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LFF: Day 4 – Take Shelter, The Descendants, Into The Abyss & Surprise Film

The second of the big days at the London Film Festival, today’s outing held the apocalyptic Sundance smash Take Shelter, the Oscar hopeful The Descendants, Herzog’s latest documentary Into The Abyss and the hotly anticipated mystery film in store for me. So, it was off to Leicester Square once again on this Sunday morning, navigating the preparations for the evening premieres of The Adventures Of Tin Tin and W.E., to get the ball rolling…

First up, I sat down at the Vue in order to watch the Sundance and Cannes favourite Take Shelter.

Take Shelter (4.5/5)

General Zod gets all apocalyptic and shit.

Take Shelter may only be a tiny independent film, but it’s one that refuses to wallow in its lack of budget and small scale. Instead, this is an ambitious piece of work from Jeff Nichols that aspires to be both cinematic and tackle some big issues at the same time.

Telling the story of a construction worker’s foreboding dreams about an apocalyptic storm and his ensuing descent into paranoia, it’s a study of post-9/11 fear in small town America that is utterly compelling. It grapples the topic from a human angle that we rarely see; one that is intimate and close to home.

Furthermore, Take Shelter handles its themes with a subtlety that even the most skilled storytellers would be envious of, letting its apocalyptic story take the foreground and its subtext only bubble under the surface.

Michael Shannon plays this lead character, Curtis, incredibly well, proving his talent not only for capturing the deranged but also the human. His ability to contrast the nosedive into madness while making its audience ache for his condition is Oscar worthy stuff.

Jeff Nichols, moreover, controls the pace carefully. In its opening shot of an impending storm, he places a noose around the viewer’s neck and slowly tightens it as the narrative develops. As a result, Take Shelter is a stunningly gripping piece of cinema that you will struggle to look away from as you watch it and will haunt you for days afterwards.

After the apocalyptic middle-American landscape of Take Shelter, I went to the sunny paradise of Hawaii for Alexander Payne’s first release in years, The Descendants.

The Descendants (4/5)

Bring the Payne.

A film that has gained considerable Oscar buzz ever since its production was announced, the director of Sideways’ new effort shows George Clooney as a father trying to reconnect with his family after his wife slips into a coma.

The Descendants is a classic Alexander Payne film that fans of his will undoubtedly love with his talent for portraying humor and warmth alongside sadness and pain as good as it has ever been. It’s a simple story, sure, but one difficult not to fall in love with because it’s so crowd-pleasing and so lovely.

George Clooney plays the protagonist, Matt King, in a role that is perfectly suited for him. The selfishness and arrogance of his character coupled with his newfound love for his daughters and desire for family offers the kind of performance that has been able to deliver effortlessly for years. As a result, he knocks it right out of the park with comfortable ease.

It’s Shailene Woodley, however, who is the real surprise here as King’s daughter. Her coming-of-age over the course of The Descendants is funny, touching and moving and she performs it with the talent of someone twice her age.

Expect to see big things from this one because The Descendants is the kind of cinematic crowd-pleaser that’ll be taking home awards this year.

In another dramatic turn in direction, I went upstairs to catch the dark and powerful new documentary from Werner Herzog titled Into The Abyss.

Into The Abyss (3.5/10)

More death and misery, less albino alligators.

Following up from Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, the Grizzly Man director’s newest film takes us into the murder case, trial, sentencing and execution of teenage boy Michael Perry.

It’s a draining and powerful film about the US justice system that will inspire some much-needed debate about whether the death penalty really works, offering us a tremendous insight into a young boy whose mistakes have led him to his own demise.

With a surprising subtlety from a director usually unafraid of making his opinions known, he asks who is really to blame for a man’s crimes; the individual or the society that shapes him. Consequently, he provokes thought about whether this mean’s a man like Perry should really face death for what he’s done. At the same time, however, he captures remarkable accounts from Perry’s victims’ family who explain the weight lifted knowing that the man who ruined their lives will have no place on Earth.

Herzog is a documentary filmmaker renowned for his incredibly eye for fascinating subjects and impeccable talent for extracting great interviews. That ability is only solidified here with the stories he collects – whether it’s Perry’s itself, his regret-filled father or a former death row executioner haunted by his actions – driving the film from beginning to end.

It’s thought-provoking stuff that could only be made by a man like Herzog – though it’s admittedly nowhere near his most compelling work – and continues the streak of great documentaries in 2011.

Following that, I headed downstairs for the most anticipated event of the London Film Festival: the surprise film. Even in the lobby, the excitement could be felt in the air with fans asking one another what they believed they would be seeing this year.

As people took to their seats and start time was just around the corner, anticipation only multiplied with titles like ‘The Muppets’, ‘The Iron Lady’ and ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ being thrown around the sold out screen.

At 8:20, the festival’s director Sandra Hebron took the microphone as the crowd waited with baited breath. She thanked the distributor, thanked the audience and teased us with a few words about the movie before the lights went down. Then, the red curtain opened and the surprise film was announced…

Damsels In Distress (2/5)

The reaction to the LFF surprise film


A bemused and disgruntled groan echoed around the screen and people headed for the door before its opening titles had even finished. These people were probably the most fortunate of us among the audiences at the surprise film that night because at least they were spared the torture of this mess.

The story of a group of bizarre girls who run a suicide prevention centre at an American college, this offbeat comedy offers very few laughs and is incredibly frustrating. Its self-consciously twee atmosphere wears on your patience after minutes with the pretentious dialogue becoming like nails on a blackboard.

Greta Gerwig is insufferable in the lead role, delivering her lines in monotonous, hushed tones that could drive even the most attentive audience members to distraction. And she’s not even the weakest link! Her supporting cast are so bothersome and unfunny that they make the cast of Wendy look like comedic masters.

Worst of all, however, Damsels In Distress is just staggeringly pointless. Even on many hours reflection, I can’t fathom what the entire point of this story was other than to be quirky, weird and offer hipsters the opportunity to brag about how cool they are for liking it.

Just awful.

A disappointing ending to an otherwise great day at the London Film Festival, but tomorrow promises A Dangerous Method, W.E. and Martha Marcy May Marlene!

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Daniel Sarath

Daniel Sarath

Daniel is a 23 year old award nominated journalism graduate who has been writing film news and reviews online for the last four years. His work can be seen at Yahoo, Screen Invasion and HeyUGuys.