Jessica Chastain on Portraying an Infinitely Determined CIA Agent in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2012.

It’s utterly fascinating to watch Jessica Chastain go from playing the embodiment of grace in “The Tree of Life” to portraying a willfully determined CIA agent in “Zero Dark Thirty.” The role of Maya represents a huge change of pace for her as she gives this character a razor-sharp focus as she relentlessly pursues Osama Bin Laden and bring him to justice, and she is riveting to watch throughout the movie’s two and a half hour running time. After watching Chastain in Kathryn Bigelow’s critically acclaimed film, I am convinced she can play any role given to her.

I was lucky enough to go the “Zero Dark Thirty” press conference which was held at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Chastain said she had three months to prepare for this role, and she went through the screenplay with its writer Mark Boal throughout the production. She ended up nicknaming Boal “the professor” as he had spent several years doing research on the Bin Laden manhunt, and he clearly knows as much as anyone should on the subject. But the real challenge Chastain faced in playing Maya was the fact this character was based on a woman she could not meet, and this forced her to get especially creative.

“Because I was never able to meet the real woman my character’s based on because she’s an undercover agent, I had to use my imagination to fill in the blanks where the research couldn’t answer the questions,” Chastain said. “I tried to answer things like why she was recruited out of school. There’s a child’s drawing in Pakistan and other certain things which would be reminders of the life she was becoming a stranger to. I had to create on my own but still stay faithful to the woman I am portraying.”

One of the most talked about elements of “Zero Dark Thirty” are the torture scenes which have given some the impression that Bigelow has made a pro-torture movie (she has not). Acting in those scenes could not have been much fun, and Chastain acknowledged this in an interview with Christine Kearney of Reuters. In talking about her experience, Chastain makes it clear nobody was about glamourize this part of the story and how it made her fully aware of the differences between her and Maya.

“We filmed in a real Jordanian prison, in the middle of nowhere. The environment wasn’t great, especially as a woman,” Chastain told Kearney. “They had a lot of trust between the actors, nothing was dangerous or unsafe. There was a lot of discussion to make sure that we weren’t doing something that was going to be salacious. They just wanted it to be accurate.”

“I know I am playing a character who has trained to be unemotional. But I have spent my entire life allowing myself to be emotional, and allowing myself to feel everything,” Chastain continued. “There was actually one day that we were doing a scene, and I said, ‘I am sorry’ and I just had to walk away, and I just started crying … it was a very intense experience.”

Chastain is a classically trained actress who earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Julliard, one of the most prestigious performing arts conservatories in the United States. Now I have heard people say how actors can get trained too much at schools like this one to where they can’t appear natural in film and television. I am always annoyed to hear someone, let alone anyone, say this, so it’s great to see Chastain prove them wrong with her Oscar worthy performance. While at the press conference, she explained how being a student at Julliard prepared her for a movie like “Zero Dark Thirty.”

“I spent four years studying Shakespeare and iambic pentameter and all that, and to be honest this text was more difficult than that,” Chastain said of the screenplay. “Not only has Mark taken the facts of what happened, but he’s also created a subtle character arc within it, and you find the humanity within what he’s created. So Julliard absolutely helped me when preparing to speak very complex language and it gave me the tools for the research I would need to do in order to be believable as a CIA agent.”

What’s beautiful about Chastain’s performance is not just how she takes Maya from being out of her element to becoming an obsessed CIA agent, but also how she imbues the character with such a strong humanity. Chastain also makes us respect not just Maya, but all those who worked diligently alongside her behind the scenes to bring down Bin Laden and continue to fight against terrorists both foreign and domestic. In talking with George Pennacchio of ABC News, Chastain sees her performance as a tribute to the real-life person her character is based on.

“She worked for a decade; she gave up so much. She basically became a servant to her work,” Chastain told Pennacchio. “In a way, making this movie is like acknowledging the sacrifices she’s made and thanking her for what she’s done.”

SOURCES:

Ben Kenber, “Interview with Jessica Chastain, Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow On Zero Dark Thirty,” We Got This Covered, December 18, 2012.

Christine Kearney, “A Minute With: Jessica Chastain on ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’” Reuters, December 19, 2012.

George Pennacchio, “Jessica Chastain compares herself to ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ character,” ABC, December 19, 2012.

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‘Dark Phoenix’ is the Worst ‘X-Men’ Movie Yet

Dark Phoenix movie poster

“X-Men: The Last Stand” has long been treated as the bastard stepchild of the “X-Men” franchise. The Brett Ratner-directed take on “The Dark Phoenix Saga” was sharply criticized by both fans and critics, and it took quite the beating from everyone it seemed including Bryan Singer who left the “X-Men” franchise to direct “Superman Returns,” and Matthew Vaughn who was set to direct this one before dropping out. “X-Men: Days of Future Past” helped wipe the slate clean by altering the timeline to where the events of “The Last Stand” no longer existed. And let’s not forget the scene from “X-Men: Apocalypse” where characters were walking out of “Return of the Jedi” which they felt paled in comparison to “The Empire Strikes Back,” and Jean Grey ends up saying, “Well, at least we can all agree the third one’s always the worst.” Please do not try to convince me this was not a jab at “The Last Stand.”

Now we have “Dark Phoenix,” the twelfth installment of the “X-Men” franchise, and it aims to give audiences a more faithful adaptation of “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” It also marks the directorial debut of Simon Kinberg, a long-time screenwriter in this franchise and someone eager to make up for the mistakes made in “The Last Stand.” With this being the last installment of the 20th Century Fox-produced “X-Men” franchise now that Disney owns Fox and plans to incorporate these characters into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this one has to be the penultimate sequel of the bunch, right?

Nope, not a chance. With “Dark Phoenix,” Kinberg has given us the worst “X-Men” movie yet. While has a strong cast and excellent special effects to work with, the narrative is badly conceived, the screenplay is muddled, characters actions are ill-defined, and it features the blandest set of villains this franchise has ever had. While these movies have in general proven to be tremendously entertaining, I walked out of this one feeling very indifferent to it as the whole project feels inescapably dull and anti-climatic.

It’s a real shame because “Dark Phoenix” gets things off to a good start as we learn how Jean Grey came to be more or less adopted by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) after her mutant powers inadvertently get her parents killed in a nasty car accident. From there, the story moves to 1992 when the X-Men fly into outer space to rescue astronauts after their space shuttle is damaged by a solar flare. But in the process, Jean Grey (played by Sophie Turner) absorbs the solar flare in her body and looks to have been killed. But after being rescued, she appears to be just fine, and soon she realizes her psychic powers have been amplified to an infinite degree. It’s like the scene in “Wolf” where Kate Nelligan wakes up Jack Nicholson after he’s been asleep for 24 hours. She asks how he is feeling and Nicholson, with a Cheshire cat grin, replies, “I feel ah… Good!” Yes, and so does Jean until the two separate personalities within her begin to fight with one another and leave a lot of damage which will have insurance agents scratching their heads in disbelief.

From there, everything in “Dark Phoenix” feels routine to the point where I got increasingly weary while watching it. We have been done this road before in the “X-Men” franchise before, and Kinberg fails to bring anything new or fresh to this material. This installment also lacks the powerful emotion which made the best “X-Men” even more enthralling than they already were. A major mutant character is killed off in this one, but this death was already spoiled in the trailers to where the loss feels hollow.

Jennifer Lawrence, who returns as Mystique, does have one good scene in which she chews out Professor Charles Xavier for getting caught up in all the celebrity hoopla foisted upon the X-Men for their heroic efforts they have done. She is quick to remind Charles how the women have at times been the most heroic of the bunch to where she wonders if X-Men should instead be called X-Women. Yes, score one for the Me Too and Time’s Up movements!

Other than that, Lawrence and other actors like Nicholas Hoult and Alexandra Shipp, both of whom return as Beast and Storm, don’t look terribly interested in reprising their roles. Things get even worse as alliances keep shifting back and forth and in ways which seem completely contrived. There was also plenty of laughter throughout the press screening I attended, and I have no doubt most of it was unintentional.

Then there are the villains of this piece, the D’Bari who are a shape-shifting alien race intent on obtaining the power Jean Grey now has. They are led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain, completely wasted here), and they are some of the most banal antagonists in recent cinema history. All of them look as though the life has been completely sucked out of their bodies to where I can’t help but say they each had too many Botox treatments. This alien race leaves very little to the imagination, and they are far from memorable.

Coming out of “Dark Phoenix,” I spent a lot of time wondering how something which came with a lot of promise could have gone so terribly wrong. It also makes me feel sorry for Kinberg as I have no doubt he came into this project with the best of intentions, but the road to hell is always paved with them. Everything here feels very tired and ill-thought, and having Magneto (Michael Fassbender) come back into the action after someone close to him has been killed made my eyes roll as this has always been the case with this character. Didn’t Magneto learn anything from the previous two installments?

What also infuriated me is that “Dark Phoenix” does not provide Quicksilver (Evan Peters) with a rescue scene set to a classic 1990’s song. “Days of Future Past” had this supersonic character saving his fellow mutants to the 1970’s song “Time in a Bottle” by Jim Croce, and “Apocalypse” had him doing the same thing to the tune of the Eurythmics’ 1980’s classic “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” I came into “Dark Phoenix” expecting Quicksilver to do his hypersonic rescue thing to a 1990’s classic song, but no such luck. It could have been something by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden or perhaps Nine Inch Nails (“Head Like a Hole” would have been a great choice). Heck, they could have even used “Dyslexic Heart” by Paul Westerberg.

It’s no secret of how troubled the production of “Dark Phoenix” was. Thanks to poor test screenings, the entire third act had to be reshot. Its release was delayed a number of times as a result, and even though Kinberg describe the reshoots as being a “normal” process for any movie, none of them helped to salvage the cinematic mess we have here.

This is also the first “X-Men” movie not to feature Hugh Jackman as Wolverine as he had played the character for the last time in “Logan.” Indeed, Wolverine is the missing link here as his romance with Jean Grey gave the story much of its emotional power. This same level emotion is seriously missing here as we reach a conclusion which is never really in doubt. Then again, having Jackman romancing Sophie Turner would have seemed a bit strange.

For the record, I liked “The Last Stand,” but I have also never read the Marvel comic books it was based on. Had I done so, perhaps my feelings on Ratner’s film would have been different, but I still found it to be an entertaining ride from start to finish and with emotion to spare. Even if it paled in comparison with the first two “X-Men” movies, it still fared much better than the prequel which came after it “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and I did not care for that one much. While I know fans and filmmakers were eager to see a more faithful adaptation of “The Dark Phoenix Saga” come to fruition, the fact this is a complete failure makes it a stunning disappointment and the first real letdown of the summer 2019 movie season. Fans of the franchise will still go out to see “Dark Phoenix,” but the most fun they will have is in analyzing everything wrong with it.

My only hope with “Dark Phoenix” now is that it can drum up interest in the long-delayed stand-alone “X-Men” movie, “The New Mutants.” That one has seen its release delayed for over two years, and 20th Century Fox can only hide it next to the Lindberg baby for only so much longer.

* ½ out of * * * *

‘Interstellar’ Takes Us on an Outer Space Journey Like Few Others Can

Interstellar movie poster

Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” is a film which demands to be seen on the biggest screen nearest you. Like “Gravity,” seeing at home on television will not have the same effect as seeing it in a darkened theater, and that’s even if certain people around you forget to turn off their cell phones (doesn’t anyone ever learn?). Whether or not you think “Interstellar” is Nolan’s best film, you can certainly say it is his riskiest and most ambitious to date as he combines elements from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001,” Phillip Kaufman’s “The Right Stuff,” and even Robert Zemeckis’ “Contact” to make a most enthralling space adventure for us to experience.

“Interstellar” takes place in a not too distant future when Earth is unable to sustain humanity as crops are constantly ravaged by blight, dust storms keep laying waste to towns everywhere, and teachers have changed school textbooks to make children believe the Apollo moon landings were faked (blasphemy). In the middle of all this is farmer, widower, and retired astronaut Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) who spends his days tending to his farm and raising his son and daughter with the help of his father-in-law Donald (the always dependable John Lithgow). Cooper keeps going about his business but still takes the time to indulge his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) in her curiosities about outer space and the ghost she believes is haunting her bedroom.

One of those curiosities ends up leading Cooper and Murph to a secret NASA space installation out in the middle of nowhere where they meet Professor Brand (Sir Michael Caine) who informs them humanity will not survive for much longer. However, scientists have discovered a wormhole orbiting Saturn, and this presents the possibility of new planets for humans to inhabit. Cooper volunteers to pilot the experimental space shuttle Endurance into the wormhole, and he is joined by a crew of three as well as a couple of multi-purpose robots on a mission which will take several years to complete. But the mission also means Cooper must leave his family behind, and this ultimately devastates Murph who begs him not to go. Cooper promises Murph he will return once the mission is complete, but this may be a promise he might not be able to keep.

I don’t want to reveal much else of what happens in “Interstellar” as it is full of surprises, and it helps to come into this movie free of expectations and knowing only so much about it. We all love his “Dark Knight” films and have been following his work ever since he made his breakthrough with “Memento,” but this is really Nolan at his most emotionally open and, dare I say, sentimental. Almost nothing he has made previously compares to what he has given us here.

The movie does take a while to achieve liftoff (pun intended), and I know many have complained about the “sluggish” pacing in the first half. The way I see it, I admired how Nolan took his time with the story as many other filmmakers would have been pushing to get into outer space a lot sooner. These days we are in such a hurry to get everywhere and nowhere, and cable channels like IFC are content to speed through the end credits of a movie as if none of the hundreds of crew members who worked on it ever mattered. It’s nice we get to know these characters to where they have enough depth which makes us want to follow them on their journey to where no one has gone before.

I also liked how “Interstellar” deals with real science and doesn’t go out of its way to heedlessly disregard the laws of physics and gravity. Granted, there’s a lot of technobabble dialogue here which is at times hard to decipher and makes certain scenes a little confusing, but considering how much work Nolan and his fellow collaborators (which includes noted theoretical physicist Kip Thorne) put into researching space travel, this movie does have the feeling of plausibility throughout. We still may be years away from the kind of space travel presented here, but Nolan and company make you believe it will become a reality at some point.

Along with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, Nolan captures some exceptionally beautiful images as Cooper and company seek out new life and new civilizations. Some of the shots are bound to remind viewers of “2001,” and Kubrick’s classic film is certainly a huge influence on the story. Still, Nolan takes us on a journey which feels surprisingly unique to others captured on celluloid recently and previously.

At this point, it should go without saying that McConaughey is on a roll. When he first made his breakthrough in “A Time to Kill,” many were heralding him as the next Paul Newman when they should have just let him be Matthew McConaughey. This led him to star in a number of dopey romantic comedies which were far beneath him and his fellow co-stars, and many quickly lost faith in him. However, the last few years have seen him turn in one remarkable performance after another in “Mud” and “Dallas Buyers Club.” His work in “Interstellar” is remarkable and heart wrenching as he watches videos of his children who are growing up without him, and he grieves over the things he has missed out on.

Anne Hathaway, who previously worked with Nolan on “The Dark Knight Rises,” turns in a strong performance as Amelia (as in Earhart?) Brand, an astronaut and scientist whose heart threatens to get in the way of her duties as a scientist when hard choices have to be made. David Gyasi is also very good as physicist Romilly, and time proves to be a real burden for him throughout the movie. As for Wes Bentley who plays geographer Doyle, he is underutilized here as he has little to do other than spout off a lot of technobabble, and his character never gets much in the way of development.

But one of the best performances to be found in “Interstellar” comes from Jessica Chastain who plays the older version of Murph. Still resentful of her father for leaving, she channels her anger into her own work with NASA as she works with Professor Brand to bring him back. Even as the film threatens to be a little ridiculous with answers that may have been better left to the imagination, Chastain keeps you hooked into her character’s quiet desperation to find her father and save the world to where you are begging for these two to reunite sooner than later.

Another collaborator of Nolan’s who really challenges himself here is composer Hans Zimmer who has given us some of the most exciting music scores in the last few years. With “Interstellar,” Zimmer abandons the usual thrilling bombast of “The Dark Knight” and “Inception” for something more spiritual and Phillip Glass-sounding. His music acts as a requiem for the wonders and perils of voyaging through space and of the solitude humans are forced to endure when stuck in another galaxy. You can usually notice the Zimmer sound in each film score he does, but his work here sounds so remarkably different from what he has done in the past.

This movie does have its flaws, and there are moments towards the end which strain credibility to where things threaten to become laughable, but its strengths eventually overcome its weaknesses by a large measure. Just when it looks like the plot will go off the rails in an M. Night Shyamalan way, it doesn’t, and it speaks to how deeply Nolan feels about the story and what it implies.

In the end, “Interstellar” is not another science fiction movie about astronauts looking for little green men (it would have been a disaster if it did). It’s about the power of love and how it can transcend both time and space no matter where you are. Regardless of the laws of physics and gravity, love carries on from one galaxy to the next and can never be easily conquered. I came out of this movie happy to know that, even in the deep, dark and silent void of outer space, love can remain constant.

For the record, I saw “Interstellar” at the historic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood in IMAX 70mm. I am more than convinced this is the best way to see it, and it also represents one of the last chances for all of us to see a movie projected on film. I’m sure it looks great in digital, but film still works best for Nolan.

* * * * out of * * * *

A Most Violent Year

a-most-violent-year-movie-poster

A Most Violent Year” takes us back to the New York City of 1981 which was statistically the most dangerous year in the city’s history. It was just before crazy hairdos, Madonna, “Miami Vice,” and MTV became a reality, and it was also a time where doing business in the Big Apple became fraught with unbearable tension. Many people fled to the safety of the suburbs as immigrants arrived who were searching for the American dream, and I don’t just mean Tony Montana. In some ways, the movie’s title is misleading as this is not one filled with wall-to-wall violence. Instead, it’s more about the violence hiding beneath the surface which is just waiting to burst out as one immigrant in particular looks to start a legitimate business, but he soon discovers that the road to success is paved with devious intentions.

Oscar Isaac stars as Abel Morales, and this movie starts with him putting a down payment on a piece of land in Brooklyn where he looks to expand his small heating-oil business to a significant degree. Abel has a strong business partner in his wife, the straight out of Brooklyn Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose father, a known gangster, he bought the business from. Abel makes it no secret that he intends to run this business in a legitimate fashion, but it doesn’t take long to see how incredibly difficult that will be for him.

Just as Abel’s plans look to be coming together, he finds himself dealing with competitors who are ever so eager to snag a bigger share of the market. On top of that, thieves keep attacking his drivers, stealing his fuel and selling it to illegitimate markets, and Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) is investigating Abel’s accounting practices which just might reveal that he’s not the law abiding citizen he constantly claims to be. Suffice to say, this man has a lot on his plate and he now has only three days to finalize his deal on the land he wants to purchase.

What’s fascinating about “A Most Violent Year” is how all the characters are stuck in a morally gray area throughout. The difference between right and wrong is impossible to sort out because the overriding concern for Abel and Anna is to close the deal before everything falls apart and their dreams are destroyed. The movie really puts you in Abel’s shoes to where you get a full sense of his desperation to keep his head above water. What he comes to discover is that he cannot depend on others in the business community to help him with his escalating troubles. In his attempt to expand his business, he finds that he’s living in a time where it’s every man for himself.

I loved watching Isaac as he imbues Abel with such a strong aura of confidence (some may say overconfidence) as he tries to gain the trust of those who are in a position to help him. To be honest, it’s that kind of confidence I would love to exude in my own life. As “A Most Violent Year” goes on, we see that confidence start to slip ever so slightly which leads to a number of intense moments Isaac has no problem delivering on. This is the same actor who so memorably broke through into our consciousness with his performance in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and with “A Most Violent Year” he shows just how far his range as an actor goes. Even when his character becomes desperate in his attempts to make his business expansion a reality, Isaac maintains a commanding presence throughout.

But as good as Isaac is, he almost gets the movie stolen out from under him by Jessica Chastain. Her performance as Anna is a scorcher as she makes clear who the better businessman is in the family, and Chastain molds her into a Lady Macbeth-like character who is far cleverer than anyone will ever give her credit for. Knowing she’s a native of Northern California, I thought casting her as someone born and raised in Brooklyn might be a mistake. Well shame on me for thinking that because Chastain once again proves why she is a talent to be reckoned with.

“A Most Violent Year” was written and directed J.C. Chandor who also gave us “Margin Call” and “All is Lost.” All of his films to date have dealt with people caught up in crisis situations that continue to spiral out of their control, and this one proves to be every bit as enthralling. Chandor gives us a highly specific view of 1981 that never feels clichéd or obvious to the decade, and he takes us on a very tense journey with someone who may dress far better than I ever will, but who also exhibits the same anxieties and concerns we all do. His attention to character is exemplary, and he leaves on the edge of our seats in more ways than one.

It would be so nice to do business without having to go against the things we were taught to believe in, but we eventually learn business in general is never fair (and I don’t just say this because I live in Los Angeles). I found myself never quibbling too much about the things Abel ends up doing in “A Most Violent Year” because I have a very nasty feeling I wouldn’t approach his situation all that differently. Back in a time where the established way of doing business ceased to exist, I imagine I would have made the same compromises Abel is forced to make here. Whether one can live with that is a whole other story, and “A Most Violent Year” tells it in a very compelling manner that holds your attention throughout.

* * * ½ out of * * * *