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

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

For F*** Magazine

MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN

Director : Tim Burton
Cast : Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Chris O’Dowd, Ella Purnell, Allison Janney, Rupert Everett, Terence Stamp, Judi Dench, Samuel L. Jackson
Genre : Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 2h 7min
Opens : 29 September 2016
Rating : PG13 (Frightening Scenes)

miss-peregrines-home-for-peculiar-children-posterDirector Tim Burton has always had a preoccupation with the peculiar, one which continues in this fantasy adventure. Jake Portman (Butterfield) has long been fascinated by his grandfather Abe’s (Stamp) astonishing stories. Abe claims to have spent time at an orphanage for children with unique, unnatural abilities, run by one Miss Peregrine (Green), who can take the form of her namesake bird of prey. Jake’s psychiatrist Dr. Golan (Janney) recommends that Jake visit this orphanage himself to find closure, and so Jake’s father (O’Dowd) takes him to Wales. On a small island, Jake discovers a portal to 1943 – the orphanage is stuck in a time loop generated by Miss Peregrine. Jake finds himself drawn to Emma (Purnell), who can manipulate air. The sullen Enoch (Finlay McMillan), who brings Frankenstein’s Monster-style creations to life, feels threatened by Jake. The evil Baron (Jackson) is on the hunt for Peculiars, with Jake and his newfound friends having to fend off Baron and his cadre of monstrous ‘hollowgasts’.

 

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is adapted from Ransom Riggs’ novel of the same name. This reviewer is completely unfamiliar with the book and its sequel, and thus cannot judge the film as an adaptation of the source material. Just going off the title alone, it would seem that Burton is the ideal fit to bring the story to the big screen, and for a time, it looked like he might not actually commit to the project. Screenwriter Jane Goldman of X-Men: First Class and Kingsman: The Secret Service fame brings some of the edgy wit seen in her other work to bear, but for the most part, this is pretty standard young adult stuff. There’s a chosen one who uncovers mysterious family secrets, gets inducted into a fantastical world he’s never known, falls in love, gains an eccentric but good-hearted mentor figure and has to fight a sinister organisation.

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While it may not be anything revelatory for those raised on a steady diet of Harry Potter and its ilk, the world of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is still engaging. The mechanics of the fictional universe are laid out clearly enough and it’s generally pretty fun, not taking itself too seriously. As with any fantasy, there are some proper nouns to learn. For example, an ‘ymbryne’ is a female guardian of peculiar children who can shape-shift into a bird. It revels in the absurdity of it all without obnoxiously proclaiming “you are watching a Tim Burton movie”, which the director is prone to doing. The various abilities the children possess are at once shocking and amusing and in at least one case, genuinely disturbing. While there is an expected reliance on digital visual effects, we do get a fun sequence which makes use of old-fashioned stop-motion animation. The imagery is the right side of spooky: it will give children nightmares, but generally stops short of being completely traumatising.

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Butterfield does a fine job of being awkward and awestruck; ‘chosen one’ protagonists can get a little bland but he’s sufficiently likeable as a performer, so Jake doesn’t come off as merely a tabula rasa protagonist. The moment Green appears more than half an hour into the film however, it’s abundantly clear that this is her movie. She’s an actress who’s always acutely aware of the type of project she’s in, modulating her performance accordingly. Here, she’s essentially Professor X meets Mary Poppins. She appears to be enjoying herself and struts about with the utmost poise. The midnight blue streaks in Miss Peregrine’s hair, which take on a green tint in the right light, make Green even more mesmerizing than she usually is.

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One of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’s shortcomings is an understandable one that afflicts many superhero films: the bulk of the characters are defined by their powers, and that’s about it. The incongruity of the children’s ordinary appearances and their flabbergasting abilities provides most of the humour. Purnell strikes a balance between confidence and gentleness, with Emma’s link to Jake’s grandfather making her an enigma that Jake feels he needs to solve. Alas, one can almost see the label reading ‘designated love interest’ hanging above her head. In a move that might vex faithful fans of the books, Emma and Olive (Lauren McCrostie) appear to have switched powers: in the book, Emma was pyrokinetic and Olive was aerokinetic (see, we’ve done a tiny bit of research).

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The Harry Potter series packed plenty of prestigious thespians into the adult supporting roles. Here, the mix of actors is a little more eclectic. Stamp is usually cast as cold, intimidating villains and here, he’s playing an affectionate if odd grandfather. Jackson’s colourful, over-the-top villain, who lisps a little on account of the prosthetic pointy teeth, is a little too over-the-top to be genuinely frightening. Younger children might be spooked by the hollowgasts, who are essentially takes on the internet urban legend supernatural being Slenderman, but because of their CGI-ness, they can be a little too synthetic to be actually scary. There’s also altogether too little of Dame Judi Dench in this, but James Bond fans will appreciate the brief reunion between M and Vesper Lynd.

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The world of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children has enough to it that we would be up for a sequel, but because it generally plays it safe as far as young adult fantasy stories go, it didn’t quite grab us. Still, it benefits from eye-catching visuals and an entertaining turn from Green in the titular role.

 

Summary: It’s more adequate than extraordinary and is far from Burton’s most memorable, but Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a fine marriage of director and source material and is pretty decent fantasy adventure stuff.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The Program

For F*** Magazine

THE PROGRAM 

Director : Stephen Frears
Cast : Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Guillaume Canet, Jesse Plemons, Lee Pace, Denis Menochet, Dustin Hoffman
Genre : Drama/Sport
Run Time : 103 mins
Opens : 19 November 2015
Rating : NC16 (Some Drug Use And Coarse Language)

We all remember Jeff Goldblum muttering to himself “must go faster, must go faster”, while being pursued by dinosaurs (and later, aliens). What happens when a man lives his life solely in the pursuit of going faster, at any cost? Lance Armstrong (Foster), having defeated cancer and becoming the darling of the professional cycling world, is admired and adored the world over, both for his multiple Tour de France championship titles and his charity work. David Walsh (O’Dowd), a sports journalist with the Sunday Times in the UK, begins to suspect that Armstrong may be using performance-enhancing drugs, despite Armstrong’s repeated and empathic claims to the contrary. Sports doctor Michele Ferrari (Canet) has devised “the program”, a sophisticated doping regimen that Armstrong and all the cyclists on his team are put on. The illicit drug use is enabled by Armstrong’s agent Bill Stalpleton (Pace) and the team’s directeur sportif Johann Bruyneel (Menochet). This weighs on the conscience of Floyd Landis (Plemons), a promising cyclist recruited onto the team, as Walsh gets ever closer to uncovering the devastating truth.


            The Program is inspired by David Walsh’s book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong. The film’s approach is that of a David vs. Goliath tale, with an honest journalist battling the odds to expose the deceit of a nigh-untouchable superstar athlete. As such, it is as much an “uncovering the scandal” thriller as it is a biopic, with sports in place of politics. Seeing as that’s the starting point, this was never going to be a particularly objective or balanced account of Armstrong’s life, and to an extent, that’s fine. Director Stephen Frears, whose recent credits include The Queen and Philomena, is an experienced filmmaker and The Program is assembled with style and panache. As a takedown of a false idol, it is aggressive and damning, but as a thoughtful investigative drama, it lacks clear-eyed credibility.

            The movie’s pacing is appropriately brisk, Valerio Bonelli’s editing making it all quite a heady trip. Screenwriter John Hodge ensures events unfold coherently and efficiently. Even if one isn’t into pro cycling, The Program is likely to hold one’s attention and it’s a dynamic, even thrilling film. However, it doesn’t take much to step back and go “wait a second, just how Hollywood-ed up is this thing?” The Lance Armstrong story has all the elements that make for a compelling true story: deceit, betrayal and conspiracy on a very public stage, but all those elements feel drummed up and slightly inauthentic here. Furthermore, it’s all ground that’s already been covered in Alex Gibney’s documentary The Armstrong Lie. This reviewer was hoping the film would explore the effect that Armstrong’s deception had on his family and others close to him in more detail, but The Program trundles down a different path. Armstrong meets his wife Kristin Richard (Chloe Hayward), marries her in the next scene, and she’s never actually seen again, since that would slow things down.


            Armstrong as portrayed by Foster isn’t just a villain, he’s a supervillain. The film’s depiction of the cyclist is a man seduced by and obsessed with victory, a master manipulator and a detestable, unrepentant fraud. With an inspiring, carefully-constructed public persona hiding sneering malice, giving rousing speeches and comforting children in cancer wards while threatening any and all who would give away his secret, Armstrong is basically Lex Luthor. Foster puts in an electrifying, passionate performance, but it is one almost entirely devoid of nuance and altogether too difficult to take seriously. On hearing of Walsh’s accusations, Armstrong bellows “I am Lance Armstrong and he is f***ing no-one!” as he strides down a grand staircase in his mansion. Doing a spot of method acting that we’ll neither condone nor condemn, Foster actually took performance-enhancing drugs under medical supervision to better get under Armstrong’s skin.

            O’Dowd’s Walsh is a standard-issue “dogged reporter” hero, dedicated to his family and to his profession, persistent in hunting the truth to the bitter end. The character is so idealised that it’s impossible to overlook that the real-life Walsh’s account of events was the primary source for the film, and if Armstrong is a supervillain, then that must make Walsh a superhero. O’Dowd is likeable without trying too hard, and for an actor better known for playing the goofy schlub in many a comedy, he puts in a solid dramatic turn.


Canet is spectacularly over the top in this, playing Dr. Michele Ferrari like a mad scientist in a monster movie, exaggerated accent and all. “No longer confined to the earth, now we can learn to fly,” he intones, squirting droplets of Erythropoietin from a syringe. Plemons, truly coming into his own as a capable character actor, is very sympathetic as Floyd Landis, who was raised a devout Mennonite and whose father strongly discouraged his pursuit of cycling. Dustin Hoffman makes a brief appearance as Bob Hamman, the founder of SCA Promotions who sought the repayment of $10 million in prize money after discovering Armstrong was doping. In what is likely a sly reference to The Graduate, The Lemonheads’ cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s song Mrs. Robinson is used in the film.
There’s a fun, bitingly cynical scene in the film, in which Armstrong and his teammates are having the performance enhancing drugs administered to them and are discussing who might play Armstrong in a movie. Matt Damon is out and Jake Gyllenhaal, whose name Armstrong mispronounces, is in. It’s a good thing Hollywood waited. The Program isn’t all that incisive or searing, more an entertaining diversion than awards contender prestige pic, but it is a rip-roaring ride.

Summary:Slick and entertaining but ultimately superficial, Ben Foster’s delicious albeit obvious lead performance keeps this biopic on track.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong