POSTED ON JANUARY 11, 2012:
Worn and Wounded
Repentance alludes and humor is obscure in Abyss and Carnage
The second great Werner Herzog documentary of the year, after last summer's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, opened last week and it's almost as amazing at mapping the human condition as Dreams was at mapping human history.
Into the Abyss finds the near mystical German director in Conroe, Texas to chronicle the story of then 17-year-old Michael Perry and Jason Burkett -- both of whom were convicted for the 2001 murder of 50-year-old Sandra Stotler and her teenaged son, Adam and his best friend.
Perry, enamored of Stotler's red Chevy Camaro, conscripted his impressionable friend Burkett to invade her home and steal the keys. When they discovered her and her son in the residence, the robbery turned into a double murder for which Perry received the death penalty while Burkett gets life without parole.
Ten years on, Herzog's discussions with Perry about his crimes, as he faces imminent execution, drive what might be Herzog's most incendiary documentary. Perry himself is a po-faced convict who has turned to God, which seems to fuel his nonchalance towards his eminent demise (Herzog recorded these interviews eight days before Perry's execution). After all, he's saved now and whatever man does to shuffle him off this mortal coil only hastens his passage to paradise. Disturbingly enough, this nonchalance also seems to cover for a lack of genuine regret for what he's done.
Crime and Punishment.
Jason Burkett is the more genuinely remorseful of the two. Saddled with a life sentence and a wife on the outside that he's managed to impregnate (possibly through an underground railroad for sperm), Burkett seems to fully embrace the wrongness of what happened. His own father, a career criminal for most of his life, is also interviewed by Herzog, and his regret for the way he lived his life and raised his son lends a palpable sadness to the pair, all but missing from Perry's jovial attitude to the entire incident.
But if you're looking for an anti-death penalty film, look elsewhere. While Herzog himself remains mum on his feelings--indeed, Into the Abyss isn't nearly as heavy on Herzog's personal insights or narration as his past docs -- it was he who reiterated over and over that this was not meant to be an anti-death penalty treatise. Instead he simply presents both sides, leaving it to the audience to decide. Indeed, outwardly Perry's death sentence would seem a fitting punishment for the senselessness of his terrible crimes (made more so by his overt lack of remorse), while his accomplices life sentence would also seem fitting since he wasn't the instigator.
Conversely, Herzog opens the film with an interview with one of the jailors (also a chaplain) whose job it is to administer last rites -- a tough job even for a man who has witnessed hundreds of executions. He begins to tell Herzog how his personal escape is the golf course, with its rolling greens and tranquil wildlife, including an incident where he barely missed running over a squirrel with his golf cart. Typical of Herzog he asks to hear about the chaplain's near miss with the squirrel. What he really thought about it. Before long the chaplain is sobbing. Not sure what catalyst brought that out of him that seeing hundreds of men die could not, but I'm not surprised that Herzog found it.
Into the Abyss is compelling, real and affecting -- another amazing film from a director whose craft is as natural and effortless as the azure West Texas skies.
No, Carnage is not a spinoff movie of the Spiderman franchise, though the pointlessness of shoehorning the once and future Venom into Spidey 3 seems like a good idea in comparison to this, the latest from legendary director Roman Polanski.
Based on the play God of Carnage, the film takes place entirely in the Manhattan apartment of Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) as they try to sort out what to do about an altercation between their son and that of another couple, Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christop Waltz).
Pick Up the Pieces.
The conversations begin amiably enough, as the East Coast liberals -- the Longstreet's -- do their best to do the right thing by their son while the clearly dismissive, conservative Cowans barely conceal their disdain for the Longstreet's concerns and the feel-good resolutions they seek to the conflict.
It quickly becomes a farce, a comedy of sexual and literal politics that finds both couples sliding back and forth between their marriages and their genders as, slowly, the conversations bring out deeper nuggets of conflict that fuel everything from vomited-on art books to cell phones dumped in a welcoming vase of tulips.
And it's supposed to be funny. It isn't. It's not that director Polanski lacks the comedy gene in the same way that Steven Spielberg does (see 1941, or even how he gives up on being funny and just makes a caper out of Catch Me if You Can) but the results are still morosely the same as the ensemble strains to find comedic gold only to have Polanski's dead serious framing of the scenes sap all the mirth from the proceedings.
Sadly, the performances are fine and the film looks great, which is saying something considering that it never leaves the apartment. The cinematography of Pawel Edelman (Polanski's guy on the far better The Ghost Writer) drapes the apartment in fine light and makes great use of mirrors to make scenes feel bigger and compositions more varied.
Jodie Foster plays uptight with a strained smile though she has the skill to give the performance waves of nervous good nature. Reilly is fine as always but he, along with Waltz can't seem to find the comedic rhythm of the play and with Polanski being so literalist, the laughs are few and far between in this brief (80 minutes) bit of farcical misfire. Winslet has a great vomiting scene. Still wasn't funny, but it was about the only bit of nuance to her otherwise stiff performance.
Feeling more like the middle act of a larger piece, Carnage, aside from a few nice bits of performance from some excellent actors, lacks any context or resolution for its characters. Characters who only just become likeable as the credits start to roll.
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