London Film Festival Diary: Parkland, The Grandmaster, and 12 Years a Slave

In the second installment of her London Film Festival diary, Carole Petts looks at the latest film looking at the JFK assassination, yet another film about the man who taught Bruce Lee how to kick Chuck Norris’ arse, and the hugely anticipated new film from Steve McQueen.

PARKLANDGreetings from the morning after the night before.  As I mentioned at the start of the article last week, the shortening of the LFF to under two weeks means that there is often an issue with fitting everything in, and this is illustrated by the fact that I haven’t had a proper meal in three days (I’d like to thank Nutella and satsumas for their support during this difficult time).

The tail end of this week has been fraught to say the least with seven screenings in 5 days, so let’s get going!

First up on Wednesday was Parkland, a film based on the novel Four Days in November: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the directorial debut of former journalist Peter Landesman.  The film captures the experiences of peripheral figures during what is one of the defining moments of modern history.  We follow several characters involved, from the Secret Service and FBI to the doctors who battled so hard to save JFK during his final moments.  We also see the incident from the perspective of the most famous home-moviemaker in history, Abraham Zapruder (whose film is the only recording of the assassination) and uniquely the Oswald family.

I think it speaks volumes that this film is still resonating so much with me after six other screenings.  The various stories are skilfully woven together, even if some are under-explored in the relatively lean running time.  This was a theme acknowledged by Landesman during the Q&A where he mentioned that certain characters could have had their own film.  Probably the most affecting strand is that of Zapruder – a relatively ordinary person who was at the cutting edge of technology with life-changing results.  At one point the film is printed and a room of Secret Service personnel sit down to view the film with Zapruder, only for the tape to start with footage of his grandchildren playing.  This underlines the fact that the life Zapruder formerly knew vanished in those short seconds.

Overall I would recommend watching Parkland.  If you’re a conspiracy nut, it won’t be for you – its definitive story is that of the lone gunman and Landesman gave short shrift to any other theories afterwards.  It’s difficult to single out a single performance in a great ensemble cast but my eye was particularly caught by James Badge Dale (previously best known as a glowing baddie in Iron Man 3) as Robert Oswald, a very nice understated performance.

The next viewing was the ever-popular Surprise Film.  After the ritual (and fruitless) guessing game we had a video introduction from director Wong Kar Wai, and an in-person introduction by Harvey Weinstein, for Hong Kong’s Oscar 2014 submission The Grandmaster.  I sensed a slight defiance from Weinstein during his introduction in which he promised a “kick-ass martial arts film” and later I learned that there has been some controversy over final cut in this film which may explain it.  The film is based on the true story of Ip Man, a Wing Chun master who eventually trains Bruce Lee.

Here’s the thing – if you are really promising a kick-ass martial arts film, you need more than ten minutes of fighting.

The film starts off well with a wonderfully choreographed fight scene, but soon gets bogged down in exposition, a wildly uneven plot and an unconvincing love story.  The film wants to flick backwards and forwards seamlessly through timelines, but instead gives the impression of poor editing.  However, knowing that the film has had 20 minutes taken off for international release, it’s difficult to say whether this is an inherent flaw of the film or whether it is simply the victim of Weinstein’s over-zealous scissors.  I would be interested to see the original cut to compare, as I think the bones of a good film are present.  In the form that I saw, however, I can’t recommend it.

On to probably the biggest entry in my calendar this year – the European premiere of 12 Years A Slave, the true story of a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery in the mid 1800s.  This is actually the first Steve McQueen film I have seen (unless you count his short which plays in Tate Britain) so I have no frame of reference for how he is developing as a film-maker, but on this evidence I need to rectify that gap in my knowledge immediately.

A stronger (in every sense) film that last year’s Django Unchained, 12 Years is an unflinching portrayal of a shameful passage in human history.  The film has been noted for its brutality, and indeed it is a difficult watch at times, but the violence is never gratuitous.  Indeed, the first time we see such viciousness the results are not seen outright but rather implied by a tattered and bloody piece of clothing, which was still powerful enough to make the audience gasp.  Such moments are implicit to understanding why this intelligent family man found himself in such a situation, along with the fellow slaves he meets along the way.

There are many outstanding performances in the film but Chiwetel Ejiofor is the centrepiece – as the titular slave he anchors the whole film with a masterful study in quiet, understated dignity.  A special mention also has to go to newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, whose character must live with being her master’s “favourite” with all that entails.

It seems almost churlish to simply label 12 Years A Slave as a great film.  It is far more powerful than that – a deeply emotional yet clear-eyed look at this microcosm of pre-Civil War era American life, the film transcends entertainment and becomes essential viewing.  Expect to see this doing the rounds at all awards ceremonies next January and February.

Carole will watch most types of film and particularly anything starring Nicolas Cage, leading to her firmly-held belief that The Wicker Man remake is the funniest comedy ever produced.  She hates Grease.

@The_DarkPhoenix

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