Tag Archives: The Social Network

‘Molly’s Game’ Review: Jessica Chastain is electric in Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut

Aaron Sorkin is one of the few screenwriters to have become a recognizable name to the general audience, and for good reason. His scripts, for the likes of The Social Network and Steve Jobs, are masterful. So, him making his directorial debut, not only in features, but in either film or television, is a major point in his career.

With Molly’s Game, Sorkin proves himself behind the camera as well as he does on the page. Following Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) as she runs one of the most prestigious underground poker games in the country, the film is full of flash and glamor, and the editing of high stake sequences both at the table and beyond it is razor sharp.

But Sorkin does not simply allow the film to be about the extravagance of the poker. Every part of the story builds the character of Molly Bloom in deliciously dynamic feminist fashion. Much of the conflict of the story comes from toxic men and their abuse of power, such as when Bloom’s day job boss, who initially started the poker game, forces her to work for free because he thinks she’s making too much off of tips from the game.

Yet, this conflict adds to the central dilemma at Bloom’s core. She was nearly an Olympic skier until sustaining a devastating injury, and, ever since, or maybe even much earlier from her father’s tough parenting, she’s been searching for identity. The structure of the film revolves around this search, in that Bloom is portrayed at her highest when the games are going well and the players respect her, but that high only leads her to overcompensate and endanger what defines her — a structurally brilliant ebb and flow of character development.

Bloom is so well-defined and well-rounded, but it’s difficult to imagine her in the hands of anyone other than Jessica Chastain. Bloom narrates throughout the movie — a surprising move that somehow works, in part because the narration is edited so smoothly into the rhythm of the pacing, but largely because of Chastain’s vigorous line delivery.

When on screen, Chastain manages the tricky balancing act of channeling the spark of Sorkin’s dialogue while also shaping a character that feels naturally lived in. And as the film comes to an end and Chastain completely owns the character’s climactic moment, we truly feel for Bloom on an unexpected emotional level.

While it may not have held a stylistic flair quite like David Fincher’s The Social Network, Molly’s Game showcases Sorkin’s undoubtable directorial ability to translate the page into a magnetic visual story. But even regardless of that, the film is a platform upon which Jessica Chastain reasserts herself as one of the most powerful actresses working today.

Grade: B+

 

Featured image via Michael Gibson/STX Entertainment.

Revising Oscar nominations from 2010-2016

Whenever Andrew Garfield appears in a film — Garfield’s most recent, Breathe, released this past weekend, and he’s getting Oscar buzz for his performance — it’s hard not to think about how he should’ve been nominated for his supporting role in The Social Network.

And once that ball gets rolling, it’s hard not to think about the other painful snubs across the past few years, of which there are plenty.

The Academy Awards will never, ever get it completely right, but sometimes they get it so wrong that, even years later, we’re still talking about it. Here are a few per year since 2010:

2010

Best Director
Insert: Christopher Nolan, Inception
Remove: David O. Russell, The Fighter

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Inception is one of the best and most significant blockbusters of the 21st century, an unparalleled vision composed with such perfect precision by director Christopher Nolan. The fact that this film works not only on a conceptual level, but also on a story level, is a feat that’s still under-appreciated today. But the technical craftsmanship is too obvious for Nolan’s omission to be understandable at all. While The Fighter is a good film, a really good one even, it’s no match for the achievement of Inception.

Best Supporting Actor
Insert: Andrew Garfield, The Social Network
Remove: Jeremy Renner, The Town

Columbia/Courtesy

Jeremy Renner is just fine in The Town. Is he Oscar worthy? Not entirely. How the Academy overlooked Andrew Garfield’s amazingly committed turn as Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network is shocking. Garfield is the heart of that film, embodying the source of its fascination and the weight of its humanity — a far more impressive accomplishment than even the film’s lead, Jesse Eisenberg, who was nominated. When we think of the powerhouse scenes, we think of Garfield’s high intensity back-and-forths with the rest of the actors portraying Facebook founders, an intensity that is almost wholly missing without him. Garfield should’ve even competed for the win, and could’ve taken it had Christian Bale been correctly nominated in the lead category for The Fighter.

2011

Best Director
Insert: Bennett Miller, Moneyball
Remove: Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris

Columbia/Courtesy

Bennett Miller was nominated for Best Director for Foxcatcher. While that was deserved, his best directing job came with Moneyball. Similar to Adam McKay with The Big Short, Miller takes a niche and incredibly complex topic — baseball statistics and their implementation by the front office — and renders it palatable and human. The control of tone, the fluidity of pace and the composition of scenes — the trading for Ricardo Rincon comes to mind — are all signs of a director at his most refined. And while Brad Pitt did deserve a Best Lead Actor nomination, it’s Bennett Miller who makes the character of Billy Beane so utterly affecting. The juxtaposition of flashbacks, the editing and more all define the character of Beane in ways that other directors should study. Woody Allen may have deserved a spot on an objective, merit-based level, but Hollywood has to realize that the Oscars aren’t just based on merit. The Oscars celebrate figures, artists, and Allen is not one who should be celebrated.

Best Original Screenplay
Insert: Will Reiser, 50/50
Remove: Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris

Summit Entertainment/Courtesy

The reasons to remove Allen are the same. Will Reiser, writer of the Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen comedy-drama about cancer, would be next in line, and arguably deserved a spot anyway. The year offered a nomination to Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo for the comedy Bridesmaids, and rightfully so, but 50/50 is just as brilliant of a script. The comedy is sharp, the plotting is incredibly spirited and the character work is powerfully vulnerable. It’s a comedy that realizes that horrible situations need humor, that they often spark humor, and that that humor comes from a very human place.

2012

Best Picture
Insert: The Master
Remove: Les Misérables

Annapurna/Courtesy

It was difficult to see how Paul Thomas Anderson could follow up There Will Be Blood, easily one of the greatest films of the 21st century and possibly ever. At first, many felt that he whiffed with The Master. But looking back, one can quickly realize that, somehow, The Master comes close to TWBB. A seering, haunting, strange and mesmerizing look at (allegedly) scientology, the film is a masterpiece on every front, a distinctly American tale that melds the best of prestige, arthouse and flare while remaining unpretentious. The screenplay is one of the most intelligently crafted of recent memory, with scientology’s ideology deeply rooted in every single detail, and the duo of Joaquin Phoenix and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman is genuinely unmatched, with Phoenix’s performance seriously rivaling Daniel Day-Lewis’ in PTA’s previous film. Evidently, it didn’t need recognition for us to come to this current conclusion of its greatness, but it’s a bit silly to suggest that Les Misérables is in the same league.

Best Director
Insert: Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
Remove: David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook

Columbia/Courtesy

Kathryn Bigelow won Best Director for The Hurt Locker. She deserved it. And then she followed that up with as viscerally affecting of a film in Zero Dark Thirty. She didn’t even get nominated. David O. Russell did just fine with Silver Linings Playbook, but no where in that film is there anything special about its direction. With Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow traverses years, complex political machinations, an unbelievable character arc and one of the most tense military operations of our time, and pulls each aspect off in such expert fashion. It’s a film that showcases the best of her directorial chops, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the film itself.

2013

Best Picture
Insert: Fruitvale Station
Remove: Philomena

Forest Whitaker’s Significant Productions/OG Project/Courtesy

Oscar bait is a problematic term that shouldn’t be used. It’s difficult to find the right phrase to replace it. Whatever it is, though, Philomena is a film that represents it. It’s a fine movie, an enjoyable one, a harmless one, one that tells an emotional true story. But there’s nothing about the film that makes it one of the 10 best of its year, and it’s infuriating how the Academy, time and time again, goes for this kind of safe, standard and, quite honestly, boring type of picture. The best films of the year — granted, a problematic term itself — shouldn’t necessarily go to the most well-polished, but rather to the films that transcend the art. And Fruitvale Station is, undoubtedly, one of those films. Recounting the day leading up to the tragic killing of Oscar Grant by police, Ryan Coogler’s directorial debut breathes with life. It clearly has a message, but it injects that message into the veins of the film, bases and builds it organically, crafting empathy, joy and intimacy with such pressing reality. We’re not told an idea up front or too explicitly, but when we encounter that harrowing, soul-crushing final act, we understand it, without needing to say anything. The life built into the film vanishes, purposefully, and we’re moved in intangible ways. Coming a year after the killing of Trayvon Martin, Fruitvale Station is a necessary film that should be remembered, and the type of film the Oscars need to start recognizing if they actually want to honor the art of film.

Best Lead Actor
Insert: Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
Remove: Christian Bale, American Hustle

CBS Films/Courtesy

It’s hard to remove Christian Bale, one of the best and most dedicated actors of our time. And in most other years, we couldn’t remove him. Yet, there are quite a few performances in 2013 that deserved that final spot more than he did. Tom Hardy in Locke is one of them. But Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis is one that not only should’ve been nominated, but one that should’ve made a serious run for the win. His character, Llewyn Davis, is a grumpy, tired asshole, which makes it so shocking that he ends up being one of the most soulful and human we’ve seen this decade. That’s all Oscar Isaac. Isaac brings a tired physicality, one that can be tangibly understood and seen in his body and his face, in the tonal quality of his voice. And not just that — Isaac performs his own songs, not only bringing immense musical talent but thoroughly adapting the character of Davis musically. Like The MasterInside Llewyn Davis is a distinctly American film, and like Joaquin Phoenix’s work, Isaac’s performance elevates that quality immeasurably, defining a face of the American psyche.

2014

Best Lead Actor
Insert: Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Remove: Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game

Open Road Films/Courtesy

Benedict Cumberbatch is great in The Imitation Game, and offers a performance that makes it hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Removing him here doesn’t deny any of that. It simply recognizes that Jake Gyllenhaal’s transformation for Nightcrawler is one of the best of the 21st century. Other than hairstyling, Gyllenhaal looks like himself in the movie. And yet, as Lou Bloom, we see nothing of the actor, and that’s because the transformation is of every facet of acting. Gyllenhaal’s tonal level isn’t changed, but his vocal pacing is entirely intrinsic to the character. His bulging eyes, quick movements and physical rapport with other actors are not only invasively terrifying, crafting awe-strikingly gripping scenes, but they’re informative of who the character is — such detailed work only the most masterful actors pull off. Nightcrawler is both a character study and a film about the terrible culture of video news, but those two aspects compliment and augment each other, and because of Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance, every bit of its collective impact is enhanced.

Best Director
Insert: Ava DuVernay, Selma
Remove: Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game

Paramount/Courtesy

While we don’t have to deny how good Cumberbatch is in his film, we must refute any association of Morten Tyldum with the Best Director category. The Imitation Game is a fine film. It’s a crowd-pleaser. But it’s unfortunately reserved, and otherwise standard, suppressing a lot of the humanity that is actually there in this story. A film that is not reserved nor standard, and elevates its humanity, through the work of its director, is Ava DuVernay’s Selma. The technical craftswomanship here is stunning, with bone-shakingly rousing scenes of both action and conversation. There’s a liveliness, a humanity that’s extended to each facet of filmmaking — a testament to her guiding hand. On the intangible side, though, DuVernay’s grasp of the spirit at the story’s core can be felt in every scene, doing such profound justice to such an important story.

Best Animated Feature
It should’ve won: The LEGO Movie

Warner Bros./Courtesy

The audible gasps at the announcement ceremony when The LEGO Movie was not nominated for Best Animated Feature will haunt us indefinitely. If it was rules that caused its omission, as the film did feature a few live-action scenes, screw the rules. However, we don’t even want to think of what the reason might be, though, if not rules. Thankfully, everyone already knew that the film was the best animated picture of 2014, even before nominations. So there’s no case that needs to be made other than to point it out, and keep pointing it out.

2015

Best Supporting Actress
Insert: Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
Remove: Rachel McAdams, Spotlight

A24/Courtesy

Rachel McAdams may be impressively committed in Spotlight. And if Alicia Vikander’s Oscar-winning performance in The Danish Girl was rightfully nominated in the Best Lead Actress category, removing McAdams would be unnecessary. That’s all semantics, however, as, regardless, Alicia Vikander’s other performance of 2015, as the AI Ava in Ex Machina, deserved a nomination. It may have gone unrecognized due to the artifice of the character hiding the true merit of the performance, but her turn is so utterly controlled and precise, nuanced and minutely accentuated in service of that artifice. Similar to Domhnall Gleeson’s character in reaction to Ava, we don’t immediately recognize the immense complexities of Vikander’s performance, and that’s purposeful. Ideally, Vikander would’ve won the lead category for The Danish Girl and the supporting category for Ex Machina. But ignoring a nomination for the latter altogether is frustratingly puzzling.

Best Supporting Actor
Insert: Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
Remove: Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight

Netflix/Courtesy

How does an actor win the SAG, but not even get nominated at the Oscars? Well, sadly for Idris Elba, forces outside of the film and his performance resulted in that. At the time, Netflix was rather new to film production/distribution, with Beasts of No Nation being its first fictional narrative endeavor, and many hated the idea of what the streaming company might do to the film industry. While it’s technically speculative, those factors likely pushed Elba out. In a just world, though, Elba is inarguably nominated. His command of the screen is transfixing, his definition of character quite tragic. As much as we find heart, the humanity impacted by these wars, in lead actor Abraham Attah, we find the other end of that heart in Elba, a quality formed by his unforgiving take. It’s a performance we must encounter uncomfortably, but one we understand as necessary by the end of the film.

Best Adapted Screenplay
It should’ve won: Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs

Universal/Courtesy

Some contend with the portrayal of its central figure, but it’s ridiculous to ignore the brilliance of Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs screenplay. The dialogue is arguably Sorkin’s best, rapidly sharp and biting, reminiscent of The Social Network, yet wholly organic to the subject matter. The control of character and the composition of the many face-offs with the likes of Steve Wozniak and John Sculley are dynamic, electric and spellbinding. The script truly shows how there’s no one quite like Sorkin, and it does everything that The Big Short screenplay does, yet even more polished. How it was not even nominated will forever be a mystery.

2016

Best Lead Actress
Insert: Amy Adams, Arrival
Remove: Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

Paramount/Courtesy

Florence Foster Jenkins is a problematic film, wholly unaware of the white privilege at its core and played for sympathy in rather off-putting ways. And Meryl Streep isn’t even good in it! It’s hard to call the performance impressive and impossible to point to any of her scenes as particularly engaging. It’s so bad that it makes the snub of Amy Adams even more difficult to stomach. In Arrival, Adams is tender and unknowing, lively and explorative. We sense something so real about her character’s bravery, and feel such raw, overwhelming heartbreak at her monologue in the final act. Adams doesn’t have a powerhouse scene of direct, overt emotion, but she delivers so many subtle scenes that are just as moving precisely because we can feel so much weight in what’s withheld and beneath the surface. Arrival is an incredibly important film about the need for communication, empathy and love, but it wouldn’t be that in its entirety without Amy Adams embodying each aspect.

Best Supporting Actress
Insert: Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women
Remove: Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures

A24/Courtesy

Greta Gerwig’s performance in 20th Century Women can be defined by many of the same qualities of Amy Adams’ performance — tender, unknowing, lively, explorative. Her character’s power comes from this willingness to embrace life in ways others don’t, toned simultaneously by a courage to take hold of life’s potential and by an honest vulnerability when some of that potential is taken away from her — all coming, distinctly and lovingly, from the eyes of an American woman in the 70s. Gerwig delivers a full picture of her character and is quite mesmerizing throughout. Octavia Spencer isn’t bad in Hidden Figures — she’s never not brilliant in anything — but, in terms of acting, there’s just not enough there to genuinely warrant the nomination over Gerwig. In a career full of wonderful performances, Gerwig’s turn in 20th Century Women might just be her best.

 

Featured image via Columbia Pictures.

When Harry Met Movies: First Impressions — Column

This site lists me as Associate Editor and Co-Chief Film Critic, but a more accurate title might be Executive Film Noob For Life. The Social Network is a film that I should probably watch instead of writing this column, while Seven Samurai and Mulholland Drive are films that I should watch before doing either of those things. I know that Citizen Kane is THE CITIZEN KANE of all films past, present and forthcoming, but don’t ask me to tell you why. I think it’s because there’s a snow globe of particular symbolic weight, but that’s the best I can do. Neither can I tell you anything about Fellini, other than that they’ve got great lunch specials and killer marinara.

In a vain attempt at regaining credibility — admitting that I haven’t seen The Social Network makes such a task more or less insurmountable — I’ll assure you that I can speak somewhat intelligibly about the beginnings of the French New Wave and Claude Chabrol’s La Beau Serge, but that’s only because I saw it for the first time two weeks ago in a film class. The week before that, I discovered Singin’ in the Rain and last Thursday I watched my first Alfred Hitchcock film (Rope).

The gaps in my knowledge of film might be many, but within them lies some degree of excitement — watching things for the first time is always special, particularly if it’s one of those (many) movies I should have seen by now. While everyone else gets to grin slightly at the familiar, decades-old dance numbers of Gene Kelly, I get to watch them with a wide, dumb smile. Similarly, there’s nothing like discovering and delighting in the macabre of Hitchcock, or the perennial freshness of the French New Wave. It’s like that scene from Wonder Woman, when Diana tries ice cream for the first time and tells the vendor that he should be proud of himself (Gene, Alfred, Claude, you all can take a bow).

I bet you wish you could remember the exact moments leading up to that first spoonful of ice cream, the unique joy during it and the “You should be proud of yourself!” after. I bet you wish you could recall the initiating thrills of Star Wars; what it was like to fall for a jump scare in Jaws — I certainly wish I did. Therein lies the upside to the admittedly wide gaps in my film knowledge. I get to preserve the memory of a first viewing more fully, to etch in my mind, in vivid detail, what it was like to fill those gaps.

Of course, not every movie goes down like a gob of Cherry Garcia, but even then, simply leaving the theater is an occasion to remember. The overwhelming relief that flooded me at the end of Transformers: The Last Knight (it was a press screening, so don’t get mad at me for paying for a ticket) is something I won’t want to forget anytime soon, especially since I suffered through its relentless quest of disorientation with one of my best friends from high school — fitting, since our years of secondary education and that franchise can be described with more or less the same words. Most recently, I’ll never forget the mad dash a friend and I made for a consolatory cup of ice cream after mother!, the way we both knew what we wanted as soon as we left the theater, and how I stumbled over my words as I ordered.

I’ve begun ranking movies as I see them, and recording where I saw them. If applicable, I write down the people I saw them with. Movies are an essential part of my life, and I want to remember, if not capture, the feeling of watching them for the first time. I have a lot to catch up on, but that’s not something to be ashamed of since there’s so much joy to be had in filling those gaps. It’s a task whose enormity does not preclude its own infinite capacity to delight, horrify or inspire.

‘When Harry Met Movies’ is a weekly column from Associate Editor and Co-Chief Film Critic Harrison Tunggal about movies that shape us and why we love them.

 

Featured image via MGM.