Friday, 30 September 2011

HIFF - Love & Anarchy Report 2011

Whew! The 24th Helsinki International Film Festival was exhausting for me, with most of my free time having been spent at a movie theatre or waiting to go to a movie theatre. I'm also still recovering from the profound effect the 24 films I saw this year had on me. Now, luckily I already did a post with some of the most notable films of the festival, so I don't have to write 24 reviews. Thing is, 18 is a bit too much too. I'll aim for 14. You can thank me later. I'll include the most notable ones so you can seek them out or nod in agreement.

Opening Film:
The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito, Spain)
Director: Pedro Almodóvar

The spanish director Pedro Almodóvar seems to want to return to his early days judging by his latest film. Not only does it star Antonio Banderas like so many times in the golden years, but the film itself isn't a multi-dimensional drama about humane relationships. Well, not conventionally anyway. Instead we have got the wild and crazy Almodóvar back, the one that had outrageous ideas about the natures of sexuality and no shame in splashing them all across screens.

Banderas plays the brilliant plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard, who has huge ambitions, not all of which are recognized as ethical by his colleagues. He has recently created a sort of indestructible skin by splicing human genes with pig's. Years ago, Ledgard lost his first wife. She burned in a house fire so bad, she preferred to commit suicide rather than look at herself in the mirror. Currently Ledgard lives at his mansion with his housekeeper and his new girlfriend Vera (Elena Anaya), who strangely spends most of her time locked up in a single room. Her face also closely resembles Ledgard's late wife's, and Ledgard uses her as a human guinea pig for his new skin. When Ledgard's no-good long-lost brother Zeca arrives to the house, it triggers a chain of events that will reveal the real deal about the affair and Ledgard's depravity.

This is exactly the sort of film I had been waiting for Almodóvar to make. However, while I had loads of fun with this one, it is actually just an entertaining piece. Almodóvar doesn't actually have much new to say about sex, gender and the ways one can lose both of them. All in all, it is either a strange thriller or a horror movie without big scares. Almodóvar does create the tension and the athmosphere of weirdness well throughout the film. So while it's one of his lesser efforts, it is still well worth watching, particularly if one likes his earlier films.


Gala Film:
Drive (USA)
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Praise has been flowing through doors and windows for this gritty crime drama. Is it worth it all? The answer is yes. Yes it is. Drive is one of the best films of the year, and personally I think it flew straight to my all-time top 10. I actually prefer it to a lot of other pulp fiction crime films it has been compared to, such as To Live And Die In L.A. or Collateral. Like those films, this is also both a love letter to Los Angeles, as well as a depiction of it as the worst nest of corruption, seediness, betrayal, brutality and greed on the planet.

The unnamed Driver (Ryan Gosling) does two jobs. At day he's a stuntman for the film industry, which doesn't really recognize his talents. But at nighttime he's a tough-as-nails getaway car driver, that promises to get criminals out of a jam in five minutes. And does deliver on that promise too, in the film's gorgeous first chase scene. However, in person Driver is a little shy and anti-social. His only friend is his boss and culprit Shannon (Bryan Cranston), and he hangs around in his garage. Shannon does business with some pretty seedy mob guys, such as Nino (Ron Perlman). Driver is a gentleman so he helps out his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) on a shopping trip. He starts to develop a friendship with her and her young son Benicio. Eventually, Irene's husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison. He owes a lot of protection money to the mob, and to help the family out, Driver agrees to do a heist job. But one double-cross later he's left with a bag full of money, no idea where to leave it, and a pack of killers on his trail.

Director Refn approaches the film with a no-nonsense attitude like was the standard in the 70's, and with the strong audiovisual sense of the 80's. Both of those choices reflect the film's tone perfectly. The film doesn't have to explain every damn thing thoroughly, and there's not a snippet of dialogue that's not important for the advancement of the plot or to build characters. But where the film excels is the use of violence. It comes by fast, unexpected and brutal. It's not entertaining but feels a little sick. When Driver kills the first people in the film we are actually not rooting for him, but a little scared that the man we've grown to like is capable for such deeds. Indeed, Gosling stone-faced performance really drives the film forward (I'll never apologize for such puns). He's vunerable like a lost child, yet ruthless and determined at the same time. The scorpion on the back of his jacket isn't just for show.

Refn's wonderful choices in music also work like a charm and the film's synteziser score is also one of the year's best. The film is a story of unrequited love and how even a hope for redemption can make an individual drift ever further from it. There are no clean getaways, says the tagline. How rarely are those so spot on for the film in multiple levels.


Festival Favorites:

Play (Sweden)
Director: Ruben Östlund

As the European societies become more and more firmly aligned to the right, immigration is a problem that is widely pondered. It does create a number of problems, but xenophobia and straight-out racism only manage too feed them further. Östlund ponders these problems multi-dimensionally in his film Play. It is based on the real-life events where a group of black immigrant children managed to play with the fears of white-bread suburban children so skillfully that they could rob them of all valuables without resorting to violence or straight-forward threats. In the end, the angry adults go on to blame any dark-skinned immigrant that can be found, even though these culprits are first and foremost bullies that pick on smaller children just because they can. The bullies torment their victims and force them to play an increasing number of humiliating games for them. It is like a more realistic Funny Games that doesn't wipe your face with its message. The film is mostly improvised, but for one that has been grown in the suburbs of a major Northern European City, such as me, the characteristics are familiar and spot-on. Östlund does have a sense of humour about the thing and a wicked sense of irony, portrayed by in-between shots of a cradle being stuck on a train. The film is shot laconically, with the camera barely moving, and much of the action happening just outside the screen. It is a clear message that the issues on hand here are bigger than just the events portrayed in the movie.


Guilty of Romance (Koi no tsumi, Japan)
Director: Sion Sono

Sion Sono sure is as fast as he is talented. This is the third movie he's made in the time of two years, and the third to have festival screenings in Finland during one year. But he has to be a bit more careful to not go in the way of Takashi Miike. For while Guilty of Romance is good, it is nowhere near the madcap inventiveness and solid storytelling of Love Exposure.

A group of detectives are investigating a particularly cruel and twisted murder. As the events starts to unfold, we flash back to the beginning. The timid housewife Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka) is bored to serving her husband all day and not even getting sex as a reward. Thus, she gets a job as a sausage saleswoman. She is spotted by Mitsuko (Makoto Togashi), who is a cunnng and calculating woman that makes her living as a prostitute. She sucks Izumi into living life her way. Izumi first gains a boost of confidence. Yet selling sex is a business that has a dark side beneath any glamour as Izumi will discover.

Sono is as great at unfolding tales of ever increasing cruelty as always. The film's actresses also portray the strain they have to endure really well. Sono's studies about the nature and meaning of sexuality make this more than just the female version of Cold Fish. There is a strong sense of losing traditional values while looking for sexual liberation. Sono aims to shock and has suitable amounts of full frontal nudity, perversions and sick gore to achieve this. GoR also has big amounts of Sono's trademark black humour and many times the film is so comical to be almost a black comedy. The cinametography bathes in neon lights in the dark. But it is all uneven and repeats itself a bit.


Arrietty (Kari-gurashi no Arietti, Japan)
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

The latest Ghibli film as charming and visually stunning as always. Papa Miyazaki has contributed to the script, which shows in well-rounded character work. A terminally ill boy is sent to his aunt's country home to rest. There, he discovers the excistence of Borrowers, tiny people that live by stealing tiny objects from people. He is especially taken upon Arrietty, the 14-year-old feisty girl borrower that seeks to learn the trade from her father. The Borrowers are a dying breed and during the course of the film they have to ponder whether they can live with people any more. Thus, the film also touches on Miyazaki's basic theses such as the fragile relationship between people and nature and the nostalgic final days of innocence before taking responsibility. The biggest downside of the film is that it actually has a villain that has motivations that are clearly sinister. Is Ghibli going turn to the black-and-white of Disney movies? I really hope not. A toady old she-male prone to catching and collecting tiny people isn't eactly Maleficent, but a Gargamel rip-off is a start...

★★★ 1/2

The Bengali Detective (Great Britain/India)
Director: Philip Cox

This certainly was one of the strangest documentaries in a while. In modern Kolkata (former Calcutta) the police force is quite corrupt and unreliable. That's why the locals turn to private detectives to solve crimes. We follow one of these detective agencies, Always, while they solve crimes. And the crimes vary from selling counterfit products to infidelity cases to tough murder cases. The detectives are a happy bunch. They practice their fighting moves at the park and watch Indian Dance shows on YouTube. The main character is the tubby leader of the agancy, Rajesh Jin. While he has a lot of stress from trying a solve a triple homicide and treating a terminally ill wife, he still manages to keep his sunny side up. That's why he orders all of the detectives to take part in the dance contest with him. And that's not a negotiable term. The film is quite silly, but has really tragic and sad life stories to tell, too. The problem is that director Cox can't quite balance them in the right order. That's why the viewer is confused a lot of time of what he should feel. But nevertheless, the film has a lot of great footage, and most of the time it is a spot-on documentary. Recommended, but with caution.


This Is Not A Film (In film nist, Iran)
Director: Jafar Panahi

Jafar Panahi is an internationally acclaimed director and a damn skillful one, too. It's too bad he has to live in Iran, where the authorities won't take kindly to any artist who dares to ask questions. That's why Panahi has been sentenced to jail and forbidden from making movies for an absurdly long time. But the anarchist Panahi is, he made a giant Fuck You to the iranian authorities: a film that can hardly be called a film. Panahi wasn't forbidden from acting, so he gave a camera to his friend and started reciting pieces from his upcoming script. Thrilling! We also see him make telephone calls about his situation. Exciting! He also gives us a brief lesson in film directing. The director can't really control everything, and the end result is both a compromise and a collaborative piece to which each part brings something essential. I appreciate the gesture, like Panahi, and won't give out stars because This Is Not A Film. But I will say that the end sequence where Panahi takes an elevator down with his building's garbageman is one of the greatest I've seen in a long time. Like Dante, Panahi ascends to the hell that is Teheran at New Year's Eve. The local people have a bonfire on the street and get their explosions by throwing gasoline into the fire. The accidental metaphor couldn't be more poignant.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Di Renjie, China)
Director: Tsui Hark

Director Tsui Hark used to be the go-to guy of chinese epic adventures. He is best known from the Once Upon A Time in China films, as well as A Better Tomorrow III. But something happened in the late 90's that resulted in Hark to produce mostly boring garbage. His latest film proves that his comeback with 2005's Seven Swords wasn't a fluke. In fact, the latest adventure of the classic pulp hero Dee is a lot more fun than that stuffy epic. China is preparing for the crowning of its first female Emperor. The Empress has ordered to build a giant statue of Buddha for the ceremonies. Yet in the construction site, high-ranking officials start to spontaneously combust. The only one that can crack the case is Dee (Andy Lau), a detective and a rebel that's been jailed for life. Dee gets his pardon in order to solve the mystery, which makes him ponder about where his allegiances lie. The semi-mythical adventure takes Dee to weird places, such as underground Beijing and to a temple dedicated to a talking deer god. He must use all his wits and fighting skills to solve the mystery and make it out alive. Treachery is afoot and he can't really trust anyone.

As much fun as all this is, like many modern Chinese films you feel a bit guilty as the message is that resisting the authorities is wrong, and it is noble to take orders from higher-ups. Fortunately the action scenes coreographed by the legendary Sammo Hung are good enough to not ponder on such issues. And the whole thing ends with a truly legendary battle.

★★★ 1/2

Tatsumi (Singapore)
Director: Eric Khoo

Yoshihiro Tatsumi is one of the most beloved manga artists of all time, and a crucial artist in creating the manga for adults, gekiga. His autobiographical graphic novel A Drifting Life is an Eisner-award -winning masterpiece. So it was intriguing that it would, along with some of Tatsuki's greatest short stories be made into an anime film. Alas, the film is little more than motion-comics, those barely animated panels that form a film that's for people that are too lazy to read. Tetsuki's visual style is of course stunning, and the bittersweet tragedies of his wonderful short stories still poignant. But all of it is animated switching between a powerpoint presentation and a cheap flash animation. The short stories are glum and fit the crucial parts in the life story poorly. It is not a whole waste of time, because of the quality of Tatsumi's body of work. But, y'know, I would've rather spent the time reading A Drifting Life. And that's a really bad sign for an adaptation.


Hesher (USA)
Director: Spencer Susser

Every year I try to watch at least one quirky american indie comedy at the festival. Of course their quality varies a lot. I'm happy to report that Hesher kicks ass. A pre-teen kid, T.J. (David Brochu) and his father are living with grandma, trying to cope with the grief of losing the family's mother. T.J. can't deal with school and rather wanders around, going to forbidden places. At a building up for demolition he finds Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), anarchist, loner and rocker. Hesher starts following T.J. around, even moving in with his family by his own invitation. Although he is seen as a nuisance at first, it turns out that even such a misanthropic character might have a word or two of wisdom behind his crude words. He also teaches T.J. to fight for himself, and that you can't always get what you crave. Of course, a dysfunctional family coming together and a coming-of-age tale aren't the most original of indie film tropes. Luckily Gordon-Levitt's outrageous central character and awesome performance pull the film forward, making it funny and heartdfelt in an equal measure. It also helps that Natalie Portman has a cute bit-part as a cute cashier.

★★★ 1/2

Robot (Endhiran, India)
Director: S. Shankar

At this point the YouTube video of the collected action scenes from the end of this Indian epic action film has become a viral meme. Yet the movie itsef has so much more to offer that I would rather suggest watching the whole thing than to spoil yourself by just eating the sweet, sweet dessert. Endhiran is the most expesive film ever made in the Tamil territories of India (Tollywood), and stars the area's biggest film star, Rajinikanth. He has a dual role as the robot engineer Dr. Vaseegaran, and the super-powered robot Chitti that's his latest, greatest creation. The Doc's girlfriend Sana (Aishwarya Rai) feels neglected, because he is so dedicated to his work. But when she meets Chitti she is smitten and grows to love the robot as company and a protector. Vaseegaran's former tutor, the jealous Dr. Bohra (Danny Denzongpa) is less endeared of the multi-tasking robot, and plans to steal its blueprints to create his own 'bots. That's why he manipulates Chitti's tryouts to get into the Army (!) and the fire departement, claiming that the unfeeling machine can easily kill his friends. Dr. Vaseegaran installs Chitti with emotions, which results in him falling in love with Sana and going rogue.

The three-hour epic is filled with everything you could hope for in a movie: romance, comedy, action (the fights were coreographed by Yuen Woo-ping himself), nutty musical scenes (shot in Sahara and the Machu Picchu, for no apparent reason), and of course robots. Lots, and lots of robots. Altough a lot of money were at play here, director Shankar wasn't afraid one bit to try out different feverish ideas that drop the viewer's jaw to the floor before the uncontrollable cheering and laughing begins. James Cameron should take notice. Rajni in particular is awesome, and perfectly capsulates both a nerdy scientist and a supercool no-nonsense robot. Chitty's billions of abilities and dance moves make Inspector Gadget die in shame. Which is why it's strange that Vaseegaran insists that he is built only for military purposes. There is certainly an Indian nationalistic theme underplaying here. As strange from the viewpoint of a westerner is that apparently it is better to die burning in flames than to appear naked in public in India. In the film are a few dragging parts and a few unnecessary comic sidekicks. But all in all, this was by far the most entertaining film of the festival.


In Cold Blood 2 (Yksinteoin kaksi, Finland)
Director: Jussi Parviainen

Jussi Parviainen is an Artist with a capital A. The theatre legend has never been shy about his private life and has always openly incorprated it into his art. I'm one of the select few who have seen the original, uncencored documentary film Yksinteoin (directed by Pekka Lehto) on a big screen. In that film, Parviainen rages to the camera about the break-up of his then-wife, and his worries about losing custody of his children. The result was one of the most harrowing, the most controversial, and the best Finnish films ever made. History tends to repeat itself, and thus Parviainen also had to manage another painful divorce. This time, Parviainen directed the film himself and took on a lot more artistic way of making it.

Parviainen catched his astrologist wife Satu Ruotsalainen cheating on him. Soon after that they divorced. On the interviews of women's magazines Ruotsalainen told that she was happy that the relationship came to an end. According to Parviainen, she also straight-out lied that there was violence in the relationship. In the film, Parviainen splits into two persons, his regular, rational half, and the jealous, ranting, crazy Black Jussi. For the role of Black Jussi, Parviainen gained 47 kilograms and lived half a year in an abandoned mental institution. As you can probably guess, Parviainen is a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic.

Whereas the original Yksinteoin felt like raw, pure burst of anger, regret and pain, the sequel is a bit more tricky. Parviainen adds so many artistic filters into the film, it feels like a product of an over-eager film student at times. This time, the film isn't exactly a documentary, but a fictional film that takes its inspiration from real-life events. It recreates a few of the original film's setpieces. It's actually a wonder that such similar circumstances have happened to Parviainen again. The custody of a small child is again at hand here. Most of the film is reserved for monologues of Black Jussi, that are done straight to the camera. With this Parviainen spits out everything that he feels was wrong with his ex-wife. Amid all the self-pity and the accusal the viewer starts to feel more than a little uneasy of all the dirty laundry made public.   

In advance, Parviainen bragged that this film would end on a better note than its predecessor, and he had a real-life victim of brutal violence in a relationship to tell her story on the film. Annika Sirén plays Parviainen's psychiatrist and has one heart-breaking scene where she tells it how it is. Too bad it fits poorly amids all of Parviainen's misanthropy and self-loathing. There is also a graphich oral sex scene between the leads, but it has been cencored since the film's NSFW trailer. It's probably because the TV network MTV3 has financed the film and perhaps wants to show it at some point (although I can't imagine where it would fit in an over-commercialized channel that mostly broadcasts reality TV). All in all, the film is confusing and more than a little self-centered around Parviainen's own ideas of his grandieur. But still, one can't claim that listening to the Finnish Klaus Kinski rant on front of the camera for 75 minutes isn't captivating to see.

★ or ★★★★★

So, that was this year's set. Thanks a billion times to everyone at Rakkautta & Anarkiaa Ministry. I'm already looking forward to next year! 
Cartoons: Ville Tiihonen

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