The Sacrament (Ti West, 2013)
Ti West, the man the festival brochures like to call the king of slow-burn horror, has been promoted (possibly not the right word) from FrightFest to full London Film Festival status for his latest film. A non-supernatural cult horror largely inspired by, though not specifically based on, the Jonestown massacre, it’s a found footage film, which may have you moaning already.
The found footage is presented in the manner of The Last Exorcism rather than The Blair Witch Project, in that it’s been edited – sometimes in such a way as to suggest there were more cameramen available than the script leads us to believe – and given a suitably doomy score.
The film follows two reporters from Vice ,which I was surprised to learn is actually a real thing, into a remote hippy-ish cult, which the sister (Amy Seimetz of Upstream Color) of a friend has joined. Initially, all seems like peace and love, despite the armed guards at the gate. But things take a sinister turn once the reporters start asking questions of the cult leader, Father (Gene Jones).
I greatly enjoyed West’s last two films, The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers; unfortunately, The Sacrament didn’t work so well for me. Part of that was down to my expectations – I had anticipated that Eden Parish would hold a supernatural secret, and was disappointed that the threat turned out to be more prosaic. That, of course, is my problem rather than the film’s. The real flaw is that, having arrived at the camp, the leads’ subsequent actions have basically no effect on what transpires. They run around filming, and do quite a bit of shouting, but fail to exert any influence on who lives and who dies. They can only observe, and hope not to get killed.
Perhaps that was West’s intended point, and what he saw as the true horror of the situation. It’s good to see him trying new subject matter and expand his range, but while The Sacrament includes individual moments that shock, it failed to move me as drama. Gareth Negus
The Sacrament is showing at the London Film Festival on Wednesday 16 October.
How We Used to Live (Paul Kelly, 2013)
A delightful, nostalgic impressionistic visual and aural portrait of London from the 1950s to the end of the 1970s, How We Used to Live is the latest work from director Paul Kelly in collaboration with members of the band Saint Etienne.
The montage of clips are drawn from films, of which almost all were government funded – films from the COI, or British Transport Films. The style is therefore familiar to anyone who has seen BFI re-releases of this material either on DVD or packaged for cinemas. What is less familiar is the playful, sometimes satiric way that the clips are juxtaposed with different bits of narration.
So footage of the police pursuing and arresting young black men is accompanied by a jovial voiceover assuring us that the policeman is everyone’s friend. In my favourite clip, recordings of schoolchildren sharing their hopes for the future is used to make the young Queen Elizabeth II appear to announce that she hopes to become a fighter pilot.
With any work such as this, my favourite clips tend to be those drawn from the early 1970s – it’s endlessly fascinating to think that the world looked this different when I was actually alive. In fact, a section of the film themed around Christmas includes a clip of a Wind in the Willows display at Selfridges that I recall visiting as a child.
Saint Etienne’s music has often had a sense of nostalgia about it, evoking an England that seemed to exist when we were younger. It may be a coincidence, but even the title of this film evokes the long-running schools TV drama series of the same name. The film is not educational in the same way; if you’re looking for actual facts about how people used to live, this should not be your first stop. But it celebrates the experience of living in a changing, vibrant city, and does so in a highly entertaining way. Gareth Negus
Starred Up (David MacKenzie, 2013)
Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) has been starred up – promoted, because of his uncontrollable violent behaviour – from young offenders’ institutions to adult prisons before the age of 18. Once there, he finds himself pulled between three competing father figures: the volunteer counsellor (Rupert Friend) who runs his anger management group therapy sessions, the ruthless wing boss (Peter Ferdinando) and, in a twist to the formula, his actual father (Ben Mendelsohn), a lifer with no prospect of ever seeing the outside, a man who Eric hasn’t seen since he was five. All three men try for their own reasons, and using their own positions of power over Eric, to bring him into line. But Eric may well be beyond control – exceptionally intelligent and resourceful, but also filled with the anger and pain of a life of being abused and discarded.
For most of its running time, Starred Up is taut and vigorous, without any of the gratuitous straining for effect that has, for me, marred some of MacKenzie’s earlier films. Scriptwriter Jonathan Asser was himself a prison counsellor, and the film was shot completely within the walls of Belfast’s disused Crumlin Road jail – MacKenzie marshalls these raw materials to give his film a vivid ground-level view of prison life, absent the reaching for mythic grandeur of a film like Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, which it resembles in some ways.
O’Connell’s lead turn – intensely physical; powerful yet vulnerable – is the main event here. If you’ve seen him before in anything from Eden Lake to Skins, you’ll already know his charismatic brand of prideful, impenetrable hostility. Starred Up shows that he’s ready for primetime, not least now that he’s tamed his East Midlands vowels (the film is nominally set in a London prison and the Loves are cockneys, which O’Connell pulls off somewhat better than Mendelsohn, who is arguably overcast in a slightly bland role). Other performances are variable, usually, as in the case of the two senior prison warders, because the roles themselves ring hollow, but particular credit is due to the young black British actors who make up the other members of the therapy group (including David Ajala, Anthony Welsh and Ashley Chin).
Starred Up falters a bit in its final stretch. Its structure requires one of the three father figures to win the battle for Eric’s soul, and effectively fix the film’s meaning in retrospect. The details of the eventual resolution are contrived and melodramatic, but the real problem isn’t the ending that Asser and MacKenzie chose, it’s that it needs to exist. The power of their film flows from its immediacy, it’s presentness, not from its message. Indy Datta
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
I haven’t read Michel Faber’s 2001 novel, upon which Jonathan Glazer’s new film is based. Apparently it’s about an alien who preys on men, who are considered a tasty delicacy on her home planet. Whether the film is about the same thing is a bit of an open question.
Scarlett Johansson plays the unnamed lead character, who spends the first half of the film prowling Scotland seeking unwary men. When alone, she stares impassively ahead, eyes flicking from side to side like a terminator. When she spots a victim, she becomes friendly, initially asking for directions before establishing whether they will be immediately missed. Anyone accepting her offer of a lift is taken to a remote house, where they are lured into a strange, paralysing pool. But after an encounter with a disfigured young man, something changes in the creature. She abandons her mission, going on what amounts to a journey of discovery.
The film’s official synopsis establishes that Johansson is an alien, but this is never made clear in the film. We can infer it – just as we can infer what she needs all these men for, and what triggers her change in character – but it is never made explicit. Similarly, we don’t know how much control she has over her own actions. There is a motorcycle-riding man on hand who clears up evidence of her crimes, but it is unclear whether he works for her, or vice-versa.
It’s possible to imagine a more conventional film using the same basic outline. (I imagine that it would have been made in the UK in the 1970s, starring someone a lot less famous than Johansson, and probably directed by Norman J Warren.) But if you are happy to accept that traditional narrative is not what this film is offering, then there is a great deal to enjoy.
Though Glazer’s previous features – Sexy Beast and Birth – certainly looked good, I don’t recall them having the same surreal leanings on display here. Though just having Scarlett Johansson wandering around rain-sodden Scottish locations is actually quite surreal in itself (and while some familiar faces pop up in supporting roles, others were apparently non-actors unaware who they were talking to) there are many other images that embed themselves into the memory. The deaths of the alien’s victims are shot like some kind of bizarre performance art project, while the final sequence is possibly one of the most remarkable, and bizarrely beautiful, I have seen in years. The atmosphere is enhanced considerably by Mica Levi’s creepy score.
This is a film that will infuriate at least as many as it enthrals. But while I understand why some would find it frustrating, it is also fascinating, and has stayed with me more than any other film I have seen this year. Gareth Negus
Saving Mr Banks (John Lee Hancock, 2013)
Not long after opening the 2013 London Film Festival with Captain Phillips, Tom Hanks is back to close it. But this time, he’s basically the support act to Emma Thompson, as she transforms into Maggie Smith before our very eyes.
Saving Mr Banks, the LFF’s closing night gala, is a biopic in the Rush mould; a story of a two people with very different temperaments clashing during one fairly short period of their lives, and ultimately coming to some kind of understanding.
The James Hunt equivalent is Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, while Emma Thompson steps into Niki Lauda’s role as Mary Poppins author Pamela Travers; the backdrop against which their fractious relationship is explored is the making of the film Mary Poppins. Just as Rush didn’t demand a knowledge of, or even interest in, the world of Formula 1, you don’t need to have seen Mary Poppins to enjoy this film. Which, in my case, is just as well.
The bulk of the film is based around Travers’ 1962 visit to Hollywood to discuss the script for Mary Poppins. Disney had been after the rights for 20 years, and Travers had finally weakened due to financial concerns. She held a long series of meetings with the films scriptwriter Don DaGradi, and songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman, which – at her own insistence – were recorded (an extract is played over the film’s closing credits). During these meetings, she denounced practically everything about the script, from the songs (and their very existence), to the size of the family’s house, to Mrs Banks being turned into “a silly suffragette”. When one of the Shermans asks if it really matters that Mr Banks has been given facial hair, he is sent from the room like a naughty schoolboy. When it reaches the point that she insists the colour red not appear in the film at all, you wonder why all concerned didn’t just put her on the first plane home.
Interspersed with Mrs Travers’ adventures in Hollywood are flashbacks to her Australian childhood, which explain the origins of the Poppins character, and why she is so important to Travers.
If there’s one thing that Hollywood loves, it’s films about filmmaking that make look Hollywood moguls look like decent human beings. So it is with this film, though you wouldn’t expect Disney to be behind a film that does anything other than portray Walt Disney as a virtual saint (albeit a smoker): a man who will pursue the rights to Travers’ books for 20 years to avoid breaking a promise to his daughters, and who honestly believes in Disneyland as the happiest place on Earth.
Others might grumble that the film rather sanitises the man, but as this isn’t a biopic of Disney I think we can forgive the film for skipping over some details. In fact, it’s the sort of story that Hollywood likes: about a damaged person learning to lighten up and rediscover the joys of life, just as Mr Banks himself must learn to do in Mary Poppins.
The main pleasures for the viewer comes from the smaller details: like Mrs Travers’ horror at the gaudy commercialised nature of Hollywood in general, and Disney in particular. While Thompson has form in the Nanny genre from the Nanny McPhee films, her performance, and its air of hauteur, more closely resembles Maggie Smith in… well, pretty much everything Maggie Smith does nowadays. Among the supporting cast, Paul Giamatti stands out as the permanently jolly driver assigned to assist Mrs Travers.
An unashamedly populist choice for the closing film, Saving Mr Banks is a cosy slice of Hollywood nostalgia that does an efficient job of tugging the heartstrings. It may have rather more than a spoonful of sugar, but that should help it find a receptive audience in cinemas over the Christmas period. Gareth Negus
Saving Mr Banks is released in the UK on Friday 29 November.