Funny Games (US)
Funny Games is a rarity, an exceptionally well constructed film that features wonderful acting, assured direction and tremendous cinematography while remaining about as entertaining as the morning's obituaries. In fact, some could argue that reading the obits, with their display of the importance one's life has had on others, may be a more spiritually enriching experience. Funny Games, which is more of a thesis by director Michael Haneke on the nature of violence in cinema than anything else, is a draining two hours, a film that is exceedingly difficult to sit through. In fact, Haneke would prefer that you didn't. It would please him to hear that his film was so disturbing to audiences that, in a fit of "I can't take it anymore'”, ran out of the theatre screaming. Upset by the proliferation of so called torture porn films in the mold of Eli Roth's Hostel series, Haneke took it upon himself to remake his 1997 Austrian film shot for shot, only this time with English speaking actors to make sure that its seen by American audiences. Trouble is, few really want to sit through 2 hours of deliberate and unending cruelty without any sense of redemption in sight. Haneke's point is pretty obvious and difficult to disagree with. Violence as entertainment is a tough notion to consider and by ramping up the tough to swallow, realistic nature of the violence on display in Funny Games, Haneke attacks every notion the audience has ever had to enjoy a film with death and suffering for the sake of it. It is a testament to Haneke's skill as a director that he was able to, inside this package of his, illicit nearly impeccable performances from his entire cast, particularly Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and Michael Pitt, who is positively chilling as one of the two sociopath who take a family of three hostage under the bet that by 9:00AM the next morning, the three family members will be dead. What follows is a night of emotional and mental manipulation and physical torture. Watts is tremendous in an emotionally and physically naked role that can best be described as raw. Roth is every bit her equal as the couple struggles through the particularly trying evening. By film's end, the audience is left in a daze of violence and suffering that will rattle even the most jaded viewer to the bone. Unfortunately for us, the film is so oppressive that while a viewing of it is undeniably memorable and unique, its something that few will ever want to endure. Most of us don't go to the movies to be punished and lectured and Haneke's film definitely won't be the starting point to a new type of American movie-going, that I can assure you.
Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired
When RP:WaD premiered at Sundance this year, it was nearly universally praised but was unable to find a theatrical distributor, so when HBO picked it up and premiered it a couple of weeks ago, non-Sundance attendees were able to see what the fuss was all about. An exceptionally well made documentary about Polanski and the rape case that has caused him to flee the US for the past 30 years, RP: WaD reveals a great deal about a legal matter that may seem open and shut for the casual observer but in reality, is bogged down in a heavy dose of courtroom politics. While it is nearly indisputable that Polanski engaged in sexual relations with an underaged girl (13 at the time), an inexcuseable offense, the true story of the back door dealings at the trial is amazing. Filled with a variety of spotlight loving characters, the stranger than fiction tale is wonderfully illuminated by Marina Zenovich’s documentary. While it certainly doesn’t excuse Polanski for his offenses, it does humanize the man. No longer is he merely a convict on the run but rather a pained man who has had to withstand an incredible amount of pain and suffering in his life. This is not meant to reduce the severity of his crimes, but Polanksi stands as a complex and undeniably talented individual that demands further study. Argubly one of the top 3-4 directors of the late 60’s/early 70’s, Polanski created a series of films that have stood the test of time like a fine wine, revealing more of themselves with each passing year. It remains a shame that Polanski is unable to put this ordeal behind him and continue living his life. While he is certainly to blame due to his inability to face the still open charges against him in the country, there is more to the story. Those grey areas, which are expertly explored here make RP: WaD required viewing for anyone interesting in the New Hollywood. For more casual viewers, RP: WaD is a wonderful look at a fascinating subject, one that will continue to be explored as his career nears its conclusion.
Diary of the Dead
George Romero's fifth entry into his Dead series is something of a reboot. Where the previous three films (1978's Dawn of the Dead, 1985's Day of the Dead and 2005's Land of the Dead) have all dealt with the days following the initial outbreak, Diary goes back to the starting point, when the dead first began to roam the earth. One has to assume that the event's portrayed in Diary are occurring in a time parallel to the series' initial entry (1968's Night of the Living Dead) and while the newest installment never matches that first glimpse into Romero's world, it is a worthy sequel (as, miraculously, all the entries have been). Romero has never been a filmmaker interested in subtlety and there are moments where his message is too strongly put forth, hurting the overall film in the process, however, he is always been intelligent and boundary pushing. His social commentary, while not veiled in any sense of the word, is undeniably incisive and insightful. Starting with Dawn of the Dead's tremendous assault on the rampant consumerism that now dominates our society, Diary of the Dead turns it's focus to the modern day media, both mainstream television and internet bloggers alike. Diary tells the story of a group of University of Pittsburgh film students who, after hearing the news of zombie attacks, set off in a Winnebago with the intent of getting to the respective homes of each traveler. As one might expect, that goal quickly becomes secondary to basic survival but as Romero has always done, his film is brimming with smarts, refusing to cater to the lowest common denominator. In other words, Romero's films have always been horror films that appeal to horror aficionado and casual viewers alike and Diary is no different. The acting is never much higher than good and the script is clunky but the film, shot in a documentary style, just plain works. Its blend of thrilling suspense and darker than night comedy is well realized, adding another interesting, if flawed installment to Romero's groundbreaking and industry altering series that continues to astound with its ability to stay fresh and relevant, 40 years and 5 films later.