Tag Archives: film making

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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Five not so obvious things to love about the movie Wonder Woman

I am not a comic book or superhero fan, preferring more down-to-Earth characters facing situations that are more real world than fantasy. Yet, Wonder Woman is an excellent movie, one of my favorites so far in 2017 (see my movie review here).

For many, the strong female character is a big benefit, and I agree. As a novelist who features strong female characters in all my books, I found Wonder Woman’s emphasis on a strong, multidimensional character gratifying and long overdue. I attribute this to the directorial prowess of Patty Jenkins as well as the charisma and strength of Israeli actress Gal Gadot in the title role.

But Wonder Women distinguishes itself on several other dimensions as well. Here are five not-so-obvious elements to love about the film.

  1. Diana is a woman that kicks butt. And I mean a woman. She is not a woman dressed up as a man, competing with men on their terms. Perhaps the backstory of a race of Amazon women helps, but the writers have written her in as a strong female character. Her worldview is gendered female, albeit amazons are a warrior race. Wonder Woman, however, doesn’t rely on strength to defeat her enemies—a typically male response. Rather, she uses her tools, whether the “Lasso of Truth,” impermeable bracelets, or her shield. This is a refreshing acknowledgement of real differences between men and women, yet the story does not drive home a sense of superiority of one gender over the other. Rather, as a multidimensional woman, Diana brings a different perspective. She also brings a level of compassion to her warrior mission that adds layers and sophistication. (Some may argue that the compassionate element of her personality reflects a gender stereotype. I believe in fact it shows a human dimension that is not unique to either gender but manifests itself in different ways based on Diana’s background as an Amazon.)
  2. Combat choreography. The hand-to-hand combat sequences show a physical and emotional level of skill that is rare among actors and an attention to detail and fluidity unusual for Western filmmakers. As someone who studies martial arts (To-Shin Do ninjutsu), I appreciated the attention given to these details because it adds an authenticity to the actions of the characters and the plot. The interpersonal combat sequences reflect real combat techniques that can plausibly create the physical effects they intend to project (although, as in all action films, they are exaggerated for the camera and enhanced with special effects). Gal Gadot’s two years of military service as a combat trainer in the Israeli army no doubt adds to this authenticity. She know how to throw a punch and kick, the camera does a great job of capturing these maneuvers, and the director has used special effects such as slow motion to emphasize them as an integrated part of the action.
  3. The special effects are scaled. I still remembered being bored as I watched one of the Superman films as New York City (or was it Tokyo…or Chicago…or….?) was being decimated for no apparent reason other than to “wow” audiences with special effects. The effects did not move the story forward in any meaningful way—they were just showing a good guy and a bad guy throwing punches to see who would persevere and be left standing at the end. Jenkins, however, has scaled the effects in Wonder Woman to reflect the place and context of the scene and character. While we see and experience wild explosions and other fantastical elements, they don’t overwhelm the story or the characters.
  4. Seamless blending of an international cast. Gal Gadot is Israeli, Connie Inge-Lise Nielsen (Queen Hippolyta) is Danish, Elena Anaya (Isabella Maru) is Spanish, Chris Pine (Steve Trevor) is American, Robin Wright (General Antiope) is American, and David Thewlis (Ares) is British, and they all have accents. They also come from different cultures with different nuances about how to relate and interact with the different people as groups and individuals. Cultural unfamiliarity can often interfere with creating on-screen chemistry as the acting becomes wooden, formal, and less personal. The interpersonal connection is crucial to create believable relationships. The blend works in Wonder Woman, unlike other films (e.g., most recently Kong: Skull Island and the Great Wall). The director embraced their differences, and didn’t force a familiarity that might have been difficult to orchestrate. The screenplay artfully creates interplay among characters that embraces the differences and uses human to emphasize contrasts in perspective or cultural norms that further the development of the characters and story. (For example, one of many humorous scenes in Wonder Woman involves Diana walking in on Captain Steve Trevor as his is bathing naked.)
  5. A woman directed the big budget, superhero action film. Okay, this is obvious. But the significance of the trust the studios put in Patty Jenkins, and her ability to deliver a high quality superhero action film, should not be underestimated. This is a threshold event, probably more significant that Kathryn Bigelow’s success with war/thriller The Hurt Locker in 2008. Bigelow was the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director and the film won for best picture. I would not be surprised if Wonder Woman is nominated for Best Picture and Jenkins is nominated for Best Director. While the film is likely not strong enough to win Best Picture, Jenkins’ directing may well make her a favorite for Best Director.

Unfortunately, Wonder Woman is marred by a few significant plot holes and inconsistencies early on the film. But those will be the subject of another blog post. In the meantime, Wonder Woman is an excellent, engaging, and sophisticated action film that deserves in commercial success as the box office and the acclaim it has received from critics.

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What “The Equalizer” film told me about character development

I often gauge a movie’s value by whether it stimulates my thinking as a writer and storyteller.  The Equalizer, the action film starring Denzel Washington, provided a welcome and unexpected opportunity to explore this. I’m a fan of the action/adventure genre anyway–all four of my novels fall into this genre, most recently St. Nic, Inc.–but I’ve become somewhat jaded by recent superhero (e.g., Superman, Wolverine, Lucy), super monster (e.g., Godzilla), and martial-arts action films (e.g., Ninja Assassin, 47 Ronin), that showcase special effects and gore over storytelling and character development. This is not the case with “The Equalizer.” Indeed, I saw just the opposite on the silver screen.

This movie, unlike other blockbusters, folds character development into the plot and at least tries to strike a balance between the two. (This is good because the plot–hero avenges injustice–is a bit tired.) But, for me, this film stood out for three reasons:

  1. The production values were very high. Sweeping vistas of Boston (one of my favorite cities), artistic camera work focused on characters and action, and the attention to the human aesthetic of the plot were top notch. This wasn’t all computer animated action. Time was spent to frame shots creatively and in ways that help tell the story. In fact, the opening sequence of shots itself does a fine job of providing important initial backstory to the lead character as an unassuming loner.
  2. Denzel Washington. Need I say more? Well, yes. A lesser actor would have made the lead character–Robert McCall–two dimensional and predictable. Even though we know how the movie will end, the character evolves at key points, and empathy is established early. Given the graphic gore level in the film, this is critical for keeping a good story flowing; we (as viewers) cannot be overwhelmed with the blood and mayhem or we lose site of the story.
  3. The producers and director. They didn’t let the genre or familiar cinematic tropes swamp character development and story structure to create suspense. They also made sure they didn’t waste the talents of Mr. Washington. While I still believe the gore was a bit too much, the bloody mayhem is important to understand McCall’s evolution as a character and how, in the end, he retains his humanity. The deaths of the bad guys have meaning, even if the gore seems gratuitous as times. We see how McCall’s own past changes the way he relates to the people he must eventually dispatch in pursuit of a higher good. This isn’t just a revenge flick, a familiar trope for these types of movies.

At the end of the movie, I found myself wanting to go back to Boston, one of my favorite cities, despite the blood and mayhem.

In the end, the producers and director recognized how the visually oriented medium of film could be used to convey character development. Audiences are brought into the story through character and then the plot is paced well enough to keep us involved.

Thus, “The Equalizer” is a rare example of a film that allowed me to think about my own approach to interweaving character development with plot can enrich the story and keep the pace moving quickly.

I think I see a new, distinctly American franchise in the future. We need a working class hero, with working class methods, a haunting and exotic past, and the maturity of someone who has seen and reflected on the world. Now, if Denzel just used more Akido, Judo and ninjutsu (or To-Shin Do), we’d also see why age isn’t as important in neutralizing threats as many people may think.

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