Michael Haneke (#110 of 38)

Cannes Film Festival 2017 Michael Haneke’s Happy End

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Cannes Film Review: Happy End

Sony Pictures Classics

Cannes Film Review: Happy End

The latest slow-burn drama from Michael Haneke, Happy End, initially appears to strain for focus. Haneke takes an otherwise compelling theme—every member of the affluent Laurent family is unhappy, most of them unwilling to admit or dwell on their loved ones' pain—and develops it through sketch-thin characterizations. But as it becomes increasingly clear, Haneke is showing us the various familial influences that contribute to the alienation felt by troubled 13-year-old Eve Laurent (Fantine Harduin), a despondent loner who's forced to live with her estranged father, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), after she poisons her biological mother. By juxtaposing various bite-sized vignettes of Eve's family as they confront various moments of personal grief or weakness, Haneke tells us all we need to know in order to make up our own minds about why Eve behaves the way that she does.

Berlinale 2014 Nymphomaniac: Volume I

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Berlinale 2014: Nymphomaniac: Volume I
Berlinale 2014: Nymphomaniac: Volume I

The first half of Lars von Trier's probable masterpiece, Nymphomaniac, arrives on eddies of a “playful” publicity campaign that threatened to flatten the licentiousness (and even the straight-up sexiness) of the subject matter into a string of dopey gags. A series of posters featuring ASCII-rendered genitalia and photos capturing its international cast mid-coitus, were mischievous in a way consistent with von Trier's own smirking, ludic impishness—the pranksterish postures that ignite even his worst and most boring work.

At the risk of whittling one of the most thorny, interesting, and exasperating of living filmmakers down to a single problem, the central concern (for me, at least) with von Trier and his films is that this playfulness rather easily teeters into boring didacticism. His button-pushing provocations—both in terms of his films' frequently controversial material (rape, depression, mental retardation, racism, more rape) and the ideas (or discernible whiffs of ideas) that drive them—become needling and banal.

It's like we're constantly asked to take for granted that von Trier is playing his own devil's advocate, putting across visions of nihilistic reckoning, sneering at the feeble human soul's instinctual gravitation toward corruptibility and self-pollution, while simultaneously being asked to believe that he somehow believes the opposite. He angers and riles us and ignites the passion and intellect, while not really meaning any of it, off in the corner with that shit-eating grin on his face offered up as some mawkish mea culpa. He's like Gabbo on The Simpsons, bashfully offering little else in his own defense beyond, basically, “I'm a bad widdle boy.” It's infuriating. And much more so because it's meant to be exactly that.

Poster Lab: Diana, with Naomi Watts Set Adrift Yet Again

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Poster Lab: <em>Diana</em>, with Naomi Watts Set Adrift Yet Again
Poster Lab: <em>Diana</em>, with Naomi Watts Set Adrift Yet Again

Poor Naomi Watts just can't escape the big blue. Everywhere we see the Aussie actress these days, it seems she's accompanied by a literal ocean, its waters deep and vast, and ripe for the application of metaphor. First, Watts fought against a tsunami in The Impossible, an act many would say paid off since it landed her an Oscar nod. Then, Watts cheated on bestie Nicole Kidman with Robin Wright, her Adore co-star with whom she did a son-as-sex-partner swap, and floated on an anchored dock just off the Australian coast. Now, Watts is gazing off into the ripply horizon again on this one-sheet for Diana, a once-baity biopic that casts the actress as the ill-fated “people's princess.”

Bearing the tagline, “The only thing more incredible than the life she led was the secret she kept,” the poster, in all its open space, points to the missed opportunities of a life cut short, and calls to mind one of the worst lines in Titanic: “A woman's heart is a deep ocean of secrets.” Presumably, this scene shows Watt's Diana on the luxury yacht of Dodi Fayed (Cas Anvar), where a few of the film's key scenes reportedly take place. Where it positions Watts herself is where she's unfortunately been for too long now: caught drifting in limbo between her considerable talent and the quality of work to which she's attached.

Tribeca Film Festival 2013: Run & Jump

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Tribeca Film Festival 2013: Run & Jump
Tribeca Film Festival 2013: Run & Jump

Born in the U.S., but now dividing her time between Los Angeles and Dublin, director Steph Green was nominated for an Oscar in 2009 for her short film New Boy, a sensitive portrait of a young African lad struggling to settle into a new school in Ireland. The theme of coming to terms with a dramatic life change is once again central in her confident, boldly stylized feature debut Run & Jump.

Set in a picturesque Irish town, the film begins with the return to the family stead of Conor (Edward MacLiam), a 38-year-old carpenter and father of two who's suffered a damaging stroke, leaving him severely mentally restricted. In response, his spirited wife, Vanetia (Maxine Peake), has brought an American neurophysiologist, Ted Fielding (Will Forte), into the household to observe Conor's condition and interaction with the family for two months. Welcomed with curious fascination by Vanetia and the children, but greeted with some suspicion by Conor's extended family, Ted soon finds himself becoming inextricably woven into the family in ways he hadn't imagined. The unusual, shifting dynamic of the triangulated central relationship makes the film constantly engaging on a narrative level, with Green using the inherent awkwardness of the situation to locate nuanced, character-based humor rather than externally imposing it on the drama.

Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions: Director

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Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions: Director
Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions: Director

After Argo collected nearly every major industry award in the lead-up to the Academy Awards, in the process emerging as this year's Best Picture frontrunner, it came as a shock to everyone to see Ben Affleck shut out of the running here given how often Best Director and Picture coincide. It's with some irony, then, that two filmmakers who've emerged as the main contenders in Affleck's absence are also among the very few previous winners here whose films were denied Best Picture trophies: Ang Lee and Steven Spielberg. But let's try to rid our minds of the deplorable notion that Spielberg and Lee are contending for an award that belongs to Affleck. Stripped of this context, an Affleck-less battle for Best Director has all the makings of otherwise good Oscar drama.

Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay

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Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay
Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay

More than in any of the other categories it's nominated in, the unreal fall from grace suffered by Zero Dark Thirty will be particularly palpable when it inevitably loses here. Though few would deny that it represents this category's most massive undertaking, and even some of the political blogosphere's harshest critics still gave Mark Boal's skill backhanded praise for what they deemed flagrant ethical persuasion, the 24-hour news cycle has plainly turned what was until the nomination announcements the presumptive frontrunner for the prize into, well, something like Peter Staley up against the Academy's petrified bureaucracies, who are evidently ignoring the film and hoping it will all go away. The Academy's skittish unwillingness to grapple with the film's prickly but magnanimous examination of a political situation with no easy answers is going to go down as one of their all-time NAGLs, especially given the two-pronged love letter to God and country (Hollywood and the rest of the U.S., respectively) that's poised to take Best Picture. But as far as this specific category goes, the controversy swirling around just how much input/propaganda the C.I.A. supplied Boal with may well have killed off its chances to win original screenplay even if the issue of whether his film obliquely or outright endorses “enhanced interrogation techniques” hadn't already hit the dependably liberal AMPAS right in the balls. Either way, Boal won't lose this one because his movie failed to discredit Americans' monstrous thirst for vengeance. He'll lose it because our current climate also thirsts for clean, unfettered catharsis, something Zero Dark Thirty responsibly elides.

Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions: Foreign Language

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Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions: Foreign Language
Oscar 2013 Winner Predictions: Foreign Language

Now that good taste dictates that we can't play What Would Ernest Borgnine Vote For? during another particularly dreary season of Oscar forecasting, we're forced to remove the plastic from our copy of What Would Ed Asner Vote for When He Isn't Busy Writing Letters About Torture in Zero Dark Thirty? Except for the later game's slightly more pronounced liberal bias, the premise remains the same: to gauge the chances of whippersnapper artistic visions trying to withstand the force of films that pander with almost chilling efficacy to the interests of AMPAS, whose average age we're told is now a whopping 57. Of course, if there's any category where we probably don't need to bust out the Social Security-themed Chance cards and silver-minted tokens of Lou Grant and Carl Fredricksen feeding pigeons to determine the outcome, it's probably this one.