AWARDS SEASON WRAP UP
It’s January, 2018, and that means several things in the film world: awards season; holdover films from limited releases in December, 2017, that were touted as possible awards-season contenders and gained wider releases in January, 2018; and, alas, films that got that limited, awards-qualifying limited release in December, but were prompted pretty much ignored or left unseen in January due to mixed-up, messy and just plain bad marketing and advertising.
Herewith, an awards-season round-up of reviews of 2017 films that fit all of the above categories.
Starring Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Ben Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Carrie Coon, Matthew Rhys
Written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Produced by Steven Spielberg, Kristie Macosko Krieger and Amy Pascal
Music by John Williams
Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski
Edited by Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar
Rarely has a politically-charged, journalistically-charged film about government, politics, the free press and the daily importance of the media arrived at a more timely, relevant and convenient time as the arrival of the wholly excellent, intelligent and entertaining “The Post, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, the former longtime senior-level editor at The Washington Post, and Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham, the former longtime publisher of the newspaper. Fortunately for everyone—and that does mean every single resident on the planet Earth at this particularly oddball moment in time regarding the media—Spielberg, Hanks, Streep, and excellent supporting cast and a top-notch artistic crew shines at their highest levels throughout “The Post” to deliver to your cinema doorstep a fair, balanced, accurate and objective film that stands as one of the best movies from 2017.
It’s the volatile, chaotic early 1970s, and the widely unpopular, devastating—and, let’s face it, moronic, idiotic and offensive—Vietnam War continues to rage on, despite opposition from most people on the planet, most people in the United States, scores of actual Vietnam veterans themselves, World War II veterans, Korean War veterans, Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Congress, politicians across the country, and citizens across the country. Protests, demonstrations, marches are held nationwide. There are talks of Congressional, criminal and civil investigations of government officials. Government officials are accused of lying to the public and the media daily, weekly, monthly. There is widespread distrust of the president, the vice president, defense officials and diplomatic officials in the federal government. More protests, demonstrations and marches are held. The government is accused of lying, corruption, cover-ups, deceit, deception, illegal and unethical activities. Paranoid and insane federal government officials wage a lunatic war on the free press, the media, television and radio, newsletters and magazines. The country is divided. There are widespread economic, health, education, welfare, national security, intelligence, infrastructure, immigration and environmental problems throughout the country and the world—and many people blame government officials.
Meanwhile, dogged, determined and talented reporters and editors in Washington and New York uncover scores of documents, stories and information that leads to revelations that federal government officials have participate in a long campaign of lies, corruption, deception towards the public, the world, other politicians and the media. And those reporters’ hard work and investigative stories lead to a trail of corruption that leads to the most senior-level politicians in the country.
Hmmmmm. Sound familiar?!
Spielberg, Hanks, Streep and “The Post” screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer know exactly what the parallels are between the early 1970s and the mid 20teens, of course, and their smart film and smart script slyly underscores the similarities between then and now on so many important levels, driving home one of many important, intelligent and searing messages that “The Post” delivers. “The Post” sends a message that even despite the most destructive consequences for presidents, defense secretaries, military officials and other high-ranking government officials—investigations, court victories against government cover-ups, indictments, resignations, firings, impeachment hearings and the complete collapse of lunatic, paranoid and thoroughly corrupt administration—alas, history can indeed repeat itself on all of the same levels, as stupid as that seems in a country as supposedly highly educated as the United States. Concurrently, “The Post” also drives home the message that a free, hard-working, politically-supported, publicly-supported and constitutionally, democratically, legally and institutionally supported, protected and free media is absolutely essential, required, needed and important every single day to a free and democratic society. “The Post” also sends messages that government should not impede the work of the media; that the media needs to regularly act as a watchdog on the government; that the media needs to report to the public sensitive documents that clearly show government lies, deception and corruption, for the greater good of society; that citizens need to be reading and following the media and their stories every single day; that the media needs to defend its sources, documents, reporting, reporters, editors and media institutions from shady, corrupt, irrational, unprofessional–and insane–government attacks every day; and that no politician should ever stoke opposition, fear, distrust or doubt regarding the media; and that and and every free, democratic, healthy society needs its media in a strong position, working every day to research, find, uncover, verify and disclose news and information regarding government actions—the good, the bad and the ugly government actions.
To its universal and everlasting credit and praise, “The Post” clearly, intelligently and entertainingly delivers these messages loud and clear as warning signs, signals and reminders to the public at large, the United States, the world at large, and the current Trump administration and its allies about the general ridiculousness, dangers, ignorance and stupidity of the Trump administration’s—and Trump’s–crazy, irrational, childish and unprofessional—and baffling—attacks on the media. “The Post” reminds the world that no matter how hard Trump and his allies try to attack the media, the media is of course vital and important, and the media will win in the end.
“The Post” tells the story how in the early 1970s, The New York Times, and then The Washington Post, received leaked copies of previously-unseen–to the general public, that is—federal government analytical documents that clearly show the pattern of lies, deceit, deception, corruption, unethical activities, illegal activities and corrupt cover-ups that occurred through four presidential administrations in the United States regarding United States governmental, political and militaristic policies regarding the Vietnam War. RAND Corporation worker Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) bravely makes a command patriotic decision to leak troves of the scathing documents to The New York Times, which is, at the times, battering the Post with investigative scoop after scoop. Meanwhile, Post editors and reporters—led by editor Bradlee, assistant editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkir) and many others—finally track down Ellsberg as the source of the leaks. The Post bravely and doggedly manages to get the same Pentagon Papers documents from Ellsberg, the editors and reporters schedule a manic, equally dogged analytical meeting to go through the papers and get a manageable, publishable story together, and prepares to publish the Pentagon Papers.
However, the psychotic, paranoid—and knowingly guilty and frightened—members of the steadily disintegrating and nosediving Nixon administration threaten Bradlee and Graham on trumped-up civil and criminal charges threats, sues the paper, and takes the Post and the Times to court to stop the publication of the Pentagon Papers. The familes that run the Post and Times come together—a great sight to see on film and to celebrate in real life—and fight the crazies at the crumbling Nixon White House—and they win. The court approves the publication of the Pentagon Papers, the documents are published, the war tumbles to a long-overdue end, the United States withdraws from Vietnam, Nixon steadily goes insane, and, in just a few years, the Post, and, yes, the Times, have another blockbuster investigative story to cover—but that, as they say, is another story.
“The Post” is excellent on all levels—an intelligent, timely, relevant, and, yes, thoroughly entertaining drama that includes some light humor to keep things fresh; moves along at a brisk pace, as a mostly talky and dialogue-oriented drama should move; includes top-knotch acting from everyone, especially Hanks, Streep and Odenkirk, but there is also a deep level of quality supporting actors who expertly display the world of journalism in a positive, accurate and optimistic light, while also not over-dramatizing the business of reporting, which often is desk-bound, poring through documents, making phone calls and interviewing people in offices; and the requisite, early-1970s period detail is excellent—from the clothes to the non-computer, typewriter-and rotary-phone-filled offices to the cars to numerous props to street-level pay phones to buildings and furnishings to the grinding, noisy, inky—and beautiful—printing presses. Congrats and kudos to the production designer, art director, costuming and wardrobe departments, props master, car wranglers, hair and make-up and set dressers for their wonderful work on accurately and realistically presenting an early 1970s world.
And a special note to Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editors Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar for including several absolutely wonderful, captivating—and historically important—montages of those big, clunky, inky printing presses assembling, configuring and making up the newspaper pages of the Post in those great old printing presses that put out the pages of thousands of newspapers for more than a century across the United States and the world. Spielberg, Kaminski, Kahn and Broshar have assembled these great printing press montages with great love—displaying not only a basic love of newspapers themselves, but a love of the important work that goes into putting out those newspapers—which is, of course, one of the many themes of “The Post.” Those great printing presses were amazingly- and brilliantly-constructed and conceived machines that took blocks of type, spun that type through machines onto newsprint, somehow folded all of the pages and sections together in order, and spun out at the end of the printing press tomorrow’s newspaper! The actual Washington Post, at its old headquarters building in downtown Washington, D.C., for decades had one of its working presses right there in the building, and Post employees for decades told stories about how that press, when it was up and running, would shake the building and newsroom offices—and that occurrence is smartly shown in one scene in “The Post.”
Spielberg also used establishing shots at Katharine Graham’s actual former Georgetown home, which for decades was an important part of the D.C. journalism, political, social and business scenes. However, that increasingly awkward and old-fashioned too-close blending of journalism, politics and socializing on a too-comfortable level was disintegrating about the time of the Pentagon Papers and the story told in the “The Post,’ and yet another important message of the movie is that—always—journalism, politics, socializing and business all need to be separate but equal entities in D.C., the U.S., and the world, in order to let journalism operate as the industry is supposed to operate—free, independently, without government interference, criminal acts, threats or stupid lawsuits. “The Post” shows how Bradlee, Graham and the rest of the Post had to abruptly—and positively—leave behind that old comfortable social world and move into the real world and start publishing strong, objective—and independent—hard-hitting investigative journalism.
And, of course, overseeing all of this in his usual masterful manner is director Spielberg, who is a master at presenting important themes, messages and morals while also remembering to entertain at the same time. Spielberg regularly, continually in his film works manages to accomplish this dual achievement—presenting important messages and entertaining. He’s accomplished this over and over again, from the most pop-culture, seemingly popcorn movies that are really always much more beneath the surface—“Jurassic Park,” (the dangers of playing God, cloning and playing around with nature) “The BFG,” (bigotry, prejudice, understanding and respecting those who are different) “Jaws,” (man against nature, the dangers of playing around with nature, again, and the mysteries of nature) “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” (man versus the universe, the mysteries of space, aliens and other worlds and how man deals with these discoveries) “E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial,” (the same, and understanding and learning to love aliens, and the breakdown of the modern family structure) “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (prejudice, anti-Semitism, Nazi evils, man against history)—to his more-obvious dramas, where the messages are a bit more obvious, including “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Catch Me if You Can,” “Amistad,” “Munich,” “War Horse,” “Lincoln,” “The Color Purple” and “Empire of the Sun,” among others.
Although the often-confusing, and flat-out misguided, Academy Awards are never an accurate gauge of a year of film—every year, there are confusingly bizarro nominations and winners that just don’t make much sense—“The Post” has been nominated for Best Picture and Best Actress for Meryl Streep, and those awards are deserved. No offense to any other nominees, of course, but “The Post” should have been also nominated for Best Director, for Spielberg, and for Best Production Design. Nevertheless, the Best Picture and Best Actress nominations are well-deserved.
To everyone’s credit, “The Post,” which is highly-recommended and should be seen on the big screen, does end up being one of the better films of 2017, and is yet another positive Spielberg film that tells a great story with great actors and great production qualities—and, along the way, imparts its own set of documented messages, themes, lessons and morals that every filmgoer should take to heart and remember—among them, the importance of dogged, independent, hard-hitting investigative journalism and how that journalism is, every day, a basic tenet and foundation of a free, democratic society.
THE SHAPE OF WATER
Starring Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg
Written by Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Story by Guillermo del Toro
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Produced by Guillermo del Toro and J. Miles Dale
Music by Alexandre Desplat
Cinematography by Dan Laustsen
Edited by Sidney Wolinsky
“The Shape of Water,” a beguiling, atmospheric, oddball pastiche of a fanstasy-science-fiction-horror film from director, co-producer and co-writer Guillermo del Toro, is one of those deceptive quality films that can entertain, tell a good story, provide some heartfelt drama, prompt a few laughs, impart a few important messages and lessons and impress with its quality filmmaking, too—but with a few alarm bell/warning signal/flag-waving/alert-flashing warning signs, cautionary flags and filmic and storytelling caveats. “The Shape of Water” is, first, a quality film done well, but it’s also a quality film by Guillermo del Toro, who is one of those filmmakers who, in simplistic terms, just is not for everyone—not in a bad way, of course, but del Toro does make his films with a most unusual, distinctive and quite unique and different flair, touch and style. And that style, no matter how richly, atmospherically and impressively done, can impress and attract just as many people as those who are equally turned out, put out and unimpressed. That’s the benefit and curse of a distinctive filmmaker, no matter their talent, success and filmic chops—when you’re as unique and out-there as del Toro is, that filmmaker’s films are going to be intense subjects of debate, analysis—and confusion.
Such is the case with “Shape.” First, make no mistake, this is indeed an excellent film when analyzed and judged at some of its most basic filmic levels—the film is wonderfully produced, directed and acted. Notice, though, that written is not included here. That’s because, no matter what distinctive touches del Toro brings to his filmmaking with “Shape,” and no matter what he is trying to say—importantly—with his messages and themes—no one can definitively state that that the script and story for “Shape” is in any way original. In fact, “Shape” borrows so obviously from so many other films going back decades, that lack of distinctiveness ends up being one of the film’s weaknesses—“Shape” borrows liberally from the classic “Beauty and the Beast” fable, from “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “Swamp Thing” and, most glaringly, Ron Howard’s 1984 classic “Splash.” In fact, poor “Splash” screenwriters Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel and Bruce Jay Friedman should have been included in the credits somewhere. One cannot watch “Shape” without constantly thinking of “Beauty and the Beast,” “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “Swamp Thing” and “Splash” constantly.
Additionally, del Toro has some deep, dark fascination with violence, blood and gore—to the point that the inclusion of these factors tend to bring down his films. The violence, blood and gore in “Shape” are gross and stomach-turning and not needed—especially amid the overall love story that truly anchors the movie. Yes, the violence serves a purpose to help teach certain lessons—that is clearly understood—but “Shape” is, at its core, a love story, and a love story—even one with fantasy, sci-fi and horror tones and themes—doesn’t always need violence and blood.
And del Toro directs his films with an over-arching mood and atmosphere—a deliberate directing style that casts a type of directing control over every camera angle and movement–that is, again, unique and distinctive, but also, at times, a bit overbearing and difficult to take. Yes, directors should always strive for originality and distinctiveness, but there is a way to be original and distinctive without putting off your audience or driving eyes away from the screen or actually overwhelming the film with directing tricks, flashes and camerawork. The best directors learn to be original, distinctive, intelligent and story-driven—but without alienating, putting off or separating them from their audiences. del Toro is such a unique director, it’s no wonder there’s a certain type of love-it-or-hate-it, or overall puzzling and confused, type of reactions to his films.
“Shape” is that type of film—while even the most casual moviegoer will know that the actors are in top form, and the production design, set design, art direction, special effects, make-up, cinematography, music, editing and period detail are all above-average and accomplished throughout the film, even the most casual moviegoer may shift uncomfortably in their seats during some scenes, may wonder just what del Toro is doing at other times, and may be put off by, again, del Toro’s overall mood and atmosphere. That is not to say that’s necessarily bad or a negative aspect of the film—it’s just simply noting that del Toro works in his own unique universe, and while that’s generally to be praised, it’s just simply noting that his particular style of filmmaking may not be for everyone.
All of that aside, kudos must be extended to the cast of “The Shape of Water,” especially for lead actors Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones and Richard Jenkins. Hawkins wonderfully plays Elisa Esposito, a loveable, cute, mute and lonely cleaning woman who works at a secretive government laboratory in Baltimore, where paranoid, insane and psychotic government and military workers are hiding a mysterious marine creature—expertly played by an extensively make-up-covered Doug Jones, who slyly steals every scene he is in. Hawkins is initially fascinated by the creature, who is kept in chains in a vat of water in a padlocked room akin to a prison, and is scheduled to be examined, dissected and eventually killed by the wacko government and military officials, and, yes, she eventually falls in love with the creature. Spencer, in yet another great performance, plays Zelda, one of Elisa’s best friends and a co-worker at the laboratory. Jenkins plays another of Elisa’s best friends, her shy neighbor Giles. Together, Elisa, Zelda and Giles—against all odds—bravely hatch a plan to rescue the creature, take it out of the lab, and release it in the sea. Does this sound like “Splash?” Yes, it’s just like “Splash”—although without the laughs and with more R-rated violence.
Hawkins, Spencer, Jones and Jenkins, along with Michael Stuhlbarg as scientist and secret Soviet spy Robert Hoffstetler, form a great ensemble cast who are always watchable and always excellent. Each deserves special kudos for individualized, specialized performances in “Shape:” Hawkins as a lonely, shy, introverted and mute woman who must always communicate without speaking a word and with a superb use of her eyes, posture, body movements and facial expressions; Spencer as the compassionate, lovable, kind and understanding—and protective—co-worker who tends to look after Elisa, and who provides a common-sense, humanistic and, at times, comedic presence; Jones, who, along with Ron Perlman and Andy Serkis, has worked expertly as a modern-day Lon Chaney/Boris Karloff in many films, hidden behind layers of make-up and costuming, and in “Shape,” has to act beneath such make-up, using his fluid body movements and expressive eyes and hands to humanize his aquatic creature; Jenkins as another shy, introverted, lonely person—although a man with a good heart who has to continually struggle to find his place in the world, succeed and stand up to bullies, morons and idiots; and Stuhlbarg as, of all things, a compassionate Cold War-era Soviet double-agent and spy who has to balance his conflicting positions as an American scientist, a Soviet double-spy and a compassionate human who also wants to save the creature. Each actor in “Shape” carves out their own distinctive place, and their acting elevates and saves the film from the aforementioned script and directing problems.
“Shape” is a difficult film to recommend—it’s not for everyone. Folks who don’t do well with fantasy, sci-fi or horror and those who have problems with del Toro’s distinctive style may not enjoy the film. But at the same time, there’s no denying the quality of filmmaking on display throughout “Shape,” as the film does create a tender, kind-hearted story of love and affection—and, yet again, the film offers important warnings about the dangers of man against nature, man fighting nature, man against the environment, man fighting the environment, and man playing god. Of course, Jones’ sympathetic creature deserves all the rights to freedom and compassion and independence as any other creature on Earth, and no one has the right to keep the creature caged, and no one has the right to dissect the creature. Love—on any level—and the dangers of man playing god and messing around stupidly with nature and the environment are among the most important lessons, and those inherent lessons in “Shape” are to be praised and embraced.
However, the major caveat of the many borrowed aspects of the script—yes, every movie, television show, song, story, fable, poem and piece of art in existence borrows from something or someone else, of course—but in the case of “Shape,” the borrowing is just too obvious to ignore. del Toro is smart enough to know that these themes were previously explored in “Creature of the Black Lagoon,” “Swamp Thing,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Splash,” and he does his best to coat “Shape” with his own original imprint, but no matter how distinctive the feel and atmosphere are in “Shape,” the story still feels borrowed.
“The Shape of Water” was nominated for an outrageous thirteen Academy Award nominations—and that’s as unique and distinctive as del Toro’s directing style. “Shape” is not truly the type of blockbuster film that truly deserves thirteen Academy Award nominations. Several of the film’s nominations could easily have been spread out and distributed to several other more-worth quality films from 2017. And the film most definitely should not have been nominated for Best Original Screenplay—that’s a huge mistake from the Academy. But the acting nominations for Hawkins, Spencer and Jenkins are all entirely, completely, richly deserved—and congratulations to these talented actors.
“Shape” may not be for everyone, but the film does deserve attention for its distinctive style; its bevy of talented acting performances; and its core messages that man should always be wary about fighting nature and the environment, the public should always be wary about questionable, secretive and highly-suspect government and military operations, and true love always wins out in the end.
Starring Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Chris O’Dowd, Bill Camp
Written by Aaron Sorkin
Based on “Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker,” by Molly Bloom
Directed by Aaron Sorkin
Produced by Mark Gordon, Amy Pascal, Matt Jackson
Cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen
Music by Daniel Pemberton
Edited by Alan Baumgarten, Elliot Graham, Josh Schaeffer
“Molly’s Game” is yet another well-done film to be praised on several filmic levels, but with a few glaring caveats for filmgoers, much like “The Shaper of Water.” “Molly’s Game” tells an excellent true-life story (although heavily dramatized and glitzed-up for entertainment purposes, of course); contains two blockbuster, stand-out—and, so far, career-defining–acting performances by lead actors Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba; is well-written and well-directed by longtime screenwriter, producer and playwright Aaron Sorkin—in his feature film directing debut, and what a quality directing debut Sorkin delivers; and is well-done in terms of cinematography, editing, pacing, timing, dialogue and production design. However—and it is a big however—“Molly’s Game” is one of those dramas that’s set in a rarefied, silver-spoon, blue-blood world that is so far apart from, and so different from, the average person’s everyday world, and the film’s characters who populate that rarefied world are so unlikeable, so asinine, so flat-out despicable, horrid, offensive and corrupt—criminally and morally—that it’s difficult for filmgoers to empathize, sympathize or relate to the basic story, the story’s basic setting, and the story’s basic characters. Even though Chastain and Ebla dazzle in their roles—and are, again, deserving of much praise and kudos—even their characters are difficult to like, difficult to care about, and, put simply, difficult to even care about.
Thus, when the filmgoer can’t relate to, sympathize with or, after a while, even care about, the film’s basic characters, setting and story, the film becomes difficult to watch. Again, this paradox is difficult to deal with—the film is done quite well, as noted, but it’s also difficult to watch. If one can deal with a closeted, bubble-world of rich folks who are addicted to poker and spend much of their time playing high stakes poker despite all reasonable warning signs against playing in these games, and if one can deal with a story about a bunch of spoiled, corrupt and morally spent rich businessmen, actors, directors, athletes, entertainers and others in the 1 percent world, then one could enjoy “Molly’s Game.” But if you want lovable, likeable, kind-hearted, caring, generous and relatable people, you’re not going to find them in “Molly’s Game.”
“Molly’s” tells the incredulous true story of Molly Bloom, who at one moment was a rising Olympics skiing athlete at the top of her game, at the top of the world and at the top of skiing’s echelon, who abruptly suffered a career-ending injury that effectively ended her career. After her injury, she moves to Los Angeles with the intentions of going to law school, but she takes a job working for a major skeezy, slimy, snaky businessman—alas, one of many skeezy, slimy and snaky people who, as noted, populate the story of “Molly’s Game”—who also happens to run an underground high-stakes poker game. Through a series of plot actions, Molly eventually steals the snake’s game and, crazily, starts her own underground high-stakes poker game, eventually running actual, famous high-stakes games in Los Angeles and New York City. It’s crazy, it’s interesting, it’s unbelievable—but it did actually occur, in real life.
Then, even more unbelievably, Molly found herself wrapped up, in and around the Mafia, thoroughly corrupt businessmen, double-dealers (pun intended, but referring to people who were thought to be her friends but who turn on her), more snakes, more slimy people—and, eventually, the FBI, which busts her game, arrests her, takes the millions of dollars she earned and saved from the games, holds her life hostage, demands that she reveal her computer records about her games, and threatens to put her in jail. Molly hires a high-end lawyer to defend her, and they try and argue the case that Molly’s games were not as criminal as the FBI claims they are, that she is not a felon or a criminal, that she did not cooperate with the Mafia, and that she should get her money back and stay out of jail.
Jessica Chastain, in one of those career-defining, career-high performances, excels, captivates and dazzles as Molly, a beautiful, sexy (that’s not an unprofessional or immature remark, as Molly’s looks and sexiness are one of her weapons and assets in the story—as Molly obviously notes and uses and refers to), powerful, independent and intelligent woman who knows exactly what she wants—and gets it, even if it in this case is running high-stakes, powerful, challenging and stressful underground poker games with questionable types of people. Chastain’s Molly is all at once frenetic, chaotic, worrisome, addictive, stressed-out, flat-out crazy, power-hungry, money-hungry, attractive, unattractive, hard-working—but also barely likeable, a bit annoying and a bit irritating. She knows what she’s doing is stressful, crazy, borderline illegal (it’s a continuing question as to just how illegal or criminal the poker games are or are not), and risky—but she keeps doing it. She knows she’s dealing with slimy snakes—but she keeps doing it. She knows she could quit, take her money and run and start anew, maybe even going after that law degree—but she keeps doing it. Thus, after a while, with Molly’s various inadequacies, irritations and problems, it becomes difficult to even like her or care about her character. Chastain herself is superb—it’s the character that has the problems.
The same problem exists with Elba’s high-powered lawyer, Charlie Jaffey—Jaffey is so strong, intense and focused on the details, he at times seems inhuman, uncaring and unlikeable, also. But Elba’s acting performance is excellent—the performance is also strong, intense and focused, presenting an equally powerful, watchable—and unlikeable—character alongside Chastain’s Molly Bloom. Watching these two actors battle it out in scene after scene—two powerful, independent, egotistical and type-A people who are so wrapped up in themselves, it’s difficult for them to see the rest of the world outside of their bubble-world bubbles—is entertaining, but also exhausting.
In the end, the movie continues to pile up snaky people, snaky situations and snaky scenes, one after the other, with the end result being a pile of people so thoroughly corrupt and despicable—essentially, a bunch of idiots and morons–it’s hard to care much about any of them. And, alas, that includes the characters of Molly Bloom and Charlie Jaffey.
“Molly’s Game” is based on Bloom’s book about her life, and Sorkin does a good job of adapting the book and directing the film. But he needed to somehow make Molly and Charlie more likeable, more relatable, more kind-hearted—and far more down-to-earth. Even Kevin Costner’s role as Molly’s dad could have been tweaked to make his character more likeable, but, as it turns out, he’s got his own set of problems, too, and he turns out to be just as nasty and unlikeable as everyone else.
It’s difficult to completely enjoy a drama set in the world of high-stakes poker where everyone is completely unlikeable and unrelatable, and that simple fact is the filmic quality that somewhat dooms and darkens “Molly’s Game,” despite the very best efforts of Sorkin, Chastain, Elba, supporting actor Michael Cera, the production designers, and other cast and crew members. Again, it’s a good movie, with some caveats.
“Molly’s Game” received some recognition during the awards season—Sorkin was indeed nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and that’s an honorable nomination; Chastain was nominated for Best Actress at the crazy Golden Globes; Sorkin was also nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay; and Sorkin also received nominations for his script from BAFTA and the Writers Guild of America. No offense to other nominees, of course, but it would have been nice to see Chastain nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress—that would have been a deserving nomination.
Through it all, though, “Molly’s Game” does offer some important life lessons. One of them is truly important—no one should ever get swallowed up by addictive gambling, and if gambling does become a problem for anyone on any level, stop it immediately, seek out a gambling addiction counselor, undergo severe counseling, and by all means do not go anywhere near a casino, a horse track—or a poker game.
Starring Christian Bale, Wes Studi, Rosamund Pike, Jesse Plemons, Adam Beach, Rory Cochrane, Ben Foster
Written by Scott Cooper
Story by Donald E. Stewart
Directed by Scott Cooper
Produced by Scott Cooper, Ken Kao, John Lesher
Music by Max Richter
Cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi
Edited by Tom Cross
“Hostiles” is one of those dramas that are released every year in late December, with a plan to open the film in more theaters nationwide in January during the awards season, with hopes of an increased audience awareness in January and February, but ends up lost in the shuffle, with little or no adequate advance advertising, marketing and awareness, and subsequently opens to small audiences, is seen by few, and is quickly forgotten and disappears. This happens every year—often with quality films that deserve to be seen and heard and recognized—and it’s again a factor of simply too many films being released in too short of a time period in November and December. Hollywood still needs to learn that the film industry is simply releasing too many movies in November and December, and some quality films do get lost amid the hectic release schedule. “Hostiles,” while not a great film on any level, but a film with some solid acting performances and a film with a hugely important message to deliver, is one of the films that got lost in the shuffle in the 2017 holiday season release schedule. The film opened very small in late December, had a wider release in January, 2018—but faced some competition, fared poorly, and was quickly forgotten by moviegoers.
“Hostiles” tells the story of U.S. Army Capt. Joseph Blocker (an overly-brooding, overly-depressing Christian Bale), a racist, American Indian-hating career military officer with a history of murdering Native Americans, who is assigned in 1892 to accompany a cancer-stricken and dying Cheyenne Chief, Yellow Hawk, from New Mexico to Yellow Hawk’s native Montana, so Yellow Hawk can die in his home country. However, Blocker’s assignment is derailed first by the discovery of Rosalie, a half-crazed widow mourning the murders of her family, and then by orders to also transfer a criminal, a sergeant, to his court martial and hanging on the way to Montana.
Although there are several bright possibilities for a dramatic story and set of stories to tell in “Hostiles” set against a Western trek at the end of the 1800s—the rapid changes occurring then in the United States, the changing views toward the murder and destruction and criminality toward Indians, the rapid Western exploration and destruction of American Indian lands, the increasing industrialization in the country, and the increasingly diminishing Midwest and West as it was known for centuries, and other changes occurring at the time—the film instead focuses on Blocker’s increasingly messy assignment and the conflicting emotions that Blocker and his fellow soldiers feel toward American Indians. While those elements are still good stories to tell—with the needed, important lessons about bigotry, prejudice, hate, violence and the United States’ coordinated murder and destruction of the American Indian culture in the West—there still needed to be more of a focus on the larger picture at hand, more insightful dialogue, a less-violent story, and a less tense, intense and violent atmosphere altogether. The film, and the story, are dragged down by its too-narrowly-focused story, its too-sheltered focus on violence and hatred, and an overall atmosphere of tension and violence that eventually makes the film almost unwatchable.
Nevertheless, “Hostiles” includes some quality acting, some beautiful scenery depicting the Old West, a stand-out performance by Wes Studi as Yellow Hawk, and a worthwhile, quality set of performances by the actors who portray Yellow Hawk’s faithful family. In fact, “Hostiles” would have been a much better—and likeable—film if the main character was Yellow Hawk, and if the film told the story with Yellow Hawk and his family squarely at the center, with Blocker and his crew of racist, hateful, violent and psychotic morons and idiots as the secondary characters. Alas, filmgoers have to deal with Bale’s portrayal of Blocker as a person so confused, so conflicted, so heavy in his heart—and so few of words—the character eventually becomes difficult to watch and care about—much like Molly Bloom in “Molly’s Game.”
Again, “Hostiles” should have been a completely different film—a movie told from the main, central focus of Yellow Hawk and his family, with the focus on them, their extended family, their tribe, and their horrible, inexcusable tribulations at the hands of the federal government in the 1800s regarding American Indians.
“Hostiles,” though, does provide a presentation for the message that the United States government committed a century-long series of criminal acts, lies, deceit, deception, corruption—and murder, violence and theft—toward American Indians, killing men, women and children; pushing people off of their rightful, legal lands; destroying nations, tribes, people, families, animals, lands, crops and cultural artifacts; destroying land and game and fish and forests; lying to indigenous peoples; and scores of other atrocities. Rarely do people want to address the criminal acts committed toward Native Americans by the United States government in public, in life or in film, but the story does need to be told. Thus, “Hostiles,” despite its script, storytelling, violence, tone, character and acting difficulties, is a film that should be seen and heard. And it’s a film that deserves a better fate than it received in regards to its advertising, marketing, publicity and release schedule.
“Hostiles” is not a huge player in the 2017 awards season, but hopefully the American Indian community can find a way to honor Wes Studi’s performance as Yellow Hawk. There are so many important themes, messages, morals and lessons always to tell about the unfortunate history of American Indians in the United States, and Wes Studi should be honored in some manner for helping to tell that story as the brave, courageous, righteous and, in the end, heroic Yellow Hawk in “Hostiles.”
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Dan Stevens, Sterling K. Brown, James Cromwell
Written by Michael Koskoff, Jacob Koskoff
Director by Reginald Hudlin
Produced by Paula Wagner, Reginald Hudlin, Jonathan Sanger
Music by Marcus Miller
Cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel
Edited by Tom McArdle
Reginald Hudlin’s excellent “Marshall”—one of the better films of 2017—is wonderful, deserved far more attention from the public than it received, should have been a huge hit, tells a great story, features stand-out acting performances from lead actors Chadwick Boseman and Josh Gad (the film marks Gad’s best performance yet and another blockbuster, stand-out performance from Boseman), has wonderful and confident direction from Reginald Hudlin, features excellent period detail on all levels, and has a set of important messages and lessons that everyone should see, hear and heed. “Marshall” is one of many excellent films, and film biographies, that were released in 2017, should have been huge hits—and should have been more strongly recognized and praised during the awards season.
“Marshall” joins “Victoria and Abdul,” “The Rebel in the Rye,” “Darkest Hour,” “Molly’s Game” and “The Greatest Showman” in a list of not only some of the best movies released in 2017, but also excellent film biographies released in 2017. With these six well-done, quality, recommended film biographies, 2017 was a banner, memorable year for excellent film biographies. Additionally, it should be noted, while “Darkest Hour” did receive some major Academy Award nominations; “Molly’s Game” received one major script-related Academy Award; “Victoria and Abdul” did receive two well-deserved technical and artistic Academy Award nominations; and “Marshall” and “The Greatest Showman” did received Academy Award nominations for Best Original Song,” “Marshall,” “Victoria and Abdul,” “The Rebel in the Rye” and “The Greatest Showman” deserved far more widespread recognition during the awards season—and these movies all deserved far more public recognition at the box office.
“Marshall” is set in 1940, and a young Thurgood Marshall—a deserving, intelligent, hard-working and caring rising star even then in the legal field—is assigned in a still-troubled Connecticut to defend a black chauffeur, Joseph Spell, who is wrongly and crazily accused of rape against a conflicted, troubled white woman who’s not entirely believable (yes, there are similarities in the story, characters, situations and courtroom aspects to Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but the true-life story of “Marshall” and the movie do not steal, of course, in way from Lee or Mockingbird, most importantly because of the movie’s overall strengths and the fact that “Marshall” is telling a true story). Marshall himself, due to some moronic and ridiculous backstage political idiocy, bias, patronage and corruption from the judge in the case—the judge is the father of the prosecutor in the case–is told that he can work on the case, but he cannot speak in the courtroom, and thus he is paired with an insurance lawyer, Sam Friedman, who is wholly inexperienced in criminal case trial law. Thus, Friedman is reluctant at first to even take the case. But, in a wonderful series of scenes, plot developments, story development and dialogue sequences that are beautifully written and presented, Marshall and Friedman learn to work together, learn how to put together a case, learn how to work against a blue-blood prejudiced society and system, learn a bit about each other—and learn to win against a stereotypical New England, white-dominated, blue-blood, silver-spoon system and society seemingly stacked against, yes, a young black man, Marshall, and a young Jewish man, Friedman, in the still quite-prejudiced, biased, racist and anti-Semitic New England of 1940.
“Marshall” thus becomes a courtroom drama, yes, but an excellent courtroom drama with a story that in real life literally and realistically had national implications in the areas of law; civil rights; legal rights; the Civil Rights movement; the Civil Rights era; the continuing American battles, fights, protests and demonstrations against racism, bigotry, prejudice, hate, race-related violence, legal system racism and discrimination; the societal horrors of discrimination in general; segregation; and basic human rights in a changing America that was slowly veering away from its horrible, terrible history of racism, hatred, segregation, discrimination and civil rights corruption. As Marshall and Friedman try their case, the NAACP is rising in power—even in 1940—and the seeds of the Civil Rights movement are starting to grow—again, even at that time. Marshall, in fact, is in such demand as a powerful lawyer that he’s even bizarrely called away from the Connecticut case to work on another case in New Orleans, leaving Friedman to defend Spell on his own in Connecticut.
To watch Marshall and Friedman learn to work together—again, a young black man and a young Jewish man in still predominantly white—and, in many areas of society, still-racist and still-anti-Semitic—1940s Connecticut, and to watch Friedman bravely, courageously and heroically deliver his final statements in the case by himself is wonderfully inspiring, exhilarating, smart, intelligent—and wholly entertaining. Josh Gad, as noted, delivers a career-high performance as Friedman. Chadwick Boseman amazingly turns in yet another excellent biographical-oriented film performance as the young Thurgood Marshall. Believe it or not, Boseman has now played Jackie Robinson in 2013’s “42,” James Brown in 2014’s “Get On Up,” and now a young Thurgood Marshall in 2017’s “Marshall.” Next up: T’Challa, the Black Panther, in 2018’s “Black Panther.” Not bad, Chadwick Boseman—not bad at all!
Film biographies and period films, of course, provide great artistic, historical and creative challenges to production designers, set designers, art directors, props masters, costuming and wardrobe crews, hair and make-up crews, set dressers and the many other talented people who work on films to elicit the accurate feeling of a certain, time- and setting-specific place and atmosphere. 2017 was a banner year—yes, just like so many other years—for these talented film workers, and they all excelled in scores of period films and film biographies. These workers on “Marshall” also did a great job with buildings, cars, props, clothes and set details in presenting believable and realistic settings from the 1940s for “Marshall,” and they are to be commended.
Additionally, director and co-producer Reginald Hudlin and screenwriters Michael and Jacob Koskoff are to commended for an overall level of production, direction and writing in “Marshall.” And a supporting cast that includes Kate Hudson and James Cromwell, among others, is also to be commended.
“Marshall” is a quality, excellent film that did not receive the level of box office or awards attention that the film should have received, especially considering the bevy of important messages that the film has to tell, and considering the film delivers these messages in a positive, optimistic, non-violent—and entertaining manner. “Marshall” did get an Academy Award for Best Original Song, but the film deserved other award nominations, too.
Of course, after the events depicted in “Marshall,” Thurgood Marshall went on to be one of the most important lawyers, judges and civil rights activists in the United States. Sam Friedman went on to become, also, one of the more important civil rights activists in the United States. And Joseph Spell was found not guilty. Justice prevailed.
Go see “Marshall” and take to heart its vital, important lessons—that all people are equal, and every person deserves the same basic civil and human rights as anyone else.