Underseen Movie: Michael Haneke’s Shot-For-Shot Remake of ‘Funny Games’

There is no in between with a film like this. You will either like or hate it with a fervent passion. Reviews for “Funny Games” have gone all over the place from praise to vicious hatred. Some will describe it as a completely immoral piece of work which revels in what it despises. Others will look at as very strong suspense film which does not hide from the ugly reality of violence. After seeing this film, I can’t help but think this is what director Michael Haneke wanted. Alfred Hitchcock was once quoted as saying, “I love playing the audience like a piano.” So does Haneke.

Truth be told, Haneke must be reveling in getting us into such an emotional state as he did the same exact thing in the past. “Funny Games” is a shot-for-shot remake of his original suspense thriller of the same name from 1997. I actually did not realize it was a remake until around the time it arrived in theaters. But since this is a virtual duplication of another film, I’m not sure how necessary it will be to see the original.

Haneke wanted to remake “Funny Games” for an American audience because he felt it was in essence an American story in which he sees its citizens being giddily in love with violence onscreen and in the media. While there is something rather condescending about him thinking this, he does have a point. Every once in a while, we need a film which reminds us of the brutality of violence. While we may fiend for gun battles on the big screen, violence in real life is scary and something we should be eager to avoid. “Funny Games” was the first ironically titled and truly polarizing movie of 2008. It is anything but entertaining, and in the end, it is not meant to be. Some movies are made to be experienced, and this is one of them.

“Funny Games” revolves around the married couple of Ann and George Farber (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) whom we first see driving down the highway with their son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) and their sailboat in tow. When they finally arrive at their destination, they are met by two young men, Paul (William Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbet), both of whom look like well-bred preppies equipped with very nice manners. Brady’s character comes to borrow eggs to give which Watts gives him kindly. But on the way out, he accidentally drops them and won’t leave until he gets some more. Soon, both husband and wife are trying to throw these two guys out, and then the two show their true intentions when they take a golf club and smash one of George’s kneecaps.

With the family held hostage, Paul and Peter reveal their heinous plan; they bet that in 12 hours, the whole family will be dead. From there, it becomes a game of survival for the family as the games these two force them to play get increasingly dangerous. One of the major criticisms I have heard leveled at the killers is they have no motive. Sometimes not knowing why people do the things they do makes things much scarier. When “Silence of The Lambs” was first released in theaters, we were never told why Hannibal Lecter was a cannibal. But here, these two evil schmucks do have a motive which is senseless and viciously cold: they are torturing this family for the thrill of it and for what one of them calls “the importance of entertainment.” The director has given us two psychos whose motives, as he puts it are not “easily explained by societal factors.” They look to enjoy the power they have over this helpless family.

This phenomenon of people getting a high off of violence and torture feels like it is growing at a horrifying rate. There have been movies like “Henry – Portrait of A Serial Killer” and “Menace 2 Society” that have moments where the characters commit violent acts which have been intentionally or unintentionally videotaped. We later see these same characters watching their hideous acts over and over. There was an episode of “Homicide: Life on The Street” which featured a scene with one man filming his friend as he goes over to a nearby bus stop and shoots an old lady to death. No reason is given, other than the fact they find the visual so incredibly entertaining.

Like those characters, Paul and Peter are utterly repellent individuals. But the thing is, you should be repelled at what these guys are doing. They are without morals, and the rules of society are nonexistent to them which makes them all the more threatening and dangerous. The comfortable conventions of the normal suspense thriller are thrown out here. If they are employed here, then it is only for us to see them overturned when we least expect them to be. Unlike other Hollywood thrillers, the violence here feels much more real than you would expect it to be.

Another interesting thing is while this is technically an ultra-violent movie, there is actually not a lot of violence shown onscreen. Most of the violence is committed offscreen, making it all the more terrifying. There’s another moment where Ann is forced to disrobe completely, but you never see her from below the neck. It’s a moment where Haneke dares you to wonder why the camera isn’t showing us more here. You may end up hating him for that, but you cannot deny your mind went down to that dark and dirty place.

Like “Cache,” Haneke likes to film shots in long takes. This succeeds in trapping the viewer in with this family as we wait to see if they can escape their fate. One shot lasts a good five minutes or so as Ann desperately tries to break free of the tape which binds her hands behind her back. There are a lot of static shots here which are free of overly clever camera moves, and they suck us in to the action while generating strong suspense. There are points where we are not sure when these two psychos threaten to strike next.

Haneke goes even further by having Paul break the fourth wall between the characters and the audience watching this movie. Many found this device to be annoying, but I wasn’t bothered by it because it made the movie seem even creepier than it already was. It probably would have been an unnecessary device had it been overused, but the director uses it sparingly and to a powerful effect.

There is also a moment a rewind of events is employed. It is as brilliant a move as it is done to completely frustrate the viewer as it completely eschews the formula of movies like these. Haneke doesn’t hesitate to subvert our expectations, and trap us into a reaction we cannot hide.

Whatever you think of the movie, there is no denying the superb work done by the cast here. Tim Roth does strong work, and I can’t remember the last actor who made the pain of broken bones feel so vivid. I also don’t want to forget Devon Gearhart who plays Georgie Jr. as he has a very unenviable role as a child caught up in the worst of situations. He is asked to do things we would rather not see a child actor do, and he makes his sheer terror seem all the more horrifyingly real.

Michael Pitt makes Paul into such a cleverly cold character to where some have compared Paul to Alex in “A Clockwork Orange.” This is a young actor who has made a strong impression in movies like “The Dreamers” and “Bully” among others. He excels in roles like this which play on his charm to an incredibly unsympathetic effect. Brady Corbett plays the seemingly Peter, and he also has done memorable work in “Thirteen” and “Mysterious Skin.”

But in the end, this movie really belongs to Naomi Watts who has long since proven to be one of the bravest actresses working today. She has portrayed characters so naked in their vulnerabilities onscreen to where I constantly wonder how she gets through these roles without having a nervous breakdown. Her performance in “Funny Games” is no exception as she puts herself in situations so difficult to make seem real, but she succeeds here in making us believe just how terrifying her ordeal is.

“Funny Games” is one of those movies which make me want to ready everyone’s reaction to it. Like I said, this is without a doubt a very polarizing motion picture which people will either admire or despise. The again, if many did not have a negative reaction, then Haneke would have failed in his mission to completely unnerve us. No, it is not an enjoyable movie, but it is an experience which cannot easily be ignored as you walk out of the theater. It is a thought-provoking as it in no way allows for a neutral opinion. For my money, it is a very strong exercise in suspense which never lets up throughout its two-hour running time.

While it is not the most disturbing movie I have ever watched in a theater (“Requiem for A Dream” takes the cake there), it sure does come close. The violence presented here is of a real kind, and it does not offer the typical feeling of escapist entertainment. The best advice I can give you is if you don’t want to subject yourself to a very disturbing cinematic experience, then don’t see “Funny Games.” You have been warned, so take the R-rating seriously.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Emmanuelle Riva Faces the Subject of Death Head On in ‘Amour’

Emmanuelle Riva in Amour

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2013.

French actress Emmanuelle Riva has given us astonishing performances in movies like “Hiroshima mon amour,” “Thérèse Desqueyroux” and Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “Blue,” but now she has received the greatest acclaim of her career at age 85 in Michael Haneke’s “Amour.” In the movie she plays Anne Laurent, a retired music teacher who suffers a debilitating stroke, and we watch as her body and mind slowly deteriorate. The performance Riva gives is magnificent and not the least bit melodramatic, and she more than deserves to be among the nominees for Best Actress at the Academy Awards.

“Amour” actually marks the first movie Riva has headlined years as she tends to be picky about the projects she chooses. In talking with Scott Feinberg of The Hollywood Reporter, Riva said she only wanted to work on projects which were good, and she ended up doing more work in the theater than in film. However, she did not hesitate at the opportunity to be in Haneke’s movie as she responded strongly to the screenplay and found that the role came to her at the right time.

“I’m sure you know that roles for older women in cinema are not that numerous. And when you’re 84 years old? It’s not very often that you find a role that matches you. I felt that since I am really in the last stage of my life, this was a tremendous gift that was given to me,” Riva told Feinberg.

“Fortunately for me, my own age corresponded exactly to the age of the character that was going to be portrayed in the film. It was really a very miraculous kind of thing that this role should come to me when it did,” Riva continued. “I thought that the script was very, very strong. The writing was very powerful, and it was very authentic, and it was the authenticity that touched me very much.”

Considering how “Amour” does deal with the theme of mortality and is an emotionally draining movie to sit through (many said they cried during the movie and after it had ended), this must have made it seem like the kind of project actors would be quick to shy away from doing. No matter how good the screenplay is, this movies deals with questions many of us don’t want to know the answers to for a long, long time. While humans can suffer from a stroke at just about any age these days, most people still believe they only happen to the elderly. But in an interview with Sharon Waxman of The Wrap, Riva said she accepted this role without any hesitation.

“Afraid? No, not at all,” Riva told Waxman. “Why would I be afraid? This role presents the subject of the film that touches each of us, every human on the planet. As an actress, it’s so exciting to be engaged in a role like this. I would never have felt fear for this. If an actress is afraid, she should head for the door right away.”

“I was so happy in the work,” Riva continued. “Every day, every day. Two months of work. It was such happiness-a feeling of complete fullness. Of life, of death, of love. I never lost the excitement of the work. I was so infinitely happy during this shoot. So serious, but it wasn’t sad at all.”

It’s also easy to assume the mood on the set of “Amour” must have been very tense considering the grim subject matter. You might also think the cast and crew would approach each day with a stone faced serious as they dealt with characters who are at death’s door, and this especially seemed to be the case with Haneke directing. His films “Cache,” “Funny Games” and “The White Ribbon” have dealt with the darkest parts of the human existence, and on the surface “Amour” looks to be not much different. Riva, however, told Xan Brooks of The Guardian of how things on the set were not severely strict, and that the mood at times was actually quite playful.

“The subject matter is obviously intense. But we had a lot of fun along the way,” Riva told Brooks. “So much laughter, so many funny things. I remember once, when I was playing dead, I had to stay quite still. But when the crew went to look at the monitor, they came back laughing. I said, what’s so funny? And they told me that my toes were wiggling. My toes! I didn’t even know they could see them. So, I had to do the whole scene again and concentrate very carefully. I think my feet have a will of their own.”

Indeed, it’s movies like this one which test not just our emotions, but also how we see and treat diseases of any kind. Riva has spoken very highly of Haneke as a director and said he knows exactly what he wants and is not a bully about making his vision become a reality. And while this movie may seem infinitely sad, Riva never saw it as a scary one to be in or watch. She made this abundantly clear while talking with Tracy McNicoll of The Daily Beast.

“Because it is about a lady who becomes very sick, people believe it is difficult [to play]. But no, no. We incarnate a role and voilà,” Riva told McNicoll. “I knew people stricken like this. I knew, I saw; there are many. And performing that seemed fascinating. Sure, it wasn’t easy. But there is a rigor, there is a conductor in Haneke, a conductor who knows the right note to strike in things. He told me, ‘no sentimentality.’ So, I understood right away. No sentimentality. So that becomes really very interesting to perform. Because there is a restraint, a distance that is a pleasure to experience.”

While “Amour” remains the least watched of all the Best Picture nominees of the year, many are still rooting for Emmanuelle Riva to win the Best Actress Oscar. Right now, the front runners look to be Jennifer Lawrence for “Silver Linings Playbook” and Jessica Chastain for “Zero Dark Thirty,” but this is a year where anything could happen at the Oscars. It would certainly be a great cap to an extraordinary career for this French actress who has appeared in many classic movies throughout the years, but Riva right now is taking all the acclaim and potential job offers in stride.

“If by chance people would still offer me roles, I’d still like to do them. But if not, that’s OK. I love life,” Riva says. “I love life to death. If I don’t act in another film, who cares? I’m 85, it doesn’t matter. I’m still alive and that feels great.”

SOURCES:

Scott Feinberg, “‘Amour’ Star Emmanuelle Riva, on Brink of Making Oscar History, Looks Back at Career,” The Hollywood Reporter, February 17, 2013.

Sharon Waxman, “Oscar’s Oldest Nominee, Emmanuelle Riva, on ‘Amour’: It’s a Gift in the Last Stage of My Life,” The Wrap, February 13, 2013.

Xan Brooks, “Emmanuelle Riva: ‘You don’t say no to a film like Amour,'” The Guardian, November 8, 2012.

Tracy McNicoll, “Oscar’s 85-Year-Old Darling: A Talk with Emmanuelle Riva of ‘Amour,’” The Daily Beast, February 15, 2013.

‘The Incredible Hulk’ Proves to Be a Decent Marvel Reboot

The Incredible Hulk poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008.

Well, it’s not incredible, but it’s still pretty good. “The Incredible Hulk” is not so much a sequel as it is a reboot. Ang Lee’s “Hulk” was not the movie Marvel Comics fans were waiting for, and the backlash against it was pretty severe. This was a shame because Lee’s movie was not at all bad, but I came of it knowing it would get a lukewarm response from audiences because it was more of a character driven piece which the summer movie season typically relegates to arthouse cinemas. But with this action-packed blockbuster, fans will likely get more of what they were looking for the first time around.

“The Incredible Hulk” thankfully sprints past this particular superhero’s origins by doing a quick recap of Dr. Bruce Banner’s accident which turned him into the ferociously mad and enormous beast who tears through all of his clothing with the exception of his underwear (very convenient for a PG-13 rating). We catch up with Dr. Banner, now played by Edward Norton, in Brazil where he has successfully managed to control his anger for over 130 days. While working a menial job at a bottling plant, he continues to look for a cure which will keep him from turning green and becoming super pissed. As a result, Banner is one of the few people on this planet determined not to go green in order to save the environment. But despite all the breathing exercises he does to control his anger, we all know he will soon find it’s not easy to keep from being green.

This Hulk movie is a lot more action packed than the previous one as it starts up quickly and never lets the pace go slack. Directing this superhero reboot is Louis Leterrier who directed “The Transporter 2” and “Unleashed.” He clearly likes the hyperkinetic style of filmmaking and it shows throughout. The direction is not necessarily outstanding and Leterrier doesn’t seem to quite have a style of his own yet, but he gets the job done and he keeps the film entertaining from start to finish.

The cast is different as well, with nobody but Stan Lee and Lou Ferrigno, doing their mandatory cameos, returning from Lee’s film. Norton is in some ways a better fit for Bruce Banner than Eric Bana was, and a lot more animated too. He may not physically look like someone who could become the Hulk, but that’s the point. Norton also did an uncredited rewrite of the script, but the Writer’s Guild of America denied him credit (Zak Penn gets story and screenplay credit). As always, Norton reminds us why he is one of the best actors of his generation, and he comes across as an ordinary joe thrust into circumstances beyond his control.

Liv Tyler takes over the role of Dr. Betty Ross from Jennifer Connelly, and while she doesn’t have much of an acting range, she is always a nice presence to have in any film (not just as eye candy mind you). She holds up well next to Norton as they both work to find a way to stop him from becoming the Hulk again. William Hurt plays her father, Gen. Thaddeus ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross, and he is always an interesting actor to watch. All the same, I have to admit that I liked Sam Elliott better in this role when he played it in Lee’s version. Elliott comes across better as an army general than Hurt does, and he was one of the best things about the previous film.

But the best addition to “The Incredible Hulk” is Tim Roth as Emil Blonsky, chief nemesis to Dr. Banner and his angry alter-ego. After playing a wuss of a man in the highly disturbing remake of “Funny Games,” Roth is in bad ass mode as a soldier who wants to take the Hulk down, but soon finds himself wanting his power. In the film, Emil ends up getting injected, by choice mind you, with the same stuff Banner got injected with. It’s enough to give him the power to overcome the most serious of injuries, but he soon finds that he wants more of that power which leads him to become the Abomination. Roth’s character is actually one of the more complex and most realized characters in the movie.

Roth’s performance here is a reminder of what a strong presence he is and watching him here should help ease the memories of the torture he endured in “Funny Games.” How refreshing it would have been to see he Abomination take out those two young cads who tortured that family. Of course, Michael Haneke would just rewind back from Abomination’s victory to intentionally frustrate the audience.

If there is anything lacking in “The Incredible Hulk,” it is not as strong on character development. One of the strengths of “Hulk” was the attention it paid to its characters and how they really drove the movie. I know Marvel Studios didn’t want to get too caught up with this in this reboot, but it would have been nice to see more character work here to keep this from being just an average action movie. In the end, this was a movie made to please the fans who felt let down by what they saw in 2003.

I wish I could say that I loved this incarnation of the Hulk, but it didn’t quite reach the heights I wanted it to. But it still was a lot of fun and kept me entertained from start to finish. It is a flawed film, but we do get to see Hulk smash in a way we didn’t get to see as much of previously. That was probably the best thing about this film, seeing Hulk smash stuff up. Using two halves of a police car to take out stupid humans makes for great action. All the same, it could have been better.

* * * out of * * * *

Movies My Parents Wanted Me To See: Cache

 

Cache poster

Cache” was written and directed by Michael Haneke who made “Funny Games” (both the original and the remake), “The White Ribbon” and “Amour.” My parents gave me the DVD to this film as a Christmas present, and I went ahead and watched it before going out to see the “Funny Games” remake in theaters. With all the polarizing opinions regarding that film, I felt it was in my best interest to see “Cache” beforehand as I was afraid that if I hated it, then I would never get around to watching the DVD my parents gave me. I have enough trouble as it is watching the other movies they have given me over the years, but this one had a great quote on the DVD cover by Steven Rea of the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Like Hitchcock, only creepier.” I read that quote and was immediately intrigued about what this movie had in store for me.

“Cache” opens up with a long and uninterrupted shot of an exterior of the residence the main characters live in which lasts a good three or four minutes. But suddenly we hear voices and eventually realize we are actually watching a videotape along with two people who rewind it at one point. The couple is made up of TV talk show host Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche), and they have received this tape from an anonymous person for reasons unknown. As this couple continues to receive more videos, their lives unravel at an increasing rate as the layers of the movie’s story keep getting peeled away.

Describing a movie like this is difficult because its creator makes it ambiguous to the point where we have no choice but to draw our conclusions as to what we have witnessed. These videos reawaken long and dormant memories for Georges as we come to see events from his childhood which may or may not be real, and it uncovers a guilt he thought he had long since made his peace with. But instead, he discovers that deep emotional scar never really disappeared, and now it is being picked at like a nasty scab more than ever before. In the end, it does not matter who is making these videos as much as it does the effect they have on Georges and those closest to him.

It’s clear to me Haneke really likes to play around with the audiences’ expectations. We are so conditioned by the formulaic movies mainstream cinema churns out with consistent regularity to where anything which challenges the norm seems designed to give us unbearable headaches. Those looking for a resolution which tidies up everything to everyone’s satisfaction will be endlessly frustrated with “Cache.” Haneke is not a director interested in spelling out everything for you as he is in trying to get you to figure out the story for yourself.

What is revealed is that Georges did something to another person he never really forgave himself for. Now the past is coming back to haunt him, and it ends up isolating him in his own guilt and fears and alienates him from his family. Anne, Georges’ wife, is incensed she is not being let in on any guesses her husband has as to who might be putting them through such immense anxiety. Georges is never portrayed as a bad person, but it doesn’t matter if he is a good person. Guilt tears away at him, and while some make peace with the past, he may never have that luxury. What’s worse, this guilt may end up being carried on by his son who only has inklings of what is going on between his parents.

Haneke won the Best Director award at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival for “Cache,” and it was probably well deserved. He keeps you hooked into the story which is like an onion that keeps being peeled away, and he succeeds in generating strong tension without the use of a music score. In fact, there is little to no music played throughout the entire movie. The only other movie I can think of which succeeded in keeping us on the edge of our seats without the aid of a music score is “The China Syndrome.”

All the performances are excellent without ever being flashy. Daniel Auteuil creates a morally ambiguous character who is not always easy to get along with, but we still care about what he goes through from start to finish. The most recognizable actor here is Juliette Binoche, and her performance is another in a long line of brilliant ones she has given. Binoche makes Anne’s panic and anxiety all the more real as she keeps getting shut out in the cold as to what’s really going on. Also, Maurice Bénichou, who plays a very pivotal character, brilliantly shows how a person can be threating while remaining perfectly calm.

“Cache” is a brilliant exercise in suspense, and it shows how much of a master Haneke in generating suspense. There are no easy answers to be found here, and the ending itself leaves a lot of things open, but not all movies are meant to be easily understood. Some are meant to engage you mentally so you can draw your own conclusions. What’s wrong with having a movie like that every once in a while? We need challenging movies which break the typical formulas dominating most of American cinema today. “Cache” engages you with the unblinking eye of the camera, and it traps you in the world of its characters to where it is impossible to look away. Movies don’t get more suspenseful than this one.

* * * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.