Originally published in the Smith College Sophian

Nov. 11, 2012

Is there anyone cooler than James Bond? He’s a superhero in a skinny tie. The consistent thread of Bond’s character is his ability to remain calm, kill the villain and get the girl—all while sipping a martini, if one happens to be at hand.

Rarely, if ever, has a character been able to stick around as long as 007. The film franchise, which began in 1962 with Dr. No, is currently commemorating its 50th year. The latest installment, Skyfall, is both an interpretation for the modern era and a celebration of Bond’s impressive legacy.

Skyfall, latest Bond portrayer Daniel Craig’s third outing, begins in Turkey. An unknown villain has stolen the hard drive containing information on all MI6 agents currently embedded in terrorist organizations around the globe. Revealing their identities would compromise their missions and blow their covers. A good Bond film has to strike the right balance between action and plot, and director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) succeeds in doing so, starting Skyfall with a masterfully choreographed motorcycle chase through Istanbul. Accompanying Bond on his pursuit of the stolen hard drive is fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris). While Bond and the thief tussle on top of a moving train, Eve accidently shoots Bond, and he falls to his presumable death.

At this point the opening credits begin. The 007 opening sequences and the theme songs that complement them are evocative of the series as a whole. They are sultry, enchanting pieces. Skyfall’s opening, over which can be heard Adele’s seductive vocals, is a kaleidoscope of Daniel Craig cutouts, guns, girls, blood, graves and fire. The message is clear: Bond does not get out of this one unscathed.

The latest Bond film reveals more of 007's backstory and his relationship to M.

The latest Bond film reveals more of 007’s backstory and his relationship to M.

Indeed, Craig is really the only Bond actor of the series to get bashed and beaten. As put-together as he is on the surface, this latest incarnation has suffered from all the windows he’s smashed through and the bullets he’s taken, not to mention his emotional state. Skyfall also hints that all those perfectly shaken martinis might not have been the best medicine for a man with a license to kill.

Bond’s aging body and mind become the film’s central conceit. Mendes and Craig depict the character as an agent past his prime. Eve even refers to him as an “old dog,” and Craig himself looks the part, a Rottweiler who’s seen one too many fights. His body is hard and compact but scarred, and his jowls jut below squinting, distrustful eyes. This isn’t to say that Craig is not a near-perfect physical specimen. Indeed, neither Eve nor the film’s other Bond Girl (because really, why stop at just one?) Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe) can seem to find anything to complain about.

Neither, it seems, can Silva (Javier Bardem), the film’s central villain. In a decidedly modern twist, Silva appears to be taken with Bond as well. In their first meeting, Silva pets his nemesis in a sexually threatening manner, then suggests, “There’s a first time for everything.” Bond coolly responds, “What makes you think this is my first time?”

Is Silva (Javier Bardem) the first gay character in the Bond franchise?

Is Silva (Javier Bardem) the first gay character in the Bond franchise?

The comeback is more mocking than flirtatious, but it certainly puts a bit of a wrinkle in the classic womanizing character. It also quite nicely shows the series’ evolution from its beginnings 50 years ago (though by no means is Skyfall a progressive work).

Bardem, of course, is wonderfully adept at playing villains with truly heinous hair. His terrifying turn in No Country for Old Men proved that the actor knows how to incite fear with a simple look, and Silva, though not as unnerving as No Country’s Anton Chigurh, is likewise delightfully creepy and off-balance.

Skyfall provides a fitting conclusion to Craig’s Bond trilogy. It also takes full advantage of all the 007 lore that has accumulated around the 23 official films. The original Astin Martin makes an appearance, and exploding pens and ejector seats are mentioned affectionately. The audience also learns more about Bond’s back-story, as well as the origin of at least one other major character from the older movies. Though Craig is at this time signed on for two more films, it’s tough to say where the character can go from here, not to mention the actor himself, who is in his mid-forties. The audience seems willingly to find out, however. As of this weekend, Skyfall is the highest grossing Bond film of all time.


Dark Shadows

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

May 22, 2012

Johnny Depp has long fostered the identity of the bizarre outsider in the entertainment world. Often, it seems as though he purposefully picks the most caricture-like, cartoonish roles he can find, looking to escape traditional leading man status. But by fighting against being type-cast as the heartthrob, Depp has simply forced himself into another box. Tim Burton is often the director who provides him with the unorthodox characters that now make up the majority of his oeuvre.

Dark Shadows is the eighth film Depp and Burton have worked on together. Their first, and best, was 1990’s Edward Scissorhands. They also made Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (their worst effort), Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and Alice in Wonderland.

It’s funny: outside of his films, Depp is considered one of the best-looking men in Hollywood. He’s got a rakish, devil-may-care attitude, and he always sports a deep tan, long flowing hair and several tattoos. Tim Burton, on the other hand, looks like he could fit right in with the characters in one of his surreal films. He has dark, wild hair and a pale complexion. Interestingly, in each of Depp and Burton’s collaborations, Depp comes to look more and more like Burton himself, and less and less like Johnny Depp.

In Dark Shadows (based on the 1960s and ’70s television show), Depp plays Barnabas Collins, a (pale, dark haired) vampire who was locked in a coffin in the 1760s and in accidently dug up 200 years later, in 1972. Everything about the swinging ’70s, from cars to televisions to women’s lib, is new and foreign to him. Much of the film’s humor comes from placing Barnabas in situations where a man born two centuries ago would have no idea how to react.

Michelle Pfeiffer plays a haughty matriarch in her second collaboration with Tim Burton.

Michelle Pfeiffer plays a haughty matriarch in her second collaboration with Tim Burton.

Barnabas’ back story is a bit complicated: He comes from a wealthy family who founded the seafaring village of Collinsport, Maine shortly after arriving in the New World from England. He had an affair with one of the family’s maids, Angelique (Eva Green), but never loved her. Instead, he becomes engaged to his true love, Josette (newcomer Bella Heathcote). Unfortunately for them both, Angelique is a witch. She hypnotizes Josette to jump to her death. Barnabas witnesses her demise, and jumps into the ocean after her, hoping to die as well. Angelique curses him with vampirism, however, so he cannot die. Instead, Angelique sets the town against him and locks him in his coffin, where he is forced to lie in time-out for two centuries.

When Barnabas is awakened by a crew of unsuspecting construction workers (whom he promptly devours), he sets off to find what remains of his family and their estate. He discovers that only four Collinses are left, and that their fortune has expired. Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer, in her second collaboration with Burton) is the family’s long-suffering matriarch. Her daughter Carolyn (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a severely bored and disaffected teenager. Roger (Johnny Lee Miller), Elizabeth’s brother, also resides in the collapsing Collins mansion, along with his young son David (Gulliver McGrath), who tells everyone he meets that he can communicate with the ghost of his dead mother. David’s au pair, Vicky (also played by Heathcote), joins the family just before Barnabas resurfaces.

Like many Depp-Burton collaborations, much of the fun of Dark Shadows is in the visuals. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amelié, Across the Universe) creates beautiful imagery of the stormy Maine countryside, and production designer Rick Heinrichs (Sleepy Hollow, The Big Lebowski) overfills Collinsport with so much awful ’70s decor that it appears at times as though the audience is on an acid trip along with one of the film’s aging hippie characters.


Angelique (Eva Green) has a 200-year-old crush. Girl, it’s time to move on.

Then there are Depp and Pfeiffer, the latter of whom stole every scene in which she appears. These two have much experience creating vamping, campy characters who don’t as much chew the scenery as they rip it to shreds and come back for seconds. Pfeiffer appears haughtily disdainful (and later, haughtily helpful), preening about the set like a queen forced to bunk with the stable hands. Depp, for his part, can’t quite match Pfeiffer’s sneering, but his misunderstanding of 20th century customs (women doctors? what?) is humorous. In Dark Shadows, this over-acting is appropriate. The entire production is over-the-top.

This approach works wonderfully for the first 30 minutes of the film. Eventually, though, the movie runs out of steam. There are simply too many characters, too many side plots and too much backstory to fit into 113 minutes. Burton tries to speed things along by including several montages, but they’re a cheap substitute for real storytelling.

The main plotline, I suppose, concerns Barnabas’ rekindled love for Vicky/Josette (the film never does explain how Heathcote plays both characters, even though Vicky also interacts with Josette’s ghost). Honestly, Depp has little chemistry with either Heathcote or Green (as a witch, Angelique has also been around for 200 years, and she and Barnabas can’t seem to keep their hands off each other when they meet again, his undying love for Vicky/Josette aside). Barnabas appears rather nonsexual, though the plot revolves around his crazed love life.

If I were writing Dark Shadows—which was actually written by Seth Grahame-Smith, who also wrote the novels and screenplays Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies—I would cut out all the extra junk and just concentrate on Depp, Pfeiffer and Green—another master of antipathy. Few of the other characters—particularly Carolyn, who comes off like she’s continuously recovering from anesthesia—are necessary. Just let these three masters of creepy-kooky camp play around. Dark Shadows doesn’t need everything else.


Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

May 22, 2012

Britney Spears and Demi Lovato have been named "X Factor's" newest judges.

Britney Spears and Demi Lovato have been named “X Factor’s” newest judges.

Reality show singing competitions may have originated back in the late ’90s (anyone else remember Say What? Karaoke and Making the Band?), but they have never been bigger than right now. American Idol crowned Kelly Clarkson its first winner 10 years ago, and the show’s Wednesday and Thursday episodes are still the second- and fourth-highest-rated hours on TV today, respectively. Idol’s biggest rival, The Voice comes in only slightly behind.

Seeing how popular these programs are, it only makes sense that other entertainment figures are trying to cash in. Jennifer Lopez revitalized her entire career when she became an Idol judge last season. Maroon 5’s Adam Levine saw similarly increased album sales when he became a judge on The Voice, and even Christina Aguilera, who hasn’t released any music of her own since starting on that show, scored a top-10 single as a featured vocalist on Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger.” It was her first hit in four years.

Becoming a reality TV judge used to be a career move for older stars like Paula Abdul or Lopez, who were looking to reach a younger audience. More recently, however, it has become a viable path for pop singers who are at the peaks of their careers.

On May 14, X Factor creator and judge Simon Cowell announced that Britney Spears and Demi Lovato would replace season one judges Nicole Scherzinger (of The Pussycat Dolls) and Abdul. Cowell and the other continuing judge, music mogul L.A. Reid, brought Spears and Lovato onto the show on May 14 to introduce them as the new judges.

We know these women can sell albums, but how will Spears and Lovato do as judges? Spears is now known more for her wild behavior than for her music, which has become more and more auto-tuned and overproduced with each album she releases. She has appeared on reality TV once before, in 2005’s Britney and Kevin: Chaotic. The show documented Spears and then-husband Kevin Federline’s bizarro and short-lived marriage. It was critically panned and lasted for less than a full month on UPN, so no great vote of confidence there.

Much less is known about Lovato, the 19-year-old former Disney Channel star. She has released three albums in the last four years, all of which reached the top four or higher on the Billboard charts. Though she hasn’t come close to Spears in terms of an image crisis, she has had a few public problems of her own. In 2010, she entered a rehab program for an eating disorder and self-harm. These issues, however, are obviously serious, and should not be fodder for public judgement the way Spears’ antics have been.

Auditions for X Factor’s second season have already begun. The season will air in September. Until then, well, let’s just hope that Lovato and Spears can stay out of trouble long enough to prove they can be as successful as the stars who have judged before them.

Next to Normal

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

May 1, 2012

"Next to Normal" is peppered with moments of both hilarity and such profound despair that it rises above trite arguments of right and wrong.

“Next to Normal” is peppered with moments of both hilarity and such profound despair that it rises above trite arguments of right and wrong.

Free Play Theater Cooperative’s rock musical Next to Normal, which ran this past weekend in Schwartz Hall, examines the life of a suburban family fighting against matriarch Diana’s (Abigail Clarke ’12) chronic mental illness.

Diana is bipolar (though at one point she explains, “Bipolar doesn’t quite cover it.”) and experiences bursts of manic energy. However, she tends to feel anxious and depressed most of the time. Mental health is not often the subject matter of musical theater, a genre known for its incessant good cheer. But Next to Normal, written by Brian Yorkey with music by Tom Kitt, uses the form to its advantage, allowing the characters to express in lyrics what they cannot say to one another directly.

The majority of Next to Normal is conducted in song, rather than through dialogue. Additionally, the characters often sing complex vocal arrangements consisting of different lyrics, which combine to make one complex sound. Director David Benger ’14 dexterously staged number after number—37 in all—often without pause between the songs. Next to Normal takes on social issues, lambasting the pharmaceutical industry and the malaise of suburban America. As such, the writing could have veered off into preaching, but the show is peppered with moments of both hilarity and such profound despair that it rises above trite arguments of right and wrong.

Clarke (who was also the production’s vocal director) played the complex role of Diana with simplicity and elegance. Her desperation for a “normal life” was palpable and heartbreaking. It was Jared Greenberg ’12 as Diana’s son Gabe, however, who truly stole the show. While I won’t reveal the play’s central revelation, of which Gabe is the focus, I will say that Greenberg was perfectly suited to the part.

Gabe may speak a few lines of dialogue, but I don’t recall them. Rather, the character sings his way through every scene in which he appears, a task that requires additional skill from the actor portraying him. Additionally, Greenberg was rarely still on stage, instead leaping, twisting and bopping to every song—his movements nearly balletic in form.

I found Gabe to be, if not Next to Normal’s villain, then at least the embodiment of the family’s torment. He was often crouched, gargoyle-like and ready to pounce, on the stage’s second level. In “I’m Alive,” the show’s most electric number, he suddenly springs down into the main level, proving that he is, indeed, bursting with life.

Gabe (Jared Greenberg) sings his way through every scene in which he appears, a task that requires additional skill from the actor portraying him.

Gabe (Jared Greenberg) sings his way through every scene in which he appears, a task that requires additional skill from the actor portraying him.

Dan (Justy Kosek ’14), Diana’s endlessly patient husband, is the crumbling rock in the sea of swirling, overwhelming emotions that drenches the show. While Kosek could not quite match the other performers in terms of vocal ability, his portrayal of a lost soul clinging to a promise made 20 years ago was wonderfully depressed. Mental illness, like all diseases, affects not only the sufferers but their families as well. In the song “I’ve Been,” Dan tries to explain to his ailing wife why he’s remained with her all these years. He utters the crushing line, “Mine is just a slower suicide,” with agonizing acceptance that defines his adult life, and the audience’s hearts break.

Diana’s pharmacologists, Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden (both played by Dotan Horowitz ’12) are similarly stumped, though of course they are not as invested as Diana’s family in the outcome of her treatment. The Doctors serve primarily as Kitt and Yorkey’s mouthpieces to address the everyday evils of over-drugging patients and electroshock therapy. Though the roles are laced with over-the-top antics, I found it problematic that Dr. Madden places Diana’s cure in her own hands. He implores her to, “Make up your mind to be well.” Kitt and Yorkey are right: Vicodin and lithium may not be the answer, but victim blaming isn’t either.

Dan and Diana’s other child, Natalie (Sarah Hines ’15) plays off her father’s need to believe with feelings of fury, abandonment and self-centered loneliness. Natalie puts up a sarcastic, over-achieving front in order to cope with the ground zero that is her home life. Her boyfriend Henry (Nick Maletta ’13), a quiet stoner who sees past Natalie’s hard shell, is Next to Normal’s only fully likeable character. Paradoxically, he’s also the least fleshed out. The most we hear about his back-story is a throwaway line about how his mother is “in denial” about his drug use. Maletta possesses a strong, clear voice, necessary for Henry’s falsetto solos. I only wish that he and Hines had more chemistry on stage. Hines plays Natalie well, but so willfully that it didn’t appear she really needed a boyfriend to get through, even as she teeters perilously close to the brink herself.

Next to Normal is a powerful, gut-wrenching look at living with the invisible, uncontrollable monster named depression. Kitt and Yorkey won several Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for their play. It may almost be too good—after seeing Saturday’s performance, I had difficulty concentrating on anything else. The haunting lyrics followed me out of Schwartz Hall and hung over me like a personal raincloud for the rest of the day.

In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

April 24, 2012

Scientists are not entirely sure of the evolutionary purpose of the female orgasm. It may be a physical fluke, created because all fetuses start with the same building blocks, regardless of gender, and therefore men and women end up with some of the same bodily abilities. Or, perhaps, female orgasms serve an evolutionary function: some scholars argue that female orgasms help keep sperm inside the woman and even propel it upwards towards the ovaries. Sexy.

The characters in Brandeis Players’ In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play, which ran Thursday through Sunday in the Carl J. Shapiro Theater, don’t quite think in terms of evolutionary purpose, however. The play takes place shortly after the Civil War in the home of a doctor who specializes in curing “hysteria”—a uniquely female catch-all condition used to explain symptoms as diverse as fainting spells, weakness, sensitivity to light and insomnia. The cure? Pelvic massage. Due to the recent innovation of electrical wiring in private homes, doctors can now masturbate their female patients into good health.

Of course, the character Dr. Givings (Aaron Fischer ’15) sees nothing sexual in this therapy. He chats quite amiably with his patients as he manipulates “the instrument” under a sheet, asking them to describe their experience and practically patting them on the head afterwards, rewarding them for a job well done. At first, Dr. Givings’ wife, Catherine (Leila Stricker ’13) is blissfully unaware of the mechanics of her husband’s practice, noting only how his patients seem to rapidly improve after several daily sessions.

Catherine’s growing sense of detachment from her husband is the undercurrent running throughout In the Next Room. She was once proud to refer to Dr. Givings as an aloof “scientist,” grinning as she pronounced the word to Sabrina—a patient—and her husband Mr. Daldry (Nicole Carlson ’14 and Ben Gold ’13, respectively). As the play progresses, however, the audience comes to know Catherine’s feelings of loneliness and uselessness, which are spurred by her inability to nurse her newborn baby.

Stricker was a wonder as Catherine. She deftly juggled her character’s swift changes in mood, skillfully morphing from the flighty chatterbox of the first act to an introspective, demanding woman in the second. For a less-skilled actress, the role could have been trite or simply comedic. Stricker, however, demonstrated a young woman’s confusion and dawning realization that life is not all she hoped it’d be with touching emotion.

As Sabrina, Catherine’s accomplice in uncovering the mysteries of hysterical paroxysm—a.k.a. orgasm—Carlson was another delight. Upon her first entrance into the Givings’ home, Sabrina is covered in layers of dramatic dress, thick velvet draping her tiny frame and a large hat and veil perched upon her head like the top of an acorn. Executive costume designer Shana Burstyn ’12 and costume designer Grace Fosler ’14 did a magnificent job with the period costumes, particularly as dressing and undressing are such important tropes in the play.

As In the Next Room progresses, Sabrina’s hysteria dissipates along with her cloak and concealing veil, revealing an easy giggle and willingness to participate in Catherine’s schemes.

Using Sabrina’s hatpin, the women break into Dr. Giving’s operating theater, a chamber off the Givings’ living room. Catherine coaxes her friend into operating the vibrator on her. Thus, a female bond is born by way of orgasm.

The dissonance between what modern audiences know to be naughty and the utter seriousness with which the characters conduct their “therapy” gives In the Next Room its comedic edge. However, this is a joke that, at times, grows stale. Watching Dr. Givings or his efficient nurse Annie (Chastity DeLorme ’14) bring unsuspecting women to orgasm is funny the first time. Watching it again and again becomes overkill, particularly as the play runs a lengthy two and a half hours.

I wondered how the men in the audience viewed these scenes (and the play in general). Men invariably have a different attitude toward orgasm, a pleasure most can achieve even before puberty without the use of forbidden toys or a Barry White CD.

In the Next Room, by playwright Sarah Ruhl, could only have been written by a woman. And a deft, affecting performance such as the one I saw on Saturday night could only have been directed by a woman—in this case, Tess Suchoff ’13. Though In the Next Room takes place in the 1880s, when the vibrator was first invented, women are often still discouraged from taking control over their own bodies and pleasure today.

The play comes to a close in a tender, dramatic scene between Catherine and Dr. Givings. Inspired by her wet nurse Elizabeth (Sneha Walia ’15) and a brief infatuation with a rare male patient (Julian Seltzer ’15), Catherine becomes determined to reconnect, sexually and emotionally, with her husband. Echoing an earlier point in their relationship in which Catherine recalls writing her name in the snow as a gift to her husband, the pair wander out to their garden on a snowy winter night. Catherine gently commands Dr. Givings to undress, discovering her husband visually for the first time. They make love in the snow, and Catherine experiences her first orgasm from her husband.

The scene was beautifully arranged. Executive lighting designer Carolyn Daitch ’14 and lighting designers Jessica Podhorcer ’15 and Ian Carroll ’15 bathed the stage in small flickering lights. Catherine and Dr. Givings stand nearly bare before lying on the ground. I’ve seen nudity and simulated sex in theater before. But, perhaps because the play was not a glossy professional theater production, or because Ruhl’s dialogue turned so raw and needing, I was more emotionally stirred by this scene than I have been by similar spectacles. In the Next Room’s conclusion shined a light on the play’s true theme beyond its sexual highjinks: forming true connections.

Brandeis Film Festival

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

March 27, 2012

You walk into a darkened theater populated by an audience grouped in twos and threes. On the screen, images twist about, a combination of avant-garde film techniques and accidentally unfocused camerawork. You’re at Indie Louies’ third annual film festival, hosted by the Brandeis Film Collective. Let the experience begin.

Indie Louies is Brandeis’ answer to Cannes. You might not see celebrities pulling up in yachts outside of the Mandel Center for the Humanities, but within its doors there was definitely talent—and entertainment—to be found. Students from throughout the country can submit their short films to the festival, all of which are accepted. Viewers are given a ballot to vote for their favorites, which are then recognized at the Awards Ceremony in the Shapiro Campus Center Multipurpose Room. Asia Wok catered, which I like to think is the Waltham equivalent of the hundred-dollar swag bags that celebs get at big awards shows.

The two-day festival started in Cholmondeley’s on Friday night with a screening of BFC’s 48-hour films (a.k.a. films that were made in a 48-hour period earlier this year). Next up, student comedians Emma Avruch ’13 and Diego Medrano ’13 took the stage, performing short individual sets. Cinncinnati-based indie-rock band Foxy Shazam was set to perform after them, but due to a last minute cancellation, several student groups took the stage in their place, including the newly formed band Swanson.

The festivities began Friday night, but Saturday was the main event. From 1 to 5 p.m., 27 films played in the Mandel Center Auditorium. The audience was composed of clumps of friends and film enthusiasts. Host and projector operator Tom Phan ’14 took advantage of the casual crowd to crack a few jokes about the screening’s poor visual quality. It was unclear if the problem lay in the computer, the screen or the projector, but all of the black shading in the films appeared to crackle or glitter with white highlights.

Despite these setbacks, viewers gamely sat through hours of the low- or no-budget films. It was easy to tell which clips were favorites, such as “Don’t Tell Jenn,” a documentary produced by Rhode Island University senior Colby Blanchet. “Don’t Tell Jenn” follows Blanchet as he struggles to remain afloat after dropping out of his California State University exchange program due to lack of funds. Instead of returning home rejected, he filmed the last month of his time in California, including antics like basement sumo-wrestling tournaments and couch surfing around the greater Los Angeles area. Blanchet was able to spend an entire month without revealing to his mom—the “Jenn” of the film’s title—that he was not actually enrolled in school. Students were drawn to the film’s sarcastic humor, as well as to the variety of comedy Blanchet employed, including several songs. The video ended up taking home both Best Documentary/Autobiographical Film and Best Comedy.

Students gather to support amateur video festival

Students gather to support amateur video festival

“Communion Cups and Someone’s Coat,” the music video shot by Myles Tyrer-Vasell ’12 in early February, was another well-liked clip. Tyrer-Vasell created his own video for “Communion Cups,” an Iron and Wine song, as the band currently doesn’t have an official video for the single.

The music video features the ups and downs of a couple’s (Joanna Nix ’12 and Suffolk University student Alec Lawless) love life. The three-minute film was shot all in one take, an impressive feat that worked well given the song’s simple elegance.

A third film that had the crowd in fits of laughter was host Phan’s own mockumentary, “Portrait of a Skater.” The film features Phan’s attempts to “go pro” as a terribly misguided skateboarder. I was impressed by David Yun’s ’14 camerawork and “behind-the-scenes” interviews and flashbacks that have come to exemplify such shows as The Office and Parks and Recreation. Phan, a member of improvcomedy troupe Bad Grammer was hilarious as an uptight skater with little talent who dreams of becoming a star.

Other winners at Indie Louies included “Lifeguard on Duty,” another mockumentary by Temple University’s Janky Liver Productions, and “Premonition,” a psychological thriller by Emerson College senior Anthony Esposito. “Lifeguard on Duty” won People’s Choice Award, Best Screenplay and Best Directing, and “Premonition” secured Best Sound Design, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography and Best Picture. Brandeis alumna Amy Thompson ’11 also took home Best Editing for her comedic short “Lint.”

While not all the films were as successful as the ones I’ve mentioned—a documentary about an elderly woman infested with maggots comes to mind—Indie Louies continues to be a fun and always-interesting look at what our friends and peers are up to behind the camera.

We Need to Talk about Kevin

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

March 13, 2012

The characters in We Need to Talk About Kevin should have followed just that advice. Maybe then Kevin Khatchadourian (Ezra Miller) wouldn’t have gone and done … well, whatever terrible thing he did. The film doesn’t exactly let the audience know until its very end. The question of whether Kevin could have been stopped illustrates the larger nature vs. nurture argument that forms the core of the film.

Director and screenwriter Lynne Ramsay, along with screenwriter Rory Kinnear, adapted We Need to Talk About Kevin from Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel of the same name.

Ramsay is an experimental filmmaker. She has only directed two feature films previously—2002’s Morvern Callar and 1999’s Ratcatcher, both of which received some critical acclaim but didn’t make much of a stir, probably due to their odd subject material and unorthodox style.

We Need to Talk About Kevin follows a similar pattern, but boasts one major difference: Tilda Swinton. Swinton is a beloved Scottish character actor who, despite her lack of name recognition and androgynous, alien-like features, continues to pop up in some of the most captivating films of the past two decades.

Swinton plays Eva Khatchadourian, Kevin’s beleaguered mother. From infancy, she and her child never really bonded. As a baby, Kevin would cry constantly, and despite Eva’s efforts, only his father, Franklin (John C. Reilly), could soothe him. Kevin is filmed out of sequence, showing three different times in the Khatchadourians’ lives: Eva and Franklin’s courtship up through Kevin’s childhood; his time in high school; and P.D., or Post-Disaster, of which he was apparently the cause.

Tilda Swinton is the best part of this troubling but engrossing film.

Tilda Swinton is the best part of this troubling but engrossing film.

When I think back over the film, I mostly remember red. Kevin opens with a shot of Swinton and others bathing, dancing and convulsing in a thick red liquid. Is it blood? Not literally. The liquid is tomato juice, and Swinton is at some sort of European tomato-flinging festival. Other red-tinted shots crop up continuously: rain beating against red stained glass; Eva standing in front of a display of red soup cans; both Eva and Kevin in red clothing; and in a pivotal scene in the high school’s gym, red floor and wall mats that border the room like foreboding sentries.

All of this symbolism can get a bit heavy-handed. But it certainly gives the film a tone, which is necessary, as it doesn’t have a whole lot of plot. Mostly we see scenes depicting Eva and Kevin’s subtle struggle for dominance. By the time Kevin turns six, Eva has begun to resent him, and once her son has entered high school, mother and son silently detest each other. Franklin is infuriatingly blind to the civil war going on in his family, though what little he does understand he blames on Eva. After all, Kevin is just a child. How could he harbor such malice?

Franklin (John C. Reilly) and Eva's relationship also begins to fall apart as a rift named Kevin grows between them.

Franklin (John C. Reilly) and Eva’s relationship begins to fall apart as a rift named Kevin grows between them.

The audience, however, sees Kevin acting out. Not in normal innocent ways, but in cruel deeds meant to hurt Eva. He destroys her artwork and intentionally refuses to use the toilet long after it’s become inappropriate to wear diapers. His character is irritating and a little scary.

As he edges toward adulthood, his actions grow more sinister. Franklin and Eva’s relationship also begins to fall apart as a rift named Kevin grows between them. At one point, they discuss divorce, and Kevin overhears. Trying to reassure his son, Franklin explains, “It’s easy to misunderstand something when you hear it out of context.” Kevin icily responds, “Why would I not understand the context? I am the context.”

Miller does a good job as Kevin, though ultimately his character is meant to remain enigmatic, and Miller’s dead eyes and sneering expression is as much as we’re ever going to know about what’s going on inside his head. It is Swinton, instead, who lets the viewers in on what’s going on in the minds of the characters. The aggressive stares and overt whispers of her neighbors, her own mind’s betrayal, the grief at what her life has become: all of it plays across Swinton’s thin, pale face like a slap ricocheting across her fine features.

We’ve all heard about the early signs of psychosis: bed wetting, harming animals, anti-social behavior. Kevin has some, but not all of the symptoms. Could Eva and Franklin have known how far their son’s anger would take him? More importantly, did they create it? Kevin never gives a definitive answer, instead forcing the audience to question what’s really the cause of his behavior. Was he born that way? Or is Eva the real monster hiding in the closet?