2014 in Movies, First Quarter

The title is a bit of a cheat, since none of the movies I’m about to mention were released in 2014.

laitakaupunginvalotLaitakaupungin valot (Lights in the Dusk, Aki Kaurismäki, 2006)

If you’re familiar with Mr. Kaurismäki’s output, you’ll be right at home with the conclusion of his “Helsinki Trilogy” – the two previous parts being Kauas pilvet karkaavat (Drifting Clouds, 1996) and Mies vailla menneisyyttä (The Man Without a Past, 2002). A Kaurismäki virgin would do well by starting somewhere (anywhere?) else, as Laitakaupungin valot almost feels like self-parody at times. Kaurismäki is no stranger (sic) to existentialist themes, but here he has basically re-imagined Camus’s “L’étranger” in Helsinki. Janne Hyytiäinen does a decent job as Koistinen, although it is quite evident he is no Matti Pellonpää, who no doubt would have been cast as Koistinen back in the day.

Helsinki aficionados will no doubt enjoy identifying some of the more curious location choices, such as the apartments of both Koistinen and his archnemesis. Hint: most of the movie was shot (beautifully, I might add, by Timo Salminen, who has been working with Kaurismäki since 1981) in the Ruoholahti area.

kirikou

Kirikou ja viidakon eläimet (Kirikou et les bêtes sauvages, and , 2005)

Kirikou is proof that not all animated movies made for the pre-school demographic have to be cloyingly saccharine. Apparently Kirikou’s US release was delayed by years because the director didn’t think covering up all the breasts (see illustration) would do justice to the film. Good onya, mr. French animated film director!

Kirikou et les bêtes sauvages is the sequel to Kirikou et la sorcière (1998); not having seen the first movie is not a major impediment to enjoying the second installment, but it would probably help to know a bit of the backstory, since otherwise (spoiler alert!) a newborn outrunning a hyena can be a bit of a stretch.

The story runs in four parts, each being an episode in which Kirikou saves the day in various contexts while dodging the “fetishes” (wooden idols controlled by the evil witch Karaba) and trying his hand at farming, pharmacy, camouflage and what have you. I was amused by the not-infrequent parallels with the legend of The Smurfs, but that might just be because I’m easily amused.

uuno

Uuno Turhapuro (1973); Häpy Endkö? Eli kuinka Uuno Turhapuro sai niin kauniin ja rikkaan vaimon (1977);
Uuno Turhapuro menettää muistinsa (1982); Uuno Turhapuron muisti palailee pätkittäin (1983)

Four down – fourteen to go. Forget Homer Simpson, Uuno Turhapuro was Homer when Matt Groening was still in diapers. Well, maybe not, considering Mr. Groening was 19 when the first Uuno movie came out, but you get my drift. The success of the first movie took the movie makers by surprise, but they didn’t let themselves be awed for too long – after all, they had movie history to make. The longest running franchise in the history of Finnish cinema, 18 installments of the Uuno Turhapuro saga (the final one was released in 2006, 33 years after the first one) guarantee Uuno’s place as one of if not the most recognized hero (or anti-hero, as the case may be) in Finnish popular culture.

Uuno is extremely resourceful in coming up with ways to get others to do his bidding, so that he can concentrate on the good things in life – eating and sleeping, mainly. Indeed, the first scene of the first movie is set in a church, where Uuno is getting married to Elisabeth, who comes from a wealthy family, and the dialogue goes like this: “I now pronounce you man and wife”, says the priest. “Is it… is it all done now?” says Uuno. “Yes”, says the priest, upon which Uuno turns to the congregation and says: “See Dad, I did get to marry rich!” Cue opening credits.

Even if Uuno is married, he’s definitely not dead, as evidenced by his incessant flirting with members of the fairer sex. Strangely, even though women seem to agree that he is by far the most charming man ever to walk the Earth, his flirting doesn’t amount to much in the end, and he ends up staying with Elisabeth – much to the chagrin of Elisabeth’s wealthy dad.

All the Uuno movies (the early black&white ones, at any rate) have their funny moments, but there is a lot of filler as well. The comedy is mainly in the performance of the actors, who are for the most part incredibly well cast; Vesa-Matti Loiri is of course brilliant as Uuno (and apparently improvised most of his lines), but the rest of the cast, once they found the perfect actors (Elisabeth’s parents were played by different actors in the first few movies) have also really internalized their roles. Best watched with a 7 year old, which is what I did.

The BirdsThe Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

As far as I remember, I had not actually seen The Birds before. (I also haven’t seen Rear Window yet.) First impression: beautiful cinematography juxtaposed with a silly, almost non-existent plot. Is The Birds really the masterpiece of modern cinema it is made out to be? After all, lots of people seem to really like it. Maybe I need to reserve my judgement until a repeat viewing. The special effects are nothing to write home about (not really a problem), but some of the scenes with the birds gathering are indeed quite creepy, even when nothing actually happens.

The Moomins and the Great Flood of Moomin Mugs

Investopedia defines “speculative bubble” as “usually caused by exaggerated expectations of future growth, price appreciation, or other events that could cause an increase in asset values” and notes that this “drives trading volumes higher, and as more investors rally around the heightened expectation, buyers outnumber sellers, pushing prices beyond what an objective analysis of intrinsic value would suggest.”

Moomintroll mug.

Moomin mug. The author of this blog emphatically denies having modeled for the illustration.

Helsingin Sanomat has recently decided to blow up one special asset bubble, namely that of Moomin mugs. In case you’re not familiar with this particular investment vehicle, Moomin mugs are coffee mugs adorned with pictures of Moomins. You’ll find one or two (dozen) in almost every Finnish home, right next to the Mariskooli bowls and Savoy (aka Aalto) vases.

On 20 January, Helsingin Sanomat featured an article titled “The Moomin Mug Is Now An Investment Asset – Prices Have Risen By Several Factors Of Ten” in which the author says that “many consider Moomin mugs investment assets that can be bought with small change and sold later at a higher price.” Since HS is not Wikipedia, “many” is not adorned with a “[weasel word]” tag. The article then goes on to cherry pick a few prices from Huuto.net (see below) as indicative of Moomin mug valuations.

For some reason, Helsingin Sanomat hasn’t seen fit to mention that Huuto.net, the Finnish equivalent of eBay and the home of the Moomintroll mug trading frenzy, is part of the same group of companies as HS.

In the interest of full disclosure, I would like to state that I do not personally own any Moomin mugs, even though I sip coffee out of one most mornings. If I were sitting on a huge collection, however, right about now would be the time when I would consider shifting the majority of my position to a different asset class.

How a Finnish Movie Begat an English Pop Song

Back in 1984, Music Box would from time to time play decent music in between Wham’s Last Christmas and King’s Love and Pride. I’d never heard of a band called XTC until one night, when they showed the video for Making Plans for Nigel. I was hooked, there was no going back. XTC remains one of my favourite groups ever.

On the same album (Drums and Wires, one of if not the band’s greatest) as Nigel, there’s a paean to all things motorized titled Roads Girdle the Globe. Here’s Andy Partridge’s recollection of how the song came to be:

I was staying up late one night, and I saw a foreign film on television, which was the main spark to writing “Roads Girdle the Globe.” (…) It’s a Finnish film from 1970, by a filmmaker who also wrote it. His name is Risto Jarva, and the Finnish title of the movie is “Bensaa Suonissa.” The English title was “Gas in the Veins.”

Pertti Melasniemi is already wearing the cheese helmet.

I can remember very little about the film, other than it’s about a car-crazy couple, I think. I think it’s a bit of a proto-”Crash” (…) So it was this early car-crazy couple film — car equals sex, you know. Watching this Finnish film, something clicked in my head: Wouldn’t it be greatly cynical to write a hymn to the motorcar? Because a lot of people treat cars like a religion. They have to have the correct car, all they talk about is their car, they watch car programs, they get car magazines…

Andy’s summary of Bensaa suonissa is quite accurate. In a somewhat ironic twist of fate, Risto Jarva died in a car crash getting back from the premiere of his last and most famous movie, Jäniksen vuosi (The Year of the Hare). Roads Girdle the Globe was later covered by the wonderful(ly) British duo Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin on their Up From the Dark album.

Not Coming to a Multiplex Near You

 

Jimmy Stewart trying out for the role of Holly in Red Dwarf.

Citizen Kane, long hailed as the Bestest Movie Ever in various polls, was finally beaten by Vertigo in BFI’s 2012 survey. Yes, I know I’m a bit late to the party–as usual; coming up next: The Wheel Poised to Bring On a New Era of Transportation. Anyway, I saw CK for the first time ever just a few months ago and you know what? It is pretty good. As is Vertigo. Not everyone agrees–Orson Welles said Vertigo indicates Hitchcock “was senile a long time before he died.” Quite the case of remarkably prescient sour grapes.

The fact that a 1941 movie is duking it out with a 1958 movie in a 2012 survey is part of the magic of cinema. In 1989 or so, I saw a production of David Pownall‘s play Master Class. Pentti Siimes as Stalin, Leif Wager as Shostakovich… those were the days. There is no way of revisiting the magic of that production; it’s gone. Movies, on the other hand, can be revisited time and time again, and most importantly, can be discovered by audiences born way after the movie.

Sometimes a belated viewing works against the movie. Friday the 13th is full of tired horror movie clichés, so much so that there’s very little else in between. Thing is, though, many of the clichés originated in this 1980 movie. A contemporary viewer cannot avoid recalling all the movies made since that have borrowed heavily from this admittedly badly dated, yet seminal horror flick. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s worth a viewing mainly from a historical viewpoint, but also because it’s pretty funny in places (I hope I won’t spoil too much by saying Kevin Bacon spearheads one of these scenes).

My New Year’s resolution for 2014 is to finally watch some of the movies I’ve wanted to see for a long time, but never got around to seeing so far. Some of these movies include Night and Fog (1955), Teorema (1968), The Seventh Seal (1957), Seven Samurai (1954)… and countless others. These won’t be showing at a multiplex near you or me–their business model caters to a different audience. As it rightfully should. For the moment, though, I’m perfectly happy hopelessly trying to catch up with the backlog of movies I know I’m likely to enjoy, knowing I won’t live long enough to clear up the backlog completely. The experience of seeing Avatar (see my earlier diatribe) did kind of put me off modern blockbusters, perhaps for life, but hope springs eternal, and I am earnestly looking forward to watching a decent recent movie as well one of these days. See you at the movies.

I Don’t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

What a novel concept.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

This quote from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass is–unfortunately for all pedantic autodidacts such as yours truly–how language works in the real world. In an ideal world, which I shall mandate as soon as I am appointed God-King-Emperor of the known universe, language would be a tool for communication: words would be used with their generally accepted definition in mind, in order to convey thoughts from one mind to another.

Case in point: coma. Wikipedia, that fount of all knowledge, ever so helpfully gives us a description: “a coma (from the Greek κῶμα koma, meaning “deep sleep”) is a state of unconsciousness (…) in which a person: cannot be awakened; fails to respond normally to painful stimuli, light, or sound; lacks a normal sleep-wake cycle; and, does not initiate voluntary actions.”

Let’s reflect on that last bit for a second. A person in a coma does not initiate voluntary actions. This means that a person who is comatose does not and can not “fight for his life.” If anyone is fighting for their life, it would be medical personnel, not the unfortunate patient who is literally unable to do anything, let alone fight.

Now, I understand this is a phrase that should not be taken literally. Even so, it needs to die. I implore you, tabloid journalists of the world: please stop using this cliché. That goes for everyone else as well. While we’re at it, let’s all stop saying stuff like “he’s gone to a better world” (Newspeak for dying) or worse, “Grandpa’s in Heaven now” (Kurt Vonnegut’s favourite joke notwithstanding). If our hearts are pure, we can stamp out these phrases in our lifetime.