Wednesday 2 December 2020

Love & Anarchy Advent Calendar


So, we had a Love & Anarchy Film Festival this year as well. I was taking it slow in covering it, but then I realized it was over two months ago. But perhaps by starting an Advent Calendar I can cover 24 movies that were seen at the festival. They had chosen a really good program, and kept the audience as safe as possible in these circumstances. Check back to this post on every day of December to catch up on reviews.

1. First Cow (USA, 2019)
Director: Kelly Reichardt

Kelly Reichardt is known for making slow, quiet and ponderous movies, so it's kind of a jump when the new one is basically a buddy comedy of two grifters in the Old West. It's the kind of western that follows on the footsteps of McCabe & Mrs Miller and the like, everything is grey, brown, dirty, flimsily built and wooden. There's no glory or romanticism involved, even if the framing story tells of a modern woman finding out about the history involved.

The movie is a good, multilayered depiction of the friendship between two underdogs, played by John Magaro and Orion Lee. It also has some critique of the American Dream and drive towards entrepreneurship, which proves impossible for even the skilled ones if enough odds are against them right from the start. That's why they have to resort to cheating, stealing milk from the prize cow to improve their cakes and thus bake sales. The film has a cold, unflinching look at nature, which is at the same time utterly ruthless and oddly comforting. we are all parts of the woods in the end.


2. Wendy (USA, 2019)
Dir. Benh Zeitlin


The impressionistic director Benh Zeitlin with his crew has prepared his follow-up to Beasts of a Southern Wild for seven years. While that one saw wonder and childlike amazement in poor and devastated Southeast terriories, this one takes a jump toward even more fantastic storytelling. It's a reworking of the story of Peter Pan.

The film is again visually stunning, and the locations in the Pacific Islands with an active volcano are nothing short of breathtaking. This time around, Zeitling guides a larger cast of child actors, none of which are as strong to carry a movie as Quvenzhané Wallis was. It also seems that the long production period and kids growing up so fast has made it necessary to tell the story fragmented and disjointed. It may be argued that its due to the logic following children's playtimes, but it makes for a tedious thing to follow. There are some kind of cool reworkings of the Pan story set to a more modern backdrop, but some are basically terrible. Mostly anything to do with Captain Hook and his pirates. Beasts of a Southern Wild was not without its problems, but it had a more clear purpose, now it seems it's a bit too childish and dumbed down for adults and not exciting enough for kids, satisfying no one.


3. Lost Boys (Finland/Thailand 2020)
Dirs. Joonas Neuvonen, Sadri Cetinkaya


The documentary film Reindeerspotting made waves a decade ago, and also became a big hit in Finland. The movie depicted a group of drug addicts from Lapland in their daily lives, fighting against their urges, boredom, and the system. From the profits of the film, the real-life buddy group got enough money to fly to Thailand for the winter. After a few months of pure hedonism, sex, drugs and all other vices, only the film's director Joonas Neuvonen returned home. Soon after, one of the group was missing and the first film's main character Jani was found dead in shady circumstances.

The sequel film is of Neuvonen's attempts to recollect, what went wrong and to try to find out what exactly happened to his friends. The material he had for this film were fragmented, some in pooor quality. The reason the film took a decade was that it needed multiple screenwriters, editors and even co-directors to make sense of all this. Considering this, the resulting film is a wonder, a docufiction that is both a horrifying psychedelic nightmare in the vein of Gaspar Noé and Nicolas Winding Refn. On the other hand, it is also a sad look at the dead end facing the first film's characters. They might get some fleeting moments of happiness late in their lives, but it's all a illusion and the ground is approaching fast. This time around, Neuvonen puts himself more to under the magnifying glass, emphasizes his own bad feelings about the case and maybe his own fractured psyche.


4. Radioactive (UK, Hungary, China, France, USA 2019)
Dir. Marjane Satrapi


The author of Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi, hasn't had the most successful career as a film director. His previous film, Voices, flopped in the Stateside, so she has had to resort to having an easy-to-sell biography project made with funding from around the world as her next project. The film tells the life story of chemist Marie Curie, discoverer of Radioactive elements. As it is, Radioactive has many moments of visual intrigue and good acting, but it can't avoid all the major pratfalls of the biography genre.

Rosamund Pike carries the film as headstrong Curie. As Satrapi tends to do with her comics work, she also intercuts the story with asides that show consequences of the discoveries, both good (radiation treatments) and bad (the Chernobyl accident). Those asides however reveal the film's limited budget, even if it's stretched admirably to fit these parts. The major problem is, however, that like most scientists, the life story by itself isn't really that captivating, and showing of all the various awards and stuff seems like reading from a Wikipedia page. The center is the relationship between Marie and Pierre (Sam Riley), but it lacks tension since Pierre is doing his best to share credits and help Marie as much as he can. The adventures in World War I with her daughter, shrugged off in the film's last 20 minutes, would have been more interesting to follow than focusing on the early parts.


5. Nomadland (USA, Germany 2020)
Dir. Chloé Zhao

Director Zhao once again finds a way to make a western that's relevant to the themes for today. And she does it with a docufiction style, having plenty of people with the nomad lifestyle essentially play themselves. It's a touching film about the inability to find one's place in the world, but for once, not through the eyes of a teen or a young adult, but an actual adult, magnificently portrayed by Frances McDormand.

McDormand's Fern is tossed out after the closure of a major factory and an entire town's livelyhood. She does meaningless part-time work for Amazon and lives in her trailer, traveling the Great Plains of USA.  On her way, she tries developing relationships, but everything seems fleeting and avoid her grasp. The film has an anti-capitalist sting, but I feel the film could have had more brutally honest things to say about Amazon's worker practices, which were only alluded to here. It may be due to the realities of releasing such a melancholic film for adults, one can't rule out Amazon by biting the hand that may feed you. It's a shame Zhao herself seems to accept the odd job here and there, since she's moving on to the MCU. I think certain rising talents could produce incredible movies elsewhere, whereas with Marvel they'll probably do something reasonably entertaining but forgettable. But that's late-stage capitalism for you. It maximises profits, not art.

★★★★ 1/2

6. Dogs Don't Wear Pants (Koirat eivät käytä housuja, Finland, Latvia 2019)
Dir. J-P Valkeapää


I had actually seen this last year in festival screenings, but since then this movie has become a bit notorious abroad, so it warrants a mention. It's a sort of dark comedy of a man (Pekka Streng) struggling with grief finding a new lease in life with kinky sex and especially with a blossoming relationship with a dominatrix (Krista Kosonen).

Valkeapää is perhaps the most gifted visualist of the new generation of Finnish filmmakers. Here he has some shades of neon noir or the films of the likes of Noé and Friedkin, but manages to do something unique and undoubtedly his. It's a considerable step up of his previous work that had clearer pastiches. It's not as rough and kinky as one might expect, but it's also no surprise that some things get taken a bit far. The key of the movie is in its central triangle drama of sorts with a father being drawn into a sexy underworld, but his daughter also needing him in her struggles.


7. My Octopus Teacher (South Africa 2020)
Dirs. Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed

Filmmaker Craig Forster recalls an unusual encounter with an octopus in an underwater kelp forest. Octopi are as intelligent as house cats, so the fil m goes out its way to show how they too can act as personally, gracefully and smartly as any pet, with footage to support it. I'm usually wary of films that make of animal behaviour to be to human-like, and there are some interpretations here that near the line. As it is however, is a reminder that we have incredible species around the world that have their own emotions, and we just can't go on destroying the landscapes in which they live in.  


Tuesday 1 December 2020

Three laughs: Kinjite - Forbidden subjects

It is hard to rate some trashy films. Films can be really good entertainment in spite of the quality of the filmmaking. In fact, it might be even harder to create unique trash that keeps surprising you than most "quality" films with which you know what you are going to get. It certainly is an even better pleasure to watch them. My friend says that he knows a trash film is worth something if it gets three laughs out of me. I mean proper, good belly laughs when you just can't believe what the film is showing to you, scene after scene. That's as good a rating as any for these movies. Any film that has these three laughs has a special place in my heart.

★ or ★★★★★

Three laughs case file # 25:
Kinjite - Forbidden Subjects (USA, 1989)

Director: J. Lee Thompson

I know we are still on the edge about police brutality. Yet the cop-on-the-edge trope is one that's been central to a zillion action movies throughout the years. Now, in movies we usually take the cop's point of view, which tends to show that you may have to break a few rules to get to the goal you're reaching. Meaning, it's ok to use excessive violence if it's for purging streets of nasty criminals, who are evil for evil's sake.

But this is why trashy low-budget movies are more honest than their big budget counterparts. They have less to lose so they say what they mean without diluting the statement. Dirty Harry is a small fry when compared to some of the characters Charles Bronson played at films produced by Cannon Group.

At 1989 Bronson was getting pretty old, so the usual action movie tricks, like chases and gunfights were out of the question. That's probably why they upped the ante and made his character a racist who especially enjoys torturing criminals in inventive ways. When a japanese diplomat's daughter is kidnapped, he must find her even though he realizes that the family's father is the same guy that groped his daughter on a packed bus (or "touched her holiest of holies"). 

Now, the film may have some idea that what Bronson is doing is questionable. But he is proven right in his prejudices in the end, and never faces consequences of killing a whole lot of people, so the point is mute. In fact, the entire film is kind of ridiculous in that it seems to contain a message that the Japanese are perverted and should be monitored. Not to mention latino criminals. So, a fair point is to give this film a content warning. If you can't find anything funny about a film that protects police rights to be racist and violent since "they all deserve it", I totally understand. This is one of those films that make me feel dirty for watching, let alone writing about.


Three laughs (SPOILERS):

1. Bronsons's cop specializes in capturing dirtbags. The first fight ensues when he interrupts a businessman trying to get it on with a teenaged girl. Now, Bronson's pretty old by this point, so he's never in the same shot with a punch or a kick being thrown, resorting more to stuntmen and quick editing. Where he is, however, is when the sleazebag is defeated and he decides to show him what's what. He grabs a handy dildo from his bag and the scene is cut just as he's about to shove it where the sun don't shine.

2. In another scene a latino crook tries to bribe Bronson in a parked car with a gold Rolex. Bronson takes a look at the watch and tells he's like to shove it up his ass. But since that bit has been done already, he reaches for his gigantic handgun and threatens to blow the guy's head off if he doesn't eat the watch. The face he makes after the gulping is one of the most hilarious things in trash movie history. He also burns his car and threatens to kill him "dead in a gutter -dead".

3. Since throughout the film he's tortured and killed suspects without a trial, one would assume that what he has in mind for the sex-trafficing main bad guy is especially horrible. And it is, but in a totally different way. Bronson locks him up in a cell with a bunch of sexed-up Mexican gangsters, including a young Danny Trejo. As the villain howls as he's impliedly raped, Bronson smirks while walking away and quips "Now THAT'S justice". That's this film's idea of justice, all right.

Monday 30 November 2020

Sean Connery in Memoriam

Cinema lost another giant this year as the legendary Highlander Sean Connery himself passed away aged 90 in the Bahamas. Now, he might have had some very regressive personal ideas that have been repeated ad nauseum by leftists. But one can't claim that he wasn't a mesmerizing screen star, and also (his constant Scottish accent and lisping s's notwithstanding), quite a great actor as well. This post takes a look at some of his best performances.

From Russia with Love (UK, 1963)
Dir. Terence Young

There are many ways of approaching the Bond series, but it is also interesting to watch the earliest entries where everything was not that set in stone. While Dr. No already had a version of the basic formula, the first sequel in the series took a different path, having a more real world espionage-based and dark sequel. As it is one of the more serious entries in the franchise, I find it also surprisingly underrated.

It's still a Bond film, so there's plenty of ludicrousness. The entire film begins with a scene where Bond is seemingly killed, but it turns out it's just some guy wearing a rubber mask (for some reason) in Red Grant's (Robert Shaw) training exercise. Grant's dark reflection of Bond is one of the reasons people remember this film so fondly, but it has some other good characterizations as well, from the double-agent Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) to the actual main villain Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya), who never even meets Bond face-to-face. 

But Red Grant does, in perhaps the best fight scene of the entire series.

Before Daniel Craig came along, Connery was the only actor who managed to get a sense of danger out of the Bond movies. He is constantly in over his head, but his cocky nature and luck also make him come out on top of any situation. Bond is probably the worst secret agent possible, but it just adds to the allure of the character. Espionage is well below his radar after women and boozing.


Marnie (USA, 1964)
Dir. Alfred Hitchcock


Late-era Hitchcock films aren't also quite as well-known, and it may seem even surprising that Connery starred in a Hitch movie. Marnie is a exploration of trauma and lies and their effects on a relationship. It also has a Psycho-like table-turn, in which we at first follow Marnie (Tippi Hedren) as she cheats, swindles and steals money from each of her employers. When she gets caught by Connery's Mark Rutland, he takes it upon himself to get to the bottom of her personality flaws and functions.


As it was already the 60's, Hitch could have more graphic sex and violence than used to in his films. Connery is more of a hands-on actor than Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant who had problems with their masculinity in Hitch's movies. The central character of Marnie, however, is way too half-baked, a damsel in distress with little agenda of her own. Hitchcock has interesting scenes play out her panic attacks, but is seems he could have grounded the end reveals a bit more with the role of Marnie's mother being almost nonexistant beforehand. I think the film showcases a little too clearly Hitchcock's problems with women, and as a result, it's a good try to have a multilayered psychological thriller, but times had already passed such a chauvinistic view of things. It's not among the best of it's director's standards.


The Offence (USA, 1973)
Dir. Sidney Lumet


Connery made four films in total with Lumet, and as directed by a veteran who leaned heavy on good scripts and getting the best out of his actors, he also made some of the best work in his career. Here he plays a British policeman driven evenly more desperate as a child-murderer's case lingers on.


I'd say the bleak outlook on a 20-year police procedure has probably been a major influence on Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder. Lumet, however directs this mostly like a stage play, with minimalist interrogation rooms and very dialogue-heavy scenes. Lumet is interested in a breaking psyche, and the growing desperation that brings a seemingly good police to do atrocious deeds. It covers similar themes than a lot of showier films which is probably why this small-scale movie has had such relatively light attention.

Connery's role, however, is yet another character that takes out his inner anger and frustrations on women, in this case his long-suffering wife. Well, he has violent tendencies towards suspects as well, so he's not entirely likable by any means, but still, one has to wonder why so many of his characters share this woman-beating tendencies.

★★★ 1/2

The Wind and the Lion (USA, 1975)
Dir. John Milius

Milius found a good historical epic with which to tell a story about one of his greatest heroes, Theodore Roosevelt. It wasn't his last Roosevelt film, and Ol' Teddy is restricted here to a quite brief supporting role, though he is the Wind in the title. The Lion, then is Connery's Raisuli, a Berber prince out for glory. At that point it wasn't considered problematic to have Scots portray Arabs. Rather, he is used here to be a world-class lover and a fighter, in the same vein as Rudolph Valentino

There's planty of action scenes equal to Milius's later Conan the Barbarian, and a Stockholm sydromish romance with Candace Bergen's reporter, who finds that there's more to the Berber lifestyle than meets the eye at first. Meanwhile, Teddy (Brian Keith) faces pressures on his foreign policy back home, but meets them with his personal philosophies, which isn't nearly as interesting. The seperate stories don't quite click together and the ending is quite underwhelming. nevertheless, it is an enjoyable film to watch since Connery's and Milius's approaches to tell manly men tales are tangentially similar.


The Rock (USA, 1996)
Dir. Michael Bay

Finally, among the last really entertaining romps Connery made, and also the movie was more or less to blame for many of Connery's late-era woes. The Rock's stunt casting sees him play pretty much a James Bond type that has been kept in a prison cell for 30 years. He's a quippy man of action, but at the same time a mentor too. That the aged Connery happend to fit into a thoroughly modern action movie so well gave the wrong imprsiion to other filmmakers who attempted similar approaches, the bottom of the barrel being 2003's LXG which made Connery quit acting altogether.


You can find plenty to blame in Michael Bay's approach. Connery seems to enjoy to play a character that sees things to be as black-and-white as they were in the 1960's, which extends also on his sex politics. He also seemingly kills or maims a lot of innocent people in a very tacked-on car chase, that's nevertheless a great showcase of Bay's strengths as an action director. By contrast, Nicolas Cage's weirdo, modern action man and Ed Harris's noble main baddie are more nuanced characters, but Connery holds his own against these two great performances. Bay has only regressive things to say, but that's only if you try to search anything meaningful in his cavalcade of outrageous plot turns and huge explosions. As a 90's romp, it's still great fun, and perhaps should have been Connery's actual retirement film so he could have gone out on top.



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