Monday, April 23, 2018

"Darkest Hour" and "Molly's Game"

Along with "Dunkirk" and "Their Finest," 2017 was the year that British filmmakers all seemed to collectively decide to dramatise the Dunkirk evacuations.  Joe Wright already depicted what was going on from one angle in "Atonement," and in "Darkest Hour" he looks in on the event from an entirely different one. Specifically, he follows Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) in the early part of WWII, from the resignation of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) to the famous "We shall fight on the beaches speech" in June of 1940.  Much of the action is seen from the POV of Churchill's secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James).

Joe Wright's filmmaking style has gotten increasingly showy over time.  Often involving long tracking shots and theatrical staging, there's a high degree of stylization in many scenes here.  The film opens with a remarkable overhead view of Parliament in chaos, one that we see echoed in later scenes of warfare.  So there's a distinct sense of artifice that's always present, and this helps a lot of the invented melodrama go down easier.  For instance, there's a much-discussed scene where Churchill goes into the underground to gage the mood of the common people. This was wholly invented, and is frankly so contrived that it's obvious that it didn't really happen.  However, in the context of the over-the-top pageantry of the rest of the film, it worked for me.

The best thing about "Darkest Hour," however, is the performance of Gary Oldman.  Buried under makeup and prosthetics, Oldman is still quite visible, and able to turn in a full-throated Winston Churchill appearance that is terrifically entertaining and distinctly his own.  He is also easily the most down-to-earth element of the film, an obstinate old grump full of doubts and frustrations, who seems to either exasperate or terrorize everyone who has to spend much time with him.  Of course, he turns out to be magnificently empathetic and brilliant when it counts, and it's to Oldman's credit that there's little whiplash as we move from one extreme of his personality to the other. Wright may enjoy his cinematic parlor tricks, but he's smart enough to keep out of Oldman's way, to the movie's benefit.

And now for something completely different.  "Molly's Game" is the directing debut of Aaron Sorkin, who also wrote the script, of course.  It follows the unlikely career of former Olympic hopeful Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), who ran a series of exclusive poker games for the rich and powerful in Los Angeles and New York before the FBI shut her down over her potential involvement in organized crime.  We meet Molly as she's relaying her story to a lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), trying convince him to take her case. Though the film involves a lot of poker, it's less about the game and more about the specific culture around the game as it existed in the particular social circles that Molly was able to gain access to.  

Mostly, however, it's about Molly herself, a young woman carving out an unconventional and  lucrative niche for herself in a world of cutthroat men. There are quite a few similarities between "Molly's Game" and last year's "Miss Sloane," also starring Jessica Chastain.  However, "Molly" is a more complex film about real people, and has the benefit of Sorkin's rapid-fire dialogue and briskly efficient exposition. This is subject matter wonderfully suited for Sorkin's talents, and he doesn't hesitate to explore all the ins and outs of Molly's fascinating empire of privilege and excess.  However, Sorkin runs into some trouble figuring out the emotional core of the story, and eventually decides Molly's personal struggles boil down to issues with her father (Kevin Costner). And none of this material worked for me at all.

Still, when the movie gets some momentum behind it, it hums along beautifully.  Chastain and Elba turn in good performances, and Sorkin does a fine job for his first time in the director's chair.  The movie feels very much of a piece with other recent Sorkin scripted features like "Steve Jobs," more fun for its one-liners and specific scenes than as a whole piece.  It is a lot of fun, though, especially for Sorkin fans. I wouldn't say it's one of his better films, but it's still well worth a watch.


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