IT’S difficult to make films about washed-up musicians without making them seem like insufferable, cliché-ridden crybabies and the tepid California Solo, which receives its British premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival this weekend, is no exception.
Directed by: Marshall Lewy
Starring: Robert Carlyle, A Martinez, Kathleen Wilhoite, Alexia Rasmussen
Day of the Flowers
Directed by: John Roberts
Starring: Eva Birthistle, Charity Wakefield, Carlos Acosta, Bryan Dick
Directed by: Peter Chan
Starring: Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kanishiro, Yu Wang
Directed by: Magnus Martens
Starring: Kyrre Hellum, Henrik Mestad, Mads Ousdal
Directed by: Bess Kargman
Marking Robert Carlyle’s return to the big screen after a successful few years working in American television (most notably on the 24 one-off special Redemption and the sci-fi series Stargate Universe), the film may cast him as a supposed Britpop survivor attempting to lead a quiet life of voluntary exile in California, but it soon reveals itself to be another clunky male redemption saga about a whiny alcoholic drinking to forget his self-inflicted problems.
This is Lachlan MacAldonich, an ex-pat Scot earning a meagre living working on an organic farm on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Toiling away selling fruit and veg to hipsters at the local farmers’ market, Lachlan spends his spare time either sinking too many shots at the local bar or creating a podcast series called “Flame-Outs” in which he – rather embarrassingly – explores the tragic deaths of the “world’s greatest musicians”.
The latter, it transpires, is his way of indirectly picking away at emotional scars caused by the tragic implosion of his own cult rock band 15 years earlier; the drinking, meanwhile, is his way of avoiding confronting his personal responsibility for the demise of the band’s frontman – his more talented brother. It’s the drinking that first-time writer/director Marshall Lewy uses to give the film some dramatic momentum. Charged with a drunk-driving offence, Lachlan finds himself facing deportation back to Scotland thanks to an earlier drug offence in his youth suddenly invalidating his green card. Alas, his determination to stay in the country and take on the unsympathetic American immigration system lacks the requisite righteous appeal to make us care.
There’s no great love affair to root for (a hinted-at romance with a customer at the farmers’ market goes nowhere) and the film’s last-minute attempt to reconcile him with his American ex-wife and the 13-year-old daughter he’s never seen is unconvincing. As is the musical backdrop, which drops in references to The Hacienda, the Madchester music scene and Paul Weller, but never with much authority.
It’s a shame, because Carlyle – who was forced to pull out of attending the festival this weekend to support the film and discuss his career – is the sort of actor who can infuse characters with real soulfulness. But he’s fighting a losing battle here, hamstrung by a dull, underpowered film that’s more like the cinematic equivalent of Travis than Primal Scream.
Scots abroad feature prominently in Day of the Flowers too, a disappointingly shrill tale of two sisters making a pilgrimage to Cuba to scatter their idealistic father’s ashes in the spot where he met and fell in love with their long-since departed mother. Saddled with wacky polar opposite personality traits that are as grating as their accents, Eva Birthistle and Charity Wakefield play siblings Rosa and Ailie, the former an uptight leftie with a face like fizz, the latter a vapid shopaholic always on the look-out for a guy.
Having boosted the ashes from the memorial service being held by their disapproving stepmother, they arrive in Cuba without any official paperwork, something that almost immediately results in their father’s remains being confiscated by the police, forcing the girls – accompanied by Rosa’s platonic, kilt-wearing best friend (Bryan Dick) – to rethink their plans. What follows is part groan-inducing caper movie, part melodramatic family drama, with director John Roberts and screenwriter Eirene Houston’s inability to settle on a cohesive tone marring any attempts to blend comedy with contemplation.
Consequently, as Rosa and Ailie find their preconceptions about Cuba, their family history and each other challenged by the people they meet and the things they learn, the film descends to the level of a bad soap-opera with betrayals, abductions and illicit affairs the order of the day.
Far better at negotiating tonal shifts is Dragon, a homage of sorts to the traditions of the heroic martial arts movie collectively known by the film’s original Chinese title, Wu xia. Naming a film after a wide-ranging genre is not always a promising start (action fans may recall with horror the travesty that was Shoot ’Em Up a few years back), but Dragon is both playful enough and sincere enough to be able to make such knowingness work to its advantage. Kicking off as a kind of kung-fu spin on Sherlock Holmes, it revolves initially around Xu (House of Flying Daggers star Takeshi Kaneshiro), a young detective trying to piece together the slaying of a notorious fugitive by a humble peasant defending his village.
His investigation soon leads him to suspect that this mild-mannered paper-maker (played by martial arts legend Donnie Yen) may not be quite who he claims to be, a development that takes the story along a much darker path, one effectively trodden before by David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, but which still throws up plenty of brutal twists of its own. The fight scenes – choreographed by Yen and fluidly shot by director Peter Chan (The Warlords) – are fast and furious, yet graceful with it. Most surprising though is the emotional heft of the characters, which ensures the story is enhanced by the action and not just a vehicle for it.
Those more interested in Nordic noir than martial arts may well be tempted to check out Norwegian crime flick Jackpot. Like the recent Headhunters it’s based on a story by Jo Nesbø. Also like Headhunters it adopts a more insouciant attitude to crime and violence than heavyweight TV shows such as The Killing and The Bridge. That makes it a fun proposition for a while, but its Guy Ritchie-esque stylistic flourishes soon wear a little thin.
Revolving around a bloodbath triggered by a win on the football pools, there are some amusing flashes of black humour, but nothing really sticks in the mind and the film’s flashbacking structure – framed by a cop interrogating the sole survivor of a shoot-out in a strip club – feels very dated.
In its own way, ballet documentary First Position is just as formulaic as Jackpot, but even though it follows the now over-familiar structure favoured by every mult- iple character, competition-based doc since Spellbound, the stories that emerge from director Bess Kargman’s film are hard to resist.
Following a diverse group of six young ballet hopefuls as they compete for scholarships, jobs and recognition at an annual showcase in New York, the film reinforces the dedication required on the part of the dancers (and their parents) to make it, while also counteracting some of the damaging myths perpetuated by movies like Black Swan (everyone eats like a horse, though it’s also true that a few of the dancers are quite highly strung).
All the kids have a good story, but the most fascinating belongs to Michaela, an orphan from war-torn Sierra Leone whose pure joy at being able to dance (and dance beautifully) on stage after enduring such a horrifying start in life is an undeniable testament to the value of art and culture in society.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Monday 20 May 2013
Temperature: 8 C to 21 C
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Temperature: 7 C to 17 C
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