Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Criminal 00's

The Best Crime Movies of the 2000s - Part 11 in our ongoing series.

In Bruges (c) 2008 Focus Features

Many of the best films of all time deal with the lives of crooks and criminals. Gangsters have been deconstructed so many times in movies during the years, is there really anything new to say about the subject any more? Judging by the films of the 2000s, there are plenty of things left. What these films usually do is strip away the glory of the life of crime added by crime epics such as The Godfather. These finest crime films depict crime as brutal and ruthless, and being always something that allows innocents to suffer. I defined the Crime genre here to be a film that focuses on criminals and their daily work. It's not filled with car chases or shoot-outs with police but rather some scall-scale extortion and a lot of idle chatting and planning.

City of God
Cidade de Deus, Brazil 2002
Directors: Fernando Meirelles, Kátia Lund

One great thing about cinema in the 2000s was that films from the third world became also easily available for western audiences. And this surely is a film for us fat cat westerners that think we have it badly in here. City of God is a film about the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in the 60's and 70's. There young people are left with the choice of joining a gang or die. A trio of young boys, Rocket, L'il Ze and Bené do petty crimes and develop a strong bond. Years later Ze (Leandro Firmino) and Bené have gotten ever more dangled with the life of crime and dealing drugs and are practically running the city. Rocket (Alexandre Rodriguez) has turned his back on them and wants to leave the slums to become a professional photographer.

The film is nothing short of incredible. It's burned up, scorching cinematography is good - Brian DePalma-level good! The actors may all be amateurs but they pull off their roles intensively and believably. As the film chronicles years' worth of crime it is a massive piece, yet one that will not wash away from memory very easily. And that's probably for the best as it's good to know that such atrocious lifestyle falls on millions of people even today. The film is based on real events.

The Departed
Director: Martin Scorsese
USA, 2006

Andy Lau's hongkongese Infernal Affairs is a fine film, shattering ideas of cops and robbers by showing the ideas of both being damaged by the corruption of the society. Yet the film is confusing and hard to follow at parts. Leave it to maestro Scorsese to make heads and tails out of the story. In his film, the action has moved to Boston. There, the police departement sends a mole (Leonardo DiCaprio) to infiltrate the Irish mob. His job is also to find out who's been giving classified police information to the mobsters. That would be Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), a crook that has infiltrated the police force. Neither of the moles knows the identity of the other, yet they both succeed in taking the other's life to parts from their position.

As always with Scorsese, the editing and the use of music are fantastic. This movie has so great characters, that a lot of bit-parters steal the thunder from Damon and DiCaprio (who are still pretty good). The biggest scene-stealers are by far Jack Nicholson’s pervert crime boss and Mark Wahlberg’s insulting policeman, who both seem to be having the time of their life chewing the scenery. One can try to make a film with as quotable lines and as great settings, but William Monahan's script makes it seem effortless. How could you not have a great time with all of that? Granted, the American remake has forgotten a lot of the subletities of the original. Instead, the film overplays its methaphorical iconography that the corruption is inside the whole society. It is still Scorsese's best film of the decade, even if it is lightyears from his previous mob epics.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed
UK, 2009
Director: J Blakeson

I will maintain my affection for this film, which I've already brought out a couple of times. I just think it's great filmmaking that makes it all seem so effortless, even though it's all so well thought-out. The film has only three characters in it, two kidnappers and the kidnappee, the titular Alice Creed. Yet it never feels like a thetre rehersal or an experimental film. The characters seem to live in the real world, and having all the drama happen between three people just emphasizes the isolation of the kidnapping situation. And the crime itself seems to be as well thought-out by the screenwriters as the kidnappers would, as evidenced by the brilliant silent opening scene. Director J Blakeson could be blamed for being a M Night Shyamalan -style plot twister, but I don't think his twists are actually the only thing carrying the whole movie. Rather, they are used to put on a new shift while running the plot. In these times where we get most of our entertainment well-chewed, it is noteworthy where we get a film that doesn't show off all its cards right in the beginning.

Eastern Promises
Canada/USA/UK, 2007
Director: David Cronenberg

The Russian mafia has rarely been the focus of crime films (that I've seen anyway). Usually they are just comically evil antagonists to small-scale british spivs. But leave it to David Cronenberg to bring some weight into the issue. He and his leading man Viggo Mortensen really went to find out about the system of honor among thieves and a sense of families that runs in the background of some really brutal and ruthless gangsters.

In London, the midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) recieves the baby of a deceased teenager. Trying to get the baby to a deserving home gets her tangled with both Russian gangsters and a world that lives by their terrorizing rule. A mob boss's driver Nikolai (Mortensen), however decides to help Anna, which makes him a marked man among the mob.

Cronenberg never lets the viewer off easy and this is no exception. His portrayal of organized crime is one of the most sinister and brutal there is. The horrible scenes of ultra-violence come through suddenly and with all their brutal force. The naked fight in a sauna is one of the most outstanding scenes in the whole decade. The acting is also extraordinary, with Mortensen being particularly believable as a man with a past with violence as long as much as he has tattoos. Some say the ending is a bit Hollywood-y, but I say that judging by the film preceding it, this one victory actually feels very Pyrrhic.

Gomorra, Italy 2008
Director: Matteo Garrone

Like the non-fiction book it's based on, Gomorra aims to reveal the grittiness of the murder trade. The film features five different stories, each of which touches upon Italian mafia. And in the world of Neapolitan organized crime syndicate Camorra, there's no sense of family or honor. It's a dog-eat-dog world where lives could end brutally just like that. And it doesn't just cover the more familiar mob-forced industries such as drugs and murder trade, but also things like industrial toxic dumps and immigrant sweatshops. The mafia's corruption of the land goes deep. There are some parallels to Berlusconi's rule in Italy to be found.

The movie plays like Mean Streets, in that it reveals the insecurities covered by the macho attitude of petty crooks. The Scarface-like gangster glamour turns out to be just an ideal for long-suffering boys dreaming of a better future. Image-wise, the film is rough and cold, like the world it is depicting. The film lurches on pretty slow, but I do believe that this is one of the more realistic mafia movies. 

In Bruges
UK/USA, 2008 
Director: Martin McDonagh

Bruges - big fucking deal. Such is the equivelent of what mob hitman Ray (Colin Farrell) lets out of his motor mouth to his partner-in-crime Ken (Brendan Gleeson), who's a lot more into the Belgian city's medieval art. However, Ray carries within himself massive guilt over their last botched operation that got innocents killed. That's also why the men are sent to Bruges until things cool down. But their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) also has bigger plans in mind. Also getting mixed up in the whole affair are a pretty young actress Chloe, Harry's poor inanimate telephone, a pregnant innkeeper and a cranky and melodramatic dwarf.

The result is a hilarious little English black crime-comedy. There has been a need for this sort of thing, since Guy Ritchie stopped making good films. The film wisely steers away from some of the modern potholes this kind of film might fall into, such as too overloaded postmodernism and a feeling that the makers think they are cleverer than they really are (See also: Lucky Number Slevin). It's a well-written and constructed piece of work. And funny to boot. YOU'RE AN INANIMATE FUCKING OBJECT!

Mesrine - Killer Instinct & Public Enemy no. 1 
L'instinct de mort / L'ennemi public no. 1
France, 2008
Director: Jean-François Richet

The true story of the most notorious criminal in France was so epic, they couldn't confine it in a single film. Jacques Mesrine lived a life that spans almost all sub-genres of crime films: he was a gangster, a bankrobber, an outlaw, a terrorist, a kidnapper, a scourge of the police, a convict, an escapee and a self-made legend. The first film is based on Mesrine's own autobiography, which he wrote in jail. But there was so much true accounts of what he did after that, they based the latter film on them.

The first film is inevitably a rise to power, with Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) having fun doing crimes and picking up girls as he goes on. The most interesting part is the one that deals with his family. Mesrine blames his father for being too timid towards his mom's rules. He might as well blame him for allowing to become what he was. A huge action set-piece about an assault to a prison ends the first part memorably. The latter part is mostly about Mesrine in jail, pining to connect with his daughter, but refusing to cave in to the system that wants to change him. The society will, of course eventually destroy him.

Vincent Cassel is wonderful as the flamboyant criminal. With all his dirty deeds, he is the sort that we have to root for - he doesn't seem rotten to the core, but rather sees himself as a sort of rebel. Cassel is also believably aged through the films. The rest of the cast is filled with a who's who of famous French actors from Gerard Depardieu to Mathieu Amalric and from Cécile De France to Anne Consigny.

A Prophet 
Un prophéte, France/Italy 2009
Director: Jacques Audriard

Jacques Audriard is a clear auteur. He has brought out whole new sides of crime movies probably more effective than anyone else last decade. A Beat That My Heart Skipped is a great film, but owes a little too much to James Toback's Fingers. Better is Audriard's follow-up, that breaks the form of conventional gangster films. In the career of every career criminal, there is a point where you serve time in jail. But Audriard makes this just the set-up. It's the prison that will corrupt the mind of a young convict Malik (Tahir Raham). As a place filled with dangerous people, he is forced to seek protection from some organized crime types. This all comes with a price and the mob boss's errands soon turn out to include smuggling drugs and murdering people. Both in and out of the jail. When Malik finally earns his freedom, he leaves the joint as a Don.

Audriard doesn't make this transition conventionally smooth. Instead, Rahid bumbles clumsily through his odd jobs, but manages to survive by luck. In a key scene his life is spared by a rival criminal as he remembers a dream about a deer which their car is about to smash into. Violence in the film has real consequences and we see the affect doing such brutal deeds has for a first-timer. But the prison as an Animal Factory has these sorts of Darwininan rules and thus begins the road to survival. Raham does unbelievably convincing work here. His thoughts are not usually easy to read from his face. Also, although he's identified as an Arab in the film, this is used to make him at odds with the hostile environment. Everyone can identify with that, and his need for survival. At the same spot, we'd probably do the same if we could be as fast-thinking. This identification is what makes the point where the plot eventually leads us a lot more chilling.

UK/USA, 2000
Director: Guy Ritchie

Snatch is really the kind of film that shouldn't work at all. It moves lightning-fast, has too many characters to keep track of, and isn't really about anything too deep. Just a lark. But Director/Writer Guy Ritchie managed to capture lightning in a bottle with this one. He's since desperately tried to duplicate the effect to no avail until he finally sold out to Hollywood. But let's not hold that (or  marrying Madonna) against him or the film.

In a nutshell, the story goes that unlicenced boxing promoters Turkish (Jason Statham) and Tommy get orders from a mob boss to fix up a match. He arranges for a promising young gypsy (an almost unrecognizable Brad Pitt) to take the place of their fighter, as he had beaten the champ in a bar scrap. At the same time some very dangerous criminals arrive to England to seach for a stolen jewel that's gotten lost on the way to its new owner. And from there on it gets a bit more complicated.

From the script's twists and turns to the hilarious dialogue, the film is all about fun for the lads. The fun extends to big Hollywood actors such as Pitt and Benicio del Toro doing small roles that won't do them any favours in their CV. The film is so fast it also rewards repeat viewings to catch everything. The ultra-polished direction from the look of the film to the editing shows a cockiness from Ritchie's part, but at least here he knew exactly what he was doing.

The 25th Hour
USA, 2002
Director: Spike Lee

The hardest film for me to decide whether I should include here, was this. One could argue that it's not about Criminal activity per se. Rather, it focuses rather on human relationships, quite like a Greek Tragedy (or a drama film if you will). Yet it is unmistakably about a drug dealer facing a prison sentence. And besides, I've already got too many films to fit in my inevitable Drama 00's post.

Monty Brogan has only 24 hours before a seven-year sentence starts. He goes through his life with the help of his girlfriend, his dog, his father and his two best friends. Part of him is filled with hate. He lets it out in a memorable scene in front of a mirror. Yet he comes to realize the reason prison is so hard for him is the love he has for his surroundings, topped with a big dose of fear of the unknown. His friends (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper) also go through crises of self-confidence. The first, a high school English teacher, suffers from loneliness and his lust for his sexy female student. The latter's crisis comes from realizing he can't really keep their friendship together or even help Monty as much as he'd like to. From a self-confident stockbroker the realization of some things being out of his power is world-shattering.

Spike Lee filled this with iconography related to New York. It is clearly a response to the attack the city suffered in 9/11 the previous year. Yet Lee never gets over-sentimental or rubs our faces with it. Instead he makes the Spirit of the multicultural City just a thing Monty is missing out on when he's in prison. Lee uses all the different ethnicities and varying people to create a colorful representation of New York as a home for even those that feel lost.

It should be remembered also, that Lee directed the fun and slick, albeit rather conventional heist movie Inside Man. It was close of getting a nod in the bubbling under list.

Bubbling Under: 
The Beat That My Heart Skipped, 2005; Layer Cake, 2004; Public Enemies, 2009; Sexy Beast, 2000; Traffic, 2000

To be seen:
American Gangster, 2007; Election I & II (2005, 2006); Read My Lips (2001)

Friday, 25 March 2011

The Secret Life of Vegetables

Le scaphandre et le papillon (c) 2007 Pathé Renn production

What would it be like, tied to a bed, not being able to move a muscle? Ever? Many people say that if they ever turn into vegetables, being able to only live through machines, they'd want to be killed. It seems reasonable, after all, you can't really do anything you used to enjoy anymore. But that's only from looking at the point of view of someone healthy. What would you actually want to do, were you in such a position? And how would that affect those around you? A few films from various countries address this kind of living each in their own way.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le schaprande et le papillon)
Director: Julian Schnabel
France, 2007

First, we have two real-life stories of paraglecic people. One learns to live, the other wants to die. This film is about the former. It tells the story of fashion magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered a stroke. As a result he can only move his eyelids. This horrifying situation is referred to being a Butterfly inside a Diving Bell by Bauby (Mathieu Amalric). The film's director Julian Schnabel shoots the first act of the film straight from Bauby's eyes, which creates a sense of helplessness and claustrophobia also for the viewer. But even though it all seems hopeless, being that fragile, the movie gives Bauby eventually a reason to keep on living and fighting for a recovery.

Bauby learns to spell by blinking his eyes. As he gets a skill of self-expression, we as viewers are also rewarded by getting to see some of his dreams in images, and even the man himself from another point of view. We get to see glimpses of his past life and understand the full-scale feel of loss of never being able to embrace those that love him again.

The film is very touching and inventively shot. It's one of those very few films that you get the feeling you feel through your whole body, not just with your eyes and brain. Mathieu Amalric is not exactly one of my favorite actors, but in a role as subdued, he does terrific work. If one has lived life to the fullest, and has to live the last few years of one's life on borrowed time, shouldn't one make the most of it?


The Sea Inside (Mar adrento)
Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Spain, 2004

Well, to answer the final question of the last movie, Spaniard Ramon Sampedro (Javier Bardem) says no. He was also a real person, and in Spain a celebrity for fighting to court for 30 years to get himself a chance for euthanasia. I'm all for a mercy killing for people in excruciating pain, but Sampedro really doesn't have it that bad. He can at least talk and move his head so he really doesn't have to look at the same ocean view opening from his bedroom.

Sampedro is also a ladies' man. Being played by Javier Bardem of course does that to you. His relationship with two women nurturing him drives him to the solutions he eventually chooses. Julia (Belén Rueda) is his lawyer who supports his cause, whereas Rosa (Lola Dueñas) is his nurse that wants to convince him to reconcider his death wish. Both women will have major developments in their life during the course of the movie, which make them see Sampedro's problem from another angle.

Unlike The Diving Bell and Butterfly, The Sea Inside is melodramatic and filled with sap. Sampedro is supposedly a wise man charming everyone he meets and teaching them lessons in life. To me he's just a cranky bald man who's bitching about how he can't change himself. So one really shouldn't watch this after the French masterpiece. But actually both are still well worth watching, as one can see from them the different attitudes people from different countries may have about the same subject. The French are eager to rebel against bad conditions, so Bauby rises against his oppressing situation and nihilism as well. Whereas the Spanish are so passionate about living life for the fullest, they are willing to go to war to end it if they can't do it anymore. I think it's pretty clear with which I symphatize more.


Director: Richard Franklin
Australia, 1978

As a counteweight for such heavy dramas, we have an australian exploitation movie that takes the permise of Carrie and moves her powers to the body of a creepy coma patient. Patrick (Robert Thompson) is someone who always keeps his eyes open, yet never needs anyone to moisture them á la A Clockwork Orange. He is hinted at having done something evil to get to that condition as his mother and her lover had died brutally at the same time he went into coma.

The film follows nurse Kathy (Susan Penhaligon) as she's hired to work at the hospital where Patrick is situated. She has recently divorced from her husband, yet the pair still has lingering feelings towards each other. She confines in Patrick, believing he can't hear her deepest emotions. Yet at the same time, weird paranormal activities wreck havock and seem to be bent on destroying everytone Kathy holds dear.

Speaking at the point of view of the vegetable, Patrick is all about bottled up rage. To certain extent it's also about sexual frustration of a feeble individual that really can't do that much about it. In exploitation films it always has to go all Freudian at some point. It is the rage rather than the will to live that keeps Patrick going. Like many frustrated people, he hopes to release the power of the id to do destruction in his bidding. This mind power is shown as being concrete here. In the end it's even questionable whether Patrick really was comatose or if he was just so in control of his mind as to be able to fake it all the way through.

Patrick is a clear cult movie. It is mostly remembered by horror film aficionados and less known by the general public. Some of this may be because of the film's Australian origin. It was a huge hit in the country at the time and even spawned an Italian rip-off/sequel Patrick Still Lives (1980). For an exploitation flick, it does play a lot with different moods rather than gory sequences. The athmosphere in Patrick creates different kinds of unease at each point. The actors are not half bad for such a film, either and the film's plot doesn't follow the most trodden paths of horror films. Yet director Franklin is still not good enough to completely avoid silly jump-scares and going over-the-top at times. But that's what horror film fans want, right?

A lot of interest towards the film has awoken as Quentin Tarantino recommended it in the documentary Not Quite Hollywood. Tarantino has also expressed his love in Kill Bill vol. 1. In that film, Uma Thurman's still able to spit upon people she doesn't like, while being in a coma, just like Patrick.

★★★ 1/2

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Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Tampere Film Festival report 2011

I visited the industrial city of Tampere to go to the short film festival they had. The fact that the festival is mostly for short films provides some problems on how to cover it in this blog. I don't want to analyze each of the shorts I saw seperately. So I decided to do a review on only the full-length films and the winning films I saw.

One of my most eagerly awaited happenings of the festival were the compilations of old 16 mm films collected by the American film freak Dennis Nybacka. These were showed at three seperate screenings that were organized by their respective themes. The first one I saw was called the Age of Oil and focused on the relationship America has with its Black Gold. The films from this screening were the most versatile and also the most interesting of the bunch. The screening featured first a few old educational fims about how useful oil is and where does it come from (1952,1953). The interests of the oil companies behind these older films are almost too obvious, looking at them from the modern perspective. Yet the film Toast (1974) is more illustrative - it shows just how much oil we waste to toast a single slice of bread. The show included also a couple of old one-reel comedies that revolved around the subject.  The W.C. Fields one, California Bound, was almost too fast for me to comprehend but still pretty funny. The more interesting one was It's A Gift (1923), a silent film by the forgotten comic Snubb Pollard. At his prime he used to be a rival for Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. The film was about an inventor that had an alternative for expensive oil usage - using magnets to hitch a ride from passing cars. Some of the inventions by Pollard were almost uncannilly reminiscent of the ones seen in Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times.

Although the second screening, Kill A Commie For Christ had a more provocative title, the films were a lot duller. The screening focused on the Cold War from the American perspective, yet didn't feature any outrageous anti-communist films but rather some of the Newsreels from that time. While it's certain that American newscasters at that time weren't FOR communism, the perspective isn't so over-the-top as to be funny. Yet the final film, All About Fallout (1961), grimly saved the day. On the same day as the earthquake in Japan damaged its nuclear power plants to the point of crisis, the festival audience got to see the most ludicrous "educational" film about shielding from atom bombs since Duck and Cover. Granted, it focused on just the Nuclear Fallout. Yet I do doubt that a single jacket would be enough to save oneself from it, even if one brushes it afterwards. Nor do I believe that one can eat nuclear potatoes by just peeling them, nevermind drink from polluted rivers as "water washes itself". But the most outrageous claim of the film is that "nuclear fallout disappears pretty fast, so one can come out from the Nuclear shelter after a week". Should an atom bomb be dropped and I survive in a bomb shelter, I wouldn't be so certain to come out if it wasn't necessary. Let's hope no one Japan doesn't have to make that choice.

The final screening was saved for the club Freaky Horror Night so that everyone could be able to get drunk and extra ironic on that one. It was called Good Intentions and featured old educational films for youngsters, and they all attempted to scare them straight. That's why we got to see teenagers suffer the consequences of such feats as drinking and driving, dropping LCD and shoplifting. They are pretty slow-moving by today's standards but the most hilarious thing about them is the wallowing in the tragedy that follows. The films usually have a main character that has an inner monologue filled with self-pity: Why Oh Why Did I Have To Do It?! What will my mother think? All of the films go on for far too long and at point I was certain we would get to follow the protagonist all the way into the grave, rotting away regretting the abrupt end of his life. Freaky.

Willliam S. Burroughs: A Man Within 
Director: Yony Leyser
USA, 2010

I wonder if it's hip to be a beanik again these days. In addition to the film Howl about Allen Ginsberg we have a brand new documentary about the author of Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs. The film itself has an indie background. The director Yony Leyser started to make the film by just going around to talk to people who knew Burroughs personally. Everyone was happy to oblige and he also uncovered a lot of rare footage from these people - simple home videos that happen to feature the author. Eventually the project began to grow over as a full feature film. Leyser may be a first time director, but the documentary itself doesn't seem a drop cheaper or more simple than bigger-budget documentaries. Leyser even got RoboCop himself, Peter Weller, to host the documentary and Sonic Youth to provide for the soundtrack.

The film's strengths lie on the archive footage and the few fantastic ideas that create an inspirational feeling for the film. These include dividing the film into seperate subjects rather than following a chronological timeline. It's also a cool idea to feature a strange stop-motion animation made out of iron wire at the beginning of each of these chapeters. But this division is also a weakness as themes from Burrough's life don't get to overlap each other but are divided into seperate portions. If one is not too familiar with the author (like me), one can get a pretty clear idea of what makes him such an interesting character. Yet the chronology of his life and to some extent the cause and affect is lost on us. Burroghs met numerous tragedies and a lot of sorrow in his life, which must have taken its toll in his behaviour. I'm just not quite sure how.

There is also the fact that there are too many interviewees. While it's impressive to see the likes of David Cronenberg, Iggy Pop, John Waters, Genesis P-Orridge and Jello Biafra talk about their idol, it really undermines the interviewees who have a lot of the more deeper insights about the man, such as his former lovers. Leyser does get some emotion out of some interviewees and it becomes quite apparent that Bourroughs was a man who couldn't really handle the relationships he had. It is an intimate documentary, with the literary work taking the backseat, but getting the right amont of time to shine too. If anything, it awoken my interest to finally reading Naked Lunch, which has waited for me in my shelf for a while.


Fall of the House of Usher (La chute de la maison Usher)
Director: Jean Epstein
France, 1928

This was already the second time I saw Jean Epstein's silent film provided with modern rock being played simultaneously for its soundtrack. This time the sound was provided by the Finnish punk band Radiopuhelimet. The band is great, but it seems that they weren't quite up for the task. They couldn't create the kind of athmosphere needed for such an eerie film, nor could even rock it out as hard as they could've. The end result was nice but not earth-shattering.

As for the film itself, it tells about a man called Allan (Charles Larmy) traveling to The House of Usher, a place that the locals call cursed. Allan has been summoned by the house's owner, his old friend Roderick Usher (Jean Debaucourt) who is growing desperate over his wife's illness. He is painting a picture of her that is actually an attempt to preserve her alive as long as possible.  This leads to supernatural phenomena and eventually, the Fall of the actual House.

The film is not actually one of my favorite silent horror films. The classic horror story by Edgar Allan Poe is not one to suit any adaptation very good anyway as the horror is created by mostly lingual and methaphoric ways rather than with something you can picture on canvas. But nevertheless, Epstein does a valiant effort. The athmosphere is created with care and the dark and striking imagery, while not exactly unforgettable, services the darkness of the story well. The shortcomings come from having such a flimsy plot. And the ending actually feels oddly anti-climatic and doesn't really resolve the main plot in a satisfyng way. I refuse to believe this is because of some Haneke-like anti-establishment postmodernism rather than just sloppy screenwriting.


Director: Tod Browning
USA, 1932

Freaks was played at the festival in a club called Freaky Horror Night. I am very fond of the film and thus don't feel the background of drinking beer, listening to music and chatting with friends at the same time was of service for the film as much as it could've been. The film and it's deformed cast were used as a kind of sideshow for the club, planning to gather glances from the distracted club audience. This undermines the film's strong humanistic message about equality among people.

The first half of Freaks mostly just depicts the life of dwarves, pinheads and such other sideshows behind the scenes of a travelling circus. They are not the actual freaks of the title. That title goes to the "regular" people that mock and abuse those different from them, refusing to accept they are also human beings. One of such human monsters is the beautiful trapeze artist Venus (Leila Hyams). Initially she makes fun of the dwarf Hans (Harry Earles) that is in love with her, but when he learns that the little man is rich, she agrees to marry him. The other deformed sideshow performers good-naturedly accept Venus to their tight group. But she actually has an affair with the circus strongman Hercules (Henry Victor) and they plan to poison Hans to run off with the money.

The film's director Tod Browning used to work in a circus himself and thus the film is apparently based on his real experiences with working with those that are different. The character of Phroso the clown (Wallace Ford) may be something of an alter ego to Browning as his role is mostly to stand up for the sideshows and give them emotional support at times of need. It is impressive how Browning didn't resort to makeup or tricks to recreate his beloved circus world, but rather gave work to actual sideshows. By that time's (pre-Hayes code) standards this is a very noble film. By depicting the everyday life of the sideshows, Browning casts them in a natural light. They have the same small pleasures and nuicances in life as we all. For once we get to see them in their own terms, not in the middle of a circus, being cast in the light of being different. Browning is also wily enough to answer such questions as how does a man without arms or legs light up his cigarette, so the film is actually far from being a complete bleeding-heart humanistfest.

Not counting the final few minutes, Freaks is almost more like a film noir in a circus setting than a real horror film. The main character is almost destroyed by a treacherous woman and her schemes. Yet for a film about a community it also has a dark edge. One who decides to betray the trust of the closest of groups must pay a price.


The winning films:

The External World - Winner of Best Animation
Director: David O'Reilly. Germany 2010. 15 min.

The film is a compilation of skits where the rules of animation make anything possible. The film has a dark sense of humour and parodies our urban lives where the mundane enviroment mixes up with the colourful lives we follow in the media. To achieve this with large-eyed cuddly cartoon characters just adds to the punch this delivers.

How To Pick Berries (Miten marjoja poimitaan)- Winner of Best Documentary
Director: Elina Talvensaari. Finland 2010. 19 min.

The documentary depicts the views people in Lapland have for (and against) people from Thailand coming every year to pick berries from the wilderness to earn small wages from the local jam factory. The film mostly lets its images tell the story of the environment and let the voices of the interviewees tell that part. It is beautifully shot and perfectly realized, and tells a lot about the actual mindset of us Finns.

Silent River (Apele Tac) - Chosen As European Film Academy Nominee Tampere
Director: Anca Miruna Lazarescu. Romania 2011. 30 min.

Again I must look with admiration how a nation with such a small film industry as Romania can produce brilliant cinema year after year. This is another tale of the dark totalitarian Ceaucescu years, this time about two men and the other's pregnant wife who attempt to defect to Serbia. The storytelling is nothing short of brilliant - in such a small amount of time the director manages to fully flesh out the characters and to grippingly bring out the tensions, large and small. The end has the most thrilling suspense moments I've witnessed in years. Highly recommended.

The Tongueling (Kielitietty) - Winner of the Youth Jury Prize
Director: Elli Vuorinen. Finland 2010. 4 min.

The Tongueling is a one-gag animation. The gag itself is sweet and funny enough, even if it is a tad predictable.

Sweet Mov(i)e - Winner of the Risto Jarva Prize by the Finnish Film Foundation
Director: Jan Ijäs. Finland 2010. 4 min.

The experimantal short features a split screen where young women and men practice their fuck-moves in their underwear. The film is so banal from the use of music to the grainy black-and-white photography, that it works as a sort of parody from over-sexualized advertizing. Some jean commercials are not too far from that. Except they would probably choose better music over the cheesefest playing in the background of this great short.

The Illustrated City (Kuvitettu kaupunki) - Winner of Main Prize, Less Than 30 Minutes
Director: Jan Andersson. Finland 2010. 5 min.

Probably the most political of the films features a wall which is filled with graffitis and then painted over. Over and over again. The film seems to suggest that the unrelenting fighting against street art leads later on to fascism and a dystopian future. It really doesn't trust security cameras to say the least. Yet the film is beautifully animated and is a hoot to watch nevertheless.

Incident By A Bank (Händelse Vid Bank) - Winner of the Grand Prix, Winner of Best Fiction, Winner of the Audience Award of the International Competition
Director: Ruben Östlund. Sweden 2010. 12 min.

The biggest pile of prizes went to this very inventive and entertaining Swedish film. It depicts a bank robbery progressing, shot from the street in real time and with a single take. The director has taken a page from the films of Jacques Tati and utilizes various depths within the image inventively. It also has an unmistakable swedish sense of humour that is at once deadpan, realistic and quite silly. It also has a certain melancholic side to it and comments our times where the people witnessing the robbery rather set up their cell phones to shoot a video than call the police. Supposedly based on actual events, the filmmakers themselves got into trouble while shooting. Featured above is the cell phone footage shot by a character in the film.

I didn't get a chance to see The Painting Sellers (Finland 2010) - The Winner of Main Prize for Films Over 30 Minutes. But I promise you to do something to review the film once the DVD comes out. I'm very intrigued about that.

Monday, 14 March 2011

The Directors: Stanley Kubrick

Doing a blog post about Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) proved to be (in scale) as harrowing and as long a process as his films were to make. So I could kiss my own deadlines goodbye. But to give tribute to one of the greatest directors this world has ever seen, one must be willing to stretch his schedule to think it out, sit and watch the films and hunt down his more obscure earlier work. I did leave out the short films he made, but maybe some other day I'll talk a little about them too. Most of Kubrick's movies are of course quite widely seen, and it would be cooler to intoduce lesser-known directors in this series. But seeing as I've recently rewatched several, it's as good a time to write about them as any.

Kubrick was originally a photographer by profession. That is why he is nothing short of a visual genius. Every single one of his films contain unforgettable images that pop up in pop culture and culture in general all the time. He cropped and lit his films like no one else. But he also understood that the art of cinema isn't only about making pretty pictures. That's why his use of music is also versatile and he directed some actors so good, they never managed to get a role even near of what they had accomplished in a Kubrick movie.

But the real meat in the Kubrick experiment lie in his films and how many-sided and open for interpretation they are. I give only a small piece of thoughts about every one of his films, but one could easily write an essay on each just by single watching (OK, post-The Killing perhaps). Kubrick specialized in examining the limits of moden civilization and culture. Does one have to accept the rules of society to be an individual? What's the limit of being human? His cynicism about modern society and in particular those in power of them are healthy thoughts to have to survive in this world. These days when the Fat Cats use us as tools, Kubrick's films couldn't be more recommended.

Fear and Desire (1953)

Kubrick hated a few of the films he made over the years, but none more harshly than his first, of which he purchased and destroyed every print he could find. Only one print remains in the whole world, and currently if one wishes to see the film, one must try to catch that in its rare public screenings or stoop to watching bootlegs. But it may well be woth it, as Fear and Desire is by no means an "unwatchable" film as panned by its creator. It contains a lot of good ideas, nicely shot pictures (Kubrick worked also as a cinematographer) and one can clearly see that a true master is starting to develop.

The film tells a story of a platoon in an unnamed war. They get caught between enemy lines and quarrel whether they should build a raft to get out of there or to try to destroy the enemy headquarters located nearby. As one can guess from the title, the men do their decisions based on their fears and desires.

Kubrick shoots this low-budget film like a pro, and there are plenty of striking black-and-white images throughout. The standout piece is when the platoon attacks a group of enemy soldiers at their supper. The stew getting caught up in the middle probably will remind everyone of the blood and guts, even if none are shown. Kubrick's pet themes of losing one's humanity for violence is surely at work even here. Also emphasizing the two sides of the coin are that the same actors play roles on both sides of the war - and then end up killing their doppelgangers. The biggest problems come with the scale of the film. Even though the actors and the photography are good, there's always a lingering feeling that it's all a movie just shot in a nearby forest. Some archive footage about tanks and aeroplanes and the like would have also made the war going on feel more concrete.


The Killer's Kiss (1955)

Killer's Kiss is another early film that feels like Kubrick mastering his art but at least he felt it was completed enough to allow to be shown. A boxer (Jamie Smith) falls for a dancer who has an abusive boyfriend. Thus he gets into a feud with a gangster (Frank Silvera) who attempts to kill him for sticking his nose into other people's business.

The film has a happy ending and the plot by Kubrick himself is oddly conventional otherwise, too. But the film shines in its cinematography. Kubrick seemingly enjoys shooting sharp film noir -contrasts. The finale in a warehouse full of mannequin limbs and torsos is the most memorable image from the film and it is beautifully shot. Pity it doesn't seem to have anything deeper to say than that the hero is willing to risk "life and limb" for his beloved.

There's nothing seriously wrong with the film, but it washes out of the memory pretty easily, which is why it's hard for me to try to analyze it here.


The Killing (1956)

The first Kubrick film that truly feels unique is still one of the best Heist films ever made. The film's crooks have a master plan to rob a racetrack cash register. The plot follows each of them seperately. First it seems that the plot will go wrong when one of the robbers tells his wife about the plan, but in the end the plot is ruined by some minor everyday nuincances, such as a nail on the road, a small yapping dog, an angry parking valet and airport security regulations.

Without a strong lead role in his story, Kubrick is allowed to move around the fringes of the story. And he does it with great ease as the film is incredibly entertaining to follow. The stakes get higher as the actual robbery is performed and by the finale viewers are at the edge of their seats. It's a fun entertainment movie, for sure, but it seems it doesn't have such grandieur themes as Kubrick's later masterpieces. Instead it opts for the pretty basic "crime doesn't pay""whatever can go wrong, will go wrong" and "women are treacherous and unreliable" messages as many of the other crime films of the same era.


Paths of Glory (1957)

It's probably because the war stayed so still for years that we have quite few movies about the First World War. In the immortal words of Captain Blackadder the Allied Forces advanced since 1914 as much as "an asthmatic ant with two heavy shopping bags". The same goes for the Germans on the other side. Yet the war did have its drama and the futility at its core can translate into quite gripping anti-war stories. And sure enough, Kubrick directed one of the best of them.

The French military plan on an all-out attack on no-mans land. The reasonable Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) has his doubts about the plan, but tries to execute the orders the best he can. The result is a massacre, where most of the attacking forces get killed. A few soldiers turn away to save their lives. The Officers blame them for the plan's failure and have three of them court martialed. The soldiers are picked randomly and are as innocent as any, but the higher ranks demand satisfaction and are adamant to give the men the Capital Punishment to make an example.

Paths of Glory is one of the most cynical of Kubrick's films. The distrust to authorities is taken to its extremities as the Generals in the film are all after their own glory, which they intend to achieve without getting their hands dirty. Other than with blood, that is. The privates in this war are pawns to their games, yet privately just ordinary, simple men with modest pleasures. Poor and peasants, they only exist to be exploited by the upper class. By the end the virtuous Colonel Dax gets a small revenge on the system, but this just makes the big Generals to consider him to be cunning enough to be worthy of a promotion. He is naturally disgusted by the offer. The film is a plea for humanity. It appears there is still some left and it comes through the cracks at the end as a scared and kidnapped german maid starts to sing.

Spartacus (1960)

Spartacus is my favorite sword-and-sandal -type epic, although I've got to admit I really doubt most of the thanks goes to Kubrick on this one. Kubrick wasn't yet a big name in art film circles and was just another director in Hollywood at this point. The Golden Age of the studio system was at its last, but still luring people from their new television sets to cinemas by promising epics larger than life. This system, where the producers cough up more and more extras and lavish sets and the director merely watches the cast knows their lines, would end with the huge financial flop of Cleopatra three years after Spartacus.

The story goes the star Kirk Douglas actually attached Kubrick to the project after firing the previous one. Douglas produces the film and plays Spartacus, a Roman slave drafted to become a gladiator. As his friends die for the amusement of Roman noblemen, one day Spartacus has enough and revolts against his oppressors. He gathers an army from freed slaves to take on Rome in all its might. For Douglas, the noble rebel just wanting freedom for his people was, of course the noblest character this side of the Bible.

The film resembles more other big-scale epics made at that time than anything other Kubrick ever directed. The melodramatic love story between Spartacus and the slave woman Viridia, for instance, has a certain wamth lacking from all other of Kubrick's works. The strong message of fighting for human rights was also too "moralizing" for Kubrick's taste, but of course he would prefer a more subtle approach. However, the film is not entirely devoid of Kubrickian themes. A lot of the film is spent on depicting the schemings of Roman politicians, who can't wait to double-cross each other to gain power. This fulfills Kubrick's knack of having mistrust about the people in power in his films. The Cinemascope photography is simply breathtaking and Kubrick also proves he can shoot dynamic fight- and battle sequences. This one's for the little people and how our spirits can't be crushed, no matter how much we're oppressed.

★★★★ 1/2

Lolita (1962)

Kubrick tried his hands next in directing a gripping romance for the modern ages. As proper romances go, the society will not accept the pair and its forces will drive it to end unhappily. Kubrick saw a problem in that the society in the swinging 60's would accept almost every kind of heterosexual pair. That's why he went to work with the controversial Russian author Vladimir Nabokov to adapt his book, Lolita. The book, and the subsequent film concerns an older man's (James Mason) lust for his landlady's teenaged daughter Lolita (Sue Lyon), which drives him into desperate acts. He, Humbert Humbert, will get a chance for a relationship with Lolita eventually, but then he gets paranoid about getting caught.

From the credit scene (and the poster above this text) on it's obvious that the romance is a quite soft one. The film's credit sequence features Humbert's hands painting Lolita's fingernails and caressing her foot. It sums perfectly how the relationship works: Humbert pampers Lolita but leaves her passive, waiting for him (to come home from work or just to act). Yet Lolita does have a mind of her own. As for the age difference, Humbert could be Lolita's father (and for a while practically is). That's partially also why he feels he should protect Lolita from outside influences and not allow her to grow adult. As he loves her as an adolescent, he wishes to store her like a butterfly.  But Lolita does act her age and does things on a whim, rebels, juvenily teases and misleads Humbert and later, escapes

Yet the film isn't quite as good as I feel it could have been. Part of this is certainly because Kubrick is so cool and cruel for his characters. The real warmth in the relationship is scarce and Humbert is a little too obsessive to be in any way relatable character. Not having a relatable lead character works in many other of Kubrick's films, yet the romance genre really needs it to survive. Another thing that bugs me is the role of Clare Quilty, played by Peter Sellers. Sellers is brilliant in the opening scene, as first hung-over, then bemused and finally desperate and frightful bohemian faces the enraged Humbert who threatens to kill him. The rest of the film is told in flashback. Sellers pops up only here and there, mostly in stupid disguises, which might work in a more farcical film. Here it doesn't really bring in much-needed comic relief but just an odd out-of place feeling. Kubrick would later find something more appropriate for Sellers's talent in creating great characters and strong improvisation abilities. Having such a great opening scene also waters the film's ending totally and I am actually flabberghast of how tacky the film ends. Maybe Kubrick should've waited a few more years to get to break the form of the film postmodernly a little more. With just one scene moved to the beginning, it's not a functioning solution.

★★★ 1/2

Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964)

Ah, one of the finest satires ever crafted. Yet, you might argue about this, but I do think that some of the humour in this is a bit dated nowadays. Even though it's not a laugh-to-the-point-of-tears riot any more, one can still find some good belly-laughs and appreciate the ludicrous rules of nuclear warfare this film portrays. The film's dark humour was based on all too real books about the subject. Indeed, Kubrick first intended to make a straight-faced thriller, until he noticed how silly two great powers threatening each other with massive carnage basically is. The fact that he'd worked with Peter Sellers on his previous film helped a lot, too. I always wondered how they got along so well, the master craftsman who desired perfection with each of his films, and the crying-on-the-inside clown genius who insisted on improvising a hilarious line after another.

The plot concerns the race against time to reach Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who has launched an unauthorized nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. President Merkin Muffley (Sellers) tries to find a peaceful solution with the Russian embassador, his generals and his scientific advisor Dr. Stangelove (Sellers). Like many other clashes between two big brutes, the war here is paraphased to be mostly of sexual nature. Ripper is impotent and believes the Russians have poisoned the water supply. Muffley is a big pussy, which is noted by his name which means just that. And one can interpret what one will about Strangelove's hand, which likes to stiffen up and face the ceiling when he's talking about saving just the most genetically superior people from nuclear holocaust. The pitch-black, abrupt end sequence is a fine one, and one to think when our nuclear power plants start to blow up any of these days.


2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Kubrick's (and probably anyone's) most ambitious film chose to have no fewer and no less than the entire human evolution as a subject matter. We begin at the dawn of history when apes learn the use of tools and thus come, by definition, human. A mysterious giant monolith is somehow responsible for it. The same monolith next crops up a couple of million years later when it's found in a dig in the moon. Some time after that astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) experiences technical difficulties on his trip to Jupiter as the ship's computer HAL 9000 becomes conscious and kills the other passangers. Dave ultimately proves that man is more worthy than its creation by shutting HAL down. He is rewarded by the monolith, which is now outside Jupiter. It allows him to step inside, which marks a  whole new era of human development.

2001's plot doesn't seem that grandieur when put to words like that, but it proves we are dealing with  cinema in visuals and audio more than in words. 2001 is Kubrick's most ambitious and challenging work, and at the same time most open to different readings. It help a lot to produce such a film in the '60s - the flower people might have not understood it all, but they admired the film's unique arthouse aesthetics and visuals. Which is to say, the end scene is like a giant drug trip. But it is mostly about us humans, and a little cynical at that, too. Notice how both major turning points in human civilization are triggered by a murder of a lowers species happening shortly before.


A Clockwork Orange (1971)

A Clockwork Orange is a strangely poetic name for a film. It tells that it isn't a very easy or pleasant experience for the viewer. As far as I can tell, it tells a story of a society where mostly everyone is working like clockwork. Everything is done bureaucratically and when there's a problem, no one questions why the problem has been formed, but rather tries to get rid of it in the most straight-forward way possible. This is not obvious as this is told in the fringes of the story of one such a problem for the society. The teenaged Alex (Malcolm McDowell) enjoys brutally beating people, stealing, lying, raping - and classical music. Society won't have any of it so they try to reform him by stripping all his wants alnd will away - bad and good.

It tells a lot form Kubrick's talent that he can introduce such a despicable main character, yet turn the tables on us in the middle and actually make him a victim of society. This doesn't make him quite symphatetic but the world is revealed to be vengeful and bitter. Former victims can be just as cruel when they get the upper hand. Alex is also used as a massive tool for different agendas. A cold resentment for the ruling class once again makes the film a harrowing experience. Along 2001, Kubrick was allowed to experiment with his story-telling methods, so the film has almost painting-like near-still moments as well as high-speed sex.


Barry Lyndon (1975)

Kubrick tried a huge period movie again next, with a classic costume drama about a man's will to be a nobleman in the 18th century Britain. You can perhaps see some of what Spartacus could've been like, had Kubrick had more creative control over the film, in Barry Lyndon. For this is an epic story of one man who defied his heritage in a background of huge battles. But this time around, there's not a drop of sentimental melodrama, even if there is a sort of romance or two at the centre, but even more cold and calculating scheming with the occasional splashes of violence.

Like Full Metal Jacket later on, Barry Lyndon is a film of two halves. Of course the same could almost be said of any of his later films as Kubrick loved to put a whole new gear on for his films in the middle. The stylistic changes do work like a hand in glove for his films. Conviniently, in Barry Lyndon the halves are divided by an intermission, as this is a very long film. First, Irish countryman Redmond Barry's rise to power through a series of misadventures including fighting along multiple armies in the Napoleonic wars (another interest Kubrick harbored for years). Second, as Barry snatches the widow of a dying nobleman and consequently marries her he becomes Barry Lyndon. He then has to face against his stepson, who seems unnaturally attached to his mother and loathes his new stepfather.

Kubrick lets us take a peek behind the scenes of the luxury and glamour of the aristocracy. In the first half it becomes clear that their peacefulness is bought by common man's blood on the battlefield. In the second, the ambitions bite back. Barry is tormented by his past deeds and which subsequently lead him to lose the things he most desires and most cherises. Kubrick is a cynic and finds that too much ambition serves no one well. The film's exceptional beauty must also be marked here. Kubrick was influenced by the artists of that period to create his look. That's why the camera is placed so far away from the action from time to time, yet always in just the right place. The many candle-lit scenes also pushed the art of cinematography forward and look fantastic even today.


The Shining (1980)

Stephen King doesn't agree, but Kubrick directed the best adaptation from his texts. As Kubrick had sense, he left the eerie opening scenes of the novel intact to build athmosphere, but made major changes towards the end. King always has a cathartic finale where evil is destroyed, but Kubrick realized the bigger horror comes from the uncertainty, hence a creepy-as-hell final shot on a mysterious photograph.

But I digress. If anyone doesn't know the plot already, here it is on a nutshell. Others can skip away to the next chapter as the film is better if one doesn't know too much about it. The Shining is about a family lead by Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson). Jack takes a job to be the winter caretaker of a large hotel in the middle of nowhere to get some peace to work on his latest book. He also takes with him his wife Wendy and his small son Danny. Danny is revealed to have psychic powers, which make him sense supernatural evil lurking inside the hotel. Eventually Jack starts to also see the hotel's ghosts, which bring out murderous thoughts inside him.

As I said, Kubrick selected just the right amount of ingredients from King's toolbox. The isolated venue, oddly quiet and tidy corridors of hotel are creepily shot. But he adds a lot of very artistic tiny details that don't quite make sense. His masterful handling of pace works wonders here. One of the scariest jump-scares is when the sign says "Tuesday".  The film's minimalist music is also important. As Jack starts to question his sanity, we as viewers might, too. King complained that Jack Nicholson seemed too crazy to begin with. He has a certain point, but Kubrick's point is not to make us scared of our loved ones lose their sanity. No, he has a lot larger questions concerning time repeating itself, bad auras and, crucially, emotional numbness. Once again, also our Freudian centres begin to flow out once we're in a hostile environment.

★★★★ 1/2

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Kubrick returned to direct another war opus, this time based on the war in Vietnam. A group of young men to be sent to fight in 'Nam have to go through an intensive training period firs. The tough-as-nails Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) torments his trainees with never-ending verbal abuse. His aim is to make his boys ready to kill. He succeeds a little too well: Private "Pyle" (Vincent D'Onofrio) who had gotten the short end of the stick from him, goes slowly mad and ends up killing Hartman and then himself. This all has been observed by Private Joker (Matthew Modine), who we then follow into the war itself. Joker works for the Frontline Newspaper, that has a double-faced policy on how the happenings of the war are to be depicted. This encourages Joker's odd sense of humour about all the madness going on in the war, which he also carries with him to battlefields.

The first thing everyone will ever say about Full Metal Jacket is that it's a film of two halves. The opening half about training is the one that is more fondly remembered. Indeed, how we train ordinary men to become killing machines is a subject most war movies tend to miss. I think the half is pretty much perfect, with its casting, R. Lee Ermey's inventive abuses, twisted reality and all. The film would've been a poignant masterpiece had it merely based on the training. But we do go to 'Nam too, and it is kind of anti-climatic. Kubrick touches upon the madness of war and the fear and boredom of risking one's neck every day, both themes that have been exceptionally told about Vietnam before. Kubrick stays away from the jungles and depicts mostly urban war. Deaths come suddenly and the fighting is mostly between only a handful of guerrillas. This could also be a depiction of Afghanistan or any other modern war. This emphasizes that unlike Apocalypse Now or Platoon, Full Metal Jacket isn't that much about Vietnam, it's about modern war in a conceptual stage. The end scene is particularly harrowing. Is all this slaughter just a kind of game to a group of sociopaths or is it that we're sending children to massacre on behalf of some weird concepts of society? 

When I was in the military I do believe many of the officers took a page on Hartman's methods. The quips from this film were not exactly rare among us privates too. I doubt that was what Kubrick had in mind.


Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Kubrick spent the 80's and 90's planning huge projects like Napoleon and what would later turn up to be Steven Spielberg's A.I. - Artificial Intelligence. One of his pet projects was also to do a softcore porn film with A-list actors. It's a groovy idea - too bad that Paul Verhoeven directed Basic Instinct 7 years prior and flooded Hollywood with "erotic thrillers" during the whole decade. Kubrick's film was unfairly compared to this genre and the shock value of boobies was long gone. Kubrick's film isn't very erotic nor very exciting. It is still about sex. After both of them have flirted with others at a party, Alice Hatford (Nicole Kidman) tells her doctor husband Bill (Tom Cruise) that he's been fantasizing about having sex with other men. This revelation makes the shocked Bill search for his own extreme sexual experiences. But he realizes he's gone too far when he's unmasked at an orgy and a woman may have to give her life to save him.

Many critics have turned to defend the film. Yet I myself find the slow tempo and a weird lack of mood off-putting. Most of the blame is on the central actors. The film contains simply too much of Tom Cruise moping and (poorly) acting shocked. His then-wife Nicole Kidman isn't much better. Her bursting up laughing might be the least convincing giggle in the history of cinema. But Full Metal Jacket veteran Ermey reportedly said that Kubrick told him on the phone that the scientologist couple ruined his final masterpiece. At least Kubrick's style remained intact, as the musical choices and eye to cinematography are still stunning.

★★ 1/2

I'm starting to feel perverse about this rating system, as I wouldn't give a numeric score to Van Gogh or Mozart. Yet, the show must go on. Kubrick scores 3,85.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Berlin, Teil zwei

As interesting as the Berlinale was, there was a great deal of interesting films playing that were not limited to the festival. Berlin has always been a true cinema city. I visited two unique events that were not limited to the festival, so I thought to take the time to tell a little bit about them.

Berlinale has recently been under attack for having a set of rules which ask for independent films to cough up money to even be considered for the festival. This doesn't of course apply for bigger films, such as this year's opener, The Coen Brothers' True Grit. One look at the programme can also tell anyone that not only the best and brightest films get shown at the festival. So there may be a level of corruption involved.

Uwe Boll - not a controversial director as everyone agrees he's not very good.
One of the biggest critics of the festival management has been "director" Uwe Boll, maker of such video game shitfests as BloodRayne, FarCry and Alone in the Dark. Boll has tried to get his films screened at Berlinale multiple times, yet has always failed. This time, with his latest film, Auschwitz he didn't even try. Instead, he held a public press conference and a world premiere for the film. And filed for a lawsuit for the entrance fee of his previous films, which he never got back even though the films were never screened at Berlinale. The event was loads more fun for the Q&A sessions than for the film itself.

I would have thought that Auschwitz the film was just another occasion where Boll attempts to provoce the media's attention to his crap films. Boll's genius is manipulating the media and getting funding to films no one wants to see. But after hearing him talk about Auschwitz it really does seem that he really does have a misled illusion of grandeur. His claims of doing the first concentration camp film that's not an adventure, but rather a representation of what "actually happened" are full of holes themselves, but Boll does say it very convincingly. The only time he breaks his face is when someone from the audience asks how does he dare to shoot the film at the same set as BloodRayne 3. Boll's another recent film apparently takes the holocaust quite lightly and has Joseph Mengele as a nasty vampire. Boll shouts that he could do whatever the other directors do and shoot formulatic crap and walk the red carpet to Berlinale with his skills, but instead he chooses to be a rebel and create his own vision. This vision has never really convinced me before, but I was willing to give Auschwitz the benefit of doubt. After all, apparently some vague jewish organizations had hailed as a masterpiece (according to Boll).

Auschwitz (Germany, 2011)
Director: Uwe Boll

After hearing the über-confident Boll blab about his film for 45 minutes, it is almost funny to see him begin his latest film with him explaining the film to the camera. "Hello, I'm Uwe Boll and I'm responsible for this film." Even Boll admits, that his latest creation can scarcely be called a film - he calls it a "study". He struggles to gather together enough material for 70 minutes through the whole film, which is revealed when he repeats his opening statement in german (no subtitles for ol' Uwe!). After this, we get to see interviews with Germany's most ignorant teenagers, who apparently don't know much about the holocaust. He's edited all the student's right answers to the film's end, so the film works with a TV Shop logic: Once Boll has showed how things were in Auschwitz, everyone will have wide factual knowledge of the subject.

Boll proudly claims that his film is based on facts, and that's thanks to a single BBC documentary he saw. The depiction of Auscwitz, aiming to be naturalistic, itself resembles B-grade documentary filler-material itself. Boll doesn't have a story, he just marches a group of jews into the camp and then to gas chambers or to be shot at the yard. Dialogue is few and Boll concentrates on mundane things and repeating the same horrors over and over again. The germans and nazis themselves are portrayed indifferent to the point of clichés. Boll himself plays an officer that stuffs his face with a roll as the jews take their clothes off to walk into the "showers" where they will be killed with gas.

That being said, Boll has actually evolved as a director. By keeping fhis film focused, he does generate a certain threatening athmosphere and the docudrama portion is easy enough to follow, even though he uses way too much tasteless flash-cuts and cross-editing. By using repetition for shock value (such as when babies are shot to the head in the yard) again and again, he has a functional reminder that these essentially were murder factories. I'll give Boll an extra star for at least trying this time around. Who knows, maybe one day he'll be good enough to make films so bad they're funny. Now they remain just bad.


Another fine experience was to see the composer Max Steiner lead an orchestra to play his film music along with the film "Waltz with Bashir". Unfortunatelly, the electronic and rock instrument portions of the film were not emulated, but nevertheless this kind of film concert was unlike anything I had seen before. The film's score is actually pretty terrific itself. The film was less like a documentary than I remembered, so I removed it from the list of the best documentaries of the 2000s, and paste what I said about it to the end here.

Waltz with Bashir (Vals im Bashir, 2008)
Director: Ari Folman

Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman (as himself) goes to talk to his old war comrades from the Lebanon war. They explain to him the dreams they had regarding the war and the fleeting memories, which have started to vanish in their old age. The film mixes a fictional narrative with some authentic and some acted audio tapes.

Nowadays it is quite rare that one sees something something altogether new in the world of cinema. This film was one of the most original ones I saw during the whole decade. Folman's idea to do an animated documentary  isn't just an artificial trick designed to create interest in the film. As the movie is about dreams and the subconscious, it is simply put the best way to create the imagery for this fact-based film. It is striking and memorable, touching and horrifying. There is a bit too much scenes running idly for it to be a masterpiece. Yet it is still an extremely good film, which looks at the effects of war in the human mind, subconscious and world-view. And does it from an unique point of view. "Pray and shoot!"


Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Review: Kaboom

Gregg Araki is a veteran filmmaker that specializes in stories about homosexual teenagers. Kaboom is a sort of homecoming for him, as a couple of his previous films have been scripted by others. With his new film, which he's both written and directed, Araki has clearly been able to do whatever the hell he wanted to. It's reflected in the film that its director is having a lot of fun, and it is a fun film, if one can handle it.

Smith (Thomas Dekker) is an 18-year-old university freshman. He is sexually undefined as well as horny as hell. He begins the film by admiring his dumb surfer-boy roommate Rex (Andy Fischer-Price) from afar. But he is soon forgotten as the story progresses, as Smith gets to nail almost everyone who happens to come his way, men and women.  He also starts to look into a mystery of a female student disappearing and soon finds out that there is a weird cult running around, that announces the end of the world.

Like a lot of independent films during the last decade or so, Kaboom could be described to belong to the mumblecore genre. The film's not so much about the plot as it's about the characters just talking. In this case, the talking is almost every time leading up to having sex. Araki is directing some sort of nostalgic rutty sex fantasy, that follows the plot logic of porn movies. The kind of never-ending stream of sex scenes (gay and straight) might offend in conservative America, but for Europeans, it is played too nice and too repetitive. At least for viewer's who've accustomed to Bruce La Bruce movies like me the occasional nipple slip and otherwise L-shaped sheets aren't that steamy. It becomes tiring after a while and the viewer is left with some questions on how teenage sex is portrayed in movies in general. American colleges and their parties are always shown to be like brothels. I always get the feeling the directors are overcompensating for something. There's rarely any of the real awkwardness, blushing and mistakes of real life teenage relationships, which makes me think the directors have wanted to forget them altogether. In the case of Kaboom, it's a pretty clear Araki's teenage sex fantasy through and through. Sex happens on a whim, it's always good, one gets to experiment different things, and one always gets to have sex with whoever one wants to. Fantasy.

As Kaboom has started as Araki's plaything, he will also end it like toys usually end. By breaking it. The cult plotline is an excuse for Araki to bring chase scenes and heavy exposition to the end. These parody your regular Hollywood mystery film's twist endings. Everything so far is explained to have happened for a reason, but when looking back at the whole neat little package, the motivation of the characters seems completely insane and out-of-place for the film's context.

Of course, the whole thing ends with the titular KABOOM which is supposed to be a big "fuck you" to the audience. I guess Araki also would like to demonstrate how he feels about following regular Hollywood plot developments and doing things by the book. But for a protest film, I feel Kaboom is more whimpering and muttering than a real bang. Araki has nothing to offer in exchange. The end scene is also too underlinedly "radical" for its own good, even though it did make me laugh. I found Kaboom to be fun to be watched once, but the viewer really gets nothing out of it. But judging by the sighs coming from other critics at the screening, the obscenities did work to offend some.


Director and screenwriter: Gregg Araki
Cinematographer:  Sandra Valde-Hansen
Thomas Dekker, Haley Bennett, Juno Temple, Andy Fischer-Price


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