Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Espoo Ciné 2013

The annual international film festival at Espoo didn't have a very interesting programme this year, but I still managed to miss several of the most interesting films on display there. Oh well, if they really are good, I'm sure I'll come by them eventually. I managed to catch a number of films there, most of which were rather good, so it certainly was worth the bus trip there.

Blue Jasmine (USA)
Dir. Woody Allen

The most notable premiere of the festival was the new Woodsy Allen movie. I've never been a big fan of the bespectacled auteur, although I do like a few of his best, and his films of recent years which I've caught in the recent years have been cute but dismissible fluff at best. So color me surprised that he still managed to deliver a fine movie with some gravitas.

At its core Blue Jasmine is a modernization of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, with Cate Blanchett as Blanche, Andrew Dice Clay as Marlon Brando (if you can believe that) and San Fransisco as New Orleans. But it strays from the material enough to able Allen to be in the race for the "best original screenplay" at next year's Oscars. It's a story of losing everything and deluding yourself that it's just a phase before a new step back up. An important part of the movie are flashbacks to old days where Blanchett's Jasmine turns a blind eye to her husband's (Alec Baldwin) shady business deals and sex-hungry flirtation with other women for her own luxury and idle happiness. In the modern day, Jasmine slowly loses her mind over dating issues, seething hate for her sister's boyfriend, and most of all her newly found poverty. The two timelines run parallel to each other, coming to her breaking point at the same time.

The acting in the film (particularly the incredible Blanchett) is top-notch, and at best points a little rough around the edges to feel more authentic. Actors stammer and sob in their anger. Yet the visual side with its golden autumn-colored visual world is a tad tired. The film is staged as if it's a stage adaptation, perhaps deliberately, but doesn't entirely work to underline the performances as probably intended. At least Allen doesn't take us through sheer tourist-baiting cityscape porn this time around. The story is touching and somewhat topical. And the bittersweet comedy oftentimes makes the audience cringe and giggle at the same time. Nicely done.

★★★ 1/2

The Paradise Trilogy (Austria/Germany/France 2012-2013)
Dir. Ulrich Seidl

The festival screened the entire Austrian trilogy of pining and crushing disappointment back-to-back. They each are fine films in their own right, but together they form symmetries of how human beings are at lost with their emotions and lives, whatever their problem, age or worldview is. It's a story of one family, each film following one female member struggle through life.

Paradise: Love (Paradies: Liebe)

The entire trilogy begins with a shot of physically challenged persons driving around in bumper cars in an amusement park and this sums pretty aptly what all three films are about. Looking for love, or any content to life, is like bumbling around in the dark, and you might easily be hurt. Love concerns the love-lorn middle-aged Teresa (Margarete Tiesel) going to a holiday in Kenya. Yet she is not so much interested in Safaris or games at the hotel poolside than finding a boyfriend from the local men.

Teresa's friend compliments her holiday boy-toy and she becomes curious for some local meat as well.  Teresa has a low self-esteem and opens up to men complimenting her looks and dismissing her age. Even though she is after sex, she wants her boyfriends to be interested in her because of her personality, not her wallet. And thus she finds crushing disappointments time and again. The poor local people are only after monetary support from rich white ladies, not an equal relationship. Seidl doesn't shy away from any aspect of these unequal, partially racist interactions, spicing his film with plenty of black humor and cringe-worthy scenes.

The problem with the trilogy opener is pretty much the same as with all Paradise films. They are clear arthouse films, slow-moving and aesthetically strong. While the ideas and the message are incredibly easy to get and understand, there aren't any layers or anything to ponder afterwards. And once you figure out the central ideas of the movie, the rest is sort of inevitable and at times even a drag. Love has plenty of nice, static shots of tourist beaches and African reality so it's at least easy to look at but sometimes feels like a way too personal holiday diorama. It's a nice film but hardly a groundbreaking masterpiece.

★★★ 1/2

Paradise: Faith (Paradies: Glaube)

Nurse Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter), sister of Terese, is a hardcore Catholic. Hardcore, as in she whips herself in front of a crucifix, and goes around the houses of immigrants and the unemployed to deliver statues of the Virgin Mary and to talk about (her interpretation of) the Bible. It's not an easy job, as many of her "customers" are dismissive or otherwise hard to deal with. But AM's life becomes even more difficult than that, when his paralyzed (and randy) ex-husband (Nabli Saleh) comes to stay at her place.

Making fun of devout Christians is something akin to shooting fish in a barrel. But Seidl isn't so much interested in mocking (although AM's obsessiveness does generate plenty of laughs), but rather in the hopelessness to try to keep a strict set of rules one sets to yourself and the world. One won't come out a decent human being, no matter how hard one tries.

What sets this installment above the rest of the trilogy is the grotesque cast of characters. Particularly memorable is Herr Rupnik, an obese man who tends to misplace his pants and lives in an apartment akin to a huge pile of garbage. Maria's sanity is put into question several times, as her obsession deepens, so does her affection to Jesus, represented by a big crucifix. Perhaps the reason she detests Nabil so is the fact that he's a Muslim. All in all, it's a trashy, borderline uncruciable account of becoming too blind on one's own acts and too focused on one view into the world.


Paradise: Hope (Paradies: Hoffnung)

The final film sees Terese's teenaged daughter Melanie (Melanie Lenz) go to a Fat Camp to lose weight. But being a girl in a delicate age, she's not that interested in the daily exercise routines, but rather talking about sex experiences with her campmates, stealing food, alcohol and cigarettes, and running away to go to a club.

But the thing she is most interested is the middle-aged doctor (Joseph Lorenz) of the camp. She soon develops fake symptoms to go see him every day, much to his delight. Lorenz plays the Doc suitably sleazy and creepy. One is not quite sure whether he's going to act out on his instincts or not. One scene sees her follow her into the woods like the wolf following Red Riding Hood. They end up hugging. Or at least that is what is shown on screen.

Seidl has veered a little close to familiar patterns with his previous films, and this one veers a bit too close into the well-trodden coming-of-age path. As I implied, many of the films most interesting parts are the ones you don't see. Indeed, it is about a half-hour shorter than the other Paradise films. Yet it does feel equally long, so perhaps the storytelling isn't quite as leisurely forward-moving here. The film feels a bit fractured, and it is its greatest asset as well as its downfall. The acting, again, is superb.

In this case, it is not quite as clear as what the Hope in the title refers to. Melanie doesn't seem too interested in the Hope of becoming thin, after all. The Hope of becoming a woman? Perhaps this left a bit more to ponder about than its predecessors, after all.

★★★ 1/2

I Am Divine (USA)
Dir. Jeffrey Schwartz

It's about damn time the legendary drag queen actor/disco music star got her own documentary! It's one of those subjects that is so interesting in itself that it's hard to fail, at least with the right audience. As a documentary, this is far from perfect, but it's still a really fun ride alongside one of the most outrageous figures in pop culture.

Jeffrey Schwartz's film was funded by crowdraising the money. The lack of budget shows off here and there, since several photographs pixelate visibly when zoomed into (not that zooming into photos repeatedly isn't a tired cliché in documentaries anyway). However, all the right people are interviewed, including John Waters, Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pierce and even Divine's dear old mother. One would have hoped to hear some more outrageous, weird and wonderful stories from those that knew him best, but the film is a bit shy on them, whether it's because of respect for the deceased star or for a lower rating.

Still, it's a heartfelt retread of the life of a huge icon with several rather moving testimonies from family and friends. It offers little new information for connisseurs (some longer clips from early, rare John Waters shorts would have been fine, too), but it works as a passable introduction to the world of Divine.


Blancanieves (Spain)
Dir. Pablo Berger

I found this film's title impossibly difficult to remember until I watched the movie and found out what the title meant. Basically, this is a story of an orphaned girl who follows on her father's footsteps into becoming a popular matador, bullfighter. Any mythological parallels are hidden a bit deeper.

There are dwarves, though.

This is also a brand spanking new silent movie, much in the vein of The Artist. This tries to be charming and touching, like that film, but ultimately left me cold. There are bits and pieces to be enjoyed for sure, and visually it doesn't look half-bad. But I had problems identifying with the main character, who kind of bumbles through weird mishaps without a proper arc or a character to speak of. It also doesn't help that the main characters are bullfighters, which I find to be kind of horrible assholes. Anyone who thinks it's sort of glamorous to slowly butcher and torture an animal to death, deserves to be murdered by a gold-digging witch.

Unlike The Artist, which dealt with the development of cinema anyway, there's scarcely a good reason for this to be a silent pic other than to cash in on the success of others, and to utilize a nifty trick to gain attention to a hallow shell of a movie. The main villainess (Maribel Verdú) is kind of cute, though. She kind of looks like Bérénice Béjo.


Byzantium (UK/USA/Ireland)
Dir. Neil Jordan

Neil Jordan has gained reputation along the years to be a feminist genre movie director. His latest film could be seen as a response to the Twilight crowds, who crave bloodsucker romance so hard they forget that the female characters in it are virtual non-entities. Jordan has plenty of good ideas and tricks up with his sleeve on this one, but somehow lacks any grip on the direction, so the end result is a boring and shapeless mess.

Two women seek refuge to a small coastal town. Clara (Gemma Arterton) gains money from prostituting herself, while the younger Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) helps euthanize elder people and goes to the local schools writing class to show off her skills. The latter falls for a classmate, Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), and reveals that they are actually Lhiannan Shee, vampire-like creatures who survive during the day but need blood to live.

The character of Eleanor is way too dull for the role of the protagonist. Thus, when the film spends the most time developing her and Frank's relationship, the audience falls into a coma. All flashbacks to ye olden tymes are infinitely more interesting, even if they slowly start to form a picture which I certainly didn't quite understand or manage to put the pieces together. Plenty of the most interesting elements of the film are woefully underutilized, including Arterton's sexier and more femininely threatening spirit, and the pursuers of the pair. The final act of the film takes on a whole new gear, but still offers little new to a market packed to the rafters with monster-romances. Jordan is so much in love with his idea of a blood-filled waterfall that he uses it plenty of times, never mind that the water is more pink than blood red, and that that welcomes unwelcome comparisons to the elevator shot in The Shining.

Watching the movie, I came up with several good ideas on how some of the central ideas could be utilized to make a more interesting film. When this inevitably gets remade in 5-20 years, Hollywood, you know who to call.


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