Tag Archives: Movie review

Molly’s Game (2017)

30 Dec

Entering the 2017 awards season landscape just in time this year comes the debut feature from renowned screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.  Molly’s Game is based around the story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former olympic athlete who enters the seductive and dramatic world of high-stakes poker. After dropping out of law school against her parent’s wishes, Molly moves out from her childhood home in Colorado to a small Los Angeles apartment for what she terms “a fresh start” and quickly gets a job hosting a few weekly poker games. What starts out as a side gig to help make rent quickly turns into a obsession for Molly as she discovers the secret to hosting a great poker game is to bring in the game’s most elite and richest players. This includes a variety of Hollywood stars, Silicon Valley CEO’s, Wall Street investors, and – eventually – the Russian mafia. Things get messy.

Sorkin’s film is presented in a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards (often narrated by Bloom), allowing us to simultaneously see the events before and after her poker-hosting career.  The narrative cuts here are fast and ruthless, keeping pace with Sorkin’s signature style of fast-talking characters. This is used to achieve a dizzying and something jarring effect, but the film has a lot of fun in letting us know we are watching a movie about a story of a true story (Sorkin’s script is loosely based off Molly’s own book).  A writer known for his impressively glib dialogue, Sorkin’s directorial skills unsurprisingly bring a sense of glitz and gaudiness to the screen. Unfortunately, having such cynically facile storytelling in the film’s first half means that scenes in the latter parts of the film don’t quite have the emotional weight behind them that they should.  Two scenes in particular (one involving a violent criminal act and the other an intimate conversation) feel so artificially shoehorned in, complete with the expected melodramatic score sounding right on cue.  At a bloated 140 minutes, Molly’s Game doesn’t feel nearly as epic as it does exhausting.

Despite it’s setbacks, the film is still a really compelling watch. Narrative moments whiz by at a TV spot’s pace and Chastain’s confidence and resolve in her character keeps you glued to the screen. Equally as good is Idris Elba as her last-resort attorney (it’s not a Sorkin script without a good legal scene in there somewhere) and the two work magic together. It may lack the emotional sincerity of other films Sorkin has penned, but it runs just as smooth and flashy.

Bottom Line: Ferociously entertaining but ultimately shallow at points, Molly’s Game is a 2+ hour onslaught of witty, compelling, and silver-tongued moments glued together by top-notch editing and solid performances.

Rating: 6.5 / 10

Film Recipie: The Big Short + A Few Good Men + Rounders

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American Honey (2016)

6 Nov

Director Andrea Arnold‘s latest film, the aptly titled American Honeyis a thoughtful coming-of-age drama told through the lens of an impoverished teenager named Star (Sasha Lane).

Star is an unemployed 18-year-old who spends her time wandering the streets of rural Oklahoma and looking for food with her two young children. It becomes immediately apparent from the film’s opening (which features her passing a whole chicken from the bottom of a dumpster into the hands of a toddler) that Star is a societal outcast; a misfit who has become so accustomed to life on the streets that any chance of gaining employment or schooling is non-existent.

She soon crosses paths with Jake (Shia LaBeouf), an impulsive bohemian salesman who makes his living by finding recruits to help him go door-to-door selling magazine subscriptions. Jake, who becomes infatuated by Star, presents to her an opportunity to leave the street life behind in favor of joining a vagabond group of young adults who are traveling throughout the southern states. “It’s a business opportunity…” he confidently says, “We explore America, we go door-to-door, we party.”

What starts out as a story of Star shedding her childhood and coming to terms with her adult independance gradually becomes a cinematic display of millennial counterculture. Andrea Arnold’s restrained direction yields a “fly on the wall” approach to the story, meticulously capturing every realistic detail of the lifestyle these young adults lead in their search of the American dream.  We get a diverse cross-section of rural American life through American Honey; in one scene we see Jake and Star make a door pitch in an affluent white evangelical neighborhood – in another we are witnesses to the hyper-masculinized working class culture of Dakota oil fields. Each moment feels so geuinely nuanced and rich; Arnold presents the narrative to us casually through the earnest eyes of Star that most of the film feels less like a movie and more like a documentary of sorts. One doesn’t get a sense that these are actors on a stage (even with a mega-movie franchise star like LaBeouf who fits his role like a glove) so much as these are real people living their lives out on screen.

The end result is a film that gradually immerses you in its details and becomes more hypnotic with its imagery as it progresses. However, at a running time of over 160 minutes, the film’s aesthetic wears a bit thin, (there are only so many shots of the group listening to hip-hop and smoking pot in the back of a 15-passenger van that you can get away with) and some scenes tend to drag more than others. Still, the effects of watching American Honey linger on after the credits roll, and Arnold does a great job of avoiding unnecessary melodrama and creating an authentically vivid filmic experience.

Bottom Line: Though it desperately needs a shorter edit, American Honey is an immersive and detailed look at the effects of contemporary American poverty and one that feels both refreshingly ordinary and beautifully cinematic.

Rating: 7/10

Film recipe: White Girl + Gummo + Spring Breakers

The Girl on the Train (2016)

5 Oct

The latest entry to try and cash in on the missing-persons crime drama is The Girl on the Traina film adapted from it’s best-selling source novel by screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson and director Tate Taylor.

The film follows Rachel (Emily Blunt), an alcoholic divorcee who becomes obsessed with a certain house she sees everyday on her train ride commute. We learn that Rachel and her ex Tom (Justin Theroux) used to live not far from this mystery house, and that Rachel has sort of fantasized on an alternate reality featuring the happy family who resides there. This obsession takes a dark turn when Rachel sees the current tenant Anna cheating on her husband from the train window. The next day Anna has vanished, leaving Rachel tangled in an investigation that slowly consumes her.

It’s obvious that Girl on the Train is trying to tap into whatever magic made films like Gone Girl or Prisoners such popular successes. However, unlike its predecessors the film trying so to intimidate, Girl on the Train never really engages with its viewers the same way and ends up feeling flat and tired. With a skinny plot and underwhelming pay off, Girl on the Train simply takes too long to say too little. There are some interesting perspective shifts that are thrown into the mix, but – thanks to some poor editing – the differing and jumbled flashbacks and flashforwards only end up distracting us from the mystery rather than enhancing it. When looking at the narrative at face value, Girl on the Train never reaches the levels of suspense it might have been capable of.

The one saving grace the film has is with its protagonist. Emily Blunt gives one of her career best performances, playing the girl-gone-crazy trope with enough nuance to make her character infinitely more interesting than the investigation surrounding her.  None of the other characters (the villain might as well have a name tag labeled Mister Misogyny) contain near the amount of intensity or dramatic subtlety that Blunt brings to hers.

Bottom Line: Poor editing and writing make Girl on the Train a lackluster adaptation that never escapes the shadows of its predecessors (most obviously David Fincher’s Gone Girl), but Emily Blunt’s intensity and commitment to her character make the film a somewhat enjoyable watch. 

Film Recipie: One Hour Photo + The Gift + Stir Of Echos + AA Meetings 

Rating: 6/10 

 

Hell or High Water (2016)

7 Sep

Western Texas might seem like an odd setting for director David Mackenzie. To the born and bred Englishmen whose last film, Starred Up, captured the grit and violence inside a British prison, the cowboy persona of Texas might seem like too big of a culture clash for the filmmaker to make sense of.  Amazingly, Mackenzie wholeheartedly embraces his inner cowboy with Hell or High Waterand the result is a suspense-ridden crime drama that surprisingly feels 100% Texan.

The film follows a pair of brothers, Tanner and Toby Howard (played by Ben Foster and Chris Pine respectively) who start of the movie with a good ole’ fashioned bank robbery. We quickly learn that the brothers share different histories – Tanner is fresh from a stint in jail and Toby is a recently divorced father – as well as views on morality and what exactly the stolen cash will be used for. Hot on their tail is Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Gil (Alberto Parker), who make a mismatched but loveable pair. From here, the film becomes a cat-and-mouse game as the rangers try to follow and predict the Howard boys’ next move.

Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) bring a lot of exhausted tropes from the cops/robbers game to the screen, but something about the quality of the writing and Mackenzie’s uncanny ability to fit into the culture of wild west makes these tropes seem fresh and exciting. Sheridan’s script adds some great characterization (the racial banter between Marcus and Gil is fantastic) as well as some genuine humor to what would otherwise be a tiring cliche’ of a plot.  The result is a film that works well in terms of suspense and emotional delivery, and gives us the best acting performance from Jeff Bridges in years.

Bottom Line: It borrows a lot from previous westerns, but its authentic realism and outstanding performances make Hell or High Water an incredibly satisfying film. 

Rating: 7/10 

Film Recipe: No Country For Old Men + The Place Beyond The Pines 

Suicide Squad (2016)

3 Aug

Suicide Squad feels like a bit like an experiment. One that was hastily put together by a procrastinating 12-year-old at 2:00 a.m. the morning of the science fair. In other words: it’s an obvious but well-intentioned mess in the form of DCU trying to tap into the magic money-making superhero formula (one that Marvel has down to a T), and turn it in for a passing grade.

Directed by David Ayer (Training Day, End of Watch) the latest follow up in the DC Cinematic Universe takes place right after the events of Batman vs Superman and is a tragic misstep for the franchise in what should have been Warner Bros’ bonafide summer hit. Superman is now dead, and the US government is dealing with the repercussions of having superheroes, superantiheros, superpeople, meta-humans (which we quickly learn is the DC term for mutants) among the public. “What if Superman had decided to walk in the Oval Office and steal our president?” US official Dexter Tolliver (David Harbour) asks. This notion prompts Amanda Waller (Viola Davis playing arguably the movie’s most interesting character) to assemble a team of expendable baddies to be used as a safeguard in case things go south. Which they inevitably do when one meta-human decides to go rogue and unleash a 6000-year-old magical force named Incubus upon Midway City (it unfolds just as nonsensical as it sounds).

After a hasty segment that introduces our many beloved anti-heroes via expository flashbacks, (so he is called Deadshot because he is good with guns hunh? You don’t say!?) we get on with a rescue mission of sorts. This is where things get a bit bland; what should have been the beating heart of the film ends up feeling flat and uninspired with a shoehorned chase-the-magic-thingy plot device. To top off the magic, we get to see our squad battle it out with some hokey CGI fossilized zombies? (because these things don’t bleed, thereby saving the film from the R-rated blockbuster stamp of doom). It’s a wild, illogical ride but also perplexingly enjoyable – possibly because the actors go out of their way so often to convince us that, yes… they are having a really good time bashing stuff up together.

The scenes are so clumsily sewn together; sure, the Marvel movies were boring and predictable but at least they had a sense of fluidity to them. Characters seem to come and go as they please with little motivation (one member of the squad gets killed off in the first act without much of an afterthought) or efforts towards the overarching narrative. The dialogue is often clunky and awkward; lines like “Her sword steals the souls of its victims” are said so nonchalantly it’s as if the characters were discussing college sports. The film’s humor is also a little off, though thankfully it doesn’t go overboard on the snarky, self-aware banter via Deadpool. Most of the jokes are put on the backburner while the action and attitude take center stage.

For all its flaws, something about Suicide Squad works, at least on a popcorn turn-your-brain-off-and-enjoy-the-ride level. David Ayer clearly has a love for these characters and his passion is felt strongly through the screen. A couple shine brighter than others though, specifically Margot Robbie‘s version of Harley Quinn, Viola Davis’ hardass embodiment of Amanda Waller, and Will Smith‘s Deadshot. And then there is the infamous Joker, played by Jared Leto who gives a solid method-driven interpretation of the beloved character, but also one that feels a bit out of place and unnecessary. Still, he is a lot of fun, and watching the clown caress others’ faces while talking to them about his debauchery is one of the film’s best moments. Stylistically, it’s obvious Ayer and his cinematographer Roman Vasyanov were going for something dark. Crank up the Mad Max: Fury Road obsession with guns, knives, and makeup and you have a nice visual aesthetic which works well in a film devoted to the baddies.

The real villain here is in the editing. With rumors of reshoots and re-edits to the film 3 months ago, one can’t help but think that once upon a time there was a version of Suicide Squad that actually made sense, one that was properly timed with one plot point leading to the next. What I saw wasn’t so much of a bad film in and of itself as it is was a prime showcase for what could have been.

But who cares? This is Suicide Squad, the film that was Warner Bros’ saving grace at keeping up with the Marvel juggernauts that dominate the box office every year. And you know what? I bought into it. There is an undeniable charm to the film’s scatterbrained chaos. Sure, it’s ugly, but what David Ayer has done with these ragamuffin characters is definitively cool, if not outright admirable, and it goes beyond anything Disney has done with their Star Wars or Marvel franchises. Yeah, it might be a bit of a messy disaster project, but by the time the credits roll, you still can’t help but smile at that poor 12-year old’s desperation, give him a pat on the head, and say with a half-assed smile “good job kid”.

Bottom line: Suicide Squad feels so remixed, chopped up and dead set on pleasing audiences, there is little substance left to show whatever original artistic vision director David Ayer might have been capable of. 

Rating: 5/10 

Film recipe: The Avengers + Hot Topic + dysfunctional romantic relationships  

Anomalisa (2016 Sundance)

28 Jan

What does it mean to be human?

Perhaps no other question has plagued writer/director Charlie Kaufman throughout his work than this age-old existential dilemma. Co-directed with Duke Johnson, Anomalisa marks the first animated film from Kauffman, with all the characters taking the form of stop-motion puppets. It’s a brave choice to render a deeply human artistic vision with inhuman objects, but somehow it all works so well. These characters feel and look familiar enough to be incredibly relatable while still maintaining their foreign and still-life properties through the wall of puppetry.  Anomalisa unfolds itself in a sort of hallucinogenic, dream-like state, with each scene blending into the next until a narrative starts to take shape:

The film focuses on Thomas Stone, a sort of well known cheerleader for customer service reps nationwide, as he has been summoned to speak in Cincinnati Ohio for a business convention. Unfortunately, Stone seems to be suffering from some sort of psychological breakdown, one that makes him inept to connect with others around him – despite their obvious love and adoration for him. Stone sees everyone else in the world as “the same”; simple replicas of one another without any depth, feeling, or emotion. Stone is miserable man, plagued with the mindless existence of others, until he meets someone who, by chance is “different….. a real person.” This prompts Stone to reconsider his options, in order lead a fulfilling life of love and authentic connection.

Johnson and Kaufman pay special attention to the small details in the world of Anomalisa; it doesn’t matter if they are the physical details of the production itself (every set piece was painstakingly crafted and animated by hand) or the subtle character details that make these puppets spring to life and take on the personas of real people. Financed entirely from funds through fans from Kickstarter, Anomalisa is one of those quiet films that makes an impact through its many smaller parts. It plays like a short film actually, with a only a few interior set pieces being used, but it’s incredibly powerful in its message and, ultimately, hauntingly truthful. Though there are some jarring and awkward moments (one particular scene featuring puppet sex drags tragically for too long) it’s intimate ideas about loneliness, desperation, self-consciousness and connection somehow become incredibly poignant as the film progresses, and even more so after the credits roll and you are left to reflect on what you have just seen.  It might not have the towering ambition of Synecdoche New York, the meta, self-awareness of Adaptation, or the Inception-esc surrealism of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but Anomalisa is singularly Kaufman’s most restrained and intimate work.

Bottom Line: A labor of love from directors Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa makes a profound statement about humanity through its many small (and sometimes painfully truthful) charms.

Rating: 9/10 

Film Recipe:  Happiness + Her + Being John Malkovich

The Lobster (2016 Sundance)

25 Jan

There are films. There are movies. And then there is The Lobster. Written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, the film is set in the not-too-distant-future where single people are turned into animals if they remain without a significant other for too long. Yes, you read that right – these unfortunate and lonely folks are literally are transformed into another species.

Our hero is a nameless university professor (Colin Farrell) whose wife has just vanished – presumably with another lover. Faced with the possibility of turning into an animal, he enrolls into a hotel that specializes in matchmaking, in hopes that he will soon connect with another love before it’s too late. It’s at this mysterious hotel where he meets an unusual assortment of characters, from a woman with chronic nosebleeds (Jessica Barden), to a man with a lisp (John C. Riley) to a powerful huntress who may or may not be a complete sociopath (Angeliki Papoulia).  Other interesting characters are thrown into the mix during the film’s second half, (which takes place outside of the hotel) including performances by Ben Wishaw, Rachel Weiz, and Lea Seydoux.

In the world of The Lobster, every human is miserable, awkward, and desperately lonely. The resulting interactions between these odd characters are painfully hilarious.  Like Lanthimos’ previous Oscar-nominee DogtoothThe Lobster contains a richly distinct tone that relies on deadpan humor with an absurdist touch. It’s a strange film, with each moment building awkward tension from the previous. Contrast The Lobster with the nihilistic and disturbing Dogtooth, and you see Lanthimos has turned down the gritty, Haneke-esc violence in favor of something more subtle and charming. Though it’s wildly unpredictable and completely absurd, everything in The Lobster feels like it has purpose and meaning, and the layered themes Lanthimos brings up about companionship, love, and connectedness become surprisingly touching.

Boasting an ensemble cast, immaculate cinematography, and a stunning score, The Lobster is a near-masterpiece. Though its artsy weirdness and irrational sensibilities might not be for everyone, Yorgos Lanthimos has no doubt defined himself as a unique and exciting storytelling voice.

Bottom line: Brilliantly crafted with a good amount of dark humor, The Lobster is thoughtfully bizarre and joyously unpredictable; it’s the rare kind of mind-melter that’s both cognitively stimulating and emotionally touching. 

Rating: 10/10 

Film Recipie: Moonrise Kingdom + Borgman + A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence