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

K&M RETRO REVIEW: “The Untouchables”

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“The Untouchables” hit theaters on June 3, 1987. It was a little over a month away from my 16th birthday and I still remember my unbridled enthusiasm for the movie. I would perk up with every TV spot. I read the movie novelization. I read “The Untouchables: The Real Story” by Eliot Ness. I watched the old Robert Stack television series (what few chances I had in a small rural town). In other words seeing this movie was a big deal at the time.

I can’t count how many times I have watched it since. I can say that after paying it a visit for the first time in a while, it still excites me. Director Brian De Palma’s Prohibition era gangster picture pulls from an assortment of different inspirations. De Palma certainly infuses it with a specific visual style. At the same time the film features several classic filmmaking and storytelling touches. It was a big success. It did well at the box office and at the Academy Awards. It grabbed four Oscar nominations winning one for Sean Connery’s supporting work.

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Kevin Costner plays Eliot Ness, a young and eager Prohibition agent in 1930 Chicago (the role was originally offered to Mickey Rourke). He is assigned the seemingly impossible task of taking down mob boss Al Capone (Robert De Niro). Capone owns most of the city through violence, bribes, and liquor distribution. Ness flounders his first few liquor raids and borders on being a laughing stock around town.

Ness catches the eye of a seasoned cop named Jimmy Malone (Connery) who is fed up with the mass corruption running through the system. Malone pushes Ness to go further and to be willing to get his hands dirty if he wants to stop Capone. The two add a young academy trainee and expert marksman George Stone (Andy Garcia) and Washington bureau accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) to their team. They begin to make dents in Capone’s organization eventually earning the nickname “The Untouchables”. But can anyone be called ‘untouchable’ in De Palma’s corrupt and violent Chicago?

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Even at almost 30 years-old “The Untouchables” hasn’t lost a bit of its excitement or intensity. De Palma and screenwriter David Mamet deliver a fluid, high energy story that weaves through rampant police corruption and bloody gangland violence. And there is certainly some bloody violence. At times the film flows with a classic gangster movie vibe. But then De Palma will broadside us with a scene of jarring violence which feeds the film’s unique tone.

The presentation is top notch. It was brilliantly shot by Stephen H. Burum and several of Chicago’s historical locations were used. The settings, wardrobes, and set designs are impeccable. The Grammy Award winning score from the great Ennio Morricone is simply superb. Who can forget the deep piano accompanied by the haunting wail of a harmonica? Like so much else in the movie, Morricone’s score is truly phenomenal.

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And how about the cast? A young Kevin Costner is the perfect fit for an earnest and determined Ness. De Niro hams it up to epic levels. Of course he goes really, really big, but he is a ton of fun. And then you have Sean Connery who gives one of the best performances of his impressive career. He’s surly, he’s tough, and he has a ton of charisma. Garcia is really good as the soft-spoken cop in training and Billy Drago is gloriously evil in his version of Frank Nitti. The cast is fabulous from top to bottom.

High expectations can often be a death knell. Thankfully that wasn’t the case with “The Untouchables”. It more than delivered when I finally saw it during the summer of 1987. It was nice to see that it still holds up after all these years. Some have picked the film apart, pointing to everything from Mamet’s script to Connery’s accent. Neither were an issue for me. Instead I see this as a fabulous bit of entertainment that hasn’t aged a bit and is unquestionably one of Brian De Palma’s best.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Draft Day”

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Kevin Costner’s 2014 movie trifecta continues with “Draft Day”, a football film about the back room wranglings leading up to and during the NFL draft. This certainly isn’t the first sports movie focused on the front office instead of on the field. Think “Moneyball” with helmets and shoulder pads. The two films actually have a lot in common. Both feature two strong central lead performances and both give cool cinematic insights into a little known side of their sports.

Interestingly its similarities to “Moneyball” could be perceived as a bigger weakness. Both movies revolve around an audacious and headstrong team leader who bucks the system and conventional sports wisdom to build “his team”. They face constant resistance from ownership, scouts, and everyone in between yet stake their job on their faith in their system. It’s impossible not to see the resemblance.

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But despite the similarities “Draft Day” still manages to feel like its own movie. In reality football has become America’s #1 sport so much so that even the NFL Draft has become must watch television for fans. That hectic and intense timeframe is the setting for director Ivan Reitman’s movie. Costner plays Sonny Weaver, Jr., the general manager for a Cleveland Browns team mired in an extensive losing stretch. With only hours remaining until the start of the draft Sonny is facing immense pressure from the owner (Frank Langella) to make a big splash. He’s also butting heads with a newly hired coach (Denis Leary) and a fan-base desperate to win.

Sonny’s personal life is equally stressful. His secretive romantic relationship with a front office coworker named Ali (Jennifer Garner) has taken an unforeseen turn. He wrestles with the shadow of his recently deceased father – a well-respected former coach for the Browns. He also struggles under the weight of everyone’s expectations in light of his own inadequacies. The movie never dives deep into any of these personal issues, but we get just enough of them to flesh out Sonny and make him more than a stereotypical sports character.

The meat and potatoes of the movie is football but you don’t have to be well versed in the sport to understand what’s going on. That said, understanding the landscape and the relationship between college football and the NFL gave me a deeper appreciation for the story. I loved the manipulative and sometimes vulturous back-and-forths between GMs, each hungry to get the best deal. Then there is the turbulent draft preparation which is itself fascinating even without this stories added drama. All of this clicks and even when you know the movie is stretching it is still a ton of fun.

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But the biggest strength of the film is Kevin Costner. Talk about a strong performance. Costner reminds us why he became such a huge star. It’s a completely seamless and effortless performance that reveals so many of the characteristics and contradictions of this character. I also really love Jennifer Garner here. In the past she has been an actress I have never given much attention. Here she is razor sharp and she is a welcomed strong and confident female character. Even Denis Leary, an actor I normally dislike, is really good and I never get tired of watching Frank Langella. And then of course there is the assortment of mandatory football related cameos sprinkled throughout the film. Some are really cool while others are really obvious.

“Draft Day” could be accused of being too safe and by-the-book. It also follows several familiar sports movie tropes that you will immediately recognize. But the movie never chokes itself on them and it remains compelling throughout. The story is crisp and exciting even in its unique setting and overall it is loads of fun. But Costner is the shining light and watching him work here makes me so happy that he is back on the big screen. Simply put it’s one of my favorite performances of the year so far and it made “Draft Day” all the more interesting.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

5 Phenomenal Kevin Costner Films

This coming weekend will bring the release of Kevin Costner’s third (yes I said third) film of 2014. I’m a huge fan of Costner and I can say it’s great to see him back after a lengthy hiatus. So in light of his return I thought it would be cool to spotlight this great actor in this week’s Phenomenal 5. Now the wonderful movies that didn’t make this list are a testament to the fantastic career he has had. Considering that I wouldn’t call this the definitive list. Still I have no trouble calling these five Kevin Costner films absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “Open Range”

In 2003 Costner headed back to the old west alongside Robert Duvall in “Open Range”. Costner also hopped back into the director’s chair and reminded us of what an incredible cinematic eye he has. The story revolves around free grazing cattlemen who run into an Irish land hoarder who doesn’t want them anywhere around. A violent wild west clash explodes between the two groups ending in one of the best western shootouts ever put on screen. Costner is fabulous both in front and behind the camera which is the main reason the movie works so well.

#4 – “Field of Dreams”

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Kevin Costner has always had a heart for baseball movies. He made several throughout his career but for me his best is also the quintessential baseball film. “Field of Dreams” works for a variety of reasons. It captures everything that makes baseball so special to me. It also pricks my heart by telling a moving family story with a father as its centerpiece. And what a great cast. But Costner leads the way and he doesn’t miss a best. There is so much heart in this film and it’s one of those that I never get tired of watching.

#3 – “No Way Out”

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If you look at Costner’s great filmography “No Way Out” is one that may get lost among the bigger titles and bigger hits. But I absolutely love the film and it is one of the best thrillers to come out of the 80’s. Costner plays a U.S Navy Lieutenant who gets caught up in a web of scandal, corruption, and espionage. There is a great supporting cast featuring Gene Hackman, Sean Young, and Will Patton but it’s Costner who ratchets up the nervousness and intrigue. It’s impossible not to get caught up in the story and it will keep you on edge right up to its big surprise finale.

#2 – “The Untouchables”

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In many ways this is a nostalgic and sentimental choice but I can’t help myself. I love Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables”. The film gives a very cinematic version of Agent Eliot Ness (Costner) and his Prohibition Era mission to bring gangster Al Capone (Robert De Niro) to justice. The movie takes a ton of liberties with the characters and the actual accounts but in terms of pure cinema it is hard to beat what De Palma gives us. Costner is perfectly cast and alongside the great Sean Connery he gives this story such vivid life.

#1 – “Dances with Wolves”

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Many critics have viewed “Dances with Wolves” as a good movie but undeserving of the Oscar accolades it received. I have to disagree. I think the film is beautiful, captivating, and epic. Costner directed and starred in the film which won seven Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Score. There is no doubt that “Dances with Wolves” tinkers with historical fact for dramatic effect but it also tells a moving story and challenges many perceptions. But most importantly it is a great overall movie and despite the naysayers Costner pulled off a grand achievement.

So there are my five phenomenal movies from Kevin Costner. I automatically know a few that will be brought up (and should be) in the comments section below. I can’t wait to hear them and other Costner movies that may have made your list.

REVIEW: “3 Days to Kill”

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Kevin Costner’s 2014 reemergence campaign reaches phase two with the release of “3 Days to Kill”. It’s an action/thriller/comedy/family drama (and an assortment of other things) from director McG. The consonant-loving director isn’t one who automatically excited me. I couldn’t help but wonder if I would get a movie akin to “Terminator Salvation” (which I actually liked) or crap like his “Charlie’s Angels” flicks or the even worse “This Means War”. The inclusion of the sketchy Luc Beeson as co-writer added yet another line of uncertainty. But “3 Days to Kill” had one essential draw for me – the resplendent Kevin Costner.

Beeson is no stranger to taking an aging actor and making him an action movie star. Liam Neeson’s wallet is a lot heavier thanks to Mr. Luc. That’s what he does here with Costner although this story is an overloaded hodgepodge of action and dramatic storylines. Beeson and co-writer Adi Hasak try to take this story in a number of different directions but they never take the time to stop and commit to any of them. There are also frequent clashes in tone between the film’s curious split-personality. Toss in some corny melodrama and lazy shortcuts and you have a messy film but not one completely devoid of entertainment.

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Costner plays a grizzled CIA field agent named Ethan Renner who gets a bit of bad news. He finds out he has brain cancer and only a few months to live. He heads to Paris to find his ex-wife Christine (Connie Nielsen) and teenaged daughter Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld). His dedication to his work cost him his family and due to his illness he hopes to make amends in the short time he has left. But wouldn’t you know it, work comes a calling. Ethan is approached by a beautiful CIA handler named Vivi (Amber Heard) who wants him to pull that ‘one last job’ in exchange for an experimental drug that may save his life.

Vivi morphs from a CIA agent to a femme fatale with a penchant for leather, stiletto heels, and a wacky assortment of hairstyles. She is one of the weirdest, most cartoonish character, and while Heard is certainly lovely, I have no idea what the movie is trying to do with her. Vivi wants Ethan to hunt down a couple of German arms dealers ominously known as The Albino and The Wolf. Yes, that is honestly their names. He romps all over Paris, from Montmartre to Saint-Germain, shooting, punching, and driving cars really fast. Whenever he does something good, Vivi rewards him with a syringe of meds big enough to kill a cow.

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At the same time he’s reconnecting with his daughter who is suddenly entrusted to his care so her mom can take a three-day trip to London (you tell me who the worst parent is). There are so many preposterous and head-scratching moments that make Ethan and his wife look like blundering idiots. I know the film tries to develop believable relationships and sincere family drama, but it ends up tripping all over itself.

There are a number of other examples of how the dopey writing hurts the movie. For example, I don’t know how many times his sickness kicks in just as he’s about to catch The Wolf or The Albino. And I’m talking about within 10 feet of them. He suddenly gets blurry vision, disoriented, and then unconscious. Oh so close! And Parisien law enforcement must of been on strike. You never see one police car or policeman despite all of the shootouts and car chases in public areas. Then there is the ending which uses one of the lamest and most contrived “twists” in order to wrap things up. I could go on but you get the point.

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So considering all I have said this should be a horrible movie, right? Well not necessarily. It’s not as bad as it has every right to be and that’s mainly because of Costner. I love the guy and he makes things look effortless. Regardless of how absurd the scene may be, he is still a ton of fun to watch. He’s basically doing his Crash Davis from “Bull Durham” except he replaces baseballs and bats with pistols and explosives. I also really like Hailee Steinfeld. She’s not always able to rise above the material like Costner, but she’s still a talented young actress.

“3 Days to Kill” also features some cool actions sequences that Costner falls right into including a fantastic car chase through the beautiful yet busy Paris streets. There are also several gags that are actually very funny (in many ways also thanks to Costner). But these things can only cover up so much. Unfortunately the poor writing and McG’s lackluster direction leaves us with a sloppy movie that wastes a lot of potential. It still has its moments of fun and Costner almost saves it. But ultimately its a mediocre action picture that never anchors itself enough to tell a competent story.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recuit”

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It’s rare to find a fun and entertaining film on the front end of the movie year. January is notorious for being the month where studios empty their cupboards of held-over films with low expectations. That’s why “Jack Ryan: Shadow Agent” is a breath of fresh air. It may not have the best title, but it is an able action thriller. It’s a good ‘kick back and have a good time’ movie that is a nice change of pace from the heavier, deeper films we get during awards season.

This is the fifth movie from the Jack Ryan film series but the first since 2002’s “The Sum of All Fears”. It’s a reboot that also serves as an origin story for Jack. Chris Pine takes the lead once played by Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and Alec Baldwin. We first see him on the campus of the London School of Economics. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 inspire him to leave college and join the Marines. A series of uncontrollable events soon has him working as a financial intelligence analyst for the CIA. Kevin Costner plays his boss Thomas Harper who in many respects serves as Jack’s mentor.

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All of that leads to Jack’s first foray into the world of geopolitics. He uncovers a potential plot by a powerful Russian businessman named Cheverin (Kenneth Branagh). He travels to Moscow and soon finds himself more than just an analyst. The mission soon goes bad and Jack becomes a full-fledged field operative. Harper pops back up and Jack’s fiancé Cathy (Keira Knightley) soon finds herself in the middle of the chaos. It all plays out in a hail of bullets, car crashes, and big booms.

“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” follows a pretty familiar blueprint. It doesn’t strive to be original and it certainly doesn’t break any new ground. But it does know exactly what it wants to be and that focus helps make this a really fun ride. Kenneth Branagh also directed the film and he did a fine job of delivering a variety of great scenes. Perhaps my favorite is the first meeting between an undercover Jack and a suspicious Cheverin. It takes place in Cheverin’s ultra-modern Moscow office and you can cut the tension with a knife.

We also get quite a bit of action in this picture but I found it to be the right dosage. The shootouts and car chases are often set to beautiful Moscow and New York City backdrops and they are competently shot with a lot of energy. The fight scenes were filmed ala Paul Greengrass style with loads of quick cuts and herky-jerky hand-held cameras. As is often the case with this frantic style, it made it a little difficult to follow what was going on. Personally that drives me nuts. It’s obviously a popular stylistic choice these days but it doesn’t always work for me.

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Chris Pine seems to be getting better and better with each new role. I completely bought into him here because he brings so much more than the normal macho bravado. His Jack Ryan feels like a real person. He is nervous, uncomfortable, and the things happening around him deeply effect him. I appreciated that. But it’s Costner who really steals the show. Now I’ve always been a big Costner fan so I was excited to see his name attached. But he handles this material like the old pro that he is. It’s a great performance despite the few bits of cheesy dialogue. Keira Knightley is another story. She certainly has the American accent down but that’s about it. She has some good moments but there were several times when I had no idea what she was doing. She employs an assortment of weird facial expressions and quasi smiles that were often times distracting. Kate Beckinsale turned down this part when it was offered but I wish she had accepted it. I can see her bringing a lot more to it than Knightley.

Is this a formula that we’ve seen before? Absolutely. But when I’m enjoying myself, I just don’t care. Branagh keeps things rolling at a crisp pace and the time flew by. Some have had problems with the film’s lack of desire to do anything new. I can see that to a point. But when you handle your material well and the results are good, I’m okay with it. This is a straightforward and unapologetic thriller that never tries to be something it isn’t. Most importantly this is good old-fashioned fun and that counts for a lot in my book.

VERDICT – 4 STARS