Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Roman Polanski's CARNAGE at the NY Film Festival

God of Carnage, Yasmina Reza's international smash hit play has been brought to the screen by director Roman Polanski, featuring an all-star cast headed by Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, and John C. Reilly. It has been selected as the opening night selection for this year's New York Film Festival, and it will be shown this Friday.

In it's move to the screen the title has been shortened to Carnage, but the punch of the original stage work has not diminished, and much of the original dialogue remains intact. The story is a deceivingly simple one. Two couples meet in order to hash out the reasons why the child of one couple attacked the child of the other. This meeting, which starts with all the cordiality and good manners of a house warming visit soon turns into an ugly battleground where resentfulness and pent up anger lead to an afternoon of drunkenness and revelations that leaves all the participants with their nerves exposed and raw. It's the "Walpurgisnacht" of Mike Nichol's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, coupled with a dose of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, and a dash of Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel. The result is the kind of exhilarating filmmaking that allows great acting to shine.

Carnage retains it's theatrical setting, never departing from that apartment set except for a prologue that shows us the public park incident between the two 11 year-olds that sparks the conflict, and an epilogue that should set out minds thinking about the events we have witnessed.

Unable to come legally to the United States, Roman Polanski shot the film in Paris, although the Brooklyn setting of the story is maintained. As the two couples, Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly play Penelope and Michael, and Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz play Nancy and Alan. All the performances are first rate, and the script allows each actor more than one moment to shine in the spotlight. Ms. Foster, as the righteous, art-loving Penelope gives a performance of theatrical dimensions, at times verging on over the top histrionics. Kate Winslet, her American accent perfect as always, goes from sophisticated elegance to bitter drunkenness with convincing results. Christoph Waltz, playing her lawyer husband, a man more in tune with his Blackberry than with his own wife or son, has an air of detached ennui that fits the character perfectly. But perhaps the most satisfying of the quartet is Mr. Reilly, who slips into his role so effortlessly and convincingly that the performance is totally worthy of a well-deserved Academy Award.

Mr. Polanski is no stranger to filming in enclosed spaces. Repulsion (1965) showed us what he can do inside of a claustrophobic London flat as a schizophrenic Catherine Deneuve descends into madness. Two years later Rosemary's Baby (1968) explores how a dream Manhattan apartment can turn into a prison -- complete with next door witches and warlocks -- for Mia Farrow. Likewise, in this film, the Brooklyn apartment where all the action takes place, is not big enough to contain the emotions that erupt within it.

Once again, Roman Polanski gives us a film filled with ironies and unanswered questions, and in the process, puts us in the middle of a ride that will take us a long time to forget. At the heart of his latest work are four performances that will remain with us long after the last frame flickers on the screen.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

NY Film Festival: Tahrir: Liberation Square

At the press screening of Tahrir: Liberation Square the new documentary that chronicles the Egyptian revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak's regime, NY Film Festival's program director Richard Peña assured director Stefano Savona, via a Skype press conference, (see picture above) that his film was chosen over some of the other Tahrir Square films that were submitted to the festival due in large part to the uncanny film's ability to put the audience right in the middle of the events that happened there beginning on January of this year. Peña went on to declare that all the other films he saw about the event tried to explain the popular uprising. Savona's film, on the other hand, with it's cinema vérité style, marches right into the heart of the action and succeeds in capturing the days and nights of the struggle for freedom, and putting you right in the center of it all.

I couldn't agree more: it's not so much that Savona's camera invades the space, the feeling one gets is that the revolution somehow manages to come to him. His camera is both a curious observer and an active participant. But it is not a foreign hungry lens capturing earth shattering events of a foreign nation, but rather a homegrown magnet where the various episodes just seem to naturally gravitate towards him in wave after wave of memorable images that become indelible in our minds.

The documentary has neither narration nor music. Only the natural sounds of people speaking, arguing, and dreaming of a new day in Egypt. The staccato rhythms of the people chanting political slogans reveal a soundtrack more powerful than any music background could provide. It is guerrilla filmmaking at it's best. Just a lone wolf armed with a Cannon digital camera, while the rocks fly around him and us, and the unforgettable images of the walking wounded and the dead remind us that these events cost many lives during those tumultuous days back at the start of the year.

An unforgettable scene features an older man passionately talking straight into Savona's camera explaining that this revolution was started by young people, and that even though he is in his sixties he wants everyone to know that he feels like a young man who is ready to die for his country. Savona at times allows his images to go momentarily out of focus, thus giving the documentary a news report immediacy that creates the illusion of putting us right inside the front ranks of the revolutionaries. At the same time, we also know that this is a carefully crafted film, its 91 minutes having being boiled down from more than thirty hours of raw footage.

Egypt is currently a work in progress, and Savona's documentary feels unfinished in a good way. He didn't start filming at the beginning of the revolution simply because he was not in the country to capture the opening salvos. His "in medias res" results reminds us that the politics of Egypt currently are in a state of transition. This he captures beautifully in the last shots of the film where a woman rants and raves to a crowd of onlookers yelling at them that once the revolutionaries leave Tahrir Square the old regime could come back. It is a chilling reminder of the uncertainty of the political tides after a revolution, and it addresses the current problems that the country is going through today.

If you want to know the details of the Tahrir Square Revolution and its aftermath keep following the world's newspapers or buy any of the books that have recently been appearing about the events. If you want to be there, watch Stefano Savona's unforgettable documentary.