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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998: 

FUNNY GAMES

D: Michael Haneke; with Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Mühe, Frank Giering, Arno Frisch, Stefan Clapczynski, Doris Kunstmann, Cristoph Bantzer. (Not Rated, 103 min.)

"Fiction is real," offers one of the the young psychotics in Austrian moralist Haneke's visceral meditation on violence and the media. "What you see in the movies is what you see literally." That's the guiding principle behind Haneke's film, and though the argument is fatally flawed, the director nonetheless makes an astonishingly disturbing case that rivals that of Rémy Belvaux's Man Bites Dog in terms of the issues it raises and the frisson it engenders. Lothar and Mühe play upper-middle-class mother and father Anna and Georg, who, with their young son Georgie (Clapczynski), are on their way to their lakeside home for a summer vacation. On the way, Anna and George play a game of "name that composer" as their car passes through the idyllic Austrian scenery. Not long after the family arrives, and while Georg and son are putting the boat on the lake, a stocky young man -- Peter (Giering) -- knocks on the door and claims to be a friend of the neighbors. Could he perhaps borrow some eggs? Anna happily agrees, though when Peter clumsily drops not one but two handfuls of eggs and still demands more, she becomes disconcerted. Enter Peter's friend Paul (Frisch), who appears at the door and begins verbally tormenting Anna. Flustered and unable to make this disturbing duo in white tennis shorts and gloves leave, Anna is relieved to see Georg arrive from the lake. And just as suddenly as things began, they escalate, with Georg overpowered, and the family suddenly in jeopardy from a ravingly calm pair of madmen intent on playing out their "funny games." Haneke, intent on exploring the nature of media violence, pulls zero punches with his story. Although much of the violence is committed off-screen, the horriffic aftershocks are as unnerving as anything Oliver Stone or Wes Craven have shown us. As Peter and Paul, Giering and Frisch are utterly cold, utterly alien killers, devoid of normal personality, acting as a sort of universal template for random violence. Engaging their victims in brief conversational gambits, they offer up transparently false rationales for their behavior, as when Paul excuses Peter's actions by referring to him as "a spoiled child tormented by ennui and world weariness, weighed down by the void of existence." It's all so much psychobabble, and Haneke, knowing this, has Paul turn and wink at the camera. What, then, is Haneke's point? Funny Games is a firestarter for post-screening arguments, alight with ghastly images and actions, and essayed by a spot-on cast and storyline that flows seamlessly from one nightmarish incident to the next. It's an uncomfortable, distressing, and altogether provocative take on the global culture of media violence that not only draws the hapless viewer in, but also forces them into the role of fait accompli, like it or not. Take notes, you will be discussing this one later.

3.5 stars

Marc Savlov



SIX-STRING SAMURAI

D: Lance Mungia; with Jeffrey Falcon, Justin McQuire, Stephane Gauger. (PG-13, 91 min.)

The whole Road Warrior/Death Race 2000 post-apocalyptic hero genre is stone-cold dead, and no amount of clammy-lipped CPR from Kevin Costner is going to bring it back. But with the feral genius of a comics-steeped mind, ballyhooed young director Lance Mungia has managed to wring some fresh excitment out of it anyway, crafting a wild, indescribable fantasy romp that doesn't so much revitalize a tired story tradition as detonate a stick of dynamite up its keister. The action takes place in an alternate universe in which the USA, soundly whipped in a nuclear war with the Russians, has devolved into a ragtag tribal confederation ruled over by "King" Elvis Presley. When The E passes on, a host of guitar-slinging adventurers immediately sets out for the remote desert capital of "Lost Vegas" to vie for possession of the throne. One of these is "Buddy" (Jeffrey Falcon, who also shares the screenwriting credit with Mungia), a rock & roll badass who talks and squints like Eastwood, dresses like Buddy Holly, and packs a two-foot samurai sword. Along the way, he and an orphan kid sidekick do battle with a freaky, deaky assortment of villains, including cannibals, Red Army soldiers, homicidal bowlers -- and even Death himself, incarnated as a sort of Guns N' Roses/Skid Row Eighties metalhead. This entire demented package is wrapped in layers of intense, hyperreal colors (as a budget concession, Mungia shot his movie with expired 35mm film) and drop-dead brilliant camerawork by Kristian Bernier, whose Death Valley location shots and action sequences push beyond technical mastery into a realm of what I can only describe as ecstatic conjury. Bernier's talents blend with the choreographic skills of Falcon -- a bona fide kung fu master -- to create a spectacle of pure kinetic grace that would be as impressive to highbrow dance mavens as the obvious chopsocky/action crowd. Now, you may be wondering how a film that can get me gibbering on about "ecstatic conjury" manages only a three-star bottom line. That's because, true to the modern comic-book sensibilities that suffuse it, Six String Samurai is as empty-headed as it is visually overwhelming. Full appreciation of this movie ultimately depends upon your ability to not only tolerate certain cheesy clichés of dialogue, sight gag, and characterization but also to gather them to your bosom in a loving, semi-ironic embrace. Me, I tend to gravitate toward the view that clichés are clichés, regardless of context. And I get extra cranky when certain über-clichés involving Elvis, Vegas, mysterioso surf music soundtracks, etc. come into play. If movie criticism were like jury duty, these prejudices would probably be enough to get me scratched from the panel, so take that factor into account. In any event, as a pure display of indie film moxie, raw moviemaking prowess, and cortex-blistering energy, I'm still plenty impressed by what Mungia and company have accomplished here. Not many artists could conceive a blend of Sergio Leone, Akira Kurosawa, and Lone Wolf and Cub (among countless other influences) and come so close to making it all hang together. So go see their movie. Dig the remarkable feat they've pulled off at this early stage in their careers. But more importantly, imagine what they'll be capable of when their ideas start catching up with their sheer nerve.

3 stars

Russell Smith


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