Saturday, September 12, 2009

TIFF Day #3: Jennifer's Body & The White Ribbon

Day 3 of the film festival went much more smoothly than the first two days - screenings starting on time, and nothing that angered me too much. With only two films of tap for the day, and this being the only day I will actually attend the festival with other people, the day was nice and relaxing. I wish the three lovely women I saw the two movies with enjoyed either of the films more than they did, but I really cannot control that.

First up was Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body (** ½). From a script by Diablo Cody (Juno), this teenage horror film/comedy hybrid, the film is perhaps not quite as good as it could have been, had the two genres been more organically mixed in the film. Cody certainly tries to replicate the constant stream of one liners that made Juno so popular, but this time, the insults and pop culture references are a little stale. There are still some memorable lines (the consensus pick seemed to be the best on was “You’re giving me a wetty”, even if we could not agree on how to spell wetty), but just as many fall flat as work. A bigger problem - for me anyone, since I was the only real horror fan among our group - is that the film is never for an instant scary. The scenes where Jennifer attacks her victims, still seem to be concerned with the films over the top humor than with intense thrills. While I would certainly not argue that the dialogue in Jennifer’s Body is any less realistic than it was in Juno (it is stylized dialogue), it certainly does not feel as organic this time, perhaps because most of the characters are ciphers more than real people. Having spent most of this time insulting the movie, I will say that even with all these flaws, Jennifer’s Body still comes remarkably close to being a good movie - or at least a good time at the movies. Amanda Seyfried is actually quite good in what is the films real lead, as Needy, a girl who sees her life spin out of control when her best friend becomes a demon. Said best friend is played by Megan Fox, who really has gotten a bad rap as an actress, based on roles where she was never really given a chance to act. Sure, he character in Jennifer’s Body is all about her sexuality, but Fox plays the role to pretty much perfection. Sorry, but that’s just about the only way to play this role. J.K. Simmons is wonderful in support, as a clueless high school teacher, and perhaps the most fun in the movie is provided by Adam Brody as the singer of a crappy emo band who sets the whole plot in motion. Director Kusama seems more interested in some of the more sexual elements in the film, than the horror ones, and her portrayal of teenage sexuality is actually portrays it quite accurately, with its awkwardness and all. And I have to admit that while a lesbian kiss between Seyfried and Fox may have only been added to make teen boys jizz in their pants, it is actually handled remarkably well - and yes, the scene is definitely sexy in the extreme. Jennifer’s Body never quite comes together, but it is still a fun time at the movies (especially for men).

I also saw my first masterpiece of the festival, Michael Haneke’s Palme D’Or winning The White Ribbon (****). Haneke’s film explores life in a small, insular town in Germany right before the start of the First World War. The film centers on five families, who patriarchs are all identified solely based on their job descriptions that deconstruct the class system- Baron, Pastor, Doctor, Steward, and Farmer. The entire town is so perverse, that the kids in the movie do not realize just how screwed up everything they are being taught really is. The Pastor in particular, systematically tears down his kids, humiliating them by making them feel ashamed of masturbation, or even rowdy behavior. He makes his children wear a white ribbon to remind them of how they are supposed to be - pure and innocent. He rules with an iron fist - in one chilling sequence, he whips two of his children simply for showing up late for dinner one day. Instead of focusing on the violence of this scene itself, Haneke’s camera stays outside the room where the abuse is happening, instead tracking outside as the son has to go get the whip that will be used on him, and then lingering outside in the hall, where we hear the results. The Pastor gets his children to buy into his rigid belief system by completely breaking them down, and then providing just a single crumb of respect - whether its by removing the white ribbon and hand restraints of his son (the restraints he is forced to wear at night so as to stop him from masturbating), or by allowing his daughter’s confirmation to go through, even after her shocking act of violence on his pet bird. In Haneke’s view, this is how not just National Socialism took hold in Germany a few decades later, but really all terrorism. Because the kids only see one view of reality - the one provided by their parents - it becomes easier to make them true believers. The children are gradually reduced to something out of a movie like Village of the Damned - an emotionless army of fanatics. The shocking acts of violence (which, in typical Haneke style, happens almost entirely off-screen), functions much the same way the videotapes did in Haneke’s Cache, in that they are meant to break the town out of their complacency. From the attack on the doctor that opens the film, to the abuse visited on the son of the Baron, and the “retarded” son of the midwife, the sins of the parents are being visited upon their children. Haneke also continues his view of sex as a tool of humiliation. In one shocking, cruel scene, the doctor dismisses the midwife, who has been his lover for years, by listing all of her flaws in painstaking mean detail. When he moves onto abusing his daughter, who has just turned 14, it functions the same way as the Pastor’s abuse. She knows no better, so to her it is normal. Her poor younger brother seems to have no idea what is going on. The film is novelistic in its approach, as the film is full of characters. It is narrated by a teacher, who as an outsider to the town, is able to see the perversity of the town, but remains too timid to actually do anything about it. His relationship with another outsider - the nanny who works for the baron - is almost sweet in comparison to everything else that happens in the movie. Shot in stark black and white, the film is meticulously composed and framed, and contains some amazing imagery. The film is a masterpiece about how emotional repression and class conflict that gave rise to the Nazis, and how, the same thing plays out around the war, where ever a set of absolutist values is taught to children, who do not know any better. The White Ribbon is certainly not for everyone. My three companions were all thoroughly unimpressed with the film. For many it will be too slow, and the fact that Haneke does not feel the need to spell everything out will certainly frustrate viewers more used to Hollywood storytelling. But for fans of Haneke’s work it is a must see.

Tomorrow I will not be going to any festival movies, instead spending the day with my wife, who won’t get to see me for the next five days. Starting Monday though, I will back at the festival everyday, watching more and more films. So Monday, I will see the Coen brothers A Serious Man, George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead, John Hillcoat’s The Road and Faith Akin’s Soul Kitchen. I cannot wait. I will try each day to do a short recap (much shorter than todays, but I was asked repeatedly today why I thought The White Ribbon was a masterpiece, so I felt inclined to go into more detail than normal).

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