Wednesday, August 31, 2005

My 20 favorite films of the Silent Era (pre-1930)

20. Pandora's Box (Pabst)
19. Greed (von Stroheim)
18. Sherlock Jr. (Keaton)
17. The Gold Rush (Chaplin)
16. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein/Aleksandrov)
15. Steamboat Bill Jr. (Reisner/Keaton)
14. The Man With the Movie Camera (Vertov)
13. The Man Who Laughs (Leni)
12. The Thief of Bagdad (Walsh)
11. Faust (Murnau)
10. Our Hospitality (Blystone/Keaton)
09. Nosferatu (Murnau)
08. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
07. Sunrise (Murnau)
06. The Fall of the House of Usher (Epstein)
05. The Last Laugh (Murnau)
04. The General (Bruckman/Keaton)
03. Un Chien Andalou (Buñuel)
02. Seven Chances (Keaton)
01. Metropolis (Lang)

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

A Director to Adapt Each of Shakespeare's Plays #9 -- HENRY V directed by Peter Weir

The Plot:

In the wake of civil war, England, under their youthful new king, is restless. But young Harry (now King Henry V) knows just the way to rally the citizens under one flag – start a war with the French. The English are hopelessly outnumbered, but Henry’s got charisma galore. He gets his troops revved up by giving the battlefield speech that, to this day, still puts all imitators to shame. England wins the day and Henry gets to marry the King of France’s daughter, Emma Thomp – err . . . Catherine.

Why Weir?

Let’s get this out of the way first. There is no way in hell that Henry V should be made again for at least another 30 years or so. Branagh’s version is that good. Whereas I felt that Branagh’s Hamlet left the door open for others to take a whack, with Henry V, he absolutely nailed it. Consequently, this decision was probably the most difficult one I had to make. And even now, I could probably be swayed to somebody else. I also considered Peter Jackson, whose ability to stage battle scenes that get the blood boiling made him seem like a worthy candidate. But, I just don’t know that Jackson would properly tend to the historical aspects of Shakespeare’s play. He still seems to me better suited for the world of fantasy. Weir, on the other hand, has the historical chops to pull it off, I think. I was not a huge fan of Master and Commander, but I did feel that the battle sequences were very well done and the historical details were given proper attention. I ruled out many other action directors because they simply do not have the sensitivity to handle the more quiet, thoughtful sections. Weir can handle it. My favorite film of his remains the vastly underappreciated Fearless in which an average man survives a plane crash and suddenly feels invincible. In his own way, Henry is able to summon up similar courage. Weir has the disadvantage of not being a dashing, young English acting prodigy like Branagh and Olivier were when they made their films. But the mixture of exciting and sophisticated films on his resume lead me to conclude that he just might pull it off.

Weir films I have seen:

1. Fearless ****
2. Picnic at Hanging Rock ***1/2
3. Witness ***1/2
4. Dead Poets Society ***
5. The Truman Show ***
6. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World **

Hercules (Clements/Musker, 1997)

Hercules tries to recall where he's seen this girl before ...
Oh yes! Aladdin!

In the closing moments of Disney's typically frenetic animated update of Greek mythology, Hercules, Zeus tells his legendary son that strength is not what really matters. What matters is the size of your heart. Fair enough, but it also doesn't hurt to be a demigod. Nobody can bellow out vague, toothless pseudo-philosophy quite as convincingly as Disney. Never mind that the rest of the film does little to support these messages, opting instead to present a cavalcade of characters careening across the stage, getting thumped on the head or throttled by the throat, bursting into flames or crashing into Corinthian columns. Amidst the wise-guy sarcasm and the ever-present anachronisms thrown in to make sure that the audience remains fixed comfortably in their own banal world, is there any room for genuine humanity? Something that would elevate the tale to the level of mythology? I don't think so. Not unless you count the Disney mythology that had been substituted instead, that of the awkward hero who finds himself through determination, courage and a well-timed chessy pop ballad. 'Go the distance' we're told. Which is a lot like saying 'Do what it is you're doing.' There's also the idealized female love interest who is not, I repeat NOT, a mere object of affection because she's 'sassy'. Sassy, I tell you! And can someone really go from 'zero to hero' when they are already part god? I mean, Pinocchio started out as an inanimate puppet for pete's sake. Now that's an accomplishment.

OK, looks like I've gone off-track here. Anyway, the point is that when you place so little trust in the audience -- fearing that they will be bored if there isn't a loud crash or a pop culture reference, fearing that they will be offended if you take a stand for anything but the most obvious truisms -- you really stand no chance of creating a piece of art that is anything but disposable. Which is why Disney will assuredly be back next summer to offer you more of the same -- cotton candy for the soul.


Monday, August 29, 2005

A Director to Adapt Each of Shakespeare's Plays #8 -- HENRY IV (PARTS 1 and 2) directed by Alfonso Cuaron

The Plot:

Someday Prince Harry is going to be king. In fact, he’s going to be a very good one. But right now, he’s really into hanging out at the local bars boozing it up with his buddies. Understandably, the current king (a.k.a. Dad) is not pleased at all with his son’s gallivanting. Civil war is about to erupt in England and young Hotspur is every bit the valorous soldier that Prince Harry should be. But hold on! Faster than you can say ‘prodigy’, Prince Harry gets off the sauce and into the army, dragging his drinking buddies with him. Against all odds, he vanquishes Hotspur and fends off his father’s enemies. When Dad falls ill, he at least knows the country’s going to be in good hands and we’re all set up for Henry V. (Like George Lucas, Shakespeare released parts IV, V and VI first.)

Why Cuaron?

Henry IV is not just dry history, but a ‘coming of age’ story. What’s curious about Shakespeare’s drama is that he shows one of Britain’s most revered historical figures as an immature whelp. We’ve all got to start somewhere, right? By the end of Part 2, Harry has taken on the responsibility of an entire nation. He rejects his former drinking buddies and commands them not to come anywhere near the new king. On a much smaller level, Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien, follows its two male leads on a similar path. In the beginning, life is all about sex, parties and farting. By the end, these two friends share a table, but can barely speak to one another. They see in each other a reminder of a reckless youth that now seems embarrassing and distant. Though unseen by me, the generally positive reception for Cuaron’s entry into the Harry Potter series demonstrates that he is ready to make ‘big’ pictures. Henry IV might be an appropriate choice.

Cuaron films I have seen:

Just one ...

Y Tu Mama Tambien ****

11'09''01 (Various, 2002)

Over the past four years, we have often heard the phrase: “Nothing is the same after September 11th.” Though few would argue that the horrific images from that day will ever be forgotten by those who were alive to witness them, there is also a bit of naivety inherent in the statement. It paints the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. as a beginning. Perhaps this should not be surprising since for many Americans, September 11th did indeed mark the awakening of their political consciousness. The full story, of course, is more complex and extends not only beyond American borders, but back in time through generations. The greatest value of the multi-director film project, 11'09''01, is that it provides us with a vivid picture of the shockwave that reverberated around the globe on that miserable day and simultaneously places the event in historical and geopolitical context, illustrating that, sadly, September 11th was indeed more of the same, the most spectacular moment in a seemingly unending cycle of cruelty and violence.

There is a Monty Python sketch in which a news anchor broadcasts the news, except he presents everything from the perspective of birds. There is a horrible plane crash, but the reporter assures us that no birds were injured. The point being, of course, that we inevitably view everything in life through our own particular lens that is colored by who we are. I was reminded of this as I took in each of the 11-minute short films submitted by directors from all over the globe. While each film acknowledged the overwhelming awfulness of the 9/11 attacks (with varying degrees of sympathy), many strove to draw connections to violence and misery experienced on a daily basis in their own countries: bombings in Israel, war atrocities in Bosnia, poverty in Africa, racial profiling experienced by Pakistani-Americans, political instability in Chile. Though some may prefer a straightforward, unquestioning tribute to those who lost their lives on that day, full of waving flags and bombastic anthems, I greatly appreciated the way in which conflicting perspectives were allowed to co-mingle, inspiring debate and pushing for problem-solving. Unlike many multi-director projects in which the film falls apart due to a lack of coherent focus, 11'09''01 thrives from presenting a diversity of opinions. Some criticisms of American policy are put forward more tactfully than others (the Egyptian entry, directed by Youssef Chahine felt particularly strident to me), but I would be remiss in faulting the film simply because there were perspectives with which I did not agree. This, after all, is the goal of 11'09''01: to expose the gaps in our communication and find where we can come together in mutual understanding and ensure that something like 9/11 never happens again. It is cinema functioning as a sort of international town hall.

Beyond that, there is some virtuoso filmmaking on display here. I was delighted to be exposed for the first time to many directors whose names I had heard tossed about but who were unfamiliar to me – from Israeli director Amos Gitai’s impressive unbroken sequence shot in the wake of a fictional car bombing, to Shohei Imamura’s strange tale of a man turned snake to Idrissa Ouedraogo’s comic tale of a young boy who thinks he has spotted Osama Bin Laden. I must also mention that I was completely horrified and tensely riveted by Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s harrowing minimalist film/sound collage in which real audio clips from the day’s events are used to create a visceral 11-minute impressionistic summation, capped with a final moment of transcendent poetry.

11'09''01 is a film that effectively demonstrates that art, when used responsibly, can go beyond mere entertainment and have a tangible social function if we are willing to listen, engage and respond. With the four-year anniversary of 9/11 rapidly approaching and terrorism still a topic pervasive in international headlines, I hope that more people are now ready to do so.


A Director to Adapt Each of Shakespeare's Plays #7 -- HAMLET directed by Lars von Trier

The Plot: The ghost of Hamlet’s father wants revenge. He wants it bad. But unfortunately for him, his son is a freaking philosophy major. Where some would get angry, Hamlet just gets melancholy. Still, even Hamlet can’t ignore the ick factor associated with his uncle knocking off his father to sleep with his mother. Eventually, he does get around to killing his uncle, but by that time, pretty much everyone else in the castle has died too, so I mean, no big whoop.

Why Trier?

You’re trying to tell me there’s someone else who knows more about mad Danes? There have been several great films made based on Hamlet, but I don’t think we’ve seen the definitive production yet. Olivier’s is a lot of fun, but as a director he seems more interested in crafting his starring performance than in the big picture. (According to legend, one scene was cut from the film simply because Olivier didn’t like the hat he was wearing.) And who can possibly believe that Mel Gibson’s Hamlet would wait any longer than about 5 minutes to kill Claudius? He’d zip down the hall. Pop. And everybody’s home in under an hour. For all the things it gets right, Branagh’s version still seems to me to have a sense of reverence for the play that is distancing and ultimately leaves the film with a generic feeling. Hamlet doesn’t need to be revered or worshiped. It needs to be lived. Trier is often called arrogant. Probably because he is. But I prefer to use the word ‘audacious’. He has ‘audacity’. When you watch a production of Hamlet, it can sometimes seem as if you’ve heard every line before, seen every possible way that the most famous scenes can be played. Trier is a director who has the ability to make us see Hamlet as if we were watching it for the first time. He wouldn’t be afraid to tear into it rather than politely watching it from the sidelines. With The Kingdom, he’s proven he can spook us. With Breaking the Waves, he’s proven he can move us. With Dogville, he’s proven he can shock us. And with The Idiots, he’s proven that he’s willing to jump completely off the deep end. For the world’s most famous play, give me the smug Danish iconoclast.

Trier films I have seen:

1. Breaking the Waves ****
2. Dogville ****
3. Dancer in the Dark ****
4. The Kingdom ****
5. The Five Obstructions ****
6. Europa ***1/2
7. The Kingdom II ***1/2
8. The Idiots ***1/2
9. The Element of Crime ***1/2
10. Medea ***
11. Epidemic **

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Pearls of the Deep (Various, 1965)

And the bride and shoe lived happily ever after ...

Drawing inspiration from the stories of Bohumil Hrabal (whose novel would also later serve as the basis for Jiri Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains), Pearls of the Deep is primarily notable for bringing together five young directors that would go on to make critical contributions to one of the cinema’s most exciting artistic periods – the Czech New Wave. Coinciding roughly with the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia, the Czech New Wave produced films bursting with creativity, audacity, sexuality and subversive political messages. Milos Forman, the most famous figure of the Czech New Wave, would go on to direct films such as Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that satisfied not only critics and scholars, but average filmgoers as well. Though significantly less familiar to most, the filmmakers featured in Pearls of the Deep have also made valuable and inspiring filmic contributions, such as Vera Chytilova’s anarchic comedy, Daisies, Jaromil Jires’ bizarre menstruation/vampire horror/fantasy, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, as well as the aforementioned Closely Watched Trains.

There is a certain amount of joy in seeing this talented group working together early in their careers, proving their worth and their ability to handle more ambitious projects. Unfortunately, little in Pearls of the Deep rises to the level of greatness and, in fact, much of it is rather dull. If there is a theme that runs through all five films, it is the unmasking of truth that lies beneath romantic facades. Racing fans tell exciting stories of motorcycling legends, blissfully ignoring the brutal dangers inherent to the sport. Elderly men in a hospital nostalgically look back on their lives and attempt to out do each other in revealing their accomplishments, but how much is fact and how much is bluster? A young man has a steamy romantic liaison with an attractive Gypsy girl, seeing her not an individual, but instead falling for an exotic fantasy. On paper, this could be a captivating theme, particularly for a country that would soon face a crisis of national identity. Too often though, Pearls of the Deep falls into the most dreary, univolving sort of ‘realism’, employing far too much dialogue and not enough forward momentum or thematic exploration.

The directors have collectively made a decision to cast non-professional actors. Presumably this decision was made in an effort to produce an air of authenticity, but unfortunately it only serves to remind us why actors get paid the big bucks. The best of them are able to keep us engaged by exploring the varied dynamics of human emotion, while skillfully pointing up moments that support the thematic basis of the whole. Too often, the actors in Pearls of the Deep simply bounce dialogue back to their partner as if it were enough simply to get all the words in the right order. This might be less of an issue if Hrabal’s stories were more compelling or the directors’ decisions were more adventuresome. Unfortunately, there are only sporadic moments of inspiration that hint at creativity reigned in, waiting to be unleashed. Chief among these is the final dreamy sequence of Chytilova’s film, featuring a drunken bride, slow motion effects and sound distortion that call to mind a crude, aggressive update of Cocteau.

Ultimately, Pearls of the Deep is certainly not awful, but it is not terribly memorable either. Mostly, it is noteworthy as a historical convergence of talent that will likely appeal to a very limited audience. See it if you’re curious, but make sure to place it low on your Czech New Wave priority list.


Friday, August 26, 2005

A Director to Adapt Each of Shakespeare's Plays #6 -- CYMBELINE directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

The Plot:

Imogen wants to marry a sweet but low-born gentleman. The king wants her to marry an arrogant but well-born doofus. This never goes well. The gentlemen gets himself deported and allows a shady Italian to convince him that even if he was allowed to marry Imogen, the bride wouldn’t exactly be wearing white (nudge, nudge). He then does what we would all do in such a situation – takes his anger out on the Roman army. By this point, the doofus has had his dome lopped off, so the king figures Imogen may as well marry his second choice.

Why Jeunet?

Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s most underrated works, in my opinion. It borrows from moments in his other plays, but the fusion of romance, drama, dark comedy and action works pretty darn well. Jeunet has the flexibility and the energy to leave a personal stamp on this oft forgotten play and make it work. It’s not difficult to imagine Amelie’s Audrey Tatou as the optimist Imogen, searching for love in a world of treachery and war. With the dark comedy Delicatessen and the odd fairy-tale City of Lost Children added into the mix, Jeunet has proven his ability to explore a decidedly unconventional take on love, romance and desire.

Jeunet films I have seen:

1. Amelie ****
2. Delicatessan ***1/2
3. A Very Long Engagement **1/2
4. The City of Lost Children **1/2

Go, Go Second Time Virgin (Wakamatsu, 1969)

Koji Wakamatsu's Go, Go Second Time Virgin starts out like an exploitation flick, with the central female character being raped by a group of young men on the concrete roof of a high-rise building. The opening credits roll over the top of her face as different men take their turn on top of her. Soon thereafter, she reveals in a flashback that she has been raped before, on the beach as the tide rolled in beneath her and her assailants. The following morning, she wakes up on top of the building, still lying in the same place, blood between her legs. When her attackers return, she asks to be killed, but instead is raped a third time. By this time, viewers may understandably be demanding a point. Is this some kind of Japanese pre-cursor to the mean-spirited exercise in degradation, I Spit on Your Grave? Thankfully not.

The key is in the execution. Daniel Wible, writing for, describes how the woman is "brutally gang-raped." Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a case in which one would not use the word 'brutal' to describe rape. The adjective is essentially implied by the action. However, despite frequent shots of the woman's partially disrobed body, the way in which Wakamatsu shoots this opening sequence is hardly grisly. Yes, it is disturbing to see these men force themselves upon this young woman, but what does Wakamatsu actually show us? The men carrying her to the roof ... the men holding her down and pulling at her clothing ... the men lying on top of her one by one, notably without removing their pants. It may seem like a silly observation, but Wakamatsu's decision not to go for unflinching realism and have the male actors drop their trousers keeps the rape in the realm of ideas. Even though we are repelled by the idea of rape, we know that the woman cannot really be violated through a pair of pants. There is no showy method acting, no attempt to bludgeon the viewer's senses, no effort to create an illusion.

Why is this an important distinction? Because as the bizarre events of the film continue to unfold, the woman's existence and the acts to which she has been subjected rise to the level of absurdity. No, I am not saying that her victimhood ever becomes comical. However, it does become absurd. The distinction is key, because part of Wakamatsu's motivation seems to be to take the trappings of the expolitation film and then make a critical observation about how exploitation films are fueled by mankind's seemingly unquenchable desire for sex and violence. The entirety of the film takes place within the different levels of this high-rise building. No doubt this was a sound economical decision, but it also underscores the way in which the characters are trapped within a closed system of impulsive violence and sexuality. If we remind ourselves that the film was released in 1969, then Wakamatsu's reaction against the more decadent aspects of his time make even more sense.

I have purposefully said little about the unusual young man that initially watches the gang rape happen and then later becomes the young woman's partner in existential crisis. I will allow viewers to discover the equally shocking course of his character development for themselves. I will simply say that over the course of the film's 65-minute run-time, I joyfully watched as trash became gold, as Russ Meyer became Samuel Beckett. Go, Go Second Time Virgin occasionally gets silly and indulges in the very decadence that it presumably seeks to critique; however, there is something unforgettable about a film in which a nude woman and a man drenched in blood chase each other playfully around a city rooftop and it actually means something. Honestly.


Thursday, August 25, 2005

A Director to Adapt Each of Shakespeare's Plays #5 -- CORIOLANUS directed by Oliver Stone

The Plot:

Coriolanus is an aristocratic Roman general who couldn’t care less that the common man can’t afford a decent sack of wheat. When he wants to be consul however, he needs those votes. Add to this the fact that Brutus and Sicinus are out there running tons of negative ads reminding the people exactly what Coriolanus stands for and we’ve got trouble. When Coriolanus can’t win the election, he gets an army together and attacks Rome instead.

Why Stone?

Unlike most of Shakespeare’s plays, Coriolanus has not aged very well at all. I would go so far as to call it his most inaccessible play for a modern audience. It’s steeped in social concerns and politics that often seem to be too specific to their own age. What the play needs is somebody who can cut through the lengthy political discourse and make the connections to our modern era. If anyone would be able to rescue the play and make it watchable, I think it’s Stone. As demonstrated by JFK and Nixon, Stone has the ability to contextualize political ideas and make them entertaining and engaging for the viewer. If Stone adds a bit of controversy and sensationalism, all the better. This play needs it desperately.

Stone films I have seen:

1. Talk Radio ***1/2
2. Platoon ***1/2
3. JFK ***1/2
4. Nixon ***
5. U-Turn **1/2
6. Natural Born Killers **
7. The Doors **
8. Born On the Fourth of July *1/2

A Director to Adapt Each of Shakespeare's Plays #4 -- THE COMEDY OF ERRORS directed by Trey Parker

The Plot:

A shipwreck separates two identical twins from their father and also each other. Without knowing it, the separated twins hire another set of separated identical twins as servants. When the master and servant from Syracuse show up in Ephesus, they are mistaken for the other master and servant which leads to mistaken identity jokes ad nauseum.

Why Parker?

Unlike Shakespeare's more gentle, romantic comedies, Comedy of Errors goes for the belly laughs. It draws inspiration from the Roman farces of Plautus and relies on situation, physicality and crude innuendo more than polished wit. In order to be updated to the 21st century, the play needs a director who is not afraid to add a fresh layer of topicality and vulgarity. The Farrelly Brothers might be another option, but for my money, Parker is more consistently funny and more scathing. With the South Park movie and even the hit-and-miss Orgamzo and Cannibal: The Musical, Parker has demonstrated that he is willing to go over-the-top for a laugh and that’s just what this play needs.

Parker films I have seen:
1. South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut ***1/2
2. Cannibal! The Musical **1/2
3. Orgazmo **1/2
4. Team America: World Police *1/2

A Director to Adapt Each of Shakespeare's Plays #3 -- AS YOU LIKE IT directed by Francois Ozon

The Plot:

Rosalind like to watch men wrestle. Orlando is very good at it. Perfect couple it would seem. But Orlando’s brother is plotting against him and Rosalind is the daughter of the ousted king. Separately, they both flee to the forest – Rosalind in drag, because you know, it’s mandatory. Eventually, the lovesick duo run into each other but Rosalind, perhaps sensing the thinness of the plot, remains in disguise as a young man and helps Orlando to practice his wooing skills. But when another woman falls in love with the disguised Rosalind, the god of marriage says enough is enough!

Why Ozon?

To compensate for the play’s charming frivolousness, As You Like It needs a director with a confident sense of style. Ozon has it to spare. In his Water Drops on Burning Rocks, two men and two women engage in a desperate sexual scrambling much like that seen at the end of Shakespeare’s play. Comfortable in tackling relationships amongst any combination of genders, Ozon would ensure a production that is flat-out sexy. That aspect is crucial because it is what will provide the energy necessary to give the comedy some spark.

Ozon films I have seen:

1. Water Drops on Burning Rocks ****

2. 8 Women ***1/2

3. Swimming Pool ***1/2

4. Under the Sand ***1/2

5. Criminal Lovers ***

Short films worth watching: Truth or Dare, X 2000, Bed Scenes

A Director to Adapt Each of Shakespeare's Plays #2 -- ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

The Plot:

Marc Antony is a big shot with the Roman army, but spends a lot of his downtime across the sea in Egypt with Cleopatra. But, to his credit, he is willing to stop his big love-in upon hearing about his wife’s death. Back to Rome he goes, where Octavius (that’s Caesar to you, punk) has a new wife already lined up for him – his sister, Octavia. Much jealousy and betrayal follow. Cleopatra pulls the old false suicide ruse. Antony falls for it and kills himself. Cue the asps. Roll credits.

Why Inarritu?

On the strength of essentially just two films, Amores Perros and 21 Grams, Inarritu has demonstrated his ability to explore passionate, often reckless characters who have dreams about living the good life, yet find that real life is ruled by responsibility – to a lover, to a child, to God. With his exhilarating pacing and editing combined with his ability to coax gutsy performances, Inarritu is the man for this legendary story.

Inarritu films I have seen:

1. Amores Perros ***1/2

2. 21 Grams ***1/2

Also ... Inarratu contributes one of the strongest shorts to the multi-director project, 11'o9"01.

A Director to Adapt Each of Shakespeare's Plays #1 -- ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL directed by Jane Campion

The Plot:

Orphan daughter of famous physician cures king who proclaims that she may wed any man she chooses. Problem is, her selection isn’t too thrilled with the idea. So, she sneaks into the bed of another woman that he is preparing to seduce. Unawares, he knocks her up. Problem solved! And that’s how we get our title.

Why Campion?

Throughout her career, Campion has crafted her films around strong women who refuse to allow their sexuality and identity to be reigned in by convention and defined by men. In The Piano, Ada makes a bargain to regain the instrument that gives her a voice. In Holy Smoke, Ruth uses her femininity to enslave the de-programmer. In the Cut sees an educated woman impulsively satisfy her sexual needs despite probable danger. All’s Well That Ends Well presents yet another heroine willing to use sex in order to shape her own identity and fate.

Campion films I have seen:

1. The Piano ****

2. Holy Smoke ***1/2

3. Sweetie ***1/2

4. In the Cut ***

5. The Portrait of a Lady *1/2

Short films worth watching: Peel, Passionless Moments, A Girl's Own Story

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

La Petite Lili (Miller, 2003)

Working from Anton Chekhov's play The Seagull, Claude Miller's La Petite Lili strives to update the Russian playwright's themes of generational difference and the purpose of art for the early twenty-first century. The young playwright, Konstantin, at the center of Chekhov's drama has here become, Julien, a budding, young filmmaker, eager to express his idealistic world-view and distaste for the previous generations artistic goals. However, as evidenced by the clip we see early in the film from his most recent short film, he may have iconoclastic aspirations, but like many revolutionaries, he is unsure about what to erect in the place of the old forms, once they have been torn down. His film is passionate, but unfocused and vague, referring dreamily to the cycle of life, yet revealing a naivete about life's substance.

Julien's ungrounded artistic identity is mirrored in his steamy romance with Lili, the young actress featured in his film. When we first see the couple, it is in an idyllic scene of them nude, in the middle of the countryside, making love as if the world around them had ceased to exist. Like Julien's film, their relationship is impulsive and indulgent. For those involved it must surely be intensely satisfying, but because it is untested, it is also fragile. Notably, the film and the relationship die on the same day -- the first, a casualty of Julien's hypersensitve ego and his mother's snarky criticism ... the second, a victim of Lili's aspirations for success and experience, as well as the opportunistic manipulations of older, established filmmaker, Brice.

Betraying its theatrical roots, La Petite Lili has a very distinct second act in which we pick up the characters' lives four years later and discover that Julien and Lili are either more successful or more shattered than we possibly imagined they could be. Which is it? This is the central question that fuels the dreamy final section of the film, in which almost all of the characters are given an opportunity to replay critical moments of their lives as fiction. This is also where Miller achieves his greatest success, using the film-within-a-film to call into question the events we have witnessed earlier. Without revealing too much, I will say that Miller wisely defuses the comic abruptness of Chekhov's original ending by weaving it into Julien's screenplay. When the moment arrives, we are taken aback and wonder whether Julien's inspiration was pure imagination or if we are witnessing some kind of imagined reality in which Julien is finally given the ability to express his vision of the world around him.

La Petite Lili is compelling enough to sustain interest over the course of its runtime, but ultimately it hints at more than it actually reveals. It tackles the grandiose themes it has inherited from Chekhov and does an adequate job of giving them contemporary resonance, but it struggles to rise above the countless pack of what-is-real-what-is-fantasy narratives that have become a staple of recent cinema. Miller arrives at an ending that, I assume, is purposefully ambiguous, but perhaps, in this case, too much so. We may wonder where exactly Lili is heading when she sets out over that hill and we may debate the state of Julien's art and ponder whether he has launched himself on a satisfactory trajectory, but there are still numerous characters that Miller introduces only to leave their relationship to the film's central themes and purposes unclear.

Still, La Petite Lili is worth a look if only for watching Ludivine Sagnier's effortless and immensely attractive performance as the title character. The key to Sagnier's success is the way she combines girl-next-door innocence with the sexual comfort of a young Helen Mirren and she is given opportunity to display both here. She is no 'ice queen', like her compatriot Catherine Deneuve was in the 60's. Her performances are tactile, sensitive and thus affecting. This is very fortunate, as it balances out much of the rest of Miller's film which takes stabs at meaning, but often comes across as merely coy and distant.


Saturday, August 20, 2005

Criminal Lovers (Ozon, 1999)

Francois Ozon's films are usually composed of elements that seem achingly familiar, but are sprinkled with a healthy dose of eroticism and given just enough of a twist to make the resulting product seem fresh and alive. In Criminal Lovers, Ozon uses the fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel, as his starting point; but instead of sweet, young children, it is two young murderers that find themselves trapped. And instead of food and sweets, the allure seems to be homosexual desire. What is noteworthy about Ozon's film is that the first half feels like something we've seen countless times before in other films (planning the crime, committing the murder, hiding the body, etc, etc.), but the second part of the film feels completely unfamliar. Ozon veers sharply away from formula and finds a resolution that is unsettling and strangely touching. Those who demand plausibility will probably be displeased; however, the film is certainly a journey, questioning our assumptions about how people react to each other sexually and leaving us in a state of satisfied bewilderment. Not as well acted or shot as some of Ozon's other work, but worth watching.


The Abominable Dr. Phibes (Fuest, 1971)

It's the psychic force that holds the man together, this maniacal precision. If we could just throw it off, interrupt the cycle, then he might be stopped by his own inflexible standards.

There is so much about The Abominable Dr. Phibes that would seem familiar if I were to simply describe the plot. A shadowy, maniacal figure seeks revenge on those responsible for his wife’s death and kills them off one by one while the police scramble to track him down before he can complete his hit list. However, this would not do justice to how unique and alive this film truly feels. How is this so? The pleasure derived from The Abominable Dr. Phibes is not to be found in what happens – indeed, as viewers, we are often a few steps ahead of the film’s plot – but rather in how it happens.

I must begin with the central performance by Vincent Price, playing the unforgettable title character. Going down a list of Price’s films, I am shocked to find that in a career spanning almost 60 years and over 120 films, I have only managed to see three – Edward Scissorhands, The Great Mouse Detective and Laura. Though each of these films has their individual charms, none seem representative of Price’s extensive body of work. To someone of my generation, Price was most likely to be known as the guy who did that spooky ‘rap’ at the end of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. You would see him in commercials or appearing on talk shows and you would gather a kind of understanding about who he was and what he represented to people, but he seemed like someone whose personality had become a caricature. He seemed like someone doomed to spend his later years essentially playing the media-created version of himself. What a joy then it is to experience one of the films that helped build his reputation and discover Price to be an entirely engaging performer, effortlessly riding the line between horror and satire.

When we first see Dr. Phibes, he is only a caped figure with his back turned to us, playing a gigantic organ, surrounded by a coin-operated clockwork orchestra. Without too much of a leap, we are led to envision Phibes as a kind of 70's era-Phantom of the Opera; but, it is Leroux’s character filtered through the mind of Ken Russell. We will later learn that Phibes was severely disfigured in a horrible crash that caused him to be presumed dead. The accident has also apparently damaged his ability to speak normally, so he must communicate through a machine of his own devising that jacks in directly to his vocal chords and provides him with amplification without having to move his mouth. This element of Phibes’ character pays off in huge comic dividends as we witness him scowling at his enemies, but unable to say anything until he can find a nearby outlet. It also means that Price essentially gives two separate performances: 1) a vocal performance taking advantage of his trademark menacing tone and rhythms and 2) an entirely physical performance that comically undercuts the intensity of the former.

Like many fictional madmen bent on doing away with a long string of people, Phibes has concocted a revenge plan that is as admirable in its complexity as it is absurd in its lack of practicality. Drawing inspiration from a series of Biblical curses, Phibes dispatches with the doctors who failed to save his wife’s life using bats, locusts, hail(?!) and the deadliest frog mask mankind is ever likely to see. Adding to the fun are the not-quite-competent British detectives who always seem to be a few minutes too late in anticipating Phibes’ next move, but at least are able to reflect upon their shortcomings with some of the film’s best lines – A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen. However, be assured that this is no accidental Ed Wood-style comedy. Because the absurd dialogue is delivered with such deadpan commitment to British understatedness, it may be initially difficult to discern whether the actors are in on the joke. However, as the film progresses, it becomes clear that, campy though it may be, this is a script of delightful wit and intelligence. I could provide further examples, but these are for you to discover. I would only be robbing potential viewers of the joy of experiencing them for themselves.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is the best kind of midnight movie, filled with quotes you will want to repeat to friends, comic moments that will make you giggle even in retrospect and just enough gore to amplify the horror aspect without becoming a draining experience. Any faults it has are overwhelmed by the way in which it exceeds expectations, providing us with some dumb fun, without making us feel like we’ve watched a dumb film.


Peter Pan (Hogan, 2003)

The miracle of P.J. Hogan's Peter Pan is that it takes the single cheesiest moment in the history of children's theatre ("I do believe in fairies") and turns it into something genuinely powerful and emotional. I was very surprised to find myself in tears. This moment (and the entire film) works because Hogan has a firm grasp on the underlying metaphors. The growing chant is not simply a method to revive a temperamental pixie. It is an affirmation of the value of retaining imagination and innocence. The children must grow up. They must return to the real world. But they will take with them the lesson learned through their vivid fantasies -- that being an adult does not necessarily need to mean becoming cold and cruel. It does not need to mean becoming an automaton working an office job. It does not need to mean becoming a Hook. If we allow ourselves to temper our maturity with the spirit of childhood, then experience does not have to breed cynicism. Childish love can grow into emotions more complex, but no less valuable -- respect, tolerance, compassion, understanding.

Hogan arrives at this point by not softballing the children's fantasies in the rest of the film. Hook's stumpy arm is disturbingly real. The crocodile that pursues him is fierce and threatening. When Hook loses patience with his henchmen, they are shot dead. When Wendy feels attracted to the young boy who has invaded her bedroom, the sexual overtones are appropriately muted, but still palpable. A lesser production might have toned down these aspects and neutered the story's impact in the process. Hogan's Peter Pan has the courage to take childhood seriously and celebrate the sense of wonder and play that remains in any healthy adult.


Grey Gardens (Hovde/Maysles/Maysles/Meyer, 1975)

The most difficult part of discussing Grey Gardens is simply knowing where to begin. I could tell you the basics – that the film is a documentary about an eccentric mother and daughter who just happen to be relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis living in a dilapidated mansion and reminiscing about family history – but this would not even scratch the surface of what is a superbly entertaining and profoundly emotional film experience. Like most great films, Grey Gardens operates on multiple levels. As we see two women trapped together in the same house, oscillating between extreme affection and fierce bickering while raccoons slowly but surely eat their way through one of the interior walls, we might think of the existential absurdity of a dark Samuel Beckett comedy. But the film is also a skillful character study, a tense family drama, a subtle yet engaging mystery and a fascinating demonstration of the fine line documentarians must walk between being cordial enough with their subjects to inspire trust and being distant enough to avoid becoming a significant part of the story.

Perhaps it is best to begin with Little Edie Beale, the ultra-flamboyant 56-year old that has become a kind of ironic fashion icon, with her upside-down skirts, unusual color combinations and ever-present head coverings. Despite her actual age, Little Edie is very much like a 15-year-old still waiting for her opportunity to get out and really live life. She has perhaps more confidence in her ability to sing and dance than is actually warranted, and claims that at least one opportunity to be artistically recognized was thwarted by her mother. We learn that Little Edie had opportunities to marry more than once, to men of wealth and importance and when we see photographs of her early beauty, we are no longer skeptical. All this does not stop her from vamping for the camera like a neo-Norma Desmond. Little Edie is more than ready for her close-up and, on occasion, literally gets near enough to the lens to go out of focus. The full impact of Little Edie’s personality cannot be understated. It must be seen to be believed. Simply put, she is simultaneously one of the most bizarre and the most endearing characters I have seen on film. Bizarre because she flaunts aspects of herself that others might find embarrassing and lives her life in a constant state of emotional magnification. Endearing for the very same reasons.

Her mother, 80 years old and also named Edith, was once a professionally trained singer. For the most part, Big Edie is confined to her bed. When she does descend the stairs, it is only for a very special occasion. Early on, we see Big Edie sunbathing in an outfit that reveals much of her wrinkled chest. When her daughter observes that she may not be wearing enough clothing, Big Edie is unfazed, warning that she’s about to get naked. This moment demonstrates several aspects of Big Edie’s character – that in her advanced age she is still mentally sharp, that she is a woman with a sense of emotional security that her daughter lacks and finally that she is a woman who realizes she is beyond the point where vanity in connection with her physical appearance makes a whole lot of sense. Though she apparently interrupted her musical career before it could really take off, some of the film’s most poignant moments come as we observe her sitting in bed, listening to old recordings of herself and wistfully singing along. The result is a ‘duet’ that spans decades. By cutting between a bed-ridden old woman and a very flattering portrait of Big Edie in her youth, the filmmakers underscore a devastating paradox. The two voices sound the same. They ostensibly emanate from the same being. But can it really be said they are the same woman? One has her entire life ahead of her. One has a life that has already been written.

The other key characters in the film are the Maysles brothers themselves, who spent six weeks in the Beale home filming the everyday life of these two women with the prescient notion that somewhere in their visit would emerge a film. The Maysles do no editorializing. Only a few brief moments of newspaper clippings quickly set the context for the characters and their living situation. There is no courtroom trial or impending crisis to provide any sort of ‘plot’ for their film. Most of what we see is simply conversation. However, through masterful editing and a rare sensitivity to their subjects, the film makers are able to construct a film with a more solid three-act structure than most of the works of fiction that roll off the Hollywood conveyor belt. It would have been easy for the Maysles to revel in the bizarre nature of their subjects, mine them for comedy and make them look foolish. But, it is painfully clear that the Maysles have sincere affection for the Beales. They celebrate their eccentricity as non-conformity. They acknowledge the difference, but also beautifully document the humanity. We may laugh, but we also learn. The Beales’ conflicts and anxieties are not very different than our own; they simply live at a much higher volume.

I feel confident recommending Grey Gardens to just about anyone, because there are so many ways to appreciate it – as drama, as comedy, even as camp. It raises significant questions about documentary ethics and what sort of relationship film makers should have with their subjects. Perhaps most importantly, it is a profound illustration of how critical moments in our lives can lead us to destinations that we never could have imagined.


A Very Long Engagement (Jeunet, 2004)

Well, crud. A Very Long Engagement -- Jean-Pierre Jeunet's follow-up to the enormously pleasing Ameile -- is a deep disappintment. It has so much going for it -- a compelling premise, spectacular cinematography, a lead actress that is seemingly incapable of making a false note -- but it is saddled with an absolute clunker of a screenplay. Once the central mystery is laid out, the film races along revealing puzzle piece after puzzle piece, but hardly has any room left to properly get us acquainted with the characters we are following, nor to offer anything themeatically that might add depth or perspective. The narration that seemed so charming in Amelie is frequently irritating here, getting in the way and often telling us things that we already know because we're looking right at it. 'Mathilde folds her arms in her lap ...' Yep, she is indeed doing that. Thanks for the confirmation. Individual moments are breathtaking; but, ultimately the film feels like a long, long list of revelations, devoid of any breathing room to allow us to appreciate the heroine's effort and reflect upon the meaning of her journey. The finale, which should be deeply emotional, instead adds up to a big 'So what'.



Anatomy of Hell (Breillat, 2004)

Anatomy of Hell kind of reminded me of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit. No Exit painted a portrait of hell that didn’t involve demons or flames, but rather the hell of spending an eternity with the people most likely to drive you to madness. On one level, there’s no getting around the fact that the gates of hell in Breillat’s film are the labia minora and majora. The gynecological detail of the film’s most extreme scenes are probably enough to put most people out of the mood for reading metaphor. But on another level, the hell Breillat creates is the sensation of being forced to confront and analyze that which we consider unwatchable. To what end? Well, it seems to me that Breillat is making a direct connection between the disgust and repulsion men feel towards the normal functions of the vagina and the long history of violence and suppression women have been forced to endure. The film certainly has its faults. Certain events that could conceivably have had symbolic power in a novel border on unintentional absurdity when depicted literally on film. It’s also much too self-serious and, at times, fairly unpleasant to sit through. But it must be said that it is also a well-made film, featuring a surprisingly effective, sensitive performance from Rocco Siffredi – a man whose other film credits include Ejacula 2, Captain Organ and Buttman and Rocco’s Brazilian Butt Fest. I don’t know who else would be willing to sit through Anatomy of Hell – indeed I would not attempt to recommend it to anyone – but I offer these thoughts for the curious, and because most other reviews will simply boil down to a list of the film’ more outrageous shocks. Breillat’s films are extreme, but she is no charlatan. This recent entry into her filmography is another compelling analysis of the disturbing interconnectedness of sex and violence, as well as the misunderstanding and mistrust than exists between men and women.


2046 (Wong, 2004)

First of all -- like plenty others have observed -- the film is gorgeous. From the costumes, to the sets, to the way the film is lovingly crafted and pieced together, to the astonishingly beautiful cast, 2046 is a treat for the eyes. It also has a nifty premise ... that people travel to 2046 in order to recapture lost memories. At the beginning of the film, I was a little unsure whether 2046 was supposed to be an actual year, the name of a place, a metaphor, a state of mind, what? But as the film progressed, it seemed to seemed to me that it was all those things combined and I liked that. This is not a Back to the Future-like film where 2046 is littered with in-jokes and pop culture references. Wong elegantly leaves his film open-ended. It's easy to see why so many people have responded passionately to this film. Wong leaves plenty of breathing room to allow viewers to make their own connections and create a film experience that is intimate and personal. But for me, 2046 promises just a little bit more than it actually delivers.

The subject seems to be the elusive nature of lasting love. Characters flirt and tease and attempt to outmaneuver one another. When they do have sex, it is with unusual conditions or caveats. As Tony Leung's character bounced around from beautiful woman to beautiful woman, I found each individual scene to be of mild interest, but never really got the sense that anything of great consequence was at stake. I was left to admire the film's beauty, but never felt truly invested. What do all these individual scenes add up to? For me, not much.

Surely, many will have a transcendent experience and have detailed theories about how 2046 is the afterlife or the human soul or something like that; but, from my perspective, the characters and their relationships were so romanticized that I found it difficult to imagine how they could have anything to do with me. Nor did I find much in the dialogue that struck me as particularly profound or challenging. Hence I was left to admire 2046 much like I would a finely crafted urn. I admired the beauty and craftsmanship, but did not feel especially moved. Wong has formulated a delightful device for presenting his romantic vignettes; I only wish he had more to say. Still, there is no doubt that this film should be seen and admired ...


Punishment Park (Watkins, 1971)

The premise is golden: Under President Nixon, the United States has become so concerned about civil unrest in response to the Vietnam War that it has created 'Punishment Park', a grueling game of cat-and-mouse in the California desert in which police and members of the National Guard play the role of 'cat' and dissidents, hippies and other 'subversives' play the role of 'mouse'. The participants are rounded up without warning (all in the name of national security), interrogated, and then given a choice between extended jail-time and Punishment Park.

If they choose the latter, they will have to race 53 miles across the desert and over the mountains in the scorching heat in pursuit of an American flag. Arrive at the flag within 3 days and freedom is theirs. However, during this time, they will be pursued by the aforementioned police and National Guard. Though it is not explicitly stated in the rules, all participants who are apprehended by the police eventually seem to get involved in a violent struggle resulting in their death. Watkins intercuts the game being played by one group with the interrogation session of another. The central conceit is that we are watching a documentary made by a BBC-like news team covering the event. This group goes so far as to interview participants in the desert as they are being chased down and later questions the policemen for their violent tactics.

However, all of this is merely a central metaphor on which to hang a lengthy discussion about a citizen's responsibility to his or her country during war-time. What role is there for those who oppose the actions being taken by their government in their name? Is there a way to effectively oppose violence without resorting to violence? What makes Punishment Park special is the way Watkins employs a cast of both professional and non-professional actors and guides them through his scenario, working without a script, and trusts them to articulate the issues at stake. Each of these participants are 'acting', but it seems clear that many are also speaking directly from the heart. When a young woman bemoans the fact that she does not see an end to the cycle of violence in America, it is not a piece of dialogue written by a screenwriter -- it carries the force of true fear and despair. These are not performers reflecting back on past events. These are citizens experiencing the tumult first-hand. By placing the participants in a simulated life-or-death situation, Watkins gives the political tensions an added intensity. There is true anger and disgust on display here, as both sides try futility to make the other see things from their perspective. Punishment Park is not only an unsettling look at the political outrage of a former generation, it is a potent metaphor for our own.

As can often be the case with absurd premises like this one, Punishment Park rides a fine line between black comedy and ludicrousness. There are moments that some viewers will probably find to be real eye-rollers. Perhaps I was being a generous viewer, but most of these seemed to me to be moments of intentional humor designed to allow the more serious political discussion to be more palatable. Either way, Watkins plays it straight. If indeed it is deadpan humor as I suspect, it does not distract from the power of a perhaps predictable, but nonetheless haunting finale. For those who don't mind a raw, unpolished political film that occasionally borders on the strident, I'd definitely recommend giving it a go.


Lilja 4-ever (Moodysson, 2002)

One of the true delights for a movie lover is being introduced to a young filmmaker who has a confident and unique voice, someone whose early work makes the promise of a lifetime of challenging and thought-provoking art. After my first exposure to Lukas Moodysson, Together -- the wholly satisfying blend of comedy, politics and nuanced character study -- I was entirely convinced that I had just witnessed the work of a new superstar. Moodysson brought an entire household of unusual and specific characters to life and masterfully wove together several compelling throughlines into a touching statement on the difficulty of sharing our existence with other humans. Together contained characters that always seemed to act in a way that I could not anticipate because they were driven by complex human emotions and not the dull mechanics of a screenplay.

It is thus with great disappointment that I report that after watching Moodysson's next film, Lilja 4-ever, I am much more reserved about proclaiming his genius. Moodysson is still certainly a gifted filmmaker, but here he seems to directly contradict all that was persuasively hopeful in Together by presenting an ultra-nasty world view in which the only thing to look forward to is death. Indeed, Lilja 4-ever is not unlike a film from Lars von Trier's 'Golden Heart' trilogy; but, whereas Trier balances his pessimism with humor and resonant metaphor, Moodysson comes across like someone parading around in borrowed clothes that are about two sizes off. There are things to like about Lilja 4-ever, particularly the pitch-perfect lead performance by Oksana Akinshina, but the film shows its true colors when a key life-or-death decision is underscored by exhilarating hard rock music. Indeed, Lilja rarely makes a decision that feels logical so much as she makes the decision that will place her precisely in the right place for the viewer to soak up the maximum amount of teen degradation.

I believe wholeheartedly that there are young women in Lilja's position, trapped and unwanted for anything more than their bodies, but Moodysson is not interested in making significant connections to the social conditions which placed Lilja in her position. He is not interested in creating a work of metaphor or poetry, apart from some awkward angels wings that could have been used at the local church Christmas pageant. He's not even really intereseted in painting a picture of an unusual or compelling character. Instead, it's teen hell as roller coaster ride. There are some ups and downs and individual moments that are quite thrilling, but ultimately, the car drops you off back in the same place you started. You may have a little adrenaline flowing, but you really haven't travelled anywhere. The only thing to take away from Lilja 4-ever seems to be bad people make bad things happen to good people. Considering the arbitrary nature of all these unfortunate events, Lilja might as well be a character in Lemony Snicket.


Friday, August 19, 2005

To Catch a Thief (Hitchcock, 1955)

The greatest pleasures to be had from Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief -- his 1955 romantic comedy posing as a suspense thriller –- are purely aesthetic. From the Oscar-award winning cinematography showcasing the gorgeous French Riviera, to the always beautiful art direction, to the fantastic costumes by Edna Mo ... errr ... Edith Head, To Catch a Thief is without a shadow of a doubt, a perfect advertisement for the luxury of Southern France. A director famous for bringing horrific murder gleefully into the mainstream, Hitchcock here shows that he is equally adept at filming images of great beauty. Perhaps the most captivating vision of all though in To Catch a Thief belongs to the unparalleled beauty of Grace Kelly. Perhaps ‘unparalleled’ is a little strong. Isabelle Adjani and Catherine Deneuve spring to mind. But I know this much: it may be possible (though surely rare) to be as beautiful as Grace Kelly; however, it is not in fact possible to be more beautiful than Grace Kelly. Just three years after breaking out in High Noon, Kelly is already in the twilight of her ultra-brief film career. This is the fourth Grace Kelly film I have seen, and, in my opinion, it is easily the strongest performance I have seen from her so far. Until now, I had considered her a great beauty, but a rather awkward actor. Now, seeing her trade verbal barbs, witticisms and flirtations with Cary Grant, it seems clear that she greatly improved in a short amount of time and was well on her way to being a legitimately skilled performer.

This may seem a strange way to begin the review. Surely I should be telling you about how Cary Grant plays an ex-jewel thief who has gone straight but becomes the prime suspect when a rash of similar thefts break out in Nice or Monte Carlo or Saint Tropez or one of those places and how he must work vigilantly to find out who is actually responsible before the authorities catch up with him and how he teams up with Kelly’s character because her mother is probably a very likely target but then the two of them start realizing they’re attracted to each other even though Grant claims to be a logger from Oregon (my home state) and my goodness, Grace Kelly puts out a lot quicker than I ever would have suspected ... blah, blah, blah. But we all know that Hitchcock is the man who popularized the term ‘Macguffin’ and he really doesn’t care a whole lot about that stuff, so why should you? There’s a plot. It’s serviceable. For a thriller, it’s not particularly thrilling, but hey, it gets the job done. That’s really not what the film is about though. It’s not about the identity of the thief or whether Grant’s character is arrested or not. No. This is a film about the chemistry between two of screen history’s most charismatic performers. It’s a film about watching them work together, play off of each other and us enjoying being in the presence of two people that are Movie Stars in the best sense of the phrase.

So, OK, the film is ostensibly about jewel thieves and all that. Yadda yadda yadda. But really the film is about enjoying these two Movie Stars. But wait! I believe that there is yet a third level to this film that is the key to why it is worth watching. That level plays out as follows: Given the fact that we are making a Hollywood film in 1955 and we are subject to a code restricting content, how much innuendo and insinuation can we include and get away with it? How vividly can we paint the picture in the minds of our audience of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly screwing like rabbits without breaking decorum? This level of the film is playfully hinted at early on when Grant expresses mild embarrassment in deciding which part of the chicken would be best to eat, but it launches into hyperdrive in a delightful seduction scene played out in front of bursting fireworks. Now, the fireworks are an obvious metaphor – a little too obvious for my tastes, but the rest of this scene is just masterful. At this point, Kelly’s character does not know whether or not Grant’s character is indeed the man behind the recent series of thefts. But there they are together, using her mother as bait, hoping to catch the real thief. In this scene, Kelly wears a large, valuable jeweled necklace around her perfect, gorgeous throat, knowing full well that Grant’s character has a history of thievery. This is not just tempting the alcoholic by opening a beer. This is the equivalent of pouring a vodka shot into the small of your back. She is begging to be touched. Begging to be stripped of her valuables and much, much more. And it is here that, despite the intrusive fireworks, Hitchcock unleashes the shot that I will remember the film by: Kelly, standing so that a shadow blocks out her face and the rest of her body illuminated from the neck down, jewels around her neck. It’s a deliciously wicked moment. Hitchcock highlights the two things Grant’s character might possibly want to make off with – her jewels and her body. And significantly, at this moment ... we hardly notice the jewels.


The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Jennings, 2005)

Given the mixed reviews, I was somewhat surprised at how much I enjoyed this. When this project was first announced, I didn't think there was a chance that Douglas Adam's novel would be adapted into a satisfying film. I'm glad that I was wrong. Although it has moments and even entire characters (Marvin) that simply don't work, let's give the filmmakers credit for just how much they get right. I loved the fact that I was watching a film where the hero was not simply trying to save the world or the universe, but searching for his place in it. Like the recent I Heart Huckabees, the film could be categorized as an existential comedy, or perhaps existential action-comedy, with many of the jokes coming at the expense of the human race and his/her presumed place of superiority in the universe. Unlike heroes in other films that leap into battle guns a'blazing, Arthur Dent is completely unprepared for his task, spending the entire film in his bathrobe. Unlike other films that plow predictably towards an obvious resolution, this film is all about the detours. Either you find this sort of thing funny or you don't, I suppose. Personally, I was laughing an awful lot and arrived at the film's conclusion grateful to have seen a film made with such obvious warmth, goodwill and thoughtfulness. A surprising success. Please vote "So Long and Thanks For All the Fish" for Best Original Song come Oscar time.


Withnail and I (Robinson, 1987)

One of the great things about Criterion DVD's is the way they use the supplemental material to make an argument for a film's value and/or importance. Watching the mini-documentary on the cult following for this film, I can sort of see how it might be fun to quote some of the more memorable lines at a party or on a road trip or something. I can imagine myself crying out at a particularly tense moment, "I've gone on holiday by mistake!" However, I can't say that I really cared a whole lot about the sum total of watching this picture. The lead characters seemed like the same drunken, half-coherent nitwits that I've seen many times before (kind of like characters from The Young Ones, but less funny) and I found the paranoic use of homosexual aggression as the source of most of the film's plot and humor discouragingly lame. In the end, the film scrambles to find a sense of poetry in the mess that has unfolded, but it was far too late for me to be invested in who succeeded and who failed.

The Magic Flute (Bergman, 1975)

Bergman -- known primarily for his heavy, philosophical dramas -- might seem like an odd choice to direct Mozart's playful affirmation of the power of love and light in the face of darkness, but the result is simply splendid. Though some director trademarks remain, Bergman mostly uses a gentle touch, allowing the camera to alternate between shots which emphasize the source material's theatrical roots (as we observe hokey scene changes, backstage interactions, etc.) and intimate shots which plunge us into the fairy tale world of dragons, magic and lovers willing to face death to be together. If we were to read the plot synopsis on paper, we might scoff, but through penetrating close-ups and direct audience address, Bergman discourages the sort of off-putting distance that (in my opinion) opera can frequently create. Well worth watching.


East Side Story (Ranga, 1997)

East Side Story is a documentary with a simply delightful topic: socialist movie musicals. How might things have been different, the narrator wonders, if socialism had just been more fun? The film covers two major periods of the 20th century, starting in 1930's Stalinist Russia and moving on into films made behind the Iron Curtain. Particularly in the early films, musical numbers are constructed around such unlikely events as plowing fields and baling hay. The workers joyfully sing about how rewarding it is to contribute to the well-being of the motherland, though a film historian is quick to point out that the rosy picture painted in the film may have been true only if you happened not to be one of the millions killed under Stalin's rule. The later films made in the 1960's and 70's are somewhat more successful at embedding the party's message (or at least dressing it up in a vehicle that might resemble a Hollywood musical if you squinted your eyes) and from the clips shown in the film, at least a couple have very catchy tunes and seem like they might be passable entertainment. I was particularly curious about the film Midnight Revue in which the writers dared to turn their experience writing to please party ideology into a plot where notable artists are kidnapped, tied up and forced to create a movie musical.

Early on in the documentary, we are told that one of the challenges with making the film was finding enough people willing to talk about the era who were still living. This turns out to be one of the film's faults. While the clips from the various films are captivating, the context for the historical period seems sparse. Too often we return to the same few talking heads to do much of the heavy lifting. We also hear from a couple of people who are simply identified as 'audience members', apparently appearing in the film simply because they were old enough to have seen a couple of the films in their lifetime. While the anecdotes we do hear are of interest, there simply isn't enough to feel like the subject has been covered comprehensively.

I would still recommend the film though, mostly for the opportunity to get a glimpse of an alternate film universe that most of us will not be able to experience anywhere else.


Hell House (Ratliff, 2001)

A documentary about a Christian haunted house in Texas that lures hoardes of people every year to recoil at visions of botched abortions, suicides, domestic abuse and AIDS-related deaths, Hell House is kind of like Waiting for Guffman meets The 700 Club. As a film, Hell House is pretty straightforward, as director George Ratliff refrains voice-over or much that might be characterized as an artistic flourish. However, in this particular case, it seems to be the right choice. After all, when a black-cloaked figure with a skull mask gleefully mocks an AIDS victim lying on his death bed for engaging in homosexual activity, what more really needs to be said. Still, there are a few clever moments of juxtaposition, most notably a prayer rally that leads us to wonder whether the church members make as much of an effort to 'perform' the saint as they do in performing the sinner for the annual freak show.

There are at least a couple things I take away from Hell House. The first is the discouraging degree to which hate sells, particularly when sensationalized and dressed up as righteousness. I find it hard to believe that all of the visitors that walk through the Trinity Hell House endorse a world view as extreme as they one they pay to witness. Yet, they pay their seven dollars and soak it up anyway. Is it for camp value? Do they really feel that they are hearing a legitimate perspective? What is the appeal of spirtituality mixed with a healthy dose of perverse gore? The second thing I take away from the film is how much we reveal about ourselves when we give our nightmares concrete form. In bringing their vision of 'sin' to life, the performers create 'characters' that barely register as recognizably human. Indeed, they are flippantly referred to by titles like 'abortion girl' or 'suicide girl'. Unlike regular actors who are trained to approach even the most vile character with some level of compassion, the Trinity Hell House performers fuel their performances with contempt.

Once again, those looking for a technically innovative documentary (a la Errol Morris) will not find much here to knock their socks off. Ratliff scores most of his points for choosing a captivating and volatile subject. But those who want to see a disturbing, yet humorous picture of good ol' fashioned religious fanaticism in America will definitely want to give it a watch.


I Stand Alone (Noe, 1998)

What to make of Gaspar Noe? At the very least, I admire his audacity -- not necessarily for the graphic content that is his bread and butter, but for the way he presents his films as a challenge to the viewer. With Irreversible, he employed temporal confusion, disorienting cinematography and irritating sound effects to effectively smack the viewer in the face and dare us to follow him into his ultra-dark vision of urban hell. Apart from some camera jumps, the periodic use of jarring gunshot sounds and a tongue-in-cheek moment of provocateur grandstanding that I will not spoil here, I Stand Alone is far less gimmicky than Irreversible, but it is also far less clear in its dramatic purpose. For me, the latter film was horribly difficult to swallow, but I had to concede that Noe's demonstration of how happy lives can be blown apart and shattered permanently lingered in my mind and haunted me. In the end, I felt that the destination and the revelation was worth experiencing the staged brutality. With I Stand Alone, I am far less confident in the filmmaker's sincerity.

We spend most of the film inside the head of an unemployed butcher and, in voiceover, listen to his nihilistic world view and eavesdrop on his violent revenge fantasties. He is a racist, a homophobe and a misogynist and, as the title suggests, denies any level of social responsibility towards a world and society that, in his view, has forced him into poverty. Such despciable characters can indeed make for captivating protagonists as we struggle to understand the factors that might lead someone to commit the horrific crimes that we read about in the newspaper. The Butcher is a part of a long dramatic tradition including Buchner's Woyzeck, Brecht's Baal, Mamet's Edmond and Scorsese's Bickle. The difference is that while previous authors have held us in suspense, watching a powder keg about ready to explode, Noe blows his load early with an act so vile and irredeemable that there is little left to do for the rest of the picture besides wallow in the sewer of the Butcher’s mind. Some might defend this film as a grim psychological study, and perhaps it is, but what is Noe trying to offer the viewer besides some kind of unpleasant freak show? Come see the mentally ill father! Marvel at his depravity! And while the film ends up in a place more gentle and calm than we might expect, the effect is similar to smearing grapefruit in the face of someone you’ve just knocked over the head with a lead pipe. There is a kind of crude poetry in the way the ending both affirms and rejects the film’s title; but, I can’t help but feel that after all he’s asked us to sit through, Noe owes us a little bit more.

In two films, Noe has presented viewers with four of the most sickeningly violent scenes committed to film (outside of the horror genre). I don’t believe in using the content of an artist’s work to make judgments about the human being; but when the victims in your films are a gay man, a provocatively dressed Monica Belluci, a pregnant woman and a mentally handicapped girl, then I think it is fair for audiences to demand a clear picture of your artistic intentions. I think Noe’s later film, Irreversible pulls off this difficult high-wire act, while his earlier effort, I Stand Alone falls just short.

(Note: I highly recommend reading Jonathan Rosenbaum’s enthusiastic rave of the film, which is especially entertaining because he awards it the rating of ‘masterpiece’, then goes on to claim that Noe has proved in interviews that he doesn’t understand his own film.)


Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (Lucas, 2005)

Now that I have seen the final installment of George Lucas' Star Wars saga, it seems clear to me that the decision to create three films chronicling the events leading up to the original 1977 hit was a rather major miscalculation. It was seemingly a can't-miss proposition, something almost everyone wanted to see. After all, part of the joy of the first films was the way they plunged us into a universe that seemed to have a rich mythology and history. In additional to the stellar action sequences, audiences took great joy in discovering how all of these colorful characters interrelated. They hopped from planet to planet across the galaxy, yet it was not uncommon to bump into a long lost family member, an old rival, or a droid previously owned by your father. Word got out that George Lucas had envisioned Star Wars as a nine-part saga. The possibilities were exhilarating! What other mysteries and adventures awaited us?

Now that the prequels have been realized, the reality is far less appealing. Though they had their faults, the early films were clearly a labor of love. The three most recent films have felt increasingly like the fulfillment of an obligation. The first three films worked in large part because of their rich subtext. Now Lucas has taken that subtext and squeezed out three more big budget films. Despite being about 20 years older and (presumably wiser), Lucas really had nothing more to add to the Star Wars philosophy that was already starting to wear thin by Return of the Jedi. "Don't give in to your hate ... let the force guide you ... wax on, wax off ... etc, etc." Instead, Lucas seemed content to play around with new technology. The Star Wars films were never 'message films' anyway, so what the heck? Give the people what they want and have a fun time doing it. Yet, in undertaking this project, Lucas was giving himself an absurdly difficult task: to match the expectations of our imaginations. Imaginations that he had so successfully stimulated in the first place.

...which leads me to Revenge of the Sith...

There is not much about Sith's plot that is surprising. If you've made it this far in the series, you likely already know the film's major plot points before you set foot in the cinema. What is surprising is the film's tone, which, far from the swashbuckling spirit of the originals, is cold, humorless and occasionally cruel. Some may suggest that this is to be expected. After all, we are witnessing the creation of Darth Vader, icon of our childhood, representative of darkness and evil. However, the complete absence of comic relief does nothing but rob Lucas' universe of depth and humanity. Perhaps the universal hatred of Jar-Jar Binks has made Lucas a little gun-shy. At any rate, it's like watching an amateur production of Romeo and Juliet where the two lead actors play every moment as if they know they are going to die in two hours. Human beings are not tragic because they suffer or because bad things happen to them. They are tragic because of their hopes and dreams. In Lucas' film, we do not feel the full force of his scharacters' tragic fate because it has not been sufficiently contrasted with moments of lightness, hope and optimism.

Part of the problem lies with Hayden Christensen, whose Anakin seems remote and half-robotic long before he is fitted for his famed dark helmet. How might we have cared for an actor able to effectively convey both sides of Anakin? An actor with charm and charisma that could help us to see the good in him that other characters see? Without humor and joy and the element of surprise, Lucas' characters are left simply to progress methodically towards their fate. Knocked up for the final episode, Portman's character is mostly relegated to the sidelines to fret and worry. Given her third shot at the role of a queen, Portman still seems nothing close to royalty, particularly in the laziness of her dialect ("What are you gonna do, Anakin?") Ewan McGregor, usually a fantastic actor, seems to have completely lost interest in the project, approaching Obi-Wan's dramatic scenes like a man anticipating a root canal. There is a kind of nostalgic joy in watching Ian McDiarmid perform a reprise of his gloriously over-the-top villian, but once his transformation is complete, we know essentially everything that he is going to say before he says it ... ("You must die ... Give in to your hate ... I must break you.") The innovation of CGI has launched the character of Yoda firmly into the realm of absurdity and that backwards talking is, like, sooo 1980.

Much has been made of Sith's political overtones and the way it references George W. Bush and the war on terror. Though there are a few sentences that may resonate for contemporary audiences, it would be a huge stretch to say that Lucas' script had anything insightful to contrubute to the present-day political situation. Two characters locked in a duel shouting, "Your side's evil! ... No, YOUR side's evil! ... No, you're evil TO INFINITY!!!" does not an allegory make. Up until this point, Star Wars has steered clear of tangible connections to real-life politics. The half-baked effort here seems intrusive and distracting. I would love to see a blockbuster action film that also served as a scathing political commentary, but it's too late to start with this series. And I sincerely doubt that George Lucas is the screenwriter to pull that off successfully.

But the most unforgiveable moment of all comes during the scene that you would think would be impossible to screw up: the moment where Vader dons his famous black armor. It is a moment that I predict will live in infamy, even for fans who have embraced this final effort as a return to form. It is a decidely uncool moment for a seemingly untouchably cool character. It is a single word -- a moment that lasts for just a few seconds -- and yet I suspect it will be difficult to return to the original Star Wars and not remember Vader during this moment. It is a moment so lazy and silly that it borders on insulting. Those who have seen the film will know what I am talking about. Those who haven't will have to brace themselves and experience it for themselves. I take it as evidence that while Lucas still seems to care about the technical side of movie-making, he has lost interest in the characters that he created 30 years ago. Knowing this makes it slightly less painful for me to admit that I have too.

It gives me no joy to speak unfavorably about this final installment in the Star Wars saga. I've never dressed up as a Stormtrooper and waited in line for six days, but I do consider myself a fan. My earliest memory of going to the movies is going to the drive-in to see the original film when I was 4 years old. I fondly remember waiting in line for the sequels and watching all three in succession with a friend of mine. I took great joy in playing through Knights of the Old Republic, a computer role-playing game based on the Star Wars universe. I say this in order to assert that I am not trying to turn up my nose at Lucas for his mainstream aspirations, or demand that he make a 200-million dollar arthouse film. Perhaps more than Star Wars, it is me that has changed. Plenty of others have been excited and satisfied by this film. I envy them. But I would also warn them that a film like Revenge of the Sith may not be the kind of film that will last a lifetime. Enjoy it while it lasts.


Alucarda (Moctezuma, 1978)

I have to confess that I had a fun time and mostly got what I was looking for from this Mexican horror film, directed by Jodorowsky collaborator, Juan Lopez Moctezuma. Two young girls in a convent -- one notably named after de Sade's Justine and the other, our title character who is probably something not quite human -- get possessed by the devil and soon thereafter people start stripping off clothes and having Satanic rituals and bathing in blood and bursting horribly into flames. Not nearly as visually arresting as a Jodorowsky film, but then how many films are? Also, the acting is pretty over-the-top, but Moctezuma keeps things moving at a quick clip and some of the fire-related stunts are rather impressive.


The Short Films of David Lynch

This DVD is of interest particularly for those wanting to know how Lynch got his start as a filmmaker and where he was able to get the resources to film Eraserhead. Equally, if not more entertaining than the films themselves are filmed introductions by Lynch explaining where he was in his life when the films were made and how he managed to win early sponsorship that would change the course of his life. As for the films themselves, I think the standout is The Grandmother, an aggressive vision of domestic hell that foreshadows Eraserhead in its use of nightmare logic and non-realistic acting/sets. Most of this is probably only of interest to devoted Lynch fans though.

Roma (Fellini, 1972)

For the most part, this is two hours of filmed nostalgia. My reaction was similar to that I felt with Amarcord -- I struggled to get into the film and the way each scene was mostly self-contained and seemed to be geared towards a specific audience, of which I was not a part. Still, a few scenes towards the end of the film resonated enough for me to be glad I watched the film. Of particular interest to me were a scene in which 20th century Italians make an exciting, yet elusive discovery down below the city where underground transit is being expanded and another scene in which nuns and priests participate in a bizarre fashion show that could only exist in a Fellini film.


Kirikou and the Sorceress (Ocelot, 1998)

What an absolute joy this film is. As a parent, I've noticed how many recent films employing state-of-the-art computer animation always seem to feel that a child will not be entertained unless there are things careening around the screen and crashing into each other every five minutes. Other films, such as the recent Pooh's Heffalump Movie or Clifford's Really Big Movie (both of which I saw in the theater with my three-year-old), take the safe route and steer clear of anything remotely offensive and end up with a product so innocuous that I find it hard to believe that it leaves any impression at all upon a young viewer. Michel Ocelot's Kirikou and the Sorceress is something else altogether -- a family film that is (mostly) gentle, extremely thoughtful and yet wildly unpredictable.

The story follows the adventures of Kirikou, who walks right out of his mother's womb in the first scene of the film, washes himself off and quickly thereafter sets about restoring peace and harmony to his village. The village attributes its miseries to a nearby sorceress that is unanimously considered to be evil, though nobody can explain quite why she would act this way. Much of the film's comedy comes from the fact that Kirikou, the film's hero, embarks on his adventures -- eluding snakes, saving other children, etc. -- as tiny and naked as the day he was born. This is appropriate enough though, because it emphasizes Kirikou's greatest strength -- his innocence. Kirikou asks questions no one else will answer and explores places no one else will go because he has not been told he shouldn't. Kirikou is eventually seen in the village as a hero and friends and family sing joyfully (with tunes composed by Youssou N'Dour) about his tiny stature and giant accomplishments.

As a parent, I greatly appreciated the way that Kirikou's conflict with the sorceress was resolved without the use of violence. I grow tired of children's stories where the villian must be vanquished because they are evil and that's that. Kirikou and the Sorceress is surprisingly effective in identifying fear and suffering as the root of evil and also as a barrier to enlightenment. I watched the film with my boy and was delighted to expose him to something entertaining, edgy and socially conscious. Since the film is in French with subtitles, I filled him in when it was important to know what was being said, but he was attentive throughout, even wanting to 'play Kirikou' with Dad after the film was over. (Guess who got to play the snake.) I was partly amused, partly depressed to read that animators were asked to put tops on the bare-breasted tribeswomen so that the film could be distributed in the U.S. and marketed for children. This kind of hyper-Puritanism in regards to a film like Kirikou that is filled with joy, love and innocence is tantamount to insanity.


Funny Games (Haneke, 1997) -- an extended analysis

Note: The following essay may contain spoilers.

“Why don’t you kill us right away?"
"Don’t forget the entertainment value. We’d all be deprived of our pleasure.”

Michael Haneke’s Funny Games is a film that is seemingly at war with itself and its genre. Though ostensibly falling into the category of ‘thriller’, Funny Games both fulfills and resists the expectations raised by such a label, shattering not only convention, but the sense of security we feel in knowing that it is all ‘just a movie’. For almost the entirety of its run-time, Haneke holds us in a state of tension that is all the more unsettling for being unusually personal. Like the film’s two tormentors who enjoy batting about their prey with games of psychological manipulation, Haneke, in turn, seems to take great delight in putting his audience through the wringer, only to turn around and ask what we’re all so worked up about.

he first of the film’s many games occurs before the credits. Anna (Susanne Lothar) and Georg (Ulrich Mühe) drive along the freeway with their young boy (Stefan Clapczynski), selecting different opera arias from their CD collection so that the other may guess the title. As they play and we listen to gentle soothing music, the car drives deeper and deeper into the countryside. Before long, however, Haneke abruptly disturbs this sense of peace by blasting a loud, thrashing rock tune over the top of the soundtrack as the credits burst onto the screen in bold red letters. Suddenly, we are aware of the vulnerability of the vacationing family that will serve as the protagonists of our film. We are aware that the long drive has left them largely isolated. We are aware that they are wholly unprepared to stand up to the kind of viciousness that undoubtedly awaits them. We are aware that the director is ready and willing to toss them around for our sport.

The second game is well underway before we even realize it’s happening. A young man, (Frank Giering) arrives at the door of the family’s country house dressed curiously in an all-white outfit complete with gloves. There has been talk about the prospect of golfing in the area; but still, something about his appearance immediately strikes us as simply too pristine, like a wolf trying much too hard to convince you he is a sheep. He is playing a game designed to take advantage of his victims’ sense of hospitality: how far can he progress along the path of sealing their fates before the family even knows they are in danger. Using feigned bashfulness, he asks to borrow some eggs. Believing him to be a guest of their neighbors, Anna complies. As he leaves, the eggs tumble out of his hands, splashing egg yolk over the floor -- an image of fragility. As Anna wraps up more eggs for the stranger to take with him, he ‘accidentally’ bumps the cel-phone off the counter and into the sink where it is doused in water and disabled. Without violence, without threats or intimidation, Haneke successfully creates a sense of menace. There is a strange man (in both senses of the word) lingering in Anna’s kitchen, but because he has not made any overt gestures, the pressure of seeming unneighborly and spoiling the holiday keeps her from protesting.

When the young man’s partner (Arno Frisch) arrives dressed in similar all-white attire and gloves, he pushes the action a bit. We will learn later the two even have saintly names to go along with their costumes. Whereas Peter is the awkward, portly one, Paul is slender, athletic and comes across almost immediately as a man of decisiveness. He wants to try out Georg’s golf club and, while remaining cordial at least on the surface, gives Anna no other choice but to comply. Weapon in hand, the game soon escalates into violence, but not necessarily in the way we might expect. Paul and Peter have had the advantage of plotting out their strategy long before their competitors even know that they are participating. When they strike, it is done in a way specifically calculated to allow their (and Haneke’s) manipulative game to continue.

It is also around this time – approximately thirty minutes into the film – that Haneke allows Paul to first break the fourth wall and interact directly with the audience. It is a small gesture. Only an amused wink. In fact, before we know what is to follow, it seems a bit forced and perhaps out of place. After all, it doesn’t seem like ‘that kind of a film’. But now, we are forced to ask ourselves, “Well, what kind of film is this, exactly?” Paul’s wink functions as a kind of promise of more mayhem to follow. We come to a thriller expecting a compelling villain and Paul seems confident that he is up to the task. The wink takes us momentarily out of the film – enough for us to briefly consider the value and purpose of what we are watching. It happens quickly, but effectively sets up the next move in Haneke’s strategy.

The next audience address occurs about forty-five minutes into the film as the family sits captive in their own living room, watched over by the two captors who continue to exert only as much energy as necessary. When asked to offer an explanation for their actions, Paul dances around the subject, playfully offering several scenarios that led them into the family’s living room. Peter is driven by depression from his mother’s divorce. They’re both drug addicts. They suffer from ennui and world weariness. Are any of them true? In Haneke’s world where fiction and reality overlap, it doesn’t seem to matter. The family suffers because they are characters in a psychological horror film. We need them to suffer in order to satisfy some sort of urge within ourselves. The reason for their suffering could be almost anything. Paul turns to the audience at this point and asks, “You’re on their side, aren’t you?” The answer should be simple, but is it? After all, if the family spent the entire film in complete safety, we would be thoroughly bored. In order for the film to succeed, we secretly root for the villain to put our protagonists through hell.

Shortly thereafter, we get much more than we bargained for. With a blood-drenched television notably blaring the sounds of auto racing in the background – another form of entertainment fueled by our attraction to watching other humans in peril – two characters sit in a room in the wake of a horrific incident. The scene is a masterful sequence that lasts approximately ten minutes, but feels much longer. Normally, this would be a bad thing, but in this particular case, it is wholly appropriate for Haneke to allow us to sit, stewing in our own juices, reflecting on our reaction to what has just taken place. Are we pleased? Repulsed? Excited? Do we want to see more? Do we want to turn the film off? A lesser director would dive in and shoot this scene in close-up, soaking up every last emotion, pushing to involve us in the characters’ misery. Haneke instead forces us to observe the characters at a distance, allowing room for contemplation rather than identification. This is not to say that the film steers clear entirely of emotional appeal. One of the lasting images from Funny Games is Susanne Lothar’s face, seen in close-up, tears streaming down her face, looking as if any sense of joy and security had been removed from her forcibly with a carving knife. Without the emotional center, Funny Games would be a lifeless exercise in smug film-making. Haneke doesn’t fall into that trap, balancing the visceral thrills with devices that encourage the viewer to be analytical, as if we were watching ourselves watching the film.

In the film’s closing moments, Haneke takes his greatest risk yet, toying with film convention in a way that is sure to anger and bewilder many viewers. The majority of film goers want their entertainment to be a vicarious thrill, free from responsibility. Funny Games is not such an experience. In the end, Haneke doesn’t so much leave his viewer with a resolution as he does a challenge. With other thrillers, we may sit back and enjoy fictional characters struggling to save their loved ones or struggling to save their own lives. With Funny Games, the struggle occurs within ourselves. What entertains us? And what does that ultimately say about who we are? Because Haneke dares to involve us so personally, prodding us into reacting to extreme situations and then abruptly asking us to look at ourselves in the mirror, Funny Games transcends the confines of the thriller genre and becomes something much more meaningful – and, yes, more ‘thrilling’ – than we ever expected it could be.