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.

 

 

 

Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi; 2017)

Thor: Ragnarok is the seventeenth movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Fifteen movies in nine years.  James Bond, of course, has more at twenty-five, but it took fifty-six years to get there.  Batman has had seventeen movies over twenty-eight years, but that’s not a franchise so much as a popular character getting rebooted.  Star Trek got thirteen movies over thirty-seven years.  Those numbers alone should show how remarkable the Marvel film franchise is, but all of those other long-lasting franchises have also had some terrible entries and box office flops, Marvel has yet to make a film that has disappointed on either an entertainment or a box-office level, though the Thor films have come the closest to doing both.  Thor: Ragnarok not only continues Marvel’s pedigree of excellence, but it is also far and away the best of the Thor films and in the upper echelon of Marvel movies period.

Marvel is advertising Thor: Ragnarok as the studio’s first comedy, though I would argue that the Guardians of the Galaxy movies and particularly Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 were, but if you know what the term Ragnarok means you know that it’s dealing with pretty dark subject matter for a Marvel movie let alone a comedy.  (If you don’t know, I won’t spoil it for you here.)  This contradiction is a balancing act walked throughout the entire film by its cast and crew as they try to keep things light-hearted and fun while at the same time showing that the story has serious stakes and consequences for those taking part in it.  While they do have to cheat here and there to pull off this feat, pull it off they do and spectacularly enough that the cheating can be mostly overlooked.

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Chris Hemsworth (Thor) was initially cast as Thor largely because of his appearance and because he’d worked with Joss Whedon earlier on Cabin in the Woods so he’d proven he could take on a large film anchoring role.  Take on the role he absolutely did, and with gusto, but the character of Thor is one the more bland Marvel heroes as he has to be both so immensely powerful as to rarely be in honest danger, but also has to embody humility and virtue so doesn’t really have major character flaws, either.  He’s Marvel’s Superman, but without a great rogue’s gallery and level of fame, and this made for a character that even when played as well as possible by Hemsworth is still the least interesting of the Avengers.  Over the last few years, though, Hemsworth has proven he has some real comic chops between his shorts as “roommate Thor” and being the funniest character in the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot.  Marvel very intelligently ran with that and allowed Thor to also be the funniest Avenger, which is the defining character trait he’s needed all along and allowed Thor: Ragnarok to finally be a truly special Thor movie.

The rest of the cast is also fantastic with Mark Ruffalo returning as The Hulk/Bruce Banner and showing that he also has comic talent, Tom Hiddleston giving us a Loki who we already knew could be both hilarious and nefarious, and Jeff Goldblum appears for the first time in a Marvel movie as the Grandmaster and manages to steal every scene he appears in with his own eccentric brand of comedic performance.  While these four give the film its heart and soul, Cate Blanchett as the god of death Hela is incredibly menacing and captivating, and Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie and Karl Urban as Skurge hold their own in this amazing cast as two Asgardians with more personality than we get from the majority of the gods.  The only real disappointments here are Idris Elba returning as Heimdall and Anthony Hopkins as Odin who both seem like they were more or less phoning in their roles, and Hopkins not even caring if anyone noticed.

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The movie does play fast and loose with the lore of both Marvel comics’ version of Thor and actual Norse mythology.  For the most part, the changes work and add a fun unpredictability to the film for those who know either story of Ragnarok well but could annoy the geekier purists out there.  The patchwork light and dark tones also make for a story able to surprise, particularly in the film’s climactic battle which is the most daring ending to a Marvel film yet, but it can also make for inconsistent motivations from the characters as they act in ways which are more concerned with what is funny or exciting than what is consistent or realistic.

Thor: Ragnarok has one of the most unusual soundtracks for a Marvel movie to date.  Most of the Marvel films use a classic orchestral score while the Guardians of the Galaxy films are famous for their use of classic rock.  Thor: Ragnarok has a largely orchestral score, but it also mixes in techno music reminiscent of 80’s New Age music and somehow has the rights to Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song” despite the band’s legendary stinginess with giving out the rights to their music.  This mix works for the most part and allows for some incredibly epic action, but every now and then it can be distracting enough to break the movie’s spell.

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Final verdict:  Thor: Ragnarok continues the Marvel tradition of giving us an excellent thrill ride with just enough of the familiar to make us comfortable and just enough spin to make a superhero movie not quite like any we’ve seen before.  Its mix of comedy and bold plot complications makes for a bit of a patchwork, but a pretty remarkable patchwork that manages to work far more often than it distracts, though it certainly isn’t perfect.  If you’re already a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe then heading out to see Thor: Ragnarok as soon as possible on the largest screen possible is an absolute no-brainer.  If you are either not a fan or have somehow avoided seeing any of the other fourteen films for this long, it’s not quite as easy of a recommendation, but while you will miss some of the nuance longtime fans of the series will enjoy, Thor: Ragnarok is so much pure fun that I find it hard to believe that any but the most interminable stick in the muds will find a good amount of enjoyment in it.

 

 

 

The Dark Tower (Arcel; 2017)

The Dark Tower has had quite the long journey on its way to the screen.  The film is an adaptation of the book “The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger” written by Stephen King and originally published as novel in 1982, but its roots go back even farther than that as it was first published in installments from 1977 to 1981 in “The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction”.  Rumors of a film or series of films chronicling the adventures of Roland the Gunslinger have been circulating for decades due to the books’ huge fan base, but until now, 40 years after the initial story was printed, no one has actually been able or willing to make it happen.  Columbia Pictures has plans for this movie to be the first of a number of installments which will be released both in movie theaters and as television shows, another cash grab ala Marvel Studios and their Cinematic Universe, but while the rabid fanbase of the books may be able to still make that a reality, the quality of the flagship film in this series’ launch does not bode well for future endeavors in this Stephen King franchise.

The Dark Tower focuses on three main characters, two protagonists and an antagonist.  We are first introduced to Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) a young man of an indeterminate age, but young enough that if he has hit his teenage years its barely.  Jake has dreams which he draws in his art book of a tower, a man in black, a man with two six shooters, and the numbers 19-19.  His dreams are accompanied by earthquakes when he wakes up and everyone thinks he is crazy.  Matthew McConaughey plays the Man in Black from Jake’s dreams, and he is an evil sorcerer who uses psychic children as a weapon to destroy the Dark Tower which will allow demons to entire our universe and several others attached to ours.  Finally, Idris Elba plays the Gunslinger Roland who wants to kill the Man in Black as revenge for the murder of his father and the rest of the Gunslingers at the hands of the Man in Black.

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Let’s start with the good in this movie, which would be the acting.  Matthew McConaughey in particular is a lot of fun as the villainous Man in Black chewing the scenery with aplomb and radiating a cartoonish charm which you can’t help but enjoy.  Idris Elba is much more subdued as Roland, but an actor as accomplished as he can’t help but ooze charisma even if he tries to hide it.  Finally, while Tom Taylor is not the greatest child actor, he holds up his part of the story well enough to never be distracting.

Past that, there is not much to like about The Dark Tower.  The film is shot in the annoying fashion of the day with incredibly tight close ups at inappropriate times, jerky camera movements, and lighting dim enough that what we are seeing is barely more than a sillhouette.  Trying to follow the action here is nearly impossible as we are never given any anchor for our perspective and the action takes place willy-nilly with no context as to positions and movement.  The camera is more interested in framing whatever is the most spectacular thing to look at at the moment than it is with giving us a coherent vision of the action of the story.

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As bad as the camera work is, though, the script is far worse.  The visuals are at least decent during The Dark Tower‘s quieter moments and the special effects are fun, but the script has no saving grace whatsoever.  The entire story is written to formula, and very obviously so at that, with no thought given to anything beyond how the action of the story would fit into said formula.  Character motivations are non-existent.  Why does the Man in Black want to destroy the universes?  Er, he’s evil, and evil guys do that?  What did the Gunslingers do before they were all killed?  Hell if anyone knows.  What is a Gunslinger for that matter?  A guy with guns as far as I can tell.  Decisions made by the characters are nonsensical, doing something 2 seconds after they said they couldn’t do exactly that thing for reasons never really explained well, or just plain idiotic.  Characters make relationships just because it seems like they should and all of a sudden can do incredible things because they need to do it at that moment.  The story is easy enough to follow, so it isn’t Michael Bay level bad, but it is so obviously contrived it’s distractingly hilarious.

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I’ve never read “The Dark Tower” series of books, so I can’t speak to the quality of the film compared to the quality of the books.  However, I can say that knowing the books have such a large and loyal fan base, consisting of quite a few people whose taste I respect, I can only guess that fans of the books are going to come away greatly disappointed by the film, and those who have never read the books are not going to understand what others see in this series.

Final verdict:  With good acting and absolutely nothing else going for it, give The Dark Tower a big miss.  It’s possible Columbia will go ahead with further film and television installments in this series, and it’s possible some of them could be good – the premise does have promise and Idris Elba has charisma and talent to spare.  If this is the case, then maybe come back and give this one a watch to catch up on the action.  Until then, though, I can’t see this formulaic to a nonsensical degree story appealing to anyone, fan of the books or no.  And, what is it with the Gunslinger’s mantra they say over and over in the film?  That thing isn’t cool or comforting, it’s downright creepy and disturbing.