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.


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).

The two films share more similarity than just the cinematographer, though. They both have a certain epic grandeur to their storytelling; after all, in its title Byzantium references the ancient Greek city (now Istanbul) and its empire, just as the other film’s title references the rich traditions of Native American storytelling. Such epic qualities in this film are only enhanced by the settings, from the crumbling, decadent hotel of the poster with its striking wrought-iron lift, to the dilapidated pier grimly overpowering the concrete seafront walkway, and ultimately the wild and crashing seas of the primaeval island setting (this last filmed not in Hastings, but on the western coast of Ireland).

At its most reductive, it’s a vampire film, but like any of these, the mythology is just an opening to deal with other issues: dislocation from society and relationships, mortality and morality, and, peculiar perhaps to this interpretation, gender relations. For here the two lead characters are a 200-year-old mother and daughter (played by Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan respectively), whose peripatetic lives are intertwined with a mysterious Brotherhood, an ancient (and dare I say, Byzantine) organisation dedicated at once to a mysterious ‘Code’ and, perhaps more urgently, to being a bunch of nasty misogynists desperate to cling to their patriarchal entitlement. The story follows the two leads as they flee one of the Brotherhood to the English seaside, where past and present are intermingled in the reminiscences of Ronan’s character Eleanor Webb.

For the most part, the acting is superb, particularly the uncanny gaze and tightly-coiled enigmatic silence of Saoirse Ronan. Supporting her, the rest of the cast do well within the setting, including some early-19th century period-costume turns by Jonny Lee Miller and Sam Riley, with equally period-appropriate names Ruthven and Darvell calling to mind the earliest vampiric writings. There’s also a nice uncredited appearance from Tom Hollander as a well-meaning teacher.

Along with the above-mentioned epic quality to the narrative, it also shares with Pines the sometimes aggravating habit of constructing neatly convenient situations, characters and traits in order to move forward the plot and develop salient themes. To take some examples from the start, we have the lead character’s habit of writing down her secret story and throwing it to the wind, an old man who discovers her truth and motivates the first engagement with the morality of vampirism, encounters with Caleb Landry Jones’ dying teenager, and the arrival of Daniel Mays’s john with his opulent and recently-vacated seafront property. However, when placed in the context of the whole film, these interventions seem of a piece with its grandiose mythologising; a scene like that of Arterton writhing half-naked under a waterfall of blood would certainly seem ridiculously camp on its own, but by the time it occurs in the film, it hardly seems too out of place.

Certainly, it’s a fine line the film walks, at points recalling the somber atmospherics of Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In, 2008), yet at others attaining more of a grand Guignol melodrama. If it does show anything though, it’s that vampirism is not just for the boys.


CREDITS
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.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

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.

The film is primarily set in and around Schenectady in upstate New York. I’ve linked to the Wikipedia article because its first paragraph reveals the more prosaic origin of the film’s title, though it’s not mentioned or even alluded to in the film itself. No doubt this is because ‘the place beyond the pines’ instead is intended to encapsulate a vaguely-felt desire of the central characters to escape their fates, where actions in their respective pasts continue to exert a hold over their present reality. If there’s something of a hint of ancient tragedy to the undertaking, this becomes clearest in the film’s third act, where the screenwriters pull the strings (rather too forcefully) to arrange a series of character confrontations leading to the denouement. Then again, there are points throughout the film where the events are over-determined in order to telegraph a thematic point, with entire characters seemingly crowbarred into the narrative in order to move it along (I wasn’t convinced by Ray Liotta’s cop, and even Avery’s son felt like a cipher).

Where the film is strongest is in the way it showcases class-based antagonisms. Each of the acts uses class signifiers as a significant form of divisiveness between the protagonists. Romina and her partner Kofi are certainly poor, but they are lawful, respectable, hard-working people who attain a certain economic stability by the third act, whereas Luke represents an embattled underclass (a sort of modern lumpenproletariat) with very limited options for generating the kind of income required to raise a child comfortably, hence his desperate turn to lawlessness. Avery meanwhile is a highly-educated professional doing work his father (who is a judge) clearly considers beneath their class, which puts him into direct conflict with his blue-collar colleagues on the police force. Once again, these divisions formed over the first two acts, are brought to a head in the third, and while the class distinctions are initially more fluid in the school environment, events propel each of the two sons towards a more fully-formed class consciousness (if that’s not overstating things a little).

Ultimately this is a good film which had the potential to be far more. If the first two acts are anchored by strong central performances from charismatic screen actors, they add up to very little without the third act, which is let down by overburdened dramatic manipulation. However, there’s a lot of potential here, and a lot to give hope that the director’s future films will build on this.


CREDITS
Director Derek Cianfrance; Writers 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.