Easy Money

Easy Money, aka Snabba Cash

Easy Money, aka Snabba Cash

In recent years, Scandinavian thrillers have been given something of an easy ride. What’s often not pointed out is that – when you dig beneath the gloomy, downbeat exterior of these productions – they’re often, well, a bit… cheesy. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (and assorted sequels) is the greatest example of this, featuring a plot and characters that are more like something that a teenage boy would dream up than a fifty year old Swede; but even the critically impermeable likes of Wallander are full of quite astounding plot leaps that would be frowned upon in British or American productions. Among all this, though, there have been some authentically good films in recent years, and Daniel Espinosa’s Easy Money (based on the novel by Jens Lapidus) is one of them.

The plot follows JW (Joel Kinnaman) a talented business studies student who has a bunch of horrible, rich friends he can’t afford to fit in with. In an attempt to make some money that will keep him in preppy clothes and swigging champagne for the foreseeable future, he becomes involved with a scheme to import a huge shipment of cocaine from Germany along with an escaped convict called Jorge (Matias Varela). However, the local Serbian mafia aren’t happy about this, and charge enforcer Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic) with putting a stop to it. Mrado, however, is becoming disillusioned with his own position and sees it all as the perfect opportunity to double cross his own bosses and make enough money to finance a quiet life in hiding with his young daughter.

This is a slick, fast-paced thriller looks more to the American model than other Scandinavian productions in the way it emphasizes action and movement over gimmickry and shadowy cinematography. JW makes for an interesting protagonist – he’s sympathetic if hardly likable, especially in his inability to see his revolting friends for what they are – and his shifting relationships with Jorge and Mrado have something of James Ellroy about them. The performances are also excellent (especially Matias Varela, who recently was fed to eels in The Borgias). It was hugely successful in Scandinavia, and has spawned two quickfire sequels which weren’t directed by Espinosa (who went on to make the Denzel Washington film Safe House) but do feature much the same cast.

Matias Varela in Easy Money

Matias Varela in Easy Money

Posted in Capsule reviews | Tagged | Leave a comment

Solitude of Prime Numbers, The

Alba Rohrwacher and Luca Marinelli in The Solitude of Prime Numbers

Alba Rohrwacher and Luca Marinelli in The Solitude of Prime Numbers

Here’s an instructive film. Saverio Costanzo’s The Solitude of Prime Numbers is based on the hugely popular novel of the same name by physicist and writer Paolo Giordano. It’s well made, singular and unlike many Italian productions has subject matter that’s of universal interest (i.e. it’s not about immigration or a vehicle for a popular local comedian). And yet, despite picking up several awards and getting decent reviews in the international film press, it only had the most limited of distribution in the English speaking world, and even today it’s astoundingly difficult to pick up on DVD. What’s going on? Why on earth has this never received any kind of showing in the US or England whereas the most tedious of French comedies or Albanian arthouse movies do? I think it illustrates the incompetence of the Italian distribution companies, who both don’t encourage Italian cinema to have a global perspective and then, when something comes along that could do well in the international markets, they simply don’t know how to do anything with it.

The plot follows two damaged characters who become friends if not exactly lovers at several points in their life. In childhood, Mattia is charged with looking after his autistic sister by his distant parents and, frustrated with always having to cope with her difficult behaviour, leaves her in the park while he attends a friend’s brithday party. She goes missing, never to reappear. Alice, meanwhile, is pushed into skiing dangerously by her damanding father, who wants her to become a champion. After becoming stuck in a whiteout she crashes and permanently damages her leg, leaving her with a limp and a lack of confidence.

They meet when they’re teenagers and Alice – who is bullied by the revolting girls at her school – falls for Mattia. He, however, is a child genius who is completely closed down, consumed by guilt and seemingly devoid of emotions (although his self harm habit indicates that he does have feelings). It takes years for him to finally open up and reveal what happened in his childhood, and at that point he’s about to leave for Germany, to take up a position at a prodigious physics institute.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers

Arianna Nastro and Tommaso Neri in The Solitude of Prime Numbers

The plot, therefore, is something like a more poetic, less optimistic Silver Linings Playbook: these are truly broken characters, too damaged to do anything like form a proper relationship or even acknowledge the need they have for each other. The protagonists aren’t whimsical or even particularly likeable, although you can’t help but feel for the childhood Mattia and the teenage Alice.

What makes The Solitude of Prime Numbers so interesting, though, is the way it is filmed. Despite the story being anything but a horror film, Costanzo very deliberately films it in the style of a nineteen seventies giallo. Fabio Cianchetti’s cinematography apes Vittorio Storaro’s work for Dario Argento (snatches of the music from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage are used as well), most particularly in the scenes in which Mattia discovers his sister has gone missing, and there are references also to The Shining and The Godfather. Faith No More’s Mike Patton provides a soundtrack that plays on the sound of John Carpenter and Goblin, and there’s a perceptible feeling of dread that hangs over it all, despite the fact that not a great deal actually happens.

Costanzo also deserves points for coaxing some good performances from a not particularly well known or experienced cast. The child actors are well handled, especially Tommaso Neri, and Isabella Rossellini has a nice supporting role as his unsympathetic mother. The segueways back and forth in time are sometimes confusing, especially because the parents of the children are all similar looking and never really developed in any way; and the running time is probably twenty minutes too long at just under two hours, especially as the expected climax never really arrives. But nonetheless this is an engrossing, unusual film that should appeal both to the cult circuit (it has a lot of similarities to Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani well received Amer) and the art-house crowd. If they ever get the chance to see it, that is.

Alba Rohrwacher and Luca Marinelli in The Solitude of Prime Numbers

Alba Rohrwacher and Luca Marinelli in The Solitude of Prime Numbers

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Simon Killer

Simon Killer

Simon Killer

Coming from the same production ‘collective’ as the surprise hit Martha Marcy May Marlene, Simon Killer has many of the same themes – sociopathic men, vulnerable women, the small steps that lead towards darkness – and a similar, sinister atmosphere as that film. It lacks, however, the compelling narrative and tight direction leaving it a rather flabby work, albeit one which has moments which stick in the mind.

Simon (Brady Corbett) is an american post-grad who winds up in Paris after his long-term relationship breaks down. Not knowing anyone there, he spends his days wandering around, watching porn on his laptop and listening to (decent) electronic music. Then he enters into a relationship with a sweet-natured prostitute (Constance Rousseau) and comes up with a brilliant scheme of helping her to blackmail her clients; in the meantime he also meets and falls for a student (Lila Salet). But it gradually becomes clear that Simon is a pathological liar whose previous girlfriend left him because of his violent behaviour.

Given its loose plotting and unhurried pacing, this is rather like mumblecore doing horror, and it shares all the same problems that make most mumblecore films so annoying, most particularly the fact that, despite aiming for a tone of gritty realism, it features characters who are simply unbelievable (the tart with a hart, naive student) and a protagonist who is simply dislikeable. Much of it is simply dull, and the repeated scenes of Simon wandering around Paris make for tedious viewing (the cinematography in general has a washed out, dull tone). But some sequences are effective (Simon growing increasingly anxious as his lies catch up with him while he’s at a cafe) and it does powerfully capture a sense of alienation.

Brady Corbet in Simon Killer

Brady Corbet in Simon Killer

Posted in Capsule reviews | Tagged | Leave a comment

A.D. Project

AD Project

AD Project

I always wondered what had happened to Eros Puglielli, the director of the revivalist giallo Eyes of Crystal in 2004. It was a good enough film to hint that he would go on to better things, but such is the state of the Italian film industry that it was not to be: he now works in television and was recently behind the acclaimed series Baciamo le mani: Palermo-New York 1958. But before moving his focus completely to the small screen he also made AD Project (2006), a micro-budgeted production which was released straight to DVD.

The story follows a group of seemingly random characters who congregate in a small town where some mysterious stuff is going down. There’s actor Marco (Marco Bonini), just arrived for an audition with his frustrated girlfriend (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) in tow; an experimental psychiatrist (Giorgio Albertazzi) whose latest patient (Eleonora Mazzoni) seems to have experienced some kind of unknown trauma and is frankly rather scaring him; her husband (Cristiano Callegaro), who owes money to a mysterious organisation; and a weird porn website owner (Emiliano Reggente). Events slowly build towards a climax at some deserted out of town buildings which are protected by a weird area of high pressure and a shadowy character called ‘the guardian’.

A.D. Project can’t be faulted for it’s ambition. Its budget ($356 according to IMDB) was provided by the cast and crew, who also all act as co-producers, and it was distributed straight to magazine kiosks throughout Italy. Given its limited means, it’s an audacious attempt to do a Dvaid Lynch style story of fractured narratives, weird events and alienated characters. It’s well shot with cinematography that would put many bigger budget features to shame and a suitably creepy atmosphere. Perhaps unsurprisingly the acting can be shakey, the script is often confusing and it seems to run out of steam towards the end. But despite this it’s a laudable effort, and again makes it all the more surprising that Puglielli hasn’t gone on to a more glittering career.

Posted in Capsule reviews, New Italian Cinema, Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Franco Citti interview

Franco Citti in Accattone

Franco Citti in Accattone

Here’s an interview with Italian actor Franco Citti – who is famous for his work with Pasolini but also appeared in numerous other films – that I found on the web and have translated into English.

Fiumicino is cold and grey at dawn. Franco Citti walks along the shoreline exuding melancholy and gratitude. After twenty years of interviews with the protagonist of Accattone his memories are still not spent. The Roman actor tells a portrayal of Pasolini which is unusual: not a Pasolini who is an intellectual, but a friend…

“Look, my brother and I have said this a million times. It is absolutely impossible that his killer was Pelosi. He was a kilometer away from the massacre. And it was a massacre, those things couldn’t have been done by just one person. There are too many things that are unclear, hidden. And there’s also the politics, naturally.”

The voice of Franco Citti, the unmistakeable face of Pier Paolo Pasolini, is harsh and sharp. As are his thoughts, and everything else.

“I initially came from Rome because the Borgate were beginning to disappear, and with them my friends. And when they didn’t have their ho!es any more the people took shelter by the sea. And for this reason I came to live in Fiumicino. There is a sense of mortality, hereabouts, which gives me peace. Perhaps I am already dead, here, in this solitude that I love and that gives me joy. Or, rather, maybe I’m alive because I am in Fiumicino. Perhaps if I’d have stayed in Rome I’d already be dead.”

Q: How did you meet Pasolini?

Through my brother, Sergio, in a pizzeria of Torpignattara. Sergio said to me: “Brother, let me present a friend of mine, a writer.”

Q: You already knew of him, then?

No, in that period he wrote poetry in ‘friulano’, work from his early years.

Franco Citti with Pier Paolo Pasolini

Franco Citti with Pier Paolo Pasolini

Q: So you didn’t know exactly who he was?

No, initially I even thought that he was illiterate. He was a primary school teacher in Ponte Mammolo, my brother told me. I was all covered in lime because I worked as a mason with my father. Then after we met be began to see each other often.

Q: And what was your initial impression of Pasolini.

That he was a normal person. I didn’t think anything of the fact that he was a writer. At times I gave him some lines in Roman that he would use.

Q: So Pasolini put into his books stories that you and Sergio told him?

Paolo above all liked the spirit, the wag of the Roman Borgate, this man who was cheerful and true and who passed his time with us, in the borgate. And so, being someone who wrote by looking at the things that happened around him, he took things for outside and put them in his books. But what really interested me was when he said that he’d got a part for me in his film.

Q: How did you react?

You know, I’m a born pessimist, I don’t believe very much in the things that are offered to me. So I said to Paolo: “OK, good, when we do it we do it.” Then he said again: “There’s a great part for you.” And out of that Accattone was born.

Q: While you were shooting did you feel the part or was it something that you didn’t feel much connection with?

I felt at ease because I was shooting with all my friends from the borgate. We played around a bit.And then that adventure, that story, I liked doing it. For the film I also had to read Ragazzi di vita.

Q: And you shot it at Torpignattara?

Torpignattara, Il Pigneto, Testaccio, Pietralata. We went all around the peripheries of Rome. The film went on in this way for a while. He directed us, but we were free to be ourselves.

Q: So you had the opportunity to add some touches of your own?

You know, the dialogue was already partially written and Pier Paolo wrote it with my brother Sergio, but there were some line that in the dubbing felt better and we put them in. Accattone, though, remained as it was shot, and in fact it’s a good film because it was spontaneous, because it didn’t use professional actors and was made on the fly. And with restricted means. The people who were acting alongside me, and me as well, we didn’t come some mornings, they’d have things to do, they’d go off and do other things, and then it was a bit complicated.

Q: So there were problems that were practical rather than financial?

Financially there weren’t any problems. I believe that the film cost very little. I, for example, was paid eight thousand life per day. I worked for eight weeks, then more on the dubbing. You could say that I worked for about a year and I took home about the equivalent of a million and three hundred thousand more today.

Q: When you see yourself in Accattone what do you think?

I try not to see myself.

Q: Why?

Because now that film is a memory to me, as all the others, of the rest. At times they show Accattone on TV, and I also have the video, but I search for reasons not to watch it. Not because it’s old, but because I like watching it with the right people, with those who at the time challenged it, for example.

Q: How did Accattone change your life?

For the worse. You see, this relationship with Pasolini was for me, in a certain sense, destructive, because it wasn’t that I really loved doing cinema, but at the same time I know that I had to do it, perhaps if only put of friendship. And, as I’ve already said to you, in some ways it fascinated me, most particularly when I was working with my friends. But then I had to work with other people I didn’t know, and it broke my balls because they weren’t loyal to me. They were ambitious, you know? But then some people would say: “Well, that’s a borgataro”.

Q: What type of rapport did you have with Pasolini?

He was a little like a father to me. He had a great fear of me, that I could just disappear one day or another, without finishing the film. And then we did Mamma Roma with Mangani. I had a misadventure with the police, I argued with a policeman and they arrested me for insulting an officer; I did a sentence of around twenty days and then they let me out.

Q: The filming was interrupted because of this?

No, they used my brother’s shoulders as a kind of body double. And after that episode, when we did Oedipo re, Pasolini had no choice but to put a guard on the hotel to make sure I didn’t leave it. But, you know, for me the cinema was an amusement. It didn’t interest me much as a profession.

Franco Citti in The Godfather

Franco Citti in The Godfather

Q: If I’m not mistaken Pasolini has said that he simply wanted you to be yourself rather than to act…

Yes, it’s certainly true that he never wanted me to be French, English, American. But then I had a lot of requests. I did my third film with Marcel Carne, then I worked in America. I did two of the Godfather films with Coppola, the first and the third one.

Q: What significance do you think Pasolini has in today’s society?

He thought so many things which he told through his stories, his writings or his imaginings.

Q: So you think that many of the realities and tensions in his writing are still here in Italy today?

Yes, for sure. I think that if Pasolini was still alive the young people of today would be different to how they are. He would have loved them and would have taught them through his writing and his cinema. I’ve read very few of Pier Paolo’s things, but I knew him well and he was the most humane person I ever met. He was the father to all of us, us from the borgate, and he was very much loved. For us, he was he Baggio of the place, the person who would resolve everything. He gave charity to the poor, and as soon as he began to earn some lire he’d often go to eat, inviting everyone. He was a cheerful family. And I’m sure that it will remain like that for always, also for those who never read his work.

Q: What are the strongest feelings that you still have of him?

He left me with this feeling of a big war, an endless fight between people. But, I repeat, he was the most humane person I ever met. I’ve never met anyone else like him, someone who’d call out to the extras: Please, can you put yourself there. He had an extraordinary sweetness, and that’s what I remember most. He was like a father, you know? A guide along the right path.

Posted in Performers & directors | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Outpost 11

Outpost 11

Outpost 11

Steampunk is a genre that has been done a bit of a disservice in cinema. While there are a number of steampunk novels that are at least half decent; apart from the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films and the disappointing Franklyn it’s hard to think of any films that are worth the price of entry. Partially this is because it’s a movement which, well, is a bit naff anyway – it only really works if treated with a sense of humour or as a kind of surrealistic intellectual enterprise (much like the Heath Robinson illustrations which anticipated much of what steampunk tries to do). But now, with Outpost 11, there is at least one film which really does the genre proud. In fact, Outpost 11 is one of those films that comes out of nowhere, is made for a handful of spare coppers and completely outstrips any expectations that you really should have for it. Along with Lord of Tears, it stands as one of the best British genre films I’ve seen in 2014.

It’s an alternate 1950s where the First World War has never finished and three men are stuck in a small Arctic base with the job of monitoring enemy transmissions and looking after the mysterious ‘Omega Machine’. They are the relaxed Commander Mason (Luke Healy), uptight career soldier Corporal Graham (Billy Clarke) and conscripted novice Albert (Joshua Mayes-Cooper). The tedium of their life is interrupted when a red warning light goes off, which is only supposed to happen if they’re under attack; but as there’s no sign of enemy activity so they decide its a technical error. Then they receive a coded message from the war Office saying ‘God has forsaken us. Abandon all hope.’ In the meantime they’re starting to experience strange hallucinations and becoming increasingly paranoid. When Mason goes to make contact with a neighbouring base he finds that the soldiers there have all killed each other (or themselves).

This really is a decent little film. Unsurprisingly it suffers from the usual problems of low budget filmmaking, most particularly the variable performances. But on the whole it makes a virtue of its limited means: as with Lord of Tears it is set in one or two locations and features just two or three characters. This is less poetic than Tears, looking more to David Cronenberg than M.R. James, with a dash of David Lynch thrown in for good measure. As such there are some scenes which border on the ridiculous (the video messages from headquarters presented by a stuffy old general with an enormous walrus moustache), some curious anachronisms (the game Connect 4 is very visible, which was only first sold in 1974) and a lot which is never explained or makes any sense (what is Graham’s past? What is the Omega machine? Why are those Arctic hares exploding?)

Because of this it’s unlikely to appeal to hardened horror fans, who will be expecting a little more blood and guts; the main monsters here are some plasticine spiders and it’s most definitely not in the style of The Thing, despite the publicity. But it tries something different, it’s well shot and the art direction – given the low budget – is really quite impressive; I look forward to seeing what writer / director Anthony Woodley comes up with next.

Luke Healy in Outpost 11

Luke Healy in Outpost 11

Posted in Capsule reviews | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Desperate Mission

Desperate Mission

Desperate Mission

Aka Agente z55 Mission, Mission Deseperee (France), Z55 Mision Deseperada (Spain)
1966
A Cineproduzioni Associate (Roma), P.C. Balcazar (Barcelona) & Les Films Copernic (Paris) co-production.
Director: Robert M White [Roberto Bianchi Montero]
Script: Ray Calloway [Alfonso Balcazar], Roberto Montero
Photography: Ken Foster
Music: Francesco De Masi {Nazionalmusic}
Editor: Jordan B Matthews {Bruno Mattei]
Sets: Mary Jo Lewis
Original running time: 90 mins
Exteriors shot in Hong Kong
Cast: German Cobos (Robert Manning), Susan Baker (Sally), Yoko Tani (Su Ling), Gianni Rizzo (The Baron), Milton Reid (Cheng), Paco Sanz (Professor Larsen), Leontine May, Anthony Blade, Florence Simpson, George Chow, Audrey Rosales, Alfred Ngo
Uncredited: Giovanni Cianfriglia (The Baron’s henchman with woollen hat), Romano Puppo (?Thug in cinema?)

After a rather dull first hour, this evolves into something much grittier than is normally to be found within the genre. With an onus on night-time photography (that often makes things rather difficult to make out), a preponderance of hard-hitting fistfights and a particularly nasty face-burning scene, it all leaves one with the (ultimately misguided) feeling of being a rather sombre affair. It definitely seems to lack the glamorous ambience that pervades the majority of its peers. However, that doesn’t mean it’s any better than average, and at several points this hapless reviewer found himself in need of a swift raspberry collins to offset the dangerous onset of sleep.

Professor Larsen, a prominent nuclear scientist, is freed from a Chinese prison camp by a group of Japanese judo experts. They take him to Hong Kong, where he can await in hiding whilst transportation to America is arranged. However, his main contact, Agent Z51, is killed before anything can be finalised. Knowing the delicacy of matters, the US Secret Service send in their best agent, Robert Manning, aka Z55 (German Cobos). His mission: to both relocate the AWOL academic and avenge his murdered associate.

It’s not long before Manning discovers that a disparate group of individuals are taking a close interest in his activities. There’s a suspicious pair of ‘bodyguards’ (Milton Reid and Yoko Tani) who persist in trying to pay him to work for them, not to mention an annoying blonde, Sally (Susan Baker), and her camp chum, The Baron (Gianni Rizzo). Now every good camp villain should have a pet – in Bond films, these ranged from piranhas to sharks to, err, a cat. Unfortunately, the Baron was dealt a rather duff card in the vicious fauna stakes; his particular mammalian sidekick is… an armadillo (‘an animal that’s quite affectionate, despite it’s rude exterior’)! Now there’s nothing that quite so diminishes the tension of a scene as much as having a goddamned armadillo wandering around in the background. Sometimes I’d swear that these Italian filmmakers just threw in such outrageously absurd elements just to completely confuse the unsuspecting viewer, stumbling across their long forgotten works after thirty-five years of total obscurity.

Desperate Mission

Desperate Mission

Anyway, Mr Z55 is soon wandering around an assortment of Judo clubs, hoping to locate the one handed black-belt who had been working with his predecessor. He also manages to visit an assortment of swanky drinking establishments, hoping to find a long-stemmed glass full of a well-mixed martini (and who wouldn’t). It doesn’t take him too long to locate The Professor, but that’s only the beginning of his troubles…

Desperate Mission has a few things in its favour. There’s a great title sequence, faultlessly blending animation, loungecore vibes and shooting silhouettes, that conjures up memories of The Avengers. Francesco De Masi’s soundtrack is very enjoyable, and there’s a nice supporting cast, including a couple of unexpected performers. Milton Reid was a familiar face in British films, often appearing as a mute butler or bodyguard (see Adventures of a Private Eye, Au Pair Girls, Dr Phibes Rises Again and Dr. No amongst others). He’s not a great actor, for sure, but has a formidable presence and a bad complexion. Yoko Tani was a French actress who appeared in many Euro productions as a token oriental (ie giggling regularly, looking demure, trying to kill people) before her death in 1999.

Apart from that, though, it’s pretty much a motley assortment of the usual clichés: stupid passwords, hat-wearing villains, stilted ‘suave’ dialogue (‘what kind of chicken are you, Mr. Manning?’). Unfortunately things aren’t helped along too much by rather stodgy direction, with the exception of a good shoot-out in a cinema, from the usually reliable Roberto Montero. Lead actor German Cobos certainly looks like Sean Connery, and acts in a much more vicious way than is expected, but fails to really engage.

Desperate Mission

Desperate Mission

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment