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Entries in Roman Polanski (2)

Friday
Dec162011

Carnage

Some of my favorite movies take place in small spaces. That’s because the sheer amount of talent and ingenuity it takes to keep a story interesting without changing location is impressive to say the least. Alfred Hitchcock did it most effectively with Rear Window and the excellent, underseen Rope, but recent attempts have proved to be just as interesting, like John Cusack’s terrific horror thriller, 1408, and Ryan Reynolds’ nail biter, Buried. The newest attempt, Carnage, which is adapted from a play and written and directed by Roman Polanski, is one of the best. It’s a masterful display of intense, focused storytelling that ranks among the best of the year.

The story takes place at the home of Michael (John C. Reilly) and Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster), a married couple whose son just recently got in a fight with the son of Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy Cowan (Kate Winslet). The two couples are pairing together to discuss the situation and come to a mutual understanding of what happened. But what begins as a calm discussion soon becomes a heated argument where emotions rise and tempers flare. The two couples are about to show their true selves.

What Carnage does so well is keep the playing field level. It doesn’t take sides in the argument and lets you judge them for yourselves, though you most likely won’t be taking sides either, but it’s not because you’re looking from a neutral point of view. It’s because you’ll understand what all four characters are saying at certain points. Think of it like a game of Pong where your opinion is the dot in the middle. At first, you’ll agree with Foster when you realize that Waltz is more job oriented than family, seemingly unconcerned with the fact that his son beat up another young boy. But then you’ll find yourself disgusted at Foster’s pretentious, holier-than-thou attitude and her gall to basically tell Waltz and Winslet how to raise their son, even though her son is just as much at fault for the scuffle.

That bickering soon shifts from their sons to themselves, however, and the movie really begins to shine a light on their personalities. When most movies set their characters up with certain personality traits that are unchanging, Carnage creates characters that evolve throughout. The troubles of the children begin to take a back seat to the weaknesses of the parents. This naturally causes the male and female mentalities to diverge, which brings the sexes together while the couples drift apart.

Carnage is a very awkward movie, not structurally or artistically, but literally because the situation the parents find themselves in is inherently awkward. It’s a type of situation that has many variations and that many have lived through, which is precisely why it works. It takes a not uncommon event and creates a what-if scenario out of it. It shows a group of people saying whatever is on their mind, a luxury I’m sure many would like to have, yet it’s never mean spirited. Rather, it’s often very funny and at a brisk 79 minutes, it never wears out its welcome. Its ending may be a bit abrupt, but it’s nevertheless profound, showing in one simple shot that the parents made the fight out to be a bigger deal than the actual kids involved with the it.

When most movies can’t manage to maintain interest jetting all over the world, Carnage does it in one small apartment. It’s not flawless, but the ensemble cast is one of the most impressive of the year and the steady-handed direction is beautifully understated. It may be a small movie, but a big heart went into it and if you have the time to spare, it’s definitely worth seeing.

Carnage receives 4.5/5

Friday
Feb262010

The Ghost Writer

It would be easy to start this review off with a summary of the troubles director Roman Polanski has faced over the years, condemning him for his actions, yet praising his cinematic work, but forget about all of that. The real question is: can this man still make a movie? Polanski, of Rosemary's Baby and The Pianist fame, returns with The Ghost Writer, a political thriller bursting with intrigue and political themes that eventually gets sidetracked by its muddled tone, bad humor and been-there-done-that final twist.

In case you're unaware, a ghost writer is a professional journalist who interviews somebody and writes their books for them. For instance, Bill Clinton's memoirs weren't necessarily written by him, but rather by another person who took what he said and turned it into prose. In the movie, Ewan McGregor plays one of these men, known only as the Ghost, and he is invited to write the memoirs of former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang, played by Pierce Brosnan, after his previous ghost writer was found washed up on shore. For a hefty fee of $250,000, the Ghost agrees to take the job and is quickly invited to live in Lang's house along with his wife, Ruth, played by Olivia Williams. While he is there, allegations of war crimes pop up on the news and the Ghost quickly realizes that there is more to this man's life than meets the eye.

Hot off the heels of Scorsese's umpteenth masterpiece Shutter Island, The Ghost Writer feels like a number of movies mishmashed into one. What should have been an airtight political thriller becomes too oversaturated with goofy humor and chase scenes in the latter half that sometimes make the proceedings feel more like National Treasure than All the President's Men. This journalist all of a sudden becomes an action bound, conspiracy unraveler who figures things out in a split second that the FBI wouldn't for months.

That's not to say I dislike humor and think all serious movies should be completely so, but the jokes in the film seem too self-knowing to really work in this context. At one point in the movie, the former Prime Minister's wife makes a joke about texting. I'm sorry, I wasn't aware this was a teen comedy. Later, the Ghost hops on a bike and his rear wheel sinks into the wet terrain he's traveling on, impeding his movement. This comes at a moment in the movie where he is finally starting to piece together what is happening and is heading off to the beach where the last ghost writer's body was found. I need not explain why that joke is out of place.

My main beef with the movie, however, comes not from its poor use of humor or its sagging back half brought on by a spike in the action, but rather from its piling on of foreboding. The tension doesn't always flow naturally as it should in a political thriller. More than a few lines of dialogue eerily forewarn of the Ghost's impending danger, like one where a character tells him not to turn left in his car or he "might never be heard from again." While this could be fine alone, this is not an isolated incident and moments like this occur throughout the movie. I never felt like I should care based on what I was seeing onscreen, but rather from the constant reminder that something bad was going to happen being shoved down my throat.

Nevertheless, The Ghost Writer raises some interesting themes of power, struggle and war crimes and relates them back to America, exploring our motives and questioning who really pulls the strings, but the provocative conversation that should have occurred on my car ride home became too focused on the glaring flaws to spark any real interest. Despite a solid recommendation, I find myself disappointed with The Ghost Writer, a film that seemed destined for greatness, but ends up a throwaway thriller with minor thrills and little else.

The Ghost Writer receives 3/5