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.

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