Friday, 30 December 2011

The Best of 2011 part II

Here we go! I welcome you, dear reader, to read the second part in my look at what was best in cinema in the year 2011. I will start this off with a reel in rememberance of the talent that passed away this year.


Pete Postlethwaite (Feb 7th 1946–Jan 2nd 2011. Actor, The Usual Suspects, The Town)
Anne Francis (Sep 16th 1930–Jan 2nd 2011. Actress, Forbidden Planet)
Juan Piquer Simón (Feb 16th 1935–Jan 8th 2011. Director, Pieces, Extraterrestrial Visitors)
Peter Yates (July 24th 1929–Jan 9th 2011. Director, Bullitt, Krull)
David Nelson (Oct 24th 1936–Jan 11th 2011. Actor, Day of the Outlaw, Cry-Baby)

Bernd Eichinger (Apr 11th 1949–Jan 24th 2011. Producer, Downfall, Baader Meinhof Komplex)
John Barry (Nov 3rd 1933–Jan 30th 2011. Composer, The James Bond series)
Maria Schneider (Mar 27th 1952–Feb 3rd 2011. Actress, Last Tango in Paris, The Passenger)
Tura Satana (Jul 10th 1938–Feb 4th 2011. Actress, Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill!)
Kenneth Mars (Apr 4th 1935–Feb 12th 2011. Actor, Young Frankenstein, The Producers)

David F. Friedman (Dec 24th 1923–Feb 14th 2011. Producer, Love Camp 7, Color Me Blood Red)
Annie Girardot (Oct 25th 1931–Feb 28th 2011. Actress, Rocco and His Brothers, The Piano Teacher)
Jane Russell (Jun 21st 1921–Feb 28th 2011. Actress, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes)
Michael Gough (Nov 23rd 1916 – Mar 17th 2011. Actor, Dracula (1958), Batman)
Elizabeth Taylor (Feb 27th 1932–Mar 23rd 2011. Actress, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Cleopatra, Voice of Maggie Simpson)

Farley Granger (Jul 1st 1925–Mar 27th 2011. Actor, Strangers On A Train, Rope)
Sidney Lumet (Jun 25th 1924–Apr 9th 2011. Director, Dog Day Afternoon, 12 Angry Men, Network)
Tim Hetherington (Dec 5th 1970–Apr 20th 2011. Co-director, Restrepo)
Jackie Cooper (Sep 15th 1922–May 3rd 2011. Actor, The Champ, Superman)
Jeff Conaway (Oct 5th 1950–May 27th 2011. Actor, Grease, Alien Intruder)

Gunnar Fischer (Nov 18th 1910–Jun 11 2011. Cinematographer, The Sevent Seal, Wild Strawberries)
Ryan Dunn (Jun 11th 1977–Jun 20th 2011. Stunt performer, Jackass: The Movie)
Peter Falk (Sep 16th 1927–Jun 23rd 2011. Actor, Columbo, The Heaven Over Berlin)
Bubba Smith (Feb 28th 1945–Aug 3rd 2011. Actor, Police Academy, Police Academy 5: Assignment: Miami Beach)
Francesco Quinn (Mar 22nd 1963–Aug 5th 2011. Actor, Platoon, Top Dog)

Shammi Kapoor (Oct 21st 1931–Aug 14th 2011. Bollywood legend, Actor, Prem Rog, Rockstar)
Gualtiero Jacopetti (Sep 4th 1919–Aug 17th 2011. Director, Mondo Cane)
Cliff Robertson (Sep 9th 1923–Sep 10th 2011. Actor, Three Days of the Condor, Spider-Man)
Charles Napier (Apr 12th 1936–Oct 5th 2011. Actor, Silence of the Lambs, Rambo: First Blood Part II)
David Hess (Sep 19th 1936–Oct 7th 2011. Actor, Last House on The Left (1972), Smash Cut)

Sue Lloyd (Aug 7th 1939–Oct 20th 2011. Actress, The Ipcress Files, Revenge of the Pink Panther)
Antonio Molino Rojo (Sep 14th –Nov 2nd 2011. Actor, The Good, The Bad & The Ugly)
Ken Russell (Jul 3rd 1927–Nov 27th 2011. Director, Women in Love, Mahler, The Lair of the White Worm)
Zdenek Miler (Feb 21st 1921–Nov 30th 2011. Creator/director, The Krtek (Mole) series)
Bill McKinney (Sep 12th 1931–Dec 1st 2011. Actor, First Blood, Deliverance)

Don Sharp (Apr 19th 1922–Dec 14th 2011. Director, Curse of the Fly, Bear Island)
Cheeta (Reportedly, if he was the real one, that is. 1932? – 28th Dec 2011, Chimp Actor, Tarzan The Ape Man, Tarzan Finds A Son!)

The Best Soundtrack / Score:

No contest.

Festival Films:

This past year, I attended to more film festivals than ever before. That's why I also got a big pile of interesting film experiences that merit their own list here. Since each and every one of them has been dealt with in this blog before, I'll keep their reviews short and sweet, and put a link to their name for details.

Bubbling Under: Another Earth, The Death of Pinochet, Our Day Will Come

10. Red Forest Hotel 
Director: Mika Koskinen

An eye-opening look at the damage western companies are allowed to do in countries such as China, where people are unequal yet there is still a lot of natural resources to harvest. At first it seems that this documentary isn't going anywhere with the government officials constantly following the director. But when in the end it gets to the truth it is harrowing. A true achievement.

9. The Mountain (Fjellet)
Director: Ole Giæver 

A raw, emotional look at a couple trying to rekindle their flame by going on a hiking trip. Problem is, past tragedies come to haunt them, and thus the bitter bickering starts. The mountainside nature of Norway is unforgiving, people must find inner peace within themselves alone.

8. Cold Fish
Director: Sion Sono

A tough, uncompromizing, yet darkly comedic vision of the crumbling of the traditional japanese nuclear families. With a push-around as the head of the family, they all are forced to the edge of their lives, and getting exploited. The villain, one of the most memorable in a long time, is a truly twisted criminal. He is able to get away with murder and even fucking with the yakuza, because he relies on timid people not to fight against him. The film's a bit too long, but when it's great, it's great.

7. Bullhead (Rundskop)
Director: Michael R. Roskam

Another tough crime film with an unique vision of an individual's place in the spiral of violence and madness. The Belgian countryside would've been one of the last places where I would've imagined such a story to take place in, yet the fields are just steaming with blackness. Roskam is one to watch in the future, too, as well as Matthias Schonenarts as the lead.

6. Public Speaking
Director: Martin Scorsese

In Fran Lebowitz, Scorsese has found such a rewarding documentary subject, that he himself has trouble to keep up with her. Like the auteur's classic works, this also picks an interesting character from New York and follows her around the city. Lebowitz is a straight-spoken woman, whose opinions may offend many, but she is also hilarious, and a good speaker, so it's no effort to hear what she has to say about the modern way and life in general.

5. Play
Director: Ruben Östlund

The Swedish Funny Games, without all the navel-gazing and vague threats instead of physical violence. This takes a distant, documentary-like, look at bullying and problems that arise from multiculturality in sleepy Swedish suburbs. The problems are not caused by the immigrants themselves, but rather the Swedish-born adults, generally turning a blind eye to the acts of children. When something bad happens, they take it out on innocents. The film leaves the viewer with a lot to ponder about.

4. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Director: Werner Herzog

Herzog has found good use for the 3D technology, and allows us common people to see one of the most incredible pieces of art in the world as it was meant to: the 20,000-year-old cave paintings of the Chauvet caves of Southern France with all of their surfaces, curves and shapes. The viewer would be content by just watching the beautiful pictures, but Herzog also finds his trademark madcap interviewees and has his own philosophical ponderings about the subject. Very captivating and a strong film.

3. Finisterrae
Director: Sergio Caballero

A weird little film that I'm sure will divide opinions. But it's tongue-in-cheek humour, metaphysical ponderings and sense of oddness won me over. The film has a sort of pilgrimage for ghosts, who wish to become alive again. The religious symbols and kitchy Halloween-imagery will clash. The film is like a Jodorowsky film made on a budget of about 50 cents.

2. Tyrannosaur
Director: Paddy Considine

Paddy Considine proves to be one of those actors that has paid close attention when working with auteur directors. His debut film is so dark and violent at parts that even strong-stomached viewers are forced to flinch. Yet it has a glimmer of hope in that even bad people can redeem themselves, and make the world around them a better place. Considine's film defies expectations. At first it seems like a vigilante picture waiting to happen, but it actually has more liberal viewpoints. A film about trust, love and friendship, that features a dog getting kicked to death.

1. The Kid With A Bike (Le gamin au vélo)
Directors: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

The Dardenne brothers are some of the most interesting filmmakers today, and they have produced their most accessible film to date. That's not to mean that it's without substance, au contraire. The film features the young Cyril being tempted by a juvenile criminal on one side and a surrogate mother on the other. The kid has learned to fight for himself so how can one teach morality to him, when even his father has abandoned him? The film's characters have three-dimensional motifs, and more than a hint of tragedy in them. The film's plot moves steadily forward, and manages to be both exciting, and truly surprising at times. It's neither a moral lesson, nor a feel-good film, but works in so many levels, it can easily pass as either.


A lot of interesting films go straight to DVD in Finland. The audiences here are so small that international films or anything reeking of art-house has to struggle to get a theatrical release. A lot of the most interesting films of the year thus end up straight to DVD. They also merit their very own list for that.

Bubbling under: Alien vs. Ninja, Killing Bono, Lemmy

11. Troll Hunter (Trolljegeren)
Director: André Øvredal 

I'm betting subsequent viewings of this goofy handheld-shot fantasy film won't hold togather as well as the first. The best parts of the film are whenever trolls are revealed, which is a source of much comedy and "ooh aah" -feelings. It's a good sign that modern genre film makers have started to mine some lesser-used creatures than always the same vampires and zombies. So, while the film doesn't offer anything radically different it holds its own and entertains for the duration of the film. And also, the main Trollhunter in the film is a badass.
10. The Trip
Director: Michael Winterbottom

Winterbottom's films have tended to always be a sort of a mixed bag, and this road trip makes no difference. It's being sold as a comedy, and it stars the comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as themselves. But really, as the film goes along, the actual jokes diminish by the minute. At its core this is a melancholic look at middle-aged men. Coogan is successful but unhappy. Brydon is only known for a single joke, but he chooses to embrace this fame, and has a happy married life. Coogan in the middle of a crisis starts to loathe Brydon and tries wreck him at all possible points. Watch as Coogan tells Brydon to have more subtlety ih his impersonations. Brydon develops his initially apt Michael Caine -imitation to the point of bland. Coogan, who never had it in the first place, but he tries to add subtlety himself, and in the end makes a total fool of himself as he doesn't sound anything like his source material.

9. Easy A 
Director: Will Gluck

I'm a sucker for a good John Hughes teen film. This comedy is a sort of tribute to them, in the sense that it also explicitly calls them out. But it's a charming one by itself as well. Emma Stone proves to be suitably dreamy, quircky and funny to pull off such a lead role. Her Olivia says a single lie about losing her virginity, and that snowballs to the point where everyone is asking her to lie for them. Aside the movie references, the film also refers to plenty of classic books everyone should read aduring the American High School. It doesn't offer wonders but for fans of adorable teenage girls and a funny romantic comedy, one could do a hell of a lot worse than this.

8. Cell 211 (Celda 211)
Director: Daniel Monzón

I've long held the stance that Con Air is the best action film of the 1990's. So, when a new, spanish action film imitates the plot of that classic, I'm bound to like it by default, right? In a high-security prison, a new prison guard gets caught inside as a big riot takes place. He has to fake to be a convict as well. He has to gain the trust of the riot leader, the intimidating Malamadre, if he wants to see his wife and children ever again. Another thing this film has in common are the heroic bloodshed and brotherhood-based Hong Kong action dramas of the late 80's, early 90's. The film has a few twists, and is not that easy to guess what's going on next. The end result is solid entertainment.

7. Inside Job 
Director: Charles Ferguson

Here is a documentary film that should've had a premiere in Finland, as well as in any other country that is currently being ravaged by the financial crisis. It makes complex economical systems seem simple by going to the roots of all current finance problems. Watching it is also entertaining as well as infuriating, as some fat cats walk away from the fireball with their pockets lined with cash with no one stopping them. This sort of film should inspire Occupy Wall Street -movements everywhere in the world. Take the Power Back!

6. Route Irish
Director: Ken Loach

Ken Loach has directed a familiar-seeming conspiracy thriller involving soldiers in the war against terrorism with his familiar, virtuoso skills. Loach has an eye to the local side of the war, to keep things interesting. But the best thing about the film are the way relationships between the film's characters are presented. They all border somewhere between utter love and ultimate contempt towards each other, and it's intriguing to see their tides shift back and forth. The backstory of the characters is told in the lines, not in flashbacks, and they colors the entire story in such a way that everything in the films feels more tragic for it. It's not the kind of social realism Loach excels in, but it's a captivating enough pseudo-thriller.

5. I'm Still Here
Director: Casey Affleck

This is an odd, experimental film. Joaquin Phoenix is the American Jussi Parviainen in the sense that he's willing to wreck his entire life for the sake of entertainment. I'm not sure whether this is supposed to be a comedy, even though it is highly hilarious. A straight-out documentary it certainly is not. I think like Parviainen, Phoenix also forgot at some point where the limits of his performance end and his actual self began. Do we get to witness this breakdown here or just the performance we were meant to see? The viewer gets to be the judge. The film also works as a bitter letter to Hollywood and it's wide army of back-patters.

4. Anvil! – The Story of Anvil
Director: Sacha Gervasi

It's a wonder that this film came to Finland so late, and without any big screen release. We are a big heavy metal country, and Anvil is a popular performer in the country. Perhaps the reason this only came out on DVD after it had gained a cult reputation is that it doesn't treat heavy metal or its fans with kid's gloves. It's a hard living, with pointless tours that earn little to no money for the artists. You get easily forgotten and shoved off the spotlight. The film shows all this with much hilairity. In fact, to make it as a rock star, one has to love playing rock more than anything other. The Anvil guys clearly do, and won't give up, no matter what hardships they have to face. That's why they've certainly earned their newfound fame.

3. Exit Through The Gift Shop
Director: Banksy

Another film in which truth and fiction are hard to separate. But it's a good story and that should be sufficient enough. The film invites the viewer to ponder what exactly is art, who can be an artist, what does one have to do if he's an artist, and the most crucial of all, the commerial side of producing art. We Finns had to wait for this film so long, it's starting to get dangerously close to it's Best Before-date. But it's still a hugely hilarious film, no matter how much things keep changing in the art circles.

2. Hobo with a Shotgun
Director: Jason Eisener

Look, you either get it or you don't. You either find someone's head getting yanked off, or someone kicked to the back with an ice skate hilarious or you don't. And I happen to do. Some have complained that Hobo is nothing more than a bad re-hash of the Troma films of old. That's quite a handout for Troma. I wish that Troma films were as well directed, as inventive in their violence, and had someone even close to the charisma of Rutger Hauer as their lead. Either the budget is also a lot bigger in this, or the special effects have gone a lot cheaper since the late 80's, early 90's. Nevertheless, it also requires skill to use them in just the right way. Jason Eisener is black-hearted and mean-spirited enough to make a postmodern exploitation film that doesn't just laugh at the exploitation films of old. Rather, he works by the same principle: Be violent for real and entertain the audiences while doing so. And has thus delivered the funniest splatter film in ages.

1. Blue Valentine 
Director: Derek Cianfrance

This complex story is sold as a romantic film, and by that I can imagine it having caused more than its share of breakups around the world. It is a look at the arc that one couple goes through, and it intercuts between the past and the present to reveal intimate details and some sense of history repeating itself. At the same time as it is a story of a blossoming romance, it is also a story of a withering marriage and since the main characters in the both are same, it has a very gloomy sense of fate leading the characters. But also, the film invites to remember and to treasure the good moments and even the pain that love has caused. Without them the prize one gains from it would seem futile.

This is a raw, emotional film, that doesn't white-wash even the most dark aspects of a relationship. The frankness of the film are pulled by the amazing Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams who have never seemed to frail and vunerable on screen. They make the romance between the characters, as well as the falling out, believable. See it.

To be seen:
Dinner For Schmucks

So have a happy New Year, and in case I don't see you, also Easter, May Day, Midsummer's Eve, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Rise of Cthulhu! See you next year!

Thursday, 29 December 2011

The Best of 2011

Like every year, I've been asked by a magazine I write movie reviews for to hand in my picks for the best movies for the year. And not just that, also the top 10 in the best actors, actresses, screenplays, directors and Straight-to-DVD releases. These are of course restricted by what premiered in Finland during 2011. Because I want to be open and to do lists that I myself can defend, I will publish these lists here.

These lists initially seemed simple, but in fact were a lot harder than I anticipated once I read a list of films that actually premiered this year. It was a good year for film, and there are a lot of good things that these small lists won't cover. I also can't claim to have seen all, since I'm just a freelancer and not a professional critic. Here's a top 10 of the critically acclaimed films I didn't get a chance to see:

Biutiful, Bridesmaids, Contagion, Even the Rain, The Last Circus, Moneyball, Of Gods And Men, Polisse, Rango, Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Best Actors:

This was a year for the manly men. Whether they were talkative (The Fighter) or almost silent (Drive), the best actors of the year inhabited roles that got the jobs that needed to be done, done. They could be good fathers (The Tree of Life), or horny assholes (The Guard). But what has stuck is how convincing all of these roles are. Some are by major movie stars, but while watching their film, one only thinks of them as their character, not as a celebrity.

Christian Bale / The Fighter.

10. James Franco, 127 hours
9. Jim Broadbent, Another Year
8. Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life
7. Albert Brooks, Drive
6. Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech
5. Frank Hvam, Clown
4. Jeff Bridges, True Grit
3. Brendan Gleeson, The Guard
2. Christian Bale, The Fighter
1. Ryan Gosling, Drive

Best Actresses:

Last year I struggled to find enough good female performances in films. This was not the case this year, because there were almost more good female roles than male ones. Strong, vunerable, crazy, sane, criminal, straight, happy, depressed. Many of them determined and goal-oriented. The good female performance didn't even look for age, because the teenaged Hailee Stanfield also delivered a memorable performance.

Natalie Portman / Black Swan.

10. Charlotte Gainsbourg, The Tree
9. Leila Hatami, A Separation: Nader and Simin
8. Hailee Steinfield, True Grit
7. Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone
6. Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom
5. Outi Mäenpää, Beyond
4. Rooney Mara, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
3. Lesley Manville, Another Year
2. Natalie Portman, Black Swan
1. Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia

Best Screenplays:

Now, best screenplays are hard to judge, because I haven't actually read any. But I've seen the consequtive films, according to which to judge how the scripts treat characters, whether they have holes in their events, and overall, how original the voice of the writer is. Based on this, I've cooked up the following list:

Lars von Trier (c) Zentropa Europe

10. Casper Christensen, Frank Hvam, Clown
9. David Seidler, The King's Speech
8. Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, The Fighter
7. Mark Heyman, Anders Heinz, John J. McLaughlin, Black Swan
6. John Michael McDonagh, The Guard
5. Lars von Trier, Melancholia
4. Jacques Tati, The Illusionist
3. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, True Grit
2. Hossein Amini, Drive
1. Mike Leigh, Another Year

Best Directors:

Altough I know next to nothing about actual directing, judging directors is almost as much fun as judging actual movies. I favour a strongly independent, artistic views on making cinema. You can say I'm auteuristic. Making this list, I tried to consider how hard it may have been for the director to make the source material come to life and how good the end result was.

Aki Kaurismäki (c) Sputnik Oy / Marja-Leena Hukkanen
10. Pedro Almodovar, The Skin I Live In
9. Aki Kaurismäki, Le Havre
8. Duncan Jones, Source Code
7. Lisa Aschan, She Monkeys
6. Lars von Trier, Melancholia
5. David Fincher, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
4. Mike Leigh, Another Year
3. Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
2. Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
1. Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive

All right, now we're up for the Main Event. Since the year was 2011, a top 10 list wouldn't just suffice. Instead, I cooked up a Top 11 list – and still plenty of films that would've made the list any other year missed out. Another thing that is hard is to put numerical value on the film experiences that I had. That's why I planned to put places 5-11 in alphabetical order. But wouldn't you know, that order makes sense anyhow! I favor the sort of films that made me feel something. Now, becuase of my magazine's rules that the films had to have their premiere in Finland in 2011, I had Black Swan and The Illusionist on the list I sent there (on places 3 and 4, respectively). But since I actually saw both of those films in 2010, I omitted them here to make space for more recent experiences. That's why I also have so many films that missed the list – you can make your own top 20 if you count them with the 11 and those two.

Bubbling Under:
Arrietty – A beautifully detail-based Ghibli film, that has a leisure pace, but is at the same time a bit melancholic and about a race on the verge of extinction.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – David Fincher has some of his old furiousness back. The rhythm of the film is relentless and the mystery is made interesting. The The worst parts of the book (the beginning and the end) fly by frantically, while he good ones (the research process) is lingered on just right. Long overdue for a review here.

The Guard – A hilarious buddy cop film set on the coast of Ireland. Like it's main character, it's a smarter film that it would initially seem.

The King's Speech – A worthy Best Picture Oscar winner if only by its great performances. The true story may be a bit conventional, but you can't help but to be sucked in the world of pronounciation.

The Skin I Live in – Pedro Almodovar also has his mojo back, having another movie about the thin borders of sexuality and perversion, and a mother turning a blind eye to a crime of passion. A one-joke movie, perhaps, but it is such a twisted idea, it can be forgiven.

Source Code – Cleverly done techno-thriller that sells its ridiculous concept by confident direction by Duncan Jones. The ending is a bit too much, though.

True Grit – The Coen brothers deliver a great adaptation of Charles Portis' western novel, and deliver an almost traditional western that has surprisingly few postmodern tricks up its sleeve. Jeff Bridges owns the movie.

And, ladies and gentlemen: Here comes actual list: 

11. Clown: the Movie (Klovn: The Movie)
Director: Mikkel Nørgaard

This danish comedy, based on a Danish TV series inspired by Curb Your Enthusiasm, takes the torch of gross-out comedy from deck such as Hangover, Part II, and takes it to a whole another level. Below-the-navel humour can also be made intelligently and the hilarious canoeing trip of the middle-aged friends Frank and Casper through the rivers of Denmark is loads more embarrasing than just re-hashing Hangover I in Thailand. The horny Casper wants to cheat on his wife and to go to the finest brothel in all of Europe on the trip. The meeker Frank, however, decides to send a message to his girfriend that he's good with kids, and subsequently kidnaps her 12-year-old nephew Bo. Neither of the leads can be said to be good guys, but they make such a string of bad decisions that one can't help but to love the two idiots. The film takes a hearty laugh at, among other things, bullying, paedophilia, infidelity, sexual perversions, and closeted homosexuality.

10. The Fighter
Director: David O. Russell

There has been so many boxing films that it's become a cliché whether the protagonist wins or loses his big fight. So, in order to do a good film about a boxer, one needs to take the focus in other things. The Fighter initially seems to be about a pair of brothers, one sparring the other up for greatness. But just scratching the surface it becomes clear that this is a film about both a dysfunctional family and the need for a local hero for a community to come together. As the film initially seems to follow a bunch of sleazebags, they are just as much underdogs in pulling themselves together than in the boxing ring. But the terrific performances manage to pull this off, from Christian Bale's manic, bragging drug-addict to Melissa Leo's feisty matriarch, it's all good here. Even Mark Wahlberg can do a good straight man when he's in the middle of a vivid ensemble. The film took home two Oscars for its acting talents and with good reason.

9. Mama Africa
Director: Mika Kaurismäki

While Aki Kaurismäki got most of the attention in Finland with his new movie, Le Havre, it was his brother Mika who actually made the better movie this year. The work on this documentary about the South African singer / civil rights activist Miriam Makeba was started before Makeba passed away in 2008. The original idea was for Makeba to cook on camera while telling her life stories like a collective grandmother to the audience. Sadly, Kaurismäki did not even have time to meet her in person (they spoke on the phone). So, he was forced to do a pretty straight-forward biography with his film. But even the conventional approach works wonders when the subject matter is so unconventional. Makeba was the first one to make traditional African music popular in the western world in the 60's. Her career was laced with melancholia, as her fight against apartheid made her a refugee from her own country, and her first born child died in infancy. Yet Kaurismäki's film doesn't dwell on the sadness of the past, but makes a convincing portrait of a woman who always gt up when faced with difficulties, and thus worked as an inspiration for millions. And made some pretty groovy music, too.

8. Melancholia 
Director: Lars von Trier

Leave it to von Trier to make a film even I wasn't initially sure how to feel about. I'm used to his films being shocking and surprising, so it was a small disappointment when Melancholia was pretty much just what I expected. But the key here is that no one else but Trier would make a film like this. It's a catastrophy movie about the end of the world which intercuts with the ongoing depression suffered by the protagonist Justine (Kirsten Dunst). The glooming doom should not come as a surprise to anyone, as Trier starts off his movie by doing a quick recap of what we're about to see by replicating 18th century art as truly stunning slow-motion images. The film itself is a story of two halves: the first is the onset of Melancholia as Justine becomes severely depressed on her wedding day, and says what's on her mind to just about everyone she knows. In the second half it becomes clear to the characters that the planet Melancholia (no sublety here) is on a crash course with Earth, wiping out all life when it hits. Justine's depression becomes the key of learning how to cope with this threat. Trier has clearly had some rough times, yet his film is not angry (like for instance Antichrist), or sad (like Dancer in the Dark). It has all the dignified acceptance of the blue feelings and thus a quite comforting experience for anyone who has experienced melancholia him or herself. The superb visuals and wonderful actors just seal the deal.

7. A Separation: Nader and Simin (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin)
Director: Asghar Farhadi

This was the year I discovered Iranian cinema. While being a totalitaritan conservative muslim country, a number of great directors have risen from there, willing to question the authorities with very strong cinematic views. While Asghar Farhadi's divorce drama won't overthrow the Ajatollah, it has deserved the praise flowing for it through doors and windows ever since it won the Berlin International Film Festival. To be precise, it is a film about a lot more than just the initial divorce, but it is the act that sets the ball moving and casts a shadow on all the consequtive actions in the film. Nader and Simin don't really want to divorce, but feel that they have to, since Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to move from the oppressing country and Nader (Peyman Maadi) wants to stay home to take care of his senile father. Caught in between is their daughter Termeh.

The thing where the film excels is making the characters three-dimensional. They mostly work on a morally grey area, and not all of their actions are acceptable. But they all have good reasons for doing the things that they do. Every one in the film feels like they've been trapped into a box outside which they can't work. The difficult divorce procedings eventually develop into a whodunit mystery, as tensions between Nader trying to keep his family together, and his maid Razieh (Sareh Bayat) with her husband get out of hand. The difficulty of human interaction is intercut with the ridiculous bureaucracy and red tape that the events cause for the iranese government. Between the lines, the film criticises much about how Iran is being led, but also recognizes that people are different and by no means disregards the Islam faith. But it showcases that in an oppressive system, it is harder and harder for different kinds of people to function together.

6. She Monkeys (Apflickorna)
Director: Lisa Aschan

A documantary-styled distant look at the sexual awakenings of two young Swedish girls. It's a whole different beast than it sounds, with it taking a look at the mood swings, hissy fits, alluring and female friendships, all the while intercutting it all with the strong physicality of circus gymnastics. As I recently wrote,

"She Monkeys isn't afraid to surprise or even shock. For a debut director, Lisa Aschan has astonishingly good sense of cropping the image and allowing us to read things on almost still faces. The film also has a strong sound design, with breathing and other small sounds turning out to be vital for the storytelling. The film is cut surprisingly short and when it ends, the viewer is left wanting for more. "

5. The Tree of Life
Director: Terrence Malick

Like Enter the Void last year, The Tree of Life has a share of faults, most of which include it trying to sell a certain religious viewpoint to the viewer all too hard. But it can be easily avoided and enjoy a jaw-droppingly unique vision of cinema by a true auteur. Malick, who has also spent years in perfecting his cinematc visions, appear to be taking a look back at his childhood. He is trying to find reasons for past tragedies through religion and a poetic approach on the Earth's development. Malick's vision of the development of life on Earth has no equal this year, or probably ever. The only film that even approaches the same kind of scope is Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, yet that is missing the human element that comes here in spades. The nostalgia-filled scenes of a childhood in the early 60's are warm, affectionate, and also as multi-layered as everything else on offer here.

4. Alamar – To The Sea
Director: Pedro González-Rubio

This year, I hadn't time to travel around the world or really for a vacation at all. But I feel like I had one, because I saw Alamar in a movie theatre. This minimalistic docu-drama is about an estranged mexican father being reunited with his young son, and the pair spending their days in the Mexican coast fishing and admiring the wildlife. There isn't much of a story, but the film opens up a childlike bedazzlement of the wonders of nature. The film's pace is peacheful and soothing. There's also subtext about the things we lose by urbanization, separations, and the loss of traditions. The film encourages to seize good moments and to protect the environment for our children, but is never preachy about it, or forces these things upon a viewer. A warm film, that can be reccommended by anyone feeling stressed by the daily grind but not having time to travel around.

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

Putting a cheesy Hollywood 3D extravaganza so high on my list should by all means raise some anger. Yet Tintin is on this spot for one simple reason: Watching the film made me happy. Being a life-long fan of Hergé's Tintin albums I know the albums wouldn't work as straight translations for film. They are heavy with exposition, and the actual adventures aren't really that action-filled by today's standards. Spielberg's way of making the film into a motion-capture animation raised a lot of disbelief in the project, but the results should speak for itself. While the world seems a bit cartoonish and exaggerated, there's a sense of everything actually happening, and thus the dangers our heroes face feel more threatening. The slapstic humour also works well in this canvas. Of course they all are upstaged by the huge action scenes are stunningly awesome, from the nightly escape from a tanker to the wonderful pirate battles, and the incredibly creative single-camera shot of the chase in Bagghar. But the main thing to nail from Hergé's source material is the characters and their dynamic. Tintin is as clever, resourceful and straight as in the comics, while the Dupondts and Milou provide good comic relief. But the real star, protagonist and hero of the film is Captain Haddock, the old sea-dog who also gets a real character arc from developing from a pitiful old drunk into a heroic swashbuckler like his ancestors. Yet he's still rough around the edges to be lovable and also a suitable foil for Tintin's best intentions. Andy Serkis's performance fits the film like a hand in glove. So, it's an Indiana Jones adventure for children, that sees The Bearded One feel a lot more comfrotable with the whole ordeal, than with the CGI-filled last Indiana Jones film.

2. Another Year
Director: Mike Leigh

To me, Another Year is the biggest masterpiece of Mike Leigh's career. The master of British kitchen-sink drama brings us a strong film that ponders about happiness in the autumn years of people's lives. The unrelated prologues sees an old woman refusing to do anything that would improve her life. So it is in this film that we ourselves are the biggest obstacles on the way of our happiness. The film takes place during one year, and we peek at the main characters once every season. The garden house of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) is a refuge centre for their firends and colleagues, particularly her broken-hearted work friend Mary (the superb Lesley Manville). Mary drinks too much and occasionally says the wrong things. She is also utterly unhappy about her life, but even with the support of her friends, can't get it going to the directions she wants. Mary also makes the poor decision of getting her eye on Tom and Gerri's son, Joe.

As always, Leigh's films are done with close collaboration with the actors, which explains why they do their roles so heart-breakingly realistic and believably. The characters are lovable, altough their bad sides are showing, too. Even the virtuous Tom and Gerri are pretty helpless to deal with the problems of others, and remain as onlookers, and perhaps a little presumptuous towards others. The end scene brings the whole thing around. This has just been Another Year, full of ups and downs, happiness and sadness, and problems and solutions. Leigh remains optimistic that everyone has a right to be happy, but also reminds us that it's usually only through hard work that we achieve this.

1. Drive
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

I know it isn't actually breaking ground to choose this as the film of the year. But, Drive is a film that works for many filmwatchers on multiple levels. Well, if you're not expecting to see Fast Five because of the film's trailer, that is. Drive is a smooth, visual film for the acquired modern cinephiliac taste, with a great electronic 80's soundtrack. It's a pastiche film for fans of the car chase films of yesteryear.  It's an exciting and gritty thriller for those seeking suspense. And it also has other layers wherein it comments on the emptiness of the lives and the isolation and loneliness of certain types of professionals. When you aim to be perfect in what you do, it leaves little room for human affections. Once you isolate and go too far, and then attempt to build emotions, everything goes to hell quick.

Drive is an adaptation of James Sallis' novel of the same name. It is also a masterclass on how a succesful movie adaptation of a good book should be made. Whereas Drive the novel is broken-chronology pulp fiction book that's playing with the genre's conventions from the start, Drive the film approaches the viewer more slyly. For instance, while in the novel it's clear from the get-go that the protagonist, known only as Driver, is a violent sociopath, the film tricks us to symphatize with the lonely, shy-seeming man (played by the puppy-dog-eyed Ryan Gosling) first before revealing this. Drive works so well aside from its source material, it's no wonder that Sallis' excellent book is mostly forgotten to be mentioned from the film's reviews.

No matter how many times Brett Easton Ellis keeps saying the same thing on Twitter, I really don't see any fault in the film's superb casting. Gosling can carry a stone-faced main role seemingly easy. Cult favorite Ron Perlman has never been better and more intimidating. The film's women, Carey Mulligan and Christina Hendricks manage to pull off their deer-in-headlight eyes without feeling like objects, but like women that happened to make poor choices or got in the stream of things going wrong. Bryan Cranston has the necessary niceness and a dark side as well, to pull off the role of Driver's only friend and employer. And the coldness behind the facade of legendary actor Albert Brooks' performance as a matey pizza-chain owner/ mafia boss should win him a host of various awards.

Winding Refn has madethe sort of film that Quentin Tarantino could be making if he had kept out of his comfort zone and developed as a filmmaker since Jackie Brown. The film feels familiar enough, and references old classics, but never loses its own voice. Winding Refn had a bumpy career thus far, but he seems to have finally stumbled back to the gritty streamlined aesthetics that made his Pusher trilogy such a hoot. I hope he will continue to have a fruitful career in Hollywood.

Okay, I hope you enjoyed this list. I'd love to hear your own picks for the year's best films, so make sure to comment or send me links to blog posts. I try to do another post tomorrow that would have some more favorites from 2011, this time from festivals and DVD releases of the year.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Xmas Special: Killer Santas

Ho Ho Hos! It's almost Christmas, so I hope you all have been good little boys and girls. For Santa Claus may seem like a jolly old man on the outside, but you should also remember that he sees you when you're sleeping and he knows when you're awake. So you better watch out, you better not cry and you better not pout. I'm telling you why. Santa is one word away from Satan and he's coming to YOUR town.

Christmas Evil a.k.a. You Better Watch Out a.k.a. Terror in Toyland (USA, 1980)
Director: Lewis Jackson

Better Watch Out... Better Not Cry... ...Or You May DIE!
OK, let me start out by saying that Santa Slashers are actually one of the sleaziest subgenres this side of pornography. They gleefully destroy what you like about Christmas (such as love and a feeling of safety) and are usually of a pretty bad taste. So much so that this one that started the whole genre is one of the favorite movies of John Waters himself. But unlike you would imagine, Christmas Evil is not actually just a carbon copy of Halloween with the killer of teenagers just dressed up as Santa Claus. It is mostly a movie about a middle-aged man breaking down.

Our lovable protagonist.

As a young boy, Harry Stadling Jr. loves christmas. He stays up with his younger brother Phil, and mother to see Santa Claus putting toys in their stockings and give gifts. But Harry's Christmas takes a turn for the worse, as he later at night stumbles downstairs to find Santa (actually his dad) giving mum cunnilingus. Phil tells him Santa isn't real, but he doesn't want to believe so. In the end Harry cuts his hand with a broken snow globe.

Years later, the adult Harry (Brandon Maggart) works at a toy factory. He's obsessed with spreading Christmas cheer, and in particular about whether children have been naughty or nice. He dresses up as Santa and spies on children. When he realizes his coworkers think of him as a "schmuck" for trying to make the best toys for good little children, and that they exploit him for their own benefits, Harry has a total mental breakdown. He goes on a big murder spree dressed as Santa, killing a bunch of obnoxious yuppies he finds to be "naughty", and starting to break into peoples' houses. The only one that can stop him is his brother Phil (Jeffrey DeMunn).

They whole film is shot very smutty and has a feeling of being made as a B-feature for a drive-in theatre. The pace is also very slow, and we have to endure longs scenes of middle-aged soul-searching and sleazy mind-melting and voyeurism. It is a very cynical film, seeing that Christmas magic is not seen to have any place in the adult world. Christmastime is dark, with ruthless yuppies having all the fun, and the poorer class confined in the misery of huge workloads. In that, it is an attack of middle-class America. But as a comedy, it is a failure and not that funny. It is also not very memorable in any way. I've seen the movie three times, the last time about a week ago, and I still had to check the film's plot elsewhere.

★★ 1/2

Silent Night, Deadly Night (USA, 1984)
Director: Charles E. Sellier, Jr.

The most famous of Santa Slashers steals a lot from Christmas Evil (which had by then fallen into obscurity) and your basic heirs of Halloween and holiday-themed horrors. While Christmas Evil at least had high satiric ambitions, the ambition for Silent Night, Deadly Night is to make loads of money with minimum effort. And it worked, there has been four sequels to the thing, and I think a remake can't be far behind in today's world. I recently reviewed Part II, that actually re-hashes most of the key scenes of this film.

Christmas Eve 1971 sees young Billy Chapman with his family (including Baby Ricky) driving to a old folk's home to meet with his grandfather. The old man seems to be a total vegetable, not speaking to any of the adults. But when Billy is alone with gramps, the oldster is found to be very much alive, foul-mothedly warning Billy about being naughty. Santa is watching, you see, and will leave no bad deed go unpunished. Billy takes this threat to heart. On their way home the family stops to pick up a hitch-hiker dressed as Santa who has had car trouble. But the man is actually an robber on the run, killing Billy's dad, and raping his mum before slitting her throat. He attempts to kill Billy as well, but the boy manages to get away from him.

Billy grows up to be an unbalanced youngster in an orphanage, drawing pictures of carnage. This gains unfavorable attention from the Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin). Billy happens to see a nun having sex with the janitor in the cupboard. Mother Superior wovs to avenge such a sinful act and tells Billy too that bad deeds will be punished. Even later, as an 18-year-old toy store assistant, Billy (Robert Brian Wilson) is having a tough time having to play the store Santa at a christmas party. When he finds a coworker attempting to rape a cashier, he snaps and becomes a axe-wielding maniac bent on murdering those he views to be "naughty". Which mostly means those having sex.

"I'll take my sexual frustrations out on topless girls in never nude-shorts."

One really can't say that Silent Night, Deadly Night is in any way suspenseful, or even that well-made. But as in Christmas Evil, the film is meant to be heavily ironic, almost a black humour slapstick comedy. So we have a topless girl being impaled on wall-mounted a deer head's antlers, and a sledder arriving downhill with his head cut off. The kills are stupid as all hell, but all the while entertaining. The film does take a while to get going, as it relies on two seperate flashback sequences. Fortunately, these scenes are as fun and dumb as the rest of the film, and entertaining even when there aren't any Christmas-themed killings going on. It's a high regard for a B-grade slasher in my opinion. There's also loads of comedy of the police being stupid enough to not recognize the Santa killer, thus killing innocents. The opportunity for a sequel is opened in the final scene.

★ or ★★★★★

Santa's Slay (USA, 2005)
Director: David Steiman

A more modern take on the comedic Santa murders comes from 2005, when someone convinced production companies that a Brett Ratner-produced film where WWE wrestler Bill Goldberg plays Santa as the son of Satan would be a good idea. It has a very off-putting ironic aura around it that makes many modern comedies such a chore to watch. But it does have a share of so-bad-they're-good jokes and one or two genuinely funny ones, too.

The film's version of Santa lost a wager with an angel way back when, and thus has had to give out presents for a 1000 years. But that time has now passed and Santa is free to wreck havock at Christmastime like the Son of Satan he is. The teenaged Nicolas Yuleson (groan... played by Douglas Smith) finds out his grandfather is actually the angel that tricked Santa before, and thus the family becomes the target of Santa's revenge. Nicolas and his girlfriend (Emilie DeRavin) have to find a way to stop the monstrous Santa before he kills them. The film's kills include someone getting a candy cane punched through the head from the back and then slammed to a wall, and a guy getting choked with a Christmas wreath and a nifty wrestling bodyflip.

"This'll make a great gimmick for my match against The Iron Sheik and André the Giant!"

Like you can see from the title, the film loves various Christmas-themed puns. As those bad puns also kill people, it's almost as if The Joker had written the film. The viewer may die too, not from laughing, but from punching him/herself on the head too many times. But if one can manage a film with roots so deeply in obnoxiousness, it may even be reccommendable. For one, the opening sequence sees Fran Drescher getting burned alive and then drowned in a bowl of Eggnog, and Chris Kattan getting impaled. James Caan also cameos, but wisely left his name off the credits. And I have a weird love for WWE wrestlers on film, no matter how bad they are. There's got to be at least some asskicking involved, after all.


The Saint (Sint, Netherlands, 2010)
Director: Dick Maas

All countries don't get visits from Santa Claus. In the Netherlands, gifts are given by Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas. And wouldn't you know, they got a comedic horror film where he's an evil beast of the night, wrecking havock and murdering innocents. But this is done on December 5th. The resulting film was the most watched in the history of Netherlands.

In the film, Niklas was actually a murderous pirate who liked to dress up as a priest in the 15th century. Getting fed up with his crew's blood-filled pillaging, the citizens of one village burned all the pirates alive. But his evil remained, and the undead Niklas begun to seek bloody vengeance every year when their death date happened on a night of full moon after that. In 1968, the rampaging Niklas, riding on his fire-breathing, flying horse, brutally murders hundreds. Among the victims are the entire family of young Goert, who happened to be out when it happened. In the modern day Goert (Bert Luppes) is now a police officer. He tries to warn his colleagues and people that Niklas's bloody crusade would go on on December 5th, but he's not believed.

Meanwhile group of college students are having their usual troubles of who loves who and whos fucking who. Frank (Edgbert Jan Weeder) is particularly popular with the ladies. At December 5th he's earning extra money with his friends moonlighting as St. Nick and his Black Petes. But they get lost, and his friends get brutally murdered. While Frank survives in the nick of time, he is arrested as he's suspected to be the holiday killer. Goert has to find a way to recruit him to help him stop the terror of Saint Nicholas once and for all.

"It burns! But, since this is a promotional image of the film, I can't possibly die here, right?"

The film has too many characters, and suffers for a lack of focus. While we should follow Frank's journey, we often find ourselves where-ever The Saint happens to be butchering people. Niklas (Huub Stapel) is not seen enough and is too distant to become a horror movie icon who could pull a main character role as well as being an antagonist. The film is one of the kind that pays tribute to numerous 80's flicks, and in particular the Evil Dead trilogy seems to be close to Maas's heart. The flick is well-staged and looks very good indeed. There are explosions and flying horses that look as good as they would in any modern Hollywood film, if not better. Maas also manages to raise some suspense from his ridiculous idea. But as in many horror-comedies, when one of the sides work somewhat, the other doesn't work at all. The comedy in the film is quite bad, with it being too much in love with its mythological background. Even Santa's Slay managed to handle a complicated back story and enough gags better. The kills are suitably bloody, but not really Christmas-related. All in all, best stick to Rare Exports, even if that film's quantity of Evil Santa screentime is lacking.

★★ 1/2

So sorry if I scarred you for life with this, and have a truly peaceful and wonderful Christmastime. Peace out!

Monday, 19 December 2011

War Pigs

It's not easy being a pig. At least this time of the year, as thousands and thousands of our porcine pals get slaughtered to bring a Christmas ham into the tables of hungry families. Another thing that has been troubling snout-nosed creatures this year is the bad publicity they've gotten in the media. Like the wildly popular Angry Birds game, for instance. The whole game revolves around killing limbless, green pigs that just stay still, not running or fighting against their impending doom. The game's makers at Rovio are building a media empire around the concept, which will feature a feature-length animated movie sometime soon. While we may hope it will be as innovative and funny as this legitimate trailer suggests, it still makes pigs look like the bad guys.

And for what?!
Well, maybe pigs are tired of being sitting ducks, to be roasted by well-aimed shots of roundish birds or killed for the sake of filling up our stomachs as well as our stockings at christmas. Pigs can also fight back, like movies well prove! For your consideration, we give three films which show the fighting spirit of all piggies.

Animal Farm (UK, 1954)
Directors: Joy Batchelor, John Halas

The most famed pig revolution, of course, is the one that occurs in the pages of George Orwell's satirical animal fable Animal Farm (1945). The film's pigs, among other animals, live in a farm owned by a nasty drunkard. The animals live in the fear of the angry farmer, and have to enslave all day and night with no benefits for the man. The oldest and wisest of the pigs, Old Major calls the animals together to give his piece of mind. In his opinion, animals should be the masters of their own domain, and overthrow the tyranny. When Old Major dies, and the abuse coming from the farmer reaches its limits, the animals stage a coup and manage to drive the mean old farmer away.

But life in the animal-owned farm isn't all peaches and cream. A power battle comes between two pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, who had been generals in the revolution. Whereas Snowball attempts to improve the conditions of all animals, and teach them skills such as reading, Napoleon has secretly raised an army of dogs to do his bidding. When the conflict between the two boars inflames, Napoleon orders his dogs to drive Snowball away and takes over the farm. He still claims that the principles of power-to-the-animals on which the farm lives by, remain. But little by little, the other animals start to see how the new boss begins to act more and more the same as the old boss.

This animated adaptation of the book was in fact the first full-length animated film ever to be produced in Great Britain. It is notorious for having changed Orwell's overly cynical ending to a more upbeat one to better suit the tastes of children. But I don't think that decision actually undermines the message of the book, which is to beware how good intentions and socialism can easily turn into Stalinism. The end just gives an additional glimmer of hope to it all. But otherwise, it is almost surprising how violent and terrifying the film actually is. Cuddly animals get killed on screen, and the Napoleonic oppression really feels like a postapocalyptic world. Like in Watership Down, the Brits never seem to worry about scarring their children for life. But as that gives us uncompromising animated classics, who's complaining?

As for animation, this is quite well done, and the animals look expressive and cute. The film employs only two voice actors, Gordon Heath as the narrator and Maurice Denham as the voice of all the animals. It is not perhaps the most modern way of working, but it gives the film's beginning a pleasantly old-school, rural feeling. Of course, when things start to go to hell, it feels even more shocking because of the decision.


Razorback (Australia, 1984)
Director: Russel Mulcahy

One of the most famed Animal Attack films of all time (y'know, besides Jaws and Birds) is this Australian b-flick, that also helped push music video director Russel Mulcahy to Hollywood. He then created such masterpieces as Highlander and... erm, Resident Evil: Extinction. Oh dear. Well, Mulcahy has always been a more visual director than a storyteller. It's sad to say that altough there are some pretty groovy visuals, Razorback isn't really that good a film. Or even well directed. But I'll get to that in a minute.

It's got two stages of being: Dangerous... and Dead.
Such is the warning a Crocodile Dundee -wannabe Great White Hunter gives when describing a huge boar that wrecks havock all across the Australian Outback. It's not just that the beast has razor-sharp fangs, likes the taste of human flesh and wrecks up people's houses for sport. It is that it also has psychic abilities which it uses to turn the entire outback's pig population against the humans. When an American TV reporter goes missing because of getting slaughtered by the boar, her husband Carl (Gregory Harrison) decides to travel to search for her. He joins forces with a group of misfits (really just a bunch of inbred Australian yokels), but as they desert him when he needs it the most, he has to face Razorback in the middle of a desert. Luckily, he is able to find help in the middle of nowhere. And thus a great pig hunt starts.

Mulcahy really knows how to stage a scene, and has some truly breathtaking shots of the Australian deserts. Razorback itself is by contrast, a mean and suitably horrible-looking beast. But the problem is that the film's editing is really spastic. We get a lot of fast shots of the giant boar's snout and mouth, but hardly a look at the entire thing. This is of course due to a limited budget, but it appears that the Australians are being terrorized by a disembodied gaping mouth. Mulcahy's editing is way too fast-paced to be clear, and there is way too little continuity between shots. That means it's hard to tell what's going on from time to time. At least the actors pull all the right strings in B-movie acting, with being as serious as they can. The film also has a few quite funny pig violece-based scenes, so it's not a total waste. But it is still held in way too much regard among B-movies. 

★★ 1/2

Pig Hunt (USA, 2008)
Director: James Isaac

Then again, Razorback is a masterpiece when compared to this schlock that tries to imitate it's spiel. Okay, maybe that's a bit harsh, for Pig Hunt isn't nearly as bad as it could be. For a Fangoria-produced Frightfest film, it's not the most cheapest-looking, and its music has been composed and performed by Les Claypool, the base player from Primus. But it's a masterclass of a film that tries way too hard to be funny, political, surprising and clever at the same time only to fail in all of the four.

A bucnch of Iraq war veterans get together to go to a remote cabin and to hunt wild hogs in the woods. The cabin is owned by John's (Travis Aaron Wade) uncle, who turns out to be dead in mysterious circumstances. The locals are creepy and threatening rednecks, but the crew makes an uneasy alliance with them to track down the uncle's murderer. Which may or may not be a fabled giant three thousand pound black boar named The Ripper.

The film plays a lot with the stereotypical backwoods hillbillies. And, as anyone who has ever seen a horror movie knows, they are all kinds of twisted over there. The by-the-numbers plot doesn't give too many thrills or surprises along the way. There's not an ounce of sympathy in any of the characters. Not even Les Claypool's cameo as a Preacher has enough of the funny stuff in it. Everything in the movie is forgotten an hour after watching it. But there are a few scenes that at least manage to raise a smile, like the part Ben (Howard Johnson Jr.) wakes up in a harem. And The Ripper in the end is kind of impressive, I guess. But still considerably less so than Razorback.


So, the lesson here, kids is: Be nice to pigs. Or else...

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Ken Russell in Memoriam

One of the saddest film news this autumn was the passing of the british film director Ken Russell on November 27th. Russell (1927-2011) was a renegade visionary, whose uncompromising ideas found it often hard for him to gather funds to finance his films. But whenever he directed films, he created strong visions that looked exactly like his own. Russell's films were often filled with psychedelic, colorful and unique visuals, a blasphemous outlook on Christian imagery, and unrestricted, overflowing sexuality. Russell wasn't afraid to test the boundaries of good taste or break taboos, which make his filmography so controversial. And many of his films such beloved cult classics. I take a look at his work that I've recently enjoyed.

The Devils (UK, 1971)

Russell started out his film career by churning TV movies, and it took a while for him to get a chance to try directing a feature film. His early films were succesful, with Women in Love (1969) in particular often named to be among his finest works. The success allowed Russell to be able to express himself even more vocally. The end result is one of the most controversial films of all time, and perhaps even Russell's greatest masterpiece. The Devils portrays a clash between straight-forward (female) sexuality and puritan religious views, which was bound to wake controversy. The film was banned in multiple countries, and in some even to this day. The film is still officially without a proper DVD release. The censorship throughout the years has cut the most outrageous scenes, so much so that uncut versions are hard to find. Luckily the BBC film critic Mark Kermode found the missing footage several years ago. A blu-ray and DVD are promised to come out next year, so let's hope this promise holds.

In the 17th century France, Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) is seeking to destroy protestants and wants to stretch his influence to even a small, fortified town of Loundun. The town is led by the charismatic Father Grandier (Oliver Reed), an outspoken, even a proud man, who adamantly refuses to allow religious bigots to gain power in his town. The charismatic Grandier awakens strong sexual urges with his presence in the nuns of the town's monastery. The head of the monastery is the hunchbacked Sister Jeannessa (Vanessa Redgrave), who is most deeply in love with Grandier. However, when she is initially refused and Grandier marrying another woman over her, she is driven mad. Soon the entire monastery is acting strangely, as if possessed by Satan himself. Richelieu sends witch-hunters to redeem the oddly-acting nuns, but things turn for the worse.

In the most notorious scene of the film, the nuns have a massive orgy, that doesn't even leave a massive statue of Christ untouched. The film was promptly banned in Italy, and Redgrave and Reed were even threatened to be sentenced to jail, should they ever set foot in the country. Like most cencorship, the ordeal missed the point entirely. With his film, Russell seems to want to say that in a world divided in two, where one layer gets to do pretty much whatever they please, and the other has to obey their rules, going to extremity is bound to happen. Grandier is made a scapegoat to things he has no part in. The real devils in the film are the people allowing the madness and the torture to happen, not defending the innocent, and restricting such a beautiful thing as sexuality with illogical puritan rules. The film's visual sense is vivid and unforgettable, even if the copies circulating today are of pretty poor quality. The Devils is raw, shocking, outrageous, and with a word, sinful. In other words is as pure cult film as they come.


Tommy (UK, 1975)

Probably the most famous film that Russell ever made was the adaptation of the first rock opera of all time. Tommy (based on a 1969 concept album) was made in close collaboration with the british band The Who. The band's guitarist Pete Townshend worked with Russell on the screenplay and singer Roger Daltrey plays the lead role. Tommy is a story of a boy who's deafened and blinded by a traumatic childhood experience. Even though his condition is psychosomatic, no amount of doctors, healers or preachers can cure him. But Tommy finds his calling when he becomes a star in playing pinball. His newfound self-esteem also allows him to heal, which makes a whole religious cult to start following him. But this also causes his mother and step-father (Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed) to start taking advantage of him.

Altough the story was laid out by the band, Tommy is by all means clearly Russell's film. The colorful film filled with fast cuts matched to the music, is much like a music video before the whole aesthetic was even developed. So, Russell is one of the forefathers of the MTV generation, no less. The film has a comical air and feels quite cartoonish, with it's vivid sets and over-the-top costuming. Nevertheless, the story itself touches on pretty dark subjects such as life during wartime, jealousy murders, pedophilia, childhood traumatization, and of course, the corruption of religious officials. Russell would never shy away to reveal a two-faced preacher (played here by Eric Clapton).

The Who's music of course rocks and hard. Like you can see from the clip, they occasionally also have guest stars join in the music, such as Elton John or Tina Turner. The Tommy album is said to be about a disappointment to the hippie movement. Russell has it meaning a lot more, with it being a disappointment of the development of post-war England altogether. Cheap seaside souvenir salesmen, target-group marketers and other authorities besides religious officials are all seething with corruption and greed. Russell can do much with his rock source material. And he liked the experience so much as to try it himself by taking on an even more unlikely source material.


Lisztomania (UK, 1975)

On the same year that Tommy was released, Russell also had another rock movie out – a highly unorthodox telling of the life of composer/piano virtuoso Franz Liszt. Both films were filled with music, psychedelic visuals and starred Roger Daltrey. One became a success and another was promptly nearly forgotten. But it's not hard to see why Lisztomania was dissed. It was the one of Russell's films that was mostly directed by his whimsical id. So, below-the-navel humour comes aplenty with it.

Franz Liszt is a rock star of the Romantic age, wooing the ladies and hanging out with other great composers. He meets the young Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas) and agrees to perform some of his composings at a live show. Liszt does so, only to snark on Wagner in the process. Watching Liszt's virtuoso techniques and pompous act among an audience of shrieking teenagers, Wagner grows envious. Liszt has trouble elsewhere, when a dangerous affair almost gets him murdered. He also falls in love with Princess Carolyne of St. Petersburg (Sara Kestelman), but can't marry her, because she's catholic and still married to her husband. Liszt therefore need the approval of the Pope (Ringo Starr) himself.

Russell's strange ideas for the film vary from 10-meter penises shoved into guilliotines, undead Frankenstein Hitler firing a machine gun -guitar at his audience and shoving and explosive piano with Liszt inside getting tied to the railroad tracks. The film borrows it's incredible ingredients from Universal horror films, comic books, varieté shows and even from the works of Charlie Chaplin. Some scenes are so filled with so many dumb jokes they could as easily have been directed by the Zuckers and Abrahams. Russell is once again ahead of his time. The whole ordeal here isn't so much sexual as it is carnevalistic and burlesque. The music is mostly rearranged Liszt and Wagner. The plot is sloppy and has only shallow similarities with actual events. But that's not the point here, the point is for the audience to have fun in Russell's cinematic amusement park. The cast appears to be, at the very least.


Altered States (USA, 1980)

Like many other renowned international directors before him, eventually Russell was sucked into Hollywood. But he waited for a right time to do it, and thus was able to continue making the kind of films as he pleased. Of course, the profit his filma would gain played a much bigger part there. But Russell refused to sell out (he had done so once before, directing the Harry Palmer spy film The Billion Dollar Brain (1967), which he detested). Luckily, Russell opened his US career with his biggest hit, the seminal ponderous sci-fi horror Altered States.

Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) is a brilliant, uncompromising scientist, known for his borderline mad methods. For instance, he seeks to find different states of consciousness via hallucinating in sensory deprivement tests. One night at a Harvard Christmas party he meets Emily (Blair Brown), a woman who is fascinated by the man's wild side. Seven years later, they have married, yet their relationship is crumbling as Eddie is more and more attached to his work than with any emotions or feelings. Eddie travels to Mexico to take part in a native ritual with some mystical herbs. This opens up primitive layers in his minds and he can see into primordial times while under the influence. Eddie brings the herbs back to the States to experiment further, and begins a series of tests with himself as the guinea pig. But little does he realize, he's loosing more and more of his humanity each time he goes back in time with his mind.

Altered States is a very strong sci-fi film of its time. In the 80's directors could still do ponderous stuff, if they only came up with a good enough high concept to sell it with. Russell has often been ahead of his time with his films, but Altered States seems to be the first in line of many of the best sci-fi films from there on. The film has clearly been an influence to a lot of ambitious projects since then. The relentless scientist losing control of his body and slowly transforming reminds me of David Cronenberg's The Fly. Russell's prychedelic montages that utilize cellular structures, footage of lava erupting, visions of hell and other religious symbols, reminds me of The Tree of Life. And of course the entire scene where a nude man awakens in a zoo after a night of transformation into a primitive, bloodthirsty beast, was stolen almost entirely to An American Werewolf in London. Altough Russell's film takes a while to kick off, the film becomes better and better as it goes along. At the centre of the film is the contrast between love and primitive urges. Love you have to work for, but giving yourself into primitivity also makes you lose your humanity. Of course, this is just a shallow interpretation. The film obviously has also many other layers and thus it would improve upon multiple viewings.


Crimes of Passion (a.k.a. China Blue, USA 1984)

As a further proof that Russell tended to be ahead of his time and trends, he made an erotic thriller long before they became Hollywood's darlings in the late 80's–early 90's. Of course, Crimes of Passion was also a major flop, even though it starred Kathleen Turner and Anthony Perkins. It is one of the lesser Russell films, altough it's still highly original and visionary. But it proved way too weird for the tastes of the mainstream. The poor box office performance of this film made the rest of Russell's directing life harder, as he spent years trying to gain the necessary funds to finance a film by any means necessary. He would still have artistic successes, but they would only come from hard work.

Crimes of Passion is about a bored housewife named Joanna Crane (Turner), who has a dual identity. At daytime she's a mild-mannered Sportswear designer and a mother of a middleclass American family. But at night she prowls the streets in a blonde wig and calls herself China Blue. China is a top-end prostitute, specializing in very kinky sex. Her strong personality raises interest in men: First, a broken man on the verge of a divorce Donny Hopper (Bruce Davison). He falls in love with China and secretly spies on her to find out more about her mysterious persona. Another one following China is the twisted preacher Rev. Peter Shayne (Perkins). He claims he's out to save China's immortal soul, but it soon becomes clear that the precher himself has a few strong urges, and what he's looking to do to China is far more sinister.

The film is a sort of commentary about the female roles in noir films, with the death being even more explicitly sexual nature than usually in the genre. Russell has difficulties of finding the rhythm of his story (written by Barry Sandler and not Russell himself, like he usually did). Russell has plenty of ideas for nice visuals and odd scenes (the first shot of China shows her in a beauty queen outfit, recieving cunnilingus from Donny), but most of the film feels a tad boring. Turner is not a convincing lead, and the film should be anchored to her more tightly. At times it also seems that Russell is playing for time. The long sex scene of Donny and China shot behind a curtain is boring to the point of dreariness. Of the leads, Perkins does the best job, yet he could do this sort of typecasting in his dreams. But Crimes of Passion does have its flashes of brilliance shining through. The end scene in particular is so otrageously funny and a big up yours to the more classical film fans, that one can't help but to love it.


Gothic (USA, 1986)

While films such as The Devils and Alternate States having already flirted with horror iconography, Russell went on to do his own and create some weird new icons as well in Gothic. On the surface, it is a film about that one fateful night in the 19th century, when the renowned writer Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) had invited his friend Shelley (Julian Sands) and his fianceé Mary (Miranda Richardson) to spend time at his mansion. They are joined with Byron's squeeze Claire (Myriam Cyr) and friend Dr. Polidori (Timothy Spall). Byron comes up with a competition for each to write their own horror story for the amusement of others. Mary comes up with Frankenstein.

That's not much of a story, but Russell directs his attention to a lot of other things. The poets are portrayed as a decadent lot, doing drugs, alcohol and sex with whomever they please. Sexuality flows through both in prudent anxiousness, jealousy issues and in luscious fantasies. The participants encourage each other to go further and further and soon they find that the most horrible parts of their psyche are becoming all too real. Every one has skeletons in their closets and they cause the madness to come spiralling down.

As should be clear, Gothic is not exactly an easy film to summarize. Russell's disinterest in plots and fascination with psychedelia and weird imagery is taken to its logical conclusion. Many weird things seen in the film are on screen for merely a bat of an eye, but linger in the mind of the viewer for a long time. The cast is also flawless, with the young Byrne providing a suitably charismatic lead and good character actors such as Spall and Richardson providing the necessary back-up. At first glance this may seem like a cheap period drama. But while Russell's budgets have been considerably cut, the end result is wholly unique. Russell surely did never made the same film twice.


So good night, Mr. Russell. You never got the recognition you deserved in life, but your unique, brilliant filmography keeps on giving for us friends of good cinema.


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