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Monday, 12 December 2011

FOXFIRE (1996) - or: How Legs & Co get a nice abandoned magically-realised house in the country to spend their detention in!

In 2012, Annette Haywood-Carter will direct her first movie for 12 years!The only response to that news being - Annette who? Well, despite shooting just one movie and a few TV episodes, her 'one movie' is the really - or perhaps that should be 'nearly' - quite wonderful Foxfire from 1996.

It kind of feels (for some of us!) like yesterday, the year 1996, but Angelina Jolie who stars in this film, looks, well - impossibly young and gorgeous here, honestly I think that Brad Pitt has aged 'our Ange' really badly.Well, she WAS only twenty one when she made this movie. But it's only 15 years ago, and Jolie really does seem to have lost that captivating, genuine, sultry smile she once had (and which she shows off to great effect in this film) - for a half smile of Hollywood cynicism and perpetual gameplay. 

Angelina is also incredibly sensual and provocative in Foxfire, you wouldn't want to cross her. You may quite like to be her boyfriend or girlfriend, but like another character in the movie feels - at the end of the day, you probably wouldn't want it to be forever with a girl like this.

Angelina's role isn't just tough and sexy here. She's also vulnerable and wounded, rash and clumsy and also the best character in the movie by far - a bona fide star turn.

Foxfire is a part kinky, part dark, part really odd movie based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates. Of course, Oates is a novelist that all aspiring or self-respecting horror fans should have read or at least know about - her works of fiction wallow in the dark, gothic, sinister, while seeping in sex and hidden secrets; a literary shadow in the darkest corners, a crafter of the most sinister of tales.

This film tells the story of Legs, played by Angelina Jolie, a drifter who helps four teenage girls fight back against a teacher whose version of detention is shutting the blinds and having a feel. The teacher, now up against Legs and co, soon finds he is hit where it hurts and the five girls run off to an abandoned house in the country to spend their three weeks of detention. Their existence in the house is beyond believable, a form of magic realism, surrounded by vines that crawl through the windows, they tattoo each other, stripping to the waist, fuelled by spirits (of the drinking kind) - this tattoo hurts, but the hurt is good, as Legs carves a symbol representing fire on their pale, uncorrupted skin, while parents at home worry, and sinister events (the end of a fairy tale life) close in.

The girl who forms the closest attachment to Legs is Maddy, played by Heddy Burress, and she feels like she is falling in love with a girl (and to the sound of a popular tune is soon to kiss this girl - and to like it!), despite already being in love - with a boy. It's not exactly a rocket science plot twist but is played - especially in the scene of 'tell all' - without sensationalism; without a soft focus seduction scene, but with real tenderness, up on the rooftops, in the best moment in the movie by far.

But her relationship with Legs is fleeting. It doesn't survive to the end credits. It's all part of a few weeks of delirious, ridiculous independence that ends with tragedy, descends into drug abuse, attempted rape and - eventually - some kind of inner peace. Even if this inner peace is like a lifetime of looking for a lost love in a way that nobody knows you are looking at all.

It all sounds more dark and sinister than it really is. Perhaps like all the best sinister, macabre writing - the thought of it all is worse than what we actually get to see or read. The film seems to hold back at times, to resist exploring the thoughts of Joyce Carol Oates too deeply - perhaps for good reason. I'm not sure I agree though. It needed to go a little deeper, there's a little too much vanity and candy floss floating around this production for its own good. It rots the teeth, but we don't get to see the rot. This film seems to be tearing at shackles to come unbound and real rage to be let free - as it is, we get an Angela Carter-esque flight of fancy, quite dark and sinister but without too much actual horror, where even the strange people look like they've had a good bath and an early night on the set to get that way!

A tepid tread in gothic waters that in the end, is probably too concerned with looking and sounding good, than getting down, dirty and too lost in the dark. But still - the dipping of toes in murky waters is at least there and there's blood on that toe from the sharp rocks below, just a litle further out and the waters would be darker, deeper, the rocks sharper - go on, you half hope, go there!

That's not to say this film doesn't try hard to give us a movie that really is different - and it does stay in the mind. The opening scenes involving a biology lab and frogs ready to be cut open by the sinister teacher are quite edgy and warrant the disclaimer at the end of the film that no animals were harmed. The stunt work is fabulous; I don't know how the filmmakers are able to make Legs seem able to climb so high on the solid girders of a ridiculously red bridge that seems to be her personal playground, but they do. I couldn't believe Angelina Jolie the actress was doing such things herself, such vertigo-inducing climbing around, as it looks so real, that you can't spot the seams. Fabulous!

The film is worth seeing for Jolie's performance alone; alternating between tough, vulnerable, and flirty - a performance that really defines this actress as being a whole lot more than Lara Croft. The soundtrack is also terrific: 'Let's Get F****d Up' by The Cramps; Patti Smith's 'Dancing Barefoot' performed by Johnette Napolitano (used perfectly); 'Into Dust' by Mazzy Star.. The whole movie feels very 80s - achingly so. At first I wondered whether '96, the year of this film's release, was actually '86 spelt wrong! Was it deliberately set in the 80s? No, I don't think so. But hair, music (sometimes) and general feel, was still very 80s indeed. Very Heathers too. I kept expecting Winona Ryder and Christian Slater to pop up for a gun-wielding, smart-talking cameo.

At times the whole film drags a little; moves too slowly - is a little too 'and?' or 'so?' and events - such as a descent into heroin addiction are perhaps overdone and over and done with in five minutes flat - I've heard of magic realism but this is just plain un-realistic! But of course, there's little actual realism at all in Foxfire (when the girls tell the headteacher they are being taught by a serial sex abuser all he does is tell them that they shouldn't have beaten the poor man up and have to leave the school straight away for two weeks detention, so off they all trot, not home, but to roam the streets and set up a twisted commune in the country - realistic not!). But I think that could be the whole point. It's a childlike, dreamlike fantasy land the girls have created here, existing to escape reality, When reality does close in - it's quick and violent and just a bit annoying.


The direction and cinematography on Foxfire is beautiful and at times stunning - sets are saturated with dark red, blue, green glows, and visually this film is a real treat. When directors seep colours into a set like this, their work is often referenced to such masters of the craft as Dario Argento, most notably his classic horror Suspiria. That could be the case here as well. But it's too easy to generalise. The filmmakers deserve credit for giving us a film that is certainly unique, visually stimulating, with a soundtrack to - quite literally at times; die for. And a star turn from Angelina Jolie as a bonus!

While I don't think Foxfire is perfect by any means, it is a movie I want to have as a friend and go visit again.That's why I'm looking forward to Annette Haywood-Carter's next movie in 2012. And that's why I'm going to read the book: FOXFIRE: CONFESSIONS OF A GIRL GANG by the incomparable Joyce Carol Oates as well as track down the soundtrack album. God bless you Legs!

words: mark gordon palmer

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