LFF Round-Up

Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas)

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Olivier Assayas reunites with Kristin Stewart following their success with Clouds of Sils Maria for this unusual tale of a young woman trying to come to terms with her twin brother’s death. Maureen (Stewart) lives in Paris and works as a personal shopper for a supermodel. She hates her job collecting expensive items from high-end department stores, but it pays the rent. She has a reason for staying in the city.  Maureen is a medium and believes Lewis is haunting the house they grew up in so she spends her nights there trying to make contact with his spirit. These scenes are unsettling and eventually become downright terrifying, though there is a hint of ambiguity present suggesting Maureen’s grief may have taken form, just as Eleanor’s anguish might be the cause of the strange occurrences in Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House.’ Yet Assayas and everybody in the movie treat her gift with respect which suggests this is a world where the supernatural is possible and the dead exist alongside the living. There’s a sub-plot about mysterious texts sent by somebody who seems to know her whereabouts at all times,  a Vertigo like transformation into her boss, and a murder but it’s plot is less important than the mood Assayas creates. Personal Shopper may prove divisive for audiences but it’s an audacious study on grief, and urban loneliness with a terrific performance from Stewart.

Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello)

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Bertrand Bonello’s remarkable film is a real gut-puncher. Opening with a beautifully choreographed wordless sequence showing a group of youngsters repeatedly crossing paths as they move through the Paris Metro, then towards their various destinations at the heart of the city it’s clear they are carrying out some kind of well thought out plan. Bonello gives us hints through flashbacks but retains this ambiguity until they’ve completed their missions. The kids then retreat from the real world of the city, and into an upmarket department store where they hide away from the consequences of their actions. Running wild through the various floors this place becomes like a fantasy world occupying their time until the inevitable happens and the real world catches up with them. Touching on themes of a disenfranchised youth, Europe’s collapsing institutions, misguided political idealism, and materialism, it’s perhaps the most prescient film of the year. Bonus points for using John Barry’s theme for the 70s’ Roger Moore/Tony Curtis TV show The Persuaders to haunting effect.

Barakah Meets Barakah (Mahmoud Sabbagh)

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Funny and occasionally melancholic romantic-comedy from Saudi arabia about a young couple trying to further their relationship while also dealing with societal pressures and their families. The first time we see Barakah (Hisham Fageeh) he’s walking towards the screen like ‘Beat’ Takeshi’s introduction in Violent Cop, but he’s a gentler sort of fellow. As a civil servant his job requires him to patrol his local neighborhood and hand out fines for minor civic infringements, but Barakah usually just warns them instead. Barakah is beginning to feel life is passing him by until he meets social media star Bibi (Fatima al-Banawi) and the two become although their personalities are very different. He’s working-class, while she’s the adopted daughter of rich parents. Barakah is quiet and obeys the rules, Bibi walks around with her head uncovered and sails dangerously close to the wind with her Instagram account. The presence of the religious police is never directly shown except in one absurdist sequence but the threat is always there in the background. The couple meet in public places for moments at a time making sure these encounters look more like chance than romantic liaisons in case somebody reports them. There’s a beautiful riff on the “this is 2003/1955…” scenes from Mike Mills Beginners (2011) contrasting the freedoms his grand-parents generation enjoyed with the limitations they’ve placed on the young. It is first and foremost though a romantic-comedy though, and both Fageeh and al-Banawi are very charming together.

Blue Velvet Revisited (Peter Braatz)

David Lynch, Isabella Rossellini

 

 

Documentary put together from behind-the-scenes footage taken by a German filmmaker Peter Braatz. As a student Braatz asked if he could shadow David Lynch during the production of Blue Velvet and to his great surprise Lynch agreed. Blue Velvet Revisited is for die-hard Lynch fans only, a mixture of still photography, on-set interviews, and footage taken of scenes being filmed presented with little context for the uninitiated. The most interesting part is hearing Lynch talking thirty years how he would like to experiment with new computer technology and his dissatisfaction with the process of shooting on film. No wonder he was one of the first directors to embrace digital filmmaking.

 

Dog Eat Dog (Paul Schrader)

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Easily the biggest disappointment of this year’s LFF is the normally great Paul Schrader’s adaptation of Eddie Bunker’s crime novel about three recently released ex-cons and their return to their violent old ways. Dog Eat Dog reteams Schrader with Nicolas Cage after the poorly received Dying of the Light which did at least have production problems to use as an excuse for its failure. On paper Bunker’s novel seems the perfect material for Schrader, director of the cool detached adaptation of Comfort of Strangers (1990) and the stylish crime thriller Light Sleeper (1992) but the darkly comic tone here and the occasional digressions into the kind of dream-like fairytale stylings of David Lynch don’t suit him. An opening scene in which Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe) murders an overweight mother and her teenage daughter is shockingly played for laughs and this glib tone continues throughout the movie despite the obviously fatalistic direction the story is clearly taking. Bunker’s story about ruthless none too bright criminals who will hurt anybody who get in their way is still in there behind Schrader’s excesses but despite excellent performances from Cage and in particular Christopher Matthew Cook as hulking enforcer Diesel this is an unpleasant and (remarkably considering the age of its director) adolescent work.

 

LFF 2016 – Elle (Paul Verhoeven)

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Fairly convinced Paul Verhoeven is engaged in the process of shaping his own CV so each film is part of a matching pair. Basic Instinct (1992) is a glossy Hollywood version of The Fourth Man (1983), Black Book a female tale of heroism to go with his earlier WWII epic Soldier of Orange, while Showgirls (1995) essentially tells the same story as his period drama Katie Tippel (1975), with a young woman trying to make her way in a workplace where men hold all the power and frequently abuse it. Now with Elle he reworks medieval action movie Flesh + Blood (1985) into a film that manages to be both a revenge thriller and a French comedy of manners.

Like Flesh + Blood it concerns a rape victim shifting the balance of power against her attacker by beginning a relationship with him. Video games CEO Michele (Isabelle Huppert) is brutally assaulted in her own home by a masked intruder. Rather than reporting the incident to the police she clears up the damage to her home and washes away the physical evidence by bathing. Though Elle may seem like Verhoeven is being deliberately provocative it’s his most restrained film to date, a character study of somebody who has already suffered a horrendous trauma (the matter-of-fact way Huppert reveals this is shocking and hilarious) and is capable of dealing with grief.

Michele refuses to be a victim and indeed proves stronger than those around her, most of whom are reliant on her for money or seek to use her as an emotional crutch. It wouldn’t have worked so well without Huppert who can play characters who refuse outright to ask the audience for sympathy (see also White Material). Maybe Adjani could have matched her but I’m not sure. It’s a complex and ambiguous film and I’m not sure I’ve got a handle on it after one Film Festival screening.

LFF 2016 – Goldstone (Ivan Sen)

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Ivan Sen’s impressive sequel to 2013’s Mystery Road sees detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) once again searching for a lost girl in a remote area of Australia. Last time we saw Swan he was standing tall in true Western style having just faced down a violent gang in the outback, but it’s clear from Pedersen’s demeanour he’s no longer the same man. We learn later Jay’s drug-addict daughter from the first film has since died and he’s taken to drink in a big way. Sent out to the tiny mining town of Goldstone on “light duties” to investigate the reported sighting of a missing young Chinese woman he spends the first night in jail after being pulled over by local lawman Josh (Alex Russell) for drink-driving.

Josh  is the only lawman in town, but his job is basically breaking up drunken brawls and doing the bidding of local mining company boss Johnny (David Wenham, think evil Rhys Darby) and town mayor (Jacki Weaver). Josh might not be taking the cash bribes offered to him, but he knows when to let things slide. There is no evidence a Chinese girl was ever in Goldstone and nobody’s talking. Even the local indigenous community wants nothing to do with Jay. The sighting was called in by Maria (Ursula Yovich) months ago but it’s only now the authorities have taken an interest and sent him out there. Jay’s visit is watched over by company man Tommy (Tom E. Lewis) who warns him off the next day. Later his mobile home is machine-gunned by a biker gang.  Josh wants Jay gone before he causes any more trouble, while Jay thinks the Goldstone man is shirking his duties. Both rile each other into action. Jay to sober up and Josh to finally start acting like a cop despite the intimidation they both face from those intent on protecting their business interests at any cost.

Like Mystery Road the film utilizes the Western genre to tell a story about the culture clash between the disenfranchised indigenous community and those who seek to exploit the land for profit. The charismatic Pedersen’s taciturn hero is a wonderful creation, a man trapped between cultures but increasingly drawn back to his roots.  Once again he faces corruption from authority figures, an outlaw gang, and even a rival gunslinger (Aaron Fa’oso) this time but there’s a departure away from the realism of the first film towards a kind of mysticism where the land has a profound haunting effect on those who are willing to make a connection with it. Sen’s dialogue is occasionally portentous, but Goldstone is an ambitious film, beautifully shot (by Sen who also wrote the music and edited) with a rousing finale as the two lawmen join forces for a stunning showdown. There’s a sub-plot which hints at a possible third film and I sincerely hope they Pedersen and Sen make this a trilogy.

 

LFF 2013 – Story of My Death/Pioneer

Two great seducers, Casanova and Dracula meet in Spanish director Albert Serra’s latest but this is no playful horror movie. In fact I’m not entirely sure what Story of My Death is meant to be. Serra apparently shot 400 hours of footage for the film which beggars belief because hardly anything happens during the film’s two and a half hour running time as it is. An aged, repellent, and decadent Casanova eats a lot, gives half-baked philosophical advice on the nature of women (“women are all the same”), sexually exploits maids in a manner that would get him lifted nowadays, and laughs a lot for no apparent reason. It’s entirely possible the other 397 and a half hours are more of the same.

Serra claimed not to be interested in the horror genre but he’s made an interesting counterpoint to Stoker’s novel with Dracula here as a liberator of poor servile women letting them turn against the patriarchy and become powerful instead of victims.  Endurance test The Story of My Death might be Serra is clearly a gifted filmmaker albeit one who likes to punish his audience. The director gave a charming introduction to the film in which he said it was okay if people walked out which may have been reverse psychology as almost everybody stayed to the end. I don’t ever want to see The Story of My Death  again save for a wordless sequence in which would be lovers flirt at the dinner table after a meal. Free of all the dreadful pretensions Casanova spouts about love and its meaning I’d rather have seen that movie instead. 


I couldn’t get a ticket for Gravity so Erik Skjoldbjærg’s conspiracy thriller Pioneer proved a decent alternative. Set during the North Sea oil boom of the 80’s as the Norwegians are forced through inexperience and lack of resources to collaborate with an American company on finding ways to extract the oil from the depths. The expeditions are highly dangerous and involve experimenting with hitherto unused techniques. When Petter (Hennie) passes out during a test dive causing the death of another diver he resolves to find out what went wrong putting himself and those close to him in danger. Skjoldbjærg crashed and burned in Hollywood with a dire adaptation of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s  Prozac Nation (2001) while Christopher Nolan’s remake of his 97′ debut movie Insomnia put the British director on the Hollywood A-list but did nothing much for him. It’s easy to read Pioneer as a reaction to this with the plucky Norwegian battling the forces of American cultural imperialism but Skjoldbjærg presents both countries as having their own agendas with so much at stake. Pioneer is a tense, claustrophobic affair with a compelling lead performance from Aksel Hennie and good support from Wes Bentley, Stephen Lang, and Jonathon LaPlagia. 

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