Monday, January 25, 2010

The White Ribbon: Das Weisse Band – Eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte

Michael Haneke’s sometimes riveting, sometimes ponderously slow film The White Ribbon explores themes of sin, guilt, punishment, and denial in a small German town on the eve of World War I. And you don’t have to be half German, like I am, to know that means heavy stuff.

Shot in black-and-white that gives it the look of something released in the 1930s or 40s, the film presents striking images of small-town country settings: fields of wheat and fields of snow. Notably, almost as in a documentary, we see the faces of German farmers, professionals, ministers, and royalty before the mutations caused by war, economic depression, and political upheaval: all subsequent history from 1914 to 1945.

The little northern German town of Eichwald has been plagued by inexplicable acts of cruelty. A doctor is severely injured when his horse is tripped by a thin wire strung between two trees. A boy is found hanging upside down, stripped and beaten. The acts cause fear and suspicion, and a disturbing pall hangs over the town. Similarly, a disturbing tone permeates the film. Are these acts simply acts of cruelty or are they meant as punishments?

The narrator, the town’s schoolteacher (Christian Friedl), seems to suspect Klara, played chillingly by Maria-Victoria Dragus. She is the grim-faced daughter of a minister whose strict paternalism includes punishment of his children by means of caning and the wearing of a white ribbon that symbolizes the innocence and purity for which they must strive. But anyone who has seen Haneke’s Funny Games (2007) knows that Haneke uses white as a misleading, ironic color that can also symbolize the blankness of the human soul.

As Klara (the girl clad in black in the image above) seems to be the center of a group of dour girls and boys, one might expect the town to be gripped by melodramatic malevolence as in Village of the Damned. But this is not an action thriller. This is a thriller of ideas that I still haven’t quite sorted out, though a disturbed feeling has stayed with me since seeing the film.

Perhaps the answer lies with Klara. She has learned enough punishment from her father to know how to punish others. Perhaps she and the other children are, in turn, punishing the adults for their unpunished transgressions. "And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us," her father prays. But perhaps there are trespasses that cannot be forgiven.

Or perhaps the blank soul lies elsewhere. Even when concrete suspicions arise, no one seems willing to reveal the wrongdoers. The trespasses must reside in the town like an unwanted visitor whose presence changes the townspeople's way of life forever as will subsequent history. In addition, history will ensure that any wrongdoing will be buried under the more horrendous transgressions of World War I and World War II.

I like how Haneke surrounds sources of light – lamps, a fire – by sheets of deep darkness as he did so dramatically in Time of the Wolf (2003). I also like how lengthy shots frame doors behind which something is happening – a demonstration of punishment or grief – but we don't get to see what’s happening. Sometimes, frustratingly, a scene seems to promise resolution until it is closed off by doors.


Haneke establishes a pervasive dread and presents a number of disturbing images that have a visceral, thought-provoking effect, but he never grants us a resolution other than implying that the worst sin is the denial of sins committed by others. Thus, the ending is a frustrating one and the movie proceeds at a flat pace that never reaches a dramatic climax. I’d like to see this film again. Knowing that Haneke isn’t going to answer all my questions, I might find clearer answers of my own. I’d love comments from anyone willing to share their insights into this film, one that is full of relentless dread and stimulating questions, but one that doesn't always let you in far enough to keep you compelled as you view it, though it keeps you thinking after you view it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

He walks alone: The Book of Eli

He walks alone across a colorless desert wasteland. He demonstrates fantastic skill with bow and arrow, machete, and shotgun. He answers with a terse “No” when the attractive Solara (Mila Kuni) asks if she can accompany him. When Solara witnesses his incredible martial arts skills, she wonders, “Who are you?” Is this the man without a name in an austere, violent spaghetti Western? No. This is a man called Eli, played by Denzel Washington (whose presence carries this Hughes brothers film), in an austere, violent addition to the post-apocalyptic genre that has all the trappings of a Western with shades of Mad Max (all those souped-up vehicles that seem to find enough gas in a world devastated by nuclear war).

A world in which you eat stray cats, barter for clean water, and try to stay away from marauding gangs of cannibals (outlaws) is a perfect setting for a dusty, crumbling Western town (with a dilapidated J. Crew) ruled by same-old-sleazy-villain Gary Oldman as Carnegie (yeah, those industrial tycoons were capitalist monsters) who is reading up on the history of Mussolini but is looking for a special book: that sacred book that has the power to unite people. (Wonder what book it is?) And Eli just happens to be carrying said book when he wanders into this tough Western town to get a battery charged so he can listen to his iPod as he wanders.

In addition to other violent martial arts combats in which severed heads and limbs and sprays of blood are shown in kind of cool but somewhat cartoonish silhouette, a showdown must ensue in this wasteland town. Because Carnegie wants that damn book so he can use it to gain power! (What are the advantages of power when the world’s like this? More food? Better water? Concubines? I guess. Take over the whole devastated world?) The shootout in town is fun, and this is followed by another standard Western movie scene: the shootout at the besieged house whose thin wooden walls get riddled by small arms fire – and, in this case, a Gatling gun and an RPG. In another tribute to Westerns, Carnegie’s right-hand man, the dude wielding the RPG launcher, likes to whistle an Ennio Moricone theme (actually from Once Upon a Time in America, but you get the point).

I enjoyed Washington’s role and his portrayal of this butt-kicking man of faith, and I loved the Western elements. The ending, reminiscent of Fahrenheit 451, takes us to a devastated San Francisco where the Golden Gate Bridge has a big hole in it, and humanity’s last best bastion of hope is on Alcatraz. I liked the hopeful ending, how Eli fools Carnegie when it comes time to relinquish the book, and the whole veneration of books theme. I also enjoy Denzel Washington and any movie that resembles a Western. Not bad for my first viewing of a film released in 2010, and here's hoping this turns out to be a great year in film.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Imaginarium of Terry Gilliam

In Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, an old-fashioned acting troupe travels around modern-day London in a lopsided horse-drawn gypsy wagon. They camp in condemned lots strewn with rubble. Their stage unfolds from their wagon and their show features a magic mirror that offers audience members a chance to enter their own imaginations. But their imaginations can be manipulated by Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) – who offers chances to make moral decisions, or by Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), the Devil himself – who sends his victims to hell. Or so it seems. The film is never quite clear about how things work in the fantastic worlds within the Imaginarium. But if what you see leaves you lost from time to time, you can always sit back and let it blow your mind.

Christopher Plummer plays philosopher Doctor Parnassus as an immortal King Lear who made a bad choice. He made a bargain with Mr. Nick, the devil: eternal life for the soul of the first daughter he might sire. Doc. Parnassus never thought he’d fall in love – but one thing about life is that there’s always the unexpected. Soon it will be his much-loved daughter’s sixteenth birthday and time to pay up. But Mr. Nick is a gambling man, and the wager is laid that Doctor P. can keep his daughter, Valentina, (Lily Cole) if he can win five souls over to the powers of his imagination before Mr. Nick can lure five souls to his temptations. (Again, what it means for the Doctor to “win five souls” is never quite clear.) Parnassus has the help of a young magician (Andrew Garfield) in love with Valentina, and a dwarf (Verne Troyer). As for Tony (Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell), the mysterious stranger they save from hanging, it is unclear whose side he is on.

Terry Gilliam! You’ve got to hand it to the guy. The creator of Brazil certainly has a unique and vivid imagination. Film fantasy worlds are often like something else you’ve seen – but Terry Gilliam’s worlds are unlike anything you’ve seen: an oily black river turns into a cobra with the face of Mr. Nick; massive surrealistic buildings rear out of the waste land; cliffs lean at giddy heights; ladders sprout from a whimsical pastoral landscape; the ladders split and Tony (Jude Law) balances on gigantic stilts; a huge English bobby’s face and helmet spiral out of the ground; Valentina flees through a void of floating glass shards; Tony (Colin Farrell), his corruption exposed, evades gaping chasms; Tony (Johnny Depp) escorts an avaricious woman through a swamp of glitzy consumer goods.

The late Heath Ledger’s first appearance in the film – hanging by his neck from London’s Millennium Bridge – is somewhat disquieting. In addition, Tony turns out to be a confused amnesiac who might be someone who can’t be trusted. Indeed, Tony casts lustful eyes on Valentina – and she’s not even sixteen! Then he wants to help the Doctor win Mr. Nick’s wager by jazzing up the show to attract larger audiences, but this also gives him the chance to lose some of his enemies in a bizarre world of cross-dressing London policemen.

While shooting scenes in damp and dirty London locations, Ledger seems to have been suffering from a respiratory illness on top of suffering from insomnia, and this shows in his portrayal of the troubled Tony: disheveled clothes, long and dirty hair, the hyperactive style reminiscent of his performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight.

By using three different actors to complete Ledger’s performance, Gilliam suggests that Tony is a very conflicted individual. He had good intentions, but temptations led him astray. Depp, Law, and Farrell fill in for Ledger by playing alternate versions of Tony in three different fantasy worlds, and it is touching to see each of them doing his part with enthusiasm and talent, imitating their friend’s style and accent so that, wearing the same makeup, they look like Ledger. It took me a while to be certain that suddenly Tony was being played by Johnny Depp and not Heath Ledger. Then it was fun looking for the appearances of Jude Law and Colin Farrell. Farrell, especially, does a fine job of portraying Tony in the imaginary world that reveals him to be an exploitative fraud. As Tony, he is devious, desperate, and uncontrite. His is the last soul that will break the tie between Parnassus and Mr. Nick, and the competition is suspenseful.

Gilliam’s CGI worlds are mind-blowing, but Gilliam always shows his talent for constructed sets. Some of the fantastical landscapes start out in meticulously decorated sound stages – and the gypsy wagon is a clever, surrealistic construction with multiple hallways and floors that seem too numerous to fit inside the structure as seen on the outside.

In addition, Gilliam creates striking contrasts by employing locations in London’s abandoned lots so that ruined warehouse walls and collapsed girders form a bleak setting for the wandering theater of Doctor P. These locations are sometimes more interesting than some of the befuddling fantasy images. For Doctor Parnassus and his outcast purveyors of imagination and crucial choices, the real world is a dirty, grimy place full of garbage. These are the locations for the majority of Ledger’s scenes as the troubled stranger whose feigned death is an attempt to escape unavoidable demons within the hauntingly truthful, fever-dream worlds of the Imaginarium.

Like Doctor Parnassus, Terry Gilliam is compelled to manipulate bizarre worlds of imagination, and this fantastic show will definitely keep you watching wide-eyed. It might also cause you to scratch your head from time to time. But the show is definitely worthwhile as a showcase for unique visuals as well as for the heartfelt performances of Depp, Law, and Farrell: a tribute by actors for the actor friend they lost.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Young Victoria

Emily Blunt’s charming portrayal of Queen Victoria makes screenwriter Julian Fellowes’s and director Jean-Marc Valée’s historical drama The Young Victoria a delightfully engaging little film. Unconstrained by any strict adherence to how the real Victoria might have looked or acted, Blunt is free to interpret how the young 18-year-old heir to the throne of England resisted moves by her mother to usurp her power, shed herself of advisors seeking to control her, and chose a spouse whom she loved and who respected her desires to be a true ruler. As Victoria, Blunt reveals budding regal stubbornness as she refuses to sign a regency agreement limiting her power, and yet her suggestions of doubts and fears build suspense as this very young woman becomes queen of the most powerful nation in the world. Especially delightful are her adolescent acts of rebellion against her isolated lifestyle as arranged by her controlling mother (Miranda Richardson) and her sinister companion, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong).

Rupert Friend as the romantic Prince Albert who becomes a beloved figure in British history, and Paul Bettany as the conniving Lord Melbourne, both add solid support. Briefly, Jim Broadbent as King William IV provides a dramatic moment in which the old lion disrupts a grand banquet to rant at Victoria’s devious mother.

Costume dramas featuring the pomp and pageantry of balls and banquets tend to get stuffy quickly without cutting to a rousing battle scene or labor riot, but director Valée establishes an energetic pace and injects his film with some visual flair. Dimly lit scenes suggest the realities of an evening spent by candle and firelight during the 1830s. His use of jump cuts, montage, slow motion, and a dash of handheld camerawork save the film from visual blandness.

At a smoothly paced 104 minutes, The Young Victoria feels like only half a film. Victoria becomes queen, marries Albert, has her first child – and then the film ends with line after line of superscript summarizing her long reign. Victoria and Albert express concern for the poor and downtrodden laborers of industrial England, but we never see Victorian England beyond Buckingham Palace and a couple of carriage rides in St. James Park. This film is strictly about the young Queen Victoria and not about Victorian England.

With a larger budget and a longer screenplay, we could have seen at least glimpses of England’s booming industry and the resultant social problems. In the same way Valée skillfully uses montage to skip through the years and yet incorporate development, he could have stretched the plot to include Victoria and Albert’s first ride on the Great Western Railway and their tour of the Crystal Palace (a nice CGI opportunity) in Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition of 1851. In addition, background snippets of Potato Famine horrors and military blunders in the horrendously mismanaged Crimean War (1854-1856) could have pumped up the drama.

But I fully realize that that is not this film. As a depiction of a few years in the life of the young Victoria, this is an enjoyable, well-acted, artfully filmed little historical drama.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Little Worlds: The Best in Art Direction: 2009

I have a deep passion for art direction: how a film creates an alternate world by means of actual constructed structures, painted mattes, or CGI. I’ve always been fascinated by the power of a film to depict a little world that takes us places we’ve never been to before, or takes us places we’ve been to before but shows us a different perspective. The best art direction – whether it is rendered by means of CGI or an actual constructed set – can totally transport you elsewhere. Apropos of the title for this blog, I offer this tribute to some of the most artistic and memorable little worlds depicted in 2009 films. Please feel free to post observations about your favorite little worlds from this past year’s films.

The Two Worlds of Coraline from Coraline

Coraline’s real world and the world through the door in the wall are both whimsical yet creepy at the same time: the decrepit house, the bleak hills, the 1950s minimalism of the button-eyed world, the skeletal trees – the garden that bursts into a riot of fantastic vegetation.

South American Plateau from Up

As in both Conan Doyle's novel and the movie version of The Lost World, there’s a jungle world on top of a plateau. In Up I love the minimal depiction of the rock formations and the surrealistic vegetation. I especially like the austere setting of the rocky ground through which old man and pudgy boy drag their irksome burden.

Cinema le Gamarr from Inglourious Basterds

It’s a cinema created by a movie-lover for movie-lovers, the kind of cinema you’d love to go to – but not on Operation Kino Day. Outside, there’s the bright marquee with the Art Deco lettering, the facade curving out from the other buildings into a quiet Parisian street. Inside, there’s the spacious lobby, the brass railings of the stairway curving up to the mezzanine, and the compact theater with the amply large screen. It’s a classic setting for a shocking and dramatic sequence – death by cinema.

H. G. Wellsian World from 9

There’s much artistry in the depiction of war machines like the Martian tripods in War of the Worlds, firing cannons and launching elaborate weapons of mass destruction. Before the war, the futuristic factories producing these machines look like illustrations from an H. G. Wells novel. Ruins of massive sculptures and palaces accompany the rise of a fascist regime. When the war is over, London is a dark, hazardous jungle of metallic rubble under a scowling gray sky.

Grungy Spaceship Elysium from Pandorum

Picture the noisome caverns of The Descent only on a space ship. This mammoth, lost ship has many dark, sticky levels; lots of random wreckage and tubes hanging down; deep pits leading to who knows where – and you never know where the cannibalistic zombies are going to pop up and do their Donner Party thing. It’s a massive set constructed in a sound stage in Germany; thus, it is one of the best non-CGI worlds in film this year.

Alien Suburbia from Planet 51

Here the denizens of the tranquil 1950s-era suburban utopia are green beings on a planet that's not Earth, and the invading alien is a goofy American astronaut in the big white spacesuit. In this play on classic 1950s science-fiction films, the green people's home town is a colorful, comfy little burg with diner and comic book shop, but the shapes are all curvy and evocative of Dr. Seussian surrealim, and, of course, not far outside the town is the stark "Nevada" desert with the secret anti-alien base under a ramshackle gas station - another standard sci-fi setting.

Cormac McCarthy’s Post-Apocalyptic America from The Road

It’s a stroke of genius using shots of Mount St. Helens destruction and making it even gloomier by muting colors and toning up the gray. Perhaps the year’s best cinematic image shows Man and Boy walking down a crumbling two-lane blacktop through a thicket of telephone poles leaning at conflicting angles. This is a very convincing, very grim world in shambles.

Na’viworld from Avatar

Once Jake Sully goes traipsing through the jungle, I was transported into a wondrous world. I love jungle adventures! And this jungle is full of strange luminescent plant life and weird flying lizards that spin around like whirligigs. From the massive Hometree to the dizzying Floating Mountains, it’s a visually striking world – the perfect setting for action and adventure. Didn’t much care for the Sacred Willow Tree.

Steampunk London from Sherlock Holmes

The dank alleys, the gray river, the steel-hulled boats, the massive iron chains, the modernistic emerging structure of Tower Bridge – all these elements make Sherlock Holmes’s world a rich, detailed setting for unspeakable evil and endless fisticuffs.