Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Review Roundup: Carnage, Corman's World, The Muppets

1.) Carnage (Roman Polanski, 2011)

Boasting the finest vomiting scene since Peter Jackson's Bad Taste (1987), this scabrous adaptation of Yasmina Reza's God Of Carnage has been widely celebrated for its quartet of stunning performances, but the film's real achievement lies in the slick bourgeoisie design of Penelope and Michael Longstreet's (Jodie Foster; John C. Reilly) Manhattan apartment, and the fascinating experiment in film form that director/co-writer Roman Polanski conducts in its claustrophobic confines. The screenplay is furiously intelligent, jamming sexes warfare, Buñuelian satire and discussions of hamster homicide into a taut 79-minute production, but the real heroes of this piece are Production Designer Dean Tavoularis and Set Decorator Franckie Diago, who perfectly define the material spaces of quasi-progressive Penelope and "openly despicable" Michael's apartment - pasty eggshell walls, metric furniture arrangements and art books adorning the puked-on coffee table.

The Longstreet's son, Ethan (Eliot Berger), was attacked by Zachary Cowan (Elvis Polanski), the son of uptight broker/lawyer combo Nancy and Alan (Kate Winslet; Christoph Waltz), resulting in the couple's meeting to decide appropriate action. Polanski distances himself from the stage by infusing his film with dramatically heightened camerawork - at first his observation is static, but from the moment Nancy upchucks onto Penelope's treasured Kokoschka volume the director employs startling close-ups and accelerates the editing rhythm (courtesy of Hervé de Luze), creating a choking effect for both his characters and us, the increasingly uncomfortable audience. As the quarreling couples grow drunker (not just on the malt whiskey, but their own egos) Polanski literally uproots his camera and dislocates us from the established space, employing quick-pans and handheld perspective shots to churn the viewer's stomach. As the night wears on and the bitterness of Reza's comedy becomes more pointed, the film's tension gives way to gleefully rampant silliness, racking up the volume and letting the actors unleash their character's deepest, most malicious feelings. It's like spooning dark chocolate over a simmering ulcer, and the results are delicious.

2.) Corman's World: Exploits Of A Hollywood Rebel
(Alex Stapleton, 2011)

Given the bloody trail established by recent exploitation docs Not Quite Hollywood (Hartley, 2008) and American Grindhouse (Drenner, 2010), it was only a matter of time until somebody dedicated an entire picture to Roger Corman, the infamous Hollywood rebel who has produced almost 400 flicks since 1954's Monster From The Ocean Floor. Without doubt the most prolific film producer of all time, Corman revolutionized the industry in the early 1970's by accidentally creating the 'New Hollywood' (Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Fonda), re-inventing the production/distribution wheel while delivering schlocky sci-fi/horror movies to the expanding teen audience. This loving tribute to Corman - who here appears one of the kindest, most thoughtful characters possible - won't offer anything new for his fans, but latecomers will be treated to 90-minute's worth of stills, trailers and talking heads, all edited into one slick and hugely enjoyable package.

While it's true that Corman's work ethic involved recruiting budding, Cannes-bound artistés to make giant crab pictures, he also had a socially conscious and deeply artistic side, as demonstrated by projects such as The Intruder (1962), which no studio was willing to option due to its tricky racial integration topic. The film remains a bold and influential masterwork, perhaps Corman's best, and to see it evaluated in the same space as, say, The Big Bird Cage (Hill, 1972), demonstrates just how varied the producer's output was. Also discussed here is Corman's vital role in the distribution of foreign language features in the US, as he bought and marketed works by everyone from Fellini to Bergman (equally, Bergman was a huge fan of Jaws, 1975, essentially one big Corman homage). Exploits Of A Hollywood Rebel has enough styrofoam beasties, vehicular mashups and bikini-clad babes to satisfy any exploitation fan, but what rewards here is Stapleton's careful consideration of his hero and the enthusiasm he captures from various friends and colleagues. Well Roger, here's to the next hundred!

3.) The Muppets (James Bobin, 2011)

Considering the recent spate of CG 'toon reboots - the grotesque Yogi Bear (Brevig, 2010), for example - a 21st Century Muppet makeover might not sound all that appealing, but in the hands of Flight Of The Conchords' James Bobin the result is a joyous homage to TV's favorite felt troupe, and truly a film for all the family to enjoy. It's been thirteen years since The Muppets' last cinematic outing (1999's disappointing Muppets From Space), even longer since their last TV appearance, and in the ensuing years the gang has disbanded. Two lovable small-town brothers, Walter (Peter Linz) and Gary (Jason Segal), travel to L.A. to visit the old Muppet studios, now decrepit and abandoned, but while snooping around Walter overhears the plan of an evil oil baron, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), who wants to dig below Kermit's office to unearth, well... oil. And so a journey begins to reunite the old gang and raise the £10,000,000 needed to buy back the studios. It's a familiar setup, sure, but the charm lies in its execution...

There's not a smidgen of cynicism to be found in The Muppets, a studio reboot which, for once, feels like it was made out of pure love rather than the hope of financial gain. The screenplay, co-written by Segal and Nicholas Stoller, is genuinely sweet, and finds deeper footholds in each of the character's relationships than we've ever seen before. Kermit (Steve Whitmire) and Miss Piggy (Eric Jacobson) are brilliantly on-again/off-again, as they've always been, but the most touching scenes come courtesy of Fozzie (Jacobson again), who we pick up with at a fleapit motel in Reno, recycling gags about room discounts and parking lots. There's a deep pang of sadness when Kermit discovers how his old pal has been living, and our heart goes out to the little bear who, until now, had been as one-note as his dismal routines. The relationships here are fresh and interesting, and Bobin is a smart enough director to mine his jokes from character beats rather than broad slapstick. That said, the film has some gloriously silly sequences, not least Cooper's hysterical rap about being a badass oil baron ("I got mo' cheddar than some super-size nachos").

There's not a single scene that doesn't hit the right note, and every new character (80's Robot is a work of subtle genius) slips into the established world without ever pandering to the new under-12's audience. I've seen the film twice now, and on my second viewing I was delighted to find myself singing along to each and every song (Man Or Muppet will undoubtedly win that Oscar), and finding new jokes tucked away in the background. This is a comedy made with the upmost care and passion, packed with star cameos and uplifting montages, fart shoes and dancing chickens. I really can't recommend it enough. I will be going back a third time...

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