Hot Hand

Molly’s Game

by Hope Madden

As screenwriters go, few have as noticeable a presence as Aaron Sorkin. A Sorkin screenplay = smart people saying smart things really quickly, over top of each other, often while walking.

His are dialogue-driven character pieces where brilliant people throw intellectual and moral challenges at one another while the audience wonders whether the damaged protagonist’s moral compass can still find true north.

That struggling hero this time around is Molly Bloom, played by the always-sharp Jessica Chastain. On first blush, the idea that Sorkin—directing his first feature—would choose to focus on a gossip-page celebrity criminal seems wrong. Bloom became tabloid fodder after her arrest made her high stakes, celebrity-filled poker games big news.

Gossip is not Sorkin’s wheelhouse, but unsung, solitary brilliance is and that’s what he hopes you see in Bloom, an Olympic-class skier with Harvard Law plans who found herself hosting insane poker games before realizing she had the wherewithal to build an epically lucrative business.

This is clear movie-of-the-week stuff elevated to something worthwhile because Sorkin is more interested in the evolution and entrapment of a brilliant mind than he is in movie stars playing poker. Although there is some of that, too, and it is provocatively handled by Michael Cera.

Playing against type and relishing the opportunity, Cera’s “Player X”—the Big Movie Star who just likes to ruin lives—is a spoiled brat and the performance is stand-out nasty.

The always underused Idris Elba is underused but excellent as Bloom’s reluctant-but-coming-around attorney Charley Jaffe. His slower, looser style counters Chastain’s machine gun cadence and the chemistry helps to keep the courtroom preparation interesting.

The problem with Molly’s Game—aside from its sometimes amazing similarities to Chastain’s 2016 courtroom drama Miss Sloane—are its many Sorkinisms. Chastain opens the film with an incredibly lengthy voiceover monologue providing all Molly’s backstory in the film’s first big misfire, but the almost dream-sequence bad scene between Molly and her psychoanalyst father (Kevin Costner) on a park bench is nearly insurmountable, Sorkin fan or no.

Appreciating Molly’s Game helps if you are a Sorkin fan. He has a particular style and, since he’s directing this one as well, there is no getting away from that style. There’s no David Fincher or Danny Boyle to supply a bit of visual flair to offset all of Sorkin’s writerly tendencies. Sorkin is everywhere, which is not necessarily a bad thing if you like sharp performances about smart people doing fascinating things.

Tart

Lemon

by Hope Madden

Lemon announces itself immediately.

As a documentary on the horrors of war plays on a TV, the camera pans a drab living room, finding a man asleep upright on a sofa. He wakes to realize he’s wet himself.

He is Isaac. Isaac is a lemon.

The documentary Isaac had slept and peed through provides the context for a story in which one man can so obliviously wallow in self-inflicted misery.

In quick succession, Isaac will dismiss what his (randomly blind) girlfriend Ramona (Judy Greer) has to say before publically humiliating a female student (Gillian Jacobs). Both are too focused on themselves.

Why aren’t they focused on him?

Co-writer Brett Gelman plays Isaac, a send-up of sorts of the self-pitying hero of so many indies.

Director/co-writer Janicza Bravo borrows and rebrands independent film stylizing – from Wes Anderson to Jared Hess to Todd Solondz – to deliver a wry satire of the quirky worlds they create. Her framing, color palette, set design and timing offer spot-on re-renderings of the atmospheres created in a generation of arthouse movies that follow the unraveling lives of misunderstood, entitled outcasts.

Bravo peppers the film with a handful of perfectly discordant scenes: Isaac running up a road with a stroke-impaired old woman in a wheelchair; Isaac awkwardly threatening and then kissing Michael Cera; Isaac and his profoundly dysfunctional family participating merrily in a rendition of the song A Million Matzoh Balls.

Individually, these scenes are amazing. Truly. But they don’t string together to form a cohesive image or a compelling narrative.

Gelman’s intentionally weird and flat performance engages, in a trainwreck sort of way that suits the effort. You believe him. And many – most – of the performances around him are clever, individual and memorable. Their interactions and the story, slight as it is, strain the imagination, though.

Nia Long’s Cleo, for instance, seems included solely to allow for a new series of awkward moments. Long’s performance rings true, from her friendly introduction through her polite if wearied response to Isaac’s racist flirtation.

Her actions, however, defy logic in a way that exposes a narrative weakness you’re less likely to find in the films of Anderson, Hess or Solondz.

Todd Solondz knows what to do with an unlikeable protagonist. You won’t enjoy it, but he will not pull any punches and you will have closure. This is the problem with subverting the work of superior filmmakers – your film invariably suffers by comparison.

Which is not to say that Lemon has nothing to offer. It offers a pantload of intriguing character work and suggests the vision of a worthy director. The script just needed another draft.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

Yes, It’s a Weiner

Sausage Party

by Christie Robb

I was expecting to hate this movie. At worst I was anticipating a series of increasingly forced dick jokes and at best a munchie-induced fever dream. Instead, I gotta say, Sausage Party stands up with the South Park movie as a pretty offensively entertaining animated movie for adults.

The film is set in a Shopwell supermarket where every morning the products sing about their desire be chosen by “the gods”—those big things wheeling the carts—and travel to the Great Beyond (via a song composed by Alan Menken—the guy who co-created the songs from The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin).

Little do the foodstuffs know what terrors await them on the other side of the pneumatic doors. It’s not nirvana. The Gods fucking eat you.

As the Fourth of July approaches, Frank—a hot dog voiced by Seth Rogan—eagerly anticipates hooking up with his honey bun (Kristen Wiig) in the Great Beyond. But after they are chosen, they and a bunch of other products are separated from their packaging and fall to the supermarket floor.

Forced to traverse the enormous grocery, the fellowship has to navigate the aisles to get back to their packages, interacting with their fellow foodstuffs in various ethnic-food aisles, partying in the liquor aisle, and generally trying to evade the villain—a vampiric and increasingly unhinged literal douche.

The movie certainly employs a fair amount of wiener-based humor and a variety of food-centric ethnic stereotypes (for example, the sauerkraut jars are a bunch of fascists bent on exterminating “the juice”, the bagel’s voice is a Woody Allen impression, and a Peter Pan “Indian”-style pipe-smoking bottle of firewater dispenses wisdom), but the movie turns to a surprising exploration of faith vs. skepticism and the extent to which religious belief fosters divisions, hostility, and repressed sexuality.

Although the movie manages to provide enough offense to go around, the majority of the jokes are actually quite funny. The cast is certainly strong. Rogan and Wiig are joined by Nick Kroll, Salma Hayek, Michael Cera, James Franco, Bill Hader, Danny McBride, Edward Norton, Craig Robinson, David Krumholtz, and Paul Rudd, and the sex-positive food porn scene exceeded my expectations of what was bound to happen once the wiener and the bun finally got together.

Seeing Sausage Party ain’t a bad way to pass the time. But, for the love of God, please don’t take your kids.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

Double Dose of Michael Cera Manliness For Your Queue

 

Who wants some drugs for New DVD/BluRay Tuesday? Michael Cera does, that’s who – the filthy skank! – and you’re invited on his road trip to Chilean cactus juice, Crystal Fairy and the Magic Cactus. This almost-unseen movie is a loosely scripted, casually filmed gem of a travel picture that reminds you how much you wanted to smack half the carload the last time you made a road trip. Subversive, familiar and surprising all at once, this well-observed comedy is worth checking out.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CWgkeq2EN5Q

Hankerin’ for another dose of Cera’s manliness? If you haven’t seen Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, you must. Scott (Cera) has a big crush, but he must defeat her seven evil exes, elude his weirdly young current girlfriend, and navigate the path to fame with his band Sex Bob-Omb (they’re “here to make you think about death and get sad and stuff!”) It’s a film about baggage, and it’s the most fun video game style movie ever.

Weekend Countdown: Hard Labor for Labor Day

It’s Labor Day Weekend, and we’ve decided to take a mo and celebrate the hardest labor of all. The pregnant kind. Here are our five favorite pregnant lady flicks.

5. Knocked Up (2007)

The Judd Apatow brand extends to films he simply produced, so he may be getting more creative credit than he deserves, but he had back to back writing/directing/comic gems with 2005’s Forty Year Old Virgin and this Pregnant Beauty and the Beast. Better for its ensemble than its leads, the flick boasts dead-on genius work from Leslie Mann, hilarious support from Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel, Jay Baruchel and Kristin Wiig, and it introduced the world to the now constant comic presence of Ken Jeong. At least he kept his pants on for this one.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rR4sXcMf_5o

4. Juno (2007)

Jason Reitman, Diablo Cody, Jason Bateman, Michael Cera and Ellen Page enraptured us all with this quick witted, brilliantly cast, endlessly quotable comedy about a pregnant teen. Reitman and Cody would pair up again with the nearly flawless Young Adult, but their first collaboration remains fresher and funnier than you think.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vwv12d85u7A

3. Waitress (2007)

Soulful and funny, gorgeously filmed and perfectly cast, Waitress is the list’s underseen joy. Pie baking phenom Kerri Russell squirrels away money so she can quit her waitressing job and leave her husband, then finds herself pregnant and attracted to her new doctor. Writer/director Adrienne Shelly’s film offers a pitch-perfect supporting cast, a cleverly crafted script, and the remarkable ability to make you want to eat pie right now.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0cQ0WwcKCLk

2. Inside (2007)

Holy shit. Inside is not for the squeamish. This French horror flick pits a merciless villain against an enormous expecting mother. Though the film goes wildly out of control by the third act, it is a 2/3 brilliant effort, a study in tension wherein one woman will do whatever it takes, with whatever utensils are available, to get at the baby still firmly inside another woman’s body.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOk5tiAkEdA

1. Rosemary’s Baby

If you’re going to see only one pregnant lady horror flick, make it Rosemary’s Baby. It remains a disturbing, elegant, and fascinating tale, and Mia Farrow’s embodiment of defenselessness joins forces with William Fraker’s skillful camerawork to cast a spell. Yes, that crazy pederast Roman Polanski sure can spin a yarn about violated, vulnerable females.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PewtQsgN5uo

Michael Cera Says No to Dirty Hippies, Yes to Drugs

Crystal Fairy & The Magic Cactus

by Hope Madden

One of this summer’s brightest surprises comes by way of Michael Cera’s drug-fueled road trip picture Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus.  Loosely scripted and casually filmed, the flick follows the journey of a group of youngsters in search of some mind expansion in Chile. What evolves is a quietly, subversively brilliant character study.

Cera plays Jamie, a displaced American anxious for the experiences available in drug use. He’s insecure, adopts a handful of pseudo-hippie-isms, and looks to really experience life through mind alteration. He meets his match in Crystal Fairy – a modern day freak Jamie invites on the trip.

Crystal Fairy is played by a positively fearless Gaby Hoffman. “Fearless” being the film critic vernacular for “willing to do full frontal.” There is a true fearlessness in that act, particularly if the shocking display of vulnerability it is used properly, as it so definitely is in this work.

Road trips offer such undiluted community experiences that we all want to mock, smack, maybe even abandon one or two co-travelers every now and then. At least that’s the memory I have of Madden family trips.

A little mescaline might have helped, actually.

Regardless, writer/director Sebastian Silva plumbs the situation for touching, comic, and strangely familiar moments. Those who saw his magnificently naturalistic The Maid will recognize the filmmaker’s contagious fascination with common moments. Silva’s screenplay – handled with grace and humanity by the ensemble – never stoops to easy jokes, although the entire picture beams with humor. Characters develop multiple dimensions, and the mostly improvised conversations take charmingly human paths.

The portrayal is deceptively well structured, though. It may feel for all the world like one profoundly uncomfortable journey meandering for a couple of hours, showcasing two pushy Americans who embarrass themselves in front of three lovely Chilean brothers. But Silva has a more satisfying and definite aim than that.

You should give it a try.

I mean the movie, not the mescaline.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

Dead Man’s Party

 

 

by George Wolf

 

You know what This Is the End made me think of? Dear, departed Father Art from my church.

Stay with me.

Father Art used to surprise the faithful by occasionally dropping Howard Stern’s name into the homily, citing Stern as someone who, underneath the raunch, had a positive message:  do what you’re supposed to do.

This Is The End also has a positive message, stressing selflessness as a key to salvation. Sure, this message is mixed with heapin’ helpings of sex, drugs and profanity, but it’s a combination that produces some pretty funny shit.

Your reaction will most likely depend on how much you enjoy the comedy stylings of Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg, seen at their peak in films such as Pineapple Express, Superbad and Knocked Up. Co-writing and directing This Is the End, they’ve expanded their 2007 short Jay and Seth Versus the Apocalypse into the funniest film of the year.

Seth is Rogan, and Jay is his buddy Jay Baruchel, who comes to LA hoping for a low-key visit. Instead, Rogan takes him to a rockin’ party at James Franco‘s place where, amid plenty of famous faces, the rapture begins.

As the final battle rages outside, Franco, Rogan and Baruchel are joined by Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride for a star studded celebrity survivor sleepover!

Things get pretty crude (so much so that Rogan has said he expected an NC-17 rating instead of the R they received), but the result is far from dumb humor. Self-deprecation is always endearing, and the gang uses it well, lampooning their films, their images, and the self-absorbed nature of celebrity culture.

It’s a wild ride featuring great cameos (well done Channing Tatum and Michael Cera) and fine ensemble work from a bunch of funny guys who play themselves with undeniable comic chemistry and a sense of camaraderie that makes them fine company for the end of days.

Remember, they have a plan to be among the chosen, and you’ll most likely be laughing too hard to argue with it.

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars