By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist October 11, 2013 at 2:10PM
Even with the New York Film Festival still ongoing for a few more days, the international festival circuit isn't pausing for breath: Wednesday saw the kick off of the 57th BFI London Film Festival across the pond. After a fairly rocky start under new director Clare Stewart last year, the U.K.'s biggest festival has come roaring back in 2013 with the best line-up I can remember, cherry picking the best of Sundance, Berlin, SXSW, Tribeca, Cannes, Venice, TIFF and more, and even with a major world premiere for the first time in several years, in the shape of "Saving Mr. Banks," which closes the festival next weekend.
As such, I'm trying something a little different with our coverage of the festival this year. I'm going to be keeping a sort of daily diary of what I've been seeing. Some will be world premieres, some will be second opinions on films The Playlist already caught elsewhere on the festival circuit. It should be fun, but don't fear, certain films will be getting full reviews alongside these diaries.
But let's start in the obvious place: the beginning of the festival. Like NYFF, the festival kicked off with Paul Greengrass' latest, "Captain Phillips" (B-), a surefire Oscar contender toplining Tom Hanks. After a couple of rather disappointing, lightweight choices for the Opening Gala in the last few years in the shape of "360" and "Frankenweenie," it's certainly a weightier and worthier, not to mention more high-profile pick. But I have to confess that, while the film's sturdy enough, I wasn't as taken with it as our official reaction from New York a few weeks back (read that review here).
The film completes a sort of unofficial trilogy among Greengrass' work of harrowing, tense docu-dramas (read our full retrospective of his work here), a return to the kind of work seen in "Bloody Sunday" and "United 93," and it's perhaps the shadow of those films that led to my disappointment. The filmmaker's technical chops are, if anything, better than ever: despite a two-and-a-half-hour runtime, it's taut and lean, and the initial hijacking sequences and the eventual rescue attempt of Hanks' stricken captain from his Somali captors are among the most propulsive and nail-biting things the director's made.
And yet I found it ultimately a little uninvolving. While "United 93" dealt with a wide range of characters on a world-changing day, 'Phillips' has a smaller-scale subject matter, one that's life-and-death for its central character, but feels fairly contained. That can undoubtedly make for enormously effective cinema—see "Gravity," which also screened at the festival yesterday, ahead of its U.K. release next month (read my review from Venice here) or "All Is Lost"—but something's missing here, the film lacking the wider scope and in-depth drama of the recent and superior "A Hijacking."
It also doesn't help that the subjects mostly feel sketched out. That can work with something Iike "United 93," where there are dozens of subjects and the point is to record the events of the day. But here, the film's focus is much tighter, with the third act claustrophobically locking almost entirely in on Phillips and his four hijackers. Hanks is excellently understated throughout, fleshing out his portrait through action, and his final scenes are arguably the best and rawest work of his career.
But Billy Ray's screenplay never really bothers to delineate between the four hijackers (despite terrific work in particular from Barkhad Abdi as their frontman), and they never develop much beyond archetypes of The Leader, The Hothead, The Kid and, uh, The Other One. As a result, it feels a bit first world. Still, it's very solid and engaging stuff for grown-ups, despite its flaws, and that's something to be thankful for.
The film as ever, sees Greengrass aiming to capture reality as closely as possible, something that couldn't be less interesting to Ari Folman, director of "The Congress" [C], which made its London debut on Thursday. The follow-up to his acclaimed "Waltz With Bashir," this is a partly animated sci-fi mind bender based loosely on source material by Stanislaw Lem, starring Robin Wright as a version of herself who sells her image to a movie studio.
It's admirably heady, ambitious stuff, concerned with big questions of identity, death, love and self, and in its animated second half, which calls to mind Ralph Bakshi on an especially hallucinogen-fuelled day, it's a visual treat. But I found it rather more "Southland Tales" than "A Scanner Darkly," introducing dozens of ideas without quite following through on them, and as a result, the emotional backbone never quite worked for me. Of course, we'd rather Folman worked on something bold and messy than conventional and dull, but this still feels unsatisfying, eventually mirroring its own themes by proving rather lacking in humanity.
Also screening yesterday was something that I'd unfortunately missed in Venice and had heard good word on: "Bertolucci On Bertolucci" [B-], a documentary on the great director of "Last Tango In Paris," "1900," "The Last Emperor" and "The Dreamers," among many others. Co-directed by "I Am Love" helmer Luca Guadanigno, it's made up exclusively of archive interviews with Bertolucci himself, from his debut as a 23-year-old firecracker to wheelchair-bound appearances in support of last year's "Me & You" (a botched back operation nearly ended his career).
By letting Bertolucci tell his story through his own words, the film gives real insight into both his process and his worldview, and it's fascinating to see his politics and views on the industry and the art shift over time. But it's also structurally rather haphazard, jumping loosely through time and subjects, doesn't quite feel comprehensive ("The Conformist," which I'd argue is his masterpiece by quite some distance, is almost totally glossed over), and really suffers from a total lack of footage for the films. It's undoubtedly enriching in spots, but probably for the hardcore only.
Rather overshadowed on the festival circuit so far is "Mystery Road" [C] which sees part-Aboriginal Australian filmmaker Ivan Sen ("Beneath Clouds," "Dreamland") move to more mainstream territory with a procedural crime thriller, albeit one that still digs into his favorite subject matters of Aboriginal identity and post-colonial Australia. Aaron Pedersen stars as a part-Aboriginal big city police detective who's returned to the town he grew up in, only to become embroiled in the investigation of the murder of a young Aboriginal girl.
Sen's enlisted lots of familiar Australian faces, including Jack Thompson, "True Blood" star Ryan Kwanten, and Hugo Weaving, who has a ton of fun as an ambivalently-motivated fellow detective. And like the recent "Top of the Lake," with which it bears a fair few similarities, it's beautifully shot and ladled with atmosphere. But ultimately, it proves heavy-handed, Pedersen's a blank and bland lead, and despite an intriguing set up, the film devolves into cliché by the conclusion.
Finally, the highlight of the festival's first couple of days was a film that's already had its theatrical release in the U.S., but is only just emerging across the pond—Andrew Bujalski's "Computer Chess" [A]. The mumblecore pioneer, who's been absent for too long at this point, has made what might be his best work yet, and is certainly one of the year's most original films. Shot on 1980s-era video in a way reminiscent of (though distinct to) Pablo Larrain's equally good "No," it's hilarious, strangely touching, and unexpectedly terrifying (it plays out like the world's least likely "Terminator" prequel, strangely). U.K. audiences can see it on release next month, while if you missed it in the U.S., it's now available on iTunes.
TOMORROW: Alexander Payne returns to the Midwest for "Nebraska," Jia Zhangke goes genre with "A Touch of Sin," and superstar in waiting Jack O'Connell gets "Starred Up."