Jessica Chastain

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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Crimson Peak

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17/10/15

When I last reviewed a Guillermo del Toro movie, I expressed the fervent wish that he would abandon the thick-eared nonsense he was currently engaged on – in which giant robots repeatedly thumped reptilian monsters in the head – and went back to the kind of cinematic terrain he’d mined so brilliantly in Pan’s Labyrinth. While Crimson Peak isn’t exactly that, it’s about a million miles away from Pacific Rim, which is something to be extremely thankful for.

What we have here is a gothic ghost story and if we’re looking for film precedents, maybe the best of Hammer Horror, as directed by Terrence Fisher or Roger Corman’s 60s interpretations of the works of Edger Allan Poe, might be the appropriate places to look. Crimson Peak is a gorgeous piece of film making – the sumptuous look of the production, the painterly evocations of the settings are a cineaste’s delight, while the story exhibits all the conventions of the true gothic horror story – histrionic and compelling in equal measure.

Aspiring novelist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) (note the tribute to Hammer horror actor, Peter, right there) meets up in New York with baronet and would-be inventor, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and immediately falls under his spell, despite the misgivings of her rich industrialist father, Carter (Jim Beaver). Almost before we can draw breath, Carter has been brutally murdered (a typically Del Toro scene of extreme violence) and Edith is whisked away to Sharpe’s remote Cumbrian family pile, Allerdale Hall, a derelict mansion that makes the Amityville House look like a cabin in Happy Valley.  Mysterious Sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain, struggling a bit with her English accent) goes along for the ride. The house itself is an extraordinary piece of design, as much a character as any of the human actors, and Edith soon discovers that there are secrets hidden in its shadows – secrets that are being explained by ghostly apparitions.

It’s not quite a perfect production – there are one or two lines of clunky dialogue that invoke involuntary smirks and, like so many other directors, del Toro needs to learn the basic lesson that CGI ghosts are simply not as terrifying as mere actors dressed up in rags and makeup – but this is the kind of filmmaking that hasn’t been attempted in a very long time, and mostly it pays off handsomely. Literate viewers will spot references to Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw and a whole collection of other literary and filmic references, but the best thing about Crimson Peak is the sumptuous look of it. Del Toro’s origins as an illustrator are writ large in every scene. Curiously though, while every imaginable trope of gothic horror is on display here – clockwork dolls, moths, mysterious labyrinths and ghastly spectres – it’s the occasional excesses of physical violence on display that scare us much more than any of the supernatural elements.

This is sterling stuff, though, and should keep del Toro’s legions of fans happy while we wait to see what he will do next.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Martian

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27/09/15

With The Martian, Ridley Scott takes us back into outer space. Given that his previous excursion in that direction was the much anticipated, but decidedly underwhelming Prometheus, there are many out there who didn’t have great hopes for this movie. Happily, their fears are unfounded, because this is the best Ridley Scott movie in a very long time.

Based on Andy Weir’s recent bestseller, it’s the story of Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who during a manned mission to Mars is caught up in a violent storm and knocked for six by a flying projectile. After a desperate search for him, his fellow crew members, led by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) come to the assumption that he must be dead and make a hasty exit in the direction of earth. But Watney isn’t dead. He wakes up several hours later with a nasty wound to his stomach and the awful realisation that he is totally alone on a planet that is millions of miles away from home. When the people at NASA finally learn of his situation, the decision is taken not to inform the other members of his crew of his plight for fear they will ‘lose concentration’ on their journey home. Watney is, to put it mildly, in a bit of a pickle. It will be four years before a rescue mission can me mounted and he only has enough food for around a month. If he’s to survive, he will have to (to use his own words) ‘Science the shit out of this.’

What follows is a fascinating and captivating couple of hours as Watney works out a complex plan to stay alive, starting with the idea of growing potatoes planted in the packaged human waste from the expedition’s toilet. Meanwhile, there’s an even more serious problem. The only music available to listen to is Lewis’s collection of disco hits circa 1980 – he may go stark raving mad before help arrives.

Damon is always an appealing performer and he’s perfect for the wisecracking, plucky Mark Watney. You’re rooting for him from the word ‘go,’ and as his position becomes ever more precarious, you feel every setback as keenly as he does. As the story moves on and his crew mates finally learn of his situation, proceedings metamorphose into a complex rescue mission, which results in an absolutely nail biting climax. What’s more, there are all the tropes we’ve come to expect from Ridley Scott – magnificent cinematography (with Wadi Rum in Jordan standing in for Mars), a fabulous soundtrack utilising the delights of Abba and vintage David Bowie, plus the absolute conviction that no matter how far fetched the story becomes, its backed up by a wealth of detail, enough to convince you that this really could happen. It’s ironic that I’m reviewing this film on the very day that NASA will announce a ‘major discovery on Mars.’ I appreciate that Scott always puts aside a huge budget for publicity, but that may be going too far!

Scott, by the way, is pressing on with his production of Prometheus Two, so he isn’t quite giving up on outer space just yet. But The Martian is definitely a keeper. Watch it on the big screen and yes, for once, it’s actually worth booking for the 3D showing, because those vast, alien landscapes really are out of this world.

5 stars

Philip Caveney