jessica chastain

Zero Dark Thirty (2012) Review | Jamie Daily

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
85th Academy Awards 2013
5/5 Stars
Nominated for 5 awards, of which it won 1.
Nominated for Best Picture (Mark BoalKathryn Bigelow, Migan Ellison), Best Actress (Jessica Chastain), Best Original Screenplay (Mark Boal), and Best Film Editing (Dylan Tichenor, William Goldenberg).
Won Best Sound Editing (Paul N. J. Ottosson).
Watched February 20, 2014.

  

Honestly, Zero Dark Thirty is one of my favorite films from the 85th Academy Awards.  The acting, the story, the editing–everything together makes an intense roller coaster of awesomeness.  A lot of people are concerned about the political statements, or are distracted by the scenes depicting torture.  I of course feel the emotional impact of this film like many other Americans.  I feel it positively and for the most part am okay with the past of my country that the narrative portrays.  I like the essence of America that the film depicts (when it comes to the Intelligence behind war), but I can understand those who do not agree politically with what this film represents and how that might cause some to dislike the movie as a whole.  As most reviewers should be able to do, I will separate my personal and political opinions to dissect the film as objectively as possible.

 

Maya (Jessica Chastain) was recruited right out of high school to join the CIA.  After 9/11, she is sent to Pakistan.  Her number one job is to track Osama bin Laden.  It is all she has ever done.  The film opens on an interrogation sequence in which Maya is introduced to water boarding and other techniques that intelligence used on terrorists.  Dan (Jason Clarke) becomes a good friend and support of hers, but is unwavering in his interviews.  He shows no problem with sleep deprivation and other tactics, but has a little more emotional depth outside of the interrogation room.  He and Maya trust each other early on, but he eventually heads state side when their interrogation techniques begin to become a little taboo politically.  This leaves Maya to fend with Josephy Bradley (Kyle Chandler), the head of the CIA Pakistani office, on her own.

Maya is the job.  She spends long days and nights at her desk and we rarely see any sort of social life from her.  She seems to have one friend among her coworkers, Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), in which we see her go out for dinner one time throughout the whole film.  She works for over a decade, doing nothing but tracking bin Laden.  Her coworkers lose focus after London bus bombs and attacks on their home.  Protect the home land becomes the motto, but this statement produces one of the most emotionally charged scenes of the film in which Maya asserts herself to Joseph, insisting that he provide her with the resources that she needs to track the most dangerous wanted man in the world.

 

We know from history what the end result of Maya’s dedication is.  The last third of the film is all about the operation to get bin Laden, and it is eventually Maya who identifies the body.  Over a decade of work to track one man–now what?  I can imagine the surreal weightlessness of the situation, and the imagery of this sequence is spot on.  As she identifies the body, the camera is shot up at her, showing that this is a powerful moment for Maya, and as she leaves Pakistan, the weight of what she has accomplished seems to hit her.

  

There are no weak points, in my opinion, to this film.  The story telling is magnificent, the focus is great, the camera work is acceptable, and the sequence within bin Laden’s compound is so realstic it is impressive.  Despite all of these strengths, Chastain is above and beyond all of them.  Who would think that this is the same actress who played the ditzy blonde Celia Foote in The Help the year before?  She is outstanding.  Her character is emotionally distant and dedicated to the job, but Chastain puts humanity into her.  She has a steely resolve that makes the audience have more confidence in her than her on camera superiors.  She is driven and feisty–the ultimate leading lady with enough gumption for the entire cast.

 

The supporting cast is so sparingly used that when we come to the sequence in bin Laden’s compound and the cut aways to Maya are so few, one might think this would be too much of a change in the narrative.  I actually really liked it.  It is long and quiet and suspenseful.  All Maya is doing is sitting on pins and needles, waiting, which is exactly what we are doing as we watch the film.

 

They never show bin Laden’s face.  They show a trail of blood and some blurry images.  They might show a beard, or a nightgown here and there, but his image is never glorified for memory.  He was and is no more, and it is Maya who should be remembered for her accomplishments, not bin Laden for his terrorism.

 

This film is rated R and is intense.  It is as much a character driven film as it is a narrative driven film.  There is plenty of action, plenty of drama, and plenty of suspense.  I would highly recommend this film, as it is one of my favorites.

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The Tree of Life (2011) Review | Jamie Daily

The Tree of Life (2011)
84th Academy Awards 2012
3/5 Stars
Nominated for 3 awards.
Nominated for Best Picture (Sarah Green, Bill Pohlad, Dede Gardner, Grant Hill), Cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki), and Directing (Terrence Malick).
Watched September 15, 2012.

 

The Tree of Life is not for the faint of heart or the average moviegoer.  Even movie buffs will find it a difficult film to interpret and connect with.  In the first half hour I was almost dumbfounded by the collection of images–the creation of earth, all beautiful and accompanied by opera.  A quote from Job starts the whole thing off, saying, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the Earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.”  Terrence Malick’s film, his fifth in four decades, explores the two facets of humanity–nature and grace.  It has a huge focus on religion and faith, dominated by music more than dialogue, and constantly over dubbed with whispers of “Where are you?”  Cries from hurt hearts and wandering minds.

 

The most notable opening sequence, after briefly being introduced to the characters, Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) and their three sons, Mrs. O’Brien receives a telegram that her middle son has passed away.  Overwhelming grief and despair floor their family.  From here Malick takes us on our creation journey, first through incredible cloud formations and out-of-this-world (literally) shots, down to flowing lava and ocean life.  Some might think that this is a display of how insignificant one life is in the scheme of things, but after the first half hour of creation we are treated to a slow moving view of the family’s life in Waco, Texas during the 1950s.  Immediately there is a stark contrast between life now, and life in the 50s.  Lazy hot summer days full of hoses, open windows and unlocked doors, and neighborhood boys playing outside until dusk.

 

It is not necessarily a character study, although there are a lot of character insights.  It is an impressionist film that follows the ebb and flow of this family, always with the overhanging knowledge that one of their boys won’t live past 19.  We watch as the oldest, Jack (newcomer Hunter McCracken, later played by Sean Penn) is born and then grows through innocent childhood and the beginnings of adolescence when he begins to push and pull against parental discipline.  Brad Pitt again does an excellent job as the disciplinarian father.  For those who grew up in the 50s, it seems that his form of parenting is the norm.  He is the epitome of manliness and although he shows affection to his children, he spends much of his onscreen time trying to make sure they learn how to be men, from fighting to how to conduct themselves in business to how to take care of a lawn.  He represents nature, whereas Jessica Chastain represents grace.  Her mottos in life are to love everyone and everything, and always to forgive.  Mr. O’Brien says that she believes you only have to be a good person to get ahead in life, but on the contrary she believes that you should be a good person in order to live a fulfilled life.

 

The two conflicting spiritual approaches of Jack’s parents lead to his own confusion.  Deepak Chopra from The Huffington Post says that, “his Job-like father and his saintly mother stand at two poles. An Old Testament God pulls him one way, a New Testament God the other. The beauty of this dilemma, which could seem artificially schematic, is that it feels so American.”  Perhaps this is the beauty that I find within the story of this film.  Not only does it delve into childhood spirituality, but it is so starkly representative of American memories.  It brings back childhood memories so well that it almost makes me mourn the amount of technology that now permeate our lives.  Perhaps that is also the beauty between Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien.  Although Brad Pitt’s character is a hard-working man who is always chasing his dreams, he says several times that he could have been more but he made sacrifices.  He is a talented musician who plays the piano and the organ beautifully, but instead of pursuing this as a career he works at a local factory for the love of his family.  He is continually chasing the material, while Chastain’s character is constantly seen simply enjoying God’s creation.  There is even one scene where we see her dancing through thin air.  This could have simply been a child’s perfect memory of his angelic mother, but could also be a pure hearted woman more concerned with God than with man.

 

Sources:  Film InternationalMan I Love FilmsIMDBRotten TomatoesRoger EbertThe New YorkerThe New York TimesThe Hollywood ReporterHuffington Post

The Help (2011) Review | Jamie Daily

The Help (2011)
84th Academy Awards 2012
5/5 Stars
Nominated for 4 awards, of which it won 1.
Nominated for Best Picture (Brunson Green, Chris Columbus, Michael Barnathan), Best Actress (Viola Davis), and Best Supporting Actress (Jessica Chastain).
Won Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer).
Watched August 23, 2012.

 

It is  the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi.  Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) is just returning from college to realize that she has not only outgrown her friends-turned-housewives, but that the maids she has known and loved her whole life are not happy members of her bridge club society.  To pursue her dream as a writer in a southern belle culture that still supports stay-at-home mothers over a working woman any day, she takes a job at the local paper writing the cleaning column.  Knowing nothing about cleaning, Skeeter enlists her friend Elizabeth’s maid Aibileen (Viola Davis) to help.  From cleaning columns to civil rights stories, their relationship and project takes a drastic turn when Skeeter gets the idea to tell the story of Jackson through the point of view of “the help.”

 

This comedic drama was not something that hit me right away when I initially saw it in theaters.  However, after rewatching it I discovered the emotional depth and the sadness of the maids’ internal dialogues.  The Help has so many integral characters that you would think their stories and personalities might become lost or muddled, but Tate Taylor does an excellent job of bringing Kathryn Stockett’s book to life on screen.  Aibileen has always been a maid–she has raised 17 white children who start out so beautiful and innocent, but then grow up to be just like their racist, segregationist parents.  The Civil Rights Movement is happening all around the country, but the middle class town of Jackson is still chugging along in what other states would have considered the past.  It was a way of living that contradicted the segregation laws of the time–living in harmony with one another while being required to stay apart.

Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), Aibileen’s best friend, knows the dangers surrounding her and her family more than most, but still stubbornly stands up for herself when abused by her employer, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the steamy villain.  Hilly, who is the epitome of a segregationist, believes in living completely apart from the maids, which includes but is not limited to having designated toilets depending on one’s race.  After Minny pretends that she has used Hilly’s toilet, Hilly immediately fires her in fury.  This leads to one of my favourite pieces of the film–Minny is hired by Miss Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), the outcast woman who the others consider white trash because she married one of “their” men.  In a display of acting so powerful, comedic, and emotionally heartbreaking, these two nominees battle time appropriate stereotypes together and build a relationship that Hilly would have found repugnant.  It is a display of love and friendship that I had not expected from The Help anywhere else than between Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny.

 

There is not a single performance in this film that should be singled out to be knocked down.  Emma Stone’s usual comedy is dialed down to show a depth and an actress so in tune with the emotions of her character that I forgot immediately that she was the diabolical star of the recent Easy A and the wonderful Hannah in Crazy, Stupid, Love.  Skeeter has an innocence and determination that she must have been born with, but then cultivated  in college, away from the influence of her home town.

 

The film deals with not only segregation, but also young love and heartbreak, a miscarriage, and cancer.  Despite Hilly’s best efforts, the love that is shown between so many characters truly makes this a wonderful piece.  More than anything, I would recommend this film to you if you have somehow overlooked it.  It is much more than what many would perceive as a “chick flick,” but is a genuinely wonderful period piece full of humor, fear, and maybe slightly over-the-top villainy.

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Sources: moviefone Dream Works StudiosRotten TomatoesIMDBKids TV Movies on About.com New York TimesRope of SiliconEntertainment Weekly