Film releases: February 3

The words “family entertainment”, so often a warning to filmgoers, are redefined by Roman Polanski’s Carnage. It is entertaining. It is about two families. But as sure as eggs are eggs – broken, damaged, bursting eggs – it is a long way from Disney.

You could pick the moment when Kate Winslet vomits over a coffee table; or the one when a tearful, raging Jodie Foster loses her politically correct cool; or the one when Christoph Waltz (curling his sub-Teutonic vowels as delicately as in Inglourious Basterds) shrugs “Our son is a maniac” during the long quarrel between two sets of New York parents over which of their kids is blameable for a face-injuring fight in a park: a quarrel teetering on the edge of a lawsuit.

French dramatist Yasmina Reza’s play Le dieu du carnage has been transposed to America. Or rather, Polanski and his cast of four (completed by John C Reilly as Foster’s woolly bear of a male-chauvinist spouse) shot the film on a Paris soundstage posing as a Manhattan apartment. That may be complicated, but everything else has a deranged simplicity: too simple for some critics, who have disdained Carnage as a shallow essay in épatant le bourgeoisie, a comedy of embarrassment and urbane implosion designed to activate our “oohs”, “aahs” and at times “yeeks”.

Yes, but we know that. We know Carnage has the wicked glint of trash. We know we shouldn’t strictly be giggling or goggling at the spectacle of a Titanic star throwing up, or of two-time Oscar-winner Ms Foster unravelling like a ball of wool clawed by rabid kittens. This drama is undignified for everyone, including us. That’s the fun. That and Reza’s inspired structure of recurrence, which has Winslet/Waltz wooed back repeatedly (“Just one more coffee”) into Foster/Reilly’s drawing room to continue a conversation that is becoming, scene by scene, an emotional carnage.

Each character is skilfully given his or her linguistic signature, from Foster’s right-on rigmarole (“accountability skills”) to the macho gospels (“Women think too much”) boiling up from the tar pits of Reilly’s mind. Funniest of all is lawyer Waltz’s fielding of cellphone business calls, in which his responses clearly indicate a shyster at work. After each call he returns to the live fray, blithely untarnished – he at least feels – by either his rudeness or his ruthlessness.

Polanski directs with an alertness and mordant wit we haven’t seen from him for decades. Here is a four-handed tennis match played by champions and he captures the game’s every shot, every return and every telltale reaction in between.

Martha Marcy May Marlene, from first-time filmmaker Sean Durkin, is more like a game of water polo played in slow motion in a swamp. But what a game and what a swamp: the mind of a girl fleeing an abusive New England cult (Elizabeth Olsen) and the contrasted minds of, first, her persecutors and, second, her rescuing sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law, who take her into their rambling Connecticut home. “Doesn’t anyone else live here?” asks the commune-brainwashed girl who lost touch two years before, or severed it, with family and friends. And we are off, into a psychological thriller premised on the self-contagion, and schizoid to-ings and fro-ings, of a mind suffering spiritual culture shock.

Throughout the film, time-zones are queasily intercut. One moment we are with the cult, its menfolk kindly and cruel, its plain-smocked womenfolk programmed into placid observance of the daily chores, from scrubbing floors to duty sex. (The leader, glitter-eyed, parchment-skinned, caressingly persuasive of voice, is played by Winter’s Bone’s John Hawkes.) In the next moment we see Martha (Olsen) adjusting – or maladjusting – to life in a “normal” married home. The caring Lucy freaks out when her sister skinny-dips in front of her husband. The husband (played by English actor Hugh Dancy) freaks out more loudly when Martha comes into their room one night and lies down on their bed during a sex bout.

At moments we are unsure which world we are in. From dream-or-nightmare number one we wake to dream-or-nightmare number two: the same face in close-up, but does the heroine’s impassivity betoken serenity or unease? Which of Martha’s two lives are we now re-entering? Durkin’s only mis-step is to raise the suspense stakes in two scenes: two home-invasion outings by the cult, portentous with B-movie menace and at one point violence. It superficialises the movie’s truer, deeper picture of violence: a violence of the mind, a control that masquerades as care, “love” deployed as a weapon of possession. That last notion could be applied, we are invited to ponder, to both the homes Martha finds herself in.

It is women’s week at the cinema. Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet share the show-stopping emotions in Carnage. A tale of two sisters unspools in New England. In Young Adult Charlize Theron is a funny-disturbed stalker visiting her home town to reclaim a past lover. From the Juno team of screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman comes this likable but odd – seriously odd – character portrait.

Is it meant to be funny? Theron, pale and stunning in a “zombie chic” way, is the kind of emotional wreck we might all like to resemble. She sets out to twine the ex-boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) around her little finger, disregarding his pleas of a new wife and baby. With the other little finger she joins pinkies, on free nights, with another ex-schoolmate, a disabled barfly (Patton Oswalt) with enough cheerily wounded wisdom for two. Her weapon of choice for both men is alcohol: she tries to get her victims drunk. The film ends with tears before bedtime, though a consummating bedtime of sorts is delivered.

I kept seeing Cameron Diaz (in her Bad Teacher mode) in the main role. She would shoulder-charge this comedy and make it funny. Theron has too much baleful pulchritude: she is like a Greek goddess descending from Olympus to slum it in a twisted rom-com. Sometimes she does the most with the least. “Adorable” she says of the baby, with a steely parting of teeth that could pass in another world for a smile. More often, like the film, she is enigmatic to the point of spookiness.

Men scrape into this week’s movies by way of a ledge and a hole in the ground. Man on a Ledge is a daft suspense thriller. Picture Sam Avatar Worthington standing with apparently suicidal intent outside a high skyscraper window while actually masterminding a complex crime plot to – but no, you don’t have to picture it. Or even see it. Strictly for acrophobes with masochism.

If 8mm and Cloverfield mated, they might produce Chronicle. Lots of found-footage camcorder mayhem in a sci-fi style; lots of teenage kids running around; lots of gravity defiance; and lots of editors (one speculates) trying to splice the intriguing opening, set in a giant pothole, to the rest of the flying-tonight fantasy nonsense.

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