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.

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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.

 

52 Films by Women – Three Examples of Myself as Queen

19. Three short stories by Anna Biller, whose latest film The Love Witch is currently winning acclaim on the Festival circuit. Biller writes, edits, designs the costumes, provides the music, directs, and occasionally stars in her own movies. She uses classic forms of cinema to tell stories about women’s roles in popular culture, all firmly located in the aesthetics of 1950s’ melodrama through their use of Technicolor and retro stylings. Though The Love Witch may prove to be her breakthrough movie she’s been working on short films and made her feature debut with in 2007 with Viva. In this 28 minute short film Biller creates three different musical narratives all built around herself as a woman being the subject of adoration.

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In the first story ‘The Queen’s Sad Life’ Biller plays a melancholy Arabian Queen sitting alone in her palace. The set design recalls big epic Hollywood productions from the 40s’ and 50s’ when studios would greenlight movies based on stories from the Arabian Nights. She is visited by a Rajah who asks her why she’s so sad when she has everything she could want. The Queen describes the repetitive nature of her life in the palace, the isolation, the feeling of missing out on other things. The Raj admits he feels the same but then scolds her for asking difficult questions about the nature of existence. She turns to her consorts for comfort and they perform an old-fashioned song and dance number called ‘Let Us Dance’ to make her feel better.

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In the second, ‘The Queen Bee,’ Biller plays an exhausted queen bee who is on the search for a place to build a new hive with her colony. Her followers describe potential locations for a new hive but none are suitable until the last member of the swarm returns and describes a place surrounded by flowers. In their new hive the worker bees all sing a song praising her as “the loveliest of bees.”

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The final story, ‘The Queen Poinsettia,’ is set in the 60s’ as Poinsettia (Biller) and her friend Buttercup attend a house party together. There’s a live band present singing a song whose lyrics seem to be about a man pressurizing a woman into sex. “Please say yeah, oh don’t say no, yeah, no.” Poinsettia is so into the music she doesn’t notice she’s now the only woman there and Buttercup has left without her. The guys begin to come on strong so she runs from the house, but they follow her. When a handsome hero turns up on a white horse and saves her from harm the story turns into a fairytale. Poinsettia asserts her authority over her attackers by assuming the role of fairy queen and using “mystification” to turn them into dogs. Then she leaves them all behind,  including the now crestfallen hero, and escapes towards towards her castle in the sky.

EIFF 2016 – Round-up

Pikadero (Ben Sharrock)

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Set in a small town in the Basque area of Spain, Scottish director Ben Sharrock’s comedy-drama follows a young couple as they attempt to consummate their relationship. The title translates as a discreet place where couples can meet for sex. There’s even an app listing locations though Gorka (Joseba Usabiaga) is so skint he can’t afford a phone, or in fact a car. Girlfriend Ane (Barbara Goenaga) is also struggling financially having recently completed her studies. Both are still living at home with their parents. Mostly they just hang out having conversations about their hopes for the future. Their ambitions are modest. She’s contemplating going to Edinburgh. That’s how bleak things seem, working in a hotel in Scotland seems like an attractive proposition. Gorka has an apprenticeship in a factory, but knows getting the job will keep him there for life.  The film’s deadpan humour and the muted sadness of the characters are reminiscent of Roy Andersson, while Sharrock often frames his characters in the corner of the screen, or against plain backdrops to make them seem isolated by their surroundings. Pikadero is prescient about problems facing working-class twenty-somethings in the current economic climate and its ending is quietly devastating.

The Love Witch (Anna Biller)

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Beautiful witch Elaine (Samantha Robinson) moves to a small town to start a new life after the death of her lover. Though outwardly she seems positive and intent on pleasing men her voice-over makes it clear she’s unhappy. Despite her recent heartbreak she’s intent on finding the man of her dreams and has concocted a love potion to help her identify him. Unfortunately this potion has side-effects reducing would-be alpha-males to weeping needy wrecks and eventually leaving them dead. Square-jawed Detective Griff Meadows (Gian Keys), follows the trail to Elaine’s door but arresting her is the last thing on his mind when he sets eyes on her.

Anna Biller’s stunning retro-styled fairytale borrows the iconography from classic movies but the result is anything but derivative. There are nods to Hitchcock’s Psycho, melancholy Italian horror movies, Douglas Sirk melodramas, and Jacques Demy’s fairytale romances but The Love Witch has most in common with Angela Carter’s feminist reworking of Brothers Grimm stories with Biller is using familiar tropes to critique female roles and masculinity in popular culture.

Moon Dogs (Philip John)

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Visually impressive coming-of-age road movie with an impressive score by Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Screenwriter Raymond Friel’s original draft was apparently a raucous teen comedy and you can still see traces of his original intent here but the finished film is more interested in the emotional journey taken by the youngsters. Michael (Jack Parry Jones) follows his girlfriend to the mainland when her family moves to Glasgow. Dragging his troubled step-brother Thor (Christy O’Donnell) along with him the two team up with Irish singer Caitlin (Tara Lee) who’s heading for a Celtic music festival in the city. I didn’t always appreciate the humour and Caitlin is a bit of a manic pixie dream girl, but director Philip John and his director of photography Alasdair Walker make spectacular use of locations making Moon Dogs feels like a distinctly Scottish take on a well-worn genre.

Sixty Six

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Director Lewis Khlar is primarily a collage artist and Sixty-Six is a collection of twelve short films formed from magazine cut-outs and Roy Liechtenstein pop-art drawings all telling stories formed from 50s’ Melodrama and Film Noir. I haven’t heard an audience give out an audible sigh of relief when a film ended since albert Serra’s Story of My Life at LFF a few years ago but it’s worth the effort.

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.

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.