Molly’s Game

The saying goes, if they wrote a book about your life, would anyone read it? Part of what makes the human experience beautiful is its variation. Two wildly different lives can both be compelling. For instance, Nelson Mandela and Al Capone don’t have much in common, but I’d watch a movie or read a book about either one of them. If you reduce a film to its most essential element, what you have is a story, and Molly’s is simply a great one.

Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain, The Zookeeper’s Wife) was a competitive skier and former Olympian, an amazing feat by most standards. Like many Olympians, her father (Kevin Costner, Hidden Figures) doubled as coach/mentor – wielding influence that was instrumental to her success, yet stifling in its effect on her psychological makeup. The problem with many athletes or other uber talented people is that they run the risk of tying their entire self-identity to this one facet of their being, their gift. When it disappears, they’re often left asking, what now?

 Written by the incomparable Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), Molly’s Game is replete with the auteur’s smart, succinct dialogue, often delivered through rapid-fire, omniscient narration. The film begins with the pivotal moment that changed the trajectory of Molly’s life, the last day she skied competitively. Through flashback Sorkin depicts her tragic final run, one that ends in a crash at the bottom of a hill instead of the medal podium. This opening scene was critical in establishing Molly’s relentless drive, type A personality, and her resilience. Not to mention it was just a fascinating look into a sport I know very little about. I always feel a bit smarter after watching Sorkin’s work, and Molly was expertly fleshed out from the beginning.

Forced to reinvent herself, Molly charts a new course, delaying law school to move to Hollywood. There she takes a job as an office assistant and moonlights as a cocktail waitress. Her boss Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong, The Big Short) runs a poker game for a collection of celebrities, including actors, rappers, athletes and titans of tech. He recruits Molly to assist, and soon she’s collecting hefty tips from rich gamers and rubbing elbows with A-listers. Her voracious intellect demands that she learn everything about poker, from the terminology to player “tells.” After a rift with Dean, she uses her newly acquired skillset to begin running her own games, and soon Molly’s game is the hot ticket in town.

By carefully skirting illegality, Molly was able to keep her nose clean. But when circumstances dictated a different clientele for the games, she runs afoul of the FBI. Again, Sorkin effectively uses pace and sequencing to paint a picture, establishing certain crucial events and expounding upon them later in the film. Chastain was endearing as the flawed Bloom, seeming to act out of necessity rather than greed. She relished the success of the game, but it never felt like she wanted more than what was owed and fair. It could be said that she facilitated people’s addiction, but can’t the same be said of casinos? She didn’t take money for the games (known as a “rake”), she didn’t employ muscle to collect from people who couldn’t pay up, and she even tried to talk the more degenerate amongst them from gambling their lives away.

Chastain is joined primarily by Costner and Idris Elba (Thor: Ragnarok) as her attorney Charlie Jaffey. The two actors buttress Chastain with earnest, warm performances – Costner as the domineering yet regretful father forced to revisit his mistakes in parenting, and Elba as her sympathetic advocate. Chastain rightly received a Golden Globe nomination and I’ve been impressed with her since 2010’s The Debt. This film is a bit dialogue heavy to be totally rewatchable, but it was superbly written and performed.

 Grade: A-

Justice League

There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned rivalry. As I write this review I’m trying to think of a fitting analogy to describe the comic rivalry that is Marvel vs. DC. The best recent comic book movies have been Marvel editions, from Captain America: Winter Soldier to Logan. However, The Dark Knight still reigns supreme, and Wonder Woman has rejuvenated DC. Regardless of how cool The Avengers are, when it comes to iconic superheroes, Batman and Superman are the standard bearers.

I’m still settling into the idea of Ben Affleck (Live By Night) as Batman/Bruce Wayne, but he at least looks the part, checking all the superficial boxes. I don’t get any real depth of character from him, but where Christian Bale (The Dark Knight Rises) brought an air of refinement to Bruce Wayne, Affleck is more of a rugged Everyman. In Justice League, he is the catalyst for their coalition. Still reeling from the loss of Superman, Bruce is rather downtrodden. Sensing trouble on the horizon, he feels compelled to gather a team who can be ready when impending doom finally darkens their doorstep.

Methodically and effectively, director Zac Snyder (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Man of Steel) introduces us to the Justice League. We’re familiar with Bruce and Diana (Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman), and now we meet Cyborg, Aquaman (Jason Momoa, Once Upon a Time in Venice) and The Flash (Ezra Miller, Suicide Squad). Bruce’s sense of foreboding is confirmed with the appearance of “Steppenwolf,” a sinister being also known as the End of Worlds. He seeks to unite three motherboards, which are gleaming mythical cubes of energy/life force found in separate, remote locations. Their unification can bring about the end of the world, and the Justice League must stop Steppenwolf from obtaining all three.

One motherboard is on Themyscira, under Amazon guard on Diana’s home planet. I read that Justice League was re-shot to include more scenes with Wonder Woman, after the success of the solo film earlier this year. That was a shrewd decision, and it was effective from a storytelling perspective. Bruce challenges Diana to embrace her iconic role and to be more proactive than reactive, leveling the same criticism at the character that some feminists aimed at the Wonder Woman film. I’m paraphrasing, but he essentially states that all it took to break down this warrior woman was a little heartbreak. I thought that bit of dialogue was a clever nod to the fan base and legitimate acknowledgment of a perceived flaw in our beloved heroine.

Bruce Wayne has never been so humble and self-deprecating. He comically acknowledges that being rich is his only super power, and the rest of the team often challenges his quiet air of authority. The Flash is funny, his youth refreshing compared to his more jaded, skeptical counterparts. Cyborg has not fully embraced his altered body, still gingerly navigating his newfound abilities. Aquaman is aloof, but devoted. While they don’t always share the same approach, when they are called to action they are in perfect unison, highlighting the shared chemistry attendant of ensemble films.

Justice League was nearly as good as The Avengers, and much better than last year’s Suicide Squad, which felt like a hodgepodge collection of misfits. I appreciate a plot that isn’t needlessly complex, and I wasn’t disappointed here – although the premise is a trite one. As long as it continues to bring out the best in each franchise, the Marvel-DC rivalry is great for moviegoers. Justice League was simple, yet funny and entertaining. I can’t say unequivocally that one character stole the show, which is a testament to the shared star power on screen. There were no weak links, and now I have to think twice about what super squad I’d want to save me.

Grade: A-

Murder on the Orient Express

I’ve always loved a good mystery. When I was a kid I used to read Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew and the like. I marveled at the mental dexterity and nearly prescient reasoning those young sleuths displayed. Moreover, there’s just something about a good mystery that feels comforting, yet thrilling. Couple my affinity for mystery with an enjoyment of ensemble films, and there was no way I’d miss Murder on the Orient Express. It was a treat to watch our charming protagonist, the affably eccentric Hercule Poirot in action, extracting information from suspects both willing and unwilling.

Although some viewers may be familiar with Poirot (Kenneth Branagh, Dunkirk), the film begins with an effective introduction to the genteel gumshoe, as he solves a theft by uncovering the smallest, most inconspicuous clue. Watching Poirot is like a master class in crime solving. His reputation precedes him, and those being interrogated often police themselves, dispensing with lies without bothering to try to stump the ever-observant Poirot. When our vaunted detective finds himself aboard the Orient Express, the stage is set. Poirot is headed to London to consult on a homicide, but not before meeting a colorful cast of characters aboard the train, one of whom will become a victim themselves.

Most notable among the passengers are Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales), a seedy underworld type running from a mysterious foe, along with Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.) and his companion Mary (Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), two acquaintances who are curiously pretending to be strangers, and Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer, Mother!) a saucy older woman looking for a good time. Rounding out the bunch are an assortment of other passengers, including a wealthy grand dame (Judi Dench, Victoria and Abdul), a religious domestic worker (Penelope Cruz, Zoolander 2), and Mr. Ratchett’s assistant Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad, Beauty and the Beast).

Quite simply, the crux of the movie is the murder of one of the dozen or so passengers. The ambience of the confined space and the proximity of the guests to one another make for a taut and suspenseful journey. I found myself trying to think as Poirot, to observe as he did. Nothing was what it appeared to be, and the storyline kept me in suspense without being intellectually dishonest. While the pacing and emphasis on dialogue won’t appeal to everyone, I never lost interest thanks in large part to Kenneth Branagh’s jovial turn. He seemed to relish the role, and it was fun to watch him be the smartest person in the room. Or in this case, on the train.

Murder on the Orient Express will appeal more to grandmothers than millennials, due to its slow pace and the genteel nature of its protagonist. It wasn’t an action-packed nonstop thrill ride; it was a quiet, enjoyable film for those who enjoy a good mystery. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if the trailer piqued your curiosity at all, I think you’ll be pleased.

Grade: B+

Thor: Ragnarok

I don’t profess to be a comic book purist or Marvel aficionado, instead I take each movie at face value. I compare within the genre, and examine each film within the context of superhero film history. I’m not familiar enough with the source material to assess authenticity from that perspective; I’ll leave that critique to others. However, as we march toward Marvel’s epic culmination Infinity War, I thought it was the perfect time to round out the Marvel family. Thor: Ragnarok, the third installment in the series, was a fun ride, and significantly better than its predecessor.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Ghostbusters) has been a rather likeable hero, but besides being obvious eye candy, he is also a rather formidable opponent for most foes. When we find him in Thor: Ragnarok, his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins, Transformers: The Last Knight) has been exiled by Loki (Tom Hiddleston, Kong: Skull Island). The destruction of his home planet Asgard is imminent, as Ragnarok looms. Ragnarok is a kooky word describing the destruction of the 9 realms, including Asgard. Enter Hela (Cate Blanchett, Carol), Odin’s first born and elder sister to Thor and Loki. Blanchett smolders as the deliciously evil Goddess of Death, a nemesis the likes of which Thor hasn’t seen. In a stunning display of power, she crumbles Thor’s mighty hammer, gleefully letting it sift through her fingers like sand.

Loki and Thor don’t have much of a fraternal bond, with Thor justifiably wary of his sibling, given Loki’s history of betrayal. As they devise a plan to thwart Hela and save their home planet, they face assorted obstacles along the way, including a stay at the circus-like home of the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, Independence Day: Resurgence), where he bumps into an old friend. Thor also finds an unlikely ally in Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, Creed), so nicknamed in honor of the Asgardian defenders from whom she descends. With the help of new friends such as Valkyrie and old ones like Heimdall (Idris Elba, The Mountain Between Us), Thor treks back to Asgard to face Hela in a showdown to save his home planet.

The word “Ragnarok” sounds silly to me, and the previous Thor movie left much to be desired. As a result, I wasn’t particularly enthused about this latest installment – but I stand corrected. Writer/director Taika Waititi infused the movie with the perfect blend of action and humor. I hate corny, forced laughs and I’ve found it to be a common cinematic trick, in what I suspect is an attempt to appeal to kids. Ragnarok refrained from that, relying instead on Hemsworth’s natural charm and comedic timing. Thor is like the hot, cool guy who is surprisingly down to earth and doesn’t take himself too seriously. In other words, he’s perfect. Hemsworth displayed good chemistry with Tessa Thompson, and the actress was an effective foil and compliment to his character. Anthony Hopkins elevates anything he’s in (even if you think it’s beneath the Oscar winner), and Cate Blanchett is incomparable. She is becoming one of my favorite actresses, and her work here evinces an adaptable versatility. This was just a fun, well-executed movie.

Grade: A

 

Wind River

I love many genres of film, but dramas and thrillers are my favorites. I particularly enjoy a good mystery or well-crafted psychological thriller, e.g. Prisoners or Gone Girl. Moreover, independent films tend to be hidden gems. Wind River got my attention with its unsettling, mysterious plot and talented cast. Starring Elizabeth Olsen (Captain America: Civil War) and Jeremy Renner (Arrival), the film is a slow burner, both suspenseful and unsettling. Obviously many great elements comprise a successful film, but for me the most important element will always be the story, the foundation of any movie. Wind River was perfectly structured, for my tastes. The film began in arresting, chilling fashion, but was sustained throughout by the quiet intensity of its story. It struck an emotional cord, exploring the hollowness of grief and the tragic loss of a life extinguished needlessly.

Wind River established an early quiet tone, beginning in the remote locale of a Northwestern Indian Reservation. The setting is an unmistakable driver of the film, insulating its main characters with peaceful solitude, but isolating them from the familiar comfort a community breeds. The cold and desolate locale is a haunting place to spend one’s last moments, but that is the fate that befalls teenaged Natalie, who begins the film running for her life. The scenario is the stuff of horror movies: a young woman chased by an unseen psychopath. Barefoot, she runs full tilt until her lungs give out. Mentally impervious to the freezing temperatures and stinging snow, we know that the prospect of the unknown is less frightening than whatever hell she’s escaping. Wind River asks simply, what happened to Natalie?

We know the question, but who’s asking it? Enter Cory Lambert (Renner), an animal tracker who’s familiar with the landscape and has a personal connection to Natalie. His insight will prove invaluable to the FBI agent assigned to the case, Agent Jane Banner (Olsen). Banner is earnest and sincere, but refreshingly unabashed in her complete lack of preparedness. She is the proverbial outsider, unfamiliar with the physical and cultural terrain. She frankly enlists Lambert’s help, and the two of them set about piecing together the last moments of young Natalie’s life. As the pair close in on a suspect, their lives fall in jeopardy, and Banner shows that although she’s new in town, she’s no stranger to putting someone on their back when necessary.

Wind River was a subdued, yet satisfying film with enough mystery to leave viewers intrigued throughout. There was an ominous, foreboding air about the movie and an emotional vulnerability conveyed through performances tinged with melancholy. Renner and Olsen delivered their performances with emotional intensity, but with the proper restraint demanded by the story. I usually wouldn’t enjoy such a bleak film, but the compelling air of mystery tempered its somber tone. Atypical summer fare, Wind River is worth seeing.

Grade: A

Atomic Blonde

Wonder Woman created a considerable buzz, becoming the highest grossing female-directed movie of all time. I started thinking about women’s role in film, and how I’m partial to movies that feature ass-kicking women. I probably enjoy movies like Kill Bill and Atomic Blonde because they are a novelty, still. It’s somewhat atypical for a woman to carry an action film, and perhaps that should change. In Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) brawls her way through the streets of Berlin, leaving bloodied foes in her wake and proving every bit as capable as her male counterparts. Although Theron was impressive in the role (she did her own stunts), Atomic Blonde had more style than substance, and it was not as original as some critics would have you believe.

Charlize Theron stars as Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 officer tasked with traveling to Berlin to investigate the death of another spy. The comrade in question was in possession of a covert list of spies and double agents. Set in 1989, the movie takes place in the waning days of The Cold War. Upon arriving in Berlin, Lorraine is met by David Percival (James McAvoy, Split), her handler and point person. He’s a wild card, his unconventional appearance fitting perfectly with the rebellious, revolutionary spirit of the city. Lorraine is stoic, dispassionate and efficient, traits that serve her well in her profession. She brings those considerable skills to bear in pursuit of an asset called Spyglass (Eddie Marsan, Ray Donovan), an informant privy to the list’s contents.

As the movie progresses, Lorraine dispatches adversaries with an impressive ferocity. She takes her fair share of lumps too, one stairwell scene particularly brutal. I tip my hat to Theron, who immersed herself in the role by training relentlessly in preparation and performing her own stunts. The film’s strengths were its action, cinematography, and score. Visually, it was washed out and monochromatic, with intermittent pops of neon color that gave it a sleek, oddly modern look. When Lorraine seduces French agent Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella, Kingsman: The Secret Service), the screen is awash in hot pink. When she soaks in an ice bath after a day of beatings, the screen is nearly devoid of color, save for cool blue undertones. I appreciated these visual elements, along with the pulsating New Age soundtrack.

I’ve praised Theron for her commitment to the role, but her performance felt muted. Perhaps that was intentional; maybe she was just supposed to be a detached spy, but I thought her character felt walled off emotionally. Theron is talented and I know she’s got the chops, so I attribute this to some failing of the script, which was unoriginal and confusing. Moreover, the whole ‘missing list of covert operatives’ storyline was hackneyed and silly. The cast is esteemed, including John Goodman (Kong: Skull Island), the aforementioned McAvoy, and Toby Jones (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), but they can’t save the source material.

In sum, if you’re big on plot and details, you may not care for Atomic Blonde. However, if you’re game for some entertaining summer fare, I think you’ll be pleased. Theron has enough star power to reel you in, and the film was sexy and arresting, visually. It just wasn’t smart. Some critics are treating Atomic Blonde as the first movie to portray a “female James Bond,” and that’s simply inaccurate. Films like the relatively recent Salt, Point of No Return, and its iconic predecessor La Femme Nikita all come to mind as other examples, with two of these three being vastly superior to Theron’s latest offering.

Grade: B+

 

 

Girls Trip

When I saw the trailer for Girls Trip, I’ll admit, I cringed. I’m not a prude, and I liked the fact that the trailer was basically X-Rated. But when Tiffany Haddish told Jada Pinkett that “you can’t get an infection in your bootyhoole,” that was beyond the pale for me. Nevertheless, I reasoned that if I saw Scarlett Johansson’s craptastic, similarly trite Rough Night, I could support my sisters and see Girls Trip. I told my gals if they wanted to see it, I’d go along. I’m glad I loosened up a bit, because Girls Trip was a cute, heartwarming movie. What it lacked in originality it made up for in the charm, wit and realism of its ensemble cast – particularly the aforementioned Haddish.

Ryan (Regina Hall, When the Bough Breaks), Sasha (Queen Latifah, Ice Age: Collision Course), Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith, Bad Moms) and Dina (Tiffany Haddish, Keanu) are the “Flossy Posse,” a ride-or-die group of friends who formed their clique in college. Understandably, the friendship has waxed and waned over the years, the old gang intermittently marking milestones while coping with emotional slights and rifts along the way. Through divorce, the joy of motherhood, and all the major ups and downs of life, the Flossy Posse has been there for each other. When Ryan, a successful author and empowerment guru has a chance to secure a lucrative new opportunity in New Orleans, she invites her crew to tag along for a girls trip, just like old times. She and husband Stewart (Mike Colter, Luke Cage) are poised to ink a new deal to expand their self-help empire, but their marriage may be showing cracks in its shiny veneer.

The girls are true to form, reliving their glory days and vowing to get “turnt” for the entire weekend, which is set against the backdrop of the annual Essence Music Festival. Lisa is a cougar on the prowl, catching the eye of a handsome young stranger (Kofi Siriboe, Queen Sugar). Ryan is trying to keep up appearances with Stewart, Sasha is fretting over her next scoop for her gossip blog, and Dina is just trying to party. The girls predictably have an assortment of misadventures, including a dance battle, a near brawl, and an absinthe-laced trip. All of these plot points have been done before, but what makes Girls Trip special is its heart. At the risk of sounding corny, this movie just felt real. It didn’t matter that the concept wasn’t original, because these are what my friends look and sound like. Some of the gags were rather gross, but to each her own.

Girls Trip opened against Dunkirk, and it’s the second movie of its type this summer. Despite these odds, it has fared well due in large part to the scene-stealing Tiffany Haddish. It took me a while to embrace her brand of humor, but she’s just adorable. The camaraderie and chemistry amongst the cast infused the movie with warmth and realness, and its authenticity makes it a hit with audiences. Girls Trip perfectly captured the spirit of friendship, and it’s a must-see for you and your homegirls.

Grade: B+