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New Films: Six Holiday Moviebriefs

Jessica Chastain plays Molly Bloom in “Molly’s Game,” about an injured Olympic-level skier who finds herself managing high stakes poker games in Los Angeles and later New York. It’s a fast paced and dialog-heavy ride, as one might expect from screenwriter and director Aaron Sorkin, and engaging from start to finish. Bloom’s life is depicted in a combination of linear sequencing and flashbacks driven by the investigation into her activities, after she’s targeted by the FBI primarily because of their interest in some of her players. It’s worth noting that this is Bloom’s life as told by Sorkin but taken from Bloom’s own book – so it’s favorable to her, her critical decisions, and her values. It’s also well adapted and controlled in its intensity, never going off the rails like the recent Tom Cruise starring “American Made” which focused on even higher stakes but with a somewhat similar central character arc. Chastain is good as Bloom, as are (in particular) Idris Elba as her lawyer and Michael Cera as the key player in her early games.

Counting April’s “Their Finest,” “Darkest Hour” relegates Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” into the unlikely position of being the third best film about Dunkirk this year. “Darkest Hour” stars Gary Oldman in a powerful performance as Winston Churchill during the short period in May 1940, between his rise to power as Prime Minister and his famous “Never surrender” speech in the House of Commons (“We will fight them on the beaches, we will fight them on the landing grounds,…”). It was a period in which several in power felt that a negotiated peace treaty with Nazi Germany was the only way to save Britain – other European countries were falling and most of the British Army was trapped at Dunkirk, in full retreat from the advancing German forces, and expected to be captured or slaughtered. That said, this isn’t an action film like “Dunkirk,” it’s a political battle of wills played out in offices and basements, marked by fine acting but occasionally heavy-handed direction. And it’s a worthwhile and focused look at both this pivotal individual and equally pivotal period of time.

There’s something lost in the story of P. T. Barnum, as told in “The Greatest Showman.” For starters, a younger viewer might be forgiven for thinking he became famous staging short musicals with circus themes, as the actual nature of the sideshows and performances he staged are never quite clear in this musical rendition. But the movie fails on a greater level by being a musical with lackluster music. The performances are good and everything looks good on the screen but there’s no pizazz in the songs – nothing that causes you to walk away humming. It seems especially odd in a story about a great showman, a man who made everything larger than life, that almost all of the songs start so tentatively, with soft unaccompanied vocals before additional voices or orchestration kicks in. It felt like it needed songs and music that entered the ring trumpeting their arrival, not songs that begin by sneaking a nose under the tent flaps.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is silly and well-meaning fun. It’s also a neat concept for reviving the earlier trapped-in-the-jungle-game material by having an otherwise unlikely lineup of stars not directly playing the game, but playing the parts of the avatars of a breakfast club of high schoolers playing a video game version of Jumanji. Thus, for example, Dwayne Johnson’s rugged explorer avatar is matched to a shy, geeky male student and Jack Black’s cartographer avatar is even more awkwardly matched to a selfie-obsessed female student. Nothing makes a great deal of sense, nor should one dwell on the details, but it does have fun with gaming conventions, pokes brief fun at the 1990’s, and packs in some family-safe action.

In “Downsizing,” Matt Damon plays a man who decides to follow a new minority trend to shrink oneself to a few inches high, in order to live a better life. At least that’s the theory. In the film, the process is developed by scientists who determine that, if humans won’t breed less or consume less, the only way to avoid over-crowding and over-consumption is for humans themselves to become smaller. Their plan was for everybody to transition but most choose not to. However there’s a side benefit that lures many in, the idea that by being smaller and everything you need being commensurately smaller also, you can afford more with far less, and thus by downsizing you can transform a modest life to an affluent one, albeit a tiny affluent one. The first half of the film is largely comedic in tone, as Damon’s character undergoes the transition and encounters both people and things in the downsized community. At that level it worked quite successfully, but the movie gets out of its reduced depth when it delves back into more profound waters. Apparently height doesn’t change human nature that much (or the white savior dynamic) but pondering that fact does change the nature and appeal of the film.

There’s a lot more to like about “The Shape of Water,” not least the latest star performance by the woefully under-celebrated Sally Hawkins. Alongside Octavia Spencer, Hawkins plays a mute custodian in a mysterious government research facility. Her life is mundane and routine, down to the finest detail, until a new specimen arrives at the lab and changes everything around and about her life. The creature is an obvious outsider in this humanoid fish in and out of water tale – but so are all of the other central characters who find themselves on the same side of the ugly circumstances of the story and the wrong side of Michael Shannon as head of security. The film deftly balances science fiction, intrigue, government paranoia, and love as well as anything since “Iron Giant” – as well as quite explicit sexual content and a strong dose of civil rights. It’s also remarkable as a film that cost a small fraction of most of today’s special effects movies and is Guillermo del Toro’s best work since his similarly wonderful and efficient “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

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About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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