The Dark Tower (2017)


Good vs evil goes nose to nose.

(2017) Fantasy (Columbia) Matthew McConaughey, Idris Elba, Tom Taylor, Dennis Haysbert, Ben Gavin, Claudia Kim, Jackie Earle Haley, Fran Kranz, Abbey Lee, Katheryn Winnick, Nicholas Pauling, Michael Barbieri, José Zuñiga, Nicholas Hamilton, Inge Beckmann, Alfredo Narciso, Eva Kaminsky, Robbie McLean, Mark Elderkin, Matthew Thomson, Karl Thaning, Charlize Churcher. Directed by Nicolaj Arcel

 

There are few who will accuse Stephen King of being a brilliant writer but it is true that when it comes to telling a story he is without peer. His most ambitious story is the eight-book Dark Tower saga featuring Roland Deschain (Elba) as the last of an honorable caste of warriors known as the Gunslingers. He is tasked to protect The Dark Tower, a structure at the intersection of all reality that keeps chaos at bay. It is in the process of failing thanks to an evil wizard named Walter O’Dim (McConaughey) a.k.a. The Man in Black and we’re not talking Johnny Cash. Walter wants the tower to fall and all worlds to fall apart in the process.

Jake Chambers (Taylor) is a powerful psychic who has visions of Roland and the Man in Black, the latter of whom wants to harness Jake’s power in order to bring the Dark Tower down. Jake lives on our Earth, the so-called Keystone which is the last holdout, the last world that has yet to “move on,” as the Gunslinger terms it. Jake escapes the minions of Walter and finds a portal into Mid-World, the Earth of Roland. Although Roland is disinterested in saving the universe, he is very much interested in taking down Walter who has killed everything that Roland loves. There is going to be some gunslinging you can be sure.

Elba and McConaughey are both terrific performers. Elba in particular excels; he seems literally born to roles like this one. He gives the role gravitas and a certain stoic nobility that made the role so compelling in the books. It’s the kind of character that was much more prevalent in the past than it is now; these days we like our heroes to be pure but Roland is riddled with impurities.

Sadly, these two performances are all there really is to recommend the movie. Opinion on the books is sharply divided; some believe that they are a case of King’s reach exceeding his grasp while others consider it a terrific read. Count me among the latter believers. However, trying to boil down eight books into a 90 minute movie is like trying to figure out a way to condense the Manhattan phone book into two names. You might get the gist of the series but you won’t get the flavor. There are some dynamic creature effects but they are so dimly lit that you can’t really make out the details. The pacing is all over the map; sometimes it seems rushed; other times it’s painfully slow. This has all the earmarks of a studio putting its grubby hands all over a project.

So the consensus is that this is a mess and not even a hot one. The books deserve better attention than this gives it; a full series would have done it more justice. I can’t imagine King himself is satisfied with what was done to a work he put so much time and effort into. I know that I, as a fan of the books, certainly am not.

REASONS TO GO: Idris Elba is perfectly cast for this role.
REASONS TO STAY: This film is a disappointment on nearly every level.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence particularly using guns and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The eight-book Dark Tower series by Stephen King was inspired at least in part by Robert Browning’s epic poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Sony, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Stand
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Sunset Park

High-Rise (2015)


An open house you may not want to attend.

An open house you may not want to attend.

(2015) Thriller (Magnet) Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Peter Ferdinando, Sienna Guillory, Reece Shearsmith, Enzo Cilenti, Augustus Prew, Dan Renton Skinner, Stacy Martin, Tony Way, Leila Mimmack, Bill Paterson, Louis Suc, Neil Maskell, Alexandra Weaver, Julia Deakin, Victoria Wicks. Directed by Ben Wheatley

Florida Film Festival 2016

It is part of human nature to divide people into class by their wealth; the upper classes – the haves – all the way down to the lower classes – the have-nots – and in between. Some places, class distinctions are much more concrete than others; the British have made an art form of it.

Set in 1975, this film based on a J.G. Ballard novel posits something that back in that time was only beginning to catch on as an idea but is more prevalent today – the lifestyle apartments. You know the kind; the ones that have shopping and sometimes even office space in the same building, allowing those that live there to need never venture beyond the walls of their high rise. This particular one sits just outside of London.

The middle class inhabit the lower floors with few amenities; the further up you go, the more amenities there are (gymnasium, swimming pool and so on) and of course the wealthier the resident. On the very top floor is Royal (Irons), the reclusive architect of the whole she-bang and his shrewish wife Ann (Hawes). Their luxury penthouse includes an outdoor garden where there is enough room for Ann to ride a horse and Royal to work on the other four towers of the five he has planned.

Into this environment comes Dr. Robert Laing (Hiddleston), a physiologist who is single and immediately catches the eye of Charlotte (Miller), the resident nymph who raises her son Toby (Suc) on her own as a single mom, who catches the good Doctor sunbathing nude. She invites him to a party where he meets Wilder (Evans), a dissatisfied television news reader who has the hots for Charlotte and a little bit too high of an opinion of himself.

The building is brand new and starkly furnished in the style of the time, but cracks begin to show in the facade. Electrical outages at first affect the lower floors before spreading and ending up in a complete blackout. The store where all groceries are bought fails to get resupplied and eventually panicked residents ransack it.

The social order breaks down quickly as the haves and have-nots arrange themselves into violent tribes. The women begin to gravitate towards men who can protect them from the violence and chaos going on in the building. The upper classes gravitate towards Royal as a leader (as he is the wealthiest) while the lower classes choose Wilder because of his fearlessness. Before long, civilization is a distant memory.

Ballard’s allegorical commentary on how thin the veneer of civilized behavior is was controversial in its time, although given recent events one can’t help but wonder if he erred on the side of caution. It also isn’t a particularly lightbulb-glowing concept, that the classes don’t like each other much. In some ways, the point was made better and earlier by Jonathan Swift in his A Modest Proposal which suggests that with overpopulation and food shortages inevitably befalling any civilized nation that the wealthy should look to eating the poor. And you thought Ballard was cynical!

Hiddleston has been coming on lately as a legitimate leading man presence. He has a bit of an edge compared to guys like, say, Matt Damon; I think of him as more of a ‘70s archetype for a leading man, which makes him perfectly cast here. Initially, he’s got a bit of a shy and reclusive nature, which might be what draws the ladies to him (including Wilder’s very pregnant wife Helen (Moss) with whom he has a dalliance late in the film) although it might be more due to the fact that he’s got crazy good looks. I know at least a few ladies who have him on their list of five (five men they get to do anytime, anywhere even if they are married). He’s also a hell of an actor and we watch his descent into obsessive insanity, although he never quite hits bottom. While Hiddleston is known for his villains at present, I would imagine leading roles in big-budget franchise films are just around the corner for him.

I was a teen in the era that is depicted here and there’s a bit of a shock in seeing how many people smoked (according to iMDB there are people smoking in 80% of the film) including pregnant woman. There was also rampant sexuality going on, including a crapload of extramarital affairs and plenty of drug use. All of which is captured here, which while I found unsurprising, still seemed jarring when given today’s mores. Still, I ended up feeling a bit grimy just watching it.

Likewise there are things that sort of rock the logic meter to its core. For instance, why don’t people just LEAVE? After all, the chaos is limited to this one building; if the situation became that out of control, wouldn’t you just walk out the door and be done with it? Also, why doesn’t the grocery store get restocked? That’s never addressed.

I think a lot of how you’re going to digest this movie is going to depend on your own social situation. People who are wealthy and/or conservative are going to identify with the upper class tribe; those who are working class and/or liberal might well identify with the lower class tribe, although the latter were guilty of some unspeakable acts which might give you a hint as to where Ballard’s own sympathies lie (or at least the filmmakers; I haven’t read the source novel yet). Quite frankly, from what I’ve read the jury is out as far as opinions regarding the book’s sympathies.

Similarly, the movie is polarizing – people either love it or hate it. I wanted to like it more than I did, but like Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out, watching any five minutes of this film will convince you that it is brilliant but watching the whole of it will not – he called it the best disappointing film you’ll watch this year and in that he is absolutely correct.

REASONS TO GO: Class warfare for dummies. Hiddleston shows some star power.
REASONS TO STAY: Logical holes abound. Makes you feel like a full ashtray has been dumped on your head.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some fairly disturbing stuff here; violence, rape, graphic nudity, sexual content, drug use, foul language and a partridge in a pear tree.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Author J.G. Ballard published the novel this is based on in 1975, the same year that ABBA’s “S.O.S.” was released (the song was covered by two different artists on the soundtrack).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snowpiercer
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

The Conspirator


The Conspirator

Robin Wright's bodyguards have had enough of her Civil War fetish.

(2010) Historical Drama (Roadside Attractions) James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Justin Long, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Colm Meaney, Evan Rachel Wood, Alexis Bledel, Toby Kebbell, Danny Huston, Stephen Root, James Badge Dale, Johnny Simmons, Norman Reedus, Jonathan Groff, Marcus Hester. Directed by Robert Redford

Sometimes in the course of a nation great events take place that change everything. Sometimes these events are terrible tragedies in which the nation’s safety is compromised. Is it during these times when the essence of that nation must be compromised in order to maintain the nation’s safety?

Such a time would be the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Simultaneous attempts on the lives of Vice-President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward were also made, unsuccessfully. It was immediately apparent that the heinous actions were the results of a conspiracy, at the head of which was actor John Wilkes Booth (Kebbell).

Booth had met at the boarding house of Mary Surratt (Wright) with her son John (Simmons) and fellow conspirators David Herold (Hester) and Lewis Payne (Reedus). When Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kline) essentially took over the government, he had the lot of them arrested including Mrs. Surratt. Only her daughter Anna (Wood) was spared.

The conspirators were brought before a military tribunal presided over by General David Hunter (Meaney) and prosecuted by Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt (Huston). The mood of the country was such that few lawyers wanted to risk their careers representing them. However Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson (Wilkinson) agreed to represent Mrs. Surratt, assigning the case to his associate Frederick Aiken (McAvoy), a hero of the Union Army.

Aiken is loathe to represent Surratt, feeling her guilty – if she didn’t know what was going on under her own roof with her own son then by God she should have – and this feeling is echoed by his good friends Nicholas Baker (Long) and William Hamilton (Dale), as well as his sweetheart Sarah Weston (Bledel). Gradually, Aiken raises some doubts about Mrs. Surratt’s guilt and is certainly disturbed by the apparent railroading of the boarding house owner by Stanton for political purposes. He will give up friendships, his career and a potential marriage in order to save her.

Redford is a first-class director who doesn’t make a whole lot of movies but when he does they’re always interesting and this is no exception. Said to be historically accurate with the transcripts of the trial providing dialogue, he creates the atmosphere and look of post-Civil War Washington meticulously.

As you’d expect with a movie being directed by Redford, there’s a first-rate cast. McAvoy is the lead here and he does his usual strong job. It becomes necessary for him to change from stiff-necked and unyielding to having doubts about not only the guilt of his clients but also of the means by which they are being tried. Wilkinson plays a savvy politician who distances himself from the trial while keeping true to his convictions. Wilkinson is another terrific character actor who specializes in playing characters reacting to moral dilemmas. He may be soft-spoken but he projects a great deal of power.

Wright, who has dropped the Penn from her name since divorcing Sean, plays Surratt enigmatically which is as it should be because so little is known about the woman. She is a fiercely protective mother (repeatedly telling Aiken not to besmirch her son’s name in order to save her) and a proud Southern sympathizer. Whether or not she actually plotted Lincoln’s assassination is not known to history – although David Herold, who attacked Seward, reportedly insisted she was innocent – but one gets the feeling Redford and Solomon believed she was.

There are modern parallels for this story, particularly in our handling of the prisoners at Gitmo and Al-Gharib, as well as the freedoms we’ve given up in the name of security. As 9-11 has irrevocably changed us as a nation, so too did the Lincoln assassination. History tells us that the process of reconstruction was spearheaded by radical elements in the Republican Party which was far more interested in punishing the South and creating economic opportunities for Northern business interests than in re-integrating the Confederate states back into the Union. As a result, the Southern economy would be in shambles for decades, carpetbaggers would loot the former Confederate states, education would lag to the point where the cotton belt states continue to be among the worst in measurable education statistics even today and a rift between South and North would continue to divide the country in many ways throughout the years through now.

Lincoln certainly would have chosen a different path to reconstruction; one that would have been forgiving and welcoming. His assassination by Booth would have far-reaching consequences for this nation and for the South in particular. How our handling of Iraqi prisoners, how we react to the eroding of our freedoms are going to have far-reaching consequences for our future. This is not only a historic drama, it is also a cautionary tale.

REASONS TO GO: Even though I knew what Surratt’s fate was, I was still on the edge of my seat. Relevant not only in a historical sense but also for today’s events.

REASONS TO STAY: I get the sense that Redford and screenwriter James D. Solomon were making assumptions about Suratt’s guilt/innocence.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first production of the American Film Company, a production company dedicated to making movies about the United States that are historically accurate.  

HOME OR THEATER: While much of the movie takes place in enclosed spaces, it still has the grand epic sweep that requires a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Water for Elephants

Map of the World


A Map of the World

Sigourney Weaver can't believe the box office numbers for this film.

(1999) Drama (Firstlook) Sigourney Weaver, David Strathairn, Julianne Moore, Chloe Sevigny, Arliss Howard, Louise Fletcher, Aunjanue Ellis, Sara Rue, Nicole Ari Parker, Ron Lea, Dara Perlmutter, Marc Donato. Directed by Scott Elliott.

We all live our lives in a kind of haze of normalcy. We take comfort in the little rituals of the everyday, ignoring the fear that it can all be taken away in a moment. Sometimes, day-to-day living is just so chaotic that we don’t even notice that we’re falling from grace until we hit bottom.

That’s essentially what happens to Alice Goodwin (Weaver). She’s a school nurse and her husband Walter (Strathairn) runs a farm in rural Wisconsin. They’re originally from the city and although the locals are friendly enough, most regard them with a certain amount of distrust. The exception are their best friends, Theresa (Moore) and Dan (Lea) Collins, whose children regularly play with the Goodwin children.

Where Alice’s home is a symphony of chaos and mess, Theresa’s home is orderly and well-kept. While Alice struggles to keep on top of things, Theresa always seems to find time to bake muffins and do crafts with her kids. Alice is envious, even to how well-behaved the Collins children are. Emma, the eldest (Perlmutter) Goodwin child, is an absolute harpy, shrill, selfish and mean. Alice gets little or no help from Walter in keeping the house kept and the kids minded, which frustrates her.

On the last day of school, Alice has a run-in with Carole McKessie (Sevigny), the irresponsible single mother of a high-strung boy (Donato) whom she repeatedly sends to school sick. Alice is weary of dealing with sick kids and irresponsible parents and makes wiseass comments to a fellow teacher.

When Theresa asks Alice to baby-sit while Dan and Theresa take a little romantic time for themselves, Alice is only too eager to oblige. After all, she has a pond on her property, farm animals and all sorts of things to keep bored kids busy. Things are going as normal – chaos on the brink of hysteria – when things take a nastier turn, as things often will. The resulting tragedy leaves Alice in a state of shock.

Her shock is about to multiply. A few weeks after the incident, Alice is arrested for sexually abusing the McKessie boy. The Goodwins, already on the edge of financial oblivion, cannot afford her bail so Alice is obliged to remain in jail while awaiting trial on the charges, which are beginning to pile up as other children come forward.

Alice, her world already reeling from shock, finds herself in a prison where she is harassed by Dyshette (Ellis), an inmate with plenty of attitude, a chip on her shoulder and anger management issues. Alice is slowly beginning to break down, sabotaging the efforts of her frustrated lawyer (Howard) to get her off the hook.

Meanwhile, Howard is struggling trying to keep home and hearth together. He is aided by Theresa, but an attraction is developing between them that neither one of them want. The map of the world which they’ve all drawn for themselves has grown vague; whether it can take them home or not is by no means certain.

Alice is a complex and not always lovable role for Weaver, who has made a career of playing strong role models. Her Alice certainly has some strength, but that is balanced by a lot of vulnerabilities. The resulting juxtaposition between the two characteristics makes Alice a compelling character, although not always likable. Her means of dealing with the grief of her situation borders on the self-centered, but certainly that’s understandable; her very core has been threatened and she has gone totally into self-preservation mode.

Strathairn is amazing as always in his role as Walter. He plays a man who is anything but strong, constantly leaning on his wife for everything. When he has to step up to the plate, he doesn’t always manage but he’s in there plugging away. When Theresa compliments him as being “a very good man,” she’s not just whistling Dixie. Anybody thinking of getting married on a lark should see what this man goes through before saying “I do.” Talk about “in good times and in bad.”

This is definitely a film meant for women. The standard of women as nurturers and caregivers for their family is seen here as the state of grace. When a woman falls from grace, she is no longer able to care and nurture her family, hence the fall. That Alice in some ways relishes the fall is what makes the movie real and compelling.   

This is one of those little films that kind of slipped under the radar when it was released. I saw it recommended on Netflix, and was curious, and was glad that I chose to satiate my curiosity. It’s well worth checking out, even if, through no fault of your own, you’re a guy.

WHY RENT THIS: An unflinching look at how things can spin out of control. Straithairn and Weaver are both terrific in their roles, and the cast is generally outstanding.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Weaver’s character is often unlikable, so much so that it takes some effort to relate to her.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a little bit of sex and a smattering of bad language, particularly in the prison scenes.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Weaver was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama for her role.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $544,965 on an unreported production budget; the movie probably lost money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Battle: Los Angeles

The Painted Veil


The Painted Veil

An idyllic moment amidst disease, chaos, mistrust, infidelity and death - just another day at the office.

(2006) Period Drama Based on Literature (Warner Independent) Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Diana Rigg, Toby Jones, Catherine An, Anthony Wong, Bin Li, Marie-Laure Descoureaux, Juliet Howland, Sally Hawkins, Maggie Steed. Directed by John Curran

Based on the Somerset Maugham novel, this is a story about betrayal and redemption set against the magnificent backdrop of a China in flux. It is also a pretty damn good movie.

Dr. Walter Fane (Norton) is a bacteriologist who finds working with microbes far easier than dealing with human beings. He is closed-off, a little bit cold and awkward. That doesn’t mean, however, that he isn’t passionate. The first time he sees Kitty (Watts), he falls head over heels.

Unfortunately, Kitty doesn’t feel the same way. Still, she’s feeling increasingly trapped in her jazz-age London home, with stifling parents, particularly an overbearing mother (Steed) who has absolutely no confidence in her. Once the impulsive Fane proposes, Kitty is inclined to say no but an overheard conversation prompts Kitty to change her mind, if no other reason than to escape her mother.

Fane can offer that to her. After all, he works for the British government at their laboratory in Shanghai. It is an exotic posting, one with a good deal to distinguish it. Kitty doesn’t see it that way, however. For her, it’s merely trading one hell for another. Walter tries to indulge her in her gossip and games, but he clearly isn’t interested. Kitty quickly becomes bored and lonely.

She meets vice-consul Charlie Townsend (Schreiber), a passionate man who is everything Walter is not – impulsive, sexy, outgoing and charming. The two quickly become involved in a torrid affair. However, Walter finds out about it. While he doesn’t go berserk, he is infuriated and humiliated. Determined to inflict his own pain on his wife, he gives her an ultimatum. She may either accept a divorce, or accompany her husband to a small village in China’s interior that has been stricken by a cholera epidemic, which Walter has volunteered to go in and assist. He does give her a way out – if Charlie agrees to divorce his wife and marry Kitty, Walter will accept a quiet divorce to allow the lovers to be together. However, Walter knows – and Kitty ultimately has her naiveté shattered – that Charlie will do no such thing.

It takes nearly two weeks for the Fanes to arrive in the village, and the situation there is grim. The populace is dropping like flies, the French Catholic orphanage is filled with orphaned children – as well as children dying from the same disease – and already distrustful of foreigners, the people of the village are a powderkeg ready to blow. They are met by a somewhat rumpled civil servant named Waddington (Jones) who proves to be a sympathetic ear for Kitty, while the orphanage’s Mother Superior (Rigg) is something of a mother figure for her. Soon, she begins to see her husband in a whole new light, provoking changes in herself. Will Walter be able to forgive her and see how she has changed, or will the disease or the angry Nationalists cut them down before there’s time?

This is a beautifully shot movie, utilizing gorgeous Chinese backdrops nicely. You really get a terrific sense of the British foreign service in the 1920s, with all the arrogance and tunnel-vision that was present in the day. Director Curran makes what is a fairly dry and dusty novel live and breathe on the screen – Ron Nyswaner’s screenplay also helps see to that.

Norton, who hasn’t had a sub-par performance in a very long time, delivers another noteworthy job as Walter. He is stiff and reserved, his body language reflecting it every step of the way. While his British accent is a little dicey, he nonetheless inhabits the role well, making Walter a bit more sympathetic than he was in the novel, where he came off much more viciously.

Watts was a little overwhelmed by the part, I think. She’s not a bad actress, but I was less entranced with her Kitty. Kitty needs to be a very spoiled, extremely immature young girl who behaves impulsively and rashly, the very antithesis of Walter. Norton and Watts also deliver very little chemistry, which is perhaps the most glaring negative in the movie. They are supposed to come together by the end of the movie, but I don’t get that sense. They seem to merely accept each other more than embrace each other. That makes the final scenes a bit less powerful than they might have been otherwise.

Still, there is a magnificent epic quality to the film that makes me wish I’d seen it on the big screen, but it frankly didn’t get a lot of buzz when it came out and it got lost amongst all the holiday movies and Oscar contenders that were released at around the same time. Still, this is definitely worth seeing. Norton is wonderful, the script and cinematography are breathtaking and the movie captures the period well. If you use movies to transport you to another place and time, one you could not ordinarily be able to get to on your own, then your magic carpet awaits you.

REASONS TO RENT: Another fine Edward Norton performance. Gorgeous cinematography. An intelligent script based on a classic Somerset Maugham novel.

REASONS TO RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Naomi Watts doesn’t quite nail her role. Chemistry between leads is lacking.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of a village ravaged by disease and civil war, as well as partial nudity and depictions of drug use. Parents might want to think twice about letting their younger children see this, although for older teens it might make a fine introduction to the works of Maugham as well as to colonial-era China.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: During filming, Norton injured his back when his horse threw him onto some rocks. He didn’t seek proper medical treatment until shooting concluded and he returned to Hong Kong. It turned out that he had fracutred three vertebrae in his back.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26.5M on an unreported production budget. Since the filmmakers received financial assistance from a Chinese production company, it is likely that the studio made money on this venture.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Love and Other Drugs

The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band)


The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band)

You could say this is a real barnburner.

(Sony Classics) Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur, Burghart Klaussner, Ursina Lardi, Maria-Victoria Dragus, Leonard Proxauf, Susanne Lothar, Rainier Bock, Branko Samarovski, Ernst Jacobi (voice), Eddie Grahl, Fion Mutert. Directed by Michael Haneke

What is evil? Is evil something demonic, deep in the bowels of the Earth, dead set on world domination? Or is it something less flamboyant, something to be found in small, petty cruelties that escalate over time?

Our film is narrated by a schoolteacher (Jacobi) who was present for these events which took place many years earlier. He is an old man now and he intends to be as objective as he can be; he only narrates what he knows to be true and what he has heard from reliable sources.

The world was a simpler place then. The schoolteacher (Friedel) teaches, the pastor (Klaussner) tends to his flock, the midwife (Lothar) delivers babies and over all, the Baron (Tukur) presides. He provides employment for half the village and the other half depends on his largesse to survive. It is a patriarchal, rigid society, not unlike many others throughout the world the year before the Great War but the villagers exist comforted that they know their place in the order of things.

The students at the school are led by the pastor’s children, Klara (Dragus) and Martin (Proxauf) who are outwardly courteous and well-mannered. Those manners have come at a great cost, as they suffer terrifying disciplines at the hands of their father.

It all begins with an accident. The village doctor (Bock), out for a horseback ride, is injured when his horse trips. It could have happened to anyone…but in fact the “accident” was caused by a trip wire strategically placed. The doctor is taken to the hospital to recuperate and his children are cared for by the midwife, who has children with mental retardation of her own, including a sweet-natured son named Karli (Grahl).

That accident is soon overshadowed by another when the wife of a tenant farmer (Samarovski) falls through rotting floors in the sawmill duty she had been assigned and plunges to her death. Her son blames the Baron for this and is enraged that his father won’t seek justice against him. He takes matters into his own hands and during a harvest festival, destroys the Baron’s prized cabbage crop, horrifying the Baroness (Lardi). The schoolteacher, in the meanwhile, has taken a liking to the Baroness’ nanny Eva (Benesch).

After the harvest festival, things go from bad to worse. The Baron’s young son Sigi (Mutert) is kidnapped and tortured. He is unable or unwilling to say who did those horrifying things to him. The Baroness takes the children to Italy, giving Eva the sack in light of the events even though Sigi was not her charge. Tearful, she shows up at the school, having nowhere to go and nowhere to sleep. The schoolteacher stays up the night with her, playing songs on the harmonium for her before taking her back to her family in another village close to the one he himself was born in.

Events begin to escalate. A barn burns. The police begin to put pressure on the villagers to find out who’s responsible for these events, and still no culprit is found. When Karli is found horribly mutilated and blinded, the village turns into a powder keg waiting to blow, and the clouds of war loom ominously on the horizon.

Haneke is one of the most brilliant European directors you’ve never heard of. Although his last film was the forgettable Hollywood remake of his own Funny Games, his previous film to that, Cache (Hidden) was a tour de force. As in that film, the identity of the evildoer is less important than the evil that is done. This is a recurring theme in Haneke’s films.

The depiction of rural German village life is fascinating and feels authentic. At the beginning of the movie, everything is ordered and everyone has their role. There is a certainty in knowing who you are supposed to be and what you are supposed to do. As the events begin to unfold, that order begins to crumble and things fall apart; that certainty becomes as much a victim of the events as any who are directly injured by them.

That the movie was nominated as Best Foreign Language Film for this years Oscars is not surprising to me, nor that it is considered by many as of this writing to be the front-runner to win it. A great deal of thought went into the making of this movie, from the actors involved to the cinematography to how the script is translated onscreen. You can sense the care in every frame and everything seems to be note-perfect. The use of black and white not only intensifies the mood of vague dread and unsettling fear, but also helps set the time and place much better than color would. The broad vistas of the German heartland are also beautifully shot; because the film was shot digitally they were able to edit out all traces of modern life and create a milieu that is completely authentic.

The acting is also worth noting. For a film in which children play a critical role, the filmmakers needed to cast some very talented juvenile actors and so they did. There is naturalness to their performances, and not a hint of artifice. You don’t get a sense that they’re acting so much as becoming their characters. They act exactly as you would expect children of that era to act.

The adult actors do very well also and Friedel possesses the charm of a German Hugh Grant, modest and self-deprecating but with a hint of bumbling, yet still charming nonetheless. He is, in many ways, the least compelling of all the characters in the movie but it is Friedel’s performance that I remember the most vividly. That should tell you something.

You will notice that few of the characters have names. Most of them are identified by their role within the village, including the schoolteacher but also the pastor, the farmer and the steward. I believe that’s meant to convey that these characters are interchangeable for those in any village. I found it telling that only the children have names in this movie; read into that what you will.

The pacing of the movie is glacial and plodding at times; at two and a half hours the run time may be a bit long for some, particularly those who aren’t fond of subtitles or black and white films. Those who are patient will be rewarded with some stunning imagery and one of the most thought-provoking movies you will see this year. Violence begets violence, brutality begets brutality and evil begets more evil. As you watch this small village unravel keep in mind the old adage that your sins will find you out, and never in the way you expect them to. The White Ribbon isn’t just about the loss of innocence; it’s about its inevitable end.

REASONS TO GO: A compelling examination of brutality and evil. An authentic look at village life in Germany at the dawn of the 20th century. Naturalistic performances highlight a generally well-acted movie.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit on the long side and plods at times. The tone may be overly dark for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing imagery of violence and sexuality, definitely not suitable for youngsters.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was initially filmed in color, and then changed to black and white in post-production.

HOME OR THEATER: The intimate atmosphere and black and white imagery work perfectly well on the small screen.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Elegy