REVIEW: “Molly’s Game”


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.


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.


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.



REVIEW: “The Martian”

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Ridley Scott’s filmography has been pretty amazing. A quick scan shows it to be littered with cult classics, blockbuster favorites, and Oscar winners. But over the last several years many have hit Scott’s films pretty hard. Personally I have disagreed with the many. I loved the slower, character-driven approach to “Robin Hood”. I don’t think “Prometheus” was nearly as bad as many do. And despite its noticeable flaws, I thought “Exodus” was a pretty grand spectacle.

But now the 77 year-old Scott has once again caught the attention of his critics with “The Martian”, a brainy and somewhat observational  science fiction flick based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel. Scott has long enjoyed delving into the science fiction realm, yet with “The Martian” he has managed to create something unique. This entertaining mixture of striking visuals and patient, methodical narrative has little in common with Scott’s past sci-fi experiences. “The Martian” is a much different movie but it still spotlights Scott’s talents as a filmmaker even though it may not sit among his best.


“The Martian” plays out like some type of love letter to science and space exploration. There are A TON of science-heavy back-and-forths between the film’s large cast of characters and science is the centerpiece for nearly every scene. In many ways it was captivating to watch and listen to these people speak 10 light years over my head – bouncing around theories, equations, and analyzing data. At the same time it left two-thirds of the film feeling too emotionally dry. Drew Goddard’s script nails down the science but sometimes misses the human element.

The story hops into gear quickly when the Aries III Mars mission is hit by a brutal storm. They are forced to prematurely leave the surface and in the process astronaut and team botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed killed and left behind. Actually though, Mark miraculously survived and wakes up to find himself alone and stranded on the red planet. Armed with more scientific knowledge than a stack of college textbooks, Mark determines to use his science knowhow to survive. That starts by figuring out a way to communicate back to Earth.

For me Matt Damon is the epitome of the ‘reliable actor’. He is always solid and you know what you’re going to get. Here he handles his alone scenes well often talking to only himself of a computer screen. Many scenes require him to carry them ala Tom Hanks in “Cast Away”. He doesn’t exhibit the charisma or charm of Hanks but he more than gets the job done and you never doubt him or his predicaments.


The film’s second setting is on Earth. Upon discovering that Mark is alive, NASA sets out to find a feasible rescue plan. To accomplish this the movie introduces us to a host of characters many of which function solely to toss around their own scientific solutions. An interesting ensemble is put together for the NASA scenes. On the better side of the group is the rock-solid Chiwetel Ejiofor who plays Mars Mission Director Vincent Kapoor. In much more curious casting, Kristen Wiig feels terribly out of place as NASA’s chief spokesperson. And while Jeff Daniels certainly wasn’t “bad”, he was a bit hard to believe as the “Head of NASA”.

But there is a third setting and I would argue that it contains the more compelling and entertaining characters. It takes place aboard the Hermes where Mark’s crew is making the long trip back to Earth after losing one of their own. Or so they think. It’s here that the film gives us a better mix of science and human emotion. The casting is also stronger featuring Jessica Chastain, a reserved Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, and Aksel Hennie. I loved spending time with this group.


“The Martian” has wonderful visuals but not strictly in the way you might expect. There aren’t a lot of eye-popping visual spectacles. It’s more subtle and calculated, concentrating on gorgeous, slow-moving panoramic shots and unique, strategic camera angles that highlight the spectacular space settings. The storytelling is somewhat similar, at least until the last act. Most of the movie has the feel of a smaller more intimate picture despite its grand size and scale. I really appreciated that. It lasts right up until the finale. The ending felt much more studio polished and traditional.

Many people are heralding “The Martian” as a return to form for Ridley Scott. I would argue that he never lost his form but that is another discussion. Instead I’ll just say “The Martian” is another fine movie on a truly great filmmaker’s filmography. It’s not without its flaws. There is some questionable casting and some characters are woefully underdeveloped. Some of the humor doesn’t quite land (including a 70’s disco gag which never ends), and the ending was a bit too by-the-books. But none of these things keep “The Martian” from being a standout motion picture experience. It does several things we aren’t used to seeing from blockbustery type movies and it does them really well. And for me it is another reason why Ridley Scott remains a top-tier filmmaker.


4 Stars

REVIEW: “A Most Violent Year”


Writer and director J.C. Chandor’s young filmmaking career has offered us two diametrically opposed films. His first movie was the wearisome, heavy-handed Wall Street critique “Margin Call”. His second film was the gripping, solitary survival drama “All is Lost”. “Margin Call” was a talky, dialogue-heavy film while “All is Lost” had only a few spoken words. “Margin Call” featured a huge impressive cast while “All is Lost” featured only Robert Redford. Two very different movies in terms of story and filmmaking approach, but two films that had me very interested in what Chandor would do next.

His third feature is “A Most Violent Year”, an unorthodox organized crime movie with a very deceptive title. This isn’t a prototypical gangster action flick. It’s a slow-burning drama set in 1981 New York City. As evident by Chandor’s other films, he is most interested in telling his stories through layered and well-defined characters. We may get that through copious dialogue or revealing observations, but his characters are his predominate storytelling tool.


In “A Most Violent Year” our main character of focus is Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a dedicated and hard-working owner of a heating oil company. It’s a tough business environment but Abel has managed to grow his company mostly through legal means. We get hints that there are organized crime influences not only within the heating oil business but also in Abel’s family. Yet despite possible connections, Abel seeks to do things the right way, in hopes of avoiding any possible conflict with crime bosses or the law.

That goal becomes more difficult after his trucks begin to be hijacked during delivery runs. This creates a number of problems for Abel. The oil being stolen is taking a financial toll on his company. His firecracker wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) urges him to fight violence with violence. A local Teamsters head pressures Abel to break the law and arm his drivers. And to make matters worse, an ambitious Assistant District Attorney (David Oyelowo) is investigating Abel’s company which threatens to derail a vital business acquisition.

Chandor slow-cooks all of these ingredients, meticulously building his tension at a deliberate but effective pace. There is a very strategic flow to the story and I can see where some may long for more action or a quicker tempo. But I think that would undo much of what Chandor is going for. This film isn’t about gunfights and physical violence. It’s about a man desperate to avoid all of that even though it lingers in the background and around every corner.


There is something to be said about sitting back and watching good actors work. That is one of this film’s great pleasures. Oscar Isaac, with his well-groomed appearance and camel-hair coat, is wonderfully convincing selling us on Abel’s shaky confidence and good intentions. Chastain is also very good although there were moments when she came across as a little too big and showy. And I also have to mention Albert Brooks. Simply put he is just flawless playing Abel’s attorney who always seems to know more than he lets on. And while it is a relatively small part, David Oyelowo is always a delight.

“A Most Violent Year” is a very focused film that incorporates some of the tricks from J.C. Chandor’s other movies while also setting itself apart from them. The early 80s setting is impressively realized and the cold, wintry hues help relay the needed tone. The dialogue is sharp and intelligent. The performances are precise and confident. Most importantly the story itself pulled me in and what others may see as languid storytelling I see as uniquely fresh. Chandor’s third effort is a rich and gritty character-driven thriller that proves him to be one of the filmmakers that demands to be noticed.


REVIEW: “Interstellar”

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While some people may not love his movies, even they would have to admit that Christopher Nolan is a cinematic artist who has given us a number of movies known for their artistry and uniqueness. Personally I find myself smitten with every feature he brings to the screen. Nolan creates experiences. Through breathtaking visuals and challenging narratives, he takes his audiences places that must be navigating by the senses AND the intellect. I think he is a brilliant filmmaker, but even the greats sometimes miss the mark. There have been a lot of mixed opinions about Nolan’s latest work “Interstellar”. Is this his first shoot and miss?

Much of “Interstellar’s” divisiveness is rooted in extremely high expectations and/or the audiences’ willingness to not just quickly consume the film’s themes but to chew and meditate on them. It’s a film rich with ideas and questions, some of which are only barely touched on but which are still relevant and worth our attention. “Interstellar” is also soaked in science, not in the arrogant or haughty sense, but in a way that convincingly melds science fiction and reputable theory. It’s also ripe with emotion, something that I never expected going into it. In other words it’s a movie with a number of different components but none of which conflict thanks the masterful control Nolan has of his material.


I firmly believe that the less you know about “Interstellar” going in the better. But to offer a little about its story, Matthew McConaughey plays a widowed ex-NASA pilot named Cooper who now runs a farm with his father-in-law, teenaged son, and 10-year-old daughter. It’s the future and times are hard for the human race. A devastating blight has ravaged crops and able farmers have become more valuable than pilots or engineers. Government programs like NASA and the military have been abandoned and the focus put on the urgent need of food. In reality Earth’s plight is incurable and Cooper is recruited by an old acquaintance Professor Brand (Michael Caine) to head a space expedition to find a habitable planet. But it would require Cooper to leave what he holds dearest in order to potentially save it.

Nolan takes his time developing his scenarios and his characters. It starts with McConaughey and his fabulous performance. His weather-worn face and calloused hands puts him right at home on the dustbowl that Earth has become. McConaughey has a natural and magnetic presence that helps him sell every scene he’s in. It may be a poignant scene with his young daughter Murphy (remarkably played by Mackenzie Foy) or a vigorous debate with a room of physicists. I connected with his character early on and stayed invested until the end.

There is also a host of fantastic supporting work. Anne Hathaway is great as Professor Brand’s daughter and fellow scientist. I also enjoyed David Gyasi as a physicist who joins the expedition. And later on Jessica Chastain appears and gives a performance that grounds and emotionally energizes the second half of the film. Once again she is fabulous. Other castings that I really liked included John Lithgow, Casey Affleck, David Oyelowo, and Ellen Burstyn. Only one performance stuck out like a sore thumb. Neither Topher Grace nor his character ever quite fit.


But just having a great cast isn’t good enough. There has to be good material for them to work with and Christopher Nolan, along with his brother Jonathan, provide it. Their script pulls influence everywhere from “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “Alien”. From “Metropolis” to “Wall-E”. Yet despite that “Interstellar” is uniquely Nolan’s. Like many of his films it is cinematic brain food. It challenges us on a personal level by looking at our decisions and their consequences. It looks at self-sacrifice and the costs that some pay. It also challenges us on a philosophical level. What is our purpose of being? What is our place in the world?

And as I mentioned earlier there is a lot of science. This leaks into one of the complaints I’ve read in several places. Many count the film’s numerous science-laced conversations as a flaw. Some have seen them as nothing more than convoluted exposition. I couldn’t disagree more. Exposition is filling in gaps with back story or explanation and there is certainly some of that. But so many of the conversations center around the peril the characters are in and ways to handle it. They are dealing with unknowns, not providing filler. And of course I didn’t understand all of the talk about quantum physics, relativity, singularities, etc., but I believed it because the characters believed it and were passionate in their conversations about it. I bought into them so their knowledge was all I needed.

And then there is the emotional component of it. Surprisingly “Interstellar” is a film so full of emotion and some have had a hard time connecting with it. That’s a shame because emotion is the centerpiece of the film. At the core of “Interstellar” lies the one human force that transcends time and space. This is a movie about love. And it actually dares to be unashamedly sentimental, something else that many have viewed as a flaw. Again, I couldn’t disagree more. That’s because none of the heavy emotional scenes (all connected to the central theme of love) feel false or fabricated. In fact on several occasions I found myself deeply effected and more than once I was wiping tears from my cheeks. To add some perspective, that is very rare for me. But that’s not the only human side we see. Selfishness, cowardice, and deception all show their heads. Some at odds with love. Others born out of a twisted form of love.


It should go without saying that “Interstellar” looks and sounds amazing. Whether it’s the dry, abrasive, decaying Earth ushering in mankind’s extinction or space and its beautiful palette of stars, planets, clusters, and wormholes, the film offers a number of stunning effects and visual treats. It’s never as spectacular as last year’s “Gravity” but it’s equally impressive. There is a style employed that reminded me of real archived footage. It made many of the sequences all the more immersive. I also loved the use of sound from the space ambiance to Hans Zimmer’s precise score. “Interstellar” is a technical delight.

So why is “Interstellar” a divisive film? I can see a few areas where some may struggle with it. Some may find it too talky. Some may find it to confusing. Some may find it too sentimental. I respect those criticisms yet disagree with each of them. “Interstellar” is a space opera that is inspired by many films but it lays its own course. It’s a contemplative adventure and an emotional exploration that captivated me from its opening moments. More than that, it is one of the deepest and most moving experiences I’ve ever had with a film. It challenged me to self-reflect. It asked questions that I’m still tossing around in my head. It entertained me in a way that few movies of the last decade have. In a nutshell “Interstellar” is the reason I love movies and I can see this film becoming one of my favorites of all-time. Boring, overly sentimental, convoluted? No way. It’s a graceful, stimulating, a beautiful movie that gave me a motion picture experience I won’t soon forget.




REVIEW: “Take Shelter”

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“Take Shelter” is a beautiful and tender yet painful and unsettling drama written and directed by Jeff Nichols. It’s a near flawless exercise in enigmatic but measured filmmaking anchored by an unforgettable Oscar worthy performance from Michael Shannon. Nichols brings a haunting realism to his examination of mental illness and it’s because of our genuine relatability to his believable and organic characters that the journey is so heart-wrenching.

Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a loving husband and father who begins to experience disturbing dreams and hallucinations. His dreams always start with an approaching storm and as he teeters on the edge of insanity, the storm becomes more and more of a reality to him. Curtis is different than so many of these characters we have seen before. He’s not an bad man. While he does struggle to keep his grasp on reality, he also recognizes it and takes several sensible measures to curb it. He genuinely loves his family and his greatest fear is that the same mental illness that effected his mother will effect him and those closest to him. As the storm from his dreams melds more into Curtis’ reality, he begins working on an old tornado shelter in the backyard. It’s this project that brings his troubles to the surface and it’s the family he desperately hopes to protect that may pay the ultimate price.

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Shannon is simply brilliant in this film. There was no other performance that year that grabbed me and moved me the way he did in “Take Shelter”. There are so many elements to his character and Shannon sells them all. In some scenes you hurt with him as he fights the coming storm. Other times you can’t help but fear him as he loses ground in the war for his sanity. The entire film hinges on Curtis’ character and without Shannon’s captivating work the movie would have flat-lined.

Jessica Chastain beautifully portrays Curtis’ wife Samantha. She’s given much more to do here than in her earlier film “The Tree of Life” but she’s just as mesmerizing. Samantha is a loyal and devoted wife and mother. She’s a woman of faith with an unwavering love for her husband even as things get more complicated. In many ways she is the more sympathetic character in the film. Not only is she the gentle voice of reason, but she must deal with the changes in her husband while taking care of their hearing impaired daughter. She truly is a remarkable woman and Chastain is magnetic in every scene she is in. It’s impossible not to be drawn in by her authentic and subtle performance.

“Take Shelter” moves at a very deliberate pace, slowly developing the story but never getting weighted down by the subject matter. The main characters are so well written and their unfolding relationship keeps things grounded while also raising the stakes. Nichols also does a fantastic job capturing the details and nuances of small town middle America. It’s little things like embroidered pillows and Lion’s Club luncheons that stand out for those like me who are familiar with this part of the country.

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My one problem with “Take Shelter” is its vague and ambiguous ending. Sure it leaves things open for all sorts of interpretations but I’m not sure that’s the best approach for this type of story. I can think of a couple of places close to the end that would have made for a stronger and more moving finish if only Nichols could put down his pen. It’s not that it’s a terrible conclusion to an otherwise great film, but it’s confusing and I would be lying if I said I knew exactly what took place.

“Take Shelter” paints an intriguing picture of an embattled man losing a war within himself. It presents such an authentic family dynamic that makes the consequences of Curtis’ potential fall so much more devastating. It can sometimes be a difficult film to watch but it’s thoroughly rewarding. Shannon and Chastain both deserved Oscar nominations for their work in what is one of my favorite movies of the past few years.


REVIEW: “Oblivion”

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Since his questionable comments and ill advised sofasaults on Oprah, Tom Cruise has become an actor that many people love to hate. But those things are in the past and as wacky as they were they still didn’t effect the level of his onscreen work. He’s a talented actor who throughout his career has tackled a wide variety of roles in iconic 80’s cheesefests, stirring and emotional dramas, big budgeted franchises, and even sci-fi thrillers. Now he returns to the science fiction genre in “Oblivion”, a much more direct and vast sci-fi picture than Cruise’s other efforts.

“Oblivion” is co-written and directed by Joseph Kosinski, the man behind Disney’s $400 million money maker “Tron: Legacy”. Disney originally purchased the rights to “Oblivion” in hopes of repeating Tron’s success but later relinquished the rights. It was quickly gobbled up by Universal Studios with Tom Cruise and Jessica Chastain set to star in the picture. Chastain would eventually drop out for “Zero Dark Thirty” with Olga Kurylenko replacing her. The movie is based on Kosinski’s unpublished graphic novel and was given an ambitious $120 million budget.

I have to say I was really excited for “Oblivion”even though the studio was very cryptic in regards to the film’s details. That’s a good approach to take because I found that the less you know going in the more effective the story will be. And for me it was quite effective. “Oblivion” doesn’t fall into the category of a science fiction masterpiece but thanks to its visionary conception, stunning effects, and some strong committed performances it doesn’t miss by much.


Now there have been three main criticisms hurled at “Oblivion”. Some have complained about its thin plot. Others took off points for its lack of originality. And yet others have had problems with the lack of any meaningful character development. I certainly don’t flippantly dismiss any of these gripes but I don’t necessarily agree with them either. There’s a lot going on in “Oblivion” and while it does borrow from several other sci-fi pictures, the same could be said for most science fiction. As for the lack of character development, that may be true but I found there to be a good and needed reason for it.

Like I said the less you know the better so I’m not going to spoil anything by divulging any significant details. The film is set in 2077 during the aftermath of a war with an alien species known as the Scavengers. The Scavs (as they’re affectionally called) destroyed our moon which sent Earth into a series of natural and environmental convulsions. A full invasion of Earth followed. The humans won the war but the planet was left ravaged and in disrepair. The surviving population now inhabit one of Saturn’s moons called Titan. Now if a sci-fi movie wants to score points with me just give me a futuristic world that’s not only visually impressive but that I can get lost in. That certainly happened here and even if you do have issues with the story, no one can say this isn’t an expressive setting.

Cruise plays Jack Harper one of the last people left on the planet. He works as a technician who does security and repair work as humanity tries to salvage the last bit of resources from the planet. His lone co-worker is Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). She oversees Jack’s work and reports back to their commanding officer Sally (Melissa Leo). Jack and Victoria have only two weeks left before they get to join the others on Titan, something she’s very excited about. Naturally things can’t go without a hitch. A series of events triggered by the appearance of a mysterious woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko) catapult the story into some fun and rather exciting directions.


I can honestly say I completely bought into this premise. For the most part it’s a well conceived storyline that undeniably takes from several other familiar sci-fi films. But it works for me mainly because of how intelligently it took all of these components and put them together to form what I think is a very competent and compelling science fiction piece. The story itself grabbed me and pulled me into this visual spectacle and I never found myself wanting to check out.

The movie also managed to surprise me. I knew there were twists involved and I had my eyes open for that. For the most part it kept me off balance and had me looking in every direction trying to guess where things were going. While I did eventually figure some things out before they were revealed on screen, it didn’t hurt my experience whatsoever. I also appreciate how this wasn’t a movie of wall-to-wall action. Don’t misunderstand me, there is action, some of it spectacular. But to my surprise the movie spent more time deliberately peeling off layers to the story. Now it may move too glacially for some but I really responded to this approach.


With all that praise being said, I did think the film flirted with convention a bit too much in the final act. It’s not that it’s terrible and poorly done but for me it didn’t really fit with the way the movie had progressed up to that point. I’m being pretty vague but let’s just say things are a little too on the nose. And while I do think the three main characters aren’t fully developed for good reasons, there are some characters and a particularly important plot point that felt terribly underwritten. This effected a rather important turn that the film takes later on. I’ll also add that there was one big special effects money shot at the end that I felt was a pretty humdrum. Considering the dazzling effects we had been given up till then, I was expecting a bigger payoff. I’ll leave it at that.

Those are my only gripes and even though they do restrain “Oblivion” from being one of the great science fiction pictures, they didn’t kill my experience. In fact I like the film a great deal. Cruise gives another strong lead performance and he’s helped by solid work from Kurylenko and Riseborough. The eye-popping visuals help create a futuristic wonder and the Iceland locations give a perfect sense of desolation. And I haven’t even mentioned the marvelous sound design and the soundtrack from M83 which I found to be a really nice fit. There’s just so much I liked about “Oblivion”. And while I can’t just completely overlook its handful of flaws, they’re easy to get past especially when you were as intrigued and glued to the screen as I was.