Daily Archives: January 27, 2011

Monsters (UK 2010)

Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and Sam (Whitney Able) as the couple in Monsters.

Monsters is an important film for several reasons. The most obvious observation is that it proves that you can make a convincing genre film with impressive CGI for under $500,000 (or even much less according to some reports). There has never been better evidence of the possibilities for filmmakers who understand how to get the best from relatively inexpensive equipment and how to conceive a viable production idea with only two professional actors and a basic script.

Following other British films by first-time directors, such as Skeletons and Moon, Monsters also demonstrates that despite the thousands of words on the fragile state of British filmmaking, there are still new talents to watch. Writer-director Gareth Edwards previously worked in TV, mostly documentary and dramadoc/docudrama as writer/director/cinematographer and visual effects creator. He utilises all these skills in Monsters and has been deservedly rewarded with several prizes.

But most of all, Monsters looks like being the perfect film for teaching about the way in which film culture is developing and that’s what I want to explore. I should confess that I’d heard rather a lot about the film before I could get to a screening. Therefore I had a good idea of what to expect – which took away some of the possible pleasures of the narrative the first time round. I was also aware of the male lead, ‘Scoot’ McNairy who starred in the under-rated indy rom-com, In Search of a Midnight Kiss. I mention this since many reviewers refer to the two leads as ‘unknowns’ – but I felt invited in because of my familiarity with McNairy (I’ve used the earlier film successfully with students). I was also aware that many mainstream audiences for the film had felt ‘taken in’ by the title which led them to expect something that wasn’t really forthcoming – a ‘monster movie’. When I queued up at the multiplex, I realised that the group of young teenage boys behind me were discussing going to see the film and, for a moment, I thought of warning them that they might not enjoy it. I’m glad I didn’t. I’d rather risk a negative reaction than keep audiences from seeing something different.

You only have to look at IMDB and various other film websites/blogs/forums to see how this film has divided audiences. Much of the conflict focuses on expectations of what the film will offer – it was released ‘wide’, not to as many multiplexes as a blockbuster, but to far more than most specialised or ‘art’ films in the UK (164 screens compared to the 250 plus of most mainstream films). In North America, the release has been much narrower (only 25 screens, but possibly also on VOD?). I suspect that in the US, only science fiction/action fans knew about the film in the mainstream audience (the film received significant critical support which might influence the more cinephile audience). In the UK the mainstream audience was much more exposed to the trailer. So, what were they expecting?

Here is the official US trailer for Monsters. If you’ve not seen the film, please be aware that the trailer briefly shows some of the best scenes which might spoil your enjoyment of the unfolding narrative:

and here is the UK trailer:

I think the UK trailer is better – i.e. a more accurate representation of the film, though still potentially misleading. It’s inevitable that the trail will focus on the genre elements of science fiction rather than the romance/relationship drama that is at least as important. Several critics have also referred to the road movie as part of the generic mix and there is certainly a case to be argued but I think that the film is more concerned (intentionally or not) with a distinct sub-genre or extended cycle of films about migration from Central America to the United States. This involves ‘border-crossing’ and refers to a host of movies, both American and Mexican – the most recent being Sin Nombre. In the case of Monsters, the decision to make the lead male character a journalist ties the film into an0ther cycle of films about ‘journalists in warzones and their ethical stance’. One such reference might be to Nick Nolte as a photographer in Nicaragua in Under Fire (1983). Kaulder (the Scoot McNairy character in Monsters) is in Central America to take photographs about the war against the aliens. We presume he is a freelance who is nonetheless dependent on his major clients for work and he is effectively ordered by his client, a media mogul, to escort the rich man’s injured daughter back to America. He tells the young woman, Sam (Whitney Able), that photographs of happy children are worth nothing but he could get $50,000 for an image of a child killed by an alien. This has an interesting narrative pay-off later in the film. There isn’t in fact a great deal of direct critique of media corporations or US policy – which of course makes the few examples more powerful. I felt that this underplaying of metaphor was quietly effective, but it seems to have offended several internet posters. I wonder how many American viewers realised that this was a British film? The majority of films that I can think of which deal with the migration North from Central America tend to be sympathetic to the migrants and critical of the American presence at the border. Possibly the most enjoyable moment in The Day After Tomorrow is when the Americans escape to safety as refugees in Mexico.

I’m hoping to use Monsters with students and I look forward to analysing their responses.

Carlos (France/Germany 2010)

Carlos (Édgar Ramírez) takes Sheikh Yamani (Badih Abou Chakra), the Saudi oil minister hostage

This post refers to the 165 mins UK cinema release of the film which exists in longer film versions in other territories as well as in a much longer mini-series version for TV and DVD. The film is a fictionalised account of the exploits and ‘domestic’ life of the Venezuelan assassin/guerilla fighter/revolutionary soldier ‘Carlos’, sometimes referred to as ‘The Jackal’ after the fictional character created by Frederick Forsyth. His real name is Ilich Ramírez Sánchez (born 1949) and the events depicted in this film version date from the period 1973-1994, during which time Carlos was mainly concerned with supporting one of the Palestinian guerilla factions, the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), although seemingly for a faction of the PFLP run by Wadie Haddad, who was eventually expelled from the organisation. The film’s main set piece is the attack on the 1975 OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) Meeting in Vienna and the attempt to use hostages in a scheme to discredit Saudi Arabia and support Iraq – thus the convoluted politics of the Middle East during the Cold War.

Cutting the film out of 334 minutes of material (the longest TV cut) means that the structure of the film is rather unbalanced and I did feel that the last third of the film was something of an anti-climax, partly because it comprised scenes separated by fades to black which both signified the sometimes large leaps forward in time, but also for the audience the suggestion that bits of the story were being missed out. The IMDB details suggest this, showing that the later scenes in the film appear in Episode 2 (of 3) in the TV version. Despite the possibility that watching the film on video might offer a more coherent experience, I’m glad I saw the ‘Scope print in a cinema.

As a production, Carlos is certainly impressive. It ranges across locations in several countries, all of them represented with a sense of authenticity. The characters (from many different countries and backgrounds) are all well represented by convincing actors and in the central role Édgar Ramírez is phenomenal – not least in his ability to speak several different languages fluently. Unlike Hollywood films, this French-German production requires all the characters to speak in first languages where feasible. Carlos speaks English to several German characters, but also French, Spanish and Arabic as required. Other than that he has to follow the De Niro line in Raging Bull and gain/lose weight throughout the film (something emphasised by several nude scenes) and age twenty years – both of which he achieves with aplomb.

The film has gained rave reviews from many critics and appeared on several ‘best of’ lists for 2010 but I’m still not sure. Putting aside the structural problems and working just on this 165 minutes, I think that it is probably best summed up as being a major film which is seriously flawed. The successes I think are first the representation of a now historical era – certainly the world before 1989, the bulk of the film. I did feel that the film captured something of a world that I remember (almost entirely from television) and it made me think about the changes. The kind of security that we now take for granted was almost non-existent then and was instituted largely, I assume, because of the airline hi-jacks and attacks carried out by the PFLP and other groups in the early 1970s. But these representations also throw up some surprising elements of almost black comedy, e.g. when a little blue and white UK police ‘panda car’ arrives after an attack in London or the seemingly old-fashioned Austrian police have to deal with ruthless guerillas. The other big change is in the lack of obvious American presence in most of the film. They may be manipulating other agents, but the CIA don’t make an appearance until late on.

The other major strength of the film is that in the long hostage sequence, it is possible to suspend disbelief and become engaged with Carlos as a guerilla leader thinking on his feet. Earlier too in a confrontation with police, we can feel that he is doing the logical thing, brutal though it may be. This isn’t a Hollywood thriller where we identify simply with an individual, with Carlos we do get the chance to explore whether he really is a revolutionary figure – if he cares about a cause and weighs up the violence with the aims of his mission. My feeling is that the balance shifts over the course of the film and in the latter stages he is a much more conventional figure.

The real problem in the film for me is in the script and in particular the dialogue. I’ve never knowingly discussed revolution with a real revolutionary but I felt that much of the dialogue, especially in the last third, was almost comic in its use of clichés – like some kind of TV sketch parody. This wasn’t helped by the relationships Carlos had with various women, but especially his East German wife, Magdalena. I didn’t get to see the Baader-Meinhof film, but I know it met a very mixed reception. What is it about the German ‘feminist revolutionaries’ in this period? I found all three German women in the film a trifle odd. One seemed very ‘ordinary’, one was clearly suffering from a psychosis and Magdalena appeared more Mata Hari than 1970s feminist. Perhaps they were accurate portrayals but as representations they just didn’t seem to fit in. The script is by Dan Franck and Olivier Assayas. Assayas also directed the film and should take great credit for the set piece scenes and the overall direction of actors.

Reading through a wide range of internet postings, I think that it is clear that many posters treat the film as a kind of superior crime thriller, focusing on Carlos as a certain kind of action protagonist. This often comes across as a liking for a ‘boy’s film’. If I’m disappointed it is because the political questions are much more interesting for me. I’d like the film to have been more like Motorcycle Diaries (I would be very interested to learn about Carlos as a teenager) and less like the Mesrine films (which I enjoyed as genre films).

Useful review of the 319 minute cut.

The US trailer: