Thursday, November 25, 2010

The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009)

The White Ribbon is a rumination on ritualized punishment by master film maker Michael Haneke. The film revolves around the residents of a small Austrian village just prior to World War I. Following a series of events both routine and unusually horrific, the peaceful life they've become used to is turned upside down. 

To say that The White Ribbon is an understated film is understated. It's obviously the work of a master film maker specifically for that reason. It takes someone confident enough in an ability they understand to be superior to craft a film as patient, studious and methodical as this film is. In every way, this should probably be a very boring film. This is not a flashy film, with exciting action and events happening every second.

The narrative is built like a mystery, a nearly perfect mystery, and the subtlety of it's construction is only possibly overshadowed by the performances, the dialog, the  script and the cinematography. It's shot in black and white, and so beautiful that there could be a few paragraphs worth of hyperbolic language to describe. I could seriously go on for a very long time about the photography in this film. This alone would be reason to see this film. 

Haneke has managed to create a film which is tightly wound and has a more consistent rhythm than a metronome by keeping things as subtle as he does and by using a decidedly uncinematic cast. That's not to say the performances aren't good, because they are, every single one of them is superb, but none of these actors look like they just stepped off a back lot somewhere in Hollywood or spend long hours devoted to the iconography of the physical image that we cultivate in most of our cinema and television. They aren't your classic Hollywood "pretty people," and whether we want to believe that or not, it makes a difference in how far we're willing to go in suspending our disbelief. When people are so attractive, so perfectly coiffed that it's abnormal, and looks like an effect they're attempting to achieve, we know it, and we don't believe it as willingly as we do people who look like they belong in an early twentieth century Austrian farming community. All of those elements come together to give the film a steady, quiet rhythm that keep it from becoming a boring, slow, preachy snoozefest, and make it engaging, suspenseful, interesting, and ultimately, an example of the power of quality, no frills film making. 

There's a cliche it's really easy to get tired of hearing or reading when you're a film enthusiast. Film makers, actors, producers, everyone invovled in film making and just about every single variety of storytelling in general use it. They say, "I was willing to do it to serve the story,""we really didn't want to do anything but serve the story." It's always about "serving the story." It's something said on a near constant basis, even when it couldn't be further from the truth. With The White Ribbon though, it's absolutely the truth. There is nothing in this movie that doesn't somehow serve the story. There's no extraneous bits and pieces or unecessary scenes, characters, dialog, nothing. It's all actuall there to serve the story, and that is what makes this such an incredible film. The story here has some interesting things to say about the nature of punishment and oppressive social, religious and economic conditions, and suggests some even more interesting things about the role those may have ultimately played in the beginnings and future acceptance of fascism. The source of that punishment and oppression is different in this film, but because of it's lack of sensationalistic tone, it's easy to see the through line from a life like the one depicted in the film, and accepting the kind of oppression fascism would eventually bring. 

The White Ribbon is an artistic accomplishment by a master film maker, which should be seen by anyone with even a passing interest in film on more than a pure entertainment level. I caught it on Netflix Watch Instantly and it's available on DVD. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Bits and Pieces 11/22/10

Netflix is starting to offer a subscription option for streaming only. DVD isn't dead and gone yet, but this could be yet another example of the move in that direction. The New York Times had a piece on it.

With Black Friday coming, Amazon has a load of deals for film geeks of every stripe. /Film has a good list and a whole set of links. 

Harry over at Ain't It Cool News has compiled his usual list of noteworthy weekly releases. A Criterion Edition of Night of the Hunter is probably my favorite pick of the week. For anyone out there who hasn't seen it, Robert Mitchum's performance was the precursor to and foundation for basically every famous, fan favorite movie villain that's followed, from Norman Bates to Hannibal Lecter. Mitchum's performance is both so charismatic and so creepy that whether you really like his character or you really hate him, you feel badly about it. It's impressive, a great movie worth checking out and paying Criterion price for the quality image and extras.

Neil Blomkamp, writer/director of the awesomely impressive District 9 seems to have a new project going on. There's a viral video showing up in this months iPad edition of Wired Magazine. Bloody Disgusting has gotten their paws on a copy, which is worth checking out. I don't know what it is, but it looks interesting, and considering how superb his first outing was, chances are I'll give this a shot.

/Film has a few other stories worth noting. Disney has apparently signed a deal with Gore Verbinski (director of the Pirates of the Caribbean series and the American version of The Ring) to finance a Verbinski directed version The Lone Ranger, with Johnny Depp attached to star. Good old Johnny boy seems to make quite an impression on his directors. Is this the beginning of another collaborative relationship along the lines of Burton/Depp? I guess we'll see. Johnny Depp is definitely a talented actor, but The Lone Ranger? I also have to ask, do we really need another Lone Ranger? We can hope it will be good. This may be of limited interest to most people, but Gael Garcie Bernal (who perfectly played a pre-revolutionary Che Guevera in The Motorcycle Diaries) is attached to play boxer Roberto Duran. If you're a casual boxing fan, like I am, Duran's story is an interesting one. Even if you know or care nothing about boxing, it could make for very good cinema. Also, Warner Brothers is doing something extremely unseemly. They are in the process of developing a reboot of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, without the creator of all of the original characters, and who was the creative engine behind the popular television series that fans are still dying to see a film based on. Joss Whedon certainly isn't hurting for work, as he's been tapped to write and direct The Avengers (possibly the biggest cinematic undertaking in the medium's history), but he did respond to Warner Brother's running off with his baby. Does anyone remember the last time someone tackled this property without Whedon to keep it balanced? It was a big, steaming, stinking pile of turd. Good luck with that Warner Brothers, for all of our sakes.

And then there is this... a surprising find and important find. One of the original 35mm prints of King Kong has been found. There's some speculation that this found gem may include the lost "spider pit" scene. Ain't It Cool News has a good piece on it, and so does Dread Central

Zombie Strippers (2008, Jay Lee)

This thing is a piece of trash. Seriously, it's utter trash. It's quite possibly the smartest, most sly, intelligent piece of trash I've ever seen. Zombie Strippers is trash, completely, totally and absolutely purposely. The history of film is filled to the brim with examples of film makers who had aspirations for creating real art, something really different, new, intelligent and only ended up with trash. Boom!, for example. There's nothing wrong with aspiring to reach new heights, great art has been created in the attempt to do so. This thing, goes in a completely different direction. It wraps itself in the veneer of trash while hiding some pretty intelligent well crafted social commentary, having fun with all of it the whole time.

It's a parody of both high art cinema and B-movie exploitation flicks and something of a ham handed social satire at the same time. The plot is completely ridiculous. A government created virus escapes from a top secret facility in a future created by the dissolution of Congress by an all powerful George W. Bush. Morality has been the central legislation, along with many, never ending wars. Exposed flesh has been outlawed completely, so stripping is obviously illegal.

When the virus escapes, in the form of a soldier who's been bitten by a zombie, it ends up at an underground, illegal strip club. Said soldier attacks the establishments star, who becomes an uber stripper. The crowd at this illegal establishment develop an appetite for nothing but zombie strippers. Living strippers just don't cut it anymore, because zombie strippers are sexier.

Of course, it all goes south from there, with lots of nudity, lots of gore, and strangely enough, a script practically carpet bombed with references to every major philosophical movement in history. In your face doesn't quite describe it's style. Considering the fact that the modern zombie film is steeped in philosophic allegory, possibly more than any other genre of film, as a fan I found that part of it entertaining. Writer/director Jay Lee is obviously a fan of the zombie genre, and the philosophical underpinnings which have been at it's heart since it made the jump into the modern age and the cultural lexicon with Night of the Living Dead.

It would be an overstatement to suggest this is not a film for everyone. It would also be an overstatement to say it's nothing but a mindless piece of trash, because it wears it's mindless trashiness too proudly on it's sleeve, with a wink and a nod. The best probable audience for this film is probably an extremely small one, philosophy loving fans of zombie movies. Chances are this will end up being exactly what it's intent seems to suggest, a cult oddity passed along from serious genre fan to genre fan for a number of years and generations. All in all a fun film that takes nothing seriously, including itself. It's not bad if your looking to waste some time with something fun, and mindless enough to be laughable, but not insultingly stupid either. Not a classic, but not a dud either.