1.00pm: Major Dundee
Here's a classic moment from a Russ Meyer film that I never got around to mentioning in my recent review. Hal Hopper has just spent the first nine minutes of a film stalking and raping a young girl, but he's still not satisfied. He turns to his sweaty mate and says, "You know the broad I really want..." Bang! Up comes the title of the movie: Lorna. As film genres go, Movies Where The Title Appears On Screen As A Response To A Line Of Dialogue is a somewhat limited one, so it's always a good idea to celebrate one when you find it. Hence my delight at the opening sequence of Sam Peckinpah's 1965 Western, in which an Apache chief looks over the site of his latest massacre and yells "Pony soldier! I am Sierra Charriba! Who you send against me now?" - and the title card Major Dundee comes up immediately. Dundee (Charlton Heston) has to assemble his army from limited resources: most of the available men are convicts and drunks, and they include a bunch of Confederate prisoners headed up by Captain Ben Tyreen (Richard Harris). Fighting the Apache may end up taking second priority to fighting each other.
Peckinpah had a long history of battles with film producers and studios, and Major Dundee was where it all started. Following an intensely troubled production, he had the film taken off him, and had to watch as the studio cut twelve minutes of footage from it and added what he considered to be an unsuitable score. Grover Crisp of Sony's film restoration unit (almost as familiar a presence at these screenings as Clyde Jeavons is now) gave the usual introduction describing the process by which that twelve minutes was tracked down and re-integrated into the movie. But he also talked about the somewhat controversial decision to commission a new score, in an attempt to try and find music that would be closer to Peckinpah's original intentions. I don't know what the original music sounded like, but Christopher Caliendo's 2005 soundtrack isn't bad at all: it's carefully done in the style of the period, and happy to throw in cliches like Big Dramatic Chord After Portentious Line Of Dialogue, because that's how they would have done it in 1965. Sony even appear to have muddied up the sound recording of the music, so its clarity doesn't jar alongside the original sound: that's the level of attention to detail we're talking about here.
As for the film itself, I'm not sure I agree with Jeavons' opinion that it's up there with Peckinpah's very best - to me, it feels like he's still trying to find his voice as a filmmaker - but it's damn fine stuff all the same. It's no surprise that it's an out-and-out Man's Film, with at least one gem of hard-boiled dialogue per minute (courtesy of a script by Harry Julian Fink, Oscar Saul and Peckinpah himself). Heston does everything you'd expect in the role of the deeply flawed Major, but it's also fun to see Richard Harris stealing scenes from right under his nose (and being cheered on by a British audience like he's the home team). Peckinpah's trademark visuals are already easy to spot by this point in his career: not just the inevitable buckets of blood, but also his palpable love for the Mexican landscape, and his tendency to cut really fast just before violent scenes to increase the anticipation and dread. We seem to be more or less living with Clyde Jeavons this Festival, but when he lays on archive treasures as good as these, we can't really be blamed for it.
4.30pm: Pavee Lackeen
Perry Ogden is a photographer who mainly works in fashion and advertising, but also does small-scale artistic projects in his spare time. One of these - a 1999 book called Pony Kids about horse exhibitions in Dublin - brought him into contact with the city's Traveller community: people on the poverty line living out of caravans on the outskirts of the suburbs. Pavee Lackeen is his first film, and is an attempt at building a story around one of these Traveller families. Winnie (Winnie Maughan) is ten years old and the youngest of a family of ten kids. While her mother (Rose Maughan) argues with the council to try and get the family a better place (or, indeed, to just hold on to the one they already have), Winnie is fighting her own battles at school as the 'settled' kids pick on her and call her names. Suspended from school for a week after a fight, she spends her days wandering around town, and we wander around with her.
There's a lot to admire about Pavee Lackeen. Ogden has a photographer's knack for getting in close to his subjects, and the casual intimacy he achieves while shooting overcomes any limitations in the low-fi digital cameras he's using. His story (co-written with Mark Venner) pulls off the smart trick of being simultaneously about Winnie and Ireland at the same time, without shouting about it. There are a number of scenes where Winnie wanders around from one shop to another, chatting to the staff to pass the time: although it isn't explicitly mentioned, the shopkeepers are all immigrants from other countries. Ogden suggested in the Q&A that this helped draw a line between the Irish residents who would refuse to serve Winnie for being a Traveller, and the newcomers to Ireland who haven't been there long enough to be able to tell the difference. But I think there's another reading possible here: the Russians, Chinese and so on simply wouldn't have been a part of Irish society a decade or two ago, and are a sign of the major social changes the country's been through. The newcomers are, literally, the future of Ireland: the Travellers are part of a past everyone else is trying to forget.
But for all this, it's a very uncomfortable film to watch. Ogden's cast is taken from a number of actual Traveller families, and the dialogue and scenes are a queasy mixture of real life and fictional elements. As with that whole subgenre of Music Documentaries About Insane People that I seem to have drifted into this Festival, I keep finding myself wondering about the whole shooting process, and how much the people on screen are being manipulated by the people behind the camera for the sake of an interesting shot. That's not to mention the whole complex issue of the rights of a group of people who've chosen this particular lifestyle: but when even Suze refuses to be drawn on that topic, I don't see why I should be either. Nevertheless, there's undeniable talent on display here.
8.30pm: Surprise Film: Mrs Henderson Presents
As always, there's been heated debate on what this year's LFF Surprise Film will be, particularly among my chums on the Guardian Film talkboards. Although Festival boss Sandra Hebron will never admit it, there are unwritten rules that all her previous selections have followed. In 2002 we had Far From Heaven: in 2003, School Of Rock: and in 2004 (the first year in ages that I missed it), Sideways. Hence the unwritten rules - a middlebrow mainstream American movie: already released in the US but not out here for a while yet: the sort of thing that would comfortably play in the Film On The Square section of the programme, but wasn't available in time to go into the official programme. Capote, the biopic starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, seemed to be the most logical choice: The Exorcism Of Emily Rose and Flightplan were the possibilities we were kind of dreading.
Except none of us considered that this would be the year that the rules would change. So the curtain rose on what I think is the first British Surprise Film in living memory: and one whose highpoint is the display of Bob Hoskins' cock, at that. When Laura Henderson (Judi Dench) is widowed in 1937, she looks around for something to occupy her time, and ends up buying the Windmill Theatre in London's glittering West End. She hands over artistic control to theatre manager Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), and pretty soon their programme of round-the-clock musical revue is drawing in the crowds. When the demand for that fades, Mrs Henderson comes up with an even bigger crowd-pleaser: round-the-clock musical revue featuring women with nothing on.
Freely adapted by playwright Martin Sherman from the true story of the Windmill, and directed by the generally reliable Stephen Frears, Mrs Henderson Presents is actually pleasant enough fun for the first half hour or so: Henderson's baptism into the world of theatre, her genteel discussions with the Lord Chamberlain (Christopher Guest) about how to avoid arrests for obscenity, in fact pretty much everything up to the point where Hoskins wiggles his salami into the camera. The leads are enjoyable to watch, and there are some good supporting performances: including a surprisingly effective turn from Will Young, proving my theory that Pop Idol contestants should be going into musical theatre like the stage school wannabes they are, and should stop filling up our pop charts with shitty cover versions.
By that half hour mark, the Windmill has held its first nude show, and it's been a roaring success. Nobody involved in the production of the film seems to have realised that from that point on, there's no story left. But there's still another hour to go: and it's filled with endless recreations of musical numbers, and invented conflicts between the theatre staff. It's all very well that the Windmill is famous for not closing during World War 2, but even a director as talented as Frears can't make drama out of something not happening. The film can't even get by on simple honest vulgarity: it's all BBC Films-style good taste and cynically calculated naughtiness, right up to the climax being built around Judi Dench dropping the F bomb to fulfil the 'one use of strong language' that will get the film a PG-13 rating in the States. (Except, amusingly, American censors are so frightened of the cock these days that they've given it an R instead.) You could literally cut Mrs Henderson Presents after the 'first night' scene and instantly make a first-class comic short out of it: as a feature, it's spunked away any good feeling you may have towards it by the end.
Notes From Spank's Pals
Walk The Line
Stuart Pearce Fanclub - Fine performances here from Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter. So why do I feel so unsatisfied then? Probably because just like say Anthony Hopkins in Nixon or Will Smith in Ali, the film script just didn't match up to the actors performing it.
Now I must admit I have only a sketchy knowledge of Cash's career. Yet I am willing to guess there was more to it than constant pill popping and his on/off romance with June Carter. I mean: what were the career highlights (apart from the Folsom Prison gig), where did those songs come from, what influenced his musical style and lyrics, when was he in fashion and when was he not, did he actually sell any records? Maybe it's me and I am unrealistically expecting these film biographies to be closer to a chronological history. For example returning to the Ali film, one would have thought his whole career was based around preaching for the Nation of Islam and chasing skirt, with the odd fight (which he didn't need to train for) thrown in. Well in Walk The Line, it is hard to believe that Cash was ever capable of holding a guitar up, let alone playing it and writing songs into the bargain.
Perhaps it is really just a love story about a junkie and the woman who wouldn't give up on him. However I think Cash, Phoenix and Witherspoon deserved better. After all we all have a public face and in most cases a little less savoury private persona. The tendency of biographies like these to concentrate on the latter doesn't serve to flesh people out in my view, but merely to cheapen and belittle their achievements.
Anyway the music is strong, and as I said Phoenix and Witherspoon are both impressive.
The Belated Birthday Girl - Comparisons with City Of God are inevitable, as this film deals with life and crime in the favelas. But this is a very different film from City Of God, dealing more with the clash between the worlds of comfortable, largely white, left-wing activists and poor, black inhabitants of the slums.
The film intercuts scenes from a high security prison in the 70s, where political prisoners and criminals are incarcerated together, with scenes from the present day. Miguel and Jorginho were imprisoned together back in the 70s: Miguel as a political activist, and Jorginho for theft. In the present day Jorginho is still in prison, but is now running the favela through his gang corporal, who he keeps in touch with by mobile phone: while Miguel is a local politician, trying to improve conditions in the favelas through public works, and whose daughter has a dangerous fascination with slumming it with the gang members.
Each of the two threads develops in ways which highlight the gap between the idealism of Miguel and the realities he and his family have to confront. In the end, the film is about posing questions of how these realities can be changed, rather than providing any comforting answers. As for those inevitable City Of God comparisons, don't expect anything as exhilarating, but expect something at least as thought provoking. Definitely worth seeing.
Mrs Henderson Presents
Stuart Pearce Fanclub - So for the second time in a day, one has to fight one's way through a rugby scrum in order to get into the Odeon West End. I mean it is not like this on normal occasions, so why should it be any different for the London Film Festival? As one girl said in the crush behind me: "the organiser's forte is obviously picking films, and not crowd control". However based on this stinker of a movie, I would certainly disagree with her former point. I mean what was Sandra Hebron thinking of choosing a soppy, tacky piece of nonsense like this to be the Surprise Festival Film.
Anyway, as if it matters, Judi Dench is the rich widow who reopens Soho's Windmill theatre in the late Thirties. Employing Dutch Van Manager Bob Hoskins, they decide the way to go is a nude burlesque show. Thus in a strong showing of artistic and static knockers, they manage to defy the censors, stand up to the Luftwaffe, and buck up the troops' morale into the bargain.
Now I am not against the subject matter, as there have been some great films about Burlesque or Vaudeville. For example think The Night They Raided Minsky's, or Moulin Rouge, or best of all Cabaret. This one however is another job creation scheme for out of work British Thespians (which is usually my opinion of anything these days that has Judi Dench attached to it). Director Stephen Frears is normally a class act with an impressive CV but on this occasion he shoots wide of the mark with something that doesn't work as comedy, as drama, or (the Woody Allen concept) Dramedy.
Ms Hebron presents a poor choice here, which seems to have everything to do with using this slot to promote a British film, rather than presenting something innovative and entertaining for the audience. Disappointing to say the least.
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