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
2 Stars Movies

You won’t like Edward Norton when he’s angry in The Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk is Hollywood’s latest incidence of what has become known as a “reboot.” The term came out of the comic book world, with further derivations in computer terminology. When a franchise begins to show its age with stalled creative energy and declining sales, its owners may opt to check it into surgery to be refreshed with a new cast, creative team, and updated plot particulars.

Warner Bros. and DC Comics kick-started their valuable but stagnant Batman and Superman feature film properties, making them relevant to 21st century audiences, and now it’s Marvel Comics’ turn. Emboldened by recent successes with Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four (and conveniently ignoring the failures Daredevil and Elektra), Marvel has obtained funding to independently produce its own films with greater creative control and, presumably, a larger chunk of the financial return. The massive success of 2008’s Iron Man seemed to prove their instincts correct.

Remarkably, The Incredible Hulk comes only five years after Ang Lee and James Schamus’ Hulk, itself a reboot of the comic book, cartoon, and television series. Even before Marvel announced it was to start over from scratch, the original Hulk film had already been seen as a critical and commercial failure, even though the reviews were not actually terrible (54 on MetaCritic and 61 on Rotten Tomatoes, both about the same as what The Incredible Hulk scored) and it earned $245 million worldwide.

Edward Norton in The Incredible Hulk
NORTON SMASH!!!

I fully realize this is the minority opinion, but the Lee/Schamus version is a far, far better film, not only in comparison with its successor but also on its own terms. To paraphrase a review I recall reading at the time, “only the director of Eat Drink Man Woman and Sense & Sensibility would look at the Hulk comics and see ‘sprawling family melodrama.'” Lee and Schamus saw the core story as more than a simple Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde retread, and instead chose to tell a deeper tale of fathers and sons. The Hulk himself was created using motion-capture technology using Ang Lee’s own body language, and realized on screen as a giant green petulant baby (which is both absurdly funny and oddly moving, like the original King Kong). I still maintain it is one of the most brilliantly edited films I’ve ever seen, the closest in flow and visual style to a comic book a film has ever come. It’s also just really fucking weird, in a good way.

Liv Tyler in The Incredible Hulk
Liv Tyler, in the thankless role of superhero love interest

With Marvel in total charge of its own intellectual property at last, The Incredible Hulk had low artistic ambitions and was unsurprisingly crafted with comic book geeks in mind. In harsh contrast with arthouse mainstays Lee and Schamus, it was directed by action film specialist Louis Leterrier (of Transporter 2 and Danny the Dog) and written by Zak Penn, who has apparently cornered the market on super-hero scripts (including X-Men 2 & 3, Elektra, and the upcoming Avengers and Captain America). The backwards-facing film gives the fanboys a nod with admittedly fun cameos from Lou Ferrigno (who also voiced The Hulk’s few lines, and who also seems not to have aged one bit) and original Hulk co-creator (with Jack Kirby) Stan Lee. But the CGI is surprisingly unconvincing for a film that should have been state-of-the-art; the Hulk looks like he’s made of string cheese and quivering gelatin.

The Incredible Hulk
It’s showtime at The Apollo

Truth be told, I was actually rather enjoying the film, until one niggling fault grew to an unignorable degree that ruined the entire experience for me. Key character Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) remains tragically underdeveloped. Any screenwriting student (hell, any film fan) should know the storytelling mantra “show don’t tell,” and yet Blonsky’s motivations are only hinted at in one or two lines of dialogue: he’s a career soldier grumpy about turning forty. Blonsky eventually evolves into the Hulk’s nemesis The Abomination, a hideous beast that lives to destroy. As the two creatures smash Harlem to bits in the final reel, there was no sense that the Abomination was once a man. What drove him to this? Interestingly, Roth plays a not entirely dissimilar character in Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth: a man who uses up his youth in pursuit of an unattainable goal. In each case, the opportunity for a second chance is a mixed blessing.

Rumor has it an alternate, significantly longer cut of the film will eventually be released on DVD, preserving more of Edward Norton’s reported script doctoring, so this blogger hopes he will be able to revise his opinion at a later date.


Must read: Peter Bradshaw’s review of The Incredible Hulk as told to him by… The Hulk (spotted on Kottke.org)

Categories
3 Stars Movies

Tim Roth undertakes an old man’s folly in Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth

Youth Without Youth received a shockingly poor reception for the first film in years from a major filmmaker, garnering a middling 43 on Metacritic and a painful 29 from RottenTomatoes. In January 2008, this blogger found himself in a room with a bunch of journalists from genre publications like Fangoria and ComingSoon.net (Weird, right? It was a work thing. Anyway…). Several of them had recently reviewed Youth Without Youth, and the buzz was extremely negative. Now having finally seen it myself, it is this blogger’s opinion it received an unfair bad rap.

Tim Roth in Youth Without Youth
Recline thy weary head betwixt my thighs, old man

Why would the likes of Fangoria be interested in a prestige period piece? Needless to say, Francis Ford Coppola is one of the most famous living filmmakers. Many young movie lovers first discover an appreciation for film through the canonical The Godfather Parts I & II and Apocalypse Now (and hopefully later graduate to the subtler pleasures of The Conversation). Alas, he went tragically awry with the expensive folly One From the Heart in 1982, and spent decades digging out of the financial hole.

People have been waiting for years for him to return to form after many years of work-for-hire (The Rainmaker) and misjudged sequels to past glories (The Godfather Part III). But the main reason for sci-fi & horror fans’ interest in Youth Without Youth is that it is in fact Coppola’s first science fiction. It is, however, more in the contemplative mode of The Man Who Fell to Earth than Fangoria’s usual purview.

Francis Ford Coppola directing Youth Without Youth
Oh, Francis, you know you’re going to catch flak for that beret…

The freeform plot meanders to say the least, which clearly isn’t the point, but will frustrate viewers anticipating a more lucid science fiction conceit. The academic Dominic (Tim Roth) undertakes a project literally too big to finish in a lifetime: a complete history and analysis of linguistics. In a true example of careful-what-you-wish-for, the aged and suicidal intellectual is struck by lightning and mysteriously restored to his youth.

Roth is at his best in these scenes, where he carries his younger body with the gait and posture of an old man. As he strives to complete his massive folly (could Coppola identify?), he is aided by a sympathetic Professor Stanciulescu (Bruno Ganz), evades the Nazis, and is haunted by an incarnation of his youthful love Laura (Alexandra Maria Lara). Youth Without Youth is definitely an old man’s film (I mean that as a compliment), for the themes of rejuvenation, doubles, and transmutation/reincarnation echo throughout Dominic’s extended life.

Please see Jaimie Stuart’s excellent and succinct appreciation (at the bottom of page), suggesting that one possible reason for the film’s poor reviews was that the digital format transferred poorly to large screens but looks ravishing on DVD. It does.

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