Monday, 31 January 2011

The Directors: Bong Joon-ho

The new episode of our director series concerns the South-Korean director Bong Joon-Ho (b. 1969). He is a master of thrillers and mysteries, but mixes surprising elements to each one of his films. I am quite fond of his genre-bending ways and have loved each film of his a little more (but I'd like to point out I didn't see them in the order they were made). So let's takea a SWOT analysis of his talents.


Bong can create a great athmosphere of suspense and create intriguing mysteries without ever getting too gimmicky or messing it up with a hard-handed twist. He has a strong visual style of not utilizing too many colours on screen at once, that reminiscens black-and-white films. He's rarely found to treat heavy subjects lightly, even with his trademark humour bubbling in between. He is also a master in creating a tension-filled athmosphere and by emitting a character's sadness through visual means only.

W eaknesses

Every one of Bong's films has a great deal of comedy, and he can overdo it at some points. His least perfect film, The Host messes with a little too much ingredients and struggles in points to find balance.

O pportunities

Bong could be a true modern Hitchcock or a Korean Fincher. He has an opportunity to blur genre lines even futher and create a string of masterpieces which work on multiple levels.

T hreats

Bong could also water down his thrillers with too goofy comedy, or mix too much elements into the film that they get more and more of a mess.

Barking Dogs Never Bite (Flandersui gae, 2000)

Bong did his feature film debut with this gem, which is my favorite of his films. It is a drama/comedy and quite black at that. The main character Yun-ju (Lee Sung-jae) is the unemployed college graduate who dreams of becoming a professor. As my future (being a student of humanities) is probably to become an unemployed academic, I understand his frustrations all too well. In the Korean culture there is also a level of corruption so you may need to give some bribes to get the position you want. However, Yun-ju is poor and wouldn't want to use his precious few moneys on a thing like a bribe. More pressure is put upon him by his wife who's expecting a child and has her own view of spending the family money. Yun-ju spends his days at home where he gets irritated by the neighbour's dog constantly yapping. He decides to get rid of the mutt once and for all. But his actions have long-term consequences and he soon finds himself in a heap of trouble with dogs. In the same apartment building there seems to live other people as well who aren't that friendly towards dogs.

It is a oft-heard western joke that Koreans like to eat dogs. The animal is a taboo in Western countries only because we think of the animals as being somewhat more humane to other animals and thus ideal companions. The modern South-Korea is in a sort of crossroads between the Western and Asian traditions. Thus, the film makes fun of the persceptions the Koreans have on dogs. What is the faithful friend to one is an annoying pest to others, and a delicious lunch to others. The different classes also come out to play as being the most educated means often being the most immoral and being the most poor may not mean one understands the viewpoints of people from different classes. Bong's comedy is at its peak-point here as the film gets ever-more farcical as dogs keep disappearing and the mystery deepenes. Surely our hero Yun-ju couldn't have wasted all of them off-screen? The Buddhist view of Karma is also both at play and sometimes discarded just to keep things interesting. No bad thing goes unpunished, but then again, no good thing either. The film also benefits from great actor work and a good script that fleshes out omedic characters into multi-dimensional beings that have all-too real feelings. It's a great film.

★★★★ 1/2

Memories of Murder (Salinui Chueok, 2003)

The powerful film magazine Sight And Sound picked Memories of Murder to be on its list of the best movies of the 2000s. And I also regret missing having it on my Thriller list. Memories is basically like the korean Zodiac, except of course Memories became first (is Zodiac the American Memories of Murder?). They both are based on a real-life serial killer and the hunt to capture them, which in both cases proved ultimately to be futile. A serial killer on the loose rapes and kills young women in such a graphic way, the Zodiac Killer himself would shit his pants. The film takes place in 1986 and features also the growing tensions between North and South Korea. At that time the countries experienced border conflicts that sent soldiers into the streets. The hunt for the murderer is equalled as a search for some meaning and stability in a world gone crazy and violent. We can see from the state of the Korean peninsula today, how succesful this attempt was.

The film showcases two different kinds of policemen on the trail of the murderer. One believes in doing intensive research looking clearly through every clue available to catch the killer. The other believes in catching petty crooks and beating them up to get information. The first one is the preferred method of a city-based detective, whereas the countryside police is a lot more amoral and tough with their idea of getting answers. The torturing of suspects reflects chillingly also the US information-gathering in Afghanistan at the time. At the time of the film's release, the USA invaded Iraq and soon put their POWs to Guantanamo Bay. It's almost as Bong had prophesized how the War Against Terrorism will go, for both ways of doing the search are equally unfruitful. Every time the policemen round up a suspect that could be the killer, something goes wrong. The policemen give up to each others ways to get results and the search becomes more and more brutal. Who Watches The Watchmen indeed.

Memories of Murder is the most dark and straight-faced of Bong's films (it and Mother are in a clearly different series to the rest). There is still a great deal of comedy on behalf of drunken and vomiting people. However, the film is perhaps a little too long, although a class act all the way.


The Host (Gwoemul, 2006)

Bong tried making a creature feature film with his next one. It was actually the first one of his films I ever saw at HIFF 2006. I was a bit confused by it and it does have a bit too much going on. The Host focuses on one family battling against a huge mutated monster. And the creature itself a wonderful movie monster, one for the ages. You know how the created Godzilla post-WWII from the collective Japanese fear of nuclear weapons? Bong uses some more modern Asian fears such as SARS and the Avian flu to create his new breed of monsters. It looks like a cross-breed between the upside-down beast from Hellraiser, The Predator and a newt. It captures innocent bystaders by surprise and its touch can give you diseases. Or so we've led to believe.

The real baddie isn't the monster, but rather the US Military, that is responsible for its creation by polluting the rivers, doing genetic tests and concealing the truth of their actions. The US also brings its soldiers into the streets which may bring up bad memories in the South Korean collective subconscious. The military also gives Bong the chance to satirize retarded American action films and their connections to the military.

Anyway, the family Park (a reference to fellow acclaimed director Park Chan-wook?) gets caught up in the monster situation, when the young girl Hyun-Seo gets kidnapped by the creature. The other family members get locked up without asking too many questions. The family are as well-fleshed characters as any in Bong's filmography, yet still feel a little too much like archetypes. Bong could've also controlled the amount of stupidity in his main protagonist, Park Gang-du.

So as well as an action movie, monster horror, family drama and a modern affairs satire, The Host is at parts also a comedy. Which may be its biggest flaw. The humour is so goofy, it seems to be aimed at a very broad comedy. Yet all the serious stuff in the film works at its disadvantage. At the beginning the humour feels discomforting, but one gets used to it and it does have a few really funny scenes. But it still ruins so much of the great athmosphere of uncertainty and hopelessness Bong has so masterfully created for a film with such a silly premise. One isn't quite sure whether Bong takes his film seriously himself. Then again, the Asian sense of humour is a lot more goofy than the western one. I find the joke parts in films like Hard Boiled equally hard to watch.

The Host may be Bong's most flawed feature film, but it is still a very welcome addition to both his filmography and the greater giant creature filmography as well. Bong's handling of different genres is always worth a look.


Tokyo! (2008)
Directors: Bong Joon-ho, Michel Gondry,  Leos Carax

Episodic films tend to be hit-and-miss, especially if they are done by multiple directors. Tokyo! is one of the better ones, as the styles of the directing two frenchmen and the korean Bong fit quite well together. Also three stories in two hours is not too much and every one has a good story which is told in a pace not too fast and not too slow.

Michel Gondry's effort, which starts the film, is probably the best, and features a young couple that moves to Tokyo. He's an art filmmaker and she does everything she can for him, which leads to a surprising development in her appearance. Leos Carax's part is the most anarchistic, and features a crazed hermit that lives in Tokyo's subvay tunnels. He regularly surfaces to scare the japanese, but when an affair with a couple of hand grenades goes haywire, the man simply called Merde (French for Shit, duh) is put on trial.

These are both pretty fun, but it's Bong's part that I'm discussing here. His short film features a shut-in (another hermit, or maybe the third one as the girl in Gondry's film was pretty much friendless herself) that has an OCD point-of-view in his crammed apartment. This is told in a very Bongian tongue-in-cheek humour. It features falling asleep on the toilet and arranging empty pizza boxes on the wall. Unlike the lonesome main characters in the other stories, Bong's protagonist has a chance for a better life and for love. Where Tokyo drifted the other people apart, the city is more gentle here and seems to want to help the poor bastard. This is done for instance by arranging earthquakes in appropriate moments. Most of Bong's time is spent on running around the place looking for the love. In that it's probably the most boring of the three stories in Tokyo!. Yet, because it is pretty cheerful and sweet-hearted in nature, it is quite hard to dislike. It is nothing special in Bong's career, but a nice effort for a nice episode film.


Mother (Madeo, 2009)

I talked a little about Mother already in my Love & Anarchy 2010 article. Mother is a close relative to Memories of Murder, as it also presents Korea to be a dark, terrifying place where human life can end at any sudden moment. Yet there is still good and strong values in that world, and the strongest of those is a mother's love. But that would be too easy an approach for Bong to take. The film makes us ponder whether even that feeling is so pure in the end. The Mother (Kim Hye-ja) has some guilt issues she is trying to compensate by helping out her boy. His boy Do-joon (Won Bin) is a little slow, and like Lenny in Of Mice And Men, gets into trouble because of not quite understanding. Do-joon also hangs around a wrong crowd that does not care for him and seems to be laughing at him and not with. The boy is soon blamed for murder and the mother wovs to prove him innocent. Mother is shot mostly in greyish tones and foggy landscapes.

Audience is kept at toes, because Mother takes its time to take its actual form. The film progresses leisurely, focusing on the athmosphere and moods. It may seem like a over-the-top comedy at the beginning, but sudden outbursts of violence and cruelty quickly demolishes this image. If Michael Haneke had a sense of humour, he might create something similar.

The story unfolds wonderfully in fragments and paints different characters we thought we knew in a different light. Bong also utilizes his critical look on Korean institutions. He satirizes the unfair justice system, and the way the Korean society leaves people living on the streets, living with any scraps they can find. Even a poor person that has a crammed apartement to live in can sneer at the beggars and think of them as seedy and untrustworthy. The real threat comes form the Working Class itself and its in-built cruelty and contempt to others. And that is caused by their hardships in day-to-day living as well. The vicious cycle of Korean society is shown to be pretty comfortless. There are no Hostian family values here to get through all the darkness within. And the end result is another Bong class act.


I should point out that short films and Episode film parts do not count to the main score.
Bong Joon-ho's Score: 3,88

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Perkele! - Finnish Documentary Films at Year 10.

Today the 10th Helsinki Documentary Film Festival DocPoint starts. I've been anxiously waiting for the festival, because this will be the first time I will be able to attend it. I'm looking forward to seeing films like I'm Still Here, Hoop Dreams and Lemmy - more on which later on. But one of the most important films the festival accomplishes each year is to take a look on the back catalogue of finnish documentaries. Our country produces brilliant documentary films each year - more than can be said of our fictional film industry, although that may be getting better as well. This year, DocPoint brings retrospectives to documentary directors such as Pekka Lehto. Inspired by this, I will do a small look on recent, 2010 Finnish documentaries myself.

The Steam of Life (Miesten vuoro)
Directors: Joonas Berghåll, Mika Hotakainen

The Steam of Life has been an audience favorite at Finland. It has a reputation of being a film which makes even grown men cry, and not without merit. The film takes place solely in a sauna environment, where men of different ages and backgrounds discuss their lives. It seems that the finnish male, who has a reputation of being quiet and withdrawn, really opens up in the steams of a sauna. The men in the film are not bashful of talking about even the most painful things in their lives, and showing their emotions too. But if one thinks of this as a mere tearjerker, one is mistaken. Like any good film, The Steam of Life succeeds in having also scenes of hilarious life stories, tongue-in-cheek joking, pure joy and angry resentment of the wrongfulness of life.

The film resembles a little the recent documentary Kansakunnan olohuone, which took place in the living rooms of finnish people. Similarily, regular people opened up their shells and talked and lived their life right in front of the camera. In The Steam of Life there is more camerawork and editing, which makes me suspect that the talking has been rehearsed and having been done in multiple takes. Nevertheless, it does have an aura of genuinity and like any good films, manages to stir emotions. I do admit of having a lump in my throat by the end.

Freetime Machos
Director:  Mika Ronkainen

Freetime Machos is a good companion piece for The Steam of Life. It concerns a group of rugby players in a Northern Finland team located in the town of Oulu. Now, many sport films would chronicle a bad team's rise to the top. Not so in here. The Freetime Machos begin and end as a shitty amateur rugby team. But in fact this film is another study of mascuilinty and a portrait for the finnish male. The sport team is an excuse, a thread which ties men of different ages and backgrounds together. The players are young and their talk is down and dirty in the film. Yet as the documentary goes on, the men start to grow from boys to men. They get into serious relationships, have children and get their stable jobs and houses. The team is a channel for thier mascuilinty because they are quite domesticated at home. But there are a lot of disappointments ahead too, break-ups and lay-offs go hand in hand with their defeat on the sport field. This is a film about the finnish Sisu, or guts. The men have true cojones to keep on trying even when it all seems hopeless. In the end of this film people get results from it.

Interesting is the film's emphasis on sex. The men do a lot of jokes about gay people and there is a clear homoerotic subtext in the film. By the end the confused young ones find heterosexuality and also openmindness to accept other sexual leanings. The characterization of the people in the film is good and one can reflect familiar types inside the film. Yet Freetime Machos can also be repetitive and even mundane, because other films do its job even better. Nevertheless, the film is well wrth a look.

Ito - Diary of An Urban Priest (Ito - Seitti - Kilvoittelijan päiväkirja)
Director: Pirjo Honkasalo

Honkasalo is the most internationally accalaimed documentary maker and she does do her films clearly to be international. So her films lack a finnish viewpoint to start with, which is not a bad thing considering the subjects she tends to choose. Ito is a story about a japanese ex-boxer turned buddhist preacher Yoshinobu Fujioka. He is also a barkeep and the mixture is not so crazy as it may seem. After all, one of the duties of a barkeep is to listen to the problems the customers may have. Kind of like a priest may have.

So like the other finnish documentaries, Ito features people openly speaking about their personal lives and problems in front of the camera, occasionally breaking to tears. There is clearly a trend in the finnish documentaries to have open conversation about lives and concentrating on the people speaking and not trying to illustrate the stories with some stock footage. The emotions on faces will do just fine and tell a lot more. But Ito doesn't concentrate on the millions of stories Tokyo has, but on just one, the story of Fujioka. He gets a lenghty scene where he is discussing with his boxing sensei about his life's recent developments, and he also breaks into tears on gratefullness on the guiding of his boxing life, and the acceptance of his new choices. Honkasalo is a stylish director, keeping herself to the background and having wonderful cinematography and inventive connections within the stories. She seems to also understand the japanese mentality and the importance of traditions in the culture and brings this up neatly too.

Reindeerspotting - Escape From SantalandDirector: Joonas Neuvonen

I think they switched this one for the DVD cover because it was too scary and graphic for children
Reindeerspotting was one of the most talked-about films in Finland in 2010, and it broke multiple attendance records for documentary films. A large part of the discussion was about the rating, which the Finnish Film Board in their infinite wisdom put to No Children Under 18 Allowed, even after multiple complaints. The film in question chronicles the life of drug users in the Northern Finland city of Rovaniemi. It does feature scenes of graphic drug use, but the interest is in the depiction of the drug-addicts life going in circles and not having a way out. It isn't like most anti-drug films in that it doesn't over-emphasize the downsides and the hungover feeling of taking drugs. So it could've been a good anti-drug info for highschoolers and wouldn't have been patronizing and ignorant like most of the study material they will get about the same subject.

The director Neuvonen used to shoot subutex with the main characters and the film started with him just shooting stuff with a loaned camera. The idea of developing the material into a full film has only sprung up later. For such an amateur principal photographer/director, the film is nothing short of a miracle. Most of the credit must go o the editing room, for the film's editing works like a charm. Yet Neuvonen also catches great shots of weird situations such as a reindeer race in the middle of Rovaniemi, during which e of the addicts falls from a balcony. There are occasionally futile attempts for artistic shots like shooting through a mirror, but mostly Neuvonen maintains an utilitarian, interesting viewpoint that captures what his eyes see in his daily routine.

From the daily rat race of shooting up and doing petty crimes to finance the drug habit, the main character Jani dreams of a better life. He hates his home town and wishes for a better life somewhere else. In the film's Rovaniemi, the police can't help any drug addicts, only slow them down. In the circles of the drug addicts, a best friend can turn into a homicidal worst enemy with the bat of an eye. Even if you think you can settle all debts and grudges, new ones will arise for confusing reasons. Towards the end Jani gets his wish of leaving Rovaniemi because he succeeds in stealing a large sum of money. At his trip through Europe there is genuine happiness on his face and some promise that things may be getting to be better after all. But Jani doesn't get rid of the drugs even though he promises, and thus his past life will come back to haunt him for it. It has been sad to learn that the main character has since died in mysterious circumstances in Far Asia. But there is some comfort in knowing that Jani died abroad, where he was truly ahppy, and not in the small Northern Finland town he so much hated.

RIP Jani

Reindeerspotting is the only one of the films presented here that gets a screening during DocPoint. If you are present and haven't seen the film yet, do yourself a favour and check it out.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Into the Wild Blu-ray Wonder

I finally purchased a HD-TV and a PS3. It was about time as I had a pile of Blu-ray films piling up but nothing to watch them with. Now as the equipment was gathered, I can take a look at a few films I've recently watched on Blu-ray.

The Fall (2007)
Director: Tarsem

This was one of the biggest omissions from my list of the Best Fantasy Films of the 2000s. It's good to finally see the film. The Fall worked wonders as a test Blu-ray. The image is crisp, clear and well-lit. Purists will say that it doesn't look like film. Well, every decade has its own look to cinema and this clear Michael Mann-style image will be the one for this one. I found no problems with the image. For instance, in desert scenes the mountain cliffside looks just as magnificent as it does in real life (watching from a distance of course).

The film itself is a little like The Princess Bride in that it's a story-within-a-story told to a sick child. The Fall, however is a bit darker. It takes place in an early 20th century hospital, where a wounded soldier tells a story to an annoying little girl to get her to bring him drugs. His story concerns bandits from different parts of the world planning revenge on a crooked governor. It is an excuse to show off magnificent looking landscapes from all around the world. As it happens, the events which unfold in the real-world hospital start bending the story world accordingly. This mixture of story and reality is nothing new and the same characters popping up in both has been around since at leat The Wizard of Oz. Yet, director Tarsem keeps his strings well in his hands and the fantasy is well likeable. The various locations where this has been shot are simply gorgeous. I just wish there wasn't so much footage of that goddamn crying kid.

Film: ★★★
Picture: ★★★★★

House of the Flying Daggers (2004)
Director: Zhang Yimou

I had fond memories of this film, and Zhang's films are really beautiful visually, so it was a good idea to test this out as a blu-ray. But the results weren't as good as the expectations. For starters, the film seems to be just an upscaled DVD, there are grainy scenes and the image isn't that much clearer. It's good that most of it is set in a bright light, so it doesn't matter that much. I expect it would in a more moody film.

The film itself is a pretty straight-forward romace/escape story. It wasn't even as beautifully shot as Zhang's Hero, but then again it is easily explained, because Hero had Christopher Doyle, the greatest living cinematographer, working on it. HOTFD is still not by all means bad. The fight at the bamboo jungle in particular is great. I just wish the film would be shorter. All the fights are pretty similar and the romance kind of blah. The crime from which the main couple are chased is also a bit petty for my western taste, yet maybe the chinese understand it better. After all, it is pretty strongly anchored to a particular era of which I know nothing about.

Film: ★★★
Picture: ★★

Wallace & Gromit: The Complete Collection (1989-2008)
Director: Nick Park

I think stop-motion animation is well suited for high-definition. It is usually rich in detail, so the clearer the image, the more small things one can pick up from them. This of course rings also true to this collection of animation masterwork from Aardman Studios. I've seen every short film on this disc numerous times, yet the clear image helped me to pick up new things here and there. For instace, the newspapers Gromit reads are now clear enough to see the article headlines. I also like how the fingerprints and other unevenness is seen in the character designs. There area few a bit grainy bits, particularly in the moon sequence in A Grand Day Out, but mostly this transfer serves the films very well.

The biggest masterpiece on this disc is, of course The Wrong Trousers. It is still about the closest I've ever seen to perfect filmmaking. It is exciting, funny and even heart-breaking at times. The characterization is wonderfully deep, even though Wallace is the only character that can speak. The story is well constructed: there are no continuity errors or plot-holes and everything is set up nicely during the early minutes of the story.
I'm surprised to find that my second favorite is the latest film, A Matter of Loaf and Bread. It is another hitchcockian mystery film that is as fine-tuned and doesn't have an ounce of fat in its running time. Everything is well-spent. The weakest link must be A Close Shave, as I've always believed that it has too much going on. Four characters is usually the maximum you'd need for a good Wallace & Gromit yarn, yet this one boasts five major ones, and a flock of sheep to boot. It is still by no means a bad one, it's still funny and exciting and Peter Sallis does perhaps his best work as the voice of Wallace. It just that it has a few flaws such as deus ex machinas and other plot holes.
The first one of the batch, A Grand Day Out is a little different from the others, and is clearly a story of two halves - one made by Nick Park about alone, and the other in collaboration with Aardman Studios. The story, and especially the climax are of a lot smaller scale than others, yet it has a certain simplistic charm the others cover by true virtuoso craftmanship.

Films: ★★★★★
Picture: ★★★★

Pixar Short Films Collection (1984-2007)

The other little animation studio that could, also boasts with its own short film collection. Yet unlike Aardman, Pixar hasn't always strived for pure quality. One can see from the early films that the point in them was just to test different computer programs for lighting, surfaces and so on. Particularly the first one, The Adventures of André and Wally B, is pretty horrible. One can't blame George Lucas for selling the studio based on that short. The first really good one is 1980's Knick-Knack. Too bad the film on the disc is the 2003 Special Edition, which has cencored some balloony babe bosoms. That's a real shame, as cartoon boobies would've brought a real new layer into the story and strengthened the main character's motivation of breaking out from his snow-globe. Some films are clearly extra material for the DVD releases and don't hold out so well on their own (Jack-Jack Attack). Still, there are plenty of corcers on the disc (For the Birds, Boundin', One-Man Band...) to make it worth you while. After all, it only lasts less than an hour.

The picture quality depends from film to film. The early ones wouldn't look too good on any format any more, but the later ones, which have proper textures, look great. I think I might continue my Pixar collection on Blu-ray.

Films: ★★★
Picture: ★★★★

Gremlins (1984)
Director: Joe Dante

January 13th has traditionally been in Finland the Day of Nuutti, in which and evil man-goat comes to homes taking Christmas away with it. Suitable viewing for that day was Joe Dante's mischievous fantasy film, in which nasty little monsters wreck a small American town's Christmas. It's been a favorite of mine since childhood so getting it as one of my first blu-rays was a no-brainer. There can never be enough live-action Looney Tunes-resembling films.

It was good to test out Gremlins on blu-ray, as it is a little more darkly lit film. Most of the previous films in this article were shot in bright daylight, which usually looks great on blu-ray anyway. The key to a good movie experience is how much mood can the technology create. Gremlins works sufficiently good. The Chinese bazaar, Billy's dimly-lit room and the school's labratory still work in creating tension. Yet the picture isn't that much clearer than in a DVD. It had probably just been upscaled. Yet I traded my cardboard-cased vanilla DVD for this and don't regret it for a second.

Film: ★★★★
Picture: ★★★

Amadeus - Director's Cut (1986)
Director: Milos Forman

This music epic is as historically inaccurate as they get. As anyone probably knows, it's about Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) confessing about how he orchestrated his rival Mozart's fall from grace and subsequent death. In real life Salieri may not have created masterpieces that last through the ages, but he was still very popular and rich. It is the same as saying that Justin Bieber orchestrated the death of Michael Jackson. But the point of the movie is not to depict historical events, but to tell a story about envy and where that can lead. In that aspect Forman succeeds very well. The film is never pandering or too openly moralizing. Salieri is almost symphatetic as the villain as Mozart (Tom Hulce) is depicted as a lewd womaniser and shrugging the notion of hard work until in the end. The classical music pieces fit the film's mood like a hand in glove. The three hour running time of the Director's Cut is about the 20 minutes too long, which were later added to the film. But this Director's Cut is by no means a travesty like some other later cuts.

Amadeus is a film which would also suit testing out Blu-ray equipment mighty fine. It has a lot of well-light scenes at luxurious palaces, which have a lot of details, scenes from operas, which have luscious bright colours, and candle-lit moody parts that take place in the dark. Unfortunately the picture quality is merely adequate. Some things, like the texture on clothes, comes out very good, but background details don't seem too clear and the dark scenes are a little grainy. I wouldn't upgrade a DVD, but otherwise this works fine.

Film: ★★★★
Picture: ★★★
I like to do these Blu-ray digests as they remind me of the Weeklies I used to do when this blog started. As it's very important to know how a Blu-ray looks before making the purchase, I figure I could do a bit more of these, too. They shouldn't take too long to write, anyway.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The Internet's Best Critic

This is something of a nerd rant, but I truly believe that the internet's most amusing critic is Mr. Plinkett. After all, he's already completed a review trilogy of the new Star Wars films that is by far a lot better than the actual films. And takes about as long to watch. But he is poignant, hilarious, simple to understand and he has a dark subplot about kidnapping and murdering women in his fims, which is yet to be resolved. I'll rather follow his reviews tahn Roger Ebert's. He's not actually the best critic, because he takes on so easy targets, but the kid's got potential and is about the only video reviewer I can bear to watch. I'll embed his latest review of the Revenge of the Sith here. See all the other reviews (and Baby's Day Out) at Red Letter Media's website.

If you need encouragement to check 'em out, the first words in his first Star Wars review were:

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was the most disappointing thing since my son.

Friday, 7 January 2011

The Best of 2010 - Part II: Everything

So here it is, the exciting second part of my look back at that movie year of 2010. This one's for the people that gave us the experiences we had while seeing films this year.

First, let's take a moment to look back on the movie people we lost. If the year was a pretty good one for cinema, it was also a sad one as a lot of legendary filmmakers passed away. I'm sorry I can't do proper justice to write an article about each one, but I hope this text will help their spirts to Rest In Peace.

RIP 2010:

Eric Rohmer 1920-2010. (Director, My Night At Maud's, Autumn Tale)
Corey Haim 1971-2010. (Actor, The Lost Boys, Silver Bullet)
Erich Segal 1937-2010. (Screenwriter, The Yellow Submarine, The Love Story)
Jean Simmons 1929-2010. (Actress, Spartacus, The Big Country, The Egyptian)
Helge Herala 1923-2010. (Actor, Raid, Noin 7 veljestä, Uuno Turhapuro armeijan leivissä)

Peter Graves 1926-2010. (Actor, Airplane!, Mission: Impossible)
John Forsythe 1918-2010. (Actor, Charlie's Angels, Dynasty, The Trouble with Harry)
Dennis Hopper 1936-2010. (Actor, Blue Velvet, Apocalypse Now, Super Mario Bros., Director, Easy Rider, Legend, The Last Movie)
Harvey Pekar 1939-2010. (Actor, American Splendor)
Ronald Neame 1911-2010. (Director, The Poseidon Adventure, Scrooge)

Tom Mankiewicz 1942-2010. (Screenwriter, Dragnet, Live And Let Die)
Patricia Neal, 1926-2010. (Actress, Hud, The Day the Earth Stood Still)
Claude Chabrol 1930-2010. (Director, La cérémonie, Le boucher)
Kevin McCarthy 1914-2010. (Actor, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Innerspace)
Sally Menke 1953-2010. (Editor, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill vol. 1 & 2)

Arthur Penn 1922-2010. (Director, Bonnie & Clyde, Little Big Man)
Tony Curtis 1925-2010. (Actor, Spartacus, Sweet Smell of Success)
Satoshi Kon 1963-2010.
Johnny Sheffield 1931-2010. (Actor, Tarzan Finds A Son!)
Gloria Stuart 1910-2010. (Actress, Titanic, The Invisible Man)

Roy Ward Baker 1916-2010. (Director, Quatermass & the Pit, Asylum)
George Hickenlooper 1963-2010. (Director, Hearts of Darkness, Casino Jack)
Luis García Berlanga 1921-2010. (Director, El verdugo)
Dino De Laurentiis 1919-2010. (Producer, La Strada, Conan the Barbarian, Death Wish)
Ingrid Pitt 1937-2010. (Actress, The Wicker Man, Countess Dracula)

Martti Pennanen 1923-2010. (Actor, Jäniksen vuosi, Vodkaa, komisario Palmu)
Leslie Nielsen 1926-2010.
Irvin Kershner 1923-2010. (Director, The Empire Strikes Back, RoboCop 2)
Jean Rollin 1938-2010. (Director, The Night of the Hunted, Living Dead Girl)
Blake Edwards 1922-2010. (Director, Breakfast at Tiffany's, A Shot In the Dark, The Party)
Grant McCune 1943-2010. (Miniature Effects, Star Wars, Speed, Rambo)

Best Actors of the Year:

I should mention that as these lists are made for movie magazine Episodi, the only people legible for voting were the actors in films released in Finland in 2010. So, especially in the ladies' list, there is a large number of great performances of 2010 missing such as Natalie Portman from Black Swan and Jennifer Lawrence from Winter's Bone. They'll appear on these lists next year for sure.
It seems that in the case of men, 2010 was the year when a number of hunks surprised me by showing that they actually could act.

10. Ben Affleck (The Town)
9. Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right)
8. Justin Timberlake (The Social Network)
7. Pierce Brosnan (The Ghost Writer)
6. Nicolas Cage (Bad Lieutanant)
5. Brian Cox (A Good Heart)
4. Andrew Garfield (The Social Network)
3. Ryan Reynolds (Buried)
2. Colin Firth (A Single Man)
1. Stephen Dorff (Somewhere)

Best Actresses:

The case of women is always the hardest for me to judge. Many pretty great films have barely any females in them (like The Social Network, which basically has only one female character and all the other women are throphies more than people). Those films that do have plenty of female roles, most often tend to be Sex & the City 2 -style schlock I wouldn't touch with a 10-meter pole that was sharpened at the end. So please forgive me if my list of best female actresses is lacking. You can see that the last ones down the top 10-list were a little far-fetched. But at least it seems already that 2011 will be a year for strong female performances and characters both.

10. Louise Bourgeoin (The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec)
9. Eva Mendes (Bad Lieutenant)
8. Mo'Nique (Precious)
7. Chloe Moretz (Kick-Ass)
6. Maggie Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart)
5. Olivia Williams (The Ghost Writer)
4. Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right)
3. Julianne Moore (A Single Man)
2. Elle Fanning (Somewhere)
1. Gabourey Sidibe (Precious)

The Best Soundtrack:
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Scott Pilgrim's soundtrack has been one of my favorite records of 2010 so yeah. The film introduced me to such great indie bands as Plumtree, Blood Red Shoes and Metric and re-ignited my love for Beck. This is one area where the film shines brighter than in the original comics, as Scott's band Sex Bob-Omb was described there to be "pretty sucky". And Beck coudn't do sucky in his sleep. No wonder in the film version they got an actual recording deal, what with songs like Launchpad McQuack (sorry, We Are Sex Bob-Omb), Treshold and Garbage Truck. Oh, and the soundtrack also includes classics from T. rex and The Stones as well as a chiptune version of Treshold. What's not to love? Not Metric of course, because the feeling I have for the song Black Sheep is something greater than mere love.

The Best Score:

Hans Zimmer does too many scores as most of them tend to sound a bit too much alike. But when he gets a project that really gets his creative juices flowing, the result is something great. Last time it was with Sherlock Holmes. I doubt Inception will lose Zimmer the Oscar this time. It's tremendously clever, like for example how it uses also the slowed-down version of Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien. The score can be exciting, and goes well with the scenes where things keep exploding. It can also be strikingly beautiful to go with those mourning scenes.

Best Scripts:

Judging scripts might also be a little stupid as I haven't actually read any of the texts from which the movies have been filmed. Direction is easier to judge from the film itself. But sometimes a good writer really shines through, such as Aaron Sorkin with The Social Network. No-one can quite write as fast and as snappy dialogue like him. Well, maybe Tarantino, but he didn't make a new film this year. The criteria for choosing the scripts includes how memorable characters the film created, the dialogue and why things keep happening. And of course humour. Mustn't forget that.

10. Juuso & Jalmari Helander (Rare Exports)
9. Lisa Cholodenko, Stuart Blumberg (The Kids Are All Right)
8. Sofia Coppola (Somewhere)
7. William M. Finkelstein (Bad Lieutenant)
6. Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughan (Kick-Ass)
5. Christopher Nolan (Inception)
4. Thomas Bidegain, Jacques Audriard (Profeetta)
3. Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3)
2. Chris Morris, Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain (Four Lions)
1. Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network)

Best Directors:

Some directors might do a tremendous job, but because of a clichéd or otherwise flawed script, they didn't get their films to my top 10. But at least this one helps a lot. Somehow this seems easiest for me to judge. You can always tell a great artist from his/her work. Bonus points for a visionary style or risking life and limb (like Janus Metz) to make a film.

10. Ben Affleck (The Town)
9. Matthew Vaughan (Kick-Ass)
8. Jalmari Helander (Rare Exports)
7. Roman Polanski (The Ghost Writer)
6. Janus Metz (Armadillo)
5. Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World)
4. Chris Morris (Four Lions)
3. Gaspar Noé (Enter the Void)
2. Sofia Coppola (Somewhere)
1. Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon)

Top 10 DVD Premieres in Finland

The meat (hopefully) of this later post is to include a list of films that didn't get a premiere on the big screen at all in 2010, but went straight to DVD. Many british films had this fate, when lesser films like Harry Brown got to the screens. Don't worry, Harry. You'll get yours, pretty soon. Many of the films are popular from film festivals, and some have even been shown at several. If you'll excuse me, I'll write a little less of films I've mentioned before.

10. American Swing (2008)
Director: Jon Hart, Mathew Kaufman

Do you think Americans are sexually repressed? I think that although they might act like that, nothing could be further from the actual truth. A case in point is this groovy documentary about the swingin' 70's, when a popular swingers' joint Plato's Retreat opened. The story of the days of decadence is an exciting, hilarious but also a little sad. A place too free-minded like that is bound to either be destroyed or destroy itself. Which is what did happen. The documentary is well made, with good interviews and just the right amount of authentic footage.

9. Whip It! (2009)
Director: Drew Barrymore

Drew Barrymore's debut film was a flop at the USA, so no wonder we never got it on our big screens. Shame, because it is an actually good sport film, about a sport not enough used on canvas - roller derby. And at the same time, it's a story about growing up. The teenaged Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) starts doing the derby secretly from her demanding mother. As the sport demands toughness, Bliss starts to develop into a person who is more in charge of herself. The film is funny, it's got attitude, and while it follows pretty worn-out patterns, it doesn't always go where the path is most trampled.

By the way, the Finnish title for this is "Roller-Girl", which makes it seem like a spin-off film from Boogie Nights.

8. Kabuli Kid (2008)
Director: Barmak Akram

We all know Afghanistan from the headlines, but life in Kabul is a lot more than just dodging bombs all the time. The greatness of fictional films as a medium is that they might take you to such a place safely, to see what everyday life is like for the regular inhabitants. We get thrown into the story as an Afghan taxi driver gets stuck with a baby, left by a mysterious woman in a full-body burkha. What follows is a search all through the city. I like how Kabul is actually one of the main characters in this film. It is a wise film, telling a lot about the Afghan attitude to life after years of neverending war and its subtle touches to western ways of life. I love the scene where an old beggar finds a Coca-cola bottle full of milk and takes a drink, for instance. This one was a Love & Anarchy treat from a previous year (2009 I think).

7. The King of Kong: A Fistfull of Quarters (2007)
Director: Seth Gordon

It was about time to see this documentary about competitive gaming at our northern home country. It's a true only in America -style situation where grown men train to become the best there is at playing the Donkey Kong Arcade game. Not only is the subject interesting per se, Gordon directs his documentary to be a real American if-you-got-one-shot drama. Never mind how much of this is really true, Gordon truly has his Rocky and Apollo Creed in the story. But I'd imagine the craziest country in the world, Japan, must have some pretty hardcore gamers who'll probably sleep with a joystick in their hands. If we ever get a sequel, that's probably where the story's Ivan Drago will come from.

6. Centurion (2010)
Director: Neil Marshall

I like everything that Marshall has done, and this may be my favorite film of his after The Descent. A really thrilling men-on-a-run story, with scarcely time to catch one's breath. It is also awesomely set in the Roman era, and pretty violent. I wrote a little bit more about it at my Espoo Ciné report.

5. In The Loop (2009)
Armando Iannucci

In the Loop was so good, I retroactively added it to my list of best comedy films of the 2000's. This was the year when I discovered the genius of Iannucci's work, as he has worked with the cream of british comedy, from Chris Morris to Steve Coogan. And today most political satire is too neutered anyway, so it's a true delight to see this spin-off from the TV series The Thick of It work so beautifully on its own. The script moves too fast to be summarized here, but suffice to say the film is mostly about Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), the most innovative swearer there has been since Captain Haddock. He's working for the British Prime Minister now and he's plenty of pissed on how the other morons fuck up their work. F * * * Cunts.

4. Lebanon (2009)
Director: Samuel Maoz

Personal war stories often make the best war films, and Samuel Maoz brings us one that has barely no glory at all. War in his world is a claustrophobic nightmare, wherethe only reason is to destroy beauty and to make everyone as miserable as possible. Still, he keeps a tiny thread of hope among all this chaos. I wrote a little bit more about it at my Espoo Ciné report.

3. Fish Tank (2009)
Director: Andrea Arnold

Fish Tank has been one of the most talked-about british films of late, and so it's really strange that it debuted on DVD here. There must be some strong anti-brits in Finnish distribution companies. That, or no-one would see them if they did release them, no matter how good the films are. At least plenty of people have seen this gem at Love & Anarchy. Not me, though. I saw it only recently.

The film in question is about the teenaged Mia Williams (Katie Jarvis), living in a small Essex village. Her mum and sister usually ignore her and she doesn't have many friends. Mia keeps the boredom away by hip-hop dancing and trying to set free starving horses. Her life loses its balance when her mum brings home a new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender), who might be a father figure, or a potential first crush.

Mia is an interesting, complex character. A strong female, that does as she wants to, but also has a juvenile way of showing her mind when she doesn't get what she wants. Also her relationship with the other members of her family can change drastically upon what kind of mood she happens to be on. So she's like a real teenager, then. Unlike many other stories that would concern the walls of small-town life crashing on an individual would be a lot darker. Fish Tank isn't a ray of sunshine by any means but it can find a delicate balance between teenaged frustration and good-hearted humour.

2. The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009)
Director: J Blakeson

A truly surprising and gripping story about a couple of kidnappers. There's no perfect crime, but in this film there is little I didn't like. Read more at my Night Visions Maximum Halloween 3010 report.

1. Walkabout (1971)
Director: Nicholas Roeg

I was truly surprised that one of the biggest masterpieces in Nicholas Roeg's career has never had a premiere in Finland. This makes me notice that the problem that many notable films slip through the cracks and all we get is schlock on the silver screen, is by no means a new one. If anything, because of the media gives enough buzz we have better chances of seeing great movies. I'm glad that today we at least have good chances of seeing whatever we want by various ways. Not so in 1970's Finland.

Hey, would you believe the film is another teenaged female coming-of-age story? I know, right. This time the girl (Jenny Agutter) is stranded with her little brother (Luc Roeg) in the middle of the Australian outback. They happen to find a Aboriginal boy (David Gupou) doing his rites of manhood by having a Walkabout in the desert. The white-bread children come to depend on the dark boy to get them through alive. But cultural differences as well as the inability to find a common language stop the the children from truly understanding the meaning of a Walkabout. At the same time, the sexual awakenings of different cultures and sexes are contrasted with the surrounding nature.

Visually Walkabout is probably one of the most magnificent motion pictures ever made. So much so, that it comes almost comical of how much this looks like a nature documentary at times. Roeg is willing to shoot every various lizard that lives on the desert and landscapes for minutes at an end. It is truly not a film for the impatient. But the landscapes tell plenty of the story as there actually is very little dialogue. Even character names are never revealed. Viewers are allowed to reflect their own feelings and experiences on Roeg's grandiose canvas. It is a highly symbolistic film and my favorite of all the coming-of-age story the history of cinema has ever seen.
Man, this movie should really be enjoyed in a cinema environment.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Review: 127 Hours

127 Hours (c) 2010 Pathé

So I'm staying true to my New Year's promise and will do a review on a film which I saw at a press screening. If I'll see the stats for the post will be good, I'll do a couple more of these. If not, I'll still do a little more reviews than before, but only about one a month.

Danny Boyle is a filmmaker who I rather appreciate than flat-out love. Granted, I haven't seen Trainspotting and I really like 28 Days Later... but usually I find his films to be a bit over-indulgent and hyperactive. The same goes to 127 Hours, which is the survival story of a guy (James Franco) who has his hand jammed between a rock.

Boyle begins and ends his movie with scenes which show large masses of people going through their daily races, praying, at a basketball game, etc. It is made clear that the main character Aron Ralston is just one among the masses. He's an everyman, who happens to like to wander in the canyons in Utah. Him being alone out there in the nature creates a contrast to the rest of Aron's life. Every major point in his previous life have all happened while he has been surrounded with a lot of people. One Christmas with the family that woke his interest in wandering in the wild. A girl first confessing him she loves him in a car full of naked people. And the same girl leaving him in the middle of a crowded basketball game.

So what happens is Aron gets stuck alone in the bottom of a canyon with his right hand being jammed between a huge boulder. What begins is a study of the human mind in such a desperate condition. Aron reminiscens old events and makes confessions to his digital camera. As Boyle allows his camera to fly far away to show the vast landscapes without a soul around, the real claustrophobia of the situation is somewhat lost. One can't help but to compare the film to the similar Buried, which lost at realism, but created at least a better claustrophobic feeling. The audience was kept at toes whether the rescue team arrives on the spot or not. With 127 Hours everyone probably knows that the only way Aron can get out of this mess is to cut off his own hand. Those scenes are not for the squeamish. But Boyle suggests that every single one of us could do the same to survive. And importantly, as people and not regressing as animals. Aron acts pretty reasonably through and through, save for a few little fury scenes and babbling nonesense to the camera.

The story is based on the experiences of a real Aron Ralston (who is shown during the end credits) and is of course a gripping one. But Boyle tries a little too hard to connect the one story to the whole human experience. Thus he sees nonexistent Scooby-Doos and dreams about major life points which could be from anybody's life. James Franco as the lead does very good work. His Aron is at once an everyman and a survivalist determined to make out alive. Aron is not a clear cut hero and has made mistakes before and probably will make them again. He is easy to root for and at the same time easy to identify with. Also the way Boyle shoots landscapes is very pretty. I just hope he would've restrained himself from too many split-screens, fast editing and crowd scenes and kept the story more intimate.


USA/UK, 2010
Director: Danny Boyle
Screenplay: Danny Boyle & Simon Beaufoy, based on the novel by Aron Ralston

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Movies I-wanna-see in 2011

Happy New Year! Last year was pretty good for cinema, but here's hoping this one will be even better! There is a number of great-looking films coming up. Now, these are based on a number of clever marketing. I do realize a year from now a lot of these films won't be on my list of best films of the year. Most of the greatest movies seem to come from out of nowhere. All of these are in a way big films for their studios and thus they have flooded us with material from them already. Then again, these films come from such legendary filmmakers, or based on such great premises that I can't help looking forward to seeing them. Here's my personal top 10. And you know, as 2011 will be a rockin' year, this list actually goes to eleven.

10. (tie) Conan the Barbarian & Judge Dredd
Director (Conan): Marcus Nispel
Director (Dredd): Pete Travis

This is Conan. He's a Barbarian.

Now, I REALLY need some badassiness into my life and two of the baddest motherfuckers in all of fiction are coming to the silver screen next year. Crom and Drokk, I have actually nothing to prove that these films shan't be terrible. Yet the makers of both films promise to deliver R-rated fun and claim to understand the fake swear-word churning violent characters. And I do enjoy both Conan the Destroyer and Sylvester Stallone's Judge Dredd film, even though both are pretty awful, so I might be easy to please. But I'd really like them both to be ridiculously awesome.

This is Judge Dredd. He is the Law.

9. Thor
Director: Kenneth Branagh

As a Merry Marvelite, I am obliged to have one superhero film on every list, every year. Much as I hope Matthew Vaughan's X-Men: The First Class delivers, the smart money's on Kenneth Branagh's Shakespearean demigod-epic. At least that has been in production for more than a year, see. Thor actually is one of the most awesome Marvel heroes that has yet appeared on screen so let's hope seeing a blonde muscle man shouting "Have at Thee" while crunching someone's face with a huge hammer while lightning bolts light up the evening sky will be good entertainment.

8. Drive Angry 3D
Director: Patrick Lussier

Still no sign of anything that is guaranteed to not be shite. That being sad, if the idea of Nicolas Cage being very angry while driving a car doesn't bring butterflies to your stomach, well, I guess you just don't like Nic Cage. Personally, I love him, especially when he's playing a flat-out lunatic. And seems his vigilante character here is right on the money.

7. The Source Code
Director: Duncan Jones

Moon was probably the best debut feature film I've seen since Donnie Darko. I sincerely hope Duncan Jones won't be a one-trick pony such as Richard Kelly. Jones's new film is an action thriller which features terrorism and switching bodies. Sounds cool, and it seems quite psychological as opposed to Face/Off -style ridiculousness. I'm fine either way.

6. The Fighter
Director: David O. Russel

I've long held the opinion that David O. Russel is a good director, but he never gets a chance to prove himself and make his masterpiece. Partially that's probably because he has a reputation of being a difficult director to work with. But that just mean that when it comes to a subject like boxing, he might whip out something stellar from his cast. Mark Wahlberg seems to have a role of a lifetime. I hope that this will turn up to be more than just a Rocky re-hash.

5. Hobo with a Shotgun
Director: Jason Eisener

Okay, this is just for pure stupid fun. If you don't get it by watching the trailer, I can't help you. Starring Rutger Hauer as the Hobo!

4. A Dangerous Method
Director: David Cronenberg

Whenever Cronenberg makes a new film, you better believe it goes to my top 10 most waited for list. Here he reunites with Viggo Mortensen (woo!) to tell the story of the wild days of Psychonanlysis and the friendship between Freud and Jung. Also starring Michael Fassbender, Vincent Cassel and Keira Knightley. I doubt this can go wrong, even if it has a Police Squadesque title. Cronenberg, if anyone, will know his psychology, so this one will be intriguing.

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

Being European, I've grown up with a love for Tintin comics. They have a very delicate balance of thrills, adventures, slapstick and occasional political commentary. But if there is a trio that I think will get it just right is Steven Spielberg directing, Peter Jackson producing and Edgar Wright screenwriting. Wright nailed comic-to-screen adaptaion probably better than anyone already with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The already-released screenshots look a bit weird, but definately like Hergé's drawings. Let's hope the film does justice to his creation both visually than story-wise. Oh, and please let Captain Haddock still be a insult-spurning drunkard.

2. The Tree of Life
Director: Terence Malick

The biggest thing in arthouse cinema in 2011 is of course Terence Malick's new film finally arriving (hopefully). The trailer still doesn't quite give about what it's all about, but seems like it's a poetic description of our brief lives. The relationship with nature seems to play an important part, as always. Some sources say that there will be dinosaurs in the film, which would be awesome.

1. True Grit
Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen

You might've gotten a hint here and there from this blog that I really anxiously want to see this film. The Coen brothers are some of my favorite filmmakers ever, and the book is just about perfect for them to do a western. It is filled with black humour, pondering about the nature of human beings, memorable characters and of course, grittiness. I haven't seen the Hollywood original, but I just know what parts they would polish off the book. Not so with the Coens. I remain pretty adamant that they deliver. There aren't enough good westerns made these days otherwise, so bless 'em for at least trying.


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