Queen of Katwe (2016)

There’s no shortage of varied string-tugging that goes on in this film, but surprisingly — for a triumph-against-the-odds narrative, for a Disney film, for a big Western-funded film production set in Africa — it does so without hitting the expected marks. As one example, there’s no orchestral score overwhelming the scenes at key moments (which is to say, there is a score, but my point is it doesn’t unduly ingratiate itself; the African pop music is more noticeable, and excellent). More importantly, there’s no white/European central character to channel a condescending understanding of the struggles the African characters face. The closest the film comes to such a figure is David Oyelowo’s university-educated coach, who lives a relatively middle-class life. That said, everyone in this film has and does struggle through poverty, and for a Disney film it does show a lot of that. It’s picturesquely shot, with plenty of vibrant colours, and despite the difficult lives of its characters there’s little reliance on some of the more overworn African film themes (there are some threatening characters, but no gang violence for example), and it gives its characters a chance at lives that aren’t just punchlines to the usual tropes of colonialist filmmaking. I wouldn’t call it perfect, and it’s definitely still a feel-good triumph-against-the-odds sports movie — even if the sport is chess — but for all that, it’s done well, with passion and with great acting from its three leads.

Queen of Katwe film posterCREDITS
Director Mira Nair; Writer William Wheeler (based on the non-fiction book by Tim Crothers); Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt; Starring Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Monday 24 October 2016.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

There have of course been American films that deal with its slave-owning legacy before, but this film directed by black British artist Steve McQueen feels somehow different. Perhaps it’s because previous films have more blatantly pandered to liberal white guilt, with their narratives focusing on those opposed to its practice amongst the nation’s (white) lawmakers — a route taken on several occasions by Steven Spielberg in particular, such as with the long-winded Amistad (1997) or Lincoln (2012). Then there’s Tarantino’s recent (and, shall we say, morally dubious) Django Unchained which pushes its story of slave and master into hyperbolic fantasia. 12 Years is still a story of slavery as a system from which escape is possible — it’s based on a true story and I hope, given the title, you won’t be surprised if I reveal the title character gains his freedom after 12 years — but in its telling illuminates plenty of appalling detail to this once most pervasive of practices.

The title character is one Solomon Northup, a musician living as a free man in New York state, who on a visit to Washington DC is abducted and sent to the south to be sold as a slave by Paul Giamatti’s trader, who off-handedly gives him a new name. Solomon’s first master is the relatively benign William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who works in the logging trade, and gives him a violin to play his music on. When Solomon provokes the ire of one of Cumberbatch’s (white) overseers, he is sold on to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a far more cruel man running a cotton plantation. There’s a brief season where Solomon goes off to a sugar cane plantation, before finally he is able to convince Canadian labourer Bass (played by a positively beatific Brad Pitt) that he is free and to get word to his friends in the north, thereby setting in motion the events that see Solomon released. The outcome of this story, though, is not really the key to the film (not least because the title reveals it), as it was hardly a turning point for the institution of slavery, and it’s that institution the reality of which the film is most at pains to get across.

It does this through the close focus on Solomon and those he works with, particularly the young Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), another slave owned by Epps, for whom, being born into slavery, there is little succour on offer. She does fairly well by her own wits at first, but the limitations of her severely curtailed position soon become clear — Epps’s fondness for Patsey is a source of discontent for his wife (Sarah Paulson), who ensures that Patsey is first in line for Epps’s rage. The film mounts up a series of disturbing punishments — whether the whipping of Patsey, or the attempted lynching of Solomon, who is left uncomfortably hanging by his neck in the mud, a scene which is drawn out to an almost excruciatingly degree.

I think it’s this scene that best shows off McQueen’s style, such as it is. It’s not a self-consciously show-offy directorial style (like that of Tarantino, say), but given the kind of story being told, that’s probably most appropriate. McQueen makes his point in this scene through a subtly shifting point of view over the course of just two sustained and carefully-composed shots. The first is a long take from in front of Solomon as he is cut down from the hanging tree, but only enough for his toes to be able to touch the muddy ground below. Slowly the other slaves start to come out from their huts and resume their work, all the time Solomon in the foreground is struggling to stay alive. It seems unconscionable, even within the context of their situation, but when at length (after a few minutes), McQueen cuts to a reverse view from behind Solomon, it becomes clear that the overseer is pacing watchfully about on the verandah. There are plenty of other scenes like this that make clear the slaves’ powerlessness; none of it is surprising of course, but the film’s tone doesn’t seem hectoring or angry — there’s scarcely any need to manipulate the audience’s feelings beyond merely depicting the circumstances of Solomon’s life. In this respect, the Hans Zimmer score is unusually underplayed, recalling some of the musical textures he explored in The Thin Red Line (1998).

It’s a serious film and, in its way, a beautiful one, though one wonders just what one should take away from it. The obvious fact of slavery’s reprehensibility as an institution is made here, and made well. Solomon may escape, but it’s as painfully clear to him as to us that most others in the situation do not share his circumstances or education, and have no hope for escape, just strategies for mitigating their suffering. Solomon is seen to draw on these during his ordeal, as his initially confident and headstrong demeanour is slowly ground down. However, it’s that very escape promised in the title that makes the film bearable to watch, though no less heartbreaking.

12 Years a Slave film posterCREDITS
Director Steve McQueen; Writer John Ridley (based on the autobiography by Solomon Northup); Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt; Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 12 January 2014.

Byzantium (2012)

It’s become obvious to me since starting this blog quite recently, that it’s important to engage with film at a wider level than just going to check out the latest multiplex offerings (though I shall continue doing that of course). One of the most vibrant expressions of film culture is the film festival, of which London, like all large cities, boasts a great variety.

Sci-Fi-London 12 This is now the 12th year of London’s Annual International Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Film, though they prefer to be known as the hyphen-happy Sci-Fi-London for short, not least because the annual festival is just one aspect of their ongoing engagement with this niche of film culture. However, the festival is the highlight of their calendar, and every year brings a diverse new crop of films that bear some relationship to the stated subject, though in a range of genres and styles, with quality ranging from the amateur to auteurist. It’s all enthusiastically brought together by possibly the most idiosyncratic and charismatic of festival directors, Louis Savy.

This year is no exception, and this opening night film was given an engaging intro by Louis, followed by a Q&A with the film’s producer Stephen Woolley, as well as its charming and eloquent writer Moira Buffini, and cast member Daniel Mays. Many of the other screenings also feature special guests. The festival runs until 6 May this year, split between the (very comfortable and pleasant) Stratford Picturehouse and the BFI Southbank.


FESTIVAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Sci-Fi-London || Director Neil Jordan | Writer Moira Buffini (based on her play A Vampire Story) | Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt | Starring Saoirse Ronan, Sam Riley, Gemma Arterton, Jonny Lee Miller | Length 118 minutes | Seen at Stratford Picturehouse, London, Tuesday 30 April 2013 || My Rating 3 stars good


© StudioCanal

Before I even start this review, can I just state, if it wasn’t already obvious to you, how spectacular the film poster is. It’s a gloriously eyecatching image featuring the titular hotel, which is ostensibly located on the Hastings seafront where most of the film is set. If the movie itself can’t possibly compete with this singular, gorgeously baroque vision, its images are still wonderfully striking, thanks to the work of Director of Photography Sean Bobbitt, who also recently worked on The Place Beyond the Pines (2013).

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The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Derek Cianfrance | Writers Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio and Darius Marder | Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt | Starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn | Length 140 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Thursday 25 April 2013 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Focus Features

I get the feeling that this is a film that’s a bit in love with itself, though I do tend to get that feeling whenever a running time greatly exceeds two hours. Thankfully, the extra investment of time is largely borne out by what’s on screen, with a few caveats that made me feel if anything that maybe a bit of extra time was needed. Maybe it should have been a mini-series. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a film of three distinct acts, the first two separated by a fairly short period of a year or two, the third taking place 15 years later. The central characters are Luke (played by Ryan Gosling) and Avery (played by Bradley Cooper), as well as their respective sons. Riding as a motorcycle stuntman in a travelling carnival show, Luke learns early on that he has a son with Romina (played by Eva Mendes), but when he tries to do what he thinks is the decent thing she resists his advances (she has already moved on), and he gets sucked into criminality. Avery enters the story later as a cop who gets mixed up in their relationship, and 15 years later their sons have to deal with the fallout. That’s really as much as I can say without giving away too much of the plot, but it’s essentially a ‘sins of the fathers’ scenario with added layers of class angst and existential yearning.

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