Review- In the Family

It seems to me more often than not, whenever I see a good to great film that I wasn’t necessarily expecting to see there’s always at least a decent story to it. Somehow, in the barrage of year-end awards and best of lists, I missed noting the title In the Family, at the tail end of 2011. I guess I didn’t retain or read Slant’s list as carefully as I thought, either that or I hadn’t seen it anywhere near me so it was almost like it had yet to exist. However, that lack of availability kept it alive for this year’s BAMs. Now, oddly enough when I saw this month’s schedule at Theatre N, I saw it, it seemed like a likely view but it didn’t jump out not right away. Then the weekend it’s playing came, and thanks to an abysmal weekend of new summer releases it was the only game in town, so far as I was concerned. However, I was still under-informed. I read the synopsis, seemed good. However, I didn’t immediately note the running time.

In trying to schedule my day, I did. The film runs 2 hours and 49 minutes. I do not have hard and fast rules regarding running-times, as my commendations for Satantango and Berlin Alexanderplatz clearly indicate. Yes, I prefer comedies that run 90 minutes or less when speaking in generalities, that does not mean I’ve never liked one longer. The Avengers is only about 25 minutes shorter and I never heard anyone complain about how long it is. However, I do have to concede that it is a factor. So what I did was I started to read up on it, just a bit. Based on what I saw I wanted to give a go.

With this film, and my prior example, you have two instances that highlight the difference between running time and pace. Anyone can make a film this long, or longer, if they want to, and frequently early assemblies and cuts are. What matters is what you do with the running time you’ve allotted your story. I’ve seen films a third as long as this one that feel twice as long as it actually is. There are films that feel like they will never end and others you wish wouldn’t, and this one is much closer to the latter than the former.

The term deliberate pace is not, in my mind, a polite way of saying slow. There are scenes that don’t cut, but there are scenes that are rather quick, which add to the tone and help the film pace itself. It is by no means the test of endurance that The Turin Horse is, even though that film is shorter.

So preambles aside, the film works beautifully in large part due to the restraints is shows. The film tells the tale of of a custody battle following the death of one partner in a same sex relationship. That’s the film in its simplest terms, now the film could be handled differently and still work but then it would run the risk of pigeonholing itself as a gay film, or a racial film or a courtroom film, depending on how the plot unfolds. It could quickly become maudlin and melodramatic. However, in restraining its emotion, allowing it to build in its characters and its audience it creates a tremendously universal and human story that I’m sure many can relate to, whether it reflects anything in their life or not. One example of the restraint, and a litmus test of sorts for films with gay themes, is that the words “gay” or “homosexual,” or any pejorative variation thereof are not spoken. This is a clear choice it seems that underlines both the humanity of the story and the underlying hostilities and prejudices that exist.

Dave (Peter Hermann), Eileen (Kelly McAndrew), Jefferson (Eugene Brell), Joey (Patrick Wang), Paul (Brian Murray), Court Reporter (Marsha Waterbury) in In the Family (In the Family)

The drama in the film is always palpable because the film cloisters its characters. In certain scenes it just allows us to watch a few characters behave and interact, without dialogue but there is still much being said. There’s a lot of film theory banter about simply watching behavior, but like everything in this film it doesn’t push this aspect to the extreme either. There are small, delicate, wonderful scenes like this sprinkled throughout; a fantastic example is Chip (Sebastian Banes, credited in this film as Sebastian Brodziak) getting himself and Joey (Patrick Wang) a drink after the funeral.

Aside from having well-tempered scene lengths, the film also structures itself well and interestingly. There are three flashbacks, which all occur post-mortem. The film begins in medias res, after Cody’s (Trevor St. John) death is where we start to get to know him and miss him as Joey does. There are also I believe four segments of the film that begin in black with some audio coming in to precede the scene, bringing us slowly into the current moment and visually dividing the story (the first occurs at the very beginning with a gorgeously languid fade in).

Dave (Peter Hermann) and Eileen (Kelly McAndrew) in In the Family (In the Family)

The acting in this film is quite nearly impeccable. It can be said that a running time such as this gives the actors more time to develop their character, hone their performance but that would be ignoring the fact that the work still does have to be done. Wang particularly has a lot of heavy lifting to do in the third act, his physicality is a lot of what takes us along but at the end it’s just him, speaking to his family and speaking to us and it’s nothing less than monumental that this “unedited” deposition scene works. It keeps with the cloistered aspect of the film but brings things full circle and is riveting. However, Kelly McAndrew’s reaction shots during this scene are breathtaking also. The real find of the film, however, may be Sebastian Banes. Actors around his age, he plays a character who is six, with as much natural talent and charisma are rare. A few scenes in I was already comparing him favorably to Drew Barrymore.

In the Family
is a revelation in many ways, not only for my story of not really having heard about it and then having it fall into my lap but also for revealing the tremendous budding auteur that is Patrick Wang. It’s a crime how under-seen this film is and I cannot recommend it to you highly enough.

10/10

Advertisements

Rewind Review- Midnight Meat Train


Midnight Meat Train is a very interesting film. While it was a limited release film last year, it certainly got the attention of horror film buffs. It was widely speculated and hyped, in part by Barker himself, as the most faithful adaptation of a Clive Barker work in years. Ryûhei Kitamura seemed certain to handle this difficult task with aplomb.

The story is ripped from the pages of Barker’s seminal short story trilogy The Books of Blood, and this is one of the most evocative pieces in said collection. So there was a lot to live up to, and for the most part it does. This film owes much of its success to its faithfulness, both in narrative and tonality, to the short story – which is a rare feat. Seldom, if ever, has Barker’s knack for mixing the mundane and the preternatural creations of his nearly unparalleled imagination been so deftly captured on celluloid. Fluorescent, washed-out lighting and long dialogue-free sequences also add greatly to the film’s impact.

The creative use of flashbacks in sync with the sound of the shutter closing as Leon (Bradley Cooper) has his breakdown in front of his girlfriend (Maya- Leslie Robb) is the cinematic apex of the film. A close runner-up is the first kill which is shocking, literally jaw-dropping and thus, great. Mahogany played stoically by Vinnie Jones is one of the better horror villains to hit the screen in quite some time and proves a silent villain is always most effective.

The ending is as shocking in its reveal and nearly as well-executed as it was in the text, and for that it deserves kudos and watching. The only real issue I had was that the mood and overall impact of the film, not just the kills, were dampened by the repeated use of CG blood, which made those scenes more like comic books and less like film. I just wish a few shots were framed or blocked differently so that they didn’t feel CG was necessary or better yet had they gotten creative and taken a risk with practical effects. Typically, CGI does play better on DVD but blood it seems will never work.

Ultimately, it is a very effective piece which is why any undercutting of the effectiveness and sheer brutality of it is hard to forgive. Its grade would be much higher without the two or three instances of digital blood.

7/10

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.

10/10

Thankful for World Cinema- A Man and a Woman

When looking for a theme in which to select films from the start of November until Thanksgiving being literal is not the best option. Films centered around Thanksgiving tend to be overly obsessed with dysfunctional families. So in thinking about the nature of the day which was initially a celebration of survival in the New World, I thought why not focus on foreign films.

A Man and a Woman

Anouk Aimée and Jean Louis Trintignant in A Man and a Woman (Les Films 13)

A Man and a Woman is about the simplest and least pretentious romantic story you are bound to find. This statement is important because most often the problem with the romantic comedy or the straight romance is that the story is often too contrived, far-fetched, and/or lacking in true human emotion. In this film we see how two people fall in love and better yet we don’t even get a happily ever after type of ending but rather we see that these two people are willing to love again after having lost their first spouses.

This film is also interesting in the way director Claude Lelouch structures his narrative. Not only do we never over-deal with the fact that they both lost their first loves we also find this information out at different times in the story and the information in the film is also communicated very visually which is interesting as opposed to hearing dialogue which if poorly-delivered would come across as ham-handed.

The psychological focus of the tale is definitely Anne Gauthier (Anouk Aimée). She is more the focus because we see both her falling in love with her first husband, Pierre, while “Samba da Bênção” by Toquinho and Vinicius is played. On a side note, the addition of Samba to a French film shows how much broader their cultural horizons are than ours are. It matters not that they might not understand Portuguese for they recognize the Samba as probably the most wonderful sound ever created. We see Anne meeting her first husband and also how he dies.

Then as she consummates her relationship with Jean-Luc we see her thought process as she flashes back to her time with Pierre and how difficult loving another man is for her. One of the best parts of the film on Lelouch’s part is when Valérie (Valérie Lagrange), Jean-Luc’s first wife, is in the hospital after his accident. We see not only her strife but the passage of time through a series of jump cuts. I found this technique much more effective than a series of dissolves or on very long take.  In this sequence we also see how sometimes telling can be more effective than showing as we do not see her commit suicide but rather hear Jean-Luc say it with sadness in his voice.

Another interesting technique in this film is alternating between color and black and white. In the very beginning of the film it is used solely to differentiate between a flashback and the present tense but rather in a reversed way. The flashbacks are in color. This presents the present as more gritty and not as joyful whereas the flashbacks may not have been happier they certainly were more colorful as they are with most people.

What’s impressive about A Man and a Woman, as is often the case with a lot of French films, is its simplicity. We deal with real people in a real type of story, plot devices and formulas are completely thrown out the window. And in this film what we get is a much more enjoyable experience than any Hollywood formula could possibly provide.

10/10