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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

Cambridge Film Festival Review: Tyrannosaur

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The Pitch: Dog Dead Afternoon. (Alternatively: Jurassic Bark.)

The Review: If I said “British cinema” to you, then chances are that would conjure up one of a small number of images; most likely either a Richard Curtis type rom-com or a social realism film of the likes of Ken Loach or Mike Leigh today, but that would have its roots in the likes of Lindsey Anderson and the British New Wave back in the Fifties. For decades, we Brits have been fond of the kitchen sink drama, but it’s never really felt like we’ve told all of the stories there, and the likes of Shane Meadows and Peter Mullan have taken the drama out of the kitchen and onto the rough back streets of modern day Britain, with an unflinching view of the literal beating heart of Britain. Step forward then Paddy Considine, who’s the latest director to set a drama on the back street and housing estates of an unnamed British city – but just don’t call it social realism.

It’s a label that Paddy himself is uncomfortable with, but it’s not difficult to see why it’s being applied. When the first three locations in your movie are the bookies, the post office and a charity shop, you shouldn’t be expecting flashy special effects or a cast of thousands. Instead this is a small, intimate piece as Joseph (Peter Mullan) struggles to find a way to control the destructive rage that has gripped him since his wife’s death. He finds his way almost by accident into the charity shop of Hannah (Olivia Colman). Hannah’s Christian kindness sparks something in Joseph, but soon he also finds himself inexorably drawn into her world and the consequences of her relationship with her husband James (Eddie Marsan).

What you may not expecting is quite how good the performances are that Considine has managed to extract from his cast. If you’re looking for understated menace, then Eddie Marsan is your go-to guy, and he delivers a restrained but always threatening performance. Mullan is even better, his random rage and attempts at contrition giving him a huge range to work within, and anyone who can create a sympathetic character from someone whose first action is to kick his own dog to death is doing well. But the stand out without a doubt is Olivia Colman. Best known for her comedy roles with the likes of Mitchell and Webb or as Hot Fuzz’s dirty, flirty Doris, the latter brought her to co-star Considine’s attention and her performance here is nothing short of astonishing. Calm and stoic in the face of everything that life throws at her, it would be unfair to her to describe her performance as anything short of a revelation and in a world where there was some justice, she would be building a giant cabinet to put all of the well-deserved awards that this performance would gather.

And so to that question of social realism. Tyrannosaur might have all the trappings of the kitchen sink drama, but it’s unflinchingly brutal, and staccato bursts of violence have to be tempered by occasional flashes of humour to allow you to get all the way to the end. That occasional humour and a streak of something approaching optimism make the darker side bearable, but it’s still a difficult watch and not for the faint hearted. I mentioned the dog, and it’s symptomatic of Tyrannosaur being unafraid to tread where other dramas might not. Ultimately you can understand the view of not wanting to see this as social realism; it’s more comforting to want to believe that there aren’t real world equivalents to the likes of Joseph and James, and the ending has an almost gothic feel. It’s an impressive debut, enhanced by steady direction that doesn’t rely on cheap tricks or outlandish camera moves, and since Paddy’s said he’s more comfortable behind the camera telling his own stories, hopefully this is the first step in adding another name to the pantheon of great British directors.

Why see it at the cinema: Immerse yourself in a darkened room and lose yourself in the plight and the fate of these characters. Paddy’s also gone for a widescreen ratio – that’s a clue that you should see it on a wide screen (i.e. not your telly). And it’s British – support good British film, not enough gets decent distribution these days.

The Score: 9/10

Review: Neds

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The Pitch: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley/ An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain.” — Robert Burns

The Review: There’s an unfortunate truth about attempting to compile a list of great British directors: most of them are likely to be dead. Two of the last three winners of the Best Director Academy Award hail from these shores, but many of our best talents struggle for recognition on the wider stage. For many of those who struggle undeservedly for recognition, the themes they reflect are of the British underclass, those working classes who have to struggle against adversity at any turn, so many British character actors will often end up playing similar roles along similar themes. One such actor is Peter Mullan, who’s probably best known for his turns in Scottish themed films such as Braveheart and Trainspotting, and his third film as director tackles not only a working class background, but another staple of British film, the coming of age drama.

There’s a risk of descending into cliché when treading not one, but two well worn paths, but Neds feels both comfortable on those paths and still manages to feel fresh and vibrant. Neds is the story of John McGill, an unusually bright boy who’s entering into the world of men, and has to find his place. His brother is well known in local circles, particularly as being someone not to be messed with, but that also brings its fair share of trouble for John, who finds himself tarred with the same brush. His education gets him noticed, but also risks making him a target, so John increasingly finds himself living down to expectations in an effort to survive. What’s unexpected is what John will do once a little power begins to go to his head, and he finds himself with more than one fight on his hands.

The cast is made up of largely local children who’ve taken their first steps into acting, and consequently the performances feel authentic but also raw and edgy. Leading the cast are Gregg Forrest and Conor McCarron, who portray John at different ages, and McCarron especially is a revelation as the confused and often angry youngster. Many of the best lines go to the teachers, who capture perfectly the sarcasm and disdain that teachers so often seem to exhibit to exert their superiority over their students in such situations. The other notable performances are that of John’s parents, especially a raging, bewildering turn by Mullan himself as John’s father. Mullan’s direction must also be credited for getting the most out of the performances, and for also giving the Seventies setting such a feeling of realism that you might almost think this is archive footage, and his script is by turns authentic and uncompromising.

I really do mean uncompromising – the “18” rating of the film isn’t earned for the violence, but for “very strong lanugage”, and in an age when “The King’s Speech” can get a 12A with 17 F-words, that’s no small feat. Not that you’ll understand all of it; Trainspotting famously got subtitled for Americans when shipped over there, and goodness only knows that they’d make of this, the accents being as authentic as everything else, and just occasionally impenetrable for anyone born south of the border. Thankfully the ebb and flow of the film serves to keep understanding and momentum on those odd occasions when the words might be literally too thick and fast. The violence in the film would apparently have been worth only a “15” rating, but it’s sporadic and all the more effective for it, occasional sickening blows which serve to underline the error of John’s ways, if not always his motivations. The overall package of school laughs and out of school anger is compelling enough; what really elevates this are the occasional surreal moments, including an unlikely encounter with Jesus and an ending which probably serves as the most surreal metaphor for the entirety of the movie it’s in seen in many a year. All in all, fantastic work from all concerned, and we can only hope that Mullan picks up his own pace soon; there feels much more he’s worthy of exploring, but at three films in fourteen years, he’d better get a move on.

Why see it at the cinema: It’s a slow burner, but when it does it burns bright and fierce. The humour and the drama deserve a communal audience, and you never know, you might be able to check with your neighbour if you’re really struggling. (The Movie Evangelist does not condone talking in the cinema, but needs must sometimes.)

The Score: 9/10

Review: The Killer Inside Me

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The Pitch: The better Affleck shows off his bad side. His very bad side.

The Review: Michael Winterbottom is a director who seems not only not afraid of, but to positively enjoy, taking on challenges. Not least the first of those challenges are the material he’s chosen to adapt here. Jim Thompson’s 1952 novel would be hardcore in terms of content if published today, described in an anthology at the time as “one of the most blistering and uncompromising crime novels ever written.” In the wrong hands, this material could come across as misogynystic, voyeuristic and just downright unpleasant.

Then, probably feeling that wasn’t enough of a challenge, he’s chosen to cast Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson in the two leading female roles. Neither has the greatest reputation for acting (somewhat unfairly, especially in Hudson’s case, although they’ve both had an uncanny knack for selecting poor material), but here, with a strong script, a confident director and surrounded by a strong supporting cast, especially Ned Beatty and Elias Koteas, they both come off very favourably.

The core of the movie, though, is Casey Affleck, who burns with a quiet intensity but also provides just the right sense of ambiguity within his performance. His narration also gives dimension to the events on screen; the unreliable narrator is a familiar literary device, and the unreliability is shaded in very subtly, possibly almost too subtly for some, but there is no attempt to portray his actions as anything other than horrific and contemptible.

Nonetheless, while not Irreversible difficult, the violence on screen is unremitting and uncomfortable. But there is much to admire here, although I would avoid the use of the word like as there is little to engage sympathy or to mitigate the fixed viewpoint through Ford’s eyes. While unflinching in his actions, Ford is unable to avoid revisiting events, and those reflections add a haunting quality to the portrayals that follow. But what it does offer is enough to warrant a strong interest in what Winterbottom will choose to challenge himself with next.

Why see it at the cinema: The acting, direction and moral themes all deserve a big canvas; just make sure you have a strong stomach and a stronger constitution.

The Score: 8/10

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