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Ulrich Tukur

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Village of the Damned.


The kids are alright? Not hardly. As the second half of a Saturday double-feature with Daniel Ellsberg: The Most Dangerous Man in America, I caught the Oscar favorite for Best Foreign Film this year, Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. Alas, meine freunde, I found it underwhelming.

Put briefly, and while adding a frisson of Funny Games‘ Aryan youths-gone-wild to the mix, The White Ribbon attempts to do for the rise of the Nazis in Germany what Haneke’s Cache did for the French-Algerian conflict. But, at least for me, lightning didn’t strike twice. Perhaps it’s due to either knowing the trick this time ’round or having a greater familiarity with the history at hand, but I thought the allegorical content of Ribbon started out rather didactically, and only got more obvious and belabored at the movie churned along. And, shorn of its historical musings, the story here doesn’t really hold up on its own — It’s mostly just long, meandering takes of (usually) unfortunate things happening to German peasants.

First, the story. The year is 1913, and in the (fictional) village of Eichwald, a German doctor (Rainer Bock) is thrown from his horse and gravely injured, apparently due to a tripwire someone — one of the Black Hand? — placed across his path. And before this event can even be fully processed, another tragedy takes place: A worker for the local Baron (Ulrich Tukur) falls through some rotted boards to her death. Yep, Eichwald is having a frozen run of luck like you read about.

As suspicions and recriminations deepen throughout this hamlet, more troubling events ensue. An aggrieved farmer ruins the harvest festival by slaughtering all the Baron’s cabbages. The Baron’s young son is taken by unknown parties and brutally horsewhipped (for some reason, and as in Doubt, nobody ever thinks to ask the kid who did this to him.) Fires are set, folks disappear (or leave while they still can), birds are mutilated, and, perhaps most frightening, even souls are in peril: For example, the son (Leonard Proxauf) of the local reverend (Burghart Klaubner) puts his eternal salvation in doubt by indulging in a nasty habit of onanism. To be sure, this evil must be beaten out of him, and his siblings, as soon as possible. In other words, we must destroy these children in order to save them.

Narrating this tale throughout (as an old man, years on) is the local schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), who, as a relatively young newcomer to the village, stands between its feuding generations. When not courting the Baron’s young nanny (Leonie Benesch), he watches the events unfolding in town with growing unease, and tries to figure out who is responsible for all the incidents driving the citizens of Eichwald mad. The problem is, he’s already tipped what’s actually going on in the very first scene of the movie, when he says something along the lines of “This is not just the story of a random German village, but the story of my nation.” Ooh, really? Allegory time.

Pretty soon thereafter, we are regaled with a scene where the Reverend’s children are taken to the proverbial woodshed and unduly punished for their transgressions, real and imagined. Given both the time I’ve spent on this subject in recent years and the schoolmaster’s “time to play German History Jeopardy!” warning in the first scene, this set off Versailles Conference bells and alarms right away, and especially so once these children are then forced to wear white ribbons as symbols of purity. Hmm…who else in 20th century German history ran around wearing armbands? Let me think on it.

The rest of the story pans out as you might expect. For various reasons, predominant among them the Sins of the Father(s), these kids go terribly wrong, eventually even going so far as to attack a developmentally disabled boy (i.e. the local minority in their midst.) Also, for some reason, the movie is constructed like a mystery, even tho’ — even if you didn’t pick up on all the hints in the last paragraph — one of the kids basically confesses to the schoolteacher what’s going on in the first reel. Uh, can we speed this along? Bitte?

I’d like to say The White Ribbon remains engaging despite all of its allegorical ambitions. But it doesn’t, really. When you’re not playing spot-the-German-history as it goes along — Is the Baron supposed to be Kaiser Wilhelm? Are we gonna get a Beer Hall Putsch? Hey, look, Pius XII! — Ribbon mostly just offers long, intermittently interesting digressions on agrarian village life, like harvest festivals, courting carriage-rides and the cruelest break-up of the German pre-war period. (Some of this plays a bit like Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven — A period film, told in period (B&W) style, with then-taboo subjects like incest, sexual assault, and the aforementioned onanism now thrown in.)

Simply put, there’s not enough story to sustain interest in this enterprise without the allegorical content that’s driving the movie. And, since this allegory was tipped in the opening half-hour, I pretty much just spent most of The White Ribbon waiting for all the various little Nazi shoes to drop. Without either the ambiguity or the open-endedness of Cache, I found The White Ribbon on the pedantic and stultifying side, and I can’t really recommend it. It’s not terrible or anything, but it is rather long and uninvolving, and I have to think one of the other Foreign Film contenders probably puts on a better show.

The Oughts in Film: Part IV (25-11).

Hello again, and a happy New Year’s Eve to you and yours. Well, I thought this Best of the Decade would end up being four parts, but now it’s looking like five. The recaps for this last twenty-five got so long that MT seems to be consuming the bottom of the entry as I write.

So, with that in mind, here’s #’s 25-11 for the Oughts, with the top ten of the decade to follow in due course. If you’re new to this overview, be sure to check out part 1, part 2, and part 3 before moving on to the…

Top 100 Films of the Decade: Part IV: 25-11
[The Rest of the List: 100-76 | 75-51 | 50-26 | 25-11 | 10-1]
[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006/2007/2008/2009]


25. Donnie Darko (2001)

From the original review: “All in all, this is a marvelously genre-bending film with wonderful anchoring performances by the Gyllenhaals. I think I liked this movie much more for not knowing a lot about it going in, so I won’t mention the particulars here. But it’s definitely worth seeing. Extra points for the soundtrack, which with ‘Head over Heels,’ ‘Love will Tear Us Apart,’ and ‘Under the Milky Way’…reminded me more of my own high school experience than any other film I can remember. (The Dukakis era setting helped, since that was my own eighth grade year.)

I almost took this movie out of the top 25 on account of its association with Southland Tales and The Box, and even the director’s cut of this film, which snuffs out a lot of this movie’s weird magic by slathering it in needless Midichlorian-style exposition. As I said in my recent review of The Box, Donnie Darko seems to be a clear and undeniable case where studio intervention saved a movie.

Nevertheless, part Philip K. Dick, part John Hughes, Darko was a touching coming-of-age story (thanks in good part to Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne as Donnie’s cranky but loving parents), a decently funny satire about the vagaries of small-town life (think Sparkle Motion, “sleep-golfing,” and the Love-Fear axis), and a trippy sci-fi/psychological thriller. (Was Donnie really talking to a demon-rabbit from the future, or was he just off his meds? The original version muddles this question a lot better than the Kelly cut.)

Whether or not Richard Kelly just got struck by lightning here, everyone else involved clearly brought their A-game to this production. Two Gyllenhaals got on the Hollywood board with this flick, although Maggie would have to wait for Secretary to really break out. The Michael Andrews score contributed mightily to the proceedings, as did the Gary Jules cover of “Mad World,” which got a lot of run in the Oughts, from Gears of War to American Idol. And there are plenty of quality performances in the margins, from the late Patrick Swayze riffing on his image, to Beth Grant typecasting herself for the decade, to Katharine Ross coming back for one more curtain call. Fluke or not, the original version of Donnie Darko was one strange and memorable bunny, alright.


24. High Fidelity (2000)

From the year-end list: “An excellent adaptation of a great book, even if I preferred the Elvis Costello britrock emphasis of Hornby’s tome to the indie Subpop scene of the movie.

Charlie, you f**king b**ch! Let’s work it out!” Arguably John Cusack’s finest hour (although 1999’s Being John Malkovich is right up there, and I know many might cite the Lloyd Dobler of old), Stephen Frears’ adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity has continued to grow on me over the years. If it counts as one of David Denby’s slacker-striver romances (see the discussion of Knocked Up at #40), it’s definitely the one that hits closest to home for me.

The first thing people usually remember about this movie is all the Jack Black/Todd Louiso banter in the record store. (“It’s a Cosssssby sweater!“) And it’s true — All of that stuff is both really funny and all too telling about the elitism and obsessiveness inherent to the fanboy mentality — “Don’t tell anyone you don’t own ‘Blonde on Blonde’! It’s gonna be okay.” Besides, let’s face it, this entire end-of-the-decade list is really just an extended High Fidelity-style Top 5 (and I had a great time back in July organizing my history books chronologically, a la Rob’s record collection.)

Still, as with the book, High Fidelity‘s killer app is really the dispatches filed from Rob’s romantic life, as he ponders what went wrong with his Top 5 Crushes gone awry. (“We were frightened of being left alone for the rest of our lives. Only people of a certain disposition are frightened of being alone for the rest of their lives at the age of 26, and we were of that disposition.“) There’s a lot of truthiness throughout High Fidelity, from Rob’s catastrophic hang-up on Charlie (Catherine Zeta Jones) to his eff-the-world rebound with an equally besotted Sarah (Lili Taylor), to his single-minded infatuation about whether his ex, Laura (Iben Hjejle), has slept with the loathsome new boyfriend, Ian (fellow Tapehead Tim Robbins in a great cameo) yet.

In short, I’d argue High Fidelity gets the inner-male monologue closer to right than any flick this side of Annie Hall. In the immortal words of Homer J. Simpson, it’s funny because it’s true.


23. In the Mood for Love (2000) / 2046 (2004)

From the original review: “Since I spent Friday evening watching In the Mood for Love — a tale of a romance-that-almost-was, told in furtive hallway glances — and 2046 — a broader and more diffuse disquisition on love and heartache — back-to-back, here’s an

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