ALISTAIR Harkness delivers his verdict on this week’s latest big screen releases
Berberian Sound Studio (15)
Directed by: Peter Strickland
Starring: Toby Jones, Antonio Mancino, Cosimo Fusco, Susanna Cappellaro
Star rating: * * * *
WITH his debut film Katalin Varga, Brit director Peter Strickland challenged most of the rules for low-budget British cinema by relocating to Transylvania to make a largely self-funded and resolutely artistic revenge movie that wilfully subverted most of tropes of the genre to the point where they were almost unrecognisable.
Happily, his follow-up film finds him making good on that film’s promise while pushing things in an ever-stranger direction. Riffing on the kind of gruesome Italian horror movies popularised by cult auteurs such as Dario Argento (Suspiria) and Lucio Fulci (Lizard in a Woman’s Skin), Berberian Sound Studio transforms the story of a British sound engineer working on a cash-strapped 1970s Italian witchcraft movie into a rigorous examination of disintegrating psyches, strange cultural misunderstandings and an almost fetishistic celebration of the weird alchemy of moviemaking itself.
From the moment Toby Jones’s unassuming tech-nerd, Gilderoy, arrives at the titular Italian post-production house, a foreboding atmosphere of dread descends upon proceedings, one punctuated by a pleasing sense of the absurd as he frets about being given the runaround over his expenses while his new colleagues mock his repressed English demeanour. Bit by bit, this all starts taking its toll on Gilderoy and, as the character begins confronting his own darkest fears, Strickland teases out the psychological tension by homing in on the sound cues Gilderoy has been hired to create.
The key thing here is we never see visuals we assume they’re accompanying: as Jones hacks away at sundry bits of fruit and veg, positions microphones over sizzling pans and boiling kettles, and fiddles around with equipment to maximise the screams of the film-within-the-film’s exploited actresses, Stickland provides a disconcerting reminder of the power of sound over the visual image. Here, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and Brian DePalma’s Blow Out may seem like natural forebears, but as the film builds towards a fascinating, oddball and thoroughly ambiguous ending, these thematically similar – and enjoyably sinister – movies are also somewhat inadequate reference points for such a confounding and unsettling viewing experience. That Berberian Sound Studio elates rather than frustrates in this respect is also a tribute to the way Strickland approaches his craft. In the end he’s created a filmmaking puzzle that reveals the magic of movies to be something of a black art.
A Few Best Men (15)
Directed by: Stephan Elliot
Starring: Kris Marshall, Kevin Bishop, Xavier Samuel, Laura Brent, Olivia Newton-John
Star rating: *
FEATURING a coked-up Olivia Newton-John character doing YMCA, Kevin Bishop in a Hitler moustache, and an extended gag involving an abducted sheep, this Australian/British co-production combines the worst aspects of both countries’ dismal national cinematic output in one 100-minute, barrel-scraping, wedding-themed, culture-clash comedy.
Xavier Samuel stars as David, a Brit backpacker whose spontaneous proposal to fellow traveler Mia (Laura Brent) puts his best friends’ noses out of joint when it becomes apparent that he’s going to up sticks and move to Australia. Determined to see him off properly – but also worried that he might be rushing into marrying a girl he hardly knows – they opt to accompany David Down Under for the wedding, only to find their laddish ways threatening the nuptials when they realise their pal is marrying into a high-powered political family. Director Stephan Elliot (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) may be aiming for high farce, but he and his cast quickly settle on the kind of lowbrow jokes that ensure it plays like little more than the latest lame attempt to replicate the success of The Hangover.
Planet of Snail (PG)
Directed by: Yi Seung-jun
Star rating: * * *
THE metaphorical molluscs in this heartbreaking, tough-to-watch, but inspiring documentary are Young-chan and Soon-ho, a South Korean couple whose insular life together resembles that of a snail’s thanks to respective disabilities that force them to perceive and negotiate the world differently from the rest of us.
Deaf and blind writer Young-chan, for instance, can only experience things and communicate with others through tactile means (he’s developed a finger tapping code adapted from braille). His wife, meanwhile, suffers from a spinal deformity that has limited her height, but will also, in all likelihood, shorten her lifespan – a sad fact that is even more pressing for them given that she effectively functions as his eye and ears.
Though this fact is never far from their thoughts, they have a remarkable life together, with everyday tasks – such as changing a lightbulb – becoming epic adventures. Their own status as each other’s saviours from loneliness, meanwhile, ensures they appreciate one another more every day. Director Yi Seung-jun strives to present this as impressionistically as the documentary format will allow, immersing us more fully their world if never exactly overburdening us with background detail.
Directed by: Ron Fricke
Star rating: * * *
THOUGH the ubiquity of stunning high-definition imagery in movies, on television and online has undoubtedly dulled the immediate wow factor of Baraka director Ron Fricke’s latest non-verbal visual poem, Samsara continues to have plenty of validity by virtue of the structure Fricke and long time collaborator Mark Magidson (his- co-producer, co-writer and co-editor) impose on the stunning scenes he’s captured. Bookended by the creation and destruction of an incredibly detailed sand painting in a monastery in Ladakh, the film transports us on a epic global journey that takes in natural wonders, disaster zones, cities and industrial complexes and intersperses them with a wide variety of haunting portraits of people indigenous to the various locales.
The results are frequently hypnotic, with the myriad images subtly ordered to show the ways in which nature and technology can both heighten and impinge on our lives.
As with Baraka, the latter can often seem quite distressing, particularly when it comes to conveying the impact of mass production (one poultry manufacturing plant in China provides a deliberate call-back to Baraka’s horrific depiction of a battery hen farm).
But Fricke knows when to rein it in and such things are always balanced with some awe-inspiring scenes of wonder, both natural and human.