We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) – The Dark Side of Motherhood

When a teenager goes on a violent rampage and kills his fellow students, who is to blame?  Someone has to be responsible for such unnecessary, wanton violence.  We feel that we can’t blame the kid, because he’s not an adult and is therefore not responsible for his actions.  Instead, we blame the parents, usually the mother.  In our societal consciousness, the mother is always to blame for her child’s character.

Lynne Ramsay’s new film, We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), addresses this question of parental responsibility.  When we first meet Eva Khatchadourian (a marvelous Tilda Swinton), she is a pariah in her town, shunned by all her neighbors and former friends as the town recovers from her son’s attack on the school.  The film jumps back and forth in time as we learn more about Eva and her troubled relationship with her son, Kevin.

From the moment Kevin is born, Eva instantly feels a profound alienation from him.  The film portrays our darkest fears about motherhood: what if we don’t love our baby?  What if we’re bad parents?  What if our child manifests our worst qualities?  What if we can’t fix them?  All these questions manifest themselves in the film, as both Kevin and Eva distinctly dislike each other.  Even as a baby, he cries constantly in her arms and will only quiet when his father (John C. Reilly) holds him.

As Kevin grows up, he becomes openly antagonistic toward his mother.  One of the most disturbing aspects of this film (and there are many) is seeing a small child be purposefully cruel.  It’s not news that children can be mean and hurtful, but the look in 6-year-old Kevin’s eyes as he says extremely calculated things to his mother is terrifying.  As a teenager, this quality only worsens, and Ezra Miller is pitch-perfect as teenage Kevin.  His dark, angry gaze seems to pierce through Ms. Swinton’s thin frame, and his line delivery is just chilling.  The fact that he looks so much like his mother is, of course, purposeful, and it gives his coldness a doubly eerie effect.

Ms. Ramsay’s mastery of the visuals in this film is remarkable.  She knows just how long to linger on a shot so that it creates tension and suspense but doesn’t overdo it.  Her camera purposefully gives us extreme close-ups of Kevin’s acne-ridden chin and Eva’s worn-out face, highlighting their humanity and their brokenness.  Ramsay also uses what I call the “Dexter credits sequence technique” (although her version is much less stylized) of making everyday images and acts extremely creepy.  You will never look at a jelly sandwich the same again.

The emotional center of the film is, of course, Ms. Swinton.  I always have a hard time even describing her as an actress because there is simply no one like her.  She never pushes for your pity, and her characters are often hard to like, but she is nonetheless mesmerizing as a performer.  Her face changes aspects so subtly and completely.  In the rare instances when she smiles in this film, she seems a completely different person.  So much of her performance here is nonverbal.  Words have failed her in parenthood and in her relationships, so by the end she is practically mute.  We nonetheless can read every single expression on her face and in her body.  Never has a woman seemed both so broken and so determined to keep going.

The film’s one problem is in the husband’s character.  John C. Reilly, though he is a wonderful and respected actor, is miscast in the part.  Mr. Reilly’s teddy bear aspect makes the oblivious father almost cartoonishly so.  He and Ms. Swinton have very little chemistry, and his character is so roughly drawn that we have no sense of what he’s like outside of parenting.  Does he even have a job?  I suppose this could be a simple side effect of spending so much time delving into Eva’s character, but a less benign actor might have pulled it off better.  There is, however, something to be said for spending so much time on a female character that you neglect her male counterpart.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is, simply put, a beautifully made, haunting film.  It is almost a perverse fairy tale, provoking us to think about what-ifs and fear for our hypothetical (or real) children.  In the end, the film leaves the question of blame unanswered.  Did Eva make Kevin evil because she didn’t want him and desired her own life?  Was Kevin inherently violent?  Why did all this happen?  No one, not even Ms. Ramsay, seems to know the answer, and that’s the point.  Sometimes, there is no answer.

 

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5 Awesome Uses of Songs in TV Shows

This may seem like a random subject to write about, but the use of music in TV shows is something I really notice.  Consistently good song choices can elevate a show dramatically and make scenes stay with you after the episode ends.  These are the examples that come to mind:

 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “Full of Grace” by Sarah McLachlan

Buffy had many wonderful song choices over the years – “Wild Horses,” “Goodbye to You,” “A Prayer for Saint Francis” – but none of them hit me so hard as “Full of Grace” at the end of “Becoming, Part II.”  When Buffy stabs Angel and sends him to hell right after he regains his soul, hearing McLachlan’s haunting voice is like a second punch to the gut.  As Sarah Michelle Gellar’s expressive face just crumples, we cannot help but fall apart as we hear, “The winter here’s cold…and bitter…and chills us to the bone.”  The song continues to the end of the episode, leaving us hanging as Buffy abandons Sunnydale.  Season 2 is beautiful television for many reasons, and this sequence is one of them.  I couldn’t find a good YouTube video of the scene, so here’s a picture to give you an idea:

 

Alias – “No Man’s Woman” by Sinead O’Connor

Alias was an awesome show for many reasons, but its primary asset was its protagonist, Sydney Bristow.  Sydney was a kickass spy chick played by the fabulous and athletic Jennifer Garner.  In the very first episode, “Truth Be Told,” J.J. Abrams uses Sinead O’Connor’s “No Man’s Woman” to give the climactic sequence some punch.  Both the rhythm and the lyrics go perfectly with the message of the scene: Sydney will not be bossed around by anyone.  She will kick ass and take names in her own way, and Sloane (and the audience) can take it or leave it.

 

Nip/Tuck – “Natasha” by Rufus Wainwright

Like many people, I have some problems with Ryan Murphy as a showrunner (regarding Glee in particular).  Nip/Tuck was a bit of a mess, but it was consistently entertaining and provocative.  One of the most remarkable elements of the show was the use of music.  Every episode, Christian and Sean would go to work on a patient, and whatever song they had in the CD player always contributed an ironic commentary to the proceedings. This sequence, however, is the most profoundly moving one in the show.  Christian (Julian McMahon) is a mess of a person, consistently treating women like crap and therefore unable to have healthy relationships with anyone.  In the episode entitled “Natasha Charles,” however, he meets a beautiful blind woman named….guess…Natasha (Rebecca Gayheart).  When they sleep together, she makes him close his eyes, and her ability to treasure him without actually seeing him makes it the most intimate encounter he has over the course of the show (and he has many).  He treats her terribly later on, of course, because Christian is nothing if not self-destructive, but this scene is the most vulnerable he ever allows himself to be.  Rufus Wainwright’s gorgeous “Natasha” not only fits the scene due to its name, but it also gives it a lyrical, intimate beauty that makes it seem almost like a dream.  This is probably the most sublime moment of Christian’s life, and the floating melody of the song makes that quite apparent.

 

The O.C. – “Hide and Seek” by Imogen Heap

You can’t really write about music in TV shows without including The O.C.  When the show was at its peak in seasons 1 and 2, it brought bands like Death Cab for Cutie and Wilco to the forefront of teen music culture.  It was a teen soap, but it was very well made.  The most memorable musical moment (sorry for the alliteration) was when Marissa shot Trey to the haunting tune of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek.”  Although this scene was later parodied to hilarious effect on SNL, the timing of the music and dramatic resonance of the scene gave everyone chills.   Discussion of Marissa shooting Trey was all over my high school the next day, and a huge part of that was the song.

 

Sons of Anarchy – the whole series

I have to include Sons of Anarchy here, but I can’t pick just one song!  I bought the soundtrack, “Songs of Anarchy,” a few days ago, and I’ve been listening to it nonstop.  The show uses heavy metal for background noise most of the time, but when they really want to emphasize a sequence or montage, we get beautiful and haunting folk covers.  Between Audra Mae’s cover of “Forever Young,” Curtis Stiger’s “John the Revelator,” Joshua James’s “Coal War” and The White Buffalo’s “House of the Rising Sun,” there are so many moments in the series that are made memorable by their music.   No clips available on YouTube, but here are “Forever Young” and “House of the Rising Sun”:

 

Well, that’s my list.  What are your favorite song sequences?

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“Tell Me You Love Me”: Sons of Anarchy Ep. 4.13

I haven’t made a practice of doing single episode reviews, but last night’s episode of Sons of Anarchy was so fantastic I just had to write about it.  “To Be, Act One” was the first half of the season four finale, and man did it bring everything full circle.

Written by showrunner Kurt Sutter and Chris Collins, the episode is largely made up of two-person scenes. We have Jax and Tara, then Gemma and Tara, then Jax and Gemma, the tension building in each confrontation, until the three of them finally come together to hash it out.  The elegance of this structure does a lot to streamline the story and hone in on the relationships between these three characters, and all three actors do an amazing job.

In the end, Tara emerges as the real power player, having surpassed Gemma in both machinations and possessiveness.  When she says to Jax and Gemma in turn, “Tell me you love me,” it is more of a challenge than a plea.  Maggie Siff has been phenomenal this season, and we can feel the rage emanating off of Tara throughout the episode.  When she pulls out a syringe and details her plan to kill Clay, the look on Katey Sagal’s face is fantastic – she’s looking at Tara like she’s never seen her before.  Indeed, we are seeing a whole new Tara here.  Her eyes have become cold and empty.  When she tells Gemma, “[I’m doing] Everything you taught me….He’s MINE,” we can only join Gemma in gaping at the monster she has created.

As a counterpoint to all the Jax-Tara-Gemma intrigue, we have Tig’s much simpler desire to rebuild his friendship with Clay.  When did Tig become the sweetest character on this show?!  His love for both Gemma and Clay is beautiful, and Kim Coates’s face is so wonderfully expressive.  When he goes to Clay’s bedside and apologizes, his “I love you” is the only emotional one in the episode.  It’s all the more heartbreaking because we know Clay doesn’t deserve Tig’s love.  This season is just cutting to the bone at every turn.

Finally, I loved how much “To Be, Act One” brought us back to the pilot.  Gemma looks at pictures from the same “John misc.” box where Jax found JT’s manuscript in the first place.  Jax is just as hopeful and misguided now as he was then, but the stakes are even higher.  Then, in the most chilling echo, when Tara pulls out that syringe, we are reminded of when Gemma gave Wendy a needle to OD with.  Tara has become what she never wanted to be: Gemma 2.0.

“To Be, Act One” was an amazing episode all around.  I can’t wait for “To Be, Act Two.”  What am I going to do without Sons of Anarchy in the spring?!

 

Favorite comedic moments:  The image of the prospect sitting at Jax’s kitchen table eating cereal from a salad bowl was just marvelous.  Then, in the next scene, he was feeding the baby!  I think he’s the new Half-Sack.

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3 Reasons I Like Kristen Stewart

Now, I dislike the Twilight franchise as much as the next feminist Buffy fan.  I am, however, a Kristen Stewart fan.  Every time her name comes up, I find myself constantly defending her acting abilities to people who have only seen her in Twilight.  The following three movies convinced me that, despite her wooden performance as the wimpy Bella, Kristen Stewart is actually a magnetic and talented actress when she wants to be.

The Cake Eaters (2007)

Mary Stuart Masterson’s The Cake Eaters is a rather scattered film about a boy who returns to his rural hometown and begins a romance with a handicapped girl, causing tension between their families.  Georgia Kaminiski (Stewart) has Friedreich’s Ataxia, a degenerative neuromuscular disorder that effects motor function and speech.  Despite her illness and limitations, Georgia is an artist and a passionate young woman who goes after her destiny.  Many actresses would have made this role showy and pitiful, but Stewart gives a quietly fierce performance that makes Georgia’s disorder almost beside the point.  In a film littered with characters and backstory, it is Georgia and her future at the center of the film, thanks to Kristen Stewart’s natural and magnetic performance.

Into the Wild (2007)

One of the most under-recognized movies of the past five years, Sean Penn’s adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild is a gorgeous film.  With its sumptuous cinematography and a strong performance by Emile Hirsch, the film’s chronicle of Chris McCandless’s cross-country journey is mesmerizing and powerful.  Stewart’s role in this film is a small one, but I was very impressed by her performance.  She plays a teenage girl named Tracy who is taken with Chris and attempts to sleep with him.  Stewart is vulnerable and utterly believable in this role, making Tracy one of the more memorable characters in the film.  Did I mention she also sings and plays the guitar?

The Runaways (2010)

Now, this is my favorite of Stewart’s performances, and it’s also one of my favorite movies.  Between Floria Sigismondi’s innovative and striking direction, fantastic performances by Dakota Fanning and Michael Shannon, and of course some kick-ass music, there are plenty of reasons I love The Runaways.  It’s Kristen Stewart’s turn as the great Joan Jett, however, that completely blew me away.  With her hunched shoulders, swaggering body language, and raspy voice, Stewart embodies Jett far beyond simple mimicry.  Her hungry eyes convey her desire for power in the male world of rock and roll, and her subtle facial expressions make her love for the troubled Cherie Curry (Fanning) very clear.  On top of all this, she does an amazing job singing classic songs and dominating the stage like the rock star she plays.  When she writes the song “Love is Pain” in the bathtub, she is both a rock star and utterly human, imbuing the song with emotional power and bringing the whole film together.  I cannot say enough good things about this movie and Stewart’s performance in it.  If you haven’t seen The Runaways, go watch it now.

There you have it.  I defy you to watch any of these three films and not believe that, despite the mess that is Twilight, Kristen Stewart is actually a very talented actress with a great career ahead of her….as long as she sticks to independent movies, anyway.

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The Descendants (2011)

Alexander Payne’s The Descendants (2011) is a lovely meditation on human imperfection and familial love.  While Sideways explored the isolating potential of eccentricity and obsession, Payne uses his newest film to examine the healing effects of love and connection.  Every character in The Descendants is a significantly flawed individual, but these imperfections do not define them.  With a brilliant cast and a screenplay that blends humor and pathos, Payne has made a film populated by real people, living in the “real” Hawaii.

The Descendants tells the story of a middle-aged father, Matt (George Clooney), whose wife is in a coma after a boating accident.  As the self-described “backup parent,” he must now figure out how to interact effectively with his two daughters, 17-year-old Alex (a radiant Shailene Woodley) and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller).  When Alex tells him that his wife was cheating on him, Matt has to come to terms with his new view of her as he says goodbye and spreads the word of her condition to family and friends.

Mr. Clooney gives the most heartfelt performance of his career, abandoning all sense of “cool” and vanity.  He is unabashedly middle-aged, and to watch him run awkwardly in loafers is only one of the many moments of physical comedy in the film.  He also nails some really emotional moments – his facial expressions when the doctor tells him his wife’s prognosis are heartbreaking to watch.  Matt’s relationship to his daughters is the center of the film, and these two promising actresses work wonderfully with Mr. Clooney.  I actually found myself sad at the end that they were not a real family.

The cast of characters surrounding the main family is colorful but realistic.  Nick Krause is hilarious as Alex’s stoner boyfriend with a hidden perceptive side (a la Keanu Reeves in Parenthood), and the ever dependable Judy Greer gives a lovely, nuanced performance later in the film.  With every character in The Descendants, their redeeming factor is their love for the people close to them.  Even Matt’s father-in-law, an insensitive, passive-aggressive bully who punches a teenage boy in the face, is made human when we witness his love for his daughter.  Love is what defines humanity in this film.

The uncredited star of the film is Hawaii.  In my opinion, Kauai is the most beautiful place in the world, and Mr. Payne shoots its lush valleys and mountainsides with the adoration they deserve.  He is also committed, however, to portraying the ‘normal’ side of Hawaii, the anti-paradise.  The family’s house is strewn with damp leaves, and the sky in their Oahu neighborhood is perpetually grey.  Paradise does not necessarily produce happy people.  Just like the other characters in the film, Hawaii has plenty of flaws.  When Matt finds a place he cannot part with, however, both he and the island are healed.

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3 Movies I Wish More People Had Seen

Ever make a reference to a movie and no one knows what you’re talking about?  It happens to me a lot, partially because I have a weird memory for obscure quotes, but it’s also because I reference movies like these:

 

Living in Oblivion (1995)

Tom DiCillo’s comedy about independent filmmaking boasts a cast that includes Steve Buscemi, Dermot Mulroney, Catherine Keener, and Peter Dinklage.  It premiered at Sundance and proceeded to make a measly $1.1 million at the box office.  Despite that, it is a hilarious satire that everyone who likes insider movies should watch.  Instead of portraying the glamorous world of studio films, it follows a production so  low-budget that they can’t even afford fresh milk.  Buscemi plays the would-be auteur who seems to have David Lynch tendencies, and his increasing stress and mania is just a treat to watch.  The film also includes such magical elements as Dermot Mulroney in an eye patch and Peter Dinklage delivering an angry monologue about dwarves in movies.  The fact that this movie hasn’t become a cult classic is mystifying to me.

 

Songcatcher (2000)

Now, Maggie Greenwald’s Songcatcher is far from a blockbuster.  It tells the story of a 19th century musicologist who ventures into the Appalachians to document folk songs.  While the film has a number of problems – Janet McTeer doesn’t really work as a romantic lead, and a subplot about anti-lesbian hate crimes feels preachy and unnecessary – it’s an interesting exploration of the legacy of folk music and the culture of Appalachia.  It also features a young, pre-fame Emmy Rossum, using the voice that would later sing Phantom of the Opera to perform an a cappella version of “Barbara Allen.” The real reason to see this film are the songs – it has a wonderful soundtrack of country singers performing old hill tunes.  One of my favorite scenes includes Pat Carroll (aka Ursula from The Little Mermaid) performing “Single Girl.”  This is a movie all about the origins of country music, so “I like everything but country” folk will probably not enjoy it, but I find its portrayal of music scholarship fascinating.

 

Nine Lives (2005)


This last film is one of my all-time favorites, so expect a longer post on it at some point.  I don’t know how Rodrigo Garcia does it, but between Nine Lives and Mother and Child (2009) he has shown an uncanny ability to write from women’s perspectives.  One of my favorite topics to study is female subjectivity, and Nine Lives is all about women and their stories.  It is composed of nine stories, each about a different woman, and each shot in one ten-minute take.  The stories are loosely connected, as supporting characters will sometimes show up in more than one story, but the connections are not the point.  As one character says, “Each woman is a universe,” and the film is primarily interested in spending time in these worlds.  Nine Lives also features an amazing cast, including the amazing and increasingly beautiful Robin Wright, Amanda Seyfried, Amy Brenneman, Glenn Close, Dakota Fanning, and Holly Hunter.  Each section treads different ground, and each woman’s story is utterly real.  Despite its cast and pedigree, this movie only made $500,000 at the box office, and its lack of recognition is one of the many omissions that has made me dislike the awards season.  I cannot say enough about Nine Lives.  Each time I watch it, I discover something new, or I see a story in a new way.  It is a film about subjectivity and experience, and each viewer’s experience of it is different.

 

Are there any films that were important in your life but obscure to others?

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The Help (2011)

I have yet to read the book (I know, I know, I’m behind the times), but I finally saw Tate Taylor’s movie of The Help on my return flight from London.  Here are my thoughts, in informal bullet points:

The Good:

  • The cast was uniformly excellent.  I had some doubts about Emma Stone in a dramatic role, but she did a good job.  Jessica Chastain was wonderful (and looked amazing) as the spacey outcast, Celia, and Bryce Dallas Howard was deliciously bitchy as the villainous Hilly.  The real star of the film is Viola Davis, who I’ve loved since I saw her almost non-speaking performance in Far From Heaven (2002).  Here, she gets a meaty role that allows her to do subtle but powerful work.  She also gets the main voiceover, which made me very happy from a subjectivity standpoint.  Even though it’s the white woman doing the publishing, the black woman is telling the story.  Also wonderful was Octavia Spencer, who looks incredibly familiar, but I can’t place her in a specific role.  I think I’m just so used to seeing her face in her various bit parts.  Her angry performance brought a great deal of comic relief to the film without undermining the seriousness of her perspective.

  • The pacing and writing are generally very tight.  The film is almost two and a half hours but moves along at a swift pace.
  • The film did a really lovely job of portraying the relationships between the black maids and their white children.  Every time Cicely Tyson was onscreen, she brought gravitas and warmth, and Viola Davis’s scenes with her charge were the center of the film.  The most gratifying element of it, from a feminist perspective, is that both Aibileen (Davis) and Constantine (Tyson) are determined to impart messages of strength and self-respect to their girls.  Aibileen repeatedly tells Mae Mobley, “You is kind, you is smart, you is important.” The fact that she worries about the girl’s looks to herself but does not include “You is pretty” in this mantra is significant.  The women in The Help know that looks play an important role in our culture, but they are doing their best to give young girls a sense of self-worth beyond the surface.

The Bad:

  • Why why why why why did they put this hair on Emma Stone???  I get that they’re trying to make her look plain, but it’s supposedly Skeeter’s natural hair, and yet it looks like a terrible perm gelled to within an inch of its life.  There are so many other ways to give her “bad hair” without it being this distracting.

WHY????

  • A number of plot moments didn’t quite ring true.  Skeeter’s boyfriend, who supposedly loves her for her intelligence and spunk, leaves her because of her book, telling her that she is “a selfish person.” Not only does this not make any logical sense, but he also has not been shown to be particularly embroiled in the establishment before, so his sudden investment in Jackson society makes no sense.  Also, when Celia’s husband suddenly turns out to be the sweetest man on the planet, it feels cheap and undeveloped.  For all we knew, he was a bigot like everyone else and, had they taken the time to establish his character earlier in the film (pretty sure we saw his face once before his encounter with Minny), his incredibly understanding stance would have been more believable.  The uses of both these men was purely as plot devices.  On the other hand, though, it’s a new experience to be saying that about male characters for once…
  •  Nelsan Ellis, of True Blood fame, was criminally underused in this film.  I am the first to admit that True Blood has gotten pretty terrible, but Ellis is an amazing actor, and I would have liked to see more of him in a non-Lafayette capacity.

Although Lafayette is ok too....

The Verdict:

The Help was a very well-made movie, both thought-provoking and entertaining.  It has some treacly lines and silly plot developments, but it does a very good job of exploring ideas of subjectivity, gender, and race.  I know the book has been the target of a lot of debates, so I will have to address that when I read it.  There are problematic ways you could read the “white women helps black ladies tell their story” message, but the movie means well, and it manages to be genuinely moving without hitting you over the head.  At its core, it is a film about harnessing the power of language to gain agency, and that is what these women do.

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