MOLLY’S GAME (2017)

December 23, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue is like a rap battle with proper grammar and no down-beat. He must have been abused by pregnant pauses and moments of silence as a kid, as his screen banter gives new meaning to ‘the fast and the furious’. This latest is his directorial debut, but his loquacious diatribes have previously tested our attention spans in such films as STEVE JOBS, MONEYBALL, and of course, THE SOCIAL NETWORK (for which he won an Oscar).

Molly Bloom’s memoir is the adapted source material, and though her story might be a bit challenging to show, there is certainly much to tell … which is right in Mr. Sorkin’s wheelhouse. The verbal sparring amongst characters rarely pauses, and when it does, we have Molly immediately jumping in as narrator and guide.  The ultra-talented Jessica Chastain (ZERO DARK THIRTY) takes on the Molly role, and narrates her back story at break-neck speed (there is a pun in there). We learn her psychologist father (Kevin Costner) pushed her hard as a kid and she became off-the-charts intelligent while also being a world-class downhill skier.

A freak accident ended her athletic career, and after deciding to delay law school, Molly found herself working for a real estate agent in Los Angeles. Soon he got her involved with hosting the high-stakes underground poker games he ran for local celebrities, and being a quick study, she was soon running and managing her own games. When Molly was forced to take her game to New York, the players transformed from movie stars and professional athletes to business magnates, hedge-fund managers and, unbeknownst to her, the Russian mob.

Don’t mistake this for a poker movie. Cards and chips are everywhere, but this is Molly’s story, and Sorkin wisely simplifies the poker details and focuses more on Molly’s brilliant strategy to build her business. Of course, there wouldn’t be much to this were it just rich people playing poker. Less than a decade in, Molly is arrested in an overblown FBI sting featuring 17 armed agents at her pre-dawn door. The charges ranged from money-laundering to hedge-fund fraud to dealings with the Russian mob.

The criminal charges lead Molly into the offices of defense attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who is reticent to take what appears to be an unwinnable case. The Sorkin back-and-forth kicks into full gear as Molly and Jaffey expertly verbally spar until she convinces him that she is adamant in not wanting anyone else to get hurt – even if it might save her proverbial rear-end.

Although Sorkin doesn’t name names, it takes very little research effort to determine some of the featured players in Molly’s games. Hints are provided such as “green screen”, New York Yankee player, and Oscar winner. Michael Cera is identified only as Player X, but it’s quite obvious he is playing the noted green screen actor, and he does a nice job in a small, but vital role. The rest of the cast offers up colorful work: Jeremy Strong as Molly’s first boss, a very funny Chris O’Dowd, Brian d’Arcy as “Bad Brad”, Justin Kirk as a rock star, Angela Gots as the wise table dealer, and the always great Bill Camp as Harlan, whose story highlights the true risk in this supposed game of skill. Graham Greene has a nice moment as the judge hearing Molly’s case, and it’s likely the first time he and Kevin Costner have appeared in the same film since DANCES WITH WOLVES.

At times the film and story bear a slight resemblance to THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, but mostly it’s one woman’s journey through entrepreneurship and a web of legalities. Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” is used as a comparable for protecting one’s own name, as well as a life lesson for Jaffey’s young daughter. Writer Sorkin predictably surpasses first time director Sorkin, and never is that more obvious than a cringe-inducing father/daughter scene on a park bench near the end of the film. It’s designed to wrap up Molly’s inspiration and influence, but plays like a cheap Hollywood ploy to mop up loose ends. Molly deserved better, and fortunately most of the movie delivers.

watch the trailer:

Advertisements

LOVING VINCENT (2017)

October 13, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. For those skeptics who scoff when filmmaking is described as an art form and labor of love, co-directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman invite you to take in their nearly decade-in-the-making project. It’s the first fully hand-painted on canvas feature film – experimental filmmaking crafted by more than 100 artists and including an estimated 130 paintings, with 65,000 individual shots/frames.

The spectacular visuals were created by painting over the images … both of actors performing scenes and van Gogh’s paintings. By adding to and amending images, even 10 times or more, the scenes come to life with movement and a pulsating psychedelic feel. The familiar colors of his paintings create a level of connection, while black & white images are used for flashbacks and reenactments.

Though we have never seen this look on screen before (this goes beyond Linklater’s WAKING LIFE), the stunning visuals are accompanied by what can be described as a detective story or murder/suicide mystery. It picks up in 1891, one year after van Gogh’s suspicious death. A local Arles postman holds one last letter from Vincent to his beloved brother Theo. Having held onto it for much too long, he asks his son Armand Roulin to hand-deliver the letter to Theo. Sporting the yellow blazer so recognizable from his portrait, the angry and skeptical Armand heads to Paris. Little does he know, this is only the beginning of his journey … a journey that finds him researching Vincent’s life and a journey that helps him discover more about himself.

There have been many movies made focusing on this amazing artist: LUST FOR LIFE (1956), VINCENT (1987), VINCENT & THEO (1990), and VAN GOGH (1991). This one is filled with contrasting and conflicting stories, theories and recollections, and descriptions of events from those who crossed paths with the artist on a daily basis. We listen right along with Armand as he spends time in Avers-sur-Oise … where Vincent lived, painted, and died.

Many of the actors involved are recognizable even in this artistic format: Chris O’Dowd is the postman, Douglas Booth is Armand, John Sessions plays art supplier Pete Tanguy, Eleanor Thompson is the innkeeper’s daughter Adaline, Jerome Flynn is the controversial Dr. Gachet, Saoirse Ronan is Gachet’s daughter Margarita (recognizable from her piano portrait), Helen McCrory plays the disgruntled Gachet housekeeper, Aidan Turner is the boatman, and Robert Gulaczyk is Vincent. Since these folks were all part of van Gogh’s artwork, we are fascinated to see them come to “life”.

Vincent van Gogh picked up a brush for the first time at age 28. He was dead at age 37, and left behind approximately 800 paintings of portraits and landscapes – many among the most famous pieces in the world today. Did he try to commit suicide as he claimed or was there a more sinister explanation for his death? Of course the filmmakers only hint at possible answers and can’t solve a mystery that is approaching two centuries. Understanding the man is challenging, and perhaps our best hope is through the work he left behind. This is a compelling cinematic experience and we have certainly benefitted from the filmmaker’s labor of love. Clint Mansell’s score leans heavily on strings and piano, and is perfect accompaniment for the story. One could question the closing credits use of Lianne La Havas’ version of “Vincent” (renamed “Starry Starry Night”) rather than Don McLean’s, but one mystery per day is plenty. Spot the paintings, play detective, and mostly enjoy the visuals built on the works of a complex, talented, and tragic figure.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE PROGRAM (2016)

March 18, 2016

the program Greetings again from the darkness. The fallen king. The disgraced idol. We expect there to be more to the story of Lance Armstrong, but the bottom line is really pretty simple. Lance Armstrong is a liar. Lance Armstrong is a fraud. The movie offers little in the way of excuses or explanations, and you’ll likely think even less of Armstrong after the movie … if that’s even possible.

Ben Foster turns in a nice performance and is believable as Lance the cyclist, Lance the teammate, and Lance the doper. But even Foster can’t quite capture the public façade or reach the level of deception that the real life Lance maintained for years. Chris O’Dowd is spot on as David Walsh, the sportswriter who wrote the book on which the film is based, “Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong”. In fact, the movie would likely have been more interesting had it focused on Walsh’s research and pursuit, rather than re-hashing the all too familiar Armstrong deceit.

Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity, The Grifters) works with the screenplay from John Hodge (Trainspotting) and we see how Lance battled through testicular cancer and later sought out Dr. Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) – the Godfather of blood doping. We get many shots of the familiar yellow jersey during numerous Tour de France races, and we hear Lance pontificate on what sets him apart: desire, hunger, heart and soul, and guts. Later we hear his proclamation of innocence followed by “I’m the most tested athlete on the face of the planet”.

Jesse Plemons (“Breaking Bad”, “Fargo”) has slimmed down and plays the crucial role of Floyd Landis – a devout Mennonite, Lance teammate, and the final straw in the crumbling of an empire. It’s Landis who broke “the silence around cycling”, and forced an industry and the public to accept what most of us hoped against all hope wasn’t true.

Armstrong’s infamous “Oprah” appearance and public admission brought poignancy to his own words: “We are the authors of our life stories.” Perhaps this lesson is as valuable as all the money Livestrong raised for cancer research. Picturesque Hamilton Pool in Austin makes an appearance, as do songs from The Ramones, The Fall (“Mr. Pharmacist”) and Leonard Cohen. While the film is not at the level of Alex Gibney’s documentary The Armstrong Lie, it is a reminder that real life can be more dramatic and devastating than the movie version.

watch the trailer:

 


ST. VINCENT (2014)

October 19, 2014

st vincent Greetings again from the darkness. Moments after Bill Murray’s Vincent cracks a rare on screen “Chico and the Man” reference, we get our first glimpse of scrawny Oliver (newcomer Jaeden Lieberher), and we immediately know where this story is headed. The fact that we never lose interest is thanks to Mr. Murray, the rest of the cast and writer/director Theodore Melfi (his first feature film).

Though this is ultra-predictable and even strains credulity, we nonetheless connect to Murray’s Vincent – a grumpy, drunken, slobby, chain-smoker who has a bond with a pregnant Russian prostitute/stripper (Naomi Watts). Melissa McCarthy plays Oliver’s mom Maggie, who has separated from her philandering husband, and is intent on making a life for her son. It’s here where it should be noted that Ms. McCarthy plays the role straight – none of her usual funny-fat moments. Instead, she excels in a scene with an emotional dump on Oliver’s principal and teacher (a standout Chris O’Dowd).

Surprisingly, this could even be described as a message movie. Vincent quickly notices that Oliver is lacking street smarts and sets out to correct this. The story reminds us that all people are multi-faceted. The good have their rough edges, and the “bad” likely have a back-story and some redeeming value. Vincent is so cantankerous that it takes a kid as appealing as Oliver to balance the story. Even knowing a feel good ending is coming, we as viewers don’t mind being dragged through the sap.

Murray is outstanding, and if the script had a bit more heft, he would probably garner some Oscar consideration. McCarthy deserves notice for going against type, and Naomi Watts flashes some real comedic timing (maybe the biggest surprise of all). O’Dowd has some of the best one-liners in the film, and shows again that he is immensely talented. Terrence Howard seems a bit out of place as a loan shark, but he has limited screen time, as does Ann Dowd as the nursing home director.

Prepare for the feel-bad-then-good ride, culminating in a school auditorium event that reunites the key characters, and allows the child actor to draw a tear or two from the audience. Good times that end with classic Murray over the closing credits.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you have missed the fully-engaged Bill Murray last seen in Lost in Translation (2003)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: unpredictable endings are why you see movies

watch the trailer:

 


CALVARY (2014)

August 3, 2014

calvary Greetings again from the darkness. Writer/director John Michael McDonagh and actor Brendon Gleeson re-team (The Guard, 2011) in what can be viewed as one giant leap for both filmmaker and actor. Mr. McDonagh is immensely talented and seems to be a natural at keeping his viewers unsure of what’s coming, and Mr. Gleeson gives his best yet performance of a quite impressive career.

Set and filmed in a western Irish coastal town, the film has a most unusual first scene, including an acknowledgment of such as the priest (Gleeson) says “Certainly a startling opening line“. This occurs in the confessional, with an extreme close-up, as the unseen (by us) parishioner then says “I’m going to kill you Father“. With Sunday week as the promised deadline, the movie follows the Priest with a placard for each day, as he makes his way through consulting the maze of local town characters. He also receives a visit from his daughter (Kelly Reilly), fresh off a suicide attempt (he was married prior to joining the priesthood).

The film bounces from very dark humor to extreme philosophical and theological discussions (faith and mortality) between the town folks and the priest. We quickly learn what a good man (with an imperfect past) he is, and struggle to understand why the locals flash such vitriol his way. The Catholic Church, and all that implies these days, certainly plays a key role, but more than that, this is about the make-up and character of people.

An impressive and talented supporing cast includes Aidan Gillen as the atheist doctor with a dark side, Chris O’Dowd as the local butcher, Orla O’Rourke as his unfaitful wife about town, Isaach DeBankola as one of her chums, Dylan Moran as the conflicted local rich boy, Killian Scott as the frustrated virginal local, Domhnall Gleeson (Brendan’s son) as an incarcerated serial killer, and the always great M Emmet Walsh – back on screen as the local old timer who spins yarns and enjoys attention.

This is not the place to go into detail about the story, as the film is best unwrapped and interpreted by each viewer. Rather than a whodunnit, it has a rare who-is-going-to-do-it element that hovers over each scene. What can be said is that this is exceptional filmmaking: it’s well directed, beautifully photographed (landscapes and aerials), superbly acted, has a terrific script (incredible dialogue), and encourages much discussion.

watch the trailer:

 


THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013)

November 12, 2013

thor3 Greetings again from the darkness. While this is the second Thor movie, we feel a bit more familiar with the Norse God thanks to The Avengers. It’s not surprising that Chris Hemsworth can hold his own with the character given his looks and physicality, but this time he gets a run for his money thanks to Tom Hiddleston as Loki. (not my favorite part of the first one).

The film’s official villain is Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) who rules the Dark Elves and is trying to re-capture the all-powerful Aether, a substance of infinite energy. But the whole battle for the 9 realms is really just a sideline to Thor vs Loki, and Thor’s touch of humanity and eye for Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Most of the key characters are back: Anthony Hopkins as Odin (even more over the top this time), Rene Russo (Thor’s mom), Ray thor2Stevenson as Volstagg, Jaimie Alexander (Sif), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Kat Dennings (Darcy), and Stellan Skarsgard (Erik Selvig).

This sequel is kind of interesting to analyze. It’s certainly bigger than the original … the special effects are huge and much improved. Light comic moments abound, but luckily the snark from Kat Dennings is minimal. Chris O’Dowd shows up for a couple of pretty funny, but slightly out of place scenes. There are a couple of cameos including an off-beat appearance by one of the The Avengers. Rene Russo even gets her own sword fight! Though it matters not to me, I assume there are many who would choose a Skarsgard other than Stellan to run around Stonehenge sans clothes. So while it has all of that going for it, the story often fails at engaging the audience.

thor4 This one is directed by Alan Taylor, who is quite a successful TV director, and there was clearly some upfront concern over the script as Joss Whedon was brought in for scene doctoring. I believe what we learn is that the fish out of water story works when Thor is on Earth, but it loses impact when Jane Foster visits Asgard. Still, Tom Hiddleston is such fun to watch as Loki, that none of that really matters.

It’s a superhero movie that will entertain the fans and provide plenty of ammunition for the critics looking to bash. If you see it in the theatre, you should know to stay for BOTH post-movie scenes. A rare Benecio Del Toro sighting makes it worthwhile.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are a fan of the Marvel comics and the corresponding films … and know that there are many more to come!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are rational human being unwilling to spend time on the superhero fantasy world.  Just know that there are many more to come!

***SPOILER ALERT***

If you are interested in the Benecio Del Toro character, then continue reading.  If you prefer to be surprised, then please stop reading now.

Del Toro plays The Collector in the final scene.  Expect an expanded role for Guardians of the Galaxy.  The Collector is millions of years old and is a pre-Cognitive (he sees the future).  He collects items and beings of real power.  At the end of Thor: The Dark World, he takes possession of Aether and states “One down, five to go“. There are six gems of color in this universe and possession brings ultimate power.  Expect more to come in future Marvel films.


FRIENDS WITH KIDS (2012)

March 12, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Evidently this is a movie for thirty-somethings who need more ammunition to defend their decisions to avoid marriage and parenthood. At least that’s the best case I can come up with … otherwise it’s just a bitter, caustic view of those two topics. It’s pretty obvious from the opening scene where the relationship story is headed, but it’s not an easy road for us viewers.

This movie belongs to Jennifer Westfeldt. She wrote the script, directed the movie and stars as the woman who decides to have a baby with her platonic friend (Adam Scott). These two are part of a group of six close knit friends in Manhattan who start out doing everything together and telling each other everything. One of the couples (Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd) announce “We’re pregnant” and promptly move to Brooklyn. The other married couple (Jon Hamm, Krisen Wiig) start out by attempting to break all Guiness records for sex, and end up evolving into something a bit less exciting.

 The two platonic friends decide to “beat the system” by sharing parenting responsibilities while pursuing separate dating lives until they find “the right person”. Westfeldt has a Lisa Kudrow quality about her that doesn’t play well with me. She was the star and writer of Kissing Jessica Stein, and has been in a relationship with Jon Hamm since 1998.  Here she comes across as insecure and awkward, and not nearly as smart as she would like to believe. Adam Scott (brilliant on “Parks and Recreation“) is quite the ladies man and also views himself as smarter than the masses. Westfeldt finds a “perfect” guy in Edward Burns, and Scott finds happiness with Megan Fox. Of course, you still know where all of this is headed.

 What struck me throughout the film was how every scene and every character was just a bit off. Nothing really worked. Jon Hamm has one really nice scene where he is intoxicated and really stirs the pot at a group dinner. Kristen Wiig has very few lines and spends the movie sulking. Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd have a couple of decent scenes, but mostly the film has little insight to offer and no characters with whom you would like to connect. 

*note: Some critics think more highly of this movie than I, and have even compared it to Woody Allen‘s best work.  As always, the opinions expressed above are my own, and your actual mileage may vary.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to watch a group of friends who don’t get along so well OR you seek further justification for you decision to avoid marriage and/or parenthood

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have already discovered that, contrary to the movie’s poster tag, that maturity dissolves the need to pick two from: Love, Happiness, Kids

Watch the trailer: