Carnage (2011)


The definition of awkward civility.

The definition of awkward civility.

(2011) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly, Elvis Polanski, Eliot Berger, Joe Rezwin (voice), Nathan Rippy (voice), Tanya Lopert (voice), Julie Adams (voice), Lexie Kendrick (voice). Directed by Roman Polanski

For a very long time, philosophers and psychologists have examined the thin veneer of civilization that masks humankind; the term used for it is “the ape in the velvet cloak.” It is uncomfortably easy to strip that cloak off to reveal the gorilla within it, and it happens all too often.

Two children have had a violent encounter in the park. Little Zachary Cowan (E. Polanski) has smacked little Ethan Longstreet (Berger) in the face with a stick, knocking out some teeth in the process. Now their parents are getting together to resolve the matter.

In the Brooklyn apartment of Michael (Reilly) and Penelope (Foster) Longstreet are Alan (Waltz) and Nancy (Winslet) Cowan. These are all four successful people, who are confident that they can resolve this incident in a civilized manner. They are constantly being interrupted however by business calls to Alan, who is a lawyer for a less-than-above-board pharmaceutical firm. Michael’s ill mother (Lopert) is also calling him, and as it turns out she’s using the prescription drug that is at the center of controversy for Alan’s client.

As the afternoon wears on and a convivial drink turns to several, the conversation becomes less civil and long-submerged grievances come to the surface. When they do, the behavior turns childish and petty, the marriages turn out to be less stable than they first appeared to be. Alliances between couples, between social classes dissolve and reform only to dissolve again. A conversation that appeared to have been resolved in the first 20 minutes has continued for an hour and a half and threatens to change the dynamic in the relationships and self-worth of all four “adults” involved.

To preface the rest of the review, I am fully aware of the name on the director’s chair and of the crime that he committed that forced him to flee this country and never return. There are those who will see that name and choose not to see this movie or even read further this review. Fair enough. I understand the sentiment and only wish you to know that by publishing this review I am neither condoning his actions of thirty years ago nor supporting him as a person. I am merely reviewing this movie and you can make of that what you will.

Polanski is incomparable at setting a mood and he manages to ratchet up the tension here to nearly unbearable levels. The anger is palpable, almost a fifth presence in the cramped apartment and the four walls that make up the setting of the movie (except for a brief prologue and epilogue) close in not only on the participants but on the audience as well.

The movie starts with pleasantness between the two couples, morphing into awkward civility before blowing up into downright hostility and the descent is a quick but logical one. It helps that you have four Oscar caliber actors – three winners and the fourth a nominee – who by themselves can carry a movie. Having four of them together makes this an experience no fan of great acting performances will want to miss.

Where the movie falls short actually is a fault of the original play that this is based on. The business at hand is actually concluded early on; there is no logical reason for the Nancy and Michael to remain in the Longstreets apartment and yet they do and it is quite frankly a bit of a contrivance. There’s also a subplot involving a hamster that in all honesty seems to be there to pad the film’s running time. The ending lacks punch and gives the effect of a movie that just fizzles out like a dud firecracker, not the way you want your audience to leave the auditorium.

There is definitely a stage-y quality to the movie that I believe that Polanski meant to do on purpose, to give the film audience the effect of being in a small locked room with the characters which further heightens the discomfort and awkwardness. I don’t think anyone wants to be in a room with a bunch of people acting childishly and maliciously, doing venal things to score psychological points and you may not choose to want to spend the full hour and a half with these people either, although quite frankly with a better ending it might have been worth the wait. Despite the great performances which I do recommend, there isn’t much of a reason to subject yourself to this at all.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific actors giving strong performances.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Claustrophobic. Pointless.
FAMILY VALUES: There is enough profanity to warrant an R rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot in real time without breaks and, with the exception of the scenes in the park, in a single location.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a Q&A with Waltz and Reilly, as well as footage from the film’s gala premiere.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $27.6M on a $25M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Entourage

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Non-Stop


Liam Neeson's contract includes the valuables and wallets of the extras.

Liam Neeson’s contract includes the valuables and wallets of the extras.

(2014) Thriller (Universal) Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Nate Parker, Michelle Dockery, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o, Corey Stoll, Omar Metwally, Jason Butler Harner, Linus Roache, Shea Whigham, Anson Mount, Quinn McColgan, Corey Hawkins, Frank Deal, Bar Paly, Edoardo Costa, Jon Abrahams, Amanda Quaid. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Flying is a stressful endeavor. We are crammed like sardines into a tin can and hope that the pilot is sober enough to get us from point A to point B without bringing us down in a flaming Viking funeral. We are surrounded by strangers and we hope against hope that they won’t talk the entire five hour flight, or that the kids behind us won’t kick our chair non-stop. It’s no wonder that alcohol is served aboard air flights. The wonder is that they don’t make tranquilizers available as well.

Bill Marks (Neeson) hates flying. Just to get him on the plane he has to drink half a bottle of whiskey. Once on board, he disables the smoke alarms in the lavatory to smoke a long, calming cigarette. He doesn’t really want to talk to anybody, but he’s a kindly enough sort who takes the time to help a little girl travelling all by herself across the Atlantic ocean to visit her daddy in London conquer her fears and step aboard the big intimidating airplane. Bill sure hates flying but he does a lot of it. After all, he’s a Federal Air Marshal.

It should be a routine flight from New York to London. Next to him is a pleasant if inquisitive middle aged woman named Jen (Moore) who is happy to let him sleep through most of the flight. The pilot (Roache) is an old friend as is the head stewardess Nancy (Dockery). His partner aboard, Jack Hammond (Mount) is a little by-the-book for his tastes but he knows his stuff. However, Bill doesn’t want to be there. He needs to be in New York, taking care of…well, stuff. He gets into a shouting match with his supervisor over the phone about it. The supervisor tells him that he can’t grant Bill’s request for an immediate return flight home; “I have to do what I have to do,” says the supervisor. “Oh yeah?” growls Bill, “Well I’ll do what I’ve gotta do too!” Showed him.

Of course, since this is a movie, the flight is anything but routine. Midway over the Atlantic, Bill gets a text on his secure Blackberry telling him that someone aboard the flight will die every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred into a Swiss bank account. Hammond pooh-poohs the threat but Bill is unnerved. When a passenger turns up dead at the specified time, Bill is vindicated. He is also the suspect as the bank account turns out to be in his name. As the body count begins to pile up, Bill begins to believe that the killer has a whole other agenda that has nothing to do with the money. The race against time is to discover what that agenda is, who’s behind it and to save the plane from the previously described Viking funeral.

There are plenty of red herrings in the thriller, some involving drug trafficking and of course the identity of the killer. Nearly everyone comes under suspicion at one point excluding Bill who is only made to look guilty but something told me early on that Neeson wasn’t going to be the killer (although that might have made for an interesting twist). There are so many that it actually becomes a little annoying.

Neeson has become quite a dependable action hero which is a far cry from his days as one of the better serious actors on the planet (Schindler’s List, Michael Collins sniff sniff). He is a large, physically intimidating man and his gruff demeanor makes him a perfect fit for these kinds of roles and again, like Kevin Costner in 3 Days to Kill is the biggest reason to plunk down your hard-earned cash to see this film.

Moore is likewise an actress who has delivered Oscar-caliber performances in the past. She makes an excellent foil for Neeson, bandying back and forth with him not necessarily in a flirtatious manner. Their chemistry is so strong I wouldn’t mind seeing them as partners in future movies.

The rest of the cast is unusually able for this type of film. Collet-Serra was very fortunate to cast actors who were on the cusp of their big break so he has an Oscar winner (Nyong’o) in an essentially throwaway role, Dockery just now breaking big for Downton Abbey and Stoll getting raves in House of Cards.

Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously teamed with Neeson in Unknown, knows what he’s doing when it comes to action films. Considering nearly all of the action takes place in a commercial airline cabin (excepting the opening and closing scenes), the action is pretty decent when it occurs. Most of the rest of the time, Collet-Serra is content to let the tension and the suspense rule the day. I would have preferred less misdirection – a little bit of that can go a long way – but that’s more of a personal preference. Your mileage may vary.

This is one of those movies that is exactly what you expect it to be – no more, no less. If you’re looking for mindless entertainment it will deliver. If you’re looking for a strong leading man, it delivers that too. If you’re looking for innovation within the genre, keep looking. But a WYSIWYG movie isn’t necessarily a bad thing – sometimes it’s exactly what you need.

REASONS TO GO: Neeson is always entertaining and this time gets a fine foil in Moore. Some fairly decent white knuckle moments.

REASONS TO STAY: Plot a bit too far up the ludicrous scale. Too many action film clichés.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some action film violence, at times fairly intense. There’s also a fair amount of foul language, a subplot involving drugs and some sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Bill Marks, like Neeson himself, was born in Northern Ireland and later emigrated to the United States.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/11/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Passenger 47

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Great Beauty

Bullet to the Head


Rambo and Conan get their axe together.

Rambo and Conan get their axe together.

(2012) Action (Warner Brothers) Sylvester Stallone, Sung Kang, Jason Momoa, Sarah Shahi, Adwale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Christian Slater, Jon Seda, Holt McCallany, Brian Van Holt, Weronika Rosati, Dane Rhodes, Marcus Lyle Brown, Dominique DuVernay, Andrea Frankle. Directed by Walter Hill

Vengeance can make strange bedfellows of us all. Those who are wronged by the same party can become allies, regardless of their outlook on life. People who would never be friends are suddenly thrust together by circumstance, made close by common cause.

Jimmy “Bobo” Bonomo (Stallone), not mindful that his nickname in some quarters is slang for the derriere,  is a New Orleans hitman on a routine job to execute some high rolling lowlife (McCallany). The job is done but Jimmy spares a hooker (Rosati) who has a tattoo of a panther that seems to be reasonably significant. His partner Louis Blanchard (Seda) chides him for his softness. They go to a bar to meet Ronnie Earl (Van Holt) who is their contact but instead, Louis meets his maker and Jimmy barely escapes.

Of course something like this gives Jimmy a mad on. He knows that Ronnie alone knows who hired him and he needs to know who the man is and why he and Louis were set up. In the meantime Taylor Kwan (Kang), a detective for the Washington DC police force arrives in town to investigate the death of the high rolling lowlife who turns out to have been his ex-partner, drummed out of the DCPD in disgrace. Detective Kwan meets up with Lt. Lebreton (Rhodes) and Detective Towne (Brown) of the New Orleans Police and they investigate Greely’s body at the morgue. There they discover Blanchard’s body as well and Kwan deduces that Blanchard and his partner Bobo were responsible for the death of his former partner.

Detective Kwan is, like Bobo, more interested in who hired him and set him up then in taking Bobo down. The two men meet but Bobo is extremely distrustful of cops and refuses to work with him. However when Kwan is attacked by a pair of corrupt cops outside the bar, Bobo rescues him. The enemy of my enemy and all that.

Detective Kwan is shot in the attack and Bobo takes him to his daughter Lisa’s (Shahi) tattoo parlor where she fixes him up. The two know they need to find Ronnie Earl, and a visit to a massage parlor locates him. Earl tells him that he worked through Marcus Baptiste (Slater), a sleazy lawyer. The two crash a costume party and kidnap him, taking him to a boat house on the bayou that serves as Bobo’s safe house. They are tracked by Keegan (Momoa), the thug who murdered Blanchard and a team of mercenaries. Baptiste confesses that the man behind all this is Robert Nkomo Morel (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a deposed African warlord who aims to build condos in a low-income area. Just then Keegan’s mercenaries interrupt the party but Bobo and Kwan escape with Bobo blowing up the boathouse with the men in it. Only Keegan escapes and now he wants Bobo’s head on a stick in front of the Superdome if necessary.

This is based on a French graphic novel that has been transplanted to American soil which I suppose is appropriate enough. Certainly the gritty tone of the original works well in an American setting, although I can’t help but wonder how this would have fared in the capable hands of a Luc Besson or a Louis Letterier or even an Olivier Megaton, capable action directors all.

Stallone, closer to 70 than he is to 60, is terribly miscast here. The role is really meant for a lithe hand-to-hand combat expert. Someone along the lines of a Jet Li or a Jean-Claude van Damme would have been more suitable; Stallone is much more believable in a thug-like role, at least for me. However, he gets an excellent foil in Momoa who is clearly an emerging action star. His performance in the first season of Game of Thrones was incandescent and here that same charisma surfaces. I would love to see more of Momoa better films. Hey Sly, got room for him in your next Expendables flick?

Hill, one of the most respected action directors in Hollywood history (48 Hrs., Hard Times, Streets of Fire) , knows how to create a rough-edged mood, perfect for framing an action film. This is not going to stand among the best of his career; this doesn’t have the smooth flow or the chemistry of his previous pictures. Kang and Stallone are awkward together. Kang’s earnest by-the-book Taylor Kwan has no real charisma; he feels more like an archetype than a real person. I never got emotionally invested in him.

Stallone fares slightly better but as I said earlier the role is all wrong for him. That’s not to say that Stallone is a terrible actor; it’s just his physical fighting skills lend themselves more to someone a little more along the lines of a Mafiosi thug than a lethal assassin. Still, at least I wound up having an interest in the character.

2013 has started out with a rash of mediocre action movies, none of which has really stood out as especially memorable. Most of them have had brief theatrical runs and have disappeared into bomb status, no doubt to resurface quickly on home video and cable. With a particularly full schedule of action flicks scheduled for this year, it’s an inauspicious start. Hopefully we’ll get some better ones as the year goes on.

REASONS TO GO: Momoa is an excellent villain. Some of the fight sequences are nicely staged (but not all). Shahi makes excellent eye candy.

REASONS TO STAY: Stallone miscast. Lacks chemistry.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of violence, a fair amount of bad language, an even more fair amount of bare breasts and a little drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Walter Hill’s first feature film in ten years, and Slater’s first theatrically released feature film in eight.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100. The reviews are about as mixed as you can get.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Expendables

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Identity Thief

Morning Glory


Morning Glory

Diane Keaton is thrilled she still knows which one of them is Indiana Jones.

(2010) Comedy (Paramount) Harrison Ford, Rachel McAdams, Diane Keaton, Patrick Wilson, Jeff Goldblum, Patti D’Arbanville, Ty Burell, John Pankow, J. Elaine Marcos, Matt Malloy, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Reed Birney, Linda Powell, Vanessa Aspillaga. Directed by Roger Michel

Anyone who has to get up in the morning to go to work has at one time or another watched at least a snippet of a TV morning show, like “Good Morning America” or the granddaddy of them all, the “Today Show.” Making this kind of shows work takes a special kind of animal.

Whereas some women dream of finding Mr. Right or of having children, Becky Fuller (McAdams) dreams of producing the “Today Show.” She’s well on her way to getting there too, as a talented and highly-regarded producer on a local morning show in New Jersey. It’s no surprise that rumors are swirling that she’s about to be promoted to executive producer.

Instead, she’s let go in a cost-cutting move. Devastated only for a moment, the terminally chipper and perky Becky rolls up her sleeves and gets to work finding herself a new job on a different show. She finally finds one – on the lowest rated morning show on the lowest rated network – “Daybreak” on IBS.

The show is in the dumper for a number of reasons; no imagination, no good ideas, no energy, no life. Becky is bound and determined to turn the show around, going so far as to fire the smarmy lothario of a co-anchor (Burell) on her first day. Colleen Peck (Keaton), the ex-beauty queen co-host is clearly skeptical of Becky’s abilities to get anything done, although she approves of her ouster of her former partner, but the situation remains – morning show co-hosts don’t just go on trees.

Then Becky gets the bright idea of hiring Mike Pomeroy (Ford), a legendary news anchor who makes Dan Rather look like Perez Hilton. Dour and described by his producer Adam Bennett (Wilson) as the “third-worst person in the world,” Pomeroy has no intention of taking on a position that he views as contributing to the demise of proper news reporting – until it becomes clear that if he doesn’t, he’ll forfeit his lucrative salary.

The addition of Pomeroy actually makes things worse initially. He has no intention of doing the job they want him to do, and he has right of first refusal to any story assigned to him. He comes off as dour, curmudgeonly and humorless which is not exactly what people are looking for in a morning show. The ratings are declining and Becky’s boss (Goldblum) soon tells her that if things don’t turn around immediately, the show is gone.

Her only respite is her romantic relationship with Adam that has blossomed since she arrived at IBS but even that is in jeopardy as she feels that she has to constantly apologize for doing her job which is far from a 9 to 5 affair. Can she rescue a show that is sinking in spite of her best efforts?

I think we all know the answer to that. This is a bit of unrepentant fluff that isn’t out to reinvent the wheel, and that’s okay. Director Michel, whose Notting Hill remains one of the better romantic comedies of the past decade, knows how to get the best out of his actors and so he does here.

McAdams has oodles of potential but hasn’t gotten the role that will put her over the top just yet, and she’s still waiting. She has a terrific smile, awesome personality and great screen presence. She carries this movie as surely as a Julia Roberts or Amy Adams would; she’s moving into that elite set of company.

As he’s gotten older, Ford has made a career out of playing grumpy men. Here he takes it to a new level, making Mike Pomeroy an absolute prick but one that has enough at his core that we can’t dismiss him summarily as simply a jerk. That complexity keeps the audience from being turned off by him as we might ordinarily.

Keaton is one of the finest comedic actresses of all time. This won’t go down as among her finest work but it is solid nonetheless. Colleen is prickly enough to have an edge but she’s a trooper for her show and as the one out on the firing line of a show that is perennially in last, it is easy to see that the stress has taken its toll.

This isn’t a movie that has a lot of laugh-out-loud moments, but consistently evokes grins and even a few guffaws. It’s the charm of McAdams and of the ensemble in general that keeps this from becoming too much like a stage farce which at times it feels like it’s about to degenerate into. Again, there’s nothing extraordinary or new here but if you are looking to feel better about life in general, this is the perfect tonic for the troops.

REASONS TO GO: The leads are all pros and tackle their parts nicely. Not really laugh out loud funny but charming enough to keep the audience invested.

REASONS TO STAY: A little bit rote in places, and sometimes has the feel of a stage play farce.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of sexuality and some crude language here and there but otherwise suitable for teens and older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was co-produced by veteran television producer J.J. Abrams (“Lost,” “Alias”).

HOME OR THEATER: There is nothing here that screams “big screen;” you’re probably not going to miss anything by seeing it at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Great Buck Howard