Criterion Sunday 161: Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris, 1930)

A fascinating early sound film from René Clair, which could properly be described as a musical-comedy, I suspect, although a bittersweet one at best. There’s a love triangle featuring a beautiful Romanian woman (because the actor, Pola Illéry, was born there), within a story of working-class people whose lives are often a shade away from criminality, enticed here by the dubious moustachioed crim named Fred (Gaston Modot). The sound is used only sparingly, presumably because of the limitations of the nascent technology, but there’s a freshness to the enterprise that belies its generic themes. It’s something Clair would develop further in the following year’s Le Million and À nous la liberté but it still impresses here on this early sound outing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer René Clair | Cinematographer Georges Périnal and Georges Raulet | Starring Albert Préjean, Pola Illéry, Gaston Modot, Edmond T. Gréville | Length 96 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 June 2017

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Esther Williams at MGM

A couple of box sets document swimming star Esther Williams’ career at its late-40s and early-50s heights, via a series of boldly Technicolor films shot for MGM studio. It can’t be claimed that all are masterpieces, but they seem to give a sense of this lost era of filmmaking, with its charms as well as its evident weaknesses. The latter largely involves Williams’ male co-leads, not least a stiff Howard Keel in Pagan Love Song (1950) and the perpetually unfunny Red Skelton in both Bathing Beauty (1944) — which, despite the title, largely focuses on Skelton’s annoying songwriter twit Steve — and Neptune’s Daughter (1949), and while the latter at least is a far more supporting role, it’s still hard to see what the laughs are supposed to be, and these end up being the weakest films in the set. Still, it’s not all bad for the men, as Esther’s pairing with Ricardo Montalbán in this latter film, as well as On an Island with You (1948) and the Mexico-set Fiesta (1947), is the strongest through-line to her films of this era. She doesn’t always end up with him, mind, but aside from some of Fiesta (in which both play Mexicans, somewhat less convincingly in Williams’ case, though her skills as a female toreador are rather more in question), the films are largely free of any ethnic stereotyping.

Fiesta, in particular, points up Williams’ proclivity to ‘brown up’ for a role (undoubtedly forced on her by the studio, as it’s more a sad reflection of the era), which is at its worst in Hawaii-set Pagan Love Song. It seems initially that something similar is taking place in On an Island with You, but her Hawaiian temptress in that film’s opening scene turns out to be a swimming-based acting star in a film within the film, though hardly one that makes any particular argument about the dubious practice, and when the film takes a turn into ‘romantic kidnapping’ on the part of the boring (white) US Navy love interest played by Peter Lawford, it gets a little bit hard to accept, even under the veil of historical difference. Among these 1940s films, 1945’s Thrill of a Romance almost passes without notice, feeling more like an excuse to bundle a bunch of disparate acts (a Danish opera singer, the Tommy Dorsey Band, a teenage pianist) together in a wartime variety revue, though Williams does at least shimmer in the Technicolor.

If anything, it’s the saturated colours of the celluloid process which is the most impressive star of all these films — no one looks quite so good in Technicolor as Esther Williams — though the early-50s features The Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) and Dangerous When Wet (1953) are the best of the lot for more traditional reasons. In the former, Williams is playing a version of herself in the real-life story of silent film star Annette Kellerman, an Australian, not that you’d guess it from Williams’ accent (she thankfully doesn’t try for an accent either her or in her Mexican role in Fiesta). It also features probably the most spectacular swimming sequence of any of the films, in a grand Busby Berkeley-choreographed setpiece. And then there’s Dangerous When Wet, which may even be her best film, and is certainly most charming in a celebrated Tom and Jerry sequence. Williams plays a young woman who takes up a challenge to the swim the English Channel, with romantic entaglements very much in the background. The plot means there’s some genuine tension in the way things unfold, and it ends up finishing rather neatly.


Bathing Beauty (1944)

FILM REVIEW

Bathing Beauty (1944)
Director George Sidney | Writers Dorothy Kingsley, Allen Boretz and Frank Waldman | Cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr. | Starring Red Skelton, Esther Williams | Length 101 minutes || Seen at a friend’s flat (DVD), London, Sunday 31 January 2016

Thrill of a Romance (1945)
Director Richard Thorpe | Writers Richard Connell and Gladys Lehman | Cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr. | Starring Esther Williams, Van Johnson, Carleton G. Young | Length 105 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 15 February 2016

Fiesta (1947)
Director Richard Thorpe | Writers George Bruce and Lester Cole | Cinematographer Wilfred M. Cline | Starring Esther Williams, Ricardo Montalbán, Mary Astor, Fortunio Bonanova | Length 104 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 17 February 2016

Neptune's Daughter (1949)

On an Island with You (1948)
Director Richard Thorpe | Writers Charles Martin, Hans Wilhelm, Dorothy Kingsley and Dorothy Cooper | Cinematographer Charles Rosher | Starring Esther Williams, Peter Lawford, Ricardo Montalbán, Cyd Charisse | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 21 February 2016

Neptune’s Daughter (1949)
Director Edward Buzzell | Writer Dorothy Kingsley | Cinematographer Charles Rosher | Starring Esther Williams, Ricardo Montalbán, Red Skelton, Betty Garrett | Length 95 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 27 February 2016

Pagan Love Song (1950)
Director Robert Alton | Writers Robert Nathan and Jerry Davis (based on the novel Tahiti Landfall by William S. Stone) | Cinematographer Charles Rosher | Starring Esther Williams, Howard Keel | Length 76 minutes || Seen at a friend’s flat (DVD), London, Sunday 31 January 2016

Dangerous When Wet (1953)

Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)
Director Mervyn LeRoy | Writer Everett Freeman | Cinematographer George J. Folsey | Starring Esther Williams, Victor Mature, Walter Pidgeon | Length 115 minutes || Seen on a train (DVD), Friday 4 March 2016

Dangerous When Wet (1953)
Director Charles Walters | Writer Dorothy Kingsley | Cinematographer Harold Rosson | Starring Esther Williams, Fernando Lamas, Jack Carson | Length 95 minutes || Seen on a train (DVD), Sunday 6 March 2016

Criterion Sunday 72: Le Million (1931)

A delightful French farce with musical numbers, this has a comic brio to it that belies its creation in the early sound era (when the limitations of camera technology meant these were largely immobile). The plot itself is almost paper thin (thin as a lottery ticket, that is) as our hero Michel (René Lefèvre) realises he’s won the lottery but — for elaborate reasons — the jacket with the ticket has been taken by the shady Grandpa Tulip (Paul Ollivier). Cue a film-length long series of comic setpieces wherein our hero and his friend/rival for the money, Prosper (Jean-Louis Allibert), must track down the jacket and then the ticket, with the help of Michel’s ballerina sweetheart Beatrice (Annabella). It’s the kind of plot that successive decades of rehashing would wear down, but this early form is still light-hearted and nimble, and doesn’t outstay its welcome with an almost-too-sudden resolution to the quest, which the framing story essentially spoilers as otherwise the series of comic mishaps would probably be just too frustrating to bear.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer René Clair (based on a play by Georges Berr and Marcel Guillemand) | Cinematographers Georges Périnal and Georges Raulet | Starring René Lefèvre, Annabella, Paul Ollivier, Jean-Louis Allibert | Length 81 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 January 2016

Criterion Sunday 71: Trollflöjten (The Magic Flute, 1975)

© The Criterion Collection

This is a slight oddity in Ingmar Bergman’s filmography, being essentially a film version of a staged opera, albeit one staged specifically to be filmed for television. Therefore, it largely works on the quality of the staging (of Mozart’s 1791 opera) and the singing, which is in the Swedish language but by trained opera singers (about whose performances I am in no position to critique). It’s all very colourful as one might expect given the fantastical and ridiculous plot (pretty much a standard feature of any opera in my experience). Small directorial flourishes can be detected around the edges, like the scenes during the overture of the audience watching (including Bergman’s daughter, to whom the camera returns periodically throughout the film), and referential nods towards other inspirations, such as one of the characters reading a script for Parsifal in a backstage intermission moment. However, for the most part this is just straight opera, and can be enjoyed easily on that level.

Criterion Extras: Given the box rhapsodises over the transfer’s colours and its stereo score as bonus features, we can safely conclude there is nothing beyond the presentation of the film, aside from the liner notes. A bare bones release.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ingmar Bergman | Writers Emanuel Schikaneder, Alf Henrikson and Ingmar Bergman (based on the opera Die Zauberflöte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Emanuel Schikaneder) | Cinematographer Sven Nykvist | Starring Josef Köstlinger, Håkan Hagegård, Birgit Nordin | Length 135 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Wednesday 30 December 2015

High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2008)

The conclusion to one of film’s most joyful trilogies finds Kenny Ortega with a far higher budget and even a cinematic release. He doesn’t squander the pennies, either, in mounting a few glorious numbers, including “I Want It All”, which liberally tips its fedora to similar sequences in classic Hollywood films. Sure, as a whole it doesn’t sustain the momentum quite as well as the second film — Gabriella and Troy remain an underwhelming screen couple, and the other pairings are sidelined by a largely charisma-free bunch of new recruits (who I believe were originally intended to take the series forward into a new generation) — but it’s in the musical sequences that it finds its raison d’être. There’s little more invigorating in cinema than a good dance number, and High School Musical 3 has several, even if some of the fashions and heteronormative couplings already seem a tad old-fashioned.


FILM REVIEW
Director Kenny Ortega | Writer Peter Barsocchini | Cinematographer Daniel Aranyó | Starring Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, Lucas Grabeel, Corbin Bleu | Length 111 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Thursday 31 March 2011 (and many more times on DVD, most recently Saturday 19 December 2015)

Black Nativity (2013)

I spoke in my review of Song One about what it is to watch movies on flights, and once again I find myself second-guessing my own response. Was I tired and emotional, did the altitude and atmosphere allow me to drop my critical guard? Because I really liked Black Nativity, and certainly outwardly it has a lot of elements that would usually ring major alarm bells. For a start, it’s unashamedly corny, but also unapologetically Christian — the title should make that much evident. It would be easy, in other words, to be cynical and dismissive. But however programmatic some of the character interactions may be — and this, being a morality play (and indeed, based on a play), leans heavily on allegorical characters grappling with moral choices — it frames them in such a way as to give them real force of conviction.

To a large extent, I think the film’s success is to do with the musical register (and I’m a sucker for a musical), a form which is very tolerant towards the melodramatic emotionalism the film strives for, as characters turn to song to work through their feelings. But it’s also to do with the performances, and you couldn’t really hope for a more accomplished company, both in terms of acting (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett play the central character’s estranged grandparents, a minister and his wife), and singing (Jennifer Hudson as the kid’s mother, and Mary J. Blige as a guardian angel), within which Jacob Latimore as troubled teen Langston holds his own very well. It hardly bears repeating the story, for as with many musicals (or indeed any opera), it cleaves to some fairly broad strokes: Langston and his mother Naima have been served with an eviction notice for their Baltimore flat, so Naima sends her son off to Harlem to stay with his grandparents, with whom she had severed contact when he was born for unclear reasons, the revelation of which is folded into the film’s denouement.

In pushing all its elements to a melismatic musical climax at the grandfather’s Harlem church, the film embraces the ideas of family, love, forgiveness, and just simple joy in boldly straightforward ways that had me caught up in tears, though I recognise that other responses may be available (especially if you are less forgiving of the story’s embrace of Christian spirituality). It also, not incidentally, testifies to a range of contemporary Black American experiences without lapsing into the overplayed cinematic terrain of gangs and violence, and celebrates a powerful history of cultural achievements — not least Langston Hughes, whose play the film is based upon, and after whom the central character is named (other characters’ names evoke Aretha Franklin, and Naima recalls for me John Coltrane’s standard of that name). Still, its critical reception seems to be largely middling to negative and that makes me wonder if we all saw the same film. The Black Nativity that I saw is a glorious achievement.


© Fox Searchlight Pictures

FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Kasi Lemmons (based on the play by Langston Hughes) | Cinematographer Anastas Michos | Starring Jacob Latimore, Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Tyrese Gibson | Length 93 minutes || Seen on a plane from Istanbul to London, Wednesday 9 September 2015

London Road (2015)

The Wikipedia entry, at least when I checked it, called this film a “musical mystery thriller film”, but I don’t think that’s right. However, I concede there’s a level of confusion in approaching it, because certainly I’ve never before seen this kind of musical, taking place within the framework of a blend of kitchen-sink realism with talking-heads pseudo-documentary — like Andrea Dunbar via Clio Bernard (in her docudrama The Arbor) as approached by… oh, I don’t even know exactly! Who does musicals like this? But despite being an odd blend, it definitely works. The text is taken from the real-life testimony of locals living on Ipswich’s titular road — we hear the originals over the final credits — commenting on a spate of gruesome murders that took place in 2006. The film isn’t so much a mystery about who committed the murders (that particular issue is resolved fairly straightforwardly, although there certainly is speculation about it), nor is it a thriller exactly, it’s more a drama about how a street of ordinary Englanders — with all their innate conservatism and suspicion of outsiders (especially of the murderered prostitutes) — are oddly brought together as a community against the backdrop of the murders and all the unwanted media attention it brought to their street. Indeed, it’s this chatter of TV news speculation which first starts to cohere into singing within the film. So if the musical form itself is part of that glue, at first it’s only at a formal level — we start out with a bleak colour-drained provincial town filled with dread and mistrust, yet these quite different residents, who avoid one another’s gaze in expectation that each may be the murderer, nevertheless share the same words and echo refrains from one another’s documentary-like testimony. As the film goes on, characters are not just linked formally in this way, but start to actually sing with one another, though it never fully becomes like a typical musical. There may be dance sequences, after a fashion, but the lyrics remain very grounded in naturalistic speech patterns, with all the temporisers and anacolutha that characterise it. Moreover, the film is careful not to detach itself from reality: even towards the end, amongst those who have come to be the film’s moral centres (such as Olivia Colman’s Julie), there are little shards of close-mindedness. The last scene may be the closest it gets to the kind of elevation you might expect in a musical finale, and even that is tempered somewhat — not grandly bittersweet in the style of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg but something just a little bit hopeful and a little bit sad.


© Picturehouse Entertainment

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Rufus Norris | Writer Alecky Blythe (based on the musical by Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork) | Cinematographer Danny Cohen | Starring Olivia Colman | Length 91 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 15 June 2015

The Last Five Years (2014)

There’s no accounting for taste I suppose, so maybe you’ll want to set aside this whole review, but I just can’t fathom why there’s been such a lukewarm response to this film (or so it seems to me). I’ll state this upfront, just to be clear, but I think The Last Five Years is fantastic. I mean, I generally love Anna Kendrick, but here she’s playing to her strengths, which is being adorable in a musical setting. The film takes a little time to warm up, as it begins with Kendrick’s character Cathy in tears in a bleak, colourless New York townhouse, and this kind of emotional timbre is not Kendrick’s forte (or maybe I just don’t like to see her being sad). However, following this we start to discern the film’s narrative strategy, as it skips back five years to the start of the relationship between her and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) that defines the film’s structure, in a brightly-coloured romantic musical comedy number “Shiksa Goddess” (for Jamie is Jewish, and Cathy is not) sung from his point of view. The film then goes on to interleave these two stories in a ‘he-said she-said’ sort of way, as each reimagines the highlights but in a different temporal direction. In truth, there are no profound depths here, but putting on a musical about a failed relationship seems somehow a little transgressive in itself. Kendrick’s Cathy is the emotional linchpin, though, as Jamie, for all his initial likeability, is swiftly revealed to be egotistical and vain, and the imbalance in their respective successes — he as a novelist, she as a musical theatre actor — is both comedically skewered and also one of the causes of their relationship breakdown. Cathy has a particularly memorable musical audition scene (“When You Come Home to Me”) in which she sings her frustrations with the process while also delivering a delightful catty aside about Russell Crowe’s musical theatre talents, as well as a number sung from a small-time repertory company in Ohio, a job she takes to make ends meet. In its focus on quotidian setbacks and bittersweet emotions, it plays a little like an updated US version of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (one of my all-time top-five favourites), so how much you like it will probably depend on your tolerance for this kind of thing, but if you have any time for musicals at all, definitely check it out.


© Radius-TWC

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Richard LaGravenese (based on the musical by Jason Robert Brown) | Cinematographer Steven Meizler | Starring Anna Kendrick, Jeremy Jordan | Length 94 minutes || Seen at Empire Leicester Square, London, Monday 27 April 2015

Golden Eighties (aka Window Shopping, 1986)

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: A Nos Amours Chantal Akerman Retrospective || Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 17 July 2014 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Pari Films

As the apparently-forbidding auteur of such austere 1970s masterpieces as Jeanne Dielman, the last thing you might expect Belgian director Chantal Akerman to do is a musical, but that’s exactly what she did in the mid-1980s, even prefacing it with a work-in-progress feature of the same scenario called Les Années 80 (The Eighties, 1983). Of course, it may be somewhat unsurprising that the resulting product hardly throws its arms round the generic clichés of the musical romance, but it certainly shows an awareness of them. If it has a line of descent, it would be Golden Era Hollywood filtered via French director Jacques Demy (of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg fame). There’s a quotidian drabness to these shopworkers, almost entirely confined to a subterranean shopping centre, where Jeanne Schwartz (Delphine Seyrig) and her husband run a fashion boutique opposite a well-staffed hair salon belonging to the flirtatious Lili (Fanny Cottençon), while between them is Sylvie (Myriam Boyer) and her small bar which in the opening number almost seems to entrap her. There’s also a similar eye for the brightly-coutured; where Demy’s most famous film’s credit sequence opens with a top-down shot of umbrellas passing, here we get a ground-level shot of women’s feet moving briskly across the imitation-marble floor of the mall.

Continue reading “Golden Eighties (aka Window Shopping, 1986)”

Jersey Boys (2014)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Tuesday 24 June 2014 || My Rating 2 stars worth seeing


© Warner Bros. Pictures

The jukebox musical — that stagy theatrical concept whereby a bunch of musical numbers are integrated into a narrative, recently popularised on film by Mamma Mia! (2008) and seen in last year’s Sunshine on Leith — has always been an odd genre, and one I’ve not particularly warmed to, despite being quite a fan of musicals. The requirement to shoehorn in a band’s music and then explain it within the narrative lends itself to a certain campness, which the films I mention above embrace by tying it to a self-consciously melodramatic fictional narrative. Here, though, the story is drawn from life (via a Broadway musical), being that of the band whose music is featured, namely Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. It takes place over a period of decades, and this grand sweep means that a lot of the emotional impact is reduced. What you get, then, is a bunch of choreographed musical performances (some done rather well) in amongst a lot of temperamental band arguments, streetwise hustling for money and gigs, some pretty downplayed mafia stuff (I’m never clear what exactly Christopher Walken’s don even does for the band), and life-changing events like the one involving Frankie’s daughter, that all have very little impact because things are passed by so quickly. Added to this, while there’s some gorgeous Edward Hopper-esque moodiness to the cinematography, the period setting all seems to be rather drained of vibrancy. Perhaps this is due to the staginess of the set design, but mostly it’s the lack of urgency in the acting. The four band members are all actors with whose work I had not previously been familiar (the lead, John Lloyd Young, comes from the Broadway version, and the others have television backgrounds), but only Vincent Piazza as loud-mouthed Tommy DeVito makes much of a mark, while the others barely seem to age over the several decades we follow them; they are all too young and lack the required gravitas to convince. It’s not a terrible film by any means, but it’s at best a footnote to the success of the stage original.


CREDITS || Director Clint Eastwood | Writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (based on the musical) | Cinematographer Tom Stern | Starring John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Vincent Piazza, Christopher Walken, Michael Lomenda | Length 134 minutes