Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

Director: Lynne Ramsay

*****

Be under no misapprehension: Kevin Khatchadourian (Ezra Miller) is a horror. This twisted teenager spends his whole life doing only one thing: tormenting his mother Eva (Tilda Swinton) with his behaviour. As a toddler, he purposely and repeatedly soils himself. As a child, he undermines his mother with backchat and swearing. As a teenager, he kills nine people in a massacre at his high school. Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of We Need To Talk About Kevin, like its source novel, is pulling no punches.

Lionel Shriver’s novel was published in 2003, and was hailed as a brilliant depiction of a parent’s worst nightmare. The film loses none of that dread-filled potency in translation. Kevin’s actions are undoubtedly reprehensible, but what both book and film highlight is the possibility that Eva, however unwittingly, influenced Kevin’s actions. Early scenes show Eva enjoying herself on holiday and canoodling with her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly). A clip at La Tomatina festival in Spain sees Eva rolling in the tomato juice spilled all over the ground. The blood of Kevin’s victims will be a harder stain to remove. Co-writers (and spouses) Ramsay and Rory Kinnear eschew the letters Eva writes to the estranged Franklin that make up Shriver’s novel and focuses squarely on Eva, hopping back and forth between the aftermath of the shooting as she tries to pick up the pieces of her life and her life with Kevin, from his birth up to and during his incarceration. Her angular looks and fierce performances have earned Swinton a reputation for playing ice maidens (sometimes literally, as in The Chronicles Of Narnia), which make her perfect for the role of Eva. She was a traveller, an explorer, not destined to settle down. Yet, she had to do that which is expected and become a mother. Could the resentment she harboured have been passed to Kevin before his birth? From the moment he’s born, Kevin doesn’t stop crying around Eva, foreshadowing the misery he is to heap up on her for years to come. Swinton suffers beautifully; watching her go from grimacing at the crying infant Kevin to hiding in fear from a parent of one of the adolescent Kevin’s victims is remarkable. WNTTAK will speak to a lot of women who fear motherhood would rob them of their freedom. They’ll at least be able to reassure themselves any child they have won’t be as bad as Kevin (probably). Miller is both hateable and horrifying; you’d like to punch him, but you’d be afraid he’d bite you first. All the while, Reilly looks on in confused denial as Kevin offers Eva nothing but resentment, and she returns only with scorn. Each one seems to feed the others’ trauma in a warped symbiosis. The arrival of a little sister (Ashley Gerasimovich) and moving to a new house do nothing to change Kevin’s attitude; he’s hated, and that’s the way he likes it.

Ramsay’s film is stark not only in its subject matter, but in its colour palette. Blood red paint is spattered on Eva’s house, her car is a hideous yellow whilst Kevin’s room is a deeper shade of blue. Meanwhile, the hideously happy soundtrack and fractured timeline add to the angst as Eva’s world comes crashing down. We feel for her, but there is a sense of complicity; the lines between nature and nurture are blurred, and Eva’s going to get the blame. We Need To Talk About Kevin, like Eva, won’t hold your hand to guide you. It gives you these people and leaves you make your own mind up. During one prison visit, Eva asks Kevin, “Why?” He responds, “I used to think I knew. Now I’m not so sure.” Prepare to be challenged and refreshed.

We Need To Talk About Kevin? We’ll need a stiff drink afterwards.

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Cynical Corner: Reflections on a Festival – London 2011

George Clooney at the premiere of 'The Descendants'

A film festival is a strange organism. Whilst it is largely identified by the level of glitz and glamour it can attract, a festival such as the London Film Festival (LFF) must serve a number of purposes for a number of different groups. For gossip hounds and autograph hunters, it’s about catching glimpses of the stars on the red carpet. For the stars themselves, the festival is equally about celebrating their art and drumming up publicity, creating a buzz around their product to attract awards and increasing the number of bottoms on seats. The film studios and distributors are usually of the same mind as far as revenues and awards are concerned. Then, there are the ardent film fans such as yours truly, for whom the thrills of the stars and the red carpet ultimately pale next to the sheer quality of (some of) the films that are on offer. Sometimes, the bluster that stars and studios alike create is justified.

Director Alexander Payne at the premiere of 'The Descendants'

To wit, the premiere of The Descendants catered for all sides. Arriving on the red carpet at the Odeon on Leicester Square sent a tingle of giddiness and admitted self-importance through the spine. Still, the crowds on the other side of the barricades didn’t care, because they were getting what they came for. Further up on the right-hand side, cameras were going off in a flurry as George Clooney signed autographs and proffered cheeky grins. To the left of me on the other side of the barrier, two well-dressed ladies watched with glee and declared, “Oh my God, he’s so gorgeous!” Even members of the same gender are forced to admit that this most desired of men has a great presence and aura to him. The wry smile and impenetrable fleet of bodyguards surrounding him probably help in preserving that aura. Further along the red carpet, Descendants director Alexander Payne was getting decidedly less attention but was still a noticeable presence, not least because of the suit he was wearing, which was a bravely bright shade of blue. Ticketholders were requested to enter the cinema quickly; we lowly mortals retreated from the utterly dazzling flash of press photographers as Clooney approached the head of the red carpet. The glamour was done, now down to business! Arriving at my seat to find complimentary dark chocolate and bottled water, the rest of the auditorium filled up quickly as patrons buzzed excitedly about their own experiences on the red carpet. Many people would be rendered jealous by tales from friends of seeing Clooney up close in days to come. The buzz that filled the screening room subsided as the festival’s artistic director Sandra Hebron took to the stage to introduce Payne. That blue-suit blinded us once more as Payne spoke of his growing confidence as a filmmaker; considering he directed About Schmidt and Sideways, it was a little amusing to think of Payne as someone who needed to grow in confidence as a director. He was joined onstage by Clooney, co-star Shailene Woodley and producer Jim Burke and then wished everyone would enjoy the film. Revolving aournd Clooney’s Matt King, The Descendants tells the tale of a man trying to reconnect with his family and sort his life whilst his wife’s in a terminal coma. It’s typical Payne: frequently very funny, often very touching and very, very good.

Michael Shannon (L) takes questions with LFF Festival Programmer Michael Hayden at a screening of 'Take Shelter'

The gala performance of The Descendants is as big as premieres get. Other films enjoyed premieres, but on a smaller scale. Take the premiere of Take Shelter, for example. Just around the corner from the Odeon at Vue Leicester Square, Take Shelter’s premiere happened at the same time as that of Wild Bill, so they shared the red carpet. Onlookers enjoyed Jason Flemyng and Dexter Fletcher doing their red carpet thing before Take Shelter star Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, TV’s Boardwalk Empire) came down for photos and autographs. Fans were interspersed with curious passers-by and autograph hunters of both the amateur and professional kind (eBay must make a mint after the festival run). Though different in their box-office clout and drawing power, the likes of Clooney and Shannon are united by an appreciation of their fans’ interest and admiration, posing for as many photos and autographs as their bodyguards/repetitive strain injury will allow. Take Shelter sees Shannon on magnetic form as a man obsessed with preparing a storm shelter for an impending tempest that no-one believes him about and which his wife (Jessica Chastain) attributes to his family history of paranoid schizophrenia. In a Q&A afterwards, Shannon appears grateful, yet justly proud of his intense performance. The full screening room is drawn in by this self-effacing but intense actor. His other film in the festival, Return, is almost as engaging, though it seems to lack the interest that Take Shelter had. The screening I attended was only half-full, despite a Q&A by director Liza Johnson and lead actress Linda Cardellini (who gives a great performance as a soldier struggling to readjust to regular life). A red carpet opening might have helped, but a film can only be as good as the people who get behind it.

'Martha Marcy May Marlene' Q&A. (L-R) John Hawkes, Sean Durkin, Elizabeth Olsen and LFF Artistic Director Sandra Hebron

Clearly, the age of the star hasn’t ended yet. Look at Carnage, the latest by Roman Polanski. No stars in attendance, but the place was full! It helps that Carnage stars Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz (all Oscar winners) and John C. Reilly (Oscar nominee). Based on Yasmine Reza’s play, Carnage sees two couples meet after the son of one couple (Waltz and Winslet) hit the son of the other couple (Reilly and Foster) in a fight. It sounds heavy, but Carnage is a hilarious probe of the role of gender in society, and a farcical parody of modern parenting mores. Reilly had cornered the market for familial dysfunction at this festival, as he also starred in Lynne Ramsay’s devastating adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s acclaimed novel We Need To Talk About Kevin. Told from the point of view of Eva (Tilda Swinton, magnificent), WNTTAK is a bitter yet eloquent take on the nature-vs-nurture debate, charting the background of Eva’s son Kevin (Ezra Miller) committing a Columbine-style high school massacre. This year’s LFF seems to have a neat line in strangely disturbing dramas, as seen in the likes of WNTTAK and Martha Marcy May Marlene. MMMM sees Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, revelatory) dealing with her escape from a cult run by the charming-yet-slippery Patrick (Oscar nominee John Hawkes, eerie). An old hand like Polanski’s struggled to make Carnage feel less stagey, but MMMM is brought to vivid, creeping life by first time director Sean Durkin. At the Q&A for MMMM, Durkin seems a little shy around his new-found notoriety, whilst Olsen takes it all in her stride and Hawkes exudes an understated cool. It’s clear that the LFF is concerned with talent above experience, as it should be.

Beyond the dramas, LFF prides itself with a mix of genres. Horror (The Awakening), war (Matthieu Kassovitz’s Rebellion), romance (Like Crazy), mystery thriller (Headhunters, based on the Jo Nesbo novel) and even new silent film (The Artist) are represented. With a line-up of the local and the international, the old hands and the new kids, the LFF may be one festival in a line-up of many (Venice, Toronto and Sitges all happened in the last number of weeks), but it retains a class and commitment to quality that is evident to all who come to check out the stars, to soak up the atmosphere and to indulge in high-quality cinema.

The BFI London Film Festival runs until October 27th; festival award winners are announced the same day.

Review: Twelve Monkeys (1995)

Director: Terry Gilliam

****

Some films pay homage, some films get remade and some are like Twelve Monkeys. Chris Marker’s little masterpiece La Jetée gets an expectedly downbeat redux in Terry Gilliam’s film, and proves a good template for remakes/adaptations by being incredibly faithful to the source material. Add in Bruce Willis, and you’re on to a winner.

La Jetée itself is probably one of the biggest proponents of that great cinematic device, the dystopian future. As in Marker’s short, most of mankind has been wiped out by a virus and the survivors that remain have been forced underground to survive. As seen in Brazil, Gilliam is a dab hand at blending the futuristic, the dystopian and the chaotic and, much like that film, the future of Twelve Monkeys is well realized though aesthetically grim. Amongst the futuristic refugees is James Cole (Bruce Willis), a prisoner who can reduce his sentence by signing up for a time travel experiment and bringing back a sample of the virus to synthesize a cure. When the plan goes awry and Cole ends up in 1990, he is certified as insane when he tries to explain himself. Cole ends up in a mental institution under the watch of Dr. Railly (Madeleine Stowe), and where he befriends fellow patient Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). Pitt excels in a barrage of paranoid ramblings and nervous ticks, while Stowe’s initial cynicism melting into care for Cole makes her lack of a consistent career since all the more strange. Meanwhile, Willis turns in one of his best performances as the wronged and battered protagonist. After a few more failed attempts, Cole eventually ends up in 1996 and, with Railly’s help, discovers the truth about the virus and the group who released it, known as the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, now led by Goines and bent on destruction.

La Jetée was a downbeat film, but it overcame it with beautifully simple filmmaking technique and a runtime short enough to prevent the audience getting too down. Twelve Monkeys does get a little maudlin, but the movies have been telling us for years that the future is done for, so why worry? The future is grim, but Gilliam cleverly doesn’t make the present look much better. The virus was stolen from the laboratory owned by Goines’ father (Christopher Plummer), and once again our present selves become the architects of our future destruction. It’s not terribly optimistic, and key plot turns sometimes hinge on coincidence or happenstance, but Twelve Monkeys is brilliantly brash and bizarre, honouring Marker’s mini-opus whilst making a mark all of its own. Monkey see, monkey do, do see Monkeys.

Review: Melancholia (2011)

Director: Lars von Trier

**

The title of Lars von Trier’s latest sensual and sensuous assault refers to the name of a planet which has been hiding behind the sun and is on a possible collision course with Earth (Physics? Bah! Von Trier laughs at your ‘science’!). This potential cataclysm is witnessed from the points of view of two sisters, who are suffering their own doubts and depressions. Wristcutters need not apply. From the title to the characters to the gloom of both interior and exterior sets, Melancholia is bathed in a pervasive sense of deep unending depression. An oppressive tone is one thing, but when that depression borders on (and lapses into) navel-gazing, it feels miserable for misery’s sake. Imagine a film made by a suicidal Luis Buñuel, and you’ll probably come up with Melancholia.

The film is split into two parts, and opens at a lavish wedding reception for Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Mike (Alexander Skarsgård), which is being hosted at the mansion owned by Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). Justine and Mike arrive late as their oversized limo could not negotiate the narrow roads to the mansion for the reception, and here’s where we arrive with Melancholia’s first problem. If the world is on the verge of destruction, surely there are more deserving people to focus on than these bourgeois bores. The reception itself is far from pleasant, as Justine and Claire’s divorced parents (Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt) exchange barbed witticisms and bitterness. Meanwhile, Justine disappears for long stretches of the reception to be alone, to tuck her young nephew into bed or to take a bath whilst still wearing her tiara. It seems like spoiled-brat behaviour, but Dunst thankfully gets into Justine’s troubled psyche right from the get-go with her most accomplished performance yet. Gainsbourg, Sutherland et al do good work also, but Dunst is the beating heart of Melancholia. This would be one reason why the first half of the film is (relatively) more engaging than the second, as the emphasis shifts from Justine to Claire. The second half takes place after the wedding, as Claire takes Justine in whilst she sinks into a deeper depression. Meanwhile, Melancholia is getting closer and closer to Earth, and no-one is sure whether or not they will collide. Frankly, as the tone of the film becomes more and more pessimistic, you’ll wish they do collide so that these bores will be put out of their misery and we can all go home.

Melancholia feels like the most expensive student film ever made. It’s technically impressive (early slo-mo shots of Melancholia’s approach engage the eye beautifully) but emotionally adolescent, as Dunst and co. mope about, philosophizing about their (potentially) impending doom and their purpose in life. Von Trier’s script drops potentially interesting characters (Hurt’s and Skarsgård’s, for example) at the halfway point, whilst the insertion of extracts from Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’ invites unwelcome comparisons to similarly-themed and superior films (2001, etc.). Furthermore, the root of Justine’s depression is never explained concretely. Is it linked to the oncoming planet? Her anxiety over her marriage? Or something else entirely? Von Trier, in a failed attempt at profundity, never reveals the answer. For an visually and intellectually engaging treatise on human existence, see The Tree Of Life. For an emotionally invested and minimal take on Armageddon, see Perfect Sense. Melancholia is just too downbeat and convinced of its own brilliance to fit either bill. Von Trier courts controversy, but this is just too boring to raise any eyebrows.

Review: Perfect Sense (2011)

Director: David McKenzie

***

It’s typical, isn’t it? You meet a highly attractive member of the opposite sex and the world starts crashing down around you. Romances set against the backdrop of disaster have come and gone, but the hypotheticals in Perfect Sense show how a worldwide catastrophe can impact on just one relationship. Don’t expect Titanic-style melodrama; it’s the tangibility factor that gives this one its edge.

Susan (Eva Green) is an epidemiologist in Glasgow who’s assisting with research into a quickly-spreading disease that causes its victims to break down with overwhelming grief and then, as soon as they stop crying, lose their ability to smell. Around the same time Susan meets Michael (Ewan McGregor), a chef whose restaurant is feeling the effects as the smell-bereft stay away. At first, the mutual attraction and affection helps Michael and Susan overcome the loss of their sense of smell. It’s only when the sense of taste follows, and the inevitable chain of sensory deprivation becomes a greater threat, that cracks begin to appear. Marrying sci-fi and romance in some sort of even balance is not easy, so fair dues to writer Kim Fupz Aakeson for giving both the love story and the disaster element room to breathe. The simplicity of removing the senses one by one builds a sense of dread throughout the film. It also causes us to consider our reactions to such a disaster. Michael and Susan admit to themselves and each other that they can be unfeeling and unlikeable; are the senses being removed because of our failure to use them to our betterment and the betterment of others? Perfect Sense will certainly give pause for thought. The only problem is that it’s hard to feel any great hope for the romance when there’s little sense of hope or survival. Green and McGregor bare themselves (in every sense) in committed performances and generate sparks together, but the relentlessly increasing misery of the pandemic threatens to swamp them.

Director David MacKenzie (Young Adam, Hallam Foe) shows his usual preoccupations with human interaction and sexuality, but also shows a great knack for slow-build angst. Give him the reins of a thriller; it may prove very interesting. However, he does feel the need to squeeze whatever emotion he can out from under the disease angle; hence Max Richter’s tear-wringing score and romantic montages in fluid slo-mo. Perfect Sense works best if taken as a minimal apocalypse movie; it’s more heartfelt and relatable than anything involving a meteor heading towards the Earth. It’s just a pity that the central romance is often threatened by an unrelentingly bleak outlook and morbid sense of profundity.

Review: Tyrannosaur (2011)

Director: Paddy Considine

****

A word of warning: Tyrannosaur does not feature any tyrannosaurs nor any other type of dinosaur. However, it does feature some very dangerous creatures. When we first meet Joseph (Peter Mullan), he’s swearing after an unseen encounter at the bookies. He vents his frustration on his pet dog, with fatal results. From the opening, Tyrannosaur demands attention.

It was a fair expectation that when Paddy Considine, a master of charmingly unhinged characters, would make his directorial debut, it would be something with a bit of edge. Joseph is thus appropriately permanently on edge; embittered, lonely and depressed, his temper and his fondness for alcohol get him into violent encounters. After one such encounter, Joseph flees and hides in a charity shop operated by Hannah (Olivia Colman). Her goodness and Christian faith grate on Joseph at first, but he finds himself drawn back to her, as her life seems to be the complete opposite of his. It’s easy to see why Joseph is drawn to Hannah; next to Mullan’s (ever-excellent) gruffness, Colman is utterly lovely. When he initially throws her generosity back at her, her fragility is glimpsed. Our sympathy for her is already assured, but when we witness her home life, and her abusive husband James (a weirdly scary Eddie Marsan), audience hearts begin to break. Colman’s performance is truly devastating, veering between fragility, naivete and great strength from scene to scene. Joseph wants to help, but Hannah has enough gumption to help herself. Besides, he needs a lot of help too. His most significant relationships are with fellow drunkard Tommy (Ned Dennehy) and Samuel, the little boy across the street (Samuel Bottomley). It’s a credit to the cast, and to Considine as a writer that, for all the violence (some of it sexual) and tough talk, the most memorable aspect of Tyrannosaur is the relationships and humanity of it all. Joseph and Hannah aren’t star-crossed lovers; they are kindred spirits, united by a need for genuine human companionship. The basis for their bond is mature and genuine affection, a trait that many cinematic romances take for granted. As we watch Hannah find sanctuary and Joseph open up, the care that each of these characters gives to the other is truly uplifting.

Considine’s direction is expectedly confident, but not for the sake of being brash. He wisely forsakes the documentary style, which would make this material more miserable than it already is. Tyrannosaur feels like Ken Loach at his grittiest; harsh, but knowingly cinematic and infused with a certain joy. Admittedly, Tyrannosaur is a downer on the whole, but there are glimpses of light throughout, mostly thanks to rich characterization and great performances. Tyrannosaur is one of the most confident and reassuring directorial debuts of the year, unassuming yet determined and destined to make a tyrannosaur-sized impact.