Edge of White Ribbon (Weekly Links)

Movies I reviewed for the Herald this week.

The White Ribbon (link dead; review below)

By Robert Horton

Most movies pose a problem at the beginning that is solved by the final scene. That’s why many films seem like mathematical equations.

“The White Ribbon,” winner of last year’s top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, goes in a different direction. This utterly unnerving film offers a number of problems, but instead of answering them all, it allows us to draw sinister conclusions.

What is “The White Ribbon”? A cerebral horror movie, a film about 20th-century history that takes place entirely in a small village over the course of a couple of years, a mystery with multiple possibilities.

Set in a German village just before World War I, the film introduces us to a wide range of characters and a series of bizarre acts of cruelty that occur. It begins with the town’s doctor being injured when his horse trips over a wire that has been deliberately stretched across a lane.

Other odd mysteries happen: child abuse, accidental death, arson, suicide. And even in ordinary domestic scenes, a sense of cruelty and repression is the dominant mood—including around the children. Especially around the children.

The only exception is the tender courtship of the 31-year-old schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) and a shy lass (Leonie Benesch) from a nearby town. The teacher narrates the film from the vantage of old age, and says he is telling us the story to “clarify things that happened later in our country.”

That suggestion prompts us to  imagine that the children will probably be soldiers in Hitler’s Third Reich when they grow up. But the film doesn’t spell this out, and the vague sense of evil percolating beneath the surface of every incident does not need to be limited to what happened in Germany in the first half of the last century.

Along with those blandly disturbing children, we also come to know the adults, who are a cross-section of society: the baron whose harvest employs one and all, the pastor who rules his children with an iron fist, the doctor whose conversation with his servant/mistress might be the harshest scene between two people since Ingmar Bergman’s last film, and other farmers, laborers, and sundry folk.

This world is conjured up by Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke, a major European filmmaker whose films include “Cache” and “The Music Teacher.” Haneke is a master of detail, an impeccable technician who orchestrates every aspect of the movie—sound, lighting, performance—into an extraordinary finished product.

It’s all the more perverse that with the technical skills of a Spielberg, he consistently leaves out the pieces that would give his audience closure. What is the cause of the strange events of “The White Ribbon”? I don’t know. Repeat viewings might gather clues and stitch it all together.

But that would be beside the point. Haneke is describing a general mood of horror and shared responsibility. It takes a village to foster evil, he might be saying, not just a single warped culprit.

Edge of Darkness (link dead; review below)

By Robert Horton

It’s been a long, twisted road for Mad Max: from stardom to controversy to a long layoff as an actor. But here’s Mel Gibson again, bringing his usual fury to “Edge of Darkness.”

While the commercials for this one promise a “Ransom”-shaped workout with a revenge-minded Mel, the movie itself is more than that. Boiled down from a 1985 British TV miniseries, “Edge” sprawls out from a mystifying murder into a large-scale political coverup.

Gibson plays Tom Craven, a Boston police detective who sees his grown daughter (Bojana Novakovic) shot while standing next to him. While the department begins its investigation, he tries to find out which of his enemies wanted him dead.

Things turn out to be more complicated than that. The trail leads to a quietly menacing energy contractor, whose CEO (Danny Huston) is weirdly slippery when Craven confronts him with questions. Everybody’s slippery, actually: a Massachusetts senator (Damian Young), a corporate fixer (Dennis O’Hare), Craven’s colleague (Jay O. Sanders).

The film begins in a conventional mode, but things perk up the first time Jedburgh (Ray Winstone) eases into the film. Hard to say who he is, exactly—he doesn’t seem to know himself—but he works for some bad people, unless he doesn’t want to work for them anymore.

Jedburgh has a series of philosophical conversations with Craven, which are probably warnings but maybe also a strange kind of kinship. He quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald and speaks Latin and sips expensive wine, and he keeps the movie from ever settling for simple action beats.

“Edge of Darkness” is directed by the same person that made the original TV series, Martin Campbell (who has since become a prized action filmmaker, including the excellent Bond reboot, “Casino Royale”). He keeps this one on its rails, blending the shocks and conversation.

Some of the plot strands beg for more illumination (I think there’s a Blackwater-like organization in the mix somewhere, but I’m not sure), but that’s probably what you get when you reduce a six-hour original into a two-hour form. One of the screenwriters is William Monahan, the Oscar-winner of “The Departed.” Apparently he’s the go-to guy for convoluted Boston drama.

At the center of all this is that conflicted fellow, Mel Gibson, whose face is now creased and waxy—he looks older than his years, as though fighting his demons has taken a lot out of him.

Probably it has. But Gibson still has that unstable ferocity in his being—he can’t even walk across his humble kitchen without looking as though he’s going to punch a hole in the fridge. You have to have a tough dude in this movie to make it work, and Mel Gibson sure looks like a tough dude.

Police, Adjective (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

You always hear that a police officer’s reality is much more humdrum than the exciting events of TV cop shows would suggest. A new Romanian film, “Police, Adjective,” pushes this idea: much of it consists of a policeman waiting around for something to happen.

You could think of this undercover cop, whose name is Cristi, as the opposite of Nicolas Cage’s ethically-challenged flatfoot in “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.” He’s laid-back and blends into the scenery, but he has a firm moral objection to the particular case he’s working on.

The young actor Dragos Bucur, who looks a lot like former Seattle Sonics player Vlad Radmanovich, plays Cristi. He spends his days following an otherwise ordinary high-school student who occasionally takes drugs with his friends.

Cristi lodges his misgivings about this case. Given the amount of police work going into it, isn’t this a rather minor offense? Why is he spending his time staking out this small-time user?

And he worries about his own conscience. If he does what he’s ordered to do and arrests the kid, he’ll be sending the teenager into years of incarceration. Cristi knows that would be an overly severe punishment and would wreck the kid’s life. Does he want to live with that?

If this sounds like the basis for an interesting drama, it might be. But director Corneliu Porumboiu, who did the award-winning “12:08 to Bucharest,” is not trying to create drama—he’s part of a generation of European filmmakers who test the boundaries of what you can do in feature film storytelling.

“Police, Adjective” is certainly a test. The very slow scenes of uneventful police stakeouts, and the equally uneventful scenes of Cristi at home with his wife, will drain away any expectations of a “Law & Order”-style procedural.

And yet there’s a lot of procedure, especially in a sequence of Cristi trying to get some action out of his slothful colleagues. The final sequence, when he finally brings the case before his Captain, is an investigation of its own: into language and meaning (it explains the film’s curious title).

Porumboiu doesn’t come out and say it, but Romania’s history of Soviet-style bureaucracy is surely haunting the movie’s layers of frustration and its portrait of the gulf between what’s legal and what’s right. At times the film suggests that the old model has been replaced by a very similar new model. No wonder the film’s world seems so joyless—and no wonder everything takes so long.

When in Rome (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Since “Four Coins and a Poker Chip in the Fountain” doesn’t have much of a ring to it, I suppose “When in Rome” will have to do as a title.

And why not? A lame title for a lame movie.

We are far from the romantic days of “Three Coins in the Fountain,” which was a hit sometime back in the age of Julius Caesar, I believe. This one’s slapstick with just a hint of romance around the edges.

As with most movie heroines, Beth (Kristen Bell) is overworked and single. She’s committed that most unforgivable of errors in film: she’s put her career before her love life.

Her younger sister makes no such mistake, arranging a hasty Italian marriage to a guy she met two weeks earlier. While briefly in Rome, Beth has a nice moment with best man Nick (Josh Duhamel) at the reception. He’s a former football player who got hit by lightning during a big game, which makes as much sense as anything else in this movie.

But then some magic arrives. And I don’t mean magic like “Casablanca” magic, or “Roman Holiday” magic. This isn’t even “The Hangover” magic.

I mean a cheap conjurer’s trick, whereby Beth’s idle gesture of retrieving four coins (and a poker chip) from a Rome fountain causes the men who threw the lucky objects to fall madly in love with her. This murderer’s row includes a sausage mogul (Danny DeVito), a street magician (Jon Heder), an artist (Will Arnett), and a model (Dax Shepard). And, of course, Nick.

The film moves back to New York for the zany results of this gimmick. Which never makes much sense: we don’t learn how the men knew to come to NYC and pursue Beth, nor is there a revelation scene where Beth realizes all these guys were in Rome at the same time.

Weird. But so is the decision to throw in random pratfalls—I guess Nick keeps tripping into manholes and walking into lampposts because someone who got hit by lightning would be unlucky. Unlucky, maybe; funny, not really.

The movie, despite a respectable cast, feels fumbled and oddly spiritless. “When in Rome” is directed by Mark Steven Johnson, whose work includes “Ghost Rider” and Daredevil,” which is not a good track record.

Kristen Bell (“Veronica Mars”) and Josh Duhamel (“Las Vegas”) are TV-seasoned stars who seem ready to assume bigger things in movies, and they would seem well suited to romantic comedy. But this is not that film.

Even at the basics, “When in Rome” gets it wrong. You can’t photograph the tiny Bell and the tall Duhamel next to each other without using some art, because it will look like he’s using stilts and she’s in a ditch. Which is what this movie looks like. And that is not a good thing.

Movie Diary 1/18/2010

I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943). People rightly talk about how poetic this movie is, but it’s also so intelligent, and all the people in it are intelligent. Excuse for re-watching it is my lecture next week on radical literary adaptations (this one is loosely based on Jane Eyre). I think I need to find an excuse to watch it at least once a year from now on.

Toby Dammit (Federico Fellini, 1968). Also for the adaptation thing. Fellini’s segment in Spirits of the Dead, a movie I watched sometime in adolescence, totally weirded out, though not actually in the good way. The original Poe story, “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” is really pretty funny. The little Satanic girl seems like the inspiration for all the long-haired demons of the Ring movies and their imitators.

Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2009). Another notch in the belt for the Romanian New Wave. Doesn’t have that taut-string suspension of Mr. Lazarescu or 4 Months etc., but good. (full review 1/29)