Thursday 25 May 2023

Hirttämättömät/Unhanged (2023)

It's nearly futile to write this in English, but in the tradition of this blog, here goes anyway.


After putting so much effort in watching, reading and even writing about Western films, and more recently, about Finnish western films, I could not avoid watching the first new theatrical Finnish western film since 50+ years: Hirttämättömät (The Unhanged)

Given that it's not strictly a film set in the West, one could argue The Last Border from 1993 was a western too. But unlike with the Last Border, here we see all the Western paraphernalia, such as wide-rimmed hats, revolvers, western outfits, horses etc. Together with the western-style music I'm going to say this is the more fully-formed Western of the two.

The new cast

The film in question is a remake of the 1971 "cult classic" Hirttämättömät ("Unhanged"). This was a sequel to the earlier fennowestern Speedy Gonzales - noin 7 veljeksen poika. (Speedy Gonzales: Son of About Seven Brothers). As most western clichés had been explored in the first film, the creators concentrated on a more narrow topic: three guys crossing a desert.

I actually have something of a soft spot for this small film, so perhaps count me in as one of the cult members. Speedy Gonzales fools Lonely Rider and Tonto to imprison him and to take him over to Threepencestad, "alive", so as not to have to take the trip himself. 

They circle around what is obviously a sand pit, and suitably for a pitifully small road movie, small episodes also take place. Mostly about who gets to drink water and who has to pull the cart. And who wins the heart of the women they inexplicably meet during their journey. It is funnier at the start, whereas it gets repetitive and boring at the end.

The 1971 original, with Vesku, Spede and Simo.

The original film was nearly entirely carried by the antics of Pertti "Spede" Pasanen, Vesa-Matti "Vesku" Loiri and Simo "Simo" Salminen. Mostly by Vesku, who had the broadest acting range of the three and the capability to fully embody the farcical character. Spede is his usual taciturn "Spede" character, derived from a more typical Eastwood-like western hero. Simo supplies much of the physical gags, who, as a non-native American, still plays one. (Gasp!)

For the Finnish kids who watched Spede-Show on TV in the 1980s, these three figures have became cemented as an epoch-defining comedic "trio", both by being genuinely amusing (in kid-metrics), but by also featuring in a spate of so-bad-they-are-good "Spede films" adults still enjoy for their campiness. Reviled by critics, loved by the masses, in this film we already see the trio dynamics in action: there are really very few additional characters.

This new version follows the structure of the original with some additions. Aku Hirviniemi tries very hard to out-bullshit Vesa-Matti Loiri's 1971 character but overstays what little welcome he had in the first place. Despite having a few amusing gags he ends up just demonstrating some kind of split personality and his needy and whiny mental collapses cease to be funny after the first time round.

The famous cart

The "Speedy" in this film is a young woman (Ona Huczkowski), who the other protagonists think is a boy. Ha ha. Spede Pasanen had such a screen presence many felt his face was amusing in itself, there's no such advantage to be had for this relatively unknown actor.

Andrei Alén, who also directs the film, plays the "Tonto" character. He might be relatively interesting as the non-Indian "Indian", but as Hirviniemi overflows every scene with his babbling, he and Speedy have very little room to operate.

Some new jokes are pursued from gender relations and environmentalist themes of our times, but perhaps fortunately the gender angle is not explored too far. No Indians are in sight in this film either.

I think the pacing of the film is at least okay, I felt some genuine curiosity about where this all might be headed towards. Not too much time is wasted on a single theme (a problem with the original) but unfortunately the comedy is just not that funny.

As for the additional inventions on display, at places it was hard to understand if a thing shown on screen was supposed to be a plot point in development, or just a (failed) joke in itself. I mean, some of the ideas are never developed further.

The black and white nature of the 1971 version helped it make look like a more authentic western. The new film has colors which brings some challenges for simulating a wild west appearance. All in all the film looks nice in a small way and for example the costumes are rather well made. 

Some digital background additions help the setting look more western-like, but at times they were jarring and I felt the point of the gravel pit aesthetics of the original has become lost.

What we see most of the time

The film has more nods to the Spede-films and Spede's type of humor than any real understanding of the history of Western films, which I would feel is a pre-requisite for a good Western comedy/parody.

The usual suspects are again referred to, Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood films, with some Morricone nods in the music. From more recent films, we perhaps have some Tarantinoesque elements in how the film is occasionally framed as a nostalgic TV show with VHS quality ads.

Now that the native American aspect has been removed, there are very few "western jokes" left, and most of the comedy operates outside the western premise altogether.

Part of the comedy involves literal imitations of the 1971 trio—imitating Spede is practically a national pastime. Together with the cameo of Hannele Lauri (the "fourth" member of the trio), the film is in danger of becoming a meta-film about the emotional hole the trio left in the TV and film landscape for a generation of Finns. Some might say good riddance, but the existence of this film seems to indicate at least some people need to process that loss still yet.

Thursday 18 May 2023

Planet of the Apes

It's roughly 25 years since I've seen the earlier Planet of the Apes film series in full. It was handily available at Disney+ so I took the plunge again.

The creators could pull off five films in as many years, and despite piling on new science fiction ideas for each film, it's a surprisingly coherent trek.

The series famously relies on reveals, no further spoiler alert.

Planet of the Apes, 1968

A spaceship travels in the void, with four deep-sleep passengers. Already prior to the titles, Taylor (Charlton Heston) makes a huge point about how they might end up in the far future.

The ship lands on water, the clock says it's about year 4000, the passengers wake up and evacuate the craft before it sinks. Before this they confirm one of the astronauts is dead, a pretty blonde has turned into a hideous mummified corpse. My new pet theory is the woman died because Taylor smoked in the control room.

After landing, the film does some obfuscation so it wouldn't be blatantly obvious we are on Earth. Weird lightning strikes during daytime, ground is poisonous, there's very little or no vegetation, and they can't find a moon.

This sequence took more time than I remembered, and having the astronauts prancing around in the bleak landscape is visually interesting. Taylor speaks his mind a lot, and his attitude seems the worst of the trio. I wonder who was the psychiatrist who qualified him for the mission.

The astronauts find more livable areas with some primitive and mute humans, but alas, they are all hunted down by armed, clothed, horseback apes. Dodge dies, Taylor loses Landon and Taylor himself catches a throat-wound that renders him unable to speak.

Then it's off to Zira and Cornelius, the benevolent apes and Doctor Zaius of the science council. All speak... English. Taylor eventually reveals he is able to talk, at the most dramatic moment possible, but this doesn't much improve his position. Landon is found lobotomized, whereas Dodge's stuffed body is exhibited at the museum. 

This is both an inversion of human-animal relations in real world, but also a way to discuss civil rights and racial issues. All culminates in the farce of an ape tribunal. Taylor and Nova are exiled, they reach an expedition site together with Cornelius and Zira, with rumored artifacts about the planet's past. 

The film ends famously at the Statue of Liberty scene. But the cave already contains some clues the race preceding apes was human. A human doll says "ma-ma".

What apparently holds the ape society together is the firm belief in the superiority of the apes, something that could be undermined if the human past was revealed. And yes, in real world the discovery of evolution was (still is) a shock for many people.

The science-religious apes have a role in controlling what technologies are available. Zaius is well aware that flying machines would be possible, but presumably such devices would grant too much awareness. Apes have to be kept away from the Forbidden Zone, where the secrets lie.

The apes have fairly modern rifles and photography. ("Smile" is the first word heard from the apes) Otherwise the technology is not that advanced. Considering the pre-requisites for these two items alone, it makes me wonder why they have little else. 

Beneath the Planet of the Apes, 1970

I used to like all 1960s weirdness and camp a lot, so this was my favorite. Together with the nihilist plot, it felt hilarious all around. Now I see it's hardly comparable with the first film.

Another set of astronauts has landed in the future, the ship is wrecked and only one of them properly survives the crash. I'm thinking there's a permanent time-door in space that connects the two times together, rather than relativity and time dilation as such.

It seems the plot was written for Heston's character Taylor, but he was not available so we see only a few moments of him. Conveniently, Brent meets Nova from the first film and via visiting the ape colony and Cornelius and Zira and Doctor Zaius, and a needless escape detour, we go underground. 

Funnily, Zira thinks Brent is Taylor for a moment, because "humans look all the same". This is kind of revealing. After a visit to a New York subway station reveals to Brent it was Earth all along, damn you all to hell they finally did it, and for plot purposes he is now as good as Taylor and the story can continue.

The military-minded apes, led by Ursus the Gorilla, are intent on an expedition of conquest to the Forbidden Zone. For Zaius, this does not bode well but he accompanies the trek.

A small colony of mutated humans lives underground. They are able to discuss and instill pain through telepathy, and cast powerful illusions from afar. They pray for their god, a doomsday-tier atomic bomb from earlier days.

The campy elements are like some of the worse Star Trek episodes. The humans are costumed in a silly way. The sermon for the bomb takes too long. I admit the removal of the masks was and still is a little chilling.

The apes violently attack the human colony, and their mind power is no match for the "primitives". Taylor (Heston) is found from the prison and he gets some screen time. Nova dies, Brent dies, Taylor dies, Ursus dies, Zaius dies, everyone dies. The film ends up with a nuclear explosion that destroys the entire Earth, Taylor pushing the final trigger. Not sure why, he seemed rather anti-nuke in the first film.

This ending, trying to rival the first film, might look it could put a stopper to a potential sequels. But it didn't prevent three more films from appearing.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes was directed by Ted Post, whose better work includes Hang 'em High. It made me appreciate how these films might be a result of having an already existing infrastructure and know-how to make westerns: horse riding action scenes, guns, stunts, fist-fights, established film locations for arid desert scenes. The next film isn't a pseudo-western, though.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes, 1971

Some accounts have placed this film as the best of the series. Best of the sequels, might be more agreeable. It is still a film that only has existence under the armpit of the original.

Zira and Cornelius arrive to 1970s, together with Milo, a previously unseen genius ape, in a spaceship similar to what we've seen in the first two films. The whole scene with the expressions of the military personnel as the apes are revealed, is funny. It's not that incrediblethe implication is they might be test pilots.

Milo dies in captivity, Zira spills the beans to the zoo vets: they are talking apes from the future.

It's not super-credible the three apes managed to get Taylor's timeship working. They also pretty much had to launch it just about Earth was about to go Boom, and "somehow" they arrived at the point of origin. 

Traveling forward in time in the first film was actually rather well within science. Going backwards is a bit suspect. With the magic time-door theory it could be conceivable.

The timing of the arrival is curious. Although the first film had some elements that suggested the astronauts did not originate that far from contemporary times (of 1968) it is still little weird the US had these super-ships in early 1970s.

Using contemporary times frees the film to explore comedy and human acting. Cornelius and Zira become public superstars, what ensues is a critique of celebrity-obsessed culture and some amusing scenes. 

Zira inadvertently reveals the Earth's inevitable destruction and that humans will be experimented on by apes. Acting the Herod, the politicians choose that whereas the pair could live sterilized, the offspring must die.

A switcheroo in a circus guarantees that the child-chimp Caesar lives, whereas Cornelius and Zira die in 1970s USA.

It might look like a clever idea: Apes didn't so much evolve during 2000 years, but the evolved apes came from the future and helped alter the genetic stock. In a way this makes things worse: Why would chimp DNA affect gorillas and orangutans? As the later films will show, the time travel did not create any new breed of apes.

Now it is explicitly discussed how the apes of the future came to learn English, an item that was usefully ignored in the first film.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, 1972

We begin with Armando (Ricardo Montalban) from the end of the last film, who has kept Caesar the talking ape hidden in his circus for 20 years. 

Yes, it is 1991, and as prophesied, all pets have died and humans took chimps as pets. It just that now they have been turned into slaves. Apes are imported from various countries and trained to work as servants, doing such important duties as cleaning windows, waiting tables, sweeping streets and shining shoes. 

I really enjoy the police state vibes in this small film, showing how the US political system has degraded. The society is apparently become dependent on the apes, yet as they have started to misbehave there is a bunch of black-clad cops and guards controlling them. Loudspeakers continuously announce ape incidents. It might be a little annoying trying enjoy your morning coffee at the streets.

The case of the talking apes must be very well remembered. Touring the city with Armando, Caesar manages to blurt out some words and the cops are fully committed to outing him. (Instead of disregarding it as an impossibility.) I'm wondering why the human society doesn't otherwise see they are fully headed for the Planet of the Apes scenario, which might be preventable by harsh actions.

Caesar has to flee, and in a roundabout way, he mixes with a bunch of newly imported apes and being so damn clever he ends up being the Governor's servantthe one looking for him!

Soon he forms a resistance, where activities and resources are redirected for the benefit of an ape revolution. As Armando is killed in a mind-probe related incident, Caesar becomes genuinely vengeful.

The film neatly interpolates the human world and what eventually becomes the Planet of the Apes. There are also little visual clues and technologies that suggest a path towards the mind control society in Beneath the Planet of the Apes. I'd even go so far as to say I like this better than the last installment, but maybe I am a sucker for theatrics and bleak architecture. It does go slightly downhill, though.

Apart from the friendly MacDonald, the government appears to be fascist: "Torture? But we don't do that to humans?" Having basically "good guys" do these kind of decisions made Escape more nuanced. As Caesar grows more capable, he becomes more ruthless. It looks in the end there are very few heroes to root for.

The fighting in the end takes too long. Yes, it shows the first "netting" of humans by the apes. We get the point already. 

Much as with the previous film, part of me is concerned with the timeline. The Planet of the Apes was 2000 years in the future. It now looks like key events leading to it actually happen in the few decades after Taylor's ship left. In fact, if Taylor had missed his ride he might have seen the rise of the apes first hand, no need to visit the year 4000.

This does make the events more relatable, though. The mistake in Beneath... was to show a human society too far removed from what we know.

We're now shown that apes were made clever through breeding and training, without the Cornelius+Zira genetic contribution. Importantly, we're shown Caesar's example inspires one of the most clever apes to say a single word.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes, 1973

The film begins around about 2600, with a wise old ape recollecting things from the ancient past. Then it's off to early 2000s.

Again, some decades have passed, it's unclear how many. Caesar and his wife are around, and so is Aldo the gorilla. The brother of MacDonald from the last film is around (In absence of MacDonald's actor I suppose) and the events of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes are still in living memory.

But, a lot has happened. The nuclear holocaust, for instance. Much of Earth is now a radioactive wasteland, and although the remaining apes and humans have found a livable oasis, many humans also live under the nuke-melted city of New York.

Strikingly, the society is already quite close to what we saw in the first film, apes have their caste system and although humans still speak it looks they are second-class citizens here. Aldo the gorilla is the most militant of the lot, jealous of the more clever apes and the most clever leader Caesar.

Caesar becomes intrigued by the prospect of finding tapes of his parents in that city and answers to questions. So he, McDonald's-brother, and the wise orangutan Virgil do an excursion. They find the tapes and the fact Earth is destined to be destroyed in around 4000. Virgil muses that the future might not be fixed and that they could choose one "highway" from another. 

The mutant city is a dangerous place, as the society there is developing towards the bomb worshiping mind-controllers of year 4000. Unable to catch the intruders, the mutants nevertheless learn of the existence of an ape colony, and in a weird act of retribution their leader wants to destroy the apetown. 

The most interesting part of this 1973 film is how it precedes the Mad Max series, or perhaps its lesser imitators in the 1980s. The humans wear silly grey-black uniforms, drive crusty motorcycles, cars, jeeps and a school bus through the desert. The drab society in the dark underground city reminds me of the later Escape from New York. These are minor themes here, though.

The gorillas see their moment, Aldo takes control of the colony, breaks into the weapons storage, corrals all the friendly humans and sets out to destroy the opposing force.

The battle is not that impressive. Caesar plots to win the fight as non-violently as possible, but the gorilla force kills the fleeing mutants. The gorilla plot and culpability of Aldo in ape-murder ("Ape shall not kill ape") is revealed, Aldo dies and the humans are set free. But how free, ask the humans. Does the spiral of violence never end?

The bookend closes and the wise ape from 2600s is shown to be teaching a class of both human and ape children. I guess it might indicate the future took another route, and they all learned to live together. But as it's still far from year 4000 and so much could happen in a few decades, it's ambiguous.

As a film, this last installment is quite weak. As an addition to the Planet of the Apes lore, the story is reasonable and fills in an interesting period in the human-ape relations. The time scale becomes even more silly, as the future ape society is now nearly fully formed after 40-50 years from since Taylor left. His ship is probably about 2.5% of completing the distance to the Planet of the Apes. Bon Voyage, Taylor.