REVIEWS: Genocide on parade: “Carnage,” “In the Land of Blood and Honey” onscreen, “Anne Frank” onstage at WaterTower

Posted on 12 Jan 2012 at 11:35am

In Carnage, two well-intentioned, upper-class New York couples hash out the details of a schoolyard brawl between their sons. Ethan, the son of Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael Longstreet (John C. Reilly), was swatted in the face with a tree branch by Zachary, the son of Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz), knocking out a few teeth.

Penelope is especially high-strung about the incident — so much so, she can’t help but insert little jibes even as Nancy and Alan (clearly less horrified by the events than Penelope would like) offer pro forma apologies. Their son “intentionally hit him,” she snipes, eventually causing Alan to observe, “Yes, we’ve established it was intentional — what is gained by emphasizing it?”

Penelope clearly wants to live in a world where enemies become friends and we all hold hands around a campfire; Alan, a high-powered litigator, has a more cynical view. “I worship the god of carnage,” he says. Bad things happen, even if not because of bad people. Violence simply is the way.

The playwright (now screenwriter) Yasmina Reza seems especially interested in the archly arbitrary trappings of urban society, and the tensions that arise between seemingly civilized intellectuals in the context of the banal. In her play Art, Reza explored the rift between three men over a modernist painting that appears to be merely a white canvas; here, it’s about the hypocrisy — or is it impossibility? — of true civility in a seemingly civilized society.

Penelope, who weeps when she even thinks about Darfur, conflates the horrors of genocide with a playground scuffle, albeit a serious one. It’s the first step towards inhumanity, and she thinks the Cowans should nip it in the bud.

The problem is, neither Penelope nor hubbie Michael nor the Cowans are as sophisticated and refined as they like to pretend.

Carnage is a comedy, by the way, and a smart one — smarter, perhaps, than its audience, too smart to the point of navel-gazing: It’s sort of Lord of the Flies set on the Upper West Side. Reza has the right director in Roman Polanski, who specializes in the dark side of the human condition in modern society … particularly in closed-in spaces: A boat in Knife in the Water, a boarding-house in The Tenant, the Dakota in Rosemary’s Baby. He knows something about the dynamics when society breaks down at the micro level, whether the constant ringing of cell phone or the awkwardness of vomiting after eating a bit of tainted cobbler. (Miss Manners says we excuse a minor faux pas and ignore a major one; no ignoring here.)

The material works better as a play (it was called God of Carnage onstage, and will be at Dallas Theater Center, which is opening the regional premiere this spring) than as a movie: The initial conceit — that the Cowans would show up at the Longstreets just to type out a letter explaining what happens — is a purely theatrical device, and makes no sense in a movie (especially since the letter serves no identifiable purpose). And the fact the Cowans try multiple times — but never succeed — in leaving the Longstreets’ apartment oozes bits of Waiting for Godot.

But the movie is, overall, a success itself. For all its rep as a play, the movie seems frothy, given heft only by the stellar cast and director (five Oscars between them, and a dozen more nominations). Foster plays to her strengths as an actress — or at least, the bag of tricks she has developed since about the time of The Silence of the Lambs: Tic-ish, repressed, tight-lipped suffering. Reilly, the galumpher of choice lately, seems slightly out of his depth. His voice is too high-pitched, his moonish face too wide and friendly. It’s easy to mistake him for dumber than he is, which may be to his character’s benefit in being under-estimated, but he needs more timbre, more weight: You wanna feel he’s one insult away from punching Alan in the kisser. (James Gandolfini played the role on Broadway.)

Waltz, on the hand, has the perfect mix of disdain, intelligence and self-awareness. He’s the one you want to hate the most, except he’s also the most honest: He admits his son is a sociopath and that probably won’t change. Honesty, though, is something Penelope can’t handle well; she’s too much of an idealist, and her conflicts with Alan drive most of the plot. (I hesitate to say “action” — there’s very little action.)

The beauty of the script (particularly in play form) is how the characters all interact with one another: Dividing loyalties, sharing confidences, forming alliances in strange-bedfellow combinations.

Winslet, more polished that Foster’s character but also the one who falls the hardest, is terrific as well — they all are, ultimately — but to what end? Is Reza taking a cast from a Woody Allen movie and just putting them in a Chekhov comedy with a gun on the table, seeing who goes for it first? She and Polanski do a fine job of creating an iconography of certain recurring images: A Blackberry, a cobbler, an art book, a bad drug, tulips. But I’m not sure it takes us anywhere … other than away from our own lives for 80 minutes to see how even the “haves” far uptown from Occupy Wall Streeters are “have-nots” when it comes to emotional maturity. We’re all kids on a schoolyard, swiping at each other. No wonder there has been genocide in Darfur, when Penelope can’t even last 60 minutes without pitching a fit. Carnage is a comedy that wants you to pray for humanity, since we don’t have a shot otherwise.

Opens Jan. 13 at Landmark’s Magnolia Theatre.

 ****

Say what you will about Angelina Jolie’s parenting, her public romance with Brad Pitt, her twisted relationship with her brother and dad Jon Voight: The lady has some mad skills. And she doesn’t play on her beauty… at least not all the time. For her writing and directing debut, she doesn’t cast herself in a sexy rom-com, but goes behind the camera for a foreign-language take of genocide in Eastern Europe. Not exactly commercial.

Of course, there’s always the allegation that she’s forcing her “art” on her public, but In the Land of Blood and Honey feels sincere, and it’s “important” without being stodgy or even preachy.

Still, I’m not exactly sure how solid it is as a narrative. The general plot is simple: Muslim Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) meets Serb cop Danijel (Goran Kostic) on a date in 1992. All goes well until a bomb goes off, launching the Bosnia War. Serbs — Danijel’s dad is one of the leaders, basically Ratko Mladic — are practicing ethnic cleansing, rounding up Muslims in concentration camps or just summarily executing them, raping women, killing babies. There are no rules. And for three and a half years, the international community does nothing.

But Danijel, now a captain in the Serb Army, sees Ajla and rescues her, pretending she is his personal assistant and occasional rape victim, but really being tender. Ajla fears him, but also sees his tender side. He wants her to escape; she wants to be free; but no one can know the true nature of their relationship.

In between this rough outline are countless scenes of Danijel on patrol, shooting unarmed Muslims with his sniper rifle, occasionally feeling pangs of guilt… though never enough guilt to stop altogether.

The problem with In the Land of Blood and Honey is also one of its strength: Jolie paints a horrifying portrait of the madness of war, especially one as arbitrary and insane to be based on ethnicity or religion. Jolie wisely does not try to explain the war too much — how can you explain the inexplicable?

But in immersing the audience in the details of the war as seen from the eyes of these two lovers-rivals, she lays some of it on pretty thick. Scenes of random killings are strung together in a deeply affecting way, but they don’t actually advance the main plot at all; it’s after the first hour before we get much more than the sketch I explained above.

These ultimately are quibbles. Jolie shows surefootedness as a director of great sensitivity (she could tighten up her skills as a screenwriter) and gets touching performances from the principles. It’s a heart-rending movie, not unlike Schindler’s List but with a hint of The Night Porter thrown in. It’s not a feel-good film, but it may well be an important one.

Open Jan. 13 at the Angelika Theater Mockingbird Station.

****

 When 13-year-old Anne Frank went into hiding with her parents, sister and another family (the Van Daans) in the summer of 1942, holing up in a secret annex in downtown Amsterdam, she and all the others assumed they would be liberated by the end year, perhaps slightly longer, when the Allies finally gave the Nazis a what-for. They would end up spending more than two years in their crowded rooms, forced to remain silent as mice during the day to avoid detection, surviving on meager rations sneaked to them by sympathetic gentiles.

It was an horrific existence, but it was existence. What would await them — what did await all them, except for Anne’s father, Otto — on the outside were travesties at the hands of the Nazis, who exterminated thousands of Dutch Jews despite the effort of the likes of Miep Gies.

That’s the unique perspective offered the audience at The Diary of Anne Frank (that’s the name of the play, and the popularly understood name of the actual memoir, more properly titled Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl): Knowledge not only of what happened to her, but to so many during World War II.

But WaterTower Theatre’s  overall successful production of the play, now onstage in Addison, still manages some chills and revelations. When the Nazis do storm in to take away the refugees, it wrenches your guts. But there’s also more to the play than what you may remember from the (pretty much failed) 1959 film, which was so full of its own poignancy it never felt wholly authentic. (The play almost does the same with the somber curtain call.)

That’s because Wendy Kesselman has re-adapted the original 1955 play, returning aspects of Jewish pride omitted before, as well as adding information omitted by Otto Frank when he published Anne’s journal in 1947. We learn, for instance, Anne’s incipient bisexuality, her erotic feelings for other women as well as her sexual curiosity about her fellow hider, Peter — feelings that, sadly, would never find form.

The brilliance of Anne Frank’s diary has always been its forthrightness: Anne is a typical teen, full of energy and wonder and yearning and hormone. Molly Franco, who plays Anne here, never hesitates to show Anne’s annoying qualities. She’s not a petulant, sullen, proto-martyr, but a frustrated, bored, intelligent girl incapable of assessing the vastness of the evil outside.

Act 1 covers a lot of ground: The dynamics of living in close quarters, the introduction of a brittle middle aged dentist (Ted Wold) who becomes Anne’s unlikely roommate; the inappropriately flirtatious Mrs. Van Daan (Lucia Welch) and her sarcastic husband (Paul Taylor, who overplays it just a bit). Act 2 takes a more serious tone, and Franco’s performance adjusts to it, but even in the face of the terrors ahead, the play’s greatest accomplishment is seeing the capacity for hope and understanding. The Holocaust was incomprehensible, as were the motives of the men behind it. The Diary of Anne Frank doesn’t answer such unanswerable questions; it merely reminds us to keep asking them with an open heart.

Now playing through Jan. 29.

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