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.

 

 

 

Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Gilroy; 2017)

The film Roman J. Israel, Esq. opens with the titular character (Denzel Washington) typing up a court transcript in which he is making himself both the prosecutor and the defendant, and apparently also the attorneys, the judge, the jury, and everyone else involved with his imaginary case.  It’s an opening that does grab your attention.  Who is Roman J. Israel?  What did he do that would make him feel he needs to be put on trial?  What sort of person would go to all the trouble of actually typing out an entire false trial in judgment of himself?  This fantasy trial transcript never goes past the point of declaring the plaintiff and defendant at any point in the film, however, and so this transcript becomes an allegory for the entire film.  It’s an interesting premise that is ruined by the fact that it never explores any of its ideas past the introductory concept and even then it doesn’t seem to understand much about people, law, nor storytelling.

First and foremost of the things to talk about in this film is the central character Roman J. Israel, Esq. himself.  After the short introduction is finished, we flashback a short period in time to find that Roman starts the movie a law savant working in a very small criminal defense law firm in which he does all the behind the scenes work while his partner appears in court and performs all the other duties which involve contact and conversation with people.  The savant angle of Roman’s character is the focal point of the film as we a watch person who has entire volumes of legal decisions and case law memorized down to specific subsection numbers but understands next to nothing of the arts of politics and diplomacy which are also so essential in the legal profession.  Yet, we never learn what makes him this way.  Is it a form of high functioning autism?  Is it a form of OCD?  A combination of factors?  Is it just the way he was raised?  We never learn any of these answers and they could very well have a strong influence on how the audience perceives him and his actions in the film.

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It should also affect Washington’s portrayal of the role.  You can tell that this film is more than just a paycheck in the passion he brings to the role.  This is Denzel at his most magnetic and intense.  You can tell that he loves this character, and wants to do everything he can to make us love and understand him, as well.  This is a case, though, of the devil being in the details.  If he’s playing an autistic savant, then there are far too many cases of suave, smooth Denzel making its way to the forefront.  If he’s playing OCD, we never see any of the habits or tics which would define such a person.  Even in the things we know for sure about the character he seems to miss details, making for a character we really want to like and appreciate, but can’t due to a lack of understanding who he is and his motivations from inconsistencies.

These inconsistencies are not solely the fault of Washington, though, the script and direction from Dan Gilroy not only do him no favors but are actually the real source of the majority of this film’s woes.  It’s a script that doesn’t know what kind of film it wants to be.  It’s sort of a character piece, sort of a legal drama, sort of a crime drama, sort of an activist statement, but it never manages to commit to any one plot nor theme so we’re ultimately left with a film full of half-realized plots and thoughts.  These problems extend into every element of the film, from Roman himself to every supporting character and subplot.  Which is too bad, because like Denzel you can tell that Gilroy is passionate about this subject matter, but his passion overrode his common sense and objectivity it seems as he wasn’t able to recognize his film for the inconsistent mess it is.

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Putting the plot and characters aside, though, the technical elements of Roman J. Israel, Esq. are well handled.  The camerawork adds a lot to the tone of the film, showing us Los Angeles through the eyes of Roman himself and how his view of the city and himself change as he makes his own major life changes throughout the film.  The art direction and costumes also add an impressive amount to the atmosphere with the choices of costume in particular almost doing more to let us understand these characters than the writing and the acting do (and, the film seems to know this on some level with the amount of time spent commenting on what Roman is wearing).  It’s a movie that knows when to be pretty and when to be ugly, and obviously loves Los Angeles for its flaws just as much as its glory.

The film’s fatal flaw, though, even worse than its handling of its characters and plot is its handling of its themes.  It’s a movie that seems to want to be an even-handed film showing that people have layers and that an evil act does not make an evil person and vice versa or perhaps that being successful does not make one unethical or perhaps its meant to be a simpler don’t judge a book by its cover style of message.  Due to the fact that its characterizations are so messy, though, I don’t know.  Compare Roman J. Esquire to a film like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri or Lady Bird (review forthcoming) and you will the difference between characters and story which are complex and realistic and those which are merely inconsistent and not well thought out.

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Final verdict:  Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a mess of a passion project.  It’s a movie that I really want to like because you can tell that the people behind it really believed in what they were doing.  That very belief, however, seemed to blind them to the reality which is that this movie was trying to do so much that it couldn’t accomplish much of it effectively.  As a visual testament to the city of Los Angeles and to the maxim of clothes making the man the movie hits, but aside from that, it spins its wheels never letting us really understand who these people are nor what they are trying to say.