SLEUTH & A Few New DVD Reviews

“The film was a sadd’ning bore, ’cause I wrote it 10 times or more.”
– David Bowie from the song “Life On Mars”

Bowie’s couplet above could serve as perfect criticism of the following film. I wanted to see it on the big screen last Fall but it played for only a week at a local theater and was roundly panned. I loved the original so I put it in my queue and wished for the best. Well, what I got was the worst:

SLEUTH (Dir. Kenneth Branaugh, 2007)

This entire production screams “high concept!” It’s a slick streamlined remake of the much beloved 1972 mystery which pitted Sir Laurence Olivier as a wealthy novelist against Michael Caine as a gold digging hair salon manager who is having an affair with Olivier’s wife. The high concept here is that Caine now plays the wealthy novelist and Jude Law, fresh from remaking ALFIE, again steps into Caine’s old shoes as the young gold digger. The gothic old house of the original has been transformed into a high tech palace with surveillance cameras and monitors in every corner – a cold and sterile museum of a house that Caine says was designed by his wife but it’s hard not to think he took some notes from Batman. Taking the concept higher is a new screenplay by noted playwright Harold Pinter which throws out all of the original’s dialogue and replaces it with even more twisted mental trickery. Branaugh’s sharply stylised direction inhabits every frame – the film actually looks shiny like an expensive ad in GQ magazine. So why doesn’t any of it work?

Hmmm, It’s not because it’s ridiculous, contrived, and over the top – the original was all those things and even more unbelievable in its conceit. The conceit being that these 2 men perform a series of double crossing mindgames over the never seen wife. There is one giant plot device that I won’t give away, though if you watch the trailer you can probably guess what it is, that is handled so horribly it should have been discarded all together. Caine has sleepwalked through better material than this but he does give it the old college try. Jude Law, is well…just what I expected – glib but hiding overwhelming insecurities but just like with Caine we never believe these are people with lives outside of this movie. They’re both constrained by their empty caricatures.

Like I said before – the film looks great, the actors are apt, and the direction is solid so I guess I can only really blame the script. Pinter’s dialogue is simplistic yet over-reaching – he uses all of the original’s hot premise points but retains none of their humorous charms. If the plan was to break down a grand theatrical melodrama down into a souless modern psychological thriller package with as much depth as a Tom and Jerry cartoon then Pinter is indeed a genius as he’s been often called. With all due respect to the Nobel Laureate, the original was an amusing trifle; this is high concept tripe. The 2007 model SLEUTH only has 2 good things going for it: 1. At 86 minutes it is an hour shorter than the original so at least they didn’t try and stretch what was already as thin as Shelley Duvall as Olive Oil. 2. The prospect that because this film was a critical and financial failure we can be spared any future Jude Law remakes of Michael Caine movies. Though come to think of it though, in the right hands Law could maybe pull off DEATHTRAP – if they stick to the original script, that is.

This next film isn’t new but I’m writing about it because there is a recent English language remake that just came to my area. It’s not playing in Chapel Hill however possibly because in the light of the tragic death of UNC student Eve Carson it could be seen to be in bad taste. Hearing that the remake is a shot-by-shot replay of the original from a decade earlier by the same director I got it from NetFlix and do strongly feel that yes the timing would be bad. Not sure though, if the time will ever be right for:

FUNNY GAMES (Dir. Michael Haneke, 1997)

In a calm soothing manner we are introduced to a cultured Austrian family (A husband and wife played by Ulrigh Mühe and Suzanne Lothar with their son played by Stefan Clapczynski) arriving at their lake house. 10 minutes into the film a couple of creepy young men dressed in white clothes with white gloves appear – the first (Frank Giering) innocently asks to borrow some eggs from Lothar which he supposedly accidentally breaks. He asks for more, breaks those too and an awkward confrontation occurs when the second (Arno Frisch) assaults Mühe with a golf club severely injuring his right leg. The home invasion is in full swing now with the family taken hostage and a series of sadistic mind games with rules and deadly consequences set in place by Frisch. Frisch “breaks the frame” early on by winking at the camera then later asking the audience to bet on the fate of his victims: “You’re on their side so who will you bet with?”

Many critics have labeled FUNNY GAMES – high art disguised as torture porn (or vice versa) and point out that we don’t actually see much of the violence because it occurs off screen. That may be true but there is still enough voyeuristic violence with screaming and blood in sight to disturb not just the squeamish. Haneke has said that he intended to make “a film about the portrayal of violence in the media, in movies… an attempt to provide an analysis of the work within the work.” I’m afraid that even with that lofty purpose and artsy asides to the camera we still just have another violent piece of work here – a pretentious and tedious one at that. Repeatedly the suffering family asks their tormentors “why?” – “Don’t forget the entertainment value” Giering responds and it is the only thing that ever comes close to a sincere answer. The entertainment value of this pointless exercise however is non-existent. If Haneke is making a statement critical of the mass consumption of media violence and he is ideally chastising viewers with his own work then as someone identifying themselves as Fuckhead on a Onion A.V. Club message board * asks “I guess the way to pass this film’s test is to not see it? Is that it?” Yes, that’s it. I failed that test by watching the original. But I expect to pass with flying colors when it comes to the remake.

* Actually from the comments on the article “A funny response to Funny Games” by Steve Hyden (March 17, 2008)

I AM LEGEND (Dir. Francis Lawrence, 2007)

I was planning on skipping this flick but some friends thought it would be good mindless fun one recent eve. They were right – this Will Smith fighting zombies spectacle (big enough to warrant an IMAX release) isn’t too dumb for fun. Mind you, it considers itself to be too highbrow to call them zombies or mutants – they’re called The Infected or Darkseekers. Based on the 1954 novel (which took place in the 70’s) by Richard Matheson, the story is simple – in 2012, 3 years after most of the world’s population is hit by a massive plague a man (Smith) who believes he may be the last alive on Manhattan Island struggles to find a cure for the virus. Dodging constant attacks, Smith talks to himself and his trusty dog Sam (who you just know won’t make til the end) as he stockpiles food, broadcasts radio transmissions in hope of finding other survivors, and has several flashes to backstory about his departed family. He captures Infected ones in order to test treatments and thinks he may have found a possible anti-dote.

Of course, this plot seems designed as an elaborate laundry line on which to hang a series of immense bombastic set pieces including a scene involving the Brooklyn Bridge which cost $5 million (the most expensive scene ever filmed in the city at the time according to Wikipedia). The CGI demon dogs and Darkseekers provide some genuine scares, while the shoot-out scenes (as one-sided as shoot-outs can be) are actually fairly compelling. Despite the sci-fi action formula limits, Smith is able to build upon his acting standard set by THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS last year and again shows he can carry, pretty much on his shoulders alone, another overblown blockbuster with poise. Don’t get me wrong though – it’s no movie masterpiece; I AM LEGEND is a brisk 1 hour and 40 min. piece of populist entertainment – nothing more. So just put a cork in your brainhole and sit back and enjoy.

More later…

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