Criterion Sunday 81: Luci del varietà (Variety Lights, 1950)

Federico Fellini’s first film was this ensemble piece set amongst a travelling troupe of performers putting on a variety show, of fairly mediocre quality one assumes from what we see of it. It’s led by Checcho (Peppino De Filippo) who is seen at the start being hounded by acting hopeful Liliana (Carla Del Poggio), much to the annoyance of his sweetheart Melina Amour (Giuletta Masina). Her arrival ruffles a few feathers as her ambition leads her to try and use the break to further a career for herself, and the film proceeds in a sort of bumbling, peripatetic way, introducing a number of side characters and tracing the fortunes of these various performers, most of whom never really get out of the rut they’re in. It makes the film rather a bittersweet look at the acting profession, but no less generous and enjoyable for that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Federico Fellini and Alberto Lattuada; Writers Fellini, Lattuada, Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano; Cinematographer Otello Martelli; Starring Carla Del Poggio, Peppino De Filippo, Giulietta Masina; Length 97 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 21 February 2016.

Pitch Perfect 2 (2015)

The first Pitch Perfect was not only a surprise hit, it was also quite an act for a sequel to match. This sequel is from the same writer, but it seems the brief has been to faithfully recreate the exact structure of this first film. So we get an embarrassing audition (for new girl Emily, played by Hailee Steinfeld), a ‘riff-off’ scene, a romantic sub-plot (Amy and Bumper, but also, more boringly, Emily and Benjy), and a big show at the end (the Worlds) with a final song formed from snippets built up throughout the film. This means there’s still a lot of the same delights, but it just seems that little bit more tired. The first film’s stand-out performers are given more time (Rebel Wilson and Adam DeVine as Fat Amy and Bumper, in particular), with Skylar Astin’s Jesse barely even registering. And while there are still plenty of laughs, particularly when building on established characters, the writing for the newbies can sometimes be lazy (Chrissie Fit as the embattled Guatemalan immigrant caricature Flo springs to mind), while director Elizabeth Banks and her comic foil John Michael Higgins as the announcers/a cappella bigwigs shade over rather worryingly from comedy sexism (which can at least be rebutted by Banks’s eye-rolling) into full-blown comedy racism towards the end (and as both are white, there’s no rejoinder to this unexpected nastiness). However, I enjoyed the rivalry with German a cappella villains Das Sound Machine, and Beca’s strange chemistry with their leader Kommissar (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), and the largely unfamiliar songs grew on me with a second viewing. It’s not the classic of the first film, and probably not one I will be re-visiting quite as often, but it still certainly has its pleasures.

Pitch Perfect 2 film poster CREDITS
Director Elizabeth Banks; Writer Kay Cannon (based on the book Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory by Mickey Rapkin); Cinematographer Jim Denault; Starring Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam DeVine; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Brixton Ritzy, London, Saturday 16 May 2015 (and Cineworld West India Quay, London, Wednesday 19 May 2015).

March 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in March which I didn’t review in full.

The Boys from County Clare (aka The Boys and Girl from County Clare) (2003, Ireland/UK/Germany)
Divergent (2014, USA)
London: The Modern Babylon (2012, UK)
Perceval le Gallois (1978, France/Italy/West Germany)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012, USA)
The Prestige (2006, UK/USA)

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Dancing in Jaffa (2013)

I can’t really say very much about this documentary film except that it’s sweet-natured and just a little bit ingenuous, perhaps too much so given its Israeli setting and that it deals with that contested relationship between Jews and Arabs — or maybe it’s exactly right, for that very reason. It takes as its central character the dancer (now dance teacher), Pierre Dulaine, born in Jaffa to a Palestinian mother and now after many years bringing his teaching method to the local primary schools. His aim is to get Israeli Jews dancing with Israeli Arabs, and that’s the arc the film tracks, flitting from school to school with colour-coded labelling. It starts with some initial tentative encounters (where Dulaine comes off as just a little too single-mindedly wedded to heteronormative pairings), to growing enthusiasm communicated via a series of individual portraits of children learning to enjoy their experience, to the climax of an inter-school dance competition. There are small delights and certainly there are some heart-warming scenes, but it can be mawkish at times. However, that said, it does reveal plenty of ingrained hostility and imparts some sense of the cultural, ethnic and religious divisions in its very indirect way.

Dancing in Jaffa film posterCREDITS
Director Hilla Medalia הילה מדליה; Writers Philip Shane and Medalia; Cinematographer Daniel Kedem דניאל קדם; Starring Pierre Dulaine; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Monday 2 February 2015.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

I don’t profess to know too much about the so-called “pre-Code era” of Hollywood, though I have a book about it that I mean to read, especially urgent now that the BFI is doing a retrospective of many of these films. What I do know is that for a brief period between the start of the sound era and the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934 (a sort of voluntary self-censorship by the major studios), there was a brief flourishing of films with some rather darker and more adult themes and a view on life that didn’t always reinforce cultural prejudices or end happily for the ‘good guys’.

For Gold Diggers’ part, its place in this era comes not from any kind of boldly proto-feminist message — no surprise given the title, though its female leads are all strong-willed and get what they want, which certainly provides some small corrective — but in its bitterly sardonic take on its Depression-era setting. It’s big-budget escapism, sure, but it doesn’t try to efface just what tolls living in poverty sometimes took (even if the actresses’ shared apartment is rather swanky). The big closing number, “Remember My Forgotten Man”, is rousing and beautifully moving — though narratively, it feels like a quite different film — and shows First World War heroes reduced to beggars and bums. Elsewhere there are hints at prostitution being a option to make ends meet for some of the ‘gold diggers’ we see gathered around Broadway impresario Barney Hopkins, desperate for a part in his new show.

Three of those actresses are the leads here, and share an apartment. There’s Polly, the earnest one (Ruby Keeler), Carol the glamorous blonde (Joan Blondell), and Trixie the shrewdly self-interested comic actor (Aline MacMahon). The plot itself follows the putting-on-a-show narrative and throws in some love interests (or ‘gold digging’ interests, as far as Trixie is concerned at least), which all resolve themselves in comically perfunctory manner at the end, as uptight plutocrat Lawrence (Warren William) wrestles fairly snappily with his feelings towards Carol.

What really sets apart the film is of course the Busby Berkeley-choreographed musical numbers. I’ve mentioned the closing number already, while the opener (“We’re in the Money”) kicks things off in grand style, suggesting glamorous escapism from the country’s financial woes with Ginger Rogers singing directly into camera as dancing girls clad in costumes made of gold coins swirl around her, before making it clear the bitter irony when the cops show up midway through to close things down and take away all the costumes due to (what else?) lack of money. Most fascinating is “Pettin’ in the Park”, a weirdly surreal number that depicts a refreshingly broad cross-section of people in the aforesaid park, before introducing a dwarf playing a lecherous baby, and an iron corset-clad Polly having her clothes prised off with a tin opener. By comparison, the other big number (“The Shadow Waltz”) just seems like extra padding, though its chorus line wielding neon-lit violins certainly makes for an arresting image.

There’s so much going on in this film, it’s hard for me to find any particular moral coherence, but such is often the way with Hollywood’s spectacles. It offers a sardonic commentary on the tolls of the Depression and Prohibition, while keeping things amorally snapping along. Its narrative of three women triumphing by exploiting the men around them is one that would be repeated in a number of pre-Code films of the era, but then there are the musical numbers which choreograph an almost endless line of flamboyant chorines, so maybe it’s the filmmakers who are the gold diggers and we the audience their willing victims. In any case, it’s a high-water mark of the Hollywood musical and a glorious tribute to Busby Berkeley’s art.

Gold Diggers of 1933 film posterCREDITS
Director Mervyn LeRoy; Writers Erwin S. Gelsey and James Seymour (based on the play The Gold Diggers by Avery Hopwood); Cinematographer Sol Polito; Starring Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, Warren William; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Friday 9 May 2014.

Pitch Perfect (2012)

The last film I saw in 2012, and one I enjoyed so much I immediately went and ordered the Blu-ray from the USA where it had already been released, is this campus comedy tapping in to the (presumably burgeoning) activity of collegiate a cappella singing. And yes, although that’s the kind of thing that TV series Glee does, this film feels far more fresh and interesting.

I admit I have next to no interest in the subject matter per se, but as ever the nominal subject is just the euphonious background to a drama of fitting in. Anna Kendrick plays outsider Beca, arriving for her first day at leafy liberal arts university Barden. We are introduced to her outside an airport terminal, wrapped up in her own little world of mixes and mash-ups, headphones on, wearing heavy eyeliner and a stand-offish attitude to everything, especially other students. However, her lecturer dad offers her an ultimatum: he’ll let her pursue her music production dreams if she gets involved in student life, leading her to cautiously nose around the student fair, where she meets uptight blonde Aubrey (Anna Camp) and the more relaxed Chloe (Brittany Snow), who run the Barden Bellas, the only all-woman a cappella society on campus.

In truth, the way the plot unfolds hardly challenges any expectations, but it’s the film’s fondness for its characters that’s more interesting. Aubrey and Chloe’s tug-of-war over the group’s leadership runs throughout the film, but the standout is Australian actress Rebel Wilson as ‘Fat’ Amy (her name for herself), who it’s clear has improvised a lot of her dialogue. You can tell both because of the extensive outtakes of her ad-libs on the DVD extras, but also because of the way the other actors react around her: there’s a nice scene at an a cappella society social mixer where Anna Camp can do little more than just grin and nod awkwardly as Wilson makes outrageous (and slightly insensitive) jokes, while on a bus ride, Wilson’s comedic pauses in explaining why she has the phone number of their male nemesis Bumper is accompanied by Kendrick discreetly cracking up in the background. It shows a generosity towards the improvisational nature of good comedy that the filmmakers have left these little puncturing moments in the film.

There are, though, plenty of other comic highlights, whether the previously mentioned Bumper, egotistical dictator over the Barden Treblemakers, played with brittle self-mocking humour by Adam DeVine, the bitterly sarcastic championship commentators played by Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins, or Lilly (Hanna Mae Lee), a Japanese girl who speaks in a barely-audible whisper and manages to use the resultant extreme close-ups of her lips to great effect. Alongside these strong characters, Skylar Astin’s Jesse makes for a blandly unaffecting male romantic lead, though his story sets up the many Breakfast Club references.

The plot may not take any risks, but the focus on the women’s group with its strong characters is refreshing, and it’s their characters that really make the film. And though I didn’t know much about the world of a cappella singing, the many stage performances are delightful to watch — they may not be overtly comedic, but there’s definitely an underlying ridiculousness to the undertaking that the film is very aware of, without being in any way nasty about it (the appearance of the older Tonehangers is a particular stand-out). It has proved to be a film I’ve enjoyed watching on many occasions already this past year. Quite whether it stands the test of time will be interesting, but for now, this is one of the best teen films out there.

Pitch Perfect film posterCREDITS
Director Jason Moore; Writer Kay Cannon (based on the book Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory by Mickey Rapkin); Cinematographer Julio Macat; Starring Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Anna Camp, Brittany Snow, Skylar Astin; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Monday 31 December 2012 (and also on Blu-ray at home on numerous occasions, and on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Saturday 27 July 2013).

Step Up 2: The Streets (2008)

I’m on holiday until the end of next week, so you won’t be seeing any reviews of new releases. However, I’ve been watching a few films at home, so there’ll still be content going up!


FILM REVIEW || Director Jon M. Chu | Writers Toni Ann Johnson and Karen Barna (based on characters by Duane Adler) | Cinematographer Max Malkin | Starring Briana Evigan, Robert Hoffman, Adam Sevani | Length 95 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), Friday 24 May 2013 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Touchstone Pictures

In many ways, the Step Up cycle of films isn’t so different from Fast & Furious, being a multi-part series dedicated to a niche urban subculture. Where those films deal with street racing, here we get street dance, and like the recent British film All Stars (2013), there’s a very clear generic framework involving a final showdown with the rival crew. Unlike Furious, though, this series doesn’t have a strong core of central characters/actors, which is I think its weakness in comparison; Channing Tatum shows up in one early scene to pass the baton on from the first film, as it were, but otherwise it’s heavily reliant on generic expectations (not to mention the dancing).

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All Stars (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Ben Gregor | Writer Paul Gerstenberger | Cinematographer Ben Wheeler | Starring Theo Stevenson, Akai Osei-Mansfield (as “Akai”), Ashley Jensen | Length 106 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue (3D), London, Monday 6 May 2013 || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable


© Vertigo Films

There may be nothing particularly surprising in this ‘putting on a show’ dance film — it almost aggressively pushes its clichés at the viewer, and the ending is a foregone conclusion — but it’s never anything less than joyfully enthusiastic about it.

At the heart of the film is the ‘Old Garage’, a youth centre somewhere in East London, which is under threat from property developers (represented by a delightfully scheming Mark Heap). Naturally the kids who use it aren’t having any of this, so under the leadership of Jaden (played by Akai) and an initially reluctant Ethan (Theo Stevenson), they audition acts for a variety show which will raise the amount of money required to save the place. If the film had been reliant on its will-they-won’t-they narrative resolution, then this last plot point would be the weakest in the script, especially given an earlier scene had stressed the decision was about the centre’s community value, and that this is the first mention of money. However, in (largely) making the centre’s survival about its value for the kids (played out against the corrupt local councillors in alliance with property developers), the film ensures that the youthful cast are placed firmly at the centre of the narrative. If this leaves the centre’s director (played by Ashley Jensen) largely sidelined, she nevertheless manages to make a sunnily cheerful presence as the kids’ only real adult cheerleader, given most of the parents are less than enthused about these extra-curricular activities.

Continue reading “All Stars (2013)”