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Posts Tagged ‘Jessica Chastain’

‘Someone,’ whispered the minion behind the counter at Oxford’s most prestigious coffeeshop-stroke-cinema, his voice trembling with incredulity, ‘has used his free ticket card to see The Greatest Showman eight times.’ I’m not entirely sure why he felt the need to share this with me, although it is surely quite a noteworthy occurrence; personally I suspect I could quite happily get to the other end of my life without watching The Greatest Showman even once. But there you go, it’s a Holiday Season movie, and these are almost by definition undemanding fare unlikely to provoke any sort of strong reaction, unless of course you’re an adherent of Jediism.

Now, of course, we’re into January and the sudden switch to serious and challenging awards-season movies is almost enough to give a person whiplash. Seizing the New Year pole position for 2018, in the UK at least, is Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game, which may well do very well when the shiny things are handed out. With the exception of Battle of the Sexes, it’s hard to think of a movie which is better positioned to benefit from the fact that Hollywood is currently in post-Weinstein mea culpa mode.

This is the true story (for the usual movie value of ‘true’, anyway) of Molly Bloom, a one-time top skiing prospect who found herself forced to a retire following a catastrophic wipe-out during qualifying for the 2002 Winter Olympics. (Through the wonders of cinema, Jessica Chastain plays Bloom from her early twenties to her her mid-thirties.) Having endured pushy parenting from her father (Kevin Costner) all her life, Molly rebels a bit and goes off to Los Angeles for a year before law school.

Of course, she never makes it to law school (somewhat ironically, as things turn out) – in true over-achiever style, she ends up responsible for administering a celebrity poker game where she picks up thousands of dollars in tips every week. Underappreciated and mistreated by some of the men involved, she relocates to New York and sets up her own game, and is soon earning millions as an ‘events manager’. But how long can she hang onto her integrity and keep out of the clutches of organised criminals?

The answer to this may be suggested by the fact that the story of Molly’s party-planning career is intercut with her attempts to avoid going to jail a couple of years later, after she is arrested as part of an FBI swoop against the Russian mafia. Idris Elba plays her defence lawyer and gets to look exasperated a lot as she refuses to compromise on her principles by dishing the dirt on her players in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

This is Aaron Sorkin’s first film as director, but there’s a good chance you will know him from his work as a scriptwriter over the last couple of decades: he wrote A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and Steve Jobs, amongst other films, as well as creating the TV series The West Wing. He writes and directs here in very much the way you might expect, which is to say no concessions are made to anyone who isn’t especially quick on the uptake: the movie opens with a sequence depicting a key moment from Molly Bloom’s life, in the course of which we are also bombarded with information about medical conditions of the spine, interesting trivia about skiing, the architecture of the Pyramids, and much else besides. Information overload does seem a distinct possibility for a while.

After a while, though, you get kind of habituated to it and Sorkin does his usual trick of giving you a bit of a lesson without it being very obvious – the chewy bits of actual new knowledge being obscured by his trademark razor-sharp dialogue, well put across by Chastain and Elba, who are both very good (so is Costner, in what’s not much more than a cameo). It’s undoubtedly a fascinating story, and Sorkin has deftly shaped it into a satisfying narrative: this movie is redolent of talent and class in every department – significant, but also very entertaining.

That said, I can’t help but suspect that Sorkin is trying to pull a little bit of a fast one, or at least being rather selective. No-one’s going to get criticised for making a film about a strong, confident woman, and especially not at the moment, but it seems to me that he perhaps overdoes it a very tiny bit in depicting Molly Bloom as such an aspirational figure of impeccable integrity – the fact she genuinely was a drug-addicted racketeer, at least towards the end of her time in poker, is gently but diligently finessed away. It seems to me that much of the appeal of this film comes from the insights it gives into a world of conspicuous opulence and luxury, to the point of actual decadence, and the lives of celebrities who can cheerfully gamble away hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single evening. The success of the LA game is largely derived from the presence of ‘Player X’, a famous movie star and apparently not a very nice person. Michael Cera is in the role of X, and publicity for the film stresses he is a composite of several other very well-known actors (all of whom were clearly uncharacteristically reticent about appearing in this high-profile movie), but you can’t help but wonder.

You also can’t help but notice that, for all that this is supposedly a film about a woman’s ability to fight her own corner and make her own way in the world, despite the attempts of various repellent men to control and belittle her, it still has no reservations about – what the hell, I’m going to use the word – exploiting the fact that Jessica Chastain is an extremely attractive woman. The only other place I have seen such systematic deployment of the image of a beautiful woman in horn-rimmed specs displaying eye-popping decolletage is on certain fairly specialist websites. No doubt the film-makers would say they are simply reflecting how Bloom was required to present herself in her milieu, but there’s presenting it and then there’s enjoying the view, and Molly’s Game seems to be doing the latter.

One could even take exception to the fact that – and I have to tread carefully here, for fear of revealing major spoilers – even though here we have a film with a powerful central female character, and a generally feminist outlook, the dramatic arc of the piece is resolved in terms of the lead’s relationship with one of the men in her life: it is he who has ultimately had the greatest influence upon her.

Or it may just be that I am focusing too much on the gender politics of a film which is primarily intended to be just a classy, slick, smart piece of entertainment. I doubt it, though, for Molly’s Game‘s array of repugnant men, by turns grasping, needy, and contemptible, and smart, competent, beautiful women seems just a bit too measured for this to be wholly accidental. It is, as I hope I’ve made clear, an extremely well-made and very entertaining film, and an impressive debut for Sorkin as a director, and in the current climate I expect it will do well when the awards are handed out. But if you view it as a serious film about important issues in the world today, then I think it rings just a little bit hollow.

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Rather unexpectedly, we seem to have found ourselves in the middle of an Officially Recognised Golden Age of Space Movies (if only there was a convenient way of referring to it suitable for a family readership). Even NASA seem to have cottoned on to this, timing their recent press announcement of the discovery of salt water on Mars to coincide with a peak of media interest in the red planet – mostly courtesy of Ridley Scott and his chums, whose new movie The Martian is hitting screens even as I type.

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Ridley Scott’s track record when it comes to SF movies is… well, let’s just say I’m less of a fan of them than many people, but even so they are invariably never less than interesting to watch, and I’ve been a bit of a sucker for hard SF about Mars since reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Trois Coleurs trilogy many years ago. And one should always make the best of a golden age of anything while it lasts.

Based on Andy Weir’s novel, The Martian opens with an American mission already in situ, commanded by Jessica Chastain and featuring a number of moderately well-known faces (Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, that sort of people) amongst the crew. Inclement Martian weather (i.e. a colossally violent sandstorm) forces an early evacuation of their outpost, but in the chaos mission botanist Matt Damon is struck by flying debris. With all contact lost, Chastain is forced to leave without him, believing him dead.

However – spoiler alert – Matt Damon is not dead, just resting, and accepts that he is effectively Home Alone on Mars with good grace, once he has finished stapling himself back together. A spot of DIY hydroponics provides him with a food supply of sorts, but the fact remains: NASA and the folks back on Earth remain blissfully unaware of his survival, and it’s a long walk home…

Well, it’s an unfortunate fact that Matt Damon’s service record when it comes to long-haul one-man deep space missions is not entirely unblemished, even when Jessica Chastain is involved, but even so, this is the kind of movie which leads sensible people to say things like ‘It’s hard to imagine Matt Damon making a bad film’ (Stuck on You and The Brothers Grimm clearly don’t linger long in the memory). The Martian may rest very comfortably in the same subgenre as Gravity and Interstellar, but I suspect it’s a more certain crowdpleaser than either of those.

This is despite the fact that, on some levels, it is actually a deeply nerdy film. Large sections of the plot revolve around fairly abstruse problems of hydroponics, astrodynamics, engineering and maths – the film seems to be trying as hard as it possibly can to get the science as right as the expectations of a major Hollywood movie will allow. (That said, there is a considerable amount of licence employed, particularly in the closing scenes, where the twelve-minute lag in communication between Earth and Mars is fudged for dramatic effect.)

Despite all this, it remains an extremely likeable and accessible film. This is largely due to the presence of the always-engaging Damon in the central role (he does, after all, have to carry lengthy sections of the film unaccompanied), but also the result of a script which works extremely hard to put a human face on the story. On one level this works simply as an adventure story about the power of human ingenuity and the will to survive, and it’s a good one: it’s really rather refreshing to find a film with such an upbeat view of humanity, without a single really unsympathetic character, especially when it works so well as a story. The film-makers work hard to fill the movie with little moments of lightness and humour, many of them arising from an unexpectedly eclectic soundtrack, including performers like Abba, Hot Chocolate, and David Bowie (not even the song you might be expecting, either). A strong supporting cast including the likes of Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig and Chiwetel Ejiofor (who I note has ascended to the point where he qualifies for the ‘and’ position in the credits) helps a lot, of course.

Even as I was watching the film, and thoroughly enjoying it, I couldn’t help but find myself reflecting on the fact that the more science you put into a movie, the more certain it is that you’ll make tiny slips or compromises in the service of the story, and the more criticism you’re inevitably going to draw from the very same nerdy audience you were trying to satisfy in the first place. Both Gravity and Interstellar drew more of this kind of nitpicking than they really deserved, and I don’t doubt that some of The Martian‘s more striking plot twists will be savaged in the same way.

Oh well, there’s no pleasing some people. Speaking for myself, I found The Martian to be much more enjoyable than I would ever have expected a Ridley Scott-directed SF movie to be. The film is immaculately realised and – in terms of its setting – thoroughly plausible, but, more importantly, Scott seems wholly focused on simply telling the story, rather than dwelling on landscapes and set dressing. I might even go so far to say that this is challenging the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven as my favourite Scott movie.

As I said, The Martian sets out to be a number of things – a convincing piece of hard SF, a full-blooded adventure story, and a character study in human resilience, to name but three. Does it succeed perfectly at all of these things? No, not really – but it comes close enough to be considered a terrific achievement as a piece of film-making. It is sure to be lumped in with Gravity and Interstellar when people talk about this type of movie – but for once, the comparison is entirely justified. This is a seriously good, seriously entertaining film.

 

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It is one of those special, cherishable, all-too-rare times: yes, there is a new Christopher Nolan movie out, in the form of Interstellar. What can one say about the remarkable talents of this man and the teams he assembles around him? Together, they seem entirely incapable of making a film which is less than challenging, surprising, thoughtful and supremely accomplished.

 

The third film in what absolutely no-one is calling Nolan’s In- themed series opens in an unspecified future where the Earth has become a worn-out wasteland, its bankrupt nations reduced to scraping what little food they can from choking, starving farmland. Humanity has lowered its gaze and its expectations, and one of those chafing against the situation is Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former NASA engineer reduced to trying to keep robot farming machines running.

Cooper’s gifted young daughter, Murphy, has been complaining of a strange presence in their home, which Cooper realises is some kind of gravitic anomaly – an anomaly which leads them to the world’s last launching facility. Here they encounter Brand (Michael Caine), who informs Cooper that the world’s condition is terminal – humanity is on the verge of extinction, unless they can find a new home. Some unknown cosmic force has created a gravity wormhole within the solar system, through which a mission can be despatched in search of a new home for the human race.

Though it means leaving his family behind, Cooper agrees to pilot the mission, travelling through the wormhole to a distant galaxy, in the company of Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), a couple of other astronauts, and two endearingly bizarre robots. But can he bring himself to make the decisions which could save the human race, when the consequence could be that he will never see his children again?

Well, you always know roughly what you’re going to get from a Nolan film – awe-inspiring technical virtuosity, a stunning, whirling artifice of plot and theme, casual mastery of genre tropes, and a certain lofty grandeur in every department (plus, more often than not, Michael Caine in a supporting role). All of these things are present and correct in Interstellar, which is, if anything, Nolan’s homage to the classic SF films of years gone by: first and foremost 2001: A Space Odyssey, which also dealt with man’s place in the universe and included a mind-blowing trip across space and time, but also the original Solaris, amongst others.

Interstellar pushes further than these, which were predominantly mythic undertakings – it attempts to portray travel to the furthest reaches of the universe in a relatively accurate way (no pun intended), and the realities of astrophysics form some of the lynchpins of the plot. This is a film in which wormholes, collapsed stars, time dilation and five-dimensional space are all central features, and there are times when it feels as though the vaulting leaps in space and time required by the narrative are too much for even Christopher Nolan to pull off.

That said, he pulls off some magnificent coups, and not the least of these is to keep the human characters centre-stage despite the bewildering ideas and stunning visuals also populating the film. All the performances are strong (Jessica Chastain also appears in a key role), but – with the possible exception of Michael Caine – none of them really manage to touch the emotions: the chill which touches the heart of every Nolan film, its lack of real intimacy, is as present here as in any of them.

Then again, this isn’t entirely inappropriate, as Interstellar is partly about the immense size of the universe and its hostility to humans, and the effects the knowledge of this can have on explorers. Coupled to the mood of resignation in the Earthbound scenes, the result is a film which frequently feels incredibly bleak and oppressive, with an atmosphere which is almost funereal. That Nolan manages to turn this mood around by the conclusion is also an achievement.

That said, the film’s focus on the father-daughter relationship means that the one between McConaughey and Hathaway never really quite gets the space to breathe, let alone convince. The final revelation of what’s been happening throughout the film with the strange gravity anomalies is also very eminently guessable by even the least clued-in and genre-savvy viewer (or so I would expect). And the fact remains that high-minded, big-budget, thoughtful SF movies are much more likely to be savaged for getting above their station than more typical popcorn fodder – just look at what happened to Prometheus or A.I..

Well, hopefully I will be proved wrong and Interstellar will reap the same kinds of rewards and acclamation as Gravity, another film it somewhat resembles in places. (Although Interstellar resembles genre SF much more, and the big awards ceremonies never like genre movies.) Watching Interstellar, it feels like a love letter to classic SF films, to space exploration itself, and to so many of the instincts and drives that make people human at all. Pretty much an unmissable experience if you are at all interested in SF, space science, or the future.

 

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I don’t think there are any directors whose work I will avoid on principle (though these days Quentin Tarantino comes close – ironic, given he was just about the first director I really became aware of as a personality), but there are a few whose films I will go to see just on the strength of their name. These days I find Kathryn Bigelow to be one of them, which is why I trundled along to see Zero Dark Thirty.

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I must confess that my liking for Bigelow stems mainly from the superior genre movies she was making in the 1980s and 90s – Near Dark, Point Break, Strange Days, and so on. This century, however, Bigelow seems to have become a purveyor of serious dramas based on historical events – although the events in question seem to be becoming increasingly contemporary: following 2002’s K-19: The Widowmaker, set in the 1950s, we had 2009’s The Hurt Locker, set in 2003, and now Zero Dark Thirty, filmed within a year of the events depicted in its climax. At this rate Bigelow’s next film will be a rugged prediction of the near future, which should be interesting.

Anyway: Zero Dark Thirty, which is apparently armyspeak for half-past midnight. This is a somewhat fictionalised account of the CIA’s hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Central to the story is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA agent who has basically devoted her entire career to tracking down the al-Qaeda leadership. This involves much painstaking research, use of electronic and human intelligence, and a degree of persuading prisoners to tell her things against their will.

There’s no getting around the fact that this is a movie that depicts representatives of the US government torturing captives. Most of the first twenty minutes of the film are devoted to the routine interrogation of a prisoner by Maya’s colleague Dan (Jason Clarke), who their captive describes as ‘an animal’, possibly with some justification. However, to simply describe this as ‘the CIA torture movie’ is to be overly simplistic.

It’s just one element of a long and intimidatingly dense narrative, chopped up into a number of chapters, and set in several different countries. The studio are apparently marketing this as an action thriller but it contains few of the incidental moments of suspense and violence that you’d expect from that kind of film. Nor does it really have a familiar narrative structure for one to latch onto, which may be a case of a film staying close to the truth at the expense of its storytelling – there’s one brief sequence concerning a character played by Jennifer Ehle which does stay much closer to the standard playbook, and which for me had somewhat more suspense than the rest of it. On the other hand, the film commendably avoids a sensationalist approach and triumphalism.

Either way, it’s helped by Bigelow’s typically accomplished direction and a script which ensures you can always follow the melody of the story even when not all the lyrics are completely clear. And it’s filled with good performances, from Chastain, Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Kyle Chandler, and others. Better known names pop up as more senior establishment figures – hardest working man in showbiz Mark Strong pops up as, basically, the CIA’s head of assassinations, while Stephen Dillane and James Gandolfini also appear. All well and good, but rather more unexpected and distracting is a brief cameo from John Barrowman as some sort of analyst. Couldn’t get a part in Les Mis, John?

Despite all this good stuff, I still found this quite a hard film to properly engage with, and this was largely due to the approach taken by the script. Zero Dark Thirty has drawn a lot of flak for endorsing torture as an intelligence-gathering technique, but to me it seemed that the film simply doesn’t take a position on this – it reports the CIA use of torture as a fact, nothing more. The US administration’s move away from the use of these kind of methods is reflected in the script, but again without any kind of moral judgement being made. And this is a theme which continues throughout the film, as it is framed in such a way as to avoid looking at the wider issues raised by the story. Did the CIA’s eventual killing of Bin Laden have any measurable effect on terrorist activity around the world? If not, what was the point of it? What, for that matter, was the justification for the shoot-to-kill protocol adopted by the members of the assault team?

To be fair, the film does imply that both Maya and the USA have, in their own ways, developed a fixation on Bin Laden verging on the obsessive. But this is the softest of grace notes in the overall film. As a historical document the film is interesting and involving, but it’s not necessarily a comfortable one or satisfying one. This is a big, important story, but most of the time the film refuses to engage with it on any level beyond that simply of the events unfolding. According to its own rules of engagement, Zero Dark Thirty is an impressive film – but those rules are much more limited than they surely needed to be.

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Every now and then a film comes along that has taken a somewhat lackadaisical approach to actually getting to the screen: it’s been hanging around in editing suites or on shelves, not remotely bothered by the need to get out there and actually start recouping investments. Usually, it must be said, when a movie takes a very long time to show its face it is out of a very appropriate sense of embarrassment: everyone was surprised when the Nicole Kidman-fronted remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers took two years to get released, until they saw it, at which point it became rather obvious why they’d been putting it off and putting it off.

Having seen John Madden’s The Debt, I am somewhat mystified as to why this film has also dragged its feet, because it has nothing to be ashamed of. It was shot a couple of years ago (in the meantime one of the cast has gone on to become somewhat noteworthy for appearing in the most lucrative movie of all time) and part of me wonders if the delay has been to allow film writers to get themselves set for its appearance, as any useful discussion of the story sort of requires you to be on your game (and possibly take a run-up).

Mainly this is due to the film’s back-and-forth narrative structure, which ping-pongs between the middle Sixties and the late Nineties, and the decision to employ different actors to play the two versions of the protagonists. It’s very difficult to go into much detail about the later section of the story without ruining the film, so I’ll keep me big fat mouth shut about it (well, mostly).

In the Nineties section, Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds and Tom Wilkinson play celebrated former Mossad agents, whose fame rests on a mission into Soviet East Berlin thirty years previously. Portrayed by Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas at this point, their assignment (when not contending with incipient romantic tensions between them) is to confirm the identity of a man suspected of being a Nazi war criminal, the Surgeon of Birkenau, and then bring about his extraction to Israel where he can stand trial. As the man in question (played by Jesper Christensen) is working as a gynaecologist, making the ID requires Chastain’s character to go under cover rather more intimately than she might wish, but soon the go-ahead is given for the trio to move against the man. However, all does not go according to plan and the team find themselves forced into hiding and having to deal with a highly intelligent and utterly ruthless prisoner…

And to say more really would spoil the story of this film, which would be a shame as this is a quality production. I have to say that the earlier section of the story is rather more effective than the later part – there is genuine tension and excitement here, and some well-staged low key action. All of the main actors in this film are good, but I thought Worthington was particularly impressive, and Jesper Christensen (who seems to specialise in ‘creepy’) was also extremely effective as their target.

For some reason the later stages of the film fall a little flat by comparison and I genuinely can’t figure out why. Possibly they lack the claustrophobic tension of the East Berlin setting, or the strength of the relationships between the three main characters (they are separated in this section).

I’m not sure if the decision to recast the characters rather than whip out the aging make-up was necessarily the right one. As I said, everyone is good, and unlike some critics I had no trouble remembering who was who amongst the leads, but it can’t help but kick one out of the movie just a little to see Jessica Chastain suddenly turn into Helen Mirren. There’s also a slight problem in that part of the plot revolves around supporting characters living under false names, and it’s very difficult to be sure of who’s supposed to be who when they don’t necessarily have the same face as before (and not everyone is played by a different actor, which just seems mildly odd).

Based on an Israeli movie, I can’t help but suspect that the original version must have been slightly more powerful – the themes here, of guilt and duty and responsibility, never quite struck home with me. But the portrayal of people being driven apart by shared experiences rather than drawn together, and the crushing effect of regret over many years – these things worked well for me. The direction is efficient and the script effective, and this is a well-mounted film.

We’ve had quite a few thrillers that have been either retro or had period settings over the last few weeks – some of them extremely mannered and thoughtful, others much more gritty and action-based. The Debt does a very good job of having something for everyone in it. In the end this is an intelligent drama for adults rather than anything else, but that’s not to say its thriller trappings are entirely for show: it works quite impressively as both.

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