Monday, 31 December 2012

Best of 2012

Hoo-hah! What a year, amirite? I hope it's been as good for you as it's been for me. In retrospect, I can see that 2011 in particular was a great movie year, since so much of its best flooded our Finnish cinemas this past year. I've yet to see so many films that were produced this year that I don't really know about 2012, but I got a very good hunch about it. A surprisingly good amount of fine films made my shortlist to make one of these top lists for your pleasure.

Keep in mind that I only include films that got their premieres during 2012 in Finland. That's why the list may include films produced in 2011, or even 2010. Festival and straight-to-dvd -lists will follow later on.

To be seen top 5: Deep Blue SeaFaust, Magic Mike, Pirates!, The Snows of Kilimanjaro


This year, it was so hard to choose which films to raise to the top 12, that I included no fewer than ten runners up. Rather than to have a few words of explanation, for the most part I'm going to allow the reviews of these films speak for themselves. The runners up are:

The Artist
The Cabin in the Woods
Canned Dreams (Säilöttyjä unelmia)
Call Girl
Cosmopolis - The smartest film of the year by far, but perhaps a tad too analytical to be enjoyable. I wrote a review in Finnish for Elitisti.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Moonrise Kingdom
We Need to Talk About Kevin

The top 12 films released in 2012

12. Skyfall (USA/UK)
Director: Sam Mendes

Sam Mendes balanced the nigh-impossible odds of bringing the fun back to Bond without sacrificing too much of the feet-on-the-ground approach people have enjoyed in Craig's previous outings (well, in Casino Royale at least). Sure, there are several gaping plot-holes and odd character decisions, but keep in mind that this is a film series about a secret agent that tells everyone his real name, and saves the world from domination by being really, really good at poker. Now, while there are komodo dragon-jumping and bazar motocross scenes a-plenty, the threat of violence and death makes the film exciting.

Much of the thanks belongs to DoP Roger Deakins, whose stunning work has created one of the most visually striking blockbusters in a long while.

(few minor spoilers ahead)

A lot of people have problems with the final act of the film, which I can't understand. It's good for the Bond franchise to try something new once in a while. Plus, it has a lot of my favorite parts: Bond's reaction shot when the main villain explodes his car,  the montage of Bond booby-trapping chandeliers and floor-boards with cluster bombs, "Welcome to Scotland", that helicopter explosion...

11. Wuthering Heights (UK)
Director: Andrea Arnold

As you might guess, costume dramas really aren't my cup of tea. but when one is done in such a unique way as Andrea Arnold has here, I'm bound to take notice. A silent, meditative look at inner turmoils, Arnold bases much of the emphasis on nature, how it withers and dies away each year yet comes back the next spring.

The story of Heathcliff (James Howson / Solomon Glave), his thirst for vengeance for those that mocked and punished him as a child, the whole class system, and his doomed love with Catharine Earnshaw (Kaya Scodelario / Shannon Beer) has all the weight and melodrama you'd expect from such a story. The reason this film is ranked so low is the overflow of this super-intense relationship drama into ridiculousness in the final act. But the slow, meditative opening is still mesmerizing.

10. The Descendants (USA)
Director: Alexander Payne

Not the best film in Payne's resumé, but even the least-good Payne is better than the best Wes Anderson film (Moonrise Kingdom). The Descendants is still a funny, tragic and heart-warming film, and earnest in a way very few such high-profile American films can manage to be. Clooney's fake tear nonwithstanding. Back in February, I wrote:

The Descendants is more melancholy-filled than funny. Altough it does offer a few hilarious scenes as well. By first glance the film's characters are clichéd, but Payne has written the film intelligently enough to give each of them some surprising depth, and making them integral to the story he's unfolding. It also allows him to have various different viewpoints into one tragedy, and ways of coping with it. 

9. Argo (USA)
Director: Ben Affleck

A surprise final-minute addition to the list, but Argo managed to be one of the year's most exciting films. The super-intense thriller about rescuing American ambassadors from the Ayatollah's Iran in 1980 reaches almost Hitchcock-levels in building up tensions and letting the viewer worry about the outcome. Ben Affleck has grown better and better with each of his directing duties. This nails-to-the seats thriller pines for the days America solved international conflicts creatively, instead of resorting to violence, arrogance and civilian casualities. It's also a tribute to the hands-on approach to filmmaking, craftsmanship and B-movies of old. Really, how could you dislike a movie, where Michael Parks cameos as comics master Jack Kirby?

The film does depict iranians as straight-up villains (although it lays the groundwork on why they are so upset of America's policies, what with all the hated Shah's protection and spying). As such, it probably won't do any favors for the already icy relationship between USA and Iran. But Affleck does offer as apolitical approach to the historical subject as is possible in such a real-life situation. The final scenes have little to do with reality, but as a climax to the tension, as well as a tribute to the little-cheesy American blockbusting filmmaking the movie celebrates, it works.

8. Rust & Bone (De Rouille et d'Os; France/Belgium)
Director: Jacques Audiard

Again, not the director's best work, but dang if this very physical love story couldn't touch the viewer like few other films could. Just in November, I wrote:

(The film is) shot at times as naturally as to be almost like a nature documentary about the hard knock lives of these people. Audiard is as masterful in compressing everything that needs to be said in just a few sentences as Aki Kaurismäki. One also has to give due to the magnificent actors. Cotillard and Schoenaerts are at career-best form here, taking their abilities for emotional performances and imposing physicality (respectively) to whole new heights.

For those awaiting a clear love story, the film might be too distant, even cold. For those awaiting for the brutally violent boxing matches, they are quite sidelined and only featured in two bigger scenes. But for anyone looking for a good drama that makes one ponder about the human vunerability, and how it affects our own humanity, this is a bullseye.

7. Take This Waltz (Canada/Spain/Japan)
Director: Sarah Polley

Another devastating "romance" film, although much in a different way. It is also a comedy of sorts, with a lot of jokes opening up only in symbolism and perhaps opens even better at subsequent viewings. The film isn't afraid to position some very difficult questions like how far do we have the right to pursue our own love and happiness. Blinded by her emotions as she is by the light in the very first scene, Michelle Williams's Margot ends up peeing in the pool of all of her closest friends and new family. And at first tormented, she ends up enjoying doing it for a while. But the rudest awakening is in store for her.

The script is expertly crafted, with call-backs and payoffs to short scenes we almost forgot about in this rollercoaster ride of emotions. The lighting, the music choices, the acting... it all works. The film's symbolism is quite telegraphed, and easy to follow (as with the runners-up list's We Need To Talk About Kevin), but in these cases it's not an entirely bad thing. The year's feel-bad relationship movie.

6. The Raid: Redemption (Serbuan maut, Indonesia/USA)
Director: Gareth Evans

Aw, c'mon. You really didn't think I was going soft on you, did you? For all the well-crafted romance movies I liked, I enjoy a good ass-kicking action movie even more. And for a long time we haven't had as thoroughly enjoyable, kick-punchingly brutal, explosion- and body-count heavy and crucially, totally non-ironic, earnest action film as The Raid. It figures it couldn't have been made straight-out in Hollywood, but rather in Indonesia. Going to South-East Asia to shoot the wildest action scenes imaginable has been an industry haystay from Corman's glory days onwards.

Dredd delivered another tough building-raid movie this year, but this one has a clear advantage on that. The geography and floor plan of the movie are more carefully thought-out, making the rise to the top advance more steadily and logically. At the same time different floors don't feel just like different stages of a video game, but people get thrown from windows and switch floors by quick thinking. The whole thing is crowned with some truly brutal fighting choreography that utilizes the environment in an inventive way. And with the thin, bearded fellow Mad Dog, one of the year's best movie villains as well.

5. Killer Joe (USA)
Director: William Friedkin

Director William Friedkin didn't really make a comeback with this film since he hasn't really been anywhere. Viewing 2006's Bug recently, also based on Tracy Letts's play, made me realize how good his films have still been but no one has taken notice. Well, Friedkin now forced people to take notice, by having Matthew McCounaghey deliver the iciest, evilest, but at the same time oddly logical and twisted morale-following character. Who would've thought that guy could deliver one of the performances of the year! Friedkin's film is wickedly mean, totally brutal, and very unforgiving for the stupidity of its central characters. It's truly devastating, and as a black comedy, not even too funny. It's a lot more complex than that. It could reasonably be called a satire on the American vanishing morales and takeover of greed. And it's a lot more sharp in this aspect than the disappointing Killing them Softly.

Back in August, I wrote:

The film has a down-to-earth aspect, yet some bizarrely delirious ideas, such as a pizza cook being the most notorious gangster boss of the town, or Juno Temple doing nude kung fu moves in the middle of the night for the hell of it. (...) Friedkin stages most of the conflict inside an extended trailer. The movie is at parts laugh-out-loud hilarious, at parts gut-wrenchingly vile and unrelenting. Friedkin hasn't eased his standards one bit while all these years have passed from his magnum opuses.

4. The Punk Syndrome (Kovasikajuttu, Finland)
Directors: Jukka Kärkkäinen, Jani-Petteri Passi

The year's Finnish film, bar none, is this optimistic documentary that follows Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät, The Name Day, one of the top punk rock acts of our country. It just so happens that all the band members suffer from developmental disabilities. But they won't let their Syndromes slow them down. The band members quarrel, rebel and go on their daily lives openly in front of the camera. Never apologising, feeling inferior or pandered, the film teaches new ways on how to view the disabled. And it rocks, too!

Back in March, I wrote:
The film raises some questions about how the society treats the handicapped, but it isn't preachy and doesn't rub the viewer's face with them. One also gets a few good laughs at the silly stuff the punk rockers are up to, such as the race Kari loses when he drops his pants, or when the group gets a little too excited with the strip club windows in Hamburg's Reeperbahn. (...) The spotlight is kept promptly on the band, and rightfully so. They are people to easily identify with, to laugh and cry with. The biggest strength of the film is the same as with the band: it feels very real, as opposed to staged. It's a real slice of life with its ups and downs, highs and lows.

3. Carnage (France/Germany/Poland/Spain)
Director: Roman Polanski

For my money, the funniest film of the year. It's another play-based film, and another that takes place solely in a closed environment. Just like the bourgeois in Luis Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel, the rich couple of Cowans (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) seem unable to leave the apartment of The Longstreets (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly). They have to come to terms with a schoolyard incident of their children, when one child has hit another with a stick. Turns out, the adults are a lot more savage than to just settle in using sticks as weapons. Closed inside, even the similar-minded people come at each other's throats. At the same time their carefully-constructed images begin to fall apart, so they form unions against each others in an attempt to win moral superiority against each other. The nasty, assholish personalities on display here are perfectly acted.

It's not too far-fetched to see the film as Polanski's own comment on his recent house arrest in Switzerland, waiting for trial. As tensions build and no one is willing to take responsibility, the worst in people comes out. The film's cynical look at human nature married to the fact that it has the most hilarious vomiting scene I've seen in a long while had me howling with laughter. A true gem, and the best Polanski in a long while.

2. The Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within (Tropa de Elite 2: O InimigoAgora É Outro, Brazil)
Director: José Padilha

The best sequel of the year bar none, the follow-up to the toughest brazilian action film is the Godfather II for violent, political thrillers. It's cynical view sees Rio caught in a maelstrom of violence, with armed police strikes at the homes of the poor drug dealers solving little. The corruption that begins from the top has twisted the system so far, that it takes huge feats to be fixed ever again. During which a lot of innocent people are in the firing line. It's a huge, sprawling epic on the many forms corruption can take in a truly rotten society. Back in January, I wrote:
As it is, the film follows a large number of characters, each representing a layer of the society and/or a level of corruption. Although all of their approaches to corruption are cynically viewed as unfunctional, the characters aren't all clearly set to be only right or wrong. Some of their ideas don't work in practice but some do. Most of the film's characters are three-dimensional, with also ulterior motives regardless of their political alignment.  The main focus is in Nascimento, who while still maintaining some of his moral complexity, also comes into his own terms as a character here. Nascimento starts to feel old and weary by the end of the film, and loses some of his will to fight wrongs. Surprisingly, he has a strong end speech about the human values, and he also sees some error on his own ways. He sees that weeding out upper-level corruption would have helped his cause a lot more than shooting poor people in slums, but by now it is already too late. 

1. Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy (UK/France/Germany)
Director: Thomas Alfredson

Another epic that depicts the tentacles of corruption tighten up their grip on the pillars of society. It took me two viewings to truly get into the film's carefully-constructed web of lies and the number of elements in its vast storytelling. After that I read the novel, which was even more complicated. But each viewing or reading rewarded me handsomely with some new layers in this story. It is, by far the most rewarding film of the year.

The spies, depicted here as clerks, pencil-pushers and grey officials, are so far up their own game that they can't function without playing the cat-and-mouse game at all times. The mixture of family life and high-espionage blinds George Smiley (Gary Oldman) so much he is having trouble doing his daily work. Even the tiniest shred of trust has to be built and built for years on end. When even that comes shatteringly down, it feels devastating. Back in February, I wrote:

The film's aesthetic is such that it's easy to find oneself lost on its world. Even the smallest details are made important, and the film's rainy cinematography and 70's design aesthetics are well-realized enough to get the viewer easily lost among them. The real treat here are the performances. As good as Gary Oldman is (and he's really, really good.), the whole film is an ensemble piece, starring a cast of the best British talent to die for. With Oldman and Hurt, there's also great performances Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Kathy Burke, Toby Jones and Ciarán Hinds. One feels that these actors actually inhabit the jobs of their characters and have actually been spying on us with their other film roles. One does get a paranoid feeling from out of all this, but I would've still wanted to see the film again as soon as I walked out of the theatre.

I'm looking forward in seeing the upcoming follow-up, based on another John Le Carré novel. That's the first recap of the year, next up is a look at the films of 2013.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Fun in -11-12

I'm currently in the process writing my top movies of the year list. But as you may realize, putting just good films on a list after one another doesn't give out the full story of the year. We will have to wait for years to know which films will capture the zeitgeist and what not. However, it has been established that popular, big-budget films can have staying power regardless of quality. People remember when they have fun.

I realized recently, that I have very nostalgic feelings on early 2000s movies, since I saw them in my teens. So I held the first Spider-Man, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Minority Report and even a lot stupider films like Die Another Day in special accomodation since I had fun watching them in a particularly influence-heavy age. Today, there probably are future film freaks that watch these movies and have similar feelings a decade later.

I should mention that while these films are all 2012 theatrical releases in Finland, many of them premiered in 2011 in the United States. But since I didn't do this retrospective last year, it hardly matters. So here's a look at blockbusters from these past 1,5 years.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Director: Peter Jackson

So Peter Jackson has made another Middle-Earth trilogy for us to enjoy. Stretching a simple story we all already know into three movies with a lot of kid-friendly whimsy, talking and setting things up for the main event, and featuring some uncomfortable technical processes that do more harm than good. The whole thing started to feel quite a lot like Star Wars prequels before opening. But while The Hobbit wobbles a bit on the dangerous path, I ended up quite enjoying it.

Based on J.R.R. Tolkien's 1930's children's novel, The Hobbit tells the tale of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a simple hobbit living a lazy countryside life. But the wizard Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) deems him a worthy addition to join an expedition party, much to the little guy's chagrin. So Bilbo meets with 12 dwarves, led by Thorin Oakshield  (Richard Armitrage), who plan to free their conquered city of Erebor from the hostile giant dragon Smaug. Bilbo does decide to join the party and is given the duty of working as a thief, sneaking around silently, since he's so little and hard to notice.

As was expected, stretching a 300-page story into three 2,5 hour films means a lot of padding up. In this case, Jackson has decided to vow the story more tightly into the events of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. So, we have extra orc attacks and cameos from old favorites (Ian Holm narrating the story, Elijah Wood walking by, and a lengthy discussion scene with Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee and Hugo Weaving) and a lot of mythology-building. Some new villains and threats are introduced, which will presumably become more important later on. The film's style is thus a little all over the place. But not as much as I feared.

The golden brown-colored film gives a whiff of nostalgia in many ways. The balance between deathly battles and bumbling dwarves actually reminds me of several earlier Harry Potter films. I consider The Prisoner of Azkaban and The Order of the Phoenix to be the best of that series, since they quite comfortably can blend the unnerving fear of death with some warmer, friendlier and more humoristic parts. As with Jackson, the balance isn't always the most smooth, but it works in maintaining audience interest.

As a Tolkien fan, I must also say that I might find it more enjoyable to follow endless historical discussions and mythology-creating speeches. But the film offers hefty action scenes as well. I would advise to avoid the HFR 3D version, though, since it makes the whole thing look speeded up. The overly clear contrast also reminds more an electronics store HD TV demo than a proper film.

Finally, what pushes the film to work are the performances. Freeman is a perfect Bilbo. He presents the stuck-up englishness the hobbits seen previously in Jackson's films have lacked. But there's also his dry sense of humor and perfect comic timing, which I would've liked to see more. Ian McKellen's Gandalf seems a bit odder, coming off as unbalanced, this time around. But in the grand scheme he works as a balance to the soft power weilded by his zanier, animal-loving colleague Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) and the hard power and authority of Saruman the White (Lee). Who, by the way, comes across as a real blow-hard but not as a real evil force to be dealt with.

Finally there's Andy Serkis's Gollum, who has never seemed more tragic, lonely and corrupted than now. It helps that the final seams of his CGI presence have been fixed (perhaps the dim lighting of his cave helps too).

So for those yearning another trip to Middle-Earth, The Hobbit does work okay. At the moment I understand how the story could be divided into two. But Necromancer knows what on Middle-Earth could be included in the third part.

Film: ★★★ 1/2
Fun: ★★★

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
Director: Brad Bird

It's always a tell-tale sign of the state of Tom Cruise's popularity at any given time seeing as how big a role he gets in his flagship franchise. It's not so hot nowadays, since the latest Mission gives the most room for the Impossible Mission team outside of Cruise's stunts. As with Bourne Identity and The Avengers, Jeremy Renner is carted in to fill in as a probably candidate to take over the franchise. There never was just one.

When an operation is botched in Moscow, resulting a major bombing, the government shuts down the entire Impossible Mission Force (or I.M.F.). Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and a few of his fellow trusted agents must go on their own to find the culprit. It turns out to be professor Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), a dangerous left-wing terrorist who threatens to start a nuclear war between the United States and the Sov Russia. They attempt to track the place where Hendricks and his lackeys attempt to do the launch.

The action is not overplayed and looks great. As with previous films, Tom Cruise had once again done his own stunts in a major scene. This time around, it's a hair-raising climb in Dubai's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. The banter with Hunt and eager younger agent Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and veteran agent Jane Carter (Paula Patton) keeps things interesting. Guessing Renner's William Brandt's motivations, less so.

The film loses to its predecessor in one major point and it's by not having a good enough villain to pose a credible threat. The Cold war Bond film-like missile launch just doesn't cut it. Nyqvist is a burly middle-aged man, not nearly as cut and fit as Cruise. So the final beat-down scene actually makes the viewer feel sorry for the villain. The finnish Samuli Edelmann does a lot better as Hendricks' main henchman, who gets a lot more screentime. Since his Wistrom talks little, his job is mostly to look intimidating.

For animation director Brad Bird this seems like a move to finance a more personal live action project next. Cruise always could choose the right directors at any given M:I episode. But since the film is treated as just a bit o' fun, the attempts to bring any gravitas to it are automatically failed. The continuity-laden final scene is made all the more aggravating by this kind of shoehorning.

Film: ★★★
Fun: ★★★

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
Director: Guy Ritchie

Guy Ritchie's 2009 Sherlock movie emphasized the Victorian literature hero's fighting skills and explosions. The sequel comes from the more-of-the-same construction line. At times it feels like the film's script is aimed at slash fiction writers, since the homosexual tensions between Sherlock and his sidekick Dr. Watson go so over the top. It's not innuendo any more if topless and made-up Holmes falls Watson on the ground, saying "lay down with me".

Tensions between Europe's superpowers, France, Germany and England are building. Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) soon deducts that these politics are manipulated by the criminal genius Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). At the centre of the fiend's nefarious plot seems to be a fortune-telling gypsy Madam Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace) and her family. Dr. Watson (Jude Law) is about to marry his fiancée Emily, but Holmes insists on him to return to his aid for one last case. As Moriarty intends to hit Holmes where it hurts, Watson and his bride are targets, so the good doctor has no choice but to accept.

As with the first one, the film is shaped by it's talented cast. Harris, best known for his role as Lane in Mad Men, brings gravitas and unexpectedness to his Moriarty. He strongly holds his own in a role that could have gone to any more famous British thespian or even Hollywood super star. On the other end is Holmes' brother Mycroft, played with a warm humor by Stephen Fry. As opposed to most adaptations, Mycroft is now even more eccentric than his younger brother. Fry seems to have great fun in his flamboyant role, but we do get to see perhaps a bit too much of him.

As for the plot, it is, in its essentials, so simple that its hardly a proper mystery at all. The flashy Hollywood sensations overcome any good deductions or brain-twisting riddles. The action is passable, even if it is so large in scale, it's hard to take any threats to our heroes' lives very seriously. They ability to shoot, run, jump and dodge bullets seem unnatural most of the time. However, the fight scenes with Holmes deducting his next moves are as fun to watch now as ever before.

Film: ★★★
Fun: ★★★

Director: Peter Berg

In the absence of a loud, rude and infantile Michael Bay summer toy movie, producers at Hasbro decided to go to the closest alternative. Basing a film on a licensed board game must be the stupidest thing to base a blockbuster on, so now Pirates of the Caribbean is excused. You don't even need Hasbro's game board to play, just a pencil, piece of paper and some imagination would do. But imagination isn't something that's big in Hollywood these days. So now there are aliens involved.

Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) used to be a slacker, until his brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgård) convinced him to join the Navy. As a marine, he's a big screw-up (like one would imagine), and one war game away from getting kicked out. It doesn't help that he has fallen for the Admiral's (Liam Neeson) daughter Sam (swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker). Alex hopes to get dad's permission to marry her. But then, everything changes as Aliens navigate to Earth through a seabed homing beacon or something. The marine-based alien vessels begin a war with the Navy ships.

Having a kid-friendly Michael Bay Light product is all well and fair, but at least then the movie's length should be adjusted accordingly. As of now, there's far too much similar scenes of Aliens and the Navy taking turns in shooting each other. The lack of proper Bay-like exploitation, ruthlessness and sheer bad taste make the viewing go smoother, but there's a feeling that something is missing.

It's a loud, infantile movie with plenty of American flag-waving and AC/DC playing as ships sail into action. Explosions are pretty, but they tend to get boring after about an hour in. The script is at times dire or outright ludicrous. The salute to veterans is a particularly cheer-worthy scene in all its cheesiness. A lot on the quality of acting in the film can be summed by saying that Rihanna gives one of the best performances. She actually makes it seem as if she worked for a living. The pop star also gets all the best lines. Like "Boom".

Film: ★★
Fun: ★★★

The Expendables 2
Director: Simon West

A lot can be said about The Expendables 2, but at least it fixes up several of the first one's unforgivable problems. This time around, they don't have a Mickey Rourke crying scene to clinically insert some ham-fisted drama into a stupid boy's night out -movie. This time, the incomprihensible Jason Statham's romance plotline is sidelined to a few phone call-scenes. This time, the action is clearly shot, easier to follow and more explosive. There's blood! These are improvements you get when switching from the director of Rocky IV to the director of Con Air. Unfortunately, they should have also hired some screenwriters, not just apes in front of typewriters. And a proper cinematographer.

This movie looks really cheap for a multi-million dollar production.

The leader of the secret covert operations team Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) is approached by the mysterious CIA man Church (Bruce Willis) to do a job to repay an old debt. The Expendables are sent to the former Soviet Union to retrieve something hidden inside a crashed plane. But it turns out that the ruthless Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme) also wants the contents, and kills of one of Ross's team to gain it. The chase turns personal and Ross with his team will stop at no ends to have their vengeance on Vilain.

Shot mostly in a cold and barren landscape, The Expendables 2 looks like one of those cheapo straight-to-dvd Romanian-shot action films cast members like Dolph Lundgren excel in. Most of the money from the film's production has gone to the salaries of it's major stars. And once you hire Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger, you have to have your monkeys say their famous lines. The cavalcade of worn-out one-liner clichés gets tired quite fast.

But there's also charm in the film's idiotism. Chuck Norris appearing out of nowhere, killing everyone around without breaking a sweat, is an internet joke so daft it turns back to being funny. Lundgren's grumbling and potentially dangerous guy, who is at the same time an chemistry genius and a total meat-head. The character is played by the Swedish muscleman with the necessary gravitas, with irony only hinted at the seams. As a cherry on the top, it is also funny to see Van Damme kick Stallone in the head. There should be more of this. So while the film isn't that good, it does offer some old circus tricks that the viewer actually does want to see.

Film: ★★ 1/2
Fun: ★★★ 1/2

The Avengers
Director: Joss Whedon

The most fun of the year's blockbusters was also such a big hit in the box office, it will change the game on movie releasing. Marvel's gambit of introducing characters in their individual films and bringing them all together to a major big brawl isn't that special in the realm of comics. But in the world of huge Hollywood movies such a thing had never been attempted before. And it payed in bucketloads. The film made more than a billion dollars, not counting all the merchandise, DVD's and the profit for the individual films.

The secretitive world safety organization S.H.I.E.L.D. has the possession of the mythical Tesseract from Odin's treasure chamber (used by the Red Skull tp try to conquer the world in Captain America: The First Avenger™). The Tesseract allows to create worm holes from one point in the universe to another. Thor's vengeful brother Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston, banished from Asgard in Thor™) sees this as an opportunity to take over the world with the help of his intergalactic army. He starts by possessing the minds of several key S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, along with Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), and blowing up the agency's facilities.

This makes S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Col. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) assemble a team of superheroes. He calls his #1 field operative Natascha Romanova a.k.a. (Scarlett Johansson) and Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), specialized in super hero watching, to help out tracking them. From nervous, anger-controlling gamma radiation specialist Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), thawed out super soldier Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans) to self-obsessed billionaire industrialist and robotic suit wielder Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), all have to work together to stop Loki. But even Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has his own ideas on how to deal with his brother.

As in the comics, the superheroes presented here are deeply flawed characters. They do not work well together at first, and their larger-than-life personalities are on a crash course for course of the whole film. Thanks to Joss Whedon's script, the banter and teasing between the characters, as well as the tension-building works quite well. Mark Ruffalo in particular is the best screen version of the Incredible Hulk, with his good-humored responses hiding the fact he's struggling to control his immense raging id all the time. 

As a life-long fan of superheroes, both on comics and on screen, the critique requires a bit of trying to figure the film from an outsider's point of view. The film's pacing doesn't work as good as it should. The lengthy scenes of exposition still don't cover that much of what's going on (you need have seen at least Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America). Action scenes are even a bit rare until the final battle, which lasts forever. The hoardes of attacking Chitauri are quite boring as villains, and there would have been a lot of more interesting alien races from the comics to use.

The film balances the characters exceptionally well. The only exception is the case of Hawkeye, who is a somewhat wasted opportunity. In the comics, he's the hot-headed, smartassed player Tony Stark is in the movieverse. Jeremy Renner does the best he can to make him seem like a badass, but we learn the least about his character, and he spends most of the time being Loki's puppet.

But for all it's flaws, the film is dynamic, and seeing the Avengers finally learn to work together makes the viewer giddy. "Aw yeah!" action scenes are plentiful, but not overused. The stakes are high enough for there to be actual worrying whether all the heroes will survive intact. The main message in these Marvel superhero films is that heroism is winning over the major personality flaws you have. And this film does so also within itself.

Film: ★★★ 1/2
Fun: ★★★★

Stay tuned for the Best of 2012 soon!

Thursday, 27 December 2012

PÖFF 2012

The always-charming Pimedate Ööde Filmfestivaali (Dark Nights Film Festival) in Tallinn this year's November was as full interesting programme as ever. While it offered some treats that have not yet been shown anywhere in Finland, most of the programme was familiar to Helsinki's avid festival-goers and arthouse cinema fans. But no matter, it will once again give me an excuse to take a look back at this year's offerings before the annual Best Of -lists.

Pieta (Hangul, South Korea)
Director: Kim Ki-duk

It seems that following his recovery from nervous breakdown, director Kim Ki-duk has started to shift away from his trademarked slow, artistic storytalling and more towards the Korean mainstream. His latest film is a Revenge Thriller, much in the vein of Park Chan-Wook's Vengeance Trilogy or Bong Joon-Ho's Mother. The film is based on a very fucked-up morality idea, which Korean films seem to specialize in. At least it doesn't go as far as Kim Jee-woon's I Saw The Devil.

Lee Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin) is the most violent and ruthless debt collector in mafia's paycheck. He hasn't any emphaty for anyone, and is glad to maim his "customers" for insurance money. Back home he usuallu spends time sleeping or masturbating. One day, a strange woman follows him home. He tries to drive her away, but she enters his house by force, and insists on cleaning up. She reveals herself to bee Kang-do's long-lost mother, Jang Mi-sun (Jo Min-su).

Initially Kang-do refuses his mother, and acts as if she's not there. He goes on his work, even though she insists on taging along. of course, she doesn't approve of the violence, but nevertheless attempts to win her son over by helping along. Slowly, Kang-do starts to warm up to Mi-sun. But she did have another reason to return to him after so many years, and this is just one step in her major plan.

Kim uses a lot of Christian iconography in the film, making a stark contrast on the people who certainly aren't living by Jesus's Golden Rule. He also doesn't spare the audience in awkward sexual content nor bone-crunching or skin-frying violent scenes. Yet for all the effectiveness of the cinematography and sheer skill in the storytelling, the whole film has a very slight feeling. As if the master is afraid to bring on his A-game. There have been good thrillers that have pondered the same sort of questions between family, morality, duty, sexuality and politics before. Pieta for all it's worth, can't really bring that much new things in the mix.


Call Girl (Sweden)
Director: Michael Marcimain

The most talked-about film this year in Sweden was this intriguing political thriller that is based on several real life scandals from the 1970s. While the film certainly takes some liberties to fill in some gaps, and makes some indirect accusations on past politicians, the depiction of 70's Sweden is noticeably realistic. The result is something like The Wire meets Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy in the Red Lights district.

Iris (Sofia Karemyr) and Sonja (Josefin Aspelund) are two misbehaving 14-year-olds living in a school home. The rebellious teens tend to run away to meet boys, drink alcohol and trick themselves into bars. But they run into a wrong crowd of girls who seem to have it all; a free apartment where to party, free alcohol with no questions asked, and plenty of money to use. The girls fall down deeper and deeper into the rabbot hole, until they find themselves to be in the service of bordello keeper Dagmar Glans (the magnificent Pernilla August).

Meanwhile, the small-time government clerk and pencil-pusher John Sandberg (Simon J. Berger) runs an operation to check Dagmar's shady business. He taps phones, plants tails and reads everything connected to her. Soon he starts to realize that Dagmar's clients aren't just faceless rich people, they are socialites from the very top of the Swedish society. Included might even be the rising Minister of Justice (Claes Ljungmark). But in trying to expose this scandal, Sandberg runs into a lot of trouble. But election day is coming and he remains adamant that the people will have to know the truth about their minister, who at the same time is strongly preaching about democracy and women's rights.

The film has three viewpoint characters, Iris, Dagmar and John. Each one has an intriguing story that has a lot of nuances and insights. It seems that the Swedes really like the archetypal characters of heroic jounalist finding the black spots in Social democracy, as well as the young girl who gets mistreated by misogynists working within the social norms. At times the film almost feels like it has too much content. A lot of these nuances get lost from the viewer when the story is suddenly skipping from one main plot to another. This approach would work better in a television series or a book.

In the end this society-shaking thriller is still superbly exciting stuff. The retro-styled electronic music, as well as pop hits from the era make a perky soundtrack, that houses a much more sinister core. While Swedish spying within the country in the 70's wasn't as large-scaled as in the Cold War setting, the stakes were still quite high. The film contains the idea that the country is willing to turn a blind eye on injustice, while at the same time the country poses as the moral superior and forerunner in the world. I'm almost certain I will enjoy the film more on subsequent viewings, since it contains so much to chew.


God Bless America (USA)
Director: Bobcat Goldtwaith

Could it be the Western civilization is nearing its end? At least it seems that our mutual culture has reached some lows that aren't easy to climb back up, as well as the political system is bitter, feuded and utterly divided, particularly in America. Stand up comedian Bobcat Goldthwait's satire attempts no less to be a Natural Born Killers for the Naughties, a satire about a kill spree that reveals all that's wrong with the world today.

Sad-sack middle-ager Frank (Joel Murray) hates his job, neighbors, television programmes and life in general. He has to see his estranged daughter grow up to be just another prissy little asshole, living with his ex-wife and her new husband. The final straw is drawn when Joel is diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor. So, before ending his miserable days, he takes a last-ditch effort to make the world a better place by getting rid of his daughter's role-model, a spoiled rich brat whining on MTV about the wrong-colored car her parents got her as a birthday present. But by killing her, Joel also attracts the attention of her class-mate Roxy (Tara Lynn Barr), who insists they should go on a kill-spree to rid the world of assholes.

I suppose everyone has had fantasies of brutally executing parking violators, loudmouthed teens at movies, fugly screaming babies, uncompromising extreme-right wing politicians or douchebag tween stars. Goldthwait's murder fantasy balances on a fine line, particularly since America has had their share of tragic gun mishaps lately. But while the assholes in the film are really obnoxious, this is also a film smart enough to constantly question the morales and minds of its protagonists. While Joel is symphatetic, Roxy in particular often comes across just as bad and annoying as everyone she would like to end.

But all in all, as a satire, this is a bit slight. It really targets just one side of a culture and doesn't offer much in the way of analyzing how the society has come to this. It's more of a check list of everything annoying it's eccentric screenwriter/director. However, the film's main question on whether people can't be nice to each other any more, is a very valid one nowadays.


Caesar Must Die (Cesare deve morire, Italy)
Directors: Paolo & Vittorio Taviani

This year's Berlinale's top prize went to this sort-of docu-drama by Italian filmmakers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani. I say "sort of" because this certainly isn't an easy film to be comfortably fit in any pre-given characterization. Shot mostly in black-and-white, and in flashback, the film chronicles inmates at a high-security prison staging a play of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

We get to know the inmates for the most part only from the short scenes of the applying for a part in the play. They tell what they are in prison for, and at the same time heaps of their back story. The major flaw in the film is that one would like to learn to learn more of them. Now watching interviews for a long period of time is a little exhausting, and one can't remember most of it for what comes next. There are mafiosos, hotheads and people just trying to make ends meet, and the only thing that really connects them is the punishment at first, and the play later on.

Practicing for their roles, the inmates become to utterly inhabit their roles. Since there isn't much else to do in prison, the play becomes the sole reason for their existence. The prison architecture begins to look like a huge stage, and the similarities of Ancient Rome and the hierarchy at the Big House begin to get mixed together. But what comes after the play is done? The film is very experimental, twisting a famed tale to have a couple of layers more, but it is captivating to watch.


War Witch (Rebelle, Canada)
Director: Kim Nguyen

The film's two names tell a lot of it's two sides. It's about a girl who is a Soldier and a Magician at the same time, but fights constantly against the poor lot given to her in life. Komona (Rachel Mwanza) lives in the civil war-ridden Sub-Saharan Africa. At the age of 13, she sees her home village destroyed, and her being forced to murder her own parents. But this scarring experience seemingly also gives her the ability to communicate with the dead and stay out of harm's way. The invading soldiers equip her to fight for the Rebellion, but soon find that her abilities have better use to them as an Oracle, predicting the course of fighting.

The film chronicles Komona's life for three cricial years, during which she leaves her home, fights as a soldier, falls in love with a fellow wizard, the albino known as Magician (Serge Kanyinda), gets married and pregnant, and seeks to please the spirits of the dead by giving her parents a proper burial. Her life has several tragic twists for the worse, but adamant she keeps on going, even against the odds.

For all its darkness, War Witch embraces the African way of life from multiple angles. The belief in magic and mysticism isn't drawn out, but rather a comfortable part of all human interaction. At peaceful time, people are willing to help each other, and not taking worries of any petty details. When the Magician goes on a search of a rooster, people have a good laugh at his expense, even if he's pointing an AK-47 at their faces. His eagerness to find an extremely rare creature for love is endearing to people, even if he threatens their very lifes. People living in the war-ridden territories are well used to it.


Marley (USA/UK)
Director: Kevin McDonald

This two-and-ahalf hour documentary chronicles no less than the whole life of Bob Markey, poet and a prophet. The most popular reggae star of all time had a bumpy career, with success that didn't come overnight but which was fought for years. The documentary gathers an impressive cast of interviewees, from Marley's immidiate family (mother, sons) to close friends and co-workers (including Lee "Scratch" Perry and Jimmy Cliff). The film also captures the rise of Marley-mania, beginning from Jamaica and taking over the whole world from teh United Kingdom to Japan to the United States.

The film is all business, to the point where it starts to resemble a historical documentary more than a mere music biography. The basics of Marley's life are well-covered all around, but at the same time, the movie also doesn't go very intimately into any subject. Any new revealations are scarce, even if Marley's sons remembering him as a father, and his beloved remembering his final days are quite touching. Altogether this works as a good 101 on Bob Marley's music, but I would always like that a biography film would look more like its central subject. This is a bit too distant and the cinematic tricks generic to reflect a truly innovative artist.


The Thieves (Dodookdeul, South Korea)
Director: Choi Dong-Hoon

The English subtitles didn't work on the PÖFF screening of this South Korean caper film, so I have little to say about it's plot. But it's a colorful, fast-paced film, with kinetic action scenes, globe-trotting exotiscm in the vein of the best James Bond flicks, plenty of sexy ladies and double-crossing. It seems like the cast is filled with colorful characters as well. Mark this one a prime candidate for a proper rewatch at some point in the future.

Captive (France/Philippines/USA/UK)
Director: Brillante Mendoza

The latest film by Brillante Mendoza is a naturalistic look into the captivity endured by western tourists in the hands of Abu Sayyaf guerrilla fighters in  . The film is mostly told through the eyes of the French schoolteacher Thérèse (Isabelle Huppert). She had come to Palawan for humanitarian aid, yet goes into long-winded soul-searching after her kidnapping and harsh life hiding out in the jungle. She does fill the role of taking care of the elderly and the sickly among other captives. Yet the terrorists have little use to any hostages that can't manage to flee any spot as quickly as possible to avoid capture.

The film is repetitive and harsh, although this does reflect the nature of the situation the main characters are in. At several points, mednoza winds down, and offers some magificent jungle footage. The flora and fauna live on, caring little about the quarrells of people. In this nature, the clear predecessor of this film is Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line. However, Mendoza is not capable of balancing the poeticism and harsh realities as masterfully. The film drags often, and its characters remain quite thin, even if they are tried to flesh out now and then. The resulting film is a pick-and-mix bag, sometimes quite good, some times dull.


Shame (UK/USA)
Director: Steve McQueen

Director Steve McQueen's look into sex addiction has reaped a lot of critical acclaim. A lot of this comes from his quiet, slow-moving and very visual style, even though the filmmaker doesn't always seem to think it through on what kind of storytelling the style would fit best. But Shame is certainly a better told story than McQueen's previous, too-experimental-for-its-own-good debut Hunger. Michael Fassbender does a good, convincing main role as Brandon. The 30-something stock-broker is udes to picking up girls at bars, subways or really, everywhere he might run into a flirt. He also has huge stacks of porn, a subscription to live internet sex camera sites, and a tendency to hire call girls for his pleasure.

When Brandon's younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes to an unexpected visit, he has to start rethinking his life. The shame of his condition forces him to move his sexual activities out of his apartement. At the same time he is disgusted when his boss picks up Sissy and the pair have sex. Brandon has serious problems with intimacy and angrily and bitterly refuses any close contact with Sissy. It appears that he's overcompensating for some guilty feelings, and the movie suggests he has trouble seeing women in anything other than sex objects.

Sex addiction is not an easy subject to make a film about, since it often falls into the pit of exploitation (as in the notorious Finnish film Levottomat 3) or moralization. McQueen does manage to have a cold, distant view on the films for the majority of the running time, but falls head first into the latter by the end. The cheesy pouting and extremities that are on offer put some unnecessary weight, when McQueen had put so much weight into individual images earlier. When Brandon's hedonism also goes way overboard, the film starts bordering on the line of exploitation after all. McQueen's hard-pressed style doesn't stay intact throughout the film, which is a true shame.



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