Molly’s Game (2017)

What’s the worst thing that can happen in sports? That’s the question voiced by the title character as the curtain goes up on Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut and latest produced screenplay since 2015’s Steve Jobs. The wording immediately conjures another Sorkin sports project, Moneyball, which followed Billy Beane’s seemingly-miraculous turnaround of the flailing Oakland A’s baseball club. That film was directed by Bennett Miller (sidebar: where’d Bennett Miller disappear to?) and contained a brilliant sequence dubbed The Streak: a quick-cut montage of the A’s unprecedented run of winning, winning, winning. We may never lose again, reads a poster in the stadium stands. Winning, you may have heard, is basically the best thing that can happen in sports.

The worst thing is more varied, more subjective, and far more interesting, at least as a concept for a narrative feature. It’s easy to see why Sorkin thought so, and easy to see why the writer was drawn to Molly Bloom’s account of her time hosting high-stakes underground poker games in L.A. and New York. Molly’s Game allows Sorkin to tap into the fast-paced verve of a sport (poker being “a game of skill,” as Molly asserts) that just so happens to require players to gather, seated, around a tense table. Molly herself is a quintessential Sorkin character in that she talks fast, has daddy issues, and is often the smartest person in the room by a longshot. Above all, the fact that Molly’s Game is a true story makes it all the more fitting for this writer’s wheelhouse.

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Shazam! (2019)

Is the DCEU still a thing? Conceived as the answer to Marvel’s unfathomably successful Cinematic Universe, DC’s interconnected supertales never quite coalesced the way they were intended to. You could point to any number of reasons for this derailment: a lack of a Kevin Feige-type visionary at the helm, or a violent shift in tone from one movie to the next, or poor casting in crucial roles, or the general cart-before-the-horse nature in which this series was rushed into existence. Those are all blameworthy when considering the ineffectiveness of a franchise. But because each individual film in the DCEU — Man of Steel, Suicide Squad, Batman v. Superman, Wonder Woman, Justice League, Aquaman — is mighty flawed in a vacuum, I’m inclined to point to crappy, one-note villains as an unfortunate recurring theme which, if given proper TLC, might just right the DCEU ship.

Well, you’re saying, that sounds like a massive oversimplification. It is, probably, considering we’re now in an era so dominated by superhero movies that the more experimental outings are the most interesting ones. Deadpool, Logan and Into the Spider-Verse all have villain types we’ve seen before, but they still manage to break the mold. Exactly, you’re saying, and besides, I happen to like General Zod and some of the other DC villains. Granted, ascribing a matter of opinion as the sole reason for the failure of a billion-dollar film franchise could be a stretch. Definitely, you’re saying, and besides, aren’t you supposed to be talking about the new one instead of whining about the old ones?

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Us (2019)

Jordan Peele’s Us is nothing short of exceptionally entertaining horror. Starring Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke as the mother and father of a prototypical American family, Us joins a long tradition of doppelgänger horror while still emerging from that tradition into definitive modernity. Like Peele’s debut Get Out, the American Dream — as a white-picket-fence fantasy and as a dark reality — is crucial not only to the implicit themes of the film, but to the reason both films are scary in the first place. Yes, Us has a preponderance of classic horror moments, from jump-scares to home invasions to creepy coincidences foreshadowing a coming threat. But these tropes become entertaining again only in context of a strong underlying assertion that speaks to something in our everyday life, and while Us may not speak as explicitly as Get Out, the potency of the film is drawn from a similar source.

That aforementioned line of doppelgänger-narrative-as-horror is an interesting one, and one that makes perfect sense for Peele’s sensibilities as a writer. It’s a premise that’s been used for terrifying stuff like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dead Ringers, Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, and a number of unsettling works from David Lynch. Last year’s venture was Annihilation, which played with the doppelgänger motif in a supernatural way. It’s elementally creepy, the idea of meeting yourself. The question it raises is as existential as it gets: if that’s me…then who am I?

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The Black Stallion (1979)

The Black Stallion is very much a film of two halves. You could enter the film at the midpoint and still enjoy the back 50% as a self-contained story. Similarly, you could just watch the first chunk and then turn it off feeling surprisingly satisfied. Viewed as a whole, though, Stallion serves as a personality quiz centered around whichever half you ultimately prefer. Think Full Metal Jacket or King Kong, which not only bring characters through two vastly different settings but seemingly bring them through different genres of film as well. It’s possible to enjoy the whole film in each of these instances, but by design one segment probably connects with you more powerfully than the other.

The first half of Stallion introduces young Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno) and the eponymous Black Stallion aboard an unnamed vessel floating in the Mediterranean. Alec, poking around as his father gambles with the foreign seamen, sees the wild horse tied and locked into one of the holds of the ship by its owners. He’s enraptured by it. When the ship crashes and Alec’s father is killed, the stallion saves Alec from death and the pair wash up on a picturesque island. This half of the film is highly meditative and yet highly tactile, focused both on sweeping vistas and on visual symbolism. Aside from a near-monologue delivered by Alec’s father, there’s virtually no dialogue in this entire stretch of The Black Stallion. We’re given no information regarding who Alec and his father actually are, why they’re on this ship, where they’re going. Even the sinking of the ship simply happens, reasons unexplained.

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Captain Marvel (2019)

In 2017 The Last Jedi ignited a culture war between lovers of Star Wars on the one side and…well, lovers of Star Wars on the other side. This war was ostensibly borne of debate over the film, praise versus criticism, and there certainly is a battlefront of this war that does engage in genuine discourse over Jedi. There’s another front, of course, comprised mostly of warriors fighting with a willing blindness to the merits or pitfalls of the film as a film; some people just despise Jedi for puerile personal reasons, some just defend it simply because it’s Star Wars. This is the Ultimate First World Problem, such hatred and ire thrown about over the seventh sequel to a space fantasy from 1977. But intentionally or not, a particular faction of “critics” revealed themselves during this war. We’ll call them the Shitboys, because they’re mostly boys and they mostly shit on everything.

The Shitboys are that splinter cell of Jedi-haters that conspired to sink the Rotten Tomatoes score of the film by flooding the internet with bad reviews. They sent death threats to director Rian Johnson from the safety of their mother’s basements. They made cute little petitions that proposed Disney literally remake the movie they just released. Eventually, they shit the same shit over Black Panther, actually claiming that white males were becoming a marginalized group in Hollywood. Once the rest of us stopped laughing/crying and once Panther walked home with billions of dollars and a few Oscars, the Shitboys regrouped and set to work on Captain Marvel:

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True Detective 3.8 – “Now Am Found”

Television is an unforgiving medium. Superficially, the longer format should theoretically give rise to opportunity for deeper character development than can usually be accomplished in a two-hour film. Among many takeaways from the first chunk of episodes of True Detective‘s third season was this: Wayne Hays is a great television character that would likely turn out differently in almost any other medium. The other edge of this sword, of course, is that a whole season of television is a fairly long time to invest in any specific narrative. And among many takeaways from ‘Tec‘s third season finale “Now Am Found” was this: Wayne Hays deserved a much better ending.

The issue with the climactic hour — which has already proven fairly divisive amongst both fans and detractors of this season’s arc — lies less in what happened than in how it happened. In our review of the penultimate episode “The Final Country”, we listed a few things that we expected out of the finale. Not all of them came to pass:

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True Detective 3.7 – “The Final Country”

Though “The Final Country” didn’t pack quite the wallop of last week’s “Hunters in the Dark”, one can mostly chalk that up to the role of a penultimate episode of television in properly setting the stage for a finale. “Hunters” seemingly had a cliffhanger, but in actuality the hour told one of the most self-contained stories in True Detective to date. We saw and understood Tom Purcell’s shift from sobered-up reformee to off-the-wagon vigilante, spurred by an unjust targeting from those he thought were his friends (and by a little eavesdropping at the police station). Tom’s ultimate fate wasn’t necessarily something we knew, but then again the reveal of his dead body in the opening minutes of “Final Country” felt pretty inevitable. If “Hunters” hadn’t been such a closed loop, any remorse over Tom’s death would’ve felt unearned.

The end of “Final Country” was a true cliffhanger, though. The primary question isn’t so much whodunit? anymore, though we do still need specifics regarding how the Hoyt Family, a man named Watts and/or Mister June, Lucy Purcell, Dan O’Brien and Princess Julie all fit together. The primary question now, as 1990 Wayne hops into the car with The Character That Knows the Truth, is how 2015 Wayne could still be so far away from that truth all these years later.

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Destroyer (2019)

I was pretty darn excited by Destroyer just prior to watching Destroyer. The fact of a female-led, female-directed crime film with such noir grit would’ve been enticing enough. That female lead, of course, is Nicole Kidman, which always helps in the Excitement category. But frankly director Karyn Kusama was even more of a draw, coming off her last effort The Invitation. While not altogether a classic, Invitation stuck in the mind for its slow-burn tension and creepy performances. It was almost a suburban spin on a haunted house tale, Ice Storm meets Amityville Horror, accomplished with confidence by Kusama on a comparatively small budget of $1 million. Destroyer upped the ante, left the suburban mansion for the L.A. streets, but the fact that it was still an original thriller was mighty exciting.

And I was even pretty darn excited by Destroyer just after watching Destroyer, because the ending was a deft twist with a songlike quality only hinted at elsewhere in the film. But I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Destroyer while I was actually watching Destroyer. As an upstanding member of the critical community, of course, I must admit, reader, that in entering the screening for Destroyer I simultaneously expunged every bias while still expecting, honestly, based on advertising, to be destroyed.

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True Detective 3.6 – “Hunters in the Dark”

If you’re as into this season of True Detective as I am, “Hunters in the Dark” had it all.

Plot-wise there were developments we knew were coming, like the wrongful incrimination of Brett Woodard in the 1980 timeline. There was a whole bunch of stuff we probably didn’t know was coming, mostly stemming from the 1990 timeline and Tom Purcell’s regression back into a suspect in the eyes of the police. There was, of course, a big ol’ reveal at the end, one that we’ll talk about in a second after we issue a spoiler warning for that spoilery spoiler.

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Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

I went to the Tate Modern in London once. Modern art is easy to shit on, the philosophy of experimentation and willful disregard for tradition seeming to some haphazard, easy, cheap or just plain juvenile. That day at the Tate somebody had left a crumpled-up brochure on the ground, dead center of a pristine exhibit hall, and visitors would occasionally encircle it with hushed regard as they mistook it for art. It was the most surreal thing in a museum of exclusively surreal things, watching a piece of trash receive such vigilant appreciation.

Velvet Buzzsaw grips that inherently satirical premise and throttles it bloody. There’s a scene that almost recreated my day at the Tate verbatim, except it’s a dead body in a pool of blood that museum-goers believe to be a cutting-edge installation. Dan Gilroy’s follow-up to Nightcrawler is on Netflix now and stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, John Malkovich and Daveed Diggs as critics, agents, curators and artists in the world of high-end L.A. art. When a mysterious artist’s work begins to gain posthumous acclaim, the sales and monetization of that work result in supernatural consequences for those involved.

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