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Film Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin

Genuinely unsettling; We Need to Talk About Kevin dives head first into subject matter seldom spoken about but feared by most.

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We Need to Talk About Kevin will resonate differently with each individual. It is a story as much about childbirth and the bond or lack thereof between mother and child as it is about the concept of nature versus nurture and trying to understand what makes people bad. One thing that will be agreed upon by all viewers however is the troubling nature of the film, not only the destructive behavior of its titular character but also the prospect of parenthood in all its uncelebrated warts and all glory. We Need to Talk About Kevin might just be the most unsettling movie of 2011 and is so without any of the violence or gore we have come to identify the word with in film.

As soon as the title screen fades to black director Lynne Ramsay’s film based on the Lionel Shriver novel of the same name begins an unrelenting and overwhelmingly tense experience that would make even the most celebrated horror film maker green with envy. Those already familiar with Shriver’s book will understand what’s coming and why Kevin needs to be spoken about. For those of us that haven’t read the source material Ramsay makes it quite clear early on that lead character Eva’s, a gripping Tilda Swinton, life has been irreversibly changed by her son Kevin’s (Ezra Miller) destructive nature in his teenage years to which the film is set.

The film is spent with a disconnected Eva reflecting on the past, specifically motherhood and Kevin’s upbringing, questioning what went wrong and how her parenting moulded her son and might of lead to his behavior as a teenager. Ramsay achieves this through a series of extremely well executed flashbacks which do a  good job of distorting time and reality. It is unclear throughout the film how much of these flashbacks are real and how much are blurred due to Eva being an unreliable narrator accounting her and Kevin’s relationship and his (in Eva’s eyes) inherent evilness, especially towards her. Shriver’s original novel; a series of letters from Eva to her husband conveys her untrustworthiness as a narrator much clearer than in the film. Ramsay has done a marvelous job in translating the letter structure without a voice over but it results in some scenes where Kevin resembles something more out of The Omen rather than a realistic young rebellious boy, something that will remove the film from reality for some viewers unfamiliar with the bestselling book. Although Ramsay subtly and not so subtly hints that some scenes are exaggerated by Eva I couldn’t help but feel the more over the top interactions between mother and child hurt the film as a whole.

As much as we do need to talk about Ezra Miller’s portrayal of Kevin, this film is all about Tilda Swinton’s Eva. Eva is a broken shell of a person, exiled and ridiculed by the community she tortures herself by remaining in. Swinton is as mesmerising as some of the breathtaking shots captured by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. In her family life Eva is a cold and dominant figure, as a mother she fails to connect with her child on any level and is uninterested in the domestic life her new-born son inflicts on her. Swinton it seems has made a career (at least in the multiplexes) of playing this type of unlikable character, yet here she is vulnerable and sweet throughout the film, strangely even as that cold and dominant figure. Ezra Miller as Eva’s son Kevin is equally compelling if not terrifying. He is as cold as his mother and an ever ominous presence from the first time Eva recollects him. The interactions between mother and teenager (Swinton and Miller) are the most thought-provoking and gut wrenching to watch. Their chemistry is undeniable even in the most disconcerting of scenes.

Genuinely unsettling; We Need to Talk About Kevin dives head first into subject matter seldom spoken about but feared by most. Losing your identity after having a child, the resentment and despair some parents feel when they are unable to connect with their newborn and the fight to love someone you don’t really like. Ramsay like Shriver before her question what impact we have on our offspring and how much of a parent’s emotion, struggles and nurturing shape their children into adolescence and then adulthood. For Eva these questions are a constant torturous battle to figure out what went wrong.

Verdict: See this.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is a fascinating yet gut wrenching movie going experience. Ramsay’s subtleness is the films only real weakness as some scenes suspend belief too much too vaguely. However thanks to two incredible performances for two justly memorable characters this is a film that captivates its audience from start to finish.  

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly
Run Time: 112 minutes

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Film Reviews

Film Review: Murder Mystery

Murder Mystery is a pretty crap film.

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Murder Mystery is the next film in the long line of terrible Adam Sandler films distributed by Netflix. At this point we’re not sure that Netflix actually watches these movies before they put them on their service but here we are. Murder Mystery, like many of the recent Sandler-helmed flicks, seem less like movies than they do lavish holidays that Adam Sandler and friends go on where filming of random skits tied together loosely by some semblance of narrative occurs. Much of the film is slapped together with the kind of duct-tape storytelling you’d find in all those mediocre SNL movies.

There is star quality though. Jennifer Aniston is back, after working alongside Sandler in 2011’s equally terrible Just Go With It, and they’ve roped in some pretty prominent names, including Luke Evans (Fast & Furious series, The Hobbit), Gemma Arterton, and a happily cashing in his check Terrence Stamp. What happens can be best described as stupid Cluedo, or more blatantly, a dumb Murder On the Orient Express where Sandler and Aniston’s characters, a bumbling New York cop and hair dresser, stumble upon a high-stakes inheritance-grab murder mystery where absurd things happen. It never makes much sense but the biggest problems with these movies are not so much the cartoony skits (Sandler’s cop is so bad at shooting his gun that when he does, it’s a cartoon-like hail of bullets missing their target), but just the insanely unbelievable characters that fill these movies. It’s OK to suspend belief, but at this point, you don’t believe for one second any of the characters would exist in real life or that any of them act like actual humans do. There is also no shortage of cartoon bozos: Fat New York cop sidekick? Check. Buffoony Inspector Clouseau French detective? Check. Overly Spanish Spanish guy? Check. Ali G Indian guy? Check. Even Gemma Arterton’s Jessica Rabbit-esque character would make Jessica Rabbit shake her head in disbelief. At least Rob Schneider isn’t in it.

Is it funny? No, but there are actually some moments worth a chuckle. And that’s already better than Sandler’s previous Netflix outings. Murder Mystery’s jokes are mostly at the expense of the exaggerated caricatures and Sandler’s goofy self, but for the most part, its pretty bereft of humor. To make matters worse, the film has that cheap Netflix sheen to it that makes it even more of a TV movie than it already is. In the end, the movie is such a blatant Murder on the Orient Express rip-off that the end scene literally shows the Orient Express train. Unironically too.

Netflix’s has a serious movie problem- one that we’ve talked about before. Murder Mystery, is no different. You can’t fault Sandler for continuing down this path. Same goes for Aniston. Both have more than established their craft over the years that at times, you can’t help but feel envious of the position they’re in. So what if they just want to put their feet up, cash in a nice pay check, and enjoy the nice sights? Who wouldn’t?

Murder Mystery is a pretty crap film, but it’s what happens when we’ve given this much clout to Netflix. Spielberg had a point when he said Netflix movies shouldn’t be competing for Oscars. It is not only because they eschew theatrical traditions, but it should also be because they’re crap. And not even in the Spielberg Artificial Intelligence sense of being an average movie- but in the Lifetime channel level of crap. So really, when you think about, Murder Mystery is all our fault.

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Film Review: Booksmart

Booksmart is the wonderful story of complicated, messy but hopeful and joyous young adulthood

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booksmart

Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart has had a rough time at the box office since its release a few weeks ago. Pundits have placed blame on poor marketing by Annapurna Pictures (the studio releasing it) but in truth, the film just isn’t a big cinema flick. But there’s nothing wrong with that because, in every sense, Booksmart is a brilliant film. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s wonderfully written, well-directed, and filled with stories that are relatable across generations. But box offices are intrinsically built on those first weekend numbers, it is why it exists, and it is a shame the team behind the film has made a big deal out of the lack of box office draw instead of building on what will surely make it a cult classic- word of mouth.

The film tells the story of Amy and Molly, two high school seniors who have spent their high school careers being great in class, but not so great socially. The day before graduation they realize that their plan of spending their high school careers buried in books, getting straight A’s, and then transcending into the upper echelon of higher education is thwarted when the very people they thought they were escaping, have, in fact, accomplished the same. The difference is that they all had fun during high school while Amy and Molly didn’t. What ensues is a smart pastiche of college humor comedies and high school coming-of-age flicks that have been a staple of cinema across generations. Taking cues from Superbad and the recent Blockers, Booksmart takes raunchy humor and gross-out jokes but injects them with contemporary social dynamics. Universal stories of high school joy, friendship, and heartbreak are told with the kind of relatable charm that is rare- relatable regardless of age, gender, or sexuality. Its inclusivity has been praised not because it is gratuitous or forced, but because it feels genuine and heartfelt.

The two leads, played by Beanie Feldstein (Neighbors 2) and Kaitlyn Dever, are brilliant. If you watched the sitcom Last Man Standing you always knew that Dever was destined for greatness, so it’s no surprise that Booksmart is a great vehicle for her and Feldstein to show their talents. They both act with enough nuance when it is needed, but both sizzle with chemistry when they need to be riotously funny- the screen becomes their canvas and it is hard to escape their presence. Dever and Feldstein are flanked by an assemblage of funny people- Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Jessica Williams, the funny kid from Santa Clarita Diet– who all contribute to the film’s balanced characters. It is only at times that a few of them seem a little too much like a cartoon that it detracts from the film (still not sure what Billie Lourd’s character is about).

Billie Lourd and Kaitlyn Dever in Booksmart

Wilde’s first turn at directing has proven that she’s got a keen eye for it. Booksmart does all the basics right and when Wilde wants to shoot outside of the box, they get that right too (the scene in which our leads are trippin’ daisies on hallucinogens, in particular, comes off as both funny and well done).

Its strengths, aside from the leads, is the writing and the seemingly truthful way in which the film depicts teenagers (in this case, teenage girls) living through that period of high school transitioning off into college and the so-called ‘real world’. Much has been said about its authenticity, and even if you can’t directly relate, you can still feel and understand the emotions and the relationships. And that is something that is hard to do, and the writers, the cast, and Olivia Wilde have accomplished that.

So what exactly is the problem with Booksmart? And why haven’t people flocked to see it? It still feels like a “small” movie, hindered perhaps by its very Netflix-like production. It doesn’t have that big-budget, must-see-at-the-cinema demeanor that films like Superbad or even Blockers had. Even films like Neighbors and its sequel felt much bigger in scope. Booksmart just FEELS like a television movie, even if it’s not.

Poor box office runs haven’t been the death knell for small-budget, indie successes. There have been plenty of critically acclaimed films that have been dwarfed in the numbers by superheroes, cartoons and sinking ships. Hopefully, ones that fuel conversation (like Booksmart), will keep studios making them. It’s a shame that a lot of the news has relegated Booksmart to “box office failure” because it deserves more. In time, with good word of mouth, and as more and more people see it and realize its resonance, it surely will. It has to because the heart of this movie, the way in which it tells the story of complicated, messy but hopeful and joyous young adulthood will not let it die without a fight.

Booksmart is in US cinemas now and opens in Australian cinemas June 27.

BOOKSMART
Directed by: Olivia Wilde
Written by: Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Jessica Williams
Released by: Annapurna Pictures
Runtime: 102 mins
Website: Booksmart.movie

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