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 Pianist (2002)


Adrien Brody realizes he may never get a role as juicy as this one ever again.

Adrien Brody realizes he may never get a role as juicy as this one ever again.

(2002) True Wartime Drama (Focus) Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Emilia Fox, Ed Stoppard, Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman, Jessica Kate Meyer, Julia Rayner, Joachim Paul Assbock, Roy Smiles, Daniel Caltagirone, John Bennett, Cyril Shaps, Andrew Tiernan, Nina Franoszek. Directed by Roman Polanski

Survival is relative. There are ordinary survival stories; making it through the work week, for example. We all make compromises, do what we must to keep a roof over our heads, food on the table, clothes on our backs. We relate to the extraordinary survival situations — such as the Holocaust — because of the little things we ourselves do to survive.

Pianist Wladislaw Szpilman (Brody) in pre-war Warsaw has a bright future; already a world-famous concert pianist, he is young, handsome, talented and outgoing. The world is his oyster.

Unfortunately, this oyster is tainted. Nazi Germany takes over Poland so quickly that Szpilman, busy in the studio for the past week and out of touch, has not read the papers and is so completely unaware that his country has been invaded that he doesn’t understand when he hears explosions and sees flying glass at the studio.

The situation deteriorates. As the rights of Jews become more and more restricted, eventually they are herded into the small area that would come to be known as the Warsaw Ghetto. The horrific becomes the everyday. People starve to death in the streets. Jews are pulled aside by Nazi officers at random and shot like animals. Then, the Ghetto is cleared, and things become even worse.

Through it all, Szpilman does what he must in order to survive. Relying mostly on the kindness of friends and admirers, he hides out after escaping the train to the death camps, and witnesses the Warsaw Uprising, the brutal Nazi suppression and eventually, the end of the war. Szpilman is not a fighter, although he wants to be more heroic. His bravery does not come in physical courage, fighting a ruthless enemy. His bravery is internal, facing starvation, loneliness and death. Throughout, the hope that he will again someday play his piano in front of a packed concert hall sustains him.

There have been many movies depicting the horrors of the Holocaust. Although Szpilman is Jewish, this is not a Jewish story per se. Whether or not Szpilman is a devout man or not is never explored. This is one man’s story in a world gone completely insane. It is his muse more than his God that sustains Wladislaw Szpilman, and with everything taken away from him – his family, his friends, his home, his career – his muse cannot be, and that is where the triumph and the spirit of this movie lies.

Brody won an Oscar for his performance here, as did director Roman Polanski, himself a Polish Holocaust survivor. Brody’s Academy Award is richly deserved; his performance is subtle, nuanced and rarely out of control. There are many wonderful moments, most accomplished when Brody is alone without another actor to play off of, a notoriously difficult achievement. I will always remember the scene in which Szpilman is hiding in an apartment in which there is a piano, which he dares not play for fear he will be discovered. But play it he does, his hands several inches above the keys, playing music only Szpilman can hear, and by the expression of satisfaction on his face, it is enough. Kretschmann also is noteworthy for playing a sympathetic German officer.

The Pianist is wrenching at times in its unflinching look at the horrors of everyday life in occupied Poland, so the squeamish may want to have their finger on the fast-forward button. However, the triumphant story of a man defying impossible odds, and Brody’s classic performance make this a must-see on home video.

WHY RENT THIS: An Oscar-winning performance for the ages by Brody. Inspiring and uplifting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The brutality and horror of the Nazi reign is depicted without blinking so this may be upsetting to the sensitive sorts.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some violence and occasional bad language, but the images of death and torture may be too much for some.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Brody is the youngest actor to date to win the Oscar – he was 29 at the time.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is an excellent feature on the real Szpilman with interviews with him and Polanski describing their own experiences during the occupation.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $120.1M on a $35M production budget; the movie was a hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Schindler’s List

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Bullet to the Head

New Releases for the Week of January 13, 2012


January 13, 2012

CONTRABAND

(Universal) Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Foster, Giovanni Ribisi, Caleb Landry Jones, Lukas Haas, Diego Luna, J.K. Simmons, William Lucking. Directed by Baltasar Komakur

A former smuggler who had managed to escape the life of crime and go straight is drawn back in when his foolish brother-in-law screws up a drug deal and has to get rid of his cargo. Trying to make up for his brother-in-law’s foul-up not only brings him back into the life, but also puts his wife and sons into the crosshairs of the druglords and crooked cops who have a vested interest in his new cargo – counterfeit bills being smuggled in from Panama to New Orleans. He will have to rely on some very rusty skills if he is to see this thing through.

See the trailer, clips, promos, an interview and web-only content here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action

Rating: R (for violence, pervasive language and brief drug use)

Beauty and the Beast 3D

(Disney) Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach. After a successful re-release of The Lion King last year, Disney once again moves to add a third dimension to another classic movie. While some (myself included) have bitched about the Mouse House squeezing every last dime from their classic films, it might be well to remember that they have had a history in the pre-home video days of periodically re-releasing their classics for those who haven’t seen it in a theater. Of course, they didn’t up-charge for those re-releases either…

See the trailer, clips, featurettes, music videos and a link to buy the movie at Amazon.com here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Animated Feature

Rating: G

Carnage

(Sony Classics) Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly.  The latest from director Roman Polanski is based on an acclaimed stage play. When a child injures another child in a Brooklyn park, the parents get together to discuss the situation in a civilized and adult manner. However as the evening wears on, the veneer of civilization begins to dissolve and the “adults” prove to be worse than children.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language)

The Iron Lady

(Weinstein) Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Roger Allam, Anthony Head. The story of Margaret Thatcher, one of the most powerful women of the 20th century and an icon of the conservative movement. Her era as Prime Minister is roughly concurrent to the Reagan years here and was very similar in many ways – neither Reagan nor Thatcher would have been considered leadership material and yet through savvy politicking and an understanding of what their electorates needed, both became influential in the world of the 1980s and their leadership, for good or not, still has ramifications in the world today.

See the trailer, a promo, a featurette and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Biographical Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some violent images and brief nudity)

Joyful Noise

(Warner Brothers) Queen Latifah, Dolly Parton, Keke Palmer, Courtney B. Vance. Two feuding divas in a church choir find their tiff growing when one’s grandson falls for the other’s daughter. On top of it all, their choir is competing in the National Joyful Noise Competition and their community is counting on them to bring home the gold, which is hard to do when their best can’t agree on anything.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Musical

Rating: PG-13 (for some language including a sexual reference)

The Ghost Writer


The Ghost Writer

A day at the office is no day at the beach for Ewan McGregor.

(2010) Thriller (Summit) Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton, Eli Wallach, Robert Pugh, Desiree Erasmus, Daniel Sutton, Marianne Graffam, James Belushi, Kate Copeland. Directed by Roman Polanski

Politics make strange bedfellows with just about everything but particularly with art. Although we have an affinity for topical movies, political thrillers are often about as empty and soulless as…as…a politician.

The Ghost (McGregor) – who is never identified by name in the movie nor in the book that it is based on – is a talented and ambitious sort who has been waiting, none too patiently, for a plum job, the one that will get his career in gear. He finally gets it – former British Prime Minister Robert Lang (Brosnan) wants his memoirs ghosted. It seems that the old friend of Lang’s who had previously been working on the assignment had washed up on the beach, a victim of suicide or accidental drowning.

The Ghost ventures out to Martha’s Vineyard to Lang’s bunker-like complex which is in siege mode. Lang has been accused by one of his former ministers of being complicit of allowing prisoners to be tortured during an armed conflict begun during his regime. Obviously this makes the new book even more potentially lucrative and the Ghost is under pressure to finish the manuscript quickly.

Things are a bit strange though in the compound. Lang’s high-strung wife Ruth (Williams) is coming on to the Ghost, fully aware of the long-time affair her husband has been having with his assistant Amelia Bly (Cattrall). The original manuscript the Ghost has been hired to clean up and re-edit is under lock and key and may not be taken out of the office where the Ghost has been assigned to work.

And work he does, diligently. He soon discovers some contradictions and outright falsehoods in the manuscript. As he digs deeper to discover the truth, he finds out the shady dealings between Lang and a company called Hatherton. He also discovers some secrets that some would kill to make sure they remained secret. Now it’s not just a battle to meet a deadline; the Ghost must figure out a way to stay alive altogether.

Polanski is one of the best of his generation and creating an effective thriller. Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby are just two examples of classic Polanski thrillers. This one, completed when Polanski was 76 years old, shows he hasn’t lost his touch. While it isn’t to the level of those just mentioned, it’s as good as any released by more contemporary directors.

Polanski manages to gather a strong cast around him. McGregor is a fine everyman hero, and while he seems far more passive-aggressive than the standard movie hero, he nonetheless is charming enough to carry his end of the water pole. The end carried by Brosnan, however, is much stronger. Brosnan who has mostly done affable and elegant action hero types (a la “Remington Steel”, James Bond and Thomas Crown) delivers one of his better performances ever here. He is both sinister and snake-like, clapping you on the back one moment and stabbing you in it the next. That dichotomy of charm and ruthlessness makes the character as fascinating a political figure as has ever been on the silver screen.

They are surrounded by a strong cast, including Hutton as the Ghost’s hyperactive agent and Wilkinson, an old classmate of Lang’s who knows far more about his chicanery than he lets on. Wilkinson in fact has few scenes but is in definite control of your attention whenever he’s on.

There are some twists and turns here. That is par for the course for a thriller, but few are telegraphed and none stretch the believability quotient. What Polanski does better than most directors is establish a mood, and he does so brilliantly here, making even characters seen in passing seem menacing and up to no good.

The movie didn’t do very well at the box office (see below), mostly due to Polanski’s arrest on a 34-year-old statutory rape charge and his subsequent fight to prevent extradition. I would imagine a number of movie-goers who might have ordinarily flocked to see this stayed away because of an unwillingness to support a rapist. I can understand the sentiment certainly but this isn’t a review of Mr. Polanski’s life but of a single film he created.

Political thrillers are hard to accomplish, particularly when they are as topical as this one is (the characters are extremely similar to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, with other characters and entities – such as Hatherton substituting for Halliburton  – also carrying some similarities to people and things in the news). There is always the chance that in a very few years this will seem dated. However the movie is so well-crafted that long after the people and events that inspired it are forgotten, The Ghost Writer will hold up as a well-crafted, well-acted and well-written thriller.

WHY RENT THIS: Impressively tense. Fine performances from most of the cast but particularly from McGregor and Wilkinson.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The payoff is a bit anti-climactic.

FAMILY VALUES: Some rough language, a bit of violence, a bit of sexuality and a smidgeon of nudity and a drug reference.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although primarily set in the United States, Polanski was unable to film here due to his legal issues. Most of the movie was filmed in Europe except for a few second unit shots.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $60.2M on a $45M production budget; the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Buck

Rosemary’s Baby


Rosemary's Baby
And baby makes three.

(Paramount) Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Ralph Bellamy, Maurice Evans, Angela Dorian, Elisha Cook Jr., Patsy Kelly, Charles Grodin. Directed by Roman Polanski

The trouble with evil is that it is unpredictable. There are rarely situations in which you can point to something and say “that’s evil” and avoid it; sometimes evil emerges from subtle and unassuming sources – even things that we would normally consider good.

Guy Woodhouse (Cassavetes) is a struggling actor living in New York. He and his wife Rosemary (Farrow) are looking for an apartment that is bigger than the one they live in because they are planning to have a family soon. They find the Bramford on Central Park, a tony address and find the perfect apartment with a gorgeous view that had just become available.

While many of the residents of the Bramford are elderly, Rosemary still has friends from her previous life, none closer than Hutch (Evans), a writer of children’s books. While Rosemary paints and decorates her new apartment, she does meet one young lady, Terry (Dorian), an ex-drug addict who has been taken in as a ward by a couple that lives next door – Roman (Blackmer) and Minnie Castevet (Gordon).

Shortly after that, Terry commits suicide and the Castevets and Woodhouses meet for the first time. The Castevets invite their new neighbors over for dinner afterwards when Rosemary speaks kindly to Minnie about their recently deceased ward. Guy is reluctant at first – he’s just lost out on a plum role to another actor – but he relents and he actually winds up enjoying the company of the much-travelled Roman and his busybody wife.

Despite Guy’s career shortcomings, he and Rosemary decide it’s the right time to get pregnant. Minnie brings over a chocolate mousse that seems tasty but winds up knocking Rosemary out. She has a strange dream afterward of being raped by a beast-like demon. Soon after that, she discovers that she’s pregnant. Her obstetrician, Dr. Hill (Grodin) puts her on vitamins but Minnie won’t hear of it. She’s close with Dr. Abe Saperstein (Bellamy), one of the best-known obstetricians in New York if not the world. She arranges for Rosemary to be one of his patients.

Although Rosemary is suffering from a weird, constant pain, Dr. Saperstein tells her that it’s normal and refuses to prescribe anything for it. In the meantime, the actor that had gotten the part Guy wanted had mysteriously gone blind and the part was now Guy’s. It turns out to be precisely the break Guy was looking for.

Rosemary and Guy are deliriously happy, but all isn’t as it seems, particularly those who seem the friendliest towards them. A monstrous conspiracy is afoot and Rosemary becomes paranoid, particularly when people she knows begin to die off mysteriously. Soon she realizes that she’s alone against a powerful evil, one that wants her unborn baby – but for what purpose?

This is a classic of the horror genre, and in many ways it’s not even a horror movie. Director Polanski, for whom this was his first American film, creates an atmosphere of growing menace that becomes so palpable even the viewer at home gets caught up in it. There isn’t much gore (mostly seen in the death of Terry) and all the violence happens off-screen for the most part (even the rape is more suggested than seen) but still you’re given a firm grasp of the evil surrounding Rosemary and find yourself immersed in her struggle to escape it.

The movie was based on a noted bestseller by Ira Levin which I’ve actually read – the movie follows it nearly word for word (legend has it that because Polanski had never adapted another work for the screen before, he didn’t realize that he could make changes of his own). As the movie progresses, the outcome seems inevitable but still there’s a twist at the end that back in 1968 when the movie was released took audiences completely by surprise – most modern audiences however are aware of the twist simply because it has been so widely associated with the movie since then. That’s a shame because the movie works much better if you aren’t aware how it ends.

Even so, the movie’s main weapon is Farrow. Her performance as Rosemary is so ordinary, so naïve but so completely believable that she nails Polanski and Levin’s vision of Rosemary as the Girl Next Door caught up in a horror greater than she can imagine. By the time she realizes what’s going on, it’s far too late.

Gordon and Blackmer also give fine supporting performances as the Castevets; they have the right attitude to be the consummate New York elderly busybody couple, Gordon’s accent almost Yiddish in places. While the characters are certainly products of their time, they still manage to give off no menace other than in underlying ways that when you look back at the movie, you realize they were creepy all along and you just didn’t realize it. It’s amazing work by any standard.

While this movie is well over forty years old, it has held up well. I watched it again the other night while Da Queen lay sleeping (she finds horror movies too disturbing) and realized that if it had been released last Friday, it would still be just as effective today as it was back then. Horror movies rarely get any better than this one.

WHY RENT THIS: Polanski creates a mood so creepy and troubling that the viewer feels the whole time that something is completely wrong.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There is little gore and only a few scenes of outright horror which may not meet the standards of modern horror fans.

FAMILY VALUES: While relatively tame by our standards, it does depict a rape and there is a good deal of talk about female pregnancy as well as a good deal of smoking and drinking. There is also some female nudity. While it received an R rating at the time of its release, I would think that it would be adequate viewing for most mature teenagers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice on the phone of the actor who had gone blind, clearing the way for Guy to get the part was an uncredited Tony Curtis. Farrow was unaware who she was talking to, although she recognized the voice she couldn’t place the name. Also, the movie was filmed at the Dakota, the apartment complex on Central Park later made infamous by being the location where John Lennon was murdered.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The pickings are rather slim. There’s an interesting retro interview with Polanski, producer Robert Evans and production designer Richard Sylbert. There is also an original making-of feature that is fascinating as a historical artifact.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Secretariat