Wednesday, March 28, 2012

We Need to Talk About This Movie

Kevin is a horror film that defines this generation. This film makes the horror real. Forget the mockumentary approach of recent horror films, that style has been overused since The Blair Witch Project and its predecessors (1980's Cannibal Holocaust). This film doesn't need a new technical approach; it simply plants its "monster" a little closer to home.

Eva (Tilda Swinton) is a jaded mother, struggling to hold on to her nurturing instincts as she raises.....let's just say a bad egg. We've all heard of the terrible two's, but Kevin (Ezra Miller) redefines terrible. His behavior progressively begins wearing Eva down, but she can't turn to her husband (John C. Reilly) for guidance, he insists Kevin is just a boy. Kevin smoothly manipulates those around him into believing he's normal, so Eva bears the burden of carrying a quiet reservation about her son until one day his behavior escalates to a point that will leave Eva questioning where she went wrong.

The questions this film leaves us asking are: is evil created or nurtured into existence? Is it biological or singularly inherited? What is "evil"? But more importantly, can "evil" be corrected?

The concept of nature v. nurture is not as deeply explored in this film, like one would imagine, but does, I believe, attempt to answer this question. Kevin clearly displays some form of antisocial personality disorder, which might or might not make his condition genetic, therefore biological. Even so, does this type of disorder constitute as a diagnosis for evil? Also, you have to examine how Eva's actions might have contributed to her son's behavior. As a toddler, she tells him she'd much rather be in Italy than changing his diaper. We begin to see the realtionship between the two develop. She seems to have a great dislike for being a mother and naturally Kevin would have no intentions of bonding with her. I think it's safe to say she saw her son for what he was and therefore all his negative behavior was directly targeted to wound her both mentally and physically. What's important here is to note that through psychological help and therapy, Kevin might have turned out different. But we'll never know.

Much praise has to be given to Miller for portraying his dark character with a disturbing amount of jubilant ease and Jasper Newell who portrayed Kevin age 6-8. It's easy to hate Kevin, but difficult not to admire their performances. However, I must say this was Swinton's film. Kevin was shown to us through her perspective and as he grew up, we saw her grow tired and exhausted of raising him. Eva transformed as much as Kevin did and it was both an amazing and chilling experience to see Swinton take on this role.

Director and screenwriter Lynne Ramsay managed to tell this story, based on the book by Lionel Shriver, with a lush visual style. Her colorful vision is a horribly beautiful sight and when she's not overindulging the authenticity of her image with red, the aesthetics add a meaningful splendor to the eye. I had hoped this film would have been accompanied by an equally aesthetic score, but Johnny Greenwood's score (There Will be Blood) was good when present and Ramsay's choice in music was interesting. Also interesting is how Ramsay managed to tell the story through a fractured fabula, she broke the film into different time sequences, going back and forth between the different periods in Eva's life both before and after becoming a mother.

Whatever your definition of evil is, Ramsay has created a real "monster" with Kevin, which warrants this a true horror film. My warning is to approach this film with caution and on a lighter note: Happy early Mother's Day.

Rating: A

Friday, March 23, 2012

'Hunger' Isn't Completely Starved

The Hunger Games, based on the best-selling novel in a trilogy by Suzanne Collins, avoids some of the obvious hazards of teen blockbusters now a days, but has its downfalls as well. Luckily the film has a solid underlying story and a talented actress who leads the film as its heroine.

North America is split into 12 Districts, showcasing the stratification of classes. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a District 12 resident hunts with her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) to provide for her mother and sister. Once a year the Capitol, an autocratic style of government, holds a Reaping for each District to select one male and female tribute, between the ages of 12 and 18, 24 total, to participate in The Hunger Games, a televised death match. The last one standing wins the game. When Katniss' younger sister is selected from her District, she volunteers and is joined by her fellow male tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) in a fight to the, what is sure to be, their end.

Whether you've read the books or not, this plot should sound familiar to you. It has an uncanny parallel to Kousun Takami's Battle Royale, where a group of children are selected to--yup, you guessed it--fight to the gritty end. However, I won't get into that. Collins has publicly stated she was inspired to write her novel from the Iraq war and American reality TV series, so I'll judge it on its own value. This film delves into some deep social, political, societal, even moral issues and approaches it with a respectful somber tone throughout. There's nothing at all cheerful about this film and you can't help but appreciate how mature it is compared to its teen-franchise predecessor at Summit.

Games aims to be a well crafted teen franchise, but is not without its faults. Some of the editing shots instilled an unwelcome vertigo sensation that left me with more to be desired. This was effective at first, half of the slaughterings occur during the first ten minutes of the Games when tributes are dispatched to retrieve supplies from a cornucopia and a shaky camera technique seems appropriate, but after a while it has ill effect on the film's narration. I found the camera's navigation distracting at times, zooming in for too long and wandering at other times. I think better editing artistry could have been demonstrated here.

However, the film sends some powerful messages about government control, rebellion, our country's obsession with reality TV programs and the grim characterization of what we are willing to do to survive. Yes, there's a love story somewhere in there, but it doesn't in anyway overshadow a solid storyline. Like I mentioned this film avoids some of the obvious hazards of teen blockbusters, but teases us with just enough to keep us satiated. And it doesn't take away from the film's serious tone and gruesome realities. Director and screenwriter Gary Ross (Pleasantville) is able to maintain this tone throughout and never attempts to force feed us how we should feel. In one scene, a tribute dies and many a poor-tasted directors would have attempted to milk every moment for dramatic effect, but here Ross illustrates control. He's aware some of the story telling lies in not trying to over sell everything. This scene results in some beautiful camera work, cinematography and music.

The cinematography by Tom Stern was nice at times, but often dampened by some of the obvious visual effects. It makes you wonder where the film's reported $100,000 million budget went to. Also, the music by T-Bone Burnett (Crazy Heart) and James Newton Howard (The Dark Knight) was subtle and didn't try to manipulate our emotions by overpowering us with a heavy score.

The real selling strategy though is Lawrence (Winter's Bone). She is both hard and soft faced when appropriate in the film. Katniss isn't your average in-distress fictional character, nor is she a slaughtering vigilante. She's just a girl trying to stay alive and Lawrence effortlessly taps into the human being element of her character. As the protagonist, she is able to carry the entire film without wearing us down and makes it easy to sympathize with her.

As a fan of the series I can say I'm both happy and slightly disappointed (but this is expected). The film's first hour focuses too long on building up the hype of the Game and felt incredibly rushed, again this is expected, but luckily a solid script and story made up for it. Hutcherson (The Kids Are All Right) would not have been my first pick for Peeta (or second, or third) but pleasantly surprised me. He channels his character very well and reminded me of how versatile of an actor he is. My other critique is Woody Harrelson's character Haymitch. He managed a decent portrayal of the alcoholic mentor to Katniss and Peeta but felt he was missing some of his humorous lines from the book. Ultimately, it's a great story and although the film tried to stretch an entire book into two and a half hours, I think it captured some of the more pivotal moments, making this a powerful film and statement of what to expect from these type of films in the future.

Rating: B-

Saturday, March 17, 2012

No Phallacy With Phallic Jokes in 'Jump Street'

Do you ever go to the movies and are disappointed when the funniest scenes are in the trailer? Me too. But luckily this isn't one of those movies.

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum team up in the foul-mouthed action/comedy, police-farce 21 Jump Street, a remake of the late 80's TV series that follows two undercover cops investigating crimes-- in this case a high school. And I promise you, no trailer could legally show the funniest scenes in this film.

It's a clever, self-aware story with a simple premise, which as long as you don't take it too seriously you're almost guaranteed a good time. Hill and Tatum's characters are assigned to pose as teen-aged students in a high school to investigate the distribution of a new drug that recently killed one of its students. Hill, having been the unnoticed, unpopular nerd with no lady-swag, gets to relive his high school days by befriending the cool-clique, led by the leader and suspected drug dealer Eric (Dave Franco). Meanwhile, Tatum realizes there might have been more to high school than picking on nerds, chasing girls and undervaluing his education.

 It sounds like an odd pairing, but Hill and Tatum actually work extremely well together--a symbiotic relationship. Hill seems the obvious fit for this type of film, known for his comedic roles, i.e.: Superbad, Knocked Up. But Tatum, who's probably more known for his overly-masculine roles (Fighting, G.I. Joe, Haywire, take your pick) was surprisingly humorous. In fact, the film occasionally poked fun at Tatum's lady-appeal. Their (AP) chemistry never felt forced and both drew some solid and funny performances. I believe both actors can be versatile, when they want. Hill showed us a dramatic performance in Moneyball and Tatum, although have been disappointed with his choice in movies in recent years, gave a very profound and vulnerable performance that I will not forget in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.

What sets this film above other action comedies in recent years is a very self-aware story based on a simple premise. There's almost no chance in being original with this type of story and genre, so the only way to achieve any kind of success is to poke fun at itself. It relies on the idea that its audience is also self aware in order to get away with being a little absurd and stretching the limits of reality to achieve ultimate comic-affect. For example, during a fast-paced car chase both Hill and Channing's characters wonder why nothing's blowing up. And like I mentioned, as long as you don't take it too seriously you can see how clever it can be and will find amusement in all its illogical humor.

And let's not forget--all the dick jokes. Just when you think one dick joke is better than the last another one hits you right in the...well, you get the picture. The jokes are fresh, current and often times crude, making this the ideal film for the teenage, young adult demographic (or at least anyone with a sense of humor, in my opinion).

Brie Larson, Ice Cube, Ellie Kemper, Rob Riggle and Chris Parnell co-star. Cube's expected ruthlessness and bellowing came at no surprise, but also didn't keep me from laughing any harder. I can't stress how self-aware this film is and if you're willing to just be entertained for about an hour and a half, I highly recommend you check out one of the best comedies to come out in a while.

Rating: B+

Friday, March 9, 2012

'Skin' Inhabits the Mind

Pedro Almodovar is what the French termed as an auteur of a film, an artist who's creative vision bleeds with vibrant color through the sometimes obscure and avantegarde world his mind's projection onto film often takes us to. In his latest film, Almodovar stamps his red--with sexual connotation--seal of approval on The Skin I Live In.

Known for his Spanish, sexually charged films, like Bad Education and Broken Embraces, Almodovar's latest takes an old-tale and offers us an original re-telling. It's a modern-day tale of lust, revenge and family drama (Spanish novelas).

A bereaved plastic surgeon, Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), is determined to seek retribution after the death of a family member. Elena Anaya (Almodovar's 2002 Talk to Her) plays Vera, a house-imprisoned patient of Dr. Ledgard whose skin he recreates using illegal pig stem cells. And that's about all I'll say. There's a reason why the trailers to this film are ambiguous and non-divulging. I don't want to ruin anything, but also can't even begin to explain it.

The narrative's time frame is fractured. The syuzhet juggles between present-day and analepsis with some foreshadowing. These moments back in time add both insight and clarity, but the true accomplishment is Almodovar's artistic story-telling with deeply-layered characters. His story of a widowed husband seeking solace after his grief is inventive. Think Return to Me meets Nip/Tuck and you get the idea.

Almodovar collaborated with producer/brother Agustin Almodovar who holds writing credits for their screenplay, based on the novel Tarantula by Thierry Jonquet. He also reteams with Jose Luis Alcaine, who has been director of photography for several of Almodovar's films. Alcaine's cinematography is vibrant; the bold colors pulsate with passion that adequately accompanies the film's tone and theme. Also reteaming with Almodovar is one of my favorite new composers Alberto Iglesias, recently nominated for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, whose poetic score filled with somber piano notes pull at our heart strings and then is jolted into excitement with a powerful violin track that add moments of intrigue and instills a sense of desire.

For a director who seems to try to set the bar for cinematic achievement with every endeavor, someone should tell him he's in a level competing on his own. There is no bar for Almodovar, I think that straight/conservative bar ran away after watching one of his films, there's only enjoyment from his audience in watching him compete with himself.

Skin goes beyond the temporal plane of societal perception of that word. It inhabits your mind, lingers there for some time, until your thoughts of the film permeate through your pores and you begin to feel the after-affects of what Almodovar has done to you mentally.

Rating: A

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Supporting Actor Shannon Proves He's a Leading Man in Shelter

The chameleon thespian known as Michael Shannon has provided some truly remarkable performances in such films as 8 Mile, World Trade Center, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, The Greatest and Revolutionary Road--the film that finally got him recognized by the Academy. If there's one complaint I continually hear about Shannon's acting in a film is that his scenes are too short and I whole-heartily agree. Although Shelter verges on being a bit long, it's worth it to see Shannon's transformation in the film.

Shannon plays Curtis, a construction worker based in Ohio, trying to support his wife (Jessica Chastain) and deaf daughter (Tova Stewart). Curtis' life is not perfect, but he has people around him who think he has it pretty good. His co-worker tells him, "I think that's the best compliment you can give a man; take a good look at his life and say, 'That's good.'" However, the quality of his life and more specifically his health begin to decline when Curtis' dreams are punctuated by night terrors. His days provide little solace, when they too are disrupted by visions of an impending storm that he believes will endanger his and his family's life. He soon begins construction on an underground tornado shelter that he believes will offer safety.

The shelter takes up a good majority of the film to build, which I thought stretched a bit too long, but that's not the focus here. The real construction goes on internally with Shannon's character and seeing his transformation from supporting actor to leading man. Shannon has had leading roles in the past, like 2006's Bug, but Shelter effortlessly demonstrates the magnitude of Shannon's acting capabilities, showcasing his masculine, but silent persona only artistically interrupted by profound moments of realization going on with his character's psyche. And yet again, we have another leading actor who deserved a spot in this year's Oscar run, but was clearly and egregiously snubbed (not that the Oscars are anything to take seriously anymore). Shannon was, however, nominated for an Independent Spirit Award last month, (did anyone see host Seth Rogen poking fun at him? Hilarious! Click here to see).

Chastain played the quintessential caring, yet overbearing wife trying to understand her husband's erratic behavior and fared well opposite Shannon. She has had a successful year, starring opposite Brad Pitt in  Terrence Malicks' Tree of Life and in her Oscar nominated role (really? out of all her roles this year?) from the best-selling novel, The Help; Chastain's career is certainly one to look out for.

Take Shelter marks director and writer Jeff Nichols' second film and collaboration with Shannon, who also starred in Nichols' 2007 Shotgun Stories. Nichols' story is well crafted, tempting us to question what is reality and what is not. And I don't think I'm offering any spoilers when I say you truly cannot grasp the truth, until Nichols offers it to you at just the right moment.

Rating: B+*

*but Shannon's performance: A!