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.

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THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017)

March 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. Director Niki Caro (North Country, Whale Rider) introduces us to the story of zookeeper Jan Zabinski and his wife Antonina. The couple is a stunning example of heroism and bravery and compassion – both in cuddling with tiger cubs and in assisting approximately 300 Jews escape to freedom during the Nazi invasion of Warsaw in 1939. You might think of this as Schindler’s Zoo.

We first see Antonina (Jessica Chastain) as an angelic figure pedaling her bike through the zoo during morning rounds with a trotting young camel alongside, and soon thereafter helping rescue a newborn elephant from peril. It’s an idealistic image that appears shattered as soon as the German bombs begin dropping on Warsaw and the zoo. But the true story of what actually happened is more heartwarming and inspiring than a dozen fuzzy bunnies or peach-eating hippos.

Diane Ackerman’s 2007 book was based on the diaries of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, and is adapted for the screen by Angela Workman. Yes, that’s right … a woman director and woman writer collaborating on a film version of a book written by a woman about another woman! Some may say the film is too glossy and skips over the brutality of the Nazi’s, but this is the story of a brave, compassionate woman and how she and her husband risked their lives to save others. There is no shortage of films that depict the horrific tragedies that occurred in concentration camps, so it seems we should certainly celebrate the kind and courageous who did all they could in rescue efforts, as they used the Warsaw Zoo as a way to hide Jews in plain sight.

In addition to Ms. Chastain, who sports an unusual Russian accent throughout, Johan Heldenberg plays her husband, and Daniel Bruhl plays Lutz Heck – Hitler’s Chief Zoologist at the Berlin Zoo. The scenes between Heck and Antonina are excruciating as he first charms her with his love of animals, and then later frightens her with his unwanted advances and desire to cross-breed animals in hopes of creating superbeasts (sound familiar?).

One of the key messages seems to come from an early monologue delivered by Antonina where she compares the purity of animals (their eyes tell you everything) with the propensity to deceive and commonplace of ulterior motives in humans. While she prefers one approach over the other, it’s obvious that Antonina values all life and will pay whatever price necessary to save others. She has her chance to run, but chooses to stay and fight evil in the only way she knows how. Here’s hoping the film doesn’t begin a fad of pet skunks, but its message of compassion and courage is never out of place. The story runs from 1939 through 1946 and reminds us that heroes are amongst us always, and their journey can be both stressful and inspiring.

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MISS SLOANE (2016)

December 8, 2016

miss-sloane Greetings again from the darkness. Timing can be crucial for a film attempting to capitalize on a hot social or political topic or event. One gets the feeling that the filmmakers were excited to open this film on the heels of a Hillary Clinton victory … a story about a powerful woman, laser-focused on her mission to push through gun-control legislation. With an unexpected election outcome, director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and first time screenwriter Jonathan Perera may just luck out since their film can alternatively be interpreted as a scathing commentary on a corrupt existing system … the single biggest reason for that surprise election result.

By now we have become accustomed to stellar performances from two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty). Here she plays super-lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane – always impeccably dressed while spouting the voluminous dialogue and quick quips that make up this workaholic, dedicated-only-to-winning viper who rules the snake pit known as politics. When her big firm boss (Sam Waterston) tries to strong arm her into working with the NRA to quash the proposed gun-control legislation … encouraging her to ‘get women excited about guns’ … she quickly takes her competitive nature (and most of her staff) to the opposition, resulting in escalated political warfare.

Much of this plays like an Aaron Sorkin spin-off, but it’s surprising how few movies have focused on the fascinating world of lobbyists. Thank You for Smoking (2005) and Casino Jack (2010) are probably the most widely seen, but it’s Michael Clayton (2007) that seems to have the most in common tonally with this look at ethics (or lack thereof), conniving strategy, and backroom maneuverings.

Ms. Chastain owns the film and the role, and there is strong supporting work from Mark Strong (as her new boss), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (making the most of a few scenes), John Lithgow (as the Senator running the Congressional hearing), Michael Stuhlbarg (as a worthy adversary), Jake Lacy (as Sloane’s only diversion), Alison Pill (her assistant), Dylan Baker (a talk show host), and David Wilson Barnes (her attorney). It’s an impressive group that adds substance to the project.

Do the ends justify the means? Is anyone as ambitious and adept at political games as Elizabeth Sloane? Are ethics really this compromised in the world that creates our laws and policies? However you choose to answer those questions, a look at the misplaced priorities of our elected officials … and the influence of powerful lobbyists … are absolutely worthy of our attention, and undoubtedly contributed to the biggest election surprise in recent memory.

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CRIMSON PEAK (2015)

October 19, 2015

crimson peak Greetings again from the darkness. “It’s not a ghost story. It’s a story with ghosts.” Leave it to writer/director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006) to make this distinction. The line is spoken by our lead character Edith, who is striving to write like her literary idol, Mary Shelley. She is explaining her most recent writing effort to a publisher, but the line also represents the movie we are watching … ghosts appear (some grisly ones at that), but they certainly aren’t the focus.

The story begins around the turn of the 20th century as young Edith has just experienced her first family tragedy, the passing of her mother. She grows into an independent young woman (played by Mia Wasikowska) being raised by her successful self-made-man father Curtis Cushing (played by Jim Beaver, “Justified”).  Tip of the cap to del Toro for his tip of the cap to the horror film great Peter Cushing.  Edith has remained steadfast in her independence despite the advances of her lifelong friend, the handsome Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam, “Sons of Anarchy”).  Things change when a mysterious stranger sweeps into town. Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) seeks investors for his “clay harvester”, a machine he designed to automate what now takes many men and much hard labor.  The elder Cushing senses something is “off” about Sharpe and his sister and travelling companion, Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain), but the strong-minded Edith soon finds herself waltzing and blushing with Sir Thomas.

It would be pretty easy to recap the balance of the story, but that is actually the film’s weakness. It plays like a re-imagined script from one of those old 1940’s or 50’s movies that I watched on Friday nights as a kid. In other words, it’s not very frightening and the viewer’s enjoyment is totally based on the atmosphere. Fortunately, that’s where del Toro and his team excel. The set design (Tom Sanders) and costumes (Kate Hawley) are truly spectacular and among the best ever seen, especially for a horror movie. Dilapidated Allendale Manor features a hole in its roof allowing the elements to freely enter the colossal entry foyer. The furnishings and fixtures, as well as the layout of the house are perfection as a setting. The costumes for all characters are superb, but pay special attention to the fabrics and frills of Edith and Lucille. Camera work from Cinematographer Dan Lausten ties it all together for the eerie feel.

The film is so stunning and interesting to look at that it’s actually quite easy to forgive a story that has little to offer, and often … and I do mean often … relies on horror film clichés in what should be moments of difference-making. Having five such talented lead actors, who each go “all in” for their characters, help us overlook the script weakness, and it’s really the look and atmosphere of the film that make it worth watching … not words I have written many times over the years. For del Toro fans, you should know that Doug Jones does play the creepy ghost that inspires Edith’s first words (as narrator) … “Ghosts are real, that much I know”.

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THE MARTIAN (2015)

October 4, 2015

martian Greetings again from the darkness. With this week’s NASA announcement of the discovery of water on Mars, it seems necessary to point out that director Ridley Scott’s latest was not actually filmed on the red planet, but rather in the Jordan desert. OK, maybe not necessary, but it does serve as a reminder that the film (based on the popular book from Andy Weir) may be filled with science … but it’s also fiction – hence the label Science-Fiction.  If you were one of THOSE who actually paid attention in science classes and read the optional material, then you will probably find much fault in the details. For the rest of us, it’s a pretty fun ride.

Space has long been a popular movie topic, and a key to such favorites as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Aliens, The Right Stuff, Contact, Space Cowboys, Armageddon, Moon, and most recently Gravity and Interstellar. And of course there are the immensely popular franchises of “Star Wars” and “Star Trek”, which both chose a different path than the “grounded” nature of the others. This latest film may actually have as much in common with Cast Away as it does with any of the space-based films, and while many movies these days seem to be advertisements for Apple, this one is owed a debt by the duct tape company.

Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and her crew (Matt Damon, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Askal Hennie) are hard at work on their Mars mission when a severe storm causes them to evacuate in panic mode. When the storm hits, Damon’s astronaut Mark Watney is lost and presumed dead. Once it’s realized that Watney survived and has every intention of being rescued, the film kicks into gear.

There are three separate stories we follow: the ingenious and spirited survival mode of Watney, the politics and brilliance of the NASA organization, and the crew who now believes Watney’s rescue is their responsibility. The NASA group is led by director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and includes support work from Chiwetel Ejiofar, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, MacKenzie Davis, Donald Glover and Benedict Wong.

Taking the approach of an adventure film with the MacGuyver of all Botanists, Damon’s charm and humor stand in stark contrast to the annoyances of the two leads from Gravity, and provide a mass appeal that should make this entertaining for most any viewer. This approach allows us to imagine ourselves stranded on Mars, and whether we would panic or consider ourselves Space Pirates. There is also a lesson here for all students out there … pay attention in Science class! For the rest of us … “get your a** to Mars”!

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A MOST VIOLENT YEAR (2014)

January 14, 2015

 

a most violent Greetings again from the darkness. The tar pits of La Brea. Michael Corleone. These are the two things that come to mind as I grasp for descriptive terms to use for writer/director JC Chandor’s latest film. Picture a slow simmer never quite reaching the boiling point … that’s the designed tone here. It’s certainly not the period piece crime thriller that the trailer might have you poised for. In fact, there is more focus on marital communication than the criminal element so prevalent for the times.

In 1981, New York City was in the midst of an era filled with crime, corruption, violence and filth. Enter Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) as a tough-minded, but idealistic owner of a heating oil business. Abel’s vision is to become the top oil distributor, and remain a really good guy in the process. When he tells his less-idealistic competitors to “have some pride in their work”, it’s good advice to an audience incapable of comprehending.  Despite regular violence and criminal activity against his drivers and trucks, Abel continues to deny he is at war … he truly believes if he can stay above the fracas, he can overcome the blight of his industry.

We never really see Abel have a good day. Even the high points are paired with hard knocks. A signed contract is followed by bank woes. A kid’s birthday party at the new house is interrupted by a search warrant. New market share is offset by a driver illegally defending himself. Each step Abel takes to realize his business vision is a potential land mine set by either his competitors or an ambitious District Attorney (David Oyelowo). And those aren’t even his most animated battles. See, Abel has willed himself to extraordinary self-control. He never blows a gasket, even if the moment calls for it. The only exception to this is with his vicious business partner and wife Anna (Jessica Chastain).

Anna grew up the daughter of a gangster … her dad once ran the business that she and Abel now run. Given the times, Anna takes a back seat to Abel and she handles the books, while he is the face of the business with banks, competitors and Teamsters. It’s not difficult to imagine a movie focusing on Anna rather than Abel, and a couple of times, she makes it quite clear that she views herself as the real backbone of the business – a much tougher leader than her doe-eyed husband.

Isaac and Chastain are exceptional here, and they both pull off very tough roles. Abel is a philosopher is a world of barbarians. He is the most polite angry person you have likely ever seen. Anna, on the other hand, is the pretty face masking a ruthless gangster. They each believe their own way is the best way. When Abel explains that ‘The result is known’, and that there is only ‘one path that is most right’, we immediately know he believes this and lives his life accordingly.

In addition to Isaac, Chastain and Oyelow, other actors deserve recognition for their work here: Albert Brooks is Abel’s consigliore, in a style reminiscent of his Drive character; Alessandro Nivola is the most frightening type of gangster – the quiet, powerful kind; Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace) is outstanding in her only scene; Elyes Gabel captures the frustrated driver looking for hope; Peter Gerety is spot on as the Teamsters lead; and Jerry Adler is a most unusual Jewish business man.

The camera work of cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma) helps make the style and story work. He films two of the most unusual chase scenes – one on foot across the highway, and another with a car and truck on railroad tracks and through a dark tunnel. Both are critical to story and character, and provide a stylistic flourish that pumps things up in a movie otherwise devoid of traditional action.

The story is captivating because of things that are intimated, rather than things that are said. A couple of other films set in this era are Prince of the City and Serpico, and though the tone and look may be familiar, Chandor’s approach is unique. It’s not difficult to imagine Oscar Isaac took his acting cues from Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, and oddly enough, it’s possible to imagine him as Tony Montana in a Scarface remake! At the core of all of these characters … the American Dream.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are wondering if something is “disrespectful” … Jessica Chastain will let you know!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting The Godfather or “The Sopranos” … this is the most gangster non-gangster movie I’ve seen

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THE COLOR OF TIME (2013)

December 11, 2014

 

color of time Greetings again from the darkness. It’s either a most unusual biopic on Pulitzer Prize winning poet CK Williams, an example of how director Terrence Malick has influenced the next wave of filmmakers, or a self-congratulatory exercise disguised as a class project. Regardless of your final take, most cinephiles will muster at least a modicum of interest in a film with 11 directors and 12 writers … each NYU film students during James Franco’s time on campus as an adjunct professor.

We see the life of CK Williams through the flashbacks and memories of James Franco (as an adult Williams prepping for a reading of “Tar”). Williams as a child, as an adolescent, and as a college student (played by Henry Hopper, son of Dennis) offer a glimpse into the girls and events that helped shape his poetry. The sequence of Williams as a child is so similar to Malick’s Tree of Life, that we viewers experience our own flashbacks … right down to Jessica Chastain recreating her scenes from that movie (this time as Williams’ mother).

Mila Kunis plays Catherine, Williams’ second and current wife, and it’s clear – in a modern expressionist kind of way – that they are very happy together. There are a couple of disjointed sequences that come across as created simply to provide an outlet for Zach Braff and Bruce Campbell. However, when dealing with poetry, rules don’t apply … at least that seems to be what this group of young filmmakers would have us believe. The washed out colors, fuzzy focus, shots of nature, and muted emotions dotted with monotone dialogue are all elements of artsy films. Whether these are the foundations of artsy films is a separate topic. Interspersed throughout are a couple of clips of CK Williams with his own readings.

Experimental filmmaking is always a risk and should not be discouraged. It’s given us every advance in the medium for a century. It is a bit worrisome, however, when experimental film appears so similar to the work of a current master. Let’s hope that’s just the first step in the process of developing filmmakers. This one also acts as a reminder that turning poetry into actual images often defeats the purpose of the written words.

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