Sunday, 30 September 2012

HIFF 2012: Stranger than Fiction

Man, I've seen so many Love & Anarchy movies this year that it's going to take a while to get through them all. But it has been quite a festival with loads and loads of interesting cinema to discuss about. I'll open this, the first of my Reports from this year's Helsinki International Film Festival, with a look at three quite extraordinary true stories. As you may recall, I already wrote about Erroll Morris' Tabloid in my pre-festival picks. The weirdness on our documentary-screening cinemas continued deep into the festival.

The Ambassador (Ambassadoren, Denmark)
Director: Mads Brügger

One of the most hyped movies on this year's festival was this Danish pseudo-documentary. It's about the Danish journalist Mads Brügger who fakes and pays his way to become a consul (a diplomat without the immunity) in the Central-African Republic. This position opens opportunities for some very shady side-jobs, and Brügger becomes a smuggler of blood diamonds (diamonds that can't be traced and thus may have been mined at a quarry which uses slave labour).

Brügger attempst to show what kind of a wild west Africa still is, and how dirty western diplomats' hands over there still are. Much has been discussed whether it's really true or just a mockumentary. I think it's safe to say, there are certainly scenes that have been staged, so it's not a full-fledged documentary.

This uncertainty of methods works against the film itself. The biggest reveals in the film don't have the necessary weight into them, when the scenes surrounding them have Brügger just talking bullshit. It's also weird that supposed "hidden cameras" have multiple angle shots. Crucially, in order this to work as any sort of public service announcement, it would need to be a lot more informative and factual. The connections within Africa and the tentacles of international crime are briefly explained but not in a way an audience member could grasp them and digest the info.

While several scenes in the film are quite funny in their politically incorrectness and manage to unveil the racism still inherent in African politics, the jokes don't come very often and even then, don't necessarily work. Brügger's on-screen persona isn't ruthless nor outrageous enough to be enjoyable, and one can't really emphasize with him.

All that adds to the point that the film's pacing is way off, and it never reaches the levels of interest it should. It's a noble effort, with several great scenes (pygmy party, everyone!), but in the end, feels a bit lacking.


Grandma Lo-Fi: The Basement Tapes of Sigrídur Nielsdóttir (Amma Lo-Fi: Kjallaraspólur Sigrídar Níelsdóttur, Iceland)
Directors: Ingibjörg Birgisdóttir, Orii Jónsson, Kristin Björk Kristjánsdóttir

This Islandish doc is about how one is never too old to be creative. Sigrídur Nielsdóttir got a synthesizer as a 70th birthday present from her friends. She soon became enthralled with the thing and started to compose some music of her own, based on the base lines and background beats found in the machine itself. She had a knack for it and in the end, taped 59 recordings. Initially for her friends and family, they were found by a larger audience and she became an inspiration for a whole generation of musicians. The cute old granny is likeable enough to pull the documentary by herself.

The documentary is only 62 minutes long and, focuses heavily on Sigríd. It's all well and good, but the viewer gets a feeling that another side of the story is blocked altogether. It would pay to feature some of the musicians inspired by Sigríd's music in the doc. Also missing are any fans or third parties, like friends and family, enjoying Ingrid's music. Only text screens and tie-in animation scenes put the artist herself in the right context.

There's no need to underline the quirkiness of the subject, but in doing so, the film goes to kitchy lengths. This starts to get annoying after a while. Paper clip animations, singing ballerinas and cute animals picture some of Ingrid's best songs. Ingrid would be sweet enough on her own, whether blowing a whistle, telling about her youth or bringing in a new batch of cassettes with her wheeled grocery bag. Not much time is dwelled on any (minor) negative aspects of the artist, only her stage fright is mentioned in one text screen.

Perhaps the artist died before the documentarists could achieve everything they aimed for, but one got the feeling the subject matter would deserve a film that would go a bit deeper


The Imposter (UK)
Director: Bart Layton

The portrait of a liar is one of the most interesting stories one can tell, and even moreso in documentaries, where one has to be a bit wary whether to take the things stated with a grain of salt or not.

Frédéric Bourdin, a French-born con man, had no family growing up, so he made a career in attempting to steal that unit from others. His biggest con involved the Barclays, a grieving Texan family, pining for their missing teenaged child Nicholas. Bourdin successfully stole Nicholas' identity and cheated his way into the family for years. The Barclays wouldn't question whether he really was their long-lost son. This is although he had the wrong hair color, wrong facial characteristics, wrong eye color, and to top it all, a thick accent.
This documentary goes through the whole ordeal from start to finish. It collects a frankly impressive array of interviewees, since basically all parties still alive from the case are in the film. And this is even though the subject matter must not be the easiest thing for all parties involved to talk about. Not only did they lose a family member to mysterious circumstances, they got their hopes crushed and in a way, lost their son again when Bourdin's hoax was revealed.

Re-enacting a past crime in the beginning seems to be like an episode of True Crimes in the beginning. But one becomes enthralled since the interviewees seem to be so open, telling their inner thoughs and feelings with seemingly alarming accuracy. The eccentric person of Bourdin  is well-realized in the doc. One starts to like him a little bit, even though it is made clear that he is unable to stop trying to take advantage of any situation by spinning more of a web of lies.

Towards the end of his con, Bourdin gets suspicious himself as to why his new family doesn't realize anything to be wrong with him. FBI agents still studying the case have dug up enough info to put him behind bars for fraud, yet the family defends him and insists he is who he says he is. Bourdin comes to the conclusion that they have something to hide themselves, and the arrival of is convinient for their own plans. Namely, hiding the death of Nicholas in their hands.

The question here isn't, who's lying, but rather, who is the crucial liar. The film doesn't offer any easy answers, but it does have some good social criticism and insights on an inner rot eating an deal suburban Americana inside out. It's a suspensful and thought-provoking film, and that's as much as one can hope for.


Searching For Sugar Man (Sweden, the UK)
Directors: Malik Bendjelloul

Fame is a difficult beat to capture. It may even be hard to tell whether it exists in the first place or is just good enough at hiding.

Sixto Rodriguez was a creative folk artist in the late 60's, early 70's America, that never got the break he deserved. He played in the seedy clubs at his native Detroit and released two albums, produced by Motown mogul Clarence Avant. Even though record executives figured he'd be huge with his talents, nobody bought his albums in his home land. Rodriguez vanished into thin air after the commercial failure of his latter album.

But the story of the artist only begins there. For the record made its way into South Africa, and the locals over there became crazy over it. In the narrow-minded apartheid culture of that time, political protest songs captured something about the native psyche. Rodriguez was also deemed dangerous by the government and censored, which made him an even more important underground figure. The artist became as popular in the country as Elvis Presley or the Beatles. But nobody in South Africa knew anything about their idol. Wild rumours started to circulate, like that the artist had burned himself alive on stage since he didn't get the appreciation he wanted.

Tracking down what happened to Rodriguez has been a process that has lasted for years. South African music fans Simon Chinn and Dennis "Sugar Man" Coffey tried to track the artist down through years of research and calls to record executives. The documentary follows their detective work for the first half and it is some very intriguing stuff. Going in the movie without knowing anything about Rodriguez also makes new listeners instant fans and terribly interested in the fate of the artist. I'd recommend everyone to see the film to have this curiosity for themselves before reading any further. The latter half of the doc is a very different beast and in order to assess it, one must write a spoiler or a few. So look away.

Like Rodriguez used to look away from his audience back in the day.
Rodriguez didn't commit suicide nor die of a drug overdose, but decided to take life by the balls and went to do some easy storage works. The artist is found alive, but without a single bitter bone in his body. He's happy with where he was at life, even though he lived in poverty due to the royalty checks from South Africa never reaching him. He didn't do it for the money, he did it for love, as he has done everything since. At Detroit, he was a well-known man, friend to many, but nobody had any idea he had been a recording artist.

The Swedish film is unbelievably well-directed, with just the right amount of talking heads, investigative journalism, and music thrown in the mix, visualized with scenery shots and occasionally animated montages. The film basically does two seperate stories, one a detective story and a mystery, which gets a satisfying ending but with some of the bad guys (like the ones who pocketed Rodriguez's royalty money) walking away scot free.

The second half is more of a philosophical character piece, with an unbelievably easy-going, mellow and friendly musician coming to terms with his newfound fame. Rodriguez is so zen in his approach, he isn't afraid to play to thousands of people, but film interviews seemingly scare him a little. It is clear that this guy is as happy as doing odd jobs at a storage than playing his old songs, which he has never forgotten. For South Africans (and music fans) the climax is seeing Rodriguez finally climbing on the stage of a concert hall.

The moral of the story is, never forget your past, but don't hold grudges against it, but take the good things with you. Important movies such as this one can change your life. And at the very least teach you something interesting about music on the side.

★★★★ 1/2

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Finnish Cult Movies II

The first ever Finnish Film Affair opened today at Love & Anarchy. At the same time the Finnish Film Week presents festival-goers with Finnish films from the last year or so. I wrote about several of my favorite Finnish cult films a while ago, so since this period seems to be ripe with anticipation for Finnish films, I figure it's about time to do a sequel. This time around, the films circle around the archetypal Finnish males. Usually, they are a silent bunch, like their alcy-hol and are prone to do stupid things and make total fools of themselves by being too shy to say no. I know because I present this type myself.

The Dudesons Movie (Duudsonit elokuva, 2006)
Directors: Jarno Laasala, Tuukka Tiensuu

One of the most successful Finnish concepts abroad, The Dudesons were doing Jackass stunts before Jackass was even conceived. Basically it's about four buddies dare each other to do hurtful things to each other in the middle of nowhere, Finland.

There are several ways of making documentary-style real-life slapstick. Whreas Jackasses often rely on high production values and elaborate planning, the Dudesons are more down-to Earth, improvised and more self-satisfied. One could say the spirit is also a bit meaner, although this is merely a question of nuances.

The primary function of the Dudesons movie is to present the dudes to wider audiences abroad. It can also be said that the film works as a sort of pilot for their TV series. The guys speak English and there are cameos by familiar Jackasses, such as Bam Margera, Steve-O and such. Way too much time is wasted also on the Dudesons talking about each other to make themselves familiar with the viewer. This is absolutely futile. All we need to know about them are that they are idiots who like to hurt themselves for our amusement. One doesn't go to see a film like this to identify with the protagonists or anything.

Fortunately, the stunts themselves happen to be surprisingly funny. A baseball bat to an unsuspecting sleeper's crotch or testicles to a mouse trap are so cruel ideas they can't help but create glee in my inner sadist. Fun is also them picking on their neighbour, dubbed Mr. Hitler, by shitting on his mailbox or digging a big pit and covering it with leaves to get his car to fall down. With it being the Dudesons, some absolutely childish actions such as dicking around a supermarket at night or setting fire to their house, fall utterly flat. They attempt to emphasize their stupidity a bit too much.

It's a bag of hit-and-miss gags, but with enough good ones for me to give this a pass. It's a lot better than Dirty Sanchez to say the least.


The Wedding Waltz (Katsastus, 1988)
Director: Matti Ijäs

One of the purest examples of a Finnish cult movie is this originally made-for-TV movie. Not too many people know about it, but those who have seen it, worship it to almost fanatical points. The VHS version of the movie used to be always stolen from Finnish libraries. The newer DVD of the film comes with a copy of the script for Katsastus fans to read aloud to their friends to annoy them.

The film is about a group of middle-aged men in a small northern town, who act immaturely even at the beginning of their autumn years. The film begins as Viltteri (Vesa Vierikko) is celebrating his wedding to Mallu (Kaija Pakarinen), who is at her last stages of pregnancy. En route to the reception, Viltteri's car brokes down and he spends most of the night trying to fix it. While he's under the hood, his friends Öövini (Sulevi Peltola) and Junnu (Markku Mallasmaa) get heavily drunk. And Mallu goes into labour, taking a cab to the hospital. When Viltteri gets his car fixed he doesn't go to see his new bride and newborn, but takes the guys out cruising in the town center. The next day he and Mallu take off to Sweden to get the car properly fixed.

The film displays men who care a lot more about their cars than their women. Viltteri is a bit dumb and it's hinted he's been pressured into marrying Mallu even though she isn't carrying her child. When the child is born malformed Viltteri asks whether it could be taken to a carage to get fixed.  Later in the movie, he and Jannu come across another pair with a fate similar to Viltteri and Mallu. The husband is far more intrigued by mundane things and can't come to even fathom when her wife is giving birth to a new child. The blooming Midlife crisis manifests itself by the men being in a constant state of denial. When attached to the fact they act like trouble-making teenagers, comedy gold is born.

The pointless racing and cruising around in their old cars is a suitable metaphor for this sort of arrested development. A lot of the actions the men do, dumb or otherwise are done just to get a laugh out of one's pals. There's a weird fierce rivalry between cab drivers and our protagonists that's never explained but is bad enough for Öövini to lose his teeth in a fight. In one of the best scenes he's shown having trouble eating soup at a cafeé, while older people shunning his way of life around him, so he has to use a straw. If that's not a good depiction of hungover paranoia, I don't know what is. The film altogether is essential viewing for trying to figure out the Finnish national mentality.


Damned Radicals (Saatanan radikaalit, 1971)
Directors: Heikki Huopainen, Timo Nissi, Heikki Nousiainen, Paavo Piiroinen

In Finland we had this Spede. Suffice to say, he produced a lot of movies, mostly comedies. It's good that he was able to get cheapo movies made when all other organizations funding films failed and thus he helped launch a large number of young talents. Sort of like a more comedic, Finnish Roger Corman, then. 

In this case this is a comedy written, directed and starring a quartet of young and eager actors; Heikki Huopainen, Timo Nissi, Heikki Nousiainen and Paavo Piiroinen. It is clear that these minds behind this loved the breaking of rules by the cinematic New Wave and underground cinema of those times. There's a sense of destroying any Finnish value held valuable at that time. A little anarchism could be nice and it sure hasn't been on display often in Finnish films.

Satan (Heikki Savolainen) is having trouble running hell, since all the Finns in there enjoy the warmth and use the whole place as a giant sauna. So the Prince of Darkness harbors a plan to get rid of the worst four of them, Pave, Hese, Timppa and Viiksi (the directors with their own nicknames). He offers the Finns a briefcase full of money and sends them into the world. But the Devil insists the money should not be used for honest living, which is why things soon go off the rails for the boys. He also takes away their ability to enjoy alcohol or women, just out of evilness.

The money case is soon lost. Due to these desperate circumstances, the quartet soon turns to crime and start to plan a bank heist. Soon, after them are not only the police, but angry motorists, clergymen and women as well. Things might have been easier had they decided to stay in hell.

For a movie with four directors, who also inhabit the main roles, it's no wonder the film is so inconsistent. Mostly the loose plot hinges on a single idea. The crew seems to have filmed any idea for the scene that popped into their head with little in the way of anything holding the thing together. The jazzy improvisational music emphasizes this.At least the film is mercifully short, stopping soon after the one hour mark.

Yet there are flashes of brilliance in the film as well, such as character actor Leo Jokela popping by to read the main credits aloud. Jokela is such a funny actor he can make reading names off a list hilarious - and this film proves this is no exaggeration.


Naisenkuvia (1970)
Director: Jörn Donner

Jörn Donner is about as atypical as a Finnish man can be: smooth, flirtatious, sophisticated, good at making films, and brave enough to say whatever's on his mind. He's also willing to parody himself, his inflated ego and obsession to beautiful women and sex. Naisenkuvia is not only a razor-sharp, ponderous film, and a good time machine to the turn of the swinging 60's and 70's, but it's also hilarious as all hell.

Pertti (Jörn Donner) is a porn film producer, who secretly harbors a hope to create a truly artistic film within that genre. Yet he has plenty of troubles with the officials and the film censor board who don't understand his art. Pertti also lives like he's a character in one of his films, wooing the ladies and disposing of them afterwards. While scouting for a female lead for his ultimate masterpiece, he comes across Saara (Ritva Vepsä), a biology teacher. After they begin to have an affair, Saara agrees to play the role. But to his horror, Pertti starts to develop feelings for Saara, and thus jeopardizes his own vision.

Donner in the 60's and 70's was a fairly controversial figure in the already-narrow art circles of Finland. The officials did treat his art rather badly, and the general public didn't quite get his ideas. Naisenkuvia is more notorious in Finland for featuring an image where Donner's naked erect penis is shown than for its indubitable artistic merits. To this day Donner hasn't revealed whether it's really his johnson in the film (which would mean he's rather gifted in one more area) or whether the thing is merely a prop.

The film is a challenge against censorship for the free expression of everyone, however they might want to express themselves. Naturally, since expression is often based on feelings, the center romance carries much of the film. Yet there's also plenty of Nordic erotica for the raincoated men looking at Swedish films at porn theaters. The film repeats itself a lot, but there's a sort of inventiveness and joy in shooting ever more different copulation scenes that it more than merits for itself.

To me, the film is worth watching just for the scene where Donner berates with his sharp tongue a faux-arty sex scene, which is one of the most hilarious things ever done in Finnish cinema. The movie also heavily inspired an internet favorite, a redubbed porn video named Aitoa menoa, which heavily parodies Donner's persona and public image. Search that out, since for decency I'm too bashful to link to it here.


The Man Who Couldn't Say No (Mies, joka ei osannut sanoa ei, 1975)
Director: Risto Jarva

Risto Jarva was one of the most humane, quirky, inventive and smart directors this country has ever seen. He made a string of comedic films with his trusted actor Antti Litja, who was just perfect as a bit stiff, slow, shy, but nice everyman. And a total Finnish stereotype at that. The duo's films together had warmth and heart in them. Many of Jarva's movies have devoted followings. But since I myself saw this film as a child and liked it then, this is my preferred one. The film in question is a romantic comedy, but with a colorful, almost fairytale like storytelling.

Narrated by a horse, the film tells a story of the young reverend Aimo Niemi. Just out of the clergy school in America, he moves back to his old home neighbourhood of Kivimäki in Helsinki (a fictionalized version of Vallila), only to see it to be quite different yet at the same time quite the same. There's a feud going on of whether old wood houses should be torn down in the way of more modern buildings. Niemi's old friends and acquaintances are settled on both sides of the quarrel.

The most important is Niemi's childhood friend Milla Kurki (Kirsti Wallasvaara), taking an active role in the fight against losing all local flavour. Tough as Milla may be, she secretly harbors a crush and the hope to be Aimo's wife and for the pair to start a middle-class life together. But this is torpedoed by Niemi's bumbling, good-hearted nature and his obliviousness of her feelings for him. This is not a very gender-liberating by its script in any way. Yet Wallasvaara's performance is so sweet and adorable, one can't help but to fall for her a little. The other cast is as good as the leading pair with plenty of memorable characters throughout.

Jarva makes no mistakes about the fact that this is your basic farce in that a lot of comedy is mined about snowballing misunderstandings.  Litja's difficulties of saying "no" to any suggestion leave him in a lot of trouble. But even though the center of the movie is sweet, Jarva also has some jokes to be bit naughty and even shows off some skin. Yet he never crosses the line of being too raunchy so the film's tone is consistent.

Jarva was at the edge of the times with the theme of warm nostalgic togetherness put against cold, selfish progress. At that time, due to architects preferring functionalism to beauty, plenty of ugly concrete blocks of flats rose to Finnish cities while old-time neighborhoods disappeared. The film was well-received and rose discussion about maintaining Vallila as it was. Luckily, much of that particular part of the city has stayed looking the same as it did then.


Sheep Eaters (Lampaansyöjät, 1972)
Director: Seppo Huunonen

Leo Lastumäki and Heikki Kinnunen play the main roles in this buddy comedy, based on the novel by beloved Finnish author Veikko Huovinen. The result is so much a cult movie, it's basically the Finnish equivalent of Easy Rider or Rocky Horror Picture Show. Back in the day it was made, screenings were constantly attended by fans who would shout out the lines to the screen while watching the film.

Valtteri and Sepe are businessmen in Helsinki, but when their summer vacation comes, they head off to the countryside to have their own sort of a road trip. They are true culinarists and believe that the best meal they could have would be a roast of lamb stolen from a herd and slowly cooked underground like old-time thieves used to do. While they commit their crimes and drive around they speak about things on their mind, about life, the universe, drinking and women.

If there's a pattern in the very best Finnish films it's that they have a very strong and funny script. But this movie also has a sort of New Wave sort of cinematic style, with a very loose plot thread, surprising jumps in time and space, and very improvisational style of dialogue scenes. It certainly also helps that Kinnunen and Lastumäki are both at career-best form here - and they aren't actually lightweight actors to begin with.

The film doesn't pester it's watchers by any morale or catharsis in the end. It is just an entertaining time with a couple of funny guys talking about this and that. It is sort of like going to a bar with friends, seeing as this film may also leave one intoxicated afterwards.


Thursday, 20 September 2012

25th helping of Love & Anarchy

Festival poster circa 1993. Image Source: 

Helsinki International Film Festival opens today! This year, the festival is celebrating a quarter-century of Love & Anarchy. For a person my age (i.e. only a year or few older than the festival) it's hard to imagine the film-going climate of the days before. While it's a myth there weren't any interesting art house flicks and such in theatres, the fact was that they came from a pretty thin slice of the world. Love & Anarchy changed all that way back when.

The very first HIFF movie poster.
Due to the festival, we have today film distribution companies that will bring us some real treats from around the world, even if DVD's have taken over much of our movie-watching customs and there aren't that many theaters around any more. Since Love & Anarchy itself celebrates it's history with a retrospective of various treats from the years back, I thought this would be a good chance to preview several older films to be shown at Love & Anarchy's retrospective series. After all, I already did one post about tips, and other blogs have been tooting the same horn ever since. Besides, this is a rare opportunity to do a retrospective and a preview at the same time.

The Killer (Hong Kong, 1989)
Director: John Woo

As mentioned, Love & Anarchy used to be the first and only place to see some of the Greatest Hits of Asian movies in the whole Finland. One of the festival's most important imports is the action cinema of Hong Kong director John Woo. Woo himself also visited the festival in the early 90's. His best film is still this action tale, pondering the morality of a violent hit man, and the code of ethics he has in the job.

The deadliest mob enforcer/assassin on the business, Ah Yong (Chow-Yun Fat) accidentally blinds the nightclub singer Jenny during one of his jobs. Feeling guilty, he dedicated his life to take care of her and vows to quit his line of business. But in order to get Jenny a surgery to restore her eyesight, he has to take on one last assignment. But it turns out the Triads don't want him to stay alive and the mission turns out to be a trap. With his skills, Ah Yong survives the first encounter with Triad thugs, but there wlll be more after his head. He makes a deal with the hot shot detective Li Ying (Danny Lee) to bring down the mob bosses. Li Ying learns to trust his foremost worst enemy and starts to see the warm heart beating inside an unstoppable killer.

Like many of Woo's films, at it's core it's about friendship and almost a wartime brotherhood type of relationship with two men facing overwhelming odds and billions of bullets. Woo perfected his shooting scenes with almost ballet-like choreography and utilized stuff like slow-motion and symbolic imagery that broke into mainstream American cinema a decade later after The Matrix. But Woo is a true original. There's no way around it, this is a cornerstone in action movie cinema altogether. And thus also warrants its place in Love & Anarchy's retrospective, no matter how many times you may have seen it already.


Chungking Express (Hong Kong, 1994)
Director: Wong Kar-Wai

Sometimes the greatest films come from a little impovisation. In the early 90's, melodrama maestro Wong Kar-Wai was on a roll. While making Ashes of Time he took a two month vacation but couldn't calm down and just be still. He decided to make a movie based purely on his gut instinct. Thus was born a gripping tale of loneliness, everyday romanticism and bittersweet emotionalism. And Chungking Express is at least among, if not the best of Wong's films.

Chungking is basically an episode film in that it features two stories that are similar, yet don't have much in common with each other. In the most densely populated areas of Hong Kong, two lovelorn policemen each on their own, never meeting, try to overcome a broken heart and fall in love again.

First, we have a young 24-year-old cop (Takeshi Kaneshiro), whose first love with an unseen woman named May is going to pieces. He gives her one year to change her mind, until his 25th birthday, and remains adamant that they will get back together, bordering on obsessive. He becomes pedant to the point where he starts to collect tin cans with the same expiration date as his relationship. But the day comes and May doesn't contact him in any way. He goes to a bar to drink and decides to falls for the first woman he sees. She turns out to be mysterious blonde woman (Brigitte Lin) who, unknown to him, just so happens to be a notorious drug smuggler. But she too is broken and alone and finds a kindred spirit in him, even if her bad business won't allow her to become attached.

The second story is similar, as it concerns another cop (Tony Leung) trying to get over the break up with his airline stewardess girlfriend. He eats every day at a small noodle shop at a station, where he is spotted by the quirky noodle-saleswoman (Faye Wong). She falls in love with him and decides to help him get over the breakup, and starts following him around.

The universality of the tales is underlined by the fact that character names aren't used. Hong Kong is only shot in neon light at night, and particularly in the second story, likened with Los Angeles, California. Both are full of broken dreams, and are seething with crimes and broken promises, yet have a melancholic loneliness at the hearts of many of its occupants at the same time. Wong develops his stunning visuals (realized by cinematographer Christopher Doyle) from scarcely-lit noir films old and new. Even though the stories concern policemen, they aren't solving crimes nor doing much police work.

As melodramas come, Wong doesn't trust to worn-out plots nor hammy acting. Instead, the film barely has a plot and will remain frustratingly unresolved for those waiting for happy endings that tie all loose ends together. But Wong respects his audience's intelligence more and keeps things subtle while the imagery just seeths with the emotions he wants to come across. Every lonely person on the planet who wants to believe in love but is too much of a realist to accept a hokey Hollywood love story to come true, will find his or her true love with this film. 


Naked Lunch (Canada/UK/Japan, 1991)
Director: David Cronenberg

Cronenberg's love letter to the beat novel by William S. Burroughs is by far not everyone's cup of tea. I hardly understood the novel way back in the day. Upon first viewing, I deemed the film to be a shallow adaptation, doing weird stuff for weirdness' sake. Yet Cronenberg is rarely simple and a subsequent viewing is often more than handy. The Canadian author has stated his film is based more on his personal experience of Burroughs' writing rather than a straight adaptation (which would be somewhat impossible, given the novel's rambling style, jumping from one thing to another with seemingly little effort).

This is a movie that has a constant theme, which is William S. Burroughs. Several aspects of the man pop up from unexpected places, most notably his urge to write, his ambivalent homosexuality, his tendency to binge on hard drugs and liqueur. Some of the most dramatic parts of his life, such as the accidental homicide of his wife by trying to shoot a glass on her head, are also main plot points.

If you need to know more about the plot, it's about the exterminator William Lee (Peter Weller) who finds that the powder he uses to kill bugs is also a powerful hallucinogenic drug. This gives the uptight man new purpose in life, as he rediscovers his passion for writing. But the drug also causes him to act in strange ways and possibly kill his wife Joan (Judy Frost). He travels to the Islamic port to get to the bottom of his wife's disappearance and to make amends with two dueling creatures inhabiting his various type writers.

So, this is a delirious account, where there's a strong sense of anything being possible. It's a film that delves into the human subconscious and brings up some of our most grotesque fears. Disgusting creatures and body modifications appear here and there. There's no one better to do this than Cronenberg. Bright colors make this almost cartoonish, or more accurately, instantly looking like the cover of a 50's pulp fiction novel. Burroughs' text is recited in several scenes with characters telling stories. I think the author himself was proud of how respectful this is, while at the same time unmistakably a product of the feverish imagination of its director.


Hana-bi – Fireworks (Japan, 1997)
Director: Takeshi Kitano

Another notable presence in the festival throughout the years has been the Japanese "Beat" Takeshi Kitano. He shares Wong Kar-Wai's knack for melancholy, but whereas Wong makes strong, vivid melodramas, Kitano makes calm, poignant, and slowly moving genre films, most notably crime films. Renowed for his almost zen-like yakuza trilogy, Kitano surprised the world when he took some elements of his previous work, and made with the same tools his most touching film.

Yoshitaka Nishi (Kitano) is a police officer who quits the force. His reasons are personal in two levels. First, he's struggling with the guilt over the crippling of his partner Horibe (Ren Ohsugi) in a shootout. Second, he needs time off to care for his wife Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto), who is dying of leukemia. He will do anything for her, even break his morals. But one brick builds on top of another and Nishi eventually gets indebted to the yakuza. He must sacrifice more and more for those he loves, and this altruism will start to threaten his very life.

As with his best work, Kitano uses silence to great avail and lets us viewers often figure ourselves what's going on through the heads of his main characters at several given times. The film is deeply personal, since it's Kitano's first film after surviving a near-fatal car accident. The suicidal feelings of the wheelchair-bound Horibe must have come across the auteur's mind before. Like himself, characters are seen using art as a therapy method.

But while the film deals with traumas, guilt and sacrifice, it's main message is none of these. The film tells us simply of how beautiful and precious life is. Miyuki is a beautifully realized character, appreciating art, and wind at the beaches as she's nearing her end. While Nishi may be altruistic and self-sacrificial, she is the true role model of the story as she spends none of the time in self-pity or wallowing in past pains but enjoying the little things during the few moments she has left.


Elephant (USA, 2003)
Director: Gus van Sant

A big part of Love & Anarchy's programme has been to bring both major award winners and American independent films to screens before anyone else has had the chance to. So was the case with the Palm d'Or -winning Elephant, one of Gus van Sant's finest. The film has been made in the aftermath of Columbine high school massacre, but sadly, it's perhaps even more poignant today as such mindless carnage has grown more common all around the western countries.

While suggesting how the film ends may be regarded as a spoiler, it is by no means hard to guess. All in all, it adds poignancy to van Sant's approach to the subject. His camera tours around a seemingly-regular high school in Portland one day, stopping at various teens talking about their problems, plans or other mundane things. But at the same time two sad, lonely, fucked-up teens, Alex (Alex Frost) and Eric (Eric Deulen), who are preparing for their own ultimate solution. These guys are humanely also shown as dumb, naïve and (deeply) flawed young persons as they are, not as some vicious killing machines born to do harm to others.

To call the film melancholic would be an understatement. No matter how mundane things van Sant's teens deal with, there's a string of finality in them. It's as if his characters were already dead, trying to get through their final day and having their last conversations. Van sant has a deep understanding of teenagers and his dialogue is natural, unforced and realistic. Much of his film's young cast appear with their own first names.

The tragic hero of the film, John (John Robinson) is randomly spared by Alex and Eric just before they start their shoot-out. He tries his best to first stop people from going to school, but is not taken seriously since he's seen as a geek. Then he attempts to alert parents and authorities, but this has little effect on how the things go down and many of his friends die.

As for the somewhat cryptic title, I see it as a fairly clear metaphor: Elephants never forget, so we should not forget the victims of surprising and cruel mass murders either.


Grizzly Man (2005)
Director: Werner Herzog

One of the best movies of the 2000s (yes, way up there) is this Werner Herzog's oddball documentary, which at face value repeats much of the director's basic themes, such as an eccentric individual dismissing the rules of a society and man's relationship with uncontrollable forces of nature.

This is truly a story too weird to be fiction. Timothy Treadwell was a natural conservenatiotist who loved the great outdoors and spent whole summers in the wilderness. More troubling was his love towards animals, particularly bears. He viewed them as his peers, friends and companions. Treadwell didn't get along well with many people and started to sink deeper and deeper into his own world he saw nature. In actuality his vision of nature was warped by his own mind. Treadwell was also a major narcissist, shooting endless tapes of himself ranting about nature and his sightings.

Ultimately, Treadwell's life ended in a tragedy as he was mauled and eaten by a hungry grizzly bear. Years later, Herzog attempts to find and capture this free-spirit's soul. His film mostly consists of clips from Treadwell's own tapes. But our German documentarist/narrator also does some leg work and travels to meet persons who knew something of the spirit of Treadwell.

The movie is all about kindred spirits. Treadwell felt bears were his, until nature's cruelty made it's point clear. Yet this also extends to Herzog who sees something similar in the ranting, but smart and poetic Treadwell, as he did with his muse Klaus Kinski. Herzog's own scenes, particularly one where hears the audio of Treadwell's death tape are almost as chilling and memorable as Treadwell's own.

The movie arises multiple points to ponder till the conservationatists come home. Where actually is one man's place between unforgiving nature and society, where the most original, poetic individuals may be shunned and not allowed to grow freely. It’s a beautiful movie, very poetic and yet a really sinister spiral into madness.


Taxidermia (Hungary/Austria/France, 2006)
Director: György Pálfi

This offbeat and grotesque Hungarian movie satirizes the Hungarian national psyche and history. It is an episodic film showcasing three generations of men from the Balatony family. It's also not much of a plot-driven movie, rather than a mood piece that showcases the perversity, greed and madness of each generations focus person.

WWII-era soldier Morosgoványi Vende (Csaba Czene) is a figure sort of like a sex-crazed Woyczeck. Slow-minded, he's constantly berated and belittled by his commanding officer Lieutenant Balatony Lajoska (Marc Bischoff). He has chosen to give Morosgovány shelter, but makes him sleep in the pigsty. He has vivid sexual desires towards Lieutenant's teenaged daughters and even his obese wife.

In the 1970's Morosgoványi's bastard son Balatony Kálmán (Trócsányi Gergõ) is a world-class competititor at speed eating. He falls for the women's speed eating champion Aczél Gizi (Stanczel Adél), much to the chagrin of his coach and foster-uncle. Distracted by love, he has a horrible accident while competing.

In the modern day, Kálmán has grown to be a morbidly obese mountain of lard. He lives with his son Balatony Lajoska (Marc Bischoff), who is a taxidermist, whom he despises. For Lajoska is thin as a stick, and a major disappointment in the eyes of his father. After the death of his wife, the only thing he can love are his three huge cats. Lajoska takes his father's insults and verbal violence calmly, but in secret harbors a plan to get back at him and also to get himself recognition all over the world.

Taxidermia is surely a one-of-a-kind movie. Filled with the blackest humour imaginable and with scenes unbelievably disgusting and delirious, mere text doesn't do it justice. It's like the British comedy series The League of Gentlemen or Monty Python's The Meaning of Life - on acid. Only splatter fans and truly twisted individuals can value the film at face value, but then, we find mountains of things to love here. Particularly the suberbly odd final punch.

But the film does go a little deeper. To get to the core one should know a little bit about Hungarian history and society. Suffice to say, history hasn't been kind to Hungarians, which explains why each generation has their own traumas and crosses to bear. Pálfi takes the faults caused by these traumas and takes them to ridiculous extremes. So, when people fight to survive, comes strong sexual urges. When food is scarce and people are hungry, comes overwhelming greed and gluttonous food orgies. And when one looks past these days, when things are finally better, one finds a need to still concerve some of these horrible sins rather than to move on.

★★★ 1/2

The rest of Love & Anarchy's retrospective after the festival. Right now I'm in a hurry to get to the screening opening film, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Hope to see you at the festival!

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Bruceploitation comin' at ya!

Won't the real Bruce Lee please stand up, please stand up?

This is my 150. blog post and The Last Movieblog recently broke 80,000 pageviews. So I think it's time to do a reader request. While I'm by far not an expert on the subject, I love the old Bruceploitation kung fu movies. You know, the ones made after the death of the real Bruce Lee to cash in on his fame. The exploitation producers worked this out by hiring lookalike kung fu stars. 

James Ho Chung-Tao became Bruce Li, Huang Kin-Lung became Bruce Le and the Korean Guh Ryong became Dragon Lee. In addition there were actors such as Bruce Lea, Bruce Lei, and Bruce Leung. Fun fact about Bruce Le: he was imprisoned in China for fraud. Whether it was about imitating a kung fu movie legend without a license, the story doesn't tell.

Some of these films rank among the cheesiest and unintentionally funniest things I've ever seen. Yet usually they follow a pretty straight formula. As it happens, the films I've seen don't really rob Bruce's grave, in that neither the titles nor the actions on screen refer to Lee and his legacy. Rather, they are just cheesy cheap kung fu movies which happen to have a guy that sort of looks like Bruce Lee as their lead.

Golden Dragon Silver Snake a.k.a. Dragoneer the Indomitable (Ilso Ingwon, Hong Kong/South Korea 1979)
Directors: Godfrey Ho, Kim Si-Hyun

It's good to start with a film that pretty much presents your basic bad kung fu movie. It's story is the age-old, time-tested fable of a stranger coming to a town plagued by violent robbers, and setting things straight and bringing order – with his fists! Pure western mythos, this time in the East. Also, to save expenses the film also has several scenes attached that don't make much sense. They are simply leftover outtakes from another movie. Co-director Godfrey Ho in particular mastered this cheapest of movie arts.

This stars Dragon Lee as an eager young man who is bad at his work at a restaurant and berated for it. But then he begins to learn kung fu from a lowly rickshaw driver. When his home village is raided by bandits, and his brother killed, he wants to fight back on the invaders. His efforts don't go unnoticed in other villagers who start to raise a rebellion themselves.

As is often the case in cheesy martial arts movies, it's very hard to determine, which place in time is this supposed to take place. Mostly everything looks almost medieval, yet there are radios, watches and such in this movie, perhaps unintentionally. But the most fun to be had with this is towards the end when a dropping giant wicker basket traps Dragon underneath that. He punches first trough left and right and then kicks himself free by blowing off the front. One would've imagined there was an easier way to get away from under a basket.

In the movie, people disappear and appear randomly at different places, sometimes to do battle on top of a mountain. The dubbing is absolutely hilarious, as you can see from the above clip. There's also lots of goofy Hong Kong humour, where people are hit with frying pans, eggs and such are used as weapons. The film speeds up at times to have a Benny Hill-like emphasis on the comedy as well.

But all in all, it's sort of enjoyable, even though very generic. The fights are coreographed quite well and Dragon Lee seems to be in that corner of Bruce clones that actually knows some stunts and moves. Not even a fraction like his predecessor and the master of martial arts cinema Lee, but something nevertheless.


Return of the Tiger (Da juan tao, Taiwan 1979)
Director: Jimmy Shaw

If not village-raiding bandits, Bruce Lee clones are battling organized crime and drug trafficers, as in this Bruce Li vehicle.  Or rather, Li's Chang Wong gets caught in the middle of a gang war between the Triads and Bud Spencer-lookalike drug kingpin George Cross (Paul L. Smith).

Cross owns both the martial arts gym Chang Wong visits, as well as a nightclub that dares play the biggest disco hits of the era without paying any copyright fees. Chang is asked to assassinate the man, but Chang Wong won't agree due to the price being too low (!). A double cross or two later sees Chang fighting side by side with Cross, before the antagonistic pair finishes each other off.

It's not much of a spoiler to tell he dies – but how! (Hilariously)

Yes, the bad guy IS the same guy who played the hilariously suspectful janitor in Pieces, Paul L. Smith. But those that like more mainstream stuff may also recognize him as the torturer in Midnight Express, Bluto from Robert Altman's Popeye, or The Archduke from Maverick. Actually I was quite surprised the guy turned out to have such a long list of merits. He's a huge, burly guy, but his fighting is nothing short of ludicrous.

Smith throws chinese people around like they're bean bags, and his punches miss the target's face by a mile. Li's fighting isn't much better and his wire stunts are so unbelievable that they raise a good chuckle or two during the movie. At least one fight against thugs on motorcycles is actually good. The film also has a kick ass woman martial artist, Angela Mao, who is utilized way too little during the movie, even though she opens it by showing the boys how to fight.

All in all, the film feels a bit like a wasted opportunity, although it has okayish fighting, disco music, some outrageous clothing, outlandish stunts and general stupidity. Or maybe it is just that these need to be watched with friends and beer.

★★ 1/2

Challenge of the Tiger (Philippines / Hong Kong / Italy 1980)
Director: Bruce Le

Another kind of film Bruceploitation films loved to emulate was the James Bond espionage adventures. They were the most popular movies in the world at the time, and Bruce Lee himself had finished his career with a corking pseudo-Bond kung fu flick, Enter the Dragon. The problem, of course was, that the producers could afford just one exotic location where to shoot, no guns or gadgets or suits, and often not even a that charismatic lead actor. But what is cheap and works good in exploitation, is boobs-presenting young girls and Chinese henchmen to take kicks to their faces, so this Dick Randall-produced film is swarming with both of them.

A science-professor creates a substance that can kill human sperm totally and thus sterilize people, but he and his assistant are immediately murdered after. Since it seems that terrorists have their hands on the formula, intelligence officers send in two of their best men: Kung fu expert Huang Lung (Bruce Le) and his sidekick, the millionaire playboy Richard Cann (Richard Harrison), who lives in a mansion occupied solely by topless women.

The bumbling agents do not achieve much in the way of finding the missing formula. Cann goes on fooling around with women, whereas Huang tries to cock-block him whenever possible, and now and then fights some attacking thugs. In fact, since there's a scene on a beach where Le's erect penis bulges in his swimming suit while watching Cann's antics, perhaps he's much more into his "side-kick" Richard than he lets on.

He likes 'em hairy.

Besides the racy sex scenes the most memorable part of the film is the scene where Le fights thugs at a bull-fighting arena, after which the bad guys release the toro on him. As the bull throws Le around it hilariously switches between a doll (close to Le) and a live animal (far away from Le).

Based on my experience, I'd deam Le to be the worst Bruce clone. He's a horrible fighter, actor, uncharismatic and a bad director to boot. This is as sleazy as this sort of films come and borders on softcore pornography. So it's not a total waste of time, and has it's funny scenes too.

★★ 1/2

Iron Dragon Strikes Back a.k.a. The Gold Connection (Hui feng hao huang jin da feng bao, Hong Kong 1979)
Director: Kuei Chih-Hung

One of Bruce Li's last movies (before retirement), this kung fu thriller already show the "star" getting tired of imitating his hero. The stunts and the fights are inexplicably bad. But since the oddball script is also totally insane, and the director a hapless talent-free copy machine, the end result is something unforgettable.

Bruce and his friends are friendly fishermen. One day they happen to fish out a mysterious casket from the Hong Kong harbour. Inside are gold bricks, worth millions. Bruce's poor friends are overwhelmed with joy, but the stoic Bruce himself rightfully concerned that this find will come for them. Indeed, the gold has belonged to the Triads, and once they find out who has been spending their hard-earned drug money, they send the most lethal assassin they have to off Bruce's friends one by one and ending with the kung fu practitioner himself.

Bruce's fights in this are very poorly choreographed, and huge sound effects try to hide the fact that he's doing his kicks veeerrry slow, and still doesn't go anywhere near his opponent's face. Li could surely do them better, but never funnier. His friends are a gang of total morons who have no concept of taking things coolly. Since the director didn't have the money to get girls to show their boobs in this film, much time is lingered on a Playboy centrefold one character eagerly ogles. This is the cheapest sexploitation can get.

The violence of the Triads is sadistic and brutal, yet the viewer can't work up much sympathy as one  dumb-ass supporting character after another gets slaughtered. Much of the film is built around the mystery of who could the assassin be. Kuei spits in the face of audience expectations of making a big number of an incredibly mundane background character being the killer in reality.

That reveal brings itself the biggest belly-laugh scenes exploitation cinema has ever seen, since the end fight between Bruce and the assassin ends in a memorably overwhelming final blow, and directly afterwards comes a hilariously bittersweet gut-punch, and ends the film. It seems that the whole ordeal was supposed to be a tragedy in the vein of Fists of Fury which show that ass-kicking ways will only get one so far when dealing with totally ruthless organizations. But this message comes far behind the tears-run-across-face laughing watching this film causes in an audience. I love this thing to bits!

★ or ★★★★★

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Review: Canned Dreams

Säilöttyjä Unelmia (c) 2012 Oktober / FS Film Oy. Also on display at Love & Anarchy September 27.

The 1st ever Finnish Film Market (attached to Helsinki International Film Festival - Love & Anarchy) is going to start in one week. As foreign buyers browse through the catalogues of Finnish films of recent years, they often may not have heard of the movies before. I thought it would be a good idea to provide a review in English of one of the best films of recent years this country has to offer. I saw it way back in spring and it has since been in plenty of foreign festivals as well. But I digress.

Globalization affects our lives a lot more than we could ever imagine. Most of the food on the shelves at your local grocery store comes from sources hard to track. In Katja Gauriloff's documentary we follow the ingredients of one tin can of mystery food all through the world. But the film isn't so much about how the food is produced, but about the people that make it. One can metaphorically includes also the lives of all the people that have contributed to making of the goods.

The film has been realized in a similar style to Michale Glawogger's Workingman's Death. Scenes of people working have dream-like quality and the people on present say what's on their mind on the soundtrack. Gauriloff's film isn't quite on par with Glawogger, but at least she has found planty of interesting personalities to showcase.
People working with pigs seem to be the most interesting people. We have a kind but a bit slow Danish pig farmer that's taken up the family business. He treats the animals nice, and joys when they have piglets. But his animals are sent elsewhere to be killed and cut into pieces. This is contrasted by a far more sinister Eastern European butcher who has to do the dirty work. His marriage has crumbled due to his wife's (and his own) infidelity. So, he lets out his gloom by threatening violence to her and her new lover, and having some quite alarming misogynist views on things. Props to Gauriloff for not presenting the working class as purely idealistic, good people being forced to serve under richer masters.

Nevertheless, these old ladies are the cutest!
The imagery also works quite well for this theme. Heikki Färm and Tuomo Hutri have photographed all the farms, mines, factories and shops with almost surreal close ups and cropped images. At times the film looks like a living painting. The somewhat slow pace also emphasizes this. Yet the film isn't one minute too long. In fact, it could've used a scene or two more. Some people you just would like to know more about. And telling about the origin of the food you eat is one of the most important messages one can get across us westerners.

There are limitations to this kind of film, and Gauriloff has admitted in interviews that the crew could not shoot all the material to cover every one of the ingredients in the can. Some, such as the poultry farm, are quite clearly polished images. The small room where thousands of chickens are housed on ground is actually luxury compared to the caged meat/and/or egg factories these birds usually have to live in. Since the ingredients in canned food are hardly from a farmer's market and possibly form wherever one can get them the cheapest, it's quite clear that the eggs come from elsewhere.

Yet the images of pigs getting sent to a convoyer belt to first get electrocuted and then slaughtered are still quite disturbing. No one can claim that the meat they're eating did not suffer before death when these sort of methods are in use all across the EU.

This is by no means just a national project. It has been shot in eight countries and is at its core a Irish/Norwegian/Portuguese/French/Finnish co-operation. But the tin can in this case is a sort of tower of Babel being built – it brings together a lot of different kind of people who one would not believe to have anything in common otherwise.


CANNED DREAMS (Säilöttyjä unelmia)
Finland, 2012
Language: Various
Director: Katja Gauriloff

Screenplay: Katja Gauriloff, Joonas Berghäll, Jarkko T. Laine
Cinamatography: Heikki Färm, Tuomo Hutri

Further reading: The Best Poker Movies

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Three Poor, Lonesome Cowboys

The Helsinki Comics Festival opens today, with it's main theme being Belgian comics. Being a big comic book fan myself, I wanted to do a little something on Belgian comics movies. Since I did Tintin already, it's time to take a look at another character that ranks among the country's most popular: Lucky Luke. Created by cartoonist Morris in 1946, Luke is a western cowboy that can shoot faster than his own shadow and accurate enough to shoot wings off flies. He's accompanied on his adventures by his sarcastic, but loyal horse, Jolly Jumper. Lucky Luke became one of the most beloved strips in the Belgian comic magazine Spirou once the legendary writer René Goscinny took over the writing duties from Morris. He made the series funnier, amped up the western parody to new heights, created imaginative stories that combined real western legends to the myths of them from movies and television, and made the series less violent and more happy-go-lucky. For instance, Morris' own scripts often featured Luke gunning down his antagonist in a final showdown.

Actually, to call Lucky Luke himself popular is a bit of an understatement. Luke is not that special a character, he's a Roy Rogers-type cowbow, mellow, calm, smart and righteous. The real stars of the Lucky Luke comics are the supporting cast Goscinny helped to flesh out. Namely, Luke's main antagonists, The Dalton Brothers. Since Morris had Luke shoot and kill the actual historical Daltons (Frank, Gratton, Bob and Emmet) in an early Luke adventure, Goscinny introduced their cousins, Joe, Jack, William and Averell Dalton. They were not cold-blooded murderers, but rather a quartet of goofy bandits, who managed to always escape from jail despite them being dumber than a bag of hammers. Not surprisingly, almost all of Lucky Luke's silver screen adaptations have featured the Daltons as the villains.

The Ballad of the Daltons (La ballade des Dalton, 1978)
Directors: René Goscinny, Morris

Near the end of his life, René Goscinny founded Studio Idéfix with his two main collaborators, Albert Uderzo and Morris. The idea was to make movie adaptations of their comic books on the terms of the creators. All of them were more or less disappointed in having to compromise their work on previous movies. The first film of the studio, Asterix Conquers Rome, is easily the best big screen adaptation of the beloved Gaul warrior. Unfortunately, Goscinny died even before the studio's second film could premiere. It of course starred Lucky Luke, or rather, the Dalton Brothers.

In the form of a country ballad sung at a saloon, the story tells the legend of the Daltons attempting to gain an inheritance. Uncle Henry Dalton has been hanged and in his last will has left everything to his four bandit nephews. But there is one catch. Joe, Jack, William and Averell have to murder all members of the jury that convicted Henry to get his loot. Since Lucky Luke is seen to be honest enough, he's chosen to be the observer that the Daltons really succeed in killing the right people. Joe is planning on getting his revenge on the cowboy who always sends them to jail after they get the money. But his wit is no match for Lucky Luke's who foils the assassination plans one after another and fakes the deaths of the jury to get the Daltons off the back of innocent people.

The biggest plothole is present right there in the synopsis. Since the Daltons are escaped convicts, why does Luke humor them and takes part in their escapades? He's shown time and time again that he's the faster and more accurate drawer. Why even risk getting innocent people hurt?

As with Asterix Conquers Rome, the spirit and the humor of the comic books has been maintained. But also the film is more or less a pick-and-mix collection of sequences or skits, each framed by the person they are off to kill next. This choice does allow for a multitude of varying scenes that go from a parody of one western cliché to another. There's a haunted mine scene, a rodeo scene, a church scene and even a peyote-addled old-school Hollywood musical that has to be seen to be believed.

But the biggest foil of the film is the same as makes some of the comics a bit uneasy reading nowadays: racism. Classic westerns were not very considerate towards races, and it's reasonable that this aspect should be on display on any parodies thereof. But the outrageous racial stereotypes in Lucky Luke comics go so over the hill that it's hard to take them as mere joke-poking. Indeed, in this film we are shown superbly lazy and stupid Mexicans, and a tiny, buck-toothed, slant-eyed, polite and yellow Chinaman who of course knows karate. At least the treatment of Indians here isn't as bad as in some of the comics.

But warts and all, it's still a real Morris/Goscinny joint, showcasing the talents of both partners. The animation is quite well-done and looks like Morris' drawing style brought to life. The script features laugh-out-loud dialogue and hilarious stupidity from both Averell Dalton and Rin-Tin-Can (or Ran Tan Plan), the prison guard dog. Goscinny is a master of writing a good comedic interchange between a smart, tiny man and a dumb, big guy. The music is also mighty fine and has perhaps the best representation of I'm A Poor Lonesome Cowboy put to film.

★★★ 1/2

Lucky Luke (1991)
Director: Terrence Hill

One of the weirdest and stupidest comic book movie ideas of all time was to give the rights to Lucky Luke to Silvio Berlusconi. The Il Capo of Italian media then turned to idiot-comedy superstar Terence Hill to direct and star in a movie. Hill made two movies and a TV series out of the source material, but it didn't have much of a feel of Lucky Luke in it. No, they felt more like your typical Terence Hill western comedy. The first film (actually shot second since the first one was delayed due to a family tragedy), is actually somewhat faithful to the comic, at least moreso than the TV series. But at its core it's a filmed version of the first proper (non-Turkish) Lucky Luke Film, the animation Daisy Town (1971).

Narrated by Luke's trusty horse Jolly Jumper (voiced by Roger Miller), the movie tells the story of the frontier town called Daisy Town. On the western frontier, a peace is formed between the settlers and the Indians. Thanks to the Indians withdrawing to their own areas, the new settlers start to build houses to live in. Since on the field grows a single daisy, the newly built town is named Daisy Town. But it doesn't take long before the wholesome, frontier spirit changes into vices, crimes and misdemeanor. Daisy Town becomes a harbor for the most notorious bandits of the west. But luckily the famed cowboy Lucky Luke (Hill) arrives into town, and with his quick drawing gun hand, he frees the town of bandits. But Luke is about to meet his match as the Daltons (Ron Carey, Dominic Barto, Bo Greigh and Fritz Sperberg) ride into town. When the most notorious bandits of the west find out Luke is protecting the town's bank and occupants, Joe Dalton hatches a scheme to get the nearby Indian tribes to attack the town.

The opening does maintain many running gags of the comic book, and the Daltons are quite well realized in this. As mentioned, the biggest problem here is Terence Hill. Rather than a calm, cunning and righteous cowboy, his portrayal of Luke is a bit dumb guy who has chewing matches with chipmunks. Luke is pining for the beautiful saloon lady Lotta Legs (Nancy Morgan), even though his comic counterpart was stoic enough to never get involved with women. That's why Luke's main motivation for redempting Daisy Town is to settle in there himself and raise a family, rather than just to help out of altruism. On top of that, white-haired Hill doesn't look anything like Luke since he also insists of dressing in inexplicably white clothes. There's a joke or two to get a snigger out of this, so it isn't a total waste of time. But Luke would deserve better.


Lucky Luke (2009)
Director: James Huth

Lucky Luke is a bit hard to produce on the big screen today, since it's originally a western pastiche and parody of the era Roy Rogers and such had movie serials. People aren't that familiar with that sort of western imagery and convictions nowadays. What are still remembered are Sergio Leone's incredibly strong body of work, and the aesthetics he and fellow Italian spaghetti western directors created. While Terrence Hill's Lucky Luke had the final showdown in the spirit of spaghetti, it mostly did not go to parody the westerns very deep. This 2009 attempt is a much bigger-scaled attempt to update Luke to the modern tastes of western parodies. It takes it's cue mostly from spaghetti westerns and the modern pop culture movies so much in debt to them. In some aspects it works, but mostly, it doesn't.

It's a good idea not to aim the film merely for young children. It's mostly a PG sort of a film, but doesn't pander to younger audiences like most Luke adaptations tend to do. Bullets and punches aren't used sparingly here. Jean Dujardin for the lead character is also a definite step into the right direction. The charismatic French star has the necessary chin, suit and smarts, and is likeable enough to pull the film forward. But parodying spaghetti westerns also means that the main character can't be an altruistic stranger who comes and goes just to help people. He has to be a victim of a tragedy he will fight to right.

So, here Lucky Luke is given a full name: John Luke. As a child he witnesses his parents getting killed by The Cheater Gang. Years later, Luke has become a legend of the west. He has travelled all across the young United States and helped bring out peace and justice without killing anyone. He is hired no one less than the President (André Oumansky) to help clean out Daisy Town. Luke's shooting skills come in handy, but it's not as easy to clean the town since the ruthless Casino Kingpin Pat Poker calls the shots there. Poker presents Luke his parents' watch, and Luke challenges him to a duel. It seemingly ends by Luke shooting Poker dead. Depressed, Luke escapes Daisy Town to a farm. But he can't keep out of the action for long. Along with fellow legends Calamity Jane (Sylvie Testud), Billy the Kid (Michaël Youn) and Jesse James (Melvil Polpaud) he will ride out to ensure their places in the history books.

Unlike most other Luke adaptations, this one doesn't feature the Daltons. What should be a breath of fresh air (The Brothers got their own, ill-recieved movie in 2004), is instead muddled with appearances from far too many characters from classic Lucky Luke albums. The main antagonist is Pat Poker, with Billy the Kid also in an important role. But in addition, we also get Jesse James, Calamity Jane, Phil Defer, Doctor Doxey, Belle Starr and Dirk Digger (hilariously named Dick Digger here). While the plot focuses on these larger-than-life characters (most of which get way too little screentime), the movie forgets the importance of the living milieu and it's silly occupants that stages so many of Luke's adventures. Daisy Town feels like an amusement park western segment, where no one has actually ever lived, but saloon fights, crooked card games and duels are staged every full hour.

So, it's a carnevalistic film, but at least visually somewhat interesting. The colorful imagery and kinetic cinematography keep things easy to look, as does Dujardin's charisma. But Goscinny's greatest jokes aren't told to a very good effect here, and the end result doesn't feel much at home in the world he and Morris created. I would be far more forgiving for the film if it didn't visually signal so much to that direction.

★★ 1/2

I'm a poor lonesome cowboy, and a long, long way from home...


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