Tuesday, January 21, 2020

My Top Films of 2019 for Senses of Cinema World Poll


My film of the year: Tottumiskysymys / Force of Habit, a multi-character study with six stories about violence towards women. The most powerful story is Miia Tervo's Oikeudenkäynti / The Trial. It is a sober and realistic account of a rape case at the Helsinki Court House where it is a routine matter, business as usual. There is no melodrama, but this story is the burning heart of the project. It has the impact of a slowly detonating time bomb. The prosecutor Aleksi (Johannes Holopainen) and the victim Niina (Lotta Kaihua). Photo: Johanna Onnismaa © Tuffi Films 2019. Please click on the photo to enlarge it.

Amazing Grace (Alan Elliott, Sydney Pollack, 2018, shot in 1972). The Gospel according to Aretha Franklin, documenting spiritual ecstasy and a moment of crisis in the civil rights movement.

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (Edward Burtynsky, Nicholas De Pencier, Jennifer Baichwal, 2018). A global odyssey about humans changing the face of the Earth and destroying the sublime of the nature.

Dolor y gloria (Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar, 2019). A message from childhood inspires a film director to reassess his life and art. Almodóvar at his most serene and naked.

First Reformed (Paul Schrader, 2017). Arenas are full when Prosperity Gospel is being taught, but nobody listens to a lonely country priest who warns about the destruction of the planet. Schrader at his best.

For Sama (Waad al-Kateab, 2019). An extraordinary first person documentary of a journalist and mother documenting the destruction of Aleppo.

The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, 2019). Scorsese’s best crime film is an epic shadow history of America. There is a French touch in the account of the ageing mobsters. The parallel montage in three time dimensions is brilliant.

Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019). Robin Wood used the term “an incoherent text” to discuss films like Taxi Driver. Joker is disturbing in a similar way. The reboot of Bob Kane’s character also evokes masterpieces of Weimar cinema.

Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, 2019). A Nordic viewer familiar with marriage tragedies by Ibsen, Strindberg and Canth can give Baumbach an approving nod. Nothing is sadder than a marriage inferno.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019). Something new from Tarantino: a portrait of a has-been, with universal appeal as a picture of the world we knew vanishing abruptly. Hollywood 50 years ago is recreated in loving detail.

Sorry We Missed You (Ken Loach, 2019). A film about the gig economy: what happened to society after the 2008 crash. Also a love story about family solidarity. Loach’s talent of observation and crisp storytelling is undiminished.

The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg, 2018). A visual poem, an evocation of mad love inspired by the director’s art school days. An original voice is becoming heard, sensitive to intimate conversations, based on vérité, conveyed via ellipsis.

Systemsprenger (System Crasher, Nora Fingscheidt, 2019). Helena Zengel gives the performance of the year together with Joaquin Phoenix as Joker, both as system crashers. A devastating portrait of a little girl who does not fit in.

Tottumiskysymys (Force of Habit, Kirsikka Saari, Elli Toivoniemi, Reetta Aalto, Alli Haapasalo, Anna Paavilainen, Miia Tervo, Jenni Toivoniemi, 2019). The most epochal movie of the year deals with harassment and violence towards women. I have never before seen a film in which the theme has been treated so comprehensively.

The Two Popes (Fernando Meirelles, 2019). The Church is in crisis and the world is going under. Such epic themes are efficiently dramatized in the screenplay by Anthony McCarten, and Meirelles brings Southern hemisphere passion to the portrait of Pope Francis.

Varda par Agnès (Varda by Agnès, Agnès Varda, 2019). What a way to go! The mother of all new waves, not only in France but everywhere, never lost her youthful zest. She invites us to a walk through her life and oeuvre, her eyes always directed towards the future.

Werk ohne Autor (Never Look Away, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2018). The glossy surface notwithstanding I love this film covering three Germanies, all of which fail colossally to understand art. Kurt’s trajectory goes from “entartete Kunst” to socialist realism to capitalist realism. What remains: a bottomless sadness in his eyes.

Retrospective

Al-ard (The Land, Youssef Chahine, 1969). The masterpiece, often ranked as the best Arab film, now circulating in a new restoration, seen in Bologna.

Le Charme de Maud (René Hervil, 1913). Maud’s charms bring her so much trouble that she must hide them, risking the love of her life. Seen in Pordenone’s “Nasty Women” series.

Chushingura (Makino Shozo, 1910–1917). A 2019 restoration of the classic, seen in Pordenone with Ichiro Kataoka as the benshi and a Japanese trio of musicians.

Crisis: A Film of the “Nazi Way” (Herbert Kline, Hans Burger, Alexander Hackenschmied, 1939). A shattering documentary of the fate of Czechoslovakia after the Munich Agreement. A 2019 restoration seen in Bologna.

Duck Soup (Fred Guiol, 1927). A 2019 restoration-in-progress. They had not been planned as a comedy team, but in front of our very eyes Laurel and Hardy transform into one. Seen in Pordenone.

Ghazieh-e shekl-e avval, ghazieh-e shekl-e dovvom (First Case, Second Case, Abbas Kiarostami, 1979). A 2018 restoration of Kiarostami’s stark lesson in ethics seen in Bologna.

The Great Victorian Moving Picture Show (W. K. L. Dickson, 1896–1902). The 2018 BFI digital restorations of the technically superior Biograph films, four times as large as the standard. Seen in 4K in Kino Regina, Helsinki.

Oblomok imperii (Fragment of an Empire, Friedrich Ermler, 1929). The definitive experience of the classic film: a film concert of the 2018 restoration with the original Vladimir Deshevov score in Pordenone.

Our Hospitality (Buster Keaton, John G. Blystone, 1923). The beautiful 2019 restoration with a Robert Israel score. Seen in Kino Regina, Helsinki.

State Fair (Henry King, 1933). 2019 restoration by 20th Century Fox. A classic piece of Fox Americana that everybody had heard about but few had seen. The subtle masterpiece was a revelation in Bologna’s Henry King retrospective.

Sången om den eldröda blomman (Song of the Scarlet Flower, Mauritz Stiller, 1919). A centenary restoration of a masterpiece of the golden age of Swedish cinema, complete with the original score by Armas Järnefelt. Seen in a film concert at Helsinki Music Center.

Pordenone revelations included new copies of In the Sage Brush Country (1914), The Aryan (1916), The Gun Fighter (1917) and Wolf Lowry (1917) in the William S. Hart retrospective. On display was also an outstanding first sample of documentaries from Musée Albert-Kahn (1914–1925) and an innovative presentation of Flipbooks (1896–1898) on the screen.

Antti Alanen
Helsinki, film programmer, author, critic, historian.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Matthias et Maxime / Matthias and Maxime



Matthias & Maxime / Matthias & Maxime.
    CA © 2019 – 9375 5809 Québec, Inc. Filial of Sons of Manual. P: Xavier Dolan, Nancy Grant. Distributor: Les Films Séville.
    D+SC: Xavier Dolan. Cin: André Turpin – shot on 35 mm, 65 mm and 8 mm – colour – 1,85:1 – released on 35 mm and D-Cinema. PD: Colombe Raby. AD: Claude Tremblay. Set Dec: Pascale Deschênes. Cost: Xavier Dolan, Pierre-Yves Gayraud. Makeup: Edwina Voda. Hair: Marie-Lise Taupier. Special make up effects: Erik Gosselin. SFX: Mario Dumont. VFX: Marc A. Rousseau / Alchemy 24. M: Jean-Michel Blais. S: Sylvain Brassard.
    Équipe sous-marine: Aquamédia.
    M selections include (from Wikipedia): Jean-Michel Blais's piano piece called "Solitude" was inspired, amongst other sources, by Franz Schubert's "Themes and Variations". Notable songs used include "Work Bitch" by Britney Spears, "Cosmic Love" by Florence + The Machine, "J'ai cherché" by Amir Haddad, "Always on My Mind" by Pet Shop Boys, "Stranger's Kiss" by Alex Cameron and Angel Olsen and "Song for Zulu" by Phosphorescent.
    Also: Franz Schubert: Impromptu Op. 90 No. 4 (D. 899/4) in As-Dur / A♭ major (1827). – W. A. Mozart: 40. Sinfonie (1788).
    C: Gabriel D'Almeida Freitas (Matthias), Xavier Dolan (Maxime), Samuel Gauthier (Frank), Adib Alkhalidey (Shariff), Anne Dorval (Manon), Catherine Brunet (Lisa), Pier-Luc Funk (Rivette), Antoine Pilon (Brass), Micheline Bernard (Francine), Marilyn Castonguay (Sarah).
    Loc: Montréal, Québec, Canada.
    Language: French.
    119 min
    Festival premiere: 22 May 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
    Canadian and US premiere: 9 Oct 2029.
    Finnish premiere: 17 Jan 2020 – released by Atlantic Film – Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Tytti Heikkilä / Michaela Palmberg.
    DCP viewed at Kinopalatsi 9, Helsinki, 18 Jan 2020.

Cannes synopsis: "Two childhood best friends are asked to share a kiss for the purposes of a student short film. Soon, a lingering doubt sets in, confronting both men with their preferences, threatening the brotherhood of their social circle, and, eventually, changing their lives."

AA: With Matthias et Maxime, Xavier Dolan has accomplished his eighth film by the age of 29 and managed an international cinema release for them. It is an admirable feat for a director who is uncompromising in his personal and experimental touch.

Matthias et Maxime is a free-wheeling film, a turbulent journey of self-discovery shot in the autumn colours of Montréal. By the finale we see the first snowflakes falling.

The film tells about a group of friends fooling around and trying to find their place in society. Maxime / Max (Xavier Dolan wearing a Gorbachovian facial mark) is "a single son" taking care of his violent and abusive mother who has a substance problem. The film's suspense builds on his impending departure to Australia. Matthias / Matt is at the bottom of the ladder in a company, but there are great expectations and a brilliant future foreseen for him.

Something is halting them, and a freak coincidence sets things in motion. To help their friend Erika Rivette with her student film Max and Matt reluctantly agree to kiss. They are deeply disturbed by the experience. Matt embarks on a dangerous swim across a lake. (He is an excellent swimmer, good at the Australian crawl). Max, quarrelling with his mother, is wounded in the forehead when she hits him with the remote device.

Matt's behaviour spirals out of control. He has a girlfriend who starts to nag. A visiting, openly gay lawyer seems to tune in with him. Matt gives an erratic farewell speech to Max, and Matt's mother lambasts him mercilessly in front of everybody. Both Max and Matt seem to have been raised by mothers, but there is no love lost in their homes.

Max has asked Matt to help get a letter of recommendation from his company, and it turns out that Matt indeed has managed that but failed to forward the letter to Max. Max cries when he learns about this. Meanwhile, they have experienced a coming out moment from which they have shied away. A heavy use of tobacco, alcohol and drugs fuels the overheated ambience. Disco beats, sex club surroundings and Matt's colleague's soliloquys about "us all being animals; we don't possess anyone", meant to contribute to liberation, add to the confusion.

Dolan conveys this with a bold and original approach. The main mode is cinéma-vérité / direct cinema, seemingly random: the weeks before the flight to Australia are seen in lyrical, spontaneous, impressionistic, freely flowing images. The water metaphor is apt, symbolically and literally, and Matt's perilous swimming tour is powerfully visualized by a special Aquamédia unit.

Dolan embraces visual motifs such as road markings flashing by, ubiquitous mobile devices and stroboscopic disco lights.

Matthias et Maxime has been shot on photochemical film. There is a lot of handheld footage, passages in slow motion and time lapse. A frenetic search for pleasure goes on. Desire is abundant. Love is scarce. The more we push ahead the further we return to the past. A childhood drawing reveals Max and Matt sharing a bed and living happily ever after in the countryside. All is set for Max's move to the opposite part of the globe, but a reversal of plans seems increasingly probable. The ending remains open in this aching quest for love and identity.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Helene


Laura Birn (Helene Schjerfbeck), Johannes Holopainen (Einar Reuter). Please click on the images to enlarge them!

Helene. Laura Birn (Helene Schjerfbeck).

Helene. Laura Birn (Helene Schjerfbeck).

Helene. Krista Kosonen (Helena Westermarck).

Helene Schjerfbeck: The Sailor (Einar Reuter) (1918). Oil on canvas 70 x 62,5, signed c.r. HS. Ahtela #502. HS 150 #400. Private Collection. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen. This is a reproduction of the original. In the movie, a variation painted by Anna Retulainen is seen.

Helene.
    FI © 2020 Finland Cinematic Oy. P: Mikko Tenhunen, Antti J. Jokinen. Assoc P: Evelin Penttilä. EX: Mikko Kodisoja, Tom Fanning.
    D: Antti J. Jokinen. SC: Antti J. Jokinen, Marko Leino – based on the novel (2003) by Rakel Liehu. DP: Rauno Ronkainen F.S.C. – colour – scope. PD: Jaagup Roomet. Cost: Eugen Tamberg. Makeup: Kaire Hendrikson. M+S: Kirka Sainio. ED: Benjamin Mercer F.C.E.
    Paintings by Helene Schjerfbeck and four variations of Schjerfbeck's works by Anna Retulainen.
    M selections include Bach, Debussy, Merikanto, Satie, Vivaldi.
    C: Laura Birn (Helene Schjerfbeck), Johannes Holopainen (Einar Reuter), Krista Kosonen (Helena Westermarck), Pirkko Saisio (Olga Schjerfbeck), Eero Aho (Magnus Schjerfbeck), Jarkko Lahti (Gösta Stenman), Saana Koivisto (Tyra Arp).
    Loc: Finland (Helsinki), Estonia.
    In Finnish.
    122 min
    Premiere: 17 Jan 2020 – distributed by Oy Nordisk Film Ab – Swedish subtitles by Heidi Nyblom Kuorikoski.
    DCP viewed at Tennispalatsi 2, Helsinki, 17 Jan 2020.

An extraordinary performance by Laura Birn in the leading role carries Antti J. Jokinen's movie about Helene Schjerfbeck (1862–1946), one of the greatest Nordic painters of all times. Schjerfbeck's most unique achievement was a cycle of devastating self-portraits created during seven decades (1884–1945). Inspired by them Laura Birn takes us on a subtle psychological journey.

She is often seen in close-up and extreme close-up in a way that invites comparison with Ingmar Bergman's work with Liv Ullmann. Birn's is an interpretation rich in nuance, emotion, intelligence, inspiration, sadness, longing, frustration and aggression. Helene's heart has been broken many times, and she has learned to become "hard and clear like metal". Her words are harsh but her gaze is deep.

Schjerfbeck lives in a world of discrimination against women, but she is always confident and inner-directed. She does not want to be labelled as a "woman artist" but artist, period. Already in the 1880s Schjerfbeck displayed genius in abstraction and explorations beyond realism, but she was too much ahead of her time in provincial Finland, and when we meet her in this film, which conveys the period of 1915–1925, she has become a recluse in the towns of Hyvinkää and Tammisaari.

In these very years she finds indefatigable friends and supporters: the art dealer Gösta Stenman and the collector and admirer Einar Reuter who writes the first biography about her. They draw her to recognition and admiration on a permanent and lasting basis. She has always been a seer. Now she is being seen. This is the drama of the movie, based on a novel by the poet Rakel Liehu, devised as a monologue intérieur of the painter.

The cinematographer Rauno Ronkainen succeeds wonderfully in creating a colour vision in synch with Schjerfbeck's idiosyncractic palette: "ochre, cobalt blue and coal black" quoted in the dialogue, not forgetting zinc, vermilion and sienna. "Viridian brings a beautiful glow on the skin". Watching the movie on the scope screen of the cinema we enter the world of Helene Schjerfbeck. It can be seen as a suite of essays on light. Mirror reflections are a central motif.

Reportedly 150 works by Schjerfbeck are on display (from a total oeuvre of some 1000). Four paintings are not seen in originals but in fascinating recreations by the artist Anna Retulainen. They are not certified copies (copies conformes) but subtle variations faithful to the originals. Laura Birn learned to paint for the role, and the movie is rewarding for connoisseurs and professionals of the art scene.

"All artists are sad", states Schjerfbeck, but she has sisters in art such as Maria Wiik, and most importantly Helena Westermarck (Krista Kosonen), a fighter for women's rights (and sister of the progressive sociologist Edvard Westermarck). Helene's next of kin brings her nothing but grief. Her mother Olga (a strong performance by Pirkko Saisio) and brother Magnus (Eero Aho) fail to understand and support her. The lifelong friendship between the two Helenas is the warmest emotional bond of the movie conveyed by Birn and Kosonen in a way that again invites comparison with Bergman.

This is a women's film, but the main plot is about the friendship between Schjerfbeck and Reuter. Reuter and Stenman were the first to recognize Schjerfbeck's achievement in world art. They were her soul brothers. Reuter also became a personal friend, and they shared a passion of painting and art. For Helene the relationship meant even more, but it remained a one-sided love affair. Reuter married another woman and became a father of four children, yet his friendship with Schjerfbeck lasted to the end of her life. She was 19 years older and had had a painting of hers purchased to the Finnish National Gallery before Einar was born.

The male performances are of weaker wattage. Perhaps the film has been tuned intentionally in this way. The presence of Johannes Holopainen as Einar is so distant and laid back that the main relationship never feels as engrossing as we are supposed to think. Even so the reverent friendship is different and unique and a refreshing exception to biopic clichés.

Helene is a welcome entry to the roster of Finnish female biopics among which we have seen in recent years films about Aila Meriluoto, Hella Wuolijoki and Armi Ratia. The film is in Finnish although all characters in reality spoke Swedish. In performing arts since the classical antiquity liberties like this have always been taken for practical reasons. The atmosphere of contemplation is refreshing, but there are needless longueurs, and the film might benefit from pruning twenty minutes. Helene is a quality film, a prestige film and a heritage film, but it transcends the superficial expectations of such categories.

Helene Schjerfbeck was a passionate artist and a stranger in her own exhibitions. Already in the period depicted she stated that she has moved beyond realism long ago. In her haunting self-portraits she even moved beyond identity, towards a transcendence of a unique kind. This film helps convey the cosmic solitude of hers.

On her long trajectory she achieved mastery in completely different idioms. Her early vibrant realism of the 1880s and the 1890s is easy to love, and the radical austerity of her 1940s strikes us as timeless. In between it is complicated. Sometimes, as in certain works recreated in this film, the form and the composition may seem unrewarding, but the viewer is recommended to conduct a "forward tracking movement" to the point of examining brushstrokes. At that point secret gardens, bordering on the abstract, emerge. The thrill of the middle periods lies in surprising revelations like this. Somehow, in Helene the movie, although the paintings are blown up to fill a scope screen, I often fail to discover brushstrokes. They can be examined in the internet in excellent digital reproductions legally online.

I have been a fan of movies on artists since I saw as a child Renato Castellani's La vita di Leonardo da Vinci. Excellent documentary series of artists have been made by Hans Cürlis, Luciano Emmer and Alain Resnais. But also many fictional films have great value, including those by Kenji Mizoguchi (on Utamaro), Vincente Minnelli (on Van Gogh), Andrei Tarkovsky (Andrei Rublev) and Mike Leigh (on Turner). There is something stilted in Helene, but a profound current is alive in it that feels true to the great artist. Helene is a distinguished entry to films about artists.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Alice in Wonderland (Jonathan Miller, 1966)


Alice in Wonderland (Jonathan Miller, BBC, 1966). Peter Sellers, Anne-Marie Mallik, Alison Leggatt, Wilfrid Brambell.

GB 1966. PC: BBC.
    P+D+SC: Jonathan Miller – based on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll. DP: Dick Bush – 35 mm – b&w – 1,33:1. PD: Julia Trevelyan Oman. Cost: Kenneth Morey. Makeup: Elleen Mair. Title designer: Jean Braid – based on original drawings by Lewis Carroll. M: Ravi Shankar – perf. Ravi Shankar (sitar) and Leon Goossens (oboe). S: John Murphy. ED: Pam Bosworth. Assistants to director: Sheila Lally, Fraser Lowden, Tony Palmer.
    C: Ann-Marie Mallik (Alice), Freda Dowie (nurse), Jo Maxwell-Muller (Alice's sister), Wilfrid Brambell (White Rabbit), Alan Bennett (Mouse), Finlay Currie (Dodo), Geoffrey Dunn), Lory), Mark Allington (Duck), Nicholas Evans (Eaglet), Julian Jebb (young Crab), Michael Redgrave (Caterpillar), John Bird (Frog footman), Tony Trent (Fish footman), Leo McKern (Duchess), Avril Elgar (Peppercook), Peter Cook (Mad Hatter), Michael Gough (March Hare), Wilfred Lawson (Dormouse), Gordon Gostelow (1st Gardener), Tony Trent (2nd Gardener), Peter Eyre (Knave of Hearts), Alison Leggatt (Queen of Hearts), Peter Sellers (King of Hearts), John Gielgud (Mock Turtle), Malcolm Muggeridge (Gryphon), David Battley (Executioner), Charles Lewson (Foreman of the Jury).
    Primrose (n.c.) (Cheshire Cat).
    Loc: Rousham House and Gardens, Rousham, Bicester, Oxfordshire, England, UK. "Interiors were shot at Netley Hospital (Royal Victoria Military Hospital, the world's longest building at the time it was completed), a mid-19th century building that was demolished not long after the film was made". "The courtroom scene was shot at the BBC's Ealing Studios and involved the building of the largest set that Stage 2 at Ealing had ever seen". (Wikipedia). – Sir John Soane's cabinet-of-curiosities museum.
    73 min at 25 fps
    tx. 28 Dec 1966.
    In memoriam Jonathan Miller (1934–2019), recommended by a friend.
    A suite of four Vimeo links viewed on the television screen at home, Helsinki, 11 Jan 2020.

AA: I saw for the first time this extraordinary Lewis Carroll interpretation by Jonathan Miller. It is not a children's film but there is nothing unsuitable in it for children, either. The production design and costumes are not far from realism in this reconstruction of the Victorian era. This is the most sober Carroll adaptation ever, yet with an original approach to the uncanny.

There is a firm sense of place in the location shooting, and the feeling for nature on a summer's day is enchanting. Two young sisters take a walk and fall asleep in the meadow. In her dream Alice enters adventures in Wonderland. In this interpretation Lewis Carroll's characters are eccentric but not outlandish fantasy creatures. Even Cheshire Cat is played by a real cat, and the grin in the sky is a superimposition of the cat's head.

The cast is a roll of honour of many of Britain's best actors (Redgrave, Gielgud, Sellers... ), and although they are not incredible fairy-tale figures, at times I was thinking that "too much of the good thing" is possible even in this approach to eccentricism. Where there is no normality, nothing is surprising, but passages in the forest and the seaside help keep a sense of balance. Also Alice herself is well cast with Ann-Marie Mallik in her only film role. She is a center of sanity in the topsy-turvy dreamworld. Again, thoughts inevitably wander to the Carrollian spectacle of Brexit that the United Kingdom has been going through since 2016.

The brilliant cinematography is by Dick Bush for whom Alice in Wonderland was an early assignment although he had already been noted for his work for Peter Watkins and Ken Russell. Jonathan Miller and Dick Bush create magic from reality: from the forest, the meadow, and the seashore, and the large dilapilated building (Netley Hospital).

The mise-en-scène is based on a composition in depth. The camera is often on the move, there are long takes and some well-judged effects such as moments in slow motion, distorted lenses, and direct camera looks. During a forest trek the mobile camera manages a circling 360 degree motion. Carroll's shrinking and growing effects are conveyed with the camera which is at times handheld, and sometimes located on treetops.

Let's also note that Carroll's "through the looking glass" imagery fits perfectly with Miller's obsession with mirror and reflections.

It all adds to the dream mode. Alice in Wonderland is a dream play and a fairy-tale film, but the emphasis is on the lyrical, the personal, the subjective and the chamber play. The dialogue is sometimes reduced to a whisper, with an approach of an inner monologue.

The music is by Ravi Shankar who had became famous for film lovers with Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy. In 1965 the psychedelic rock of the Byrds was being influenced by Shankar and John Coltrane, and Lewis Carroll's books were favourites of LSD trippers (Jefferson Airplane released "White Rabbit" in 1967). The choice of Shankar to compose the film was imaginative and successful.

Lewis Carroll's books have been popular with film-makers since early cinema: Alice in Wonderland (GB 1903, Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow) and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (US 1910, Edwin S. Porter) were among the first prominent interpretations. The first prominent sound adaptation was Paramount's all-star Alice in Wonderland (US 1933, Norman Z. McLeod, with W. C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty). The most beloved interpretation is of course Walt Disney's animation Alice in Wonderland (US 1951). Carroll's true kindred souls include Jan Švankmajer (Něco z Alenky / Alice, CZ 1988) and Tim Burton (Alice in Wonderland, US 2010).

Even the best adaptations suffer somewhat from "too much of the good thing". Jonathan Miller's strength is his fresh and subtle emphasis on realism. At the same time he has a genuine sense of the uncanny, the elusive quality that Freud called das Unheimliche, and that in the French tradition of the cinéfantastique is known as the insolite.

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Whistle and I'll Come To You (1968)


Whistle and I'll Come To You (1968) starring Sir Michael Hordern as the Professor.

GB 1968. PC: BBC.
    P+D+SC: Jonathan Miller – based on the short story "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904) by M. R. James. DP: Dick Bush – 16 mm – 1:1,33 – b&w. PD: Judy Steele. Cost: Ken Morey. Make-up: Eileen Mair. S: Ron Hooper, John Ramsay. ED: Pam Bosworth. Assistants to the Director: Sheila Lally, Paul Stone.
    C: Michael Hordern (traveller, Professor), Ambrose Coghill (Colonel), George Woodbridge (hotel proprietor), Nora Gordon (proprietess), Freda Dowie (maid).
    For Omnibus, BBC1, tx. 7/5/1968
    42 min
    In memoriam Jonathan Miller (1934–2019), recommended by a valued friend.
    Viewed on television from YouTube, 9 Jan 2020.

Wikipedia synopsis: "The story tells the tale of an introverted academic who happens upon a strange whistle while exploring a Knights Templar cemetery on the East Anglian coast. When blown, the whistle unleashes a supernatural force that terrorises its discoverer."

AA: I saw for the first time the acclaimed Whistle and I'll Come To You made by Jonathan Miller for the BBC. Sir Jonathan Miller who died last autumn was a great British theatre, opera and television director, excelling in drama (Shakespeare, Verdi) and comedy (Beyond the Fringe), and among many other things also a distinguished author.

One of Miller's books is On Reflection (1998), a study on mirrors. Mirrors and reflections are prominent also in Whistle and I'll Come To You. Together with his cinematographer Dick Bush Miller conveys M. R. James's ghost story in purely visual terms. The vision is based on a composition in depth, and mirrors add an extra dimension. Surprising camera movements and angles add to intensity.

From the ordinary Miller creates something extraordinary. Sounds are used creatively. The wind is a key element in the coastside guesthouse in Norfolk. We can understand how the professor starts to sense that there is an alien presence in the room, evoked by the old whistle he has picked from the embankment of the Knights Templar cemetery. Its Latin inscription means: "Who is this who is coming?".

The main narrative itself has a nightmare approach, but in addition there are dreams within the story. Dreams in films are usually not particularly convincing. In this film they are even more reduced than the main story but genuinely compelling.

Hamlet's lines "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" are familiar in horror fiction from Frankenstein till Lovecraft, and they are also quoted in this film.

Whistle and I'll Come To You belongs to a distinguished lineage that started in the 1940s in subtle horror films such as Dead of Night and The Seventh Victim. Jacques Tourneur revived the Val Lewton legacy in Britain in the most prominent M. R. James film adaptation, The Curse of the Demon, based on Casting the Runes.

But I was also thinking about Roman Polanski (Repulsion) and moments in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and his performance in the Psycho maxi trailer. In Michael Horden's excellent performance there are even affinities with Jacques Tati and Les Vacances de M. Hulot.

The tradition to which Whistle and I'll Come To You belongs has been recently revived in new wave horror films such as A Ghost Story and Hereditary.

The film is based on a story by M. R. James, but the film also brings to mind the ghost stories of another James – Henry James (The Turn of the Screw, The Jolly Corner).

This is the first film that I have viewed from YouTube on a television screen. Looks good.

Saturday, January 04, 2020

Cats



Cats / Cats.
    GB / US © 2019 Universal Pictures / The Really Useful Group / Perfect World Pictures. P: Debra Hayward, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Tom Hooper. EX: Andrew Lloyd Webber, Steven Spielberg, Angela Morrison, Jo Burn.
    D: Tom Hooper. SC: Lee Hall, Tom Hooper – based on the stage musical (1981) by Andrew Lloyd Webber – based on T. S. Eliot: Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939, in Finnish: Kissojen kielen kompasanakirja, 2018, Jaakko Yli-Juonikas / Otava). Choreography: Andy Blankenbuehler.
    DP: Christopher Ross – colour – 2,39:1 – source format: ARRIRAW 6.5 K – master format: digital intermediate 2K – release format: D-Cinema. PD: Eve Stewart. AD: Tom Weaving. Set dec: Rebecca Pilkington. Cost: Paco Delgado. Makeup: Nuria Mbomio, Niamh O'Loan. VFX: Mill Film / MPC / Lola. M: Andrew Lloyd Webber. S: John Warhurst. ED: Melanie Oliver. Casting: Lucy Bevan. Cast (from Wikipedia):
    James Corden as Bustopher Jones
    Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy
    Jason Derulo as Rum Tum Tugger
    Idris Elba as Macavity the Mystery Cat
    Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella the Glamour Cat
    Ian McKellen as Gus "Asparagus" the Theatre Cat
    Taylor Swift as Bombalurina
    Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots the Gumbie Cat
    Francesca Hayward as Victoria the White Cat
    Laurie Davidson as Mr. Mistoffelees
    Robbie Fairchild as Munkustrap
    Mette Towley as Cassandra
    Steven McRae as Skimbleshanks
    Danny Collins as Mungojerrie
    Naoimh Morgan as Rumpleteazer
    Ray Winstone as Growltiger
    Les Twins as Plato and Socrates
    Jaih Betote as Coricopat
    Jonadette Carpio as Jemima
    Daniela Norman as Demeter
    Bluey Robinson as Alonzo
    Freya Rowley as Jellylorum
    Ida Saki as Electra
    Zizi Strallen as Tantomile]
    Eric Underwood as Admetus
Musical numbers (from Wikipedia) (there is no song listing in the movie):
– "Overture" / "Prologue: Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats" – Orchestra/Company
– "The Naming of Cats" / "The Invitation to the Jellicle Ball" – Munkunstrap, Victoria (choreography), Mr. Mistoffelees & Company
– "Jennyanydots: The Old Gumbie Cat" – Jennyanydots, Munkustrap & Company
– "The Rum Tum Tugger" – Rum Tum Tugger, Jennyanydots & Company
– "Grizabella: The Glamour Cat" – Grizabella, Cassandra, Demeter & Company
– "Bustopher Jones: The Cat About Town" – Bustopher & Company
– "Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer" – Mungojerrie, Rumpleteazer & Victoria
– "Old Deuteronomy" – Munkustrap, Old Deuteronomy & Company
– "Growltiger's Last Stand" – Growltiger & Bustopher Jones (dialogue)
– "The Jellicle Ball" – Company
– "Memory (Prelude)" / "Beautiful Ghosts" " – Grizabella & Victoria
– "The Moments of Happiness" – Old Deuteronomy
– "Gus: The Theatre Cat" – Gus
– "Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat" – Skimbleshanks & Company
– "Macavity: The Mystery Cat" – Bombalurina, Macavity, Macavity Girls & Company
– "Mr. Mistoffelees" – Mistoffelees, Munkustrap & Company
– "Memory" – Grizabella & Victoria
– "Beautiful Ghosts (Reprise)" - Victoria, Old Deuteronomy & Grizabella
– "The Journey to the Heaviside Layer" – Company
– "Finale: The Ad-Dressing of Cats" – Old Deuteronomy & Company
    109 min
    Gala premiere: 16 Dec 2019 Alice Tully Hall.
    UK and US premieres: 20 Dec 2019.
    Finnish premiere: 3 Jan 2020 – released by Finnkino Oy – Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Outi Kainulainen / Joanna Erkkilä.
    DCP viewed at Tennispalatsi 10, Helsinki, 4 Jan 2020.

Official synopsis: "Oscar®-winning director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables, The Danish Girl) transforms Andrew Lloyd Webber’s record-shattering stage musical into a breakthrough cinematic event."

"Cats stars James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson and introduces Royal Ballet principal dancer Francesca Hayward in her feature film debut."

"Featuring Lloyd Webber’s iconic music and a world-class cast of dancers under the guidance of Tony-winning choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton, In the Heights), the film reimagines the musical for a new generation with spectacular production design, state-of-the-art technology, and dance styles ranging from classical ballet to contemporary, hip-hop to jazz, street dance to tap."

"The film also stars Robbie Fairchild (Broadway’s An American in Paris), Laurie Davidson (TNT’s Will), hip-hop dance sensation Les Twins (Larry and Laurent Bourgeois), acclaimed dancer Mette Towley (featured in videos for Rihanna and Pharrell Williams’ N.E.R.D.), Royal Ballet principal dancer Steven McRae, and rising-star singer Bluey Robinson."

"Universal Pictures presents a Working Title Films and Amblin Entertainment production, in association with Monumental Pictures and The Really Useful Group. Cats is produced by Debra Hayward, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Tom Hooper. The screenplay is by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, Rocketman) and Hooper, based on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot and the stage musical by Lloyd Webber. Cats is executive produced by Lloyd Webber, Steven Spielberg, Angela Morrison and Jo Burn."

"One of the longest-running shows in West End and Broadway history, the stage musical “Cats” received its world premiere at the New London Theatre in 1981, where it played for 21 years and earned the Olivier and Evening Standard Awards for Best Musical. In 1983, the Broadway production became the recipient of seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and ran for an extraordinary 18 years. Since opening in London in 1981, “Cats” has continuously appeared on stage around the globe, to date having played to 81 million people in more than fifty countries and in nineteen languages. It is one of the most successful musicals of all time.
" (Official synopsis)

AA: I was positively surprised by Cats. I was not looking forward to it, having been bored by the previous Andrew Lloyd Webber film adaptations Evita (1996) and The Phantom of the Opera (2004).

I'm a lover of film musicals and hard to please. To me the golden age of film musicals ended in the 1950s when specialized musical units of the Hollywood studios closed. But there have been exceptions, most prominently Jacques Demy's cycle of five musicals based on the verismo approach.

Also Cats belongs to the best musicals but in contrast to Demy's verismo it is driven by dream, fantasy and magic. Cats is a magnificent mind trip about rejection and community, solitude and belonging, difference and identity. I like its feeling of meditation and longing, introspection and self-searching. It is a journey into the night, into the unconscious. It is also about the experience of: "I once was lost, now I am found". There is an affinity with some of the reveries by Vincente Minnelli which were produced, incredibly enough, in the heart of MGM.

Cats could have been produced as a straight ballet or animation. The controversial and experimental solution was to interpret it as digitally altered live action. Comparisons can include anything from Polar Express and Avatar to The Irishman.

Like in The Irishman, the uncanny valley of digitally animated live action makes everything strange. In The Irishman mobsters turned into alien monsters. In Cats the characters are extraterrestrial creatures like in Avatar. Neither here nor there, neither human nor animal, they are cinematic chimeras. They are transformers, trespassers, interlopers, new kinds of dream figures. They are strange and haunting. For a while I was also thinking about the Panther Woman in Island of Lost Souls (1932, based on H. G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau), Cat People and Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in Batman Returns.

Cats are cinematic. They are rewarding for animation. Felix the Cat by Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer was one of the cinema's first animated series. The first film in the series was called "Feline Follies". With its pleasingly round forms and figures Felix was an obvious predecessor and model for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Mickey Mouse. The most popular animated feline character is probably Pink Panther. Not forgetting Tigger by A. A. Milne.

In this movie cats are played by people who are naked and fur-covered. The movements are sinuous, slithery and sensuous. The ballerinas wear no tutus, the male dancers no dance belts (thongs). Groins are exposed but genitals are absent. In this sense the characters are like children's dolls. They are both sexual (in movement) and asexual (in appearance). They are sensual eunuchs. We find ourselves in a "doubly uncanny valley".

I have not read T. S. Eliot's "practical cats" poems, but I register the rich and literate quality of the dialogue and lyrics. In this musical Andrew Lloyd Webber is at his best. With effortless flair Cats takes off into the faraway galaxies and milky ways of musical theatre dreamworlds. The actors, dancers and singers are great, and the choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler is marvellous. Tom Hooper has an assured touch in keeping the esoteric dream spheres in constant enchanting movement.

I like this film very much but I have also misgivings. As for musical production numbers, especially dance solos, I prefer the montage interdit, the plan-séquence. When the dancer is great I want to see her/him in long shot and long take. The art of the dance is watered down by fast edit. Perhaps we are being prevented in lingering too long with uncanny views. But the impact of great performances is diminished.

There is a charming new song, "Beautiful Ghosts" (2019), written for the movie by Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd Webber, sung first by Francesca Hayward as Victoria and during the end credits by Swift herself. It develops the themes of "Memory", the most famous tune of the musical. There is something intriguingly melancholy and Minnellian in it.

Friday, January 03, 2020

Teräsleidit



Stålsystrarna.
    FI © 2020 Helsinki-filmi. P: Aleksi Bardy, Dome Karukoski, Sirkka Rautiainen.
    D: Pamela Tola. SC: Pamela Tola, Aleksi Bardy. DP: Päivi Kettunen. PD: Heini Erving. Cost: Tiina Kaukanen. Makeup: Riikka Virtanen. M: Panu Aaltio. S: Panu Riikonen. ED: Antti Reikko.
    Music in the disco: "Million alyh roz" ("Dāvāja Māriņa", comp. Raimonds Pauls, lyr. Leons Briedis, in Russian Andrei Voznesensky). "Lennän" (comp. Panu Aaltio, lyr. Ilona Chevakova, Pamela Tola). "Musta enkeli" (comp. Panu Aaltio, lyr. Pamela Tola), perf. Ilona Chevakova.
    "Nälkämaan laulu" (comp. Oskar Merikanto, lyr. Ilmari Kianto).
    Original song: "Hei sisko" by Maija Vilkkumaa.
    C: Leena Uotila (Inkeri), Seela Sella (Raili), Saara Pakkasvirta (Sylvi), Heikki Nousiainen (Tapio), Pirjo Lonka (Maija), Jani Volanen (Ville), Samuli Niittymäki (Jarkko), Linnea Skog (Rosa), Mio tola (Roni), Juhani Niemelä (Eino), Rea Mauranen (Hannele), Lauri Tilkanen (teller), Jussi Sorjanen (university functionary), Anna Paavilainen (Taika, university professor), Eero Herranen (Eero, student), Karim Rapatti (Karim, student), Eeva Muttonen (Eeva, student), Janne Saarinen (Janne, student), Markku Haussila (Markku, student), Yasmine Yamajako (Yasmine, student), Anna-Leena Härkönen (car repair person), Ilona Chevakova (Natasha), Pamela Tola (airport attendant), Marja Salo (nurse).
    Loc: Helsinki metropolitan area and North Karelia.
    92 min
    Premiere: 3 Jan 2020 – distributor: SF Studios – Swedish subtitles: Frej Grönholm.
    DCP viewed at Kinopalatsi 5, Helsinki, 3 Jan 2020.

"Go when it is already too late."
– Tagline.

According to the press release, Teräsleidit [Iron Ladies] is a road movie in which age is hardly even a number. Along the many twists in the road both the past and the future are reconfigured, as well as family and private affairs.

AA: Pamela Tola's Teräsleidit is a character-driven farce where three divas of the Finnish stage relish an opportunity to act badly. The farce is based on the concept of ladies of a venerable age behaving like spoiled brats. The dialogue is sharp and the performances are great.

"Nasty Women" is a series of early slapstick films curated by Maggie Hennefeld and Laura Horak for Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, featuring Léontine, Zoé, Rosalie, Cunégonde and other heroines of catastrophe comedies from the 1910s. The wild and reckless legacy lives on in Teräsleidit.

It's a female road movie like Elma & Liisa (2011) directed by Pamela Tola together with Pihla Viitala in homage to Thelma & Louise. That film also brought to mind Sedmikrásky / Daisies, Boys on the Side, and other "women on the road" movies. The basic premise of Y tu mamá también / And Your Mother Too was also parodied (Elma and Liisa stated that they were on their final journey with only months to live). Finnish points of reference might include Neitoperho / The Collector and Taulukauppiaat / The Painting Sellers. Elma & Liisa was quite original, though.

Elma & Liisa was about a road to nowhere, a desperate, potentially final quest. Elma and Liisa  commit fraud. They harass, steal, rob and kill and plan to kill more. The feeling of violence, depression and self-destruction was overwhelming.

A touch of that feeling lingers even in Teräsleidit. All three ladies have murder in mind, and Raili (Seela Sella) does not seem to be joking when she boasts of having killed all five of her husbands. "All were healthy before they met me".

But the genre and the approach are totally different now, perhaps reminiscent of the popular Luokkakokous series based on a Danish original about three men's road trip to a class reunion. Teräsleidit is a gross-out slapstick farce with foul language, vomiting, bared bottoms, men beaten unconscious with a frying pan and creamcake smearings.

What is different and unusual is the fact that the protagonists are old ladies, one of them, Sylvi (Saara Pakkasvirta) even suffering from memory disorder. Nevertheless she is the wildest one. When she has a drop of alcohol, an irrepressible sex urge is released.

The main protagonist is Inkeri (Leena Uotila) who needs to reconstruct her life and collect evidence of her whole trajectory before facing a trial having killed her husband, as she believes. For her the road trip is also a memory journey. She returns to her past as a student radical ("the free girl"), her interrupted academic studies, her unfinished manuscript for a novel. Back home in Northern Karelia she revisits, after half a century, her flame of youth, now a frail hippie. Together they visit the sauna.

Meanwhile Inkeri's overbearing daughter Maija (Pirjo Lonka) is busy arranging a 75th anniversary surprise party for her mother who has no interest in any such thing. The party turns into a catastrophe with stilted speeches and sing-alongs which nobody joins (people cannot sing anymore nor do they know lyrics). There is a quiz show for the parents which they sabotage in the rudest manner, even expressing regret of ever having married and gotten children. The daughter has a nervous breakdown and starts to demolish the party service. The anthem of the province of Kainuu, "Nälkämaan laulu" ["The Song of the Land of Hunger"] is sung.

Beyond the violent and farcical dimensions there is a dimension of self-searching. The question lingers whether Inkeri, the former student radical, has been reduced to submission and an unlived life next to a domineering husband, Tapio (Heikki Nousiainen). Tapio confesses having been a monster: selfish and grotesque. But Inkeri denies having been victimized and admits responsibility for everything. Nevertheless, Tapio kneels and proposes again in Inkeri's anniversary party.

Memory plays tricks, and this is the source of some of the most original comedy in Teräsleidit. "I do know my own life", exclaims Inkeri, but she keeps being surprised by what she has forgotten or repressed. Sylvi, the victim of a memory disorder, seems the happiest. Raili, the lawyer whose memory is impeccable, is the most heartless. "Marriage: first we fuck like rabbits, then it's all horrible." But Raili also admits that it is she who has been horrible. "I never loved anybody".

The original score by Panu Aaltio is brisk and appealing as are his songs in the disco sequence. I like films where the director composes lyrics to songs like here. During the end credits a new song written by Maija Vilkkumaa for this film is heard.

Slapstick is a difficult style. It works best in short films. In features it's tricky. Three cheers for Pamela Tola for going against the grain in this wild and comic film of hers.

BEYOND THE JUMP BREAK: OFFICIAL PRESS INFO: