Molly’s Game (Sorkin; 2017)

The only screenwriters in Hollywood who have household names that I can think of are also either actors or directors, as well, save one – Aaron Sorkin.  Even if you’re not familiar with what he’s written you’ve almost certainly heard his name, but what he is known for is political drama with some of the snappiest, wittiest dialogue around.  He’s probably most famous for The West Wing, A Few Good Men, and The Social Network, but even if you haven’t seen one of these you have still likely seen something he’s written and were struck by his too smart and too thoughtful to be true characters spouting off funny and poignant one-liners at a mile a minute.  Now, Sorkin brings us Molly’s Game, but this time he wasn’t content to just write the screenplay.  For the very first time, he got behind the camera and sat in the director’s chair himself.

Molly’s Game the movie is based on “Molly’s Game” the book, the autobiography of Molly Bloom.  Molly Bloom was an Olympic level downhill skier who had to drop out of the sport and through the series of events covered in the book and film became a power player by running a regular poker game for some of the world’s biggest power (and poker) players.  It’s a fascinating story about a woman so strong-willed and intelligent that she can be within spitting distance of achieving her dream, lose it all, then climb right back to the top again with nothing, not even a dream nor a real plan, but just whatever happens to fall in front of her.  Plus, she keeps her integrity and sticks to an ethical code on top of it all.

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Sorkin went with Jessica Chastain as the titular Molly Bloom.  I think I am in a minority when I say this, but I have never thought Chastain is a good actress.  She’s incredibly stiff in her delivery of dialogue and her stone face doesn’t help at all which essentially makes her a more voluptuous Kristen Stewart.  What Chastain is good at aside from choosing scripts (she may not be a fantastic actress, but the film’s she is in are for the most part wonderful), however, is speaking quickly with good enunciation and intensity.  Since Molly’s Game is written by Aaron Sorkin it takes someone who can do exactly that, and after having now seen this film I believe that Jessica Chastain could be the greatest mouthpiece to ever have delivered Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue – it plays perfectly to her strengths and vice versa.  Even her voice-over narration which is used throughout the entire film and which I usually perceive as a crutch which hurts a film is used excellently allowing us to enter the mind of the main character without having to break her tough facade or pause the rapid fire pacing of the film and its dialogue.

As for the other actors and their dialogue, none are quite so perfectly matched as Chastain, but all give excellent performances.  Michael Cera as “Player X” (who is actually Toby Maguire if rumors are to be believed, but no celebrities are named in the film) is the best at delivering Sorkin’s machine gun style dialogue after Chastain, surprisingly, and showed a talent at portraying a smugly confident scumbag I didn’t realize he had, though I probably should have.  Idris Elba and Kevin Costner are also both fantastic, but neither seem to be delivering Sorkin’s dialogue in the manner we’re used to, which makes me think they must have adapted Sorkin’s words to fit their own personal style and this is not a problem, this is a testament to just how talented these two are and how well they understand their craft.

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As for Sorkin, is he as talented a director as he is a writer?  Of course not, but he does show wisdom in his direction by sticking to what he knows, i.e. dialogue and story, and by not doing much to show off where visuals, editing, and other more subtle directorial duties and decisions are concerned.  The art direction is well done, Sorkin has a definite eye for city skyline shots, and he does allow himself some stylistic panache in the film’s opening, but overall what we have is a very straightforward directorial style which doesn’t really set itself apart from any number of newly out of film school directors.  He lets his writing be the element that does that.

The thematic elements of Molly’s Game are incredibly timely.  The main takeaway from the film is its depiction of a woman who understands the power games men play and manages to sidestep all of that by playing her own game and never allowing herself to become a part of theirs, not purposely, at least.  Without spoiling anything, it’s the moment Molly gets drawn into the games the men play and not just hosting them in her own that her world begins to implode.  (Since the entire film is interspersed with her meetings with her criminal defense lawyer, it’s not a spoiler to mention that implosion.)  While sexual harassment is barely even touched on in the film, it’s because they show how well Molly understood sexual politics and power and absolutely would not let those elements tarnish her game and that anyone not willing to leave that shit at the door would not be welcome back.  It’s a wonderfully practical feminist message that doesn’t depend on idealism and inspiration to get across but shows a real-world example of just how a woman can establish her own power under her own rules without men trying to undermine her nor really even notice they aren’t in control of the game.

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Final verdict:  In a year of feminist films, Molly’s Game manages to make its mark by giving the most practical and realistic portrayal of feminism of any of them and has Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue and storytelling to make that portrayal fast-paced and gripping.  All the performances are wonderful, even Jessica Chastain who is surprising in just how proficient she is at the delivering the quickly paced witticisms of an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, and Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut shows why he’s a true professional by not trying to bite off more than he might be able to chew.  Molly’s Game is a phenomenal story with some of the best writing of the year, and is one I absolutely recommend.  It’s not necessary to see it in theaters, but if you do decide to pay full price for it you will not be disappointed in the slightest.  Molly’s Game is worth it.

 

 

 

Logan Lucky (Soderbergh; 2017)

The very first scene in the latest film from Ocean’s 11s famed director Steven Soderbergh gives us a man doing repair work on an automobile as a young girl, roughly 8-10 years-old, chats with him and helps.  It’s apparent nearly immediately that this is a father and a daughter, that the little girl knows a lot about tools, and that her father is honestly interested in helping the girl with a beauty pageant she’ll be participating in soon.  This short, simple set up is a perfect introduction which says a lot more than it would seem possible about the film you are about to see, for Logan Lucky at its core is a movie about characters who seem to be a stereotype on the surface, who constantly surprise us with the seemingly out of character knowledge they possess, and who have this knowledge because of their strong, genuine familial connections.

Logan Lucky stars Channing Tatum as Jimmy Logan, the central figure of the Logan family, which includes his brother Clyde (Adam Driver) a bartender who lost an arm in military service, Mellie (Riley Keough) his younger hairdresser sister, his aforementioned daughter Sadie (Farrah MacKenzie), Bobbie Jo Chapman (Katie Holmes) his ex-wife, and Moody Chapman (David Denman) his ex’s current husband of some indeterminate but long time and owner of several car dealerships.  The Logans seem to have some sort of family curse, though only Clyde seems to really believe this wholeheartedly, and are further set apart from your standard movie extended family by being largely drama free.  Everyone seems to like each other, even the two fathers, and do what they need to keep the others in their lives happy.  However, when Jimmy loses his job at the exact same time Moody decides he is taking their family out of state to open a new dealership, Jimmy decides drastic measures need to be taken so he can maintain his close relationship with his daughter, and those drastic measures involve robbing the local NASCAR track, the same NASCAR track which had just fired him from his job.

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You need to go into Logan Lucky knowing that this is more than just a heist film, and I don’t mean that in an artistic “this is deeper than it appears” way, I mean it literally.   While it is billed as a heist film, largely due to Soderbergh’s direction I imagine, the heist is only one part of a much larger story which is also part family drama, part prison break,  and part police procedural.  After the heist portion of the film was over, I’d guessed the movie itself was pretty much over with just loose ends left to wrap up, but the movie kept going and going for quite some time afterward, long enough to weave in an additional major character and an entire subplot.  This threw me as for the last 40 to 50 minutes of the film I kept expecting it to wrap up at any time, and had me leaving the theater thinking the film had serious pacing problems, but in actuality it was my expectations of Logan Lucky I’d gotten from its marketing campaign that was the real problem.  Part of me wants to see the film again (and, I’m sure I will one day) to verify if the issue is honestly one with the film or with myself, but I can say for sure that knowing about this quirk of the plot’s structure will make for a smoother experience.

Aside from that, I have little but praise for Logan Lucky.  The script by Rebecca Blunt combined with Soderbergh’s direction give us a story which, while not that creative, is hilarious, charming, and often surprising.  Much like the characters, the story is one that on the surface is very, perhaps overly, familiar, but the individual pieces that make the story move are a constant source of offbeat epiphany.  The source of both the humor and the drama in Logan Lucky come from our own discoveries of why the unexpected make perfect sense with nary a fart joke nor artificial dramatic contrivance to be seen.

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The most impressive element of Logan Lucky, though, is the fact that the entire cast is made up of real actors.  For a long time the A-List movie stars in Hollywood have been movie stars, not actors.  They have enough charisma that we love watching them, and we pay to do so over and over again, but we are really just watching them be their magnetic selves with minor variation.  The cast of Logan Lucky are actors.  Real actors.  Daniel Craig transforms into country bumpkin chemistry savant Joe Bangs so thoroughly that his speech, his body language, and even the look in his eyes won’t give even the slightest of hints that he is also James Bond.

While due to his fame, Craig’s transformation may the most impressive, it’s Riley Keough’s performance that really makes me sit up and take notice as I think this is a girl of incredible talent who we will be seeing a lot of in the near future.  Her most famous role was as the red headed wife Capable in Mad Max: Fury Road.  Earlier this year she played the wife in the young family who join the main characters in It Comes At Night, and that performance was made impressive in that she had to not only play the role straight, she also had to play the role as a fantasy of one of the other characters, and neither of those portrayals was even a bit reminiscent of Capable.  Here she is again, in another completely different role again so different from her others that I probably would not have immediately recognized her had her talent not caught my attention in her previous acting work.  I’m waiting for her to do a musical, because if she can sing as well as she can do drama and comedy, then the amount of talent she has is downright unfair.

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Final verdict:  Logan Lucky is easily the best crime movie of the year, so far, ranks right up there with the best comedies, and shows some real heart on top of that.  The well written script isn’t without its flaws, but the acting is award worthy.  The only reason I don’t list Logan Lucky as a must see film is because it does have a lack of true depth, and that may bother those who go to see a movie primarily for intellectual reasons, but if you’re looking to laugh, cheer, and emote, then Logan Lucky will push all the right buttons, and its ending will even give you something to think about once the final frame has flashed by.