Saturday, 22 October 2011

We Need To Talk About Kevin

One of the most important things about Lynne Ramsay's We Need To Talk About Kevin is that it's adapted from a bestselling novel by Lionel Shriver; a bestselling novel that I happen not to have read. I initially wondered whether it would actually be possible for me to review a film like Kevin without having read the novel, so intertwined do the two seem to be; Shriver has said that the film is exactly the way she would have wanted it, and according to my peers who have read it, the film is very close to the book, if not exactly the same. But cinema is very much its own medium, however much other medias have contributed to it, so I think it's completely justifiable to review the film as a singular entity.

Essentially, Kevin is a study of family life; albeit a family life which has been broken up by the high school killing spree perpetrated by the psychotic teenage son (with the help of a Robin Hood style longbow rather than guns, which was an original touch). The film is structured, not really in flashbacks, but more in a sort of kaleidoscope of non-chronological scenes, 'suggestive of a catastrophe so explosive it has splintered time', as Sight and Sound's Tim Robey put it. This method of story-telling is used very effectively, and is never confusing; in fact it enhances the plot no end, making it seem almost as though the film is taking place completely inside Eva's (Tilda Swinton's) head, through her memories.

Ramsey's use of the colour red is another standout technique; red has always been the filmmaker's best friend when it comes to conveying meaning through colour, and Kevin is no exception. Red is everywhere in this movie, literally splattered all over everything, although if you're thinking blood and gore, you'd be wrong; gore is made conspicuous by its absence in this film, which is peppered with red tainted scenes such as the repeated shots of Eva laboriously attempting to remove every scrap of red paint (thrown by vengeful neighbours) from her white house. The use of food (and red food), as well as masticating mouths, is also prominent, and a little disgusting - you'll never look at a jam sandwich quite the same way again.

The performances of Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller (mother Eva and son Kevin) are outstanding, especially that of Swinton (possible oscar material). Swinton portrays Eva with such supressed, seething emotion it's clear, however subtly, that throughout the film she is performing some sort of strange self-punishment, taking the fallout of Kevin's actions without complaint (she takes a punch in the face from a passing stranger without making a fuss, makes herself an omelette full of eggshells, and spends scene after scene scraping red paint off her house when she could just have painted over it).

Critics, and viewers in general, are raving about this film, and while I agree that the acting is brilliant and it's technically very well made, I can't see that it anywhere crosses the line from 'good' into 'great'. A recurring feature in reviews of this film seems to be how chillingly silent the cinema is when the credits roll, but to be honest I didn't notice anything out of the ordinary - cinemas are usually dead quiet following the finale of any film with such serious subject matter. Kevin has the recipe for a truly great movie, but the ingredients don't quite seem to make a whole. What we're left with is a film we've seen parts of before; I kept waiting for something new to jump out and truly impress me, but it never did.

Even so, We Need To Talk About Kevin makes my Films of the Moment list for its technical dexterity, emotional intelligence, and uncompromising social comment.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Blog Changes

I've been making a few design changes to Welcome To The Doom Generation lately - nothing too major, as I want to keep this blog relatively simple and easy to view. However, just thought I'd go through them in a bit more detail:

At the top of the sidebar to the right of the screen there is now a 'follow me on Twitter' button to make it easier for you to do that if you wish - if you are already logged into Twitter this button will take you straight there, if not it will ask you to log in first, after which you can hit 'follow'. A little further down the sidebar is a Twitter feed which shows my five latest posts, so you can see if I Tweet the sort of stuff you might be interested in (I'll give you a clue; it's mostly movie stuff).

Just below the Twitter button you will find a shortlist of my Films of the Moment - this is a list of what I think are the best films currently on release, with links to my reviews of them. I plan to limit my Films of the Moment to five (although right now there are only three, because I've only just introduced this feature); so every time a new Film of the Moment comes along, one of the old ones will get knocked off the list. This way, you can see immediately when you visit the blog which films I am currently recommending the most.

Below the Films of the Moment is a feature which allows you to enter your e-mail address so that you will receive automatic updates whenever I post something new (I also Tweet links to all my new posts). After that comes the Twitter Feed from my account, then there is a quick link list to every review on the blog in alphabetical order; if you're only interested in reading the reviews, this is quickest way to find them all. After that is a list of what are currently the most popular posts on the blog (incidentally, the most popular post on the blog so far is this).

After that I have decided to list upcoming films that I find interesting, or that I think you might find interesting; as I haven't seen these films yet (obviously) I haven't reviewed them, so the links in the list go to their IMDB articles so you can keep up with any news about them. And that's about it for all the new features! I'm off to see We Need To Talk About Kevin this evening, so my review of that will follow either tonight or tomorrow.

Sunday, 16 October 2011



As someone who, despite being an ex film student and general film buff, had never seen a Von Trier film before, I had no idea what to expect from the director when I went to see his latest. Whether it was a good or a bad idea to start with Melancholia remains to be seen, but at this stage I'm coming down on the side of good. I have now seen the film twice, both times at the Curzon Cinema in Richmond (which, by the way, gets my full endorsement as a great little cinema, even with the price tag - tickets will usually set you back around eleven quid). I felt I really needed to see the film a second time before I could blog about it - Melancholia is the sort of movie the significance of which takes a while to sink in (and still hasn't sunk all the way yet).

Upon returning from my first viewing, I tweeted words to the effect that Melancholia was probably the closest thing I'd seen to true cinematic genius since Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies (2000). I'm standing by this reaction (in fact, Melancholia is now vying with Almodovar's The Skin I Live In for the title of Best Film I Have Seen This Year). Reactions to Melancholia in general, as far as I have been able to gage, have been pretty much split down the middle between 'utterly brilliant' and 'pointless, pretentious and boring as hell'. Clearly, I am of the former of the two opinions; those who are of the latter either have an irreconcilably different taste in cinema, which is fair enough, or have completely misunderstood the film altogether. Which isn't fair at all.

I won't say that I completely understand it myself; there are clearly layers upon layers of undiscovered meaning in Melancholia. I don't think the film is pretentious - but I can understand it being read that way. However, I will say that to call the film pointless or boring is totally without foundation. Melancholia is an intensely psychological exploration of depression and social interaction; Kirsten Dunst plays Justine, a chronically depressed woman, Charlotte Gainsbourg her sister Claire, and Kiefer Sutherland Claire's husband John. The film is split into three distinct sections; the opening montage sequence, and two subsequent chapters entitled 'Justine' and 'Claire'. In 'Justine' we are presented with her difficulty to cope with her own wedding due to her depression and family/work pressures. In 'Claire', we see more interaction between the two sisters in the build up to the finale. Even leaving out the main plot device, Melancholia is still an intriguing and beautiful film, but with it, it is truly spectacular. A strange new planet, the planet Melancholia, has appeared in the heavens; speculation about whether or not this planet will crash into Earth, annihilating all life, creates a grander sense of impending doom which taints all the human interaction, twisting the tension level of the film as tight as a drum.

As I said, there are layers upon layers of meaning in this film, and there's no room in this review to discover and analyse them all, so I will just pick out a few of my favourite points. I like that this film is woman-centric; when I imagine it being about brothers instead of sisters, it feels jarring and wrong. I like the unashamedly unexplained mix of American and British actors, and the undisclosed setting. I like Von Trier's subtlety in portraying depression; the scene where Justine changes all of the displayed open art books over from minimalist abstracts to more emotional, humanistic pictures (including one of the drowned Ophelia by Millais, which Von Trier at one point recreates with Kirsten Dunst) is especially well done, and true to life. I love the opening sequence; made up of incredibly slowed down shots, some of them taken from later in the film, some of them pure fantasy, it has an unmistakeable dreamlike or hallucinogenic quality, a cosmic ballet reminiscent of Kubrick's 2001.

Lars Von Trier's Melancholia is one of my current Films of the Moment - it's not on general release, but you can see it at various independent cinemas including Curzon and Picturehouse, and also at the Swiss Cottage Odeon.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Red State


I went to see Kevin Smith's latest, Red State, pretty much as soon as it came out. It hasn't had a massive campaign in the UK, and I suppose it's quite a niche market film. Also, I went to see it on a Sunday afternoon; not exactly peak cinema time. Still, even accounting for all of this, I was quite surprised to find myself alone at the screening. Now, I've been to the cinema on my own many a time, but I have never been alone in a screening until Red State. Even the weekday, off-peak screening of The Skin I Live In that I attended a few weeks ago had three other hardcore fans in attendance. I found myself vaguely alarmed by my situation, especially when this trailer came on, as I'm sure you can imagine.

But now that I am no longer sitting alone in the dark, I can reflect upon the fact that, rather than being alarming, it was actually pretty strange that I should find myself alone in a screening of such a brilliant, blackly comic, gun-crazy critique of post 9/11 US society. Set almost entirely inside a compound belonging to a murderous family of fundamentalist Christians, Red State, while making the effort to distinguish itself from the real life Westboro Baptist Church (more commonly known as 'God Hates Fags'), clearly takes a hefty portion of inspiration from the above, as well as from the Waco Siege in the early nineties. Three teenage boys lured into the compound are to be tortured and murdered as irredeemable sinners; however, the plan goes wrong, the feds show up (led by the amazing John Goodman) and the fire fight to end all fire fights breaks out, the family having even more guns at their disposal than the feds themselves.

The film is brilliantly written with some killer one-liners, but ultimately it's the standout performances that stay with you - John Goodman as the lead cop, but especially Michael Parks as Pastor Abin Cooper (see above) who you might remember as Earl McGraw from Kill Bill: Vol. 1, and Esteban Vihaio from Kill Bill: Vol. 2. Parks plays Cooper so well that he almost disappears into the role, rather like Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood. Cooper is so twisted, so disgustingly maniacally evil that it is almost impossible to credit that people like him really exist on this earth (as unfortunately, we know they do). And yet, his character is at all times perfectly believable, and therefore quite terrifying. At least until, without giving too much away, he gets taken down a peg or two.

Red State twists and turns so much that it's impossible to predict; anything and everything can and does happen. After a while I stopped even trying to form ideas about what might be coming next. Kevin Smith is such an eclectic and imaginative filmmaker that you hardly know what to expect from him anyway, let alone in a movie like Red State; at one point (!slight spoiler!) he actually had me believing that he had made a film which really, honest-to-God, ended with The Rapture.

Red State is one of my current Films of the Moment; if you can find it being screened, go see it. It'll be very interesting to see where Smith goes from here.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Avatar: The Revolution of the Real

Vaguely considering going to see Avatar in 3D at the Kingston IMAX this week - I have seen Avatar before, of course, including once at the BFI IMAX, but Avatar is the kind of film it's worth taking the opportunity to see on the big screen when it rolls around. The below is an article I wrote in January of 2010, just after Avatar's original release.

The narrative is unoriginal and predictable, the characters are one dimensional, and the complex combining of the various themes just doesn’t quite square. Even so, Avatar, the film we were told was going to revolutionise cinema, is undoubtedly a visual feast. Sitting in the cinema I had a viewing experience which was entirely new to me; I found my eyes sliding from level to level, looking through the screen in a way I never had before. But has Cameron really managed to pull off what so many others couldn’t? Has he produced what everybody seems to be on the lookout for these days, the single perfect revolutionary film which will change the face of cinema forever? Has Avatar heralded the day that we take the old regime, throw it against a wall and shoot it with, in Cameron’s case, a three foot long poison tipped arrow? Is this really what Cameron was trying to do, anyway? Can we say that he’s failed, if he wasn’t even making an attempt? And of course, the biggest question of all the questions that are thrown up by this film, does it even matter?

It didn’t quite achieve what many conjecture to be the ultimate aim of cinema; that is, virtual reality style immersion. It never made me forget that I was in a theatre, but it did at times make me forget that what I was looking at wasn’t technically ‘real’. It always surprised me when I periodically remembered that these were not big blue people I was watching run through a forest and scrunch their toes in the soil. These were, essentially, animated characters, albeit animated characters being played by humans. There are no blue people; there is also no forest, and more than likely no soil. If The Matrix films showed us the desert of the real, then Avatar has shown us the revolution of it. Let’s face it, watching Jake Sully and Neytiri do something as simple as walk through a forest beats even ‘The Burly Brawl’ (in which Keanu Reeves fights off hundreds of Hugo Weavings with nothing more than his wits and a big metal pole) all to shit. Digital effects have become famous for their contrariness; without wishing to denigrate The Matrix too much, digitally duplicating an actor over and over again becomes a relatively simple procedure when compared to getting a character’s pupils to contract correctly, or their hair to blow convincingly in the wind. When it comes to digital effects, the devil is in the details. The 3D isn’t even a factor when simply considering the ‘reality’ of the effects, and is probably no less a gimmick now than the last umpteen times the attempt was made to introduce it into mainstream cinema. Avatar looks pretty stunning with or without 3D, but without it there is much less of the afore-mentioned ‘sliding’ of the vision through different layers of celluloid. Look carefully through, not at, but through, any given scene on the planet Pandora, and you will be able to count anywhere from three to six or seven different ‘levels’ for your eyes to latch onto. 3D, like Cameron’s new ‘e-motion capture’, is itself simply another layer of the attempt to make Avatar realer than real, until the indentations in Jake Sully’s skin become more authentic to your eyes than the ones on your hand three inches in front of your face.

However, there is a confusing contradiction inherent in films such as Avatar; while you are watching something that seems infinitely more ‘real’ to your eyes and brain than say, a gritty eighties drama, you are at the same time watching an incredibly artful and calculated artificial world. As we progress toward the future of film, it seems that we as viewers need more and more technical tricks to fool us into accepting that what we are seeing is ‘real’. This is no easy task, especially considering the media saturated age in which we live. To make us forget the cameras and the crew, and to train our brains into accepting that nothing is ‘real’ beyond the edges of the screen can be a laborious and thankless task. One wonders whether that is how Cameron now views his latest creation. Tearing down the giants of cinema with a single sentence is a popular practice; Avatar was slated from the second it was released, and deservedly so. It’s too long, it’s predictable, the acting isn’t exactly stellar, and it’s self indulgent in the extreme; it has even been labelled racist by some, and given a new name by the internet gossips, the inspired ‘Avatard’. The general consensus has been “sure Jim, it looks pretty, but how about hiring some decent writers?”

While I agree completely with this view, I believe I would have to relinquish my status as a film geek if I wasn’t more than willing to let Cameron off the hook. In the same way that the idea of cinema was invented long before it could be actualised, and early filmmakers were forced to wait for the technology to catch up with the concept before they could really begin committing their ideas to the screen, Cameron formulated Avatar years before the technology was anything like as advanced as he needed. While the product of his gargantuan effort may not be perfect, you have to look at it for what it is; Cameron was essentially making it up as he went along. The art of film and filmmaking, which, especially within the Hollywood system, can be an incredibly ingrained and systematic process, is advanced only by those who are brave enough to risk utter ruin by pioneering new technologies, new techniques, and new ways of seeing. Often whether these new techniques ‘work’ or not is irrelevant. Film, like any other art, is constantly developing, changing, and attempting to convey something new, and in a world where most people consider film as nothing more than a Friday night’s distraction, let alone an artistic pursuit, it can be very easy to forget that.

Let’s sit back for a moment and look at what Cameron has actually achieved here. Whether he was really trying to revolutionise cinema is a question that only he can answer, and we have already agreed that even if he was trying he hasn’t succeeded – but what he has done is make a pretty damn spectacular action movie, with its own unique visual aesthetic, that whatever critics might say looks like nothing any of us has ever seen before. Has Cameron changed the face of cinema forever? The answer, in my opinion, is no. Sure, people will follow in his footsteps, the technology will develop even further, and I’m sure that a lot sooner than you think you’ll be able to sit in a cinema, turn your head around 180 degrees, and still see trees behind you. But the cinema is not a perfectible art; as Andre Bazin wrote even in the early 20th century, there is no ‘total’ cinema, no ultimate goal that filmmakers are working towards, even if they think that’s what they’re doing.  Any filmmaker trying to make ‘perfect’ cinema will get to what they think is the top of the mountain and find a whole new cliff face waiting for them. If Avatar has failed at an impossible task, then it really hasn’t failed at all. My advice to those who would, based on its faults, dismiss Avatar completely, is this; come back and talk to me again when you’ve had a try – then maybe you’ll cut Cameron some slack.
As to whether Avatar, or any of the issues related to it, really matters as far as contemporary and future cinema is concerned – this is a matter of personal opinion. But for those of us who live and breathe for the big screen, the occasional appearance of films like Avatar is why we get up in the morning.