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Brown goats and gloomy Germans

No funny games ... one of The White Ribbon’s suppressed children

No funny games ... one of The White Ribbon’s suppressed children

TechCentral entertainment critic Lance Harris takes a look at a few recent DVD releases available on import from the UK and the US.

The Men Who Stare at Goats

This film — yet another George Clooney vehicle — has a promising premise and a great cast. Yet it falls frustratingly short of its potential to be a Catch-22 for the second Gulf War. It’s loosely based on a nonfiction book of the same name by Jon Ronson, which investigates the US Army’s research into the potential of paranormal phenomena for military applications.

Members of this paranormal division were apparently trying to learn how to kill goats simply by staring at them. The research that came out of this unit allegedly inspired practices such as torturing Iraqi prisoners of war by playing the theme tune from Barney & Friends at them repeatedly and at loud volumes.

Whether one believes everything in Ronson’s book or not, his material should’ve provided a rich vein of satirical material for director Grant Heslov. With actors as gifted as Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey and Ewan McGregor in his cast, Heslov had the deck stacked in his favour.

But the humour in The Men Who Stare at Goats isn’t pushed to edgy or absurd enough extremes to be truly funny. The linear story that the film overlays on the material from Ronson’s book starts off strong and ends limply, with little dramatic tension in between.

Nonetheless, the film is still worth seeing for its cast. Bridges is predictably good as the head of the paranormal unit who goes undercover with hippies and New Agers to learn more about their beliefs, then goes native. Clooney is at his quirky best with a performance that reminded me of his comedic roles in Coen Brothers movies.

The Men Who Stare at Goats is due for an SA cinematic release on 30 April.

Reviewed: Region 1 (US) DVD

Special features: Goats Declassified: The Real Men of the First Earth Battalion; Project “Hollywood”: A Classified Report from the Set; audio commentaries; character bios; and deleted scenes.

The White Ribbon

Critics in the US and Europe hailed The White Ribbon, the Palme d’Or winner and Oscar nominee from Austrian director Michael Haneke, as one of the best films of 2009. Set in a rural German village shortly before the outbreak of World War 1, The White Ribbon is a complex and disturbing parable about the roots of fascism and fundamentalism.

The film opens with the town doctor taking a serious tumble after his horse trips over a wire – the first in a series of increasingly dangerous pranks and accidents that sow panic and confusion among the townspeople.

Slowly, Haneke reveals the malevolence, abuse and resentment festering under the idyllic, God-fearing town’s skin. Think of a Teutonic remake of The Village of the Damned or M Night Shyamalan’s The Village that strips out the supernatural hokeyness, and you’ll have some idea of what the film is about.

Like most of Haneke’s work — his previous films include Funny Games and Hidden — The White Ribbon is an austere but technically brilliant film. Christian Berger’s black-and-white cinematography — nominated for an Oscar this year — especially deserves to be singled out for praise.

The White Ribbon is an intellectual film that reminds the viewer of its artifice at every opportunity. The presentation in black-and-white and the voiceover from a narrator who warns the viewer that he can’t be sure of the absolute truth serve to distance the viewer from the film’s events.

I have found the Haneke films that I have seen in the past to be too severe, too cold for my tastes, but The White Ribbon is a revelation. Though the film is every bit as chilly as Haneke’s earlier works, The White Ribbon’s stark imagery haunted me for days after I saw it.

Reviewed: Region 2 (UK) DVD

Special features: Interview with director Michael Haneke; trailer.

Harry Brown

Harry Brown is a sort of London council estate version of Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. It casts Michael Caine as an elderly military veteran who takes on a bunch of teenage yobs after they murder his best friend.

Caine’s subtle performance as a cowed senior citizen who embraces the role of vigilante is the main reason to see Harry Brown. His performance gets the viewer firmly on Harry’s side as he dispenses Death Wish-style justice to the little hoodlums.

Harry Brown is a well-made film with crisp pacing, though it does take itself a little too seriously and pushes some of its violence to brutal extremes. The film’s grimy feel brings to mind the kitchen-sink realism that British filmmakers such as Mike Leigh are famous for. However, Leigh would probably cringe at Harry Brown’s depiction of the working classes.

Michael Caine in Harry Brown

Michael Caine in Harry Brown

Harry Brown doesn’t really succeed as a piece of social commentary, but feels instead like a cynical attempt to tap into the fears of the stereotypical Daily Mail reader. But it’s not action-packed enough to work as a revenge thriller, either. Compared to the muscular, redemptive Gran Torino, Harry Brown is a more of a Morris Minor.

Reviewed: Region 2 (UK) DVD

Special features: Bonus footage; deleted scenes; interviews: cast and crew; and commentary from Michael Caine, Daniel Barber (director) and Kris Thykier (producer).

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for reviewing some unusual films. I shall certainly look out for White Ribbon.

    I do believe you were a little harsh on Harry brown which I found to be closer to a Brit Taxi Driver than a Gran Torino.

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