Tag Archives: Jessica Chastain

Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter

Making films about mental illness is always tricky because of how sensitive, subjective and all too easily misunderstood and misrepresented the subject matter can be. Take one wrong turn and your script can be hokey, let one performance have an ill advised timbre and the whole thing feels hollow and under researched. With all that in mind I can say that Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is one of the most moving, mature, heartbreaking and realistic portraits of an ailment I’ve ever seen, not to mention an overall superb piece of filmmaking.

Michael Shannon shines bright in another deeply felt, wonderful performance as Curtis, a blue collar Ohio family man with a loving wife (the always amazing Jessica Chastain) and deaf daughter (Tova Stewart). He has what his best friend (Shea Wigham, seriously is this guy even capable of a wrong note? He rocks) describes as a “good life”, until things go wrong. One day Curtis begins to have dark, threatening and very realistic nightmares. He imagines massive, menacing lightning storms on the horizon that begin to rain a thick, oily substance and his reality becomes an anxiety laced, constant source of panic. How does one deal with it? Well in a lesser film things might become rote or sensationalistic but instead we see him visit his estranged mother who was once diagnosed with schizophrenia, pick up books at the library to understand mental illness and rationally try to process his dreams. But his delusions are strong, and soon he has spent money his family doesn’t have on feverishly landscaping a tornado shelter into his property to weather the oncoming storm, a storm that seems to exist only for him and causes anger and confusion from his wife.

There’s always two sides of the coin in stories like this, the literal and what’s perceived internally by the protagonist. Certainly in many cases it’s up for debate what’s really going on but for me this was a story of him losing his grip on reality, teetering on the edge of a psychotic break and honestly what better use of metaphor for that than a giant incoming storm? There are two scenes that stand out to me as some of the best directed, acted and overall crafted sequences I’ve ever seen in cinema. The first takes place at a company lunch for Curtis’s job, where he and Wigham get into a heated argument and it escalates into him having a full blown, wide eyed meltdown, ranting like someone who’s lost it which, naturally, he almost has. It’s painful because his wife and daughter are standing right there and this is hard for them to see but what lifts the scene up is instead of her storming out, retorting or going numb she simply walks over to him, puts her hand on his face and tries to comfort him, to calm him down. Talk about using one’s intuition in a scenario like that. The other is the final scene of the film which I can’t say much about without spoilers but it’s a brilliant way of illustrating acceptance, understanding and the willingness to move forward when a family member becomes ill and needs love and support. I could go on for paragraphs about this one but I’ll close in saying that few films approach this material with the tact, careful imagination and reverence for humanity that we see here. Masterpiece.

-Nate Hill

Ridley Scott’s The Martian

You know those Sci-Fi movies where someone has a near miss, narrow escape or heroic encounter up in space and everyone down in the NASA control room leaps up, cheers and claps in collective catharsis? It’s a well worn narrative beat and can sometimes be an eye roll moment. Ridley Scott’s The Martian has several of these but because the characters and plot are so well drawn they feel earned, appropriate and exciting. That goes for the film itself as well, it’s a two and a half hour space epic that feels as breezy as a ninety minute quickie, an optimistic, human story of one man’s ultimate quest for survival and everyone else’s daring attempts to rescue him.

Scott is no stranger to darker, more austere stuff particularly in his Sci-Fi exploits, but he shines a bright light on the proceedings here, making a super complicated, science based story with many moving parts somehow seem light and carefree while also making a big emotional landing. Matt Damon is Mark Watney, astronaut, botanist, space pirate and celestial castaway, marooned on the red planet following a mission gone wrong and presumed dead by NASA and his crew, until he’s able to communicate. He grows potatoes using… homemade fertilizer, repairs a satellite and awaits rescue while everyone else faces moral and technical quandaries in their struggle to bring him home. NASA’s director (Jeff Daniels, smarmy but never an outright baddie) is reluctant to go all out and send another mission, the crew’s handler (Sean Bean, fantastically low key and against his usual tough guy image) wants to do right by them and inform their commander (Jessica Chastain). The earthbound commotion is nicely interlaced with Damon’s solo outings up there and somehow they edit the thing to both realistically depict the passing of time but also fly through the proceedings breathlessly. Scott casts his film with ridiculous talent including Kate Mara, Donald Glover, Michael Pena, Aksel Hennie, Sebastian Stan, Benedict Wong, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristin Wiig and Mackenzie Davis.

Many people wrote this off as a good film but simply fluff, like an enjoyable but kind of inconsequential ride, or at least that’s the vibe I got from some reviews. I couldn’t disagree more. This type of story is exactly the kind of thing we need more of in this day and age. One could remark on the vast amount of effort, overtime hours and expenditure NASA puts in simply to bring one astronaut home, and whether or not it’s worth it (Jeff Daniels certainly has that thought cross his mind), but the truth is that it’s not about just Mark Watney, or just any one person stranded up there, it’s about what the actions and efforts signify, and how important that is, as well as the notable and extreme resilience on his part. This is a film that shows the best in human beings who are put in impossible situations, and how we might make ourselves, and those around us into better people. It’s a rollicking space flick speckled with incredible talent, hilarious comedy, scientific knowledge and has already aged splendidly since it’s release four years ago. Top tier Ridley Scott for me, and one of the best Sci-Fi films in decades.

-Nate Hill

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar

Many films are ambitious enough to reach for the stars, but Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar reaches for them and then plunges headlong past them into the universe’s vast infinitude to grasp ideas and tell a story that challenges intellect, stirs emotion and dazzles in the way a thinking person’s SciFi film should. I suppose it’s impossible for me to pick a favourite Nolan film as they are all pretty much solidified classics for me, but if you asked me which one stood out without necessarily labelling it as my top pick, I’d point towards this one. There’s a few key areas in which the filmmaker tries to make a deliberate departure from the style he has become known for, chief among them being just how based in emotion this story is. From Rachel and Bruce in The Dark Knight to Cobb and Mal in Inception there’s always been something of a heartfelt element to his work, but here the relationship between intrepid astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter Murphy, played throughout the years by Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn and the fantastic Mackenzie Foy who is the youngest actor in the film but gives the most soulful work, is really something that anchors the film every step of the way. The relationship between father and daughter here is a connection that transcends time, space, the stars and laws of the universe itself or at least in the way we comprehend them, and while many scoffed at these themes from Nolan and rolled their eyes, I found it to be one of the most powerful things in any film he’s done. Interstellar is bursting with ideas, glimmering special effects and dedicated performances, starting with Matt and Mackenzie and going on down through the ranks with supporting star power from Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, William Devane, Matt Damon, Topher Grace, David Oweleyo with standout work from Bill Irwin as the witty, loyal robot TARS and John Lithgow as Cooper’s salty earthbound stepfather. Nolan plumbs the inky vacuum of space for visual grandeur and vast, stunning set pieces including a planet with roaming tidal waves, a breathtaking ice world and a hair raising docking scene as their ship rotated furiously through space, his sense of scope is incredible and the blend of practical effects vs CGI is a seamless ballet amongst the stars, few films feel as tactile and spacious. As much as he is about the fireworks here, ultimately his focus lies on the intimate as well, with love being explored as more than just a biological function and more like a cosmic field of energy that has laws, boundaries and the same strengths as any other element. Cooper travels through a wormhole and to galaxies so far beyond our own that time seems to have no meaning, but that does nothing to shake the bond he has with his daughter, and this is where the film is so effective. He’s out there trying to find new worlds and sustain the human race, no doubt, but to him it’s Murphy, their connection and the forces which hold it together that ultimately keep him going and win the day. All the elements work to reinforce this throughout the film, with Hathaway’s yearning for the lost astronaut she loves and even Damon’s nefarious self love that leads him to acts that although are horrible, come from an emotional place. Hans Zimmer’s totally unique original score also has a heartfelt undercurrent, usually his work, and especially in Nolan’s films, has a heavily punctuated, thunderously orchestral style but here he’s traded that in for a softer, much more melodic piece that legitimately sounds like galaxies unfolding all around the viewer and has a deep longing behind every twinkling electronic tone. A blockbuster with brains, big ideas and plenty of action, but also with heart and feeling to back it up and fuel this voyage to the stars. One of Nolan’s absolute best, and one of the most brilliant science fiction films we will likely ever see on the big screen.

-Nate Hill

Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life

No other film simultaneously reaches as far as it can to the heavens and remains as grounded in inwardness as Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life, an experience that isn’t so much a film as it is a meditative, open ended question, a quiet and gentle nudge that reminds to remember and revere how miraculous life is in the simple fact that it even exists. It also tries to discern what makes a life, from the individual to the human race to the very cosmos around us all, and isn’t something to be even approached in traditional critical analysis. Malick directs Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan through a series of fly-on-the-wall vignettes in hazy, comforting 1950’s Americana. They are every white picket fence Midwest family. Pitt is firm, strict and fearless in raising his sons with the lessons given to him as a boy, Chastain is warm, compassionate and intuitive, two energies that visibly shape the boys into young men. Decades later, Sean Penn plays the older version of one of them, and ponders on his youthful years as he goes about adult life in an introspective trance. And.. that’s the film. In writing, anyways. What’s special about it can’t really be described, you just have to see and hear it, which is the same for all films, I suppose, but this one really immerses you in something deeply felt. Using emotionally affecting classical music and employing unbelievable visual camera work, Malick sets up time and place like no other filmmaker, making the streets, sun dappled backyards, tree lined laneways and beckoning house interiors come alive in a way that stirs up memories long buried for many who had childhoods just like this. On a grander scale, he also explores the universe in a mid-film sequence that had some walking out of theatres but is really an inspired bit, a time rift to rival the bone toss in Kubrick’s 2001. Malick’s aesthetic isn’t for everyone, you kind of either tune into it wholly or you’re left cold and adrift, but here he spins up something to be marvelled at, his own treatise on human life and the realms around it, both distant and close. A masterpiece, no review I write could properly impart my love for this one, it’s an important, vital film to be absorbed with focus and vulnerability, and thought upon deeply after.

-Nate Hill

The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby: Him & Her

I’ve written about The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby before, but I feel like it’s still one of those diamonds that flew under the radar and no one really saw. This is one of the most important films out there if you are interested in studying grief, the effects of loss, the healing passage of time and enduring love as themes in cinema. Heavy stuff, I know, but the film patiently leads you along and never throws histrionics or melodrama right in your face like some would. James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain give perhaps the performances of their careers as Conor and Eleanor, a couple dealing with the traumatic after effects of a recent miscarriage. Eleanor distances herself from everyone after a suicide attempt that just alienates her further and tries to find a new path, Conor misses her like crazy, throws himself into his work and gets a tad self destructive. Everyone deals with this sort of thing in their own way, and the film uses a nonjudgmental lens to observe how these two cope, revolve around each other and try to salvage the love that seemed brighter and stronger before the incident. ****NOW READ THIS PART VERY CAREFULLY!!**** Now that I’ve got your attention, this is incredibly important: there are in facet three radically different cuts of this film, each with their own sub heading after the title. Her is a feature length cut that focuses primarily on Chastain, her side of the story, and what she goes through, with brief appearances from McAvoy. The other side of that coin is another edit called Him, which does the same for McAvoy, and his side of the whole situation. This is a brilliant, very thoughtful tactic on the filmmaker’s part as it brings us closer to both characters, makes us genuinely feel the time going by through realistic pacing and lets the story flourish in a free flowing way that few films ever achieve. Now the third cut, no doubt assembled under studio duress for the lazy among us, is simply a truncated edit of both of these aforementioned versions, and all it succeeds in doing is making the uniqueness of the other two diminish, dulling the experience and turning something special into a pedestrian telling that’s just like every other flick out there. This third cut is unnecessary, pointless and should be ignored. The vitality of the material lies in the way the two cuts run parallel, how these two souls that were once together are now separated, and the energies we feel between them both together and apart. Others revolve around them too; William Hurt gives a small powerhouse as Eleanor’s loving father, Ciaran Hinds is equally as implosive as Conor’s supportive father, Isabelle Huppert is Eleanor’s mother, Viola Davis is excellent as a stern college professor who helps her through some of the tough times, Bill Hader is Conor’s best friend and business partner, and so on. They’re all wonderful but the core of it lies with the two of them, and their process from hurt, to grief, to losing each other and finding each other again, and it’s a brilliantly told story that you won’t want to miss.

-Nate Hill

Amy Canaan Mann’s Texas Killing Fields

Whenever people say there isn’t enough gritty, messed up modern neo-noir (which there’s some truth to, but that’s another article) I like to dig up ones like Texas Killing Fields, an unforgivably overlooked crime drama from some years back that went by mostly unnoticed. Directed by Amy Canaan Mann, who is none other than Michael Mann’s daughter, and starring a talent trio of Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Sam Worthington and Chloe Grace Moretz, it’s a dark-boned, nihilistic murder mystery set in the deepest south and populated by the kind of folks you’d actively avoid entire sections of the barroom to get away from. There’s a killer loose in the low income doldrums of Texas, as if they didn’t have it bad enough in life, and two scarily mismatched cops are on the case. Intrepid idealist Morgan sees the light in darkest corners, while faithless misanthrope Worthington adopts a hopeless, devil may cry attitude. Caught between them is a wayward teen girl (Moretz), a homeless sitting duck who wanders the byways, a prime target and unfortunate default bait for this monster to come skulking out of the shadows. This is a downbeat, chilling flick with scant rays of humanity here and there, but bleakness takes over the screen like the portentous clouds in the storm-swept skies of the rural Americas, bringing danger and decay in their wake. The suspect list is a mile long because of how many wicked character actors there are in the supporting cast, but the culprit is oddly obvious from the get go. This isn’t to say the narrative is weak or they failed at a whodunit, as one can scarcely say that was there intention at all. It’s less of a whodunit and more of a ‘dunit’, as every character has some evil to hide or stain on their soul, and when the killer is revealed, they’re just another in a long line of wayward beings out there. Sheryl ‘Laura Palmer’ Lee is great as Moretz’s destitute, promiscuous mother, Jason Clarke roars in for a terrifying cameo as a violent pimp with an otherworldly blond dye job, Stephen Graham is dangerously quiet as a psychopathic local yokel, Annabeth Gosh has a brief role and Jessica Chastain gives an early star-making turn as an out of state cop who reluctantly aids Jeffrey and Sam. Dread is the word that seems to be on both Mann and her cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh’s mind, as every shot is composed primarily of darkness, shadows and claustrophobic grain, giving the fields and flatlands of Texas a hellish, oppressive lacquer. Darkness is explored both literally and thematically, and more fervently than most mainstream films care to get, which may be one reason the film wasn’t well received at all, or at least by most. It knowingly plunges headlong into the eye of the hurricane surrounding the hopeless heart of humanity, without much light on the other side or any to guide it, but there’s a bravery in that that I respect. One of the best crime dramas in recent history, a film that should be brought up more in discussion and a treatise on how to make a lasting impression in a genre that sees entries fall through the cracks on the daily. Brilliant, searing stuff.

-Nate Hill

John Hillcoat’s Lawless 


John Hillcoat’s Lawless is the very definition of badass. Bathed in blood and moonshine, gilded by Nick Cave’s rustic, textured musical score and brought alive by vivid and varied performances from an eclectic, grizzled cast, it’s one of the most enjoyable gangster pictures to come along in recent years. It follows the rough and tumble Bondurant brothers, fabled bootleggers who defy prohibition and run their product all over the aptly named ‘wettest county in the world’, until the greedy and very corrupt arm of the law snakes its way into the territory. The eldest and toughest is Forrest, a grumbly, shambling Tom Hardy who’s something of a gentle giant, until the straight razor comes out and he’s not. Jason Clarke is Howard the booze hound, who has sour mash coursing through his veins and a temper to prove it, and Shia Leboeuf, somewhat miscast, does his best as the youngest of the three. The three of them run an idyllic little manufacturing and distribution ring spiralling out of their county into the nearby area, until trouble comes looking for them, in the form of a monster played by Guy Pearce. Now when I say monster, I mean it.. when the villain in your film is scarier than Gary ‘Scary’ Oldman’s roguish supporting work, you know you have one hell of an antagonist. Pearce, sporting a sour look and parted hair that Moses could lead his people through, is Charlie Rakes, some kind of government dispatched deputy whose sole purpose is to make out heroic trio’s lives exceedingly difficult. Cheerfully sadistic and ruthlessly corrupt, Rakes is a bona fide moustache twirling psychopath and Pearce milks the role for all it’s worth, as per usual in his case. Oldman does appear briefly but memorably as lively gangster Floyd Banner, a shark of a businessman with a fondness for tommy gun tantrums resulting in vehicular mayhem. The film walks a line between two distinct tones, which can be seen in the characteristics of the pair of older brothers: Hardy is laid back, laconic and ambles along at his own pace, which any film set in the south just has to have a bit of, whilst Clarke is volatile, fired up and hot blooded, also needed in crime fare. So you have a relaxed, violent, wistful piece with a mean streak that sneaks up on you more than a few times. Any Ozark tale wouldn’t be complete without a romantic flair, as Hardy is swept off his feet by mysterious, plucky Jessica Chastain and Lebeouf has an eye for a beautiful Amish girl played by Mia Wasikowska. The film looks visually magnificent, shot in broad, sturdy rural strokes by Benoit Delhomme, and strict, impressive attention to detail is paid throughout. While maybe not as gritty or mythic as it wants to be, or at least as far as Hillcoat’s previous work has been (The Proposition remains the stomach churning gold standard), it’s a full blown, R rated crime picture, something more than welcome in an age when the genre has had its blood somewhat watered down. Highly recommended.