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

The Lie (2011)


Your sins will find you out.

Your sins will find you out.

(2011) Drama (Screen Media) Joshua Leonard, Jess Wexler, Mark Webber, Alia Shawkat, Kelli Garner, James Ransone, Jane Adams, Kirk Baltz, Gerry Bednob, Matthew Newton, Holly Woodlawn, Tipper Newton, Kandice Melonakos, Germaine Mozel Sims, Michael McColl, Gwyn Fawcett. Directed by Joshua Leonard

I was once told as a young man by a mentor that being young was easy; everything is simple – black or white, right or wrong, bad or good. There is no middle ground in youth, he told me, no grey areas. Accountability and responsibility are notions that don’t apply to the young. Sooner or later however, we all have to grow up whether we want to or not.

Lonnie (Leonard) is reaching a crossroads in his life. He and his wife Clover (Wexler) have just had a baby and their life of activism and living by their own rules has been turned on its ear as their idealism collides with the realities of raising a baby – particularly in regards to the expense. Clover is considering a job at a pharmaceutical company that as far as Lonnie is concerned is the anti-Christ but whose benefits will make the job of raising their new addition feasible.

But Lonnie, stuck in a job he hates, isn’t on board with this. He’s a hippie in an age of consumerism and in a different age would have found a commune to hang out in with his family. Lonnie is in a crisis and he needs a day off to clear his head, so he just tells his overbearing boss (Bednob) that his baby is sick. Lonnie, now free of any responsibility, gets hammered with his best friend Tank (Webber), smokes a lot of weed and records some really bad rock and roll in Tank’s trailer.

It turns out so well that Lonnie takes another day and another day and another – until he can’t use that fib anymore so in a fit of panic he blurts out that the baby died. Suddenly the little white lie isn’t so white and isn’t so little anymore. This is one he can’t walk away from and one that sooner or later he’ll have to face the consequences for.

Based on a short story by T.C. Boyle, the movie ostensibly debates the question of whether it is okay to compromise one’s principles in order to survive, although that really isn’t it at all. It’s a question of whether one’s responsibility to family outweighs a lifestyle choice.

Leonard, whom most will remember from The Blair Witch Project, is generally a fairly charming onscreen personality and there are elements of that here too, but one wonders about the underlying story going on with the character. Lonnie talks a good game about discovering who he is, but from his actions he appears to be a stoner and a slacker who just wants to get wasted and do whatever makes him feel good. In other words, a selfish prick.

Wexler, who was so delightful in Free Samples, is the polar opposite. She has a baby to consider and the realities of life in Southern California staring her in the face. She realizes that it is time to grow up and make sacrifices, which is why she considers a job at the Big Pharma company. Her moments to shine come towards the end of the movie when the truth inevitably comes out, but sadly, her character (who may go down in cinematic history as the most understanding woman ever) reacts in a way that is counterintuitive to who she seems to be all along.

Webber, as the stoner best friend, provides a lot of the comic relief but also a lot of the film’s center strangely enough. “Dude,” he tells Lonnie in a kind of ironic coda, “You’ve got to stop running away from shit.” Which is, of course, precisely what Lonnie does and the filmmakers seem to embrace that as a viable alternative to, you know, life.

I was once the age that Lonnie is and I will grant him that things are different now than they were then but FFS you’re a dad, you’ve got to man up and grow a pair. One of the things that disturbs me about what I see in the current generation is that there seems to be an unwillingness to sacrifice for the greater good – that self-gratification is the be all and end all of existence. Now I am willing to concede that much of that is simply the flaw of youth and that it’s possible that experience and wisdom will counteract it but I don’t recall ever seeing this self-centeredness to this degree in any generation before. Wow, I sound like my own Dad, don’t I?

The point is that the movie seems to take the point of view that it is more important to be true to one’s own needs whether they are selfish or not than to be responsible for the life that one brings into this world and I simply can’t agree with that point of view – which is why I hate the ending so much because it hints that is precisely what the filmmakers think. Perhaps it is old-fashioned of me but I can’t recommend a movie that condones self-interest over responsibility. If you’re comfortable with that, you are more than welcome to seek this movie out and draw your own conclusions.

WHY RENT THIS: Examines the age old question of freedom vs. responsibility. Wexler and Webber are magnificent.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Can’t get behind a film that preaches accountability and celebrates that its lead character has none. The ending is absolutely mind-numbing.

FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language and some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s official website gives visitors an opportunity to confess about a lie they’ve told which has been taken up by a number of people including at least one cast member.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3,000 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Be Good

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: The Good Heart