New York Film Festival 2011 Entry #2 - Quickie Reviews Of "Carnage" & "Miss Bala"

by Tambay A. Obenson
October 4, 2011 11:01 AM
2 Comments
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I posted this earlier, but I was logged in as Pete Chatmon when I did, instead of myself, and didn't realize it. Oops :) Thanks to everyone who pointed it out to me. So, I'm reposting but as myself, so here ya go:

These are going to be very quick reviews because I just haven’t had time to sit and type up my usual full-length critiques. And I’d like to get these posted before I start to forget pieces of each film, making it even more difficult to write about them.

I've seen 5 films thus far, all of them last week. I've already reviewed Lars Von Trier's Melancholia (HERE); today, I'm sharing thoughts on Roman Polanski's Carnage, and Mexico's entry for the Best Foreign Language Film this year, Miss Bala.

So, forgive my brevity, but a brotha's plate is overflowing right now.

Here you go:

First, Roman Polanski’s Carnage – Roman Polanski does Woody Allen would be my one-sentence summary. But no one can do Woody Allen like Woody Allen can. From other reviews I’ve read, a film that it also gets compared a lot to is Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - the 1966 Mike Nichols classic drama, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. There are similarities certainly – notably the fact that both films are based on plays, and that both feature seemingly well-educated, learned, middle to upper middle class white couples, as they engage in a battle of wits (I should also note that the film takes place in Brooklyn, which would distinguish it from Woody Allen's upper east side Manhattan-set tales). Although I’d be surprised if Carnage receives the same kind of overwhelming critical acclaim and awards consideration that Virginia Woolf did. One of the challenges in adapting a stage play to film is being able to make a movie that doesn’t just feel like you’re simply watching a filmed stage play, and I don’t think Carnage really succeeds in that regard. The acting was at times quite over-the-top and even farcical (although maybe that was intentional, and this wasn't meant to be some realist representation); I thought Jody Foster, an actress I actually really like, was especially guilty of this, and I don’t think she was suited for the role she played. I’d have loved to see she and Kate Winslet make a switch. Also, I just felt like I’d seen this all before – broadly speaking, couples confined to a single location, bickering - each person eventually starts to come apart, uncomfortable truths are revealed, sides are taken, then swapped, and then swapped again, and they all learn (hopefully) more about themselves, and that maybe they don’t really know the people they are involved with. At one time, films like this were Sundance/indie film staples – mostly due to lack of financing; keeping the number of characters to a minimum, and confining them to very few locations, and having to create conflict somehow – usually through dialogue/revelations. So this just didn't resonate much with me. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was an experiment for Polanski. Not that he hasn’t adapted a one-location play to the screen before – he did make Death And The Maiden in the 1990s (a film I actually really like). But that felt so much less stagey than this, and, also notably, was rich with the usual Polanski ambiance helped by sumptuous cinematography and production design. Carnage is quite sparse – a minimalist work, if Polanski’s ever done one. The experiment, if I can call it that, certainly isn’t a failed one; I just didn't find it all that engaging, even at its really brief 80 minute running time. You’ll get some early jolts and laughs, but it doesn’t quite sustain the same vigor throughout.

Second, Miss Bala – I hadn’t read any reviews of this before going into it, not by choice, but I’m really glad I didn’t actually. I knew that there was a lot of buzz about it, but didn’t quite know what exactly to expect. And I think it’ll be hard to review the film without ruining it for those who plan on seeing it. What I will say is that, if you aren’t already familiar with the story and the filmmaker’s approach to telling that story, you’ll likely be just as disoriented as I was as I watched the film – at least for about the first half of it. But that’s a good thing because it serves the narrative well; it’s an intentional choice made by the director and isn’t just disorienting for the sake of it. You might get frustrated with the lack of information, but I’d suggest you stick with it, as it eventually all comes together. You’ll understand why the film took this approach, and what the point of it all is; at least I hope so. But I’d suggest going into it with as little information as possible. As for what I can say about it… it’s a very gritty, realistically-told tale, with its unsaturated color scheme and hand held camera; a well-acted and directed tease. Comparisons to another recent critically acclaimed Mexican film - Amores perros, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu – are likely. Though I’d readily say that Amores Perros is a stronger overall film than Miss Bala. But you’ll find some common themes of loyalty and class, depicting humanity’s sometimes darker more hideous persona. It’s very quickly paced, scatting through a chain of escalating tension and violence, accompanied by plenty of gunfire. And speaking of gunfire, with regards to the title of the film, Miss Bala… "Bala," from what my translator tells me, is Spanish for “Bullet;” although the “Miss” part of it has to do with the fact that the film is said to be loosely based on real-life; specifically, in the 2008 Miss Sinaloa competition, a contestant was arrested with suspected gang members, all in a truck filled with weapons, just outside Guadalajara. She won the pageant, but, as the film suggests, her victory was a fix by the drug lords she purportedly was in cahoots with (whether intentionally, or forced). And that’s all I’ll say about that. I recommend the film; in fact, I actually plan to see again, armed with the information I now have, after having seen it once already. I'd like to see how that shapes my perception of it. By the way, there's an image from the film that's been traveling the web, featuring the film's star, Stephanie Sigman (I embedded it below), which seems to be what is being used to help sell the film; I get it; sex sells; the image might put additional butts in seats; However, let me ruin that part of it for you and say don't be fooled by the image. If that's the main draw for you (and I certainly hope it's not), you'll be sorely disappointed, because that image is from just one short bullet-filled scene in which she takes cover under a bed to hide. So don't go into this expecting Zoe Saldana running around in her skivvies, carrying and firing a variety of weapons, as she was in Luc Besson's low-brow Colombiana. Miss Bala premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and, as we already noted, has been selected as the Mexican entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 84th Academy Awards next year.

Alright, that’s it for now.

I’ll return later to review the German drama Sleeping Sickness (which I profiled previously HERE) and David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, which I doubt needs much of an intro. I've seen the first already, and I'm seeing the latter this morning actually.

Here's the Miss Bala marketing image I mentioned above.

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2 Comments

  • Monique | October 5, 2011 8:50 AMReply

    I saw this today and have a LOT to say about it. Very bleak film.

  • Vanessa | October 5, 2011 2:57 AMReply

    I had a feeling Miss Bala wasn't an exploitative female action skin flick, hence the reason why I really want to see this film. Also, the fact that Stephanie puts in a realistic performance in a gritty type of film overall.

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