REVIEW: Molly’s Game

Image: STX Entertainment

Chris Luckett

Aaron Sorkin is one of the very few writers famous enough to be a household name. Between A Few Good Men, Sports Night, The West Wing, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Social Network, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs, there are few acclaims he hasn’t earned and few challenges he hasn’t tackled. Of course, at the end of the day, those kudos and trials are all tied solely to writing. Until Molly’s Game.

Image: STX Entertainment

Trying his hand at directing for the first time, Sorkin shows a mastery that would be surprising from pretty much anyone except him. His flourish for energetic dialogue and innovative act structures translates into a competent, bouncy movie that never slows down to be less than entertaining.

Based on the memoirs of the “Poker Princess,” Molly Bloom, Molly’s Game tells the tale of a whip-smart Olympic skier who, after his athletic career in sidelined, found another path in life that led to her running elite, high-stakes poker games which ultimately lured athletes, mobsters, and Tobey Maguire.

Image: STX Entertainment

Because Sorkin could never tell a good story simply, Bloom’s story is framed by the devise of her being arrested by the FBI. Molly (Jessica Chastain) seeks the legal counsel of Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), and explains her innocence through the flashbacks that make up the bulk of the film.

It all allows for Sorkin to jump around in time with his typical hyperactivity, which translates into a movie as much fun to watch as to listen to. As much as directors like David Fincher, Rob Reiner, and Danny Boyle have all showed the upmost respect for Sorkin’s writing, the man most in sync with Sorkin’s mind in Sorkin himself.

Image: STX Entertainment

Chastain gives one of her expectedly strong performances as Molly, taking us on a complex journey of a woman who, despite appearances, always took the most difficult road to remain ethical in a criminal world. Elba is a wonderful foil for her, bringing far more personality to the kind of generic lawyer role a movie like this should know well enough to avoid.

If Chastain and Elba were the only two characters in the movie, the cast would be strong enough to create greatness, but Sorkin doesn’t take that for granted, adding Kevin Costner as Molly’s father, Michael Cera as Player X (a composite of Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Ben Affleck), and more supporting roles filled by Chris O’Dowd, Graham Greene, Joe Keery, and Brian d’Arcy James with aplomb.

Image: STX Entertainment

Sorkin has always had an affinity for strong female lead characters and the care he puts into Molly makes Chastain’s job much easier, but he’s unable to give that same attention to other characters who need them, leaving stock characters feeling like stock characters.

That said, only Sorkin could make scenes of poker games feel so alive. Between the crackling dialogue, the unpredictable story, and secret clues dropped through the course of the movie, Sorkin’s script for Molly’s Game is one of the best things he’s written recently. Most will continue to only know him as a writer for now, but if his directing continues to create things like Molly’s Game, he may not be known just for his writing for long.

4 / 5 stars

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REVIEW: Darkest Hour

Image: Focus Features

Chris Luckett

Gary Oldman is one of the great chameleons of our time. Over the last three decades, he’s played Sid Vicious and Lee Harvey Oswald, Beethoven and Dracula, Commissioner Gordon and Sirius Black. Unfathomably, he somehow even convincingly played a dwarf in the otherwise terrible Tiptoes. He disappears into every role he plays, whether it’s a literary titan in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead or whatever the hell he was in The Fifth Element.

Despite it all, he’s never earned that coveted Oscar. (He received his first and only nomination just five years ago, for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.) Barring any unforeseen circumstances, he’ll get his second when the Academy Award nominations are read in three weeks. Based on his stunning portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, he may very well win.

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REVIEW: The Last Jedi

Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Chris Luckett

Every critic has their blind spots. For yours truly, it’s action science-fiction. Just in the last decade, the subgenre has given birth to heart-pumping masterpieces like District 9, Inception, and Gravity and they’re the films I most consistently look forward to. (Two of my most anticipated movies this year, point in fact, were Valerian and the City of the Thousand Planets and Blade Runner 2049.)

As a result of loving the sub-genre so much, I can sometimes be dazzled into distraction in a way other genres aren’t able to. The only movies I generally lower my review ratings for tend to be action sci-fi, like Star Trek Into Darkness and Elysium, both of which dropped half a star between my initial reviews and second viewings.

All of which is to say I, like most in 2015, was a little too impressed by The Force Awakens. It’s a really good movie, don’t get me wrong. But I initially gave it 4½ stars and placed it on my Best Movies of 2015 list — a little undeservingly, I’ve come to see, as my rating for the seventh Star Wars entry has settled to an even 4 stars out of 5.

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REVIEW: Justice League

Image: Warner Bros.

Chris Luckett

Reviewing a superhero movie basically just comes down to comparisons. “Captain America: Civil War is brilliant, but not quite as brilliant as The Winter Soldier.” “Spider-Man: Homecoming was good, but it was no Spider-Man 2.” “How awesome is it that Logan was even better than X-Men: Days of Future Past?”

It’s quite helpful in Justice League‘s case, as there are so many comparisons to be made. And perplexingly, DC’s supergroup movie doesn’t just invite them but encourages them as the movie goes along, blatantly and immodestly stealing from any successful superhero movie it can think of in a vain effort to win the critical and fan love that has seemed to come so naturally to the Avengers, X-Men, and Spider-Man series but been unattainable for DC since the Dark Knight era.

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REVIEW: Thor: Ragnarok

Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Chris Luckett

Time after time, I’ve said that Marvel Studios is the new Pixar. It’s not for nothing that right around the time Pixar’s winning streak began faltering, the Marvel Cinematic Universe came into existence. For 16 movies now, Marvel has consistently delivered great movies. How great? Eight of those sixteen got 4-star ratings from yours truly, with another four getting 4½ stars.

Just four movies have been less than great. Captain America: The First Avenger is the Moonraker of the MCU and thus best not mentioned further. And Iron Man 3 was a little too scattershot to really deliver on every front. That just leaves Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming — the two most recent Marvel movies and the first case of back-to-back 3½-star entries in the MCU.

It all comes down to Thor: Ragnarok. Was this recent slip in quality just a blip, a sloppy Ratatouille before the invigorating WALL-E? Or would Marvel go full Pixar, with each continuing entry now feeling like the desperate exhumation of better days?

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REVIEW: Blade Runner 2049

Image: Warner Bros.

Chris Luckett

I don’t tend to get excited for movies. (You see enough Transformers or Madea vehicles and it’s easier to just let yourself be pleasantly surprised by the gems.) And, sacrilegious as it is to say, I’ve always felt Blade Runner was an overrated movie. Incredibly innovative and paradigm-shifting to sci-fi, don’t get me wrong; but not a perfect film from a narrative point of view.

Yet Blade Runner 2049 has been my most anticipated movie in the back half of 2017. Part of it was the brilliance of the first trailer, part of it was seeing the world Philip K. Dick and Ridley Scott envisioned with modern CGI, but the crux of it was director Denis Villeneuve.

Villeneuve has made three movies. He debuted in 2013 with the fantastic Prisoners, followed it up with the even more intense Sicario, and topped it all off with last year’s Best Picture-nominated Arrival. All three masterpieces, and each better than the one prior. It set the expectations for his fourth, Blade Runner 2049, so high for me the movie couldn’t meet them. But it comes close.

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REVIEW: Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Image: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Chris Luckett

Before we tackle the sequel, let’s look back to the original. Was Kingsman: The Secret Service really that good? Sometimes movies that are absurdly over-the-top are beloved simply for how much they commit to the meta winking, overtly or not. I submit to you that the first Kingsman, as fun as it was, wasn’t very good at all. It was an interesting idea taken to an incredible extreme and powered by testosterone-pumping explosions and CGI camerawork. It was Transformers in a tailored suit.

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