My penultimate day at the London Film Festival started with a screentalk from Kasi Lemmons, director of Harriet (part of this year’s festival, though sadly a film I shan’t be seeing here, as it was a late addition), but also many other films I’ve loved over the years. Her five feature films were all covered, with clips provided, in an interview chaired by Gaylene Gould, and I’m reminded of how underrated and funny Talk to Me (2007) is, not to mention her seasonal musical drama Black Nativity (2013), though of course it’s Eve’s Bayou (1997) which received the most attention, and for good reason. Lemmons was voluble about her career, which stretches back to her early childhood as an actor, and is an inspiring figure in general, happy to speak to her many admirers after the screening. I did not ask a question, although I do wonder how the film will be received Stateside, given the recent prominent critiques of Black British actors playing iconic African-American figures. I certainly plan to see it though, and Cynthia Erivo has already shown in Widows that she’s a star in the making. Of the four films I saw, they span several countries, including two German films (one from the East in the 1960s, and the other a recent mystery thriller) both with slightly tricksy narrative structures), two black-and-white films (the East German one and a recent Saudi film directed by a woman in a magical realist style), and one documentary.
After yesterday’s review of The Mafu Cage (1978), this more recent film also deals with animals as well as confronting class and race in modern society, although it delves further into creepier, gorier fairy tale elements. (As this is a Brazilian film, I should mention that I’ve got a themed week around South American cinema coming up on my blog in a few weeks’ time.)
As a film pitched somewhere between a horror and a fairytale, the London Film Festival programme went out of its way not to give away any details, and while I don’t quite think their belief that it’s best watched without knowing anything really holds up — not least because I think there are plenty of pleasures to it no matter how much you know — I shall nevertheless try to tread carefully. Let’s just say it takes tropes from well-worn animal-based horror legends and places them in a Brazilian setting (the city of São Paulo), extending the metaphor to be one about both class and race in one of the most starkly divided of cities between those with wealth and those without (a split which is, unsurprisingly, largely between white and black citizens). Clara (Isabél Zuaa) is a maid and nanny to Ana (Marjorie Estiano), who is heavily pregnant with what appears to be a difficult pregnancy. The filmmakers then develop the story with fairy tales in mind, including a picture book-style animated origins sequence, and a heavy reliance on matte painted backdrops, giving the film a sort of distance from its subject matter that aestheticises it just enough that the gore is less shocking, but no less potent in the way it develops its themes. I admired it more than I loved it, but it’s a fine film with some great central performances.
Directors/Writers Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra; Cinematographer Rui Poças; Starring Isabél Zuaa, Marjorie Estiano; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Embankment Garden Cinema, London, Friday 12 October 2018.
I want to start with the problems I have with this film, Cocteau’s adaptation of the famous fairy tale, because at times I find it a little slow and ponderous. We start out with the banter and knockabout everyday world of Belle (Josette Day), in which she (though hardly servile) is tormented by her vain and grasping sisters, and pursued by a pompous suitor (Jean Marais), but though nicely staged, it’s all rather uninvolving. There’s also something more than just a little camp about the mock-historical setting and the melodramatic acting, which needn’t really be a problem (and indeed Day’s occasional display of self-conscious poses are rather fitting the film’s theatrical staging), though it can make some of the dialogue seem a little risible. And yet, when the film eventually enters the magical, mythical world of the Beast (also played by Jean Marais, under a whole lot of furry makeup), there are sequences which are among the most breathtaking and inventive in all of cinema. There are the animated fittings and statuary, the use of smoke effects, Belle’s gliding movements down the hallway, the expressive set design and the gorgeous monochrome cinematography of Henri Alekan, all of which adds up to create a genuinely uncanny world of magic that permeates the whole enterprise. The character of Belle never really seems more than a cipher, for Cocteau’s interest is far more with Marais and his Beast, but for sheer beauty, the film remains essential.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean Cocteau (based on the fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont); Cinematographer Henri Alekan; Starring Jean Marais, Josette Day; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at university library (laserdisc), Wellington, September 1997 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 21 December 2014).
Disney’s output of late has focused on the way that bonds of family and friendship can be stronger and more meaningful than those between lovers, which is just as well for the Sleeping Beauty myth because it has always relied so heavily on non-consensual kissing that nowadays it sort of seems a bit creepy really (that scene is still here, but it’s played quite reasonably all things considered). Frozen dealt with Elsa and her sister the ice princess, while Maleficent instead focuses on Princess Aurora (our Beauty) and her relationship to the malevolent (or magnificent?) fairy of the film’s title, the one who curses her to eternal sleep on her 16th birthday at the outset.
In the way of such characters, Anjelina Jolie’s conflicted Maleficent runs away with the film; the blandly beaming Aurora (Elle Fanning) never stands a chance. The film’s turn, too, away from its twinkling, twee fairy-world vision of the start cannot come too soon — there’s only so much pastel-coloured paradisiacal nonsense that any viewer (well, this one, anyway) can take. As with Frozen, though, it’s just a pity that our eventual heroine, saviour of all our hearts, to whom all must pay obeisance, is so startlingly, blindlingly Aryan; there’s no questioning of beauty standards here, as even such silly frippery as Shrek managed years ago (a film series that very quickly outstayed its welcome, incidentally).
The central conflict in the film, expressed at the level of this relationship, is the division between the human and fairy worlds. (I might propose that, as the bearded bad guys are all Scottish while the elven fairies are English, this film is in fact a coded allegory about the dangers of a partition between Scotland and England, but then again maybe I’m just reading too much into it.) Certainly this central conflict between the autocratic humans and the ungoverned fairies isn’t really fully worked-through and seems to find benign aristocracy an acceptable compromise (perhaps the Scots just need to put more faith in the royal family?). It’s perplexing ideologically, and it’s perplexing tonally, but there’s enough here that’s enjoyable, particularly in Jolie’s star turn.
Director Robert Stromberg; Writer Linda Woolverton (based on the Disney film Sleeping Beauty); Cinematographer Dean Semler; Starring Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Sharlto Copley, Imelda Staunton; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at UGC Ciné Cité Les Halles, Paris, Sunday 6 July 2014.
I think by now most people are familiar with the standard-issue Disney animated schtick, which involves a hunky hero, a blushing princess, a comedy sidekick, a whole bunch of sappiness, and some songs. In that respect, I don’t think Frozen is going to particularly surprise anyone. What makes a nice change is that the heroine is the star of the film, she doesn’t really need the bloke, and her story is not resolved by his kiss. That aside, both female leads can belt out a pretty big vocal (despite being stick thin), there’s a whole bunch of sappiness, and there’s a chirpily naive comedy sidekick. So, a success all told. Oh, and it’s very very white.
It’s based — pretty loosely — on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, hence it’s set in a sort of faux Scandinavian northern land where the people are called Olaf and Hans, and where you’d think they’d be a bit more used to bitterly cold winters. However, when Princess (and later Queen) Elsa’s magical powers to make things very very cold go awry and she flees like Superman to a solitary ice castle, the people must face up to a perpetual Winter. Unless! Unless her frozen heart can be thawed by love! (Or something like that.) Heading up this quest to get through to Elsa is her sister Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell), whom Elsa has shunned since childhood (because dangerous magical superpowers). Anna is sent on this quest by Prince Hans, with whom she is in love and who has abrogated to himself power over the kingdom in the sisters’ absence (hmmm). And on the way, Elsa somehow brings to life a jolly and impish little snowman called Olaf (Josh Gad) and together they meet a kindly ice farmer (you heard) called Kristoff (Jonathan Groff). So that’s the setup.
Clearly, a sense of slavish accuracy to historical detail — or maybe because of a strongly-articulated aesthetic focused on snow — means that this world is almost entirely populated by white people. The film is a lot stronger when it comes to female agency, given that the two leads are women, and it’s their story which is the most important one. There is still, of course, a tangled romantic sub-plot, but it never becomes the film’s focus, especially given that the presence of Olaf pretty much steals any scenes in which Anna and Kristoff are together. Olaf certainly follows in a strong tradition of comedy musical sidekicks, but thankfully has been written as entirely double-entendre free, with a lack of self-awareness and a charming naïveté which is actually quite refreshing in the context.
There’s still plenty of sappiness on show though, and the soundtrack as sung by the voice cast has the required balance of moving ballads and big belting power solos (on which territory, Princess Elsa voiced by Idina Menzel, dominates). One of the strongest, because most interesting, numbers is the one that opens the film, as we see Kristoff and his tribe (I guess) doing their ice farming — which is to say, cutting up frozen lakes into chunks and transporting it — all while singing their ‘traditional’ work song.
Obviously, as you may already have intuited, I am not the target audience for any Disney animated musical, but I feel like I’ve seen a fair few over the course of my life. Disney pretty much created this genre with The Little Mermaid (1989) and thus more or less owned it during the 1990s (with the occasional challenge), but the form has been in something of a decline since then. That makes Frozen something of a retro throwback, but without the tiresome self-consciousness that marks most ‘retro’ enterprises. Therefore, I think the highest praise I can give it is that it would have fit seamlessly into the height of Disney’s mid-1990s animated film roster, and if that’s what you’re looking for, then Frozen might be for you.
Directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee; Writer Lee (based on the fairy tale Snedronningen by Hans Christian Andersen); Starring Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue [3D], London, Thursday 12 December 2013.
I don’t think we really need another story about a boy from a poor background overcoming obstacles to become a man by asserting his masculine dominance and attempting to win the love of a high-born woman. If the film had reversed the roles it might have been a bit more interesting, as I rather tire of feisty attractively-coiffed and dressed young women being rescued by weedy male heroes. But then being based on a fairy tale is hardly likely to lead to a work of subtle artistry. So if the script is a bit on the weak side, trading in generic tropes and absurd caricatures, the film still has plenty to commend it in the performances. It is also winningly — and at times breaktakingly — silly, which is a virtue in this kind of enterprise. Clearly, what this film wants most to be compared to is The Princess Bride (1987), and in that it at least, it partially succeeds.
The key pleasure is in the actors, who all have suitably filmic gravitas, but are willing to push their performances to the edge of caricature in the service of what is avowedly a crowd-pleasing family-friendly flick. Ian McShane affects regality as the King, slipping adroitly into bathos early on when he moves pleadingly towards his daughter, revealing that the stately robes he is posing in are pinned to the ground, and that underneath he is dressed in flashy golden armour (which leads to one of the better throwaway lines later in the film when Jack remarks on the similarity of father and daughter’s suits of armour). Stanley Tucci as a grimacing adviser to the King (rather akin to Christopher Guest’s Count in Princess Bride) does everything but cackle maniacally (actually, maybe he does do that), while Ewan McGregor’s head of the King’s guards struts around with dashing aplomb, grinning in the face of all conceivable dangers.
McGregor’s character really should have been the romantic hero, dispensing with Nicholas Hoult’s rather dreary Jack, but then the love story is luckily not the film’s prime interest. It prefers instead to focus on the clash between the humans (the English men) and the giants (all of whom have Irish accents, and four of whom are named Fe, Fi, Fo and Fum, of course), leading to a suitably histrionic climactic third, which nevertheless is all crashingly good fun. The film also sets up for its final scene a coup de théâtre of surpassing preposterousness, which is a good note for the film to end on, and left me feeling fairly satisfied.
Director Bryan Singer; Writers Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney; Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel; Starring Nicholas Hoult, Ewan McGregor, Ian McShane, Stanley Tucci; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at Peckham Multiplex (2D), London, Monday 1 April 2013.