3.45pm: Beautiful Creatures
It's all well and good boasting about the future hits that you saw before everyone else at the LFF, but there's a certain malicious delight in seeing the out-and-out flops before everyone else too. Case in point: writer/director Simon Donald's The Life Of Stuff, which played at the 1997 Festival. The stage version of Donald's Scottish low-life drama had been a major hit in both Edinburgh and London, so it was assumed that it'd work just as well as a movie. They assumed wrong: too dark, shouty and claustrophobic to appeal to a general audience, it ended up grossing a grand total of £4,438 (and £7.50 of that's mine, thanks to the film's LFF screening).
Simon Donald's been understandably keeping a low profile ever since, and I must admit I didn't notice his screenplay credit for Beautiful Creatures until after I'd bought the ticket. Thankfully, he's learned a fair bit in the last three years about how film narrative works differently from theatre, and he's had the good sense to pass on the responsibility for directing it to TV veteran Bill Eagles.
The film starts with Dorothy (Susan Lynch) walking out on her abusive junkie boyfriend Tony (Iain Glen). While waiting for a bus to take her away to London, she witnesses Petula (Rachel Weisz) being beaten up in the street by her gangster lover Brian McMinn (Tom Mannion). Dorothy goes to the rescue and ends up accidentally killing Brian in the process. Stuck with a dead body they can't get rid of, the girls decide to fake his kidnapping to extort money out of Ronnie (Maurice Röeves), Brian's gang boss brother. Pretty soon they've got the Glaswegian mafia and the police on their tail, not to mention the complication of Tony's sudden reappearance.
Yes, it's another BritCrap gangster movie made to the standard template. Daft jokes that'll be incomprehensible to a foreign audience, semi-comic violence, a complete collapse of all credibility once people start waving guns around, and a bloodbath finale to get rid of all the characters no longer required by the story. Does the simple trick of having female leads make it any better? Well, surprisingly, it does help. The stories of Dorothy and Petula both mirror each other effectively: the film uses escape from domestic violence as the motor to drive their narratives forward, without feeling exploitative. Donald still can't resist going down darker alleyways than most writers - there are jokes about mutilation, bondage and sex with fish littered throughout the script - but this time he's working with a director who can keep the tone reasonably consistent throughout, even coping with gratuitously quirky elements like a pink dog ("half part pedigree and half part acrylic").
Generally, Beautiful Creatures seems to have had a lot more care and attention lavished on it than your average Lock Stock clone: it's only to be expected from executive producers Duncan 'Four Weddings' Kenworthy and Andrew 'Trainspotting' McDonald, this being the first production from their new company DNA Films. It looks lovely, thanks to James Welland's rich lighting and Andy Harris' design. The leads are excellently sympathetic: Susan Lynch is always good value, and Rachel Weisz has fun with her ditzy blonde. And an array of familiar Scottish hardman character actors provide good support as the confused blokes caught in the middle. There's far too much of this gangster shit flying around our cinemas right now (see Nick's review of Sexy Beast below), but Beautiful Creatures at least makes an attempt at doing something different from the norm.
A postscript to yesterday's tale of alcohol abuse, State And Main and the non-appearance of Philip Seymour Hoffman. As Jon and I are making our way into the Odeon for Saltwater, he suddenly says "wasn't that PSH who walked past you just then?" Jon wasn't present at yesterday's no-show, so I assume he doesn't know that PSH isn't in town and that he's made a mistake. I find out about six hours later that PSH is in London after all: he spoke to the audience at the second screening of Joel Schumacher's Flawless, and was just coming out of that as we were going in. Noooooooooo! This is some sort of revenge by Schumacher for me calling him an evil dog rapist yesterday, isn't it?
Thankfully, I'm blissfully unaware of all this during the screening of Conor McPherson's Saltwater: another debut from a writer/director who's previously only worked in theatre, but thankfully not another Life Of Stuff. (This despite McPherson's apologetic speech before the film: "It's not very good, I'm afraid. We had to fix a lot of it in post-production. If you look carefully, you'll see me popping up in the film in various disguises reading out missing bits of plot...")
George Beneveniti (Brian Cox) owns the chippy in a small Irish seaside town, and lives there with his three children. Frank (Peter McDonald) does most of the work, but is itching to make something more of his life. Joe (Laurence Kinlan) is hanging out with the wrong sort of people at school. And daughter Carmel (Valerie Spelman) is going out with university lecturer Ray (Conor Mullen), who's getting predictably extracurricular with one of his students. When the local loan shark Simple Simon (Brendan Gleeson) starts leaning on the family for more money, it sets off a series of events which will change their lives dramatically over the course of a week.
Conor McPherson's best known for his award-winning stage drama The Weir, and his script for the Irish comedy flick I Went Down. His debut movie as director falls somewhere between the two, and he keeps good control of the tone for the most part, balancing wildly funny scenes (a botched raid on Simple Simon's office) with intensely dramatic ones (notably Joe's hellish night out on the town). He doesn't always succeed in this: the gross-out finale to Ray's subplot is a hilarious cheap gag, but it's still just a cheap gag. And without wishing to be a traitor to my species, the score by the Plague Monkeys is heavily intrusive and used far too much throughout the film. That said, there's a lot of promise on display here for McPherson's new career.
9.00pm: Iron Ladies
And the award for best one-line pitch for an LFF 2000 film goes to: the true story of a champion Thai volleyball team made up entirely of ladyboys.
The Lampang district volleyball team is in crisis, and Coach Bee (Sirithana Hongsophol) is brought in to sort them out. Rebuilding the team from scratch, she discovers two new stars in Mon (Sashaparp Virakamin) and Jung (Chaichan Nimpoolsawasdi), who are both quite flamboyantly gay. The rest of the team revolts and walks out in disgust.
Mon and Jung rally their gay friends together to make up the numbers (and apologies if I stop mentioning cast names at this point: Thai surnames are epic in length, and I've only got twenty megabytes of web space available). The team soon includes Nang, their soldier pal: Wit, a closet case who's just got engaged: Pei, who's had the snip and works at a ladyboy cabaret: April, May and June, triplets who specialise in sychronised mincing: and Chai, the one remaining member of the original team and the token straight. Can they break through the barriers of homophobic Thai society to win the national championships? Any guesses?
After an animated opening credit sequence that's as gay as a window, Iron Ladies settles down... but only a little, thankfully. It's a winning combination of a sports underdog movie and a gay pride march, and you can pretty much predict how the story's going to go: the ups, the downs, the gratuitous disco numbers, all the way up to a final match climaxing in a truly outrageous cliffhanger. Everyone involved is having a ball, and that communicates to the audience: Together still wins the award for warmest audience reaction of the Festival, but this film had the loudest one.
There's no way Iron Ladies could be described as subtle, but its moral subtext is carefully put across in a non-preachy way: the team plays badly when they're forced to cut back on their camp theatrics, but beat all-comers when they're true to themselves and all sissied up. There's a salty, bitchy edge to the humour that keeps the laughs coming throughout the drama - I can't recall seeing so much swearing in a subtitled film in ages. And it's all true! (Or at least 60% true, according to director Yongyoot Thongkontoon.) The result is a terrific piece of feelgood entertainment that's broken all box office records for the year in its home country, and should hopefully clean up elsewhere. As Thongkontoon said afterwards, yes, it'd be ripe material for a Hollywood remake: but you've got a film here already, so why don't you just see this one instead?
Notes From Spank's Pals
Nick - Yes, another arse clenching British film: maybe if the writers had taken the trouble to watch the 70's TV series Budgie, they would have known better how to do seediness and the jokes could have at least been funny. Let me guess; the director used to either direct pop videos or the more arty TV commercials: my money goes on TV commercials, as at least he employed a decent art director. The film looks very good (do I detect Cinelook has been used to give the film an early sixties colour balance). In the opening sequence we get the only funny joke of the entire film and that was a visual joke. The film had my attention for a full 5 minutes, then we had a 10 minute sequence of arse clenching dialogue, that almost scuppered the film. Why is it we get awards for poor dialogue in books, but their film counterparts escape scot free: Empire magazine should do something about this.
Enter Ben Kingsley, giving a wholly believable performance as a psychopathic criminal and the film almost gets going, but like a damp firework he was gone, well before the end of the film. The film was generally well cast: Ray Winstone was excellent as the retired criminal living in Spain and Amanda Root gave good support as his wife. There were several excellent scenes, like the one where the Kingsley character taunts the Winstone character about his wife's seedy past (I am about to become a fully paid-up member of the
Wednesday wank club, see film for details): but when will British writers learn you cannot hold great scenes together with the equivalent of string and sticky back plastic.
The worst part of the film was the big heist in England, James Fox and Ian McShane played predictable caricatures and the heist itself was very poorly done. The Ian McShane character had one good scene with the Winstone character, while travelling to the airport to return back to Spain, but otherwise the film overall was a big disappointment.
State And Main
Old Lag - What a very refreshing Mamet! Mainly because it was very light hearted, also because the setting was a small New England town rather than being contained in a 'stage setting'. The film is of a movie crew arriving in town and the dramatic opportunities and moral dilemmas this creates. A number of sub plots are set up, romance for the writer, bad behaviour of and money grabbing from the lead actress and actor, the responses of the local politicians and worthies. At the centre of all this is the wheeling and dealing of the director and his hard nosed producer. These latter characters are common in Mamet's plays. All the plot strands and difficulties are brought to one neatly tied conclusion, leaving a question of morality and a very cynical view of politicians. A 3 pint film. Talking of pints it was a pleasure to meet a group of film fans who communicate on the Guardian's Film Unlimited bulletin board.
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