Friday, 31 August 2012

For what it's worth...

 
Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of August 24-26, 2012:

1 (1) Brave (PG) **
2 (3) Ted (15) ***
3 (2) The Bourne Legacy (12A)
4 (5) The Dark Knight Rises (12A) ***
5 (new) Keith Lemon: The Film (15) [above]
6 (4) The Expendables 2 (15) *** 
7 (new) The Three Stooges (PG)
8 (7) Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days (U)
9 (8) Ice Age 4: Continental Drift (U)
10 (new) The Imposter (15) ****
 
(source: BFI)

My top five:
 

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (1) Safe House (15)
2 (2) 21 Jump Street (15) **
3 (4) The Descendants (15) ***
4 (5) The Woman in Black (12) ***
5 (10) Man on a Ledge (12)
6 (new) Lockout (15) **
7 (7) The Vow (12) **
9 (3) Headhunters (15) *** 
 
(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:
2. Faust
5. Himizu
  

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Wizard of Oz (Sunday, five, 4.50pm)
2. Gone Baby Gone (Thursday, BBC1, 11.20pm)
3. Land of the Dead (Monday, ITV1, 10.35pm)
4. Submarine (Sunday, C4, 11.15pm)
5. Pride and Prejudice (Saturday, ITV1, 11.10pm)

 

In the mix: "Berberian Sound Studio", "Total Recall" and "A Few Best Men" (ST 02/09/12)



Berberian Sound Studio (15) 92 mins ****
Total Recall (12A) 118 mins **
A Few Best Men (15) 97 mins **

A dark sibling to this year’s keynote film The Artist, Peter Strickland’s psychodrama Berberian Sound Studio wants to recalibrate how we listen to the movies. But then it would: its protagonist, Gilderoy (Toby Jones), is a sound engineer, removed from quiet 1970s Dorking to oversee the dubbing of an Italian slasher movie. Where his hosts gabble in grand gestures, this fastidious, socially awkward Englishman abroad soon finds himself trapped behind the sound booth’s muffling glass. Like the effects he puts down on tape – an aptly morbid verb, given the carnage playing out in his ears – we sense he’s at risk of getting cut off.

What Strickland has recognised is that there always was something of the night about the giallo, this strikingly unrestrained school of horror, with its whispered Latin chants, its black-mass organ scores, its dashes of misogyny, behind the camera as before it. Assisting Gilderoy in his task are a shifty pair of sonic specialists whose job is to take sharp knives to watermelons or hammers to cabbages – an unhealthy sacrifice of fruit and veg, made after dark with the intent of giving onscreen death a realistic backing track. On this stage, five-a-day isn’t a dietary suggestion, but the bodycount.

Low-key and suggestive, Berberian probably isn’t for gorehounds, but it’s a persuasive study of breakdown – personal, professional, technological – and of a breed not given to the eruptions of rage the giallo cycle showcased. “You English: always hiding,” admonishes flamboyant director Santini (Antonio Mancino), popping a grape in our hero’s mouth in the hope of relieving his emotional constipation. Strickland made his breakthrough, 2009’s surprising rape-revenge thriller Katalin Varga, in Romania, and the alienation he felt there informs this latest: he knows what it is to be away from home, tired and lonely and not speaking the lingo, trying to reconcile the business of simulated killing with keeping a level head.

Berberian Sound Studio is certainly what one would call a knobtwiddler’s film, more than faintly male in its obsessions. Yet it’s hard not to be impressed by precisely that level of formal control, and the intimate knowledge of genre and art cinema Strickland weaves into his own distinct sound and vision; if Katalin Varga took notes from Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, somewhere in here is a very English take on the ruptures of Persona. With each cut and splice, the new film becomes quietly insinuating and unsettling: as with The Artist, as with all artists, its worst fears lie in screaming, and not being heard.


Hollywood’s studios, meanwhile, retain their baffling fascination with old properties. Take Len Wiseman’s Total Recall, which guts Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 Philip K. Dick adaptation with the sole aim of installing whizzier gadgets and features. Dick’s identity-shifting characters no longer shuttle between Earth and Mars, but Britain (sorry, “the United Federation of Britain”) and “The Colony” (Australia) through the Earth’s core, necessitating a mid-commute gravitational flip that must be hell on the train upholstery. In come rain-drenched sets care of Blade Runner’s Chinatown collection, and Colin Farrell, replacing Arnold Schwarzenegger as working stiff-turned-secret agent Quaid.

If the new version counts in any way as an upgrade, it’s in how it contrives to toss its nimble lead odd dramatic notes – literally so, in one coded piano sonata – that his sausage-fingered predecessor couldn’t possibly hit. Still, Verhoeven gave this material a pulpy, 18-rated force; stuck with a teen-friendly 12A certificate and dull ass-kickers in Jessica Biel and Kate Beckinsale, Wiseman can make no more of it than a generic runaround. This director can do helter-skelter action and whiplash fist-fights until he and his actors are blue in the face, but that’s the problem: even without the earlier film’s existence, this Recall would start to seem naggingly – even needlessly – familiar.


A Few Best Men heads south in all senses. This is The Hangover transported to Australia, where Twilight blandie Xavier Samuel’s union with a politico’s daughter comes under threat from oikish pals Kris Marshall and Kevin Bishop; you’ll just have to suspend disbelief at the notion two Brits would be the lairiest guests at an Aussie wedding. Director Stephan Elliot (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) at least takes you down to its level gently, tempering even the crasser elements – think hungry rams and laxatives – with a degree of affection. Moderation doesn’t make it funnier or more inspired, though: the Hitler moustache jokes are cribbed from comedian Richard Herring, and Olivia Newton-John’s coke-snorting mother-in-law does rather sum the whole up when she asks one best man, as of the restless audience, “Where do you think you’re going? They haven’t played “YMCA” yet.” Inevitably, they do.

Berberian Sound Studio is on selected release; Total Recall and A Few Best Men are in cinemas nationwide.

"Samsara" (Metro 31/08/12)



Samsara (PG) 102 mins **

As cinematographer, Ron Fricke provided the astonishing widescreen imagery for 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi, an eco-doc beloved of college stoners. Now a director, Fricke slides similar footage along the Generation Game conveyor belt for this illustrated lecture, inspired by the Buddhist wheel of life. Ooh, Samsara coos, there’s a temple. Some lovely nature, there. There’s another temple. There’s some people, scrabbling like ants. And there’s a cuddly toy, left behind in the ruins of a village where some fool put their recycling bin out on the wrong day.

It’s a field day for gawpers: hard not to be struck by the painstaking craft of monks creating vibrant tableaux from grains of sand, or the performance artist who transforms himself into a living corpse with clay. Increasingly, though, the tone grows hectoring and resistible. Fricke shows us the world’s most spectacular holiday snaps as a prelude to finger-wagging: “See, pesky Westerners – you’ve made this tiny Asian woman cry. Do you feel good, conformist parasites? Well, do you?” You may need to be stoned to get through it.

Samsara is on selected release.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

1,001 Films: "Kiss Me Deadly" (1955)


Kiss Me Deadly comprises one of the most distinctive, strikingly haphazard private-dick mysteries the studio era produced. By way of contrast with The Big Sleep - which famously offered too much plot for even its creators to fully figure out - Robert Aldrich's film has a story that goes nowhere between ten minutes (when a letter is posted) and 75 minutes (when the letter is received), involving a hero who really doesn't have an idea what he's getting into (the case drops into his passenger seat rather than walking into his office, which limits the element of choice), which has to end with a Big Bang simply to dispel all the uncertainties gathered over the previous hour-and-a-half.

While out driving along some lost American highway, preening, self-regarding thug Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) almost runs over a dame who's naked under her trenchcoat, then wakes up to learn that heavies have pushed him and his now-dead passenger's corpse off a cliff. Soon, "the big squeeze" is being put on Hammer and his associates, convincing the detective the dame was into "something big". The thick-ear plot - adapted from a well-thumbed Mickey Spillane novel by A.I. Bezzerides - then goes on simply to follow its protagonist from interrogation to interrogation, but the film has a) an interesting hero to follow, and b) a director capable of working variation into each of those interrogations. In Hammer - who, like the perpetually digging Sam Spade, lives up (or down) to his name - we're presented with a shamus who uses brute force, rather than wit or cunning, to extract his answers; flashes of his previous criminal career come through in scenes which find him terrorising a pool party or snapping an opera fan's most collectible records, and in the look of pleasure on Meeker's face as Hammer goes about shutting a coroner's hand in a drawer. 

In the absence of clear, considered narrative, Aldrich instead stages a series of inspired, outlandish moments: the flourish of ominous brass that accompanies Hammer as he takes the two - two! - steps required to get him from a boxing trainer to a nearby telephone; small, progressive nods of the head towards L.A.'s emergent Irish, Asian and African-American communities; out-of-nowhere lines of dialogue ("Why are you always trying to make a noise like a cop?"). The sets, similarly, are dotted with instances of off-the-cuff invention: Hammer's extraordinarily futuristic answering machine, a sister to 2001's HAL, perhaps; the dog with bow in hair perched on a secretary's desk, apparently placed so to set up a symmetry with a cat sitting atop a switchboard later on. With its still-jolting violence and absurd, darkly comic flourishes, it's hard not to think this is the P.I. movie David Lynch would make: the final sequence, with its stroboscopic light, erupting beach houses and peroxide-blonde femme fatale, isn't so far removed from the world of that director's very own Lost Highway. Which is where we came in...

Kiss Me Deadly is available on DVD through Twentieth Century Fox.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

1,001 Films: "Bob Le Flambeur/Bob The Gambler" (1955)


The protagonist of Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le Flambeur is a gentleman gambler of the old school, but he's also another of this filmmaker's heroes who prove unable to escape a particular milieu - in this case the backrooms and backstreets of Montmartre and Pigalle - without putting themselves at some considerable risk. Still, risk is all Bob (Roger Duchesne) knows: though he's far from the stereotypical sleazy hood, even professorial in his dealings with a young protege and the girl he rescues from the streets, this supremely dapper individual can't pass up a bet - on dice, cards, the one-armed bandit he keeps like a skeleton in the closet, or the flip of a coin - an addiction that places him in mortal danger when he chances his arm on a casino heist.

Much of the film's first hour is given over to Bob's random whims, establishing the loose yet clearly defined personal code he operates within; then the expected noir plot lines up like cherries on a slot machine, as a far less reliable crew is assembled, and one of Bob's underlings makes the fatal error of letting on far too much to the woman he loves. Later remade by Neil Jordan as The Good Thief, you can also spy its influence in the following year's far punchier The Killing, but it has virtues all its own to admire: quickfire editing, the usual grittiness of Melville's mean-streets photography, and an astonishingly sexy performance - easily the equal of the young Monroe in The Asphalt Jungle - by Isabelle Corey as a moll on the make.

Bob le Flambeur is available on DVD through Optimum Home Releasing.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Teenage dreams: "The Myth of the American Sleepover"


Writer-director David Robert Mitchell's debut feature The Myth of the American Sleepover is teen movie done as high-school chemistry experiment or history class. It takes the kind of quiet American town seen in Richard Linklater's early films, populates it with the fresh faces and non-professionals one usually finds working for Larry Clark or Gus van Sant, and then films these kids with the lightness of a French New Wave observer. We're watching a typical evening in the summer holidays unfolding before us, ripe with possibility. The girls pal around, gossip and connect; the guys gather in sullen silence or snickering, rewinding topless scenes on old VHSes or pawing over pin-up magazines. You could wonder why the Internet doesn't seem to have reached this part of the world, but the idea is that these rituals - the new experiences and missed opportunities of this formative period; the longing glances and vomiting in flowerbeds - are somehow timeless, in the movies, as in life.

Yes, these could be Linklater's kids, but then they could also be the beauty queens and putative slackers of The Last Picture Show or American Graffiti, 1970s films set ten, twenty years before that. Despite fine work from its young cast, who are credibly gauche and gawky (and self-possessed and precocious, in the case of the girls), Mitchell's film isn't quite revelatory, and perhaps can't be, given the extent to which this terrain has been poked and prodded and generally worked over. What bubble up, and maybe stay with you, are its hazy recollections of moments seized and lost; its inchoate intimacies, initiated by characters who want to get close to one another, but don't yet know how to achieve it. It's a sweet little treatise on the value of those experiences you gather when you're young, and its more expansive set-pieces - a moonlit skinnydipping party, a lovelorn college student's breach of what looks to be the world's biggest sleepover, which gives the film both its title and a sense lasting memories are being created - go to illustrate the truth that, at that age, most of us are stumbling around in the dark. Hell, some of us still are.

The Myth of the American Sleepover opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Monday, 27 August 2012

(East) End of Days: "Cockneys vs. Zombies"


Cheeky, lively, does-what-it-says-on-the-tin DVD fodder Cockneys vs. Zombies opens with hard-hatted flunkies of heartless developers, keen to turn the entire East End into "luxury" apartment blocks, uncovering a 17th century crypt and inadvertently disturbing the undead plague victims concealed there. Standing between them are a bumbling gang of bank robbers headed by fraternal geezers Rasmus Hardiker and Harry Treadaway, and extending to their cousin Michelle Ryan (kicking ass in a hi-vis jacket), local nutcase Ashley Thomas (who, in a key plot point, is revealed to have a steel plate in his head) and useless lump Jack Doolan (surely destined/doomed to play Perry Benson's son in something sooner or later). Meanwhile, a nearby old folks' home threatened with closure by the same developers is overrun with arrivals even less sentient than usual, inspiring the residents to stage their own resistance, spearheaded by old trooper Alan Ford, with vital contributions from rhyming-slang nut Dudley Sutton, nice Honor Blackman, naughty Georgina Hale, and Richard Briers - yes, Richard Briers! - as a doddering perv who winds up with a submachine gun gaffertaped to the bars of his Zimmer frame.

Written by James Moran and Lucas Roche and directed by Matthias Hoene, this isn't quite as smart as Shaun of the Dead, spitballing ideas - single mother zombies! zombie football hooligans! - rather than constructing or, really, subverting a particular mythology, and running out of novel ways to keep the shufflers at bay at a precariously early stage. What saves and elevates it is sheer likability, allowing the oldtimers to play action heroes with a good deal more wit and poignancy than the cast of The Expendables 2 managed between them, and handing the young performers, whose presence has oft been squandered at this level of filmmaking, fun character and comedy beats to work with: as his participation in the underrated Steve Coogan sitcom Saxondale suggested, Hardiker has exceptional comic timing, and Georgia King (as an unflappable customer the robbers take hostage) runs him close. A modest apocalypse, then, yet one that makes fresh, intuitive use of its locations and gives very good splatter; other passing highlights include the year's funniest throwaway flashback (suggesting a possible spin-off entitled Alan Ford: Nazi Hunter; I, for one, would watch it) and - inevitably - a Chas 'n' Dave theme song, "Head to Head (With the Undead)", which is "Snooker Loopy" only, y'know, with ZOMBIES.

Cockneys vs. Zombies opens nationwide from Friday, ahead of its DVD release on October 22.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

1,001 Films: "Marty" (1955)


Marty witnesses the first stirrings of a new American realism, in a cramped Bronx apartment, where portly, unprepossessing, unmarried 34-year-old butcher boy Marty Piletti lives with his Italian immigrant mother. Delbert Mann's film introduced to the screen not just a new face (Ernest Borgnine, in practically the only lead role of a long career more commonly defined by supporting work), but a new type of face - podgy, jowly, greasy, sweaty - and in the process asking viewers whether we thought anybody other than a mother could love it. Marty is a nice, ordinary guy, garrulous yet sensitive: he wounds easily, and for long stretches there's almost nothing here for Borgnine to withhold from the audience. The type who gives up too much on a first date, there's little mystery about him; a self-acknowledged Catholic, his blurted monologues to ditched wallflower Clara (Betsy Blair) are another form of confession.

Yet the film establishes a style of naturalistic micro-acting that was later to be taken up (by, admittedly, sexier performers) in the likes of Before Sunrise: the leads are people edging their way towards a connection of some small kind, trying to convince themselves to follow up a rare chance to have come their way in life. If it doesn't possess the scale of the movie greats that followed - Rebel Without a Cause, a trailblazer, was but months away - and some of Mann's direction now looks ordinary indeed, the film does still possess a weird consoling effect, and you can see why it might be revived every Valentine's Day and New Year's for the benefit of those lonely hearts who just feel more comfortable in the dark of the cinema: its courtship rituals may have dated and disappeared, but the very real pain it observes, born of solitude and the fear of rejection, remains a constant.

Marty is available on DVD through Twentieth Century Fox.

 

Saturday, 25 August 2012

For what it's worth...

 
Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of August 17-19, 2012:

1 (5) Brave (PG) **
2 (new) The Bourne Legacy (12A)
3 (1) Ted (15) ***
4 (new) The Expendables 2 (15) ***
5 (2) The Dark Knight Rises (12A) ***
6 (new) Ek Tha Tiger [above] (12A)
7 (4) Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days (U)
8 (6) Ice Age 4: Continental Drift (U)
9 (3) Step Up 4 (PG)
10 (new) The Wedding Video (15)
 
(source: BFI)

My top five:
 

Top Ten DVD rentals:

1 (new) Safe House (15)
2 (1) 21 Jump Street (15) **
3 (10) Headhunters (15) *** 
4 (3) The Descendants (15) ***
5 (5) The Woman in Black (12) ***
7 (4) The Vow (12) ** 
9 (new) Gone (15) ***
10 (8) Man on a Ledge (12)
 
(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:
2. Faust
5. Himizu
  

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. The Wizard of Oz (Bank Holiday Monday, five, 2.55pm)
2. Before Sunrise (Saturday, BBC2, 11.30pm)
3. Precious (Bank Holiday Monday, BBC2, 10.30pm)
4. The Spiral Staircase (Friday, BBC2, 12.50pm)
5. Once (Saturday, BBC2, 1.10am)

 

The lost boys: "The Imposter"


Bart Layton's documentary The Imposter concerns two crimes of opportunity: one that went to trial and resulted in one of the film's participants serving jail time, the other that remains unsolved to this day, haunting the film and the behaviour of all those who appear in it. In 1994, floppy-haired blonde teenager Nicholas Barclay went missing from his home in San Antonio, Texas. Three years later, a young man claiming to be Barclay turned up in Spain. What happened in between those dates, and subsequent to this, forms the basis of a wicked piece of storytelling, and one of those you-couldn't-make-it-up tales any responsible review should really preface with a substantial spoiler alert: I'm again tempted to flag this as an instance where you may be better off experiencing a film's myriad twists and turns cold, and coming back to any commentary at a later juncture. Let this recommendation suffice for the time being: The Imposter may be the most clear-eyed and engrossing documentary study of human dysfunction since Andrew Jarecki's remarkable Capturing the Friedmans.

For those inclined to read on: suffice to say this new Nick was not whom he claimed to be, rather a crop-haired, dark-skinned, heavily accented Frenchman known, among many aliases, as Frédéric Bourdin, here recast as the narrator of his own tale. Even allowing for the vagaries of time and the psychosexual trauma Bourdin-Barclay claimed to have been subjected to during his time in absentia, the imposter resembled Nicholas only about as much as your reviewer does Antonio Banderas, as local TV footage of the supposedly joyous mother-and-child reunion makes abundantly clear. How Bourdin arrived in the United States in the first place is an audacity best left to the film to describe; the real kicker here is how Nicholas's clan were only too willing to take this surrogate in as their own, at which point we twig that, somewhere close to the thematic centre of The Imposter, sits raw, desperate, despairing need.

On one side, we observe this fractious family - some named Barclay, some Dollarhide, some Gibson; Layton further atomises them in interviewing them all separately - with their need to convince themselves that Nicholas had indeed returned to fill the hole that had opened up in their lives with his disappearance. On the other, there is Bourdin himself: mixed-race son of an absent Algerian immigrant, thrown out into the world at an early age, with his born outsider's desire to find a place there, and his frantic accumulation of pseudonyms, deployed as keys in the ongoing search for a way out of the disappointing life he'd been handed. Bourdin's countryman Jean Renoir, in La Règle du jeu, once evinced that everyone has their reasons; The Imposter is an extreme, late twentieth-century demonstration of that very thesis.

I've seen Layton's film twice now, and both times a peculiar form of cognitive dissonance has kicked in. As much as one may want to loathe Bourdin for exploiting this family's grief - grief still all too evident in the lines and creases teartracks have eroded into these faces - it is (just) possible to like, or at least admire him, too: his boldness, his pluck, his determination to improve his own standing. He's like a terrible actor who can't believe he's finally pulled the wool over everybody's eyes - Channing Tatum with a Maurice Chevalier accent - and his mounting fear upon first meeting his hosts, and his stated excitement at arriving at the kind of high school he'd only seen in the movies, turns the film into a thrillingly warped take on the American dream. What was Frédéric Bourdin, after all, if not the migrant who travelled to the United States in the hope of making a new and better life for himself?

Similarly, while your heart can't fail to go out to the family, there is something, well, a bit iffy about the manner in which they continued to throw their arms around this non-Nick in the face of official scepticism, and came to corroborate their new houseguest's alibi. When Nick's sister Carey Gibson remembers how surprised she was to learn that Coca-Cola was available in Spain, it's a glimpse into the lack of worldliness this clan were possessed of, and one which explains why they were only too willing to buy into new-Nick's credibility-testing cover story that he'd been kidnapped and sold into a military sex cult. Just as Bourdin had a vision of America, all cheerleaders and bright yellow buses, the Barclay-Gibson-Dollarhides surely had their own vision of "over there" as the kind of place where fruity Europeans pay top dollar for the sexual services of blue-eyed, blonde-haired, all-American boys. How easily we delude ourselves, and are deluded in turn.

This is a narrative full of coincidences, lapses, holes - conflicting accounts of the same event, institutional gaffes that suggest flaws with the hallowed American system of checks and balances, even the gap teeth that were the one thing Bourdin had in common with Barclay, and which apparently sealed the deal in certain minds - and Layton, to his credit, is wise enough to know just how tightly it needs to be stitched together, in order to avoid utter disbelief on the part of the audience. The Imposter is, in some sense, an imposter itself, pulling off a skilful impersonation of James Marsh's impersonations of Errol Morris in offering up a sustained flow of archive material, testimony, reconstructions that further blur the line between truth and subjectivity (by, for example, casting Bourdin as other characters) and superbly atmospheric location work.

The film has a heightened, inbuilt narrative tension - when's this guy going to get found out? - yet its final act goes in a completely unexpected direction, taking some of the suspicion off Bourdin's shoulders and placing it somewhere else entirely. Even here, we cannot be sure who to believe: is this new suspicion another of Bourdin's paranoid fabulations? Or: if you tell enough lies, might you be right every once in a while? Unlike Morris in his landmark crime documentary The Thin Blue Line, Layton isn't interested in providing closure, or in laying any ghosts to rest. In the concluding moments of The Imposter, we rejoin a couple of investigators with shovels, still apparently digging after all this time. What they come to turn up is the film's trump card, and best kept unspoilt, but it might legitimately be summarised thus: nothing and everything. Or: one more hole that needs filling.

The Imposter is on selected release.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

1,001 Films: "The Barefoot Contessa" (1954)


Joseph Mankiewicz's behind-the-scenes-at-the-movies drama The Barefoot Contessa mixes up elements of Pygmalion and the Faust legend with a streak of merciless self-analysis, pouring out a long, tall, highly bilious cocktail. Washed-up writer-director Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart) is sent on a fool's errand: to bring Spanish spitfire Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner) back to star in his latest production. Vargas agrees to go along with him on the grounds he once directed Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard, and becomes Hollywood royalty as Maria D'Amato, losing the accent and generally proving uncontrollable - to the chagrin of her gum-chewing, philistine studio boss (Warren Stevens) and every other man whose heart she comes to steal. 

Narrated by these men in flashback from the day of Maria's funeral, the film is understandable as an attempt to do for - or, perhaps better, to - the film business and its hangers-on what this director's previous All About Eve did for/to the theatre. A series of hard-nosed, hard-hearted, hard-to-much-care-for players clack repeatedly up against one another like ball bearings on an executive desk toy, and Mank's trademark dollopy dialogue gets thrown back and forth across Jack Cardiff-illuminated frames. There are problems with it: the acute self-consciousness robs us of any real sense of tragedy; Gardner only truly gets to express herself once, in a dance sequence ninety minutes in; and it's so heavy-going it often feels as though even the party scenes are taking place in a mausoleum. 

Yet that finality, the idea that someone or something is being laid to rest here, isn't entirely inappropriate. The film now plays like one of the more prescient Fifties productions, foreseeing the end of the studio era, its megalomaniac bosses and the days when a star like Maria D'Amato could be made overnight. For all its considerable flaws as entertainment, The Barefoot Contessa comes in only just behind Sunset Blvd. and The Bad and the Beautiful in taking a scalpel to constructed notions of glamour, and laying bare Hollywood as the studios' PR men wouldn't want you to see it: as a place absurd, rotten and finally rather callous.

The Barefoot Contessa is available on DVD through Twentieth Century Fox.
 

Monday, 20 August 2012

The informer: "Shadow Dancer"


James Marsh's Shadow Dancer, a coolly handled, uncommonly adult thriller, tells the story of a woman caught between loyalty to her family and the pull of two even deadlier organisations. In 1993, low-level IRA footsoldier Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough) is picked up by British security forces in the aftermath of an attempt to bomb Mile End Tube station. Pressured into becoming an informant, McVeigh finds herself in a tricky position within not just her working-class Belfast community, but her own household, as mother to a young son who needed picking up from school at the same time she was supposed to liaise with her MI5 handler (Clive Owen); and as sister to a pair of fervently Republican brothers (Domnhall Gleeson, Aidan Gillen) who keep marching into the home Colette shares with her mother (Brid Brennan) and demanding she accompany them on their own assassination endeavours. The more info McVeigh gives to the Brits, the more her IRA superiors - apparently blind to the women in their ranks, except when explosives were required to be placed somewhere - are inclined to suspect one of her siblings might be the mole.

For much of the film, we're questioning where exactly its protagonist's allegiances lie. For a start, there seems to be some ambiguity over whether McVeigh meant the Mile End bomb to have gone off, or whether her leaving the device unarmed might be read as a cry for help, a single mother's bid for self-preservation at a moment - just a day or two after the 1993 peace accord signed by British PM John Major - when it appeared uncertain whether the Troubles were winding down or merely heading towards a final, deadly blowout. We're never quite certain how much McVeigh knows, and whether the security forces weren't looking in the wrong place when they approached her: Riseborough, deathly pale, puts up on the big screen a variant of that opaque acting style we witnessed from Damian Lewis in Homeland, the recent TV hit that may just have primed audiences for Shadow Dancer's narrative sophistry.

She's certainly well-matched with Owen, a proven master at playing narked, here exuding frustration with both the intransigence of a woman who'd rather play with her son than come to his table at the alloted hour, and at his own superiors (represented by Gillian Anderson as a brisk, businesslike remnant of the Thatcherite old guard), who've been pressured by Westminster into taking this investigation in an entirely new direction, leaving him equally isolated. Everyone's got their game face on here, and some time into Shadow Dancer, it becomes clear Marsh, too, is playing something of a dangerous game. Not necessarily with what the film has to say about the Troubles, which is well-documented - the source is a book by ITN reporter Tom Bradby, who wrote the screenplay and has a rather clanging cameo - but with its points of identification, which aren't always clear, and in how this information is presented to us, as a slow, measured, accumulating drip. Only in the film's final moments do the narrative pieces come together, and by then, it's too late to ask for your money back if you feel you've been cheated in some way by what you've seen.

This blithe narrative facility has been a feature of Marsh's documentary work (Wisconsin Death Trip, the Oscar-winning Man on Wire, last year's Project Nim) as well as his earlier experiment in fiction, 2005's underrated The King. Shadow Dancer is ample proof he's gained much along the way: chiefly, the understanding that atmosphere and suspense are better sustained these days in long, unbroken takes where - formally - we wait for the inevitable cut to occur, and - narratively - for the worst to happen. This holds true of the opening, following McVeigh's fateful commute on that morning in 1993, or in a later IRA hit framed against a backdrop of wide-open suburban spaces. Marsh is also unusual in believing that it's often better to say nothing and allow the viewer to weigh the assembled evidence for themselves than to shepherd them towards a conclusion with a large expositionary crook.

That's admirable, but somewhere in that last belief lurks the possibility we might, like the sheep we are when we enter the cinema, wander towards the wrong conclusion, and feel grumpy, even resentful, upon being shown the error of our ways. The trouble with Shadow Dancer is not that it hasn't been very skilfully directed (it has); it's the extent to which even those viewers who'd agree this is engrossing, intelligent viewing might emerge feeling as though they've been misdirected somehow. Like any good documentarist, Marsh knows when to hone in on a particular detail, as at a heavily policed IRA funeral, where a handgun is passed from mourner to mourner so an illicit salute can be fired off; in the melee that follows, the camera turns away to show, there on the sidelines, the mothers of this community, standing variously vulnerable, scared or helpless. Yet as Shadow Dancer's endgame demonstrates, even this apparently crystallising image proves to have been a feint, a facade. Troubles, indeed.

Shadow Dancer opens in selected cinemas from Friday.