Friday, March 14, 2008

Attacking the paying customers

"You lookin' at me?"

That might the slogan of Michael Haneke's perversely pointless Americanized remake of his 1997 "Funny Games." A shot-for-shot recreation of the original, "Funny Games" apparently wants us to question our fascination with cinematic sadism, but the movie might have done well to question its own obsession with the same subject. In telling the story of a family that's confronted by two wandering killers, Haneke has made a meticulously crafted but intellectually dubious movie that's not nearly as complex or intriguing as his brilliant 1998 movie, "Cache."

"Funny Games'' is so carefully constructed that it seems to be asking to be studied rather than watched. When we meet the well-heeled family that's about to be terrorized, we're told that their kitchen clock isn't working. What could that mean? That they're about to step outside of the parameters of normal time? We see a close-up of a knife, and it's as if Haneke is prompting us to ask what role it will play in the unfolding drama. And when mom drops her cell phone into the kitchen sink, we know that Haneke wants us to understand that possibilities for communication with the world outside this gated community rapidly are diminishing.

The story is as simple as it is punishing. A preppie-looking young man in a tennis outfit (Brady Corbert) shows up at the home where George and Anna (Tim Roth and Naomi Watts) live with their son (Devon Gearhart). Corbert's character claims to be staying with a neighbor and asks to borrow some eggs. Soon, his pal (Michael Pitt) arrives on the scene, also in tennis garb. These unexpected visitors are eerily polite; their conversations with family members feel stilted and frightening, especially in the upscale brightness of the kitchen.

The two young men are playing games with George and Anna, and it's obvious from the start that the games will turn lethal. Less obvious is Haneke's desire to toy with our expectations, even to the point of having Pitt's character break the cinematic fourth wall and talk directly to the audience.

"Funny Games'' pierces other walls, as well. The script has a post-modernist disdain for motivation. Roth's character asks his tormentors why they're behaving so monstrously. "Why not? " responds Pitt's character. Perhaps Haneke wants to immerse us in a moment when psychology no longer applies and to implicate us in the resultant chaos.

We're watching aren't we? And if we are, maybe we're every bit as sick as these two remorseless perpetrators?

It struck me as a cheat that Haneke tries to make the movie about the audience's responses, even if he goes about his work with relentless efficiency and obvious directorial aplomb. Before the movie's over, Haneke strips Watts down to her underwear. He neutralizes Roth's George, tying him up and crippling him as a father and husband. And for what? For the terrible sin of believing there's safety inside their gated world?

It's all very creepy, but there's little to be gained from watching this warped chamber piece, aside from discovering that Pitt really knows how to play this kind of character.

If Haneke, who keeps most of the physical violence off screen, wants us to wonder why we're watching, he succeeds. "You lookin' at me?'' the movie seems to ask defiantly, poking its finger in our chests. You may not want to put yourself in a position where you have to respond.


Holocaust movies usually have a leg up when it comes to Oscar, and this year proved no exception. The German movie "Counterfeiters" won the Oscar for best foreign language film for its depiction of the way some Jews were coerced into helping the Nazis. Austrian writer/director Stefan Ruzowitzky -- adapting a true story -- focuses on "Operation Bernhard," a Nazi plan to flood the U.S. and Great Britain with fake currency. To execute this economy-wrecking plot, the Nazis use Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), a premiere counterfeiter and a Jew who's introduced in the movie's opening, which takes place in Monte Carlo after the war. The rest of the story is told in a long flashback.

German officer Freidrich Herzog (David Striesow) oversees Sorowtisch's work in the camp, and "The Counterfeiters" shows the dicey bargain that Jews such as Sorowitsch were forced to make. They used their skills to help the Nazis, but were given decent living conditions within the concentration camps.

The movie opposes Sorowitsch with another character, a purported Communist named Burger (August Diehl). Burger believes that any attempt to assist the Nazis is morally reprehensible. The movie poses a question: What' s right? Saving one's life or refusing to aid the twisted Nazi cause? The film ultimately tips toward the latter answer, but it's a debate in which we can't honestly participate. The only people entitled to answer such a question are those who actually faced it. (The movie is based on a book by Burger.)

"The Counterfeiters" may wind up as a relatively minor entry in the big-screen literature of World War II -- a footnote of sorts -- but director Ruzowitzky has written it with enough clarity and skill to command our attention.

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