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 Federico Fellini, Alberto 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

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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.


© Universal Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
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)

The Boys from County Clare (aka The Boys and Girl from County Clare) (2003, Ireland/UK/Germany, dir. John Irvin) [Sun 1 Mar at home]. A rather forgettable and silly little film about a group of musicians in Liverpool led by Colm Meaney’s gruff expat, convening on an Irish music competition in County Clare, where he works out some issues with his estranged brother (Bernard Hill, doing a rather patchy accent). It’s pleasant enough, in a passing-the-time sort of way. **


Divergent (2014)

Divergent (2014, USA, dir. Neil Burger) [Fri 27 Mar at home]. As the second one is out now in cinemas, I thought I’d catch up what I’d missed. There’s plenty to like here, especially Shailene Woodley in the title role of Tris, who doesn’t fit into her society. It’s based on a popular young adult dystopian novel cycle (one of several in recent memory), and I’d guess the vision of society is particularly appealing to teenagers who want to imagine themselves as standing out from the herds of their easily-categorised conformistly slavish peers. So it works on an emotional level, perhaps, but even a moment’s further thought about the practicalities of a society in which everyone is supposed to fit into a single personality type (Abnegation, Amity, Dauntless, et al) — except for (SURPRISE!) our heroine — reveals it to be particularly ridiculous. Still, it all moves along at a fair clip, and films about righteous revolutionaries challenging the basis of society are always fun to watch. **½


London: The Modern Babylon (2012)

London: The Modern Babylon (2012, UK, dir. Julien Temple) [Sun 15 Mar at home]. This was always going to appeal to me, what with being quite a London-phile, so it’s hard for me to offer a perspective to those not quite so wrapped up in Britain’s capital city, but I really enjoyed this documentary assemblage of London throughout (visually-recorded) history. As one who has done particularly strong work documenting punk music in the 70s and 80s, Julien Temple naturally dwells at greater length on this era, but it’s fascinating to see the development of the city over time, using archival clips, film and TV footage, and contemporary interviews with witnesses to the past, including a vivacious Tony Benn. ***½


Perceval le Gallois (1978)

Perceval le Gallois (1978, France/Italy/West Germany, dir. Éric Rohmer) [Wed 4 Mar at the BFI Southbank (NFT1)]. This is quite the oddest film from a director otherwise known for his small-scale, intimate and improvised relationship dramas. It’s an adaptation of a medieval story cycle by Chrétien de Troyes, dealing with King Arthur and his court, specifically on the journey of the titular character (here translated as “Perceval the Welsh”) through youth to adulthood, as he undertakes tasks that prove his worthiness as a knight. This would be straightforward enough as a standard big-budget epic, but it’s rather as if Rohmer had seen Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac of a few years earlier and decided that that film, despite its cartoonish bloodletting and knights constantly clanking around in heavy armour, was just far too naturalistic. And so here there isn’t even the barest attempt to try and render the long-lost world of knights and chivalry with any realism, as it all takes place on a soundstage with colourfully-painted props and stylised two-dimensional trees, while dialogue is frequently delivered in the third person. There’s a chorus, too, of musicians and singers who stand to the side and narrate some of the action. However, after the initial shock, it all starts to exert a sort of fascinating hold and ends up working rather nicely. ***½


The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012).jpg

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012, USA, dir. Stephen Chbosky) [Sat 28 Mar at home]. There’s never been any shortage of high-school-set coming-of-age films, and in a sense this story (adapated from the director’s novel about his own upbringing) offers little that’s particularly surprising. However, there are nice performances from Logan Lerman as the shy central character Charlie, and Emma Watson and Ezra Miller as the flamboyantly self-dramatising pair he latches onto, who help him to come out from his shell. ***


The Prestige (2006)

The Prestige (2006, UK/USA, dir. Christopher Nolan) [Sat 7 Mar at home]. I’ve never been particularly enamoured of director Christopher Nolan, who like his contemporary Paul Thomas Anderson has always seemed to craft films which are almost too self-consciously full of their own importance. However, Nolan has tended to show more interest in generic trappings, and at the very least this story of a pair of rival 19th century stage magicians (played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) is plenty of fun to watch. The film delves particularly into class differences between the two, while using its setting and theme to pull some narrative tricks on the viewer, in ways that are far more satisfying than more recent fare like Now You See Me. ***

Dancing in Jaffa (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Monday 2 February 2015


© Sundance Selects

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.


CREDITS || Director Hilla Medalia | Writers Philip Shane and Hilla Medalia | Cinematographer Daniel Kedem | Starring Pierre Dulaine | Length 90 minutes

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.


© Warner Bros.

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
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

My Rating 4 stars excellent

Pitch Perfect (2012)


FILM REVIEW || 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 at home on Blu-ray on numerous occasions, and at a friend’s home on DVD, Saturday 27 July 2013) || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Universal Pictures

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.

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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.

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