Films reviewed: “12 Years a Slave”, “Captain Phillips”, “The Epic of Everest”, “Gravity”, “Inside Llewyn Davis” (pictured above), “Labor Day”, “Philomena” and “Saving Mr. Banks”.
This year’s London film Festival was split into strands including Cult, Dare, Debate, Documentary, First Feature, Journey, Laugh, Love, Official Competition, Sonic and Thrill. These reviews were cover the gala screenings. There are a few that aren’t in this post that are reviewed in a separate post. For instance, Only Lovers Left Alive was the Cult gala film, so is with the Cult reviews.
If you’re interested in these things, Saving Mr. Banks was a world premiere, as was The Epic of Everest – although the latter was a restoration of the 1924 film, so make of that what you will. For more, follow me at @halfacanyon.
12 Years a Slave – 8.5/10
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: John Ridley, Solomon Northup (autobiography)
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, Sarah Paulson
Event: Accenture gala
UK release date: 10th January 2014
US release date: 1st November 2013
“Days ago, I was with my family in my home. Now you tell me all is lost?”
The gala screening for 12 Years a Slave comes two days after Philomena received the red carpet treatment, continuing a trend for high-profile films adapted from memoirs. Philomena is a story told by a journalist who jokes his integrity prevents him writing human-interest stories – but if he did, “evil is good… story-wise.” 12 Years a Slave differs: the evils of slavery do make a perversely watchable story, but a more important one told from the victim’s point of view.
Steve McQueen’s third film is adapted from Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir and continues the director’s analysis of human obstacles (the guards of Hunger, and one’s own body in Shame). Like other slavery dramatisations, extra weight is unavoidable considering modern audiences are still uncomfortable with such a dark spot of history taking place less than two centuries ago. Just take Django Unchained, which managed to be thought-provoking despite the filmmaker’s kindergarten mindset.
Chiwetel Ejiofor should already be practising Oscar acceptance speech for his role as Solomon, a black free man with a wife and three children in New York. Solomon, a competent violinist, meets with two men for some paid work at a posh restaurant in 1841. He wakes up chained, stripped of smart attire, and sold to a slave owner without the chance to inform his family.
Solomon awakens from the kidnapping in a darkened room; McQueen obscures the edges, as if Ejiofor is acting on a stage. That idea of performance continues throughout as different slave owners share a love for forcing their prisoners to sing songs and clap along. Solomon expresses gratitude to one of his owners for the chance to play violin – at the peak of plantation existence, he is still on show.
For the less fortunate, hangings are seemingly a spectacle: a warning that slaves should behave, and a vulgar power trip. The most uncomfortable scenes involve public torture: a noose heightened an inch within survival, a slave-on-slave whipping, and so on. One plantation-owning couple, played by Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson, describe their slaves as expensive property, implying Solomon and others are an extension to their mansion.
Solomon’s various masters are thoroughly detestable, but characterised by the script with aggravated motives disguised as flimsy excuses – many of which are unchallenged because of convenient racism and economical hierarchies. Benedict Cumberbatch is a preacher and Solomon’s first owner, with the pair developing a rapport that’s ultimately futile: when Solomon fights back against a vindictive instructor (Paul Dano), the religious owner sells him on to a crueller buyer.
Fassbender’s role as Edwin Epps, Solomon’s new master, makes him the film’s most notable villain, which is startling considering the 134 minutes are populated by a series of brutal white men (others include Scoot McNairy and Paul Giamatti). Edwin’s psychological misery is inflicted upon the slaves, particularly a young woman played with the heartbreaking innocence of Lupita Nyong’o.
However, 12 Years a Slave is more nuanced than sticking in Edwin as a “main evil guy”. Equally accountable are the watching white bystanders, whose actions are more based upon pretend ignorance than self-loathing. (The exception is a sympathetic carpenter portrayed by Brad Pitt, who happens to be one of the film’s main producers, although that’s a piece of casting for a different discussion.)
A piece of art can never capture the horrors of slavery, so I’ll refrain from joining the chorus declaring 12 Years a Slave “important” – one man’s tale, true or not, can’t define the large-scale suffering. It is, however, a non-cynical reminder of the depths of human cruelty, especially at a time when racism is still a worldwide issue. McQueen avoids the tameness of Schindler’s List by increasing shot-lengths of the most painful moments; Pitt’s screen presence is minimised to evade the trap of historical self-assurance. The torture is physical and psychological: Solomon can read and write, but risks death if anyone knows; every part of existence, even pride, becomes a punishable offence.
Captain Phillips – 6/10
Director: Paul Greengrass
Writer: Billy Ray
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi
Event: Opening night gala
UK release date: 16th October 2013
US release date: 11th October 2013
“You’re more than a fisherman.”
There’s a point in Captain Phillips where the titular character sends an email home to his wife; the subject header is in lowercase, while the body text is formatted in Tahoma with capitals. These small details are part of the drama’s way of ramping up tension, where every minutiae teases something worse is up ahead – while also being slightly exhausting, if you’ve ever watched someone else type an email before.
Real life event films are tricky. The Impossible will likely be my most disliked film of the year, for its racial insensitivity and mutating an 8-year-old natural disaster into a multiplex vehicle. Then again, Dog Day Afternoon is one of my all-time favourites, and that hit cinemas just three years after the real bank robbery.
Fortunately, Captain Phillips is much closer to Dog Day Afternoon in terms of quality, with a claustrophobic plot as a bonus. The biographical thriller details the 2009 incident when a cargo ship was hijacked by four Somali pirates, each incredibly young looking and likely to still be teenagers. They rely on Muse (Barkhad Abdi) as their multilingual leader; he makes clear their motivations are purely financial – or, as he disingenuously calls it, “business”.
When Muse instructs his pirate colleagues (co-pirates?) to toughen up, the line echoes a statement from Captain Phillips himself. Played by Tom Hanks, the ship’s captain leads the negotiation process: a chess game where one has weapons, and the other knows the boat inside-out. The ship shuts down its power; the crew hide in the darkness, leaving the pirates to ruthlessly improvise.
Phillips and Muse have further similarities, which would be a more insightful if it weren’t for some of the more condescending examples (“You… are… more than… a fisherman…”). However, they’re moulded by respective backgrounds. Okay, that’s an obvious point, but there’s something poignant about their verbal duals: Phillips speaks as a political middleman, while Muse’s authoritative dexterity makes him the only figure listened to by both sides.
Paul Greengrass has decades of experience with these types of tense thrillers, and he’s occasionally quite tedious in how he slowly drags out inevitable climaxes. In what is sort of a review of the actual incident, Captain Phillips is strongest in its middle act, with Muse and Phillips sizing each other up. The captain’s heroic generosity does jar as an awkward screenwriter tool for forcing the audience to support the protagonist (a common trick in Hollywood and, let’s face it, Tom Hanks films.)
But, like in Dog Day Afternoon, even the bad guys have a human element: the pirates are barely adults, and complain the West stole their natural resources. When the Navy arrives fully armed, the captain recognises it isn’t so clear who the bully is; Phillips may not fall for Stockholm Syndrome, but in the pirates he spots the part of himself pushed around by authorities.
The Epic of Everest – 6.5/10
Director: Captain John Noel
Event: Archive gala
UK release date: 18th October 2013
US release date: TBC
Mankind has a history of inventing arbitrary tasks to apply some semblance of meaning for existence. This gorgeous restoration finds a particularly beautiful example: doomed explorers move across the snowy horizon like small dots, quivering for survival. Sensational as an artefact, in how it was all filmed so diligently in 1924.
Gravity – 8.5/10
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writers: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Event: American Airlines gala
UK release date: 7th November 2013
US release date: 17th October 2013
“I can’t breathe. I can’t… breathe.”
Remember the metaphor in Melancholia? Where the crashing planet was even called Melancholia? Well, Sandra Bullock suffers her own mental breakdown and rebirth: symbolised by floating in space and resting in the foetal position. However, while the fiery climax of Melancholia looks magnificent on the big screen, it can’t compare to the rhythmic, breathtaking ballet of Gravity – considering how particles space themselves out, it should really be called G……R……A……V……I……T……Y.
The action opens with a glorious shot of Earth, as seen from outer space. Already, the viewer is transported to a place of wonder, with the bobbing camera itself feeling the motions of zero gravity. The director, Alfonso Cuarón, is already celebrated for his long single takes (check out Children of Men), and opens Gravity with one of his most accomplished examples: Bullock repairs a space telescope, while George Clooney cracks jokes in the background, before both are knocked into physical and existential displacement. Bullock’s role in space in unclear, given she’s a medical engineer who radiates her unease through her space suit. Clooney, on the other hand, reminds me of a real life Buzz Lightyear, with the same casualness reserved for walking a dog in the park.
When debris knocks Bullock and Clooney off course, the duo float perilously, grappling for anything on which to hold. The direction of each small push is significant, frequently pausing the heart in terror; two astronauts heading to their likely deaths, in front of Earth’s glorious sunset, is both terrifying and poetically beautiful. Think of it this way: a slow-motion disaster played out in real-time.
The viewer spots where each object is heading; by being a few steps ahead, the inevitable close call builds up its tension. Cuarón, aided by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, occasionally switches the camera to Bullock’s POV, and it’s frightening – the bodacious score isn’t afraid to scream, screech, or suddenly shut up. “I like the silence,” says Clooney.
If you’re not distracted by the hypnotic spectacle, you might catch some of the unnaturally background-heavy dialogue between Bullock and Clooney. I get that nobody will rush for an IMAX 3D screening for the language, but Bullock is responsible for conversation so clunky that it should have satellites in its orbit. In a short space of time, she reveals the tragic loss of her child, hinting that space travel is a way to escape from normal life. In return, Clooney somehow manages to squeeze in his own romantic troubles, as if they’re part of a highly exclusive speed dating event.
Of course, Gravity bagged a large budget, so it could have been forced to adapt even further for a mainstream viewers – the hypothetical audience that will supposedly walk out of a cinema if there isn’t enough sentimentality. Subsequently, Bullock’s solo scenes are packed with unnecessary monologues concerned with self-improvement – at no point is there any real belief she’ll consider suicide or staying in space.
These quibbles, however, are similar to the scientific inaccuracies: who cares? The visuals are so spectacular, I almost punched my fist in the air when a single tear drop unhurriedly emerges from the screen.
Amid the emptiness of the outer atmosphere, there’s much to admire, if not the facets of home life taken by astronauts. Sure, taking a family photograph makes sense, but at one point a ping pong bat flies past. Does the sport work up there? And a ping pong table is impractical in a house, let alone a spaceship. It does, however, bring a human quality to Bullock’s lonely surroundings that won’t let her rest. Even if she thinks space is a final hiding spot, the laws of physics disagree.
Inside Llewyn Davis – 9/10
Directors/Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake
Event: Centrepiece gala
UK release date: 24th January 2013
US release date: 20th December 2013
“G… G… C… G… C… D…”
There’s a quick flash of a poster for a Disney film, The Incredible Journey: the story of a cat and two dogs who traverse “across 200 perilous miles of Canadian wilderness!” It’s also a counterpoint for the unheralded musician Llewyn Davis, whose possessions amount to a guitar and an unwanted cat. The Coen brothers joyfully dovetail into New York’s folk scene with Inside Llewyn Davis; the titular character, expertly brought to grumpy life by Oscar Isaac, hitchhikes and sofa crashes for miles – but, unlike the three fictional pets, he would hardly call it an incredible journey.
The Incredible Journey could be a fitting description for Joel and Ethan Coen’s career, but it’s likelt their memoir would hold a more external title that lets the films do the talking. Llewyn, however, must settle for his own Inside… story, given the lack of attention he receives for his one-man acoustic act.The spotlight is instead on novelty tunes like “Please Mr Kennedy” (imagine a folky “Call Me Maybe”) and harmonising bands – one notable example has Justin Timberlake strumming a guitar to accompany Carey Mulligan’s vocals.
Llewyn, while not going electric, stubbornly sticks to his solo act and playing old numbers that richly echo the room; Isaac’s voice is indeed very soulful. However, other singers’ lyrics are unable to convey Llewyn’s own life: slumming it on other people’s sofas, unsure of how to pay for the next meal. Most hurtful is his floundering career, just short of a breakout moment that doesn’t include “outer space” as a catchy mantra.
The Coens diligently fill Inside Llewyn Davis with their traditional wide-eyed shots and specific dialogue, right down to Llewyn’s consistent bad luck; the disrespected writer in Barton Fink springs to mind, with bureaucracy carefully spread across New York through braying audience members and quarrelsome neighbours.
However, despite a soundtrack that trumps I’m Not There, the Coens present an anti-folk world – as Llewyn expresses himself, he both hates and loves the genre. When John Goodman’s jazz musician humorously mocks the movement, he has a point that the capo-dependant scene is too repetitive with G-major and C-major chords.
Llewyn also faces serial loneliness, which isn’t helped by unreceptive crowds and an ex-girlfriend who remarks, “I should have had you wear double condoms… You should be wearing condom on condom, and then wrap it in electrical tape.” Llewyn’s best friend, strangely, is a cat with a dubious identity; the feline is also one of the great animal performances of our time, and is bound to inspire a suffocating number of YouTube compilations, gifs and Buzzfeed features.
It’s lonely at the bottom of the music chain, largely from Llewyn’s inflated self-importance, leaving him frequently ignored – the ultimate tragedy for any folk singer’s ego. Llewyn is informed by industry insiders that he lacks the extra oomph to make him profitable. Who could such a figure be? There’s a Bob Dylan allusion, but it also describes the Coens themselves: they transform a simple story into an illustrious, philosophical study of unavoidable failure, complete with idiosyncratic trademarks.
In a recurring motif, a cat moves from home to home, like Llewyn, with its own free will, as a sort of Inside Mewing Davis. That cat may be following the example of The Incredible Journey, fluttering between adventure and homeward bound glory; Llewyn can’t even open the door.
Labor Day – 3/10
Director: Jason Reitman
Writers: Jason Reitman, Joyce Maynard (novel)
Starring: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, , Gattlin Griffith, Tobey Maguire
Event: May Fair Hotel gala
UK release date: 7th February 2014
US release date: 25th December 2013
“I’d do 20 years for another three days with you.”
The press screening of Labor Day elicited a few early laughs amid a knowingly implausible hostage situation and a ridiculous take on the nuclear family. After 20 minutes, it’s apparent that Jason Reitman is frighteningly earnest with this misguided romance – we were the ones held hostage by this terrible film.
Adele (Kate Winslet) is a single mother of 13-year-old Henry (Gattlin Griffith), both rattled by the household’s absence of a father figure – made very clear by a slightly Oedipal voiceover (lent by Tobey Maguire as an adult Henry reflecting on his childhood). A supermarket trip involves an escaped convict, Frank (Josh Brolin), somehow talking himself into finding refuge in their house. Within a few hours, a Stockholm Syndrome situation occurs, with the convicted murderer taking over as the new man of the house.
The title refers to the time setting, across Labor Day weekend (and presumably some childbirth wordplay). It accidentally eludes to the laboured metaphors that Reitman tackles with complete sincerity, namely the speed at which Frank introduces himself as a baseball fan who’ll play catch with the young boy. Adele might be unable to fight her biological ages towards the convict’s handsome figure, but I was incredulous at a very early pastry-making scene – when baking a pie, Frank requests his two captives help him lift the top crust and “put a roof on this house”. I can imagine a missing scene where they watch Return of the Jedi, with a handholding close-up during the “Luke, I am your father” climax.
The sickening sweetness expands into Hollywood twists that strike me as an Oscar-famed director ignoring sensible feedback and pointing to his CV. I’ve been a fan of Reitman for quite a while, and have always been impressed by his ability to draw unexpectedly moving conclusions for otherwise unemotional characters (Young Adult and Up in the Air being two recent examples). However, Labor Day begins with three heart-on-sleeve caricatures, with the unnatural story bearing the beats of a Pinter play. The subplots similarly run into a wall, including a Juno-inspired 13-year-old girl who dishes out adult dating advice, a cruel neighbour who slaps her disabled child, and frequent flashbacks that distract from the central relationships.
I expect Labor Day to receive cult status in following years at midnight events showcasing compellingly misguided disasters: Kate Winslet survives another sinking ship.
Philomena – 5/10
Director: Stephen Frears
Writers: Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope, Martin Sixsmith (novel)
Starring: Steve Coogan, Judi Dench
Event: American Express gala
UK release date: 1st November 2013
US release date: 22nd November 2013
“You’ve told four people today they’re one in a million. What are the chances of that?”
The nonplussed response to The Look of Love was partly from why Steve Coogan wanted to portray Paul Raymond, a real life figure less cuddly than his Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People. Both films, combined with Michael Winterbottom’s hand-held direction, only played to niche crowds. Well, Philomena is yet another biopic, except it’s far more of a crowdpleaser – perhaps cynically so.
I was unconvinced by Coogan’s explanation as to why he wanted to make The Look of Love, but Philomena is obvious: guaranteed BAFTA nominations. If collaborating with Stephen Frears and Judi Dench isn’t enough, the story is tearjerker inspired by The Lost Child of Philomena Lee : A Mother, Her Son and a Fifty-Year Search – a non-fiction book by Martin Sixsmith.
Coogan, who co-writes Philomena with Jeff Pope, takes upon the role of Martin. As a grumpy, sardonic journalist, Martin is a watchable lead through Coogan’s comfortable timing. Martin’s pessimism is matched in true odd couple fashion with Philomena Lee (Dench), an Irish nun who decades earlier was forced to give up her three-year-old son. At the time, the Catholic Church punished Philomena for breaking her chastity vows, and sold the child, along with many others, to Americans. Martin senses a human-interest story (despite insisting, “I don’t do human-interest stories!”) and, in a mutually beneficial agreement, the pair set off to find her missing son.
Philomena is a perfunctory in how it encompasses religion and forgiveness, although the numerous flashbacks stack up in an artificial manner – eventually with a character arc protruding through the screen. The screenplay contains more attempted comedy than one might expect, especially during the most dramatic moments: overegged scene s are signalled as self-important through the absence of any jokes.
I’m a massive fan of Coogan’s comedic talents, not just Alan Partridge, so was dismayed by how his humour is pulled back in, with lines seemingly aimed at middle-aged parents who enjoy the cinema of Sunday afternoons. He’s mostly a foil for Philomena, whose emotional distress would be more moving were it not for the manipulative strings hanging in the corner of the frame; Dench’s face freezes on multiple occasions, poised, tears at the ready, perfecting the three-second clip shown at award ceremonies. She’s looking for her son, but she’s also looking for an award.
Saving Mr. Banks – 4.5/10
Director: John Lee Hancock
Writers: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith
Starring: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Colin Farrell
Event: Closing night gala
UK release date: 29th November 2013
US release date: 20th December 2013
“A… sugar cube?”
My train journey home from the Saving Mr. Banks press screening was spent scrambling through my phone’s lousy internet connection trying to find as much information about the original Mary Poppins novels, the film’s production, and so on. The biopic details the negotiation process behind the 1964 Disney film, when the writing staff needed script approval from P.L. Travers, the books’ author. As I waved my phone around searching for Wi-Fi, I wanted to inform strangers that my frantic actions were one of dissatisfaction: at 126 minutes, I learned little of the true story – or, at least, little in which I believed.
It’s worth knowing for context that Travers hated the 1964 Julie Andrews feature so much that she legally prevented any sequels, even when presented with scripts. Instead, Saving Mr. Banks portrays a more straightforward version of events that undermine her suspicion of the Disney corporation. I’m not sure if it’s a request from the studio or a choice by director John Lee Hancock, but the film is sickly sweet with a thousand spoonfuls of sugar, both in tone and music.
The unbearable sentimentality is introduced within a few minutes by an over-emotive score that reappears throughout, almost to the point of parody. Travers is introduced as a spritely, confident woman, played by Emma Thompson, who flies from Britain to stay in a hotel near the Disney offices. The first Mary Poppins book was published in 1934 and she spent subsequent decades fighting off a big screen adaptation. She finally concedes on the grounds that production only proceeds if the script meets her demands, such as no pears, no animation, and no instances of the colour red.
Travers’ stipulations at first sound like tough negotiation tactics, next to requesting no red M&Ms. However, her stubbornness is linked back to flashbacks that occur so frequently, every nuance and symbol is hammered home so that even six-year-old viewers will roll their eyes. That’s also the general reaction from Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and the two writers (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman), who provide the film’s most reliable comic relief.
Saving Mr. Banks isn’t without its charms, as the central story is intriguing to anyone who grew up loving Mary Poppins – even if knowing that film exists rather negates any suspense. Thompson and Hanks do fine with their roles; both have charisma and take the characters as far as the tame script allows.
I imagine Saving Mr. Banks is more suited to an afternoon TV sofa viewing, or perhaps on a plane at a high altitude. After all, it’s a small piece of trivia extrapolated into a two-hour piece. If P.L. Travers objected to a sequel to Mary Poppins, there’s definitely no way she’d approve this.
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