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.

 

 

 

The Eagle Huntress (Bell; 2016)

In the mountainous wastelands of Mongolia live groups of nomadic tribesmen that have passed down the secret of bonding with and training the eagles that live in these harsh conditions to hunt the arctic animals indigenous to the area for food and fur so they can survive the brutal winters.  These secrets for generations have been passed down from father to son, but when the patriarch of the Kazakh family sees that his young daughter Aisolpan is a natural drawn to the art of eagle hunting he breaks with tradition and decides to train her.  He invites scorn and resistance from the elders of all the local tribes.  If this sounds like a fairly conventional story with the only truly unique take being the involvement of eagle hunting, you would mostly be correct, but this story has one more major difference – it’s not fictional, this is a documentary.

The first thing that needs to be said about The Eagle Huntress is that it is absolutely gorgeous.  The landscapes, while barren and harsh, are nonetheless beautiful to look at, the cinematography is artful and I can’t imagine how much footage had to have been taken and pored through to find a movie that looks as if every shot was planned and posed even when you know that can’t have been the case most of the time considering the subject matter, and the eagles themselves are truly awesome to see in action.  While I was given a real glimpse into their life, and saw the harsh conditions these people live in every day, the beauty of this movie and the connection these people still in this time manage to have with the nature around them made me wish I could be an eagle hunter.

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A connection with nature so intense, the people and the birds start to look alike.

The Eagle Huntress is also a story about the overcoming of long held prejudices.  Even the most far away tribespeople who have clung to long held traditions cannot escape the culture of the modern world, for better or for worse, and the changing of mindsets toward “the fairer and weaker sex” is spreading even to the remote area of Bayan-Olgii.  People can look at a young girl and recognize her as something more than a person who will be raised to cook, have babies, and care for the household while the men are off hunting (in fact, I believe the movie tricks us slightly as to how resistant men are to the idea of Aisholpan learning to hunt with eagles, but more on that in a little bit).  Aisholpan’s father doesn’t care that she’s a girl, he just cares that she’s been staring at the eagles her whole life and recognizes that she has a natural bond with them and decides that she is to carry on his legacy with no thought to anything else other than her happiness and her talent.  To see this bond between father and daughter, to see her confidence nurtured by her supportive family and her own natural talent, and to see her put to bed all doubts that a girl can do the same thing generations of only men before her can is the real heart of this piece.

I admit to having a few doubts as to the authenticity of the implied level of resistance to Aisholpan’s training that people feel throughout the film.  We are told over and over again that people would react harshly to her and that she would have to prove herself above and beyond what any man could do, but aside from a few harsh glances here and there and some raised eyebrows and quick laughs, most of the people in the film actually seem more intrigued and impressed with Aisholpan’s abilities than angry and resistant.  I wonder if the producers of the film just didn’t feel there was enough story without some form of antagonist, and so cut film and perhaps even staged a small handful of scenes in order to give the illusion that there was more anger at what Aisholpan and father were doing than actually existed.  I have no doubt that there were plenty of people with a “girls can’t and shouldn’t do this” attitude, but in the more obviously candid parts of the film I never saw much indication that people held much, if any, contempt toward Aisholpan or her father and actually seemed quite helpful and impressed.  While I don’t know for sure, I think the anger toward Aisholpan was mostly manufactured for dramatic purposes, and maybe to add to the girl power themes present in the film, and if that’s the case it really is too bad, as the story of a 13 year-old girl capturing, training, and hunting with an eagle in this incredibly harsh terrain is drama and girl power story enough on its own, in this critic’s opinion.

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Or maybe the outrage is real, and people just couldn’t tell Aisholpan was a girl right away underneath all those layers.

Often, the best documentaries aren’t those that teach a lesson or give a point of view, but manage to capture just the right slice of life at just the right time to give us a story as dramatic as the best fictions.  The Eagle Huntress is a coming of age story, a man vs nature story, a story about girl power and overcoming prejudices, a feel good movie, and a family drama all rolled into one, all with gorgeous images to look at and a fascinating culture to learn about.  And, the eagles, the majestic, gorgeous eagles that are so breath taking I don’t care that this is an incomplete sentence.

Rating:  8.0 out of 10