Then Playing — We Need to Talk About Kevin; The French Dispatch; Luca

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011). This pummeling drama was adapted from a 2003 Lionel Shriver novel about the heavy toll a troubled boy exacts on his family, particularly his mother. Tilda Swinton plays the beleaguered parent with a tightly contained emotional intensity that feels like a slow-motion heart attack. Lynne Ramsay directs We Need to Talk About Kevin with relentless commitment to mounting dread as the title offspring’s irritating idiosyncrasies fester into sociopathic cruelty. There is welcome restraint in visually depicting the most vicious and violent acts perpetrated by Kevin (played at different ages by Rocky Duer, Jasper Newell, and Ezra Miller), but Ramsey’s storytelling has such piledriver force that it doesn’t particularly feel like relief has been offered. In the closing sequences that revolve around a massive, murderous crime, Ramsey veers so closely to Kevin’s warped perspective that she comes dangerously close to creating art that bolsters and validates the wrong instincts in damaged souls. The choice can certainly be seen as one more way Ramsay instills challenging discomfort in the viewing experience. For me, it is a choice that very nearly tips the whole film over into misguided exploitation.

The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson, 2021). It is a quite a feat that Wes Anderson manages to take his signature aesthetic to greater extremes. The French Dispatch would seem to be the Chomolungma peak of Anderson’s fussbudget erudition and scampish comedy. The next feature will need to somehow push through to the mesosphere. Inspired by bygone eras of The New Yorker, Anderson concocts a few stories that supposedly filled the pages of the final edition of the publication The French Dispatch, once a supplement to the Midwestern newspaper Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, interspersing their onscreen telling with affectionate interludes that show the gently absurd magazine office doings presided over by editor Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray, who’s wonderful in the role). Of the trio of tales, The Concrete Masterpiece is the strongest and Revisions to a Manifesto is the weakest, though all have their charms. It rankles that two of the stories include a central female character, one a prison guard (Léa Seydoux) and one a journalist (France McDormand), who engage in sexual dalliances with caddish men in violation of basic professional boundaries. For all the heaps of admirable, offbeat invention in the film, that unpleasant redundancy merited a rewrite. Delightful performances abound. It’s fun to watch returning members of Anderson’s ever-expanding troupe slip effortlessly into teeny roles — Saoirse Ronan as a showgirl, Adrien Brody as a dubious art dealer — and even more rewarding to see newcomers prosper, as do Benicio del Toro, as an incarcerated painter, and Jeffrey Wright, as a writer clearly based on James Baldwin.

Luca (Enrico Casarosa, 2021). The director of the wonderful Pixar short La Luna, Enrico Casarosa, graduates to a feature, which he understandably sets in his Italian homeland. Set in the late nineteen-fifties, Luca follows two boyhood chums who happen to be sea monsters. Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) and Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer) take refuge from different forms of familial discard by hiding out as humans in a seaside village, where they befriend a girl named Giulia (Emma Berman) and agree to be her teammates in an annual Italian version of a triathlon that replaces running with pasta eating. The film is one of the more lightweight Pixar offerings. It’s still cute and agreeable, a chipper entertainment assembled with well-developed command of storytelling beats. The moral of overcoming knee-jerk fear of difference would seem trite if it weren’t so clearly still desperately lacking in a sizable portion of the current population.

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