Wednesday, March 21, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: Special "Abrupt Endings" Edition: CARNAGE (2011); MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (2011)

(France/Germany/Poland/Spain - 2011)

Roman Polanski's film version of Yasmina Reza's play Le Dieu du Carnage (adapted by Polanski and Reza) has four top-notch actors and is quite good for the bulk of its short running time.  Set in NYC but shot in Paris, CARNAGE has two married couples--the Longstreets (Jodie Foster as Penelope, John C. Reilly as Michael) and the Cowans (Kate Winslet as Nancy, Christoph Waltz as Peter)--trying to hash out a playground incident where the Cowans' son Zachary attacked the Longstreets' son Ethan.  The meeting, at the Longstreets' apartment, is initially pleasant, diplomatic, and conciliatory, but begins falling apart with each passing moment, comment, and perceived slight, be it Peter's constantly-vibrating phone, the way he snorts when he laughs, Nancy's outrage over the way Michael heartlessly discarded his daughter's hamster, Penelope's passive-aggressive snipping, Nancy incredulously questioning Penelope's decision to make a combination apple/pear cobbler, Nancy vomiting all over some of Penelope's rare books and Penelope insisting it couldn't have been the cobbler that made her ill, etc.  Words are parsed, alliances form and shift, and the Longstreets' apartment becomes a steel cage of resentments, insecurities, and pent-up rage.  And for a while, it's mean-spiritedly funny and a fine addition to the cinema of awkward discomfort.  That is, until Michael breaks out the scotch.  The four quickly get drunk, and I never thought actors as accomplished as Winslet, Reilly, and Foster could play drunk so badly. Waltz just acts more relaxed, but the other three actors seem to be in a contest to see who can most play to the back row.  Foster, in particular, is embarrassingly bad in the last portion of the film. Polanski does a great job of making a single-set play come off as cinematic, with fluid camera movement that ensures the film never feels stagy despite staying in the confines of the Longstreets' apartment (there are occasional trips down the hallway to the elevator--keep your eyes peeled for a Polanski cameo--but the Cowans keep getting pulled back into the apartment EXTERMINATING ANGEL-style), but it just gets increasingly shrill, pompous, and overacted as it reaches its abrupt conclusion.  In the end, it's ultimately minor Polanski.  (R, 80 mins)

(US - 2011)

An unsettling and deeply disturbing drama anchored by a star-making performance from Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of the Olsen Twins and currently in the horror film SILENT HOUSE.  MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE generated a lot of buzz at Sundance in 2011 and rightly so.  When we first see Olsen, she's known as Marcy May and is escaping a farmhouse compound in the Catskills where she belonged to an abusive cult led by the sinister Patrick (John Hawkes).  She manages to get to a diner, where cult member Watts (Brady Corbet) finds her and tries to lure her back, but without success.  Marcy May, whose real name is Martha, calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who drives three hours to pick her up.  Having been gone for two years, Martha is evasive about where she's been, only saying that she had a boyfriend in the Catskills.  As she tries to adjust to life with Lucy and her new husband Tom (Hugh Dancy), writer/director Sean Durkin cuts back and forth between the present and the past to show what happened to Martha during her time brainwashed as "Marcy May."  Durkin leaves a lot open for interpretation and debate, with often vague dialogue that implies much more (when holding one of Patrick's many babies by his female cult members, a new recruit asks why the infants are all boys, and Marcy May replies "He only has boys") and while many groused that the ending was anticlimactic, I found it ambiguously terrifying.  I think a lot of comparisons could be drawn between this and WINTER'S BONE--and not just because Hawkes is in both films--but I had a difficult time connecting with WINTER'S BONE and found it disappointing and overrated.  MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, on the other hand, really gets under your skin and leaves you shaken by the end.  Durkin's surehanded direction (the back-and-forth time element is handled extremely well) and Olsen's powerful performance help make this dark, haunting film memorable.  I wasn't really wowed by SILENT HOUSE, but Olsen was terrific in it, and coupled with her breakthrough role here, this is clearly an actress to watch in the future.  (R, 102 mins)

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