Tag Archives: jessica chastain

Review: ‘Miss Sloane’

dfn-miss-sloane-misssloane_onesheet-300Almost irresistibly old-fashioned, Miss Sloane revolves around a magnetic performance by Jessica Chastain.

She portrays the titular character, Elizabeth Sloane, a lobbyist known far and wide in government circles for doing whatever it takes to score a win for her client. She is not known for her ethics, personal or otherwise, and her employers at a large Washington firm only care about the results. Nonetheless, something within her is stirred when she is faced with a new client who wants to defeat an upcoming bill that would impose additional gun control restrictions.

Her feisty response gets her in hot water with her boss, George Dupont (Sam Waterston) and leaves her open to an offer from a boutique lobbying firm run by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong). She quits the big firm, taking most of her team with her, except for the resentful Jane Molloy (Alison Pill), and brings her aggressive tactics along too for an epic battle with entrenched politicians and the forces of evil.

At the small firm, she meets Esme Manucharian (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who has been doggedly fighting gun laws for eight years. Elizabeth immediately sizes her up as a perfect spokesperson for her new campaign. As Esme reluctantly appears on TV shows and sits down for interviews, Elizabeth wages war behind the scenes, engaging with her former colleagues, led by Pat Connors (Michael Stuhlbarg), as both sides seek to secure U.S. Senators to vote in their favor on the bill.

What soon becomes apparent is that the first produced original script by Jonathan Perera is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser — as long as the crowd is firmly in favor of gun control! — and is thus reliant on creaky mechanics, hissable villains, and heroic supporting characters with unshakable integrity and devotion to righteous causes.

Elizabeth Sloane is the apparent exception, in that her ethics are in question from the start, especially since the movie begins with her appearance before a congressional committee led by the righteous Congressman Sperling (John Lithgow). Elizabeth is in serious hot water, and the film then rewinds to show how she got to that point.

As the story develops, however, it also becomes clear that Elizabeth is whip-smart, and that she is more than capable of taking care of herself and those who are loyal to her. She is also very clever about setting things up; to say more would spoil some of the many twists that play out in a manner that is satisfying, if a bit predictable once the mouse traps start clamping shut.

Chastain is a veritable force of nature, fully in command of her character and the movie. She’s such a magnetic presence in the role of Elizabeth Sloane that she draws constant favorable attention, even when she’s doing things that appear to be morally questionable and legally actionable, such as when she meets her weekly “date” (Jake Lacy) to work out her focused sexual energy.

With all its predictable turns, Miss Sloane is still more entertaining than it should be, largely because of Chastain’s charm and drive, bolstered by a very strong cast that plays to their individual strengths. Miss Sloane may be a liberal fantasy, but it’s quite a boisterous and enjoyable show.

The film opens today in theaters throughout Dallas.

Review: ‘Crimson Peak’

'Crimson Peak'
‘Crimson Peak’
The latest film from Guillermo del Toro showcases his strengths and weaknesses.

In a career that stretches back to the mid-1980s, del Toro has carved out a distinctive niche as a Latin fantasist with a flair for fanboy fetishism. His best films — The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) — have married narratives that feel intensely personal with authentic characters who resonate culturally. Adorned with in gorgeous costumes, detailed makeup, and nightmarish settings, those films soared into the cinematic heavens.

Some of his films have followed more familiar, even formulaic patterns — Blade II, Hellboy, Hellboy II: The Golden Army — yet del Toro’s strong visual aesthetic and sense of propulsive action made them into compulsively watchable entertainments. More recently, however, Pacific Rim depicted a losing battle between del Toro’s fannish instincts and the need for a compelling story, independent of the outlandish graphic approach.

Once again, Crimson Peak is a delight for the eyes, but a vast disappointment for the heart and intellect. It is very much a gothic romance, rather than a straightforward period horror piece, with a great emphasis on family dischord and melodramatic behavior, set in snowy Buffalo, New York, early in the 20th century.

The movie begins as a love story with ulterior motives. Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is the only child of widowed and wealthy industrialist Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver). Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) arrives from Britain with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) to make a presentation about a new machine to Mr. Cushing and his company’s board but is immediately swatted down by Cushing, who suspects that Thomas’ smooth hands betray his lack of integrity.

Urged on by his sister, Thomas manages to meet and quickly romance Edith, who is seduced by his good looks and suave charm, incurring the wrathful disapproval of Mr. Cushing. When circumstances change, Thomas and Edith end up married and living with Lucille at the decrepit Sharpe family mansion in Cumberland, England. Thomas and Lucille clearly have their own agenda in mind, one that puts the innocent Edith’s future in doubt, though that’s kept mysterious as long as possible.

In the meantime … well, that’s one of the problems with the movie. Colloborating with writer Matthew Robbins for the third time, officially — after Mimic (1997) and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010) — del Toro has devised a framework that allows him and his production team to create a sumptuous environment that is wonderfully, darkly beautiful, its main setting a clever twist on a haunting house, its environs more vertical than horizontal, allowing the sky and the ground to bleed into it.

Settings are not characters, however, and del Toro and Robbins have placed unbelievably starchy people in the leads. Thomas, Edith, and Lucille never come to life; they’re more like Victorian-Era stiffs than breathing human beings. It’s as though del Toro, Robbins, and the actors decided to be content with approximations rather than scratch away their exteriors. Likewise with the story, which faithfully follows an archaic narrative that lacks any surprises, new insights or refreshing perspectives.

That leaves Crimson Peak as a fitfully involving drama that lacks any trace of romance, mystery, or (true) melodrama. Nothing churns; the surface always remains placid as the movie marches gracefully toward its climax.

The film opens on Friday, October 16, at theaters throughout Dallas.

Review: ‘A Most Violent Year’

'A Most Violent Year'
‘A Most Violent Year’

In the fall of 1981, I visited New York City for the first time as an adult, spending a month falling in love with the metropolis. I vowed to live there some day.

Little did I know — or care — that 1981 would prove to be A Most Violent Year, with an distressingly high rate of violent crime in the city, and, thus, a perfect setting for the newest film from J.C. Chandor. In his first two films, the writer/director previously explored a financial firm in crisis (Margin Call) and a lone sailor in crisis (All Is Lost).

This time Chandor examines a businessman in crisis. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) wants to ensure the future of his oil trucking business by buying a warehouse in the city so as to ensure a steady supply for his customers. A very public investigation led by Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo), however, prompts a key investor to pull out, leaving Abel little choice but to seek loans from a series of ever more criminal — and dangerous — sources.

Abel is not a judgmental man, and understands the realities of doing business in the city, yet he’s always endeavored to keep his own affairs legal and above-board, to the extent possible. The temptation toward corruption is very strong, however, and he even feels pressure to compromise from his wife. Anna (Jessica Chastain) is the daughter of a gangster, so she was raised tough and with little regard for the law. She challenges her husband to “get ‘er done,” in effect, or she will do it for him. Their emotional bond is too tight to dismiss as ‘opposites attract,’ making it clear that Abel’s moral fiber has always been more flexible than he’s willing to admit to himself.

Other crises, both business and personal, erupt throughout the course of the story; some remain small and get tamped down promptly, while others grow into unexpected conflagrations that threaten to burn out of control. Chandor directs with expert precision, resulting in a drama that ebbs and flows in a manner that becomes increasingly compelling.

The performances are uniformly excellent. Isaac plays a strong, steady, self-controlled man who is firmly centered on his own aspirations, determined to weather whatever challenges arise. Like a marathon runner, he shakes off every assaultive challenge on his way to the finish line, though that doesn’t mean that he’s some kind of robot. He’s also quite sensitive, well-aware how his actions affect others, and how their reactions affect him. What he chooses to do about those reactions is a different matter. How long can he keep absorbing those emotional punches before the toll begins to break him down?

Chastain is equally strong, playing a brassy, crude woman who knows she could run the business more efficiently than her husband. All that keeps her “in line,” so to speak, is her very traditional upbringing and the times in which she is living; in 1981 it was not quite so common for women to assert such control, and so she defers to her mate, even as she itches to take over. Oyelowo (as the strong-willed investigator), Albert Brooks (as an accountant), and Alessandro Nivola (as a gangster) also make strong impressions.

Much like its two lead characters, A Most Violent Year is a film that surges with emotion and authenticity. Its power lies in the range of its characterizations, and the depth of its capacity to surprise.

The film opens at Angelika Dallas and Angelika Plano on Friday, January 23.