Molly’s Game

Jessica Chastain

Idris Elba

reviewed by Tom-Tom

starstarstarhalf star

 

Aaron Sorkin, now there’s a guy who knows how to start a story. Whether it’s the breathless first 20 minutes of The Social Network or the heart-stopping and brilliant opening to the HBO show The Newsroom, Sorkin is a wordsmith, able to make rapid fire dialogue with a fierce intensity but calculated intelligence spew out of the mouths of the world’s best actors. Molly’s Game is no different although this time, Sorkin himself is director. If you’re expecting what usually happens when a dialogue heavy writer becomes director, (ahem, recent QT films) fear not. He has learned much from the red carpet parade of directors whom have took on his screenplays: Danny Boyle, David Fincher, Rob Reiner, etc. His editing is just as sharp as his dialogue  feeding us well balanced pieces of the backstory and current story effortlessly but clearly eschewing the turgid mess a lesser writer or director could make of it all. Molly Bloom’s story is actually pretty simple the way Steve Jobs’ story was simple in the eponymous film directed by Danny Boyle. She was headed towards a law degree after failing to qualify for the Winter Olympics and learned how to set up and run poker games for which she is currently (in the film’s “present” timeline) standing trial. While the Jobs film relied more on dialogue and linear recounting of events leaving the viewer with a bit of emptiness at the end despite the high-paced build up and slight emotional payoff at the end, (“Did this really need to be filmed?” I remember recounting. Its passionate speeches would have been better served at the theater than on the big screen”), Molly’s Game doesn’t suffer from overfocus on dialogue as there are loads of things to keep our minds and eyes busy while Jessica Chastain laconically does voiceover for her past.

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Frances McDormand

Sam Rockwell

reviewed by Tom-Tom

starstarstar

I always keep an eye out for Academy Award nominated films. More often than not, there are some true originals which almost never actually win any of the big prizes. The terrible title of this film, which beats the likes of “Shawshank Redemption” for filmmakers trying to scare away anyone who might actually want to see the film, intrigued me. Plus it had Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell who always offer their own personal styles to pictures.

The premise is strong and we aren’t baby-fed the story. McDormand shows all in her dark and dour expressions as vivid as Willem Dafoe’s but much more subtly. We learn that her daughter was raped while dying and burned alive. We learn this because she rents the eponymous three billboards and lights them up in red with black letters tersely advising the Sheriff to make arrests and see her daughter gets some justice. Chief Willoughby (Harrelson) has got his own problems. He’s been terminally diagnosed with cancer. When he confides this tender detail to the grieving albeit no-nonsense Mildred Hayes (McDormand), she fires back, “I know. Everyone knows. That’s why I need your help now. You’re useless to me dead.” or something to that effect. Mildred is full of terse, potty mouthed one liners about the police and its treatment of the African American and LGBT community. There is comedy in the film but it is more a sad way of dealing with grief and one’s own death so I wouldn’t recommend going in with a “haha” comedy mentality. This is a much deeper film.

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Frances McDormand

Sam Rockwell

reviewed by Tom-Tom

starstarstar

I always keep an eye out for Academy Award nominated films. More often than not, there are some true originals which almost never actually win any of the big prizes. The terrible title which beats the likes of “Shawshank Redemption” for filmmakers trying to scare away anyone who might actually want to see the film intrigued me. Plus it had Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell who always offer their own personal styles to pictures.

The premise is strong and we aren’t baby-fed the story. McDormand shows all in her dark and dour expressions as vivid as Willem Dafoe’s but much more subtly. We learn that her daughter was raped while dying and burned alive. We learn this because she rents the eponymous three billboards and lights them up in read with black letters tersely advising the Sheriff to make arrests and see her daughter gets some justice. Chief Willoughby (Harrelson) has got his own problems. He’s been terminally diagnosed with cancer. When he confides this tender detail to the grieving albeit no-nonsense Mildred Hayes (McDormand), she fires back, “I know. Everyone knows. That’s why I need your help now. You’re useless to me dead.” or something to that effect. Mildred is full of terse, potty mouthed one liners about the police and its treatment of the African American and LGBT community. There is comedy in the film but it is more a sad way of dealing with grief and one’s own death so I wouldn’t recommend going in with a “haha” comedy mentality. This is a much deeper film.

The film takes a rather shocking turn midway which seems to lead its initial progress astray. Later events seem to derail the plot entirely. Anyone going in with an urge to see a satisfying revenge film will also be disappointed. For a great film about the fallacy of revenge, I recommend Blue Ruin or even Old Boy (the Korean version). The ending is …well, open ended. It felt to me to have steered away from the message it was going for in the beginning but improvisation and thinking outside the typical film box never really hurt. If I were to sum the film I would have to say it was about loss and someone who made a stand against complacency. The acting is spectacular and the 2 hours go by in a flash but I was left feeling empty without the typical rush from lesser films like Django: Unchained and The Shooter where although the main character gets his revenge, it feels like overkill.

It’s difficult to explain what one should take away from Three Billboards. While it is a scathing account of crime and the media in America, its halfhearted attempt to hint that vigilantism might be an answer feels a ruination of the steadily planted seeds of action thus far. There are great comments about the responsibility of men and women of faith and police but nothing seems to amount to more than a rant. I guess I was expecting more from an Oscar nominated film.

Exorcist II: The Heretic

The Exorcist III has a great many champions and very few detractors. Even upon release, though not lauded as a classic (which Friedkin’s film indisputably is), it was warmly regarded as an unqualified success.

Exorcist II: The Heretic, on the other hand, saw very little love in 1977 and has seen very little love since. Mark Kermode of the BBC called John Boorman’s sequel “demonstrably the worst film ever made”. Michael Medved described it as “a thoroughly wretched piece of work”, while Vincent Canby called it a “desperate concoction” and Steven Scheuer opined that it was possibly “the worst sequel in the history of film.” William Friedkin himself thought it was “as bad as seeing a traffic accident” and recounted an incident in which enraged audience members chased the film’s terrified producers from a theatre ten minutes into a screening. He later referred to it as the product of a “demented mind”.

Given that John Boorman was the man who wrote and directed Zardoz, a film in which a bikini-clad Sean Connery hitches a ride on a megalithic flying head that spouts axioms like “The penis is evil!” while spitting up firearms to better facilitate errant war parties in their rape and murder campaigns, Friedkin may well have had a point. John Boorman did possess a demented mind, how else would we have Ned Beatty squealing like a pig under the duress of an uncongenial hillbilly? And how else would we have the grossly underrated Exorcist II?

Let me here add a caveat. I’ve only seen Exorcist II: The Heretic once, and a very long time ago at that. I may also have watched it during a Boorman-binge that I went on in the late noughties – a time at which I was particularly conducive to Boorman-barminess. So what follows is less a cleareyed review of Exorcist II than a run-through of my hazy recollections of the film – a hacky plot synopsis, in short – but this should in itself demonstrate why this movie is the absolute tits.

Half a decade after the events of the first film, Reagan MacNeil is a student at an elite dance academy. Or not. I can’t remember and it doesn’t matter. All is well, she has a special way with her students (perhaps she’s a teacher at an elite dance academy? I can’t remember. It doesn’t matter) and she is making the most of her new life in New York City. Re-enter Pazuzu, flying on the teeth of the wind all the way from sand-swept, sunset-tinged North Africa, to the strains of Ennio Morricone’s ebullient tribal score, hellbent on setting up shop once more in poor, post-pubescent, post-possessed Reagan. But never fear! Child psychologist (?) Louise Fletcher and moody priest Richard Burton are on hand to do battle with the Mesopotamic entity, or at the very least to lend Reagan some snazzy para-psychometrical headgear and wander from continent to continent in a bug-eyed stupor as the shit hits the fan. No lesser an actor than James Earl Jones also pops up, as a feather-clad warrior-cum-parasitologist, to dispense some interesting facts on the lifecycle of the locust and guide our heroes to the precipitous cliffside temple of their demonic adversary… All of this may or may not be in the film.

John Boorman’s decision to take The Exorcist’s story in a completely different direction (or run it completely off the rails, depending on your point of view) was bold, at least. Rather than return Reagan to her pea soup-vomiting, head-twirling, invective-spewing best, he delivered a glittery-eyed, rouge-cheeked succubus casting come-hither glances from a big, pink bed… During an earthquake… To a catatonic Richard Burton. Who could fail, at the very least, to be interested by this film? Why all the hate? Why did Mark Kermode claim that it took the original and “trashed it in a way that was on one level farcically stupid and on another level absolutely unforgiveable”? Why did Friedkin call it “a stupid mess by a dumb guy”?

Perhaps the film was too different. Maybe it wasn’t as slavishly faithful a rehashing of the sweet-child-turns-ugly-needs-priest-gets-priest-kills-priest formula as the people wanted. Quite possibly Boorman had too many ideas and too few people shouting, “No, John! No!” There are far worse people to not shout no to, however (Paul Schrader comes to mind), and far worse sequels than Exorcist II.

Fuck you Mark Kermode! Watch Exorcist II everybody!

Get Out

Daniel Kaluuya

Catherine Keener

reviewed by Tom-Tom

starstarstarstar

 

In early 2017, Jordan Peele shocked everyone. Not only was he releasing his directorial debut film but it was to be a horror film. Everyone knows of Key & Peele, of course. Who hasn’t seen the various sketches in which Peele portrays former President Barack Obama with more vocal than visual accuracy along with partner Key “interpreting” what he “really” means to say to great peals of laughter from the audience?

Masters of comedy and horror do have common ground, though. They both require techniques of suspending the disbelief of the audience while guiding them along a yarn towards a hilarious punchline or a horrifying set piece. Lesser artists in either genre rely solely on throwaway gags or jump scares respectively. They’re ostensibly aiming for a cumulative effect that creates a whole which is greater than the terrible parts but the results are almost always just terrible.

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Split

James McAvoy

Anya Taylor-Joy

reviewed by Tom-Tom

starstarstarhalf star

We had just about given up on M. Night Shyamalan. He started strong with The Sixth Sense which, while an imperfect film, had strong performances by Haley Joel Osment, Bruce Willis, and Donnie Wahlberg. I didn’t really like Unbreakable much thinking the twist contrived and implausible, even for a Shyamalan movie. The direction seemed clunky with the family drama scenes almost unbearable to watch despite then collaborator James Newton Howard’s beautiful score. Later it was hit (Signs) or miss (Lady in the Water) until, like director Robert Rodriguez, he entered the “making movies for the kids in my life” phase of his career with the panned The Last Airbender, and After Earth rankling in the memory of the those who didn’t hate the films for being bad but because of the lost chances, the casting choices of Airbender, and not making good enough use of the Smith family in Earth. Suddenly with The Visit, Shyamalan returned to his low-budget roots not exactly reinventing the shaky camera footage genre but giving the audience a few new refreshing scares and a really nice twist for once. If only his child actors were up to the Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin standard as in Signs but low budget is low budget. Now, with Split, M. Night Shyamalan is back and he has talented actors, the cinematographer from It Follows, and even a different composer for the soundtrack. I have to say, it’s a nice fit.

The opening credits themselves are creepy in their bare, generic, presentation. A name is presented and then split into 16, 32 small square copies within the background like some power point effect between slides from the 90’s. The bare bones feel is supported by a percussive score like a slightly upbeat version of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta which Stanley Kubrick used to great effect in The Shining. This version has the same random crashing of cymbals, anyway. I’m only a casual viewer of movies, but I have to say, the editing in Shyamalan films has gotten better as well as the general direction. Even in his best films, the awkward reactions of characters, the overlong footage of them turning around to notice something on the wall, and then saying there is something on the wall took away from the suspense or the drama of the moments. There was little of that in The Visit (the amateur rapper scenes were a bit awkward), and very little of that here in Split. Editing, direction, and the performances are all smooth. Even the always notorious director cameo goes off without much of a hitch. You can tell it’s a good cameo if you don’t notice him, if he doesn’t stick out in the scene the way he did in The Village despite not even showing his face so much.

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Hacksaw Ridge

Andrew Garfield

Vince Vaughn

reviewed by Tom-Tom

starstarstarstar

The problem with most faith-based movies, speaking as a fellow believer, is that they don’t add up to a real experience in the real world. Afraid to offend its narrow target viewers, e.g. frequenters of places of worship, those who don’t use vulgar language, at least on their respective Sabbath, and those who squirm at said bad language, violence, or sex scenes, the filmmakers give a rose-colored depiction of a ever-so-slightly flawed world easily surmounted by simple adherence to faith-based principles. Once detractors easily fall into line at the efforts of the sinless main characters to appeal to their shared humanity, it all usually ends in an “Awww, shucks, you’re right, man” contrived conclusion. Folks who aren’t particularly religious find the whole rose-colored plot implausible and this stokes the flames of their believers=weirdos/idiots idea further. Certain political parties and attempts at “educational” reform further stoke the flames. In 2004, Director Mel Gibson released The Passion of the Christ and the faithful finally got to see their Savior whipped, beaten, crowned with a thorny crown, staked through hands and feet, and hung up high to suffer a long painful death by asphyxiation and blood loss to be finally impaled by a spear. This was a major breakthrough in faith-based movies which always considered the delicate sensibilities of the faithful.

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