Mr. Jones (2019)

Today the fearsome British costume drama industry unleashes yet another adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma upon us all. Last week my Polish themed week led up to the release of Agnieszka Holland’s latest film, but it can probably be considered as much a British film as a Polish one, especially as it deals with a British subject. It has the big old handsome period details you expect from such films, but it tells a slightly different story once it gets to the USSR, and perhaps that sets it apart from the usual run of such things, but I think there’s a lot to like.


This film sets itself against the backdrop of the “Holodomor” in the Ukraine — a famine during the 1930s largely engineered by the Soviet leadership, which killed millions of peasants — but really it’s about the way that these kinds of stories are treated by the media, about how the media is in the pocket of business and government interests. And so our crusading Welshman Gareth Jones (played by James Norton, the same actor who most recently was seen as Mr Brooke in Little Women) campaigns to bring to light this atrocity at a time when Western powers were more interested in alliances with the USSR and so not well-disposed to such revelations (and the media, as ever, reliable lapdogs to the powerful). The acting is all pretty solid (even Vanessa Kirby in a rather token role as the only apparently non-historical figure), and it’s directed capably by Agnieszka Holland albeit with some little expressionist touches. However, there’s plenty about this movie which rather too on the nose, seeming to ask us “do you see??” as it’s waving its arms to make clear what its teachable moments are. For example, and perhaps most clunkily, there’s the framing device of George Orwell writing Animal Farm, which we gather might have been a rather anodyne book about animals being mean to one another until our titular hero impresses upon Orwell exactly what the Soviets are really doing, at which point his faith in the Revolution starts to waver. Sadly, then, the film never quite lifts the way it needs to, but it’s worth watching all the same.

Mr. Jones film posterCREDITS
Director Agnieszka Holland; Writer Andrea Chalupa; Cinematographer Tomasz Naumiuk; Starring James Norton, Peter Sarsgaard, Vanessa Kirby; Length 119 minutes (originally 141 minutes).
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Friday 7 February 2020.

The Hateful Eight (2015)

Whatever else it might be accused of, it can’t be said that Quentin Tarantino’s latest film isn’t a coup du cinéma in its 70mm ‘roadshow’ version, harking back to a lost showmanship of printed programmes, overture fanfare, intermission and extra-wide widescreen format. There are many things indeed that I might accuse the resulting film of, yet I find it difficult to build up the necessary steam of self-righteous anger. In short, it is everything that everyone most vociferously damns it for: it is a distillation of all Tarantino’s most annoying tropes, all the abused women (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and their abusers (Kurt Russell), racist Southern rednecks (Walton Goggins) and gentlemen (Bruce Dern), noble yet weirdly homophobic black men (Samuel L. Jackson), and disarming patter of movie-literate self-reflexiveness against the backdrop of real and disturbing historical periods (the post-Civil War Reconstruction period). It sets up a beautiful wintery world using its widescreen palette, quickly drawing us into the single remote location where the eight title characters (as well as one nice guy, and some surprise late arrival characters vying for equal hatefulness, one of which is the director’s voice) spend much of the film battling for one-upmanship, but it leaves a bitter aftertaste as it descends into the usual Grand Guignol of bloodshed that you expect. However, Tarantino’s filmmaking is so desperate in its mugging for cinematic approval that even the nastiest events (with the exception of a hanging towards the end) just pass by with a shrug of my shoulders. Perhaps the title should be a hint that its protagonists are hardly likeable, but for me the film isn’t either and that’s a problem. It doesn’t seem to speak of anything so much as of all the films Tarantino has seen (so no change there). Others have enjoyed this opus, others have eviscerated it. Me, I just can’t be bothered anymore.

The Hateful Eight film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Quentin Tarantino; Cinematographer Robert Richardson; Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern; Length 187 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Leicester Square [70mm], London, Sunday 10 January 2016.

Frozen (2013)

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.

Frozen film posterCREDITS
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.

The Epic of Everest (1924)

BFI London Film Festival 2013 This restored film is receiving its world premiere at the BFI Archive Gala on 18 October 2013 at the 57th London Film Festival. I was lucky enough to be able to attend a press screening preview.


When discussing films that are almost 90 years old — silent, black-and-white films from what seems like a dramatically remote era of modern history — you can apply different standards as to what makes them interesting: just the very existence of images from so long ago can be the cause of wonderment that wouldn’t be the case if the film had been made almost any time since. And though there are certainly aspects of that while watching this travelogue of a 1924 expedition to conquer Mount Everest, I think the majestic power of the images captured is at times as great as it would be in any subsequent film on the subject.

Part of the reason for the film’s power — and it does still have a marvellous capacity to create awe — is the newly-commissioned score by Simon Fisher Turner, who also recently worked on the re-release of another restored travelogue documentary of the era, The Great White Silence (1924). Vast shards of sweeping electronic tones locate us in that mythic territory that Popol Vuh explored in Werner Herzog’s similarly doomed epics of colonialist exploration in the 1970s and 1980s, but with a rougher overlay of sonic distortion, cracks and warping suggesting the greater age of the film. There’s also a more recognisably human element as snatches of naive local melodies and archival sounds from the era (provided via the director’s daughter) are interpolated into the score along with the subtle use of appropriate sonic cues to accompany on-screen action, such as flowing water when we see a river, or the scratch of a pen on paper in a letter-writing scene.

While the new music is marvellously fitting, it would not amount to much without Captain John Noel’s stunning images of Everest and the surrounding lands. I’ve already mentioned Herzog’s films, and there’s something here of the same grandeur and folly to shots of the explorers and their Sherpa guides wending a zig-zagged path across the vast barren snowscapes of Tibet. This is the terrain that the bulk of the film takes up — small, lonely figures set against the vastness of nature, interspersed with views of their camps and watchful shots of the mountainous challenges ahead. Noel in the film’s intertitles is very fond to emphasise the latest technology he’s employed to get these shots from great distances (the camera is unable to go beyond the camp at 22,000 feet), and the telephoto lens is put to good use towards the film’s climax.

But this is 1924, almost three decades before the first (verified) successful attempt on the mountain, and there’s still the need to locate the drama in an implacable fight of Man against Nature, the latter a vengeful, divine presence — for, after all, two of the mountaineers (George Mallory and Andrew Irvine) died in this attempt. Plentiful intertitles, most wearyingly towards the end of the film, make the connections plain, while also at times casting the enterprise in its more bare, colonialist light. Interludes featuring the local Sherpa population affect the patronising imperialist tone that one sometimes finds in travelogues of this long-ago era, the natives derided for being unwashed and not taking naturally to music. Though even here, it never quite becomes overbearing. This last point about their musicality, for example, is illustrated with plenty of evidence to the contrary, while elsewhere the Sherpas are clearly rather bemused by these pipe-smoking interlopers. The views we see too of their monasteries and hermitages perched precariously on the side of rocky mountainous outcroppings clearly give the lie to any implication about their backwardness.

Ultimately, music and images combine to create a fascinating document of a long-vanished era in exploration at one of the world’s harsher extremes. Projected on the big screen, the effect is one that is as wondrous and affecting as it must have originally been in 1924. I can recommend seeking it out if you have the chance.

CREDITS
Director/Cinematographer John Noel; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at BFI, London, Tuesday 3 September 2013.

The Shining (1980)

This review (of a 33-year-old film, and one you should really have seen already — just saying) contains plot spoilers, just so you know.


I do, of course, sometimes go to see old films at the cinema, and the NFT (or “BFI Southbank” if you want to call it by the name it likes to use of itself) is a great place to catch retrospectives and archival screenings of old films. The Shining however had something of a wider re-release recently, so I went along as I’d never seen it on the big screen, and I’m a particular fan of late-period Kubrick. Everything he did from Barry Lyndon (1975) onwards remains exceptional to my mind, including (I would argue) the posthumous A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), directed by Steven Spielberg.

Of his late films, I think this is probably the most widely known, particularly because of its iconic Jack Nicholson performance as the writer Jack Torrance going stir crazy while holed up with his family in the Overlook Hotel over winter. It would be easy to dismiss Nicholson’s work here as overly mannered, but Kubrick was never a director to restrain his actors, and he tended to guide all of them towards a kind of gurning monomaniacal over-the-top performance style, almost incantatory. It gives his films something of the quality of a trance, and the line between reality and dream (or some other fugue state) is always blurred. Where this was very much text in his last film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), it’s rather more hinted at here, though the primary clue is in that final image of the old photo showing Jack front and centre at a 1921 New Year’s Eve party in the hotel. He’s like a malign spirit haunting the place, and he’s not the only one.

There’s plenty of stuff in the film to unpick, and indeed there are entire films dedicated to doing so (like Room 237 [2012]). Quite aside from the many levels of interpretation, what I like about the film is its sense of space. Those rides that the kid takes on his tricycle around the building remain unnerving, from the low camera angle, to the precise sound design as he moves from carpet to wood floor, to those blind corners which could reveal anything. Knowing in advance (as I did, having seen the film many years ago) that the dead girls will be around one of them hardly lessens the tension. The same sort of tension is created near the end with the snow-bound hedge maze outside, when Jack is implacably tracking his family through it while wielding an axe.

There’s lots of little stuff like that, along with the bigger enigmas, that draw the viewer in to the film world. None of it is perfectly explicable, and nor should it be, but I can imagine wanting to return to the film in another few decades to check that Jack’s still there, looking after the Overlook Hotel.


CREDITS
Director Stanley Kubrick; Writers Kubrick and Diane Johnson (based on the novel by Stephen King); Cinematographer John Alcott; Starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd; Length 144 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 23 February 2013.