‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ Features Tilda Swinton at Her Most Devastating

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I think “We Need to Talk About Kevin” would make an interesting double feature with “Rosemary’s Baby” as both prove to be cautionary tales for prospective parents. But unlike Polanski’s classic film which dealt with the occult and supernatural, the horrors of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” are rooted in real life. Stories of kids going on murderous rampages at their schools have gotten far more media coverage than they deserve, but Lynne Ramsay’s film is not out to exploit this subject but to explore what could have triggered such a massacre.

Acting goddess Tilda Swinton plays Eva Khatchadourian (good luck trying to pronounce that last name), a successful travel writer who is picking up the pieces of her life after a tragic event people have come to blame her for. The movie shifts back and forth in time as we see Eva finding happiness with her husband Franklin (the always great John C. Reilly) to becoming pregnant with her first child, and then back to present day where she tries to make sense of the crimes her son committed. We see her as a pariah of the community, and everyone constantly stares at her as if to say, “How do you live with yourself?”

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a character look less forward to motherhood in a movie before this one. Eva’s face of happiness is wiped away almost permanently by her new role in life, and while her husband is thrilled at being a parent, she just looks on despondently as if her life just came to a shocking end. Without words, you immediately get the impression she has no interest in being a parent, and she never really forms an affectionate bond with Kevin. Eventually, Eva sees the parts of herself she doesn’t like in Kevin’s cold, dark eyes as he glares at her as if to say she resembles everything wrong in the world.

Swinton has never been an actress content to fall victim to overly emotive acting or chewing the scenery for an Oscar moment. She inhabits her characters more than plays them, and her performance as Eva ranks among the very best of her career. She creates such an unforgettably human portrait of a mother whose superficial behavior towards her son isn’t fooling anyone, especially him. But at the same time, Swinton makes you feel deeply for Eva as she forces you to confront what you would do if you were in this unimaginable situation.

While we see Eva losing her temper at Kevin when he does bad things, we also see she’s the only person who realizes something is seriously wrong with him. Franklin, on the other hand, is either completely oblivious to his son’s nastiness or just doesn’t want to see the truth of how troubled he is. To everyone else, Kevin is just a boy doing boyish things, and this leaves Eva feeling even more isolated as she feels completely helpless in her attempts to repair the fractured relationship she has with him.

Kevin is played by three actors at different parts of his life: Rocky Duer, Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller. All do great work in making Kevin the kind of child none of us ever hope to have, and each manages to perfect the wicked glare Kevin gives off to where you would think they were auditioning for a Stanley Kubrick movie, hoping to outdo Vincent D’Onofrio’s piercing glare in “Full Metal Jacket.” But of those three actors, the one who deserves the most praise is Miller as he makes Kevin into one of the scariest sociopaths I have ever seen in a movie. Damien from “The Omen” has got nothing on this guy, and it’s tempting to think he could give Alex from “A Clockwork Orange” a run for his money. Miller never portrays Kevin as a simple one-dimensional villain, but as one whose meaning in life has been corrupted to where he doesn’t see much good in anything.

Director Ramsay previously made “Ratcatcher” and “Morvern Callar,” and her work behind the camera has been justly acclaimed. With “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” she shares in Swinton’s fearlessness in delving into subject matter many would choose to avoid if they could. Not once does she judge the characters here, and she leaves their actions up for us to judge. She is not out to provide answers to a situation like this because none are ever easy to come by.

The movie’s opening shot has Eva participating with dozens of people in some Italian tomato festival to where it looks like they are all bathing in blood, and it symbolizes what will eventually become of her life. Ramsay makes great use of the color red throughout as it acts as a stain on Eva’s conscience which cannot be washed away. The movie is beautifully shot to where the sterile setting Eva and her family lives in is just asking to be forever dirtied, and the film score by Jonny Greenwood, who composed the score for “There Will Be Blood,” illustrates the violence just underneath the surface that will eventually explode for all to see.

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” could easily have been an exploitive feature, but it never falls victim to that. There’s actually very little violence shown as Ramsay is far more interested in the aftermath of what has happened, and the movie ends on a surprising note of possible redemption for some of the main characters. Having seen it, I can now safely say Tilda Swinton was most definitely robbed of an Oscar nomination for her performance here. What she does is truly astounding as well as completely brave. Not many actors would easily venture into a topic which hits too close to home, but Swinton is never one to back down from a challenge.

Coming out of this bruising film experience, I kept thinking about this line of dialogue said by Augustus Hill on the HBO series “OZ:”

“One of the last things Jesus did on Earth was to invite a prisoner to join him in heaven. He loved that criminal. I say he loved that criminal as much as he loved anyone. Jesus knew in his heart it takes a lot to love a sinner. But the sinner, he needs it all the more…”

* * * * out of * * * *

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‘Justice League’ Doesn’t Leap Tall Buildings in a Single Bound

Justice League movie poster

You know how the Daytona 500 is the Super Bowl of NASCAR racing, but it’s also the first big race of the season instead of the last? That’s what “Justice League” is. It’s the penultimate motion picture of the DC Extended Universe, and yet it’s coming to us before Aquaman, Flash and Cyborg get their own solo films. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe, every character was in their own movie before “The Avengers” finally arrived on the silver screen. Granted, Hawkeye and Black Widow have yet to get their own movies, but enough groundwork was laid to where the time had come for “The Avengers” to become a reality. With “Justice League,” its long-awaited appearance feels a little premature.

Following the events of “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice,” the world is still mourning the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), and all the other superheroes are trying to move on despite the large void the Man of Steel has left in his passing. Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) remains as dour as ever, but his faithful butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons) threatens to be even more dour to where they seem to be having a contest in that department. Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) leads a quiet life working in a museum, Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher) spends the days hiding in his apartment because everyone thinks he is dead and he hates his father for saving him through the use of cybernetics, Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) is busy drinking his life away when he’s not swimming in the ocean, and Barry Allen/Flash (Ezra Miller) spends his days trying to fit in with kids his age while moving at supersonic speed. These superheroes couldn’t be more mismatched, but they of course find themselves working together to stop a fearsome enemy bent on world domination.

This enemy is Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), a supervillain determined to find three boxes of power known as the Mother Boxes and, in the process, escape the role of servitude he has been consigned to for far too long. Steppenwolf is, you know, the kind of villain bent on gaining the most power of anyone in the world, and we all know what happens to people like them; they are either defeated as we expect them to be, or they become President of the United States.

The movie gets off to a terrific start with Batman battling a common criminal on the streets of Gotham, but it turns out to be a ploy for the Caped Crusader to discover the identity of another evil foe who thrives on the fear of humans. Following this, “Justice League” becomes a labored adventure as Batman and Wonder Woman take their precious time finding all the other superheroes, some of which are hesitant to join the party even though they realize their planet is at great risk of being annihilated. Knowing those holdouts will eventually become a part of the league, this proves to be the film’s most agonizing point as too much time is spent gathering everyone together.

Ben Affleck still makes for a good Bruce Wayne/Batman, but I sense he is already tiring of the role. Gal Gadot left a powerful mark on movies this year as Wonder Woman, and she is every bit as thrilling a presence here. Of the new additions, Jason Momoa proves to be a solid choice as Aquaman, and watching him here makes me look forward to the character’s solo movie coming out next year. Ezra Miller steals every scene he is in as the Flash, and he brings a wonderful edginess to the role while also bringing the character down to earth in an especially unique way. While Miller’s character is thrilled to have these superpowers, he still yearns to fit in with everybody else, and he portrays this inner conflict very effectively.

The same can’t be said, however, for Ray Stone/Cyborg as the character has little more to do in “Justice League” other than brood, argue with his father, and try to tell everyone in hearing range of how his powers can in no way be mistaken as a gift. This is with all due respect to Ray Fisher who does what he can with an underwritten role, but I grew tiresome of his complaining, especially when we all know he’s going to be in this league eventually.

But honestly, the real heart and soul of “Justice League” belongs to Henry Cavill who returns as Clark Kent/Superman. Even I refused to believe the Man of Steel was all but finished off for good at the end of “Batman v Superman” as you can’t keep a good superhero down, and Superman remains one of the very best. Even better is the realization of how Cavill no longer has the shadow of Christopher Reeve hanging over him as he manages to bring the same dedication to this iconic character Reeve did years before, and seeing Superman fight for justice this time around brought a big smile to my face.

Indeed, “Justice League” gets better and better as it enters the third act in which our superheroes band together to defeat Steppenwolf. While I found myself not caring enough about these characters in the first half, I really rooted for their success as the movie went on because the actors looked excited to inhabit these unforgettable characters. There are times when the filmmakers succeed in arousing our childhood love for these superheroes, and this is when the movie works at its best.

Of course, I have to wonder which filmmaker deserves the most credit for “Justice League.” Zack Snyder is credited as director, but Joss Whedon came in during post-production, and it is tempting to believe Whedon, who struck gold with cinematic comic book gold with “The Avengers,” managed to tap into our childhood innocence in a way Snyder could not. With “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman,” Snyder focused more on the characters’ darkness which has enveloped their lives, and you can’t blame him for going in this direction as DC Comics tended to veer into darker territory. But they got so dark to where there wasn’t much in the way to be found, and it was said Snyder was going to go in a slighter lighter direction with “Justice League,” but we probably won’t know how much lighter he made it until we get his director’s cut, and the fans are already clamoring for one like crazy.

I also have to give credit to Danny Elfman for composing an excellent score here. Even he is eager to spark our childhood innocence as his score contains themes he created for Tim Burton’s “Batman” as well as John Williams’ theme for “Superman” which remains one of the best superhero movie scores ever composed. Those subtle little touches make a huge difference as they help to reawaken the past in a most welcome way.

Looking back, “Justice League” is enjoyable for the most part as it builds to a strong climax, but it still feels like this all-star superhero movie was brought to us earlier than it should have. The parts which were lacking keep me from giving this movie a solid recommendation. I still look forward to the solo movies like “Aquaman,” but in the end the filmmakers crammed too many characters into a story already overwhelmed by them, and what results is not completely satisfying in a way a film like this should be.

What I am left with is the wonderment over how the visual effects team managed to remove Cavill’s mustache digitally. Because of his commitment to starring in “Mission Impossible 6,” he couldn’t shave it off when “Justice League” went into reshoots. Then again, it would have been interesting to see this Superman with a mustache as it would have allowed Cavill to do something a little bit different with this iconic character. Of course, he would have to explain the unexpected presence of facial hair. How would he go about doing so?

“Well, something happened on the way to heaven…”

* * ½ out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Kyle Patrick Alvarez about ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’

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Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment” takes us back to the year 1971 when psychology professor Philip Zimbardo (played in the movie by Billy Crudup) conducted the infamous experiment which had 24 students playing the roles of prisoners and guards in a makeshift prison located in the basement of the school’s psychology building. Things start off well, but the experiment soon goes out of control when the guards become increasingly abusive to the prisoners, and Zimbardo is unwilling to stop their brutality as he is infinitely curious to see what it will produce. Zimbardo was out to test his hypothesis of how the personality traits of prisoners and guards are the chief cause of abusive behavior between them. The experiment was supposed to last fourteen days, but it ended after 6.

What results is one of the most intense moviegoing experiences from the year 2015 as a cast of actors including Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Michael Angarano, and Logan Miller find themselves caught up in the experiment’s grip to where the line between reality and fiction is completely blurred. Whereas previous films have observed this experiment from an academic standpoint, this one observes it from an emotional one.

I got to talk with Kyle while he was in Los Angeles to promote “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” His previous films as writer and director were “C.O.G.” in which a cocky young man travels to Oregon to work on an apple farm, and “Easier with Practice” which tells the tale of a novelist going on a road trip with his younger brother to promote his unpublished novel.

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Ben Kenber: “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is one of the most movies you don’t watch as much as you experience.

Kyle Patrick Alvarez: I’m finding that out, yeah (laughs).

BK: There are only so many movies you can say that about. “Deliverance” is a good example of that.

KPA: I was really humbled. When the movie first played I think the first question at the Q&A was, “Did you feel like this movie was an experiment on the audience?” I was so taken aback by the question not in a negative way, but because no one had seen the movie before. I was actually working so hard to not overburden the audience with the story. We even tempered it down a lot. They were stripping guys by the end of day one. I think by the end it’s supposed to become burdensome to watch, and I embrace it now that that’s the reaction, but I didn’t know that that was going to be the case. So the first time the movie screened I was like. okay, it is playing this way to people and I know I can just embrace that now which is good. I hope not every movie I make is like that, but hopefully the movie earns it and then people appreciate the challenge of the experience of watching it.

BK: I remember hearing about this particular experiment while I was in a psychology class in college, and we even watched a documentary about it as well. The one thing that stood out to me the most was when the prisoners started saying “prisoner 819 did a bad thing,” and they kept saying it over and over. I kept waiting for that moment to come up in this movie.

KPA: Oh yeah. I felt like that was one of the really iconic things that you hear. You can hear it over and over and over again in your head, and I think we even joked at one point that they could release a teaser that was just that over and over again. That was interesting to me. As I read the script I had all these things that seemed larger than life, and when you read about it or saw the footage you’re like oh these things really did happen. The Frankenstein walk, to me, is so bizarre and so odd, yet it’s a real thing. To try to make a film that embodies that sort of spirit was hopefully the aim.

BK: This movie is “based on a true story,” but you didn’t use that phrase at the start of it. I was glad you didn’t because this phrase has long since lost its meaning.

KPA: I kind of fought for that a little bit actually. My whole argument was that marketing is going to say it no matter what. I’m a firm believer that you want the movie to stand on its own regardless of marketing, but at the same time I just don’t know anyone that would go to a movie called The Stanford Prison Experiment and not know anything about it and not know it was based on a true thing. I talked about it when I first got involved in the film that “based on a true story” means nothing anymore. The movie I was using for an example was the one where Eric Bana plays a cop who is hunting demons in New York City (“Deliver Us from Evil”), and the trailer says it was “based on a true story.” There are demons in New York; we know this as fact, right? There are not people who hunt demons in New York. Maybe there’s someone who said he does once, but that doesn’t mean it is based on a true story. So, it just doesn’t mean anything to people anymore and it doesn’t carry any weight or value. I tried to think of some other vernacular it could be. I didn’t want it to be like this is a true story because then that says everything in it is true, which is a lie. As soon as you make a movie on anything, nothing in it is true anymore.

BK: With movies based on real events there are dramatic liberties taken, but with this one it sounds like that wasn’t entirely the case.

KPA: I think we reduced the dramatic liberties quite a bit. I think if you look at a movie, for example, like “Lincoln” which takes voting public record and changes it. I don’t mean to slam the film, I like the film quite a bit, but when they’re voting they change the numbers to make it more suspenseful. I don’t think we took any liberties anywhere near that extreme. Maybe some people who were in the experiment could argue that it wasn’t really that intense or something like that. Others may argue that the intensity comes from putting the camera in their faces or the artistic representation of it. Two of our biggest liberties are when Ezra (Miller) and Brett (Davern) escape the prison. In real life the guy really did take a panel off. He was a guitar player and took the panel off with a sundial, broke the lock and I think they tried to open a door, but a guard was there and admonished them and told them that they had to fix the lock. We added an extra couple hundred feet. When we were doing that we said that we were gonna add this chase sequence because the movie needs to breathe and open up a bit. I thought Tim (Talbott) had done a really good job with that in the script. But then when Phil (Zimbardo) comes around and the other guys, there’s a reason we never see them touch them because they didn’t. That was where we were embellishing a little bit for the sake of the narrative, but we’re not abandoning the fundamentals of what this experiment was about. Those guys did not touch them or physically harass them so we didn’t show that, and having Phil involved was a really good and constant reminder of what those fundamentals are that we shouldn’t change. The ending, when they called it off, actually Phil and Christina kind of said that they needed to call this off and they came up with a plan to do it professionally. For me, you show that and there is an anti-climactic nature to that. I think the emotions are real and that they were being felt, and we just put them in at different times for the ending. I was really interested in making a film that could hold up. If you sit down and watch the documentary “Quiet Rage,” you will go oh, that is actually pretty similar. I didn’t want to make a movie that would replace that or replace “The Lucifer Effect.” I wanted to make a film that would work in tandem with those where it would feel like you could gain something a little more emotional and different than if you just did the academia side.

BK: The actors are all fantastic in the movie and they each give very intense performances. Watching them made me wonder if the movie was an experiment on them.

KPA: In a weird way, I almost wish I had this story to make interviews more exciting about these kids became their characters and I became like Zimbardo. But the truth was I think I was actually overtly aware of that potential, and actually it would have worked so hard against us. If you ask any of the guys, they will say that they had a lot of fun. You only have two options: either go down the path where everyone has fun and everyone gets along, or you gotta push it to go really extreme. I am not a big manipulator. If an actor wants me to manipulate them I will work with that, but on this film it was one of those things where it’s like when the camera’s rolling we’re on, and when it’s off be respectful. Some guys might need more space and might want to stay in character a little bit more, but it never took on the form of the experiment. We did spend two and a half weeks in that hallway, and we were sick of the hallway. We were ready to be done. Sure, some feelings were created, but I told them everyone every day that this is like a soccer game where we all shake hands at the end. So if something is going on that you’re not comfortable with, just say it. I said that probably more to the guards than the prisoners, but once it came down to doing those few physical things in the movie the actors loved it. Nick and Ezra had worked together before so they already respected each other, and they would just run through their scenes and had such a blast. For me, in a weird way we actually worked against that, and I think consequently the actors look back on it very fondly. I also think we got, for the nature of the movie and the tight shooting schedule, better stuff from them because they just felt more invigorated. I would just love to be able to build a career out of actors having good experiences. That’s my favorite party of the process, working with actors. I admire what they do so much because I never could, so it’s honoring that by working to each person. But this is the first time I ever did an ensemble piece and it was a little more about telling them hey this is what it’s going to be like, hey it’s not going to get out of control, guards you are going to follow the script and if you want to push something a little bit more than we’ll talk about it as opposed to unleashing them. There have been previous iterations of this project where that had been the aim where they try to create this potboiler environment where the actors really lose it, but I think what you get with that is more of a machismo quality. I jokingly refer to it as the David Ayer effect. I like his movies so it’s not a slam on them at all, but he’s making testosterone and there’s no doubt about it. I actually was more interested in making the inverse of that. The set was like a frat house, but the aggression was coming from a more complicated place. There wasn’t any actual physical violence. When you look closely at the movie there is no drop of blood other than one or two moments. No one was physically hurt, and so we were really careful to honor that while still creating tension.

BK: One interesting scene is when Ezra Miller’s character gets arrested as part of the experiment. He treats it like it’s no big deal at first, but then the cops slam his head on the car and his mood changes instantly.

KPA: They really did get real cops and they said arrest these guys like they are really criminals. This is something we didn’t have the money to shoot, but they actually took them to the police station and fingerprinted them and booked them and took photos of them and everything. They really put them through this simulation and it really got to them. The cops were really putting paper bags on their heads. Someone criticized the film once saying that they used too much on the nose imagery from Abu Ghraib, specifically referring to the bags. I was like no, no, no, Abu Ghraib just did the same exact thing.

BK: It seems like certain audience members need to be reminded that the Stanford Prison Experiment took place long before Abu Ghraib.

KPA: Oh yeah. It’s one of those stories that’s too bizarre to be true. It’s hard to accept that it was true. I knew there was no way to succeed 100% on this but I tried to work the hardest to make a film that didn’t just always say, “Well it really did happen.” That’s not enough of an answer when you make a movie like this because you have to make the audience feel like it could have happened. I wanted it to be like, “Well I understand why it happened.”

BK: By the time the movie gets to day three, it feels like we have been with these guys for a month.

KPA: Yeah (laughs), that’s how they felt too. They really did not know how many days had passed. They weren’t sleeping which I think was the biggest thing. You can go 36 hours without sleep when you start to legitimately lose your mind, and I think that’s a huge part of what happened.

BK: The Stanford Prison Experiment was supposed to last two weeks, but it ended up being shut down after 6 days. Some have said that it wasn’t because the experiment wasn’t successful, but that it was too successful. Would you say that was the case?

KPA: I think once you talk about success of the experiment you start to bring into the question its true purpose and its ethics. I was really interested in pushing questions of things like that in the movie. At the same time, I didn’t want to fall into the question of, was this okay? People are still arguing the exact same things, so I figured we are never going to solve this. 40 years later people are still arguing whether this experiment succeeded or not or whether it should have never have ever been done in the first place. What we do know now is that the experiment would never be allowed to happen today. It was military financed. Partly because of the experiment, there are so many more checks and balances in place. When I first sat down with Billy (Crudup), one of the things he said was, “How could everyone be so naïve to not realize this would happen?” And I said, “Well of course, they could have because it hadn’t happened yet.” Now it’s easier for us to go, “Well, of course, it would have gone wrong. What were they thinking?” They were doing experiments like this all the time; simulations or recreations. This was just part of what psychologists were doing at the time. This was the time it just really imploded.

BK: That’s a good point. Ever since then we have a better understanding of the power dynamic between prisoners and guards more than ever before.

KPA: Yeah, and that’s why I added a line at the end when Billy is talking to the camera. He says, “There was no sense of precedent. We didn’t know this was going to happen.” I thought that was a really important element.

I want to thank Kyle Patrick Alvarez for taking the time to talk to me. “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.