EIFF 2016 – Whisky Galore! (Gillies Mackinnon)

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This remake of alexander Mackendrick’s Ealing classic Whisky Galore! (1949) has been in development since the early 2000’s. Every so often the producers would attempt to drum up publicity in the press and people would wonder why bother remaking one of the great Scottish films? Production was shelved a decade ago due to a problem with funding and arguments over casting. Now that the film has finally been made it turns out to be a modest success. Peter McDougall’s screenplay is wryly funny and captures the spirit of Compton Mackenzie’s novel, while Gregor Fisher gives a warm-hearted performance as the wily postmaster Macroon.

The story remains much the same save for the addition of a sub-plot about important documents relating to the royal family which would have got the original filmmakers done for treason. On the isolated Isle of Todday wartime rationing has restricted the availability of whisky. Much to the consternation of the Islanders they’ve drank their fill and the island is now dry. While Macroon is one of the most respected men on the island, he’s not known for his joviality. A widower with two daughters, both of whom are keen to marry and may well leave for the mainland. The last thing he needs is a period of sobriety.

When the SS Cabinet Minister runs aground carrying a cargo of whisky meant for the United States the locals mobilise although not before the local Kirk minister (James Cosmo) makes them observe the longest Sabbath of their lives. Technically taking anything from the ship is theft so hapless Home Guardsman Captain Wagget (Eddie Izzard) chases them all over the island trying to find proof of their subterfuge.

Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero (1983) and the TV series Hamish Macbeth (1994) did more with this kind of material and like the original Whisky Galore! tell us a great deal about the time when they were made. Mackinnon’s film is a nostalgic period piece, but not without charm. What’s missing is any sense of there being something to lose for these people. Izzard is too buffoonish to pose any real threat while Basil Radford in the 49’ version seemed like the sort of ‘decent’ person who would ruin people’s lives over the most trivial of matters. It’ll pass a Sunday afternoon quite nicely though and older viewers might enjoy hearing Gregor Fisher reprising his Hebridean news anchor accent from his Naked Video (1986-91) days.

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EIFF 2016 – Maggie’s Plan (Rebecca Miller)

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Went into Maggie’s Plan expecting an earnest drama like The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005), but Rebecca Miller’s latest turns out to be a highly entertaining comedy. Greta Gerwig plays the titular Maggie who feels she’s ready for motherhood but not marriage. Old college friend Guy (Travis Fimmel) is keen on a more traditional form of impregnation, but agrees to donate sperm and play no further part should Maggie become pregnant. Good-looking, but with an intense manner and clearly suffering from social awkwardness, Guy studied as a mathematician but dropped out and became a “pickle entrepreneur” growing and bottling his own product.

While teaching at college she meets John (Ethan Hawke), a handsome professor and literary star moving away from theory to writing his first novel. John frequently talks about his wife Georgette (Julianne Moore) in disparaging terms and implies she’s ruining his life. Maggie begins an affair despite being warned by her friend Tony (Bill Hader) not to get involved with a married man. Cut to three years later and Maggie and John are together with a young daughter plus sharing custody of his two children with Georgette. John is still writing the same novel though and is a feckless father, leaving all the hard work to Maggie while he does his own thing. Maggie begins to resent him and comes up with a plan to return him to his first wife.

Lighter in tone than her previous work with a whimsical style Woody allen has lost the knack for Miller gently pokes fun at the pretensions of her characters while remaining sympathetic to them. The manipulative and flighty Maggie could easily be unbearable but Gerwig makes her likeable despite her machinations. Moore is hilarious as Georgette whose few early appearances seem to confirm expectations she is some kind of caricature until gradually Miller reveals her humanity. Hawke is the film’s patsy, and it’s hard to to think Miller cast him without having read one of the actor’s own dreadful novels. Doubt I’ll see a scene I enjoy more this year than Moore handing him the burnt ashes of his character’s shitty novel.

EIFF 2016 – The Rezort (Steve Barker)

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For one terrible moment at the beginning of The Rezort it seems like the film might be a found footage movie but thankfully Barker is simply establishing we are in a post zombie epidemic world in which humanity fought back and won “the war.” The remaining undead have been successfully contained on an isolated island. Unfortunately super-rich company CEO Ms. Wilton (Claire Goose) has turned the place into a Westworld style theme park open to visitors who can purchase safari trips with the added bonus of using the zombies for target practice. Now a zombie theme park seems like a spectacularly stupid idea but then I remember a shipping company has rebuilt the Titanic and is currently taking bookings for a maiden voyage. So zombie theme park? Entirely plausible scenario.

In true horror movie style we are introduced to a variety of characters who probably won’t make it to the end of the movie. Odds-on favourite for final girl status Melanie (Jessica De Gouw) is a zombie massacre survivor currently undergoing therapy and in need of some closure. Also along for the trip are her suspiciously nice Irish boyfriend, ex-soldier Lewis (Martin McCann), mysterious loner archer (Dougray Scott), hippy-ish undead rights campaigner (Elen Rhys), teenagers Jack & Jay (Jassa ahluwalia, Derek Siow), and a group of obnoxious businessmen who are clearly first on the menu.

Steve Barker has a proven track record for low-budget features having previously directed the first two entries in the zombie-Nazi Outpost trilogy for Black Camel Productions. Both were filmed on location in Scotland in less than a month but despite the short production period Barker delivered two very effective genre movies. Black Camel once again produce, this time from a screenplay by Paul Gerstenberger.

Leading lady De Gouw, impressive on cult TV shows Dracula and Arrow, holds the film together. For some reason Dougray Scott is lumbered with an American accent just as fellow Brit Richard Coyle was in Outpost: Black Sun (2012). Gerstenberger’s screenplay makes clear allusions to the the refugee crisis and the situation in the Middle East. While the market is over-crowded with zombie films The Rezort is more thoughtful than most and entertaining enough to warrant its own Outpost style franchise.

EIFF 2016 – The Correspondence (Giuseppe Tornatore)

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In this odd otherworldly love story post-grad astrophysics student and part time movie stunt performer Amy Ryan (Olga Kurylenko) is having an affair with her much older tutor Professor Ed Phoerum (Jeremy Irons).  First seen in an anonymous hotel room with a grunting Irons looking like he’s about to launch into some of the erotic manoeuvres from Louis Malle’s Damages (1992), they then go their separate ways making sure nobody sees them. Ed is married with a grown-up daughter (Shauna MacDonald) and a young son, but the two still communicate every day though by text or Skype. Ed seems paternalistic, not surprising given the considerable age difference, but Irons & Kurylenko remain convincing as lovers because her character is clearly looking for a father figure and he’s still a handsome chap.

Suddenly Ed disappears from her life, keeping in touch with Amy only through cryptic messages by text, email, or DVD recordings sent by courier. She travels to his hometown of Edinburgh (posh Scot, no need for an accent) to find out more about his absence. There are little moments that appear to be supernatural portents, a Labrador dog who approaches her in a park and seems to be trying to communicate something, a leaf banging repeatedly against her window, endless talk of parallel worlds and other selves, but the truth behind’s Ed’s absence may be something altogether simpler.

This could just as easily have been a thriller about a controlling male tormenting his lover and to be fair the film does address these concerns towards the end, but the overall mood is romantic and it just about hangs together. As with Tornatore’s last film 2014’s  The Best Offer (which felt like an upmarket version of a giallo), The Correspondence is flawed but fascinating. Scenes of Amy performing elaborate action movie scenes seem incongruous until the stunts begin to mirror her emotional state of mind. Ennio Morricone’s score helps matters, the use of electric guitar in one long recurring suite recalls Local Hero (1983, Bill Forsyth), another Scottish set film which used the landscape to magical effect.

EIFF 2016 -Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi)

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Funny and moving adaptation of Barry Crumb’s novel ‘Wild Pork and Watercress’ from the director of What We Do in the Shadows. Taika Waititi’s film follows the misadventures of mismatched pair Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), a 13-year old delinquent from the city, and 65-year old Hec (Sam Neill), as they inadvertently become fugitives and the subject of a massive manhunt through the New Zealand bush.

Repeat offender Ricky Baker has been given one last chance. Adapt to life in the country with new foster parents Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec or face life in juvenile detention. Militaristic social welfare officer Paula (Rachel House) wants to put Ricky away, rattling off a list to Bella of relatively minor crimes (“spitting!”) she considers to be serious but which are clearly the actions of a bored kid. Though at first Bella seems like a comic caricature with her over-the-top enthusiasm and her cat faced jumper, she’s smart and likable and wins Ricky’s trust. Hec remains aloof though preferring his own company, but Ricky finally feels like he has a place to call home.

When things go awry Ricky takes off but his attempts to go Bush prove hopeless, and Hec finds the starving youngster but unforeseen circumstances force them to camp out in the bush for a month. On the way home they stop at a bothy (no idea what Kiwi’s call a hut for travellers in the country). Pinned to the wall is a news article suggesting Hec may have abducted Ricky and warning people to look out for them. With Hec having done time in the past and Ricky facing being returned to the child welfare system the pair decide to go on the run, pursued by the clearly unhinged Paula, social services, the police, a trio of dim-witted hunters, and eventually the military.

While Waikiki’s earlier films Eagle Versus Shark (2007) and What We Do in the Shadows (2014) were similarly colourful affairs Hunt For the Wilderpeople is much larger in scale. With its use of the landscape and subplot about a rare animal hiding in the forest it put me in mind of another Sam Neill movie The Hunter (2011, Daniel Nettheim), essentially delivering a comic version of the themes present in that film as this taciturn loner learns become an unlikely surrogate father to a young boy.

Neill is an effortlessly charismatic straight-man while Dennison is a real find making a character who could easily have been irritating lovable. There’s also a welcome cameo from Rhys Darby as a conspiracy nut hiding out in the jungle, and Waikiki makes a brief appearance as a Church Minister with an unusual line in eulogies. A huge hit in New Zealand, Hunt for the Wilderpeople should do well internationally. Marvel fans might want to seek it out as Waikiki will be directing the next Thor movie.

 

LFF 2013 – The Congress (Ari Folman)

Waltz with Bashir (2008) director Ari Folman melds together Stanislaw’s novel ‘The Futurological Congress’ and the career of actress Robin Wright for this odd but moving mixture of live action and animation. Wright plays a fictional variation of herself, a narrative device made popular after Being John Malkovich (1999, Spike Jonze) and one which allows filmmakers to play around with a star’s persona. In The Congress Wright becomes a washed-up Hollywood dropout living in an airport hangar with her two children Aaron (Kodi Smit-Mcphee) who is losing his hearing and idealistic teenager Sarah (Sami Gayle). Wright has spent the intervening years since her early success in The Princess Bride (1987, Rob Reiner) driving her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) nuts by making bad career choices.
A lucrative offer from ‘Miramount’ studio boss Jeff (Danny Huston) to submit to an experimental new technique designed to replace ageing actors with CGI avatars so they remain forever young forces Wright to make a final decision on her acting career. Fade way or remain onscreen as an A-list simulacrum. Huston’s casting may be a nod towards his role in Bernard Rose’s fuck you to Hollywood Ivans XTC (2000) which combined the tragic life of agent Jay Moloney with Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich.’ Here however the satire is laboured and feels inauthentic. Though he makes fair points about how the industry sidelines women over forty and audiences are complicit in their preference for younger stars Folman has never made a Hollywood movie and it shows. These kinds of attacks work better when those involved have done time there like Rose and have scores to settle.
Folman is on stronger ground adapting Lem’s story about a future where people imbibe chemicals allowing them to escape from reality into a fantasy world of their own construction. Both filmmaker and novelist share thematic interests. Waltz with Bashir is essentially a journey through Folman’s memories to uncover a moment lost to him. Likewise Lem’s work particularly in ‘Solaris’ deals with the hold the past can have over a person especially if loss is involved. Twenty years after signing away her career and letting her CGI replacement take over Wright is summoned to a meeting in an entirely animated world called Abrahama.
Though this place is supposed to represent a new medium replacing motion pictures Abrahama has the retro feel of a Twenties cocktail party and the look of the animation resembles the work of old cartoons. People take comfort in the past, turning themselves briefly into Hollywood idols, or in the case of a lovelorn computer programmer Dylan improving their own physicality by turning himself into a tall dark and handsome matinee idol lookalike. Dylan is affectingly voiced by Jon Hamm who possesses one of the loveliest and saddest voices around. As Wright searches for her missing children in this strange new world The Congress becomes another mesmerising waltz through a dreamscape, once again set to a haunting Max Richter score.
The Congress is bound to divide audiences and admittedly it can infuriate as well as mesmerise often in the same scene. Yet any film featuring Robin Wright singing Leonard Cohen tracks, impersonating Sterling Hayden, and confessing she may have married unsuitable men has my vote. The Congress also features a remarkable monologue delivered by Harvey Keitel which is at once a confession of betrayal and of love which is worth the price of a ticket alone. 
 
The Congress
Written by Ari Folman, 
based on ‘The Futurological Congress’ by Stanislaw Lem
Directed by Ari Folman
Running time 122 minutes
 
 

LFF 2013 – Mystery Road (Ivan Sen)

For years now Aboriginal actor Aaron Pedersen has been a charismatic presence on Australian TV shows like Water Rats, the recent Jack Irish adaptations, and a personal favourite of mine The Secret Life of Us. In Ivan Sen’s thriller Mystery Road.  Pedersen finally gets a leading role as a police detective returning home from the city to the dead-end outback town he left a decade earlier. Why Jay Snow (Pedersen) came back is anybody’s guess. Snow’s fellow officers patronise him and his own folk hate him for turning cop. There’s an ex-wife Mary (Tasma Walton) but she’s drinking her life away and angry at Snow for ignoring their daughter.
As with Jindabyne (2006, Ray Lawrence) the murder of a young Aboriginal woman causes conflict in a small town. While in Lawrence’s relocation of a Raymond Carver short story the killing causes much soul searching amongst the townsfolk here nobody seems to care. Found near the highway with her throat slashed the teenager was a drug addict who prostituted herself to passing truck drivers.
Snow is given no resources to investigate the murder even though there’s a long list of suspects including a kangaroo hunting sharpshooter (Ryan Kwanten), a drug pusher (Damian Walshe-Howling) preying on the Aboriginal community, and maybe even Snow’s enigmatic colleague Jonno (Hugo Weaving) who has a habit of turning up at inopportune moments. Weaving is exceptional as a man whose threatening nature is only slightly softened by his avuncular manner and whose wardrobe seems to consist entirely of faded denim sleeveless shirts.
Racial tensions simmering under the surface of everyday life and the marginalisation of indigenous Australians are placed within the framework of the Western genre. Like the US show Justified it is interested in how poverty in small deprived communities often forces people towards crime or finding an escape though drink and drugs. It’s no grim affair either with Sen’s screenplay providing a dry sense of humour and Pedersen’s understated performance holds the attention. When the inevitable showdown arrives it’s one of the finest shoot-outs in recent memory. An intense fifteen-minute exchange which is chaotic, messy, and unusually for an onscreen gun battle everybody involved seems to fear for their lives.
Sen’s slow burn approach burns a little too slowly and there is too much heavy handed symbolism on show. Occasionally the reliance on lengthy conversations with suspects makes the film feel a little too much like a television police procedural. Despite these minor flaws Mystery Road is engrossing and should provide both writer/director Sen and Aaron Pedersen with international breakthroughs. 
 
 
Mystery Road
Written and directed by Ivan Sen
Australia
2013
112 minutes