Sunday, March 24, 2013

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Note: What I'd like to write about in regards to this film is going to lightly spoil several scenes including descriptions and dialogue. Nothing that should ruin the experience of seeing the movie, but it would sure help to see the film first to understand what I mean by the examples. Apologies for spelling/grammer errors.

Anyone could have told you that something was wrong with Kevin Khatchadourian (played by Ezra Miller in his later years). It's a plot that the public knows only too well. Our parents know of other incidents, but for my generation it's the story of Columbine. The story Virginia Tech. The story of Aurora, Colorado. The story of Sandy Hook elementary school. We hear about the disturbed individual(s) and their past. Naturally, the question comes out- "who is to blame?". I personally don't think director/co-writer Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Movern Callar) set out to make a 'message' movie. She is adapting the novel of Lionel Shriver, a book that is about a mother and her son. This movie came out in December of 2011. I just saw it the other night. In the past year, two of the incidents I mentioned above had occurred. I realize that if I were a critic or a reviewer, I might want to talk just about the movie and just about Kevin. Yet I am coming at this from my own experience, my own viewpoint, and I still think the question posed is relevant to this film.

"Who is to blame?". 

Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton, in what I think is her greatest performance) married Franklin (John C. Reilly) and they had a son named Kevin and moved into a bigger house. So far this sounds like the typical progression of an American couple having a family together. Eva is at home with young Kevin most of the time and he just doesn't respond. He didn't stop crying when he was younger, he wouldn't roll a ball back to his mother while playing, and he knowingly destroyed his mother's art project. One time, Eva accidentally hurt 6-8 year old Kevin and when she came home with him from the hospital, Kevin lied to Franklin about the circumstances, saying that he fell. It was like that moment in The Tree of Life when the dinosaur performed the first great act of mercy on its prey, only in reverse. This relationship continued when Kevin was older with the boy appearing sweet to his father, torturing his mother, and while also eventually tormenting his unknowing sister. In fact, this exchange just about sums up how fucked up Kevin was at an early age.

Taken from
Eva (in reference to her pregnancy): Haven't you ever wished you had somebody else to play with?
Kevin: No.
Eva: You might like it.
Kevin: What if I don't like it?
Eva: Then you get used to it.
Kevin: Just because you're used to something doesn't mean you like it. You're used to me.
(Eva takes breath and responds as best a parent probably could.)
Eva: Yes, well in a few months we're all gonna get used to somebody new.

To be fair, Eva's last response was one of her more empathetic moments. I can't remember the exact line or scene, but while she was either rocking Kevin or changing his diaper, she basically tells him how she can't stand him and that she almost wishes he was never born. Kevin is too young and hysterical to remember this, but as if he has the supernatural powers of Damian from The Omen, it's like he might've heard her for all we could know (there is no indication of that, just theorizing). When he is older and the two go miniature golfing together, she comments on how disgusted she is with overweight people and Kevin comments on how harsh she can be.

Now I realize I'm just re-describing the plot and I hate to do that. I'm mainly just illustrating some plot points for those that haven't seen the film or for those that might need a refresher because talking about moments from Kevin's life in a random order speaks to Ramsay's style. The movie feels like it is constantly rewinding or fast-forwarding through the family and Eva's life and stopping in the past, the present, and perhaps the future. It's like a trip through Eva's mind, specifically her memory. Like her previous films, Ramsay as a director shows passion for telling the story best through juxtaposing images in the editing room and a love for intricate sound design. With cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (a D.P. who honors his director's style with recent works as diverse as Anna Karenina and The Avengers), Ramsay intends to disorient you at times all the way up until the end when she confronts that question I've mentioned above.

Before I give my own and what I think the film's answer to that question is,  another element I love about this movie is how much is said through so little. An activity I did in English class in high school and later screenwriting classes in college, was to write down how much I know about a character from all the details given. Scripts are interesting because writers try to mostly write only what they can show on the screen (there are exceptions like Coppola's screenplay for Apocalyspe Now), so details about a character's life will be given visually and orally in the movie. Take every action of Jack Nicholson in the beginning of Chinatown or the actions and voice-over of Kevin Spacey in the beginning of American Beauty. Their movements and words tell us a great deal about who they are as men and the story has only just started. Ramsay and her co-writer Rory Kinnear accomplish this in spades, especially for such a purposefully disjointed-at-times and slow-burn of a movie. The Khatchadourian house has been lived in for so long and despite its size, it looks barren and almost innocent and plain. How could a boy that is practically Rosemary's Baby learn such disdain and hatred with a slate as blank as his environment? Nature versus nurture is at play and I'm not sure which wins out in this case.

These choices made by the director/screenwriters are always conscious ones and we can always draw our own separate, unique, and different conclusions, but what I love about Ramsay's films are how her stylistic choices always strengthen the actors and therefore the characters (or vice-versa of course). Swinton fully embodies a woman who has been punished so much that she is deteriorating. A huge part of the film, that I won't touch on at the risk of meandering much more, is how Eva is now trying to live her life knowing that she was the mother of a murderer. At an office party at her new and shitty job, she refutes a co-workers advances and he calls her a stuck-up bitch, saying how no one would want to touch her after what has happened (in reference to her son's killing spree). Eva's face is one of the most truthful reaction shots I've seen. I'm reminded of another grim performance of Javier Bardem in Biutiful where the acting was so honest that an entire story was told with just a look here or a glance there. To call Swinton's role honest is not as much of an understatement as it is commenting how fully she inhabits Eva. It's one of those performances where the best compliment is that Tilda Swinton is not playing Eva Khatchadourian, but that I thought Tilda Swinton was Eva Khatchadourian.

Ezra Miller is a revelation; that is a word I and many others use to best describe a new talent in his breakout performance because words can rarely exemplify freshness in a 100+ year old art. He almost mirrors Swinton like an evil doppelganger. Even their hairstyles are looking the same by the boy's high school years. Reilly is also great in his smaller part as Franklin. The actor is already known for being so versatile that with this role he allows himself to still be as lovable as his fans would expect and yet the performance is ultimately highly vulnerable. Then there is the title, We Need to Talk About Kevin. Kevin comes up in conversation between the parents a lot, but from when he was younger to when he is older to when he is in jail- Kevin is the one thing that no one talks about and therein lies an important clue to our question.

Who is to blame? Eva tried her best or did she? Kevin was doomed from the start or was he? Could anyone have noticed? Could anyone have stopped him? Or should they have been trying to stop Eva when she was in over-her-head raising a troubled boy? If this were the real world and Kevin had used a gun (he uses his bow-and-arrow kit at the school massacre) there would be a discussion of fire arms. Politicians would be blamed. The news would then hound Eva and empty her life to the public. She would then be blamed. I could see the fictional headline now, "Mother had signed for killer's package of locks used to barricade school doors". Some would point out that Kevin is accountable to a degree with mental illness of course being held in regard.

Now, I have sort of wrote myself into a corner in regards to the film or I having an answer. If I were to arbitrarily assign the blame-game question to this movie, the movie would actually be telling me that blame is beside the point. That instead there are responsibilities to each other and there are consequences for those as well. Our time on Earth is short and as human beings, our relationships matter. We should be loving with, hoping with, and talking with each other. Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin is about a releationship. A mother and a son. So many conclusions can be made about the characters and themes, but in my own personal opinion, I think the ending scene in the jail is telling us that we should all learn to be together as a people and not classify, seperate, or put each other into clearly defined boxes. I'm being preachy and perhaps to some highly over-dramatic and over-analytical, but I think the film shows us that on our own we can fall, but with each other, with our mothers, with our fathers, and with our sons and daughters that we can avoid hatred and unite each other through something that sounds more difficult than what it truly is- learning to understand each other.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Side Effects

For what will be Steven Soderbergh's last theatrical film in the U.S. (Behind the Candelabra airs later this year on HBO), the versatile filmmaker chose to make a thriller that has been described as pharmacological. Similar to his last film with screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, that being 2011's Contagion, Soderbergh preys on fears associated with what has become part of everyday life. Contagion featured a modern society encountering a global plague where an ordinary citizen could die from touching the wrong surface. In Side Effects, anti-depressants and the cultures of therapy and medicine are called into question thus creating an equal fear to parts of common life. Whatever one's view on the matter is (I'll briefly state I personally don't have too high an opinion on the issues), medicine has become a huge part of 21st century-living. More people than one might guess see a shrink and even more are taking drugs whether it be for sadness or attention deficits.

The film has two main characters and two stories in a sense with each taking almost a respective half of the film's running time. Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) doesn't feel so well after her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) comes home from jail after being arrested for insider trading. They both no longer live the "high-life", but she now moves through the day very idly until depression overtakes her to the point of where she attempts suicide. Mara as an actress is great for this part. She can appear equal parts comatose and invigorated as if Emily is holding something back (which it turns out she is...). The character is equal parts gentle, intense, and ultimately seductive and Mara with her first major starring role since Lisabeth Salander is once again a refreshing performer for what could be a tired part under another talent.

Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) is a doctor who first encounters Emily at the hospital and then welcomes her into his practice as a patient. After some research and an encounter with Emily's former doctor, Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), he decides to place Emily on a new wonder-drug called ablixa. Things then go horribly wrong from there. Leaving the plot description at that, the comparions to Alfred Hitchcock that this film has received, even if it be just the use of the word "Hitchcockian" in several responses, is very-much an apt comment. The film builds onto intself plot-wise, becoming more complicated but never entering a state of being over-convoluted like the best Hitchcock films were. Strangers On a Train is a great example- an unrealistic scenario, but nevertheless layered to be thrilling enough for audiences.

On the surface, these characters and circumstances could be seen as ingredients to a common thriller. Certainly the script is developed enough that it isn't surprising that a project such as this would be green-lit, but it certainly helps to have a director with notable flourishes to his style that could heighten the material to a greater level of entertainment. There is of course Soderbergh's aesthetic that has been prevalent in his films since his debut of Sex, Lies, and Videotape that was then mastered in Out of Sight, Traffic, Ocean's Eleven and continuing on til today. A mix of sensibilities ranging from hyperealistic to dream-like and always full of unique and oft-muted color schemes, over the past five years Soderbergh has transitioned into the digital video realm as professionally as ever. He appears to be such a visual thinker that his cast's work often seems so effortless (and before I talk about the performers, kudos to some great editing, sound design, and another brilliantly paced score by Thomas Newman).

Like Woody Allen, he can assemble many great performers to come work for him. As mentioned, Mara certainly shines, but Soderbergh films have also proved to be reminders of how talented sometimes-leading talent can be such as Law as Banks' understanding nature turning to desperation or even in Tatum's work with the director (Haywire, Magic Mike, and how this). My biggest gripe with the story is how quickly Banks as a character slips into full Parallax View mode. Law makes it as believable as he could, but looking back on the story, Banks literally goes from questioning motives to having charts in his bedroom, a disheveled appearance, drinking alcohol, and swearing in front of a kid all in the course of what seems like a single scene transition. 

Still, a suspension of disbelief helps to cover up any misgivings. After all, creating illusions on screen are what the best filmmakers can do easily and Soderbergh is simply among the best- Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), Out of Sight (1998), The Limey (1999), Erin Brockovich (2000), Traffic (2000), Ocean's Eleven (2001), Solaris (2002), Ocean's Twelve (2004), The Good German (2006), Ocean's Thirteen (2007), Che (2008), The Girlfriend Experience (2009), The Informant (2009), Contagion (2011), Haywire (2012), Magic Mike (2012), and that is only a fraction of his filmography having directed more quirky and independent fare or his role as a producer working alongside George Clooney for a while. 

The one element of his films that I'll always remember would be his fascination with lying or better-worded as deception. Characters are having affairs, are con-men, facing bureacracy, lying to themselves, living double-lives, and with Side Effects there was an added lair of questioning responsibility- who is to blame for a tragedy (something that has become prevalent in the wake of several national shootings)? There can be nothing more exciting than when the audience knows something to be true that not every character recognizes. To once again compare to Alfred Hitchcock, having a character tell a lie that is knowing to the audience is one of the most simple ways to create dramatic tension and that is a trait I'll remember Mr. Soderbergh for- always being able to raise the stakes.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Gangster Squad

There are some movies that I dislike, but would still recommend to others. Gangster Squad is among them. I suppose the most glaring example in my head would be Watchmen from 2009. I didn't care for it, but there was still some thought and care put into the final product that seemed to touch several audience members according to some responses I've read. There's a craft and once can see its presence, but it just didn't click for me.

Gangster Squad's largest attractable quality is its cast. There's Brolin as a cop against Penn as a mobster (the two last sparred verbally in Milk), Gosling and Stone once again proving their natural screen chemistry (seen previously in Crazy, Stupid, Love), and other recognizable actors like Robert Patrick, Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena, Giovanni Ribisi, and Nick Nolte. I was hoping this would be a modern The Untouchables or LA Confidential, but Ruben Fleischer's latest just seems like those blended with something like Dick Tracy. If anything, that's one unexpected quality this movie has going for it- how funny it truly is.

The story or characters never take an extra leap from "cops go around beating up gangsters", but for some (such as the audience I saw the film with) that was the kind of movie they enjoyed. The action sequences are well choreographed with a lot of cheeky nods at how 'things used to be' as cinematographer Dion Bebbe (Chicago) fills the screen with long coats, tight dresses, and ol'-fashioned cars. The movie is therefore perhaps too sappy for its own good. Without any sort of interest other than the visuals and a base-level showcase of the original material (the articles are a great read), the film wastes a highly talented cast on a cliche here, a quip there, or a reminder of what each and every character was put into the story to do.

Penn shows flashes of brilliance as Micky Cohen. He is fascinating to watch and delivers some of the more humorous moments. In fact, this might be one of the most fun poorly-made comedies I've seen in a while and I don't mean that as a backhanded or sarcastic insult. The film wanders too far into being an unintentional spoof of the genre (something Fleischer would probably excel at) for my liking, but if any of the elements I've mentioned appeal to one on a base level (speaking less to cinebuffs and more to general audiences), than Gangster Squad might be a very fun rental.