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.

Hidden Figures

hfDirector: Theodore Melfi

Screenwriters: Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi

Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner

No matter how you felt about 2016, I think most of us could use a little pick-me-up in 2017. Well, enter Hidden Figures to provide a brief respite with a little chicken soup for the soul right when we desperately need it.

Hidden Figures is the true story about a group of African American women employed by NASA who were instrumental in the success of the now iconic and historic space missions of the 1960s. Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, who along with her two friends Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), work as human computers for NASA, doing calculations that the engineers need worked or verified. This proves to be a skilled yet monotonous task, and all the while the women working as Computers look on as the first International Business Machine (IBM) is being assembled across campus, threatening to render their roles obsolete.

An academic prodigy, Johnson’s prowess for Geometry gets her promoted to personal Computer for Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), director of Guidance and Control, the branch responsible for calculating the trajectory for NASA’s first manned space launches. This sounds all well and good, but Harrison is not the warm, fuzzy type, and a room full of egotistical White, male engineers in the Jim Crow South does not exactly translate to a respectable work environment. The movie unfolds henceforth as tensions rise over the space race between America and Russia. Johnson must grapple with the hostilities of being a Black woman in a White man’s world while Jackson and Vaughan adapt to a changing world where computers are machines, not people.

There is a lot going on in this movie; far too much to summarize in a simple movie review. Each of the heroines’ stories is compelling and outstanding in its own special way. Writer/Director Theodore Melfi is wise to begin the film where he does and allow each of these characters to forge her own path in the face of societal and cultural stifling. While many of the tropes of traditional period biography are present, it’s the ones that don’t get played that make all of the difference. Several times, I set myself up for the inevitable and predictable harassment scene or cartoonish bigotry, and each time I was pleasantly surprised when it didn’t happen. Hidden Figures does not go for the cheap jab at your sensibilities, and instead takes the high road exposing the institutional racism of the time, not just the blatant form. We’ve seen many films depicting the shame and cruelty of “separate but equal,” but not as many that also reveal its inconvenience or question its complacency.

Furthermore, we have fantastic performances all around, of course from our leading ladies, but also from Costner and supporting players like Mahershala Ali, Kirsten Dunst, and Jim Parsons. Movies like this do come around every year, but Hidden Figures feels uniquely appropriate for right now. Additionally, the film aptly depicts the great John Glenn whom we lost last year and who deserves to be lionized as part of this story as well. Melfi is fast becoming a go-to writer and director when it comes to creating emotional and satisfying films. His previous film, St. Vincent was equally crafted, and Hidden Figures furthers his budding trademark theme of exploring the unconventional (and sometimes “hidden”) goodness in the world.

Hidden Figures is not groundbreaking or particularly edgy. What it is, is a spectacular, and relatively unknown story of progress and perseverance, without feeling cheap or going to the same old well. It feels fresh and inspirational, and while not especially deep, it does make for a good time at the movies. A-

Man of Steel

Image“Yes, it’s Superman, strange visitor from another planet, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way…” But what lead to all of this? That’s the question director, Zack Snyder attempts to answer in the latest treatment of “the last son of Krypton,” Man of Steel.

It has been 75 years since Superman first appeared in 1938’s Action Comics’ premier issue. Since then, the character has starred in countless comics, TV shows, and movies. Yet, with Man of Steel, Superman’s sixth cinematic appearance, most of the buzz revolved around Christopher Nolan’s involvement with the project. Nolan, most known as the director of the remarkable Dark Knight trilogy, teamed up with his Dark Knight series co-writer, David S. Goyer to write the screenplay for Man of Steel. Nolan and Goyer successfully revitalized the Batman franchise by making it edgy, making it smart, and taking a fresh take on a familiar story. Thus, the hopes are that they were able to do the same to DC Comic’s most popular hero, Superman. Man of Steel, unfortunately, does not quite deliver the goods.

The film opens on Krypton as the doomed planet is self-destructing after its inhabitants have mined the nutrients of its core, causing a full on apocalypse. Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife Laura decide to place their newborn son, Kal-El in a capsule headed for Earth in the hopes that he will know a better life and continue a form of the Kryptonian line of people. Kal-El is, of course discovered and raised by Kansas farmers, The Kents where he is famously renamed “Clark.” Conflict arrives when Kryptonian General Zod (Michael Shannon) arrives on Earth searching for Kal-El as part of his mission to obliterate man-kind in a genocidal plot to repopulate Earth with pure Kryptonians.

Man of Steel sets out to offer a different tone than is usually found in a Superman film. Henry Cavill’s performance as the title character is far more serious, insightful, and raw than any previous Superman. Additionally, this is the most violent Superman film to date, proliferated with tragedy and destruction. Director, Snyder does offer a fresh take on the well-known origin story with a non-linear timeline that bounces back and forth through Superman’s first 33 years on Earth. He also, gives audiences a lengthier glimpse at Krypton than found in previous films. The non-traditional timeline works very well, preventing the film from hitting snags as the character grows. Instead, audiences are able to see Superman earlier with a peppering of flashbacks to add context to his story. With all of this being said, the film lacks the edge and intelligence necessary to allow it to, well, soar. The opening sequence on Krypton is a welcomed change, but the planet is already experiencing so much unrest that it is hard to believe these alien people are anything but flawed and miserable. In fact, this scene introduces a sort of Brave New World motif where choice has been bred out of Krypton, and society chooses the fate of all inhabitants. The screenplay opts for simplicity over complexity, which forces the film into a brainless extended action scene for the final hour; a scene that puts the “never-ending” in the “never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.” Coupled with these extended action scenes is Snyder’s shooting technique. He uses a lot of shaky, hand-held camera shots, which do become strenuous at times.

Perhaps the most major missed opportunity is the weak exploration of young Kal-El’s/Clark Kent’s struggles as an alien in a strange world. While Snyder does explore this, he does so in a fashion that merely glosses over the surface. Scene’s involving Superman’s youth are far too underdeveloped and border on stereotypical. Furthermore, the fun and the romance that are expected from a Superman story are in short supply in Man of Steel. Instead, this reboot attempts to ground a movie about alien superpeople living and battling on Earth in some sort of reality, which is a bit preposterous.

The casting is certainly the film’s major strength. Cavill is, of course, an excellent choice for Superman. He looks the part and has great presence on the screen. Amy Adams gives a performance as Lois Lane that veers far from her just being a silly girl getting into trouble all of the time, and Michael Shannon gives another full-tilt-crazy performance as Zod. Other familiar minor characters are also well cast including Laurance Fishburne as Perry White and Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Ma and Pa Kent.

All together, Man of Steel shows promise, but mostly for what is yet to come. Warner Brothers has already green-lit a sequel that will be fast-tracked to release before 2015’s Justice League. Man of Steel feels like a bloated set-up piece to what promises to be a far more superior sequel. B-

Man of Steel is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 28 minutes. The film was post-converted to 3-D, however there are some exciting sequences that are enhanced by the conversion. Nonetheless, 2-D is recommended and there is no stinger after the credits, so feel free to go home if you’re not interested in who the 2nd assistant sound editor was.

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