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.
Untouchables, The (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
Special Agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is assigned to work with cops in Chicago to deal with the flow of illegal liquor and violence during the Prohibition. Everybody knows that Alphonse “Al” Capone (Robert De Niro) is ultimately in charge of importing and distributing alcohol to and around the country, but the police and others in power are either too afraid to stop him or are being paid to keep quiet. Agent Ness, therefore, thinks it is necessary to form his own team (Sean Connery, Charles Martin Smith, Andy Garcia), men of the law with whom he can trust, to bring down the head gangster.
Based on the screenplay by David Mamet and directed by Brian De Palma, “The Untouchables” is a good-looking action-thriller with a number of memorable set pieces that are certain to entertain. What the picture lacks, however, is complexity in terms of characterization. Though the demarcation between the good and the bad guys are well-defined, there is little cross-over in terms of how they think and the decisions they must make to achieve a goal. Thus, when a supposedly dramatic moment in which a character must choose between upholding the law versus personal vengeance, the dramatic gravity appears slight.
More than a few may argue that Costner is robotic in playing the lead—but I disagree. I enjoyed that it is difficult to read him at times, Costner playing Agent Ness almost guarded. After all, he is a stranger in the city and he has been assigned an important task of taking down one of the most visible criminals in the country at the time. I did not see his performance as robotic or wall-like; rather, the character has a lot to accomplish but he does not quite know where to start and so he covers it up by looking composed and professional. He wants to gain the respect of those who doubt what he can do.
De Niro’s performance is good but the character is not well-written. I found this Capone to be cartoonish—with only one really good scene involving a baseball bat. Mamet does not allow the character to do very much other than to look polished and sound sinister every time he must make a speech. The more interesting villain is Frank Nitti (chillingly played by Billy Drago), one of the henchmen who we cannot wait to get his comeuppance.
The action scenes make an imprint because they unfold like a thriller. Particular standouts include the station and the baby stroller, a rooftop chase, the raid at the border between the U.S. and Canada. De Palma employs uncomfortable pauses during critical moments. Just when we are ready to take the punch, he delays just a bit to catch us slightly off-guard. He does this time and again but it does not get old because there is almost always a bit of variation to keep the approach fresh.
The clothes, the sets, the hairstyles, and other elements designed to summon the 1930s are carefully picked out. Though they are easy on the eyes, they are never distracting. Couple the images of the past with a modern action-thriller score, one creates an interesting dichotomy. Although some may disapprove of the background music, I found it fitting considering the off-beat use of camera angles and pacing of action scenes.
“The Untouchables” would have been a more complete experience if we had gotten to know Agent Ness’ partners beyond what they can do superficially or their expertise. They are, however, given some memorable lines, particularly of Connery’s character giving advice to the federal agent in terms of what he should be willing to do or cross to capture the seemingly untouchable Al Capone.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
When Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) was a Ph.D. student in London, he witnessed the 9/11 attacks on television. This inspired him to join the Marines two years later but a missile aimed at the helicopter he was riding sent him to the hospital for eight months. There, a man who works for the CIA, Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), approaches him, clearly impressed by Jack’s background, and insists that he finishes his doctorate because upon doing so, an undercover financial analyst position will be waiting for him.
Criticisms that the picture comes off bland as a whole, especially since the protagonist is based on a character created by the highly respected novelist Tom Clancy, are not entirely unsound. While it is comprised of familiar elements from variety of espionage thrillers, it remains somewhat enjoyable nonetheless because it exercises restraint for the most part: It is not one of those techno-thrillers where the gadgets and booming soundtrack eclipse the thrills. Although computers are used, the material is old-fashioned in that the script tries to get us to care about Jack as a person first and a government agent second. Note, however, that the key word is “tries.”
Part of the problem when it comes to presenting Jack’s personal life is the casting. I was not convinced that Keira Knightley, Jack’s girlfriend for more or less a decade, exudes enough warmth for us to see why the title character is in love with her. While Knightley is convincing in playing a brilliant doctor, whenever she tries to be soft or accessible, the soft voice combined with a look of nagging desperation is too much of a performance. I did not see a character; I saw an actress trying to play a role that is not a good fit for her. Also, Pine and Knightley look very appealing on their own but when their characters are together, especially when expressing how much they care for one another, there is no sensuality or sexuality that radiates.
An avenue that should have been explored more is the relationship between Jack and the CIA specialist that gave the former a chance to become somebody. Scenes where Harper protects Jack from a distance might have held more weight if we felt as though Harper is preventing harm to someone he feels close to rather than just another agent who had to be protected because it is his job. Costner is a good actor and I wished that the material had given him more to do other than to look stern and patriotic.
I liked the Jack Ryan in the first half. The first major hand-to-hand combat takes place in a posh hotel and we are able to see quite clearly that our protagonist is not a fighter—at least not like Ethan Hunt in the “Mission: Impossible” series. Jack can fight physically because of his stint in the Marines but his inexperience shows. His intelligence is the first weapon of choice. The director, Kenneth Branagh, who also has a key role in the film, is wise to include shots of our hero’s face during the kinetic mano y mano because it shows him thinking what he might to do next to overcome his sizable opponent.
When the second half comes around, however, Jack Ryan becomes an action star. The car chase across Moscow and the motorcycle sequence in New York City do not work because what is front and center is not consistent with the man that we have come to know. One gets the impression that the writers, Adam Cozad and David Koepp, did not have enough inspiration to have concocted a more believable way to present the climax and resulting denouements.
“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” offers some good entertainment but it does not leave any sort of lasting impression. With so many movies of its type that are coming out and have come out, it is important to stand above most of them and show to the audience why this story is special and ultimately worth telling.
Man of Steel (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★
During Krypton’s final convulsions due to the planet’s increasingly unstable core, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife (Antje Traue) rush to get their son, Kal-El, into a pod so he alone can escape the doomed planet and prevent the Kryptonian race from reaching extinction. This task is not made any easier by General Zod (Michael Shannon) as he and and his henchmen stage a coup d’état against the planet’s leaders. Zod wants the codex in his possession because it holds the genetic information of his people. Having it will allow him to recolonize another planet. But the codex is in the pod–located inside the infant to be exact–and Jor-El will not allow his son to be harmed.
To claim that “Man of Steel,” based on the screenplay by David S. Goyer and directed by Zack Snyder, is visually spectacular and consistently thrilling is not an understatement. Propelled by a confident execution and an above average script, when the film reaches emotional apices, especially in the first half, it makes for a compelling watch. It drags a bit toward the end, favoring ostentatiously grandiose action sequences over substance, but it is far from similar to the incomprehensible cling-clanging denouement of Michael Bay’s “Transformers.”
One of the wisest techniques employed is the non-linear storytelling. While this is not new to the superhero sub-genre, it is effective here. By choosing only the important moments of Kal-El, named Clark Kent (Cooper Timberline, Dylan Sprayberry in his younger years and Henry Cavill as an adult) by his adoptive family (Kevin Costner, Diane Lane), learning to control his powers, keeping a cool temper, and trying to keep his abilities and identity a secret, the small lessons are contained and to the point so they do not disrupt the rhythm of Clark’s journey toward discovering his origins.
I enjoyed the casting of Lois Lane. She is played by Amy Adams who, in my eyes, is not conventionally pretty. I think she is beautiful but her beauty comes with an edge. For me to be convinced that Lois is a serious journalist, one who can go toe-to-toe with the sharks in the Daily Planet and among its competitors, the actor playing her has to have the look as well as the capability to evoke conviction and intelligence. Adams is ace casting because she embodies these qualities.
However, the romance between Superman and Lois Lane is not handled with grace. There is a kiss that occurs near the end that felt like a knife to my stomach. Even when they stand from each other, silent, only a couple of inches apart, I cringed a little bit. The intimacy is not earned. Their relationship, one that is romantic in nature, is far from fully developed. And yet it is forced. A kiss between the two leads does not deserve a place in this movie. Perhaps a hug would have been acceptable–but only as a symbol of thanks.
The smashing of and crashing against buildings, helicopters, and alien ships are impressive. The first few big action pieces, especially the battle in Smallville between Superman against Faora (Antje Traue) and a robotic but very intimidating minion, offer genuine thrills. It is good that our hero is not made out to be invincible; he can feel pain and exhaustion–without being exposed to Kryptonite, an ore infamous for being Superman’s ultimate weakness. To circumvent the expected, the writer is forced to be a little more creative and I appreciated that.
Still, the explosions, skyscrapers crashing onto each other, and flying debris wear out their welcome eventually. Because it runs for longer than is necessary, I began to consider that perhaps the film might have been better off as having a hard R rating. Though it is implied, not one human death that includes all of its ugliness is shown. For example, when a structure is about to crash onto a group of panicking people desperate for escape, it quickly cuts onto another scene. If human casualty is shown once in a while, it might have made a stronger statement, one that is relevant to Superman’s journey of becoming a symbol of the human race. It would have shown that death of the innocent is a part of the story’s universe and that not even Superman can save everybody.
Despite a handful of missteps, “Man of Steel” is an action sci-fi fantasy that has more than enough gravitational pull in its marrow to keep us wondering about what will happen–within its story as well as a potential franchise. I want a sequel–one that is leaner, maybe laced with more humor, clever ones, but certainly one that does not flinch away from the uncomfortable.