Wednesday, March 28, 2012

THE GIRL ON FIRE: a review of "The Hunger Games"

Based upon the novel by Suzanne Collins
Screenplay Written by Gary Ross and Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray
Directed by Gary Ross
**** (four stars

When I introduced myself to The Hunger Games trilogy, author Suzanne Collins’ mega-blockbuster young adult/science fiction/action thriller saga, I read the first two installments back to back and I have to say that I was, unfortunately, a tad underwhelmed. Now before any of you die-hard fans of the series take up your arms of bows and arrows and utilize me for target practice, please allow me to elaborate a bit.

I did indeed like the first two novels. I just did not fall in love with them. I did, however, love the story and overall concept. Collins’ violent, dystopian vision of a future post-North American landscape where teenagers from twelve impoverished districts were unwillingly selected to engage in a televised fight to the death where only one victor survives was indeed a visceral reading experience. I also thoroughly enjoyed Collins’ dark political commentary and pop-culture satire against the increasingly soul sucking world of reality television. I also loved that this series did place a striking teenaged heroine front and center, who along with a certain Hermione Grainger, gave that insipid Bella Swan a run for her money. Yet, throughout it all, I just didn’t care that much and that reaction may have been due to Collins' actual writing style rather than her compelling vision. For me, while the action moved at a breakneck pace and kept me eagerly turning the pages, the characters themselves felt a tad thin, dialogue seemed to be too clunky and by the second novel, I was a bit tired of feeling as if I were several steps ahead of our heroine Katniss Everdeen. That events which should have been OBVIOUS to her just weren’t. Furthermore, the “voice” of Katnisss simply struck me as sounding like it originated from a petulantly, narcissistic girl who was irritated with having to clean her room again, instead of a government pawn forced to fight and kill in order to survive. And so, by the conclusion of the second book, I felt as if I needed to have a break from the experience before plunging into the series’ finale.

What a difference a terrific movie can make. As I have stated many times on Savage Cinema, books are books and movies are movies and Director Gary Ross’ “The Hunger Games” was an adaptation that not only honored the source material heroically, it even elevated it for me. This is a rare example of how a filmmaker can take a book an improve upon what is there through a mastery of tone, visual style, storytelling skill, and unlike the awful “Twilight” film series, hire real actors who can make the material soar. And I’m telling you, Jennifer Lawrence is the real deal as her performance as Katniss is sensational. More on her a bit later but for now, “The Hunger Games” more than deserves your hard-earned box office dollars as it is big budget Hollywood entertainment with a brain, a heart, and copious amounts of soul. It is a gift to those die-hard fans of the novels as well as also existing as an excellent film-going experience for complete novices.

For the uninitiated, allow me to set the scene. Just as with the original novel, “The Hunger Games” opens in a crucially dark period set in the future as North America has been destroyed, leaving in its wake the thirteen poverty stricken districts of Panem. After a devastating uprising during which District 13 was decimated, the all powerful governmental forces of The Capitol, now under the leadership of the sinister President Snow (Donald Sutherland) have orchestrated an annual event entitled the Hunger Games, as a punishing reminder to the remaining twelve districts to never again rebel against The Capitol. The cycle of the Hunger Games begins with a process known as “The Reaping,” where one boy and one girl, between the ages of 12-18, and from each of the twelve districts are chosen to battle in the aforementioned televised death match.

Jennifer Lawrence stars as 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, an inhabitant of the destitute, rustic, coal mining community of District 12, who is the sole caretaker for her younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) as their Mother (Paula Malcomson) is stagnated in a crippling depression after the death of her husband. Katniss provides for her family by consistently sneaking out of her district boundary to illegally hunt for food alongside her close friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

By the time of The Reaping, 12-year-old Primrose is selected to be a Hunger Games contestant, yet in a moment of fierce protection, Katniss volunteers to take her place. Katniss is accepted into the games and is soon joined by the shy baker’s son Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) as another contestant. The twosome are quickly taken from their home and sent to the lavish surroundings of The Capitol. It is there where they are placed in the care of escort Effie Trinket (an unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks), stylist Cinna (a solid Lenny Kravitz) and finally, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrleson), an alcoholic and sole survivor from his past Hunger Games competition who serves as their mentor and primary source to obtain sponsors before and during the games.

After the completion of the training sessions, makeovers and media blitz publicity tour featuring shockingly innocuous television interviews with the legendary and horrifically plastic TV host, Caesar Flickerman (an outstanding Stanley Tucci who oozes with glistening sleaze), Katniss, Peeta and the 22 remaining “tributes” are ejected into the woodsy battleground, clawing for their individual survivals. And will Katniss, ever resourceful and consumed with her unique brand survivalist instincts, outlast her competitors while keeping her humanity intact?

Furiously paced, expertly acted, and filled with a moody intensity escalating the provocative story and concepts most handsomely, “The Hunger Games” won me over immediately. What I found to be especially remarkable about this film is how expertly Gary Ross honored the source material by remaining supremely faithful to the text yet he also devised a way for this experience to stand on its own cinematic feet, creating an experience I am already anxious to revisit. To my eyes and perceptions, and much like Director Chris Columbus’ spectacular “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (2001), Ross remarkably created a cinematic palate that nearly matched the images the original novel conjured in my head. Everything just felt right as characters, locations and events appeared upon screen. Mostly, what I had loved is how Ross quickly established the proper somber, gritty, restless, uneasy and aggressive tone for the film with his striking cinematography, James Newton Howard’s strong film score, terrific set design, innovative and grotesquely plastic makeup design for the high fashion characters, grounded and tasteful special effects and visual design. While none of this should be a surprise as Ross was the filmmaker behind the brilliant color/black and white fantasy “Pleasantville” (1998) and the period horse race drama “Seabiscuit” (2003), you just never know when it comes to an adaptation of a book. But, after witnessing this film, Gary Ross was the faultless choice and I really hope that he helms the remaining two installments.

Thematically, and as with Suzanne Collins’ novel, the film is a hodge-podge of familiar elements. There’s a bit of “Logan’s Run” (1976) here, some of George Orwell’s 1984 and William Golding’s Lord Of The Flies there, and the disturbing battle between pre-conceived destiny will with the world of reality television as the backdrop provided a healthy dollop of Peter Weir’s “The Truman Show” (1998) for good measure. But, in the best conceivable fashion, Ross makes all of this feel fresh and not the least bit derivative. Collins’ political and television commentary are placed front and center with a true gravity that anchors the experience, ensuring the film never flies completely off the rails into an unrelatable fantasy world. Collins and Ross clearly have weighty concepts on their minds and I was pleased to witness how Ross was certain to not allow the film to fall into a mindless barrage of CGI effects and bloodthirsty carnage.

All with some of the best science fiction I have had the pleasure to read and see throughout my life, “The Hunger Games” serves as an allegory about a variety of topics, all of which connect together seamlessly to form a hugely resonant whole. The sequences in District 12, with children being forcibly marched towards their destinies in The Reaping ceremony, certainly brought images of nothing less than Auschwitz to my mind. The Hunger Games themselves felt like every lowest common denominator nightmare about reality television brought to brutal life. Even a late film riot sequence recalled the Civil Rights clashes of the past and the Occupy movement uprising of the present. Speaking of our current societal battles between the 99% and 1%, I loved the film’s take on the cruelty of a society that functions as an oligarchy. Yes, the lavish opulence of The Capitol serves to carry that theme heavily but I loved the mass displays of food during the sections where Katniss, Peeta and the other tributes are in training and making their media rounds. Just the blatant indifference held towards these children who have all been deprived of the basic life necessities throughout the entirety of their lives and are now being fed and “fattened” for the purpose of slaughter was powerful. Yes, all of these elements are present in Suzanne Collins’ original novel but the way Gary Ross interpreted this material made everything resonate for me in ways the novel did not and I was left with a powerfully grim and stirring impact overall.

Yet, the biggest question about this film version is the level of violence and how it would be depicted in a PG-13 film, considering that Suzanne Collins wrote an unflinchingly brutal series. Certainly because this is a young adult novel, there was no way in the world that Hollywood was going to deliver an R rated version of this material, thus ensuring that their intended audience would be routinely turned away from the box office window. And here is where Ross has triumphed again. As I have stated, he sets up and masters the film’s overall tone from the get-go ensuring that the inhumanity of the piece remains in the forefront and the movie never disintegrates into a Schwarzenegger styled bloodbath. But, you do, however, feel that sense of thrill and excitement once the timer counts down to zero and the 24 tributes race for their lives. A very clever move, as those feelings force us in the audience to re-examine our relationship with violence, especially as we watch teenagers hunt and murder each other. All of that being said, the film shows no gore whatsoever, never lingers on violent images and at no point is the film exploitive. And yet there has been some surprising criticism on the internet that “The Hunger Games” is not violent enough (!), a criticism that was unwisely hurled at Peter Jackson’s PG 13 rated adaptation of “The Lovely Bones” (2009). For me, Ross has wisely figured out how to dance to the edges of the PG-13 rating, as “The Hunger Games” never strikes a note that could be considered juvenile despite its collection of teenage characters. And this element actually brings me to the film’s most controversial device…the return of the dreaded “shaky cam”!!!

The handheld camera technique is utilized heavily throughout “The Hunger Games” and at first, I began to carry a worry. As I have said many, many times before, I HATE, HATE, HATE the dreaded “shaky-cam” as I feel that it is a sloppy technique that all but obliterates the basic storytelling that is inherent in a visual medium and most notably, during action set pieces. Director Paul Greengrass’ “The Bourne Supremacy” (2004) and “The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007) were two films that over-utilized the technique to the degree that I could not even enjoy the films at all due to storytelling incoherence and a nasty bout of nausea to boot. “The Hunger Games” never goes as far as those films but there were points where I did wonder if it was going to approach that neighborhood. Thankfully the camera work would settle down for long stretches before going haywire and after a spell, I did realize that Ross’ utilization of the dreaded shaky-cam was indeed story driven as well as assisting greatly to keep the on screen violence to a minimum. What we gain from the herky jerky camera motions is the chaos and insanity of war, something filmmaking masters Oliver Stone and Steven Spielberg used to extraordinary effect in films like “Platoon” (1986) and “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). The handheld camera is also used to keep us constantly within Katniss’ eye level, a technique used to the disturbingly hallucinatory effect in Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” (2010). We see what Katniss sees, when she sees it, making the audience completely along for the ride, taking in every moment at the precise times that Katniss experiences them herself. On this level, the dreaded shaky-cam worked and while I will take this as a somewhat minor quibble with this otherwise excellent film, I sincerely wish that Gary Ross will tone it down considerably should he direct the second installment.

But beyond all of the cinematic aesthetics on display, “The Hunger Games” succeeds greatly by knowing that having strong actors will carry the day and this film has assembled a terrific cast from top to bottom. Josh Hutcherson’s performance as Peeta contained considerably more heft than how the character read upon the page as he felt to be too vanilla, too bland. Stanley Tucci was pitch perfect and I just wanted more and more of Woody Harrleson every time he appeared. And I also have to say that the building love triangle between the characters of Katniss, Peeta and Gale also found the right sense of longing, urgency, and potential tragedy in ways that the “Twilight” film series has not been able to convince me of in the least.

But the film’s home run is Jennifer Lawrence as she is magnificent in the role of Katniss Everdeen. In the novels, the voice of Katniss is “heard” through her first person narration, therefore we experience her every single thought as they occur. For the film, the narration is completely removed. So, everything that we would “hear” when we read the books is absent, therefore making Jennifer Lawrence’s performance one that is significantly wordless. Yes, Lawrence has dialogue and she is completely convincing when she speaks. But, so much of the film is the actual event of the Hunger Games, where she is often alone, so every thought that we were privy to in the novel has to be entirely read upon Jennifer Lawrence’s face and physicality, and both are extremely impressive. It was amazing to me that with this performance, I was able to know exactly what Katniss is thinking without her speaking a word. Her motivations are crystal clear. You know exactly why she makes the choices she does, how she ponders getting herself into and out of desperate and deathly situations and we are witness to her uncompromising desire of remaining humane in an inhumane world. Jennifer Lawrence brought this character to life in ways the novel just did not fully achieve for me. She possessed the perfect mixture of being haunted as well as hunted, ferocious as well as compassionate, and being protected as well as serving as protector. A world of emotions exists inside the character of Katniss Everdeen and Jennifer Lawrence nailed them all to perfection and she made this character a heroine I would follow absolutely anywhere.

What a great pleasure it was to be surprised like this. While I would have seen this film regardless, I have to admit it was not a film I had been anxiously awaiting by any means. Gary Ross’ “The Hunger Games” is a shining example and fully represents the exact type of science fiction film that resonated with ideas over mindless bombast, and filled with rich characterizations over a barrage of the best special effects money can buy. This is a film that represents what was once the norm for big budget Hollywood escapist features and not the exception, as nowadays, when you purchase a ticket, you are more than likely to be bludgeoned by sight and sound rather than be invigorated by them.

“The Hunger Games” is first rate, top of the line entertainment and if I could buy a ticket for the second installment today, I would! But for now, I’m heading right to the back of the box office line to see this one again.

Saturday, March 24, 2012


Directed by Cameron Crowe
**** (four stars)

I would easily gather that as we all venture forwards in our respective lives with our respective responsibilities, none of us have really taken stock of exactly what our individual places in the world mean to those around us. And to that end, as busy as we all are, perhaps we haven’t taken the time or have even had terribly many opportunities to ruminate over our lives and think about the people who all contributed to our personal evolutions. As I think about it now, I can remember two specific moments five years ago during my 20th high school reunion, where I happened to come in contact with two former teachers. In both of those moments, I took the chance to offer heartfelt words of gratitude in regards to two instances of educational “second chances” that did not have to be provided and overall assisted me in the successful completion of their courses. To them, I am more than certain that those moments concerning me were long forgotten. But the fact that those moments were not forgotten by me demanded that I offered the proper appreciation and thanks and I would like to think that those moments were not lost on either of them. And yet, those were only two people throughout the myriad of influences and guiding forces throughout my life. I cannot help but to ponder what life would be like if we could all find the ones who made us who we are and the ones we have influenced in turn could all find each other again and have even one spot in time to simply say, “Thank you.”

Those emotions provide the profoundly moving emotional core of Cameron Crowe’s “The Union,” a documentary detailing the writing, recording and release concert performance of the album of the same name as composed and performed by none other than Elton John and Leon Russell. As collected with his other 2011 releases “Pearl Jam Twenty” and “We Bought A Zoo,” Cameron Crowe’s “The Union” is the very best of his three films. Beyond his artistic triumph, Crowe has made a towering achievement by completely fulfilling his objective of “placing some joy into the world,” as he once described during an interview with Charlie Rose. “The Union” is a brisk yet voluminously beautiful experience that transcends the music documentary, creating an experience that is nothing less than a tribute to the act of giving thanks.

As “The Union” opens, Elton John, in a honest and personable narration openly questions what he should pursue next as an artist. As he sees himself as being too young to retire and too old to spend his time creating “crap,” he was struck by an act of serendipitous inspiration while on holiday with his partner. Listening to his partner’s I-pod, John stumbled across the music of Leon Russell, an artist who provided John with his deepest source of inspiration and influence when he was an up and coming singer/songwriter/pianist/performer. It was in that moment, that Elton John decided that the twosome should collaborate on an album but John has plans even greater than music on his mind.

Beginning in November 2009 and lasting for several months thereafter, Crowe and his crew give us access to the full writing and recording process of the album as well as John and Russell’s long awaited reunion, as they seemingly have not been in contact for the better part of 40 years. At first, Russell seems tentative and perhaps even a tad withdrawn, as John has already arrived at the sessions with boundless energy and five songs already composed with his longtime writing partner/lyricist Bernie Taupin and even legendary producer T-Bone Burnett. Early into the recording, Russell suffered a health scare, which led to a five-hour brain surgery operation. While fears that the project may not be able to continue, Leon Russell surprised everyone with his return to the studio 10 scant days after his operation. It was at this point in “The Union” for me, that I began to wonder if there was much more to Leon Russell than at first seemed. Man, I had no idea…

Mostly, “The Union” is a film that illustrates how deeply entrenched John’s admiration for this man happens to be. Throughout the entirety of the film Elton John functions as coach and cheerleader for Leon Russell, always professing his appreciation and love, giving him encouragement with endless fervor and passion. Just at the point when a more cynical person may ponder if John’s behavior is all for the cameras, I would seriously dare that person to ask that question after a supremely touching sequence that takes place shortly after Russell’s return from his surgery. Leon Russell performs a rough version of a brand new song entitled, “In The Hands Of Angels,” a track he may have jokingly said was written under the effects of Ambien. As Russell sings and plays, John marvels at the song and quickly remarks to Burnett how this track must be placed upon the full album. As the song plays onwards, John is continuously moved by his hero’s gifts beginning to return and suddenly, he is stricken with emotion and quietly leaves the studio console in tears. This is the point when I feel that we can truly see that this album is no mere recording project for Elton John. It is even beyond existing as a labor of love. Elton John mentions at one point in the film that his piano playing was influence by perhaps 50-60 different players but it was the work of Leon Russell that stands tallest. In fact, when you hear Elton John play the piano, with his grasp and ability to merge classical, country, gospel, rock and soul music so magically, you are in fact hearing the touch of Leon Russell. “The Union” is Elton John’s testament and tribute to the man who served as his greatest influence and inspiration and the album and film serve as a means for the entire world to hear and understand what John has known for his entire professional life.

I loved how Cameron Crowe expertly found the story behind the music, as it were, making this film serve as so much more than what it seems to be on the surface. With the album and now this film, what John and Crowe have accomplished is to each create works that celebrate Leon Russell in such a way where the listener/viewer is enticed to discover MORE about this man. In Leon Russell, “The Union” just gives you the tip-top of a profoundly deep and solid iceberg in the history of rock music. This fact is depicted in a short and masterfully jaw dropping sequence where Crowe jams the screen with the sights and sounds of Russell’s work as a session musician. Trust me, you will be shocked to know how deeply entrenched Leon Russell actually is within the fabric of the music that has shaped all of our lives.

This fact of Leon Russell’s gift to music is referenced again and again throughout the film as Elton John seems to be conjuring up situations in the studio designed to embrace and re-inspire Russell to create at his fullest once again. Brian Wilson arrives to contribute harmony vocals to one track while Booker T. Jones provides his trademark organ work to other tracks and both men take the time to converse with Russell, each eliciting oceans of respect and fondness while not saying many words at all. Stevie Nicks also appears to speak with Russell about how he was a major influence upon herself and Lindsey Buckingham at the start of their music careers in 1970. Throughout it all is Elton John, majestically carrying Leon Russell upon his shoulders through the entire proceedings, and “The Union” grows more moving the more involved and excited Leon Russell becomes with the project and how that excitement transfers to Elton John himself. None moreso than the film climactic concert sequence, presented on the album’s release day in 2010, where the two pianos sound as one and the audience’s response seems to lift the reticent Leon Russell off of his feet. For Elton John, his mission has been accomplished: To have the moment to publicly say to Leon Russell “I love you” and for an audience of music fans to say the same words as well.

If “The Union” were to solely function wonderfully as a “fly-on-the-wall” look at the creative process, it would already be an excellent film. I especially loved being witness to Elton John’s sense of artistic motivation at his age of 65. how he is more than knowledgeable that his time in the sun has come and gone and that the level of success that he received in the 1970s will never come again. He will create what feels right to his spirit and he refuses to fall into the record company traps of making an artist of his age more relevant by creating an album of standards or even worse, Christmas carols.

The fact that “The Union” is so much more makes it a film to revisit, embrace, and remember for years to come. I know I keep returning to this point but the concept of Elton John’s rapturous appreciation and sublime celebration of Leon Russell truly hit an emotional pressure point for me. I really could not help but to think of the people that have all served to shape my life and I wondered how I could ever possibly find them to thank them all. As we all know and understand all too well, sometimes painfully, life happens and often gets in the way, forcing us to lose touch with people who at one time or another meant the world to us. In some ways, “The Union” could also feel like a film of atonement from Elton John towards Leon Russell due to their lack of contact for nearly 40 years during which John’s music career ascended to the top of the world and beyond while that level of meteoric success eluded Russell and landed him into relative music obscurity. Every moment of this film feels depicts Elton John’s steps to bring Leon Russell back into the spotlight, no matter how seemingly small any individual gesture seems to be. This was most notably a short debate about whether the album packaging should come with the CD plastic jewel case or the eco friendly digipak occurs only because Elton John wants Leon Russell’s image to be presented in the best possible light.

Unlike the more private members of Pearl Jam, Elton John is a completely engaging presence, very comfortable in front of the camera and surprisingly willing to allow cameras into certain sessions of his recording process that have otherwise been wholly private. He is quite conversational, gregarious and loquacious, again, for the glory of celebrating elevating Leon Russell into the firmament of public consciousness.

And what of Leon Russell himself? With his mane of past shoulder length white hair and impenetrable gaze, Leon Russell is a captivating and imposing figure. He certainly creates and emanates an imposing presence as he resembles a corpulent Gandalf, or a slightly more disheveled and even sinister Santa Claus. He is a man of few words and is indeed weakened by his health issues but he draw you in completely. You want to know more about this man especially as his face and spirit begins to light up and re-energize as the film progresses. For me, I have not even one stitch of music in my vast collection by Leon Russell and now, I feel compelled to go on a new musical hunt and education. This is precisely what Elton John wished to happen as a result of this project.

If you have an opportunity to see “The Union,” I urge you to take it and become enraptured with the creativity and talent on display of course. But, most of all, please allow this wonderful film to pierce your heart and return you to the ones who touched you during your past and the ones who influence you now. I truly believe that our places on this Earth do carry meaning and that even one person that is out of place will alter the courses of our lives even a little bit. It truly does only take a moment to say “Thank you” or “I love you,” and with “The Union,” we see one man’s generous gift to another while Cameron Crowe delivers another cinematic gift to all of us.

How can you see “The Union”? Well…this will be tricky. The film premiered on HBO last month for its initial run and now it is currently out of the rotation. It is bound to make a return but for now, you cannot see it at all. Cameron Crowe’s official website The Uncool will make any announcements about any subsequent releases on DVD and Bu-Ray formats. But, as for now, if you happen to live near me in Madison, I do have a copy on VHS and would be more than willing to share if you wish!

Sunday, March 4, 2012


Based upon the stage play “The God Of Carnage” by Yasmina Reza
Screenplay Written by Yasmina Reza and Roman Polanski
Directed by Roman Polanski
*** 1/2 (three and a half stars)

Maybe there’s something to be said for just hitting someone in the face with a stick.

Please allow me to clarify, so as none of you feel that I, your friendly neighborhood film enthusiast, has fallen into a state of violent nihilism. No worries, dear readers. I am still a “live and let live” individual, a pacifist at heart but there have been times…Lord, have there been times…

In my life as a preschool teacher, every day at school consists of the constant fostering of my charges’ collective array of growing social skills, most notably, how do we all get along and live together in our particular microcosm of society. Variations of the phrase “Use your words,” are especially commonplace in my chosen career as this is the crucial period where teachers attempt to instill in very small children the ability to approach interpersonal conflicts with respect and dignity towards others. Essentially, screaming and hitting will get you nowhere. But then, I have had experiences where I could not help but to wonder just what society would possibly be like if adults were allotted the same psychological space as small children in regards to emotional outbursts. Would adult society be better served if having occasional temper tantrums were more the norm than what actually exists, a society of repressed emotions solely for the purpose of maintaining a certain civility. This conceit sat at the core of legendary and controversial Director Roman Polanski’s latest film “Carnage,” a dark social comedy of what happens when upstanding, decent people get together and stop being polite. I have to say that I am a sucker for dialogue heavy films set within enclosed spaces and for this film, Polanski has set us all up for a doozy, one that we may all uncomfortably relate to even more than we even realize.

As “Carnage” opens, we are witness to a playground fight between two middle school children surrounded by a gaggle of their friends. After some unheard verbal taunts and the requisite pushing and shoving, one child, brandishing a tree branch whips around and smacks his adversary directly in the face.

From here, “Carnage” settles entirely into the New York apartment dwelling of writer and social justice campaigner Penelope and wholesaler Michael Longstreet (played by Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), the parents of the boy who was hit. Stockbroker Nancy and attorney Alan Cowan (played by Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), the parents of the boy who attacked, have arrived for a short visit to discuss the situation between their respective sons and oversee the Longstreet’s written statement as well.

From the very beginning, the tension between the two couples is palpable through language delivered through clenched passive aggressiveness and social one-upsmanship. Yet in the interest of civility, the foursome continues their feeble attempts for mature reconciliations through the Longstreet’s offerings of bland societal pleasantries of coffee and cobbler. But, Alan’s incessant cell phone rings and rings and he continuously and loudly holds legal conversations. Penelope’s high strung and sense of control grows more unhinged. Michael’s dopey geniality hides a nasty streak. And poor, beleaguered Nancy’s frustration soon overtakes her, finding solace within a bottle of scotch. As the verbal wordplay grows angrier, crueler and more destructive, not only has the intended civility of this meeting fallen apart but possibly the internal states of both marriages.

In addition to the difficulty of maintaining one’s set of learned social graces, “Carnage” is a prickly written and acted film, which concerns itself with childhood bullying, sanctimonious liberalism, class, wealth, the anxiety and resentment of helicopter parents, the low-down vicious behavior of the upper class as well as a bout of horrific projectile vomiting. I was deeply impressed at how much subject matter was contained within this scant 80 minute film and nothing ever felt stuffed or overdone and in this time of excess, Polanski wisely knew how to keep the events flowing freely, how to build and release the tension and most importantly, when to quit. “Carnage” is essentially a plotless film however, that is not a hindrance as the full behavior of the characters makes this particular story work successfully. Everything we need to know is expressed through dialogue and actions and by the film’s conclusion, I was (almost) fully satisfied as there was not much else that was necessary.

All of the performances are pitch perfect and work beautifully in tandem with each other. Not one of the four principal players delivered work designed to outshine their acting compatriots. They felt like a well-oiled machine, as well as they should for if any performance felt out of step, the entire proceedings would disastrously falter. Polanski never overplayed his hand with this presentation, which did carry a certain staginess but not one that was bothersome to me. In fact, I think this film may even reward you with subsequent viewings as the locations, set design and clothing serve as much purpose as the sharp, stinging dialogue.

I was so happy to see Jodie Foster in a performance that was not only terrific but also miles away from her trademark virtuous heroines in distress. Almost everything you need to know about Penelope Longstreet is apparent through her prim, attractive figure which is outfitted with clothing that must be more self-consciously expensive than she would openly let on to others, as that would belie her public front of social responsibility. Her passionate ranting about the horrors of Africa as she safely resides in her wealthy New York apartment is the epitome of her self-righteous liberalism. She is as equally obsessive about her priceless and out of print art books, the status of her decorative tulips shipped from Holland, whether cans of Coke and that aforementioned cobbler are placed in or out of the refrigerator as she is about the language used in her written statement. And her clipped vocal delivery, which is peppered with those aforementioned passive-aggressive asides barely conceals the self-righteous venom she holds against her guests. Making matters decidedly worse is the behavior of her husband Michael, whose meek defense and congenial nature towards the guests undercuts her emotions, making her appear as the more unreasonable of the twosome. Watching Penelope’s disintegration over the course of the film provided much of the satiric humor but it was oh so telling in how difficult holding up such a controlled visage, especially one through social competition, must be. Jodie Foster plays this part to the hilt as her perfectly coiffed head of pony-tailed hair flies out of place, her intellectual glasses are discarded and her rage is fully unleashed as she screams tirades with seemingly every vein in her neck popping furiously.

Christoph Waltz also impressed me greatly as his overall sense of callousness regarding nearly everything in his life, aside from his career, is dramatically on display. Alan Cowes is a man who grudgingly puts up with social graces and in the case of this particular story, there is nearly anywhere else he would rather be than in this apartment. That being said, he will gladly and voraciously eat plate after plate of cobbler and help himself to glass after glass of scotch. I loved watching him take one business call after another without regard for anyone else in the room and just watch how he causally sits upon the Longstreet’s furniture as if this house was his own. Late in the film, Alan expresses that he loves “the God of Carnage,” expressing a more nihilistic view of humanity that again gives unspoken permission for the spineless Michael Longstreet to veer away from Penelope and align himself with his guests.

While Roman Polanski stages this social dance of bad manners with deftly excellent skill, “Carnage” does fall far short of the devastatingly epic power of Mike Nichols “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), a film I could not help to think that “Carnage” was trying to emulate to a degree. I felt “Carnage” fit more closely with the upper class existential crisis as portrayed by Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing in Director Fred Schepisi’s excellent “Six Degrees Of Separation” (1993), and that is definitely strong cinematic company to reside with.

When the film ended, I had this feeling that despite the talent on display and the overall effectiveness of the material, “Carnage” seemed to be more than a little inconsequential. But, as I write and ruminate, I think that what Polanski has done is create a short story of a film that questions nothing less than our collective humanity, a constant theme that carries much weight and meaning on Savage Cinema. I think that Polanski is presenting to us a situation where we have to question if the sometimes meaningless traditions of our social graces are indeed meaningless at all and if they are necessary to build and maintain a societal order or not. What is Alan Cowes but a representation of our emotionless disconnect within our cell phone culture? During one crucial moment, Alan shrieks, “My life is in that phone!!” But what of the life that is occurring right in this very apartment, not to mention the well-being of his son, whom he truly resents and desires to leave in the nurturing care of his gorgeous yet weary long-suffering wife. Through these moments, and through “Carnage” as a whole, Polanski illustrates not only our continuing disconnect from each other but the lives that are happening right in front of us, most especially our own.

And perhaps, Polanski may be suggesting, forcing ourselves to weather the banalities of social graces and gestures to maintain order instead of narcissistically releasing our vitriol upon each other is paramount to a healthy society. But then again, Polanski may also be questioning, shouldn’t everything be relegated to a greater sense of balance? For what good is maintaining social graces at the expense of our own individualistic sense of sanity and coping?

These are weighty themes collected in a deceptively small package. “Carnage” represents the very type of film that is in short supply these days, a film that is designed to be discussed and argued about long after viewers have exited the movie theater. Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” is a ferociously entertaining work that has much on its mind for it and all of us to ponder. For in the social tug of war, in this case between “the haves” and “the have mores,” what should we cling to: our feeble and possibly futile collection of public appearances or should we all let loose and claw each other apart?

Thursday, March 1, 2012


You know, I feel as if I am a month behind.

While this site is my personal playground, I do like to try and instill a sense of discipline towards its upkeep and overall longevity. That is essentially why I open each month with a posting exactly like this one. Simultaneously, you are able to see my plans and visions and I am also able to essentially create some sort of a road map and goals for myself. But, funny things happens when life takes over the steering wheel.

There were films I had planned to see in January that I did not get myself to seeing until last moth and now, as I arrive on this first day of March, I realize that all of the films that I had planned to watch are still as yet unseen!

From Cameron Crowe's "The Union," to other documentaries which include, but are not limited to Davis Guggenheim's "U2: From The Sky Down" and "The Black Power Mixtape," I had thought that I would have been able to get to all of them last month but unfortunately, all of those films sit patiently awaiting me to screen them. So, my plan for this month is to try my best and whittle down the list and have some recommendations for your home viewing ready for you.

Additionally, I have also learned that Roman Polanski's "Carnage," a film I had been itching to see for the last several months, will finally make its appearance at my local Sundance theater this coming weekend and I will indeed have to get myself to that.

So, while I have my plans in order, I will also try not to keep my literary hands gripped so firmly upon life's steering wheel and just allow myself to be a tad surprised this month. I hope you will be surprised as well.

I'll see you when the house lights go down...