(On TV, July 2017) Roman Polanski’s Carnage, adapted from a theatre piece, isn’t much more than a one-set conversation between two couples that quickly turns bad. It almost acts as a prototype for Polanski’s later Venus in Fur, down to the bookends being the only escape from the limited set. In some ways, it’s depressing to see grown adult viciously turn on each other. In others, and especially toward the end, it becomes blackly amusing to see the four characters variously argue against each other, forming shifting alliances, as well as exposing secrets and resentment in an explosion of anger. It helps that in-between Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Christopher Waltz, Polanski doesn’t need more help in the acting department: All four are terrific, although Waltz gets perhaps the most overly slimy role, while Reilly gets to break out of his usual nice-guy persona. This being said, none of the other characters are perfect, and Carnage is about peeling the layers that usually limit polite conversation. Once you’re caught on that this is going to be a verbal demolition derby, you can wait until the next inevitable reconfiguration of factions—including couples vs the other, men vs women, three-vs-one and so on. Also: If you’ve been waiting for seeing Kate Winslet vomiting profusely, then this is the film for you. (As for the rest of us: Ew.) Unfortunately, Carnage ends limply, almost as if it had run out of things to say—there isn’t much of a conclusion to the conversation, and whatever closure is offered by the film comes from the final bookend. Still, as a film that places so much emphasis on dialogue between limited characters, Carnage is a nice change of pace, and even a mildly entertaining piece of verbal fireworks.
(On DVD, September 2016) “Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver” is reportedly how Talladega Nights was green-lit, and it’s the only thing you really need to know about the film. Ferrell brings his usual man-child persona to the NASCAR world and the result is even with the other core movies of his filmography: expect dumb humour, at least one big freak-out, and plenty of juvenile gags. It works in its own manner: By firing so many jokes, Talladega Nights eventually lands a few, and it can coast a long time on the other actors propping up in the movie. John C. Reilly wasn’t known as a silly comedian at the time (Since then and films such as Walk Hard and Step-Brothers, that has changed), Amy Adams appears in a short but striking role, and Sacha Baron Cohen also brings the laughs as a French antithesis to Ferrell’s red-state persona. The film is passably quotable (even from its opening title card), and some of the raceway action is genuinely impressive in its own right. Talladega Nights, in other words, is no more and no less than what it promises to be, even if that may not be exactly what viewers want.
(On TV, August 2016) At first glance, a summary of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape sounds like a word salad, perhaps written by a foreigner whose understanding of Middle America is shaped by Hollywood clichés: Here’s a twentysomething man from a family where the father committed suicide, the mother is morbidly obese, the youngest son is autistic and the daughters are obsessed with pop trivia. Our small-town protagonist has an affair with an older married woman, sees his job as a grocery clerk threatened by the arrival of a big-box store and gazes wistfully at the people passing through… Not exactly promising stuff, isn’t it? But as it turns out, there’s a lot more than a plot synopsis in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, the most noteworthy of them being the handful of astonishing actors brought together for the occasion. Johnny Depp stars as the brooding over-solicited protagonist, but he’s upstaged by an impossibly young Leonardo DiCaprio as his developmentally challenged brother, a performance so convincing that it’s a relief to know that it’s not real. Elsewhere in the movie, the ever-beautiful Mary Steenburgen shows up as an adulterous wife, John C. Reilly is a hoot as a mildly dumb handyman, and Juliette Lewis makes an impression as a girl passing through town. Director Lasse Hallström assembles a perfectly watchable film from it all, a slice of weird Americana that’s occasionally grotesque, but engaging from beginning to end.
(Crackle streaming, February 2015) I’ve been checking off a list of “unseen must-see movies” lately, and some of my least-favourite ones are those films belonging to the filmography of popular comic actors that I don’t find particularly funny… in this case: Will Ferrell. (Also see; Adam Sandler) Stupidity is celebrated here as two thirtysomething men with the EQ of unpleasant eight-year-olds are forced to live together when their parents remarry. From afar, Step Brothers looks like the dumbest thing to have been filmed, and the actual film often feels like it, what with Ferrell and John C. Reilly doing their best impression of socially-retarded man-children. I can’t deny that some of the sight gags can be amusing, but given my distaste for Ferrell’s typical overgrown-toddler shtick, Step Brothers was often an endurance exercise –especially given how often it relies on the kind of humiliation-comedy gags that I find unbearable. Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins are particularly enjoyable, but their characters suffer the brunt of most of the film’s jokes. A surprising amount of Step Brothers is mean-spirited on top of everything else, so it’s no surprise if my final reaction to the film really isn’t all on the positive side.
(On Cable TV, December 2014) Disneynature is on a hot streak lately, and Bears is merely the latest in a strong line-up of nature documentaries that bring the latest available filmmaking technology to classic animal storylines. Here, we follow a mother bear and her cub through a year of trials and tribulations. (Don’t worry: everything turns out fine for both of them.) The high-definition images are crisp and colorful, and the script does a nice job at anthropomorphising animal behavior in terms that make it accessible to the entire family. John C. Reilly is perfectly cast as the narrator finding a good balance between the goofiest moments and the more dangerous ones. Bears delivers exactly what it promises, and so pretty much cuts off any longer discussion of its merits: It’s perfect family viewing, often beautiful, frequently funny and ultimately entirely satisfying.