Carnage (Roman Polanski, 2011)

Having recently watched Louis C.K’s Hilarious, the concept of “white people problems” crept into my mind during Carnage’s 80-minute runtime. It’s not so much that Yasmina Reza’s original stage play dealt with white privilege directly; conversely, it addressed issues of suppressed nihilism and the false pretenses of upper-class white guilt. It’s through this social context that Reza was able to wryly address the overarching sense of boredom that stems from a life of luxury – whereupon items like an apple-pear cobbler or tulips become markers of excitement. And while Roman Polanski’s film adaption lacks an overt cinematic quality (on a technical level, Carnage never escapes its theatrical trappings), the fact that it is Polanski at the helm gives the whole picture an added layer of intrigue.

The simplicity of Carnage is among its most appealing aspects – from a battle on the playground to a battle in a posh New York apartment, Carnage is a lean feature. Whereas Polanski’s previous apartment- oriented pictures dealt with an individual’s growing paranoia in a confined space (Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski in The Tenant, and Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion), Carnage utilizes a quartet of impressive actors. With Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz, and Kate Winslet, Carnage is a more overt expression of the anxieties felt within a confined space, wherein a breakdown of social norms occurs through verbose dialogue and unwelcomed human interaction. It’s an interesting corollary to much of Polanski’s filmography, as his films tend to ambiguously address larger themes, whether it’s the strains of pregnancy or halted social mobility. With Carnage, the film becomes an expose on white liberal’s quest for political correctness, where civility is not just a virtue, but an identity marker. It’s spelled out clearly through the picture, particularly in the film’s turning point, where polite civility is literally vomited upon.

The whole picture benefits from a quick sense of wit and propelling movement. Whether exchanges between actors are civil or not, there’s a constant sense of anxiety that builds up until the film’s final scene. There are little nuances to how Polanski frames the film, particularly in his usage of mirrors, windows, and exits. While the actors often make note of their confined space (questions to the effect of “Why are we still here?” are uttered on more than one occasion), Polanski keeps the air of the apartment quite tight. Little touches like opening the window seems to elevate the tension in the room and has the same remarkable affect on the audience. While the picture is not Polanski’s best - its on-the-nose quality working both for and against it - it’s the funniest of the film’s I’ve seen of his.

Rating: 8/10

Thursday Ten: Horror Films

As I’ve wrapped up my festival viewings and with Halloween fast-approaching, I thought it time to look at some of my favorite horror films. Mind you, the whole concept of what constitutes a “horror” film tends to be defined by the individual person; like a comedy, what’s funny or scary to one person is not necessarily the case for another.

But there’s a certain compulsion we all have as cinephiles to look at the horror genre fondly; as children, it’s almost a rite of passage to watch that film that keeps us up for the night. As our definitions of horror broadens, there’s still that nostalgic appreciation we have for films that rather than plucking at our heart strings, outright go for the stab.

Today’s Thursday Ten focuses on the horror films that don’t necessarily fit comfortably within the traditional definition of horror, but rather cross boundaries that strike a more personal chord. Not a single film here has a vampire, werewolf, or zombie; sometimes fear is best realized in something that’s closer to home.

10.  We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)

It’s a fear that I can only assume is a mother’s worst nightmare: what if their child commits an unthinkable crime? Anchored in a reality that is all too authentic, Lynne Ramsay’s brilliant adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel explores the daily routine of a grief-stricken mother as she contends with the fact that her oldest son had committed a school shooting, serving to dismantle her household and make her the community’s social pariah. The film strikes an absolutely nerve-wracking tone with its sound-editing; the sound of school children screaming for their lives haunts Tilda Swinton’s character at every turn, and effectively instills an on-going sense of anxiety that Ramsay maintains from scene to scene.

9.  The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

Fear and insanity stemming from isolation; it’s a theme that recurs in several of Kubrick’s films and is most overt in this adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. The implications of Jack Torrance’s (Jack Nicholson) insanity stem beyond gory hallucinations and a violent rampage; there’s the disintegration of the family unit and even more frightening – the idea that there is a larger omnipotent force motivating him. Marked with Kubrick’s own obsessive attention to detail, The Shining is a landmark piece of filmmaking that is relentless in maintaining an uneasy atmosphere. As the film unites two converging narrative arcs, there’s a petrifying sense that we’re delving deeper into the hedge maze of insanity.

8.   The Hitcher (Robert Harmon, 1986)

What, in the end, do we have if not our own identity? The Hitcher questions how we arrive at defining ourselves, as well as how the landscape we identify with can turn its back on us. The Hitcher is as much a parable on a boy’s ascent into adulthood as it is an analysis on violent shift in times. A boy (C. Thomas Howell) is accused of a massive crime spree; he becomes the victim of both a real chase by the police and an existential chase by his demon (represented chillingly by Rutger Hauer). The Hitcher is smartly positioned as the sort of horror/thriller that never attempts to explain the why of it all; the world is not always kind enough to give us an explanation.

7.  Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)

Unlike the aforementioned We Need to Talk About Kevin, I don’t assume that this is a mother’s worst nightmare; I know it has to be. It’s the deliberate pacing that makes Rosemary’s Baby so effective; Roman Polanski allows his film to linger as we get accustomed to our central couple in Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes. And only then are we introduced to their mysterious neighbors. He lingers on their eerie behavior before we become aware of what Rosemary’s pregnancy means to her husband and those neighbors. It’s not just that Rosemary births the spawn of Satan; it’s that it was an orchestration led by the one she trusted the most. The echoing chant of Hail Satan leaves its mark.

6.  Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992)

A relic of my childhood, Candyman was the type of film that I wanted to brave through, but ultimately, its imagery and closeness to home often sent me out of the living room within its opening ten minutes. Even as an adult, the film gives me an uneasy feeling. It could be the accented voice of Tony Todd as the title character. Or perhaps it’s the gruesomeness of how he slaughters his victims. Or perhaps it’s how Candyman is beckoned – say his name five times in the mirror. Or maybe it’s because I recognize the various Chicago locations throughout the film and living only a few miles away gives me chills. It’s probably a little bit of it all.

5.  Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965)

Days removed from Repulsion made walking down a dark narrow corridor a test of will. The film is an exercise in paranoia and the extent in which one can be overwhelmed by the confines of a closed-off living space. As part of Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy, Repulsion is a perpetual example of how eeriness and fear can be induced through the everyday. A precursor to a film like Black Swan, Repulsion unravels as the sort of psychological horror that focuses on the fear of isolation; confined to an apartment, your mind turns against you. The biting of fingernails, the cracks on the ground, , razor blades, and hands protruding through the walls will likely worm their way into your nightmares for weeks.

4.  The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)

While the aforementioned Repulsion dwells on psychological horror, The Fly dwells on the physical manifestation of it. The virtues and conflicts of the film are deeply rooted in reality; themes of unrequited love, success, greed, and fears are realized with such grace. The happenstance that the film implements science-fiction elements through the physical transformation of its main character (Jeff Goldblum, in his best role) serves to amplify the horror considerably. As Goldblum decays in front of our eyes, the lingering sense that all he had worked for, the love that he attempts to realize, is slipping away; it is the greatest horror of all. Few films have been able to so effectively contemplate our mortality all while implementing such a gruesome science-fiction element.

3.  2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

2001: A Space Odyssey stands as my most atypical example of what constitutes a horror film. But it’s a film that instills a great deal of fear and dread into me every time I watch it. This fear typically stems from the overwhelming isolation I derive from it; as the narrative unfolds, the fear of man against machine and the fight against being left behind in the vastness of space is profoundly moving and quite simply, terrifying. Much like The Shining, the setting serves as an immense undercurrent to maintain this sense of isolation. One can even look as the computerized HAL and Jack Torrance as two characters of the same lineage; their descent into insanity can be interpreted as being a product of their environments.

2.  Seconds (John Frankenheimer, 1966)

The recurring theme throughout most of this list is that I tend to respond to horror films that touch upon themes of mortality, conflict in identity, the circumstances of insanity, isolation, and anxiety toward one’s ascent to adulthood. Seconds touches upon all of these themes in one way or another, and does so within a finely scripted and incredibly directed effort from John Frankenheimer. With a nuanced performance from Rock Hudson, Frankenheimer redefines the question of what it means to be human, what it means to walk in someone else’s shoes, and the devastating loneliness and extreme anxiety that stems from it all. The film bares some of the most impressive direction and editing I’ve ever seen in any film, which only serves accentuate the surreal terror on display.

1.  Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)

I wrote a great deal about my appreciation for David Fincher’s masterful Zodiac. What makes it stand out from all of my favorite “horror” films is the simplicity in which it achieves its horror elements. Given the procedural nature of the film, there’s this immediate connection you have with every character, wherein you understand where they stand, their traits, and what motivates them. So when you place them in a reality where an unknown assailant is murdering people, you are immediately thrust into their world and feel what they feel. The investigation, the mystery, and the prevailing sense that there is someone out there planning to kill is persistent throughout Zodiac.

Obsession is the prevailing theme throughout Zodiac and it comes from all sides. It comes from the filmmaking, which is so exact and attuned to the details and setting. It also comes from Robert Graysmith’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) obsession with finding out who the Zodiac killer is eventually puts him and his family at risk.  And that scene, where Robert Graysmith thinks he may have cracked the case, finding himself alone in a basement with his prime suspect, is the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in film.

An Academy Awards Dream Ballot

While this year’s crop of Academy Award nominees sport an usually high caliber of excellent films and performances, I thought I would share what “would’ve been” if I were the sole authority behind the nominees.

Best Picture

The American Black Swan Blue Valentine Exit Through the Gift Shop The Ghost Writer Greenberg The Illusionist The Social Network Somewhere True Grit

 
 
 

The American was never going to be a best picture contender, largely due to its muted main character and subtle emotional payoff. But Anton Corbijn delicately places the audience in a world of such impeccable beauty and danger. Like Control, Corbijn presents a world of such lush visual appeal, compounded with a level of suspense and drama that is unlike any mainstream Hollywood film. The fact that it topped the U.S. box office upon its release speaks volumes on the interesting way it was marketed, as well as audience expectations.

Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine may have had difficulty in obtaining its R rating, but the controversy surrounding it has worked in its benefit, as it has thus far been greeted with modest success.  Undeniably flawed in structure, Cianfrance manages to curb criticism by relying on technique – distance between characters is expressed not only through the dialogue and situation, but also through the context of visual space. Oh, and it helps to have two of the most talented young actors give career best performances.

Exit Through the Gift Shop defied expectations with its selection by the documentary committee, but I’ll take it a step further by placing it among the years ten best. In a field that is meant to represent the artistic best of a field, this small documentary makes bold criticisms on the nature of art itself. Disputing the reality of the situation goes against the point – with the commodification of art, does what it mean to us change?

Short-term memory is an unfortunate condition most members of the Academy suffer, as early release films like Shutter Island (if only for its technical accomplishments) and especially The Ghost Writer go unrewarded. It’s a shame, as the film caters to a traditional taste that I considered right along with the Academy’s taste. But should not lead one to dismiss Roman Polanski’s film – it is a smartly constructed piece of work that reconstructs the notion of identity and sense of place. Its real-life implications are superfluous- I wasn’t thinking about Tony Blair or Roman Polanski when I was watching the film – I was thinking about The Ghost himself.

Los Angeles doesn’t look quite the same for either of its main characters in both Somewhere and Greenberg. Both films depict lifestyles of those in fortunate positions, one moreso than the other. But the film expands on the simple premise of “the rich have problems too” by implicating issues that extend beyond the reach of money. Their connection with people is hindered through their neurosis (in the case of Greenberg) or surroundings (Somewhere). Both films offer a human drama that may not burst with energy, but instead move in a dream-like haze. Nonetheless, they are helmed by writer-directors who use their surroundings as a means of expressing a deep-rooted discomfort with how to relate.

Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist successfully secured a Best Animated Film nomination, even though its chances are nil given that it’s in contention with a billion dollar behemoth known as Toy Story 3. Toy Story 3 certainly exhibited flashes of serene emotional resonance, but nothing quite plucked at my heart strings like Chomet’s fantastic adaptation of a Jacques Tati screenplay. Perhaps best expressing what I thought to be the theme of 2010 (illusion vs. reality), Chomet uses his two characters – a magician and a child- to convey how important a belief in magic can be.

Thankfully, the Academy has gone on to recognize The Social Network, Black Swan, and True Grit, three films that have racked up enough awards and recognition to keep me happy.

Best Direction

Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan Sylvain Chomet, The Illusionist Derek Cianfrance, Blue Valentine David Fincher, The Social Network Roman Polanski, The Ghost Writer

 
 
 

Nothing so readily stood out this year as a purely directorial exercise like previous years (Tom Ford’s A Single Man for 2009, Steve McQueen’s Hunger in 2008, or Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in 2007), which makes this a difficult category to narrow down. It’s hard to imagine Black Swan without Aronofsky at the helm – his speed induced rhythms pulsate through the screen. Similarly though, and perhaps most impressive, is how Sylvain Chomet manages to distinguish himself with his specific type of animated style in The Illusionist – it’s only his second film.

I’ve already praised Derek Cianfrance’s stellar work on a minimal budget in Blue Valentine, wherein he emphasizes distance and disinterest through the framing and positioning of actors in specific yet subtle ways. This too, is only his second feature film.

David Fincher blends his own sense of kinetic energy with a script that, for all intensive purposes, ought to resist it. But the results are among Fincher’s best (second-best to Zodiac, for clarification purposes), as he manages to make moments in The Social Network that may come across as dull on paper (computer hacking) into something with raw intensity.

Finally, Roman Polanski combines his usual fare of paranoia in the realm of the political in The Ghost Writer, emphasizing desolation and paranoia. There’s a sense of confinement that is shared by the main character and the audience, wherein we too, become gated in. Polanski directs with virtuosity, with one scene in particular, where The Ghost believes he is being followed after interacting with a possible CIA agent – we aren’t sure if he’s being followed, nor is the character, but there’s a fear that mounts, engulfing the character and the audience whole.

Actor in a Leading Role

Stephen Dorff, Somewhere Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network James Franco, 127 Hours Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine Ben Stiller, Greenberg

 

I don’t believe I’ve seen Stephen Dorff in anything but Somewhere but given his filmography, I don’t think it would be too farfetched to assume that this was a career best performance. Dorff exhibits quiet restraint as action-movie star Johnny Marco going through the motions. Of the five, it’s the least showy role, yet might be the best.

Jesse Eisenberg provides one of his best performances, acting against the typical nice-guy-nerd niche that media outlets would have you believe he is typecast as. There has always been a level of nuance to his characters, though his role in The Social Network serves to express his range as an actor most clearly. His facial tics and hand gestures go beyond mimicry, and instead, he creates an image of Mark Zuckerberg that is entirely his own.

127 Hours offers any actor the chance to showcase their acting chops, as the film’s central conceit involves a man who is stuck between a rock and a hard place with no one else around him. James Franco, within the confines of a limited space, is able to express pain, joy, and desperation with a sense of fluidity and realism.

Albeit the lesser performance of the leading co-stars, Ryan Gosling still manages to impress in a Blue Valentine. Not only is his physical transformation convincing, but his mannerisms and vocal modifications are the sort of thing that displays sincerity to the character he is playing.

Ben Stiller’s performance in Greenberg received its share of critical acclaim from independent awards groups, but the film’s early release and modest perspective made larger guild support impossible. Nonetheless, Stiller asks for no sympathy in the title character role, instead coming across as a stubborn, aging man whose projected ambivalence is a front for his desire to make some sort of lasting social connection.

Actress in a Leading Role

Juliette Binoche, Certified Copy Greta Gerwig, Greenberg Zoe Kazan, The Exploding Girl Natalie Portman, Black Swan Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

 

In a particularly strong year for women, narrowing down five performances within both the supporting and lead categories proved to be a difficult feat. Also, a lot of tip-toeing and off-the-cuff decisions had to be made regarding the potential category each performance would fit in – perhaps another indicator for how strong a year it was for women is reflected in the notion that so many supporting characters could be moved to lead without much debate.

In a film that won’t receive a wide release until 2011, I simply had to include Juliette Binoche’s astounding performance in Certified Copy. Perhaps stating the obvious, she is certainly one of the best actresses working today, if not the best.  With a filmography that includes such stellar performances in Summer Hours, Cache, Blue, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Lovers on the Bridge, etc, I would hope people don’t take her for granted.

Walking into Greenberg, my knowledge of Greta Gerwig was nil. Yet from the film’s opening scene, you begin to acknowledge her immense talent. While not conventionally beautiful, she possesses a lanky physique that exudes of tender awkwardness that is capable of eliciting both laughs and sorrow. Her role as a young adult on the cusp of trying to figure out her place in the world works as an interesting dynamic to Ben Stiller’s role. Perhaps most impressive is how when the two share screentime together, it’s Gerwig that commands more of a presence.

I had seen Zoe Kazan in minor roles in minor films, such as Me and Orson Welles and Revolutionary Road. She made the most of what she was given with, but I never gathered that she was capable of such subtle emotional resonance as seen in The Exploding Girl. Her role called for something larger than the world around her. In one of the more heart-wrenching scenes of 2010, Kazan takes a phone call from her soon to be ex-boyfriend. You only hear her part of the conversation, but you gather from her quivering voice that it’s all coming to an end.

The current awards climate dictates that Natalie Portman’s role in Black Swan will come out victorious. Not to go along with the cattle, but it’s hard to ignore the elegance and level of control in owning the role as the warped ballerina Nina Sayers. From her toe-crushing preparation to the level of fright attached to her innocence, her performance was utterly compelling.

Blue Valentine provides two of the best young actors sporting their acting skills, with Michelle Williams edging out her co-star. Williams has developed into one of my favorite actresses, giving great performances in solo-vehicles like Wendy and Lucy. Her smaller roles tend to be the best aspect of any given film (Shutter Island). And in Blue Valentine, she manages to do more with less. While her co-star had the meatier role, Williams refuses to succumb to stereotypes and plays her role as a sexually active teen turned mother and wife with the utmost conviction.