2008: A Cinematic Odyssey

Film Reviews and Other Pop Culture Happenings

Criticism on Media Violence or Just an Examination of the Self?

Posted by Jesse on July 20, 2008

Funny Games (1997)
director: Michael Haneke
starring: Ulrich Mühe, Susanne Lothar, Arno Frisch, Frank Giering, Stefan Clapczynski

Arno Frisch and Stefan Clapczynski in Funny Games (1997)

Arno Frisch and Stefan Clapczynski in Funny Games (1997)

After a few months, I’ve finally come back to review this film. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t the easiest film to watch or the easiest film to understand at first, but after reading about this film and watching it two more times, I think I finally understand what the point of this film is. This film wasn’t made with intentions of generating a fan base or hitting it big at the box office, it was made in order for director Michael Haneke to show us how disgusting we, the viewing public, are.

Haneke shatters film conventions and presents us with material that we normally would not see in a movie. Violence is used, but we don’t see it on the screen. People are shot, killed and tortured, but we never see it happen. We hear it, we see the aftermath and we resonate as the characters do over what just happened. It’s so real and comprehending why something so vividly disturbing is in a film makes us want the scene to be over with. Haneke uses techniques such as breaking the fourth wall, the real-time method and, most famously, a reverse effect to contest our regular film experiences. What we expect to come from this film is not what we get. I don’t mean there is a twist ending or some surprising character reveal, but we get exactly what we don’t expect: reality. People die in this film. There isn’t a dramatic rescue scene and the protagonists do not win in an epic finale. This film is brave and it lets its audience see the opposite side of formulaic thrillers.

This film is not hypocritical. Many have accused this film of being hypocritical in its depiction of violence, but it’s exactly the opposite. This film is ultimately a criticism on the use of violence in contemporary culture and media. Why the violence in the film then? The “violence” in Funny Games is used to satirize all other films that exploit their characters and their situations by showing blood, guts and nakedness. This film is like a kick in the face in terms of its bravura, it’s saying “Watch this!” to its American counterparts and shows everything that we usually don’t see, but cuts out everything we normally do see. We are shown the raw emotional impact that is thrust upon the victims in this film. We don’t need to see the gruesome deaths when such emotion lets us know how bad the situation is. The actors in Funny Games (most notably Ulrich Mühe and Susanne Lothar) omit such painful emotions and this is Haneke’s way of countering the exploitative violence from other films of this nature. We are shown a side we normally wouldn’t see and this shocks us, angers us and, for a select few, pleases us.

Haneke presents situations in this film that normally would result in a bloodbath or nudity, but holds back when given the chance to show such content. One scene in particular, perhaps the most famous scene, involves a shotgun and a remote control. The violence isn’t shown, it’s out of the frame, but the result we do see. One of the antagonists has been blown away by the shotgun. But this isn’t supposed to happen in this film, the antagonists aren’t supposed to win or even be granted a speck of hope. The remaining antagonist picks up the remote control from the table and quickly rewinds the film to right before the incident occurs and prevents it from happening. Now everything is back on course and the hope for relief is diminished.

One of the antagonists in this film constantly breaks the fourth wall (the fourth wall being when a character from the film gestures or talks to the audience). This brings us, the audience, into the film even more to experience the torture and pain this family is going through. At one point, Paul addresses the audience saying, “We’re not up to feature film length yet” and we know we’re still in for more torture.

This film was made to shock us, torture us and make us realize who we are and what we have grown to expect from a film. When Schorschi is killed, we do not see it on screen. The viewers probably sighed for they don’t get to see any blood in this movie. When Paul makes Anna take her clothes off, we don’t see it on screen. The viewers probably sighed again, for they don’t get to see any nudity in this movie either. As a film-going audience, we have grown to expect certain things from films. If someone is going to be shot, we expect to see it. If someone is going to have sex, we expect to see it. With Funny Games, Michael Haneke literally laughs at us because with this film, filled with violent happenings, we don’t see anything violent on the screen, but only the emotional lapse that follows.

People can either view this film as a pointless exercise in attacking violence in films or a masterpiece that has shattered conventions, played with our minds and presented something brave and new to the cinematic table. I agree with the latter statement and I know I am not alone, but I also know how many people despise this film. It’s a shame that Funny Games isn’t widely appraised, because I do think that this revolutionary approach is not only audacious, but artistic, too. I have only good things to say about this film and Michael Haneke. He has presented something to us that everyone else fears to. He is a fantastic director and doesn’t have to rely on formula to make a film work. He has stepped up to new extremes and his originality and bluster has made him very well respected by myself. I highly recommend this film, even though I know many of you will not like it. However, I do believe that everyone should watch this film and experience the masterpiece that is called Funny Games.

Theatrical trailer for the film:

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An Amazing Take on Realist Horror

Posted by Jesse on July 20, 2008

Se7en (1995)
director: David Fincher
starring: Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, Gwyneth Paltrow, R. Lee Ermey, Richard Roundtree

Kevin Spacey in Se7en (1995)

Kevin Spacey in Se7en (1995)

When I first watched this film four years ago, it was the most thrilling and exhilarating film I had ever seen. Nothing compared to it in terms of suspense and thrills. When I watched this film recently, I realized why this film had such an impact on me four years ago. This film is by far the most suspenseful film I’ve seen and it plays with your fears like they are toys. The direction is impeccable; David Fincher is highly aware of this film’s genre and uses it to the best of his ability. He bides his time and keeps all of the thrills contained until the climax and definitely unleashes them in the conclusion. Comparing Se7en to thrillers released after 1995 is difficult because none of them hold a candle to this masterpiece. The only films of this genre who are anywhere near the quality of Se7en are The Descent, 28 Days Later and Zodiac (which was also directed by Fincher). Through examining the film’s genre and visual style, it is easy for me to say that Se7en is one of the best films I have ever seen.

When thinking of the horror genre, the first thing that usually comes to mind is monsters, zombies, ghosts or some other fictitious creature that we normally see attacking people in films. When The Silence of the Lambs was released, it re-introduced the idea of realism in horror films. Realism had not been popular in the horror genre for decades; in the 1950s, most of the thrillers were in the film noir style where the villain was not a monster, but rather an insane human who was battling himself as well as others. The duality of the characters was what made them frightening. For example, Harry Powell (played to perfection by Robert Mitchum) from The Night of the Hunter was one of the most frightening antagonists from the ’50s. But the idea of realism was lost until 1991, when it became more popular.

In 1995, Se7en introduced what would become one of the iconic villains of the 1990s: John Doe. He was a human. He was evil. He was real. He murdered people, but added a twist to his killings: he murdered them based on their sins, one death for every one of the seven deadly sins. The one difference between Se7en and other horror films incorporating realism is the fact that the villain doesn’t have an inner battle with himself. Usually we know the villain’s past and usually this past is what causes the villain to become villainous in the first place. With John Doe, we don’t know his past, he doesn’t have fingerprints and he is nameless. The fact that he has no identity is one of the most important bits of this film. Having the villain appear half way through the film and giving him no identity gives the evil deeds in the film much more ambiguity in terms of whose fault they were. The evilness ultimately lies in the victims. Yes, murder is a sin, and we see what becomes of John Doe in the conclusion, but his victims died because of the evil he saw in them. In terms of film history, Se7en is groundbreaking in the originality department. It establishes new takes on both the villain and on realist horror conventions. It’s brilliance should be remembered for it brought around a totally new type of psychological thriller.

Se7en was not only revolutionary in what was aforementioned, it also exuded mastery in the editing department. The opening credits of this film are almost as intense as the film itself. They display graphic images of grisly murders, mutilated bodies and bloody jars. What we are watching is John Doe at work in his scrapbook where he keeps pictures of his killings. The sharp and jolting editing mixed with the also gruesome song “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails gives the opening credits an extremely eerie feeling. This is a perfect introduction for it establishes what we can expect from the film itself. Stylistically, this film is excellent. The editing, music, cinematography and art direction are used perfectly in accordance to the thematic elements. The dark look this film has diminishes hope and the dirty city gives the feeling of unease not only for the characters, but for the viewers, too.

Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman both give deep performances. The two characters they play each have their gloomy, secretive sides, but are likable characters nonetheless. Kevin Spacey gives yet another astonishing performance as the villain in this film, John Doe. Unfortunately, he goes uncredited on the film’s posters and opening credits, but for good reason: shock value. His monologue in the police car as Brad Pitt interrogates and mocks him is amazing and proves why he is such a fantastic actor.

Se7en is one of the essential films of the 1990s. It redefined the horror genre and established new techniques and conventions that shocked the viewing public. It’s a disturbing film which has poignancy in its core, but I wouldn’t recommend it to the faint of heart. It’s grisly and graphic, but the gore is necessary for such a film. It instantly became one of my favourite films and I think it could easily pass as my favourite film of all-time. An excellent thriller that will be recognized as revolutionary for years to come.

Theatrical trailer for the film:

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Female Liberation + Serial Killers = Modern Horror Masterpiece

Posted by Jesse on July 20, 2008

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
director: Jonathan Demme
starring: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine, Anthony Heald, Brooke Smith, Kasi Lemmons

Foster and Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Foster and Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Horror films have forever been popular in movie-going society, but not until The Silence of the Lambs was released did the genre take a drastic turn. Not only does this film excel at frightening its viewers and giving them nightmares about cannibalistic serial killers, more importantly, it breaks the the old horror film stereotypes and introduces fresh and very brave new film conventions. Horror films have almost always portrayed women as weak and helpless characters. They’re always either the damsel in distress, being rescued one way or another by a man or the promiscuous teenager who is naked for half of the film. The Silence of the Lambs takes the weak female character stereotype and completely reverses it. In this film, the main character, Clarice Starling, is a strong, independent woman who holds her own in a male-dominated workplace and solves the mystery without any help from men. This may sound like a feminist rant, but this is a groundbreaking film in terms of female liberation and deserves high recognition.

This film is hardly geared toward women, but it does directly deal with the role of a strong woman in a male-dominated society. This political statement propels the main character into the history books as one of the most important heroines of all-time. However, Clarice Starling isn’t the first female heroine in a horror film (even though she may be the most popular). Ellen Ripley from the Alien films made her debut in 1979 in the horror franchise and not only kicked alien ass, but film stereotype’s ass into the history books as a strong female heroine in a horror film. Starling is played flawlessly by Jodie Foster, a role she was born to play. Foster shines in all of the scenes, but most evidently in the scenes with Anthony Hopkins. She is brilliant and their eerie chemistry is almost pleasing to watch. Foster was lucky enough to take home the Oscar for her portrayal of Clarice Starling which is, undoubtedly, one of the most deserved Oscars in recent memory.

Aside from the feminism, this film has other groundbreaking elements to it as well. The film’s main male character is Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter. Dr. Lecter was once a psychiatrist, but was arrested for murder and found to be a serial killing cannibal, hence the nickname he acquired. What’s shocking about Lecter is his tone and diction. He’s a very intelligent man, but uses his wisdom and serenity in a way that draws you in as he fools with your mind. What’s groundbreaking about this character is that he is a villain, but he isn’t the villain the protagonist is looking for. He actually aids the Clarice into finding the “bad guy” from behind his bars. Lecter is portrayed by the fantastic Anthony Hopkins, who also took home an Oscar for his 17-minute performance. Hopkins’ performance is the shortest to win an Oscar for Best Actor, but it is far from small in power. Although given such a short amount of screen time, Hopkins steals the film as Hannibal Lecter and creates what has become one of the most popular and recognizable film characters of all time. He is frighteningly chilling and evokes such evil in his eyes that he becomes the character.

In the scene where Starling visits Lecter in prison for the first time and for most of the thrilling conclusion, the cinematography stood out as brilliant and I could not get it out of my mind. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto has worked on many films (Badlands, Philadelphia and The Sixth Sense to name a few) and has been recognized by many critics and film institutions to be one of the best cinematographers out there. Fujimoto worked with director Jonathan Demme on The Silence of the Lambs so wonderfully and produced some of the most frightening scenes in film history. Fujimoto utilizes so many different camera angles in this film that intensify the scenes and generate such great suspense. He is a master of his craft and he proves this to us through his excellent work in this film.

Recognized as one of the greatest films of all-time by many sources, The Silence of the Lambs was a huge success when it was released in 1991 and has endured time and is still a huge success now. Creating two legendary film characters, one who is one of the most recognized villains of all time and the other who is one of the greatest heroines of all time, staying true to the novel which the film was based on and winning five Oscars in the major categories is only a few of this films’ achievements. It’s an iconic thriller and has gone down as one of the best. If you have been living under a rock and haven’t seen this film, I cannot recommend it more. See it, you won’t regret it.

Theatrical trailer for the film:

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A Social and Political Critique on French Society

Posted by Jesse on July 20, 2008

La Haine (1995)
director: Mathieu Kassovitz
starring: Vincent Cassel, Hubert Koundé, Saïd Taghmaoui

Vinz, Saïd and Hubert from La Haine (1995)

Vinz, Saïd and Hubert from La Haine (1995)

As a critique on French society, a comment on the 1986 attack of a French-Arab by police, and simply a revolutionary work for actor/director Kassovitz, this film exceeds expectations and delivers more than any other film I’ve seen with these themes. The film is a shocking look at the lives of the people living in the French banlieues (slums). In the film we follow three young men, Vinz, a Jew, Saïd, an Arab, and Hubert, an African through their turbulent lives which end tragically with police violence. This film comments on important political and social happenings and through its narrative style and black and white cinematography, lets the audience feel the impact of the realism and understand the importance of the documentary-like style of filmmaking in relation to this topic.

Kassovitz isn’t a very established director, but he is great and proves his brilliance through this film alone. His most acknowledged role was probably in Amélie as Amélie’s love interest, Mathieu. He is also known for his direction of the poorly executed thriller, Gothika and his smaller roles in films like Munich and Jakob the Liar. What Kassovitz did for France with La Haine is close to what Scorsese did for the US with Mean Streets. More similarly, what Kassovitz did is more close to what Spike Lee did with Do the Right Thing or what Kurosawa did with Stray Dog. Either way, Kassovitz adapted a style of filmmaking from his American predecessors, but also introduced a certain flair to it that made it original and uncannily realistic. The film opens with footage from the banlieue riots which the film used as a basis for its story. The film, following this footage, is shown in black and white and has a realism quality to it depicted most notably through it’s stunningly impressive tracking shots. The film’s visuals and stylistics ultimately give it a documentary feel which allows it to resonate with the viewers more, especially in relation to the banlieue riots.

We are introduced to Paris’ culturally diverse middle-class population in the beginning of this film when we meet the three leads. They represent the diverse racial population and lead us through the film’s often violent events. After meeting these characters, we learn that the night before, a riot took place where a friend of theirs was arrested and brutally beaten by police. This isn’t anything new to this slum, this happens very often. Police brutality is common in these banlieues. Their friend is near death and the three young men want revenge for their friend. Miraculously something turns up which Vinz takes as a sign to avenge his friend: a Wesson .44 that they find in the streets. They find out one of the cops from the riot the night before lost this gun, but Vinz doesn’t plan on being a good Samaritan and return the gun, he has other plans.

The intimate portrait of these three young men, especially Vinz, is fantastic; the character development is extensive and we learn a lot about these young men. Through their trials and tribulations in this film, we follow them like a magnet, only steps behind them for every move they make. This also adds to the realism of this film for we learn the true voice of the people (the people being represented by the culturally diverse group of lead characters) and their stance on the political and social problems taking place in the outskirts of the Paris banlieues.

This film was so powerful and culturally significant in 1995, but even more so in it’s tenth anniversary release in 2005. In October 2005, riots and other acts of violence erupted in Clichy-sous-Bois, a suburb of Paris. Cars were being burned as were buildings and this violent nightmare began spreading through other small communes in France. Over the twenty nights that his occurred, almost 3000 people were arrested and over 8000 cars were burned. La Haine is now associated with this event and came back to the surface of popular culture and other news due to its relation with the 2005 riots. Kassovitz only had the [then] Minister of Interior, Nicholas Sarkozy, to blame and cited him as a major problem in French society, sticking to his political and social critique from ten years earlier in this film.

This film has become a very important and culturally significant icon in France. Unfortunately, it hasn’t won a lot of recognition here in North America, but it is critically acclaimed and has recently been released on Criterion DVD which will allow more people to view this masterpiece. Kassovitz has created what is now one of my all-time favourite films; a stark, shocking and realistic portrayal of life in the Paris slums seen through the eyes of three racially different young men who are changed by the decaying society and end up in a battle for their lives. It’s brilliant and strangely intriguing, I highly recommend this to everyone. It’s a film which we all should see whether politics is relevant to us or not for it’s a lesson learned in terms of ethics and morality.

Theatrical trailer for the film:

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