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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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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Ghostbusters (2016)

Kristen Wiig

Melissa McCarthy

reviewed by Tom-Tom

starstar

 

The hype for the new Ghostbusters film was epic. There were leaked pictures of Chris Hemsworth, set footage. And let’s not forget the preemptive haters and lovers who argued furiously online about everything from the casting to what may or not happen. Remakes seem the coin of the realm these days with great ones, weird ones, and horrible cringe-inducing ones. Let’s step back and remember the original film for a moment. It was great. A perfect mix of comedy, horror, weirdness, and fun scientific speeches by Dan Aykroyd and the late Harold Ramis which was balanced by the pseudo-scientist Bill Murray who was just in it for the girls and cash. His everyman stance put us in the screen powered up by Eddie Hudson’s even more practical and pure everyman “I have seen shit which would turn you white!” Let’s not forget Annie Potts as the underworked (at first) and overworked secretary with the most memorable accent ever and Rick Moranis as the overbearing neighbor with an obvious crush on Sigourney Weaver. Somehow it all worked. I remember when HBO was free and it showed this movie over and over again. Even me, the crybaby of the family could handle its scares eventually except for the skeletal taxi driver. That dude still freaks me out.

The newest Ghostbusters film opens interestingly enough, not a library this time but a supposedly haunted home of an old rich New York family with an insane murderess among its colorful history. It passes on the tradition of not jumping the shark but instead showing us the terror in the face of the witness of the supernatural. The scene changes to Kristen Wiig’s character Erin Gilbert attempting to impress Charles Dance, who makes as convincing a University Dean as a Lannister in his quietly intimidating way. Events lead her to seek out Melissa McCarthy and Kate McKinnon playing Abby Yates and Jillian Holtzmann respectively. Unfortunately this is where the film takes a tip for the worst. I keep imagining some idiotic brainstorming session in which writers, worried about the naysaying stupid white males of the world, decide in a burst of inspiration, “Hey let’s put in some fart jokes and make fun of a guy by saying he pooped his pants. Yeah, that’ll appease the masses.” It takes amazing writing skills to reinvent the fart and poop joke and unfortunately, it ain’t here, folks. It’s a shame, really. McKinnon is super great as Jillian with her off-beat comments and googly eyes through big round glasses. She at least has her character down. Wiig and McCarthy are all over the place with no discernible pattern of their characters other than a past friendship which isn’t really well fleshed out.

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Birdman

Michael Keaton

Edward Norton

reviewed by Tom-Tom

starstarstar

With every passing year, I wonder what really is behind the choosing of movies as Best Picture. Films like Birdman, The Artist, Chicago, and La La Land (which “won” for all of 4 minutes before the fallacy was explained) make me feel as if it is “the movie that speaks to the voters” rather than actual cinematic quality of the movies themselves that clinches the win. The struggle of actors and actresses who make it big will never ever be a foil for the American dream for me. Making travel plans to California doesn’t ensure anything will go well and the starlet/star waiting to be born is a tired tale told way too often and too poorly especially considering how close the makers are to the source material.

      Swingers executed it well without the glamour or glitz but rather with down and out actors commiserating with one another for getting turned down to play even Goofy at Disneyland. The doubt and self questioning there were universal to any job and not the main point of the movie. It’s a testament to our age of perceived entitlement in which films star people who expect to arrive fresh off the bus and then to be sent to the head of the line at auditions and lauded as the best actor ever, much, interestingly enough as the gullible ginger chump in the Sherlock Holmes mystery, The Red-Headed League. The inevitable whining and navel gazing afterwards always gets my blood up. “I’m the main character in this movie, everyone should do what I want.” Continue reading