Molly’s Game (2017): Memoirs of a “Poker Princess” – Not (Review)

Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba in MOLLY'S GAME

Writer, producer and director Aaron Sorkin takes Molly Bloom’s memoirs “Molly’s Game” and turns it into a fascinating look at the “poker princess.” The press dubbed Ms. Bloom this when her case became public and as the character says in the film, she was not a princess because, like the song says, this woman worked hard for the money.

Starring Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba (as a fictional character not present the book) and Michael Cera, as a thinly veiled Tobey Maguire, Molly’s Game is a more fanciful version of events. Certainly the movie follows the chain of events pretty accurately, although it does deviate from the low-key facts as presented by the real Ms. Bloom.

There are some things created for the big screen adaptation. For instance, the antagonistic relationship with Molly’s father, the skiing accident (never happened) and the complete lack of any relationships are all items dreamed up by Sorkin to add a little spice to the proceedings. (Just as Elba’s character, Charlie Jaffey was also a “construct” to help the viewer to “get behind” the rather strong female lead.

Chastain plays Molly Bloom to perfection. In all likelihood no other actress in Hollywood at the moment could have filled the designer stilettos of the female lead so well. The actress gives the role a solid truth, whether  depicting her early awe at the player’s she meets at “The Game” or when she later become jaded and rather un-enamored with the whole thing, she sells it perfectly.

Elba is spot on at the invented devil’s advocate who ultimately takes on the legal system and the US government on her behalf. It is disappointing to learn that there was no Jaffey in the book and that this legal guardian of justice is just a device to keep the audience on Molly’s side. This does not detract from the character at all, however, like the invented accident that turns Bloom from an Olympic hopeful to a “Girl Friday” for a rather unpleasant real estate entrepreneur, it helps to move the story along very well.

The film manages to change the names to protect the innocent, like the book, and while Ms. Bloom does “name drop” just a tad – she names only the players who the press “outed” already, if one reads the book, it is clear that Player X (Cera) is Tobey Maguire. (It also comes as no real surprise that the real life Maguire is a pretty nasty bit of work at the card table and away from it.)

Regardless of the changed names and the fictional constructs, Molly’s Game is entertaining and gives us a heroine we can get behind. Astute, charming and a hard worker, Bloom rises, against all odds, to become an essential part of two large poker games; one in New York and the other in LA. (In the book the real life Molly has got a few more games on the side, most notably in the 24 hour city of Las Vegas.)

The film uses a lot of the “professional” jargon associated with poker. For those who know little beyond “flop” and call, this in itself is an education. The chapters are broken down by these terms and Molly herself, via Chastain, explains what many of these terms mean. (This explains part of the appeal of Molly’s Game; our hero taught herself not only how to play poker but all the terms involved.

Molly’s Game can almost be seen as an American success story. One where hard work, charm and a high intelligence quotient makes a corn-fed wannabe Olympic skier one of the top earners in high stakes America. Sorkin excellently leads us down Molly’s path as she first learns LA and then  “The Game.”

We cheer her successes and moan at her setbacks. Chastain and Elba make a splendid double act throughout the film and when her overly competitive father, in the guise of Kevin Costner, shows up at the end, we are genuinely moved.

Molly’s Game is a full 5 star film. (Chastain certainly got my vote for “Best Actress”) Sorkin pleases with his first directorial feature despite deviating from the source material. Chastain sells her real-life character and Elba is, of course, at the top of his game. Cera is brilliantly low-key  as the unpleasant Player X and the rest of the cast all rise to the occasion and shine.

(Keep an eye out for the excellent Irish actor Chris O’Dowd in his cameo as the “only Irishman” that the Russian mob will allow into their card game. He is splendid in this tiny role.)

See this one when it screens in January, you will be glad you did. Molly’s Game is not about a poker princess, but about a hardworking, fast learning young woman who made a mint from men’s greed.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle – The Most Fun You Will Have This Year (Review)

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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a reimagining of the 1995 film starring Robin Williams, Kirsten Dunst and Jonathan Hyde. Jake Kasdan (Sex Tape, Bad Teacher), gives us an updated version of the Chris Van Allsburg short story. This time around the film is populated by Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Dwayne Johnson and Nick Jonas. The move to base the whole thing on a video game world results in perhaps the most fun you will have this year.

The movie may not be Shakespeare and its message may just be the most simplistic one offered up in 2017, but, damn it, this is gut bustlingly fun. The audience laughs out loud with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle not at it.

Reworking the 1995 version is not a hit or miss prospect, nor is it rocket science. The opening sequence explains quite neatly how the “evil” game transforms itself from a passé board game into a “state of the art” 1996 video game. In the beginning, the plot may feel a tad like a millennials  “The Breakfast Club” (there is even a red-head female to round out the group) but the sitting, in an old junk room at the local high school takes us right out of that motif immediately.

Taking a note from Stay Alive, the film transports the small quartet of teens into the video world of Jumanji and they must survive the game, save the jungle world and then shout the name in order to go home. Like the first film, there is a character who was sucked into the world 20 years previously (Nick Jonas as Alex Freeke – whose dad is played by the brilliant Tim Matheson).

The cast all knock this one out of the comedic park. Johnson, with his “smoldering” and wishy-washy bravery, Jack Black as the teen girl in a middle aged man’s body,  Hart as the “little big-man” and Gillan as the smart wall-flower in the Lara Croft body each bring more than enough to the table to make this fun-filled action romp seem more believable than it has any right to be.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle does not go out of its way to bludgeon the audience with its video game premise. It is, obviously, aimed at the “gamer” in the theatre. The character’s mention the NPC (video-game speak for “non player character) and in this case there are several. The Brit driver and “guide” a lad in the bazaar and two guards outside the transportation hut. We are given a brief explanation of what these characters do, for those non-gamers in the audience, and then leaves the subject alone.

There is direct referencing to “respawning” and each character taken over by the teens has only three lives. In this telling of Jumanji, the animals never cross over into the real world and we have a somewhat more satisfactory ending with no apparent chance of another sequel.

The film works very well, despite having no less than four writers credit with the screenplay. Some stereotypes are used to “sell” the characters but this does not distract from the obvious enjoyment factor attached to this movie.

Bobby Cannavale is splendid as big boss Van Pelt and fans of Missi Pyle will be delighted with her tiny cameo in the film. Nick Jonas is more than capable as “Alex Freeke” the young man lost in the game since 1996 and sharp-eyed viewers will spot Colin Hanks (son of Tom) in another splendid but short cameo. 

The scenery, CGI and stunts all come together to give us a movie that feels like a video game in its presentation and structure. This all works perfectly and adds to the overall fun factor of the film.

Kasden has given us a film that entertains enormously. Any movie that ends with the viewer immediately wanting to see it again is a “win.” Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a full 5 star piece. It a glorious bit of adventure that tickles the funny bone and engages the viewer throughout. See this one at the cinema now for a full quotient of entertainment. The audience reactions are almost as fun as the film.

Lady Bird (2017): Simply Wonderful (Review)

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It is inconceivable that this splendid little “feel good” film was excluded, nay snubbed, at The Golden Globes. Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is, quite simply, wonderful. Starring Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird, along with the delightful and talented Laurie Metcalf as the teen’s passive aggressive mum, the film is a coming of age story set in a Catholic school in Sacramento. 

While Lady Bird never quite lives up to the comedic promise of that opening scene in the car, it does go on to deliver a steady stream of low-key humour,  a little heart-break and some well timed pathos. Metcalf and Ronan make a delightful double-act and Tracy Letts (as the big hearted dad) steps in, as needed, to spread a little love to both combatants. 

Writer and director Gerwig addresses a lot of teen issues in this dramedy. Sexuality, losing one’s virginity, living on the wrong side of the middle-class divide, unemployment and trying desperately to grow “away” from one’s parents. None of these subjects are earth shatteringly original or ground breaking but they are delivered expertly and adorably by Ronan as the girl who wants to soar above her socially placed limits.

There is not doubt that this is Ronan’s film. She rules each and every scene she is in. However major kudos need to be given to Lucas Hedges – Lady Bird’s first love interest, Beanie Feldstein; who plays the best friend and if Metcalf does not snag a little golden fella come award time for her performance as Lady Bird’s mum, there is something definitely rotten going on in the Academy.

Lady Bird allows us into the main character’s world and her determination to head back east for her further education. She submits applications to colleges in New York on the sly, with help from her dad while she rushes to complete her last year of high school and break free of her lower middle class bonds.

We are privy to her foray into love, her first: School play, job and her acceptance into the upper echelons of Sacramento society. She becomes friends with rich girl Jenna Walton (played by Odeya Rush, who looks eerily like a young Mila Kunis) while turning her back on her old bff.

Lady Bird may not be Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical tale, but it gives us a taste of what she finds fascinating. She gives us a character who is, according to a Rolling Stone interview, a combination of underachiever and dreamer who dares to exceed her own wildest expectations.

Christine snacks on unconsecrated communion wafers with her bestie Julie and pranks the nun headmaster by putting a just married sign on her car. She steals a teacher’s grade book and then lies about her math grade to get a better score. She falls in love (twice) and buys all the things she has been forbidden to have when she turns 18.

Rebellion may be the catchword here, but it is pretty tame. This is what makes the character of Lady Bird so endearing and we cheer her brief, somewhat timid, trips into the abyss. The film is a firm 4 star venture that gives us a heroine we can get behind and a protagonist we understand.

Catch this one as quick as you can, the Golden Globes may have snubbed this simply wonderful film but one can be sure that the Academy will not. Movies like this one go a long way toward proving that Hollywood is a long way from being finished.

The Post (2017): Eerily Relevant (Review)

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The Post is a biopic that deals with a governmental coverup and a president who bans reporters from the Washington Post from the White House and it seems eerily relevant. Despite being set in the early 1970’s, the film feels all too familiar. With the current climate in America and a POTUS that screams about fake news at the drop of the proverbial hat, the film seems almost prophetic.

Co-written by Liz Hannah  and Josh Singer and directed by repeat Oscar winner Steven Spielberg (owner of no less than three golden statues) The Post covers a time period of American history where scandal erupted within a tight window, encapsulating the Vietnam war as well as Watergate. The country was reeling from student protests and ever increasing numbers of young men were being sent into a war that was unpopular with the public. 

Spielberg’s biopic drama takes a leaf from other films dealing with this time period in America like “All the President’s Men” and has more than a little in common with the 2015 “newspaper film” Spotlight. All these films deal with coverups and a government, or powerful agency, trying to keep the truth from the public.

At its base, The Post is about Kay Graham (played by Meryl Streep), the first female publisher of a huge brand name newspaper. It is also about freedom of the press, the right to protect sources and how the press serve the people and not the government. (Something the current POTUS seems to have either forgotten or never learned.)

Apart from the story itself, the film benefits from two masters interacting seamlessly in their scenes together. Streep and co-star Tom Hanks work brilliantly as examples of just how actors should work with one another. Their characters mesh perfectly and it is not too much to say that one could watch these two read their laundry list and still be enthralled.

There are a number of familiar faces in this film: Bob Odenkirk and Alison Brie from “The Disaster Artist” and Michael Stuhlbarg (from “The Shape of Water“). Pat Healy, Carrie Coon and Sarah Paulson are part of a cast that includes “Hostiles” actor Jesse Plemons. Spielberg has gathered a group of highly capable artists to deliver his take on the 1970’s threat to the American press. 

The Post is trotted out like a thriller, all tense music and heightened emotions, and one does feel the tension behind the “true” storyline. Hanks and Streep prove that “less is more” with their wonderfully restrained performances, as does Odenkirk.

Everyone plays their parts perfectly and the sets, along with the costumes, throws one right back into the late 1960’s and early ’70’s. This is a film that works brilliantly on many different levels.

Spielberg’s direction, the performances of his cast and the story itself literally come together for a perfect Oscar sweep: Best Film, Screenplay and performance can almost be seen as fait accompli. Streep and Hanks for the top award and Odenkirk for best supporting actor seems likely with a few nods to the rest of a more than capable cast.

The Post may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is a solid 5 star effort that keeps the audience glued to the screen. At just under two hours the movie cracks on with a pace that may not be adrenaline charged throughout but it definitely does not drag or bore.

The film will hit cinemas with a limited release on 22 December and a broader run 12 January 2018. Check this one out, it is an obvious Oscar contender and it manages to tick all the right boxes.

Hostiles (2017): Slow Downbeat Western With a Message (Review)

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Hostiles is a film that screams out for Sam Elliot, or at the very least a Sam Elliot “type.” Christian Bale attempts to fill Elliot’s boots but loses something in the translation. This is not to say that Bale fails in his interpretation of a bitter and cold “Indian” fighter who must transport a Cheyenne chief (the brilliant Wes Studi) back to his hunting ground to die, but Captain Blocker was tailor made for Sam Elliot and one wishes devoutly that the older actor had been cast instead.

(That said, it turns out that the casting of Bale in this film led to his dropping out of the Travis McGee film “The Deep Blue Goodby” where he had been hideously miscast as the hero…)

Co-written and directed by Scott Cooper (Donald E. Stewart is also credited on the screenplay) Hostiles is Cooper’s fourth time at the helm as director. Like the storyline itself, Cooper does a decent job, although it is a tad convoluted. Overall this message film is slow and not a little downbeat. 

Performances tend to be pretty much spot on although each character is so taciturn and stoic that the sheer lack of dialogue leaves one wishing for more action. It has to be said that the casting of Oklahoma born Wes Studi was a stroke of genius. With his face showing years of strain mixed with a certain tired nobility, the actor does more with his character’s long silences than the rest of the cast put together.

Hostiles relies upon a certain amount of stereotypes while, at the same time, utilizing a “modern” approach to prairie life back at the time of the white man’s  steadfast, and cold blooded, fulfillment of their “manifest destiny.” Brit actress Rosamund Pike, is a wife and mother in the middle of teaching her two daughter’s the finer points of English at the start of the film. 

As Mrs. Quaid, Pike manages to have the most satisfactory character arc out of the entire cast. Bale’s journey ends almost too predictably, with his coming to an almost “Dances With Wolves” inner acceptance of his -previously hated enemy.

The start of the film, with it’s brutal murder of an entire family sans one, tells us the direction that Cooper intends to take from the first shot fired. Mr. Quaid is sawing wood when a small group of Comanche warriors ride into view. He immediately sounds the alarm, tells his small brood to hide and he runs out of his cabin and begins firing his carbine before the band of “hostiles” are within range.

It is the white man who shoots first, which results in the Comanche party retaliating with deadly and over-zealous force. (This short-lived battle, where Pike’s character loses everything she loves, shows the Native American proclivity for using the white man’s weapons, six shooters and rifles, along with their more traditional weapons.)

Hostiles moves at a sluggish pace. It appears that Cooper has used the 2014 Tommy Lee Jones/Hilary Swank western “The Homesman” as a template for the modern westerns. (Although it could be argued that Clint Eastwood started this slow trend with his 1992 award winning western Unforgiven – another film that also offers a bleak but bloody storyline.)

*Cooper does offer up a small homage to the Eastwood western by having one of his characters repeat William Money’s line of “I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another.”)

Filmed in New Mexico and Arizona, the film looks stunning and while there are no real “panoramic” views, the bits of scenery on offer are breathtaking and makes one feel assured that this tale really is taking place in the “old west.”

Bale is satisfactory as the hard Indian wars campaigner, Studi deserves an award for his portrayal of a chief dying of cancer, Pike is spot on, and she is another member of the cast who should get a gong from the academy this year. Honorable mention goes to  Scott Wilson, aka Hershel from the AMC hit TWD, who has a splendid cameo as one nasty land owner. 

(Ben Foster has an excellent cameo as another campaigner who is set to be hanged when he is returned to civilization. Although his storyline is too predictable by far.)

Hostiles is a 4 star film that could have been a full 5 had it trimmed the overall running length from its mind numbing two hour and 13 minute run time. The film offers some surprising non visceral blood letting, a lot of f-bombs and not one bit of nudity. Cooper has even opted to leave out anything remotely resembling sex.

Cooper’s film has finished its festival circuit and will open with a limited release on 22 December this year. This one may be slow and plodding but it is worth a look, check it out on the big screen and see what you think. (In closing: Kudos to the filmmakers here for using what appears to be real Cheyenne language in the exchanges between Studi’s small band and Bale.)