So it’s that time of year again.
Today wasn’t exactly the first day of the Edinburgh Film Festival – the festival kicks off in style tomorrow with a screening of Sam Mendes’ Away We Go – but today marked the beginning of the press and industry screenings. You can probably guess who exactly these screenings are intended for, and while press screenings do generally lack, well, the audience you find from one of the public screenings (there was a lot of empty seats today – however, this may just be down to the unofficial start of the fest), they allow you to focus on the films themselves without distractions from the bells and whistles that normally surround these festival screenings. (For the record, I do like bells and whistles from time to time…)
The first film that found its way under the spotlight today was The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee, a star-studded melodrama from Rebecca Miller (The Ballad Of Jack And Rose). Pippa (Robin Wright Penn) and Herb (Alan Arkin) are a happily married couple with a good 30 year age gap between them and a newly secluded life in a retirement complex following a series of Herb’s heart attacks – time to relax, right? Of course not: the cracks are beginning to show in Pippa’s façade as perfect housewife, as well as her marriage. Pippa Lee (the film) concerns itself with discovering just what led Pippa Lee (the woman) to this point. Cue flashbacks!
Pippa Lee is well-written, well-acted and a nice diversion, but never becomes more than just a diversion, leading the audience down rabbit holes (is Pippa losing her mind? Was her marriage doomed from the start? Is she following in her mother’s footsteps?) before scurrying out of them. It’s a good film – nobody would call it a bad one, let’s put it that way – and Wright Penn shows just why she deserved this rare starring role, but there’s too little insight for this film to truly get under the skin. The kind of film you’ll see get four stars in a magazine but then will barely remember afterwards.
The second film of the day was The Hurt Locker, the Iraq-set war drama by Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Strange Days) that’s been doing the festival rounds for a minute without ever quite securing a Stateside release. Sure, films that tackle Iraq are still being met with a great degree of apathy from pretty much everyone (even Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure underperformed at last year’s EIFF), but Bigelow’s film has something going for it – a cautious step back from the politics and a sharper focus on the emotional connection between the characters. This is Iraq as a backdrop of war, not as catalyst for the narrative.
Jeremy Renner (who pretty much deserves every plaudit thrown at him) is Sergeant James, a bomb specialist called onto the unit of Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) after their unit chief is killed in a bomb blast, and he rapidly gets to shredding their nerves with his reckless behaviour in the line of duty. In one scene, James takes off his protective suit while facing a car boot full of bombs that could explode at any minute. His reason: “If I’m going to die, I’m going to die comfortably.”
There are action movie clichés at work here: the zinger-offering renegade in a line of work that doesn’t call for renegades, the relationship between an all-knowing child and the protagonist, even the time-honoured time bomb makes an appearance. But Bigelow makes these clichés not only work, but gives them total authenticity (excellent camerawork by Barry Ackroyd). The real danger isn’t the Iraqi insurgents or the bombs they use, but it’s Sgt James’ freewheeling attitude and the reverberations it has on the people he’s comes into contact with. There are nail-biting set pieces (something truly special will have to up a desert-set meeting with British soldiers as the best action scene of this year) but the nerves are left jangling by a scene between the three soldiers that deftly switches from tomfoolery to real danger in the flick of a knife. The Hurt Locker makes a smart move of moving aside the motivations behind war – and for this it will come under criticism – but simply watching these men nervously go around their work makes for thrilling cinema.
Tomorrow: bonkers-sounding biopic White Lightnin’, Mary And Max, the feature-length debut of the man behind Harvey Kimble, scarily timely-sounding British drama A Boy Called Dad, and the aforementioned Away We Go. Maybe I’ll meet Jim from The Office! (Cue trademark Jim stare.)
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