Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Keeping it in the family: James Marsh's silly SHADOW DANCER is one very bizzare bomb

TrustMovies means "bomb" (see headline above) in the American vernacular, rather than the British (in which the term is slang for a huge hit). SHADOW DANCER is so alternately paint-by-numbers and ridiculous that you quickly begin asking that famous question: What were they thinking? This is especially unsettling, given the bona fides of the director (James Marsh, shown below, who has brought us two sterling documentaries and the best of the three films in the Red Riding trilogy) and his two leading actors (the always-worth-seeing Clive Owen and the up-and-coming and very talented Andrea Riseborough).

A British/Irish endeavor with a screenplay by Tom Bradby, based on his own novel, Shadow Dancer begins with a scene that could hardly be more explicit. Taking place in 1973, it shows us an Irish family of mom, dad, daughter and son, in which dad asks daughter to do something, and she fobs it off on her little brother. And then something happens. Cut to 1993, when that daughter, Collette, has grown into the lovely Ms Riseborough (below), whom we see taking a ride on the British underground and acting, oh, so mysterious in a scene that is anything but explicit.

So far, so good. Though we might quibble with how quickly the coppers are on to Collette, as this all takes place 20 years ago, well before surveillance became the easy sport it is today. But we let that pass because we do want to enjoy the movie at hand, and for awhile, we do -- as British intelligence officer Mac (played by Mr. Owen, below) questions our girl and gets her involved in spying for the Brits against the IRA (yes, this is one of those stories), with which her own family members and friends are deeply involved and presumably always have been (which may have been the reason the film's initial killing occurs).

What happens from here on in, however, ranges from questionable to obtuse to downright silly. In an environment where betrayal is rife, how can the IRA not suspect this young woman, particularly after she's been arrested and everyone knows it? The movie's ridiculous handling of this proves bad enough, but there's so much more. Like the fact that no one ever gets followed (except in the couple of times that they need to be in order to get caught). This kind of coincidence is barely grammar-school level.

Then there's the question of costuming. When you're working undercover and would prefer not to be seen, of course you'll wear this bright red raincoat, right? Well, hey -- it makes a great match for that phone booth! (Really, there are times when the movie -- technically, often abysmal -- seems more like a satire on the thriller genre rather than a part of it.

Beyond the question of believability, there's another of pacing. Shadow Dancer is often so slow and tiresome that you'll need to pinch yourself to stay awake. The old adage, follow the money, comes to the fore again, as Owen's Mac must call in some chits in order to learn the answers to his new-found questions. Those answers put the movie's title into play, in a manner that is so obvious and clichéd that you'll again wonder if you're watching a bad satire.

There are a couple of genuine surprises toward the film's close, but because all the characters we see are puddle-shallow and single-note, these jolts are likely to make you more angry than jazzed. A little inscrutability can be fun, but when a movie offers nothing but, you'll be ready to toss in the towel well before the surprises hit.

Ms Riseborough leads the pack in one-note inscrutability, followed by Gillian Anderson (above) as Mac's "supervisor." (I love this actress but I would call her performance maybe half-note; most likely, the best part of  it ended up on the cutting room floor -- or whatever passes for that in these digital days.) Owens' single note is loyalty, Collette's family are all dour, while the IRA is pictured as nasty and stupid -- which I guess counts for two notes! (That's Aiden Gillen, below, center.)

If this were a little independent, made by and starring unknowns, I probably would not be so hard on it. But given the talent involved, I finally do have to ask: What were they thinking?

Shadow Dancer, from Magnolia Pictures, opens this Friday, May 31, in New York (Landmark's Sunshine Cinema) and L.A. (Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex), In the weeks to come, it will open in another 20 cities around the country. Click here to see all scheduled playdates.

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