Saturday, January 20, 2018

[Review] Molly's Game

Esteemed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, Moneyball) makes his directorial debut with the high-stakes drama, Molly's Game. Despite being a bit overlong, the film is a winner -- thanks to Jessica Chastain's terrific lead performance and the snappy, well-wrought dialogue.

The film shuffles through the true life of Molly Bloom (Chastain), a former Olympic-class skier
who went on to run exclusive, top-level poker clubs -- making big-time deals in more ways than one. As the savvy mastermind keenly blurs the lines between what's legal and what isn't, the FBI tries their hand at busting down her entire organization.

Sorkin, who also pens the screenplay, orchestrates the proceedings with his customary knack for clever, whip-smart exchanges of words and amusing face-offs between characters. Jessica Chastain is absolutely brilliant here, embodying this intensely driven and relentlessly unfolding individual with shifty zeal and attitude. The supporting cast is strong too: Idris Elba checks in as a cooler than cool lawyer, Michael Cera dirties up as a hardcore poker player, and Kevin Costner plays Molly's complicated father, adding some personal heft to an otherwise stone-faced story. But he makes a questionable late-film appearance that unfortunately seems very ham-fisted.

But the film's main problem is that it lapses into a few dense and unengaging stretches, especially if you aren't super familiar with the gambling world. At times it feels like crunched numbers and thick court documents are being tossed at you at a rapid rate. Odds are, the film could've benefited from a shaved-down runtime. But despite the slip-ups, Molly's Game still comes out ahead.

( 7.5/10 )

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Thursday, January 18, 2018

[Review] The Post

"Journalism" and "thriller" aren't two words that often appear alongside each other, especially when it comes to the movies, but that's the headline for Steven Spielberg's latest prestige flick, The Post. And while it probably won't blow you away, the film essentially achieves its mission and gets its timely message across with veteran composure and an ensemble of some really good acting.

The story focuses on the true story of journalists from The Washington Post and their risky, strenuous undertaking in publishing the classified Pentagon Papers, which held some very eye-opening information about the United States and the Vietnam War. The film features a top-notch cast, including the likes of Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tracy Letts, and Bob Odenkirk. It's definitely no surprise that the performances are thoroughly solid across the board.

It begins a little slow and procedural, but what eventually unfolds is a taut, unprecedented battle between newspaper and government. Justice and corruption. Exposé and cover-ups. And even though it's set in 1970s (smoky, drab aesthetic and all), what stands out is just how startlingly relevant the narrative is to today's times -- with its themes about freedom of the press (and speech), the power of truth, the importance of being on the right side of history amidst all the conflict and turbulence, and yes -- women breaking down industry barriers. The film is also very reminiscent of 2015's Best Picture winner Spotlight. In fact, Liz Hannah's screenplay enlists Josh Singer as a co-writer here.

Ultimately, it's the little details that make The Post tick: Odenkirk's character clumsily lugging the documents onto a plane and into a taxi... Tom Hanks' raspy delivery of pointed quips ("The President has taken a shit all over the First Amendment!"). And in the end, the film is a vigorous ode to everyday people doing their duty behind-the-scenes.

( 8/10 )

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Monday, January 15, 2018

[Review} Paddington 2

2015's Paddington was an immensely delightful surprise, and thankfully, its sequel (simply titled Paddington 2) continues with that same sweet tradition, and this time it might even be better -- for this film truly is the cinematic equivalent of a warm and cozy hug.

When we reacquaint with our furry bear companion Paddington (softly voiced by Ben Wishaw) he's now well-adjusted (for the most part) to his life in Windsor Gardens. He's even taking on odd jobs in order to save up for a special gift for his dear Aunt Lucy, who's about to celebrate her 100th(!) birthday. But things go awry when the gift is stolen by a villainous con-artist (played by Hugh Grant), and poor Paddington is framed and sent to prison. From there, he must find a way out, while hoping his beloved adoptive family, the Browns (Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins), won't forget him.

This lovable and emotionally-stirring endeavor gracefully carries over the irresistible charm that made the first one so great. It's marvelous. It's wonderful. And it's the proper recipe of whimsy, laughs, and heart. At times, the film even reminded me of Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel with its old-fashioned quirk and playful verve. The visuals are utterly splendid, and there's a particularly exquisite animated sequence that unfolds in the form of a pop-up book -- it's awe-inspiring, really. Combine all of this with the fun, slapsticky romps of humor, the elegant musical soundtrack, the narrative's good-natured spirit, and you have a real treat for the senses and the soul.

Paddington 2 is that rare family film that delivers equal enjoyment for all, whether you're a few years old or turning 100 like dear Aunt Lucy. It's impossible not to root for. The story's life lessons are agreeable and universal -- without ever being too... *ahem* ...overbearing. The message is pretty simple: Spread kindness like marmalade. It can go a long way.

* 9/10 *

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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

[Review] Insidious: The Last Key

It may come as a surprise to some, but I'm a fan of the Insidious horror franchise, especially 2015's criminally underrated and shockingly great sequel Insidious: Chapter 3. The latest installment Insidious: The Last Key picks up directly after Chapter 3, and while its flaws are more glaring this time around, it's still a decent slice of early-year frights.

After an intense (to put it lightly) flashback, we check in with the series' current (and best) main character -- the compassionate, constantly haunted psychic medium Elise (fantastically played by Line Shaye). She's now teamed up with the pun-y pair of paranormal investigators (played by Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson, who continue to add a lot of kooky comic relief to the story) for business. Eventually, Elise receives a call about some ghostly activity, and it just happens to be from the house she grew up in. Let's just say she doesn't have the fondest memories of the place. Anyhow, the crew packs up and heads out to see what's going on, and it's not pretty.

While Insidious: The Last Key explores new realms and unlocks new doors, it doesn't exactly break new genre ground. But it does use some tried-and-true scare tactics. It's hard to go wrong with creepy little ghost children darting around, demonic figures lurking in the shadows, suffocatingly dark basement scenes, and heart-stopping jump scares. With that said, there are definitely things in here that any moviegoer would question or scoff at -- like the jarring coincidences, the nearly unbearable melodrama, the head-scratching logic, the savagely cruel twists, the corny dialogue, and the clumsy exposition chunks that might as well flat-out say "In case you forgot what happened in the previous movies, here you go..."

So even though Insidious: The Last Key won't go down as one of the year's best, you can't say that you've seen many movies that feature a 75-year-old female protagonist beating up demons with a cane.

( 6/10 )

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Saturday, January 6, 2018

[Review] I, Tonya

I wasn't very old when the infamous Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan "incident" shattered headlines, but I definitely heard about it for years later -- something about a triple axel and a metal pipe to the kneecap. ESPN's great 30 for 30 documentary series covered the story in-depth with "The Price of Gold", and now, the Craig Gillespie-directed film I, Tonya dramatizes the dizzying life of Tonya Harding with sharp success -- a solid landing, if you will. It's not quite your average biopic. Not your average sporting event. And not your average character.

Margot Robbie laces up the blades and portrays the controversial figure skater, while the film's mockumentary set up glides through Tonya's rough upbringing and hostile relationship with her mother (played by greatly Allison Janney), who's quite frankly a monster, as well as the Olympian's rocky and abusive marriages, her rise to stardom, and yes -- the infamous incident (and the aftermath).

The film moves at a punchy pace, exhibiting a notable Martin Scorsese and current-period David O. Russell vibe, and it definitely does not shy away from being brash and gritty -- much like Tonya herself. And while the crazy, stranger-than-fiction story is told with vigor, the main draw here truly is Margot Robbie's fantastic performance as Tonya. She practically disappears into this role with immensely skilled grace, and she plays the character with dimension, nuance, sympathy, and memorable personality. In fact, the film loses a bit of its momentum during the stretches when the focus shifts toward Tonya's idiotic ex-husband and bumbling bodyguard (played by Sebastian Stan and Paul Walter Hauser, respectively) as they orchestrate and carry out the incident.

So, come for the bizarre narrative, stay for Margot Robbie and Allison Janney's shot at Oscar gold.

* 8.5/10 *

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