Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Espoo Ciné 2012

The restored version of Méliès's A Trip to the Moon was one of this year's highlights. Sadly, I missed the film.
There was a mighty fine film festival in Espoo this year. While the programme boasted less obvious picks, the overall quality of the festival was as high as ever. I, once again, saw some of the most interesting films from Europe and around and here's what I thought of them.

The Opening Film:
Amour (France/Austria)
Director: Michael Haneke

With this film, Haneke bacame one of the prestigious few who have won the Palm d'Or at Cannes twice. And it is a real corker. While Haneke remains faithful to his cold, sterile, analytic style, the film still revals surprisingly humane sides of the grumpy Austrian auteur. Like the title states, this is about love, but Haneke-style.

In the spotlight of the film are an elderly couple of wealthy music teachers, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva). They live together in a vast flat in the middle of Paris, where most of the film is also set. But then, their everyday routines are threatened when Anne has a stroke and her health starts to falter. Georges takes care of his bed-ridden wife as best he can. Their worried daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) comes to visit and suggest that Anne could get better treatment at a hospital. Georges is adamant that she'll be best off in their home, and makes effort to get the very best treatment and care for her as he can.

It seems odd that so few movies dare to deal with the Autumn years of peoples' lives. It is the time when lives may be changes in a flick of a wrist, and may hang by a thread. Watching Amour is utterly devastating and hard. One doesn't need flashy melodrama and luscious over-the-topness to tell about us as people. This is as honest and down-to-earth as one can get, never spoon-feeding the viewers with anything. As is often the case with Haneke, this is less a story, more a study of emotions and situations. The director's characterization is precise and is helped tremendously by the excellent cast. Also faithful to the director's style, he devastates upper-middle-class living, where the appearence of the situation may be the most important thing. As precious of his wife is to him, Georges can't stand the thought of humiliating her by allowing just anyone to treat her. All the possessions the rich pair owns eventually turn into empty relics at a tomb. We know from the beginning how the thing will play out, which adds to the hoplessness and emotional punch of the film. It's a near masterpiece, although I'm not quite sure what to make of the final scene that seems to be at odds with everything else on display here.

★★★★ 1/2

Brave (USA)
Directors: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman

Is Pixar the victim of its own success? Everyone seemed to wait a sort of second coming or a cinematic masterpiece from the next film produced by the studio that last did Cars 2, and the reviews this little gem has got reflects those. But that's not how studios work, even though Pixar still works as a sign of quality. Had Brave been released as a Walt Disney Animated Classic (tm), it would've been hailed as that studio's best effort in ages. Brave does feel to have more in common with Disney's tradition of animated movies rather than Pixar's.

This is an old-fashioned fairytale, concerning a princess, this time in ye old Scotland. Merida (Kelly Macdonald) has been prepared her whole life by her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson) to choose a suitor and get married. Her father Fergus (Billy Connolly) would rather have scraps and feasts, but humors her wife and calls off the three biggest clan leaders of his kingdom to present their sons for Merida to pick a husband. But Merida opposes the plan, and runs away from home. In a forest, she stumbles upon an old witch, and persuades her to do a spell that would change her mother. But the spell changes more than she bargained for, and soon both the daughter and the mother have to fight for survival.

If the story seems to consist of familiar elements, it might be, but they are mixed so as to feel fresh. It is good to see a fairy tale animation after a long while that has almost none cute postmodernism, winking at the audience or anachronistic modern jokes. There is a little less humor than usually in Disney/Pixar films, although the comical scenes play well. One would've wanted some more of the bonkers carver witch and the three mute, red-headed rascal wee 'uns, which is always a good sign. 

Essentially, this is a story about a quarrelling family, and even more precisely, a relationship between a mother and her teenaged daughter with very different interests. The film argues that real bravery is not in any fight skills or archery, but in the care for others and willingness to put her- (or him-) self in jeopardy just to save those that one loves. Where does changing oneself go, is the film's real conflict. Such ideas are universal. It also helps that the film is easily Pixar's most gorgeous. The fog, the dark natural light, the elements at play. They help create an athmosphere akin to the one in early 1940's, a bit "darker", Disney fables, such as Pinocchio and Fantasia. It's also almost as exciting.


Hell (Germany/Switzerland)
Director: Tim Fehlbaum

While everyone knows how Roland Emmerrich loves to destroy the Earth in his own movies, he has for a change also produced a little more down-to-earth take on the Apocalypse in his native Germany. Hell seems like an intriguing concept, a cautionary tale about Global Warming, and an exciting tale of what happens when humanity is pushed to a corner. But sadly, the film plays it way too safe and takes whole pages on better realized post-apocalyptic films.

So Global Warming has raised the Earth's temperature by 10 degrees. Some developments in the sun have made the athmosphere even more scorching, so people can't survive outside any longer. Water has become scarce and the most valuable commodity. Two sisters, Marie (Hannah Herzsprung) and Leoni (Lisa Vicari) travel with Tom (Stipe Erceg) in his run-down car to mountains, where there is rumoured to still be sweet water. But along the way there are also other people who need to kill in order to survive themselves. When the group is ambushed, Marie will stop at nothing to save her sister.

So the road trip come study of a relationship with two blood relatives in a world-in-ashes undoubtedly brings in mind Cormac McCarthy's book and John Hillcoat's film The Road. Hell is almost a carbon-copy of the film's imagery and features a very similar hopeless mood. The most interesting dynamics come in the very beginning as the uneasy relationship between the sisters hint that Marie is only having an affair with Tom so they can ride with him and try to find safety. The unrelenting heat and constant peril also work well in the setting. Unfortunately the film forgets most of its rules as it goes along. The ending turns into just another backwoods survival story where people run away from inbred cannibals. And run away outside, where just a few moments ago was declared to be too hot to even go without wrapping oneself in blankets and moving very slowly. As the film also has very few original ideas, it is quite tedious and boring to watch. A pity.


Moonrise Kingdom (USA)
Director: Wes Anderson

One filmmaker that few dared to hope to grow up, is certainly the indie boy darling Wes Anderson. He's been held back by his trademark style of overwhelming quirkiness for about a decade. But while he still doesn't let go of his well-tested tropes, Moonrise Kingdom ranks among his very best films for one clear reason: In it, the characters come first, the quirks second. This is a love story between a misfit and a rebel, and everything else in the film is built to reflect on the fact.

In a small New England island in the 1960's, everyone knows each other. The orphaned Sam (Jared Kilman) has been let out of a correctional institute to join the Eagle Scouts, led by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton). But in secret Sam has been planning to run away with a girl he met a year ago while sneaking into the dressing room of a church play, Suzy (Kara Hayward). Suzy is the daughter of two quarreling lawyers (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand). As she is starting to show signs of puberty her sudden mood swings go from violent to mellow and her parents are clueless as to how to handle her. But she finds a kindred spirit in Sam and they go off exploring the lesser-known parts of the island, finding a reclusive spot on the beach.

Anderson's nostalgic look at a tiny town in the 60's makes it seem like the film was somewhat based on actual childhood experiences. Indeed, Sam seems to be a sort of alter ego to the director. Two understanding father figures try to reach Sam, firstly Ward representing the authority-led community. The more important male character is the melancholic police officer Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), who is a loser in his life and love. His affair with Suzy's mother isn't going too good, but being fundamentally broken can help him build both Sam and himself from the ground up. The worst thing that can happen to Sam is being punished of the crime of being young and reckless by being taken away from the heartless (and namely, faceless) Child Services (Tilda Swinton). By contrast, the worst thing to happen to Suzy could be to stick with what her parents tell her, and wind up in a similarly unhappy marriage where the only thing to discuss with one's spouse is work matters. During the course of the film the erstwhile rebels start to awake sympathy from all around the cast, fed up with their rat race lives.

The Eagle Scouts are basically The Dirty Dozen or any other war movie unit.
As always, Anderson places a lot of attention to seemingly minute details. That era's record players, cheap romance novels, and scout supplies such as maps and swiss army knives play an important role, as does the will of exploration and to create art. Anderson's melancholic but absurdly silly take works perfectly for this bittersweet but hope-filled tale.


Crulic – The Path to Beyond (Crulic - drumul spre dincolo, Romania/Poland)
Director: Anca Damian

This innovative animated movie is fact-based, but not quite a documentary, since it has no actual interviews. Some archive material is intervowen with the animation, though. Claudio Crulic, a 33-year-old Romanian man withers away and dies of hunger in a Polish prison. The man starts to narrate his life story from beyond the grave. The Kafkaesque story has a missing wallet in the wrong country lead to ungrounded accusations of stealing credit cards. Crulic has to endure cruel mistreatment from authorities.

The innovative film runs with a quick pace. The animation makes photos and pictures (from crude sketches to beautiful watercolor- and pastelle paintings) come to life. The vivid, constantly switching style is smartly made to service the story as well. The gross injustice faced by a single Romanian may be told from only one perspective, but it still makes the viewer ponder whether the European justice system really works as well with everyone.

 ★★★ 1/2

Monsieur Lazhar (Canada)
Director: Philippe Falardeau

This drama in the French language was one of the Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film. And rightly so. It is a uplifting tale of coping with loss, shock, and sadness. In a Montréal Elementary School, the teacher of a class of small children commits suicide during the break in the classroom. Afterwards, when the principal is trying to find a suitable substitute to teach the class, the Algerian immigrant Bachir Lazhar (Mohammed Fellag) arrives in her office and convinces her to hire him on the spot. Lazhar wants to help the little children cope with the death of a close person, but this enthusiasm also has other reasons not entirely altruistic. For Lazhar's own tragic past also features loss, and Lazhar needs the children to teach him as well as he will them.

The slowly progressing film manages to tell about inner turmoils very subtly. The film emphasizes how unpredictable life is without spoonfeeding the audience and stops to consider the emotions of it's characters. Fellag in particular is excellent in his multi-dimensional portrayal of a broken man, who nevertheless attempts to keep his sunny side up and dearly loves the children he's teaching. Almost as good are the child actors who range from the class clown to the troublemakers and the A+ scoring smart girls.


Anton Corbijn Inside Out (The Netherlands/Germany/UK/Italy/Sweden)
Director: Klaartje Quirijns

The documentary about the legendary Dutch portrait photographer-come film director takes us to the life of Anton Corbijn. The crew follows him around in his daily duties, from collecting a prestigious photo award, to doing a photoshoot with U2, to seeing how the photos are improved on a computer, to showing finished pictures to Lou Reed and Metallica, to popping by at the film shoot of The American, and later, the red carpet premiere. But considering how much glitz, glamour and Hollywood there is in that sentence, the film makes it clear that it is about a person rather than a star.

Corbijn may lay on his couch, trying to take a nap while chatting about his youth and family. Family members are also interviewed, including Corbijn's sister who gives a teary-eyed testimony while cooking for both of their families. Also some rock stars Corbijn has built his career shooting get a chance to talk about him, most notably Bono and Depeche Mode's Martin Gore. The film, however intimate it aims to be, only manages to scratch the surface when discussing Corbijn, and there's actually little new to learn about him. So rock stars think he does great work, big deal. Anyone can figure that without the film. Like any artist, however, it may be better not to explain too deeply about his past, inspirations and conception. The mystery is more interesting.


Lawless (a.k.a. The Wettest County, USA)
Director: John Hillcoat

John Hillcoat, particularly partnered with his screenwriter/composer Nick Cave, is a good filmmaker when depicting western-like films that take place in wide outbacks where the law is only practiced through individual's morality. That's why it was intriguing to see what the pair could do with a Prohibition-era gangster tale. It turns out, a fine-looking gangster tale that has plenty of good scenes, but as a whole feels lacking and pointless.

The Bondurant Brothers, Jack (Shia La Beouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) run a successful, and ever-widening, bootlegging operation in Franklin County, Virginia. The boys dream of a luxurious life and openly admire a notorious gangster, Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). Forrest in particular has both the brains and the daring to get their moonshine to thirsty people, and bribing the police to do so. As they gain success, the boys also start romances, never taking the easy road in. Jack tries to woo a mormon girl Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) and Jack falls for the hard-luck waitress Maggie (Jessica Chastain). But while  the boys take more and more risks and get more and more successful, it all happens much to the chagrin of FBI agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). The obsessed, unrelenting Fed wants to see The Bondurants dead and their operations wiped out off the face of the Earth. And he isn't afraid to to get brutal and kill a lot of people to achive this.

The biggest problem with the film may be that it's characters are so one note. Pearce in particular is so evil and seething with hatred all the time that his performance borders on comical, he's a true pantomime villain. Oldman is only in the film for two short scenes. Of the main cast members, Hardy does the best work, while La Beouf is as wood-faced as ever. There's still little to make the viewer care about the film's protagonists and their survival. The script of the film feels fractured and is laced with a poor representation of time passing. For the life of me, I couldn't tell whether the film takes place within one month, a year, a couple, or the whole prohibition. The period setting is carefully built, and looks absolutely fantastic. But just admiring the film's look doesn't quite cut it when it often is so boring to watch.

★★ 1/2

Several films I saw were also on the programme of Love & Anarchy so I will return to them when the time comes. Until then, Adios Amoebas!

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