Tag Archive: Jessica Chastain


Once again taking a brief break from theatergoing, I’ve watched some interesting DVD/on-demand choices recently. Here are three interesting flicks to check out when you have a chance.

 

lawless-banner-posterLawless

250px-WettestcountyfrontcoverBased on the historical novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, this 2012 film focuses on the early 1930s bootlegging business of Matt’s grandfather, Jack Bondurant, and his brothers, Forrest and Howard. It is a gritty, violent, and fascinating look at a time in American history from the perspective of one family subsisting outside the law of the times but with a code all its own.

Jack (Shia LeBoeuf) fancies himself a mobster in the making, while patriarch Forrest (Tom Hardy) is invested in the legend that he and his brothers are indestructible, and Howard (Jason Clarke) loyally serves as enforcer and protector. When we meet “The Bondurant Boys,” their role in their rural community is viewed with a kind of under-the-rug respect, and they are left alone and at times even supported by local law enforcement. shia-labeouf-dane-dehaan-lawless-600x421But when a vicious and peculiar federal agent (Guy Pearce) shows up, the boys get more flack than they had bargained for.

The movie is a mini-history lesson, depicting in vivid detail the dangerous and clandestine work of bootleggers in the ’30s. It’s also filled with exaggerations for movie-watching excitement, with chases, shootouts, and closed-door atrocities that no one possibly could know the truth behind. But that’s moviemaking. Most of the facts are presented, however, as pieced together by the author of the book from reports, articles, and the bullet-would scars of his grandfather and granduncles.

120830_MOV_Lawless.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-largeRegardless of how faithfully represented the “true story” is, this film is well written, beautifully shot, and skillfully acted by the principals and supporting actors including Jessica Chastain, Dane DeHaan, and Gary  Oldman. The film is directed by Australian John Hillcoat (The Proposition – 2007, The Road – 2009).

For an epic familial double feature, pair this movie with Once Upon a Time in America (1984), Legends of the Fall (1994), or the TV miniseries Hatfields & McCoys (2012).

A

920-HESHERHesher

In this 2010 film by writer/director Spencer Susser, Hesher (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, once of my favorite contemporary actors) is a grungy high school reprobate who muscles in on the dissolving family of freshman T.J. (fiercely played by Devin Brochu). Two months earlier, T.J. lost his mom in a car accident, and he is desolate as his inconsolable father loses himself in depression and self-medication (the father is played by Rainn Wilson in the best performance I have ever seen him turn in).

As Hesher threateningly worms his way into a place at Grandma’s house, where T.J. and his dad are staying, he seems nothing more than a dangerous blight on T.J.’s existence. Grandma (Piper Laurie) seems to be the only one to see anything more in Hesher. An unexpected ray of sunshine in T.J.’s life is meeting cashier Nicole (Natalie Portman), hesher-movie-review-TH48O3P-x-largethough Hesher ruins that for him too, along with nearly getting him arrested and otherwise making his life hell. But all is not what it seems, and when the taciturn Hesher does speak, his crude, elaborate analogies offer the true lessons in this narrative.

This movie begins coarsely, attesting to how first impressions can set our minds. It’s tough to watch as the scruffy, chain-smoking, bizarrely tattooed bully Hesher intimidates T.J. and his family.  But just as we get to know people in real life, we soon see there is something more to the freaky young man. To the film’s credit, we never find out much of Hesher’s backstory or why he lives in his van (when not invading the homes of freshmen). Heck, we don’t even learn his full name.Hesher_13047235035841

In the end, Hesher is a life-affirming and sanguine film. It is brilliantly written and works well in great part because everyone in the cast is absolutely superb. I’m hoping to see more from Susser, the only American member of the Australian filmmaking collective Blue-Tongue Films, who has thus far focused on short films.

A fine double-feature choice for this movie is the equally disquieting yet hopeful Sunshine Cleaning (2008).

A-

Seeking-a-FriendSeeking a Friend for the End of the World

Being a fan of Steve Carell and liking some of the past work of Keira Knightley, I had high hopes for this 2012 film. These were effectively shattered by this depressing, unfunny apocalyptic tale that wastes the talents of both actors, and everyone else in it.

Basically, the movie follows pathetic Dodge (Carell) as he awaits the end of the world. A meteor is hurtling toward Earth and the last hope for diverting it fails, so everyone knows it’s all over (don’t even get me started on the lack of science, but then the film is not meant to be realistic—I guess). Some people go on as if nothing has changed, while others try to fulfill their bucket lists, and still others simply go off the deep end. Dodge’s wife (who, we learn, was unhappy anyway) runs away—literally—and he is left to sullenly continue going to work (uh huh) and gathering with friends in the evenings. This role is yawningly dull for an actor of Carell’s comic chops.

Finally, Dodge meets downstairs neighbor Penny (Knightley), ameliorates her own existential meltdown, and then is party to cruelly abandoning her live-in boyfriend to rioting mobs so the two can advance their budding romance in the end-times. It’s just … not pretty.

SAF-Still2Dodge and Penny try to make each others’ fondest final wishes come true as the hours count down. Thrown in is a contrived meeting, after twenty years of estrangement, with Dodge’s father (Martin Sheen, more wasted talent), again run through in a hasty way to just get it overwith. In the end, the film tries to pull the heartstrings as Dodge and Penny make their final moments content, but it seems too little, too late.

Those who read my reviews know that I like quirky dark comedies, as well as films that don’t neatly fit into one genre, which is what this endeavor tried to be, I think. But like a number of other atypical projects, it misses the mark on many scores. When it tries to be funny, it’s often painfully awkward (like during the completely pointless appearance of otherwise hysterical Patton Oswalt; all he gets to do is say “Pussy” in a bunch of different ways), and when it tries to be serious, it comes off as cloying, stuffing preachy platitudes down our throats (as when Dodge and Penny find an improvised commune on the beach, happy to just spend their last hours with one another).seeking-a-friend-for-the-end-of-the-world-screenshot

Nevertheless, many people love this film, seeing something in that I do not. That rings true for me with films like About Schmidt (2002), Lost in Translation (2003), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004); along with this movie, they are all films that you either get (they resonate for you) or not.  I guess I just don’t get it.

The movie is written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (who wrote the screenplay for Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and has only directed once besides, an episode of New Girl).

C-

It’s been a busy month! Nevertheless, the movie report card has some entries that take a bit more explanation than usual, so here goes:

The Pleasant Surprises

Ceremony (2010) is a peculiar glimpse into some pretty screwed-up lives, yet it leaves one feeling an odd sense of lightness and hope. Michael Angarano plays Sam, a pitiably adorable romantic and failing writer of bizarre children’s stories, who crashes the wedding weekend of a woman he once spent the night with. Most of the characters are pathetic in one way or another, but they curiously grow on you. Even the self-absorbed fiancé (Lee Pace) has a patient strength barely visible under his primping bravado but evident in the moments when he takes care of his flaky Zoe (Uma Thurman). It’s one of those films that you will either love or hate—and be aware that it begins rather slowly—but if you do give it a chance, you might find some pleasant surprises too.

Much to the credit of writer/director Max Winkler (son of Henry Winkler), the characters are not wrapped up in neat little packages, and I found myself wishing this film were a book adaptation so I could read the book and find out more about each of them. I wanted to know what had happened to Marshall (Reece Thompson) and why Zoe’s brother Teddy (Jake M. Johnson) was such a mess, though she loved him so fiercely despite that. I wanted to know their thoughts and their plans. They were real.  Ceremony is not for everyone, but if you like Feeling Minnesota (1996) or Wes Anderson’s films, you may be charmed by this one. I was.

B

Suck (2009) is a rock-musical-vampire-movie, written and directed by Canadian actor/director Rob Stefaniuk. He also stars along with Jessica Paré, Paul Anthony, and Mike Lobel, as a member of the band, the Winners (tongue firmly in cheek), who are barely making ends meet with their back-alley gigs while sleeping in their transportation—a hearse. Their ineffective manager (Dave Foley) says himself that they ought to fire him. And then, along comes a vampire and changes their lives. Now they are getting really popular, and all they have to worry about is Eddie Van Helsing *cough* (Malcolm McDowell) hunting them down. The bewildering cast also includes Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Henry Rollins, and Alex Lifeson. I also really got as kick out of the effects surrounding the band’s travels through Canada and New York.  Fun to watch!

B+

The Disappointments

The Help (2011) could have been so much better, given the talent involved, so I personally found it sad that it reminded me of another disappointing “movie of the week,” The Blind Side (also a movie that many others loved). How can I say this? I certainly will receive hate mail. Most people adore The Help. It seems unassailable, since it’s hard to say anything against a story depicting the triumph of the help’s quiet dignity over the malicious ignorance of pre-civil-rights-era bigots. *sigh*

That’s not the point—let’s look at it as a film.  It is not bad.  In fact, it’s mostly enjoyable, with wonderful performances. Leading the pack of talent are Viola Davis (as Aibileen Clark), Jessica Chastain (Celia Foote), and Bryce Dallas Howard (Hilly Holbrook); Emma Stone (Skeeter Phelan) is adorable and competent as always.

Where my problem lies with this film is that it’s a formulaic, gasp-a-minute tear-fest that glosses over any true character development and plays to the audience’s sense of “this is the good fight, so you must cheer,” even though the story is not even a true one.  Some of my fellow viewers pointed out, “But things LIKE this did happen. It’s based on stories from that era.” For my money, I would rather watch true reminiscences (and there are so many real stories out there) than musings that milk the sorrows and struggles of the period.

Those who had read the book also told me, “Well, the characters are better developed in the book.”  What?!  Whoever made a rule that when a film adaptation is made, the characters cannot be as rich or round as they are meant to be?  Plenty of films, including adaptations, present rich and realistic characters.  Stop using that excuse!  There is, for instance, no reason in the world that Skeeter’s mother (played by the wonderful Allison Janney, who was just wasted here) had to come off as an unintelligible psycho. Yes, I get the fact that she was both ill and bound by the mores of the day; that doesn’t mean she has multiple personalities, making her unrealistic as a character.

This film could have been so much more powerful had it been slightly more subtle and, of course, focused on character development—after all, what is more important in a film about the human spirit? As it was, the movie accomplished something that few have in the past: it made NOT want to read the book.

B-

Dylan Dog: Dead of Night (2010) is the worst comic-adapted-to-film I’ve seen since The Mutant Chronicles. I wish people would stop making putrid flops like this; that trend should have gone out with big shoulder pads.

I’ll watch just about anything supernatural or based on comic books, but it seems the moviemakers here simply wanted to cash in on moviegoers’ current love affair with vampires, werewolves, and all things alluringly monstrous. Speaking of which, Brandon Routh, bless his heart, may be eye candy, but he can’t act his way out of a paper bag. Even one of my faves, Peter Storemare, could not shine in this mess.

The only saving grace was Sam Huntington (Fanboys) as the sidekick, playing second fiddle to Routh again, as he did in Superman Returns. Unfortunately, even his amusing delivery can’t fix the awful writing.

D

Here are a few other films I watched over the past couple of weeks:

Film Grade Comment
The Jerk

B+

“I was born a poor black child.”  Classic silliness!  Gotta love Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters.
Hearts of Darkness

A-

For those of us who love Apocalypse Now, this is a terrific look behind the scenes, from learning about Martin Sheen’s personal difficulties and on-location heart attack, to seeing a 14-year-old Larry Fishburn waxing eloquent, to following the challenging journey of Francis Ford Coppola from dream to nightmare and back.  His wife, Eleanor, filmed this documentary footage and adds interesting insights about the journey into the jungle.
The Human Centipede (2009)

C-

I finally watched this sicko horror flick after hearing so many, ahem, intriguing things about it.  It was like a bad and bloody car accident—I was repulsed but could not look away.  The ending is truly freakish, especially if one thinks about what that poor “part B” girl is going to do now.  *shiver*  Astonishing is the fact that the creepy doctor (Dieter Laser) is even more horrifying than the creature he creates! Unless you are a diehard fan of gruesome horror flicks, skip this one.
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