#224: Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana (1994)

With offbeat humour, a rockabilly soundtrack and two lugubrious chumps at the centre of the purposefully inert storyline, Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana is a frosty road-movie of quintessentially “Kaurismäki” proportions.

Our faithful Finnish helmer junks plot almost completely in this 1994 B-movie; more in favor of a series of observations on difficulties of forming serious, meaningful relationships. Cigar-chomping, caffeine-addicted Valto (Malto Vatonen) works at home for his domineering mother, sowing children’s dresses over a dirty kitchen tablecloth. Pushed to his wit’s end, when he discovers she’s run out of coffee, he locks her in a cupboard, steals money from her purse and bounces.

He buddies up with Reino (Matti Pellonpää), a greasy-haired mechanic and self-styled rocker, and the two misfits set out on an aimless drive through the Finnish landscape, with nothing more than their beverages of choice: for Reino, a big bottle of vodka, for Valto, a flask of hot coffee. Along the way they run into two women, skinny Tatiana (Kaurismäki’s starlet Kati Outinen), and an Estonian trying to get home to Tallinn, and chubby Russian Klaudia (Kirsi Tykkyläinen). Although their Finnish isn’t the strongest, they manage to hitch a ride.

The crux of the humour comes from the ineptitude of our two, brutish louts to pick up on the two women’s sexual advances. Although their is a slight language barrier, hardly a word passes between them throughout their epic journey; even when they pair off together in a seedy hotel room, the girl’s are working their best moves, yet our hapless heroes simply fall asleep at their sides.

A lightly written script, even by Kaurismäki’s threadbare standards, the laughter and charm of Tatiana comes directly from their four central performances, who are able to hint at the emotions simmering below the character’s icy exteriors through furtive glances and sly smiles. As his last Kaurismäki-joint before his ungodly heart attack at the young age of 44, Pellonpää is a grungy delight as oafish Reino, a no-nonsense rebel without a cause who finds himself allured by Outinen’s mousy Tatiana. Their fifth film working together, the quashed chemistry between the two is heart wrenching and hilarious. Mato Valtonen’s Valto is an almost equally amusing character as his silent giant sidekick, sharing an unspoken unity with Tykklainen’s Klaudia, who brings a warmth and depth to a character incognito because of a failed grasp of Finnish vernacular.

If one were fishing around for political significance in Tatiana, Kaurismäki’s isolated characters could suggest the disconnect of Finnish culture with the outside world. At one timely moment, the ruffian Valto stares into his black coffee and philosophises, “I reckon rockers don’t live long”, it’s a hypothesis that can only be assumed for Kaurismaki’s leading men, who desperately clutch hold of a bygone American subculture far removed from their Finnish homelands.

A sonorously pleasing rock soundtrack, glorious black and white styling and a plot as directionless as the road the character’s are taking, Tatiana is a freeform exploration of love and relationship struggle, which many sneering critiques might see as Kaurismäki-by-numbers. But as the old adage says: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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Check out the rest of my Kaurismäki reviews right here.

#223: La Vie de Bohème (1992)

Five films into my Aki Kaurismäki binge, I’m starting to notice some irrevocable patterns throughout the Finnish filmmaker’s work. The tragicomic characters, meandering non-stories, beautifully constructed soundtracks and a perplexing, but on the most part rewarding melange of brutal honesty and bathos. La Vie de Bohème is nothing new in this respect, but it is still a captivating, melancholic film; using the romantic connotations of artistry to devastatingly bleak, sardonically funny effect.

Loosely adapted from the autobiographical short stories of Henri Murger, this elegantly black and white film tells the romanticised story of three struggling artists ruffing it in down and out Paris. There’s Marcel (André Wilms) a testy writer who is disgusted when a publisher suggests an edit of his 21-act play, and Schaunard (Kari Väänänen), a composer whose musical impulses sees him whacking on piano keys and creating all sorts of vociferous sounds and finally Rodolpho (Matti Pellonpää), an Albanian painter hiding in the shadows from the immigration authorities, with his beloved tuberculosis suffering girlfriend Mimi (Evelyne Didi) at his side..Although they are all struggling through the Bohemian dream,  the artistes have no concerns more immediate than finding their next meal ticket, saloon drink or next pay packet.

With a rich, heavily saturated lighting design, and the thrifty, effective cinematography from familiar lensman Timo Salminen, La Vie de Bohème resembles something familiarly French; similar to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. As if by coincidence, that film’s young star Jean-Pierre Léaud all grown up and performing here as a bourgeoise art collector, who finally gives Rodolpho his big break.

There’s also a surrealist, David Lynchian humour to the film, with the Eraserhead chicken being replaced by a two-headed fish which Marcel and Rodolpho willingly feast on, and a dialogue that identifies a piano as a violin and a self-portrait of the moustached Rodolpho as one of his mother, apparently.

Whilst The Match Factory Girl was virtually wordless, La Vie de Bohème is built on a vernacular pretence. With dialogue written in pidgin French, the artists pontificate about philosophy and literature all the while whilst unsure of where there’ll be scoring their next meal. The result is heartbreaking and hilarious simultaneously, with Kaurismäki managing to satirise his oafish protagonists and valorise them in the same scene.

As his longest film to date, the hundred minutes of La Vie de Bohème never outstays its welcome. A poignant and uplifting portrait heralding the ups and downs of the artiste lifestyle, from one of the finest European cinema has to offer.

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As a total newbie to Kaurismäki, check out my other reviews of this great man’s work, and let me know what other films I should let my senses explore.

#222: Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989)

Devil’s haircut

Following my three previous reviews, it’s clear from the off that Finnish filmmaking behemoth Aki Kaurismäki is also a passionate audiophile. With some superb pop soundtracks under his belt, we turn to an entirely different beast in the form of his 1989 road movie comedy Leningrad Cowboys Go America.

Although their name may confuse, Leningrad Cowboys aren’t desert roamers. A nine-member polka band, the film starts with them auditioning for a big break in Lapland, only to be told they should venture to the States, the land of the free where stars are born.

Naive, pliable and with a rudimentary grasp of English speak, the Cowboys and their psychotic manager Vladimir (played by Kaurismäki regular Matti Pellonpää) journey to the west in search of fame and fortune, but their energetic rendition of homeland gypsy tunes fails to impress the first promoter they encounter. He nonetheless offers them a gig at his cousin’s wedding in Mexico, and suggests that, if they want to make it big, they better wise up to the rock n’ roll movement. Purchasing a Dummy’s guide to the subculture movement, and buying a beat-up car from a wise-cracking mechanic (who is played by American Kaurismäki buff Jim Jarmusch), the boys head south, stoping off en route local dives along the way for a series of small one-time gigs that almost always end with broken bottles, tears, and bitter disappointment.

A Finnish fish-out-of-water musical, Leningrad Cowboys Go America recalls John Landis’ Blues Brothers from nine years previous. Both have a brutally meagre storyline and plot arch, with the film being carried by flamboyant musical numbers and inspired farce. Adorning dishevelled black suits, ludicrously poised widow’s peak hairstyles and Persian slippers that could pass from homemade shivs, there’s a great deal of sight gags permeating throughout the film. The Cowboys’ incongruity to the surfy music they end up playing is initially hilarious, although the length sets end up become tedious. Unfortunately, the Leningrad Cowboys are neither bad enough to be funny nor good enough to sustain interest.

Somewhat begrudgingly, it’s probably the most lucrative Aki Kaurismäki cultural product ever. Much like Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer’s heavy metal creation Spinal Tap, the parody has long outlived their cinematic debut. Two more films later and twenty years on, the Leningrad Cowboys continue to take worldwide audiences by storm, selling out shows with their crude interpretations of Americana classics and Mexican rhythms.

A surprisingly upbeat, borderline doltish film in Kaurismäki’s oeuvre, Leningrad Cowboys Go America is for the most part a surreal, imaginative and often very funny tale of culture- clash, which avoids condescension or hackneyed stereotyping, of it’s larger than life, boot-stomping bandleaders.

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#215: Bernie (2011)


A blurred amalgam between documentary, fiction and re-enactment, indie-icon Richard Linklater’s Bernie subverts the tropes of crime drama and black comedy to amplify the transcendent straight-faced hilarity of Jack Black’s performance.

Set in Carthage, Texas, Black plays the town’s beloved, effeminate mortician’s assistant Bernie (Jack Black). Adored by all for his generosity and benevolence, he strikes up an unlikely friendship with the town’s cantankerous and extremely wealthy widow Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine). With round-the-world holidays, fancy meals and pampered salon sessions, their peculiar relationship turns even more absurd when Marjorie grows extremely and psychotically possessive, pushing the good-natured Bernie into doing the unthinkable. What follows is a fascinating, bizarre and agonisingly funny reaction to a seemingly heinous act.

Bernie is ostensibly a stranger than fiction tale about forgiveness. When the community’s most generous, courteous, sincere, and valuable member does something wrong, how willing is everyone to forgive and forget the crime and debunk their moral compass?

Pairing up for the first time since 2003 smash hit comedy School of Rock, Linklater has managed to unfurl a career-defining performance from Jack Black in the titular role. There’s little of the mania that Black churns out on the big screen; he’s barely even playing for laughs. Instead what emerges is a perfectly poised exploration of a mysterious character of ambiguous motivation. There’s a ‘straight-faced’ sincerity that guises Bernie’s overt showmanship to the conservative town’s people that made him excruciatingly funny. Bernie certainly stands out as an oddity and yet Black convinces the audience the Bernie was able to seduce the locals despite being so relatively unusual.

The secondary performances come close to stealing Black’s thunder, with Shirley MacLaine perfectly cast as the fiery and contemptible widow Marjorie Nugent. Then there’s regular Linklater actor/man-of-the-moment Matthew McConaughey, stealing scenes as the narcissistic district attorney Danny Buck Davidson,  a lone figure trying to pursue justice in the face of overbearing community sentiment on Bernie’s side. Matthew McConaughey steals scenes as the town’s D.A Danny Buck – the logical and lone moral barometer in a town committed to Bernie.

Best of all, Linklater brings some veridicality to the proceedings by casting real-life inhabitants of Carthage to give frank accounts on the trial and local legend Bernie. The commentary works partly like a expressionistic Greek Chorus, but also as would-be footage from a mockumentary. Combined with the scripted drama, the result is an unconventional exercise in factual fiction that is as informative as it is entertaining.

Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandsworth – who brought this exceptional tale to public attention with a hysteric newspaper article back in the nineties – never attempt to demystify Bernie’s fatal slip-up and question it’s premeditation. Instead, they present a character who desperately craved love and understanding in his community. If anything, it is a film about the selective application of moral judgement based on personal prejudices. Although it’s lack of authoritative voice may eventually become it’s narrative downfall, Bernie is a gripping and often hilarious black satire on an extraordinary American crime case.

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Criminally, Bernie is still waiting to be snatched up for general cinema release. It’s available on Region 1 DVD in the states and further afield. Pick it up, wherever you can.

#212: Happy, Happy (Sykt Lykkelig) (2010)

Putting on a brave face

Norway’s entry for consideration in the Academy Award’s Best Foreign Film category, this ironically titled offbeat dramedy explores the clash between two young families whose smiling facades are rapidly crumbling to reveal the undermining disparate isolation lying underneath.

Following a promiscuous affair, big city couple Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen) and Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens), along with their adopted son of African descent Noa (Ram Shihab Ebedy) relocate to the snowy sticks of Norway to rekindle their failing marriage. Eagerly awaiting their arrival is the excessively chipper neighbour Kaja (should-be starlet Agnes Kittelsen), her recalcitrant husband Eirik (Joachim Rafaelsen) and their strange lonesome son Theodor (Oskar Hernæs Brandsø). After sharing affectations, a hearty home cooked meal and one too many glasses of wine, it’s no surprise that two most outgoing members of the couples – the sexually frustrated teacher and the henpecked husband – fall into bed together. Leading these double lives instead of confronting the lies laying within their own marital relationships, first-time director Anne Sewitsky and writer Ragnhild Tronvoll consider whether all concerned can learn to live peacefully with this new arrangement, or whether they prefer to return to their previous state of misery.

Clocking in at eighty five minutes, this is a tautly formed tale, with every one of scriptwriter Ragnhild Tronvoll’s scenes used for overarching thematic effect. Usually, this would be considered a blessing with the familiar rom-com storyline (think of the Winslet/Diaz 2006 effort The Holiday), but the lack of frivolous dialogue means that the humour in Happy, Happy is subdued, laying deep underneath the grief and antithetical unhappiness streaming through each character. The universally good performances and naturalistic directing are counterbalanced by the screenplay’s exactitude. No family falls apart this neatly, especially no pair of them, but what we see is still powerful and at times difficult to watch in the best possible way.

The four-way relationship between the adults in Happy, Happy is expertly crafted, but a disconcerting subplot between the respective children makes the dangerously border into the fortuitously uncomfortable. Theodor begins bullying the other due to his lack of connection with his own parents and a need to find a way to take control of his own life. This takes the form of a game he invents: pretending Noa is a slave and he’s his master. Without his own parental guidance to turn to or any positive black role models available, Noa assents and their “games” grow increasingly dark as the film continues. This, along with  an annoying barbershop quartet overzealously narrating the film’s plot points, stops Happy, Happy from being a truly great and refreshing take on the familiar, problematic relationship adage.

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Happy, Happy is available on DVD and online from right…(hold on)…NOW! Go watch these beautiful people bump uglies. 

Isolated Nordic landscapes, relationships in disrepair, lustrous affairs and tumultuous weather conditions, although it is completely different in tone and genre, Happy, Happy shares a lot of similarities with the Berlinale premiered film Gnade (meaning ‘Mercy). A fantastically stark film about the extremities people are willing to go to to keep up social appearances. See it.

#201: Gentlemen Broncos (2009)

Top Dear

Does success limit an artists’ cultish accolades? It’s an interesting paradox which has loomed over American filmmaker Jared Hess’ head since his unashamedly kitsch debut Napoleon Dynamite. Although one of the most memorable American comedies of the last ten years, it claws at the coattails of counterculture viewers like a boisterous young bairn, desperate for your undivided attention and hipster appraise. After his lacklustre, Jack Black fronted second feature Nacho Libre, Hess’ 2009 effort Gentlemen Broncos is his most honest and enervated work, looking at the subject of outsider-ness through the boundless stylistic traits of fantasy and sci-fi.

At a truly exhaustive pace, Gentlemen Broncos tells the story of Benjamin (Michael Angarano), a greasy haired, feeble teenager with a penchant for writing pulpy sci-fi fiction. In a half-assed attempt to pursue his literary career, his introverted, nightgown-designing mother Judith (Jennifer Coolidge) sends Benjamin off to a sci-fi convention where he can enter into a writing contest judged by his hero Ronald Chevalier (Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement), a legendary author and illustrator of an epic fantasy series. Benjamin submits his newest work “Yeast Lords” for consideration but, seeing its saleable potential, Chevalier snatches up the story and passes it on to his demanding publishers as if his own creation. With a host of equally oddball cohorts (including the snake-adonning Mike White as his guardian angel Dusty), Benjamin fights to keep control of his creative work and boring life.

Inside this load-o-quirk, Hess stuffs three re-enactments of “Yeast Lords”: the one in writer Benjamin’s head, the one in Chevalier’s head, and the film-within-the-film made by Benjamin’s new ‘friends’. The one thing that ties them together is Sam Rockwell playing the three varieties of protagonist Bronco/Brutus. One minute a flamboyant tranny, then Mad Max hard man, Rockwell is clearly having fun in the needlessly daffy fantastical role; with Hess amping up the oddity of the so-called ‘real world’ of the film as if trying to balance out these warped fantasies.  It’s a desperate game of one-upmanship which grows increasingly tiresome and light on the laughs.

Certainly able to craft decent moments of cinema (the notorious ‘vomit kiss’ is nothing short of sickening brilliance), Jared Hess is a director too focused on the here and now, rather than the film as whole, with the story and it’s overarching development seeming simultaneously rushed and infuriatingly slow.

It’s not all bad though. Gentlemen Broncos is saved from the ashes by Kiwi-comic Jemaine Clement. Stealing the show throughout, voicing Chevalier somewhere between the pompous oaf Tim Curry and smarmy charmer James Mason, all whilst embodying the idiosyncrasies of ostentatious authors to hilarious effect. With such a brilliant character performance, it’s disappointing that Clement is constrained to isolation, never being allowed enough time to interact with the other talented performers in the cast list.

So, we end back where we started, that slippery term ‘cult’. With his third film, Hess has tried to include everybody in on the joke whilst isolating them with a bag of nonsensical sci-fi comedy; inharmoniously combining worn fantasy jabs. But as the struggle toward something new and different overwhelms the film, it becomes less human, less funny, and more pointless. If you can link cultishness with limited success, then yes, Gentlemen Broncos is a cult movie. If not, this disappointed feature is just another lame attempt of a filmmaker trying too hard to be irreverent.

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#198: Taxidermia (2006)

Pedal faster

A tripartite set of grotesquerie and bad taste, György Pálfi’s Taxidermia offers a menu of surreal, disgusting dishes as three generations of Hungarian men pursue their extreme appetites for sex, food, and immortality. Be warned, this one is difficult to digest.

This idiosyncratic tragicomedy begins with a oafish pervert named Morosgovanyi (Csaba Czene), a Soviet soldier who is used and abused by his superior regiment. His only means of rebellion is to run into the shadows and stick his dick into everything he can find: a tub of ice water, the wall of a shed, and eventually into either his lieutenant’s wife or possibly a dead pig. Through an unnervingly beautiful dreamlike style, Pálfi makes it difficult for us to tell the difference.

The product of this liaison is pig-tailed Kalman (Gergo Trocsanyi), an unlikely athlete aspiring desperate to be crowned as the world’s best professional eater. Kalman, much like the swine who is at least spiritually, if not literally, his mother, spends most of his time at a trough, slurping down gelatinous food then vomiting it back up in a communal purge. Eat. Sick. Repeat. Although never truly meeting his aspirations, Kalman meets the sadistic loves of his life and fellow professional eater Gizi (Adel Stanczel). Pedalling off into the sunset, the highlight of his working career is being able to brag about a technique of regurgitation named after him. His piggy mum would have been so proud, if only he hadn’t eaten her.

Then onto the final episode in this repulsive trilogy, Kalman’s present day son Lajos (Mark Bischoff) doesn’t appear to have inherited any of the family genes or appetite. Thin, pallid, a walking skeleton, Lajos balances his time from managing his taxidermy business to tending to his now Jabba-the-Hut-esque father whose only remaining goal in life is to train his cats to eat everything in sight. Although reaching David Lynch levels of creepy, Lajos looks like the first of his family that could be, at the very least, not a psychopath. That is, until the film’s close, when we see that the apple hasn’t fell too far from this rotting family tree.

Able to inflict disgust on his audience with virtually every scene, it’s remarkable, and perhaps even worrying how enjoyable Pálfi’s Taxidermia is. Even if the film’s closing thirty minutes is a tad underwhelming, the gluttonous middle fable is astounding. With the engrossing soundtrack from Brazilian composer Amon Tobin filling the sonic stage, Kalman’s competitive gorging is accompanied by the Communist pageantry associated with the grandest athletic spectacles which would leave London 2012 Opening Ceremony director Danny Boyle aghast. Pálfi’s 360 degree, spiralling pan of the eaters at the vomit trough is rather majestic, graceful even; which only reinstates the sense of discomfort threading throughout this unforgettable dark comedy.

Taxidermia is a strikingly oxymoronic film. With high-art vision presenting the most lowly, wretched stories imaginable, Pálfi’s allegory on Hungary’s modern history is a beast which many might find too difficult to tame. If you bite the bullet and decided to give Taxidermia a spin, leave the popcorn in the cupboard. You won’t need it.

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