Friday, 29 April 2011

The Arnold Project, part I: Arnold Strong, Mr. Universe!

 
Everyone's favorite action star, Arnold Schwarzenegger recently left his office as the governor of California. No one is quite sure of what he'll do next. Many would like him to return to films. I, however am not one of them. The biggest reason is to watch Arnold's films from the time just before he chose to quit. No, we have plenty of good Arnold moments from the past as well. I hereby start a new series here in this blog, in which I will watch every one of Arnold's feature films (some TV movies and documentaries may be too hard to find so they'll have to be excused). They run mostly according to a certain subject, each representing a phase in Arnold's career. At this first part we look at Arnold's first steps on the silver screen. It was a time in which he was mostly cast as a body builder. This sort of exploitation is understandable, as Arnold was Mr. Universe multiple times, and more known from that than from his films. Arnold wasn't yet a fully grown into his later bad-ass persona. Many films used him as just an extra. I'll take a look at them later on. Here, I look at his first starring roles.

Hercules in New York (1969)
Director: Arthur Allan Seidelman




I'll be helpful and put a link here to the only part in Hercules in New York worth watching. Hilarious, isn't it? But don't get fooled by this premise. The rest of the film is as much fun as sticking pins under your fingernails. I would especially warn everyone from watching the film while hungover. The Greek elevator music that goes in a seemingly never-ending loop in the background makes anyone feel nauseous and the horrible "comedy" this film offers won't help things one bit.



The ancient Greek god Zeus sends Hercules (Schwarzenegger using an alias of Arnold Strong) to modern New York, as he wishes to have adventures on Earth. After a few unfunny fish out of water scenes Hercules meets a little weasel called Pretzie (Arnold Stang) who starts posing as his friend. He then starts promoting Herc as an unbeatable wrestler. Hercules also has a romantic interest on Earth. Zeus starts to get irritated on Hercules' adventures and orders one by one different ancient Greek gods to bring him home. They all fail. That isn't the only thing that fails in the film.

Arnold himself has expressed regret in making this film. I find it a fitting link to the bodybuilders of yesteryears who often got to making cheap sword and sandal (or peplum) flicks in Italy or Spain. But Arnold would of course deserve better. As a 22-year-old his accent was so incomprihensible that all his lines were redubbed by another actor for the film.





Hercules: Ha, ha, ha. You have strucked Hercules.

Stay Hungry (1976)
Director: Bob Rafaelson


Stay Hungry boasts of "introducing" Arnold Schwarzenegger, and won a Golden Globe for that to boot. In theory this is true, as Arnold did use a fake name in Hercules in New York. Most would want to forget that movie anyway. This is at least the first time Arnold's real voice is heard on screen, and his accent is still really thick. Although sadly Stay Hungry isn't much better, it is at least more entertaining.

This film is a real mess as well, with a stupid and clichéd story told unnecessarily confusingly. Jeff Bridges plays a rich young wannabe businessman Craig Blake that helps a big corporation take over a city block, estate by estate. The only one left is the gym Olympic that boasts of being the one that Mr. Universe wannabe Joe Santo (guess who) trains in. True to his name, Santo likes to wear luchador masks while pumping iron, although everyone clearly knows who he is. Blake infiltrates the gym as a new customer and soon becomes friends with Santo. Things get even further complicated as he falls for the gym's receptionist Marie-Tate (Sally Field). The simple way of life of the gym users (which consists of partying) turns Blake's head and he realizes how rotten the yuppie way of life is. He still has to stop the evil grinders of the syndicate before they force the gym out of business.

It's weird to notice, that as Hercules in New York resembles Thor a little, this film's plot is basically the same one than in Avatar. That alone tells how original this film is. It is supposed to be a comedy yet all the laughs come at inappropriate places. The hillbilly hoedown scene where Arnold plays the fiddle and Bridges dances is worth the admission price alone. There are also other irrational scenes that seem to fit poorly with the rest of the film, yet are a miracle to behold. These include every one of the bodybuilders participating in the Mr. Universe competition running down the streets of Birmingham, the drug- and alcohol-filled masseus's date with a hooker that goes awry, Scatman Crothers losing his shit from Bridges and Filed's antics in an antique house, and of course the fight between Bridges and the bug-ugly gym owner, where they throw weights and poles at each other in a gym. Best to see it drunk, you won't understand anything if sober.

★ or ★★★★★

Joe Santo (on why he doesn't go on another date with a girl he likes): I don't like being too comfrotable. Once you get used to it, it's hard to give up. I'd rather stay hungry.

Pumping Iron (1977)
Director: George Butler, Robert Fiore


Pumping Iron is such a big cult classic that it must be included in every list featuring Arnold's movies even if one would wish to focus on fictional films. The documentary follows Schwarzenegger as well as some other notable bodybuilders on the route to becoming Mr. Universe. At this point in his career, Arnold had been awarded the titles of Mr. Olympia and Mr. Universe multiple times and seemed to be unbeatable in the game. Steel worker's son Lou Ferrigno seems like an underdog conventional movie plots would have would beat the champion. However, Arnold went on to become the biggest star in the world whereas Ferrigno later became TV's Incredible Hulk. That may give a hint how things work out in real life.

For any Arnold fan, Pumping Iron is an essential part in forming an image of the idol. Arnold seems mostly a good sport, but he does have a more mischievous side to him. He admits to give his competitors false advice and feels a bit cocky about his art of posing. Arnold compares body pumping and posing to sexual release and it seems like he really means it. The film ends in him announcing his retiring from bodybuilding contests. He probably sook to improve his film resumeé. He still was a long way from being a big star, as anoter documentary, The Comeback documents his return to the sport he masters.

Arnold Is Numero Uno!

★★★★

Arnold Schwarzenegger: I was always dreaming about very powerful people, dictators and things like that. I was just always impressed by people who could be remembered for hundreds of years, or even, like Jesus, be for thousands of years remembered.

The Jayne Mansfield Story (1980)
Director: Dick Lowry


Make no mistake about it, The Jayne Mansfield Story is a clear TV movie. It looks cheap, it feels cheap and it acts cheap. In some circles, however, this is a real cult classic in bad filmmaking. I myself didn't find it interesting enough to worship, but I can see what tickles the funny ribs of some jokers in this.

In case you didn't know, Jayne Mansfield was Hollywood's biggest blonde bombshell, who took it upon herself to be bigger than Marilyn Monroe. She married (and later divorced) the body builder Mickey Hargitay. Her career took a big bump from the death of Marilyn that caused a decline in demand for blonde actresses in Hollywood. She resorted to being a Playboy model. She was killed in a car crash that decapitated her.

The movie itself starts with the car crash so it doesn't have anything interesting to build up to. Interestingly, after Pumping Iron it's the first fictional film that takes Arnold's role into the square centre of the film. He works as a narrator and you can probably guess how good it will work out. For one, he never even manages to pronounce his supposed wife's first name correctly, calling her "Chayne". Other than Arnold's ridiculous voiceovers, there's very little to like here. Mansfield (as portrayed by Loni Anderson) isn't really anyone you could relate to, and comes across the movie as a demanding and prissy little glamour princess. Hargitay, on the other hand, comes across as a dim-witted but well-meaning boy toy, doing sit ups by the swimming pool. And the movie doesn't really delve into Mansfield's other affairs or even the other marriages. The film is really way too clean cut, with hardly even references to drugs or sex, nevermind the depravities Mansfield sunk to careerless. On a better story this wouldn't be a problem, but really, the sinning is really the only thing worth any interest in the blonde actress. The death scene itself is a little moody but hopes for seeing a decapitated head are diminished both times the same sequence is shown.

★★

Mickey Hargitay: Ass Chayne always sayed apout her caweer...


Next Time on The Arnold Project: Arnold the Barbarian!

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Review: Source Code

The Source Code (c) 2011 Summit Entertainment

Ever since 9/11 the Americans have been pondering how they could ever catch the cunning terrorists who seem to always be one step ahead of them. A string of sci-fi thrillers after that have dealt with the collective problem, with some sort of scientific solution. Films like Next or Deja Vu allow the Americans to break some limits of time itself to complete their missions. Pity the films themselves weren't very inventive beyond their concepts. My hopes were up when the promising young director Duncan Jones (of Moon fame) announced he would make his second feature film about time.

Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a test subject of a scientific experiment and a soldier on an anti-terrorist mission. He's transported into a consciousness of a man about to die in 8 minutes. His cause of death is a massive bombing which will destroy the train he's riding on. Stevens has to find out who's behind the attentat. If he doesn't succeed, he will be sent back to relive the same 8 minutes over and over again until a solution is reached. The program that does this, The Source Code (I bet the title was chosen by studio executives before the script was written), doesn't actually allow time travel but instead opens a parallel universe for a moment.

Stevens is a former soldier who can't remember how he's gotten into the situation and to the Source Code programme in the first place. He initially wishes to make peace with his estranged father, but falls for his fellow commuter Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan). Yet the lead officer and scientist behind the program (Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright) claim that it is impossible to rescue Christina and the other commuters on a ride towards their deaths. It has, after all, already happened.

Duncan Jones carries his movie's repeating Groundhog Day-like time loop with style and innovation which makes the film both easy to follow (despite all the complications) and captivating. A little too much time is spent on exposition as such a ludicrous plot wouldn't need such a detailed scientific explanation. We know it's bullshit and would like to concentrate on catching the terrorists. The central who-dun-it mystery is solved piece by piece as Stevens uses his 8 minutes to get to know his fellow commuters and what goes on inside the train.  Some comedic pieces are reserved to the insane-seeming behaviour as Stevens starts to solve things without wasting a second to explain anyone why.

What follows is a chapter of analysis which will delve a bit into the ultimate conclusions of both Moon and Source Code. If you haven't seen eiher one of them, yet wish to remain unspoiled, I put here a SPOILER ALERT.

Director Jones has some clear similarities between his two films. Both are about an individual with a dream and a job to do. Both dreams involve reconciling with loved ones after years of separation. It seems straightforward at first that after the job is completed, the achievment of the dream will be the reward. Yet higher-ups have decieved the individual and are just using him as a tool, putting him to do the same work over and over again for all eternity. The dream has been a manufactured lie all along, stolen memories from the individual's mind. The individual's priority will change to wanting to break off this mold and be free. He's willing to even die for it. It should be noted, however, that in Source Code Stevens accomplishes all this by assuming another identity. Even though individuality is celebrated, identity theft of a man that would have been killed is accepted by the end. The whole light-hearted dealing with the subject is reminiscent of Avatar.

In Jones's films there is a severe distrust to authorities, from science and military to government branches. At the same time an emphasis is put for an individual to be allowed to follow his own course and pursuit his own dreams. These themes are familiar to great sci-fi films from Metropolis to Brazil to RoboCop. They are of course even more relevant today as large organizations and corporations systematically lie to us to try to form us into little-thinking consumers that never question their part in the world.

SPOILERS END

In Source Code, Jones does celebrate the brief, even mundane lives of all us little people. He argues we are individuals and not our job as can connect beyond the boundaries with a small push to the right direction. The thriller works as we know that real characters are in danger, not just an absurd number of unknown people. A huge part of this is the good cast doing great work. Jake Gyllenhaal has a good leading man credit in Hollywood, yet is still identifiable for us Average Joes. Michelle Monaghan is as cute as always. The good characterization extends to even the villain who seems just sad and disoriented rather than scary and maniacal by the final showdown. The scientists and the military personnel, however, are presented as cold, unfeeling, uniformed and goal-oriented.  

Towards the end Jones and his screenwriter Ben Ripley resort to too conventional and safe solutions to avoid an unhappy or open ending. This makes the whole film a better-than-average thriller, but one still hopes for a mind-blowing instant sci-fi classic from its director. Let's hope he does it before he is totally captured and corrupted by the commercial forces of Hollywood. There have been rumours that Jones is on the forefront in replacing Darren Aronofsky as the director of the superhero film Wolverine.

★★★ 1/2

SOURCE CODE
USA/FRANCE, 2011
Director: Duncan Jones

Screenwriter: Ben Ripley
Cinematographer: Don Brugess
Starring:
Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Easter Special - Killer Bunnies

 
Tonight, if you're lucky, the Easter Bunny might make a visit to your house. He'll leave behind chocolates and colorful eggs no doubt stolen from somewhere. The media would portray him as a sort of modern day Robin Hood when he should be above the pigs from Angry Birds in the list of Public Enemies. As is often the case with these sort of holiday mascots, the truth is far more disturbing than we usually would like to think. Bunnies are bloodthirsty animals as evidenced by these three films.

Monty Python and The Holy Grail
UK, 1975
Directors: Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones


If one should watch one Python movie on Easter, it should be Life Of Brian. People have walked astray from remembering that the holiday is actually for honoring the martyrdom of The Leaver of the Sandal, no matter what those traitors from Judean People's Front would have you believe. Nevertheless, the first proper Python film does have an Eastery message of itself: never trust cuddly rabbits.

As aficionados of the film well know, The Dread Rabbit of Caerbannong is no ordinary rabbit. Underestimating this vile beast who lives in the midst of bones of its previous victims came to be the fate of Sir Bors and an assorted selection of other valiant knights. The only thing able to slay the beast is the Holy Hand Grenade of Anthioc.

As one might've noticed, I am a bit of a Python fan. Nevertheless, Holy Grail is actually only my third favorite of their films. While it contains some of the best gags from their film career, the ones that don't work as well don't have the visual whizz-bang of The Meaning of Life, nor help the story roll along á la Life of Brian. The film as a whole does seem like a collection of sketches. Still, the Terry duo of directors keep the athomsphere oddly sinister (suitable for the Dark Ages), yet have various cartoony setpieces that lighten the mood of dread. The patented Python way of comedy of very silly (but smart) absurdities and utterly destroying the believability of all authority figures, is at its peak here. The film is also admirable for it's anarchistic ideas about storytelling about an Arthurian legend. The ending in particular is such a big "fuck you" to the audience that even the slightest involment in the film's story, the likes of which have probably never been seen before or since. Never mind that it is clearly the result of running out of money or patience to write anything more satisfactory. Still a hilarious film and highly reccommended.

★★★★ 1/2
Watership Down
UK, 1978
Director: Martin Rosen


Watership Down is considered one of the most traumatic films ever made, and for good reason. Generations of children have been willfully subjected to this film, which suits them about as much as news footage from the Palestine. No wonder so many have gotten ightmares and irrational fears as a result. For while Watership Down is a film about talking animals, they actually are and act like animals (besides the crapping and the mating). And nature, as we all know, is cruel as hell. Oh yes, there will be blood.

The story is about a group of individuals looking for a promised land where they can live free from danger and tyranny. You can probably make your own parables from this. But this search does not actually end that happily as in a rabbit's life, violence is always just around the corner. And not only from predators or people, but also coming from other rabbits, who have formed warring coalitions.

Watership Down has a decidedly European feel to it. The animation is pretty and the hand-painted backgrounds remind of a children's storybook. There's no futile disneyfication and the result is dark and edgy enough for cynical adults as well. The film opens with a myth about the world's creation from the rabbit's point of view. This would probably be told time after time to rabbits questioning why they are so presecuted yet considerably different from others. It's a fascinating idea that animals would have legends such as this, which are so closely relatable for our human stories made to answer the same kind of questions. Yet this spiritual portion of the film comes through mostly in annoying scenes that are accompanied by Art Garfunkle's horrible song "Bright Eyes". I've always hated that song.

Also the comic sidekick seagull is annoying and possibly a bit racist.

★★★ 1/2


Night of the Lepus
USA, 1972
Director: William F. Claxton


The biggest rabbit problem of all time has got to be in this film where a huge pack of flesh-eating giant mutant rabbits terrorize a small town. The events begin from trying to develop a humane method of keeping rabbits away from one man's ranch. But Roy Bennett (Stuart Whitman) is the wrong man to get to develop the system as he tries to accomplish this by pumping the rabbits full of hormones. Instead of sterilizing the rabbits like Bennett planned, the creatures grow to a monstrous size and escape to underground caverns where they will surface from time to time. 

By the early 70's, film producers were really scraping the bottom of the barrel to create sci-fi or catastrophy B-movies based on real world threats. Someone had the bright idea of drawing the inspiration from Australia where the rabbit problem had become a threat to the whole ecosystem and agriculture of the continent. The rabbits had no predators over there and thus could reproduce as much as they wanted, eating away all the crops they came along. But of course cuddly rabbits wouldn't suffice as a movie villain and thus they needed to be giant mutants. Who eat horses and cattle. Probably people as well.

Otherwise Night of the Lepus is pretty much your run-off-the-mill B-movie. Needlessly long of the film's running time is donated for giving its ludicrous plot a somewhat scientific explanation, and of B-list actors (Janet Leigh, Rory Calhoun, DeForest Kelley etc.) looking worried and discussing about what they should do about the problem. The extra star comes from me digging women having the familiar terrified scream while seeing cuddly rabbits (who do growl!), and the effective end scene where the rabbits are exterminated.

★★
Happy Easter from The Last Movieblog!

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

SEF - The Festival for Finnish Films 2011

 
Although I lived in the culturally-challenged city of Turku for years, I never actually visited its biggest film festival. But this year marked the 20th anniversary of the Festival for Finnish Films (SEF - Suomalaisen elokuvan festivaali) and the programme included a tasty sampling of rare finnish sci-fi films, a sampling of the finest finnish documentaries, and lesser-seen classics from the past. After I moved from Turku, there has been a reconstruction of an auditorium to become a movie theatre for arthouse films. No longer did I have to sit in Finnkino's blockbuster benches while Hop's music is playing loud in another theatre, to watch fine finnish films. Truly, this was something I could not stay away from.

Finnish films are known to be a bit gloomy. Indeed, many of the films I saw at the festival were themed after some of our worst emotions. The same emotions, in fact, as the bosses in the videogame Metal Gear Solid 3. So if you'll excuse me I'll sum up my reviews with a parable to the game. If you don't know your MGS's, just ignore this pathetic search for eccentricity.

Helsinki, Forever (Helsinki, ikuisesti)
Director: Peter von Bagh. 2008.


This city symphony had been playing daily for free in Kino Engel (attached to a museum) for years until it was recently stopped. So it was a bit silly to see it in Turku for the first time but it was by no means a waste of time. The accomplished film critic and movie historian Peter von Bagh has sampled his film only from earlier films and pictures of paintings and old photographs. This is a beautiful collage of stories from my home town. The film clips and musical choices are expertly chosen and the film gives new angles from which to look at familiar places in the city. The film's athmosphere is melancholic, reminiscing of buildings long since demolished and old different-flavoured areas long since transformed into something more convinient for modern city-dwellers.

Yet the film does have a flaw or two: a lack of focus and little to no plotline of which to follow. The film bounces around with clips from different eras and places in (mostly central) Helsinki following each other in a random order. The film is not confusing or hard to follow, yet it does feel like a museum film which anyone can start watching from any random point on. I fell asleep for a while, yet had no idea how long, as I didn't feel like I missed anything major. So it's a beautiful clip show, yet not as big a piece of art as some of the films it riffs, most noticeably Aki Kaurismäki's Helsinki-centred masterpieces.

★★★

If this were a Metal Gear Solid 3 villain: The End - a film that seemed to be born old and feels itself too dated for this world, although it still has a lot to prove. Also von Bagh borrows from other sources quite like End's parrot borrows its vocabulary from people.

No Comments
Director: Lasse Naukkarinen. 1984.

Another collage-like documentary film, although this one did have a plot and a point which to follow. Naukkarinen's film follows different events around Helsinki and Finland in the year 1984. He contrasts the idle luxuries of stuff like American Car Shows, art performances and parties for the graduating high school students to winos falling from park benches, bothering passers-by or living in the middle of a forest without a house. Naukkarinen has chosen to depict social differences and different rituals, some of which are taken for granted, some of which are a special occasion to try to prove a point. These news items of the time include a taxi march for a murdered colleague, and a peace rally to get USA out of Nicaragua. In the end the viewer can make up his/her own mind of what to think about these rituals and the society us Finns live in. The cinematography is exceptionally great for a finnish documentary. Images such as children picking up candy from a puddle of mud linger on in the subconscious for a long time.

Of course the editing and contrasting of the film comments on the way of the unequal world in that year pretty heavily. My friend suggested that the title actually refers to the camera touring some pretty painful pressure points of the society, which are seldom commented by those in power. It's a portrait of our northern "welfare" state, where people usually prefer to keep silent than to complain about wrongs. Towards the end the film goes a little bit to the pathetic side with its cross-cutting and criticism, but nevertheless the document of the times is still very much poignant and powerful today.

★★★★

If this were a MGS3 villain: The Boss - it looms lofty as one of the greatest of its kind, yet is smart enough not to reveal all its cards to you at the beginning.

Harmagedon
Directors: Juha Rosma, Jussi Parviainen. 1986.

I saw this for the second time since the gala screening in Night Visions last autumn. Yet it held together maybe a little bit better the second time. Knowing the film's episodic structure with only a flimsy strain of plot beforehand prevents the distraction from the experience. For this is an emotion-based rather than plot-based film.

The melancholy nature of the film came through a little stronger this time around. The Star/screenwriter/uncredited co-director Jussi Parviainen clearly had a sort of weltschmertz around him at the time he wrote the script. The main character Juska Paarma (Parviainen), resurrected from the dead, is unable to work as a human being anymore. He is doomed to wander meeting his old acquaintanced, pining for having sex with the women or having a drink with his buddies. As the other characters in the film represent his memories of the people in his life, they are presented one-sided and emphasizing certain characteristics over others. The film works in a weird metaphysical level. Emotionally Paarma can still express anger, sadness and cold acceptance and tries to come to terms with the people in his past life. Some end with a better closure than others. All still end with a shotgun shot from Paarma's weapon.

It was also wonderful to revisit the DoP Slawomir Idziak's fine-looking imagery. His hand-crafetd cinematography is clearly done by beautiful painted lenses and without a common language with either the director or the screenwriter. Had they been able to communicate with each other better, I have no doubt this would've ended up as one of the best-looking finnish films of all time. It is still one of the country's funniest art films, largely thanks to Aake Kalliala's hilarious (probably improvised) dialogue. I wish he had made more films in his prime rather than focusing on theatre or television soap operas.

★★★★

Parviainen introduced the film in this festival as well. His stories streched to even more weid territories this time around. He told us about Spanish theatre where horses rape people for instance.

If this were a MGS3 villain: The Sorrow

Onnellinen ministeri
Director: Toivo Särkkä. 1941.

Just a brief note about this, as I only went into the theatre to sleep a couple of hours to be able to watch other films later. This is a finnish musical made during the wartime. Because of this it is very uplifting, peppy and optimistic in nature. A country at war needed escapism, not realism. It is a story of the daughter of a secretary of a state who has ended up in the middle of a raunchy advertizing campaign. The artist of the ad poster found a picture of her and fell in love with it. He created the ad campaign without knowing who the model was. To avoid scandals the SoS's daughter comes up with another identity, a street-smart working-class girl. The plot is, of course as predictable as they come in this sort of films. Yet the film did have a likeable aura and the songs were pretty good. I haven't watched this sort of movies too much but this was nice enough to be recommended.

Back to the USSR (Takaisin Ryssiin)
Director: Jari Halonen. 1992.


I had nothing to prepare me for the greatness which is Jari Halonen's first feature film. It is a satire about the affects of the fall of the Soviet Union laced with pitch black humour. Reima Elo (the superb Jorma Tommila) is an angry man, full of piss and vinegar. His ex-wife won't let him meet his daughter, he's unemployed and the only communist in a small village. After a lifetime of useless fighting for a revolution or just fighting for the hell of it, Reima decides to kill himself. But at the same time a mysterious stranger comes to him wanting to rent a room. The guest is revealed to be the vampire Vladimir Lenin (Taisto Reimaluoto). Having an undead bloodsucker on his side gives Reima a will to live, as well as some brand new ideas about crushing the bourgeoise and bringing about the long-awaited revolution.

The anarchistic fim has been made with a pittance, but with so much imagination and inventiveness that it turns its downsides to its benefits. Thus the main village is built with shoddy houses that can fall apart in the middle of shenanigans. There's mud and filth everywhere and the society where everyone is bourgeoise can't be seen as any sort of ideal anyway. But communism is hardly a remedy. Reima is a raving lunatic, always furious, swearing and violent. Vladimir is a lot nicer, trying to help Reima but lacking the fangs to really bite into his wrok. All this makes it hard to him to actually go out from Reima's will and kill people. Thus, both are equally ineffective in bringing the fat cats and the clergymen to their knees. The village is filled with bone-headed rednecks seemingly doing nothing but drinking and fighting all day long. A real frustration of not being able to change this craphole into anything no matter how hard one tries shines through. Still the methods of communism are deemed too blunt.

Although the film is hilarious, it overstays its welcome before the end. The characters are too caricature-like to empathize. The ending still doesn't water down the majority of this film. However, the version shown was merely the shorter international version rather than the longer finnish version. That may have a much worse length problem.

★★★★

If this were a MGS3 villain: The Fury

Ihmemies
Director: Antti Peippo. 1979.

Another film where I slept too much to give a proper review. This was a satire of the corporate world of the late 70's, which almost destroys an ordinary worker (Antti Litja), that has learned special skills in a mysterious training period abroad. Many of the satirical films of the 60's and 70's are a hard to follow today - not just in Finland but in general. They style of the time seems to be to have the length of the scenes shrinked to the minimum. The stories themselves can be far-fetched and to branch out to multiple subplots at once. As you might've guessed, I usually prefer films that are able to focus on one thing properly than leave out a dozen half-baked plot threads. The humour in this film seems to fall flat as well, even though the casting is quite good.

Lipton Cockton in the Shadows of Sodoma
Director: Jari Halonen. 1995.


Halonen managed to pull the rug under the viewer for the second time in a row by creating a ponderous dystopian sci-fi film in the vein of Blade Runner and Brazil. Although he didn't really have the money this time, either, it's a wonder he created such an unique film with such a striking visual outlook.

Jorma Tommila stars again, in a role radically different from Back to USSR. He plays private detective Lipton Cockton subtly, keeping his desires and feelings bottled up behind his tough and uncompromising exterior. This is a requirement as the year is 2037 and the various citizens in Vladivotok City don't take kindly to people snooping around. Cockton is trying to figure out why a large number of citizens have spontaneously combusted. The investigation is not easy as the huge corporation Ltd. Productions seems to have something to do with the solution but is not eagre to reveal the truth about its operations.

It is a story of one individual's attempt to find his own identity in a corrupt world which doesn't allow for such luxuries. The threat of being physically destroyed is still only a small price to pay for inner peace with oneself. The basic plot and the pondered questions are modeled after acclaimed sci-fi -classics. but it is as far as the familiar territory goes.

Cockton has to face an incredibly hostile world, even for such a film noir pastiche character. He can't trust even his employers, who seem to be eager to off Cockton if he fails or approaches the mystery from the wrong angle. Cockton's only friend is a rooster he saves from being traded for prostitution. The story as well as the photography give focus to such details as this. The world seems a lot bigger than its characters, even though there are no large overhead shots. The few shots that go beyond the set are created with an innovative use of models. The props look genuine as well and there is even a huge robot bouncer at one point. Halonen utilizes the absurdity of the world he has created in both advancing his story as well as in the dialogue and the film's black humour. Cockton has to go through a lot worse than many of his colleagues in order to find the solution to the mystery and at the same time to his own problems.

The director Halonen has made only two more movies to date - the cult movie Joulubileet (1996) and a biography about the finnish national author The Life of Aleksis Kivi (2002). The latter I saw as a teenager and hated it. A re-evaluation may be due since I clearly didn't understand the acting methods and the possible anarchistic satirical undertones of the film at the time. Halonen himself says he only makes films when he feels like it. His next work will be a version of the Finnish national epic Kalevala. Color me excited.

★★★★

If this were a MGS3 villain: Col. Volgin - not quite what you'd expect from the scratch, but nevertheless sci-fi themed and strong.

MP – Minä Pelkään
Director: Jari Hyytiäinen. 1982.

Aside from Lipton Cockton, the films I saw from the festival's sci-fi series merely brushed upon the genre. Such was the case also with MP, which is more of a horror film. The film concerns a family of three isolated in their summer cottage. Each of them has to confront their fears during their stay. The fears appear mostly psychologically - yet it's not spelled out what exactly is true and what fiction.

It appears that the mother and father want to shield their young daughter Mari from seeing the horrors of an ongoing war. Yet the military practices nearby and the distant rumbles of cannonfire can be heard to the cottage. The looming fear of war and violence will eventually turn concrete. Late in the evening the parents watch terrible war news from the evening news. Unknown to them, Mari is not sleeping. Looking at the horrified faces of her parents, she comes to a sort of loss of childhood innocence. Each of the family also starts seeing vivid nightmares. A lost soldier in the nearby woods may give them a nightmare while being awake.

The opening scenes seem to belong to a masterpiece. The dialogue is few and a lot is told subtly, with images and small gestures of the main actors. The athmosphere created by shooting quiet nature shots is eerie to say the least. Director Hyytiäinen has taken a page from Tarkovski's book, yet can turn this into his own advantage. The nightmares themselves are shot on grainy black-and-white film. They are visually inventive and not too overwhelmingly surreal. Quite few filmmakers are actually able to make nightmare scenes that feel like actual bad dreams, but Hyytiäinen nails the feeling. The dreams are filled with weird imagery yet feel like they might be true as well, at least until everything suddenly changes. It truly feels like the character's subconscious is trying to process his/her fears.

Yet unfortunatelly the ending fails the film from masterclass. Some (female) fears are brought to life way too banally. In the final minutes Hyytiäinen also hammers home his messages with surprisingly flat footage that seems to rather belong in a film school student's homework. The ending should be a climax in the film's artistic themes, yet it feels like Hyytiäinen ran out of tricks just before the finish line. What began as a subtle film ends up feeling like a pretentious experimental film. A lot of things are ruined by the ending, yet the film is still a highly reccommendable piece of great finnish filmmaking.

★★★ 1/2

If this were a MGS3 villain: The Fear

Yksinteoin
Director: Pekka Lehto. 1989.

And finally we've come to this. This was long a sort of Holy Grail for me. It hasn't been easy to try to see this film, yet now it paid off in spades. This documentary about theatre director Jussi Parviainen's painful divorce had been banned from public screenings via a court order and even after 15 years, its screening at DocPoint festival this January in Helsinki was stopped by muddy rights issues. Luckily, the producer of Parviainen's next film Yksinteoin 2, MTV3, bought the screening rights a couple of days before the SEF festival screening and thus the audience finally got to see the film legally. I know several other people that have seen the film from a bootleg VHS. Hah, that's nothing compared to seeing this from real film and with anecdotes from Parviainen himself before and after the film. He had not so far-fetched and hilarious stories this time around. He remained humble and seemed to still be in pain by the events even after all this time. Yet he remained as ernest to the audience as he seems to be in the film.

So in case you haven't read finnish gossip magazines from the late 80's the story is the following: Jussi Parviainen had planned to make a documentary with acclaimed director Pekka Lehto, when he found out his then-wife had an affair. Although the facts that this was happening were clear, the wife denied everything and filed for a divorce. This and the fear of losing touch with his children dropped Parviainen into a despair and a frenzy Lehto went on to capture on film.

Parviainen is by no means an angel and no mere victim. The film does depict him as a very contradictory character as he has plenty of bad sides to him. When the movie was filmed, Parviainen slept very little, and drove every day back and forth between Tampere and Helsinki to pick his children from kindergarten on time and to go to work. He goes on threatening his ex-wife and her new lover with violence and admits of having beaten them both before. Yet like many other abusers, he seems deeply sorry about his doings and makes endless phone calls to beg his wife to allow him to see the children. His passive-aggressive behaviour however scares people around him (and for good reason). Parviainen's emotions are simply overwhelming, ranging from true fury to tears and sobs of pain. In the film there is no catharsis or resolution, just Parviainen in front of the camera, going through all the traumatic events.

Yksinteoin is a very rare piece of work. Very few documentaries feel as honest and gripping. Most of the takes in the film last for ages and feature only Parviainen either talking to the camera or to the phone (with the answering voices blurred out). The pain which Parviainen feels as his world is collapsing around him is felt all too crushingly by the viewer. Such a person shouldn't be as identifiable as he's depicted with his warts and all. I suspect that not all of the glory belongs to the incredibly open Parviainen, who uses the rolling camera as a substitute for therapy. Lehto's filmmaking skills may not obviously project to the screen as this feels like Parviainen's film. But the way Lehto has captured the most poignant scenes, dramaturgically fitting, his occasional use of music and the editing all tell that this is a work of a true professional. The end result is a masterpiece, one that will leave a lingering feeling in your gut for days after seeing it.

★★★★★

If this were a MGS3 villain: The Pain

Thursday, 14 April 2011

WENG WENG!



Some of the oddest exploitation films of all time have been made in the Philippines. The director Eddie Nicart made some of the most memorable of these. The success of the James Bond movies created a stream of exploitation spy movies all around the world. But none can really match Nicart's work with his biggest star, Weng Weng (born Ernesto de la Cruz, 1957).


I am not that interested in movie stars. Really, the only time a star should be interesting is when he (/she) is that damn good (which is not really that often) or when he (or she) has risen to stardom beating different obstacles. Thus, I'm fascinated with odd-looking lead actors. Even though they usually have bigger charisma than good-looking leads, none can really match the story of the world's shortest lead, Weng Weng. He was only 80 cm (2 ft. 9') tall, which makes him the world's shortest lead before the likes of Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffmann. But Weng Weng was also much more than that - he was a martial arist, a sneaky spy, a tough cowboy with few words, and a disco-dancing babe magnet.

Image from Bargain Bin Reviews.

Really, everything you need to know about Weng Weng is in the brilliant song by the Chuds above. But I'll go a little deeper with the three Weng Weng films I've managed to see (they are not all that easy to find).

For Y'ur Height Only (1981)


In the same year as 50-something Roger Moore tried to reboot his jokey James Bond with a bit more serious adventure (For Your Eyes Only), Nicart produced a spoof that borrows the same title to exaggerate everything cartoony the Bond series was known for. Yet Weng Weng's Agent 00 is not a one liner-spurning joke character. In fact, he might be the most merciless spy ever displayed in movies! The body count is much larger than you could imagine for a film like this.

The filipino crime organizations are having a hard time with Agent 00. He frequently destroys their operations and diposes of their men. But the mysterious leader of the organization, Mr. Giant, has a master plan - to kidnap the scientist Dr. Kohler who has been working on a new kind of a weapon. With the doctor's N-bomb, Giant could take over the entire world - unless 00 can stop him.

The plot itself has no real importance for the film. Nicart has merely spliced together various set-pieces and scenes where Agent 00 gets away from increasingly tricky situations. The downside of being so short is that villains can easily spot you just walking down the street. The upside is that their most vunerable body parts - the knees and the balls - are easily in your reach. 00 is highly trained in various martial arts. He gets to utilize a (short) katana sword at one point. But Weng Weng's most used asset is his markmanship skills. He never misses a shot, even if the gun is so big as to throw him a few feet back by gunshot impact. His most astonishing skill is to slide all over the floor and shoot the bad guys at the same time. That particular trick never gets old, and gets even funnier if you consider that there is probably an extra throwing Weng Weng every time such a shot is filmed.

The English dubbing in this (as well as in other Weng Weng films too) is pretty great too. In the documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed the translator even admitted of making up the dialogue as he went along. Thus we get such gems as the exposition the sinister Mr. Kaiser gives to his men:
"The forces of good are our sworn enemy, and I repeat, they must be exterminated. And I mean lethally!"

Or the exchange between Weng Weng and one of the 00-girls in the film:
"You're such a little guy, though. Very petite, like a potato."
"Ah, let's go."

Weng Weng is quite the ladies' man in his movies. He's a man of few words, but has cool disco-dancing skills. A running joke in Agent 00 films is that he constantly gets into a chase scene in a hotel and ends up in a room where a naked girl is sleeping. Weng Weng can't ever leave her alone without sneaking a small kiss, the cheeky devil. But as to why in a hotel, the whole film looks as if it had been shot in the biggest tourist traps in Manila. Considering how dangerous the other parts of the Philippines were at that time, it was probably a wise move.

Image by Badmovies.org

A big part in any classic spy film are the gadgets and Weng Weng has the best there are at his exposal. He utilizes a radio-controllable flying hat, X-ray specs that show people without clothing and a jetpack. At the final showdown with Mr. Giant, he does have to use his wits and fists. Yet on the same island seems to also be an almost endless supply of identical henchmen, 00 disposes with lethal accuracy. The slaughter goes on and on and on.

Needless to say, this is one of my favorite films of all time.

★★★★★

D' Wild Wild Weng (1982)


Seemingly a western, D' Wild Wild Weng sees Weng Weng's character Weng and his tall friend Gordon (Max Laurel) wander around the prairies, righting wrongs like the basic western archetypes they are. They arrive in a small village that has been taken over by a group of ruthless mexican bandits, who go on brutally conquering every village in their path. Weng falls for a village girl, but as she and her father get kidnappedby ninjas and has to be rescued.

The film's hilarity begins with the fact that it's impossible to pin down where or when exactly does the story take place. The clothing and the set-up seem to belong in a western, yet there are Asian villages built from bamboo, mexican bandits, medieval monks, samurai and ninjas all running around the place. At one point Weng Weng also gets a jeep and in the end, a machine gun. So it's basically a film that could've been written by a 6-year-old. And all the better for it.

Surprisingly, Weng isn't actually the most memorable character in the film. That honor goes to the comic sidekick Lupo the Mute (Max Alvarado). He has suffered a trauma of having his family killed and his own tongue cut off. Yet although he can't speak, he really isn't a mute. He constantly gives out yelps, howls and whining as a reaction to EVERY SINGLE DISCUSSION. As he makes hopeless gestures and stupid faces, at the same time we can clearly see his tongue in his mouth. Nicart focuses on this character so much so that it all becomes increasingly hilarious. Lupo is like Chewbacca as played by a guy without a costume. Yet he also gets a big musical number in the film.


Even though the film mostly treats Weng Weng like any movie superstar playing in a western, there are plenty of brilliantly braindead exploitation traits in here, too. For instance, to add to all the other lunacy going on, the indians in the prairies are actually pygmies. The tribe of midgets has war paint on their faces and feathers on their bandanas.

The film is also as brutal as FYHO, as dozens and dozens of identical bandits get slaughtered by Weng's gatling gun and the warring indians. The end scene has to be seen to be believed with all its explosions and whatnot. The whole film is one of the best films ever made to watch with friends while getting increasingly drunk.

★ or ★★★★★

The Impossible Kid (1982)


The final film in the Agent 00 trilogy (a film called Agent 00 (1981) was apparently the second according to IMDb) goes out with a whimper rather than a bang. There are brilliant scenes here and there, but Nicart has seriously toned down his luscious exploitation storytelling. Also, from the name onwards the film is profiled by the odd decision of treating Agent 00 like an infant here and there. This is most visible when he escapes from a 20-story hotel by using a bedsheet as a parachute. he falls into a pool where a obese man picks him up and starts cuddling him: "Aren't you a pretty boy!" Yet Weng Weng is no child and witnesses this by kissing naked women here and there and of course bagging the female lead in the end. However, this is all done very innocently, unlike in FYHO, where there were serious sexual undertones and Weng Weng even took off his shirt.

The film benefits of having a real Bond-like song instead of just ripping the real ones off by producing similar tunes. It's notable that the song calls Weng Weng by his actor name, not by his character name of Agent 00. The agency he works for is here identified as being Interpol, and its Manila branch. 00 is on pursuit of a notorious smuggler called Mr. X this time around. X, who takes his costume advices from the Ku Klux Klan, has a sinister pedant of holding the entire Philippines for ransom. With what isn't exactly clear as he doesn't actually have an N-bomb. Weng Weng goes around trying to find out the true identity of X. This search leads to some surreal scenes, like when very evil-seeming Don Simeon (Romy Diaz) throws a cobra at him and then claims he couldn't possibly be the villain.

So, the logic in the film isn't that much better than with the previous films, but the wonderfully mad set-pieces are all too rare. There's 00's jump across a huge gorge on his mini-motorcycle that would make Homer Simpson proud. Weng Weng also gets to show off his martial arts skills in a great gym fight scene where he takes out five big men and a woman with his slick kung fu style.

Image from 10kbullets.com.

But all in all, Weng isn't as merciless towards villains as he used to be anymore. There isn't that many kills, Weng preferring to arrest them according to protocol. But by the end he does blow up a boat holding a great number of bad guys.

★★★

Sadly, the end credits promise another Agent 00 adventure, License Expired, which was never made. Weng Weng died in 1992 aged 34. He had heart problems related to his primordial dwarfism. He will be sorely missed and each of his films are hugely appreciated at least by me.

Weng Weng Weng Weng 2 ft. 9'/ He'll kick you in the nutsack from behind

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Night Visions Back To Basics 3011 - Night 2

I had loads of fun at Night Visions as always, but I think I'm getting too old to stay awake two nights in a row. So unless I discover the joys of crystal meth, this'll be the only NV report I'll write in two parts. Enjoy the second one! This night's theme seemed to be ugly moustaches as nearly every film had at least one. Italian ones had several.

Cold Fish (Tsumetai nettaigyo)
Director: Sion Sono
Japan, 2010


The story behind Sion Sono's latest film, Cold Fish, is based on actual facts. Only dog kennel keeping is switched to having an aquarium in this thriller about business brutality. Two aquarium keepers become friends after the friendly-seeming Mr. Murata (Denden) hires the thieving teenaged daughter of Mr. Shamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) in his shop. But it soon turns out that Murata is in fact a cruel psychopath, dealing with the yakuza and officials both with brutal ways. Shamoto is soon tangled to Murata's web of lies and nasty businesses, but is too much of a pushover to oppose his dominance. But like one can see from films like Straw Dogs, you can only push one so far, until he has to bite back. Yet on the line are not only his oppressor, but also his dysfunctional family, over which he wants to take on a new dominance.

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

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

★★★★

The Troll Hunter (Trolljegeren)
Director: André Øvredal
Norway, 2010


As much as I'd like to think this kind of "lost footage", handheld camera fantasy film has seen its heyday, every once in a while comes along a truly fun one. This plays like the mixture of Cloverfield and Rare Exports, all the while staying decidedly Norwegian. I especially enjoy how straight-faced the director Øvredal depicts his really ridiculous fantasy story. 

While looking to do a documentary film about bear pouchers, film students Finn, Kalle and Johanna stumble upon a fact hidden by the Norwegian government. The huge trolls from folk tales do exist! They begin to follow a troll ranger Hans (the kick-ass Otto Jespersen) around, doing his daily job. Hans has a problem at his hands as more and more trolls have broken their habitat and eaten cattle. The poor chap is in charge of all the trolls in the whole country and has to execute the most dangerous specimen. Tired of his dangerous and dreadful job, he plans to unveil the truth about how trolls are handled, and thus helps the students to finish their film by taking them along.

There's been so many re-imaginings about vampires and such common folk tale-creatures that one has to wonder why no one thought of doing the same for trolls before. In Øvredal's version, trolls can smell the blood of a Christian (not atheists or apparently muslims) and turn to stone or explode by sunlight (or the UV light equivelent). And they look as silly with their big noses and beady little eyes, as they would in an illustration in a children's book. The trolls do not, however talk, or have eating contests with people. A lot of time is to create the athmosphere of changing places, so there's a lot of shots of people sitting in cars, listening to a Norwegian easy listening radio and looking at the landscape. There's a lot of road movie in the film. The Troll Hunter is a little bit overlong and would need tightening up from here and there. But when it is funny, it is inventive and exciting and thus well worth a watch for all genre-fans.

★★★ 1/2


Violent Naples (Napoli Violenta)
Director: Umberto Lenzi
Italy/France, 1976

I was informed only later on that this Eurocrime film is in fact a direct sequel, to a film called Violent Rome. This might explain why it seemed to take off so soon in the beginning. It's not a hard film to follow, after all. Violent policemen chase after even more violent criminals to bring down their organization.

The moustached inspector Betti (Maurizio Merli) arrives to Naples and seems to be pissed off about it. The crime boss Comandante welcomes him into town by attempting to kill him right from the start. Criminals are afraid of the tough, uncompromaising yet fair and untouchable one-man army. Betti wovs to bring down the town's mafia and starts to systematically bring down crime Poor petty riminals get to feel his wrath as he is a man who will smash their faces into car windows to get answers.

Like is usual for an European crime film of that era, the corruption goes to every branch of the society and it can be weeded out only by being tougher than the toughies and squarer than a mathemathician's window frame. There's also a fine chase scene or two through the picturesque streetviews of the city of Naples. This one ends on a Unibahn track. It's a pity I had just previously seen the brilliant Fear Over the City, after which almost anything would seem more boring. Violent Naples is a fine basic genre piece, yet there is very little to bring it forward among its peers. Of course, this view might also be because of my tiredness.

★★★

Love Camp 7
Director: Lee Frost
USA, 1969

Love Camp 7 is apparently a pioneer of nazi prison camp exploitation films. This sub-genre was at its peak from the golden age of grindhouse cinemas in the 70's to the video nasty times of the 80's. They offer some cheap tits, bush and sadism, and pass it all claiming to be based on actual events. This all seemed to begin in the summer of '69.

One can see Love Camp 7 comes from more innocent times. Sex scenes comprise of Nazis kissing and squeezing naked women above the waist with their pants on. The violence is not really any more harsh than in mainstream war movies of the time. Some nazi punishments would be cruel in real world, but the sets and actors all are so fake, I wouldn't think anyone would mistake this for being based on any reality. Indeed, most of the nazis were played by jews. And the women by unnaturally fit and big-boobed specimen who seem more comfrotable with their clothes off than with reciting dialogue. The film copy showed in NV seemed to be cut, as we never saw the camp's female doctor even though there was a lot of talk about her.

The story, in case it interests anyone is that two female commandoes are sent to infiltrate the Nazi Camp #7. It is set as a relaxation point for tired soldiers, and houses a bunch of well-built jewish women that Nazi officers and guards are free to rape. The women are in the camp to find a jewish scientist who has an invention that could change the course of the war. Funnily enough, this invention is soon forgotten amid all the sexing.

★★★

Night Of Bloody Horror
Director: Joy N. Houck Jr.
USA, 1969

I'll have to admit that I slept through most of this film and thus am not qualified to give it a rating. It seemed to be a carbon-copy of Psycho, with some really psychedelic imagery. The raw violence is also ahead of its time.

The Late Great Planet Earth
Director: Robert Amram
USA, 1979


Orson Welles hosts this pseudo-documentary by weird cultists that tries to convince us that the End is Nigh. According to the film's logic, since many prophecies in the Bible came true in the early centuries, the Book of Revelations must come true, too. The film goes on to try to prove parts of Revealations to point to modern issues and news items of the 70's. Boy, how the maker's faces must have been red when the Soviet Union broke down before no one had the idea of rebuilding Solomon's castle in Israel. Conviniently the film passes some of the most unbelievable parts of the Book, such as extremely odd-looking angels blowing horns and bringing destruction and Death deciding to avoid the people seeking him.

Welles himself appears in person only in the beginning, picking up a prophet's skull. At the point of late 70's the bloated cinema genius had already sunken to new lows to pay for his whiskey habit. Yet he does bring dignity to this piece that seriously needs it. The filmed filler sequences in the beginning with silly prophets and their misadventures are like something out of Life of Brian. The overuse of similar stock footage, such as missiles getting send up in the air or bombs exploding in a desert, effectively destroy all the poignancy the film is seeking. Although the documentary's claimes are filled with holes, it is not that funny after all. But still a weird enough sign o' the times already passed to bring out a chuckle or two in the middle of the night.

★★

Pieces (Mil gritos tiene la noche)
Director: Juan Piquer Simon
Spain/USA, 1982


Pieces may be my favorite slasher film of all time, so it was a hoot to see it on big screen with an appreciative audience. The film's style and story owes a lot to Italian giallo films of the time, as well as the countless Halloween ripoffs with teens getting killed produced in the US. It's a nice exploitation cocktail, then. But with a lot weirder sequences than one would be used to.

In the 40's a devout Christian mother beats and belittles her child for solving a filthy pin-up jigsaw puzzle. The boy takes revenge by killing the mother with an axe and sawing up her body. 40 years later in a local college, someone is pretending to be a gardener so he has an excuse to run around with a chainsaw and cut teenage girls to bits. On the case are Det. Lt. Bracken (Christopher George), Det. Sgt. Holden (Frank Brana) and undercover setective Mary Riggs (Lynda Day George). For some reason they all seem really adamant of getting help from frat boy stud Kendall (Ian Sera). The school's real gardener (who looks exactly like Bud Spencer) is out of the question even though he happens to be on the crime scene and likes to brawl with arresting police men Incredible Hulk -style. The real murderer must be discovered before he can complete his ultimate goal – a human jigsaw puzzle made out of body parts of women!

Although I love Pieces to pieces, I must admit that it's not the most coherent film of all time. Characters come and go inexplainably and some scenes seem to have little to do with the film's plot, nevermind sense. In one of the best scenes the tennis teacher is attacked by a Bruce Lee clone for no reason. When Kendall arrives on the scene, the karateka shrugs the whole affair off saying he must've eaten bad chop suey. Instead of building a threatening athmosphere or shocking with brutality (of which there is a fine amount), the real strength of Pieces is its talent of really surprising viewers. When the whole film doesn't have to worry about making any sort of sense, it becomes pretty clear that anything can and will happen. This goes on until the final seconds with one of the most WTF endings the horror genre has ever seen.

I am tempted to give Pieces a ★★★★ for it is clearly one of the best slasher films I've ever seen. Yet, I think the Trash film rating does it more favours.

★ or ★★★★★

So this was heaps of fun this time around. Looking forward to the next time. In the words of a dick hungry bimbo in Pieces; I promise to control myself if we do it again.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Night Visions Back to Basics 3011 - Night 1

Read Part II Here.

I love Night Visions like no other festival. And I especially love it in the springtime, when Back to basics festival is held in the small but cozy Kino Engel theatre. It's a fine place to spend your nights - so much so that I tried to stay awake for two nights straigth this time around. The results varied. So I'm seriously sleep deprived while writing this. Yet I believe there was enough material in this year's strong lineup, that I'm dividing this festival report into two seperate posts.

Sucker Punch
Director: Zack Snyder
USA 2011


I do admit that I had enjoyed all of Zack Snyder's previous films on some level. Too bad I can't say the same about his latest. I believe it was Patton Oswalt in Twitter that said that in order to save the ticket price for this movie, one can recreate the athmosphere by masturbating to Sailor Moon while reading Mein Kampf. It would've been a more pleasurable experience, I can tell you. The film is a collection of dire video game cutscenes held together by an incredibly hokey and preaching "plot".

Sucker Punch is about a 20-year-old orphan girl Baby Doll (Emily Browning), who attempts to murder her abusing stepfather, but manages to accidentaly kill her sister instead. She is sent to a mental institution. In her mind the place turns out to be a bordello/cabaret/prison, where inmates must dance and fuck the clients or suffer consequences. She must get all the other girls there to cooperate with her escape plan before the dreaded High Roller comes and pops her cherry. The different stages of the plan all involve exotic dancing to ugly men, but instead of seeing any of that, Snyder offers incredibly irrelevant action scenes in settings only a 13-year-old boy could imagine. We get to see a Lord of the Rings-land, a steampunk WWI -land and a samurai land for example.

The closest comparison for this film is Bitch Slap, a bad wannabe sleaze actioner, that used more time to measure its female leads' curves than to advance the muddy plot. But alas, in Sucker Punch we don't even get to have the excitement of having big boobs on screen. Snyder's look-how-cool-this-is style, using slow motion, camera tricks and excruciatingly lot of CGI, feels seriusly dated already and it's been only four years since 300. Also one can't simply care one bit about the characters' escape plan as, like with a lot of girl power -action films, the screenwriters forgot to give any of them any characteristics. The worst part, however, is the incredibly shallow and preachy voicover about guardian angels that feels very out-of-place, takes forever of boring screentime.



BEST BIT: I did enjoy two brief moments. One in which a robot punches a girl in Matrix revolutions-style slow mo. The other where a giant samurai first shoots a bazooka and switches it to a giant gatling gun.

Finisterrae
Director: Sergio Caballero
Spain 2010



A shallow and boring Hollywood action film was followed by a slow-moving and captivating Spanish avant garde film. Guess which I enjoyed more. Sergio Caballero's first feature film does manage to gather comparisons to the works of such respected art film directors as Harmony Korine, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Werner Herzog. Yet Finisterrae the film stands proudly on its own feet of originality.

The film features two Russian ghosts (played by men with a white sheet over their head) who are tired of their afterlife and want to gain a life again. Thus, they embark on a pilgrimage in Camino of Santiago. At the end of the journey awaits a new life after life after death. The film makes gentle fun of religious rituals and the need to find some sort of connection with nature.

Finisterrae is the sort of art film that doesn't really benefit from being described too accurately. The film is a collection of weird scenes which don't follow conventional film formulas. As ghosts, the protagonists can do whatever they like, like shoot hippies, talk to animals or move from one side of a split-screen to another. Things shift and change their state of being, like the other ghot's shorse, which turns into a stuffed toy at times. The film's power is all about the mood, and Caballero manages to create some very effectively with great shots and precice sound design. Jimi Tenor's score also works like a charm. I myself was so captivated by the film's imagery, I stared at the screen feeling like a baby gazing with amazement of the new and weird outside world. It's always a sign of a great art film.

★★★★★

BEST BIT:
The other ghost peeks into a tree's branch hole to find a strange 80's cooking show which features vomiting on the table and putting mice and milk into a blender. This scene itself was apparently an old short film of the director.

Detroit 9000 (a.k.a. Police Call-9000)
Director: Arthur Marks
USA 1973

I've long wanted to see Detroit 9000, if only because Quentin Tarantino has proclaimed it to be one of the best blaxploitation movies ever made. I don't always trust Tarantino with his film taste, but I was willing to give this the benefit of a doubt, as most blaxploitation films tend to be boring in my opinion. I still like the genre. But Detroit 9000 isn't even a pure blaxploitation film, which is probably why it's remained more obscure than your Shafts and Superflys.

It is a film about two cops that intend to find out who organized a heist at a black governatorial candidate's fundraiser. Lieutenant Danny Basset (Alex Rocco) is in the game for the glory and a long overdue promotion. And Jesse Williams (Hari Rhodes) is just a tough, uncompromising, but tough cop, andmant to get to the bottom of who tries to sabotage the black candidate. In their investigation they run into a much bigger plot, plus more chase scenes and shootouts you can hope for.

Detroit 9000 does work better than most blaxploitations as it certainly isn't boring. It is surprisingly violent, even for a film from that period. It also has its share of gratitious nudity. Yet this all is very well executed. Especially the editing works like a charm in gun fights. The film's dialogue is snappy and the script otherwise inventive, but it's too bad most of the actors in the film are pretty bad. With a little more effort this would be hailed as a classic. Now it's just a shamelessly entertaining cult gem.

★★★★

BEST BIT: The shootout at the cemetary leaves one black thug cornered. he shouts out "MOTHERFUCKERS!" as loud as he can before recieving a fatal shot to the ear.

Day of the Cobra (Il giorno del Cobra)
Director: Enzo G. Castellari
Italy 1980



Day of the Cobra was the first film of the festival where I nodded off a little. So I hope you'll forgive me for missing about 10 minutes of this Italocrime epic.

Franco Nero plays a tough, uncompromising private eye Larry "Cobra" Stanziani. He returns to his native Italy hired to find out who killed a narcotics agent. This allows him also to reconnect with his young son. But he's facing a ruthless organization and old enemies that will use force to get Cobra off their tail.

Spoiler follows. It is pretty clear from the start that Cobra's kid is going to kick the bucket. Like in many other tough Italian genre films (or exploitation films in general), the film really doesn't get going until the family is murdered and the hero has a motive to be brutally violent against his opponents. It's the same here, too. In the beginning we have weird, slowmotioned scenes of Cobra with his son, playing baseball etc., that don't go anywhere. But when vengeance comes around the corner, the film starts to pick up pace. In the final scenes Cobra does deliver a couple of pretty dirty blows, such as shooting a guy in the croth from below the floor. There's also a nice amount of sleaze all around such as a shootout at a transvestite club. And the theme "I don't give a damn, I am the Cobra" is a great earworm, this year's King Frat theme. Yet the film is overlong and a bit too slow in the beginning which is why I don't regret falling asleep.

★★★ 1/2

BEST BIT: The afore mentioned croth-shot. It makes the poor guy jump high in the air to die.

Young Warriors
Director: Lawrence D. Foldes
USA 1983

The programme organizers at Night Visions clearly believe in sparing the best for last and the end of the first night was no exception. For the already dead tired festival audience got to see one of the most mind-numbingly insane films I've ever seen. If you'll forgive me, I tell about the film's plot with a bit more detail than usual, but I believe this piece of art needs it.

The graduates of Malibu High are living it large. They are now university students, and spend their frat boy days screwing girls, drinking beer and doing frat pranks. One could guess judging by these pranks that something is seriously wrong with the minds of these young people, as they include such things as tying a boy's penis into a brick and throwing it out the window, releasing a huge pack of swine into a party, and stealing the dean's car and driving it straight into a lake. But then, a tragedy strikes as Kevin Carrigan's (James van Patten) sister Tiffany and her boyfriend are driven off the road by a black van while returning from the prom. Tiffany's boyfriend dies as the car explodes, but Tiffany herself comes victim of a gang rape by the vicious black van punks.

Kevin and his friends are devastated, as Tiffany later dies in a hospital. Kevin's dad Bob (Ernest Borgnine) is a cop and promises to do everything in his power to catch the hoodlums that did it. He has to admit that the police doesn't have any leads. This doesn't satisfy Kevin, who demands blood. He and his friends investigate the case further, but as they find out nothing, they decide to form a vigilantist gang to attack and murder all the criminals the cops can't stop. At first this doesn't work well and a few of Kevin's friends get killed in the action. But then the boys find a stash of illegal weapons in one of their victim's car. They are now ready to real urban warfare, but what will this do to their psyches?

The film has the handprints of the mentally disorderly from the beginning. Never have I witnesses such an abrupt end to such a Party Animal college comedy than in here. It's like Animal House suddenly turned into I Spit on Your Grave and then to the mixture of Red Dawn and Death Wish. And the most insane part is that some of the college comedy elements stay during the picture. That's why the vigilantist gang has their mascot dog (who wears sunglasses all the time) with them as they shoot crooks. There's also a lot of gratitious nudity and irrelevant sex scenes, because, why the hell not.

Still, even with the massively out-of-place comedic effects in function, this is a really dark and brooding film. We witness Kevin's development from a somewhat balanced young man into a psycho by having weird scenes of his psychedelic animations, that he shows to his friends and professors. Kevin also spends a lot of time arguing with his ethics professor and girlfriend about his moralities. And of course the action scenes are horribly brutal and violent. They also reuse the same footages over and over again and thus, a billiards player dies twice in an identical matter in a climatic shoot-out. The teary-eyed finale is also crazily out of place, as it seems to belong in a war movie rather than in an action movie. A mournful electric guitar rendition of Stars and Stripes over a black-and-white graduation photograph puts a neat little bow on top of all the madness.

The message? KIDS, SAY NO TO VIGILANTISM. Golan and Globus say, leave it to elder war veterans, such as Paul Kersey.

★ or ★★★★★

BEST BIT: This is extremely difficult to choose, as the whole film is full of such exquisit insanity. But one thing I did enjoy particularly was the ineffectiveness of the cops in the film. They don't manage to ever catch the licence plate of the bad guy's black van, even when they always shoot the cars they share the road with with a shotgun. But once while patrolling they do find a black van, which happens to be the right one as well. The police car begins a pursuit with a helicopter following. The car crashs pretty soon and the helicopter is taken out with a single pistol shot (OK, it seems to be a Magnum, but still). The helicopter explodes and falls to a used car lot, where it explodes EVERY SINGLE PARKED CAR. Nevertheless, the cops never send any reinforcements after the van after that or in any way continue their pursuit for them.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Correction



As you may have noticed from yesterday's post (if you read the initial letters in each chapter), it was an April Fool's joke. Honestly, I don't think Michael Bay is really such a bad action director, but what is certain is that he's gotten way too much money and power and cocaine to create anything resembling a coherent movie any more. IRL I'd rate his films the following way:

Bad Boys ★★
The Rock ★★★★
Armageddon ★★★ (on a good day)
Pearl Harbor
Bad Boys II ★★★★
The Island ★★
Transformers
Transformers: The Revenge of the Fallen

Bay's score is actually 2,25.

Friday, 1 April 2011

The Directors: Michael Bay

Note: This post was an April Fool's prank in 2011. So no new readers would think I was completely insane, here are the corrected ratings for Michael Bay-films.


As action directors go, probably the most talented there ever has been is Michael Bay. He's a true auteur in Hollywood, allowed to make films that feel like his own handwork is in the every last image of the film.  And his films rank among the best in each of their respective genre. Unlike a lot of people seem to think, Bay's films are not just simply "explosion" porn. they contain a lot of really deep human characters and their heart-breaking relationships among really harsh times. It would be time to take a look at his brilliant filmography and to start eagerly await his latest, Transformers: The Dark of the Moon. I bet this summer delivers another satisfying trilogy closer to a great toy movie franchise, where characters can go out in style.

Bad Boys (1995)



Putting the "Bad" back to the "Boys in Blue", Bay stuck gold with his very first full-length film. Taking the buddy cop formula that had been getting tired with each successive Lethal Weapon sequel, Martin Lawrence and Will Smith shift a new gear in. The story involves a hilarious mixup, as Martin Lawrence's married cop has to pretend to be Will Smith, a swinging bachelor. He can't get any from his wife and to avoid her wanting a divorce, not from the hot witness he protects from the EuroTrash gangsters, either. Hilarious! Of course protecting a hottie such as Teá Leoni is a full-time job and he needs Smith's help to spur one-liners and to shoot a lot of bullets. There's a suitable amount of car crashs and explosions, yet one can clearly see Bay is just learning to perfect his tools. This film's success allowed him to come up with a real banger!

★★★★

The Rock (1996)



Ready to Rock? The Rock is probably the best movie ever made to be watched before going to a bar or a party. It gets those sweet, sweet adrenaline juices flowing. And now YOU'RE the Rocket Man (someone please help me). The film is about Colonel Ed Harris kidnapping the Alcatraz prison and all the tourists there and apparently blowing them up with bath soap? The world needs Nicolas Cage's Beatle-fan pencil-pusher and Sean Connery's escape artist ex-spy (now a bearded convict) to break in and stop him. Cue a lot of meaningless car chases and stuff blowing up just for the hell of it. Bay was still a modest Bruckheimer-boy, doing what the producer told him to. But he still delivered one of the most shamelessly quotable and explodable action films of the '90s. His later films were more like his own babies. I'll still have to take one point off for not allowing Nicolas Cage to swear. What in the name of Zeus's butthole indeed.

★★★★

Armageddon (1998)

 
If a giant meteor truly were to hit the Earth and destory us all, I wouldn't trust no pencil-neck scientists or experts to get us out of that trouble. Bay agrees, and puts out a team of good ol' boys that aren't afraid to get their hands dirty to explode the space threat. Bay's first real masterpiece has all the bangs of a Roland Emmerich movie (and the famous landmarks destroyed. Top exploding the entire Paris, Roland!), but has a great ensemble cast of character actors having meaty roles. We have Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Owen Wilson, Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Isaacs and Michael Clarke Duncan, for starters. I just wish Steve Buscemi wouldn't almost ruin the whole thing with his overacting, but the sad finale saves a lot (like the entire Earth, for instance!). The payoff to the film's sweet and touching romance made me cry. How about you?

★★★★★

Pearl Harbor (2001)



Love is stronger than any war, is the message of Bay's next tear-jerker. And it really one-ups Titanic in the historical melodrama genre. Three hours simply aren't enough to absorb all the tragedy and the futility of a war that had to come between the love triangle of Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett and Kate Beckinsale. Wise old Bay shows us how surprising things such as WWII starting with an attack on US Army base can drive us apart. The action scenes are pretty good too, but the real meat of the film is in the strong romance. Bay does know how to create a strong, independent and intelligent female character we in the audience can all fall for. It's not just boy's enetertainment any more from this point on. The film was unfairly mocked in Team America, but then again, Parker and Stone were wrong about The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as well.

★★★★★

Bad Boys II (2003)

'Nuff said.
★★★★★

The Island (2005)


Fun and larger-than-life films and touching romances are one thing Michael Bay proved he's also a thought-provoking artist with this deep sci-fi thriller, that goes to questions about our own existence. Ewan McGregor lives in an odd society where everything is seemingly OK and everyone is promised a trip to a paradise island. But he finds out that an evil corporation is cloning pretty people and harvesting their organs. He himself is one of the clones. Now he and another, female, clone Scarlett Johansson must go on the run. The Island is light on the explosions, but heavy in the mind as we come to ponder what really makes a human? Bay agrees that it's the emotions, evident with the fact that the two clones start to fall for each other. But evil society won't allow it, in a classic romance way. Today it's a cow, tomorrow it's you.

★★★★

Transformers (2007)



OO! Shiny new toys! Bay takes the Hasbro format of giant robot and has a playtime that's so amusing to watch, two and a half hours just seem to fly by. One of his greatest ideas was to strip the robots from their boring characteristics and focus the film on all too real life scenarios. I mean, which teenager hasn't tried to get laid by getting his dad to buy him a car? Poor ones, I can tell you that. But with Megan Fox, one has a plausible MacGuffin to strive for. Nevermind the weird cube thingy, exept that's pretty cool, too. Evil robots want to get their hands on that cube to rule the universe so Shia LaBeouf must organize a group of good robots capable of turning into cars (the bad ones turn into scorpions and such) to fight the evil and to keep the cube safe. It's a miracle of a summer-film, with so many deep backstories and mythologies, and at the same time hilarious humour such as a robot pissing on John Turturro. The only reason this only gets four stars is because the second one managed to top even this!

★★★★

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)



Loving the latest Transformers film might get a big backlash in the internet. Sure, the film's story is a little hard to follow, there are a lot of characters to keep track of and the mythology of the films gets a lot deeper from the previous film. But that's what repeat viewings are for, right? Once again, Bay wisely leaves out all sorts of drama with the robots and instead focuses on more realistic action scenes. The continuous scenes with soldiers in a Navy carrier sending jets to do the fighting giddy up the viewer's excitement for some serious explosion scenes. Bay also perfectly replicates the chaotic feeling of a real war battle. Where is the enemy and what should I do is constantly in the viewer's mind at all times during the battle scenes. But it's not just an action film. Bay also peppers his masterpiece with hilarious college humor scenes. I hurt my stomach laughing so much of Sam's mom eating hash brownies, or the running jokes about things humping people's legs (first a dog and later a robot! Brilliant foreshadowing). And John Turturro's ass for no reason! It's the best action blockbuster of recent years. Just ask Armond White.

★★★★★

So, Michael Bay scores the astonishing 4,5. Wow, I might have gotten a bit carried away, but one can't deny that every last film the director has made hadn't been excellent in their own genre.

LinkWithin

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...