We Need to Talk About Kevin (A-)
U.S.: Lynne Ramsay, 2011, Oscilloscope
We Need to Talk About Kevin, based on the novel by Lionel Driver, was directed and co-written by Lynne Ramsay, the Scottish filmmaker who also made Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Callar (2002). Her films, sometimes set in poverty, sometimes on the fringes of society, often dealing with death and guilt and morality, are grim -- none grimmer than this one, which takes place in comfort and suburban ease, a scary movie about the pain of bourgeois parenthood, a noir in sunlight.
Here is what horror is, or can be -- not the artificial fictional terror horror of a maniac running wild with a chainsaw, or a corpse rising from the dead to feed on the living, or the devil or ghosts attacking and devouring a soul, or monsters from outer space devouring humanity, or any of the other mostly overused, mostly underthought clichés of the popular horror movie -- but instead something that could actually happen, maybe next door, maybe to people you know (or think you know), people living a human, credible nightmare in a sunny, expensive, suspiciously bare American suburban home. A mother, a son, a father, a daughter. We watch them. We watch it all (or the mother watches it all, from the "safe" vantage point of memory), as she scrapes red paint from the white front and door of her home, paint that is meant to signify blood -- blood that someone has shed.
How did it all begin? How does any life begin? The father marries the mother, impregnates her. They seem like nice people. But she didn't want the baby. Maybe she doesn't want to be married, or wants to continue her exotic single life in New York City and around the world as a travel writer. It's a hard childbirth. Something is wrong. The son is either a late bloomer, or damaged, or perversely stubborn. He talks late, is toilet-trained late, ignores his parents when they try to instruct him, lets his mother toss a ball to him on the floor, but makes no attempt to catch it. He is unkind, selfish, cruel, a real little bastard, amused by the chaos he creates. But he's not abnormal, says a doctor. In fact, he's smart. Maybe too smart.
Here is what is happening -- maybe. The mother dislikes or resents her son. The son resents or hates his mother. She tries to teach him; he tries to frustrate her. The father misunderstands everything and thinks the son is a sweet little boy and the mother may be delusional. The daughter is tormented by the son, scarred by his sadistic pranks. He is not just bad; he seems evil. But this is just the beginning. The worst is yet to come.
The family are called the Khatchadourians. The mother is Eva (played with a beautifully controlled fine-boned chill of guilt and anxiety by Tilda Swinton). The father is Franklin (John C. Reilly, who makes him a big warm good-hearted shaggy teddy bear of a guy, with a sometimes ugly expression). The daughter, the youngest, is Celia (played by Ashley Gerasimovich as a little darling whom nobody should hurt). The son is Kevin, played as a child by Rock Duer, as an elementary school boy by Jasper Newell, and as a teenager by Ezra Miller. An unholy three, they all freeze your blood at times -- partly because they're playing something close to pure evil, partly because they show us how evil can function, why it can sometimes outsmart good. And partly because they're all so cute.
Hitchcock said that he thought his movie villains should be attractive, because otherwise it would be hard to understand how they could get so close to their victims. Kevin has pretty-boy looks in an exotic dark-eyed Keanu Reeves sort of way -- and in certain ways, he looks, more and more as he grows up, like Eva. He's his mother's son, but he doesn't play her game. And he's so beautiful that people -- notably Franklin -- let him get away with murder. He's a narcissist who imagines that all the world is watching him, or wants to.
The movie goes back and forth in time, in the oblique narrative style favored by Ramsay. It begins with a huge, sensuous overhead scene of a vast writhing mob of people, all covered in red, Eva among them, ecstatic as she's transported through the wet, scarlet bodies, in a celebrated Spanish event, the tomato festival ("La Tomatina"). After this, red becomes a leitmotif of the film, which even backgrounds Eva with tomato soup cans. And throughout, she keeps scraping away at the red paint on her home, the symbolic blood on her door. In the movie's "present," she's a pariah of the town. She gets a job as a secretary at a travel agency, endures rude advances from a co-worker (Alex Manette). She is slapped by a stranger. People blame her for whatever it was that Kevin did. What was it?
Everything about the movie seems carefully thought out, carefully sculpted and impeccably finished. In fact, in a way, it's too artificial and too carefully crafted for me, the dialogue too minimalist, the color too coordinated, the characters and events too symbolically arranged, the paint too carefully applied. I like movies, or other kinds of art, where the life bursts through (as it does here in the Tomatina scene) -- or sometimes, by contrast, where that life is so carefully contained, so stylized, that you have to try to find it yourself, scraping away the red.
Life does burst though in We Need to Talk About Kevin (and so does death) but, for my taste sometimes, not enough. Yet the film has extremely powerful moments and so does its cast. When horror becomes human, as it does here -- something happening next door, something we need to talk about -- it strikes more cruelly, wounds more deeply. (Extras: featurette with interviews with Ramsay, Swinton, Miller and others; additional footage from "La Tomatina" festival; Swinton in conversation at Telluride; interview with novel author; trailer.)
Man on a Ledge (C)
U.S.: Asger Leth, 2012, Summit Entertainment
Man on a Ledge, a thriller about a man clinging to a 21st-story hotel ledge, while Manhattan goes wild below him, is a real mind-boggler -- not because of any hair-raising suspense it generates but because the story is so ridiculous that, despite the movie's high-octane cast and technical finesse, it's capable of plunging you into a state of continuous befuddled exasperation.
The picture's constantly accelerating absurdities, which include a ludicrous heist scene, a egomaniacal TV newswoman exploiting the story, bickering cops and crisis managers fighting and flirting with each other (and with the jumper), and a Donald Trump-like villain sneering away -- suggest the filmmakers assume their audience will swallow anything. Man on a Ledge has that slick, self-satisfied gleam movies can get when they cost too much and they're stuffed with formula and clichés and stars, and nobody can do anything about it. It also has a plot so preposterous and an ending so bonkers that the only possible way to play them is for laughs, if the show were good at comedy (which it isn't.)
Consider the premise. A tough ex-cop named Nick Cassidy (played by Avatar's Sam Worthington), who's in jail, framed for a $40 million diamond robbery from that Trump-like financier David Englander (Ed Harris), escapes from custody while on a furlough to attend his father's funeral. Then he checks into the Roosevelt Hotel, orders a room service breakfast and crawls out the window and out on the ledge, 21 stories above the streets. Soon, he attracts a crowd, as well as police (his buddy Mike played by Anthony Mackie and the cynical Jack Dougherty played by Edward Burns), along with vain, callous TV news reporter Suzie Morales (Kyra Sedgwick), and a lusty but conscientious crisis negotiator, Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks), who tries a little harder than cynical Jack to talk Nick back inside.
It doesn't work. Nick keeps refusing to get off his ledge while talking in a curious accent that suggests an Australian trying to impersonate a New York City Irish-American. (Couldn't Worthington have gotten some accent lessons from Ed Burns?) And why, you may wonder, does somebody break out of prison in order to jump out of a hotel window? Good question. (There are many more.) It turns out that what we're watching is not a real suicide attempt at all, but an elaborate diversion, intended to preoccupy the police and everyone else, while, across the street, Nick's live-wire brother Joey (Jamie Bell) and Joey's hottie partner Angie (Genesis Rodriguez) break into Englander's suite, where they're convinced the $40 million diamond is still lying around somewhere -- and will exonerate Nick, if they find it. In other words, the "jump" is a phony staged as part of a robbery intended to clear the "jumper" of a conviction for another robbery of the very same diamond. Got that? You sure?
This outrageously silly heist, which Nick helps direct by cell-phone while standing on that ledge, seems twice as nutty as the one Eddie Murphy was trying to pull in Tower Heist, though that movie did have higher windows and the Macy's Parade as an added diversion (and no ledges).
Why this robbery is committed during the day, after a huge crowd and oodles of police and media have been pulled into the area by the phony suicide, or why Nick didn't do his ledge routine somewhere else further away, remains another of the show's endless mysteries. Nor is it ever explained, at least while I was paying attention, why nobody seems to notice or wonder about Nick's frequent cell-phone calls to Joey, while he's supposedly dancing around on the edge of the ledge, contemplating suicide. Meanwhile, there's sexual tension between Burns and Banks, sexual tension between Banks and Worthington, sexual tension between Bell and Rodriguez and sexual tension between Sedgwick and the camera and between Harris and himself (just like Trump).
Man on a Ledge is director Asger Leth's first fiction feature -- he's done an admired documentary called Ghosts of Cité Soleil -- and he makes the movie slick and fast. It may be ludicrous, but it's never actually boring, and the sheer uninspired preposterousness of it all almost commands a perverse respect. (Extras: featurette; trailer.)
David Lean Directs Noel Coward (A)
U.K.: David Lean/Noel Coward, 1942-45, Criterion Collection
David Lean, the director of Lawrence of Arabia, and Noel Coward, the playwright/star of Private Lives, weren't exactly kindred spirits. Lean was a movie master craftsman and heterosexual romantic whom Rex Harrison once claimed had "no sense of humor." Coward was a gay showman, theatrical prodigy and international social lion whose wit was world-famous. Lean sometimes seemed superficially repressed due to a strict religious upbringing; Coward had few, if any, inhibitions. But for four years during World War II, they combined for what became an extraordinary cinematic marriage, a union of opposites that produced two masterpieces (In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter) and two other classics (This Happy Breed and Blithe Spirit).
These four Coward-Lean films -- which portray, respectively, English naval fighters on a doomed warship, a typical if beleaguered British middle-class family and their lives between the wars, an unhappy, ghostly, sometimes hilarious marriage among the rich at a haunted country manor, and an unhappy (but passionately alive) love affair between a doctor and a housewife, who meet, oh so briefly, in a London train station -- comprise the rich legacy of the most remarkable British film writer-director collaboration during the war years, except, of course, for one other: the magical cinematic union of those two other temperamental opposites, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
It was Coward who initiated the meeting of minds. Anxious to aid the war effort, he asked for some highly talented movie industry youngsters to help him out with the cinema side of a big, spectacular, spirit-raising World War II military drama he wanted to make -- inspired by his friend Lord Mountbatten (whose beret Coward wears during the film) and in lieu of actual military duty, which another of Coward's friends, Winston Churchill, suggested would be a waste of his talents. Three filmmakers were suggested to Coward: producer/caster Anthony Havelock-Allen (who had made The Lambeth Walk), cinematographer Ronald Neame, who had worked on the 1938 and 1941 film adaptations of George Bernard Shaw's plays Pygmalion and Major Barbara for the eccentric producer-director Gabriel Pascal, and director-editor Lean, who had co-directed Major Barbara (and gotten short-shrifted in the credits by Pascal), after establishing himself in the '30s as Britain's top film editor (working, among others, for Powell and Pressburger). The trio answered Coward's call and they all later, in 1944, formed a little company called Cineguild. Coward got on with them so well that he called them his "little darlings."
Coward wrote the script for the film that became the 1942 In Which We Serve, based on the wartime experiences of Mountbatten, and set on a destroyer called The Torrin. The Torrin is sunk by the Germans early on in the film, and its cross-section crew and dauntless leader (Captain "D" Kinross, played by Coward), who are seen through much of the film clinging or floating on a life-boat, recall (in flashback) their coming together, the home life they left and the ship's service -- until, eventually, they bid their goodbyes to the Torrin and to each other. It is probably the usually urbane and subtle Coward's most emotional performance, and he intended it to be. It's also a film that includes marvelous acting by John Mills as the brave seaman Shorty Blake, by Bernard Mills as the stolidly dependable chief petty office Walter Hardy, by Kay Walsh and Joyce Carey among the woman left behind, the luminous Celia Johnson as Mrs. Kinross, and most memorably, in the role that made his career, the teenaged Richard Attenborough as a hysterical, cowardly young stoker, who disgraces and then tries to redeem himself.
In Which We Serve was a huge popular and critical success. So enamored was Coward of the jobs his junior partners had done, he insisted that they all rejoin, this time for Cineguild, for another project, an 1944 adaptation of his play This Happy Breed -- a family chronicle, with the action spread over two decades, which attempted to do for the British working class, what his stage hit (and Oscar-winning film) Cavalcade had done for the upper classes. Coward even acceded, unhappily, to Lean's insistence that he forgo playing his own stage role as the family's rough-hewn patriarch Frank Gibbons, because Lean felt Coward would never be accepted by movie audiences in a working-class role.The part of Gibbons was given instead to Robert Newton, who had to pledge abstinence from the sauce for the shoot, a wagon the obstreperous Newton eventually and inevitably fell off.
The rest of the Gibbons family and neighbors -- mostly seen in the Gibbons house, which becomes virtually another character -- included Celia Johnson as Frank's tight-laced but deeply maternal wife Ethel, Kay Walsh (one of Lean's six wives) as prodigal daughter Queenie, Alison Legatt (crazy Aunt Sylvia), John Blythe (Reg) and Eileen Erskine (Vi) as other Gibbonses, Stanley Holloway (later the irrepressible Alfred Doolittle of My Fair Lady), as their cheerily steadfast next-door bloke Bob Mitchell, and John Mills as Queenie's faithful, persistent, oft-spurned suitor Billy Mitchell, whom we root for. The film is told in episodes, playlets really, that flip past like photos in an album. It's a tear-jerker done without obvious tear-jerking, and, in the end, as Neame's camera says goodbye to the Gibbons home, soon to be deserted, the movie becomes a moving tribute to the generation, strong of limb and stout of heart, that could survive the Kaiser's attacks and Hitler's blitz, and whose young would feed the appetite of the second war and win it with Churchill's "blood, toil, tears and sweat" -- win a war that we don't see, though in the world and city outside the theaters where the play or movie ran, bombs dropped and fires were started.
The next Cineguild film, now with the Little Darlings and Lean firmly in control, was 1945's Blithe Spirit, based on the biggest stage hit of Coward's estimable playwriting career, a ghostly, Topperish comedy about a witty, cultivated but somewhat nervous writer named Charles Condomine (a Coward sort of role played on stage by that perfect stuffy Britisher Cecil Parker, and in the films by "Sexy Rexy" Harrison). Charles discovers , after a séance held by the inimitable spiritualist and spook detector Madame Arcati (inimitably Margaret Rutherford), that his country manor is haunted by the mischievous but bored-looking ghost of his first wife Elvira (Kay Hammond) to the consternation and annoyance of his more proper second spouse Ruth (Constance Cummings). The play was the biggest London commercial hit of the war years, but when Coward first saw the film they made from it, he was dismayed. "My dear," he told Lean, "You've just fucked up the best thing I ever wrote."
That's too harsh, of course. The movie Blithe Spirit amused audiences, though perhaps not as unfailingly as the stage version had, and it continues to amuse them to this day -- particularly when Miss Rutherford commandeers the film as bumptious, bike-riding Madame Arcati and pounds out laughs with all the lusty vigor of a hearty masseuse, pummeling our bodies (and our wits) into shape. It's a classic comedy performance -- and the rest of the actors are not bad at all, though not on the Arcati level -- and the movie, shot once again by Neame, looks great in color.
Now comes the end of the partnership and it's a glorious one: that nonpareil heartbreaker Brief Encounter (1945) -- an immortal romance that has perhaps not always gotten its due past the '60s, because younger audiences, coming after the Sexual Revolution, may find it absurd to try to identify with a would-be adulterous couple -- Celia Johnson's Laura Jesson and Trevor Howard's Dr. Alec Harvey -- who don't sleep with each other and don't consummate, out of circumstance and out of shame. Well, but... that's the way things once were, especially on screen.
The story is classically simple. Laura and Alec are saying goodbye at night in a lightly populated train station on the London-to-suburban run, when they are interrupted by a busybody friend of Laura's. Alec beats a discreet retreat when the train arrives, after giving Laura's shoulder a tender, barely perceptible squeeze. Laura is visibly upset. There's a silly flirtation going on between jovial Cockney Stanley Holloway and refreshment room lady Joyce Carey. Outside, the train station is dark and almost scary, in a way bordering on noir -- it was photographed this time not by Neame, but by Robert Krasker (who later, unforgettably, shot and lit, and tilted, Reed's and Graham Green's film noir classic The Third Man). And in that darkness and under the shriek and wail of noise of the trains and the sudden surge of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 on the soundtrack, she recalls what happened to them, before...
...How they met just recently, how they fell in love oh so discreetly, how they seemed the ideal couple, simpatico down to their hearts, though she looks so sweet and he looks a little cruel. But they're the perfect lady and perfect gentleman, even as they encounter each other briefly, as they meet in the station every week for a brief while, when she leaves her husband to go to the city, and they cross paths, for a brief interlude. A brief happiness. Soon, of course, a deadline approaches (Alec may be leaving for service overseas), and he tries to open up their passion. He gets the key to an apartment belonging to his too-knowing friend (Valentine Dyall), but it doesn't work and soon, a week later, he'll be going away... And they'll never, never meet again, except maybe by chance, when they're old and it's too late, and God, how they love each other. (Rachmaninoff rises and fills the screen.)
And now we're at the beginning of the film again, the busybody, the flirtation, the train whistle, the goodbye, the tender squeeze, the train pulling away. This is what lost love is -- the love that seems perfect, but can't be requited, that seems inevitable but happens at the wrong time, to the right people, and the train departs and it's gone, gone....
Lean and Coward remained popular and world-famous in their separate careers, and became and remained legends for all their lives. Their friendship? Who knows? One can say definitively that they were good for each other and that Lean remained a great filmmaker and Coward a peerless popular playwright and performer.
Not only does the Coward-Lean quartet, especially in this splendid Criterion edition, give us a rich, multi-faceted picture of those years of a dying but lively empire and their prelude, it provides a feast of fine acting -- some, though maybe not quite enough, by Noel Coward -- and a cornucopia of the cinematic bravura and beauty and brilliance that became the hallmarks of David Lean. (Extras: High-definition digital transfers of the BFI National Archive's 2008 restorations of all four films; commentary on Brief Encounter by Bruce Eder; interviews on all four films with Coward scholar Barry Day; interview with Ronald Neame; 1971 TV documentary David Lean: A Self Portrait; short documentaries on the making of In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter; 1992 episode of British TV's The Southbank Show on Noel Coward; audio recording of 1969 conversation between Richard Attenborough and Noel Coward, on stage at London's National Film Theatre; trailers; booklet with essays on the Coward-Lean collaboration and on all four films, by Ian Christie, Terrence Rafferty, Farran Smith Nehme, Geoffrey O'Brien and Kevin Brownlow.)