Three films from the Russian director Alexei Balabanov were screened at BIFF last year and they proved very popular with festival regulars. Sadly the director died in May 2013 aged only 54 – as did the star of Brother, Sergey Bodrov, in an accident during a film shoot in 2002. Screening Brother was therefore both a follow-up and a tribute.
Brother was both a big box office hit and a critical success (but also creating controversy with claims that it was fascistic and ‘not Russian’ in its appeal to Western audiences). The film exhibition business was still recovering from almost complete obliteration in Russia in the 1990s so much of that ‘box office’ must have come through video copies, legal or otherwise. It isn’t difficult to imagine younger audiences quickly latching on to Sergey Bodrov as an attractive young man dealing out a form of ‘justice’ on the streets of Leningrad/Saint Petersburg.
Bodrov plays a young man just demobbed by the Russian Army who arrives in his home town, quickly gets into trouble and is packed off to Saint Petersburg to find his older brother who his mother believes is in a respectable job. He isn’t and soon he has recruited his younger brother to help him in a battle with local gangsters. What follows is mostly conventional for the gangster film across all major film industries. What distinguishes this film is the setting – the city still recognisable as the Leningrad of Eisenstein except in colour – and the young hero Danila who makes things happen as quickly as the young Corleone in Godfather 2. Danila repeatedly tells people that he was only a “clerk at HQ” but he is adept at handling weapons, modifying them and using them imaginatively. He kills without compunction but with efficiency, but he has a sense of honour and he keeps his word. He enjoys Russian rock music and he has an eye for women including a tram driver. (The ancient open tram is the star attraction in the mise en scène of the city.) It isn’t difficult to see why Bodrev became popular so quickly.
The charges against the film are not easy to explore. Danila befriends an old man in the vegetable market who turns out to be German but this may be a code for Jewish. Either way, Danila needs a supportive group and he works with them whilst making noises about other groups that suggest ‘learned’ prejudices. There is a reference to gay characters and I don’t feel able to properly discuss the range of representations – Russia is generally presented as a hard-drinking society with social behaviour to match (although Danila also visits a post-hippy party as well). Based on the reputation for extreme violence in the films shown last year (which I didn’t see) Brother seems to keep within the boundaries of mainstream entertainment cinema and on that level I enjoyed it very much.
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.
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.
This is a strange film. Writer-director Eran Creevy describes it as a “cops and robbers film'” and tells us that it developed from his love for the Hong Kong ‘heroic bloodshed’ pictures of the late 1980s/early 1990s by directors such as John Woo and Ringo Lam. Quentin Tarantino has already exploited the genre but Creevy offers something new in his setting of the action in Canary Wharf with new images of ‘London noir‘. One undoubted success of the film is that it follows the old maxim of “put your money on the screen”. Creevy and his producers/collaborators got their chance to make a London action film after just one calling-card production, the £100,000 Shifty in 2008. Creevy comes from a background of work in advertising and music video and with his cinematographer Ed Wild has achieved a compelling look for Welcome to the Punch. Whether a good look is enough without a coherent script is another question.
Welcome to the Punch was released in the UK in March 2013 but it seemed to disappear quite quickly and I missed it. The DVD is now out and it includes both a Q&A at BFI Southbank and a ‘Making Of’, both with Creevy in expansive mood. We learn, for instance, that the original script was 180 pages and that this was eventually almost halved in length. This perhaps explains some of the mysteries about the back story. The film opens with a prologue featuring a carefully-planned robbery in Canary Wharf in which the four robbers are escaping, only to be impeded by a single police officer acting against orders to wait for back-up. This is Max (James McAvoy) who finds himself up against the leader of the quartet, Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong). Sternwood decides not to kill Max and escapes with the others. The plot then picks up a few years later when Max has returned to work with a new partner, Sarah (Andrea Riseborough). Sternwood is living in a remote area of Iceland and Max still wants to ‘take him down’ but his bosses want to restrain Max and they have other ideas about how to use the developing situation to capture Sternwood. What follows is a convoluted story about police corruption, politics and the private security industry, at the centre of which is an almost separate narrative about the strange relationship between Max and Sternwood, likened by several commentators to the Pacino-De Niro story in Michael Mann’s Heat.
Many audiences appear to have given up on the various plot developments, complaining that the film doesn’t make sense. The film’s strange title is partly explained in the plot but still strikes me as unnecessarily obtuse. I get the sense that the film would have been stronger if Creevy had either started again, or given the ideas to someone else, in either case beginning to write within a 90-100 minute framework.
One of Creevy’s problems is that, although UK police are now armed when approaching dangerous criminals, suspected ‘terrorists’ etc., they don’t routinely carry arms. To replicate Hong Kong gunplay scenarios, Creevy creates a special force equipped with an array of weapons who can indulge in extended shooting matches. This is certainly not the socially realist British police procedural, but also it isn’t an out and out fantasy like James Bond. At one point we are offered a scene almost like those in The Ladykillers with Peter Mullan menacing Ruth Sheen as the mother of one of the villains in a chintzy room in the East End. I fear that a very strong cast (including Daniel Mays and David Morrissey) is rather wasted as all the attention is focused on the central pairing.
The most important aspect of the film’s production is the way that it exemplifies how the industry now works. Shifty was one of the films selected for Film London’s Microwave scheme. Although he had to make that film for only £100,000, Shifty saw Creevy ‘mentored’ by Asif Kapadia. He was forced to hone the film’s narrative and to think carefully about what he could do with the money. The critical success of that film saw Creevy nominated for two major British awards (BAFTA/BIFA) and win two other film festival awards. This must be one of the reasons why Ridley Scott was prepared to ‘present’ the film for his Scott Free Productions. This obviously helped the film get stars of the quality of James McAvoy and Mark Strong (who has worked with Scott on productions such as Robin Hood and Body of Lies). Eran Creevy clearly has talent and the story ideas behind this production alongside the original ideas about settings (Canary Wharf companies took some persuading to allow shooting) could have made the film memorable. The script seems to me to be the weak point – as it is too often in British productions.
It might be worth discussing this film alongside Danny Boyle’s Trance. The films have similar London noir settings and both have James McAvoy in the lead. I like McAvoy but I still have problems with his physical presence as a male action lead – he’s as short as I am, but he also has some visible strength. Perhaps I should remember Alan Ladd? Filth, out this week, may solidify his leading man reputation. Unfortunately both Trance and Welcome to the Punch fail to develop their female characters and that’s something Eran Creevy might want to think about.
Here is a PowerPoint presentation on a case study of Eran Creevy as an example of current film production in the UK: WelcomePunch3
Cinema 2 in Cornerhouse Manchester was the intimate venue for a preview of Metro Manila with support from BAFTA North. The screening attracted an enthusiastic audience including members of the local Filipino community and afterwards Andy Willis, Reader in Film Studies at Salford University, hosted a Q&A with writer-director Sean Ellis, lead actor Jake Macapagal and music composer Robin Foster.
The script for Metro Manila was written by Sean Ellis and Frank E. Flowers in English and then translated into Tagalog more or less as it was shot. The story was developed from an incident witnessed by Ellis during his first visit to Manila. The cast was recruited locally, led by Jake Macapagal, a local theatre actor. Sean Ellis, who has a background first as a photographer and then as an award-winning shorts director (this is his third feature), shot the film himself. Its first appearance was at Sundance in January 2013 where it won the Audience Award. Since then it has played in France and Belgium. It opens in the UK on September 20th and then has a wide release in the Philippines in October. Sean Ellis suggested that his film “slides from world cinema into a genre thriller”. I was troubled by this statement as ‘world cinema’ still seems like a spurious term – more on this below.
The story is universal and Ellis agreed with an audience comment that it could have been set anywhere. The treatment however places it firmly in Manila. Oscar and Mai and their two small children are forced to leave rural Philippines when the price they receive for the rice they have grown drops dramatically. They travel to the capital in the hope of finding work and they are ripped off like every ‘country’ couple who don’t have friends or family to help them. Mai is forced to take a job in a sleazy bar and Oscar eventually finds employment as a security guard when a recruiter realises that this applicant has served time on military service. Everything seems to be going well at this point – but perhaps too well? Against his will, Oscar finds himself in a dangerous situation with little room for manoeuvre. The final third of the film leads us into familiar crime thriller territory, but there is a further plot twist which returns attention to the social question about rural poverty and the terrors of the big city.
I should say straightaway that the film, as a production, is a remarkable achievement. Language was clearly a key issue. Ellis doesn’t speak Tagalog and the kind of language used in commercial Filipino film and television did not seem appropriate (it’s a conventional language used for popular film and television melodramas). Jake Macapagal explained that the cast tried to use the street language of Manila as seemed appropriate in translating the script. I found this fascinating as Ellis explained that the film was edited for the subtitling – in other words, shots would be chosen with start and end points in the edit, not for the flow of the scene, but because of the time needed to screen the subtitles. Of course, for a predominantly English audience the film looked fine. The Filipino audience members said that they could follow both dialogue and titles. The camerawork, performance and music all worked well and the story is gripping all the way through. My only hesitancy was over the narrative resolution (which I won’t spoil). I find the concept of ‘world cinema’ to ‘crime thriller’ problematic. It’s ‘world cinema’ I don’t like and what it implies (a film intended to be seen mainly in international festivals and art cinemas). I would prefer the film to have a consistent style and it was the case that as the thriller narrative developed we lost some of the sense of ‘experiencing’ the city that came over so strongly in the opening scenes.
The response to Metro Manila so far has, not surprisingly, made comparisons with the other two titles involving young British directors making independent features outside the UK in challenging locations. Gareth Evans’ Indonesian-set The Raid (2011) and Gareth Edwards’ Mexico-set Monsters (2010) are both more clearly identifiable as genre pictures. I haven’t seen The Raid but the reports I have read suggest that it is possibly more ‘rooted’ in Indonesian popular culture than Monsters with its American couple in Mexico. It’s sad that Rebelle (War Witch, Canada 2011) another film by a Western/’Northern’ filmmaker, this time set in Africa, hasn’t been released in the UK. Watching it in the same Cornerhouse screen last year as part of the ‘French Connection’ season, it struck me as completely successful and arguably melding what Ellis refers to as ‘world cinema’ and the thriller. I guess the central question about Metro Manila is whether the thriller elements interfere in any way with the sense of authenticity that the realist street approach achieves in the first third of the film.
I confess to relatively little knowledge of Filipino culture and I wish I knew more. In particular, I wish I knew more about the ‘creolisation’ of local culture following Spanish colonialism and then American economic colonialism. In the opening scenes of Metro Manila (see the trailer below) the rice paddies farmed by Oscar and Mia are located in a landscape that reminded me of scenes from Latin-American films – an effect reinforced by the gaudily decorated truck that took them to Manila. In the Q&A we learned that the ‘street version’ of Tagalog includes both Spanish and English words and the film includes several important references to Catholicism that I’d like to know more about in its Filipino setting.
I’ve suggested a couple of possible reservations about the film but I want to recommend the film strongly. I plan to watch it again soon and I’ll be paying more attention to the camerawork and to the narrative structure – I realised during the final sequences that the structure is quite complex with a voiceover and flashbacks that I didn’t fully work out.
Thanks to Rachel Hayward, Andy Willis and his guests and all the Cornerhouse staff who put on this excellent session.
Here’s the French trailer (there isn’t any dialogue in it) which represents the film well:
Monsoon Shootout is a difficult film to pin down and review but an important film to discuss. It’s the first feature of writer-director Amit Kumar and has been ten years in the making – an indication of the potential difficulties in producing a small film outside the Indian mainstream. Kumar is an Indian film school graduate (FTII in Pune) with several high-profile contacts from FTII and his subsequent production experience and this has enabled Monsoon Shootout to emerge as an Indian film co-produced with European partners and now picked up by the international sales agent and distributor Fortissimo. The film was shown at Cannes this year and with both Asif Kapadia and Anurag Kashyap amongst its group of producers it is certain to be talked about. The London Indian Film Festival screening was its UK premiere.
The film has a simple premise and a recognisable structure for a genre film with artistic aspirations. Kumar himself refers to the short film An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (US/France 1963) based on the Ambrose Bierce story as his inspiration. Variety‘s reviewer refers to Run, Lola Run (Germany 1999) and certainly Monsoon Shootout uses the same structure of three versions of the same story. The central character is Adi (Vijay Varma), a young police officer in his first posting working with the tough Inspector Khan (Neeraj Kabi). They are attempting to catch a ruthless assassin/enforcer working for a ‘Slum Lord’ in Mumbai who is attempting to control the profitable housing development market. Khan employs brutal methods to deal with crooks but Adi aims to follow his own father’s more honourable philosophy. The test comes very quickly when Adi is chasing a suspect and has to make an instant decision to shoot and possibly kill. We are offered three versions of what might happen. The possible repercussions of making the wrong decision involve a range of other characters including the suspect’s wife and son, other police officers, Adi’s girlfriend, future victims of the killer etc.
This rough outline suggests a variation on the shootout which isn’t all that unusual. What lifts Monsoon Shootout above the general run of genre inflections are three factors. The representation of the monsoon in Mumbai is very effective, especially in the night-time combination of darkness and neon lights in the rain. The camerawork of fellow FTII graduate and Anurag Kashyap regular Rajeev Ravi enhances the impact and the performances add another level. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is again stunning as the suspect Shiva, ably supported by Tannishtha Chatterjee as his wife Rani, Farhan Mohammad Hanif Shaikh as his son Chhotu, R Balasubramanian as the Slum Lord and Geetanjali Thapa as Adi’s girlfriend Anu. The music is by the Indian-American composer Gingger Shankar.
The film is violent but thankfully much of the violence is off-screen. There were times when I felt that the scenarios were being worked out in an almost mechanical way but at other times I found the film genuinely disturbing. It’s the element of social realism in the presentation of the milieu and supporting characters that for me raises Monsoon Shootout above the level of the conventional Indian gangster film. Most of the reviews pick out Adi as the weakest character and he certainly seems the unlikely to survive long as a police officer. Decisive action is important for survival and I wonder what this means for the ideological impact of the film. Inspector Khan is a kind of ‘Dirty Harry’ figure who ‘gets the job done’ by taking the law into his own hands. The general level of corruption is par for the Indian crime drama but I realised that I was genuinely shocked by one of the outcomes and prompted to think by another – in both cases because I found the characters who were affected by the possible actions of Adi to be interesting and believable. The final cut of the film is under 90 minutes and I think this a possible study text for school and college students. The fact that it has an international rather than Bollywood distributor might make it easier to book in cinemas. I hope it gets a UK release.
Here’s a UK trailer/clip:
The obvious question about Easy Money is why did it take so long to get to the UK? Another crime fiction adaptation – from a bestselling novel by Jans Lepidus (2006) – which was a box office smash in Sweden in 2010 and it has already had a sequel with a third film due for release in October this year. Since ‘Nordic Noir’ arguably reached the peak of its popularity in the UK in 2011-12, why wasn’t this film released with the same kind of marketing drive that propelled the Stieg Larsson films and Headhunters into the UK Top 10? Partly, perhaps, because there wasn’t an English translation of the source novel published in the UK until early this year. But I suspect that the botched release has been more a product of a Hollywood battle over remake rights. Its eventual release via Lionsgate is announced as ‘Martin Scorsese Presents’. I confess that I didn’t notice this on my cinema visit and the film clearly missed its Nordic Noir audience as the takings were dire in the first two weeks. But don’t let that put you off. Easy Money is an excellent thriller and well worth catching in CinemaScope on a big screen.
In some ways this is a typical Nordic crime film, though the female lead character is rather underutilised. (She may appear more in the next film – in this one it is important that she doesn’t really know what is happening.) It’s really a hard boys’ thriller with three central male characters. I was confused when trailers and early reviews kept mentioning The Killing. It was only after the screening that I realised that the main character ‘JW’ (Johan) was played by Joel Kinnaman, who was also the lead in the American version of the Danish series. In Easy Money, JW is a young man with a double life – by day an ‘A’ student at the Stockholm School of Economics and by night a taxi driver. My early recognition was of Matias Varela, one of the team of police officers in the Arne Dahl TV films shown recently in the UK. Varela plays Jorge, a Latin American migrant who we see first making a prison break. The third lead is Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic) a Serbian hit man working for a ‘Yugoslav’ gang.
The key narrative idea is that the lure of ‘easy money’ is too strong for each of the three characters above. The stories are those of these three characters, from their perspectives. The police only appear at the end of the film. The Nordic Noir elements are the almost complete focus on migrant communities in Stockholm and Göteborg and the way in which each of the three central characters is driven by/constrained by a ‘social’ issue of some kind.Jorge has a pregnant sister who he doesn’t want to be drawn into gangland struggles – and a cousin who is a key contact in Germany. Mrado, separated from his partner, finds himself presented with sole custody of his small daughter, making his lifestyle quite complicated. Johan is effectively ‘living a lie’ and we can’t be sure exactly what his background is, but he is clearly conning his rich friends.
The key social/cultural/economic issue is however the international financial crisis of 2008 (i.e. after the novel was written) since it is Johann’s grasp of the situation and his ideas about how to exploit it which appeals to Abdulkarim, the gang boss who runs the taxi company. (It also helps Johann in his dealings with his wealthy friends.) I won’t spoil the plot but it involves the Arabs/Hispanics, supported by the Albanians trying to outwit the ‘Yugoslavs’ – with various agents switching sides. Director Daniel Espinosa, himself from a Chilean migrant background says that he knew these cultures in the Stockholm suburbs/housing estates and that’s why he fought to get the job. Before Easy Money hit the UK, Espinosa had already had his first Hollywood film with Denzel Washington, Safe House, released internationally.
The ending of the film ha resolution, but also leaves open the possibilities for the next episode. I will certainly try to watch Easy Money 2. The trailer below from Lionsgate is very ‘Hollywood’. It makes no reference to Scandinavian crime fiction and its popularity, which I think is a mistake – the film is mostly in Swedish. If you are a Nordic Noir fan, this is probably closest to the Arne Dahl series, though from the criminals’ perspective.