Categories
3 Stars Movies

Michael Haneke’s Funny Games confronts audiences with the violence they paid for

Director Michael Haneke has made Funny Games twice, a decade apart. They are essentially the same movie: nearly shot-for-shot, with the same title, similar music and location, and at least one of the actors physically resembling one of the original cast.

The few adjustments include the spoken language, updated telephone technology, and added Americanisms. So this is not a case of a filmmaker completing a rough draft (as Michael Mann’s L.A. Takedown was to Heat), or reimagining a film (as Alfred Hitchcock did with The Man Who Knew Too Much). So why recreate an earlier work in a fashion that hews so closely to the original?

The marketing images created for the 1997 and 2007 versions both utilize the stylistic fetishization of violence in popular entertainment.

Haneke has frankly stated that both Funny Games are his commentary upon violence in cinema, particularly American. His particular depiction of violence here is deliberately senseless, cruel, and unmotivated. The cyclical nature of the attacks is reflected in the very existence of the two films themselves. The remake is a sequel, or the sequel is a remake, just like the unimaginative popular entertainments that Haneke is satirizing.

Perhaps the 2007 version, featuring internationally bankable stars Naomi Watts (also a producer), Tim Roth, and Michael Pitt, allowed him to more directly confront English-speaking audiences with his cynical thesis. As if prophetic, the American home-invasion themed The Strangers would be a box office success the very next year.

Funny Games introduces us to a happily carefree family, immediately signaled as affluent and cultured. They own a vacation home, boat, and listen to classical music. Even their neighbors have refined taste; they are heard enjoying the downtown New York avant-garde musician John Zorn. The family is not unlikeable, but Haneke’s depiction of their easy privilege seems designed to invite either envy or eat-the-rich distaste.

Class envy is certainly implied when they are shortly terrorized by home intruders: unsurprisingly a pair of young white men. Their choice of golf whites and equipment is no accident; perhaps only fencing accoutrement would have been more apt. Had either Funny Games been made a mere few years later, critics would be analyzing these characters in the distressing language of today — disaffected male incel rage — and compared their appearance to the preppy white supremacists that rallied in Charlottesville, VA in 2017 with the fascistic Donald Trump’s open approval.

The obscurely-motivated home intruders from the 1997 (left) and 2007 (right) versions of the film.

Haneke, already known for employing the mechanics of cinema to indict or confront the audience in Caché (Hidden), does so here as well, albeit significantly less subtly. One character breaks the fourth wall five times:

  1. He winks at the camera during a childish yet sadistic hot/cold game.
  2. He bets the family they will be dead in 12 hours, then turns to the camera and asks how the audience would bet, and whose side it’s on.
  3. As the husband pleads for it to be over, he whines “But we’re not up to feature film length yet” and says the audience wants a “real ending”.
  4. He literally rewinds the film to alter events to a manner more satisfying to him.
  5. In the very last shot, he gazes directly at the camera again.

All suggesting one possible theory for his motive: his performative concern that audiences are suitably entertained and get their money’s worth — traditionally the role of the filmmaking, distribution, and marketing teams. Indeed, he seems at times to be directing and editing the action.

Even the marketing for each movie seems designed to comment upon the visual fetishization of violence in popular entertainment. The original poster depicts a child in bonds, and the latter a beautiful woman in distress, with her anguish and tears presented in a fetchingly artistic manner.

The intruders behave dispassionately and ritualistically, and when they are through with this family, they immediately move on to another. We never learn for sure what motivates them, if anything, so we are left to wonder about the film itself, and our culpability for paying to watch it — and other violent delights that the entertainment industry offers.

Categories
1 Star Movies

The Pod People Film Festival: The Invasion

Nicole Kidman must be one of the unluckiest stars in Hollywood, having recently starred in at least two big-budget catastrophes. Frank Oz’s The Stepford Wives (2004) was sabotaged by cast members dropping out, extensive reshoots, and competing script revisions that left significant logical plot holes in the finished film. Next, Invasion is best described as quite simply a broken movie.

One full year after the completion of principal photography under director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall), producer Joel Silver contracted The Wachowskis (The Matrix, Speed Racer) to write new scenes to be directed by their protege James McTeigue (V for Vendetta). Warner Bros. expended $10 million on 17 extra days of shooting in an attempt to reshape what was reportedly a more internal, psychological suspense piece into more commercial thriller.

Nicole Kidman in The Invasion
Do you ever get the feeling that you’re in a terrible movie…?

After a brief, promising opening scene (a flash-forward, we later learn, to a world almost fallen to an alien attack), Invasion quickly descends into full-on sci-fi action cliché. A space shuttle disintegrates on re-entry, carrying a payload of virulent spores bent on world domination. After the real-life loss of the crews of the shuttles Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003), this spectacular special effects sequence is about as tasteful as watching CGI skyscrapers crumble.

One of the Wachowskis’ late additions was a ridiculously long car chase through the streets of Washington DC (filmed in Baltimore), with psychiatrist Carol (Kidman) behind the wheel of a literally burning Mustang. It’s beyond implausible that a shrink would have the driving skills of a modern-day Bullet (Steve McQueen) or Popeye O’Doyle (Gene Hackman in The French Connection). In fact, Kidman damaged more than her career: she broke several ribs during an accident incurred while shooting the sequence.

The biggest problem is not the clumsily grafted-on action spectacle but the choppy screenplay. It’s painfully obvious to spot the seams between Dave Kajganich’s original script, which one can infer would have made for a more subtle horror story about an alien invasion accomplished without bullets or the exploding of infrastructure, and the Wachowskis’ reduction to the lowest common denominator.

The movie is at its best when Carol senses the subtle changes of her city’s daily routine as the invasion spreads. It’s also interesting as she encounters other uninfected survivors that have learned to hide in plain sight. Veronica Cartwright, who appeared in Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version, appears as one of Carol’s patients who is apparently naturally immune. She counsels her to pretend to be a Stepford Wife in order to avoid detection by the dispassionate alien intelligences that have taken over most of the population. But these moody sequences are all too brief in-between the car chases and explosions.

Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig in The Invasion
“Our world is a better world”

A huge chunk feels missing from the middle; the second act should be a slow discovery of the details of the invasion and a gradual escalation of the conflict. But Carol and her doctor paramour Ben (Daniel Craig) leap to the accurate conclusion of an alien invasion based on only a few observed cases of mild weirdness around them, clearing the rest of the movie’s running time for a series of chase sequences.

Worst of all is yet another criminal misuse of poor Jeffrey Wright (reunited with 007 co-star Daniel Craig), a brilliant actor saddled with most of the script’s laughable technobabble that leaves no room to the imagination (the original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers was arguably not specific enough, but the 1978 version found just the right level of gory detail without getting bogged down in tedious pseudoscience).

Jack Finney’s classic sci-fi novel The Body Snatchers has been adapted over and over into movies that illuminate the concerns of the times. Don Siegel’s 1956 original was a thinly-veiled critique of McCarthyism. Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake also made sense in a post-Vietnam and Watergate era. Abel Ferrara applied the metaphor to blind obedience and conformity in the military in his 1993 Body Snatchers. Robert Rodri­guez found the most perfect setting yet, as he satirized teen peer pressure in high school in The Faculty (1998). What does the oft-told Body Snatchers tale mean today?

Invasion is the fourth version of novel, and the second to ditch the notion of replacement bodies. As in The Faculty: the aliens are puppetmaster-like parasites that take over human bodies without permanently harming them. Invasion makes a fleeting reference to other nations publicly combating the alien insurgents. The US is the only one to hide behind a cover story that has the opposite intended effect, only further enabling the invasion to succeed. Invasion might have been a better film if it had focused more on this glimmer of political satire than on Shuttle disasters and burning Mustangs.


Welcome to The Pod People Film Festival, our third mini movie retrospective. After catching up with Ridley Scott and George A. Romero, we now take a look at four adaptations of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, plus one unofficial homage / satire.

  1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
  2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
  3. Body Snatchers (1993)
  4. The Faculty (1998)
  5. The Invasion (2007)
Categories
4 Stars Movies

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Writer and director Cristian Mungiu’s 4 luni, 3 s?pt?mâni ?i 2 zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) is an unsensational drama on a very sensational topic. Like Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, it is shot in Dogme style with a handheld camera, long takes, and no score. Both films remorselessly lead the viewer through journeys likely undertaken by many throughout human history, of which most of the rest would rather look away from.

Although it seems ridiculous to talk about such a serious film in terms of “spoilers”, I do wish to caution any readers who have not yet seen the film to stop here.

In 1987 Romania, students Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) pool their money and make elaborate plans for an unspecified illicit event. What exactly the two young women seek is withheld for some time, building considerable suspense. No matter one’s political or religious beliefs, it is a simple fact that any society in which abortion is illegal produces a corresponding black market in dangerous back-alley procedures. 4 Months is not a passionate argument for or against the legality of abortion, but rather an unadorned illustration of two women’s experiences obtaining one.

4 Months begs comparison with another naturalistic film on a similar theme: Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake. It would be reductive to say 4 Months is a “better” film, but in comparison, it does make Vera Drake seem like a conventional courtroom drama with overly emotive acting.

%d bloggers like this: