Category Archives: Film Reviews

Molly’s Game and the subjective interpretation of movies

Everyone once in a while, I am reminded of how subjective our interpretations of movies can be. I recently reviewed Molly’s Game, a biopic of “Hollywood Poker Princess” Molly Bloom (see also here). I really enjoyed the movie. I thought Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay was snappy and engaging, Jessica Chastain well cast in the title  role, and the directing was inspired.

My interpretation, however, is not universal. A friend saw the movie separately, but on the same weekend, and said:

“The movie was superficial for a mob movie with an angle from the parental psychologist character [Kevin Costner playing Larry Bloom, Molly’s father]. Molly’s Game lacked the cerebral subduction and emotional entrapment of mob interfacing movies like the Godfather, Sopranos, or Casino. Especially disappointing when so much of the subject matter revolved around world-class poker. The Molly’s Game script and movie’s execution went for low-hanging emotional fruit found in label dropping visuals, IQ scores, and quick successional facts and statistics about the institution of poker. The high point for me was when the author plugged poker as skill-based as opposed to roulette. I felt the author was disingenuous as well as the “moral” of the story… good guys finish 1st… or slick stories sell movie tickets. “

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Review: Molly’s Game gets edge from Sorkin touch

Molly’s Game is a just the kind of movie you would expect from Aaron Sorkin, the creative light behind TV series like The West Wing and movies like The Social Network. His fast-paced dialogue allows his characters to carry a lot of attitude into the movie and story, and Molly’s Game is no exception.

The movie stars Jessica Chastain as the title character, Molly Bloom, a former Olympic freestyle skier who ends up on another path after a career ending injury. She enters the world of high-stakes underground poker and becomes “Hollywood’s poker princess”–before the FBI takes her down. A key part of the film is Bloom’s tense relationship with her skeptical, high-profile attorney, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba). My full review is now live at the Independent Institute, but here’s a quick thumbnail summary:

As in most Sorkin scripts, Molly’s Game has many layers. He uses the unusual technique of having Molly narrate most of the movie. This useful device allows for the story to be told largely in flashback while creating tension with the no-nonsense Jaffey. Aside from the conflict between Bloom and Jaffey, the narration/flashback structure serves two other important roles. First, audiences see Molly evolve from a brash, arrogant, determined, Type-A athlete to a more humble and circumspect women who has been tamed by the cruel and violent world of underground gambling. She goes from bratty teenager to an adult with faults that are real and relatable. Second, audiences come to appreciate Molly’s personal journey through Jaffey’s skepticism, and then empathy. Just as Bloom appears to be at her lowest point, resolved to go to prison for decades because she won’t give up her clients, Jaffey is able to provide the support she needs because of his sincere belief in her innocence.

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Review: The Post spotlights The Washington Post‘s coming of age

My complete review of The Post is live at the Independent Institute. Advertised as a political thriller, the movie is really an excellent “coming of age” story for the venerable newspaper The Washington Post and its publisher Katherine Graham.

Graham inherited the paper when her husband committed suicide in the early 1960’s. She didn’t know much about business or journalism. So, she had to learn on the job.

But Graham was reluctant to give up her high-society social life which involved close personal relationships with politicians and White House staff. When the Pentagon Papers were leaked to The New York Times, she had to make a big decision that could put her family’s paper in financial jeopardy.

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Review: The Florida Project is a brilliant look into families on the edge

My movie review of The Florida Project, a brilliant film by Sean Baker made with an incredibly low $2 million production budget, is now live at The Independent Institute. At first, I didn’t think this was a great film—a good film, an important film, but not a great one. After a few days, however, I was able to deconstruct it and more fully appreciate what Baker had accomplished as a filmmaker.

The story is told from the point of view of six-year olds living in an extended stay hotel near Orlando, Florida. Their parents can barely make ends meet; they are literally a couple of ten-dollar bills away from being homeless. Since we are told the story through the eyes of children, adults end up connecting dots and filling in blanks through their ears and eyes.  Six-year olds can’t understand why or often even see why their parents or other adults might make really bad choices. But Baker gives us the clues through sight and sound to fill in the dots. Continue reading

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Review: The Hitman’s Bodyguard combines action, ethics, and parody to entertain

Source: impawards.com

My movie review of The Hitman’s Bodyguard starring Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Salma Hayek, and French actress Elodie Yung is now live over at the Independent Institute. This was a fun movie, an entertaining mix of parody, stylized action, and wise-cracking dialogue. Reynolds and Jackson have great on-screen chemistry.

What I also liked, however, was how the story hinged on a great ethical question that was intimately integrated into the plot: Is the person who protects evil people so they can manipulate the legal system or the one who eradicates evil people more ethical? The movie doesn’t answer the question, but the worldviews of Michael Bryce (Reynolds) and Darius Kincaid (Jackson) wrestle with this question for two hours as the body count heads into the stratosphere. The story also has strong themes of forgiveness and learning to appreciate the moment instead of regrets of the past. (The film has car and motorboat chases as well.)

Not everyone gets the movie, but audiences have been kinder than critics so far. The movie has generated $125 million worldwide since its release. As I write at the Independent Institute:

The Hitman’s Bodyguard is an action/drama that would normally be considered standard fare for the summer season. Yet this movie does more than careen through dead bodies and extended vehicle chases. The story is driven by the relationship between the core characters and turns on a serious question of ethics and forgiveness. At the same time, the film verges on a parody of its genre. This combination seems to have befuddled many movie critics but not audiences.

Based on my movie scoring, I gave The Hitman’s Bodyguard an A. This is substantially higher than conventional critics who seemed to pan it for the cliched plot. I actually saw much of the action as parody and felt the humor offset the seriousness of the heavy ethical and relationship issues that were the center of the relationships between Bryce and Kincaid. The full review goes into these aspects of the film in much greater detail.

 

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Review: The Dark Tower follows convention in effort to entertain

The Dark TowerThe Dark Tower, ultimately, is a convention adaptation to film of the book series by iconic horror writer Stephen King. Unfortunately, the movie probably does not deliver the kind of suspense that King’s fans would expect. Despite a fine performance by Idris Elba (Mandela, Thor: The Dark World, Star Trek Beyond), the screenplay’s stylized characters do not engage the audience significantly even though the two protagonists have well-defined character arcs, and the lack of depth creates a flat performance for the primary antagonist.

The story starts out with Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a teenager struggling to come to terms with the death of his firefighter father and remarriage of his mother. His dark dreams conjure images of a dystopian world where evil reigns, compelling him to use his artistic talents to bring the dreams to life. Not surprisingly, his sketches of dark, desolate landscapes, the aftermath of bloody battles, and a tower under attack are unsettling to his mother and stepfather, who have him in counseling but believe he needs even more aggressive psychiatric intervention.

Jake, however, is convinced a truth lies behind the images. As his parents arrange for him to go to a juvenile psychiatric facility in upstate New York, he escapes and finds a portal to another world. Once in the other dimension, he stumbles into a “gunslinger,” Roland Deschain (Elba), who he recognizes as a protector of a tower that mysteriously controls several parallel universes. The tower is under attack by a Man in Black, Walter o’Dim (Matthew McConaughey,  Dallas Buyers Club, Wolf of Wall StreetMudMagic Mike) who is on a quest to destroy the tower and allow pure evil to take over the human world. Deschain is the last of the gunslingers, and the emotional toll of his war against evil has worn him into a deeply ingrained cynicism. It’s up to Jake’s naive commitment to the noble aim of saving humanity to re-engage Deschain as a proactive force for good.

Critics have panned The Dark Tower, largely because of its conventional storytelling and execution. This criticism is well earned. The Dark Tower provides little innovative or imaginative in the science fiction/fantasy genre, and the story is grounded in a fairly conventional western theme. Deschain is the broken, fallen Wild West gunmen whose soul must be revived by rediscovering the dignity that comes with fighting the good fight. McConaughey’s character, however, has virtually no depth. His sole purpose in life is to destroy what is good, and his motivations are never clear. Not surprisingly, with little to work with, McConaughey characterization of Walter is flat.

Their conflict is inevitable, but the screenplay provides little depth to the characters. Thus, the plot is conventional. The ending is never really in doubt. The special effects are well done, but conventionally presented. The effects further the action, but are not embedded in the plot.

Nevertheless, conventional movies can entertain even when they don’t rise to artistic excellence. Audiences will likely be left with the impression The Dark Tower is a conventional sci-fi, fantasy action movie and little more, but still entertains within the conventions. This is probably why audiences on Rotten Tomatoes enjoyed the movie by a 3 to 1 margin over critics (although audiences still gave the film just 54% “fresh”).  The fundamental entertainment value also helps explain why The Dark Tower is still showing in 1,800 theaters nationwide five weeks after its release.

Overall, I scored the film at 8.5 but this is generous—and four stars is definitely generous—in part because of the rubric used to evaluate the movies. The film has well executed effects and top drawer production values. In addition, a strong message of courage and facing up to evil even when the odds are stacked against the protagonists gives the film a boost over other films with weaker messages in the rubric.

The Dark Tower is unlikely to make its production budget of $60 million, earning just shy of $50 million after five weeks at the box office. Nevertheless, the film is likely to find a solid audience in the DVD and online streaming market because it still manages to entertain the core audience.

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Review: War for the Planet of the Apes brings closure to a grand arc

I finally got around to seeing War for the Planet of the Apes. This is the third installment of the franchise re-boot that began with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). The film brings closure to a grand arc in the rebooted franchise and most fans of the series should be satisfied. The movie has also received positive reviews, generated tremendous staying power at the box office, and earned $314 million after four weeks at the box office (on a $150 million production budget).

War follows the attempts by the leader of the apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis, The Lord of the Rings series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), to avoid a final show down with the humans. The human population has already been wiped out by a virus blamed on the apes—the Simian Flu—and a remnant of the human population is trying to preserve their owns species by destroying the intelligent apes holed up in the forests of the Northwest United States. Caesar’s ability to communicate and his intelligence are the product of human medical experimentation (and the subject of the previous two films). In War, the humans are led by the maniacal Colonel (Woody Harrelson, White Men Can’t JumpNatural Born KillersHunger Games) who is intent on destroying the apes in what he terms as a “holy war” for the survival of mankind.

War for the Planet of the Apes—the ninth in the pantheon of the franchise—stays true to the original series which grappled with important social issues of the day. The innovation in the first movie, Planet of the Apes, was to reverse the roles of the apes and humans, giving the apes the benefit of intelligence, rationality and social superiority. Similarly, in the War for the Planet of the Apes, Caesar’s character embodies the common virtues of humans—desire for peace, cooperation, rational and balanced thought, grace, and forgiveness.

Caesar is morally and emotionally challenged by the deliberate if unintentional murder of his wife and young son by the Colonel and his soldiers. Their deaths spur him to hunt down the Colonel and kill him as revenge and retribution. Maurice, a wise and philosophical Orangutan (Karin Konoval, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), provides the balance and metaphysical foil to Caesar’s charismatic leadership. The humans embody the dark side of humanity—unquestioned loyalty, willingness to uncritically follow leaders, the darkness that comes with succumbing to fear.

Screenwriters Matt Reeves (who also directs the movie) and Mark Bomback (Deception, The Wolverine, The Divergent Series: Insurgent) add important dimension to the story by introducing a young human girl into the story. After Caesar and his party kill her father, a deserter from the Colonel’s rogue army, Maurice refuses to leave her to starve or be killed in the wilderness. The girl’s innocence, courage, and willingness to look beyond her species to bond with the apes plays an important role in Caesar’s own personal transformation in his quest. Her role and acceptance also allow War to become more multidimensional than a simple ape vs. human tale, staying true to the franchise’s emphasis on finding common ground and overcoming prejudice.

War for the Planet of the Apes is a fitting sequel to the previous two movies. The special effects immerse the audience in the movie, making the world of the apes as natural and accepting as human life in the real world. The action sequences keep the audience engaged throughout the movie even though the end is never really in doubt. Serkis’s acting gives life to his character in striking ways despite the fact the audience never sees human form. Harrelson finds a way to add dimension in the egocentric, brutal Colonel blinded by his own prejudice and self-righteousness. The screenwriters also do a nice job of infusing references to characters from the older films, giving those familiar with the original series a satisfying sense of closure. While the story is not fresh, the movie is done well.

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Review: Valerian‘s entertaining space romp

Source: www.impawards.com

My rather lengthy review of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is now live at the Independent Institute. I almost skipped this movie, but I’m glad I didn’t. I really enjoyed it: Valerian is an entertaining space romp with a dash of cool action. I also realize this puts me at odds with most reviewers and a sizable number of movie goes. But I try to call’m like I see’m, and I found Valerian is an entertaining and satisfying sci-fi, fantasy movie.

Writer-Director Luc Besson does a nice job of consciously blending a Star Wars-esque space opera with Avatar-inspired fantasy and adding a European flare. Visually, the movie has a lot going on, and it’s fun to just sit back and watch. Unfortunately, sometimes the flare gets in the way of the plot. Still, the story holds together as a rather straightforward sci-fi, fantasy action yarn.

Besson also adds depth, building real arcs into the characters. This allows him to also build a strong message into the substance of the film, specifically one of the overarching importance of individual dignity, emotional transparency, and peace as building block for relationships and community.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets also has an intriguing backstory as I write over at the Independent Institute,

Americans might be tempted to think this film and comic series was inspired by Star Wars. In fact, if a relationship exists, the influence may be the other way around. The film’s story is taken from the long-running French comic series Valerian and Laureline (1967-2010), which featured epic, diverse universes with inter-species cooperation and conflict. Indeed, the design director behind Star Wars: The Phantom Menace kept bound copies of the comic on his shelf during that film’s production.

The movie has its weak moments—the pace slows in key places, and the dialogue tends to be a bit juvenile—but overall the film entertains. Sometimes, we just need to give credit to a film that is just entertaining.

I scored Valerian 8.5 on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being perfect) based on 8 elements. This translates into a grade of a B and really 4 starts on a 5-star scale (3 1/2 on Rotten Tomatoes).

The full review can be found here:

Review: Valerian Entertains with Focus on Visual Effects and Personal Dignity

My Facebook site—Movie Reviews By Sam Staley—where I am now posting links to all my reviews can be found here:

https://www.facebook.com/themovieswithsam/

 

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Review: Dunkirk‘s foreboding, somber tone masterfully executed

My full review of Christopher Nolan‘s new movie, Dunkirk, is now live at the Independent Institute. Nolan’s storytelling is masterful and innovative, something we’ve come to expect from an “auteur” filmmaker who brings his own aesthetic and storytelling style to his movies. Dunkirk is not exception.

The film uses several devices to convey the deep, foreboding mood of the evacuation and its implications for the attempts to stop the Nazi invasion of Western Europe. Dialogue is minimal, the plot almost completely driven the actions of individuals non-verbally. Nolan uses sweeping vistas of the beaches of Dunkirk to convey the enormity of the task to evacuate 400,000 troops and the hopelessness. Lines of soldiers snake into the shallow waters of the beaches and breakers with virtually no sign of help stretching out to the horizon (and Britain).

The story of the evacuation—which was a logistical success that mitigated the enormity of the disaster—is told from the perspectives two soldiers trying to use their cunning and opportunity to get off the beaches as quickly as possible, a flight of three Spitfire fighter pilots that get whittled down to one, and a private boat operator and his son sailing into the heat of the battle to rescue soldiers. The stories ultimately converge, but the way Nolan assembles the stories is innovative and sometimes difficult to follow.

Nevertheless, the film is likely to be among the list of Best Picture and Best Director nominees at next year’s Academy Awards. I scored the film 9.13  (out of 10) on my rubric and gave it 4 1/2 stars on Rotten Tomatoes.

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Review: The Exception harkens to classic war-time romances

The Exception made a brief appearance in the movie theaters before heading to the DVD and on-line streaming market. This is where the film is likely to find its commercial success. It lacks the fast-paced action, grand themes, and scenic worlds that lend themselves big screen storytelling. In many ways, The Exception seems like a throwback to the period romantic dramas of the 1950s and 1960s.

This World War II story centers on a forbidden love that develops between a German army officer, Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney, Suicide Squad, UnbrokenDivergent) and a female servant working in the household of the exiled German Emperor, Kaiser Frederick Wilhelm II (Christopher Plummer, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, BeginnersThe Last Station). The Kaiser and his wife, Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer, Maleficent, Albert NobbsInsurgent) are living in Belgium awaiting an opportunity for the former monarch will be reinstated in Germany. Brandt has been transferred by German headquarters to lead Wilhelm’s security detail.

In retrospect, Wilhelm’s hope to return to Germany seems hopelessly naive and detached (and toward the last years he appeared increasingly delusional). But the Kaiser’s character is rooted in the real life dynamics of post-World War I German culture, society, and politics. Germany’s disastrous early experiment with democracy, the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), kept hopes for re-establishing the German monarchy alive for many in the aristocracy and military. Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated rather than renounce his claim to the throne, and he hoped to be invited back to Germany in a prominent government role.

German loyalty to the former monarch was, in fact, problematic for Adolph Hitler. While Hitler never considered reinstating Wilhelm, the former Kaiser’s stature was sufficiently high his death (in 1941) was used for propaganda purposes reinforce German values of honor and commitment to German aspirations for European hegemony. This historically grounded reality sets up important plot points in the movie.

When Brandt is transferred to the Kaiser’s security detail, he meets Meike de Jong (Lily James, Downton AbbeyBaby Driver), a servant in the Kaiser’s castle. They begin a romance despite rules against fraternization between staff and the soldiers. Complicating matters is the fact Meike is Jewish. Following his heart, Brandt refuses to break off the romance. Intrigue deepens as the SS (a German paramilitary police force) discover a British agent is working in the town. Meike is also an informant for the Dutch resistance, reporting on the activities with the Kaiser’s house.

The Exception is generally well executed and acted. Plummer successfully projects the naive optimism of the banished Kaiser while also adding humanity to his borderline delusional character. McTeer’s portrayal of the Kaiser’s ambitious and devoted wife, Princess Hermine, creates the necessary tension to keep the outcome of the clandestine romance in question throughout most of the movie.

Unfortunately, the plot is predictable, providing little that is fresh or innovative with the exception of a small plot twist at the end. Virtually nothing in this film pushes or even comes close to a creative boundary. The result is an entertaining but largely un-engaging film.

The relationship between Brandt and de Jong as characters is also problematic. The first day at the castle, Brandt and de Jong notice each other, making eye contact several times. This presumably is an attempt to demonstrate mutual attraction. Later that evening, however, de Jong delivers an invitation to dinner with the Kaiser to Brandt in his private quarters. Brandt orders de Jong to strip, and he rapes her (although physical violence is not used or attempted). This scene clearly establishes the master-slave hierarchy. Soldiers by virtue of their status and rank, could take advantage of the subservient role of women.

Yet, just a few nights later, de Jong enters his room again and voluntarily has sex with Brandt after discovering he was wounded on the Eastern Front. If this were a ploy to extract information from Brandt, this turn of events and de Jong’s actions would be plausible. But just days later they are in what appears to be a mutually satisfying romantic relationship. While Brandt’s shift from lustful physical satisfaction to romantic interest is plausible—in the first case it was “just sex”—de Jong’s attitude as the rape victim would be much more difficult. Yet the film does very little to address how the character overcomes the indignity and humiliation of her rape other than a flimsy apology by Brandt after he has developed personal feelings for her.

The Exception is a film that harkens back to the naive innocence of the romance-dramas of the post-World War II era. Despite this inconsistency, the romance mixed with international intrigue creates enough tension and conflict to keep audiences entertained throughout the movie despite the unimaginative plot.

The Exception scored a 7.9 (out of 10) on my rubric, earning a C+.

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