Jessica Chastain

Ned Benson’s “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” a film that depicts the complex workings of a failing marriage, comes off as oddly flat. There are characters dealing with unspeakable tragedy, yet they are painted so thinly that it is difficult to sympathize with them. An interesting, heartbreaking story is present, but the plot moves so slowly that it’s hard to feel involved. Indeed, there are only a few moments when the film really feels alive at all.

After a failed suicide attempt, Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain) returns to live with her family in suburban New York, leaving behind her restaurant-owner husband Conor (James McAvoy). Both are recovering from the tragic death of their infant son, which scarred their marriage. As they begin to drift apart, the couple attempts to rebuild their family and come to grips with their new emotional reality.

An interesting facet of “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” is that it is a combination of two separate films, “Him” and “Her,” both written and directed by Benson. This version collides the plots into a coherent love story. The effort is decent, but one can still see the scissor marks present in the final cut. For a two-hour film, there seems to be an abundance of filler. However, Benson does a good job balancing the arcs of both leads — both sides of the story manage to feel complete, and equal time is given to examine the plotlines of each part of the duo.

Much needed support for the film comes from the convincing performances by Chastain and McAvoy. While their characters are admittedly dull and not completely fleshed out, the duo are able to bring out the emotional devastation present in themselves. Chastain brings out the frightened survivor trying to simply start anew, while McAvoy uses his charm to present a man who desperately wants things to go back to normal. Despite their great performances, the minor characters seem to possess more personality than the leads. Viola Davis’ performance as a professor brings dark humor to the role, while Bill Hader’s role as a womanizing chef provides brilliant comic relief.

The crippling aspect of the film is the script, which scrambles to find a meaningful identity. Benson peppers in several quirky moments in a vain attempt to give the movie a unique voice. Another aggravating issue involves how much the “dead child” subplot is underplayed. While the climax expertly brings the issue to a head and subsequently reveals the couples’ true emotions over the tragedy, it never feels as though Eleanor and Conor’s son was an actual character. His name is never revealed, nor is the cause of his death. It feels as though the purpose of withholding such details was to create a symbol of hope out of his demise, but, instead, his death becomes a mere plot device.

“The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” starts out as a well meaning, interesting film that has the makings of a dramatic romance, but it loses its way in the journey. The actors’ performances are admirable, but the lifeless characters they play don’t do justice to their abilities. While the film deserves applause for taking the plots of two separate movies and mixing them into a coherent storyline, it suffers from using gimmicks to enhance its identity. Simply, the movie wastes away its opportunity by making fatal narrative choices.

When a horror film comes out in January, its quality is often a lot scarier than its content. With moviegoers distracted by the flood of Oscar nominees, January releases often come and go with little said or thought about them. And while the Guillermo del Toro-produced “Mama” isn’t the most memorable spine-chiller ever made, it’s still much better than its release date implies .

With del Toro producing, it’s almost a given that “Mama” will feature children in some sort of horrifying circumstance, but the film puts its young Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) in peril almost immediately. Their father (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) drags them into the woods after a bad day at work, and the girls are stranded. Five years later, their uncle (also played by Coster-Waldau) finally tracks them down and takes them in, much to the chagrin of his punk rock girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain). However, neither of them counted on the girls bringing back something supernatural, a shadowy guardian they both call “Mama.”

Fresh off last week’s Golden Globe win, Jessica Chastain goes edgy for “Mama.” Annabel is a punk rock guitarist with short, spiky black hair and tattoos aplenty, and all those sharp edges could be overwhelming if Chastain wasn’t such a graceful, affable performer. As her character transitions from reluctant caretaker to loving guardian, Chastain manages to change what’s essentially a pro-conformist missive into a genuinely touching and compelling arc.

Charpentier and Nélisse play a profoundly damaged pair of sisters, and they both give performances that veer between terrifying and sympathetic. Often child performances can be distracting, and while Charpentier doesn’t always hit the notes “Mama” asks of her, Nélisse brings a guarded intensity and surprising tenderness to her role.

“Mama” is based on a short film from director Andrés Muschietti, and he packs his feature debut with a good variety of scares, most of them effective. Muschietti stages several simple but chilling moments, and his biggest scares are based more in the psychology of his characters than in something lunging at the screen. Even when his final moments ease up on the scares a bit, Muschietti makes up for it with an unexpectedly ballsy and heart-tugging finale.

Unfortunately, some of the steps “Mama” takes to get to that climax are less inspired than others. Characters in horror films are notoriously stupid, but “Mama’s” take the cake as three different characters make the exact same uninformed dumb decision, always without telling anyone where they’re going. Daniel Kash plays the girls’ psychiatrist, and he might as well be called Dr. Exposition, uncovering the dark corners of “Mama’s” narrative while Annabel shoulders most of the film’s scarier material.

When all is said and done, “Mama” is by no means a horror classic. It has the same disposable quality as most of the films that del Toro takes a producer’s credit on. However,the tale of two sisters dealing with their return to civilization and the woman forced to raise them is emotionally stirring, compellingly told and often just scary enough, and that’s much more than many of this month’s releases can claim.

Printed on Friday, January 18, 2013 as: Guillermo del Toro presents intense characters 

Jessica Chastain, who stars as Maya in “Zero Dark Thirty,” won a Golden Globe for Best Actress on Sunday night.

For many leading roles, especially those written for females, likability is key, and their ability to charm is pivotal to their film’s opening weekend. For Jessica Chastain, who plays determined CIA agent Maya in “Zero Dark Thirty,” getting on the audience’s good side doesn’t appear to be too difficult for one very simple reason — she’s playing the woman who caught Osama bin Laden. What’s not to like?

Taking place over the 10 years between 9/11 and bin Laden’s death in 2011, “Zero Dark Thirty” methodically lays out the puzzle pieces for Maya and other agents to assemble. It’s a no-frills approach for director Kathryn Bigelow and the film unfolds with the same unrelenting focus as “The Hurt Locker,” her Academy Award-winning last film.

Jessica Chastain gives a performance brimming with complexities, finding genuine humanity between the pages of Mark Boal’s screenplay. Maya’s determination drives her, but it’s the intelligent, infallible confidence that Chastain brings to the role that makes you root for her and her unquenchable hunger for her target that makes her a force of nature. It is a riveting achievement for Chastain and a high watermark in her quickly growing filmography.

The figures surrounding Maya in the CIA are rather thinly defined, but Bigelow intelligently fills Maya’s sounding board with familiar, likeable faces. Kyle Chandler is reliably stern but reasonable as Maya’s exhausted boss and coworkers like the excitable Jennifer Ehle and subdued Mark Strong round things out nicely. Jason Clarke stands out as a fellow torturer and he brings a resigned certainty to his subtle but effective arc.

The story of bin Laden’s capture is a challenging one, both for the scope it requires and the number of false starts and dead ends in the rabbit hole he disappeared in after 9/11. However, Bigelow makes the small accumulation of details and evidence engrossing and it’s a small victory every time Maya cracks another bit of information. Much controversy has been created from “Zero Dark Thirty’s” depiction of torture, but it’s less an endorsement than a simple acknowledgement of the moral grey area inherent to the story it’s telling. Bigelow handles the challenging material with grace and Chastain makes Maya’s acclimation to the CIA’s methods a gradual but chilling shift.

Even as Bigelow hits the audience with an onslaught of names, places and faces, she balances things out with moments of quiet levity and masterfully constructed tension. The film is beautifully paced, and its climax, the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, is taut with intensity and brutal efficiency. It’s a cathartic moment for both the characters and the audience and it feels like an earned victory thanks to Bigelow’s remarkable focus and sparse style.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is an exceptional film top to bottom, but it’s certainly not an easy one to love. There’s no warmth, no soaring violins when bin Laden’s body is identified, but the toughness and lack of sentimentality is admirable. The straight-on approach to the hunt for bin Laden makes the film less of a celebration and something more akin to journalism, a sharply sketched portrait of the woman who found our country’s greatest enemy.

Published on January 14, 2013 as "'Zero Dark Thirty' characterized by strong female role". 

(Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

Ever since its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival almost a year ago, things certainly haven’t been easy for “The Debt.” After all, it was a major awards player before its premiere — an intense Jewish revenge film starring Oscar mainstays Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson as well as rising stars Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington. After the film met lukewarm reception in Toronto, it floundered around for a year or so and is now finally being released to theaters. Is it the disaster a few critics at Toronto lambasted it for being? No. Is it the major Oscar player it could have been? Probably not. But it is a relatively well-paced, fairly intense thriller that makes for a good distraction for a couple of hours.

The film opens just short of present day, staging a late ’90s book release detailing the process by which Mossad agents Rachel (Helen Mirren), Stephan (Tom Wilkinson) and David (Ciaran Hinds) killed the nefarious Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), a surgeon who performed endless atrocities during the Holocaust. Quickly, the film dives into the past, as younger versions of the characters (played by Chastain, Marton Csokas and Worthington, respectively) go about their mission.

Director John Madden impresses throughout the film with his strong sense of pacing, smooth transitions between the past and the present, and a few brutal, ugly fight scenes that strip away any glamour the agents think their mission may hold. The film’s problems rest mostly in the script, co-written by the usually reliable Matthew Vaughn, who directed this summer’s “X-Men: First Class” and last year’s “Kick-Ass.” “The Debt” has all the makings of a great tragedy — a lie agreed upon by loose allies, lost loves and gallons of blood spilled thanks to the various characters’ fatal flaws, but its screenplay falls short.

The film’s lengthy middle section, which showcases the long period the three agents spend cooped up in a grungy apartment with Christensen’s surgeon as their hostage, plays out kind of like a play, allowing us to get to know the characters and all their nuances. Unfortunately, they aren’t nearly as interesting as the film thinks they are and the inevitable love triangle that forms is soapy, not compelling.

Chastain’s Rachel is easily the most relatable and interesting character in the film, thanks in no small part to Chastain, who is given more room to build a character here than in Terrence Malick’s flighty “The Tree of Life.” Though Rachel is saddled by slightly inconsistent characterization, Chastain brings a strength and intensity to her that you might not expect from her gentle disposition. Worthington (remember him?) struggles to breathe life into his disciplined, quiet David. Csokas’ Stephan is barely a character as much as he is a placeholder. The elderly versions of the characters are better acted across the board thanks to masters Mirren, Wilkinson and Hinds, but Wilkinson and Hinds are wasted as Mirren takes the center stage for most of the film’s third act.

Much of the disdain from the film’s Toronto premiere came from the film’s morally ambiguous conclusion, and the film spends a bit too much time building up to its big reveal and not enough time justifying it. Even so, when the film’s key moment comes around, it’s more of an obvious plot development than the mind-blowing twist it wants to be considered, and it’s certainly not anything disastrous enough to derail the film entirely.

“The Debt” is by no means the Oscar contender it was positioned as, but it’s still a film with its own small little charms, mostly thanks to the fantastic dual portrayals of Rachel Singer by Chastain and Mirren. While it plays as something of a smaller-scale version of Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” “The Debt” is an often suspenseful, interesting thriller. It’s not a film that you’ll be thinking about for the rest of the year (or even after you leave the theater), but it’s still one worth seeking out.

Printed on September 1, 2011 as: Stellar cast shines in "The Debt," film struggles with screenplay

Brad Pitt delivers a strong performance in Terrence Malick’s cerebral and abstract film, “The Tree of Life.”

Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight | Daily Texan Staff

Genre: Existential Drama
Runtime: 138 minutes
For those who like: Enter the Void, The New World
Grade: C-

Each and every audience member is bound to take something different from “The Tree of Life” simply because of the film’s intensely personal nature, both in style and content. It’s an odd film that’s more than happy to take a 20-minute detour into the history of the universe’s formation and let the audience stew in their own thoughts for a bit.

As such, it’s an extremely difficult film to quantify in any meaningful fashion simply because it’s not a film that can be easily sorted into categories of good or bad. The film is more of a journey through director Terrence Malick’s psyche than a film that could easily be praised or maligned.

Throughout the film, Malick displays a preference for half-baked philosophical musings and vivid imagery over plot, character, clarity or the audience’s enjoyment. That isn’t to say that “The Tree of Life” is an irredeemable film or a complete waste of time. If anything, nearly every frame of the film is an absolute marvel.

Malick, along with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, demonstrates an absolute mastery of the visual side of filmmaking, contorting small Texas suburbs at will, causing them to seem equally foreboding, comforting and foreign as he feels the story demands. Also worth mentioning is Alexandre Desplat’s soaring, wonderful score, an inspiring piece of music that’s by far the best thing to come out of this maddeningly uneven film.

Broken up into three distinct sections, “The Tree of Life” shines in the middle, which depicts the childhood of Jack (Hunter McCracken) in 1950s small-town Texas. The hour or so spent watching Jack struggle with his strict father (Brad Pitt) and sympathetic mother (Jessica Chastain) is filled with moments of nostalgia-tinged beauty and elegance.

McCracken, making his debut, is a formidable actor, effortlessly vulnerable and soulful as he navigates the treacherous minefield of adolescence. Pitt and Chastain are similarly strong, especially the always reliable Pitt, whose bitter and resentful character proves to be equally terrifying and frustrating. However, both actors are saddled with a short list of qualities rather than actual characters, and Pitt can only parse so many variations of causing his sons mental anguish.

While the middle section is the film’s highlight, it grows tiring because Malick makes the same points over and over rather than build intriguing characters or situations. This is characteristic of much of the film, especially the two sections that surround the chronicle of Jack’s childhood. The film’s first section, which shows an elderly Pitt and Chastain (whose characters remain unnamed) dealing with the death of a son as an adult Jack (Sean Penn) mopes around a Houston skyscraper, quickly devolves into an overlong series of shots of nature, space and even a few CGI dinosaurs.

It’s the dinosaur sequence that first arouses skepticism about the film. Malick has a lot on his mind here and he believes he’s making deep, nuanced observations about the unstable relationship between Man and God and the way people lead their lives. He fails to present these ideas in any substantial form, instead having characters we’ve barely met whisper them in voiceover while we watch some lava melt a rock.

The film never lets us forget what we’re watching — big, important and ambitious art. It also never takes the time to earn the respect and attention it demands of its audience.

Shockingly, its final section is even more insufferable, shattering what little internal logic or shreds of narrative existed in the film in order to give us a dialogue-free, climactic sequence that’s clearly meant to be cathartic but is instead frustrating.

Malick is by no means a commercial filmmaker and makes it perfectly clear from the first frame of “The Tree of Life” that he has no interest in making a film that satisfies his audience. At the same time, he has constructed a film that fails to engage his audience, throwing underdeveloped characters and musings about the human condition at them without giving them a reason to care.

Even worse than keeping us at arm’s length from the characters, the fractured chronology of the second section robs us of a chance to see them develop or change. He never lets them move forward from the small collection of personality traits they’re assigned because it’s never clear how the film’s events relate to one another.

“The Tree of Life” isn’t for everyone. There are things to like in the film, such as the barely pent-up fury in Pitt’s eyes when he’s unsuccessfully teaching his sons to fight; or the gorgeous visual feast Malick serves up for the audience or McCracken’s wonderful debut performance. To those who see “The Tree of Life” and find themselves unreceptive to Malick’s philosophical babblings and contempt for his audience, trust one thing: you didn’t miss something.

Disappointingly enough, “The Tree of Life” simply isn’t the film we hoped it would be. While a second viewing may seem necessary to pick up on some vital ingredient that simply wasn’t there the first time around, it’s not. There’s only one result of seeing “The Tree of Life” twice, and it’s sitting through “The Tree of Life.” Twice.