March 18, 2008

Movie Review: Funny Games

Back in 1997, director Michael Haneke directed a film in Austria called Funny Games. It was an experimental film, and one that I have never seen. At some point, someone decided that it should be adapted to English for American audiences. I am not sure whose decision this was, whether it was a studio executive, producer, or Haneke himself. Now, having seen the American version, I would have to believe that it was Haneke who made the decision, and not only because he wrote and directed both versions. As I left the theater, I cannot picture an executive watching this bleak, twisted film and saying: "Hey! Let's make this in English, the kids'll love it!" It just isn't that kind of movie.

Funny Games is a daring film that is an exercise in excruciating terror. It is a graphic, disturbing journey into a situation that feels almost too real. One could almost imagine a situation very similar to this actually happening. For all I know, something like this may have already happened, and if not, I am sure someone could be contemplating such a dark deed. Scary isn't it? Michael Haneke takes into the darkness with no chance for escape, no comic relief, no hope for salvation. It is a black hole of despair, the likes of which the big screen has not seen in some time.

Comparisons could be made to other torture-centric movies like Saw and Hostel, but there is something distinctly different in the way that it approaches the subject. Those other series are, more or less, passive experiences that invite you to watch but leave you safe and sound in your seat at the theater or in your home, but Funny Games is different. It implicates you in the goings on, it breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience. I had seen something about the film doing this, but made no real note of it, so when it happened I was caught off guard. It drew me even further in, increasing my level of discomfort. There is no escaping it.

Funny Games challenges the limits to which you are willing to put yourself through for the sake of entertainment. As one of our antagonists says: "You mustn't forget the value of entertainment." But are you entertained? It is a personal question that only you can answer for yourself. No number of reviews or commentaries on the film can tell you how you are going to react. Personally, I loved the film, but I do not deny that it is dark and twisted and definitely doesn't tickle the traditional pleasure centers.

By now, I am sure that more than a few of you are wondering just what Funny Games is. I know that because most of the people I have talked to about it usually respond with a blank face, having no idea what I am talking about.

It starts innocently enough. Ann (Naomi Watts), George (Tim Roth), and their son Georgie are off to spend a couple of weeks in their vacation home. They travel down the road listening to classical music, as happy as can be. The first sign of something strange afoot is when they pass their neighbors, pausing to call over and remind them about their golf match the next day. What makes the moment strange is the presence of two young men standing with the neighbors. They acted strangely, but nothing is thought of it too much.

What follows is a turn for the menacing. The two young men, Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet), come over to the house and slyly talk their way inside. Once inside, the two don't leave and as the disagreement escalates, the violence kicks in and the night of terror begins.

As the night begins to take shape, Paul and Peter (aka Tubby) set the ground rules. This begins with the bet, the family bets they will be alive at 9 AM the next morning, and the boys bet they will be dead. With the bet in place, they continue to set the ground rules and play "games" that involve the entire family.

Sounds pretty simple, right? That really is all there is to the plot, the home invasion, the bet, and the subsequent games. At this point, to say more would ruin the opportunities to discover the film on its own terms.

As directed by Michael Haneke, the film is a shot for shot remake of his earlier version. I have seen the trailer for the older film, and even that is the same thing. The film is relentlessly bleak and toys with your emotions and stamina for disturbing images and deeds. The shots are very sparse and scenes are filled with close-ups, making everything all the more intimate as you really have nowhere else in the frame to look, nowhere to escape.

The trailer evokes memories of the trailer for Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, flashing a series of words as classical music plays: "Daring Dangerous Wicked Wild Sensual Savage Extreme Evil Magnificent Brutal Brilliant" all words that accurately reflect the raw experience of sitting through Funny Games. The film is audacious and uncompromising in the manner with which it breaks the rules of cinema and implicates the audience and our relentless pursuit of entertainment in his demented exercise.

Bottomline. This movie is not for everyone. Actually, there are probably very few that this is for. The fact that I liked it, what does that say about me? Better yet, I loved both this and Horton Hears a Who, now what does that say about me? This movie is a brave exercise in filmmaking, a film that is more about garnering a reaction than telling a story. One last word of advice for those who brave the theater: don't cheer too soon, as many at my screening did. You'll know the moment when you see it.

Highly Recommended.


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