The London Film Festival 2013 Part 1: Big Fellas (October 9th-20th)

The London Film Festival 2013WHOOSH! That’s the sound of The 57th London Film Festival whizzing past, these days spreading its tentacles into the provinces as well as the suburbs. WHAM! is the sound made by the special effects (and our jaws as they drop to the floor) at Alfonso Cuaron’s 3D exploits. AAAAH and AWW! are the verdicts on the true-life story behind Steve Coogan’s powerfully emotive writing and acting, and on James Gandolfini’s final role.

‘Nuff said about the noise and buzz around the festival. On with our annual retrospective, once again split into handy sections. This is 2013 Part One, where we come not to bury, but to praise the big movies from the US and the UK – and the slightly smaller ones. Well, there might be the odd bit of burying, but only to save you wasting your dosh on the most flashily marketed but ultimately empty flicks. We want you to save yourselves and your money for the must-see movies and the unexpected treats. So DVDfever will mark your card. Starting right now.

But before we begin, let’s just say that Part Two will look at all the other good stuff from all over the world – plus some of the best documentaries. And in Part Three we’ll announce our annual and highly covetable DVDfever Awards.

hjlff13part1aIn previous years we have noted the ubiquity of certain actors across the festival (and this year we’re looking at you, Mister Paul Giamatti). But it may be a first to have the very same leading man, Tom Hanks, in both the opening and closing gala movies: CAPTAIN PHILLIPS and SAVING MR BANKS. And both are based on true stories.

At first sight, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is just another Paul Greengrass action flick, with Hanks as the calm captain of a loaded container ship navigating its way to Mombassa. All is smooth, even plain sailing as the crew start their voyage. And this is sharply contrasted with all the jerky, handheld shots of the Somali pirates. A truckload of foreshadowing gives a sense of inevitability to the plot as it unfolds – unstoppable force versus immovable object – with the Captain’s ordeal going up a notch in the final third of the film when it becomes a battle of wills. In many ways, this piracy face-off was done better by the low-budget Danish thriller A Hijacking at last year’s festival. But what elevates this year’s offering and means Hanks will, at the very least, get an Academy Award nomination, is the closing scene. The numbness, the fear, the inarticulacy are pitch perfect. And Oscar catnip.

SAVING MR BANKS may be directed by John Lee Hancock and have Hanks’ name first above the title, but this is really Emma Thompson’s film. She plays crotchety PL Travers, who invented and authored Mary Poppins and fought against Walt Disney (Hanks) getting hold of her creation and bastardising it: “She’ll be careening and cavorting!” But Disney promises “no animation”, and Travers has run out of money. So the die is cast, and after two decades of resisting his entreaties, she’s on a plane to Hollywood, which she hates from the get-go (despite her cheery chauffeur, Paul Giamatti’s efforts). Thompson channels Miss Jean Brodie and her own Nanny McPhee as she remains impervious to Walt’s charms, declaring that her books “do not lend themselves to chirping and prancing” and that Mary Poppins is certainly not a musical.

There’s a parallel story going on, harking back to her Travers’ outback upbringing, in which Ruth Wilson and Colin Farrell play her implausible Aussie ma and alcoholic pa. And this is meant to hold the key to her very personal ownership of the story and the banker who needs ‘saving’, Mr Banks. In truth, these Aussie scenes are a pretty crude way of spelling out that Travers is haunted by demons, and perhaps the only person to emerge honourably from this back-story is Rachel Griffiths as the governess who helps the struggling family. (She’s their strict nanny, do you see?) You’ll need more than a spoonful of medicine to help this sugar go down, as good ole American sentimentality is pitted against British pragmatism. If you want a darker picture of Walt Disney, you might be better off seeing Philip Glass’ opera, The Perfect American.

hjlff13part1bTo witness the wonders modern Hollywood and its millions can conjure up, look no further than Alfonso Cuaron’s GRAVITY. But be sure to put your 3D glasses on first, as you won’t want to miss a thing. The effects are gob-smackingly, eye-poppingly epic, yet Cuaron still achieves an intimacy that most 3D lacks. For this is a simple story of two adventurers working out in space, George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. He’s the wise-cracking veteran; she’s the space newbie, and they’re both cast adrift when everything goes wrong. They have to abort their mission, and as viewers we are right there as they experience utter isolation and discombobulation, and we feel their sense of genuine peril.

As the space junk spirals around and crashes into them, they have to fall back on their own strengths instead of all the state-of-the-art technology. And – this is a phrase I never thought I’d write – Sandra Bullock reveals herself to be a very fine actor indeed, who might finally be escaping those sob-rom-com-drams she’s been saddled with for years.

Don’t want to peak too early, but head and shoulders above any other film at this year’s festival is Steve McQueen’s latest, 12 YEARS A SLAVE (above-right). If Chiwetel Ejiofor doesn’t win the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Solomon Northup, hats will be eaten. This is an astonishing, truthful portrayal at the heart of an uncompromising, shocking film that tackles slavery head on. Based on Northup’s memoir, it immediately hurls a successful, free man out of his genteel prosperity into a world of relentless brutality. And McQueen’s camera never shies away from the staggering truth, from Northup and fellow slaves being paraded and sold as if they are livestock, and their endless dehumanising (Paul Giamatti plays a typically odious seller), to the use and abuse of them as chattels by their ‘owners’, and the quoting of the Bible to justify their inhumanity.

There are tiny chinks of light, like Benedict Cumberbatch as Northup’s first master, who recognises his gifts, yet cannot protect him from near-death when he’s hanged from a tree by vengeful overseers, and dangles there while life goes on around him. But his second owner, Epps (McQueen’s favourite actor, Michael Fassbender) is a crazed, demonic, all-too-credible monster. He’s not content to control his slaves through violence, cruelty and sexual assault, but also pushes his wife (another terrific performance from Sarah Paulson) to her wits’ end, as she descends to his level. Producer Brad Pitt, perhaps understandably, gives himself one of the few sympathetic roles, but he and McQueen deserve all the plaudits going for bringing this story to the screen and persuading Ejiofor to take the lead role. And there’s more Ejiofor to come…

Go to page 2 for Inside Llewyn Davis, Parkland and more…


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