Thor: Ragnarok

Annihilation

Science fiction isn’t my favorite genre, but one must be open-minded about art. You never know what may end up being a great film. 2014’s Ex Machina was a film that I assumed I’d dislike, and I actually ended up really enjoying it. When I learned Annihilation not only featured one of my favorite actresses in Natalie Portman, but also that Ex Machina’s director Alex Garland was responsible, I was convinced it was worthy of a Movie Pass swipe.

Portman (Jackie) stars as Lena, a biologist and professor recently widowed. Or is she? Her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) has been missing in action for over a year. He never returned from a recon mission that took him inside of a mysterious visible, moving force field dubbed the “shimmer.” Meanwhile, Lena is stuck in a holding pattern, going through the motions of daily life, continuing to teach. But her grief persists, compounded by a lack of closure. Then, one day, Kane reappears. It’s apparent that something is different about him now, from the vacant look in his eyes to the decreased cognition. Eventually he has to be rushed in for medical treatment, quarantined in a nearby government facility. There Lena encounters a team of women, the latest doomed collective to be sent on a virtual suicide mission inside the shimmer. Lead by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Amityville: The Awakening), the small band includes scientists and rescue personnel.

The bulk of the film is told in extended flashback. Lena and Dr. Ventress’ team enter the shimmer, and while five enter, it’s not clear that all five will make it out. We switch back and forth between the present, where Lena is recalling what happened inside the shimmer, and their actual time inside. The shimmer covers a wide, remote area and has moved slowly over time, drifting closer to population centers. Within its depths a unique ecosystem has developed, giving rise to beautiful foliage but also deadly hybrid creatures. Lena is the central figure of the story, and it is through her perspective that most of the action is filtered. Despite the fragility brought on by recent events, she’s surprisingly courageous within the shimmer, boldly facing unknown dangers, including bizarre creatures and supernatural energy. She starts off well with the others at first, but camaraderie gives way to fear and mistrust as they face one threat after another. Undeterred, Lena persists in hopes of getting answers about what happened to her husband.

Annihilation was an okay movie, but that’s the extent of any praise. Although the shimmer’s premise allowed for some cool visual elements and fantasy-driven concepts, the story didn’t have a satisfying resolution. During one weird scene, I took a moment to survey the faces of those around me, to see if they were exasperated, engrossed, or disengaged all together. They seemed to be enjoying it, so perhaps I was missing something. Science fiction is unconstrained by convention, and I think its freedom in storytelling sometimes results in suspect plot development. The performances were more than adequate, and I enjoy both Portman and Issac in mostly everything. Moreover, I was glad to see Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok) continuing her recent campaign of worthy notches  – but the film felt unremarkable. Perhaps more suited for sci-fi enthusiasts, it fell flat for me. Don’t waste your time unless you’re a fan of the genre.

Grade: C

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-