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Lashing out and falling apart: (center, right) Auteuil and Binoche in Caché.

Hidden in Plain Sight
By Shawn Stone

Caché

Directed by Michael Haneke

Filmmaker Michael Haneke is a real son of a bitch.

This is meant as a compliment. His last film, The Piano Teacher, was stunning, and featured a brilliant performance by Isabelle Huppert; it also happened to be one of the creepiest films of the last decade. Haneke was not interested in making the title character, a borderline psychotic, sympathetic—but he also wasn’t going to throw the audience a bone by giving them a second character they could identify with. Huppert’s piano teacher was all there was. Not even David Lynch has anything on Haneke, primarily because the Austrian-born writer-director is way ahead of the quirky American when it comes to realistic psychological terror.

Take his latest film, Caché. It’s an unnerving thriller with a middle-class domestic setting, and keeps you at the edge of your seat with each turn of the screw. The complex story is made deeper, and more meaningful, with its nuanced use of France’s tortured history with Algeria. And yet, when the mystery is revealed in the last, long shot in the film—and yes, you have to be patient and watch closely—the kick isn’t in the revelation of “whodunit.” The shock is that we, the audience, couldn’t see it coming from, oh, miles and miles away.

Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche play a happily married couple (Georges and Anne) with a likeable, bushy-haired son (Lester Makedonsky as Pierrot) and busy careers. Georges is a public TV bookchat host; Anne’s in publishing. One day a videocassette appears on their doorstep; it’s two hours of a stationary shot of the front of their house. They accept it as a prank, until more tapes of their daily lives arrive, accompanied by violent, childlike drawings.

Not surprisingly, the pair start to unravel. It’s said you never know someone until they go through a crisis, and Georges and Anne make some very unhappy discoveries about each other. Georges, it seems, is not only capable of telling lies, he’s an unapologetic liar. (Auteuil emphasizes just how scarily diffident Georges is.) Anne is also surprised to learn that his reserves of human sympathy aren’t very extensive.

The cinematic style is appropriately austere, with one periodic, showy flourish. Haneke repeatedly plays “gotcha” with the audience by not letting on that what’s being shown on screen is actually of one of the tapes, until Anne or Georges hit the rewind button and the entire image scrunches up and goes in reverse. It’s part of his misdirection—we’re scanning each shot so closely that we’re not paying proper attention to what’s really going on.

This makes Caché Hitchcockian in its intent, though a little more like Brecht in its execution. While you may feel like you’ve been had as you watch that last shot go on and on, at least comfort yourself with the idea that you’ve been had by one of the best.

Senseless

Running Scared

Directed by Wayne Kramer

Much as The Cooler was about dice, Running Scared—also written and directed Wayne Kramer—is about a gun. Specifically, a stainless steel .38 that’s used to kill a cop in the flashily violent opening sequence. But whereas The Cooler was about something—a walking, talking bad-luck streak played with wit and warmth by William H. Macy—Running Scared is just an appalling exercise in tough-guy moviemaking. The film’s supposed heart of goodness (a subtext that was carried through to a joyous conclusion in The Cooler) is just a cheap excuse for Kramer’s gratuitous, blood-soaked wallow in the sick underbelly of inner-city life.

While the gun is being stashed by Joey (Paul Walker), a bottom-rung mobster in New Jersey, it is stolen by his son Nicky’s (Alex Neuberger) best friend, neighbor boy Oleg (Cameron Bright), who uses it to kill his abusive stepfather. If Joey doesn’t retrieve the gun, which can implicate his fellow mobsters in the cop killing, he will be iced. And so he sets out on an insanely frenzied chase for the wayward gun, with his uncooperative son in the passenger seat. Through an absurd chain of events, the gun passes through the hands of a crack dealer, a hooker, a janitor, a pimp, and eventually, Joey’s wife, Teresa (Vera Farmiga). Along the way, it’s instrumental in all kinds of sickening, horror-movie gore, most of it witnessed by either Nicky or Oleg. Kramer’s use of the two boys to highlight the film’s ruthless depravity is inexcusable.

It’s as if the director wants to up the ante on Reservoir Dogs, Training Day, and Lord of War all at once—and without a single reason for doing so. Certainly the character of Joey isn’t a reason. He’s just a mindless pawn in the merger between his mob boss and a Russian crimelord, and he frightens his own son and dismays his decent wife, who has no discernable motive for being married to him. But because Joey’s got nerves of steel in the face of his stupidly murderous cohorts, and because he draws the line at killing kids, we’re supposed to root for him (an idea made even more ludicrous by Walker’s cheesy Jersey accent). Meanwhile, a crooked detective (Chazz Palminteri) complicates the chase by trying to blackmail the mobsters about the cop killing. Oh, and even seemingly innocent bystanders turn out to be monsters.

The jittery camera work, set against a boringly murky palette of bruised blues and browns, makes Running Scared even more of a chore to watch (especially in contrast to The Cooler’s stylish snap), and the senseless twist ending is a poor reward for sitting through it. This hugely disappointing follow-up puts Kramer on a steep losing streak.

—Ann Morrow

Dumb Doggie

Doogal

Directed by Frank Passingham, Dave Borthwick and Jean Duval

I’ve said it before, but beware the film that boasts too many screenwriters, or, in the case of Doogal, directors.

Perhaps one of the weirdest concoctions to claim the ticket money of hard-working families in this generation, Doogal is the tale of a candy-loving dog (voiced by Keenan Thompson) who must join forces with Ermintrude the cow (Whoopi Goldberg), Dylan the rabbit (Jimmy Fallon), and Brian the snail (William H. Macy), to save the world from being iced over by an evil spring named Zeebad (Jon Stewart). An evil spring? A plucky snail? Who’s in love with a singing cow? With a script that exists mainly to support, however slimly, a series of fart jokes, and animation that seems more mechanical than magical, Doogal could better be served up as part of an anti-drug campaign, for surely the people who came up with this entire concept must have been high on something.

The most favorable thing that can be said about Doogal is, of course, a backhanded compliment: that Dame Judi Dench, as the narrator, was not nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for anything to do with this picture. This is, indeed, a rare accomplishment.

—Laura Leon


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