Films by Warwick Thornton

In my week focusing on Australian films, I’ve already covered some modern classics including Aboriginal director Tracey Moffatt’s beDevil (1993) and a number of documentaries interrogating Australia’s colonialist and racist societal dynamics, notably Another Country (2015). Warwick Thornton is probably the most prominent director from an Aboriginal background currently working in the country, and over the course of a number of short films and two features has burrowed into this history, stepping back to the 1920s with his most recent feature Sweet Country.

Continue reading “Films by Warwick Thornton”

사랑방 손님과 어머니 Sarangbang Sonnimgwa Eomeoni (My Mother and Her Guest aka The Houseguest and My Mother, 1961)

I may not be an expert on Korean cinema, but this seems to me to be one of the standouts of this era of filmmaking along with Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid of the year before (which I haven’t yet seen, but which will show up on the Criterion Collection). The director and his lead actress (also his wife), Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee, have their own fascinating stories quite separate from this film — they were kidnapped in 1978 by North Korea on the orders of Kim Jong-il so as to bring prestige to that country’s film industry — and this story is told in the British documentary The Lovers and the Despot (2016).


A film told largely through the eyes of a young child, Ok-hee (the ubiquitous Jeon Young-son, who appears in many of these 1960s films), who at six is bright, chatty and seemingly guileless in her attachment to her widowed mother (Choi Eun-hee) and the lodger who takes a spare room in their home (Kim Jin-kyu). Soon enough we realise that in fact she has her tricks too, and there’s a lot of humour (she can be very funny) and compassion in the way she helps to match-make her mother with the guest, contrary to societal expectations around how widows should act in Korean society of this period (it’s set in the 1920s I believe). There’s a lot of play around lying and truth-telling, there’s careful etiquette about when two unattached people can be in the same space together or seen talking, lots of avoidance of eye contact, and then at length the sweep of melodrama as the home’s maid falls pregnant to an itinerant egg-seller, and has to move out for propriety’s sake. The film never becomes harsh like some of its characters though, and there’s an underlying warmth to the story that suggests a future for the characters that is only ever hinted at.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Shin Sang-ok 신상옥; Writer Lim Hee-jae 임희재 (based on the novel by Cho Yo-sup 주요섭); Cinematographer Choe Su-yeong 최수영; Starring Choi Eun-hee 최은희, Jeon Young-son 전영선, Kim Jin-kyu 김진규; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at Korean Cultural Centre, London, Thursday 20 June 2019.

Criterion Sunday 126: Ordet (aka The Word, 1955)

I’m never quite sure how to respond to the characters in this film, though over time I’ve come to accept it as a great and profound work (on my first viewing, in my early-20s, I was distinctly unimpressed, and it took seeing it on the cinema screen to appreciate its artistry). Everyone acts at times like a fool, at times with grace and acceptance; it’s religious, not in a simple way, but at a fundamental level — Ordet (which when translated means “the word”) seems hardly about creed so much as the underlying belief in the value and beauty of all life. And on the evidence here, Dreyer is surely, too, one of the greatest directors for use of lighting, somehow too coordinating effects of nature into his mise en scene.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Carl Theodor Dreyer (based on the play by Kaj Munk); Cinematographer Henning Bendtsen; Starring Preben Lerdorff Rye, Henrik Malberg, Birgitte Federspiel, Emil Hass Christensen; Length 126 minutes.

Seen at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 4 July 2003 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1999, and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 3 December 2016).

Bessie (2015)

I may not always have felt bowled over by the filmmaking here — attractive and well-staged as it is, there is a sense of conventionality to its telling, with a script that rushes through Bessie Smith’s career, pausing for some portentous slow-motion flashbacks and overlaid by an orchestral score that often drowned out any subtlety — and yet, YET. The performances are all uniformly fantastic, starting with the wonderful, too often underrated Queen Latifah as the blues singer of the title, all a-sparkle in those glamorous 20s and 30s show dresses, but also conveying a naked vulnerability and a streak of wilful non-conformism. Latifah has been doing great acting for at least 20 years (at least in the roles that I’ve been seeing her in on screen, starting for me with 1996’s Set It Off), but the plaudits extend too to all the supporting cast. As this is an HBO production, many of them are most familiar from their television work (Michael K. Williams as Bessie’s partner, and Khandi Alexander as her sister are only the most prominent), but I don’t think anyone argues anymore that this is any lesser a platform for screen narratives, and I found myself wishing at times this had been a mini-series instead. But no, Latifah makes Bessie greatly watchable with a performance worth celebrating, whatever other drawbacks the film may have.

Bessie film posterCREDITS
Director Dee Rees; Writers Rees, Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois; Cinematographer Jeff Jur; Starring Queen Latifah, Michael K. Williams, Khandi Alexander, Mo’Nique; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 20 October 2016.

De-Lovely (2004)

I seem to have a rather conflicted relationship to self-awareness in films: I was quite unkind towards Anna Karenina (2012) and its efforts at presenting the action at times through a proscenium arch as if it were on stage, but elsewhere it’s the kind of thing I love, and I can’t really pretend I’m in any way consistent. The stage is a big feature of this biopic about the life of Cole Porter and his relationship with Linda Lee Thomas, too, but for some reason I’m more sympathetic towards it here. Perhaps that’s because Porter’s life is one very much lived out on and through the stage and performance, so presenting his life as a pageant to his older self, with periodic flourishes of artificial staginess, all seems of a piece to his story. It’s also filled with delightful musical performances of his work, such that whatever its shortcomings, it drew me in quite nimbly.

That framing device has Jonathan Pryce as the archangel Gabriel, come down (apparently to London’s beautiful Wilton Music Hall) to take the elderly and infirm Porter (Kevin Kline, under heavy layers of prosthetics) through scenes from his life, starting with his meeting the beautiful Linda, played by Ashley Judd. In real life, she was eight years his senior, but this is a show, and such details aren’t to get in the way of the feelings. The subsequent couple of hours gamely skip through scenes from their life together, his marriage to her at the tail end of the 1910s, his increasing success on Broadway in the 1920s, his (at least privately) unconcealed gay lovelife, his crippling horse-riding accident in the 1930s, and then the couple’s decline from there in the 1940s and 1950s, neatly avoiding any of the significant world events that may have happened in this period. This is, above all, a portrait of the artist, with only tenuous connections to the world at large.

What anchors the film, then, are the performances from Kline and Judd in the lead roles. Kline captures a benevolently patrician gravitas along with a self-laceratingly comic worldview, while Judd foregoes suffering — Linda was, it appears, quite aware of Porter’s sexual orientation, and their marriage had plenty of genuine and closely-felt love. It’s a difficult line to walk, but there’s a wonderful affection between the two, which reaches some moments of unforced pathos towards the end, even if the swiftly advancing passage of time in the film’s final third means the prosthetics and make-up are laid on rather quickly and heavily.

The director Irwin Winkler has been a producer in Hollywood for quite some time, working with the directors of the New American Cinema in the 1960s and 1970s. Clearly his work producing the likes of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990) have rubbed off, and there are some bravura sequences of technical virtuosity, particularly a single-take scene in a Los Angeles gay club as both the sultry lounge singer onstage as well as Kline quickly change costumes and re-enter the frame of the sinuously moving camera to mark the passage of time. Elsewhere there are some similarly well-staged movements through time, as the elderly Porter remembers his youthful self, not to mention the almost off-handedly integrated song numbers. Famous musical faces of the early-2000s pop up in passing to perform his songs, and the line between stage and life is effectively blurred (remembering that this is all very self-consciously framed as a pageant), so Robbie Williams mingles amongst a restaurant crowd singing the title song, Kline himself mugs through “Be a Clown” in front of producer Louis B. Mayer on a Hollywood backlot, and John Barrowman starts out reheasing “Night and Day” before segueing into a nighttime tryst in Central Park. Given the film’s way with staging, it’s entirely appropriate that we even see Cole and Linda watching the 1946 film Night and Day with Cary Grant, and commenting on the depiction of their own lives on screen.

It’s a strange blend of musical sequences, stagy flashbacks and romantic melodrama, and it clearly doesn’t work for everyone, but I enjoyed it. It’s all staged with flair and virtuosity, not to mention impeccably costumed. It’s like something out of time, a strange curate’s egg of a film, which I imagine as further decades roll past will be ever more consigned to a curious and dusty little corner of film history. However, it’s a corner worth exploring.

De-Lovely film posterCREDITS
Director Irwin Winkler; Writer Jay Cocks; Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts; Starring Kevin Kline, Ashley Judd, Jonathan Pryce, Kevin McNally; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 26 February 2014.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Films About FilmmakingAmong the more lauded Hollywood films that takes filmmaking as its subject is this classic musical, which casts a wry look back at the transition from silent to sound film. It’s not exactly the most accurate about how a film is made, but it includes some nice period detail nonetheless.


I’m sitting here in front of a blank computer screen wondering what there is, usefully, that I can write about this film, which as far as musicals from (and indeed, about) the Golden Age of Hollywood go is surely as classic as they come. If you haven’t already seen it then you’re missing out, and moreover you probably know perfectly well that you’re missing out and intend to rectify that at some point. Which is just as well, because even after all this time it remains a delightful motion picture, thanks in no small part to Gene Kelly’s athletic hoofing (a quaint term for dancing which appropriately puts the focus on footwork), the spry Comden & Green songs, and its self-referential story set in Hollywood’s own (at this point, relatively recent) history.

As a film about Hollywood’s mythmaking practices, one of the things the film does best is to dance on the line between make-believe and genuine feeling. Debbie Reynolds as Kathy enters the film as a high-minded young woman apparently resistant to the play-acting of (silent) film, rehearsing the actor’s dumb-show masks by contorting her face into clownish expressions of ecstasy, terror and surprise, as she drives Gene Kelly’s big star Don away from his overly adoring fans. Of course it’s clear even at this point that she’s baiting Don’s overinflated ego, but for much of the early part of the film, Kelly is seen almost permanently wearing one such mask — the widest of rictus grins, baring his startlingly white teeth — in a gratingly disingenuous way. Then again, as a big star he is always on show, and in this movie every new location is a film set on which he can perform, so it’s no wonder that it takes Kathy so long to figure out how he really feels.

As a film about performance, it’s suitable that it’s filled with excellent ones, particularly a number of duos between Kelly and Donald O’Connor as Don’s piano-playing accompanist friend Cosmo. Even though “Make Em Laugh” is conspicuous by the lack of laughter it engenders with its outrageous slapstick pranking (maybe I’m just hard-hearted), it nevertheless beautifully showcases O’Connor’s acrobatic agility, while “Moses Supposes” quickly returns a voice coach’s office into the dance studio set it clearly originally was. We also get to see some actual filmmaking taking place, for this is above all a story about Hollywood’s transition to sound films in the late-1920s (hence the voice coach). Being a musical, it’s naturally somewhat biased against the silent era, though its comedic points about the melodramatically affected acting style has some basis in truth. We also get an archetypally domineering yet ineffectual director and some hilariously inept early sound technology.

If the film has a misstep for me, it’s the treatment of Don’s acting partner Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), who is constantly ridiculed and humiliated for the temerity she shows in presuming to speak, for she is the very definition of the dumb blonde stereotype. She is a manipulative figure of negligible talent and a shrilly grating Brooklyn accent, and she seems created to emphasise the homely charms of Kathy. And yet Jean Hagen sort of steals the film with her, and in many ways (perhaps in spite of the filmmakers’ mean-spirited intentions) she is a rather transgressive character, outspoken and perfectly aware of the patriarchal way things work in Hollywood. It’s at the hands of this chummy band of old boys pulling on almost-literal strings that she gets her comeuppance at the end. I’m still not sure if we were meant to cheer, but it manages to feel quite nasty.

On the whole though, the film has much to recommend it, not least the extended “Broadway Melody” ballet sequence with the delightful Cyd Charisse, its own little silent film-within-a-film (at least, as far as I can recall, the only words are “Gotta dance!”) which seems to be more of a showreel for the transformative power of glorious, saturated Technicolor than sound, while Charisse’s vamping would not have been out of place on the silent screen. It all takes place on the same soundstage where earlier we’d seen Kathy and Don, not to mention the wind machine, and in its baroque wonder it’s an advert for the craft of the set designers and costume department, not to mention being the best showcase for the talents of both dancers. A Hollywood classic that continues to deserve that status.

Singin' in the Rain film posterCREDITS
Directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen; Writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green; Cinematographer Harold Rosson; Starring Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Jean Hagen; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 8 February 2014 (and years before in Wellington).

Some Like It Hot (1959)

I already have a habit on my blog of giving the shortest shrift and the weakest reviews to my favourite films. It’s been over a week since I watched this, and for my memory that’s probably already too long to give it its due. In part, perhaps, I feel a little ashamed that I’ve let so many decades pass before getting round to seeing this highly-regarded comedy classic by the great Billy Wilder for the first time. But it is indeed a great film, and an enjoyable one.

Most prominently, the performances by the lead actors are excellent. Although Marilyn Monroe has had a lot of the attention in her role as nightclub singer Sugar — and she’s very good at playing that particular type of calculating yet mock-ditzy blonde — the film is carried by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. These two play Chicago musicians, Joe and Jerry respectively, who have witnessed the St Valentine’s Day Massacre (a real event which took place in 1929) and are now on the run from the gangsters responsible. Desperate to get out of town, and with an opening in an all-woman revue band coming up, they impersonate women, taking the names Josephine and Daphne, and get on board the train to Miami with the band (one of whose members is the aforementioned Sugar).

There’s a lot that has been written about the film over the years, so I’ll just stick to a few points. One is that Jack Lemmon is consistently delightful as the more overtly comedic of the two central characters. He’s also the most interesting character, given the famous last lines of the film (wherein his rich, elderly suitor reveals he doesn’t care that ‘Daphne’ is biologically a man). Quite aside from the big comedic moments, Lemmon also does well at conveying this confusion at this incipient sexuality.

In fact, gender is treated quite interestingly, especially for a film from the 1950s. There doesn’t appear to be any great judgement about the crossdressing, as their female alter egos come easily to both Joe and Jerry. There’s a bit of lasciviousness in that first scene on the train with all the girls, but thereafter Josephine and Daphne settle down into being the protagonists’ regular identities — when Joe does return to being a man, he’s literally playing a role, camping it up with a Cary Grant impersonation. This also means that the comedic value of the crossdressing is not simply in laughing at men wearing women’s clothes, or at least it very quickly moves beyond that.

Naturally, there’s a lot more that can be said about Some Like It Hot, and I shall undoubtedly watch it again some day and catch more nuances. However, I wanted to just put down these meagre thoughts while I remembered; I shall try to do my (self-imposed) reviewing duty more justice with the next classic comedy I watch.

Some Like It Hot film posterCREDITS
Director Billy Wilder; Writers Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond; Cinematographer Charles Lang; Starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 31 July 2013.

Blancanieves (2012)

Are silent films now a thing that people do? Is it a trend? Technically pre-dating the Oscars™ success of The Artist (2012) is this Spanish film, now on general release in the UK after some festival appearances, which to my mind is a far more nuanced and interesting take on the silent film form, though certainly darker in tone than that other famous recent silent. It’s also a more sympathetic pastiche (for a start, there’s no diegetic sound), yet swiftly moves beyond mere slavish hommage in crafting a rounded film that plays to all the strengths of this antique form.

Of course, over the 80 or so years since sound film came to pre-eminence, there have been periodic throwbacks to the specially-moving qualities of the silent film form. There are those which reference the era within otherwise mainstream (sound) films like Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and then there are those which imitate the style, like the fantasias of Guy Maddin or the overly-grim lugubriousness of Aki Kaurismäki’s Juha (1999), amongst several others, most rather more experimental in form. So, whether these recent few films constitute a real trend is up for debate.

If there’s more interest in silent cinema now — and, from a capital city perspective, my friend Pam’s Silent London site is some small evidence of that (there are plenty of other silent-film-specific blogs to suit your tastes) — I don’t think a handful of films really does constitute a trend exactly. However, it’s nevertheless pleasing to see filmmakers (and audiences, since these films would hardly exist if there weren’t an audience for them) respond to the peculiar joys of voiceless cinematic art. I say ‘voiceless’ of course, since as we all know now, these films are not really silent: there’s a lot that can be done with a good score and expressive acting. For Blancanieves, Alfonso de Vilallonga provides the music; he’s not a name I’m familiar with, but his score leans heavily on traditions of silent-film accompaniment that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a live screening.

The gorgeous contrasty black-and-white photography emphasises faces — extreme close-ups in a nod to old Soviet silents — though with a slightly more emphatic montage style than you’d see even in those films, belying its minimal budget. However, the faces glow with that peculiar radiance that silent films have always imparted at their best. Divorced from the prosaic limitations of the voice, we have the soulful eyes of both the heroine Carmen (played as an adult by Macarena García and by Sofía Oria as a child) — who with her cropped hair at times recalls even Renée Falconetti’s suffering as Joan of Arc — and the evil stepmother Encarna (Maribel Verdú, every bit the campy stage villain). In fact, this is a film of uncommonly strong women: there’s also a role for veteran actress Ángela Molina as Carmen’s flamenco-dancing grandmother. The men in the film are no match for these women, being either literally smaller (the dwarfs who take Carmen in when she’s been forsaken by her stepmother) or symbolically so (her wheelchair-bound father, the former torero Antonio, who is effectively imprisoned by Encarna upon the death of his first wife, Carmen’s mother).

For a country which gave us the word “macho”, it is perhaps not surprising that strong women have been a feature of many classic Spanish films, as have young girls who are exposed to the allegorical horrors of a patriarchal world, which is the most pertinent point of comparison — whether the poetic rural fantasies of El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive, 1973) or El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006) more recently. In this case it’s bullfighting which is at the symbolic heart of the tale: Carmen’s attempted mastery over a bull in the stadium where her father was gored, and where her mother died giving birth to her, is what the film’s narrative is working towards. However, it hardly seems accidental that this most clichéd of Spanish pursuits should be emphasised, given we also see plenty of flamenco dancing — both being entrenched traditional arts renewed with nationalist fervour by the Francoist regime. Given that horror at Franco’s Spain is very much at the forefront of both the films I mentioned above, I suspect the inclusion of these art forms is more than mere window-dressing to make the film marketable to an international audience. The nostalgia inherent in the silent form is politicised by these allusions to the later fascist regime; Blancanieves does not present the comfortable past of the heritage film, whatever its silver-screen trappings might be.

I think that’s the key for me, that this isn’t some comfortable exercise in Roaring Twenties nostalgia, but a way of using the form in such a way as to undermine viewer assumptions. The resulting fairytale is thus returned to its complex psychological roots, and with Spain’s traumatic 20th century history still menacingly in the future, we are left uncertain as to whether ‘Snow White’ even should awake from her sleep. Thus does the film’s conclusion feel exactly right.

Blancanieves film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Pablo Berger (based on the fairytale Schneewittchen “Snow White” by the Brothers Grimm); Cinematographer Kiko de la Rica; Starring Maribel Verdú, Macarena García, Ángela Molina; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Renoir, London, Sunday 14 July 2013.