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‘Attack the Block’ / ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’

Troubled 'yoof' fight from street to classroom

by Giovanni Fazio

When unarmed teen Trayvon Martin was fatally shot in Florida by paranoid neighborhood-watch vigilante George Zimmerman in February, the usual flurry of American media debate ensued. One of the more heated tangents came when celebrity newscaster Geraldo Rivera stated — on Fox News, naturally — that Martin’s death could be partly blamed on the “hoodie” he was wearing. While stressing that Martin didn’t deserve to be shot, Rivera insisted that “every time you see someone stick up a 7-Eleven, the kid is wearing a hoodie. You have to recognize that this whole stylizing yourself as a gangster … Well, people are gonna perceive you as a menace.”

“Wicked!” would no doubt be the reply of the mindless teen gangsta-wannabes in “Attack the Block,” a British comedy-horror set on a “Sarf” London council estate where the hoodie (hooded sweatshirt pulled low over the face) has as nasty a connotation as it does in the States. Despite the garment’s roots in hip-hop and jock culture, the 2011 London riots surely cemented the widespread belief that “hoodie” equals “villain.”

“Attack the Block” attempts to play with the stereotype, though with rather weak results. Director Joe Cornish (a screenwriter on Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin” and half of the award-winning comedy duo Adam & Joe) lifts the tepid genre mix ‘n’ match of “Cowboys & Aliens” to turn it into, well, “Hoodies & Aliens.”

Amid the fireworks of Guy Fawkes Night, a group of teenage louts led by Moses (John Boyega) examine a suspicious flash of light, find a small alien, and kick its head in. After arming themselves, they gleefully come back looking for more “Gollums,” only to encounter a bigger, nastier fanged version. What follows is a race back to their block and the safety of a locked-down cannabis-growing room, all the while dodging the cops and an enraged gangsta named Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter).

“Attack the Block” has director Edgar Wright of zombie-parody “Shaun of the Dead” on board as producer, which may raise hopes for a similarly funny alien-invasion spoof. The laughs are pretty thin on the ground, though, with only Nick Frost (of “Shaun” and “Hot Fuzz”) standing out as an imperturbably spliffed-out dealer.

Props to the film for using CGI sparingly, and physically animating most of the alien sequences; Cornish also uses the urban labyrinth landscape of the estate to good effect, milking the dimly lit corridors and deserted pedestrian walkways for some chills. Yet he can’t get past the fact that he sets up his characters as such weak-minded droogs — we first meet them mugging a nurse at knifepoint — that by the time Cornish tries to turn them into sympathetic individuals, you’ll probably be rooting for the Gollums. Awesome movie if you’re 15, play way too much “Call of Duty” and think rapper Waka Flocka Flame is God.

Moving from one teenage outrage (hoodies) to another (school massacres), we come to the much-hyped Lynne Ramsay adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” The film features Tilda Swinton as Eva, a traumatised woman dealing with the aftermath of her sociopathic son Kevin’s actions.

Ramsay lays out the story while cutting between present and past at will, with a fractured narrative that seems more style than substance. Gradually we piece together Eva’s relationship with husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), her ambivalent feelings about becoming a mother, and the increasingly spiteful, horrible behavior of her son, Kevin (played as a child by Jasper Newell and as a teen by Ezra Miller), while her husband remains in denial.

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” is exceptionally well acted, with Swinton giving the kind of conflicted performance she does so well, while both Newell and Miller manage to seem like the most horrid, smirking brats you could ever imagine — poster boys for going childless. (Reilly remains in his usual good-natured doofus comfort-zone.)

Somehow, though, the film remains easier to admire than to like, with the main reason being the character of Kevin, who is so single-mindedly evil from birth that Ramsay may as well be remaking “The Omen.” Compounding this is the fact that while Kevin is not shown to have a single redeeming feature or speck of empathy, the bulk of the film is devoted to Eva’s agonizing over whether she was a good mother or not. It’s rather like “Psycho” with Mrs. Bates shouldering the blame for Norman’s knife-work.

Shriver — who has herself remained childless — has spoken in interviews about not knowing whether its nurture or nature that makes a child turn out rotten, but while the film encourages viewers to ponder that question, the bulk of good-liberal critical opinion has stressed the nurture aspect. (“Evil” is a word for the George Bushes of this world.) Ramsay’s film winds up as one that may be too neutral and indecisive for its own good. Eva asks her son, after her hard drive was trashed by a virus he planted, “What’s the point?” “There is no point,” says Kevin, and in the absence of learning anything about what makes him tick, the viewer may well feel the same.