Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Same Studio, Believe It or Not: Ex Files 3: Return of the Exes & Molly's Game

It's not exactly news these days that Chinese companies are looking to enter the American movie industry (and vice versa), but seeing the "H. Brothers" logos before both of these movies back to back was kind of amusing, especially since the one before Ex Files was the full-on Chinese version, with bright colors and dragon patterns and lots of big gear-turning motion, while the one before Molly's Game was pretty much a black screen with Chinese characters below the English. Which makes me wonder why they went simple - if you're not pretending the H stands for "Howard" or something other than "Huayi", why aren't you going with the cool one?

I meant to have the order on these flipped, starting with Molly and then doing Ex Files just so that I could say I started 2018 off with a movie I really looked forward to rather than just being cheap and fitting the cheap pre-noon movie at an AMC in before using MoviePass at another one. Unfortunately, the T is running pretty slow and with longer times between Red Line trains right now, so it was pretty clear I wasn't getting to the 11:30am at Fenway and thus had to go with the 11:45 at Boston Common. Felt kind of bad about not starting the year off on the expected high note, so I guess it's fortunate that the second faded in my esteem a bit as I thought about it.

Ah, well. Back to hiding out in the apartment because it's cold.

Qian Ren 3: Yan Zhi Da Zuo Zhan (Ex Files 3: The Return of the Exes)

* * (out of four)
Seen on 1 January 2018 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, DCP)

Maybe, if I had been able to stream the first Ex Files movie before seeing the second a couple years ago (a thing I usually at least try to do before a sequel pops up in local theaters), I would have enjoyed this more, and not just for the sake of familiarity. Quite the opposite, in fact - it was the presumption of any sort of connection between the films beyond the people involved and some character names that led to my disappointment. I don't know that looking at this as an anthology series makes the third entry a whole lot better, but it does make it just a sort of bland break-up movie, not something which breaks previous entries to no positive end.

As it opens, entrepreneur Meng Yun (Han Geng) and Lu Jia ("Kelly" Yu Wen-wen), his girlfriend of five years, are fighting, for what's not exactly the first time. Lu Jia means it, though, leaving the apartment to crash with her friend Ding Dian (Xeng Mengxue). Dian has been with Meng Yun's business partner and best friend Yu Fei ("Ryan" Zheng Kai) for a couple of years, and their relationship winds up getting dragged down with their friends'. Initially, the ladies mope while the guys go out to enjoy their new bachelorhood, but while Yu Fei and Ding Dian keep finding excuses to meet for "closure", Meng Yun and Lu Jia each seem to be waiting for the other to make the first move toward reconciliation.

"Waiting" isn't exactly the most exciting thing to build a movie around, especially since this one is already kind of on shaky ground from it's opening where both Meng Yun and Lu Jia are making claims about how much harder men or women have it. The filmmakers edit it nicely to make it play out like an argument even though they're eventually shown to just be complaining to Yu Fei and Ding Dian, but it winds up playing as the most generic griping imaginable. The steps they wind up going through are also not terribly exciting - the guys start hitting the clubs, Lu Jia goes on the beach vacation Meng Yun promised but never delivered on by herself - to the point where, when another character points out that these are the known stages of how men and women deal with the aftermath of a breakup, a viewer may be inclined to nod and ask when the less-predictable bits are coming.

Full review at EFC

Molly's Game

* * * (out of four)
Seen on 1 January 2018 in Regal Fenway #11 (first-run, DCP)

Aaron Sorkin is a guy known for using a lot of words as a writer, and watching Molly's Game, his first film as a director, I think there are two separate reasons. He likes process and stories, and when he comes upon ones that interest him, he can't stop talking; he's fascinated. But try to get into what his characters feel, and he's roundabout, pecking at the borders until he finally gets inside. It's worked for him - it gives directors and actors a lot to work with and as much to fall back on - but that assumes good collaborators, and he's not a great partner for himself yet.

Here, he's telling the story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), an Olympic-class skier who suffered a (second) horrific injury during trials, who opted to take a year off before starting law school, landing in Los Angeles, landing a gig as the personal assistant to a scuzzy producer (Dean Keith), which includes helping him run his weekly high-stakes poker game. A quick study, she's soon able to make it her poker game with the help of a high-rolling movie star (Michael Cera), but even though she tries to keep things above board, that much money flowing through something only half-legal, it's no surprise that she's eventually the target of an FBI investigation, her assets seized and lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) wondering if she's as honest as she seems - and if she is, it's unlikely she can pay her bill.

There is certainly plenty of talent in front of the camera in this movie; Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba take those big mouthfuls Sorkin gives them and spit out smart, driven characters who have solid, decent centers without seeming plain or sanctimonious. Chastain in particular is fun to watch as the title character's flashbacks inch forward; Molly's inherent smarts become more worldly and applied, even as her wardrobe choices tend to distract from that. It's a tricky performance, a bunch of amorality and ego that's just got to be just friendly enough to push the audience away. Elba makes a nice complement to her, good at being hesitant without looking indecisive, carrying a sort of paternal attitude over from scenes with his on-screen daughter but not ever making Jaffey seem to talk down to his client. Kevin Costner leads a cast of quality work in smaller roles, his late-career snarl a fine fit for Molly's demanding father.

Full review at EFC

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