Sunday, July 31, 2011

"The doors opened and there were the heads of the Hollywood unions, coming in to shut our movie down" - An interview with William Richert

With one of the most extraordinary casts ever assembled and based upon a politically charged novel by Richard Condon, Winter Kills should have been remembered as one of the gems of 70's American cinema. Instead, the movie has remained an obscure, underrated picture, which is incredible when you consider the fact that it stars Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Sterling Hayden, Anthony Perkins, Toshiro Mifune, Eli Wallach and Elizabeth Taylor, and that it had artists such as Robert Boyle and Vilmos Zsigmond working behind the camera. The reasons for the film's disappearance from view are murky and complex, with the story behind the production of Winter Kills being almost as compelling as the movie itself. After seeing the picture for the first time this summer, I got in touch with the director William Richert who generously agreed to talk to me about his remarkable debut feature.

As I said in my email, Winter Kills was screened here as part of a Jeff Bridges retrospective, and when I looked through the programme I couldn't believe I had never heard of this film before. You've got one of the best casts I've ever seen, but it seemed like the movie has completely fallen out of the public consciousness.

Well, it was never really in the consciousness, you know. It was almost like a spaceship that came to Earth and then went away again. Before I talk about Winter Kills, are you showing a movie called Success there with Jeff Bridges?

No, they're not showing that one. That was the movie you went and made with Jeff during a break in production, right?

I've got to send you a copy of that. When we hang up send me your address and I'll send over a DVD. But to get back to Winter Kills, it was given a few chances to reach an audience but there was never a studio behind it or enough money behind it to release it properly. Each time it seemed to get started, something strange would happen to block it. When it was first released by Avco Embassy, it was basically pulled out of the theatres right after it opened. It had this amazing review by Vincent Canby, in fact it had lots of review like that, but it was pulled from the theatres and Richard Condon ended up writing an article in Harpers Magazine called "Who Killed Winter Kills?" It turned out that Ted Kennedy was running for President at that time, Avco was a major defence beneficiary of federal funds, and apparently the Kennedys didn't like the movie. I was at a party one time in Manhattan thrown by my friend Benny Chavez, who used to run the Zoli modelling agency, and it was full of people – Jack Nicholson was there, Woody Allen was there – and somebody said to me, "You know, the Kennedys just came but they left when they found out you were here." I thought "holy shit," it was never meant to touch a nerve with the Kennedys, but we were talking about a sort of psychic takeover of the country and where America is. It's so linked over there too, you know, I was thinking about Winter Kills and I've been following the Murdoch thing, who's another Huston character, and Brooks is a sort of a female Cerruti running this whole network. Up until now they've protected themselves but it's like Bertold Brecht said, "When the house of a great one collapses many little ones are slain," but they sometimes pull down the big ones when they fall.

But to answer your question, Winter Kills doesn't exist in the consciousness because the consciousness is not a very evolved thing among humans right now. There's an attitude of gigantic entitlement and there's a sense of entrenched power that has always been there. I remember John Huston telling me why he didn't like Jack Kennedy's father, the old man. I forget his name.

Joseph Kennedy.

That's it. Apparently, the old Kennedy used to keep young Jack Kennedy sitting outside his office for hours in London when he was ambassador to England while he was supporting Nazi endeavours and smuggling booze into America. Huston knew those people. Kennedy was a smuggler and a supporter of Adolf Hitler in the beginning and that was Condon's basis for all of these characters.

Condon was an amazing writer. He could produce fiction that was tied into reality in unsettling ways and really touch a nerve.

He was fearless and brilliant, he was a researcher and a student, but above all he was a great entertainer. He actually stuttered like The King's Speech, and so did Somerset Maugham. My friend Diana Forbes Robertson told me that when he was dying his assistant got Diana on the phone and she sang him an English ditty, and she said he stuttered because "he was always looking for the right words." Condon was the same and I remember him coming to a screening of Winter Kills that John Huston and a whole bunch of people came to, and after the screening he came over to me and said, "The d-d-difference between you and m-m-me is that you like people and I d-d-don't." [laughs]

When you first started adapting this novel, what was your perception of the financial situation behind it? I assume you believed that everything was in place.

I was told the funding was there. The producers had offices in Manhattan in the MGM building with a lot of white leather furniture, and they had been distributing at that time the Emmanuelle series. Then they had offices where I first met the producers in Miami, and it didn't take long to find out that they were dealing with smugglers, you know, you heard stories of planes flying in and landing in Key Biscayne and smuggling cocaine from South America, but I had no idea of the extent of it. Everybody was wearing $100,000 Rolexes back when $100,000 meant something, you know. They asked me to write it because I had the same agent at the time as Milos Forman and they had gone to him to see if he'd direct it, but he wasn't interested so my agent Robbie Lance directed them to me. I had a meeting with them when they gave me a book and we had many drinks at the Honey Bear in Key Biscayne with all of these characters, and I would have taken the job just to be around these guys because they were so fascinating. I've always been interested in gangster stories.

So yes, I thought the money would be there if the script was good enough, etc. The more I wrote the script the more I was enjoying what I was writing about, but they had wanted Arthur Penn to direct it and they had sent it to other directors who had turned it down, so I said why don't you give me a shot? Give me six weeks to put it together and get the actors, and if someone else comes along in the meantime you can say, "Hey, we've got Arthur Penn" and you can get rid of me.

Your background was in documentaries at the time. Did you feel ready to direct a feature?

Yeah. I had done two documentaries and I had been working on the Steve Allen show, who was a wonderful ancestor of Jay Leno and all of those late night guys. He was a great raconteur and comedian and historian, you know, and that's where I started. Then I interviewed all of the living daughters of the American Presidents with the help of Margaret Truman and Catherina Grant of the Washington Post, but all my outtakes got stolen from my apartment, probably by the secret service, after Don Hewitt the powerhouse at 60 Minutes called me and said, "Bill, the White House doesn't like this."

You really think the Secret Service stole the tapes from your apartment?

Well, I don't know if they did, but I know Nixon really hated this thing that I had done. CBS had put part of the interviews with the Johnson daughters on, nothing to do with the Nixons. During that time I had met with Teddy Roosevelt's daughter, Franklin Roosevelt's daughter, Lyndon Johnson's two daughters, the Nixons' two daughters and Margaret Truman, and I had talked to them for hours. I'd asked them all over 100 questions each and they told me all of these personal details about their fathers. My outtakes disappeared from my apartment in Manhattan which had bars all over it so I had no idea how anyone would even get in and out. Because of this, by the time I went to work on Winter Kills I was well versed in the power of the government to give and take away. To finish that story, along with the stack of film they stole there was a small brick of incredible hash. What pricks! [laughs]

How did you feel as a first-time director going to all of these legendary actors and persuading them to be in your film?

I went to California and took that six weeks to get Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Elizabeth Taylor, and each of these actors was a different kind of audition. I wasn't sure it was ever going to work so I thought I might as well go for everything; "Let's get John Huston! How about Toshiro Mifune? I've got an idea, let's get Tony Perkins!" Somehow we did it. I was with Robbie Lance who was also Elizabeth Taylor's agent, and at that time people with talent were helped. When I had meetings with these greats they liked that I wanted them to be in my movie and they asked a lot of questions. I remember meeting with Tony Perkins and I told him about the script, about Cerutti and the whole thing, and he said, "Yes, I know why you want me for the part, but why should I want you?" He invited me to see Equus, which he was doing on Broadway at the time, so I went the following night. I didn't like it so much because I don't like any play where they hurt the horses, but Perkins was really great in it and afterwards I went back to his dressing room while he sat there taking off his makeup. I'm thought, "how amazing this is!" I couldn't believe I was sitting in this little makeup room with Tony Perkins. He says to me, "Listen. At the end of the first act I do this long speech and I've always got a laugh but I'm not getting a laugh anymore. Why do you think that is?" I'm thinking, is this some kind of fucking trick question? [laughs] But I think about it and I say, "You're doing it differently, because you're waiting for the laugh." He threw down his thing and stood up, and then he turned the way only Tony Perkins can turn, like he's on the head of a pin. He says "Follow me," and he leads me out through the lobby and back onto the stage. The set was like a boxing ring with ropes around it, and he walks around this ring, taking a huge theatrical breath, and then he says, "I love the theatre, don't you?" I said yes, and then he turned around and walked off the stage saying, "Call my agent Monday morning." I was left standing on the stage by myself, and that was my Perkins introduction.

So that was your first time directing an actor?

[Laughs] Yes. I mean, I studied with Sammy Meisner and I produced Law & Disorder, so I was on set every day, and I was on the Steve Allen show, so I'd seen actors being directed and I don't want to make it look like it all just easily fell into place. But I had never directed actors on a set, you're right, and I started having anxiety attacks all the time, I'd be going out to dinner and I'd have to put a paper bag over my mouth to breathe. Leading up to that thing and realising that it was actually going to happen, that Elizabeth Taylor was doing it and Toshiro Mifune, out in Japan, had read it, that was monumental.

What about working with John Huston? Not only are you directing a legend there you're directing someone who is also one of the great directors himself.

Oh yes, I admired him as a filmmaker and an actor. He was perfect for the part if I could get him. His agent was Paul Kohner at the Kohner agency, and he wouldn't send the script to anyone. He just didn't like it and he didn't want to get any of his actors involved in something so political. But he had somebody new in his office named Maggie Allen and she got it to John, which only helped because he loved getting anything in a subversive way. John was a fighter and had such generosity. One story about him is that he came into a lot of money and rented a floor of a wonderful Kensington hotel for a year to let some of his out-of-work friends stay there for a year. He just gave it away like that. He was a pretty amazing guy.

What was he like on set? Did he just work with you as an actor or did he give you any advice as a director?

Never. All of these lions are tame on the set, in a way. I had great conflicts with Richard Boone, but John and all of the others were really deferential. When we lost our money – because it turns out they never really had any money – we saw that they really believed in the movie. I know people always say they believe in movies but boy when something happens you should see how fast they run away. They stuck together three different times and over two years! You see, I didn't know you couldn't make movies that way until I tried to do another one. Basically the producers could never come to the set because weren't allowed into California or they'd be shot, so I had the whole thing to myself. Bob Boyle had built 87 sets! [laughs] We didn't realise nobody could pay for this stuff because Hollywood isn't used to big movies not paying their bills. They give you 60 or 90 days and by that time you've shot the movie, which was essentially what we were doing. I didn't know there was a problem until the lights literally went out while we were up on a set 60 feet high, it was that Cerutti set on the biggest soundstage at MGM. I'm setting up that shot with Tony and Jeff and suddenly the lights started blinking. Vilmos said, "I shoot until the lights go out!" but the doors opened and there were the heads of the Hollywood unions, coming in to shut our movie down.

What were your thoughts when that first shutdown happened? Did you think it was all over or did you think there was another way to get the money together and complete the film?

Well, it had this "too big to fail" feeling, right? I mean, those actors are legends now but back then they were giants. When it happened on the set the crew all started coming down ladders and saying, "We've got money for you, boss. How much do you need?" Nobody knew we owed $4 million! [laughs] I was walking down this road to the lunchroom at MGM, and all the way people are coming out to look. It was like yesterday when William and Kate rode down my street and the whole neighbourhood came out to look! I'm walking with Tony Perkins on my right and Jeff Bridges on my left and I'm totally aware of the situation. Here I am, a first time director with these amazing actors, and they've shut it down. Who knows what has happened? This could have been a front for a whole fucking smuggling thing. Tony says to me, "Just keep walking, Bill. This happened one time when I was working with Orson. Just keep walking and smiling." So we're all walking down this road walking and smiling and Perkins tells me about the whole crew leaving when Orson's movie was shut down, so he went over and strapped the camera to a Volkswagen and he pulled the car and finished the shot. I said, "Tony, the Panavision camera is bigger than we are!" We walked into the lunch room and everybody had come down to see this big movie that had just been shut down. Wow...I hadn't thought about that in years. I was desperately thinking of ways to get back and finish this movie but then we realised they owed $800,000 to Universal, $1.5 million to MGM, $1 million-something somewhere else, and that's in addition to all the unpaid actors. Even when we were in Death Valley they left the hotel and stiffed them on the bill! Somehow we managed to get going two more times. I was just thinking about how impossible it was that we did this. Today no company or actors would look at a script like this.

There were a lot of American films in the 70's that you can't imagine getting made today. It was a special time.

The 60's was the cock of the pistol and it went into the 70's. It took the 60's to get it started, the 70's to figure it out and the 80's to drown it out.

I was just watching a YouTube video in which Robert Boyle says Winter Kills was his favourite film. Considering the great films he made with Hitchcock and others, that's some compliment.

Oh, of course it was, and just knowing these guys is a compliment. To get to know a man like that and the other guys I worked with on that movie, is a great compliment. When you're getting older, you'll probably notice this yourself even though you're young, you notice how valuable and few inspiring people are. I went to Bob's 100th birthday, and there were production designers and costumes designers who worked on things like The Great Ziegfeld and movies like that, films you'd never think anyone would still be alive from, but they were all over the place! Bob was sitting in the corner by the cake and when I went over to him he said, "Bill Richert, my favourite director! Winter Kills, my favourite movie!" He was incredible.

It must have been a huge relief when you finally finished Winter Kills and saw it released.

Yeah, but then it was pulled from all the theatres and it was dead. Unfortunately, in Hollywood they considered it a failure because it didn't make any money.

How did that impact upon your career at that time, having your first feature considered a failure?

Well, during that period I was able to get Success done with the same actors and I did have a lot of offers. Steven Spielberg told me to come to Hollywood from New York because he wanted to work with me on something, but when I was reading stuff that was available for 'directors for hire' there wasn't anything I wanted to do, and I couldn't understand why they wanted to make most of these films. I turned down stuff and I remember having lunch with Spielberg and telling him about this script I wanted to do. I went back and my business manager asked me how the meeting went so I said "It went great, they want me to do this thing at Universal" He said, "That's fantastic!" but I said, "Yeah, but I gave them another idea." [laughs] Actually, Steven and I had come up with an idea called Merlin and Arthur in Illinois, and it was about a young magician – and you know how successful stories of young magicians are these days – but instead of pitching that story I went to Columbia and pitched the story of Success.

Anyway, Winter Kills and Success turned out to be an epochal situation in my life that would never happen again, and it turned out that the kind of people I made that movie with didn't come back again. But I suppose what really knocked me out of Hollywood was my fight with the Writers' Guild and Aaron Sorkin. I had developed this script for twenty years that I thought I was going to make with Redford, but he decided at the last minute to make it with Rob Reiner because it felt safer, and then he got in a fight with Reiner and Sorkin – who was doing a rewrite – and quit. My script was The Executive Wing, so you change two words from that and it becomes The American President and you change one word and it becomes The West Wing. When that happened, I got in a big fight with all of the people involved, Castle Rock, Warner Brothers, Universal, and that was the end of any interface with me in LA.

How long has that dispute been going on?

It's still going on. It went quiet for a long time because we couldn't figure out how they managed to award this guy Aaron Sorkin the credit. We thought we had an arbitration, you know, every writer gets other writers to read their scripts, but now we've found out that our scripts were never read by other writers ever, so we didn't get an arbitration. I found out years later that Sorkin was fucking the head of the studio at the time Julia Bingham, and she put his name forward, Reiner was trying to get him into rehab, then Sorkin admitted reading it and kind of gloated about it and then this year he called me a hack. It's the corrosive effect of a certain kind of power, you see, but it gives power a bad name. There are takers and givers, right? These people are the opposites of the Hustons and all of those people in my movie. People with no conscience have an advantage over thinkers, and the less you're connected to any kind of consequential thinking, the less you think, "Well, if I do this then this will happen to all of these other people," the more you'll become a person who'll just grab it, like Sorkin. Now I've been forced to study this guy, to look at his stuff. Every single thing he's done has been a transcript of some kind; even The Social Network has come out of transcripts, hearings and depositions, and the same thing with Charlie Wilson's War. On The West Wing he had all of these writers and he stole from them, they said, "He took my credit." Not all of them, but a lot of them.

I don't want to keep you for much longer but before finishing I really want to ask about another iconic film you were involved in, which was My Own Private Idaho, in which you played Bob. How did you get involved in that?

I'd never wanted to do much acting and I didn't really want to play that character when River first gave me the screenplay. I was dating a beautiful young actress at the time and I'm reading this script by the fireplace to her, and along comes fat Bob Pigeon and I realise he's a leader of this gang of gay guys, and I think, "Why does he want me to do this?" So I called him and said, "Is this what you think of me?" and he said, "No, it's the energy Bill. We need your energy." They had Lionel Stander, one of my favourite actors, playing that part first but River and Keanu basically fired him and it's a long story how I got into that part. Basically, after I told him no he showed up six months later at my house with a rewrite and asked me to read it, so I did and took five seconds for me to say, "It's the same character! I don't want to do this guy." I said to him, "River, let me explain this to you because you're young and you don't know this business. If I do want to act one day, I don't want the first job I ever do to be a big fat gay man who's lusting after young boys. For the rest of my life I will be given screenplays about big fat gay men. So tell Gus that." He said to me, "You can tell him, he should be here by now." I said, "You asked Gus to come to my place? River, this is very rude to adults." [laughs] So to make a long story short Gus shows up at my place and River asks if they can read the screenplay to me out on the porch, so we all go out onto the porch and I light a joint to show that I really don't give a shit about this thing. I'm standing there watching Gus and River read this thing until it gets to my role, and River deliberately made it loud and built it up for me to say, "OK, I'll read it." At the end I still didn't want to do the movie, so they went away, but months later I got this call and it was River and Keanu on the same line. They told me they were losing the actor and they were desperate for me to come up and play the role, so they sent me a ticket and I went up to play fat Bob Pigeon. I remembered everything Sammy Meisner taught me and River started telling me these acting tricks he knew and I knew all of them because I taught them to him! [laughs] It was incredible because I was the guy who showed River Phoenix the first James Dean picture he ever saw, because I'd known him since he was a kid, him and his brother. I think back on what a sweet kid he was, really. He was really trying to help Gus make this movie.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Review - Captain America: the First Avenger

Most of Captain America takes place in the 1940's, but it opens in the present day. The film begins in the Arctic where a mysterious ship has been revealed beneath the shifting snow. Within this ship, a group of explorers discover an iconic item – Captain America's distinctive circular shield – and so we know that our hero will, by the end of the picture, arrive in the 21st century, where he will be ready to line up alongside his fellow Avengers. Of course, we knew this before we walked into the cinema; after all, the Avengers movie is just around the corner and all of these films exist to draw together the disparate characters from Marvel's comic universe in time for that unprecedented superhero jamboree. But such foreknowledge hurts Captain America, because we know, from the moment that he steps onto that ship, that he will be landing in the arctic, and such an air of inevitability immediately saps some tension from the climax.

Compare it to the climactic scenes of Thor, the summer's other – and more successful – Avengers prequel, and the deficiencies of Captain America's weak finale become all too clear. Thor's central conflict was built around a carefully developed and powerfully acted father/son/brother relationship that gave its story a vital dramatic weight. In sharp contrast, Captain America's villain is thinly sketched; a stereotypical insane Nazi with vague dreams of world domination. He is Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving, channelling Werner Herzog), and having gotten his hands on a glowing cube that I think has come from Thor's universe, he and his loyal scientist sidekick (Toby Jones) have created sophisticated weaponry far beyond the Allies' reach and a rapidly growing army with which Schmidt plans to win the war.

Meanwhile, in America, another German scientist (Stanley Tucci) is seeking a subject for his prototypical 'super soldier' serum when he stumbles across Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). He's weedy, insecure and timid, but Steve is desperate to enlist and fight for his country, refusing to give up despite having been rejected on every occasion. But Steve has something invaluable – inner strength, honesty, bottomless courage – and Tucci's Erskine sees beyond the brittle exterior to the potential hero that lies within; and by the time a taller, faster and stronger Rogers had emerged from Erskine's contraption, Captain America had me enthralled. It was just getting everything right. The tone – sincere, smart, witty – was being nailed in every single scene, and director Joe Johnston (a Spielberg protégé) was bringing a dazzling, old-fashioned gusto to his work.

The scene in which Rogers first tests the limits of his new abilities (a key one in any origin story) is indicative of the film's strengths. It's well-staged and exciting, with Rogers pursuing an enemy spy through the streets, but it's laced with moments of humour, like a great gag involving a boy thrown into the river or the sight of Rogers clumsily crashing through a shop window as he misjudges his newfound speed. That same spirit is behind Rogers' eventual evolution into Captain America, with the authorities deciding he'd be better employed as a super piece of propaganda than a super soldier. This is a smart method of introducing the character's costume and segueing into his first action sequence, and the screenplay does a neat job of developing Rogers' relationship with British Agent Peggy Carter, played by a terrific Hayley Atwell, who really sells her key scenes and has a fun, antagonistic rapport with Tommy Lee Jones' amusingly grouchy Colonel Phillips.

At some point, however, it all just falls away. Everything that Captain America delivered on in its opening hour disappears in the second, as the film collapses into a series of interchangeable action sequences (including a poorly judged montage of said sequences) and the charming wartime adventure that we had been watching suddenly turns into a loud movie in which people fire lasers at each other endlessly. Evans displays a deft comic touch as the goofy young wannabe, but as the muscular and morally unequivocal hero he struggles to bring much shade to a character who is essentially virtuousness personified. In short, he's a bit of a dud as a protagonist, and the more the film focuses on his battle with the equally uninteresting Red Skull, the more that weakness is exposed. The climactic encounter between the pair feels meaningless, because we know exactly where it's leading and why. The Avengers is looming on the horizon and the glib manner in which the closing scenes of Captain America are tossed away sums up how much of a hurry the filmmakers appear to be in to get this one out of the way so they can move on to the main event. Putting together this whole series has been an ambitious feat and it must have been something of a logistical nightmare, but Marvel was always running the risk of short-changing some of the individual movies themselves. Captain America is a stunted film but it could have been a great one, if only it had been developed as a real standalone movie and not simply an extended introduction.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Review - The Light Thief (Svet-Ake)

The Light Thief is a strange, uneven fable that finds time to meander down a variety of unexpected avenues during its slender running time, and that sense of surprise is part of what makes it such an engaging film to watch. Directed by Aktan Arym Kubat, it's a whimsical blend of comedy, drama, satire and slice-of-life-documentary, with the director himself starring as protagonist Svet-ake, better known to his neighbours as Mr Light. Svet-ake earned this appellation by hooking into the city's power supply and diverting it to the homes of those who cannot afford to pay their bills. He's a kind of Kyrgyzstani Robin Hood, and much beloved by the villagers as a result, but not by the local power company. Despite having his close friend the mayor (Asan Amanov) appeal on his behalf, Svet-ake finds himself under arrest and subsequently out of a job.

From here the story flows under its own steam and Kubat lets it lead us wherever it feels like leading us. He imposes a leisurely pace on the proceedings and doesn't feel the need to push the plot too hard, an approach that has both its virtues and its flaws. In its favour, The Light Thief – which occasionally feels like a number of loose vignettes casually linked together – serves up individual scenes that are witty, touching and culturally intriguing. There are surreal comic set-pieces, such as Svet-ake being electrocuted by a power line and regaining consciousness just as the mourners burying him have reached his neck, and quiet scenes between Svet-ake and his wife and children, which are marked by a genuine sense of intimacy and affection. The film also offers us a rare chance to see Kyrgyzstani life portrayed on screen, spending time observing some specific cultural rituals, such as a strange sport involving a dead goat that foreshadows some of the darker content to come.

That darker element of the film, which announces itself rather abruptly, is a problem, though, and Kubat struggles to find a consistent tone as he veers between the comical, dramatic and finally tragic elements of his story. There are points being made here about Kyrgyzstan's turbulent recent history and current economic position, with corruption and self-interest frequently on show, to Svet-ake's dismay, but there's a lack of context to this element of the narrative. As a director, Kubat has a fine visual sense and an eye for striking compositions, and he's a solid actor too, imbuing Svet-ake with a decency and charm that makes him a thoroughly endearing hero. Our affection for this character, however, ensures the violent and jarring climactic scenes give this often disarming curio an unsatisfying finale.

DVD Review - The Castle

The Film

"It's not just a house, it's a home. A man's home is his castle!" Those lines might seem like clichés, but to Darryl Kerrigan (Michael Caton) they are fundamental and incontrovertible truths. Darryl is the proud patriarch of the Kerrigan clan, and he views the world with an unshakable sense of optimism. Sure, his house is situated right next to the airport, a toxic landfill, and beneath humming power lines, but to Darryl and the rest of his family, this is home, and he won't let anyone take t away from him. The Castle pits Darryl against the system when his home, and the homes of his neighbours, are "compulsorily acquired" by the government, which is planning on razing them to the ground and expanding upon its airport. Darryl has no intention of going down without a fight.

With an easygoing, Ealing-esque vibe to its storytelling there's never any doubt that the Kerrigans will end up overturning the decision and striking a blow for the little man against the powers that be, but the real pleasure of Rob Sitch's film comes in the details. Before setting its plot in motion, Sitch lets us spend time with the Kerrigan family, with the narration by younger brother Dale (Stephen Curry) introducing each of them and their particular quirks in turn. Older brother Steve (Anthony Simcoe) is the 'ideas man' of the family, with each new invention (such as a hose attached to a broom) amazing his father, while his sister Tracey is the apple of Darryl's eye, having appeared on The Price is Right and been to college. Darryl also dotes on his wife Sal (Anne Tenney), whose prowess in the kitchen continually impresses her family ("Seasoning!" Darryl exclaims in delight, "looks like we've all kicked a goal") and the only dark spot on the family portrait is the incarceration of Wayne, who's serving eight years for armed robbery. Mum and dad know he didn't mean to rob that gas station, though; he just fell in with the wrong crowd.

The Castle walks a fine line with its depiction of the Kerrigans' blissful naïveté. It would be all too easy to take a patronising tone to them, and to mock their unquestioning embrace of the simple things in life, but Sitch and his screenwriters manage to avoid falling into that trap. They do so because we can feel a genuine sense of affection for these characters on the part of the filmmakers; their decency and uncomplicated sense of family unity is celebrated rather than derided. They also succeed because they draw pitch-perfect performances from their cast, with the actors bringing a wonderful sense of guileless enthusiasm to their roles. As well as the actors playing the Kerrigans, there are excellent supporting turns from Tiriel Mora as the family's incompetent lawyer, Eric Bana as Tracey's equally good-natured husband, and Charles Tingwell as the real lawyer who turns up just in time to support the Kerrigans' case.

Above all, The Castle works because it's frequently very funny. The filmmakers mine plenty of humour in the family's idiosyncratic ways, and develop a series of running gags that pay dividends. There's the constant scouring for bargains in the classified section of the newspaper ("He's dreaming" is Darryl's inevitable retort when he hears the asking price), Darryl's store of precious items in his pool room, or lawyer Dennis fighting a losing battle with the printer in his office. The cast's deadpan delivery of Sitch & co's canny dialogue draws consistent laughs, and the film's uplifting but neatly downplayed conclusion feels well earned. No doubt about it, The Castle is one for the pool room.

The Extras

Sadly no extras were available on the disc sent for review.

The Castle is released on DVD on July 25th

Buy The Castle on DVD here

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Review - Beginners

Beginners is Mike Mills' second feature, coming six years after his debut Thumbsucker, and while it displays the same quirky sensibility, there's an emotionally resonant undertone to this film that feels deeply personal. It opens in 2003, with Oliver (Ewan McGregor) – a graphic designer, like Mills – clearing out the apartment of his recently deceased father Hal (Christopher Plummer). He leaves with Hal's pet dog and a head full of memories. The most startling of memories was his father's revelation that he was gay, an announcement he made after his wife had passed away and when he was 75 years old. He spent the remaining years of his life enjoying his newfound freedom to explore his sexuality, delighting in the fresh circle of friends it introduced him to and drawing as much fun as possible from the time he had left. His joie de vivre is shown in marked contrast to Oliver's morose demeanour, as he hesitates over committing to a relationship with the equally troubled Anna (Mélanie Laurent).

Mills tells two parallel stories, cutting back and forth in time with ease and confidence, linking his different time periods through snapshots of the eras – "This is the sun, and the stars. This is what the president looked like. This is what love looked like." Mills' direction is full of these repeating motifs, some of which incorporate his own graphic design, with Oliver's attempts to sell a series of drawings entitled The History of Sadness to a band for their album cover. His idiosyncratic approach even extends to giving dialogue to Arthur, the Jack Russell who comes into Oliver's possession, with subtitles giving voice to his innermost thoughts: "While I understand up to 150 words, I don't talk," he states in response to Oliver's attempts to start a conversation.

Depending on your tolerance for that sort of thing, Beginners might sound charming or insufferable. Red lights started flashing for me during Oliver's first encounter with Anna, which takes place at a fancy dress party, with him wearing a Freud costume and her suffering from laryngitis, which means she has to write all of her speech down on notes. It immediately comes off too cute and affected by half, and much of the relationship between Oliver and Anna is characterised by such silliness. Anna is flighty and neurotic and liable to be running joyously through the streets one minute before breaking down in tears the next. Laurent doesn't seem to have a firm grip on her character (although, to be fair, her character is disappointingly underdeveloped) and the vacillating of Oliver and Anna as their relationship develops grows very tiresome indeed.

It's a shame that this romance takes up the bulk of Beginners' running time, because everything else in the film is often wonderful. The scenes with Plummer, enjoying a new lease of life, are a joy and a great platform for a wonderful actor. Graceful and dignified as ever, Plummer makes us feel the burden that has been lifted from Hal's shoulders as he puts behind him the lie he has been forced to live for over four decades, and there's a lovely playfulness about his demeanour. Hal is a man infused with a new lease of life, a new love (with Goran Visnjic, giving a fine, empathetic performance) and a fresh perspective on the world, and even as cancer begins to take its toll, his refusal to wilt is very moving.

I can see that Mills is looking to draw comparison between the two strands of his film, and to see how the experiences of Oliver's parents' (Mary Page Keller is dynamite in a small role as his mother) has impacted upon his life, but I feel he hasn't quite got the balance right. Interest in the relationship between Oliver and Anna quickly wanes; they're just another good-looking but emotionally stunted pair taking an inordinate amount of time to see that they're right for each other. Given the awkward silences and tentative behaviour that make up much of their story, is it any wonder that we'd rather spend time with Plummer, whose scenes encapsulate the spirit of seizing life's chances and finding happiness wherever it exists? In fact, the most affecting moments in the main narrative are often provided by a dog, with Arthur (trained by Mathilde De Cagny, who also worked with Frasier's Eddie) giving an uncanny performance. He has a couple of lovely moments (watch as he hesitantly stands on a park bench, wondering whether to join the other dogs, or as he races up to an old man he thinks is Hal) and the lines Mills gives him often cut right to the heart of the matter – "Are we married yet?" Arthur quietly asks as the Oliver/Anna relationship continues to falter. Poor Ewan McGregor; here he is giving one of his best performances, and he's upstaged by a canine co-star.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Review - Break My Fall

Kanchi Wichmann's Break My Fall is a film that promises more than it delivers, but there's a bracing honesty and immediacy about this debut feature that compensates for its uncertain moments. The film is an examination of a lesbian relationship as it slowly crumbles over the course of a few days in East London. Liza (Kat Redstone) and Sally (Sophie Anderson) live together and perform in the same band, but Liza's suspicions about her partner's fidelity – having discovered a letter from an old flame – are gnawing away at her. We first meet her sitting alone in their flat, looking at old videos of them together and then a video of sally with her German ex, and wallowing in self-doubt. Wichmann has a nice way of letting the tensions in the movie simmer and some of the most effective moments in Break My Fall are the quiet scenes between the central couple, filled with awkwardness and unspoken emotions.

When Wichmann is focusing on this pairing, Break My Fall is at its strongest and most involving. The well-cast leads complement each other superbly; they let us feel the deep affection that still exists between the two characters while making their sense of disillusionment and growing estrangement feel real. Their arguments grows increasingly hostile as the film progresses and even spill over into physical violence, but both actors deliver committed and convincing displays that show their actions emerging from a deep emotional place. They also share a sex scene that is painful to watch, but expertly performed and filmed in a vérité manner by Wichmann that doesn't allow us to back away from the raw heartache on show. Break My Fall is very much a two-hander, but Redstone deserves a special mention for her performance as Liza, an anxious and volatile character prone to extreme mood swings. So much of what Liza is going through is written on Redstone's interestingly androgynous features. It's a very impressive piece of acting.

Break My Fall is a little less impressive whenever it strays outside the boundaries of Liza and Sally's unravelling relationship. A couple of supporting characters occasionally enter into the picture, but they add nothing to the drama and the performances from Collin Clay Chace (as a gay friend of the couple) and Kai Brandon Ly (a sexually confused rent boy) are ropey. It feels like some scenes have been written by Wichmann for the sole purpose of padding out the narrative, but they only serve to sap much of the dramatic tension. When Liza and Sally's story is reaching its emotional peak, the last thing we need is a cutaway to a boring conversation between these two, or a rant from a butch lesbian who picks Liza up in a bar. Wichmann also has a weakness for repetitive party scenes in which her characters ingest large quantities of drink and drugs before vomiting, and all of this serves to make Break My Fall feel longer than it is.

Despite such caveats, Break My Fall is a commendable debut. Wichmann, shooting in Hackney, has a real sense of location and atmosphere, and she augments her visual style with some smart soundtrack choices. When it works, which it does more often than not, Break My Fall is an authentic and sometimes incisive portrait of a relationship slowly in decline. Wichmann will undoubtedly smooth out the deficiencies that occasionally hobble her first film with any future efforts, but the skill and heart of a filmmaker to watch is very much in evidence here.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Review - Cars 2

There's a single scene in Cars 2 which goes some way to explaining the fundamental flaws that undermine both this film and its 2006 predecessor. As you are probably aware, these pictures take place in a world entirely inhabited by automobiles – the main characters are cars, the animals are cars and the world appears to exist without the intervention of human beings. In this sequel, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) has been invited to Japan to take part in a race, and he takes his pal Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) along for the ride. They find themselves at a swanky party – again, populated entirely by cars – when Mater eats a large helping of wasabi, having mistaken it for ice cream, and causes an embarrassing scene. We're expected to laugh as he tears around the room looking for water, but instead of laughing I was perplexed. Why on earth is wasabi being served at a cars-only party? How do they even know what wasabi is? Why did Mater believe it was ice cream when, as far as I can tell, he lives in a world without dairy products?

Am I overthinking this simple comical scene in a film aimed largely at children? Perhaps, but it illustrates the point that the universe of Cars and Cars 2 doesn't make any sense, and the failure of Pixar to make sense of the universe it is depicting is a rare thing indeed. After all, Pixar has successfully made us believe in and care about toys that come to life, monsters who live in a world accessed through bedroom wardrobes, and a rat with the skills of a gourmet chef over the past decade. Perhaps it's the complete absence of a human factor that makes the Cars universe feel so cold and meaningless, but whatever the reason, John Lasseter's first film in this series is widely regarded as the studio's weakest, and this follow-up is surely the least anticipated film Pixar has ever made.

It was also perhaps the most inevitable. Cars has proven to be a huge financial success for Disney and Pixar, with the already considerable box-office takings of the first film being augmented by Cars-related merchandise that has outsold that of all other Pixar releases, and such a windfall means the same thing to them as it does to any other studio – time for a sequel. At the very least, we can commend Lasseter for taking his film in an entirely new direction for this second instalment; after the drearily homiletic Doc Hollywood retread of the original, Cars 2 is an action movie, with more than a nod in the direction of James Bond films (and the underrated comedy The Man Who Knew Too Little). Michael Caine joins the cast as a sleek, gadget-laden spy car called Finn McMissile, who is investigating a mysterious crime syndicate that has something to do with the forthcoming World Grand Prix. While Lightning McQueen is taking part in this event, Mater blunders into the espionage plot, having been mistaken by Finn and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) as an American agent, whose idiotic demeanour is simply an ingenious cover.

Alas, Mater's stupidity is all too real, and while this character might be bearable enough as a comic foil, his promotion to the position of central protagonist here is a serious misstep. Mater is irritating beyond belief, with his dim-witted behaviour and goofy hillbilly drawl immediately proving to be grating in a larger role. He has some amusing moments – such as a disastrous encounter with a high-tech Japanese toilet – but as the laborious plot (which will likely prove too complicated for the young viewers the film is aimed at) unfolded, I frequently wished Lasseter would take the spotlight away from this annoying sidekick masquerading as a lead. The problem is that there are few other places for Lasseter to focus on that are more interesting; Lightning McQueen remains a thoroughly boring hero, and the new characters (John Turturro's smug Italian F1 car, Eddie Izzard's eccentric billionaire) fail to make any kind of memorable impact. Cars 2 is the least engaging film they have yet made because there's nothing here to care about; there is a surprising amount of gunplay, and plenty of moments when the characters are placed in peril, but not once do you feel there is anything of value at stake.

In fact, it feels like a lot of the attention that should have been focused on the stories and characters has instead been spent detailing the world they live in. Cars 2 is beautifully animated throughout, from the spectacular oil rig opening sequence to the neon lights of Tokyo and a wittily designed London. It's a feast for the eyes but there is nothing beneath that handsome surface. Will Cars 2 make a lot of money for Pixar? Yes. Will they make better, more original films than this in the future? Of course they will; but one still can't help being disappointed that a studio which has spent over 15 years extolling the virtues of story, character and imagination above all else has made a film that feels so tired, empty and nakedly commercial. One might argue that this mediocre offering from Pixar is still a cut above most of what passes for mainstream children's entertainment these days, and that's a fair point, but if we hold Pixar to a higher standard than everyone else, it is simply because they have made themselves the standard for everyone else.

Review - Super

How far is too far? As I watched James Gunn's weirdly schizophrenic black comedy Super, I wondered where exactly the film had crossed the line that divides an enjoyably twisted film from a repellently nasty one. It's hard to ascertain for sure, because the film is constantly pushing at boundaries and surprising us with its unapologetic blend of humour and violence, but by the time it reaches its blood-soaked climax, it has grown very wearisome. Heads get smashed, limbs get blown off and – in one sickening moment – a face destroyed by a shotgun blast is shown in lingering close-up. Generous viewers may well praise Gunn for refusing to compromise on the darkness of his vision, but others will be repulsed and dismayed by Super's nihilistic finale, which betrays some of the virtues this superhero parody displays before losing its way.

Super might be best described as the grubby flipside to Kick-Ass. While Matthew Vaughn's take on an ordinary guy becoming a self-made superhero was glossy and slick, Gunn's approach wears its low-budget indie edge on its sleeve and it has more in common thematically with Taxi Driver than other comic book movies. The central character of Frank (played by Rainn Wilson) is certainly nobody's idea of a crimefighter. Gunn quickly establishes him as a loser, pathetically clinging onto what he describes as the "two perfect moments" in his life – the day he helped a policeman chase down a criminal, and the day he married his wife Sarah (Live Tyler, so that's where she's been). We sense that these isolated bright spots are the only things keeping Frank together, and when Sarah leaves him – having fallen under the spell of sleazy drug dealer Jacques (Kevin Bacon) – he sinks into depression.

Frank is eventually hauled out of his abyss of self-pity by a combination of a strange visions and a pious religious superhero (played by Nathan Fillion) that he stumbles across on a Christian TV channel. These experiences suggest to Frank's unhinged mind that fighting back as a masked avenger is the path that has been chosen for him, and so the wrench-wielding Crimson Bolt is born. He starts dispensing justice on drug dealers, muggers and child molesters, cracking skulls first and not hanging around to ask questions. He attacks his new role with a manic, unhinged fervour, taking his wrench to people who dare to cut ahead of him in a cinema queue as forcefully as he does to those breaking the law. The some amusement to be had in watching the energetic but ungainly Wilson launch himself into action with such conviction (shouting his nonsensical catchphrase "Shut up, crime!"), but it's hard to keep laughing as we see him violently bring his wrench down on somebody's head with a horrible crunch.

To say that Super's tone is all over the place is an understatement. Gunn opens his film with a jaunty, brightly animated opening credits sequence, and subsequently veers between scenes of comic book spoofery, extreme violence (with cartoonish, Batman-like sound effects) and mawkish sentimentality. The film's one unqualified success is a stellar performance from Ellen Page as the comic book geek determined to become the Crimson Bolt's sidekick (whether he likes it or not), but her character is kind of thrown away by the movie as it enters its divisive final third. This climactic section feels disconnected from much of what went before and it feels like Gunn has lost his grip on his material. What started as an interesting fresh take on superhero movies has, through the director's constant desire to make us choke on our own laughter, ended up as something ugly and unsatisfying. Super is fast, cheap and out of control.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Review - Bobby Fischer Against the World

"Coming up, the latest news on the Watergate investigation," a newsreader states, "but first, Bobby Fischer." It seems inconceivable today that a chess contest could command the world's attention as Fischer's match with Boris Spassky did in 1972, but Bobby Fischer Against the World reminds us that this was indeed the case once upon a time. Fischer vs. Spassky was as much a political battle as a sporting one, with the Cold War being metaphorically fought around a chessboard in Iceland, and it was unquestionably the highest peak of Fischer's career, coming at the age of 29. Throughout the next 36 years, Fischer's genius would spin into insanity, his arrogance into contempt and his fame into infamy. He became a paranoid recluse and, when he finally emerged back into the public eye decades later, he was a sad shadow of the man whose brilliance had enraptured the world.

Making a documentary about a man who spent half of his life shunning the spotlight is no easy task, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Liz Garbus's film ends up feeling a bit thin. It follows a conventional narrative pattern and structure, detailing Fischer's upbringing with his mother, a communist activist (who was under FBI surveillance), and how his loneliness fed into his early interest in chess, which he showed a remarkable aptitude for at an early age. By the age of six, Fischer had taught himself the game, and within two years he was beating adults comfortably. When he was 15, Fischer became the US champion and subsequently went on to dominate the game, even though the isolation he had experienced his whole life – combined with the mental strain chess demanded and the pressures of his sudden fame – was already beginning to take its toll. In interviews shown during the film, Fischer can be charismatic but he often appears intense and oddly distant. One journalist recalls how he found the young chess master to be strange, but says he "hadn't gone off the deep end yet." That was all still to come.

Understandably, Garbus focuses much of Bobby Fischer Against the World on the 1972 contest, the match that would define the film's subject. She does a good job of setting the background and context for this meeting of the world's two best players, with Henry Kissinger encouraging the reluctant Fischer to participate as his increasingly erratic behaviour almost caused the match to be cancelled. Television viewers around the world were treated to the absurd sight of Spassky making his move and then sitting alone at the board, or pacing disconsolately around the room while waiting for his opponent to show up. Was this mind games on Fischer's part or evidence of a deeper malaise? Subsequent events suggest the latter; Fischer won the match but refused to defend his title in 1975 and abruptly retired from the sport, beginning a long period of obscurity that ended in a bizarre fashion.

The match in Reykjavík is the dramatic centre of Garbus's film and the rest of the picture drags a little. Various interviewees offers their own thoughts on Fischer's genius and illness (the two are "joined at the hip," as one puts it), and Garbus offers a brief history of chess-induced madness, but little of this is revelatory. Perhaps my view of the documentary is clouded by the fact that I have already read Bobby Fischer Goes to War by David Edmonds (who appears as a talking head in the film) and John Eidinow, a book that covers the same territory in a much more comprehensive fashion, but I suspect I would have been dissatisfied with Bobby Fischer Against the World anyway. While Asif Kapadia's recent Senna used inventive and skilful techniques to involve its audience, Garbus's uninspired blend of interviews, archive footage/photographs and clichéd period music (the theme from Shaft? Really?) doesn't do enough to bring the story to life as a cinema experience, and it turns a fascinatingly strange tale into a dully familiar one.

Monday, July 11, 2011

"Are we going a bit too far over the line? Perfect, let's keep going" - An interview with Daniel Monzón

In Cell 211, Daniel Monzón places us in the centre of a violent prison riot and leaves us there for 100 tense minutes. His gripping thriller tells the story of two men from opposite sides of the law who develop an unlikely bond when they find themselves trapped in the same explosive situation, and the director milks every ounce of excitement from this scenario. Daniel Monzón was in London recently to promote Cell 211, and I met him to talk about it.

Could you tell me how you first discovered Francisco Pérez Gandul's novel and what was it about the book that convinced you to adapt it?

Something very unusual happened – a producer sent me some good material. [laughs] I opened the book and from the beginning I thought, "yes, this is very interesting," but then I couldn't stop and it was a real page-turner. I really wanted to make a movie from this material so I sent the material to my co-screenwriter Jorge Guerricaechevarría and he agreed that it would make a great movie. First, we decided to go to real jails and take from reality as much as possible. We still took the great ideas that the book has, you know, the high concept of this guy trapped in a riot having to pretend to be a criminal, the idea of Malamadre to take terrorists as hostages, which makes it a national concern, and the last twist that we shouldn't say to the audience. We got these ideas and we collected conversations with real inmates and real guards from visiting penitentiaries, and I was deciding the style of the movie through these visits. I realised that the best way to tell this story was to put the audience in the middle of a riot. They had to feel as if they were in front of the news or a documentary; something very raw, harsh and gritty. So why did I decide to do this movie? Because it was a real challenge for me as a filmmaker. It was my fourth movie and I really wanted to do something pure. Here, you don't have many locations, special effects or symphonic music. You just have characters stuck in one place, you have a solid plot, and you have your skills as a filmmaker to trap the audience. I really liked those challenges and I had to just throw myself into the swimming pool and try to do it.

I guess one of the biggest challenges must have been to sustain the high level of tension to establish at the start. The riot starts almost immediately and then you've got to keep the audience gripped for the next 100 minutes.

Absolutely. There were two great concerns in the beginning. We had to make people believe in this universe, this jail, because even gathering great actors wouldn't be enough if they didn't believe in all of those extras, it would ruin the whole movie. I decided to go to real jails and get real inmates for the extras. My other concern was to make the audience share the tension that the main character is suffering. The audience had to be in the same place as Juan, surrounded by criminals in the middle of this riot, and suffering the same unbearable pain that he is enduring. It's true that I had to keep the tension high, and I think we succeeded, finally. It was very hard but every time I had to make a decision as a filmmaker, if I had to choose between convention and a risky choice, I always opted for the risky choice. "Are we going a bit too far over the line? Perfect, let's keep going." On every level, from the pre-production of choosing the set and shooting with real inmates, there were decisions that could have exploded in my face. When I chose the bad guy Utrillia, I chose Antonio Resines who is a very well-known actor in Spain, but he is always doing comedies. He's a very nice guy and everything, but I wanted to do the opposite to surprise the audience. When I spoke to the DP I told him he had to think it was a documentary and we had to run and catch the scene in a free way, like he is a lion hunting a deer, and every decision I made had to create a reality for the spectator. One guy from the audience told me that he suffered so much watching the movie he had a pain in his stomach. I told him, "Sorry, but that makes me happy!" [laughs]

You mentioned the mixing of actors and inmates and there was one particular character I was intrigued by. I was certain that Releches was one of the real inmates, but he's actually played by an actor, Luis Zahera. That's a remarkable performance.

It's funny you should ask me that. People who know the movie has a mixture of inmates and real actors always think the same. This guy is a professional actor, but he made such an incredible metamorphosis that even his partners and friends couldn't recognise him. I got some calls after the opening saying, "Daniel, I worked with Luis but I can't believe it's him." He visited a guy who I wanted to put in the movie, but he couldn't act because he was always like [imitates Releches' loud moan], so we decided to take a risk. I was a little frightened that it would be a caricature, so I didn't say a word about this actor and he just entered the scene doing that performance. After the scene, two of the toughest inmates we had came to me and asked, "Where did you find this guy?" Then I knew it was perfect.

I heard that Cell 211 has already been picked up for an American remake. How do you feel about that?

I'm curious. I really admire Paul Haggis as a writer and director. I love Million Dollar Baby and In The Valley of Elah is a great movie, so it's a great compliment to me that he loved my movie enough to write it and possibly direct it. I am interested to see what is going to happen, and how he will translate things for an American audience, so you can be sure that I will buy a ticket and go to the theatre to see it.

It will be interesting to see how he adapts the political element with the ETA prisoners.

I don't know how he's going to do that, for example, and it's a very important piece of the story. He will do something interesting, I hope. Anyway, it's very strange for me, because while we are talking here another guy is working with my material. It's great, but a little strange.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Review - Cell 211 (Celda 211)

Cell 211 is a pressure cooker of a film. It places us right in the middle of a threatening, unstable situation and then gradually turns up the heat, developing and sustaining an unremitting sense of tension. From the way the film opens – showing us a prisoner slicing his own wrists – it's obvious that this is going to be a tough picture to watch, but I wasn't quite prepared for how tough director Daniel Monzón made it, and how firm his grasp on my nerves would be for almost all of the movie's 113 minutes. He wastes little time setting his story in motion. We join young prison officer Juan Oliver (Alberto Ammann) as he tours the jail that he is due to begin working at the next day. This facility is the home to some of Spain's most notoriously dangerous criminals, but it's also a decrepit building that's undergoing some much-needed maintenance work, and Juan finds himself standing in the wrong place at the wrong time when a chunk of the ceiling falls away and knocks him unconscious.

It's the kind of contrivance that Cell 211 occasionally uses to drive its narrative forward, but Monzón doesn't give us time to contemplate the feasibility of its plot developments. When Juan is out cold he is placed in the eponymous cell to recover, but at that moment all hell breaks loose and the prison guards escorting him flee, leaving the Juan to wake up alone and in the middle of a full-blown riot. Acting fast, Juan quickly ditches anything that could identify him as an outsider – his wedding ring, wallet, phone, shoelaces and belt – and assumes the identity of a murderer who is just starting his sentence. This is the kind of race-against-time sequence that Monzón excels at, and he frequently puts Juan in tight situations, forcing the anxious guard to think on his feet as he attempts to maintain his façade. Can he convince the hardened criminals that he is one of them? Can he get crucial messages to the authorities on the outside? Can he stay alive as the prison falls into chaos around him?

Above all, can he stay on the right side of Malamadre, the intimidating inmate who has coordinated this riot and who essentially runs the prison from the inside? Malamadre is played by the extraordinarily charismatic Luis Tosar, and if there's an actor working in cinema right now who has a scarier set of eyes, then I haven't seen him. When first confronted with this new arrival, Malamadre sizes him up, glaring at Juan from beneath his bushy brows, deciding whether this man can be trusted and how useful he can be. Malamadre has brawn but he also has brains, and he holds all the cards in this situation. With three ETA inmates under his control within the block, the authorities are impotent, fearful of terrorist reprisals across the country if any of these political prisoners should perish. The relationship between Malamadre and Juan is the driving force behind Cell 211, becoming a far more complex and interesting relationship than you might imagine. An uneasy bond develops between the pair; Juan knowing that staying tight with Malamadre is the key to his safety, and Malamadre seeing a useful ally in his unusually intelligent and well-spoken new comrade.

Monzón directs with an impressive forthrightness and economy. The atmosphere within the prison is authentically claustrophobic and intimidating, which is largely due to the mixture of real cons and suitably scary-looking actors that the director has used (the awesomely creepy Luis Zahera being the most memorable), and he knows exactly when to release the pent-up tension with a burst of violence or cutaway. The screenplay that he has written with Jorge Guerricaechevarría (from the novel by Francisco Pérez Gandul) is skilfully assembled with narrative twists that frequently alter our perception of the characters and their situation. Some of these feel forced – notably the insertion of Juan's pregnant wife (Marta Etura) into the mix – but they keep us on the edge of our seat and further provoke Juan's increasingly troubling identity crisis.

I think that's what I liked most about Cell 211. While many films involving a 'good' character undercover might have strained to ensure their protagonist's hands stayed clean, Cell 211 isn't afraid of compromising its hero. Juan finds himself committing acts that would have been inconceivable just hours earlier and his loyalties gradually shift as circumstances within the prison rapidly spiral out of control. By the end of the film an unlikely companionship has been forged between the two principal characters, and Cell 211 is an engrossing portrait of what happens to people when they are placed in extreme situations. Predictably enough, the American remake rights to Cell 211 have already been snapped up, but Daniel Monzón's brutal, gripping movie is the one to seek out.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Win Don't Look Now on Blu-Ray

Recently named by Time Out as the greatest British film ever made, Don't Look Now has grown in stature with every passing year since its release in 1973. Vivid, creepy and endlessly re-watchable, this story of a couple recovering in Venice from the tragic death of their daughter never fails to get under the skin of its audience. It is arguably Nicolas Roeg's finest achievement and it has now received the blu-ray release it deserves from Optimum Releasing, with the excellent new transfer doing justice to Roeg's dazzlingly inventive visuals and the accompanying interviews illuminating every aspect of the film's production.

Optimum have provided me with three blu-rays to give away, and all you have to do to be in with a chance of winning one is to answer this question.

Don't Look Now is based on a story by Daphne Du Maurier. Another great British director, Alfred Hitchcock, received his first Oscar nomination for a Du Maurier adaptation. Name that film.

This competition is now closed.