Chris O’ Dowd

Molly’s Game

04/01/18

As a screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin has certainly earned his stripes. From The West Wing to The Social Network, he’s proved his abilities as an ace screenwriter. For his directorial debut, he’s seized upon the real life story of Molly Bloom (not that Molly Bloom) portrayed here by Jessica Chastain on excellent form and based upon Bloom’s autobiography – which probably explains how she is be presented here as a bit of a saint, rather than the ruthless enabler she so clearly was.

The film opens with an extended voiceover that explains how Bloom’s youth is spent as a competitive downhill skier, schooled by her hard-assed father, Larry (Kevin Costner) and constantly in the shadow of her more successful brother, a downhill champion. When a terrible injury puts a premature end to her sporting ambitions, Bloom looks around for alternative forms of employment and more by accident than design, ends up helping to host a series of ‘slightly’ illegal poker games where celebrity players gamble (and generally lose) obscene amounts of money. When her boorish employer, Dean (Jeremy Strong) decides to cut her out of the games, she immediately sets up in competition with him, hiring swankier venues and stealing all of his regulars. From there, she goes all out to tempt in more affluent players. When, two years after quitting the business, she is arrested by the FBI she goes in search of a lawyer and finds Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) who despite his initial reluctance to represent her, is soon won over by Bloom’s charms… (Jaffey, by the way, isn’t a real character, but an invention, intended to represent the various lawyers she was associated with before coming to trial).

It’s perhaps inevitable that Sorkin the director fails to fully rein in Sorkin the writer – with a running time of two hours and twenty minutes, Molly’s Game becomes somewhat lumpen in the middle section and could surely have lost half an hour in the editing suite. Furthermore, those viewers (like me) who know or care nothing about the rules of poker may find their attention wandering during these stretches – but the film gathers momentum as it heads into its final stretch and has me hooked to its conclusion.

Sorkin’s dialogue is as delicious as ever, but if there’s an overall problem here, it’s simply that it’s hard to sympathise with any of the major characters – Elba’s fictional one aside. The once cute Michael Cera (of Juno) is really unpleasant as the mysterious Player X and even the usually affable Chris O Dowd is irritating as perennial loser Douglas Downey. And no matter how eloquently Chastain plays that lead role, its hard to feel warmth for a woman who doesn’t think twice about exploiting the needs of gambling addicts in order to earn herself considerable sums of money.

In the end, Molly’s Game is watchable if flawed. Poker fans will doubtless see this as a royal flush, whereas to me it’s more like three of a kind.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Loving Vincent

02/11/17

Once in a while a film comes along that is so original, it almost defies definition. This Polish-UK collaboration, is one such film. Billed as the first ‘fully-painted’ feature, it represents ten years’ work by more than one hundred artists. Shot conventionally at first, with a cast of distinguished actors, all chosen for their similarities to characters in Van Gogh’s art, each frame (and there are 165,000 of them) has then been painstakingly overpainted with oils. The result is that the screen seems to writhe and flicker with vibrant colours, the technique plunging the viewer headlong into the artist’s idiosyncratic world. At first, the effect is dazzling, almost overpowering, but once you settle into it, you begin to take notice of the story, which is presented rather like a detective mystery. Did the famous artist really commit suicide? Was he murdered? Or was he the victim of a childish prank gone wrong?

It’s a year since Van Gogh’s death and Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), the son of Vincent’s close friend, Postman Joseph (Chris O Dowd) is charged with the thankless task of delivering the artist’s final letter to his brother, Theo. Armand reluctantly heads off to Paris where he talks to Pere Tanguy (John Sessions), who tells him that the letter cannot be delivered, as Theo too, is dead. He also assures Armand that Vincent was happy in the days leading up to his death and would never have dreamed of killing himself. Intrigued by this information,  Armand heads for Auvers Sur Oise, the little town where Vincent spent his last days, and starts looking for answers. But it seems everyone he talks to has a different opinion about what might have happened to him…

There’s no doubting the care and attention to detail that filmmakers Dorieta Kobiela and Hugh Welchman have lavished on Loving Vincent – and it’s amazing to note, that no matter how manipulated the film images are, the actors are always identifiable as themselves, even whilst looking exactly like their portrait counterparts. Jerome Flynn who plays Doctor Gachet is a particularly good example of this. The scene where we first meet him is like watching a famous painting come to life. I particularly like the regular monochrome flashbacks, where a more photorealistic technique is employed, which offers a welcome break from the barrage of multi-coloured visual fireworks. Lovers of Van Gogh’s work will have an absolute field day here spotting all the references to his most famous paintings (there are 120 of them) and though the various theories surrounding the artist’s death are nothing new in themselves, it’s interesting to have them presented for consideration in this way. It’s good too that we are left to make up our own minds about which particular theory to believe.

Does this work as a movie? Yes, I think so, but it certainly won’t appeal to everyone. If you don’t care for the artist’s work, this certainly isn’t going to float your boat. Loving Vincent has a limited release across the UK and may end up finding its biggest audiences on the small screen, but if you do get the chance to see it in a movie theatre, then go and immerse yourself in Vincent’s world. It really is quite an experience.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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01/10/16

Based on the popular novel by Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is a Tim Burton film, that doesn’t feature his usual cohort of friends/family and is largely set in North Wales. Jake (Asa Butterfield) is unusually close to his secretive Grandfather, Abe (a scenery-chewing Terence Stamp) who often regales him with stories about a children’s home he spent time in during the Second World War.

When Abe is (rather horrifically) murdered by an odd looking monster (one that appears to have stepped out of a Guillermo Del Toro film), Jake accompanies his hapless father, Franklin (Chris O Dowd) to the remote Welsh island where the home was located and which is now no more than a burned out ruin. Jake has a vague notion of finding some answers about his Grandpa’s death, but almost before you can say ‘time travel’ Jake has somehow found his way back to the 1940s, where the home functions in a weird time-loop, presided over by the titular Miss Peregrine (a remarkable turn from Eva Green) who amongst her many talents has the ability to transform herself into a bird of prey. The children at the home all have odd powers of their own which range from invisibility to internal bee-keeping and the possession of a second mouth at the back of the neck. (Always handy). But the home is under threat from the evil creatures that control the monsters. They are led by Barron (Samuel L Jackson) a vile looking shape-shifter with a predilection for eating human eyeballs…

Like most Burton movies, this is often very nice to look at (he started off as an illustrator and that always shows) but there’s something curiously unengaging about the film, which is packed full of over-complicated incident, yet rarely manages to exert any kind of grip on the attention. It seems to go on for an inordinately long time, before it finally reaches a climax in an exotic location (Blackpool) where screenwriter Jane Goldman has to find something useful for every one of those peculiar kids to do. Despite all the monsters rampaging across the screen, there’s no real sense of threat here and it isn’t very enlightened to have the one black actor in the film cast as a child-murdering villain.

There are admittedly a few nice moments dotted about (a spirited tribute to the ‘fighting skeletons’ sequence from Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts being one of them) but ultimately this isn’t Burton’s finest moment. For a film that’s so packed with fantasy elements, MPHFPC is long on exposition and woefully short of magic.

2.9 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Program

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06/11/15

Lance Armstrong was the consummate all-American hero. He famously overcame testicular cancer and went on to win the Tour De France seven times in a row. Along the way, he founded a cancer charity, became a spokesman for the underdog, inspired people to excel and made millions from sponsorship and endorsements. It was all based upon a lie. He was using performance enhancing drugs to achieve his spectacular results and when the truth finally came out, his glorious career lay in tatters.

All this, of course, is well known. Now here’s Stephen Frears biopic, which dramatises the story. What it is, is a stripped-down, turbo-charged version of the events, but it’s light on truth and even lighter on detail. We first meet Armstrong (Ben Foster)  when he’s in his 20s, when he realises pretty quickly that he’s never going to become a winner in his chosen sport, unless he joins in with the practise of doping, something that most of his competitors seem to be well versed in. He makes friends with journalist David Walsh (Chris O Dowd) who is initially a fan; but when Armstrong starts to easily win races that he’s previously failed at, alarm bells start to go off in Walsh’s head. The problem is, why do his fellow journalists fail to detect something fishy going on? Soon, Armstrong and Walsh are bitter enemies.

The main reason to see The Program is to relish Ben Fosters’ extraordinary performance in the title role. His depiction of an obsessive man consumed with hubris is quite extraordinary and the fact that he physically resembles Armstrong is just the icing on the cake. But back to the film’s shortcomings. For us to fully appreciate Armstong’s fall from grace, it would be necessary to learn more about his private life. But this is simply airbrushed over. A five year marriage to Kristen Richard is reduced to a single scene of them walking down the aisle together. There’s no sign of the three children they had. Likewise, his year long engagement to musician Sheryl Crow. The only mention of her is that the two of them are ‘friends’. And finally, his relationship with longterm girlfriend Anna Hanson, (who he’s still with) isn’t even mentioned, let alone the two kids they had together.

Stephen Frears is a veteran director, so I can’t believe he’s simply chosen to skip over such important details. Could it be that certain people didn’t want to be involved? At any rate, The Program is perfectly watchable, but it feels suspiciously like the edited highlights of a movie – the full impact of his disgrace fails to come across, largely because we don’t see the repercussions it has on those who loved him. So, in a strange way, the film is as much of a cheat as Armstrong himself.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s perfectly enjoyable fare. But you’re left with the conviction that it could so easily have been something much more than that.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney