Tag: jessica chastain

It: Chapter Two


It: Chapter Two (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

For a movie with elaborate set pieces and a willingness to experiment with different types of horror, “It: Chapter Two” is only entertaining parts. Perhaps the problem can be attributed to Gary Dauberman’s screenplay. It spends far too much time communicating how the Losers, now adults (James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Hader, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean), have become traumatized from their encounters with Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård) twenty-seven years ago. Not one of their plight is particularly compelling or original and so it is a curiosity why the material feels the need to spell out the psychological underpinnings of their behaviors. I found it needlessly expository.

The opening scene is most promising because it underscores the idea that people around us can be just as evil—if not more—as the supernatural kind. A romantic date is turned into something so awful, the events linger in the mind for a while. One is led to believe, if one is not familiar with the source material, that perhaps we will learn, in detail, about Pennywise’s history, why he—or it—is driven to terrorize this particular town. Is it solely for its own survival or are the people’s behavior in this place (homophobia, racism, xenophobia) directly tethered to his bloody rampage? However, as the film goes on, we learn only one bit of critical information about the villain. Pennywise is pushed to the side until climactic special and visual effects extravaganza.

It is not without good performances. Hader stands out as Richie, a man with a secret, whose life is so sad and lonely that he became a comedian in order to utilize humor as armor. I am familiar with Hader’s more dramatic roles but never have I seen him as effective as he is here. At times I caught myself looking in his direction while sharing the same frame as powerhouses like Chastain and McAvoy—highly efficient performers who can do next to nothing and yet remain in control of the screen. It helps that Hader gets some of the best lines. He sells every single one with conviction; we believe this character exists out there in the world. An argument can be made he is the heart of the film.

The movie offers fewer terrifying moments than the predecessor. Part of it is because we are following adults instead of children; there is a natural instinct for us to want to protect children and get them out of harm’s way. But the more interesting part is a lack of effective build-up to the scares. I can think of one exception: Beverly’s return to her childhood home when she is welcomed by the current tenant, an elderly lady whose father joined the circus. Other than this standout, a deliciously devious sequence, the rest of the Losers’ encounters with their pasts feel as though these were taken from other generic made-for-TV horror pictures.

Of particular annoyance is the numerous hallucinatory sequences. I felt as though these comprise the majority of the second act. Sharp writers should recognize that events surrounding hallucinations suffer greatly from diminishing returns. And yet it remains adamant in employing this approach without sudden, genuinely shocking left turns to keep us invested.

Both “It” chapters are based on Stephen King’s novel. His works are notorious for being a challenge to put on screen so that the movie is just as effective or even better than its source material. It is because many of his work are so pregnant with imagination that even the most expensive special and visual effects are not able to match the images formed in our minds. Despite the yelling, screaming for help, and terrorized expressions, “Chapter Two” feels like just another scary movie. It is a disappointment because “Chapter One” is a killer springboard.

Dark Phoenix


Dark Phoenix (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Given that both pictures attempt to tell a version of the Dark Phoenix saga, is “Dark Phoenix” better than “X-Men: The Last Stand”? Without question—but not by much. It does not nullify the fact that although Simon Kinberg’s film offers beautiful special and visual effects, especially during battle sequences, it is quite joyless for the most part—a curiosity because its universe is filled with mutants wielding unique powers and cheeky personalities. What results a finale that feels like a death march. Obviously, it does not need to be a comedy. But the screenplay fails to allow the material to breathe from time to time so that fluctuations can be felt throughout the experience.

Like numerous underwhelming superhero movies, this film, too, has a villain problem. An argument can be made that there are two enemies: the powerful cosmic force that possesses Jean Grey’s body (Sophie Turner) and the D’Bari, led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain), extraterrestrials capable of shapeshifting. With the former, the character’s evolution is not taken to an extreme length—which could have worked given a more intelligent and humanized writing. But in this case, hyperbole, I think, might have been the better choice: Make Dark Phoenix’ actions truly dramatic, epic, or evil. Continually reverting to Jean’s guilt after she has done a bad thing forces the material run around in circles. We get it: Jean is not a bad person, she simply is unable to control her amplified powers. But the self-pity is rife with tedious moments. It does not help that the dialogue often comes across as flat, especially when the X-Men disagree with how to deal with their ally.

With the latter antagonist, although Chastain is an alluring icy blonde, both in look and personality, the character is not given depth or dimension. There are three lines that describe her motivations (“its” is really more appropriate because the human body is simply a facade), but there are no layers to her yearning or desperation to acquire the Phoenix’ power—one that would allow her near-extinct race to be restored. I was more curious about the idea of this formless force, how it could be harnessed to do good or evil. It nicely ties into the exchange between eight-year-old Jean (Summer Fontana) and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) involving a pen which occurs early in the picture. While the screenplay is not without good ideas, they are not fully realized.

Aside from Jean Grey and Charles Xavier, other members of the X-Men come across as mere pawns (Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters). They are shown reacting to a problem and other major turn of events, but the material does not bother to slow down so we can appreciate how they think or how they feel. And so when an actor is in pain or tears are running down his face, we feel it is nothing but a performance. The barrier between film and the audience is incredibly apparent; clearly, the film is not an enveloping experience. I got the impression that the performers were not given the freedom to go above and beyond. Meanwhile, we are handed yet another tired apology—or worse, a speech—from Professor X. Perhaps the best snark comes from Magneto (Michael Fassbender) acknowledging exactly this irritant.

When one looks back at “X-Men: First Class” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” there is wonderful energy and creativity that propel these stories. Familiar characters feel fresh. There is drama and intrigue; we feel every second of what is at stake. Then one considers “Dark Phoenix” and the fall from grace is massively disappointing. It does not feel like an appropriate finale, just another installment to be made and released because contracts were signed. I felt no passion here.

Molly’s Game


Molly’s Game (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Great movies almost always contain one image or scene that summarizes the entire work so perfectly, it is etched onto the viewer’s mind long after the picture fades to black. Here, it is that of a woman dressed in at least two thousand dollars worth of clothing who is asked by a worker at a food stand whether she would like hotdog. She does, but once she reaches into her coat pocket, she is only able to find two dollars. The hotdog costs three bucks and so she must settle for a pretzel. This four- to five-second snapshot, which can be easily overlooked by less observant viewers, captures the story’s trajectory. “Molly’s Game” is highly efficient and supremely watchable, an electric directorial debut by Aaron Sorkin.

The plot involves a woman, once an Olympic-level skier, who creates a multimillion-dollar business of running poker games with nothing but her intelligence, ability to think on her feet, and willingness to take risks. The titular character is played by Jessica Chastain who sashays through Sorkin’s extremely tricky script like a most graceful international ballerina. Every emotion expressed, calculated silence, and subtle body language commands precision, matching that of the writer-director’s clinal approach in storytelling. It invites the audience to become involved in exploring the protagonist rather than relying on words we hear to tell us who she is, what she hopes to accomplish, and why she did the things she did to have been mired in a high-stakes federal investigation.

Dialogue-heavy and unafraid of technical jargon, the material ensures that it leaves enough room for viewers to make reasonable assumptions when it comes to what certain terms might mean. For example, when the screen shows different poker ranks, in addition to the carefully enunciated voiceover, lines, texts, and boxes are employed in order to highlight which part of the screen the audience should veer their attention toward in order to discern which player has the upper hand and those about to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars.

While scenes that take place around the poker table are enjoyable and occasionally suspenseful, the focus is on the character who is raised to become a champion—before and after she is arrested for running an illicit gambling operation and having possible ties with the Russian mob. I am particularly impressed by how it captures the loneliness of a highly driven person, someone who hates to lose, to be regarded as weak or less than in any way. On many levels, I found myself relating with her curiosity and capability to obsess, as well as the willingness to push the envelope even further than it is supposed to go so long as it feels good. I think in a way, the material has an understanding of the less sunny side of passion, how a form of addiction takes control and consumes.

Intricate in just about every way but never inaccessible, “Molly’s Game” respects the intelligence and time of those willing to peer into its world of poker and addiction. Near the end of the picture, Molly comes across a shelf filled with green law books. Notice how she caresses the backbones of these texts and the manner by which she picks one up to read its contents. It presents an opportunity for us to imagine an alternate reality of Molly actually pursuing law school rather than delaying yet another year to make a quick buck.

Crimson Peak


Crimson Peak (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

The night of her mother’s death, young Edith was visited by her mother’s ghost and warned her of Crimson Peak. Although it did not make sense to her at the time, Edith has never forgotten the encounter. Fourteen years later, Edith (Mia Wasikowska), an aspiring writer, meets a baronet from England, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who comes to America with the hopes of raising capital for his project with the help of Edith’s father (Jim Beaver), a successful businessman.

In Europe, Thomas’ mansion, Allerdale Hall, sits on top of a clay mine. It is a matter of funding and building the proper machinery so that the clay can be acquired and sold. Soon, Edith and Thomas marry and live in Allerdale Hall. However, Edith begins to suspect that the mansion is haunted.

Written by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robins, “Crimson Peak” is a gothic-horror film that is beautifully told with strong special and visual effects to back it up. It has many similarities with classic horror films, particularly with its treatment of gore and violence. These elements are secondary. The film is about the story and the characters first and how they come to change over time. Thus, an expected criticism is its slow pacing.

The deliberate pacing fits this type of story like a glove. It forces us to wonder how the characters are going to clash upon the delivery of key revelations. During its opening minutes, there are well-placed acknowledgements that the story is not really about ghosts, that ghosts merely serve as metaphor for the past that haunts. Although the idea only becomes fully realized during the latter half of the picture, it works because the wonderful performances by the leads and supporting performers help to carry through the promise.

It can be argued that the heroine is written as a bit of a bore. I agree—to an extent—but Wasikowska puts in a lot of effort to make Edith interesting. Take away the extravagant garments, hairstyles, and accessories and the performance remains highly watchable. Wasikowska appears to have more than a dozen faces to express fear. It looks and feels so effortless, the viewer gets the impression that she just picks one from her bag of tricks when the time is right. The scenes in which Edith is required to investigate during the night stand out.

There is suspense and genuine horror as she walks through hallways and opens cabinets because, like the camera, her expressions and body language are patient and precise. Jessica Chastain, too, shines as Thomas’ older, conniving sister. Notice the way she milks every scene she is in; menace is communicated right down to her fingertips.

Some of the computer-generated imagery are a bit much. Although the monsters in the haunted mansion look creepy and dangerous when they are shown, the longer the camera lingers on them, the less impact they tend to have. Perhaps this could have been circumvented if some of the images were more tactile, less translucent-looking. The choice to make them the latter, however, is an interesting one. Perhaps we are never really supposed to believe they look real or convincing, to tie into the idea that the film is not primarily a ghost story.

“Crimson Peak,” directed by Guillermo del Toro, does not need to be thoroughly original. It is difficult to deny that it is a period piece horror that is very done well. There is intrigue in the gothic romantic story and characters, the forefront and background images are stunning, the performances exhibit range, and we care about what happens to the characters. Though others may claim the film is “an exercise of style over substance,” the imbalance is not by much.

The Martian


The Martian (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

After an accident during a severe storm on Mars, Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) of the Ares III mission makes an executive decision for her team (Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie) to leave the planet without botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon), presumed dead because he had been hit by debris and his body was nowhere to be found. As it turns out, however, Mark is not dead. Having only about thirty days worth of food, he must somehow keep himself alive until the next manned mission to Mars… which is four years away.

Based on the screenplay by Drew Goddard and directed by Ridley Scott, “The Martian” is intelligent, entertaining and highly watchable at times, but it falls short of becoming a great film, one to be remembered for many years to come. It is a solid, crowd-pleasing picture that will likely hold up upon multiple viewings but beyond that is exaggeration.

One of the reasons is its unjustified bloated running time—about a third of it is repetitive fluff. The film is at the peak of its power when it focuses on the protagonist simply trying to think of ways to prevent death within a month. The first third is fascinating, amusing, and quite educational. Eventually, however, the screenplay introduces characters on Earth, various individuals who have a role at NASA and its affiliates (Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean), who wrestle with the politics, the media, and what should or must be done in order to get the man home. I found the charade quite dull.

By taking away a significant amount of time and focus on the main character, we are not put into his mindset thoroughly and completely. This is why when problems compound on top of one another and Mark feels there is nothing left to do but to let out a small tantrum, I felt more amused of the display than feeling empathy. In another instance that occurs late in the picture, a would-be soul-stirring moment involving the abandoned cosmonaut in a confined space left me wondering when the film would be over rather than being in the moment and continuing to be invested in Mark’s plight.

The special and visual effects are quite eye-catching. Aerial shots of Mars never fail to grab the attention, from the seemingly red-hot sand to the beautiful hills and jagged rocks near the mission’s base. There is a line in the film where Mark expresses the humility he feels in being the first man to ever see or step on a particular area of the planet. These specific thoughts and musings make the story supremely engaging. After all, this is his story, not of those men and women back home who try their hardest at providing rescue.

“The Martian,” based on the novel by Andy Weir, offers enough individual moments to make this specific story worth telling and seeing, but it is limited by its apparent desperation to be liked by the mainstream. Coming from a science background, I enjoyed that the material champions not only book knowledge but also its practical application—the latter, I think, is not emphasized enough. But the many acts of heroism feel too Hollywood, hollow, and forced—simply there to appeal to as many people as possible.

Interstellar


Interstellar (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

These days, when a Christopher Nolan film comes out, it is an event. The reason is largely because he is willing to set the bar quite high for himself as a filmmaker and storyteller that sheer ambition and verve usually tend to inspire or impress many. But those willing to inspect closely will notice a chink in the armor: Like his weaker pictures, “The Prestige” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Interstellar” is beautifully shot and photographed, even exciting superficially, but it is overlong and overblown.

Most problematic is the so-called revelation during the final quarter which delves into a perceived supernatural presence acknowledged early on. It is entirely predictable. At that point, I felt my body sinking into my seat, almost embarrassed but certainly in disbelief that Nolan, despite his admirable quality of constantly striving for boldness or originality, has actually utilized one of the oldest tricks in the book. Worse, it is employed for the sake of sentimentality. I did not buy it and neither should any intelligent viewer. It is important that we know we deserve more.

What should have been done instead is to leave a bit of mystery for audience. Clearly, the film is influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s challenging “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It is disappointing that the script by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan has chosen to traverse a more accessible path, easily digestible, some might argue spoon-fed, providing all the answers by the time the screen fades to black. The final thirty minutes comes across messy, amateurish, and not fully realized.

The basic premise is this: Earth’s atmosphere is now largely composed of nitrogen, rather than oxygen, and so the planet is on the verge of becoming uninhabitable. As a result, a shortage of food spans the globe. It is without a doubt that mankind is facing extinction. When ten-year-old Murph (Mackenzie Foy) begins to receive strange messages in her room, she and her father, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), are led to a hidden facility where scientists (led by a character played by Michael Caine) have come up with a plan to save the species. Cooper, currently a farmer but formerly a test pilot and engineer for NASA, is asked to participate on a mission which involves visiting potentially habitable planets outside of our known solar system.

Perhaps the most suspenseful sequence takes place on a bizarre planet where it appears to be composed of only water. The sequence demands attention because of two factors: we do not know what to expect from the seemingly calm environment and we are not yet aware if Cooper and the team (Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi) will be able to work together effectively. On top of these, spending time on this particular planet carries a special risk. Cooper has promised to return to his daughter.

One of the picture’s limitations is its tendency to jump back and forth between the intergalactic mission and the happenings at home. While it is important we are consistently reminded that time is of the essence, both on a personal and a global level, we need not observe the drama between Cooper’s grown children (Jessica Chastain, Casey Affleck) because it all seems so insignificant compared to the decisions their father must face. Video transmissions aboard the ship would have sufficed. Sometimes showing less communicates great sophistication while more is just overindulgent.

“Interstellar” is well-acted by the performers across the board; they deliver what is expected of the roles they must play. A few images are a marvel, particularly those of icy mountains that seem to go on for miles and a spacecraft set against the darkness of space—with no sound. But the picture fails to drill completely into Cooper’s roles as a father and a potential savior of the human species. It goes to show that although a filmmaker is provided a sizable budget to employ talent that will grace the screen and hire technicians to make images look just right, when the screenplay is not sculpted to near perfection, an otherwise ambitious project that can potentially set a standard may end up just satisfying rather than transcending.

Texas Killing Fields


Texas Killing Fields (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Mike Souder (Sam Worthington) and Brian Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), homicide detectives, one local-based, the other from the city, respectively, are assigned to investigate kidnappings and murders of teen girls in rural Texas. Pam Stall (Jessica Chastain), a homicide detective from Texas City and Souder’s ex-wife, asks for their help because their murders seem to be related.

Inspired by a true story, “Texas Killing Fields,” written by Don Ferrarone and directed by Ami Canaan Mann, strips away all the glamour from what we expect of movies when it comes to the way cops track down serial killers. First, there is a lot of dirty work being portrayed like Stall having to slap around potential witnesses for the sake of information that might lead to the identity of the killer. Her officers look on like it is standard procedure. Heigh relies on someone from a telephone company to track down a cell phone signal without proper authorization. Meanwhile, Souder is unable to see beyond stereotypes which tinges his supposedly objective judgment.

Second, there is something visceral about the look and feel of the film. When a killer attacks and abducts his victim, it is shot sans fancy camera somersaults but every bit of horror is captured. By just allowing us to see what happens without music playing in the background, I felt that the events unfolding before our eyes can happen at any small town.

Lastly, the sense of place contributes to the increasing tension surrounding the mystery. A lot of people the detectives interact with are either poor white families or poor black families. Despite the racial difference, their deeply-rooted commonality is the belief that if they keep secrets from the cops, it is the great equalizer for being underrepresented and misrepresented. Yet the filmmakers find a way, subtle ways, to communicate that not all of the residents are bad or unwilling to cooperate. Sometimes they might be very bad but they are more than willing to go down to the police station for an interview.

However, I wished the film had given us more information about Souder, Heigh, and Stall. While each has a distinct personality and ways of accomplishing goals, I felt as though the material does not go deeply enough into what really makes them tick. A lot of time is dedicated to juvenile Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz), who lives with her drug-addicted mother (Sheryl Lee), brother (James Hébert), and mother’s boyfriend (Stephen Graham), getting into all sorts of trouble with the police. While Ann is an important character because she fits the description of the type of girl the killer tends to abduct, I was much more interested when the camera follows the detectives and we watch what they do to find answers.

For the most part, “Texas Killing Fields” sets a good example of how more crime movies should strive to be. It is able to deliver the necessary darkness in its story without having to result to showing us every bit violence that we become inured or desensitized.

Mama


Mama (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

After a businessman (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) kills his wife, he takes his two children, age three and one, in an attempt to escape from the police. Panicking and driving too fast on an icy road, Jeffrey loses control of the vehicle and it skids off a cliff. Miraculously unharmed, Jeffrey and his two girls find a secluded house. It appears to be an excellent hiding spot. However, minutes after they step inside, one of the girls claims that there is a woman standing outside… whose feet are not touching the floor. Five years later, Jeffrey’s twin brother, Lucas (also played by Coster-Waldau) is informed by the search party that Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) have been found.

Although it has the potential to excel either as a dark fairy tale or a horror film, it strives but fails to embody either. As a result, the tug o’ war between them turns “Mama,” based on the screenplay by Neil Cross, Andrés Muschietti, and Barbara Muschietti, into another forgettable scary movie about kids being haunted by a supernatural force and the adults having to save them.

The director, Andrés Muschietti, knows how to set up scenes that lead up to worthy jolts. It helps that the majority of the happenings occur in a house that is big and often dark. Combine the environment with the girls’ animal-like behavior that they have learned from having to live in extreme isolation for years, there is a genuine threat when a camera keeps still and the background is wide open to be occupied by someone or something which, at least according to Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), is an imaginary guardian that the girls have created in order to cope.

We learn that the so-called guardian, which the girls named Mama, is anything but imaginary. This is where I began to feel detached from the picture. Instead of taking a more imaginative and challenging route of us having to doubt conclusions and figuring out for ourselves whether this creature is real or imaginary, it is eager in providing easy answers. By doing so, it uses CGI, from the dark, veiny markings on the wall to the creature itself, to scare us. There is too much CGI so the images lean toward silliness rather than creating a genuinely terrifying experience.

It uses familiar scary movie tropes. Enough with the flickering lights already. Every time the lights turn on and off, it is certain that something bad is going to happen. Because it is unable to break out from what we expect, the would-be scary scenes are reduced to waiting games. Partner this tired technique with loud, screeching noises when the scary thing finally makes an appearance, it gets annoying real quick.

The third act is like a soap opera. When everyone starts crying, it is supposed to be moving. But the tears are not earned. The screenplay does a disservice to Annabel (Jessica Chastain), Victoria and Lilly’s new mother figure and Lucas’ girlfriend, who is established as tough and strong during the first half. In the latter half, we see her reluctance and eventual determination to save the girls. Annabel having be reduced to tears during the final confrontation with the monster is phony. I did not buy it for a second. Chastain does what she can with the role, but the way her character is forced to behave while saving the girls is cheese inside and out. I was not moved; I felt myself slinking away, feeling very embarrassed for what was happening.

Zero Dark Thirty


Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Two years after the September 11 attacks in New York City, Maya (Jessica Chastain), an officer of the CIA, is sent to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan to work with another officer, Dan (Jason Clarke), who is charge of interrogating Ammar (Reda Kateb), suspected to be connected to important Saudi terrorists. Torturing the detainee when he fails to cooperate, Dan and Maya eventually hear about a man named Abu Ahmed. Ammar claims that Abu Ahmed is a courier for Osama bin Laden. Other men who are questioned under similar conditions confirm this. Over the years, Maya devotes her life tracking this piece of information which inevitably leads to the killing of bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, “Zero Dark Thirty” has received a lot of censure for supposedly endorsing torture by means of extracting information. This is most unfortunate because some of the bad press have convinced many not to see a quiet but incredibly thrilling film about a great manhunt that has lasted over a decade. As a film, not a collection of hard facts, “Zero Dark Thirty” commands elegance in characterization and construction of tension from gradual heat to a boil.

It is understandable that most will find themselves exasperated during the first half. Nothing much happens. At least not on the surface. And that is exactly what I liked about it. A recurring theme is the fact that gathering reliable and valid intelligence takes time. We are so used to amphetamine-fueled action movies involving the CIA and other government groups finding out all there is to know about everything and everyone in a matter of minutes that when something like this comes along, some of us do not know what to make of it. Plenty of names and technical terms bounce around our eardrums that all of them sound the same eventually. It is easy not to care until something goes boom!

The sudden bursts of violence break the slow stream of questions, muffled hopes, and quiet disappointments. One of the most chilling scenes, at least for me, is the bombing that takes place in a hotel. After the explosion and smoke starts to blend with dust, there is no score to suggest that something exciting is happening. No, music would have masked the tragedy that has happened. There are only screams of pain, disoriented people shuffling about and trying to get on their feet, a collective fear and confusion. Because it looks and feels so real, I found myself shaking and wanting to detach from the material but could not do so. I craved to know what will happen next.

Two women characters are given the chance to shine. There is Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), an officer in the embassy who we suspect might butt heads with Maya. She believes that money is so persuasive that even those who seem like they will never break from their ideologies will be enticed in the least. Her relationship with Maya is taken into an unexpected direction. Meanwhile, Chastain plays her character with the most convincing intelligence mixed with sophistication, resolve melded with obsession, and courage to push and demand others not to partake in a state of quiescence. Chastain’s scenes with Kyle Chandler, playing a CIA station chief, contain the right amount of balance between animosity and respect. When details get confusing, it is helpful that she is there to serve as our compass. Due to the nature of her job, it is necessary that she knows she is always right.

“Zero Dark Thirty” can be too cold at times given its procedural nature but this does not lessen the material’s power in any way. On the contrary, I respected the focus and vision from behind the lens like the raid scene shot in heavy darkness on purpose to prevent us from seeing anything concrete. In a way, it can be taken as the antithesis of a commercial action picture that glorifies violence where we are forced to see every chunk of tissue flying into the air.

Take Shelter


Take Shelter (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Curtis (Michael Shannon) was a hardworking construction worker who was suddenly struck by intense nightmares about an upcoming storm. In the dream, rain had the properties of motor oil and people threatened to inflict violence on him and abduct his daughter (Tova Stewart). Experiencing them every night, Curtis suspected that they were more than just recurring bad dreams. He felt an overwhelming need to clean out and prepare the storm shelter in the backyard because something terrible was coming. “Take Shelter,” written and directed by Jeff Nichols, successfully placed us into the mind of a possible paranoid schizophrenic. Although our protagonist’s dreams were strange, violent, and horrific, the material sympathized with Curtis by focusing on how his family, friends, and co-workers reacted to his increasingly unexplainable behaviors. Since not one of them knew what he was going through, the tension was embedded in how Curtis desperately tried to keep hiding his affliction. As his condition worsened, people just assumed it was either due to stress or lack of sleep. Shannon did a wonderful job juggling unmentioned details of his character by simply using his solemnly desperate eyes and tall, somewhat lanky figure. While it was practical that Curtis would be ashamed to be the topic of small town gossip, the cover-up, I think, was for the purpose of protecting his family. Having gone through the shame of having a mother who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Curtis didn’t want for his wife and child to experience what he went through many years prior. Furthermore, Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and Curtis’ daughter was a deaf child on the verge of receiving a cochlear implant. As we all know, most people tend to hold a certain idea toward “handicapables.” While the nightmares commanded a magnetic realism, I was most fascinated with and craved more of the scenes where Curtis tried to seek help from professionals. The look they gave him as they assessed what was wrong and the look he gave them when they admitted there were no easy solutions was an emotional roller coaster. The screenplay was smart in maintaining an unclear position relative to Curtis’ condition. Certain signs, like delusions and hallucinations, led to an undiagnosed mental illness, but portentous images, like birds flying as though they’ve gone crazy, pointed to the possibility of the world coming to an end. While what was really happening to Curtis could and did spark rousing debates, it doesn’t matter to me which camp is right. And the way I see it, you shouldn’t either. The first point the film wanted to make was for us, like most schizophrenics, not to be able to descry between fantasy and reality. Since we couldn’t, reflected by different interpretations of what “really” happened, the writer-director successfully placed us into a mentally ill person’s shoes. The second point is the social angle from the fear of being considered an aberration by one’s community, yes, even one’s family, and having to live with a label for the rest of one’s life. If anything, the picture subtly argues that we should learn to be more sympathetic of other people’s plight; it’s easy to judge but it takes a bit of effort to understand.

The Debt


The Debt (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

In 1965, three Mossad agents, Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain), Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas), and David Peretz (Sam Worthington), were assigned to abduct Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), also known as the Surgeon of Birkenau, and send the captive, with the help of other spies, to Israel to stand trial for his crimes. Vogel, although a certified doctor, was a proud member of the Nazi party. One of his sick experiments involved attempting to change children’s eye colors which inevitably blinded them. In 1997, Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) stumbled upon critical information surrounding their last assignment and he felt it was his duty to inform his former partners. David (Ciarán Hinds) jumped in front of a truck. Rachel (Helen Mirren) stood trembling in her shoes. The information must not be made public. What really happened during their last mission? Directed by John Madden, “The Debt” contained a number of juicy secrets shared among the characters, whether it be about the kidnapping in East Berlin, how they felt toward one another as government agents as well as people who occupied one apartment for a considerable amount of time, and the great lengths they were willing to go for the minute details of past to remain comfortably in the shadows. Unfortunately, the writing and direction seemed largely disconnected. As a result, the picture felt and looked as if it was performing a juggling act and was rather inept at it. For example, when Mirren’s character was about to do something that could potentially change the game or reveal certain pieces of the puzzle that would make the lightbulbs in our heads to go off, I caught myself looking closely at the screen and getting excited for what was about to happen. But the film failed to deliver the promise by suddenly cutting to the past. I understood what the filmmakers were trying to do. After all, unfinished business was a recurring theme. Jumping between two vastly different times and places could have a big dramatic impact if the past was as interesting as what was about to happen in the present. But it wasn’t. I felt almost cheated that the tease led to a dead end–at least for the time being. The past involved a little bit of romance, a little bit of mystery, and a little bit of action. Though it was clear what the trio were trying to accomplish, and some of the scenes were quite well-done, especially the ones set in the doctor’s office, I was more interested in how the older Rachel and Stephan tried to extricate themselves away from the mess they created for themselves. The thing is, when we know we did something bad, we’re more concerned about the consequences than the actual bad thing we did. There’s something so primal about the fear of getting caught. That’s what “The Debt,” based on the screenplay by Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan, seemed to miss completely so the emotional peaks were seldom. Although the details of the “bad thing” needed to be addressed, the film should not have been mired in it.

The Tree of Life


The Tree of Life (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) received a phone call informing them that one of their three sons, Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan), had died. We knew it wasn’t Jack because we came to meet him as an adult (Sean Penn), still struggling with the death of his brothers, the other passed away at the age of nineteen. The writer-director, Terrence Malick, spent the rest of the film painting us a picture of the boys’ childhood, torn between nature and grace which their father and mother embodied, respectively. To criticize this movie as having a weak plot is tantamount to saying that an abstract painting is bad because one does not approve of the artist’s use of color since it makes the painting look unrealistic. In a few instances, such as the case here, plot is negligible. Personally, it was about the images and how they were utilized to remind myself of my childhood. It was set in 1950s American suburbia; I was raised in the 1990s Philippine urban-suburban neighborhood. The two are separated by place and time but I saw myself in these kids. It reminded me of times when I ran around with my cousins playing kickball, egos bruised for every lost point; the joy of collecting caterpillars, grasshoppers, spiders, lizards, stray cats at a nearby ice plant, which children of the neighborhood likened to believe was abandoned so we could call it our own turf; the way mother would yell for me and brother, beckoning us to come in for dinner, chastising us when we were too grimy as we approached the table, and making us clean up a bit before experiencing the comfort of a warm home-cooked meal. It also reminded me of the things I didn’t have. Father was in America making a living for his family, so no one taught me how to put up my fist properly and fight. First fight at school gets bloody awful quick when you don’t know how to defend yourself. But sooner or later you learn to get tougher. You find ways as Jack did with his brother, not because he was bully or meaning to be unkind, but because he needed to find a sparring partner, someone who he believed was his equal. The most moving scene for me was when Jack, after shooting a rubber bullet at R.L.’s index finger, summoned the courage within himself to apologize to his brother without anyone telling him to do so. It was such a tender moment because apologizing and, more importantly, actually meaning it can be very difficult to do. I admired Malick’s use of contrast. He featured an extended sequence starting from The Big Bang up until the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction. In one of the scenes, a carnivorous dinosaur spotted a fatally wounded dinosaur resting on the rocks. The healthy one approached the dying carefully, making sure that there was no immediate threat in the vicinity. Just when I thought it was going to go for the kill, I saw a human aspect in something so beastly: the healthy one covered the wounded’s face with its foot, hesitated against its nature, and walked away. The scene was loyal to the film’s theme: nature versus grace. “The Tree of Life” is a torrent of epic memories, bound to move those in touch with their wonderful, tragic, magical childhood. It’s one of those movies I won’t forget because, in a way, I’ve lived it.