(On Cable TV, October 2018) So… Jessica Chastain as the lead in an Aaron Sorkin film? You definitely have my attention. But Molly’s Game goes many steps further in giving us a real-life story of poker, Hollywood, organized crime, Idris Elba, a brainy leggy heroine and a two-hour stream of patented Sorkin dialogue. A fascinating example of an adaptation that goes further than the source material, this film not only adapts the content of Molly Bloom’s story as published in the original Molly’s Game, but updates it through a framing device taking place after the book’s publication. The fascination here is evenly distributed between Sorkin’s usual brand of rapid-fire witty dialogue, Molly Bloom’s extraordinary personality and Chastain’s uncanny ability to inhabit the role. It’s a great match between actress and subject, as the attractive Chastain gets to play a ferociously smart character who turns to the legally dubious side in order to make a living. Her conceit is simple enough: take care of all the necessary arrangements for wealthy poker players to have their regular games. It’s not entirely legal, certainly not completely safe, and much of the film’s interest is in detailing all the precautions she has to take in order to attract and retain the high-rollers while protecting herself. Michael Cera plays against type as a slimy Hollywood actor (reportedly Tobey Maguire) who ends up becoming one of Molly’s worst opponents, while Elba is his usual charismatic self as a high-powered lawyer. Sorkin also has fun directing his own script, fully getting into his heroine’s mind and history. (Kevin Costner pops up for a few scenes as her father, and gets a great scene in which he fast-forwards through years of therapy with his immensely intelligent daughter.) At 140 minutes, Molly’s Game is not a short movie, but it is seldom less than engrossing thanks to its script, directors and multiple subject matters. It’s thoroughly entertaining, and a strong demonstration of what Sorkin and Chastain can do at their best.
(On Cable TV, June 2018) There is a very familiar blend of thrills in The Mountain between Us that makes the movie almost useless despite some very nice high points here and there. Mixing a disaster survival story with a romance isn’t new, and the way director Hany Abu-Assad uses high-tech means to create visual excitement (most notably in a lengthy one-shot crash sequence) don’t really amount to much when the film can be almost entirely predicted from the first five minutes. While the nature photography is nice, the survival story strains credulity while the romance seems overly familiar from similar films. The execution isn’t that special, and not even capable actors Idris Elba and Kate Winslet can save this one from nearly instant forgetfulness. Far too long for its own good given its thin plot, The Mountain between Us is not predestined to much of a future—it’s the kind of film that becomes a footnote more quickly than you can imagine.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) I’m not that familiar with Stephen King’s series (even though I’ve got most of it on my shelves, waiting for a sustained reading marathon) but you don’t need to be a fan to be disappointed by the low energy of this big screen The Dark Tower. Some of the film is worth defending: Idris Elba has never been less than interesting even in misfires such as this one. Matthew McConaughey can play evil very well. Some of the initial world building of the film is intriguing. There’s a great action sequence at the end. But beyond those things, The Dark Tower feels like a blend of several very familiar urban fantasy tropes remixed without much wit nor conviction. It does a poor job hinting at the grandeur of King’s series, and far too often goes back to familiarity when we’re here for the new and unexpected. I often complain about the Hollywood process that uniformizes whatever quirky source of inspiration comes its way, and that’s seldom as apparent as in here. Whatever may have been worthwhile in King’s source material is compressed in an extremely familiar three-act structure and plot moments that feel stolen from the past five years of YA urban fantasy. What’s left cannot be satisfying to audiences unfamiliar with King’s work nor his fans. The Dark Tower feels like a mess, and watches like one. Looking at the poor critical and commercial returns for the film, it’s fair to say that there will never be a sequel in that continuity and I’m not devastated by that idea.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2016) What happens when you drop two good (even underrated) actors in a generic formula film? You get something that’s worth watching even if the film itself is almost entirely forgettable. After all, it doesn’t get more hackneyed that a home-invasion thriller in which a dangerous escaped criminal fixates on a woman left alone at home—during a storm, no less! But, with some capable directing and Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henderson arguably slumming in the lead roles, No Good Deed becomes almost watchable despite a blatantly predictable plot and much nonsense along the way. I’m really not fond of the way that the film ends up tying both the aggressor and the victim together—it’s a far scarier concept to imagine just a random criminal—but I’ll allow it in the spirit of hackneyed plotting. Elba is far too good to play one-dimensional criminal, but he does it so well that it’s hard to be mad at him. Meanwhile, Henderson has a far more interesting role as the victim who ends up protecting her children while fighting back at the aggression, even when it moves away from her house. No Good Deed isn’t much more than B-grade exploitation filmmaking, but thanks to its lead actors it remains compelling throughout, which is a great deal better than other movies of its ilk.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2016) Netflix’s new role as an original movie distributor starts with a bang with Beasts of No Nation, an uncompromising film that not only suggests Netflix’s good eye for content, but also a willingness to support material that otherwise wouldn’t get much visibility in today’s megaplex-spectacle context. Beasts of no Nation certainly isn’t a traditional crowd pleaser: Focusing on the plight of a (very) young man recruited into an army of children during an African civil war, it’s a film that hits hard, stares where others don’t like to watch and offers no easy conclusions. Bloodshed, abuse and madness abound, while writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga doesn’t flinch in presenting his material. Beasts of No Nation benefits from a pair of exceptional performances: Abraham Attah as the young Agu, our viewpoint character, and Idris Elba as the cult-like commander of his army. The African scenery is gorgeously showcased, and the film does have a cinematic quality that may not have been expected from a streaming release. The footnote of Beast of No Nation in movie history is assured: Once Netflix picked it up and promised simultaneous availability online, most American theatre chains struck back by refusing to play it on the big screen. The joke, within a few years, will be on them. In the meantime, Netflix has done well for itself and the film by ensuring Beasts of No Nation publicity and distribution. It’s the kind of move that suggests a slightly brighter future for cinema, as more complex viewing experiences can be made viable through streaming platforms.
(In theatres, September 2010) Keeping expectations low is one way to best appreciate Takers given how this surprising California-noir crime thriller recycles a bunch of familiar elements into a watchable whole. The story, about a crew of Los Angeles professional bank robbers pulling off one last heist even as the FBI is closing on them and dissention strikes within their ranks, is so generic as to approach cliché: You can pick bits and pieces of Heat, Cradle 2 The Grave and even The Italian Job out of the finished result and it’s not as if the dialogue is anything special. Worse yet is the direction, which feels forced to use an incoherent shaky-cam style every time something interesting is happening, undercutting our ability to make sense of what’s going on. But despite the problems, it works: Takers features a fine multiracial cast (with special mention of Idris Elba, Michael Ealy and Paul Walker), a snappy rhythm, a few surprising stunts and a compelling sense of place for Los Angeles. What may sour the impression left by the film is a curiously off-balanced moral center, with fairly unpleasant cops taking on glamorous criminals with crime-financed luxurious lifestyles: The ending provides plenty of bloodshed and little reassurance as to who, if anyone, actually fulfilled their objectives. Still, if Takers may not be original… it’s entertaining enough.