Saturday, 10 December 2011

International Films for the rest of the year, or: PÖFF 2011

"I hear Tallinn has a pretty groovy film festival. Let's meet at the harbor." Le Havre (c) 2011 Sputnik Oy.

The biggest film festival in Estonia, Tallinna Pimedate Ööde Filmifestival (Tallin Black Nights Film Festival, or PÖFF) turned 15 this fall. The prestigious international film festival was held 16.-30. November. I only had time to visit the festival for one weekend, even though it would've offered a lot of highly interesting international films. Luckily, a lot of them I had already seen or had the chance to see back in Finland. So here is an end-of-the-year roundup of interesting films from PÖFF's lineup.

Le Havre (Finland/France)
Director: Aki Kaurismäki

Le Havre (c) 2011 Sputnik Oy.
The pitiful Finnish film industry always gets a boost whenever our last and only recognized auteur, Aki Kaurismäki makes a new film. Nevermind that this one was shot in France and in French, Le Havre will win multiple Finnish Film Awards, and is our country's contender for the Oscars. But while it's a good film, it is a small disappointment and nowhere near Kaurismäki's finest.

Le Havre is about the inhabitants in a small coastal town in Northeast France. The old shoe-shiner Marcel Marx's (André Wilms) life is shaken as his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) falls ill and is hospitalized. The grief-stricken elder gentleman finds it hard to function without his wife. He happens to come across the young immigrant Monet (Jean-Pierre Daroussin) hiding from the police in the harbour. The kind-hearted Marcel takes pity on the boy and gives him shelter in his home. It also allows him to get his mind off worrying about the fate of his wife. He gets the support of his entire comminity to keep the boy from getting to the cold hands of the law.

Le Havre is first and foremost a fairy tale for grown ups. Its humanism is strongly influenced by the silent films of Charlie Chaplin, and Kaurismäki also uses about as much dialogue in his films as well. But nevertheless, the film feels a bit too naïve and predictable for its own good. The message is of course good and pure, and as important today as it was in the 1930's when the right-wing chains of thought swept through Europe the last time. But Kaurismäki doesn't really get a good hold at his characters, which feel like rough drafts compared to his previous body of work. Marcel, for instance, is pretty one-dimensionally good. More time is spent on the nostalgia of the old town, where old people take care of old bars and old grocery stores, soon to vanish. The imagery itself is familiar to the point of clichés. Kaurismäki goes through a checklist of his usual trademarks, and thus, for instance, a rock show is tacked on (by the French old school rocker Little Bob). All in all, it feels a lot like a film fastly done in between other films with more gravitas.


Poongsan (South Korea)
Director: Juhn Jaihong

The formerly prolific Kim Ki-Duk has had trouble doing films lately. He's suffered from depression and a writer's block, that is all delved into in his latest film Arirang. But luckily Kim has shown signs of getting better, and now he has managed to script and produce another film that isn't about himself. Instead, is a action thriller about the conflict between North and South Korea and one smuggler between them.

The mute smuggler, known only by his cigarrette brand as Poongsan (Kye Sang Yoon), silently takes on jobs left on a note by grief-stricken families. He can bring anything and anyone across the borders of the two Koreas. While his reputation grows and grows, eventually he gets a job from a wealthy Southern businessman to bring back his Northern girlfriend In-ok (Guy-ri Kim). The job proves harder than usual, as the saucy woman proves to be more than a match to Poongsan's finely-tuned tactics. At the same time the South Korean police has set up a trap to catch Poongsan and to find out whether he comes from the North or the South. But also North Korean Agents have their eyes on Poongsan and sinister plans for him.

The fast-moving movie has a huge cast of characters and so many allegiances that it's difficult to keep track of all of them. The middle of the film in particular, is quite confusing. At the centre of the movie there is a triangular romance, that feels quite forced considered from any angle. But at least things aren't as black and white as they initially seem. Director Juhn Jaihong excels as an action director. The scenes of running through the border area are brisk, exciting and innovative, if not very realistic. Likewise, Juhn and Kim have also deviced some very twisted and nasty ideas for the film, which one can take chuckling. The whole ordeal is a kind of a modern western, if such a common comparison can be excused. The mute stranger playing two sides against each other for profit is the exact plot of A Fistful of Dollars. Poongsan is a sort of superhero, as he seems almost invunerable. He's a symbolic person, the spirit of the Korean soul that doesn't look whether you come from the nort or the south. The film deals with subjects that must be painful to the Koreans, but does it in an exciting, innovative way. The script could've used another polish, though.

★★★ 1/2

Attack the Block (Great Britain/France)
Director: Joe Cornish

A new generation of video-raised Brits have recently started to make more interesting genre pictures. With his debut, Joe Cornish goes to the same league with Neil Marshall, Edgar Wright and Ben Wheatley. Cornish's master idea was to combine a silly alien invasion idea with a coming-of-age tale of a hoodlum. A teen gang has to face responsibilities for the first time in their life to survive and protect their home block.

The story begins on New Year's eve as the gang led by Moses (John Boyega) mugs a nurse on her way home. While the gang's making their escape, a small furry alien attacks Moses. He decides to beat it to death as revenge. But this turns out to be a mistake, as bigger, nastier aliens soon start to appear and killing off people. They seem to have some beef with Moses and his past deeds. In the mids of all the fireworks they have come on Earth undetected and because of the block is seething with crime, few authorities want to check on it. One of the gang members gets injured and needs mediacal attention. Luckily at their home block the ruffians realize that the nurse they robbed is actually living as their neighbour. Sam (Jodie Whittaker) therefore has to choose whether to trust the hoodlums to survive or to try to make it on her own.

Attack the Block's biggest problem is that it's marketed as a comedy, but it really isn't all that funny. Little wannabe gangsters Probs and Mayhem do raise a few giggles, but Nick Frost as a lazy fat drug dealer feels mostly wasted (in the bad way). The film's aliens are cool, dark furry things with glow-in-the-dark teeth. When their mission is revealed, it seems plausible, and thus they would've fitted well with my recent list of best movie aliens. There is also the stretch that one has to symphatize with some nasty underage hoodlums to enjoy the film. But hey, the same is true with Akira. Like the anime classic, this is a little anarchistic and anti-authority, but also stretches the need to take responsibility of one's own actions.


Sons of Norway (Sønner av Norge, Norway)
Director: Jens Lien

Sons of Norway takes us back to the golden days of the late 1970's in the concrete suburbs of Oslo. The adolescent Nikolaj (Åsmund Høeg) is raised in a family of free-thinking radicals (in a word, hippies). Nothing is shunned upon, and his parents have an open mind toward everything. It all changes when Nikolaj's mother Lone (Sonja Richter) dies in a tragic accident. Living with just his grief-stricken widowed dad Magnus (Sven Nordin) is a real pain. So when Nikolaj gets his first teenaged needs to rebel, he needs to take it to the extreme. Luckily, punk rock and The Sex Pistols have just risen, so Nikolaj bases his life on their teachings. He gets a new punk look, acts rude toward authorities and starts his own garage band with his friends. But then Magnus decides he wants to party and join in the movement as well.

The film is certainly quite funny, as much comedy can be done on the expense of the 70's Nordic liberals. For instance, we are taken to a nudist camp, and Nikolaj gets to witness more sex than should be good for a boy too young to actually do it himself. As everything is looked through nostalgic lenses, rather than looking forward, the film isn't that punk in actuality. It pronounces the joy of life rather than nihilism. I should hate it then, but I don't. After all, there is a late cameo by Johnny Rotten himself. The film is quite episodic, which makes me feel it is based on a book or on actual events. It would benefit from having a stronger sense of the story rather than having just one set piece after another. But the father-son relationship is realized in a funny and never preachy way.


Inní: Sigur Rós (Iceland)
Director: Vincent Morrisset

I didn't know much about Iceland's gift to progedelic rock, Sigur Rós, before seeing this film. I feel like I still don't. It's a documentary film about the band, which utilizes a lot of concert footage, but also some interviews from the course of their career. But very few of them, in fact. Too bad, because they are easily the most interesting thing in the movie. Most of the time is spent on gigs, with the camera hugely close to the players and obscuring much. The film is black-and-white and grainy, allowing viewers either to interpret the film as they please or get nauseous. As for Sigur Rós's music, I feel it is quite nice to listen for a song or two, but I get annoyed by its slowness and lack of any hooks after 1,5 hours. If you're a fan, this is a must. Otherwise, I suggest to avoid this.


Killing Bono (Ireland/Great Britain)
Director: Nick Hamm

Based on a memoir that every one that has ever talked about has described as "almost too weird to be true", Killing Bono tells the story of Bono's doppelgänger. The man in question is the Irish rocker Neil McCormick (Ben Barnes) who went to the same school as Bono, The Edge and friends way back when before they were famous as U2, in the late 70's. Neil's younger brother Ivan (Robert Sheehan) was in fact asked to be in the band lare named U2, but the jealous big brother never allowed for this to happen.

The film deals with the two brothers' struggling to have some sort of success with their own band, while U2 goes on to be the biggest band in the world. The McCormick ordeal features gangsters, record company executives, loose women and other deadly combinations of weird Irish people. Sex, drugs and rock and roll are all present, but don't feel glamorous but a little worn out and with a tiny hint of melancholic sadness within them. Neil makes a huge string of bad decisions and usually keeps them from Ivan. When Ivan finds out brotherly feuds so harsh follow even the Gallaghers would find them a little excessive. The ever-awesome Pete Postlethwaite makes his final appearance on the screen as the boys' gay landlord. The still-awesome Twitter superstar Peter Serafinowicz plays a sleazy and foul-mouthed record company owner. The film is quite funny, but more than anything, it made me interested in reading Neil McGormick's book. I'd like to find out just how much of it was made in the sake of cinematic storytelling and how much does McGormick claim is true.


Code Blue (Netherlands)
Director: Urszula Antoniak

Urszula Antoniak is known from her debut feature film Nothing Personal. Code Blue is similar in the slow pace and lack of dialogue. Antoniak trusts the images to tell the story. Another thing that is similar is that they both are stories about love and sexuality, but go across painful limits, making the stories all the more tragic. Code Blue is much more violent, almost sadistic in its outcome.

Nurse Marian (Bien de Moor) tends to appears to be emphatetic and good at her job, taking care of terminally ill and old patients. But she harbors more sinister feelings among herself. She's a loner and become more than a little twisted from being around death all the time. She also has voyeristic urges, and with binoculars witnesses a man in the next building doing violent acts to women. Rather than calling the authorities, she becomes fascinated and a bit aroused by this man. And the man also starts to spy on her. It is inevitable that these two shall meet.

Code Blue is slow to the point of coma. But nevertheless Antoniak is good at building pressures, which burst out at a few shocking scenes. Her film's protagonists are pretty rotten to the core, which makes the film feel a tad nihilistic. It's certainly arty, to the point when a lot of people won't stand the film. But I've got to say, once I got over my initial confusement, I kind of liked it.

★★★ 1/2

She Monkeys (Apflickorna, Sweden)
Director: Lisa Aschan

One of this autumn's biggest surprises comes from Sweden of all places. To be fair, it's no wonder I was t first dismissive of a film that was said to be like "a new Fucking Åmal". In actuality She Monkeys is a lot more. It shares it's slow, almost documentaristically still style with films like Play. In fact it works very well as a companion piece of that film. Whereas Play had some good ideas of how to present male adolescence, peer pressure and the spread of anti-immigrant views on cinema, She Monkeys delves on the development of female sexuality, unrequited love, mood swings and physicality.

The teenaged Emma (Mathilda Paradeiser) is accepted to a school for circus acrobats. She soon makes friends with another schooler, Cassandra (Lena Molin). They soon become inseperable, doing everything together. But it soon turns out that one of the girls feels a lot stronger towards the other than the other does. Nevertheless, the scenario is allowed to go all through to its breaking point. Meanwhile, Emma's little sister Sara (Isabella Lindquist) gets her first taste of developing into an adult as a swim school instructor tells her mom that she needs a bikini top to swim there. Sara harbors a crush on her cousin Sebastian, and plans to woo her.

All information we viewers gain in the film is based on what Emma and Sara experience on screen. There's not a lot told about what's happening outside. It keeps the film fresh and pulls the rug out from under the viewer's feet a few times. She Monkeys isn't afraid to surprise or even shock. For a debut director, Lisa Aschan has astonishingly good sense of cropping the image and allowing us to read things on almost still faces. The film also has a strong sound design, with breathing and other small sounds turning out to be vital for the storytelling. The film is cut surprisingly short and when it ends, the viewer is left wanting for more. While all threads are tied in this film, maybe we're just left to wait what Aschan does next.


In A Better World (Hævnen, Denmark)
Director: Susanne Bier

Susanne Bier's films are basically very good, but I somehow mostly see them as somewhat off-putting. I don't know what it is, certainly not the thematic darkness, since I'm used to that as a Scandinavian. Her films tend to have depressed people be miserable amid the Scandinavian welfare state. That's by no means a wholly unique theme in Scandinavian cinema. So is the case with Hævnen, which actually means Revenge. It has won multiple awards, including the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film at this year's Oscars.

Hævnen has several stories going on at once, but the central one concerns the budding friendship between Elias (Markus Nygaard), who is bullied at school and Christian (William Nielsen), who has a lot of personal problems as well. Both come from fractured families. Elias' parents are on the border of breaking up and his father Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) spends a lot of time abroad, at work at an African refugee camp. Christian has lost his mother to cancer and is having a hard time adjusting to life with his dad Claus (Ulrik Thomsen). Christian starts behaving aggressively, almost sociopathically, and he pulls Elias with him to his dangerous shenanigans.

Bier has a pretty good idea of male adolescence and what pulls boys to dangerous shenanigans. The actors are superb and are particularly well in scenes filled with melancholia and sorrow. Audio-visually, the film is also top notch. Yet I still feel as if the film is missing an edge or some other major spice. The whole thing feels like playing a bit too safe to create exactly the kind of film that Scandinavians appereciate. For one thing, I don't feel the scenes in African add too much to the story. They are interesting and all, but seem like they would better suit another kind of film. Perhaps it is Bier's way to show that the Nordic angst actually is nothing compared to the problems that a lot of other countries have to deal with every day. That would explain the English title, at least.

★★★ 1/2

Superclásico (Denmark/Argentine)
Director: Ole Christian Madsen

In a Better World was Denmark's representative at the Oscars last year. This year they've sent a more comedic film, which is actually still a very similar story at core. It's also about a dysfunctional family on the verge of breaking up that faces grievances, angst and sorrow. It is probably because of Lars von Trier's controversial Nazi statements that they wouldn't dare to send the much superior Melancholia. But while Superclásico is pretty predictable, there's loads of fun to be had with the film.

Christian (Anders W. Berthelsen) is a wine shop owner, that has been trying to cope with his wife Anna (Paprika Steen) leaving him. Anna is a football manager and has fallen in love with her protegé, the famed Argentinian soccer player Juan Diaz (Sebastián Estavanez). Anna needs Christian to sign the divorce papers so he can marry Juan. Christian decides to do that in person in Argentine to get one last chance of rescuing his and Anna's marriage. Their recluctant, laconic teenaged son Oscar (Jamie Morton) is taken along. On the trip the Nordic and fiery latino sensibilities clash, but the boys also get their own taste of passion form Argentine women.

Like it's name implies, Superclásico is a pretty basic story about a divorce. There's only a few small surprises along the way, but the film's real trick is to do the most worn-out elements so well as to make them seem fresh. First of all, the film is very well acted. Everyone from the main roles to small ones do a great job, have just the right comedic timing, and create multidimensional characters that feel very real in the context. Second is that the sunny Buenos Aires is shot with care, an eye for detail and, in a word, with love. It feels like one of the main characters of the film. We scarcely get postcard monuments, the film takes us more to tiny wine bars, carages and seedy hotels. So all in all, while there's nothing to write home about, it is a pleasant enough trip.


50/50 (USA)
Director: Jonathan Levine

An even more unlikely concept for a comedy than a painful divorce, is deadly cancer. But dark subjects are usually the most ripe for comedic treatment. The approach here is to do it as adorable as possible. So we have adorable Joseph Gordon-Levitt getting deadly cancer. Helping him are the adorable Anna Kedrick, Bryce Dallas Howard and Anjelica Huston. Perky pop and old classics are playing on the background. There's an adorable dog named Skeletor tilting his head at appropriate times. The film even features the adorable Philip Baker Hall as an adorable older cancer sufferer with a potty mouth and an appreciation of weed.

But anyway, the film is based on an (inspirational) true story. The 27-year-old Adam (Gordon-Levitt) finds out that he has back pains because he has a rare form of spinal cancer. He's given a 50/50 chance of making through it. So, naturally he also starts to go through what is important in his life. He comes to terms with his overly-worrying mother (Huston), and deals with his artist girlfriend (Howard) who has started to drift away. Along the way he meets new friends at cemotheraphy and strikes a friendship with his young therapist Katherine (Kendrick).

While 50/50 is quite symphatetic, it doesn't work that well as a comedy. Most of the fault lies in Seth Rogen's performance as the cancer-sufferer's best friend Kyle. Rogen's shtick is as tired as ever, and starting to really get on my nerves. Kyle is a generally unlikeable radio host that thinks about himself before others. He only talks about getting laid and smoking weed, and never, ever shuts up. And he's ever-present in many scenes that would do a lot better without him. I get that he's supposed to be a bit of an asshole, but still have a heart of gold. That's what friends sometimes are, particularly if you're in a tricky situation. I'd still like to avoid Rogen from now on, if he doesn't attempt to evolve one bit either as an actor or a comedian. But the film at least made me reflect on my own life.

★★ 1/2

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