Tagged: crime thriller

Betibú (Argentina-Spain 2014)

Mercedes Moran as 'Betibu', the crime novelist turned investigator.

Mercedes Morán as ‘Betibú’, the crime novelist turned investigator.

bfi-london-film-festival-2014-title-block-750x680This was perhaps the most enjoyable film to watch in my festival selection. It’s a solid mainstream investigative thriller with some interesting characters and a twisty plot. It’s the kind of film that would work well in BBC4’s Saturday night European crime fiction slot.

The title refers to the Spanish name for the cartoon character ‘Betty Boop’ and it was affectionately given as a nickname by Jaime Brena (Daniel Fanego), a crime reporter for a Buenos Aires newspaper, to a leading crime novelist Nurit Iscar (Mercedes Morán) some years ago. Brena is now being pushed out of his job and Iscar is reduced to more mundane writing after her last novel failed to please the critics. But when a wealthy man is found with his throat cut in a gated country club community, Brena and Iscar become involved in investigating the murder. Brena’s boss discovers that the newly-appointed young graduate crime desk chief needs guidance and lacks useful contacts and Brena is back on the job. Iscar is hired to write a ‘colour piece’ on the crime scene – but this is also a ruse by which the editor can attempt to rekindle a relationship with her. The subsequent investigation unearths a story which can be traced back to events many years ago involving wealthy families in Buenos Aires and the narrative has a darker ending than might be expected from some of the earlier exchanges.

The Argentinian production company behind the film (the wonderfully-named ‘Haddock Films’) is best known internationally for The Secret in Their Eyes (2009). That was a much more adventurous film and more clearly concerned with the dark political history of Argentina. Betibú suggests that the dark past can be kept dark by ‘The Organisation’, but there are certainly similarities with The Secret in Their Eyes in some of the settings. The film’s director is Miguel Cohan whose first film was the well-received No Return (Argentina 2010). Betibú is an adaptation of a novel by Claudia Piñeiro.

Daniel Fanego and Mercedes Morán are excellent and I could have taken much more of them. Fanego underplays to great effect and Morán is convincing as a writer-investigator (and quite different to the well-known Angela Lansbury character Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. but I would have to agree with The Hollywood Reporter review which suggests that the two roles taken by Spanish actors, the editor and the young crime desk chief, are both underwritten and not up to the level of the two central characters. This raises the question of co-productions and the extent to which Spain and Argentina/Mexico/Columbia etc. need each other to be involved in a production. Betibú looks great and it looks like a certain level of production funding was required. It may also be that ‘pan-Hispanic’ distribution is helped by co-production. However, many of the other co-productions I’ve seen make much better use of Spanish actors.

Warner Bros. distributed the film in Argentina but I haven’t seen any indications of European or North American distribution as yet. Overall I’ve been impressed with the quality of Argentinian productions in the last few years and I hope this does get a wide distribution. It’s probably for older audiences who, I think, will enjoy it.

Gone Girl (US 2014)

Amy (Rosamund Pike) and Nick (Ben Affleck)

Amy (Rosamund Pike) and Nick (Ben Affleck)

Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl was an immediate bestseller on its appearance in 2012, generating considerable discussion in mainstream and social media. Now she has written the screenplay for David Fincher’s film adaptation, her ideas about modern marriage and her presentation of an array of female characters – most of them perhaps unlikeable but nevertheless dominating the narrative – are again at the centre of public discourse.’Gone Girl the film’ is being hailed as one of the possible saviours of the 2014 box office in both the UK and US. It has also become the focus of a number of hostile reviews and claims that it is in some ways ‘anti-feminist’.

I decided to run a public event on Gone Girl on the basis of the initial interest in the novel. I’m not a David Fincher fan, though I respect his filmmaking skills. My reactions to his last two cinema features, The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo were not particularly positive. I’m aware that Fincher has many fans but I’m not really clear what it is that is supposed to distinguish his approach. His previous films have often been relatively expensive productions which haven’t always attracted audiences in the numbers that might be expected. Box Office Mojo suggests that Fincher’s second feature Se7en remains his most popular film so far (when adjusted for inflation). I wondered therefore if Gone Girl would be a box office winner and if Fincher’s style would suit the material. Given that most of Fincher’s films have been ‘action’ orientated, including the two with female leads (Aliens 3 and Panic Room) I did further wonder if Fincher was the most appropriate director for a film which is ostensibly about marriage.

Having watched the film twice (all 149 minutes of it!) in two days and discussed it with several regular local filmgoers, I’ve come to some conclusions. First, my overall opinion of David Fincher as a director hasn’t really changed. Gone Girl is well-made. It looks good, it moves at a good pace, the performances are very good and it provides genuine entertainment (although if you have read the book, the film narrative of course doesn’t offer the same level of surprise). For me, Gone Girl was a ‘clever’ book – and I mean that in a complimentary way. Gillian Flynn knows what she wants to do and she does it skilfully. It’s also a long book with many characters and several sub-plots. There is no way that everything in the book could arrive on screen – or that the central ideas in the book could be thoroughly explored in a film that wants to include all the exciting action. Fincher himself said this about the book in a Screendaily.com Interview (20/9/2014):

“The thing I thought was profound and has not been articulated in this way is that we construct a façade of ourselves, an image for people to deal with us and understand us and hopefully we learn from teachers, parents, siblings how to present the best version of ourselves.

“Then we go out into the world as adults and mate, couple and seduce people with this projection of ourselves. Often, completely oblivious to the fact that that person is doing that too, and there comes a point where one who enters into this contract says I can’t keep it up. I’m not interested in being the man of your dreams or the woman of your dreams anymore. I don’t know what to tell you. This movie was about the resentment that might engender.

“A marriage is hard and really hard under the glare of 10,000 watt magnified 24-hour a day news cycle. No one can survive it.”

I agree with him. This is an interesting observation and that should be at the core of the film. Unfortunately, I think it takes second place to the psychological thriller/noir mystery aspects of Fincher’s film. All the ingredients are there but they didn’t have the impact I expected. Overall, my small group discussing the film concluded that it was an entertaining film, but it didn’t really tell us much about marriage – and it didn’t project a sense of Fincher’s personal style (whatever that might be). It felt like it could have been made by any mainstream experienced Hollywood director.

I’ve purposefully not mentioned the plot so far since the film has been so heavily promoted. Let me just point out that it is a story about a married couple told throughout by each marriage partner in turn from the moment when the husband discovers that the wife is ‘missing’ with some evidence suggesting that she has been abducted. He is immediately under suspicion and a tabloid media storm ensues in which he is effectively accused of her murder. The narrative twist is that Amy (Rosamund Pike) tells her story through diary entries that start seven years previously when the couple first met – she disappears on their 5th wedding anniversary. Nick (Ben Affleck) tells his story starting from the day of her disappearance. Amy is an ‘unreliable narrator’ via her diary entries. Nick’s version is told in the third person in the sense that we watch him and his actions – but we also listen to what he says to the police and others.  A second and third part of the story are narrated in a similar style but with the time differences between the two narrations shifting. I won’t ‘spoil’ the narrative twists.

I suspect that our discussion group is not representative of the mainstream audience. Mark Kermode in the Observer offers a much better analysis of how the film might work with a popular audience. He links it to the popular/populist successes of Paul Verhoeven/Joe Eszterhas in the ‘erotic thriller’ stakes, naming Basic Instinct to go alongside Fatal Attraction and references to Hitchcock, Clouzot etc. I think he is probably right. I think he is also correct in this observation:

Shooting in handsome 6K digital widescreen, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth keeps the visual tone cool and detached even as events heat up, eschewing the tics and flashes of yore. This is a picture-perfect world, presented with the untouched clarity of a crime scene, fine-tuned and framed by Fincher . . .

Gone Girl is a conventional American thriller that should please mainstream audiences. I think that in its presentation it comes across as more of Flynn’s film than Fincher’s. I’m not a fan of Ben Affleck but in some ways he was well cast and he played the role well. But he typifies a problem with American leading men. He’s so buffed up with bulging muscles in arms and thighs that he just doesn’t look or feel right for a man who seemingly does very little and eats badly. Rosamund Pike is just terrific in every way.

In the end the important debate about Gone Girl should be about the array of great roles in the film for female actors – and the debate about the importance or not of so many female characters who are presented in a ‘negative’ way. But then, apart from Nick’s sister Margo, the investigating detective Rhonda and the lawyer (played by Tyler Perry) almost every other character is there to be the subject of criticism. As a Guardian reader I’ve been taken aback by the ‘op ed’ pieces by Guardian journalists online and in the paper – they don’t seem to have seen many films and read this one in very black and white terms. I wish they would think a bit more before they submit copy.

Gone Girl won its first weekend in North America. Nothing is certain these days, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t still around in a few weeks time, going on to be Fincher’s biggest hit.

BIFF 2014 #9: Brother (Brat, Russia 1997)

Sergey Bodrov as Danila in 'Brother'

Sergey Bodrov as Danila in ‘Brother’

Portrait Without BleedThree 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.

Prisoners (US 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.