Film review – We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011)

15 November 2011
We Need to Talk About Kevin: Eva (Tilda Swinton)

Eva (Tilda Swinton)

There’s little actual blood in We Need to Talk about Kevin, but director Lynne Ramsay’s pervasive use of the colour red makes sure that the idea of blood constantly remains in the audience’s mind. One of the most dramatic images comes at the start of the film where Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) is submerged in a sea of red while taking part in the Spanish tomato festival, La Tomatina. The red suggests both the birth of her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) and Kevin’s violence as a teenager. Covered in tomatoes, Eva is stained by Kevin’s actions, just as her house has been aggressively sprayed with red paint. The opening tomato festival scene also establishes Eva’s love for travel, freedom and adventure, all of which were taken away from her when Kevin was born. This plants the suggestion that Eva is wrestling with the possibility that Kevin became who he is because of her resentment towards him.

We Need to Talk about Kevin is set after Kevin’s violent actions with Eva living alone in a state of depression and borderline dereliction. Woven through the basic narrative involving Eva starting a new job and cleaning her vandalised house are her fragmented recollections of all the events that lead up to the day Kevin committed his horrific crime. The film is therefore deeply subjective and is comprised of a series of impressionist memories rather than flashbacks. The audience sees Kevin and his relationship with Eva through Eva’s eyes, resulting in a portrait of Kevin as an almost demonic, and certainly sociopathic, being who rejected his mother from even when he was a baby. It is telling that during the only major scene featuring Kevin in the present and non-subjective part of the film, he appears notably differently to how he is presented in Eva’s memories.

We Need to Talk About Kevin: Eva (Tilda Swinton) and Franklin (John C. Reilly)

Eva (Tilda Swinton) and Franklin (John C Reilly)

And yet, Eva’s guilt still intrudes, as the film is also full of moments where she is subconsciously questioning herself as a failed parent. There are several incidents where the nature of what may or may not have happened are deliberately left unresolved, further highlighting how Eva then concludes that Kevin is the one to blame. Not that the film suggests Kevin has been falsely accused or somehow justified in his actions, but it does raise plenty of nature versus nurture issues, even though it is not about attempting to reconcile that dynamic. Instead, it is a portrait of a woman living in a state of shock, guilt, emptiness and loss who is trying to process what went so wrong.

Many of the stylistic techniques that Lynne Ramsay has used in previous films are once more utilised in We Need to Talk about Kevin, but they work far better than they ever have before. The unconventional editing weaves Eva’s memories in with the present day scenes and the ironic music is genuinely chilling as it provides the soundtrack to a mild mannered suburban community that will never be the same. Close-ups on particular visual details and amplified sounds create a pattern of reoccurring visual and sound motifs that are effectively atmospheric, but then become emotionally charged when their full significance is revealed. In this way the motifs also function as sensory memories for Eva, further demonstrating how much what the audience experiences is filtered through her interpretation of events. We Need to Talk About Kevin is based on a novel, but Ramsay has made dramatic changes in structure and style for it to function as a film in the most effective way. Fretting about what’s been changed or what’s been left out is redundant and ignores its accomplishments as a film in its own right.

We Need to Talk About Kevin: Eva (Tilda Swinton) and Kevin as a toddler (Rocky Duer)

Eva (Tilda Swinton) and Kevin as a toddler (Rocky Duer)

This is sensory and visceral cinema at its most compelling and expertly crafted. You are thrown into the mind of a woman suffering unimaginable despair, self-loathing, anger and bewilderment. At times the tension and dread is close to unbearable, especially when the film begins to hint that it will show something that you really don’t want to see (and because it’s a film of such integrity, the horror comes from the idea of seeing something rather than explicitly seeing it). We Need to Talk About Kevin rivals Alien and Eraserhead for its nightmarish depiction of childbirth and parenthood. It’s a film that will make you want to scream, cry, be sick or punch something. Yet, you won’t be able to tear your attention away from it.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)

2 December 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn TreaderThe third film in The Chronicles of Narnia franchise, based on the 1950s children’s novel series by CS Lewis, continues the combination of Christian allegory with the childhood fantasy of escaping reality to a magical land where the child protagonists are heroic kings and queens. This time the characters are out at sea onboard the Dawn Treader and searching for lost lords, magical swords, townsfolk sold into slavery and an evil green mist.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has let go of the less interesting older children characters, who can no longer enter Narnia, to make Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) centre stage. As Edmund is now more mature and cooperative, he and Lucy’s cousin Eustace (Will Poulter) now joins them to take the role of the annoying and disruptive character who, like Edmund in the previous films, is potentially a liability. Unfortunately, Eustace is not only annoying for the other characters but his obnoxious young-Tory-in-the-making behaviour makes him pretty annoying for the audience too. However, as his character evolves he does form a touching friendship with the gallant mouse Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg, taking over from Eddie Izzard) who is the film’s heart and soul.

Lewis’s notorious Christian subtext makes its most pronounced appearance at the end of the film when Aslan (Liam Neeson) the mystical lion pops up to remind us all that he is an all seeing entity that we know by another name in the real world. There is also a lot of discussion about the importance of belief and when Eustace is depicted as an object for contempt, he is aligned closely with intellectualism and pacifism – two traits that are rarely popular with conservative religious doctrine.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg) and Eustace (Will Poulter)

Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg) and Eustace (Will Poulter)

While Lucy overcoming her jealously of her older sister’s good looks is briefly dealt with and then brushed aside, the most interesting element of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is how it deals with Edmund’s coming-of-age story. Psychoanalysts could have a field day reading into the way this film explores Edmund’s anxieties towards both his absent older brother and Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), both alpha male rivals, and the ongoing threat posed by his subconscious desire for the White Witch (Tilda Swinton), a classic seductive/dangerous monstrous feminine if ever there was one. When Edmund’s worst fears are conjured up and made physical, the self-loathing and repressed results will delight Freudian theorists everywhere (hint: it’s not a marshmallow man). However, nothing compares to the way Eustace describes the transformation that delivers him into maturity: “It sort of hurt but it was a good pain”. Wow.

English director Michael Apted has taken over from New Zealand director Andrew Adamson to deliver a film that rattles along at a much more satisfying pace than Prince Caspian (2008) but still falls far short of the promise the franchise displayed in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005). The Voyage of the Dawn Treader feels firmly aimed at young audiences but that’s no excuse for including so much awkward dialogue that overstates the obvious. The action is decent and the film mostly looks impressive but the end result is a film that is merely serviceable in its ability to deliver an entertaining experience.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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An interview with Luca Guadagnino, the director of I Am Love

27 June 2010
I Am Love writer/director Luca Guadagnino

I Am Love writer/director Luca Guadagnino

Set in Milan at the start of the last decade I Am Love is about Emma, played by Tilda Swinton, the mother of the extremely wealthy family who made their fortune in the textile business. Evoking both the stylish Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk and the rich mise-en-scene and cinematography of Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, I Am Love is a feast for the senses.

When I spoke with Luca Guadagnino we talked about collaborating with Tilda Swinton, the inspiration for I Am Love‘s cinematography and his love of Jonathan Demme’s films, especially Silence of the Lambs and Rachel Getting Married.

This interview was recorded on Friday 11 June 2010 and then played on The Casting Couch on Saturday 26 June 2010.

Download link (interview running time = 10:49)

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Film review – I Am Love (2009)

24 June 2010
I Am Love: Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton)

Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton)

Set in Milan at the beginning of the 2000s, I Am Love begins with a series of stunningly beautiful shots of the Italian city in winter, combined with dramatic music and gorgeously hand drawn opening title graphics that recall the great European films of the 1950s. We are introduced to various members of the Recchi family who are gathering to celebrate their grandfather’s birthday, the man whose textile business has brought the family so much wealth. One of the family members gathered at this occasion is Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton), the Russian-born matriarch of the family whose son and husband are named as the joint successors of her father-in-law’s business. While initially seeming like it could develop into a Shakespearian drama of father versus son over control of the business, I Am Love instead focuses on Emma to develop into a film about emotional repression and what it takes to break free and experience passion despite its consequences.

The defining quality that makes I Am Love such captivating cinema is its extraordinary beauty. Writer/director Luca Guadagnino has made a visually transfixing film where the lyrical editing and gorgeous cinematography present the already visually arresting settings and decor in a way that is completely breathtaking. In particular, French cinematographer Yorick Le Saux’s tendency to slightly over-expose all his shots to give everything in the frame a radiant glow. The result is a mesmerising atmosphere that is made even more dreamlike when combined with the discordant score by minimalist composer John Adams.

Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton) and Edoardo Recchi Jr. (Flavio Parenti)

Not completely dissimilar to the way Quentin Tarantino mines exploitation and B-grade cinema to inspire and reference his films, Guadagnino has appropriated and paid homage to many of the great art house directors as well as some key Hollywood directors. Guadagnino is extremely well versed in cinema history and academia so you could spend hours debating the points in which I Am Love evokes the films of Sergei Eisenstein, Michelangelo Antonioni, Douglas Sirk and Alfred Hitchcock. However, it really is the cinema of Luchino Visconti that is most recognisable as one of Guadagnino’s influences, especially The Leopard. However, while The Leopard’s themes of an upper class and older generation stepping aside to make way for the new have some thematic similarities to a number of the sub-plots in I Am Love, it is the rich visual detail in both films where the main distinction lies.

I Am Love is an astonishing film that deserves to be savoured although it struggles to maintain the initial level of interest after a particular plot development upsets its previously serene mood. Also, while the intense visuals are undeniably impressive, they don’t consistently connect to the story emotionally. Tilda Swinton delivers a bold and powerful performance as Emma although it would have been nice to see more of some of the other characters more fleshed out, in particular her two children who are breaking free of their family’s restraints in their own ways.  Like Luke Ford’s A Single Man, I Am Love is somewhat a case of style over substance but at least that style is rich enough for it not to matter.

Listen to Thomas Caldwell’s interview with writer/director Luca Guadagnino.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – The Limits of Control (2009)

24 July 2009
Lone Man (Isaach De Bankolé)

Lone Man (Isaach De Bankolé)

For almost thirty years now the auteur filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has been creating a body of work that is the epitome of cinematic cool. Jarmusch’s films are defined by their hip blend of droll humour, minimalism and more recently, spirituality. Jarmusch seems to draw his inspiration from a variety of diverse sources but in his latest film The Limits of Control it appears that the films of European art house heavy weights Michelangelo Antonioni (in particular The Passanger) and Wim Wenders seem to be his main points of reference. In Jarmusch’s most minimalist film yet, The Limits of Control depicts the actions of the Lone Man who travels across Spain collecting clues and exchanging information in order to fulfil his unknown mission. Played by Isaach De Bankolé, who played the ice-cream vendor in Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and the French taxi driver in Night on Earth (also Jarmusch), the Lone Man has a photographic memory, is ultra disciplined and is almost a complete blank slate. The ensemble of mysterious people he meets during his mission all deliver abstract instructions, strange philosophical advice and musings on topics such as music, film, science, bohemians and hallucinogenic drugs.

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