Monthly Archives: June 2014

#292 The White Ribbon

(2009, Michael Haneke)
Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte

The last time we encountered Michael Haneke, it was via the rather excellent Funny Games, a dark thriller that criticised the audience for being a voyeur to murder for wanting to enjoy a thriller movie. So naturally I was looking forward to this, but does it live up to expectations?

Set in the fictional German village of Eichwald in 1913, The White Ribbon follows the lives of the villagers, including a schoolteacher who has fallen in love with a young girl named Eva, a pastor who is obsessed with purity and will punish his children for minor transgressions (usually by making them wear the titular ribbon), a doctor who treats children with respect but is cruel to his wife, and various other side-plots. The whole movie hinges on a series of mysterious events in the village that lead to death, humiliation and shenanigans.

The mystery aspect of the plot certainly got me interested in the movie, with someone secretly causing bad things to happen, starting with the tripping of a horse using fine wire. The children of the movie appear to be connected somehow, but we don’t know how, and there’s definitely a certain Children Of The Corn vibe to them throughout. It was a promising start.

The problem is, there are about five movies going on at once here. We open the movie on this seemingly central “who’s causing this madness?” plot, but then this plot gets swiftly dropped and we’re just following the villagers around. This is most noticeable when the schoolteacher starts to pursue Eva and we leave the village entirely for an extended period of time so the teacher can be chastised by Eva’s father.

Things don’t get much better back in the village. Much is made of the cruel baron and the doctor being a complete bastard, but they feel so distant to the rest of the movie it makes me wonder why anyone even bothered to write these scenes. What’s more, the bombshell of the doctor’s rather awful night-time habit is dropped and then never elaborated on or explored or questioned. There he is, doing this bad thing he shouldn’t be doing, and that’s it. Also, the scenes where he openly declares his disdain for his wife’s lack of attractiveness in her “old age” cement him as an immensely unlikeable character that I want no more to do with.

The pastor’s storyline kind of fits, but it stills suffers from feeling too distant and vague. At times these scenes can get completely ridiculous, such as him tying up his son’s hands to try and stop him masturbating. The pastor seems more like a caricature of a hyper-religious nut as opposed to a real character, and I found it hard to connect with his story either.

In fact, I found it impossible to connect with any part of this movie. The mysteries that open the movie initially get me interested, but their sudden disappearance frustrates me and by the time the film ends, I’ve forgotten what was so mysterious and I forget the answers given, if any at all.

And that’s very much the problem with The White Ribbon. It struggles so much to stick to a single coherent plot thread that the viewer struggles to keep up, and as such the entire film becomes a forgettable mess of dullness.

So no, this didn’t live up to the standards set by Funny Games. Sadly.

Starring Christian Friedel, Ulrich Tukur & Josef Bierbichler
Written by Michael Haneke
Produced by Stefan Arndt, Veit Heiduschka, Michael Katz, Margaret Menegoz & Andrea Occhipinti
Cinematography by Christian Berger
Edited by Monika Willi

Favourite Scene: The general Children Of The Corn vibe, and if they’d stuck with this, I’d have enjoyed the movie more.
Scene That Bugged Me: Why don’t you tell your wife how you really feel, Mr Doctor Man?

Watch it if: You like confused German movies
Avoid it if: You’re looking for a mystery involving creepy children

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#291 The Right Stuff

(1983, Phillip Kaufman)

“There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, Russia and America were in a race to explore beyond the boundaries of our atmosphere and into outer space. It was a time of great experimentation and wonder, but the efforts to explore space required men with a willingness to put their lives on the line for the advancement of humanity. The Right Stuff is the story of these men, the pioneering astronauts of the Mercury program.

So there isn’t much of a plot to The Right Stuff then. It’s basically a series of events leading up to the completion of the Mercury program and little more. We start in the days of high-speed flight experimentation, when daring pilots pushed to break the sound barrier and go faster than anyone has ever gone before. This then leads into the development of NASA and the recruitment of the seven astronauts who would go on to explore Earth’s orbit.

As someone who is interested in the exploration of space, I was looking forward to this movie. I was curious to see the full story, and waited with anticipation to see how it was handled.

Imagine my disappointment when the movie spends forever getting to the development of NASA, and instead hangs around a bunch of high-speed test pilots who seemingly have no connection to the space program aside from their efforts aiding in the development of rockets. The problem is, it turns these guys into characters, especially Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier, and spends a lot of time saying that he was the best pilot EVAH and tries to make us feel sorry for the fact he never got to be an astronaut.

But this ends up feeling like padding. In a three-hour movie. So you can imagine how well that went down with me.

When we do get to the astronauts, The Right Stuff is determined to focus on the personalities and relationships of the astronauts above the technical details of the Mercury program. This is fine, especially as good characters make for better stories than a bunch of technical figures. However, Phillip Kaufman didn’t do a great job of developing these men as real characters. They were all painted as All-American Heroes™, all square jaws and no personalities. Worst of all, he failed to adequately demonstrate that these men had “the right stuff” that made them volunteer for the program. You know, the whole point of the title of the movie.

There are also numerous scenes involving the astronauts’ wives, designed to flesh out these men even more, but these scenes more often than not just got in the way of everything. What’s more, Annie Glenn’s stutter was never explained, leaving us to wonder why she struggled to speak properly; I only understood this because I looked it up online. If you have to do background research on a movie, the movie has failed to communicate properly. Essentially, The Right Stuff spends a lot of time on things that drag the movie and less time on things that actually matter to communicating the events accurately.

It’s not a complete failure, however. Some of the interaction between the astronauts has some genuine comedy, and the portrayal of NASA during this time as a confused organisation that was basically throwing everything at the wall to see what would stick was wonderfully unexpected. No one involved seems to know exactly what they’re doing, and this was nice because I honestly expected them to paint NASA as heroic and intelligent and the beacon of human advancement, but instead we get a bumbling band of scientists who aren’t even sure if their tests on the astronauts are actually helpful.

Also, when the movie does manage to focus on the thing we came to see – the space program – it does a phenomenal job. The space race is portrayed as both tense and slightly silly, and these two conflicting sides end up sticking together quite nicely, with the pompous politics between the US and Russia sitting surprisingly well against the exciting space launches. I was on the edge of my seat before Alan Shepherd went up, despite knowing that he succeeded and came back safely.

Overall, The Right Stuff was interesting to an extent, but part of this may have stemmed from my own personal interest in the space program. When it stuck to its guns and focused on the important events, it did its job very well, but the amount of padding and dragged-out sections bring the entire experience down a little.

Starring Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Sam Shepard, Barbara Hershey, Lance Henriksen, Veronica Cartwright, Jane Dornacker, Harry Shearer, Jeff Goldblum & Kim Stanley
Written by Tom Wolfe (book) and Philip Kaufman
Produced by Irwin Winkler
Music by Bill Conti
Cinematography by Caleb Deschanel
Edited by Glenn Farr, Lisa Fruchtman, Stephen A. Rotter, Douglas Stewart & Tom Rolf

Favourite Scene: Alan Shepherd goes into space. Took a while to get there, but at least it paid off.
Scene That Bugged Me: Oh boo hoo poor Chuck Yaeger never got to be an astronaut. Let’s pad out the ending of this three-hour movie with more scenes featuring him.

Watch it if: You’re the Space Core from Portal 2
Avoid it if: You want a dry account of the history of the space program

#290 Barry Lyndon

(1975, Stanley Kubrick)

I will probably never understand the appeal of period drama. I see the powdered wigs and corsets and I just want to run screaming. But perhaps that negative perception could change for me with Kubrick’s take on the genre – Barry Lyndon.

Barry Lyndon follows the life and times of an Irishman named Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal). He is seduced by his cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton), who ultimately drops him and marries an English captain named John Quin (Leonard Rossiter), prompting Barry to kill him in a duel. Barry flees and ends up joining the English army. From there he deserts the army, becomes a spy in the Prussian army and generally does a bunch of other things and becomes a member of the aristocracy.

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#289 Jacob’s Ladder

(1990, Adrian Lyne)

“The only part of you that burns in Hell is the part of you that can’t let go of life”

I am a big fan of the Silent Hill video game series, at least in terms of its earlier entries, and one major inspiration that the developers have cited over the years was a little independent American thriller movie from the early 90s called Jacob’s Ladder. So imagine my joy when it turned up on the 1001 Movies list. But how good is this psychological thriller and is its cult success justified?

Jacob’s Ladder is set in the late seventies, where Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) is a Vietnam veteran now working as a postman in New York with his girlfriend Jezebel (Elizabeth Pena). During the war, he experienced an episode where members of his division started experiencing abnormal behaviour, and in his present life, he seems to suffer severe hallucinations, and begins to get increasingly paranoid that demons are coming to kill him. He sets out to discover the truth for himself, and stop the nightmarish hallucinations once and for all.

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#288 Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

(1953, Howard Hawks)

“We’re just two little girls from Little Rock”

It was only a matter of time before we got round to taking a look at a Marilyn Monroe movie, and where better to start than with one of her more iconic appearances – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – but is it any good?

Adapted from a stage musical, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is about two close friends who work as showgirls. Lorelei Lee (Monroe) loves diamonds and is determined to marry a rich but socially awkward man so she can share in his wealth. Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell), however, isn’t interested in wealth and seeks out men based solely on attractiveness. The plot of the movie involves the duo travelling to Paris for work and so Lorelei can prepare for her marriage. A private detective has been hired by Lorelei’s fiancee’s father, and the duo have to avoid shenanigans, although shenanigans inevitably ensue.

So initially, I didn’t know what to expect. My experience with Marilyn Monroe is through her modern-day iconic image, where she’s largely been reduced to t-shirt slogans and teenage girls’ messenger status messages, and images of her standing on a vent. The fact that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a musical didn’t really help my wariness.

But the good news is, I was wrong to be wary. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is an excellent movie. In fact, the musical aspects of the movie are barely there bar a couple of flashy numbers, including the famous “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” sequence. On the whole, this movie is a screwball comedy with female protagonists, and that’s not a bad thing at all.

Lorelei had the potential to be incredibly annoying. She’s a somewhat ditzy gold digger, exploiting a man for his money as the central premise of the movie. But Monroe makes her incredibly likeable, and her character is more often made fun of for her more negative traits, meaning that we’re not really supposed to approve. Plus there are depths to her character that get revealed as the movie progresses, so this helps significantly. Oh, and she delivers my favourite line in the movie, so there’s that too.

But while Monroe is clearly the star of the show here, I have to say that this gentleman preferred the brunette. Jane Russell as Dorothy had superb comic timing, flinging out quips and one-liners at every turn. She’s a smart counterpart to Lorelei and spends most of the movie despairing about what she’s gotten herself into. She was a fantastic character.

That said, I didn’t really like the subplot where she falls in love with the detective. It didn’t really make a lot of sense to me because he was such a slimy character and she seemed to be a lot smarter than being interested in someone like that. Especially after he screws her best friend over. It also just…happens instead of following a revelatory moment that maybe he isn’t as bad as he first seemed to be. He does some terrible things and gets off scot-free and wins the girl, which frustrated the hell out of me.

Another gripe I have with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes does revolve around the musical numbers, although probably not in the way you’d expect. There seems to be a real sound mixing issue going on between the normal spoken portions of the movie and the musical numbers, the latter of which constantly sound louder than the rest of the movie. This includes vocals too, and it’s incredibly jarring when Lorelei or Dorothy are speaking and then break into song, with their voices suddenly ramping up several decibels for no apparent reason.

Aside from this, I seriously enjoyed Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, much more than I ever expected I would. It’s a fantastic classic comedy and it’s a lot of fun, even if at times it can feel a little dated. I can see why Monroe was such an icon now.

Starring Marilyn Monroe & Jane Russell
Written by Joseph Fields & Anita Loos (play) and Charles Lederer
Produced by Sol C. Siegel
Music by Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Adamson, Jule Styne & Leo Robin
Cinematography by Robert Taylor
Edited by Hugh S. Fowler

Favourite Scene: “Don’t be fooled, she’s only marrying you for your money!” “No, that’s not true! I’m marrying him for your money!”
Scene That Bugged Me: They couldn’t have picked a better colour for the Olympic swimming team’s trunks? Really?

Watch it if: You’re a fan of campy screwball comedies
Avoid it if: You never like gold diggers under any circumstances