Carnage ***1/2

When Alan Cowan’s cell phone vibrates, everything stops, or at least on the surface. Eyes still twitch and appendages fidget, and Alan doesn’t forget whose company he’s in. We wouldn’t want to be rude.

Yet the never ending, subtle anxieties nagging us in social situations, like wanting to drop Alan’s cell phone in a flower pot, make Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” so devilishly enticing. “Carnage” makes the compulsion to be rude immensely enjoyable.

Polanski’s 79-minute nugget of a film is based on Yasmina Reza’s play (she co-wrote the screenplay with Polanski) “Le Dieu du carnage.” It was “God of Carnage” on Broadway while I was in New York, and it starred James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis. I didn’t get to see that version, so I was thrilled when I heard it was being made into a movie with a cast I admire even more.

Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly play two married couples discussing what to do following Winslet and Waltz’s son attacking Foster and Reilly’s son with a stick. It’s a dark and dryly funny character study of society, civility and judgmental human nature in Western culture.

The families are on edge from the beginning, choosing their words carefully but making their honesty heard.

Michael and Penelope Longstreet (Reilly and Foster) are parents who know best; they have a belief for everything and a blind right to exact justice and understanding for their children. Alan and Nancy Cowan (Waltz and Winslet) are wealthy, busy and intelligent; they disagree but hold their tongues and condescend in private.

This is true at least for awhile, and although there’s a clear sense of how compelling this one-room drama could be on stage, Polanski’s camera show us the finer nuances in these characters’ social awkwardness. He carefully frames each at a variety of lengths and paired with a different partner, so what remains interesting is all that is not being said, the wonderful acting being done when they are not the center of attention and how the screenplay remains nimble and complex to allow changing allegiances.

If in its brief running time “Carnage” devolves to childish bickering too quickly, it’s a forgivable sin because of its naturalism. Perhaps unlike “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, to which it is often compared, “Carnage” is never strictly goofy or morose and never heavy or frivolous. It doesn’t monologue profound social philosophies and it doesn’t take sides.

“Carnage” is a balanced and delicate character drama that never stops spinning its tiny gears, even if a phone call interrupts it.

3 ½ stars


Cedar Rapids

“Cedar Rapids” is not your standard fish-out-of-water comedy because its hero is only breaking out of a very small bubble into a slightly larger bubble.

For Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), Cedar Rapids, MI may as well be the land of Sodom and Gomorrah, but we know better. That’s what makes this very familiar story interesting, clever and good-hearted, but also ultimately tepid.

Lippe is travelling to Cedar Rapids for an insurance convention, and he’s determined to come back to his small hometown in Wisconsin with the coveted Two Diamonds prize.

Having never left his hometown, Lippe is scared witless by these people with so much “worldly experience,” namely Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly). The Deansie may be a womanizing, drunkard buffoon typical to these comedies, but he’s only crazy and outrageous on Midwestern insurance salesman standards.

Putting these characters on such a small scale is precisely what makes them endearing, and forcing them into a truly outrageous and raunchy scenario would be a betrayal.

But when a lot is made of this Two Diamonds prize, it serves as a notorious MacGuffin. The specific plot points already matter little in a movie like this, but when their dramatic conflicts are intentionally placed on a lower pedestal, the emotional payoff is nada.

And yet there are still charming moments of comedy throughout a very funny cast. Helms plays the dope amongst dopes so well that when he’s forced to sing in front of a crowd, we forget as an actor he does it all the time on “The Office.” Reilly is having a terrific year, and The Deansie is a memorable character just because of the way Reilly controls his body as a performer. Even Anne Heche as the love interest Joan is a congenial tomcat good for a few grins and laughs.

It’s a shame the rest of the movie feels so slight and insignificant around them.

2 ½ stars


Review: Terri


I knew kids in junior high and high school who would say weird stuff just to get a rise out of me. They would talk dirty, and it wasn’t insulting to me personally, but they could sense I was naïve, and they enjoyed it. They were just as insecure, but they didn’t carry themselves that way. They were unnecessarily ruthless for the sake of being so.

That’s the problem for Terri (first time screen actor Jacob Wysocki). He’s a big kid for 15, large and fat beyond his age. Kids whisper stuff to him about vaginas and squeeze his man breasts. Is that particularly insulting? It’s certainly annoying. And it doesn’t help that he has to put up with this junk when he’s living alone with an uncle developing Alzheimer’s and walking to school everyday through the woods.

The title character in “Terri” is in a tailspin, developing as an adult and now conflicting with whether he’s weird or normal, smart or mentally challenged, and even good or bad. I liked getting to know Terri and observing how he grows in these few weeks of high school. I would’ve liked to know him as a kid before life seemed so confusing, but the film’s third act leaves its character wandering in uncertainty. Continue reading