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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Rewind Review- Trucker (2008)

As those who know me, and if such a person exists, cyberstalk me, know I created this blog after writing on another site, which shall remain nameless, for a while. The point is, I have material sitting around waiting to be re-used on occasion I will re-post them here. Some of those articles or reviews may have been extemporaneous at the time but are slightly random now, hence the new title and little intro, regardless enjoy!

Trucker is a film that knows that dialogue is precious and never wastes it. It is not afraid to leave the subtext as just that- subtext. Too many films feel the need to say what you’re already thinking, what you already know and fill in that blank for you when it’s not really necessary at all.

Written and directed by James Mottern it tells the tale of Diane (Michelle Monaghan) a woman who, as the title suggests, makes a living by driving a big rig. The curveball that comes into her life is that her ex-husband is dying and his wife Jenny (Joey Lauren Adams) can’t watch Diane’s estranged son (Jimmy Bennett) because her father is sick.

OK, so at this point you want to say “Stop, I’ve heard this one before” and you would be correct but the success of this film, like that of many films, is not necessarily in its originality because original concepts and stories are in short supply but in their execution. This story is executed quite well indeed.

The strength of this film, like any film which is about real people and real situations, should be in it its ensemble. Michelle Monaghan believed a lot in this project and wanted to flex her acting muscles which can be assumed by the fact that she signed on as a producer of this film. While always maintaining a consistent and true characterization she hit several different notes and her evolution from unwilling babysitter to mother was perfect, unspoken and like most things in reality not a steady upward climb as there are several missteps along the way. She has the looks and the ability to be an A-List leading lady.

When there is a mother-child team it needs to be a harmonious and comfortable fit for the actors engaged in the story or we as an audience will check out emotionally, even if intellectually we understand the plight; the connection needs to be made. For that connection to occur both actors need to be on equal footing and Jimmy Bennett is certainly that. Although this film has been in the can for a while this adds to a long and impressive string of performances that Jimmy Bennett has been putting together from projects as disparate as Asia Argento’s The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, one of the most psychologically effective and haunting movies of the decade to a blockbuster bit part like in Star Trek. His anger and rebellion at the beginning never feels petulant and whiny which shows that he was well-directed and at a young age has a good deal of natural talent.

The supporting cast is also worth mentioning: Joey Lauren Adams, who is best known for being Amy from Chasing Amy, who is very convincing as the woman stuck in the middle of all this family drama. Why she never had a career akin to Renee Zellweger’s is beyond me. Then there is Benjamin Bratt who played the sick father who is better than I’ve ever seen him in anything in this film. Him and his son share a very emotional scene which is the epitome of restraint on the part of both actors and it was great to watch. Nathan Fillion plays Runner the confidant and new father figure for Peter and was also very well-played and also a developed character of his own.

The film ends at the right time on a beautifully framed and orchestrated pull out, the pace is spot on and it never drags. It is always seeking to move forward and it never seeks answers but resolutions because that’s what we typically get in life: moving on, forgiveness, unspoken apologies and if you’re lucky a second chance.

8/10

61 Days of Halloween- Tremors

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment so I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

Tremors

Michael Gross and Robert Jayne in Tremors (Universal)

Tremors is without a doubt a very surprising and very fun film that is likely to be enjoyed by a wide variety of filmgoers. It’s an hour-and-a-half of escapist cinema that is both funny and engrossing at the same time. Upon first glance this might seem like the kind of film you’ve seen a thousand times before but it is definitely worth a closer look.

The first few minutes of the film seem to set a tone of a schlocky take off comedy that isn’t going to offer much in the way of content. However, the groundwork for the forthcoming events are laid very well during the comedy-dominant portion of the film. The rest of the film is an intricate balance between humor and science fiction elements. When the inciting incident occurs the old man is found perched high about the desert on power lines the movie starts to move quicker. The pace of this film from there on out is fantastic and then the beginning no longer feels out of place.

A great asset to this tale is the ensemble cast which is often preferable in such a tale as this but rarely well utilized. In this group of characters we definitely have our central characters defined and in the forefront. While the secondary characters are sketched in broad strokes they are each individuals and do not seem like stereotypes. However, an ensemble of unique quirky characters would be nothing without a good cast and Tremors boasts that as well.

Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward play best friends who appear to be quite similar and therein lie their conflicts. These two carry the film throughout but whereas with many films the two lead actors wandering through the plot complications may get bothersome they get help along the way. Michael Gross formerly of Family Ties is great and absolutely hysterical in a supporting role and Reba McEntire always seems to be a service in a small and over-the-top part not to mention that she adds quite a catchy tune to the closing credits.

This film draws upon a few cinematic techniques to make it effective. Firstly, the use of the subjective camera along the ground to represent the “snakeoids” worked very well to create suspense and tension. For quite some time the filmmakers also decided not to reveal the creature knowing that the fear (if it in fact caused fear) of the unknown was the greatest fear of all. Those involved in making Tremors made the unusual decision to have most of their action take place during the day time in which it is very difficult to create an effective horror film but the way in which they used the ingeniously simple concept of being trapped makes all the suspense elements work.

Aside from being tremendously funny and having an amazing score at the climax along with an equally interesting climax Tremors succeeds in two very interesting methods both illustrated by the way these creatures attack. First, in a very unique way I felt this film took the fear of being buried alive and elevated it to new heights by blending it with ghoulishness and at the same time without being grotesque allowing the thought to stay in the imagination. It’s a very interesting concept which I would like to see a straightforward horror film take on sometime. Aside from dealing greatly with the concept of being trapped which is always a great premise to go with in the horror/sci-fi genre. Tremors also deals with a seemingly insurmountable opponent which has an unstoppable method of attack, the snakeoids being sensitive to seismic vibrations would obviously eventually kill these people it seems.

It is a perfect setup for A Nightmare on Elm Street-type ending but the original filmmakers didn’t go for the sequel (at least an obvious one, as there have been sequels) and truly came up with an ingenious way for out heroes to be victorious which is sure to please.

While Tremors is undoubtedly based and inspired on the science fiction films of the 1950s I think it’s no accident that it was produced and came out towards the end of the Cold War. It is never affirmed what makes these creatures the way they are but the idea of residual radiation at the end of the arms race is something that may also have been an implied message from this film.

Tremors is, however, a film you take away whatever you brought to it there is no heavy-handed attempt at a message and if you just want to have fun you most definitely will, although considering that the sci-fi films of the 50s always had some sort of message it’s something to consider.

One notable deviation I noticed from the 1950s Sci-Fi formula is that although Tremors is a film about fun but it did seem that Bert (Michael Gross) and Heather Gummer (Reba McEntire) were exaggerated to fit the liberal interpretation of countryside conservatives as card-carrying NRA members with an artillery in their basement. Any commentary in this regard and/or rebuttal against it is veiled in humor and is used to serve the plot and doesn’t seem to be an unnecessary catechism about socio-political norms. This film never takes itself that seriously and it’s all the better for it. Whether it’s a spoof or an updating, thriller or comedy you can’t help but love Tremors. Whatever it takes its inspiration from it manages to be a film that stands alone and is unique in its own way. It’s definitely worth seeing.

10/10

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