Roman Polanski, master of anxiety, is the perfect director for tense ‘Carnage’

Carnage/2011/Sony Pictures Classics/80 min.

By Michael Wilmington

“Carnage” shows us once again what a master Roman Polanski is of the claustrophobia of anxiety – even though this time the fear he paints is more comic and light-hearted than the sheer grinding terror of say, “Repulsion” or “Rosemary’s Baby.” In his new movie, which was adopted by the Iranian-French writer Yasmina Reza from her hit play “God of Carnage,” director Polanski traps us, once again, in close quarters and, once again also, in a tense game and battle of social intercourse that is going to degenerate into absurdity and cruelty.

We are in the well-appointed Brooklyn apartment of the Longstreets: genial, rough-looking Michael (John C. Reilly), a salesman, and high-strung Penelope (Jodie Foster), a writer. Michael and Penelope have invited over a couple they don’t know – Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet), a corporate lawyer and an investment broker – to discuss the playground fracas between their respective sons, Ethan and Zachary (played by Eliot Berger and Polanski’s own son Elvis). The Cowan boy attacked the Longstreet kid and broke some teeth.

Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz.

There’s tension right from the start, despite the atmosphere of good-natured civility and manners, and writer Reza and Polanski nurse it along expertly. Michael, whose eyes glower while his mouth grins, is a bit too friendly, and too loudly obliging. We sense that, though he’s talking the talk, he’s no liberal. Penelope, the real bleeding heart of the two, is wired tight, more and more uneasy and nervous.

Alan, slick, conniving and full of lightly veiled disdain for his social inferiors (almost everybody, but especially the Longstreets), keeps rudely interrupting the confab to bark orders over his cell phone. As for Nancy, she keeps her feelings tightly reined in, until the memorable moment when she suddenly projectile-vomits all over the Longstreet’s coffee table and Penelope’s treasured book of Kokoschka reproductions. From there it gets worse, and uglier, and funnier.

I’ve never seen the play, but I’m not surprised it’s an international critical and audience hit. The model, of course, is Edward Albee’s venom-laced, acidly funny chamber drama “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and the play that probably influenced Albee: Eugene O’Neill’s great tragic family drama “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

As in those two 20th century theater classics, “God of Carnage” (I prefer that title) gives us a small group of people, all hiding something, all gradually losing their inhibitions and their secrets, as they consume more and more booze.

So, one could use “Carnage” as a springboard for little essays on class warfare or the discreet charmlessness of the bourgeoisie or the beast that lies beneath all our skins or even on cell-phone etiquette. (What’s Alan like when he’s driving?) Or one could delve into the symbolism of the Longstreets’ lost hamster, a hapless creature who may be the equivalent for George and Martha’s “lost” child in “Virginia Woolf.” But, after 15 minutes of watching this filmed play, I knew why it had gotten all its awards, why Polanski wanted to do it and why he was the ideal director for the piece. [Read more…]

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‘Taxi Driver,’ the ultimate big-city bad dream, screens Sunday at TCM Classic Film Festival

Taxi Driver/1976/Columbia Pictures/113 min.

One of the many highlights of the TCM Classic Film Festival is Sunday’s showing of “Taxi Driver” by Martin Scorsese, which this year turns 35. One of the most sordid urban nightmares ever, “Taxi Driver” stands as the ultimate big-city bad dream.

And where else could it be set but New York City? In the mid-1970s, the mighty metropolis seemed to be falling apart: the economy had stalled, people were deserting the troubled island in droves, and crime was rampant. (Other cinematic portraits of the dismal period are “The French Connection” 1971 by William Friedkin and John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy” 1969.)

Jodie Foster in "Taxi Driver"

In the middle of this urban mess is anti-hero Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) – a Vietnam vet and taxi driver, whose desperate loneliness and disgust with NYC’s squalor and decay slowly pushes him over the edge of sanity. Long hours of driving jerks and freaks around isn’t good for anyone’s mental health, let alone an introverted downer like Travis.

Early on, there seems to be a shimmer of hope when Travis encounters a woman named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), lovely and stylish, ambitious and free-spirited (kudos to costume designer Ruth Morley). Betsy is a campaign worker for Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), who is making a bid for the presidential nomination. Rather surprisingly, Betsy agrees to meet Travis for coffee. Rather astonishingly, Betsy agrees to go on a date with him, which thoroughly annoys her co-worker Tom (Albert Brooks).

Instead of candlelight and roses, or even strip lighting and sandwiches, Travis takes Betsy to a porn movie. She storms out, quashing any hope of romance, though Travis keeps angling for another chance by sending her flowers and showing up at Palantine’s campaign HQ.

After that, Travis tries to keep busy – you know, the usual breakup stuff – writing in his journal, shaving his head, talking to himself in the mirror, buying guns and pointing them at Palatine. When Travis spies a child prostitute as she walks the streets (Jodie Foster), he makes it his mission to rescue her from the degradation of working for sicko pimp ‘Sport’ Harvey Keitel. His quest, fueled by his worsening mental illness, culminates in out-of-control violence.

Once you see “Taxi Driver,” you’ll never forget it. Coming on the heels of Vietnam and Watergate, the film tapped the overall dark mood of the nation and did well at the box-office. Additionally, it catapulted Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader into the big league, making its mark with the Hollywood tastemakers and earning four Oscar noms: best picture (it lost to “Rocky”); best actor (De Niro); best supporting actress (Foster); best original score (Herrmann). It also won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Though he didn’t win the Oscar, DeNiro turned in one of the best and most iconic performances of his career, spanning the emotional gamut from hardened cynicism to earnest and utter sadness. The most moving scene for me is when he sends a corny anniversary card to his parents and jots down some details of a life he pretends to live. Foster’s performance is raw and gutsy. Keitel’s brief but searing scenes are repulsive, disturbing, stomach churning; even for crime-movie aficionados, they are hard to watch.

Scorsese’s virtuoso filmmaking taps the sensibilities of the finest American and European filmmakers. He draws thematic inspiration from classic Western director John Ford (specifically 1956’s “The Searchers”) and from his beloved ’30s and ’40s crime movies as well as the visual aesthetic of French New Wave auteurs. [Read more…]

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Quick hit: ‘Taxi Driver’

Taxi Driver/1976/Columbia Pictures/ 113 min.

In this Martin Scorsese neo-noir, Robert DeNiro won an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of angry loner Travis Bickle, who’s on the brink of insanity in sad and seedy ’70s New York. Says Travis: “Someday a real rain will come and wash this scum off the streets.” While waiting for the rain, he makes it his mission to save a child prostitute. Co-star Jodie Foster, then 12, earned an Oscar nom of her own. Harvey Keitel, Cybill Shepherd and Albert Brooks round out the cast.

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