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By Noah Gittell

“Molly’s Game” is a slick and fascinating film that reveals both the possibilities and limits of female redemption in a man’s world. For his directorial debut, uber-writer Aaron Sorkin (“A Few Good Men,” “The Social Network”) has optioned the true story of Molly Bloom, who ran a high-stakes poker game for ten years before being indicted by the FBI for dubious connections with the Russian mob. The tabloids dubbed her the “Poker Princess,” and she was caricatured and convicted in the public eye long before her case even got to court. Sorkin seeks to redeem her from that fate, and for most of the film, “Molly’s Game” succeeds as a heroic portrait of its subject. But in key moments, Sorkin’s male gaze fails him, and the limits of his approach become painfully clear.

We first meet Molly (Jessica Chastain) as a hyper-driven teenager, a competitive skier compelled to excellence by her overbearing father (Kevin Costner). After injuring herself in the Olympics, she moves to Los Angeles and ends up hosting a high-stakes poker game. She knows how to succeed in a world of men. She gets the job by flirting skillfully at her cocktail waitress job with Dean, who runs the game; succeeds at the job by earning the respect and admiration of the all-male players, including movie stars and titans of business; and she breaks out on her own, after her skeevy male boss tries to coerce her into taking a pay cut. She brings the players with her, including big fish Player X (Michael Cera), a mega-star whose fame draws others into the game, and pretty soon, she is exchanging millions on a nightly basis.

Sorkin, an award-winning screenwriter, has been around Hollywood for decades, and in his directorial debut, he successfully passes himself off as a veteran. The surfaces are slick; he leans on Scorsese’s style of caffeinated editing and use of pop music to immerse us in the thrills of high-stakes poker, and the first half of “Molly’s Game” goes down so smooth you might catch a buzz against your will.

Chastain gives a typically understated performance: Molly is so controlled, using her calm and charisma to project stability, that it’s easy to underestimate the skill involved in her performance. Watching her push around the pathetic gamblers who pass as her friends – Chris O’Dowd is aces in comic relief as a harmless drunk – is a giddy delight, but when her humanity reveals itself in an errant tear or quaking voice, it is equally thrilling.

These sequences are all told in flashback, but the film fumbles a bit in present-day narrative that finds Molly in dialogue with her lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who takes the case after being impressed with Molly’s character. She won’t turn over the hard drives containing information about her clients to the FBI, and Jaffey, the only high-priced Manhattan lawyer who doubles as a good Samaritan, takes her case. Jaffey is just one of several men on which Molly depends, undercutting Sorkin’s feminist intent. He gets a big speech towards the end in which he passionately defends Molly’s virtues to the FBI, and the way she looks up at him in admiration indicates she has just been waiting for a handsome man like Elba to save her. She is a princess after all.

Even worse is the emotional climax of the film, in which her father reappears on the eve of her court date. Spotting her in Central Park, he proceeds to sit her down and <mansplain> her deep-rooted psychological motivations. Spoiler alert: he says that everything Molly did – leaving skiing, starting the poker game, refusing to back down from the FBI – is to get back at him for a childhood transgression whose reveal comes out of nowhere. It’s an unconscionably terrible scene that wraps her complications up in too tidy a bow, reducing her from an independently strong woman to a little girl with lingering daddy-daughter issues.

It’s hard to imagine a female filmmaker making such a crucial error. In trying to make her more interesting than the cartoonish “Poker Princess” the tabloid sold her as, Sorkin just puts her in a different box, still defining her within the rules of his man’s world. A female filmmaker might have been able to tell Molly’s story as her own. Instead, “Molly’s Game” feels more like one man rescuing her from another. It’s a very satisfying story, even if it’s not the one she would have told about herself.

My Rating: See it in the Theater

AT THE MOVIES

By Noah Gittell

There are certain unalienable truths about Tom Cruise. His smile always works. He always gets the girl. He doesn’t die (except in “Collateral” when he played the villain). These qualities made Cruise the most infallible movie star of the last 35 years, but nothing lasts forever, especially in Hollywood. In his latest, Doug Liman’s “American Made,” he inhabits the same type of hero he has perfected in the past – the cocksure American winner - but for the first time there are chinks in his shiny armor. His smile is now a salesman’s smile, and it hides a deeper fear. His girl threatens to leave him constantly, and for the first time, we sense the possibility that he might not make it out alive. In a few scenes, he is actually missing a tooth, which turns that movie star grin into a comedic prop.

His character in “American Made” plays like a subversion of role that launched his movie star career: Maverick in “Top Gun.” Here, Cruise is Barry Seal, a commercial airline pilot with the skill to be much more. First in his class at the Naval Academy, he now supplements his modest income for his wife (Sarah Wright) and child by smuggling Cuban cigars in from Canada. The CIA, represented only by the smarmy, mysterious Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) use the cigars for leverage to get him engaged in more serious flying. It’s 1979, and they want him to take surveillance photos of the Communist rebels in Latin America. It’s a dangerous job, but Seal is so bored he would have done it for free.

Structurally, the story is framed by a series of videos made by Seal in a cheap motel room, putting his story down on tape in case something happens to him. It’s a well-worn technique, but it allows Cruise to speak directly to the audience, using his charisma to anchor the film’s wildly scattered plot. When he looks out at us from beneath his still-brown bangs, it remains unthinkable to look away. “It gets crazy from here,” he says at one point, and it does indeed, but we’re willing to follow him into any situation.

After winning praise for his photos of the rebels, the CIA asks him to start smuggling – first cash, then guns, then eventually the Contras themselves. His charisma, which includes a spotty Southern accent, serves him well as he befriends Pablo Escobar, who is so charmed that he starts paying him to smuggle his product back into the U.S. Soon, Seal is running missions for every side, and making money faster than he and his family can spend it.

It’s a thrilling real-life story (although highly fictionalized), even if the telling is a little too familiar. With its fast pace, electric photography, and classic rock songs on the soundtrack, director Doug Liman is working from the playbook created by Martin Scorsese in “Goodfellas.” There are also hints of “Blow” and “American Hustle.” It’s the classic rise and fall of an American outlaw — an irresistible story — but these films increasingly favor style over substance, relying on energetic editing and evocative rock songs to make up for a lack of characterization or a predictable script.

For “American Made,” it works but just barely. The formulaic script by Gary Spinelli never conjures any real drama, but Liman keeps the pedal to the floor, moving so quickly through Seal’s real-life adventures that there is no time to stop and ask what it all means. Like one of Seal’s planes, it flies through the air at record speeds, and while it’s hard to keep track of the cargo, we’re there mostly just for the thrill.

Only Cruise – the star, the performer, and the actor – brings any real significance to “American Made.” If the character is a revision of the unbeatable, exceptional Cruise persona, it could be a harbinger of a next phase in his career that is long overdue. If not, Barry Seal represents only the type of character he should be playing, those who know that American exceptionalism is just a dream and every winning streak must come to an end.

My Rating: See it in the Theater

By Noah Gittell

To remake or not to remake? That is the question applied by the big movie studios in this era of creative bankruptcy to nearly every film that once captured the audience’s imagination. It’s easy to see the appeal, but “Murder on the Orient Express” makes for a bewildering case. The 1974 version, adapted from the famous Agatha Christie novel, was an enormous hit for director Sidney Lumet, but mysteries are out of vogue these days, and younger audiences are unlikely to turn up for a big-budget movie that features no superheroes in capes or short skirts.

It doesn’t help when the remake feels as acutely unnecessary as this one. It’s not that this “Murder on the Orient Express,” helmed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, is bad exactly. It simply never justifies its existence. The odd mishmash of tones – zany comedy one minute, maudlin melodrama the next – indicate Branagh never quite understands the story he is telling, or more importantly, why it needed to be told at all.

Plot-wise, the film hits beats familiar to fans of the book or original film. Hercule Poirot, a brilliant and eccentric detective with an oversized moustache, has just finished a case in Turkey, when he is called to London. He scores a cabin on the eponymous train, the height of luxury travel in the 1930s, at the last minute. He meets the other 11 passengers, and when one of them, a shady businessman named Ratchett (Johnny Depp), turns up dead, Poirot sets about solving the case before they arrive at their next destination.

With such a large cast and so little time, only a few actors are able to make much of an impression. Depp, playing off of his increasingly notorious reputation off-screen, somehow seems both menacing and impotent as the hustling crook who meets his bitter fate while asleep in his room. As a widow on the hunt for a new husband, Thankfully, Michelle Pfeiffer is also onboard, offering a nervous, flirtatious energy that becomes enriched with layers as the plot twists in her direction. Even Josh Gad, who has relied on an irritating comic broadness in films like “Love and Other Drugs” and, yes, “Frozen”, achieves a sweet melancholy as Ratchet’s alcoholic assistant.

Then there is the lead and most important role. Historically, Poirot is a refined character, refined but not aristocratic, cultured but possessing a deep, violent anger at the injustices of the world. The script by Michael Green gets the broad strokes right but never fully commits to this darkness. Instead, he gives Poirot a few lovable quirks. The detective has a mild case of OCD, constantly asking people to straighten their ties or complaining that the eggs he has ordered for breakfast are not precisely the same size. Similarly, the film gives him a shallow backstory, alluding to the traumatic death of a former lover but never fleshing out how this informed his character.

Branagh the actor makes up for these script deficiencies, imbuing the heroic detective with a sense of Shakespearean tragedy. Poirot can contort himself to fit any situation but never loses sight of his overriding sense of purpose. Hidden behind an absurdly long moustache, Branagh uses his piercing blue eyes to great effect, showing us the inner processes and the icy walls of a unique genius.

As director, however, he does not fare as well. He pulls off a few neat camera tricks – a dolly shot following Poirot as he boards the train is a standout –but the tone oscillates without reason. Scenes of emotional revelation are followed by action sequences. A last-minute decision by Poirot to test the villainy of his suspect(s) comes out of nowhere. This is what happens when a filmmaker doesn’t quite have a handle on the meaning of his work, or why he is wrestling it into existence.

None of which would be a problem if the plot’s central mystery could hold the viewer’s interest. Viewers new to the story have no reason to care, and those – like me – who know and loved the 1974 film will get bored rather quickly. We know how this story ends (or at least, we think we do), and most of the film is spent hoping that Poirot will hurry up and put the pieces together. In a mystery, something has gone very amiss when the audience is impatiently waiting for the brilliant detective to figure things out.

My Rating: Put it on your Queue

At the Movies

By Noah Gittell

Earlier this year, tennis legend John McEnroe caused a stir when he said that Serena Williams would be ranked “700 in the world” if she played on the men’s circuit. McEnroe was chastised for his comments and forced to apologize. But in 1974, when 55-year-old retired men’s champion Bobby Riggs began railing against women’s players for having the audacity to believe they should be paid as much as men, nobody made him say he was sorry. The only way to beat him was on the court.

“Battle of the Sexes” is the story of how women’s champion Billie Jean King struck a blow for feminism by beating the loudmouth Riggs in front of 90 million television viewers. The debates dramatized in the film are still relevant today, but the aesthetic and narrative choices made by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”) have the opposite impact. The grainy digital look and heavy political symbolism is surely intended to give the film urgency — it almost looks like a documentary at times — but instead it flattens the radical, passionate characters into cardboard cut-outs, turning what should have been a vibrantly political work of art into mere historical curiosity.

Emma Stone plays King, who, as the film begins, has just become the first woman to earn $100,000 in a season. Wanting to do the same for others, she convinces a group of colleagues to protest tennis’s gender pay gap — at the time, a men’s title was worth eight times a woman’s title — by starting their own, all-female tennis league. It’s a modest success, but it catches the eye of Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), a retired pro who is bored with retirement and spending time with his wife (Elisabeth Shue), and decides to challenge King to an exhibition match to earn extra money and, most importantly, have a little fun.

Riggs’s scheme is simple. To hype the match, he’ll act the part of a chauvinist buffoon, insulting King at every turn, mocking her second-wave feminist allies, and even posing nude in Playgirl. Riggs’s buffoonery is easy to mock, but that’s the idea. He didn’t really care about defeating feminism. “Battle of the Sexes” frames him not as a villain but merely a showman who didn’t understand the difficult position he was putting King in.

Therein lies the problem. Riggs thinks he can beat King, but he’s not really a chauvinist, which makes him an odd villain for this hyper-political tale. King doesn’t hate Riggs, but all of his goading forces her into the match, where the stakes feel high for him but low for her. That’s not a recipe for good drama, and the final match feels surprisingly inert. It’s not just that we know who’s going to win; it’s that the film never quite finds a reason for us to care. Even the performances by Stone and Carell – usually dependable – feel lackluster, with each of them coasting on their charisma, rather than creating fully formed characters.

If the professional drama is lacking, the film’s depiction of King’s personal life is the biggest unforced error. King’s relationship with her hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough) is drawn so superficially that what should have been a cathartic change in her character – married to a man, she has hidden her sexuality for years – hardly has any impact. They flirt at the beauty salon and have a night of passion in a hotel room, but what actually brings these two individuals together? Who are they? The film doesn’t know.

Maybe the problem is that “Battle of the Sexes” is just too nice. It doesn’t want to discover King’s flaws, only depict her as a perfect agent of social change. It insists on a happy ending for all its characters, even its villain. Following the last scene, onscreen text tells us that Riggs reconciled with his wife and lived happily ever after. It’s certainly justifiable to demonstrate how feminism benefits everyone — including men — but it robs the film of real drama, and turns an easy winner into an inexcusable double fault.

My Rating: Put it on Your Queue

 

By Noah Gittell

 

Movies are, as a rule, filled with exceptional characters. A screenwriting book I once read argued that uber-successful characters are more interesting to viewers than ordinary ones. If your protagonist is a struggling actor, the book suggested, why not make him an award-winning movie star instead? Filmmakers have taken these lessons to heart, and mainstream cinema is brimming with characters — be they doctors, teachers, or Top Gun pilots — who are the best at what they do. In a sense, every movie is a superhero movie.

 

Not “Lady Bird,” a refreshing coming-of-age comedy from writer/director Greta Gerwig in which no one is exceptional, and as a result, the film is. Based very loosely on Gerwig’s own upbringing in Sacramento, “Lady Bird” tells the story of one ordinary girl’s senior year of high school, and her efforts to claw her way out from under the thumb of her hyper-critical mother (Laurie Metcalf) and well-meaning but ineffectual father (Tracy Letts). She dates boys, fights with her best friend, and dreams of escaping her boring hometown for a more vibrant life in the big city. 

 

On paper, it may sound like every other teen movie this side of John Hughes, but Gerwig upends all the conventions of the genre. To wit, consider Christine’s nickname. As a symbolic rejection of her family, she calls herself Lady Bird. Instead of some punk name designed to shock her elders, it’s a name so old-fashioned that it can only be real. Similarly, the Catholic school she attends would, in a lesser film, be a source of extreme oppression, but the nuns are actually nice. When Lady Bird pastes a sign reading “Just Married to Jesus” on her teacher’s car to impress a cool friend, the elderly nun just laughs it off. 

 

Her family is poor (they literally live on the wrong side of the tracks), and even though she has neither the grades nor the finances for it, she applies to some top college on the East Coast. Like many before her, she believes she’ll find herself in New York, far away from the grip of her family. Meanwhile, she prepares for adult life by trying to lose her virginity, dating first a sweet, fumbling theater major (Lucas Hedges), and then swerving towards a cigarette-smoking bad boy (Timothee Chamalet), who plays in a band, reads Howard Zinn, and talks about living his life on a barter system.

 

These details matter. For those of us roughly of Lady Bird’s generation, they strike a chord of familiarity that is instantly endearing. We need this movie. The post-war generation got their anthem in George Lucas’s “American Graffiti,’ and Generation X had “Reality Bites.” If you came of age in the late ’90s or early 2000’s (too late for grunge, and too early to work for Google), “Lady Bird” may be the first film to authentically depict the details of your adolescence. When they started smoking cloves and listening to Reel Big Fish, I knew I’d love this movie forever.

 

But even if you’re not in Lady Bird’s exact demographic, the film tells its universal story with such specificity that it feels fresh and new. Saoirse Ronan again, following her magnetic turn in 2015’s “Brooklyn,” quietly commands the screen in a deceptively powerful performance. She is a character who hides her best self from the world, but Ronan makes a secret connection with the audience, ensuring that we can still see it. Meanwhile, even the least sympathetic characters – notably Metcalf’s controlling mother and Chamalet’s poseur rebel – are afforded respect, and are never punished. 

 

The approach is emblematic of Gerwig loving and generous authorial style. Looking back at her own adolescence, she avoids the tendency to either romanticize or harshly judge the transgressions of youth. In her first solo-directed film (she co-directed the indie film “Nights and Weekends” in 2008), she has delivered a spirited and empathetic work of self-reflection, and the best coming-of-age movie in years. For viewers of any generation, “Lady Bird” is a great gift.

 

 

My Rating: See it in the Theater

By Noah Gittell

According to the thermometer, fall has come sooner than normal this year. At the movies, that’s nothing new. The fall movie season typically kicks off the first week of September, when film festivals in Venice, Telluride, and Toronto showcase those films that are gearing up for an awards-season push. Here are the stories and the films that will be dominating your fall movie season:

Does Tom Cruise still have it?

You may not have noticed, but over the last five years, America’s favorite movie star has started to burn out. Flops like “The Mummy” and “Oblivion” stood out, but even seemingly surefire hits like “Edge of Tomorrow” and “Jack Reacher” underperformed. Needless to say, a lot is riding on “American Made” (September 22), the true story of a pilot hired by the CIA to run guns and cash between Latin America and the U.S. in the 1980s. It looks like a classic Cruise role — with all that time in the sky, sunglasses are essential — and with accomplished director Doug Liman at the helm, there is no excuse for another flop.

Can Matt Damon make a splash with unorthodox Oscar bait?

All of a sudden, Matt Damon is in demand, starring in two bizarre comedies that will surely be in the awards conversation. The one with the most buzz is “Downsizing” (December 22), a sci-fi comedy by Alexander Payne (“Nebraska,” “Sideways”) in which Damon plays a money-stressed husband who agrees to shrink himself in order to live a more modest lifestyle. Before that, he’ll star in pal George Clooney’s new directorial feature, “Suburbicon” (October 27), in which a milquetoast suburban father in a picturesque community is driven to murder to protect his family. If it sounds like a Coen brothers’ script, that’s because it is. Clooney’s frequent collaborators dusted off an old screenplay for their pal to direct.

Can Gary Oldman win his first Oscar?

With so many iconic performances under his belt, it’s shocking that British actor Oldman has never won Hollywood’s highest honor (personally, I think he should have won one for “True Romance,” but his performance of a violent drug dealer is not exactly Academy material). This year, he seems to be a shoo-in for putting on 60 pounds of makeup to portray Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour” (November 22), a biopic from director Joe Wright (“Atonement”).

Can Marvel actually let its directors direct?

Superhero movies make money — lots of it — but it doesn’t take superpowers to notice that they are sorely lacking in artistic character. More than one filmmaker has abandoned a project because the powers that be over at Marvel, Inc. won’t let them infuse the film with any real personality. That may be about to change. Director Taika Waititi is known for his quirky New Zealand sense of humor, and the early trailers of his “Thor: Ragnarok” (November 3) hint at a much goofier tone than Marvel has allowed in the past. Between “Thor” and next year’s “Black Panther,” directed by Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed”), our era of superheroes may be entering a new, more interesting phase.

Will Battle of the Sexes appeal beyond the PC crowd?

The true story behind “Battle of the Sexes” (September 22), in which retired tennis champion Bobby Riggs challenges women’s champion Billie Jean King to an exhibition match is tailor-made for these times. Riggs was a proud male chauvinist, while King was fighting for equal pay for women and, eventually, LGBTQ rights. The film will be hailed by the left for its politics alone but the presence of stars Steve Carell and Emma Stone in the lead roles indicates an interest in doing more than preaching to the choir. It will be fascinating to see how mainstream America responds.

Can Greta Gerwig do everything?

First, we knew Gerwig as a brilliant actor, in films like “Greenberg” and “Damsels in Distress.” Then, she began co-writing with her director/boyfriend Noah Baumbach. These films — “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America” — displayed a unique comic voice. Now, she is directing her first film, “Lady Bird” (November 10) an autobiographical coming-of-age drama starring Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn”) as a desperate high school senior in Gerwig’s hometown of Sacramento, California. With early raves pouring in from festivals, the sky’s the limit for this ascending bird.

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