REVIEW: “Molly’s Game”

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Jessica Chastain already had one knockout 2017 performance under her belt with the World War 2 drama “The Zookeeper’s Wife”. Now you can make it two with her latest film, the biographical crime drama “Molly’s Game”. It’s an adaptation of the 2014 memoir of Molly Bloom, once an Olympic hopeful in freestyle skiing but later the runner of exclusive underground poker games.

Chastain plays Molly Bloom and is given an incredibly meaty role by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. This also marks Sorkin’s feature film directorial debut. Much like his Oscar-winning script for “The Social Network”, “Molly’s Game” slickly weaves together a current day legal drama with flashbacks that tell of Molly’s rise and decade-long run as the “poker princess” which eventually leads to her arrest by the FBI.

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Sorkin’s signature dense, fast-paced dialogue zips us through the backstory with the help of Molly’s narration. It comes in spurts and covers a lot of ground – her time at home with her hard-nosed father/coach (another fine supporting turn by Kevin Costner), her move to Los Angeles after a horrible skiing accident, and her high-stakes poker games that start in LA and end in New York.

Throughout these flashbacks we meet an interesting lot of characters. Take Michael Cera who plays a movie star simply known as Player X. In Molly’s memoir she named several A-listers who frequented her games – movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Affleck, rapper Nelly, and baseball star Alex Rodriguez to name a few. Many believe Cera’s smarmy Player X is an amalgam of these big named celebrities who helped draw billionaires to Molly’s games. But it seems Player X represents one particular movie star who the book paints as particularly reprehensible – Tobey Maquire.

The dialogue also shines in the current day scenes with Molly and her lawyer Charlie Jaffey. He’s played by Idris Elba, so perfect in tone and intensity. Delivering Sorkin’s words can’t be easy. It demands a quick tongue and even quicker wit. Elba’s delivery is smooth as silk and he shares a well tuned chemistry with Chastain. At times there is a fierce energy between the two but there are also quieter moments which offer a unexpected amount of warmth and levity.

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All of it is kept in sync through Sorkin’s impressive direction. He deftly manages his mile-a-minute language and structural hopscotch while giving his performers plenty of space to work. The film also packs a surprising visual punch that matches the spirit and vigor of the dialogue. It’s nothing eye-popping but it’s as sharp and snappy as it’s lead character. And most importantly Sorkin keeps himself out of the way, trusting his material and his actors.

Aaron Sorkin has shown a fascination in self-made success stories as evident by his last four movies. “The Social Network”, “Moneyball”, “Steve Jobs”, and now “Molly’s Game” all tell of individuals who bucked systems and against all probability propelled themselves to success. “Molly’s Game” may be the best of the bunch. It’s one part invigorating character study and one part stunning expose. It features a trifecta of top-notch performances from Elba, Costner, and especially Chastain. It does feel long at 140 minutes yet it’s never dull nor does it run out of gas. Sorkin has too much to say to ever allow that to happen.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Beasts of No Nation”

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If there is one thing that profoundly comes across in Cary Fukunaga’s searing war drama it is that war has a cost – an intense human cost. In the case of Agu, the preadolescent lead character in “Beasts of No Nation”, it’s about the loss of family, the loss of childhood, the loss of innocence.  It is a bleak, uncomfortable, yet thoroughly arresting portrait of child soldiering that never tiptoes around the revulsion of its subject matter.

This was a seven-year project for Fukunaga where he worked as writer, director, and cinematographer. It is a fictional piece based on a 2015 debut novel by Nigerian author Uzodinma Iweala. Fukunaga knew he wasn’t making a movie for the masses. This simply isn’t the type of material that people will flock to see. But that is just one reason to respect the talented 38-year old who previously made the terrific “Sin Nombre” but is probably best known as the director for the first season of “True Detective”.

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To bring the film to light Fukunaga and company had to navigate numerous hurdles. Some were related to financing or securing distribution. But there were also problems tied specifically to shooting in Eastern Ghana – malaria, theft of equipment, and near-death experiences. Fukunaga would later call it the hardest thing he has tackled, but the movie flourishes due to the rich authenticity of the locations.

The film opens with a sequence that haunts the rest of the story. Young Agu (played with eye-opening purity by newcomer Abraham Attah) and his friends are running around with the hull of an old television. They implore potential buyers to watch through the hollowed out screen while they play out different TV shows on the other side. Kung Fu, soap operas, 3-D. It’s a playful and spirited sequence built around the vitality of childhood. It plants a picture in our minds that slowly erodes as the film moves forward.

Agu lives in an unnamed West African village with his parents, big brother, baby sister, and disabled grandfather. The village lives under the illusion of safety in what is called a “buffer zone”. But reality lurks on each side of them in the form of opposing forces in a violent civil war. Inevitably the war bleeds over into the village and the savagery that follows sees Agu’s family killed. He flees into the jungle where he is eventually found by a rebel faction and their charismatic leader known only as Commandant (played with a forceful, seductive swagger by Idris Elba).

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Commandant recruits the reluctant Agu into his army of child soldiers who he calls his “warriors”. He starts by breaking down any barrier of innocence and then preying on Agu’s vulnerability. He’s a hypnotic snake oil salesman who his soldiers see as larger-than-life. We also visualize him that way although our lofty perspective is tainted by the other evil side of him we see. He is a ruthless and vile egotist who takes his army from village to village, teaching them to slaughter, to pillage, and to do whatever sadistic bidding he may require. We get scenes reminding us of their innocence, but they are swallowed up by the horrors Commandant leads the children to do. Elba is phenomenal in showing us this brutal, mythical force and then later the insecure and self-destructive layers that threaten to undo him.

Fukunaga doesn’t take the easy way out, but he also doesn’t relish in the blood and violence. Everything has meaning and each atrocity we see through Agu’s eyes strips away more of his hold on right and wrong. The morality struggle is excruciating to watch and the film’s reliance on young Attah is bold. But even more audacious is the performance from the 14 year-old first time actor who channels more authentic emotion and inner-conflict than the most seasoned vet.

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I also appreciate how “Beasts” doesn’t launch itself into the political realm. Some critics have knocked the film for not talking about a specific conflict or focusing on a specific regime. They speak as if the film loses some of its potency as a result. I completely disagree. Fukunaga has said he didn’t want this to be “an issues film”. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a conscious meaning to much of what we see. And the film’s avoidance of politics allows for a more personal and impacting story to be told.

“Beasts of No Nation” is a movie you may not want to see a second time, but it’s one you must see a first time. Experiencing Agu as our eyes and ears; experiencing his struggles, fears, and dissent down this dark and violent path is  crushing. But buried deep within this story is a glimmer of hope. It is at times unrecognizable and unfathomable, but it’s there and it keeps us deeply connected to this young boy. “Beasts” may not make tons of money and it may not get a lot of talk come awards time. It should. This is one of the more emotional cinematic experiences of the year and easily one of the best films. It deserves an audience.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

 

REVIEW: “The Gunman”

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It shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear of Sean Penn making a political thriller. It may surprise them to see him make one this bad. For years Penn has been involved in a number of humanitarian causes and numerous times he has thrust himself onto the political landscape. Sometimes it has resulted in great work while other times he has looked attention-starved and self-promotional. And despite his occasional foray into the bizarre, you like to think he is a man of conviction. From a movie perspective you like to think he can still act. “The Gunman” will leave you questioning both.

To be completely honest it wasn’t Penn who drew me to this movie. It was the supporting cast featuring Javier Bardem, Idris Elba, and Ray Winstone. Three great actors – all basically wasted by a film void of all energy, originality, or substance. Even Penn’s attempt to add a political edge comes across as preachy, moral high ground posturing instead of a thought provoking and substantive critique. All we are left with is the action and Penn’s buffed up physique, neither of which are enough to save the movie.

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Penn plays Terrier, a member of an assassination squad working in the Congo. A contract comes to them calling for the assassination of the Minister of Mines. Terrier is chosen to carry out the mission and then leave the Congo to go into hiding. I’m assuming this is to protect his team and his unknowing girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Tribca). The Minister’s death unleashes violence and instability throughout the region. Years pass and a remorseful Terrier returns hoping humanitarian work can help atone for his sins.

But while working he is targeted by a hit squad which pushes him back into hiding. Convinced that the incident is connected to the Minister’s assassination, Terrier sets out to find his old squad to see what they know and warn them of a potential threat. One of his old mates is Felix (Bardem), now a wealthy alcoholic who, to Terrier’s chagrin, happens to be married to Annie. This adds a new complexity to Terrier’s search for answers, but it’s nothing compared to the trouble he runs into as he gets closer to the truth.

I mentioned how the movie wastes its supporting talent. Bardem’s character is paper-thin and other than a couple of times where he’s doing some serious scenery chewing, he is given nothing to do. Idris Elba finally pops up in the final act but only gets a couple of brief scenes. Ray Winstone plays the prototypical ‘mentor’ character to Terrier. You’ve seen this character so many times before and nothing about him deviates from the blueprint.

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That brings us to Penn and specifically his approach to his character. Penn plays it ultra-serious the entire way never showing an ounce of humor and other than some painful grunts you rarely see any emotion. He constantly looks sour as if he had eaten some bad food and at times he seems more interested in showing off his biceps than the movie.

With “The Gunman” you ultimately end up with a dull, emotionally inert, slog of an experience. None of its components really work – the half-baked romance, the throwaway performances, the powerless political messaging. Even the big violent finale is as preposterous as anything you would see in a Van Damme straight-to-DVD movie. Some of the shootouts look pretty good but when there is absolutely nothing behind them and when they are treated this seriously, even they fall flat. Basically “The Gunman” fires nothing but blanks.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2 Stars

REVIEW: “Alex Cross”

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“Alex Cross” is Tyler Perry’s attempt at starring in a serious movie outside of his normal comfort zone. Now you won’t see him running around in drag sporting his familiar Madea getup, but there are times in “Alex Cross” where that might have made things more interesting. Now to be fair, this movie is nowhere near as unbearable as I was anticipating and there are some pretty good moments. But in the end this is all to familiar material and the movie never does anything to set itself apart. In other words we’ve seen this all before.

Tyler Perry isn’t the first actor to portray Alex Cross, the lead character from James Patterson’s series of novels. Morgan Freeman took on the role in 1997 with “Kiss the Girls” and in 2001 with “Along Came a Spider”. Not only are these two films considerably different than this new vision, but the Alex Cross character undergoes a hefty transformation as well. He’s still a police detective and forensic psychologist but here he’s more open to mixing hand-to-hand combat and his sawed off shotgun to his Sherlock Holmesesque skills of deduction.

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Life is good for Alex. He has a beautiful wife, two lovely children, and one on the way. He’s also been offered a cushiony FBI desks job that pays a lot more money and would allow him to spend more time with his family. But isn’t it just like a sadistic serial killer to make things more complicated. Alex is called to a high-profile crime scene with his partner and lifelong friend Tommy (Edward Burns). They connect the murder to a man they call Picasso. He’s played by an almost emaciated Matthew Fox sporting a shaved head and noticeably fake tattoos. As with all of these movies, Alex and company set out to stop Picasso by picking through clues and getting to the next victim before the killer does. Like I said, it’s pretty familiar material.

“Alex Cross” runs the gamut from a crime drama to a revenge thriller. As the movie continues things get grislier to the point of seriously pushing the bounds of its PG-13 rating. Considering the movie does focus on a brutal serial killer and the hunt to find him, it’s not unreasonable to expect some rather gruesome content. But while “Alex Cross” does stretch the PG-13 rating, it seems shackled by it as well. I kept feeling as if the movie wanted to be darker, grimmer, and a bit more shocking than it was. I don’t think that would transform this into a great film but I can see where it would provide an edge that would help it overall.

But back to one of the bigger questions surrounding the movie. Was Tyler Perry able to pull this off? Let me just say that he was surprisingly adequate but nothing extraordinary or memorable. And while there were no egregious flaws in his performance, there are several times where he overplays a scene and other times where his stale line-reading is a distraction. It’s interesting that Idris Elba was initially cast for the part and I can’t help thinking he would be a better choice. But as for Perry, I was expecting a lot worse.

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Edward Burns probably gives the best performance of the movie even though some of the lines he’s given are pretty lame. And then there’s Matthew Fox. His performance is a tough one to peg. There are a few scenes, particularly when he’s wrestling with threatening dialogue, where he’s not that convincing. But overall I do think he pulls it off mainly because he sells ‘crazy’ pretty well through the combination of his unusual appearance and his moral apathy. But perhaps the most jarring performance comes from John McGinley as Alex Cross’ police captain. He’s terribly miscast and every line he says is ridiculously overdone. His performance stands out but for all the wrong reasons.

“Alex Cross” isn’t the worst movie out there. Its biggest problem is that is just not memorable enough to overcome its clear flaws. Most of the movie features too much that we’ve seen before and the ending feels like a cheap cop out. And while Tyler Perry may not have been the worst choice, I think it’s obvious he wasn’t the best choice. All of this contributes to “Alex Cross” being pretty forgetful. Some ingredients are there for what could’ve been a good movie. But the ingredients themselves don’t equal a fine dish. That’s certainly the case here.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

“PROMETHEUS” – 4 1/2 STARS

Science fiction is often times a hard sell to movie critics. It can be an even harder sell to moviegoers who aren’t big fans of the genre. I can boldly state that I am a sci-fi guy. I can get lost in well written and well crafted science fiction. For science fiction to work you have to sell the audience on what they’re seeing on screen. The audience has to believe it, not so much from a realism standpoint, but from the perspective of the characters. They have to believe that what they’re seeing is completely consistent with the world the characters are living in. Often times this works due to strong characters worth investing in and an imaginative world laced with thin strands of believability. Director Ridley Scott accomplished this in 1979 with his sci-fi classic “Alien”. Now he’s back with “Prometheus” and he just might have another classic on his hands.

The movie follows the crew of the space ship “Prometheus” and it’s mission to make contact with those believed to have created human life. Two years prior to the mission, scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discovered the same star map on several different dig sites of ancient civilizations. Believing the star maps are invitations, they join the “Prometheus” crew on a mission funded by a mysterious elderly corporate man named Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce). After a long stasis, the crew awaken to find they have arrived at the remote moon LV-233, the site believed to be inhabited by those who created human life. Of course we know that things aren’t as simple as they appear. The story then takes off and we soon discover that its not only the moon that holds secrets, but also the crew members.

The Prometheus has an interesting crew besides Shaw and Holloway. Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) is an employee of Weyland Industries who is sent to monitor the mission. She has an ominous presence and her true motivations are hard to decipher. The one thing that’s clear is that she has her own agenda. David (Michael Fassbender) is the ship’s android created by Weyland Industries. He monitors and maintains the ship but there is something unnerving and mysterious about him. Idris Elba plays Janek, the ship’s captain. He’s a straight-shooter who takes his responsibilities seriously. Some of these and the other crewmen believe in the mission while others are in it for other reasons. But all get more than they bargain for.

There is also the underlying question of faith versus science that pops up throughout the film. Shaw’s faith, that she shared with her father, is constantly brought into question by those with a more scientific slant. But I like how Scott never discounts or discredits her belief. In fact, it becomes clear that all the scientific knowledge they thought they had didn’t give them the answers they sought. I also liked how the movie plays with he contrast between human curiosity and things better left alone. The human desire to know can at times be a wonderful thing. But Scott shows us it can also bring severe consequences.

“Prometheus” takes place within the same world as the “Alien” films but it also sets out to create a new branch of mythology. Scott has been toying with the idea for the film for a long time and after several changes of direction, the results are most satisfying. “Prometheus” feels like an “Alien” picture and at times you see some of the same filmmaking style as was used in the original “Alien” movie. Ridley Scott starts the film out with a deliberate but measured pace, slowly asking questions and building up tension. I found myself completely immersed and constantly wondering “Is this the scene where everything blows up in their face?” John Spaihts and Damon Lindelof’s story gives us a lot of information early, some that’s intended to build the mythology, but some that leave us guessing right along with the characters. I found it to be a phenomenal buildup to the cataclysm that we know could come at any second.

When things do come to a head, the movie’s pace most certainly picks up and the audience is taken on one heck of a ride. Questions are answered as we are exposed to the truth behind the Engineers and their plans. One of my favorite things about the movie was it’s great assortment of characters and we begin to see the motivations and secrets behind the most mysterious of them. They also begin to drop like flies as the ‘survival movie’ element of “Prometheus” kicks in. This is where the movie does run a little off course. There were a couple of things that happen that seem to be out of the clear blue and with no real explanation. It also seems that in the frantic attempt to bring everything together, some useful details were left out. On the flip side, it’s clear Scott intentionally left many questions unanswered, questions that could conveniently (and hopefully) be answered in a sequel. 

The cast of “Prometheus” really shines and some of the performances really stand out. There’s no way to talk about the acting without first mentioning Michael Fassbender. His ability to capture the mystery and complexity of an emotionless, human imitating android is stunning. He never gives away his motivations prematurely and his looks, speech, and mannerisms are simply perfect. He creepily moves about the ship taking care of things while clearly having a more secret agenda. Fassbender sells all of this to us brilliantly. I also really liked Theron who always seems to be in the background observing but who also desperately wants more control than she has. Elba is also good as the Captain, a character that at times came dangerously close to being a stereotype yet he adds a freshness that I really liked. Then of course there is Noomi Rapace. She beat out big names like Natalie Portman and Anne Hathaway for the role and it’s clear Scott made a good choice. It’s a demanding role and Rapace is definitely up to the task.

I also have to briefly talk about the spectacular look of “Prometheus”. Scott certainly uses the modern-day special effects technology to his advantage creating some amazing visuals. The CGI is top-notch and never feels underdone. What’s even more impressive is that Scott insisted on building several sets from the ground up passing over the green screens in many instances. While there is a ton of CGI, I loved the fact that this old school filmmaker still uses old school techniques and uses them well. The futuristic technology in the movie is a blast and I loved watching each cool creation from their vehicles to the suits to “Prometheus” itself. Scott’s visual style is noticeable even here. He enjoys wide but structured shots and he doesn’t try to stage shots with fancy gimmicks like herky-jerky hand-held cameras to add a “chaotic” effect. He frames his shots and then trusts his vision. I like that. The movie also is one of the rare instances where I enjoyed the 3D. It was shot in 3D and Scott had it in mind throughout the picture. But he doesn’t overdo it. It simply feels like part of the movie. But it also doesn’t make or break the movie. I would have liked the film just as much in 2D.

Like I said, I’m a sci-fi guy and when it’s done well I’m all onboard. “Prometheus” is science fiction done well by a director that has already given us one of the greatest sci-fi/horror movies of all time. It’s a visual delight with a story that delivers genuine intensity, some great characters, and an ending that had me howling for more. It almost pays homage to the first two “Alien” films with some striking parallels in story structure and even in dialogue. I loved that. “Prometheus” is certainly a movie that someone could sit down with a pen and paper and find flaws. For me it was an amazing experience. A reminder of how cool science fiction can be and once again I was drawn into a director’s world and stayed there for the whole ride. In other words, I really, really liked “Prometheus”.