Thankful for World Cinema: The White Ribbon

The White Ribbon is an incredible film that, if you have read reviews, is most definitely deserving of the resoundingly positive reviews its gotten. It is a film that knows there are never easy answers and trusts its audience to fill in blanks. Of course, this happens more often than not with foreign films but when one is so accustomed to being spoon-fed it is always refreshing when you are invited to engage in the story and try to piece things together and aren’t handed everything.

The cinematography in this film is absolutely stunning. It is in what can only be referred to as glorious black and white, and shows you all the flexibility and the marvels that monochrome can bring to a film whether it be blinding snow, sharp silhouette, haunting chiaroscuro, high contrast and perfect underexposure. The thought of color in this film is quite literally repulsive. It’s the kind of feat that causes the American Society of Cinematographers to essentially say “Union allegiance be damned this is the best work of the year” by awarding it top prize. It informs the film and enhances it and never makes itself the center of attention.

It’s hard to discuss a film of this caliber without lauding a cast whose depth of talent is beyond reproach and whose ability runs so far down the supporting scale that it’s mind-boggling. As the scenes unravel themselves, and you meet the characters, you are consistently left wondering “Who is that?” after particularly well-played scenes. Especially Berghart Klaussner, The Pastor, who is chilling in a Bergmanesque fashion; Leone Benesch who in one scene perfectly plays the impossibly contradictory actions and emotions as indicated by the voice-over narration; Janina Fautz as Erna, the Steward’s daughter, who in the end is the overlooked and in a certain regard the reviled hero; Susanne Lothar as the dependent and taken-advantage-of midwife, and the entire young cast, including Maria-Victoria Dragus and Leonard Proxauf; believe it or not this list could go on.

It is a narrative tapestry that pulls together five narrative strands and slowly but surely you start to see how they all intertwine and how the fates of each family unit affect the other. You ultimately get what director Michael Haneke was in search of which is an examination of the psychological landscape that existed in the children of Germany on the eve of The Great War, the same children who would grow up and bring war to the world again.

It is a film which seeks to leave its impact through certain minimal elements. For example, there is no score the only music we have are the Baroness and the Tutor rehearsing, and more lastingly there is the once repeated haunting hymn of the children’s choir in the church. The minimal visual treatment exemplifies itself when there is a beating we hear it and sit watching the door. Instead of seeing what goes on behind the closed door, we are haunted by only the sound.

This film is immensely watchable and the kind of tale you can watch unwind for much longer than it does run, which is impressive as it already runs a hefty 144 minutes. Needless to say this film is expertly paced and keeps each strand of the story equally compelling such that you want to keep going to see what happens in one or the other.

The edit both visually and in terms of sound is fantastic. Narratives are juggled deftly and kept in order and there is one audio cut from a piece of farm equipment droning to a pig mid-squeak; the cut is also visual but is especially inspired in terms of sound.

Not only is this a film whose writer, also the director Michael Haneke, juggles many storylines but he does something which seems so much easier for the foreign filmmaker which is to make a film heavily featuring kids which isn’t a kid’s movie but a serious drama. It is also an interesting piece because it sets you up to not get all the answers because you see early on that the narrator doesn’t have many, if any at all, as he has limited omniscience and when he does have an idea he doesn’t push hard enough.

The White Ribbon is not only a great film but an important one. It is one that will cause you to discuss it for quite a bit afterwards and is the latest great work in a very accomplished career for director Michael Haneke. It’s the kind of foreign film that should most definitely be making more of a dent as its appeal is universal and should not be kept to the arthouse set.

10/10

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Review- Toast

Victoria Hamilton and Oliver Kennedy in Toast (W2 Media)

In seeing Toast a very fundamental question occurred to me because this film gave me the answer more purely than most do. The question being: “Why do we go to the movies?” The answer: “For the unexpected.” I never expected from Toast one of the most surpassingly beautiful scenes I’ve seen in a while.

This is just one of the many surprises this film has in store. Granted I knew next to nothing about this film going in but even taking that into account there are some wonderful surprises in store. This film is about the upbringing of famed British chef/personality Nigel Slater. What you get, however, is something more intimate and vibrant than appearances would have you believe.

Aside from a scene of surpassing beauty which is one of the great instant tear-jerkers ever, which features a wonderful selection of source music there is also within this film a great montage and a creative display of the passage of time. Throughout there are some wonderfully lit shots and creative camera angles which are used to great effect.

To not give too much away I will not describe the above scene in too much detail to keep the surprise fresh. It is the kind of scene, however, that many can make effective but few can make that effective. Moreover, it is followed up by a scene rendered emotional that few can make work. This film manages to make the simple act of eating toast an emotional experience.

Of course, a lot of this should not be considered a surprise when you note it’s Lee Hall, writer of Billy Elliot (stage and screen), who brought Nigel Slater’s story from memoir to script. Not only do you have in Hall a man who can depict children truthfully (or their perspective on things) but also one who has rendered dramas in this socio-economic milieu before and can weave a character discovering one’s sexuality into a plot without making it the film’s sole focus.

While being tremendously moving at times this film also balances itself with a good dose of comedy. Comedy is also inherent to a narrative wherein a protagonist develops a love for food and cooking despite frequently having an abnormal relationship with it, whether eating bad canned food or using it to seek attention or affection. Yet even the comedy is always met with high stakes. As funny as it can be at times you realize things are serious because of who his competition is.

This film is made even stronger by having a small but incredibly able cast. First and foremost is Oliver Kennedy who plays Young Nigel and carries the film for two acts before being aged. He was found through a long and slightly unorthodox search, which tested personality and instinct more than honed acting chops and it truly paid off. A natural, diamond in the rough was found. Typically when you have a character portrayed at two different ages you see him younger for less screen time. That is not the case here, however, Freddie Highmore’s section, where Nigel is 16 and has been in his current living situation for some time is no less compelling. Furthermore, it’s where he gets to follow through on his lifelong interest. Highmore was, of course, one of the biggest child actors of his time and is yet another one making a wonderful transition to more adult roles.

If you’ve not yet gotten an indication of how good this film is take this as a hint: I am only now mentioning Helena Bonham Carter’s involvement as Mrs. Potter, the cleaning woman who sidles into the home. She is both funny and dastardly and at times a sympathetic figure but always a bit immature and misguided, even while being so complex she manages to be an effective antagonist. Then you have the curmudgeonly father Ken Stott who is equal parts hilarious and infuriating.

This film was presented at my local theatre through the From Britain With Love series which is showcasing six British independent films in art houses across the US. This particular screening was accompanied by a post-screening Q & A where director S.J. Clarkson took questions not only from audience-members at Lincoln Center in New York but had some relayed to her from the web. My question, whether by relay or repetition, did make it through to her. It was this: Did Freddie Highmore and Oliver Kennedy compare notes on playing the same character at different ages? The answer was a similar one to Tom Hanks’ approach to playing Forrest Gump in as much as Highmore merely imitated Kennedy’s accent.

Amongst many other things this film made me rethink my aversion, in certain instances, to lens-spiking. Towards the end of each section the actor playing Nigel knowingly spikes the lens. However, on further thought considering it’s narrated by a disembodied older version of Nigel, it’s his perception and he knows he’s talking to us, it doesn’t bother me as much. We as an audience through the voice-over acknowledge that the story is being told to us in hindsight and that there’s some filtering and artifice involved.

Toast is a moving film in every sense of the word and one that I’d gladly see again. I’ve said it a lot recently but it’s not less true here, that it’s one the best films I’ve seen this year thus far and I can see it standing tall at the end of the year.

10/10

Review- The Hangover Part II

Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galiafanakis in The Hangover Part II (Warner Bros.)

If you read my review of The Hangover you’ll know that I was quite a fan of the original installment of the film. It even cracked my Top 15 Films of 2009 list. It remains, regretfully for the follow-up, as one of the best comedies of the past few years.

Part of what works so well in the first, and what I didn’t quite articulate then, is that when you’re dealing with a story wherein your characters seemingly irrevocably messed up their life in the course of one night of binge drinking and partying and did crazy things, add to that they cannot recall what they did and you can have almost anything happen as long as it hangs together when it gets explained. This should be an extraordinarily freeing experience for writers and filmmakers instead it became a case of variations on precisely the same thing.

As the trailers for the film started rolling out I started to get a Home Alone 2 vibe form it, meaning that while it may be funny it would be essentially the same film but relocated. Little did I know just how many things would be pretty much the same as they were the first time around and what compounded that is that it wasn’t even that funny. At least Home Alone 2 was the rare film in the course of my life that made me cry from laughter.

One perfect example of how identical they decided to make this film is that the one new character who they bring along with them on their night of partying, Teddy (Mason Lee), is the one who vanishes and must be located. So it’s the same triad as the first time. Doug stays behind and does damage control. So the dynamic is similar but a little more unbalanced than it seemed last time. Zach Galiafanakis has been the one who has most benefited from the first film career-wise and it seems like the film was designed to give him even more moments both organic and inorganic than prior. While Helms is still very funny he seems to have fewer chances to take over scenes.

There were long passages of this film where I barely made a sound, which is rare for me in a comedy but to be fair this film does have its moments. Two very noticeable ones are musical in nature, one is original to this film a parody of Billy Joel’s “Allentown” and the other which rehashes a cameo from the first in a very humorous way.

While one cameo which was sort of a re-run works another, that of Nick Cassavetes as the tattoo artist, just falls completely flat. As unpopular as he is now, Mel Gibson would’ve been funnier in the part, which was how it was originally cast.

In the film there are a few things that spring to mind that kind of make you wonder a bit too much and over-thinking is the enemy of a comedy. Firstly, Alan recites many random factoids about Thailand throughout and one of them ends up being a key event. So kudos to an extent for giving us expository information without us necessarily knowing it. There are two other head-scratchers, however, that are harder to overlook: one being how avoidable the chaos that ensued was this time. Second is the consequences a few of the characters face are a bit too serious too be laughed off lightheartedly and takes away some of the intended comedy.

Practically all the complaints listed above are story-related, which is in and of itself a shame because you do have the same talented core doing their best in this one also but this time they have substandard, stale material that they cannot coax enough laughs out of to salvage this mess.

The sad reality is that pretty much everyone who saw and enjoyed the first film, which were many, went out to see it opening weekend and gave the film a record opening (for an R-Rated live-action comedy) so there will be a third film. Hopefully the mistakes of this installment are learned from and addressed.

5/10

Review- Meek’s Cutoff

Michelle Williams in Meek's Cutoff (Oscilloscope Pictures)

Note: Spoilers within.

The first thing that bears mentioning with regards to Meek’s Cutoff is the trailer and it does connect to the film in a very real way. After watching the trailer you’d get the sense that while this will be a dramatic western and one with a journey but it’d be more uptempo. As soon as the movie starts, however, you will learn that exactly the opposite is true. This film has a very deliberate pace, which includes one of the slowest dissolves I’ve yet witnessed.

This is not to say that the pace is negative but just a warning that as a viewer it would behoove you to read a review, whether it be this one or a few others also before deciding to go out and see it. You really need to make sure you want to commit to seeing this movie because the trailer is selling a false bill of goods to an extent.

To be more explicit about the pace the polite word would methodical, and methodical paces can be trying if there is no reason for it but there is reason here. The tale that’s being told here is a part of a journey. There are a group of seven migrant people and a pathfinder looking for a new beginning. You don’t see their beginning but only the plight they currently face, which is mainly that of thirst. When the threat of dehydration and exhaustion are ever-present it can’t really be communicated in a quick cutting smooth flowing narrative context.

That’s just one aspect of the narrative conflict which is at work. This is the kind of film that actually has more going on than you realize on the surface because it doesn’t comment much on its issues and when it does so it’s only in a rather superficial way that belies its depth. The first struggles these travelers face is with with their pathfinder, played very well by an unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood. They doubt he can really get them where they want to be, where there’s water and so do we after a point. This conflict precedes the one that dominates the second half of the film.

The major conflict of the second half of the film is both deciding what to do when they capture an Indian, Rod Rondeaux, and if they should follow and trust him. The film does well to not completely overlook its first conflict and places Meek (Greenwood) at odds with the traveling party about what to do with the native, there is some debate and they decide to spare him and hope he can lead them where they want to go.

The conflicts and intrigue continue here as not all the travelers are in agreement, some are scared of him and some see no alternative but to trust him. Stakes also get raised when much of their supplies are lost when one of their wagons crashes after making it down a steep grade.

The film only ever really goes over the top with some of its politicized dialogue. Almost any Post-Studio Era Western will have its debate on the true nature of the Native American and ostracize the racist White man who seeks to kill him- so that’s expected but it’s a bit much. Aside from that the drama is played rather close to the vest a lot of the time and doesn’t boil over too often. There is religious despair intimated by readings from The Bible, doubt and mistrust cast in glances and subtext.

There’s a stark isolation to the landscape and the framing of the characters that imbues itself in the celluloid and it’s a refreshingly cloistered tale wherein not only are there merely nine characters but you will even see them all at once. It’s a rare true ensemble piece where not only do all the actors get their moments but they frequently all play in a single shot.

It’s the kind of film you watch and feel like not much has happened but then when you reflect back on it there was more than you thought and to address the pace again I was caught off-guard by the ending because it didn’t quite feel like 104 minutes had passed. To comment on the ending I’m not sure it makes or breaks the film. It is open but if you consider the two most likely possible outcomes for the tale would those have been more dramatically satisfying? I think not, so this works just fine.

7/10