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.

West Indies ou les nègres marrons de la liberté (West Indies: The Fugitive Slaves of Liberty, 1979)

I’ve been doing themed weeks of films since restarting this blog, but as we come up to the end of the year, I want to dedicate a few weeks to reviews for films I’ve not yet managed to shoehorn into a themed week, which I regard as among the best I’ve seen this year. They won’t all be new films, though, so I’m starting with Med Hondo’s wonderful West Indies, a 1979 musical dedicated to anti-colonialism and laying bare the hypocrisy of the French state. It’s a lesson that could be applied to a number of former colonialist and imperialist countries, I suspect.


Historically speaking, African cinema doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact on Western cinephilia (certainly the opportunities I had when I was younger to watch any on home media or TV were fairly sparse), and it feels like this has begun to change somewhat only in recent decades. Filmmakers like Scorsese and George Lucas have been putting money into restorations of African and other non-Western developing nations’ cinema (Il Cinema Ritrovato has been screening some great film restorations every year), but there are still so many gems that languish unrestored, and a few of those are by Mauritanian director Med Hondo (though his debut feature Soleil Ô did receive treatment recently).

Hondo’s 1979 film West Indies might be the best thing I’ve yet seen by him, and a truly sui generis work that fuses the radical political sensibility that a number of African filmmakers were channelling from the 60s onwards, in the spirit of pan-African post-colonialism (and which also reminds me a little of contemporary Caribbean filmmakers like Raoul Peck) with something of the avant-garde staging that you might get with Godard or Akerman (who also made her own modernist musical in the 80s).

Needless to say, this single-set musical about colonialism, empire, slavery, capitalism and hypocrisy is truly everything you could want: there are energetic dance numbers, and there’s anger about the West and its involvement in both Africa and the Caribbean. The film makes explicit links between the exploitation of workers in migrant economies with the economics of slavery itself (one notable sequence sees the parade of people getting flights to France, whipped up by the conniving of French businessmen and political leaders, overlap with an historical flashback to slaves in chains being led to the slave ships). The links between this historical violence and the suppression of revolts by riot police in modern French cities is also effectively done, and Hondo throughout deploys recurring visual motifs to link past and present, which all wheels by together on the same multi-layered set.

It’s a virtuoso exercise, but far from a hollow one, as it mercilessly mocks and derides White imperialism — whether economic, political or cultural (oh, the tourists) — and evinces anger at the circumstances of the African-Caribbean peoples. At the same time it mellifluously weaves in song and dance, the sound design as effective as any propagandist, but aimed instead at exploding the myths of Western neo-liberalism when it comes to exploitation and power. It’s a glorious pageant, and a truly inspiring film, which hasn’t dated or lost its relevance in 40 years (because these topics never truly seem to go away). I only hope it can continue to inspire in the future.

CREDITS
Director Med Hondo ميد هوندو; Writers Hondo and Daniel Boukman (from Boukman’s novel Les Negriers “The Slavers”); Cinematographer François Catonné; Starring Robert Liensol, Roland Bertin, Hélène Vincent; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 5 December 2019.

Карнавальная Ночь Karnavalnaya noch (Carnival Night, 1956)

Obviously this Soviet comedy-musical from the 1950s is not about Christmas, because Christianity wasn’t exactly a state-sanctioned religion at the time. However, it’s set around the same time of year and deals instead with a New Year’s party. Still it feels somehow Christmassy, and was presented somewhat as such at a screening introduced by the Guardian‘s film critic Peter Bradshaw, so I’m including it here.


A delightful Soviet musical comedy about a bunch of plucky kids putting on a fun New Year’s party being constantly criticised and belittled by a pompous apparatchik bureaucrat (Igor Ilyinsky) determined to stamp out all the joy and replace it with long disquisitions on topics of pedagogical improvement: he intends a number of lectures, including from himself; he wants old men to play serious music rather than a young band of jazz neophytes; he wants a sad song from the librarian and a fable from the accountant; he completely reworks a bawdy clown routine in every element; the list goes on. So the entire film is just the kids finding ways to thwart this dull and lifeless man, who nevertheless manages to steal the show with his immaculate comic timing and ridiculously puffed-up self-importance. It manages to both satirise some of the humourless tendencies of the Soviet leadership, while also being genuinely rather fun.

Carnival Night film posterCREDITS
Director Eldar Ryazanov Эльда́р Ряза́нов; Writers Boris Laskin Борис Ласкин and Vladimir Polyakov Влади́мир Поляко́в; Cinematographer Arkadi Koltsaty Аркадий Кольца́тый; Starring Igor Ilyinsky И́горь Ильи́нский, Lyudmila Gurchenko Людми́ла Гу́рченко, Yuri Belov Юрий Белов; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 4 December 2018.

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.

गल्ली बॉय (Gully Boy, 2019)

It wouldn’t be right to do a themed week around the musical and not cover at least one Bollywood film, an industry whose entire production in every genre seems to be somehow informed by the genetic material of the musical. It just so happens that some of them are rather closer to the form than others, and this film is at heart a film about music and the performance of it, as well as being something of a musical.


I suppose I was primed beforehand to be resistant to what appears (and, to a certain extent, is) the Bollywood reimagining of 8 Mile, with its aspirant rapper Murad (Ranveer Singh), who has to be coaxed into performing and then finds himself on stage trying out for the big time, with moneyed half-American hangers-on tempting him with their aspirational lifestyles. But really, this is a film that’s far more in its element when it’s dealing with the slums that Murad has come out of, about his secret relationship with Safeena (Alia Bhatt, whom I adore) — whose family are wealthier and whose parents would never consent to their being together — and about the difficulties he has just trying to live his life. After all, he has friends who are mixed up in carjacking and drug dealing, and so their easy access to money at times becomes too tempting. In some ways, class seems even more ingrained into the Indian films I’ve seen than in any other cinema, and it’s explicitly addressed here by the director Zoya Akhtar, as are the double-standards of Murad’s father, who has married a much younger second wife and then treats his first one badly — his actions are hardly excused, but we do get a glimpse into the grinding poverty and lack of opportunities he’s been given in life, and the extent to which he has given up hope of it ever changing. Given the film’s big-budget production background, none of this context was ever likely to be as gritty and depressing as it could be, but all the themes are very much there. Still, for all that, and for all the enjoyment in its big musical competition scenes, any lead character who could even think about cheating on Alia Bhatt will never fully have my sympathy.

Gully Boy film posterCREDITS
Director Zoya Akhtar ज़ोया अख़्तर; Writers Akhtar and Reema Kagti ৰীমা কাগতি; Cinematographer Jay Oza जय ओझा; Starring Ranveer Singh रणवीर सिंह, Alia Bhatt आलिया भट्ट; Length 153 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 20 February 2019.

Ang Panahon ng Halimaw (Season of the Devil, 2018)

I’ve seen a fair few Lav Diaz films now (which means several days’ worth of running time probably), and reviewed some of them on here, but I have yet to really have my Damascene moment with his work. I like his style, I like the way his films are shaped, which seems to me to be distinct and different from a lot of contemporary cinema. Yet for all that I’ve at times really liked the experience of watching one of his often epic-length narratives, I still don’t find them as thrilling as I should, and I fear that may be the case for this one too. It’s a musical, yes, but it’s very much a Lav Diaz film too, for all that this might entail. I do, however, feel like I’ve learned a lot about Filipino society and history from his work, which can be its own reward of course, and will be why I keep returning to him. (I hope to do a themed week around cinema of the Philippines soon.)


In most musicals people sing to express joy or love, where the heightened presentation reflects the characters’ excessive emotional states, but then there are those musicals where the songs mask a deeper pain that cannot be expressed through simple words, and, well, I’ll let you guess which of those categories this film falls into. It’s called Season of the Devil and it’s set in the late-70s during the Marcos regime, as bands of vigilantes have been organised into uniformed militias (the CHDF) to maintain local order and the power of the regime through violence and repression. The setting is a remote village where a young woman (Shaina Magdayao) has set up a free clinic, and the lush black-and-white cinematography recalls Lav Diaz’s recent historical epic A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016). This one moves at more of a clip, but it still expresses a great deal of pain, and feels like one of his bleaker films of recent years, and we see the people of this small community in pain at the violence and tyranny wrought by the government. Fairly uneasy viewing in Duterte’s Philippines, one suspects, and this perhaps explains why it was shot in Malaysia.

Season of the Devil film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lav Diaz; Cinematographer Larry Manda; Starring Piolo Pascual, Shaina Magdayao; Length 234 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Sunday 18 August 2019.

Yentl (1983)

Another key figure not just for the American musical but for music and indeed society itself, from the 1960s on, is Barbra Streisand. She is a towering presence in a number of films created around her charismatic on-screen persona, but she moved into directing as well, most notably with this adaptation of a Isaac Bashevis Singer play and short story.


There’s probably no real intellectual response to this film, because you’re either partial to Barbra Streisand or you’re not. She certainly does dominate the film, though when he shows up a young Mandy Patinkin does distract attention somewhat, even if (perhaps wisely) Streisand doesn’t give him any singing to do — the music is all for Yentl to perform, for hers is the central drama. Her struggle is against the religiously-mandated life that has been set out for her in early-20th century Poland — wife and motherhood — when all she wants to do is study and learning, right from the very outset (when we see her buy a religious text off a passing bookseller). So she cuts her hair and goes into town, dropping quotes from the Talmud and enrolling in a yeshiva with aforementioned Avigdor (Patinkin), who’s engaged but doesn’t really want to get married. The production values are big, of course, and it’s all rousingly put together. The incipient gender-non-conformist themes are somewhat let down in the final act, but it does enjoyably flirt with these ideas for at least part of its running time, and that (along with those central performances) probably keep it worthwhile.

Yentl film posterCREDITS
Director Barbra Streisand; Writers Streisand and Jack Rosenthal (based on the play by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Leah Napolin, itself based on the short story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” by Singer); Cinematographer David Watkin; Starring Barbra Streisand, Mandy Patinkin, Amy Irving; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 August 2019.

Cabaret (1972)

As part of my musicals themed week in honour of the BFI’s big season, today is Bob Fosse day. The restoration of Sweet Charity (1969), Fosse’s first directorial effort and an undeserved box office flop, graced the London Film Festival as the harbinger for their season, and several of his other musicals are screening. His most famous work is of course 1972’s Cabaret, which I only saw for the first time last year.


Having contrived never to have seen this, a vintage 35mm Technicolor print screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato seemed as good a way as any to experience it, and it didn’t disappoint, certainly not on the level of the glorious colours and look of the film. The staccato editing, frequently used to counterpoint a song performed in the Kit Kat Club cabaret of the title, and some other event — for example, in the opening scene, the arrival of the Eddie Redmayne of the 1970s (Michael York, not the most compelling actor), the murder by the Nazis of an over-officious bouncer who had bullied a young Nazi out of the cabaret, et al. — is only one striking method the film uses to differentiate itself from the stage musical.

Needless to say, they can’t have found a better person than Liza Minnelli to play Sally Bowles, and she really does hold the whole project together, along with Joel Grey’s lissome and gender-crossing performance as the MC. The background story of the rise of the Nazis is handled with delicacy as well — it is rarely the centre of attention (except in one Aryan youth’s rendition of a song in a picturesque countryside tavern, and the subplot involving Marisa Berenson’s Jewish heiress), but small hints of the Swastika in the background provide a constant reminder of the future that awaits the city and its characters.

Cabaret film posterCREDITS
Director Bob Fosse; Writer Jay Allen (based on the musical by Joe Masteroff, John Kander and Fred Ebb, itself based on the play I Am a Camera by John Van Druten and the novel Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood); Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth; Starring Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Joel Grey, Helmut Griem, Marisa Berenson; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Saturday 30 June 2018.

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.

Hellzapoppin’ (1941)

The London Film Festival has just finished, which means it’s straight into the BFI’s recent tradition, an in-depth focus on a particular theme that will run until the end of the year. They’ve done sci-fi and Black stars recently, amongst others, and this year it’s musicals, with a big UK cinematic re-release of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) planned for the end of this week. As such, I’m going to be doing a week focusing on that genre too, although as a fan of the genre, reviews have shown up in my other theme weeks (like the Australian 2009 musical Bran Nue Dae for that week, or Been So Long for my British women directors week). Unlike many of my theme weeks, this one may end up featuring more white male directors than usual, but the form has  a long heritage, with women taking key roles more often in front of the camera, or in writing and editing, not to mention (of course) the glamorous costumes and make-up. My first film I want to feature is one I recently saw, which also has a notable  sequence focusing on the lindy hop, a dance with roots in African-American culture.


This film is undeniably a lot. It is very extra. It revels in cramming gag after gag, absurdity upon idiocy every few seconds, such that even when we get a fairly ‘straight’ sequence — the young man singing a sweet love song towards his enamorata — the filmmakers superimpose cards over the screen asking a member of the audience to go home, that culminates in everyone on-screen turning towards the camera and admonishing this young man for watching. Because, indeed, another of the film’s formal features is the frequent breaking of the fourth wall, whether actors on screen are addressing us or the projectionist (who for some reason controls where the camera is pointed, though it hardly seems fair to quibble). There are throughout moments of inspiration, even as everything else is piling on in an overwhelmingly zany way. For example, there’s the sequence where a male photographer is snapping attractive young women at a pool party and asks blousy Betty (Martha Raye) to step out of the frame, before she seizes the camera and starts objectifying the men diving into the pool instead, pushing the middle-aged guys in suits out of the frame instead. And of course there’s the entire lindy hop sequence, which is almost entirely self-contained, but also just a beautiful bit of pure cinema, capped by the (white) stars and director character scaring them off and then saying they’ll definitely find space for the troupe in their next movie. It’s all so meta that it feels like something conceived in the 90s, like something that must have inspired a generation of absurdist comedians, but yet it’s very much there in the 1940s and it’s a wonder.

Hellzapoppin' film posterCREDITS
Director H. C. Potter; Writers Nat Perrin and Warren Wilson (based on the musical by Harold Johnson, John Olsen, Sammy Fain and Charles Tobias); Cinematographer Elwood Bredell; Starring Ole Olson, Chic Johnson, Martha Raye; Length 84 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Friday 14 December 2018.