Edinburgh Film Festival Diary #5 – Shadow Dancer, Berberian Sound Studio, California Solo
Film Festivals are places for angry movies…
James Marsh garnered a lot of attention back at the 2008 Edinburgh Film Festival when he came here with his Man On Wire, which turned out to be one of that year’s highlights. That was a documentary about a unique, quixotic and fascinating (if not entirely likeable) tightrope walker. He followed it with another documentary, Project Nim, which was one of the best films I saw at last year’s (admittedly lacklustre) festival. Both documentaries are powerful and cinematic, and Marsh has an uncanny ability to keep the films visually exciting (at times “Man On Wire” is like watching a heist movie).
Marsh is back this year with Shadow Dancer, a political thriller concerning a young IRA member, Collette (Andrea Riseborough), who is caught by MI5 and convinced by Mac (Clive Owen) to become an informant. The living-a-lie tension – captured so well by Scorsese in “The Departed” – is bolstered by the backdrop of the ’90s Irish conflicts; the characters realise that they are just pawns in a much bigger game, and that their own human rights have become secondary. Mac is tough and good at his job but he isn’t heartless; he feels a duty towards Collette and feels his superiors are not fulfilling their half of the bargain. Chief amongst these is Kate Fletcher, played by Gillian Anderson, who always has her eyes on the bigger picture.
The film alternates between the MI5 agents and those closest to Collette in Ireland. Amongst the latter is a stand-out performance from Aidan Gillen; between this and his TV work on “The Wire” and “Game of Thrones” he seems finally to have escaped the shadow of “Queer As Folk”. Anderson and Riseborough, both wonderful performers, also do very strong work, however as much as I like Clive Owen I started to feel he was hampered with a slightly uninspired role; his ‘Am I the only one in this department who cares?’ bit feels a bit cliché. Furthermore the story doesn’t build quite as you want it to; by the end I started to feel like it might have been more suitable for television than cinema. However perhaps my response is affected by my admiration of Marsh, who told such compelling stories in “Man On Wire” and “Project Nim” that I expected to be more emotionally involved.
Film Festivals are places for angry movies, and God Bless America is an angry movie – however it’s also a demonstration of the fact that anger on its own is just… anger. Angry satire can be brilliant – look at Bill Hicks or Doug Stanhope – but “God Bless America,” which tells the story of a man who can’t take the culture he lives in any more and decides to fix it through the careful application of extreme violence – doesn’t have enough wit or variety to provoke much interest or enough laughs. My full review is available here.
Today I had reasonably high hopes for Berberian Sound Studio, for two reasons: 1) it stars Toby Jones, who I love, and b) it comes advertised as a homage to classic Italian horror. It is described in the Festival Catalogue as an ‘anti-horror’ movie, which I found less enticing (would you want to go see an anti-comedy?), and which is also a pretty good description for what is wrong with the film. However I don’t want to be overly negative, because it’s in an interesting little flick held together by a particularly strong central turn from Jones.
He plays a sound engineer who is hired by an Italian film company to work on their latest movie, which appears to be inspired by classic Dario Argento work like “Suspiria” or “Inferno,” only with more horses and chickens. The items used for the sound effects are shown: melons are sliced, cabbages are stabbed and water is boiled to accompany a series of what we imagine to be gruesome scenes (we don’t get to see them, probably wisely). The movie, which takes inspiration from Brian De Palma’s “Blow Out” (itself fairly derivative) as well as Argento, has fun with these scenes, and has a fetishistic obsession with old film technology; like most film geeks I have a touch of this condition myself, and enjoyed the whirring celluloid and antiquated mixing desks. It’s like a film turned inside out, so you can look inside and see how it works.
Unfortunately the central idea, coupled with Jones’s excellent work, cannot sustain the 90-minute run-time and soon the film starts to feel repetitive; it doesn’t develop its premise enough and by the end goes with lazy deconstructionism. Its director, Peter Strickland, is clearly talented and there’s a better movie in there; some of the sequences of the effects being recorded and manipulated are wonderfully edited together. It would have made a great half-hour short on one of those portmanteau films (like “Asylum” and “Creepshow”); as it is, by the end I just wanted to go home and watch a double-bill of “Suspiria” and “Blow Out,” which between them do just about everything this movies does, and better.
I finished today with California Solo, starring Robert Carlyle. It is written and directed by Marshall Lewy, who has only made one other film (“Blue State,” unseen by me). Carlyle, who had to cancel his planned attendance this year, is a patron of the Festival and a supporter of low-budget film-making. He gets an executive producer credit on “California Solo,” and looking over his recent filmography “28 Weeks Later” is the only reasonably commercial film he has made in the past 5 years. His performance there was memorable, as he was as the neglectful father in Samantha Morton’s powerful film “The Unloved” and in “Summer,” a gem of a film from 2008 that I saw at that year’s Film Festival.
In “California Solo” he plays a washed up musician who moved to America during his band’s time in the sun; since his brother, lead singer of the band, died he has supported himself by working on a farm. He is slapped with a DUI charge that provokes the authorities to dig up some dirt from his past (a dropped drug charge), and he finds himself facing the threat of deportation to Britain. It’s a low-key affair (‘low-key affair’ seems to sum up much of this year’s programme) that occasionally seems a little unfocussed, but I found myself engrossed by Carlyle’s sympathetic performance – he plays a genuinely nice guy who sometimes doesn’t know what’s best for himself – and by the film. It’s a reminder of what an effortlessly engaging actor he is. Carlyle could spend all his time doing supporting roles in Hollywood tripe; he could have played a hundred killers, gangsters and psychos by now. But he clearly wants to do work that means something to him, and to support small projects that need it, and “California Solo” is a welcome reminder of his considerable talent.