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Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Young at Heart Film Festival (Sydney) - Barrie Pattison finds some fine moments, especially LBJ (Rob Reiner, 2017)

Mat Ravier's Young at Heart has been chugging along with the more splashy film events. Why his pensioners are a more suitable audience for fringe films is something I suspect no one can explain but it works out on two levels. 

They charge attractive prices (a model which could be more widely followed) and they occasionally retrieve significant work which has slipped past our other guardians of culture. Doris Dörrie's 2008 Kirschblüten - Hanami/Cherry Blossoms I remember with particular affection.

I guess we can add to this Rob Reiner's 2016 biography LBJ . This is not really Reiner intruding into Oliver Stone territory. He’s already set up his tent with The American President. His two films have a community and it’s the unexpectedly jokey moments that mark this one as the work of its directorIt is a homage but not a soggy one. A scene has Harrelson holding court while seated on the loo.  The key moment of Lyndon Johnson's address to the Congress for the first time as President is introduced by the little bald official who proves to have the great commanding voice.

We start with a problem recognising either Harrelson or L.B.J. in that impressive make up job but that’s soon forgotten, about the time he’s giving up on joining Jeffrey (Burn Notice) Donovan‘s rock star JFK in shaking hands with the crowd and Jenifer Jason Leigh, similarly disguised as Lady Bird, is commenting “He’s worried people won’t love him.”

The film aims at making sympathetic the generally denigrated historical Johnson. Vietnam only gets a line of dialogue and a single white on black end caption. 

The film focuses on the relationship with the Kennedys with John F. taking him on as vice president (“I’d rather have him serve under me than fight me for leadership in the Senate”).

A new to me element is the notion of Johnson was put in as a stop gap until the time when Bobby Kennedy (here Michael Stahl-David, the film’s heavy) could replace his brother as President. Harrelson advising his associates to take any good job offers they might receive and then abruptly being put in to run the country is the heart of the piece. There are telling touches like Woody finding JFK’s bomber jacket in the closet in Airforce One.

“America has a Southern President” and the forces of reaction get run into "racist" Richard Jenkins being bargained into using black labor to get his billion dollar home state airport project. Black & white actuality (Lunch counters, Freedom Riders, black pall bearers etc.) is cut into the new filming.

Harrelson undertakes defending the JFK Civil Rights program with the telling speech about the black cook who wouldn’t take the first dog to the new location because when traveling it was already hard enough finding rest rooms without having to worry about a pet. “When the head chef of the Vice President of America has to squat on the roadside...” 

Harrelson’s “Never underestimate the intensity of a martyr’s cause or the size of a Texan’s balls” sets up his oration on the floor, imposing enough without the insets of the actor/politicians listening.  The film has another miscalculation in the editing -  cutting back and forth with the fatal motorcade - but is generally a handsome, imposing presentation.

You're not likely to get another whack at this one in a theatrical setting. 

The Young at Heart program also offers a new Volker Schlondorf Rucher Nach Montauk/Return to Montauk with Stellan Skarsgard re-uniting with Nina Hoss and an assortment of international material that I'd like to explore along with screenings of All About Eve,the fifties A Star Is Born and The Prime of Miss Jean Brody.

We could use a few more of these.

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