Criterion Sunday 317: The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)

I watch plenty of films but I’m still not sure I have the language to express how this post-Red Shoes fantasia by Powell and Pressburger comes across, because more than most films it seems to move somewhere beyond the reach of mere words. It blends ballet and opera on sets that don’t merely defy naturalism but seem to actively conspire against it in every dimension, as people vanish into the floors, run down grand staircases in 2D, float in the sky or disappear into the trees. And that’s before we’ve even mentioned the gaudy costumes, each colour-themed to the film’s three segments and framing story. It’s a film about a writer called Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville), in love with a dancer called Stella (Moira Shearer), who waits for her during one of her performances and regales the lads down the pub with some stories of his past loves. If this were taken as being about the nature of women, then it comes up a little short (as Shearer she’s a puppet, as Ludmilla Tchérina she’s a courtesan, and as Ann Ayars she’s tragically doomed), but it’s really about this self-regarding man and his obsessions, which doom him never to be happy with a woman. It’s as much an aesthetic experience as it is a film, and it will weary you if you’re not a fan of opera, but it’s certainly something special.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Writers Powell, Pressburger and Dennis Arundell (based on the opera Les Contes d’Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach with libretto by Jules Barbier, itself based on the short stories “Der Sandmann” [The Sandman], “Rath Krespel” [Councillor Krespel] and “Das verlorene Spiegelbild” [The Lost Reflection] by E.T.A. Hoffmann); Cinematographer Christopher Challis; Starring Robert Rounseville, Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Ludmilla Tchérina, Ann Ayars, Léonide Massine; Length 127 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 13 May 2020.

The Prince of Egypt (1998)

I thought I’d throw in an extra film this week on the Saturday because it’s another date-appropriate release, which is to say it’s a film that deals with the story of Passover and we are now in the middle of that Jewish holiday. It’s a classic animated film, of sorts, depending on who you are; it’s my first time coming to this film so I apologise if my analysis is a little shallow.


I don’t know if I’m really in a position to critique this, but it’s a telling of the story that informs the Jewish holiday of Passover, and it cleaves to a lot of the Biblical narrative fairly closely really, but with songs. It does feel, though, like it’s trying to grapple with the big question in terms of the extent to which God’s punishments of Pharaoh (Ralph Fiennes) impact on his people, which is to say how much is Moses responsible for the death, and that bit doesn’t quite resolve. Killing the firstborn is after all pretty bad whoever does the act. But this is a story of revolutionary anger leading to political change, and the niceties can sometimes be lost. In a sense it’s applicable even now: revolution requires action, which means that difficult choices sometimes need to be made. The original story, and this film too, is fairly clear that you can’t effect change by being a pacifist, and some level of fundamental disruption is going to occur. Perhaps that’s a message people need to hear, but it’s always going to be a hard one to pull off, especially in an animated family film.

The Prince of Egypt film posterCREDITS
Directors Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells; Writer Philip LaZebnik (based on the religious text שְׁמוֹת Shemot “Book of Exodus”); Starring Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Danny Glover; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Friday 10 April 2020.

Челове́к с бульва́ра Капуци́нов Chelovek s bulvara Kaputsinov (A Man from the Boulevard des Capucines, 1987)

Usually I like for my Friday review to be of a new release, to honour something that’s also newly out in cinemas (which this week is fantastic new Georgian film And Then We Danced), but I haven’t seen any recent ex-Soviet films. Therefore to fit with perhaps the musical qualities (if nothing else) of this week’s new release, here’s a film I saw earlier this year for the first time, as part of Kino Klassika’s sidebar to the BFI Musicals seasons (which also gave us Cherry Town). It’s a “Red Western” about the birth of cinema, made by the Soviet Union but set in the Old West of the United States, satirically of course.


I certainly can’t fault this film for giving me something I haven’t seen before, which is to say a Soviet musical ‘Western’ set in an imagined California (a town called Santa Carolina) at the birth of cinema — hence the title, which references the location of the Lumière brothers’ first public screening of their films. In it, a man called Johnny First (Andrei Mironov) arrives in an unruly town and brings them the magic of cinema, which soon converts them from lawlessness into docile respectability, but the dream is undermined by the saloon owner and the local priest — which already suggests a certain Communist critique of Western values and power structures, while still respecting the power of the moving image. Women, too, have a strong role in this film directed by a woman, and get plenty of opportunities to show their greater engagement with the social good and willingness to fight and win. The racial elements — caricatures of both Mexican and Native American people — have perhaps aged rather less well, but just seeing such stereotypes in a Soviet context is immediately odd, and while certainly racist, seem to work in different ways from what has become familiar from the American films this one is mimicking. Nevertheless, the core of the film remains with the filmmaker character and his audience, making it a self-reflexive satirical film, enlivened by some amusing recreations of early films, overblown fight scenes, and a bit of musical japery.

A Man from the Boulevard des Capucines film posterCREDITS
Director Alla Surikova Алла Сурикова; Writer Eduard Akopov Эдуард Акопов; Cinematographer Grigori Belenky Григорий Беленький; Starring Andrei Mironov Андрей Миронов, Aleksandra Yakovleva Александра Яковлева, Nikolai Karachentsov Николай Караченцов; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Wednesday 22 January 2020.

Черёмушки Cheryomushki (Cherry Town, 1962)

Another Soviet film from Russia in my theme week, this time a jolly musical about a housing project in Moscow. It screened within the aegis of the BFI’s big musical retrospective, as part of a smaller series of Russian musical films.


There’s a glorious new building going up, and a group of young people (and a few older ones) want to get in on a new apartment. That’s basically the plot of this jaunty and colourful Soviet musical, which because this is near the beginning of the craze for prefabricated high-density housing — and because there was indeed a drastic shortage of it — is actually pretty keen on the idea of social housing. Still, it pokes deserved fun at the party apparatchiks leveraging their influence to get a new pad, the guy literally knocking through a wall at one point into someone’s else flat in order to enlarge his own domain. It’s the young people who are the film’s focus though, as several couples start to form amongst them, in this new town being built from the ground up by good workers — like Lyusya, a crane operator worthy of getting her portrait hung up in a civic space, and Lida (Olga Zabotkina), an architect who tries her best to rebuff the irrepressible advances of Boris (Vladimir Vasilyev). There’s some nice camera setups and rather liberal use of back projection, but it does give it a daffy, fun quality. You can almost see the steps that get from this kind of thing to, say, Cloud-Paradise (1990) a few decades later, where the housing is rather shabby and the bickering far more caustic. Right now, it’s about the optimism.

Cherry Town film posterCREDITS
Director Herbert Rappaport [as “Gerbert Rappaport”] Герберт Раппапорт; Writers Mikhail Chervinsky Михаил Червинский, Isaac Glikman Исаак Гликман, Vladimir Mass Владимир Масс; Cinematographer Anatoli Nazarov Анатолий Назаров; Starring Olga Zabotkina Ольга Заботкина, Vladimir Vasilyev Владимир Васильев; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Wednesday 8 January 2020.

On the Town (1949)

Moving back through time is perhaps the best way to get a film that features some rather more successful romancing. After all, in my week nominally dedicated to love and marriage, most of my examples have been fairly undemonstrative of either of those. This 1949 musical features three sailors on furlough in the big city, so obviously there have to be some dames — though of course the structure means that they’ll all part by the end of the film.


There is, undeniably, a delight to so much of this musical. It sees Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and one other guy who’s not really very well known (Jules Munshin) alight for 24 hours in New York City. We’re supposed to believe that none of them have ever visited before, and truly they do play up to their naivete which may strain credulity given they’re in the Navy, but sort of fits with the jovial tone of the whole film. The three of them happen across three far more worldly women, who following the comic reversals of the film are the ones whose minds are only on one thing, and it’s not sightseeing — indeed, Sinatra being the nerdy stats-obsessed one becomes one of the better running jokes. Not all the tunes are particularly memorable — although Hildy (Betty Garrett) is probably the most distinctive character, the woman cab driver who’s desperate to bed Sinatra’s character, their duet together is fairly dull — but there are plenty that do make a splash, and Ann Miller’s anthropology student Claire winking broadly at the camera for the double entendres is a real highlight (as is her dress). The costume game, in general, is on top form, with colour coordinated outfits to offset the blandness of the sailor uniforms.

This screening was introduced by Kelly’s widow, who trailed that they had difficulty getting it made into a musical because the studio head apparently feared the threat of a diverse cast given its metropolitan setting and the sequences which are filmed on location, which as an introduction was a bit of a misdirect because this film hardly celebrates diversity. Aside from the fact that the only women of colour are seen in nightclub choruses who swiftly depart stage left each time they’re seen, there’s also (to modern eyes perhaps) a woefully tone-deaf appropriation of cultural difference in the anthropology museum number. Whereas the sequence introducing Vera-Ellen’s Ivy suggests the impossibility of cultural expectations of femininity, the anthropology museum sequence is just using native dress to make cheap jokes that you feel the ensemble should really be above. And the macho bullying of the unfortunate Lucy is only passingly redeemed by Gabe’s civility to her by the end of the evening.

Still, on the whole this is a lively and entertaining musical with all the style you’d expect of a big Technicolor Hollywood production.

On the Town film posterCREDITS
Directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen; Writers Adolph Green and Betty Comden (based on the stage musical by Green, Comden and Leonard Bernstein, itself based on the ballet Fancy Free by Jerome Robbins); Cinematographer Harold Rosson; Starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller, Jules Munshin, Vera-Ellen; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Saturday 26 October 2019.

Rocketman (2019)

This is perhaps an outlier in my themed week of British costume dramas, but it’s a period piece and you couldn’t possibly say it doesn’t have costumes, so I’m including it. Obviously it’s a biopic of the life of Elton John, and it’s mounted with impressive brio (even if maybe it’s not entirely for me, I’m willing to believe it is better than the similar production the previous year about Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody, which director Fletcher took over late in proceedings).


I don’t think I’ve ever specifically chosen to listen to an Elton John album or song, but of course they’ve often been on in the background or on soundtracks and such, so a lot of them remain familiar to me. That said, the point I’m making is I’m not really in the demographic for whom this film strikes any particular chord, as I’ve never been a big fan, but I concede that Dexter Fletcher has a solid touch with a musical and this one is good fun to watch. The performances are all good, and it has some nice set-pieces, such as the one where Elton goes from almost dying to being pushed on stage, seemingly in a single sequence. The framing device — him unraveling at an addicts’ group therapy session — is rather too convenient as a way to pull the narrative through his whole life, and he does a lot of confronting his earlier self and family/friends in feverish flashbacks, but it’s a musical, so it rather trades in elevating the quotidian to a magical and surreal level, and at that it succeeds nicely.

Rocketman film posterCREDITS
Director Dexter Fletcher; Writer Lee Hall; Cinematographer George Richmond; Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Stephen Graham; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Friday 7 June 2019.

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.