Saturday, December 28, 2019

Systemsprenger / System Crasher

Systemsprenger. Helena Zengel as Benni.

Nora Fingscheidt, Sodankylä, Midnight Sun Film Festival, 13 June 2019. Photo: Anniliina Lassila.

Systeeminmurskaaja / System Crasher / System Crasher.
    DE © 2019 kineo Filmproduktion / Weydemann Bros. Co-PC: Oma Inge Film / ZDF Das kleine Fernsehspiel. Beta Cinema presents. P: Peter Hartwig, Jonas Weydemann, Jakob D. Weydemann.
    D+SC: Nora Fingscheidt. DP: Yunus Roy Imer – colour – 1:1,85 – DCP. PD: Marie-Luise Balzer. Cost: Ulé Barcelos. Makeup: Kitty Kratschke. M: John Gürtler.
    Song during end credits: "Ain't Got No / I Got Life" (James Rado, Gerome Ragni, Galt MacDermot, from the musical Hair, 1967) perf. Nina Simone on her album 'Nuff Said (1968).
    S: Corinna Zink, Jonathan Schorr. S design: Dominik Leube, Oscar Stiebitz. ED: Stephan Bechinger, Julia Kovalenko. Casting: Lisa Stutzky, Jacqueline Rietz.
    C: Helena Zengel (Benni / Bernadette Klaass), Albrecht Schuch (Micha / Michael Heller, Anti-Gewalt-Trainer), Gabriela Maria Schmeide (Frau Bafané, Jugendamtmitarbeiterin ), Lisa Hagmeister (Bianca Klaass). – Melanie Straub (Dr. Schönemann), Victoria Trauttmansdorff (Pflegemutter Silvia), Maryam Zaree (Elli Heller), Tedros Teclerbrhan (Erzieher Robert).
    Loc: Hamburg and Niedersachsen. Berlin and Brandenburg. 7 Nov 2017 – 27 March 2018.
    119 min
    Festival premiere: 8 Feb 2019 Berlin Film Festival.
    German premiere: 19 Sep 2019.
    Finnish premiere: 22 Nov 2019 – released by B-Plan Distribution – Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Janne Kauppila / Michael Palmberg.
    Finnish telepremiere: 26 May 2021 (Systeeminmurskaaja).
    DCP viewed at Kinopalatsi 3, Helsinki, 28 Dec 2019.
    Elokuvan nimeä ei ole suomennettu eikä ruotsinnettu. Käsite "Systemsprenger" mainitaan dialogissa kerran, suomennoksena silloin "väliinputoaja".

Official synopsis (Weydemann Bros.): "She is small, but dangerous. Wherever Benni ends up, she is immediately expelled. The wild 9-year-old girl has already become what child protection services call a "system crasher". And she is certainly not looking to change her ways. Because Benni has one single goal: to be back at home with her mommy. But Bianca is scared of her own daughter. Mrs Bafané from child protection services is trying her best to find a permanent placement for Benni. She hires the anger management trainer Micha as Benni's school escort and suddenly there is a seed of hope. Will Micha be able to succeed where all others despaired?"

AA: An extraordinary performance carries this film. It feels unbelievably powerful while watching. Upon reflection its impact keeps growing. Helena Zengel (born in 2008), directed by Nora Fingscheidt, navigates in dangerous waters. Despite her young age she is already an experienced professional with several films under her belt. The intensity of Zengel's presence is terrifying.

"A system crasher", indeed, Benni, the character she is playing, is what is called in action movie ad copy "a one man wrecking crew" except that she is a little girl. Her foul language and unrestrained behaviour resemble monster children in horror movies like Regan in The Exorcist except that Benni is still in latency. Her rampage of destruction reminds me also of enfant terrible comedy series of early cinema such as Willy (which may have inspired Dennis the Menace). Finally I'm reminded of Kaspar Hauser and François Truffaut's L'Enfant sauvage. The fascination of these phenomena stems partly from our urge to see on the screen the forbidden spectacle of unabashed destruction, the extreme transgression.

All associations notwithstanding System Crasher owes nothing to predecessors. It is an original and awesome statement.

Everyone wants to help Benni. Everyone is defeated. Her mother Bianca (Lisa Hagmeister) is crushed. The tough anger management trainer Micha (Albrecht Schuch) loses distance and cannot go on. In a startling twist the stalwart child protection expert, Mrs. Bafané (Gabriela Maria Schmeide) breaks down in such helpless sobs that Benni needs to soothe her.

They try everything: play, sport, study, exercise, browsing photo albums, finding nice foster homes and places to stay. Micha even takes Benni to his forest retreat where she can visit a farm with animals. Benni, indeed, connects with the forest and the animals. She loves the echo in the forest. A particularly fascinating animal is the barn owl.

The yearning for mother is above all. "Mama" is Benni's favourite echo. The monster child writes a tender love song to her mother and sings it over the telephone.

It's not a downward path. In the forest a process of integration proceeds, only to vanish the moment they return to the city. Michael is a professional, but he commits an unprofessional act by introducing Benni to his family. There Benni mostly behaves normally.

But her attachments can become fearsome, and when there is an attempt to restrain them, Benni's deranged bursts of violence start all over again. She is physically strong for her age. She hits hard and runs fast.

The most dangerous moments are when Benni's face is touched. Then her primitive survival instinct is triggered. Apparently there has been an instance in Benni earliest childhood of being smothered. The trauma is unhealed. But at Michael's home when his baby touches Benni's face she is able to control herself for the first time.

Yet by then Michael has to admit the truth of having lost his distance and indulged in fantasies of salvation. He must give up Benni although progress has taken place, including the baby incident which nobody witnessed.

System Crasher may be particularly rewarding for childcare professionals, but its view of humanity has universal value. The film has mostly been shot with a sober realistic approach, as close to documentary as fiction can get. On the other hand, recurrent "psycho montage" passages take us to altered states of consciousness. We get a sense of the psychedelic side of Benni's world.

During the end credits we hear Nina Simone's legendary interpretation of "Ain't Got No / I Got Life", a song originally from Hair. Such an electrifying performance can become overwhelming, but here it perfectly matches the unique life force in the tragedy of Benni.

In her remarkable film Nora Fingscheidt is both deeply realistic and deeply aware of the mystery of humanity.

Helena Zengel as Benni and Joaquin Phoenix as Joker are the most powerful performances I have seen in films of 2019, both in portraits of "system crashers".


Friday, December 27, 2019

After the Wedding (2019)

After the Wedding / After the Wedding.
    US © 2019 ATW Distro, LLC. PC: Ingenious Media / Riverstone Pictures / Rock Island Films present a Joel B. Michaels production / P: Joel B. Michaels, Harry Finkel, Julianne Moore, Bart Freundlich. Silvio Muraglia.
    D+SC: Bart Freundlich – based on the film Efter brylluppet (Susanne Bier, DK 2008), story by Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen. DP: Julio Macat – colour – 2,39:1 – digital – digital intermediate 4K. PD: Grace Yun. AD: Starlet Jacobs, Jayashree Lakshimarayanan, Cat Navarro. Set dec: Colleen Rushton. Cost: Arjun Bhasin. Makeup: Susan Reilly LeHane. Hair: Nicole Bridgeford. M: Mychael Danna. M supervisor: Laura Katz. S: Allison Jackson. ED: Joseph Krings. Casting: Douglas Aibel, Henry Russell Bergstein.
    Original song (heard in toto during the finale): "Knew You For A Moment" written and performed by Abby Quinn. 
    C: Julianne Moore (Theresa Young), Michelle Williams (Isabel Anderson), Billy Crudup (Oscar Carlson), Abby Quinn (Grace Carlson).
    Loc: New York City (USA), Tamil Nadu (India).
    Festival premiere: 24 Jan 2019 Sundance.
    US premiere: 9 Aug 2019.
    Finnish premiere: 27 Dec 2019 – released by SF Studios Finland – Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Frej Grönholm / Anna Mårtensson Bjerned.
     Viewed at Tennispalatsi 10, Helsinki, 27 Dec 2019.

Cornerstone Films: "Soaring over the dilapidated, ancient city of Calcutta we find an orphanage on the outskirts of town. Isabel; beautiful, soulful, something distant in her eyes, has made it her life’s work to care for these children. In desperate need of money to keep the orphanage afloat, Isabel has seemingly found the perfect benefactor. But before the money is given, Isabel must travel to New York City to meet the woman behind the wealth."

"Theresa Young (Moore) couldn’t have a more different life from Isabel. Theresa is a multi-millionaire who founded and runs a very successful media company. Her life is what people dream of; an estate just out of the city, a loving, artistic husband, Oscar – and three children. The twin boys are adorable and devilish 7 year olds, and Grace, just 24, is the light of Theresa and Oscar’s life. She is getting married this coming weekend on Theresa and Oscar’s sprawling estate."

"These seemingly unconnected worlds are about to collide in an unexpected and deeply emotional journey that will alter each of these character’s lives forever."

"As dramatic as the events at the wedding are, it is only after the wedding, in the wake of the truth revealed, that a complex mystery unravels. The truth turns out to be stunning, deep, and more transformative than any of them could ever have expected."

"After the Wedding is about all the important things: love, family, our pasts, and all of our ultimate inescapable fates. In the spirit of films such as Terms of Endearment, this film is filled with life, laughter, and heartache.

AA: Majestic aerial shots provide the establishing views to the film's main locations in India and New York. Some may think that drone shots have become a cliché, but I believe that Griffith, Lang, Gance and Mizoguchi would have embraced the opportunity for such eagle's eye views. Never has it been easier to produce tracking shots from high angles.

After the Wedding is an independent production by the wife-husband team of Julianne Moore and Bart Freundlich. Based on Susanne Bier's eponymous Danish original, it's a family drama that brings together two worlds: the abandoned children of India and the wealthy upper class of New York.

The twists and revelations would suffice for grand melodrama, but the approach is anti-melodramatic. The powerful emotions are conveyed honestly. Each main character has her / his overwhelming moments, and the actors avoid sentimentalism.

It's a women's film. Julianne Moore gives a passionate interpretation as Theresa, an iron lady who is about to make pivotal decisions. We meet her as a rude and tactless employer, a perfect hostess who pulls all the strings, and an agonized woman prematurely facing the terminal station.

Michelle Williams is her opposite as Isabel who runs an orphanage in Calcutta / Kolkata. She is devoted to her mission, a warm and sunny presence among children who have experienced hunger, homelessness and prostitution. She is also a spiritual teacher at meditation classes, at home in the nature.

Abby Quinn is the young daughter Grace, celebrating her wedding, still confused and lost, shattered by existential revelations that take place all of a sudden. For both Theresa and Grace things happen too soon. The small world and the big world meet: the elementary clashes of a family and the great contrasts of the world. The set-up may be studied but it works thanks to the conviction of the actors.

Billy Crudup as the artist Oscar Carlson is somewhat an outsider, not overwhelmingly involved but always reliable and responsible. "I love her" he says about Theresa. "Do you?" asks Grace. I believe he does, but he also needs to keep a distance to maintain his artistic freedom and integrity.

Theresa is so overbearing that also Isabel reflexively adopts a defensive and reserved stance, suspicious of her motives until she learns her big secret. Oscar and Theresa may be an unlikely match. Theresa says that she had always thought she would marry a good banker – until she realized that there aren't any. She is offended by Isabel and Oscar's reserved reactions to her proposal which sounds too good to be true: "You don't have to be poor to have a good heart".

To sum up: there is something studied in the story, and the presence of India is not as engrossing as is meant, but the emotional roller-coaster of the family drama is deeply felt and moving. The imagery of the fallen tree with the empty bird's nest is haunting.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Downton Abbey (2019 motion picture)

Downton Abbey / Downton Abbey.
    Created and written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Michael Engler. Produced by Carnival Films.
    GB / US © 2019 Universal Pictures International, Focus Features LLC and Perfect Universe Investment Inc. PC: Perfect World Pictures / Carnival Films. Distributed by: Focus Features. P: Julian Fellowes, Gareth Neame, Liz Trubridge.
    D: Michael Engler. SC: Julian Fellowes – based on the television series Downton Abbey* created and written by Julian Fellowes.
    DP: Ben Smithard – colour (ACES) – 2,39:1 – digital – digital intermediate by Molinare. VFX by Framestore, supervisor: Kyle McCulloch. PD: Donal Woods. AD: Mark Kebby. Set dec: Gina Cromwell. Cost: Anna Mary Scott Robbins. Makeup & hair designer: Anne Nosh Oldham. M: John Lunn. S: Nigel Heath. ED: Mark Day. Historical advisor: Alastair Bruce. Casting: Jill Trevellick. The cast (from Wikipedia):
    Hugh Bonneville as Robert Crawley, 7th Earl of Grantham
    Laura Carmichael as Edith Pelham (née Crawley), Marchioness of Hexham
    Jim Carter as Charles Carson
    Raquel Cassidy as Phyllis Baxter
    Brendan Coyle as John Bates
    Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Talbot (née Crawley)
    Kevin Doyle as Joseph Molesley
    Michael C. Fox as Andy Parker
    Joanne Froggatt as Anna Bates
    Matthew Goode as Henry Talbot
    Harry Hadden-Paton as Bertie Pelham, 7th Marquess of Hexham
    Robert James-Collier as Thomas Barrow
    Allen Leech as Tom Branson
    Phyllis Logan as Elsie Hughes
    Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham
    Sophie McShera as Daisy Mason
    Lesley Nicol as Beryl Patmore
    Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham
    Imelda Staunton as Maud, Lady Bagshaw
    Penelope Wilton as Isobel, Lady Merton
    Mark Addy as Mr Bakewell
    Max Brown as Richard Ellis
    Stephen Campbell Moore as Major Chetwode
    Richenda Carey as Mrs Webb
    David Haig as Mr Wilson
    Andrew Havill as Henry, Viscount Lascelles
    Geraldine James as Queen Mary
    Simon Jones as King George V
    Susan Lynch as Miss Lawton
    Tuppence Middleton as Lucy Smith
    Kate Phillips as The Princess Mary, Viscountess Lascelles
    Douglas Reith as Richard, Lord Merton
    Philippe Spall as Monsieur Courbet
    Oliver and Zac Barker as Master George
    Fifi Hart as Miss Sybbie
    Eva and Karina Samms as Miss Marigold
Loc: Highclere Castle, Highclere, Hampshire, England, UK.
122 min
    Leicester Square premiere: 9 Sep 2019.
    UK premiere: 13 Sep 2019.
    Finnish premiere: 13 Sep 2019 – released by Finnkino Oy – Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Anitra Paukkula / Sophia Beckman.
    DCP viewed at Tennispalatsi 5, Helsinki, 25 Dec 2019.

* Downton Abbey (television series). Six series aired in 2010–2015. Creator: Julian Fellowes. Set in the fictional Yorkshire country estate Downton Abbey between 1912 and 1926, the series depicts the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their domestic servants in the post-Edwardian era.

Official synopsis: "This autumn, the worldwide phenomenon Downton Abbey, becomes a grand motion picture event, as the beloved Crawleys and their intrepid staff prepare for the most important moment of their lives. A royal visit from the King and Queen of England will unleash scandal, romance and intrigue that will leave the future of Downton hanging in the balance. Written by series creator Julian Fellowes and starring the original cast."

Wikipedia: "The film, set in 1927, depicts a visit by the King and Queen to the Crawley family's English country house in the Yorkshire countryside. As the Royal staff descend on Downton, an assassin has also arrived and attempts to kill the monarch. The family and servants are pitted against the royal entourage, including the Queen's lady-in-waiting, who has fallen out with the Crawleys, especially the Dowager Countess, over an inheritance issue. Gareth Neame and Fellowes started planning a feature adaptation in 2016, shortly after the series ended."

AA: I am aware of Downton Abbey as one of the most popular and highly regarded television series of all times but have never seen an episode. This motion picture is my initiation into the phenomenon. An outsider to the magic circle of the Downton Abbey experience, I realize I should know at least the first and second series of the television show for adequate assessment.

Downton Abbey covers a turbulent epoch: the end of la Belle Époque and the Age of Empire, the First World War, and the beginning of the Age of Extremes. In this motion picture we are in the year 1927 and can observe external marks of the Jazz Age and Art Deco. The movie hardly ventures deeper than the surface.

It is a grand spectacle, glossy entertainment, a nostalgia trip, proudly conventional, bordering on the reactionary, never ironical or cynical, displaying upstairs and downstairs in perfect harmony, offering a romanticized view of heritage England, idealizing and legitimizing class society.

The physical production is immaculate, the dresses are lavish, the hairdos exquisite. Geraldine James states that costume did 95% of her work in the role of Queen Mary, and the wig did the other five.

Ben Smithard's lush cinematography is constantly mobile in grandiose drone shots and close-ups revealing expensive textures of authentic textiles. Upstairs the camera movement is smooth, downstairs it is hectic. Exciting montages convey the physical reality and the myriads of details of running an aristocratic country house. The colour is beautiful and refined.

Downton Abbey the movie belongs to the cinema of attractions. There are 18 core actors with plotlines relevant to each, but they are not terribly engrossing. As an ensemble play Downton Abbey is really about the house which is the main character and can be seen as a metonym of Heritage England and a reflection of the Royal Family. Indeed, the most substantial of the plotlines is about the visit of the King and the Queen to Downton Abbey.

In terms of plotting, the assassination attempt of King George V should presumably have by far the greatest gravity, but typically for this movie the incident is quickly brushed aside and never developed further.

At its most rewarding the movie is a study of subtle protocols and deep structures. An American, Michael Engler, was brought to direct because he did not take protocols and structures for granted. The director from the federal republic of the U.S.A. retains a sense of distance to the monarchy of Britain. He registers the mysteries and tensions of this world, different from ours.

Children are kept at bay. People usually do not touch. Postures are proud, people do not have our downcast looks. Downstairs we meet the deferential worker. Women do not have equal rights, but structures of hidden matriarchy exist. Gay liberation is far away, but seeds of the future are glimpsed. The Labour Party is rising but only weakly reflected.

The most interesting structures are those of monarchy and aristocracy. The people upstairs and downstairs and in the village are devoted monarchists. The royal visit is portrayed as the most important event in their lives.

I live in a country that has been a republic since 1917, but before that Finland belonged for 110 years to the Russian Empire and before that almost 600 years to the Kingdom of Sweden. (Still in 1918 we were monarchists, prepared to a coronation of a German king). Sweden, Norway and Denmark are still monarchies but essentially the societies are similar with Finland. Kings and queens have hardly a political status but their presence is powerful in the social imaginary. Their mission: to contribute a royal dimension to society.

This is escapism but in a democratic society monarchy can be an expression of dignity. The current runs both ways: in order to be revered the royalty has to be worthy.

Monarchism can also be a delusion, a dream of past splendour, perhaps relevant in understanding Brexit. Curiously Downton Abbey became a national and international phenomenon in the post-2008 period, an age of quickly growing inequality, a new Gilded Age, with a stratum of the super-rich comparable with the elites of the Age of Empire.

Of the Christmas movies of 2019, Downton Abbey is a parallel movie to Knives Out, both with common roots in Robert Altman's Gosford Park (written by Julian Fellowes like Downton Abbey, and directed by an American like the current movie). Knives Out develops the sharp social satire of Altman's movie, also relevantly to the La Règle du jeu tradition. Downton Abbey is a continuation of the lush and glossy dimensions of the legacy.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Tottumiskysymys / Force of Habit

Tottumiskysymys: gala opening. The directors, from left: Anna Paavilainen, Alli Haapasalo, Kirsikka Saari, Elli Toivoniemi, Jenni Toivoniemi, Reetta Aalto and Miia Tervo. Photo: Anni.jpeg © Tuffi Films 2019. Please click on the photo to enlarge it.

En vanesak / En vanefråga.
    FI © 2019 Tuffi Films Oy. P: Elli Toivoniemi.
    D+SC: Kirsikka Saari, Elli Toivoniemi, Reetta Aalto, Alli Haapasalo, Anna Paavilainen, Miia Tervo, Jenni Toivoniemi.
    Cin: Päivi Kettunen, Jarmo Kiuru, Kerttu Hakkarainen. PD: Laura Haapakangas, Katariina Kapi, Sanna-Mari Pirkola. Cost: Roosa Marttiini. Makeup: Kaisu Hölttä, Roosa Marttiini. ED: Yva Fabricius, Anniina Kauttonen, Otto Heikola. M: Joona Samuel / Joona Jaakkola. S: Lotta Mäki. Songs include:
– "Käyrä nousemaan" (Inari Katramo, Sipi Castrén), perf. Kikka.
– "Tänd alla ljus" perf. Silvana Imam. (Heard in toto during the end credits).
    76 min
    Festival premiere: 13 Sep 2019 Kokkola.
    Premiere: 27 Sep 2019 – distributed by Tuffi Films – Swedish subtitles by Hannele Vahtera.
    DCP viewed at Tennispalatsi 7, Helsinki, 21 Dec 2019.

1. Bussi / The Bus. Based on Pysäkki / A Stop, D: Elli Toivoniemi, C: Pinja Sanaksenaho, Veikko Aalste, Joel Hirvonen. A schoolgirl is bullied by two vicious guys on the bus.
2. Teatteri / The Theatre. Based on Play Rape. D: Anna Paavilainen. C: Julia Lappalainen, Jussi Sorjanen, Elina Knihtilä, Kati Outinen, Tommi Eronen. Sexual violence, including rape and murder, is unvarnished on the theatre stage, but whose viewpoint is the one that matters?
3. Loma / The Vacation. Based on Pikku juttu / No Big Deal. D: Alli Haapasalo. C: Krista Kosonen, Eero Ritala. A romantic vacation in Portugal is spoiled by a local macho groping the lady.
4. Makuuhuone / The Bedroom. Based on Buduaar / Boudoir. D: Reetta Aalto. C: Suvi Blick, Joonas Snellman. When an unwanted admirer does not take "no" for an answer.
5. Firman juhlat / The Office Party. Based on Juhlatunnelma / Festive Spirit. D: Jenni Toivoniemi. C: Pirjo Lonka, Jarkko Pajunen, Teemu Aromaa, Seidi Haarla, Minna Suuronen, Niina Hosiasluoma, Abdulrazaq Al-Jewari, Waanie Nonglak, Ella Lahdemäki, Samuli Niittymäki. Katja lets slip that she has been seriously harassed by her boss. Everybody tries to process the revelation. In the end Katja is left outside.
6. Oikeudenkäynti / The Trial. Based on Ei mitään hätää / It's All Right. D: Miia Tervo. C: Johannes Holopainen, Lotta Kaihua, Ria Kataja, Tommi Korpela, Leo Honkonen, Chike Ohanwe, Ona Kamu, Martti Tervo. Aleksi, a male lawyer, prosecutes his first case in a court: a rape. He manages a guilty verdict, but the process has taken years, there is an appeal which will take even more years, and the verdict is likely to be watered down. Violent rape is handled as a minor issue.

Official synopsis: "Force of Habit follows the lives of various women throughout one day. Hilla is having a romantic vacation, Emmi is throwing a house party, and Milja is on her way to school when they're approached by a stranger and things take an unexpected turn. At the same time, Emppu, a young actress, is conflicted as she rehearses for the biggest role of her life. Elsewhere, Aleksi, an inexperienced prosecutor, is preparing for his first court case in haste; Niina, the victim of the crime, has been waiting years to see her case tried. Miia throws a company party, and the mood dramatically changes when her colleague Katja opens up about their boss coming on to her. Miia and a couple of her closest colleagues try to resolve the situation, but how do the others react?"

AA: Force of Habit is a multi-character study based on independent crosscut tales in the same way as Short Cuts and Magnolia. The movie is a result from the same project as the short film anthology Yksittäistapaus / A One-Off Case (2019) comprising eleven short films, with a total duration of 143 minutes.

The duration of this feature film is 76 minutes. We follow six stories with the common theme of sexual harassment seen from the female viewpoint except in The Trial where a rape case is handled by a male prosecutor.

In this pioneering movie project the theme is the invisible subordination of women. Some stories take place in ordinary life (on a bus, in an office party, after a house party). Two stories happen in hallowed institutions: at the Finnish National Theatre and at the Helsinki Court House. The stories are located in Finland except the one that unfolds during a romantic vacation in Lisbon.

Some stories are about everyday harassment, but even in the extraordinary cases there is an unsettling "business as usual" aspect. Sexual violence is banalized in the theatre repertory. Rape cases are routine in the court.

The film is a part of an advocacy project, and the tendency is explicit. Males are mostly portrayed in an unflattering light, and even the ones who fight harassment prove impotent. But even women shy away from solidarity. Nobody defends the bullied schoolgirl on the bus or the harassed employee at the office party.

All stories are powerful. There is particular gravity and complexity in Play Rape, Festive Spirit and The Trial.

The spirit is out of the bottle; I look forward to more.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Knives Out

© 2018 MRC II Distribution Company L.P. All rights reserved. Please click on the images to enlarge them. NB. Ana de Armas is missing from both images.

Richard (Don Johnson), Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), Ransom (Chris Evans) Great Nana (K Callan), Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) Walt (Michael Shannon), Jacob (Jaeden Martell), Donna (Riki Lindholm), Joni (Toni Collette) and Meg (Katherine Langford). Photo: Claire Folger. © 2018 MRC II Distribution Company L.P. All rights reserved.

Veitset esiin / Knives Out [the title in Sweden].
    US © 2019 Lions Gate / MRC. PC: Media Rights Capital / T-Street. Distributed by: Lionsgate. P: Ram Bergman, Rian Johnson.
    D+SC: Rian Johnson. Cin: Steve Yedlin – colour – 1,85:1 – source format: ARRIRAW 3.4K – released in: D-Cinema. PD: David Crank. AD: Jeremy Woodward. Set dec: David Schlesinger. Cost: Jenny Eagan. Makeup: Luisa Abel. Hair: Kelvin R. Trahan. SFX: Christopher Walsh. VFX: Rupert Davies (One Of Us), Tim Keene. M: Nathan Johnson. S: Al Nelson. ED: Bob Ducsay. Casting: Mary Vernieu.
    Cast (as edited in Wikipedia):
    Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc: a private detective called upon to investigate Harlan's murder
    Chris Evans as Hugh Ransom Drysdale: Harlan's grandson, Linda and Richard's son, and a spoiled playboy
    Ana de Armas as Marta Cabrera: Harlan's nurse and caretaker who had a close relationship with him
    Jamie Lee Curtis as Linda Drysdale: Harlan's eldest daughter and Richard's wife. She is a real estate mogul who runs her own company with her husband's support
    Michael Shannon as Walter "Walt" Thrombey: Harlan's youngest son, Donna's husband, and the CEO of his father's publishing company
    Don Johnson as Richard Drysdale: Harlan's son-in-law and Linda's husband, who helps run his wife's company
    Toni Collette as Joni Thrombey: widow of Harlan's deceased son Neil, who is a lifestyle guru and influencer
    Lakeith Stanfield as Detective Lieutenant Elliot: a local detective involved in the investigation
    Katherine Langford as Megan "Meg" Thrombey: Harlan's granddaughter, Joni and Neil's daughter, who studies at a prestigious liberal arts college
    Jaeden Martell as Jacob Thrombey: Harlan's grandson, Walt and Donna's son, who holds alt-right views and is always on his phone
    Christopher Plummer as Harlan Thrombey: a wealthy mystery novelist who invites his family to his 85th birthday party and is later found dead. He has three children — Linda, Walt and deceased Neil
    Noah Segan as Trooper Wagner: a police officer involved with the investigation
    Edi Patterson as Fran: Harlan's housekeeper, who discovers his body
    Riki Lindhome as Donna Thrombey: Harlan's daughter-in-law and Walt's wife
    K Callan as Wanetta "Great Nana" Thrombey: Harlan's elderly mother
    Frank Oz as Alan Stevens: Harlan's lawyer
    M. Emmet Walsh as Mr. Proofroc
    Marlene Forte as Mrs. Cabrera: Marta's mother
    Shyrley Rodriguez as Alicia Cabrera: Marta's sister
    Raúl Castillo as a cop
    Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Detective Hardrock (voice cameo)
Loc: Massachusetts, USA. 30 Oct – 21 Dec 2018.
130 min
Festival premiere: 7 Sep 2019 Toronto.
US premiere: 27 Nov 2019.
Finnish premiere: 29 Nov 2019 – released by Nordisk Film – Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Jaana Wiik / Nina Ekholm.
DCP viewed at Kinopalatsi, Helsinki, 20 Dec 2019.

Knives Out is a detective story of the most classical kind, a well made play. There is something Hawksian in Rian Johnson's approach to genre. He both fulfills genre expectations and uses the detective story as a vehicle for personal expression. Robin Wood used to call this kind of classicism Mozartian.

The film is full of contemporary observations and satirical references. There is an amusement at the quaint legacy of "the gentleman sleuth" syndrome but the film is not a pastiche. Its ethos is perfect for Christmas entertainment. Interestingly, of this Christmas's big audience movies two stem from the same roots, the other one being Downton Abbey.

With good reason Knives Out has been compared with Agatha Christie. It is a whodunit. There is a large gathering of suspects, all concealing secrets. There is also something Dostoevskyan in the revelation that everyone is guilty – of a death wish at least. Like many detective stories, this is a satire of class society.

Knives Out is even a locked room mystery. It takes place at a country house, and the crime is an inside job. There are red herrings, a reconstruction of the crime and a final twist in the plot. The least likely suspect confesses the crime. The crime is solved by a celebrity sleuth. A novel twist is that the detective (Daniel Craig) looks hard-boiled but is actually solving the case purely with his gray brain cells just like Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.

It could hardly get more classical than this. Agatha Christie is the most successful author in this tradition, but the tradition is among the oldest in storytelling. Christie was standing on the shoulders of Arthur Conan Doyle, but before him Wilkie Collins had established most of the conventions in The Moonstone. He in turn had been inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's detective stories, and Poe knew Voltaire's Zadig. ("The Three Apples" in One Thousand and One Nights is sometimes mentioned as the first whodunit murder mystery. I can see why, but I find the link to detective stories a bit far fetched. [Burton, Chapter 4. 19th Night.])

A source of the inexhaustible fascination in this tradition is the double narrative (sujet / fabula). We follow the investigation of the detective (sujet) until we can make sense of the story of the crime (fabula). Adding a special level to Knives Out is that the victim himself is a crime novelist (Christopher Plummer) who contributes to the scenario of the fatal night.

Glossy big budget all star adaptations of Agatha Christie whodunits were popular in the 1970s and the 1980s. Robert Altman revitalized the tradition with Gosford Park in 2001, based on an original screenplay by Julian Fellowes, and Altman was the right man to do it since he had his own personal approach to big society ensemble portraits and all star casts. There was even a touch of La Règle du jeu. Rian Johnson rejuvenates the tradition once again, and perhaps some La Règle du jeu affinity is present, although without a drama of passion this time. As well known, Gosford Park inspired Downton Abbey, also written by Fellowes.


Knives Out is both plot- and character-driven. In a big ensemble piece characters are inevitably caricatures to some extent, and there has to be a stylized, vignette-like approach to performance. The cast excels in their roles as juicy suspects literally from the first minute, starting with Jamie Lee Curtis and Don Johnson visibly relishing their roles. All are good. Christopher Plummer as Harlan the patriarch disappointed with his offspring. Michael Shannon as his youngest son and publisher. Chris Evans and Katharine Langford as the scheming grandchildren. K Callan as the centenarian great-grandmother. Daniel Craig, beefy and unshaven, using wit here instead of muscle. Ana de Armas as Marta Cabrera is a counter-image to the greed and xenophobia. To portray goodness in contemporary cinema is next to impossible, but she and Rian Johnson pull it off.

The film has been impressively shot in autumnal Massachusetts, bringing to mind Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry shot in neighbouring Vermont. Steve Yedlin's cinematography is constantly interesting from majestic aerial shots to magnifying glass views and extreme close-ups exposing sweat, pores and stubs on the skin. The film is full of delicious touches including painted portrait credit shots in the end credits while "Sweet Virginia"* by The Rolling Stones is heard on the soundtrack.

* "Sweet Virginia" was first published on Exile on Main Street (recorded in 1970, released in 1972).

NB. Although Knives Out is a whodunit, it has also affinities with Anthony Shaffer's play Sleuth (1970) and its film adaptation by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1972) for instance in the character of the novelist, the interior design of the country house and the fascination with games.

The game is Go. Marta usually wins Harlan because she plays by the instinct and he by the intellect.


Saturday, December 14, 2019


Hustlers – korkojen kera / Hustlers [the title in Sweden].
    US © 2019 STX Productions LLC. PC: Gloria Sanchez Productions / Nuyorican Productions. In association with: Annapurna Pictures. Distributed by: STXFilms. P: Jessica Elbaum, Will Ferrell, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Jennifer Lopez, Adam McKay, Benny Medina.
    D+SC: Lorene Scafaria – based on "The Hustlers at Scores: The Ex-Strippers Who Stole From (Mostly) Rich Men and Gave to, Well, Themselves" (The Cut, 28 Dec 2015) by Jessica Pressler. Cin: Todd Banhazl – colour – 2,39:1 – source format: DXL RAW (8K). PD: Jane Musky. AD: Kim Karon. Set dec: Alexandra Mazur. Cost: Mitchell Travers. Makeup: Margot Boccia. Hair: Angel De Angelis. M supervisor: Jason Markey (song list beyond the jump break). S: Sean McCormack, Jon Wakeham. ED: Kayla Emter. Casting: Gayle Keller.
    Cast as edited in Wikipedia:
    Constance Wu as Destiny, a stripper
    Jennifer Lopez as Ramona Vega, a veteran stripper
    Julia Stiles as Elizabeth, a journalist
    Keke Palmer as Mercedes, a stripper
    Lili Reinhart as Annabelle, a stripper
    Lizzo as Liz, a stripper
    Cardi B as Diamond, a stripper
    Mercedes Ruehl as Mama, the club's den mother
    Trace Lysette as Tracey
    Wai Ching Ho as Destiny's grandmother
    Mette Towley as Justice
    Madeline Brewer as Dawn
    Frank Whaley as Reese, Ramona's rich client
    Brandon Keener as Alpha
    Steven Boyer as Doug
    Jon Glaser as Mark
    Gerald Gillam as Johnny
    Devin Ratray as Stephen
    Rhys Coiro as Spencer
    Jovanni Ortiz as Joe, one of Ramona's clients
    Big Jay Oakerson as DJ, the club's DJ
    Usher as himself
Filming: New York City, 22 March to 3 May 2019. Locations also: New Rochelle, White Plains, Palisades Center. 110 min
Festival premiere: 7 Sep 2019 Toronto.
US premiere: 13 Sep 2019.
Finnish premiere: 18 Oct 2019 – SF Studios – Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Anna-Maija Ihander / Josefine Eld.
DCP viewed at Kinopalatsi 8, Helsinki, 14 Dec 2019

AA: Hustlers is a different kind of a crime story. It tells about a gang of sex workers who clean up Wall Street moneymen by drugging them unconscious and emptying their expense accounts. It's not a traditional big caper story; it's not Ocean's Eleven; it's been called "Robin Hoods in G-strings". It does not look like a gangster film, but in a literal sense it is one. It is about organized crime.

The syuzhet starts in 2014 when the former stripper Dorothy / Destiny (Constance Wu) tells her story to an interviewer, here called Elizabeth (Julia Stiles). But the fabula begins in 2007, "the fucking best year" for the strippers who were rolling in the money thrown upon them by the Wall Street financial wizards. "We made more money than a brain surgeon".

Comes the Black Monday, 29 September 2008, the worst ever financial crisis, "the end of an era", also the end of the big party of the strippers. The crash puts everyone out of business. Having given birth to a baby boy Destiny returns from Arizona and experiences the agony of unemployment and brutalized circumstances in the stripping scene. Immigrants provide sex services complete with intercourse which is where Destiny draws the line.

Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez), the strongest one, establishes a gang, and together the women move from ordinary sex business to organized crime. Armed with strong drugs (mixing Ketamin with MDMA) they systematically rob their customers / victims. Their reasoning: "This game is rigged", "What we do is harmless in comparison with what they did to our country". There is hardly anybody in prison who does not justify his or her crimes with a similar line of reasoning. The women know that the Wall Street wolves escaped punishment for their epic fraud. "This whole city, this whole country is one big strip club".

The women are brutalized. One of their drugged victims almost dies in an accident. Another victim is fired from his job and loses his home and family having become unable to pay the mortgage. Ramona stays tough, but Dorothy has pangs of conscience. Meanwhile, they are running out of victims because there are no return customers.

The portrayal of the world of the sex clubs feels authentic and accurate. We learn about champagne rooms and rules and limits of conduct. We also learn about the three classes of customers. The elite gets to use the back entrance, they pay 10 000 a night and have exclusive access to the only room without a camera. Ramona gives Dorothy masterclasses in pole dancing and lap dancing, and having literally invited her under her fur coat she teaches Dorothy the tricks of the trade. Dorothy follows her until the scam with the knockout drugs and the maxing out of credit cards goes too far.

Reportedly Hustlers was first offered for Martin Scorsese to direct, but Lorene Scafaria's female viewpoint is what makes this tale special. These working girls are tough, but they are also tender and nurturing mothers and family mainstays. They are tiger mamas. "Motherhood is a mental illness", Ramona keeps repeating, but she does not really mean it. "Motherhood: there is nothing like it", thinks Dorothy. Mother instinct is the opposite of the way of life in which "man is a wolf to his fellow man" as ancient Romans used to say. All males in this story seem spineless and worthless.

Hustlers is a film about strippers, and as a striptease show it does not disappoint. The women and the performances are outstanding. But, written and directed by a woman, it's different: it's made both for the male look and for the female look, and perhaps also for the queer look. Ramona's introductory sequence is a case in point. It is shot and edited from the viewpoint of the adoring Dorothy. Hustlers is a love story between Ramona and Dorothy, not in the sense of them ending up in bed, but Ramona becomes a model for Dorothy in carrying her femininity with pride.

The sex world depicted in the Hustlers is loud, vulgar and insensitive and I don't find it erotic. The hard lights in distorting, unnatural colours and heavy makeups make the women seem like Amazon warriors or gladiators in armours on the battleground of the sexes. There is no love between men and women. Only between mothers and children, and between women.

Jennifer Lopez I have been following from around 1997. I first saw her in Anaconda, and soon after in strong dramatic roles in U Turn and Out of Sight (still my favourite). This year Jennifer Lopez proudly celebrated her 50th anniversary without trying to hide her age. She is great in Hustlers. In the role of Ramona Vega she joins a special American tradition launched in the cinema by Texas Guinan and Mae West.

In world cinema Jennifer Lopez belongs to the daring tradition launched by Asta Nielsen in The Abyss (1910) who introduced twerking to the screen in her gaucho dance number. She had no problem in combining sex with brains.

Worth reading: the Jennifer Lopez interview with Jessica Pressler (who wrote the original 2015 article on which Hustlers is based), "The High-Powered Hustle of Jennifer Lopez" (GQ, 18 Nov 2019).

P.S. 16 Dec 2019. I just read this Jennifer Lopez interview by A. O. Scott for The New York Times Magazine.

"Do the Wall Street shuffle". Hustlers. Jennifer Lopez as Ramona Vega in her introduction scene, first pole dancing, then twerking with money, rolling in dough in 2007, "the fucking best year" for strippers and moneymen.

The Abyss (1910). Asta Nielsen introduces twerking to the screen. My screenshot from YouTube.


Friday, December 13, 2019

The Two Popes

Kaksi paavia / The Two Popes [the title in Sweden].
    GB/US/IT/AR © 2019 Netflix. P: Dan Lin, Jonathan Eirich, Tracey Seaward.
    D: Fernando Meirelles. SC: Anthony McCarten – based on The Pope: Francis, Benedict, and the Decision That Shook the World (2019) by Anthony McCarten. DP: César Charlone – digital RED Weapon 8K S35. PD: Mark Tildesley. Cost: Luca Canfora. Make-up and hair: Marese Langan. M: Bryce Dessner. ED: Fernando Stutz.
    C: Anthony Hopkins (Pope Benedict XVI), Jonathan Pryce (Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio / Pope Francis), Juan Minujín (Young Jorge Mario Bergoglio), Sidney Cole (Cardinal Peter Turkson), Lisandro Fiks (Father Franz Jalics), Thomas D. Williams (The American Journalist), Maria Ucedo (Esther Ballestrine), Emma Bonino (Herself).
– Argentine: Vieja 21 of Buenos Aires; the desert on the outskirts of the city of Córdoba
– Uruguay
– Italy: the Royal Palace of Caserta, the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, the former papal retreat Villa Mondragone, Villa Farnese
    Studio: Cinecittà : a life-size replica of the Sistine Chapel.
    In English with passages in Spanish, Italian, German and Latin.
    125 min
    Festival premiere: 31 Aug 2019 Telluride.
    US premiere: 27 Nov 2019 (limited).
    Netflix streaming launchdate: 20 Dec 2019.
    Finnish premiere: 13 Dec 2019 (limited) – distributed by Scanbox – with Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Suvi Niemelä / Bengt-Ove Andersson.
    DCP viewed at Kino Engel 2, 13 Dec 2019.

The Two Popes: Production Notes: Official synopsis: "From Fernando Meirelles, the Academy Award®-nominated director of City of God, and three-time Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Anthony McCarten, comes an intimate story of one of the most dramatic transitions of power in the last 2,000 years. Frustrated with the direction of the church, Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) requests permission to retire in 2012 from Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins). Instead, facing scandal and self-doubt, the introspective Pope Benedict summons his harshest critic and future successor to Rome to reveal a secret that would shake the foundations of the Catholic Church. Behind Vatican walls, a struggle commences between both tradition and progress, guilt and forgiveness, as these two very different men confront elements from their pasts in order to find common ground and forge a future for a billion followers around the world."

Fernando Meirelles:  “What made me decide to do this film was Pope Francis,” he says. “The world at the moment is a very odd place: we’re destroying the planet and many countries are trying to build walls. As most people would accept, our future is in danger. Who else sees the planet as a united whole, not as separate nationalities? Pope Francis is trying to unite all countries, all continents, all religions, all races. He is one of the very few who’s really thinking globally in the right way — trying to include everybody, trying to build bridges." (The Two Popes: Production Notes)

AA: The Two Popes is the perfect Christmas movie this year. "Upon this rock I will build my church" said Jesus as he selected Peter to lead the Apostles, and from him the Catholic Church starts the succession of Popes. The term "the Saviour" has never been been more literally relevant than in our times.

At the morning discussion of the Midnight Sun Film Festival last summer the director Fernando Meirelles gave the most remarkable statement I have heard this year. It was the first time I have heard anybody give such a statement. Towards the conclusion of the morning discussion, Mika Kaurismäki asked Meirelles about his future plans.

There is no future, Meirelles answered.

We are destroying our environment, and we may have reached the point of no return. Meirelles stated that we all know what is going on, and we have known it for a long time. Meirelles, a proud father and grandfather, said that he now considers the environment awareness his mission as a film-maker. It is difficult, because nobody wants to listen. We have to make films that tell the truth and that people want to see. (My resume based on memory. On record Meirelles has stated the same thing in published interviews).

The Two Popes is a drama about the existential crisis of the Catholic Church. Corruption, rampant pedophilia, Vatileaks, epic fraud at the Vatican Bank, secularization and a loss of membership are shaking it to the core. The leaders fear that these events may damage the church forever.

Pope Benedict XVI resigns. Cardinal Bergoglio is elected and as Pope Francis starts in his office in 2013, the first Pope outside Europe since the 8th century. The new Pope knows the poverty of the Southern hemisphere first hand. He has also a sense of urgency in environmental issues, prominently in his first independently written encyclical, Laudato si', whose title refers to the "Canticle of the Sun" of Francis of Assisi.

Written by Anthony McCarten, the epic themes have been crystallized into brilliant debates between Benedict XVI and Francis. They have irreconcilable differences. Benedict XVI resigns because he cannot go on. He is no longer hearing the voice of God. But he starts to hear it again – in the words of Francis. For Francis, change is a keyword. Nothing is static. God changes.

The themes of the film could not have more gravity, but Fernando Meirelles has made a popular film attractive for the general audience. Powerfully interpreted by Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, the film reveals the human side of the men of God. The two popes share a pizza, watch football and Kommissar Rex on tv and tell jokes*. I notice a major newspaper reviewer calling this a feelgood film, which is probably a positive sign. I don't think that this aspect trivializes issues, on the contrary. The dimension is similar in The Unknown Soldier, Finland's most popular story (as a novel, play and three film adaptations): the men are joking all the time – to keep their mental balance in the frontline.

(* Benedict XVI / Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger notes, however, that "a German joke does not have to be funny").

Silencium incarnatum. The popes confess their darkest secrets. During the Dirty War of the Argentinian military junta Bergoglio was made complicit in oppression. His agonizing dilemma at the time: "If I open my mouth I cannot help". Benedict's big secret is that he knew about the pedophilia scandals and failed to act. In this moment the soundtrack turns silent, and we fail to hear everything Benedict has to say. Francis's approach to confession is: "Sin is a wound, not a stain. It needs to heal".

As an account of the Holy See, The Two Popes feels authentic in detail. Besides attention to physical accuracy we learn much about the procedures of the Church, also seldom mentioned aspects of history such as that celibacy was introduced in the 12th century, and angels were only recognized in the 5th century.

From dialogues between two men The Two Popes opens into a vision of two worlds: the affluent Vatican and the slums of Argentine. A central subtext is the Temptation of Christ in the desert, especially the final temptation on the mountain. "All these things I will give you if you fall down and do an act of worship to me", promises Satan. The Two Popes is both a chamber piece and an epic movie about the biggest issues on the globe.

Shot by César Charlone on 8K digital the cinematography is stunning, dramatizing visually the contrast between the two worlds. The presence of the Sistine Chapel** introduces Michelangelo's Renaissance ambience to the drama.

(**  On display is a replica, naturally of the 1984 restoration of the Sistine Chapel, controversial in the same way as "gilded lily" restorations of classic movies because they are so different from the originals. A double-billing suggestion might be The Agony and the Ecstasy where replicas of pre-restoration Sistine Chapel frescoes are displayed).

Friday, December 06, 2019

The Wind (2018)

The Wind (2018). Caitlin Gerard as Lizzie. Please click to enlarge the photo.
The Wind (2018). Caitlin Gerard as Lizzie, Ashley Zukerman as Isaac. Please click to enlarge the photo.

At the premiere, left to right: Emma Tammi, Caitlin Gerard, Julia Goldani Telles, Ashley Zukerman, Teresa Sutherland, and Dylan McTee at a Q&A for The Wind at the Ryerson Theatre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 11 September 2018. Photo: hinnk / Wikipedia.

The Wind – Demons of the Prairie
The Wind / The Wind.
    US © 2018 Performance Pictures, LLC. – Two Cabins, LLC. – PC: Soapbox Films / Divide/Conquer / Mind Hive Films. P: Christopher Alender, David Grove Churchill Viste.
    D: Emma Tammi. SC: Teresa Sutherland. Cin: Lyn Moncrief – colour – 2,39:1. PD: Courtney Andujar, Hillary Andujar. Set dec: Elsbeth Mumm. Cost: Kate De Blasio. Makeup: Jennifer M. Quinteros. M: Ben Lovett. S: Juan Campos. ED: Alexandra Amick. Casting: Sunday Boling, Meg Morman.
    C: Caitlin Gerard (Lizzy Macklin), Julia Goldani Telles (Emma Harper), Ashley Zukerman (Isaac Macklin), Dylan McTee (Gideon Harper ), Miles Anderson (The Reverend).
    Loc: New Mexico.
    86 min
    Festival premiere: 10 Sep 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
    US premiere: 5 April 2019.
    Finnish premiere: 6 Dec 2019 – released by Night Visions Distribution – Finnish subtitles by Miia Mattila.
    DCP viewed at Tennispalatsi 14, Helsinki, 6 Dec 2019.

IMDb summary: "A plains-woman faces the harshness and isolation of the untamed land in the Western frontier of the late 1800s."

AA: A Western nightmare movie with a young female protagonist facing overwhelming conditions at the prairie.

There is a distinguished tradition in this "woman in the wilderness" type of film. The title of Emma Tammi's film is probably a tribute to Victor Sjöström's masterpiece The Wind (1928) starring Lillian Gish. William K. Everson comments: "The theme of a woman battling inner turmoil and the physical hardships of the wilds or the frontier was one that appealed to a number of directors at the end of the silent era, perhaps because of the simplicity and austerity of theme and the opportunities afforded for both virtuoso performances and direction." Further distinguished examples include F. W. Murnau's City Girl (1930) which was influenced by Sjöström. Both had been inspired by a William K. Howard masterpiece, White Gold (1927) and perhaps also by William Beaudine's The Canadian (1926), based on a play by W. Somerset Maugham. Let's also remember the stark prologue of John M. Stahl's The Song of Life (1922) which precedes them all.

The director Emma Tammi and the screenwriter Teresa Sutherland marry the Western with New Wave horror. The Wind is a ghost story with a haunting sense of the supernatural. The roots are in the school of Polanski: the disintegration of personality in Repulsion and The Tenant, and the horror of childbirth in Rosemary's Baby. Lizzy's trauma of having delivered a stillborn child is perhaps at the root of all what happens.

"Demons of the Prairie" is a brochure detailing various ghosts (Messimer, Mara, Babel... ) on rampage in the desert. It seems to give demonic names to ordeals of frontier life, even including adultery and jealousy.

Just like in the 1920s, the theme provides opportunities for virtuoso direction and performances. The film is thrillingly directed by Emma Tammi, the cinematography is based on a sublime scope composition by Lyn Moncrief, and the roles are played with high intensity, especially the female leading role by Caitlin Gerard.

The screenplay and the montage are based on a complex pattern of flashbacks, interspersed with hallucinations. The story unravels in a multiple spiral movement going both forward and in reverse gear, both movements offering twists and turns and surprises, repeatedly changing our perceptions of the protagonists and everything that happens. It's impressive but perhaps also slightly frustrating when our assumptions are proven false so many times.

The score by Ben Lovett and the sound design by Juan Campos are powerful, using the haunting sound of the wind as the starting point. Even here I was thinking: "less would be more". "The wind as the spirit of the devil", the sound of the supernatural wind might have more impact if left more intact.

To sum up: The Wind is a distinguished contribution to new wave horror film. I look forward to more from Emma Tammi and her talented cast and crew.


Saturday, November 30, 2019

Marriage Story

Adam Driver (Charlie), Scarlett Johansson (Nicole), Azhy Robertson (their son Henry).

Marriage Story / Marriage Story.
    US ©  2019 Netflix. PC: Heyday Films, Netflix. P: Noah Baumbach, David Heyman.
    D+SC: Noah Baumbach. Cin: Robbie Ryan – negative: 35 mm – master: digital intermediate 4K – release: 35 mm, D-Cinema. PD: Jade Healy. AD: Andrew Hull, Joshua Petersen. Set dec: Lizzie Boyle, Nicki Ritchie, Adam Willis. Cost: Mark Bridges. Makeup: Deborah La Mia Denaver. Hair: Barbara Olvera. M: Randy Newman.  Songs: Stephen Sondheim, from Company (1970):
– "You Could Drive a Person Crazy", perf. Julie Hagerty, Scarlett Johansson, Merritt Weaver.
– "Being Alive" perf. Adam Driver.
S: Christopher Scarabosio. ED: Jennifer Lame. Casting: Douglas Aibel, Helena Holmes, Francine Maisler. Cast from Wikipedia:
    Scarlett Johansson as Nicole Barber
    Adam Driver as Charlie Barber
    Laura Dern as Nora Fanshaw
    Alan Alda as Bert Spitz
    Ray Liotta as Jay Marotta
    Azhy Robertson as Henry Barber
    Julie Hagerty as Sandra
    Merritt Wever as Cassie
    Mark O'Brien as Carter
    Matthew Shear as Terry
    Brooke Bloom as Mary Ann
    Kyle Bornheimer as Ted
    Mickey Sumner as Beth
    Wallace Shawn as Frank
    Martha Kelly as The Evaluator
Loc: New York City, Los Angeles.
Festival premiere: 29 Aug 2019 Venice Film Festival.
US premiere (limited): 6 Nov 2019.
Netflix release: 6 Dec 2019.
    Finnish premiere (limited): 29 Nov 2019, released by Scanbox with Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Meri Myrskysaari / Bengt-Ove Andersson (tbc, the credits flashed by too fast).
    DCP viewed at Kino Engel 2, Helsinki, 30 Nov 2019

Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story is an excellent family drama with complex performances, witty and humoristic dialogue, and a sense of troubling deep currents.

Marriage Story belongs to a tradition in American cinema that can be tracked back to Vitagraph and Biograph and masters like Griffith, Stahl and Borzage. Around the year 1980 this kind of subject blossomed with Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton) and other intelligent films about relationships and families by Robert Redford, James L. Brooks and Woody Allen.

This autumn Marriage Story seems like a perfect alternative to the much discussed Marvel movies. I love those movies, but too much of the good thing is not always wonderful.

To a Nordic viewer divorce dramas evoke a tradition of our own by Ibsen, Strindberg, Canth, Jotuni and Bergman. They still startle us with a key observation: there is nothing sadder than a marriage inferno.

Much is universal in Marriage Story, but the story is also typically American. It is a New York vs. Los Angeles story.

Everything seems set for an amicable split between Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver), the main issue being the custody of their beloved son Henry (Azhy Robertson). Their session with a marriage counselor starts well, but Nicole is not comfortable with the setup.

Having moved to Los Angeles she employs a divorce lawyer – against the original agreement. Nicole picks one of the best, a celebrity lawyer called Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern). Charlie now has to engage a lawyer, too. Nicole has first visited twelve other top lawyers thereby rendering them ineligible for her husband. Charlie finally picks a conciliatory one called Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), so nice and well-meaning that Charlie is likely to be crushed. Charlie then selects a law shark as fearsome as Nora Fanshaw, Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta), and the trial turns into a mutual character assassination. Both spouses lose and lawyers win. There is a brutal showdown in Charlie's bare L.A. apartment. On their own Nicole and Charlie finally reach a conciliatory understanding, but it has been reached at a high cost.

"Where there is law there is injustice", wrote Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace *, and one of the themes of Marriage Story is the distortion and manipulation of reality by lawyers. Western philosophy (Plato / Socrates) started as a critique of sophism and rhetorics. Socrates questioned schools of rhetorics where teachers promised to teach you how to win arguments even when you knew nothing about the subject.

For the divorce lawyers knowledge is rough material to be twisted and turned at will, and promises to act in good faith are not meant to be kept. The only focus is money.

There are deeper layers beyond the main plot current. Although the confidential statements of Nicole and Charlie are abused, leaving them psychologically bruised, a fundamental dignity and respect survives.

At the bottom is inequality. In the US the structural issue of inequality between men and women is so deeply rooted that for an European it is sometimes impossible to read relations between sexes in America.

The marriage drama of Nicole and Charlie is not black and white, but Charlie has to wake up to realize that he has not been treating Nicole as an equal partner. To correct the gender imbalance Nicole wants to make the radical change of taking a divorce and moving from East Coast to West Coast.

Marriage Story still carries echoes of A Doll's House.


In Baumbach's direction, the performances are outstanding and the dramatic charge is powerful. Baumbach introduces intriguing imagery.

A prominent image is the mask. There is a recurrent Halloween mask theme. This is a story among professionals in performing arts, and performers of course wear masks. In Nicole's pilot audition she tries on various masks, perhaps tracking helmets.

Another memorable image is the wound. The clueless divorce evaluator (Martha Kelly) gets a demonstration of Charlie's knife trick, but it misses. Charlie wounds himself badly and leaves blood tracks. (Nicole in turn has been rehearsed by Nora to a spotless performance for the evaluator).


Stephen Sondheim songs are prominent. "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" is sung by Nicole's family as a trio. Charlie sings "Being Alive" as a solo. This is a Stephen Sondheim autumn in the cinema. In Joker, "Bring In the Clowns" is prominent on the soundtrack in an interpretation by Frank Sinatra.


Shot on 35 mm, the digital transfer conveys the warm hues of Robbie Ryan's cinematography.


* "Где суд, там и неправда". (Platon Karatayev, War and Peace IV, Chapter 12). More literally this might mean: "Where there is a court, there is untruth".

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Johannes Linnankoski 150

Featured on the poster: the memorial statue of Johannes Linnankoski (Kalervo Kallio, 1944, Porvoo City Park). Lars Hanson (Olof) and Greta Almroth (Annikki, the Forest Nymph) in the film The Song of the Scarlet Flower (1919, D: Mauritz Stiller).

The Linnankoski 150 Medals were given on 27 October 2019 to the Linnankoski family (Jouni Linnankoski, Juhani Linnankoski and Ilkka Linnankoski), to the author Pajtim Statovci (alumnus of the Linnankoski School) and to Marjo Miettinen (top executive in the technology industry, trendsetter in sustainable production).

metoo#olavi . Johannes Linnankoski – romantikko ja tulisielu (a play)
D+SC: Tuovi Putkonen. M compositions and arrangements: Marko Putkonen. AD: Anne Ratia. Cost: Soila Tikkanen. Makeup: Sanna Saarnio. Stagecraft: Joonatan Hietanen. Poster and handbill: Valtteri Flinck.
    C: Keijo Liski (Patrus, a freelance actor / Wihtori Peltonen / Johannes Linnankoski)
Sirja Pohjanheimo-Vikla (Elviira, an artist / Tuomenkukka [Bird Cherry Blossom] / Ester)
Mirja Oksanen (Marjukka, chairperson of the drama team and director / Cain)
Minna Valtasalo (Heta, clothing seller / Olavi / distiller)
Soila Tikkanen (Riitta, youth worker / the mistress of Anttila / Metsänneito [Forest Nymph])
Eija Forsell (Pirkko, a policewoman / the mistress of Heikkilä / Lucifer)
Satu Mahkonen (Lilian, a librarian / dancer / Mother / Tumma tyttö [Dark Maid])
Mia Lehtola (Tiina, real estate agent / singer / Werner Söderström / nurse)
Ilkka Kinosmaa (Reiska the janitor / Father)
– "Mitä nuo tähdet merkitsee" (lyr. Johannes Linnankoski: Laulu tulipunaisesta kukasta) comp. Marko Putkonen
– "Vähäväkisten huokaus" (lyr. Johannes Linnankoski) comp. Marko Putkonen
– "Arvon mekin ansaitsemme" (lyr. Jaakko Juteini, comp. trad.)
– "Lukutanssi" comp. Marko Putkonen
– "Suksimiesten laulu" (lyr. Suonio) comp. Karl Collan
– "Vuorelaisen laulu – melodraama" (lyr. Johannes Linnankoski: Ikuinen taistelu) comp. Marko Putkonen
– "Tukkipojan laulu" (lyr. Johannes Linnankoski: Laulu tulipunaisesta kukasta) comp. Marko Putkonen
– "Mäeltä leviää silmäin eteen... " (lyr. Tuovi Putkonen) comp. Marko Putkonen
    Porvoon Teatteri, Vänrikinkatu 4, Porvoo. 2 hours with intermission.
    Visited: premiere 27 Nov 2019.

Linnankoski 150 Celebration.
Linnankosken lukion auditorio, Porvoo, 27 Oct 2019.
– Opening speech: Erkki Toivanen, chairman of the Linnankoski Society.
– Drama performance: Kulkijan pysähdys [A Wanderer's Stopover]. Linnankosken lukion draamaryhmä / Linnankoski School Drama Team. D+SC+AD: Leila Kiviluoma. Based on The Song of the Scarlet Flower by Johannes Linnankoski. M comp+arr: Anu Tikka-Blomqvist. C: Rasmus Kalliomaa (Olavi), Kaarina Olin (Annikki), Sara Järvinen (Gaselli), Emmi Kohonen (Kyllikki of Moisio), Emmi Kohonen (Mother), Erin Kupari (Dark Maid), Mila Hentunen (Miss Echo), Mila Hentunen (Matilda). Dancers: Sara Järvinen, Pihla Pajuniemi. Vocals: Leevi Salonen. Violin: Sonja Nissi. Piano: Emilia Rekonen. Lights: Niila Hulsi. S: Joonatan Hietanen. 30 min
– "Nuoruus" (excerpt from a poem by Johannes Linnankoski) recited by Helena Linttinen.
– "Toinen", lyr+comp. gymnasist Emmi Kohonen. Voc: Emmi Kohonen, violin: Sonja Nissi, piano: Anu Tikka-Blomqvist. Winner of a Linnankoski anniversary year award.
– Keth Strömdahl and Erkki Toivanen: the anniversary year in Askola and Porvoo.
– Music performance: artist Juho Pitkänen, a Linnankosken lukio alumnus.
– Announcing the recipients of the Linnankoski medals (Erkki Toivanen, Marja-Leena Talvitie) to:
    * The Linnankoski family (Jouni Linnankoski, Juhani Linnankoski and Ilkka Linnankoski),
    * the author Pajtim Statovci (alumnus of the Linnankoski School) and
    * Marjo Miettinen (top executive in the technology industry, trendsetter in sustainable production).
– Choir performance: Porvoon Mieslaulajat, director cantus Pekka Itkonen
    * "Kansiin kestäviin" (Linnankoski 150 song, lyr.+comp. Linnankosken lukio alumnus Satu Seikku)
    * "Suomis sång" (lyr. Emil von Quanten, comp. Fredrik Pacius)
    * "Finlandia" (lyr. V. A. Koskenniemi, comp. Jean Sibelius)

Helmi Setälä: Johannes Linnankoski. Ääriviivoja. (a book)
Helmi Setälä aka Helmi Krohn.
36 p. Ylioppilaiden Keskusteluseuran julkaisuja n:o 8.
Otava: Helsinki, 1911

Johannes Linnankoski (1869–1913) was a major Finnish cultural figure in the great wave of Finland's national awakening that started in the 1870s and led to the declaration of independence in 1917. During Linnankoski's lifetime Finland was an autonomous duchy in the Russian Empire. Johannes was a prolific writer, also a publisher of popular book series together with his wife Ester Linnankoski, a talented translator and editor. Their work can be compared in some ways with Leo Tolstoy's achievements in bringing culture and education to the people.

Filmwise the highlight of the anniversary has been the new digital edition of Mauritz Stiller's The Song of the Scarlet Flower (1919) complete with the original score by Armas Järnefelt. In Helsinki there was an Epiphany Film Concert The Song of the Scarlet Flower on 6 January, and the sonorized DCP was launched to an international cinephilic audience at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna on 25 June.

Special attention to Linnankoski has been paid in his hometowns Askola and Porvoo. The Linnankoski legacy is alive in many ways. Uusimaa, the newspaper in which he was the first editor-in-chief, still appears daily. The secondary school he founded, a coed school, now exists as a gymnasium carrying his name, Linnankosken lukio.

Of Linnankoski's novels, poems, plays and short stories the novel The Song of the Scarlet Flower (1905), Finland's first international best-selling novel, is still in print, besides Finland for instance in France and Russia where new editions keep appearing. The latest edition in Russia is from the year 2018 at Vostochnaya Kniga. In France where there have been over 50 editions, the latest publisher being Carroussel in 1999 with a new translation by Raymond Torfs.


I have been moved by the Linnankoski celebrations in Porvoo this autumn. The two drama performances have been written and directed by women and feature predominantly women, in metoo#olavi even in the role of Olavi.

I liked the drama performance Kulkijan pysähdys [A Wanderer's Stopover] directed by Leila Kiviluoma and performed by the Linnankoski School drama team: a series of 30 minutes of vignettes from The Song of the Scarlet Flower. Linnankoski's original dialogues are still effective, and the age of the young performers is right. This is never the case in the five film adaptations and the dozens of professional theatre dramatizations. The sense of the forest was conveyed by a sound – the call of the boreal owl (helmipöllö). Eloquent. The very simplicity was engaging. The presence of the performers and the vivid dialogue by Linnankoski told all that was neeed. In this interpretation, it was a moral tale, fresh and faithful to the author.

Today I saw the premiere of the irreverent play metoo#olavi by Tuovi Putkonen at the Porvoo Theatre. It features several new attractive songs composed by Marko Putkonen. The production is an explosion of ideas covering the life and work of Johannes and Ester Linnankoski with associations brimming to this day and age as the title announces. The production is too rich and overwhelming to discuss in full, so I'll cut to the chase.

The Me Too question: is Olavi in The Song of the Scarlet Flower an abuser and a harasser? The woman's position was weak in 1905. Writers in Finland, in Nordic countries and elsewhere discussed it powerfully: Ibsen in The Doll's House, Tolstoy in Resurrection and Minna Canth in Anna-Liisa. They wanted change. I find Johannes Linnankoski belonging to this great wave also in his practical work of equal education possibilities for all. The Song of the Scarlet Flower is a tale of Olavi's growth into manhood which means accepting Kyllikki as an equal partner. Growth is a never ending process.

What was the reception of Linnankoski in his own time? There are many reviews that document this and also one book, the only Linnankoski monograph written by a woman – by Helmi Setälä (1871–1967), known since 1913 as Helmi Krohn. She was the sister of the writer Aino Kallas (born Aino Krohn). Her Linnankoski book is just an essay, but it is dense and rewarding.

Helmi Krohn covers Linnankoski's moral quest lucidly. She sees beauty in Olavi's Bildungsroman. Olavi is a force of nature. With every season he discovers a new girl who evokes in him a new feeling. His life is one single beautiful dream. He wants nobody harm, he betrays no one on purpose. Some of the girls are like aspects of a single experience which is love. His restless blood Olavi has inherited from his father. From his mother he has inherited his depth of character, his fidelity, his self-control and his unselfishness. These tendencies clash until the latter wins.

The mother's blessing is awakened by Kyllikki. With Kyllikki Olavi does not expect to share happiness but suffering and toil. Kyllikki is tough but absolute. When Olavi accuses Kyllikki of having had a lover, Kyllikki calmly turns the accusation back on him. Krohn compares Olavi with Selma Lagerlöf's Gösta Berling. Krohn has reservations about the final chapter and the two most audacious ones, "Two People" and "Bottoms Up". But she sums up that this is a "miraculous book, full of the secret enchantment that nature exudes in the spring", a song of the flower that can blossom in the heart of everyone.

The Porvoo interpretations give Linnankoski a twist and a shake. He is not a dead monument. By questioning Linnankoski they prove that he is still alive.


The spirit lives on also in new, original authors who seek different paths. The Linnankoski 150 medal was given to an alumnus of the Linnankoski School, Pajtim Statovci. On the day of the premiere of metoo#olavi we learned that Pajtim Statovci had received the prestigious Finlandia Prize for the best novel of the year. He is also a finalist of The National Booker Award in the US, and his work has recently been covered in The New York Times, The Guardian and The New Yorker.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

The Irishman

I Heard You Paint Houses [title in the opening credits, repeated in the end credits]
[The title appears in a Godardian way in verse:]
I Heard / You / Paint Houses.
The Irishman [title in the end credits].
The Irishman / The Irishman [Finnish / Swedish titles].

US © 2019 Netflix. PC: TriBeCa Productions / Sikelia Productions / Winkler Films. Distributed by: Netflix. International distribution: STX Entertainment. P: Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, Gastón Pavlovich, Randall Emmett, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Gerald Chamales, Irwin Winkler.
    D: Martin Scorsese. SC: Steven Zaillian – based on I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa (2004) by Charles Brandt. Cin: Rodrigo Prieto – 1,85:1 – 35 mm – Redcode RAW – source formats: ARRIRAW 3,4 K, Redcode RAW 8K, Super 35 – digital intermediate 4K – released: D-Cinema. PD: Bob Shaw. AD: Laura Ballinger. Set dec: Regina Graves. Cost: Christopher Peterson, Sandy Powell. Makeup: Nicki Ledermann. Hair: Sean Flanigan. Prosthetic makeup coordinator: Lindsay Gelfand. Prosthetic Renaissance lab supervisor: Anthony Canonica. SFX: Taylor Schulte. VFX: Pablo Helman – Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) using Medusa Facial Capture – additional: SSVFX, Vitality. Executive M producer: Robbie Robertson. M supervisor: Randall Poster. S: Philip Stockton. ED: Thelma Schoonmaker.  Casting: Ellen Lewis.
    Loc: New York, New Jersey, Miami (117 different locations). Filming dates: 29 Aug 2017 – 5 March 2018. 209 min
    Festival premiere: 27 Sep 2019 New York Film Festival.
US premiere: 1 Nov 2019.
Digital streaming on Netflix: 27 Nov 2019.
Finnish premiere: 22 Nov 2019 – released by Scanbox with Finnish / Swedish subtitles (the credits flashed past too fast to read).
DCP viewed at Bio Rex, 23 Nov 2019.

Cast as edited in Wikipedia (most characters are historical and have Wikipedia links)
    Robert De Niro as Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran
    Al Pacino as James Riddle "Jimmy" Hoffa
    Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino
    Ray Romano as Bill Bufalino
    Bobby Cannavale as Felix "Skinny Razor" DiTullio
    Thomas Rogari as Tommy "The Shyster" Rogaro
    Anna Paquin as Peggy Sheeran
        Lucy Gallina as Peggy (age 7)
    Stephen Graham as Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano
    Stephanie Kurtzuba as Irene Sheeran
    Jesse Plemons as Chuckie O'Brien
    Harvey Keitel as Angelo Bruno
    Kathrine Narducci as Carrie Bufalino
    Welker White as Josephine Hoffa
    Domenick Lombardozzi as Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno
    Sebastian Maniscalco as Joseph "Crazy Joe" Gallo
    Steven Van Zandt as Jerry Vale
    Paul Ben-Victor as Jake Gottlieb
    Jeremy Luke as Thomas Andretta
    Aleksa Palladino as Mary Sheeran
    India Ennenga as Dolores Sheeran
    J. C. MacKenzie as Jimmy Neal
    Paul Herman as "The Other" Whispers
    Bo Dietl as Joseph Glimco
    Gary Basaraba as Frank Fitzsimmons
    Jim Norton as Don Rickles
    Larry Romano as Philip Testa
    Jake Hoffman as Allen Dorfman
    Patrick Gallo as Anthony Giacalone
    Barry Primus as Ewing King
    Jack Huston as Robert Kennedy
    Kevin O'Rourke as John McCullough
    Garry Pastore as Albert Anastasia
    Jennifer Mudge as Maryanne Sheeran
        Tess Price as Maryanne (age 8)
    Steve Witting as William E. Miller
    Stephen Mailer as F. Emmett Fitzpatrick
    John Rue as John L. McClellan
    Craig DiFrancia as Carmine Persico
    Craig Vincent as Ed Partin
    Frank Messina as Johnny Parcesepe
    Gino Cafarelli as Frank Rizzo
    Al Linea as Sam Giancana
    Joseph Riccobene as Jimmy Fratianno
    Ken Wulf Clark as James P. Hoffa
    Tommy McInnis as Marvin Elkin
    Jeff Moore as Frank Church
    John Polce as Joseph Colombo

The Irishman (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (from Wikipedia) a selection from the film
No.    Title    Artist(s)    Length
1.    "In the Still of the Night"    The Five Satins    3:05
2.    "Tuxedo Junction"    Glenn Miller and His Orchestra    3:26
3.    "I Hear You Knockin'"    Smiley Lewis    2:45
4.    "The Fat Man"    Fats Domino    2:36
5.    "El Negro Zumbón" (from the motion picture Anna)    Flo Sandon's    2:29
6.    "Le Grisbi"    (Jean Wiener), harmonica perf. Jean Wetzel    3:26
7.    "Delicado"    Percy Faith and His Orchestra    2:53
8.    "Have I Sinned"    Donnie Elbert    2:59
9.    "Theme for the Irishman"    Robbie Robertson    4:36
10.    "Song of the Barefoot Contessa"    Hugo Winterhalter and His Orchestra    2:39
11.    "A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)"    Marty Robbins (feat. Ray Conniff)    2:31
12.    "Canadian Sunset" (Single Version)    Eddie Heywood & Hugo Winterhalter and His Orchestra    2:55
13.    "Honky Tonk, Pt. 1"    Bill Doggett    3:05
14.    "Melancholy Serenade"    Jackie Gleason    3:15
15.    "Qué Rico el Mambo"    Pérez Prado    3:58
16.    "Cry"    Johnnie Ray & The Four Lads    3:04
17.    "Sleep Walk"    Santo & Johnny    2:27
18.    "The Time Is Now"    The Golddiggers    2:03
19.    "Al di là"    Jerry Vale & The Latin Casino All Stars    3:18
20.    "Pretend You Don't See Her"    The Latin Casino All Stars    2:42
Total length:    60:13

Official synopsis (Netflix): "Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci star in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, an epic saga of organized crime in post-war America told through the eyes of World War II veteran Frank Sheeran, a hustler and hitman who worked alongside some of the most notorious figures of the 20th Century. Spanning decades, the film chronicles one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in American history, the disappearance of legendary union boss Jimmy Hoffa, and offers a monumental journey through the hidden corridors of organized crime: its inner workings, rivalries and connections to mainstream politics."

AA: The Irishman is a masterpiece, a gangster film and an epic tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. It is a grand tale about betrayal.

Like The Godfather trilogy it portrays a shadow history of America. For Francis Ford Coppola the reference point was big business. Martin Scorsese deals with trade unions.

The Irishman also reminds us that bribe and corruption on the highest level did not start with the current President. The Kennedy family is seen connected with the mob who expect the ouster of Castro. JFK's rival Richard Nixon is funded by Hoffa. In an interesting scene Frank Sheeran registers E. Howard Hunt ("big ears") on tv in the Watergate trial and remembers him from the Bay of Pigs mission in which Frank worked as a driver. When everybody else has the flag in halfmast to honour the memory of JFK, Hoffa raises his flag to the top.

Robert Warshow called a famous essay of his "The Gangster as Tragic Hero". A film like The Irishman is, indeed, a tragedy, but its gangsters are no tragic heroes. They are anti-heroes. We do not register any grandeur within their reach that could be let down by a fatal flaw in their characters. The grandeur and the tragic destiny rest with their families, the trade union movement, the society, and the America of the 1960s.

The gangsters are monsters. In a bold experimental approach Scorsese rejuvenates his protagonists by several decades via digital de-aging (Medusa Facial Capture by ILM). It is a state of the art achievement, but the characters look denatured. They belong to the "uncanny valley" that has been discussed in digital animation. We accept real human beings in fiction, and we accept frankly stylized cartoon figures, but impeccably photorealistic animation feels uncanny.

Scorsese uses the uncanny valley as a means of expression – portraying his gangsters as dehumanized to begin with. The uncanny feeling stems from our uncertainty of whether we are seeing something real or unreal – dead or alive. I was reminded of Dick Tracy, The Polar Express, Sin City and The Adventures of Tintin. The mobster monsters belong with zombies and mummies – the living dead.


The duration of The Irishman is exceptionally long at 209 minutes, but there are no longueurs. The montage by Thelma Schoonmaker is dynamic and versatile.

The structure is based on a triple parallel montage on three time dimensions. The framing story is the present of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) living in his memories in a nursing home. Interspersed is a long fatal interstate drive of Frank and Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) travelling together with their smoking wives (the gangsters having stopped smoking after Castro). Officially they are on their way to a family wedding; really they make a journey to one of America's most notorious assassinations. Flashbacks fill out the story. There are also flashforward freeze frames: future fates of characters are condensed in premature epitaph captions. There are also special montage sequences, generic to gangster films since the 1930s, but Scorsese and Schoonmaker put their personal stamp into them (gun montages, politics montages...).

Important information is offered on multiple levels, and the degree of compression is high. The private and the public merge for instance in highly moving scenes and reactions to the Kennedy assassination. (Of which we later hear an oblique comment: "If they can wipe out a President, they can wipe out a president of a union").

It is no news that Scorsese and Schoonmaker master density. A novelty is a more pronounced sense of durée in a film that seemingly slows down towards the end while losing nothing in intensity. On the contrary, moments of contemplation make action stand out more. There is more time to let tensions grow and implications sink in. In Scorsese's previous crime films there has sometimes been a sense of relentless hectic, a nonstop barrage of action or rapid montage, all movement and no reflection. There is a French touch in Scorsese's subtle evolution – a touch of the Becker / Sautet / Melville school. I am particularly thinking about Classe tous risques (1960). *


Like many of Scorsese's films The Irishman is a history of violence. With a diffence this time: there is no sadism, no gratuitous violence. I have been puzzled by this feature which dates Scorsese's films. With sadism you can have an impact, but it has a repulsive after-effect. Strangely, this feature has also been present in Scorsese's religious films such as The Last Temptation of Christ and Silence.

I don't remember about the presence of religion in Scorsese's previous gangster films, but in The Irishman it's meaningful. We witness no religious conversion or awakening, but we are in the territory. Just the other day I was reading Eira Mollberg's memoirs of her father Rauni Mollberg (another daughter looking at a monster father). Her prayer is familiar from The Phantom Carriage and also relevant to The Irishman: "God, let my soul ripen before it is harvested".

The Irishman tracks Frank's violent history back to Anzio, his WWII experiences, callously executing German prisoners of war. This gets him started as a hitman, brutalized and dehumanized by violence.

While there is no sadism, there are moments of glorifying violence like in the execution of Crazy Joe where blood jets are covered in slow motion.


Scorsese is a master of the compilation soundtrack, working here with Robbie Robertson and Randall Poster. Two key themes stand out: "In the Still of the Night" (a foundation song of doo-wop, written by Fred Parris in 1956, performed by his Five Satins). It contributes a romantic dimension otherwise missing from the narrative. It is also a perfect time machine.

The other one is the harmonica theme written by Jean Wiener for Jacques Becker's Touchez pas a grisbi (1954) released in Germany as Wenn es Nacht wird in Paris. In Germany the tune was turned into a popular song (launched by Caterina Valente) retaining the film's German name. In translation it became a pop hit and evergreen in Finland with the title "Kun yö saapuu Pariisiin", sung by no less than Olavi Virta, without the chilly impact of the original. In Wiener's melody there is an affinity with the "Love Theme from The Godfather" although the sound is different. Robert Robertson's "Theme from The Irishman" is a set of variations of Jean Wiener's tune.

Often Scorsese's soundtrack selections are so overwhelming that I lose focus on the story. This time this happened with two back-to-back songs ("I Hear You Knocking", "The Fat Man") written by Dave Bartholomew who died last June. They are also a Gegenbild, contributing a joy of life otherwise absent from the tale.

I was also moved to hear in JFK's funeral broadcast music the hymn "O God of Loveliness". The tune is the one of "Beautiful Savior" and "Fairest Lord Jesus", also known as "Crusader's Hymn". It comes from Germany, there known as the Evangelical tune to "Schönster Herr Jesu", first printed in 1842 by August Hoffmann von Fallersleben [he who wrote "Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles"] in the collection Schlesische Volkslieder. It became one of the most popular hymns in Nordic countries: "Dejlig er jorden" ["Beautiful Is the Earth"] / "Pilgrimssang" (1850) in Denmark, "Härlig är jorden" (1884) in Sweden and "Maa on niin kaunis" (1887, 1903) in Finnish. Yesterday I sang this hymn in Swedish at Jerker Eriksson's funeral. It is also a beloved Christmas song in Nordic countries.


The performances are great.

Robert De Niro is Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran. His is a story of success by any means necessary, but on the fatal journey to Detroit, when it dawns on him what is expected of him, we witness him innerly crushed in a way from which he never recovers. He is reduced to an empty shell. Coppola's trilogy culminated in Al Pacino's Francis-Baconesque scream of agony in The Godfather Part III. The key image of The Irishman is De Niro's face twisted into a silent pain on his way to the hit. The film ends with Frank asking to "leave the door open a little bit". He has adopted this habit from Jimmy Hoffa. There is a sharp cut to black.

As the critic Veli-Pekka Lehtonen states in Helsingin Sanomat, the door is open, but nobody is coming.

The complex character of Frank Sheeran is De Niro's tour de force. The callous hitman is a warm union organizer. Retaliating a perceived slight to his daughter he is short-tempered, but dealing with mob / union tensions he is the soul of diplomacy for instance in the Don Rickles sequence (Rickles's ethnic slurs about Italians offend Crazy Joe). The mob / union relationships are based on a code of personal loyalty, but the climax of the saga is about a betrayal of friendship. Frank's family ties are distant, but he even sleeps in the same room with Hoffa. The homosocial charge is powerful. Women are supporting characters in a man's world.

Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino is his evil genius, his Mephisto, a mastermind who has it all covered, a friend who is also his worst enemy.

Al Pacino as James Riddle "Jimmy" Hoffa plays the part in a completely different way than Jack Nicholson in Danny DeVito's Hoffa (1992) written by David Mamet. Nicholson portrayed Hoffa as a fearsome, threatening brute. Al Pacino's interpretation is original. He is excellent in Hoffa's public performances and believable as a rousing union leader ("Unity!", "Solidarity!"), loved by the Teamster membership at large. He is both a warm and passionate union man and a hardened Machiavellian, no stranger to coercion, ruthlessly insisting that the Teamsters are "my union". For a Number Two man "you don't want somebody smart". He also maintains that "wise guys don't lead the union" and "nobody threatens Hoffa". "It is what it is", says Frank. "I know what they don't know I know" replies Hoffa. Indeed, after the Hoffa hit everybody in the conspiracy is fatally hurt, landing in jail.

Like in The Godfather trilogy, family matters, especially for the Italians, and Russell Bufalino urges Frank to stay close to the family just like Don Corleone used to say. But in the war Frank has become so brutalized that even his own family fears him. The barometer is Frank's daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin) who senses evil in Russell Bufalino but loves Jimmy Hoffa. After the execution Peggy never talks with her father again.

The film was shot by Rodrigo Prieto with long Steadicam tracking shots typical for Scorsese, using different colour solutions for various periods (from full saturation to bleak visuals), shooting on 35 mm. Primarily designed for Netflix streaming, the digital cinema presentation of The Irishman looks great on the big screen of Bio Rex. The sense of space of this troubling epic comes into its own in the cinema.


* P. S. 9 Dec 2019. In Touchez pas au grisbi it was intriguing to see gangsters in pajamas brushing their teeth. Pajamas appear also in The Irishman.