Tag Archives: B-

CARNAGE

Producer: 
Director: 
Writer: 
Stars: 
Studio: 

B-

Roman Polanski returns to New York—sort of—for this adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s successful four-character play, a cheerfully nasty much-shortened version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” that takes aim on the fragility of civility in matrimonial and societal relationships. “Carnage” is amusing but slight, and with a cast that only partially takes advantage of its strengths in verbal jousting.

The event that literally sets the stage for the pyrotechnics is one of only two outside sequences in the picture, in which we see a boy strike another with a stick in a playground. That leads to their parents—Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), whose son was injured, and Nancy and Alan Cowen (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), whose boy was the aggressor—meeting in the Longstreet’s apartment to resolve the situation as amicably as possible. Of course, the veneer of civility that initially marks the episode is soon stripped away, leading not only to acrimonious confrontations between the two couples but to bitter disputes between husbands and wives as well.

“Carnage”—which originally was called “God of Carnage”—hasn’t really been opened up for the screen to any extent. It remains basically a filmed play despite the efforts of Polanski and cinematographer Pawel Edelman to give it some cinematic punch with nimble camera moves and varying perspectives designed to make it feel less stagebound. Polanski is adept at using confined space to good advantage, of course, and he’s worked to good effect with similarly focused material before—in 1994’s “Death and the Maiden” in particular. But even his skill can’t conceal the piece’s spatial limitations.

Nor does he overcome its quintessentially theatrical structure and style. The sort of clever but minor material that can work on stage too often reveals its shallowness on screen, but that’s certainly the case here. Reza’s play aimed to reveal how thin the veneer of civilization is, and how virulent the bigotry, pettiness and contempt of others that lie just beneath the skin of culture and tolerance. It’s a message that theatergoers, especially in sophisticated cities, are apt to embrace automatically, and are also disposed to accept being disclosed within the short span of a play, as incessantly witty repartee strips away the characters’ pretenses and forces them to show their true colors on demand, as it were.
But film exposes the synthetic nature of the artifice; it demands at least a touch of naturalism, and here the only particle of it lies in the playground scene at the beginning and another at the close, where the two boys easily overcome their differences—a stark contrast, of course, to the opposite trajectory among their elders, where the illusion of amity turns into enmity instead.

It doesn’t help the film that only half the cast seem in tune with the material. The men are having a good time, with Reilly nicely handling the role of the genial peacemaker who turns nasty and Waltz oozing snide charisma as the smug attorney more interested in quashing a negative news report about one of his clients—a pharmaceutical company—that in addressing the issues involving his son. (The business with his incessant cell phone conversations will strike home with anyone who detests those ever-intrusive devices.) But the women never find quite the right tone. Winslet is better, managing to catch at least some of Nancy’s vulnerability behind the cool façade. But Foster’s intensity comes across as too shrill for this thin piece; her outbursts imbalance the verbal gamesmanship badly.

Thanks to the efforts of cast and crew, “Carnage” is enjoyable enough on the surface, but it’s essentially meretricious—so much, in fact, that you’ll be a bit ashamed at having had a fairly good time watching it.

DOLPHIN TALE

Producer: 
Director: 
Writer: 
Stars: 
Studio: 

B-

The title of this earnest family movie is a play on words, since it could also be spelled as “Dolphin Tail.” (A book on the real-life incident that inspired it is in fact titled “Winter’s Tail.”) It’s the story of a dolphin, eventually called Winter, whose tail had to be amputated after becoming infected, but was outfitted with a prosthetic replacement that allowed her to survive by using it to swim properly. And the injured dolphin plays herself.

Of course while that might make for a nice thirty-minute documentary, it’s hardly sufficient for a feature film. So the focus is put on young Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble), a fatherless, friendless boy who finds—and aids—the beached animal after it’s washed up ashore, tangled in a fishnet. After it’s taken off to the Clearwater aquarium/hospital where it’s tended to by dedicated widower Dr. Clay Haskell (Harry Connick, Jr.) and his perky young daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff)—both of whom live with his father Reed (Kris Kristofferson) on a nearby houseboat—Sawyer finds his way there and a purpose in life when the dolphin takes a special shine to him. He becomes an integral part of the animal’s care team, despite the fact that his role means he’s in danger of failing summer school, something that worries his mom Lorraine (Ashley Judd).

But that’s not enough story for scripters Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi. They add a complementary human plot about Sawyer’s beloved cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell), a swimming champ who joins the army and comes back from Afghanistan a despondent amputee. Naturally he’s helped out of his depression and self-pity by getting to know Winter, and when it becomes clear that the way that Winter has learned to swim without a tail is endangering her life, Sawyer approaches avuncular, bromide-filled Dr. Cameron McCarthy (almost inevitably, Morgan Freeman), who constructed Kyle’s prosthetic leg, to try something never attempted before: making an artificial tail for her.

But even all that doesn’t exhaust the screenwriters. They find room not only for a financial crisis that threatens the aquarium’s survival—Frances Sternhagen plays the president of the place’s governing board who can seen no way out but selling the land to a hotel magnate—but a hurricane that nearly wrecks the facility. Then there’s the big finale that includes an Internet campaign and a water carnival.

But despite a surfeit of plot points, the picture is kept on an even keel by actor-director Charles Martin Smith, who doesn’t rush and lets the actors (including the dolphin) breathe. And he has a cast aboard that’s much stronger than what you’d expect in such fare. Freeman, of course, is utterly reliable in this sort of feisty but warm role, and it’s good to encounter Judd in a part that doesn’t require her to run around in action-woman mode, chasing criminals or fleeing killers. Kristofferson adds his crustily lovable shtick to the mix, and old pro Sternhagen manages to look genuinely concerned. And Connick has at least lost the deer-in-the-headlight look he used to sport on-camera. Even Stowell brings a touch of real emotion to Kyle.

But of course it’s the kids and the dolphin that really matter. Winter does everything asked of her, and Zuehlsdorff is charming. But’s it’s Gamble who really proves the linchpin. Under Smith’s sensitive direction, he captures both the boy’s gravity and his exuberance when he finds a purpose. He shows some of the same quality that Henry Thomas did in “E.T.”

Together these three—the youngsters and the dolphin—show that there’s life left in the old “Flipper” formula yet (despite the disaster of the 1996 remake of that movie with Elijah Wood). Of course, whether a kid-targeted movie like this, which eschews the frenetic action and potty humor that most “family” movies opt for nowadays—can prosper in today’s multiplex marketplace remains to be seen. But on its old-fashioned terms, this well-made, gently comforting modern version of a 1950s live-action Disney movie is like a refreshing sea breeze in a maelstrom of fart jokes and CGI mayhem. A pity that the makers made a concession to today’s tastes by going the 3D route. Except for a couple of moments obviously manufactured to play to it, the format adds nothing to the picture whatever—it even detracts from Karl Walter Lindenlaub’s cinematography by darkening the visuals, as usual.

But since that’s one of the movie’s only concessions to today’s fads, we can live with it.