MOLLY’S GAME (2017) – High Stakes Poker Tale Plays Close to the Vest

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Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba in MOLLY’S GAME (2017)

MOLLY’S GAME (2017), based on the true story of Olympic-class skier Molly Bloom who after a devastating injury which ended her skiing career went on to run some of the most expensive high stakes poker games in the world, and was subsequently prosecuted by the FBI, begs the question: are all “true stories” created equal?

The answer obviously is no, and most of the time movie makers get this right and don’t film stories not worth telling.  Here, in MOLLY’S GAME, I’m not so sure.

After a freak accident on the ski slopes ends her career and spoils her shot at making the Olympic team, Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) moves to California to get as far away from her father Larry Bloom (Kevin Costner) as possible.  While he had always been hard on her, the main reason she can’t stand him is he cheated on her mom.

She lands a job as a cocktail waitress where she meets Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong) a shadowy guy who hires her to be his personal secretary, a position that opens up the door for her to assist him with his high stakes poker game he runs every week, a game that attracts all sorts of celebrities, including a popular actor named only in the movie as Player X (Michael Cera).

After a falling out with Dean, Molly sets up shop on her own, and suddenly she’s the one running the high stakes poker game. Under her guidance, the game continues to grow, but after she moves it to New York, to attract even wealthier players, trouble brews, as she runs afoul of the Russian mob, the Italian mafia, and illegal drug use, eventually catching the attention of the FBI.

The story is told largely through flashback, as she tells her story to her attorney Charlie Jaffrey (Idris Elba).

MOLLY’S GAME is the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin, known for his thought-provoking scripts for such films as THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010) and MONEYBALL (2011), to name a couple, and more so, for his classic TV series THE WEST WING (1999-2006). It’s an impressive debut.

The writing is top-notch and is full of snappy quick-paced dialogue, which is no surprise since Sorkin also wrote the script, based on the book Molly’s Game by Molly Bloom.

The acting is also excellent.  Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba are two of my favorite actors working today.  In the lead role as Molly Bloom, Jessica Chastain knocks it out of the park, and her performance is the best part of this movie.  She makes Molly Bloom a compelling character, and I was more than interested in following her story.

Chastain has already delivered a host of notable performances, in such films as ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012), THE HELP (2011), INTERSTELLAR 2014), and THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017), to name just a few.

Likewise, Idris Elba has also delivered a lot of excellent performances, although his best work is clearly on the TV show LUTHER (2010-2018) in which he plays DCI John Luther and he’s been phenomenal in the role for the entirety of the show’s run.

Strangely, there wasn’t a whole lot of chemistry between Chastain and Elba here.  Not that they were romantically involved, but in terms of plot, at first Elba’s attorney Charlie Jaffey wants no part of Molly’s case, but eventually he changes his mind, because he believes there’s more to her story than what he’s read in the tabloids, and it’s this part of the story that’s missing.  I was never convinced that Charlie would have changed his mind about Molly. I didn’t buy his change of heart because I never really saw him have that lightbulb moment where he realizes, I can defend this woman.  It’s supposed to be when he realizes that she’s had numerous opportunities to make lots of money off her story and has turned them all down, a reflection of her integrity as a person.  I understood this as a plot point, but I never felt it through Charlie’s character.

This was a major sticking point for me throughout the entire movie.  I understood it all, but all of it left me feeling rather empty.  The story worked intellectually, but not emotionally.

The cast is full of familiar faces who all do a wonderful job in their roles.  Kevin Costner is sufficiently cold and demanding as Molly’s psychologist dad Larry, who’s not going to win any father of the year awards.

Jeremy Strong is slimy and sexist as Dean Keith. Strong has been in a bunch of movies of late, including appearances in DETROIT (2017), THE BIG SHORT (2015), and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012).

Michael Cera makes for a very unlikable Player X, while Chris O’Dowd makes for a rather likable Douglas Downey, a regular at the table who’s almost always drunk and who has affable conversations with Molly after the games. I like O’Dowd a lot, and he’s made similar impressions in films like ST. VINCENT (2014) and THE SAPPHIRES (2012).

Likewise, Brian D’Arcy James is memorable as Brad, nicknamed “Bad Brad” because he was the worst player at the table and lost regularly. D’Arcy James also appeared in SPOTLIGHT (2015) and most recently on the TV series 13 REASONS WHY (2017-18).

So, in MOLLY’S GAME, you have acting, writing, and directing that are all excellent, and yet, when it was all said and done, I found myself asking a big so what?

And that “so what?” refers to Molly’s story.  I enjoyed Jessica Chastain in the lead role, and I enjoyed learning about Molly Bloom, and her character is certainly interesting, but her story?  I dunno. For a while, it’s fascinating, and it’s certainly worthwhile learning about a woman who made it her mission to outwork powerful men and beat them at their own game.

All of this I liked, but the film, like some of the players sitting around the table, plays things close to the vest, and as a result it was difficult to gage just what people were feeling and why they were feeling it. And the story itself suffers for it, because it never really becomes alive or makes a compelling argument to its audience that this story needs to be told.  Ultimately, I agree with the judge at the end of the story who in making his ruling suggests that this whole case was much ado about nothing.

At the end of the day, there is just something missing here, and that something is heart. MOLLY’S GAME has little emotional connection with its audience. Intellectually, I understood and appreciated Molly’s story, and I enjoyed watching a story about a woman getting the upper hand over powerful and sexist men.  But emotionally, I never felt much for any of the characters, including Molly.  Molly should have been an extremely sympathetic character here, but she’s not.  The writing doesn’t allow her to be.

As such, I never felt a connection to Charlie Jaffey’s character, and I never believed his reasons for taking Molly’s case.  Moreover, I never felt the fear Molly should have felt being arrested by the FBI, or earlier the jubilation for a job well done running the high stakes poker game.  Maybe it’s because for Molly, there wasn’t much to feel.  The herculean effort it took for her to organize and run these games left her exhausted and got her addicted to drugs.

Or maybe it’s because in terms of stories, it’s just not one that pulls at the heartstrings.

I don’t know.

I do know that MOLLY’S GAME is a well-directed, expertly written, and professionally acted movie that held my interest for its 140 minute running time, but when it was over, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had just watched a genuinely compelling story, or if like some of the players at the table in the movie, I had fallen victim to a monumental bluff.

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THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017) Reminds Us Atrocities Need Not Be Accepted

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THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017) is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Diane Ackerman and tells the true story of how the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo hid, protected, and ultimately saved hundreds of Jews during the Nazi invasion and subsequent occupation of Poland during World War II.

The film opens just before the Nazi invasion, in the summer of 1939, and we are introduced to the couple who run the Warsaw Zoo, Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain).  It’s a remarkable place, and the Zabinskis treat the animals like family.  Antonina in particular has a way with the animals that enables her to share a special bond with them.  We see this firsthand in a touching scene where she tries to save a dying baby elephant while its nervous and frightened parents stand nearby, ready to pounce on her, and yet, because of her sensitivity towards them, they allow her to treat their baby.

We also meet a German zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) who brushes off talk of an imminent German invasion, as he says he’s a zoologist and keeps out of politics.

But on September 1, 1939, the invasion happens, first with bombs which decimate the zoo, and then with soldiers, and once the Nazis take over, they herd the Jews into ghettos and force them into deplorable living conditions.  Jan sees these actions firsthand and is horrified by them.

The bombs destroy most of the zoo and kill many of the animals.  Later, their former friend Lutz Heck, now a prominent member of the Nazi party, informs Antonina that all the animals will have to be killed for food for the war effort.  However, he tells Antonina that with her permission he will remove her prize animals and bring them to his zoo in Germany where they will be safe, and she agrees.

However, Jan is outraged, believing that Lutz is simply stealing their animals, and when Antonina says that at least Lutz asked her permission, Jan testily answers that as a Nazi Lutz doesn’t need her permission.  And as winter approaches, the Nazis kill the remaining animals anyway.

Jan tells Antonina of the horrors of what’s going on inside the ghetto, and they decide they cannot stand by and do nothing.  Since the animals are all gone, there is plenty of empty space in the basement beneath the zoo, and they decide to use these empty areas to hide people.  With help, they come up with a system of removing people from the ghetto and secretly bringing them to the safety of the zoo, which is no easy task with Lutz and his fellow Nazis constantly on the prowl.

There no doubt will be comparisons between this movie and SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) because they tell similar stories, and while SCHINDLER’S LIST is a more powerful movie, THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE is effective in its own right.

Beautifully shot by director Niki Caro, we at first glimpse the wonderful life the citizens of Warsaw experience before September 1, 1939, in particular the harmonious haven created by the Zabinskis at the  Warsaw Zoo.  And when things turn harsh after the invasion, the camera does the same.  Looking out their window, the Zabinskis see what they at first believe are snowflakes falling from the sky, but upon closer inspection they see that what is falling is ash.  The Nazis are burning the ghetto to the ground.

The screenplay by Angela Workman based on Ackerman’s book doesn’t overplay its hand.  The Nazi atrocities are well-known— or at least they should be— and the story  while not sugar-coating things does not go out of its way to show these horrors first hand either; hence the PG-13 rating.  Yet, there are still some jarring scenes, like when two Jewish women are shot in the head at point-blank range.

I’m a huge fan of Jessica Chastain, and I really enjoyed her performance here as Antonina Zabinski.  She especially captures the sensitivity Antonina possessed which allowed her to work so closely with the animals; they trusted her. Likewise, when it’s up to her to work closely with Nazi Lutz Heck, her skills once more come into play.  She has a way with him as well, and like the animals in the zoo, he trusts her.  This allows them to continue to hide the Jews under the noses of the Nazis.  For a while, anyway.

As much as I enjoyed Chastain, the best performance in the movie belongs to Johan Heldenbergh as Antonina’s husband Jan.  As Jan, Heldenbergh displays a wide range of emotions, from strength, to horror and outrage at what the Nazis are doing to his Jewish friends, to jealousy over his wife’s and Lutz’ relationship, even though he knows that its integral to the success of their efforts.  It’s a deep resonating performance, and while Antonina spends most of her time at the zoo working with Lutz, it’s Jan who’s active in the streets of Warsaw and who is personally responsible for whisking the Jews out of the ghetto.  As such, he sees much more of the atrocities than his wife does, and it takes a heavy toll on him.  The scene where he watches children being loaded onto the box cars of the crowded train is one of the more powerful images in the film.

Daniel Bruhl  makes for a sufficiently villainous Nazi, Lutz Heck.  However, since he’s for the most part “tamed” by Antonina, he’s nowhere near as despicable as some other movie Nazis.    His actions are somewhat muted because of his feelings for Antonina.

The rest of the cast does a nice job in support of these three main actors.  Iddo Goldberg is memorable as their Jewish friend Maurycy Fraenkel, and Shira Haas stands out as a young girl Jan rescues from the ghetto after she is raped by Nazi soldiers.

Michael McElhatton is memorable as the Rabinski’s loyal employee Jerzyk who stays with them through the whole ordeal and risks his life for them on numerous occasions.  And while McElhatton appears on GAME OF THRONES, I just saw him in a horror movie I liked, THE HALLOW (2015).

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE is a potent movie about a horrible time in our world’s history, and it tells an uplifting story about bravery in the face of unspeakable horrors and says a lot about the human spirit.  In spite of the Nazis threat, the Rabinskis refused to stand by and do nothing.

As the world continues to be a sadly dangerous place, it’s a message people the world over should take to heart and remember.  Atrocities need not be accepted.

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Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

INTERSTELLAR (2014) – Science Fiction at its Best

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interstellar - posterMovie Review:  INTERSTELLAR (2014)

By

Michael Arruda

 

INTERSTELLAR, the latest film by writer/director Christopher Nolan of THE DARK KNIGHT trilogy fame is an instant classic, not only one of the best movies of the year, but also destined to be one of the all-time classic science fiction films ever made.  No kidding!

INTERSTELLAR takes place in the not too distant future, a time when Earth is in crisis due to a shortage of food.  People work as farmers, because the need for food is so great, even though the soil is dying, and the time is coming when the Earth will no longer be able to sustain life.

 Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a former astronaut/pilot who now works as a farmer, and he’s none too happy about it.  He has to raise his children on his own, as his wife recently died from cancer, and he receives some help from his father, Donald (John Lithgow).  Through an odd series of events, Cooper and his young daughter Murph find themselves inside a secret NASA base in which Cooper is reunited with his former professor, Professor Brand (Michael Caine).

Professor Brand informs Cooper that NASA is secretly working on a plan to save the human race.  A worm hole has been discovered near Saturn, and Brand reports that they have already sent manned space crafts through the worm hole in search of other habitable planets.  Now they need to send a new mission to seek out those previous missions in order to learn which planets if any are inhabitable.  Brand wants Cooper to pilot the mission.

Cooper decides to go, against the wishes of his ten year-old daughter Murph, and even though he promises her that he will come back, she doesn’t believe him.  Cooper leads the mission through the worm hole, and in a race against time, as their voyage through time and space will take years, they attempt to find a new planet able to sustain human life and then get the word back to Earth before the planet dies.

INTERSTELLAR is a compelling, exciting movie that works on multiple levels.  It contains enough big ideas and gets enough of the science right to succeed as an exemplary work of science fiction, and it also scores high with the human element, as it contains major conflicts for nearly every character in the film to overcome.  It also works as a melodrama, as it tells a riveting and oftentimes suspenseful story.  It’s visually very satisfying, it contains great acting from nearly everyone involved, and it has a fantastic script by brothers Christopher and Jonathan Nolan.  And oh yeah, there’s the work of its talented director, Christopher Nolan.

Some of the ideas explored in INTERSTELLAR include worm holes, black holes, the theory of relativity, and time travel.  The worm hole is the plot device which sets the story in motion, as it allows our astronauts to travel impossible distances through space in one lifetime.  The theory of relativity also takes a prominent role in the story, as on certain planets years pass by as mere hours.  Spend a few hours on the planet, and back on earth two decades pass.  These are highly interesting topics, and they’re handled in this movie by screenwriters Christopher and Jonathan Nolan with near perfection.  The science isn’t dumbed down to the point where it plays as theatrical fantasy, nor is it so highbrow that it flies over our heads.  It strikes a nice balance.

Like last year’s GRAVITY (2013) it also gets the silence of space right, as scenes of space travel are shot in eerie silence.

Only the dealing with the black hole gave me pause— at first.  The fate of someone entering a black hole is most likely death, and anything else seems somewhat less than believable, but since the truth is, we really don’t know what happens inside a black hole, there are certain creative privileges that go hand in hand with this subject.  In other words, until there is definitive scientific proof of what really happens inside a black hole, writers can get away with certain creative indulgences, as long as they remain believable.  What happens inside the black hole in INTERSTELLAR ultimately passes the believability test.

Nearly every character in INTERSTELLAR has a major conflict to overcome.  Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) in addition to trying to save the human race (yeah, that’s a biggie!) also wants to make good on his promise to his children that he will indeed return home.  Fellow astronaut Brand (Anne Hathaway), Professor Brand’s daughter, is in love with one of the astronauts from the previous mission and thus is biased about travelling to his planet.  Cooper’s adult daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain) desperately wants to prove that her father didn’t lie to her, that he really planned to complete his mission and return home to her.  Professor Brand (Michael Caine) in spite of his herculean humanitarian effort is harboring a terrible secret.  It’s one of the reasons INTERSTELLAR remains compelling for all of its 169 minutes running time, because nearly every character has a conflict to work through.

Another reason it remains enthralling is it doesn’t play like a cold stoic science fiction tale.  INTERSTELLAR is a heartfelt melodrama, with characters you truly care about placed in some very dangerous and life threatening situations.  There are also some exciting scenes of suspense, including a fierce fight on an ice planet, and a nail biting sequence involving an impossible space docking maneuver on an out-of-control space station.

Matthew McConaughey leads the very talented cast with another neat performance, this time as Cooper, the former astronaut who makes the bold choice to pilot a ship through a wormhole into the unknown in order to save humankind, all the while believing in the improbable, that he’ll be able to make it back home alive.

Jessica Chastain is equally as good as Cooper’s adult daughter Murph, albeit her screen time is much smaller than McConaughey’s, but it is these two characters who drive this story along.

Anne Hathaway is also excellent as fellow astronaut and scientist Brand, as is Michael Caine as her father Professor Brand.  Throw in John Lithgow as Cooper’s father Donald, Casey Affleck as Cooper’s adult son Tom, and a few other familiar faces, including a major star who appears unbilled, and you have the makings for a phenomenal cast.

Visually, INTERSTELLAR is impressive and doesn’t disappoint.  Director Christopher Nolan fills this one with memorable scenes and images.  Even better is the screenplay by Nolan and his brother Jonathan.  Everything seems to work.  I was hooked within the first few minutes and remained so for the nearly three hours the movie took to reach its conclusion.  It’s Nolan’s most satisfying film since THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).

Still, it’s not perfect.  The logic behind the appearance of the worm hole, for example, doesn’t exactly hold up to scrutiny, and a key scene where Cooper attempts to communicate across dimensions to his daughter had me scratching my head.

But these are minor quibbles.

INTERSTELLAR is a superior science fiction movie.  It’s better than the recent science fiction efforts like GRAVITY (2013) and PROMETHEUS (2012), and it deserves to be included in the conversation with some of the all-time greats, films like THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968).

One of the best movies of the year, INTERSTELLAR is one voyage you definitely do not want to miss.

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