Friday, 30 November 2012

Come, come, nuclear bomb

We have only three weeks to live in the case the Mayans were right. So, in terms of public service announcements, I will be writing a bit more on various visions of how life has been cinamatically wiped off of Earth in movies, and how people have come to terms with the fall of civilization.

During the time of the Cold War, there was an ever-looming threat of the United States and the Soviet Union wiping each other out by their massive arsenals of nuclear missiles. The threat of nuclear war went so far as to treaten the very destruction of life on Earth, particularly in the Bay of Pigs crisis in 1961.

That's why nuclear disaster has also inspired a great number of filmmakers for decades. James Cameron wouldn't have as successful a career without the threat, for one. I'll take a look at three visions of events leading to nuclear disaster, which take different viewpoints.

Fail-Safe (1964)
Director: Sidney Lumet

One of the most famous Cold War thrillers that faced the threat of nuclear annihilation was this film, based in part on the same book as Dr. Strangelove. Fail-Safe deals mostly with sweaty politicians trying to fix the catastrophy a minor error causes, to little avail. For anyone who has seen Strangelove, the film is a little hard to take seriously since it shares a number of plot twists and turns with Kubrick's satire classic. Nevertheless, the film is held to high acclaim today, thanks in large part for Lumet's unrelentingly dramatic direction and strong lead performances.

A radar alert for possible intrusion to US airspace causes nuclear bombers to fly off to Moscow. It is soon found out that an out-of-course airline plane was the cause of the alert, and the Rush'N Attack is meant to be called off. But a human mistake, as well as Russian radio wave jammers, cause the message not to reach the bombers. High tensions with the Soviet Union leaders would cause them not to believe any explanation of the accident. The President (Henry Fonda) is called to make tough decisions to make sure mankind would survive the tragic catastrophy. And this includes doing the unthinkable, attacking New York City by themselves.

The film uses stark contrasts and is shot mostly indoors, in stuffy cabinets, with people watching monitors and radars. There's a strong sense of claustrophobia since neither the characters nor the viewers have any means of getting out of the sticky situation. Most of the time the film plays like a chamber drama, with the tensions arising in discussions and the stakes getting to impossible heights. In the end the president's solution is quite hard to swallow. This twist makes the otherwise naturalistic film drive off the cliff of being too fantastic. But the incredible final scene, shot in an expressionist manner, makes up for most of the major flaws in the movie's script.

★★★ 1/2

The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961)
Director: Val Guest

While Americans tend to look upwards to authority figures and decision-makers, the Brits tend to choose more down-to-earth viewpoint characters in their catastrophy films. Made on the same year as the Bay of Pigs Invasion took place, Val Guest's thriller is a nuclear disaster only indirectly. It's still quite clear the fear of the cloud and tempering with the power of the atom is the catalyte for disaster here. The movie centers on reporters out to make a story on the fall of planet Earth.

The young Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) and the experienced Bill Maguire (Leo McGuire) are reporters for the London-based Daily Express. Stenning has gone through a messy divorce and is in a slump of his career, getting only boring assignments. The friendly Maguire attempts to help him out when he can. While investigating odd weather reports, Stenning realizes something horrible. The recent nuclear tests ran by both United States and the Soviet Union have caused the Earth's rotation to change and hurl the planet closer to the sun. Nothing can survive the rising temperatures, unless drastic measures are taken to fix the situation.

The film perhaps suffers a bit for imitating the studio-era Hollywood style rather than embracing a bit wilder 60's aesthetics. The film's scenes of pandemonium and looting look awfully tame when compared to the news reports that began to flood in during the same decade all across the world. Yet the film features several awfully clever visual ideas. One is to tell the back story in flashback in regular black-and-white, while the moments of reckoning are shot in a scorched sepia-typed tone. One can almost feel the temperature rising while watching this. Guest manages to tighten the suspense sufficiently, although wastes time for a pretty tacked-on romantic subplot. Another great idea is to close the film on ambiguous church bells. What will the future bring? We may never know.


Threads (1984)
Director: Mick Jackson

Another British drama, film this goes to lengths not possible two decades before. The 80's were a lot more cynical and not as much on the edge as the common atmosphere 60's. It seemed that there was no doubt nuclear annihilation would come. The question was only, when. The film tells the documentary-styled ugly story of total nuclear devastation in England, as seen through the eyes of two families of regular people. They have no particular hopes or dreams, except for to survive. The film is made-for-TV, but in its effectiveness it's been raised on the level of other movie classics. Shows how TV is thought to be the inferior medium. Even it's major classics are always compared to cinema.

In Sheffield, northern England, the families of Becketts and Kemps come together since the proposal of Jimmy Kemp (Reece Dinsdale) to Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher). At the same time, Cold War is going global and heating up, fast.

Fear grips England and people start hoarding food and survival supplies in case of the worst-case scenario. Loud protests and riots erupt on the streets, which Chief Hirst (Michael O'Hagan) is unable to control. Little by little society crumbles, starting with politics and moving on to the mico-level. In turn comes just a simple battle of survival. When the bombs finally hit, the remains of civilization burn to the ground, leaving the survivors in a frantic search to find their missing loved ones. Charred corpses and collapsed buildings litter the streets. Even the very basics of human culture start to falter, with people repressing to the state of animals.

At the center of the movie is not just an apocalyptic nuclear disaster. It's still a central element to the story and delivers several horrific scenes, but the larger details on why the bombs drop are never really explained. Instead, as the title suggests, the film is about the British society and how it's hanging by a thread. When all chips are down, no element of the intricate network of society works and people are left to fend for themselves.

The film offers no warmth, distancing itself from the terror with a narrator and intervowen nature film footage. This is harrowing, as terrifying and cynical as a film can get. It's no wonder the film is often categorized to belong in the "horror" genre. No knife-wielding maniac or monster attack could dream of being as terrible as the notion that people cease to be humane when civilization fails.


Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Night Visions MH12: Werewolves Too

Aroo! It's another full moon tonight. Since during the last one I wrote a little about werewolf cinema through the ages, it comes to reason to use this opportunity to write about the three werewolf movies screened at Night Visions Maximum Halloween Festival this year. Just don't allow my animal instincts to take over or anything.

The Howling (USA, 1981)
Director: Joe Dante

The Howling is probably the most serious horror film in director Joe Dante's career. That doesn't mean the movie would be entirely without Dante's trademarks, such as sly media satire, cartoonish gags and a Dick Miller cameo. It's just that they are less in-your-face in this one than most of his other work. This was his first foray outside the safety of Roger Corman's production facilities, and Dante set out to make a name for himself. By strange coincidence, a kindred spirit in John Landis was also working at the same time to make a loving horror-comedy homage to the scary movies of the olden times. Both were successful, but Dante's film was the one that gained a big string of sequels (that had little to nothing to do with the first film). So that goes to show at least which the audiences dug more.

Ace reporter Karen White (Dee Wallace) is burned out by the hectic nature and ruthless story hunting that comes along with the job. She gains the affections of the brutal, animalistic serial killer Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo). Karen attempts to help the police capture him by luring him into a trap, and plans to gain a new story for her trouble. Yet the plot backfires and she has to come face to face with evil. Luckily Eddie is shot by the cops before he has a chance to hurt Karen. The reportress finally has enough of everything and takes off with her boyfriend Bill (Christopher Stone) to a couples' resort in the middle of a dark forest. Yet even the hard-nosed journalist has little idea of what she's in for, when the odd stalker hasn't really dies, and follows her to the resort. But he may not be the only beast around, either.

As many post-modern horror films would do since then, The Howling rewrites several rules of used by classic horror films. It also makes the characters aware of the previous body of work. The Wolf Man is watched on TV and ancient lycantrophy myths repeated by the characters. Yet the movie also differentiates from the norm in that werewolves in here are not just psychologically repressed, primal animals. They are highly sexual beasts. The monsters may reveal themselves during sex, and to every one of them is attached a strong sexual urge the conventional white-bread couples can't satisfy with their shallow imaginations.

Dante's satire's main target are modern people, who have little room for superstition and legends and has thus turned into cynical, boring yuppies, husks of people. The very 80's ideas of thinking psychiatry and self-help could cure deep psychological problems better than old-timey ways, earn Dante's bitter dismissal. He's all for old tales, mysticism and romanitiscm as opposed to a narrow world view. Every person has already seen enough on TV to not take anything seriously any more.

Most of the film relies on old-time moodness, dark shots, misty moors and eloquent set design. As such the ending that's crawling with rubber-suited werewolf monsters feels a bit overblown and even anticlimatic. When dealing with werewolves, the transformation scenes are usually a lot more terrifying than the appear of the actual monster, just growls and bad postures. The climax echoes the ending of David Cronenberg's Shivers a little. Sexually liberated people have overthrown the masses and the regulars are in the minority now, making a hasty escape.

Like his subsequent work would prove, Dante often prefers to take the side of the free-minded monsters rather than white-bread "normal" people. Perhaps there's a liberation coming up after the credits have rolled.
★★★ 1/2

Game of Werewolves (Lobos de Arga, Spain 2011)
Director: Juan Martínez Moreno

This Spanish film movie is known in Japan as Wolfman Village: The Worst Countryside Ever!  As one can guess, this one keeps things quite silly. A lot of the comedy is based on the fact that the film is set on the most backwards and superstitious of Spanish regions. The villagers of the small village of Argahave a lot to hide from the outside world, not limited to the major plot-driving curse. A bastard son of a rich marquis and a gypsy becomes a werewolf that would terrorize the village for hundreds of years. The family of Mariño carries the cursed blood and triggers the horror while present.

The modern-day descendent of Mariño, Tomás (Gorka Otxoa) is a horror writer who is suffering from a writer's block. He grew up in Arga, and has inherited the house he lived in as a child, so after a bitter divorce, he arrives with his dog to reclaim his old possessions and memories. He hits up with his two old friends, Calisto (Carlos Areces) and Mario (Secun de la Rosa). But the anger-ridden and fearful villagers don't take kindly to Tomás's arrival and plan to sacrifice him to the beast in order to finally get rid of the curse. Sure enough, since Tomás wants to live, and the misfortune of the villagers, the plan backfires and soon the whole village is infested with furry beasts.

The Howling and several other classic horror comedies are a clear inspiration for the movie in general. It can be seen in the film's humor, that manage to be somewhat cute, a little icky and even quite mean in turn. The most egregious jokes are the gross-out buddy comedy bits, often quite tackily inserted among all the action. If one is running from werewolves, a good main character should not start reminiscing about the time his best childhood buddy fucked a sheep but keep his mind on the point. Also, one fat and dumb sidekick should be enough for one comedy film. This one has two.

A much better comic character is the kick-ass police officer played by Luis Zahera. Logical and quick-witted to the max, he is also used sparingly enough for the audience to want more.

A nice touch to all the action and running around is that the werewolves themselves are made with actual prosthetics and masks rather than CGI-rendered. The Hammer-like set design also works wonders for the mood and the contrasting crass comedy and traditional horror imagery play together quite well for the most part. Props also to director Moreno for not going too easy with his characters. In a true Sam Raimi fashion, they have to suffer severe injuries and humiliations throughout the film to survive, especially in the wickedly mean final scene.


The Werewolf vs. The Vampire Woman (La noche de Walpurgis, 1971)
Director: Léon Klimovsky

Night Visions also offered a look into the major Spanish horror series about Count Waldemar Daninsky. The Count is better known as The Werewolf, or El Hombre Lobo, and battled with his curse and various other monsters in 12 films through the decades. Thus, he was clearly one of the most popular Spanish movie characters of all time, shadowing even Torrente.

That is even though he looks more like a werespaniel or a were-guinea pig.

The 5th movie of the series boasts the simultaneously odd, dumb and cool tagline: See it with someone you hate. Alas, I didn't have any enemies close by, or even people I was mildly disapproval of. Whether this would have improved on the movie, I couldn't say.

In the beginning Daninsky's (played by Paul Naschy) supposedly dead body is investigated in the morgue by two coroners. Since one is superstitious and the other a hard-nosed man of science, the latter attempts to prove that it's not possible for Daninsky to have actually been a werewolf. So, he removes the silver bullets from his heart, which of course makes the body come alive, turn into a monster, kill the doctors and escape to the woods. The shots of kind-of silly Wolf Man knock-off wandering around the forest growling and drooling are quite amusing for a while.

Meanwhile, two young and beautiful students, Elvira (Gaby Fuchs) and Genevieve (Barbara Capell), spend their summer vacation in a castle in Transylvania. To pass the time, they look for an ancient tomb, where, legend has it, the Vampire Countess Wandessa is buried. Bumbling around, they manage to find the corpse and drop some blood into her mouth, reviving her. But luckily Elvira stumbles upon the human-formed Daninsky, and the pair fall in love. To prove to Elvira that he's not just a murderous, brutal beast, Danisnsky takes it to his heart to protect the girls from the blood-thirsty Countess and her vampiric minions.

I've got to say, I couldn't manage to keep awake through the whole thing (it was 5 in the morning), so actually I missed the part when the monsters actually met and battled. My friend informed me that I didn't miss much, it mostly involved hokey special effects and throwing people around the room. So it sounds a bit like pro wrestling, then. The film had a few gigglesome scenes, due to the odd behavior of various characters. The set design and overall feel wasn't bad, but not that special, either. All together the movie is not something I would go out of my way to find anywhere.

Since I didn't see the whole movie, it's stars could go anywhere between ★ and ★★★★★.

Monday, 26 November 2012

100 Grand: How now, brown cow?

This blog has recently hit 100,000 pageviews. Woo-hoo! I am extremely proud, since a number that large must include a lot people genuinely interested in my writings and not just googling some images. I've done exactly the kind of blog I would like to read and on my very own terms.  And sometimes, like with the recent Best Finnish Films of All Time post, I've reeived some excellent feedback. I think the blog has developed quite nicely through the years, from insignificant ramblings to some genuine analysis. But I've also been thinking a lot on how to work on it from here on.

The thing is, writing this blog takes a lot. Articles take time. from conception and viewing the films, to writing, to browsing for images, to advertizing in social media. I'm also willing to admit that sometimes the writing has been sub-par whether due to a rush to get something published or for the reason I've been planning a certain article for too long and start to forget the core ideas behind the films the text deals with. I don't write any notes down upon seeing a movie, so my thoughts surrounding a given film always rely solely on my memory.

"Top Gun? Well, if my memory serves me correct, it's a good, totally heterosexual movie."

My most major failing on the blog is the fail to create a forum for discussion, since I don't really receive any comments on the site. This is a major drag, since that does't help me develop my writing nor give me any new viewpoints or ideas. Often times it feels like I'm shouting at empty walls here. Contrast this with the freelance writing I do for the Finnish site Elitisti, where each and every article is carefully read and reread before publishing. And they recieve some comments afterwards, too. That has made me aware of several of my major flaws as a writer and in turn, I feel like I've written some of the best film reviews I've done for that site. It's a fruitful collaboration, with which I've been planning to emphasize more in the future. It also feels nice to write in Finnish for a change.

But then we come to how to develop this site. It appear to me as there are two options: go big or go small. To go big, I would need to start Facebook pages, seperate Twitter accounts, buy a domain, move this thing to be Wordpress-based, and so on. On the other hand, to downsize it there's the chance that starting to invest more on other things lets the quality of this blog slide.

I don't want to completely give up on the blog. I want to come back after years and check out on what I thought of some festival films I saw on any given year. I still have a huge number of ideas for the future. So what I've decided to do is to not pander to the pageviews and downgrade the blog somewhat to resemble a little more of what I started with. I'm going to do more of a film diary type of a blog that gathers some stray thoughts and ideas I've had while watching movies. I will still attempt to do the occasional article and review, but also do more of these editorial-type writings that usually get quite a high number of views (whether because of the images I use or my text is irrelevant).

But since I still have quite a lot on the pipeline for this year, these changes will affect the blog only from the beginning of 2013. The rest of the year will be business as usual. I am also willing to listen to readers' opinions on the matter and what type of blog writings you would like to read, so by all means give me a comment about the matter.

It's a-niiiice! See? Like in the movie! The movie with Borat!

Ugh, I have spoken. Now, I'll give you the top 10 of my most visited articles.
  1. Easter Special - Killer Bunnies
  2. Les extraterrestres extraordinaire, or: the best aliens
  4. A Tale of Three Americas (Captain Americas, that is)
  5. A Tale of Three Punishers
  6. It's 2012, Where is Death Racing?
  7. Pixar's sequels
  8. Sequels to Prometheus
  9. War Pigs 
  10. The Directors: Sergio Leone

And the top 10 of search keywords leading to the site:
  1. watership down
  2. aliens
  3. captain america shield
  4. weng weng
  5. michael bay
  6. alien 1979
  7. punisher skull
  8. eddie murphy
  9. death race
  10. sergio leone

So, thanks to loyal readers for sticking with me, and I hope to see you here in the future. As more than mere numbers. Don't be a stranger!

Thursday, 15 November 2012

HIFF2012: On the Side of the Angels

 It's about time I finished off this year's reporting on the Love & Anarchy Festival. It was swell and all, but I've got other festivals to write about too. On this last look at the festival's films, I've selected several feel-good films, all of them about underdogs of sorts who strive to enjoy their lives and to greatness by doing whatever it is they love. Kind of a good life lesson, and one that encapsulates Love & Anarchy within it. So, until next year, Helsinki International Film Festival!

The Angels' Share (UK/France/Belgium/Italy)
Director: Ken Loach

The acclaimed director Ken Loach tries out a more comedic approach to his latest film. Make no mistake, it is still about the hardships of lowe-class Scots in a society that can't really fit them anywhere. The ensuing adventure or heist may not be very believable, but the film lives and dies by its cast of characters.

The young Robbie (Paul Brannigan) tries to walk the line, leaving his brawling past behind him to become a good husband and a father to his girlfriend Leonie (Siobham Reilly) and his newborn son. But he has problems with both an old family enemy and Leonie's father, who both attack him constantly. Robbie, along with a group of other minor offenders, are given community service renovating a house. During the job they start to bond with each other and their supervisor Harry (John Henshaw). Harry may be the only authority figure to treat these people with any sort of respect.

The film shifts gear when Harry takes the crew to a whisky tasting, where Robbie learns of a highly expensive old whisky being auctioned soon. A caper to earn money to get out of his rat race of a life starts to form in his life. As funny it is to follow the story, it relies in a few too many happy coincidences. One of them is Robbie's almost supernatural born gift of tasting various whiskys.

But as said, the film is as good as its characters, and the cast here is quite well-rounded with memorable characters and good actors. Stealing scenes is the dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers Albert (Gary Maitland). Loach himself may have figured this out, too, since he gives him all the funniest lines, and even the opening scene of the movie. In that Albert is too dumb to realize he's being asked to move from railroad tracks due to an upcoming train. Such is the problem of many of the individuals on display here. They don't have the capacity to deal with the hostile world around them and consequently they don't realize how self-destructive they are. Only when they figure out a way to pull together and learn to cheat the system for their own ends, does a happy ending arrive (although it's almost sickeningly happy in this case).

Loach is hard-pressed to prove how big a humanist he is, understanding everyone around. The bone-crunching, sickeningly violent fight scenes contarst the happy-go-lucky fairy tale adventure of the rest of the movie, but don't always hit well together. If consequences are real, then the plot hinges on becoming totally unbelievable.


Gimme the Loot (USA)
Director: Adam Leon

Sold-out screenings sometimes open one's schedule for something else, something totally new. That was the case when I walked totally oblivious to see Adam Leon's independent teen movie about low-class kids hanging out in New York. It's a clever piece of work, selling that it's story is going to be about something in the very beginning when it's more about loitering, hanging around, plotting, and lusting. Really nothing much happens or even advances. Such is life and matched to a good perception of the poorer neighbourhoods in NYC we have a fun, breezy summer flick for the kids. And adults find plenty to enjoy, too.

Malcolm (Ty Hickson) and Sofia (Tashiana Washington) are wannabe graffiti artists who dream of gaining massive street respect, and to get back to their rivals who cover all their best work. They aim to achieve this by bombing the NY Mets Apple, a mascot that is raised every time there's a home run on a baseball game. No one has previously succeeded in this, and Malcolm and Sofia would need some money to successfully complete the job. Malcolm plans to do this by wooing a rich, idle teenager Ginnie (Zoë Lescaze) and stealing money from her parents' apartement.

Leon makes his hard-luck protagonists likeable, even if they are thieving and conning little losers. Such is the might of featuring good bullshitting scenes, and believable street-level transitional scenes. The characters feel real and like they belong to the environment. Leon also has a few brief scenes of underground parties and graffiti-making but these are by no means emphasized and are just there to give a better idea of the life the main characters are living.

The downside of the film is that it features very little in particular in terms of content, so the viewers thoughts about this are in the end kind of a breeze. But the film helps one pass the time until the next screening in a very pleasurable way. You feel as if you had just spent some time with some good friends.

★★★ 1/2

Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (USA)
Director: Alex Stapleton

This documentary chronicles the incredible career of a true Hollywood rebel and an individual. Roger Corman has shaped so much of how movies have developed from the 50's to the 70's that it's almost impossible to overestimate his influence on American Movie industry in general. He's most beloved by people such as me, who enjoy schlock and exploitation, the films that tend to our most primal needs. But he has also funded and given a much-needed film-school in action to a number of auteurs so large, it's pointless to list them all here. Plus, Corman's own directions, such as his delightfully far-fetched adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe's novellas, are quite good in themselves.

We also get to see Corman on the set of his latest movie, going straight-to-DVD or worse, to be a SyFy channel original. It's another cheapo killer crocodile movie, featuring babes, carnage and rubber beasts just like in the good old days. Old clips make even the most tedious films of Corman's back catalogue seem exciting.

The biggest problem with the documentary is that Corman is such a larger-than-life character with such an amazing career full of twists and turns that it's almost impossible to fit it all comfrotably into 100 minutes. As such, it skips over lengthy creative periods I would've enjoyed hearing a lot more about. This project would have worked better as a television series than just a short biopic.

The strength of the film is that Corman is a very rare breed of person in Hollywood, in that you can say whatever's on your mind about him. He won't sue or even mind, because most of the stories are true anyway, and at the core he's always had a big heart. A large cast of Hollywood's whos-who has participated, including Joe Dante, Martin Scorsese, Pam Grier, Eli Roth and Robert De Niro. Bonus points for leaving motor-mouthed walking film encyclopedia Quentin Tarantino merely to a cameo role as Corman's Oscar presenter. There's plenty of story available here otherwise, as the end credits featuring a large list of interviewees cut out for time, prove.

Jack Nicholson is the most fun interviewee on display here. Thinking about his past with Corman he in turn is laughing, bitching, giving a "fuck you" or two to Roger and seemingly seething with joy over the good old days of youth, drugs and innovative filmmaking. Most surprisingly, he starts crying spontaneously. It doesn't feel staged, and wisely Stapleton directing won't linger or underline the importance of the scene. It really seems like the old actor is moved to tears while thinking about his old friend and mentor.

★★★ 1/2

Shut Up and Play the Hits (UK)
Directors: Will Lovelace, Dylan Southern

Somehow a major portion of rock documentaries these days seem to deal with midlife crises of rock stars. Case in point is the film chronicling the final concert of LCD Soundsystem, the electronic project by James Murphy. The film leaves it unclear as to why Murphy has suddenly grown tired of his stardom, but hints its all due other problems concerning him feeling himself too old to be in the middle of a scene or an idol to millions of hipsters (or, granted, fans of good music in general). And leaving his popular band behind doesn't seem like a solution to these problems anyway.

While a lot of the first act of the film deals on the identity crisis the recluctant rock star Murphy lives with, the real meat of the film is of course on the high-def concert footage of the band's final show in Madison Square Garden. It takes strangely long to get that far, given that the film opens on the day after, seeing Murphy going through mundane everyday things just like any one of us. But when we finally get the flashback of the night before, he's an angel, singing from all his heart and more perfectly than ever. The music doesn't feel melancholic, mechanic or forced, but as one big happy jam, created only through a close collaboration with a big band filled with talented musicians.

While shooting the gig, cameras swoop and swoosh, showing both incredibly close footage of Murphy and his minstrels playing, and the grandiose hall filled with an audience and drowning in light, confetti and the overwhelming emotions. The selection of muisc is a good one, emphasizing songs from the band's best album Sound of Silver.

So with a grandiose ending that leaves a good taste on everyone's mouth, and perhaps a tear or two, it was more than fitting to close this festival. Good show. Very good.


Monday, 12 November 2012

Best Finnish Films of All Time

The Finnish national broadcasting service YLE recently asked a number of film journalists and bloggers to pick their favorite Finnish films - including yours truly. The results came back today. According to the professionals, the best Finnish film of all time is the 1960 crime/mystery Komisario Palmun erehdys ("Inspector Palmu is mistaken"). The whole list as following (the link takes to each film's IMDb page:
  1. Komisario Palmun erehdys (1960, Director: Matti Kassila)
  2. Drifting Clouds (Kauas pilvet karkaavat, 1996. D: Aki Kaurismäki)
  3. The White Reindeer (Valkoinen peura, 1952. D: Erik Blomberg)
  4. The Unknown Soldier (Tuntematon sotilas, 1955. D: Edvin Laine)
  5. Eight Deadly Shots (Kahdeksan surmanluotia, 1972. D: MIkko Niskanen)
  6. The Man Without a Past (Mies vailla menneisyyttä, 2002. D: Aki Kaurismäki); Frozen Land (Paha maa, 2005. D: Aki Louhimies)
  7. The Year of the Hare (Jäniksen vuosi, 1977. D: Risto Jarva)
  8. Sensuela (1973, D: Teuvo Tulio)
  9. Calamari Union (1985, D: Aki Kaurismäki); The Earth is a Sinful Song (Maa on syntinen laulu, 1973. D: Rauni Mollberg); The Unknown Soldier (Tuntematon sotilas, remake, 1985, D: Rauni Mollberg)
Inspector Palmu inspecting a suspect.
Now, as it is when national heritage is concerned, this list woke some heated discussions. Commenters attacked the "elitist" critics choices, even though reader polls have raised more or less the same films to the top, excluding several popular comedies. Among the critics themselves, the most controversial has been the position of Sensuela in the 9th place. Personally, it's my favorite Finnish film ever made and I'd rather watch that again than just about any of the other fims mentioned in this post. Yet I can't with good conscience compare its unintentional humour, misguided nostalgia and fashion choices or camp humor with some films that are actually well-made. It is an unforgettable film experience all the same, so every critic has had every bit the right to vote for it.

Personally, I think all of the films listed are good, or even great. To truly know Finnish cinema, one should watch each and every one of them (although there's two I've missed, myself. I won't tell you, which). Yet if one would want to list the truly best films Finland has ever made, I personally prefer to pick leftfield choices, films that dared to break norms and did not reach for the wide audience acceptance. Thus Mollberg's version of the Unknown soldier is the only one I picked myself. Here's my list, as well as a few words on why I made each pick. The list is in chronological order.

1. Käpy selän alla (1966, D: Mikko Niskanen)

One of the very few new wave films made in that time period. But Niskanen's film isn't tedious or pretentious, it showcases a group of young people out camping in the wild, who run into relationship problems with each other. It is ponderous and silly at the same time, sexy and awkward, beautifully shot, perfectly acted and very smartly realized. The basic ideas behind the film are grim as the grave:
"If being young is this difficult, however can we survive growing old".

2. Naisenkuvia (1970, D: Jörn Donner)

I wrote about this in the last Finnish cult movies post. Back then I wrote:

"(Jörn Donner) is willing to parody himself, his inflated ego and obsession to beautiful women and sex. Naisenkuvia is not only a razor-sharp, ponderous film, and a good time machine to the turn of the swinging 60's and 70's, but it's also hilarious as all hell."

"The film is a challenge against censorship, for the free expression of everyone, however they might want to express themselves."

3. Crime and Punishment (Rikos ja rangaistus, 1983. D: Aki Kaurismäki)

The obligatory Kaurismäki. There are several of his films I could've picked, but I have a soft spot for this Dostoyevsky adaptation, that transforms the story to then-modern day Helsinki. And it's the best way my home town has been pictured on film before or since. The homely camera shots just lick up the streets and transform the quiet city into a character of its own, not judging, not commenting, just watching our main protagonist.

It is also the first feature-length fictional movie Kaurismäki made, so it's benefits also include allowing the auteur to develop his trademark laconic style, which is used to full effect here. You don't need melodrama, overacting or loads of dialogue to tell a story. Stone-faced, half-silent Finns allow you to adapt the story in your head, just like in a great novel.

4. The Unknown Soldier (Tuntematon sotilas, 1985. D: Rauni Mollberg)

The original 1955 Independence Day classic is too nationalistic for my tastes, and does little more than adapt Väinö Linna's book as it is written. It's not a bad film by any means, but over-emphasized in these sort of lists.

For a truly harrowing experience, Mollberg's remake, a more realistic vision of WWII raging in the Finnish forests, packs a lot more power. Mollberg brilliantly directs a cast of mostly amateurs, teenagers who perfectly encapsulate the futility of war, wasting away a generation before their prime. The book's name also finally gets its due by the horrific final image of dead bodies being loaded into a carriage.  

5. Back to the USSR (Takaisin ryssiin 1992, O: Jari Halonen)

We Finns have had a disturbing history living next to the Soviet Union, and it's politics have influenced us more than we care to admit. It's fall in particular took us off balance. A truly provocative satire by master teaser Halonen perfectly encapsulates the difficulty for any attempt towards Socialism in an agricultural capitalist country. Back in April 2011 I wrote:

"The anarchistic fim has been made with a pittance, but with so much imagination and inventiveness that it turns its downsides to its benefits. Thus the main village is built with shoddy houses that can fall apart in the middle of shenanigans. There's mud and filth everywhere and the society where everyone is bourgeoise can't be seen as any sort of ideal anyway. But communism is hardly a remedy."

Of course, being who I am, those five films weren't enough for me. So I also wrote out five bubbling underers. These were The Diary of A Worker (1967),  The Wedding Waltz (1988), Feast by the Sea (1963), It is written in the stars, Inspector Palmu (1962) and Sensuela, of course.

The list only took fictional films, which torpedoed some of the utmost worthy candidates chances to be crowned the Best Finnish Fim of All Time. I picked five noteworthy documentaries for Twitter. These were Yksinteoin, Reindeerspotting: Escape From Santa Land, Perkele! Images From Finland, The 3 Rooms of Melancholia, and Kovasikajuttu.

Only in recent years have I begun to appreciate the Finnish film legacy more. Our movie history is by no means as impressive as with the Danes or the Swedes, but there certainly is a lot of interesting stuff out there. I find it troublesome that so little of it circulates our TV screenings often, but luckily there are a few festivals and screenings at the National Film Archives that remedy the situation. Rest assured, this listing has taught me a lot of interesting new Finnish films to chack out and I intend to do so by Independence day (December 6th) with another installment of Finnish Cult Movies. Now, I'm off to watch Numbskull Emptybrook.

Yle's news about the matter (in finnish)

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Review: Rust & Bone

Happy father's day! What better way to celebrate than to take a look at a recent film featuring, among other things, a man learning how to be a father? Jacques Audiard's latest film was screened as the Closing film of this year's Love & Anarchy - Helsinki International Film Festival. It is also on the programme of Pimedate ööde filmfestivaal - PÖFF, or the Tallinn International Film Festival, opening tomorrow.

So, as in many of the director's previous movies, Audiard's new protagonist is a man of few words, that is more used to violence than being a normal member of the society. Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a man arriving to Paris to try to make a living supporting his 5-year-old son and staying at his sister's house. The man is struggling to get by, since he isn't too good working at normal jobs, but since he is imposingly large, he gets hired to be a bouncer at a night club.

One night at work he meets Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), a whale trainer at the local dolphinarium, who also has a tempered violent side. When she gets kicked out of the club, Ali sees her safe back home to his boyfriend. Both sides have a small romantic crush on each other. Stéphanie's boyfriend, however, has had enough of her hard-drinking ways and leaves.

Trying not to spoil too much, but Ali and Stéphanie will eventually become even closer due to a horrific accident that cripples her for life. A major problem, however is that Ali isn't a very emotional individual, and sees no problem screwing around with every woman he encounters. All the while taking care of Stéphanie. The man will eventually learn to take part in brutal underground boxing matches to earn some better money.

For quite a long time, it seems that Audiard is attempting to build a portrait of a true sociopath who is incapable for any feelings whatsoever. Ali doesn't seem to care much for his son, and beats him up for misbehaving. While he connects with Stéphanie on a surface level, can't figure out her deeper feelings for him. But Audiard is a director capable of surprising the audience and by the end it becomes clear Ali does have his sensitive side.

The film's title refers to its themes of disfigurement, while Ali and Stéphanie both have serious personality defects that eventually cause harm to their bodies. He has the willpower and the physical strength, while she has the emotional, even spiritual side. Together they resemble more of a complete person, as evidenced by the scene where Ali takes her swimming by carrying her on his back. But the title may also refer to the emotional side, on how the film's themes may go way beyond of the surface level all the way to the core.

The film also contrasts the human tendency to tame nature and how it problematizes our way to behave. While Stéphanie's attempts to tame a killer whale are futile, she also grows to believe that taming a wild, uncontrollable muscle machine such as Ali is as impossible. But she won't give him, because of the hot, hot sex they're having. Thus she begins to communicate with him only through a very short acronym text message or through body language.

It is a very physical film, shot at times as naturally as to be almost like a nature documentary about the hard knock lives of these people. Audiard is as masterful in compressing everything that needs to be said in just a few sentences as Aki Kaurismäki. One also has to give due to the magnificent actors. Cotillard and Schoenaerts are at career-best form here, taking their abilities for emotional performances and imposing physicality (respectively) to whole new heights.

For those awaiting a clear love story, the film might be too distant, even cold. For those awaiting for the brutally violent boxing matches, they are quite sidelined and only featured in two bigger scenes. But for anyone looking for a good drama that makes one ponder about the human vunerability, and how it affects our own humanity, this is a bullseye.


France/Belgium, 2012

Language: French
Director: Jacques Audiard
Screenplay: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, Craig Davidson
Cinamatography: Stéphane Fontaine
Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Armand Verdure, Céline Sallette, Corinne Masiero

Saturday, 10 November 2012

All Cops Are Bastards

Or are they?
One curious theme on this year's festivals is the overflow of gritty crime films which look at the never-ending struggle between the police and thieves, hooligans, gang members, drug trafficers and terrorists. Some have bad policemen working in a morally grey area, while some are just ordinary workers doing the best they can in tough situations. It's not easy to match the smartly built world and explosive action of Tropa de Elite — the go-to modern classic of the genre. But that didn't mean that these films weren't captivating to watch. I already reviewed No Rest For The Wicked from Love & Anarchy, which would also otherwise be included here.

A.C.A.B. - All Cops Are Bastards (Italy/France)
Director: Stefano Sollima
Love & Anarchy - Helsinki International Film Festival 2012

Not that many interesting films come from Italy these days (I wonder if this could be because someone has a monopoly on all media and won't fund movies unless they are made for his own TV networks). Occasionally, when a decent one comes around, it's a news item in itself. When the director is also the son of the legendary Leftist spaghetti western director Sergio Sollima, everyone pays twice as much attention.

Nevertheless, the story of riot cops could perhaps find no better setting than modern Italy. With the economy in shambles thanks in large parts with the insider deals of fat cats, the hot-headed Mediterranean national character, and the large-spread passion for football, makes a riot police force's job more than necessary in a day-to-day basis. Yet as it is often with autorities, these cops are also more than willing to misuse their power, take down people who they don't like and reap other benefits attached to their job. We know from the news that for instance the 2001 Genoa G8 meeting resulted in large-spread police brutality around protesters. The movie challenges the viewer to ponder whether there is truth in the name of the film.

Thus we are also thrust into the world by the viewpoint of a rookie, Adriano (Domenico Diele). An idealistic young cop, he at first idolizes the more experienced members of his new squad. Cobra (Pierfrancesco Favino), Nero (Filippo Nigro) and Mazinga (Marco Giallini) are a tight-knit group that doesn't allow outsiders, and who are used to do things their way without anyone telling them to soften up. Adriano must choose whether to corrupt himself as another force-using aggressive power abuser, or to stand the contempt and wrath of the rest of the group. Or die.

The film depicts the riot police to be sort of the society's garbageman, being sent out to take care of major social and structural problem by hitting angry people on the head. The cops have to endure open hatred, for example in a football match where everything that's available to throw at them, is threwn at them. The film doesn't pick favorites among cops and rioters, but makes it clear on why either of them is working the way they do. The film is a tad too long and obvious, without major surprises. It's also a major draw that the societal critique seen through the eyes of a tough-as-nails police unit was so perfected by Tropa de Elite, that while this covers a bit of a different area, comparisons are inevitable.


End Of Watch (USA)
Director: David Ayer
Night Visions Maximum Halloween 3012

For a lot more positive portrayal of cops, there's the first feature film of the screenwriter of Training Day, David Ayer, seen (a bit surprisingly) at Night Visions Festival. Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena) are policing partners that are also best friends in their civilian lives. As anyone who has listened to their share of west side gangsta rap knows, the restless area around South Central L.A. is ruled by gangs and mexican drug cartels.

We follow the two cops around as they do their best to catch dangerous people around the area, usually who hate cops right down to their bones. In the middle Taylor and Zavala bicker, and talk about their love lives and mundane things. The single Taylor is starting to get involved on a new girl (Anna Kendrick) and their relationship is deepening. But once, on a routine call Taylor and Zavala stumbe upon an old house that hids brutally murdered bodies and major amounts of dope. Reporting on the place makes them heroes, but gets them on the Mexican drug cartel's Most Wanted list.

The film starts out by being based on the material that the cops themselves are shooting, whether for a TV show or whatever the in-story purpose. The actual purpose of Ayer is clear, to depict the police as both ordinary people, who live and laugh and love. And on the other hand, as heroic people who are willing to risk their neck out protecting the innocent, and doing what is morally right. These ideas are manufactured to give resonance on the tragedy about to unfold. It's a bit sad that Ayer cops out (har, har) on the last minute to make the ending a real gut-punch.

There's not much on display here that hadn't been done as good or better in numerous modern quality TV cop shows. Taylor and Zavala are quite well-rounded characters that have their good and bad sides, and are expertly acted out by Gyllenhaal and Pena. It's sad that the script over-emphasizes their heroism, and for instance the scene where they risk their lives rushing into a burning building to rescue children, goes a little over-the-top.

Along the way, the camera as an element within the story is more and more forgotten, we get fewer scenes of the characters talking straight to us, and more clearly directed angles. But the most important element in hand-held camera footage movies, the immersion tho the film's world and characters, has already been achieved.


Policeman (Ha-shoter, Israel)
Director: Nadav Lapid
Love & Anarchy - Helsinki International Film Festival 2012 

The most innovative police thriller I've seen in a while comes from Israel of all places. It's an action movie without a single action scene. It's also a two-sided movie, telling two vastly different but interlaying stories that comes together in the end. Many of the major scenes are not shown, but left to the audience to deduce. Most people walking in on a cop thriller would probably not expect such an intellectual, almost Haneke-styled approach, but it is very refreshing to see a genre movie thet relies on the intelligence of its audiences.

The first act of the film introduces us to the cops. Most of the time with them is spent at a barbecue with their families, or recreational activities, all smiles and happiness. Once in a while a racist comment pops up which makes it clear the speaker would like to shoot Arabs, but no one bats an eyelid. The cops clearly have rubber-band morality, since even with all the happiness of their family lives they are sex-hungry enough to go pick on random girls they encounter. It's revealed that one of them is having trouble with the higher-ups due to an act of violence on the job that is not specified. But all of them stick together and in the hearing all the other defend the accused. They all are eagerly awaiting for their next assignment, as they are the anti-terrorist assault squad.

The next act features ideological (Jewish) young people getting together to discuss the state of the world, how capitalism is ravaging the society, and their disdain for authorities. The youngsters are nice to help out a man playing guitar in the street corner by busting out some jams. They harbor secret crushes to each other. They seem like well-rounded nice people until it becomes clear that they idolize the Beider-Meinhof Complex. They are planning an act of terrorism, to kidnap several people at a rich woman's wedding and execute them if their radical leftist demands are not met.

In the third act, this plan is carried out, and the scenario followed to the end.

Policeman is an amazingly mature work from a first-time director, Nadav Lapid. The cold approach to major issues emphasizes a world where discussion is rueld out from the get-go and both sides believe the excessive use of force is the only way to get things across. The camera follows around coldly, only getting more dynamic in the very end, which makes the ending even more harrowing. This is a depiction of a society in a cul-de-sac, but it works. As such, it would deserve a less generic english name, though.



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