Jessica Chastain, who burst on the film scene last year with head-turning performances in "The Tree of Life" and "Take Shelter" and an Oscar-nominated performance in "The Help," may be on her way to her first Oscar win. The actress received an Oscar nomination last week for her magnetic turn in the controversial "Zero Dark Thirty," and is a front-runner to win Best Actress.
Even though "Zero Dark Thirty" just opened in wide release last weekend, Chastain has another new movie out this weekend. She's got top billing in "Mama," but as most stars of horror movies know, it's not really the actor on display, it's the genre itself. "Texas Chainsaw 3D" didn't open at No. 1 two weeks ago because audiences wanted to see Alexandra Daddario, Dan Yeager and Tremaine Neverson (who?). They wanted to be scared. (It must not have worked because the movie had a 76 percent dropoff in tickets sold during week two — can you say bad word of mouth?)
Luckily for Chastain's reputation during Oscar season, "Mama," about two feral children and a mysterious mother-figure entity that watches over them, isn't a complete disaster. It just suffers from the usual things that trip up average horror movies: way too many plot contrivances and coincidences. Here's the problem: filmmakers going for mainstream horror hits (not the thriving underground indie festival horror scene) know that mainstream horror audiences expect everything to be explained. So that's what "Mama" does.
Daniel Kash has the unfortunate task of doing that. As the psychologist who sets all the contrivances in motion in order for the plot to function, he is stuck with all kinds of expository dialogue. At one point — which was surely added after test screenings let director Andrés Muschietti know that audiences wanted even more explanation — Kash spells everything out in a wholly unnatural voiceover narration that comes out of nowhere.
Chastain is actually quite good as a rock musician not ready for adulthood who becomes a reluctant guardian of the young girls. The visual effects and sound design are unique too, and a pleasure to watch, even when the suspense isn't really working. Producer Guillermo del Toro (who directed the evocative "Pan's Labyrinth") should have let more things stay ambiguous and encouraged first-time director Muschietti to concentrate on the mood. Maybe then "Mama" might have been able to rise above the mire.
Good movies rising above the mire is precisely why I get so excited during movie awards season every year. (How's that for a segue?) I will fully admit that Hollywood handing out awards to itself each year during a glamorous, black-tie event is pretty unseemly. Yet I still care about the Oscars. I get worked up every year over which movies and performances are getting attention. It means something to me, and I know that it shouldn't. After all, what investment do I have in these films?
A lot, it turns out. I am a tireless advocate for films that move me. I take that emotional investment very seriously. If having a big, glitzy award show is the only way to get certain films noticed on a bigger scale, then I'm all for it.
For example, would anybody be writing about and talking about "Beasts of the Southern Wild" or "Amour" in the past week if they both hadn't received surprise nominations for Best Picture and Best Director? No way. On top of appreciating them both as great works of art, I had a visceral reaction to these movies. (They both appear on my Top 10 movies of 2012 list, "Amour" at No. 1.) I am absolutely thrilled to see them become a part of the conversation, right next to multimillion-dollar Hollywood films like "Lincoln," "Argo" and "Life of Pi."
Is it possible to say definitively that one movie is the Best Picture of the year? No. But America thrives on competition. Look at the top-rated shows on TV: "Monday Night Football," "American Idol," and "The Voice." If it takes a televised competition (which people mainly tune into to see what celebrities are wearing) to put these challenging films in the spotlight, then so be it.
By the way, "Beasts" director Benh Zeitlin and "Amour" director Michael Haneke are about as far away from Hollywood as you can get. Thirty-year-old first-time filmmaker Zeitlin shot the $1 million-budgeted "Beasts of the Southern Wild" on 16mm and cast non-actors in the lead roles. Haneke is a prickly 70-year-old Austrian provocateur who says he makes films to challenge what he calls "barrel-down" American cinema.
Regardless of who wins next month at the Oscars, the real benefit of this silly awards show that I adore — with all its excesses and foibles — is already happening. People all over the country are renting "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "Amour" is getting a big box office boost. ("Amour" will probably screen next month at Liberty Hall.) That's enough for me.
Besides, I like a good competition.
"Zero Dark Thirty," the movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden arrives in theaters today amidst heavy controversy surrounding its depiction of torture (or "enhanced interrogation techniques") by U.S. intelligence operatives. It's a work of historical fiction, but the film states in its opening titles that it was "based on first-hand accounts."
Last month, the Senate Intelligence Committee sent a letter to Sony Pictures asking for a re-edit and called the movie "grossly inaccurate and misleading" about exactly what intelligence was gained this way, while at the same time admitting that some intelligence in fact "came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques."
If the committee is admitting torture then, the entire controversy seems like splitting hairs and doesn't really matter because the film makes a broader point that absolutely rings true. "Zero Dark Thirty" is a remarkable achievement. Oscar-winning screenwriter Mark Boal and Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (who both won for "The Hurt Locker") compress 10 years of U.S. intelligence work into one morally complicated, riveting, two-and-a-half-hour suspense drama.
Jessica Chastain plays a young CIA operative who develops a laser-sharp obsession with hunting down the world’s most-wanted criminal. She grows thick skin and becomes accustomed to enhanced interrogation techniques as lead after lead fizzles out. Eventually, her intelligence and CIA money track a courier to Abbottabad, Pakistan, and the most famous raid in modern history ensues.
Somehow, in the midst of all the dense information and the mounting tension, Chastain is able to develop a three-dimensional character, an independent woman fiercely dedicated to her job who defies expectations.
What makes "Zero Dark Thirty" such a fascinating film is that it plays both as an engaging procedural/thriller and a serious examination of the country’s moral compass. It is already doing what great movies do: Starting conversations. Nothing, not even the raid on the compound, is staged like a typical Hollywood film.
"Zero Dark Thirty" won’t leave you feeling like the Americans who celebrated in the streets after learning of bin Laden’s death. It will tie your stomach into knots.
••• Now that most of the serious Oscar contenders are out in theaters, it's time for January to reveal its true face when it comes to first-run films. The first movie to prove that the first of the year is typically a dumping ground for movies that aren't aimed at discerning filmgoers is here already.
"Gangster Squad" has the look of a classic-period film noir, even if it is in color. Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, and Sean Penn are all dressed up in 1940s/'50s-era garb, smoking cigarettes with their fedoras turned down, and a neon-lit Los Angeles is brimming with energy and full of shadows.
But this movie, "inspired by a true story," is about as far from a film noir as you can get, plot and feel-wise. It's also dumb as hell. In addition to throwing the nonfiction book by Paul Lieberman out the window completely (a minor offense really), "Gangster Squad" ups the violence factor in place of developing any kind of mystery or investigative story whatsoever.
The movie chronicles an off-the-books group of L.A. cops who violated the law on a regular basis in order to put all-powerful mob boss Mickey Cohen (a hammy Sean Penn, buried under heavy nose makeup) behind bars. Even if I hadn't read the book, I'd be able to tell that the plot (or the barest thread of it) is complete hokum. It only exists to put the tough-as-nails cops and Cohen's gangsters in a series of contrived showdowns for more tommy-gun porn.
Poor Emma Stone is woefully underused as Cohen's girlfriend, a character invented for the movie to create a love triangle with Gosling's character. She looks terrific, as does everybody, but besides having no femme fatale qualities whatsoever, she has no personality either.
I was so bored during "Gangster Squad" that I started thinking about the future of classic-era gangster flicks and noirs. It might make an interesting film to use the era but deny the typical noir elements (both plot and visual-oriented) like "Gangster Squad" did. Michael Mann's "Public Enemies" wasn't a complete triumph, but viewing the period detail through a modern, digital handheld lens was at least an interesting experiment.
"Gangster Squad" is only interesting in that it's a tremendous waste of a ton of really talented people.
••• Liberty Hall gets the well-reviewed Danish 18th century drama "A Royal Affair," but this may be your last week to see "Anna Karenina" in the theater. It's a visual marvel and absolutely worth seeing on the big screen.
Friday night, Liberty Hall is hosting the Retro Cocktail Hour presents Cinema A Go Go, a double feature of "incredibly strange," low-budget atomic-themed movies from the 1950s and '60s. "The Atomic Submarine" features a brave submarine crew battling a giant bug-eyed monster, while "Atomic Age Vampire," a.k.a. "Atom Age Vampire," a.k.a. "Seddok, l'erede di Satana," is a peculiar Italian horror film where a disfigured stripper gets treatments from the glands of murdered women while the love-stricken doctor trying to help her also turns into a hideous monster.
Showtime is at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 11, and tickets are $7.
The other day, my friend Ryan attended an advance screening of the new movie "Hitchcock," starring Anthony Hopkins as the Master of Suspense and Helen Mirren as his wife and creative partner, Alma Reville. The movie opens at Liberty Hall on Friday, Dec. 14, but he wanted to know if I had seen it early too, so he texted me.
I texted back that I had seen "Hitchcock." He said that he was disappointed in the movie, and I told him I thought it was pretty funny — that it had a wry sense of humor, just like the old "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" TV show.
"The worst thing about it is that the studio decided to cram it in during awards season," I wrote. "It sets up all sorts of expectations that the movie can't live up to."
Ryan thought about it and agreed. He was looking at "Hitchcock" through the prism of the end-of-year glut of heavy, dramatic, and serious-minded Oscar contenders. When you view it that way, it doesn't hold up. Sure, you've got heavyweights and former Oscar winners fronting the picture, but "Hitchcock" is a light-hearted concoction that has fun and takes liberties with the story of the making of "Psycho." Sure, it has drama in it, but it doesn't feel weighty and important like, let's say, "Lincoln."
If "Hitchcock" would have come out in February, for example, it would have been heralded as a smart, funny, breath of fresh air. This past February (traditionally the dumping grounds for terrible Hollywood films) saw the release of dumb movies like the insultingly awful Reese Witherspoon rom-com "This Means War" and the lifeless Nicolas Cage mess "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance." "Hitchcock" could have been the smart choice for viewers to see for weeks and it would have zero Oscar expectations.
The industry-standard practice of saving up 80-90 percent of the films it deems awards-worthy for the end of the year is bad for everybody — and not just because it invites all kinds of expectations. Mostly, it's because there are way too many great movies to choose from and some are bound to fall through the cracks.This year is especially bad.
"Zero Dark Thirty," "Django Unchained," "Les Miserables," "Not Fade Away," "The Impossible," and "Amour" aren't even out yet, while really great recent releases like "Silver Linings Playbook," "Anna Karenina," and "Holy Motors" are floundering in limited release because there's too many other higher-profile awards-consideration movies like "Lincoln" and "Life of Pi" stealing their thunder.
The ticket-buying public only has so much money to spend in theaters, so let's do some simple math: At $10 a ticket, a couple would have to spend almost $250 in a month to see all of the bigger movies with Oscar buzz. And I didn't even mention smaller indies like "The Sessions" or the scores of richly deserving documentaries that are all doing their Oscar-qualifying limited engagement runs right now.
I get it. Being able to say you've won critics' awards or nabbed a Golden Globe or Oscar nomination can seriously improve your marketing efforts. But look at summer-released critical darlings like "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "Moonrise Kingdom." Granted, they aren't in the theaters while they're getting all the acclaim, but they've both recently just come out on DVD and Blu-ray, so they will still be able to take advantage of all the awards press they are getting.
Even with all the press screenings and awards screeners that are sent to my house, I find it hard to keep up. Now the last thing I want to complain about is my access to films before they are released in theaters, but if I can't keep up — and it's my job to — how can the studios expect the ticket-buying public to?