Tagged: political thriller

LIFF 2019 #4: The Realm (The Candidate, El reino, Spain 2018)

One of the several meetings in which Manu (Antonio de la Torre) attempts to keep corruption under wraps

This film was confusingly re-titled The Candidate for its limited UK release in August 2019. LIFF director Chris Fell introduced the screening, explaining that the film was screened as one of the three nominations for the LUX European Film Award. We received some LUX information and Chris reminded us that one of the other two nominees, God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya (North Macedonia 2019) had already been screened twice in the festival – and had been recommended to me.

The Realm begins with what seems to be a Goodfellas steal. A man in a suit walks off a beach into the kitchen of a restaurant, picks up a plate of ‘red shrimp’ and carries it through to a table in a private room in the restaurant. The camera races along behind this swiftly moving character and when he sits down to eat it swings around the other diners and then rapidly cuts between them. They are all talking nineteen to the dozen and at one point mocking a politician on the large TV screen on the wall, all the while stuffing themselves with expensive food and drink. The combination of camerawork, dialogue and performance makes watching this opening scene a dizzying experience as the subtitles fly past. As a Spanish-speaking friend observed, even he found it hard to follow.

‘Manu’ meets Frías (José María Pou) the Regional party president

It took me perhaps the first half an hour of a 2 hour plus film to fully realise what was happening. The restaurant group includes politicians and various investors/developers who have all been part of a scheme to profit from European Union monies which has been illegally used in rezoning land to sell to developers. Corruption in local/regional government has made these people very rich. The central character is Manuel (‘Manu’), a self-made man who after 15 years has risen to a position where he expects to be nominated as a ‘Regional Vice-President’ of his party on the way to a national profile. As played by Antonio de la Torre, Manu is a short man with an energetic and aggressive attitude, There is an element of what in the UK would be a ‘chip on his shoulder’, a feeling that because he didn’t complete his degree, some of his colleagues might look down on him. He has also ‘married up’ as his wife reminds him. Inés (Mónica López) is taller than her husband. He reminded me of a kind of caricature Football League manager or certain kinds of Tory politician – the Spanish political party is not named and neither is the region though Andalucia seems a good bet. Valencia is also listed as a location. 

The co-writers Rodrigo Sorogyen and Isabel Peña on set

Manu’s insecurity is important because as soon as somebody ‘talks’ to the police about the corruption, his world begins to collapse and he soon realises that there are very few people he can trust. The film’s strength is the way in which director Rodrigo Sorogyen (who also co-wrote the film with regular writing partner Isabel Peña) gradually forces us to identify with this repulsive man and to become complicit in the corruption as he fights back against both his colleagues and potentially the even bigger beasts in Madrid. This is clearly the point of the film which ends with a speech by a TV journalist. The speech (and the whole TV studio scenario) reminded me in some ways of the famous tirade by Peter Finch at the end of Network (US 1976), not so much because of the content of that speech but more the sense that broadcast media is part of the same capitalist conspiracy. I can’t really discuss what is actually said without spoiling the thriller element of the film and the last half an hour is certainly thrilling.

Barbara Lennie as the TV journalist who interviews Manu

In an interview for Cineuropa, Sorgyen and Peña suggest that rather than provocatively suggesting corruption might happen, they were instead responding to what Spanish citizens were already discussing: “we took the risk of talking about this issue because society is more and more ready for it”.

I should watch the film again and try to decipher the opening. The performances, the use of locations and the camerawork are fabulous. The techno score which many people seem to love nearly drove me insane. Perhaps I’m just past it music-wise but it seemed unnecessary – the film was exciting enough without the overkill. The UK distributor for the film, Signature Entertainment, put it into a single cinema on August 2nd and took £1,065 over the weekend. The DVD and Digital download were released on the same day. I don’t think Signature have much experience of foreign language titles, most of the films on their website look like genre fare with occasional American indies and several English-language European films. Most releases follow this cross platform release pattern. Why wasn’t this film picked up by a specialist arthouse distributor?

One of several compositions that present the isolated Manu once the corruption is exposed

After the screening somebody suggested that it was like watching “Borgen on speed”. I can see that and in fact this kind of political/business thriller fuelled a couple of series of the Danish serial Follow the Money and the structure and mix of elements does feel a bit like a Scandinavian drama. It seems it should be on digital download so I suggest you search on streaming services checking all three versions of the title to find it. A strong cup of coffee to make sure you are caffeinated for the opening 30 minutes is advised.

Defence of the Realm (UK 1985)

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What happened to the ‘fourth estate’?

As I remember it, Defence of the Realm was well-received when it was released; I certainly enjoyed it at the time. The film follows investigative journalist Nick Mullen (Gabriel Byrne) as he digs into a politician compromised as a possible spy. What’s striking now is how naive the film seems (or is it me?), although the idea that the security services use the press to disseminate propaganda wasn’t new it seems to suggest it is surprising (The Sunday Times‘ ‘death on the rock’ story rubbishing witnesses to the state-approved assassination of IRA members in Gibraltar was just around the corner). I suppose you could take Mullen’s naiveté to be a narrative device, though the ‘world weariness’ of Byrne’s persona makes it difficult to believe he would be so gullible, to lead the unsuspecting in the audience through to the ‘horrific’ realisation about the corruption of the British Establishment.

The film is an effective thriller, though the newsroom and printing presses are oddly ‘unbusy’ too often. Denhom Elliott is excellent as the ‘shabby malcontent’ who has seen it all but now observes the world through the bottom of a glass. Another aspect that dates the film is the marginalisation of women: Greta Scacchi doesn’t get much to do.

Are people more aware nowadays about how the press is both compromised by proprietors’ commercial interests (noted in the film) and their links to the security services? Whilst social media has facilitated the expulsion of bile into the ‘public sphere’ it has also served as a tool of education. Media Lens‘ analysis, for example, must surely have lifted the scales from many people’s eyes about the corruption of the fourth estate (which is meant to hold those in power to account) and Mark Curtis is always informative on foreign policy.

It’s easy to assume that things were better in the past but I find it hard to believe any newspaper would have had the front to suggest that Boris Johnson is fit to be Prime Minister before the ‘post-truth’ age. Fake news is not new but brazen lying by politicians, and not getting held to account for it, is a curse of our times. Part of the problem we have in the UK is the complete failure of the BBC as a news organisation (Tom Mills is an excellent commentator on this); whilst it’s always been an Establishment mouthpiece (one Director General who tried to fulfil the BBC’s news role, Alisdair Milne, was forced to resign by a Thatcher appointee) its editorial decisions have shifted so far to the right that it can no longer be considered centrist (there are too many examples: giving a platform to the ‘far right’; not only the failure to investigate Leave.EU’s criminality but inviting them to spin their version whilst ignoring their accusers; the vilification of Julian Assange; hit jobs on Corbyn and so on.

Defence of the Realm reminds us of the controversy of nuclear weapons on British soil that precipitated the Greenham Women protests. How they were vilified by the press at the time, just as Extinction Rebellion is now! There’s a, not particularly good, exhibition on at Manchester Art Gallery, Get Together and Get Things Done, that shows us what the Establishment vilifies as an unacceptable attack on the status quo, is often later eulogised (co-opted) if the protest succeeds.

GFF19 #10: Rojo (Argentina-Brazil-France-Ger-Spain 2018)

The detective Sinclair (Alfredo Castro in the foreground) and the lawyer Claudio (Darío Grandinetti) in the background

Rojo is a meticulously scripted and played mystery drama/thriller. It is calm and ‘dry’ with touches of humour but beneath the surface is a commentary on one of the darkest periods of Argentina’s history. The time is around 1975 and the setting is a provincial town. The opening scene offers a static camera watching the door of an unremarkable house in a quiet street. Over the next few minutes someone will open the door and come out carrying a household item like a wall-clock or a mirror. Perhaps some kind of house clearance sale is taking place indoors? In the next scene a man is sitting at his table in a restaurant waiting for his wife to arrive before ordering his food. A second man comes into the restaurant and starts arguing with the waiter because no tables are free. The argument will then include the man waiting for his wife who eventually feels obliged to give up his table before the newcomer starts any more trouble. But still the man who has lost his table can’t resist from criticising the other man for being boorish and morally degraded. We suspect that this might not work out well in the long-term.

Claudio gives up his table in the restaurant to Diego (Diego Cremonesi)

These two scenes set up the tone of the narrative very well and I won’t spoil the plot any further since the film will appear in both the UK and US and presumably in the other co-producing countries after some successful festival appearances. This is the third film by the rising Argentinian auteur Benjamín Naishtat after a début as one of several directors on the compendium film Historias Breves 5 (Argentina 2009). Rojo appears to be a step up with the casting of two well-known actors. The man waiting for his wife in the restaurant is Claudio, a local lawyer played by Darío Grandinetti, who is probably best known to UK audiences for his roles in Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Me (2002) and Julieta (Spain 2016) plus the Argentinian comedy-drama Wild Tales (Argentina-Spain 2014). Claudio exudes ‘respectability’ and possibly the sense of someone who thinks he is more sophisticated and cultured/educated than he is in reality. He is the narrative’s central character and he isn’t really prepared for what is going to happen to him. Later on he will be up against a private detective, ‘Sinclair’, who was once a real policeman and then a TV detective. This character is played by the Chilean actor Alfredo Castro, perhaps best-known to European audiences for his roles in films for Pablo Larraín.

A possible metaphor? People at the beach don glasses to watch the ‘red eclipse’

In small provincial towns, everybody knows everybody else and anything unusual gets talked about. But this also generates a concern about other people knowing your business and can lead to forms of paranoia. This is what suffuses Rojo. I do wonder how the film will fare on release outside Argentina. UK audiences seemed to get on very well with the original version of the The Secret in their Eyes (Argentina-Spain 2009), but that was a film scripted like an American thriller. Rojo requires a modicum of knowledge about Argentina’s political history – and a willingness to think about possible symbols and metaphors. The title simply means ‘red’ in Spanish but in the 1970s it might have referred to suspected communists.

Rojo has been acquired by New Wave, one of the best UK distributors for foreign language films. I suspect that this is a film that some people will love and others may leave the screening still puzzled. All the same, I’d urge you to go and see it. The trailer below gives a few more clues to what the film is about but not too many.

The Final Hour (La Hora Final Peru, 2017)

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In search of the end game

Spain has numerous films that deal with the psychological aftermath of Franco’s fascist state and Peru, too, is trying to come to terms with what was effectively a civil war between authoritarian government and Maoist guerillas. The Final Hour refers to the endgame when the terrorists’ (the ‘Shining Path’) leader, Abimael Guzmán, was captured. Afterwards, the revolutionary movement started to splinter and fade.

Writer-director Eduardo Mendoza de Echave has used the tropes of the detective genre to investigate both the political machinations of the time, and the impact the war had on individuals. Generically it’s conventional (the maverick detective, an under-resourced unit, office politics getting in the way, dysfunctional families etc.), however by placing it in the context of Peru in 1992, we get a fascinating insight into the reality of that time and place.

I was particularly taken by the performance of Nidia Bermejo (above right) as a nurse-turned-cop; the career switch was in response to the indiscriminate bombings of the terrorists. She’s indigenous and her brother is involved with the ‘Shining Path’ and so her loyalties are severely torn. Although the film is clear about who the good guys are (the detectives), the state is shown to be as bad as the rebels.

The film’s based on fact and it is interesting to see how Guzmán was finally captured but it is the personal costs involved in living in a state of civil war that are the most important aspect of the film. Apparently it was a hit in Peru, suggesting a hunger to deal with the past. IMDb lists its budget as a barely credible $30,000; for that it is an astounding achievement. (Netflix)

Widows (UK-US 2018)

Challenging power – Viola Davis and Colin ~~Farrell

Widows represents a further step into the mainstream for co-writer and director Steve McQueen. Ironically, given 12 Years a Slave was essentially an art movie, this is likely to be less financially successful than its predecessor. Business Insider attributes this to the November release date; whatever the reason it’s not for the lack of thrills within the film.

Based on Lynda LaPlante’s ’80s TV series the film centres around a heist undertaken, in desperation, by the widows of thieves. It has elements of a number of genres, including the heist movie, political corruption thriller and urban gangster. McQueen overlays a political analysis that is both specific to Chicago (the film’s setting) and, he argues in his Sight & Soundinterview (November), the world. McQueen manages to both revitalise the car chase (the brilliant opening) and use sound in distinctive ways. An example of the latter is where Daniel Kaluuya’s psychopath is listening to Black Panther Alfred Woodfox, on the radio, talking about his 44 years in prison. This brings in the discourse of racial politics and, particularly in one scene, #BlackLivesMatter (not as convincing as a similar scene in The Hate U Give).

Sound is also to the fore when Colin Farrell’s conflicted politician, Jack Mulligan, leaves the Projects to return to his leafy home, barely a minute away. Whilst Mulligan rages on the soundtrack the camera remains on the car’s bonnet observing the shift in wealth of the environment.

It’s a stellar cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriquez, Liam Neeson, as well as the aforementioned Kaluuya and Farrell. Robert Duval plays Mulligan’s dad and leaves a lasting impression as a hate-filled demagogue. The budget, notwithstanding the immense financial success of 12 Years a Slave, was a meagre $42m so it’s obvious that the talent is keen to work with McQueen.

Given the director’s ethnicity I was surprised to see, once or twice, that Viola Davis’ face was less clear than the white actor in the scene. It’s difficult to shoot both clearly, though I imagine digital technology could ‘cure’ this, and it is commonplace to have the black face more undifferentiated than the white. I’d’ve thought McQueen, and his cinematographer Sean Bobbit, would have reversed the power relationship.

However the film is as much about gender as race and McQueen ensures we have no doubt about the evil of toxic masculinity. There’s one moment when Neeson screws up his face and wails about saving himself that is especially noteworthy. Davis portrays her widow as indomitable in the face of her circumstances and Elizabeth Debecki’s transformation of an abused wife to a self-contained woman is entirely convincing.

Unsurprisingly, Widows doesn’t have the power of 12 Years a Slave, the subject matter sees to that, but McQueen confirms himself to be one of the most imaginative directors on the circuit.

The Girl Who Kicked in the Hornet’s Nest (Luftslottet som sprängdes, Sweden/Denmark/Germany 2009)

Mikael Nykvist as ‘Kallie’ Blomkvist

(I discovered this in a pile of unpublished posts. I’m posting it now as a tribute to Mikael Nykvist who died ridiculously young (of lung cancer) at 56 in June 2017. I also note that a second ‘follow up’ title in the Millennium series by David Lagercrantz has been published in the UK and that Sony has now decided to produce an adaptation of the first Lagercrantz follow-up, The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Apparently Claire Foy is now to undertake the Lisbeth Salander role and the film comes out in a few weeks. I do wish they wouldn’t do this. I’ve read the Lagercrantz book and it’s fine but I’ve already forgotten the story. I’d prefer that the Anglo-American takeover of the Millennium series had never happened and that Stieg Larsson’s estate had stopped further exploitation. The original Nordic versions of the three central characters played by Noomi Rapace, Mikael Nykvist and Lena Endre will remain as the embodiment of Larsson’s characters for me.) 

The third instalment of the Millennium film trilogy suffered from the ‘diminishing returns’ that most film series eventually produce in terms of audience numbers. Certainly when I contemplated watching the film I felt dragged down by the knowledge that the third novel was extremely densely plotted and I’d been told that the third film was the weakest. In fact, I found it more enjoyable than the second film and possibly more interesting than the first (though of course not as thrilling to watch).

Annika Blomkvist (Annika Hallin) and Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) in court.

If you haven’t either read the trilogy or seen the first two films, much of this film may well pass you by. As was the case with the first film, the Swedish title offers a more useful clue to the way the narrative works with its reference to ‘castles in the air’ that are brought down. The first film’s Swedish title was ‘The Men Who Hate Women’ in which investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist exposes a family of rich industrialists as fascists and violent misogynists. Lisbeth Salander is his co-investigator and her experiences during the investigation set up the second story which indeed has her central role given in the title – as the ‘girl who played with fire’. The reason for her attack on her father as a 12 year-old is revealed as the motivation she requires to seek him out. But at the end of the second book, Lisbeth has nearly been killed and she spends most of the third story in hospital recovering. The narrative effectively passes back to Mikael who, with his sister the lawyer Annika and Lisbeth’s loyal hacker contact ‘Plague’, finds the evidence that both liberates Lisbeth and exposes a whole secret network of Cold War warriors of the worst sort, first established in the 1980s without the knowledge of the Swedish government executive. Lisbeth’s ‘legal incompetence’ is one requirement of keeping the network created around her father secret.

Promoting Lisbeth, one of the great female characters of the last twenty years, ahead of the seemingly less interesting Blomkvist as an investigator is perhaps inevitable when marketing these stories. The final section of the film in which Lisbeth makes an electrifying court experience alongside Annika is a fitting climax to the story of female solidarity that is there in the novels but is to some extent sidelined in the earlier films. Blomkvist for me is not ‘uninteresting’ and he gives the Millennium series its spine and ties it back into the tradition of Swedish noir and police procedurals initiated by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö with their Martin Beck books, followed up by Henning Mankell and his Wallander novels. Mikael Blomkvist is an investigative journalist rather than a police inspector, but he has the same dogged determination to solve the crime and expose the bad guy. He’s a middle-aged and not particularly glamorous character (which is why Daniel Craig was arguably a poor casting choice in the David Fincher adaptation of the first novel in the trilogy). By bringing together ‘Martin Beck’ and ‘Pippi Longstocking’, Stieg Larsson certainly hit on a good way to attract a broad audience in Sweden. Re-reading the Martin Beck books recently, I noticed that the Swedish ‘secret service’ agency, Säkerhetspolisen, usually abbreviated as Säpo was a target for Sjöwall and Wahlöö and turns up again in the Millennium Trilogy.

With fascism on the rise again in Europe it’s important to keep Sieg Larsson’s trilogy alive as a warning. Here’s the original Swedish trailer with English subs: