Home Alone


It didn’t matter if you went to school a few miles from Columbine like I did, or you went to school half way across the country. The shooting still left the same mark on everyone’s psyche.

I’ve seen three films now that have attempted to talk about school massacres. They were all pretentious messes. “Elephant”, “The Life Before Her Eyes” (easily the worst of the bunch, by a mile), and now “We Need to talk About Kevin”.

I remember liking “Elephant” and in fact I still own the DVD. But there is something gravely wrong with that movie. Van Sant puts distance between us and the event, despite how realistic he tries to make it. We roam the halls of a real high school, following real high school kids who have never acted before. But by the nature of this method, we feel we are watching a movie, and the reality seems to be missing. Why did I like the film? For completely unrelated reasons. I thought he did a good job of capturing what a high school sounded like, better than any film I’d seen up to that point. I thought his technique was interesting. He drifted through those hallways as if from the POV of a stoned student with senioritis who bails on his classes and just…walks around for awhile. Interesting! I don’t recall seeing a film quite like it before or since.

Still, it lacked honesty about the subject it was addressing, and I feel the same way about the other movies I listed. “We Need to talk About Kevin” does not feel earnest to me. It feels plotted, purposeful, and too manipulative for me to take it seriously. If it’s not going to take this subject seriously then I’m not going to take it seriously either.

In this film, I don’t know what Kevin is. A friend I saw the film with says he is a construct of his mother’s hate. Because Eva (Tilda Swinson, who is incredible in this movie) seems to detest him from the minute he’s born. Obviously there are women who have PPD, but this has to be the most harrowing, on-the-verge-of-murder PPD I’ve ever seen. So is it only natural the boy becomes…demonic?

No, not exactly. I am sure many mothers who go through PPD end up raising very good sons and daughters. The film very clearly makes the point that if the boy was only a little bit more – human – then Eva would not find him so strange and difficult to raise. But she has a hell of a time with it. Contrast it with his father (played by John C Reilly) who isn’t noticing one damn thing out of the blue about him. So really, the title of the film becomes deliciously ironic. They never talk about Kevin, even though they probably should.

So what’s the warning on the label then? Is it, “not addressing your kid’s weird quirkiness may result in a school massacre someday.”

The massacre is what really confuses me. I’m not sure why it’s in the movie. Worse still, the massacre is saved for the climax and we are constantly teased about it right until it happens. We get glimpses of police lights, strange buzzing sounds, screams…and we don’t know what it all means until they are finally put together in a straight sequence at the end. I will say the technique was handled very well, and I have nothing but respect for the way they held out information. I felt it was building…but towards what?

Here is yet another film where reality is blurred through a prism. In this case, that prism is the little boy. It was impossible for me to take the character seriously. Every word of dialogue felt straight from a screenwriter’s brain. This character, at all stages of his “life” – from a boy to a teenager, felt too “movie-ish”. It was a role. It was not a character. You could have plucked this boy out of the movie and inserted him into a horror film and at least that would have been more honest.

I feel there is a good foundation of a story here. Certainly any parent can relate to the situation where their son or daughter does something gravely stupid and lets them down. Maybe not on the scale of say, mass murder, but the seed of it is an excellent subject. I just think they made a fatal mistake by using a school massacre as the seed. That is still a heavy cloud on the country’s psyche, in the way 9/11 always will be. Like many 9/11 movies (particularly any involving Nicholas Cage as a firefighter) the film does not handle the subject with the honesty I would expect to see. Best 9/11 movie might be “United 93”. We don’t yet have a “united 93” for school massacres.

Not that I’d ever want to see one…





Spin offs are hard to do


I saw a movie called “Shredder” several months ago. It is an independent film made by a friend of mine, Cody Clarke. I am one of the few people who have seen the film, and of the people who have seen it, one of the few who are qualified to blog about it.

The film defies many conventional techniques in a manner that is stubborn and ritualistic. I would compare it to something like “Brown Bunny”, if only because I know Clarke adores that movie, and I can’t stand it. Our varying reactions to that film indicate a love-it or hate-it degree of separation with no place for discussion in the middle. Either the film succeeds wildly or fails miserably.

And that is what Clarke is going for here. There’s no interest on his part in going straight for middle of the road. Your reaction will be based on an absolute love for what he’s doing, or complete unmitigated hatred. In either case it’s good to have his email address handy to tell him what you thought of it.

In my amazing ability for objective analysis I’ll share why someone could hate the film, and then reasons why someone could love it with equal fervor.

Before I do that I should probably go through the plot outline, if only briefly. An anonymous posting on IMDB indicates the film is centrally focused on “Travis, a High School senior who has fallen out of love with writing comedy songs on guitar and in love with practicing heavy metal. Through a fly-on-the-wall filmmaking approach in which static shots are utilized exclusively, we follow Travis’ ups and downs with friends, love interests, and his instrument.”

I would say that is a fairly accurate description of the film, so kudos to “Anonymous” for posting that. I don’t think the plot is open to a lot of different interpretations, either. That description is verifiable and there isn’t a lot of ambiguity about it.

So stylistically, Clarke is not going for David Lynch territory, although Clarke and Lynch share a similarity. Both of their first films were shot in black and white. Clarke may have shot his in color first, and then transferred it to black and white, but with digital filmmaking today, you can do whatever you like and nobody will hold it against you. So don’t worry about it, Cody. If it’s black and white it’s easy to convince me you shot it that way first.

Before we get too far into this, let’s get one thing straight first. There is no mention of anyone named Shredder in the film. You can coast on advertising your film as a spin off of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for only so long before Shredder must make an appearance. I haven’t read any interviews with Clarke that confirms nor denies this is a TMNT spin off. But if you are a TMNT fan, proceed at your own risk.

However, a guitar does make an appearance. Often guitar players in heavy metal bands like to “shred”, or play on their guitar very quickly, so that might be a more accurate indication of what the title is referring to.

The main character Travis (Cody Clarke) spends some time shredding, albeit rather slowly. An observer could hardly call it shredding. There is not much heavy metal music found in the film, either. So heavy metal fans may watch the film with a heavy heart, too.

But there is music. Some of it is quite good, too. There is a sequence in the middle of the film where Travis invites his friends to play songs. Just like in the film “Sex and the City”, where a plot is interrupted by a shopping sequence, here there is a plot interrupted by people playing music. It’s intimate, and feels like some of your friends came over just to belt a couple tunes before you finished watching your movie.

I think where haters and lovers will differ on the film has everything to do with style. The plot is mercilessly slow. The camera is mercilessly still. The sound is mercilessly quiet. The photography is mercilessly black and white. The actors are mercilessly unaware there is a camera recording them. Those are the building blocks of a contained little movie that will try your patience, but also reward a close viewing.

Because despite how minimalist, and “fly on the wall” the film is, Travis is a character we’re trying to figure out for 87 minutes. His pillow talk conversations with his girlfriend are ones I think viewers can relate to. Beneath his empty words and casual, laissez faire demeanor, is a guy afraid of taking any risks with his life. He’s comfortable sitting in his apartment with the windows shut, and getting reprimanded by his mom. If Travis wore a blanket all the time, and grew a huge beard, it would be a similar lifestyle to the one Osama bin Laden was enjoying in that compound for so long. I don’t know if bid Laden was practicing how to shred, and I don’t think his mom was around, but his wives sure were. I bet once in awhile they poked their head in his room and told him to keep it down so their 25 kids wouldn’t wake up.

Comparing Travis to bin Laden might be a reach. But there is a fine line between a high school kid practicing on his guitar alone in his New York City bedroom, and a jihadist in the making. Just give him a reason. His boredom is a good foundation.

Because Clarke is the main actor in the film, and he directed the film in his home state of New York City, allow me to be the first critic who compares Clarke to Woody Allen. Clarke intends to make one film every year, like Allen. I want this comparison to be true. Because I want Clarke to marry his step daughter, and I want Clarke to make solid, memorable films about New York for years to come.

Cody has posted a link to his movie, which you can watch here: