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Molly’s Game •••

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin, Molly Bloom
Biography/Crime/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 140 minutes
Release Date: December 30, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

 


scott
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, if you like playing games, Molly was once the go-to person in New York and Hollywood.

 


And like poker, her success is not a matter of luck, but skill. Let’s recap.

 


We meet young Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a US Olympic hopeful as a skier. Her father (Kevin Costner) pushes her to the limit and beyond to become successful. But Molly suffers a horrible skiing accident and doesn’t make the team. Her plan was to attend law school but she puts those plans on hold to live in Los Angeles employed as Dean Keith’s (Jeremy Strong) personal assistant. One day Keith asks Molly to set up a high-stakes poker game involving some notable Hollywood celebrities.


She’s a quick study and soon learns all the details of high-stakes poker. When her boss threatens to fire her if she doesn’t take a pay cut, she folds her hand – only to start her own poker game – taking her boss’s friends with her. She becomes the toast of the town until one high-value player wants to cut in on her success and he kills the game when she refuses. Out of money and out of luck, she makes her way to the Big Apple to start all over again.


Greg, Molly’s Game caught me by surprise. I wasn’t expecting a story about high-stakes poker to contain such intrigue, depth, and nuance. Molly finds herself in an underground world of rich and powerful men who manipulate others and sometimes self-destruct. She’s drawn there by the allure of money and power, and soon she finds herself spinning out of control with drug addiction and legal problems. She lived on the edge of criminality and crossed the line, yet her intelligence, resilience, and integrity won the day.

Jessica Chastain shines in this film, and I hope she garners some accolades for her portrayal of a smart, complex woman. Her character of Molly Bloom is an ideal hero who possesses nearly all of the Great Eight characteristics of heroes: She is intelligent, strong, reliable, charismatic, caring, selfless, resilient, and inspiring. As in another film, The Post, this story centers on a talented woman trying to navigate her way through a man’s world. Being an attractive woman certainly helped her at times, but at other times she was disrespected and underestimated.


Scott, I’m an outlier in believing this is a rare miss by writer/director Aaron Sorkin. The heart of any story is a compelling hero with whom we sympathize. I found Molly Bloom completely unsympathetic. All of her problems were those she brought upon herself. Sorkin tries to get us to relate to her by showing her uncommon strength in overcoming a debilitating back injury. It’s a good try.

But she knows she’s skirting the law when she runs this game of chance (although she insists it’s a game of skill). She knows the Russian Mafia is involved in the games and anticipates their arrival. Then she gets attacked when she doesn’t play along. Finally, she knows that she cannot skim the pot legally and decides to dip – accumulating $2M illegally. When the FBI commonderes the funds, we’re supposed to feel sorry for her. But I don’t feel sorry for her in any way. She’s responsible for all her problems and I can’t muster any sympathy for her – or for Sorkin’s story.


Greg, no hero is ever perfect, and in fact the basis of the hero’s journey resides in the hero’s ability to achieve redemption by overcoming their inherent flaws. Let’s keep in mind that Molly’s most striking attribute is her integrity, which wins over her initially skeptical attorney (Idris Elba). The best evidence of her integrity is seen in her willingness to serve time in prison rather than disclose information that would harm the families of her poker players. For the most part, she runs her poker business on the up-and-up, boldly navigating her way through a man’s world.

Only toward the end does she succumb to the temptations of drugs and skimming the pot. She atones for these mistakes by becoming drug-free and taking full legal responsibility for her actions. Molly is truly an admirable character whose journey matches the template of Joseph Campbell’s hero monomyth, and she undergoes transformations toward darkness and then back into the light of goodness.


I don’t think she ever redeems herself. Her self-ascribed motive for not naming-names is that she doesn’t want the families of the bad guys to be hurt. Still she created the environment where they squandered millions of dollars. She seems very selective in her morality. So I don’t see much in the way of transformation here.

Molly’s Game is a convoluted, poorly written, and amateurishly directed film by an artist who has done better work – and very like will do better work in the future. Sorkin did not waste one of his good screenplays on his directorial debut, treating this very much like practice for features to come. Fine performances by Idris Elba and Jessica Chastain (and occasional bright spots with Kevin Costner) cannot save this dull piece of work. The ending where all our hero’s problems are attributed to “daddy issues” falls flat. I give Molly’s Game 2 out of 5 Reels.

Molly is a failed hero who, as far as I can tell, has not redeemed herself. All of her problems are her own making, and she is saved only by the kindness of men – Elba’s lawyer takes pity on her to take her case, and the judge ignores the prosecution’s sentencing recommendations and gives her the lightest possible sentence. I don’t see any redemption in her and in my book she is an anti-hero. I give her just 2 Heroes out of 5.

Finally, I cannot find evidence of transformation for anyone in this story. Molly doesn’t seem repentant for her ill-gotten-goods nor does she turn over evidence that would put bad guys away for decades. I saw that Kevin Costner’s character came back at the last moment to psychoanalyze his daughter – so I give him just 1 Delta out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:


Greg, it’s as if you and I saw a completely different movie. Molly’s Game impressed me with its riveting portrayal of a brave and resilient woman who goes down a hazardous career path, pays the price, and then ultimately redeems herself with a noble act of integrity. Jessica Chastain delivers the best performance of her career here, portraying a flawed hero whose fierce determination, strength, and intelligence serve her very well. This is a smart film that deserves an audience that appreciates tough women operating successfully in a man’s world. I give Molly’s Game 4 Reels out of 5.

Molly’s hero’s journey is highly inspiring. She overcomes a severe injury, and then works hard to evolve from a penniless young woman living far from home into a multi-millionaire. Molly then succumbs to a drug addiction and illegally skimming the pots of her high stakes poker games, and she pays the legal price. Like all good heroes, she receives help from a mentor (her attorney), cleans up her act, and makes choices that reveal her honorable nature — even at great potential cost to her well-being. I award her heroism 4 Hero rating points out of 5.

Molly undergoes several important transformations. First, as a young athlete she undergoes an emotional metamorphosis by growing in her emotional strength and resilience. As a poker entrepreneur, she later learns how the world of big money and celebrity dynamics work. This mental transformation was then followed by a negative physical transformation in the form of drug addiction. Finally, in her legal battles, we witness a moral transformation toward doing the right thing with regard to information that could ruin her former clients’ families. All these transformations earn Molly 4 transformative Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:

Darkest Hour •••1/2

Starring: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas
Director: Joe Wright
Screenplay: Anthony McCarten
Biography/Drama/History, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 125 minutes
Release Date: December 22, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!

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scott
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, we just saw film that sheds light on a darkest hour.


It’s the second film this year about the Dunkirk rescue. Let’s recap.


In mid-May of 1940. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s (Ronald Pickup) appeasement policy with Hitler has proven unsuccessful, with German forces now streaming into Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) has just been appointed the new Prime Minister. He is impatient with his new secretary, Miss Layton (Lily James) and he must have weekly lunches with King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), who is skeptical of Churchill’s policies.


Churchill is sure that Hitler will not honor any terms of surrender that Brittain may offer. He assembles a cabinet of men who are not entirely friendly to Chamberlain because he wants honest opinions – not yes men. In particular Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) is pushing for an agreement with Hitler. The totality of Britain’s army – some 300,000 men are stuck on the shore of Dunkirk, France – with the German army closing in fast. Chamberlain has to come up with a plan to rescue his men and convert the minds of Parliament before Hitler slaughters his army.


Greg, Darkest Hour is reminiscent of that extraordinary 2012 movie Lincoln that garnered multiple Best Picture awards. Both films focus on remarkable leadership during times of national crisis, and both offer heavy emphasis on dialogue, negotiation, and inner struggle. While I wouldn’t place Darkest Hour in the same stratosphere of excellence as Lincoln, it is an extremely worthy micro-biopic that showcases the talent of its star, Gary Oldman, whose depiction of Churchill’s eccentricity and volatility are right on the mark.

I use the term ‘micro-biopic’ because we are only given a glimpse of a three-week window in the life of Winston Churchill. During these crucial weeks, Chamberlain has been ousted as Prime Minister, Churchill has been appointed, and advancing German armies in Europe must be dealt with. It is a pivotal moment in European history and this film centers of Churchill’s transformative resolve to fight the Nazis in lieu of negotiating with them. As the audience, we know the right way to proceed but only with our 20-20 hindsight. This movie teaches us that peace at all costs can be a risky ideology.


Darkest Hour is a wonderful film with a very endearing performance by Gary Oldman. While historical images of Churchill present a bulldog of a man, the character we see here is humble, uncertain, and deeply pained by his loss at Gallipoli. He starts the film with virtually no one in his corner – least of all the king. He event doubts himself at his “Darkest Hour” and gains strength from commoners on a subway train. Then he rouses himself and orchestrates one the greatest rescues in human history. Finally, he wins the hearts of Parliament and sets Britain on a difficult but ultimately victorious path. Regardless of the historical accuracy of the film, it is a compelling hero’s journey.


That’s my main complaint about the film, namely, that Churchill’s unorthodox decision to meet with the commoners on the London Underground never really happened. This turns out to be the critical moment when Churchill recognizes that the public has a steely resolve to defeat Hitler rather than appease him. It’s a transformative incident, as the Prime Minister now know what he must do. Too bad it never happened that way. While including this fictitious scene makes for a better drama, I would have preferred a more veridical account of history.

So in this micro-slice of Churchill’s hero’s journey, we’re privy to his transformation along with his transformative effect on others. The latter is illustrated in Churchill’s famous “We will fight them on the beaches” speech. His words were so rousing that even Churchill’s detractors (such as Chamberlain) were silenced and forever rendered irrelevant. Churchill’s heroism proves that heroes do not have to be tall, handsome, and conventionally charismatic to be effective. They can find their heroic voice in their own idiosyncratic way, much like Lincoln did in the US nearly a century earlier.


Darkest Hour is a well-produced slice of the life of Winston Churchill during the darkest hours of Britain’s history. Gary Oldman’s performance is Oscar-worthy. As is typical of such biopics, Churchill changes the hearts and minds of others more than he himself changes. As the audience we know what the historical events will be – but what we don’t know is the behind-the-scenes story. I give Darkest Hour 3 out of 5 Reels for an average movie-going experience. Winston Churchill gets a full 5 Heroes out of 5 for standing in the face of villainy and doing what had to be done to save his country and ultimately the world. And finally, the Parliament gets 3 out of 5 Deltas for their transformation due to Winston’s steadfast leadership.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:


I agree that Darkest Hour does an exemplary job of chronicling how an iconic leader met the challenges of a pivotal moment in world history. As with another recent movie, Lady Bird, this story offers but a tiny slice of our hero’s life, yet it still manages to show us the hero’s ability to transformatively rise above severe challenges. Gary Oldman did the near-impossible by portraying Churchill’s eccentricity and boldness so effectively. I award this film 4 Reels out of 5.

Churchill’s heroism is impressive in that he did what the best heroes among us manage to do, namely, find a way to do the right thing despite significant social pressures to do the wrong thing. His transformation can best be described as a metamorphosis from uncertainty to certainty, from hesitation to resolve, from thoughts of condoning evil to fighting it aggressively. As such I award him 4 Heroes out of 5 and 4 transformative Deltas out of 5, too.

Movie: Transformation: Heroes:

Star Wars: The Last Jedi •••

Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Mark Hamill
Director: Rian Johnson

Screenplay: Rian Johnson, George Lucas
Action/Adventure/Fantasy, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 152 minutes
Release Date: December 15, 2017

SPOILERS WITHIN!


Scott, are we about to review the last Star Wars Film?


scott
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

The Force is with us both, Greg. Let’s recap.


The Rebel alliance is attempting to evacuate their base when First Order ships arrive and prepare to blow the base to bits. Pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) lights just off the main ship’s bow and leads an attack on their Dreadnaught class destroyer. They succeed at destroying the ship, but at a great cost losing all their bombers and several fighters. However, it gives the rebels time to evacuate and jump into hyperspace toward their next base.


Meanwhile Kylo Ren, sensing his mother General Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) presence, fails to fire on the resistance’s main ship. Rey seeks to learn the ways of the force from Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who has exiled himself to a remote island. He reluctantly agrees. Rey also begins having telepathic communications with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), whom she believes is redeemable. This belief appears to be corroborated by Ren’s decision to save Rey’s life at the hands of Snoke (Andy Serkis), whom he slays. Ren, however, remains on the dark side.


Scott, I have mixed emotions about The Last Jedi. On the one hand it is a proper sequel to the last film, The Force Awakens, but on the other, it seems like a scattered project that tried to accomplish too much. And with a 150-minute running time, you’d think it would have accomplished all its goals. But it does not. As with the last film, there are echoes of previous episodes which left me feeling as though the story doesn’t really move forward.

There are four distinct plotlines here. The first being the escape of the Resistance to a new base. This is Princess Leia and Poe’s story. The second is the emergence of Rey as a Jedi under the (reluctant) training of Luke Skywalker. The third is the evolution of Kylo Ren into the Master of the First Republic. Fourth and finally is the search for a thief to help Finn and newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) take down the Republic’s main ship.

The first plotline is pretty boring stuff with Poe constantly second-guessing Admiral Holdo’s (Laura Dern) authority. Not much happens here until the end. The training of Rey with Skywalker resembles much of what we saw in The Empire Strikes Back but with intercuts of Rey and Kylo Ren having inter-Force communication. Rey ultimately leaves her training before she’s finished to face Ren because she “feels there is still good in him.” This all feels very much like Empire.


Greg, this is a curious, complicated movie. There is much to like, some to dislike, and much to ponder over. My summative feeling is somewhat positive, but wow, where do we begin with all that is thrown at us in this film? You’ve pointed out the multiple simultaneous plotlines, at times exhilarating but at times delivered in a disjointed manner. There is also the bold move to redefine “the force” as more supernatural than in previous Star Wars incarnations. This cheapens the force, IMHO, yet I admit it’s handled well in the film’s final act when Luke’s magical powers save everyone’s butt.

Luke Skywalker’s persona has radically changed, which may not be terribly surprising as decades have passed since we’ve last seen much of him. Again I see some value in giving him inner conflict but at times I wasn’t sure this was the same character we’ve grown to love. There are also several strange directorial decisions by Rian Johnson. One irritation is his bizarre decision to include dozens of unnecessarily closeup face-shots of Ren and Rey. The film is long and densely packed, a smorgasbord of good and not-so-good Star Wars fare.

Although J.J. Abrams didn’t direct the film, it does have his fingerprints all over it. There is plenty of action and several powerful homages to iconic Star Wars lines involving “the force”, “help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi”, and Yoda uttering reverse sentence structures. So ultimately, we should leave the theater satisfied — assuming we can overlook the many complications.


Star Wars has become less about telling a great story, and more about creating a spectacle. The logic behind the Republic’s ships having to slowly track the Resistance is confusing. This is just a placeholder while action occurs elsewhere. The events on the casino planet have no real impact on the story at hand. But it does introduce a number of colorful characters and exotic animals that will make nice plastic toys at Christmastime.

LIkewise on the island where Luke has self-exiled himself we see very cute little bird-like creatures that have no purpose in the story except to be cute. Very much like the Ewoks. For some reason, these creatures have taken roost on the Millennium Falcon. And there are “caretaker” creatures as well as 4-bosomed sea whales which Luke milks for breakfast. None of these characters play into the plot. They are just part of Star Wars’ world building for the sake of merchandising.


Wow, you really are cynical about the merchandising placements, Greg. To be honest, I hadn’t given this much thought until now, but you may be right. We may agree about this film’s attempt to be a spectacle, and so the big question for us to consider is whether the movie is a spectacle that tells a compelling hero story. We do have heroes undergoing severe trials and transformation, which left me mostly satisfied. We also have the classic Star Wars battle between good and evil, with Kylo Ren filling the void left by the surprising death of Snoke. There’s a bit too much going on but overall the film hits enough classic Star Wars notes to produce a satisfying movie-going experience.


Star Wars: The Last Jedi was an entertaining visual feast – but pretty light fare. Star Wars has increasingly become a franchise for children and the young at heart. There are no morals or messages to take home. Characters seem to appear for little reason other than to fulfill either a gender or ethnic checklist. The story lines seem to have no real purpose other than to create a reason for flash and boom. The original Star Wars trilogy was about the redemption of Anakin Skywalker – a story with mythical proportions. I’m left asking “What is this story about?”

This latest series appears to be an attempt to right a galactic wrong – that of an absence of female characters in the Star Wars universe. As such, we get characters like Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) who does little more than stand in for Admiral Leia while she’s knocked out and to confound pilot man-child Poe by keeping him (and the rest of the Rebel fleet) in the dark about her plans. The men in this universe seem universally dim while all the women seem eternally wise. Just when you think something interesting is going to happen (will Rey and Kylo Ren rule over a new Empire?) – it doesn’t. I can only muster 3 out of 5 Reels for this film.

There are so many lead characters in this story, it’s hard to figure out who I’m supposed to care about. Rey seems to follow Luke’s storyline from Empire Strikes Back and goes to fight the dark side without full Jedi training. Kylo Ren is still impetuous and fighting authority figures – even when he’s the ultimate authority. Poe had no trajectory in this story as his only purpose was to be a loose canon. Finn goes on a merry chase with Rose and has no arc to speak of. Leia spends most of the film sleeping off a vacuum-induced hangover. Rose has the best line of the film – only to find herself unconscious in the end. Luke evaporates for unknown reasons. I can’t get excited about anyone in this film and can barely extend more than 2 Heroes out of 5 and 2 Deltas as well.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes:


My impressions of this film are similar to yours, Greg. The Last Jedi is pretty good Star Wars but lacks sufficient cohesiveness and focus to emerge as exemplary Star Wars fare. There are a few bold moves here involving an extension of what has for decades been iconically known as “the force”. Now apparently the force involves extreme magical prowess, which is unfortunate as the force used to connote a more subtle special power that metaphorically endowed all of us with the ability to become the best versions of ourselves. Overall, I was entertained by this movie despite its flaws and I also give it 3 Reels out of 5.

There are plenty of good heroes in this movie and in fact their abundance is a drawback. Still, we are treated to the spicy hero’s journeys of Poe, Luke, Leia, Finn, Rose, and others. These heroes transform in meaningful ways; they grow in their maturity and understanding of themselves, the force, the nature of good and evil, and the world in which they live. Ren and Snoke are also formidable and interesting villains for our heroes to overcome. There’s so much going on at the expense of cohesion that I’ll only award 3 Hero points out of 5 as well as 3 transformative Deltas out of 5.

Movie: Transformations: Heroes: