Thursday, April 17, 2014


CRUDE           B+            
USA  (105 mi)  2009  d:  Joe Berlinger             Official site  

A rumble in the jungle that has the capacity to change the way multi-national corporations do business with South American countries, basically getting their way through a series of high-placed bribes to ravage the earth, including the rainforest, in order to extract precious resources by the cheapest means possible, even if that means leaving behind some of the world’s largest toxic waste materials, as is alleged in a now 17-year old pending lawsuit (filed in 1993) by the inhabitants of an Ecuadorian rainforest where their water supply has been systematically poisoned by the Texaco (now Chevron since a 2001 merger) oil industries, which turned the rivers into a permanent waste facility for what is alleged to be 18 billion tons of toxic waste, or pay heavy court damages to clean up the mess, including damages to the 30,000 indigenous people still living in the region who are constantly exposed to not only extremely high levels of cancer, but also a poisonous water supply that is so toxic it can lead to instant death within 24 hours.  According to many outside visitors, that water even smells like gasoline.  Chevron’s scientists, like the tobacco industry before them, alleges there is nothing wrong with their product, that the same illnesses could have resulted from poor sanitary conditions, as there are no sewage treatment plants in the vicinity, so they bathe and wash clothes in the same water where they dispose of human waste.  The remarkable success of this film is contrasting the well-dressed Chevron lawyers who haven’t a problem in the world sitting in their sleek air-conditioned offices with the people actually living in the tropical vicinity who have livestock that died, family members that died, wild game that has vanished, so they have no means to support themselves, as everything has already or is continuing to die off, where many people continue to be sick.  Perhaps the most devastating evidence was the skin lesions that almost completely consume a 20-day old baby who is brought in to seek medical treatment.  Those with cancer need to come up with $500 per weekly treatment session if they wish to obtain medical services, which are only accessible after riding a bus 18 hours just to get there.  Who, living in the jungle, has that kind of ready cash available, when many don’t earn that weekly amount over the entire year?

A first-time, young Ecuadorian lawyer, Pablo Fajardo, a man who previously worked for the oil industries when Texaco started their operations in the region and saw first hand just exactly how they disposed of toxic waste, a lawyer who still resides there in his unassuming 2-room house, a man with no other legal experience whatsoever, is handling the case against a stream of Chevron lawyers.  Fajardo is assisted by a New York lawyer named Steve Donziger, a media expert who represents a U.S. law firm that’s actually financing the law suit, and nonprofit groups like Amazon Watch, but Fajardo has the testimony of those still living in the vicinity, where the affected area is a targeted 1700-square-miles, about the size of Rhode Island, as this is their ancestral tribal home, people with nowhere else to go, as this is the only world they’ve ever known.  Chevron, on the other hand, got in and got out, as in 1992, after 30 years of drilling, they transferred oil rights to an Ecuadorian company called Petro-Ecuador who has an even worse environmental record than the U.S. corporation, so one of Chevron’s arguments is to lay the blame on the Ecuadorians.  Fajardo, however, having grown up in the region, knows what areas Texaco dumped toxic materials, areas that Petro-Ecuador has never worked, and can identify thousands of dump sites left behind, despite methods used to cover the top ground with dirt, all of which remain hazardous underneath.  Some people inadvertently built their houses right on top of what were waste dumps, as what they saw was an area of cleared ground, perfect to build a home.  But animals all around them that use the nearby river or creek for drinking water mysteriously die, so how is anyone to know where it’s safe, especially when the company claims there’s no scientific trace of any problem? 

Early on, Chevron moved the court jurisdiction from the United States to Ecuador, a country where they had 8 different Presidents over a 10 year period, thinking they’d have a better chance bribing or influencing the locals, so the mounds of legal evidence that have accumulated for nearly 20 years fills a storage room.  But lately they’ve been having second thoughts, arguing they cannot receive a fair trial in Ecuador now that they’ve elected a left-leaning President, Rafael Correa (still the incumbent since 2006), who actually sides with the victims in this case, so the company is now calling him a socialist and urging the United States government to cut all diplomatic ties.  It was somewhat confounding to see press conferences set up in the middle of a jungle, where native people are displaying demonstration-style photos of their sick or dead children while both Fajardo and a local Chevron attorney accompany a judge to various inspection sites where water and mud samples are taken, usually accompanied by several dozen locals witnessing the proceedings, so as the lawyers are making their legal arguments to the judge and the cameras, they are also playing to the people who happen to live there, with both sides continually trying to persuade them.  This kind of Greek chorus was fascinating, as they are usually a speechless and unseen human life force with little power or influence, yet in this film they’re hearing the arguments of what could turn out to be one of the cases of the century.  

One of the saddest parts of the story, especially seeing how raw and primitive the conditions are living in a tropical jungle, is generating publicity to famous American celebrities who can raise money in behalf of their cause.  This part of the story is really pretty sickening, but absolutely essential, as Chevron’s legal strategy has been to prolong and postpone the process until they force the other side to go bankrupt.  So fundraising is essential, like a political campaign, which is simply not a natural part of any native person’s life and must seem just as strange and foreign as the oil industry itself, who brought strange explosions and excavation into what was otherwise a pristine jungle where they had been perfectly suited for centuries to live off the land.  When Trudie Styler, the wife of Sting and co-founder of the Rainforest Foundation shows up in the jungle, having read a 2007 story for Vanity Fair, a cover story article on the history of the case, and she professes solidarity with the indigenous people, needing a translator, of course, to express her sentiments, one gets a sense of theater and manipulation, which only escalates when Fajardo is flown into New York City for a Sting rock concert promoting their own environmental organizations, all set to a Police performance where we hear the constant refrain repeating over and over again, “Sending out at an S.O.S.”  All in all, the comprehensive picture shown here is meticulously detailed, where we hear the mouthpieces on both sides, but the ravaged earth and native people, powerfully silent throughout, are easily the most eloquent spokespersons as we are able to see how their lives have been uprooted from anything resembling normalcy to a point where their survival as a species, both the rainforest and its inhabitants, are both in jeopardy.   


On February 14, 2011, an Ecuadorian judge awarded an $8 billion penalty against Chevron, the largest environmental penalty ever awarded, along with an additional $8 billion if Chevron did not promptly issue an apology for despoiling areas around drilling sites once operated by Texaco, which since has been bought by Chevron.  The oil company refused, quickly filing an appeal, claiming that “by imposing this award, the court, in effect, penalized Chevron billions of dollars for exercising its fundamental right to defend itself,” calling the ruling “illegitimate and unenforceable,” also filing suit against the plaintiffs for racketeering, which targets not only lawyers, but indigenous persons named within the lawsuit. The award was reduced to $9.5 billion on November 12, 2013 by the Ecuadorean National Court of Justice, the nation’s highest tribunal, which amounts to almost half of Chevron’s 2013 profit.

On March 4, 2014, Chevron Corporation won a U.S. judge’s ruling that a multibillion-dollar pollution judgment issued in Ecuador was procured by fraud, as U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan in New York said he found “clear and convincing evidence” that a 2011 judgment on behalf of rain forest dwellers in the country’s Lago Agrio area was secured by bribing a judge with a promise of $500,000 from the proceeds and ghostwriting the ruling, and that attorney Steven Donziger’s legal team used bribery, fraud and extortion in pursuit of an $18 billion judgment against the oil company issued in 2011.  The villagers had said Texaco, later acquired by Chevron, contaminated an oil field in northeastern Ecuador between 1964 and 1992.  Ecuador’s high court cut the judgment to $9.5 billion last year.  At a six-week trial last year, Chevron accused Donziger of fraud and racketeering and said Texaco cleaned up the site, known as Lago Agrio, before handing it over to a state-controlled entity.  The judge said Texaco, and by extension Chevron, “might bear some responsibility” for pollution at the site but that it was irrelevant to the question of whether fraud had occurred.  “Justice is not served by inflicting injustice,” Kaplan wrote.  “The ends do not justify the means.  There is no ‘Robin Hood’ defense to illegal and wrongful conduct.”

Chevron Corporation is now seeking $32.3 million in legal fees from Steven Donziger and others who this month who were found by a judge to have used fraud to obtain a multibillion-dollar pollution judgment against Chevron in Ecuador, claiming it spent more than $10 million gathering evidence to build the racketeering case against Donziger.  A lawyer for Donziger, Deepak Gupta, said Chevron’s “eye-popping” fee request was a “transparent attempt” to intimidate anyone who might be thinking of suing the company for wrongdoing.  In a recent court filing, Chevron said the $32.3 million in fees included 36,837 hours billed by its lawyers at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.  Randy Mastro, the lead lawyer for Chevron, most recently billed at a rate of $1,140 an hour, the filings show.  Mastro was hired in January by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to conduct an internal inquiry into the scandal involving lane closings at George Washington Bridge.  Gupta, Donziger’s lawyer, said Donziger could not pay the fees.  “Steven is a solo environmental lawyer who works from the kitchen table of his apartment,” Gupta said. “Chevron knows he can’t actually pay those fees -- and that’s the point.”

The Ecuadoreans have sued Chevron in Brazil, Argentina, and Canada, where the company has assets that can be seized.  The Court of Appeal for Ontario ruled in December 2013 that the 47 villagers have the right to pursue Chevron’s Canada assets. The other cases are pending.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Mistaken for Strangers

MISTAKEN FOR STRANGERS     B                       
USA  (75 mi)  2013  d:  Thomas Berninger 

Don't make me read your mind
You should know me better than that
It takes me too much time
You should know me better than that
You're not that much like me
You should know me better than that
We have different enemies
You should know me better than that

I should leave it alone but you're not right
I should leave it alone but you're not right

Can't you write it on the wall?
You should know me better than that
There's no room to write it all
You should know me better than that
Can you turn the TV down?
You should know me better than that
There's too much crying in the sound
I should know you better than that

I should leave it alone but you're not right
I should leave it alone but you're not right
I should live in salt for leaving you behind

Think about something so much
You should know me better than that
Start to slide out of touch
You should know me better than that
Tell yourself it's all you know
You should know me better than that
Learn to appreciate the void
You should know me better than that

I should live in salt for leaving you behind
I should live in salt for leaving you behind
I should live in salt for leaving you behind

The National performing "I Should Live in Salt" Live on . YouTube (4:12), performing live in KCRW radio studios in Los Angeles, August 13, 2013

Heralded by Pitchfork as “the funniest, most meta music movie since SPINAL TAP (1984),” and Michael Moore as “one of the best documentaries about a band that I’ve ever seen,” it follows the success of last year’s award winning music documentary 2013 Top Ten List # 8 20 Feet from Stardom.  While the audience for the most part is comprised of followers of the indie rock band The National, they might be disappointed that little performance footage is actually shown, yet the incredible twist is the boneheaded persona of the filmmaker himself, whose lack of focus and overall air of ineptitude becomes the dominant force of the film, where it takes a certain amount of guts to release a movie showing yourself in such an unflattering light.  The director is eight years younger than his brother Matt, who is the songwriter and lead vocalist for The National, a band strangely enough comprised of two other sets of brothers, with Aaron (also keyboards) and Bryce Dessner playing guitars, while Scott and Bryan Devendorf play bass and drums respectively.  Thomas has no connection to the band whatsoever, where we see him in his mid-thirties doodling around and still living with his parents in a beautiful upscale home in Cincinnati, receiving a call out of the blue from his brother, who he’s barely seen for the past twenty years, where perhaps the only contact is over holidays, but out of his aimless complacency he’s suddenly offered a job as a roadie for the band’s upcoming High Violet European Tour in 2010.  While many would be thrilled at the offer and see it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—not Thomas, who instead prefers metal bands.  What the viewer quickly understands is that this movie is not so much about The National, or even Matt, as it’s all about Thomas, who is the real goofball centerpiece of his own film.  While Thomas is offered minimal job requirements, he largely ignores his duties and instead decides to wander off and film whatever catches his eye while drinking and partying and leading the life of a hellraising rock band on the road.  He’s actually disappointed to discover his brother is not in a metal band like Axl Rose and Guns N’ Roses, so his dreams are shattered.  At one point, Thomas is seen commiserating with grunge-looking drummer Bryan, suggesting he seems more “metal” than the rest of the band who are so “coffeehouse,” where at least initially he intended to name the film For Those About to Weep, in reference to AC/DC’s For Those About to Rock.   

Initially, Matt is comfortable with the constant presence of Thomas’s camera, “I wanted him to bring his camera to maybe make some videos or stuff for our website.  He didn't even know he was gonna be making a feature film at that point.”  So once the tour begins, the focus is on whatever the band needs, where Thomas is a behind-the-stage presence giving the band members 5-minutes notice, but there’s little interaction between the brothers, as Matt seems to be in his own little world when he comes offstage and doesn’t want to be bothered by the incessant camera pointed in his face from Thomas, where Matt’s wife is seen trying to explain the moodiness of a budding rock star who has certain anxieties, as he isn’t sure what to expect from this tour, explaining “He has to go to a place when he’s up there.  That’s the job.”  All of this seems to fly over the mental capacity of Thomas, where the first sign of trouble brooding is being called on the carpet by the band manager for ordering bottles of extra alcohol.  From that point on, we never see Thomas without a drink in his hand, where he’s still living in Wayne's World (1989 – 2011) or the Cameron Crowe fever dream depicted in ALMOST FAMOUS (2000).  But with this melancholic, low key band, there’s no drugs, no girls, no drinking, and no in-fighting, where it’s all just about the music, so Thomas takes it upon himself to become the alternate indie-band party animal, where he drinks too much, is brash and overly loud, where he often forgets what he is doing.  Unfortunately, he gets in the way of what others are doing by continually pointing his camera at them, where one of the guys trying to set up the lights and the electricity literally tells him to go away.  Thomas, however, is immune to the needs of others, and turns everything around to himself, continually peppering the members of the band with questions about his brother, wondering if he’s ever lost his temper, asking the guitar brothers which one can play the fastest, how many drugs have they done, whether they bring their wallets with them onstage, following them into the shower, or asking them to strike ridiculous poses for the camera, where despite their polite cooperation, for Thomas it’s all about doing whatever pops into his head while ignoring the menial tasks he was actually hired to do.  Incredibly, he grows offended when the five members of the band take a photo shoot with President Obama and Thomas was excluded (as was everyone else), where in his mind he’s an integral part of the band.  While we do see backstage footage of the band interspersed with a brief look at onstage performances, it’s surprising how few songs from the album are actually heard, where one of the hidden treasures that we are treated to is a healthy dose of The National - Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks - YouTube (4:12). 

While it’s clear Thomas has a hard time living in the shadow of his older brother, spending much of the film harping to others about that, it’s as if he uses this opportunity in an attempt to perpetrate his own delusion of self-importance, which adds a darker element to the film, as he comes across more as a slacker or a buffoon, where the viewer is not laughing with him, but at him, where at some point (mostly afterwards) he realizes, “Most of the things I thought would be really funny was actually depressing, sad and awkward.  And the stuff I wasn’t really happy with became the great stuff.”  One wonders what John Lennon or Bruce Springsteen might have been like with a pain-in-the-ass brother like this?  While staying at a plush Hollywood Hills hotel in Los Angeles, Matt points out what he believes to be Moby’s house at the top of the hill while Thomas is dog-paddling in an outdoor pool with an inflatable raft, immediately yelling out at the top of his lungs, “Hey Moby!”  But the more he screws up, forgetting to bring water bottles and towels onstage for every band member before each show, the more Thomas starts griping and complaining at continually being told what to do, where he obviously resents his lowly status as a grunt, and sees instead himself more as a struggling artist, just like the band.  But the tour is a huge success, greater than they could have imagined, but Thomas remains an embarrassing side show, where his brother calls him on it at one point, sharing a hotel room together, yet he leaves cereal and milk on the floor of the bathroom in the middle of the night, where he acts like a little kid saddled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.  He obviously drinks too much, something his brother calls “his allergy,” and can’t focus on what needs to be done, missing the tour bus at one point because he’s still hanging around in the bar, spiraling further out of control when he loses the guest list, causing comped celebrities like Werner Herzog to remain stranded outside waiting on the street, which eventually costs him his job, as he’s sent home for dereliction of duties.  Back home, he commiserates with his parents, who remind him he’s the kid that never finished anything he started.  Once the tour is over, Matt and his wife Carin Besser, who is credited as a co-editor and a former fiction editor at The New Yorker magazine, invite him to move in with them to finish editing his film, which has become a wall of post its pinned to the wall describing each shot.  Ultimately, Thomas makes a decision that he’d rather make the movie about himself than the band, becoming an often hilarious, self-deprecating portrait of a lovable loser’s futile attempts to live up to his more-perfect-in-every-way brother, where there’s an interesting shot where Thomas goes into the studio and hears the band working on their most recent album, Trouble Will Find Me, which includes the song The National - I Should Live In Salt (Live at the ... - YouTube (4:00, performed in the Gibson Showroom in Austin, Texas).  Throughout the film we hear Thomas continually rail on about his feelings of self-loathing, but in this four-minute song we hear Matt’s eloquent response to his younger brother, as he recognizes they’re not alike, but offers a sense of estrangement, where he feels guilty about having left him behind to pursue his musical career, while the film concludes, appropriately enough, still stuck in Thomas’s world, Oh Holy Night by Halford - YouTube (4:09).   

Monday, April 14, 2014

Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatjana (Pidä huivista kiinni, Tatjana)

TAKE CARE OF YOUR SCARF, TATJANA (Pidä huivista kiinni, Tatjana)   A             
Finland  (65 mi)  1994  d:  Aki Kaurismäki

It’s impossible not to like this film, one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen, maybe even the funniest, a completely original, wacky comedy in extreme deadpan that even has the actors laughing at themselves by the end of the film.  Simply a delight to watch, written, directed, and produced by Aki, with fabulous black and white photography by cinematographer Timo Salminen.  The film opens with Valto (Malto Vatonen) locking his mother in the closet because they’re out of coffee.  For him, there’s no greater crime.  He places his newly acquired 12 Volt Electric Coffeemaker into his black Volga stationwagon, which has just been rebuilt with a new engine.  Then he and the mechanic Reino, (Matti Pellonpää, an actor who literally drank himself to death, or Aki’s version of the Grateful Dead’s Pigpen), are off on a little test drive through Southern Finland sometime in the mid 60’s.  He guzzles coffee while his friend the mechanic drinks vodka.  These boys barely speak, but consider themselves rockers due to their love for early and very primitive sounding Rock ‘n’ Roll and Rockabilly music, which plays throughout the film, sounding like the innocence of the early Beatles.  We hear groups named The Regals or The Renegades sing classics like “Bad Bad Baby, I guess you’ll mend your low down ways,” or “I’m just a red-blooded boy, and I can’t stop thinkin’ about Girls, Girls, Girls.”

More of a plotless character study of sly observations, showing plenty of Finnish character, one day, we see them lost in thought, studying smoke rings in a roadside cafe when two women walk in, one Russian, Klaudia (Kirsi Tykkyläinen, actually an executive from the Finnish Film Foundation), and one Estonian, Tatjana (Kati Outinen).  We hear the girls decide to try to pick up these “dumb Finns” in order to get a ride to the sea, despite the fact they don’t speak the same language.  When they introduce themselves, these macho guys haven’t a clue how to approach the opposite sex, totally ignoring eye contact, staring out the window in awkward and ponderous silence, incessantly smoking cigarettes or drinking, conveying a wealth of emotions simmering just under the surface.  What ensues is a bleak, yet hilarious adventure on how to ignore one another, yet be totally dependent on one another’s company.  Therein lies the premise to the film, which is, according to Aki, a tribute to “a Finland that no longer exists, a film about the amazing frame of mind of the Finnish man, and an almost surgical cutting investigation into Finnish-Estonian-Russian relationships.”

Though barely over an hour, this quietly melancholic film is wonderfully unconventional, a masterclass of comic understatement, something of a freewheeling exploration of insurmountable love, where there is a perfect shot near the end of the film of Reino and Tatjana, having said nothing to one another throughout the entire film.  They sit together on a bench, as she puts her head on his shoulder, and instantly the music shifts from this continuous Rock ‘n’ Roll soundtrack to Tchaikovsky’s soaring, romantic strings from his 5th Symphony.  We immediately recall Reino’s earlier romantic notions, when offering his views on travel:  “I don’t get it.  We have a bus full of vodka and they go looking at ruins.  We have ruins back home.”  It’s almost like driving through the Finnish countrysides with a coffee and vodka-guzzling Penn and Teller and two strange girls, each one incapable of understanding the other, all alienated by language and differing cultures, add to this strange brew the common factors of poverty and the monotonous, industrialized urban areas, which are contrasted against vast stretches of empty, gray landscapes where “there’s nothing out there but reindeer.” 

Musical soundtrack:

"If I Had Someone to Dream of'' (Lindskog, Feichtinger) performed by The Renegades

"Sabina" (Karu, Jauhiainen, Lasanen), performed by Veikko Tuomi

"Old Scars" (H.Konno) performed by The Blazers

"Kun kylmä on" (trad. Russian) performed by Viktor Vassel

"Hold Me Close" (Brown, Gibson, Johnson, Mallett) performed by The Renegades

"Think It Over"(B.B. King) performed by The Regals

"Bad Bad Baby" (Brown, Gibson, Johnson, Mallett) performed by The Renegades

"Etkö uskalla mua rakastaa" (Lindström, Saukki) performed by. Helena Siltala

"Tanssi, Anjuska" (Kemppi, Husu) performed by Veikko Lavi and Pertti Husu

"Muista minua" (Pedro de Punta, The Esquires) performed by The Esquires

"Symphony No.5".(Peter Tchaikovsky)

"I've Been Unkind" (Brown, Gibson, Johnson, Mallett) performed by The Renegades

"Girls Girls Girls" (Leiber, Stoller) performed by The Renegades

"Mustanmeren valssi" (Feldsman, Salonen, Berg) performed by Georg Ots

"Köyhä laulaja" (Kärki, Kullervo, Johansson) performed by Henry Theel

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Lights in the Dusk (Laitakaupungin Valot)

LIGHTS IN THE DUSK (Laitakaupungin Valot)          B+                  
Finland  Germany  France  (78 mi)  2006  d:  Aki Kaurismäki

You couldn't get out. All the doors were locked.        —Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen), describing what it was like in prison

A perfect example of Kaurismäki’s minimalist miserablism, which is so wretchedly miserable, especially the way this director loves to pile it on, perhaps a template for the Coens in A SERIOUS MAN (2009), that it ends up being absurdly rich in comedy.  Helsinki never looked so bleak and depressingly gloomy as this, the final chapter of his Helsinki Trilogy where love and hope eternal blooms among the homeless in THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST (1992), followed by a down-on-their-luck couple in DRIFTING CLOUDS (1996), taking a look at life on unemployment, making the best of a depressing situation, living “the Finnish reality,” leaving this final installment, perhaps the most painterly of the series, to be Kaurismäki’s sour comment on the brutally harsh system the Soviets left behind, where each man exists in a no man’s land of solitude and eternal gloom.  Never have you seen a grayer city set in an industrial wasteland where the future looks so grim, where Kaurismäki accentuates the featureless concrete high rise structures of a former socialist state, remnants of an Eastern European mindset, adding stoic faces, rigid authoritarian rules, and rampant conformity, where anyone who’s different is looked upon the same as a foreigner, with utter contempt.  Inside one of those nameless and faceless buildings lives Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen), a decent, good looking guy who goes about his business as a shopping mall security guard, carrying keys and entering security codes for each of the retail shops that he checks, returning the keys each night when he checks out.  For whatever reason, and Kaurismäki never explains, the other guards all hang out together and go out drinking afterwards, but they shun and despise Koistinen, who by the way he speaks may have little education.  There may be little hints, like a slightly different foreign accent that would not be perceived by an international audience relying on subtitles, but more likely Kaurismäki simply wrote it this way.  In every group, there’s always one bad apple, but here the apple is decent, it’s the group that’s rotten. 

Drenched in an atmosphere of delicious evil and uninterrupted cigarette smoking, Ilkka Koivula plays the most despicable character in the film, a Russian, or perhaps even worse, a Finn acting like a Russian, which in itself is a hilarious caricature because Kaurismäki relishes every touch of Russian malice, where here there’s plenty to go around, as he surrounds himself with other Russian gangsters, all wearing black shirts under their dark suits and ties, riding in black stretch limos, smoking relentlessly.  These guys are completely amoral, yet with all the connections they have, they pull the strings.  For whatever reason, probably because he’s friendless, isolated and alone, they target Koistinen as a chump, an easy set up, so they send him a gorgeous girl, Mirja (Maria Järvenhelmi), a shapely blond ice goddess who emotes nothing, asking at a café if he wants company because he’s all alone.  Koistinen figures out in split seconds that God has answered his prayers and asks “And now what?  We're getting married?”  He takes her to a rock ‘n’ roll club, where in typical Kaurismäki fashion the first song is played in its entirety by a band called Melrose, where Koistinen just aimlessly stands in one spot and looks around, but Mirja whispers in his ear “It's easy to see you've got rock ‘n’ roll in your blood,” a viciously funny remark, and a comment on how he sees himself as opposed to who he really is.  Little does he know what’s in store for him, as after walking the rounds with him and memorizing the security code, they drug him, take his keys and rob a high priced jewelry store on his route, the first of a series of Job-like setbacks that challenges him to the very core, where he is sent to jail and humiliated from one instance to the next, where even the building where he lived gets demolished and where the girl expresses reservations about him talking to the police.  But the Russian insists not to worry, “Koistinen will never betray you. He's as loyal as a dog, the sentimental fool. It's my genius to understand that.”

And there you have it, Kaurismäki’s comment on the Finnish state of mind, a society of lap dogs just waiting for hand outs that never come, believing their troubles are just “temporary.”  Through Koistinen's Christ-like suffering, continually turning the other cheek, the audience is continually dismayed that it’s not playing out like “in the movies,” like the machine guns and surging violins heard when Koistinen actually goes to the movies, where some unanticipated heroic answer arrives in the form of a cavalry or a bigger villain than the Russian who will cut him down to size.  But it’s not that kind of movie.  Instead it’s mercilessly accurate in terms of how helpless and lonely each individual stands against the heartless bureaucracy and the impervious scorn of the State. Kaurismäki’s picture of Helsinki is to expect to get kicked around a lot, where rampant homelessness and unemployment complete the picture of the urban Trilogy.  In all three films there’s a depiction of romance, from an established marriage, to a most unorthodox attraction, to a completely bogus affair, where Koistinen shuns his real girl friend, Aila (Maria Heiskanen), a simple yet loyal woman who steadfastly remains at his side, exactly like his coworkers treat him, barely noticing that she’s even there.  With ravishing shots of construction cranes strewn about the city and a fog-like emptiness surrounding the gloom of the harbor, cinematographer Timo Salminen shows Helsinki to be a work in progress, where there are also luminous views of high rise modernization and a thriving seaport.  Set to an operatic soundtrack featuring plenty of Jussi Björling, a “Swedish” tenor, told in his trademark deadpan style with fadeouts to black, Kaurismäki wittily shows how easily one can fall from grace and end up in the gutter, with no protection from the fall and where all hope feels lost, where easily the sequence of the movie is a Buñuel-like scathingly dark commentary with gallows humor where just like the end of Simon of the Desert (Simón del Desierto) (1965), the Russians sell their souls to the devil and discover their love of rotgut rock ‘n’ roll, where they sit around drinking and playing cards all day while Mirja sweeps up after them, waiting on them hand and foot.      

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Road North (Tie pohjoiseen)

ROAD NORTH (Tie pohjoiseen)         B             
Finland  (110 mi)  2012  d:  Mika Kaurismäki         Official site [Japan]

Mika is the older but less known of the Kaurismäki brothers, both among the founders of modern Finnish cinema.  Unlike the internationally acclaimed Dardennes and the Coens, the two Finns rarely work together, where the better known Aki began as an assistant, screenwriter and actor in his brother Mika’s earliest works, whose first film THE LIAR (1980) was an overnight sensation.  Mika was inspired by Finnish film historian Peter von Bagh’s book History of Cinema, studying cinema in Munich at the Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen before returning to make films in Finland.  In the 1980’s he and his brother, along with various colleagues and friends, co-founded the Villealfa Filmproductions, a no frills, low-budget film studio that by the end of the decade became the third biggest production company in Finnish film history, while Mika also co-founded the only film festival north of the Arctic Circle, the Midnight Sun Film Festival in 1986.  By the 90’s however, Mika and Aki started to produce their films separately through their own production companies, with Mika living in Rio de Janeiro since 1992 mostly making documentary films, where perhaps his most memorable is TIGERO:  A FILM THAT WAS NEVER MADE (1994) with Sam Fuller and Jim Jarmusch.  This script was written in the 80’s, where it was originally entitled Road South, traveling from the north of Italy south to Sicily, but the project fell through when the lead actor had scheduling difficulties, so it’s had a long gestation period.  In total, Mika has done seven road movies, culminating with this film, which is built around a lovable star, Vesa-Matti Loiri, Finland’s most popular actor, comedian, and singer, best known for his role portraying Uuno Turhapuro, a comedic character that originated in early 1970’s Finnish television, continuing his portrayal in a total of 20 movies between the years 1973 and 2004.

This darkly comic and touching road movie follows the unlikely scenario of a ne'er-do-well, outcast father Leo (Vesa-Matti Loiri) absent for 35 years finally paying a visit to his long-lost son Timo (Samuli Edelmann), where there’s obviously more than just a gap of time missing between these two polar opposites.  Timo is seen onstage playing classical piano for a Sibelius Piano Quintet, Jean Sibelius - Piano Quintet in G Minor, JS 159 ... - YouTu (5:26), while Leo, who has a ticket for the performance, is drunk and asleep on his doorstep by the time Timo arrives home, announcing he is his father while offering him a gesture of good will, an already half-open bottle of whiskey.  While Timo is something of a joyless workaholic concert pianist separated from his wife and daughter, largely due to his incessant need for practice when he is home and prolonged absences on tour away from home, Leo is more of a good-natured opportunist and scoundrel used to taking advantage of people and situations, traveling on a Paavo Nurmi Finnish passport, where he thrives on the moment.  While Leo is a consummate liar, often getting lost in his own fabrications, Timo reluctantly agrees to accompany him on what he thinks will be a brief afternoon jaunt out of Helsinki to visit a sister he never knew he had.  Instead this turns into a hilarious romp through the Finnish countryside as they head north to the Lapland driving a stolen Pontiac convertible.  While Timo is under the mistaken assumption that his father may fill in some missing details about his past, Leo is more interested in just having a good time, where spending time together with family is all that matters, which interestingly enough, is a similar theme in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (2013), an exploration of America’s heartland that features another grizzled character in Bruce Dern.  Unlike Nebraska, which probably plays better in America, this film probably plays better outside Finland, as it exports a kind of broad-based Finnish humor rarely seen in the rest of the world, built upon fabricated storytelling and constant misdirection, as Leo is forever taking advantage of his son’s naïve gullibility.

Kaurismäki’s dark-edged humor has at its roots the absurdity of Eastern European rule, and while never occupied by the Soviets after World War II, Finland was forced to cede much of their land to the Soviets, returned a decade later. This placed them in a precarious position of being a nation caught between the East and the West, where few exploit that humor better than the Kaurismäki’s, who in films like Lights in the Dusk (Laitakaupungin Valot) (2006), or my absolute favorite Kaurismäki film ever made, Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatjana (Pidä huivista kiinni, Tatjana) (1994), often show remnants of an Eastern European mindset, adding stoic faces, rigid authoritarian rules, and a world filled with eternal gloom, often broken up by a wacky delight in Elvis, early rock ‘n’ roll music, and of course, drinking.  Unlike the wordlessness or typical deadpan in other Aki Kaurismäki films, Loiri couldn’t be more outlandishly appealing as an oversized oaf, who despite all his character flaws, means well.  The guy is a walking storyteller wherever he goes, where stories literally pour out of his mouth at the most inopportune times.  While Leo’s amusing practice of Finnish custom, visiting people unannounced and just walking right into their homes, has an endearing quality to it, as the film provides a nice observational feel where it’s continually feeding off of this forced intimacy of the two characters in a car, where they’re constantly at odds with their surroundings and the people they meet.  While the film is an odyssey into the family’s past, the scene of the film is an impromptu performance at a typically empty hotel bar where the father and son break into a superb rendition of “Autumn Leaves,” or “Dead Leaves” with Finnish lyrics, Tapio Heinonen - Kuolleet Lehdet ( Les feuilles mortes ) - You YouTube (4:12), followed by “Condemned to Walk,” Vesa-Matti Loiri & Samuli Edelmann - Tuomittuna kulkemaan  YouTube (3:56), where Loiri’s deep bass voice expressing heartbreak in the land of a thousand lakes works brilliantly, even as they pick up a couple of girls afterwards, adding a touch of romanticism to the absurdity of their adventure.  While the tone of wacky adventure is mostly fun, the film is wonderfully nuanced with small and intimate moments among the many roadside attractions that sensitively explores larger themes of family roots and redemption, magnifying the importance of shared moments, beautifully elevating the material with a touch of eloquence from the music of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in G Major, D 894 (Op. 78), opening movement, Molto moderato e cantabile, Franz Schubert.Sonata G-dur.1.Molto moderato e cantabile  YouTube (16:51).

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Hidden Child (Tyskungen)

THE HIDDEN CHILD (Tyskungen)        B-                
Sweden  Germany  (105 mi)  2013  d:  Per Hanefjord   

Some footprints can never be erased.

Ever since the death of Swedish author Stieg Larsson in 2004, a highly regarded journalist known for investigating right-wing extremism, author of the immensely popular Millennium series that was published posthumously, and the first author to sell a million electronic copies on Amazon’s Kindle, Nordic literature has become extremely popular around the world.  Larsson’s heir apparent is Swedish crime-writer Camilla Läckberg, who has become the best-selling author in Sweden, whose work has been translated into more than thirty languages, including Tyskungen (The Hidden Child), first published in 2007, translated into English in 2011.  Swedish television is planning on turning Läckberg’s series of novels into twelve films, known as The Fjällbacka Murders, with two for general release, and ten 90-minute made-for-TV films, all featuring the same lead actors taking place in and around the Swedish town of Fjällbacka, (1,280 × 472 pixels), the author’s birthplace.  Tyskungen (The Hidden Child) is the first of a series of six episodes that were shot in 2011 and released on DVD (Camilla Läckberg - THE FJÄLLBACKA MURDERS | dvd) in October 2013, but the filming stopped when director Daniel Lind Lagerlöf disappeared in late 2011 while scouting out a film location for the third episode, where it’s believed he fell off a cliff just north of the village.  When he was presumed dead, Rickard Petrelius assumed the new director duties of episodes #3 and #4 of the TV series, while Per Hanefjord, in his first feature film, was chosen to direct the first of the intended international releases.  The Season One made-for-TV lineup looks like this:

Fjällbackamorden morden 1 - Tyskungen (The Hidden Child)  (105 mi)  2013  d:  Per Hanefjord, originally aired October 9, 2013
Fjällbackamorden 2 - Havet ger, Havet tar (The Sea Gives, The Sea Takes)  (88 mi)  2013  d:  Marcus Olsson, originally aired September 22, 2013
Fjällbackamorden 3 - Strandridaren (The Coast Rider)  (88 mi)  2013  d:  Rickard Petrelius, originally aired September 22, 2013
Fjällbackamorden 4 - Ljusets Drottning (The Queen of LIghts)  (89 mi)  2013  d:  Rickard Petrelius, originally aired September 29, 2013 
Fjällbackamorden 5 - Vänner för livet (Friends for Life)  (90 mi)  2013  d:  Richard Holm, originally aired January 2, 2013  
Fjällbackamorden 6 - I betraktarens öga (In the Eye of the Beholder)  (88 mi)  2012  d:  Jörgen Bergmark, originally aired September 29, 2013   

Claudia Galli stars as successful author Erica Falck, who has just recently given birth and whose parents are killed afterwards in a tragic car accident.  A few weeks later she’s moved into her parent’s home along with her husband Patrik Hedström (Richard Ulfsäter), when she’s suddenly surprised by a mysterious man in her home, Göran (Björn Andersson), claiming they have the same mother.  His awkward intrusion may be the actions of a stalker, a rabid fan, so she asks him to leave.  However, when the man is subsequently murdered a few days later, Erica starts taking his claim seriously, especially when her husband, a local police officer, confirms the DNA is a match.  So she starts making inquiries, delving headlong into an investigation of her family past where she’s forced to unravel mysteries that date back to World War II.  She begins by exploring her mother’s belongings, going through her diary, finding old newspaper clippings, searching for any evidence of having a brother, and interviewing several of her mother’s old friends mentioned in the journal.  What she does turn up is a Nazi medallion, consulting a local World War II historian who claims they were quite common in the region.  But as several bodies begin to pile up, all friends of her mother, the deaths suggest unfinished business connected to her mother’s past.  The intersection of her own investigation and her husband’s policework creates internal conflict, as her husband is worried about her safety, wondering if she could be next, and also doesn’t need police evidence compromised by her snooping around.  In most detective stories, the police may drive the investigation, but not here, as the focus of the entire film is on Erica and her discoveries, where the viewer is drawn into her search, which probes her own interior world as well, where undiscovered mysteries of the past continually haunt the present.    

While the film opens with a great deal of promise, given a sleek look and excellent production design, using a film-within-a film technique with flashback sequences back to her mother’s youth where a band of friends help each other survive during the war, but it is ultimately undone by an unending series of convoluted plot twists, each one more preposterous than the last, where it all gets so ridiculous after awhile that we hardly care anymore who did what or why.  While this may work in the novel, adding an underlying historical tension through a kind of memory play of the characters Erica interviews, but in the film all the twists and turns interrupt any rhythm or flow and have the effect of slowing everything down to a dead crawl, literally taking all the suspense out of the film.  The movie exposes hidden secrets, suggesting Norwegian collaborators assisted the Nazi’s in running the Grini concentration camp, while also suggesting there were Nazi infiltrators passing themselves off as regular citizens, some of whom collected information from within Grini while pretending to be fellow prisoners.  In this way, the Gestapo identified the leaders of the resistance movement, who were shipped off to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany.  When all of this plays out, however, suggesting there may still be a collaborator in their midst, someone with designs on keeping the truth hidden, rather than amping up the tension by unraveling the clues, it becomes all too predictable, told in a fragmented narrative structure where the secondary characters are never fleshed out but are only used in the advancement of the story.  That’s the real disappointment in the film, especially coming from a novel, as there’s barely any hint of character development, while history is used more for exploitive purposes than a natural part of the story, never really establishing any emotional connection to the past.  The most glaring deficiency is the copycat similarity to the Stieg Larsson movies, especially the historical treatment of Nazi’s in the midst, where the storyline follows the investigations of a journalist who is uncovering dark secrets of the past.  The success of the Millennium series movies, which were also made-for-Swedish TV, was largely due to the novelesque detail of integrating an ugly part of history into a detective thriller along with extraordinary lead performances, where tension literally fills the air.  Here there is wonderful use of local scenery, but the direction lacks the flair to bring any energy and life to this drama, making it a safe and stereotyped movie that actually feels much longer than it is, where there are no harrowing scenes, instead becoming a rather conventional whodunit that won’t surprise anybody.