12 October 2011

Jessica Chastain Triple Feature: The Tree of Life, The Debt, The Help

Out of nowhere this gorgeous yet-spectacular actress Jessica Chastain showed up in, like, a bazillion movies over the summer, with two or three scheduled before the end of the year. This girl's everywhere. So, in honor of her awesomeness and prettiness, three of her flicks have been reviewed today. I should just make a mention that I laughed a lot when I read reviews of The Tree of Life Blu-Ray saying the mother was played by Bryce Dallas Howard. Oh, ha with the ha. Anyway, Jessica has the fortune of being in three very distinctly different (in a good way) films, and manages to be a demanding presence in each one of them.

Long review short - all three films reviewed below should be seen. Alrightey then? Onto the awesomeness of Andy reviews!

The Debt

Plot: Lies and deceit from a 1960s mission haunts the survivors in the present.

I was forced into The Debt for some quality mother/son time, and it was surprisingly worth it. All I knew was that it was a thriller, and Helen Mirren was in it (which is always nice). And as the movie got going, I saw that Sam Worthington was also present and accounted for, mumbling his lines as per usual but luckily they’re to a minimum. And then, in the first few minutes, it’s Julius Caesar from Rome (Ciaran Hinds), back from the dead only to be dead again as soon as he arrived! This sets itself up for the main mystery: the awesome Tom Wilkinson tasks Helen Mirren to solve a problem that could have some serious repercussions on them in the present, something good ol’ Ciaran Hinds just didn’t want to be a part of. It was by this point I also realized it was a mystery and a thriller.

And once we flashback to the younger versions of Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and Ciaran Hinds to see the stunningly gorgeous Jessica Chastain (in the first role I ever saw her in), the brute Sam Worthington, and Xena-alumni Marton Csokas, The Debt becomes a film you can’t take your eyes away from. It’s the 1960’s, and the three characters are united to bring down a big bad Nazi guy who killed a bunch of folks – but not before inflicting horrible, horrible forms of torment. Worthington resigns himself to standing around pinning after Chastain, occasionally saying a line or two and remaining all around stoic. Csokas seems to enjoy himself as the handsome lead who just wants to complete the mission successfully. And Ms. Chastain – well, she definitely has that being pretty thing down, but lo and behold, she is a marvelous, tremendous actress. There are two or three scenes where, for the sake of the mission, she allows herself to be touched by the Nazi they’re targeting, and her reactions: they are the type of things that stick to your mind long after the film is over with.

When The Debt cuts back to contemporary times with our older leads, it’s not nearly as exciting as watching the 1960s counterparts do everything they can to see the mission through thick and thin, but Helen Mirren carries the last act heroically. She confronts of a demon from her past, engaging in a fight in a bathroom that is as brutal as any Jet Li film. Not as creative and well-choreographed, no, but there’s a certain amount of rising tension that stems from their encounter, and when they finally draw blood on one another, it’s pretty gruesome.

When all is said and done, The Debt works. I was grabbed by the narrative, although I wasn’t too fond of the ‘twist’ that brings us into the third act, and when I left the theater, I can honestly say I enjoyed myself. The 1960s flashbacks, which occupy a good 60% of the movie, is definitely its strength, but the last ten minutes are, perhaps, the most memorable long after you leave the theater (and, let’s not forget, Chastain’s awesomeness). To put another way, this is a thriller I’ll have in my home video collection.

Rating: 8.5/10 – An engaging mystery/thriller with boasting a standout performance, a tense mission, and some super engaging character dynamic that flares up in the flashbacks but sorta fiddles in the present.

The Help

The Help is one of those unexpected movies that creep up on you. In my case, I had zero interest in seeing it, despite the casting of future wife Emma Stone. However, when the opportunity to see the film for free presented itself, I am never one to pass up such an offer. And I am not remotely disgruntled about seeing it. The Help was fun beginning to end, thanks largely to a smart script and some wonderful performances.

First, attention must be brought to the two outstanding performances of the film: Octavia Spencer as Minny, a maid who always has some witty remark to say and isn’t always successful at biting her tongue. Spencer’s facial reactions, her mannerisms, and most of all, how she delivers her lines make her the most memorable aspect of the film. Her “eat my shit” scene will forever be one of the summer highlights (and that reminds me, the mother of Bryce Dallas Howard’s character Hilly, Sissy Spacek, is just as hilarious in this moment). Giving Octavia Spencer a run for her money is Jessica Chastain as Celia, a woman who has no idea about anything and whose own naiveté and free-spirited self provides just as many laugh out loud moments as Minny. Halfway through the film, the two characters unite in one house, and every scene with the two of them together is priceless. Their dynamic makes this movie.

As for my dear Emma Stone, who I love and cherish, she surprisingly felt very much like a side character. Now, I understand the movie’s called The Help, and thus the primary focus is on Viola Davis’ Aibileen and Octavia’s Minny, and Stone’s Skeeter Phelan is more a conduit to get their story told to the world, but I feel that Stone’s character wasn’t given enough room to breathe to become her own person. Instead, her trademark Stone quirkiness (which is at a minimum) accomplishes the job, more or less. And in regards to feeling like a side character, Skeeter’s love interest subplot is hardly worth mentioning, because the film surely doesn’t seem interested in it at all. Those seven minutes of screentime amount to nothing, and could easily be exercised from the film without missing a single beat.

Bryce Dallas Howard’s Hilly was also great, with Bryce giving a greatly comedic performance: funny when stupid crap happens to her, obnoxious when she gets all prejudice, and obnoxious when she gets all Stepford Wives-y. It’s because of these actresses’ that The Help is successful, that there’s a heart and soul to it.

To be frank, and I might get some flake for this, but Viola Davis just didn’t cut it as Aibileen. Her character never felt honest, and because of that, I just didn’t care about Aibileen at all. Minny, Hilly, Celia, Skeeter (sorta), even the maid who asks Hilly for some money to pay for her kid – all those characters I cared for beginning to end. Maybe it was the script, or the sort of tired performance from Davis, but Aibileen just didn’t cut it.

The script’s well written, full of humor and drama (although The Help feels more humor-y then drama-y), and doesn’t overplay its hand. As in, the comedy doesn’t go too farfetched, and the drama doesn’t feel too Hallmarkish. As I said, Skeeter’s romantic subplot could have been exercised entirely, and perhaps Aibileen should have been given a bit more life to her instead of feeling fairly paint-by-the-numbers. All in all, The Help was a good movie. The ladies make it memorable.

Rating: 7.5/10 – There’s a few clunkers here and there, but for the most part, THE HELP is a resounding success, made enjoyable by the wonderful performances from the female leads who are hilarious and heartfelt.

The Tree of Life

Plot: Space, something, something, earth, something, something, angry father, something, pretty!, something, something, dinosaurs?, something, opera music pretty!, something, something, WTF? I think whoever couldn't follow the series finale of LOST will effectively have their brains blown out watching this.

The Tree of Life is a difficult movie to discuss. There are images circulating in my head two weeks after seeing it, images I’m sure I might never stop thinking about. But as for the actual content, I don’t feel anything but disappointment, really. When I look back at The Tree of Life, I don’t contemplate over whatever the hell Terrence Malick was trying to convey, if anyone. I just think of the striking visual imagery, the dynamic of Brad Pitt’s strict stereotypical 1950s father and the careing and giving mother, played by Jessica Chastain to their eleven year old son Jack, who must have one hell of an Oedipus complex.

Whatever Castor saw in his evaluation of Malick’s screenplay, whatever amazing feelings or thoughts Malick inspired in his apparently brilliant script, I don’t think it’s here in the finished product. Hell, with the exception of the O’Brien family crazy house, there’s very little emotion or sense in the whole enterprise, I feel.

In regards to the cinematography, well, in a word, it’s stunning. Yes, to say that each shot is like a painting come to life would not be an exaggeration. Even close ups of characters or dinner scenes have a rich freshness to them, as if they’ve never been shot from whatever angle Malick desired and each new shot is something entirely unique onto itself. The camera definitely calls attention to itself. Malick’s like a child, so amazed by the world and where he could film, the camera is positioned anywhere and everywhere he could think of, moved in any fashion possible. This lends itself to a kinetic energy that is exciting and interesting. When the film slows down for the more dramatic scenes, the ones that typically include characters whispering instead of talking at a normal chit chat voice, Tree of Life is just as visually stunning. There are so many times during the Creation of the universe sequence that I was just amazed at how they filmed this. There is truly some of the most amazing cinematography in Tree of Life.

But that all comes to naught if there’s no emotion – or even point – to the movie. Now I entered the film knowing what I was getting into. I knew that Malick loves nature, that he would film the world in ways that have never been done before. I knew, based off Castor’s script review, that there are moments of contemplation, made deliberately for contemplation, that this isn’t just your typical run-of-the-mill movie and forces you to think. But, honestly, I think that was left on the page. I don’t feel any of that translated onto screen. It comes across as a heartless, directionless movie. Acts or shots that are supposed to have meaning just don’t. The whole last 20 minutes – hell, everything with Sean Penn’s grown up Jack – no number of theories will convince me there’s something worthwhile there. If there is any emotion, anything worth thinking about, it’s the hour chunk with the O’Brien family as a young Jack deals with adolescence and his desire to not become his father. Whatever big themes, ideas, or statements Malick was trying at – just ain’t there.

That said, though, Tree of Life is one of those flicks that when someone reads a review, they shouldn’t make a decision based off that. As you can tell, I didn’t like The Tree of Life nearly as much as other parties did, finding the flick a bit heartless but visually beautiful. There’s a huge possibility that I misread scenes, or maybe something just went over my head and the reader will encounter something life changing when they see the film. At the very least, Malick’s controversial experience should be…experienced. Does it all add up to something? Does the last 10 minutes make a lick of friggin’ sense? Would you re-edit the first hour like I would?

For a better (or complimentary) look at the meaning of life or whatnot, I’d say check out Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain.

Rating: 5.5/10 - If there's something there in the script, then I would strongly recommend Malick to restructure this film to give what needs to have meaning meaning, to give life to his script instead of shooting pretty pictures and cobbling them together in hopes of it making sense.

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