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Max Manus (2008)
Max Manus: Man of War
Thus speaks Wikipedia: "Max Manus (1914–1996) was a Norwegian resistance fighter during World War II. He was a pioneer of the Norwegian resistance movement and was arrested by the Gestapo in 1941. He escaped to the United Kingdom for training and went back as a saboteur for the Norwegian Independent Company 1, better known as Lingekompaniet. He became a specialist in ship sabotage, was famous for being one of the most brilliant saboteurs during World War II, and after the war he wrote several books about his adventures." Hmm, sounds like it was only a question of time before this guy's life story would be made into a movie!
In its native Norway the film has been highly popular among the public which is not hard to understand considering it is a very traditional and technically well-made war film. The basis of the plot was already summarized in the first paragraph: a volunteered veteran of the Finnish Winter War, Max Manus (Aksel Hennie) is enraged to see his beloved Norway being taken over by the Nazis in the early 1940s and quickly organizes an underground resistance movement with his friends Kolbein, Tallak and Gram (Christian Rubeck, Mats Eldøen and Nicolai Cleve Broch). Ships are sunk and bullets fly but Manus never loses his hope in the face of the enemy, personified in the Gestapo officer Siegfried Fehmer (Ken Duken).
The filmmakers are clearly well aware of the conventions of heroic war movies and utilize them unrestrainedly in the story. The cinematography is pleasantly brownish-yellowish in the interior scenes and creates an atmosphere of old photographs that always suits well movies set in recent history. The exteriors are also filmed beautifully, particularly the short training scenes in Scotland, and the night scenes bask in pretty twilight blue. Unfortunately the professionalism of the production also leads to overt Hollywood-style conventionality of the plot: of course there is a romance (with a woman named Tikken, played by Agnes Kittelsen), of course friends get killed, of course the good are good and the bad are bad. I understand that many of these things actually did happen in real life but since this is not a documentary, they could have been changed a little in order to spice up the tale with something more unexpected than the obvious hero plot.
OK, some of the mine-setting scenes are fairly suspenseful and the story occasionally catches a beautiful sense of melancholy, most notably at the end. In general, the plot is at its most interesting when examining Manus' traumatic Winter War memories and feelings of guilt when his friends and innocent people are punished for his rebellious actions; I wish such inner demons would have been paid more attention at the expense of the Nazis, the obvious enemy. There are also some flat-out clichés in the movie, such as the bad guys being lousy marksmen, and the overly shaky camera during several emotionally charged moments annoyed the heck out of me.
Be that as it may, I am sure there is an audience for Max Manus outside Norway as well. Personally the thin drama plot did not get me hooked very much but friends of traditionally heroic resistance tales should find everything they are looking for in the film. Furthermore, Aksel Hennie in the titular role bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Steve Buscemi – never a bad thing! So, go ahead and give it a look if it sounds like your kind of movie; you might end up enjoying it a lot more than I did.
Du levande (2007)
You, the Living
"Be pleased then, you the living, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe's ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot." This quote from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe begins You, the Living, the currently latest feature film of the Swedish auteur director Roy Andersson. Considering how easy it would have been for me to go through all four of his full-length films made during his decades-spanning career, I now wonder why I haven't watched any of his work before seeing this one last night. Well, better late than never, they say, and I'm certainly happy that I finally decided to give his work a go because I haven't been this impressed by a movie in a long while.
As mentioned, I haven't seen any of Andersson's previous works, so I cannot tell for sure how closely You, the Living resembles them thematically, but judging from what I've heard, his visual and directorial style has not changed dramatically between this and his previous effort Songs from the Second Floor (2000). This type of bleak, grayish cinematography (here provided by Gustav Danielsson) has often been used to convey a feel of suffocating mundanity; in this case the visuals support Andersson's very long takes and nearly complete lack of camera movement that create stylistic connections to the works of, say, Yasujirô Ozu, Michael Haneke and Jaime Rosales. I know many people do not appreciate such slowness and artificiality but personally I have been a fan of static shots for a long time and think that they allow a special opportunity to present certain calmness and meticulous planning that moving cameras and quick cuts do not allow.
As for the obligatory plot description, in this case writing one is difficult since the movie consists of partially overlapping vignettes of ordinary life in a Swedish city rather than a straightforward and easily summarizable story. To me the most remarkable characters include at least a lonely girl named Anna (Jessika Lundberg) who briefly meets her favourite rock star Micke (Eric Bäckman) in a bar and spends the rest of the movie futilely searching for him. Also worth mentioning are a self-pitying woman named Mia (Elisabeth Helander) and a carpenter (Leif Larsson) who recounts one of his terrifying nightmares that we get to witness in an illustrated form along with several other dreams by other characters. These are not the only people we follow during the film but they are the ones I felt closest to, especially Anna, so I will leave the rest of the people to be discovered by new audiences themselves.
The tone of the scenes can be best described as tragicomic; not often does one see such seamless unity of tragedy and comedy within one movie or scene. Awkward silences, wide shots of people who never get too close to each other... there is something very characteristically Nordic about these little snippets of life. Take for example the carpenter's Kafkaesque nightmare that starts tingling in anticipation and advances via laugh-out loud comedy to alienated absurd tragedy all within minutes – masterful handling of the audience's emotions! Another highlight and perhaps the most touching part of the whole film is Anna's dream which she presents straight to the camera. The beautiful guitar notes, the rising music and the cheering crowd outside create a wonderfully beautiful image which is only elated by the fact that we already know it is just a dream.
Dreams in general are a major motif in the film; it both starts and ends with one, blurring the borders of bleak reality and mysterious dream logic. Perhaps not surprisingly, the nature of death (and inevitably life) also comes to mind when thinking of important themes examined by the film. We witness a character's unexpected death and the aforementioned Goethe quote has already set the mood rather dark right from the beginning (the quote also ties in with the train scene; note how its destination is marked as Lethe, a river in the Hades of Ancient Greek mythology). Returning closer to regular life, problems in communication are a repeated theme as well. Characters constantly misunderstand, fail to hear or just ignore each other as if they are all blind to the inner similarities between them. An obvious example is the scene where Mia rejects the flowers given to her by a strange man. To some his subsequent reaction could easily come across as heavy-handed and overdone but I think it is a powerful little moment that stands out among many other strong scenes. The scene with the frustrated psychiatrist in particular feels like Andersson talking directly to us by breaking the fourth wall: "Live, don't lament!"
Andersson's use of a traditional hymn, upbeat Dixieland jazz and military marches throughout the film, sometimes lingering softly in the background, sometimes overtly dominating the mood, can often be seen as lightening up the tone but also making everything appear utterly laughable in a way, once again harking back to the excellent sense of tragicomedy that the director utilizes in the film. The jazz score is probably most notably used at the very ending which I would rather not give away, as ambiguous as it is. The final shot truly elevates the story to yet another level: will this be the end for everything? Is it all a collective dream? I am not sure, but I cannot think of a better ending for the movie.
After witnessing such a withdrawn whirlwind of comedy, tragedy, the mundane and the otherworldly, ordinary movies just feel so... ordinary. More knowledgeable audiences may find it plausible to criticize Andersson for excessive repetition or not developing his style actively enough between films (I wouldn't know, having seen only this one) but since I am just trying to capture my own first reaction here, I can only praise this work of art: You, the Living is a wonderful tale of humanity and should be immediately seen by anyone looking for both emotional and entertaining cinematic experiences.
"The Happy Ones"
After Kesäillan valssi (1951) proved out to be very successful among the public, an independent sequel Onnelliset was produced a few years later, continuing the style of writing a drama story around Oskar Merikanto's music. Most of the central actors reprise their roles, notably Eeva-Kaarina Volanen and Leif Wager who play Annina and Lauri Alanko, the couple from the first movie still happily married with a young son. They are not completely financially secure, so Lauri agrees to take up a job of accompanying a famous opera diva named Delia Rosati (Maaria Eira) on her European tour. Delia's seductive advances toward Lauri put his faithfulness to Annina to a tough test but the young wife is not without attention at home either: her friend and employer Veikko Kuusi (Leo Riuttu) has grown very fond of her and is favoured by Annina's bourgeois mother.
If Kesäillan valssi focused on the beginning of Lauri and Annina's relationship with light little songs and almost comedic atmosphere, the sequel s clearly more mature and serious in its approach to the characters. Like the first film, Onnelliset feels a little divided in the middle: the first half is dedicated to portraying the development of Lauri and Delia's relationship, while the latter half focuses on said relationship's effects on Annina and her family. The pacing is rather slow and big emotions only occasionally bubble up to the surface. There is also some social commentary about the political situation of the early 20th century when Finland was still under the command of the Russian Tsar. I know I criticized Kesäillan valssi for being too lightweight for its own good but here it feels like such a problem has been overcorrected and everything feels too dry and serious. It could also be a good thing though, since all viewers can now choose their favourite of the two movies based on their personal preference between comedy and serenity.
The songs that were one of the driving forces behind Kesäillan valssi appear to have been moved to the side as well in Onnelliset. Now a lot of the melodies are performed by Delia in her concerts which may alienate some viewers because her high-pitched soprano voice may feel too classical to fit in with lighter music. Eeva-Kaarina Volanen gets to sing very little and I was hoping Wager would take the stage more often too. Their best moment is probably their duet of the titular "Onnelliset" which naturally sounds very pretty. However, I must repeat my complaint about Volanen's acting; she still comes across as too joyous and carefree in her role, as if Annina never quite grasps the whole situation. The little girl playing her son Erkki is also totally annoying. Nevertheless, Leif Wager (now with a funny little moustache) and the real-life opera star Maaria Eira are enjoyable to see throughout.
Even though the realistic themes of marital issues, jealousy and guilt are basically a welcomed addition to the "franchise", I do not think they are handled in a very gripping way here after all. The very ending can be called a little lackluster and too easy as well. Still, Merikanto's music, some of the locations and Delia's singing montages are very nice, so Onnelliset is worth seeing if you liked Kesäillan valssi. As a standalone drama it is not among the cream of the crop of Finnish classic cinema though.
Kesäillan valssi (1951)
"The Summer Evening Waltz"
Oskar Merikanto (1868-1924) was one of the most beloved Finnish composers whose works were often more accessible to the general public than those of his contemporary Jean Sibelius. Perhaps because of this it was possible to build Hannu Leminen's music-driven drama film Kesäillan valssi from 1951 almost entirely around Merikanto's famous compositions, achieving great success among audiences all over the country.
What we have here is not a biopic: the opening credits specify that the plot is not related to Merikanto's life at all and only utilizes his music throughout. The story is a variation of the old premise of love crossing all obstacles, this time set at the turn of the 20th century. Annina Grahn (the beautiful Eeva-Kaarina Volanen) is an upper class girl who falls in love with her handsome music teacher Lauri Alanko (the singing heartthrob Leif Wager) who responds to her feelings enthusiastically. Of course, her bourgeois family does not approve him due to his meager social status but Annina, having recently turned 21 and thus become an adult, is now old enough to make her own decisions.
The first half of the film is so light in tone that it is difficult to see it as a serious drama at all because it so joyously cherishes the power of romance over anything else. Only during the latter half do dark clouds start gathering in Annina and Lauri's sky of love and the mood begins to develop into a melodrama before returning to a sentimental but kind of sweet ending. The unconvincingness of the dramatic elements can mostly be attributed to Eeva-Kaarina Volanen's performance in the lead role: her love-crazed, neverending smiling in practically all of the scenes does not fit in the serious moments and renders the movie more lightweight than it would otherwise be or was intended to be. Leif Wager, on the other hand, gets to demonstrate his acting talent in somewhat demanding scenes later into the film and handles the role well enough. I would also like to give a shoutout to the folksy Toini Vartiainen and Reino Valkama in supporting roles as Annina's friend Else and the couple's friendly protector Manu respectively.
As mentioned, the film is largely based on Merikanto's music and it is because of this why it feels better than the storytelling alone would suggest. The eponymous waltz is heard several times throughout the film and why not, it is an iconic peace of Finnish culture after all. Other lovely tunes sung by the high-voiced Volanen and the softly crooning Wager include "Oi, muistatko vielä sen virren", "Onnelliset" and "Annina" – all beautiful melodies carrying an ambiance from times gone by. Shame about the less than satisfying sound quality on the print I saw!
The story has not enough substance to work properly as a serious drama, so I think it may be better to see Kesäillan valssi as little more than romantic fluff from start to finish. As such it is very watchable and not to be missed by fans of classic love stories in Finnish cinema. In short, "pleasant, melodious, forgettable" is how I feel about the movie after seeing it for the first time.
"Pekka and Shorty Chase the Yeti"
In 1954 the popular but critically unappreciated series about the adventures of Pekka Puupää and his short friend Pätkä had come to its third part and actually surprises me positively even though at this point it is the only P&P movie I have seen. The director was, of course, Armand Lohikoski and the titular duo were played by Esa Pakarinen and Masa Niemi with Siiri Angerkoski in her most iconic role as Justiina, Pekka's intimidating wife.
This time the famous trio decides to take a train to Lapland after Pätkä sees an advert promising a million marks to whoever captures the Yeti that is rumoured to live in the snowy fells of the North. Planning to use the female charms of Justiina as a bait, Pekka and Pätkä also get unknowingly involved in a love rectangle between two would-be couples: their new train friends Timo Vaski and Katriina Sirkkunen (Olavi Virta and Anneli Sauli) and their skiing guides Irmeli Laavu and Riku Sundman (Tuija Halonen and Åke Lindman).
I am sure it will not come as a surprise to anyone that the plot is not exactly a world-class masterpiece of storytelling but provides many amusing moments along the way. Pätkä's Batman-style climb to Pekka's apartment window, the beautiful snowy scenery in the Lapland skiing scenes and the ridiculously hairy appearance of the lovable Yeti itself (played by Vihtori Välimäki) all work as visual treats but I liked the verbal humour too (such as Pekka's little math joke and Justiina's machine gun dialogue throughout), thanks to Pakarinen and Niemi's irresistible charm as the stars. It is really difficult to imagine anyone else playing these roles, let alone not having Siiri Angerkoski as the motivation for so many of the men's antics. The tale is also tied to its own time by references to things like the Kinsey questionnaire and the legendary radio show host Niilo Tarvajärvi ("Karvajärvi" in this case) – that is not a bad thing at all as I have always liked seeing this type of windows to old times.
I don't know how Lumimiehen jäljillä compares to the other movies in the series but it got me interested in seeing more of them. A notable criticism would be that perhaps the Yeti hunting scenes go on a little too long and that there is a sense of underachievement floating around the movie; I mean, it leaves one wondering what the writers could have achieved if they had really spent time on planning the jokes and plot instead of churning out new movies every year. The comedy hangs heavily on the shoulders of the lead actors but they carry it with ease and the supporting actors do a decent job too (especially Anneli Sauli who is always nice to look at in anything). The songs and general mood of silliness have their own appeal in any case, so ultimately I did enjoy the film for what it's worth.
Sister Act 2
The music-filled 1992 comedy hit Sister Act was a positive surprise both financially and quality-wise but that does not mean the inevitable sequel would be any good, of course. Directed by Bill Duke, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit tries to introduce a few new elements into the familiar premise, some of them successful, others not.
Some time after the events of the first movie, Deloris Van Cartier (still played by Whoopi Goldberg) has returned to lounge singing and headlines a popular show in Las Vegas. When her old friends from the nun convent pay her a visit and ask her to help them with their work at a financially struggling high school, she cannot let them down and agrees to become the school's new music teacher. The students are unruly, the administrator Mr. Crisp (James Coburn) is uptight and the school is under risk of being closed down but luckily Deloris (a.k.a. Sister Mary Clarence) knows that the power of music is never to be underestimated.
The movie starts energetically with one of Deloris' Vegas performances that catchily recounts the events of the previous movie. It is also pleasant to see that Wendy Makkena, Kathy Najimy and Maggie Smith return in the roles of Deloris' fellow nuns and that this time there are also monks present among the school's staff. Contrary to the first movie that dealt more with the other nuns, this time the comedy is for the most part based on Deloris' interaction with her new rebellious students who prefer freestyle rapping to gospel choirs. I wonder if rap music had more of a novelty value in mainstream entertainment in 1993 than it does in 2011 because seeing it now, I was left hoping for more actual songs instead of brief sessions of verbal rhyme battles and tough talking.
During the latter half the music finally gets going and we hear fun songs like the funky "Get Up Offa That Thing / Dancing in the Street" and the final choir performances ("Joyful, Joyful") near the end. The end credit version of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" performed by various cast members all together belongs among the most entertaining moments of the film as well. However, the movie is not really a musical and should also be judged by merits other than the soundtrack. On this front it is not very successful, in my opinion. The plot is extremely predictable, the noisy kids are annoying and the funniest characters (like the eccentric monks) are not paid enough attention. Fans of Lauryn Hill will surely be interested in her breakthrough performance as a young discouraged singer Rita Watson but I was not too big a fan of the ballads she sings here. More cheery songs like the first movie's "Shout" are what Sister Act 2 would have needed.
Setting the plot in a school makes sure the story does not repeat the first movie's ideas too obviously but I wish they had used the different environment for something less predictable than just another tale of a new teacher cleaning up a rundown school by inspiring troubled kids to believe in themselves. I guess that if you absolutely loved the first movie, there is no reason why you would not like the sequel too (at least moderately) but generally speaking, I do not think Sister Act 2 is very good film. It seriously lacks the will to deviate from the tried and true patterns of comedy conventions and failed to make me laugh or even smile, unlike the original film that featured better songs and antagonists. You might as well save your time and watch the music clips on YouTube or something; the rest is pretty skippable.
Lumikki ja 7 jätkää (1953)
"Snow White and the 7 Lumberjacks"
Ville Salminen's directorial career spanned from the early 1940s to the late 70s and included many cheerful comedies like Kaunis Veera (1950), Oho, sanoi Eemeli (1960) and Kaks' tavallista Lahtista (1960) as well as some more serious efforts such as Haaviston Leeni (1948) and Irmeli seitsentoistavuotias (1948). Particularly Kaunis Veera has its place among the most entertaining Finnish musical comedies ever and the re-imagining of a fairytale Lumikki ja 7 jätkää from 1953 is not terrible either, even if not as funny as some other old musicals.
As already mentioned, the plot is a modern take on the old fairytale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The eponymous Snow White is actually a student named Liisa (Raili Mäki) who arrives in the countryside with her friends on a summery day. There are seven lumberjacks working nearby and the girls quickly notice them, especially the handsome Erkki (Heikki Heino) whom they promptly name "the white Tarzan of the North". After Liisa gets lost in the woods and stumbles upon the lumberjacks' house, the gruff men persuade her to become their much-needed hostess. She agrees, noting that together the guys resemble the characters of the famous fairytale: Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy and Dopey.
The plot itself does not get much out of the old premise; the comedy is mostly based on making faces, pratfalls and exaggerating the characteristics of each dwarf. The movie would not be worth much if it was not for the songs, of which there about 13 or so (quite a few for a 70 minute film). Even though the dancing is anything but skilled, the brisk ditties about lumberjack life and the beauty of romantic love quickly win the viewer over despite the atrociously bad lip-syncing (the songs were actually performed by the vocal group Souvaripojat) and heavy overacting by the "dwarves" and Raili Mäki, as beautiful as she is. My favourite tunes were probably the song where the "dwarves" introduce their new nicknames and the gentle melody they sing when they have finished cleaning up the sauna for Liisa, but none of the other songs are bad either.
I know this type of movies are not really meant to be watched for the plot or some kind of deep underlying message but the noisy comedy style of Lumikki ja 7 jätkää starts getting a little tiresome before the end (a prime example would be the constant loud sneezing by Pentti Irjala). This is why I am not giving the movie more stars for now; however, I stress that the songs are lovely and numerous. Had I not seen so many truly wonderful foreign musical gems, I would have liked this one more for sure.
"The Serenade Lieutenant"
Military farces were a very popular type of comedy cinema in the 1950s and many movies were produced to poke fun at stereotypical behaviour of officers and the rigid rules of life in the barracks. One earlier example of the genre is Ossi Elstelä's musically titled Serenaadiluutnantti from the late 1940s.
The plot is borderline non-existent and the story is mainly built around catchy songs and stereotypical characters doing what they always do: two traveling performers named Oinas and Holopainen (Henry Theel and Ossi Elstelä) accidentally end up in an Army base after boarding a wrong bus. Penniless and without a much better place to go, they decide to spend a few days posing as recruits in order to enjoy the free food and accommodation. Of course, their immediate superior Staff Sergeant Mäkimies (Kalle Viherpuu) is a raging but gullible hard-ass, the women in the barracks (Sinikka Koskela and Siiri Angerkoski) cause some romantic tension and the laid-back "recruits" manage to play pranks and avoid any kind of work like professionals.
The good-voiced star singer Henry Theel and the chubby Savo-speaking Ossi Elstelä do their parts well, even though the plot hardly calls for master-class actors. The songs are pretty fun and by far the best part of the movie, especially near the beginning during the variety show that features some flashy acrobatic dancing, Theel telling jokes in a little girl's voice and the legendary children's favourite Markus-setä as a host. In fact, they really should have saved the show scene for the ending, since the ordinary schlagers that we hear later on do not have the same exhilarating effect as the dancing and juggling. Another option, of course, would have been to fill the whole runtime with numbers like that instead of spending it with unimaginative bumbling and romantic misunderstandings.
As a big fan of movie musicals I just cannot give the film a rating of less than five stars out of ten but I must note that if it was not for the songs, there really would not be much to see. Well, the natural folksy charisma of Elstelä and Angerkoski is pretty alright and the movie seems to understand its meager status since the runtime has been limited to mere 75 minutes. To close the review with a last sentence mini-summary of my thoughts: musical fans may enjoy this one; others may just as well skip it.
Patrik 1,5 (2008)
Patrik, Age 1.5
The Birdcage (1996), Reinas (2005), The Wedding Banquet (1993), Law of Desire (1987)... many good films have been made about gay people's relationships with each other and their straight friends and families. Ella Lemhagen's 2008 drama-comedy Patrik 1,5 is the first film I have seen from the director but joins the above movies in the category of watchable gay comedies.
The plot goes as follows: Göran and Sven Skoogh (Gustaf Skarsgård and Torkel Petersson) are a happily married gay couple who have recently moved into an idyllic new suburb and are anxious to adopt a baby. However, they find their dream difficult to realize since no foreign country is willing to give a child to a gay couple and suitable Swedish babies are difficult to find. They are overjoyed upon hearing that an orphaned 18-month old baby has become available for adoption but are dismayed when their baby Patrik turns out to be a 15-year old homophobic delinquent (Thomas Ljungman) due to a typographical error in the adoption documents.
With a premise like this, one could expect the story to be a sappy tale of overcoming prejudices which carries a laughably obvious message like "gays are people too" but luckily that is not the whole point of Patrik 1,5. Sure, Sven and Göran do encounter homophobia, ranging from kids calling them names to the neighbours "forgetting" to send them an invitation to a house party, but ultimately the story focuses much more on the characters' relationships with each other, be they gay or not. In fact, the movie does not find it necessary at all to specifically point out that it is OK to be gay as it goes without saying right from the start. A less subtle film could have been built entirely around stereotypes like effeminate clothing, lispy voices and giggly flamboyancy but the couple in Patrik 1,5 is completely ordinary and very likable (if also a bit generic and unmemorable, like average people are) – the film laughs with them, not at them. A downside would be that in its quest for ordinariness, the film does not differ very much from many other movies about parenthood.
Although the overall mood and "message" of the film are thoroughly sympathetic, its basis as a feel-good dramedy lessens the effect of the serious drama plot regarding Göran's suspicions of Sven not being the right guy for him after all. More masculine than his partner, Sven is not free of prejudices himself and acts in a very hostile manner toward Patrik who always comes across as more scared than tough (even surprisingly so, being a convicted delinquent and all). When the focus is subsequently turned to the budding friendship of Göran and Patrik, the gay theme becomes secondary and the film plays out like any family drama of a sullen kid opening up in a loving family. Cheesiness is not entirely avoided although the actors do a very good job throughout, particularly Skarsgård and Petersson as the lead couple.
Besides the cheese, other complaints about the movie could include things like occasionally overly shaky camera work and the somewhat underdeveloped character of Sven's daughter Isabell (Amanda Davin). The hostilities between the super-friendly Göran and the secretly sensitive Patrik also dissolve unrealistically quickly but I guess they wanted to keep the mood on the lighter side after all so wallowing in past traumas could not be paid too much attention. Nonetheless, I liked Lemhagen's film alright and greatly prefer it to, for instance, the Adam Sandler comedy I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007) that wanted both to make fun of gays and promote their acceptance at the same time. In the end, Patrik 1,5 is certainly a movie about more than just gay issues and can be recommend to anyone looking for a positive little tale of family relationships.
The coastal city of Kotka seems to have quite a groovy town in the 1950s Finland, at least if we are to believe Keisarikunta, Pekka Mandart's 2004 movie based on certain real-life musicians who once jammed in a small local restaurant called Fennia. The songs surely are fun but I think a meatier story would have definitely been needed to raise the movie into the truly memorable class.
The protagonist is an aspiring drummer named Rempo (Mikko Leppilampi) who humbly works in a menial job to help his girlfriend Aila (Maria Ylipää) to reach her dream of opening a beauty salon of her own. However, Rempo's old musician buddies persuade him to take all of his savings and buy a restaurant instead so that the band could start regularly performing again and perhaps make good money on the side. Despite his newfound musician lifestyle, Rempo is torn between his loyalty to the band and love of Aila who has now relocated to Helsinki, thoroughly disappointed in him.
As mentioned, the jazzy, bluesy and rocking song numbers are all very swinging and highly entertaining, plus the guys of the band and their friends are decently played by actors like Mikko Nousiainen (the ambitious bandleader Olli), Tuomas Uusitalo (the chubby guitarist Kinkku) and Petteri Summanen (Heiskanen, a boxer-turn-doorman with a speech defect). Notable is also the atmospheric cinematography by the experienced Kari Sohlberg with tones of yellow, brown and even green that make the whole movie resemble old photographs of the era. Very nice!
Considering the visual and aural quality of Keisarikunta, it is too bad the characters and the plot itself are so thin that it is difficult to actually care about them much. Seeing how dedicated he is to her later on, Rempo's decision to let Aila down by spending their savings just like that feels poorly motivated and the couple's romance is very basic and ordinary love story material to begin with. Additionally, I think the beautiful Maria Ylipää does not really get enough screen time to show her full potential in her role. Though I understand the movie was never meant to be a larger-than-life melodrama, I dare to claim that some more substance can justifiably be demanded since the film does not go merely for laughs but is also labeled as a drama.
For the most part it is probably better to see Keisarikunta as a lightweight buddy movie and a portrayal of the old pals' last summer together. The guys' banter and occasional quarreling is ultimately more interesting and entertaining than the romance, especially thanks to Tuomas Uusitalo as the jovial and talented Kinkku. Likewise, I must repeat that the songs are very nice, so the movie can be called an adequately watchable little flick, just not worth going out of one's way to find it.
Porttikielto taivaaseen (1990)
Banned from Heaven
Tapio Suominen's most famous film is probably the 1980 youth portrayal Täältä tullaan, elämä! but the director has been active in the following decades as well, even if not the most prolific of Finnish filmmakers. After Gunpoint (1981) Suominen directed some TV works before advancing to his fourth "proper" movie, the noiry Banned from Heaven that was released in 1990.
The protagonist is a high class prostitute Pirkko "Bella" Autio (Satu Silvo) who works for a shady businessman named TT (Tapani Perttu). When her two friends and colleagues Lulu and Sara (Riikka Suikkari and Niina Nurminen) find themselves in danger at the hands of TT's deranged son and henchman Jukka (Tapani Perttu's real-life son Karri Perttu), Bella knows she has to finally set things straight with TT and sort out her dangerous lifestyle where not only ruthless clients but also the police are after the girls.
I saw the movie knowing very little about it and wondering if it would be a drama, a crime story or perhaps an erotic thriller like the first scene with a near-naked woman would suggest. As a whole the film takes influences from all of the aforementioned genres but does not quite manage to mix them into a good blend. There are many well-made aspects, such as the soft tones of the cinematography, the eerie score by Johnny Lee Michaels (a.k.a. Jouni Turpeinen) and the neo-noir-style shadows, darkness and camera angles but the story is not very interesting and the intensity never reaches the levels of real noir classics. I did not find the acting as fluid as would have been needed for this type of slick high class characters, even though Satu Silvo's natural sternness suits Bella alright and I liked the fragile Riikka Suikkari as the naive Lulu.
The most fascinating character is TT's stalker son Jukka whose mysterious motives keep the plot interesting for the most part but sadly his storyline is completely messed up at the end. What is his history? Relationship with Lulu? How did he end up what he is? I guess we will never find out – what a cop-out! Besides the crime plot lines, the film can also be seen as a portrayal of friendship between women and an examination of their position in a society ruled by men but I do not really think of the film as a feminist statement after all. The big emotional scenes are not that convincing and the ending is not very strong, not only when it comes to the Jukka character but Bella's storyline as well. The police investigation subplot also fizzles out disappointingly.
A stronger script and an even more stylized presentation could have helped the movie significantly but it is not completely hopeless an effort as it is now. Finland needs more film noir and visually Banned from Heaven is pretty good as already mentioned. It can also be noted that the sex scenes are much less gratuitously exploitative than they could have been in a movie about prostitution; it is good to see the filmmakers were trying to create the feel of rawness with something else than bare female skin, although that is not to say the movie is without its kinky moments. The point is, Banned from Heaven is an interesting but not very successful film; recommended as a curiosity, not so much as a quality drama story.
Isäpappa ja keltanokka (1950)
"Daddy and the Rookie"
Stereotypical scientists and researchers are often easy to poke fun at, as exemplified by films like The Nutty Professor (1963 and 1996), The Man in the White Suit (1951) and the Back to the Future trilogy (1985-90). Finland has produced comedies featuring theoretically-minded characters as well, for example Kuriton sukupolvi (1957), Professori Masa (1950) and Edvin Laine's Isäpappa ja keltanokka from 1950.
As a typical romantic comedy, Isäpappa ja keltanokka is a story about love finding its way to the life of a seemingly hardened grouch. The eponymous daddy Yrjö Tammela (Joel Rinne) is an aging widowed ichthyologist, bedridden due to sciatica and extremely rude to everyone around him. His hostile behaviour has already scared away dozens of maids who were hired to help him and his three kids (Lasse Pöysti, Eila Peitsalo and Matti Ranin) are getting tired of his outbursts as well. Together they devise a plan to hook their father up with a new woman one way or another but the grumpy old man is not easy to tame and only a brisk female doctor named Salmi (Mirjam Novero) appears to make a positive impression on him.
Right from the first scene it is clear that subtlety is not what Isäpappa is going for: a lot, if not most, of the lines are delivered by shouting, the overacting is furious and everything quickly develops into a flat-out farce. There is nothing inherently wrong about such noisy bumbling if it is done right (it also heavily depends on the viewer's mood) but here it feels mostly tiresome and annoying despite the short runtime of mere 70 minutes. The potential lady friends are rushed by so quickly that their scenes do not get to make much of an impact compared to the tempestuous ranting of Joel Rinne; I think at least Siiri Angerkoski would have deserved more screen time and a happier ending as Birgit, a superficially stern colleague of the professor.
Even though the loud rampaging style may have its fans and at points creates a welcomed sense of unpredictability, the story is ultimately a fairly traditional one. Rinne's insults, Heikki Aaltoila's score and some supporting characters (most importantly Oiva Sala as Miettinen, a sarcastic colleague) have their moments but in the end I do not think the film is a success even within its own context – I would rather watch Kuriton sukupolvi or Sysmäläinen (1938) when it comes to knowingly exaggerated romantic roaming.
Hylätyt talot, autiot pihat (2000)
Abandoned Houses, Empty Homes
Laila Hietamies (nowadays Hirvisaari) has been one of the most popular and prolific novelists in Finland since the early 1970s. A little surprisingly only one of her novels has been dramatized on the big screen although several have been made into stage plays. The sole Hietamies feature film Abandoned Houses, Empty Homes from 2000 is based on the 1982 book of the same name and was directed and written for the screen by Lauri Törhönen.
Like so many of Hietamies' stories, the film is set in the author's old home region in Finnish Karelia. In the summer of 1944 the Continuation War against the Soviets is coming to an end and most of the Finnish soldiers are well aware that they are not going to win it. A lot of civilians that were evacuated from Karelia during the Winter War have returned to their homes but are forced to leave again when the overwhelming Russian troops are approaching. The film examines the situation through a few ordinary people, both civilians and soldiers: Captain Aarne Heikkilä (Mats Långbacka) with a pregnant wife Martta (Jonna Järnefelt), the widowed Helmi Elisa Karhu (Sari Puumalainen) with a young daughter and the frustrated Medical Major Pekka Karjalainen (Carl-Kristian Rundman) whose path crosses with the others many times.
During the first half the film stays down-to-earth and plays out like a character drama rather than a battle spectacle. The technical aspects are well created and the nature scenery looks very pretty with all the green vegetation and wavy lakes. The atmosphere of defeat is not very desperate for the most part due to the women's gutsiness while confronting troubles from all around (a rapist deserter, several air raids, childbirth just before evacuation...) but when the focus is turned to the men on the front, the story gains momentum significantly. The battle scenes look adequately dangerous and the desperation grows quickly when friendly fire is equally dangerous as the enemy's attacks. I think it is often a good idea to tell a war story through the eyes of the lower ranks as opposed to decorated Generals and Commanders; this movie works as a good example of such a solution. Likewise, we do not get to see the situation from the Soviets' perspective, which only adds to their sense of crushing insuperability.
In spite of all the good things, not everything in the movie is great. Namely, some of the acting comes across as a bit stiff and theatrical, making it clear that a half-hearted dialect is not enough to make up for the lack of natural screen presence. Also, the female nudity feels a little excessive because the audience knows to expect it right from the start; I mean, it is Törhönen's directorial trademark after all. The score frequently sounds too emotional, even sentimental, and does not rise above the conventional level of musical accompaniment in films.
Nonetheless, the story of evacuation and hurtful defeat should surely hit home especially with elderly audiences that went through similar experiences in their youth (I can't help thinking about my own grandparents here). Anyone looking for the home front's point of view in the matter might also want to give the movie a look. Additionally, the authentic filming locations in Vyborg and Hamina look very nice. All in all, Abandoned Houses, Empty Homes may not be the ultimate war spectacle but remains a watchable film with an emphasis on the softer side of things as opposed to non-stop action and heroism.
"The Emergency Valve"
In her prime Lea Joutseno was one of the best comedy actresses in Finland, probably best known for her collaborations with the veteran director Valentin Vaala. Along with films like Dynamiittityttö (1944), Viikon tyttö (1946) and Tositarkoituksella (1943) Vaala and Joutseno's 1942 rom-com Varaventtiili belongs among the better old Finnish comedies of its era.
The plot gets started when a young teacher named Liisa Harju (Joutseno) arrives in a small Ostrobothnian village to work as a teacher in the local school. Her boss' wife (Elli Ylimaa) turns out to be extremely snobby and immediately starts showing her distaste for the new teacher but luckily Liisa's colleagues Rauha and Oskari (Irma Seikkula and Olavi Reimas) are friendly to her. There might also be some romance in the air when the village's handsome doctor Eino Korpinen (Tapio Nurkka) steps in the picture but jealousy cannot be avoided because he happens to be the target of the romantic advances of Ester (Rakel Linnanheimo), the snobby family's posh daughter.
It quickly becomes clear that the whole movie has been built on the charisma of Lea Joutseno but fortunately she can handle the responsibility with ease. Her perky, quick-witted and sarcastic antics keep the audience amused throughout but Irma Seikkula is very likable too as the shy Rauha. Olavi Reimas feels a little stiff in the role of the cynical Oskari though, perhaps such a withdrawn role would have needed an earthier approach from the actor. On the other hand, Tapio Nurkka is very funny as the doctor since his natural flirtiness suits the slick upper-class character very neatly. I also liked Rakel "Regina's sister" Linnanheimo as the doll-faced but annoying Ester.
Although I liked Varaventtiili quite a lot the first time I saw it, a rewatch has revealed some weaknesses that went unnoticed at first. Like many older comedies, Varaventtiili suffers from a lack of non-diegetic score: many scenes scream for lighthearted musical support and subsequently feel unnecessarily theatrical with just the dialog, as funny as it is. Furthermore, the story feels a tad too long at 95 minutes due to the predictability of the romantic plot and the fact that the movie mostly wastes the opportunities of social commentary regarding, say, class differences.
Still, I enjoyed the film as a whole, thanks to the snappy dialog featuring many charmingly old-fashioned, now suggestive expressions that are used completely innocently in the movie ("rakastella", "kalu", "vehkeet" etc). The final verdict: Varaventtiili, while not a masterpiece, must not be missed by admirers of Lea Joutseno and fans of old Finnish comedies.
Tjenare kungen (2005)
"Hi There, King"
The liberating power of rock'n'roll music has been the source of inspiration for many movies ever since its birth in the 1950s. Films like Almost Famous (2000), The School of Rock (2003) and That Thing You Do! (1996) can be named as English-language examples of rock movies but Sweden has produced its own stories on the subject as well. To name two, Ulf Malmros' 2005 punk rock tale Tjenare kungen (a.k.a. God Save the King) makes a very nice companion piece to Reza Bagher's 2004 film adaptation of the novel Populärmusik från Vittula (a.k.a. Popular Music) that also dealt with small town kids' desire to spread their wings through music.
The story, based on a 2001 novel by Britta Svensson, is set in 1984. Punk rocker girl Abra (Josefin Neldén) lives in a small town and dreams of becoming a rock star but the town's narrow-minded atmosphere is hard for rebels like her. After meeting a fellow rock fan Millan (Cecilia Wallin), Abra moves to Gothenburg and starts a band called Tjenare Kungen ("Hello King") with her but nothing comes easy for the would-be rock stars: finding members for the band in an era when punk rock has gone out of fashion to make way for synth pop and glam rock, putting up with an uptight boss at a sausage factory, sorting out romantic feelings towards a handsome guy named Dickan (Joel Kinnaman)...
It can be imagined that the project has been a nostalgic one for the director Ulf Malmros who was in his late teens during the film's era. Perhaps this is why the 1980s atmosphere is so pleasantly recreated in the story: punk, rock and pop hits of the time are constantly playing, the fashion is flashy and hairstyles are as unappealing as expected. Still, everything is photographed with sunny, warm brightness that makes the film visually very pretty and youthful. The main actresses Neldén and Wallin look so cute in their roles that they can only be loved but Johanna Strömberg and Malin Morgan do their parts decently too as the self-declared fashion designer-keyboardist Gloria and the experienced older rocker chick Isa respectively. The latter is also the only significant adult character in the story; otherwise the perspective belongs entirely to the young to whom grown-ups are nothing but dead weight.
The plot is nothing strikingly original or imaginative: questions of selling out, romantic shyness, triangle drama and temporarily falling out with one's best friend are all ordinary youth flick material and would not carry the film far if it was not for the sympathetic young actors. Some scenes struck me as particularly clichéd; namely, the wedding gig (yeah, right) and the big finale (seriously, who didn't guess right away what the climax would be?). The brief saxophone jam scene was hilarious though, precisely because it was cut so short with perfect comic timing.
Regarding Nordic peers of Malmros' film, an obvious comparison can be made to one of my favourite Finnish movies Pitkä kuuma kesä (1999), although TK focuses on girls instead of guys and stays more clean-cut with much less alcohol use and bad language. Anyway, all things considered, Tjenare kungen is definitely an entertaining, fun and even delightful little movie, easily worth a look especially by fans of the music and fashion of the 1980s.
"The Man from Sysmä"
By the end of the 1930s Valentin Vaala was by no means a newcomer in the Finnish film industry but considering the impressive number of films he directed during his cinematic career, his 1938 historical rom-com Sysmäläinen can be seen as an example of his early phase. Besides Vaala's direction, the film is also remembered as the second and penultimate appearance of Sirkka Sari who tragically died in 1939 by falling into a chimney at the age of 19.
The story is based on the novel by Jalmari Finne and features real historical figures Arvid Tandefelt and Brita Ekestubbe as protagonists. In 17th century Finland, the young Arvid is forced to marry the little Brita but their ways soon part when their respective fathers move to different places. Years roll by and Arvid (now played by Olavi Reimas) grows up into a handsome and respected Thirty Years' War veteran known for his excellent fencing skills. However, he has fallen madly in love with a local maiden who does not reciprocate his advances, not to mention that his forced marriage to Brita (Sirkka Sari) is still valid. With his new practically-minded servant Kustaa (Vilho Auvinen) and a romance-hungry woman Johanna (Kerttu Salmi), Arvid travels to meet Brita in order to get a divorce but love has other plans for the originally reluctant couple.
As a romantic comedy Sysmäläinen is surely even sillier than most movies of its kind: the costumes, wigs and facial hair are funny per se, everybody overacts like crazy and the plot is complete fluff from start to finish. Still, in its own context all the pieces somehow fall in place! The romantic misunderstandings, false identities, gender-bending disguises and the swashbuckling swordfight are tremendously entertaining throughout largely thanks to the actors' laid-back approach to the roles. The impulsive Arvid's incredibly antsy and romantically tormented state of mind is joyously conveyed to the audience by Reimas and Sirkka Sari is absolutely adorable as the smart Brita (a.k.a. "Aatu") – cursed be the chimney that cut her life so short! Auvinen and Salmi deserve praise too in the roles of Kustaa and the mistreated ditzy Johanna, even though the latter's storyline is wrapped up pretty sloppily (and too early if you ask me).
Everything in the film makes it look like the cast were having a great time making the movie and their enthusiasm reached me through the TV screen very well. The plot may be based on just one idea, Arvid's treatment of Johanna may be questionable and there may not be much serious ambition to be found but who cares when the whole is as entertaining as this and no longer than 80 minutes? In the end, Sysmäläinen is definitely recommended to fans of old rom-coms, period pieces and Vaala's directorial career.
Americans may think Santa Claus lives in North Pole but in Finland everybody knows the truth about his place of residence: he is really from the Korvatunturi fell in Finnish Lapland. Based on this premise is also built Christmas Story, the second feature film of director Juha Wuolijoki who was previously best known for the peculiar culinary TV comedy Gourmet Club (2004) featuring the sturdy Michael Badalucco among others.
As opposed to presenting later adventures of the Santa we all know, Christmas Story sets out to reveal how he originally became what he is nowadays seen as. At the beginning a young boy named Nikolas (Jonas Rinne) becomes orphaned in Northern Finland sometime in the mid-19th century and the compassionate villagers start taking turns in looking after him, always for one year at a time. The thankful Nikolas takes up secretly leaving small presents for the friendly families every Christmas but upon the arrival of the great famine years, the villagers have no choice but to give the boy in the custody of the seemingly brutal and feared hermit carpenter Iisakki (Kari Väänänen). While learning the secrets of woodwork under the guidance of his strict new master, Nikolas never forgets the good people who once helped him and keeps making new presents for every Christmas.
I admit I was sceptical about the movie long before seeing it since Christmas movies have a history of being corny cheesefests and this one appeared to be no exception. Things were not helped by the fact that it also marked the acting debut of the highly popular but tremendously charisma-free pop star Antti Tuisku whose involvement felt like a cheap attempt to cater to the masses at the expense of professional casting. Luckily, I was proved wrong: the story is actually pretty down-to-earth and keeps the most obvious tearjerking clichés at arm's length at all times. Kari Väänänen does a great job as the scary Iisakki who is revealed to be a bitter and sad old man under his hateful surface and Hannu-Pekka Björkman is excellent as the heavily bearded adult Nikolas. The kid actor Otto Gustavsson is given a decent-sized role as the 13-year old Nikolas but gives no reasons to complain and Antti Tuisku's role is kept small enough to not get too distracting after all. I really hope the dubbing does not ruin the performances for viewers outside Finland.
Although the origins of a few obligatory Santa trademarks are of course presented (namely, how he got the reindeer, started dressing in red and became dedicated to his cause), the plot is not concerned with the real folkloristic roots of the historical Sinterklaas. Instead, the main focus is wisely kept on the characters and their development over the many decades the story covers. Nikolas is a thoroughly sympathetic man but can also be seen as a tragic loner driven by an obsession stemming from past traumas. Loneliness, fear of growing old, slipping further and further down into a crazed world of his own... He is not free of problems but fights them in his own way. Eh, maybe I'm digging too deep into the story but hey, isn't that the fun thing about watching movies anyway?
Technically Christmas Story is "at international level" like we Finns like to say about movies that do not look cozily clumsy and home-baked. The numerous shots of snowy scenery, the softly lit interiors and the elaborate carpentry equipment in Iisakki and Nikolas' workshop look all good and the score by Leri Leskinen is adequately dramatic and expressive throughout, even if also sentimental and overbearing at times. The sole supernatural scene at the end comes closest to the traditional American image of Santa; I am not sure if it fits in the earthy tone that has been maintained in earlier scenes but I guess a flashy finale was needed to ensure the aforementioned feel of "international quality".
After five rambling paragraphs, all I wanted to say was that I was positively surprised by the movie and think it is a well made holiday season film. It pleasantly avoids promoting consumerism or ramming a corny pro-nuclear family message down the throats of the audience. Perhaps some braver stylization could have raised the movie even higher above mediocre Christmas romp but it is definitely quality family entertainment as it is now too – peaceful, lovable and able to hold the interest of older viewers as well.
Omena putoaa (1952)
"The Apple Falls"
Industrial councillor Walter Österberg (Valtteri Virmajoki) is an old and bitter man who has been left heirless after his beloved daughter died in a car accident years ago. One day he stumbles upon a young woman named Ilona Jonsson (Toini Vartiainen) who bears an uncanny resemblance to his late daughter, prompting him to help her poor family financially. However, the girl's family members are gold-digging ex-cons who have their own schemes and plans in their never-ending pursuit of happiness.
This is the premise of Valentin Vaala's Jussi-awarded 35th (or so) feature film Omena putoaa, the second entry in his so called Waltari trilogy that also includes Gabriel, tule takaisin (1951) and Huhtikuu tulee (1953). All three films were based on stage plays by the famous author Mika Waltari who also made small cameos in at least two of the movies. The conman tale Gabriel tule takaisin is still easily worth a recommendation but the folksy Omena putoaa is not too shabby either.
Since the story begins with the wealthy councillor mourning his old age, the audience is led to believe he is going to be the main character of the story but the focus soon turns to Ilona's motley crew of a family. The colourful lower class folks are ruggedly portrayed by veteran actors like Tauno Palo (Ventti-Ville), Reino Valkama (Ilona's father Jaska) and Senni Nieminen (Ilona's alcoholic neighbour and occasional mother Anderssonska) and interestingly only occasionally and vaguely show remorse for their lifestyle of crime and deception. Contrastingly, the rich councillor Österberg carries a feel of melancholy and despair due to his understanding of how his relatives are just as greedy and uncaring as everyone else in his lonely world. In fact, I wish his character would have been featured more prominently in the plot instead of paying so much attention to the criminals' scheming, as likable as they are.
Although the optimistic resolution at the end is not the strongest possible and smells a bit like an obligatory happy ending, the many positive details outweigh the negatives. Besides the aforementioned performances, Tarmo Manni and Pentti Viljanen are funny as the intellectual vegetarian Maisteri and Jaska's old cell-mate Kalle respectively. The music by Einar Englund is also top-notch and allows Tauno Palo to sing an amusingly inappropriate little song at a high society dinner party. In any case, had the movie's tone been even more cynical regarding the characters' motivations, Omena putoaa could have been a refreshingly dark look at the human nature. Now the effect feels a little watered down due to the ending that goes against the spirit of the preceding scenes. It must be remembered that the film was always intended to be a comedy though; as such it remains entertaining for what its worth.
Neiti Talonmies (1955)
After having been less than impressed by William Markus' 1957 chamber drama Miriam, I was sceptical about the quality of the director's earlier comedy Neiti Talonmies from 1955. In spite of my worries, the movie proved out to be an adequately watchable little flick even if many aspects of it leave room for improvement.
As for the obligatory plot description, Neiti Talonmies begins when a teenage girl named Irja Sassi (Nelly Lovén) becomes an orphan after her mother dies. Her landlady immediately kicks her out and she movies to the local school to work as a caretaker and assistant to the teacher (Asta Backman) but has to eventually move again after the teacher gets married. Irja gets another job as the janitor of a big school led by the stern headmaster Kuusi (Tauno Palo) and is keen on continuing her own studies on the side. Many problems are encountered during her years at the school but the self-confident Irja sorts out all difficulties in her education and love life.
At first the movie feels slow and cumbersome; the actors come across as stiff and theatrical as if they are all trying too hard to be comedic, especially Nelly Lovén in the lead role and Backman as the teacher of the small school. The same situations keep going on for ages without much progress and the transition from one school to another is rather clumsy (the teacher character is dropped out of the story so bluntly that it makes you wonder why she had such a big role to begin with). In addition, the romantic "twist ending" in the roller-coaster of the Linnanmäki fun fair is glaringly obvious from early on although seeing and riding the good old Vuoristorata cannot be anything but fun. Tauno Palo is at home in his slightly nerdy role though.
Later on Lovén's inexperience as an actress begins feeling less distracting and her sarcastic, even feministic charisma starts coming out quite enjoyably. The many clips of her doing chores of the big school carry a pleasant breeze from old times and are fun to watch despite the snail-like pacing of the plot. Harry Bergström's original score is excellent too and often steals the show from the images in a good way. To sum up, I ended up enjoying Neiti Talonmies alright since the music and lead performances are good enough to make up for the lack of a gripping story. So, the movie makes decent entertainment for a lazy afternoon any time.
Wild Measures '71
All good things must come to an end, including the Stray Cat Rock series with five entries in total in the franchise. After four movies all released in 1970 (three of them directed by Yasuharu Hasebe), the final part was helmed by Toshiya Fujita who had also made the second film Wild Jumbo. By this time the differences between Hasebe and Fujita's directing styles have become clearer than before but in the end I think both did a good job with the series.
Hasebe's three Nora-neko films all dealt with gang rivalries in big cities while Fujita's first effort was a leisurely caper story largely set on a sandy beach. Likewise, Crazy Rider '71 (a.k.a. Wild Measures '71 a.k.a. Beat '71) takes place outside busy urban environments and comes across as much lighter in tone than its immediate predecessors. The plot gets started when Furiko and Ryumei (Meiko Kaji and Takeo Chii), two members of a park-dwelling hippie gang from Shinjuku, are ambushed by a biker gang. Ryumei stabs one of the thugs to death but is forcibly taken away by his shady politician father (Yoshio Inaba), leaving Furiko to take the blame for the crime. She cannot forget him, escapes from prison in order to find him again and is soon joined by her gang in the small town of Kurumi. However, Ryumei's powerful father has no intentions of letting the bohemian hippies influence his son ever again.
Even though there are many tragic plot twists, most of the time the mood is significantly more comedic than before. The general bumbling of the hippies and their young adopted son Mabo, idyllic scenes of tandem cycling, roaming in a Wild West theme park, a whinnying sound effect on a motorcycle and other details all create a contrast to the dramatic finale that is probably the most spectacular and action-packed in the whole series. Additionally, the music is a lot softer than before but still almost as groovy and funny as always, especially the totally random song performance of the real-life psychedelic rock group The Mops in the middle of everything. There is also some drug use and a light naughty scene, all in comedic contexts unlike similar themes in Hasebe's films.
Even though I like the movie overall, it can be noticed that the series was clearly running out of steam by this point. The star of the franchise Meiko Kaji is absent for a large part of the runtime and her character's relationship with Ryumei (a.k.a. Takaaki) is not paid much attention by the writing, so the emotional background for the big showdown at the end remains vague. Ruymei's new girlfriend Ayako also comes across as a somewhat unnecessary and underused character, not to mention how it is difficult to grasp what the writers were thinking when killing off a certain character completely out of the blue at one point. Furthermore, the trademark camera trickery is heavily downplayed this time, reducing the style to just some quick zooms and occasional hand-held shaking. Still, the actors playing the hippies are pretty funny throughout; I don't know their names but I think at least Tatsuya Fuji is among them, as expected in this franchise.
When all is said and done, I think Crazy Rider '71 is a very watchable youth gang flick, flawed or not. Those who enjoyed Fujita's Wild Jumbo should definitely give this one a go since the similarities are obvious from early on, but with some reservations I would recommend Fujita's movies to Hasebe's fans too. The very last shots leave the film's ultimate "message" open for interpretation – hopeful or not? Watch the movie, decide for yourself and take a look at the other parts as well.
Une femme est une femme (1961)
A Woman Is a Woman
After his acclaimed and highly influential debut feature Breathless (1960), the Nouvelle Vague director Jean-Luc Godard went on to make a couple of short films and The Little Soldier, his first collaboration with the Danish actress and his future wife Anna Karina. However, the latter film was initially banned in France and was not released until 1963, thus making the 1961 musical comedy A Woman Is a Woman Godard's second published feature effort. The film's release history aside, is it any good when seen in 2010?
The core plot deals with a beautiful striptease dancer named Angela (Anna Karina) who lives with her boyfriend Émile (Jean-Claude Brialy) in a top floor flat in Paris. Her biggest dream is to have a baby but he is reluctant and keeps avoiding the subject, often leading to arguing and bickering. Eventually an idea is brought up: perhaps Émile's friend Alfred (Jean-Paul Belmondo) could help in the matter...
I have heard some criticisms for Une Femme and was not thoroughly impressed by it either when I first saw it but after a rewatch it started feeling better like often happens to me. Typical for French New Wave, Godard does not allow his vision to be bound by the conventions of cinematic storytelling but instead freely utilizes various styles of presenting his ideas: music beginning and pausing abruptly in mid-scene, mixed-up text appearing on screen to describe the characters' emotions, almost absurd brief flashes of people dancing on a street, strangely changing coloured lights in a bathroom, talking directly to the camera...
All this can (and does to a certain extent) feel like alienating and artificial trickery for the sake of weirdness but when viewed in the right mood it can also look very entertaining. It helps to know how the film is known as Godard's tribute to American musicals: from this perspective the exaggeratedly dramatic and often knowingly unfitting bursts of music, the wide camera movements and sudden flashes of dancing gain a context and do not seem so abrasive anymore. In the middle of experimenting, the basic plot always remains at hand, examining universal themes of mismatching expectations in a relationship and the general nature of men and women – with a twist, naturally. Even so, one can simply just enjoy the visuals, colours and music without pondering them too much since the film is clearly meant to be (and is) entertaining as well.
The famous book title quarrel scene and the language jokes are pretty amusing but the most essential asset of Une Femme is the persona of Anna Karina in the titular role. Her girly and innocent charm ensures it is now difficult to think of anyone else playing the role, although Brialy and Belmondo are alright too. To wrap up, I understand many feel that one performance cannot save a film if everything else is annoying. Une Femme definitely has a risk of coming across that way and may raise a question about why the director made the movie the way he did. I am far from an expert on Godard's influences and intentions but judging simply from the joyous vibe the film sends, the answer may well be no more complex than "why not?"
"The Doll Merchant and Beautiful Lilith"
Setting a story in the future or an otherwise exaggerated world has always been a great way to satirize the prevailing society. There is no shortage of foreign satirical tales (A Clockwork Orange, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Great Dictator...) but we have got a few examples in Finland as well. One such movie is Jack Witikka's The Doll Merchant from 1955, a very refreshing exception from the usual formula of old Finn-films.
The story is set in a society where entertainment appears to be forbidden and everything is highly totalitarian, bureaucratic and eternally busy. Of course, misfits are not thought of fondly by the society's high officials led by the General Leader (Tauno Palo), so the Head Bureau's black-coated agents are always on the lookout for potential terrorists. One day a naive and financially struggling doll salesman (Martti Katajisto) catches the attention of the Bureau after being mistaken for a real anarchist (Heikki Savolainen), leading to many difficulties in his personal life. Particularly his budding romance with a beautiful blonde woman called Lilith (Hillevi Lagerstam) proves problematic as she happens to be the General Leader's lady friend.
To me the film was a very positive surprise; one doesn't get to see this kind of bold stylization too much in Finnish cinema. Often the absurd mood relies much more on the visuals than dialog and the frequent Dutch angles, stark contrasts of the black and white cinematography and almost expressionistic set designs are very enjoyable to examine over the course of the short running time. The major characters also have their doll versions in the merchant's magical basket and at one point we get to witness an exciting dream sequence that resembles a modern dance piece, a ballet even. That is probably my favourite scene in the movie but the anarchistic children's revolution at the end is quite exhilarating as well. The main love story itself is cute too, even if a little half-baked; I think Lilith's part is left a bit small and underdeveloped considering her status as a titular character. Anyway, acting-wise Hillevi Lagerstam makes a decent pairing for the pretty-faced Martti Katajisto.
The satirical elements obviously aim the jokes against the work-obsessed power-society that draws major visual influence from Nazi Germany, from the agents' shiny black leather coats and toothbrush moustaches to the ambiguously swastika-like logo of the General Leader's ruling party. In spite of the serious elements, the film is by no means a somber effort. The daydreaming doll merchant's antics and the lone anarchist's quest for one little doll are at many points purely comedic and in fact I don't think it would be completely crazy to hear echoes of Charles Chaplin's Little Tramp in the lead character: both are reticent but polite traveling loners often down on their luck although the doll merchant never loses his positive attitude, unlike the melancholic tramp. The comedic style is further emphasized by the intentional overacting by pretty much every cast member. In a serious movie it could feel theatrical and annoying but here it definitely fits in seamlessly, as does the excellently diverse and funny score by Simon Parmet.
Ultimately the message is more universal than political (even though the final revolution is indeed accompanied by a musical reference to the socialist anthem "The Internationale"). The importance of rediscovering the long lost joy, playfulness and love in one's life is not a strikingly original idea but comes across as so heart-warming and positive that it is hard to dislike. If only more directors and producers would have the courage to release this kind of stylish "fairytales for grown-ups" even today, modern Finnish cinema could become much more interesting than it is now with its heavy oversupply of gloomy dramas made for urban 30-somethings.
Releasing a movie and three sequels all within one year may sound a little exaggerated but I guess you have to strike while the iron is hot, right? In any case, the Japanese Stray Cat Rock franchise saw four entries in 1970, Machine Animal being the last one of the four although one more sequel came out the next year. While not as fresh as the first movies, the film is still watchable and can be enjoyed by anyone who has liked the other films.
The plot premise hasn't changed much since the last film: a girl gang led by Maya (Meiko Kaji, of course) hangs out around the city of Yokohama while being on friendly terms with Dragon, a tough biker gang led by Sakura (Eiji Gô, I think). The latter gang is responsible for a drug dealing business in the city's bars and is not happy when the girls decide to help three new guys (one of them played by the series' regular actor Tatsuya Fuji) to sell 500 pills of LSD. Since one of the guys is a Vietnam War deserter under constant risk of capture, the situation soon starts developing very dangerously.
Great music (psych rock, jazz fusion, sentimental schlagers), colourful fashion, a psychedelic go-go rock club... the trademarks of the series are still there and very difficult to dislike, but at this point they don't quite have the same effect than before. Haven't we seen them in three movies already? The visual trickery feels less original too, though the unconventional filters, framing, flashy editing, split screens and different angles are of course entertaining in their own right. If there is a notable difference to what we have seen before, I think this time we get to hear a few more songs, including one by Meiko Kaji herself. Not a bad thing at all!
The coolest scene is probably the big sidecar motorcycle/moped chase through various locations in the city, both indoors and outdoors. Gang rivalries and girl power have always been a recurring theme in the series but this time a slight anti-war message can also be found in the story when the girls decide to help Charlie, the deserter, instead of turning him in like the Dragon gang would like to do. Generally speaking, the actor who plays Charlie is not very convincing as an American and the political ideas are not really focused on much though. Another thing that could have received more attention is the plot line of Yuri, a strange wheelchair-bound woman who has an important role in Sakura's personal life and the underworld of the city; now her character is introduced quite late and doesn't tie in with the rest of the story very tightly. This is not really a major complaint in a movie like this but still something that can be mentioned.
As a whole, Machine Animal is not significantly weaker than Delinquent Girl Boss, Wild Jumbo and Sex Hunter and provides plenty of vintage coolness and entertainment for modern audiences as well. The tragic but hopeful ending fits in the mood well and leaves a positive, if melancholic, aftertaste but it is true that after this many movies made with the same recipe, the formula is already getting repetitive. Nonetheless, ignoring the influence of the other Stray Cat Rocks, Machine Animal is an adequately entertaining film at any rate.
Noidan kirot (1927)
"The Curses of the Witch"
Finnish cinema has not traditionally been known for horror films but is not devoid of examples of the genre either. Movies like Valkoinen peura (1952) and Noita palaa elämään (1952) still retain at least some of their original power and recent titles like Sauna (2008) and Dark Floors (2008) have received attention abroad as well. From a modern perspective it is very interesting to see the very first Finnish horror film Noidan kirot from 1927 – how well is the terror conveyed through the means of silent cinema?
Like Valkoinen peura, Noidan kirot is set in the wilderness of Finnish Lapland. The story begins when a young man Simo (Einar Rinne) brings his newlywed wife Selma (Heidi Blåfield) to his remote farm called Utuniemi to live happily with him and his blind sister Elsa (Kaisu Leppänen). However, he has to spend long periods of time away from home and during his absence Elsa tells Selma about the old legend of a powerful Sami shaman who once lived in the area and placed a curse on the local people before his violent death. Soon Elsa falls deliriously ill and Selma starts having visions of the witch too. Things are not helped by the fact that a local brute named Fat-Sakari (Yrjö Tuominen) has laid his eyes on the defenseless Selma.
Sadly, the horror elements soon become secondary to the drama plot about sexual morality, suspicion, guilt and justice. Sure, there is nothing wrong with such themes per se but frankly, they have been done to death in later films and just cannot feel very fresh anymore even if they did in 1927, although this is not really the movie's fault. Some of the wintry scenery, the visions of the shaman and a brief flash of a hairy demon causing nightmares to Simo look cool though; I wish the supernatural elements were more prominent because the movie would clearly have had potential for more than an ordinary melodrama.
It is of course very exciting to see authentic Finnish silent films regardless of their cinematic quality, but as a narrative tale Noidan kirot does not work as powerfully as the true masterpieces of the genre. The constant use of verbose intertitles to describe not only dialogue but also the surroundings feels excessive and the larger-than-life acting comes across as more comical than dramatic, especially with Einar Rinne in the lead role. Nonetheless, as a fan of 1920s film starlets I did like the fragile Heidi Blåfield in the role of Selma and the black-eyed Kaisu Leppänen as the sickly Elsa. The highly dramatic music composed by Tapio Tuomela for the 2010 re-release sounds pretty good and helps the film significantly by filling in moods where the images don't always succeed. Visually the movie is rather psychedelic; instead of regular black and white, the screen is always tinted with bright colours like yellow, green, blue, red and even pink or purple at least in the version I saw.
It goes without saying that Noidan kirot is a must-see for cinephiles interested in the history of Finnish cinema, but judging solely from its inherent merits, it left me somewhat cold much like director Teuvo Puro's earlier film Ollin oppivuodet (1920) that is also a part of The Finnish Broadcasting Company's project of re-scoring old Finnish silents. As a curiosity the movie can certainly be recommended to horror buffs though and Tapio Tuomela's score can be easily appreciated by film music aficionados, so ultimately Noidan kirot is not a worthless effort by any means. Still, to me it is a film to be appreciated more than liked.
Mr. Hulot's Holiday
The importance and influence of French comedy master Jacques Tati's most famous character Mr. Hulot is not to be underestimated: his nearly silent antics carry on the non-verbal tradition from the earliest decades of cinema and his iconic style lives on in more recent comedy characters such as Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean. The 1953 film classic Mr. Hulot's Holiday marks the first appearance of the lovable Monsieur and was also Tati's breakthrough success to international audiences.
The plot of the movie is pretty neatly summarized by the title "Mr. Hulot's Holiday". At the beginning the eponymous clumsy and pipe-smoking but always polite loner (played by Tati himself) arrives in a sunny beach resort somewhere in France along with many other tourists ranging from a workaholic businessman to a politics-obsessed intellectual and a beautiful young woman named Martine (Nathalie Pascaud). Hulot is planning to take it easy on his holiday (like he always does) but it looks like his presence keeps inadvertently causing various unexpected incidents at the resort.
Just like in the later Hulot films, Tati utters few words in the lead role and allows others do the talking when necessary. Most of the time he relies on visual gags that he finds in the most mundane of things: a swinging door at the hotel, the flowing sugar dough of an ice cream seller, a noisy jazz record, Hulot's malfunctioning antique car... In many scenes creative sound effects have a much bigger importance than dialogue: a squeaky car horn, a mumbly train station loudspeaker, the swinging door... Music is used more sparingly than could be expected, but the relaxing tunes on the soundtrack are a joy to listen whenever they are heard, even though the sound quality was not the best available in the version I saw.
In spite of the sunny and light atmosphere that differs from the urban settings of the other Hulot movies, there is a very melancholic undercurrent running under the surface of the story. Hulot remains so alone from start to beginning (despite getting some attention from the beautiful Martine and the other tourists) that his character just cannot be dismissed as a mere buffoon. Even though he doesn't seem to mind spending time by himself, he is obviously out of place among the busy normalcy that surrounds him wherever he goes. At least to me this outsiderness is more than just nostalgia for "good old times" when such personalities had it easier to find their place in society; it is something that resonates with most people at one point or another in their lives. Like in the next Hulot film Mon oncle (1958), children are the ones who Hulot gets along with best... perhaps both share the feeling of being on a different level than the expected form of a responsible adult.
Anyway, back to the movie... The first two times I saw Les vacances, I didn't care for it much since it felt too slow-paced and much longer than it actually is. Now, after having seen other Tati films and learning to appreciate comedies on a broader level than as simple joke automats, I notice I like Les vacances a lot more than before. It is not an aggressive laugh riot, nor does it attempt to be, but instead offers a nuanced tragicomic tale for more mature tastes. As one of the shorter Hulot movies, it can also serve as a good introduction to Tati's cinema, even though personally I saw the appeal of Mon oncle before Les vacances. At any rate, both films are classics worthy of their reputations, must-sees for film buffs and quietly amusing comedies in their own right.