London Film Festival: Day Three Update

A round-up of some what’s been shown to date

Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, 2013)

The 57th BFI London Film Festival gets off to a cracking start with the Opening Gala screening of Captain Phillips. Adapted by Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) from the book “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea”, by Richard Phillips, telling the story of the hijacking of an American cargo ship; the first to be hijacked in 200 years, Captain Phillips sees Paul Greengrass behind the camera again for the first time since Green Zone in 2010.

Of course, adapting a film from the memoir of your lead character offers you some challenges as a filmmaking team, especially when working in the thriller genre. It’s harder to create suspense when the audience knows that when the ending comes, our main character is getting out of there alive. Greengrass dealt with the opposite problem, so brilliantly in United 93, when he took an ending we all knew all too well, and added swathes of raw, unavoidable human sorrow that made the film almost unbearable, so it should come as no surprise that Captain Phillips has an answer for the problem, by subtly subverting the traditional thriller structure.

That it can do so, so effectively, is largely down to a terrific central performance from Tom Hanks, who has never been better than he is here. It’s such a vanity-free performance from Hanks. Phillips’ heroism is certainly not obvious, nor the type that is traditionally sought out by Hollywood stars. In fact, in Hanks’ hands, Phillips is not a particularly likable character, phlegmatic to a fault, and hard on the men under his command. The majority of his actions are not motivated by a desire to be a hero, and as aspects of his character slip away in front of our eyes, his performance doesn’t waver at all.

He’s ably supported by a cast of mostly unknowns, with Barkhad Abdi as the leader of the skeleton crew of Somali pirates who board the ship, given the most rounded supporting character to work with, and impressing. It’s a tour-de-force performance, though, and in spite of Hanks’ unselfishness as an actor, it’s still almost impossible to take your eyes from him. With any justice, he’ll be a strong contender for an unprecedented third Best Actor Oscar come late February. Ron Swanson

The Story of My Death  (Albert Serra, 2013)

By all accounts, Catalan arthouse provocateur Albert Serra’s latest film (the first I have seen) shows evidence of a certain mellowing. But given the forbidding reputation of his previous films, that leaves plenty of room for The Story of My Death to alienate all but the most dedicated audiences, and so it proves.

The title is an inversion of the title of Giacomo Casanova’s memoir, “The Story of My Life” – Serra’s conceit is to bring Casanova, presented here as a key figure of the Enlightenment, into contact with Count Dracula, presented as epitomising the romantic and gothic counterimpulses to Enlightenment rationality. The film’s narrative is split into two. In the first half, Casanova (Vicenç Altaió) gets to know his new manservant (Lluís Serat), across many meandering scenes covering such incidents as: Casanova deciding to compile a dictionary of cheese and Casanova voiding a really impacted shit while giggling like a hyena for the duration of a single shot lasting several minutes. It’s hard to see where this is going for the first hour and more, and the ugly, rudimentarily composed, HD images don’t help.

Matters improve when the two men leave Casanova’s French chateau to travel in the southern Carpathian mountains, where they take board with a childless farming couple and their two maidservants (one of whom Casanova schtups enthusiastically in a window, giggling like a hyena, until he accidentally headbutts a window pane out). To start with, things in the mountains are more or less as they were back in France – the time is mostly taken up by Casanova expounding on his rationalist theories to anyone who will listen (or, alternatively, just giggling like a hyena for minutes on end for no reason). But an undercurrent of seething menace seeps into the film when an ox is slaughtered and butchered with great ceremony by the locals, and Eliseu Huertas’s Dracula enters the film, and sets out to seduce the farmer’s wife and the maidservants. This last stretch of the film is still filled with longueurs and inconsequentiality, but the left turn into genre also brings out the showman in Serra, and a palpable dark decadence becomes the film’s dominant flavor, much helped by Huertas’s unnervingly animalistic interpretation of Dracula. And in the dark, even the chronically undercooked cinematography shows moments of explosive expressiveness. It’s hard, though, to shake off the feeling that Serra isn’t saying anything novel here (this is prime Lynch territory), and his strawmanning of enlightenment rationality (his Casanova acts out like every supernaturalist’s wet dream of the psychopathic materialist – and is also an aspiring alchemist! (read capitalist)) is bluntly silly.  Indy Datta.

Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, 2013) and Nebraska (Alexander Payne, 2013)

Two more high-profile tickets in the first couple of days are Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, both of which exceeded my expectations.

In the case of Gravity, those expectations could not have been much higher. The film has been written about before on here by another of our esteemed contributors, so I won’t say much beyond a general urge to see the film on as big a screen, with as good a soundsystem in as many dimensions as is humanly possible. It’s a tremendous ride.

Nebraska is the film that it feels Alexander Payne was born to make. Wilfully small, and occasionally sneering, it has elements of both About Schmidt and Sideways front and center, yet it would be as a counterpoint to his last film, the slow-burning The Descendants that it would fit best.

Both films deal with a loss just around the corner, but while The Descendants was awash with colour, a glorious setting and star-power, Nebraska is a black and white film about a grumpy, slightly senile old man (Bruce Dern) travelling from Montana to Nebraska to claim the million-dollar prize he can’t be convinced is only a scam. He’s joined by his son (the brilliant and talented Will Forte), but out of a sense of duty, rather than anything more romantically familial.

While The Descendants is an achingly sad film (contrasting neatly with its surface), Nebraska is very funny indeed. Payne’s juxtaposition of tone against visual signifiers is a cheap trick, but his films have never been as high-minded as they’ve been portrayed, and what he’s made is a slow-moving but fairly scabrous comedy, with some terrific performances and some absolutely gorgeous cinematography. Ron Swanson

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (Hong Sang Soo, 2013)

Hong Sang Soo has spent the best part of two decades ostensibly making different versions of the same film, wistful romantic farces about the alcohol-fuelled troubles of failed academics, failed film makers, or (as in the case of one character here) failed-film-makers-turned-failed-academics, which undercut their surface modesty with sophisticated structural tricksiness, and which tend to look richer in the rear view mirror.

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon is not in any way a departure from Hong’s past work. Presented as a series of episodes from the title character’s point of view that could be diary entries or could be dreams  (we see her waking up from the book she has fallen asleep in more than once), it’s the story of a Korean acting student who is dealing with the departure for Canada of her cold and distant mother, her failure to commit to her college life or studies, and the aftermath of an affair with her film teacher. As is customary for Hong, all these episodes are rendered in the same penny-plain visual style, whole scenes being staged in single static medium group shots (this is long-take cinema as the opposite of showboating), with inconveniently moving characters often covered by jarring pans and zooms. It’s a style that perilously walks the line between faux-naïve and naïve, but it has its function here in obscuring the reliability of Haewon’s point of view.

As is customary for Hong, the episodes repeat each other in small ways and large (different characters repeat certain lines; a Beethoven symphony plays on the soundtrack in one scene, and in a cheesy muzak version on a cassette player in others – in fact deployed by one character to diegetically soundtrack specific emotional moments he is trying to create). The cyclical repetitiousness speaks to a fatalism in Hong’s work – the surface lightness of his films can’t disguise his essential pessimism about the potential for meaning in human relationships, and there’s an anxiety about personal authenticity running through Nobody’s Daughter Haewon which isn’t entirely kind to its title character.

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon is not the strongest film I have seen by Hong Sang Soo – so it is slightly odd that this is his first film to be picked up for general UK distribution. And it’s a shame that, given this fact, the English subtitles are so dodgy.

Hong has another film in the festival, Our Sunhi, which I am also hoping to review. Indy Datta.

The Congress (Ari Folman, 2013)

One final recommendation comes in the form this trippy head-fuck of a movie which made me feel like I’d necked a whole bottle of cough-syrup before falling asleep for an hour, an hour into a three hour double feature. In a good way. It’s a more interesting cinematic experience than Folman’s terrific debut, Waltz With Bashir, and definitely worth a watch, for Robin Wright’s soulful, brilliant performance, if nothing else. Ron Swanson

2 thoughts on “London Film Festival: Day Three Update

  1. What I’d really like to see is a film about a hijicking from the pirates point of view. Not from liberal guilt, but because it would be way more exciting; whizzing up to this vast container ship in flimsy little boats at dead of night…

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