(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, July 2017) Writer/Director Jeff Nichols is now firmly on my radar after Mud and Midnight Special: his quasi-tactile sense of verisimilitude is astonishing, the local colour he brings to his stories is exceptional and he gets to control his movies by acting both as screenwriter and director. His frequent collaborations with Michael Shannon also help, as exemplified by Take Shelter, in which Shannon plays a young dad trying to keep himself and his family together through increasingly worrisome premonitions. It’s not a big movie, but it’s effective. The tension ramps up, Shannon is mesmerizing and Jessica Chastain shows up as a wife who tries to understand what her husband is going through. The ending packs a surprise whammy. It’s a good movie. But, if I can dedicate the rest of this review to post-viewing thoughts, I approached the film as low-key fantasy: there wasn’t any ambiguity in my mind as to whether the protagonist was suffering from delusions or prophetic dreams. I’m a genre-movie fan, and didn’t really bother with any realistic interpretation. When the surprise-ending came, I was more than willing to see it as a classical, literal fantastic twist with no other interpretation. Imagine my surprise when I started seeing references to the ending being open-ended—as a genre-comfortable fan, I hadn’t bothered with the depressingly realistic interpretation of the ending, in which we go back into the protagonist’s mind for another premonition. There’s probably a lesson here in terms of audience expectations and what they get from a movie, but I’m perhaps more interested in noting that Take Shelter’s ending does successfully walk a difficult line between literal and metaphorical interpretation … while being unusually successful in fulfilling both.
(On Cable TV, February 2016) The current crop of fantasy films seems hell-bent on proving that even wall-to-wall special effects can’t ensure a film that will be remembered once the end credits roll. I’ve had issues in the past with trying to write reviews of dull fantasy movies weeks after seeing the movie, but with The Huntsman: Winter’s War, I’m not taking any chances: I’m writing this the lunchtime after, because the longer I wait the less I’m going to remember any of it. It’s dull enough that I even have problems the day after. Once again, the fairy-tale inspiration has been squished through the Hollywood blockbuster screenwriting machine to produce extruded product clearly more inspired by past movies than by any kind of personal statement. This wholly unnecessary sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman completely evacuates Snow White (other than a few bogeyman-like references) to focus on the Huntsman as he’s thrown into another adventure involving the Evil Queen’s sister. Or something like that. As I said; it’s not a good movie, and it can’t even manage to be a memorable one. I think it’s slightly better than the original, but that’s by the sole virtue of not having Kirsten Stewart anywhere near the screen. Charlize Theron and Chris Hemsworth are back and they’re generally tolerable. Emily Blunt is (hilariously enough) being asked to play the more-evil-than-evil sister and the result is as unconvincing as it is disappointing. More hilariously, Jessica Chastain shows up in a skintight black leather suite to play an elite medieval assassin and that ends up being the most visually spectacular aspect of a film crammed with computer effects from beginning to end. While director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan tries his best to keep the film propped up, he can’t do much with the incoherent script that stumbles from a prequel to the sequel to the first film and never quite figures out whether it wants to be a follow-up, a Snow-Queen influenced sideshow or its own thing about love and other meaningless blather. It’s profoundly uninteresting despite the occasionally good visuals and it pretty much autodestructs upon viewing. It’s films like The Huntsman: Winter’s War that not give the fantasy genre a bad name—how about we drop the special effects and get back to an actual sense of wonder instead?
(On Cable TV, July 2016) Every so often, a movie manages to make me happy by sheer force of execution. Given that Crimson Peak is Guillermo del Toro’s return to dark fantasy in the vein of El Espinazo del Diablo and Pan’s Labyrinth, it’s not a surprise if the film is a sumptuous success in terms of atmosphere and visual design. Never mind the simple but satisfying story, the movie’s main set-piece is a decaying British manor in which snow falls through a hole in the roof, red clay oozes from the floor and vicious winds make the house creak and breathe. Crimson Peak is Gothic goodness pushed to a delirious limit, and the film is an eye-popping visual feast from beginning to end. The story may be predictable, but it acts as a decent framework for the atmosphere and the images, with capable supporting roles by Jessica Chastain (playing against type), Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska. Still, the real star here is del Toro, orchestrating lavish production values, fine-tuning his script until even the one-liners click and infusing a mature approach to genre elements in a unique mixture. Much like his previous dark fantasy films, Crimson Peak isn’t quite a horror movie, isn’t quite a ghost story and isn’t quite a Gothic romance: it’s a blend of elements that somehow fit together in a way that pays homage to a tradition without being slaved to it. It plays with tropes, gets much better in time (the first half-hour is hit-and-miss, but once the film makes it to the manor, it kicks in a different gear) and doesn’t let plot simplicity in the way of packing a lot of layers, call-backs, foreshadowing and allusions. If this review feels slightly giddy, it’s because I’m writing it still under the influence of the film—it’s a terrific piece of work, the kind of which gets essential at a time when all blockbusters are made for mass consumption. Crimson Peak may not be for everyone, and that makes it even better.
(Video on Demand, May 2015) There is something fascinating and heartening in seeing J.C. Chandor’s evolution as a filmmaker. From the sterile boardrooms of Margin Call to the lonely ocean of All is Lost, Chandlor goes somewhere else entirely in tackling the problems of a circa-1981 New York heating businessman in A Most Violent Year. The title is deceptively apt, as our protagonist comes to realize what is required of him during a particularly brutal period in his life; attacked by rivals, spurred on by his merciless wife, besieged by police and unions, he reluctantly turns to the dark side in an effort to keep what he has worked hard to create. It’s a slow and low-key film, but one that is seldom boring or uninteresting: Oscar Isaac is splendid in the lead role, while Jessica Chastain is no less compelling as his connected wife. Chandor’s directing is far more self-assured than the static shots of Margin Call, but less gimmicky than the high-wire audacity of All is Lost: here, he’s clean, unobtrusive yet evocative. It all amounts to a kind of film seldom seen today, studying the compromise of a good man rather than the spectacles of an action thriller.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) Mama may not be a spectacular horror film, but it’s a remarkably good one, and the thrills it offers are a cut above the usual run-of-the-mill horror productions. Focusing on orphaned children, long-lost secrets, flawed protagonists and a distinctive monster, Mama is heavy on atmosphere and has the merit to aim for chills and emotional investment rather than jump-scares and explicit gore. Writer/director Andrés Muschietti knows what he’s doing, and while nothing in Mama is particularly original, he’s able to wring quite a bit of tension out of familiar elements. The titular Mama is creepy enough, but it’s the complex interplay of parenthood issues (abandonment, fostering, hesitancy, and so on) that clearly lift the script above the average. (There’s an element of the conclusion that feels almost daring in transgressing the kids-in-perils clichés.) It helps that the main role belongs to the captivating Jessica Chastain (notwithstanding the unflattering haircut) and that Nikolaj Coster-Waldau gets a role beyond Game of Thrones. At a time where old-school horror is making a triumphant comeback, Mama may not be quite as good as Sinister, The Conjuring or Insidious, but it’s worthy to hang with the front-runners of the pack and remind us again that horror isn’t just about how much blood can fit on-screen. Don’t expect anything startlingly new, though.
(On Cable TV, November 2013) Given the acclaim that Zero Dark Thirty received upon release (all the way up to Oscar nominations) and the interest in its premise, I frankly expected more than I got from the film. Telling the story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden seemed essential given his decade-long bogeyman stature in the American psyche… but who expected a film about such a gripping subject to be, well, so dull? Clocking in at a near-oppressive two-and-a-half-hour, Zero Dark Thirty takes forever to tell its story, underplaying some moments (such as the strike against CIA employees at Camp Chapman) while letting others take place in near-real time. The pacing is tepid, and the basic tools of the film (cinematography, dialogue, direction) aren’t all that compelling either: For all the good that I think of her films up to and including The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow’s work here seems more average than anything else, and does little to fight against the heaviness of the rest of the film. Fortunately, the performances are quite good: Jessica Chastain is splendid as the personification of the “Sisterhood” of CIA analysts that doggedly pursued bin Laden for more than a decade, while Jason Clarke is curiously compelling as a CIA interrogator. As far as the gulf between fiction and reality is concerned, a look at the HBO documentary Manhunt should help clear up the historical liberties taken by Zero Dark Thirty –although viewers should be forewarned that Manhunt is considerably crisper and more compelling than its fictional counterpart.
(On Cable TV, April 2013) As far as period crime-dramas go, Lawless offers a quasi-charming throwback to Prohibition-era booze bootleggers. Adapted from a docu-fictive novel written by descendants of the bootleggers (Matt Bondurant’s The Wettest Country in the World) Lawless obviously takes the side of the hero bootleggers as they face off against the real criminals and the corrupt self-righteous representatives of the law. This is a romanced view of criminal activity, and while Lawless attempts something more than the usual crime drama, it doesn’t have the heft or scope required to produce a memorable result. Still, what’s on-screen isn’t too bad, especially when Lawless takes a few moments to indulge in its rural-Virginia setting. It helps that the cast is so impressive: between brother-outlaws played by Tom Hardy and Shia Labeouf, an extended cameo by Gary Oldman, an evil turn from Guy Pearce and a love interest played by Jessica Chastain, Lawless has enough star-power to keep anyone interested. (Hardy’s portrayal of an almost-comically-gruff character is a standout, as is Pearce’s repellent antagonist.) Still, the film’s biggest asset is in its somewhat-sympathetic portrait of moonshine production. Our outlaw heroes aren’t sadistic or repellant: they use the minimal possible amount of violence as a tool to keep things tidy in the pursuit of an extra buck. Occasional moments of significant violence are almost expected for the genre, while lengthier lulls in the pacing sap away some of the film’s energy on the way to attempt a more ambitious kind of film. Lawless ends up falling between two chairs, never completely happy to stick to an entertaining crime drama, while never having quite what it takes to become a criminal epic for the ages. Lawless will have to settle for a good-enough film, probably more disposable than the filmmakers intended (what film isn’t?) but still reasonably entertaining in its own right.
(On Cable TV, March 2013) There’s a small stroke of genius in the way The Help takes a big social issue such as culturally-ingrained racism and looks at it from a very domestic perspective. Isn’t it a very real human tragedy to think that poor black mothers spent more time raising privileged white children than their own kids, helping perpetuate the established order? Doesn’t it drive the point home more effectively than broad social demonstrations? Isn’t Bryce Dallas Howard simply repulsive as the evil-in-a-sundress homemaker who considers “the help” as nothing more than disposable property? The Help is noteworthy in that it’s a female-driven film that managed to break the box-office: a welcome change of pace from the usual bang-bang entertainment that drives summer blockbuster crowds. A large part of this success has to be attributed to the way the film genially approaches its subject: Nearly all of the lead cast is female, and makes no apologies in the way it presents itself as a southern dramatic comedy of manners. While the film may earn a few knocks for presenting racism from a white perspective (as in: “Here’s the white girl to help those poor black people tell their story of woe”), there’s no doubt that outspoken matrons Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis earn the spotlight away from southern belles Emma Stone and Jessica Chastain. While younger male viewers may not appreciate the kind of storytelling that The Help is built on, it’s easy to see that the film is effective at what it does, and that the emotional weight of the film goes beyond its older and wiser target audience. As a result, The Help manages some serious cross-over impact, charming even audiences outside its marketing category. It’s sweet without being too cloying, and it’s got a few memorable stories in its bag of folk tales. It’s surprisingly effective at discussing the emotional side of child-rearing, and wrings some real emotion from its premise. The soundtrack is occasionally terrific, and the sense of southern culture (tempered by the real recognition of its racist enablement) is spectacular. It’s well worth a look, even for viewers who may not feel as if they material calls to them.
(In theaters, September 2011) Fall is the season of the serious thriller, and it’s hard to get more serious than the drama-heavy The Debt, an English-language remake of an Israeli film that looks at the price of vengeance. Here, the story hops between 1960s Berlin and the 1990s as three characters, then and now, deal with a botched mission in trying to bring back a war criminal to justice. It doesn’t take a long time to figure out that the story of the 1960s as told by the 90s characters has a few serious gaps; it takes longer to understand that its conclusion is a lie and that the consequences of that lie are still very much in play thirty years later. Directed without much levity, The Debt is good for a few suspense sequences, a look at a fallible Mossad and a structure that plays out over thirty years. Helen Mirren makes for a capable senior secret agent, whereas Jessica Chastain ably plays her, thirty years earlier. Otherwise, the film is unobjectionable: Solidly directed, competently acted and professionally executed, it’s a serious thriller that works better than most other suspense movies in theater. Sadly, it doesn’t quite shine –for all of its potential in setting a story across two time periods, it sometimes feel as if The Debt is timid in bringing all of its threads together, or playing off the ironic possibilities of its bifurcated structure. It’s not much of a criticism, but then again it’s hard to express exactly what’s missing when one feels that something is missing. It may be better to rejoice in the return of the serious thriller after an empty summer.