Tag: edris elba

Molly’s Game


Molly’s Game (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Great movies almost always contain one image or scene that summarizes the entire work so perfectly, it is etched onto the viewer’s mind long after the picture fades to black. Here, it is that of a woman dressed in at least two thousand dollars worth of clothing who is asked by a worker at a food stand whether she would like hotdog. She does, but once she reaches into her coat pocket, she is only able to find two dollars. The hotdog costs three bucks and so she must settle for a pretzel. This four- to five-second snapshot, which can be easily overlooked by less observant viewers, captures the story’s trajectory. “Molly’s Game” is highly efficient and supremely watchable, an electric directorial debut by Aaron Sorkin.

The plot involves a woman, once an Olympic-level skier, who creates a multimillion-dollar business of running poker games with nothing but her intelligence, ability to think on her feet, and willingness to take risks. The titular character is played by Jessica Chastain who sashays through Sorkin’s extremely tricky script like a most graceful international ballerina. Every emotion expressed, calculated silence, and subtle body language commands precision, matching that of the writer-director’s clinal approach in storytelling. It invites the audience to become involved in exploring the protagonist rather than relying on words we hear to tell us who she is, what she hopes to accomplish, and why she did the things she did to have been mired in a high-stakes federal investigation.

Dialogue-heavy and unafraid of technical jargon, the material ensures that it leaves enough room for viewers to make reasonable assumptions when it comes to what certain terms might mean. For example, when the screen shows different poker ranks, in addition to the carefully enunciated voiceover, lines, texts, and boxes are employed in order to highlight which part of the screen the audience should veer their attention toward in order to discern which player has the upper hand and those about to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars.

While scenes that take place around the poker table are enjoyable and occasionally suspenseful, the focus is on the character who is raised to become a champion—before and after she is arrested for running an illicit gambling operation and having possible ties with the Russian mob. I am particularly impressed by how it captures the loneliness of a highly driven person, someone who hates to lose, to be regarded as weak or less than in any way. On many levels, I found myself relating with her curiosity and capability to obsess, as well as the willingness to push the envelope even further than it is supposed to go so long as it feels good. I think in a way, the material has an understanding of the less sunny side of passion, how a form of addiction takes control and consumes.

Intricate in just about every way but never inaccessible, “Molly’s Game” respects the intelligence and time of those willing to peer into its world of poker and addiction. Near the end of the picture, Molly comes across a shelf filled with green law books. Notice how she caresses the backbones of these texts and the manner by which she picks one up to read its contents. It presents an opportunity for us to imagine an alternate reality of Molly actually pursuing law school rather than delaying yet another year to make a quick buck.

The Dark Tower


The Dark Tower (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

For a source material filled with incredible imagination by Stephen King, drawing inspiration from old-school fantasy to spaghetti western, “The Dark Tower,” directed by Nikolaj Arcel, is a crushing disappointment. Instead of taking risks and really going for the violence and the bizarre, it is diluted and made safe for the sake of mainstream consumption. What results is a marginally interesting story about a boy with the Shine, or psychic powers (an allusion to King’s “The Shining”), named Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) discovering another world through his dreams, but the execution lacks energy and long-term intrigue. The protagonists strive to save the universe from annihilation and yet we do not care whether they would make it to the next scene. The screenplay requires major revisions.

Stories of epic scales are defined by the antagonist. Here, it is the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), wielding powers so astounding that he is able to take someone’s life simply by willing it. And yet for a villain who possesses such ability, Walter is a bore. He walks around in his black clothes barely showing any emotion, but there is no air of mystery about him. We learn nothing about his past or background or anything he might value. We learn of his goal about wishing to destroy the titular tower and why, but this is not enough to create a compelling character worth looking into.

The same critique can be applied to one of the main protagonists, a Gunslinger, the last of his kind, named Roland Deschain (Idris Elba). Like McConaughey, Elba is a charming performer who can usually communicate paragraphs simply by looking or controlling his body language a certain way. We learn that Roland is great with guns and cares about the boy from Earth, but what else is there to him? Both antagonist and protagonist are given superficial characteristics, but they are hollow inside. Discerning viewers will note that the performances are wooden; the actors look bored in their roles.

Special and visual effects are occasionally impressive—but only when it is willing to show the griminess of Mid-World, how unforgiving it can become at a moment’s notice. This is why the attack in the village and the scene in the woods stand out. For a couple of minutes, we feel on our tiptoes the wonder and foreboding nature of the alternate universe. Literally, it is the stuff out of one’s dreams. By comparison, the battle between the Gunslinger and the Man in Black in the end is laughable, looking more like a video game in the early-2000s by the second. There is a lack of urgency to this would-be climactic sequence.

If there is going to be an unlikely sequel, and I do want one, the writers need to make a decision that is right for the material. Perhaps most importantly, the content on screen needs to match the level of imagination and the willingness to take risks emanating from King’s “Dark Tower” series. Establishing and building lore is just as important as constructing thrilling action sequences, if not more. Because in order for us to care about what is unfolding, we must understand the worlds, their rules, and the beings who reside in them. Only then could we get a glimpse of their motivations. I did, however, enjoy the casting of Taylor because he seems capable of delivering more than what is on paper.

The Mountain Between Us


The Mountain Between Us (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Romantic survival pictures are a rarity in today’s film landscape and so it is most disappointing that “The Mountain Between Us,” based on the novel by Charles Martin, is too safe, failing to play upon either extremes in order to create a piece of work that is both daring and different. What results is a watchable picture that is significantly elevated by its lead performers. Without them, it would have been a bland misfire so credit goes to the casting directors for choosing the right actors for the job.

Pay attention to the opening scene, how Kate Winslet and Idris Elba introduce their characters by navigating Alex and Ben, a professional photographer and a neurosurgeon, respectively, after having been presented with information that their flights have been cancelled. Immediately we are intrigued by the characters because Winslet and Elba have a knack for capturing how actual people might react when given unfortunate news. Although a romantic picture, Alex and Ben are not peppy characters typically found in the sub-genre. I enjoyed that upon their meeting, the two are on the verge of frustration and so there is an instant spark there.

The film is visually impressive in that the snowy and mountainous landscapes look dangerous, foreboding, beautiful but clearly not a place one would like to get lost in. Scenes after the plane crash and prior to Ben and Alex deciding to search for a nearby town, if any, rather than wait for rescue are a mixed bag. Particularly annoying, although occasionally cute, are the reaction shots of a dog, whether it be after a comedic line is uttered or a during life or death situation. Using the animal in this way is such a bottom-of-the-barrel technique, often found in brain-dead romantic comedies without much aspiration other than to exist and rake in cash.

Hany Abu-Assad’s “The Mountain Between Us” is much better than such strategy. When it relies on the audience to figure out the assumptions characters make while getting to know one another in the unforgiving wilderness or the sorts of intricacies slowly being woven between them, the film is at its best. Had the screenplay by Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe trusted the audience’s intelligence on a consistent manner, it certainly would have been a stronger film. There is no need for so many reaction shots of a dog, while playful, that does not have much to do with the plot.

But the beacon of the project is the strong acting by Winslet and Elba. In a movie like this, we all know how it is going to turn out. That is, they are going to survive their many trials. This is why the aftermath is perhaps the most fascinating portion of the film—when Alex and Ben have returned to their normal lives. Easily, I could have sat through another hour for the material to explore the rapidly changing dynamics between our protagonists. While these consummate thespians deliver the required complex emotions, fifteen minutes is not enough for the average screenplay to deliver a high level of catharsis.