4.00pm: julien donkey-boy
"I don't like all that artsy-fartsy stuff. Now, the end of Dirty Harry - that's good." This is an extraordinarily dangerous thing for a character to be saying in the middle of julien donkey-boy, one of the artsiest and fartsiest films you could ever hope to see. But at least it proves that director Harmony Korine has a sense of humour about what he's doing, and that makes all the difference.
I've not actually seen Korine's other work, but you know about it: writer of Kids, director of Gummo, a 25-year-old wonderkind who's not afraid to throw out the standard rules of filmmaking or to offend people if that's what's required to get his desired effect. It was probably only a matter of time before the Dogme guys brought him into the fold, and so julien donkey-boy becomes the sixth Dogme film, and the first one to come from America.
Ewen Bremner (from Trainspotting, Naked and two of those little trailer things they show before the start of each LFF movie) is Julien, a schizophrenic living with his slightly worrying family. Brother Chris (Evan Neumann) is training to be a wrestler, and can be seen on the streets regularly grappling with plastic dustbins. Sister Pearl (Chloë Sevigny) quietly hangs around the house awaiting the arrival of her baby. All three of them are continually hectored by their overbearing father (Werner Herzog) into bettering themselves, to little effect. Julien wanders the streets, battles with his family, occasionally does some work with sick children, and tries to make sense of his life. There's also the small matter of the child that he murdered in the first scene.
julien donkey-boy is an incredibly experimental film in many ways, but never goes out of its way to completely alienate the audience, although be warned there's some pretty disturbing material in here. The look of the thing is staggering: as with the other Dogmes, Korine uses digital video for ease of shooting in natural light, but then transfers it to 16mm film before blowing it up again to 35mm. The resulting images are positively swimming in grain and luminously coloured, hovering just this side of disintegrating into complete abstraction. On the few occasions when you're not sure what you're looking at on screen, you can still marvel at how beautiful it is.
For the most part the film avoids a straightforward story, preferring to just show us scenes from Julien's life with few connections between them. Thus it's all down to the performances, and Ewan Bremner is a revelation in the title role, nailing down Julien's violent mood swings and love of language perfectly. German director Werner Herzog also gets some terrific moments as Julien's deranged father, easily the funniest character: in fact for an experimental movie there's a tremendous amount of humour in there.
With a structure mixing broad comedy (Julien alone in his room imagining how he'd talk to Hitler) and touching drama (Julien talking to his sister and pretending she's their late mother) apparently at random, it becomes a little disappointing when something resembling an actual narrative incident appears at the climax: it almost feels like cheating after the free-form scenes that preceded it. But it does lead to the extraordinary final image of Julien cocooned in his bed, shot as if he's returned to the womb. A filmic poem in the very best sense of the word.
6.30pm: Happy Texas
Director Mark Illsley claims the success of this film is attributable 50% to the writing, 40% to the acting and 10% to everything else. Which sounds like a suspiciously handy copout for a director if the audience doesn't like the film - "hey, I only did 10%, blame those guys over there". But once you've seen Happy Texas you get his point: the script and performances are what make this work so well.
Following a daring escape involving the use of a dead armadillo, convicts Harry Sawyer (Jeremy Northam) and Wayne Wayne Wayne Jr (Steve Zahn) end up stealing an RV as part of their getaway. When they're stopped by the law as they pass through the small town of Happy, they assume their number's up. In fact, Sheriff Chappy Dent (William H Macy) has been looking out for their camper, and assumes Harry and Wayne are the real owners: a gay couple who will be judging the town's Little Miss Fresh-Squeezed Beauty Pageant. The cons have no choice but to play along: Wayne takes on the unenviable task of training five little girls for their big dance number, while Harry tries to strike up a wholly platonic relationship with local bank manager Jo McLintock (Ally Walker) to see if they can make any further profit from the situation.
Made entirely on money raised by Illsley and his writing partner Ed Stone, Happy Texas has offended some indie movie purists for tainting the whole independent cinema ideal by being a commercial feelgood comedy. Well, sod the indie movie purists. This is a great little comedy built around a tight script, set in a fantasy version of Texas where a pair of gay strangers are treated with amused tolerance rather than tar and feathers. Jeremy Northam is charming as the brains of the duo, while Steve Zahn (last seen looking similarly zonked in Out Of Sight) has a whale of a time with his idiot character: it's a joy watching stupid thoughts passing across his face in the few seconds pause before he actually says them.
There's also solid support from Ally Walker and Illeana Douglas as the women who threaten to ruin Harry and Wayne's gay cover story, but the real showstopping performance comes from William H Macy as the sheriff who's finally inspired to come out of the closet because of his love for Harry. These are some fairly complicated emotions for an actor to play with, and Macy doesn't put a foot wrong, as evidenced by the heartfelt cry of despair from the audience when he gets dumped. Happy Texas won't change the world or put an end to global homophobia, but it will make people feel quite happy for 105 minutes, and some days that's all you need.
Finally, somebody's made a movie about the London I live in.
Set in central and south London over the period of a Guy Fawkes weekend, Wonderland looks at three sisters and how they relate to their family, friends, lovers and each other. Nadia (Gina McKee) works as a waitress, spending her evenings with an endless stream of men from lonely hearts ads. Debbie (Shirley Henderson) is trying to bring up her son in the absence of her ex-husband Dan (Ian Hart). And Molly (Molly Parker) is expecting her first child any day now, unaware that husband Eddie (John Simm) has a secret he hasn't dared tell her yet. During the four day weekend we see all their relationships being put to the test.
Shot on the run in real locations using only available light, Wonderland is the second example today of how film grain isn't necessarily a bad thing to see: Sean Bobbit's hazy, colour-saturated, widescreen images manage to convey just how beautiful a city this can be at night. In contrast to the visual glamour, Michael Winterbottom's direction gives you a real sense of what living in London is like for many people right now. Families living apart, only coming together in times of crisis and sometimes not even then: the sense of isolation you can only get when you share a space with eight million people: the exact feeling you get riding a night bus home alone when you assumed you'd be with someone else. This is all familiar territory for myself and the people I know, but I've never seen it on film before. Interestingly, when LFF director Adrian Wootton asked the audience at the end if they found it a bleak view of the city, the vote was split exactly down the middle.
A top British cast (including Jack Shepherd and Kika Markham as the sisters' parents) improvise around Laurence Coriat's script, using the freedom of the roving camera/available light setup to give all the performances a truly realistic feel. And the whole thing is taken to another level entirely by Michael Nyman's characteristically lush score: not the sound of these people's lives, but the sound of what they aspire to. Full marks to Nyman for his post-screening reply to a woman who complained the music was too loud: "It's never too loud." All of a sudden, Orphans is no longer my favourite British film of 1999.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Ken - Delightful, charming comedy. Two convicts on the run after a prison break are mistaken for a gay couple recruited to help the townsfolk of Happy to the state finals of a children's beauty pageant. They have to contend with the temptations of the local bank vault, plus the temptations of Josephine the local bank president and the attentions of the gay sheriff. Apparently the town of Happy Texas really exists, but due to cost restraints the film was shot in Peru California. Deservedly won the Special Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
Old Lag - Oooh! I do love a good biopic, it helps if it runs for over 3 hours, is based
on Indian history between 1926 and 1956 and so involves trillions of extras,
and overruns, holding up the early evening films at the Odeon West End: particularly the hyped ones. Especially if it is a subject
you really know nothing about and results in a fascinating film.
In fact it was not trillions, but one real man, Dr Ambedkar. Have you been
finding your relationship hard, work not delivering as it should, a
frustrated lack of enthusiasm for the film festival resulting in missed
tickets? If so you should try life as an untouchable, the lowest Indian rank
in the immovable Hindi caste system, particularly in the early decades of this
century. At this time, mindbogglingly, one fifth of the Indian population (at
fifty million, equal to the current UK population) were segregated into the
cast iron jacket of untouchableness. Correct me if I am wrong, but the fringe
benefits of this status involve handling all the unclean activities in
society, including no access to clean water and down. No up, via education,
access to work or otherwise. An economic and religious straight jacket
imposed and lingering until today by the higher hereditary castes in India.
How Dr Ambedkar entered the frame I do not know, being late, but his
astoundingly tough education in America, at the London School of Economics
and his training at the London Bar, were encouraged by an enlightened
Maharaja. The great personal sacrifices and the great suffering of a highly
educated man so constrained by the rigidity of the Empire and abuses of the
caste system taught him the problems and behaviour of his enemies. Even
Gandhi did not believe an educated man was an untouchable.
He had a clear vision and pushed it through with an understanding of his
people and an ability to work the system. The Americans, Jews and even
British, where it suited their political aims, were sympathetic. His real
challenge was Gandhi, who wanted to hold India together and was a deeply
wily politician. Dr Ambedkar was a hard opponent. The Congress party railed
against the abuses of the Empire to promote independence, but imposed an even
harsher rule on the untouchables: Dr Ambedkar used this clear theme for ten
years of politics in the build up to independence, and could see where Gandhi
would fail the untouchables.
Legal reforms were obtained, to the point were Dr Ambedkar wrote the Indian
constitution and moved on in the fifties to further rights, including those
for women, which failed. One suspects that the real problem was not
legislation, but prejudice and religion, cultural changes which would take
generations to overcome. To carry the vision forward, he converted, and took
millions with him into Buddhism. In essence to find a religion that espoused
equality of man.
Some epic cinematography, but essentially a fascinating story, and an amazing
man. How eulogised in this film I do not know. Too much to tell. See it for
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