Directed By: Michael Haneke
Starring: Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet, Devon Gearhart
In Funny Games, an English language remake of writer/director Michael Haneke's German-language original from 1997. Naomi Watts and Tim Roth play well-to-do couple Ann and George who have traveled with their son, Georgie (Gearhart), to their summer home to begin an extended vacation. Under the pretense of familiarity with their neighbors and a desire to borrow some eggs, a couple of excessively polite but increasingly creepy young men dressed in white preppy gear (Pitt and Corbet) invite themselves into their home. When first Ann and then George ask them to leave, things turn violent, and the young men take the family hostage for no apparent reason other than to engage in a series of sadistic games that they wager will result in the death of their whole family by the following morning.
I never saw Haneke's original version of this film, but have been assured by others who have that this film hews very close to its predecessor, avoiding any self-destructive deviations along the lines of George Sluizer's remake of The Vanishing. Firm in that knowledge, I now have no interest in seeing the original. To be honest, if this film had not arrived at my doorstep to review, I probably would not have bothered with it since I am not a part of the Saw and Hostel crowd towards which the marketing of this film seemed to be tipped. As with the makers of those films, director Haneke proves to have a sufficiently twisted mind to devise creatively gruesome ways in which to torture and kill his cast. Unlike those films, Haneke keeps most of the actual violence and humiliation just out of frame. His reasons for doing so have little to do with restraint and good taste, though, and run more along the lines of trying to establish himself as morally and intellectually superior to those other filmmakers.
At this point you may be asking yourself: How could this pretentious idiot reviewing DVDs for a web site possibly see into Haneke's heart to divine his intentions? I claim no such power of perception or psychological insight. Haneke conveniently lays things bare by ultimately turning the film into an indictment of the audience to which it is marketed. While this sounds like an admirably subversive thing to do, the execution proves to be far less intriguing than one might hope. Rather than actually turning the genre on its ear by devising some clever way to subvert audience expectations within the reality of the film, Haneke chooses to blow things up first with a few instances of Pitt's character breaking the fourth wall to address the camera/audience conspiratorially, and finally with a piece of magical realism near the end that is the cinematic equivalent of wagging a scolding finger at the audience (or maybe a middle finger – to be honest, it's a little bit of both).
The end result is a film that will drive away those who do not have the stomach for violence and torture in cinema, and deliver a cleansing spoonful of cinematic castor oil to those who would otherwise enjoy such a film. In other words, it’s a film intentionally designed to satisfy nobody. Being more of a thesis on narrative film than an actual narrative film, its entire premise requires that it be dishonestly marketed as an exploitation genre film.
To their credit, the actors participating in Haneke's cinematic experiment version 2.0 are certainly committed. Watts, Roth, and Gearhart convey every ounce of torture and humiliation inflicted upon their characters with convincing detail. Pitt and Corbett are suitably creepy as the excessively polite young nihilistic anonymous sadists.
The widescreen presentation on the top side of this double-sided single-layered disc fills the entire 16:9 enhanced frame. The video presentation has some serious issues most evident during the darkest scenes. Horizontal banding is present around bright spots during dark scenes, and there also seems to be some artifact inducing contrast manipulation in the video domain. I did not view the 4:3 full frame presentation on the flip side for this review.
The Dolby Digital soundtrack does not make much use of the 5.1 surround field, but it does offer excellent fidelity in its representation of the film's subtly effective if not overly dimensional mix. There is no underscore, and music passages consist of excerpts of classical music not so subtly juxtaposed with noisy guitar-heavy free jazz from Naked City used for the film's opening and closing sequences.
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When the disc is first spun up, the viewer is greeted with a series of skippable promotional spots. They are presented with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound, and the video format and running times are as listed below:
- Anti-Piracy PSA w/scenes from Casablanca (4:3 - 1:00)
- The Orphanage DVD Trailer (16:9 enhanced - :47)
- Lost Boys: The Tribe DTV Trailer (4:3 letterboxed - 1:13)
- Otis DVD Trailer (4:3 letterboxed - 1:59)
- Anti-Tobacco PSA (4:3 letterboxed - :31)
The disc is packaged in a standard Amaray-style case with no insert. 16:9 enhanced widescreen and 4:3 full frame presentations occupy either side of a double-sided single-layered DVD-10 with identical promos on both sides. The cover art eschews the modern trend of placing star faces all over the promotional art and instead consists of a single strong image of a bloodied golf club being held by a pair of folded white-gloved hands. It would be just about graphically perfect if it were not spoiled by a couple of hyperbolic review blurbs.
Funny Games is an experiment in scolding the audience to which a film is marketed that is made with great technical skill, but is by its very conception incapable of entertaining anyone on any level. At best, viewers intrigued by its subversive concept may appreciate it on an intellectual level, but the film will not merit multiple viewings by them unless they intend to repeatedly sabotage their friends and associates who are fans of the survival horror/torture sub-genre. Of course, you could save close to two hours by just telling them that you think you are a better human being than they are outright. It is presented on DVD with a disappointing transfer that has contrast and artifact issues during its many darkly lit scenes. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio rarely exploits the multiple channels for anything but light ambience, but nevertheless presents the skillfully subtle underscore-free mix with excellent fidelity. There are no special features on the disc.