Molly’s Game

MollyDirector: Aaron Sorkin

Screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Graham Greene, (and an Aaron Sorkin cameo, of course)

Those of you who like your Wing West, your Network Social, and your Men, Few and Good already know who Aaron Sorkin is. You might know him as the author of some of your favorite long, witty monologues delivered while walking down a hallway. What you don’t know him as is a film director, until now. Molly’s Game is the directorial debut of one of the most celebrated screenwriters in Hollywood, Aaron Sorkin, whose films and television shows have earned every major critical writing award imaginable. Now, he takes his turn in the director’s chair with Molly’s Game.

Molly’s Game is the true story of the Olympic hopeful turned “Poker Princess” Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain). When a freak accident dashes her hopes at Olympic glory, Bloom turns her focus to business, and while working as an assistant to a real estate schemer named Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong), Molly is inadvertently introduced to the world of poker. Dean hosts a weekly game with pretty high stakes and a core group of relatively famous attendees. When Dean forces Molly to take on the role of organizing the game, taking records and accepting the buy-ins and giving the pay-outs, she is hooked to the intricacies of the game and begins improving the experience for the players. Soon, Molly is the real draw to the weekly game, much to Dean’s chagrin, leading him to box her out and try to rein her in. Molly instead decides to make a move and start her own game – Molly’s Game.

Things are all Aces for Molly for a little while. She plays by the rules, never takes a rake, and keeps things for the most part, legal. Until she discovers that some of the players in her game, unbeknownst to her, may have ties to the Russian mob. This catches the attention of the FBI and forces Molly to hire a lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to help save her game, her name, and her life.

Sorkin’s film is anchored by a lights out performance by Chastain. If I were the real Molly Bloom, I’d be in love with this portrayal of my life. Sorkin also proves a credible director. Many a film has fallen victim to the struggle of envisioning how to depict Sorkin’s verbose and chatty repartee between characters (See Steve Jobs), but it turns out Sorkin knows Sorkin better than anyone! He also is smart enough to hire an actor turned Oscar-winning director, Kevin Costner to play Molly’s father, a resource that I assume Sorkin tapped for directorial advice from time to time. Perhaps the casting of Costner’s Dances With Wolves costar Graham Greene as Judge Foxman is also not so coincidental. This is a tight, authentic thrill ride through the lavish highs and deplorable lows that come with games of risk. The film may get a little heavy-handed in its use of The Crucible references to get its message across, but you can’t argue with the timeliness of these references and the relevance to the national conversation right now about reputation and its importance in Hollywood, in politics, and in society in general. Molly’s Game is by no means a flop, and with an ace in the hole like Chastain, you can push your chips in at the turn and let the river run. A-

Molly’s Game is rated R and has a running time of a “Sorkin-y” 2 hours and 20 minutes.

Thor: Ragnarok

ThorDirector: Taika Waititi

Screenwriters: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, and Anthony Hopkins

Most franchises 17 films deep into their canon start to spin their wheels, cash in, and forget what got them there in the first place. I mean there are just so many that get this far, am I right? I know you’re all saying but 1989s Godzilla vs. Biollante was such a great 17th movie in a franchise! Well for every Godzilla vs. Biollante there’s a Timothy Dalton as James Bond.

That’s right, if you couldn’t quite catch my subtext there, the point I was trying to make is that Thor: Ragnarok is the 17th studio film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and it’s pretty rare to see a franchise reach film number 17 and for that film to be as entertaining as this one is. Thor: Ragnarok basically picks up where Thor: The Dark World left off…or it would if this were a traditional sequel, but Thor has appeared in two other films since the second Thor film, and the MCU has released 8 films since 2013’s The Dark World. Therefore, Ragnarok is more like a sequel to Doctor Strange than a sequel to Thor: The Dark World. So Thor 3 basically takes some of the characters from Thor 2 and Avengers 2 and picks up where Doctor Strange 1 leaves off with a nod to Guardians of the Galaxy 2’s conflict, which complicates the events from Captain America 3. And if that makes sense to you, I have some tesseracts I’d like to sell you.

If you didn’t follow that bizarre set up, here’s one that might make more sense: Thor: Ragnarok finds Thor (Chris Hemsworth) unsuccessful in his search for the remaining infinity stones and returning home to Asgard only to notice that the 9 realms have gotten a little disorganized in his absence. Why? Well, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) of course! Those sons of Odin (Anthony Hopkins) are at it again, but this time the brothers learn that they

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Cate Blanchett as Hela in Thor: Ragnarok

both have an older sister named Hela (Cate Blanchett), who has escaped from a prison she was sealed within long ago. Hela is Odin’s first born, and she was banished from Asgard for her unrelenting ambition. Now she looks to bring “Ragnarok” (or final destruction) to Asgard. Her first step is to get those brothers of hers out of the way, and so she casts them into space where the ultimately land on a trash planet called Sakaar and ruled by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Now Thor must find a way to escape Sakaar and save his home planet from destruction.

While that synopsis is the gist of this film, the joyride that is Thor: Ragnarok is almost entirely separate from its plot. Humor is the key to this film’s success, and Disney/Marvel’s decision to tap Aussie writer/director/actor Taika Waititi most notable for his hilarious vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows was a brilliant decision. This is easily the funniest Marvel film in the franchise. Every Marvel film brandishes humor here and there, but never has the humor been as clever, witty, and endearing as it is here. That’s not to say it’s not also an action film. Blanchett is wickedly brilliant as the scorned and rejected Hela, and for my money, she is now in the top three Marvel villains ever, only rivaled by Michael Keaton’s turn as Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming and the great Tom Hiddleston as Loki (villainy with a dash of heroism). Speaking of Hiddleston, he is once again great to see back donning the Loki horns. While he basically stole the show in Thor: The Dark World, he has far more competition in this film, but still does not disappoint. The competition I speak of is everywhere. Hemsworth, fresh off

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Chris Hemsworth in 2016’s Ghostbusters

being the most comedic part of the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot, flexes his comedy muscles (along with his other muscles) and delivers a great performance. Mark Ruffalo gets perhaps his most involved plotline to date and has some fun stepping into Tony Stark’s shoes…literally. And then there’s Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster, who turns the mostly evil immortal from the comics into the most delightful occasionally sinister master of ceremonies to great effect! Just to add some legitimacy to this acclaim, the actors onscreen in this film net a total of 17 Oscar nominations combined. Really.

Thor: Ragnarok is the most surprising Marvel film I’ve seen based on the expectations I had going in. The trailers make the film look like it’s basically a video game where Thor fights Hulk gladiator style and Jeff Goldblum steps in to say, “Eh, Hellooo.” Those things do happen, but this is a cohesive, jaunty, fresh action comedy that works very well. Mark Mothersbaugh’s score is also not to be ignored, giving the film this quirky, electronic vibe that I loved.  A

Thor: Ragnarok is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 10 minutes. There are two post-film sequences; one midway through the credits and one afterwards. Both are adequate, but nothing you HAVE to stay for if you’re running late for dinner.

MCU Rankings Update:

Since originally ranking the Marvel films after Captain America: Civil War was released, 4 Marvel films have been released and we are about mid-way through “Phase Three” with only Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War – Part 1, and Captain Marvel set to round it out. Thus, it is time to update the old rankings, and Thor: Ragnarok is the highest entry in nearly 4 years!

  1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier – A
  2. Thor: Ragnarok – A
  3. Iron Man 3 – A
  4. Marvel’s The Avengers – A-
  5. Captain America: Civil War – A-
  6. Iron Man – A-
  7. Avengers: Age of Ultron – A-
  8. Captain America: The First Avenger – B+
  9. Thor – B+
  10. Spider-Man: Homecoming – B+
  11. Ant-Man – B+
  12. Iron Man 2 – B
  13. The Incredible Hulk – B
  14. Thor: The Dark World – B
  15. Guardians of the Galaxy – B-
  16. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – C+
  17. Doctor Strange – C+

The Jungle Book (2016)

JungleDirector: Jon Favreau

Screenwriter: Justin Marks

Cast: Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Bill Murray, Christopher Walken, Scarlet Johansson, Lupita Nyong’o, and Garry Shandling

I mentioned in my review of 2015’s Cinderella that, “remakes, sequels, and formula retreads have littered Disney’s productions over the past few decades, but as they say, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”  That statement remains remarkably true with this year’s The Jungle Book.

Director Jon Favreau hops the fence from Disney’s Marvel studio productions to Disney’s, Disney studio productions; I imagine he’s eyeing one of those Star Wars spinoffs so he can pull off the Disney hat trick.   As usual, Favreau brings his time-tested bag of tricks along with him to make The Jungle Book far better than it might have been in someone else’s hands.  The Jungle Book retells the classic Rudyard Kipling story that also inspired the 1967 Disney animated classic as well as a Disney live-action film in 1994.  After the death of his father at the jaws of the fierce tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba), orphaned child Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is taken in by a pack of wolves and raised as one of their own.  As Mowgli ages, his human instincts and ingenuity begin to manifest, causing the fearsome Khan to threaten the pack with his terror if the “man-cub” is not surrendered.  For his own good, Mowgli’s wolf-mother Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) entrusts panther, Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) to escort Mowgli through the dense jungle and deliver him to the man-village for his own safety.

Yes, this is a faithful retelling of a story that has been told many times over.  So why do it and why is it worth seeing?  As was the case with 2015’s Cinderella, when one decides to tell a familiar story like this, it is important to have a purpose. Fortunately, that is precisely why Favreau’s version is successful. From the very start, we are immersed in the jungle landscape with standard-setting visual effects that leave all Jungle Book predecessors in the dust.  Furthermore, that “Favreau bag of tricks” results in style, fun, and pointed humor that makes the film feel fresh and exciting.  Case in point, opening the film with a neurotic hedgehog frantically claiming any object he finds as “mine,” voiced by Garry Shandling in what is likely his final role (the film is also dedicated to Shandling in the end credits).  Additionally, the landscapes are breathtaking and the narrative is full of life despite its having only one human character!  Like his work on Elf, Favreau brings a fantasy world to life by relating it so well to our familiar world.  Mowgli’s metaphorical journey resonates with audiences of all ages because like all good films based on a classic piece of literature, there are layers of appreciation for the central themes including relationships, integrity, and persistence.  Of course, unlike Zootopia from earlier this year, these themes are more or less just “there” and not executed expertly enough to support the kind of conversation and discussion the story has in book form.

Then there are the performances.  I’ve purposefully left this discussion of specific characters for last, as I could never have anticipated how much I was going to enjoy them.  First of all, our sole human actor, Neel Sethi is outstanding as Mowgli.  This kid is athletic, heartwarming, and talented.  Not many kids can carry a $175 million budget film all on their own, let alone on their first try!  But let’s get down to it.  Those who know me, know that I have a few cinematic heroes that I don’t shut up about: Woody Allen, Christopher Walken, and Bill Murray.  I recently wrote a little retrospective on Walken called “Talkin’ Walken: A Top 10 List,” and of course my favorite movie of all time continues to be 1993’s Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, who I have often written about and whose name is

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“Bill Murray” on the red carpet during the 2016 Academy Awards.

consequently also the name of my dog (see image on right).  Now both actors have done some stinkers and several of those stinkers involve either voice acting and/or animals, so imagine my trepidation when I heard that these two actors would be voicing roles of animals in a Disney live-action Jungle Book.  Still, like Mowgli I persevered keeping an open mind and hoping for the best.  The first of these two actors to appear is Murray as Baloo the bear.  Let me tell you, as a fan but also a critic, Murray is superb in this role.  Anyone who supported that conversation about how Scarlet Johansson (who also voices a role in this film) deserved an Oscar nomination for voicing an operating system in Her, should be right back at it supporting Bill Murray for this performance.  Yes, that sounds stupid, and that’s why that whole conversation was stupid in 2013, but he’s just as good.  Thankfully, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks had the wherewithal to have Murray sing “Bare Necessities” and forgo that whole “live-action remakes don’t include the songs” rule.  And speaking of singing, the classically trained singer, dancer, and actor Christopher Walken gets a crack at the film’s other most memorable number as King Louie with “I wan’na Be Like You.”  There is no appropriate maximum number of times you can hear Christopher Walken say “Shooby-Doo” or “Gigantopithecus.”

So it seems the Jungle Book renaissance is just getting underway.  A sequel to this film to be helmed once again by Favreau has already been green lit. Also, this summer a Jungle Book clone in the form of Tarzan (but not the Disney story) will also grace the big screen.  And even more confusingly, motion-capture magician Andy Serkis is directing and starring in his own darker, non-Disney version of The Jungle Book due out in 2018.  So don’t fill up on jungles and/or books just yet, but this one is an excellent first course.  B+

shoobyThe Jungle Book is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes.  If you stay a few minutes into the end credits, you will be treated to a reprise of Walken’s “I Wan’na Be Like You,” which I of course completely recommend.

Zootopia

ZootopiaDirectors: Byron Howard and Rich Moore

Screenwriters: Jared Bush and Phil Johnston

Cast: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, and J. K. Simmons,

Jason Bateman – his sitcom was on Fox, he’s produced and acted in films for Fox studios, he played a wolf previously played by a Fox in Teen Wolf Too, and now he’s playing a fox in Disney’s latest film, Zootopia.  Just another example of the lengths Jason Bateman is willing to go to be called, “Foxy.” (Rimshot) Thank you, thank you.  Please, sit down, I have a review to write.

Zootopia is like when you start wondering, “Hey, what if like all of the people were really just animals, man?” which explains why Tommy Chong has a role in this movie. But seriously, Zootopia does take place in a world where animals have evolved beyond their primitive way of life into a civilized form of coexistence.  Now, predator and prey live harmoniously (for the most part) in an advanced society.  Still, one young bunny named Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) hopes to advance society one step (or shall we say “hop”) further by fulfilling her dream of being the first “bunny” cop.  Bullied her whole life for being small, Hopps achieves her goal of leaving her hometown of Bunny Burrow to become the city of Zootopia’s first bunny cop, only to discover that the big city is less welcoming than she had originally thought.  In an effort to prove her worth, Judy finds herself teamed up with a sly, con artist fox named Nick (Jason Bateman) who may be her only key to uncovering a major conspiracy.

Zootopia is a colorful, animated Disney film with lots of cute animals and silly moments, but it also has the most progressive message a film of its kind has ever attempted to deliver.  I expected this film to be another cute, touching film that encourages young people to follow their dreams and always try hard.  And it certainly does that, in fact within the first five minutes we are treated to a catchy Shakira song called “Try Everything,” where the singer says, “I wanna try everything/I wanna try even though I could fail.”  But beneath all of that is a pointed and expertly crafted message about the dangers of prejudicial thinking, stereotyping, and institutional racism.  If I taught a sociology course, I would dedicate an entire session to this film.  Not just because of what it says, but how important it is for who it is aimed at.  I can think of dozens of science fiction films that attempt to tackle this subject with aliens and robots, but none of those are suitable for young children.  Zootopia, manages to include some excellent contemporary subtext without being preachy or artificial.  In fact, young viewers will not explicitly understand the depth of Zootopia, and that’s a good thing.  Instead of trying to position a complex issue for kids, this film simply offers parents and adults an opportunity or gateway to begin a conversation with young kids about some societal truths.  In fact like many of the best animated films, there is far more for adult viewers to appreciate in Zootopia than children; for every Bambi or Frozen reference, there is an even better Godfather or Breaking Bad one.

Zootopia is much like 2015 Best Animated Film winner, Inside Out in the best and worst ways.  On one hand, it is a socially mature film dealing with honest and real struggles that young people need to be able to face.  On the other hand, its linear style plot requires characters to travel through multiple microcosms one by one that are all part of one metropolis, which does result in a slight drag towards the middle. Still, Zootopia is a major success with beautiful animation, fun humor, and a strong message. Bring the kids, but also take advantage of this film’s empathetic message and have a timely heart to heart with them about tolerance and acceptance.  A-

Zootopia is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 48 minutes.

Pacific Rim

ImageDo you know where your inner child is? Well with Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro has created a dazzling visual spectacle determined to find it for you and leave you wide-eyed and astounded.

Pacific Rim finds the world in the near future with alien monsters emerging from the sea where they have been at rest for millions of years. Finding our deteriorating atmosphere well-suited to their biology, masses of these nearly 300 feet tall creatures known as Kaiju begin laying siege to Earth claiming millions of lives and squandering its resources. Setting its differences aside for perhaps the first time in history, the world comes together, pooling its global assets to develop a weapon that can combat these enormous threats. The answer: 250 foot tall robots called Jaegers controlled simultaneously by two pilots who through a mind meld process called “Drifting” are able to provide the neural power necessary to run the massive machines.

Del Toro is no stranger to the fantastic. He has co-written the screenplays to the recent Hobbit series as well as written and directed the fantastic over-the-top Hellboy films and Blade II (the best one). However, the film he may be best known for is his remarkable twisted fable Pans Labyrinth, which won three Oscars. Here del Toro continues his hitting streak by accomplishing the very thing that has seemingly puzzled Gore Verbinski and Michael Bay for years: creating a wildly epic action film that isn’t clunky, irritating, or devoid of excitement. It would seem very likely for an audience to become detached from a film about giant alien monsters fighting massive robots, but in Pacific Rim, this is not the case. Travis Beacham’s script develops his characters and not just the action. Furthermore, del Toro’s directing makes sure we care about each battle and understand what’s at stake at every turn; this allows the audience to never feel desensitized by the escalating preposterousness.

Who is Charlie Hunnam? Well if you don’t watch Sons of Anarchy, you’d assume he’s a British guy trying his damndest to play an American and not succeeding, and you’d be right. Hunnam plays Raleigh, a modern reincarnation of the Maverick archetype from Top Gun (look for the “you can be my wingman” moment mid-way through the film). Nonetheless, this type of bravado induced superstar with a chip on his shoulder is exactly what a film like Pacific Rim needs at its core. Accent aside and tempered only by his new partner, Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), Hunnam is extremely likable and handles the sensitive tough guy persona nicely. Hunnam is joined by a bevy of fun supporting characters who del Toro seemingly mined from successful television shows. Idris Elba from The Wire and Luther commands the screen as General Stacker Pentecost, and it would be a safe (and welcomed) bet that we’ll see Elba on the big screen again and often. Hellboy himself, Ron Pearlman, (and Sons of Anarchy alum) sinks his teeth into the campy role of black market entrepreneur Hannibal Chau, a name he geniusly created based on “his favorite historical figure and his second favorite Szechuan restaurant in Brooklyn.” Finally, there’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day, who channels Rick Moranis as Dr. Newton Geiszler who plays the Oscar to his partner’s (Burn Gorman) Felix in an “Odd Couple” of scientists looking to discover a brainy solution to the Kaiju attack while Raleigh and company cover the brawn angle.

I’ll admit, Pacific Rim was the film I was most anticipating for the summer. Yet all bias aside, it is an example of everything a big, fun summer movie should be, and if you’ve seen Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness, then Pacific Rim should be next on your list. A

Pacific Rim is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 11 minutes. It is a post-convert to 3-D film, so it is not necessary to see it in that format, yet The People’s Critic will admit that the conversion is top notch. Also, be sure to stay at least mid-way through the credits for a very rewarding bonus scene that is worth the wait. Those who wait through the entire credits will get a minor, yet potentially important reward as well.

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