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Entries in jessica chastain (6)

Wednesday
Dec312014

A Most Violent Year

“A Most Violent Year” is a movie with a somewhat misleading title. Despite one that implies action or, at the very least, some graphic content, the film rarely depicts onscreen violence, nor does it show anything particularly sexy or exciting. No, “A Most Violent Year” is instead a slow burner, a masterful crime drama that would feel right at home alongside the best the genre has to offer.

The year is 1981 and Abel (Oscar Isaac) is a business owner of a New York oil company. He is currently working on closing a deal on some prime real estate that will give him significant business advantages over his competitors. However, he finds himself struggling because his trucks keep getting robbed and the oil sold to one of those competitors. On top of that, there is an investigation underway in regards to his company, along with the entire industry as a whole. Some serious charges are going to be brought against him and his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), who may be responsible for many of them in the first place.

It may not sound like much, but this set-up leads to some suspenseful, emotional and sometimes even frightening scenes, exemplified in an early sequence when Abel walks around his darkened house looking for an intruder. And watching these scenes unfold is like watching a brilliant play come to life. Aside from one chase scene and one shootout, the movie maintains a small scope, usually opting to focus on its characters.

And with characters like this, such a decision should be applauded. Abel is a confident and sharp-tongued businessman who never backs down from threatening or uncomfortable situations and tells it like it is. But at the same time, he’s honorable. Despite the impending charges that could threaten his business, he does his best to keep on the good side of the law. The few moments where he does take action in potentially unlawful ways come as an effect of unlawful actions being taken against him. What he does is understandable, even as his priorities of business first and everything else after ensure he never becomes a completely sympathetic character.

Then again, flawed characters are generally more interesting and such is the case here in nearly every regard. Anna, anchored by an outstanding performance from Jessica Chastain, is the least conscientious of the two, the moment her true colors come out as she emotionlessly kills a deer being a standout scene of the film. Chastain brilliantly crafts a strong, intelligent female out of a character stuck in an era when women were more expected to abide by traditional gender roles than they are today. She plays the good wife to those around her, but her motivations and actions show there is much more bubbling beneath the surface, perhaps a genetic trait from her father, a well-known gangster from the area who has, presumably, since passed.

All of this is enhanced by a truly magnificent score, as it perfectly punctuates each scene. Otherwise rote dialogue, like early on when Abel gives a motivational speech to his salesman, is enhanced by a score that implies some sinister desires beneath his seemingly simple words. The score beautifully hints that the characters aren’t all they seem to be at first and while those character arcs and revelations aren’t exactly surprising, the score nevertheless remains a fascinating and integral component to who they eventually become.

“A Most Violent Year” isn’t going to be for everybody. After a little more than two hours at a sometimes slow and occasionally uneventful pace, some viewers may want more. But for those with a little patience to spare, “A Most Violent Year” is guaranteed to be one of the most interesting movies you’ll have seen this year, with a thoughtful ending that will leave you with plenty to ponder over when the credits finally roll.

A Most Violent Year receives 4.5/5

Wednesday
Nov052014

Interstellar

As a general rule, director Christopher Nolan doesn’t make bad movies. While not all have been great, neither have any been bad. In regards to consistency, at least, one could argue he’s the single best director working today and early buzz for his newest film, “Interstellar,” seemed to indicate magnificence. Some reports even stated that it was on a philosophical level of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Having now seen it, I feel like I can definitively say that it’s not quite up to that level. “Interstellar” is a great movie, one that will inevitably end up on many critics’ best of the year lists, but to make such a direct comparison is overenthusiastic hyperbole. It’s Nolan’s most narratively ambitious film to date and it does a good job of exploring complex themes, but its philosophizing doesn’t always land. Still, when most science fiction films these days involve little more than assault-on-the-senses action, one can’t help but appreciate that this one strives to be intellectually more.

And it’s that intellectualism, even when it’s not up to snuff, that gives “Interstellar” its edge. In a real world that seems increasingly anti-intellectualism and anti-science, with societies hell bent on holding onto archaic beliefs and ideologies, it’s a breath of fresh air to see onscreen characters portrayed in a way that highlights scientific curiosity and hope, even in the face of extreme adversity. Matthew McConaughey, in what could very well be his best dramatic performance to date, plays Cooper, a brilliant engineer and scientist who, due to apocalyptic weather patterns diminishing Earth’s resources, is relegated to farming. He’s a naturally curious person and has passed that curiosity down to his children, namely Murph, played by Mackenzie Foy, a young girl who swears there’s a ghost in her room trying to tell her something.

Eventually they learn the strange occurrences in her room are gravitational anomalies that began around 50 years ago. Around the same time, a wormhole in space appeared and has remained stable ever since. Using this wormhole, NASA was able to send its bravest men and women to a new galaxy with potentially habitable worlds. The data they’ve since received indicates a handful of those worlds could work to save the human race, so they enlist Cooper to leave his family behind and embark on a dangerous mission. Knowing that inaction could mean extinction for his species, he begrudgingly agrees.

In many ways, “Interstellar” is the polar opposite of last year’s sci-fi hit, “Gravity.” While that movie was essentially a 90 minute action movie in space with minimal characterization, “Interstellar” nearly doubles that length and is all about character. A few tense action scenes pop up in from time to time, but it’s the effect those scenes have on the characters that makes them so interesting. Before the characters even lift off into space, the stage is set for some wonderful human drama. The relationships are built in a believable way, which allows later scenes to lead to some truly heartbreaking moments. Characters aren’t mentioned in passing like Bullock’s daughter in “Gravity,” but are instead grown and explored through many years and even decades, thanks to a clever narrative mechanic grounded in real life science.

In fact, the lengths “Interstellar” goes to be scientifically accurate are both welcome and impressive. It takes liberties, of course, to form its story, but it dares to show its scientific literacy when other movies would have taken the easy way out. A great example comes in its portrayal of artificial gravity. Nolan could have very easily had the characters flip a switch to turn it on in their spaceship, but he instead has a 10 minute sequence where their ship docks with a circular apparatus that then begins to rotate, creating artificial gravity through centrifugal force. Is this sequence necessary for the characters or the drama? No, but it helps create a real, living world and, though minor in the big scheme of things, it allows viewers to sink fully into the desired immersion.

These details show a genuine love for the subject matter, for space and even for the unknown. The writing from Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, indicate as much. Wonderful scenes that mock Apollo landing conspiracy theorists and early dialogue discussing the merits of scientific study highlight a passion for scientific endeavors as well as the wonders of both the human spirit and the insignificant role we play in the immensity of the cosmos. The visuals similarly show this affection, with truly stunning imagery that looks pulled from NASA’s archives. This is a movie that understands not just the frightening and dangerous nature of our universe, but also its grandiosity and quiet beauty. If you too share such awe, as I do, then you’ll find plenty to love here.

When “Interstellar” stumbles, it’s not due to these things, but rather a narrative that occasionally misses the mark. When the characters start to hypothesize about the meaning of everything, one starts to babble on with silly nonsense about love, about how it could potentially be an extra dimension beyond time and space that we aren’t yet able to perceive. In a movie as grounded as this one, scenes like this are worth little more than an eye roll.

It also loses some narrative momentum in its final moments. Despite a deliberate pacing and a runtime of 169 minutes, its conclusion is rushed beyond plausibility. Although undeniably interesting and unexpected, a specific character comes to a revelation completely out of the blue with little convincing context behind it. However, it must be said that this moment also leads to one of the emotionally impactful moments in the entire film, which makes it easier to forgive such hurriedness.

If nothing else, “Interstellar” goes to show that there are still some great ideas out there that the science fiction genre can lend itself to beyond giant robots crashing into each other. It might not be the intellectual equivalent of “2001: A Space Odyssey” as some have argued, but it’s a wondrous movie in its own right that tackles complex themes, builds believable characters and hits all the right emotional chords while rarely relying on heavy-handed manipulation. Even with its faults, it’s one of the year’s best.

Interstellar receives 4.5/5

Friday
Jan182013

Mama

If it’s January, that can mean only one thing: movie studios are dumping whatever crap they have sitting around into theaters. Every year, during a time when the general population is optimistically looking forward to making the next 365 days better than the last, movie studios do their part, albeit in a small way, to prevent that from happening. This week, we have Mama, a film where the most appropriate describing adjective is “stupid.” I suppose for a January release, it’s not half bad, particularly if compared to last year’s genre offering, The Devil Inside, but such praise is faint. Mama is still ridiculous, played out and, worst of all, not scary.

The film stars Jessica Chastain (also in this month’s Zero Dark Thirty, a film much more worthy of your time) as Annabel. She’s a rocker who is in a serious relationship with Lucas, played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Five years ago, his twin brother went on a killing spree that culminated in the death of his sister-in-law and kidnapping of his two young nieces. However, on his dash out of state in a car with an ironic vanity plate that reads “N1 DAD,” he spins out of control and they disappear from the public. After a desperate search, Lucas stumbles upon the two girls, Victoria, played by Megan Charpentier, and Lilly, played by Isabelle Nelisse, but his brother is nowhere to be seen. He eventually gains custody of the girls and takes them home after a much needed psychiatric evaluation, due to the imaginary friend the girls developed while stuck in the wild they call Mama. Eventually, weird things start happening around the house and Annabel and Lucas start to wonder if Mama is actually something more than an imaginary friend.

And of course she is. Any question regarding the validity of such supernatural claims are quickly put to rest when Mama presents herself within the first five to ten minutes, before the title card even pops up. The best horror movies keep you guessing and hide its monster, allowing your brain to concoct whatever terrible creature it can. Mama shows its cards way too early. Despite being partly veiled by shadows or shown in silhouette early on, the basic idea of the creature is put in place too early, effectively crushing any build the movie could have had otherwise. To make matters worse, when you finally do get a good look at her, she’s anything but scary and, if we’re being totally honest, looks like Gollum with long, flowing hair and Down syndrome.

For this reason and many others, Mama fails to elicit a sense of dread, much less maintain it like the best horror movies do, like last year’s bone-chiller, Sinister. At its most effective, Mama is unsettling, not because it’s scary, but because, if you know your horror movies enough to predict them, that a loud jump scare is right around the corner. Even if you aren’t a horror movie connoisseur and aren’t privy to the workings of horror movie scares going in, you will be when you come out. Mama picks one tactic and then uses it over and over and over again, ad nauseam. If you don’t figure out the ending beforehand (which you may not given that certain scenes make zero sense in the context of the story), you’ll have nevertheless mapped out the path to it. That’s how utterly clumsy and predictable this movie is.

The most enjoyment one could gather from watching Mama comes from laughing at the sheer silliness of it all, like when the two girls are found and have mentally and physically transitioned into comical spider-like creatures. Additionally, spotting contradictory dialogue exchanges becomes a rather fun game after some time. One standout example comes during a scene when an extraneous side character claims to not be religious and not know much about the afterlife or the supernatural, directly before explaining in great detail the reasoning and motivations behind the persistent ghost. Expository dialogue is looked down upon and for good reason—it’s usually forced in because the filmmakers/screenwriters couldn’t figure out a way to properly convey the story in a less direct and more meaningful way—but I’ve never seen it appear so bluntly and hypocritically.

Mama is a mess. It benefits from having some decent performances, most notably from the talented Jessica Chastain, but even a talented actress such as her can only do so much with such thin characters. With little to move the plot along aside from time-filler dream sequences (some of which actually have additional dream layers within them, like a mini Inception), Mama quickly becomes stagnant and tiresome.

Mama receives 1/5

Friday
Jan112013

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty, regardless of its quality, was going to be greeted with multiple awards nominations. It had a great cast headlined by the underappreciated Jessica Chastain, a director perhaps most famous for her Oscar win for 2008’s The Hurt Locker and it’s about a recent true story, a pivotal moment in our nation’s history when we took out the man who harmed us on 9/11, Osama Bin Laden. Awards voters and movie critics eat things like that up, but like many of this year’s movies, Zero Dark Thirty fails to resonate. It’s too long to thrill, too dry to grab attention and it’s practically emotionless, aside from one final scene that doesn’t fit in with what is essentially a clinical procedural of the events that led to Bin Laden’s death. From the first torture scene where a tiny bit of information is gathered to the final confrontation, Zero Dark Thirty is strict in its structure. The events as played out in the film are still fascinating as we watch that tiny bit of information snowball into something bigger and bigger, but it doesn’t hit any profound sentiment like The Hurt Locker did, or even take sides on the bigger issues as a whole. It simply moves along, showing you how the events (likely) played out and then it ends and you’re no better or worse for it.

Still, as far as emotionally empty and narratively bland procedurals go, Zero Dark Thirty is as good as they come and, in a way, the fact that it doesn’t take sides on key issues like torture works to its advantage. Although I’ve heard arguments from both sides, some even going so far as to say the film actually promotes torture (a somewhat reasonable conclusion to make given that the excessive and humiliating torture that poor man receives at the beginning of the movie eventually leads to a successful mission of killing Bin Laden), it’s fairly neutral. For example, it doesn’t treat torture as something evil or good, but rather simply as something that was used by our government to extract information. It shows it because it happened, not because it’s trying to make a statement on it.

But then again, that’s why Zero Dark Thirty comes off so much like a procedural. It rarely, if ever, has anything to say regarding, well, anything. It doesn’t touch on the fear that gripped our nation after the attacks. It ignores the high running emotions that led us to war in the first place. It doesn’t talk about the effects this dangerous search had on those running it. Although I’m sure the plans were carried out with a high degree of professionalism in the real world, emotional ambiguity doesn’t make for a very good movie. The Hurt Locker, for instance, was about the effects of war on the soldiers who fight it. It was about their trauma, their fear and even their familiarity with it, to the point where some felt more comfortable with a gun overseas than in a time of peace on their homeland. Zero Dark Thirty has none of that.

If it’s about anything, it’s about obsession, the need to right the wrong. Chastain, playing Maya, the woman in relentless pursuit of the man who spilled innocent American blood, is fantastic in the role and manages to pull off some tense dialogue driven scenes that ramp up her character’s emotions, even if ours remain distant. Where Zero Dark Thirty works, though, despite Chastain’s excellent performance, isn’t in the character arcs, but rather in the narrative trajectory that begins with that aforementioned interrogation of a low level Al Qaeda subordinate and ends with a spellbinding interpretation of the Navy SEALs operation that took Bin Laden out.

Regardless of its procedural approach, it works because it’s not exploitative. It doesn’t show behind-the-scenes “what ifs” of what Bin Laden may have been doing. Similarly, not once does the film feel like a piece of propaganda the way this year’s Act of Valor did. It’s not trying to get anyone to join the armed forces or even make you feel a certain way. It’s simply showing you something that happened and you take it as it is. The strength of such conviction is evident, but then again, so is the weakness. For a movie that dramatizes the death of an undeniably evil man who killed innocent people, leading to one of the very few times everybody in America stood together as one, there needed to be more of an audience connection. The emotion, both onscreen and within ourselves, should have resonated, but instead you leave the movie with an empty feeling, knowing full well the movie you saw was good, but wanting something more. Zero Dark Thirty is bound to win Best Picture at this year’s Oscars and though I will certainly defend it as a good movie, I’ll argue against that inevitable decision.

Zero Dark Thirty receives 3.5/5

Wednesday
Aug292012

Lawless

John Hillcoat is one of cinema’s most underappreciated directors and his movies are maddeningly underseen. His last film from 2009, The Road, was one of the best of that year, but was largely ignored by most everyone, including the supposed film experts who snubbed it of all Oscar nominations. That was a film that dared to face death and despair head on. It wasn’t a pleasant movie, but it was thematically deep and emotionally complex. It was everything movies should be, but it’s grim nature assured it would never overcome that bittersweet underrated status. Hillcoat’s latest, Lawless, based on the book “The Wettest County in the World” by Matt Bondurant, is once again brimming with greatness. It demands to be seen by a wide audience, but if history really does repeat itself, it’s destined for a quiet greatness, one that is known by those who have seen it and ignored by those who haven’t. Lawless has flaws, more so than The Road, and it’s not as contemplative, but it’s nevertheless one of the best of the year.

The film takes place in Franklin, Virginia in 1931 and stars Shia LaBeouf as Jack Bondurant, the younger brother to Forrest and Howard, played by Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke, respectively. It’s the Prohibition era and alcohol has been illegalized. As anyone who has ever cracked open a history book knows, this led to lots of unlawful practices surrounding the distribution (and ingestion) of alcohol. The Bondurant brothers are just one group of many who decided to profit off of  the law, but it has become a problem in their little town and a hot shot deputy from Chicago, Charlie Rakes, played by Guy Pearce, is brought in to fix it. In the midst of all this, Jack begins to fall in love with a pretty young girl named Bertha, played by Mia Wasikowska. She comes from a more traditional, conservative family and is expected to act and dress a certain way, but she begins to reciprocate Jack’s feeling, which leads her astray and puts her in danger. By the end, tragedies will befall the characters and blood will be spilled.

This story, based on a true one about the author’s own family, is as gripping as any to come out this year. Movies about Prohibition are no rarity, the most popular being 1987’s horribly overrated Brian De Palma film, The Untouchables, but whereas that movie featured a wooden central performance from Kevin Costner and inconsequential shootouts with unnamed baddies, Lawless is rich in characterization and every event matters, causing a ripple effect to its amazing and inevitable conclusion. The brotherly bond is there and the romances are never played as hokey. These feel like real people living through a tough time in history, when the simple sale of alcohol threatened violence. The three brothers are far from upstanding citizens, but there’s a humanity to them and you understand their actions, even when you disagree with them. You may not approve of what they’re doing at a certain point in time, but you’ll never condemn them. Everything they do has a reason and the way they’re portrayed in the film—as flawed, but ultimately good people—is excellent.

These characters are three dimensional, there’s no doubt about that, and the dialogue they recite leads to some of the best and most intense dialogue driven scenes since Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, but Lawless isn’t all talk. In fact, it’s quite violent, brutally and uncomfortably so at times, but that makes the movie all the better. It doesn’t glorify it in any way and it exists for a purpose, to both give the characters some motivational weight and to give the film a gritty, raw and realistic feel. Lawless never feels exploitative in these scenes and knows when to leave things up to the imagination, like an early rape that is only implied, effectively eliminating that feeling of hopelessness many rape scenes elicit while still providing the anger and understanding such a scene hopes to instill in its audience.

If there’s anything wrong with Lawless, it comes from a lack of screen time for two of cinema’s most underrated actors, Guy Pearce and the as yet unmentioned Gary Oldman. Oldman features prominently in the beginning of the film and his utter disregard for the sanctity of human life makes him a captivating villain, but he’s quickly forgotten in favor of other narrative exploits, serving only as a catalyst for Jack’s eventual bootlegging ways. Pearce on the other hand is there from beginning to end, but his performance is so breathtaking and wholeheartedly deserving of an Oscar nomination that you just want him to be there more. All of the performances are great, in fact, but it’s the writing that allows them to be. Everything comes together beautifully in Lawless. It’s the perfect way to end the summer movie season.

Lawless receives 4.5/5