Friday, 30 September 2011

HIFF - Love & Anarchy Report 2011

Whew! The 24th Helsinki International Film Festival was exhausting for me, with most of my free time having been spent at a movie theatre or waiting to go to a movie theatre. I'm also still recovering from the profound effect the 24 films I saw this year had on me. Now, luckily I already did a post with some of the most notable films of the festival, so I don't have to write 24 reviews. Thing is, 18 is a bit too much too. I'll aim for 14. You can thank me later. I'll include the most notable ones so you can seek them out or nod in agreement.

Opening Film:
The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito, Spain)
Director: Pedro Almodóvar

The spanish director Pedro Almodóvar seems to want to return to his early days judging by his latest film. Not only does it star Antonio Banderas like so many times in the golden years, but the film itself isn't a multi-dimensional drama about humane relationships. Well, not conventionally anyway. Instead we have got the wild and crazy Almodóvar back, the one that had outrageous ideas about the natures of sexuality and no shame in splashing them all across screens.

Banderas plays the brilliant plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard, who has huge ambitions, not all of which are recognized as ethical by his colleagues. He has recently created a sort of indestructible skin by splicing human genes with pig's. Years ago, Ledgard lost his first wife. She burned in a house fire so bad, she preferred to commit suicide rather than look at herself in the mirror. Currently Ledgard lives at his mansion with his housekeeper and his new girlfriend Vera (Elena Anaya), who strangely spends most of her time locked up in a single room. Her face also closely resembles Ledgard's late wife's, and Ledgard uses her as a human guinea pig for his new skin. When Ledgard's no-good long-lost brother Zeca arrives to the house, it triggers a chain of events that will reveal the real deal about the affair and Ledgard's depravity.

This is exactly the sort of film I had been waiting for Almodóvar to make. However, while I had loads of fun with this one, it is actually just an entertaining piece. Almodóvar doesn't actually have much new to say about sex, gender and the ways one can lose both of them. All in all, it is either a strange thriller or a horror movie without big scares. Almodóvar does create the tension and the athmosphere of weirdness well throughout the film. So while it's one of his lesser efforts, it is still well worth watching, particularly if one likes his earlier films.


Gala Film:
Drive (USA)
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Praise has been flowing through doors and windows for this gritty crime drama. Is it worth it all? The answer is yes. Yes it is. Drive is one of the best films of the year, and personally I think it flew straight to my all-time top 10. I actually prefer it to a lot of other pulp fiction crime films it has been compared to, such as To Live And Die In L.A. or Collateral. Like those films, this is also both a love letter to Los Angeles, as well as a depiction of it as the worst nest of corruption, seediness, betrayal, brutality and greed on the planet.

The unnamed Driver (Ryan Gosling) does two jobs. At day he's a stuntman for the film industry, which doesn't really recognize his talents. But at nighttime he's a tough-as-nails getaway car driver, that promises to get criminals out of a jam in five minutes. And does deliver on that promise too, in the film's gorgeous first chase scene. However, in person Driver is a little shy and anti-social. His only friend is his boss and culprit Shannon (Bryan Cranston), and he hangs around in his garage. Shannon does business with some pretty seedy mob guys, such as Nino (Ron Perlman). Driver is a gentleman so he helps out his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) on a shopping trip. He starts to develop a friendship with her and her young son Benicio. Eventually, Irene's husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison. He owes a lot of protection money to the mob, and to help the family out, Driver agrees to do a heist job. But one double-cross later he's left with a bag full of money, no idea where to leave it, and a pack of killers on his trail.

Director Refn approaches the film with a no-nonsense attitude like was the standard in the 70's, and with the strong audiovisual sense of the 80's. Both of those choices reflect the film's tone perfectly. The film doesn't have to explain every damn thing thoroughly, and there's not a snippet of dialogue that's not important for the advancement of the plot or to build characters. But where the film excels is the use of violence. It comes by fast, unexpected and brutal. It's not entertaining but feels a little sick. When Driver kills the first people in the film we are actually not rooting for him, but a little scared that the man we've grown to like is capable for such deeds. Indeed, Gosling stone-faced performance really drives the film forward (I'll never apologize for such puns). He's vunerable like a lost child, yet ruthless and determined at the same time. The scorpion on the back of his jacket isn't just for show.

Refn's wonderful choices in music also work like a charm and the film's synteziser score is also one of the year's best. The film is a story of unrequited love and how even a hope for redemption can make an individual drift ever further from it. There are no clean getaways, says the tagline. How rarely are those so spot on for the film in multiple levels.


Festival Favorites:

Play (Sweden)
Director: Ruben Östlund

As the European societies become more and more firmly aligned to the right, immigration is a problem that is widely pondered. It does create a number of problems, but xenophobia and straight-out racism only manage too feed them further. Östlund ponders these problems multi-dimensionally in his film Play. It is based on the real-life events where a group of black immigrant children managed to play with the fears of white-bread suburban children so skillfully that they could rob them of all valuables without resorting to violence or straight-forward threats. In the end, the angry adults go on to blame any dark-skinned immigrant that can be found, even though these culprits are first and foremost bullies that pick on smaller children just because they can. The bullies torment their victims and force them to play an increasing number of humiliating games for them. It is like a more realistic Funny Games that doesn't wipe your face with its message. The film is mostly improvised, but for one that has been grown in the suburbs of a major Northern European City, such as me, the characteristics are familiar and spot-on. Östlund does have a sense of humour about the thing and a wicked sense of irony, portrayed by in-between shots of a cradle being stuck on a train. The film is shot laconically, with the camera barely moving, and much of the action happening just outside the screen. It is a clear message that the issues on hand here are bigger than just the events portrayed in the movie.


Guilty of Romance (Koi no tsumi, Japan)
Director: Sion Sono

Sion Sono sure is as fast as he is talented. This is the third movie he's made in the time of two years, and the third to have festival screenings in Finland during one year. But he has to be a bit more careful to not go in the way of Takashi Miike. For while Guilty of Romance is good, it is nowhere near the madcap inventiveness and solid storytelling of Love Exposure.

A group of detectives are investigating a particularly cruel and twisted murder. As the events starts to unfold, we flash back to the beginning. The timid housewife Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka) is bored to serving her husband all day and not even getting sex as a reward. Thus, she gets a job as a sausage saleswoman. She is spotted by Mitsuko (Makoto Togashi), who is a cunnng and calculating woman that makes her living as a prostitute. She sucks Izumi into living life her way. Izumi first gains a boost of confidence. Yet selling sex is a business that has a dark side beneath any glamour as Izumi will discover.

Sono is as great at unfolding tales of ever increasing cruelty as always. The film's actresses also portray the strain they have to endure really well. Sono's studies about the nature and meaning of sexuality make this more than just the female version of Cold Fish. There is a strong sense of losing traditional values while looking for sexual liberation. Sono aims to shock and has suitable amounts of full frontal nudity, perversions and sick gore to achieve this. GoR also has big amounts of Sono's trademark black humour and many times the film is so comical to be almost a black comedy. The cinametography bathes in neon lights in the dark. But it is all uneven and repeats itself a bit.


Arrietty (Kari-gurashi no Arietti, Japan)
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

The latest Ghibli film as charming and visually stunning as always. Papa Miyazaki has contributed to the script, which shows in well-rounded character work. A terminally ill boy is sent to his aunt's country home to rest. There, he discovers the excistence of Borrowers, tiny people that live by stealing tiny objects from people. He is especially taken upon Arrietty, the 14-year-old feisty girl borrower that seeks to learn the trade from her father. The Borrowers are a dying breed and during the course of the film they have to ponder whether they can live with people any more. Thus, the film also touches on Miyazaki's basic theses such as the fragile relationship between people and nature and the nostalgic final days of innocence before taking responsibility. The biggest downside of the film is that it actually has a villain that has motivations that are clearly sinister. Is Ghibli going turn to the black-and-white of Disney movies? I really hope not. A toady old she-male prone to catching and collecting tiny people isn't eactly Maleficent, but a Gargamel rip-off is a start...

★★★ 1/2

The Bengali Detective (Great Britain/India)
Director: Philip Cox

This certainly was one of the strangest documentaries in a while. In modern Kolkata (former Calcutta) the police force is quite corrupt and unreliable. That's why the locals turn to private detectives to solve crimes. We follow one of these detective agencies, Always, while they solve crimes. And the crimes vary from selling counterfit products to infidelity cases to tough murder cases. The detectives are a happy bunch. They practice their fighting moves at the park and watch Indian Dance shows on YouTube. The main character is the tubby leader of the agancy, Rajesh Jin. While he has a lot of stress from trying a solve a triple homicide and treating a terminally ill wife, he still manages to keep his sunny side up. That's why he orders all of the detectives to take part in the dance contest with him. And that's not a negotiable term. The film is quite silly, but has really tragic and sad life stories to tell, too. The problem is that director Cox can't quite balance them in the right order. That's why the viewer is confused a lot of time of what he should feel. But nevertheless, the film has a lot of great footage, and most of the time it is a spot-on documentary. Recommended, but with caution.


This Is Not A Film (In film nist, Iran)
Director: Jafar Panahi

Jafar Panahi is an internationally acclaimed director and a damn skillful one, too. It's too bad he has to live in Iran, where the authorities won't take kindly to any artist who dares to ask questions. That's why Panahi has been sentenced to jail and forbidden from making movies for an absurdly long time. But the anarchist Panahi is, he made a giant Fuck You to the iranian authorities: a film that can hardly be called a film. Panahi wasn't forbidden from acting, so he gave a camera to his friend and started reciting pieces from his upcoming script. Thrilling! We also see him make telephone calls about his situation. Exciting! He also gives us a brief lesson in film directing. The director can't really control everything, and the end result is both a compromise and a collaborative piece to which each part brings something essential. I appreciate the gesture, like Panahi, and won't give out stars because This Is Not A Film. But I will say that the end sequence where Panahi takes an elevator down with his building's garbageman is one of the greatest I've seen in a long time. Like Dante, Panahi ascends to the hell that is Teheran at New Year's Eve. The local people have a bonfire on the street and get their explosions by throwing gasoline into the fire. The accidental metaphor couldn't be more poignant.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Di Renjie, China)
Director: Tsui Hark

Director Tsui Hark used to be the go-to guy of chinese epic adventures. He is best known from the Once Upon A Time in China films, as well as A Better Tomorrow III. But something happened in the late 90's that resulted in Hark to produce mostly boring garbage. His latest film proves that his comeback with 2005's Seven Swords wasn't a fluke. In fact, the latest adventure of the classic pulp hero Dee is a lot more fun than that stuffy epic. China is preparing for the crowning of its first female Emperor. The Empress has ordered to build a giant statue of Buddha for the ceremonies. Yet in the construction site, high-ranking officials start to spontaneously combust. The only one that can crack the case is Dee (Andy Lau), a detective and a rebel that's been jailed for life. Dee gets his pardon in order to solve the mystery, which makes him ponder about where his allegiances lie. The semi-mythical adventure takes Dee to weird places, such as underground Beijing and to a temple dedicated to a talking deer god. He must use all his wits and fighting skills to solve the mystery and make it out alive. Treachery is afoot and he can't really trust anyone.

As much fun as all this is, like many modern Chinese films you feel a bit guilty as the message is that resisting the authorities is wrong, and it is noble to take orders from higher-ups. Fortunately the action scenes coreographed by the legendary Sammo Hung are good enough to not ponder on such issues. And the whole thing ends with a truly legendary battle.

★★★ 1/2

Tatsumi (Singapore)
Director: Eric Khoo

Yoshihiro Tatsumi is one of the most beloved manga artists of all time, and a crucial artist in creating the manga for adults, gekiga. His autobiographical graphic novel A Drifting Life is an Eisner-award -winning masterpiece. So it was intriguing that it would, along with some of Tatsuki's greatest short stories be made into an anime film. Alas, the film is little more than motion-comics, those barely animated panels that form a film that's for people that are too lazy to read. Tetsuki's visual style is of course stunning, and the bittersweet tragedies of his wonderful short stories still poignant. But all of it is animated switching between a powerpoint presentation and a cheap flash animation. The short stories are glum and fit the crucial parts in the life story poorly. It is not a whole waste of time, because of the quality of Tatsumi's body of work. But, y'know, I would've rather spent the time reading A Drifting Life. And that's a really bad sign for an adaptation.


Hesher (USA)
Director: Spencer Susser

Every year I try to watch at least one quirky american indie comedy at the festival. Of course their quality varies a lot. I'm happy to report that Hesher kicks ass. A pre-teen kid, T.J. (David Brochu) and his father are living with grandma, trying to cope with the grief of losing the family's mother. T.J. can't deal with school and rather wanders around, going to forbidden places. At a building up for demolition he finds Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), anarchist, loner and rocker. Hesher starts following T.J. around, even moving in with his family by his own invitation. Although he is seen as a nuisance at first, it turns out that even such a misanthropic character might have a word or two of wisdom behind his crude words. He also teaches T.J. to fight for himself, and that you can't always get what you crave. Of course, a dysfunctional family coming together and a coming-of-age tale aren't the most original of indie film tropes. Luckily Gordon-Levitt's outrageous central character and awesome performance pull the film forward, making it funny and heartdfelt in an equal measure. It also helps that Natalie Portman has a cute bit-part as a cute cashier.

★★★ 1/2

Robot (Endhiran, India)
Director: S. Shankar

At this point the YouTube video of the collected action scenes from the end of this Indian epic action film has become a viral meme. Yet the movie itsef has so much more to offer that I would rather suggest watching the whole thing than to spoil yourself by just eating the sweet, sweet dessert. Endhiran is the most expesive film ever made in the Tamil territories of India (Tollywood), and stars the area's biggest film star, Rajinikanth. He has a dual role as the robot engineer Dr. Vaseegaran, and the super-powered robot Chitti that's his latest, greatest creation. The Doc's girlfriend Sana (Aishwarya Rai) feels neglected, because he is so dedicated to his work. But when she meets Chitti she is smitten and grows to love the robot as company and a protector. Vaseegaran's former tutor, the jealous Dr. Bohra (Danny Denzongpa) is less endeared of the multi-tasking robot, and plans to steal its blueprints to create his own 'bots. That's why he manipulates Chitti's tryouts to get into the Army (!) and the fire departement, claiming that the unfeeling machine can easily kill his friends. Dr. Vaseegaran installs Chitti with emotions, which results in him falling in love with Sana and going rogue.

The three-hour epic is filled with everything you could hope for in a movie: romance, comedy, action (the fights were coreographed by Yuen Woo-ping himself), nutty musical scenes (shot in Sahara and the Machu Picchu, for no apparent reason), and of course robots. Lots, and lots of robots. Altough a lot of money were at play here, director Shankar wasn't afraid one bit to try out different feverish ideas that drop the viewer's jaw to the floor before the uncontrollable cheering and laughing begins. James Cameron should take notice. Rajni in particular is awesome, and perfectly capsulates both a nerdy scientist and a supercool no-nonsense robot. Chitty's billions of abilities and dance moves make Inspector Gadget die in shame. Which is why it's strange that Vaseegaran insists that he is built only for military purposes. There is certainly an Indian nationalistic theme underplaying here. As strange from the viewpoint of a westerner is that apparently it is better to die burning in flames than to appear naked in public in India. In the film are a few dragging parts and a few unnecessary comic sidekicks. But all in all, this was by far the most entertaining film of the festival.


In Cold Blood 2 (Yksinteoin kaksi, Finland)
Director: Jussi Parviainen

Jussi Parviainen is an Artist with a capital A. The theatre legend has never been shy about his private life and has always openly incorprated it into his art. I'm one of the select few who have seen the original, uncencored documentary film Yksinteoin (directed by Pekka Lehto) on a big screen. In that film, Parviainen rages to the camera about the break-up of his then-wife, and his worries about losing custody of his children. The result was one of the most harrowing, the most controversial, and the best Finnish films ever made. History tends to repeat itself, and thus Parviainen also had to manage another painful divorce. This time, Parviainen directed the film himself and took on a lot more artistic way of making it.

Parviainen catched his astrologist wife Satu Ruotsalainen cheating on him. Soon after that they divorced. On the interviews of women's magazines Ruotsalainen told that she was happy that the relationship came to an end. According to Parviainen, she also straight-out lied that there was violence in the relationship. In the film, Parviainen splits into two persons, his regular, rational half, and the jealous, ranting, crazy Black Jussi. For the role of Black Jussi, Parviainen gained 47 kilograms and lived half a year in an abandoned mental institution. As you can probably guess, Parviainen is a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic.

Whereas the original Yksinteoin felt like raw, pure burst of anger, regret and pain, the sequel is a bit more tricky. Parviainen adds so many artistic filters into the film, it feels like a product of an over-eager film student at times. This time, the film isn't exactly a documentary, but a fictional film that takes its inspiration from real-life events. It recreates a few of the original film's setpieces. It's actually a wonder that such similar circumstances have happened to Parviainen again. The custody of a small child is again at hand here. Most of the film is reserved for monologues of Black Jussi, that are done straight to the camera. With this Parviainen spits out everything that he feels was wrong with his ex-wife. Amid all the self-pity and the accusal the viewer starts to feel more than a little uneasy of all the dirty laundry made public.   

In advance, Parviainen bragged that this film would end on a better note than its predecessor, and he had a real-life victim of brutal violence in a relationship to tell her story on the film. Annika Sirén plays Parviainen's psychiatrist and has one heart-breaking scene where she tells it how it is. Too bad it fits poorly amids all of Parviainen's misanthropy and self-loathing. There is also a graphich oral sex scene between the leads, but it has been cencored since the film's NSFW trailer. It's probably because the TV network MTV3 has financed the film and perhaps wants to show it at some point (although I can't imagine where it would fit in an over-commercialized channel that mostly broadcasts reality TV). All in all, the film is confusing and more than a little self-centered around Parviainen's own ideas of his grandieur. But still, one can't claim that listening to the Finnish Klaus Kinski rant on front of the camera for 75 minutes isn't captivating to see.

★ or ★★★★★

So, that was this year's set. Thanks a billion times to everyone at Rakkautta & Anarkiaa Ministry. I'm already looking forward to next year! 
Cartoons: Ville Tiihonen

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Love & Anarchy 2011 Halftime Report

Image Source: Rakkautta & Anarkiaa -blogi

 Happy Festivus! It's been a pretty funky week at the Helsinki International Film Festival already, with almost all of my free time devoted to seeing great films at The Love & Anarchy Festival. The festival does still go on until sunday. Here are small reviews of six notable festival films that still have screenings during the final weekend of the festival.

Remember to also check out the blog post about this year's tips for HIFF for my previewing reviews of festival films.

13 Assassins (13 No Shikaku, Japan)
Director: Takashi Miike

Each HIFF offers at least one new film from the prolific japanese director Takashi Miike. Too bad that at least everything I've seen from him since the start of the decade has been more or less crap. 13 Assassins is hailed to be the director's return to form. This samurai epic is certainly at least worth a look. This time around Miike won't allow his signature splatter style take over the movie, and there is reasonably less blood and effects scenes than usual.

In Japan, 1844, Naritsugu, the son of a powerful shogun is a raging lunatic, who kills and maims people for his own amusement. The officials of the shogun go behind his back to assassinate Naritsugu before he wrecks the entire nation with his acts. Thus, the samurai warrior Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) hires 12 other swordsmen to lure Naritsigu into a trap to murder him. But the son of a shogunate keeps also hunderds of bodyguards with him at all times. It seems likely that the samurai won't make it out of the mission alive.

The problem with the film is, really, that virtually everything about it has been made to perfection almost 60 years ago in The Seven Samurai. I'm not actually a really big fan of the samurai genre as they tend to be boring unless done absolutely right, like Kurosawa did in his magnum opus. In Miike's film, the personalities of the 13 main characters don't really bother me, save for the obligatory Wild Card, who isn't actually a samurai. But he really likes to mouth and show off to them. The end fight scene is impressive and worth the price of admission alone. Too bad that the dramatic parts before that seem to drag.


Page One: Inside New York Times (USA)
Director: Andrew Rossi

Print media is at a crossroads, which, from the American point of view, looks bleak. Many historical newspapers have gone bankrupt because the markets have shrinked considerably. This does not go unnoticed at the offices of New York Times, perhaps the most trusted and highest quality newspaper in America. The air of fear flows through the corridors, as editors and journalists keep a close watch on the happenings in the industry and try to figure out how not to go bankrupt themselves.

But this documentary is not only gloom and doom. We have one of the most kick-ass leading heroes of recent times in David Carr. The straight-forward journalist isn't afraid to speak what's on his mind with his has-seen-it-all voice. The man used to be a crack-addict, but managed to turn his life around and is currently one of the most respected authors on the staff of NYT. He also represents the newspaper in various instances and is willing to defend it with his teeth and nails if necessary. The young punks at Vice may think they are edgy and inventive, but Carr has had it all figured out long before them.

At times the film is looking for its focus. The work that goes into developing news stories is skimmed, and most of the film ponders the purpose of old-school newsmaking in the modern world. The film takes a stand that high-profile investigative journalism is still relevant and necessary. The NYT editors think the same, and decide to battle free news on the internet by allowing their stories to be read only by purchasing a subscription. NYT is an institution, and that's something, the film argues, that we need today more than anything.


Conan O'Brien Can't Stop (USA)
Director: Rodman Flender

Another institution struggling for relevance is the talk show host Conan O'Brien. He was greedily weaseled out from his dream job hosting America's biggest show, The Tonight Show, but he earned 4 million dollars as a settlement. But money doesn't make the man happy, not by a long shot. O'Brien is desperate to entertain, and puts on a tour across America during the months he's legally obliged to appear on television. As the title implies, the performer is so obsessive about his need to entertain, that he really can't just take a vacation to clear his head and take a breather. He simply must go on, because that's what shows must do.

The film brings an insight to the personality of the comedian (who by the way is phenomenally popular here in Finland). He is proven to be hilariously funny and talented even when he's off the set. But he's also passive-aggressive, using his joking to put down the people around him from time to time. That doesn't mean that he's not a good co-worker and as the film goes on it becomes more and more apparent that his crew is like another family to him. He also insists that even the smaller pawns call him just Conan, and even important meetings have a thick air of silliness within them. For instance, Conan's assistant must speak to a banana (as to a telephone) to be heard.

The amount of fans in Team Coco is overwhelming and the tour sells out in a matter of hours. Conan feels obliged to be a good sport to the fans, and agrees to meet them personally, take photos and get them back stage access. But as the tour goes on and he gives all that he's got each day, he becomes bore and more wired. After a background dancer's extended family arrives backstage to greet him while he was resting, he acts like a good sport, but explodes after they have left. The film is a multi-dimensional personal piece of an entertainer, who might just wear himself out. The fact that Conan's film is also funny and contains great music pieces is just an icing on the cake.


Our Day Will Come (Notre Jour Viendra, France)
Director: Romain Gavras

One of the biggest surprises of the festival came with this one. I figured this was to be a big screen version of M.I.A.'s music video Born Free, also directed by Gavras. The controversial video features a dystopian world where red-haired people are slaughtered, but they also plan for an uprising. But in Gavras's feature film, there's not one note of M.I.A.'s music left.

Remy (Olivier Barthelemy) is an awkward teenager without friends. He is humiliated when revealed that his online girlfriend is actually a man (and an ugly goth). Remy decides to leave it all and goes on a road trip with the eccentric Patrick (Vincent Cassel). Patrick is a head case, doing whatever comes to his mind. He is also keen on humiliating Remy, as well as urinating in hot tubs and lighting the breasts of the girl he's having sex with on fire. Together they figure that the world is discriminating against them. Remy wants to escape to Ireland where he thinks redheads will be safe. But Patrick doesn't really know what he wants.

It is left for the viewer to decide whether the film takes place in the same world as Born Free (perhaps earlier), or if all the discrimination is just in the heads of the protagonists. The road trip does certainly have arthouse aesthetics in it, with scenes switching, people appearing and disappearing without explanation. The film plays with some heavy symbolism, that goes to pretty dark places. It's no wonder the film's colour scale is dark and grey in tone. The mundane lives of the people in the beginning are dark and greay as well, yet they can't escape the gloom, nor get anything out of rebellion either. The film is also devilishly funny, with the two misanthropic main characters bumbling and playing against each other. It's a stylish arthouse flick, but still highly reccommeneded for anyone that has ever wanted to pick a fight against the system.


I Saw The Devil (Akmareul Boatda, South-Korea)
Director: Kim Jee-woon

An even bleaker view of the human nature is on offer with this Korean revenge thriller. The film is notoriously violent, and as dark as they come. Kyung-cul (Choi Min-sik) is a psychopath, raping and murdering women he comes across. He also likes to chop the bodies of his victims into tiny pieces. This fate lands also on the girlfriend of secret agent Su-hyeon (Lee Byeong-heon). When pieces of her body are discovered in a nearby river, Su-hyeon takes a leave from work and starts to systematically find and murder predators in order to find the culprit. When he eventually tracks Kyung-cul down, he has an elaborate scheme with which to have his vengeance. But the plan has its flaws and the roles of cat and mouse may switch.

The biggest flaw of the film is that it's way over long. 1,5 hours would've sufficed to tell the story, but Kim delves on the complicated plans of Su-hyeon's revenge. Watching extremely violent scenes for merely two and a half hours is an experience hard on the stomach. Kim has truly unleashed some horrible monsters from his id. But at the same time he asks whether even the revenge of the most horribly bloody acts is ever justified. Is it right to torture a man just because he is twisted beyond repair. The main pair both give out impressive roles, seething with hatred towards each other. The script is clever ebough itself. The Devil in the title may just be within us viewers for wanting Su-hyeon's cruel games to succeed and to both humiliate and brutally torture the murderer to death.

★★★ 1/2

Tyrannosaur (Great Britain)
Director: Paddy Considine

This British thriller is also bleak as all hell, but is among the best films of the festival. Paddy Considine, who's better known as an actor, has created an impressive first feature film, even though it makes you feel like shit by the end. Considine ponders the nature of violence, what drives people to it, how the victims feel it, and how one can live with himself after resorting to it. It takes place in the suburbs, where such things are not uncommon.

Joseph (Peter Mullan) is a tough-as-nails pensioner who's prone to violent outbursts. Such anger results in him killing his beloved dog, leaving the widower all alone in the world. He has to witness a family next door act violent towards each other, including the ten-year-old Samuel, and considers beating the father up. Haunted by his inner demons, one day he wanders to a flea market, owned by the Christian Hannah (Olivia Coleman), but still refuses to take any help from her. Hannah herself is living in an abusive relationship, with his husband constantly beating him up. The two broken people start to lean towards each other for support.

Considine has a clear eye to depict some of the worst parts of England, namely Leeds in West Yorkshire. The film feels so realistic that the viewer is able to imagine the smells of dog, piss and blood. The film may resemble a film like Gran Torino at first, but offers no similar redemptions for the characters by the end. There are also no moral sermons on offer here. The world is, and remains a hole filled with evil, brutality, and shades of grey instead of black and white. Saying anything more would just diminish the film's power. Just go see it.


So, there's that. I urge you to hurry to ticket offices now and buy the last remaining tickets. Have a great weekend!

Cartoon credits: Ville Tiihonen

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Autumn Preview

Hooray! The 24th Helsinki International Film Festival opens today. What follows is 10 days of Love, Anarchy and Unforgettable movies. I can understand that some of my readers that don't live in or anywhere near Helsinki might feel sad or jealous because they miss such a big tidal wave of excellent movies. But fret not, because this year is still going to be filled with great movie experiences. To complete my Preview Trilogy for the year, here are some of the most interesting. Consider this also to be a guessing game as to what is the Surprise Film that's going to be shown at HIFF on Thursday 22nd of September.

The Ides of March
Director: George Clooney

George Clooney is the one of the most politically-aligned Hollywood directors we have today. Who better to helm a political thriller where a presidential campaign worker finds one too many dark truths behind the curtain. The cast is certainly impressive, from the soon-to-be-biggest star Ryan Gosling to the always amusing-to-brilliant Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Margin Call
Director: J.C. Chandor

Politics seem to be pop in this autumn's films, and this drama based on the recent economics already created good buzz at the Berlin Film Festival in the spring. Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey and that guy who played Spock are bankers behind the foul play that created the recent recession of 2008. And that still kind of lingers on. Economics are mostly numbers, so it's hard to make that into a compelling drama, but this seems to emphasize the decision-makings and group meetings, and seems intriguing.

In Time
Director: Andrew Niccol

Andrew Niccol (of Gattaca fame) returns to smart sci-fi with this yarn of a world where rich people can stay young by stealing years from the poor. So far, so Portrait of Dorian Gray, but wouldn't you know it, someone gets murdered, and recently released Justin Timberlake is blamed. He must clear his name before his time runs out. A good thing about film about a world where no one ages after 25 is that Hollywood can showcase their upcoming talents. So we have Cillian Murphy, Olivia Wilde, Amanda Seyfried and Vincent Kartheiser (from Mad Men) doing their best Inception.

Killer Elite
Director: Gary McKendry

From the less cerebral department we have Crank and Mr. Shoot 'Em Up meeting Robert DeNiro. This is the future of action right here. I honestly will never get bored of seeing Jason Statham kick things or Clive Owen shoot things up. Teaming these two brits from different social classes up is a match made in heaven. Oh yeah, and maybe DeNiro won't suck too much either. Whatever, what really sells is that this preposterous film is claimed to be "based on actual events".

The Rum Diary
Director: Bruce Robinson

For me, the most eagerly awaited film of the fall is what I hope to be Johnny Depp's return to form. He's done a lot of bad film choices since he became the biggest name in Hollywood, but basically playing Hunter S. Thompson has worked well for him before. And in the hands of Withnail & I director Bruce Robinson, this boozy adventure in the Caribbean seems be a billion times funnier and better than all of the Pirates fares put together. I hope they do allow flasks in the theatre, though.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
Director: Steven Spielberg

Of course I await this adventure eagerly as well, but have a bit more fears about it. I have nothing else against motion capture technology, but I still think the human face is the most interesting object one can have in a movie, and it really can't be accurately replicated with a computer. I'd wish Spielberg had implented the real faces of actors into those CGI bodies, so as to not have to look at eyes straight from uncanny valley. But the second trailer does look a lot better than the first, so the end result may surprise us yet. What I'm most happy about, though, is that it seems that Captain Haddock, Thomson and Thompson have been captured on screen accurately.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Director: David Fincher

And the award for the best trailer of the year goes to... David Fincher! Really it's no wonder that the old music video director can shoot a trailer that's so perfectly in rhythm. But what is noteworthy is that he can make the film based on the actually-pretty-average novel that everyone is sick about by now seem exciting. There have been rumours that Fincher has bettered the novel's weak structure considerably, and redone the ending in the process. That leaves an air of excitement over this, because it could really be anything. And also I always welcome a chance to post this poster, that's amazingly hot to be American.

A Dangerous Method
Director: David Cronenberg

On the other hand, here's a trailer that seems at first to be about a pretty general costume drama. But as you know that it's a film from David Cronenberg, it slowly turns much more intimidating. Cronenberg has been fascinated by psycho-sexuality pretty much all his career, and it's intriguing to see him go to the very source of it. And who better to play out the meeting of doctors Freud and Jung than Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender. It seems even Keira Knightley has got some meat in her role as well, even though it's curious that her name comes first in the trailer.

Director: Tarsem Singh

From the visually talented director of The Fall comes a seemingly another remake of the Clash of the Titans. But this looks a lot better than that dreck, and also less macho and stupid than 300, to which it compares itself. Singh himself invites compares to Fight Club, whatever the hell that means. But let's not forget that he has the talents of Mickey Rourke and John Hurt to back him on this. The future Superman Henry Cavill stars.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
Director: Guy Ritchie

And finally, we have the return of Robert Downey Jr.'s brawler Holmes. I hope this will be the franchise's The Dark Knight as compared to the previous film's Batman Begins, as it finally features Holmes going up against his future arch nemesis, Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). So let's also hope for some witty banter between the two enemies. As for verbal sparring partners, the always excellent Stephen Fry will appear as Sherlock's smarter older brother Mycroft. It is also nice that the bromance with Jude Law's Dr. Watson seems to have survived intact, even if the level of the jokes on the trailer doesn't really shatter the earth. And of course you get a lot more bang for your buck now.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

The Warring 00's

The Best War and Terrorism Films of the 2000s - Part 14 in our ongoing series

 The media is filled with rememberance of the anniversary of that one fateful day 10 years ago. I'm guessing a lot of you are as tired of it as me, but one can't claim it didn't have a huge effect on everything around us. Movies, for example. The war movies of the last decade were much less stories of the unity of a squad in war, and more stories of individuals surviving through devastating ordeals. It makes sense, because the subsequent wars have not had a simple righteous vs. evil setting for any point of view. More and more innocent civilians have been caught in the middle of violent conflicts. Both sides are accustomed to incredible cruelty. In American war movies, the need for war was questioned less, altough the question rose a lot in films of other genres. Also movies from all over the country took different approaches into conflicts.

One major thing that 9/11 did was it blurred the line of having a war and an act of terrorism. Thus, the same applied to films as well, and films about terrorism became almost more common than traditional war films. Here, I take a look at 11 best portrayals of violent conflicts on cinema, based on actual events.

Black Book (Zvartboek 2006)
Director: Paul Verhoeven

The old master of mainstream exploitation,  Paul Verhoeven, returned with a bang with this wartime espionage drama about the Dutch resistance movement in WWII. Of course, even with such a serious subject matter, the tiger couldn't shake off its stripes. The story (of a love story between a jewish woman and a nazi officer) is like from a cheap romance novel, mixed with Uncle Paul's basic pulp material, like full frontal (female) nudity, raw violence and plenty of bad taste.

Rachel Stein (Clarice van Houten) lives in a kibbutz in Israel and reminsces the wartime. When she was young she had to be in hiding when the German troops took over Netherlands. She survives a massacre of a group of jews trying to escape to the south, and subsequently joins the Dutch resistance to fight the Nazis. There she is set to seduce the SS-hauptsturmführer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch) as a cabaret singer named Ellis de Vries. But as Rachel goes deeper undercover, she starts to find also symphatetic sides in her sworn enemy. It dawns to her that not all nazis think alike. But there are dangers lurking in becoming too attached to either side.

It's credit to Verhoeven's skills how well he can pull the banal strings of the story to create a suspenseful and an entertaining film. However, this should be seen as an entertaining thriller rather than an accurate description of wartime espionage. Well, I might buy the coloring of pubic hairs, but the dumping of a container filled with liquid shit on someone if one step too far. Much like Tarantino, Verhoeven also spices his story up with absolutely horrifying violence that has its roots in the horrid treatment of Jews all over Europe. It is questionable whether the holocaust should be used as a backgroud to entertainment, but at least it connects the violence to real world issues so that we viewers are not allowed to take it with merely a shrug.

Bloody Sunday (2002)
Director: Paul Greengrass 

Paul Greengrass may be more well-known for directing both of the Bourne sequels, but his real talent is in realistic docu-dramas. The British director won Best Picture at the Berlin Film Festival with this gripping film about one day in 1972 that is one of the most important dates in the conflict of Northern Ireland.

January 30, 1972 in the Northern Ireland town of Derry a group of Catholic civil rights activists organize a protest march against the British occupation. The events are seen unfolded through the eyes of activist Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt). The British Army recieved orders to stop the march at any cost. Thus the march came to an abrupt end when paratroopers opened fire on the participants. Among the British soldiers there are a lot that don't want to shoot innocent people, but they can't overpower the instructions from higher-ups and can't overpower a few psychos massacring people out of pure hatred. In the end, 13 people are killed instantly and many more are wounded.

Greengrass's film is aligned clearly to give sympathy for the Irish. The carnage, where even children and old people are fired upon, is hard to watch. The knowledge provided by the film gives a lot of background to the forming of the IRA and the terrorism against the Brits since. Greengrass shoots everything naturally, unfolding the events in real time and utilizing hand-held cameras. His skills include getting the viewer to feel as if he's there himself, which just adds to the devastatingness of the resulting film.
Downfall (Der Untergang, 2004)
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel

The film that launched a thousand memes. Based on that one clip everyone has seen a billion times already, it's easy to forget how gripping and devastating this film is. It is based on the deathbed memoirs of Hitler's secretary Traudl Junge. As the Soviet Army approaches Berlin at the end of WWII, and the Nazi armies start to be defeated all over, we follow the reaction at Hitler's command bunker. When cold, calculating human monsters who have nothing but disregard for life are themselves driven to a corner, the result does get messy.

The film was very controversial in Germany at the time, because it portrayed Hitler as not just a caricature of all that is evil, but a broken human being whose had his dreams crushed and is facing death. That actually makes this a very necessary film as if we don't realize that even the worst psychopaths the world has ever seen are just frail human beings, it will be harder to fight for such beasts to never get to a position of power ever again. Everyone on internet is called a Hitler nowadays as a basic insult, so it's necessary to see that this was too a real human, albeit twisted, and not a pure monster.

Thus, at the film's core is veteran German actor Bruno Ganz's portrayal as The Führer. His work is nothing sort of mesmerizing, with the man's mood swinging up and down. Hitler is seen having hissy fits, falling into gloominess, maintaining his last threads of hope, and finally settling to suicidal depression. The film doesn't work nearly as well after his demise, the final third depicting the final Battle of Berlin. Junge herself (Alexandra Maria Lara) is a blank slate as a character. She is mostly just where anything is happening, watching. But in the end, the film doesn't forget the fact that all the pain that the masterminds of the war felt, was felt tenfold by the innocent civilians of Berlin, who had to endure hunger, living in squalor, flying bullets, bombings, and the society collapsing on them.

Basically this is a film about Germany, and the crumbling of the delusion of the Aryan one and the nightmarish Nazi version which it actually was. While the so-called superiors are revealed to be just feeble old men incapable of taking the consequences of their actions, all the previously planned grandieur is reduced to rubble. When the war has ceased to rage, the first building blocks of modern Germany can be made on the ruins. Yet the film's ending isn't too hopeful, as we all know, Germany still had pretty tough times ahead because of the communists.

The Hurt Locker (2008)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow

For whatever reason, this is one of the most controversial Best Picture Oscar winners of the past decade. For one, it takes a completely different approach to war than the teary-eyed pathos most war movies that win a lot of awards do. But as Bigelow demonstartes, you can tell a gripping story about what war does to one's mind without bludgeoning you to the head with its "war is hell" message. She is more interested in how soldiers get hooked from the thrill of war than pondering the reasons of going to war.

A highly trained bomb disposal team in Iraq is sent a new Sargeant as the one before has gotten blown up. Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) however doesn't have the usual methods of "easy does it", but rather he likes to go defuse his bombs recklessly and head first. The tensions between the squal begin to build as everyone starts to slowly understand that James enjoys the rush he gets from his life being on the edge.

The war in Iraq is particularly good at creating an uncertain athmosphere as enemies can attack at any time and look like any civilians. Bombs are hidden and scattered all over the place and defusing them is not that simple. As a result, the whole film is a huge adrenaline rush like only Bigelow can create. She also has her usual studies of the nature of masculinity, not forgetting a hilariously homoerotic wrestling scene. When the movie moves back home from Iraq, it seems like Bigelow is loosing the touch at final minutes, but then she whams an unforgettable final image on screen that sums the whole film up perfectly.

“There’s enough bang in there to blow us all to Jesus. If I’m gonna die, I want to die comfortable.”

Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Director: Quentin Tarantino

For me, this is the hardest Tarantino film to like. It can seems more like a collection of good scenes than a good movie. Here, the director tries a similar fractured approach than he used in Pulp Fiction in a film that fakes out to be an old boy's own adventure movie. But there are no scenes depicting the banter and comradeship of the soldiers or from a battlefield. One shouldn't take Tarantino as just a cabon-copier of the films of yesteryear. He also weighs in his complicated thoughts on the screen violence, characterizations of various nationalities in war films, and the importance of language in film. It is first and foremost a film about the importance of cinema. In fact, this is also more akin to a terrorist film than a traditional war film. For all his love of the films of yesteryears, Tarantino can also recognize modern trends and build films upon them too.

Like most of Tarantino's films, this is also a film about resolving a need for vengeance. In France under the Nazi occupation, the intelligent German colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) arrives to a small French village looking for jews in hiding. His interrogation technique reveals the hiding place of the family Dreyfus, who are all killed, save for the young Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent). Years later, Shosanna owns a cinema in Paris, and unwillingly captures the heart of a war hero Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl). He asks high-ranking Nazis to held a premiere of a propaganda film based on Zoller in Shosanna's theatre. This allows her to execute her revenge on the Nazis. But unknown to her, also an American guerrilla unit called The Bastards is planning of doing a hit on the same theatre.
Most of the revenge-plot also feels ultimately futile. It is merely a device of getting a dialogue between different characters going. Tarantino has turned the stereotypical war film characters upside down: Americans are dumb and cruel killing-machines with one-track minds. The French are cold and driven, with no interest to flirting. At least the British are still as snooty and posh as can be, altough they are played by a Canadian (Mike Myers) and an Irishman (Michael Fassbender). But the most interesting characters are the Germans who show true characteristics. While Hitler and Goebbels are the screaming madmen they most usually are represented as, the German soldier characters vary from Zoller's tired and lovelorn lacklustre hero to a group of small pawns at a bar, who are murdered on the most joyful day of their lives. Subsequently these characters feel more heartbreaking.

The film is of course owned by Christoph Waltz, who is nothing short of spectacular as Landa. His villain is so good, that one can't help but think that he's actually the anti-hero of the story. His moral choices in the end of the film certainly reinforce this idea, altough he does get his comeuppance. While the Germans start off pretty cheerfully, they grow anxious because of a small team of cruel guerrillas attacking where they least expect it. The enemy even recruits some of their own countrymen to fight against Germans. Now, hinting at real-world war situations may very well be the last thing on Tarantino's mind. Still, if one takes a Slavoj Zizek -like look at the whole thing, it resembles a lot of USA's situation with Afghanistan and Iraq. After all, the Americans are actually also enjoying their war effort at cinemas while their war still rages on. The main culprits may die but the violence never does.

Munich (2005)
Director: Steven Spielberg

I've said it before, but the only time Spielberg really has knocked his film out of the park this decade was with the most un-Spielberg movie he’s ever done. And this actually may be his best film yet. Gone are the warmness found within peoples' souls, small-time Americana and the nuclear family. In the horrifying film based on the aftermath of the terrorist strike at the Munich Olympics in 1972 the world is a cold place and the people in it almost all evil. Yet this cruel story of the circle of vengeance is hard to look away from.

The radical islamist Black September movement organize a strike at the Munich Olympic village, murdering a number of Israeli athletes. The government of Israel instructs a team of Mossad agents, led by Avner (Eric Bana) to hunt down and murder a number of muslims associated with the strike. The secretive mission is not done by their biggest and best, but by a bunch of unknown people so as not to arise any unwanted notice. Avner used to be a pencil-pusher, but is now sent to kill people in cold blood. At the same time his wife is pregnant for their first baby. But the mission surely won't make Avner a better father as kill after kill make him just colder and colder toward all of humanity.

Spielberg keeps the tone dark, almost pitch black. One notable scene sees a double-crossing woman agent plead for her life by offering to have sex with the Mossad agents. She's shot cruelly in the head. The film is also filled with paranoia, and the Mossad agents are driven to feel that the whole world is after the Jews. But it all raises very good questions of whether it is justified to take arms to protect one's religion and culture, and how much violence can one evil act create. It is very easy to see this as a parallel to the American overreaction to 9/11 and the subsequent murder and torture of countless innocent people. This message isn't exactly subtle, but isn't bludgeoned to our heads either. It's clear that any condoling of violence only serves to wreck lives in various ways.

I feel the film is still severely underrated. It had a few Oscar nominations, but was of course too dark for the voters. Currently it hasn't even a Blu-Ray release, and the R2 DVD is vanilla.

Paradise Now (2005)
Director: Hany Abu-Assad

It is of course useful to look at any given conflict from both sides. If Munich gives a Jewish viewpoint of the foreign politics of Israel, Paradise Now takes a look at Palestinian muslim activists. The film doesn't dwell on the squalor or injustice muslims have to suffer in the Israeli colonies, but goes into the mind of individuals who decide to become suicide bombers.

Said (Kais Nasif) and Khalef (Ali Suliman) spend time with their friends and families in the Palestinian colonies in a seemingly normal way. In reality, both have been recruited by a radical islamist group to do suicide bombings on the Israeli side. They masquerade as Jews, but get seperated when carrying out their assignment. While Said tries to find Khalef to execute the plan to massacre as many Israelis as possible, the anti-violent Suha (Lubna Azabal) tries to persuade him to change his mind. The film follows Said as he struggles with his conscience but still seems determined to carry out the terrorist strike.

The film has perhaps some heavy-handed symbolism, but mostly director Abu-Assad can create scenes where small visual clues hint at large stories behind them. The result is a poignant portrait of a mind driven to a corner from which a suicide strike is the ultimate escape solution. The film avoids political issues and offers a humane look on the tragedy that goes on in the Middle East. The film doesn't contain big bangs or dead martyrs as such, but rather it is left to the viewer to decide whether a radical islamist can be persuaded to change his mind.

Sophie Scholl (Sophie Scholl - Die letzten Tage, 2005)
Director: Marc Rothemund

Films about war don't need huge, epic battle scenes. In fact, those usually just make war look exciting rather than a travesty towards human rights on all fronts. This film mostly consists of only two people arguing over whether war is justified in an interrogation room. Like the name tells, the film follows the last days of the student democracy activist Sophie Scholl (Julia Jentsch), who was caught spreading anti-Nazi pamphlets wth her husband Hans in Munich during WWII. In those six days, Sophie was interrogated, convicted and executed.

The film aims for historic accuracy, and has thus attempted to re-create everything based on historical records. Scholl is of course a heroine so the film idolizes her, but doesn't over-emphasize her righteousness. She's a strong-willed, idealistic and intelligent woman corageous enough to stand up to her beliefs. The Gestapo has a hard time trying to break her to gain more information or to get her to renounce her ways. As evil as the Nazis are, they have their own twisted logic over which they really can't look. It's the same with any war-mongerers on this planet. The so-called justice the Nazis attempt to serve in the film is only a banal caricature of actual justice, and approaches farce in many ways.

We know that the Nazis are evil, but they are usually presented as caricatures or a mythical enemy, not as an actual threat we should fight even today. Thus, this is an important film about the need to maintain democracy whatever the conditions.

The Sun (Solntse, 2005)
Director: Aleksandr Sokurov

Another very minimalistic war film, the film follows the Japanese Emperor Hirohito (Issei Ogata) during the final days of WWII. Much like Hitler in Downfall, Hirohito has grown delusional of his own grandieur and Japan's success in the war. Hirohito's servants keep him in isolation and thinking he's the Sun, a god, around which everything else revolves. Hirohito lives a quiet, organized life to which actual battlefields play little to no importance. Eventually the American General MacArthur (Robert Dawson) arrives to his palace to negotiate the Japanese surrender, which forces Hirohito to face reality. Hirohito still bonds with his adversary and gains wisdom from his situation.

The film is oddly peaceful for a film dealing with the war, creating an ominous feeling. But really it is more of a character study of the affects of isolation from world events than a history lesson. The mood of the film is silently melancholic, but unlike Downfall, also sees light at the end of the tunnel. Hirohito goes on to believe he will be a fine leader to rebuild Japan. While this may be a fine ending for the historical character, it is a bit uneasy toward the actual Japanese history. But Sokurov certainly isn't a director that seeks easy answers, and just wants to present the one point of view as if a part of a dialogue with actual history.

Taxi To The Dark Side (2007)
Director: Alex Gibney

The finest of the documentaries depicting the unjust war in Iraq and Afghanistan is this one. It has a proper anchor from which to start peeling off the layers and consequences of the war. The film begins with the story of the afghani taxi driver Dilawar. He was captured while practicing his profession for questioning. Yet he wound up waiting for a trial at the Bagram Air Base, tortured. He wound up beaten to death by American soldiers.

From this one real-life tragedy, Gibney movs on to question the American policies on interrogation in the War Against Terrorism, and the use of torture therein. From the interview of the soldiers we move on to hear the varying opinions from American political leaders, attorneys, agents and experts. The results are harrowing: much evil as these harsh methods do, there are people who defend them with clear eyes for being "for the greater good". It is revealed that in addition to waterboarding, the US military has used sleep deprivation, sexual assault, sensory deprivation, threatening with dogs, blasting heavy metal at full sound, and many other torture methods. And all of this merely mentions Abu Ghraib at one point – this is no isolated incident, it's been the basic policy! The resulting work is harrowing and eye-opening. The fim has been made as a part of Why Democracy? -series, and makes the viewer wonder Why indeed was this allowed in a Democratic country, with none of the higher-ups being put to justice for their evil politics.

United 93 (2006)
Director: Paul Greengrass

Finally, without a doubt the best film made from that one day ten years ago. Greengrass gives this important day as thorough and realistic documentary-style depiction as he did with Bloody Sunday. The film tells the story of the one plane that didn't reach it's hijacked position, and crashed on a field in Pennsylvania. Greengrass doesn't need to build up the heroism of the plane's passengers who stood up against the hijackers, by delving into their backgrounds or building the tension up. He shows what happened, naturally, in real time and as much veracity as possible, and that itself is powerful enough.

We see the hijacking terrorists at their final moments together, praying and preparing to do their deed at a hotel room in Newark. The very ordinary-seeming boarding of the plane takes on whole new, threatening meanings. We follow the occurences at the Flight Control tower when they realize something is wrong, but can't do too much to change it. And finally, we follow the passengers realize that they must fight for their lives against the armed hijackers, even if it means sacrificing their lives. When the screen cuts to black at the very end, it is a very powerful and emotional moment, which makes the viewer consider how rotten things in the world have gotten, and why won't more people take a stand and fight for the good of many.

Bubbling Under:

The Pianist (2002, dir. Roman Polanski) - Polanski famously refused to do Schindler's List, but agreed to this story of an individual Jew struggling to survive in the ghettos of Warsaw during WWII. It covers the pretty standard holocaust subject matter, but the direction is fine and the central humane story gripping.

The Road to Guantanamo (2006, dir. Michael Winterbottom, Mat Whitecross) - This docu-drama follows the  story of theree innocents that went to Iraq to go to a wedding and ended up in the notorious Cuban prison complex. The story is told with fictionalized parts and interviews, which have later been proven to be lies. Still, it is a gripping story of how the Iraqi war draws innocents and how horridly USA's POWs are treated.

Standard Operating Procedure (2008, dir. Errol Morris) - Master documentarist Morris interviews US soldiers and prison guards over the humiliating torture scandal in Abu Ghraib and gets incredible insights over the subject matter. Taxi is more heart-breaking, but this works as a fine companion piece.

Waltz with Bashir (Vals im Bashir, 2008, dir. Ari Folman) - Actually there's very little wrong with this genre-blender dealing with the subconscious, but as it happens, I'm tired of writing about it.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006, dir. Ken Loach) - This Cannes winner takes a look at the Northen Ireland's independence struggles through the story of two brothers who come to differ in views. Loach's film is uneven and too long, (seeing as Greengrass managed to tell the story more effectively) but still very good.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Love & Anarchy Tips 2011

Image source: Rakkautta & Anarkiaa -blogi
 It's the happiest time of the year for us film fans in Helsinki. The biggest international film festival in Finland is soon coming to our town for another ten glorious days. You can check out the entire programme here. I have seen a number of films shown at the festival beforehand so it's time again to do some recommedations. I'll have to add that I wrote for both the festival tabloid and the film catalogue. So I hope you'll forgive me if I shamelessly steal ideas from my own texts. The following films are ordered from most to less recommeded.

Bullhead (Rundskop, Belgium)
Director: Michael R. Roskam
Good to see if: You feel dirty play makes your work way too hard and hope you could take action against that.

These days pitch black crime thrillers seem to sprung up from all over the world where ever you'd least expect. Michaël R. Roskom's debut film takes place in the countryside of Flander in Belgium. The place is depicted almost as a mythical realm of all that is evil and wrong in the world. Violence, prostitution, murders, gambling and drug deals flourish. The film is a steroid- and testosterone-filled revenge thriller with brutal violence, so it's not for the faint of heart.

Such shady affairs also draw in the cattle farmer Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Shoenaerts). He is accustomed to pump his meat full of hormones working for his uncle. So when a shady vetinarian suggest that he should work for a local hormone smuggler Marc (Sam Louwyck), Jacky accepts. The deal would open all new markets for Jacky's beef, but he doesn't know that Marc coldly disposes of people who ask too many questions. Getting in Marc's way also ended the life of a local policeman recently. Jacky's deal gets the authorities to look for his businesses a little closer, and also brings back traumatic memories from Jacky's past. The farmer may get a chance to have revenge on people that horrifyingly mutilated him as a child, but is it worth it?

There's no doubt that two things push the film forward: amazingly confident direction from first-timer Roskam, and the excellent performance by Shonenarts. The latter's as convincing as can be as a tough-as-nails muscleman that has been beaten down all his life. This does makes him quite withdrawn. In the beginning, he has moral conflicts, but does mostly aim to do good. Yet, like the name suggest, he is stubborn, and won't give up when he's made up his mind. This makes him a little unpredictible, to both the audiences and also the characters in the film. As for the direction, the countryside bathes in dark colours, and thus makes it seem that all the evil on screen could be from anywhere in the world. Even your backyard. Roskam builds up tensions beat by beat, and also brings psychological layers into his story. I'm left waiting to see what he does next. Let's hope we have the new Nicolas Winding Renf here in him.

Kill List (Great Britain)
 Director: Ben Wheatley
Good to see if: You love gritty crime movies, family dramas and weird horror films, but can only afford one movie ticket.

Praise has been flowing through windows and doors to this British wonder that seemingly effortlessly mixes popular film genres and creates an unique cocktail. And much of the praise is deserved, because Kill List is exciting, creepy, and leaves the viewer pondering the morally grey areas where it dwells. Director Ben Wheatley has clearly been watching a few classic British genre films, but doesn't steal, but rather borrows themes and images to enhace his very own story.

Jay (Neil Maskell) and his wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) are in a difficult point in their marriage. Arguments rage and dishes get broken on a regular basis. Yet the pair still has love towards each other and especially to their son, Sam (Harry Simpson). Much of the arguments are about Jay loafing around the house, and his unemployment. This is why Shel is OK when Jay goes off with his friend Gal (Michael Smiley) to a business trip. Even though she knows very well that their area of expertize isn't exactly legal. It seems this time their assignment makes them meet some truly evil people...

Much like my beloved Disappearance of Alice Creed before, Wheatley's film manages to pull the rug under the viewers a few times during the course of the movie and take the whole thing to an entirely new level. These turning points are not just cheap twists, but bringing forward elements within the film's world that fit the story to be told. That is not to say that everything in the film is easily explained, since it contains a lot of weird, creepy scenes. The violence is used sparingly, which makes all the brutal bursts all the more horrifying. I hope we are witnessing the rise of a new wave of talented Brit horror directors. It's great that film festivals allow us to see this sort of events as they unfold in front of us.

The Other Side of Sleep (Ireland)
Director: Rebecca Daly
Good to see if: You're afraid to be alone at night.

The year's theme seems to be loners in a rural setting. Well, never mind that, because Rebecca Daly's debut feature film seperates from the others by being a real one of a kind gem. It is the kind of film which mixes reality and dream, yet it is not us viewers who may think we are dreaming, it is the young factory worker Arlene (Antonia Campbell Hughes). Arlene is having trouble sleeping, but when she does fall asleep, she walks around her town. She may wake up from weird places with her fingers and skin all bloody and other weird stuff having happened. Hughes plays her part mostly expressionless, like hypnotized. That's why it's really hard to tell the difference of when Arlene is awake and when sleeping.

When another young girl is killed in her village, Arlene becomes interested. There's two reasons for his fascination. First, if someone is stalking young girls at night, she may be a suitable target while sleepwalking or coming home from work. Second, when she isn't sure what she does at night, she herself might be the killer! Arlene starts to pay close attention to the case, saves newspaper articles about it, and visits the crime scene. She also starts to see the persons close to the victim, whether unconsciously or to get clues.

Daly's film mixes up a lot of things that European art cinema is good at. There are shots in the textile factory where Arlene works that are reminiscent of social realist films such as the work of Ken Loach. Some moody thriller scenes, like lonely walks on the road at night, remind of giallo thrillers. And the dream-like quality of many scenes in the central plot have traces of the modern expressionism and surrealism. There's also a seemingly undefined wild card in the mix, which makes the film's mood calm and threatening at the same time. In the film, the mystery comes second in how the film is told, and the viewer gets rather sucked in by the sheer mysticism of it all. That's good, because the film doesn't offer straight answers, and a lot, like Arlene's thoughts behind her expressionless face, is left to be decided by the viewer him/herself.

Cold Fish (Tsumetai nettaigyo, Japan)
 Director: Sion Sono
Good to see if: You hate your boss and wonder if he (or she) is as two-faced elsewhere as in your workplace.

The story in Sion Sono's film Cold Fish is announced to be based on actual events. This thriller about business brutality is claimed to follow reality pretty closely, only having switched dog kennel keeping to owning an aquarium shop. I'm not sure whether to believe that, because the whole story feels so imaginary, poignant, and clever, just like Sono's films at best do. Two aquarium keepers, the friendly-seeming Mr. Murata (Denden) and the timid family man Mr. Shamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) become friends after Murata hires the thieving teenaged daughter of Shamoto to work in his shop. The men become fast friends. But it soon turns out that Murata is in fact a cruel psychopath, dealing with the yakuza and officials both with brutal ways. Shamoto is soon tangled to Murata's web of lies and nasty businesses, but is too much of a pushover to oppose his dominance over him. But like one can see from films like Straw Dogs, you can only push one so far, until he has to bite back. Yet on the line is not only his oppressor, but also Shamoto's dysfunctional family, over which he wants to take on a new dominance.

The character of Murata is a fascinating and memorable villain. In the beginning he seems genuinely excited in seeing exotic fishes and joking around with people he barely knows. Yet he is actually a lot more cruel than would seem on the outside. He truly cares more for fish than people, as he has a talent of pulling people's strings to do his bidding. People are objects to him, and able to be disposed of when they outlive their usefulness. His aquarium shop is filled with teenaged girls in skimpy costumes, and he can take any woman he wants with a mixture of lies of understanding them and taking what he wants with force. His sense of humour extends to the dirty part of his business and he derives great joy in chopping his victim's corpses and plays around with different organs. Veteran character actor Denden does great job in bringing this human monster to life and his character is one of the greatest criminal characters seen in recent years.

Unlike Sono's 4-hour Love Exposure from last year's Love & Anarchy, Cold Fish runs on a little bit too long, and feels repetitive. It deals with many of the same themes, such as the state of families, the unfairness of Japan's society which pushes people to do deperate things, and one person's decision to fight for a more pleasant ending for himself. One still can't claim that this tale filled with hopelessness, fear and pain isn't gripping. Cold Fish is also trencehed in black humour that Sono handles very well. He also utilizes a lot of the familiar Christian imagery in the background of its violent atrocities. By delivering another corker, Sono is well on his way of becoming his native country's most interesting  modern filmmaker.

Sensation (Ireland)
 Director: Tom Hall
Good to see if: You feel today's society is over-sexualized and pine for some basic values such as love and respecting one another.

isn't really a love story, even though it's about a boy meeting a girl. This drama, laced with dry black humour, has much too dark themes to be a feel-good movie. Director Tom Hall takes an ironic look at modern loneliness. The film is set in the Irish countryside where unmarried old bachelors deal with their farms alone. The only way to get release is to wank off to porn magazines in the field with the sheep watching or to hire a call girl.

The young Donal's (Domhnall Gleeson) father doesn't take this kind of life any more and takes his own life. Donal inherits the farm and a sum of money, but doesn't really know what to do with it. Being horny as hell, he decides to invest in a prostitute. Thus he meets the new-zealandese Kim (Luanne Gordon). The couple hit it off very well, and come up with an idea to invest the money. They start a pimping circle in the countryside for other lonely men around. This proves to be a successful idea, but has strains on the relationship between the pair.

The film ponders the question whether everyone really needs sex to be a balanced individual. Sex itself is treated like a trade, and the performance doesn't initially hold any significance in the minds of the characters. Yet because they focus too much on only the intercourse, the characters forget a lot of other important things in relationships, and life in general. Getting sex won't give the characters any respect from anyone, nor any skills to respect anyone else. The blame falls to the fractured modern life: internet makes pimping easy, but earning any love hard.

7 Sins Forgiven (7 Khoon Maaf, India)
 Director: Vishal Bhardwaj
Good to see if: You're a romantic, but feel that true love evades you

We westerners often have a stereotypical idea of what a Bollywood film is: a formulaic 3-hour romance story with superficial song and dance numbers erupting every now and then. Altough 7 Sins is a long, melodramatic and epic drama that contains a lot of romance and music, it breaks every cliché it can find. The film is also filled with black humour, and the music varies from tango to acid rock. Instead of a full color pallette, the film is shot in dark blue, brown and grey-tones. The film's plot may initially feel predictable, but even though it is told in flashbacks, it still has a few tricks up its sleeve with which to genuinely surprise the audience.

Susanna Johannes (Priyanka Chopra) has been unlucky with love all her life. It seems this drove her to suicide. The shocked
Arun Kumar Singh (Vivaan Shah) is ordered to do the autopsy. He tells her wife that he used to secretly pine for Susanna years ago, as he grew in her farm and she later worked as his mentor. Susanna's story is heard in a flashback. She has tried to find a man to love that would love her unconditionally, and thus has gone through seven husbands. Six of the first have been a sinful bunch, being full of self-obsession, wrath, vanity, greed and other mortal sins. They all, from an army general through a rock musician to a hippie professor, treat her badly. Thus, Susanna comes up with clever ways to kill them to go searching for the next husband.

Chopra's performance as Susanna is the backbone of the film. Even though her character is ruthless and cunning, her unlucky exploits looking for love in all the wrong places make her symphatetic. She also has a great deal of determination, even though she ages from a teen to an old crone during the course of the movie, and turns to a little bitter. Chopra also brings a little eerie mystique to her performance, making watching her enchanting. 

The Enemy (Neprijatelj, Serbia, Bosnia-Hertzegovina, Croatia, Hungary)
 Director: Dejan Zecevic
Good to see if: You ponder what makes perfectly normal people into beasts during the wartime.

Films from the Balkans often deal with the horrifying violence the young countries had to endure not too long ago, whether directly or indirectly. The resulting films have been pretty grim, and The Enemy is no exception. This horror film by Dejan Zecevic approaches the subject from both directions at once. It is set on the battlefields of the Bosnian war, and the characters witness mass graves and varous other horrors that were realities back then. But the film's story does also seem to have some supernatural elements in it. Whether they are real or just psychological delusions of the characters is left to the viewer to decide.

A group of Serbian soldiers on a scouting mission comes upon a contry house and discovers that a man has been laid inside the wall. The man acts oddly and seems to have been peacefully waiting to be discovered. The patrol is commanded to stay to wait for back up, but it wouldn't be much worth to leave anyway, as the area is filled with mines. But the patrol isn't alone in the area, and has to deal with both civilians and enemies moving around the area. Everything doesn't work out, and the stress gets to the men.

The director Dejan Zecevic knows that the best horror films often work with a slowly building tension. It is also a clever idea to reflect contemporary war history with a story confined in a small space. The war crime sin the Balkans certainly are much more scary than any fantastical monsters one might come up with. The film doesn't dwell on the cruelties, or stare at its own navel, but flows along smoothly as the tension builds layer by layer. A big part of the excitement comes from the good characters getting distrustful towards each other, and eventually ending up on each other's throats. The Serbians know all too well, that the cruellest mass murderer might be a normal-seeming friend.   

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (Sweden)
 Director: Göran Olsson
Good to see if: You dream of a better world and aren't afraid to take action when necessary.

Sweden, about as white-bread as countries get, had a strange fascination on the Black Panther movement in the USA in the late 60's and early 70's. Many reporters were working in the country shooting the everyday life in Harlem, interviewing movement leaders and of course reporting on the most important events. Director Göran Olsson has recently found these tapes and cut them together as a movie that tells a story about the Civil Rights Movement from a little different perspective than usual. The material's strength is in the multiple interview tapes of important Civil Rights protesters that were not that well known outside America. The media in the US was more interested in the violence and other concrete acts the Movement was able to do. They never asked too many questions about their ideology, unlike the Swedes.

The political viewpoint is nicely formed in the various interviews of the film. Olsson has also peppered his film with modern interviews with people linked to the movement. As he's out to create an image of the past times, he only uses the modern interviews in audio, letting the contemporary images tell another half of the story. This is a stylish idea and works incredibly well. The only quarrel with the film is that one must know the main details about the American history in those years beforehand. The most important leaders such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are ever-present in the background, but their basic ideas and means are dealt with only briefly in the film.

My Neighbors the Yamadas (Hôhokekyo tonari no Yamada-kun, Japan, 1999)
  Director: Isao Takahata
Good to see if: You love your family deeply, even though sometimes they drive you crazy.

Isao Takahata's 1999 family comedy is based on a popular Japanese comic strip, and is often said to be the most un-Ghibli of Ghibli's films. I agree to this claim concerning the film's sketch-like animation style. But at core, Yamadas is as fitting to the Ghibli stable as any of their films. Altough it concerns the mundane lives of a middle-class Japanese family, occasionally it allows for their imaginations to run wild and that results in fine fantasy sequences, beautifully relized in the minimalistic style.

The Yamadas are a happy family. There's the pre-teen Noburo, Takashi and Matsuko (mom and daddy), little Nonoko, grumpy dog Pochi, and the eccentric grandma Shige, who's too old to be polite. The film doesn't so much have a plot as a series of skits of the family's ordinary problems. Nonoko gets lost in the mall, Noburo falls in love with a school friend, Matsuko wants to watch a film on TV while Takashi wants to watch sports, or Takashi must give a speech at work. All problems are chaotic at first as the family reacts in their personal ways. In the end, everything is solved with the Yamadas' unique style. The film is a little uneven, even if it is cheerful and happy-go-lucky by nature. Some of the jokes work depending on whether you care for the various family comic strips on newspapers. It's not to say the film is bad, as it certainly has that Ghibli charm. The Yamadas love each other, and thus the film is an ode to the nuclear family. If you have similar memories from growing up, or have a similar family of your own, it is easy to find something to like here.  

Griff the Invisible (Australia)
Director: Leon Ford
Good to see if: You feel lonely, and sometimes hope you could be someone else. And you love quirky indie comedies.

According to director-screenwriter Leon Ford, the idea for this romantic fantasy movie came from observing a 5-year-old acting out his superhero fantasies. Griff the Invisible is a study on what would happen if an adult would never abandon these fantasies, but would go on playing a hero in his everyday life.

Griff (Ryan Kwanten) is a timid and shy young man, teased by his co-workers. His only friend is worried that he doesn't go out enough, and introduces him to a young girl, Melody (Maeve Dermody). Melody becomes intrigued by Griff's fantasies and wants to start participating in them. As the romance starts to bloom, the simple superhero fantasies grow ever more elaborate and start to have strange turns. In the end, it is not clear whether the company of the two lovers is good for either of them. The film asks the question whether growing up required for everyone.

parodies modern superhero films by its dark colour pallette and athmosphere. This in turn makes Griff's loneliness in the story seem a lot more crushing. But one really can't think of him as a pure victim, as he does fight back to his office bullies. I like that such a silly premise is played so seriously. Yet, the film made me laugh very scarcely, but ponder the relationships adults have on their daydreams and their values all the more. It's a good thing, I suppose, but all in all, the film is a little conventional for a quirky independent love story. Still by far worth seeing if you're into these sort of films.


So there you have my picks from the things I've seen. There's a lot of good stuff in the festival as always. I eagerly await to see at least the LA neo-noir-action Drive in a special Gala screening, Paddy Considine's tough-as-nails directing debut Tyrannosaur, Takashi Miike's return to form in 13 Assassins, and the mad Indian action film Robot (Endhiran), which you may remember as one of my MIWS. The festival takes place from 15th to 25th of September. Be sure to read a lot more film introductions and reviews here as the festival kicks off!


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