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Entries in Mystery (3)

Friday
Mar022012

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Now that the awards season has come and gone, it’s time to look back on what the Academy may have overlooked when deciding who and what was good enough to be up for an Oscar. The first film that comes to mind is Nicolas Winding Refn’s brilliant Drive, which found itself left out of the Best Picture category despite critical praise (and the fact that only 9 of the 10 Best Picture slots were filled this year). Another notable snub, at least according to those who had seen it prior to the show, was Tilda Swinton for Best Actress in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Having finally seen it with its DC release right around the corner, I have to join those who scoffed at the idea of her not nabbing a nomination. A fearless actress in any role, she is downright brilliant here. One could argue over whether or not she deserved to win when up against other spectacular performances like Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady or Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn, but to not even give her a nomination is, quite frankly, insane. But We Need to Talk About Kevin is more than just a performance. It’s a damn fine film in its own right that is mesmerizing, haunting and eerie.

The film opens giving little information. It intercuts between past and present, from a time when Eva (Tilda Swinton) met her soon-to-be-husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) through the birth of their son Kevin (played by three different actors, the oldest version by Ezra Miller) and to the aftermath of a tragic event that has taken place. That event serves as the film’s central mystery and though you know it wasn’t pretty, you don’t know what happened and certain early moments in the film manage to confuse even more. Eva runs into a random woman on the sidewalk, for instance, who slaps her and tells her she hopes she rots in Hell. Then a young man in a wheelchair calls her over and tells her that his doctors say he may be able to walk again one day. All of these events are connected, but the how is left intentionally vague.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is a tough movie, both thematically and structurally, to sit through, and it demands that you pay attention and start fitting the pieces together. Without some heavy thought, motivations and reasoning will be left unexplained. This isn’t a film that tells you everything. You have to discover it yourself, a refreshing change to be sure. Eventually, however, the movie slows down and the shifts between the two time periods become less frequent, making it much easier to become invested in what’s happening. You begin to really learn about Kevin and Eva and when the mystery is revealed (if you haven’t already figure it out beforehand, which is a good possibility), these moments put it into perspective.

Kevin was a detached child, seemingly evil to the core, and he treated his mother like garbage. He tormented her and got a sick pleasure out of it, showing resentment even while still in diapers. He used her when he had to, like when he was sick and needed someone to take care of him. He destroys one of her rooms when she has her back turned and then he fools his father into thinking he did it out of love. He is a disturbed person and the film gets that point across crystal clear. His motivation for those acts isn’t necessarily explained, but some behavior simply can’t be explained. Even as a baby, when he was far too young to know what he was doing, he cried and screamed constantly, but only when he was with Eva. The film makes the point that some behavior is so deeply rooted in us there’s nothing we can do to change it, a frightening, but certainly interesting notion.

Eva isn’t so happy herself either. When she tries to play with Kevin and he doesn’t respond, she becomes frustrated. When he won’t stop crying, she gets so annoyed that the sound of a construction site jackhammer gives her some peace. In the present day, after the mysterious event, she is isolated, shunned and disillusioned, the latter expressed beautifully with blurry visual cues. She has her own demons to fight, a metaphor expressed perhaps a bit too literally when trick-or-treaters circle her car when driving home on Halloween night.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is a great movie that could nevertheless stand to be trimmed up a bit. A nearly two hour runtime isn’t overly long by any means, but Kevin’s early years are stretched thin. At a certain point, you get it. You understand that Kevin is a troubled kid and wish for the movie to move along. When it finally does, it’s gripping to the end and that slight loss of momentum becomes easily forgivable.

We Need to Talk About Kevin receives 4/5

Friday
Apr082011

Hanna

Hanna is a movie of perplexing interest. It’s a technically sound film from an accomplished director who has, with the exception of The Soloist, put out a string of excellent movies. From an aesthetic viewpoint, Hanna suffers from only minor problems, but the whole of the experience is empty and meaningless. It’s nothing but an exercise in stylish action, which would be fine if the action scenes were anything worth talking about. Hanna is as lively as a dull movie can get, which makes it some sort of anomaly, but if that’s the biggest praise it can gather, does that really make it worth seeing?

Saoirse Ronan plays Hanna. For as long as she can remember, she has lived out in the middle of the woods with her father, Erik, played by Eric Bana. He used to be a CIA agent, but went rogue many years ago and has been in hiding ever since. For some reason, he has a switch in their cabin that, when flipped, will give away their position to Marissa, played by Cate Blanchett, a former colleague of his who intends on wiping them out for mysterious purposes. Erik has spent years training Hanna to survive in preparation for this day. After the opening scenes, the flip is switched and the chase is on.

There is one shining light in Hanna and that is Saoirse Ronan, who makes up for her tepid performance in The Lovely Bones by capturing the type of ass kicking, female empowerment mojo the girls in Sucker Punch muffed up with over-sexualization. She’s a tiny little thing, but she holds her own against the bulky men fighting her, and believably so. The reasoning behind her skills is kind of silly, but it’s a silliness you have to accept as essential to the story.

Alas, much of what else that happens is anything but essential. The film’s biggest downfall that it fails to build momentum because it wastes its time in needless narrative tangents, like when Hanna goes out on a date with a boy she just met. Its intention is to show how inexperienced she is with the outside world, which includes social interaction, but it has zero relevance to the broader story. It's a scene that can only be described as random and unnecessary, especially when compared to other, better scenes that more clearly show how ignorant she is to the world, like when she discovers electricity for the first time.

When it does get to the action, it becomes a repetitive slog through meandering chase scenes where nonsensical actions become the order of the day. Hanna may have the combat skills of a martial arts expert, but most of the time she opts to simply run away, which doesn’t make for a particularly thrilling experience. Presumably to make up for its lack of variety, director Joe Wright employs camera trickery on a few occasions that have no impact or metaphorical purpose (one of its few aesthetic stumbles, along with its occasional use of shaky cam that feels so out of place as to be unpleasantly jarring). The final nail in the coffin comes from the musical score, which is so piercingly loud and pounding that it sometimes drowns out the dialogue in the more intense scenes. I would say this is an unforgivable error, but in a story with no point, it’s merely an annoyance.

Hanna is a film that is fun to rip apart with friends. It has so many minor errors it almost becomes laughable. For instance, very early in the movie a plane flies low over Hanna and Erik’s hidden cabin in the woods, which is something Hanna has never experienced. I guess the airlines had just been shut down for the last 14 years (and don’t even get me started on why they flipped that switch). From what I could tell walking out of the theater after my viewing, Hanna will be a popular movie, but don’t be fooled by word of mouth. “Popular” doesn’t mean “good.”

Hanna receives 2/5

Friday
Dec102010

All Good Things

There’s nothing worse than watching a bad movie that you know had the potential to be so much better, a movie with an interesting idea and a terrific cast that does nothing to set itself apart from the rest of the crowd. This notion lingered in the back of my mind the entire time I watched All Good Things, a supposed mystery thriller that slowly spiraled downward the further it went on. I tried to like it, but by the time I reached the end, I had given up.

The story is inspired by what the press release says is the most notorious missing person’s case in New York’s history. Ryan Gosling plays David Marks, the young son of real estate mogul Sanford Marks, played by Frank Langella, who narrates the movie through his testimony at his trial. His story spans multiple generations and he begins in 1971 when he meets the love of his life, Katie, played by Kirsten Dunst, whom he eventually married. Their rocky relationship raised the eyebrows of those around them and after Katie went missing, David quickly became the prime suspect.

All Good Things is a movie in search of a tone. It tries to be a romance, drama horror and thriller all in one, but it mixes them together poorly resulting in wave like tonal changes. For instance, one scene shows David as he violently grabs Katie by the hair and drags her out to the car, which then instantly cuts to inside their home where she acts like he’s done little more than burned dinner, least of all physically abused her. Once Kristen Wiig shows up, it even turns into a kind of light comedy, though the laughs are outmatched by the unintentionally funny final third of the film where David starts to dress up in drag, effectively creating one of the most unconvincing women in Hollywood since the Wayans brothers in White Chicks.

Much like this year’s Charlie St. Cloud, only a musical change would be required to completely flip the meaning of a scene or shot. The ominous music that plays while lingering on David’s empty stares show him as unstable and evil, but without it he would merely look depressed. Similarly mishandled, his evolution to violence is faulty. Before his aforementioned violent eruption, he is shown talking to himself, a supposed sign of mental instability, which at this point has become a cinematic cliché. Lots of people talk to themselves (hell, I do) and scientists have actually found it to be beneficial. More needed to be done to convince me to be afraid of David.

All Good Things looked like it was going to redeem itself in its closing minutes. Its ending is interesting and, assuming you haven’t done your research prior to viewing, unexpected. However, once you learn what he was on trial for, it makes you wonder what exactly the point was of the first hour. The two events portrayed in this movie are only loosely linked, so the beginning comes to feel kind of unnecessary upon reflection.

If it can be praised for anything, All Good Things wrings out some good performances from its cast. Gosling and Langella are effective as usual, but Kirsten Dunst, who hasn’t impressed in many years, shows she shouldn’t be written off yet. She has the most emotionally nuanced role of all and she carries it out with poise. But aside from that, I’m afraid there isn’t much to All Good Things. Its title is a lie. It isn't even mostly good things.

All Good Things receives 2/5