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White Ribbon SaragossaParnassusKatalinZombielandInvention of LyingFunny People




The White Ribbon (w/d. Michael Haneke, 2009)

Technically faultless. Often arrestingly beautiful. Superlative performances.

Sound design, structure and mise en scene recall Hidden, The Piano Teacher and Benny’s Video, so The White Ribbon is arguably the apotheosis of an auteur mastering his language. The disturbance the film arouses is redolent of that turbulence coursing beneath Resnais’s Night and Fog, but without its explicit surface.

Haneke plays a few games in imitation of Ingmar Bergman – mirroring both images, plotted power dynamics, stylistic and dramatic aspects of dialogue. The Lutheran pastor is an expansion on that sinister figure of Fanny and Alexander. The doctor is an explicit rendition of the doctor in Cries and Whispers, or so many other Bergman men who have skeletons in their cupboards and violently abusive exchanges with the women they crush. Wintry black and white crime scenes recall the suicide of Winter Light.

Haneke clearly intends, and was quite right to mention so in recent interviews, his films to lurk in your thoughts once you’ve left the cinema. Nobody sits to discuss the film after, and it worries you in the core. Plotting, despite the ubiquitous inconclusiveness, is essential to his method and ends. The stories remain open both to leave one questioning events, and thereby to return one to the world presented. We aren’t to wonder ‘who done it’. That is irrelevant, and a MacGuffin to draw us into pondering this world’s “malice”, “envy”, “brutality”, “apathy” and “perverse revenge”.

One can hardly help but place the little boy in the white band, his lips pursed as though a lie is trying to force its way out, in his presumed future as camp commandant; his omnipresent sister as a prototype Eva Braun; the flayed whistle-thief as jackbooted storm-trooper. This is context specific, but the film’s world isn’t, and Haneke wants it to be read easily into any scenario where an authoritarian and absolutist value system is forced down throats until it is internalized and returned with vengeful fury to those who hypocritically and inconsistently inseminated it. Where Hidden made the vague gnawing of collective cultural responsibility for distant suffering highly acute, personal and present inside our lives (rather like a terrorist attack), The White Ribbon plays a similar tune to those vices quoted above. Here is where its lingering, troublesome affect has bite, and why I draw the Night and Fog analogy. Each of us is still culpable, in the same dimensions as those condemned, for contemporary manifestations of those same horrors.


The Saragossa Manuscript (d. Wojciech Has, 1966)

Inspired and exuberant. Stunning images articulated with a distinct, elegant, mature cinematic language.

Jan Potocki’s magical story manages to subvert what might have been a typical tale of aristocratic intrigue, straight out of Dumas, into something quite disturbing. It is immense in girth and depth.

On the one hand, it adopts a Nietzschean paradigm of cyclical infinite repetition, brought out in the unending hallucinated purgatory of our protagonist, a Captain of the Walloon Guards, who foolishly blunders into Satan’s land, by insisting on a shortcut through the Sierra Morena. He is cursed to return unendingly to Venta Quemada, the haunted bothy where two Orientalized sirens bewitch him, only to awake at a bone and corpse strewn gallows, carrion birds menacing.

On the other hand, it adopts a framing paradigm, wherein each character introduced begins to tell their own story, generating an infinitesimal inwardly collapsing sequence of stories within stories, than only begin to intersect and illuminate one another at the fourth integral. Whereupon light begins to dawn on the whole, as gestured at by the interceding Velasquez, a philosopher skeptic introduced alongside a mysterious Cabbalist and a gypsy king.

The story and its structure are highly entertaining, but so is their formal constitution. There are too many aspects to highlight in this respect, but one of my favourite is the sound design. Is there any other film in which a plucked double bass is used to such haunting, comical, erotic, otherwise suggestive effect? It is also astounding to behold, from the opening credits, what affect the cinemascope widescreen commands. What an incredible picture. Great thanks to Coppola and Scorsese for remastering this.

PS – watch out for one of the most delightfully flagrant uses of bedpost-as-phallus.


The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (w/d. Terry Gilliam, 2009)

Despite certain schizophrenic incoherences in structure and script, there is nothing else available today with the same degree of imagination and originality.

The images of Gilliam’s mind appear more phenomenal than ever, due to some well-tempered use of CGI. I have not felt so won-over by a world of fiction in recent memory. Imaginarium is so captivating (almost solipsistic, were it not for the real economic and social particles that fly penetratingly hither and thither) that one can forget the real world exists, and walk out with a sense of nostalgia measured by its gentle concluding scene.

Tom Waits is, naturally, a delight. Christopher Plummer has trouble delivering Dr Parnassus with any consistency, given the difficult tonal shifts and character twists left obfuscated by the script, throwing him between drunken lunacy and meditative transcendence. Everyone else is right on the money, though Ledger is somewhat snatched in and out of the film, for obvious reasons. Amongst the walk-on roles, Farrell is definitely weaker than Depp and Law. But they are all much the same character in different faces, so it pulls together neatly. To my satisfaction, there is a substantial part for Andrew Garfield, who we will remember from Red Riding. He is an absolute star.

I loved this film. It is obviously not a great film on an objective scale, and not among Gilliam’s best. But it is a world unto itself, of uncanny vision. This is a pretty rare thing.


Katalin Varga (w/d. Peter Strickland, 2009)

Haunting, experimental, bleak, yet oddly satisfying.

The strengths of Katalin Varga are built on smart concept, sharp screenplay, inventive, youthful direction, and note perfect performance. Its weaknesses, in some respects, were proscribed by budget constraint. Some of the imagery Strickland captures, of forests in particular, and the excellent application of sound, of nature in particular, call to mind the highest – aesthetic – achievements of Antichrist. But obviously, without the experienced cinematographic talent and high-tech gear on board. It is sincere and honest in its engagement with the audience, but a little more manipulation might help us engage better, feel the tension when it’s unfolding. One thing to admire – this is one of the few films I’ve seen in 2009 which ends when it should end. An interesting commentary on the conditions of the possibility of female empowerment in developing countries. And, equally, a transcendental analysis of revenge. A genuinely clever film.


Zombieland (d. Ruben Fleischer, 2009)

A stupid film with a ghastly, ghastly script.

Usually charming, here Jesse Eisenberg delivers a perennial voiceover of patronising inauthenticity, weak imagination, and vomit-inducing cliche. Zombieland’s basic three act structure is crudely drawn out of a featureless, derivative story, with atrocious and incredible dialogue to boot. Reasonable production values there may be – in fact quite a bit of cash was clearly thrown at this glossy, high shutter speed slow-motion bilefest. Harrelson phones in his Mickey from Natural Born Killers, but his edge is absent. Eisenberg is completely deflated by the execrable writing. Did Fleischer just force him to impersonate Michael Cera? Jesse Eisenberg is not Michael Cera. Don’t ask him to quirk and nerd himself into atrophy. He is quite capable of dimensionality. Emma Stone is employed as one-note eye candy, while Breslin has some of the worst lines in the film (between, admittedly, possibly the best – in a hilarious little explanation of Miley Cyrus). There is the odd laugh, and a decent one at times, but always forced. The big cameo is amusingly irrelevant, tangential, but feels irreverent to the point of denigration. If you want entertained and have low standards, give this a shot. Otherwise it is patently dumb and depressing.


The Invention of Lying (w/d. Ricky Gervais & Matthew Robinson, 2009)

An unfunny comedy.

After a promising opening act with a few laughs and an excellent concept – a script in which subtext is dialogue; a world in which there is no fiction – Invention of Lying descends into a monotonous, unambitious and unfunny slog. As soon as Gervais invents lying the concept falls flat, revealing every inconsistency of a world in which no one can lie, some people must only tell the truth, where others seem less compelled to share their thoughts and feelings – particularly bewildering when the protagonist is on the receiving end of abuse, but feels no compulsion to retaliate. If it more subtly subverted the notion of subtext in dialogue, a world of non-fiction, and faith or ungrounded belief as the source of happiness and emotion in the world, this might have been interesting.


Funny People (w/d. Judd Apatow, 2009)

It’s not that funny. This doesn’t matter – it’s so well crafted that our immersion is swift and sublime.

For the first chapter, full of acutely observed and meditative scenes dealing with the lived experience of fame, we are brought an insight to a possible world – the outsider (Apatow) discovering what such inordinate success looks like from the inside (for Sandler). Meanwhile – clearly a film of two not totally incongruous halves – in the second we find Sandler invading the marital realm of Apatow, with hard-knock results.

It is uncanny the extent to which the real lives of these two signifiers breach the boundaries of Funny People. There is an aura of authenticity to the film, which is only dispelled by its somewhat stodgy running-time – rather than interest sagging, it just starts to shed acuity and becomes rather more veneer than insight. Moreover, Eric Bana, clearly a more competent comedian than most of the others, with the possible exception of Jonah Hill, is unfortunately quite structurally incongruous, but fulfills his role well.

We leave willing to forgive the shortcomings of Funny People, including its slightly incredible ending – the latter partly because it is so knowingly framed between the produce isles of a supermarket. A reflexive gesture to acknowledge the film’s product essence? Charming, sometimes powerful stuff, which gets us on side such that even the mildly amusing becomes a complete gas. Value for money, even just for the first thirty minutes.


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