Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Review: The White Ribbon

Austrian writer/director Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon is the kind of film that the term 'masterpiece' was coined for. Every aspect of the film, from writing to camera movements to acting to lighting to sound design, all come together to create a very real and immensely disturbing atmosphere.
Set in a small German village in the months leading up to WWI, the story focuses on a young schoolteacher who takes it upon himself to investigate when a series of strange crimes rock the tiny community.
More that anything, the pale, ghostly children in the town aide most in creating this sense of horrific unease. At one point, one of the older girls wanders into the pastor's study, wet hair hanging in front of her face in tangles. She takes a pair of scissors from the desk, then reaches her hand into the birdcage. The scene cuts away, but we know what she intends to do to that little bird. Haneke just can't resist making us accustom to the idea of evil children.
The children are not evil in an Omen kind of way, or in a truant, Bart Simpson kind of way. Yes, a couple of them are outwardly malevolent, but mostly their venom is kept under the surface.
Being aware of Germany's history in the decades after the time the film is set, as most people are, gives the whole affair a simmering, foreboding feeling. Cutting to a close up of one of the children, we get the inescapable sense that we are looking into the eyes of a future Nazi. Indeed, it is likely that Haneke intentionally set out to explore the roots the evil that took old of central Europe in the 1930's. This examination is terrifying, yet it helps to contextualize a political and military movement that we all too often mythologize.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Review: Ballast

Writer/director/editor Lance Hammer's Ballast is a brilliant and beautiful film. Set in the Mississippi Delta region, it focuses on a sullen man named Lawrence who reconnects with his estranged nephew and sister-in-law after his twin brother's suicide. The film establishes an easy, meandering rhythm that is not often on display in cinema; it drips off the screen and into your psyche like molasses.
One aspect of Ballast that strikes the audience first is its gorgeous, rain-drenched cinematography. Every frame marinates in a palette of mossy greens and damp blues. Many of the scenes are set outdoors, and the sad, green, crumbing, rural Delta is captured wonderfully and heartbreakingly
Something that may frustrate some viewers is the film's crushingly sparse dialogue. All the sound could be sucked out, though, and we would still understand what transpires. Similarly, there is no music, but this may be intentional; the filmic language Hammer employs is so rhythmic and lyrical that any musical score would be redundant.

Review: Whip It

So-called "feel-good" films get a bad rap. Serious critics and cinephiles disregard them as trifles manufactured by studios to appeal to Middle America (whatever that means). "A film that makes people feel good cannot possibly be of any cinematic quality", they opine. Director Drew Barrymore's Whip It proves them wrong.
Ellen Page sinks her teeth deep into the lead role of Bliss Cavender, a teenager in tiny, podunk Bodeen, Texas, who dreams of escaping the suffocation of her backwards hometown and the endless series of beauty pageants her overbearing mother (Marcia Gay Harden) shoves her into. One day, she discovers a roller derby league in nearby Austin, and immediately she sees her ticket out of the sticks. Bliss quickly joins a team called the Hurl Scouts, but must participate in secret, knowing her parents would disapprove; this sets up an inevitable confrontation that everyone will see coming.
When Whip It first hit theaters, many people wondered, "can the actress Drew Barrymore direct a movie?". The answer is yes, which shouldn't be a surprise; the girl has spent most of her life on film sets. She succeeds on every level: mood, pacing, shot composition, mise-en-scene, and most especially acting. Again, this last item should not be unexpected. Naturally an actor would excel most at directing her fellow actors. Every member of the cast bangs on all cylinders and is each given their moment to shine. From the afore mentioned Page and Harden, to Daniel Stern as Bliss's Joe Sixpack father, to Alia Shawkat as Bliss's best friend, to the excellent Kristen Wiig as the Hurl Scouts' matriarchal captain.
Does Whip It provide any cinematic revelations or contribute greatly to the filmic language? Not really. It is simply a perfectly crafted, brilliantly acted, delicious little American fairy tale.