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Funny Games (#110 of 6)

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.

Oscar Prospects: The Impossible

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Oscar Prospects: The Impossible
Oscar Prospects: The Impossible

If there’s a film this season that’s poised to nab Oscar’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close vote, joining a generously wide Best Picture field for its cloying take on a recent tragedy, it’s definitely J.A. Bayona’s The Impossible, a markedly odd prestige picture with enough capital-A acting and capital-I issues to distract from its dire mix of sentiment and insensitivity. Charting one family’s struggle to survive amid the devastation of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, this epic, fact-based tearjerker is already raking in critical acclaim, despite its pedestrian retooling of the disaster-movie formula. On this site alone, venom has been spat regarding the central family’s ethnicity, which was changed from Spanish to British in a move that reeks of commercial compromise. The contentious racial topic may well miff some Academy members of color (and the astute ballot-casters who love them), but likely not enough to quell the movie’s apparent wave of supporters. (Get it?) One should hope that savvier voters will simply dismiss the film for reasons more foundational than whitewashing, for The Impossible is essentially a topical twist on a Roland Emmerich deathfest, wherein viewers are subjected to endless weather-fueled carnage, with the salvation of the core cast serving as self-satisfied consolation. Indeed, this is all inspired by a true story (as an emboldened pre-film title card is sure to hammer home), but, true or not, the strength of a story is in the telling, and what’s peddled here is the convenient eminence of folks to whom, in comparison, all other survivors pale.

The Conversations: Michael Haneke

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The Conversations: Michael Haneke
The Conversations: Michael Haneke

Ed Howard: It isn’t very fashionable to be a moralist in art these days. Films that deal with moral issues in a direct way are often tagged, rightly or not, as preachy and didactic. So in a way Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke is an anomaly, a director who unapologetically has a definite moral agenda that he’s been exploring for over 20 years now, closer to 40 if one considers the TV work he made in the ’70s and ’80s before embarking on his feature film career in 1989. Not that Haneke himself would probably consider himself a moralist—he’s consistently said that he wants his films to ask questions but not necessarily answer them—but whether his films are polemical or simply explore these issues in more ambiguous ways, there is a undoubtedly a core of forceful moral ideas about politics, media, and human relationships that runs through his entire oeuvre.

In this conversation, we’ll be discussing most of Haneke’s feature films, from his early “glaciation trilogy” (The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance), made in his native Austria, to his brutal thriller deconstruction Funny Games, to the films he’s made in France (Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher, Time of the Wolf and Caché) and his return to Austria for the harrowing parable The White Ribbon. It’s a consistently provocative and challenging body of work, and consistently bleak as well, something that’s only reenforced by revisiting all of the director’s films in a condensed period of time. But what’s not often acknowledged is the thread of hope that also runs through much of Haneke’s work, because being a moralist means not only documenting the evils of the world but presenting at least a slim hopefulness that the conditions depicted in these films are not permanent.

House Movie Guide (March 28, 2008)

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House Movie Guide (March 28, 2008)
House Movie Guide (March 28, 2008)

[Editor’s Note: This is the inaugural installment of a new House feature compiling links to reviews of new and recent theatrical films playing in North America. It is intended as a sampling of critical opinion and not a guide to theaters because, hey, it’s a big world. If we’ve left out any titles, or if you’d like to call our attention to a noteworthy review, feel free to leave a comment below.]

Funny Like a Crutch: Funny Games U.S.

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Funny Like a Crutch: <em>Funny Games U.S.</em>
Funny Like a Crutch: <em>Funny Games U.S.</em>

Michael Haneke is a clever guy. I promised myself I’d never revisit his 1997 film Funny Games, yet he’s tricked me into doing just that by remaking it, shot by agonizing shot. In Funny Games U.S., the grim Austrian auteur brings the original’s hectoring scald to this side of the pond, changing the story’s location to America while keeping virtually every line, camera setup and movement exactly the same. Conceptually, the shift is clearly significant to Haneke, who has in interviews identified the subject of his critique (i.e., the use of cinematic violence for unthinking entertainment) as an essentially American one. Furthermore, there’s a certain inside-job subversion to the film’s advertising campaign, including a trailer which (unintentionally?) illustrates Haneke’s point by attempting to palm this intellectual distress-machine as a darkly comic thriller. In execution, however, the project amounts to nothing more than a stunt, and a particularly lazy and unilluminating one at that.