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« September. It's a Wrap | Main | NYFF: "Miss Bala" Blood, Guns, and Tiaras »
Friday
Sep302011

NYFF: "Carnage" 

Though critics screenings have been well under way for some time, tonight is the official opening night of the New York Film Festival. The kick off film is Roman Polanski's Carnage, about which we should undoubtedly say a few words. And then scream them, as we lose our composure.

Moviegoers who have seen Yasmina Reza's hit play "God of Carnage" in any of its many stage productions, had just cause to fear a film version; it's very much a work of the stage. What if they cast the two young boys whose stick-wielding playground tussle prompts all the (psychological) carnage between their parents, who meet to discuss the fight? What if the movie leaves the apartment where the entire play takes place? What if the actors can't handle the tricky satirical tone that has to be rooted in internal drama but stylized enough to extract external laughs?

The first two fears involve the dread "open it up" problem that hover like dark storm clouds over so many stage-to-screen adaptations. If you don't "open it up" you run the risk of your movie feeling weirdly hemmed in and even cheap. If you do "open it up" you run the risk of arbitrary and awkward resizing that feels more like nervous approval-seeking then an attempt to serve the material. With Roman Polanski, an expert at claustrophic storytelling, guiding the tight-quarters squabbling perhaps we shouldn't have worried.

The trouble-making sons of Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C Reilly) and Nancy and Allen Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) do appear in the film but in a wonderfully smart and ambiguously played framing device. This change from the play stays magically true to the spirit of the source material but is also entirely new and right for the change in medium (which is EXACTLY what adaptations should strive for). So the first thing Roman Polanski does right is that even though we do technically leave the confines of a realistically sized New York apartment (i.e. small) both visually and physically (the apartment building's hallway), we never once feel as though we've escaped the crowded private hell of two married couples. For a smartly succinct 80 minutes (it happens in real time) you are trapped with the parental quartet and their justifiable concern: what to do about a violent encounter between their children. The comedy and drama of the play-turned-movie are the ways in which said real and justifiable but basic-sized problem morphs, twists, pivots, wiggles, shrinks and expands -- it just can't hold its shape -- until it's a series of problems both microcosmically petty (home cooking, name calling, cel phones) and gargantuan unsolvable (Genocide! Corporate Greed! Marriage!).   

For the most part the actors all do solid work. Christoph Waltz, in the film's best and most nimble performance, ably suggests that Alan is a bit of a sadist and the only one who is actually enjoying all the squabbling and suffering (until he isn't). John C Reilly has the biggest about face, appearing to be the most accomodating character (and the dullest actor) until alcohol and aggravating phone calls from his mother loosen him up. Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster, two of the screen's most formidable actresses are both good. Kate is best with Nancy's comedic outbursts  (her weak stomach and quick inebriation, just as in the play, provides some of the most memorable moments) but one wishes for more character detail in the inbetween when she isn't the focus of the scene. Foster has the most difficult role. Penelope is an extremely uptight and self-righteous Africa-obsessed mother and she's the one character that's simultaneously the worst at keeping it together and the one most concerned with keeping it together. Though Foster has fine moments her comedy is the wobbliest; one ends up pitying Penelope more than laughing with or at her which is a strange place to end up inside of a viciously dark comedy. Still, there's a certain go-for-broke original bravura in Foster's vein-popping despair (hers is the performance least like the original play's), that one has to admire it even while one mentally recasts. 

As Carnage winds down... Stop. Winds down? Yes, though Polanski often comes up with clever angles by which to watch the four characters interact, the film does run into some trouble with momentum which the play didn't have. The hallway scenes offer new and funny ways of thinking about the fact that the couples can't seem to end their evening even while their hatred for each other grows, but they strain credulity as well. If you're that close to leaving... There are strange lulls just as things are reaching fever pitch, and the ending itself is one of those and weirdly sedate.

Despite Polanski's very smart and controlled approach to the material, one almost wishes he'd taken a page from Jodie's book and just gone jugular. He employs so many different techniques to keep you visually stimulated: depth of focus, variety of shot lengths, staging, camera stability (things get a bit shakier in time with the copious alcohol) that one almost wants to scream at him to commit to one of them, embrace it feverishly and "DO IT UP REAL BIG LIKE!!!" Take your cues from Winslet's ugly vomiting, Foster's whiny-screaming or Christoph Waltz's man-pouting and let your hair down a little. Lose your composure. Risk bloodying yourself up but good.

Carnage (2011) is maybe the best film version one could hope for given the absolute stageyness of the source material but it's good enough that it leaves you wanting one that you didn't dare hope for. B/B-*

Previously on NYFF
Miss Bala wins the "must-see crown" from judge Michael.
Tahrir drops Michael right down in the titular Square.
A Dangerous Method excites Kurt... not in that way, perv!
The Loneliest Planet brushes against Nathaniel's skin.
Melancholia shows Michael the end of von Trier's world. 

* Carnage is unique enough that the grade probably doesn't suggest how "see worthy!" it actually is. It's also the kind of property one might conceivably feel differently about on a second pass. For those of you wondering Carnage's best bet Oscar-wise is an Adapted Screenplay nomination. Since no consensus seems to have formed about "best in show" acting traction will be hard to come by for a shared movie.

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Reader Comments (16)

I've read some reviews that suggested Foster was bad in it. So glad she is not. Even if it's not an award-worthy performance (is it?), it may represent a back-in-the-game status from this moment on. Her acting is so unique, that, even when she is not spectacular, her approch to her parts always kepp me interested. I wish I could see this movie now.

September 30, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Nat,can i ask you a question,when do you think kate winslet will get her follow up 7th nomination to her oscar win,do you think she'll wait years,maybe become like streep in the late 90's i.e. category filler or never nominated again..

September 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMrripley

UGH A COMMENT I JUST MADE DISAPPEARED. nod your head if this has happened recently to you (oh never mind i can't see you).

September 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

okay (deep breath) trying this comment again...

Cal -- i thought i made it clear that i didn't consider her award worthy in this review (her approach is interesting but severely limits the play's usual laugh ratio)

Mr Ripley -- I don't want to make the mistake of assuming she'll be another Streep (as Streep is the only Streep). Who knows but i think it's important to remember that 6 is usually the cap... even with the very very famous and gifted actresses. Only 7 women have ever earned 7 or more acting nominations.

September 30, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Thanks so much for FINALLY (not very subtle, I know) letting us know what you thought.
Glad you liked it. Pretty good review too!

Re: Winslet, I don't want to have any expectations or hopes but it would be hard for her to not get nominated at least 2 more times though even that seems too little. But I don't want to jinx her!

Random and weird question: What grade would you give August: Osage County, the movie, if it was adapted exactly as well as Carnage was?

September 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJames T

horray for you posting your review! ;)

Also, I know you mentioned there hasn't been consensus for best in show but everywhere I check seems to hint that Cristoph Waltz is the standout. How are his Oscar chances?

September 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTerence

But, you know, sometimes when you change a character in an adaptation, you make it different from the original and deliver somthing else that is still great, in a different way. Foster may had played her comedy down, but that doesn't mean what she did is inferior. We're not supposed to be judging the performances from the original ones. Anyway, I just want to see the movie.

September 30, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Ooooo defend your Jodie cal.

September 30, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter/3RT

I had a blast watching the film, but other than Waltz, I was mostly enjoying them "acting" rather than "being", like some kind of "Celebrity Charade"... "oh Kate just had a nice moment there" and "Jodie was fantastic during that beat"...

Dont' see any Oscar but the golden globe will probably eat this up and nominate all four of them in the comedy category...

October 1, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjoy

I was thinking looking at g/g comedy only winslet or foster could win unless theron goes comedy.

October 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMrripley

Some reviewers have singled out Kate as the weak link, so I'm happy to hear that you thought she was good.

I really have to ask, though: I don't suppose this touches her top 5 performances, but how does it compare to her most recent output?

October 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSomeone

Someone -- it's fine when compared to her recent output. My issue (which really isn't an issue except that people keep asking me about it ;) is that I miss the fire that used to come with her performances. There's a difference between being a totally capable very skilled actor and a fierce magical one. I need some magic back soon.

Joy -- oooh on the Globes. Yes, i could see that happening.

October 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Yeah, the spark in her old performances is no longer there. I really have to wonder why, because from her interviews, it is obviously still there. Do you think Winslet deliberately chose to hold herself back in her recent performances because she was playing 'repressed' women?

I have high hopes for this one, though. She was hilarious in the trailer.

October 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSomeone

It's werid some reviews have called Foster the weak link and some reviews have called her the strongest part. of the thing They are all over the place. Guess it's a love-it or hate-it performance like Keira Knightley's. People most critical of it are the ones who make reference to seeing Marcia Gay Harden's performance. Still, atleast she's really going for it and is finally doing something interesting. When she does thrillers, people complain that she needs to step outside the box. When she does something different, people complain she's miscast.

October 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGemma

Gemma -- you're right. she is damned if she does damned if she doesn't. I guess i would really like to see her in a straight up drama again though. It's always a thriller or something that is, as you said, miscast. Like, i'd love it if she had another NELL in her at least. (i know it's popular to hate on that performance but i love her in that movie.)

October 1, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Hey Nathaniel what do you think Waltz's chances are awards wise for this? He really does seem like the real deal at this point; I was mildly worried that he'd have Inglourious Basterds and then poof he'd fade.

October 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnthony A
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