Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Espoo Ciné 2011

The festival season began again by me taking a bus (or a couple) to visit the neighboring city of Espoo. The annual Espoo Ciné festival offered once again a solid set of the best cinema from Europe and elsewhere, as well as a couple of fine genre films I'll deal with soon enough. But in the meantime, here's what I gathered from the more "arthouse" wing of the program: 

The Opening Film:
The Tree of Life (USA)
Director: Terrence Malick

The new film by the hermit director Terrence Malick is always a big deal, and this was surely one of the most awaited films of the year among true cinema buffs. It's actually been made relatively fast, as it's only been six years since Malick's last film. Although the film has won the prestigious Palm d'Or award at Cannes film festival, it has still divided audiences. Some critizice Malick from going too far into christian pseudo-philosophies, and having the message of the film fall flat. Others see a vivid film that's bustling with ideas and deep symbolism, and is ambitious enough to explain the entire universe with it. All can agree that this is a one-of-a-kind film that's made with an amazing visual style.

It is a bit hard to summarize the film's plot. Everything in it is connected to an idea that everyone on Earth must follow one of two paths in their life's every decision: either they follow nature and do things from selfish reasons, or they follow mercy and do things out of love. First, we follow the grief in an American family as one of their three boys has died from reasons not explained. From the grief we take off to the beginning of life itself billions of years ago in the sea. One-celled organisms eventually become dinosaurs, which concieve the concept of mercy (!). We come to the modern day where the architect Jack O'Brien (Sean Penn) broods and thinks about his past. Then we're back with the O'Brien family in the 50's or early 60's, before the upcoming tragedy. The eldest son Jack (Hunter McCracken) lives and plays with his two brothers in the nature, often somewhere near water. His strict but loving father (Brad Pitt), and gentle mother (Jessica Chastain) embody the two life paths, and try to get Jack to follow them.

Either way you choose, life may have infinite sadness waiting for you. The reason is never explained to you, as only God knows how it all fits in his Divine plan. But Malick does offer hope with the ending. Everyone will get a chance for redemption. Too bad it's presented so it makes the whole thing a little cheesy and underlines the religious reading of the film. Otherwise one could read the Tree to be whatever one likes.

While Tree of Life might not be the best work from Malick, it is surely his most ambitious. It's no wonder the film has mostly been compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey, that's the only other film that dares to tell the story of the entire human development. But no one else but Malick would have the idea to connect his autobiographical childhood nostalgia to various christian dogmas and multilayered symbolism. When the viewer leaves the theatre, he most likely has his head all blurry from this whole cornucopia of unforgettable images, unique ideas, colorful boyhood nostalgia, great underplayed acting, and, in two words, pure cinema.


The Closing Film:

The Kid With A Bike (Le gamin au vélo, France/Belgium/Italy)
Directors: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne

The Belgian Dardenne brothers make engaging films about drifting lower class people. Their films contain no music and are often shot with a hand-held camera. They are among the best portrayers of social realism working today. The brothers are also true Cannes festival darlings, having won the top gong twice, and now picking up the Grand Prix with their last effort. And deservedly so, because their latest film is nothing short of brilliant.

The young Cyril (Thomas Doret) has been abandoned by his father, who has also sold Cyril's beloved bicycle. The kid lives in a learning institution, from which he escapes, and eventually gets his bike back. Cyril gets a chance for happiness when the kindly hairdresser Samantha (Cécile de France) agrees to give him a home during the weekends. But Cyril's having a hard time adjusting, and he's still pining for his father. When Cyril eventually finds him, dad (Jérémie Renier) tells him that he wants to start a new life without his son and thus doesn't want to see him again. The broken Cyril meets the nice-seeming juvenile criminal Wes (Egon di Mateo) and falls to the wrong tracks.

Altough the film's plot as laden out here resembles an after-school special, it is actually played out a lot smarter. There's a good reason Cyril is driven to each bad decision he makes. He's not a pure victim, but actually a pretty admirable character as he's relentless, tenacious, and ready to fight for his own rights. He just doesn't always understand what's best for him. The understanding extends to most other characters as well, who are well fleshed out with the time they are given. They have three-dimensional motifs, and more than a hint of tragedy in them. The film's plot moves steadily forward, and manages to be both exciting, and truly surprising at times. It's neither a moral lesson, nor a feel-good film, but works in so many levels, it can easily pass as either.


Special Screening:
When You're Strange (USA, 2009)
Director: Tom DiCillo

There was an outdoor screening of the Johnny Depp-narrated documentary about the legendary band The Doors. The film's catch is the recently discovered rare footage, that frontman Jim Morrison shot  himself. As one can imagine, the film is much more about Morrison and his persona, than The Doors as an entity or the other members of the band. The over-emphasis of Morrison's importance married to a lack of criticism of his horrible poetry make this a bit kiss-ass to my taste. Some critical voices of Morrison't behaviour towards the other band members are heard, but it is marked as a quirk of a struggling artist, who's having it rough. After 40 years of personal worship, wouldn't it be about time someone took a more critical, or even neutral approach to the whole Morrison persona? But anyway, I knew little about Doors before seeing this documentary and it did manage to spark interest in some of the band's back catalogue. There's nothing wrong at the film's pace and the story itself is interesting, warts and all. The new footage itself is pretty cool, but wouldn't you know it, it's used to build Morrison's legend and to imply that he might've faked his death and still be alive.


Tales of the Night (Les Contes De La Nuit, France)
Director: Michel Ocelot

Michel Ocelot is a French animator who makes films that don't really resemble any other animations I've seen. Their style is somewhere between silhouette animation and Flash animation. His latest work has been made in 3D, which is a bad decision. Ocelot's style is to have flat characters, and bringing depth into their environment diminishes this style. There are a couple of nice-looking wide shots, such as a tree reflecting from water, but mostly 3D in here is just a waste of everyone's time.

Tales of the Night is about a strange (movie?) theatre during one night. Inside the theatre a boy, a girl, and an elderly animator are working. They come up with several stories during the night, coming from all over the world, and act them out in a stage. All the stories have familiar fairy tale elements, whether they are about werewolves, wizards, talking horses or magic drums. Usually they are about a boy and a girl falling in love and the boy overcoming the obstacles for the pair to be together.

The biggest problem with the film is that the stories feel too familiar, and thus there are too many. Four stories would still be fine, five is pushing it, but the sixth feels boring already. As the stories work well alone, it is no surprise that most of them are actually episodes of a TV series Dragons et princesses. Thus also the scenes in between them start to feel really repetitive. The whole thing would probably work better as a TV series. Nevertheless, the stories, uneven as they are, have big amounts of charm and have cute ideas. My favorite is the one set to Jamaica, where the boy feeds a giant bee, iguana and mongoose in order to gain entrance to a wizard's castle, only to get caught and sentenced to death. The animals then help our hero out to escape and to win the princess's heart. But in the end lurks an actually pretty surprising reveal.


David Wants to Fly (Germany)
Director: David Sieveking

This German documentary about Transcendental Mediatation is made in the style of Morgan Spurlock, in that the director is the main character in the film. We see what happens to his personal life during his search for answers. That is not a style that works for everyone. It is also the film's biggest downfall, but luckily, the rest of it is from an interesting subject.

I've been wondering about transcendential mediation at one point myself. The meditation seems to do a whole lot of good for one's peace of mind, yet the TM association only allows for you to learn the proper skills by purchasing a preposterously expensive course. The film reveals just to what extent the study branch started out by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is a money-making scheme. The young documentarist David Sieveking starts out by listening to the praise for TM given by director David Lynch. As Sievekind becomes interested, he starts to dig deeper into the subject. Lynch's image as a wise teacher of meditation is soon shattered. He's shown as just a brand, promoting the bigger corporation. And make no mistake, the international TM movement is a multinational corporation, putting up brances all over the world and getting celebrities to sing their praises. The most hilarious parts of the film reveal that they offer courses costing a million dollars, that are claimed to teach flight to the meditators. TM has also built an expensive model village as a so-called centre for their way of thought. It is also proven scientifically that the patented TM is no better way of relaxation than any other way of meditation.

The film is more a story of the nerdy Sieveking's difficult relationship with his girlfriend, than a revelatory document about cashing in on people's search for inner peace. I'm not really that interested on finding out why the couple breaks up and eventually comes together again. But Sieveking does have a nice dry sense of humour, and even dares to make fun of the most emotional scene of the movie. Still, most of the film feels like filler to the real meat. The main message is still that the ways to achieve peace of mind should be given, not sold like any merchandize.


Aurora (Romania)
Director: Cristi Puiu

Director Cristi Puiu is notorious from making mammoth-length films. It's not that the films' stories are so epic that they need three hours to be told. Quite the contrary, the films have very simple stories, but time is an essential element in how they are told. The audience is constantly lulled into feeling a false security by showing long, ordinary commonplace events. But then the sudden bursts of violence, turning points, or great dialogue comes from out of nowhere. If one is not an ADD case (like me), these are highly reccommended for the long-winded. Of course even I liked this.

Aurora is a story about Viorel (Cristi Puiu himself), an estranged father of two young children in modern Bucharest. We follow him around in his mundane, day-to-day routines. He takes his children to daycare, has sex with the woman next door, and argues with his ex-wife. Somewhere along the way, one gets the feeling that everything is not all right with Viorel. He's loading a big shotgun, and then proceeds to murder two people in a parking carage. And he has plans to do a lot more, too.

The pulsating city of Bucharest is an important character itself. It is portrayed as a seedy and gloomy place, holding in violent thoughts and deep depression. Not even the childlike innocence of little children can redeem the evil that builds inside here. But the resulting film really isn't as dark as you'd imagine. The Romanians seem to have a knack for dry, black humour, which comes through from little things, such as a bath tub flowing over or a policeman trying to symphatize with a criminal. Altough the dialogue is scarce, it is very well written. But I won't lie, there are boring parts, and I even fell asleep for a while, during which nothing happened.


Amnesty (Amnistia, Albania/Greece/France)
Director: Bujar Alimani

By contrast to Aurora, the albanian Amnistie is told in the speed of a train. But it requires even more attention from the viewer, as one needs to fill in gaps between some scenes himself. It is a film about passions and love, a bit like In the Mood For Love in that it concerns a lonely man and a woman, who are both married, but their spouses are away. In this case, they are in prison.

So, Elsa (Luli Bitri) and Sheptim (Karafil Shena) meet in a waiting room while going to meet their spouses every month. The monthly meeting allows for marital couples to carry out the carnal part of their union. Yet neither Elsa nor Sheptim are satisfied by this. Sheptim spends his time at his house watching porn and masturbating, while Elsa is a real cold fish in the sack, and rather uses her time caring for her children and doing the laundry. The two lonely souls start to slowly find each other. Yet, fate has an ironic twist to the affair, as the government allows pardon for a large number of prisoners.

The irony of the situation does become apparent pretty soon. However, director Alimani has a wicked storytelling style, that goes in the style of a spiral. So, repeating the same kind of situations, the whole thing seems more and more desperate and ludicrous at the same time. As it happens, such a love story can never work out, and the bitter end leaves one wordless.


Route Irish (UK/France/Italy/Belgium/Spain)
Director: Ken Loach

Ken Loach's latest film doesn't represent him at his best. It is still a solid pseudo-thriller, but one gets the feeling someone else could've also directed it. Fergus (Mark Womack) and Frankie (John Bishop) have always been best friends and done everything together. When they served time in Iraq it eventually led to Fergus leaving and Frankie staying. When Frankie is killed during his service, the devastated and angry Fergus refuses to believe the official explanation of his friend's death. He sets to get to the bottom of the things what happened.

Conspiracy thrillers involving soldiers in the war against terrorism are becoming somewhat of a cliché. Loach does carry the familiar story with enough virtuoso skills, and an eye to the local side of the war, to keep things relatively interesting. But the best thing about the film are the way relationships between Fergus and Frankie, and Fergus and Frankie's widow Rachel (Andrea Lowe) are presented. They all border somewhere between utter love and ultimate contempt towards each other, and it's intriguing to see their tides shift back and forth. The backstory of the characters is told in the lines, not in flashbacks, and they colors the entire story in such a way that everything in the films feels more tragic for it. Loach overdoes this in the end, as a little more open ending would've made the thing a lot more devastating.

★★★ 1/2

Sleeping Sickness (Schlafkrankheit, Germany/France)
Director: Ulrich Köhler

An idealistic german doctor Ebbo Velten (Pierre Bokma) is recluctant to go home as his command in Cameroon is coming to an end. He wants to cure the entire village of sleeping sickness, whatever the cost. His family doesn't enjoy Africa, and begs him to come home to Germany with them. But Velten quickly finds also multiple other excuses to not return to Europe: humanitarian, financial, natural, etc. He simply likes it too much in the tropic and starts to detest Europe. He even goes so far as to not care whether his family is breaking up as long as he can stay.  Three years later the new doctor Alex Nzila (Jean-Christophe Folly) arrives to the same village, but is finding it hard to adjust. Eventually he finds Velten as well. But being mentally torn between his old and new home has damaged Velten's mind.

The film won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for best directing. I find the film to be uneven, altough it has a few flashes of brilliance. There is light symbolism, and an unpredictable story arc. The film really doesn't have as strong a humanitarian subtext as one would think. The result is rather a modern version of Heart of Darkness: an European man getting lost inside his head in the Darkest Africa. Nzila is Velten's opposite in every way: black, gay, prissy and French, but his discomfort in Africa helps him keep his head cool. The film raises questions about the European identity, but I feel it could've amounted to a lot more with its running time. All the ingredients for a really multi-layered story are present, after all.


The Mountain (Fjellet, Norway)
Director: Ole Giæver 

The Mountain is a minimalistic film with only two actors. The story is told bit by bit, never emphasizing anything. I'm telling this in the forehand, because probably the best way to enjoy this film is to know as little as possible before watching it. So, you can skip the next chapter, which deals with the film's plot.

Two women are hiking the mountains in the Norwegian Lapland. Solveig (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) is grumpy, and has disdain towards the entire trip. Nora (Marte Magnusdotter Solem) insists that they go on to reach the mountain they are headed. Bit by bit we learn a little of why the couple are there. They are a lesbian couple who had a small child with them in their previous hiking trip to the same mountain. That trip ended tragically, scarring both. Nora wants them to come to terms with their past and to pick up the pieces of their crumbling relationship. They need to do it, because Nora is pregnant for their second child.

The performances by the women carry this film, and both manage to create convincing multilayered personalities. Small gestures tell a lot about them. The majestetic nature around them turns colder at the same time as the women's feelings towards each other do too. Still, the lofty mountains and the vast landscapes make the grieves of people seem petty. What is one brief human life, when compared to an eternal mountain?


Short Films:

Garcia Ibarra: Protoparticulars
A fun and innovative film about a man that has turned to prime matter and is thus confined in a diver's suit. The film has an air of melancholia as death in that form is invevitable, but it's reaffirming to see the main character continue living as he was in the meantime. The film won an Méliés d'Argent award for best short film in the festival.

Wessels: Valdrift 
A cute shortie about an accident that moves a normal office drone's point of gravity. Eventually he starts to become horizontal in stead of vertical. Altough he starts out hopeless from his situation, he finds that even such a desperate situation has its up-sides (or should I say, side-sides? (No.))

Rosenlund: Sudd
A creepy as hell silent black-and-white film that plays like a survival horror film. Only in this case it's not the zombie virus that's destroying the world, it's a sort of pencil-doodle that spreads around. The only way of destroying it is to use an eraser, which are desperately scarce. The weird premise is played suitably straight-faced, and it manages to give the chills. The end scene is still odlly beautiful.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Review: Conan the Barbarian (2011)

In most of the reviews I've seen concerning the new Conan the Barbarian movie, it's been described as a remake of the John Milius classic. That's not exactly honest. If someone made Dracula today, it wouldn't be referred as a remake of the 1931 Tod Browning Dracula, or even the 1992 Francis Ford Coppola Dracula. Conan is first and foremost an adaptation of the classic pulp fiction character created by Robert E. Howard. Yet there are still some common elements, which are unique to the film adaptations.

In both, Conan is a barbarian whose Cimmerrian home village was destroyed and his parents murdered when he was but a boy. This is where the similarities between the film versions end, and is a solution which has been made to give Film Conans a motivation and an easy arc within the story. Allowing him to just wander around, stealin', killin' and lovin' would be a lot harder to sell audiences, yet it is all the motivation a real man needs.

In the new one, Conan's village is destroyed and his father murdered by the wizard Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), who's seeking a piece of an ancient mask made from bones. This mask would give him power to resurrect the dead, and probably other things as well which are not clarified. At least he wishes to take over all of Hyboria, but already has huge troops and a daughter (Rose McGowan) that can create deadly sand monster so it's not quite clear why he would need the mask. At least he also pines for his dead wife, who has been burned as a witch. Probably because she was one. But anyway, Zym's visit leaves Conan and  his father (Ron Perlman) to their deaths, of which only young Conan survives and swears vengeance. The film then cuts to him being an adult.

In many ways, the new Jason Momoa Conan is actually a bit closer to Rober E. Howard's character than Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is not an oaf, but a cunning, vengeful and innovative assassin and a warrior bent on getting to his goals. Yet he is also less intimidating, less masculine, and spurs less cool one-liners than Arnie. Momoa also seriously lacks the charisma or the acting talent that is essential to pull off such a murderous main character.

Khalar Zym is looking for a "pure-blooded" maiden to finish his spell, and has been searching for 20 years. Conan's adventures to kill Zym take him to various Hyborean cities, which are realized better than in any previous Conan films, and the world feels more vivid. Pity then, that the meat of the story is in the battles, which are so fast-cut as to be incomprehensible. The horrible 3D effects also ruin a lot of them. The ridiculous fight against sand monsters is more like the Prince of Persia video game than the Prince of Persia movie adaptation. Usually Conan is unbeatable in fights, so it's good that he actually has a worthwhile enemy this time with Lang's Zym. Stephen Lang has also saved below-avaerage action movies with his snarling villains before in Avatar.

Nispel's film is not the huge epic adventure John Milius' film was. It is a brutal revenge story set in a fantasy world. It is all business, serious an gloomy as can be. Fortunatelly, it goes well over-the-top to campy, and there are also plenty of coninuity errors, inconsistencies and just plain stupid ideas for fans of bad movies to enjoy. The best thing is that it such a huge masculine adrenaline trip. Women are treated as objects and all problems can be solved by punching through a wall or cutting someone's head off.

This is all well and good, but the box office records show, movie-goers weren't really intrigued by the idea. So Jason Momoa was left to write the sequel in his never-will-be-a-major-star oblivion. I just hope the Hollywood execs won't blame the film's R rating for its failure.


USA 2011
Director: Marcus Nispel
Screenwriters: Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, Sean Hood
Cinematographer: Thomas Kloss
Starring: Jason Momoa, Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan, Rachel Nichols, Ron Perlman.

Monday, 22 August 2011

The Musical 00's

The Best Music films of the 2000s – Part 13 in our ongoing series

There are a lot of diffrent music films out there so to pick out a Best Of -list from them, one must consider all kinds of films with some sort of a musical element to them. Drama, Comedy, Tragic, Fun, Fiction, Documentary, Psychedelic, Straight-Forward, and a lot more films that couldn't be further away from each other. They are considered to be Music films when they include a lot of music and the music acts are included in the plot. I finally decided that I should pick 10 music documentaries (which I avoided when picking my favorite documentaries) and 5 fictional music films, whether they were straight-up musicals or just films that circled around music and the way it affects peoples' lives.

Now, in this sort of a task the critic's musical taste guides a lot of his preferences, and though I try to be fair and open for all kinds of music, it applies to me too. So I apologize in advance if I haven't given some great film a chance simply because I didn't dig the music. As the last thing I'd want to be is a music critic (the most pointless job in the world), I urge you to judge the films by the stories they have to tell and how they tell it, rather than with what kind of music do they have in. Nevertheless, I'll include YouTube clips to some groovy songs from the films. So, without further ado, let's rock!

There are some OK general films that work as introductions to particular music genres, such as Punk: Attitude (2005, Dir. Don Letts) and Metal: A Headbanger's Journey (2006, Dir. Sam Dunn et al.). While they are good starting points for someone who doesn't know squat, they offer little new to fans (other than a chance to see their idols reduced to talking heads). I emphasize proper stories in my choices rather than educational docs.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008)
Director: Sacha Gervasi

A beloved documentary, that luckily worked like a charm for the down-on-its-luck metal band it was depicting. Anvil! is almost too easy to believe to be a mockumentary. The antics of a has-been metal band go so over-the-top, and the characters themselves seem to be the kind of good-natured fools (one of them even named Robb Reiner), that the whole thing seems like a Spinal Tap remake. But since I've heard a testimony from a concert promoter that had met the band, I have no choice but to accept that the guys in Anvil are very real. And it makes me feel a little bit better about the world.

Anvil! is by no means a film that laughs at its subjects. Director Gervasi is a long-time fan of the band Anvil, that used to have it rough. On tour they play in cellars which pay only in gulash, or in stadiums to which no one comes. At home they feed themselves by doing construction work and other odd jobs to survive. Yet the rock star dream of these middle-aged men never fades. And that is something we all could learn from. After all, after enduring all the crap from bad promotors and managers, the band finally finds themselves a show in which they are respected and loved. And they seem to be doing well even today.

Dave Chappelle's Block Party (2005)
Director: Michel Gondry

I'm not really deeply invested in hip-hop, altough I know good shit when I hear it. And I don't think it's even a tiny bit over-blown when some people call the Block Party comedian Dave Chappelle arranged the greatest hip-hop concert of all time. Erukah Badu, Kanye West, Mos Def, and the reunion of The Fugees are just some of the huge stars that played in the middle of Brooklyn to a select number of people. Chappelle himself proves that he has a big heart as he wants to include people that wouldn't otherwise have a chance to see such a spectacle, such as his grocery store saleswoman and various other midwestern folk. Of course, at the same time maintains his usual (funny) crude routines that deal a lot with race issues. The film is also a portrait of the comedian at the height of his power, and the film spends a lot of time with him organizing the event, some scripted, but some documentary parts too.

Michel Gondry captures the live sound stupendously accuratelly to the film. There is a strong sense of being there, and as a result the togetherness that the concert was aiming for, comes through to the viewer himself. The actual music performance bits are a little short, but luckily the DVD provides longer versions from some of the songs.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005)
Director: Jeff Feuerzeig

Daniel Johnston is a little slow musician with great song-writing skills. He used to be such an independent musician that his records came on copied C-Tapes, to which Johnston had personally drawn the cover. When Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain began to plug his T-Shirt, he earned some acclaim. But the musician also had some mental problems, particularly with his self-image. The mental illness eventually took over and almost shut him down completely. The documentary depicts the rise, fall, and rise again to the man who's not out for wealth and fame, but rather just a happy life to himself.

For the non-acquainted, it doesn't exactly become clear why Johnston was considered as such a genius, as his singing voice is quite dreadful and his lyrics don't seem that special either. Maybe it's something to do with his technique. At least he's a talented artist, with his creative cartoons being animated to reflect a little what went on in his head. But this isn't a film about the musician, it's a film about the human being. And as such, it is one of the most intimate documentaries possible. Everyone in Johnston's family speaks openly about the incidents and their worries, so the viewer can't help but to be sucked in. It is a pretty horrifying portrait of living with manic depression, but the sweet ending gives hope and leaves a happy feeling.

DIG! (2004)
Director: Ondi Timoner

DIG! is a story about making it in the music business. Every aspiring band should see the film and figure out if they really have what it takes to succeed. The film is also the story of two Alternative Rock bands in the 90's, The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. TBJM has a better and more innovative songwriter, Anton Newcombe, but the rest of the band members are (and have been) interchangeable. The Dandys are a little closer to your basic Indie rock, but they tend to have catchier melodies and a vastly better group dynamic. The latter band works hard and becomes eventually a success, while the other wallows in idle hedonism, arguments and self-pity and remains obscure. This is also a source of remorse and compassion for the Dandys, whose frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor narrates the film apologetically.

The film features some of the most incredible on-stage fight sequences captured on documentary tape since Hated: GG Allin. Newcombe is such a prissy musician that he fears not to attack his band-mates or audience members during his performance, if he feels they prevent him. Newcombe's problem is that he, like many other hugely creative individuals, views others as obstacles rather than as a helping hand to get where he wants. Part of the reason TBJM doesn't hit it big is because Newcombe's ambitions make them fail at every would-be turning point (like when a executive from major recor label is watching). Thus, the film is also a bit tragic, but it also paints a picture of how brutal the industry was in the 90's. The companies only suppoerted bands that had hit potential, and anything less than that was just a useless waste of money. The Dandys work hard, and eventually make it in Europe because they happened to have a song that suited a cellphone advert. God only knows the commercialism has only gotten worse since that, because the whole record industry is at its death rattles.

Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten (2007)
Director: Julien Temple

Of course, I also had to include the film about my personal hero. It helps that it's a great film that looks like its subject. Julien Temple is a music film director that has a knack for the visuals, so he utilizes quick montages, animation and whatnot among the usual gig footage and talking heads. And of course in this, the talking heads are (seemingly) all gathered around the bonfire to reminisce about the late Strummer. And because Strummer made his legacy in The Clash, the single greatest, awesomest band that ever has or will exist, all the gig footage is KICK-ASS with capital letters!

Strummer believed in communities and people coming together to work in harmony. Unlike a lot of other punk rock musicians, he didn't churn out the same old thing every day of his life, but explored and created his whole life. And very rarely did it feel forced, as all the innovations and ideas seemed to flow naturally to him and through to his music. I'm starting to eulogize my hero here, but this all comes through in the documentary too, in a beautiful, the most Strummer-esque of ways. It skips most of the personal life of the man, but sometimes it's more important to reinforce the legend than to reveal the human inside.

Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006)
Director: Jonathan Demme

Some quite acclaimed directors took on to do films about some very influental veteran musicians in the 2000s. The most notable of these are the music films of Jonathan Demme and Martin Scorsese. Both are known of their innovative use of music, and it seems that they have people skills to boot, which allow the musicians themselves to feel comfrotable around them. Demme seems to be a good friend of Neil Young, as he has already done two documentaries about the Countryrock superstar.

The old-timer musician was diagnosed with cancer in the early 2000s but he was much too strong and recovered well. Demme's first Young film covers mostly his return concert. It starts with some reminiscing and feel that all the musicians are part of a large, extended family. The comfrotable feeling of spending times with friends comes through from Young's pleasant performance. He may not a hard-partying rock star, but with a little hard work and a friendly athmosphere, you can create a concert just as good. It helps that the music is great, too.

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005)
Director: Martin Scorsese

One of the biggest miracles of the 00's was that Bob Dylan bagan to open up and to talk about his career. Thus, we got the first part of his autobiography (still waiting for the next one, Bob), and a massive documentary that covers the pivotal years of his career in the 60's. And that was directed by Martin Scorsese, no less. Altough the director didn't even meet Dylan in person during the making of the documentary, and has dismissed the documentary as just anothe, it is by far the best work Scorsese has done in years. Scorsese was more invested in the Rolling Stones concert film Shine A Light (2008), that's good enough too, and provides more of Scorsese's patented wild camera drives. But as a description of a rock legend it can't hold a candle to No Direction Home.

We follow Dylan's career from a jewish kid that became fascinated by the old American folk music, to the dismissive "voice of a generation" to hippies, to an electronic "Judas" that just didn't give a shit about fan reactions, to a born again christian. Wisely, Scorsese provides a lot of context to the times so that later generations can begin to have a better idea of why dylan was such a huge deal. Well, other than from his extraordinary songwriting skills. There's a large amount of humor and charm among the reminiscing, and there are a lot of other interesting people heard alongside Dylan. The whole 3,5 hour film is a lot to take on one sitting, which is why I've always had to watch it in two parts. But it really is a solid piece of work that answers a huge amount of questions from huge variety of people. That's why it should be seen by anyone with even a passing interest in the biggest, greatest folk musician of all time.

The Ramones: End of the Century (2003)
Director: Jim Fields, Michael Gramaglia

It was a sad start of a decade for punk as some of the founding members of the bands that surfed on the first wave began to pass away. In the case of The Ramones, they were such cartoon characters anyway that it's as impossible to imagine them dying than it is to try to imagine them being retired Rolling Stones-aged has-beens. Too Tough To Die, as they themselves put it, as well as I Don't Want To Grow Up. Luckily, a great documentary was made about the band just before Death started reaping its founding members one by one.

End of the Century gives the band members time to talk, and short cuts everyone else not as important to the band. It is a bit of a tragic story, about how one of the most innovative bands ever never really found mainstream success. But the saddest of the tales is the one the bandmembers themselves try to circle around: the failing friendship between vocalist Joey and guitarist Johnny. It is revealed that when the differing political views couldn't separate them, one woman could. And both were men capable of holding a grudge. In the final scenes, Johnny is being interviewed after the death of Joey, and altough he still refuses to make amendments, he has a tone of melancholia in his voice. Ditto Dee Dee, who did not try to bring the band members together, but jumped the ship himself. Most documentaries follow a pattern of rise, fall and rise again. The career of The Ramones starts with coolness, innovation and having a good time, and ends with a steep decline, which makes it one of the saddest music documentaries of the decade.

Some Kind of Monster (2004)
Director: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky

This is a really rare kind of music documentary, the one that even someone who hates the band (like me) can enjoy as well. Well, actually hate is a bit of a strong word, but I don't think Metallica has made anything worthwhile since The Black Album. But that's beside the point. We see the band washed up, riddled with personal problems and looking for professional help. The bassist Jason Newstead has just left the band and vocalist James Hetfield has gone to enter rehabilitation due to his alcohol problem. The band also tries to find the balance to their reorganized crew and to solve the power struggle between Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich. There are some songwriting and studio sessions as the band tries to pull themselves together to make a new album.

As the band tries to go to the root of their problems they even invite Dave Mustaine from Megadeth to their therapy session. What follows is the most incredible scene of whiny narcissism as Mustaine complains how hard his billionaire life has been after he was kicked out from Metallica. The ending of the film is bittersweet as we know, instead of using the positive energy gained from the therapy sessions, the band went on to make the worst, the most bloated album of their career, that even turned a large number of their die-hard fans against them. Some people should just know when to call it quits. And that money and success won't make one happy.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002)
Director: Paul Justman

Some times the music documentary brings some long-overdue credit to legendary musicians that no-one recognized. Such is the case with Shadows of Motown, which tells the incredible story of Funk Brothers, the house band that played on the background of almost all of Motown's hit artists from the 50's to the 70's. The artists they provided music included Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops and The Temptations. As such, The Funk Brothers have more number one hits in America than The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and Elvis Presley all put together.

The film goes along in two time levels. The past part reminces the roots of the band and their antics when they were in the height of their popularity, but could still walk on the street unrecognized. Pericularly interesting are the stories around the hard-drinking bassist James Jamerson, who came up with the base lines to songs such as Bernadette and I Heard it Through The Grape Wine. He might've been so drunk while recording that he couldn't stand up, but lying down on the floor he still could play the bass perfectly! The modern parts see the surviving Funk Brothers meeting up and jamming in the studio and preparing for the concert. It's nice that the aged musicians finally had a moment in the spotlight, altough many of them have since died. But the surviving members to my knowledge still tour, and to bigger and bigger audiences.

Bubbling Under:
Patti Smith: Dream of Life (2008)
Pet Shop Boys: Life In Pop (2006)
Public Enemy: Welcome to the Terrordome (2007)
Soul Power (2008)
White Stripes Under The Great White Northern Lights (2009)

To be seen:
Air Guitar Nation (2006)
Girls Rock! (2008)
Gogol Bordello: Non Stop (2008)
Scratch (2001)
Shut Up & Sing: The Dixie Chicks (2006)

You have no idea how hard it was to pick these five fictional films. It's because I haven't really dug most of the modern musicals, but feel that they should be represented. So, all of these five are as well quite far from each other, but they are all groovy films that I like to write about. So enjoy!

Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Director: Lars von Trier

The only real reason I wanted to have fictional movies included is so I could write something about this brilliant, seminal work by Lars von Trier. It's the first time Trier has chosen a genre filled with conventions, and while breaking all of them, maintaining some, thus keeping the audience at their toes. And he can really bring a wallop to the stomach of the audience with this kind of filmmaking skills.

Textile factory worker Selma Jezkova (Björk) is going slowly blind. She tries to save enough money while she still can to give his son an operation to maintain his eyesight. But then Bill (David Morse), the husband of the family housing her, runs into severe financial troubles himself and steals her money. Getting the cash back drives Selma on the path to certain doom. She only wants for her son to be saved, and hopes for a happy ending the likes of which she has seen on musicals. Will she get it, or should the audience go home at the second-to-last song?

To say the film is depressing is an understatement. The film was hard to do even for the actors, with Björk announcing that this would be her only film role. It's a pity, because she's nothing short of phenomenal. As the cute but naive Selma, she is the kind of character the audience easily symphatizes with, and wishes to protect from the evils of the world. But Trier is cynical towards all major institutions in the society, and portrays them as more harming to the individual, than helping. The music, composed by Björk, in this musical is also a bit different than usual, but by all means still excellent.

Hairspray (2007)
Director: Adam Shankman

In the early 60's, the overweight, but happy-go-lucky teenager Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) is obsessed with the TV programme The Corny Collins Show. She gets a chance to audition for a dancer in the show, much to the dismay of thinner girls. After getting help from his friends, he lands a spot. She then decides to start to fight for better treatment for the black dancers on the show.

Altough I'm a big John Waters fan, I actually haven't seen the original 1988 Hairspray. Which might be why I enjoy the hell out of this new adaptation, made according the popular stage musical. The satirical look at celebrity culture was ahead of its time in 1988, but also fits like a glove in the modern world. It helps that the songs are catchy and, funny, and well-coreographed too. The film also has a campy and corny, but essentially right message of being true to oneself and to fight the wrongs one sees. But the real strength in the film is its cheerfully used bad taste. I love Divine, but one gets used to her antics after a few movies. Even Waters couldn't come up with anything as disgustingly, hilariously wrong as having John Travolta in drag and Christopher Walken be a married couple, very much in love as well.

Magadheera (2009)
Director: S.S. Rajamouli

Us westerners may not notice there is a difference, but alongside Bollywood there are also a film industry in the Tamil territories of India. This film is a real crown jewel of the Tollywood filmmaking, as there's so much action, romance, catchy songs, and plot twists in nearly three hours, that a dozen Hollywood films couldn't cover them all. It is also a film that takes place in two different times at once, and the hindu belief of reincarnation is a pivotal point in the love story of the film.

Bhairava! Bhairava! He (Ram Charan Teja) is a cool motorcycle stuntman starts to have flashbacks back to his previous life whenever he touches a mysterious girl. In actuality this is fair and sassy Indu (Kajal Agarwal), but there are a lot of romantic comedy's mistaken identity scenes, when Bhairava just can't figure out the truth. Unfortunately, by the time he realizes this, Indu is kidnapped by their reincarnated enemy. Before the final showdown, we get to jump back to 400 years ago and see how Bhairava's and Indu's affair went to the rocks then. But they get another chance by kicking ass in the present and hard. The action is gloriously over-the-top and magnificently epic. You can't find ideas such as these in any Hollywood movie, try as you might. WARNING! The following clip, while awesome, may contain spoilers.

The music is as in Indian movies it prompts to be – it comes out of nowhere and barely advances the plot. There is a music scene inexplicably shot in various Swiss cities, with Switzerland's flag waving around. Yet it gives me an excuse to attach my recommendations of this kick-ass movie, so by all means, find the film!

Once (2006)
Director: John Carney

I was baffled myself of why I left out this from my Best Romances list. Well, the thing is that the Romance never really forms around the main characters. The Girl (Markéta Irglova) is married, and while the Guy (Glen Hansard) is clearly in love, he decides not to push things. But the pair has a good chemistry and they do make beautiful music together. Once is a film about street musicians.

So the Guy is a hoover repairman, who earns a bit of extra money by playing in Dublin's streetcorners. He meets the Girl and as it happens she's a talented musician too. He fixes her broken hoover and she helps him to make a demo tape. The pair plays around the town, and starts to write songs to each other. The film of course ends in separation, but it is a kind of bittersweet ending that gives a tiny shred of hope for the pair. Indeed, Hansard and Irglova had such a good chemistry on set that they became an item for a while, and also toured playing the film's music.

Ireland is of course the promised land for minstrels of all ages and nationalities. Dublin is a prominent character itself in the film, providing sheter and sympathy for the main characters. The Indie love story in the film isn't overly cutesy and reasonably subtle, so the result is an immensly likeable film.

Popular Music (Populärmusik från Vittula, 2004)
Director: Reza Bagher

Finally, we have a hilarious coming-of-age story that's a Finnish-Swedish co-production. It is based on the cult novel of Mikael Niemi, which I'm sure isn't as well-known abroad than in here. The amount of music in the film version is less than in the other films on this list, but it is essential to the plot and quite good one at that.

Matti (Niklas Ulfvarson as a kid, Max Enderfors as a teen) is a child growing up in the 60's in Lapland, near the border of Finland in a small village called Vittulanjänkä (looslely translated to Cuntville). Even though the village has such a crude name, the life in the town is highly religious and humble. But then Matti and his best friend Niila (Tommy Vallikari, Andreas af Enehjelm) discover rock 'n roll via some forbidden records. They decide to form a band, and this decision will drift them apart, but at the same time drive them towards adulthood.

Finnish comedies aren't usually very funny, and I don't really think Swedish are usually that good either. But by having a sort of mixture of the countries' quite similar sense of humour, the result is unexpected and thus hilarious. What really translates well are the great cast of oddball characters, that still feel familiar to anyone who still remembers their childhood. The pains of growing up are realized quite universally here, but the nostalgia of the Scandinavian countryside is a theme best understood by Nordic people. Rock used to be about rebellion and pushing old aside to bring new in. You had to be the right age to really feel it in your lifetime and that's what this film portrays quite nicely. Luckily we don't get to see too much of the future, so the adulthood of our beloved characters is best left to figure in your own imagination.

Bubbling under:
Moulin Rouge (2001)
Director: Baz Luhrmann

I'll have to mention this one more musical, even though it is not to my tastes. For Moulin Rouge is clearly made with love for fans of colorful musicals. Everything is vamped up to 11, from the camp, the vivid visuals to the pop songs you already know by heart. The plot is, of course as thin as they come. I personally find the film and all its cutesiness a bit aggravating, altough there is much to love. So my conscience permits for me to take it on the list, but it is a must to all musical fans.

To Be Seen:
Chicago (2002)
Le Concert (2009)
Devdas (2002)
Enchanted (2007)

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Shaw Brothers

A movie mogul is not a profession restricted merely to Hollywood. A case in point are the Shaw brothers, Runme Shaw (1901-1985) and Run Run Shaw (1907-), who ran a film distribution and movie theatre company from 1924 onwards, and later expanded to producing the films themselves. They released nearly 1000 films during their career, of which many are considered to be classics among Asian cinema. Most of the films were made in Hongkong, but there were some that were made in mainland China and Singapore as well.

During the summer, I watched a complete series which showcased some of the brothers' most well-known works. This is a brief overview of most of the films in that series.

Come Drink With Me (Da zui xia, 1966) 
Director: King Hu

When I visited The Love & Anarchy film festival for the first time ever way back when, they used to still have different retrospectives to different sorts of movies each year. In that magical year the retrospective concerned the back catalogue of the Shaw brothers, and I went to see this. And my mind was blown. The film in question is a clear classic and a pioneer of the Chinese sword and sorcery genre – wu xia. And it wipes the unholy floor with Crouching Tiger and such later manifestations of the genre.

A female warrior who goes by the name Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei-pei) is set to rescue her brother from bandits who have kidnapped him. She defeats a number of thugs from the gang at a darkened bar, which an old kung fu master, known as Drunken Cat (Yueh Hua) observes. He has hidden in the inn posing as a drunkard, but becomes an admirerer and protector of Swallow. The pair sets to defeat the evil priest Liao Kung (Chang Hung-lit) who's keeping Swallow's brother as a prisoner in his temple.

The action comes fast and stedily, and is quite showy by nature. Later on in the film, supernatural powers also come into play, but they seem to fit the universe which the film's characters are inhabiting. Some effects look quite silly nowadays, but there's enough character deepness in our leading duo to keep the viewer interested. The villain is truly hissable, and like in many Asian films, dubiously feminine/androgynous. The film can thus be seen shunning homosexuality, but for such an old piece, such a subtext is forgivable. After all, it's rare that we see such a great ass-kicking female heroine as Golden Swallow here, and not even such a big deal is made of her sexuality.


The Magnificent Trio (Bian cheng san xia, 1966)
Director: Chang Cheh

The soldier Lu Fang (Wang Yu) escapes the battlefield and travels to a countryside village, where the corrupt magistarte Wei Huai-yuan rules the peasants with an iron hand. Lu helps the villagers to rise up against their oppressor by helping them kidnap the magistrate's daughter. Wei retaliates by forming a private army from pardoned criminals. To survive, Lu must form an uneasy alliance with his old army buddy Liang Huang (Cheng Lei) and the former criminal Tzu-ching Yen (Lo Lieh).

The colorful adventure isn't quite the bromance I hoped it would be, but it delivers sufficiently good fight sequences and solid humour. The adventure is colorful enough, but it does drag in places and would benefit from a swifter rhythm. The ending is memorable and a clear predecessor to the kind of Heroic Bloodshed films, which directors like John Woo specialize in.


Shaolin Temple (Shaolin Si, 1976)
Director: Chang Cheh

There's a sub-genre in Martial Arts films, that, unlike the Bruce Lee school of movies, delves into the philosphy and mythology of the real fighting style. They are not merely beat 'em up films, but rather something akin to a sports film (like Karate Kid), where a nobody becomes a master by training hard.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is the most masterful of these, and I'll get around to it in a moment. The Shaolin Temple is an earlier example of the genre. It also shows that these sorts of films are pretty easy to get wrong, as the audience probably knows the basics of the plot beforehand. If it is not inventive and entertaining enough in its training scenes, the movie fails, because these scenes are what most of the film consists of.

That's not to say that The Shaolin Temple doesn't have it's share of some good training scenes. For one the idea of someone spending time standing in a well with weights around his feet make him a leapfrog-like jumper, is silly enough to work. Too bad the characters are too bland to symphatize with. But the main problem here is that it was overdone so many times after this, that it seems too modest by comparison. And it wasn't even among the first of its kind in these Kung Fu Training -films.

Fang Shih Yu (Fu Sheng) and Ma Chao-hsing (Tony Liu) are accepted to become students in the Shaolin Temple among dozens. Ma is a model student, but Fang is frustrated by the obscurity and the mysterious mysticism in the various tasks they assign for him. Meanwhile, the leading monks in the temple grow concerned by the aggressive Quing clan. The monks reason that the sacred temple must be protected from such a strong enemy. Thus, they accept several Ming soldiers to study to have them as the protectors of the temple. But this move sets up a chain reaction that lead for the Quing to battle the Monks for the destiny of the Temple itself.

★★ 1/2

The Oily Maniac (You gui zi, 1976) 
Director: Meng Hua Ho

The truly odd diamond among these is this sort-of superhero epic, which sees a dweeb accidentally become a toxic superhero years before The Toxic Avenger. This nerd in question, Shen Yuan (Danny Lee) is working at a corrupt prosecutor's office in a deadend job. When his friend becomes accused from murder, Shen seeks a way to rescue him from execution. He turns to a shaman, who reveals he has a tattoo with a spell on it. After Shen has completed some dark magic, when read aloud, the spell turns him into an invincible creature. He then decides to protect the innocent from the scum and become the vengeance, become the night, become... A Clumsy Oil Monster, Which Looks Like the Shit Monster From Dogma. He is truly the hero to strike fear into the hearts of criminals.

Seen here in a bathroom

The Oily Maniac is such silly stuff, that one can't really know whether the people making it have been completely serious. There's a good amount of intentional comedy in it as well. Actually it really doesn't matter as long as the giggles come as often as in this. The Oil Monster's screech every time he appears is stupid enough by itself to bring tears of laughter to my eyes. His theme is ripped from the theme of Jaws. In addition he also seems to have a never-ending supply of silly superpowers. He can appear from a tiny drop of oil, or survive his limbs getting hacked off, or even his head. And there's also a never-ending supply of henchmen for him to kill. The film also has a very exploitative view on women. As it happens, most of them get killed pretty soon after they've revealed their breasts.

I wonder if anyone has ever done a comic where The Oily Maniac faces off against The Swamp Thing. And if not, why the hell not?!

★ or ★★★★★

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Shao Lin san shi liu fang, 1978)
Director: Liu Chia-Liang

From a great turkey we move on to another bona fide classic. The 36th Chamber is such a big deal in kung fu movies, I think without it, all of Wu Tang Clan would probably be plumbers or something. It has a huge cult following, and its success lead the way to two sequels and to almost every Martial Arts film made since that.

Once again, a corrupt goverment gives thugs the means to terrorize small villagers. And our hero rises against these wrongs. This time he becomes in the form of San Te (Liu Chia-Hui). But alone he only gets hurt in a fight against evildoers. He flees to the Shao Lin temple, where they teach the famed fighting styles of kung fu. As a young hothead, he doesn't first understand the philosphy of the fighting taught at the uppermost chambers of the temple. But as he starts working his way from the down, he starts to understand that there's more to fighting kung fu than just beating people really really fast and hard.

Knowing is half the battle.
For an action film, the 36th Chamber is quite a slow one, but the film's pace is perfectly realized in its message. Actually, I could watch the training sequences even longer when they're as creativelly realized and beautifully cinematographed as here. In fact, the end sequence where San Te returns to take over his village, feels a bit of a let down. He is simply to overwhelmingly strong against the poor thugs. But that's the power of kung fu for you. It creates respect as well.


Five Deadly Venoms (Wu du, 1978)
Director: Chang Cheh

Perhaps the most fun of all Martial Arts movies, certainly one of the craziest, FDV's is another old Wu Tang favorite. Usually the styles of kung fu are named after cuddly creatures such as tiger, or monkey. Here, they have five students of wholly unique kung fu styles that are inspired by the most venomous animals alive – and are thus a lot more deadly in combat. The Scorpion, The Lizard, The Toad, The Centipede and The Snake. Not just Spider-Man villains, but kick-ass fighters, taught by one master (Dick Wei) to ensure that his legacy will go on.

When the master learns he's dying, he grows concerned that the Venom gang would use their powers for evil. So, he teaches one last disciple, Yang Tieh (Chiang Seng), a bit of all the styles, and sends him to warn his old friend that the Venoms might come after his vast fortune. Yang must also find out, which of the Venoms has gone corrupt, and which he can trust to help him vanquish the evil ones.

With fine fight scenes, frantic camera work and colorful cinematography, the film has stood the test of time proudly. However, it is the wonderful story, filled with interesting characters, that make this such a beloved cult classic.


The Heroic Ones (Shi san tai bao, 1980) 
Director: Chang Cheh

Clearly something happened to the quality control at the Shaw Brothers Studios at the turn of the 80's, since the films after that are noticeably worse. The Heroic Ones is drastically boring for the most of its running time. The viewer is left to wait for a kick-ass final scrap, which is delivered, and is as good as one hoped. But it still doesn't make up for the time spent on melodrama and uninteresting antics of nine quarreling warlords.

These nine have been picked by a wealthy Mogul to overpower one of his rivals. As their mission progresses, the nine start to disagree on some principles. One of the worst offences is of course jealousy over a woman, which drives a wedge among old friends. By the end, several have switched sides just to get even. It all ends on a giant free-for-all battle in a muddy battlefield. There's been a number of better films dealing with similar subjects. The Chinese Seven Samurai this ain't.

★★ 1/2

Human Lanterns (Ren pi deng long, 1982)
Director: Sun Chung

Sometimes, The Shaws pushed the borders of what was expected from them. But not always was this  a good thing. The Human Lanterns is a horror story, and as Chinese as they come. It is a story of two rival fat cats, Mr. Tan and Mr. Lung (Tony Liu and Chen Kuan Tai). As they hate each other, they begin an arms race for the most magnificent of lanterns. To win, Mr. Lung hires a seedy lantern maker Mr. Chao (Lo Lieh), who promises that he can create the most beautiful lantern the city has ever seen. He only asks that no one can see the result before it is completed. As you can guess from the title, the material comes from people. It is human skin to be precise, coming from kidnapped women. So far, so Ted Bundy.

But unfortunately, the film is not outrageous enough to work as a crazy gore film, nor exciting or suspensful enough to work as a proper horror film. Altough the acting and the effects are bad, they are not overtly so, so this is no camp or cult classic either. Mostly it's just boring quarrelling again. The film does have a moral about greed, as the would-be Croesuses get to feel the affects of Chao's nihilism and hatred against man kind at their own home.


Friday, 5 August 2011

Urban Justice 2000

These are dark and uncertain times we live in, an of course it also reflects to the entertainment we consume. One clear sign is the revival of vigilantist action thrillers. These extend to the popular Superhero films, but real vigilantist films tend to be a lot darker. While Scum roams the streets, the innocent get killed in the process. But every once in a while one of these crimes crosses a man who has the will and the power to fight back. Because the police is powerless to help those in need, the main character has the right to take law into his own hands and brutally go after Crime itself. He's just delivering Justice where Law can't reach. Batman is a tame character compared to the protagonists in a vigilantist film. These films also tend to be pretty right-wing, as criminals are seen as truly evil vermin, who are a cancer to a functioning society and thus better off dead.

I'd like to mention one film in addition to these three I will be reviewing: Law Abiding Citizen (2009, dir. F. Gary Gray) starts off as a traditional vigilantist flick: Gerard Butler's family gets murdered and the killers walk away scot free. Butler does eventually take brutal revenge on the culprits, but he's so cruel in doing so that it's not really delivering actual poetic justice. After the criminals are dead, he also starts to take out also judges, lawyers and jury members who let the criminals escape. Thus, he's really not an identifiable protagonist and really more of an antagonist. The film's real hero, played by Jamie Foxx, then has to try to stop him before he himself gets murdered. Because Gerard Butler's character has planned all his kills to automatically happen while he's sitting in prison, the film's actually playing on the collective American fear of terrorists who are one step ahead of the government. That's why it can't be seen as a right-wing power fantasy as such.

Law Abiding Citizen is not a good film by any means, but at least one that treats a vigilantist as a villain just as bad as the criminals, not as a hero. These three following films are sickeningly right-wing in giving their protagonists the right to go above the law.

Harry Brown (2009)
Director: Daniel Barber

Vigilantism isn't a subject that appeals to only American gun nuts and Teapartiers. The conservative Brits like it as well, which is also why they decided to use Lottery Funds to create an embryonic vengeance fantasy for the elderly. Bloody kids these days... If only there was someone to blow them all away.

As seems to be often the case in the genre, the protagonist here is by his occupation an ex-marine (ex-agent is also common). Here he comes in the elderly form of Michael Caine. After Caine's Brown becomes a widow, he starts to notice the horrid environment around him. It is plagued by the lowest of the low scum. His friend tries to get some sense into them, but is beaten to death. And the police can't find evidence to capture the murderers, as usual. Brown then decdes to bring his vengeance down on all of the young gang members in East London. As is often the case in these films, the criminals themselves have no redeeming characteristics. They are evil just to get a kick out of it, like straight out from A Clockwork Orange but with a drastically more straightforward message. the only way to redeem the streets is to kill them all to the last man.

Harry Brown is a humourless, dark and as serious as an open grave. The violence is harsh and the actions to be taken even harsher. I totally understand why many critics would find these sorts of films to be disgusting. I usually enjoy this kind of cinema (or used to when the films are made in the 70's or 80's), but this went over the edge even for me.


Taken (2008)
Director: Pierre Morel

Taken takes a little different angle on the traditional vigilante thriller. Liam Neeson's character, ex-agent Bryan Mills, isn't out avenging something horrible that has happened. He's out there to prevent anything terrible to happen to his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). Wouldn't you know, that girl has lived with her mother and new father without enough discipline. That's why she's been allowed to tour Europe following a shitty stadion rock band. Of course she never gets any further than Paris when she's already in trouble. Human trafficers kidnap her and her friend as soon as she arrives to her guesthouse.

American action films often seem to take place in some western-styled place where there is no law or consequences. This becomes overemphasized when the action takes place somewhere out of America. Thus, Bryan Mills can shoot and murder dozens of people and not get even a trace of police after his trail. Yeah, but they were all bad guys... The film also apparently sells the idea that all foreigners are untrustworthy and going somewhere else rather than home is just tempting the fate. The only thing that allows Kim to survive is the fact that she has kept her virginity, which keeps her alive until auctioned to wealthy Eurotrash. Her harlot friend isn't as lucky. It's really strange that this film has been both directed and written (by Luc Besson, no less) by Frenchmen, when they picture their beautiful capital city so filled with unspeakable evils and corruption. Maybe they'd wish to be Americans, too? Although the action is more kick-ass than usually in these sort of films, the extreme right-wing subtext just makes the thing seem disgusting.


Death Sentence (2007)
Director: James Wan

The most enjoyable of these three is based on an original novel by Brian Garfield, who also wrote Death Wish. Now, Death Sentence certainly isn't entertaining because it is a good film, quite the opposite. Whereas Harry Brown feels too much like you're watching real live violence, Death Sentence is made by the well-worn Hollywood blueprint of a vigilantist movie and that's why it's easier to take some distance to it.

Happy family man Nick Hume's (Kevin Bacon) oldest son gets murdered merely because of a gang ritual. As is always the case, the police can't do a thing to catch the culprits. Thus, Hume goes out to kill a few gang members. Of course, this is a moronic move as they retaliate by killing off the rest of his family. But Hume retaliates again to take the rest of the gang out. John Goodman appears to shout at everyone he meets, to do stuff that his character would have no reason to do, and to underline how bastardly evil these kids are.

If one would want to make a film that criticises vigilantism in any way (or in other words, is any good), the fact that vengeance is so useless in the long run and harms more than it is worth. It would be a good place to build the story over. But Death Sentence has no intention of doing anything like that. It is necessary to kill those gang members from scratch. The fact that one's family gets killed in the process is just a sacrifice en route to bring justice to where there previously was none. This makes the vigilantist a martyr, and not even death can really stop him. You see, he's on a mission from God.


Monday, 1 August 2011

Transformers - More just beats the eye

I'm back! I've noticed many people have found this site during the summer while googling Michael Bay. And seeing as my Director Michael Bay post was a lame April Fools' Day joke, they no doubt became disappointed. Well, I happened to see the auteur's latest film this summer (I guess I'm a masochist), so I thought this would be a proper time to take a look at the whole Transformers franchise.

What I knew about Transformers in my childhood

I spent the crucial years of my childhood at a time when He-Man and Ghostbusters were just going out of style and the Great Global Turtlemania started. Transformers were a bit older stuff. I saw some toys in Kindergarten but was really not that into them. I never saw a single episode of the cartoon, but seeing as many geeks even today perach by the mythology created by it – and judge Bay's films according to it – I owed myself the chance to get a passing knowledge of what Transformers should be.

Transformers – The Movie (1986)
Director: Nelson Shin

Sadly, the film version of the popular animated series doesn't go into depths in explaining what's it all about and who's who in Transformers. But it really isn't rocket science – after all, these are toys fighting each other. The actual Transformer mythology migh have as well been written by a five-year-old. There are these two races of robots, Autobots and Decepticons, and they've been fighting for generations in the planet Cybertron. Both can turn into various items, such as cars, trucks, jets, or, um, guns or boom boxes. You know the Autobots are good because they hang out with humans, go fishing, admire views and pull pranks on each other. The Decepticons spend their time either planning on an attack on Autobots or squabbling over who gets to be their leader. 

One devastating attack leaves both races' leaders – Optimus Prime and Megatron – fatally wounded. Prime passes on his magical Matrix of Leadership to his friend Ultra Magnus (voiced by Robert Stack). The young hotshot Hot Rod (voiced by Judd Apatow) would seem interested in the item as well, as it increases one's powers. Meanwhile, the Decepticons abandon the Not-Yet-Dead Megatron into space, where he stumbles upon a planet named Unicron (voiced by Orson Welles in one of his final roles with amazing gravity for such a thin role). Unicron needs the Matrix of Leadership to destroy Cybertron. I guess, he's a sort of Galactus-like devourer of worlds or something. But anyway, he rebuilds Megatron as Galvatron (voiced by Leonard Nimoy) and sends him off to kill the Autobots. So, the robots do more fighting over that MacGuffin.

"Hey, you! Let's fight!" "Them's fighting words!"

I'm probably almost 20 years too old to fully appreciate this sort of film. But I just got bored when the film is nothing but fighting and teaming up to do more fighting. There are so many characters, that it's impossible to keep track on whether they have any development at all. The exception being Hot Rod, as he learns responsibilty during the course of the film and by the end becomes the Leader of the Autobots. The arc is pure 80's popcorn movie, and so is the incredible heavy metal/new wave soundtrack. The best scene is the incredibly stupid out-of-nowhere robot hoedown, where they all dance to Weird Al Yankovich's "Dare to Be Stupid". They dare.

The film is nicely animated, and doesn't feel like a quick cash-grab like the He-Man movie. There is some funny enough humour, mostly provided by the retarded T-Rex robot Grimlock (voiced by Gregg Berger). "Me, Grimlock, no bozo. Me king!"

★★ 1/2

Transformers (2007)
Director: Michael Bay

After Bad Boys II – the most fun, biggest, craziest and explodion-filledest of Michael Bay's films, it seemd like a good idea for Michael Bay to leave the limiting clutches of Jerry Bruckheimer and do a string of films produced by the golden touch of Steven Spieberg himself. Maybe the subsequent films would have a heart as well as big bangs. But the horrendous The Island proved these hopes wrong. The film tried to be a ponderous sci-fi adventure but was really an exercise in how many car chases can Bay pull out from his ass. The outlook for a live-action version of Transformers was not good, and Bay did deliver a pretty shitty film. Unlike the later ones, the first one has some smart people as fans, and even I must admit it has a few decent action scenes. The problem is, that the viewer doesn't care one bit of anything that goes on with a story. And as 70's George Lucas knows, special effects without a story are boring.

The first offence is that it's always clear that Michael Bay would like to make a film that's only about huge explosions and dick jokes. And military types looking at a radar and getting ready for battle, of course (such scenes are featured dozens of times during the trilogy). But probably because the executive producer Steven Spieberg has insisted, the film has to have a human lead for viewers to identify. Enter Shia LeBouf's Sam Witwicky, a whiny, annoying, insecure little snotnosed punk, who's probably the last person in the world anyone would ever want to identify with. His major problem in life is how to get some tail from the various supermodels he runs into on a weekly basis. His parents are the same sorts of jerks grown up. They are colorfully disappointed with their offspring if he doesn't score with floozies often enough. Sam's favorite floozy is Megan Fox's best Olive Oyl impression as Mikaela. She only initially likes even bigger douchebags than Sam, but changes her mind when she is rescued enough from the clutches of death.

Bay isn't that interested in the films robot characters, either. They get very few establishing scenes and people unfamiliar with the toy franchise will probably only learn to know three robots: Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), the heroic wise leader of the good Autobots, Bumblebee, the mute but friendly retard (voiced by various sound bytes), and Megatron, leader of the evil Decepticons (voiced in this first one by Hugo Weaving). These are as deep as the characterizations go in these films, the rest are established by clichés, or racial stereotypes, usually both.

The trouble with the robots here is that it's literally nauseating to just watch them. The iconic blocky but symphatic forms have been switched to CGI monstrosities in which even the tiniest parts move in opposite directions all the time. It's really hard to tell which part represents which piece of anatomy. Bay himself doesn't know, as in his film robots are capable for such feats as peeing on a US agent, played by John Turturro. Bay clerly has some sort of beef with the Coen brothers as he keeps humiliating their most trusted actors in his films.

I miss the blocky toys that looked like toys. These look like a choking hazard.

So, the story is that Sam Witwicky buys a car to score with ladies. He's disappointed to only get a shiny Chevrolet Camaro instead of I guess a Ferrari. But then it's revealed that the car is actually the Autobot Bumblebee in disguise. It turns out Witwicky's grandfather had hid the powerful magical item Allspark somewhere on earth and, um, left some glasses that allow one to interpret robot signs and stuff. The Decepticons arrive to Earth and attemot to kill Sam, but unfortunatelly Bumblebee protects them. When the other Autobots arrive, the story keeps on being as uninteresting, and retarded, but THE EXPLOSIONS GET BIGGER AND LOUDER, SO YOU WON'T KNOW THE DIFFERENCE.

I've tended to give this only one star, but seeing as how much worse things went from here, I suppose it earns one extra star for the cool highway chase at least.

Transformers: The Revenge of the Fallen (2009)
Director: Michael Bay

The first sequel to Transformers is the worst major big-budget blockbuster ever made. It's loads worse than Batman & Robin, for instance. It's actually so bad, it's on par with Uwe Böll's films in wretchedness. In both, the action scenes are so badly edited and poorly shot, that it's impossible to tell what's happening. And in both, the scenes in between the action are excruciatingly horrible to sit through. The difference is that Bay, in addition to the biggest budget in history, also has plenty of dick jokes in the mix, and a running time of 2,5 fucking hours.

Bay attempts to build the mythology around toy robots with mighty enthusiasm, but is left only confusing the audience and getting himself caught in a corner every five minutes. The bad solutions provided by the script reek of contempt towards the audience, as facts presented only five minutes ago are are constantly forgotten and characters flow in and out of scenes with little to no explanation. Add this to the fact that most robots look exactly alike, and all action scenes are shot VERY CLOSE and one can't even beging to get a clue of what this clusterfuck is about. I try to summarize the films so-called plot with the help of IMDb and Wikipedia.

Sam Witwicky is going to college while the Autobots are in hiding waiting to see if the Decepticons will try to make another attack on human race. They are also assisting the military (in various search and destroy missions). For some reason the Cube that killed the evil Megatron in the previous film is now used to bring him back to life and so the Decepticon team is as dangerous as ever. The new demmycrat president Obama initially looks for a peaceful solution in the conflict, but when the Decepticons do their initial attack, he is said to have ran away like a coward. The Decepticons also awaken and ancient murder-robot named The Fallen and seek to destroy the Earth's sun with his help. But they need an ancient item to start the machine that does so. And conviniently Sam has just found the item everyone wants by dumb luck, which makes him once again hunted by the baddies. But what he really wants is to get some more of that sweet, sweet pussy, first from a new girl he meets at college, and then when she is revealed to be a robot, from Megan Fox again. There is an outrageous time spent on various college hijinks, including Witwicky's asshole mother accidentally eating a hash brownie and becoming an even bigger asshole.

What is usually remembered of the film is it's blatant sexism and racism. Bay actually began his career as a director for various Playboy's Playmate interviews, and he utilizes the same technique in shooting Megan Fox (and Rosie Huntington-Whitley in the next one). Every shot is of ther composed so that either her ass or boobs are the centre of attention. Also the character in film react to her by ogling at her curves at all times. One robot even humps Fox's leg in a rush of passion. Fox may act terribly, but I suppose the only direction she must have gotten from bay must've been along the lines "run the way your boobs jiggle a little more". It's no wonder she called her director Hitler in the film's promotion tour.

If Megan Fox would've bent over just a bit more, she would've snapped like a twig.
The sexism extends to the humour, which is blatantly cruel for a film directed at children to buy toys. Thus, along the way we get to see a robot's balls, a robot ejaculating on a beautiful woman, and of course, the most traumatizing of all, John Turturro's hairy butt. FOR NO REASON AT ALL.

Even worse is the film's racism. Bay's characterization of some of the robots makes George Lucas look subtle. Some of the comic sidekicks include two jive-talking robot twins that are pimp-green and orange in car form. In robot form they look like monkeys with huge ears and big arms. They are depicted as stupid, lazy and all-around unpleasant. They can't stop talking and the other has a gold tooth in his mouth. Oh, and they tell Sam that "reading is for suckers". All that's missing is them craving for watermelon or fried chicken. With all the violence, sex, fascism, xenophobia, and messages such as these, one must wonder if Bay is consciously attempting to corrupt today's children. If I were a father I would forbid these sorts of films from my children in an instant. But a lot of people didn't really care, and thus the abomination became the highest crossing film of the year.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
Director: Michael Bay

Michael Bay listened to some criticism from his previous film in creating his trilogy closer. The film was mostly shot in 3D and thus the length of the shots depicting actions had to be longer and the action shot from further away to have any sort of effect. Ye gods – now you can actually make what is going on on the screen! Also, the crude humour of the series is a lot less toned down in the film, the character of Deep Wang notwithstanding.

The film starts off with reminiscing that the Transformer war has actually raged around Earth for decades. An Autobot spaceship crashed the Earth's Moon years ago – and someone then hid some extra Decepticons on the Dark Side of the Moon, I guess. During the first moon landing Neil Armstrong took a look at the spaceship-thing. After that, the whole affair was forgotten by everyone for years, probably because of all the ungrounded goverment conspiracist covering of the subject. No matter that it might have been useful two movies ago, they hide the facts in here too even though it might save some time and save lives. So, when the truth is finally revealed, it sparks the Autobot-Decepticon war to rage with all its might. But we won't actually get into that for 1,5 hours, as we have to endure scenes where Sam Witwicky is looking for a job. He needs work to support his new girlfriend, who's such a useless character I won't even bother looking her name up (Rosie Huntington-Whitley). At least this time our hero's cut of booty is secured, but he still remains as whiny, insecure and easy to hate as ever.

"I'll switch to this sex doll head. I won't have to rescue her ass as often."
While it is an actual film, as opposed to Revenge of the Fallen, one really can't say Dark of the Moon is good in any way. It's purgatory-long, badly paced, has a lot of scenes that don't go nowhere, and it is as moronically badly written as ever. Alongside the action sequences (the longest of which lasts a full hour), what is spiced up is the unbelievably right-wing message. We meet our heroic Autobots somewhere in the Middle East, posing as cars. When they are stopped by a toll booth, they take it upon themselves that the Arab customs officials are terrorists and shoot the hell out of them. During the course of the film, wise old Optimus Prime spurs such heartwarming wisdom as: "Now, we take the battle to them!", "I'm coming to get you!", and "We'll kill them all!". The next paragraph contains a SPOILER concerning the end scenes.

Near the end, the Decepticons are executing the Autobots they have captured by throwing them to the ground and shooting them in the back of their heads. What sinister villains! But in the end, Megatron himself would offer peace to Optimus Prime after their common enemy is defeated. Optimus then rips his head off, with a piece of his spine. Megetron's already defeated boss then gets a shot to the neck just like the POWs before. Um... USA!? USA!?

So the lines of good and bad in this film are pretty much a grey area, then. How are we to know, who to root for and who to hiss for, then? We are being overly emphasized that the Autobots have adapted to the American culture, whereas the Decepticons hang in Africa, speak in robo-speak or in dialect, and most heinously, don't look like people as much as Autobots. But don't fear, the Autobots have promised to protect humans and Earth from all threats. Except that in one point in the film they allow the Decepticons to completely destroy Chicago and kill all its inhabitants to tach humans a lesson that the Decepticons are not to be trusted. Oops.


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