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Toronto International Film Festival 2009: The White Ribbon, A Serious Man, & Up in the Air

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Toronto International Film Festival 2009: <em>The White Ribbon</em>, <em>A Serious Man</em>, & <em>Up in the Air</em>

The White Ribbon: Ever wonder about the ancestors of the murderous jocks from Funny Games? Michael Haneke time travels to rural Germany on the cusp of WWI to find the answer, or, rather, to make the audience’s collective skin crawl at the question. Something of a distant Teutonic relative to H.G. Clouzot’s caustic Le Corbeau, the story traces the “horror and perplexity” contaminating a small village after a series of mysteriously interconnected events inexorably suggests the oppressive rot lurking under the townspeople’s unsmiling, puritanical façade and spreading into the next generation. (Shot in monochromatic tones peculiarly reminiscent of Dreyer’s Gertrud, it’s Haneke’s most visually polished picture yet, though the buzz of flies seeking decay is never far.) Unfolding like a finely wrought adaptation of a sprawling, detail-rich novel, the film showcases Haneke’s undeniable technical mastery and is thankfully light on the filmmaker’s patented hectoring shocks. The lingering feeling, however, is ultimately less of a portrait of encroaching dread than of a Children of the Corn prequel played as rigid thesis.

A Serious Man: The camera descends onto a snowy village, and then slowly zooms from the pitch-black inside of a character’s head toward the light of an earpiece playing Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” These two showy camera movements appear early in the Coen brothers’ latest tragicomedy, visualizing my recurring problem with the filmmakers (they’re always looking down on their own characters) and perhaps their riposte to that line of criticism (they’re working from deep within those characters). The two views are more in harmony here than in any of their other movies since The Big Lebowski, though where Jeff Bridges’s Dude endured his tribulations with a rumpled suavity, Michael Stuhlbarg’s Larry Gopnick watches in helpless terror as enough indignities are piled on top of him to make Job himself cry, “Uncle!” The film navigates its protagonist through a late-’60s sea of bullies, yentas, backstabbers, and parasites, hitting moments of pitiless cosmic doubt that shame No Country for Old Men’s frigid cynicism. Bleak, hilarious, remarkable.

Up in the Air: Be a capitalist asshole, but don’t be alone. That’s the message in Jason Reitman’s glib crowd-pleaser, which takes the most facile bits of Thank You for Smoking and Michael Clayton and stitches them together with a potpourri of musical montages. The jet-set dislocation of a moneyed frequent flyer is the presiding metaphor, as a Golden Club prick (George Clooney) who makes his living firing people and delivering relationship-whittling motivational speeches is made to face his own emotional isolation. Clooney’s early scenes with Vera Farmiga promise sexy, satirical amorality, but it soon becomes clear that the actor’s attempts to suggest emptiness behind handsomeness are really an excuse for narcissistic cuteness, just as Reitman’s use of the crumbling economy is quickly exposed as white noise for yet another tale of an aging bachelor’s redemption.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 10—19.

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.