Did not realize the Leningrad Cowboys (their hair in full glory) would be backed by the massive Russian Red Army Chorus and Dance Ensemble, playing to a crowd of 70 thousand. After the first guitar rock song, the Cowboys stand by patiently while the Russians sing a loud, dull vocal number, then we get a Cowboy/Russian duet on “Happy Together” and a huge version of “Delilah.” It’s an expert combination of the solemn and the silly, and one of the all-time great concert films.

Cruel to be kind, briefly uniting two recently-fired lonely losers then conspiring to keep them apart, working on themselves separately, until belatedly providing a reunion. I’m a sucker for Aki’s whole thing, and thought this one was beautiful.

Jordan Cronk in Cinema Scope:

Meticulously stylized and tactile, full of vivid colours and playfully anachronistic details, it’s a movie as richly designed as it is warmly romantic. With characteristic rigour, cinematographer Timo Salminen imbues the smoke-laced club interiors, delicate domestic settings, and sprawling industrial nether regions with a textured luminescence that belies the characters’ essentially drab surroundings.

Vadim Rizov in Filmmaker:

Shooting on 35mm as ever, Kaurismäki’s sense of vibrant color remains extremely pleasurable; he can make a supermarket’s employee locker room pleasing just by painting the lockers in shades of red, green and orange.

The MFG pays the bills, does all the cooking and cleaning for her mom and stepdad, but they still kick her out when she gets knocked up by hateful Aarne. Then she buys some rat poison and takes care of her tormentors. For such an unrelentingly dark premise, the movie itself is very fun, with good music of course (accordion and surf guitar).

AK’s 7th feature… played Berlin in some sidebar I don’t understand, same year as Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and The Asthenic Syndrome. Opened in the USA belatedly, where it had the misfortune to be up against Raise The Red Lantern in the critics’ awards. MFG Kati Outinen has been in everything, was the sick wife in Le Havre, costarred with her mom again in Drifting Clouds. Her brother is a Leningrad Cowboy, and her dad is Polonius.

Her brother’s apartment is sweet:

Another magical drama about a refugee in hiding with a carefully balanced comic tone, this was inevitably going to be compared to Le Havre, my favorite movie of a few years back, and fall slightly short. But it’s nice to have more of refugee Khaled’s story in this one, as opposed to near-mute Idrissa in Le Havre, and the acknowledgement of the racism and xenophobia within the country’s citizens fueling the policies that are making it so difficult for him to gain asylum in Finland.

Syrian Khaled has bounced through ten countries on his way to Finland and is desperate to locate his one surviving relative, his sister Miriam, and bring her to a safer place. His Iraqi friend Mazdak offers communications help to look for the girl while Khaled finds work with Wikström (Leningrad Cowboy Sakari Kuosmanen), who has left his wife for reasons unknown and purchased a dumpy restaurant. Wikström and Khaled are given too little shared screen time for us to watch them bond (alongside a cute dog and three bedraggled employees who came with the building), but Wikström proves to be big-hearted, protecting his newest employee from the elements and the authorities.

Kaurismäki won best director in Berlin (A Fantastic Woman, Félicité, On the Beach at Night Alone). My moviegoing companions were surprised and appalled that Finland would not offer Khaled asylum and try to have him deported, but now that I’ve seen Stranger in Paradise, nothing is surprising. Others were dismayed by all the screen time given to amateur performances of rockabilly songs, but I preferred those to the half hour of backstory showing how Wikström came to run a restaurant. I recognized Kati Outinen (the wife in Le Havre) in one scene, and restaurant doorman Ilkka Koivula (probably also from Le Havre), but that apparently was not Carel Struycken as a bartender.

Dreamy and free-flowing, the story spiraling into mirrors and coincidences, feeling sometimes like a less grim A Very Long Engagement. The story traces back and forth along their lives with kinetic editing and glowing camerawork – pretty much my favorite kind of movie.

Palindromic couple Ana and Otto are destined for each other, seen at different ages. The oldest Ana was 20-year-old Najwa Nimri, of Before Night Falls and Abre Los Ojos – which also featured oldest Otto Fele Martínez (also of Thesis and Bad Education). Writer/director Medem made Sex and Lucia, and last year he had a Salma Hayek movie at TIFF.

Both Bens Rivers & Bussell are in Cinema Scope’s 50 Under 50, and I’ve checked them both out before – Russell with Let Each One Go Where He May and Rivers with Two Years at Sea and some shorts.

Spell opens and closes with Russell’s shaky follow-cam, the camera behind the head of a walking person. I can see a theoretical point to his relentless follow-cams: regular movies are always showing people leaving and arriving in scenes, while his movies show them traveling to the scene realistically. Theory or no, they still annoy me, and maybe he needs to find a new thing.

In between we’ve got Rivers’s “man living alone in the woods” motif and his long still shots of nothing much happening (man in a slowly drifting fishing boat – think I’ve seen that one before).

Three parts:

Estonia: bunch of foreigners in a commune, including one Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, who is not the star of this section in any way but on whom I focus whenever he’s around, since I’ve seen his face in the promo photos.

Finland: just Rob Lowe alone, mountain climbing, fishing, cooking, hunting, slow-paced, no dialogue. Cutaways to the lake, a photograph of a lake, a magazine, etc. Then Rob is applying makeup, then his house burns down.

Norway: Long guitar intro over blackness, then we’re at a metal concert, interestingly shot up close by slow roving camera (this whole section is just a few long takes), with Rob as a guitarist and vocalist. They play a few songs, then he wastes no time getting backstage before the last one has ended, removing the makeup and walking into the night. I love the sound during this part, the club noise following him into the street and gradually getting louder.

M. Sicinski in Cinema Scope:

Russell and Rivers share an engagement with the history of ethnographic film, but only inasmuch as the critiques of its shortcomings and power relations have been fully internalized … Russell’s films have often favoured group dynamics, or at least individuals losing their identities in tandem; Rivers has more often than not worked within a mode of solo portraiture. The resulting collaboration is a dialectical meld of these tendencies. … The resulting film is a triptych fully reflective of Rivers’ and Russell’s longtime concerns: how does one remain a part of society while carving out a space that is, in Heidegger’s terms, true to one’s ownmost possibility?

Russell:

One of the most important realizations that I had through the making of this film was that cinema was, in fact, one of our best vehicles for realizing utopia. During a conversation about his experience in the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage, Tuomo (he’s the Finn who tells the asshole story in the film, also the subject of our next collaboration) proposed that utopia only exists in the present, that it can only be realized in the now. Cinema is a medium that is likewise always arriving (as the future) and receding (as the past) simultaneously. It is only alive when we are alive with it, when we share our time and allow our space to be occupied. It can only happen as experience in the present, and its capacity to produce worlds unto itself positions cinema as a very real site for utopia. For Thomas More, Utopia was a no-place, a construct; taken positively, this is cinema defined.

Sicinski again, but for Fandor:

Although the makers of A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness have been most closely aligned with the avant-garde film world, they stake out a position somewhere between trance film, portraiture, and ethnography. Their films, then, identify and problematize certain dual aspects of realism that could be said to “haunt” both experimental film and anthropological documentary.

Opening titles: we hear a nice Tom Waits song (the soundtrack is great overall) and see “JVC PRESENTS.” Didn’t JVC used to make blank tapes? The kind that weren’t even as good as Maxell?

Five segments in five cities. Has cute parts, and I guess it’s part of the greater Jarmusch body of work or whatever, but also kinda feels like something that could’ve safely stayed in 1991 (or maybe ’93; it was ahead of its time). What’s funny is that it doesn’t seem like the kind of movie that should get easily dated (except through the usual – fashions, cars, mobile phones – only period pieces are immune to those) but it has this early 90’s aura about it, like Smoke or a Hal Hartley movie, which I don’t see in Dead Man or Down By Law or Mystery Train. Maybe it’s just Winona Ryder. Anyway this remains my least favorite Jarmusch picture, though I did enjoy it overall. If you could break it up Coffee & Cigarettes-style, it’d be nice to lead from New York straight into Helsinki, and maybe add Rome every third or fourth viewing.

LA: Winona Ryder is a midget phonebook-sitting wannabe-mechanic driving fancypants cellphone-calling casting agent Gena Rowlands home from the airport. Gena’s client is looking for a tough young girl, an unknown, so predictably she propositions Winona, who turns Gena down. Jim says it’s the first movie Gena agreed to do after John Cassavetes died. I never made it past this segment when I first tried to watch Night On Earth a decade ago… pixie Winona is too hard to take as a street tough.

NY: East German Armin Mueller-Stahl (same year he did Soderbergh’s Kafka) is new to New York and cab driving, so passenger Giancarlo Esposito takes over, picking up sister-in-law Rosie Perez for a miniature Do The Right Thing reunion, wide-eyed Armin taking it all in.

Paris: Isaach De Bankolé (stolen from Claire Denis) kicks out some diplomats, picks up a blind girl (Beatrice Dalle, star of Time of the Wolf, also a Claire Denis regular) and asks her a bunch of dunderheaded questions.

Rome: Roberto Benigni picks up a priest, drives like a madman (but there’s no traffic so it’s cool) visits a couple transvestites, and tells horribly perverted stories until the priest dies after dropping his meds on the floor and Roberto quietly unloads him on a park bench.

Helsinki: Cabbie picks up three guys from a hard night on the town. Of course all four of them have been in Kaurismaki films (one of the passengers played Polonius in Hamlet Goes Business. They tell their drunk friend’s hard luck story and the cabbie replies with his own hard luck story. Way to end your movie on a dead baby tale there, Jim.

Nice color cinematography by Frederick Elmes (a Lynch regular who later shot Broken Flowers) – not seen here cuz it was a rental and I forgot to get screen shots.

Supposedly part of a comic deadpan losers trilogy, but given what little I’ve seen of Kaurismaki’s cinema (Hamlet Goes Business and two shorts) it seems you could grab any three movies and call those his comic deadpan losers trilogy. This wasn’t awfully comic, either. I remember laughing a bit in the first half hour, but after our hero goes to jail and gets increasingly hopeless and depressed, nobody would call it a comedy anymore.

Koistinen is a loser security guard with a good heart and little apparent sense, no interests and no friends. One day a hot blonde starts pursuing him. They date, she asks questions about his job, finally drugs him, steals his keys and hands them over to her actual gangster boyfriend who robs the jewelry store Koistinen was supposed to be protecting. K. spends some time in jail (framed for participating in the heist), gets out, lands in a halfway house, is fired from an even more menial job as a dishwasher (again prompted by the fatale girl’s boyfriend) and in the last minute is found destitute on the streets by the snack bar girl who always liked him and given a happy, hopeful final couple of seconds (in the film, not in his life – he survives).

I was enjoying the rock songs. I thought one of ’em was in the same style as “Rich Little Bitch” from Hamlet Goes Business, until I realized it’s the exact same song. He used the same song (and prominently) in two movies twenty years apart. Movie is great to look at, and very Jarmusch-cool (although I know it’s actually vice-versa) but the story is kinda minor and depressing.

V. Rizov:

Newcomers to Kaurismäki should understand that a character’s facial expressions give almost no clue as to what’s going on; everyone has a poker face that makes Buster Keaton look thoroughly emotive. A visit to Kaurismäki’s land of perpetual misery is always perversely comic — the characters and situations shoot past miserabilist drudgery quickly: The worse things get, the funnier they are. But Kaurismäki’s sentimentality is a double-edged sword, as it prevents his movies from being shallow one-note exercises but can also suck the life from them.

I. Johnston:

Underneath it all, and in spite of a popular tendency to read his films along hip-cool-quirky lines, Kaurismaki is an old-fashioned romantic, layering his films with a charming retro appeal. There’s a wider political-ideological connotation to this, a deliberate disassociation from the values of the globalised monetarist contemporary world in favour of those “loser” heroes of his who simply fail (where they don’t more overtly refuse) to adapt to the demands of that world. Kaurismaki loves his characters, those few — in the case of Lights in the Dusk, Koistinen and Aila — who maintain values of humanity, authenticity, love, and moral action. And the director places them in a social environment that seems out of kilter with the modern world: hence, the retro décor, the pop songs from years past, the tango music, and the old-fashioned rock’n’roll (hip-hop’s made no impact here).

The snack bar girl apparently plays the lead in that movie about the photographer for which I saw trailers for three months before it came and went quietly one week at the Landmark.