Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Funny Games

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. Michael Haneke’s new film Funny Games is anything from funny. Instead, it is one of the most twisted, unbearable, torturous films that I have ever seen. There is nothing entertaining about this film, its concept is devious and its delivery is gruesome. So why then, for the life of me, can I not get it out of my head? I tend to let go of the wicked rather quickly, but Funny Games, with its devilish antics, is a modern work of art. It’s morbid yet subtle, disturbing yet intriguing haunting. But it is also, not for everyone.

A beautiful family (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and their 10-year-old child played by Devon Gearhart) drive in their beautiful car to their beautiful lakeside home to spend a beautiful week away. On the drive, they listen to beautiful operas, playing a harmless guessing game of what is being heard. Suddenly, without any hint or warning, heavy death metal blasts from the theatre speakers. There is screaming and shrieking as big, huge, monstrous words in red appear on the screen. Welcome to our opening credits. Welcome to hell.

The family hasn’t been at their home for an hour before a nice, overly polite young man (Brady Corbet) comes to the door, asking for eggs. Dressed in his tennis whites, including eerie white gloves, the conversation unfolds much like the gas station scene in No Country for Old Men. It doesn’t take long for us to know something could be, or is about to be, seriously wrong. Of course, creepy events unfold as the young man’s partner in crime shows up and they terrorize the family.

My generation has been raised on the Saw’s and Hostel’s and other torture-porn garbage to expect the worst. More carnage, more blood and guts and guns and knives. The beauty of Funny Games is that it throws all that right in our faces, almost literally. Haneke is recreating his own 1997 Austrian film of the same name in a shot-by-shot adaptation. He has said that the original film was a way to ask people why they watch the things they do. But now, 11 years later, that idea is much more prevalent. Haneke isn’t afraid to throw American-entertainment-snuff-violence in our faces. Why do we enjoy stuffing our faces full of popcorn while some teenaged girl runs for her life, then gets captured, raped, hung, and whatever else the filmmaker has in store for us? Why, as a society, do we watch a journalist get decapitated in a grainy video, or a man in an airport get tasered to death on CNN.com?

The point of Funny Games is to ask, or possibly ridicule, audiences who enjoy and put themselves through this kind of gratification. This is the same question last month’s Untraceable asked, just in a plain, forgettable way. Haneke has a different approach. In his film, most of the violence occurs off-screen. You hear a gun shot, or a person getting stabbed, or a man getting hit with a gold club, but you don’t see it. We are forced to watch painfully long shots in which actor’s bound with duct tape and rope, try to scramble free. And then, most mockingly, every so often the main assailant (a deeply affecting Michael Pitt) will look directly into the camera, asking the audience questions, teasing them for a response.

Watts is one of the best actresses around. She hinted at her talent in Mulholland Dr. proved it in 21 Grams and has solidified it recently with Eastern Promises. Here, she gives a bravado performance, which includes spending the majority of the picture in her underwear. She and Roth make the film convincing, they carry emotional strain with such believability that it is engrossingly marvelous.

This isn’t an easy film to appreciate. The young crowd going for a torture-horror movie, and the art house crowd going for something new, will both be revolted. I was initially appalled when the film ended. But after you let it marinate, and by keeping an open mind, you see what Haneke is trying to say, and although you may not agree with his delivery, it’s hard to keep it our of your head, for the right reasons. A

Vantage Point

A crime occurs, and over the course of the next hour, we witness the crime from about eight different points of view. Each person’s view opening new doors and discoveries into the mystery. By the end, we have come full circle on the crime, uncovering all the clues and hints to form a rational motive.

That was the plot of NBC’s brilliant but short lived show Boomtown which ran for one season in 2002. Boomtown (which critics loved, but audiences never found) was a greatly unique idea, it encompassed network TV originality, it was a black sheep of tired, old sitcoms and outdated crime shows.

Mix Boomtown’s concept with a little bit of 24’s narrative and you get the mess that is Vantage Point. First-time director Pete Travis gets an impressive, Oscar approved cast to fill the seats, but God help him if they can keep you there.

I rolled with it for the first half hour. We get a story, which runs for about ten minutes, then stop, rewind, and view that same story again, from a different perspective. It isn’t that it gets old, it just gets plain ridiculous. You’ll be looking at your watch long before the sixth segment, when the film completely ditches its entire concept and then decides to act as a regular movie, jumping from person to person, narrative to narrative.

Had they stuck with the single-perspective theme throughout the picture, then they may’ve had something. But instead, we’re left with a jumbled, convenient, unbelievable muddle that I can’t even begin to explain. For those that care: the President (William Hurt) is giving some speech in Spain about anti-terrorism efforts, when he is gunned down by an unknown assassin. A bomb goes off far away, and then the stage where the President was talking, explodes. Journalists, secret service agents, tourists, the President and the bad guys give us their take on the whole thing.

Save yourself the trouble (and the headache) of sitting down with this. Put Boomtown on your Netflix queue, its time much better spent. D-

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Other Boleyn Girl

If you’re not up to date with your history, let director Justin Chadwick’s film cloud it for you. I’m not sure how much leisure The Other Boleyn Girl is having with its historical references, but I suppose nothing can be an exact replica of the past.

King Henry VIII (Eric Bana) needs a male heir to his throne that his wife Katherine of Aragon cannot produce. The Duke of Norfolk convinces his sister, Elizabeth Boleyn to let one of her daughters vie for the King’s attention. Sleek, resourceful, quick-witted Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman) is given the task to bed the King, give him a son, and make her family prosperous. Simple enough, a little medieval adultery never hurt anyone.

But the King has his eye on Anne’s innocent, shy, earnest sister Mary (Scarlett Johansson). Jealousy, regret, anger and revenge fuel what is to follow. There are so many (not-so-clever) twists and turns, that the viewer may spend too much time trying to catch up and ask “Why”.

Portman has no problem proving to us that she is one of the finest actresses of her generation. A squint of her eyes refers to pure narcissistic rage that embodies her Anne. Portman is great at being devious; she outshines the rest of the cast by a long shot.

The quiet demeanor of Mary is something Johansson has tackled before and better in Girl with a Pearl Earring, but she gives the little that is demanded of her, making the best of sparse material. And Bana, a fantastic actor, has fun with his constant screaming and throwing of objects, but his performance, along with most the film, falls flat.

Another issue to discuss is the once-so-secure line of the PG-13 and R ratings. Films like Beowulf, The Kite Runner and now The Other Boleyn Girl are seriously blurring a line in the ratings system. These are not light films, and while I would never argue for the MPAA, I am very surprised at what heavy, sexually-themed content is allowed to pass for kids under 14 to see.

There are better historical films to see. Start with Girl with a Pearl Earring. But fans of Portman’s will be in for something new, a talented, young actress stretching a little past her comfort zone, and nailing it. C

U2 3D

Half the fun is the experience. I’m convinced that no matter what is on the screen, anything in 3-D is made fun. Fortunately for audiences, we get the best of both worlds in the dazzling new film, U2 3D. While Bono and company rock out, we are given a first person account of one seriously entertaining ride.

The camera gracefully floats around the stage in front of Bono’s face, as he looks directly into the lens, reaching out to us from behind his trademark sunglasses. Suddenly, we’re in the crowd, amassed in the epic, thunderous group of people, singing along, splashing water, sitting on top of each other’s shoulders. You’ll have to remind yourself that you’re not actually there with them.

Because the experience is so unique, you don’t have to be a fan of U2 to enjoy the show. But if you are as big a fan as I, then the sound of the music along with the breathtaking images will floor you.

There are several highlights in the musical numbers. While the crowd is silent during an ode to human rights, a woman on a large, big-brother screen, explains the importance of the issue when suddenly, the first few chords of “Pride” are plucked, and chills are sent running up your spine.

The flawless, almost spiritual emotion of the event is captured in its full essence when the lights come on during “Where the Streets Have No Name” and you get to witness the sea of people, floating in their beauty.

But the best is saved for last. During the unparalleled masterpiece “With or Without You”, you’re face will flush with delight, your body lifted from the theatre, put right into the atmosphere of the show. Forget where you are; sing at the top of your lungs, along with everyone else in the theatre. A

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Bank Job

Don’t let the plain title fool you, The Bank Job is a heavy dose of refreshing filmmaking buried in the pile of spring season film waste.

It must be hard for filmmakers to keep the heist film alive, some fail and submerge themselves in clich├ęs, but director Roger Donaldson keeps his film afloat, full of life.

The film tells the true story of the robbing of a London bank in 1971. Surrounded with ulterior motives, political conspiracy and a royal sex scandal, this is not your typical bank job. Plans are put in motion by some pretty important people to hire some chums to knock off a bank, get into the safety deposit boxes and retrieve some potentially damaging pictures. The thieves are allowed to keep whatever loot they recover, but they must return the photographs. Easy right?

No heist movie is complete without a series of hiccups to alter plans and change courses of action. Talented actor Jason Statham leads the bank robbing pack. His Terry is fused with a handsome mix of wild charisma and street-level smarts.

The Bank Job has its flaws. It expects the viewer to remember the real story. It leaves some things out, assuming everyone has a clue what the film is referring to. The film also has several characters, all highly developed, all trying to get their own side-story. Donaldson makes the best out of a complicated and cramped script, but some subplots could’ve been left out.

Aside from its few shortcomings, The Bank Job is a funny, clever as all hell, entertaining ride that successfully grabs hold of you, and barely lets up. A-

In Bruges

In Bruges is one of those rare movies that will get some of you laughing. Out loud. In the theatre. Ashamed that you are bellowing tremendous roars of delight, while few others around you are.

Famed stage director Martin McDonagh has crafted a hilariously bold feature-film debut. Through his devilish screenplay, McDonagh isn’t afraid to openly discuss hot-button issues as a source of character development.

Ken and Ray are two hitmen hiding out in the quiet, beautiful Belgium town, after a job gone very wrong. During their long-winded bickering chats, the men engage in riotous tirades, constantly poking fun at one another. This is where it gets racy. The men, mostly the young, ambitious, troubled Ray, aren’t afraid to have a laugh at the expense of the mentally and physically handicapped, Dwarfs, minorities, Americans, the Dutch and whatever else pops into their heads.

Ray, played with expert bravado by Colin Farrell, uses his black-as-night dark humor to hide his insecurities, to make up for the void in his life. Farrell has never been better. His humor is spot-on, his emotions are triggered brilliantly. Farrell shows that he has something here; with In Bruges, he reminds us of his supreme talent.

The other half of the dynamic duo is played by fantastic character actor Brendan Gleeson. Gleeson has dazzled us with supporting turns in Gangs of New York, 28 Days Later, and the Harry Potter films, but In Bruges is his finest accomplishment. If there is a reason to give the man a leading role, this film is it. Few other actors can effectively portray such a multitude of emotions on their face at the same time. His Ken is a warm-hearted man, plagued with ultimatums, most of which are delivered by his menacing boss, Harry.

By the time Ralph Fiennes gets onscreen he will have knocked you flat on your ass with his wild bantering. His Harry is a psychologically demented man, with strong morals to boot.

There is no use in describing the plot. It’s too unique. McDonagh echoes Tarantino and Scorsese with his sharp words and (at times) heavily violent content. It is an original piece of work, that shows much promise from a new voice in the world of film.

It’s important to acknowledge that what these people are saying is offensive, but these people lead offensive lives. Much in the way of Borat, there is no greater feeling then having to clamp your hands around your mouth, in an attempt to shut yourself up, trying not to ask yourself “Should I be laughing at this?”. A-