I’m on board with this in principle — scrappy council-house kid gives stuffy old-rich-gentlemen’s club a kick in the ass is a solid enough baseline for the old-fashioned secret-agents-save-the-world story, and scenes of over-the-top, balletic violence provide an enticing hook. This is also an origin story — the jumping-off point for an obviously hoped-for franchise turning the film’s unknown Welsh star, Taron Egerton, into a street-smart action hero — and so we spend much of the film stuck in spy-school, where director Matthew Vaughn and co-screenwriter Jane Goldman spit up a range of pre-chewed chestnuts from the history of elite-training narratives on film to show how fatherless protag “Eggsy” Unwin (Egerton) earns his super-spy status under the mentorship of the ever-dapper veteran Harry (Colin Firth). It’s not unpleasant, but it doesn’t go anywhere new.
It’s been eight years since the release of Zach Snyder’s beefcake epic 300 put movie buffs on notice that the future of action cinematography was endless slow-motion, excruciating speed ramping, and ever more phony-baloney green-screen tableaux. That might not seem like a long time, but in Hollywood terms it’s a freaking eon. It only took two more years than that before Sony kicked Sam Raimi to the curb and rebooted the Spider-Man series entirely with a younger, cuter director. So maybe Zack Snyder is lucky Warner Bros. greenlighted a straightforward sequel to 300 rather than handing a remake to Fede Alvarez or somebody.
One of the most powerful moments in Scarface is the culmination of a violent, perfectly judged sequence of events crafted for maximum impact by screenwriter Oliver Stone and staged with ferocious efficiency by director Brian De Palma. It takes place at the end of a night when Al Pacino’s Cuban gangster, a feisty little hard-on named Tony Montana, has survived an attempt on his life that left him with a bullet in his shoulder. He has overseen the execution of his boss, who was behind the hit. He has shot dead a corrupt cop who was extorting his cash and favours. And he has just been upstairs to collect from between satin sheets his boss’s woman, a sleek blonde dressed in white who is his prize. The camera zooms out from a medium close-up on Pacino’s face as, still bleeding, arm in a sling, exhaustion writ large across his face, Tony Montana peers through 20-foot-tall glass windows, staring dumbly into a Giorgio Moroder sunrise as an advertising blimp floats over the water, its pithy slogan an empty promise of greatness yet to come: “The World Is Yours….”
UPDATE 8/29: My wife jumped on me after reading this for the suggestion that the act of taking scalps from victims was somehow endemic to the Native American people. While she agreed that’s how it’s presented in this film, she told me that the Europeans introduced the practice to indigenous Americans, and not the other way around. I was not too surprised at this, though it’s certainly contrary to the popular narrative, and promised to find a source online and add a footnote. Jonathan Rosenbaum, perhaps the film’s most notable detractor, beat me to it. It doesn’t change my opinion of the film — Tarantino’s riffing on film history rather than real history, and Aldo Raine probably wouldn’t know the difference, Apache blood or no — but I agree that it’s well worth noting.
Among the most satisfying of exploitation subgenres, for those who swing that way, is the rape-revenge picture. The basic structure is well suited to the grindhouse feature — it offers an excuse to stage scenes of sexual violence (the “rape” portion of the formula) alongside images of even more graphic, brutal violence (the “revenge”) while packaging the exercise as both moral lesson and wish-fulfillment fantasy. The appeal of the story is fairly primal — an early prototype for this sort of thing, Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, was based on The Virgin Spring, a 1960 Ingmar Bergman film that had its own roots in a centuries-old Swedish folk song. As folk tale, the rape-revenge yarn functions as a stern warning, perhaps first appealing to an imagined audience’s prurience and sadism with the story of a violation, then warning them about the civilized world’s uniform, punitive, and perhaps grisly response to such an assault. As film, the subject matter is even more charged. Given feminist ideas about the male gaze and the embedded sexism of 100 years of film history, the idea of staging a rape for movie cameras, in a film destined to reach a (presumably base and horny) grindhouse audience, has the stench of amorality (if not outright immorality) about it.
The most interesting thing about Wanted is that its protagonist is one of the most unlikable action heroes in memory — a smug, self-regarding asshole whose honestly distasteful misanthropy is at least refreshing in a genre that often relies on charming sociopaths to sell popcorn. As the film opens, Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) is a hapless desk jockey working at a job he can’t stand for a boss he hates. (Somebody show this guy Livejournal, Facebook, anything.) He knows that his own girlfriend is getting screwed on the kitchen countertop by one of his office mates during the daily lunch hour. He types “Wesley Gibson” into Google and laments the returned empty page. He can’t get $20 out of the ATM because he doesn’t have $20, and he can’t get $10 out because the machine only dispenses 20s. And our little Sisyphus can’t get over the idea that, after he gets off work in the evening, he just has to get up the next morning and go back to work again. For those of us in the audience who long ago made our peace with real-world annoyances like earning a paycheck and polishing our résumés, Wesley expresses contempt in second-person voiceover. Presumably, dear viewer, you haven’t killed anyone lately — and that makes you a pussy.
When I first heard that Funny Games was being remade for the U.S. multiplex, I couldn’t imagine a more unlikely crossover between extreme European cinema and the American mainstream. But now this. Gosh. I know HBO is reputedly starving for new, edgy content. But really, what the hell is going on?
04.01.08 | HBO COMMISSIONS FUNNY GAMES, COMEDY-DRAMA SERIES
BASED ON MICHAEL HANEKE’S FILMS, TO BEGIN AIRING THIS FALL
LOS ANGELES, April 1, 2008 – HBO, in conjunction with Halcyon Pictures and Tartan Films, is set to begin production on the 12-episode first season of the new HBO comedy-drama series FUNNY GAMES, it was announced today by Nicki Brand, executive vice president, HBO Entertainment. Michael Pitt (“The Dreamers,” “Last Days”) and Brady Corbett (“Thirteen,” “24”) will star in the series, reprising their roles from the recent Warner Independent Pictures feature film.
Slated to debut October 31, FUNNY GAMES is executive produced by Michael Haneke (“Cache”) and Ron Howard (“The Da Vinci Code”). Based on the 1997 film directed by Haneke, the show looks at a different ordinary American family each week as they cope with the arrival of the white-clad Peter and Paul, two unwelcome guests who enjoy sinister “funny games” that turn their hosts’ lives upside down.
“FUNNY GAMES is an intense, thought-provoking series that’s unlike anything else HBO has presented before,” said Brand. “The show undermines the creature comforts of the bourgeoisie and mocks the American television audience through telling moments of sadism and brutality in a way that broadcast TV can’t do.”
“We’re definitely going to push the envelope,” said Howard. “Michael’s brilliant films never found the audience they deserved, but I’m incredibly excited to think that, every week, the HBO viewing audience will have the opportunity to rethink its relationship to the thoughtlessly violent entertainment spectacles it craves.”
The show will also introduce a groundbreaking interactive component. Midway through each episode, viewers will vote via 900 number or text message on whether or not the family in that week’s installment should be allowed to survive. But, in a soul-shattering twist that underscores the relation between cinematic spectatorship and sadism, each installment will nonetheless end with the casual murder of each family member, as well as any pets.
“Since I first conceived it in the mid 1990s, FUNNY GAMES has always been my intelligent, passionate reaction to stupidly violent American cinema and the audience of shabby, knuckle-dragging cretins that thoughtlessly consumes this kind of naïve, morally destitute entertainment,” said Haneke. “Fuck you,” he added.
I settled in for The Devil’s Rejects expecting to get another Rob Zombie homage-to-slash-rip-off-of those seminal American horror films of the 70s that inspired his crappy House of 1,000 Corpses, a disposable exercise in sadism whose not-inconsiderable grindhouse nastiness was exceeded by its general incompetence. Generally, it missed its mark. What was so unsettling about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Last House on the Left and their ilk was partly that they were movies that enjoyed their freedom from studio supervision and were ready to try anything. They were scary because they felt genuinely unhinged. What Wes Craven did to those girls in Last House on the Left makes Rob Zombie look like a Boy Scout, so we don’t really need Zombie trying to make Wes Craven movies. Instead, he decided to make a Sam Peckinpah movie.
Put The Devil’s Rejects on a double bill with The Brown Bunnyand you’ll get something interesting: two very different movies taking place inside the heads of men who have decided to recreate the aesthetic of 1970s American filmmaking. Zombie swaps Gallo’s languid pace for a more ferocious narrative, andThe Brown Bunny’s famously explicit blow job finds its sadistic correlative in Zombie’s torture, nudity and rape. The main difference, however, is that Gallo finds a deep poignancy and sadness in the idea of living in the past, while Zombie relishes it. Replete with sordid visuals and bereft of redemptive values, The Devil’s Rejects is a rebuke to what’s become of genre filmmaking.
The Devil’s Rejects recycles Zombie’s pet pervs from the earlier film, the Firefly family of serial rapists, torturers and murderers. The riveting opening sequence, accented by split screen action and punctuated by freeze frames, depicts an assault on the family home; scraggly Otis (Bill Moseley) and sexpot Baby (Zombie’s wife Sheri Moon Zombie) escape unharmed, but Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook) is taken into custody. Otis and Baby embark on a killing spree, aided and abetted by patriarch Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), as the Sheriff (William Forsythe) hunts them down — eventually displaying a blackened heart to rival those of his prey.
To get the right look, Zombie hired Phil Parmet, a longtime documentary cinematographer (his credentials include Harlan County U.S.A. and Scott Caan’s Dallas 362), to shoot the entire movie on handheld Super 16 cameras, followed by a digital blow-up to 35mm. Zombie blew through about a tenth of the movie’s budget licensing songs for the soundtrack, a process that he finished before shooting even began. The strategy pays off in the big climactic sequence, a shootout on the open road cut to the strains of “Free Bird.” Essentially, Zombie sticks his thumbs in the eyes of a certain brand of American myth-making, replacing Skynyrd’s testosterone-sweaty images of glamorous solipsism with a simple band of guilty-as-sin redneck thugs. He also kills his own franchise, sending it off with a finality that says “no more sequels.”
Zombie is specifically interested in the appeal of the antihero, toying with the idea of making his murderous characters appealing in a slapstick kind of way. They’re named after characters from Marx Bros. movies, and Spaulding has a clown persona. To some degree, you can tell (just look to his cartoonish rock persona as reference), Zombie identifies with them. (In a funny touch, the cops end up calling in a film critic, presumably Zombie’s antagonist, to help explain the cinematic references.) But he also indulges a full-on sadistic streak involving mutilation and sexual violence that’s honestly disturbing — I say “honestly” because Zombie takes his killers beyond bad-ass Freddie Krueger or Jason Voorhees caricature, evoking instead the kind of real-world fiends you read about in chilly true crime paperbacks or see represented on tabloid TV. They stop just short of child molesting.
The horror elements do resemble the Texas Chainsaw/Last House breed of psycho killer movie, except that Zombie refuses to give the audience a potential victim (the “final girl” of the slasher genre) or other innocent to identify with. The resulting low-rent Grand Guignol is a bit off-putting; because the film lacks the craft and rigor of something like Taxi Driver or A Clockwork Orange¸ both of which achieve a certain high irony in the depiction of their own raving sociopaths, it comes across as an utterly lowbrow alternative. (Maybe the highbrow equivalent is Michael Haneke’s condescending Funny Games; I’ve always wondered how that would play in a screening for a crowd of horror junkies.) And yet there’s something quite freeing about Zombie’s fundamentally wicked approach — it’s a repudiation of the toothless sort of supernatural PG-13 action-adventure that’s become synonymous with the post-Scream American horror film.