We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), a once popular author, woke up and found the front of her home covered in red paint. After an interview with a traveling agency, a woman came up to Eva and smacked her across the face, leaving her a bloody nose. A man came to help and asked if he should call 911, but Eva insisted it was completely her fault. We learned that Eva’s son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), murdered some of his classmates back when he was only fifteen. Most of the community held Eva responsible for raising such a morally deficient child. Based on a novel by Lionel Shriver, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” posed very interesting questions about parenting and its role in raising a child who could function in society. Specifically, are there some people who are born evil? The picture explored this question with succinctly maneuvered flashbacks. Eva and her husband (John C. Reilly) enjoyed traveling, learning about other cultures, and having fun together. When Eva learned that she was pregnant, she equated this as the end of her independence. I admired that the film left her feelings toward the being in her womb to be quite ambiguous. Her emotions weren’t as clear as black and white as most would readily jump into. We saw her examining her figure in front of a mirror. Maybe she was concerned what the pregnancy was doing to her body. After all, it was her first time. We watched her looking listless around other pregnant women who seemed very social and excited about being with child. Maybe Eva feared the idea of giving birth and didn’t feel like sharing her feelings with strangers. And that’s alright. There was not one definite clue convincing enough for us to say, without a doubt, that she hated her unborn child. While she could have put more energy or enthusiasm in being pregnant, the fact is that women react to pregnancy in different ways. When the child was born, it was an entirely different matter. I loved that the film was able to switch gears so effortlessly without sacrificing an ounce of subtlety. From what I observed, Eva wanted to love her son but Kevin was a very difficult baby and an impossible toddler. I didn’t always agree with Eva’s methods and I certainly don’t think we were supposed to. I thought the material was ingenious because by providing us a series of meticulously crafted scenes of Eva’s bad parenting, it was like putting us in the shoes of that woman who hit her in the beginning of the film. The issue was our judgment of Eva although for entirely different reasons. Even I have to admit that there were times when I wanted to shake or yell at her. One of those times involved Eva putting her baby near an active jackhammer in order to drown his inconsolable crying. While I felt bad for Eva for feeling that she was an ineffective parent, she could’ve handled the stress much better than putting her child near a construction zone and endangered him of turning deaf. “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” directed by Lynne Ramsay, was smart because, although relevant, it was not about the killings that happened in the school. Notice that the violence was not shown, only the aftermath. By focusing on Eva and her feelings of inadequacy, anger, and depression, the film put a face on a tragedy that permanently changed people’s lives. I certainly didn’t feel for Kevin as a teenager. He was so wrapped up in his hatred toward his mother that eventually I began seeing him as a bomb just waiting to go off. I believe that there are some people who are beyond help. They can’t help it because of the chemical imbalance in their brains. I believe Kevin was one of them and his unpredictability was a great source of suspense.
Teenage Paparazzo (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
While out in Los Angeles, Adrian Grenier, who directed the film, noticed a thirteen-year-old paparazzo trying to get his attention in order to get the perfect picture. His name was Austin Visschedyk and it seemed like he had been a pop-stalkerazzi, a term he despised, for quite some time. Intrigued with Visschedyk, Grenier decided to contact the teen and make a movie about him and the fame he tried to capture using his expensive camera. “Teenage Paparazzo” had some interesting tidbits to say, some involving the ethics of paparazzi and privacy, but its vision wasn’t always clear. The first half of the picture was Visschedyk’s almost obsessive nature in capturing images of celebrities. He claimed it was fun, easy, and one great shot could get him a thousand dollars. And while he acknowledged that there were dangers in being a part of the paparazzi (he carried pepper spray), he turned a blind eye most of the time. He wasn’t the only one in denial. His parents allowed him to stay out past 3:00 A.M. (including school nights) to follow celebrities in downtown Hollywood. I’ve been in downtown Hollywood around that time of night and to say that the area is “unsafe” is an extreme understatement. The parents’ defense was they wanted to encourage him to pursue his passion. However, most of us can say that it’s simply a case of bad parenting. The second half, while backed with research about teens and how important fame was to them, it felt unfocused because it moved away from Visschedyk’s story. The documentary eventually became more about young people craving to become famous in any way, shape, or form. There was a survey given to middle school students which showed that they would rather become assistant to celebrities instead of being a CEO of a company, presidents of Ivy League institutions, and other prestigious positions. While it was a shocking result, it did not fit the thesis of the movie. I enjoyed the film best when Grenier and Paris Hilton showed the ridiculousness of trashy gossip magazines and television shows like TMZ. The duo informed Visschedyk and his paparazzi friends that they would be at a certain place and time and the rumors created from the pictures were amusing. It was great to look at things from behind the scenes. All the more disappointing was the fact that there were nice insights from great actors like Matt Damon and Whoopi Goldberg as well as intellectuals like Noam Chomsky. It wouldn’t have been a missed opportunity if the connection between the teenage paparazzo’s story and fame was stronger. Visschedyk’s admission that he wanted to be famous was not enough. I’ve seen his website and I have no doubt that Visschedyk has a gift for photography. In the end, I’m happy there was a glimmer of hope that he could channel his talent to something he could actually be proud of.
Art of Getting By, The (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
George (Freddie Highmore), a senior in high school, was in danger of not graduating. Ever since he read a depressing quote about mortality that pushed him to stop caring about doing well in school and forging meaningful friendships, he began to lead his life like a leaf on a stream. But when a popular girl, Sally (Emma Roberts), with whom he had a crush on for years, started to notice and spend time with him, he considered that maybe fatalism was not right for him. “The Art of Getting By,” written and directed by Gavin Wiesen, adopted a passive approach in telling George’s story. While interesting when done right, it failed to work in this instance. There was no sense of urgency nor was there any drastic changes in tone. This technique didn’t make much sense because George was eventually supposed to wake up from his apathy. Even I would have preferred it more if it had taken a more heavy-handed approach. But the lack of logic was not only present behind the camera. George was a young adult who was drowning only he didn’t know it or wouldn’t accept it. Why didn’t his mother (Rita Wilson) and stepfather (Sam Robards), despite the fact that they had their own pecuniary matters to deal with, choose to be more vocal or proactive about their son’s future? They claimed they wanted to see change in him. But when they saw him laying on his bed instead of attending school, they meekly closed the door because he demanded to be left alone. While he was exemplary when it came to looking sad, what would make sense was for either of the parents to drag him out of bed. A good parent, a parent who genuinely cared, would have. Later, we were asked to sympathize for the parents. How could we when it was so obvious that they chose to neglect their child? As for George and Sally, their relationship was supposed to be romantic down to the final second of the film. But notice that when two bonded while skipping class and stalking men in the streets, the soundtrack took over. Remove the soundtrack and it wouldn’t be easy to see that their interactions were, at best, superficial. Nevertheless, there was one scene between them that I liked. On New Year’s Eve, they went clubbing and drinking with their friends from school. While on the dance floor, Sally allowed another guy to cut between them which caused George to retreat. If she was supposed to be likable or even remotely smart, why did let that happen? Girls, if they have an iota of self-awareness, know when guys are into them. She only later appeared to him after he vomited profusely and claimed that she had been looking for him for two hours inside. I didn’t believe her for a second. Later, George called Sally a “hussy.” I laughed because it was true. I wish there were more scenes between George, his teachers (Alicia Silverstone, Jarlath Conroy), and the principal (Blair Underwood). Out of anybody in the movie, they were the ones who actively took a role in letting George know that his life was about to be in the gutter. They weren’t afraid to perform some tough love either. “The Art of Getting By” was misguided even though its intentions were good. By focusing on trivial things like George attempting to win over a girl who was prone to vacillate, it felt superficial. People like the protagonist are, unfortunately, found in many high schools. If they are to be inspired, they need better material than this.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), a recovering alcoholic nearing his one thousandth day of being sober, found his younger son, Tommy (Tom Hardy), sitting on his porch. They hadn’t seen each other in fourteen years. But the reunion couldn’t be colder. Tommy, an ex-Marine, despised his father and claimed that the only reason why he showed up was because he needed a trainer for Sparta, a middleweight championship for mixed martial arts, where the winner would receive five million dollars. Meanwhile, Brendan (Joel Edgerton), Paddy’s eldest son, felt extreme financial pressure. As a physics teacher, he and his wife (Jennifer Morrison) didn’t make enough to pay for their mortgage. They were given a couple of weeks until their house was to be taken by the bank. So, Brendan joined the tournament, completely unaware that his younger brother, who he also hadn’t seen in more than a decade, was participating. Directed by Gavin O’Connor, “Warrior” was equally spellbinding when the characters were inside and outside of the ring. The brothers hated their father for the way he treated them and their mother when they were still growing up. The writers made a smart decision in showing us Paddy as a man on the way to recovery but never as an abusive parent. It became easier to sympathize with him. It was unnecessary to show us the latter because the psychological and emotional damages were painfully apparent in the adult Tommy and Brendan. Tommy became a pill-popping, reticent, angry figure while Brendan strived to be everything his father was not to his own wife and children. Interestingly, they shared only one scene before the tournament. It was beautifully executed and completely heartbreaking. As one inched closer to one another, their animosity and frustration became palpable and suffocating which served as a great contrast against the open space that surrounded them. I was at the edge of my seat because I almost expected them to resolve their problems by throwing punches long time coming, outside of the competition with no referee to force them to stop. However, the most powerful scene was between Tommy and Paddy. While sitting in front of a slot machine, Paddy approached his son to express that he was proud of him. Tommy responded bitterly, comparing his father to a beggar who was desperate for his sons’ affections, blind to the fact that the only thing his two sons had in common was they no longer needed him, and his decision to become a good father was years too late. The camera was nicely placed very closely in front the actors’ faces as to savor every negative emotion. In addition, it was easy to see how much their characters restrained certain words, especially the father, out of fear in regretting it later. It was like watching someone attempting to tiptoe around broken glass accompanied by a force that propelled him forward in rate he wasn’t comfortable with. “Warrior,” based on the screenplay by Gavin O’Connor, Anthony Tambakis, and Cliff Dorfman, went beyond the pain experienced in body slams, direct punches to the face, and heavy kicks to the stomach. We rooted for both Brendan and Tommy because we understood what winning meant for them personally–something worth more than half a million dollars.
Falscher Bekenner (2005)
★ / ★★★★
Armin (Constantin von Jascheroff) had recently graduated from the university. With a competitive job market and his lack of enthusiasm during his interviews, he couldn’t seem to snag a job. His parents’ (Manfred Zapatka, Victoria Trauttmansdorff) insistence that he put in more effort to everything he did didn’t quite sit well with him. As a response, he sent a false confession about a crime he didn’t commit. It seemed as though getting away with it was his biggest accomplishment. Written and directed by Christoph Hochhäusler, I knew the message that the film wanted to relay to its audiences. That is, young adults’ minds are irrational, volatile, and curious. However, it lacked important transitions between scenes. Too often were we left with Armin in his room as he stared at his computer, procrastinating instead of working on job applications. Then it would jump to scenes when he would search for Katja (Nora von Waldstätten), a girl who he considered to be his girlfriend but she thought otherwise. When he did find her, he was at a loss for words. What was the relationship between the two scenes? The formula became almost unbearable to sit through. Since the scenes lacked transition, the rising action felt disconnected and the film lacked tension. The movie was at its most interesting when Armin was being interviewed for a job. His voice sounded apathetic and his body language lacked energy but his responses were unpredictable. There were times when I was impressed that he could think on his feet and sometimes flat-out lie about his experiences. But there were instances when I felt like he was drowning in questions, that his mind needed more time to process the situation and come up with a reasonable response. When Armin was most vulnerable, the picture seemed to wake up from its deep slumber. The parenting was another critical strand in the plot. It was obvious that the fathered preferred Armin’s older brother (Florian Panzner): He played sports, sociable, had a career, and about to start a family. Our protagonist didn’t like to show it but he was sensitive to his father’s expectations. What son isn’t? On the other hand, the mother was lenient. She thought that if Armin tried harder, he would have no problem getting a job. She was in denial. I got the impression that it never occurred to her that her son was simply not ready to have a career that he would have, or was expected to have, for the rest of his life right after graduation. Some people just need a bit more time to figure out who they are and what they want to do. There’s nothing wrong it. “Falscher Bekenner” had some decent ideas about society’s expectations of its young minds that happened to be a little lost. However, it desperately needed to snap out of its insularity and not be ashamed to allow us to feel for its main character’s struggles.
Life as We Know It (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Holly (Katherine Heigl) and Eric (Josh Duhamel), complete strangers to one another, were supposed to go out for dinner because their married best friends thought they would get along swimmingly. But they called it quits before they even reached the restaurant. Holly thought Eric was a child trapped in a handsome man’s body, while Eric thought Holly was a pretty but uptight blonde who had no idea how to let her hair down for a change. But when their best friends died in a car accident, they were named as one-year-old Sophie’s guardians. Holly and Eric had to try to put their differences aside to take care of the baby. “Life as We Know It,” written by Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk Robinson, were labeled by some critics as emotionally bankrupt because it used death as a source of commercial comedy. I’d have to disagree; plenty of films out there, especially dark comedies, have used the same topic and they received critical acclaim. I say why not as long as the film retained a certain level of respect. The movie didn’t feel malicious toward its subjects. The characters may have felt more like caricatures at times but, in general, it had a bona fide sense of humor. I just wish it had stayed away from too many gross-out humor involving vomit and changing diapers. Two or three of those scenes were more than enough but we were given about seven. The heart of the picture was Holly and Eric’s strained relationship. They tolerated each other but they obviously didn’t like each other. They were so used to having their way because they were single. The only thing they had to focus on was their career. Holly ran a business as a caterer (typically feminine) and Eric worked behind the scenes in a sports network (typically masculine). The story was most interesting when it focused on how they tried to change themselves and each other as they hoped to raise a healthy child. They had to break their typical feminine and masculine roles in order to be well-rounded parents. Their various approaches to parenting were rarely perfect–certain decisions were downright stupid like Eric leaving a baby to a cab driver just so he could go to work–but that was what made them charming. Through trial-and-error, they learned from their mistakes. Another source of conflict was the romance between Sam (Josh Lucas) and Holly. They should have had more scenes together instead of the unfunny scenes with the colorful neighbors (Melissa McCarthy) and the nosy Child Protection Services agent (Sarah Burns). We saw that they cared for each other but their situation was far from optimum. Holly was in a critical state of transition while Sam was ready to settle down. I was glad there wasn’t a typical rivalry between the two men in Holly’s life. “Life as We Know It,” directed by Greg Berlanti, had good elements but it was ultimately weighed down by too many slapstick humor and heavy-handed metaphor such as Holly’s business expansion reflecting Holly, Eric, and Sophie’s life at home. It could have been stronger if the writers eliminated comfortable but unnecessary clichés and taken more risks.
★ / ★★★★
A wealthy family was in the process of moving into their new home. As the movers scrambled to empty the trucks, Marta (Ana Wagener), the matriarch, stressed about having all the members of the family to have dinner together and celebrate. Isa (Manuela Vellés), the spoiled, whiny, and inconsiderate daughter, would rather go out with her boyfriend (Xoel Yáñez) than to grant her mother’s simple wish. The patriarch, Jaime (Fernando Cayo), couldn’t care less. One could argue that the events in “Secuestrados,” written by Miguel Ángel Vivas and Javier García, were repercussions of bad parenting. In its first few minutes, instead allowing us to relate to the family, it wasn’t difficult not to dislike them because they passively and unnecessarily allowed small annoyances to turn into big problems. When three masked thieves (Guillermo Barrientos, Dritan Biba, Martijn Kuiper) broke into the family’s new house on the same night as the move-in, there was a cold disconnect between the audiences and the horrific events that were unfolding. For example, when forced to show their credit cards and write down their pin numbers on a piece of paper, the camera was at least fifteen feet from where the family trembled in their seats. There were yelling, screaming, and protesting but the distance represented a lack of sympathy. I argue that if the filmmakers’ intention was for us to care about Jaime, Marta and Isa, to root for them to be able to extricate themselves from their plight, the camera would have been as close as possible to that couch because mostly everybody can relate to suffering. The picture eventually started to feel gimmicky. Since there wasn’t enough cash in the house, one of the robbers, unmasked, took the father for a drive so that they could look for various ATMs and withdraw money. In order to simultaneously keep track of what was happening in the house, the screen was divided into two. Split-screens can be effective if used wisely and sparingly. The problem was, splitting the screen didn’t feel necessary. While we had a chance to observe two events at the same time, only either the left or the right was interesting. Both was never involving at the same time so that we would feel compelled to move our eyes in either direction. Furthermore, I found that in order for one side to capture my attention, someone would have to raise his voice or scream bloody murder. Lastly, I wanted to focus on the psychology of Isa. She was probably one of the most despicable daughters (or persons in general) I’ve seen on screen for quite some time. When she and her mother had a chance to escape by locking themselves in a bathroom with a window big enough so that a person could fit one at a time, Marta actually had to beg Isa to climb out and find help. Isa didn’t want to do it because the masked men had her boyfriend in the other room and threatened to kill him. I watched in astonishment. After several attempts to carry her daughter out of the window (and Isa selfishly wouldn’t budge), I actually wanted Isa to break her neck if she happened to make it outside. She was idiotic and useless. Directed by Miguel Ángel Vivas, “Secuestrados,” also known as “Kidnapped,” was bleak and uncompromising. I would have admired its audacity if the characters were fighters instead of punching bags and if it had been more sensible of its craft.
Middle of Nowhere (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
“Middle of Nowhere” was an indie drama about two teenagers who wanted to escape their lives. Dorian (Anton Yelchin) was sick of his wealthy family and their expectations of his eventual responsibility of running the family business. A problem child, he was sent to his uncle to learn discipline. Grace (Eva Amurri) wanted to go to college to pursue her dreams of becoming a doctor but was unable to get financial aid because her mother (Susan Sarandon) took out unpaid loans under Grace’ name. The mother claimed that the answer to all of their problems was for Grace’ younger sister (Willa Holland) to enter the modeling industry. Dorian and Grace worked at a waterpark and eventually became partners in selling cannabis. I enjoyed the film mostly because of the performances. Sarandon was great as the mother who didn’t quite know how to be a responsible parent. I understood the many predicaments she was in, especially her financial instability, but I didn’t pity her because she was supposed to be the leading figure in the family. Unlike her eldest daughter, she wasn’t focused in accomplishing something she was responsible for. Yelchin and Amurri were equally interesting as teenagers whose lives were in a standstill. I admired that the script infused sexual tension between them but they never got together in a sexual way. That was important because their relationship was about business first, friendship second, and everything else was tertiary. Instead, a potential beau (Justin Chatwin) for Grace entereed the picture. They seemed like a perfect fit because he was worldly, smart and had substance. But was he too good to be true? As usual, I enjoyed Yelchin’s cooky side. A less charming actor would have looked like a complete fool while dancing in a laundomat. Amurri successfully made me want to root for her character. Although she was tough and sometimes cold, I understood that she had to be because she learned at an early age that nobody would ever just hand her what she wanted. I saw some similarities between the two of us but she definitely had a more unpleasant background. Unfortunately, the film hit a few bumps on the road. Half-way through, I began to feel as though the melodrama had completely taken over. I kept waiting for the tone to change up, surprise, and offer some laughter, especially during the scenes of Grace and Dorian’s odd occupation, but it remained painfully one-note. Written by Michelle Morgan and directed by John Stockwell, “Middle of Nowhere” had a good amount of intelligence and heart but I wished it was more playful with its tone because with such a somber material, the line between self-reflection and narcissism was often crossed.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Thomas Balmes took Alain Chabat’s idea of filming babies from four different corners of the world and documenting their journey from inside the womb up until they learned how to walk: Ponijao from Namibia, Bayar from Mongolia, Mari from Japan and Hattie from the United States. What I first noticed about this impressive documentary was its lack of narration. Balmes’ decision to not explain why parents were doing or not doing certain things for their children made us active participants because we had to come up with our own conclusions. The picture having no subtitles to translate the foreign languages was quite bold because then we feel like the child in its very early years–unable to discern what the parents were saying exactly so we rely on the tones of their voices to guess what kind of expression they wanted to portray toward their child. While the movie was undoubtedly cute (I love the scenes when the children would interact with animals, especially when Bayar was petting his cat), it went far beyond, “Aww, how cute!” Since I had a bit of experience studying child development and psychology, it was so much fun applying what I learned toward something I’m actually seeing. We literally see these children grow before our eyes as they change from being entertained solely by toys (or random things in the dirt if they didn’t have any toys) that made strange noises, to learning via simple imitation, to having a sense of self when they realized that their bodies can have a direct effect onto the world. We even had a chance to observe how the children attempted to talk via babbling and say their first word. Furthermore, the film wasn’t just about the babies. Secondary to the subjects were the parents’ child-rearing practices. Since I live in America, I’m used to seeing parents coddling their babies as often as they could. So, initially, I found it surprising that parents in Africa and Mongolia allow, if not highly encourage, to let their child roam in the dirt and explore his and her surroundings. They even let animals like goats, dogs and chickens get near their babies without worry. I guess what the director wanted to tell us was the fact that babies have high resilience physically and psychologically. They have the need to explore the world and experience a spectrum of emotions which includes pain, frustration and anger. What Balmes managed to capture on film was magic. I admired the way it was able to condense over a year of life into a breezy eighty minutes yet successfully highlight the most important elements.
Blue Valentine (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) were not exactly what one would call a happy couple. Cindy did not love Dean anymore. Perhaps it was because he acted more like a playdate toward their daughter (Faith Wladyka) instead of a firm parent. Maybe it was because of his tendency to drink alcohol before work. We couldn’t put our fingers on the exact reason why, but that was what I found to be the most beautiful. Sometimes we just stop loving someone and the reason escapes us. Dean was a sensitive man. The couple met when Cindy was in college and dating a guy (Mike Vogel) on the wrestling team. She wanted to become a doctor. Meanwhile, Dean worked for a moving company. He didn’t make much money but all he really wanted was to find the right person for him. Directed by Derek Cianfrance, the film jumped back and forth between the couple’s current unrewarding marriage and when their romance was at its peak. However, this was not to suggest that the couple’s current life did not have a drop of romance. Even when they were at a point of great struggle, I found romance in the small ways they tried. The former was difficult to sit through because it felt like something we shouldn’t be watching. It was like being stuck in a car with a friend and her boyfriend who happened to be fighting. No matter how much you turn up the volume on your iPod, you could still hear and perhaps feel or understand how they felt. There was a lot unexpressed frustration and anger between Cindy and Dean, but their aggression were personified in small ways like a snide look or an exasperated sigh. Their body movements said a thousand words. Since they could not communicate with each other in a healthy way, they were left to interpret the unsaid which led to the further dissolution of their marriage. On the other side of the spectrum, the latter was incredibly romantic. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t crack a smile in the way they hung out in the streets of Pennsylvania as Cindy danced and Dean played his ukelele. Their first few interactions were awkward, especially when they ran to each other on the bus, but the wall between them melted with fervor. They seemed destined to be together. The film could have suffered from the typical pitfalls of melodrama. But with Cianfrance’s direction, the switch between different time periods felt seamless and natural. It preserved the emotions from the scenes before so it worked as a tool for our further understanding of the characters and what was at stake if they did ultimately decide to go their separate ways. Each scene was like a piece of a puzzle and it was up to us to determine, not the point where their relationship became sour because all relationships have their rough spots, but the point where one or both of them had finally given up. Is “Blue Valentine” something that couples should see? Absolutely. It may not be typically cute or funny, but it was smart, real, and challenging.