Tag Archives: Jessica Chastain

A Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year film posterSynopsis

1981 is the year when Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) gets into the New York heating oil distribution business, but he wants to do it legitimately.  He inherited his business from his criminal father-in-law.  He makes a deposit on a waterfront deal and has 30 days to close the deal or risk losing it all.  He wants to persuade the District Attorney (David Oyelowo) of his legitimacy, and he must protect his business from violent competitors.  Jessica Chastain plays his business-shrewd wife.  Morales’ employees are afraid since they are in the firing line.  Will Morales’ business survive?


Oscar Isaac looks like Al Pacino (especially when in Scarface), so it comes as a bit of a shock to learn of Morales’ aspirations towards legitimacy, in fact he makes a big deal about it, as if he expects us to congratulate him when he says “I AM NOT A GANGSTER”.  He is goaded into chasing one of the thugs who attacked his employee, he gets rough with him but does not shoot him.  The street and waterfront scenes of New York recall the dour gritty look of the seventies like in Serpico.  The interiors are gloomy and tacky, was 1981 really this grim?   When, as a well dressed businessman, Morales gets out of his car to negotiate with the DA and the police one expects somebody to get shot but it doesn’t happen.  The feel is Sidney Lumet and Scorsese, the waterfront could be On the Waterfront from 1954.  The film is all the more fascinating precisely because it shuns the easy option of violence.  Resorting to guns can be counter productive to the usual pursuit of profit in spite of the numerous “it’s business” excuses for violence in the Godfather and other gangster films.  Morales is trying to maintain self respect as his patriarchal pride is wounded when his wife Anne offers her help in his business problems.  When the DA orders a search of the Morales house it looks like a re-tread of Eliot Ness pursuing Al Capone but Anne makes it look like the hounding of a respectable yuppy household.  The presence of a gun in the house startles because it seems out of place.  Chastain’s Anne looks like Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface but she is too intelligent to be overawed by the threats inherent in the ropiness of business dealings.  Her father was, after all, a criminal who succeeded through violence.  When there are business meetings we think about the pomposity of Mafia procedure, especially when suspicious recriminations fly about over Morales’ rival,s but no-one comes in waving Capone’s baseball bat.  Excellent.


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Posted by on February 20, 2015 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Interstellar film posterSynopsis

Starring Matthew McConaughey as Cooper, a NASA trained astronaut and engineer who lives in a near future world of poverty, food shortages, and urban deterioration.  His daughter (Jennifer Chastain is her as an adult) has the makings of a top scientist. Cooper lives with his family and grandfather John Lithgow.  Educational priorities are about survival so Cooper’s son is to be a farmer not an engineer.  Cooper and his daughter come upon the NASA base where Cooper is asked to pioneer through a worm hole in Saturn’s orbit. He and his crew must reach habitable planets in other star systems with a view to their colonnnization.  He travels in space with Amelia (Anne Hathaway) daughter of NASA scientist Michael Caine.  They visit a planet where Matt Damon is marooned.  Does Cooper get beyond the black hole back to Saturn’s orbit, what then?


One thinks of Kubrick’s 2001, the eco concerns of Silent Running, and Contact.  The links with Contact are that McConaughey played the priest, not the astronaut, in that film by Carl Sagan who originated the fictional idea of travel by wormhole.  The visionary optimism of 2001 is replaced here with a sombre desperation, space exploration is no longer about wisdom and knowledge but about survival.  Indeed, on Earth the authorities do not even acknowledge the reality of the moon landings, preferring to dismiss them as Cold War fakes.  NASA must act clandestinely.  Interstellar has lost hope in humanity’s ability to save its ravaged planet, so running away seems the best option.  Hi-tech interiors at NASA, and in space, are not gloomy but dirty and shabby.  There is marvellous visual poetry in the scenes over Earth and around Saturn (in the book of 2001 the stargate is in one of Saturn’s moons, in the film it’s from Jupiter).  Nolan here shows his fascination with the turning upside down of urbanscapes, in the space station the streets whirl in a vast merry-go-round like in Inception.  From his Batman film Nolan has brought in Michael Caine, now a professor.  Jessica Chastain as Cooper’s genius daughter does a lot of emotional gurning.  She’s a bright scientist who leap frogs over blackboard theory with messianic intuitions.  Running around in maize fields she must have felt she was stranded again in Terence Mallick’s Tree of Life.  Whenever a film shows us a lot of maize fields we know this is an American dream land, here is the pioneering spirit, great truths revealed by Mum and Dad, the heart of American enterprise.  Family crisis means scenes of universal significance.

The dialogue often tells us what the film should show.  We get lots of junior school science with all the explanatory power of Superman comics when people tell each other things they must already know.  They talk about extra dimensions like earnest and easily confused hippies. The robot is a dark glass box going for a walk.  Its manner is agreeably witty (unlike the precious Hal of 2001 or the cute R2D2 of Star Wars).  The scenes on the planets show a giant oceanic wave on one, and frozen clouds and mountains on another, complete with a pissed-off Matt Damon trying to get back to earth.  The music is of a metronomically mesmeric kind we’ve come to expect of space dockings and so on.  Always watchable but the script needed sharpening.

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Posted by on January 15, 2015 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty film posterSynopsis

About the search for and killing of Osama bin Laden.  Jessica Chastain plays Maya who leads the hunt  for him.  An al-Qaeda suspect is tortured.  We follow Chastain in her hunt and she has to convince her bosses to act.  Her colleagues die in attacks.  The team goes into north Pakistan (Abbatabad) and they kill bin Laden and allies.


This film is bound to arouse much controversy because of the debate about the use of torture in combating terrorism.  For those against torture it might look an apology for it, and for those in favour it might appear to reinforce their beliefs.  The film does have that same self congratulatory feel to it that was prevalent in Argo.  Just as Argo uses the ‘dramatic license’ excuse to lie about the role of the British Embassy in Tehran so the small detail about bin Laden’s hunter being a man and not Jessica Chastain’s character is cheerfully discarded.  I suspect so are other historical details.  There are, after all, people who doubt bin Laden was killed.  The film does not flinch at showing the shocking details of what is done to suspects in the name of the war against terror (how do you make war against an abstraction?) .  The film avoids complicated ethical questions and is more concerned with torture’s war-legitimised efficacy.  It’s depiction of security service violence arguably constitutes a gratuitous wallowing in it, after it’s long been easy for mainstream cinema to show vaudevillian levels of brutality.  The CIA characters in this film, unlike in Argo, are given no humorous and heroic way out for their actions, they are career hunters after terrorists whom we are repeatedly reminded are a threat to our democratic values, but then the terrible irony of becoming infected with the enemy’s contempt for human rights is never addressed.  This film adapts the rather hectic pseudo documentary pace of constant switching of place and time like a real life Bourne.  Self justification is reserved for technical details, the default position on arguments is for personality differences, so the bigger justification for “war on terror” is evaded.  References to terror outrages are plot propulsion and rationale for the American agent’s often unsavoury actions.  The torture scenes veer between the overriding need to extract information and a rueful recognition of the psycho-sexual aspects of such sessions.

The final tracking down and killing of Osama bin Laden gets perilously close to the A team or Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds puppets  (hilarious in Team America).  I half expected Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris to turn up waving machine pistols around, and I had to remind myself that this was a real life mission to take out the big bogeyman.  Again like Argo there is a smug tone to the final scenes.  Meanwhile Obama is busy killing people with his drones.

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Posted by on March 20, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Lawless fil posterSynopsis

Stars Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf as the Bondurass family in 1931 Prohibition era Virginia, and their conflict with Guy Pearce (the federal agent Charlie Rakes) who is out to close their illegal stills.  Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska play their girlfriend and wife.  The police are reluctant locals recruited into Guy Pearce’s war.  It ends in a shoot out.


This is very familiar stuff.  We get the honky tonk soundtrack lovingly ‘choreographing’ the scenes of predictable violence.  The film is a celebration of brutality and ‘primitive’ ways of living.  Despite the time and place, it’s effectively a western with a wearisomely familiar reverence for any excuse for bloodshed.  Guy Pearce plays Charlie Rakes, a Federal Agent, he is a dandified sadist straight out of Nazi central casting.  He will get his comeuppance, and of course we are meant to feel that he will deserve his bad end.

From the 30s to the 60s we had repressive cinematic codes forbidding the depicting of sex, swear words, and horrifying violence.  In the few decades since the lifting of the code we get film making its claim for gritty, earthy reality by throwing in buckets of blood, Nazi style sadism, and lots of tediously limited vocabulary punctuated with wearisome swearing.  Sex is also obligatory, as if only the late 20th century had discovered it.  Many films wallow in this, then we get the convenient excuse of it’s all being artistically ‘choreographed’ (though I fail to see what resemblance there is between dance and gratuitous violence).  Admittedly the old censorships sanitized reality quite preposterously, but now we have gone to the other extreme and it’s all so solemnly presented rather like a caught out criminal giving would be intelligent excuses for vile behaviour (the more sincerely insisted upon the more acceptable).  This might work for Mel Gibson because he adds the original touch of characters speaking in a language different from English, but so many films seek significance in violence.  We get sadism galore in this film.

Prohibition era films usually happen in Al Capone territory.  We also get the anthropological curiosity of the local church and its Amish look-a-likes with their highly charged gospel songs.  We also get that curious prolepsis into violence as depicted in Bonnie and Clyde, illiterate hillbillydom is always destined to end in bloodshed as if sanctioned by the very ignorance and illiteracy of the characters..


Posted by on September 27, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Take Shelter

Take Shelter posterSynopsis

About an American working man played by Michael Shannon, his name is Curtis.  He has premonitory dreams, or thinks he has.  He tries to warn people of an impending storm and flood.  The visions damage his marital and working relationships, especially when he builds a shelter in his garden.  He suspects he may be mentally ill, paranoia and schizophrenia run in his family.  There is a storm and he and his family take shelter.  Later they are at the coast and they all see something…..


This is a well done psychological thriller, if a little slow moving.  It cleverly manipulates our suspicions that he may not be mentally ill since he seems to have some insight into his possible mental condition.  Here we have mental illness that can endow its sufferer with shamanistic powers.  We expect some kind of objective validation for his dreams and waking visions.  He sees his wife in an enigmatic pose, furniture rises up and is suspended, he is attacked by his dog and wakes up to feel real pain.  Watching an American family disintergrate has become one of the blood sports of choice among film goers, it can be gripping because of what they have to lose.  We follow the familiar trajectory of marital discord, job loss and alienation from friends.  In this case, the visions cause embarrassment, unemployment, and increasing dysfunctionality.  When the storm really does hit, you feel that he has been vindicated but maybe not.  Does his wife follow him into the shelter to humour him or is the storm really a big threat?  This is almost a Twilight Zone moment and the film draws it out.  At the end you feel that he might get the endorsement from nature that we suspected.  This is the sort of role that Nicholas Cage gets, so it is nice to see a lesser known actor playing the lead.  Jessica Chastain plays his wife dealing with domestic and natural upheaval, er, like she did in Tree of Life.  The acting is pretty convincing and their response to their predicament is well observed.  The husband is like a Cassandra whose warnings are ignored, and he is also like Noah trying to deal with an impending flood in the face of indifference and ridicule.  I wonder if Michael Fish has watched this film (Fish is the meteorologist who in the late ’80s got a forecast spectacularly wrong).  This film seems to be saying that we can ultimately only rely on ourselves when finance, government, or nature go wrong.  It’s easy to knock away the everyday supports.  A story with a moral to it.


Posted by on December 20, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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The Help

The Help posterSynopsis

Set in Mississippi in 1961 during the black struggle for civil rights, it stars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as maids.  Viola tells the story of her life working for whites.  Emma Stone plays Skeeter who is an aspiring writer who wants to tell the maids’ stories. Skeeter’s mother has a secret about the black maid she employed, she did not defend her against white guests.  Skeeter has white friends who are society ladies and seem to be squeaky clean housewives like in Revolutionary Road.  When Skeeter’s book ‘The Help’ is published the white women get angry about the exposure of their racism.  Octavia Spencer works for a white woman, Janice Chastain, who doesn’t want her husband to know she relies on a maid.  He finds out, Skeeter has a promising career.  There’s civil rights on the TV.


This is a big let down.  It’s as if the last fifty years had never happened.  This is like nostalgia for Gone with the Wind and the simplicity and ease (for whites) of a world where black people are subjected to many forms of racist abuse.  If you want to defend the film by saying that it only shows the culture the races lived in, then why isn’t more prominence given to the Civil Rights Movement and how it could impinge on their lives?  The film wallows in sentimental familiarities which work well as a shallowly kitsch story but which are unacceptable to black people.  The star of this film is a white woman (Skeeter, the writer).  The best that black people can hope for in this film is to be well treated by whites!  It’s all ‘Uncle Tom’ and I’m surprised it hasn’t been picketed.  Jessica Chastain learns about cooking and the wisdom of life from her black maid who is then expected to be grateful that she can continue to work for them!  The Help takes the face value of inanities of condescension and turns them into matters for gentle comedy.  Some of the audience I watched this with, really missed the point in so far as they appeared to want the black maids to be nice and happy in their domestic slavery.  It’s crass enough to make Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner look sophisticated.  At least that film was sincere and had the merit of well intentioned naivety.  That final speech by Spencer Tracey was heartrending in it’s clumsy innocence.  The Help takes that world and endorses it’s sentimental confusion about race. One of the tragedies of racism is how it distorts perception between races.  The inherent disadvantages for one race diminish the prospects for disinterested interaction.  The film Mississippi Burning looked at the same world and although it starred whites and went to patronizingly painstakingly lengths to involve blacks, it at least faced the struggle for social justice full on.  This film trivialises and caricatures race relations on white terms.  It’s up to the whites to see their moral shortcomings, sometimes achieved through black agency but in a way that sentimentally sanctions the very inequalities it should be attacking.  By that, I mean that it takes as rosy a view about what it thinks should be the relations between employer and maid as in Gone with the Wind.

The racist snobs are predictable whites of the southern states:  needy, infantile, narcissistic and neurotic.  Naturally they will get their comeuppance but only at the level of personal revenge, they are satirised in the book ‘The Help’ which Skeeter ‘writes’.  This simply endorses the whites’ morally repentant approach and plays down the need for a political response.  We get Medgar Evers on TV and we hear a bit of Martin Luther King.  There is one incident in a bus and a maid is arrested, but we do not get the full on vindictiveness of the racist whites.  This film simply escapes its full malevolence.  The only scene where this film scores a hit is in the Christmas party raising money for African children, the hilarious irony of white racists playing Mrs Jellyby in helping Africans is nicely observed.  Mostly this is an offensive disaster.

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Posted by on November 3, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Tree of Life

Tree of Life posterSynopsis

Set in Waco Texas in the 1950s.  It starts out with Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain learning about the death of their son.  We go forward to Sean Penn thinking about his past.  He is an architect adrift in the steel and glass of the 21st century.  We then hear about grace and nature from the mother.  We learn about lessons in spiritual disinterest from the Book of Job.  We get voice-overs talking in prayer or poetry.  Then we see shots of the origins of the universe.  A dinosaur puts its foot on a sick dinosaur’s neck and then releases its foot.  Then we see domestic life:  Brad Pitt, the strict patriarch bullying his two sons.  They go to church, we see Pitt at work.  We see a man having a fit, people are arrested by the police. Pitt goes abroad and the two boys play and enjoy freedom.  Pitt then loses his job. and acquires some wisdom in life.  Then we get to see Sean Penn wandering on a beach with lots of people, his younger self and family, set to religious music.


THe special effects of this film are by Douglas Trumbull who did the effects for 2001 and there have been comparisons between Mallick’s film and Kubrick’s.  At this point it’s interesting to compare the two film makers who have achieved cult status.  If you are a film director who wants to achieve  this status, you make a film once every few years (in Mallick’s case it’s five films in nearly forty years).  You become an eccentric recluse, you don’t give interviews but you deliver the odd aphorism or oracular statement.  You only talk to favoured journalists and critics.  You cover your film in secrecy and your perfectionism is legendary.  You always go way beyond your budget because your film is years in the making.  Your tantrums are famous and every big name actor wants to work with you.  Kubrick and Mallick share these lovable traits.  Because they both use Douglas Trumbull on the cosmic imagery in 2001 and Tree of Life, one can compare the two.  2001 has been called an algebra of metaphors, it’s all quite coherent but in Tree of Life the symbolism doesn’t work, it lacks poetic progression and consistency.  We get a juxtaposition of cosmic scenes, sea life and volcanoes.  Then we get hand held camera close ups of this Waco Texas family sometimes living the American Dream:  all dreamy soft peaks into the bliss of Christian family life until the tyrannical patriarch ruins it all by providing the film with its concession to mere drama.  It’s as if David Attenborough’s Life on Earth footages are mixed up with suburban camcorder scenes.  Where is the tree of life?  They plant a small tree and that’s all.  I expected some sort of thematic development around a biological or symbolic tree but it didn’t turn up.  At the end of the film we get the embarrassing kitsch of Sean Penn strolling around a beach with lots of extras who look like they’ve strolled out of a Mormon service.  These images of nature and religious mysticism  look like commercials for insurance or cars.  People have satisfied looks on their faces as they reach out to one another.  The voice overs seem to be poetic but sound like pretentious whisperings from some failed pop music lyricist.

The characters are ‘American Dream’ stalwarts and on that count are highly suspect.   Brad Pitt may play a brute but he’s supposed to be fundamentally decent because he’s a hardworking Christian.  Interestingly, his hokey piety does not prevent him from being very cynical about his fellow human beings.  The mother is by contrast a gentle soul who looks like an Anglo-Saxon Madonna.  We see her giving water to convicts later floating round a tree for Pete’s sake.  Sean Penn as Pitt’s grown up son is exiled in the steel and glass Babylon of corporate worldliness and wants us to know we took the wrong turning from the Edenic bliss of innocent family life.  He looks like a tapir with haemorrhoids and at the end of the film.  I hoped he’d walk into the sea and not come back.  The kids are casting from the Bible, one’s a goody and the other is like dad.  Mallick knew he had to have drama so he took the easy option of dad being the domestic tyrant.

Mallick is a Christian and his view of nature seems interestingly ambivalent.  He does not share the gnostic view that nature is evil but he does think it is implacably cruel and we must show our humanity by rising above its’ assaults  There are moments of mercy:  the dinosaur, withdrawing its foot from the neck of a wounded dinosaur, the fiery cosmic forces that become grasses and flowers, and sea life but it’s sentimentalized as well.  As in Badlands and the Thin Red Line we get syrupy music celebrating National Geographic prettiness.

After seeing this film a couple of times I’ve come to regard it as a self indulgent celebration of literal mindedness.  We know nature is immense and beautiful, and life is mysterious, but Mallick takes a whole film and a lot of preachy nonsense to tell us so.  Full marks for attempting things that most film makers might not dare to do, but it still fails.  Its visionary ambitions are undermined by folksy Sunday school triteness, so I can understand those French audiences laughing at this and walking out of the film.  I weakened at moments as I hoped I would be watching a masterpiece, but really it’s all pants.

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Posted by on July 28, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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