11.45am: The Manchurian Candidate
This year, the LFF appears to be making a serious effort to reach out to disadvantaged members of society: the poor, the sensory impaired, South Londoners and so on. Poor people can take advantage of a number of free shows throughout the festival, including a programme of shorts running on a giant inflatable screen in the middle of Trafalgar Square, and a just-announced short documentary by David O Russell, Soldiers Pay. Several screenings are taking place in out-of-town cinemas (on both sides of the Thames) for people who can't make it out to the festival's traditional West End/South Bank power base. As for the blind and deaf, they have a subseason to themselves of eight LFF films featuring audio description (over headsets) and subtitles.
Jonathan Demme's new remake of The Manchurian Candidate is one of the films to receive this treatment, and obviously as a result we all get to watch it with hard-of-hearing subtitles superimposed. It's a very curious thing to do. For the first couple of minutes, you try to stop yourself reading the subs, but find them impossible to ignore: I can remember being in Amsterdam in the 90s watching American films with Dutch subtitles and finding the same thing, even though I don't understand Dutch. So after a while you give in and treat it like any other subtitled movie, and it works out just fine. There's one curious thing to note, though: this being a Jonathan Demme film, there's a huge amount of source music on the soundtrack, and every song we hear is preceded by an artist and title credit on the subtitles. It emphasises just how fond Demme is of using songs - there are five separate ones in the opening credits alone - but having their titles and lyrics in front of you reduces the subtle impact of, for example, having a group of soldiers playing cards with Gang Of Four's Armalite Rifle playing in the background.
Getting round to the film itself (eventually), it's an adaptation of Richard Condon's Cold War paranoia novel, which most people will remember from John Frankenheimer's 1962 movie. Screenwriters Daniel Pyrne and Dean Georgaris have effectively brought the story into the present day, making some extremely effective changes. For a start, the American soldier at the centre of the story, Major Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington), has now served time on the Desert Storm campaign, which means that his concerns about what happened to his men over there can be dismissed as Gulf War Syndrome. But something happened over there: he has the nightmares to prove it. The official line is that Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) singlehandedly saved the lives of his entire platoon during an ambush. But Marco is starting to believe that this simply didn't happen at all, and that the platoon was brainwashed into believing that story. Now Shaw is running for Vice-President on the back of his war hero status, around the time that the last of Marco's platoon buddies has mysteriously vanished. Marco has no choice but to try to find out what really happened.
Demme's career has gone through a rough patch - in the eleven years since Philadelphia, he's only made two badly-received features (Beloved and The Truth About Charlie) and a few documentaries. But The Manchurian Candidate marks a genuine return to form. All the things we used to love about Demme are back on show again: an eclectic song score, an even more eclectic selection of friends in bit parts (notably singer Robyn Hitchcock - the subject of one of those Demme documentaries - as a military contractor), and left-wing politics up front in the mix where they can't possibly be ignored. The lead cast is terrific too: Washington is his usual solidly dependable self, while Schreiber gets across the hollowness at the centre of Shaw simply by exploiting his unfortunate facial resemblance to Zeppo Marx. And Meryl Streep, who I normally have no time for at all, chews up the screen with relish in the role of Shaw's manipulative mother. There's a nauseating tendency for people to describe remakes as 're-imaginings' these days, but the term fits the new Manchurian Candidate perfectly - it recreates all the subversive fun and thrills of the old-fashioned political conspiracy thriller, but within a totally believable contemporary setting.
It's interesting standing around in the foyer after the screening. A man with a guide dog leaves the cinema with a smile on his face, which is something you don't see every day. A deaf woman personally approaches the cinema manager and profusely thanks him for the subtitles. She's closely followed by an older woman who starts haranguing the manager about the subtitles, claiming they'd made the film unwatchable. It's probably unlikely that the latter woman is reading this, but just in case she is: you're a self-obsessed idiot. Please do not go to the cinema ever again. Thank you.
2.30pm: Mr Smith Goes To Washington
Without wanting to give too much away, one other important change has been made in the new version of The Manchurian Candidate: whereas previously Shaw's rise to power was being manipulated by the forces of Godless Communism, this time round it's big business that's ultimately responsible. A patsy politician being set up to do favours for the rich? Who could think of such a thing? Well, Frank Capra did sixty-five years ago, and I'm sure it's no coincidence that the next film showing in the Odeon West End is a restoration of his 1939 take on the same theme. Jeff Smith (James Stewart) is a local hero in his home town after single-handedly saving it from a forest fire. Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) decides to exploit Smith's simple good nature and huge popularity by making him a Senator himself. Paine is trying to push a Bill though that will benefit local businessman Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) through some dodgy property deals, and he figures having Smith's vote in his pocket will help matters greatly. Trouble is, Smith turns out to be not so easily pocketed, particularly when his secretary Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur) tells him what's really going on.
It's always great to see this film again, particularly in a glorious print like the one shown here. (It's made from a first generation copy discovered last year in a locked stable in Frank Capra's old ranch, a Capraesque story if ever there was one.) The last time I saw Mr Smith was five years ago, during an all-night video party at my place featuring films based around American cities. The Washington film didn't get started till around two in the morning, and by the end the filibuster scene felt like it was playing in real time. This time round, it's easier to appreciate the many pleasures of the movie. First up, of course, Jimmy Stewart's pitch-perfect performance, the gee-whiz naivety of the start slowly developing some inner steel as the story goes on. Then there's the usual class Capra brings to the direction. It's easy to forget how fast a Capra film can be - look at how the plot's set up in the first few minutes in a flurry of tiny scenes. And when people complain about his gooey heart-warming endings, they sometimes forget that Capra has to take Smith to an absolute low point before he can justify that ending (the same applies to It's A Wonderful Life, of course). Only a few minutes before the end, Smith is in a very dark place indeed, and an unhappy ending could easily be on the cards, if it wasn't for the people involved.
Most fascinating of all, Smith's rah-rah attitude to the sheer concept of America - the concept of individual freedom, the idea that one man can make a difference even against impossible odds, the montages of Washington monuments and flags - still feels believable to this day. Part of it is down to historical distance, of course, and the way we've grown up with movies like this. But it's interesting to see that in Mr Smith, his endorsement of The American Way is what marks him out as the good guy... whereas in The Manchurian Candidate, we instinctively know that the politicians using those same cliches are the villains, because the sincerity just isn't there. And let's face it, nobody could do sincerity better than Capra and Stewart. Either way, today's first two films make for a great double bill in an American election year.
Jonathan Nossiter's film - the first documentary to receive the honour of an LFF gala screening, so hooray for that - is being marketed as being about the wine industry, although in fact it's a lot more complicated than that. It starts slowly, interviewing a number of small-scale winemakers all over the world, but mainly focussing on the obvious regions in France. But as Nossiter talks to the winemakers (glorious old characters to a man), we start finding out more about the problems they encounter in today's market.
A few big names keep cropping up over and over again. Michel Rolland, the mobile consultant who spends all day being driven from one wine producer to the next, telling them what to do to make their wines sell better. (Micro-oxygenation appears to be the key, even though nobody knows what it actually means.) The Mondavi family in the Napa Valley, buying up smaller winemakers and getting snotty when people refuse to roll over for them. (One failed acquisition is dismissed by them as being because "the town elected a Communist mayor".) And the wine critic Robert Palmer, one of the few critics in any field with global influence, whose personal taste is being used as a guideline for what the rest of us should like.
In fact, what we've got here is a film about the process of globalisation, which just happens to use the wine trade as its example. The fear expressed throughout is that as smaller winemakers are either acquired or forced out of the business, all wines will end up conforming to the Rolland/Parker definition of what a good wine should be - what one importer describes as a process of 'Napa-isation'. In his Q&A afterwards, Nossiter draws a neat analogy with the way cinema works today - small independent filmmakers are still out there doing what they want to do, but their work is being swamped by huge Hollywood productions made by marketing men to fit a pre-defined taste.
It's a lovely analogy, because Nossiter's film itself refuses to behave in a way that marketing men could cope with. Rambling all over the world in its 138 minutes, it has a style all of its own, mainly characterised by Nossiter leaving his camera running at all times just to see what wanders in front of it. As a result, we get miles of footage of vineyard dogs, several sequences where the camera flails around wildly before coming to rest on its subject, and a lot of priceless moments where interviewees temporarily drop their guard. Despite this almost random approach, his theme comes across loud and clear, though without the solid narrative throughline that we've come to expect from recent cinema documentaries. Nossiter's obvious love of background details is what drags the film out to two hours twenty - without those digressions, it could easily lose a good forty minutes, but it would be an entirely different film, for better or worse.
9.00pm: South Of The Clouds
Xu (Li Xuejian) is a pensioner living in a Chinese city with his children and grandchildren, and he's bored out of his skull. Despite his ill health, he has a plan: he wants to travel out to Yunnan, for reasons he refuses to discuss with the rest of his family. Eventually, despite their protests, Xu makes his journey. Things happen to him. And that's pretty much it, really.
South Of The Clouds was written and directed by Zhu Wen. I decided to see this because I caught his first film, Seafood, at the 2001 festival. Embarrassingly, I didn't get around to re-reading my review of Seafood until literally just a few minutes ago, so I've only just remembered that I wasn't all that impressed by it. And the same applies to the new film, sadly. It potters along amusingly enough for the first half or so, as there are some nice jokes amid Xu's domestic minidramas. But obviously, the key thing we're waiting for is the revelation as to why Xu is so keen to get to Yunnan in the first place. Eventually, he gets there and tells his story, which is a lovely and touching moment. However, the film still has another forty minutes or so to run after that natural climax.
Zhu therefore has to resort to a couple of contrived subplots to drag the film out to 100 minutes. As a result, I started losing interest rapidly from that point onwards - part of this may be down to Tenth-Film-Of-The-Weekend Syndrome, but mostly it's because the film doesn't really have anything else to offer. It's amusing to note that the main point of interest for the audience at the ICA appears to have been the presence of Zhao Bandi in the cast - he's a Beijing artist who specialises in photos of himself with his toy panda, and recently had an exhibition of his work on display in Piccadilly Circus station. Yes, he carries the panda in all his scenes in the film, and the two of them pretty much steal the show.
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Belated Birthday Girl - This wasn't quite the film I was expecting it to be - but that's not actually a criticism. As someone who likes the odd glass of wine, and who as a result has been learning more about wine over recent years, I was attracted to this because I was expecting a film about wine and wine-tasting. Instead what I got was a fascinating film about globalisation, which would sit comfortably with the films of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock. As much more subtle than Spurlock as Spurlock is than Moore, this film slowly introduced us to a wine globalisation Axis of Evil of Mondavi, Michel Rolland and Robert Parker, whose aim, it seemed, is to make certain wine styles dominate the market to their mutual advantage.
Anyone who has a big interest in wine will know these characters. Robert Parker in particular is absurdly inflential: when he gives a 90 plus point mark to a bottle of wine, its price immediately rockets. People with a deeper knowledge than mine may have been aware of how close friends Parker and Rolland are. Mondavi is one of Rolland's many clients, and their wines, in particular Opus One, get high marks from Parker. We see further examples of the interplay between particularly Parker's and Rolland's influence, such as at Chateau Kirwan in Margaux. Aided by the advice of Rolland, the house style changed to produce a wine which, amongst other things, was more to Parker's taste, and got a high rating, hence better sales and a high price. But it was a wine which also was perhaps not in a Margaux style, according to Michael Broadbent of Christies, but more a Pomerol style - Rolland being based in Pomerol. The Parker/Rolland/Mondavi axis was used much as McDonalds is used in Super Size Me - not as being wholly and solely to blame for the evils of the world, but as being a big and obvious example of them in the world of wine. In a similar way as in Spurlock's film, what we see is the power of marketing, and the size and strength of the American market in particular.
Anyone really expecting a film about the wine industry as a whole could be a bit disappointed. Not only is there nothing said at all about Australian wine, or wine from a great many other countries: but even in France, where most of it is based, there isn't much discussion of the Appelation Controlee system, and nothing of the rise of quality Vins de Pays. But to be disappointed by that absence would be to miss the point of the film. Although the points about the value or otherwise of terroir, creeping homogenisation, and the difference between a genuine chateau wine and a brand could easily and interestingly be discussed in the context of Australian wine, the focus on the Parker/Rolland/Mondavi axis makes the point that this is about globalisation, not just about wine, most powerfully.
The film is long, at around 2 hours 20, and that, along with it seeming to be a film about wine, certainly means fewer people will see it than see the films of Moore and Spurlock. For my taste, I think it wouldn't have been harmed by losing 1/2 hour or so (you could lose almost that much just taking out all the footage of dogs - but maybe that's just my personal prejudice coming through). Even so, I would recommend seeing it if you get the chance - and given that it's been picked up by UGC as distributors, in one way or another I imagine the chance will arise.
Edgeplay: The Story Of The Runaways
Maria Sharapova Fanclub - I have always been one for a weekly comic. It probably started with the Beano or Whizzer & Chips, leading all the way up to my current weekly, Time Out (or soon to be Radio Times if T/Out don't come up with a better TV guide for Freeserve channels). Anyway there was a seminal moment for me circa 1976, when my weekly comic moved from Shoot & Goal to the New Musical Express. In fact I can remember as clear as if it was yesterday, the front page of the second edition of the NME that I bought, featuring the Sex Pistols' festival of punk at the 100 Club. The first edition that I bought, however, featured a front page headliner of an all girl American rock band called The Runaways. Thus such bad timing meant that The Runaways, a band with ahead of their time new wave sensibililities, missed the birth of Punk Rock by one week. Yet whilst they appeared to disappear without a trace after single Cherry Bomb bombed, a whole raft of similar US groups made it big in the UK Punk Rock scene, such as Iggy Pop, The Ramones, Johnny Thunder, and Blondie. Recently however, I saw a clip of vintage Runaways on a recent highlights edition of TOGWT. Thus it made me wonder what was the real story behind that group; all of which brings me to the start of this movie.
Well as the film opened with with some powerchords and a blasting rock chick vocal, my first thought was wow, they sure sounded good. However this opening number was actually courtesy of none other than Suzi Quatro (a heroine for several of the band's members). It was then that I remembered reading that Joan Jett had vetoed any of the band's music being used in this film, as well as personally refusing to take part in it. Thus apart from the Runaways performing two covers (Wild Thing being one of them), the whole background soundtrack was provided by either Quatro or Lita Ford's later solo work. Worse still, what little Super 8 footage of the band that was available was spliced, diced, and repeated ad nauseam throughout. It didn't take me long (say five minutes) to decide that this was going to be a pile of rubbish. Well I was wrong, because although told in retrospect by the former members (Jett excluded), this was as good a rock documuntary as I have seen.
Thus this story had it all: abusive svengali promoter, bad mouthed teenage rock chicks, sexually manipulative road manager, lesbian triangles, drug abuse, cheeseburger abuse, fights onstage, fights offstage, suicide attempts, members being thrown out of the group, tour hassles, the works. Thus the two major dynamics at work in this whole set up were firstly, the Malcolm McLaren type promoter Kim Fowley, part boot camp sargeant, part band fight promoter, part pimp: with the other dynamic being the girls' genuine antagonism towards each other from the off (partly fuelled it has to be said by Fowley). Hearing the stories, for which some of the scars don't appear to have healed fully twenty five years on, it is beyond amazing that they managed to stay together (albeit with two lost members) for a full five years and three albums.
As such it is Lita Ford who comes across as the one who came out of it all not only intact, but treating it as a valuable learning experience. Post Runaways she carved out a successful solo career (as did Joan Jett). The replacement bassist for Jackie Fox post-suicide attempt, namely Vicky Blue, is credited with the making of this movie. Drummer Sandy, meanwhile, has since enjoyed a twenty year career in both construction and debt collection for the mob. Thus leaving probably lead singer Cherie Currie and Jackie Fox as the two who seemed to have gained the least from the whole rock band experience. Fascinating stuff though, as these girls were certainly the original Spice Girls. Even if you know nothing about this group, this is still a fun and illuminating piece.
Final weekly comic postcript: having stuck with the NME for about six years I eventually moved onto The Face. Sadly the careers of the NME staff writers of that period - Tony Parsons, Julie Burchill, Paul Morley and Danny Baker - like The Runaways, were finally sank and forever forgotten. That is apart from Charles Sharr Murray, who later found some sort of living as a Joe Strummer lookalike.
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