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Funny Games, Insomnia, Passion in the Desert, Small Soldiers

By Ray Pride

JULY 13, 1998: 

Funny Games

For those who consider the Euro-art movie torture, a humorless, clinical, near-unwatchable high Euro-art movie about torture. Austrian director-misanthrope Michael Haneke, who has said his earlier films were about "the experience of coolness," has become pathologically attached to the notion that violence in the world today is inexplicable yet the fault of anyone who dares watch its depiction. The dead-serious hauteur-auteur of movies such as "Benny's Video" and "71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance" once again attacks his favorite subject, violence as it is portrayed in the media. I truly despised Haneke's earlier films and hadn't any intentions of seeing more. He says his newest, about the inexplicable torture of a bourgeois family at their lakeside house by a pair of unfunny buffoons, is a study of "pain, a violation of others." (Their own games guessing at the source of bits of classical music repertoire, is interrupted by what seems to be groaning heavy metal, but is in fact by John Zorn, a high-art maven of another stripe. Even Haneke's trash has to come from an elevated source.) Haneke goes on, "How do I show the viewer his own position in relation to violence and its portrayal?" By making vacuous, excruciating, piss-elegant and sadistic movies such as this and posing as a philosopher, that's how. If anybody wants a copy of Haneke's two-page director's statement, let me know and I'll send it to you. 103m. 35mm. (Ray Pride)


Insomnia

"Insomnia" is a stylish and riveting thriller, with a restrained, intense central performance by Stellan Skarsgard as a Swedish police detective called to investigate the murder of a teenage girl in a Norwegian town north of the Arctic Circle. It's summer, the sun never sets. Skarsgard is a herring out of water, bound in crisp Armani suits and always taken as an outsider by those he encounters. For a debut director, Eric Skjoldbjaerg's work is remarkably contained, charting the sleepless detective's inexorable breakdown in a near-ascetic style akin to David Lynch's; portent and intense sound design let the character's consciousness filter into our own. Tense and funny, "Insomnia" is a small, rich pleasure. 97m. (Ray Pride)


Passion in the Desert

An adaptation of the Balzac novella about a Napoleonic captain lost in the Saharan Desert who becomes kindred spirits with a leopard. There are hints of a compelling movie, particularly in the way the desert is pictured. But the effect is mostly enervating. 93m. (Ray Pride)


Small Soldiers

Joe Dante hasn't hit the big screen since 1983's "Matinee," and while "Small Soldiers" could be taken as "Gremlins 3," you have to ask, why not? From the beginning, you hope for pop satire bliss when Kubrick's monolith is recast as a toy package waiting to be bathed in light. Dante is one of our great smart-ass directors, never pausing to become smug: his widescreen frames burst with detail and dynamic motion. In an eminently merchandisable take on toy merchandising, "Small Soldiers" posits a line of toys that are too smart–given a mission of hate and a munitions-level microchip, they wreak havoc on a small Ohio town. Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith) is a mischievous high schooler whose father runs The Inner Child, a failing shop filled with nonviolent toys. Enter the Commando Elite and the Gorgonites. (Also enter Kirsten Dunst as the puppy-love interest next door.) Dante manages to make something out of all the misbegotten flag-waving of "Armageddon" in his Norman-Rockwell-by-way-of-Mad-magazine world. We get the suburbs as backlot, never scenes shot on location. Dante's recurring image of kids on bicycles tearing around the backlot are his own, even from his television series "Eerie, Indiana." Streets curve or end in Ts, we never see the horizon, we remain kids, looping around an ever-present past. The only other locations (think "Explorers") is the backyard, then the moon and stars beyond. There's pint-sized mayhem galore in this romping satire posing as a kidventure, but the script also takes droll jabs at child psychotherapy, consumerism, war movies, backyard electromagnetic radiation fields, Barbie dolls and Spice Girls. DreamWorks should have its second $100 million movie of the summer. With Denis Leary, Dick Miller, Kevin Dunn and Phil Hartman. Stay after the credits for a brief final scene. (Ray Pride)


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