This Week in DVD: 4/2/13

Easy Money - Snabba Cash

Easy Money (Snabba Cash) (Daniel Espinosa, 2010) – At one point a couple of years ago it seemed like director Daniel Espinosa’s Swedish thriller Easy Money was poised to take the cinematic world by storm. It played like gangbusters at TIFF, was picked up by the Weinstein Company for distribution, had a “presented by Martin Scorsese” tag placed on it, and featured a prominent pull quote on its poster from crime novelist James Elroy saying how much he adores the film’s source material. An American remake was quickly put into production by Warner Brothers with Zac Efron tapped to play the lead, and one of the film’s stars – Joel Kinnaman – became a pretty big deal after a stateside starmaking performance on AMC’s The Killing and landing the gig as Robocop in next year’s remake.

Now, several years after it’s debut and two sequels made in Sweden that haven’t been released in North America yet (Part 2 was from 2012 and the third film comes out in Sweden in October), it arrives on DVD in Canada. No Blu-Ray option. No special features. Just a bare bones DVD that’s being as quietly shuttled to home video as the film was dumped quietly in theatres last summer. Even the remake finds itself stuck in development hell with any new news about it seemingly stricken from the record. Not even the success of Espinosa’s North American debut – the megahit actioner Safe House with Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds – helped the cause very much. So what happened to make such a high profile property kind of fizzle away?

One could place blame squarely on the notoriously skewed Weinstein release strategy, but the truth is that Easy Money, although very intricately plotted, well acted, and stylish, just isn’t all that memorable or distinguishable from its North American underworld set counterparts. It’s a fine diversion on its own, but it certainly wasn’t the game changer that it was ever poised to be, becoming a victim of its own lofty hype.

A sprawling crime saga told against the backdrop of the melting pot that’s apparently the Stockholm drug trade, Espinosa adapts Jens Lapudis’ novel that follows three vastly different underworld types that will eventually come together amid a bit of a turf war. JW (Kinnaman) hustles his way through business school without a dime to his name, writing term papers for other people and predominantly moonlighting as a cabbie shuttling charges to and from drug deals for his Arab boss. He’s broke as hell, but he wants to keep living his high maintenance lifestyle. There’s Jorge (Matias Varela), a recent Spanish prison escapee looking to get back in the game with JW’s boss that becomes the young man’s charge until a major deal goes down. Then there’s the Serbian single-father and mob enforcer Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic, who was actually a legit bank robber before becoming an actor) who has been tasked with making the life of JW’s boss a living hell despite wanting more from his thankless job than he has been getting.

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It’s never really a triptych in the purest sense because of how relatively easy and soon all the stories come together, but it’s easy to see why people like Scorsese and Elroy would find themselves enamoured with the material. This kind of story has been their stock in trade for quite some time now, and the humanizing of such criminal figures is well within their wheelhouses. None of the characters are saints and the characters play off each other nicely since they are all about keeping up various levels of appearances under masks of normalcy that try to keep them grounded. JW wants to succeed and impress the family of his new love interest. Jorge wants to reconnect with his old family and is about to be an uncle, but he’s as hesitant as they are to form any sort of attachment because they all know what’s coming. Mrado wants a better life for his young daughter and he genuinely thinks that she’s better off with him than his drug addict ex even though he’s obviously putting into potentially violent conflicts on a regular basis.

Espinosa succeeds at crafting characters that can easily be called out on their bullshit while having fleshed out narrative through lines and character arcs. The moments of requisite upheaval come in bursts and often out of nowhere during the more satisfying first half of the film. He also doesn’t use the same Tony Scott and Paul Greengrass styled theatrics and fast cutting that he employed in Safe House. His film’s economic message actually holds up better than one might expect as the film feels like a similarly complicated and inescapable quagmire and a place where hopes and dreams run afoul of crushing realities and inhumanities done unto others for the sake of getting ahead.

The cast also pulls their weight. Kinnaman strikes a great balance between sexy and confident while still showing just how green and naieve he can be at every turn. His friendship (one might even say mentorship) with Varela’s Jorge adds some of the film’s most touching character beats and an interesting respite from the heaviness around them. Mrsic’s character is a bit more detached from the film until the second half, but his storyline add some much needed soul to the film, and it probably would have been better off putting more focus on him early on.

Where Espinosa and company really stumble, though, is close to the finish line. It might have been initially conceived as a multi-film story, but the ending to Easy Money proves to be far too convenient and neatly wrapped up. Numerous plot threads are left dangling that can never be resolved even in future films because of the desire to wrap things up as quickly and efficiently as possible. Whereas films like Ben Affleck’s The Town or Michael Mann’s Heat have climactic showdowns that are well telegraphed and obvious from the start, they are no less engaging films because they’ve been honest and upfront with the audience from the start. Espinosa tantalizingly hints at a different form of story before slapping together  a conclusion that wouldn’t be all that memorable in any film. It’s not a dreadfully constructed ending, but it’s one that will leave viewers wondering if that’s really all there was to the film. Obviously, with two sequels, that’s not all there is to the story, but it gives the whole enterprise the feeling of hedged bets rather than going for broke.

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It still deserved better than it got, though. In the right hands such a film could have easily lived up to its title on home video or the arthouse circuit in North America.

 

Stitches

Stitches (Conor McMahon, 2012) – If someone had told me that the best film to be released on home video this week was going to be a horror film about a killer clown returning from the grave, I would have been on the phone to this person’s parents or significant others asking them to help me stage an intervention. And yet, here we are with the arrival of the unexpectedly delightful, intensely gory, and undeniably silly Irish import Stitches and I have been proved terribly wrong. Unlike Snabba Cash above, I’m shocked that this film didn’t get more festival play than it did in North America because this is the type of film that would absolutely slay if placed in front of the right audience.

The titular clown (played by UK stand-up comic Ross Noble) was as big of a douche in death as he was in life. He’s accidentally killed by a group of kids at a party when they rebel and decide to prank the half-assed funnyman, scarring birthday boy Tommy for life. Six years later and in high school, Tommy (played by Tommy Knight, best known as Luke Smith from the current Doctor Who universe) finally agrees to have another birthday party while his mother is away. With all of the previous partygoers back in the same place, it’s time for Stitches – who has been protected by a sort of pagan cult of fellow clowns – to rise from the grave (via an invitation hilariously left by his tombstone) to exact his bloody, hilarious revenge.

McMahon clearly aims for fans of cheesy 80s horror in the vein of the Nightmare on Elm Street sequels and Fred Dekker’s often overlooked and underestimated Night of the Creeps, and he’s got the tone down splendidly. It’s not a horror film designed to frighten and terrify (even going as far as taking the piss out of jump scares every chance he gets, possibly even one time too many). This is theme park horror the likes of which hasn’t been seen in a long time in this current climate of realistic and thoroughly depressing “exercises in modern terror”.

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It’s gleefully extreme when it comes to depicting the gory demises of these teens, and Noble strikes the proper balance between charming, wise cracking villain and lecherous weasel. Knight proves to be a great foil, clearly understanding all of the jokes and generally being a great sport. Aside from the most obvious references to the Elm Street films (including a shout out to the fake drug Hypnocil), the kills all come from the fantastical playbook established by the most outlandish entries in that series. The effects are top notch for such a low budget slasher, and are included but not limited to someone’s head getting inflated with an air pump, balloon animals getting made out of intestines, the most wicked use of Cutting Crew’s “I Just Died in Your Arms Tonight”, and quite possibly the most graphic, grand guignol castration and accompanying gag in quite some time.

At times McMahon might be resting too heavily on his effects and sly in-jokes designed to tickle the funny bones of 80s gorehounds, and the ending to the film seems curiously reshot in parts, but it all kind of adds to the ramshackle charm of the film. It has a scene of literal brain surgery, but McMahon knows his film isn’t that hard to pull off. It’s a pop-art confection that sadly doesn’t come our way very often these days.

The DVD comes with a 20 minute making-of documentary that makes the film seem as fun to make as it was to watch and a blooper reel that doesn’t add much since most of these clips play over the closing credits anyway. It’s definitely worth giving a watch if you’re into this sort of thing.

 

The Sweeney

The Sweeney (Nick Love, 2012) – Named after cockney slang for members of a police bureau’s robbery division and based around the hit British 1970s TV series, The Sweeney is an unnecessary updating of something that wasn’t flawed to begin with. Instead of telling the story like the cop procedural it probably should have been, writer/director Nick Love enlists a cast of UK all stars in a film that really wants to ape the antihero leanings of 1970s works from William Friedkin and Michael Winner, but it can barely aspire to the heights of a failed TV pilot for a reboot of the same show.

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Ray Winstone stars as Jack Regan, a tough as nails Sweeney who isn’t above beating down suspects, bribing lower level thugs for top information, or banging the wife of that jerk from internal affairs who keeps trampling his right to break the law to enforce it. Along with his chief partner George Carter (Ben Drew, better known as rapper Plan B) and their team, they attempt to stop a foreign currency bank in Trafalgar Square from getting knocked over, but when things go tits up, Regan has to answer for his devil may care actions and his path to redemption and retribution becomes steeper when he’s tossed in prison. Seeing as these are thugs who would routinely kill hostages to forego any witnesses left standing, Regan and his team have to work together after being split up to make sure they don’t strike again.

Whereas the original television series Love’s film is based on focused on the right amount of brains and brawn, it’s disheartening to see it re-imagined by someone who seems to be missing the point entirely. Regan is such a full on Popeye Doyle and Charlie Bronson clone that Winstone (who has sadly been coasting on exactly this kind of role for far too long now despite being above this material) and only grunt and act as a blunt instrument. The members of his team are interchangeable and unmemorable, save for Drew who really isn’t ready to be acting in this prominent a role in any film let alone this one. Not surprisingly, Damien Lewis classes things up in his small role as the beleaguered chief, but even then it’s a stock, thankless role.

It also doesn’t help that Love – who has made a bit of a name for himself back in his homeland for producing exactly these kinds of potboilers and a couple of films about footie hooligans – equates “gritty realism” with a sad kind of sameness. It’s assuredly a British production through and through (as evidenced by Drew laying on one of the most impenetrable accents to come out of the country in quite some time), but it’s shot with the same disinterested blue and gun-metal hues that have become routinely cliché by this point. It could have taken place anywhere if they obviously weren’t shooting on location. And as the movie goes further and further down the same rabbit hole that nearly every cop drama in the 80s went down, the surprises become fewer and fewer and the boredom level rises.

The quality of the Blu-Ray itself is fine, but there’s not much to look at to begin with considering how drab the whole thing looks. The sound mix fares a bit better, with every gun shot and punch coming through appropriately crispy. There’s also a plethora of special features including a confusing commentary track where it’s impossible to tell who is talking right off the bat, some storyboards, a thirty minute or so behind the scenes look, four more in-depth featurettes that are the best things on the disc (especially a look at the series that inspired the film, which newbies should definitely check out first and possibly even before watching), and a look at a partnership between the production and beloved TV series Top Gear that led to one of the film’s biggest set pieces.

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Hemingway & Gellhorn

Hemingway & Gellhorn (Philip Kaufman, 2012) – In the unconscionably long and so bad it’s utterly hilarious overblown HBO epic Hemingway & Gellhorn, the audience gets treated to watching two undoubtedly great actors from their generation give their takes on two of the American literary world’s greatest figures without ever once letting them create characters. Instead, director Philip Kaufman (Henry and June, The Right Stuff) and writers Barbara Turner (Pollock) and Jerry Stahl (Alf, Bad Boys 2) can’t ever seem to be on the same page at the same time creating a tonally inconsistent trainwreck that simply ends up remaking Kaufman’s Henry and June with two totally different characters with less personality while regurgitating hamfisted historical facts instead of letting these famous characters actually seem like real human beings that once lived.

The telefilm comes bookended by an interview with a now older Martha Gellhorn (Nicole Kidman) as she relays her time as a war correspondent and her relationship to famed writer Ernest Hemingway (Clive Owen), who has decided to make a movie about the plight of the Spanish people during World War II with the help of Jon Dos Pasos (David Strathairn) and Danish documenarian Joris Ivens (Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, seriously). While in Spain, they form a relentless love affair born out of danger, mutual respect, admiration and a great deal of horniness that would last for years.

It would be somewhat disingenuous to call Kaufman (a noted eroticist in his own right) out for sexualizing Hemingway and Gellhorn, but the film becomes akin to a ridiculous Red Shoe Diaries episode. If the almost comedic tone of the film didn’t send things south in a hurry from the opening frames, the first lovemaking scene between the two leads would send people running for the exits in their own home. The passionately rip each other’s clothes off in the middle of burning building with bombs falling all around it. When the ceiling starts to cave in, they don’t leave. They just keep screwing while rubbing plaster all over their bodies. It’s the ultimate unwitting metaphor for how truly awful and experience this is, and the fact that the film manages to cram no less than six awkward sex scenes in does it no favours in the pacing department.

Then again, maybe the film should have stuck with the sexual aspect of their relationship instead, because the rest of the film feels just as tonally awkward. Stahl and Turner cram decades worth of historically cheesy expository dialogue into every sequence. Newsreel narrators from the 1940s describing movie premieres and the march to war don’t sound as histrionic and soulless as the people in this film. With lines like “You spend so much time arguing with F. Scott Fitzgerald about who has a bigger penis, BUT I KNOW THE TRUTH!” and “God damnit, there goes the bravest woman I ever met” and “Ernest says that if you kill enough animals, you won’t have to kill yourself” (said while Martha stares longingly at Hemingway’s gun cabinet literally minutes into the film), subtlety can just be thrown out the window.

The brickbat approach of one of the worst prestige scripts ever to get greenlit ties the actor’s hands behind their backs. There’s no room to add any subtle touches or flesh out the characters because everything they say and do has to function as an expository dump of information the writers think the audience is too stupid to know already. Owen seems sad and just about ready to give up. He starts off playing Hemingway with an intensely awkward accents, but he abandons it pretty early on to instead just sound like Clive Owen. He seems sleepy and almost a second away from laughing in every frame. He’s not playing Hemingway so much as he’s playing a depressed version of Groucho Marx. The supporting cast (including a horribly embarrassing cameo from Robert Duvall as a Russian General, Tony Shalhoub inexplicably playing a Russian journalist, and a late appearance from Parker Posey who seems so lost she resorts to doing an Elizabeth Banks impression as Hemingway’s final wife and caregiver) almost embarrasses themselves in this one, but it’s not even their fault since the film is definitely the work of a bunch of hired guns following marching orders to the letter.

The one great bright spot here – other than some occasionally inspired production design when the film seems to have shelled out for nice things to show off and some great old person make-up to show Hemingway and Gellhorn later in life – is Kidman. If anyone can sell this tripe, it’s her. As Gellhorn she lends the proceedings far more dignity than they deserve, and she’s the only person who can fully walk away from this debacle unscathed. She’s radiant, hard nosed, and even sexy in spite of the writers and director constantly undercutting the material at every turn.

The film has more than enough elements to hate in it, but I feel bad if it seems like I’m throwing Owen (who I still generally like, just not here when he’s utterly miscast) or Kidman under the bus. There’s no one to blame here other than Kaufman and his writers. Owen and Kidman never have a chance from their first encounter, which is too forced, fast paced, and packed with needless exposition and banter to ever seem believable, to their final time on screen together which is just a repetitive variation on five or six other scenes in the film where Martha has to chew out Ernest for being a dumb ass for the eight billionth time. They never had a chance because Kaufman seems like he wants to make an erotic history lesson for people who have no clue who Hemingway was or any idea what happened during World War II. The most character these actors are allowed to build are often during silly sequences where they eat onions and banter about their healthiness or while beating on opposite sides of a door and yelling at each other.

Cynically designed and crafted to win a boatload of Emmy’s and Golden Globe awards, Hemingway and Gellhorn has been engineered to seem edgy and transgressive enough to be interesting and as bland and hokey as possible to appeal to the out of touch geezers who vote for these awards in the first place. It’s out and out shit, but it’s the kind of shit that cleans up at these awards shows because by their winning they provide star power and optics to their broadcasts. It doesn’t matter that HBO was wise enough to bury the premiere of it on a Monday night when no one would watch it. This should still find its way to the right people just like Meryl Streep’s performance in the equally heinous Iron Lady did. And some people wonder why awards shows are a joke. At least the joke here is a funny one, as this might be one of the best bad movies to come down the pike in quite some time. Shame about the length, though.

The Blu-Ray comes with a top notch transfer in both visual and audio departments. There’s a commentary with Kaufman and iconic editor Walter Murch that would have been a lot better if Murch had more to say and Kaufman didn’t dote over the minutae of the production. There are also two brief featurettes, each barely over five minutes long, about the film’s production and visual effects. There some interesting moments in those special features about crafting a period piece on a low budget that are sadly more thoughtful than the film was.



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