Review – Call Me by Your Name

MV5BNDk3NTEwNjc0MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzYxNTMwMzI@._V1_

 

And here we are!  With the lone exception of Roman J. Israel, Esq. (which I’ll watch through digital rental in a couple of weeks), I’m caught up on all of the major Academy Awards nominees.  I plan to start my Top 25 of 2017 features over the next day or two.  But, for the moment, I focus on the critically acclaimed drama Call Me by Your Name.

Directed by Luca Guadagnino and starring Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet, the drama takes place in 1983 Italy and focuses upon the developing relationship between Hammer’s Oliver and Chalamet’s Elio.  Oliver is older and wiser, with more education and life experience, whereas Elio is only seventeen and struggling to figure out not only the world around him but, like all teenagers, himself, as well.  Initially resistant to Oliver’s charms and, in fact, his very presence, Elio is eventually won over by Oliver’s charisma and charm and allows himself to be taken on a proverbial journey of discovery.

adaymag-call-me-by-your-name-01

For me, the film is a mixed bag.  Chalamet has gotten much awards attention for his performance.  His role as Elio certainly grants him more opportunity to show range than the others in the film.  And he unquestionably does a fine job, though I’m not ready to lay claim that he does better than others who could have potentially garnered a nomination in his place, such as Tom Hanks for The Post.  Those musings aside, Chalamet’s role as Elio is complex and he turns in an appropriately layered performance that is complimented well by the others in the cast.

Armie Hammer’s Oliver is confident and comfortable in his own skin, and Hammer is equally confident and comfortable in Oliver’s skin, as well.  Oliver has a magnetic personality and when he shows up to the small Italian town as an assistant to Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg), everybody notices.  Speaking of Elio’s father, Stuhlbarg doesn’t serve much of a purpose outside of a purely mechanical storytelling device until the end, when he finally gets a moment to shine.  He squeezes all he can out of the opportunity and provides one of the film’s most memorable scenes.

Call Me by Your Name - Still 1

By setting the film in the eighties, Guadagnino places Oliver and Elio right in the middle of the era at which homophobia may have been at its highest (at least outwardly so).  HIV and AIDS were among the biggest topics of discussion throughout the decade and many pointed the figure squarely at what would eventually come to be known as the LGBTQ community.  Neither Oliver nor Elio are ever explicitly identified as homosexual.  Both have had relationships with women and even after discovering each other, continue to do so.  And while some might consider that a slight or a dismissiveness towards the homosexual lifestyle, that is absolutely not Guadagnino’s intent.

Instead, the relationship between the Oliver and Elio is presented as just another relationship, not defined by or constrained by gender.  Elio experiences and expresses some fear and confusion at the outset but quickly lets it pass and embraces his own feelings and those of Oliver, as well.  Any hesitation on Oliver’s part is not due to anything related to sexuality but rather the dynamic among them, seeing as how Elio is the son of Oliver’s teacher and mentor.  So, Guadagnino does what’s right by not slapping labels on the relationship and instead simply presents Oliver and Elio as two people with an attraction and a connection.  They just so happen to also both be male.  I’m a heterosexual male, yet their relationship was so relatable that I was having callbacks to some of my own past experiences with women.  That’s exactly the kind of effect this type of story should have and Guadagnino makes a tremendous point in pulling it off.  I can’t imagine a more level-headed, fair-minded, or openhearted approach to this narrative.

1769055_full

On the other hand, the film does have a couple of issues, as well.  The dialogue isn’t exactly the most dazzling that we’ve heard in this year’s Oscar contenders.  It’s natural and organic.  But it isn’t always captivating or interesting.  That only compounds the bigger issue of the film’s length and editing.  There are many films that are longer than Call Me by Your Name, but no matter what the running time of any given film may be, the time should be filled with pertinent and engaging material that flows naturally and concludes logically.

While the film isn’t lacking any internal logic (everything makes sense), it suffers from some flow issues and is hampered to a far greater degree by its stubborn refusal to end.  Just when the viewer feels as if the narrative and character arcs have all reached a sensible and satisfying conclusion, there’s another scene.  And then one more.  And one more.  There are at least fifteen minutes towards the end of the film that are truthfully unnecessary and the ultimate denouement could have been reached without the entire subplot that they entail.  As a result, the 132-minute film begins to feel longer than it actually is, which is never a good thing.  Again, it doesn’t matter how long a film actually is; it only matters how long it feels.  And the film drags as it approaches the climax, and then continues after the climax has long passed.

Call-Me-By-Your-Name-2

In spite of the minimal number of issues, Call Me by Your Name is a worthy journey, even if its a journey I can only envision taking once.  Much like another 2017 critical darling in the form of Lady Bird, the film doesn’t have much of anything new to add to its particular conversation, but it does a good job of getting its point of “love is love” across to the audience.  It comes off a little better on paper than in execution due to its occasional inefficient storytelling, but Call Me by Your Name is a well-made film with solid performances and something important enough to say that it doesn’t matter if we’ve heard it before – it merits repeating.  But, again, from this particular movie . . . only once.

Like us on Facebook!  And show some love; share, share, share!

Advertisements
Review – Call Me by Your Name

Review – Phantom Thread

phantom_thread_ver2_xlg

Okay, finally!  I’m close to wrapping up my major Oscar viewings!  This one has been on my radar for a while and it finally came to my area, two weeks ago.  The problem was that I wasn’t in my area, as I’ve been out of town for the past two weekends.  But here I am and that means that my Top 25 of 2017 will be coming up soon.

Perhaps the biggest claim to fame for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread isn’t all of the award nominations that the film has been receiving, but rather that Daniel Day-Lewis is claiming that this is his final film.  Day-Lewis has made a career out of winning awards and he has a good chance to do so, again, at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, though he faces stiff competition in the form of Gary Oldman from Darkest Hour (for which the performance I liked, but the film, as a whole, I didn’t.  Read why here.).

I didn’t have that problem with Phantom Thread. In the film, Day-Lewis plays successful 1950s London fashion designer and self-professed “confirmed bachelor” Reynolds Woodcock. Living with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), Woodcock has a history of failed relationships, never being emotionally available enough to commit to anything or anyone outside of his work. Taking a country retreat to get away from the stresses of daily life, Woodcock heads to a cafe for breakfast only to become instantly infatuated with his young waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps). The spark is mutual and the two begin a relationship that is more than either bargains for, and not in the typically expected ways.

The film does start out a little slow, with certain scenes in the first act doing little to progress either the story or the characters. But even with that, there is one aspect in the early goings that I couldn’t help but notice and appreciate as Woodcock works to further ingratiate himself to Alma by designing dresses for her. Here, in the current 2018 Hollywood (and American) climate, we have a film about an older man attempting to woo a younger woman by putting clothes on her. I doubt that was intentional on the part of Anderson, but I had to smile at the idea, regardless.

But back on topic, yes, the story takes a little while to rev up. But as it does, we get further insight into our two leads, eventually realizing that they are the story. Woodcock is not a pleasant man. Like so many, he turns on the charm during the metaphorical honeymoon period of their burgeoning relationship but, once he becomes comfortable and confident in what he has, his true self emerges. He is rude, inconsiderate, thoughtless, and unappreciative of all those around him, likely having never felt a genuine emotion is his entire life.

Meanwhile, Alma is sweet, sincere, trusting, and naive. She hasn’t been in existence long enough to have developed a healthy distrust of others’ motivations. She longs to be swept away from her seemingly mundane existence and feel relevant to the world at large. And after meeting Woodcock, that’s exactly how she feels. But the longer they’re together, the more she realizes that he isn’t the man she originally believed him to be. But she’s smarter than Woodcock realizes. And she’s a fast learner.

What I love most about Phantom Thread is how it slowly transforms itself from what appears to be a typical Hollywood romance into an unconventional tale revolving around a highly toxic and unhealthy relationship. Neither Woodcock nor Alma are genuinely in love with the other. Rather, both of them use the other for their own individual needs. To Woodcock, Alma is proof that he can secure a young, pretty, healthy woman who will be subservient and live her life as he sees fit. To Alma, Woodcock is evidence that she has a place in high society and can mix with the social elite. She feels more important to everyone because she believes she’s important to him.

As the narrative takes shape and truly begins to unfold, what develops is a high-stakes clash for power in the relationship. And, coming from two very different worlds, Woodcock and Alma also take separate approaches and have completely different perspectives on this battle. What’s most interesting is that Alma has long been waging this passive war before Woodcock even realizes that the game is afoot. As the power dynamics continue to flip and flop with each dramatic move that one or the other makes, the film becomes an enthralling exercise in dissecting exactly what we all look for in our significant others.

Throughout all of this, both Day-Lewis and Krieps give outstanding performances. For Day-Lewis, that’s just another day at work. But this is essentially Krieps’s coming out party and she nails it. My favorite scene involves the two of them having dinner at home and in that particular exchange, Krieps actually succeeds in outshining Day-Lewis. Had I seen this film when I did my Oscar Snubs column, Krieps would have made the cut. Their performances are nuanced and layered enough that a refined ability to read into their subtext is helpful, which only adds to the fun of watching them duel.

Between the grounded, authentic performances of Day-Lewis and Krieps and Anderson’s thoughtful writing and direction, Phantom Thread is the most believable and surprising film about relationships I’ve seen in recent memory. The longer the film went on, the more I loved it. This is exactly the kind of fresh take on classic themes that I crave from prestige cinema. If this is truly the end for Daniel Day-Lewis, he is going out on a high note. And with each omega, there must be a corresponding alpha, so I look forward to seeing what lies ahead for Krieps. Phantom Thread is a refreshingly sophisticated look at the selfish side of relationships that, aside from some early pacing issues, succeeds wildly on all fronts.

Like us on Facebook!

Review – Phantom Thread

Review – The Post

post_xlg

I’ve said it numerous times before, but I’ll state, once again, that Tom Hanks is my all-time favorite actor.  There’s absolutely no way I would miss any of his films in the theater, but team him up with Steven Spielberg and Meryl Streep and I don’t see how anyone with decent taste could resist.  If that trio isn’t the objectively greatest of our generation within their own fields of filmmaking, then they are almost certainly the most beloved.  In The Post, Spielberg, Hanks, and Streep come together like Voltron to tackle an historical event that is also sadly more topical and relevant in today’s world than it should ever realistically be.

When evidence is leaked that four consecutive presidential administrations participated in a cover-up regarding the United States’ military strategy and foreign relations during the Vietnam War, journalists at both the New York Times and the Washington Post are faced with the decision to sit on the information in their possession (known as the Pentagon Papers) or publish the truth to the public and face the full wrath of the cowardly, corrupt, and tyrannical President Richard Nixon.

the-post-2

Streep portrays the first female newspaper publisher in history in the form of Washington Post owner Kay Graham while Hanks assumes the role of her editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee.  Both are respectable people who only desire to do what’s right.  In Graham’s case, however, she has more to lose than anyone else on her team.  While all of them face the threat of jail time, Graham has inherited the Post from her late husband and intends to pass it down to her children.  She finds herself in the situation of potentially having to choose between truth and family, as Nixon threatens to destroy the paper should the truth be published.  In addition, her decision to publish or to not publish directly affects the well-being of everyone in her employ.  It is not a decision that she can – or should – take lightly.

This particular element of the film adds a human quality that would otherwise be entirely lacking.  Nearly everyone else in the movie is completely focused on the task at hand with no pause for the personal consequences they may be facing.  In fact, the first hour of the film feels somewhat clinical and mechanical.  Streep and her character add a layer of depth and a palpable warmth to the otherwise cold, businesslike proceedings playing out around her, providing the audience with a much-needed and -appreciated emotional anchor.  The implications of the Post’s discovery are massive, as is the potential fallout.  People other than the president will be affected by the ultimate outcome and Spielberg understands that his film must acknowledge that fact.  He wisely trusts Streep with that responsibility and she delivers.  I think I can now forgive her for Florence Foster Jenkins.

The-Post-The-Movie-Preview-Trailer-Meryl-Streep-Tom-Hanks-Tom-Lorenzo-Site-20

Hanks’s Ben Bradlee is a little more gruff than audiences are used to seeing from a Hanks character, but he fits the role perfectly.  Bradlee is the driving force behind the progression of events in the film.  Without Bradlee pushing others, nothing happens.  Hanks projects strength and determination – as any editor-in-chief should – anchored by an underlying and unwavering moral center.  Bradlee not only cares about maintaining dignity and ethics, but also about the American people as well the reputation of the company and industry to which he has dedicated himself.

The film is undoubtedly reminiscent of 2015’s awards darling Spotlight, though perhaps while being even more timely than that picture was.  With America’s current president regularly toeing the line with regards to the suppression of the first amendment – and even explicitly threatening to revoke said amendment – The Post is an important reminder that the freedom of the press is an important pillar of democracy and must be protected at all costs.  Spielberg has not only delivered a prestige film, but also a public service announcement starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.

DQsn36HW4AEt0zl

On the other end of the spectrum, the film takes a little longer than I expected to gain narrative momentum.  Once Bradlee gains access to the Pentagon Papers, things really pick up, though, and, to me, the film did not feel like it was anywhere near two hours long.  And, objectively speaking, The Post isn’t quite as engaging or starkly entertaining as some of the other prestige films of the late-2017 season (though Hanks gets off a few well-delivered quotable lines).  But it doesn’t really need to be.  That’s not this film’s goal.  The Post carves out its own unique identity among the rest of the field and stands tall as perhaps the most vitally important film of the year.  It has become a cliché to declare that those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.  Yet, despite the frequency with which that particular phrase is uttered, society keeps making the same old mistakes.  The Post is a plea from Steven Spielberg for us to come together and to do better.  If we do nearly as well as he, Streep, and Hanks have done with this film, then we’ll be able to chalk it up as a lesson learned.

(Like us on Facebook!  And, please, if you enjoy what you read, share it using your method of choice!)

Review – The Post

Review – I, Tonya

i_tonya_xlg

I have been trying my best to see this one for weeks, now.  It seems like it took forever for it to expand into a Theater Near Me and, when it finally did, I was out of town for the birth of my nephew.  I was originally going to catch Insidious: The Last Key, today, but I’ll catch up on that one, in two or three days.  I’ve been too anxious for I, Tonya and I didn’t want to wait, anymore.

I am among the many who remember this whole drama surrounding the Olympic skating competition as it played out on television screens across the country.  It was very much like a WWE (then-WWF) event as there was a clear babyface in Nancy Kerrigan and a clear heel in Tonya Harding.  But only so much of the story was ever going to be revealed through sports and news broadcasts.  What really happened?  I was fairly young at that time, so I never heard anyone give their version of the whole story.  In I, Tonya, we get Tonya Harding’s version of the events (as well as some input from her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly).  Are these accounts accurate?  Who can say for sure?  But it’s all we have for now until Anne Hathaway starts in Nancy: That’s Me! (hey, one can only hope, right?).

i-tonya-margot-robbie-movie-trailer-screencaps-5

While the sensational drama surrounding the 1994 Olympic figure skating competition is the main narrative draw of this picture, I, Tonya is so much more than that.  The film doubles as a behind-the-scenes account of the gripping events surrounding that winter in Lillehammer and a biographical telling of the life of Tonya Harding up through those events.  Harding, a self-professed “redneck” from Oregon (wonder if she can pump gas?), had much to overcome along her journey to Olympic fame.  Growing up with an overbearing (to put it lightly) mother (Allison Janney), a possibly-abusive-or-maybe-abused-or-maybe-both-depending-on-who-you-ask husband in Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and the negative stigma that comes along with her upbringing and public perception, Harding struggles simply to be taken seriously as a competitive athlete, much less to find Olympic success.

Harding herself is presented as a rather sympathetic figure.  She’s certainly not without her faults – many of them glaring and harmful to herself – but she’s also not without her endearing qualities.  That would naturally make sense since the film is primarily based on her own personal perspective (Harding collaborated with director Craig Gillespie and the filmmakers, participating in many hours of interviews to aid them along in the filmmaking process), but I’m not giving her sole credit.  In assuming the role of Harding, Margot Robbie contributes more to the legend of the skater than one think someone would be able to just by simply playing a part.

I-Tonya-Movie-Trailer-Tonya-Harding-Margot-Robin-Allison-Janney-Tom-Lorenzo-Site-7

Robbie doesn’t do a basic impression of Harding.  She completely immerses herself in the part and becomes Tonya Harding.  While the words being spoken are based on Harding’s personal version of events, it’s Robbie who takes it a step further and makes it all seem entirely plausible.  Robbie gifts the film’s version of Harding with a sincerity and naivety that then yields itself to a plausible deniability.  As I walked out of the theater, I realized that I was beginning to think that Harding got a bad rap.

But I had to question if that was because of the believability of Harding’s claims or because Robbie was just that remarkably convincing in the role.  As more people see this film, I expect that their stances towards Harding will soften.  And I will credit that solely to the power of Robbie’s performance.  After all, at the beginning of the film, the film itself questions the validity of the events as presented.  But Robbie never does.  She believes it all and that belief translates flawlessly and emphatically to the screen.  How often is a performance so sincere and charismatic that it may actually alter people’s long-held feelings towards a significant moment in (sports) history?  The answer is: never, until now.  Robbie deserves every nomination and word of praise she’s gotten for the role.  And she deserves to win each of those awards.  This is a monumental, career-defining performance.

i-tonya-photo-sebastian-stan-1002467

Truth be told, outside of Harding, there’s not a likable character in the entire film (and referring to Harding as likable is questionable, as well).  These people are all a product of their environments and their upbringings.  None of them are strong enough to rise above the low expectations placed upon them by the rest of society – except for Tonya.  But her downfall is portended by her choice of company.  Having never truly felt love or acceptance, Harding is willing to take anything that even approximates them in her mind.  As a result, the company she keeps is not exactly high caliber.  She eventually finds that acceptance within the world of figure skating and it’s at that moment that she begins to define herself entirely by that one ability.  Figure skating is the only talent Harding has; it’s all that sets her above – or even alongside – others.  And all she asks is that she be fairly recognized for it.

All of this crafts a very sad portrait of an unquestionably talented woman.  Despite that, I, Tonya comes well-equipped with a biting, self-deprecating sense of humor and it completely works.  The film is funny enough that it doubles as a comedy, and the portrayal of Harding’s bodyguard Shawn Eckhart (Paul Walter Hauser) is among the most damning, yet amusing, of the entire year.  Much like another recent biopic that I reviewed, – Molly’s Game I, Tonya is as unrelentingly entertaining as it is compelling, combining for a one-two wallop that few other recent films have been able to rival.

i-tonya-margot-robbie-movie-trailer-screencaps

I, Tonya – again, like Molly’s Game – is exactly the kind of true story that more studios should be searching out for adaptation to film.  It’s not a rehash of narratives that have been seen hundreds of times before with some slight cosmetic alterations (looking at you, Darkest Hour).  It’s not another typical sports success story with the same old character arcs and story points.  And it doesn’t sleepwalk through the proceedings, hitting its marks as though there’s a checklist just off-camera.  Not only is the subject matter unconventional, but so is the presentation, with a documentary-style approach being applied as the main story is told through narration and flashbacks, complete with the characters breaking the fourth wall like they’re She-Hulk (sorry, folks.  She was doing it years before Deadpool was).  Not every true story needs to be made into a film if it’s too similar to what’s come before.  Thankfully, there is nothing safe, predictable, or clichéd about I, Tonya.

Simply put, there is nothing left to say about the film other than that it’s easily one of the best and most entertaining films of the year.  Fair or not, deserved or not, it has changed my opinion of Tonya Harding so that the next time I see her attempting (and failing) to be witty on TruTv’s “World’s Dumbest . . .”, I won’t hold quite the same level of contempt for her that I did, before.  In fact, I won’t hold any contempt for her at all.  She did the best she could with what she had.  Life sucks, sometimes, and we only have so much control over it.  In spite of everything and everyone who pushed against her, she took enough control to become a respected world-class athlete – perhaps even the best in the world at what she did.  Between that, the refreshing directorial approach from Gillespie, and Robbie’s literally mind-altering turn as Harding, I, Tonya does everything right and then takes it one step further and does it all right a few more times.  This film is another fine 2017 example of why I love movies.

Like us on Facebook!  And if you like what you read here, please share with others!  Help us carry on!

Review – I, Tonya

Review – Darkest Hour

darkest_hour_ver3_xlg

I’ll be the one to say what no one else is willing to say: World War II movies are a dime a dozen. Okay, that might be a slight (and only slight) exaggeration, but every year, audiences are inundated with one World War II film after the next with almost all of them receiving nearly-unanimous praise regardless of actual quality. Heck, two of this year’s five Golden Globe nominees for Best Picture – Drama are World War II films (this film and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk). The very same people who complain about the number of comic book films in any given year will gleefully overlook the mass of World War II films that are released and eat each of them up with a smile.

For me, a film about war has to win me over using the same attributes that any other movie uses: story, character, dialogue, acting, directing, originality, and entertainment value. Not every one of those aspects has to be spot on (or even mostly present), but the overall combination of them must be more good than bad.

The World War II “genre” (for lack of a better word) has proven problematic for me because many – if not most – of them simply echo each other. They use the same character archetypes and narrative themes, as well as situational conflicts, and tell slightly altered versions of the same story: surviving the horrors of war through brotherhood or through policy (depending on if the perspective is chosen to be from the battle lines or from the commanding offices).

Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour does little to buck that trend, despite ample opportunity. In May of 1940, when Britain shows no confidence in their current Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) is appointed in his place to deal with the seemingly unstoppable threat of Adolf Hitler’s German regime. Churchill’s eccentric personality and unconventional governance turn him into a political island as those close to him try to assist him in using his intelligence to build bridges with his allies and work together to save their country.

Gary Oldman is practically unrecognizable as Churchill. No amount of praise for the film’s makeup and prosthetics departments can ever be enough. His look is so convincing that I was questioning whether or not he actually went all out and gained weight for the film to help the transformation along. Remarkably, that wasn’t the case, but what the folks behind the scenes started, Oldman finished.

That’s because one undeniable fact about Darkest Hour is that Gary Oldman gives a knockout performance, completely worthy of the award nominations it’s already garnered for him and the others yet to come (an Oscar nomination is virtually guaranteed). Oldman doesn’t simply imitate Churchill; he becomes Churchill. The poise, the humor, the resolve . . . it’s all there and it’s supported by Oldman’s trademark authenticity that’s made him such a staple in Hollywood for so many years. And the script serves him well, providing him many opportunities to remind us why he’s come to be so respected by so many.

Sadly, Oldman is the only one served by the script. Unlike the first half of today’s double-feature, Molly’s Game, which was unquestionably Jessica Chastain’s film but still managed to make it worthwhile for Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, and their fans, Darkest Hour fails its supporting cast. I can’t fathom the thought process behind hiring talents such as Lily James or Kristen Scott Thomas if you aren’t going to give them anything notable to do. At least for James, this will be solid exposure in her young career, but Thomas is simply wasted.

Also wasted is an opportunity to make this film a unique experience under the World War II umbrella. Rather than receiving insight into Churchill in order to further comprehend how someone so uncommon for his position arrives at this particular spot in life and then handles it without losing himself, we get a mostly paint-by-numbers bureaucratic World War II film. Instead of getting a Winston Churchill character study, we simply slog through two-plus hours of Winston Churchill at work.

To further compound my point regarding World War II movie retread, the film also extensively covers the Dunkirk evacuation, and the three hours of that we received this summer was more than enough for me. Throw in largely bland dialogue, and what we have is more of the same old same-old. Only one scene that takes place on the underground (that’s “subway” to those of us who are American) truly stood out as something different and even special. But is one scene enough?

I understand that the film provided a great outlet for Oldman to once again show us his chops – and he is the film’s saving grace – but I have a hard time coming up with artistic justification for why this project was chosen. We need more war films like The Imitation Game and fewer like . . . almost everything else in recent years. I have no issues with World War II films in theory, but creatively speaking, more effort needs to be put into distinguishing each project from the next beyond their surface qualities. Darkest Hour is not a poorly made film. It’s just one that I feel like I’ve seen dozens of times. History buffs and those interested in seeing Oldman’s performance will enjoy themselves. But if neither of those apply to you, I doubt there’s much for you to latch onto here.

Like us on Facebook!

Review – Darkest Hour

Review – Molly’s Game

It seems odd to say it, but Molly’s Game is the first directorial effort from longtime writer-producer Aaron Sorkin.  Known for his sharp dialogue and boardroom thrillers, Sorkin makes the jump to directing to helm this film based on the book of the same name by the titular Molly Bloom.  He does so with the dynamite Jessica Chastain in tow.  Chastain had much awards buzz last year due to her performance in Miss Sloane, but little came of it, likely because of the political leanings of that film.  She has similar buzz for her performance in this particular movie, and it’s little wonder why.

Molly’s Game follows world-class freestyle skier and Molly Bloom as she decides to infiltrate and dominate the world of high-stakes poker after by running poker games after stumbling upon her own natural aptitude for manipulation and money management. She becomes so successful that she attracts the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and must rely on her own wits and that of her legal counsel Charlie Jaffrey (Idris Elba) to circumvent the consequences of all of her years spent playing with fire.

mollys-game-jessica-chastain-2

I’m just going to jump right to the point and declare that Chastain gives my favorite performance of the year as Molly. Completely up to the task of keeping pace with Sorkin’s hypersonic, fast-talking script, Chastain dazzles, sizzles, and charms. Bloom quickly learns to use all of her assets, whether they be mental or physical, to her advantage in her efforts to make a relatively easy fortune for herself and to do so legally (so, why the F.B.I., then? Sorry, no spoilers!). Chastain is the perfect fit for the role as she combines intelligence and beauty into one package that’s simply too much for her marks to overcome. Chastain’s range is on full display as well, and she takes full control of the film, owning every scene and giving an equally irresistible and unforgettable turn.

Though the film belongs to Chastain, her primary supporting cast earn high praise, as well. Elba is supremely charismatic as her squeaky-clean lawyer, Charlie Jaffrey. Said lawyer’s parenting techniques remind Molly of her own father, portrayed with depth and eloquence by Kevin Costner. Costner doesn’t have much screen time but remains a constant presence throughout the film. And when he gets an opportunity to truly shine, he doesn’t waste it, and uses it to completely change the perception of his character over the course of only a few minutes. Elba also gets his moment, so neither talent is wasted.

mollys-game-movie-4

Sorkin’s script is very much trademark Aaron Sorkin. The dialogue is clever, funny, unpredictable, relevant and always interesting. This isn’t a film in which the viewer can zone out, even momentarily. Every line adds to the overall experience, whether it be through entertainment value or information.

And it’s no surprise that Sorkin’s directorial debut is a strong one. He has studied and learned from the best, after all. The film is nonstop adult entertainment from start to finish. Unlike Downsizing and All the Money in the World, it never once begins to drag, despite actually being longer than both of those films.

mollys-game-movie-2

The film is also somewhat socially appropriate as so many powerful men have recently been in the news for using their positions to take advantage of others. Here, Molly flips the script and takes those very same men down a peg and she does it so efficiently that they aren’t even aware of it.

Sorkin understands not only filmmaking but audiences, as well, and masterfully uses his knowledge of the former to consistently engage and entertain the latter. However, even a writer-director with his abilities can’t do it alone. Luckily, with Chastain, Elba, and Costner on board, there are absolutely no weak points in Molly’s Game. With Sorkin’s script and direction alongside Chastain’s powerful screen presence, Molly’s Game is a timely whirlwind of a movie sure to please more discerning audiences and film lovers everywhere.

Like us on Facebook!

Review – Molly’s Game

Review – All the Money in the World

all_the_money_in_the_world_ver2_xlg

As of right now, Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World is best known as That Movie That Had Kevin Spacey In It But Doesn’t, Anymore.  Scott hopes to change that narrative and those efforts began with that very decision – the decision to completely remove Spacey from the finished film and replace him with Christopher Plummer as J. Paul Getty.  After all, had he not done so, the film would be known as That Movie With Kevin Spacey In it That Nobody Feels Comfortable Seeing and Will Die a Very Quick Death.  So, Scott reshot all of Spacey’s scenes with Plummer (whom I personally prefer, anyway), Sony reworked all of their marketing material, and now the world has a completely respectable, Spacey-free All the Money in the World.  But will the film be remembered based upon its own merits or for the Spacey debacle?

From my perspective, Ridley Scott has always been a mixed bag.  For all of his name value, I find he has mostly made films that I would describe as “pretty good” or “okay” with only a few that I would consider truly great.  All the Money in the World falls somewhere in between, closer to being great than merely okay.

video-all-the-money-in-the-world-trailer-3-videoSixteenByNine1050

For the unaware, the film is inspired by the true story of the 1973 kidnapping and attempted recovery of John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer), the teenaged grandson of world-renowned oil tycoon J. Paul Getty.  When the kidnappers demand a healthy ransom be paid, Getty – then the richest person who had ever existed – refuses to pay it, leaving the attempts to reclaim Paul in the hands of Paul’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams) and Getty’s head of security, ex-C.I.A. agent Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg).  The film, itself, acknowledges that certain aspects are altered for the purposes of filmmaking (Vanity Fair breaks it all down here but beware of clicking, of course, as the entire film, from beginning to end, is spoiled in the article), but the core of the film is reflective of the actual events that transpired over thirty years ago.

The film gets off to a questionable start with the kidnapping scene, which unfolds in a way that is more akin to what one would expect to see in a comedy, not a prestige drama.  But after that, things significantly improve.  The narrative is unquestionably compelling with the drama of the events being heightened by the thought that the situation could theoretically be resolved if not for the frugality and heartlessness of the victim’s own grandfather.  Getty has more than enough money to cover the ransom but refuses.  Yes, it’s true that paying ransoms and negotiating  with criminals isn’t typically the way to go, as that approach requires gifting the criminals with some degree of trust.  But long after it’s clear that Getty could be of great use in recovering his grandson, he still stubbornly resists, always with an excuse at the ready.

maxresdefault

At first, the replacement of Spacey with Plummer was somewhat distracting for me.  I couldn’t help but try to imagine how Spacey would have been delivering Getty’s lines or what his mannerisms would have been.  But that’s my own fault.  Besides that, Andrew Buchan, who was cast to play Getty’s son, is essentially the spitting image of Spacey – looking, moving, and sounding very much as Spacey does.  Scott made the right call for his film, everyone involved in his film, and Spacey’s alleged victims to replace Spacey in the film, but replacing Buchan would not have been the right call.  So, we have a J. Paul Getty II who doesn’t exactly come across as his father’s son.  But so be it.  There’s nothing that could have fairly been done about it.

But Scott also made the right call because Plummer is simply a better fit for the role.  As I was picturing Spacey in the part, it was falling flat in my mind.  Plummer is more appropriately aged, is more proficient at exuding warmth (as Getty often pretends to do), and has a versatility that I’ve never seen from Spacey that adds an extra layer to the role.  It’s no surprise that Plummer has earned a Golden Globe nomination for this performance.

all-the-money-in-the-world-mark-wahlberg
all-the-money-in-the-world-mark-wahlberg

Nor is it surprising that Michelle Williams has, as well.  Williams has quietly become one of my favorite performers in Hollywood – so quietly that I wasn’t even aware of it until I was thinking about it, earlier this week.  She shines in every role she receives (I maintain that she was robbed of the Oscar for her performance as Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn) and this one is no exception.  Williams’s performance is real and authentic, voicing and exuding all of the complex emotions that come with Gail’s unfortunate helplessness in the face of her missing son.  Wahlberg doesn’t get as much opportunity to show off as Williams and Plummer do, but he holds his own, as well, functioning as the audience surrogate and the voice of the viewer.

The longer the film goes on, however, the more Scott seems to stretch it out.  As with Downsizing, the film is a little longer than it needs to be, and could have been shortened by about fifteen minutes without losing any of the pertinent plot points or character development.  Scott’s build makes the climax seem inevitably near when, in actuality, there are still a few more twists and turns that lie ahead.  With tighter editing, the flow would be improved and the film would finish a little higher on my Best of 2017 list.

landscape-1513857006-all-the-money-in-the-world-michelle-williams-mark-wahlberg-fabio-lovino

Despite that, the film never becomes taxing.  The three leads and the engaging plot work together to keep the audience engaged in what is ultimately a thrilling tale, less because of the kidnapping and more so due to the complexity of the human mind.  It’s incredible to realize what some people will (or won’t) do and getting what one needs from others can be tricky, even when the circumstances should suggest otherwise.  All the Money in the World is less about a kidnapping and more about a three-way chess match between a terrified mother, money-hungry criminals, and the man who straddles both worlds.  Scott handles the film nicely and provides the strong, quality adult entertainment that so many crave.

Like us on Facebook!

Review – All the Money in the World