Film reviews: Carnage | Man on a Ledge | Martha Marcy May Marlene | Journey 2: The Mysterious Island | Chronicle

Nick (Sam Worthington) is an ex-cop being the Man on a Ledge
Nick (Sam Worthington) is an ex-cop being the Man on a Ledge
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Alistair Harkness casts his eye over some of this week’s new releases...

Carnage (15) ***

Directed by: Roman Polanski

Starring: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C Reilly

LIKE an amped-up Brooklyn-based take on Abigail’s Party, Carnage is the kind of film that revels in tearing strips off the bourgeoisie for the edification of the bourgeoisie. Revolving around two couples trying to amicably settle a playground altercation between their children while sipping malt whisky and nibbling on peach cobbler, it’s designed to show how the veneer of polite society can easily slip when buttons are pushed in the wrong way. Needless to say, this far-from-original set-up doesn’t offer any new satirical insights, not least because the caricatures the top-tier cast are playing don’t seem to be tethered to anything particularly based in reality. Even director Roman Polanski – a cinematic master of transforming confined spaces into tense emotional jungles – can’t make its theatrical source material (it’s based on screenwriter Yasmina Reza’s Broadway play The God of Carnage) seem particularly alive. What it does have going for it, though, is that cast. The script may be full of banal, simplistic observations, but Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C Reilly and, especially, Christoph Waltz are all so deliciously unpleasant, it’s hard not to derive some satisfaction from watching them be nasty to one another for 80 minutes.

Man on a Ledge **

Directed by: Asger Leth

Starring: Sam Worthington, Elizabeth Banks, Jamie Bell, Anthony Mackie

DESPITE being so derivative its title could be changed to “Inside Man trying to Die Hard with a Vengeance while having a Dog Day Afternoon”, there’s almost something goofily entertaining about Man on a Ledge. Almost. Unfortunately the film stars Sam Worthington, whose Avatar-sanctioned career appears to be thriving in spite of his lack of onscreen charisma. That’s a problem, given that a large chunk of the film requires us to buy into the idea that his character would be able to win over a crowd of gawkers wondering whether or not he’s going to jump from the 21st floor of New York’s Roosevelt Hotel. An ex-cop, his suicidal tendencies are actually part of an elaborate plan to prove his innocence after being framed for stealing a diamond belonging to a fraudulent property tycoon (Ed Harris). With the baying crowd providing cop-distraction, he must simultaneously co-ordinate a heist in the building across the street while trying to get the sympathetic NYPD negotiator (Elizabeth Banks), charged with getting him off the ledge, to look into corruption on the force. It’s a premise with more holes in it than a crate of doughnuts and, in the absence of decent dialogue or distinctive direction, Worthington’s personality vacuum sucks the fun out of it.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (15) ****

Directed by: Sean Durkin

Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy, Brady Corbet

WHERE most films about cults have a tendency to sensationalise their extremist subjects for cheap thrills, this creepy, disturbing film dramatises the phenomenon in a more downbeat way by homing in on a recent escapee (newcomer Elizabeth Olsen) and filtering her experiences through the prism of her fracturing identity. Known in the outside world as Martha, she’s a lost soul whose reasons for joining a cult are hinted at as she takes refuge with her sister and successful, strait-laced husband (respectively played by Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy) after fleeing an idyllic-seeming farming commune ensconced in the Catskill mountains. As Martha’s erratic attitude towards her sister intensifies, debut director Sean Durkin skilfully intercuts these tension-riddled scenes of dramatic disharmony with scenes depicting her time with the cult. As we see the cult’s charismatic leader Patrick (John Hawkes) insidiously programming her – renaming her Marcy May, sermonising about the value of her new life and, inevitably, breaking her down sexually – past and present begin to merge in unsettling ways. Big on atmosphere and full of subtle, carefully crafted performances, it is, in the end, a horror film of rare intelligence and insight.

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (PG) *

Directed by: Brad Peyton

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Josh Hutcherson, Michael Caine, Vanessa Hudgens

HOLLYWOOD loves classic literature. There it is, sitting gathering dust, its public domain status just waiting to be exploited by some producer desperate to make a sequel to a Brendan Fraser-starring 2008 update of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. In case the dunderheaded wordplay of the title hadn’t tipped you off, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island is that film. Based on another Verne book that was itself a sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the film doesn’t worry itself with such facts, choosing instead to incorporate elements of that story into a new adventure by openly conflating Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels into a plot that has the kid from the first film (Josh Hutcherson) deploying DaVinci Code-style logic to figure out that Verne’s island actually exists. At which point the film really jumps the shark as this brat sets out with his stepdad (Dwayne Johnson) and his “Vernian” grandfather (Michael Caine) to explore the island and swiftly finds himself falling for High School Musical’s Vanessa Hudgens as they fly giant honey bees around the Lost City of Atlantis while pure gold erupts from a volcano. Yep, Hollywood loves classic literature.

Chronicle (12A) ***

Directed by: Josh Trank

Starring: Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B Jordan

PUTTING a Cloverfield-esque found-footage spin on the superhero genre, Chronicle sounds dispiriting on paper, but it’s pretty effective in practice thanks to a surprisingly strong final act that makes inventive use of surveillance footage to energise its final smackdown. It also helps that the initial irritation factor that comes from characters incessantly recording every aspect of their lives eventually feeds into the plot, which turns out not to be a superhero origins story so much as a supervillain origins story. That supervillain-in-waiting is Andrew (Dane DeHaan), an antisocial high-school student from a broken home whose alienation is intensified by his determination to constantly view life through a lens.

When accidental exposure to something weird in an underground hole leaves him, his good-looking cousin (Alex Russell) and his cousin’s best friend (Michael B Jordan) with telekinetic powers, he finally feels part of something special. But when his belief in his developing abilities combines with hubris and resentment, his life starts spinning out of control with dangerous consequences. It’s a nifty enough concept and while there are some spurious justifications for the first-person style, writer Max Landis and director Josh Trank make up for it by figuring out a plot-based way to avoid nauseating shakey-cam effects.