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Why Would Monday Movies Not Know The Context? We Are The Context.

Lionel Shriver’s school-shooting novel We Need To Talk About Kevin captivated me like nothing I’ve read in a very long time. Told in letters from a woman living alone to the husband she no longer lives with about the son who has done a very bad thing, it commingles dread and rage addictively, spooling out the endless, mostly cold war between mother and son, wife and husband. “Captivated” is maybe even too weak a term for it; as Mrs. K-sky saw it, reading the book turned me into an asshole.

I was at once excited and cautiously curious (much along the lines that stras set forth in this comments section) to know that it was being adapted. Against the knowledge that I could never relive the slow dawning horror of reading the book, I had the knowledge that Lynn Ramsay was directing it, not to mention that Tilda Swinton would play Kevin’s mother Eva Katchadourian. Ramsay’s Morvern Callar told the story of a woman who has found the corpse of her boyfriend, his completed manuscript, and just for her, a mixtape in lieu of a suicide note. Playing the title character, Samantha Morton speaks little and spends a lot of time wearing headphones, but between the music, the actress, and her expressionistic visual style, Ramsay suggests a muted though deep interiority. It remains one of my favorite films. (I’ve been meaning to watch her debut film Ratcatcher, but Mrs. K-sky has a rodent aversion, which has made scheduling tricky. It took me two years to get her to sit through Ratatouille.)

Ramsay’s film dispenses with the epistolary format, but it retains the book’s jumps between the past, from Eva’s blissful pre-child life through the terrible event, and present, when Kevin is incarcerated and Eva is reconstructing the barest semblance of a life, dodging glares and worse from people who recognize and blame her. Kevin, the son, is a mysterious, malignant force from the moment of his birth, and Eva alone recognizes this. As Kevin’s father, John C. Reilly is painfully oblivious; the movie is even weaker than the book in justifying the attraction between worldly, brittle Eva and her husband, a happy dolt made of backyard-grilled optimism. As befits the maker of Morvern Callar, Ramsay makes no accommodation to Eva’s long interior monologues and hypothesizing in the book. Swinton’s Eva only expresses her fears in words to the extent that she speaks them to her husband and son. Mostly she performs them on her face and body, a perfect medium for Swinton.

The return of the ragu

In place of horror-movie tropes, she places visual expressiveness, this time much sharper and less languid than in Morvern Callar. The movie opens in brilliant red, at a famous tomato fight in Spain. Accordingly, the past is dominated by primary colors, joyously before Kevin’s birth, and afterwards, as if to suggest feeble bulwarks against dread, a strenuously maintained lie of childhood innocence as evidence to the contrary mounts and mounts. (The Warhol nod above comes off as a little too cute, but set against the chaotic fun of the opening, it suggests that the life Eva enjoyed has been tightly contained and will repeat endlessly.) What the film takes from horror films, it places in the present, as Eva hides in a shabby kitchen from trick-or-treaters turning themselves into a mob.  Even Kevin’s final crime is mostly shown in suggestive gestures, before and after the event. To me, this was a cerebral choice, and a handicap for the film. A little more exploitation would have gone a long way.

We Need To Talk About Kevin contains a chicken-egg question: is Eva right to sense inborn evil in her son, or do her maternal hesitations create Kevin’s monstrousness? Reviewers have tended to think the story points its fingers at the chicken, but I think it’s the egg. Perhaps the studied artfulness was Ramsay’s attempt to avoid making either a brief against mothers’ ambivalence or another Bad Seed B-movie. I would have liked a little more of the latter, in the end, having had such a strong emotional reaction to the book, one that I still don’t understand. Ramsay’s film makes it easier to think about, and that feels like a dodge.

Ultimately, I can’t figure out how much I liked this movie. It was visually interesting, and Swinton is always fascinating to watch, but the story got into me so deeply through the book that it wasn’t possible for me to evaluate the movie as its own work of art.

Maybe the horror of Shriver’s novel was recent enough a satisfaction that I never felt the need for the popular chills and thrills of the book The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Friends’ and critics’ reviews suggested that it was both impossible to put down and not very good. The Swedish movie didn’t get exceptional notices, and when I learned that Fincher was directing the American adaptation, I decided to go with that one first. Trent Reznor and Karen O’s take on “Immigrant Song” sealed the deal.

As a David Fincher movie, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is very good. It’s a great complement to Zodiac, about which everything I thought I came up with, I actually read in David Denby’s review:

David Fincher, who directed the picture (working with Steven Zaillian’s screenplay), moves at a much faster pace than he did in “Zodiac,” his 2007 movie about a murder investigation. In “Zodiac,” every time a piece of evidence trembles into view, it quickly recedes again. That movie is an expression of philosophical despair: the truth can never be known. “Dragon Tattoo” says the opposite: it celebrates deduction, high-end detective work—what Edgar Allan Poe called “ratiocination.” Everything can be known if you look long and hard enough […].

The first half of the film, in which the investigation belongs to Daniel Craig’s Mikael Blomkvist and Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth Salander has her own fish to fry, is excellent, taking rich delight in Blomkvist’s “ratiocination.” (Salander is so smart that watching her figure things out isn’t any fun.) While Blomkvist gets farther and farther up a tree, Salander, who has investigated but not yet met him, must contend with a brutal rape at the hands of her social worker. A friend who read the book said that in it, her revenge came off as utterly unhesitating in an atavistically satisfying way. If it was Fincher and Mara who introduced the vulnerability to Salander’s revenge, I’m glad of it. Their version is a fascinating three-dimensional character, and while I understand the attraction to a kind of rape-revenge-Rambo battle-bot kind of a figure, I’m not too persuaded of the need. Mara’s Salander wears her hair in high, boyish bangs that recall a monk from a medieval painting. She’s a great character, and it’s fun to watch her set rules and roles with a bewildered Blomkvist, but her action is all in the first half of the movie.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo narrowly misses the kind of majesty that The Godfather wrung from a similar pulp titan, and it’s because of fidelity to the text. The movie has two separate final acts — one for the murder mystery and another to resolve a problem Blomkvist has at the beginning of the movie, a punishing libel settlement with a corrupt businessman on whom he reported. Salander plays too large a role in it and Blomkvist too little; while there’s a plot setup for her involvement, there’s not enough of an emotional one, and she ends up taking Blomkvist’s story from him. The final act of the murder plot is also a little rocky. It cuts back and forth between Salander’s rapid absorption of old business records and Blomkvist’s gumshoe work–the former shot in amber and the latter in blue, a visual motif that signals (as best as I could read it) safety or danger respectively–but the pacing’s wrong, as Salander’s investigations are neither as threatened from without as the music suggests nor as exciting for what they reveal. They’re just research.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Everything’s on the fritz, but the team holds together. This would have landed better if the team hadn’t been a little off — Jeremy Renner simply isn’t a comic actor, even an action comedy, and Paula Patton is just a bit dull. Tom Cruise used to be the center of the moving target of American masculinity, but he’s no longer quite so essential; still he’s Tom Cruise, my lifelong affection for and fascination with which shall have to wait for a slower week. Simon Pegg is excellent, though he confirms the movie’s standing as a live-action cartoon (directed by Brad Bird of the aforementioned Ratatouille and The Incredibles). Bird builds great set pieces out of the inventive gadgets and their surprises. A totally worthwhile selection for Jewish Christmas at the Cinerama Dome.

Thor. A small selection of the things wrong with Thor: Thor is played by a doofus who seems to be in a movie about a time-traveling barbarian warlord who has to pledge a frat–and teach them how to love. Loki, who should be lively and diabolical, is whiny and tortured. Thor’s team of friends consist of Fatty, Hotty, Japanese, and Dandy. Kat Dennings plays a scientist’s wisecracking assistant who doesn’t actually know science good. Natalie Portman plays the scientist. Asgard is connected to some other realm by “the Rainbow Bridge,” which is also I think where pet owners are supposed to find their dead pets after they die. (Speaking of which, if you want to download two pictures of the dead animal in my basement, click here.) The best thing about Thor is that they say “ass guard” a lot. Though, sadly, they don’t mean it. Do not watch Thor, even if it is Jewish Christmas Eve and you have already seen a perfectly good movie (#2 above) and are just kicking back at the house of someone who torrented it. By the way, Kenneth Branagh directed this. If you don’t believe me, click on the link earlier in the paragraph. I know I said it was dead animals in my basement, but really, it’s proof.

Young Adult. Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman are filmmakers worth contending with. Their Juno was hilarious in parts, excruciating in patches, and culturally significant. Up in the Air (Reitman alone) contained three stellar performances, a well-told story, and a black heart. I had similar expectations for Young Adult — that it would be dark and edgy in a way that was compelling to watch but probably too self-satisfied. Instead, it’s just a bad movie (with, again, some good performances, leaving me to think that Reitman directs actors well or at least knows how to get out of their way. I’m not sure there’s a difference). Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a bitter alcoholic who ghostwrites a series of YA novels for girls and who, upon hearing that her college boyfriend has had a baby, travels to the hometown she left in the dust, where she runs into a forgotten loser in the form of Patton Oswalt’s Matt Freehauf, who suffered a traumatic beating in high school (“It was national news. Until they found out I wasn’t gay”) and now lives with his sister. The movie goes through fits of satire and compassion; it doesn’t share Mavis’s contempt for her small-town classmates, who come off not affectedly wholesome but just sane and kind of cool. Mavis leaves the movie as she entered, unredeemed and mentally unhealthy, bolstered against collapse by the world’s worst pep talk, administered by Matt’s worshipful sister. There’s a version of this movie in which Mavis, a commercial hack of the lowest order, is screenwriter Cody’s self-satire, but this isn’t it; it feels more like Cody saying, “I may make compromises, but there are pretty girls out there who think they’re writers like me, and they’re not.”

The Descendants. Alexander Payne’s work has gotten kinder to humanity, but as in Sideways, his satirist origins allow him to weave the sting in with the sentiment. This is the first movie I’ve seen George Clooney really act in; playing an emotionally stunted man whose cheating, estranged wife has wound up in a coma after a boat accident, his shoulders slump, his run is weird, there’s something going on here but he doesn’t know what it is, does he. The part of his troubled teenage daughter is beautifully written and played to the hilt by Shailene Woodley, who rockets between fragile insouciance and hysterical grief, then gets herself together as daddy’s self-possessed Girl Friday, egging him into an investigation of her mother’s infidelity that tells hidden epics about her battles with her mother, her father and herself. Judy Greer, whom you may remember as Arrested Development‘s boob-flasher, is great in a supporting role; she’s sympathetic, then awkward, but real at every turn.

Battle Royale. In 1953, Ozu’s Tokyo Story told of a younger generation that grew up without learning respect for its elders. Almost fifty years later, Battle Royale offers a blood-spattered reductio to the tradition of pinning society’s ills on disrespectful youth. (McManus, tell me if I’m onto something here.) The movie takes place in a near future in which 15% unemployment has created roving bands of youth terrorizing the good citizens; in response, the Battle Royale law, requiring an annual fight to the death among a specially selected class of 9th graders. It’s supposed to be a big media event, but since the kids don’t have any idea what’s happening when they wake up on the island and need everything explained to them a couple of times, I’m not sure it’s doing its job to scare anyone straight. (The Hunger Games, I gather, does a better job with the question of media exploitation of the kill-game.) The main pleasure of the movie is in how totally batshit crazy it is. The secondary pleasure of the movie is how it plays with the high schoolers–girls form tight-knit alliances then turn on one another a moment later; everyone has to go check up on their crush. There’s a purring mean girl, a hacker (who learned bomb-making skills from his uncle in the Japanese Red Army!), a hapless nerd. There are two ringers, one in black, one in white, and a hero couple who vow to protect each other from dying and killing. “Beat” Takeshi Kitano plays a teacher who, stabbed by a student at the beginning, has the last laugh as the ringmaster of the Battle Royale; his sad affection for a uniformed schoolgirl as his marriage collapses suggest that an obsession with the problems of youth are a symptom of an exhausted adult world, a fish rotting from the head.

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January 2, 2012 - Posted by | Monday Movies | , , , , , ,

7 Comments

  1. […] Bridesmaids, Friends With Benefits, The Muppets, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 50/50, The Descendants. […]

    Pingback by Monday Movies Should Check That Out, Or At Least Feel Guilty for Not Doing So « The Weblog | January 2, 2012

  2. 1) You have Tokyo Story wrong. Daddy’s an asshole, the kids are alright. This is consistent in Ozu, his protagonists, his leads especially the men, are always wrong. Really.

    2) I have yet to see Battle Royale, as I tend to family dramas, romances, social samurai movies. But they like kids a lot in Japan, a lot, and your intuitions in the last line are correct.

    Comment by bob mcmanus | January 2, 2012

  3. Okay why not. Tokyo Story. There are a lot of reasons they thought Ozu was “too Japanese” for export, but one is that he works with stuff that the Japanese take for granted. One is that daughters-in-laws are absorbed into their husbands family barely looking back to their own. They are added to the family registry, and it is a deal to ever get taken off. Ryu was an important city official in a town, Onomichi, not huge but important as a rice shipping center. He has a terrific big house, that central room is huge, in an unbelievable location, high on a hill with a great view next to a temple. He had two sons and two daughters, so guaranteed he has at least three bedrooms, with only youngest daughter still living at home.

    So why the fuck is Setsuko Hara living in that rathole apartment in Tokyo? Eight years after the end of the war?

    Daddy Ryu has fucking blown it. And he sends Hara off with a gold watch. Bye now, Write me.

    Yes there are layers and layers, but Ozu is always also about the daddys fucking it up.

    Comment by bob mcmanus | January 3, 2012

  4. Huh, interesting. I have to say that the film felt much more critical of the younger generation (except for Setsuko Hara’s character) for being busy and uninterested in their parents — I can see that your interpretation works as a subtext, but do I have the text completely wrong?

    Comment by Josh K-sky | January 3, 2012

  5. 4:Multi-layered

    Lots of daddys focused too much on Tokyo, back in Shogunate years and after WWII for reasons of political economic control. Is there a good job for Hara in Onomichi? In that sense the movie might be the story of Tokyo (and the country), and a tragedy beyond Ryu’s control. But Ryu was part of the older generation, and definitely in a sense stands for the mistakes of his generation, which were legion.

    The last line or so is Ryu regretting not being kinder to his wife, and the last frames, in which Ryu is in full profile and not easily interpreted, look to me like an expression of total horror, at his lonely future, and regrets going far beyond what he says. The kids may have run away from him. He is not the victim, he is the problem.

    The text is a little complicated, but these are not country bumpkins come to town, and the kids, the doctor son and the shop-owning daughter, are doing just fine. Ozu was always making subtle mirror images of his previous movies, and TS refers to his classic 1935 The Only Son, in which factory working mother sends her son away to Tokyo to get a good education, and he, mostly because of the depression, is an economic failure. Way different.

    Ozu works in part in extreme metonymy.

    Comment by bob mcmanus | January 3, 2012

  6. I just saw Young Adult. I agree it wasn’t a very good movie, but I wouldn’t call it bad, exactly. I wasn’t totally sure what it was doing or trying to do, but it was doing something, and maybe kind of well.

    I’m not even sure whether I liked the movie, but I’m leaning towards thinking that I probably did, or do, even though the experience of watching it was pretty unpleasant. Partly I was just impressed that the film, which I had seen billed as a comedy, was willing to be as angry and hateful as it turned out to be, and partly I identified with the main character, maybe a little too much, and definitely more than is warranted. (I admit it, the part where Mavis cries, “I’m crazy and nobody loves me!” made me cry a little too.)

    I think this

    it feels more like Cody saying, “I may make compromises, but there are pretty girls out there who think they’re writers like me, and they’re not.”

    is a bit unfair — I didn’t get the sense that film was saying that Mavis wasn’t a real writer, just that her pride and her dreams were bigger than her ambition or her work ethic.

    (Upon reflection, it occurs to me that the thing that favorably inclined me to the film, and very strongly contributed to my sense of identification, is the Teenage Fanclub song that Mavis plays over and over on the mixtape. Although, I totally thought the soundtrack could have been way more awesome and Minneapolis-in-the-90s-specific.)

    Comment by jmsjms | January 5, 2012

  7. Oops, the above is me, and just one of me.

    Comment by jms | January 5, 2012


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