Thursday, February 09, 2012

Previews: The Salt of Life and We Need to Talk About Kevin

Super Bowl Sunday for me started and ended with previews - We Need to Talk About Kevin has opened in some places, but not Boston, while The Salt of Life is apparently another month away from even limited release.

Both of them have their premises pretty much out there for anyone looking, although I tried to avoid them. In Kevin's case, it's kind of silly, especially since one of the main points in my review is that director Lynn Ramsay makes a concerted effort to avoid things that frame it as a suspense picture. But for Salt... Well, I just don't like the description that's being used for it, which focuses on Gianni being "invisible to women". That's there, to an extent, andin some ways I think Di Gregorio tried to make the movie about that, but, well...

Gianni e le donne (The Salt of Life)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 February 2012 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #2 (Talk Cinema, 35mm)

The Salt of Life is the title given to this movie for it's American release; the actual title translates to "Gianni and the Women", which is kind of literal but less pretentious, which might have been preferable. "The Salt of Life" implies that some sort of wisdom or philosophy will be imparted, but in reality, the audience must settle for a few decent anecdotes.

Gianni (Ginni Di Gregorio) is about sixty, and having taken early retirement ten years ago, is relatively free to spend his days in Rome doing not much of anything. Often, this means tending to his spendthrift mother (Valeria De Franciscis). He and his wife (Elisabetta Piccolomini) sleep in separate beds, and though his daughter Teresa (Teresa Di Gregorio) still lives at home, he spends more time with her boyfriend Michi (Michelangelo Ciminale). After his friend and lawyer Alfonso (Alfonso Santagata) gets a look at Cristina (Kristina Cepraga), the pretty nurse Gianni's mother overpays and underutilizes, he tells Gianni that he really should be getting some of that on the side - even that old guy who hangs out at the café in a tracksuit has a mistress! - but truth be told, it barely occurs to Gianni to do more with his sexy and potentially-receptive neighbor Aylin (Aylin Prandi) than offer to walk her dog.

That, it seems, is Gianni's problem in a nutshell - he has no ambition whatsoever. Set aside the questionable aspects of married men looking for younger lovers; it's apparently part of the Italian culture and because guys like Gianni and Alfonso trying to score mistresses could be a pretty funny movie. Gianni's efforts in that direction are half-hearted, though, and while that could also be the basis of a good movie ("man discovers age and maturity suit him"), he's got to do something. Or even do nothing, if the apathy said something about him. Instead, he just sort of floats along, until co-writer/director/star Gianni Di Gregorio tries to show some sort of frustration at women ignoring him or taking him for granted at the end, but by that point such emotions seem out of character.

Full review at EFC.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 February 2012 at the Harvard Film Archive (Lynn Ramsay, 35mm)

At no point during We Need to Talk About Kevin are the words of the title actually spoken, but it's not like it would have made a difference if they were. There's just nothing you can do about some situations - they play out in horrifying slow motion, and even when the endgame seems inevitable, most people have a hard time actually believing it. It's terrible, but in the skilled hands of director Lynn Ramsay and star Tilda Swinton, also engrossing.

Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) was once a happy and successful travel writer/editor, but that was before Kevin. Now, in the wake of what her teen-age son (Ezra Miller) has done, she's a pariah in her small Connecticut town, doing filing at a storefront travel agency and hoping that having red paint thrown at her house is as bad as her day gets. What makes it worse is that this didn't entirely come out of the blue for Eva; Kevin has been a monster from the start, but has had his father Franklin (John C. Reilly) snowed, manipulating him practically since birth, only showing his true face to Eva. Inevitably, their opposing views of their son will make their marriage a slow-motion train wreck, one more casualty of Kevin.

Or is it in fact more complicated? Almost the entire film is seen from Eva's perspective, and while there is nothing that particularly hints that she is an unreliable narrator who changes details to make herself look less culpable (or more so, depending on her mood), what Ramsay shows us is designed to get the audience thinking in a way similar to Eva. Sure, some kids may just be born bad, but does that come from the same genes as give Eva her own short temper, and does that mean the townspeople are right to treat her like she's the monster? As psychotically difficult a child as Kevin was, and how he occasionally manipulated Eva into feeling direct guilt for specific actions, she does some things that a parent clearly shouldn't - if she'd done better, would things have been different? It's impossible to know, and Ramsay makes sure it can't be otherwise: She and co-writer Rory Kinnear (working from Lionel Shriver's novel) draw few lines between particular events in Kevin's childhood and the young man he becomes, with the most obvious being so far-fetched that it's as impossible to credit as it's meant to be.

Full review at EFC.

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