Something Funny About Funny Games...

1997's Funny Games may not be Michael Haneke's best film, but it's certainly his most infamous.  So it's about darn time that it made its way to blu-ray in the US, by way of The Criterion Collection.  And they seem to really be delivering the goods with a brand new 2k restoration from the original negatives, overseen by Haneke, with an attractive set of all new special features as well.  This promises to be one of the most exciting releases of the year, unless Criterion manages to screw it up somehow.  Surely Criterion wouldn't do something stupid to screw it up somehow, would they?
Funny Games is Haneke's deconstruction of the contemporary thriller that's also crafted to work as an effective contemporary thriller in its own right.  You know, like how a horror send-up could still be scary.  Susanne Lothar and Ulrich Mühe star as a seemingly idyllic bourgeois couple who arrive at their summer home only to encounter two equally bourgeois young men who stage a home invasion.  But rather than murder, robbery or any other conventional motive, they only seem to be interested in sadistically toying with their captives, as if they're operating on an entirely different set of existential parameters.
I was very surprised - although it also made perfect sense - when I learned that Haneke added the deconstructive element to his screenplay last, meaning that this project started its life as a more conventional thriller, with the meta-textual elements coming in late in the game.  So while this is an "experimental" film that questions the genre and challenges the audience directly, this is still a powerful emotional experience at its case.  The cast, including Arno Frisch (Benny in Benny's Video), is superb, and the film is as tautly staged and photographed as any of Haneke's work.  And though the "message" of the film might be a little intellectually simplistic, it's still a kick to experience viscerally in the heat of the moment.
Funny Games debuted on DVD as a new release in 1999 through Well Spring.  It was non-anamorphic, completely barebones, and frankly, best forgotten.  In 2006, Kino rescued it, releasing it anamorphically, with a substantial on-camera Haneke interview.  Since then, there have been a variety of overseas releases, including blu-ray editions.  But we never got it in HD over here until now, with Criterion releasing their brand new BD special edition this month.
2006 Kino DVD top; 2019 Criterion BD bottom.
In all fairness, I have to start off by stating that Criterion's blu is a massive improvement over Kino's DVD, even above and beyond the jump in quality inherent in moving from SD to HD.  Criterion's new scan corrects Kino's 1.76:1 aspect ratio to a proper 1.85:1, revealing more information along the sides while only shaving off a very thin sliver along the bottom that probably shouldn't have been there anyway.  Also, Kino's DVD has a big flaw - it's heavily interlaced, presumably because due to a hasty PAL to NTSC conversion.  Of course Criterion's blu is free of that problem.  What's more, Kino's DVD is a rather fuzzy, over-saturated and light on detail affair, while Criterion's new scan neatly cleans all of that up and restores a ton of detail to the image.  Oh, and Criterion's booklet specifically points out, besides simply overseeing the new transfer, that Haneke worked on the new color timing, so presumably any differences between this and not only the Kino DVD but any other previous release (i.e. any of the overseas blus) is more correct here.

But here's where things get messy.  See the film grain?  You might need to squint, because yeah it's visible, but surprisingly light for brand new 2k scan.  It's even surprisingly soft when compared to those preexisting blu-rays.  They seem to have DNR'd the whole thing.  Then, to keep fine detail from being lost in that process, it looks like they used some edge enhancement to pull it back out again.  Now, this isn't a total DNR disaster like the infamous cases of Tremors, Predator or Moontrap, but it's enough to take an easy A rated transfer down to a B+, or more pragmatically, below the French or German blu-rays that have already been out.  And it's disappointing, because all Criterion had to do was... not do that.  And in 2019, every label should know better.

Things are simpler in terms of audio.  In the US, we've only gotten a stereo mix, but overseas, even on DVDs, this film has had a 5.1 mix.  Well, Criterion finally brings that 5.1 mix home, in DTS-HD, with removable English subs.
Okay, we're out of the sticky part of the marsh now, so let's cheer up and talk about extras.  Kino basically just had the one quite good on-camera interview with Haneke (plus the trailer).  Criterion did not carry over that Haneke interview, but replaced it with their own, new one shot in HD.  As you'd expect, the two interviews cover most of the same ground and answer most of the most common questions viewers would have of this film.  Each interview does have some unique little observations and tangents, though, so completists might want to hang onto their old DVDs.  Criterion, however, moves on with more goodies, including a fun interview with Frisch.  Then there's a lengthy but dry talk with critic Alexander Horwath, which spends a lot of time restating the obvious, but starts making some interesting points towards the end.  Now tragically, three of the four leads of this film passed away well before their time, so Criterion couldn't talk to the other stars of this film.  But they did include the full, vintage press conference from the film's premiere at Cannes, which at least gives Lothar and Ulrich Mühe, and also allows us to hear more from Haneke and Frisch (the producer is there, too, but the poor guy's never asked a question or utters a single word).  Then, yes, Criterion has the trailer, too, as well as a cool fold-out booklet with notes by Bilge Ebiri.
Now, you might've been saying to yourself, wait, I thought Funny Games starred Naomi Watts and Tim Roth?  Well yes, strangely, Michael Haneke decided to make a nearly shot-for-shot English language remake of Funny Games roughly ten years after his original.  American producers had been wanting to make one for years, as they are wont to do with any moderately successful foreign picture, but Haneke had refusal rights.  And he ultimately decided he would let them only if he could direct it himself and retain final cut, because he felt the message of Funny Games was always intended for a broader mainstream audience than his subtitled effort had been able to reach.  Unfortunately, the remake seems to have pierced even less of the American market than the original, but who cares about box office when judging art?  How is the film itself?
Well, first of all, yes, this film really is shot for shot and line for line.  2007's Funny Games was shot in America with an American crew and American actors, but except for the spoken language, they set out to duplicate the original as closely as possible.  The locations were carefully chosen not only so they could stage the same plot points (i.e. they needed big gates in front of the houses and lakes with docks in the back), but so they could frame the shots as closely as possible.  A few details did need to be changed... for example, in the original, the family didn't know the number of the local police since they didn't live in the neighborhood, and had to dial a relative.  In this version, they can just call 911. In one line of dialogue, a character also makes a brief reference to a game show that didn't exist in the 90s.  And there is one surprising editorial change.  In the very long, single shot after the two boys leave the house, the Austrian version holds on Lothar for a couple minutes before she moves.  Here, the shot starts about when Watts starts to move... I guess assuming American audience didn't have the attention span for that dramatic moment?
Otherwise, though, it really is the exact same movie.  I slightly prefer the original, because I think Frisch's performance is a bit scarier, and Lothar digs a little deeper than Watts (I wonder if they had a shorter shooting schedule?).  But both sets of casts are top notch, and honestly, if you've only seen the remake, I wouldn't say you missed out.  It's not like watching The Ring or City of Angels, where the stupid American version fails to deliver on what made the original foreign version so successful.  Impressively, Haneke manages to take you on the same roller coaster ride both times, with the same music, tension and pathos at every single beat.  So it's a fine film.  The only problem it faces is an existential one: if you can watch the original, what's the point of getting this one, too?  The film has a fair amount of merit on its own, but what value does it offer beyond what the original's already given us?  Unfortunately, not much beyond a little novelty.
So Warner Bros released this version on DVD as a new release in 2008.  It's a flipper, with a fullscreen version on one side and wide on the other, but otherwise quite barebones. And in America, that's all we've ever gotten, because any potential demand for this is overshadowed by the original.  Still, if you go overseas, you can find a few blu-rays.  I've gone with the Halcyon blu from the UK, because it comes with a some nice special features.  Oh, and fun bit of trivia, the UK release changes the on-screen title from "Funny Games" to "Funny Games U.S."  But anyway, if you're looking for this, be careful, because it was reissued in the UK by Artificial Eye, minus the extras, in 2015.  That sucks!
2008 WB DVD (full) top; 2008 WB DVD (wide) mid; 2008 Halcyon BD bottom.
I'll start off by pointing out that WB's fullscreen version is 1.33:1, and mostly open matte.  It trims the sides a little, but reveals more vertically.  Still, it's boxy and clearly the wrong composition, so outside of a little extra novelty value, we don't want that.  The widescreen side is an anamorphic 1.78:1, which is much better.  But the blu-ray gives it to us best in its proper 1.85:1 AR.  Detail is a lot cleaner on the BD as well, which is interesting since both these discs are from 2008, so you'd think they'd just be putting the same master on both discs, and the only difference would be the SD vs HD compression.  But the BD has better details, a cleaner image and the fixed framing.

Both discs give us the same 5.1 mix, though the blu presents it in lossless DTS-HD.  One shortcoming this blu has, though, is no subtitles, whereas the DVD has English, Spanish and French.  My understanding, by the way, is that the Artificial Eye blu doesn't have subs either.
But here's why I got this Halcyon blu.  I mean, honestly, I think the extras might be more compelling than the film itself.  First, there's a very long (37 minutes) interview with Haneke, who gets into his reasons for making the film, the shooting experience, etc.  Pretty much everything viewers would be dying to ask.  It's exactly what you want.  But then there's also a very interesting Q&A with the film's producers filmed at an early UK screening of the film, and it's very worthwhile to get their perspective, both in how they didn't get it (changes they wanted to make) and how they did (they were determined not to follow in the missteps of The Vanishing and undercut the intent of the original film).  And we get some interesting backstory to this project, like how one of the producers was courting Wes Craven to direct this, before Haneke became directly involved.  The audience Q&A gets a bit silly, when the producers start asking them if they liked the picture and why because they're not getting many questions.  But it's worth watching for their takes.  There's also a series of four trailers for the film.  Meanwhile, the DVD had nothing but some bonus trailers.
So, perhaps appropriately, it's a bit of a funny situation with Funny Games that raises a bunch of questions: how much rewatch value is there once this film has made its big surprise move on you?  Is the remake worth your time at all?  Or, if you came across the remake first, is it important go back and seek out the original?  Does Criterion's baffling decision to filter their transfer render their edition more or less desirable than one of the imports?  It's one of those frustrating situations where every answer entails compromise or a judgment call you can only make for yourself.  Personally, I can live with the cons of Criterion's release to enjoy the pros - it's not that bad - so I'm more or less "fine" with it, just annoyed that it could've been better if they didn't feel the need to muss with it.

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