Saturday, June 9, 2012

Movie Reviews-We need to talk about Kevin, Unknown

We need to talk about Kevin
directed by Lynne Ramsay
When I was raised there was a definite boundary between parent and child. The parent was not there to be the child's friend. There was no doubt about who was in charge and who wasn't. It was unwise for a child to give attitude or profanity or snark. Today things are different. Corporal punishment is often considered abuse. If someone sees you hit a child you may be pulled into the social services system, which doesn't really seem to accept the principle of innocent until proven guilty when it comes to adults.

But what if how you raise a child doesn't make any difference? Some traits are apparently hardwired. I was never particularly talkative or sociable as a child and I'm not now. That's genetic. It occasionally bothers some people (who are too talkative from my POV) but I can't and won't change that characteristic. What if other things are passed down? What if "evil" or psychopathy is genetic? What if there are some children that are such bad seeds that the parents would be wiser to do a "post-birth abortion" and go back to the drawing board? And if the parent knows there's something  wrong with the child what is his or her responsibility? Especially if the spouse can't see the problem or there are other, normal children in the household that might be victimized by the evil kid, should the parent act? This is more complex when the child is of a different gender than the worried parent and the same gender parent seems unconcerned.

Tilda Swinton is a very talented offbeat actress with a rather striking and occasionally unsettling appearance. She can look quite androgynous (witness her turn as the angel Gabriel in the film Constantine) or extremely feminine (title character in the film Julia). I'm usually interested in her films. In We need to talk about Kevin, she is Eva, a travel writer who, after a wonderful, nay ecstatic time at a gorgeously rendered Spanish tomato festival finds ecstasy of a different kind with Franklin (John C. Reilly). Well apparently one time was all it took because she becomes pregnant, marries Franklin, and bears their first child, Kevin. Of course this requires a lifestyle change. Although she does not remain a stay-at-home mother it appears she becomes one for a while. It's not explained what Franklin does for money but evidently both husband and wife are financially very successful judging by the homes they acquire.

Young Kevin ( Rocky Duer and Jasper Newell) however is a bit of a cipher and later a monster. What is evil? At the simplest level I think it is the taking of pleasure in harming others. Kevin shows this almost from birth. When he becomes capable of speech he refuses to do so out of what appears to be petulance and spite. Kevin has the same willfully negative approach to toilet training and causes chaos seemingly just to watch other people react. To an extent you can wonder if Kevin is just an incarnation of his mother's mixed feelings about him. Eva is now scarily intense and buttoned up. She shows little joy from being around her son. Her attempts at maternal bonding or play appear to be done out more from either grim obligation or from something she read in a book than from pure motherly love. After a scary interaction with Kevin she throws him against the wall and he breaks his arm. But what happens afterwards is even worse as Kevin (who could not be more than 4 or 5 at this point) lies to his father and tells him that he fell. He does this so he can blackmail his mother. This is a creepy little kid and definitely not one you'd turn your back on. He deliberately destroys things his mother loves and then says he was trying to help. He's smart enough as a toddler to express loathing in a scarily adult manner.
This is all told in a non-linear fashion. I wouldn't really call it flashbacks. Time is something that is meaningless in this film. The past and present are one. The movie opens with Eva living alone in a dinky little home, which is a far cry from the McMansion where she formerly resided. There is red paint thrown across her home and car. She cleans it off and the next day someone does it again. A woman who bumps into Eva on the street asks to confirm her identity. When Eva does the woman slaps her as hard as she can. Eva, who once ran her own business, is reduced to being a typist and admin at a travel agency. We learn that the teen Kevin (Ezra Miller) is even more disturbing than young Kevin. A boy in a wheelchair sees Eva and tells her that he may walk again. By the time Kevin puts his little sister's Celia's hamster in the garbage disposal (this is not shown but just heavily implied) you may start to wonder why his father hasn't picked up on his issues. Again, I wouldn't have wanted this guy around me as a toddler. As a sarcastic quietly contemptuous teenager he is even less pleasant. I would have thought alarm bells would have been going off. But again hindsight is always 20/20 isn't it.
It becomes pretty obvious what has happened. This film looks back across the years and ask if there is anything different that Eva or the mulishly optimistic Franklin could have done. Kevin is simply not like other people. It's a tragedy that the only person who sees that is his mother, who doesn't like him, but can't convince her husband that there is anything wrong. These looked like difficult roles for Swinton and Miller to portray but I liked what they did with them. You can almost see inside Kevin's head that the train is off the tracks. But things go to their inevitable conclusion nonetheless. This was an impressive and quite disturbing film based on the book by Lionel Shriver (despite the name the author is a woman) that digs deep into maternal ambivalence without blaming everything on Mommy, though some of the characters seem to do so. Is it nature or nurture? What are the limits of love? Is there redemption? You may be undecided about those questions after watching this movie. This film wasn't financially successful but I thought it was worthwhile viewing on DVD/on demand.

directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Liam Neeson is an A-List actor and brings a bit of gravitas to this film. Unknown is a great example of how great acting can make you watch and even enjoy films that otherwise you might not get into if you really really thought about them.
I'm not sure whether to call this a drama or action film as it has elements of both but since the "action" segments are short and mostly at the end I guess drama it is.

Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) and his wife Liz (January Jones) arrive in Berlin for an international biotechnology summit. As they check into the hotel,  Martin realizes that he left his briefcase with passport and other critical information at the airport. Their taxi is just pulling away. He flags down another taxi driven by Gina (Diane Kruger) and tells her to step on it. However there is a bad accident and their taxi goes into the river. Martin suffers a minor head injury. Gina pulls him from the water. After 4 days in a coma  he wakes in the hospital. He has some minor personal effects like a notebook , watch and some cash but no id or cell phone. Martin remembers who he is and goes back to the hotel. However with no id he has trouble getting in. Being a rather convincing fellow he manages to bluff/schmooze/intimidate the staff into letting him talk to his wife, who he sees in the ballroom. But when he speaks to Liz she claims not to know who he is. She says he's not her husband and that she's married to a different man named Martin Harris. There's no footage which shows  Martin at the hotel. When he tries to bring up a picture of himself on the university website he finds that "Martin Harris" is actually the other man. Making a scene by this point, he leaves before the police can be called. He's confused because the doctor did tell him that his head injury might cause disorientation and confusion.
Martin notices a man following him on the subway. He finds Gina but she doesn't want to talk to him.  As it turns out she's an illegal Bosnian immigrant and lost her job because of the taxi accident. The next day, having written down in his notebook what he believes to be his itinerary, he goes to the University to meet with a professor but finds that the other Martin Harris is already there. This other man has id and even a picture of himself with Liz.

Martin passes out and wakes up in the hospital wondering if he is going mad, how damaged he was by the head injury and who he really is. And then someone murders his nurse and tries to do him in as well. This film is very reminiscent of North by Northwest before it starts to remind me of Taken. It ramps up the tension pretty effectively and although the final third of the film is somewhat predictable the first two parts are not bad. Not bad at all. It is scary to think about how would you prove you were who you said you are if you didn't have papers saying so. Is your identity based on your papers or are you you because of how other people react and respond to you? For a while this film looks like it's going into some philosophical questions raised by Camus and Sartre but shifts back to murderous Germans, time sensitive assignments, secret police, set ups and car chases.
Although there is some violence it is not that explicit. Again, Neeson holds it all together for me. But he has some help from Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella, Aidan Quinn, Rainier Bock, Sebastian Koch, and Eva Lobau. I liked this film.
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