The Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts – 2017(2/18/2018)

Last year, for the first time, I went to see a screening of the five live action films nominated for the Academy Award that year.  A company called ShortsTV (formerly known as ShortsHD) has been putting these shorts into theaters every year for a while but that was the first time I went and I thought it was a moderately rewarding experience.  I don’t know that I want to make it an annual tradition but clearly I found it worthwhile enough to come again this year.  This roster of shorts was in many ways different from last year’s.  For one thing these shorts are a bit shorter, with all but one being around twenty minutes long where last year most were pushing the thirty minute mark.  These films also hued closer to the Anglosphere with four of the five nominated films being in English compared to last year’s set where all five of the films were from continental Europe.  Those films also often tended to be made by older filmmakers whereas three of the nominees this year appear to have started out as student films which rose above what is normally expected from such films.

Please note that when talking about movies with running times like this even talking about small plot points can be bigger spoilers than they would be when talking about longer works, so if you’re interested in actually watching these maybe be careful about reading.

 

DeKalb Elementary

The first documentary in ShortsTV’s presentation is something of a topical standout as it deals with the issue of school shootings.  Inspired by an actual incident which happened in Atlanta (at a school called McNair Discovery Academy) the film shows a man with clear mental health issues walk into a school office and pull out an assault rifle.  From there we get a tense standoff as the man doesn’t simply proceed to open fire and the secretary begins to try talking him down.  Actress Tarra Riggs does a great job of bringing this secretary to life and making her sensitive courage believable and Bo Mitchell is also decent as the disturbed young man causing all the trouble.  The film was directed by a guy named Reed Van Dyke as his final thesis film while getting his MFA in film directing from UCLA and it does a good job of showing his skill at building tension and in painting portraits of characters with minimal exposition.  I’m not sure the film really has all that much to say about the topic of school shootings as this incident was not terribly representative of most active shooters (most of whom are not going to be made to stop with any amount of love and understanding) but it does remain a pretty solid portrait of a small act of heroism and is also notably the only of the four non-comedic shorts here that doesn’t bog itself down in title cards at the end.

My Grade: B+

Its Oscar Chances: It’s most likely the frontrunner.  The film’s humanism combined with its tense nature will jump out to most voters immediately.  If it has any weakness it’s that it basically takes place in real time and doesn’t need to contend with the challenges of its short format the way some of the other films do.  That said, the fact that the Parkland shooting in Florida is in the news leading up to the voting period can only help this

 

The Silent Child

The second film on this docket is a film from the UK called The Silent Child focuses on issues of deafness and disability.  The film was not directed by a film student but buy a guy named Chris Overton, who appears to primarily be an actor rather than a director and has worked primarily in British television, and it was written by a woman named Rachel Shenton who was inspired to write it by the life of her deaf father.  The film looks at a teacher for the deaf who is hired to tutor a young deaf child before she goes to school, but it quickly becomes clear that her parents are not going to be overly amenable to some of these lessons.  This is the only of the five shorts here that is set over the course of months rather than days or minutes, and probably tells the most complete story of all of them.  In terms of pure storytelling I’d say that it’s the best one here but it does suffer a bit from being a bit didactic.  The family holding their deaf daughter back here can’t simply be slow to understand what’s best for their daughter, they also need to be yuppie assholes who cheat on each other and actively neglect their child and the teacher can’t simply be someone who understands these issues but must also be a saint-like tutor who seems to straight-up love this kid more than her parents.  Twenty minutes isn’t a long time but it is enough time to draw lines a little more realistically than that and the PSA like text that fills the screen at the end doesn’t help matters.

My Grade: B-

Its Oscar Chances: Were it not for DeKalb Elementary I’d probably say this had the best shot.  There’s kind of a history of movies about kids doing well in this category and the way it builds empathy is clearly impressive.  Voters looking for something a little bit lighter but not too light would probably go for this one.

 

My Nephew Emmett

The one short this year that I’d really call a big of a misfire is this one, which recreates the last day in the life of Emmett Till from the perspective of his uncle Mose Wright.  This short, directed by NYU grad Kevin Wilson Jr, in some ways falls into the same trap as Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit in that it seems content to simply show an unfortunate incident in America’s racial history, more or less without comment beyond trying to put you in the middle of the victim’s terror.  Bigelow’s movie, however, was at least bringing attention to a moment that has been rather under-reported while this one is simply recounting a story that pretty much any remotely well educated person should be fairly familiar with.  The decision to tell the story from the uncle’s perspective, while useful in some ways, doesn’t exactly shine a particularly new light on the story either and we don’t get to know much about him outside of a surface level overview.  That said the kidnapping scene is really tense and disturbing and in some ways that does give the exercise some value.

My Grade: C-

Its Oscar Chances: Probably low.  The film did win a Student Academy Award, which would seem to be a good sign, but DeKalb Elementary pretty clearly beats it as its own game of “suspenseful recreation of real events” and there are also plenty of other choices for those looking to reward movies about marginalized people.

 

The Eleven O’Clock

The fourth film here is in some ways the odd one out, firstly because it’s the only comedy here and secondly because it’s the shortest of the shorts, coming in at just 13 minutes.  The film was made by an Australian named Derin Seale, who is the son of the legendary cinematographer Jon Seale (of Mad Max: Fury Road fame).  This connection led him to get second unit work on Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain but he hardly has any other credits at all on IMDB so I’m guessing a lot of his work has been in the field of commercials or music videos.  This short looks at a two guys who are both claiming to be a psychiatrist who believes the other is a patient has a delusional belief that he’s the psychiatrist (this confusion is aided by the normal receptionist being gone that day) and a lot of “who’s on first” style confusion entails.   The big weakness of this is that, at the end of the day, it feels less like a film and more like a segment from a sketch comedy show.  In fact the basic concept appears to have been lifted from a 90s British sketch show called “A Bit of Fry and Laurie” but this version is sped up a lot and generally done with a bigger budget and has more going on.  It’s hard to dislike this short but it’s also hard to really get excited about it after its done.

My Grade: B

Its Oscar Chances:  Low.  The film did win at the Australian Academy Awards (AACTA), but I’m not sure how much competition it had there.  It’s always possible that the simple fact that this is an orange in a basket of apples will appear to a certain voter block but otherwise I’m not seeing a whole lot of reasons to vote for it.  The people dedicated enough to look into the short categories on their Oscar ballots seem like they’d be the types to take themselves a little more seriously than this.

 

Watu Wote (All of Us)

The final film in this program is the only of the five not in English and while it was made by German film students from the Hamburg Media School it set on the Kenya/Somali border and is in the Swahili and Somalian languages.  This border is apparently a very tense location with a great deal of conflict because of terrorist attacks by Al-Shabaab on Christian Kenyans and resulting animosity directed back on innocent Muslims by Christians as a result.  Specifically the film focuses on a Christian woman as she takes a bus trip through dangerous territory and clearly has a lot of hostility towards the Muslims on the bus.  It doesn’t take a lot of predictive powers to guess what happens to this bus, especially after the buses police escort fails to show up, and it also isn’t hard to guess what lesson this Christian woman will learn over the course of this experience.  The film’s rather banal moral that we all bleed when pricked is what holds the film back, but on the positive side it probably best production values of the five films here and an attack set-piece late in the film is one of the best moments of pure cinema across the five films.

My Grade: B

Its Oscar Chances: Not great.  I guess this could be seen as a dark horse of sorts given its clear production value and relevance to modern times, but this just isn’t the most memorable short here and it’s also likely that the voters are going to be more interested in supporting home grown talent.

 

Final Thoughts

All in all I think this roster of shorts is probably a little weaker than last year’s although it’s not a dramatic drop-off.  DeKalb Elementary is clearly the standout although it didn’t necessarily overwhelm me with greatness, although it might have stood out to me more if it had played last instead of first.  I’m still pretty inexperienced when it comes to modern short films in general so I’m really not sure how representative these are of short films in general or if there’s better work out there but so far after two years of watching Oscar nominated live action shorts I’m getting the impression that they tend to sit in this kind of B/B- range.

Advertisements

The Post(1/15/2018)

It used to be that Steven Spielberg was pretty much exclusively “the blockbuster guy” and when he made a relatively small movie (emphasis on “relatively”) like The Color Purple or Empire of the Sun that was considered to be something of a novelty.  For the first thirty years of his career that was pretty much the case and he’s make one “movie for grownups” for every three crowd pleasing blockbusters.  But then something seemed to change about ten years ago.  He was still making blockbusters, or at least attempted blockbusters, but somewhere along the way the “small” movies started to become more successful than the big ones.  In fact it could be argued that, if you count Lincoln and Munich in with the “small” Spielberg movies, he actually hasn’t made a well-liked and fondly remembered blockbuster since 2005’s War of the Worlds.  That isn’t to say he’s fallen on his face when he has tried to work on a bigger canvas: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull certainly made money even if it was only through name recognition, The Adventures of Tintin has its fans even though there’s a good chance you forgot it existed until I just mentioned it, and War Horse was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar despite seemingly no one caring about it.  Then last year he made a truly dismal attempt at speaking to the youth of America with The BFG, an oddity which to me is plainly the worst movie he’s ever made and which was rightfully ignored at the box office.  Meanwhile his smaller movies like Bridge of Spies and the aforementioned Lincoln were quietly triumphant little movies than one could hardly level a single complaint towards despite not necessarily setting the world on fire.  His latest film, The Post certainly seems to be sitting in that category and sure enough it seems a lot more on target than his attempts at popcorn cinema.

The Post tells the story of the release of the Pentagon Papers from the very specific perspective of the Washington Post newsroom.  After a short prolog where we witness Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) becoming increasingly disillusioned with American progress in Vietnam before deciding to break into the RAND corporation’s locked files and making photocopies of Robert McNamara’s controversial secret study of the war. From there we cut to Washington where Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), the heir to the Washington Post Company, is planning to take the newspaper public in order to give it a more prominent place in American news culture.  That is of course informed by the way the Post is something of a second fiddle publication compared to The New York Times and their competitiveness with that esteemed “paper of record” increases when it’s learned that they’ve obtained Ellsberg’s leaked documents and are beginning to publish them.  Editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) sends his people out to compete, including Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) who manages to track Ellsberg down and obtain a copy of the Pentagon Papers, but when the courts rule against the Times the prospect of publishing their own stories based on the papers launches a lot of existential questions for everyone at the paper about what duty the press has to stand up to government that’s attempting to cover up its own mistakes.

The main talking point about The Post is how topical it is.  The screenplay was most likely written with connections to Edward Snowden in mind but it was purchased by Sony in the October of 2016 and production didn’t start on it until late May of 2017 after some re-writes in the ten preceding weeks.  As such this is in many ways the first truly post-Trump film to be made by a major filmmaker and everyone involved clearly knew this and leaned into it while still keeping things pretty strictly allegorical.  Specifically the film seems to be a rebuke of Donald Trump’s insistence on discarding any criticism against him as “fake news” and his rather Nixonian interest in obstructing the investigations into his dealings through firing people.  These connections to today are real and they’re probably intentional, but given the anger that the Trump presidency has engendered I’m not sure that its stance is going to be strong enough to really impress #TheResistance.  The film also ties into the debates about gender that have been going on through the Meryl Streep character, who is a woman of a fairly pre-Feminist mentality at the film’s beginning who finds her voice and steps up over the course of the film.  Again, that’s a neat little message but compared to the current discourse it isn’t exactly a revolutionary observation.

Ultimately The Post probably works best if you set the modern politics aside and just look at it as a sort of morality thriller.  Throughout the movie the characters are scrambling to both get their hands on the Pentagon Papers and determine what to do with them once they have them.  Spielberg does a pretty solid job of presenting all the parties involved through his all-star cast and explaining their relevance.  And when the characters do start debating the ethics of using the papers and the risks it poses to the paper it does become pretty thrilling and Spielberg does a good job of juggling these weighty discussions with the excitement of the journalists sorting through the papers and putting a story together.  Occasionally these discussions dip into being a bit on the nose, but not too far as to be a huge problem.  Really it’s a pretty hard movie to have many major complaints about but it’s also not necessarily something that knocks your socks off. That’s especially true within the high standard set by Steven Spielberg’s body of work.  Even when compared to his recent dramas I certainly wasn’t as impressed by it as I was with Lincoln and I’m not sure I’d even say I liked it as much as Bridge of Spies, which increasingly stands out as a pretty strong piece of work despite having the same “good but not novel” problem that The Post suffers from… but then again maybe this is only unexciting because Spielberg makes it look too easy.  I wouldn’t dissuade anyone who’s interested in this movie from seeing it, it delivers what it promises quite well, but I will say that there are other movies out right now that aim higher.

Phantom Thread(1/13/2018)

Paul Thomas Anderson is in an elite group of directors right now, the league of directors whose every movie seems like it will be a potential classic long before we’ve so much as seen a trailer for it.  The qualifications for this tier of excellence are nebulous, almost based more on mystique than anything.  It isn’t necessarily a matter of having a perfect track record, Anderson himself is actually coming off of something of a failure given that his last movie Inherent Vice proved to be more of a curiosity than a classic.  It also doesn’t necessarily have to do with the quantity of great movies you have to your name.  The Coen Brothers, for instance, have made more than enough amazing cinema to seemingly be in this club and yet I doubt even the most optimistic of Coen brothers fans to have been expecting Hail Caesar to have been any sort of classic for the ages.  Really being in this tier is mostly a matter of seeming like the kind of filmmaker who does not mess around, someone who seems like he is swinging for the fences every time and who also has the stats to back up such cockiness.  Mike Leigh, for example, has hardly made a single bad movie and yet I wouldn’t necessarily put him in this company for the simple fact that his movies are sneaky in their quality and aren’t necessarily the kinds of things you anticipate months ahead of time despite his track record.  Scorsese is probably in this club, so is Tarantino, Malick was in the club before his quality control went out the window with his last couple of projects, Christopher Nolan is probably in this club despite sort of operating in more of a populist lane than some of these guys, Alfonso Cuaron probably would be in the club if he worked a bit more often.  Of course being in this club has its downsides as it can create some very specific expectations that not every movie is designed to live up to and there are certainly high expectations for the newest Paul Thomas Anderson film Phantom Thread.

The film focuses in on Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a world renowned dressmaker in London’s haute couture scene during the 1950s.  The House of Woodcock is already at the height of its success as the film begins but Woodcock is aimless in his personal life and has just let an assistant go and is soon on the prowl for a new muse.  Eventually he finds himself in a country diner and spots a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) and seems immediately smitten, but it’s not exactly clear what he wants from her.  Soon she’s in his employ as a personal assistant and as a model for his dresses, but she’s also living in his house and is soon acting as his lover and muse.  From here the movie largely becomes a mystery of sorts as to what exactly this mysterious man wants from Alma.  This guy is a fashion designer and at one point uses the phrase “confirmed bachelor,” so the possibility that he may be a closeted homosexual is certainly going to be in the back of most audience members’ minds but the truth of what makes this guy tick is a lot more complicated than that.

The filmic reference point for Phantom Thread seems to be, of all things, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film Rebecca.  That movie is generally not considered one of Hitchcock’s major efforts, in part because the Daphne du Maurier novel it’s based on is a bit higher brow than his usual fare and that sometimes overpowers his interest in suspense.  At its heart Rebecca is something of a mystery, but it’s not a mystery about “whodunit” but more of a mystery as to what the intentions of its male lead’s intentions are.  Like Rebecca this is a movie about a young woman of modest origins who suddenly finds herself courted by a much older and richer man who is sort of mysterious and aloof and it’s not clear if this is a true romance or if this is merely an older man trying to control and possess a younger woman.  There are also shades of Mrs. Danvers in Leslie Manville’s role of Woodcock’s sister Cyril, who acts as something of a business partner and at times seems to have a bit more of an objective eye on Alma.  There are, however clear differences between the two movies and the comparison between the two only really goes so far.  Unlike the narrator in Rebecca Alma is never really seems to be living as much in the shadow of a former lover.  There’s an element of mourning in Woodcock’s life but it isn’t as pervasive.  The big twist from Rebecca also isn’t really here at all and the second half of the movie isn’t really all that analogous to Rebecca at all, so this is less an adaptation and more of a jumping off point that Anderson seems to have used to conceive of the movie.

That this movie stars Daniel Day-Lewis is of course itself an event, like Anderson he is someone who does not mess around.  Day-Lewis’ work here is a bit more subdued than what we’ve come to expect from him recently as he is not doing a major physical transformation like he is in a movie like Lincoln and he isn’t going into the kind of grand theatrics we saw him doing in There Will Be Blood and Gangs of New York.  Instead here he’s characterized by a generally gentle demeanor that often belies his more ruthless actions and his generally controlling personality.  In some ways it almost feels like he’s holding himself back to leave some room for his co-stars, especially Vicky Krieps who is something of a revelation here.  Krieps has been seen in small roles in movies like Hanna and A Most Wanted Man and has apparently starred in a variety of not overly notable European films but this is clearly her most prominent performance to date and she manages to be effectively mysterious throughout.

Throughout awards season I’ve been a little confused as to why Phantom Thread seems to get so many awards despite receiving such positive reviews.  Now that I’ve seen it I kind of get what was going on.  Phantom Thread is a movie that demands respect but repels simple acceptance.  It’s a movie about the lives of two really messed up people and it’s not always easy to relate to either of them or really get a grip on their behavior.  This is very much a film for the arthouse crowd and for people willing to take a deep dive into the weird dynamics of this strange relationship.  There is certainly some interest in the procedural elements of watching this fashion house work but outside of that I don’t think this will have much appeal for the mainstream viewer.  Even for the arthouse crowd the film may seem elusive.  It’s a movie that intrigues you and leaves you looking for answers to questions the movie never really even asks.   Honestly, I think I’m going to need to see this thing a few more times before I’m really going to be in a position to talk about it intelligently, but I certainly liked what I saw.

I, Tonya(1/7/2018)

I am old enough that I remember the O.J. Simpson controversy.  I don’t remember it very well as I was only about seven when the verdict was handed down and was mostly oblivious to its details and its social context, but it was something I knew was going on at the time.  I am not, however, old enough to remember the other scandal du jour of the early 90s: the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan kneecap clubbing affair.  In fact I first heard about the whole incident from a Weird Al Yankovic song called “Headline News” which was a parody of The Crash Test Dummies’ “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” that described other tabloidy 90s news stories like that kid who got his butt caned in Singapore and that lady who cut off her husband’s wiener.   You’ll note that there was not a word about O.J. in that song, in part because that story involved a double-murder, but also because that delved into some pretty serious aspects of American society which wouldn’t make it terribly suitable for a song parody (dancing Itos notwithstanding).  The Tonya Harding case on the other hand was basically a joke from the beginning and was viewed by the public as little more than a cat fight writ large.  However, like the O.J. story this is being revisited recently in a number of documentaries and articles to see if there was actually something to be mined from it now that the dust has settled and we have some perspective and the latest manifestation of that is the new feature film I, Tonya.

I, Tonya begins with a title card saying that it’s based on “irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews” from it subjects.  The main subject is of course Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), who the film follows basically from her first professional skating lesson at the age of four up through the duration of the scandal that would define her.  Throughout her youth she is being driven to succeed by her mother LaVona Fay Golden (Allison Janney), who paid for Harding’s lessons out of her modest waitress salary and supports her as she rose to the top of her sport.  That would be an incredibly inspiring story if not for the fact that LaVona is otherwise a horrible mother who constantly abuses Tonya verbally and sometimes physically.  As a teenager Harding is frustrated both by her mother’s craziness and the snobbery that’s preventing her from getting good scores at tournaments and this drives her into the arms of Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who provides something of an escape for her despite also being physically abusive and just generally a loser.  She ends up coming in fourth place at the 1992 Olympics and thinks her career is over until she learns that because of a re-allignment the next winter Olympics will be held just two years later.  She believes she’s primed for a comeback… one that will soon be sabotaged by her scheming husband and his nutty friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser).

I, Tonya takes the form of a dark comedy and is structured by a series of faux “to the camera” interviews with the various characters which often become voice-over and the on-screen characters also occasionally break the fourth wall and talk to the screen.  A lot of this structure is reminiscent of The Big Short or perhaps even 24 Hour Party People, especially when we get to scenes the characters stop, look at the camera, and says something like “it didn’t happen like this” during scenes where the testimonies of the various principals contradict each other.  But the movie that this most clearly wants to be like is David O. Russell’s American Hustle.  That movie, and other recent movies from Russell, deal with lower class families like Harding’s and have a similar pace and patter to them.  The film certainly paints the “incident” at the center of the film as a hustle gone wrong more than anything and there’s a largeness to all the performances here that certainly matches what we saw from Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, and Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle.  In fact I’d say it’s trying so hard to be like that movie and Goodfellas that it has an extensive soundtrack which mostly features music from the 70s even though the film is mostly set in the 90s, including certain songs that have become clichés of “70s soundtracks” like “Spirit in the Sky” and “The Chain,” which were both prominently featured in Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

Derivative as the film may be it would be something of a lie to suggest that these techniques that the movie rips off don’t still more or less work.  As a comedy the movie does more or less function effectively with all the film’s colorful characters saying a lot of rather ridiculous things to one another and the film frequently cutting to them in interview form contradicting each other and commenting on certain things and occasionally even breaking the fourth wall.  That the film functions as well as it does as a comedy is surprising given that it covers some rather dark material, namely the domestic violence that occurred between Gillooly and Harding, which could easily come across as rather flippant.  The film has also been criticized for not being overly concerned with what Nancy Kerrigan went through in all of this, which seems a bit unfair as the movie is simply focusing on the more entertaining figures in all of this.  What’s more I’m not sure that the movie is as sympathetic towards Harding as people are making it out to be.  The movie certainly isn’t on Harding’s side when she makes goofy excuses or says wildly un-self-aware things like when she accuses Kerrigan of being the real bad sport in all of this.

There are a lot of movies that I respect more than I like.  They’re movies that I can clearly see doing new and interesting things but which I just don’t really enjoy watching.  This is the opposite of that, it’s a movie I like but don’t really respect.  Its director Craig Gillespie is a guy who can deliver professionally made movies like the Fright Night remake, but he’s clearly not an auteur with a vision and here you can tell that he’s just borrowing from other contemporaries and applying those techniques to a movie that’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is.  I don’t think it has a terribly clear message to deliver about wealth inequality, domestic violence, or tabloid culture but it sure wants you to think it does.  It does hit those funny notes when it needs to, it does move along at an impressive pace, it’s greatly elevated by its cast, and even when you’re cringing at how un-clever “Barracuda” is as a song choice you still sort of jam to it.  Winter is a time when movies like this get held to a slightly higher standard as we try to parse out which movies are deserve to have their legacies built immediately by awards, and with that in mind I feel the need to knock this thing down a couple of pegs, but it’s also a movie I suspect most moviegoers looking for a good time at a theater shouldn’t be dissuaded from.

Molly’s Game(1/6/2018)

As with most vices I’ve spent most of my life avoiding gambling as an activity in all its forms.  I don’t go to casinos, I don’t bet on sports, and I don’t even play the lottery.  That having been said in the last couple of years I’ve developed a fascination with the game of Texas Hold ‘Em poker.  I never play it mind you, not for money anyway, but I watch a number of Youtube channels about the game and when high profile tournaments are televised or are being live streamed I try to check them out.  This does not make watching movies that have poker scenes in them all that much easier because poker scenes in movies are often kind of ridiculous.  Most poker hands involve one dude with a pair and one dude with an ace high and end with one or the other folding because the other shows the slightest bit of aggression.  The poker scenes in Casino Royale are basically science fiction scenarios with ridiculously large hands showing up on the regular, but then the movies that actually seem to take the game seriously end up being these mediocrities like Rounders and Lucky You.  But my eyebrow still pops up a little when a movie involving poker pops up and I was particularly curious when I heard about the film Molly’s Game, which was going to tell one of the more famous stories in the world of poker and would be the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin to boot.

The film looks at the true events surrounding a woman named Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) who achieves fortune and infamy running underground poker games that were attended by movies stars, athletes, millionaires, and billionaires.  As the film begins Bloom, who has quit running poker games and wrote a book about her experiences, is being arrested as part of a wider crackdown on the Russian mafia under the belief that her games were part of a money laundering scheme, forcing her to seek out a high paid attorney named Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba).  From there we flash back to her childhood, where she was pressured to be an over-achiever by her father Larry (Kevin Costner) and became a highly successful skier before having that career cut short by an injury.  We then watch as she moves to L.A. and finds herself working as an assistant for an asshole Hollywood producer, and part of that job is to help organize his weekly high stakes poker night in the basement of The Viper Room which is attended by a number of big name directors and actors including one the movie calls Player X (Michael Cera) who is by all accounts based on Tobey Maguire.  Eventually things sour with the producer and rather than let him run things she simply starts up her own card game and poaches all his players.

One of the strengths of Molly’s Game is that it manages to not feel like a ripoff of Goodfellas despite basically having all the elements of one.  This is after all a movie telling the true story of the rise and fall of a crime empire of sorts through a briskly edited romp with voice over narration from the person at the center of it all.  Part of why this feels different might be the absence of anyone getting wacked and part of it might be its flashback structure or the lack of classic rock over the montages.  Really though I think it just comes down to the fact that it’s a movie that doesn’t exude machismo.  Unlike Martin Scorsese Aaron Sorkin does not come from “the streets” and he’s also a grown-up who isn’t terribly interested in seeming like a tough guy the way that most of the young filmmakers who are prone to ripping off Goodfellas are.  Also, perhaps more obviously, the person at the center of this movie is a woman and not one who’s trying to be an heir to Scarface.  Where most gangsters build their empires on being “respected” (I.E. feared), she built hers essentially on social skills, organization, and psychology.

Molly herself is pretty impressive as a person despite her flaws, and Jessica Chastain brings her to life with some clear star power.  This is also of course a film by Aaron Sorkin and you can certainly tell he wrote it though there a bit more restraint then there could have been.  The theory among critics is that Sorkin works best when his screenplays were interpreted by directors with somewhat icy directorial styles like David Fincher and Bennet Miller to dilute out some of his cornier ideas, but he seems to do a pretty good job of holding himself back while directing this one.  That said, he’s still clearly not a master filmmaker behind the camera.  There are certainly moments that are more visually ambitious than what he normally does with his television work but none of them really blew me away in their execution and the overall style here doesn’t really rise much above the level of “average.”  There also doesn’t ultimately seem to be much of a point to all this beyond the fact that it’s an interesting true story.  The things that make Molly tick ultimately aren’t all that deep or complicated, though that doesn’t stop them from outlining all of them via pop psychology in one rather on the nose scene towards the end, and the movie is also occasionally a bit too in love with her for her own good.  Her ultimate claim to sympathy is that she’s very intent to keep all the dirty secrets of the famous people at her games… which maybe explains why it’s as well liked as it is at industry awards shows in 2017… and that she isn’t a murderer.  At certain points it’s argued that it’s an injustice that Molly being prosecuted when white collar criminals who’ve done worse are often not prosecuted as vigorously, which is true, but there are also poor black kids who’ve done even less and get prosecuted even more vigorously so Molly’s position as an underdog in the legal system seems a bit dubious.

Ultimately, Molly’s Game is merely a good movie and that’s okay.  It used to be that dramas like this had a lot less pressure on them.  Hollywood would put them out regularly and they could serve as solid populist entertainment, but these days movies like this are immediately vetted to see if they’re Oscar-worthy and if they aren’t they get pushed aside.  I wouldn’t consider this movie to be high art but there’s certainly plenty of good in it.  Should you see this in place of all the other great movies that are out in theaters right now?  Probably not.  But if you’ve seen all of those or you’re in the mood for something lighter and this sounds interesting give it a watch.  And if you miss this in theaters, go ahead and give it a rental or catch it on HBO because it’s definitely the kind of movie that makes for a good casual viewing.

Call Me By Your Name(12/22/2017)

Do you need to relate to a coming of age movie to like it?  That would depend on your definition of the word “need.”  There are obviously ways to enjoy movies about the childhoods of characters who live lives pretty far removed from one’s own.  The ultimate coming of age movie is probably Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows which is based on Trufaut’s own experiences growing up in 1940s Paris, a milieu that would seem to be pretty different from where most modern American viewers would have grown up, and yet that hardly seems to matter because Antoine Doinel is such a well-drawn character and his ennui largely seems removed from his surroundings and on some level you can relate to the way that he responds to teachers and parents and the like.  Then there are examples like Federico Fellini’s Amarcord, which is set in a small town in Mussolini’s Italy, but in that case the town is in many ways more the protagonist than the young man at its center and the fact that it’s drawn from such specific memories of its director of this time and place makes it so everything that’s foreign about it simply makes it more interesting.  There are, however times when movies do lose some impact when your personal connection to them is a little more tenuous.  For instance, Terrance Malick’s otherwise immaculately made opus The Tree of Life ultimately never quite impacted me as much as I wanted it to, in part because I never quite connected to the nostalgia of its child protagonist and his rather specific experiences in rural 1950s Texas.  Conversely there’s a very good chance that the experiences I shared with the protagonist of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood really multiplied the enthusiasm I would have had for the film by quite a bit.  I bring this up because the protagonist of the highly acclaimed new film Call Me by Your Name is about as different from me on any level as someone can be and it in many ways puts to the test whether you can connect to audiences in situations like this and how.

The film is set in 1983 in a small town in Northern Italy and focuses on Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), the seventeen year old son in a Jewish American ex-patriot family that is in Italy because of his father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is an esteemed archeologist.  The film begins with the arrival of Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American graduate student who has come to assist the father for the summer and will be staying with him at the villa.  Elio has spent much of the summer reading, practicing his skills at the piano, and chasing after his girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel).  There is, however, something about his relationship with Marzia that leaves Elio unfulfilled and there’s something about this Oliver guy that he finds intruding.

Call Me By Your Name was directed by a guy named Luca Guadagnino, who previously directed a pair of films called I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, which were both movies with fairly different tones but the one thing they had in common was that they were both about rich people living decadent lives in Italy.  A Bigger Splash in particular felt almost like “lifestyle porn” with its British and American expat characters frolicking around on a Mediterranean island while decked in expensive fashions and eating expensive food and seemingly not having a care in the world until someone gets murdered.  Call Me By Your Name does not feel as decadent as that movie did but it’s still very much a movie about rich ex-patriots who live cultured European lives.  Because of this I found the first half of Call Me By Your Name to be a bit slow, in part because it mostly just felt like it was painting a portrait of Elio, who seems like the most privileged 17 year old who ever lived.  This is a dude who is living as a citizen of the world in an idyllic Italian countryside with super chill parents who surround him with culture and who has friends and beautiful girls (who he seems fairly receptive to despite future developments) throwing themselves at him.  His life is one that’s so far removed from my own teenage experiences that simply witness it during its more mundane moments was not really giving me that thrill of recognition I often expect from these kind of movies, which isn’t inherently bad but in the absence of story development I wasn’t terribly interested.

The movie does, however, pick up in a big way once Elio and Oliver stop beating around the bush and commence with their affair.  This development has become controversial in some quarters because of the age difference between the two characters.  On paper Elio is 17 and Oliver is 24, which is kind of questionable to begin with but it’s confounded by the fact that Timothée Chalamet is 22 but quite convincingly looks 17 while Armie Hammer is 31 and looks 31.  The movie does go out of its way to make it clear that the attraction between these two characters is mutual and that Oliver isn’t acting in a particularly predator manner and the movie does still eventually dig a bit into the reasons why a love affair between a high school student and a post-grad might not be an entirely healthy decision for either.  Still, I get why people would be queasy about this relationship but also why people would be open minded about it under these specific circumstances.  Regardless of the morality of the situation I do think Armie Hammer was a bit miscast here in terms of age and also because he never quite fit as this intellectual grad student and he never made it terribly clear to me why his character would be interested in this scrawny pretentious 17 year old.  The movie is primarily from Elio’s point of view so it’s makes sense that his experience of these events would be clearer, but that half of this romance could have been explored a bit more.

I can’t help but compare this movie to the year’s other high profile coming of age movie: Lady Bird.  Unlike this movie, the protagonist of that movie is incredibly relatable for middle class viewers from mid-size American cities.  That movie also feels a lot more clear eyed about how youthful romances tend to play out, which is to say that it views them as misbegotten superficial things that get literally painted over by the end rather than as grand romances to be remembered forever.  On the other hand this movie is hardly oblivious to the fact that the romance at its center is rare and out of the ordinary and the events of the film do feel increasingly meaningful during its last thirty minutes or so.  That’s the other big difference between this and Lady Bird: Gretta Gerwig’s movie feels highly entertaining pretty much from the beginning but never quite seems sure how it wants to end while Call Me By Your Name has a nearly perfect ending but seems to spend an awful lot of time trying to set it up and that made the film’s first half slow and uneventful.  I’m glad I saw the movie in a theater because I suspect I would have lost patience with it and abused the pause button if I was watching it at home.  It’s certainly a well-made film, one that I respect quite a lot, but it’s not necessarily the film for me or at least not the film that’s going to knock my socks off.