Friday, 31 August 2012

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.

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