Film Reviews For The Cine-Literate

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Molly's Game

The first directorial effort by screenwriter extraordinaire Aaron Sorkin could hardly be anything but a word-fest. Sorkin is singular in his screenplays and teleplays for displaying a torrent of dialogue, often delivered by his protagonists on-the-run (nicknamed the “walk and talk” style). More, he has the uncanny ability to produce logorrhea on arcane subjects such as baseball stats ratings, social media details, TV journalism jargon, or legislative conundrums. In his latest film, “Molly’s Game” his subject is high stakes poker—as practiced among celebrities, multi-millionaires, and members of the Russian mob—and he, as usual, can sweep you along even if you don’t understand that much of what is being talked about. Sorkin’s only recent rival for this kind of esoteric dialogue is Adam McKay in “The Big Short.”)

What Sorkin has up his sleeve or in the hole (I can’t resist the card clichés) is Jessica Chastain as his Molly. She is Molly Bloom, a real-life poker organizer who, in a memoir, wrote about her running high-stakes games for a decade in Los Angeles and New York. The film opens with Molly being rudely arrested by the FBI in the middle of the night. Her supposed mob “connections” are the trigger for the arrest, and she promptly hires criminal defense lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who hears Molly’s back story as played out in flashbacks.

Unlike other Sorkin scripts, this one depends greatly on a narrator, Molly, who tells, in measured tones, the story of her gambling life. That story emphasizes that Molly was both faultless in staging her games and always punctiliously legal, never pocketing table winnings ( an no-no) but only receiving tips from players and duly reporting all her earnings to the IRS! Where the walk and talk principally comes from in “Molly’s Game” is in the fencing back and forth between Jaffey and Bloom, where the exchange is in
legal jargon, and the dialogues with her poker colleagues, where the language is often that of seven-card stud. Just let the words pour over you and enjoy the actors’ handling of them.

Chastain handles that dialogue and the character with cool self-possession,
presenting a woman ever under pressure but who still radiates confidence. Hollywood smoothies, like Player X (Michael Cera), or lovable moon dogs, like Douglas (Chris O’Dowd), try to manipulate her, but she is too clever to be waylaid. Her assured demeanor here echoes much of her role in last year’s “Miss Sloane” but substituting poker for lobbying.

Chastain has already earned two Oscar nominations during this decade (for “The Help” and “Zero Dark Thirty”). Don’t be surprised if she nabs another this month.

(The film is rated “R” and runs 140 mins.)

(December 2017)

Photo Credit: Jessica Chastain (standing left) in "Molly's Game," a STX Entertainment release.

e Post

Steven Spielberg’s last DC-based movie was a triumph: “Lincoln” in 2012. It
featured a stirring historical moment, showing, in the Congressional battle for the 13th Amendment, the best ever cinematic treatment of the legislative process. Come 2017, and Spielberg presents another DC movie with historical import, this one more current but also momentous. “The Post,” just arrived for Christmas, dramatizes the decision by the Washington Post to publish the Pentagon Papers, an act threatening the paper’s very existence. The movie recreates that moment with consummate skill and suspense.

“The Post,” co-written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (the latter wrote the superb “Spotlight” of two years ago), begins with a Vietnam War episode, wherein young RAND consultant Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) comes face-to-face with the realities of the war and makes the crucial decision, together with other colleagues, to purloin a copy of a classified Pentagon study on America’s historical involvement in Vietnam—later named “The Pentagon Papers”—then to duplicate it, and then seek to have it published.
The documents eventually find their way to The New York Times, which publishes excerpts June 13, 1971, only to be served with an injunction initiated by the Nixon Administration from publishing further material.

The Post, exasperated by the Times’ coup, seeks out its own copy of the Papers, and, through a connection Post reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) has with Ellsberg, comes into possession of the collection (which requires its own seat on Bagdikian’s flight home). For a time, the dilemma whether to publish or not vexes the publisher Katherine (Kay) Graham (Meryl Streep), executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), their staff and their legal team, presenting the possibility of contempt of court charges and even jail time. On their decision hangs the fate of the newspaper—and the

This First Amendment thriller plays out in roughly a week of June 1971, and
Spielberg and company keep the tension up, even though the action is mainly people hollering at each other in offices and pressrooms. Luckily, that hollering consists mostly of swift and smart dialogue delivered by a bunch of seasoned players like Odenkirk, as well as Tracey Letts, Carrie Coon, Bradley Whitford, Sarah Paulson, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Cross, among others. Bruce Greenwood, a stalwart in political dramas (he played
JFK in “Thirteen Days” in 2000), is a forceful yet conniving Defense Secretary Bob McNamara, trying, through his good friend Kay, to quash the Papers, which he commissioned.

The true dynamic, of course, is the interplay between Graham and Bradlee, the latter urging the former to give the OK for journalistic, legal, and even personal reasons. It’s the crusty, ink-stained scribe testing his retiring, aims-to-please boss thrown into a role for which she has been little prepared.

Hanks doesn’t much look like Bradlee, but he gets the man’s energy and growl mostly right and delivers his lines with pungency and urgency; a big cat on a chain. The contrast with Streep’s Graham is stark. We see her first in sweet hostess mode, a woman allergic to confrontation and censure. The dramatic arc Streep must undertake to become a decision-maker is glorious to watch, achieved in timely increments and facial signals rather than with fancy flourishes. Symbolizing that transformation in her comes when she delivers the thunderous decision to “publish” on the phone in a party dress. Another good example of her evolution comes in an intimate sit-down with the irascible McNamara. He pleads against the Post’s publishing, to which she responds: “I’m asking your advice, Bob, not your permission.”

Typical of DC movies these days, “The Post” barely uses our city (most of it was shot in White Plains, New York and in a Brooklyn studio). Local shooting basically incorporated the standard monuments as backdrops to show the dramatic delivery of the Papers. Thus, we see bound copies of the Post being curiously dumped off trucks at sites where no papers are ever delivered, like the front of the Capitol, at the White House fence on Pennsylvania Avenue, and random sites near the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. For Capitol Hill locals, the strangest drop is right
onto East Capitol Street flanking the Folger Library, just to get that Capitol dome in! (I was witness to the East Capitol filming, and that one shot took about a day to set up)

(Note: Spielberg adds a lovely homage at the end, which shows the discovery of the Watergate break-in in a sequence which imitates the opening shots from that other great journalistic DC movie “All the President’s Men,” suggesting a “sequel.”)

(The film is rated “PG-13” and runs 116 mins.)

(December 2017)

Photo Credit:
Left to right: Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep star in "The Post."
Photo by Niko Tavernise; courtesy of 20th Century Fox (2017)

The Divine Order

“The Divine Order” addresses some late-blooming women’s rights issues in the West: the shocking lack of suffrage among Swiss women as late as 1971. The story is told through Nora, dutiful housewife and mother, who lives with her decent husband, their two sons, and her crusty father-in-law in a small Swiss village, where there is little awareness of the burgeoning civil rights movements elsewhere in the world. “Equality of the sexes is a sin against nature,” intones one convinced character.

Nora is a reliable, modest woman who “would like to do something different,”
such as taking up a part time job, but she cannot work in Switzerland without her husband’s permission, with women’s second class status seen as part of the “divine order” of things. Her frustration runs up against a couple of activists advocating for the women’s franchise in a national referendum, and she senses an opening. Articulate and liked by all, she joins a sturdy but beleaguered band of females who take on their town—and the menfolk—to lead a local campaign for the vote, an issue that will be put
before only male voters, of course. The film has a touch of a modern-day “Lysistrata,” with the lady activists even separating themselves into a makeshift dormitory away from their families and without the distraction of husbands.

The film, written and directed by Petra Volpe, benefits greatly from a fine lead performance by Marie Leuenberger, brilliantly playing an unassertive person who blossoms into a convinced advocate. She not only discovers her own activist skills but also awakens to her sexual self and “personhood,” aided by a bouncy feminist lecturer from outside (it is to be noted that this is an understated, subtle comedy, but some sexual elements are rather blunt and definitely “R”). A redemptive ending challenges “The Divine Order,” at least in this one Swiss town.

(The film runs 96 minutes, is unrated, and is in Swiss-German with English subtitles
(November 2017)