Fun and games?

An English-language remake of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) directed by Haneke himself is perhaps the most unlikely major studio venture of the year. In the original, two sociopaths hold an upper-middle-class family hostage in their summer home, forcing them to take part in torturous psychological games. That film was bleak, brutal, nihilistic, and emotionally unsatisfying—exactly the sort of difficult fare that Hollywood generally avoids.

How could Haneke possibly find American financing? I assumed he would be forced to compromise his vision, similar to how George Sluizer had to tack an incongruous happy ending onto his Hollywood version of The Vanishing. Boy, was I wrong. The film Haneke has delivered is nearly identical to his 1997 original. Not only is the gloomy tone intact, but so is everything else, from the geography of the house right down to placement of the tables and chairs. Compared to this, Gus Van Sant’s shotby- shot remake of Psycho played positively fast and loose with its source material.

In the rare instances when foreign filmmakers have directed American remakes of their own movies, the boredom is usually palpable, yet the new Funny Games turns out to be every bit as good as the original. It’s still powerful, suspenseful, and absolutely merciless towards its characters and audience.

Seeing Funny Games for the first time is an ordeal. There were many walkouts when it played at Cannes in 1997, and I remember that fateful day when I watched it on DVD, thinking about how nice it would be to turn it off, go out into the sunshine, and reassure myself that the world wasn’t so terrible after all.

Haneke intended his film to be a dark satire of America’s glamorized presentation of violence. “In many American films, violence is made consumable,” says Haneke in the press notes. “I want to show the reality of violence, the pain, the wounding of another human being.” His point is that in being entertained by cinematic depictions of murder, we are on the same moral level as the murderers. At several points during Funny Games, the killers break the fourth wall and address the camera, as if conspiring with the viewer directly.

Haneke goes beyond attacking the viewer’s taste in movies: he attacks the viewer personally. I hated the contempt that Haneke had for his audience. Movies like Psycho and A Clockwork Orange trick the audience into sympathizing with their depraved heroes, but those films at least offer considerable entertainment value. Funny Games, on the other hand, is no fun at all. Frankly, I wanted a film that would reassure me that I was on the moral high ground. Why should Haneke make me accessory to the crimes just because I rented his movie?

Well…why not? Isn’t great art supposed to challenge us? Haneke has said he wants this remake to reach the multiplex crowd that supports the torture porn genre, but he is most skillful in challenging his own bourgeois art house audience. Most of his films paint lessthan- flattering pictures of the upper-middleclass lifestyle (in Funny Games, the family’s elaborate gate keeps them from escaping), and in interviews he has said that this film was not meant as a rebuttal to lowbrow horror flicks, but to the work of Palme d’Or winner and critics’ darling Quentin Tarantino.

Watching his Funny Games, already knowing everything that was to come, I could appreciate just how meticulous Haneke is as a filmmaker. His decision to not use non-diegetic music deprives us of one of the medium’s most reassuring artifices. Watch how he creates a stifling, claustrophobic atmosphere by frequently focusing the camera away from the characters that are talking. Look for moments where Haneke subverts the conventions of the typical thriller (near the beginning, the camera lingers on a knife, presumably to establish its importance. When the knife finally reappears towards the end, it’s as a cynical joke). And of course, keep in mind that most of the violent acts takes place off screen, something I didn’t even realize when I first saw the original.

So what’s new in the remake? Well, very little. In fact, the few times where dialogue has been dropped or shot constructions have been altered will stick out like a sore thumb for anyone with a good memory. Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt, and Brady Corbett now play the four central roles, and they fit their parts so perfectly that memories of the original actors rarely arise. Pitt in particular gives a great, creepy performance that deserves comparison with Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange.

If you’ve seen the original Funny Games, do you need to see the remake? Maybe not. But then again, if your first reaction was as negative as mine, you may find that another viewing can be a revelation. I certainly didn’t “enjoy” either version of this film, but they both made me rethink many of the violent films I’ve enjoyed. And for that alone, Funny Games is invaluable.

Kingwell takes on the city

In conjunction with the inaugural University of Toronto Festival of the Arts and the University of Toronto Art Centre’s exhibition of John Hartman’s Cities, Mark Kingwell delivered a lecture entitled “The City as a Work of Art” on March 13.

Kingwell, a philosophy professor at U of T, is the author of 10 books. The consummate Toronto flaneur had no problem filling every seat in the University College lecture theatre.

The city—from civitas, civilized life and citizenship—intrigues Kingwell, and his love shows. In his lecture, he made the case for the city as a work of art, using New York City and Shanghai as his primary examples. Cities, according to Kingwell, cannot be easily defined as one thing or the other, but rather as a confluence of things that collide together to create a sense of embodied consciousness— very much like the people who inhabit them.

He takes his cue from Heidegger, who asserted that “the mere object is not the work of art” but rather the space created by the object for reflection and contemplation. For him, the “city of the imagination,” more than the actual environs of the city, helps to justify the city as a work of art. More than the concrete that surrounds us, the city assimilates into our consciousness. His rejection of teleological ends and grand urban planning recalls the late Jane Jacobs.

Kingwell’s excellent conception of cities, which any city-lover would agree with, testify that the city is an organic, growing thing, though it is not biological. It represents the ultimate Freudian conquest of our natural environs: a centre of creativity and culture. A city, according to Kingwell, is not a symphony but a jazz riff—many parts coming together to make excellent music. And, just as his artful city is more a jazz piece than a concerto, Kingwell shone brightest in the Q&A, easily elaborating on many points.

Whether each person agreed or disagreed with Kingwell’s analysis, the lecture provided each of us with food for thought—just what city life should do.

Blue Hour is beautiful

Leave it to David Mamet to elevate mundane, everyday American English to the level of poetry. The UCDP’s production of The Blue Hour truly blew me away—the lights alone would have been worth watching, but when talented acting and skilful direction bring a masterful text to life, it is truly a treat. The play was presented as part of the ongoing inaugural University of Toronto Festival of the Arts.

The play is a series of vignettes set in New York City about a time called, funnily enough, the blue hour, that time just after sunset where the sky is a perfect, beautiful blue. The interaction between actors Sonia Lindner and Thomas Davis in the opening scene was hilarious, as was the following scene with Lindner and Gwynne Phillips in a closing department store.

The scene between JP Bevilacqua and Davis as two businessmen forced into awkward conversation on a commuter train was perhaps the most resonant— expressing the annoyance at dealing with those you could not care less about.

Most touching however was the concluding scene between Bevilacqua and Davis. The loneliness of the two men in a subway station was so understated and tense that the audience was dead silent until the scene faded to black, the theatre erupting in applause.

My only regret is that I did not have time to see the other shows, Methusalem: Or, the Eternal Bourgeois and Bully, that ran with The Blue Hour. If this show indicates of the level of talent in this year’s UCDP batch, I would no doubt have been delighted.

Space oddity

Stephen Chow’s attempt to conquer the American market continues with CJ7, a whimsical, effects-heavy, sci-ficomedy. Chow, “the Jim Carrey of Asia,” has starred in over 40 films and directed eight, but few of them—heavily dependant on Cantonese wordplay and unspeakably broad comedy—have made an impression outside Hong Kong.

With Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004), Chow replaced much of his colloquial sensibility with universally accessible material: special effects, elaborate action sequences, and over-the-top visual comedy. He was rewarded with strong reviews and worldwide box office receipts, but CJ7 won’t do much to broaden his appeal. While Chow’s vivid imagination is still on display, this time his sloppiness gets the better of him.

Chow’s screen-time in CJ7 is surprisingly minimal. The real star is child actor Xu Jiao, who’s a cute little kid. He plays Dicky, the oft-bullied son of a poor construction worker named Ti (Chow). Dicky wants a high-tech toy called a CJ1, and is dismayed when Ti can’t afford it. Later that evening, during his daily search through the local dump, Ti finds a green egg deposited by a nearby spaceship, and gives it to Dicky, calling it a “CJ7.” But wait, it gets better—the egg hatches and CJ7 turns out to be a green, squishy, super-dog from outer space.

Chow has trouble maintaining a consistent tone. Silly scenes and moments of cloying sentimentality clash jarringly, and when the inevitable tragic situation arises three quarters of the way in, it’s hard to care. Characters never extend beyond broad archetypes. And while Kung Fu Hustle intentionally pushed aside story for rapid-fire comedy, in a film with “heart” like CJ7, the script is undercooked.

Like Chow’s last two films, CJ7 uses CGI to a hyper-stylized, downright cartoonish extent. The CJ7 character is entirely computer generated, and it’s fun to watch. There are moments where CGI is used to create truly excellent gags, as CJ7 pulls a little toolbox out of nowhere, and makes Dicky a pair of high-tech shoes. Still, Chow is a hit-and-miss comedian, and this time his odds are off. Typical joke: one of Dicky’s schoolmates is a girl played by a massive, 250-pound man. Ho ho. This is the type of goofiness that goes over big in Hong Kong and doesn’t travel well overseas…except to kids.

But will kids see this? Sony Pictures Classics is making the drastic mistake of marketing CJ7 to art house audiences instead of families. A subtitled version is opening in limited release, the trailer attached to the beginning of The Counterfeiters of all things. Strange tactics, because the grade school set might like it. But it’s no Kung Fu Hustle; it’s gentler, less chaotic, and, frankly, less enjoyable.

Listen Up!

Listen Up!

What to rock and what to not

Jordan Bimm, Rae Matthews, Suzannah Moore

Sally Shapiro – Remix Romance Vol.1 (Paper Bag)

On the heels of her October North American debut Disco Romance (Paper Bag), Swedish princess Sally Shapiro presents us with a subtly sweet remix album that is energetic and lowkey at the same time. Owing to her slot on Toronto’s Paper Bag Records roster, this record pours on the Canadian remix talent featuring workouts by Holy Fuck, Woodhands, and The Cansecos, as well as Rhode Island’s The Juan MacLean and Germany’s Tensnake. Mixing trance-like electronics with the occasional funky disco beat, the record lacks sonic cohesion but remains consistent in quality. These are dance tracks, but they rely more on their sensuality and bittersweet lyrics than kinetic, throbbing beats. Not that anyone’s examining the lyrics, especially once she starts singing in French, but there are occasional tracks that bend the listener’s ear. Her spoken word song, “Jackie Junior” (fi ttingly remixed by Hamilton’s Junior Boys), showcases Shapiro’s adorable accent as she recites what sounds like a monologue from a student play. Shapiro’s voice is mostly sweet and sometimes sexy, complementing her beats, which are intense but sometimes soft.—RAE MATTHEWS


No No Zero – Rough Stuff (Signed By Force)

Every once in a while, I come across a record that’s so bad it’s good. Rough Stuff by local garage punks No No Zero defi nitely falls into this category. Channelling the Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, and The Ramones, No No Zero’s sound is loud and full of fuzzy distortion. The vocals are often mixed lower than the guitars and drums, with most songs wrapping up in under two minutes (the 16-song offering is only 27 minutes long). The low vocals may be a mixed blessing, as most of the lyrical content on Rough Stuff sounds like it was penned by a horny 13-year-old psychopath. For example, on their song “Ass Commando,” singer Pius Priapus offers the following insight, “ass commando, ass commando, get into the ass undetected, you’ll never know, how I come and go, your ass can’t last, detonate ass blast.” Genius? Not a fucking chance. Hilarious? Yes, defi nitely. Pretty much every song has some explicitly sexual overtone, “Screw,” “She Jerks,” and “Why Won’t You Let Me Fuck You?” being the prime examples. They also have a song entitled “Brown Shower,” which I’m scared to even speculate about thematically— suffi ce to say that the only lyrics to this three-minute slowmo epic are “Brown shower, bend and devour, taste the power.” Enjoy your nightmares.—JORDAN BIMM


The Populars – A Pill for Everyone (Kindling)

It’s hard to say which is worse, the title of the album, or the album itself. The aesthetics of the cover photos for Prescott, Ont.’s The Populars come across as a bright American Apparel ad, as the band members sport fl ashy colours while jumping and smiling at you. The back of the album features a shelf of pills (get it?), selling the band as an enthusiastic, anti depressant advertisement for the wannabe preteen population. Their lyrics are obvious, overly simplistic, and repetitive, the only shock being how comfortable they are with blatant clichés in song titles such as “Teenage Party Girl” and “Weekend Warrior,” perfect fodder for a ninth-grade pool party. This album fails on account of their awkwardly contradictory image and their mediocre instrumentals. Their live show would probably be endurable, most likely the opening band that gets instantly upstaged by a mediocre headliner.—SUZANNAH MOORE


Pettigrew tells china to ‘open up’

Last Saturday, U of T held its third annual China Conference to discuss the country’s rose and its swiftly growing economy. The conference held panels on trade, fi nance, social responsibility, education, and the environment. Close to 200 people attended to hear presentations given by some of the leading experts on China.

The conference is organized yearly by the U of T Forum of China Development, a recognized student club.

This year’s conference featured former Minister of Foreign Affairs Pierre Pettigrew delivering the keynote address. While minister, Pettigrew played an instrumental role in the signing of an important bilateral trade agreement that eased the path for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001.

This year’s conference was titled “Made in China” to highlight “the myriad social and political issues” that surround the country.

Pettigrew named the emergence of China as one of three critical world issues for the 21st century, the others being internal struggles within Islam, and the way the U.S. uses its influence.

“A country like Canada needs to engage China,” said Pettigrew. “Because the complimentarity between Canada and China is absolutely huge, China is a resource-hungry country […] and we’re resource rich,” he said.

Pettigrew also chastised U.S. presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for speaking out against NAFTA. “Given the rise of China […] NAFTA needs to be stronger, otherwise it will become irrelevant. I agree with Obama that we need to renegotiate NAFTA, but we need to renegotiate it to deepen it, make it stronger.” Pettigrew’s mentioned that at some point China will have to open up politically if its economic success is to continue.

At one point during the Q&A period a student attempted to ask Pettigrew three separate questions, much to the ire of the audience. Someone in attendance angrily shouted out that other people were in the room and the student did not ask his third question.

“This [the conference] is a really good medium to provide exchange and gather people from diverse backgrounds, but who all have this common interest,” said Jennifer Dong, cochair of the UTCC.

“Our goal is to let people know about these issues and hopefully now that there are a lot of Chinese Canadians who have received a Western education, they know about democracy […] hopefully the students of this generation will bring some of these ideas back with them to China,” Dong said.

Heavy duty rock research

As a research-oriented university, U of T has seen a lot of firsts. The brand new Rock Fracture Dynamics Laboratory, constructed to study how rocks break under stress, can now be added to that list.

This groundbreaking facility allows researchers to test rock samples under simulated force and temperature conditions (up to 200 degrees Celsius) found on Earth, while providing detailed images of the process. Part of the Lassonde Institute for Engineering Geoscience, it will provide researchers with a realtime account of what occurs inside the samples being tested. Researchers will be able to track fractures and cracks as they occur, leading to a greater understanding of this previously difficult to study phenomenon. Researchers can simulate conditions up to four kilometres deep in the Earth’s crust, using the carefully controlled environment in the facility.

“The facility enables us to perform geophysical imaging on samples of rocks, so we can now visualize what’s going on inside the rock as it is happening,” said professor Paul Young, Keck Chair of Seismology and Rock Mechanics and vice president of research at U of T, in an interview with the Bulletin.

The heart of this laboratory is electronic in nature: a beastly 256- processor computing cluster provides the necessary processing power for the immense amounts of data collected by sensing instruments. The cluster is capable of performing trillions of calculations per second—necessary, considering the constant stream of data gathered by the sensors as they “listen” to the samples crushed and fractured.

In the past, researchers would have to sift through a great deal of data in order to understand any given fracturing experiment. This could mean waiting months for a clear picture. With the new laboratory, U of T geologists can visualize the data gathered mere minutes after the fact.

Scientists will be able to measure a great variety of information regarding material fractures, including, most importantly, energy release. Young explained that the instruments are extremely sensitive, able to measure the equivalent force needed to break pencil lead.

Fractures become clearly visible when shifting tectonic plates form faults. The pressure upon rocks in many situations can reach incredible levels, causing solid pieces of stone to snap in half. Areas with heavily fractured rock can form aquifers, as the increased permeability allows fl uids to fl ow between the cracks.

Studying rocks under extreme stress allows for a better understanding a particularly stressful natural occurrence— earthquakes.

This heavy-duty processing power will help researchers compare mathematical models of rock behaviour to real-life experiments. Researchers can then refine their predictions to forecast the various processes involved in earthquakes, faults, and other geological situations.

Additionally, the data will be useful for the construction industry, as engineers seek to understand how and why materials fail in certain situations.

“We will be able to see how cement, as well as rock, reacts [to fractures], and measure that growth. This will help the construction industry understand better what happens with critical infrastructure,” said Young.

Saudi school scores Sargent

Electrical and computer engineering professor Ted Sargent was recently awarded a $10-million grant from the brand new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. Sixty universities worldwide put forward nominees for the founding scholars of the new university, which will open its doors September 2009.

Sargent, 34, is relatively young for a professor of Canada Research Chair calibre. The U of T and Queen’s University grad was named one of the world’s top young innovators by MIT’s Technology Review in 2003, and a research leader in the “Scientific American 50” in 2005.

Also in 2005, Sargent and his research team made a breakthrough when they successfully converted infrared rays from the sun into electrical power.

“The KAUST award will enable critical breakthroughs to address today’s compromise between low cost and high performance solar energy, and will accelerate the cycle of innovation to transform the sun’s abundant rays into a practical, cost-effective source of energy to be enjoyed by the citizens of the world,” said Professor Cristina Amon, dean of U of T’s Faculty of Applied Sciences.

Professor Sargent will continue to work at U of T in addition to his collaborations at KAUST. He will be one of 12 scholars in the university’s founding group, and the only one from a Canadian university.

Professor Paul Young, VP research, nominated Sargent for the grant. “This is tremendously exciting for Ted,” he said. “He has made huge achievements at a relatively young age and this award will enable him to have even greater impact with his innovative work.”