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Archive for the ‘Jessica Chastain’ Category

The Martian

16 Oct

The Martian – directed by Scott Ridley. Scifidrama. 141 minutes Color 2015.

★★★★★

The Story: An astronaut left behind and believed dead on Mars, contrives to survive, while rescuers on earth exhaust various schemes to save him.

~

Among actors of his generation Matt Damon possesses the rare quality of human decency – which Tom Hanks possessed and Jimmy Stewart possessed and which his contemporary Jim Caviezel also possesses. It means that he can bring to his characters an atavism, a strain of honesty which supersedes modernity by going back to the American primordial, a strain which is recognizable, trustworthy, and inviting. As such, Mark Damon is an actor as useful as bread. Not for just the characters he may sometimes play, but always for the way he plays the character.

For the character is not always white bread.

Here it is sour rye. His character is not peachy clean. He has temperament. Opinions. Dislikes. Vanity. Tartness. In embodying this, Damon gives to us someone we might know. And whose survival we might care about and root for.

All this, naturally, is in the writing, but Damon extends himself into each word said as a physical release – which is important, since he is often bench-bound. And since his resources for survival are so technical they cannot be appreciated, save in the actor’s practical, personal commitment to them.

The story is beautifully filmed and directed. Each member of the all-star supporting cast is scrumptious to watch. Each of them is a space program bureaucrat. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the NASA mission director; Michael Peña plays a fellow astronaut; Benedict Wong plays the rocket engineer; Donald Glover as the aerodynamics pro who masterminds one of the rescue missions; Jeff Daniels as NASA head; Jessica Chastain as the captain of a space ship.

If you like The Wizard Of Oz, you will find that this is the sort of story The Martian is. A fellow human finds himself unprotected and alone in strange land. Assisted by friends, plus his own gumption and perseverance, he must make a long journey through it to reach the salvation that will whisk him home.

You will cheer at the end. I understand you will cheer even more if you see it in 3D. I didn’t, but I enjoyed the story and the spectacle just as well. It’s a big hit, and Damon well worth the Oscar for it, don’t you think? For his opening scene alone. Check it out.

 

Zero Dark Thirty

13 Jan

Zero Dark Thirty – directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Docudrama. The story of a young woman’s ten year manhunt for Osama bin Laden and his assassination by her. 157 minutes Color 2013.
★★★★
I felt unsatisfied.

Oh, I felt a good deal of tension in the execution of certain passages, such as the actual flight that night into Pakistan by the Navy Seals. And I was held by the authentic look of the ruckus of the operation in action. I felt that must have been much like what is was like.

But I didn’t see Osama bin Laden shot. It was reported as having taken place “upstairs”. Odd camera angles hedge the moment when Jessica Chastain, the CIA agent working to bring him to ground, unzips the body bag, as though the mortality of that well known face were for the satisfaction of her eyes alone. But our satisfaction is left out of the picture.

Other odd things stumped me. I did not understand the story purpose of the extensive torture scenes, beautifully played though they are by Reda Kateb and Jason Clarke, since, unless I am mistaken, torture yielded nothing in the way of leads. I can understand those scenes as giving us a picture of Jessica Chastain hardening to her task. However, since as a character, she comes out of nowhere, has no family no friends, no past, and in the end no future, her development as a human is irrelevant. All we need is an actress who can go from compliant to implacable, and this Chastain brings to the role as part of her nature; we do not need a story to reveal it; the actress herself is the story.

The film is confetti-edited, and hard to look at. As humans, we do not live out the stories of our lives in nanosecond splices. To walk to end of the block takes three minutes. That’s how our stories are told, not in tiny inscrutable bits of flash. Confetti editing is a resort to blanket a feeble tale. And the film’s first part’s partly inaudible. My bias is that if actors say something, you should, unless the film is Altmanized, be able understand exactly what those words are. I also felt the escape from bin Laden’s compound was cut short; there was a whole bunch of soldiers I saw left behind, as the damaged helicopter was demolished.

As filmed it is never less than spectacular. Pakistan looks chaotically beautiful and therefore hopeless. I loved seeing it, and all the settings. It’s beautifully cast and well-acted by everyone, and Chastain holds our interest by not attempting to. She’s someone one can play respectful attention to. I watch her, I wonder about her, I care for her, and I don’t want her to be hurt. I felt a sense of her accomplishment in the assassination. He needed to be put out of our misery.

But, as this is the one picture that will go down as a record of the mission, I feel cheated of a sense of its authenticity. My curiosity was not satisfied. No one applauded.

 

Coriolanus

15 Aug

Coriolanus – directed by Ralph Fiennes. High Tragedy. A great warrior refuses to be polite for political position in. 123 minutes Color 2012.

★★★★★

Changing People’s Minds is the subject of many of Shakespeare’s plays. What is the outcome of asking people to go against their grain? Hamlet tortures himself with it. Macbeth tries it although he knows it won’t work. Lear’s daughter refuses to do it. Coriolanus is the great examination of this subject. Changing people. And of all his great tragedies it is the one that contains scenes of the most excruciating brilliance. How does someone who is set in his ways, see himself other than what he takes himself to be? How can he see himself at all. “That’s just the way I am,” he will say, not realizing that the real truth is, “That’s just what I do.” Identification with one’s own behavior as The Truth, identification with one’s own emotional habits, identification with the righteousness of one’s conduct and story, obscured by the triumph of its success in certain circumstances, enriches our spectacle of this extraordinary person, Coriolanus, a man made darker of mind by the fabulous rhetoric he can speak to support himself on his path. The text is simple and thorny, the diction plain and incomprehensible because the utterance of internal musings. This is how the mind actually works, the words not so much a way of thinking as an interiority. And it is very difficult for the ear to reach into. I performed Cominius in this play once in my acting life, and it is remarkable how, once reading the script which seems to be written in another language, one gets under it to find how physical it is, and therefore how renderable. Brian Cox, who plays the campaign manager Menenius, is a case in point of an actor who has discovered this, the secret of making all the points so small they reverberate with reality. When he leaves we should miss him more. The ubiquitous Jessica Chastain plays the worried wife, a thankless role we thank no lesser actress is performing. Vanessa Redgrave, an actress who I monstrously dislike, is Volumnia, the mother, the holder of moral suasion for the hero, but her performance is too exquisite for us to see Volumnia’s neurosis as being more hypnotic to Coriolanus and herself than either her maternal care, her passion, or her reason. After all, there really is something wrong with Volumnia. But the performance is simple, direct, and clear. Although there is nothing Mediterranean about her, the same is true of  Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, a part one would suppose him too slight of vitality and physique to play (Richard Burton was notable in the role), but not so. He is marvelous. With his lowering brow, his intention is so resolute, it has no place to go but collapse. His belligerence is massive. He fights with Gerard Butler as Aufidius as though every knife blow were a deep passionate kiss. They both do. Aufidius can kill Coriolanus, but cannot conquer him. He cannot out-best him. The best he can do is hate and adore him. Fiennes brings to the role an unexpected physical solidity, a snobbishness so symphonic you dare not admire it, the assurance of a hero who has his own back. He tends to play many of his big scenes small, and so he should, for the camera, after all, is right at his nostrils. He has a trick of raising his upper left lip in contempt and disgust, which is essentially mugging, and like many English actors he tends to generalize and bray when loud, so the words are lost. And the principal responsibility with filming Shakespeare is that it be detailed, not a word lost – not to whispers and not to shouts. But, for the most part, one leans forward in the wonder of what resides behind Shakespeare’s incredible diction. The power of it to release the human truth of the actor is without competition. It is a very great play, Shakespeare’s only tragedy in the Greek mode, Coriolanus, the drama of  a man of the highest accomplishments and whose valor preserves civilization, being brought down by the rigidity of his own ideals. His is the human tragedy of holding onto the part of you that you take to be yourself, yet your relinquishing of that part to your peril. Not easy watching. But great watching.

 

 

The Help

16 Aug

The Help – Directed by Tate Taylor. Magnificent Feat Drama. An ambitious Mississippi Junior Leaguer decides to make a secret collection of the  recollections of the other Junior Leaguers’ colored maids. 137 minutes Color 2011.

* * * *

Have you ever heard of invisible ink? Well, The Help is the story of an invisible revolution. It all goes on completely underground, until one day the lemon juice of publication brings the revolution into the embarrassing light of day.

The book is devoid of description, but told solely in monologue of what the characters are thinking and dialogue between them. This gives an inside picture, naturally somewhat lost to the film, but the film gives an outside picture of the world of the Mississippi town, standing-in for Jackson, where it was originally set, and a view of the characters in the round.

As a film it is amateurly directed and edited. Someone says something to the camera; the camera shifts to someone saying something back; the camera shift back to what the first person says.  This bashes any sense of what really lies between people, and leaves us only with character reactions. And the result is that the actors’ work tends to be emotionalized: that is the actor will produce the emotion concurrent with registering righteous satisfaction in having the emotion. It is TV acting at its basest, self-congratulatory to the max.

The beautiful Cicely Tyson, the great Allison Janney, Oscar winners Mary Steenburgen and Sissy Spacek all bring their chops to provide a strata of foundation stone to the story. Bryce Dallas Howard gives a ruthlessly honest performance as the control freak Hilly. Jessica Chastain (the mother in The Tree Of Life) startles as the Dolly Parton white trash millionairess.

Octavia Spenser and Viola Davis play the leading roles of the maids who are the first to sign on to speak their secret memoirs, records of the pain and beauty of their servitude. There is a moment when Davis pulls her arm away from the consolation of Spenser that will make you weep to behold. The director is clumsy with these actors, but their skill and dignity win through.

The character of the young woman inspired to gather these recollections would appear to be a hard role to play, but it is done beyond the call of duty by Emma Stone.

The entire endeavor is too self-satisfied to get away with itself, but the fundamental story is a good one and is honored. I don’t know if you will love it if you haven’t read the book, but I say it’s, like the creation of the memoirs themselves, worth a try.

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