Tag Archives: crime thriller

Metro Manila (Philippines/UK 2013)

(From left) Andy Willis, Sean Ellis, jake, Robin Foster

(From left) Andy Willis, Sean Ellis, Jake Macapagal, Robin Foster

Cinema 2 in Cornerhouse Manchester was the intimate venue for a preview of Metro Manila with support from BAFTA North. The screening attracted an enthusiastic audience including members of the local Filipino community and afterwards Andy Willis, Reader in Film Studies at Salford University, hosted a Q&A with writer-director Sean Ellis, lead actor Jake Macapagal and music composer Robin Foster.

The script for Metro Manila was written by Sean Ellis and Frank E. Flowers in English and then translated into Tagalog more or less as it was shot. The story was developed from an incident witnessed by Ellis during his first visit to Manila. The cast was recruited locally, led by Jake Macapagal, a local theatre actor. Sean Ellis, who has a background first as a photographer and then as an award-winning shorts director (this is his third feature), shot the film himself. Its first appearance was at Sundance in January 2013 where it won the Audience Award. Since then it has played in France and Belgium. It opens in the UK on September 20th and then has a wide release in the Philippines in October. Sean Ellis suggested that his film “slides from world cinema into a genre thriller”. I was troubled by this statement as ‘world cinema’ still seems like a spurious term – more on this below.

The story is universal and Ellis agreed with an audience comment that it could have been set anywhere. The treatment however places it firmly in Manila. Oscar and Mai and their two small children are forced to leave rural Philippines when the price they receive for the rice they have grown drops dramatically. They travel to the capital in the hope of finding work and they are ripped off like every ‘country’ couple who don’t have friends or family to help them. Mai is forced to take a job in a sleazy bar and Oscar eventually finds employment as a security guard when a recruiter realises that this applicant has served time on military service. Everything seems to be going well at this point – but perhaps too well? Against his will, Oscar finds himself in a dangerous situation with little room for manoeuvre. The final third of the film leads us into familiar crime thriller territory, but there is a further plot twist which returns attention to the social question about rural poverty and the terrors of the big city.

I should say straightaway that the film, as a production, is a remarkable achievement. Language was clearly a key issue. Ellis doesn’t speak Tagalog and the kind of language used in commercial Filipino film and television did not seem appropriate (it’s a conventional language used for popular film and television melodramas). Jake Macapagal explained that the cast tried to use the street language of Manila as seemed appropriate in translating the script. I found this fascinating as Ellis explained that the film was edited for the subtitling – in other words, shots would be chosen with start and end points in the edit, not for the flow of the scene, but because of the time needed to screen the subtitles. Of course, for a predominantly English audience the film looked fine. The Filipino audience members said that they could follow both dialogue and titles. The camerawork, performance and music all worked well and the story is gripping all the way through. My only hesitancy was over the narrative resolution (which I won’t spoil). I find the concept of ‘world cinema’ to ‘crime thriller’ problematic. It’s ‘world cinema’ I don’t like and what it implies (a film intended to be seen mainly in international festivals and art cinemas). I would prefer the film to have a consistent style and it was the case that as the thriller narrative developed we lost some of the sense of ‘experiencing’ the city that came over so strongly in the opening scenes.

Oscar (in the background) works as back-up for

Oscar (in the background) works as back-up for Ong (John Arcilla)

The response to Metro Manila so far has, not surprisingly, made comparisons with the other two titles involving young British directors making independent features outside the UK in challenging locations. Gareth Evans’ Indonesian-set The Raid (2011) and Gareth Edwards’ Mexico-set Monsters (2010) are both more clearly identifiable as genre pictures. I haven’t seen The Raid but the reports I have read suggest that it is possibly more ‘rooted’ in Indonesian popular culture than Monsters with its American couple in Mexico. It’s sad that Rebelle (War Witch, Canada 2011) another film by a Western/’Northern’ filmmaker, this time set in Africa, hasn’t been released in the UK. Watching it in the same Cornerhouse screen last year as part of the ‘French Connection’ season, it struck me as completely successful and arguably melding what Ellis refers to as ‘world cinema’ and the thriller. I guess the central question about Metro Manila is whether the thriller elements interfere in any way with the sense of authenticity that the realist street approach achieves in the first third of the film.

I confess to relatively little knowledge of Filipino culture and I wish I knew more. In particular, I wish I knew more about the ‘creolisation’ of local culture following Spanish colonialism and then American economic colonialism. In the opening scenes of Metro Manila (see the trailer below) the rice paddies farmed by Oscar and Mia are located in a landscape that reminded me of scenes from Latin-American films – an effect reinforced by the gaudily decorated truck that took them to Manila. In the Q&A we learned that the ‘street version’ of Tagalog includes both Spanish and English words and the film includes several important references to Catholicism that I’d like to know more about in its Filipino setting.

I’ve suggested a couple of possible reservations about the film but I want to recommend the film strongly. I plan to watch it again soon and I’ll be paying more attention to the camerawork and to the narrative structure – I realised during the final sequences that the structure is quite complex with a voiceover and flashbacks that I didn’t fully work out.

Thanks to Rachel Hayward, Andy Willis and his guests and all the Cornerhouse staff who put on this excellent session.

Here’s the French trailer (there isn’t any dialogue in it) which represents the film well:

London Indian Film Festival #3: Monsoon Shootout (India/UK/Netherlands 2013)

Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the suspect Shiva

Nawazuddin Siddiqui as the suspect Shiva

Monsoon Shootout is a difficult film to pin down and review but an important film to discuss. It’s the first feature of writer-director Amit Kumar and has been ten years in the making – an indication of the potential difficulties in producing a small film outside the Indian mainstream. Kumar is an Indian film school graduate (FTII in Pune) with several high-profile contacts from FTII and his subsequent production experience and this has enabled Monsoon Shootout to emerge as an Indian film co-produced with European partners and now picked up by the international sales agent and distributor Fortissimo. The film was shown at Cannes this year and with both Asif Kapadia and Anurag Kashyap amongst its group of producers it is certain to be talked about. The London Indian Film Festival screening was its UK premiere.

Adi, the police officer

Adi, the police officer

The film has a simple premise and a recognisable structure for a genre film with artistic aspirations. Kumar himself refers to the short film An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (US/France 1963) based on the Ambrose Bierce story as his inspiration. Variety‘s reviewer refers to Run, Lola Run (Germany 1999) and certainly Monsoon Shootout uses the same structure of three versions of the same story. The central character is Adi (Vijay Varma), a young police officer in his first posting working with the tough Inspector Khan (Neeraj Kabi). They are attempting to catch a ruthless assassin/enforcer working for a ‘Slum Lord’ in Mumbai who is attempting to control the profitable housing development market. Khan employs brutal methods to deal with crooks but Adi aims to follow his own father’s more honourable philosophy. The test comes very quickly when Adi is chasing a suspect and has to make an instant decision to shoot and possibly kill. We are offered three versions of what might happen. The possible repercussions of making the wrong decision involve a range of other characters including the suspect’s wife and son, other police officers, Adi’s girlfriend, future victims of the killer etc.

This rough outline suggests a variation on the shootout which isn’t all that unusual. What lifts Monsoon Shootout above the general run of genre inflections are three factors. The representation of the monsoon in Mumbai is very effective, especially in the night-time combination of darkness and neon lights in the rain. The camerawork of fellow FTII graduate and Anurag Kashyap regular Rajeev Ravi enhances the impact and the performances add another level. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is again stunning as the suspect Shiva, ably supported by Tannishtha Chatterjee as his wife Rani, Farhan Mohammad Hanif Shaikh as his son Chhotu, R Balasubramanian as the Slum Lord and Geetanjali Thapa as Adi’s girlfriend Anu. The music is by the Indian-American composer Gingger Shankar.

Shiva and his son Chhotu

Shiva and his son Chhotu

The film is violent but thankfully much of the violence is off-screen. There were times when I felt that the scenarios were being worked out in an almost mechanical way but at other times I found the film genuinely disturbing. It’s the element of social realism in the presentation of the milieu and supporting characters that for me raises Monsoon Shootout above the level of the conventional Indian gangster film. Most of the reviews pick out Adi as the weakest character and he certainly seems the unlikely to survive long as a police officer. Decisive action is important for survival and I wonder what this means for the ideological impact of the film. Inspector Khan is a kind of ‘Dirty Harry’ figure who ‘gets the job done’ by taking the law into his own hands. The general level of corruption is par for the Indian crime drama but I realised that I was genuinely shocked by one of the outcomes and prompted to think by another – in both cases because I found the characters who were affected by the possible actions of Adi to be interesting and believable. The final cut of the film is under 90 minutes and I think this a possible study text for school and college students. The fact that it has an international rather than Bollywood distributor might make it easier to book in cinemas. I hope it gets a UK release.

Here’s a UK trailer/clip:

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x11trov_monsoon-shootout-trailer_shortfilms

Snabba Cash (Easy Money, Sweden 2010)

The three principal characters (from left) Jorge, Johan and Mrado

The three principal characters (from left) Jorge, Johan and Mrado

The obvious question about Easy Money is why did it take so long to get to the UK? Another crime fiction adaptation – from a bestselling novel by Jans Lepidus (2006) – which was a box office smash in Sweden in 2010 and it has already had a sequel with a third film due for release in October this year. Since ‘Nordic Noir’ arguably reached the peak of its popularity in the UK in 2011-12, why wasn’t this film released with the same kind of marketing drive that propelled the Stieg Larsson films and Headhunters into the UK Top 10? Partly, perhaps, because there wasn’t an English translation of the source novel published in the UK until early this year. But I suspect that the botched release has been more a product of a Hollywood battle over remake rights. Its eventual release via Lionsgate is announced as ‘Martin Scorsese Presents’. I confess that I didn’t notice this on my cinema visit and the film clearly missed its Nordic Noir audience as the takings were dire in the first two weeks. But don’t let that put you off. Easy Money is an excellent thriller and well worth catching in CinemaScope on a big screen.

In some ways this is a typical Nordic crime film, though the female lead character is rather underutilised. (She may appear more in the next film – in this one it is important that she doesn’t really know what is happening.) It’s really a hard boys’ thriller with three central male characters. I was confused when trailers and early reviews kept mentioning The Killing. It was only after the screening that I realised that the main character ‘JW’ (Johan) was played by Joel Kinnaman, who was also the lead in the American version of the Danish series. In Easy Money, JW is a young man with a double life – by day an ‘A’ student at the Stockholm School of Economics and by night a taxi driver. My early recognition was of Matias Varela, one of the team of police officers in the Arne Dahl TV films shown recently in the UK. Varela plays Jorge, a Latin American migrant who we see first making a prison break. The third lead is Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic) a Serbian hit man working for a ‘Yugoslav’ gang.

The key narrative idea is that the lure of ‘easy money’ is too strong for each of the three characters above. The stories are those of these three characters, from their perspectives. The police only appear at the end of the film. The Nordic Noir elements are the almost complete focus on migrant communities in Stockholm and Göteborg and the way in which each of the three central characters is driven by/constrained by a ‘social’ issue of some kind.Jorge has a pregnant sister who he doesn’t want to be drawn into gangland struggles – and a cousin who is a key contact in Germany. Mrado, separated from his partner, finds himself presented with sole custody of his small daughter, making his lifestyle quite complicated. Johan is effectively ‘living a lie’ and we can’t be sure exactly what his background is, but he is clearly conning his rich friends.

The key social/cultural/economic issue is however the international financial crisis of 2008 (i.e. after the novel was written) since it is Johann’s grasp of the situation and his ideas about how to exploit it which appeals to Abdulkarim, the gang boss who runs the taxi company. (It also helps Johann in his dealings with his wealthy friends.) I won’t spoil the plot but it involves the Arabs/Hispanics, supported by the Albanians trying to outwit the ‘Yugoslavs’ – with various agents switching sides. Director Daniel Espinosa, himself from a Chilean migrant background says that he knew these cultures in the Stockholm suburbs/housing estates and that’s why he fought to get the job. Before Easy Money hit the UK, Espinosa had already had his first Hollywood film with Denzel Washington, Safe House, released internationally.

The ending of the film ha resolution, but also leaves open the possibilities for the next episode. I will certainly try to watch Easy Money 2. The trailer below from Lionsgate is very ‘Hollywood’. It makes no reference to Scandinavian crime fiction and its popularity, which I think is a mistake – the film is mostly in Swedish. If you are a Nordic Noir fan, this is probably closest to the Arne Dahl series, though from the criminals’ perspective.

Trance (UK 2013)

A good example of the kind of images created by Anthony Dod Mantle with reflective glass – entrapment by mise en scène.

A good example of the kind of images created by Anthony Dod Mantle with reflective glass – entrapment by mise en scène.

Danny Boyle has been all across the UK media for the last few weeks. I came out of a screening of Trance and found myself in the car listening to a long interview with him on the Radio 4 Film Programme. I’m not sure that this exposure is necessarily good for him – the best thing he’s done recently was to quietly refuse a knighthood. He’s a nice guy and a great filmmaker but now that he is a national treasure, expectations of his work have sky-rocketed. I get the impression that Trance is deliberately dark and nasty – he  has called it the ‘evil cousin’ of his Olympics show. Perhaps it was the right film to make to escape from the gushing praise and to reclaim some ‘edge’ in his filmmaking.

Francine Stock’s interview did tease out some of the elements of Trance which I think can be ‘triangulated’ in a number of ways. On one level, as Boyle suggested, it is a return (with John Hodge) to the three-hander about greed that was his first cinema feature Shallow Grave in 1994 – but now the characters are that much older and a good deal nastier. The setting for the narrative is initially the art world and the two men/one woman situation. In fact there are many elements in common with the Jo Nesbo adaptation Headhunters (Norway 2011). That film has more humour and is essentially an action thriller. The other well-known art theft scenario that comes to mind is a two-hander and a ‘romance-thriller’, The Thomas Crown Affair (1968 and 1999). Trance is much darker, drawing heavily on film noir – Boyle repeatedly called it noir/noirish in the interview. He also said, and this is key I feel, that the stolen object is purely symbolic – it represents something valuable that has been lost, but finding it is about power rather than just money. So what we get is a game about being in control and achieving the power when there are two other competitors. Who do you side with and who do you attempt to push out of the ring first? (The painting is a Goya used in several ways in the plot.)

I suspect that many of us are going to be racking our brains as to which noirs the film reminds us of. I can see that there are some resemblances to Out of the Past (Build My Gallows High, 1947), another three-hander, but in tone Trance is more like the later 1950s noirs from the real hard-boiled guys like Robert Aldrich with Kiss Me Deadly or Joseph H. Lewis’ The Big Combo (both 1955). Having said that, I’m not sure that the script is able to maintain the same tone throughout and at times it seemed to become more playful. The noir milieu depends on mise en scène, editing, sound and having good performances. Boyle is very keen on the importance of sound and I did notice it in the film, not just the music score which is interesting, but more so the sound effects and the voices. Boyle picked out sound as being important in an immersive sense – making us feel that we are trapped inside the head of a character experiencing hypnosis. However, effective though this is in the film, it’s the camerawork that really confirms a sense of ‘disturbance’ and claustrophobia. The hypnotist lives in one of those old Georgian terraces with a lift that has cage-like metal grille doors, perfect for shooting through (camera and guns) and other scenes take place in clubs, warehouses and bedrooms with glass walls, mirrors and concealed lighting. I thought that the camerawork was very good, but I did have doubts about the digital image which in a couple of shots didn’t have the deep blacks and clarity in low light levels that I expect from noirs.

The crime gang led by Vincent Cassel.

The crime gang led by Vincent Cassel.

The film is very much a three-hander. Even though there are important secondary roles, it is James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel and Rosario Dawson who must carry the film. I’m not sure why but I have problems with McAvoy as a lead in this kind of film. The problems are probably with me rather than him as he seems popular as an action hero, but there it is. I can’t explain it and in theory he is well cast – but he just doesn’t do it for me. Cassel on the other hand rarely puts a foot wrong in anything he does and he has the presence for a film like this. Rosario Dawson is terrific. I haven’t seen any of the Hollywood blockbusters she’s been in but I realised later that she was in two Spike Lee joints (He Got Game and 25th Hour). She has the definite strength and screen presence to stand up against Cassel. With these three leads and the rest of the criminal gang, Boyle has a ‘cosmopolitan cast’ for a film which he tells us could be set anywhere. There’s some truth in that but in a couple of scenes I thought “this can only be in London”. I’ve seen some reviews that mention Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises as another ‘alternative view’ of London’s criminal mileux, but apart from Vincent Cassel, I didn’t see any other similarities – the one thing Trance clearly isn’t is a film set in a specific cultural context.

I’m not sure whether the film will be successful. It’s quite a talky film with relatively few action sequences. The narrative inevitably twists upon itself because of the hypnosis sequences and I’m not sure that the multiplex audience or Danny Boyle’s hardcore fans are that taken with this kind of noir. I would need to see it a second time to begin to analyse how well the script stands up – at the moment it seems like the weakest element of the film. But having said that, new ideas keep popping up –  none of the three principal characters have much in the way of backstories and I’m not sure what that means. The film is being seen by several reviewers as ‘style over substance’ but I think there is more to it than that. On the other hand, audiences who go looking for Inception or something similar will be disappointed. Anyone who says that the plot doesn’t make sense ought perhaps to remember that even Raymond Chandler couldn’t explain the plot holes in The Big Sleepnoirs are meant to be like dreams (or nightmares).

Two final points – it was good to see Tuppence Middleton getting a major film credit to follow her BBC appearance in The Lady Vanishes. I’d love to know how much Apple contributed to a film which is probably the most effective ad for a ‘gadget’ I’ve seen so far.

False Trail (Jägarna 2, Sweden 2011)

Everyone has access to a rifle – Annika Nordin as Karin

Everyone has access to a rifle – Annika Nordin as Karin

False Trail saved the Christmas holiday for me in terms of a new film to go and see. I’m glad I saw it and I’m grateful to the National Media Museum for booking it – but disappointed that Arrow, the small distributor that seems to be acquiring most of the Nordic films and TV series reaching the UK, didn’t give it more of a push. As the Swedish title indicates, this is a sequel to a film released in 1996, which I don’t think reached the UK. The market has, of course, changed since 1996 for Swedish crime fiction films. There is a brief flashback in this film to what I presume were the events of the first, but there doesn’t seem to be any problem in making sense of this film as a standalone.

This is another film that begins with a hunt. Following the Thomas Vinterberg film, UK audiences have been reminded that we seem to be amongst the European countries with the lowest rates of gun ownership. In Swedish Lappland, where False Trail is set, virtually everyone in the film owns at least one hunting rifle. A young woman has gone missing and clues have been found during the time that a hunt is taking place. The hunt then turns into a search operation and the local police arrest a likely and seemingly obvious suspect. However, it is such a small close-knit community that individual police officers have too much history of confrontations with the suspect and the local chief decides to ask Stockholm for help. The officer who arrives from the South, actually comes from Lappland, but he has hardly been back since the events of the earlier (i.e. in 1996). He has a family connection to the local police but no knowledge of the suspect so he is deemed potentially objective.

The man from the South is played by Rolf Lassgård, who has already played Martin Beck, Kurt Wallander and Sebastian Bergman. He’s a great actor but it would be nice to see a new actor occasionally. Predictably, he is short-tempered and stubborn but a good investigator. The film is essentially a procedural, but there are strong thriller elements and the finale plays out like a family melodrama in a perfect setting – a fast-flowing river with large boulders creating turbulence. The plot and the setting are reminiscent of Insomnia (Norway 1997) (the film remade by Christopher Nolan) but the long summer evenings so far North aren’t really mentioned by the characters. It’s also the case that the film does seem like a TV film with Lassgård as Wallander. But this is only in terms of his casting and the crime fiction elements. The film looks magnificent in CinemaScope and deserves to be seen in the cinema and not on DVD where Arrow presumably expects to find the biggest audiences. It’s over two hours but I found the time whizzed by and the thriller elements worked pretty well. I won’t spoil the plot but as I’ve indicated already this is more a familiar crime melodrama rather than that critique of social policies and the breakdown of society we are familiar with from Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell.

With over half a million admissions in Sweden, director Kjell Sundvall‘s film was a popular local hit. Arrow have provided a UK Facebook page for the film which lists cinemas where the film is playing later in January in the UK. I’d certainly recommend a visit – but not as some reviewers suggest as a follow-on from The Killing. This has more outdoor action and the climax is more like a classic 1950s Western. In other words it’s the kind of genre film that popular cinema needs more of. I bet it’s more fun than The Hobbit!

Contre toi (In Your Hands, France 2010)

Kristin Scott Thomas as Anna Cooper in her classy apartment

This is an odd little film finally getting a release in the UK, presumably based on the central performance by Kristin Scott Thomas – a major attraction for UK arthouse audiences. However, I’m not sure that word-of-mouth will make this a hit. The English title doesn’t help the film. ‘In Your Hands’, I realise is possibly a play on the phrase describing the responsibilities of a surgeon – ‘Your life in their hands’? Scott-Thomas plays Anna Cooper, a surgeon specialising in obstetrics and gynaecology, who is abducted one evening and kept in a locked room by a rather wild but very pretty young man. My limited French doesn’t run to idioms, but I’m guessing that the French title might translate as something like ‘Against You’. This would be a better title since the main narrative question is “How much ‘against’ her captor will Anna be?” or perhaps how close, literally ‘against’ him, she might become? (I read afterwards that the director did want the English title but its French translation had already been used.)

Writer-director Lola Doillon sets up these questions from the beginning since she first shows a frightened and bewildered Anna escaping from the house where she has been held and a little later sat in a police interview room seemingly telling her story in flashback. So we lose the suspense of whether the captor will murder Anna and instead we wonder about what kind of relationship might develop between the two since we remember the so-called Stockholm syndrome. The narrative does have a twist which I won’t reveal but I suspect many audiences will guess correctly. (The captor’s name, I understand, is the same as the person who first described the Stockholm syndrome.)

The narrative didn’t really work for me. The characters aren’t particularly interesting but it’s possible that some (female?) audiences will identify with Anna. There is an emphasis on her loneliness as a divorcée without children and seemingly few close friends. In terms of the male gaze, this does feel like quite an intimate film with Scott Thomas almost never off the screen. There is something almost erotic about her careful dishevelment. Somehow she still looks elegant and poised even after she has supposedly not washed or changed her clothes for a couple of days. I think the problem is more with her captor played by Pio Marmaï – the narrative would have worked better for me if he had been older and/or less pretty.

I suspect that my main interest in the film was as an example of French cinema’s seeming ease of access to directing for women as writer-directors. I’m not sure that this qualifies as ‘auteur cinema’ but it is a second film by Ms Doillon, whose parents are in the industry – her father is a director and also a teacher at FEMIS. I also read that she is married to the high-profile director Cedric Klapisch (who is thanked in the credits). With those kind of connections perhaps it is not too difficult to put together a budget. There is nothing wrong with the direction of the actors but I don’t think the script offers enough. The film is only 81 minutes long but it felt longer. It did in some ways remind me of a far more interesting film, À la folie… pas du tout (France 2002) with Audrey Tautou, written and directed by Laetitia Colombani – a director of a similar age whose second feature didn’t make it to the UK.

iLL Manors (UK 2012)

Kirby,  just out of prison, discovers that Marcel has attempted to take over his drugs territory and he humiliates the younger man.

iLL Manors is a film that has received a great deal of attention. I’m not sure this has been totally a good thing as the film has been both over-praised and unfairly dismissed, possibly as a result of the hype. Where audiences have been allowed to ‘find’ the film by themselves many seemed to have been impressed. I’m not sure what I think about the film, but I wish I hadn’t listened to various broadcast reviews which I’ve been unable to get out of my head. I was certainly engaged over the long running time (121 mins for a first-time, low-budget production) by aspects of the cinematography/post-production: the performances of a large cast of both professionals and non-actors impressed me as well.

The hype is because this is the first feature by the ‘platinum-selling’ London rapper Plan B (under his given name, Ben Drew). He has been quoted as saying that he was inspired by Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) and Nicholas Refn and possibly by Mathieu Kassovitz’s La haine. iLL Manors has something of the structure of Pulp Fiction and both the structure and aspects of the milieu of La haine (as well as the familiar Taxi Driver mirror scene – “You talking to me?”). However, it is in some ways a grittier and more shocking representation of East London with a collection of sadder and more desperate characters than its inspirations. The ‘realism’ of the film is partly attributable to Drew’s admiration of the work of Shane Meadows and particularly This Is England. (Jo Hartley, young Shaun’s mum in This Is England, has a small role in iLL Manors.)

The story is set in East London around Forest Gate and Manor Park and involves a group of characters whose separate narratives interlock to produce an ‘ensemble drama’ that eventually becomes a crime melodrama. Aaron (Riz Ahmed) and Ed (Ed Skrein) are small-time drug dealers who find themselves embroiled with both Kirby (local big time dealer recently out of prison) and Kirby’s erstwhile protegé Chris. Trying to move in on the same drugs trade are Marcel and a young teen, Jake. Mobile phones with their replaceable SIMs and their databases of contacts are valuable and when one goes missing it drags ‘crack whore’ Michelle and eventually the East European Katya, victim of trafficking, into the web of relationships. This bald outline suggests a familiar drugs-focused crime film and, combined with the relatively young characters and the setting, that recent British film genre, the ‘urban film’. However, in both formal and ideological terms, the film promises more.

Ben Drew first released a single of his rap ‘iLL Manors’ in April and it attracted attention because it seemed to be that relatively rare phenomenon in contemporary popular music – a ‘political’ commentary on young people’s lives making explicit references to ‘rich boys’ (like Cameron and Osborne) and the ‘real’ reasons for the outbreak of riots last summer in the UK. The video for this single includes several characters who appear in the film and presumably some footage that was shot for the film. Here’s the music video:

This is an ambitious film which is why it is surprising to find that it’s part of the Microwave scheme organised by Film London to help first-time young filmmakers who have demonstrated their talent and potential. The scheme was originally set up to produce films with a budget of under £100,ooo to be shot in 18 days. The unique aspect of the scheme was the mentoring of directors and producers by more experienced UK filmmakers. Arguably the most successful of the early films produced under the scheme was Shifty (2008). In many ways, Shifty is the best comparison film for iLL Manors. The same actor, Riz Ahmed (himself also a rapper) appears in both films in a similar role. However, in Shifty, the writer-director Eran Creevy had the support of several more well-known actors, a tight script and a single location with relatively few complex scenes. iLL Manors has a cast with more non-professionals, a much longer script (50% more), many more scenes/set-ups and significantly more post-production work. My first reaction was to query how much more Ben Drew spent on the film and how Microwave now works. The current scheme seems to have upped the budget limit marginally to £120,000 but I’m sure I’ve also read that Drew had to find extra funding for post-production. Even so, the completed film is an impressive achievement and Drew is clearly a talented director of actors as well as a creative writer. Credit for the fresh look of the film also goes to cinematographer Gary Shaw, something of a veteran of London ‘effects’ shooting who lensed Moon for Duncan Jones. There is a useful press pack on the film available here and lots of promotional material on YouTube and other sites.

Critical commentary

iLL Manors got a relatively wide release from the independent distributor Revolver (which had its first big success with Kidulthood – the film which helped to begin the current ‘urban film’ cycle). The initial release was successful with over £250,000 taken during the first weekend from 191 cinemas, but in Week 2 the number of cinemas fell to 83 and the screen average fell by 65% for an overall fall of 85%. This could be read in several ways. Revolver may have concluded that an initial release to capitalise on the strong profile of Plan B would need to go wide first but that most of the audience would get to see it via DVD and online later. But it also looks like word of mouth was not strong.

Some of the more critical reviews charge the film with collapsing into what is referred to as soap opera or melodrama, specifically an ‘EastEnders Christmas special storyline’. This is a reference to a pub fire that brings several narrative strands to a climax. I don’t watch TV soaps any more, but I understand the charge. I felt at this point in the narrative that moving into melodrama mode was not a bad idea and I think the charge is more a problem of lazy critics. Ben Drew should be applauded on several levels. His music, with mini-biographical songs about some of the characters accompanying a montage of their histories is well-handled. There is a strong sense of authenticity about the locations and the casting and we do get a sense of what it must be like to grow up without much hope in a place like this – since this is precisely the area close to the Olympics site which is supposed to be ‘regenerating’ East London the film also carries a political charge. This is Drew’s own neighbourhood and he represents it with vigour. The problems in the film are mainly concerned with over-ambition. With this many characters, each of which with their own story as well as their contribution to the overall narrative running over 2 hours, it’s easy to lose track of who is doing what to whom. I’d like to see a tighter edit with perhaps one or two of the stories slimmed down or disappearing altogether and perhaps a little more concentration on presenting the action for audiences like me who are less familiar with the lifestyles. Having said that, I’m not the target audience. Drew has said that his focus was the 15-25 age group. In that sense he has done the film no favours by presenting a title which the BBFC deemed worthy of an ’18’ certificate – certainly for the ‘bad language’ as well as the drug scenes and extreme violence. I did feel that the violence towards women was excessive – but perhaps it is acceptable in terms of the narrative. Certainly this isn’t an easy watch – but it is worth spending two hours with.