March 14, 2008 5:42am EST
Violence is the real story here: symbols of how media portrays it changes it as well as the general public's ideas about it. The story starts idyllic at a white-washed bayside peaceful summer house. Married couple George (Tim Roth) and Susanne (Naomi Watts) bring their fair-haired boy Georgie (Devon Gearhart) and sailboat out for fun and recreation. In the background their neighbors let an uninvited pushy twosome of boys named Paul and Peter (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet) onto their private grounds. The adolescent guys soon show up at George and Susanne's screen door weirdly needing eggs. These villains at first seem as though they're only guilty of being inconsiderate and clumsy when Peter drops the eggs and Susanne's cell phone into a sink full of water. But the boys soon turn decidedly nastier. Killing the family dog cracking George's knees with a golf club and tying Susanne up Paul makes them a bet: that all three will be dead in 24 hours. It is one of the film's several “games ” a motif running throughout Funny Games--except they are not at all funny. We can continue our love affair with the superb Naomi Watts. She singlehandedly brings much nuanced credibility to any film she's in--from tiny quirky indies (Ellie Parker) to blockbusters (King Kong) to Funny Games an amped-up genre flick. It's hard not to feel for Susanne's plight through Watts’ expressive eyes and her flashes of intelligence. Michael Pitt (The Dreamers) and Brady Corbet (Thirteen) also deserve credit in their own right looking harmless and rigorously conformist in their all-white appearance. They use silence and awkwardness to show them to be all the more antisocial and deviant. Their criminality makes an unusual impact. Even Tim Roth who plays the half-conscious tortured husband almost as a caricature evokes sympathy. Funny Games is director Michael Haneke’s shot-by-shot American remake of his 1997 Austrian film of the same name. The suspense scenes are world-class in ratcheting up the nerves much like Stanley Kubrick does with The Shining. When Peter comes after Georgie for example the building of the boy's fear is genius and unfettered with conventions. Haneke doesn't jolt the audience with messy noise and slight-of-hand allowing the characters' pure cruelty drive the fear. Funny Games gets a little big for its britches at times especially when Haneke uses the narrative to make larger social commentaries about the media. Its relevance (and the point's clarity) seems disingenuous. In any event audiences will react differently to the comically perverse violence: some will be horrified and delighted at the film’s exploitation others will see the humor but will be hesitant to express it. Funny Games is just a one of those polarizing films.
July 30, 2004 6:02am EST
For a few years in the '60s and '70s producer Gerry Anderson made "supermarionation" all the rage in the world of British children's television. His stop-motion puppets starred in a number of sci-fi adventure series most memorably Thunderbirds which followed the exploits of International Rescue -- a team comprised of ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy and his sons. Based out of their secret fortress on Treasure Island the Tracys (aided by lovely secret agent Lady Penelope) used their amazing rocket-powered vehicles to prevent disasters and save lives around the world. Now 40 years after Thunderbirds' TV debut Star Trek vet Jonathan Frakes has brought Anderson's characters to life on the big screen. Front and center is youngest son Alan Tracy (Brady Corbet) who dreams of the day he too can pilot one of his family's fab ships and lead missions. But first he has to prove himself to his father Jeff (Bill Paxton). That opportunity comes sooner than either expects when mysterious villain The Hood (Ben Kingsley) strands Jeff and the older Tracy boys in space and attacks Treasure Island. With only his friends Tintin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) and Fermat (Soren Fulton) to help him Alan has to grow up quickly if he wants to save his family ... and the world!
It would be easy to mock several of the performances in Thunderbirds-- to chide Paxton for his earnest seriousness as Tracy patriarch Jeff to dismiss Corbet's angst-tinged eagerness as Alan to roll your eyes at Kingsley's over-the-top mystical fierceness as The Hood and to wince at Fulton and Anthony Edwards' nerdy stuttering as science whizzes Fermat and his dad Brains. But actors are only as good as their script and the one Frakes has given his cast (courtesy of screenwriters William Osborne and Michael McCullers) is weak and clichéd at best filled with after-school-special-worthy lessons for Alan to learn. "You can't save everyone " Jeff tells his son somberly and even Tintin has a moral for her crush when he's feeling selfish and indulging in self-pity: "This is hard on all of us Alan." Talk about insight! What makes it even more frustrating is knowing that the actors are capable of much more even the kids: Both Corbet and Hudgens did well with supporting roles in Thirteen. Thunderbirds' only real bright spot is Sophia Myles as Lady Penelope. A cross between Reese Witherspoon's Elle in Legally Blonde and Jennifer Garner's Sydney on Alias Myles' Lady P doesn't let her pink couture wardrobe prevent her from coolly kicking ass when the situation demands it. Attended by her droll driver/man-of-all-trades Parker (Ron Cook) Lady Penelope is a fresh feisty heroine with all of the film's best lines -- and the coolest car to boot.
Frakes cut his directorial teeth on episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and his first feature film was Star Trek: First Contact so he would seem like a natural choice to bring a cult sci-fi TV show to the big screen. Unfortunately while he does an admirable job re-creating (and improving on) the original Thunderbirds' mod sets cool ships and special effects (which are fine if a bit more TV-sized than summer blockbustery) Frakes can't seem to decide who his audience is. If he was aiming at grown-ups who remember the show fondly from their own childhood he should have embraced the source material's campiness (à la Starsky and Hutch) rather than restricting it to the Tracys' plastic Barbie-like furniture and Lady P's bouffant hairdo. If on the other hand Frakes was hoping to entertain today's kids he should have really reinvented the show for a 21st-century world (à la Stephen Hopkins'1998 Lost in Space) rather than clinging to the '60s references As it is he's stuck somewhere in the middle leaving adults bored during the kids-on-an-adventure bits and children mystified by the handful of jokes aimed at their parents.
August 22, 2003 8:05am EST
Angelic but troubled 13-year-old Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) plays with Barbies diligently does homework with her nerdy friends and gets along well enough with her hardworking ex-alcoholic mom Melanie (Holly Hunter). That is until she enters the peer-pressure cooker known as junior high where she witnesses the power wielded by uber-hip Evie Zamora (Nikki Reed also the script's cowriter) leader of a fast snobby clique of girls who sport low-rider jeans rock-and-roll baby tees and tongue piercings. They're everything Tracy isn't but wants to be so she dumps her friends remakes her look and is befriended by bad grrl Evie who introduces her to the joys of pot boys and shoplifting. Evie smarms her way into Tracy's household which is far from stable--Mom's just gotten back together with an ex-junkie boyfriend (Jeremy Sisto) Tracy and her brother hate she can barely make ends meet as a hairdresser and she doesn't keep close enough tabs on what her newly wild child is busy doing all night with trampy Evie. It's not long before Tracy is drinking and drugging giving blowjobs to the boys failing classes and fighting with her family. She's totally out of control while her poor mother is at her wits' end--and perilously close to the edge of the abyss herself.
Quite simply Evan Rachel Wood is fantastic. You wouldn't expect this kind of mature well-thought-out performance from a 15-year-old whose only past leading credit is a sunny family movie about a girl who plays violin (Little Secrets) but she shows uncanny range and an ability to tap into deep-rooted emotions not readily available even to most adult actors. Most 13-year-old girls are dramatic to the nth degree and Tracy is no different--she cries silently while purposely razoring her arms makes snide remarks about her geeky schoolmates and hollers at the top of her lungs about her mother getting in her business before storming out of the house. Arguably the most underused not-twentysomething actress in Hollywood Hunter gives a searing turn as Melanie who barely needs a whisper of a push over sobriety's edge but gets a blindsiding shove from her hostile daughter. What might be the least noticed but particularly excellent performance is given by newcomer Brady Corbet as Tracy's brother--he's not on screen very often but his confusion disgust despair and--through it all--love for his fallen sister registers acutely when he is.
Catherine Hardwicke a set design veteran-turned first-time director has 13-year-old girly girl trinkets down pat paying close attention to authenticity in the details: when Tracy and Evie meet the lens zooms in on the girls' cheesy bangle bracelets their rocker T-shirts their shiny Maybelline lips smacking Bubblicious. A handheld camera is used to tell this tale and with a hard-edged soundtrack enhancing its grainy gritty freneticism Hardwicke creates a desperate close sense of urgency as if something bad is just about to happen (it usually does). But for all Thirteen's terminal velocity there's plenty of room left to explain why Tracy veers so quickly and dramatically from Jekyll to Hyde and for that matter her strange family situation. (Very little is told about Melanie's back story--you barely get that she was an alcoholic let alone information about her divorce her ex-druggie boyfriend or why she raises chickens in the backyard). As so often is the with first-time directors and indie films there is too much focus on the fancy footwork and clever details without supplying the backbone needed to support them--there's lots of room for cutting what was overdone and replacing it with information. But what really precludes Thirteen from being a four-star film is the unbelievably overwrought melodrama of its climax and ending--it's like you suddenly died and went to movie-of-the-week hell.