Friday, 29 June 2012

EKEK --2/0/1/3-- 2012

This year's EKEK festival had to be the toughest ever. Toughest in the sense that it was hard, excruciating and painful to sit all through the night. The festival runs by the principle that no member of the audience has any idea what films they are going to be showing until the film starts. That is also how the organizers are able to totally mess with the audience and their expectations. There's always been such an element to this festival, but this year it came on a little too thick. Then again, as the festival will always be held in the tiny Kino Engel theatre, which was packed as it was, there isn't much room for more audience in the following years. It is a one-of-a-kind experience, but mostly not in a good way. So heed this warning, never go to EKEK festival. Leave it to the professional scum watchers, like me.

Shoot (1976)
Director: Harvey Hart

The festival began promisingly with this satire about all-American bloodthirstiness and paranoia. And the movie actually comes from Canada. As the thing with satire is, even though it can be as broad and heavy-handed as in this, there were several people among the audience who didn't get what the film was aiming for and accused it of being fascist. Which it is certainly not.

A five-men hunting crew, featuring the leader, a tough army Major Rex (Cliff Robertson) his friendly underling Lou (Ernerst Borgnine) and the veterinarian Zeke (Henry Silva) go for a weekend in the woods to find some animals to kill. They can't find any, and talk trash and walk the woods in their boredom. Suddenly, they happen across a river and note another hunting party at the other shore. After a while at looking at each other, the other crew opens fire on them. On the ensuing gun battle, Rex's crew manages to kill one of their attackers, even though one of their own is wounded. Feeling worried that they might be accused of murder, they decide to keep the whole trip a secret. But Rex also starts to worry that the other crew might be out for revenge, and decides it's best to strike at them before they can strike back.

The film uses a lot of time lingering on the paranoia. It is not necessarily a bad thing, since it builds up to the ridiculous overkill that is the film's wonderfully bonkers finale. A ridiculous attack leads to ridiculous paranoia at history repeating itself, it seems. The leisurely time-use also allows the filmmakers to take a good look at how much of the manliness of these characters is defined by guns. When hunting has gone wrong, they abuse their power at their jobs, at training new recruits, at their private investigations, and turn down sex-hungry women who throw themselves at them. When masculinity has failed Rex doesn't seem to have the appetite for sex any more, in or out of his marriage. He also finds himself in the position where he could be interchangeable with his deceased enemy, since the widow would be more than happy to jump his bone.

Most of the characters displayed here are war veterans, which explains why they have the condition to use force and dismiss all other alternatives. The war brings every one of them issues that cause them to have a deep urge for a revanche for a fight that ended more or less in a tie. The only character who tries to speak reason, Lou, is himself on the fence and is horrified of the idea of being shut out of his ring of friends. The others also strip away his masculinity for his attempt to solve problems at other ways than violence. Eventually he will follow their lead, even though he feels it's the wrong thing to do.

The film's punchline may be seen as undermining all of these satirical characterizations. But I see it as a natural end result in relying in eat-or-be-eaten -thinking, war tactics and arms races in places where they don't belong. The fate of one side could have as easily happened to the other as well. After all, both sides are real mirror images of each other.

★★★ 1/2

Risky Business (1983)
Director: Paul Brickman

Another purely American way of thinking is the one of free enterprises and anyone's ability to build a business around the area he knows best. Brickman's film has also some satirical undertones concerning this, but mostly it sees that pimping is just as good a business as any. And the right use of the right kind of pimping gets one ahead in life. I can see the thought process to choosing the young Tom Cruise to play the lead than in a mixture of yuppie sleaziness and whiny rich teenager worried he might get in trouble. The film is mostly remembered for the scene in the very beginning where the Cruiser dances in his underwear to Bob Seger, but the film does offer more. Much, much more.

So awkward teenager Joel Goodsen (Cruise) gets to enjoy a week house sitting while his parents are on vacation. Joel is a bit of a dweeb and his nerdy friends accuse that he can't relax nor have fun. Joel's annoying "friend" Miles (Curtis Armstrong) calls an escort service for a hooker for his pal, and refuses to give Joel the number to cancel the appointment. Since Joel doesn't know how to use the phone's redial button, he is confronted later that night by a 300-pound transvestite. Luckily, the guy's somewhat understanding and while taking off with his food money, he gives Joel the number to a higher class call girl, Lana (Rebecca De Mornay). Anxious to pay for booty, Joel hires her, who in turn takes a fancy to Joel's house and it's vast riches. The next morning steals a valuable glass egg (!) which Joel's mother treasures. In order to get it back, Joel promises a safe haven for Lana and her other hooker friends from the abusive pimp Guido (Joe Pantoliano). Luckily Joel finds out that many of his loser friends are willing to pay to have crabs and spend 20 seconds of bliss with prostitutes. This makes him toy with the idea of presenting his pimping business at his high school's Young Enterprisers class. High concept 80's filmmaking, everybody!

The cheesy 80's soundtrack and the neon lights make the film seem so cheesy by today's standards, it's quite hard to evaluate whether this was meant to be some sort of a satire about yuppie culture. There seems to be some irony at least in the fact that the driving force during this film, it's MacGuffin, is an item that's basically useless but high in value just because, an expensive glass egg. Everything's for sale, and you can buy the woman of your choice just as much as any status symbol in the superficial 80's world. getting ahead in life is Joel's main concern and he begins to learn that he the vices and desires he has are by no means closing the doors of opportunity but rather open them more widely if he plays his cards right. Phil Collins is played on the background as a subway bum has a drink and watches Joel and Lana getting it on. Better trashing of Michael Mann-like music video aesthetics I haven't come across.

I'm not sure whether Tom Cruise is a good fit to play an awkward teenager that's constantly in a heap of trouble and losing his mind over it. The dude's not much of a comedian. The unlikability of the dumb-but-sleazy lead character, the unsure stance on the satire scale and the overlong length keep this from being a true classic. But that fateful night, it was one of the very best.

★★★ 1/2

...and the fifth horseman is Fear (...a páty jezdec je Strach, 1965)
Director: Zbynek Brynych

Intriguingly, we were offered some genuine European black and white neorealist treats this year. Patrons expecting sheer trash from the festival were surprised. But sadly, it also came at least one movie too late, as it was already around 2 or 3 in the morning. This is the sort of film that requires patience and careful observation. And I slept for the most of it.

But I can still fill in the basics. This is a Czechoslovakian film that deals with the time of the Nazi occupation. A jewish doctor living in a block of flats tries to keep his identity a secret and to get along in an oppressive environment. Thus he is forced to squeal on some of his neighbors who are breaking rules to the Gestapo. Not even so subtly, Brynych likens the past with all their spying on regular people and oppression to the present where Soviet-controlled Communists were in charge of their country. In the final montage, pictures from the 40's switch to the Prague landscape in the 60's. I've since tried to track down the film to do a proper review, but to no avail. I hope I will get another chance to see this film.

Joyful Noise (2012)
Director: Todd Graff

In the WTF-pile was this gospel musical about a church choir trying to keep their home town together even though the evil economy closes down businesses and such. So they must praise God so loud as to win the national competition for the best choreographed church choir in the USA. The film has clearly been made for God-fearing Midwestern Americans, which is why it's actually quite stupid that the leftist liberal European such as me would then make fun of the movie. But let me say that I would've never watched this (unless they paid me of course) if it wasn't for those crooked program planners at this festival. I find it quite unbelievable that this could ever find an audience in Finland, when even The Muppets was denied from our silver screens. For shame.

The choir's journey to the finals is off to a bad start as their leader (Kris Kristofferson has the good sense to leave early and take his paycheck on the way out) kicks the bucket during one of their concerts. This leads to a bitch-fight of leadership over the mother-hen-like sassy mama Vi Rose (Queen Latifah) who wouldn't change a thing with their outdated show, and the rich heiress of the old leader, G.G. Sparrow (Parton). Sparrow's grandson Randy Garrity (Jeremy Jordan) has just come to visit her, and luckily he happens to be an aspiring musician and dancer with some hip ideas for their gospel show. The ideas include replacing old-time Sly Stone with the modern, fresh-faced music of Michael Jackson. Randy is also randy over Vi Rose's hot daughter Olivia, and, GASP, would also be willing to have pre-marital kissing and naked-hugging with her. Vi Rose opposes Randy's involvement fiercely, but since they see the show they are up against, she has no choice but to give the boy a shot.

The actual choir shows aren't that bad, but I do prefer the original R&B songs rather than their overacted a cappella God-praising versions. The songs are about sex, dammit! Latifah isn't my cup of tea as a leading lady in any case, and here she's straight up on bitch mode from beginning to end. Dolly Parton on the other hand looks like a frog tied up to two balloons that's had her face replaced with linoleum. Close-ups of her mug fill me with more fear and dread than any horror film I've seen during the last 6 months. So fierce does she look, that her character even has to explain that it's God's will for her to have discount plastic surgeries as much as she wants. The creepiest scene has her looking out the window while another version of her is dancing in the moonlight with the ghost of her dead husband. Yes. That is Christian, all right. While the film is on the very edge of limits to my withstand, luckily there are also some nuggets of insanity to be found among all the unbearable quirkiness and spunky we-love-God attitude.

For one, the heavy-handed way the movie scoops up various issues and tries to win audience sympathy by shaking them at their faces is incredibly pandering. Vi Rose's son Walter has a dilemma of not being able to believe in himself, but the friendship with Randy will help him come out of his shelter and believe in his skills. This worn-out cliché isn't enough by itself, so Walter also has Asperger's syndrome and reminds everyone in every scene how hard that makes life for him. The dialogue is aimed at stupid people, which is why they explain things in a hilarious manner from the ground up. Thus, the actors have to speak out lines such as:
"I'm sure worried about my job at the family hardware store".

The best thing by far in this atrocity is an absolutely hilarious sub-plot about the love life of a divorced overweight black woman Earla (Angela Grovey). She finds new love in the feeble fellow choirmember Mr. Hsu. The problem is that Hsu doesn't manage to survive a single night of passion with Earla, and is found dead in the morning. Cue one of the film's sudden cuts to a funeral service. Earla starts to worry she's never going to find another husband because the reputation of her fucking Asians to their deaths has started to walk around. Also that God hates her because she had premarital sex. But luckily while she's in the bathroom before the final concert, another feeble Asian comes to knock on the door and confess he's been stalking her. He would also want to know her even better. After checking he hasn't any problems with his heart or blood pressure, Earla decides to marry him on the spot. So, the film and my sanity both end in a preposterously odd wedding scene. Good show. Cough.

Return of Bruce (Zhong lie Jing wu men, 1978)
Director: Joseph Velasco 

Some all-around average Bruceploitation was thrown in for the small hours in the morning. The funniest thing about this one was that the identity of the movie was left a mystery for the audience even while watching it, since the print had no opening titles in it. The film is also known as My 12 Kung Fu Kicks, which sounds like one of those How to-videos. You can't learn kung fu by watching Bruceploitation movies, silly. But it is easier to replicate the moves in these than trying to learn from the real Bruce Lee, since his moves are often too fast for the cameras to accurately capture.

There's not much to say about this, as it recycles the same basic western plot most of these movies do. Kung fu mastering young man Wong Lung (Bruce Le, starring here inexplicably under the alias Kenneth Rivero) arrives to a town ruled by criminals. In this case it is Manila, the harbor capital of the Philippines (where the film was consequently produced). Wong tries to find work and befriends some natives. In this case it is a fat little boy called Piggy. Wong suffers some hardships and witnesses bullying, but he isn't intimidated by the threatening gangsters and teaches them a lesson or two with his martial arts skillz. Wong just tries to get along, but the furious and vengeful gangsters keep sending worse and worse threats at him. Finally, when the bad guys threaten his friends, Wong must head off to a final showdown to a bamboo house filled with the most deadly martial arts assassins.

The film begins more comedic, and we are treated for instance many jokes at the expense of the cowardly mob captain who runs like a girl and acts as stereotypically homosexual as possible. It is also clear that Wong isn't fit to work in a hotel, as he accidentally assaults guests during his morning yoga routine. The vicious gangsters here are also sex traffickers, so we get plenty of scenes with Wong acting as a knight in shining armour, saving damsels in distress, such as female police officers who can't handle their cases by themselves, and caged women and such. One can't claim this film is progressive in any way, and it rubs the viewer's face with its sexism. As is usual, the final fights are stretched for long and waiting for the movie to end to go to the bathroom is a nightmare. Every time one figures Wong has killed the final boss, another one appears behind the corner. Surprisingly, the film's ending is quite cynical, and, in the case of the clinging and annoying Piggy at least, refreshingly brutal at long last.

★★ 1/2

The Raven (2012)
Director: James McTeigue 

I had hopes of gleeful insanity for this film, but was also not at all surprised to see it tank in the US and being denied a theatrical release (outside this showing) in Finland, although it already had a hefty advertizement campaign. For it is a moronic film that some studio executive might have easily described as Sherlock Holmes (2009) meets Se7en. Yes, it is a film about the poet Edgar Allan Poe trying to catch a serial killer who has been butchering people in the same manners as found in Poe's texts. A suitably dumb high concept, then. But that alone doesn't make a good movie.

The film opens explaining that it will showcase the previously untold final days of the legendary horror author. Poe (played by John Cusack in manners clearly trademarked to Nicolas Cage) is a penniless and washed up nobody in Baltimore. He attempts to cash in on his more famous works by trying to milk a bartender for a free drink and asking for advance payment for the newspaper that's been publishing his work. He also has eyes for the fair young Emily (Alice Eve), even though her father (Brendan Gleeson) not as enthusiastic about him. Poe promises to marry her when he gets the money to do so. But cruel murders and their investigation bring Detective Fields (Luke Evans) and the rest of the Baltimore police to his door. Since the murderer has clearly been inspired by the deaths in Poe's horror stories, Fields clearly needs the author himself in order to think one step ahead of the slasher. But Poe's involvement also means that those close to him are also in danger and Emily gets kidnapped by the mysterious ripper.

Not even Roger Corman was as ungrateful for Poe's texts as the makers of this movie. The fundamental misunderstanding at core here is that Poe's stories are terrifying because they have so much violence, splatter and such in them. Nothing could actually be further from the truth. Because the screenwriters seem to have only read Wikipedia synopsis's of Poe's stories, for instance the pendulum from The Pit and the Pendulum goes down in 20 seconds to slice a guy in half. There is no pit around the machine at all. The film clearly isn't much for slowly building tension or inner monologues, and is in effect, just another run-off-the-mill race against time where people spurn exposition while running to the next scene. It doesn't help that all characters save Poe in this film are so bland, the producers must order them by the dozens from the stock character catalogue. There isn't any suspense in who gets killed next and the identity of the killer is a mind-bogglingly dumb and indifferent choice.

The first few minutes of the film with Poe ranting drunkenly at the bar are somewhat entertaining, if only because Cusack is too good an actor for dreck such as this. The rest of the movie, though, he phones it in as hard as he can, and at the same time, all the small bits of character-building for Poe as a character also vanish off. In the end, he becomes just another down-on-his-luck hero who must save the day by solving clues. Yawn.

★ 1/2

Novelist (Päätalo, 2008)
Director: Hannu Kahakorpi 

The final film of the festival proved to be a little too much even for me, and not only because I had seen it before. Still, I don't think The Novelist is a particularly bad film, just kind of un-noteworthy and aimed at a completely different audience than me. It is a Finnish countryside saga if there ever was one, with a grumpy, little-speaking lead man, some dick jokes and loads and loads of footage from forests and nature. The film is based on popular author Kalle Päätalo's life and books (which are all about his own life), which have been published in 26 volumes, each one hunderds and hundreds of pages long. That is why it's good that the makers had the sense to cut them down to a mere 1,5 hours.

Päätalo (Kai Lehtinen) has been dreaming to become a writer since he was a small boy. Grown up he's a farmer and later a building commissioner that spends his evenings trying to come up with something to say on paper. He has a wife (Susanna Anteroinen) of whom he's very fond. From time to time Päätalo has to go away from his native Taivalkoski to big cities to negotiate about publishing of his books. He starts to suspect his wife is having an affair, but with no evidence backing it up. There's not much more story in this one, but the real-life Päätalo could stretch the story to about a million pages. Basically, it is a film about how low a self-esteem the Finnish man usually has, particularly in the countryside.

The film is intercut with the phase in Finland's history when the agriculture started to give way to urbanization after World War II, and new, humanistic job opportunities began to arise. Countryside and cities are contrasted every time Päätalo goes to a meeting with a publisher in the city. He doesn't fit well in the urban landscape and usually takes off to a restaurant for a drink after the meeting. Problem is, he doesn't seem to fit into the countryside either, which makes him angry. As a Finnish biography movie it is sort of refreshing how little ass-kissing of the subject is on display. Päätalo is a deeply flawed man, on the crossroads of his ambitions and inferiority complexes. Kai Lehtinen does steady good work in bringing a characterization of a basic Finnish male to screen. He's grumpy, talks little, and in his confusion resorts to booze and anger. The main problem is that we Finns have seen these sorts of stories a billion times before and foreign people couldn't care less.

★★ 1/2 

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