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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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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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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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The Skin I Live In (2011)

Last night, I saw the new film by Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar, La Piel Que Habito (The Skin I Live In).  I went with the lovely Joanna, who will be doing her own post on the film soon.  We took an Almodóvar class together in college, and we have different preferences regarding his work, so it should be an interesting discussion.  I am a big fan of Almodóvar in his woman-oriented vein, exemplified by films like All About My Mother (1999) and Volver (2006).   Most of his more sadistic, male-oriented films, however, either leave me cold or make me angry. 

The Skin I Live In falls into the latter category.  It tells the story of a plastic surgeon, Robert (Antonio Banderas), who lives in a big, beautiful house in Toledo and does research in his basement.  He also keeps a mysterious, beautiful woman locked in an upstairs room.  Vera (Elena Anaya) does yoga and reads while wearing a supportive body sock, and Robert watches her on an enormous screen in his room (which is next door, incidentally).  As the film goes on, we learn more about Robert’s past and where Vera comes from, along with lots of blood and rape.

The first problem with the film is its pacing.  Especially during the flashback section, some of the sequences are unnecessarily long and feel disjointed from each other.  In the end, it all sort of comes together, but there are definitely some slow moments along the way.  While the mystery setup is good, and the twist works well, the film ends very abruptly, with little to no resolution or catharsis.  It feels as though Almodóvar just got tired of the story and didn’t know how to wrap it up, leaving the viewer unsettled, but mostly annoyed.

One of the best things about Almodóvar’s work in general is that there’s always a great deal to discuss.  The Skin I Live In is rife with interesting topics and ideas, and Almodóvar does a wonderful job of conveying these subjects visually.  The image of Robert’s basement operating room – clean, sterile glass surrounded by crumbling brick walls – conjures up ideas of old versus new, organic versus artificial, and natural versus man-made.  Robert’s newest invention is a type of artificial skin that can be used to heal burn victims, and the notion of getting an entirely new skin is an important one in the film.  What is the relationship between our appearance and our identity?  Where does the self really live?  What makes a person ‘real’?  All these ideas, as well as issues of gender and voyeurism (old Almodóvar favorites), are at play in the film, making it quite thought-provoking despite its mess of a plot.

Probably the most irritating thing about this film was its excessive use of rape.  Almodóvar has previously portrayed rape in many of his films, and he has been criticized for many of them.  The most notable example is Kika (1993), in which a woman is raped for around fifteen minutes while talking to women who walk by, picking up the phone, etc.  The point of the scene is to make rape funny, and Almodóvar does this frequently.  The Skin I Live In contains two lengthy rape scenes, as well as a gratuitous scene of a napkin being shoved deep inside a woman’s mouth, which is clearly meant to evoke rape.  I understand why Almodóvar portrays rape so much, and why he attempts to make it a laughing matter – he’s trying to rob it of its power.  If women can laugh at rape and not be particularly bothered by it, the act loses some of its destructive effect.  I understand it, but I still find it offensive and upsetting every time I see it.  No matter how many Almodóvar films I see, I doubt I will ever be okay with this tactic of his, and it is the primary reason I am not a fan of this newest film.

That said, the cast is fantastic.  Antonio Banderas has always done his best work, albeit usually as a psycho-stalker, in Almodóvar films, and it’s wonderful to see him return to form here.  Elena Anaya, who recalls a combination of Natalie Portman and Penelope Cruz, is both fragile and furious as the beautiful captive.  Almodóvar’s camera loves her, caressing her every feature (sometimes in a fetishistic manner), and draws us into Robert’s obsession as we marvel at her beauty.   Finally, it was lovely to see Marisa Paredes, an old Almodóvar favorite, as Robert’s fiercely loyal housekeeper.

There is much more I could say about this film – like Hitchcock, Almodóvar is nothing if not thought-provoking, but I will leave off for the time being.  I look forward to Joanna‘s thoughts, and hopefully we can get some discussion going.

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Blue Valentine (2010)

“I feel like men are more romantic than women. When we get married we marry, like, one girl, ’cause we’re resistant the whole way until we meet one girl and we think I’d be an idiot if I didn’t marry this girl she’s so great. But it seems like girls get to a place where they just kinda pick the best option… ‘Oh he’s got a good job.’ I mean they spend their whole life looking for Prince Charming and then they marry the guy who’s got a good job and is gonna stick around.”

In the quote above, Dean (Ryan Gosling) inadvertently foretells his own future.  At this point, he has yet to meet Cindy (Michelle Williams), the girl who will be his one and only.  Blue Valentine, directed by Derek Cianfrance, jumps back and forth in time from the beginning of Dean and Cindy’s relationship to the days when their marriage is falling apart.  This conceit, although similar to 500 Days of Summer (2009), is executed magnificently and with great sensitivity.  The physical transformations the two actors underwent between the early section and the late section make the juxtaposition of the two eras simply heartbreaking.  We fall in love with the young Dean and Cindy as they tap dance on the street and play the ukelele, but are repeatedly confronted by the older, more worn-out versions of them.  We are never shown exactly what went wrong in their relationship, but we can guess.

The most remarkable thing about Blue Valentine is its performances.  Ms. Williams and Mr. Gosling are simply wonderful, and the years of work they did on their characters truly show.  One thing that’s so unique about the film is its relationship to the authorship question.  Normally, the director and/or screenwriter is considered the “author” of a film, but these characters were created by Gosling and Williams in concert with the director.  Many of the scenes were improvised, and some were even shot in such a way as to push the boundaries of reality and performance.  For example, one of the early scenes in their relationship involves them walking down the street and chatting, then stopping to show each other their “hidden talents.”  Cianfrance had told them each separately to think of a hidden talent they had and then, once they reached a certain spot in the scene, to demonstrate them.  Therefore, when Ms. Williams breaks into a tap dance routing, and Mr. Gosling begins singing and playing the ukelele, both their reactions are genuine.  All of this information is in the behind-the-scenes documentary, so I’m not privy to an inside view here, but I am very intrigued by the effect scenes like this have on ideas of authorship and performance.  Can the film be called “Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine” if the characters and the action were also largely created by the actors?  Granted, improv is a practice that crops up all over the place in comedy, particularly in the Apatow oeuvre, so it’s not a new idea.  It is, however, a very different experience in drama, especially when it involves character creation to this extent.  I don’t really have an answer for any of these questions, but it’s something I found very thought-provoking about the film.

Going back to the performances themselves, Ms. Williams and Mr. Gosling are incredibly gifted and sensitive actors.  I have grown more and more appreciative of Michelle Williams since seeing her in Meek’s Cutoff and then My Week with Marilyn, as well as hearing this amazing interview with her on NPR.  She is a very thoughtful and considerate actress who really gets inside the skin of her characters.  Her performance as Cindy is quite interesting in that we never truly understand her.  There are moments when we learn shocking details about her that seem to open her up, but she remains a bit of an enigma to the end.  This is particularly effective because Mr. Gosling’s Dean is so open and giving, ready to to sacrifice everything for her, and yet he doesn’t truly understand her either.  This disconnect becomes quite clear in the scene (in the “late” section) where they talk about his future; he seems so blissfully unaware of what she wants from him and what she’s saying.  His inherent sweetness and gentleness was able to keep her with him for a while, but at a certain point Cindy needs more.

This endless analysis of their relationship is part of what stays with you after watching Blue Valentine.  The haunting ending images remind you of their early happy times together while their song plays over the credits.  We are left with nostalgia and regret, almost as if we were in the relationship with Cindy and Dean.  Blue Valentine has its flaws: Dean is rather too reminiscent of Mr. Gosling’s character in The Notebook (2004) and some of the side characters are cartoonish.  Its lovely moments and delicate performances, however, make the film worthwhile.  Cindy and Dean will stay with you for days.

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Shame (2011)

One of the most talked-about films at the NYFF this year was Steve McQueen’s Shame.  Portraying the daily life of a sex addict, its subject matter is attention-grabbing enough, but the film’s beautiful construction and Michael Fassbender’s incredible performance make it one of the most remarkable films of the year.

Shame begins with an overhead shot of Brandon (Mr. Fassbender) lying naked on his bed, staring off into space with a blank expression.  Entwined with ice blue sheets, his body is the center of our gaze, and McQueen holds on this shot for a while.  With no music to distract us, we quietly study Brandon’s body, the body that is so central to the film and over which he has no control.  Long, still shots like these are key to the film.  They force us to unflinchingly face the ugliness in Brandon and the painful nature of his addiction, while placing us firmly in the position of voyeurs.

A number of film-goers I spoke to complained that the film made the same point too many times; there were too many scenes of Brandon having raunchy, degrading sex, too much nudity, etc.  This repetition is actually McQueen’s way of removing the titillation from such images.  The early sex scenes affect us in the usual way, but the more of them we see, the less erotic they become.  By the end, when Brandon is engaging in a sexual encounter most men would revel in, it is simply painful to watch.  Every encounter he has seems to break him down more and more, bringing him only pain instead of pleasure.

Mr. Fassbender is truly a wonder to behold in this film.  His performance is simply mind-blowing.  The myriad of emotions that cross his face within seconds conveys the intense confusion in Brandon and his utter inability to treat himself and others well.  In some scenes, Brandon is the calm at the center of a storm of people, watching the women around him with still blue eyes.  In others, he seems about to jump out of his skin, leg bouncing, head bent down, muscles tensed until they look about to burst.  Mr. Fassbender portrays the many sides of Brandon perfectly, with the kind of commitment that comes from a truly trusting actor-director relationship.

The other main storyline in the film, aside from Brandon’s attempts to control his addiction, is his relationship with his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan).  An artsy young woman with depressive tendencies, Sissy comes barreling into Brandon’s life and takes over his apartment.  She disturbs his routine and makes him feel emotions he doesn’t want to admit to, particularly in the slowest rendition of “New York, New York” ever performed.  As irritating as her character can be, Ms. Mulligan holds her own against Mr. Fassbender, and their scenes together are revealing on both sides.  Her presence allows us to see yet another side of Brandon and gives us a glimpse into where he comes from.

Shame is a beautiful piece of filmmaking, with compositions that quietly convey a sense of alienation in long, static shots.  The beauty of its construction makes its subject matter all the more visceral, forcing us to experience the desensitization that Brandon feels as we see image after image of the naked human body.  Between Mr. McQueen’s masterful direction and Mr. Fassbender’s amazing performance, this is one of the most important films of the year, and I hope this pair continues to work together for years to come.

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A Dangerous Method (2011)

When director David Cronenberg introduced A Dangerous Method at the NYFF tonight (accompanied by the wonderful Michael Fassbender), he implied that the film is very different from his earlier work.  It is true that this most recent effort does not contain mutant babies or twin gynecologists, and it lacks the visual flair of his usual films.  It is, however, clearly a Cronenberg film as far as subject matter goes.  Its exploration of the darker side of human nature and the visceral urges we attempt to repress fits in perfectly with his previous work.

The film follows Dr. Carl Jung (Mr. Fassbender) and his relationships with a masochistic patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) and the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen).  The small cast is uniformly excellent.  I have always been anti-Keira Knightley, but her performance here is surprisingly good.  Her reed-like, fragile physique and wide eyes make her the perfect image of a broken, battered child who, over the course of the film, gradually composes herself but refuses to soften.  The character is all hard edges, demanding and incisive in her ability to read human behavior.  Despite the fact that she is the masochist, you get the sense that she is the one who holds the power over Jung, not vice versa.

Jung’s relationship with Freud is similarly fraught.  Beginning as a mentoring relationship, it eventually turns into a battle for the future of psychoanalysis.  No matter what the viewer may think about Freud and Jung’s theories (I have my problems with them, of course), their discussions over the course of the film are gripping and genuinely thought-provoking.  A Dangerous Method is, appropriately, a very talky film, but the content and performances kept me interested.  Mr. Fassbender employs his subtle, visceral style to make Jung the slowly-crumbling center of the film.  He is on camera almost the entire time, making every small change in his facial expressions and body posture count.  Viggo Mortensen, an old favorite of mine who has been doing excellent work with Cronenberg over the last decade, brings a dry wit and quiet consideration to Freud.  The character could have so easily become cartoonish, with his perpetual cigar and prosthetic nose, but Mortensen makes him an intriguing and humble intellectual presence.

Alongside the more obvious discussion of human sexuality and psychology, the film also tackles issues of class and religion.  Spielrein and Freud are both Jews, while Jung is Protestant.  Freud is from a lower class and lives in a cramped apartment with his six children, while Jung’s wife is incredibly wealthy and he lives in a country house with his own sailboat.  These differences create a quiet tension that suffuses the characters’ interactions and lends an extra edge to Jung and Freud’s disagreements.  The implications of these differences become very clear in the end titles, which I will not spoil for you.  Suffice it to say, World War II played its part in these characters’ lives.

A Dangerous Method is thought-provoking and well-executed, if mainstream for a man of Cronenberg’s eccentricity.  The dialed-down style makes for a visually bland experience, but in a way it is appropriate for the subject matter.  Just like in Jung himself, all the darker elements lie beneath the surface.

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