Monday, June 21, 2021

Spy no tsuma / Wife of a Spy

Kiyoshi Kurosawa: スパイの妻 / Spy no tsuma / Wife of a Spy (JP 2020). In the middle Yu Aoi (Satoko Furuhara), to the right Issey Takahashi (Yusaku Fukuhara) and to the left Masahiro Higashide (Yasuharu Tsumori).

スパイの妻 / Les Amants sacrifiés .
    Japan, 2020
    Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
    Production: NHK (Keisuke Tsuchihashi), NHK Enterprises (Takashi Sawada), Incline (Satoshi Takada), C&I Entertainment (Tamon Kondo)
    Producer: Hideyuki Okamoto
    Main Cast: Yu Aoi, Issey Takahashi, Ryota Bando, Yuri Tsunematsu, Minosuke Hyunri, Masahiro Higashide, Takashi Sasano
    Screenplay: Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Tadashi Nohara, Kiyoshi Kurosawa
    Cinematographer: Tatsunosuke Sasaki – 8K Super Hi-Vision.
    Camera: Sharp 8C-B60A 8K, Zeiss Master Prime Lenses
    Grass Valley HQX Codec (4320p / 60 fps) (4:2:2 10bit)
    Cinematographic Process: 4:2:2 10bit (4320p / 60 fps) (source format)
    Digital Intermediate (2K / 24 fps) (master format) (DCP version)
    Digital Intermediate (4320p / 60 fps) (master format) (TV broadcast version)
    Editor: Hidemi Lee
    Production Designer: Norifumi Ataka
    Costume Designer: Haruki Koketsu
    Music: Ryosuke Nagaoka
    Sound: Keita Yoshino
    Visual Effects: Shuji Asano
    Lighting: Nakaya Kimura
    Film clip: Sadao Yamanaka: 河内山宗俊 / Kochiyama soshun / Priest of Darkness (JP 1936).
    Copy: Nikkatsu
    Languages: Japanese, English
    Subtitles: English
    115 min
    Category: Gems of New Cinema
    Midnight Sun Film Festival (MSFF) online.
    Viewed on a laptop in Helsinki, 21 June 2021

Olaf Möller (MSFF 2021): " Wife of a Spy is an aesthetically truly unique project – whose true shape so far almost nobody outside Japan had a chance to see. Originally produced for NHK’s BS8K satellite channel, the film was shot as a slightly experimental endeavor in UHDTV which means: the images have an almost unreal sharpness – Kurosawa Kiyoshi shows a world brutally devoid of any mystery, and so present that past and future feel illusory."

"The cinema-version was mellowed down to 2K, color-graded more warmly and given a different aspect ratio which all lends it a breezier air making it feel a bit closer to the cinema it alluded to and riffs about. And all that for a story centered on a film shot on 9.5 mm, an amateur format developed by Pathé that was popular in Japan during the 30s and 40s!"

"Here, it is used for a delightful short about a cat burglar as well as a clandestinely shot documentary of Japanese atrocities in occupied Manchuria. Both are made by an import-export entrepreneur from Kōbe whose true game we’ll never understand fully, and neither will his wife whom he uses, and neither will an old friend who’s now serving with the
kempeitai (= Secret Police)… Rarely did cloak and dagger look more elegant and refined, but also melancholic and wistful!"

"They don’t make the likes of Kurosawa Kiyoshi anymore, at least outside Japan: an auteur who really worked his way up through cinema’s production ranks. He started out with amateur films; did get his professional training with pink eiga (Kandagawa inran sensō, 1983); could direct his first general release feature (Sweet Home, 1986); honed his craft with V-cinema delights (Katte ni shiyagare! [6 episodes], 1995/96; Door 3, 1996); specialized in horror with a meta bend (Cure, 1997; Charisma, 1999); diversified into other genres (Ningen gōkaku, 1998; Tōkyō Sonata, 2008) while continuing to explore all facets of the fantastique (Kairo, 2001; Kishibe no tabi, 2015), Science Fiction included (Sanpo suru shinryakusha, 2017); does occasionally TV (Shokuzai [Miniseries], 2012). A humble genius who works and creates incessantly.
" (Olaf Möller)

SYNOPSIS (Venice Film Festival 2020):

" The year is 1940 in Kobe, the night before the outbreak of World War II. Local merchant, Yusaku Fukuhara, senses that things are headed in an unsettling direction. He leaves his wife Satoko behind and travels to Manchuria. There, he coincidentally witnesses a barbarous act and is determined to bring it to light. He leaps into action. Meanwhile, Satoko is called on by her childhood friend and military policeman, Taiji Tsumori. He tells her that a woman her husband brought back from Manchuria has died. Satoko is torn by jealousy and confronts Yusaku. But when she discovers Yusaku’s true intentions, she does the unthinkable to ensure his safety and their happiness. "

DIRECTOR'S STATEMENT (Venice Film Festival 2020):

" Set in a city in Japan’s rural countryside during the anxious and terrifying times of war, this film depicts a couple’s struggle to overcome distrust and stay faithful to their love for each other. This is my first film that is set in the olden times. With the historical timeline and events of the society already fixed, I pondered with great interest as I imagined how conflicted the people must have felt when they thought of what to look forward to in their future. "

AA: Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Wife of a Spy is an original political thriller set on the eve of the Pacific War.

There are affinities with Jean-Pierre Melville's Resistance trilogy. The presence of a brutal militaristic and imperialistic government is overwhelming. An atmosphere of surveillance prevails. Appearances must be kept. You cannot trust anyone. Personal ties are broken.

Key conflicts are between love and duty and between fatherland and justice. Satoko initially accuses her husband Yusako of treason. "I'm a cosmopolitan", he replies. "I will not tolerate injustice". "I will become the wife of a spy", says Satoko. But Yusako is not a spy: "You did not see what I saw. A heinous act in a foreign country".

Brutality is conveyed via indirection. Torture scenes take place in the darkness. Cries of agony betray what is going on. The victim's torn teeth document the method.

The "film within the film" theme is introduced via a screening of Sadao Yamanaka's entertainment movie Priest of Darkness (1936), a late silent film sonorized via a catchy, escapist song.

The second film screening is a clandestine 9,5 mm documentation from occupied Manchuria. It is a "smoking gun" of atrocities: Nazi-style experiments are conducted to spread Black Death in biological warfare. Little is shown even here, but what we see is incriminating. Like Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai) in Masaki Kobayashi's The Human Condition, Yusako refuses to ignore a massive war crime.

There is a thrilling finale with surprises. The film ends in 1945. Again, horrors are conveyed indirectly. The apocalyptic sounds of the world war in the darkness, the trembling tableware, the flares, the screams. Satoko cries alone on the deserted beach. Yusaku has been confirmed dead, but a note of ambiguity remains.

Viewed on a laptop screen, the experience of the movie originally shot on 8K Super HiVision is not what it was meant to be. But even so I was able to appreciate the subtle soft detail. In this presentation there is no unreal sharpness but an appealing painterly quality.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Fucking with Nobody

Hannaleena Hauru: Fucking with Nobody (FI 2021) starring Hannaleena Hauru (Hanna) and Samuel Kujala (Ekku).

Fucking with Nobody / Fucking with Nobody.
    FI 2021 © 2020 Elokuvayhtiö Oy Aamu. P: Emilia Haukka, Jussi Rantamäki.
    D: Hannaleena Hauru. SC: Hannaleena Hauru, Lasse Poser. Cin: Lasse Poser, Jan-Niclas Jansson – colour – 2.39:1 – release format: 2K. Set design: Jenny Jauhiainen. Cost: Aino Havu. Makeup: Nora Pippingsköld. VFX: Miika Puustinen.
    Soundtrack selections: Universal Music stock music. End credit song: “Kuin pieni tyhmä” (Finnish lyrics Juha Vainio, perf. Jarkko & Laura, 1967) (“Somethin' Stupid”, C. Carson Parks, 1966).
    S: Karri Niinivaara – 5.1. ED: Hannaleena Hauru.
    C: Hannaleena Hauru (Hanna), Lasse Poser (Lasse), Samuel Kujala (Ekku), Pietu Wikström (Ara), Sara Melleri (Viima), Hanna-Kaisa Tiainen (Maria), Jussi Lankoski (Kristian), Tanja Heinänen (Krista), Anna Kuusamo (Shirley)
    103 min
    Languages: Finnish and English.
    Subtitle options: Swedish, Finnish, Finnish for the hard-of-hearing.
    Festival premiere: 8 Sep 2020 Venice Film Festival.
    Finnish premiere: 11 June 2021, released by: B-Plan Distribution.
    Helsinki corona emergency security: max 10 capacity, face masks, distancing, hand hygiene.
    Press screening at Finnkino Tennispalatsi 2, with Swedish subtitles by Nina Donner, Helsinki, 8 June 2021 at 10 am.

Tagline: “Sometus. Panetus. Rakkaus”.

Synopsis: “ After losing an interesting film job to her nemesis Kristian, Hanna teams up with her sister and counterculture friends to create a parody romance on Instagram between herself and the young actor Ekku. They are passionate to make visible how the society is hungry for romantic narratives. Hanna starts living a crowd-pleasing love story for the public, only to find herself tangled up in the unresolved past with her “you were never my boyfriend” friend Lasse, who also happens to be the real-life co-writer and cinematographer of Fucking with Nobody. As the fake romance starts affecting everyone involved, a hurricane of desires, fantasies, hurt and intimacy is set off. Everyone involved has to decide what and how they are ready to put in front of the camera. Fiction and auto-fiction crash and melt into each other, as writer-director Hannaleena Hauru plays the lead role of an ever-single film director “Hanna”.

A word from the director: “ To make a portrait about relationships and intimacy in our times, I’ve found no other solution than to come as close to reality as possible – not only in the emotional content, but also in the cinematic solutions on how the story is told to the audience. The character Hanna says in the film “If I think of any memory I have about falling in love, they all relate to touch and smell rather than visual images”. I share this thought with the character, and that’s why I wanted to use haptic visuality to juxtapose more traditional imaginery seen in cinema. For me this sensory approach of Hanna is clashing in the film with both the social media images, as well as the with the fantasies presented through Lasse. For the ensemble approach and complex storylines, I have intentionally wanted to study how emotion can move through different characters. In the case of this film all characters are caleidoscopic reflections of Hanna and Lasse.Where in my previous films all fictional characters are some kind of reflections of my personal life, in Fucking with Nobody the study point was to build a fictional universe, that unfolds to be a presentation of the actual relationship of the two screenwriters of the film, Hanna and Lasse. Fucking with Nobody is a satire, the aestethics and acting style is toying with autofiction. Half of the scenes you see in the film are based on written dialogues, the other half is based on scenes written in detail in the script, but actors creating the dialogues. Only very few images in the film are documentary or full improvisation. All primary cast was involved increating the characters and their arcs in the film. ”

AA: Hannaleena Hauru's Fucking with Nobody is the most original Finnish film of the year.

It is a reversal of Hauru's previous movie, The Thick Lashes of Lauri Mäntyvaara. Both are satires. In The Thick Lashes, Satu and Heidi declared war on commercial love, targeting wedding planners, geisha schools and quark cruises for sportsmen. The farce style, cartoonish effects, outlandish reactions and sight gags about consumer society evoked Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis, but also Vera Chytilova and Penelope Spheeris, as well as Kaisa Rastimo and Auli Mantila.

There is a certain similarity in the premise of Fucking with Nobody. Hanna and her team design an anarchistic art project on Instagram to parody a conventional romantic relationship. Hanna conducts a fake love affair with her gay friend Ekku. It is a performance meant to deconstruct obsolete power structures and romantic codes.

Inevitably, the Instagram experiment goes viral and becomes a huge phenomenon. Nobody understands it as satire. Instead, it becomes a source of inspiration for followers, and a cause of misunderstandings and embarrassments for Hanna and Ekku. The fake Instagram romance threatens Ekku's real relationship. The comedy evolves on the interface of reality and unreality.

On the one hand, the fake romance gets more daring, producing “sex positive“ YouTube videos, including guidelines for clitoris stimulation, expanding possibilities to bondage, piercing and the proper use of vibrators. To avoid the curse of “hetero binary romance bullshit“ a foray to the queer scene of Berlin is introduced, including a gay leather club complete with coprophilia (read: dropping shit).

When the “carnevalization of bourgeois intimate relationships“ proceeds to parodies of commercials, advertisements and product placement, the parody indistinguishable from the object, Hanna's team loses faith in the project's critical potential. Hanna and Ekku are photographed for a cover story in the Image magazine. Their romance performance starts to seem like the real thing, whatever that is.

Finally the protagonists are forced to ask the question: “Hey, on what level of this movie are we now?“

In the middle of the maze, the gay couple (Ekku and Ara) appear as a center of sanity and gravity. Ara seems to be the only one to experience real feelings in this narrative of make-believe.

There is a “real“ film project in production simultaneously: a film about Vampira (Maila Nurmi) that had been planned for Hanna to direct but has been trusted / thrusted to the male director Kristian instead. In the magnetic field of Hanna and Ekku's “love affair“ even that project goes awry, and Kristian finally appears as Vampira, as if inspired by Hanna to act in the leading role of his own film.

In the middle of the most bewildering goings-on runs a silver thread. In unexpected moments we hear confessions such as: “Men and women hardly even speak the same language. Women are better equipped to deal with emotions. They have been educated and forced to do that since early childhood. A woman is a face and feelings. A man is a torso and a penis“.

Hannaleena Hauru in her production notes quotes models including Monty Python, Mae West, Sacha Baron Cohen and Andy Kaufman. There is no imitation in Fucking with Nobody. We are witnessing the evolution of an original satirical talent.


Friday, June 11, 2021

Get Out

Jordan Peele: Get Out (US 2019) starring Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington.

Get Out / Get Out .
    US © 2019 Universal Studios. PC: Blumhouse Productions / QC Entertainment. P: Jason Blum, Edward H. Hamm, Jr., Sean McKittrick, Jordan Peele.
    D+SC: Jordan Peele. DP: Toby Oliver – colour – 2.39:1 – source format: CFast 2.0 – ProRes 4444 (3.2K) – master format: 2K. PD: Rusty Smith. AD: Chris Craine. Set dec: Leonard R. Spears. Cost: Nadine Haders. Makeup: Remi Savva. Hair: Voni Hinkle, Carl Variste (Fairhope). SFX: Ryan Cox. VFX: Ingenuity Studios. M: Michael Abels. S: Trevor Gates. ED: Gregory Plotkin. Casting: Terri Taylor.
    CAST (copied from Wikipedia):
Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington
Zailand Adams as 11-year-old Chris
Allison Williams as Rose Armitage
Bradley Whitford as Dean Armitage
Caleb Landry Jones as Jeremy Armitage
Stephen Root as Jim Hudson
Lakeith Stanfield as Andre Hayworth / Logan King
Catherine Keener as Missy Armitage
Lil Rel Howery as TSA Agent Rod Williams, Chris's best friend
Erika Alexander as Detective Latoya
Marcus Henderson as Walter
Betty Gabriel as Georgina
Richard Herd as Roman Armitage
Keegan-Michael Key as NCAA Prospect
Writer-director Jordan Peele voices the sounds made by the wounded deer, and narrates a UNCF commercial.
[NCAA = National Collegiate Athletic Association, UNCF = United Negro College Fund, TSA = Transport Security Administration].
    Loc: Alabama, USA.
    104 min
    Festival premiere: 23 Jan 2017 Sundance Film Festival
    US and Canada premiere: 24 Feb 2017
    Finnish premiere: 5 May 2017, released by Finnkino.
    Blu-ray edition (Universal 2018) with 14 subtitles, bonus features and commentary tracks.
    Blu-ray viewed at home with English subtitles on a 4K tv set in Lappeenranta, 11 June 2021.

AA: In his debut feature film, Jordan Peele rises to the stratosphere of Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski and David Lynch.

Get Out belongs to the horror film's new wave that started around 2014 and on which Jason Zineman wrote an insightful essay, "Home Is Where the Horror Is" in The New York Times. I have seen too few of these films, but among the ones I have seen, Get Out stands out.

Zineman observes that many new wave horror films proceed in the context of the family, the house, and the home. The concept of "the uncanny" ("das Unheimliche"), developed by Ernst Jentsch and Sigmund Freud, inspired by E. T. A. Hoffmann and F. W. J. Schelling is particularly rewarding in discussing these films.

Jordan Peele introduces a new disturbing angle to the uncanny. There is a family, a house, and a home here, too, in the familiar literal meaning. But Get Out is also about the United States as a home, a homeland, a motherland. In Get Out, the United States appears as a horror movie from the Black point of view.


Starting from the first shot Jordan Peele creates an irresistible tension and drive. Get Out bears the hallmark of the best horror movies of a genuine feeling of a compelling inner urge, an ability to reach beyond consciousness and awareness.

In the beginning there are situations like in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Meet the Parents. A liberal, unprejudiced family who would have voted Obama for a third term. But nothing is what it seems.

The hypnosis sequences are extraordinary. The mind trip leads Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) to a "sunken place". Another anthology piece is the bingo lottery, in which the winner is the blind art dealer Jim Hudson. The prize is Chris, master photographer.

There are aspects of Donovan's Brain, Seconds, Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives in the story, but Jordan Peele's touch is original and irresistible. As a horror movie, Get Out delivers, and Peele excels both in memorable detail and the profound subtext. The moments of shock are organic to the whole.


I have been aware since the premiere that Get Out is a film I need to see, but I have been waiting for the right moment. I thank Mirkka Kallio for making it happen.


Saturday, June 05, 2021

Wonder Wheel

Woody Allen: Wonder Wheel (US 2017) starring Kate Winslet as Ginny Rannell.

Wonder Wheel / Wonder Wheel.
    US © 2017 Gravier Productions, Inc. Amazon Studios present in association with Gravier Productions – A Perdido Production. P: Erika Aronson, Letty Aronson, Edward Walson.
    D+SC: Woody Allen. Cin: Vittorio Storaro – color (ACES) – 2.00:1 – source formats: F55 RAW 4K, F65 RAW 4K – master format: 4K – release: D-Cinema. PD: Santo Loquasto. AD: Miguel López-Castillo. Set dec: Regina Graves. Cost: Suzy Benzinger. Makeup: Stacey Panepinto. Hair: Jerry Popolis. SFX: Mike Myers [IX]. VFX: Glenn Allen (visual effects producer: Brainstorm Digital). No original score music. Soundtrack listing: beyond the jump break. S: Robert Hein. ED: Alisa Lepselter. Casting: Patricia DiCerto.
    C from Wikipedia:
Kate Winslet as Ginny Rannell, Humpty's wife and Richie's mother and Carolina's stepmother
Juno Temple as Carolina Rannell, Humpty's grown daughter from his first marriage
Justin Timberlake as Mickey Rubin, a lifeguard and the film's narrator
Jim Belushi as Humpty Rannell, a recovering alcoholic, Ginny's husband, Carolina's father, and Richie's stepfather
Jack Gore as Richie Rannell, Ginny's young son
Tony Sirico as Angelo, a gangster
Steve Schirripa as Nick, a gangster
Debi Mazar as birthday party guest
Thomas Guiry as flirtatious man at Ruby's
Max Casella as Ryan, Humpty's fishing buddy
David Krumholtz as Jake, Mickey's friend
    Filming dates: 15 Sep – 28 Oct 2016.
    Loc: Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park (Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York City). New York, Staten Island.
    Typeface: Windsor Light Condensed.
    101 min
    The Wonder Wheel in the film is the actual Coney Island Wonder Wheel. Opened in 1920, it has been designated as an official New York landmark and is still in operation a hundred years later.
    Festival premiere: 14 Oct 2017 New York Film Festival.
    US premiere: 1 Dec 2017 (limited), 15 Dec 2017 (wide).
    Finnish premiere: 29 Dec 2017, released by Finnkino.
    Dvd released in 2019 by Scanbox / Universal Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Nordic & Baltics AB with Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian and Danish subtitles, Finnish subtitles by Jaana Wiik.
    Dvd borrowed from Helsinki City Library, Rikhardinkatu Library.
    Dvd viewed at home in Lappeenranta on a 4K tv screen, 6 June 2021.
Woody Allen belongs to the film-makers from whom I want to see everything. Today I finally caught up with Wonder Wheel, an amazing and brilliant look at illusion and reality in romantic dreams and everyday family life, all reflected in the make-believe world of an amusement park at Coney Island. I usually take copious notes while watching a film, but Wonder Wheel is so engrossing and engaging that it took me quite a while before I was able to start.

No director in the history of the cinema has had more superb casts than Allen. In Wonder Wheel I believe all four leading actors appear in his film for the first time. Like Cate Blanchett and Kristen Stewart previously, Kate Winslet gets an opportunity to create something new, different and great. Winslet's performance as Ginny is quietly disturbing. It is a subtle study of a woman whose talent has been repressed and wasted. Winslet's ability to convey profound currents via silence and immobility is memorable in a similar fashion in her wonderful performance in Ammonite.

Jim Belushi is cast against type as the recovering alcoholic husband Humpty. Belushi creates a complex persona, capable of both terrible injustice and tenderness. Juno Temple is appealing as Humpty's daughter Carolina who is in trouble with the mob, having informed to the FBI ("I know where all the bodies are buried").

Justin Timberlake as the young lifeguard Mickey provides both beefcake and a direct address discourse on the essence of tragedy (his dream is to become a great playwright like Eugene O'Neill). The athletic dreamboat, the confident and assured Mickey is the direct opposite to Allen's typical schlemiel protagonist. Mickey belongs to a lineage including Jean-Pierre Aumont in Lac aux dames and Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing.

Wonder Wheel provides both escapism and an exposé of escapism. It is based on clichés but goes beyond them, revealing both the truth and the deception of clichés. Love is a dream that can become reality. Dream can help us survive reality, or it can prevent us from facing reality. In all main characters we see both sides: a talent for love, and a temptation for self-deception.

Wonder Wheel is in an unusual way a study in tragedy, as lectured by Mickey: we sense the capacity to grandeur, but there is a fatal weakness in each character. With Ginny, it's infidelity, with Humpty, alcohol, with Carolina, naivety, and with Mickey, philandering. Associations run to Phaedra and Desire Under the Elms.

Most prominently, Wonder Wheel is a tragedy of jealousy in which both mother (Ginny) and (Humpty's) daughter (Carolina) love the same young man (Mickey). Let's observe the beautiful account of the romance between a mature woman and a young man. The affair is wonderful as long as it lasts, but Mickey is not ready to commit. He is still immature. There is nothing cynical or facile in the way their story is told.

After Café Society, Wonder Wheel is Allen's second digitally captured movie and his second collaboration with master cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. Allen and Storaro again use glossy digital unreality as a means of expression. The magic world, the make-believe, has interested Allen for a long time in films including The Purple Rose of Cairo, Shadows and Fog, Sweet and Lowdown, and Scoop. Here the digitally enhanced gorgeous visual approach is both enchanting and tragic in its shallowness.

A similar naive dream-world is evoked on the film's wonderful soundtrack, consisting solely of Allen's beloved vintage popular records, with titles such as "Coney Island Washboard" and "Kiss of Fire" (sung by Georgia Gibbs). The soundtrack provides an unusual background to tragedy.

Café Society took place in Hollywood and the high end nightclub scene of New York. The dramatis personae of Wonder Wheel belong to the working class and hard-working small enterpreneurs. Woody Allen views their life with affection and empathy.


Having seen the film I had a look at some of the reviews, by critics I most highly respect. I am sure they will regret those reviews more bitterly than anything they have ever done in their lives. They are documents of infinite shame to the profession of film criticism. Having read them I felt physically ill and did not sleep well.

I believe in fair play. Bless you Woody Allen, please never stop making films.

I am a Me Too partisan dal primo giorno. It's a world historical movement. False accusations and boycotts can damage it greatly. This is only the beginning, and the watchword must be justice.


Wednesday, June 02, 2021

The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Lee Daniels: The United States vs. Billie Holiday (US 2021) starring Andra Day.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday / The United States vs. Billie Holiday.
    US 2021 © 2020 Billie Holiday Film. Hulu Presents – a Hulu original – in association with New Slate Ventures. P: Lee Daniels, Jordan Fudge, Joe Roth, Jeff Kirschenbaum, Pamela Oas Williams, Tucker Tooley. A Lee Daniels Film. A Lee Daniels Entertainment Production. A Roth-Kirschenbaum Films Production.
    D: Lee Daniels. SC: Suzan-Lori Parks – based on the book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (2015) by Johann Hari. DP: Andrew Dunn – negative: 35 mm, some scenes 16 mm – master format: 4K – release format: D-Cinema. PD: Daniel T. Dorrance. AD: Félix Larivière-Charron. Set dec: Geneviève Bolvin, Elise de Blois. Cost: Paolo Nieddu.
    [M: Billie Holiday, n.c.]. M: Kris Bowers. Executive M producer: Salaam Remi. Executive M producer for Unigram: Amanda Ghost. M supervisor: Lynn Fainchtein.
    Soundtrack listing: beyond the jump break.
    S: Robert Hein. ED: Jay Rabinowitz.
    CAST from Wikipedia:
Andra Day as Billie Holiday
Trevante Rhodes as Jimmy Fletcher
Garrett Hedlund as Harry J. Anslinger
Leslie Jordan as Reginald Lord Devine
Miss Lawrence as Miss Freddy
Adriane Lenox as Mrs. Fletcher
Natasha Lyonne as Tallulah Bankhead
Rob Morgan as Louis McKay
Da'Vine Joy Randolph as Roslyn
Evan Ross as Sam Williams
Tyler James Williams as Lester Young
Tone Bell as John Levy
Blake DeLong as Agent Carter
Dana Gourrier as Sadie Fagan
Melvin Gregg as Joe Guy
Erik LaRay Harvey as Monroe
Ray Shell as Carl the Drummer
    130 min
    US release: 26 Feb 2021 (Hulu).
    Finnish release: 2 July 2021 (theatrical) by Finnkino with Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Jaana Wiik / Charlotte Elo.
    Corona security: max 10 capacity, face masks, distancing, hand hygiene.
    Viewed at a press screening at Tennispalatsi 3, Helsinki, 2 June 2021.

AA: Cinemas in Helsinki are still suffering from the regional lockdown restriction of max 10 capacity, and they are all closed save a few intrepid independents such as Kino Engel. Last weekend cinemas in Lappeenranta opened for a capacity of 20, and on 4 June they open for full capacity. Finnkino theatres in all of Finland will be open by 11 June, in Helsinki for what seems like max 10 capacity but might turn out to be higher.

During the lockdown, I have been very grateful for press screenings.

I admire the high quality of movie access online. I have no complaints. But more than ever I have realized the superiority of the movie experience in a cinema. I have traditionally shunned press screenings because the audience experience in them is so twisted. Nobody laughs if it the film is a comedy or if the scene is humoristic, etc. The worst are gala screenings in the presence of film-makers. I am instantly tuned into a mood of courtesy and cannot sincerely assess the movie because I root so much for the film-makers whose hard work I respect. Regarding Aki Kaurismäki's The Other Side of Hope I remember the icy atmosphere at the gala premiere and the warm flow the day after at Cinema Orion when we screened a 35 mm print for a dedicated audience at Cinema Orion. It was a different film.

During the pandemic I have savoured press screenings. The warmth, the reactions, the atmosphere, the laughter and the pheromones of the audience are gone. Films are often about sex and violence, they bypass reason and reach to our unconscious, even to our "reptilian brain", unleashing a potent hormone cocktail into the atmosphere of the cinema. None of that this time. But during the pandemic the safety and the distancing of the cinemas have been very relaxing, whether in Helsinki, Lappeenranta or Bologna.

Watching The United States vs. Billie Holiday in a press screening for max ten viewers is a more meditative experience than a normal cinema screening would be. This is a movie about sex and violence. This is a movie about drugs and jazz. This is a political film about racism, repression and fighting for your rights. The subject is potentially scandalous and sensational, but although the film is highly charged and passionate, it is tempered by intelligence. It is a film of outrage, but the main thrust is to make us think.

It is a top production, independently financed outside the mainstream. The strong screenplay by Suzan-Lori Parks was inspired by Johann Hari's non-fiction book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, its chapters on the film's two protagonists: Billie Holiday and Harry J. Anslinger, First Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN).

The saga of Billie Holiday could easily fall into the "rise and fall" formula of artist biopics. But Johann Hari and Suzan-Lori Parks select an unusual angle into the theme of drug addiction: "the War on Drugs" as a key instrument in racist oppression and violence. Black artists seek solace from drugs to alleviate pain from racist violence. But drug addiction exposes them to a circle of crime and punishment. They become extra vulnerable to the structural violence of the society.

Although Billie Holiday was dealt an abysmally bad hand, she rose to superstardom and created one of the most recognizable idioms in 20th century culture. More than that, she did not compromise, and became a pioneer of the civil rights movement by singing her signature song "Strange Fruit" about lynching.

The key dynamics in The United States vs. Billie Holiday is about the singer's defiant civil rights stance and the government's war on Billie Holiday. It is not a surprise that the FBI and the FBN are after her, but, shockingly, they manage to infiltrate Holiday's nearest and dearest to try to suppress her and even plant drugs on her. They succeed with her husbands and managers, but when they send a double agent, Jimmy Fletcher, he switches sides. The drama is like from a paranoid Hollywood thriller but seems to be true.

The thrust of the film is that government agencies killed Billie Holiday, at least indirectly, but perhaps even directly. And this happened with the connivance of Holiday's inner circle. I'll be intrigued to learn more.

The movie is a tragedy, but it belongs to the lineage of Joe Hill ("I never died" says he). Those who harass Billie Holiday to death make her immortal. Her last lines in the movie are directed to Harry J. Anslinger:

" You think I'm going to stop singing that song. Your grandkids will be singing Strange Fruit. Y'all motherfuckers think you got something on me. You don't. You stupid bitches ain't got shit. Suck my black ass. "

This is a top production. The glamorous dresses are by Paolo Nieddu in collaboration with the House of Prada, the hairdos by Stacie Merriman and Charles Gregory Ross, and the makeup by Laini Thompson.

The cinematographer Andrew Dunn shoots on photochemical film, helping sustain a vibrant, physical feeling even in digital transfer.

The producer-director Lee Daniels succeeds in conveying an original vision of the legendary singer, different from Lady Sings the Blues (starring Diana Ross) and the recent portrait documentary Billie. He brings the bold screenplay to life uncompromisingly.

One of the hallmarks of Suzan-Lori Parks's screenplay is that it is structured intelligently around Billie Holiday's songs. Lee Daniels's major coup is casting the superb singer Andra Day in the leading role, followed by the decision of having her sing all the songs herself. (A similar decision was made in Lady Sings the Blues where Diana Ross interpreted the Billie Holiday songbook).

This is Andra Day's debut as an actor, and she is breathtaking in the extremely demanding part, completely different from her own persona. She is a fighter, an artist, outraged and outrageous, engrossing as a star presence. This movie becomes an Andra Day vehicle. She embodies the concept of "the triumph of the spirit" in tribute to Billie Holiday.

We don't hear Billie Holiday in this movie. For a while in the final song "All Of Me" I thought it was her but evidently I misunderstood.

A curious observation in the main credits of the Billie Holiday movies: the music credit in Lady Sings the Blues goes to Michel Legrand, in Billie to nobody, and in this one to Kris Bowers. In none is Billie Holiday credited for the music, except in soundtrack details.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday is a film of high quality. The traumatic scene in which the young Billie Holiday witnesses a scene of lynching is conveyed powerfully in a shared opium delirium by Billie with the double-agent-turned-lover Jimmy. Scenes of prostitution, domestic violence and police brutality are unvarnished and uncliched. On the other hand, Billie's atavistic and exceptional sex drive is memorably shown as a force of life. Frank sex scenes in movies almost invariably fail. Not here.

Perhaps to avoid sensationalism, Lee Daniels occasionally adopts a laid back approach, like putting on the break time and again. As a rule, the scenes with Billie Holiday are exciting and full of life. The FBN scenes are less convincing, which is a pity. They are built on the disturbing concept that the first Black Federal agents in the history of the US were assigned to infiltrate and betray fellow Blacks in the "War on Drugs". It gradually dawns on them that it is a codename for a war on Blacks.

The shared opium delirium in the heart of the narrative contains the unhealed trauma of Billie's memory of lynching. Another striking framing device is a radio interview session by the journalist Reginald Lord Devine played by Leslie Jordan in one of the most memorable non-binary performances in contemporary cinema. The twist is that he/she is just as clueless about Billie Holiday as everybody else.


Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Lasse Vairio: Delade drömmar / Shared Dreams

Lasse Vairio: Delade drömmar / Shared Dreams (FI 2021). A black and white photograph showing a cliff, the sun and a ship.

The artist Lasse Vairio was born in 1966 in Helsingfors.

FI 2021. Artist: Lasse Vairio. Single channel video, stereo sound, shot on 16 mm b&w print stock.
    23 min
    Kuvan kevät 2021: MFA Degree Show of the Academy of Fine Arts of Uniarts Helsinki.
    Exhibition Laboratory (C), Merimiehenkatu 36 C, 00150, Helsinki
    Viewed on 1 June 2021, with a meeting with Lasse Vairio.

Lasse Vairio:

" Något föll ned
Något gjorde ett märke i örat
Medan jag diskade en bottenlös kastrull

från väster till öster
(vänster till höger)
Mellan de höga tallarna
och ner i Havet

utan att stiga över tröskeln
håller jag andan
för att inte bli del av


" Something came down
something made a mark on my ear
while I was washing a bottomless saucepan

from the west to the east
(left to the right)
Between the tall pines
and down in the Sea

without climbing over the treshold
holding my breath
not to be part of 
" (Lasse Vairio)

AA: A lyrical poem, a personal film, a documentary journey of memory and free associations. Shared Dreams also belongs to the current of artists' films relevant to the philosophy of perception.

I enter in the middle, facing a terrain vague view that to me somehow evokes the opening of Georges Franju's Le Sang des bêtes or vacant spaces captured by Antonioni. It is a scene of emptiness, charged with mystery.

Memories include a caged child, an early humiliation by father. Time lapse footage catches a crescent Moon crossing the night sky. Several objects are imbued with what Andrei Tarkovsky called "sealed time", with affinities with the Japanese wabi sabi aesthetics.

The sky and the sea are major elements. Personally, I was reminded of my earliest childhood memories: the sky and the sea of the harbour city Vaasa. A child cannot make sense of bigger contexts and continuities, just the immediate experience of the elements. Jellyfish is examined in close-up.

A lighthouse is glimpsed, with a Fresnel lens such as was highlighted in Robert Eggers's The Lighthouse, and what I believe is a radar. We travel far North to the land of ice and mountains. We visit a construction site. We pause to meditate on estranged details of autumnal nature. Embers are glowing in a brief colour footage in a black and white film.

The non-stop screening proceeds to the terrain vague anew, and I start re-watching the film. The images now reveal new depth and density. This impressive, lyrical movie gains in strength when revisited.

The title of the film reminds me of Jean Cocteau's opening words in Le Testament d'Orphée:

« Le privilège du cinématographe, c'est qu'il permet à un grand nombre de personnes de rêver ensemble le même rêve."

" It is the film-maker's privilege to be able to allow a large number of people to dream the same dream together. "

The digital presentation succeeds in conveying the sensitivity of the photochemical 16 mm stock on which the film has been made.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Ilya Repin (exhibition at Ateneum)

Ilya Repin (1844–1930) : What Freedom! / «Какой простор!». 1903. Oil on canvas. 179 cm x 284.5 cm. Collection: Russian Museum. Ж-2774. Please do click on the image to enlarge it.

Repin. Exhibition at the Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki, 27 April – 29 Aug 2021. Produced by the Ateneum Art Museum and the Petit Palais (Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris / Paris Musées), in collaboration with the State Tretyakov Gallery and the State Russian Museum. The curator of the exhibition at the Ateneum is the chief curator Timo Huusko. After Ateneum, the exhibition will be on display at the Petit Palais in Paris.
    The original opening of 9 March 2021 was postponed due to the corona emergency.
    Corona security: pre-booking, limited capacity, staggered entry, face masks, distancing, hand hygiene.
    Viewed 6 May 2021.

Ilya Repin. Editor: Anne-Maria Pennonen. Photo editor: Lene Wahlsten. With contributions by Marja Sakari, Tatjana Yudenkova, David Jackson, Timo Huusko and Satu Itkonen.
    Graphic design: Minna Luoma.
    Ateneum Publications Vol. 145.
    Three editions: Finnish, Swedish and English.
    207 pages : richly illustrated : 28 cm.
    ISBN 978-952-737125-1 hardbound.
    Printing: Livonia Print © 2021.
    Helsinki: Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum, 2021.

Ilya Repin: Ilja Repin: Mennyt aika läheinen (Far and Near / Далёкое близкое, 1937). Finnish translation: Mirja Rutanen. Porvoo – Helsinki – Juva: WSOY, 1970. – A wonderful book of memoirs.

Tito Colliander: Ilja Repin, ukrainalainen taiteilija. Translation from the Swedish original: Lauri Kemiläinen. Helsinki: Kustannusosakeyhtiö Tammi, 1944. – Largely based on the same notes of Repin's from which the painter's memoirs were posthumously edited.

From the official introduction: " A master of psychological portrayals and depictions of Russian folklife

Ilya Repin (1844–1930) is above all known as a master of psychological portrayals of people and depictions of Russian folklife. The Ateneum is able to display Repin’s best-known paintings with masterful details, including Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870–1873) and Zaporozhian Cossacks Writing a Mocking Letter to the Turkish Sultan (1880–1891), both from the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.

The exhibition’s many portraits feature members of the artist’s family, as well as cultural influencers of the time, such as the composer Modest Mussorgsky and the author Leo Tolstoy. In all, Repin painted more than 300 portraits, including portrayals of many influential women in culture.

Ilya Repin, the most significant Russian artist of his time, depicted the Russian people, who had been freed from serfdom in the 1860s, as well as the intelligentsia of the era, and the relationship between the people and their rulers. His work has also strongly influenced the Finnish people’s current perception of the essence of Russianness.

The exhibition is the first review of Repin’s entire career in Finland in the 21st century. The exhibition features more than 140 paintings and paper-based works spanning a period of more than sixty years. Many of the works are shown in Helsinki for the first time. The Ateneum collection also includes a great number of Repin’s works."
(From the official introduction)

AA: My first visit to a large art exhibition in half a year is to Ateneum's grand retrospective of Ilya Repin, the Ukraine-born master of Russian realism.

As a contributor to a volume of essays on Leo Tolstoy that was published in January 2021, I have been absorbed in Russian society, history and realism for a couple of years. I confronted Ilya Repin also during my Tolstoy quest. Repin and Tolstoy were long-term friends, and Repin's Tolstoy chapter in his memoirs contains some of the most engrossing pages about the author.

They were opponents in many ways, particularly regarding Tolstoy's infamous, polemical What Is Art? treatise in which Tolstoy denied the worth of almost the whole legacy of world art. Disregarding that, Repin and Tolstoy connected in profound spiritual levels.

The last pages of Repin's Tolstoy memoirs are devoted to their long riding tour in 1909, when Tolstoy was 81 years old, one year before his death. Repin admires Tolstoy's tact, skill and bravado with his beloved horse Délire. And Leo's patience: when he has tried to lead the horse through the wrong forest thicket path Leo finally understands to give up and let the horse find the right path.

Having read those genial memoirs, it is startling to discover the last Tolstoy portrait painted by Repin while the author was alive, made during the year of the last ride. (Based on his sketches, Repin painted some more portraits after Tolstoy's death). Repin created 12 portraits of Tolstoy, several of which are on display at Ateneum. In addition, he made 25 drawings. There are also eight sketches of Tolstoy's family members, 17 book illustrations and three plaster busts.

That 1909 Tolstoy portrait was for me the biggest revelation and the most startling experience in the Ateneum exhibition. All other Repin's Tolstoy portraits are full of vigour, and there is a powerful spiritual radiation, although Tolstoy is usually in humble and ordinary clothes. There is a sense of passion and perseverance. They evoke a prophet, a seer, an apostle, a shaman.

But in this portrait in the pink chair from the year 1909 the keynote is agony. Tolstoy was disturbed about the recent developments in Russia. "Stolypin's necktie" had been used mercilessly to crush opposition. On "Bloody Sunday", the Czar's Imperial Guard massacred peaceful, unarmed demonstrators led by Father Gapon who wanted to deliver a petition to the Czar. Such events were a blow to Tolstoy's faith in non-violent resistance. The conflicts and contradictions were turning unbearable to the ageing and ailing author who in the next year tried to retire from the world.

All this can be felt in the last portrait.

Ilya Repin belongs to the greatest masters of portrait painting. The Tolstoy cycle is only an example. In all portraits we have a feeling of being in the presence of a real, vivid and impressive human being. Repin created a portrait gallery of the Great Men and Women of Russia. When we contemplate Repin's Alexander III, Nikolai II and Kerenski we get an inside track into history. Tsarevna Sophia Alekseyevna, Varvara Uexküll von Gyldenbrandt, Elizaveta Zvantseva and Eleonora Duse (a frequent visitor to Russia) are remarkable presences. His own family Repin painted with warm affection and a sense of humour.

John Berger's "male gaze" discourse has been recently revived for the Me Too age. Repin survives such a critical examination. His female portraits are proud, independent and intelligent. They are not passive objects of the male gaze. Instead, Repin's women gaze at us with their heads held up high.

This is my first Ilya Repin solo exhibition, but many of his paintings I have seen at the Russian Museum. During the corona emergency I have had time to read and study comfortably three Ilya Repin books, including the exhibition catalogue, so I was pretty well prepared when my turn came to visit the museum. In our age of record visitor figures to museums, we have already been used to queues in Le Louvre and the Hermitage. Now the pandemic adds a new twist to the Golden Age of Museums.

It adds to the reverence of art to have to stand in line to review it. But yet again, people wander in the exhibition photographing paintings with their mobile phones, instead of viewing them, although superior images exist online of almost all. (But of the Tolstoy in 1909 painting I only discovered an inferior photo on the web.)

Most paintings are familiar, but intriguing rarities are dispersed among them, many of them from Finnish collections. The last 12 years of his life Repin lived in Finland with a Nansen passport. Repin did not emigrate, but since December 1917, Repin's villa Penates in Eastern Karelia happened to remain on the West side of the border, in the newly independent Republic of Finland.

There is a grand and engrossing vision on display at the exhibition. It is an epic survey of the history of Russia and Ukraine. The painting of Ivan the Terrible after the murder of his son in 1581 was withdrawn from the exhibition due to vandalism. But we have history paintings from the Zaporozhian Cossacks laughing at the Ottoman Sultan in 1676 and Tsarevna Sophia Alekseevna in her imprisonment in the Novodevichy Convent in 1698 till the Russian Revolutions in 1905 and 1917. Repin's painting on the Demonstration on October 17, 1905 is one of his most joyful, and his view of the Memorial at the Wall of the Communards at Père Lachaise (1883) has a special feeling of hopeful anticipation. But Repin condemned the bloodshed of Russia's Civil War, and his desolate Golgotha (1922) may be seen as a vision of the tragedy.

Even in Finland Repin's chain of great paintings on Russian history continued. In his partially sketchy Great Men of Finland (1927) he places in the middle the Finnish painter Axel Gallen-Kallela lighting his pipe, and himself standing next to him, with his back towards us, addressing General Mannerheim, the White General of Finland who in 1918 wanted to join the Russian Civil War to conquer Saint Petersburg. Mannerheim would have won the war, and that's why he got no backing, because the victory would have meant that Finland would have lost her independence.

A major current in the exhibition is rebellion, from post-Dekabrists to Oktyabrists. Before the Confession, two versions of the Unexpected Return (female and male), Meeting, and Arrest of a Propagandist are complex, disturbing, dynamic scenes. In his emblematic What Freedom! we can sense Repin's high hopes for the future of his country.

Almost all Repin's paintings can be examined at home in official high resolution digital transfers. Because of the epic quality of many it pays to study them on the biggest possible screen. But seen "live" it becomes possible to experience their three-dimensional brushstrokes. At close range the paintings are far from photorealistic. First they turn expressionistic, then abstract. It's worth the effort to "track forward and track back" to keep gaining new insights into these masterworks.

Finally, there is the aura of the unique artwork. Viewing the original portrait we are at two degrees of separation from Tolstoy.