The Transsiberian Connection
Posted on Thursday June 26, 2008, 15:25 by Damon Wise in Edinburgh International Film Festival
Apologies for not blogging yesterday, but the pressures of real life sometimes unexpectedly, and rather rudely, intrude when you're in the middle of a film festival. And, hey, that's given me an idea for a theme for today's blog! Real life didn't enter my mind at all yesterday afternoon as I watched the frankly rather absurd Transsiberian, the latest by Brad Anderson, who did the existential thriller The Machinist (which was great) and the haunted asylum horror Session 9 (this one not so much). His latest film is more of a piece with the latter; though it's well made and insanely ambitious – it takes place on a train hurtling from Beijing to Moscow – the story problems that kick in after the intriguing first half just can't be resolved by an overcooked, violent climax.
Emily Mortimer stars as Jessie, a recovered alcoholic who's travelling with her staid, religious boyfriend Roy (Woody Harrelson, making an excellent nerd), and on the first leg of the journey they befriend a charming Spaniard, Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and his girlfriend. Sparks fly between Carlos and Jessie, and when Roy goes missing, a dramatic chain of events conspires to put Jessie's life in jeopardy. Sorry if that seems a bit mysterious but to explain any more would spoil what little this film has to offer. It wants to be Hitchcockian, but the suspense is too contrived, and when Jessie comes under suspicion by a scenery-chewing Ben Kingsley (playing a Russian cop), the film teeters into farce as Jessie tries to keep her guilty secret from his prying eyes.
Later that night I saw Elite Squad, which has also come under fire for its realism, especially from Variety in a review written by the normally mild-mannered Jay Weissberg. I know Jay and respect his views, but I beg to differ with him on this. You can read his review here.
Now, Elite Squad is harsh, and it's certainly flawed, but I think Jay is responding more to the film's devil's advocate status than what's actually on the screen. Other comparisons have been made with City Of God, and even Dirty Harry, but neither of these really cover it either. Set in 1997, on the eve of a visit by the Pope to Rio De Janeiro, it finds supercop Nascimento (Wagner Moura) looking for a replacement to take over from him as the head of the hand-picked, brutal BOPE squad, a troop that patrols the favellas and slums, taking out drug dealers and criminals with single-minded and cold-blooded precision. Into Nascimento's orbit come two best friends, both idealistic recruits who join up to fight crime and wind up participating in it, coming to Nascimento's attention as two potential candidates for his job. The film works best as a study of corruption, and how it can't help but filter down to the lowest levels. It's also about hypocrisy, and the way the liberal, pot-smoking middle classes help to fund and perpetuate the cycle of violence in the slums. Director Jose Padilha went through hell to make it, and he just told me a fantastic story about the day he was accosted by gangsters who wanted a word, so to speak. One of them dropped a grenade, which bounced on the floor a few times but thankfully didn't go off because it was faulty. “Sorry about that,” said the druglord as he reinserted the pin. I bet that never happens to Richard Curtis.
Now, we can talk all day about whether Elite Squad is 'real' or not, but something that undoubtedly happened in 1974 was that tightrope walker Philippe Petit threw a steel rope from one of the Twin Towers over to the other and began a 47-minute performance, without a safety net, that astonished New York. Man On Wire arrives here from Sundance and Tribeca, so it's hardly a discovery, but even if you know the story, James Marsh's terrific film is a wonderful document of an extraordinary man and a barely believable event. The official screening is tonight and promises to be a cracker; it helps that Petit is in attendance, simply because he's just as adorable and crackers in real life as he seems to be onscreen. It will certainly help send the festival out on a high, so to speak.