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.

Christine (2016): Art Imitating Death (Review)

Rebecca Hall as Christine Chubbick

By the time one finishes watching the 2016 biopic of Christine Chubbuck there is an almost irresistible urge to take a long hot shower. This attempt to wash off the depression that settles on the viewer like a black stain would be followed up by watching something lighter, like The Wrestler.

For those not in the know, Chubbuck was a local news reporter on a Sarasota television news station who, after suffering a period of severe depression, wrote a script allowing herself the chance to commit suicide live on the Florida news show.

The obvious question here is why tell Christine’s story now, a full 42 years after the fact?  Clearly a number of people feel the need to present their version of the truth behind the act as there are two films out that deal with the subject.

Christine was written by Craig Shilowich (His first time up as writer), directed by Antonio Campos and stars Rebecca Hall in the title role. Ultimately the film attempts to show what led up to Chubbuck killing herself on live television. 

This biopic takes known facts and embellishes upon them.  It seems to change details to fit the writer and director’s take on the personality of the woman. Michael C. Hall plays George the local anchor that Christine hoped to have a relationship with and Tracy Letts plays Michael, the manager of the station who is most often at odds with his community segment reporter. 

A lot of time is spent showing how obsessive Christine was about details and her awkwardness with some coworkers. She is even shown having issues with her mother and housemate Peg (played by J. Smith-Cameron).

On top of her inability to communicate properly with her peers, according to the film, Chubbuck learns she has an ovarian cyst. This news adds to her deepening depression as it means she cannot have children after the operation.

Christine also shows that the reporter had no real sense of humor and was, despite working in front of the camera, a social inept who was almost painfully shut up inside her isolation from others.

Hall plays Chubbuck as someone who agonizes over her appearance and the smallest  details of her work.  Unconfident and seemingly unable to latch on to the station’s manager idea to make the news more “juicy” Christine is constantly out of step with the news team.

Yet, at the same time, the film shows that the reporter was technically astute, except on the newer machinery, and was able to help her co-workers make their own broadcasts smoother.

The movie also shows Christine unable to romantically connect with anyone. Her “crush” on George (Hall) is smashed down after their one date, a meal, ends with the anchor taking her to a Transitional Analysis meeting.

(T.A. started in the 1970’s and preached the “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” philosophy and explained how people fell into categories like Parent, Child and so on.)

After their one dinner date, Christine also learns that George will be leaving to anchor at the newly acquired Baltimore station.  Throughout the film, Chubbuck is shown to be overly concerned with her onscreen gestures and news stories.

At 119 minutes, nearly two hours, the film runs long and spends too much time delivering whatever its message seems to be. Anyone who knows the Christine Chubbuck story already knows the ending as will anyone reading the press release of the film.

Certainly Hall does a splendid job portraying Shilowich’s version of Christine Chubbuck. Hall and Letts both deliver strong performances of embellished versions of the real players who worked and interacted with Chubbuck.

By the end of the film, however, we are left shaking our head and asking just why this was all necessary.  This voyeuristic experience of watching  a sad woman taking her own life just before her 30th birthday feels wrong and more than a little sordid.

There is not attempt to delve into why Chubbuck was so ill equipped to deal with her life in front of and off the camera. Indeed, there are not any clips available to see how the real Christine fronted her stories or reported her segments.

As the film portrays her, it is surprising that the woman had a job as a television reporter at all.

Certainly the event itself, Christine’s death on-air, was huge back in 1974. The act was covered so extensively that it is wrongly credited with influencing Paddy Chayefsky who wrote the Oscar winning film Network. In the film, Peter Finch plays a character who  plans to kill himself live on air.

However,  in Dave Itzkoff’s  “Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies” published by Henry Holt and Company in 2014, it is pointed out that Chayefsky started writing the script before the incident of Chubbuck’s televised death. It is, apparently, “just an eerie coincidence.”

Stripping away the poetic license taken with the subject matter, Christine is, in essence, art imitating death. A long depressing look at an unhappy young woman who could not live up to her own expectations.

The film is a solid 3 star film which, if viewed, should be followed by a light comedy to take the bitter taste out of the viewer’s mouth. The award winning film is rated R, presumably for the its bloody conclusion.

Backcountry (2015): If You Go Into the Woods (Review)

Missy Peregrym as Jenn in Backcountry

Backcountry is a grim reminder that,  for all of the modern technology available to  the world, nature can still be a killer. It is based on the true story of Jordan and Jaqueline Perry, two professionals who went hiking in the woods in 2005 and had the misfortune to bump into a nasty black bear.

The film, written and directed by Adam MacDonald,  is more influenced by the horrific tale of the Perry’s than an actual recounting of what really happened .  In real life the wife was mauled and died of her injuries.  In this film the victim is switched and while this is not “correct” per se the tale loses nothing with the gender swap. 

Backcountry stars Missy PeregrymJeff Roop and Eric Balfour.  Peregrym and Roop  are Jenn and Alex the couple who hike the “Blackfoot Trail” sans map.  Balfour plays an Irish hiker who stumbles onto their camp and stays for dinner.  

Alex takes Jenn to the national park to show off his memories of hiking there when he was younger.  He is overconfident in terms of this woodsman skills and turns down the use of a map. Alex also takes his girlfriend’s mobile phone and puts it in their car. Both these actions have serious ramifications later on.

The film has been accused of misandry by reversing the victim’s roles. It may be true to an extent but it does nothing to dilute the film’s message. Backcountry is about respecting the dangers of the wilderness and remembering that your national park can kill you.

Jenn and Alex are a likable couple and even though their journey is slow to start we instinctively care about them both. Brad (Balfour) is an alpha male who intimidates Alex and he clearly has a thing for Jenn. Their meal is awkward and strained.

The Irishman tries to provoke Alex but Jenn’s boyfriend refuses to react the way Brad expects and the single hiker leaves eventually.  The couple are uneasy after the encounter and they rush the next day to put distance between them and Brad.

As they rush to find the Blackfoot Trail, Alex manages to get them  lost. They have no food and little water as well as no map.  While they try to find their way out of the forest, the bear attacks.

There are a number of complaints about the film’s creator changing the facts around. Making the boyfriend a buffoon who essentially  gets them both in deep trouble. Alex’s belief that he can lead Jenn and himself safely through  the woods ends in disaster.

The film focusses on Jenn’s struggle to survive and opts to place Alex in the role of overconfident buffoon. His refusal to take a map and the discarding of their one tool, the phone, insures the couple’s trek will not end well.

Filmed on location in Canada, with much of the action takin place in Restoule Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada Backcountry looks brilliant. As observers of the couple’s tragic adventure we can almost smell the dead leaves on the ground.

Despite the amount of upset caused by MacDonald rearranging the tale’s protagonists, the film entertains. The bear attack is disturbing and quite horrific. The camera does not linger too much on the wounds but gives the viewer just enough to really feel Alex’s pain.

Backcountry is a solid 4 star film. The movie does not follow what really happened in those woods in 2005 but it delivers enough suspense and tension to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. It has to be said that the scenes with Balfour are almost as uncomfortable to watch as the bear attack.

The film states that it is based on a true story bit it does not, at any time, claim to be a reconstruction of what really happened to the Perry’s.

The movie is streaming on Netflix and Hulu at the moment and is well worth a look.

The Night Stalker (2016): Lou Diamond Phillips Sells Evil (Review)

Lou Diamond Phillips as Richard Ramirez

Written and directed by Megan Griffiths (Eden, Lucky Them) and starring Lou Diamond Phillips as Richard Ramirez and Bellamy Young as a fictitious defense attorney, “The Night Stalker” follows the heinous crimes of the man who terrorized Los Angeles during a heat wave in the mid 1980s.  While clearly influenced by the crimes of the Satanist, rapist and murderer some crimes were soft pedaled while still being mentioned as a matter of fact. 

Kit, a defense attorney from Texas heads to Death Row at San Quentin Prison to coerce a confession out of Ramirez. Back in the Lone Star State a black man was wrongly convicted for the murder of a Japanese woman and her son.  This crime occurred before the string of offenses were committed in the mid ’80s.

“The Night Stalker” shows Kit’s obsession with the serial killer and his “career” which was covered pretty extensively by the news.   The grownup Kit must earn the trust of Ramirez while not letting him gain control of their conversations.

In many ways this could be seen as a pale imitation of Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lector, a  woman starting her career in a legal capacity needs the help of a serial killer to solve another crime. This fictionalization works but the comparison is clear and one wonders whether this was, in some odd way, a homage.

It could even be a nod to the interviews by real-life  FBI profiler Robert Keppel  who interviewed Ted Bundy in an attempt to solve another series of murders.  The Green River Killer, aka The Riverman was baffling authorities and Keppel  spoke with the convicted Bundy to gain some insight on the suspect.

This TV movie goes back to Ramirez’s childhood, his violent upbringing and early marijuana use as the triggers that started his murderous acts.  Ramirez himself stated that he was pure evil and never relied upon his youthful experiences as an excuse. (Not mentioned in the film was his epilepsy although it did mention a frontal lobe injury.)

The younger actors who portrayed Ramirez in different stages of his life were more than adequate.  It is Phillips however  who really sells the evil in this man. His eyes and facial expressions are damned near terrifying. The actors eyes show coldness and a combination of death and callousness that is truly frightening.

The film skirts around the real-life issue of 9 year-old Mei Leung who was found raped and killed in the basement where Ramirez lived in 1984. Her death was changed to that of the Japanese boy and his mother whom (in the film) Ramirez raped then killed.

The Japanese were quite possibly substituted for the real case of Leung and Dayle Okazaki  because the real case was so much more horrific.

(In a sidenote, it was announced in March this year  that police were reopening the Night Stalker files to search for a second assailant in the Leung case.)

“The Night Stalker” ends with the 2013 death of Ramirez and the defense attorney visiting her mother in California.  The television film aired June 12 and will be showing again on LMN June 24.  Lou Diamond Phillips is intense and he convincingly sells the evil that Ramirez believed was deep inside of him.

Catch this one if for no other reason than to see Phillips work those massive chops.

All Good Things (2010): A Stranger in Disguise

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Despite the name change, All Good Things is a fictionalised account of property tycoon Robert Durst who killed his next-door neighbour while he was living incognito as a mute woman. Proving that truth is indeed stranger than fiction, Durst’s wife disappeared mysteriously over 31 years ago and the only other person who might have known what really happened to her wound up dead after receiving a 9mm gunshot to the head.

Execution style.

Directed by Andrew Jarecki who has a fascination with Durst’s case and history, All Good Things is a slow movie. Its languid pacing is overshadowed by a sense of discord from the start of the film. The movie changes Durst’s name to the ironic moniker of Marks, this overly obvious ironic name change is just a few of the films problems. Such as relying on cliché’s and stereotypes to tell the story.

The Plot:

David Marks (Ryan Gosling) meets Katie (Kirsten Dunst) one of his father’s tenants when she complains of a leaky kitchen sink. He stops by, at his father’s insistence, to see if he can fix it. They are immediately attracted to one another and strike up a relationship. It’s a case of opposites attracting with Marks’ family is in the higher stratosphere of the monied gentry and Katie’s in solid middle class. After some growing pains, they marry and David turns his back on the family business. Their wedded bliss is short-lived, however, and after some interference from ‘poppa’ Marks (Frank Langella) they move back into the family fold. Their troubles begin almost immediately.

The Cast:

Ryan Gosling
Kirsten Dunst
Frank Langella
Sanford Marks
Lily Rabe
Deborah Lehrman
Philip Baker Hall
Malvern Bump

*Cast courtesy of IMDb.*

The Device:

Money can buy you anything and what you see is definitely not what you get.

Gosling and Dunst.
Gosling and Dunst.

The Twist:

There is no real twist here at all. Ryan Gosling as David Marks makes it apparent from his first appearance on-screen that there is something wrong with this character, hence, it comes as no surprise when we find out what he’s really like.

The Story:

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, Marks is based on the real-life story of Robert Durst. Durst’s first wife disappeared and has not been seen since. The only person who may have known anything about the disappearance (Susan Berman aka Deborah Lehrman in the film) was dispatched with a bullet as soon as a Prosecuting Attorney got in touch with her. Durst took to living as a woman (who was mute) and he murdered an elderly neighbour claiming self-defence,

The Characters:

David Marks looks and acts slightly off kilter from frame one. He’s obviously got some hidden issues that would probably be better off left alone. I’ve never been a huge fan of Gosling’s, but, he is a more than capable actor. In this film he delivers but the movies pacing and perhaps the “filler” plot let him and Dunst down a bit. All the actors gave good solid performances and delivered characters who were believable and flawed. Unfortunately, as in any film that is based on true events, a lot of things for the film had to be “filled in” and therefore felt contrived.

The Verdict:

Although the script does a pretty good job of filling in the blanks, as it were, the pacing of the action lets everything down. I’m not saying that it needed to race towards the finish line, but it needed a shot of adrenaline administered here and there to pick up the flow. It is oddly compelling to watch. I could not stop viewing it even when I got frustrated at some of the events and their dipped in molasses recounting.

I’d have to give this film a 3.5 out of 5 stars for Dunst’s performance and that of Frank Langella. With an honourable mention to Lily Rabe as Deborah Lerhman and the delightful Philip Baker Hall. It is not a film that I’d care to watch twice and once I’d checked out the “true” story the film was based on; I felt that ,quite possibly, the real events probably overshadowed this celluloid re-telling.

Don’t break a leg rushing to see this one.

*And a quick word of thanks to Kevin over at Claratsi for giving me the “bump” I needed to finally watch this film. You can check out his blog by clicking on the link above!*

The delightful Philip Baker Hall.
The delightful Philip Baker Hall.