Lone Survivor


Brothers in arms.

Brothers in arms.

(2013) War Drama (Universal) Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Yousef Azami, Ali Suliman, Eric Bana, Alexander Ludwig, Rich Ting, Dan Blizerian, Jerry Ferrara, Rick Vargas, Scott Elrod, Gregory Rockwood, Ryan Kay, Patrick Griffin, Josh Berry, Eric Steinig, David Shepard, Justin Tade, Sterling Jones, Jason Riggins. Directed by Peter Berg

When we invaded Afghanistan in the wake of 9-11, I’m sure the Russians were chuckling ruefully to themselves…as were perhaps the ghosts of British colonialists, Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. This land of unforgiving terrain has been repelling invasions for thousands of years.

But since that’s where the Taliban were and they had some dealings with Al Qaeda, it became a necessity that we go in there and clean house or at least that was the school of thought at the time. That we are still there 14 years later is neither surprising nor a reason to be proud.

In 2005, a group of Navy SEALS were sent into a remote area of Afghanistan to discover whether a high-ranking Taliban leader who had been responsible for the murder of a bunch of marines earlier that year was in fact hiding in a village there. Once they had established he was there, they were to call in the troops and help take him out. The problem was that communications in the area were dicey; secure lines and unsecured satellite phones alike worked only intermittently and the men going in were fully aware of that.

Those men were Michael Murphy (Kitsch) who commanded the mission, Danny Dietz (Hirsch), Matt “Axe” Axelson (Foster) and Marcus Luttrell (Wahlberg). Among those supporting them back at base is the young and eager Shane Patton (Ludwig) and their company commander Erik Kristensen (Bana), professionals all.

Things go sideways when a trio of goat herders stumble on them as they observe the village. One of them is carrying a military grade walkie talkie. Given the venomous rage that one of the boys looks at the SEALs with, it seems likely that if these herders aren’t Taliban they are at least informants. This leaves the men with a dilemma – whether to kill the goat herders outright, to tie them up which if they were unable to extricate themselves would certainly lead to them freezing to death in the night, or to let them go and abort the mission which would then having them chased by the much larger force of Taliban fighters than they were led to believe was in the village to begin with.

They choose the latter force, keeping to their rules of engagement even though all four of them knows what it could mean – and what it means is a couple of hundred well-armed hostiles chasing them through unfamiliar terrain and with the communications as iffy as they are, help may not be on the way for a good long time. This band of brothers will have to use every bit of courage and training to get them through this rapidly deteriorating situation, and rely on each other more than they ever have before.

This is based on actual events. Operation Red Wings ended up pretty much the way it is depicted here, and for the most part this is what these men went through although some of it has to be speculation. In any case, the movie basically from the time the SEALs let the goat herders go to the end is a pure adrenaline rush, harrowing in suspense but beautiful in how these men not only depend on each other but genuinely love one another as men who have defended their lives together truly can.

This isn’t a movie you go see especially for the acting, although the performances are pretty solid and nobody really disgraces themselves. The camaraderie is captured nicely and that is really the center of the movie; in the field, you fight for the guy/gal on your left, not for some idea or political point – and they’re fighting for you in the same way.

While I can’t say for sure if this gives audiences a good sense of what it’s like to be in a combat situation having never been in one myself, I can say that the combat sequences are very intense, maybe too much so for those who are sensitive or easily disturbed. I do like that although there are some genuinely nasty customers among the Taliban, not all the Afghans are portrayed as hateful. I certainly found myself wanting to find out more about what pushtanwali meant.

Where the film is less successful is telling us who these men were. We know how hard they fought, how fiercely they protected one another but I would have liked to know more about them. In a sense that  even though we feel what they go through, we are unable to mourn them as effectively because they are yet strangers to us, despite spending two hours with them. If Berg had succeeded in doing that as well, this would have been contending for a Best Picture Oscar, but as it is he has delivered a really good film that I can recommend to pretty much anyone without reservation.

REASONS TO GO: Harrowing and moving. A fitting tribute to the men and women of our armed forces.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too intense for some. Really doesn’t give us as good a sense of who these men were as I would have liked.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of salty SEAL’s language as well as a ton of war violence and some fairly disturbing and graphic scenes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the fire fight with the Taliban is depicted in the film as lasting three days, the real life one lasted five. Marcus Luttrell would be awarded the Navy Cross for his valor in the incident.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Black Hawk Down

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Waiting for Oscar begins!

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Black Death


Winter is here.

Winter is here.

(2010) Medieval Horror (Magnet) Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Carice van Houten, John Lynch, Jamie Ballard, Andy Nyman, Johnny Harris, Emun Elliott, Tygo Gernandt, David Warner, Kimberley Nixon, Tobias Kasimirowicz, Keith Dunphy, Tim McInnerny, Marianne Graffam. Directed by Chris Smith

Back in the Dark Ages, the bubonic plague must have seemed like the end of the world. A pandemic that seemed to spare nobody, there was only rudimentary medical science and literally no protection against its ravages. Entire villages and even districts were wiped out by it.

So when a village seemed to be emerging unscathed from the horrors of the plague, the Church was suspicious. Witchcraft must be involved. Ulrich (Bean), a no-nonsense knight if ever there was one, is dispatched to the town to discover the truth and if necessary, put a stop to it. He enlists Osmund (Redmayne), a monk who knows the area well.

Osmund is pious but no saint. His girlfriend (Nixon) has been sent ahead into the forest to escape the plague. Osmund had plans to meet her there before being drafted. He joins (albeit reluctantly) Ulrich’s troop which includes a gleeful torturer (Nyman), a grim warrior (Lynch) and a mute killer (Gernandt). The group has issues, including being forced to strike down one of their own (Ballard) who is stricken by the plague, as well as having to take on bandits.

Eventually they reach the village which is seemingly controlled by two individuals – Hob (McInnerny) and Langiva (van Houten). During dinner, the me are drugged and put into a water-filled cage in the swamp while Osmund is given a horrible decision regarding his girlfriend whom he’d feared was dead. And the fears of the Church may not be entirely unfounded when it seems that there is a necromancer in the village who is powerful enough to raise the dead…

Smith is best known in this country for Severance but has actually directed several nifty little horror films in Britain. He is known for some fairly gritty films, but this might be the grittiest. This is not a Sword in the Stone England where everything is clean and healthy but what it really was like; foul, filthy and full of pestilence.

Good thing he’s got Sean Bean. Bean, who has of late made his medieval mark on Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and the first season of Game of Thrones on HBO is just as great here. He is strong, a great fighter, an inspiring leader but not without faults. His belief in the Church is staunch and unwavering but his unquestioning faith leads him to do acts that are most certainly unholy.

Redmayne is perfectly suited for the role of the pious Osmund. Osmund is terribly conflicted; on the one hand there are the vows to the church but on the other his forbidden love. Redmayne captures this division nicely and Osmund’s terrible dilemma is made very relatable. Van Houten, one of the best actresses in the Netherlands (if you haven’t seen Black Book by all means go out and rent it) plays the femme fatale to the hilt, and gives Langiva a very sensuous edge. The veteran character actor McInnerny also has a deliciously bad side to him.

The two sides – the Church and the pagans – don’t distinguish themselves here which makes it tough to have a rooting interest (it’s Osmund by default). That makes for a pretty grim fairy tale and that can get taken to extremes. The battle scenes are pretty violent and there’s nothing clean about them. There are no Errol Flynn acrobatics, no Lord of the Rings legerdemain, just a bunch of guys hacking away at each other with pointy things which was pretty much what medieval warfare was all about.

You may wonder what point there is to the movie with the ending which is, like the rest of the movie, pretty much a downer. I’m not sure you really need to look for one. This is a pretty strong movie that has overtones of horror, action and fantasy. However, don’t look here if you’re looking for the feel-good movie of the year. Then again, if you’re looking in the feel-good movie of the year it’s unlikely you’d be in the horror section anyway.

WHY RENT THIS: Spot-on re-creation of medieval England. Strong performances by Bean, Redmayne and van Houten.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally overly brutal in the violence. Ending seems a bit pointless. Might be a bit too unrelentingly grim for some.

FAMILY VALUES: The violence can be pretty intense in places. There are also a few bad words scattered about.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rupert Friend was originally cast as Osmund but was eventually replaced by Redmayne.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is some behind-the-scenes footage (separate from the standard making-of featurette) and some interviews with the filmmakers.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $265,318 on an unreported production budget; I think it unlikely that the film was profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Centurion

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Meek’s Cutoff

Inugami


Inugami

Yuki Amami shows skills rapidly being lost in a modern world.

(2001) Horror (Kadokawa/Asmik Ace) Yuki Amami, Atsuro Watabe, Eugene Harada, Shiho Fujimura, Kazuhiro Yamaji, Keiko Awaji, Koichi Sato. Directed by Masato Harada

Japanese horror movies have grown in great leaps and bounds since the days of big lizards made of rubber suits. This new style of horror, nicknamed “J-Horror” by fans, relies on folk traditions, subtlety and atmosphere for horror. They also are known for delivering a knock-out punch in the sex and gore departments, something modern American horror movies have become awfully timid about in this day and age. 

Akira, a young teacher (Watabe) assigned to a middle school in the town of Ikeno, runs out of gas on the way there. He is picked up by young Seiji Doi (Harada) and is brought to the idyllic little village of Omine. There he meets Miki (Amami), a 40-something spinster who is part of the Bonomiya family. She has a little workshop where she hand-makes specialized high grade paper for calligraphy for the Doi family paper company, run by the aging harridan Katsuko (Awaji).

Akira quickly develops feelings for Miki and as school starts, is able to walk back and forth between villages for romantic liasons with Miki. The romance is obviously agreeing with her, as she begins to look younger and happier even as her family is tormented by nightly bad dreams, even matriarch Tomie (Fujimura). 

As the relationship between Miki and Akira begins to grow, she confesses to him a dark secret – when she was younger, she had a romantic fling with “the wrong man” who left her with child. She had the baby with the intention of giving it away, but it was stillborn. She has remained a spinster all that time, burdened with guilt and tending the newborn’s grave every day.

The Bonomiya clan is having problems. Patriarch Takanao (Yamaji) is something of a Luddite, forbidding television or radio in the home and yet, inexplicably, allows computers since he is developing an Internet business that eventually fails. Drowning in debt that is complicated by a gambling addiction, the brutish Takanao agrees to sell off Bonomiya land to a country club, a deal brokered by the Doi family, to retire his debts. This will also force Miki to move elsewhere, something she cannot bear since she loves the mountains so much.

The villagers tend to steer clear of the Bonomiyas and with good reason; as Tomie and Katsuko explain, the Bonomiya women are cursed with the Inugami, imp-like demons who reside in an urn who when loosed, bring the wrath of the dog gods on those who displease the Bonomiyas. A string of misfortune is blamed on the Inugami and the Bonomiyas and the villagers are growing restless and violent. Akira longs to take Miki away from all of this, especially since she doesn’t believe in the curse, but something ancient and sinister ties her with bonds harder than steel to the village.

The movie is brilliantly photographed, lush and beautiful. The village of Omine is an oasis of tranquility near a modern highway and railway line, depending on a river and ancient customs to make a slow-paced lifestyle for those who live there. Watching this, I could long for a village like Omine to decompress in.

There is little of overt gore and horror here, depending more on a sense of unease that something is not quite right. There is a great deal of sex in the movie and as is not unusual with Asian movies, subjects that are normally taboo for American filmmakers are breached almost casually. When the horrific climax begins, the movie changes from color to black and white, returning to color again when the events of the climax are concluded. The change is far more effective than showing blood and gore in living color. 

The plot line is somewhat confusing, so you’ll need a lot of concentration to keep up with all the subtitles, and you’ll occasionally be lost in the beautiful cinematography of Junichi Fujisawa. There are no monsters here, except the ones we ourselves create, and no ghosts except the ones that were already there in the first place. Inugami is a marvelous find, a J-horror movie that received little acclaim (as far as I can tell) when it was released in 2001, but one worth seeking out and certainly well worth the effort..

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous cinematography and dependance on an uneasy feeling for horror before the real shocking acts begin in the final reel.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot can be overly complicated for having to read subtitles throughout.

FAMILY PLANNING: There is a good deal of sexuality in the movie as well as a healthy amount of violence and gore in the final reel.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The inugami are actual figures in Japanese folklore; they have inspired a manga and anime of the same title that has nothing to do with this movie.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Limitless

Red Riding Hood


Red Riding Hood

Gary Oldman reacts to charges that this is Twilight with werewolves.

(2011) Romantic Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Amanda Seyfried, Gary Oldman, Billy Burke, Shiloh Fernandez, Max Irons, Virginia Madsen, Julie Christie, Lukas Haas, Shauna Kane, Michael Hogan, Adrian Holmes, Cole Heppell, Michael Shanks. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke

The woods are deep and dark for a reason. There are things there that defy the world we know and keep to the shadows, leaping out only when some helpless unsuspecting maiden passes by.

Valerie (Seyfried) lives in a bucolic village in the woods surrounded by snow-capped mountains. It is winter and the woods have become dark and threatening. It is full moon night and a sacrifice is being left out for the wolf that has beset their village for generations.

She has been in love with Peter (Fernandez), a woodcutter who works with her father Cesaire (Burke) who mostly drinks. Her mother Suzette (Madsen) however has promised her to another – Henry (Irons), the blacksmith’s boy and considerably well-to-do in a village like this. It’s a great match – only Valerie loves Peter, not Henry.

Things start to go wrong when Valerie’s sister turns up dead at the hands of the wolf. The townspeople go out to hunt the beast dead. It turns out the hunters killed a beast but not the beast. They call in Father Solomon (Oldman), an expert hunter who asserts they have a werewolf at work – and the beast lives among them in their human form.

Suspicion turns on everyone, from Valerie’s quirky grandma (Christie) living out in the woods by herself to Valerie herself. At first the villagers pooh-pooh the good Father but when the werewolf crashes their celebration, there is no longer any doubt that they are dealing with a diabolical beast. But which one of them is it? And can they stop the beast in time?

Director Catherine Hardwicke last did Twilight and obviously this is the kind of thing that is in her comfort zone. It has all the elements that made that movie a hit; a virginal lead forced to choose between two hotties that have a secret that involves the supernatural. However, what this movie lacks is that sense of tragedy that makes the hearts of teen girls go pitter pat. Twilight works because there’s that knowledge that Bella and Edward can never be together and because if they do, they will both be changed forever.

That’s not here at all; there’s nothing epic about the romantic angle at all and say what you will about the Twilight series, that quality is there in spades. You have to care about the couple in a romantic fantasy or else it doesn’t work. Here, the sparks never really fly. Seyfried is a fine actress and Fernandez and Irons are both pretty good in their own rights, but the chemistry fails here.

The location is really beautiful which is inevitable because it’s mostly computer generated. Majestic snow-capped mountains, endless dark green swaths of forest and quaint vaguely-Germanic villages make it a fantasy setting right out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. In a sense, the location is too perfect, too bucolic – at times the sense of menace that should be palpable is overwhelmed by the charm of the setting.

The werewolf itself is also a bit of a letdown – it’s more of a big shaggy dog than anything else and the wolfish side which should be wild and untamed is suborned by a silly ability to communicate telepathically with Valerie. He comes off like a talking animal and less of a ferocious monster. So as a horror movie, this doesn’t really work either.

So it boils down to suspense, figuring out who the werewolf is. Quite frankly, it’s not that hard – Da Queen figured it out pretty damn quickly, even more so than her movie-loving husband. Still, it’s not difficult to spot the wolf, as it were – and that is also a problem.

It’s a movie that needed more guidance from the writer; it’s almost as if three different studio executives with three different ideas for the movie were telling the writer “More romance. No, more horror. No, it’s gotta have suspense.” In trying to be something for everybody it ends up being nothing to anybody.

REASONS TO GO: Some beautiful-looking sequences. Some of the music is impressive.

REASONS TO STAY: Isn’t terrifying enough to be horror; not sentimental enough to be romance; too mundane to be a suspense film.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s violence and sensuality, along with some creature feature-like thrills.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actor Max Irons is the son of Jeremy Irons.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the wide CGI vistas are best seen at the multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Inugami

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