Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin

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The Pitch: Kevin The Teenager: The Difficult Years.

The Review: As Marge Simpson once said, “Kids can be so cruel.” Of course Bart, and so many others in his stead, took this as an invitation and immediately took it out on his sister. But sibling rivalry is not uncommon; nor for that matter is a child forming a much closer bond with one parent, or a mother having difficulty coping with a new arrival. But they’re not such common topics for film, and this far into the 21st century it’s still something of a rarity to see a story told from the mother’s perspective. We Need To Talk About Kevin is the adaptation of the award-winning novel from Lionel Schriver which tells the story of a mother’s testing relationship with her son, and her attempts to become a part of his life, but the story is also wrapped up within the consequences of Kevin’s misdeeds.

It’s also a story that was considered by many to be unfilmable, written as it is as a series of letters from Eva to her estranged husband Franklin, and in the novel Eva could be considered to be somewhat of an unreliable narrator. The film adaptation is focused very much on Eva herself; consequently the film has to take a different tack in telling the story, and uses a chopped-up narrative that runs into as many as four different timeframes, but it’s testament to both the directing and scriptwriting skills of Lynne Ramsay (and writing partner and husband Rory Kinnear) that it’s clear at all times where we are. The flashing back and forwards also enables the story to suggest that Kevin’s misbehaviour has reached serious levels, without initially being specific as to what’s happened. Odd clues and hints are dropped in, but the structuring works perfectly to set up a creeping sense of dread which grabs tighter as the movie progresses until it’s exerting a vice-like grip by the end.

The success of the film is also down to two, possibly three, of the cast; we’ll gloss over John C. Reilly, as while he feels a little miscast and tonally in conflict with the rest of the film, but his is purely a supporting role. The main credit goes to both Tilda Swinton, who makes the portrayal of the frustrated mother look as effortless as most of the other roles she’s portrayed and despite the fact that she spends most of the film in some state of repression or frustration, she still comes across as sympathetic and relatable. The other key performance is that of Kevin, and both Ezra Miller as Kevin the teenager and Jasper Newell as the younger version are believably contemptible and deliciously two-faced. It would be easy for the performances to be one-note, but both Swinton and the Kevins get the chance to add shades and variance to their roles in a couple of telling scenes at key points in the narrative.

It may be that you know what Kevin’s done by the time you enter the cinema, as not all reviews have kept the secret, but if you don’t yet know I would advise you to keep it that way, as the less you know going in, the more effective Kevin will be on first viewing. It does feel initially as if Ramsay has gone a little over the top on the symbolism; from a trip to a tomato-drenched foreign festival to a paint attack on her house, there’s a lot of red going on. But as the narrative progresses, the symbolism is scaled back a little and Kevin works as both a thorough dissection of the pains of raising a family and a tense, gripping domestic thriller which will stick in your mind for days after. Thanks to an abortive attempt to bring The Lovely Bones to the screen, it’s been a long time since we saw Lynne Ramsay bring something to the big screen, but on this evidence here’s hoping we see more of her work soon; just maybe with a little less red next time.

Why see it at the cinema: Lynne Ramsay manages to do a lot with an economy of images, and it’s a film that will linger with you well after you’ve left the cinema and are at home asleep in your bed.


The Score: 9/10

Review: Melancholia

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The Pitch: It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel rubbish.

The Review: Ever wondered what you’d do if the world ended? I’m sure there’s supposed to be a siren or a maroon or something, although I will confess to not being 100% sure, and that might be for lifeboats rather than the coming of the apocalypse. Of course, a lot would depend on how much warning you would have: in Armageddon, they could have had eighteen days, but Deep Impact saw the giant rock coming months away. Possibly, of course, the more warning you had, the more likely it would be to leave you feeling a bit down in the dumps. Hence the Melancholia of the title has a dual meaning- Lars von Trier’s latest, and possibly most epic, work to date is actually as much about depression as it is about the end of the world.

The first image we see on screen is Kirsten Dunst, framed by images of death and the destructive power of nature, in a visually stunning silent opening that seems to suggest that the end is nigh, but merely serves as a prelude to the main events of the film, which are divided into two parts. The first focuses on Dunst’s Justine, who has arrived at her wedding reception but seems strangely distracted and listless, keen to avoid interaction of pretty much any kind, even with her unusual family; her doddery dad John Hurt, her disaffected mum Charlotte Rampling, and her increasingly frustrated sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Claire is the focus of the second part, as she and husband Kiefer Sutherland take in the now almost catatonic Justine and attempt to coax her out of whatever has gripped her.

It’s definitely a film of two halves, but also undoubtedly the decision to put the cataclysmic event right up front helps to make the whole film stronger as a result. Even through the first half, which is the most conventional section of the film (if there can be such a think in a von Trier work), there’s a pervading sense of doom, and the eclectic casting helps to keep the audience unsettled even though events move at a snail’s pace at times. The performances feel at first as if they’ve all come from different films, von Trier not telling them in advance what kind of movie they were making, but as events unfold the unusual casting starts to make sense, and the odd little details scattered around, such as the unusually large number of telescopes, serve to slowly but surely draw you into the world that von Trier has created. The first half is noisy and cluttered, reflecting the normal comings and goings of a wedding reception, even if most of the guests are slightly dysfunctional, but it only serves to heighten the tension for the second half, where everything becomes more intimate, and a sense of inevitability sets in.

It’s also where the three best performances reveal themselves, Dunst, Gainsbourg and Sutherland doing good work in the first half but excelling in the latter part, and Dunst’s best actress at Cannes, slightly overshadowed by the outpourings of her director, may not be the only awards attention she gets this year. It’s the kind of awards performance often described as brave, but Dunst does get to run through a full range and it’s one of her most mature performances to date. But it’s not just the acting; from the use of Wagner in the score, to the artistic and bold combination of imagery, the film has an operatic feel which befits such monumental events and it’s a rich feast for your eyes and ears. Melancholia is, a little like its main subject, a little frustrated and occasionally frustrating, but manages to be simultaneously outlandish and natural, capturing a unique point between the surreal and the normal and isn’t afraid to deal with big themes and big ideas, both on a personal and a global level.

Why see it at the cinema: The first five minutes alone demand to be seen on the biggest cinema screen possible with the sound cranked up to full, as they’re an experience in themselves. The rest ain’t bad, either.

The Score: 8/10

Cambridge Film Festival Review: Bombay Beach

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The Pitch: The Beach Boys: The Lost Generations.

The Review: There are plenty of stereotypes that come to mind when one thinks of America; from the brash New Yorker to the ultra-hip Californian, American ways of life vary more often than time zones as you move from east to west. Attempting to define an American way of life isn’t easy, but Bombay Beach is a unique documentary which attempts to give insight into the lives of average Americans who have one thing in common – they are living in a run-down, almost forgotten backwater (pop. 260) where the American dream seems to be closer to a nightmare.

The 1% of the Beach’s inhabitants that we do follow each have their own problems. The youngest, Benny, comes from a family who’ve had more than the odd run-in with the law and Benny’s mother is doing her best to balance the medications prescribed to moderate his youthful recklessness. CeeJay is a school student hoping to be the first in his family to make it to college, after being sent away from the violence surrounding his Los Angeles home. The eldest of the three, Red, is eking out his final years in the crumbling surroundings with the support of others but  still has the odd indulgence to make his later life enjoyable.

The stories of these three and their friends and families reflect a lot of what we think we know about America – as well as the mundanity of middle America being taken to extremes, the stories give insight into the everything from the prescription drug culture to the gun culture which blights the US, but attempts to put it into the context of the regular lives of these small-town folk. Director Alma Har’el spent a year chronicling the lives of the residents of this failed resort and is never afraid to get up close and personal with her subjects, getting the camera right into people’s faces and eavesdropping on fights and tantrums in an attempt to understand what makes them tick. Despite the shabby surroundings, all three subjects seem keen to make the best of their lot in life  and their story is one as much of hope as it is of destitution.

Emphasising that hope, Har’el has each of her subjects take part in a choreographed dance routine. Using the music of Zach Condon and Bob Dylan and the various dance routines, Bombay Beach is transformed from measured to magical, as if Har’el has managed to capture the very essence or soul of her subjects. Har’el doesn’t attempt to draw too many conclusions, instead allowing the viewer to make up their own mind, and that allows the more extravagent touches to be at their most effective. The setting might be bleak, but somehow it serves to inspire both its residents and the filmmaker and Bombay Beach is a moving, thought-provoking and uplifting snapshot of life on the poverty line in the American heartland.

Why see it in the cinema: Not only for the fantastic use of the desolate landscapes, but also the intimate character work which makes great use of the wide screen, and plenty of humour to share in the mix as well.

The Score: 8/10

Review: Mary And Max

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The Pitch: Letter From America / Australia.

The Review: For years, Disney was the world leader in hand-drawn animation to the extent where it’s hard to think of anything coming close to their consistent level of ouput, but many have tried; similarly, in the new frontier of CGI animation, Pixar have established a benchmark that others have only aspired to for the large part. Such is the popularity of Aardman’s animations, especially the seemingly ubiquitous Wallace and Gromit, that it would be easy to feel nothing else could be achieved with that particular medium. However, if Pixar have proved anything it’s that there are no boundaries to the achievements possible if your storytelling is up to the task, and so it proves with this clay animation from Australian director Adam Elliot.

Mary and Max is the story of two distant characters who become acquainted by a random act, when Mary writes to America to get answers to some of her most burning childhood questions. Mary (voiced first by Bethany Whitmore, then later by Toni Collette) is eight, out of touch with her parents and with a typical thirst for knowledge; her random selection for a recipient for her letter is Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a 44 year old man from New York who writes back almost out of confusion, but of an equal curiosity about the world around him. Although they exchange letters, the effects are often profound and rarely inconsequential, and their friendship is repeatedly examined through the sometimes volatile nature of their correspondence.

Max’s difficulty is driven by a condition he shares with Mary, that of Asperger syndrome, an autistic disorder which causes him to have great difficulty in interacting with others and to be compelled to repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests. To explore such a condition without trivialising it in live action would be hard enough; to use a method of film-making normally reserved for children’s stories feels at first risky, but proves to be strangely liberating. Despite the repeated misfortunes of its protagonists, there’s a remarkable vein of humour running right through Mary and Max, although it’s incidental to the fortunes of the characters and so thankfully the jokes are not at their expense.

The film uses Max’s condition and Mary’s responses to explore a wide variety of themes, including their mutual anxieties and loneliness, and as the story progresses Mary’s actions lead her on a downward spiral into depression, and the exploration of her condition is as no holds barred as it was of Max’s. It’s then that you realise how much the earlier humour has brought you to invest in the fates of these characters, and how the quality of the voice actors (also including Eric Bana and the narrator Barry Humphries) has helped to fully and believably immerse you in their world.

In the end, Mary and Max is life-affirming, poignant, uplifting and almost tragic, and has a grip on the emotions that won’t let go. It’s an absolute triumph which proves that animation can be used to tackle sensitive issues in valid and engaging ways, and despite the occasional contrivance or coincidence of the story (or maybe because of them, so immaculately implemented are they in the service of the story), it has every right to be listed in the same breath as any of the classics that I listed at the start of this review. It’s truly something special, and if you have to cross continents to see it, then be reassured that what awaits you is worth the journey.

Why see it at the cinema: To not only admire the quirky details of the wonderfully stylised animated characters in all of their glory, but to be able to check if your neighbour is shedding the same tear as you are by the end. A film to be experienced, discussed and embraced.

The Score: 10/10