Reviewed today: Hansel And Gretel, Largo, The Last Thakur, The Last Wagon, Telstar.
2.00pm: The Last Wagon
It's a Festival weekend, so once again it's time for Clyde Jeavons to show us more of his Kewl Shit From The Archives! (He really needs to get a better title than that.) I seem to have seen a lot of Westerns in this slot over the years, probably because they tend to look best on a big screen after a digital wash and brush up. On Sunday, they've got the 40th anniversary restoration of the best Western of all, and one of the greatest films ever - Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West. Magnificent as it is, I've got a limited number of Festival slots available, and I've had a long history with OUATITW - I saw the 20th anniversary reissue at the pictures, and own both the 30th anniversary VHS and the 35th anniversary DVD.
So I'm giving Leone a miss this time, and making do with a lesser 1956 Western from director Delmer Daves (of 3.10 To Yuma fame) and star Richard Widmark (who we lost earlier this year). Widmark plays Comanche Todd, a killer on the run, who's captured early on in the story by Sheriff Bull Harper (George Mathews). The pair encounter a group of religious settlers - "Christers!", spits the Sheriff - headed up by Colonel Normand (Douglas Kennedy) and his attractive daughters. Unfortunately they're on the outskirts of Apache country, and it soon turns out that Todd is the only person who can lead them through it safely.
It's a Cinemascope Western of the old school, and as you'd expect the landscapes look lovely in this restored print. However, when it comes to the actors, the compositions become a lot less interesting, with Daves cramming all of his actors tight into the middle of the frame - presumably even in 1956, they were keeping one eye on future TV sales. Still, all the pleasures of a fifties Western are there for you, including some surprisingly tough violence (which might not have been seen in the UK before this screening). Widmark brings all of his charm to an enigmatic lead role, despite his cheerfully neanderthal approach to the opposite sex: whether he's insisting that "women and ponies... both need to be broken early," or curing a girl's rattlesnake bite by punching her in the face, he's always a delight to watch. Feminist approval may drop off completely when the punishment for his murders is revealed, though.
4.00pm: Largo (official site)
Shock! Horror! A film about music that isn't introduced by Michael 'Low Fat Morrissey' Hayden! (But one of his assistants - whose name, unfortunately, escapes me - does a perfectly fine job in his absence.)
Largo is - well, was, we'll get back to that - a music venue on Fairfax Avenue in LA. It's become a gathering point for a fascinating collection of musicians and comedians, and this film boils down a couple of years worth of performance footage into a couple of hours.
For a venue with less than 100 seats, Largo has an extraordinary roster of talent cluttering up its tiny stage. Part of that is down to club owner Mark Flanagan hanging out in the right Hollywood circles - if the film is anything to go by, a large part of the talent pool appears to consist of people that director Paul Thomas Anderson has collaborated with either musically or sexually. Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann, Michael Penn and Jon Brion all provide a song each, while John C Reilly tells an entertaining anecdote about working with Burt Reynolds. Outside of the PTA universe, Sarah Silverman pops up for three minutes (which apparently counts for roughly half of her full length set), Grant-Lee Phillips rocks out impressively considering the size of the room, and Andrew Bird delivers an astonishing one-man guitar-violin-loopbox performance of A Nervous Tick Motion Of The Head To The Left. (Not this one, but it gives you the idea.)
The performances are all filmed incredibly simply: black and white, on just-grainy-enough video, normally on a single camera or with a very occasional cutaway to a second angle. As I watched it, it felt to me like a very classy version of the videos that music venue owners make of performances for themselves. Co-director Andrew van Baal reveals in the post-film Q&A that that's exactly what they are: Mark Flanagan commissioned van Baal to film some shows for the Largo website, but they turned out so good that they decided to expand them into a feature film.
It was a good call: the acts are all terrific, and the resulting movie really gives you a feel of the atmosphere and sheer soul of the room. Which is why it's bizarre that we didn't find out until the end of the Q&A that this room doesn't exist any more - Largo moved to a 300 seat room on La Cienega earlier this year, and by all accounts is still doing what it does very well indeed. It's definitely on my list of places to see if I ever revisit Los Angeles, although I probably won't because the city's an irredeemable toilet.
9.00pm: Telstar (official site)
In a restoration of the natural order of things, this music film is introduced by Low Fat Morrissey, who even gets a personal thankyou from writer/director Nick Moran for including it in the Festival. In another restoration of the natural order of things, Telstar marks the first LFF appearance this year from the Suzanne Vega Fanclub (he's been on holiday). Suze is the main reason why I'm here in the first place: he saw the stage play that Telstar is based on, and raved about it in the letters page on August 19th 2005. He'll be along in a bit to tell you how it matches up against the original, as you'd expect.
Telstar is the true story of Joe Meek (Con O'Neill), who was effectively London's answer to Phil Spector in the early sixties. Setting up a studio above a shop on the Holloway Road, he used banks of home-made equipment to make pop records that sounded like nothing on earth - literally, in the case of the tune that gives the film its name. But Meek's personal life was another story altogether: struggling to deal with his homosexuality at a time when it was a criminal offence, and slowly losing his marbles as he necks diet pills to keep himself awake through all-night studio sessions. Inevitably, the personal and professional sides of his life will collide messily, and cute pop star Heinz (JJ Feild) will be the catalyst that sparks Meek's tragic decline.
It's a messy film, with over-enthusiasm sometimes winning out over technique. In particular, there are several studio scenes that should really be just on the verge of chaos, and Moran hasn't got a tight enough control of the direction to stop them becoming a mess of overlapping dialogue and random camera angles. More irritatingly, the film doesn't really get you inside Meek's head: it shows you all the elements of his decline, but is happy to stand back and observe rather than make you feel his torment. (From Suze's comments below, I suspect that in the stage version the sheer closeness of Con O'Neill to the audience would help on that score.)
Actually, the performances are all pretty fine here. O'Neill makes Meek sympathetic even when he's being a complete tool: Tom Burke is just creepy enough as songwriter and spiritualist Geoff Goddard: JJ Feild hits the right level of gormlessness as Heinz: Ralph Little, amazingly, makes Chas Off Of Chas 'N' Dave the voice of sanity in Holloway Road: and Kevin Spacey's money man appears to be channeling Chris Morris' boss character from The IT Crowd, wonky accent and all.
Despite the flaws, there's a lot of enthusiasm on display, and the snappily-edited two hours pretty much flies by. The film is particularly successful at showing you the amount of hard work and lunatic invention that went into Joe Meek's productions: I especially love the recreation of the session for Have I The Right, where a dozen or so people are banging on the studio floor with any available objects to get the right percussion sound for the chorus. Twelve hours after the screening, I've still got all the major Joe Meek hits flying around in my head, so Moran must be doing something right.
11.30pm: Hansel And Gretel
Some late-night Korean horror to finish off the day, and take advantage of the clocks going back an hour. Eun-Soo (Chun Jeong-Myoung) is having a tough time with his life at the moment - his mum's ill in hospital, his wife's about to give birth to their first child - so this is a particularly bad time for him to crash his car and wake up in the middle of a mysterious forest. He eventually finds his way to a pretty little house in the middle of the woods, inhabited by a ludicrously happy couple and their three children. He accepts their offer to stay the night before finding his way back to the road. In retrospect, he should have paid more attention to that 'Day One' caption that appeared on screen when he woke up the next morning.
I know there are some people out there who get very frustrated at what they consider to be the standard trappings of Asian horror cinema [waves at FilmFan]. But at the start, it looks like Hansel And Gretel is going to avoid all of those cliches. The design work in the early stages - like Tim Burton but with added layers of Asian kitsch - makes it look like nothing you've seen before. But unfortunately, before too long we're in the usual territory of sudden camera moves and loud noises on the soundtrack.
Without wishing to give too much away, the key to the mystery lies with the children, and director Yim Phil-sung is presumably hoping we'll find their behaviour scary. But to this Western viewer at least, they're not scary at all: just very, very irritating and clingy. For all their tearful whining about how "we're not really bad kids," you feel for most of the film that there's nothing wrong with them that three knives in the head couldn't cure. And when the film tries to pull off a last act reversal to get our sympathies back on their side, it does it with an overlong flashback that combines sentimentality and child rape in the queasiest fashion imaginable. Any promise the film had in the opening sequences has long evaporated by the end. Still, if you take the move from British Summer Time to Greenwich Mean Time into consideration, at least that's only one hour of my life I'll never get back.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - So having finally made it to this year's London Film Festival, I find myself honoured to start off with nothing less than a 'Simon Jordan Production'. Thus having been introduced pre-film by the writer Nick Moran, the great man Jordan (resplendent in his usual Duran Duran apparel) made sure we all knew that this project had only happened because of his generosity and cheque book (well that's Neil Warnock's transfer kitty gone down the pan then).
Anyway I digress, as Telstar is the story of early Sixties record producer Joe Meek, a man ahead of his time who had the ability to create/produce unique sounds and hit records from something approaching half filled milk bottles and a piece of string. All this being done in his home made studio in the rented flat above his landlady's leather goods shop. Meek, brilliantly portrayed by Con O Neil, is both tyrant and genius. As a tyrant he manages to gobble up the creative energies and talent of those around him, with a mixture of bullying and cajoling, before ultimately driving all around him away. As a genius he is able to make much out of little, but is also tortured by his (then illegal) homosexuality and his inability to get a grip on his finances and paperwork.
Now I am probably one of the few people (judging by the audience numbers in the New Ambassadors theatre) to have also seen this on stage a few years back, and then as now Con O'Neill was in the lead role. As I wrote in Spank's letters page way back then, I considered it to be the best piece of theatre I had ever seen. Therefore the question is, does the film improve on that production? Well frankly no, but without being too harsh on the film I will say why. Firstly this is really written for the theatre as most of the action takes place in Meek's flat, and therefore can be easily produced on a single stage set. Secondly, and this mainly applied at the start of the film, all the characters seemed to be shouting at each other (not helped by the ridiculous cinema decibel level) whilst pushing for cheap laughs, which ran counter to the sadness of the ensuing tragedy.
Yet the real reason why the film pales in comparison to the play, is the performance of Con O'Neill himself. Thus it is impossible to recreate the physicality and intensity of his performance on film, that he gave the night I saw this on stage (even though he makes a bloody good stab at it). Sitting some ten rows back in the theatre that night, I actually thought I was seeing an actor have a real live mental breakdown. As crazy as it sounds I was almost frightened to catch his eye back then in case he leapt from the stage and turned on me. For those in the front two rows things must have been even more scary, only with several showerings of spittle thrown in as well. In fact the best way I can make the comparison is to ask you how your gut felt if you have ever had the misfortune to see real life violence take place in front of you, as opposed to seeing violence taking place in a movie.
Nonetheless the film does its job, and for those not handicapped by seeing the stage production there is much to enjoy and admire here. I am not sure whether this is going to be a major British hit, but all involved should be proud of their efforts.
The Last Thakur
The Belated Birthday Girl - Set in an unnamed village somewhere in Bangladesh, director Sadik Ahmed's first feature tells the story of a stranger who arrives in town one day, carrying a gun, and on a mission. His mission is to find anyone who knew his mother who was there 30 years ago, and to identify his father, given on his birth certificate only as "A.R". The village he arrives in is one with conflict, between the village leader, known as the Chairman, and the local landowner, known as Thakur. And both sides are interested in the stranger and his gun.
Described in the LFF programme as a "contemporary Western", The Last Thakur uses many of the Western's conventions (the town with warring leaders, the desert setting, the Man With No Name - although we do learn the stranger's name) but relocates them to a timeless but generally contemporary Bangladeshi setting. It is wonderfully shot, using long lenses (as Ahmed explained at the Q&A, this was partly because of the constraints of micro-budget filmmaking meaning he couldn't afford really good lenses, and partly because he'd always been a fan of Quincy) and making good use of the remote location and the excellent cast of Bangladeshi stage actors. The script is initially intriguing, with the mystery of the stranger's mother and the village conflict, but quickly falls into a pretty straightforward story, which only just manages to sustain the 81 minutes running time. In many ways the ultimate simplicity of the story felt more suited to a short and lacked the narrative density to make a truly satisfying feature. But visually the film was a treat, and the acting was also excellent throughout.
Sadik Ahmed previously won awards for his documentary short Tanju Miah and from what was said at the Q&A it seems The Last Thakur is in some ways a fictionalised expansion from that, with another character named Tanju, and with an actor Tanju Miah (possibly the same as the subject of the earlier short) as a boy in the film. Ahmed's training in cinematography is very evident in this film, and based on this feature debut I would think he will be worth looking out for in future.