Criticism, Movies

Jennifer Lawrence Pouts and Protests Through ‘Mockingjay – Part 1′

0 Comments 21 November 2014

Mockingjay“Now I’m condemned to a life of jumpsuits,” complains Tribute Escort Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) early on in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. She might have been referring to the entire third part of what is now, unlike the book trilogy, a four-part saga in the Twilight mold. And this dark-and-dour installment suffers from saga sag, which is the effort of the Hollywood studios to stretch a stirring girl power series with a monster fan-base beyond reasonable limits for the sake of lucre.

As the movie opens, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is in a state of nervous collapse having been plucked by rebels and dumped in the totalitarian District 13 in the middle of the rigged Quarter Quell. Since it has been twelve months since the audience saw her in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, it’s an awkward emotional pitch at which to reconnect. She’s freaking out but we just sat down with our popcorn.

The good news: Katniss, a potential poster child for the rebels against the fascist forces of the Capitol, has been reunited with her family and big hunk Gale (Liam Hemsworth). The bad news: her home district has been levelled to pixie dust and Panem’s reptilian President Snow holds little hunk Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) captive.

I’m a fan of the books, which are so much better written than Twilight, not to mention emotional satisfying and less drippy. (I know I’m inviting haters, so hate away). But even Katniss, who enters the movie at such a level of despair, seems diminished in Part 1 by all the efforts to replace narrative momentum with unconvincing CGI action set pieces.

Many of the familiar characters have returned along with Trinket, including Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch Abernathy, Sam Claflin’s Finnick Odair, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch Heavensbee. But they enter and exit like guests on The Love Boat. Even the fabulous Stanley Tucci as ringmaster Caesar Flickerman is seen at a remove – an image on a television screen within the larger action.

[RELATED: Michael Keaton Pecks at Fame in ‘Birdman’]

Returning Director Francis Lawrence seems more concerned with making it appear that the late Hoffman lasted through the entire production, than in breathing life into the surviving human interaction. The intimate moments between characters seem unaccountably rushed. A scene where Katniss and Gale pause while hunting seems unnecessarily brief – are the sparks still there? What, besides history, does Gale offer Katniss that Peeta cannot? They only just alight at a romantic stream when his beeper goes off. Is that CGI action calling?

Meanwhile, Julianne Moore appears as President Alma Coin (oh, that name – soul versus money). Moore plays the leader through a veil of two-toned gray hair, sexless and drab as those jumpsuits, all taut looks and emotional control. This may be consistent with Coin’s killjoy persona in the books, which invited the involvement of Everdeen’s more charismatic Mockingjay as a focal point of the rebellion, but I would have welcomed Tilda Swinton as Coin to give her some contrast. Not quite Swinton’s clownish Snowpiercer character but one equal to the smarmy evil of President Snow.

While I praise the fictional inclusion of a female political leader (rather than de facto male), I would have liked Coin to be less shut-down emotionally – to be a woman and a leader. How did she become top dog in District 13 – where is that backstory written on her flawless face?

On the subject of gender, it’s interesting that the character of the video director within the movie is female: Natalie Dormer’s tattooed and asymmetrically coiffed Cressida. And we know that Suzanne Collins wrote the source material. And, yet, in actuality, a man stood behind the camera making the movie, flanked by male screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong. And they are supported by largely male studio heads and financiers in the Hollywood machine.

Why should this gender imbalance be important, I mean, it’s an archer goddess heroine with a chick political leader? When will I be satisfied? Isn’t this enough?

Well, no, if that flaming girl power spirit has been co-opted. The female empowerment that drove the series’ popularity has been effectively neutered in this third outing under a sensibility that values action over intimacy.

I never thought I’d be missing those violent-yet-riveting Hunger Games that dominated the first two films and are missing here. But, for the most part, the violence in those long gladiator sequences was intimate. Each time Katniss pulled her bow, or Peeta covered her ass, it tied back into her character’s coming of age. Like the novels, we were miraculously in the head of this prickly, unpretentious teenaged girl struggling to assume adult responsibility and assimilate mature emotions of love and desire.

In Part 1, blockbuster CGI spectacle overshadows Katniss and, by extension, the merely mortal Lawrence. When, early on, Trinket promises Katniss that “we will make you the best dressed rebel in history,” it reflects the beginning of the end of the revolution, the mass absorption of a radical ideal.

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Mike Nichols had ‘Carnal Knowledge': RIP Sweet Man

0 Comments 20 November 2014

When Carnal Knowledge came out in 1971, I was twelve. Just the name sent shivers up my spine, like reading about Sonny and the bridesmaid in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. I wanted to be Ann-Margret. I’d met Jack Nicholson. It was what happened with adults while I was waiting for a kiss behind the San Diego Jewish Community Center. Roll the clip:

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Celebrity, Movies, Oscar Race

Interview: Hilary Swank stands tall, dives deep discussing ‘The Homesman’

1 Comment 16 November 2014

American Maverick Tommy Lee Jones shines light on Hilary Swank

American Maverick Tommy Lee Jones shines light on Hilary Swank

I had a chance to have tea with two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank at the Hamptons International Film Festival in the lobby of the Maidstone Hotel. We discussed her scrubbed down, soulful role as Mary Bee Cuddy in Tommy Lee Jones’s The Homesman, one of my favorite movies of 2014. The Nebraska native, 40, addressed the challenges of playing a single Nebraska homesteader on the Western frontier and how that woman’s struggle remains relevant today.

You play a virtuous woman in a dangerous time: does that still resonate?

Mary Bee lived in a time where manners and morals were virtues. We are in a day and age where we’ve lost touch with that for a lot of other reasons. For me, she does the right thing because she believes in doing the right thing. She’ll say right to your face how she feels. The world would be a better place if we would just really deal honestly with each other. She goes where angels feel to tread.

As an actress, you had to tread in the past, riding horses, plowing fields. Do you ride?

I didn’t. I love animals. I’ve had experience horseback riding recreationally. But I didn’t know how to ride to this extent. Getting to be an actor gives me the ability to walk – or ride — in someone else’s shoes and empathize with someone else’s plight in life. Playing a farmer, it’s extraordinary how hard a life it is: they have to grow and work and sustain life. Farmers are fitter than any bodybuilder. You have to know how to direct mules and pull that carriage and pull the plow. There are distinct steps to get to it and you cannot skip a step. And then there are those bits like getting on a horse when your horse is not behaving and you’re losing the light. I love that challenge and the collaborative aspect of it. Tommy Lee Jones is a hands-on horseman and he wanted me to look a specific way. When I jump in I get to jump in with the best.

[RELATED: Oscar-Winners Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones Amaze in ‘The Homesman’]

Mary Bee is a Sarah Plain and Tall kind of character. She’s unvarnished. Did that suit you?

It cuts all pretenses and gets to the heart of the matter. To use a book as a metaphor: to judge a book by its cover. It’s so easy to judge a woman on first meeting. Being around Tommy Lee Jones, I see the way people look at him and talk about him. Stereotypes are dangerous. Ultimately he made a feminist movie and it shows his heart and how multi-faceted he truly is. He allows people in. If anything, making this film made me appreciate him like I appreciate Mary Bee. People can put labels on Mary Bee, like she’s bossy, or she’s plain. But there’s more to all of us than anybody can ever see, even the people that are close to us. It’s so important to give people the benefit.

How hard is it to find leading roles this multi-faceted for women in Hollywood now?

I’d love to find a great supporting role and not carry the movie. There are years when we’ve had a lot of great women’s roles I just hope to not make it a gender thing. I want to find roles that tell stories that we can connect to, or learn from, or be entertained by. As a female artist, I do find full-rounded, fleshed out people to play, it just might not be as often as I like. So I can’t really complain even though I want more.

What was your takeaway from this portrait of women in the West?

Their strength, courage and bravery, how they blazed a trail for us women is incredible to me. How they survived and we were able to push on is a reminder that we really should be more grateful for what we have in front of us. And, looking back, we should consider the trails they blazed and say thank you to them for what they endured and accomplished.

The Homesman is currently in theaters.

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Criticism, Movies, Oscar Race

Oscar Winners Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones Amaze in ‘The Homesman’

2 Comments 14 November 2014

American Maverick Tommy Lee Jones shines light on Hilary Swank

American Maverick Tommy Lee Jones shines light on Hilary Swank

With The Homesman, Director/Co-writer/Star/Texan Tommy Lee Jones confounds again, making brilliant American cinema on the back of the blockbuster dime he earned for Men in Black and The Fugitive, among many others. His taste is no-nonsense, astringent in its view of human nature, and unsentimental about the American West. As we learned in his less mainstream 2005 film with the unpronounceable title, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Jones is not about currying favor with the audience: ride along if you dare, and you’ll discover something authentic and unexpected. And, in both films, the performances are exceptional, from Melissa Leo in Estrada to Hilary Swank in The Homesman.

The atypical Western — and one of my favorite movies of 2014 — starts with a portrait of Swank’s plain-and-bossy Mary Bee Cuddy. She lives alone on the Nebraska prairie: driving a mule, fetching water, making supper. Her overly tidy cabin is an oasis of civilization that sets the scene for a muscular set-piece where Mary Bee invites a gristly neighbor, Bob Giffen (Evan Jones) to dinner and proposes to the man after a postprandial song that puts the sod to sleep. When Mary Bee says, “I can’t live without real music much longer” she’s not exaggerating.

This set-piece grounds us in Mary Bee, her virtues and flaws, an aching loneliness more ungovernable than the mule. She is a good woman in a setting that offers no rewards or solace for such purity. And while this dinner sequence recalls one of my favorite scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds – the introduction of the Christoph Waltz’s Nazi Jew-hunter, a villain at the family table – Jones exercises restraint, letting the scene unfold without snappy dialog or swirling camera movements (Rodrigo Prieto is the cinematographer). It remains both intimate and devastating.

From there, the movie adopts the narrative form of a journey from the West to the East – against the grain of the typical Western. Mary Bee assumes the responsibility that no man in her small community will accept: taking three mad women (Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, Sonja Richter, all terrific) back across the Missouri River to the relative sanity of Hebron, Iowa. As John Lithgow’s Reverend Alfred Dowd says, “Life gave them more than they could bear.”

Enter Tommy Lee Jones, hanging from a noose, as George Briggs, the sinner that Mary Bee’s saint recruits to be her wingman on this impossible journey with three justifiably feral women. Briggs is a wild, selfish, unreliable cuss, with wiry hair popping out of his brows and ears. Jones relishes the role. Somewhere, deep within this grizzled cowboy is a man that’s abandoned his humanity on the frontier. Can Mary Bee revive and lasso that soul? That’s just one of the movie’s questions, but redemption really isn’t what Jones is about.

Jones has the flashier role – he’s Gabby Hayes to Swank’s Randolph Scott – but Swank, a Nebraska native, has the lead. While she bears a little too much star charisma to be entirely plain, the reedy Oscar-winner (Million Dollar Baby, Boys Don’t Cry) demonstrates convincing restraint and unfashionable earnestness. Because Swank, Otto, Gummer and Richter (and Meryl Streep in a cameo) have full and juicy parts, I’m tempted to call The Homesman a feminist Western. There’s no need. That would be surrendering to a sort of Stockholm syndrome. We’ve gotten so accustomed to the underrepresentation of complex women in contemporary movies that when we see a drama like this we categorize it as “feminist” when we really should just embrace it as clear-sighted, intelligent and provocative.

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Celebrity, Movies, Oscar Race

Interview: Jessica Chastain Discusses Surviving a Painful Year — and how Seeing ‘Interstellar’ Made Matthew McConaughey Weep

0 Comments 10 November 2014

Chastain on fire with "Interstellar," "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby," and "A Most Violent Year."

Chastain on fire with “Interstellar,” “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” and “A Most Violent Year.”

Jessica Chastain is a sparkly beauty from the inside out. Sitting across from her in the basement of Manhattan’s Crosby Hotel, her red hair is cut in Cleopatra bangs that drape her fair, flawless skin. Her hands, expressive but child-sized, give away how tiny she really is. But the focus of the 37-year-old actress — who counts movies like The Help, Zero Dark Thirty and Mama among her credits — is anything but dainty. Her latest project, in which she costars with James McAvoy, is called The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. It’s a daring three-part film that tells — from multiple perspectives — the story of a marriage collapsing under the grief of a baby’s death. In our conversation, the two-time Oscar nominee is lively and passionate.

Grief – and how people grieve differently – seems to be the central theme of Eleanor Rigby

Yes, absolutely. Not just how people grieve differently, but how men and women grieve differently. And also: How you can love someone so completely, where they, like, fill you, but not be able to communicate with them, and how that can be the actual straw that breaks the back.

In a marriage, it can be hard when tragedy strikes, to deal with it together.

Yeah, well, to be on the same team. What does the other person need? I did a lot of reading where writers had written about their experiences of loss, and what had happened in their marriage after having [lost a child]. It was devastating. One thing I found fascinating was a pattern in which some women grieved— it was usually about self‑hate, guilt, and wanting to change something. Change their life, or move away from their history, their past. And the way that men dealt with the grief, was trying to fix it: Like, put some glue on it, and fix the problem. And because [these couples] are approaching this problem from different objectives, and in different ways, there’s this inability to communicate, and to actually help the other person.

This year has been especially painful for you, with the untimely deaths of Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Both were pivotal in your life: You went to Juilliard on a scholarship paid by Williams, and played Desdemona opposite Hoffman’s Othello. Can you talk a little bit about those men?

What’s so devastating to me is that I feel like there’s still a stigma in this world about depression. And if they’re really honest about it, most great artists have — can have depressive personalities, and they can have these incredible highs and incredible lows. But yet, some are not giving these artists the freedom to express it, and to talk about it as it’s happening to them. Not as it’s happening to a character. And I’m hoping that [Robin William’s death],starts to change the dialogue, because a lot of people were saying: ‘We’re blaming him, Robin Williams for his suicide.’

Related: We Might Have Robin Williams to Thank for Jessica Chastain

It’s a dark side of celebrity culture that reflects a wider attitude.

To me, that shows that we have a long ways to go. I’m thinking that if someone is dealing with depression, you can’t trust that person to reach out to you in a society that doesn’t really welcome that. So, that’s what I’m hoping changes with organizations that deal with suicide prevention and depression. There’s this particular organization called To Write Love on Her Arms — this one starts in high schools, where it’s especially difficult dealing with bullying, for people discovering their sexuality. There’s so much happening in high schools. I’m really passionate about this organization, and it’s just newly come into my life.

How did you hear about this organization?

I started searching online. I never talk about this, and I can’t believe what I’m going to say right now — I know my publicist is going, “What are you talking about?” But I do have — my sister killed herself. And that is in my history. So, for me, suicide is a very important issue. If I can do anything to help someone move through any darkness that they’re in, I’m gonna do whatever I can to help. It’s so important to begin the conversation when they’re in high school, because that’s when we’re getting programmed as to what’s acceptable in society. It should be acceptable to talk about your feelings.

Two years ago, we discussed Zero Dark Thirty, and how playing CIA officer Maya — a role that got you an Oscar nomination —inspired you offscreen.

Maya was definitely an inspiration to me. I could connect to the idea of being in love with work, and the obsession of it. I’ve reached a different point in my life now. Since the beginning of February 2010, I’ve been going nonstop. And I’ve gone from one kind of dark character to another. At the beginning of this year, I did Crimson Peak with Guillermo del Toro, and J.C. Chandor’s film The Most Violent Year at the same time. I decided I needed a break. And any fears that I had had before — that I can’t stop, that I love it so much, that I don’t want it to go away — I had to overcome. You know what? I can’t be an actor unless I’m allowed to fill up myself. Now, I like feel like a different person. I haven’t worked since the beginning of May. I have nothing scheduled. It’s good to be able to spend time with my family, looking them in the eye, and being with them when they’re not visiting me on a set , whenI have the distraction of a character I’m playing.

[RELATED: Adams on Reel Women: Jessica Chastain Talks Being Fearless like John Wayne in ‘ZD30′]

We haven’t discussed the other major movie you have coming out this fall, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Are details still top-secret?

I can tell you I saw my costar Matthew McConaughey on Saturday. In his own words, the movie is an “event.” He said he cried three times when he had seen it recently. I’m so excited about my character. She really moved me. And working with Christopher Nolan, it makes sense why people lose their breath around him. He is the real deal, full-stop, technically. And also he’s the kind of director that, when giving an acting note, makes your performance better. He doesn’t just insert himself to do it. He actually makes you better. He’s an actor’s director.

Interstellar is in theaters now: What the trailer here:

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The Theory of Everything
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