Saturday, June 2, 2012

New on DVD/Blu-ray: WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2011) and CORIOLANUS (2011)

(UK/US, 2011)

Director Lynne Ramsay's first feature since since 2002's acclaimed MORVERN CALLAR is a difficult, demanding, profoundly depressing look at familial dysfunction taken to tragic extremes.  Working from an epistolary novel by Lionel Shriver, Ramsay and co-writer Rory Stewart Kinnear restructure the film into a more fragmented, Innaratu-esque stream-of-consciousness format that can be frustrating in the early going but every scene and every detail are vital by the end.  Even an archery target board in the distant background of one shot carries incredible significance by the end.  Travel writer Eva Khachadourian (Tilda Swinton) is unable to connect with sullen, antagonistic, and possibly evil teenage son Kevin (Ezra Miller).  He's the kind of kid who plants a virus on her computer and, when caught masturbating by his mom, just glares and smirks at her and starts jerking faster.  And that's just the harmless stuff.  We can piece together the basics fairly quickly: something unspeakable has happened. Kevin is in jail, Eva has become the town pariah, and her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) and young daughter Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich) are out of the picture. The once well-to-do Eva now lives alone in a small house that gets vandalized regularly.  Ordinary people walk up to her outside the supermarket, belt her across the face and tell her to burn in hell.  The only person we see who's nice to her is a teenager in a wheelchair who affectionately calls her "Mrs. K," asks how she's doing, and mentions there's a possibility he'll walk again.  Ramsay cuts between the past and the present as we witness the difficult relationship between Eva and Kevin, going all the way back to his infancy. 

To say anything more would risk spoilers, but even when you think you've got the story figured out, you don't.  Shriver's novel was written in the form of letters from Eva to Franklin, and readers only get her (possibly unreliable) take on the events.  The film doesn't have that literary luxury, but there's enough here to illustrate that Kevin is more like his mother than Eva wishes to believe, or at least representative of her worst traits gone unchecked.  Kevin is unquestionably a horrible, monstrous human being, but to what extent is Eva culpable for what he is?  She's the only person who sees the "real" Kevin, who certainly doesn't make himself known to his well-meaning but (perhaps purposely) clueless dad.  Swinton, Reilly, and Miller are superb in this emotionally exhausting work that deserved more attention than it got, but admittedly, is a pretty tough sell and offers no easy answers.  One of 2011's best films. (R, 112 mins)

(Serbia/UK/US, 2011)

Ralph Fiennes directs and stars in this ambitious contemporary adaptation of the Shakespeare tragedy, shot in some war-ravaged areas in Belgrade and other parts of Serbia.  It was a longtime pet project of the two-time Oscar nominee and first-time director, who saw his labor of love acquired by The Weinstein Company only to get lost in their end-of-the-year Oscar shuffle with THE ARTIST, THE IRON LADY, and MY WEEK WITH MARILYN.  Briefly considered for a big Weinstein Oscar push, CORIOLANUS was ultimately the child left behind, ending up on just 21 screens at its widest release and grossing around $750,000, despite overwhelmingly positive reviews from those who managed to see it.  Set in "A place calling itself Rome," CORIOLANUS focuses on General Caius Martius (Fiennes), a highly-revered war hero who has just defeated the Volscian forces of General Tullis Aufidius (Gerard Butler).  Prodded by his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) and opportunistic Senator Menenius (Brian Cox) to enter politics, the arrogant Martius proves to have nothing but contempt for the common people ("Bid them wash their faces and keep their teeth clean").  He's been conditioned to know nothing but war and has little respect for those who haven't fought for their country.  A pair of tribunes, Sicinius (James Nesbitt) and Brutus (Paul Jesson) turn the people against Martius, who is branded a traitor and banished after lashing out against them.  Forced out of "Rome," Martius, previously bestowed the honorary name Coriolanus, makes his way to the Volscian stronghold of Aufidius and proposes that they set aside their personal differences and launch an attack on Rome.  Coriolanus' anger and need for vengeance knows no bounds, and even Menenius remarks "There is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger."

CORIOLANUS covers a lot of ground in two hours, but Fiennes and prolific screenwriter John Logan (RANGO, HUGO, and the upcoming SKYFALL and LINCOLN) do a brilliant job of conveying important exposition by displaying it in the form of "Breaking News!" alerts on a ubiquitous 24-hour cable news network (it seems there's a TV on in every room).  Fiennes is keenly aware of how the themes of Shakespeare's play are relevant to today's political situation, particularly in the way the politicians, both conservative and liberal, manipulate the gullible populace and put their own interests above the people they represent.  Ultimately, the modernized CORIOLANUS is a dead-on allegory for the politics of today, proving that things really haven't changed.  Brutal, unflinching, and deeply cynical, CORIOLANUS is gripping throughout, with a terrific performance by Fiennes (his "I banish you!" outburst is a career highlight), who gets strong support from Butler (who seems to be making a sincere effort to stop being in so many terrible Hollywood movies), Cox, Jessica Chastain (as Martius' wife), and Redgrave, who really does some Oscar-caliber work here.  Like WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, this is a bold, challenging film and it deserved better treatment by the Weinstein Company.  (R, 123 mins)

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