Month: February, 2020

Mr. Jones

mjVerdict: A captivating account of truth-seeking journalist Gareth Jones.

Back for its theatrical release following a rather quiet response at last year’s NZIFF, Mr. Jones feels like a timely reminder of today’s unrelenting flow of fake news.

Set in the early 1930s, Mr. Jones is based on the true story of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones (played by Bond candidate, James Norton), who ventured into the maw of Stalin’s genocidal starvation of the people of Ukraine. His eyewitness account of Holodomor (as it is known by) contradicted the dominant narratives flowing out the Soviet Union at the time—stories that the west was willing to accept in favour of burgeoning trade opportunities. Yet despite Jones’ vociferous protests his words continually fell on deaf ears.

Spearheading this tale of injustice is a suitably odious Peter Sarsgaard (An Education) who slithers into the frame as the Pulitzer winning Walter Duranty, New York Times’ patsy to Soviet interests. His decision to favour hedonism over truth represents the sickening number of political players who turned a blind eye to Stalin’s atrocities.

In contrast, a sympathetic George Orwell (played by Joseph Mawle) pops up intermittently to hear Jones’ concerns—burdens that would later be famously reworked into his opus, Animal Farm. These interludes may seem a tad superfluous at times, however this insight into Orwell’s politically driven narratives serve to highlight Jones’ frustration in convincing the political establishment to accept his ground-level reporting as fact.

And it is at ground-level and in Ukraine’s frozen tundra where this film operates best. Oscar-nominated director, Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa, In Darkness) has crafted a bleak and desperately lonely vision of Holodomor that appropriately hits home the horrors of Stalin’s atrocities.

Not without a few flaws, most notably Jones’ “obligatory” love interest with New York Times employee Ada Brookes (Vanessa Kirby) whose character, while softening an otherwise all-male cast, does little to further the film’s cause. Some might also wonder if a trimmer, more focussed, version of Mr. Jones lives inside its slightly bloated 141 mins running time. Small quibbles for what is otherwise a gripping history lesson.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

The Lighthouse

tlhVerdict: An unnerving and claustrophobic monochrome nightmare at sea.

You will never look at seagulls the same after watching Robert Eggers latest film, The Lighthouse, a tale of nautical superstitions and closely guarded secrets set in the late nineteenth-century. His first film, The Witch, was among other things a feminist film. The Lighthouse, similarly is a cold-hard stare at toxic masculinity, exploring what happens when two mismatched men are forced to cohabit in a lighthouse, on a rock in the middle of the sea, farting, drinking, masturbating, and beating on seagulls. It’s unsettling at times, yes, but also utterly mesmerising.

As Eggers once quipped “nothing good happens when two men are trapped in a giant phallus.” And he’s right, but before you dismiss The Lighthouse as some sort of ugly stew of perverted male squalor, think again, because this well-considered journey into the mental abyss has been meticulously crafted by a director at the top of his game.

At its centre is Thomas Wake (Dafoe), a salty-sea-dog-turned-lighthouse-keeper and his new assistant, the quiet and guarded Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), who have four weeks to go about their duties on the weather-beaten island before relief arrives. But when a storm delays the impending relief, it tests their mental resilience. Wake becomes jealously protective of his lighthouse and his insistence that only he “tend to the light!” leads Winslow to become curious about its attraction. The film cleverly flirts with magic realism, as the mystery of the “tended light” is slowly revealed.

Shot in black and white with an aspect ratio of 1.19:1, which is to say, almost completely square, The Lighthouse is a claustrophobic and suffocating experience. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke’s who also worked with Eggers on The Witch, and his brooding camera evokes photography from the period, which is hauntingly complimented by the unceasing cry of the island’s foghorn, moaning as if in labour with Eggers’ new film.

Add to Eggers’ formal brilliance two highly committed performances from Pattinson and Dafoe and you have a thrilling gothic vision of madness that may well be an oppressive experience, yet is something to be admired.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Emma

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Verdict: A stylish and smart big-screen treatment the Austin classic.

The oft-adapted classic, Jane Austin’s Emma, seems to be a screenwriters dream. Not least because of the book’s intriguing plot contrivances that drip with romantic machinations, but more because it has at its centre a wonderfully complex female character that bristles with feisty agency. Emma is a story of misguided match-making as she (played by a mischievous Anya Taylor-Joy) plays cupid for others who blindly bare the brunt of her bad advice.  Needless to say, things go horribly wrong.

Kiwi word-smith Eleanor Catton appears to have relished her opportunity to adapt the queen of romantic mismanagement for the big screen. Plunging her pen deep into the pages of Austin’s book, Catton has gilded this plucky production with delightful attention to Austin’s wonderfully witty prose. She has avoided pandering to the “Downton Abbey sect” and its more easily digestible frippery. Rather, this version feels more faithful to the source material than prior renditions which will no doubt delight fans of Austin. Those less familiar with Austin’s work might find the sharp word-play and dizzying array of characters a tad disorienting.  It is a complex web that Emma weaves and it appears that Catton doesn’t suffer fools, so if its a more contemporary version you’re after, then perhaps Amy Heckerling’s Beverly Hill’s update, Clueless (a good film in its own right), might be a better option.

The film’s tagline “Handsome, clever, and rich” is not only an apt summation of its protagonist, but also describes Catton’s intelligent screenplay and a production that brims with all the trimmings that come with a romantic romp through the early nineteenth century. Costumes, finery and luxuriously green-gardened estates—it’s all there along with an excellent ensemble cast that includes Bill Nighy hitting peak Nighy.

If I had one reservation, it is that director Autumn de Wilde, in her feature debut, hasn’t quite lived up to her music-video roots. Her name might look lovely on the poster, but the film’s beautiful production design and vivid cinematography should’ve been weaved into something a little more kinetic.  But de Wilde’s lack is thankfully made up for by Catton’s biting script and Anya Taylor-Joy whose embodiment of Emma proves a whimsical delight.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

For Sama

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Verdict: Probably the most courageous documentary you’ll see this year.

The horrors of civil war are explored in Waad Al-Kateab’s Oscar-nominated documentary For Sama. A Syrian journalist and reluctant hero, Waad recounts her tumultuous five years trapped within the besieged city of Aleppo along with her husband Hamza and their newborn daughter, Sama. They lived a meagre existence while working at a makeshift hospital during Assad’s brutal assault on the city.

Armed only with Waad’s handheld camera and Hamza’s surgical know-how (but both with an inspiring supply of courage), the couple do their best to save lives with limited resources. The film is a heart-breaking assault on your senses and doesn’t pull any punches as the seemingly endless conveyor-belt of wounded—civilian casualties of Assad’s unforgivably ill-targeted bombings—pass through the hospital doors.  Yet, behind the bloodshed For Sama presents itself as a love story on many levels; one of Waad and Hamza’s love for each other, also one of compassionate love for the city of Aleppo, but ultimately, as the title suggests, this film is Waad’s love letter to her daughter, Sama.

Waad explains how the plight of the rebels was muddied by an influx of Islamic extremists. However, the film wisely avoids getting too bogged down in the politics of war, rather, locking its attention on the plight of the innocent civilians at ground level, specifically the children caught up in the bombing. One heartbreaking scene in which two young boys softly weep over the body of their brother, a victim of yet another bomb, is particularly difficult to stomach. Such scenes, harrowing as they are, are necessary and serve to focus the film’s humanist concerns, as well as crystallise Waad and Hamza’s personal moral edict to stay and save lives rather than flee.

Never losing sight of the medium of film, Waad and her co-director Edward Watts have wrangled over 500 hours of hand-held footage and weaved it into a strong piece of cinema. The result is a profoundly intimate yet horrifically heartbreaking film—a powerful document of love and injustice that traverses an array of emotions. For Sama is essential viewing.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

A Hidden Life

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Verdict: A deeply moving Malick mood piece.

Based on the letters between Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian conscientious objector during the Second World War, and his wife Fani (played by Valerie Pachner), this true story revisits one of history’s many forgotten wartime martyrs. The couple forge out seemingly utopian lives as farmers outside a remote village beneath the picturesque Austrian Alps. But when Franz (played by August Diehl), a devout Christian, refuses to bend the knee before the evil of Hitler’s Nazi regime, it threatens to shatter their idyllic lifestyle. His refusal to sign an oath of allegiance is an act that would have him thrown into prison and potentially sentenced to death for treason. 

Those who appreciated writer/director Terence Malick’s masterpiece The Tree of Life, will welcome Malick’s return to form. He’s had a few misses since, but A Hidden Life represents a renewed conviction for his craft—one of whispered fever dreams laced with periods of lucid connection to nature, all built on liberated camera movement, vibrant imagery, and oiled with fluid editing patterns. It is tactile film-making par excellence that pipes straight into your soul.  Yes, Malick’s best films are more spiritual experiences rather than mere entertainment.  

However, at nearly three hours long some might find Malick’s contemplative style too taxing, with a seemingly endless supply of swooning camera movements that are sublime, yes, but also numerous. Those less versed in Malick’s style will question if this relatively simple story could’ve been trimmed to a more digestible length. For that, Malick himself might be considered a conscientious objector to today’s popcorn movies, stubbornly forging out a work of meaningful cinematic art without bowing the knee to today’s ever shortening attention span. I applaud him for it, because what we have here is a master work. 

A Hidden Life unflinchingly locks us inside Franz’s moral conundrum. First showing paradise, with humanity and nature living as intended high in the pristine Austrian Alps, and then with a slow, prowling, cloying, camera ushering in the inexorable threat of Hitler. Paradise lost, indeed. 

It’s an anachronistic parable for our Trumpian times, sympathetic to lives of moral fortitude lost in the white noise of history. A Hidden Life is a graceful and hauntingly beautiful symphony for the senses that is urgently pertinent. I loved it.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.