The Case for Global Film

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Archive for the ‘Hollywood’ Category

Some Like It Hot (US 1959)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 25 July 2014

Curtis, Monroe and Lemmon in a promo still (from: http://prettycleverfilms.com/movie-lists/10-things-about-some-like-it-hot)

Curtis, Monroe and Lemmon in a promo still (from: http://prettycleverfilms.com/movie-lists/10-things-about-some-like-it-hot)

This Park Circus re-release is currently showing at BFI Southbank. My younger viewing companion said she enjoyed the film and was glad to have been able to see Monroe on the big screen. At the end of the film a sizeable chunk of the audience applauded.

I have seen the film at least twice before but I followed it quite happily. I came to a number of conclusions. Monroe is remarkable. How much the camera loves her – and she responds (even though it is now suggested that she was a nightmare to work with). It occurs to me that Monroe, possibly alongside Paul Newman, was the last of the Golden Age mega stars to emerge and make a significant group of films in the dying studio system. On the other hand, good though her performances on screen turned out to be (whatever pain and blood she generated for directors), Monroe’s star persona also depended on her early pin-up work and later celebrity ‘appearances’. She put as much into the ‘secondary circulation’ of her star image as some of the later ‘celebrity stars’. Those Eve Arnold photos are also important.

But actually, the real stars of the film are Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. I can’t split them, though I think that Curtis has sometimes been under-rated as an actor. His early career included a lot of studio fluff alongside the real deal in Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and The Defiant Ones (1958). By contrast Jack Lemmon had a critical success in 1955 with Mr Roberts and sustained a remarkable career for the next forty years. Lemmon appeared many times for Billy Wilder and developed a reputation for working well with his leading ladies, starting with Judy Holliday in It Should Happen to You in 1954. Lemmon was a consummate comic actor and he and Curtis perform as if they had always been a double act.

The script by I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder is the other star ingredient. I was intrigued to discover that Wilder was ‘inspired’ (and presumably borrowed quite a lot from a German cross-dressing comedy – see the plot summary for Fanfaren der Liebe (West Germany 1951). This reminds me of the later Hollywood remake of a German film from the 1920s that was also made in French and remade in the UK in 1935 and then became Victor Victoria as directed by Blake Edwards in 1982. Clearly cross-dressing has universal appeal. Wilder’s treatment of sex and violence was radical for Hollywood at the time. The sex tends to mirror Monroe’s approach, earthy and sensual, but somehow childlike and innocent at the same time. The violence is more interesting in the sense that Wilder doesn’t shy away from the bloodshed in the St Valentine’s Day massacre scene. Wilder was also ahead of the game in his approach to the intertextual. He deliberately re-created the Warner Bros look from The Roaring Twenties (Warners 1939) and cast the iconic figures of George Raft and Pat O’Brien who played the gangster and cop in various Warners films. James Cagney versus O’Brien would have been even more ‘authentic’ but Cagney would have changed the tone of the film I think. Mike Mazurki is a reference to the slightly later era of the film noir/’hardboiled’ stories of the 1940s such as Farewell My Lovely. I don’t think the script is perfect. For instance, much of the potential for comic business around the workings of the all-female band led by ‘Sweet Sue’ is simply thrown away in the last third as the narrative focuses resolutely on the two ‘romances’. Still the dialogue is so witty and the pace unrelenting so that there is no time to think about the plot and its potential holes.

I hope the film does well on this re-release and encourages more comedies from this era. Some of Jack Lemmon’s other work needs to be seen again and some more Monroes are always welcome.

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (US 2014)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 24 July 2014

A still showing the extraordinary detail in the faces of the apes.

A still showing the extraordinary detail in the faces of the apes.

My second Summer blockbuster found me in a large London multiplex screen, virtually full with a second evening house audience – the early evening show was full as well. I usually sit on the front row of the main part of the stadium seating with the four rows of non-raked seats empty. With every seat taken it was a very different experience. The audience was young (15-45?) and I see now why it isn’t surprising that London takes a disproportionately large slice of the English film audience.

I mention the audience because my attention wandered in this 130 minutes slog and I noticed people coming and going in the screening and the annoying use of a phone part way through. Apart from Omar, everyone in the critical fraternity seems to have liked this film but while it had some good points I wasn’t totally convinced. I should point out that I don’t remember seeing any of the previous ‘Apes’ films and I definitely didn’t see the immediate predecessor – so I’m not going to comment on the various prequels and sequels and re-boots. I’ll only note that the films all derive in some way from the French science fiction novel by Pierre Boulle. The ‘global’ flavour of this current film is down to the cast with nearly all of the leads from the UK and Australia. Why? I don’t know.

As I watched the film four debates/issues became apparent. The first was about technologies. The apes, here represented via ‘motion capture technologies’ and CGI, are convincing. These apes are recognisable as the other hominoid species (along with humans): chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and a single orangutan. This aspect of the film contributed to the plausibility of the general scenario – although I have no idea how apes would sound producing human-type ‘speech’. When one of the apes deliberately behaves in a way to make the humans think that he is still ‘primitive’ (rather than ‘developed’ by genetic experiment) this seemed a nice comment on the transformation. The aspect of the cinema technology which annoyed me was the lack of masking on the screen. The film was presented in 1.85: 1 but the screen itself was 2.35:1 and the blank strips at either side showed grey in the cinema. (Someone once corrected me saying that nobody noticed these things: well I do and it distracted me in several scenes.)

The trio in the centre are the surrogate family unit who will attempt to work with the apes.

The trio in the centre is the surrogate family unit who will attempt to work with the apes.

The second issue is about casting in blockbusters. It’s usually the case now that an effects-heavy film is able to dispense with A List stars. Alternatively, if the character is very well-known (i.e. Superman or other comic-book heroes) a young ‘up and coming’ star might be most suitable. Thus in this franchise film we have one genuine star in Gary Oldman as a secondary (but important) character while the key human characters are rather amorphous. By this I mean that the actors (Jason Clarke and Keri Russell) while perfectly competent are not distinctive. I didn’t recognise them but thought they looked familiar in a generic way. Certainly they are not distinctive in the manner of Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell, two British actors, each with a strong presence but not visible behind the CGI as the two leading ape characters. Does any of this matter? I think it does in that the narrative matches the ape family of ‘Caesar’ (Serkis) with the putative family group of Clarke, Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee (she has lost her partner and daughter but teams up with the father-son duo). Kebbell’s ape character Koba is matched (less clearly) with Oldman’s. I know Hollywood is obsessed with father-son relationships, but even putting aside the marginal female role issue, the narrative would have been more interesting with Oldman as the single man trying to get close to the apes.

Issue 3 is about the overall approach to a generic ‘post-apocalypse’ narrative. I was reminded of the Spanish film I saw earlier this year, Los últimos días (2013),  with a similar premise in the aftermath of an epidemic wiping out the bulk of the human population. So we get the city festooned with creepers, trees growing in the roadways etc. and the seemingly inevitable chase down the tracks of the underground railway. In an American film there are always going to be not just weapons for survivalists but entire arsenals of weapons. My feeling was that, consciously or not, the film felt like one of those early 1970s SF films such as Soylent Green (1973) or indeed the original Apes franchise which started in 1968 and ran through into the 1970s. Like those films, this one had its serious underpinning with subtitles for much of the ape sign language. However, that seriousness began to disappear before we got to the predictable (and for me tedious) final action sequences.

And so to the film’s ideology. This isn’t clear to me. At first I thought that the film was going to be clearly pro-apist and sceptical about the humans. I was just naïve. I was disappointed with the sentimental stuff about fathers and sons and the music throughout was dreadful, signalling everything quite crudely. The film lost it for me in a short sequence where Koba seems to have taken over from Caesar and suddenly he was presented as a terrorist/dictator figure. At this point, one shot seemed to sum up the message by showing apes swarming across the ruined city with a tattered stars and stripes pointing down on a broken flagpole. Koba suddenly became the kind of leader that the US likes to defeat in the name of ‘freedom’. Note that his actions have been motivated by hate that the humans forced onto him. I won’t spoil what finally happens for those who haven’t yet seen the film, but overall I thought the ideology of this science fiction film was regressive. I thought it might have conjured up some of the adult satire of the best SF in the struggle between species but I think in the end it is just another Summer kids’ film about good guys and bad guys.

This YouTube video shows some of the remarkable motion capture transformations:

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Godzilla (US 2014)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 2 June 2014

2014_godzilla-1920x1080

There are already millions of words out there on the latest Godzilla so I’ll try to say something different about the film. This will I imagine be the only Hollywood blockbuster I’ll watch this year so I’m not going to pass judgement as such. I note that the film has divided audiences and critics alike. If I ‘read’ the overall reaction, the feeling is that the monsters are pretty good and generally better than the human cast. The film is criticised by some for too much story and too little action. I enjoyed the film up to around the three-quarter point but then I thought it lost its way.

My interest in the film is of course because this is essentially a Japanese franchise now receiving a second Hollywood reboot. We’ve had the German director’s version from Roland Emmerich and now we get Gareth Edwards as the British helmsman, but with an American story and script from two writers neither of whom have much of a profile on IMDB that might give a clue as to where the new story originates. I was impressed by Edwards’ low budget Monsters (UK 2010) so I was intrigued to see how he would handle a high-budget production. From what I’ve read, Edwards is a genuine Gojira (the original Japanese title) fan and it’s tempting to think that his authorial stamp appears across the film. I think it does in terms of Godzilla and the scenes of destruction but the human story elements seen in Monsters seem to have been lost.

Elizabeth Olsen is one of several actors whose roles are limited by the script

Elizabeth Olsen is one of several actors whose roles are limited by the script

Since this is listed as a US-Japan production, I expected more of a Japanese input into the story. This seemed to be there in the first third but was lost once the US military became involved. Ken Watanabe’s performance in the equivalent role to Shimura Takeshi in the original is largely wasted. Watanabe has appeared in several Hollywood films in order to entice Japanese audiences but in this case I suspect that the monster Godzilla is the main attraction and the script registers his presence in only a perfunctory manner once the back story has been delivered. Similarly, Juliette Binoche appears on screen for only a few minutes and a fine actor like Sally Hawkins is also wasted. Never having seen Breaking Bad I didn’t know what to expect from Bryan Cranston but he too disappears after the opening scenes. Too much of the film depends on Aaron Johnson-Taylor, now beefed up from the young British actor who played John Lennon in Nowhere Boy (UK 2009) with some panache. I haven’t been impressed by his subsequent performances in films like Albert Nobbs (2011) or Anna Karenina (2012) which seemed rather ‘one-note’. Here he is action hero – although much of the time he is actually the ‘human witness’ of Godzilla’s actions. I didn’t recognise him and he could have been one of several young American actors. Gareth Edwards has professed his admiration for early Spielberg films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws which do have their ‘human stories’ set against alien encounters and monsters from the deep. It’s possible to see that this could have been developed in Godzilla but again the opportunity has not been taken. Elizabeth Olsen as Taylor-Johnson’s wife is another under-used character.

A nice JAWS reference when the little girl sees the dead fish on the beach – an omen for the arrival of a monster from the deep?

A nice JAWS reference when the little girl sees the dead fish on the beach – an omen for the arrival of a monster from the deep?

A visualisation of the theme of humanity vs. nature? The tidal wave caused by the monsters reaps havoc in Hawaii, a reminder of both the tsunami-nuclear reactor disaster in Japan and the fragility of coastal settlement in the Pacific rim?

A visualisation of the theme of humanity vs. nature? The tidal wave caused by the monsters reaps havoc in Hawaii, a reminder of both the tsunami-nuclear reactor disaster in Japan and the fragility of coastal settlement in the Pacific rim?

Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins as the engineer and scientist rushing to the deck of a US Navy ship to see Godzilla

Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins as the engineer and scientist rushing to the deck of a US Navy ship to see Godzilla

So, I’m left puzzling over the multi-national casting of the film – is it simply a blockbuster convention and a cynical attempt to appear global – or is it Edwards attempt to make the cast his own? I’m sure Edwards spent most of his time trying to visualise Godzilla for the CGI technicians and perhaps the human stories took second place. It is a quandary. Godzilla is certainly the star of the film and the principal character but in some ways he (she?) resembles King Kong and the whole question of anthropomorphism comes up. There were moments when I felt that I wanted some kind of eye contact between Godzilla and the principal human characters – or at least the feeling that the humans understood and cared for the creature. There is something of that but the story could have made Watanabe or Hawkins/Binoche into the main human witness. Less boy’s own action and more anthropomorphism perhaps? Two other observations support that wish. The other monsters in the film (that Godzilla fights) reminded me of the ending of Quatermass and the Pit (UK 1959) in which the scientist is the witness to the monster’s end and also the Alien films in which the Ripley character faces the Alien mother. I don’t know enough about the Godzilla franchise to know whether these are worthwhile observations but I am looking forward to what Edwards might do with a further Godzilla episode.

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American Hustle (US 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 7 February 2014

Amy Adams and Christian Bale. photo © Francois Duhamel/Sony Pictures

Amy Adams and Christian Bale. photo © Francois Duhamel/Sony Pictures

American Hustle is a mess of a film. It purports to tell a tale about a scam in which an FBI agent hopes to trap politicians engaged in corruption in 1978. I think the script and the mise en scène are both problematic and the shifting tone of the scenes means that it often isn’t clear what kind of film we are watching. If this is one of the American films of the year – or at least one that the Academy is considering for major honours – then the US industry is itself in a mess.

I should confess that in a sense I went to see the film more or less out of desperation. I calculate that there hasn’t been a single foreign language film on general release for the last three months around here and I wanted to go to the pictures! But I have enjoyed the David O. Russell films that I’ve watched before and I expected to enjoy this one. To pick out the good things, the music soundtrack is very enjoyable and there is a great cast – but unfortunately they are dressed like cartoon characters and required to behave similarly. I’m happy to go with obnoxious characters as required by the plot, but Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent in this film becomes so annoying that I just hoped someone would despatch him to get him off the screen. But the main problem is that the mixing of genres/approaches just isn’t thought through. (There has been some discussion about how much Russell required his actors to improvise on set.) Of course I realise that the film is essentially about a ‘scam’, or a ‘sting’ and that it is probably meant to be ‘playful’ in its tonal shifts. Perhaps the extended dialogue scenes that don’t seem to go anywhere are part of this playfulness? The film is based on a real FBI operation in 1978 and the audience is warned at the beginning by the statement “Some of this actually happened”. We don’t know which bits.

I suppose the real question here is about what the attempt to marry a comedy and a reconstruction of a controversial entrapment project means in terms of politics, aesthetics and simple entertainment. Like most audiences I enjoy a fictional heist or sting movie whether it is played straight or as a comedy but this seems the worst of all worlds – it’s not that funny, or intriguing in its plot shifts and its politics seem very confused. My main concern throughout the film was that Amy Adams was going to catch pneumonia with her chest open to the elements wherever she went. She’s far too good an actor to be treated in this way. Now I’m going to try to find Louis Malle’s Atlantic City to remind me of what New Jersey might have been like in the 1970s.

Posted in Comedies, Hollywood | 2 Comments »

“And the Award goes to … “

Posted by keith1942 on 27 January 2014

Nominated for Best Documentary Feature.

Nominated for Best Documentary Feature.

There has been much coverage of the Film Awards season in the media: The Golden Globes, The Screen Actors Guild, The BAFTAS, and The Academy Awards. The last two have yet to arrive, but there is already an amount of speculation, and apparently betting. Most of the media only discuss the major awards: credit though to BBC2’s Newsnight which had short interviews with the filmmakers involved in two ‘minor’ awards – Best Documentary Feature – “The Square” Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer and Best Documentary Short Subject – “Karama Has No Walls” Sara Ishaq
Some critics like Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian already fear that ‘the best film will not win’. Which raises the question ‘whose best film’? None of my favourites for the year received a nomination; not surprising. Only one film in the Sight & Sound (January, 2014) top ten in its list for the year made it into the major awards. Of the other main contenders only 12 Years a Slave managed a position, at joint fourteen. The nominations, with the exceptions of the Best Foreign Language Film, Best Documentary Feature, Best Documentary Short Film, Best Animated Short Film and Best Live Action Short Film, are all taken from mainstream Box Office successes. In fact, the general audience have presumably already voted at the Box Office. And as Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian pointed out, there is an observable gap between the Box Office choice and that of the Academy members.

What is more worrying about the Academy members’ choices is on what basis they choose. Peter Bradshaw bemoaned that not all the members would watch the nominated films on the DVDs provided. I rather think they have now moved on to Blu-Ray. Whatever, this is not strictly film and certainly not cinema. I suspect that a large number of votes at the Screen Actors’ Guild, the BAFTAS and the Oscars will be based on watching video. Of course, it may be high definition and it may be on 50 inch Television or Plasma screens. One assumes that the Foreign Press Association do actually watch films at the cinema.

I did. On the day that the Oscar nominations were announced I went to see Nairobi a Half Life (Kenya, 2012), a film proposed for the Academy’s awards but which did not manage a nomination in the Foreign Language Film category. It is an uneven film but I thought it better than at least one title in the Sight & Sound list. My enjoyment was partly fuelled by the gasps etc by fellow audience members at moments of tension and our shared laughter at the macabre but witty moments. Watching it on video would be only half the experience.

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (US 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 5 January 2014

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

Attending this screening with Rona felt a little like a cultural studies day out. There was a big audience for a 4 pm showing in the Hebden Bridge Picture House – young teenagers and some parents and grandparents. I didn’t count them but my impression was that the audience was more female than male. This was a different experience to watching part 1 of the franchise in an early evening show in Cineworld with the usual dozen people in a 200-250 seat cinema. Since then the franchise has really taken off and Jennifer Lawrence has become the star of the moment.

Our interest in the film is principally in terms of a social phenomenon. I remember enjoying Part 1 but finding it insubstantial apart from Ms Lawrence and the presence of Donald Sutherland, an old favourite. At the beginning of part 2, I realised that after 18 months I had forgotten most of the other characters (and most of the plot details) and it took me a while to get up to speed. It’s a long film at 146 mins and although never bored I did find myself reflecting on the nature of blockbusters. Half the film is a variation on the first film with more sophisticated games (with much more spent on effects) and the other half deals with the politics of preparing the contestants. This half has moved on and allowed some development of the theme of resistance in the fascist state that created the games. So, on the one hand we have a film that increasingly resembles the experience of playing a game (but I’m not a gamer and I might be reading this incorrectly?) and on the other at least the possibility of some kind of political comment. Critics and audiences have seemingly found this irresistible since the film is one of the biggest box office successes of the year with over $800 million worldwide. Half of that comes from North America suggesting that the international appeal is slightly less (the ‘normal’ split is more like 37:63). I’m not sure how to read that and it may be something worth investigating. Like the Twilight franchise, The Hunger Games is not a major studio release and the international market may be a harder sell for Lionsgate.

There can’t be too much doubt that much of the film’s success is based on the performance and star persona of Jennifer Lawrence. A genuine female action hero is hard to achieve. All the comic book female heroes seem to end up in some kind of  fetish gear outfit like Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, in leather like Kate Beckinsale in Underworld or in hot pants like Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. Ms Lawrence does wear a wet suit in Hunger Games but her appearance is much more like a triathlete in the Olympics with a body for fighting not posing. She looks terrific without make-up but she can still carry off the twirl in a fantastic wedding dress. She’s a young woman with a great mind, a great body and a healthy attitude, no wonder she is a potential role model. She carries the film but I did wonder, sitting amongst a large audience, exactly how they were interacting with her screen presence. I was surprised that I didn’t feel more of the excitement of the audience. Instead there was the stillness of rapt attention.

I would concur with the critics who see this as a highly competent directorial effort by Francis Lawrence (perhaps helped by Simon Beaufoy’s addition to the writing team). The money is on the screen and the addition of Philip Seymour Hoffman is a major plus. The ending of the film is well-handled, setting up the next in the franchise. I think, however, that the ‘political’ theme has been over-hyped and I did find most of the other characters rather bland and unmemorable. I know the film isn’t aimed at me and the target audience won’t have seen many of the earlier films referenced – or have the same bored response to a satire on reality TV. I excuse Jena Malone from the bland tag. I recognised her from Donnie Darko and she injected a bit of extra life. Otherwise Jennifer Lawrence commands the screen.

One one trail for the film I spotted a typo in the director’s name which was listed as ‘Frances’ Lawrence. That did make me wonder why the film doesn’t have a female director – who might have a clearer idea of how to exploit the star power of Jennifer Lawrence in even more productive ways for the benefit of a young female audience?

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Gravity (US/UK 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 31 December 2013

Sandra Bullock – alone in space?

Sandra Bullock – alone in space?

Gravity works with audiences – in industry terms it has ‘legs’. Although it was released in early November, it still pulled in a healthy audience at the 3D screening I attended this week. It also works as a technical exercise in creating a ‘realist’ representation of the work of astronauts on a space station in orbit above the earth. (I am not commenting on the scientific ‘truth’ of the operations depicted, rather on the sense of ‘being there’ experienced by the audience.)

Alfonso Cuarón and his DoP Emmanuel Lubezki are masters of the long take, though when bodies are floating through space and cameras are ‘virtual’ in the world of CGI, this means something rather different than it did for Max Ophuls or Jean Renoir. Cuarón is certainly ‘in control’ since as well as directing, he produced the film, co-wrote the script with his son Jonás and co-edited it with Mark Sanger. Perhaps he might have relinquished one of those roles and focused a little more on the script and possibly the casting? The film works for me as a thriller and I was squirming in my seat with the tension I felt. It also did make me think about the prospect of slow death if I was ever cast adrift in space. The 3D generally worked, although I found the objects being thrown at the audience became too distracting after a while. The three flaws for me were: (1) the dreadful music, (2) George Clooney and (3) the ‘re-birthing’ and spiritual/religious symbolism of the last third of the film.

I can see that each of these ‘flaws’ could be attributed to the commercial constraints facing Cuarón. I’m sure that I remember early discussions about this not being a ‘studio picture’ but instead some kind of ‘super indy’. With a budget of $100 million and a massive international roll-out, this seems like a blockbuster to me and therefore in need of various conventional touches. Clooney is a likeable star with a ‘big’ persona but the role in Gravity would have been better filled by a lesser-known actor who would not have drawn attention away from Sandra Bullock (an effective, restrained performance, I think). Space would be more ‘other’ and even more terrifying with only the ‘natural’ sounds of the space station or the diegetic music on the intercom.

The re-birthing symbolism is more problematic – Sandra Bullock is seen several times getting out of her spacesuit (like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis?) and coiling up in a foetal position. I guess much of the resonance of these scenes comes from 2001? My concern is that these images come as part of what is a general slide into a ‘Hollywood ending’ to the film. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but it did seem to me to be disappointing for a film which seems to promise something different. I’ve seen Gravity referred to as a ‘science fiction film’ but this does not seem helpful – action thriller seems the best description (Speed with Sandra Bullock would make an interesting comparison.)

Alfonso Cuarón showed in his best film, Y tu mamá también (Mexico/US 2001) that he is capable of subverting the mainstream and that he can work effectively with genre repertoires as in Children of Men (US/UK/Japan 2006). Of course, Children of Men proved a difficult sell to audiences and dented Cuarón’s ‘bankability’ after his earlier success with a Harry Potter film. Gravity has restored his status, so something with more bite next time?

Alfonso Cuarón is a transnational filmmaker working in Mexico, the US or across Europe on international projects. I see that IMDB lists Gravity as simply a ‘US’ production. In fact it was co-produced with David Heyman in the UK (his company also co-produced the Harry Potter movies) and most of the studio work was completed at Shepperton. UK crews and facilities deserve some credit for the technical virtuosity of the film.

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Prisoners (US 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 4 October 2013

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Dover (Hugh Jackman)

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Dover (Hugh Jackman)

There are two reasons for featuring what is ostensibly a Hollywood movie on this blog (apart from its surprising success and controversial readings by critics). First, it’s the product of a creative team in which several of the principal crew members (director, composer, cinematographer, designers etc.) are non-American. Secondly, its length (153 mins) and outline story of a double abduction of young girls in a small town at Thanksgiving suggests possible links to the current cycle of ‘Nordic Noir’ films and long-form television narratives.

Writer Aaron Guzikowski is best known for the Hollywood remake of the Icelandic film Reykyavik-Rotterdam as Contraband starring Mark Wahlberg – and Wahlberg is one of the exec producers of this film. Prisoners was a script that was well known around Hollywood for several years with various attempts to get it into production before Denis Villeneuve was attached. He is the Québécois director of Incendies (France-Canada 2010), one of our ‘films of the year’ on this blog. It’s been a remarkable year for Villeneuve with two major releases, both starring Jake Gyllenhaal – Enemy (Canada-Spain 2013) is the second.

So does Prisoners look and feel any different from a standard Hollywood thriller of this type? The opening scene of a deer shoot in the snow seems like a nod towards The Deerhunter in establishing the Pennsylvania setting but from then on the narrative becomes quite claustrophobic (partly because of the decision to shoot in 1:1.85 rather than ‘Scope). The long running-time and the focus on only a limited number of characters allows the story to develop slowly and in this sense it feels quite different to a Danish serial like Forbrydelsen (The Killing). With outdoor scenes dominated by extreme weather (heavy rain and slush) photographed by Roger Deakins and with a mystery element, the ‘feel’ seemed to me closer to the Icelandic crime thriller Jar City.

Outline (no spoilers)

Two families, the Dovers and the Birches are spending Thanksgiving Day together but alarm bells ring when the two youngest children go missing and are treated as victims of an abduction. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) leads the hunt for them and is extremely aggressive towards police detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) after his arrest of the chief suspect (Paul Dano), a man with obvious learning difficulties. Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) is much more reluctant than Dover to take the law into his own hands. The events which follow include several mistakes in the investigation and questionable behaviour by those involved. The ending of the film is ambiguous in one crucial respect.

Commentary

I found the film to be always engaging and the running-time was not a problem. I can see that there are some plotting issues and possible implausibilities but that’s common for films of this kind. Overall I thought that Villeneuve handled his actors and used the locations very effectively to create tension and to maintain audience involvement. The main weakness of the script was that the ‘wives and mothers’ (Maria Bello and Viola Davis) had little to do (like Terrence Howard). By contrast, Melissa Leo as the ‘aunt’ of the Paul Dano character was extremely effective. But the other two older Dover and Birch children were also fairly redundant as characters.

The central narrative offers us two major male characters played by Jackman and Gyllenhaal. Jackman has the ‘shouty’ role which necessarily requires a strong physical presence. Gyllenhaal plays Loki as an intense and obsessive man and uses what I can only describe as a method approach. Festooned in tattoos and with swept back gelled hair, a tightly-buttoned shirt and a compulsive blinking habit he is a striking but mostly quietly-spoken character. There are some particularly unhelpful remarks by the Guardian‘s Catherine Shoard on the paper’s video review show about the acting in the film. I think film students would find it useful to compare the two central performances.

None of the characters in the film is given a ‘backstory’. We don’t know why Loki behaves as he does. We just know he has a reputation for solving every case. All we know about Dover is that he is a self-employed handyman with a basement filled with stores in the event of a disaster. I don’t think we know what Birch does and the women don’t seem to have jobs – so it isn’t clear how the families are supported. In an early exchange, Dover tells his son that there isn’t enough income for a second vehicle (Dover drives a pick-up). What all this suggests is that we are meant to read the narrative at a much more symbolic level and audiences have certainly tried to do this. Variety has published a piece comparing the film’s representation of torture as a means of obtaining information unfavourably in a comparison with Zero Dark Thirty. Villeneuve handles these scenes well, I think. He can shock an audience while still being restrained. The IMDB bulletin board carries a debate about the film’s use of religious imagery. My knowledge of small town Pennsylvania is not very extensive but I think that the ‘community’ is intended to be Catholic and there are various quotes from The Lord’s Prayer etc. The film’s title is open to interpretation. Who are the ‘prisoners’? What kind of incarceration is it?

To return to the American/global sense of the narrative, I would say that there are enough similar Hollywood thrillers to make the film feel familiar. The film is technically a Hollywood product since the production company Alcon Entertainment have a distribution outlet in North America on a long term basis via Warner Bros. Outside North America, however, media sales are handled by Summit and the UK distributor is the Canadian conglomerate eOne. The success of the film has come during a very slack period with no blockbuster releases and it will be interesting to see if it maintains its No 1 position in the UK chart this weekend with some strong competition. In the meantime, I’d recommend the film mainly for Gyllenhaal’s performance (and Villeneuve’s direction). I’m really looking forward to Enemy.

Posted in Hollywood | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

 
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