Thursday, December 21, 2017

Rapid Reviews: Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Molly's Game

Following the box office and critical powerhouse that was The Force Awakens, fans and enthusiasts were shocked to learn that J.J. Abrams wouldn't be returning to direct the next chapter of the Star Wars saga. Instead, Disney put its full faith behind Looper and Brick helmer Rian Johnson. But where would Johnson's vision take this delicate collection of old and new characters? Early indications and trailer footage suggested a darker tone would exist throughout The Last Jedi, and only time would tell if this was the correct path for the franchise. Well now, the time has finally arrived.

Rey (Daisy Ridley) has taken her newfound abilities to a desolate island to learn the ways of the Force from Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). But as her understanding of the Force grows, so does Skywalker's skepticism in her intentions as he becomes fearful of her uncontrollable strength. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the First Order look to put an end to the Resistance once and for all.

From start to finish, The Last Jedi becomes plagued by an artificial cheapness in both story structure and delivery. This isn't to say that the film is a complete miss, because that's by no means accurate, Rian Johnson's effort is rather a misguided continuation of the re-branded universe that J.J. Abrams worked diligently to build. Where The Force Awakens goes overboard in its reliance on familiarity, both in terms of the story's likeness to A New Hope and its return to key figures from the original trilogy, The Last Jedi desperately ventures in a polar-opposite direction by offering numerous thematic statements that this trilogy intends to have its own voice. Consequently, this branching-out approach from Rian Johnson comes with a wide range of successes and failures. Rey, Finn and Poe prove to be a strongly-developed trio of characters who are well-equipped to carry the saga into Episode IX. However, an absolute mishandling of Luke Skywalker's character, which even drew public criticism from Mark Hamill leading up to the film's release, is just the beginning of The Last Jedi's careless ideas. Everything from the revelation of Rey's parents to shameful amounts of inorganic slapstick comedy sprinkled throughout, and lest we forget cinema's most unimaginative and prolonged "chase sequence" ever, The Last Jedi's most shining qualities are sadly clouded by many blatant and unforgivable blunders from its writer and director. Therefore, we must turn our hopes back to J.J. Abrams for a stronger and more appropriate conclusion when he returns for Episode IX.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

Most successful individuals must work or train tirelessly to hone their craft, devoting a lifetime to reaching the pinnacles of their professions. Yet, somehow Aaron Sorkin appears to circumvent the norm with his seemingly effortless skills that have transformed the screenwriter and playwright into an Oscar-winning titan of the industry. Sorkin's rare mastery of rapid dialogue interspersed with comedic undertones are staples in cinematic achievements such as A Few Good Men, The Social Network, Moneyball and countless others. But now Sorkin feels ready to embrace the next major challenge in his life, as the prestigious writer tackles his directorial debut with the unbelievable true story behind his new film, Molly's Game.

After a crushing defeat ends the Olympic dreams of young skiing sensation Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), she ventures to California for a sunny retreat from her intense training and stressful upbringing at the behest of her father (Kevin Costner). While on the west coast, a series of odd jobs somehow navigates Molly into the underworld of high-stakes poker headlined by actors, athletes, politicians and all other kinds of celebrities. But as Molly's thirst for expensive taste and a desperation to be a part of the action crosses the line of legality, she's forced to beg attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) for his counsel after the U.S. government presses serious charges and confiscate all of her finances.

If you're a fan of Aaron Sorkin's past work, his trademark style is on full display once again in Molly's Game. Told through a non-chronological approach, the audience is given a thorough glance into the mindset of a remarkably gifted woman who trades her intellectual and physical strengths for a dark and exhausting life of underground gambling. Molly is at the forefront of nearly every scene, paving the way for Jessica Chastain to grow an audacious and compelling character. Despite Molly's crazy life story that manages to stay engaging even through a lofty 140-minute affair, Chastain's performance is strong but not transcendent. Her work rings familiar to another recent turn Chastain delivered in John Madden's Miss Sloane, and the similarities sour the experience a bit. Idris Elba and Kevin Costner provide stellar supporting performances as well, but the largest issue with Molly's Game is the film's inability to elevate the stakes. The story feels grossly repetitious at times and its dramatic conclusion is regrettably unnatural. However, Sorkin's usage of heavy dialogue is executed to his typical standards, keeping a comfortable beat and tempo that's constantly moving and never bores. Molly's Game is a decent effort and a fine directorial debut for Sorkin despite the movie's lack of necessary escalation.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

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