Author Archives: Neil Pond

He Says, She Says

Brainy rom-com finds the funny in battle of the sexes

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Toby Kebbell, left, and Whitney Cummings explore the differences between how men and women think in ‘The Female Brain.’

The Female Brain
Starring Whitney Cummings, Toby Kebbell, Sofia Vergara, Cecily Strong & James Marsden
Directed by Whitney Cummings
Not Rated
In theaters Feb. 9, 2018

What goes on in your head?

Everything, according to science—and according to this new movie comedy from the actress and comedian who created, executive produced and wrote for the hit TV sitcom 2 Broke Girls.

Whitney Cummings, making her directorial debut, stars as no-nonsense neurologist Julia Brizendine, researching the biochemistry and behavior of women. Her character is based on real-life scientist and neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine, whose 2010 books The Female Brain and The Male Brain examined hormonal-based differences between men and women.

Julia’s research, she tells an audience at a presentation, seeks to understand the way ancient, hardwired chemical and electrical processes in the brain “affect—and sometimes sabotage—our relationships.”

The large ensemble cast illustrates many of the book’s heady ideas in humorous ways, like how testosterone makes men feel aggressive and territorial, or how a rush of pheromones can cause women to make regrettable choices on a date, or in choosing a mate.

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Cecily Strong

Sofia Vergara (of TV’s Modern Family) and Deon Cole (Black-ish and Angie Tribeca) portray a married couple who’ve lost their romantic spark. Can they get their love life back on track? Zoe (Saturday Night Live’s Cecily Strong) is trying to get her marketing career off the ground at an ad agency headed by a real heel (the movie’s co-writer, Neal Brennan); she’s married to superstar athlete Greg (real-life Detroit Pistons forward Blake Griffin), temporarily sidelined by injury and now a bit unmoored, unsteady and unsure of how to use his downtime.

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James Marsden

All-American Adam (James Marsden, Westworld) and his British girlfriend, Lexi (Judy Punch), can’t quite overcome their cultural divide; she never gets any of his references to junk TV or fast-food TV commercials, and he can’t adjust to how—or understand why—she keeps trying to change him.

And then there’s Dr. Julia (Cummings), who meets all her emotional needs by keeping the right synapses firing and regulating her chemicals through diet and rigorous attention to romance-free routine. At least that’s what she tells her assistant, Abby (Beanie Feldstein, also in Lady Bird and recently on Broadway opposite Bette Midler in Hello Dolly—and FYI, she’s actor Jonah Hill’s sister). But Julia’s brain gets an unexpected buzz when she meets a handsome new study participant, the unreconstructed handyman Kevin (Toby Kebbell, who played the villainous Messala in the 2016 Biblical epic Ben-Hur).

There are cameo appearances, as well, by Marlo Thomas, Jane Seymour, Will Sasso and Ben Platt, who won a 2017 Tony Award for starring on Broadway in Dear Evan Hanson.

As director, co-writer and lead actor, Cummings juggles everything with confidence and craft, jazzing up the traditional movie-comedy format with some fresh, clever touches. She freeze-frames characters’ faces to “map” graphics of their brains and highlight regions being stimulated in given situations, and uses montages of old film clips to whimsically show concepts like fight or fight, social bonding and epigenetic imprinting—the scientific term for “turning into your mother.”

TFB_WC+04+-+Approved (2) (72)An early shot of wrinkled, crinkled cerebral lobes dissolves into crumpled bedsheets while Dr. Julia’s narration explains that evolution shaped brain activity to accommodate the change from galloping sexual pursuit to long-haul, settled-down commitment. Later, Julia and Kevin have a Very Important Conversation in a very cool bookstore, where Kevin is working stringing delicate, decorative lights. The scene and the setting suggest that knowledge, books and science—and circuitry—can get you so far, but at some point, men and women just need to be honest with each other and talk it out.

“I know how the brain works,” Julia says. Cummings, who also executive produced, wrote and starred in her own CBS sitcom, Whitney, from 2011 to 2013, knows how comedy works, too. This brainy, battle-of-the-sexes rom-com works to make you laugh—and perhaps understand a bit more about why we think, act, communicate and behave the way we do.

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Bank Busters

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Alan Arkin, Morgan Freeman & Alan Arkin star in the new remake of Going in Style.

Freeman, Caine & Arkin are geriatric heist-ers in ‘Going in Style’ 

Going in Style
Starring Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine & Alan Arkin
Directed by Zach Braff
PG-13
In theaters April 7, 2017

When the tide of fortune turns against three lifelong retirees, leaving them in desperate financial straits, they hatch a plan to rob the bank that screwed them.

In Hollywood, that’s what called a “high concept” movie, a film with a premise that can be easily, neatly described in just a few words. Hollywood loves high concepts; they’re easy to market and audiences “get” them right away. And if this one sounds familiar, it’s because it was a movie already, in 1979, with George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasburg.

This time around, it’s Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Alan Arkin as Willie, Joe and Albert, the trio of Brooklyn geriatrics who are spurred into action when they find out the steel mill for which they used to work is being shut down and financially reconfigured in a corporate spasm of layoffs, mergers and offshore outsourcing.

To add to the insult and injury, the company’s pension fund has been dissolved and their monthly payments frozen and used to pay off debt—and managed by their local bank, which has also put the hard squeeze on Joe, threatening to foreclose on his house.

untitled-01881.dngTimes are tough, the wolf is at the door and Willie, Joe and Albert are down to pinching pennies—and foregoing their usual daily indulgence of dessert at the local diner. But the saucy waitress (Siobhan Fallon Hogan) brings them a serving anyway. “Always have your pie,” she tells them. “Life is short.”

When they decide to get back their pension pie, they seek out and enlist the aid of a “lowlife” (John Ortiz), who agrees to school them in how to plan and plot the robbery. That introduces a snazzy segment in the movie that’s kind of like Grumpy Old Men meets Oceans 11.

Everything about Going in Style is geared for comedy, but it’s impossible to miss the serious, timely theme on which it’s built: greedy companies and institutions that don’t care about customers or employees—or old people. “Banks practically destroyed this country,” says Joe, who was misled with a promotional “teaser rate” by his bank’s loan officer (Josh Pais) and then saw his mortgage payments triple. “They crushed a lot of people’s dreams.”

Director Zach Braff, who starred as Dr. Dorian on TV’s Scrubs and previously directed Garden State and Wish I Was Here, keeps things light and lively and gets fine performances from his three leading men—Oscar winners all around, who share 11 nominations between them—and also from his game supporting cast.

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Keenan Thompson

Ann-Margaret plays a sex-kitten grandma with the hots for Albert. Saturday Night Live’s Keenan Thompson makes the most of every moment as a grocery store manager where the three senior citizens go to rehearse their heist. Matt Dillion is a befuddled police detective who’s always one step behind the old-timers. Back to the Future’s Christopher Lloyd is a crazy neighborhood coot.

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Joey King plays the granddaughter of Joe (Michael Caine).

And kids almost steal the show. Joey King, who starred on the previous season of Fargo and in last year’s Independence Day, has a significant role as Joe’s adoring teenage granddaughter, Brooklyn. Willie has a cute granddaughter, too—played by young Ashley Aufderheide, whose face on his wristwatch becomes an integral part of the plotline. And Jeremy Schinder gets a chuckle—or two—as a young musician with a yearning to ditch his sax and spread his wings in dance, like Beyoncé.

Braff, working from a screenplay by Theodore Melfi (who directed last year’s Hidden Figures) uses broad, something-for-everybody strokes, even though the movie’s default audience will probably age-shift toward the demo of its three main actors (i.e., older). There’s slapstick, witty banter, quippy one-liners and a cross-generational tone to the humor that never gets smutty or crass. The soundtrack includes tunes by Dean Martin, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke alongside A Tribe Called Quest and Mark Ronson & Mystikal. And there’s one strategically placed F-bomb.

Alongside the funny business, there’s also plenty of sweetness and affection, as when Willie plants a warm kiss on his computer screen on the image of his granddaughter, and Joe dutifully meets Brooklyn every day to walk her home after school.

Early in the movie, Joe floats the stick-up idea to Willie and Al, who give him instant push-back. Younger robbers often fail—or get caught and go to jail, says Willie. What makes Joe think they could pull it off?

“We’ve got skills, experience, knowledge…” Joe points out.

“Arthritis… shingles… gout…” counters Willie.

Going in Style has the ingredients of a warm, welcome night out for moviegoers who don’t want superheroes, bombastic special effects, space aliens, raunchy jokes or 3-D cartoons.

And everybody gets a piece of pie.

Clap On

Ed Helms shuns spotlight in quirky rom-com about Hollywood substrata

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Tracy Morgan & Ed Helms are paid audiences members at infomercial tapings in ‘The Clapper.’

The Clapper
Starring Ed Helms & Amanda Seyfried
Directed by Dito Montiel
R

There are many ways of “making it” in Hollywood, and not all of them involve landing a juicy role on N.C.I.S., receiving an Academy Award or getting a star on the Walk of Fame.

For Eddie Krumble, making it means being a paid audience member at tapings of TV infomercial programs, where he dutifully laughs and applauds on cue and sometimes gets an extra 50 bucks to stand up and ask a scripted question—like, “So you mean to tell me, with no money down…I could buy a house?

Krumble (Ed Helms) isn’t well-off, by any means. He’s barely getting by, zipping around in his little blue car when he can afford to buy gas, taking the city bus when he can’t, and using a computer at the nearly doughnut shop. But he’s satisfied, meeting up with his group of fellow “clappers,” including his best friend Chris (Tracy Morgan), and checking in daily for assignments with the infomercial casting agent, Louise (Leah Remini from TV’s Kevin Can Wait).

He’s found his groove—his job, his little niche in La La Land.

His mother (Brenda Vaccaro) badgers him over the phone about his lack of ambition. She thinks he’s in Hollywood to make a bigger splash, to become a bona fide actor. Eddie insists he’s fine being part of the background, part of the crowd. “I blend in,” he tells her. “I get paid to clap. That’s what I do.”

Director Dito Montiel—whose handful of other films includes Boulevard, starring Robin Williams—wrote the screenplay based on his own experiences with a friend when they both arrived in Los Angeles from New York and found work as sketchy “research marketers” and paid studio-audience members.

In The Clapper, the plot quickly thickens and things get a bit sticky for Eddie. A popular late-night L.A. talk-show host, the Letterman-esque Jayme Silverman (Russel Peters), fixates on “the clapper.” He wonders about the identity of the mystery man who keeps showing up in the audience of so many cheesy infomercials. Silverman blasts the screen with freeze-frame enlargements of Eddie’s face and challenges his audience to “out” the clapper, find who he is. Silverman wants him on his show.

Silverman’s camera crews scour the city looking for The Clapper and people who might know him. Giant billboards appear along Hollywood Boulevard. Clapper “spotters” create YouTube videos that become viral sensations. An enterprising producer finds Eddie’s phone number and tells him he’s “the biggest thing to hit late-night since Stupid Pet Tricks.”

Suddenly, blending in isn’t so easy for Eddie.

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Amanda Seyfried plays Ed’s girlfriend, Judy.

All this complicates things for Eddie and his new girlfriend, Judy (Amanda Seyfried), who doesn’t quite understand any of it. She works as a gas station attendant and her TV is broken, so she’s totally out of the loop of Eddie’s infomercial “fame.” Eddie shields her from the messy details—until they come knocking at the Plexiglas window of Judy’s attendant booth.

There’s an edge of spoof-ery to The Clapper, about TV culture, exploitation, infotainment, privacy and talk shows—and what happens when “reality” TV gets a little too real. Adam Devine of Maroon 5 plays a producer; in what would be his last acting role before his death in 2016, former Growing Pains star Alan Thicke does a dapper, self-deprecating turn as a pitchman-for-hire; Dallas Mavericks owner and Shark Tank investor Marc Cuban appears as himself in the greenroom, waiting to appear on Silverman’s show.

But there’s also plenty of sentiment to go with the satire. The Clapper is a small movie with a big, generous heart; it never makes fun of its characters, even the guy who trots around downtown Hollywood at night in diapers, or the dude dressed up like a big baked potato. Helms, known for his comedic roles on TV’s The Office and in The Hangover movies, plays Eddie as a naïve, sheepish sadsack; you eventually find out the source of the heaviness he carries around like weights in the pockets of his baggy pants. Seyfried, who’ll star in Mama Mia: Here We Go Again in July, gives Judy a mousy, lovelorn beauty, and you never doubt for a second the magnetic mojo of those big, blue eyes.

The two of them make a cute couple, and when the riptide of Silverman’s show eventually tears them apart, you root for them to get back together.

Quirky and sweet, The Clapper illuminates a substrata of Hollywood working-class culture that doesn’t typically get the spotlight. It rallies around a group of characters who’ll never be “stars,” who live and work in the colorful, offbeat, teeming background—and who prefer it that way. Sometimes they meet and fall in love.

And I’ll clap for that.

In theaters Jan. 26, 2018

How the West Was One

Christian Bale saddles up & seeks redemption in raw, rugged Western 

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Hostiles
Starring Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike & Wes Studi
Directed by Scott Cooper
R

The West is wild indeed in Hostiles, writer-director Scott Cooper’s grim, existential drama set in 1892 and exploring the brutal upheavals of America’s imperial, westward expansion.

Christian Bale saddles up to star as U.S. Cavalry officer Capt. Joseph Blocker, ordered to lead a dying Cheyenne chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), and his family from New Mexico—where they’re being held as prisoners in a U.S. Cavalry stockade—back to their ancestral homeland in Montana.

Blocker has made his military career in the so-called “Indian Wars,” as the United States pushed its way further and further into territory previously occupied by Native Americans. War turns everyone into warriors, he says, he’s encountered Yellow Hawk before—and he’s in no mood to be his traveling companion, escort and protector.

“I’ve killed savages ‘cause that’s my job,” Blocker glumly notes. “I hate ‘em.” And he’s got a “war bag” of scalps—souvenirs of countless battlefield encounters—to prove it.

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Rosamund Pike

But an order is an order, and soon Blocker and his troops head out with Yellow Hawk, his son and his daughter-in-law (Q’orianka Kilcher, who played Pocahontas alongside Bale in The New World) on the uneasy, grueling, thousand-mile journey, and every horse-hoof clomp telegraphs the tension. Then they come across a grieving woman (Rosamund Pike) we’ve already met—in the movie’s opening sequence—who has suffered an almost unfathomable loss in a Comanche ambush on her prairie home.

The fine ensemble cast also include Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane and Timotheè Chalamet as young officers under Blocker’s command. If it seems like you’re seeing Chalamet everywhere, all at once, you are: He was a brooding high school musician in Lady Bird and generated awards buzz as the young man who falls in love with his father’s graduate assistant in the highly acclaimed Call Me By Your Name.

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Bale with Timothee Chalamet (left) & Jesse Plemons

Ben Foster (reuniting with Bale from their previous Western, 3:10 to Yuma) plays a military criminal who at one time served alongside Blocker. He reminds him that the two of them—and their gruesome deeds, done in the line of duty or otherwise—really aren’t all that different.

There are stretches of the movie where nothing much happens, action-wise. But the sense that something could happen, and will happen, is constant. And even the characters talking about what they’ve seen—and done—is horrifying: scalping, disemboweling, castration.

“Do you believe in the Lord?” Pike’s character asks Blocker at one point. He pauses several seconds before answering. “Yes, I do,” he says. “But he’s been blind to what’s been going on out here for a long time.”

The movie’s ever-present backdrop of frontier violence between white interlopers and Native Americans is set against the breathtaking stillness and natural beauty of the story’s landscape, captured in cinematographer Masanobu Takayani’s gorgeous, widescreen panoramas of skies, plains and mountains.

What does it mean? That beauty comes with such a high price? That America was born, shaped and sculpted in blood? That everyone, on both sides of any conflict, is capable of something atrocious and awful?

Or maybe it’s that anyone is capable of something gallant and good?

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Every major character in the film is haunted—by guilt, grief, past deeds, trauma, psychological scars, shackles and chains most of us can’t even begin to imagine. As one of them says, it “makes you feel inhuman after a while.” Indeed, in Hostiles, they’re a bunch of lost, wandering souls seeking some kind of redemption, release, some kind of cleansing, a fresh start, a new world.

And the journey they’re on becomes a shared mission they never envisioned, a journey that brings them together in more ways than one.

Hostiles won’t be everyone’s trail-mix snack of a movie. It’s somber and relentless and it doesn’t exactly lift you up, spin you around and set you back down with a big happy smile, galloping toward the sunset. But for fans of Westerns, it’s a handsome, well-crafted, thought-provoking journey into the raw, rugged realities of the American West with a group of characters who need a bit more than just a shave and a shower.

If that sounds like your kind of ride, then c’mon and saddle up!

In wide release Jan. 19, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pressing Issue

Spielberg rolls the presses in heavyweight First Amendment drama

THE POST

The Post
Starring Tom Hanks & Meryl Streep
Directed by Steven Spielberg
PG-13

The stars align, in more ways than one, for this historically based political drama about the leak of top-secret Washington documents in 1971 detailing the long, pot-stirring political and military involvement of the United States in Vietnam.

The release of the so-called “Pentagon Papers” became a newspaper bombshell, decades before computers, the Internet or WikiLeaks. Their exposure of systemic government lies and secrecy about the war in Vietnam incurred the wrath of then-President Richard Nixon, who wanted to persecute the “leakers” for treason and bring down the boom on First Amendment rights of the free press.

In The Post (originally titled The Papers), heavyweight director Steven Spielberg top-loads his cast with superstar actors and fills out the ranks with an outstanding ensemble of supporting players. Meryl Streep plays Katharine Graham, the Washington, D.C., socialite and the first female publisher of the family-owned Washington Post. Tom Hanks is her crusading, veteran editor, Ben Bradlee.

THE POSTLook, there’s Alison Brie, as Graham’s daughter and sounding board, Lally. Bob Odenkirk is reporter Ben Bagdikian, whose contact at the government-backed Rand Corporation, Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), exposes the massive cover-up—which spanned four presidential administrations—and delivers 7,000 pages of documents to the Post and its competitor, The New York Times. Carrie Coon plays Post writer Meg Greenfield; Bruce Greewood is former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a major architect of the Vietnam War under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

And keep your eyes peeled for Jesse Plemons, Bradley Whitford, Tracy Letts, Sarah Paulson, David Cross, Zach Woods and Michael Stuhlbarg, who’s having a tremendous year with his other roles in the awards-buzz films Call Me By Your Name and The Shape of Water.

Speaking of awards, The Post is looking good on the road to the Oscars in March. Although it didn’t pick up any Golden Globes on Jan. 7, it was named the Best Film of the Year by the National Board of Review at a ceremony long considered to officially kick off the trophy race, and Hanks and Streep were given top acting honors by the organization.

Hanks, especially, is outstanding, portraying Bradlee as a tough, gruff newsroom bulldog who won’t give up the chase—or back off on his bite—until he sinks his teeth into the truth. Streep conveys the complex, often conflicted spheres in which Graham circulated as a Washington trendsetter who hobnobbed with presidents and the D.C. elite, and operated as a businesswoman trying to keep her newspaper afloat in a sea of bottom-line male board members.

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Tom Hanks & Meryl Streep

As he’s demonstrated in his wide-ranging films, including E.T. The Extraterrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg knows how to make populist movies that are both epic in sweep and scale, but personal and intimate in their characters and their connectivity to audiences.

To a dramatic score from his go-to composer, Oscar-winning John Williams, he reminds us of the high stakes of the story. After three front-page scoops, the New York Times—which got the Pentagon Papers first—is barred by a federal injunction from publishing any more of the sensitive documents the government wants under lockdown. The court ban, and some old-fashioned newsroom legwork, gives the Post a lucky break to move into the breach. But publication by the Post, in light of the injunction, could send Graham and Bradlee to jail, put their newspaper out of business, and cost everyone else their jobs.

McNamara, Graham’s friend, warns her if she does publish, the president will crush her. “Nixon will muster the full power of the presidency,” he says. “And if there’s a way to destroy you, by God, he’ll find it.”

It becomes a landmark First Amendment battle that reaches all the way to the Supreme Court.

It also reaches through the years to reverberate with a timely contemporary chill. The distant echo of Nixon’s seething contempt for the press finds relevance in today’s political climate where the mainstream media is routinely attacked by the current president as “fake news.”

The Post deals with something that happened nearly half a century ago, a time when reporters  used manual, clattery typewriters and coin-operated payphones and smoked cigarettes indoors. But it’s a rousing story that never gets old: How, once upon a time, a group of citizen-journalists believed a free press was worth fighting for, believed governments and presidents shouldn’t lie to their citizens and should be called out when they did, and believed exposing truth was worth taking tremendous risks.

And it suggests that right now is a really, really good time to be reminded of all that, all over again. Set the type, ink up the cylinders and roll the presses!

In wide release Jan. 12, 2018

Deal Me In

Jessica Chastain holds all the cards in ‘Molly’s Game’

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Jessica Chastain & Idris Ilba

Molly’s Game
Starring Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba and Kevin Costner
Directed by Aaron Sorkin
R

Aaron Sorkin loves words, and he packs a lot of them into Molly’s Game.

The award-winning screenwriter for The Social Network, Moneyball, Steve Jobs, A Few Good Men and TV’s The West Wing makes his directorial debut with this true tale of Molly Bloom, whose Olympic hopes as a skier were derailed on the slopes in a trial event that crunched her back and crushed her dreams.

Based on Bloom’s own book, published in 2014, Sorkin’s film shows how Bloom picked herself up and found a new passion running one of the world’s most exclusive poker games.

Until she was busted by the FBI.

Molly’s Game, which features an outstanding starring performance by Jessica Chastain, is heavy on narrative, typical for a movie fueled and fed by a zippy, zappy Sorkin script. Molly tells us what she’s thinking, what she’s doing and why, either while she’s doing it or explaining herself in flashback.

Like when she coolly tells her expensive defense attorney (Idris Elba) why she can’t successfully be persecuted for illegal gambling, based on the textbook definition of gambling—because “poker isn’t a game of chance, it’s a game of skill.”

Or, as we watch one of her games get rolling, she explains in a voiceover why everything is strictly above-board: “In this room, you couldn’t buy your win, you couldn’t buy me and you couldn’t buy a seat at the table.”

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Michael Cera (left) and Jeremy Strong

Sorkin keeps things moving at an almost runaway pace, continually switching between settings, time periods and places. (Samantha Isler and Piper Howell do nice jobs playing Molly as a teenager and child, respectively.) We learn how Molly grew up with some serious daddy issues as the only daughter, with two brothers, of a Colorado university professor (Kevin Costner) who pushed her to demanding extremes in her ski training.

Through montages and flashbacks, we see Molly start over in Los Angeles and help her schmuck-y Hollywood boss (Jeremy Strong) run his weekly poker party, getting a very raw deal as his overworked, underpaid assistant. After setting up his game nights, working for tips and watching bigwigs stream in to put their money down, Molly knows she can do it on her own—bigger and better.

She quickly builds her poker game to an empire—setting up what a literary agent later calls “the world’s most exclusive, glamorous, decadent man cave”—first in Los Angeles and then in New York City, attracting superstar athletes, Hollywood actors, wealthy schmoes with money to burn, and eventually unsavory international “businessmen.”

Michael Cera plays a poker regular known only in the film as Player X, a Hollywood actor (reportedly based on the book’s depiction of actor Tobey Maguire) who turns out to be more rat than shark. “I don’t like playing poker,” he says. “I like destroying lives.” Bill Camp is a low-key, wary gambler who gets sucked into a reckless, desperate losing streak. Chris O’Dowd provides some woozy chuckles as a boozy Irishman who introduces Molly to billionaire Russian mobsters.

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Bill Camp

But nobody’s laughing when the Slavic connections connect the dots to Molly and a goon shows up at her door—with a gun, a warning and a few hard whacks to drive home his ominous message.

Sorkin packs plenty of punch into his story, Chastain delivers a knockout performance and Elba gets to serve up the movie’s best speech—a stirring defense of Molly that completely shuts down a pushy federal D.A.

Molly riffs on James Joyce’s Ulysses and quotes Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, uses Egyptian geometry to explain her ski accident and spouts information like a fire hose. But she doesn’t want to give up her players, to compromise the lives of the men who trusted her with their money and their anonymity—even though some of them clearly were scoundrels. It’s obvious the Feds want her to name names, to help them build a bigger case, cast a wider net and reel in much bigger fish.

Smart, sharp, proud, ambitious and persistent, Bloom blossomed in a cutthroat, crazily high-stakes world dominated by wealthy men and surrounded by danger. This isn’t a traditional poker movie, or a traditional sports movie—and Molly wasn’t a traditional entrepreneur. Sometimes tradition can be overrated. With Jessica Chastain holding the cards, Molly’s Game is a winner. Deal me in!

In wide release Jan. 5, 2018

Game On

New ‘Jumanji’ is full of fun thanks to comedic all-star cast

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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
Starring Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black & Karen Gillan
Directed by Jake Kasdan
PG-13

As a kid, I really thought it would be fun to be game-size.

I wanted to zoom around the Monopoly board in that teeny silver racecar. I wished I could be the diver in Mousetrap—I’ll bet I could hit that dang little bucket a lot more consistently than he ever did. And I longed to get in the ring with the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, just to land a couple of good, clean uppercuts of my own.

And who wouldn’t want to romp for a day around the Gumdrop Mountain, Peppermint Stick Forest and the Lollypop Woods of Candyland?!

But Jumanji showed just how dangerous really getting into a game might be. That 1995 movie, based on a fictional jungle adventure board game, was about a boy who got sucked into it and was trapped there for more than 25 years. And when he finally got free as a grownup (played by Robin Williams) and returned to the real world, wild animals were set loose, too, and time got all wonky.

The new Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle picks up the theme and elements of the first movie and gives them an all-star, big-budget, high-tech Hollywood upgrade as it ensnares a group of new, modern players—and plunges audiences deep into the game they never really got to see in the first film.

When the wayward paths of four teenagers—nerdy germaphobe Spencer (Alex Wolff), beefy jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Bain), shy introvert Martha (Morgan Turner) and narcissistic hottie Bethany (Madison Iseman)—converge in detention, they discover an “ancient” 1990s-style game console in the cluttered supply room of their high school. They fire it up on a handy TV set and choose avatar players just for kicks.

Then it’s Breakfast Club meets Twilight Zone as whoosh!, just like that, they’re whisked to the steamy jungle world of Jumanji, where they’re confused, horrified—and in some cases, intrigued—to find out they’ve been transformed into the players they just picked, randomly, sight unseen.

JumanjiFor maximum comedic effect, nerdy, scrawny Spencer is now brawny expedition leader Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson). Fridge, the school’s hunky star football player, has become pipsqueak zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart). Wallflower Martha is sexy Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan, from Guardians of the Galaxy and TV’s Dr. Who), a kick-ass martial-arts expert. And self-absorbed Bethany is horrified to discover she’s been turned into a pudgy, middle-aged man, Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black).

The only way to get back to their real bodies, and the real world, is to complete the game. To do that, there’s a dangerous bit of Indiana Jones-ish adventure business about a Jaguar Shrine and the stolen Jewel of Jumanji, and Bobby Cannavale hamming it up as the villainous John Hardin Van Pelt, the game’s antagonist, whose all-consuming greed melded him with the jungle—and made his body a host for all kinds of skin-crawling, creepy things.

1193687 - JumanjiBravestone, Moose, Ruby and Professor Oberon have to put together a map and dodge leaping alligators, rampaging rhinos, hungry, hungry hippos, hissing snakes and a gang of ninja bikers. The on-location Hawaii settings are lush and gorgeous. Johnson hangs out of a helicopter zooming though a canyon and leans onto the top to fix its defective rotor, so it won’t crash into a mountain ahead. Whew!

But mostly the movie hinges on the ever-percolating comedic chemistry of Johnson, Hart and Black, playing characters-within-characters as they adjust to their Jumanji bodies. Black gets lots of laughs channeling his inner Brittany as he/she obsesses about not having her iPhone, teaching Martha/Ruby how to flirt as a weapon and discovering a certain, ahem,  accessory that comes with her new male physique.

The motor-mouthed Hart is a fountain of funny, and Johnson—an international box-office powerhouse—can charm the camera with just the tilt of an eyebrow.

Director Jake Kasden, whose resume includes Bad Teacher 2 and several TV shows, including episodes of New Girl, Fresh Off the Boat and Ben and Kate, gets traction with familiar videogame conventions as the characters’ strengths and weaknesses are revealed, and their realization that they only have three “lives” inside the game before it’s “game over” for realz.

There’s a nice, sentimental nod to the late Robin Williams’ character from the original movie when the new players meet another player (Nick Jonas) who’s been marooned in the game for…well, a long time.

The characters learn some lessons about acceptance, sacrifice, cooperation and how you can’t judge by appearances. And they understand what their high school principal (Marc Evan Jackson, from Brooklyn Nine-Nine) meant when he told them, “You get one life; decide how you are going to spend it.”

“This world swallows up kids like you,” Spencer is warned, ominously enough, earlier in the film. Games can be swallow you up, too, if you let yourself get sucked into them, literally or psychologically. This game turns out to be a big-star blast, especially when it all wraps up, to the Guns N’ Roses tune noted in the title. Sometimes silly, often frantic and ultimately surprisingly sweet, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a rollicking reminder that games are for meant for having fun—and there’s more than one kind of winner. Game on!

In theaters Dec. 20, 2017 

Force Field

Who’ll rise to the ‘Star Wars’ challenge of ‘The Last Jedi’? 

TheLastJedi59dd0acaf1d4f (72)Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Starring Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Carrie Fisher & Adam Driver
Directed by Rian Johnson
PG-13

Luke Skywalker Wants You!

Maybe the Rebel Alliance wouldn’t have a Jedi shortage—down to their Last Jedi, as the title suggests—if they’d launched a snappy, Uncle Sam-ish campaign for recruits, featuring posters of their most famous knight-warrior, oh…a few movies ago.

Now they’re in a bit of a pickle.

And Luke Skywalker doesn’t want anyone.

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Mark Hamill

That’s the premise of episode eight in the sprawling Star Wars canon, in which director Rian Johnson (Looper) takes over the franchise for a spectacular, full-throttle joyride of thrills, exhilarating, screen-filling visuals, emotional heft and humor, with familiar characters as well as new faces that we’ll almost certainly be seeing again.

The second film in the latest Star Wars trilogy, Last Jedi picks up where The Force Awakens (2015) left off: The spunky scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), simmering with powers of the Force, has sought out Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), now living as a hermit in self-imposed exile on a remote planet, “the most unfindable place in the galaxy.”

The Rebel Resistance, Rey tells Luke, is in a very bad spot, under serious threat by the evil forces of the First Order under command of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver)—who, as we learned (in The Force Awakens), is the son of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and the late Han Solo.

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Adam Driver as Kylo Ren

Kylo, strong with the dark side of the Force, killed Solo (Harrison Ford) in the last movie, so there’ve obviously been some pretty serious daddy issues going on there for a while.

The Resistance desperately needs a hero—can they count on the legendary Luke? Even when he tells Rey that, no, “it’s time for the Jedi to end”?

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Kelly Marie Tran & John Boyega

Meanwhile, cocky X-wing fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) continues to rally the troops on the Rebel’s base ship, along with his indispensable robotic copilot, BB8. Former Strormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), who defected to the Rebels in the previous movie, goes off on a desperate mission with the resourceful Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a Resistance maintenance worker, and a shady, shifty new character (played—deliciously—by Benicio del Toro) who seems to know his way around, into and out of just about anything, anywhere.

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Carrie Fisher

Star Wars fans will be giddy with all the detail, interweaving plot lines and “family reunion” feel of whole affair. It’s no spoiler to say that Hamill, who became an pop-culture icon as Luke Skywalker in the original trilogy, plays a major role. Or that the scenes with Fisher, as now-General Leia Organa, have added poignancy with the knowledge that she died just after completing her work on this film. When another (new) character, played by Laura Dern, bids Organa a goodbye and tells her, “May the Force be with you…always,” the pause before that last, lingering word hangs heavy in the air with four decades of sweet Star Wars memories.

No spoilers here, but some other very recognizable characters pop up, too, and they’ll delight SW fans of all ages and stages.

The effects are dazzling—a beautiful, artfully choreographed, light-sabre battle-royal ballet; an operatic combat scene on the white plains of a mineral planet where every scrape of the surface stirs up blood-red streaks and plumes of ash; a visit to the cosmic gambling mecca Canto Bright, where Finn and Rose take a wild romp on horse-like creatures called Fathiers; a hilarious visual “joke” with a landing craft that turns out to be…well, not a landing craft.

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A Porg

There’s an especially cheer-worthy kiss, some levitating pebbles that foretell the rise of bigger things, and new creatures, including adorable little puffin-like birds called Porgs and sparkly Crystal Foxes, who inadvertently hold a key to the Rebels’ survival.

There’s also plenty of character depth and complexity, psychological layering and questions begging for answers. Who were Rey’s parents? What made Luke so cranky? Will Finn and Rose succeed in their daring, life-or-death sprint across the galaxy? What’s going on with the long-distance, Force-telepathy Skype sessions between Rey and Kylo?

And, always, what happens next?

Johnson won’t be directing the next—final—leg of the trilogy, the ninth episode of the overarching Star Wars opus, which will conclude in 2019 with J.J. Abrams, the director of The Force Awakens, back at the helm. And before that, there’ll be another “standalone” movie, about the origins of Han Solo, directed by Ron Howard, in December of next year. But Johnson has been given a big vote of confidence to return for a brand new Star Wars trilogy, three more movies with new characters and new storylines spread out over the next decade.

The Rebels, as Leia has always reminded her troops, must be the “spark” to ignite an even greater flame, a fire to keep burning until good triumphs over evil.

The flame of Star Wars is gloriously bright in The Last Jedi, and the franchise that began 40 years ago shows no sign of burning out, going away or slowing down. Who’s the Last Jedi? I’m not telling. But know the Force is still strong.

In theaters Dec. 15, 2017

 

Fire & Ice

Margot Robbie spins, twists & soars as crushed skating princess Tonya Harding

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I, Tonya
Starring Margot Robbie, Allison Janney & Sebastian Stan
Directed by Craig Gillepsie
R

Truth, like ice, can be a slippery thing.

I, Tonya, the ripping, rollicking tale Tonya Harding—the most colorfully controversial figure in the history of figure skating—begins by explaining that what we’re about to see is based on “wildly contradictory, totally true” interviews with everyone involved.

Actually, it’s based on mock interviews with actors portraying everyone involved, and the fake-doc format weaves feisty, she-said, he-said threads into the deliciously dark, twistedly comedic biopic drama that follows.

And it’s all true—depending on what you hear, and from who.

In an absolute knockout performance, Margot Robbie stars as Harding, who was banned for life from professional skating after pleading guilty for her knowledge of a plot to sideline her rival, Nancy Kerrigan, leading into the 1994 Olympics.

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Allison Janney

Robbie, after a long haul of standout supporting roles—in films like Goodbye Christopher Robin, Suicide Squad, The Wolf of Wall Street and The Legend of Tarzan—finally gets the lead in a movie that she completely owns. She plays Harding beginning in her teens in rural Portland, Ore., where she’d been driven since childhood (and played briefly by McKenna Grace) to rule the ice by her mom (an awards-worthy Allison Janey), a smoke-breathing, cigarette-puffing, profanity-spewing beast who abuses her both physically and psychologically.

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Sebastian Stan as Jeff Gillooly with Robbie as Tonya Harding, early in their soon-to-become-tumultuous relationship.

Sebastian Stan gives a terrific performance as Jeff Gillooly, the older guy Tonya meets and marries. He’s a local loser, a dim-bulb doofus with a mustache, and he abuses her too. They scream, fight and smash up the place. Tonya leaves him, comes back, kicks him out; they break up, get back together, break up again—a toxic circus of domestic co-dependency built on the crumbs of self-esteem from her crushed childhood.

But she channels his rage, her hurt and her bruises into even more focus—and ferocity—in the rink, where she perfects the triple axel, a midair, spinning wonder of aerodynamics. Considered the most technically difficult of all skating maneuvers, it becomes her signature.

And it takes her all the way to the Olympics.

But Harding had never been anyone’s darling, and she has trouble getting her footing on the world stage. She’s a ballsy, world-class skater, for sure, but the judges won’t give any breaks to someone who wears gaudy homemade costumes and does her routines to ZZ Top. In a competition that likes to think of itself as refined and high-class, Tonya is considered low-rent and white-trash.

It’s not just about the skating, one judge reluctantly levels with her. It’s also about “presentation.”

At the U.S. Figure Skating Championships leading to the 1994 Olympics in Norway, Gillooly, by now her ex-husband, decides something needs to be done. The movie refers to it as “the incident.” It begins as one thing, but becomes something else, and results in Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) getting whacked in the leg by a thug hired by one of Gillooly’s friends (Paul Walter Hauser from TV’s Kingdom).

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Harding and Gillooly at first feign ignorance and innocence, but soon enough, the whole crazy house of cards collapses, burying them underneath.

Director Craig Gillepsie, whose previous films include the Disney baseball flick Million Dollar Arm and Lars and the Real Girl, juices and gooses this wild joyride along the ripe, rich underbelly of its fractured, funky, fast-paced underdog tale. With dark humor, ruffian violence and doofus characters planning a caper that goes south, it sometimes feels like the Coen Brothers spinning a Fargo riff with Goodfellas seasoning. The camera, like the story and its players, is constantly on the move; as with the truth about what happened, it’s hard to nail down.

And Robbie, as Tonya, is a marvel. She spins, she twirls, she soars. She serves up a magnificently smudged, grandly sympathetic version of a footnote figure in American sports lore that digs deep into the dirty, damaged roots beneath the tabloid headlines that rocked and shocked the world two decades ago.

“America—they want someone to love, they want someone to hate,” Harding tells us toward the end of the movie.

In her triumphant portrayal of the ice princess now frozen forever out of her castle in I, Tonya, we get both—and the truth, too, whatever it is, somewhere in there.

In theaters Dec. 8, 2017

‘Room’ Mates

Make space for James Franco’s Disaster-piece

DA_121815_00899.dngThe Disaster Artist
Starring James Franco & Dave Franco
Directed by James Franco
R

The “disaster” of The Disaster Artist refers to a movie called The Room.

A massively misguided, famously incoherent mess-terpiece, The Room has been called “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” and one of the best bad movies ever. An overwrought, completely off-the-rails romantic melodrama that achieved so-awful-it’s-great status soon after its release in 2003, it went on to find an obsessive, Rocky Horror-like cult following and make an unlikely celebrity of its creator, star, writer and director, the eccentric and enigmatic Tommy Wiseau.

Director James Franco plays Wiseau in The Disaster Artist, which is essentially the backstory of how The Room came to be. It’s based on the 2013 memoir of the same name by Greg Sestero, Wiseau’s Room costar, played by Franco’s younger brother, Dave.

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Dave (left) and James Franco

But the movie is also a “buddy story” about the peculiar friendship of Wiseau and Sestero, how the two aspiring actors met and the pact they made—a pinky promise at the crash site of James Dean’s Porsche speedster—to pursue their dream of success in Hollywood.

Actually, success in spite of Hollywood.

Wiseau, as depicted in the movie, is a most peculiar cat. He claims to be 19 but clearly looks to be somewhere far south of 40, and professes to be from Louisiana, although his mangled tin-ear English suggests Slavic roots. Wealthy enough—somehow—to own apartments in both San Francisco and Los Angeles and drive a Mercedes, he’s also intensely secretive. “Don’t talk about me, to anyone,” he cautions the younger Sestero.

With long, stringy, dyed-black hair, a droopy eye, pasty skin and an accent that often begs for subtitles, Wiseau has trouble convincing anyone he’s Hollywood leading-man material. It’s no wonder Sestero’s younger, hipper actor friends refer to him—only half joking—as a vampire.

PosterMany celebrities are among The Room’s ardent fans, and a lot of them are sprinkled throughout The Disaster Artist. If you bring a scorecard, you’ll have to work fast to check off Josh Hutcherson, Megan Mullally, Zac Efron, Lizzy Caplan, Seth Rogen, Nathan For You Fielder, Bryan Cranston, Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith, J.J. Abrams, Ari Graynor, the real Greg Sestero, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Zach Braff, Hannibal Buress, Randall Park, Paul Scheer, Jacki Weaver, Casey Wilson and more.

In a gusto, go-for-it performance, Franco almost disappears into his role. He gets plenty of laughs as the clueless Tommy, but he also brings a sensitivity and poignancy to his tragicomic depiction of the inscrutable, obsessive fanatic who refuses to let Hollywood—or anyone else—define him, or keep him down.

Franco has nearly 150 acting roles to his credit, and he’s directed 13 theatrical features and several documentaries (plus two episodes of the HBO series The Deuce, on which he also stars—as twin brothers). He’s also written for film and TV, and produced more than 65 movie projects. He knows filmmaking inside and out, and he also knows what it’s like to have a passion to do it all, to give his all, his everything.

He gets Tommy Wiseau.

The difference, of course, is that Franco’s got….well, creative gifts that Wiseau did not. Wiseau is fueled by an unstoppable drive and an unquenchable thirst, but he’s low on talent, high on delusion and oblivious to every obstacle in his path. He simply doesn’t understand why the world won’t accept him; that’s why he creates his own.

The Disaster Artist mixes its humor with heart, empathy with sympathy. It’s amusing—but also painful—to watch Wiseau throw himself into the maws of L.A.’s moviemaking machinery, even after being chewed up and rejected time and again.

“Just because you want it doesn’t mean it can happen,” one bigwig producer (Judd Apatow) tells him. “Not in a million years! And not after that, either.”

And so, The Room is born, as Wiseau and Sestero decide to take fate into their own hands and make their own film—a tale of an all-American (!) guy (Wiseau), his cheating girlfriend, his best friend (Sistero) and a web of deceit and betrayal that eventually ends in tragedy.

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Franco as Wiseau directing, with Seth Rogen and Paul Scheer (background) as as film crew members on the set of ‘The Room.’

“What do you do if it turns out really bad? Really terrible?” Sestero’s bartender girlfriend (Alison Brie) asks him when he frets about Tommy’s lack of control over The Room’s mounting production woes. “Can you take if off your IMDB?”

No one could have predicted The Room—which originally opened in one theater, on one screen, for two weeks—would go on to find such a thriving second life and inspire legions of ardent fans.

Or that James Franco and a gaggle of Hollywood stars would make one of the year’s most riotously enjoyable films, about how a “disastrous” script, inept actors and an incompetent director somehow stumbled into the creation of such an enduring slice of pop culture.

If you’ve seen The Room, you’ll totally dig The Disaster Artist. And if you haven’t, don’t worry—you’ll still appreciate Franco’s audacious high-wire act, a quirky tribute to outsiders everywhere and a celebration of a particularly bizarre moment in Hollywood-outsider footnote history. This tale of a crazy, against-the-odds transformation of trash into treasure is a really good movie about a really bad one.

In theaters Dec. 1, 2017 

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