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MARCH 14, 2008

No Fun (By Design)

By Mark Jenkins

Funny Games
Directed by Michael Haneke

Naomi Watts, Michael Pitt, and Brady Corbet begin the Funny Games. (Warner Independent Pictures)

"TO AVOID FAINTING, KEEP REPEATING, it's only a movie...," counseled the ad campaign for Last House on the Left, the 1972 flick that upped the stakes for cinematic torture. Repeating "it's only a movie" is not the viewer's responsibility when watching Funny Games, Michael Haneke's English-language remake of his 1997 provocation. The writer-director himself provides the reminders: asides delivered directly to the camera, on-screen commentary about the genre, and one outright assault on the rules of narrative cinema. Despite such Brechtian touches, which assert the it's-only-a-movie contrivance, the film is profoundly discomfiting.

A German-born director who began his career in Austria and more recently has worked in France, Haneke is fascinated by the depiction of violence on film. He believes that movies cheapen human agonies, reducing them to roller-coaster jolts to the spectator's nervous system. Yet Haneke is no pacifist, at least as an artist. Most of his movies — best-known in the U.S. are The Piano Teacher and Cache — include violent onslaughts on the comfortable lives of their bourgeois inhabitants. His motivation is political rather than sociopathic, but Haneke clearly hates these people. In a sense, all of his recent films are home invasions, with their director as much the assailant as any of his characters.

The new Funny Games has been described as a shot-for-shot remake of the original, and while that may not literally be true, the two movies are essentially the same. An upscale couple (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) travel to their lakefront vacation home with their son (Devon Gearhart) and golden retriever. (If you know Haneke's work, you know that the central characters are named Ann and George; they always are.) Two preppie-looking, exceedingly polite young men arrive from next door, wearing tennis whites and (curiously) gloves. The games begin when Peter (Brady Corbet) borrows four eggs from Ann, drops them, and then demands four more. As it moves from banality to menace, this sequence achingly conveys the vulnerability of Ann, George, and their boy (Georgie, of course).

Paul (Michael Pitt, the Cobain-like protagonist of Gus Van Sant's Last Days) is smoother than his cohort, and soon becomes the master of ceremonies. The games they will play, he explains, are all a subset of one: survival. Peter and Paul — who also call themselves Tom and Jerry, and Beavis and Butthead — bet George, Ann, and Georgie that the family will not be alive in 12 hours. And what can the three of them wager in return? Well, they don't hold any cards, save for the will to live. In Hollywood movies, this primal desire can be enough, and Haneke teases the audience that he will allow a similar triumph of hope over perversity. But he's just kidding.

Either version of Funny Games is a powerful rebuke to American movies's casual brutality. The director carefully measures each lurid incident, conjuring intense anxiety from dialogue and suggestion, and keeping all the irrevocable violence off-camera. In one scene, Paul commands Ann to strip, so he can see if her stomach is flatter than Peter's. Haneke holds the camera on Ann's face throughout this ordeal, as Watts shows her character's humiliation with a virtuoso display of grimaces and sobs. In another sequence, a gunshot is heard while Paul is in the kitchen making a sandwich, and exactly what has happened (and to whom) is only gradually revealed.

Haneke rarely offers justifications for his films, but he has said that the first Funny Games was "a reaction to a certain American cinema, its violence, its naivete, the way American cinema toys with human beings." He always wanted Americans to see the movie, but while the original caused a sensation on the U.S. film-festival circuit, it didn't find a mainstream audience. So Haneke returns with an English-language version, featuring some faces that are familiar to multiplex regulars. For those who haven't seen the 1997 film, the new one should shock and vex just as its maker intends. What the movie doesn't do is infiltrate the Hollywood paradigm, which is why it probably won't reach many more American viewers than the subtitled one did.

While Haneke doesn't seem quite so ignorant of the real U.S.A. as anti-American Danish filmmaker Lars van Trier (who's never crossed the Atlantic), he fails to convince that this stateside remake actually belongs here. It stars an Australian and a Briton, and is set largely in a compact cottage — identical to the first movie's — that's antithetical to the American sprawl aesthetic. The very meticulousness of the staging, and the winking references to "the importance of entertainment," are too calculated and academic. The new Funny Games speaks English, but conceptually Haneke's version of Beavis and Butthead retains an European accent. That makes it all too easy for American fans of celluloid gore to reject a film that's talking directly to them.

Shaolin Sentiment

Directed by Stephen Chow

A SLAPSTICK KNOCKOFF of ET, CJ7 is exceptionally motley even by the standards of Hong Kong director-star Stephen (Shaolin Soccer) Chow. In part a homily on virtue and a protest against China's new worship of wealth, the movie nonetheless makes fun of fat kids, indulges prep-school revenge fantasies, and sprays its protagonist with extraterrestrial excrement.

In a class discussion of personal ambitions, Dicky Chow announces that "I want to be a poor person." In fact, the young boy (who's played by a girl, Xu Jiao) is already painfully destitute. He and his construction-worker father (a small and rather dull role for the director) squat in a partially demolished hovel and eat dumpster pickings for dinner. Dad puts all his money into tuition, but Dicky is a poor student who's held in contempt by his upscale classmates and all his teachers save kindhearted Miss Yuen (Kitty Zhang), who wears awfully tight dresses for a schoolmarm.

Dicky's dismal life improves when Dad brings home a green blob he found at the dump. It transmutes into a puppy-like creature the boy names CJ7 (to surpass CJ1, a robot dog owned by a snotty classmate). The exotic pet doesn't possess all the magic powers Dicky desires, but it does have the ability to restore things, which turns out to be crucial. Or would be crucial, if anything felt like it mattered in this ramshackle movie, which has little narrative drive and no more emotional power than the average TV commercial that trades in filial sentiment. Chow's disregard for story structure isn't a hindrance to a manic pileup like Kung Fu Hustle, but if the filmmaker wants to touch the heart, he needs to make a more coherent appeal.