Molly’s Game movie review

For inSing

MOLLY’S GAME

Director : Aaron Sorkin
Cast : Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Brian d’Arcy James, Chris O’Dowd, Bill Camp, Graham Greene, Jeremy Strong, Joe Keery
Genre : Biography/Drama
Run Time : 2h 21m
Opens : 4 January 2018
Rating : NC16

The tagline to the recent Justice League film was ‘all in’ – that film has nothing to do with Poker, but ‘assemble’ was taken. This biopic is about someone who could be considered the Wonder Woman of high-stakes Poker.

Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) has had a rough go of it. Growing up in Colorado under the tutelage of her father Larry (Kevin Costner), she has long harboured dreams of becoming a professional skier. Molly overcame a spinal injury in her childhood, but a career-ending accident dashed those dreams.

Needing to reinvent herself, Molly moves out to Los Angeles, working as a cocktail waitress and as a personal assistant for investor Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong). Dean runs a poker game out of LA’s Cobra Lounge that attracts Hollywood A-listers and business moguls, and places Molly in charge of hosting the game. Molly quickly learns the ropes, and sets up her own game, operating out of a plush penthouse suite. When she moves the game to New York, she attracts a whole new set, including Wall Street power brokers and sports stars. However, the Russian and Italian mafia soon get involved, and Molly finds herself investigated by the FBI. She hires Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to represent her, telling the attorney her story.

Molly’s Game is the directorial debut of Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, the scribe behind The Social Network, Moneyball, A Few Good Men and The West Wing. We know what to expect from Sorkin screenplays: every exchange of dialogue is a verbal knife fight, with quotable barbs flying in all directions. It’s easy to be dazzled by the witty verbosity, but it can also be a turn-off because Sorkin’s style can feel glib and self-satisfied.

Sorkin has found the ideal source material with which to make his directorial debut, as the true story includes elements that he’s played around with before. The protagonist is wildly ambitious and dives head-first into a glamorous, seductive, sometimes dangerous world. It’s all there in the subtitle of Bloom’s book: ‘From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker’. It’s a fascinating true story, just add cinematic style, which Sorkin brings plenty of.

The film establishes a smart alecky tone from the outset, with Bloom going over her backstory in voiceover. There are stylistic devices including graphics on the screen that attempt to explain specific moments in the Poker games – even with the visual aids, it all flew over this reviewer’s head. Sorkin might be known for his writing, but he displays a keen awareness of how film works as a visual medium, and the movie never feels static or airless. Sorkin achieves a blend of the lurid and the cerebral that fits the material like a glove.

Chastain is spectacularly adept at playing powerful women, and she makes quite a meal of this role. It’s not dissimilar to her turn in the lobbyist drama Miss Sloane, but there’s the added physical element of Molly being a skier. Molly is sharper than a tack, and any man is putty in her hands. Chastain is mesmerizing – the character wields her sexuality like a dagger, but never makes the fatal strike. She sinks her teeth into this and then some, and is wildly entertaining in the process.

Elba takes a backseat as Charlie, and the interactions between him and Molly begin as sizing each other up, before evolving into something approaching sincerity. Molly and Charlie are on the same side, but it is never an easy alliance, and Elba and Chastain engage with the material and with each other in a lively manner.

Molly’s Game features a veritable carousel of dopey guys whom Molly has wrapped around her little finger. They generally seem intelligent and are all successful, but when they’re in Molly’s thrall, they are rendered dopey. Chris O’Dowd is entertainingly schlubby and it’s fun to see Joe Keery, best known as Steve from Stranger Things, pop up in this – complete with famous coiffeur.

The casting of Michael Cera is a bit weird. He’s playing a Hollywood star referred to only as ‘Player X’, but the identity of Player X can be determined with a quick Google search. Cera doesn’t quite sell the competitive streak and treachery hidden behind a disarming exterior that is crucial to the role.

Costner has settled into gruff mentor roles well, and the relationship between Molly and her father has its moments, even if it ventures into cliché territory. When her father visits Molly late into the film, it’s meant to be an emotional moment and Costner does his best to sell it, but the sarcasm in the dialogue doesn’t let up, somewhat undercutting the sincerity.

Unlike many awards season biopics, Molly’s Game is not a chore to sit through. It speeds along, seducing the audience as it goes. It does feel like the work of someone who is a little too pleased with himself and it could stand to be a mite less smug, but thanks to Chastain’s confident, hypnotic turn, Molly’s Game is engrossing and entertaining.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Darkest Hour movie review

For inSing

DARKEST HOUR

Director : Joe Wright
Cast : Gary Oldman, Ben Mendelsohn, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Nicholas Jones, Richard Lumsden, Jeremy Child, Samuel West
Genre : Drama/Historical/War
Run Time : 2h 6m
Opens : 4 January 2018
Rating : PG

Having directed Pride & Prejudice, Atonement and Anna Karenina, director Joe Wright is no stranger to prestige films. After taking a perhaps ill-advised detour into the realm of fantasy adventure with Pan, Wright is back in awards season territory with this historical drama. His subject: one of the most iconic Britons in recent history – Winston Churchill.

It is May 1940, and Nazi forces are advancing across western Europe. In the United Kingdom, the Opposition Labour Party demands for the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), who is deemed ill-suited to lead Britain in war. Chamberlain’s first choice to succeed him is the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), but Halifax declines. Chamberlain then appoints the one man whom the Opposition party would support: Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman).

Churchill is dogged by military failures in his earlier career, including the Gallipoli Campaign during WWI. King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) is not the biggest fan of Churchill, since Churchill supported the abdication of George’s brother Edward VIII. Churchill’s wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his new secretary Elizabeth (Lily James) bear the brunt of his irritability – Clementine is used to it, Elizabeth less so.

Churchill is immediately faced with a barrage of tough decisions: Halifax and Chamberlain place pressure on Churchill to consider negotiating with Hitler, just as the British Expeditionary Forces are trapped at Dunkirk and Calais in France. The War Cabinet Crisis is brewing, with Chamberlain and Halifax hoping to engineer a Vote of No Confidence in Churchill to force his removal from office. As the British Empire is plunged headlong into war, can Churchill lead them to victory? (Spoiler alert: he does)

Darkest Hour is written by New Zealander novelist and playwright Anthony McCarten, who received an Oscar nomination for The Theory of Everything. On the surface, Darkest Hour seems like standard awards season fare, and yet another example of “Englishness = prestige”. While this political drama could have turned out stodgy, director Wright and writer McCarten ensure it is anything but.

There’s an invigorating forcefulness to the film, a momentum and urgency which other similar movies, including 2017’s Churchill starring Brian Cox, lack. There’s a propulsive energy to Darkest Hour, such that things are never standing still, even when two characters are having a quiet conversation. The writing bubbles over with wit, and the grave stakes are firmly established while leaving room for some much-needed humour.

The film’s atmospherics reel the viewer in as much as the performances, which we’ll get to in a bit, do. Darkest Hour is cinematic in that it feels deliberately constructed and staged, but this never pulls one out of it. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel employs lighting boldly and exquisitely – Churchill is revealed by way of his face being illuminated by a lit match. The sound design and editing is given precedence over the score, and it creates a uniquely immersive effect. Sarah Greenwood’s production design is authentic, with the subterranean military citadels beneath Whitehall where the War Cabinet is huddled being an especially realistic set. One can almost smell the cigar smoke wafting off the screen.

Said cigars are typically held between the stubby fingers of Oldman’s Churchill. This is an audacious bit of casting which has more than paid off. Oldman takes on this daunting role with unbridled brio, carefully crafting an entertaining, astounding performance. The special effects makeup required to transform Oldman into Churchill was designed by Kazuhiro Tsuji, and took four hours to put on each day. Oldman captures Churchill’s distinctive physicality in ways obvious and subtle. This is an actor long overdue for an Oscar, and it’s hard to argue that this performance doesn’t deserve that honour.

Because Oldman’s presence in the film is so forceful, and because the film’s focus is trained so squarely on Churchill, the supporting players don’t get too much of the spotlight. However, they ideally complement the film’s star.

Mendelsohn conveys King George VI’s awkwardness and hints at his temper. While Colin Firth’s portrayal of “Bertie” might have won hearts (and an Oscar), Mendelsohn does bear more of a physical resemblance to the historical figure. The evolution of the working relationship between the King and the new Prime Minister, which starts out quite testy indeed, is sensitively portrayed.

Kristin Scott Thomas is the picture of refined grace as Clementine. Nobody quite knows Churchill like his beloved wife does, and Thomas’ twinkle-in-the-eye performance is appealing.

James’ Elizabeth is based on a real-life figure, but the real Elizabeth Layton didn’t become Churchill’s secretary until around a year after the events depicted in the film. James is proper and charming as always, and Elizabeth serves as a fine audience identification character. One of this reviewer’s favourite moments in the film is when Elizabeth manages to momentarily break her boss’s unyielding exterior and they share a hearty laugh over a silly mistake Churchill has made.

Halifax and Chamberlain are depicted as being in opposition to Churchill, but the film makes sure to articulate their point of view. To them, Churchill’s insistence on fighting on at all costs and his stubborn refusal to even entertain the thought of peace talks is foolhardy. That’s not an entirely unjustified point of view, given the circumstances. The late John Hurt was slated to play Chamberlain, but was replaced by Ronald Pickup after Hurt died in early 2017.

There are a few moments in Darkest Hour that ring false, most notably an impromptu meet-the-people session in an unusual locale. As in any historical drama, there are moments that have been embellished for dramatic effect. However, an impressive, bravura performance from a masterful actor and some confident stylistic flourishes keep Darkest Hour thrilling and compelling.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Hostiles movie review

For inSing

HOSTILES

Director : Scott Cooper
Cast : Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Q’orianka Kilcher, Adam Beach, Rory Cochrane, Ben Foster, Jonathan Majors, Jesse Plemons, Timothée Chalamet
Genre : Adventure/Drama/Western
Run Time : 2h 14m
Opens : 4 January 2018
Rating : NC-16

Over years and years of westerns, it’s been ingrained in popular culture that ‘Cowboys = good, Indians = bad’. While there have been several films in the past that have attempted to redress this balance, there have been far from enough, and Native American history is often misinterpreted, glossed over or otherwise done a disservice in Hollywood movies. Hostiles is writer-director Scott Cooper’s take on this.

It is 1892, and Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale), who is about to retire from the military, receives his final mission, by order of President Harrison. Blocker is to escort the elderly Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) to his homeland of Bear Valley, Montana. Also in the party are Yellow Hawk’s son Black Hawk (Adam Beach), Black Hawk’s wife Elk Woman (Q’orianka Kilcher) and the couple’s son. Many of Blocker’s men had died at Yellow Hawk’s hands, hence Blocker’s resistance in aiding Chief in any way.

Along the way, Blocker and his men encounter Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a widow whose family was brutally murdered by Comanche warriors. Rosalie joins Blocker and company, but the road to Montana will not be a smooth one. Along the way, they must brave attacks from warring tribes, fend off avaricious fur trappers, and escort treacherous prisoner Philip Wills (Ben Foster) north. Blocker must try to forgive, or at least tolerate, a man whom he has spent much of his life hating, as each learns to see the other’s point of view.

Hostiles is based on an unproduced manuscript by the late screenwriter Donald E. Stewart, which Cooper has adapted for the screen. This is a downbeat, uncompromisingly brutal film. Given the subject matter, it should be a degree of grave, but Hostiles just wears the audience down, never providing even the briefest moment of levity. One gets the impression that the film functions more as a political statement than as a story. Its heart is in the right place, but there is still considerable nuance left unmined, the result being occasionally clumsy.

The characters are fleshed out reasonably well and are given dialogue that is never painfully on-the-nose. They are all weighed down by something or another, and while there are moments that approach poignancy, Hostiles often feels more like a slog than an involving, powerful drama.

Christian Bale has repeatedly proven over his career that he’s a dab hand at playing the tortured hero. Blocker is someone whose hatred of Native Americans is deep-seated and intertwined with painful events from his past. We see that despite how Blocker has hardened his heart, he is still capable of great empathy and compassion, which he directs towards Rosalie. This is an expectedly intense performance from a famously intense actor, but the character’s arc is all too predictable.

Pike’s portrayal of a woman who has barely survived an unthinkable trauma and is now at her breaking point is heart-rending and wince-inducing in the right ways. It can be argued that Rosalie has the most compelling personal arc in the film, and it’s a role that Pike bites into. However, we know it won’t be long before the film suggests (at the very least) a romance between Rosalie and Blocker, with this relationship becoming the film’s emotional centre.

While Studi lends a quiet, stern authority to the Yellow Hawk role, the film does not give him equal power to Blocker in deciding the direction of the narrative. The Comanche are depicted as villains, with the Cheyenne as the film’s heroes. The film ostensibly wants to undo the old dichotomy of heroic cowboys and villainous Indians, but still needs ‘savages’ for audiences to root against. Kilcher spends most of the film silent and with her head bowed, and the film would have benefitted from giving the Native American characters more agency in the narrative.

The supporting roles are all inhabited with sufficient authenticity, but as with many films of this type, Hostiles struggles to make Blocker’s men seem distinct. Rory Cochrane conveys a distant hauntedness, Blocker shares a sincere, tearful moment with his right-hand man Cpl. Henry Woodson (Jonathan Majors), and Ben Foster gets to play quite the scoundrel, but the motley crew isn’t sufficiently memorable.

Even as it unfolds against sweeping landscapes and features actors giving the material their best, Hostiles feels considerably longer than its 135 minutes. While it’s clear that the film is made with noble intentions, its still encumbered by certain trappings of the Western genre, and doesn’t the deliver the depth which it promises.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong