Opening Weekend: ‘The Lovely Bones,’ ‘High Life,’ White Ribbon

Between Peter Jackson’s muddle and Michael Haneke’s mastery, a gem from Winnipeg offers a blast of pure entertainment

Saoirse Ronan stars as a slain teen in 'The Lovely Bones'

This weekend offers a trio of movies for every taste—an overripe blockbuster (Lovely Bones), a gritty Canadian gem (High Life), and an austere German masterwork (The White Ribbon). Of the three, Michael Haneke’s White Ribbon, which won the Palme d’Or in Cannes last May, stands out as the most important and accomplished work. It has swept the critics awards in the foreign-language film category, and is emerging as a leading Oscar contender.  High Life, by Winnipeg writer-director Gary Yates, is inconsequential, but it’s a blast. Witty, well-acted and full of surprises, its a Canadian answer to the Coen brothers, with a Tarantino kick. And The Lovely Bones, a keenly anticipated drama from Peter Jackson, is a colossal disappointment.

The Lovely Bones

Following up his triumph with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, New Zealand director Peter Jackson—who I’ll always remember as the Hobbit-like creature who conducted LORT interviews in his bare feet in a Manhattan hotel room—scales more mature dramatic terrain with this adaptation of the Alice Sebold novel.  While it’s a less ambitious project than mobilizing the massed armies of Middle Earth for Armageddon, The Lovely Bones still presents a steep challenge, and despite a couple of strong performances, the film painfully underscores Jackson’s limits as a filmmaker. Set in the 1970s, the story is a murder mystery in which the audience knows the identity of the killer from the outset. The victim, 14-year-old Susie Salmon, tries to influence events from the grave, or more precisely, from the threshold of heaven, as her family remains haunted by the unsolved crime, unable to bury the past.

Saoirse Ronan, who was so effective as the young heroine of Atonement, is best thing about the movie: she has compelling radiance as as the murdered girl. And Stanley Tucci, who is unrecognizable in the role of her killer, George Harvey, is sufficiently creepy as the psychopath next door with a fetish for building doll houses. But the movie never finds a consistent tone. Jackson hurls himself into creating computer-graphic vistas of paradise, as we follow Susie through wedding-cake layers of the afterlife, as if the director himself would much rather spend his time chasing digital rainbows of pure fantasy than grapple with the finicky nuances of human psychology. The narrative back on earth—involving the bereaved Salmon family and her father’s dogged, half-crazed search  for the killer—is pedestrian, clunky and contrived.

An unrecognizable Stanley Tucci plays the villain in 'The Lovely Bones'

Rachel Weisz has precious little to work with in the role of Susie’s mother, Abigail, who loses her patience with her husband’s inability to find closure and bury the past. And as her father, Jack, Mark Wahlberg is trapped in a one-note role of earnest intensity. Meanwhile, as the hard-drinking, chain-smoked Grandma Lynn, who swoops into “help out” the family after Mom splits, Susan Sarandon is off in a movie of her own, creating a one-woman show from arch caricature.

The unfettered indulgence of Sarandon’s performance typifies what’s wrong with the film. Even the best actor need to be contained and calibrated by the director, and in this case Jackson seems lost in the details, bent on squeezing the maximum sensation from every element of the movie without a clear sense of the film’s overall tone. So despite the considerable array of talent, the movie is a shambles. From one scene to the next, there’s barely a believable moment.

High Life

This cheeky ensemble piece from Montreal-born director Gary Yates is a rare example of something we should see more often — a Canadian movie with an alternative edge that’s not a bummer.   Based on an award-winning stage work by Toronto playwright Lee McDougall, who  co-wrote the screenplay with Yates, this stoner heist comedy clicks along with a smart, off-kilter rhythm and is buoyantly entertaining from start to finish. There are couple of times when its dramatic bones as a play show through, but on the whole Yates has lifted the material off the stage and turned it into kinetic visual drama. A movie movie. The story is set in Winnipeg in 1983, just after the birth of ATM machines. A pair of ex-cons, the genial  Dick (Timothy Olyphant) and the sociopathic Bug (Stephen Erin McIntyre) team up to rob a bank’s new instant teller machine, recruiting a twitchy addict as their accomplice (Joe Anderson) and a naive dreamboat as their frontman (Rossif Sutherland). These lovable losers hatch a plan that’s too complicated by half. There’s never any doubt it will, just a question of how, and how badly. And the narrative keeps us on our toes every step of the way.

High Life a total guy movie—there are no women to speak of—but it’s a strong character piece, driven by four pitch-perfect performances. The characters are all deluded, but in different ways. As the ring-leader Olyphant has a reckless charm that’s the perfect foil for McIntyre, the quintessential loose cannon. Anderson quivers with rat-like desperation. And Sutherland is cast as the wild card, a carefree babe magnet who glides through life as if he’s a movie star.  And not just any movie star.  Sutherland looks and talks like the young Marlon Brando, cruising along with a sleepy-eyed sex appeal that’s so disingenuous it takes some getting used to, but you can’t take your eyes off him.

With a narrative that starts midway through a shootout at the scene of the crime, then flashes backwards, the move is reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs. But it’s more painless. It’s as if Yates has come up with a Canadian answer to the Coen brothers, a black (yet oddly light) comedy with a Tarantino kick and sparks of druggy delirium worthy of Bruce McDonald.

In short,  High Life is a blast.

Christian Friedel and Leonie Benesch in 'The White Ribbon'

The White Ribbon

While I can’t help but admire the cold brilliance of his filmmaking, I’ve never been very fond of Michael Haneke. I find it hard to enjoy his work. Yes, I know that’s the whole point; we’re not suppose to enjoy his dark, pathological essays about the cruelty and intolerance. But Haneke’s ego always seems too transparently present, the omniscient gaze of this intellectual sadist who’s out to teach us a lesson while remaining smugly confidant that we won’t entirely understand it. But with each movie, the Austrian director seems less intent obvious shock-for-shock’s sake, as in Funny Games and The Pianist, and more intent on submerging his characters in a fathomless mystery of historical violence and guilt. With the Mobius-strip narrative of his previous film, Caché, Haneke created a riveting whodunit that pointed a finger at the French colonial crimes of Algeria without ever telling us whodunit. Now with The White Ribbon, a tale of unexplained crimes that spread like an epidemic through a small German town before the First World War, he appears to be exploring  the childhood roots of Nazi horror with an oblique look at patterns of abuse and patriarchy. Which makes this movie sound more boring than it is. Shot in black-and-white with an elegant rigour that recalls Bergman, The White Ribbon is perhaps Haneke’s most beautifully crafted work. One can see why it won the Palme d’Or in Cannes, and why it is winning so many critics prizes, including the foreign-language award at my own Toronto Film Critics Association. Personally, I found my admiration for the film outstripped my appreciation of it, if I can split that particular hair. On the other hand, I haven’t seen it a second time since catching its Cannes premiere. It lingers well in the memory, and I believe it deserves another look. At this point, however, my favorite foreign film of the year is still L’heure d’été (Summer Hours), by Olivier Assayas, a warmer, contemporary tale of parents and children and the sad weight of inherited memory.