All posts by Carole Petts

Amy

squareI met Amy Winehouse a few times, before she became how most people remember her – which, let’s be honest, wasn’t pretty.  She swore like a docker, laughed like a drain, and smoked like a chimney.  She and I shared a take-no-shit attitude.  But she also sang like nothing else I’d ever heard.  This clearly wasn’t a talent honed at stage school (she did go for a few years but got expelled) or on Pop Idol.  This was raw, unfettered talent; she didn’t need anything else, and in fact lamented the idea of being famous.  But famous she did become, and it’s no great leap to imagine that it was this that contributed the most to her downfall.  So, while I can’t claim to be anywhere near an expert on Amy, I did know something of the person she was before the drink and drugs took hold, and it’s not how she was portrayed in Heat and the tabloids.  It was with this filter (and admitted bias) that I watched Asif Kapadia’s documentary, which doesn’t strive to paint a pretty picture of Amy but instead seeks to redress the balance of her public persona, distorted by endless paparazzi pictures, rehab visits, abortive concerts and so on.

And it does this superbly.  We follow Amy chronologically through her life, starting at about 14.  The digital cameras which were to plague her in later life were only just in their infancy at that time, and she and her friends are constantly talking to us in a video diary – just normal teenagers showing off in front of the camera (although Amy quickly sets herself apart within a group rendition of Happy Birthday).  The film chronicles her first attempts at singing and song writing and swiftly moves on to her first public performances, on tiny stages at jazz clubs.  You get the feeling that she is happy at this point and would prefer never to move on – her mannerisms when being compared to Dido during an interview are nothing short of hilarious.  We learn about the people and observations which led her to create her début album, Frank.  More than once she prophetically tells us that being famous would send her mad as she wouldn’t know how to handle it.

If this film is a record, then the B-side starts with Blake Fielder, who has been vilified in the press for introducing Amy to hard drugs.  It’s true there’s a sea change in the mood of the film when he comes into her life, but what is made abundantly clear is that she was never particularly stable to begin with, and was already battling her own demons by this time.  In fact, everyone is treated even-handedly – the format of the film (with no talking heads, just commentary) allows everyone to have their say.  Even Mitch Winehouse, who has disowned the project after seeing the film, has plenty of opportunity to make his point: his point being that, even after Amy’s friends and manager begged her to go to rehab after splitting with Fielder the first time, he was famously of the opinion she didn’t need to.  You’re left wondering what would have happened if, as her then-manager puts it in the film, she had been able to get professional help before the world’s media came calling.  You’re also left wondering if she could ever have created an album like Back to Black – the album that catapulted her to global fame – without staring into that abyss.  She was no innocent bystander in her own story.

We all know what came afterwards.  By this time, Amy’s voice is gradually fading away from the film, and the story is taken over aurally by those on the inside, and visually by the cameras which hunted her down constantly wherever she went.  As someone who doesn’t read Heat or the Daily Mail, this part of the film made for frankly uncomfortable viewing, as the ever-more voyeuristic cameras intrude more and more into her life.  Her attempts at rehab and her relationship with Fielder are chronicled (and he is able to put across his perspective), and the whole situation spirals into a horribly predictable outcome.  The difference between the girl we saw excitably clowning around in a car on the way to Birmingham to “sing some songs” and the woman who stumbles on stage in Serbia and mumbles through them instead is truly heartbreaking.  Even worse is, mere months before her death, she sings a duet with Tony Bennett (one of her heroes) and she looks wonderfully healthy.  But the girl inside we saw before has all but disappeared, leaving her an apologetic shell – I don’t think she would have been as deferential to Bennett as she was before life overwhelmed her.

Should you see it even if you weren’t a fan?  I would say yes, because the chances are you have never seen this side of Amy Winehouse.  You have probably never thought about her lyrics as much as you will when they’re floating on the screen.  And maybe, just maybe, this film will stay with you when you leave, and you will realise we are a poorer world without her talent.  And her filthy laugh.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

by Carole Petts (@DeathByJigsaws)

url2 Let’s not mess around here – if you’re a Marvel fan, two things are all but guaranteed.  Firstly, you will have likely loved Avengers (in the UK it was called Avengers Assemble, but my version just says Avengers, and AA is a silly name, so there) and rated it high in Marvel Studios’ output so far, if not top of the pile.  Following on from that, you will go and see Age of Ultron regardless of what anyone says.  That’s fine!  But I need to say something straight away – you will not get the same giddy thrill from this film that you got from Avengers.  Save for a shot (shown in the trailer) of the entire team flying towards an unknown enemy in the first two minutes – a nod back to the climatic battle of Avengers – this film is about moving the team and the universe forward, for better or worse.

The film opens with the afore-mentioned battle, a mission to retrieve a artefact we’ve met before in the series.  Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) realises the implications of this – the idea of Avengers has always been to eventually render them surplus to requirements by seeing off all threats.  Throw in a little encounter with a pair of newcomers along the way – Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the need to protect the world before any of the team perish becomes more urgent.  With the help of an unconvinced Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) he creates probably his most impressive invention yet, but quickly realises he is out of his depth as his creation threatens the world.  Thus the stage is set for an epic battle which takes in mind control (pitting Avengers against each other to divide and conquer) and some truly mighty action sequences.

And the sequences are huge.  The action scenes in Avengers felt slightly small in scale until the climatic Battle of New York, but here they are amplified, taking in whole cities and towns at a time.  The much-vaunted Hulk vs Hulkbuster smackdown is an excellent piece of fight choreography, never spilling into Transformers territory (“I don’t know what’s going on”, “Why can’t they fit the whole robot into the screen”, etc.).  There’s a great sense of scale here – this is a global threat being realised globally, not funnelled through the metaphor of one city as shorthand.  The action travels from the fictional Eastern-European city of Sokovia to South Africa, South Korea and rural America.

In between big fight scenes, however, we do get a decent amount of character development.  This is especially concentrated around the Avengers who aren’t the subject of solo films – Black Widow, Hulk and Hawkeye all get significant amounts of screen time.  Hawkeye benefits the most, making up for his side-lining in Avengers with a fully realised back story.  This does mean that the big three of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor feel sidelined – there is a Thor sequence which sorely feels like it was chopped for running time, ultimately having no impact on the film but setting up Ragnarok instead.  In a film with at least 15 named and principle characters, this is going to be an occupational hazard.  It was managed well in Avengers, but that was with less leads – this can feel overburdened at times, with everyone from War Machine/Iron Patriot (Don Cheadle, making the most of some very limited screen time) to Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) popping up in slightly beefed-up cameos.  This leads me to my main gripe with the film – Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch feel like the chips you still have to eat after you’ve finished your burger.  It was a good idea when you ordered them, but now you’re looking at them and wondering if they were necessary.  Scarlet Witch does redeem herself somewhat during the final battle, and provides a handy jumping-off point for the creation of Ultron, but these beats could have been allocated elsewhere.

Having said that, the best new character doesn’t even exist for the first two-thirds of the film.  We’ve heard Paul Bettany as JARVIS for years, but he’s finally rewarded with a physical presence as Vision.  I really like Bettany and it was a real delight to see him here – Vision could look a bit more ethereal, but he nails the tone of the character completely and again makes the most of a small amount of screen time.  It probably helps that he gets the best “HELL YES!” moment of the entire film as well.

The main plaudits have to be saved for James Spader as Ultron.  Created to protect the world, he quickly realises the best way to do that is to eliminate the Avengers.  Spader’s crafty delivery is wonderful, and Ultron has the swagger of his motion-captured performance down – if you’ve ever watched Spader in anything, it’s easy to picture him instead of the menacing robot.  His wisecracking delivery makes him the son that Tony Stark has never had, and is a real highlight.

There are parts that don’t work.  A blossoming romantic subplot feels slightly unnecessary, and the whole thing at times feels overburdened by what it has to set up in context of the wider universe (the events of Civil War, Infinity War and the aforementioned Ragnarok are all foreshadowed here).  But ultimately it’s lots and lots of fun, despite being much darker than the first outing.  And that’s all we can ever really ask for from Marvel – it’s what they’ve done best for years, in print and now on film.

The Imitation Game

tumblr_static_tumblr_static_9yxhgb0px7kgc8cc40ogcowkg_1280Benedict Cumberbatch plays an eccentric, lonely, possibly autistic genius who uses his gifts to help people who he looks down upon, save only for a companion who serves as his foil and link to the outside world.  Remarkably though, it’s not Sherlock, but a real-life hero, whose contribution to the Allies winning World War II and his subsequent life are a rich enough vein of drama without the need for embellishment.

As I’m sure you all know, Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician who succeeds in academia but is severely lacking in social skills.  His Manchester dwelling has been ransacked, and he’s sitting in a police station talking to an officer (Rory Kinnear) who is wondering why nothing was taken during the burglary.  Turing starts to talk – he was recruited by Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) to help break Enigma, the machine which encoded all German messages sent over the air during the second World War.  It’s seemingly unbreakable, Turing says during their first meeting.  “Let me try, and we’ll know for sure”, he proffers.  The film jumps back and forth between wartime and 1952, as the police gradually become more interested in this eccentric figure, and the secrets he holds.

Although there is obviously a heavy focus on the actual codebreaking, it’s done in such a way that even the most techno-illiterate will be able to keep up.  Even more impressively, it is always rooted in what’s at stake – the human cost of the Bletchley Park team’s failure to crack Enigma is constantly driven home, even to the seemingly unfeeling Turing, who develops a human side once a recruitment drive sees Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) arrive.  She is of a similar intellect, but with added social skills, and she helps him falteringly take his first steps into becoming part of a team that she is excluded from by default because of her gender.  Even though he has made progress, Turing is excluded from society as a whole; he was later, of course, one of the most famous gay men to be prosecuted for gross indecency at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK.  This secret threatens his livelihood, and Cumberbatch plays the part well as a man living inside a disguise which is barely passable.

The supporting cast is also excellent – Charles Dance is a suitably venerable war commander, while Mark Strong shows a rare lightness of touch as MI6 contact Stewart Menzies.  The Bletchley Park team are excellent – the scene where they crack Enigma, only to realise they can’t do anything with the information they now possess, is engrossing and well-acted.

This is a funny, sad, smart, gripping film which will leave you thinking well after you exit the cinema, if only about how far back we as a civilisation were set back by our own prejudices and ignorance.  In a season full of stand-out films so far, The Imitation Game definitely deserves to be in the mix come awards time.

The Drop

downloadIt’s somehow fitting that James Gandolfini’s last role involves him playing a slightly more washed-up version of his most famous creation, Tony Soprano.  It’s a weary but caustic ending to a career which was cut short far too soon, and shows the man’s dramatic chops as he manages to steal the show from some formidable opposition, including Tom Hardy holding a cute puppy.

Hardy plays Bob, a quiet guy who tends bar in the premises owned by his cousin Marv (Gandolfini) in deepest Brooklyn.  This bar holds a secret – it’s a drop point where the mob’s money ends up from time to time.  Marv resents the fact that Chechens are the hard guys here, and laments the good old days when he was part of the mafia, not their ATM deposit box.  Bob is walking home from work one night when he finds the aforementioned abandoned pup in a bin belonging to Nadia (Noomi Rapace, very good with the relatively little she is given to do).  Circumstances decree that he adopts the dog – and this is where an unfortunate series of events – connected or otherwise – start to creak into life.  Gradually and inevitably, Bob’s life slides into crisis.

The Drop is a very decent film.  The pacing is excellent – you know what is coming at some points, but you enjoy the journey of tying up the gradually interconnecting plot.  Director Michaël R. Roskam does an excellent job of capturing Brooklyn, and the film is full of quietly impressive supporting performances – from the detective (John Ortiz) who is immediately on Bob’s case following an incident at the bar, to the suitably menacing mob boss (Michael Aronov) who is understandably pissed off when some of his funds go missing.  These are no one-dimensional thugs – we spend time with them, understand them.  But special mention has to be made of Matthias Schoenaerts as Eric Deeds, the local weirdo who trades off a murder he committed a while back. Schoenaerts is excellent and genuinely unsettling at times.

This will be remembered primarily as Gandolfini’s last performance, but it deserves more than that.  The well-developed script and performances elevate this Dennis Lehane short story into a film that isn’t quite an Oscar contender, but is definitely worth a look regardless.

London Film Festival Part II: Revenge Of The Festival

It’s not often I turn to a complete stranger (I am a Londoner, after all) and whisper, “I’ve only eaten free Green & Black’s chocolate and baked goods from Costa all week.  I think I’m dying”.  It’s even rarer for this opening gambit to elicit a sympathetic smile and a “I know what you mean” in response.  Such is the emotional state we are to be reduced to in the home stretch of the 58th London Film Festival, the busiest I have ever seen.  After all, I am seeing a mere 13 films (not including shorts) in 6 days; other, hardier souls have been trapped in Leicester Square for the full twelve.

15-6-4930.JPGSo, my long weekend begins with Love is Strange – a feature which came to my attention when the MPAA rated it R for no fucking reason whatsoever apart from the fact that it’s about a gay couple.  I like John Lithgow, I love Alfred Molina, so this was a no-brainer to catch.  And it doesn’t disappoint – the sweet tale of a couple who have been together for nearly forty years – but are only now finally able to formalise their union – at times threatens to tip into sentimentality, but manages to teeter away at the right times.  It’s a simple tale of what happens when a couple are forced to live apart through no fault of their own, and the pressures this puts on their family ties.  It’s light on story but makes up for it with excellent performances; Molina and Lithgow you would expect, but also from Marisa Tomei, who shines as the slightly spoilt writer who eventually finds a sudden intrusion into her family life too much to bear.

On to the next film, a Norwegian comedy (!) 1001 Grams.  This was a complete wildcard as I just liked the description in the brochure and it is also Norway’s official submission to the Best Foreign Film category at next year’s Oscars.  It starts off brightly enough – a young scientist attends a Parisian conference on the actual weight of a kilo, which apparently depends on many factors, such as whether the weight in question has been touched or not.  But that one slight joke tries to sustain a whole film, and when it realises that it won’t stretch far enough, it throws in a tragedy and a forced love interest to try and shore things up.  The problem was, I ended up not caring for these shoehorned plot points, and just a few days later I can barely remember anything about the film.  Definitely one of the more forgettable experiences of the festival.

On then, to The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.  Or, to give the film its full title, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, for this is an edited version of two full length sides of a marriage in crisis, Him and Her.  Thus, in his debut feature-length film, director Ned Benson does what Quentin Tarantino has never been able to – swallow his pride and edit together two films to form a perfectly coherent and satisfying single feature.  And it is wholly satisfying; a surprisingly stellar cast including James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, William Hurt, Ciarán Hinds and an excellent Bill Hader elevate what could have been a sappy mess into a parable about what happens when you don’t communicate in a long-term relationship (this and Gone Girl would make an excellent first date double-bill for sadists, I feel).  Well-plotted and with some surprises along the way, I left feeling like I actually wanted to watch the Him and Her versions as well, and I will seek them out when they arrive on Netflix.  Side notes: I met James McAvoy here and he was lovely.  I can be cool around famous people for about 5 seconds.

The next day – Saturday – brought a few surprises.  Going in, I was not sure what to expect from any of the three films I was watching that day.  And given that they included the new film from Michael Winterbottom and an Aussie action-comedy starring Simon Pegg, I did not expect the film that I would still be thinking about even now to be a drama about gangland Brixton.

honeytrap-002Honeytrap is loosely based on true events; centred on Layla, a recent immigrant from Tobago who comes to live with her mother on a council estate in south London.  Immediately she feels out of place – her mother (who seems to have got thoroughly used to not being a parent in Layla’s absence) can’t or won’t buy her any new clothes to replace the ones she has grown out of, so she steals outfits to fit in with the other girls.  This desperation to be accepted seems to pay off when she is eyed up by a hot local rapper, but the attention soon turns into something much darker.  Director Rebecca Johnson has spent 10 years working with youngsters in Brixton, making films with them, and it shows – there is an easy naturalism to every performance (she told me that only the main players actually went through a casting process – many were picked from the estates she has been working on for a long time) which makes the inevitable denouement much worse.  Only when it’s far too late does Layla realise the consequences of her action; she (and we) can only watch in horror as the inevitable denouement plays out before our eyes and the situation spirals away from her, out of her control.  It’s a horrifying, powerful film that I can imagine being shown as a vital part of the schools curriculum, and one that I would urge everyone to watch if possible – this is British talent at its best, in front of and behind the camera.

So perhaps a little unfairly, I went into The Face of an Angel expecting great things.  Directed by Michael Winterbottom and “loosely” based around the murder of British student Meredith Kercher, the film does not directly address the murder but rather the media reaction to it.  This is done by using the rather clever framing device of focusing on a filmmaker, Thomas (Daniel Brühl, watchable as ever) as he researches the murder in order to, well, make a film about it.  The problem with using Thomas as a framing device is, he should never really be the focus of the story; he should be presenting another way of thinking about it.  And although the films starts this way – Thomas hammers home the point that everyone is obsessed with the alleged murderers but they forget someone actually died – by the time a Return of the King-esque stream of apparent endings comes along, he does become the focus, and the film loses its way.  This is more of a lament of the media, complete with the obligatory caricatures – the slimy Daily Mail journo who embellishes his stories, the American who holds court in the cafe waiting for the actual courts to make up their mind, the local expert.  Winterbottom’s goal here is clearly to hold up a mirror to these people, and to let us all know that they should be under scrutiny as well as the accused.  But the sad truth is, they wouldn’t exist if we did not want to know every seedy detail in cases such as these.  Inevitably, no-one ends up very likeable in the film – except for Cara Delevingne’s character Melanie, who is a bouncy, cheerful English student.  But ultimately you don’t feel like she is relevant to the story in any way.

simon_pegg_kriv_stenders_kill_me_three_timesFinally on Friday night, an Aussie comedy (!) about a hitman, Kill Me Three Times.  Except it’s not really about the hitman (played by Simon Pegg), although I don’t blame the distributors at all for selling the film that way in the UK. Rather it’s about an elaborate revenge plot/insurance plot spun three different ways, which ends up going awry, as all the best plots do.  It’s pretty smart for an action comedy and did conjure up memories of Grosse Point Blank at times (Pegg did say in the Q&A afterwards that Martin Blank is his favourite on-screen assassin), albeit played out against stunning Australian scenery.  You won’t remember much about it when it’s over, but it’s an entertaining ride for an hour and a half, and the action is enjoyably messy.

Sunday, the final day, brings a certain melancholy and simultaneous relief over everyone – the poor girl introducing Carol Morley at the screening of The Killing in Hackney looks like she is about to keel over.  Which is appropriate, seeing as a main theme in The Falling is exactly that – Abbie, a promiscuous young student at a girl’s school in the 1960s, falls pregnant and starts to suffer from fainting and fits.  Soon enough her group of friends all come down with this mysterious affliction, with less reason.  I was a big fan of Morley’s previous feature, Dreams of a Life – an excellent documentary about a woman who lay dead in her flat for three years – but this failed to ignite any interest in me whatsoever.  The highlight is an excellent performance by Maxine Peake as the agoraphobic mother of one of the girls (played by Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones – sometimes decent, but sometimes quite wooden).  The film does pick up towards the end, but unfortunately the denouement needs more development beforehand to sustain it, and it never quite gets there.

And finally, the last film of the festival altogether, Fury.  I have a feeling that we will go into this more in this week’s podcast, but as a personal note I thought the performances were excellent, even though the film as a whole doesn’t quite reach the heights of great war films.  The revelation for me was Shia LaBeouf, playing a meaty role thoughtfully (although to be perfectly honest, I have never seen him in anything outside Transformers and Indiana Jones, and I’d prefer to forget both of them).  If this is where being a bit “kooky” gets him, then more power to his elbow.

Thanks for reading, and see you next year.

*faints*

London Film Festival 2014 – Westerns, Whiplash, Wrestling, Weird Austrians

A full week in and my London Film Festival starts here.  Huzzah!  Actually it started on Tuesday, when I dragged my very jet-lagged self to the UK premiere of The Salvation.  This film was going to have to be something special to prevent me from dozing off in my seat, and it didn’t disappoint.

salvationMads Mikkelsen plays Jon, a Danish settler in 1870s America.  Tragedy strikes shortly after a long-awaited reunion, and the locals he has surrounded himself with for the past seven years betray him, leaving him to his own devices against a notorious outlaw.  You may not have heard of Danish director Kristian Levring, but you’ll recognise many of the cast – along with Mikkelsen there are fellow Bond alumni Eva Green and Jonathan Pryce, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Douglas Henshall, and a small but striking performance by no less than Eric Cantona.  It’s a lean, tense film with great performances throughout the cast – special mentions to Mikkelsen who is excellent as ever, but also to Green, who handles a difficult role exceptionally well.  The usual Western tropes – revenge, horses, the climatic shootout – are no less effective in a Danish film made in South Africa than they would be in a Hollywood production.  Reviews appear to be mixed with many correspondents bemoaning the films clichés, but surely their existence in a film made by someone outside the inner circle is a promising sign.

Wednesday saw the screening of Wild, which I wasn’t sure about seeing initially, but decided to go for based on Oscar buzz around Reese Witherspoon’s performance.  She plays Cheryl Strayed, a divorced drug addict who decides to hike 1000 miles solo on the Pacific Crest Trail, and we learn about her life so far in flashbacks along the way.  As you’d expect, most of the film is hung on Witherspoon’s performance, and she doesn’t disappoint, channelling the obvious talent which has already seen her win a Best Actress Oscar to produce a portrayal of a woman damaged by circumstance and her own decisions, both in the hiking sequences and in flashbacks which go back many years.  Obviously the film is a little thin on plot but worth seeing for its redemptive nature and for Witherspoon’s excellent performance – I would not be surprised to see her name on many Best Actress shortlists between now and February.

After that uplifting tale came In The Basement, bringing me back down to (below) Earth with a bump.  Simply put, this is a documentary about what Austrian people do in their basements, presumably to convince the world that not all of them are like Josef Fritzl.  The participants range from the fairly normal (model train set, drums, teenage hangout, tiny swimming pool) to the truly odd and disturbing.  There’s the middle-aged woman who has an endless line of unsettling, lifelike dolls of babies, and coos over them as if they were real, in scenes reminiscent of Dawn French’s character in Psychoville.  There’s the couple who are in an S&M relationship for whom, it is ominously explained, the basement is where the really nasty stuff (graphically shown) happens.  And there’s the nice-seeming elderly man who plays in a brass band, but likes to relax in his basement surrounded by his fellow players and his large collection of Nazi memorabilia.  The film is presented without narration, and in some sequences without any interaction at all from the participants, which means you sometimes don’t have enough information about them (one couple stand still surrounded by various scenes, including their bar) while the film lingers too long on others – the aforementioned Nazi and S&M couple being prime examples.  I wanted to hear more from certain people who only got a few minutes of screen time, but what we got instead were gratuitous long takes of people being tortured for their own pleasure, which leads me to wonder whether the point of this documentary was really to give a wide-ranging perspective or just to go for cheap thrills.  It was a noble experiment, but it very much came off as the latter.

Finally on Wednesday I attended the UK première of Whiplash.  I’m happy to admit I knew nothing about this film until I got the programme.  Upon attending the festival preview, where we got a brief clip, I immediately decided I wanted to see this film, and I’m so glad I did as it’s been my highlight so far. It’s the story of a young jazz drumming protégé, Neyman (Miles Teller), his brutal teacher Fletcher (JK Simmons) and the lengths people will go to in order to be, discover and mould truly brilliant artists from raw talent.  The film is structured much like a thriller and is steeped in a clear love of jazz and music – it’s based on director Damien Chazelle’s own experiences – but is never inaccessible, the musical jargon employed is explained and demonstrated perfectly.  We’ve seen Simmons as the tyrannical boss in Spider-Man, but this performance is on another level – blistering and searing, Fletcher looms over the whole film even when he’s not on screen, driving Neyman to practise until his fingers bleed.  Even up against Simmons’ Oscar-worthy performance, Miles Teller more than holds his own as the talented young drummer who is obsessed with perfecting his craft.  It all builds to an exhilarating climax which is filmed so wonderfully that it is more heart-pumping than any film about jazz has the right to be.  No wonder it took the Audience Award at Sundance this year – I would be very surprised if that’s the only accolade it ends up with.

foxcatcherThursday saw just one film – the UK première of Foxcatcher, another true story about brothers and Olympic gold medallist wrestlers Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum – yes, that one) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo).  Mark is the younger brother and feels overshadowed by Dave, until he is offered a chance by John du Pont (Steve Carrell) to train at the Foxcatcher facility in du Pont’s enormous, inherited estate.  Du Pont is not a self made man, and the shadow of his elderly mother looms large in his life; he desperately wants to impress her by training a wrestling team for the World Championships and Olympics, led by Mark.  He wants Dave on the team as well, but Dave initially resists, puzzling du Pont as he is unable to buy something for once.  I don’t want to give away too much; although this is a true story, try not to read about it before you see this film.  Instead, let’s focus on the three performances from Carrell, Ruffalo and Tatum (Vanessa Redgrave and Sienna Miller make brief appearances, but this is primarily a film about sporting relationships).  Ruffalo is excellent as the warm, steady older brother Dave, but you knew that anyway.  Tatum is a great surprise as the overshadowed younger brother who is in many ways his own worst enemy.  But the real revelation is Carrell, an actor known primarily for his comedy roles.  If you’ve seen The Way, Way Back, you already know he is a convincing jerk.  But this is a performance on another level – barely recognisable under a raft of prosthetics and reptilian false teeth, he excels as the other man who can’t escape the shadow of an older family member.  He’s unpredictable, celebrating a win with his team one moment and them firing a gun in the gym the next.  He’s a truly terrifying creation – a man who has never known what it’s like to not have what he wants, and you wait nervously to find out how he reacts.  Again, all three performances here could be Oscar worthy, even Channing Tatum (yes, that one).

That’s all for today.  Join me in a few days as I conclude this year’s LFF with reviews including Love is Strange, Kill Me Three Times and Fury.

The Week In Film – 12 September 2014: Farewell Jaws, hello Batmobile

Welcome to the Week In Film!  No Steve this week, as he’s holding epic house parties in his gran’s flat in Marbella.  No, really.  Instead, Carole Petts takes you through the week’s news.

by Carole Petts (@DeathByJigsaws)

270px-Jaws_(Richard_Kiel)_-_Profile

Richard Kiel Passes Away at 74

First up, some very sad news that one of the truly great Bond henchmen has left us.  Richard Kiel, who played Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, has died a few days before his 75th birthday.  The gargantuan actor was also famous for his role in Happy Gilmore, and was a regular on the convention circuit.  Even though he is turned into something approaching comedy relief in Moonraker, he was a genuinely menacing presence in The Spy Who Loved Me, and was an actor who used his imposing physicality to great effect.  He will be sadly missed.

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Guns? Where we’re going, we won’t need…oh

Zack Snyder revealed the new Batmobile in full this week.  It’s a slightly more evolved version of the Tumbler, and Batman purists won’t be pleased to learn it has a small arsenal on the grill.  But it’s a Snyder film – wanton destruction is guaranteed.  The issue of not being able to see a dammed thing out of that windscreen remained unaddressed at the time of publication.  Somewhat less staged was the reveal of an X-wing fighter and a partially-built Millennium Falcon on the set of Star Wars Episode VII by a flight school in Berkshire.

A feeling of Dredd

Owen will be particularly excited to hear that there is a possible second Dredd film on the way – but it will be a prequel.  Speaking at Chicago Comic-Con, Dredd himself (or Karl Urban, as is his civilian name) said: “Why yes, there is a definite possibility. But, it is more likely that we will do the origins story with Dredd trekking through the cursed earth to find the first Chief Judge Fargo.”  Sounds exciting, and let’s face it, it will be a refreshing change from the endless conveyor belt of sequels we are currently being subjected to.  It’s also really good to hear we are getting a second Dredd film at all, as the excellent reboot scored a respectable but not groundbreaking box-office total of $41m worldwide.

Mass Hysteria

And finally, disciples gathered in Toronto to celebrate the inaugural Bill Murray Day on September 6 (personally I feel every day should be Bill Murray Day, but there you go).  The great man held court on the subject of the recently-mooted all-female Ghostbusters 3, and gave the project his blessing.  Also in Toronto, there have been good reviews for Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything and Nightcrawler, middling reviews for Jon Stewart’s directorial debut Rosewater, and pretty bad reviews for Anna Kendrick musical The Last Five Years.  But altogether it seems to have been a decent year for the festival.

Join us again next week, where we will return to give us another round up of the latest in film news. 

BFI London Film Festival 2014 Preview

It’s that time of year again – the bathroom light has to go on in the morning, loads of good American TV shows start again, and Christmas tat is starting to appear in the shops. Yes, autumn is on the way, and with it comes the 58th London Film Festival.

by Carole Petts (@DeathByJigsaws)

lff14My initial reaction to this year’s line-up – once I had grumbled about the member’s launch being a day later than the press launch, rendering it invalid for the most part – was how many big names are missing. No room for The Theory of Everything, St Vincent (the film, not the singer), or The Equalizer; all making their Toronto debuts this week. But scratching beneath the surface yields some treasure.

First up, let’s deal with the obvious contenders. I am looking forward to Foxcatcher very much – directed by Bennett Miller of Capote and Moneyball, the film stars Steve Carrell in a rare serious role alongside Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo. Loosely based on a true story, the film follows the struggle between two wrestling champion brothers (Tatum and Ruffalo) which takes a sinister turn with the arrival of a mysterious benefactor (Carrell). Foxcatcher received stellar notices when it premiered in Cannes earlier this year and has also been prominently mentioned in early Oscar buzz. Other big hitters include The Imitation Game, the long-awaited Alan Turing biopic which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the tortured mathematical genius, and Fury, a World War 2 film from David Ayer (End of Watch) starring Brad Pitt. These open and close the festival respectively, and will be shown at cinemas across the country in tandem with their gala screenings. Mr Turner features an already award-winning performance by Timothy Spall as the titular JMW Turner, and LFF also hosts the directorial debut of Jon Stewart – Rosewater is the story of an Iranian journalist covering the country’s political unrest in 2009 who gets on the wrong side of the establishment.

Gala screenings I am looking forward to include The Salvation, a Danish western (!) starring Mads Mikkelsen and, bizarrely, Eric Cantona; Whiplash, a story about the relationship between a musical prodigy and his virtuoso teacher which is audaciously structured like a thriller; and The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom, a wuxia starring Fan Bingbing as a witch fighting to free people from tyranny during the end of the Ming Dynasty.

the immitation game

In the official competition, the film that stands out is Dearest – the story of a couple whose lives are turned upside down when their son goes missing. One of the most eagerly anticipated films in the first feature competition is ’71, set in the streets of Belfast during the titular year and starring Jack O’Connell (Starred Up) as a wet behind the ears squaddie dispatched to keep the peace.

The documentary strand has yielded some interesting prospects. There are familiar subjects in Hockey: A Life in Pictures, National Gallery, and The Possibilities Are Endless (the story of Edwyn Collins after his stroke), and a step into the unknown with In The Basement – a film about what Austrians do – yes! – in their basements. The love strand has one particular film of interest to me – Love is Strange, starring John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as a couple forced to leave their apartment separately. This film has gathered some notoriety in the States for being rated R for no apparent reason, apart from its central relationship being a homosexual one.night bus

1001 Grams is an intriguing-looking slice of dark humour, and Night Bus explores the sometimes intimate, sometimes scary, but always intriguing world of the London night bus (shout out to route N1). A Hard Day is described as a neo-noir slice of Korean cinema, following a policeman who is having a really bad day. The follow-up to Monsters, Monsters: Dark Continent, had more creatures in the trailer than in the whole of the previous film put together, so that bodes well. There are also restored classic films scattered throughout the programme, from Orwell’s Animal Farm to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Guys and Dolls. And of course, the legendary shorts programmes are back, spanning all strands and giving you plenty of bang for your buck.

So although at first glance the line-up looks a bit light, a proper dissection of the schedule reveals that there is something for everyone here. The beauty of LFF has always lain in taking a chance and seeing something you would never normally buy a ticket for. I think this year will see a return to that essence for many people.

We will of course be bringing you reviews and diary entries during the festival itself, so don’t forget to check back between 8-19 October 2014 for more articles! You can find a full line up of what’s showing at the LFF 2014 on the BFI website.

Guardians of the Galaxy

“Undeniably an origin story but it works so well I would have been happy to sit through a sequel there and then.”

by Carole Petts (@DeathByJigsaws)

gotg2I must admit to being slightly apprehensive about this film. Even Marvel Studios, the behemoth responsible for most of the box office take since 2008, seem to have got ants in their pants about this film – we’ve had a more formulaic trailer, a tagline change (from the smart-arse “You’re Welcome” to the schmaltzy “All Heroes Start Somewhere”) and tonight I’m sitting in Crawley, as part of a nationwide premiere event presumably designed to get social media buzz a-going.

They needn’t have worried. From the credits sequence (Marvel’s only to date, and therefore the best by default), it’s clear this is going to be a winner.

The film is essentially the origin story of the titular band of misfits; a thief (Chris Pratt), an Ent (voiced by Vin Diesel), a creature who looks an awful lot like a raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a green-skinned living weapon (Zoe Saldana), and a chap who wouldn’t look out of place in a wrestling match watched by Doctor Who (Dave Bautista). They are thrown together in the pursuit of a mysterious MacGuffin which could make them all rich. Problem is, others also want said object for nefarious reasons of their own, and the stage is set for an interstellar jousting match between good and evil.

Guardians is immediately up against it because the group are, to be frank, not Marvel’s best known commodities. It’s difficult to remember a time when the cinema-going public at large didn’t know much about Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, but they did at least have a large following devoted to their source material before laying waste to multiplexes. Guardians doesn’t really have that luxury, and also has to introduce (and make us care about) five whole characters in one film. As a result we are given crib notes on each character’s past – Peter Quill’s tenure on Earth lasts mere minutes in the film before he’s abducted, most of the other back stories are explained in a few sentences, but you still end up caring about them. (This can be said less about the antagonists of the film – we are introduced to the baddies and told they want to destroy stuff without ever really being told why.)

In a Q&A this evening, James Gunn said that Guardians of the Galaxy may be “the most James Gunn film ever”. The fact that he’s accomplished this on a major studio’s tentpole release, rather than the low-budget fare he has made his name with, is nothing short of amazing. The film looks wonderful, bringing to life alien otherworlds and star systems with the visual flair of a much more accomplished director at this level. The script zips along with Gunn’s trademark vim and vigour, albeit slightly sanitised for his newly-found PG-13 audience. Everyone involved is clearly having a lot of fun; Pratt brings his likeable everyman persona to a leading role for the first time and succeeds hugely, Saldana is quiet but pulls out some excellent fighting technique when required; Cooper channels the most smart-arse New York cab driver you could ever meet, and hits the emotional mark more frequently than you’d expect from a talking rodent. Even Diesel brings the vocal pathos he first displayed in The Iron Giant to Groot, infusing a talking tree with warmth and humour. The real revelation, however, is wrestler Bautista as Drax, a man with a sad story to tell. He takes his time but eventually becomes the source of some rich comedy (standing up to accomplished laugh merchant Pratt with ease), as well as some surprisingly emotional moments. It’s the interplay between the five characters which makes this such a fun watch. It does mean that other characters are under-served as a result of developing this chemistry – Benicio del Toro and Glenn Close are woefully underused in their roles, and Ronan the Accuser probably has a good reason for his scheme, but we never find out what it is. The biggest disappointment is probably Thanos – who seems to have been rendered with the leftover CG money that wasn’t used to make Rocket and Groot look amazing. It’s an incongruous appearance from one of the great all-time Marvel baddies and doesn’t really serve the story at all.

This is very much an origin story. I got the same feeling walking out of this film as I did walking out of X-Men – that of the start of the story being told very well, but also feeling that there were greater things to come. And despite being slightly rushed at times, this is a great origin story, setting up the group of misfits as an entity currently separate from the rest of the Marvel Universe (save a couple of Easter eggs thrown in for those who are paying attention) and thoroughly deserving of their own adventures. I would have happily sat through a sequel right then and there, I had so much fun in the universe that Gunn has created. And I can’t wait to go back.

Guardians of the Galaxy is out in cinemas nationwide on Thursday 31st July 2014.

Carole is the latest permanent edition to the Failed Critics Podcast team and can usually be found roaming the streets of London on the look out for unwanted Nic Cage DVD’s. Or on twitter.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

 

 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Captain America: The Winter Soldier

By Carole Petts

 

I liked the first Captain America. I mean, I really liked it. The attempt at welding a war film onto a modern superhero popcorn flick was appreciated because they got so much right – capturing the essence of Steve Rogers and summoning memories of Raiders of the Lost Ark into the bargain. But I fully appreciate that this isn’t a view shared by everyone. If you’re one of those people, the good news is that we’ve got the obligatory origin story out of the way now. The better news is that this film replaces the war component with an espionage thriller, with largely successful results. The even better news is it may well be the most important Marvel film to date.

Captain America was a little underused in Avengers if I’m honest. Maybe that was because he was the last Avenger to get his own standalone film, but I felt he was often relegated to comic relief for not understanding present day references. If you’ve seen the deleted scenes you’ll know that there was originally a lot more focus on him having to adjust to modern life, and that these were cut for pacing but with a promise that the theme would be expanded in Winter Soldier. The problem with that is, he’s been in the modern world for a while now – long enough that he greets every new popular culture recommendation with a weary smile and a fresh entry in his notepad.

Not long enough, however, to fathom the extent to which liberty itself has been devalued. The film wastes little time in getting to the crux of the story – freedom has a high price, and S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t prepared to pay it in the present climate. Of course, this directly conflicts with the very notion of what Cap was created for, and it makes for an effective analogy in these NSA-monitored times. But this is nothing compared to what happens next – a betrayal of enormous proportions rips the organisation apart, and Cap must decide who of his new-found compatriots he can trust.

The main issue facing anyone writing a Captain America film is the same as that facing a Superman writer – the character is cinematically boring, someone who will never have a moral dilemma because you know he will always choose the right path. Winter Soldier sensibly averts this problem by pairing Rogers with a strong ensemble cast who bring a moral flexibility – and therefore a welcome uncertainty – to proceedings. Even if we know he will always do the right thing, the same can’t be said of Black Widow or Nick Fury. Alongside the regulars is Falcon, a character familiar to Captain America readers and one who, I must confess, I wasn’t sure would work in this setting but absolutely does. This is due in large part to a winning performance by Anthony Mackie who brings a healthy dose of humour and sarcasm to proceedings.

There’s no getting around the fact that the less you know about the film, the more you will enjoy it. There are certain items that stuck in the craw a bit – the villain reveal was a bit silly to my mind, and its daftness will almost certainly be chalked up to being in the original comic storyline (it isn’t). Happily the ramifications are much, much greater than the mechanism itself, and this is swiftly forgotten in the ensuing political melee. There is a box-ticking final 20 minutes of fighting. Cap’s new helmet makes his ears stick out and he looks stupid. And his discovery of the Winter Soldier’s identity is dragged out a little long for my liking, despite the actor and character being prominently displayed in advertising up to this point and also the fact that this is a faithful translation of the story arc (I should point out that my non-comic reading partner thought this was well-paced though, so this may have been impatience on my part).

It sounds like I didn’t enjoy this film. That’s not the case. I loved it. But I can’t tell you why, because it would spoil the myriad twists and surprises that Winter Soldier has in store. If you’re not a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you might enjoy it anyway for the mix of action and espionage. If you are a fan, you can’t afford to miss it because the reverberations from this film will echo around the MCU for a good while…and you should definitely not leave before the lights go up.

 
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.

London Film Festival Diary: Only Lovers Left Alive, Exhibition, and Don Jon

In her final London Film Festival Diary for this year, Carole Petts gets to spend some time with a vampiric Tom Hiddleston and a porn-addicted Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Only Lovers Left AliveAfter the emotional fallout of Friday, I was ready for some more light-hearted fare on Saturday, but unfortunately I had chosen to see Love Will Conquer All, a collection of short films in the Love strand of the festival.  I can’t really put it any better than the description from the BFI website: “Eight short films examining an assortment of expressions of affection, from first love to unrequited love to unconditional love. With additional heartbreak, lust and resentment thrown in for good measure.”  Particular favourites of mine were Orbit Ever After, a film about first love with only the small matter of being in separate spaceships to contend with; The Phone Call, a harrowing piece starring Sally Hawkins and Jim Broadbent about a crisis centre worker and the person on the end of her line; and Out Of Darkness, a black and white film with nine different actors all telling a singular story of loss and heartbreak.

On to Saturday evening and the gala of Only Lovers Left Alive, a vampire film by Jim Jarmusch.  After the obvious excitement of walking past Tom Hiddleston on the red carpet (a very well put-together man) we settled in for what I was convinced was going to be a dryly humourous, vaguely satirical meditation on vampiric folklore as is per Mr. Jarmusch’s usual way.  Boy, was I surprised.

First of all, this film is hilarious – actually laugh-out-loud funny in parts, even though the humour is as dark as you would expect from a Jarmusch film about nocturnal, blood-sucking creatures.  A large part of this is down to the excellent lead performances from Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton (one of my heroines) as the titular lovers, and small but excellent performances by the supporting cast, including John Hurt and Jarmusch alumni Jeffrey Wright.  At the same time, the film plays out at a slow, dreamlike pace with very little in the way of plot – but as is so often the case with Jarmusch’s films, simply being in its universe is entertaining enough.

The film smartly avoids clichés from the genre.  These are modern vampires where blood must come from hospitals and willing doctors – “this is the 21st century…you can’t just make people disappear anymore”.  In fact I don’t actually remember the word vampire being used – and in a nice little twist the living are referred to as zombies, sleepwalking through their lives.  The film is also a love letter to Detroit – its rise as the centre of America and its swift decline.  The dilapidated city is shown in all its haunting glory at night, and the film is beautifully shot and designed both aurally and visually – a true treat for the gothic lovers among us.

If you’re looking for a love story with a healthy shot of jet-black humour, you could certainly do worse than this film.

Finally – Sunday brought my final two showings, the first of which was Exhibition, the latest from British director Joanna Hogg.  Exhibition follows an artist couple who are planning on selling their modernist house – it is suggested (although never explicitly explored) that there has been a traumatic event in or around the building which has been the catalyst for this decision.  There is a distance between the couple – they both work in the house and communicate by telecom.

I am a fan of Hogg’s sparse, static, fly-on-the-wall style of film-making but I can fully understand why it’s not to everyone’s taste.  As with all her films, the nub of the story is left unsaid, which can be frustrating but adds to the feeling of being an observer – you would never fully explain a previous incident during an argument in real life.  This won’t win any new converts but for fans of Hogg it’s another triumph of realistic drama, which may need time to think about afterwards.

Last but not least, the evening brought my festival to a close with Don Jon, the directorial debut of Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  JGL also wrote and starred in the film as the titular Jon, a bartender who is frequently out on the prowl for women, and a porn addict to boot.  His life seems to change when he meets Barbara (Scarlet Johannson) who has her own ideas about the perfect relationship.

I get the feeling that Don Jon is trying to say something about the way that women and men interact, and how that is changed by the consumption of media by both sexes.  It succeeds to an extent, but there is never really a powerful moment that makes this point hit home.  There are plenty of attempts, and by no means is the fault left purely at the male door – a mundane exchange in a DIY store lays bare the fact that women are as prone to artificial, media-instilled fantasy as the man who can only be satisfied in front of his MacBook.

The ending felt a little forced, but the film is snappily directed by JGL, and frequently hilarious.  As a first-time outing it’s very promising, but with a word of warning – it would probably make uncomfortable viewing for a first date.

That’s it for this year.  I’ve had a great time this past couple of weeks, and I look forward to seeing what LFF has in store for us next year.  Thank you for reading.

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

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

London Film Festival Diary: Gravity and Clint Mansell

We’re very pleased and proud to present our latest contributor, Carole Petts. Unlike the rest of us she lives in London and is able to report back from this year’s London Film Festival.

Gravity Sandra BullockThis is my third year in attendance at the London Film Festival, and every year it feels somehow bigger. Last year the festival literally did grow, taking the events outside of their natural West End/South Bank dwellings and putting on screenings in places such as Hackney and Islington. However it also contracted; shortening from three weeks to under two. This makes it pretty difficult for even the most committed film-goer to cram in all the screenings they would like to take in, and makes the annual post-launch appointment with the planner and highlighter even more fraught.

This year matters were not in any way helped by the total failure of BFI’s payment system on the first morning of the members sale, leading to much anguish and, for myself, a near three-hour queue on the South Bank for tickets. Happily this ended with me getting all the tickets I had planned for, and this has made the experiences so far even sweeter.

My festival started on Thursday night with a late addition to the programme – an entry in BAFTA’s regular Masterclass strand with the composer Clint Mansell. I’m a big fan of Darren Aronofsky, so the chance to see this talk with his musical collaborator was one I couldn’t turn down. Clint was excellent value for money and whoever took it upon themselves to put a bottle of red wine on the table deserves a pat on the back – he was slightly nervous at the start but a couple of glasses seemed to put him much more at ease. Clint spoke frankly about his lack of formal musical training and how the partnership with Aronofsky has blossomed through both of them trying to figure out what they were doing in their respective roles, sometimes by means of trial and error. I did get to ask him a question and he gave a very expansive answer, including the fact that Lux Aeterna (aka the song for the X-Factor, or as Clint put it “the song that bought my house”) was originally written for a project long before Requiem for a Dream.

Friday night was quite literally a big one – the gala screening of Gravity had taken place at Leicester Square the night before, but I decided instead to see it on the biggest screen in Britain – the BFI IMAX. Event organiser Stuart Brown stated in his introduction that this had been the hottest ticket of the festival and that he’d had to turn down many famous names who had called asking for tickets. Director Alfonso Cuarón had been holding a Screen Talk at the NFT just before our showing, so he popped in to personally introduce the film.

I’d like to point out that I am not particularly enthusiastic about 3D films. I think most of the time it is superfluous and a cynical way of charging more for a ticket. The exceptions to the rule, in my opinion, are Avatar (regardless of your view on the film, you cannot argue that it was a huge step forward in the use of 3D) and Life of Pi, which I felt was the best use of the technology to give depth to landscape until now. Gravity joins this shortlist as one of the few films I feel has made use of 3D to deliver a cinematic experience which is breathtaking in both its ambition and achievement.

You probably know the synopsis already – Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are two astronauts on their first and last missions respectively. Disaster strikes when their shuttle is destroyed, and they are tied only to each other in the vast expanses of space. It’s much better if that’s all you know going in – even the destruction of the shuttle is different to the one depicted in the stunning, one-shot trailer, and the film is all the better for it. Bullock gives an excellent performance as the rookie who ends up in the first situation any astronaut is trying to avoid, and Clooney is, well, he’s standard George Clooney – witty and smooth, without some of the irritating smarmy qualities that can come through in his performance sometimes. Gravity is a nerve-shredding film that switches pace with ease, and succeeds in conveying both the sheer vastness and the contradictory, terrifying claustrophobia of space. See it in 3D, on the biggest screen you can find, from November 8th.

Finally in this entry comes my annual viewing of shorts. Due to the dedication of the animated shorts this year to children’s films – because they clearly don’t get enough of them during the year – I’m seeing two strands this year: Love and Laugh, which was the subject of last night’s The Best Medicine. Highlights from the selection included Penny Dreadful, a film about a child kidnapping going horribly wrong which reminded me a lot of Seven Psychopaths (hey, I enjoyed it); Things He Never Said, a hilarious wish-fulfilment fantasy where a man tells his girlfriend what he really thinks; and Talking Dog For Sale 10 Euro, where a man finds the titular advert in a coffee shop and decides to ignore his own misgivings. Some of the shorts didn’t quite work – the audience sat in baffled silence during Drunker Than A Skunk, a strange animated poem – but the beauty of short films is that there’ll be something else along in a moment which will probably be more your cup of tea.

That’s it for this week! Join me next week when my festival (and wardrobe) really gets going with gala screenings of Parkland, 12 Years A Slave, the always hotly-anticipated Surprise Film (last year was Silver Linings Playbook; this year my money is on The Butler or Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) and my own personal highlight, Only Lovers Left Alive, as well as Don Jon, Exhibition and the Love shorts.

See you next week!

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