Monsters and Men(10/8/2018)/The Hate U Give(10/14/2018)

When Donald Trump somehow won the presidency after waging a horrific race baiting campaign a lot of people came out and said “well this sucks, but at least we’ll get some good music and movies out of it.”  That is of course a stupid thing to say given that real people are going to have to suffer in order for you to get your protest art, but, it isn’t exactly untrue that great art can emerge in response to awful situations.  However, movies don’t get made overnight and it can often take a while for filmmakers to respond to what’s in the news, especially if they’re going to respond intelligently.  It took Hollywood damn near five years to put out an Iraq War movie that was worth a damn and it could take just as long to get good overtly anti-Trump cinema.  In fact right now we’re only just starting to see the wave of movies that were made in response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement that emerged in the wake of a series of police shootings in 2014.  We saw one of these movies a few months ago in Blindspotting, an indie film that is partly about gentrification and friendship but which was also followed a man trying to process having witnessed a police shooting of an unarmed man.  Now we have another pair of movies tackling this subject matter, one a rather restrained independent movie called Monsters and Men and the other a rather forceful studio movie based on a YA novel called The Hate U Give, and given the rather divergent approaches the two movies take to the subject matter I thought they would be worth looking at side by side.

The Hate You Give follows a high school girl named Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) who lives in fictional “urban” neighborhood of Garden Heights but who attends a private school called Williamson Prep and code switches heavily when moving between the two worlds.  One weekend she finds herself at a party in Garden Heights where she reunites with a childhood friend named Khalil (Algee Smith) and he offers to give her a ride home after a fight breaks out at the party.  On their way they’re pulled over by a cop for suspect reasons, then things go bad and Khalil is shot by the officer after reaching for a hairbrush.  Starr then needs to decide whether to testify at the Grand Jury despite pressure from various parties not to while also navigating how she will continue to move between the two worlds she inhabits.

Monsters and Men also begins with a young man who witnesses the police shoot an unarmed man but it doesn’t end with him.  That young man is Puerto Rican guy in his late teens or early twenties named Manny Ortega (Anthony Ramos), who approaches the site of an arrest that seems to be going wrong outside of a convenience store and pulls out a cell phone to film the encounter.  When that arrest ends in an unarmed black man being killed by the police he needs to decide whether he should stick his neck out to release the video.  Soon after that the movie shifts to another character, an African American cop named Dennis Williams (John David Washington) who wasn’t involved in that shooting but does know that the cop who did the shooting has questionable attitudes and is conflicted about whether to tell that to Internal Affairs.  After he comes to his decision the film shifts again, this time to a black teenager with a promising future in baseball named Zyric (Kelvin Harrison) who knew the victim of that shooting and now wants to get involved in activism despite everyone telling him this could get in the way of his sports career.

Monsters and Men’s “triptych” structure is somewhat reminiscent of some of Robert Bresson’s movies that would go from one story to the next, sometimes with a conceptual device, to explore a shared theme.  This perhaps makes sense given that there are often a lot of different perspectives and responses that can come from events like this.  The two characters who are clearly the most comparable to The Hate You Give’s Starr Carter are clearly the first and the third, the witness to the shooting and especially the one driven to activism by the shooting.  Starr is of course more developed than both of the Monsters and Men characters owing to the fact that she has four times as much screen time as either of them and I suppose you could also compare her to the police character from that movie as well given that both are caught between two worlds.

Starr and Ortega face similar if somewhat different pressures to keep quiet about what they witnessed: Ortega deals with a pair of police who approach him on the street and give him a “what you thought you saw isn’t what you saw” kind of speech, which comes with something of a veild threat implied, Starr on the other hand has some fairly legitimate concerns that she would be looked at differently by her prep school peers, on top of that there’s a somewhat contrived threat to her from the local gang leader who is for some reason worried that she’ll testify that the deceased worked as a drug dealer in his gang despite having personally witnessed almost nothing about the operation and having seemingly little of value to offer them on that topic.  It’s also not exactly clear why Starr’s testimony is so important, the main details of the shooting are all there on the dashboard camera, all she can really offer otherwise are details about how cavalierly Khalil was behaving during the shooting, which isn’t necessarily going to help the case.

The police story in Monsters and Men is almost certainly its best, in part because it gives a perspective on these things we don’t normally get, that of the black cop.  John David Washington, who we just saw playing a much different kind of policeman in Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman, plays a guy who definitely isn’t in denial about the fact that African Americans are treated differently by his fellow cops.  The film opens with a tense scene (the only one in the film that fits outside of its one story at a time structure) of him getting pulled over, most likely without cause, while off duty and he later tells his partner that this was the sixth time it had happened to him that year.  You can also tell that the video of the shooting affects him and that he knew that the cop who did the shooting was a “bad apple” to say the least, but he is still a cop, the “blue wall” matters to him and he does have some sympathy for how officers are likely to act under pressure.  There’s a particularly strong scene in this section where he’s seated at a dinner party with his wife and a pair of black friends and when the friends start talking about the cop who did the shooting in a somewhat careless and insensitive manner the “you don’t know shit about what cops deal with” rhetoric suddenly seems to come out in an almost reflexive manner.

There is also a comparable character in The Hate U Give, a police officer played by Common who is actually Starr’s uncle.  He doesn’t play an overly big part in the story but he does have one scene where he sort of plays devil’s advocate and outlines the ways that the ill-fated stop earlier in the film might have given the officer some reason to be scared and that “the world’s complicated.”  It’s not entirely clear whether we’re supposed to think that Starr’s response of “it doesn’t seem very complicated to me” is meant to be a legitimate takedown of what he’s saying or if it’s meant to simply be teenage rage but the subject never comes up again and the movie basically eschews such complications from there on.

The third story in Monsters and Men is probably its weakest. The kid at the center of it is very quiet and a lot of his internal struggles are only communicated through blank stares and I’m not sure the actor is quite able to pull it off.  Starr, by contrast, kind of never stops talking.  The film employs a first person voice-over of the worst kind which narrates pretty much every single thing about her including various things that the audience probably should have been trusted to catch onto.  For example, early on Starr’s voice over feels the need to tell say something along the lines of “when I’m in Williamson I’m a different person than when I’m at home… and I hate myself because of it,” which is something that would otherwise be well communicated to the audience simply by letting them observe her behavior in the two places and connect the dots.  Still, Monsters and Men probably could have given us a little more.  For instance there’s a scene where Zyric is in a locker room and overhears a pair of white kids talking about the news surrounding the shooting and more or less saying that they’d do the same if they were in the cop’s position.  Zyric doesn’t respond to this so much as just kind of give a blank stare for the camera to observe.  In The Hate U Give Starr also has to deal with white kids who quote “blue lives matter” rhetoric in ways that probably more closely resemble the way people talk about these things on Twitter than how they talk about them in high school and Starr responds in rather dramatic fashion and talks in detail about how this makes her feel in voiceover.

The Hate U Give goes too far and Monsters and Men doesn’t go far enough” is sort of a running theme when comparing these two movies if you haven’t already picked up on that.  This even extends to the shooting scenes in the respective films.  The shooting in The Hate U Give will be pretty familiar to anyone who’s been watching the news lately.  It begins with an extended meeting between Starr and Khalil which is pretty much tailor made to make you like him and his friendship with Starr before the two are pulled over by the whitest looking cop you can imagine and Khalil is then pretty much instantly shot after reaching for a hairbrush.  It mostly gets the job done but it’s not exactly the most inventive scene and it is about as prone to be questioned and second guessed as all the real shooting videos with those inclined to do so able to ask if the hairbrush really looked like a gun and if Khalil should have acted the way he did, etc.  Monsters and Men by contrast sidesteps that entirely because it never gives you a clear view of the shooting at all.  Ortega doesn’t see how the encounter begins, if the shooting is onscreen at all it happens super-fast and in the background of the scene and the film also very deliberately never replays the tape even after it’s been released to the public.  I’m not exactly sure why writer/director Reinaldo Marcus Green chose this approach but I’m guessing that he was trying to emphasize that he was making a movie that was more about the ways people of color react to these all of these shootings than about the details of this particular death.

The main difference between the two movies is that Starr is essentially in the world’s most political Disney movie (it’s being released by 20th Century Fox, which isn’t part of the Disney corporation just yet, but you catch my drift) while the stars of Monsters and Men are in a movie for adults that isn’t about to dismiss harsh realities as something that “doesn’t seem very complicated to me.”  Like Starr, Ortega decides to come forward with what he knows but the decision does not work out as well for him and unlike Starr Officer Williams isn’t able to bridge the two worlds he lives in and eventually has to pick a side, and like Starr Zyric finds himself driven to activism but it seems like a much lonelier road for him and it’s heavily implied that he’s putting his dreams of Major League stardom in danger by doing so.  Things for Starr on the other hand do eventually more or less work out for her and she’s rewarded for doing the right thing both by the people around her and by her boost in self-realization and growth.  That ending may or may not be true to life, but even a contrived Hollywood ending like that is an ending and in some ways that preferable to Monsters and Men’s perhaps deliberately frustrating habit of leaving stories just as they start to get interesting and then finally ending abruptly without even the slightest fanfare or unifying strand between the three.  In many ways that movie felt like it needed a fourth story or at least some sort of montage or something that would tie the stories together a little more, instead it just kind of concludes the Zyric story and this time doesn’t move on to another and I don’t think that really worked.

Then again maybe there’s something kind of wise about how Monsters and Men just sort of leaving its characters in a morass of uncertainty about their actions, there’s something truthful about that even if it isn’t necessarily engaging cinema.  The Hate U Give isn’t really interested in such uncertainty, but in some ways that’s what’s going to make it a lot more accessible and will definitely impress a certain audience that will get a lot of enjoyment out of seeing a major motion picture parrot various woke tumbler talking points out loud in direct ways that in my view are frankly kind of corny.  This is a movie that climaxes with its protagonist jumping up on a car in the middle of a soon-to-turn-violent protest and shout something like “this is about Khalil’s life… and it mattered!” to a crowd that suddenly goes silent for her “inspiring” insight.  It’s also a movie that ends with its protagonist stepping in front of a gun in a standoff in order to display her new understanding of Tupac’s “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody (THUG LIFE)” phrase and win over people with love or something.  It’s corny.  But in some ways it’s better at being a corny movie than Monsters and Men is at being an artful movie.  That’s probably why it’s going to make a whole lot of money while Monsters and Men is currently on track to leave theaters without even making a million dollars.  I might not have the same respect for The Hate U Give what Monsters and Men is doing but it comes to life in a way that the other film doesn’t and is probably more successful at hitting its very specific goals.    Blindspotting earlier this year also had its questionable moments but I’d probably take it over both of these, but I certainly hope that there are more #BlackLivesMatter movies to come because I don’t think any of them should be the last word on it.

Monsters and Men: **1/2 out of Five

The Hate U Give: *** out of Five

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Madeline’s Madeline(9/1/2018)

If there’s one thing I don’t tend to spend a lot of time talking about in my reviews, proportionally, it’s probably acting.  This is perhaps something a lot of film aficionados downplay given that the rest of the culture gives so much attention to movie stars and we like to give more attention to all the other elements that go into the making of a film.  Still, acting is a huge part of what goes into the making of a film so it’s worth knowing about, the problem is that the “process” can be pretty malleable and hard to describe.  In theory it’s a skill that can be learned, or at least there are a whole lot of people who claim that they’re able to teach it for a price, but it also seems to be a talent: something you’ve either got or haven’t got.  Historically actors have been trained using a sort of trade that can be learned with a great deal of practice and trial and error, but more recently it’s been taken over by a system created by Konstantin Stanislavski resulting in “the method.”  The Method has been in vogue since at least the 1950s and is today probably most associated with people who take it a bit too far and do crazy stuff on set to stay in character, but often it’s employed in more subtle ways where people tap into their own personal memories in order to evoke emotions.  Of course plunging into your own emotions as part of your job like that feels like something that would be rather fraught, and that is part of the plot of the new independent film Madeline’s Madeline.

The main character of Madeline’s Madeline, Madeline (Helena Howard), is a sixteen year old girl who lives with her mother Regina (Miranda July) in New York and suffers some sort of mental illness which I don’t think is named in the film.  It’s not terribly clear what Madeline’s school life is like (I think the movie is set in the summer) but she’s usually fighting with her mother, both for normal teenager reasons and also because her mother is a bit flighty and isn’t great at communicating with her.  Madeline’s one respite seems to be the theater class/group that she’s attending which is run by a woman named Evangeline (Molly Parker).  This is the kind of acting class where they have you pretend to be bacon frying or have you imitate a cat and they seem to be putting together some sort of experimental performance that seems to shift its focus frequently.  As the film goes along Madeline increasingly becomes the centerpiece of this theater piece and the deeper she’s challenged to probe her inner feelings the more intense her various problems start to seem.

One of the lingering questions I had leaving Madeline’s Madeline was whether or not the people making it were under the impression that the play at the film’s center was ever going to be any good because to my eyes this theater troupe seemed really weird.  The play that they were working on (was there supposed to be an actual play?) does not seem to have had a script and they seemed to be making it up as they went on in rehearsal.  I suppose that Mike Leigh comes up with stories in a similar way, but most of the acting exercises they’re doing seem so abstract and weird that it’s hard to tell what form it would take.  It’s also a bit curious that this isn’t an acting class for teenagers and some of the cast members are fully grown hippies, but that is bit by design as it’s one of the things about this experience that is stressing her out and getting her in a bit over her head.  At its heart this movie is a character study (the fact that the protagonist’s name is in the title twice might have been the first clue) and it seeks to explore how Madeline’s mental illness affects her life and the movie probes to some extent how appropriate it is for an acting instructor to be probing into the mind of a sixteen year old with that kind of background given that this acting coach is not exactly a trained therapist.

Madeline’s Madeline has been labeled an “experimental” film, in part because it is very willing to disorient its audience.  It drops us into the story without explaining the situation right away and it often uses unconventional close-ups and edits in order to sort of reflect the haziness in its protagonists mind.  Helena Howard proves to be quite the discovery in the film and manages to both sensitively portray the character’s mental illness and also does a pretty good job of doing “acting within acting” during the theater troupe scenes.  Of course given that the character is a complete unknown and that she, like the character, is an actress one is pretty much invited to speculate as to how different she is from Madeline and how much art is imitating life as the director in the film tries to put together a story around her.  Looking up interviews and articles about the making of the film suggest that Howard is really not that much like Madeline and certainly doesn’t share her struggles with mental illness and that the making of the film was a much healthier collaboration than the making of the play in the film, but just the same I do think there’s supposed to be a parallel there that the audience is supposed to speculate on.  To some extent I found that interesting, but I was not a fan of the way that the film ends, which could be viewed as an admission that you can’t tell someone’s story if you haven’t walked in their shoes but could also be viewed as a cop out where they never really tried.

*** out of Five

The Miseducation of Cameron Post(8/18/2018)

Sometimes you see movies because the trailer looks promising, but that’s not the reason I went to see The Miseducation of Cameron Post.  In fact I don’t think I ever saw the trailer playing in front of anything at any point.  Sometimes you see a movie because you’re familiar with the director’s work and want to see more, but director Desiree Akhavan has only made one film before and I’d never even heard of it.  Sometimes you see a movie because there are a wave of critical acclaim, and there is some acclaim out there for this movie but it’s not rapturous to the point where critical acclaim alone is going to make me interested.  No, this is actually one of the few times I’ve felt the need to go out and see something because I’m eventually going to have to compare it to another movie.  That movie is called Boy Erased, it’s also a movie about a teenager who’s sent to a gay conversion therapy camp, it’s scheduled to come out later this year, and a lot of people are predicting that it will have a lot of Oscar buzz.   Since both movies have roughly the same subject matter and are coming out the same year they will inevitably be compared to one another and Miseducation of Cameron Post star Chloë Grace Moretz has already thrown some shade at that upcoming movie sight unseen.  So, in order to get ahead of the great debates that will surely ensue and given that there wasn’t anything else out this week I decided I’d give this a shot.

The film is set in the 90s in the Pacific Northwest and focuses on a girl of about seventeen named Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz).  Post’s parents died years earlier and her new guardians are apparently members of an Evangelical community as they’ve sent Post to a camp called God’s Promise after she’s caught having a tryst with another girl.  God’s Promise is a gay conversion therapy center, one of those places that seeks to “pray away the gay” of anyone who’s forced to go there.  Post doesn’t seems to be much of a true believer in this form of Christianity but doesn’t openly rebel against the camp either.  Instead she finds herself hanging out with some of the other offbeat teens in attendance like a biracial girl named Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and a boy of Native American ancestry named Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck).

While we’ve come to learn in recent years that we maybe haven’t made as much progress as we’ve hoped on certain issues than we’ve thought, I do think it’s safe to say that it doesn’t take a whole lot of courage to be against gay conversion therapy in 2018.  These centers are the product of the kookiest of right wing fringes and even super mainstream products like Deadpool 2 can make them into stock villains without too much trouble.  Still one could say it’s just as easy to make fun of Nazis and Klansman and yet there’s still value to be found in looking at how people like that walk among us and to acknowledge the suffering they’ve caused.  That said, The Miseducation of Cameron Post does not necessarily look at these places in an overly heavy handed way and tries to be more of a character study than an “issue movie.”  Cameron Post is clearly someone who’s a bit out of place in a camp like this.  She wears her hair short, listens to The Breeders and 4 Non Blondes, hangs out with the minorities in the camp, and enjoys smoking weed and rebelling behind the counselors backs.  In other words she’s one of the cool kids and that makes her something of a good audience surrogate.

The thing is, Cameron Post’s coolness as a character is something of a double edged sword.  I think the film particularly errored in making Post basically a non-believer in the camp’s religion and a skeptic in their mission.  This makes our main protagonist more or less immune from the worst manipulations of the people at hand. As such, what should be a movie about spiritual and mental torture instead feels like it’s merely a movie where a cool kid is forced to endure time at a really lame summer camp run by nerds.  I’m sure there are some people who experience gay conversion therapy camps in this way but I’m not sure that was necessarily the most interesting way to get to the heart of the issue.  We do get some of the worse aspects of this experience through some of the other campers, albeit in a rather cliché way. For them it’s sort of a Dead Poet’s Society where the teacher is the square and students are better off not learning for him.  But for the Cameron Post character I think they’re trying to make something along the lines of a Cool Hand Luke or an Unbroken where the main character sees past the suppressive prison warden and manages to keep their spirit intact despite the hell they’re put through… except that that hell doesn’t seem very hellish because the bad guys are kind of incompetent at being bad guys, which is interesting in its own way but isn’t terribly conducive to the point they’re trying to make.  I don’t want to come down too hard on the movie as it’s a well-paced movie with some decent performances and has some details here and there that are of interest, but it feels like it actively avoids some of the real dramatic potential of this setting and probably should have been thinking more along the lines of First Reformed for teenagers rather than the movie about mild rebellion against authority that we get.

**1/2 out of Five

Mission: Impossible – Fallout(7/28/2018)

Once a man named Tom Cruise had a dream.  He had a vision that he would produce and star in a series of spy films that would be a rival to and yet in some ways the opposite of the James Bond series.  Where the James Bond films have done everything they could to follow a formula and try to fit within the same template for decades at a time Cruise’s films would take the opposite approach and shake things up dramatically with every installment and in doing so they’d be able to explore every kind of action movie as the years went on.  This plan lasted for about three movies as it went from the Hitchcockian thrills of the De Palma directed original, to the hyper-kinetic action of the John Woo directed second film, to the snarky meta comedy of the J.J. Abrams directed third installment.  However, after that third movie Cruise put the brakes on the consistent inconsistency plan and started to use that third movie as a sort of starting point for a more traditional film franchise.  Characters like Simon Pegg’s Benjamin Dunn started returning in every movie, plot points like Hunt’s previous marriage began to be acknowledged movie to movie, and the directors they chose to take on installments had less distinctive styles.  There were some upsides to this, the last film Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is something of a series highlight, but I must say I mourn the loss of that original vision.  The most recent entry in the series, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, is perhaps the biggest break to the franchise ethos to date in that it has the director of that previous film (Christopher McQuarrie) has returned for a second film and has made what is more or less a direct sequel to it.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout picks up a few years after the previous movie and it appears that “The Syndicate” that Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) brought down in that movie has given birth to an anarchist collective of agents inspired by Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) known as “The Apostles.”  In the film’s opening scenes Hunt finds himself trying to intercept a black market deal that would have landed three plutonium cores in the hands of The Apostles but loses them to save his team.  IMF Secretary Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) still trusts Hunt after that but CIA director Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett) sees him as a liability so she insists that he be shadowed by one of her own agents, August Walker (Henry Cavill), during his mission to recover the plutonium cores.  That mission will of course be a high stakes globe-trotting ordeal that will require Hunt to risk life and limb at every stage.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout has come out amid a barrage of hype as some of the early reviews were beyond ecstatic.  It’s sitting at 97% on Rotten Tomatoes and some of the quotes about it have really been out there including an oft quoted tweet by the always excitable David Erlich which called it “easily the best action movie since [Mad Max:] Fury Road. Just god level stuff.”  Frankly I think this hyperbole has done the movie a bit of a disservice because I think my expectations going in were a bit skewed by it all.  This defiantly isn’t the best action movie since Mad Max: Fury Road, in fact it isn’t even the best action movie since Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.  That hype made the film’s first half particularly jarring, especially when the film first has Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill interacting with some really strained buddy cop dialogue.  There are also some moments that just do not hold up to scrutiny.  For example right after that aforementioned Cruise/Cavill argument the two of them do this big HALO jump from an altitude that requires them to wear oxygen tanks, which is a cool scene, but it’s all being done just to get into a Parisian building… a building which looks like it could have been much more easily infiltrated by simply buying a ticket to the giant rave that’s going on inside of it.

Around the one third point of the movie I accepted that the critics had overdone it and accepted that this was going to be less of a landmark action movie and more of a logical continuation of the long running series and started to sit back and enjoy myself. As expected the film delivers a lot of the gigantic action scenes and stunts.  That HALO jump I mentioned before is ruined slightly by context but it’s certainly an impressive bit of filming logistics and stunt work.  There’s also a climax involving Tom Cruise dangling from a helicopter that I’m sure was all kinds of difficult to make, and we all know about how he injured himself jumping between buildings in London.  Of course the incredibly high standards that this series has set for itself does become a bit of a problem.  For example, this movie has not one but two chase scenes involving motorcycles which would both be extremely impressive on their own but here they’re being compared to the iconic (if extremely silly) motorcycle chase from Mission: Impossible 2 and the also extremely impressive chase from Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, and while this chase might be a little better on paper it isn’t a giant leap that leaves those other chases in the dust.  Similarly the film never quite comes up with a stunt that’s as conceptually insane as the Burj Khalifa scene from Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol or the “dangle from an airplane mid takeoff” scene from Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.  I suppose there’s that helicopter scene but that just doesn’t have quite the same purity of concept.

I must say I also found the storytelling inbetween the action scenes to be serviceable but noticeably weaker than what we saw in the first and fifth films, which remain my favorite of the series.  There are twists and turns galore in the movie but a lot of them don’t feel entirely earned and they don’t flow as naturally as they tend to in better spy movies.  Ultimately I do think the choice to bring McQuarrie back instead of following the series usual “one movie per director rule” is a big part of the problem.  That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with McQarrie himself but, he’s clearly quite competent behind the camera, but he isn’t really trying to go at the film in a new way at all and he isn’t even really trying to recapture the magic of the last film either.  Rather this is possibly the first time that a Mission: Impossible is solely interested in being exactly what people expect from a Mission: Impossible movie and not much more.  Outside of the stunts it does next to nothing that previous installments hadn’t done better and neither Hunt nor his supporting characters have really gotten all that interesting over the years.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not suggesting anyone skip this movie.  A dude dangling from a helicopter payload is certainly something that’s worth seeing, but I feel like this could have been a lot better if they’d been a bit bolder with the style and put a little more serious thought into the script.

*** out of Five

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.

mother!(9/16/2017)

Warning: Review contains plot spoilers

In the abstract, it’s often assumed that directors working in the indie space ultimately want to use their small scale successes in order to convince Hollywood studios to finance their bigger and more expensive visions.  Darren Aronofsky at one point seemed like he was destined to do just that after the increasing successes of his micro-budget debut Pi and his indie classic Requiem for a Dream.  In fact he was actually approached to pitch ideas for Batman movies around the same time that Christopher Nolan (a guy who has very much succeeded in blending his vision with Hollywood sized budgets) was, but unlike Nolan Aronofsky style and vision proved to be a little too weird and intense for general audiences and he didn’t seem interested in making a compromised commercial work like Insomnia as a stepping stone to bigger things.  Instead he put all his efforts towards The Fountain a crazy little movie made on a lower budget than he probably wanted and which likely baffled the few general audiences who went to it.  From there he went back to indie ambitions and made a pair of small movies about obsessive performers called The Wrestler and Black Swan, the latter of which became an unexpected hundred million dollar hit with the mainstream.  With that clout it seemed like Aronofsky was finally going to enter the world of blockbuster filmmaking but the big budget movie he chose to make with his clout was of all things a biblical epic called Noah which did make some money but was seen more as an oddity (and not the good kind of oddity) than as any kind of artistic triumph.  As such he’s back to the world of small budgets and seems to have picked up where Black Swan left off with his new film mother!.

mother! is set entirely within a large house in the country in an unknown state and features characters who aren’t given proper names, for simplicity’s sake I will largely be referring to characters by the names of their actors.  It begins with a character played by Jennifer Lawrence waking up and looking for her older husband, a poet who’s been experiencing writer’s block played by Javier Bardem.  The two are childless and the wife is in the process of renovating the old home that they live in.  Everything changes one day when a man played by Ed Harris shows up at their door and the husband quickly invites him to stay with them, in part because he seems to be a fan of the author’s work, without consulting with his wife.  Harris quickly proves himself to be a bore who smokes in the house and overstays his welcome, especially when his wife played by Michelle Pfeiffer shows up and proves to be even more intrusive than her husband and things very quickly escalate from there.

As you might guess from the business with the names and a few other rather surreal aspects, mother! is not a movie that you should necessarily take literally although this isn’t readily apparent from moment one.  Right away it becomes apparent that, like Black Swan before it this is a film that draws heavy inspiration from some of Roman Polanski’s more paranoid early films like Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby and much of the film’s tension lies in the way its protagonist finds herself in situations she finds sinister while everyone else seems nonplussed.  However, there are other elements of the film which feel surreal in ways that a Polanski thriller wouldn’t and there are elements that go entirely unexplained like an open wound she spots on Ed Harris’ back and the medication that she takes throughout the film and as things progress it becomes more and more clear that this film is set in a sort of world of the mind rather than conventional reality.

That the main character here is a woman is integral and not just because of the title.  The Jennifer Lawrence character here is in a very decidedly unequal marriage to a domineering husband who is twenty years her senior, views the home they’re living in as his rather than theirs, and doesn’t seek her permission or advice when making decisions that affect both of them.  In some ways she almost feels like a woman driven mad by the “benevolent” control of her husband like the protagonist of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” and it might not be a coincidence that one of the first things we see her do in the movie is paint one of her walls yellow.  There is also the element here that Bardem’s character is a celebrity of sorts and that adds a certain element to their relationship.  Aronofsky was married to Rachel Weisz from 2001 to 2010, perhaps this is an expression of what it’s like to be married to a movie star who has people constantly trying to find out more and more about their personal lives.  Alternately the movie could be something of a confessional effort expressing his own guilt for having subjected the various women in his life to the pressures of being married to someone who’s perhaps more dedicated to their work and the inspiration thereof than they are to their marriage and who constantly has people coming in and out of his life telling him how much of “genius” he is while ignoring the woman next to him.

So far I’ve looked at ways to interpret the movie when looking at it as a somewhat straightforward narrative, things get even crazier when you start looking at it as an elaborate biblical allegory.  Perhaps Bardem is a stand-in for God (the creator), perhaps Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer are Adam and Eve, the study is Eden, the crystal is the fruit from the tree of life, and the sink breaking which transitions the film into the second half is the great flood that occurred at the end of Genesis.  The second half can similarly be interpreted as the New Testament and its aftermath with the child being Jesus, the published poem being the bible, and the finale being a stand-in for the apocalypse.  The parallels are pretty hard to deny once you spot them.  What isn’t so clear is what Jennifer Lawrence’s role in this allegory is supposed to be.  Her role as the mother of the child who is killed and whose flesh is then eaten to save people would suggest that she’s Mary, but she’s no virgin and her presence in the first half would seem to clash with this interpretation and so would the timing of the Messiah’s birth and her place in the film’s ending.

It is more likely that her role ties in with another coded allegory embedded in the film involving environmentalism.  In this view of the film she is playing “mother earth” or a sort of spirit of and personification of nature.  Someone who looks on with disgust as Bardem/God lets loose humanity upon her paradise and watches powerless to intervene as they wreck things and generally abuse the freedoms they’ve been granted and get it into their heads that they own the place.  This would certainly explain her general ineffectualness in stopping all the unwanted guests and under this framing the film’s climax would perhaps be a stand-in for global warming causing humanity’s extinction and the rebirth of sorts at the end would perhaps suggest the Earth persevering eventually after humanity has died off.  The spirit of the earth, of course, is not really part of the bible so this fusion of Judeo-Christian stories with a strong environmental message is certainly reminiscent of what Aronofsky was trying to do with Noah and the vaguely new age idea of the Earth spirit perhaps points to The Fountain.

Either way, the fact that he’s mixing his allegories like that is certainly audacious if perhaps a little messy.  All that said, I don’t want all the search for interpretations to overshadow the fact that mother! simply works as a piece of cinema.  The early scenes are tense in the way they put you in the middle of Jennifer Lawrence’s frustration and they way things get increasingly crazy in the second half is pretty thrilling.  That second half reminded me a little bit of the ending of Ben Wheatley’s High Rise but I think it works better here, in part because it establishes a point of view character better and it “goes there” in a way that feels more organically interesting.  The film also reminded me of Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist with it’s unnamed protagonists, religious imagery, dips into surrealism, and occasional interest in shock value during its second half.  What the film is not really is a horror film, which is what the film’s trailers make it look like.  That misleading advertising is probably a big part of why there have been a number of reports recently about angry audiences leaving the film confused and unsatisfied.  That reaction is unfortunate, but perhaps not unexpected.  If Luis Buñuel had somehow gotten Paramount pictures to finance The Exterminating Angel and made it with major movie stars and got it released nationwide in-between screenings of Dr. No and How the West was Won I’m guessing that wouldn’t have gotten a great Cinemascore either, but sometimes filmmakers need to break out of their usual mold and if they’re able to do it on a scale like this that’s something that should be celebrated.