Sunday, February 07, 2021

Cheng mo de zheng reu / Bodies at Rest


Renny Harlin: 沉默的證人 / Cheng mo de zheng reu / Bodies at Rest (CN/HK 2019) starring Richie Jen (Santa) and Nick Cheung (Dr. Chen Jia Hao).

Renny Harlin: 沉默的證人 / Cheng mo de zheng reu / Bodies at Rest (CN/HK 2019). The trio in the middle: Zi Yang (Qiao Lin), Nick Cheung (Dr. Chen Jia Hao), Richie Jen (Santa).


沉默的證人 (traditional) / 沉默的证人 (simplified).
    CN/HK © 2019 Wanda Media Co. Ltc. / Media Asia Film. P: Cheng Kim-fung, Lei Qiao, Fei Xiao.
    D: Renny Harlin. SC: David Lesser. DP: Anthony Pun – colour – 2.39:1 – Red Weapon Monstro – Redcode RAW – master format: digital intermediate 2K – released on 35 mm and D-Cinema. M: Anthony Chue. Theme song: Xueran Chen. ED: Ka-Fai Cheung. Stunt coordinator: Ming-sing Wong.
    Companies involved include: Phantom Clip Studio, MBS Studios, Physical FX, China Film Studio. Title design: Wandasunmon.
    C: Nick Cheung (Dr. Chen Jia Hao), Richie Jen (Santa), Zi Yang (Qiao Lin), Carlos Chan (Elf), Shu-liang Ma (Security guard Uncle Jin).
    With: Jin Au-Yeung (Wei Zai), Jiayi Feng (Rudolph), Roger Kwok (Ah Jie), Sonija Kwok (Chen's deceased wife), Clara Lee (Zheng Anqi), Peng Ming (Police officer Wu), Ron Ng (Police officer Li).
    Loc: Hong Kong, Beijing.
    Languages: Mandarin, Cantonese.
    94 min
    Festival premiere: 18 March 2019 Hong Kong International Film Festival.
    Chinese premiere: 16 Aug 2019.
    Hong Kong premiere: 22 Aug 2019.
    Finnish premiere (selected cities): 5 Feb 2021 – released by Night Visions Distribution – with Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Sami Siitojoki / Angel Hammer.
    Lappeenranta corona emergency security: max 20 capacity, face masks, distancing, hand hygiene.
    Viewed at Finnkino Strand 1, Lappeenranta, 8 Feb 2021.

AA: Since 2016, Renny Harlin has directed three films in China, two of them belonging to the lineage of Hong Kong action cinema. The first one, Skiptrace, starring Jackie Chan, was the biggest box office hit of both Harlin and Chan.

In his new Triad saga Bodies at Rest Harlin pursues an agenda of his own within the constraints of genre cinema. He does not emphasize comedy like Jackie Chan. He does not indulge in operatic bloodshed like John Woo. His cinema is not filled with magic like that of Tsui Hark. And he is not interested in the undercover cop narrative like Ringo Lam.

There is in the core of Harlin's cinema an innate kinetic urge, an instinct for the electrifying mise-en-scène and a natural talent for action cinema, a primal vitality that belongs to the mainstream of the great current of action adventure fantasy that started with Victorin Jasset's serials at the Éclair company.

It was as evident in Harlin's debut feature film Jäätävä polte / Born American as it is in Bodies at Rest, which does not belong to his most magnificent achievements. Despite its modest scope its pulsing dynamism is unmistakable.

Harlin was in the right place at the right time during the golden age of Hollywood's turbo-charged action extravaganzas produced by Joel Silver, Jerry Bruckheimer et al.

They were an over-the-top vision of the age of the bonfire of the vanities, displaying an appetite for destruction. They were post-modern manifestations of the Nero complex that has been in the heart of the cinema since Méliès. We create a world and sit back in an easy chair to watch it burn.

Bodies at Rest takes place at Christmas time at a huge Hong Kong morgue. Harlin brings his Hollywood expertise to the movie, but rainstorms, chases in halls of reflecting surfaces, races to the rescue, car crashes, battles in the freezing works, torrents of broken glass, countdowns, explosions and firestorms are not all there is. Even more engaging is Harlin's command of space and movement.

Jumps to conclusions and leaps of logic are perhaps also stunts expected in this brand of cinema.

What dates Harlin's cinema is his penchant for sadism, but more is not more.

The blitz montages in fight sequences are so rapid that it is hard to make sense of them. Ultra-rapid cutting weakens the impact of action scenes, because it breaks down the suspension of disbelief. We cease to feel viscerally that the actors are really going through all the mayhem.

But perhaps the ADHD mentality is a manifestation of the epoch of "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains". We surf quickly ahead without stopping to reflect or feel. No matter how great the overload of attractions, everything remains indifferent.

The movie is well cast. Nick Cheung conveys quiet authority and a silent dignity as Dr. Chen Jia Hao, perhaps in tribute to Harlin's own father who was a doctor and chief physician in his city. Zi Yang as Qiao Lin is a resourceful fighter in the female leading role. Shu-liang Ma brings a jovial presence as the donut-loving security guard Uncle Jin.

The three villains, dressed in Christmas masks, are modelled after familiar archetypes. Richie Jen (Santa) is a poker-faced, callous leader. Carlos Chan (Elf) is an erratic sadist. Jiayi Feng (Rudolph) is an old-timer who faints at the sight of blood.

The relations between the villains are based on a healthy mutual distrust. Bodies at Rest is not a story-driven film, and the relevant backgrounds of the wars between the Hong Kong and Thai triads, the policemen doubling as gangsters, and the underworld connections of Dr. Chen Jia Hao remain underexposed.

Renny Harlin's first film Born American was a violent anticommunist action fantasy. Bodies at Rest has been made in a country ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. It's the last Christmas in Hong Kong for the doctor and his assistant. In the finale, the rainstorm warning is cancelled. We may pause to think about the meaning of the multiple disguises of gangsters as policemen as merry Christmas figures.

The film has been efficiently shot by Anthony Pun, and the score by Anthony Chue is engaging. I like the design of the final credit sequence based on the concept of X-ray photos and silhouettes of hands holding them.

BEYOND THE JUMP BREAK: PROMOTIONAL COPY FROM NIGHT VISIONS DISTRIBUTION:

Saturday, February 06, 2021

Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton


Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton (GB 1965, SC: Dennis Potter, D: Gareth Davies). Starring Valerie Gearon (Ann Barton) and Keith Barron (Nigel Barton).

Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton (GB 1965, SC: Dennis Potter, D: Gareth Davies). "At the Annual Council Dinner, Nigel listens to the Tory candidate give a self-congratulatory speech in which he claims that things are getting better for everyone, although his assessment clearly excludes people from minorities. Nigel furiously attacks the speech for its complacence and backward-looking agenda." (BFI Screenonline synopsis).


 The Wednesday Play: Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton.
    GB 1965. PC: BBC. P: James MacTaggart, Graeme MacDonald.
    D: Gareth Davies. SC: Dennis Potter. Story editors: Roger Smith, Tony Garnett. Cin: James Balfour – 1,33:1 – b&w. PD: Julia Trevelyan Oman. Film ED: Bill Brind. Telerecording ED: Julian Farr.
    C: Keith Barron (Nigel Barton), Valerie Gearon (Ann Barton), John Bailey (Jack Hay), Cyril Luckham (Hugh Archibald-Lake), Harry Forehead (Sir Harry Blakeswood), Huw Thomas (newsreader), Betty Bowden (lady chairman), Margaret Diamond (lady secretary), Madge Brindley (Mrs. Thompson), Sonia Graham (Mrs. Phillips), Aimée Delamain (Mrs. Morris), Walter Hall (Mr. Smith), George Desmond (Mr. Harrison), Fred Berman (toastmaster), John Evitts (journalist), Alan Lawrance (fat man), Arthur Ridley (mayor).
    Soundtrack selections include: "The Red Flag" (comp. Melchior Frank, 16th century, lyr. Jim Connell, 1889); final credit theme: an instrumental variation of "Go Tell It on the Mountain" (pre-1865 African-American spiritual, a Christmas carol, collected by John Wesley Work, Jr.).
    News clips: Nye Bevan's speech at an anti-Suez rally ; Oswald Mosley's speech.
    75 min
    Telepremiere: 15 Dec 1965 on BBC1.
    YouTube link viewed on a 4K tv set at home in Lappeenranta, 6 Feb 2021.

AA: "Candidate Nigel Barton goes from idealism to cynicism as he becomes disillusioned and suspicious of hollow campaign promises." This Internet Movie Database synopsis seems accurate at first sight, and it seems to reflect the general opinion of Dennis Potter's remarkable sequel to his semi-autobiographical breakthrough play Stand Up, Nigel Barton.

Nigel Barton's Bildungsroman does indeed belong to the great tradition of Balzac's Illusions perdues: the growing up of a provincial youth who enters the big world of modernity. In the first film we witnessed the bitter contrast between Nigel's working-class roots and his Oxford elite existence. Nigel was left with the feeling that he does not belong anywhere.

The death of a Conservative member of parliament in a foxhunt accident necessitates a by-election. The Labour Party nominates Nigel Barton as their candidate for "the totally hopeless seat" in a traditionally and overwhelmingly Tory-dominated district. A seasoned party veteran called Jack Hay (John Bailey) becomes Barton's personal coach.

We follow Nigel's evolution step by step. His first performance is too intellectual: "try not to be too clever", advises Jack while observing a yawning and distracted audience. Next Nigel turns to heavy-handed propaganda, but because he has not done his homework, he fails to answer sharp questions and needs help.

Together, Nigel and Jack start canvassing with a tour on a campaign van: visiting voters at their doorsteps and in groups such as women riders. The idea is to "catch floating voters". ("Let them sink" is Jack's suggestion). Nigel even gets a list of the bereaved, but writing condolence letters for the sake of getting votes goes too far. A visit to an old folks' home shocks Nigel deeply, but even there he fails to connect.

The local Labour workers and a ladies' group see through Nigel's phoniness. He does not even know the lyrics of "The Red Flag". But in the final climax, the Annual Council Dinner, listening to his opponent, the smooth and experienced Tory candidate Hugh Archibald-Lake (who declares that "we are all workers now"), Nigel catches fire and speaks from his heart for the first time, debunking the "myth of affluence", although his offensive manner will bring him no votes. But the angry young man has entered politics and found his own voice.

Although Jack at first appears a cynical opportunist, it turns out that he has never lost his ideals. And although Ann, Nigel's wife, tells her husband that "yours is the worst form of betrayal", after his big speech Ann must confess she "did not know what you are capable of". Nigel was "pretty formidable". "You are not meant for the sidelines". In the process, Nigel really understands for the first time the hard life his father has endured.

One of the most refreshing features of the movie is the dynamics between Ann and Nigel. Ann ironizes Nigel's "advantage of being born to the working class", and Nigel lambasts her "condescending Hampstead socialism". (Ann's irony is similar to Tony Randall's envy towards Rock Hudson in Lover Come Back to Me: "You had everything going for you. Poverty. Squalor. There was only one way for you to go – up.") Ann makes fun of Nigel's "prize bull" campaign badge, while Nigel calls Ann "a prissy cow". Ann has accused Nigel that he has lost his virility during the campaign stress, but the bull / cow dialogue seems to rekindle the fire between the spouses.

The film has deep texture about Britain's postwar politics. Perhaps the most moving passage of the whole show is an insert from Nye Bevan's speech at an anti-Suez rally which leads to an elliptic resume of the history of the Labour Party since 1945 (Bevan was the father of the National Health Service).

An ominous presence in a historical insert is Oswald Mosley, whose political past included both Labour and Fascism, and who in the late 1950s became the father of the still ongoing anti-immigration movement, topical with Brexit.

The dimensions are both timeless and topical. Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton evokes Plato and Aristotle, their studies on rhetorics. It evokes Tony Blair and Boris Johnson. "Double talk, that is my language".

The film language of Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton is less experimental than that of Stand Up, Nigel Barton, but the finale is special. At the council dinner, Nigel both loses and finds himself. There is a final blitz montage in front of a mirror. Facing the camera, Nigel rehearses three forms of address, transforming from an angry Barton to a well-tempered Barton. His speech slows down and he catches his breath when he utters: "vote ... vote ... vote".

Dennis Potter asks us a question. Each viewer must find an answer for oneself.

BEYOND THE JUMP BREAK: DATA AND SERGIO ANGELINI'S ANALYSIS FROM BFI SCREENONLINE:

Stand Up, Nigel Barton


Stand Up, Nigel Barton (GB 1965, SC: Dennis Potter, D: Gareth Davies), starring Jack Woolgar (Mr. Barton), Katherine Parr (Mrs. Barton) and Keith Barron (Nigel Barton). The coalminer's family is appalled to watch a television show in which the son Nigel, a student at Oxford, confesses his agony at living in a class society. My screenshot from YouTube.

Stand Up, Nigel Barton (GB 1965, SC: Dennis Potter, D: Gareth Davies), with Vickery Turner (Jill Blakeney) and Keith Barron (Nigel Barton) as students at the University of Oxford. My screenshot from YouTube.


The Wednesday Play : Stand Up, Nigel Barton.
    GB 1965. PC: BBC. P: James MacTaggart, Graeme MacDonald.
    D: Gareth Davies. SC: Dennis Potter. Story editor: Tony Garnett. B&w. PD: Richard Henry. S: Paddy Wilson.
    C: Keith Barron (Nigel Barton), Jack Woolgar (Mr. Barton), Katherine Parr (Mrs. Barton), Vickery Turner (Jill Blakeney), Robert Mill (Adrian), Janet Henfrey (Miss Tillings, a teacher), P. J. Kavanagh (Reporter), Johnnie Wade (Reporter), Johnnie Wade (Georgie), Godfrey James (Bert).
    Soundtrack selections include: "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen" (Thomas Paine Westendorf, 1875), "Sixteen Tons" (Merle Travis, 1947), "The Old Rugged Cross" (Methodist hymn, 1912, George Bennard) and "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" (Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, 1965) perf. The Animals.
    75 min
    Telepremiere: 8 Dec 1965 on BBC1.
    YouTube link viewed on a 4K tv set at home in Lappeenranta, 6 Feb 2021.

AA: Having discovered a few weeks ago the early Dennis Potter masterpiece Moonlight on the Highway (1969) I delved deeper and viewed his breakthrough telefilms, the Nigel Barton Plays. The producer is James MacTaggart, who directed Moonlight on the Highway. Gareth Davies, the director of the Nigel Barton plays, elicits excellent performances from the cast.

The Nigel Barton plays belong to the currents of the Angry Young Men, Free Cinema and Kitchen Sink Drama. Nigel Barton is an angry young man, the mining town is conveyed with naturalism, and there is a freedom of experimentation. Much is familiar from contemporary British films such as Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life.

But a unique Dennis Potter signature is already prominent. The story is semi-autobiographical, because the agonizing Bildungsroman is very similar with Potter's own trajectory from a mining town to the University of Oxford. Nigel Barton experiences a massive identity crisis and exposes it to the whole nation in a BBC documentary about "Britain, land of barriers": "I don't feel as I belong anywhere".

Already at this point, Potter as a storyteller is far from straightforward. Instead of a linear progress, the narrative is based on a juxtaposition between home and Oxford. The present tense is intercut with flashbacks. In embarrassing school memories, grown-ups play schoolchildren. The actors feel free to address us directly.

Potter has an eye for the expressive detail. In memories of school bullying, when asked to select a passage from the Bible to read, George, a schoolmate, selects the Book of Ezekiel (the one with Oholah and Oholibah), and when Miss Tillings, the teacher, blows her top, Nigel is first held up as the teacher's pet and then inevitably bullied. In the story of retaliation Nigel tears the stem off from the class daffodil and frames George.

The film begins with a long backward tracking shot of Nigel's father walking in the middle of the road, instead of on the sidewalk. Why? It's an old miners' tradition. After Nigel's appearance in the television documentary, confessing his unease about his coal village background, mother and father are deeply shocked. Father goes out, and Nigel finds him coughing painfully. Miner's lungs. In the final long forward tracking shot we are behind Nigel and his father, walking in the middle of the road until they disappear into the darkness. It's night, and they are going to the pub together.

Soundtrack selections do not yet play such a dominant role as in Potter's most famous teleplays, but they are more inventively used than in average shows. "Sixteen Tons" and "The Old Rugged Cross" are among the tunes on display. Like in This Sporting Life, singing at the Working Men's Club is memorable.

During the closing credits, Barry Mann and Claudia Weil's topical hit, "We Gotta Get Out of This Place", released by The Animals in July 1965, is playing, a more obvious song selection than usually in Potter's plays, but it must have irresistible because it so directly articulates the British "angry young man" attitude, although written by Brill Building professionals.

Like in Moonlight on the Highway, there is an impressive "atlas of faces". In the mining town, there are no indifferent extras. Every face tells a story.

BEYOND THE JUMP BREAK: DATA AND SERGIO ANGELINI'S ANALYSIS FROM BFI SCREENONLINE:

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Armi elää! / Armi Alive!


Jörn Donner: Armi elää! / Armi Alive! (FI 2015), starring Minna Haapkylä as Armi Ratia.

Armi lever!
    FI © 2015 Oy Bufo Ab. P: Misha Jaari, Mark Lwoff.
    D: Jörn Donner. SC: Karoliina Lindgren. Cin: Hannu-Pekka Vitikainen – colour – 1,85:1. AD: Otso Linnalaakso. Cost: Tiina Kaukanen. Makeup: Pia Mikkonen. M: Pessi Levanto. Soundtrack listing: see beyond the jump break. S: Karri Niinivaara – Dolby Digital 5.1. ED: Klaus Grabber.
    Starring: Minna Haapkylä (Armi Ratia / Maria), Laura Birn (Leena), Hannu-Pekka Björkman (Viljo Ratia), Rea Mauranen (Kerttu).
    With: Robert Enckell, Joanna Haartti, Antti Holma, Ona Kamu, Tiina Lymi, Outi Mäenpää, Cécile Orblin, Anna Paavilainen, Jukka Puotila, Eero Ritala, Pekka Strang, Jakob Öhrman.
    Poem: T. S. Eliot: The Waste Land (1922), Finnish translation (Autio maa) by Lauri Viljanen.
    84 min
    Festival premiere: 31 Jan 2015 Göteborg Film Festival.
    Premiere: 20 March 2015 – released by B-Plan Distribution in 4K DCP.
    Viewed from Yle Areena streaming platform on a laptop, in Helsinki, 27 Jan 2021.

In memoriam Jörn Donner (1933–2020).

Tagline: "Armi Alive! is the tale of a woman who was not afraid of anything, except herself, and contributed to a new way to experience the world."

Synopsis: "Armi Alive! is the story of one of Finland's most famous business executives. It tells about a woman who created Marimekko and its clean-cut style that we have learned to view as the synonym of Finnish design. Both as a businesswoman and a private person Armi Ratia was brave and boundless, unreasonable and capable of the utmost."

"The story is told via a theatre troupe that prepares a play about Armi. Guided by Maria who plays Armi (Minna Haapkylä) they ask time and again who this remarkable woman was. The play focuses on the years 1949
–1968 when Armi founds Marimekko, guides it to an international breakthrough and finally has to consider her own relationship with the company: does Marimekko need Armi or does Armi need Marimekko? During the rehearsals Maria struggles to make sense of Armi's contradictions and seeks the truth and the complete human being beyond the legend."

AA: Armi Alive! was Jörn Donner's last fiction film. He directed two more films, both non-fiction. Characteristically for his "late style", Donner returns to the inspirations of youth. His anti-memoir Mammoth emerged in the spirit of avantgarde poets like Björling.

In Armi Alive! Donner returned to Brecht, whom he had met and befriended while writing the Report from Berlin. The Armi film is based on a multiple Verfremdungseffekt (alienation effect / distancing effect).

Illusion of reality is avoided, the dialogue is stylized, there is no identification structure, and we are urged to reflect on the circumstances of the characters. The pleasure of the show and its entertainment value are based on alertness, not immersion.

There is a play in the play, and the actress reflects on alternative solutions to play the character of Ratia. Minna Haapkylä is not an Armi Ratia lookalike. She does not even convey an "inner Armi Ratia". But she becomes a medium to reflect on Armi Ratia, and it is the key paradox of Brechtian theatre that she may come closer to the essence in this way.

Perhaps there had been an undetected Brechtian dimension in Donner's oeuvre all along: the five "Antonioni of the North" films together with Harriet Andersson, the four "breaking the sex wall" films, the early feminist thriller Men Can't Be Raped and the business drama Dirty Story. Of films produced by Donner, let's remember also Peter von Bagh's The Count.

Armi Ratia's is an incredible survival and success story, covering the carnage of WWII (deaths of three brothers), losing her home in Viipuri to the USSR, fires, bankruptcies, loss of two children, postwar poverty, hunger and suicide attempts. It's the story of a triumph of the spirit. From nothing she creates something that becomes bigger than textile design. An enterprise, a vision, a spirit of freedom, creativity and liberation.

Armi Alive! belongs with the sagas of the great iron ladies of the cinema such as Mildred Pierce. (Incidentally, the model for Mildred Pierce was a Finnish businesswoman, Sofia Sjöstedt, James M. Cain's mother-in-law, as we learn from the fascinating biography written by Ray Hoopes: Cain [1982])

In Donner's oeuvre, it belongs with his historical dramas, all starring Minna Haapkylä: The Border 1918 (produced by Donner, directed by Lauri Törhönen), The Interrogation, and Armi Alive!

A key theme of the Armi film is the metamorphosis of provincial Finland into a member of the global community. Armi transforms the Finnish way of life, and seeing Finland in the international perspective she discovers the original character of Finnish design: "free, natural and international", as Armi states in her great sales speech in New York when Marimekko is launched there for the first time.

Armi is a fighter against prejudice, she crashes male panels and pursues her goals with brash abandon, but beyond her formidable shell a shy and insecure Armi is revealed.

Maybe for Jörn Donner, "Armi Ratia, c'est moi".

I saw Armi Alive! for the first time only now. I saw the trailer many times six years ago, and because I could not relate to its colour world which does not do justice to the wonderful Marimekko, I did not go to see the film. Now, having seen the movie at last, my opinion about the colour is unchanged. However, the movie is not fundamentally harmed by the unfortunate colour world. Now it feels like one of its Verfremdung strategies.

BEYOND THE JUMP BREAK: MATERIAL FROM THE PRESS KIT AND THE SOUNDTRACK LISTING:

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Peruna


Joona Tena: Peruna (FI 2021) with Joonas Nordman (Untamo) in the leading role.

FI 2021 © 2020 Yellow Film & TV. P: Marko Talli, Olli Haikka.
    D: Joona Tena. SC: Pekko Pesonen. Cin: Konsta Sohlberg. PD: Toni Kari. Cost: Daiva Petrulyté. Makeup: Vaida Venckuté. VFX: Ari Huuskonen. M: Panu Aaltio. S: Juha Hakanen. ED: Jyrki Levä.
    The soundtrack includes selections from Baroque composers such as J. S. Bach (the Brandenburg concertoes), Antonio Vivaldi (the Four Seasons) and G. F. Händel (Messiah).
    C: Joonas Nordman (Untamo), Mikko Penttilä (Axel, the executioner), Linnea Leino (Killisilmä, the executioner's sister), Alex Anton (Magnus), Kari Hietalahti (Kalevi, bailiff of the castle), Kari Ketonen (advisor of the bailiff and chairman of the Turnip Guild), Mimosa Willamo (daughter of the Castellan), Linda Manelius (daughter of the Castellan), Antti Luusuaniemi (Business Unicorn), Eero Herranen (Birger the Great), Ville Myllyrinne (Bishop), Tommi Korpela (Business Angel).
    Loc: Lithuania, autumn 2019.
    109 min
    The nationwide Finnish premiere, initially scheduled for 14 Oct, 2020, was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but in selected cities the film has been released earlier.
    Distributed by SF Studios.
    Lappeenranta corona emergency security: max 20 capacity, face masks, distancing, hand hygiene.
    Viewed without subtitles at Finnkino Strand 1, Lappeenranta, 23 Jan 2021.

AA: The new Finnish comedy Peruna [Potato] would certainly have become a big autumn hit in 2020, but because of the pandemic the nationwide premiere was postponed, and it still is being delayed. Lappeenranta belongs to the few cities where it is being screened to restricted audiences.

The film is based on a wild anachronism: the clash of the modern start-up mentality with the circumstances of the 17th century. The farce, the satire and the parody work both ways. The two ages become comic mirrors for each other.

As the film-makers themselves alert in the production notes, there is a Pythonesque approach, and in Finnish terms, the predecessor is Noin seitsemän veljestä [About Seven Brothers, 1968] by Spede Pasanen.

The kingdom of Sweden, to which Finland belonged, was a great power in the 17th century, incorporating large swathes of the Baltic region, Germany and Denmark. That this film has been shot in Lithuanian castles is not really one of its intentional historical gaffes.

It was a period of absolutism. The social system was structured on estates of which nobility and clergy were on top, and the economy was based on mercantilism and the guild system.

It is an amusingly incongruous idea to introduce contemporary start-up jargon to such reactionary conditions, but it is true that the bourgeoisie was starting to emerge during the Renaissance. The clash of the bourgeoisie with absolutism would lead to revolutions in America and France during the next century. The barriers to free enterprise were removed.

Peruna is all about these barriers. The potato was finally introduced to Finland in the 18th century, and to try to do so earlier would probably have been an obstacle course. Hostility to innovation is the basic attitude in the world portrayed. Even literacy is still viewed suspiciously, although the change had already started with the Reformation. Women were belittled, but there is a feminist subplot in the movie.

Much fun is generated from seed potatoes, seed capital, angel investors, unicorns, marketing language ("we need a story... a story that inspires everybody", "you need one big customer", "food revolution", "develop or die"). Phenomena of the Middle Ages are still ubiquitous, including dungeons, torture chambers, racks and a lack of sewerage.

As for money, Sweden possessed Europe's biggest copper mines, and the main currency consisted of huge and heavy copper plates (plåtmynt / plootu). Banknotes are being mentioned as "the currency of the future".

Joona Tena, one of Finland's most popular directors (FC Venus, Parasta aikaa, Syvälle salattu, Supermarsu), directs the comedy with a brisk pace, the ensemble of the actors finds a common jovial wavelength, and the screenwriter Pekko Pesonen peppers the script with jokes. The production values are attractive.

BEYOND THE JUMP BREAK: FROM THE PRESS KIT:

Friday, January 22, 2021

Soft Targets


Play for Today: Soft Targets (GB 1982, SC: Stephen Poliakoff, D: Charles Sturridge) with Helen Mirren (Celia Watson) and Ian Holm (Alexei Varyov).

Play for Today: Soft Targets (GB 1982, SC: Stephen Poliakoff, D: Charles Sturridge) with Helen Mirren (Celia Watson).


Play for Today: Soft Targets.
    GB 1982. PC: BBC. P: Kenith Trodd.
    D: Charles Sturridge. SC: Stephen Poliakoff. Cin: Nat Crosby – colour – 1,33:1. PD: Derek Dodd. M: Geoffrey Burgon. S recordist: Peter Edwards. S boom operator: Patrick Quirke. Mono.
    C: Ian Holm (Alexei Varyov), Helen Mirren (Celia Watson), Nigel Havers (Harman), Celia Gregory (Frances), Thorley Walters (Old Wedding Guest), Margery Mason (Celia's Mother), Hugh Thomas (Castle), Tony Doyle (Kirby), Chris Langham (Drinkwater), Yuri Borienko (Porter), Karen Craig (Aeroflot Lady), Rupert Everett (Boy at Party). Julian Sands (Groom), Michael Lees (Man from Wimbledon), Desmond Llewelyn (Official in Dream), Kay Adshead (Hotel Waitress), Sarah Martin (Girl at Party), Kate Percival (Bride), Diana Malin (Waitress in Café).
    Soundtrack selections in the ambient background: Bananarama: "Shy Boy" (Steve Jolley, Tony Swain, summer 1982). Duke Ellington: "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" (1940). Elvis Costello: "Watching the Detectives" (1977).
    Film posters on display: Dead Reckoning (1947), Circle of Deceit (Die Fälschung, 1981).
    95 min
    Telepremiere: 19 Oct 1982.
    YouTube link viewed on a 4K tv set at home in Lappeenranta, 22 Jan 2021.

In memoriam Sir Ian Holm (1931–2020).

AA: My Ian Holm memorial double bill tonight started with Moonlight on a Highway, an early telefilm written by Dennis Potter, and continued with an early telefilm by another great British dramatist, Stephen Poliakoff, sometimes called the inheritor of Potter's crown.

The year is 1982, the year of the death of Leonid Brezhnev. In London, the Russian journalist Alexei Varyov (Ian Holm) writes banal pieces about the city. Home video recorders are a recent invention, and Alexei's apparently most important task is to tape light entertainment shows from the British television and bring them to the Aeroflot counter at the airport for instant delivery.

The story can be seen as a vision of the Brezhnevian stagnation era. A shadowy ambience of intelligence and espionage surrounds Alexei's life, but everything turns out to be meaningless or insignificant. Soft Targets makes John Le Carré's books look like action thrillers.

We never get to know whether Alexei is a spy. Perhaps he belongs to a web of red herrings and decoys, meant to distract the British intelligence from true agents. Bored with his London existence, Alexei tries to commit a small but conspicuous blunder in order to be able to return to Russia.

Things get complicated when he meets Celia Watson (Helen Mirren), and a real attraction and friendship emerges. For reasons unrelated to Alexei, Celia tries to commit suicide. A shared feeling of alienation and exile has brought them together.

To my ears, Ian Holm's Russian accent sounds believable. Besides Poliakoff, also Helen Mirren (Mironoff, of Russian nobility) has Russian family roots. Ian Holm brings a Gogolian presence to the tale of absurd bureaucracy. Helen Mirren's is a dignified interpretation of tragic anomie in the big city.

Soft Targets is already a display of Poliakoff's fascination with concealed histories, secret aspects, retrieved documents and juxtapositions of sound and image (pop songs in the background seem to carry odd implications to the story).

Soft Targets is an understated vision of existential ambiguity during the last decade of the Cold War. In his dream, Alexei even meets Desmond Llewellyn, who played Q in the James Bond film series.

Watching the film, I was thinking about Catherine Belton's Putin's People : How KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West (2020), for me the book of the year. It is a scary account of the quiet and patient infiltration of the Russian espionage networks into the West, and London in particular. Russia's shadow budget of dark money may be as big as the official state budget, and its purpose is to undermine the West via corruption. With Trump and Brexit, Putin scored huge victories, and the role of FSB (as KGB now is called) may prove vital. Even decoys like Alexei may have had a role, even if unwittingly.

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Moonlight on the Highway



Moonlight on the Highway (SC: Dennis Potter, D: James MacTaggart, GB 1969). Ian Holm as David Peters, the Al Bowlly fan, lip-syncing to "Lover Come Back To Me". My screenshot from YouTube.

ITV Saturday Night Theatre : Moonlight on the Highway
    GB 1969. A Kestrel Production. From London Weekend Television. PC: Kestrel Productions / London Weekend Television (LWT). Original network: ITV. P: Kenith Trodd.
    D: James MacTaggart. SC: Dennis Potter. Cin: b&w – 1,33:1. PD: John Clements. Musical advisor: Kenith Trodd. Sound: mono.
    C: Ian Holm (David Peters), Anthony Bate (Dr. Chilton), Deborah Grant (Marie Holdsworth), Robin Wentworth (Al Bowlly Appreciation Society President), Derek Woodward (first medical student), John Flanagan (second medical student), Frederick Peisley (Gerald), Wally Patch (Old Londoner), Arthur Lovegrove (Landlord), Michael Burrell (Barman),
    Soundtrack listing from Wikipedia (all songs recorded by Al Bowlly and the Lew Stone Orchestra):
"Moonlight on the Highway" (21 March 1938)
"Lover, Come Back to Me" (13 November 1933)
"Just Let Me Look at You" (12 August 1938)
"Easy Come, Easy Go" (15 June 1934)
"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" (12 December 1933)
"Oh! Mr Moon" (12 April 1933)
"My Melancholy Baby" (Pathé News film extract)
    Songs quoted in dialogue but do not feature on the soundtrack include: "You Couldn't Be Cuter", "Marie", "Isn't It Heavenly?", "I Love You Truly", "Love Is the Sweetest Thing".
    52 min
    Telepremiere: 12 April 1969 ITV – Independent Television.
    YouTube link viewed on a 4K tv set at home in Lappeenranta, 22 Jan 2021.

In memoriam Sir Ian Holm (1931–2020).

Bhob Stewart synopsis from IMDb: "Writing for ITV Saturday Night Theatre (1969), Dennis Potter introduced the notion that popular music expresses the yearning of the human spirit for a better world. A troubled young man, David Peters (Ian Holm), claims, "Once dreams were possible, that's what the popular songs told us." Rejecting rock music of the day, Peters is immersed in the tunes of Thirties crooner Al Bowlly (killed during the London blitz). He collects Bowlly memorabilia, publishes the Bowlly fan-club newsletter, and finds pleasure in lip-synching Bowlly records but his obsession with Bowlly masks certain darker events in his past." —Bhob Stewart <bhob@genie.com> IMDb

AA: Moonlight on the Highway is a Dennis Potter revelation from the year 1969, made long before the trend-setting Pennies from Heaven (1978), in which actors mimed to vintage popular songs in scenes integrated into the narrative.

In Moonlight on the Highway there is only one scene with direct miming, but it explores old popular music as the soundtrack of our emotions in ways that are already as moving and illuminating as in Pennies from Heaven.

In a National Health Service waiting room the camera tracks from one face to another, and while the title song "Moonlight on the Highway" is played, sung by Al Bowlly, we hear intimate thoughts of patients in a series of interior monologues, all starting with: "I remember, when... ". It is an engaging atlas of faces, caught in expressive close-ups.

The only one who starts with "I don't remember" is David Peters (Ian Holm), who has an appointment with a psychiatrist. When the camera moves to his extreme close-up we see superimposed images that we will learn are from his mother's funeral six weeks ago. All his grown-up life, David has been his mother's caregiver. In another superimposition we see memory flashes from his other major trauma, being sexually assaulted at age 10.

Many familiar Dennis Potter hallmarks are already in place: the presence of the disruptive outsider, the direct camera address, the nonlinear narrative, and the fluid use of flashbacks.

In Pennies from Heaven, a liberal amount of Al Bowlly records was consumed, and reportedly Potter himself was at his most productive at night, with old Bowlly records playing in the background.

Moonlight on the Highway is wholly devoted to Bowlly. Peters is the editor-in-chief of the Al Bowlly fanzine, and the movie ends in an annual meeting of the Al Bowlly Appreciation Society. For Peters, Bowlly records have become superior replacements for his own feelings, for example in the "Just Let Me Look At You" scene with Marie Holdsworth, the researcher working for a television documentary.

Dennis Potter explores the power of vintage songs as a time machine, leading us "down memory lane". These often schmalzy and corny songs can be vehicles of escapism and nostalgia. But perhaps they can also offer a Gegenbild, a counter-image to an oppressive reality, a utopia, helping us survive overwhelming ordeals.

Sir Ian Holm (1931–2020) is at his best in the leading role. One of England's most highly regarded Shakespearean actors, he had made his television debut in 1965 as Richard III in The War of the Roses series edited from Shakespeare's plays.

Holm's interpretation of David Peters is complex and deeply moving, conveying multiple traumata, also wartime shocks from the Blitz years, but also genuine passion, his capacity of love channelled into an Al Bowlly obsession. Ian Holm's performance is a subtle study in psychopathology, covering some of the same ground with Anthony Perkins's Norman Bates and the twisted contortions of Jerry Lewis.

BEYOND THE JUMP BREAK: DATA FROM WIKIPEDIA:

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Sound of Metal


Darius Marder: Sound of Metal (US 2020) with Olivia Cooke (Louise) and Riz Ahmed (Ruben).


Sound of Metal / Sound of Metal.
    US © 2020 Sound of Metal, Inc. PC: Caviar and Flat 7 Productions present in association with Ward Four. Produced by: Bert Hamelinck, Sacha Ben Harroche. Producers: Kathy Benz, Billy Benz.
    D: Darius Marder. SC: Darius Marder, Abraham Marder – story by Darius Marder, Derek Cianfrance.  DP: Daniël Bouquet – negative: 35 mm – colour – 2.39:1 – digital intermediate 4K – released on D-Cinema. PD: Jeremy Woodward. Cost: Megan Stark Evans. M: Abraham Marder, Nicolas Becker. S: Nicolas Becker. ED: Mikkel E. G. Neilsen. Casting: Susan Shopmaker. Line P: Chris Stinson.
    C: Riz Ahmed (Ruben), Olivia Cooke (Lou, Louise, Lulu), Paul Raci (Joe), Lauren Ridloff (Diane), Mathieu Amalric (Richard), Domenico Toledo (Michael), Chelsea Lee (Jenn), Shaheem Sanchez (Shaheem), Chris Perfetti (Harlan), Bill Thorpe (The Man), Michael Tow (Pharmacist), William Xifaras (Michael's Father), Rena Maliszewski (Audiologist), Tom Kemp (Dr. Paysinger), Elan Sicroff (Pianist), Jeremy Stone (ASL Teacher), Ezra Marder (ASL Student), Hartmut Teuber (Karl), Hillary Baack (Toldeo), Adam Preston (Jake), Jonathon Lejeune (Frank), Sean Powell, Dani Miller, Alex Kilgore (Surfbort members), Margaret Chardiet (Pharmakon member).
    Loc: Massachusetts, US.
    For Dorothy Marder.
    Languages: English, French, ASL (American Sign Language).
    121 min, [132 min in TIFF and according to the press notes].
    Festival premiere: 6 Sep 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
    The original release date was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
    US premiere (limited): 20 Nov 2020.
    Streaming premiere: 4 Dec 2020 Prime Video (Amazon Studios).
    Helsinki premiere forecast: 5 Feb 2021 – released by Cinema Mondo with Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Topi Oksanen / Sophia Beckman.
    Helsinki corona emergency security: max 10 capacity, face masks, distancing, hand hygiene.
    Press screening at Kino Engel 1, Helsinki, 20 Jan 2021.

OFFICIAL LOGLINE

After losing his hearing, a musician must find stability now that his life has been upended. Riz Ahmed and Olivia Cooke star in this ground-breaking drama from the producers of The Rider, and directed by Darius Marder, writer of The Place Beyond the Pines.

OFFICIAL SYNOPSIS

Ruben (Riz Ahmed) and Lou (Olivia Cooke) live together, two nomads traveling gig to gig on an endless American tour. Their music is loud, frenzied and passionate, until one day Ruben is overwhelmed by a severe ringing in his ears, which quickly gives way to deafness. Ruben is suddenly overcome by anxiety, depression, and soon enough his past addictions begin to surface. Ruben checks himself into a home for deaf addicts run by an eccentric deaf veteran, Joe. In this world of silence and under Joe’s tough, observant care, Ruben must confront himself more honestly than ever before. But the love and sound of his old life echoes in Ruben’s mind, calling for him to return

AA: Sound of Metal is an outstanding fiction feature debut by Darius Marder, whom I know as the screenwriter of The Place Beyond the Pines. Its director Derek Cianfrance, in turn, is credited with the story of Sound of Metal.

At first sight, Sound of Metal seems to belong to familiar contexts, but on each count it surprises by turning out to be something else.

It starts as a powerful music drama featuring a touring duo called Blackgammon, consisting of the vocalist-guitarist Lou (Olivia Cooke) and the percussionist Ruben (Riz Ahmed), playing loud music belonging to the heavy metal / punk / grunge spectrum. The fury of their act brings to mind movies about performing arts as an extreme sport such as Whiplash and Black Swan. But it is not a saga of a brutalization of the spirit nor a perversion of art, on the contrary.

The main theme is Ruben's coming to terms with his deafness, and in this respect Sound of Metal is at its most original, breaking new ground in a distinguished lineage of movies about handicaps. The greatest insight is offered by Joe (Paul Raci) who simply states than in their community, deafness is not a handicap. It is an overwhelming challenge for Ruben to accept this, but we anticipate him orientating himself towards a new life in this open-ended movie.

At its most profound level, Sound of Metal is a philosophical study about perception. Our consciousness and our identity are based on our faculties of perception, and when they change, we change. "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world", said Wittgenstein, and in this movie we observe even a switch to a completely different category of language: American Sign Language (ASL).

This is fascinating also from the viewpoint of the genesis of the cinema as silent cinema. There are passages of silence in Sound of Metal, but mostly an ingenious soundscape has been created by Nicolas Becker to convey the world of the hard-of-hearing. 

This feature evokes a special subcategory of the cinema, namely Beethoven movies. They all of course dramatize the composer's incredible struggle to come to terms with deafness. A special favourite of mine is Mauricio Kagel's dadaistic Ludwig van (1970). Most recently I have seen Klaus Wyborny's Hommage an Ludwig van Beethoven (2006) focusing on the composer's late style partly along similar lines.

In Darius Marder's sequence of deaf children following a piano recital by feeling its vibrations with their hands on the instrument I was thinking about Beethoven's mid-period and late piano sonatas and how he ordered the most formidable pianos from Nannette Streicher, Erard, Broadwood and Conrad Graf to create unheard-of sonorities that he himself could not hear except in his mind – yet he physically needed the piano as a sounding board.

Even Beethoven's habit of conversation books has a counterpart in Sound of Metal.

Sound of Metal is also a love story between Louise and Ruben. Their romance is a shared Bildungsroman and a healing process from traumas of childhood, family and addictions. Without saying a word, they know it's over. Together, they have grown. Growth cannot be stopped, and now they have grown apart. What was, was the best life can be. Ruben: "You saved my life, made it beautiful." Louise: "You saved my life, too".

There is even a wider love story in the rural rehabilitation community run by Joe in an atmosphere of love and dignity. Paul Raci's performance as Joe is novel, unique and unforgettable, and it changes our perspectives of the possibilities of dialogue in a condition of deafness. This is the first time I see dialogues conveyed with real time computer transcription.

The most electrifying of the soundtrack selections is heard in Lou and Ruben's RV tour bus: a vinyl record on which Bessie Smith sings "Careless Love Blues" (credited to W. C. Handy) with the trio of Louis Armstrong (cornet), Charlie Green (trombone) and Fred Longshaw (piano). It burns like fire.

Daniël Bouquet has shot Sound of Metal on 35 mm photochemical film, great for capturing the subtle vivid detail of the nature surrounding the rural rehabilitation community premises. It has been conveyed very well in the 4K digital transfer.

A parallel Finnish film occurred to me while watching Sound of Metal: Tuukka Temonen's wonderful Aika jonka sain (with an unfortunate English title: One Half of Me), the true story of the para-equestrian Jaana Kivimäki, who despite permanent invalidization in the finale realizes that "I have now a better life than before the accident".

PS. This film resonates with the presence of the poet Amanda Gorman in the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden today. Gorman has an auditory processing disorder, and she is hypersensitive to sound, but she sees her speech impediment as a strength.

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Saturday, January 16, 2021

Karalahti


Juuso Syrjä: Karalahti (FI 2021).


FI 2021 © Solar Films. P: Jukka Helle, Ida Kallio, Rimbo Salomaa, Markus Selin.
    D: Juuso Syrjä. Cin: Matti Eerikäinen. SC: Mika Karttunen, Joona Louhivuori. S: Kyösti Väntänen.
    A portrait documentary about Jere Karalahti.
    Non-fiction footage has been edited together with staged enactments.
    Featuring: Jere Karalahti, his family and friends, and Pentti Lindegren, Jonna Levola, Jari Aarnio, Kalervo Kummola, Markus Selin, Mikael Granlund, Erkka Westerlund, Pentti Matikainen, Harri Hakkarainen, Doug Shedden, Veijo Hietala, Rita Tainola, Jeff Mocher, Juuso Pulliainen, Eetu Pöysti, Semir Ben-Amir, Andy Murray, Jukka-Pekka Vuorinen, Petteri Sihvonen, Petri Matikainen, Arto Nyberg.
    117 min
    Premiere: 5 Feb 2021 – released by Nordisk Film.
    Corona emergency security: max 20 capacity, face masks, distancing, hand hygiene.
    Viewed at Finnkino Strand 2 without Swedish subtitles, Lappeenranta, 16 Jan 2021

AA: Jere Karalahti (born 1975) is a controversial Finnish ice hockey defenceman who during his professional career in 1993–2016 played for teams in Finland, United States, Germany, Belarus and Sweden – for HIFK, Los Angeles Kings, Nashville Predators, Oulun Kärpät, Hamburg Freezers, Blues, HC Dinamo Minsk, Jokerit and HV71.

Karalahti proved to be a world class player, but simultaneously the hero transformed into a monster. Karalahti developed multiple dangerous addictions: to alcohol, hard drugs and gambling, and got involved with organized crime and drug smuggling. Refusing withdrawal treatment and getting in trouble with the law he failed a golden chance with the NHL. Karalahti has a loving mother and his father is a policeman, both always supportive. He has a stable circle of friends since his childhood in the Tapulikaupunki district of Helsinki. The mystery of his dangerous addictions remains.

Karalahti's life follows a multiple rise-and-fall-and-rise scenario. Having lost everything, Karalahti starts anew, and even having had to change to another team or another country, he soon again displays exceptional talent as a team builder. He exercises indefatigably, reads the game, has the right attitude, transforms the team with his presence and leads it to victory. He also has a magic touch with fans and the audience.

The nadir in his story is a trip with "Tapulivesi", "Tapuli water", referring to his childhood neighbourhood Tapulikaupunki: 80% vodka drunk from a flower pot. After months of Tapulivesi, and a couple of weeks of pure spiritus fortis, Karalahti no longer has a hangover but a near death condition. He is treated in the emergency room in coma, put into a respirator, his pancreas permanently damaged. It is exceptional to survive this, but a medical miracle takes place. Karalahti has to learn to walk again, run again, go to the gym again, and play hockey again. He still makes it to the top.

"People say you're a good guy. I don't see it". Karalahti betrays his fellow players repeatedly and can be viciously brutal in the rink. He is no role model, but a horrific warning example. Doctor's orders are not to drink except a couple of glasses of wine every second weekend. After his ice hockey career, Karalahti starts a new life with a new family and now runs a day care center. He says he has no regrets, but admits that there are things in the past that won't stand the light of the day.

In terms of recent Finnish portrait documentaries of sport legends, Karalahti is the opposite of the clean-cut heroes of Kuningas Litmanen and Selänne (about Teemu Selänne). He is the outlaw, the anti-hero, and in this sense at home in the Solar Films studio profile that includes Häjyt, Pahat pojat and Matti (about Matti Nykänen).

Like Nykänen, Karalahti provided tabloid fodder for decades with his rampages. To what extent did scandal media fuel Karalahti's addictions, excesses and misfortunes? This is an aspect the movie does not discuss.

Juuso Syrjä directs the movie with a brisk, dynamic touch. He is an experienced director of commercials (also in California), music videos (Bomfunk MC's, Darude), the Cook It Raw television show and the Nordic Noir series Sorjonen / Border Town (released in 180 countries). He has also directed the witty children's animation Ella & Aleksi – Surprise Birthday Party, one of my favourite Finnish films of the 2010s.

Karalahti is not a straight documentary. Karalahti is an unreliable narrator, and during his blackouts he has suffered memory loss. The end credits state that dramatizations have been staged, but we don't know what is fiction and what is not. The account of the long inferno trip to addiction has affinities with Joonas Neuvonen and Sadri Cetinkaya's death voyage movie Lost Boys.

The magic of Karalahti's playing is the raison d'être of the tale, but the film does not really convey the epic grandeur of Karalahti's legendary ice-hockey matches.

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