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2011

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Roman Polanski’s film version of the Broadway play God of Carnage pits affluent parents Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly against Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz after their sons get into a fight at a Brooklyn park.  What starts as an awkward meeting at the apartment of Reilly and Foster (their son had two teeth knocked out in the fight), with Winslet and Waltz contrite and beleaguered, ends up a full-blown donnybrook as the couples engage in a long, silly serial judgment of each other.  When liquor is introduced, for a time, the men gang up on the women, and, inevitably, the fractured marriages are exposed.

As a stage play, this might have been better (the original cast included Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden and all four actors were nominated for a Tony).  But as a film, Polanski puts us right up close on the actors, and for the most part, they are not up to the task.  Reilly, as the slightly hip and groovy peacemaker, has suffered from his idiot roles in broad Will Ferrell comedies.  Gandolfini would have communicated the hidden rage of a man’s man living in the p.c. world created by his wife.  Reilly just seems goofy.

As an over-protective, liberal, Cry-for-Darfur, “your son must take some responsibility” mother, Foster gives a performance so brittle and unreal it’s Razzie-worthy, playing her character at an 11 (I was reminded of Annette Bening’s cartoonishly gruesome turn in American Beauty).   She contorts her face, has nears-convulsions, and so tightens and clenches her jaw, she appears to be in perpetual physical pain.  Her character is so one-dimensional and unyieldingly p.c., any good jabs taken at the archetype come off as cheap and unkind.

Foster is awful, but Winslet is not much better.  Her role requires she be drunk, and she is not a very convincing drunk.  She is, however, a very convincing vomitor (she pukes all over the coffee table, a contrivance that forces the couples to stay in proximity as she recuperates and they clean up).

Waltz comes off the strongest, but he plays a sarcastic, droll, high-powered NYC lawyer, so his contributions are less histrionic, making him more bearable.

The script has some sharp exchanges and points up certain base impulses bottled up by modern convention as well as the conceits of the urban affluent, but a few well-written rejoinders do not make up for the overall assault on your senses.

I’ve had the misfortune of watching this movie twice (I endured it because I remembered a better film).  Mel Gibson had his own cut, which was better than that of director Brian Helgeland (screenwriter for LA Confidential), though still pretty bad. The picture is a loose remake of John Boorman’s 1967 Lee Marvin vehicle Point Blank. The story is uncomplicated. A crook (Gibson) pulls of a heist, is double-crossed by his girlfriend and partner and left for dead. He does not die, but returns, to collect his share of the money. It turns out his partner used that share to buy his way back into “the Syndicate,” so Gibson works his way up the chain, killing folks up a higher level of authority until he gets to the top. The original was arty, tough and noir, and Marvin’s anger convincingly propelled the simplistic plot, which culminated in a cool shoot-out in then-abandoned Alcatraz.

Gibson’s version exchanges San Francisco for Chicago, tough for brutal, and noir for ostensibly hip (which, as defined by Gibson, is taking every opportunity to smack women and crunch bones). While Gibson throws in a touch of humor in the plot, his performance is leaden. He emulates Robocop and The Terminator, not Marvin.

Gibson’s version ends better (he uses a kidnap of the top Syndicate man’s son to get at him, while Helgeland settles for a lame shoot-out on a Chicago train platform), but it’s a pointless endeavor. The only redeeming qualities are some wry performances as criminal lowlifes by Gregg Henry, James Coburn, William Devane, John Glover, David Paymer and Lucy Liu.

 

It ain’t nearly enough.

In my house, we have a few Christmas rituals, including a slate of television shows and movies we must watch on or near the holiday.  The shows are sacrosanct; “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “The Grinch.”  The movies have always included such staples as A Christmas Carol (the George C. Scott version) and A Christmas StoryIt’s a Wonderful Life tends to be seen bi-annually, and it can be watched at Thanksgiving.  The most recent additions have been Elf and, of course, that holiday heartwarmer, Die Hard

My boy and I gave A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas its audition.  Harold and Kumar are much funnier than Cheech and Chong, and in this third installment of their stoner oeuvre, a baby gets stoned, does coke, and ecstacy; Neil Patrick Harris attempts to pleasure himself on an unsuspecting chorus girl who he is massaging (the joke? Doogie’s Howser’s homsexuality is really just a ruse to take advantage of vulnerable women); the 3D is used mostly for the shooting of bodily fluids at the screen; Harold gets his penis stuck to a cold pole ala’ A Christmas Story; and then he shoots Santa in the head.

Let’s just say it’s on the bubble.

Clint Eastwood’s biopic is lovingly photographed.  Washington, D.C., and other venues, from the teens through the 1970s, are regal, warm and classic. Unfortunately, Eastwood has populated his pretty film with a dull collection of historical figures, none of whom have much to offer. Eastwood also mostly punts on the nature of Hoover, and as played by Leonardo DiCaprio, the character is little more than a one-note old windbag, constantly going on and on about the same thing – the enemy within.  Eastwood’s vehicle for Hoover’s reminisces – Hoover is dictating his memoirs to an ever-changing number of aides- does not help.  As one is replaced, you can almost hear the jettisoned aide saying, “Thank God! What a snooze!”  Oliver Stone’s Nixon gave us a ridiculously lustful and evil Hoover, played by Bob Hoskins, but at least he wasn’t tedious.

Naomi Watts is wholly wasted as Hoover’s long loyal secretary.  Armie Hammer, as Hoover’s long loyal number 2 Clyde Tolson, does a poor version of a young Brendan Fraser (Hammer was last seen in The Social Network playing the Winkelvosses).  Judi Dench’s turn as Hoover’s overdoting mother is predictable.  Josh Lucas’s take on Charles Lindbergh is foggy.  In fact, the only decent performance is a brief appearance by Jeffrey Donovan as a trumped Bobby Kennedy.  Donovan thankfully avoids the standard “Haaaaaaaaahvaaaaaads” and “Baaaaaaahstons” endemic to the role.

Eastwood portrays Hoover as a repressed homosexual, no question.  Which makes Mom upset and Tolson bitter.   And Hoover seems most bothered by Martin Luther King because he overheard King having sex on a wiretap.  Not much of a motivation.  Eastwood even gives in to the dubious cross dressing story, but ennobles it because Hoover gets gussied up in Mom’s clothes after she dies.  Another punt.

Another problem.  DiCaprio’s makeup as an older Hoover is very good.  Hammer and Watts, however, look ridiculous, very similar to the characters in “Star Trek” when they age decades in hours.

“I love you, Edgar.”

Dustin Lance Black’s (Milk) script ends in treacle and nonsense.  Out out of nowhere, Hoover turns moralistic, the man who would stop . . . Nixon!  This prefaces a melodramatic conversation between an old Hoover and Tolson that is straight up “One Life to Live.” When Tolson, doddering in his ridiculous makeup, finds the dead Hoover, it comes close to bringing laughter.

At one point, DiCaprio asks Watts, “Did I kill everything I love?”

Oh if she’d said, “No Edgar.  That was Michael Corleone.  You just bored them to death.”

Romantic.  Comedy.  Can one be successful with only a little bit of both?  The Jennifer Aniston-Vince Vaughn vehicle, The Breakup (2006), fell into the category, as it depicted the deterioration of a relationship primarily built on convenience and a shared apartment.  The scenes between Vaughn and Aniston were so arch and cringe-inducing you wondered, ‘where the hell is the ‘rom’ much less the ‘com’?'”

Friends with Kids makes The Breakup seem like Love Actually.  Three couples form the center: the unmarried, platonic sister-brother like duo (Adam Scott and Jennifer Westfeldt); the canoodling, just pregnant, earthy types (Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd);and the sizzling, “just had sex in the bathroom” couple (Jon Hamm and Kristen Wigg).  We meet them at a fancy dinner in Manhattan and then fast forward four years to a second meal at the home of Rudolph and O’Dowd.  Scott and Westfeldt are unchanged, but Rudolph and O’Dowd are now sloppy, harried and laden with kids (she screams at him for doing nothing, he does less, and their kids scream all around them).  Hamm and Wigg bring their own newborn, who appears to be just one source of tension in their quietly crumbling relationship.  Scott and Westfeldt survey the wreckage, determine they can do it better, have their own baby while maintaining their independence (and separate apartments in the same building) and live happily ever after.

Well, no.  Westfeldt is in love with Scott, and Scott has absolutely no clue – he’s bought into their experiment.  In the meantime, they go on a ski trip with their friends, each bringing a new beau (Megan Fox and Ed Burns).  Hamm and Wigg implode, and Westfeldt realizes that her love for Scott is so strong she must profess it.

So, let’s tally.  The first scene of mayhem and bitterness (the four years later dinner) is depressing.  The scene of Scott and Westfeldt trying to make years of friendship square with sex to conceive is uncomfortable.  The scenes of Scott casually mentioning how awesome Fox is to Westfeldt are brutal.  The ski trip is akin to the dental examination in Marathon Man.  And Westfeldt’s profession of love, which is spurned by Scott, will open the vodka.

I liked the picture, but it ain’t no rom-com.  Scott, as always, is perfect, both wry and when it is called forth, impressively anguished.  What is funny in the picture is largely due to the crude banter between Scott and Westfeldt.  The other characters play well, save for Westfeldt, who also wrote and directed.  She is so pitifully earnest, it didn’t seem a fair fight.  And the exchanges between the couples are often illuminating.

The film is also quietly traditional.  Scott and Westfeldt do appear to be doing well on the outside with their arrangement, but as the fissures show, during the ski trip from hell, Hamm, in his own deteriorating marriage with Wigg (note: the mastermind of Bridesmaids provides not one single laugh in this picture) delivers an angry, vicious broadside against their hubris.

Scott delivers an effective rebuttal, which, of course, cements Westfeldt’s love for him:

You think that we don’t love each other? You know, I have loved this girl for nineteen years, Ben. That is fully half my life. I know everything there is to know about her. I know the mood she’s in when she wakes up in the morning – always happy, ready for the day. Can you imagine? I know that she is honest; she won’t even take the little shampoo bottles from the hotel room, or sneak into the movie theater for a double feature. She always buys a second ticket. Always. I know that we have the same values, we have the same taste, we have the same sense of humor. I know that we both think that organized religion is completely full of shit. I know that if she is ever paralyzed from the neck down, she would like me to unplug her – and I will. I know her position on just about everything, and I am on board. I am on board with everything about her, so you tell me, Ben. What better woman could I have picked to be the mother of my child?

Nonetheless, the film culminates in Scott’s realization that Hamm was right – you can’t just craft a perfect bubble of domestic bliss by jettisoning the inconvenient parts, such as “’til death do us” and fidelity.

Still, this movie can be a trial.  And the picture is not too traditional.  It is probably the only film to conclude with the line, “Fu** the sh** out of me.”

Is Will Ferrell ready for a dramatic role? As an alcoholic salesman fired from his job (typically, cruelly, as his boss has to get digs in during the termination meeting just so we know we’re on Ferrell’s side), for the most part, he seems just a spit-take away from breaking into Ron Burgundy or Frank the Tank. A thousand clown roles creates a hearty persona.

He’s fired, bullied at the convenience store, and when he gets home, his stuff is on the lawn, courtesy of his wife, who discovered he had an affair, changed the locks and left town. Ferrell then starts living on his lawn.

His neighbors are quirky, there’s a wise neighborhood child, and the moment I saw Michael Pena in the opening credits, I knew he’d be the Hispanic cop assigned the task of saying, “Dude. You can’t be living on your lawn.” There’s not a character in this who resembles a real person, and no amount of acoustic guitar/piano in the background can change that.

Ferrell is supposed to be endearing or at least sympathetic. For the most part, he’s neither. Rather, he’s bland, one note and when he tries to show depth of feeling, he just looks uncomfortable. He confesses his life and mistakes to an improbable pregnant new neighbor (Rebecca Hall) who, upon moving cross country to a new neighborhood ahead of her husband, naturally takes a shine to a weirdo drunk living on his lawn. Even his confession of what I think was an accused date rape only flummoxes her for a moment. You just keep hoping Vince Vaughn will show.

The film is also sloppy. Ferrell is able to blackmail his neighbor into giving him power from a cord, but in the deep throes of alcohol need, desperate for drink, he downs the backwash from old Pabst cans. With what he has on his neighbor, he’d certainly have been able to wrangle enough for a six pack. And when he’s desperately looking for beer, he checks his mini-frig, and it is empty. The next morning, however, he’s grilling bacon. Where did he get bacon?

Finally, there’s the insipid suburbia bashing as Ferrell decries the mother down the street who “blew her brains out because her daughter didn’t make cheerleading” and preaches, “I’m no different than any of you. I just don’t hide in my house.”

Heavy, man.

When dealing with race and the civil rights era, Hollywood is guilty of many sins.  In Mississippi Burning, blacks were little more than props and corpses.  Return of the Titans and Glory Road gave us treacle, with blacks ennobled and whites edified by the close quarters of the locker room, the baptism of sweat, and each race providing the other the lowdown on their versions of pop culture.  Men of Honor presented Cuba Gooding Jr. not as a man, but as a superman, literally prepared to drown in order to establish his place.  Ghosts of Mississippi was the story of Alec Baldwin’s dogged pursuit and Whoopie Goldberg’s shaming patience and little else.  All of these movies were pat, uninvolving and blandly heart-stirring.

The depiction of ingrained societal racism in Conrack, the surprise of A Soldier’s Story or the depth of character of In the Heat of the Night is a rarity:

Even more rare are civil rights-era films that strike a fair balance between the protagonists yet still feel authentic.  The Help continues the trend.  A much lighter film than most of its ilk, ala’ Driving Ms. Daisy, most of the characters soon bust out of the broad and into the wildly cartoonish.  Unsurprisingly, the center of the film is not really the help, but rather, the hysterical shrieking racist society queen Hily Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard).  Hily is so odious as to appear sociopathic.   But the film takes no chances, surrounding her with a coterie of henchwomen who fear her disapproval and endorse every initiative she proposes, including the creation of a separate household bathroom for the help of Jackson, Mississippi.  Perhaps this was necessary because her character, literally, must be so vile as to deserve unknowingly eating sh**, but it doesn’t make for anything beyond grating when Hilly is not biting into that surprise of a pie.

We also have a newcomer to town, Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain).  Celia is shunned by Hily because she’s of poorer West Virginia stock and she married Hily’s former beau.  Celia is a character in the film solely to be ostracised, to wallow in it, and then, to be given strength by her sassy, powerful house maid, Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), who had also been abused by Hily.  In Chastain’s big wet eyes of wonder, we see the dawning of racial understanding as she assesses her own station vis-a-vis Minny.  The happy ending?  Minny will be given a job for life, free use of any bathroom in the mansion, and, presumably, stock options.  Both Chastain and Spencer give similar, over-the-top performances (Chastain’s suggests Priscilla Queen of the Desert; Spencer every sitcom housekeeper of the last 30 years).  Both were nominated for best supporting actress.  Spencer won.

But the true triumph of Minny and the rest of the help is the publishing of The Help, a book written anonymously by Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone).  The book exposes the secrets of Jackson’s households as provided by the maids who serve in them.  At first, naturally, the maids are not interested in the project.  But then Medgar Evers is shot and in a scene as inevitable as dawn, everybody signs up.

Stone is a terrible choice for this role.  She’s an accomplished comedic actress, but she lacks any real depth – the best she can do is a screwed up face that is supposed to suggests emotion but looks more like a pre-sneeze.

Worse, we’re stuck with her uninvolving subplots, as the plight of the whites eventually takes precedence over the humdrum, silent suffering of their servant counterparts.  Those trials include a deep, dark family secret — her mother (Allison Janney) ousted  Skeeter’s childhood nanny (Cicely Tyson) in order to impress a local gaggle of racist women.  The scene is provided in flashback and it is beyond ridiculous.  Tyson is so humiliated you expect the women to start throwing cutlery at her for her menial offense.  Add on Skeeter’s barely fleshed out love affair – her beau is standoffish, then smitten, then furniture, and then, he walks out after Skeeter is no longer anonymous for reasons unexplained.  Granted, this has been deemed a woman’s picture, but I’m not sure the designation requires every male character to be shy of lobotomization.  Regardless, Skeeter’s nonsense takes away from the film’s one good thing . . .

Viola Davis, who I first saw as the mother of a boy molested by a priest in Doubt.  Davis was nominated for best supporting actress in Doubt though she appeared in just one scene, and what a scene it was (alas, she lost), and she was deservedly nominated for best actress in The Help, losing again to Meryl Streep’s Margaret Thatcher.  Her performance as the first of the maids to work with Skeeter is moving and nuanced.  She rises above stereotype and really comes across as authentic, something not one other character in The Help manages.  This scene is an example, where Davis confronts Hilly, showing both rage, confusion and ultimately, compassion:

Other than Davis, there’s little to recommend this movie, a disappointing follow-up by Tate Taylor to his stark and cool Winter’s Bone.

It was kismet that just after watching 1982’s 48 Hours, I’d stumble onto a modern Irish buddy cop picture.  Brendan Gleeson (Boyle) is an Irish policeman in Connemara, content to do his duty while occasionally lifting recreational drugs off of car accident victims or engaging call girls dressed as policewomen for their pleasures.  The FBI, in the form of Don Cheadle (Everett) arrives and they require Gleeson’s assistance in stopping a drug shipment and the brutal gang (led by Mark Strong and Liam Cunningham) facilitating it.

Much more comedic and wry than 48 Hours, The Guard does set up Gleeson as the racist.  When briefed by Cheadle and shown pictures of the white gang, Gleeson goes wide-eyed and says, “I thought only black lads were drug dealers?”  When Cheadle upbraids him for being a bigot, Gleeson responds, “I’m Irish, sure. Racism’s part of my culture.”  But the stronger dynamics are the Cheadle as fish-out-of-water line and a little of Gleeson’s Oscar to Cheadle’s by-the-book Felix.  Gleeson has no real enmity behind his racism and uses it merely to probe Cheadle.  Their interplay gets funnier as they get to know each other.

Best is the depiction of Ireland, which is not so much whimsical as hilariously casual. Gleeson finds some guns meant for the IRA and when delivering them to their contact (the idea of confiscation is never considered), seems bemused that the organization still exists.  The presumption is that almost all the police are on the take, and Gleeson’s explanation as to why he cannot assist Cheadle in the canvassing of potential witnesses to a murder is pitch perfect:

BOYLE:  So what d’ya have planned for the day?

EVERETT:  Well obviously we don’t know who killed McCormick or why. There was no useful forensic evidence found at the crime scene, so I thought we might start by canvassing the area around where the body was discovered. See if anybody heard anything, something they might have thought was relatively insignificant, but which in light of the murder may have a far greater importance. I mean, when I caught that sonofabitch Tyrell Lee Dobbs it was a result of something as seemingly inconsequential as a laundry mark, if you can believe that. The guy had a personal hygiene issue that was almost pathological. The other thing to consider is that McCormick was probably in the process of reconnoitering drop-off points all along the coast. Our friends Sheehy, Cornell and O’Leary are no doubt in other parts of the country doing exactly the same thing. So I’ll liaise with Inspector Stanton and Detective Moody, have them and their men start a coordinated push in all the relevant locations…

He trails off, realizing that BOYLE is concentrating on his food and is not listening to him.

EVERETT:  Sergeant?

BOYLE: I’m sorry, you lost me at “we”.

EVERETT:  We. You and I.

BOYLE:  It’s my day off. Did I not say?

EVERETT:  It’s your day off.

BOYLE:  I’ve had it booked a good while. Ask Stanton.

EVERETT:  We’re investigating a murder and the trafficking of half a million dollars in cocaine–

BOYLE:  Half a billion dollars.

EVERETT: –half a billion dollars in cocaine, and you’re telling me it’s your day off?

BOYLE:  Twenty-four hours won’t make any difference.

EVERETT: Twenty-four hours won’t make any difference

BOYLE:  They’re always saying it does, on those cop shows on the telly, but it doesn’t. Not in my experience, anyways. And why are you always repeating everything I say?

There is also a side story showing Gleeson taking care of his mother (Fionnula Flanagan) in the latter stages of her cancer that is sweet but not distracting.

Finally, the trio of bad guys have a running discussion of philosophy and culture that is Joycean yet Tarantinoesque. It’s rare you’re introduced to crooks in the midst of the following discusssion:

SHEEHY: –Schopenhauer.

O’LEARY:  I’d say Nietzsche.

SHEEHY:  Nietzsche. You haven’t even fucking read any Nietzsche.

O’LEARY:  I have, too. Ah…The Antichrist.

SHEEHY:  Quote me something, then.

O’LEARY:  “What does not kill me–”

SHEEHY:  Ah, for fuck’s sake. Every child knows that one.

CORNELL: Bertrand Russell.

SHEEHY: Bertrand Russell. Will you listen to him. The fucking English. Everything has to be fucking English. Name your favourite philosopher, and lo and behold, he’s fucking English.

CORNELL: He’s Welsh.

SHEEHY: Hah?

CORNELL: Bertrand Russell was Welsh.

SHEEHY: Bertrand Russell was Welsh?

He considers whether or not to take issue with CORNELL’s statement, but then accepts it might be true.

SHEEHY:  You know I never knew that. I didn’t think anybody interesting was Welsh.

CORNELL: Dylan Thomas?

SHEEHY: Like I said, I didn’t think anybody interesting was Welsh.

O’LEARY: “You will not get the crowd to cry Hosanna until you ride into town on an ass.” Nietzsche.

SHEEHY and CORNELL look blankly at O’LEARY. Then —

SHEEHY: Yeah that’s a good one.

CORNELL: Good quote, yeah, nice one.

You might think it showy and contrived, but it’s not. 

 

Steve McQueen’s Shame offers the story of Michael Fassbender, a New York City something or other, who is a sex addict.  We learn this because he flirts with women on the subway, engages prostitutes, and masturbates/watches porn morning, noon and night.  When his unbalanced sister, Carey Mulligan, comes to visit, his equilibrium is shattered, either because she is nude in his apartment, she sleeps with his boss, or she references their childhood.  No matter.  This is the kind of film that is destined to have as a penultimate scene Fassbender on his knees, in the rain, with a “will he or won’t he crawl back into sex addiction?” finale.

Why is Fassbender this way? As Mulligan says, “we’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.” However, that place is actually identified in the script as either Ireland or New Jersey.  And that is the sum and substance of motivation, backstory or reason.

In place of exposition, McQueen provides pointless, overly showy scenes, including a long, several block Fassbender jog through the streets of NYC; a preposterous nightclub song by Mulligan (she sings “New York, New York” and sports a Marilynesque “Happy birthday, Mr. President” skintight dress); and, a ridiculous threesome with Fassbender and two women that is half Obsession by Calvin Klein, half Showtime soft core.


“I know how you feel, pal.”

My wife summed it up beautifully: “I don’t even think he was a sex addict.” Her comment is akin to watching Raging Bull and declaring, “I don’t even think he was a boxer.”

Also, Hans Zimmer should sue the composer, Harry Escott, who ripped his work off on The Thin Red Line damn near note for note.

The 1.5 stars are awarded because our good friend’s sister is in the picture and the movie looks great.