Monday, 7 December 2015

Finnish Cult Movies V: Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment was the title of the first film by Aki Kaurismäki, Finland´s most acclaimed film director. It has also been said that the rest of his filmography follow the same theme. Now, in this article series, I haven´t featured too many of Aki´s films, since I prefer to showcase some stranger films that may or may not be familiar to international audiences. The theme is also very constant. There haven´t ever been many genre movies made in this country, but at least there have been several Crime films. And as it happens the handful of best ones also manage to take a look at the subject from a surprising point of view.

Jäähyväiset presidentille (1987)
Dir. Matti Kassila

"Farewell to the President" is a The Jackal-esque thriller, which concerns a far-leftist would-be assassin, and the policemen trying to capture him before he manages to murder president Urho Kekkonen. As he was the longest-running president in Finnish history in a pretty sensitive historical period, Kekkonen was not often featured in fictional films. Here, he is portrayed as a hedonistic old man, caring more of going to the sauna than his duties as the nation´s figurehead. No wonder the film was released only after he had already passed away.

Matti Kassila, known also for the beloved Komisario Palmu series, creates his crime films with his tongue firmly in cheek, as in here. There are cameos from popular comedians such as Mikko Kivinen and Aake Kalliala. These are intercut with some surprisingly brutal sniper murders.

Nevertheless, it is an action-packed film with a terrific main villain, played by Hannu Lauri. He shaves his head, Taxi Driver-like, and builds his body with Jean-Claude Van Damme´s picture hanging on the wall. While the audience knows he´s the culprit, the police detective in charge has no vlue. The opponents are directed at each other a few times, which give Lauri some great sneering lines at the representative of the system he so loathes.

The end chase in particular is a hoot, with cheap soviet-made cars chasing each other in countryside dirt-roads. While Kassila has admitted to attempting to create a more American-style crime thriller, this certainly has its roots firmly planted in Finland.

★★★ 1/2

Yön Saalistajat (1984)
Dir. Visa Mäkinen

Even further down the surreal line of staging Hollywood-style thrills and chills to our peaceful country, director Visa Mäkinen decided to try the same in his small home town of Pori. His films have a sort of infamy in Finland, but in fact with his small budgets and innovative filming style he managed to often be way more entertaining than the more serious finnish films of the same period.

Yön Saalistajat ("The Predators of the Night") is one of his most popular films. It concerns a policeman going undercover in a major crime league, operating in Pori. The film´s idea of criminal activity is straight out of Donald Duck comic books, while the delicious dialogue is some prime Chandleresque ham.

The title is misleading as most of the film is set on the most sunny days of the summer. The movie also has a villain for the ages, Matti Mäntylä´s Reuna ("The Edge"). This biker-like thug worships Satan, does drugs, has Psycho-like mommy issues, and of course treats every other character in the movie like dirt, save for his boss, the Boss.

Like Mäkinen´s films tend to be, it looks like an amateur film shot in each other´s homes. But one can´t deny it´s told smoothly, always running from one delightful scene to another.

★ or ★★★★★

Räpsy ja Dolly eli Pariisi odottaa (1989)
Dir. Matti Ijäs

Räpsy & Dolly is a film about a criminal (Matti Pellonpää) released from jail. His life afterwards is difficult and he is being tempted back into crime all the time. A blossoming relationship with a screwloose bar maid (Raija Paalanen) might help him keep in line, or his new job at a porno store under a crooked boss might push him over the edge.

Räpsy & Dolly represents the sort of Finnish film making that doesn´t shy away from looking at life as it actually looks. The cast doesn´t consist on sheer doll-faced people, but actors who look the sort that have seen life, and deperately try to avoid it from now on. Dolly in particular tries to keep up appearances and fool herself that the seediness around her is actually bohemian Parisian artstocracy.

Aki Kaurismäki´s most trusted actor Pellonpää is (of course) magnificent as the lead. He´s a bit weaselly, but still puppy-like enough that we as the audience keep rooting for him. We are not sure on how rooted into reality his relationship with Dolly is, until the film´s final moments. Director Ijäs is very gifted with comedy, and the film´s surprising zingers catch the viewers off-guard time and time again.

★★★ 1/2

Karvat (1974)
Dir. Seppo Huunonen

Finnish film industry didn´t really have a noveau vague period, but nevertheless we had some directors willing to test out filmmaking methods and break formulas. Karvat ("Hairs") was one, and as such, it was a lost film for decades until it resurfaced on dvd in 2011. The film is loosely based on the same novel as Jean-Luc Godard´s Pierrot le Fou.

The story´s about a criminal (Mikko Majanlahti, looking remarkably like The Smurfs villain Gargamel) that is involved in a successful heist. With all his money, he leaves his wife and runs away with a younger girlfriend (Arja Virtanen). The relationship has ups and downs, madness and uncertainty. In the end, the pair is forced to return to dangerous Finland where blood-thirsty assassins are waiting for them.

Huunonen has some very innovative ideas and choices, particularly concerning scenes of love and murder, two things that are often done in films in exactly the same way. A jazzy soundtrack also emphasizes his emphasis on testing different things out. But his comic sensibility keeps the film a bit too light and farcical and many of his experiments don´t serve the film as a whole. It would have the ingredients to be a truly gripping work, but sadly it doesn´t quite go as far as one could wish. Nevertheless, it is one of the most interesting films of it´s time.

Huunonen only made one another film, a more conventional Piilopirtti, which attempts to return to the comedic crowd-pleasing style of his debut, Lampaansyöjät.


Nyrölä 3 (2004)
Kissa ja varjo (1993)
Dir. Tapio Piirainen

Tapio Piirainen is best known for his succesful TV series Raid, as well as the feature film of the same name that continued the story. Piirainen has also done a few crime movie for television that share his laconic humor, some themes of crime and corruption, and often also the same actors (Kai Lehtinen and Oiva Lohtander seem to reappear).

Nyrölä 3 seems to be closer to Raid´s world. In it, a new police officer (Maija Junno) of the small town of Nyrölä tries to solve the murder of a middle eastern pizza cook. The film tries to deal with the inherent racism of the Finnish countryside, but also features Lehtinen in blackface as the friendly "Saddam". This makes the film feel quite uneasy and counter-intuitive, even if it has some snazzy dialogue and a fun role for Lohtander. At times, the movie also gets too farcical, as in the extended roles of Kummeli comedians Heikki Silvennoinen and Timo Kahilainen.

Kissa ja varjo is more based on Piirainen wanting to try out different styles. The movie is a spy chase, with also elements from spaghetti westerns, film noir and even war movies. Kissa and Varjo are private investigators who keep on screwing each other over, even though they both should aim for the same goal. As a whole, it feels very light and would require some dramatic weight. Nevertheless, it´s an entertaining enough TV movie for one-time viewing.

Nyrölä 3: ★★ 1/2
Kissa ja varjo: ★★★

Kujanjuoksu (1971)
Dir. Maunu Kurkvaara

Kujanjuoksu showcases a crime that must be the most common in this country; an act of fury done in unclear conditions, alcohol being involved, and that causes self-loathing and suicide attempts in heaps. Kurkvaara is one of the greatest directors this country has seen. Kujanjuoksu isn´t quite one of his best, but it is an innovative and progressive cinematic piece that´s well worth a look.

Ossi Virtanen (Aarre Karén), a drunkard,  is captured and blamed for a murder of a teenaged girl, for which we know another man is guilty. Ossi himself can´t remember anything. Flashbacks are shown in black-and-white, and they slowly start to complete Ossi´s evening, and shed light into the crime. But this may happen too slowly and Ossi is constantly in danger of being thrown to jail for the rest of his life. Karén with his wrinkly brow and large eyes can´t help but to awake our symphaties.

The film is a bleak look into the justice system, where a seemingly guilty person needs to prove his innocence instead of another way around. Death and violence are random things that may happen to anyone, particularly to women. At the same time, alcohol may arise unusual friendships for a period of time.

The film is based on a true crime that happened in Helsinki in the early 1960s.

★★★ 1/2

Deadline (Tie naisen sydämeen, 1996)
Dir. Pekka Parikka

Finally, a cult movie in the making. Tie naisen sydämeen ("The way to a woman´s heart") is a bit of a tricky film to recommend. The title and the very unappealing dvd cover make this seem to be a very different film than it really is. In fact the film is a delicious Film Noir -parody in the same vein as Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.

Journalist Pentti Anttila (Timo Torikka) starts the film at a mental asylum. On his way out of there, he finds out one of the inmates is a woman being held there against her will. Outside, Anttila has to meet a Deadline, but decides instead to investigate the woman´s plea, which brings him to the totally corrupt countryside town of Järvensuu.

Director Pekka Parikka was known for his big national epics, such as Talvisota and Pohjanmaa. Deadline is an altogether different sort of film, and it turned to also be his last. As a final work, it reminds a bit of Charles Bukowski´s last book, Pulp, which is also a parody of a detective story with some surreal elements, over-the-top inner monologues and colorful characters.

The film´s script is intentionally filled with groan-worthy puns and figures of speech. Anttila seems to narrate his own story as if he was a hard-luck hero when in fact he is a nuisance to anyone he meets. Even his parents would rather they would have nothing to do with him, and his father is on his dying bed. Uncovering the truth of Järvensuu is not his main goal, he is only out to get a girl, as the title suggests.

The town of Järvensuu itself is so corrupt, it is totally hilarious. The locals held outsiders in total contempt, best put into flesh the rude barmaid (Ulla Tapaninen) that serves customers beer from a dirty dishrag. The mayor spends his days banging his secretary, and they both are so accustomed to this arrangement they don´t even quit their work to do so. And the town is secretly ran by a Mengele-like mad doctor (Vesa Vierikko).

It´s a film pulsating with ideas. It may require the viewer to put on a certain mindset, but when the jokes start rolling, they don´t really stop. It´s rewatchable, quotable and silly, all the things that tend to make a good cult film. Hopefully, it will gain some more notice.


Saturday, 11 July 2015

Christopher Lee in Memoriam

On June 7th, the world lost one of the greatest living screen legends and a personal favorite actor of mine, Sir Christopher Lee. Much as everyone would´ve expected him to turn 100, he left this realm at the ripe age of 93. He certainly had a long and amazing life, and no one could deny his love for the craft, since he was working until the end. And a good thing too, because his recognizable baritone could liven up the most dire of blockbusters. He´s one of my all-time favorite actors precisely because there´s no thrash film so rotten that he wouldn´t improve it just by with his immense charisma and serious speech patterns.

I am a bit late with this post, but I couldn´t have a better reason to get this blog running once again than to start out by reminiscing some of Sir Christopher´s work. This isn´t necessarily a listing of his greatest roles (might I direct you to this post about The Wicker Man for that), but these are some of his most iconic performances, with some curiosities thrown in for good measure.

Horror of Dracula (1958) 
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
Dir. Terence Fisher

Of course, the role that made him famous, and a cornerstone in his career was the defining portrayal of Count Dracula in numerous Hammer Studios´ films, starting with this one. As it is, it´s surprising to see just how little we see of the old count in Horror of Dracula, and even in the following film, Dracula: Prince of Darkness. But Lee is such a perfect embodiment for otherworldly evil, as well as a sexy outsider, that he leaves an immediate impact.

As Hammer films tend to have, this one also has top-notch sets, music and a foggy athmosphere you could cut with a knife. The cast is very good, but the acting is still very theatrical. Later on, Hammer directors eased out on acting-direction, but sadly this coincided with the scripts getting worse and worse. At this point they were still eager to try their claws with classic horror stories and giving them an unmistakably English twist.

In The Horror of Dracula, the most notable problem is the same one as in Stoker´s book (from which the film otherwise takes notable liberties). While the opening scenes of Jonathan Harker traveling to castle Dracula and realizing that the man he thought to do real-estate business is in fact an undead monster, are exciting, feverish and threatening. But once the action settles on patriarchal Victorians trying to solve the case of women enjoying sex, the film jars to a halt. Never mind that the obsessive, cold and violent Van Helsing as portrayed by Peter Cushing is one of the best portrayals of that character.

Lee hated the role of Dracula so much, that he refused to say any of his lines in the first sequel, PoD. That film was made to keep the struggling hammer Films afloat, so Lee had to grudgingly accept. The resulting pantomime performance emphasizes the character´s otherwordliness, and the surrealism feels much more like the live-action reprisal of Nosferatu than Werner Herzog´s actual remake could ever manage.

Dracula: ★★★ 1/2
Prince of Darkness: ★★★ 1/2

The Hound of Baskervilles (1959)
Dir. Terence Fisher

Lee played in many different versions of Arthur Conan Doyle´s Sherlock Holmes stories, managing to play Holmes twice and his brother Mycroft once (in Billy Wilder´s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. I have a lot of fondness for that role). Curiously, he was never cast as Professor Moriarty, but perhaps that would´ve been way too obvious. This Hammer Films version of perhaps the most famous Holmes story deserves merit because it takes the opposite direction, casting Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville, with his best friend Peter Cushing as The Great Detective.

Lee´s Sir Henry is something of a buffoon, a very self-important aristocrat that is introduced complaining about his missing shoes and mistaking Holmes as a servant. Lee´s no-nonsense charisma and a sort of anger seethe through a man who´s deadly afraid, but can´t manage but to try to keep up appearances. A scene with a killer tarantula for instance reveals the cracks in his facade, making him totally freeze up in fright.

It´s always a pleasure to see Cushing and Lee play off each other (which makes it such a shame they have so little interaction in Dracula films or, for instance Curse of Frankenstein). They are a pair for the ages, usually having one of them be the straight man, voice of reason, and the other the passionate character, fringing on the edges of madness. It´s evident that the pair got on off-screen as well.


The Bloody Judge (1970)
Dir. Jesús Franco

If Lee´s career in the 1950´s and early 60´s was emphasized by the films he made with Terence Fisher and Hammer Films, in the late 1960´s and early 70´s his most frequent working partner was the Spanish schlockmeister Jesús Franco. In many ways, Franco had a way of continuing on with some of the work Hammer started, such as taking on their Fu Manchu films with a couple of movies of the Diabolical Doctor of his own. It seems Lee had a fondness for Franco, since he could even convince him to play The Lord of the Vampires once more for 1970´s Count Dracula. Lee has gone on record to praise that film, probably because it gave him dialogue straight from Bram Stoker´s novel, a feat which none of the Hammer movies could manage to do.

Another of Franco´s films that pleased Lee was this historical thriller about the 17th century Lord Chief of Justice Jeffries, who was known for public executions. One must say that Franco was riding on the wave of the wave of British horror of the day, releasing this film between such films with similar subject matter as The Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan´s Claw. Cynical looks at the bloody and unfair history of England were all the rage then.

However, like Franco´s films tend to be, this one is thin on story and oddly uneven. Scenes of torture and nude women were inserted to the finished film in order to gain notoriety. Thus also Lee´s performance disappears from the film from time to time. As Jeffries, he does tremendous work, with his burning gaze and reasoning that he is serving the kingdom by killing people he sees as threats. Lee could make Franco´s films a lot better than they had any right to be, and this one is certainly watchable, if nothing to really write home about.


The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
Dir. Guy Hamilton

Of course, the work Lee did in the 70´s weren´t all zero-budget horror films. He was a particularly apt choice for a Bond villain, playing the assassin Scaramanga. He happened to be a distant cousin of 007 creator Ian Fleming, and actually was his first choice to play the agent way back when. While Lee could´ve pulled off both Bond´s ruthless side as well as the more gentlemanny traits with ease, in the films we´ve got, he wouldn´t really have worked.

This particular film is from the most silly period of Roger Moore´s agent, featuring things like Nick-Nack the killer midget, comic relief Southern Sherriff J.W. Pepper and a Funhouse assissation arena. Bond films play for the tastes of that day with some kung fu action thrown in the mix. Yet Lee´s Scaramanga still feels like a genuine threat, never mind that you couldn´t really kill anyone with golden bullets (I´m not sure about the gun, though. It would be very heavy and soft, though).

The character of Scaramanga would prove to be one of the first of Bond´s "dark reflections" (of course Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love being the first). As such, it´s a pity they couldn´t mine some more substance out of that dynamic, resorting to quips about superfluous nipples and bikini girls instead. But this has been a well from which the Bond producers have returned to with every iteration of the character since.


Mask of Murder (1988)
Dir. Arne Mattson

Now, a lot of Finnish media tended to tell about how much Christopher Lee loved Finland. he came here to fight as a volunteer in the Winter War, after all. Also, as he loved J.R.R. Tolkien´s works, he also appreciated the Finnish language. But he never did act in a Finnish movie. This is something the Swedes got and we didn´t. For Lee had a sizable role in the Swedish thriller maestro Arne Mattson´s English-language film mask of murder, which saw the actor in a Swedish setting.

As far as plots go, this is not really something to write home about, and certainly not one of Mattson´s finest. The Swedish town of Uppsala is here representing a desolate Canadian village. Murders of women start to occur, and it´s at first up to Lee´s Chief Supt. Jonathan Richto solve them, but then he´s suddenly wiped off the game and the case left to his assistant Supt. Bob McLaine, played by Rod Taylor. They have their own skeletons in the closet, and the film has a very cynical outlook in the small town police force as a whole.

I´m going to admit it´s a pleasure mostly because of the setting of an obviously Swedish town, as well as it´s nice to see the nicely mustached Lee and Taylor thinking. The violence is surprisingly stark, owing to the slasher films of the day. Horror fans despise the film, perhaps because it delivers very little in the way of actual horror and that the end twist is easily guessable. But there´s surprisingly lot of Lee in the film, and he gives a fine, subdued performance so I´d say it´s worth checking out.


The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies (2014)
Dir. Peter Jackson

I have to mention this last, since it was the last time I saw Christopher Lee on the screen. On Jackson´s bloated prequel trilogy, there are very few things on screen that feel tangible, realistic or even emotionally resonant. Lee´s Saruman the White fighting Ringwraiths is of course horrendous as an idea for a Tolkien fan, but it´s also the only offering of fan service in the films that I actually enjoyed. That´s kick-ass, even if it is a stunt double most of the time, and a better fight scene than Lee got in either of the Star Wars prequels he appeared in.

Many people complained that Saruman´s trechery was telegraphed too plainly in the first Hobbit movie. I thought that Lee portrayed him as Tolkien suggested, arrogant and pompous, with a love for his own voice. Again, while the material he had may not have been up to standards, Lee made it his own, and with his extensive knowledge of literary sources, made it even more accurate. As such, he is the best part in that movie, too.


So in conclusion, rest in piece, sir Christopher. I know you´ll be coming back, because that´s the way you work, but try to come back as a benevolent spirit, guiding us to reach to be as awesome as you were in life.


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