Kevin Costner

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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Hidden Figures

17/02/17

Sometimes the biggest changes in history are achieved, not with violent rebellion but with quiet tenacity. Hidden Figures tells the real life stories of three remarkable mathematicians. Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji Henson) is a mathematical genius, who from an early age could perform the most complex equations without breaking a sweat. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is a natural organiser, able to turn her skills to all kinds of problems, even the complexities of an IBM computer; and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) is a sassy young lady who dreams of one day being a fully qualified engineer.

The three of them are enlisted to work for NASA, but it’s not as straightforward as you might suppose – for they are not only women, they are African-American women and this is 1962, a time when (incredibly) segregation still holds sway. They cannot share bus seats, toilets or even, as it turns out, a coffee percolator, with their white colleagues. Meanwhile, the Russians have just sent Yuri Gagarin into space and the race is on to be the first country to put an astronaut on the moon… And as John Glenn embarks on his historic flight into space, only a complex mathematic equation stands between him and disaster…

Theodore Melfi’s film skilfully captures the period detail and there’s a nicely judged performance from Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, the unfortunate man charged with heading up one of the most demanding projects in history. The main focus is on Katherine Johnson, her struggles with overbearing colleague Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) and her frankly racist boss, Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst, making the best of a difficult role). If the film occasionally has a tendency to stray into the realms of sentimentality, so what? This is an important and significant story, and even though these middle-class struggles may seem far removed from the historic marches of the  black civil rights movement, nevertheless the actions of these pioneering women paved the way for those who followed.

This is entertaining cinema with a powerful message, anchored by three excellent performances from the lead actors.

4 stars

Philip Caveney