Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Underrated: Kontroll

FilmFour often surprises me. Just when you think it has become an endless cycle of Mission: Impossible III and second rate Michael Douglas thrillers, it suddenly manages to recapture your attention and fly in the face of a ratings-driven industry. The recent Ingmar Bergman season was a particular example of this; Swedish meditations on death and morality will not exactly pull in audiences, but it was a complete treat for cinema fans. For those of us not blessed with satellite television or bottomless pockets, it was our reward for toiling through the meagre cinematic offerings of ITV2, BBC3 and FiveUSA.

Not long after the Bergman season ended, FilmFour proudly announced a M. Night Shyamalan double bill. I sighed in despair. However, in amongst its once again predictable listings stood Kontroll, a film that has intrigued me for a while now.

Though I was vaguely aware of the film and its setting and plot, I was far more familiar with its director, namely Nimród Antal. Antal strikes me as a man who has become a victim of the Hollywood machine; a talented and creative foreign director who becomes just another helmer-for-hire when they cross the Atlantic.

Kontroll was Antal's first feature film. It was well received and was in competition at Cannes 2003, the first Hungarian film to do so for twenty years. Much like Timur Bekmambetov and Oliver Hirschbiegel, he was identified as a cheap and crowd-pleasing option for helming mid-budget American productions. The three films he has directed since crossing the pond have ranged from the just-about watch-able (Vacancy) to the just-plain awful (Predators).

Most reviewers have expressed their disappointment with Antal's efforts, having seen undoubted talent and flair in his work on Kontroll. The questions that were being asked of Antal are ones that have always bugged me; how are talented international directors so easily sucked into Hollywood's talent vaccuum of mediocrity? Why do so many of them fail?

In Antal's case, you need only go back to his breakthrough film to get your answer.

Kontroll really is an excellent, unique film. Considering I went into it with high expectations, I was surprised not to suffer from any feelings of disappointment. It has so many features that would make an American producer sit up and take notice: a stylised look and feel, the dreaded 'quirky' cast of characters, a wicked sense of humour. However, it simply would not work as an American film; the tone is too cynical and the setting too drab (the film takes place entirely in a filthy underground rail network). The great strength of Kontroll is that, stylistically, the influence of American films is very evident, but the film is very much from a Hungarian, not American, perspective.

Kontroll centres on a team of ticket inspectors in a Hungarian metro station. We follow them, led by central character Bulcsú, on their daily duties and activities as they encounter a strange cast of characters, including threatening (and ticketless) passengers, a mischievous youth named Bootsie, and an eccentric woman dressed as a bear (Bulcsú's love interest). Meanwhile, a mystery figure is pushing passengers in front of trains and characters are engaging in a dangerous sport known as "rail running."

Like Bulcsú, we never see sunshine, but we become part of an underground world that does not seem entirely human. An unnatural, greenish glow lights filthy, graffiti-ridden seats and inspectors struggle with their sanity as they gain no respect or dignity from the vagrants and oddballs they meet. At the beginning off the film, the director of the Budapest Metro appears to assure us that the film is in no way representative of its workers or service, but any subway veteran will be able to recognise that the film is not entirely a work of fiction. There are certain people who you will only ever meet at night in a Tube train carriage.

Antal offsets the dreary setting with a cast of entirely likeable characters; ranging from a fatherly train driver with a drink problem, to an excitable, yet narcoleptic, member of Bulcsú's crew. Whilst we are presented with familiar movie personas such as the rookie, the wise, old head and snarky member of a rival crew, they never once feel like stereotypes. Each character has a freshness about them that belies the staleness of their surroundings.

So, what does all this mean for Antal in Hollywood? Simply put, to make a film like this on a decent budget would be impossible in America. Many of the themes are too dark and the characters too morally ambiguous to risk a considerable amount of money on and Antal is yet to prove himself worth the risk. Predators clearly demonstrated this. What should have been a hot European director breathing new life into a tired franchise became a series of clichés and predictable characters. Antal must take some of the blame for this, but it is clear, like many international directors, that he has had to curb the eccentricities and quirks that originally made Hollywood sit up and take notice, in order to make it in an already crowded scene.

At the moment, Antal is at a crossroads in his career. Predators was not the successful reboot that was expected and there are doubts whether he will be handed a budget like that again. This, in my mind, is a good thing. Antal needs to return to the talents that originally made him stand out; favouring strong characters and setting over driving the plot forward through exposition and set-pieces. Perhaps, even, a return to Hungary may be worth considering. For now, I urge you to hunt down Kontroll and give it a chance; the film that made (and possibly broke) Nimród Antal.

In the meantime, I would urge the powers-that-be to look again at Kontroll. This great film demonstrates strengths that, given the right amount of creative control and a producer willing to take a risk, could yet make Antal a star. After all, Kontroll will always be the film that made (and possibly broke) Nimród Antal.

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