Rewind Review: City Island

Sometimes it seems like fate when you hear about a film. Again this plays a bit into pre-life but this connection is a little more direct as I agree with the sentiments to follow. I had never heard of the film City Island until Jake T. Austin, the actor best known for Wizards of Waverly Place and the upcoming The Perfect Game, tweeted that he had just seen it at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival and said it’s the kind of film he wants to be involved in. Which is high praise from any actor and equivalent to a director saying “I wish I made that movie.”
This film concerns itself with the secrets a nuclear family keeps from each other that are unearthed as its patriarch, Andy Garcia, brings home an ex-con who is his son from a pre-marital tryst.This is the best most accurate way to encapsulate the film other cutesy pitch-like attempts give you some but not all of the tale like a partial modern day Greek tragedy with a comedic slant or Secrets & Lies with a sense of humor – both while somewhat true don’t say it all and even the secrets angle borders on hyperbole because what the film is really about is disconnect within a family unit and all members living separately, as if on islands, such that any communication is a task and keeping secrets is easier than saying what’s really going on in their lives.
This truly is a cast that is flawless and has absolutely no weak link whatsoever even in the smallest part. First, you have Andy Garcia who narrates the tale and carries us through it we see how he likes to define his existence simply such that anything beyond being a corrections officer threatens his sense of normalcy. There is Julianna Margulies who plays his wife and finally gets a chance to shine on the silver screen in a meaty role after so many successful years on TV.  Emily Mortimer, who even though most of the time she serves to give Vince (Garcia) confidence, has her own baggage and is like those we may meet shortly in life that left something behind for reasons we don’t quite know. Steven Strait as the prodigal son is also an outsider who sees things in this family dynamic so much more clearly than any of them do for he never lived in it. Ezra Miller as Vince, Jr. is the family clown but only because he seeks to break the cycle and not get caught up in the secrets himself and just be himself. There is Alan Arkin’s character whose acting class plays so beautifully into the plot of the film and he even has his own moments of struggle and frustration. There’s also Dominik García-Lorido as their fiery daughter who frequently butts heads with her mom and believe it or not I could go on.
Here is another example of where a film’s setting plays a role as the locale not only serves as a backdrop but it also influences the protagonist’s outlook on life as he defines all people by the local vernacular of Clamdiggers, those born and raised on City Island, and Musselsuckers, those who moved there. It’s more rare for a film to utilize its location to its advantage as a book would as typically you’re trying to disguise one location for another but being the title of the film as well as the location City Island was definitely a strength.

City Island (2009, Anchor Bay)
What does ultimately make this film as successful as it is that it’s a comedy. The drama is there, of course, as it is the foundation upon which all other genres are created but if all these situations are played out and revealed in a straightforward manner it ultimately would lose its effectiveness. It’s because you laugh that it feels more real because some familial situations are so crazy all you can do is laugh.
As demonstrated above where the cast deserves very high praise but note that most of what is mentioned is character related and not performance related. It truly is a character driven piece in which all the people we meet are drawn out and made to seem real. Some scenes are momentarily broken, for example, as Vince is away to build Vince Jr.’s secret/character. It’s the kind of film where one can likely walk away from it identifying with any number of characters. For example, what I found interesting was that to me Vince, Jr. seemed the most well-adjusted or at least the least crippled by his secret. He didn’t panic when Tony (Strait) indicated that he knew his secret and when Vince, Jr. found that the webcam he was watching was across the street he didn’t hesitate to go there. Also, at the end he didn’t hesitate to go outside and see what was happening at his house and interject in the conversation though he was dining with two girls.
This film is truly well-written and directed and is a strong debut that is most deserving of the Audience Award it won at Tribeca last year. Aspiring writers and/or directors should read Raymond De Felitta’s blog on the making of the film on Facebook and Twitter. If you have a chance you should seek this film out. It’s the kind of independent cinema you seek to see more often: truthful and insightful and not different just for the sake of being different- absolutely spot on.

Review- We Need to Talk About Kevin

Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller in We Need to Talk About Kevin (Oscilloscope Labs)

I’ll never get used to living outside of the New York/Los Angeles inner-circle in cinematic terms, even if I was there it would not change the fact that I take umbrage with the end of year release patterns that delay viewership of many good films for those living in the rest of the country. I was going up to NYC and my plan was to catch this film during that trip, that plan hit a snag when I realized the limited one-week Oscar-qualifying engagement ended right before my planned trip. Thus, I have not had a legitimate chance to see it until just recently, and it becomes a 2012 BAM eligible film, and not a 2011 film, despite its technical release date.

We Need to Talk About Kevin
is a film that’s largely about perspective, memory and how that may influence the perception of reality. That’s not all its about but that certainly plays a large part. It tells the tale of Eva (Tilda Swinton) who is struggling to move on with her life after her son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), commits a mass murder at his high school. All that is established early on, and much of the narrative is her reflecting back on his upbringing, from his birth to the present.

Memories are built on one fact that lends us a clue to an incident and over time they become either hazy or gilded depending upon the emotion we associate with that memory. There is a truth to all she remembers but just how much embroidering her subconscious does in a futile search for answers is not clear. One of the best things the film does thematically is to not treat so difficult a subject with facility, but rather depth. There are precursors to the event but also other moments that belie it. Therefore, Kevin is not always a black and white antagonist he has moments of seemingly lucid humanity, which he then counteracts but any flatness of character can be an affectation of the storyteller’s, Eva’s, perspective. Having already lived these things and now reliving them in hindsight her associations and interpretations of relationships are set: Her husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly) is placating, non-confrontational and an ineffectual parent and Kevin is opaque, she doesn’t know what goes on in his head, except that she feels constantly antagonized by him.

While the film functions on two planes, the present and past, for the most part it moves in relative chronology within those planes. Flashbacks typically are done as sequences. There are quick flashes when she encounters someone from her former life whom she is trying to separate herself from. This relative chronology does give the film a fairly even and steady pace that is truly only broken in occasions by the steadily increasing severity of Kevin’s actions. It’s a film that needs to be told as it is, for the story elements told in precise chronological order with no flashbacks whatsoever would not be effective at all. Instead you get a very cinematic treatment of the story, a story that visually takes you into its protagonist’s thoughts.

Much of my interest in this film was not just due to the amount of positive buzz I heard about the film itself on Twitter but also the praise being heaped upon Tilda Swinton, whom I love. I can see now why she got the attention she did, she is brilliant and understated in this film. With regards to her Oscar snub, I both get it and don’t get it: I get it because there’s not really a great clip moment, which is cliché but that seems to drive things in terms of perception, but I don’t get it because it’s just so good. There’s a tremendous understanding by her, and everyone in the film about acting for and into the edit. Things are done very precisely as if they know where the cuts are and what impact they’ll have. Clearly, this is also a credit to the editor and director, however, that point plays into the concept of not doing too much. It is a film and these actors employ film techniques and know the assist they’ll get on the technical end and exploit it greatly. It’s a must see for students of the craft.

Yet as much as this is is Eva’s and Swinton’s film she does get some tremendous support. Based on the aforementioned interpretation of his character John C. Reilly is perfectly cast. Granted he does have range but in his even tone he does come off as a man who would be a buddy style of father and wouldn’t harm a fly. Ezra Miller doesn’t have a tremendous amount of credits to his name as of yet but the roles he has taken thus far have been challenging and have made him one of the go to actors in indie films and perhaps he will find a crossover success soon. As for this film he plays the part to a tee, meaning though his actions might be mostly one note the way he plays them aren’t always.

Typically, when you have a character who is aged during the course of a story you don’t have significant screen time dedicated to all the actors who play said character, in this case three. Jasper Newell, who is the middle incarnation of Kevin, carries much of the middle of the film and is very impressive, even more so when you consider its his feature film debut. Not to be outdone there is another solid performance in the young cast by Ashley Gerasimovich, who has one of the great moments where the numbness you can feel watching it breaks as she engenders tremendous sympathy.

We Need to Talk About Kevin may not be an easy film to watch in a number of ways but it is all the more rewarding for it. All facets of the production contribute greatly to a mind-play wherein a mother is lost searching for answers about just how her child could do such a thing and if anything could’ve been done. It’s a visual tale that is truly pure cinema, it’s truly great.