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IN SHORT: The Best Written Film we've seen in years (and that's a double edged sword). [Rated R for language. 80 minutes]
We've built a career on bashing the kind of reviewing that is professed by those who have been trained in film schools that "this is how you do it" and that's that. End of story. Somewhere in that training comes screenwriting, where the instruction is: "make it sound real." For a short while, we tried to write and pitch stories. Even pitched Jodie Foster, the star of this film once, in 1994. (Total disclosure, folks. I got all the way through tag, tease and story summary before it all fell apart).
Most films are financed knowing exactly who the viewing target is. teens/college age kids get a priority because they spend more. Then in no particular order are the genre films: chick flicks, slasher films, family fare and, usually in the arthouse, are the films in which adults just talk about whatever situation they are in. These used to be called drawing room dramas/comedies back when the rich had drawing rooms and the not rich wanted to be rich enough to have them.
So, here in 2011 we're back to the "drawing room" of the a young family wanting to be rich. Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster) writes books about starvation in Africa. She keeps everything about her life politically correct. Husband Michael (John C. Reilly) makes money in wholesale sales of plumbing supplies. Their living room window has a beautiful view New York City, the kind most New Yorkers would kill for even though it means living in Brooklyn. As the film beginss we see the fhe Longstreet boy "involved in a tussle" with another kid. That kid finishes the fight by piakcing up a fallen branch and hitting him in the face. Two teeth are broken. There may be some facial disfigurement but the kid is 11 and, as the film's story begins, there is still swelling.
The attacker's parents are successful yuppies: Nancy Cowan (Kate Winslet) is in finance and husband Alan (Christoph Waltz) is a lawyer. Alan spends 90% of his time on his cell phone, juggling the details of a class action lawsuit about negative side affects of some pharmaceutical pill and the meeting. It is clear to the audience that the marriage is disintegrating. The battle begins: Stressed out mom (Foster) versus Emotionally Stretched Too Tight mom (Winslet) and continues from there. Everything from the kinds of clothes they wear, the details of their jobs, the deleterious effect of vomit on high priced one of a kid out of print museum catalog books (never explained but adults will figure)
The Longstreeet's aspire to full yuppie status: In the status levels of yuppie society, they all may dress alike but, economically, the two families are miles apart. From here on out, the two couples talk. Immediately there are differences noted. Michael had, the night before, released his daughter's pet hamster into the wilds of the New York streets. Nancy perception -- PETA is not mentioned but you just know she's a member -- is that Michael has sentenced a "tame" hamster to certain death in the wild. Simply, he is a murderer. Michael is also made to defend his job selling plumbing supplies to the lawyer. Which he does. Afterwards, he nods to his wife "I did pretty good right?"
And then the Scotch comes out. What was hoped to be a "pleasantly serene" conversation about "an unfortunate encounter" becomes anything but pleasant, setting husbands against wives, husbands and wives against each other, husbands teamed to confront wives, and any other combination the screenplay can come up with.
Carnage is true fly on the wall filmmaking. (You) All, the unseen observer, get lost inobserving the incredible dramatics of ordinary life. Yes, the characters will share a meal and someone will lie about how good said meal is. Yes, the events of the afternoon will put the participants in unpleasant situations. If those situations ring bells with your own life, that's for you to deal with. And once, maybe twice, an idea which should spark another "pleasantly serene discussion" is passed over in favor of something else. One is a veritable bomb planted in the Third Act (so we can't spill it. site rules); if you catch it you'll be talking about it well after the movie is finished
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Carnage, he would have paid . . .
9* means we think the film has Oscar etc. potential. It's just easier to start grouping 'em now, at the end of the year.
Why it passes the Cranky scale? Because even as I became totally aware of the quality of the dialog writing, it passed from my brain because everything else in this film is just so good. This film is not for kids or teens or immature 20somethings. There are some very uncivil things that occur all under the guise of passing civility. Everyone else, with some maturity or a lingering hope that maybe the recession will pass and things will get back to the normal, wanna achieve more days, will be rocked.
Those who even paid half attention to their professor in whatever drama, theater or film course that dissected the 1963 play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" will no doubt nod in agreement Carnage may be the best written (screen)play in a couple of generations of dramatists. It's not a huge leap to make from Edward Albee (Tony Award -Best Play 1963 for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?") to Yasmine Reza and Roman Polanski. "Carnage," which did the same in 2009.
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